Chapter 18:

Sakura's Perspicacity

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

"Not gonna lie. Your guys' hand holding looks like a vampire trying to grip a cross."

A September sun was beaming down on me and Asagiri as Sakura ahead walked backwards. Her fingers formed a rectangular camera, pretending to snap photos of us.

"Maybe we'd seem more natural if it didn't look like we had a stalker following us everywhere," I said.

"Stalker? How?"

Sakura had fully buttoned up her trench coat and slapped on a face mask again; no sunglasses though. She apparently didn't want to be publicly recognized, but I thought it was overkill. A similar getup on me would have kids crying to their parents.

"Ironic that the person who hates unwanted attention loves giving it," Asagiri said. Her fingers were nestled between mine as we walked hand in hand down a public sidewalk.

"I'm just LARPing paparazzi." Sakura rotated her finger camera. "Unless you'd rather I use a real camera and make a lover's scrapbook."

"Please don't," my girlfriend and I moaned.

We continued our stroll as the large, distant park started coming into view. I had long since mastered the art of not getting sweaty hands, but still needed to calm my social anxiety. Pedestrians stared curiously at the scene of a trench-coated woman fake filming two lovers struggling to not act nervous.

"Anyway," Asagiri started, "what are we gonna do at a park? Just walk around like we've been doing until now?"

"I passed by it on my way to your guys' house," Sakura said. "There's a small lake or some vendor stalls we can check out."

"Yeah, and a nice fountain for a break if we get tired," I added, looking towards my girlfriend. "To be honest, I'm surprised I haven't taken you out on a date there yet."

Asagiri's hand gently squeezed mine, as if she liked the idea but didn't want to voice it.

"Mm! It'll be fun!" Sakura reached into her purse and plucked out slices of beef jerky. She slid them under her mask to feast. "Don't be shy about acting all lovey-dovey in front of me too! Munch-munch-munch."

As if we could really be lovey-dovey like this . . .

After some more walking, we became surrounded by lush, vast greenery. A clearing dotted with trees soon appeared, showing park goers freely roaming various pathways inside. Almost everywhere, joggers were jogging, children were playing, families were picnicking, couples were flirting—wait, is that someone walking their cat?

"Unfortunately, this was your idea so tell us what to do," Asagiri told Sakura. Both girls were admiring the scenery around us.

"Hmmm. Well I can't exactly make you two kiss . . ."

"Ask and it shall be done." I flirtily looked at my girlfriend.

"Dream on. I'll make out with Sakura before I kiss you."

"Let me record that in 4K and we got a deal," I chuckled.

"The only thing you're recording is my fist going up your ass."

"Bah!" Sakura shoved another jerky under her face mask. "You guys bicker like old people, but you're holding hands like pros now. Look."

"Huh?" I glanced down to our conjoined grasps. Sure enough, while our mouths spouted vitriol, our hands were clasping each other with tangible affection. Asagiri gave me another gentle squeeze, like a signal to keep holding her.

"T-This is just so he's ready whenever he gets a real girlfriend," she blushed. "It's not like I like him or anything."

"That so?" Sakura said. "What about you, Nishikata? How do you feel about your government-issued girlfriend?"

"Well, I know we're on a year-timer so—"

"Hold that thought! I just figured out something you two could do! Come, come!"

Sakura led us down a paved pathway further into the park. Birds chirped above as a mellow breeze rustled nearby trees. We kept pacing along until arriving at an isolated area, devoid of many other people.

"Hm, Hm. This should do! Nice and private!" Sakura said.

"Huh?" I said, looking around us.

"She's definitely up to something," Asagiri added.

Sakura plopped down onto the center of a nearby bench. A towering tree overhead granted perfect shade. "Let's relax for a bit. One of you sit to my right, and the other to my left."

"Don't hurt me please." I regrettably detached from my girlfriend and we took spots on opposite ends of our bench. A pink-haired jerky monster in a trench coat between us couldn't stop giggling.

For some reason, this felt more awkward than just sitting beside Asagiri. The bench's small size forced us both to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Sakura, and I couldn't help but notice people staring as they walked by. Well, at least I look like an alpha chilling with two hot girls!

"Ok, here's what we're gonna do," Sakura started. "There's a game I play with friends and their boyfriends at parties. Basically, the gist is I act as a mediator while you two take turns saying the other's strengths and weaknesses."

"What's that supposed to do for us?" Asagiri grumbled.

"Help improve your relationship, I guess?"

"You guess?" I said.

"Well, just consider it an exercise to get to know each other better. Ready?"

I peeked towards Asagiri sitting opposite me. Her black blouse and plaid skirt gave her a unique charm, even though she'd crossed her arms crossed and seemed to be avoiding my eyes. Ehhh? Did I do something wrong?

