Chapter 11:

Past Meets Present

My Government-Issued Girlfriend Can't Be This Cute!


I couldn't tell if I was nervous, calm, or restless.

The living room TV ahead of me played an anime rerun on low volume. My eyes couldn't seem to focus on anything well, and Asagiri off in the kitchen quietly washed dishes as a miasma of anxiety hung over us both.

But I didn't feel anxious, rather, I let anxiety swim around me, refusing to let it sink in. If anything, I radiated confidence—and for Asagiri's sake—confident was what I needed to be.

A tingling feeling commenced in my pocket. I slipped out my phone: no new texts. Great, now I'm imagining things.

"Hey, want something to drink?" Asagiri blurted as she rummaged through our fridge. She wore her burgundy getup along with those cat ears.

"I'm fine." My dry lips protested. "Actually, can you get me some water?"

"Sure."

I heard a faucet running before my girlfriend walked over, a conflicted expression scribbled across her face.

"You sure you don't want me to head out before Noriko arrives?" She held the glass out for me as I reached up. "This might be your shot at a real girlfriend, you know?"

"Oh, don't worry. That ship's long sailed with her."

"Huh? Why?"

I didn't even feel like answering. "Well, you'll see when she gets here."

Asagiri nodded and walked away without another word.

What was going through her mind?

A few minutes passed. Furbolt off in his corner perked up, likely sensing the inevitable. Noriko was near.

My phone vibrated, this time for real, and I checked the inbox:

I'm outside, she texted me.

I rose to my feet. Just gonna be saying hi to an old friend.

Asagiri gave me a reassuring glance as I walked by the kitchen. She really was too good for me, but the person I was about to see was equally as important, at least at one point in my life.

Our long hallway towards the front door hadn’t changed much over time. Mom’s sense of design had always been contemporary, but probably influenced a tad too much from America where she currently was.

Wonder what she’d think of Noriko visiting again, just like the old days.

I stepped down onto door level. My hand found the handle and gave it a twist. Light poured inside as someone's outline gradually materialized.

A silver-haired woman wearing jeans and a blue, checkered flannel over a loose shirt glanced up at me. Her lavender eyes displayed apathy, as if they were lost in their own little world.

"Oh hey, Kazuma. Been a while." Noriko said plainly.

"Only a few months. Did you miss me already?"

She half giggled. "Cut the crap, it's hot out here."

"Sorry yeah, make yourself at home."

She walked by and took off her shoes. I couldn't help but compare her to old Noriko: Gone was her once long, flowing hair now cut down to shoulder length. Her body was great as ever, though the familiar, wondrous glimmers that once thrived in her eyes had since dissipated—replaced with empty visages of someone that was but wasn't Noriko.

She dug into her hand bag. "Oh, before I forget something else, here."

"Hmmm?"

Noriko tossed a keychain towards me. The keychain featured a chibi version of Sanae Tsubasa, a purple-haired character from Dominion's Paradise clad in her classic, white Cleric outfit.

"Woah! You actually managed to get into the last comic market?" I looked down with gleaming eyes at her trinket.

"Yeah well, when you're a shut-in you have spare time for stuff."

I suck with huge crowds so I can't ever go . . . "How much do you want for it? Probably worth a pretty penny on the aftermarket."

"Nah, just keep it. You’re a bigger fan anyway.”

Marry me, I wanted to joke. But probably not the smartest idea around her. “You sure? Not hard giving at least what you paid for it.”

“It’s fine. You know I’ve kinda moved past geek stuff anyway.” She ventured further inside the hall.

"Sweet, thanks then!" I chased after her. Money is tight with Asagiri anyhow . . .

Noriko looked around the familiar house she'd been in several times before. I'd done my best to maintain things while my family was gone, but since Asagiri arrived things had definitely been smoother sailing. An extra helping hand was worth all the moochyness I tolerated.

As me and Noriko arrived into the living room area, the two women made eye contact from across the hall. My past and present had finally been brought together.

"Oh? Kazuma didn't mention anything about living with a girl," Noriko said, confused.

Asagiri walked over and bowed slightly. "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Asagiri and I'm—"

"She's my government-issued girlfriend," I said bluntly. "Sorry for keeping it secret, just wanted to surprise you a bit."

Noriko's face displayed the greatest amount of amazement I'd seen from her in years. Her lips curled up before she burst into laughter.

"Hahaha! No way! I knew you were desperate, but not that desperate!"

"H-Hey! Noriko! You're embarrassing me!" I felt my face flushing pink.

"Sorry, sorry." She seemingly wiped a tear from her eye. "It's nice to meet you too, Asagiri. I'm Mito, but you can just call me Noriko."

My girlfriend looked flustered. Even she hadn't worked up the courage to call me by my first name, while Noriko was gung-ho about it right after we first met eight years ago.

"Ahh, okay. Thanks for looking after Nishikata this entire time." Asagiri looked fixated on Noriko's left hand. "He hasn't told me much but I'm sure you're a wonderful person."

"Kazuma hasn't tried doing anything weird, right?" Noriko responded, staring towards me. 

"Define weird," she said.

"Yup, sounds about right. You have my condolences."

The two women giggled at each other at my expense. Great, there goes what little good reputation I had left.

Attracted from the commotion, Furbolt dashed over and nudged himself against Noriko's leg.

"Nyaa! Nyaa!" Furbolt affectionately said as his tail wagged.

"Oh! Furbolt! I missed you!" She bent over and scooped him into her arms. "You're getting old! I remember when you were just a kitten! Senior kitty soon, huh?"

"Nyaaaaa!"

Asagiri hustled back into the kitchen. "I'll start making something for us all to eat. You guys can catch up in the living room."

