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NARRATOR: "The next day, I end up having to hunt around a bit at the start of lunch when I find that my usual vending machine near the dormitory buildings is sold out of my usual favorite canned coffee. The detour takes longer than I expected. Things have been so hectic lately that it takes some time for me to register why something smells different as I walk through the school gardens back to the cafeteria. The grass has been freshly mowed. The realization makes me pause and watch for a bit. The odd group of students chatting or playing around on the grass and a couple of teachers conversing on the path ahead make for a very idyllic scene. Unfortunately, a feeling of imminent dread starts creeping up on me after a while. The feeling that I'm not alone."

KENJI: "Hey, Hisao, is that you?"

HISAO: "Yeah, it's me."

NARRATOR: "I guess I should be happy it's him and not, say, a slasher. Kenji begins talking as if he's having a conversation with someone other than me."

KENJI: "Knew it. That haircut is unmistakable. No normal person would have a haircut like that."

NARRATOR: "Unconsciously, I start touching the back of my head. Once I realize what I'm doing, I feel insulted, yet too surprised to even get indignant about it."

HISAO: "Yeah... What are you doing here?"

KENJI: "Measuring the temperature. Winter will come soon. It will be too cold for women to go out and have their Sex and the City-style power lunches, followed by obstructive human wave formation walks in crowded urban areas. When this happens, man will be able to walk the streets unfettered once again, and reclaim what is his heritage. In order to prepare for that day, I've been eating nothing but pizzas for the past week, to store energy."

HISAO: "Okay. That's what bears do."

KENJI: "So? There is much we can learn from the bear."

NARRATOR: "Kenji nods, emphatically agreeing with himself."

KENJI: "Okay, so check this shit out: I was in town today, buying milk. They had a new clerk, some hipster girl with a baseball cap with two hockey sticks on it. I'll call her hipster hockey baseball hat girl. I noticed the milk didn't have a price tag, so I told her to get over there and label that milk, for future generations."

NARRATOR: "He was in town today? He must have cut his morning classes. I want to scold him, but his verbal torrent prevents me from getting a word in."

KENJI: "She told me not to bother her, because she was sick. Sick? Sick!? We live in a society, here. You can't just opt out of human interaction because you're sick. Do you know how much effort it takes me to even get up in the morning? I still do, though, and I got up that morning to go down there and buy milk, not to have my vital questions just brushed aside by some hipster doofus college girl who wears a hockey baseball cap to work. Indoors. Anyway, I was just trying to uphold the integrity of her products. A milk carton without a price tag? When I see something like that, it just leads to questions. Important questions. It's her job to answer them, dammit. That's the problem with women, they have no sense of duty. I get diarrhea a lot, but you don't see me complaining about it. I soldier on and do what I have to do anyway, because that's what being a man is all about. Even if you have diarrhea, you keep going, for the dream of a better tomorrow."

HISAO: "You know, frequent diarrhea is bad. Maybe you should stop drinking so much milk."

KENJI: "I can't do that, it's what allows me to maintain my awesome strength. And in this world... a man's strength is the only thing that can't be browbeaten out of him by an increasingly pussywhipped society. That's why I walk around leaving open jars of olives everywhere. Sometimes just to show that I can."

HISAO: "Do you refrigerate after opening?"

KENJI: "What? Man, I don't know, that's not important."

HISAO: "You have to refrigerate after opening. Even elementary school kids know that."

KENJI: "They can't get the jar open in the first place, so it doesn't matter."

HISAO: "Ah, that's true."

KENJI: "I'm a genius."

NARRATOR: "He self-assuredly rubs his chin, which is something I imagined scientists did, until I met Mutou and was tremendously let down."

KENJI: "Anyway, I can't go to that store again, since it's clearly been compromised by bitches. Unless... I disguise myself. Maybe change to a different pair of glasses."

HISAO: "Worst disguise ever."

KENJI: "Pffft, it's been working flawlessly all these years. I don't even need glasses to see. They're for effect. Also, to protect my identity. I'm like Superman."

HISAO: "Worst disguise ever."

KENJI: "I'm telling you, when people see my school ID, they can't even recognize me."

HISAO: "Really? Let me see."

KENJI: "Can't do that. I can't go around showing my ID to everyone. It was made long ago. In a different time. I had hippie hair."

NARRATOR: "While I'm trying to imagine that, Kenji takes his glasses off."

Kenji glasses mg

NARRATOR: "He squints as soon as they're off his face, which makes him look even more tired than he already does. He was right; he does look very different. Kind of like he hasn't slept in years. Not different enough for it to be a good disguise, though."