"We'll start with you, Nishikata. What's one thing you like about your girlfriend?"

I couldn't read what emotion Sakura displayed under her face mask, but her voice's tone indicated she was enjoying herself. "Ummm, I guess she's helpful with chores? Sometimes?"

"Oh, he threw you a softball!" Sakura looked over towards Asagiri. "Now your turn."

"This game is dumb, I want out." She started flailing like an upset baby.

"Come on, it's just getting good!" Sakura said. "How about this: if we play until the end, I'll buy you something sweet from one of the stalls around here."

"Real shit? Alright, I'm game then." She paused a bit to brainstorm. "Uhhh, Nishikata hasn't tried mounting me yet; so that's a positive thing."

"Thanks for having faith in me . . ."

Sakura clapped her hands twice. "Alright! Let's switch now! Say something you think your partner can work on! A weakness!"

Guess I'm up. "My girlfriend's the biggest freeloader I've ever known, but at least she's better off than when we first met."

"Yeah well, my boyfriend's a slavedriver when it comes to chores," Asagiri replied, "but it's nice he still does most of them himself, even though he could ask for help."

Something inside me just went with the game's flow. "She's moochy and fussy but I've gotten used to it, so I don't really mind anymore."

"His room is creepier than a sex dungeon, but I like how he's brave enough to show it off."

"She's obsessed with sweets, but that's fine since I know how to spoil her now."

"I'm glad he knows me well since it shows we've gotten kinda close."

"To be honest, I think my girlfriend is one of the most gorgeous girls in the world."

"Sometimes he has a way with words."

"Sometimes she makes me want to give her the world."

"Sometimes he's corny, but I like that and pretty much everything else about him."

"She's got a good butt."

"He's tall."

"She's flirty."

"Handsome face."

"Cute tan."

"I want to lose myself in the forest of his green eyes," she melodramatically said.

"Drowning myself in her oceans for eyes is how I want to die," I theatrically replied.

"Actually, I take it all back—my boyfriend is just stupid."

"Yeah, and my girlfriend is just a no-good mooch."

"But I don't mind him."

"And I don't mind her."

I hadn't even realized how fervently my heart pounded, or how much I was enjoying myself. The game started off simple but gradually evolved into an outdoor confession booth. Was this your plan all along, Sakura?

"Oh my, you two really got into it!" the pink-haired demon in a trench coat said. "We can go another round if you want."

"Pass!" Asagiri and I both blurted.

My eyes tried sneaking another peek at my girlfriend sitting on the bench's opposite end. She was fidgeting about, clearly flustered with emotions like me.

"Well, guess we can take a break from taking a break," Sakura said, a tone of disappointment in her voice.

"Yeah. I can only handle so many of Nishikata's histrionics a day."

"Histrionics?" Sakura seemed surprised her friend knew a big word.

"Ah sorry, it means like exaggerated theatrics. I'm slowly catching my boyfriend's nerdiness! Save me!"

“There, there.” They both huddled and hugged each other, while Sakura hummed a soft melody.

Why can’t I get in on group therapy? I'm always getting left out!

“Oh by the way honey,” Asagiri glanced towards me, “anything I said today is fake news until proven otherwise.”

“Hey! He went out of his way to confess his feelings! You could at least reciprocate something honestly!”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “I stand by all my insults I guess.”

“And I stand by everything I mentioned.” I crossed my arms in defiance. “You’re my girlfriend, so I like everything about you, good and bad."

"Smooth," Sakura laughed. "Though you're gonna have a hard time cracking her with just words."

"Oh I bet, but I'm working on it." I peeked over to see Asagiri noticeably flattered. If she had a tail, she would be wagging it. 

A couple walking their dog strolled by ahead of us. While my world remained paused in jubilance, it seemed like life went on. Sometimes I regret us getting a cat instead of a dog. Maybe we could walk Furbolt together sometime? Cats like getting walked, right?

The bench creaked and Asagiri on the other side leapt off. "Ok, now hold up your end of our bargain. Where's my sweets, Sakura?"

There was no reply. Instead, a cold, tired look manifested in Sakura's eyes. They didn't belong to the earlier girl having fun, but to someone who hated the world. 

She was quick to shake it off though and acted like nothing occurred. "Mm! Yeah! Let's head over to the fountain plaza then. There were some vendors around there for us."

None the wiser, my girlfriend charged ahead. "Yeah, come on Nishikata! Or you're buying me treats too!"

"Have mercy on my wallet for once, please."

As all three of us walked along our path towards the fountain, I couldn't help but notice Sakura's demeanor had decayed, like she was agitated. Is she that upset about having to buy Asagiri something?