"Thanks, but I think I need some fresh air. Wanna come out to the backyard with me, Kazuma?"

Her request seemed a bit sudden. I looked towards Asagiri and she showed a supportive smile.

"Alright," I said. "We'll be right back, Keiko." Crap, accidentally called her by her first name!

She bashfully shrank behind the counter with a cute blush. Her eyes radiated timidity, like I just confessed to her.

"O-Ok Kazuma," Asagiri meekly replied. "I'll be right here."

Now I felt myself blushing. Noriko had already stepped outside with Furbolt; I chased after them to hide my everlasting shame.

I slid the sliding door closed behind us. Our backyard was small, but it’s surprising we even had one. Greenery stretched for a dozen or so meters ahead while we gazed out from a comfy wooden porch. A shed off in the far corner near a garden housed old, family keepsakes.

Noriko plopped Furbolt down onto the wood floor. He scampered down short stairs to play around in vibrant, freshly cut grass.

Even though today was hot, we luckily got shade at this time of day. Noriko leaned forward on the wooden guardrail as she dug into her handbag again.

"Did I lose another one?" she said with narrowed eyes. 

I joined her on her perch and pulled out a lighter from my pocket. "You left yours last time you swung by."

"Shit, I'm always forgetting something." She grabbed the item from my hand, pulling out a box of cigarettes from her bag afterwards.

"So that's why you wanted to come outside?" I said, disappointed but not surprised.

She clasped a cigarette between two fingers as she brought it to her lips. A quick spark lit its tip, and she exhaled a gray cloud. "Half the reason, yeah. But I wanted to chat too."

"About what?"

Tired eyes peered in my direction. “Your new girlfriend: Asagiri, right? She's cute, young too. How long has your GiG program been going?"

"A week as of today. I'm not expecting anything serious, but she helps around the house and keeps me company. Can't ask for much more."

Furbolt off in the distance chased after a butterfly. He bounded through flower bunches in vain pursuit of an unattainable desire.

"Funny how life works," Noriko said. "We were on the verge of doing the stupidest shit possible a few years ago, and now we're here talking like old men."

"Shut up, we're both only 25," I chuckled.

"Time's running out to settle with someone, old man."

My eyes glanced at the golden, diamond-topped ring on her ring finger. "How's your husband feel about you coming over again anyway?"

"Oh, he doesn't really care. I told him about what happened on the bridge, and he's been chill letting me visit since he trusts you."

I shivered remembering that fateful night. "Wait, did you tell him everything from that day?"

"Well, obviously not what we did after."

Conflicted. "Probably better everyone just forgets . . ."

She raised her left hand towards me. "This could've been your ring on me, you know?"

'Don't live in the past, Nishikata.' Asagiri's words yesterday echoed within.

"Nah," I replied to Noriko. "I'm happy you found someone amazing. Your husband is a physician, right? And still young?"

"Yeah. Satoshi's nice, but probably spoils me too much. I just laze around home all day, do some housework, then spread my legs when he's back from work."

For some reason hearing that irritated me. "Surprised you don't have a kid yet."

"We were trying for a while but decided to cool off on it—not that we stopped having sex though." She lightly shook her cigarette.

I looked ahead towards the garden below. Noriko's gaze pounded into my side, as if trying to gauge my reactions to everything she just mentioned.

"Y-Your husband sounds pretty horny, no wonder you don't talk about him much. Sorry for prying."

"Eh, don't worry about him. More importantly, how are things going with you and Asagiri?"

"Going?"

"Come on, don't tell me you haven't tried putting the moves on her."

"She's . . . hard to pull anything off on."

"Hmmm?"

Furbolt strolled back onto the wooden porch, prancing around Noriko to get her affection. She looked down and smiled.

"That reminds me," she said. "Asagiri was wearing my old cat ears I left here forever ago. You two that close already?"

My cheeks warmed, remembering almost-kissing Asagiri at the movies. "We're just playing pretend, it's nothing serious."

"Pretend, huh?" Noriko looked towards a familiar sky. "Weren't we always playing pretend back then, though? Pretending that the whole world was against us? Even now, pretend is all we're doing."

"What do you mean?"

Her sincere eyes met mine. "You saved me from myself that night, but I still worry my old dogmas might’ve leeched onto you. So it's nice you found someone worth sharing your life with, even if it's just temporary."

"Temporary is the keyword. Who knows what I'll regress into once she leaves."

"Don't be too sure about that; I get good vibes she's into you."

"Stupid joke," I said with a smile. "I'm just a loser that was too stubborn to chase after the first girl I really cared about."

"You still can." Noriko barely whispered.

"Huh?"

She hurriedly wedged her cigarette into a nearby ashtray and scooped Furbolt up. "Come on, let's head back inside," she told me, "I feel bad leaving Asagiri alone."

"Oh, right. Good idea." What was that all about?

I opened the sliding door for us as aromas of sweet, sizzling meats whipped our nostrils. Asagiri off in front of the stove donned a white apron with a spatula in hand.

"You two done catching up?" she said from afar. "Food won't be ready for a while so just catch up some more."

"Screw that, I'm helping you out!" Noriko freed Furbolt and joined Asagiri in the kitchen. They started chatting like longtime friends as they prepared dinner.

Never thought I’d have two girls cooking for me together. The sight was oddly fulfilling, like I was winning at life.

Life . . .

Noriko’s ultimatum seven years ago: even if we committed to it, how would the world have changed? What message would it have sent?

We were both different people back then, now changed by our circumstances. We'd chosen separate paths and finally rejoined at a fork in the road.

But there's always the chance we were still just playing pretend.