HISAO: "You need more sleep."

KENJI: "Nah."

HISAO: "You look like you need it."

KENJI: "No way. These are just the eyes of a man who has seen things. A shaman's eyes. Terrible things, that you can't imagine. Like when I made a ship in a bottle and my mom sat on it. There was blood and shreds of floral print everywhere. That's what life experience is."

NARRATOR: "Kenji doesn't seem very horrified, even though I think this is actually the first thing he told me about himself that could have been legitimately traumatic. He's also talking about thirty degrees to my left, so I guess his blindness is real. I wave a hand in front of him anyway, to little effect."

KENJI: "Man, I hope you realize I'm just joking."

NARRATOR: "I laugh, pretending that I did. Somehow, looking him in the eyes is more difficult than usual."

KENJI: "Want some trivia? People with small eyes wear big glasses."

HISAO: "I've read that somewhere. It's because it makes your eyes look less beady."

KENJI: "Really? I didn't know that."

NARRATOR: "He puts his glasses back on, and I feel oddly relieved for a moment until I remember that I still have to deal with him, glasses or not."

KENJI: "Well, anyway... This artist girl wanted to paint my portrait once, I think. I had to talk to her like five times before she started making sense."

NARRATOR: "Must have been Rin, I suppose."

HISAO: "What'd she look like?"

KENJI: "I don't know. A woman with sandals."

NARRATOR: "I was hoping he'd say something more specific, like “she had no arms.” Rin does wear sandals, but I feel like the chance of there being another freespirited female art student wearing sandals besides her is reasonably high."

KENJI: "I was thinking, sure. Someday, after I burn all documentation that I exist, it might be okay to leave a portrait behind, so that people can look at it and remember the savior of mankind. They'll need it to model the statue. Then I thought about it some more and had to turn her down. It was tempting, but she wanted it for some school thing. It would be displayed. People would ask who I was, only I haven't saved society yet, so it would be pointless. And then if someone recognized me, I'd have to explain myself. That's already a chain of events I don't want to deal with. I don't want to get mixed up in some weird situation; shit like that always happens. Sticking out is a surefire way to get put on a list. That's why I make such a careful effort to blend in with people in my daily life. Until I can make my move."

HISAO: "Sure. What list?"

KENJI: "There are many lists. So what are you doing here, anyway?"

HISAO: "Nothing. I kind of got here by accident."

KENJI: "Happens to me all the time. Well, hope that works out for you. I think I'm going to go back to my dorm room. I need to set my TV to record my shows."

HISAO: "You have TV?"

KENJI: "Yes, you should come over sometime, we can watch the game. In high definition."

NARRATOR: "Before I can ask him what he's talking about, he's gone. He left like he came: with zero respect towards other people. Kind of amazing. Now that Kenji is gone, I resume looking aimlessly at the school gardens in their summer splendor. It's no use, he ruined them for me. When I get back to the cafeteria, exhausted but alive, I think of eating lunch with Shizune again, but find her sitting at a table with Misha already. If it were anyone else, I would think how they were too far away for me to hear them. This is Shizune and Misha, however. If I wanted to, I could “eavesdrop” on their conversation easily. What a dirty thing to think about, but it's there. ...I don't want to, though. They must have a lot of catching up to do, even if it's only been a few days. I'm inclined to just leave them alone so they can do just that. However, the second they see me, they wave me over."

MISHA: "Hi, Hicchan~!"

NARRATOR: "Hearing her voice again even after such a short time apart is jarring, and I wince. These past few days, I had forgotten that communication with Shizune is almost entirely silent, and concentrating on getting it right, I had tuned out even ambient noise. Well, I'll get used to it again. I'm glad she is back."

MISHA: "I'm done making up all my work~! Just in time~, I won't have to miss the festival. Wahaha~."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "If they really tried to enforce that, I would pull you out on student council business."

MISHA: "If they really really tried to enforce that, you would pull me out on student council business~?"

HISAO: "That's abuse of power."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "No it isn't, Hicchan~! Shicchan says that if there were only two Student Council members overseeing the festival, it would be a problem, wouldn't it? Yeah~, definitely! It has to be at least three! It's for the good of everyone, it's perfectly reasonable, it's necessary~!"

NARRATOR: "Shizune leans across the table a bit as Misha delivers her slightly disturbing, militaristic justifications in a childish, bubbly, up-and-down tone. Shizune looks so happy, though, tenting her fingers and trying to hold back a laugh as Misha pouts more seriously on her behalf."

HISAO: "If you say so."