Large crowds and the sound of splashing water greeted us. A massive fountain I often visited in my youth stood ahead of me. Its design was gorgeous, like something plucked straight out of ancient Rome. Mythological creatures dueled against gods, raging a war above crystal-clear water littered with coins.

Sakura's hand gestured us to sit on the marble row encircling the fountain. "You guys chill here, I'll be right back with snacks."

"What kinds of stuff do they even sell around here?" Asagiri looked towards lines of distant stalls outside the plaza. "I'm in the mood for something sweet. Well, I always am though."

"I'll get one of your favorites, just leave it to me!" Her friend gave a thumbs-up, obviously smiling underneath her face mask.

"Hmm, alright. I trust you, don't take long though."

Sakura hustled off to the vendors, leaving me sitting down with a fussy girlfriend. I was still gung-ho from the earlier game and felt the need to flirt.

"So uhhh, were you being honest when you said I was handsome?" I asked.

"Mainstream media already called it fake news, so no."

"I mean, I was honest when I said you're one of the most gorgeous girls I've seen. That's not fake news."

"Your mouth says one thing, but your eyes constantly humping Sakura say another."

"She's definitely pretty, but not as pretty as you."

Asagiri's ears fidgeted, as if she liked hearing that. "I said it when we first met, remember? That flattery isn't gonna get you in my pants, and I'm still angry at how you told Sakura we 'slept' together."

"Come on, she probably already forgot by now. I'll take you out somewhere nice again if it'll make up for it."

She crossed her legs and puffed up her cheeks. "Be quiet so I can think about it, boyfriend." 

"Sure, take your time." Well at least I know she's not actually mad at me.

A few minutes of silence later, Sakura returned with large, caramel apples in each hand. Glimmers reappeared in her eyes but a shadow of darkness still lingered within.

"Here!" she enthusiastically held out her apple on a stick. "It's your favorite, Asagiri!"

My girlfriend's mouth started watering, but as she reached for the treat, she pulled back. "A-Actually, I probably shouldn't. They're great but now isn't a good time for them."

"Hmm? Just one couldn't hurt!" Sakura said. "Live a little!"

The gremlin hesitating for sweets? That's new.

Asagiri shot a quick glance towards me. Like a devious child knowing she was committing a sin, she reached out and chomped into the caramel apple.

"Oooooh, ohh my gawd, dat' hitz the spot." She chewed with her mouth open, to the chagrin of passing strangers. Euphoria spread across her face with every savory bite.

"Here, I bought one for you too, Nishikata." Sakura held out the other apple for me.

"Oh, thanks." I took it from her hand. "I'll pay you back right now for both of ours."

"Don't worry about it! They're my presents for the cute couple," she winked towards me. "Let's all just take a breather now."

Sakura sat down beside Asagiri who had finished her apple to the core.

Licking sounds and then a cute belch escaped from my girlfriend's mouth. "I am so gonna regret this . . ."

"Didn't know you liked caramel apples that much," I said, taking a bite of my own. "I would've brought you out here sooner if I knew."

"Urg, good thing you didn't . . ."


A guttural, bubbling noise erupted from Asagiri's gut, and she curled her arms around herself. "Yup, I'm filled with regrets."

"Guess you haven't outgrown your biggest weakness then," Sakura giggled on the other end. "If you take that long path out the plaza ahead of us, there should be bathrooms there."

"I don't need them! I just, uh, need to make a phone call, yeah!"

Not sure what's going on, but I should probably help out. "Actually, there's bathrooms closer down behind us towar—"

"No time, I'm already gone!" Like a lightning bolt Asagiri zipped away far out of sight.

And I was left alone with Sakura.

"Well that's surprising," I said while looking down at my caramel apple. "Didn't know these made her stomach hurt. Hard to believe the walking sweet tooth isn't immortal."

No reply. I glanced towards Sakura: a harsh hunch strained down her back as pink hair concealed her eyes from my angle. She sat absolutely motionless, like a deranged statue.

"Sakura? Did you know caramel apples got her sick?"

"It's not the apples, it's caramel." Her newfound voice sounded raspy, as if she'd been sick all her life. "Asagiri loves the taste of caramel, but if she eats actual caramel, it's shit city for her."

"Then why did you buy her caramel apples?"

She raised her head a little, enough for me to see tired, destitute eyes. "So she leaves us alone. That's why I sent her to the faraway bathrooms instead of the close ones. I made sure she'll be gone for a while."

What is this chick on? "Wait, how did you even know this place sold caramel apples?"

"I've been to photoshoots here before, so I know the locations of every bathroom and what vendors sell. That's why I suggested this park for our trip."