NARRATOR: "I'm actually happy right now, that we can talk so easily to each other. All three of us. In the beginning I thought that I might have found myself in a bad situation. I was sure that Shizune would hate getting saddled with being tour guide for the new guy. I didn't want to be that kind of burden, either. It would be awkward even if she weren't deaf and mute, too. Just now, she said that we would all have to be at the festival, the whole Student Council. I don't think that the Student Council has any real jurisdiction over Tanabata. It's only Shizune's way of saying that she wants us to spend it together. It's nice to have friends. It's a simple thought, but one that makes me genuinely happy, that we could slip into being such with so much ease. Despite the roundabout way in which she said it, I'm glad that Shizune thinks it strongly enough to express it at all."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "Why did you wait until we waved you over to come sit with us?"

NARRATOR: "A question out of nowhere. Shizune's eyes are expectant as Misha repeats her message. I feel like teasing her."

HISAO: "You want me to sit with you that badly?"

SHIZUNE: (signing) "We're in the Student Council. We should sit together as much as possible. It's logic. Anyone would jump at the chance to sit with two cute girls anyway."

NARRATOR: "She pauses, in case I might say something like “You're not that cute!” and instantly lock myself into an obvious no-win situation. When I don't take the bait, Shizune becomes more energetic and continues."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "You're abnormal."

NARRATOR: "Well, I didn't expect her to end it like that."

HISAO: "You're too quick to call other people abnormal. So arrogant."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "You're too quick to call other people arrogant. That makes you arrogant, and arrogance is also abnormal. You're double-abnormal."

HISAO: "It doesn't work that way. It's a sliding scale."

MISHA: "Hahaha~."

NARRATOR: "Leaning on her arm, Misha closes her eyes and lets out a low, slow laugh like a chuckle."

HISAO: "Don't laugh..."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "Don't laugh in this kind of situation."

NARRATOR: "I notice that Misha signs everything I say to Shizune anyway, even though I'm signing myself. This is redundant, but it's an unconscious action for Misha. On the other hand I can't stop. If I let myself take it easy and sign less just because Misha is back, then what was all this for? I don't want to risk losing familiarity with how to sign either. My hands are pretty slow to speak on my behalf as it is."

MISHA: "Hicchan, you and Shicchan talk to each other much more now~! Back and forth, it's really funny too! Like an old married couple, right~ right~?"

NARRATOR: "What a loaded comment, in so many ways. Although, because it's Misha, it can't have been on purpose."

HISAO: "That's not a compliment."

NARRATOR: "Shizune doesn't react to Misha trying to pair the two of us up. Maybe she didn't see it. Sometimes it does happen, I've noticed. I still wonder if it's really that simple, and why I care so much, but I don't want to think about it too hard. I want to leave. I keep thinking that I'm hogging Misha's time with Shizune, and it could be that Misha cut in just now on purpose, feeling that way too. I doubt that either of them will let me leave, though. In some ways they're too nice."

HISAO: "Anyway, Shizune, if you really want to know, I didn't want to sit here because I didn't want to intrude. I thought that because of Misha being away for supplementary lessons or whatever, you two would have a lot to talk about, and I should just leave you alone to catch up. That's why I thought I would just hang back. Don't worry, Misha, I'm not trying to monopolize Shizune."

MISHA: "Wahaha~! Hicchan! It's not like that~."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "You're so considerate, Hicchan! Shicchan is sorry~ and apologizes."

HISAO: "I don't really think it's worth apologizing over, so, don't worry about it. Hey, don't you both think that since Misha is back, we should go celebrate somehow? I think so."

MISHA: "Hicchan~! Usually, having to make up work isn't something to celebrate over."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "No, it's a good idea."

HISAO: "The timing is perfect, and Shizune said that the Student Council should have a little fun too sometimes. You've probably heard that too, right, Misha? It should be fine."

SHIZUNE: "..."

HISAO: "Actually, wait a second. Didn't you have to make up work because you were missing so many classes to begin with? So, skipping out to celebrate would be kind of stupid. Maybe the timing isn't perfect, like I said, but we could go after school."

MISHA: "Where should we go?"

NARRATOR: "Misha speaks Shizune's question to her aloud before she even stops to think it over, both of them completely ignoring me."

HISAO: "Hey, listen to me, two-man shortsighted Student Council team!"

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Wahaha~! Hicchan, you're a part of this team, too!"

HISAO: "Ah, yeah. I guess I am."

MISHA: "Yeah yeah~! You are, Hicchan!"

SHIZUNE: (signing) "So forgetful, and troublesome. I feel sorry for the girl who falls in love with you."

MISHA: "So~! Where do you think we should go?"