Crowds thinned out around us, like they could sense a growing hostility. Only crashing water from the fountain behind us bellowed against rising tensions.

"I'm going to Asagiri. Now." I shuffled up to my feet, confident my expression was one of disgust for whoever this girl was.

"Are you sure that's smart?" Sakura said. "I think you want to hear what I have to say."

"Honestly, I don't know anything about you or what you want, and now I don't care."

She tore off her face mask and looked me dead in the eyes. "I don't give two fucks what you think about me, asshole. What you think about Asagiri though—that's the better question."

"What are you getting at?"

Sakura smoothed her hair back, revealing a poignant face for the world to witness. The beauty I had once seen in her had been twisted—contorted into something that'd been buried deep within her.

The true Sakura had been unearthed.

"I've been friends with her since high school," she said, crossing her legs. "I know everything about her: what she's gone through, what she's tried to hide, and how she's coping. What do you know about her?"

I had to resist asking for details. "I know enough to care about her more than anyone. Her private life doesn't matter if she doesn't want to share it."

"You can say that with a straight face? Fucking feckless." She gazed off into the distance with empty eyes. "Asagiri has suffered more than you can fathom. No one could save her, so she saved herself, and now she's become a government-issued girlfriend to hide from her past."

"Like I said, her past doesn't matter to m—"

"That's what I hate the most about you, Nishikata. Your ignorance might push her over the edge someday, but it's not my place to tell you her life story. That's for her to ultimately decide."

My spare hand balled up into a fist. I calmly walked to and stood over Sakura. "You hate me? Why? What have I ever done to you?"

She started cackling like an insane drug addict. "I had a dream—an aspiration—I wanted to share with her. It was a shot at happiness for both of us, but you destroyed that chance, whether you meant to or not. And I came all this way and planned everything out just to tell you that."

"What are you going to try then? Break us up? Make her hate me too?"

Her hands reached into her purse and slipped out some beef jerky. With a nibble, she calmed down. "No. All I care about is that she's happy and isn't lingering on old habits. From what she's been texting me, you've been doing a good job as her boyfriend; so I don't have real gripes besides personal ones."

"Then why go through the trouble of setting all this up?"

"To get things off my chest, and give you a warning."


"Yup." She hastily chewed and consumed another jerky strip. "There's someone out there who probably cares about Asagiri more than either of us, and if they come, that'll be the end of your relationship as you know it."

A solemn breeze blew by us, highlighting the excess of solitude our deserted fountain plaza diffused.

"Who's this person then?" I said, ready for any answer.

"Heh, wouldn't you like to know? But I've been in contact with them, unlike Asagiri, so I've been relaying everything I know about you to that person."

"Tell them whatever you want then." I bit into my caramel apple like a badass. "Me and my girlfriend have been living together for a month now, and we still have 11 months to go. She's not so weak that someone from her past could just end that. You're the living proof."

"Good attitude, but remember: I don't want your relationship to fail. As long as she's having fun, you'll be okay." Sakura stood up to face me. Even though her height was lackluster, her presence was intimidating. "But if you ever make her cry, I will destroy you, Kazuma Nishikata.”

"That's fine, because I don't plan to even disappoint her."

"Great. Though if she gets close to you, know it's only because she's doing her job—that's how they probably train GiGs. Her attachment to you might only be artificial, superficial, and compulsory."

The words hurt. But I was positive Asagiri and I shared a bond that transcended job descriptions. We were alike in more ways than one, almost completing one another. And I would humor her as long as she humored me.

Just when I was going to defend my stance, Sakura's tune changed. Almost like a switch inside her flipped, new glimmers in her eyes vanquished darkness and gave rise to confidence.

"Asagiri legitimately trusts you though," she said. "We both trust you. So don't make us regret that."

"I trust her with my life. It makes sense she'd trust me back." Not like you'd understand how she saved me from killing myself anyway.

"Histrionics," Sakura said while she gobbled the last jerky in her packet. "Asagiri mentioned how depressed you looked Thursday, and how you took Friday off not to relax, but to run around town buying her sweets instead."

"Oh, I was kinda just paying her back for something nice she did."

"Well keep up little gestures like that and who knows, you might really win her heart in the end."

A short, tan-skinned woman in the distance jogged in our direction. The red of her outfit and the blue of her eyes already brightened my mood.

"Probably better we keep what we chatted about to ourselves, right?" Sakura said with a wink. "You scratch my back, maybe I'll scratch yours sometime."

"Heh. Suit yourself."

Even after everything, Sakura didn't come across as a bad person. She was just worried about Asagiri among other things, and that's something I could always support. Their pasts and true motives were still unclear, but nothing like a little mystery to liven things up.

I chomped into my caramel apple and greeted my moochy girlfriend back.

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