NARRATOR: "I'm laughing in spite of myself, wanting to point out how Misha seems so enthusiastic now, when she was the one who was most apprehensive about it just a few seconds ago. For whatever reason, I can't bring myself to do it. But, this is okay, too. After a short discussion on where to go, it seems like the only place all three of us know and are willing to travel to is the Shanghai. A teahouse doesn't look like a bad place to celebrate, especially because I'm sure they sell cake there, and cake is the most celebratory food. I haven't seen Yuuko in a while, either, and neither have the girls. For all these reasons, plus the fact that it's so close, I end up standing in front of the little tea shop with Shizune and Misha before I know it."

YUUKO: "Welcome!"

NARRATOR: "It's been a while since I heard Yuuko's voice, so I'm surprised all over again by the energy she puts into her greetings. Kind of like an extremely nervous Misha."

MISHA: "Hi~! But~! you don't have to do that all the time if it's just us."

YUUKO: "Yes I do..."

MISHA: "But— Okay~! Okay~! If you say so, Yuuko! Hahahahaha~!"

NARRATOR: "I take this moment to glance around the teahouse and notice that it is as empty as ever. It's lunch time; essentially the peak hour for an establishment of this type. And yet, it's as barren as ever. I don't understand. There has to be a reason for this. Shizune gently taps my arm to get my attention."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "What do you want to get?"

NARRATOR: "Yuuko looks a little agitated after Misha automatically relays the question."

YUUKO: "N-no, I'm supposed to... ask that... Is there anything that I can do for you?"

HISAO: "Just some coffee for now, I guess. Thanks."

NARRATOR: "The dedication Yuuko has towards her waitressing duties is sort of admirable. So is the speed at which she whisks slices of cake and our drinks to our table when we order. Then again, we're the only customers here. Who knows what it would be like with a full house. Shizune and Misha immediately dig into their cakes with gusto, probably because they can't talk with utensils in their hands. The whole point of sharing a meal with friends like this is being able to talk over it, after all. It makes sense that it would be the same with them. I'm barely halfway through my cake when I hear their forks clinking as they set them down on their empty plates."

HISAO: "It's not healthy to inhale your food."

MISHA: "Hahaha~! Hicchan sounds like an old man~!"

NARRATOR: "I cringe and instantly feel like I've been punched."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Are you going to wear a yukata tomorrow, Hicchan?"

HISAO: "No, I don't even have one. Well, even if I did, I'm not the kind of guy who does stuff like that. What about you? Are you two going to dress up?"

SHIZUNE: (signing) "Of course."

HISAO: "What do you mean “of course?” You didn't dress up last time."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "One time is not a trend! It's a completely different situation anyway. Aside from not being Tanabata, the festival was on school grounds; students should wear their uniform on school grounds."

NARRATOR: "Clearly a joke, but her delivery isn't any different from the usual. That isn't normal, but her sense of humor never was, and I'm used to it. I guess her way of saying outrageous things seriously is a little better than if she were to say serious things outrageously. What's more troubling in any case is that I've started to associate a voice with her signing, and it's clashing with how Misha says out loud everything Shizune signs anyway. I feel disoriented."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "I'll dress up this time!"

MISHA: "I'll dress up this time~! You'll see, Hicchan! Not just Shicchan, but me too~! Maybe~ I'll change my hairstyle, too."

HISAO: "Don't do that, I can't really imagine you looking differently."

NARRATOR: "Shizune wags a finger and smiles."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "Such a quick and firm disapproval. What if I were to change my hairstyle?"

HISAO: "Maybe you should grow your hair out and make it look like drills."

NARRATOR: "She looks unamused. Luckily, I see Yuuko making her way over, likely to clear our plates or ask if we need anything from her."

HISAO: "Yuuko, are you doing anything for Tanabata?"

YUUKO: "Huh?"

NARRATOR: "It's like she was practicing how to most smoothly ask if I needed a refill of coffee while walking over, but she has no idea what to do having been asked a question first. I feel bad."

YUUKO: "Yes, I'm... working..."

MISHA: "Yuuko~, they make you work on holidays? Awwww..."

YUUKO: "W-we have the most business on holidays, and sometimes tourists. I don't mind. I have to do my best."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "I understand completely. So admirable."

NARRATOR: "Shizune nods her head in solidarity, feeling a kind of kinship with Yuuko through their shared determination to be the best, although for her it's a matter of pride whereas Yuuko might just feel that she really, really needs this job and maybe a raise."

HISAO: "The most business, huh? So, how many people on average during a holiday?"

YUUKO: "Ah, well... ..."

NARRATOR: "Yuuko walks away and starts cleaning a cup of swizzle sticks. That isn't polite. This is not what a proper waitress would do! Nevertheless, I sort of got my answer anyway. Clearly, business is scarce at best. I start to wonder again how the Shanghai remains open at all. Maybe this eclectic style of teahouse is a trend that was outrageously successful before I got here but isn't any more, and they're just keeping it like this while they retool. Maybe the owner is rich and is involved in some sort of bet with someone else or a crazy scheme to see who can lose the most money. Maybe I just conveniently miss mobs of customers by seconds each visit. Or maybe this place is just a front for arms dealers."

HISAO: "Since there's no one else here, why don't you sit down with us?"

NARRATOR: "We can talk about economic infeasibility. ...But Yuuko doesn't take the bait, shaking her head from side to side emphatically."

MISHA: "I've never really celebrated Tanabata before, or dressed up for anything like this~! I'll finally be able to wear my yukata. Yay yay~!"

HISAO: "What do you mean never? What about last year?"

MISHA: "Hm~... last year, Shicchan, me, and the 3-2 class rep ran a stall for the festival! It was a soba stall, I think~? Yeah, it was~! Yup!"

NARRATOR: "The blind class rep of 3-2 must be Lilly. I'm surprised they were able to work together on anything, but Misha would likely be the best possible buffer for that kind of thing, with how innocent she is."

MISHA: "Shicchan cooked, and Lilly took the orders, and I translated for them~! Shicchan kept saying, “It's so inefficient~! Misha~! Why do you have to be the middleman? As in~, why is there a middleman in the first place? Huh~? It would be fine if I did the cooking and you took orders! It doesn't make sense at all!” But~! I think everyone had fun in the end. Right, Shicchan~?"

SHIZUNE: "... ... ..."

NARRATOR: "Shizune adjusts her glasses grudgingly, causing Misha to break into laughter."

MISHA: "It was the old Student Council's idea~! That's why~!"

HISAO: "So, what was the last Student Council like, then?"

NARRATOR: "Shizune finally decides to step in again, or it's more like she can't stop herself."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "Terrible."

NARRATOR: "That was blunt. She ends with a chopping motion, as if passing judgment on them. I hope she's going to elaborate a little."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "At universities and some private schools, student councils can have control over millions of yen to budget and distribute as needed! Wow~! Really? Millions? Ah, right~! And they are much more involved in school activities, too, Hicchan!"

NARRATOR: "From Misha's tone, it seems like this is newer to her than it is to me."

MISHA: "This school's Student Council was like a joke in comparison~! Don't give people positions of power if they don't have any power at all! What's the point~?"

SHIZUNE: (signing) "So..."

MISHA: "...I wanted us to have more and more work~! It was hard to convince the school and the other Student Council members to allow it. Actually~, a lot of the work you've seen us do really is work that I took on, which is what Lilly was talking about. If it wasn't for Shicchan, the Student Council would just file attendance reports day in and day out~! Hahaha~! Would you prefer that, Hicchan? Of course, Hicchan, as soon as the workload started going up, most of the Student Council stopped coming. Wahahaha~!"

SHIZUNE: "..."

NARRATOR: "Shizune's fingers fold over each other carefully. It looks like she wants to add something, but she can't bring herself to. Like she said, sign language gives you a little more time to think about what you “say.” I guess she feels like she can't talk about this."

SHIZUNE: (signing) "That was then, and this is now. Let's just have fun tomorrow."

NARRATOR: "That is what she finally settles for."

HISAO: "Yeah."

SHIZUNE: "..."

MISHA: "Okay~! Then, Student Council is ad—jour—ned? for today~! It has to be adjourned excitingly, because today was a good day. Ahahaha~!"

NARRATOR: "School seems to be over by the time we leave the teahouse, as I can see students coming down from the school as we walk up the road towards it. A couple people wearing our school uniform look at Shizune as she walks by, and I wonder if they recognize her as the Student Council president or if their eyes are just being drawn to Misha's head. It's impossible not to overhear the chatter in the air, and the topic is more often than not plans for Tanabata. I wonder how many of them will be using or going to the stalls that I reassembled. It makes me feel a little pride, an emotion I've never felt doing something for school. Maybe this is how Shizune feels as well. I almost want to ask, but it seems stupid to want to do so. So I just hold on to the thought as the three of us walk onto campus and then separate; Shizune to the student council room, and Misha and I to our dorms. It isn't until they're gone that I realize I again didn't ask when and where they wanted to meet up tomorrow."

Next Scene: When Stars Embrace

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