Chapter 21:

Mai's Warning

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


Seven Years Ago


"You can open your eyes now, Kazuma."

Two soft, feminine hands peeled away from my eyelids as Noriko slowly backed up behind me. Vivid orange light crept into my vision, soon solidified by the sight unfolding ahead.

Far off in the distance, a set of towering mountain ranges were ablaze. Fire pockets dotted throughout unleashed plumes of smoke into the sky, plunging what was likely our entire prefecture into a demonic, orange hue.

“What do you see?” Noriko Mito behind me whispered into my ear.

We were standing atop the cube-like, stairwell structure on our school roof as we gazed towards hell on earth. Scorched scents of charred forests infested my nose and polluted the air around us. Not a trace of the once blue sky remained, and only our blurry shadows were reminders that a sun shined somewhere above.

"Same thing I was seeing before you covered my eyes," I replied. "The Hamatsuri mountains burning, like they sometimes do every few years."

"Wrong. What you're seeing unfold is life, and there's nothing beautiful about this instance of it. If I'm going to teach you the beauty of death, I need to alter your inherent perceptions."

Overnight, a wildfire had commenced and spread rampantly throughout the nearby mountain range. Most valley cities including ours weren't in current or future danger, but that did little to alleviate people's palpable unease.

I turned to face Noriko. We both sported our black, high school uniforms—albeit tinged with a slight orange hue thanks to smoke clouds high above. On the school roof's highest point, we boasted unbridled viewpoints of not only the blazing mountains, but also of everyday life continuing around us, as if it was just another day.

"The deal was I'll hear out all your death lessons this week, but that doesn't mean I'll ever see things from your persepective," I said.

"That's fine. After I die, my DeLightful ideals will live on through our devoted followers anyway."

"DeLightful?"

She stretched her arms out and twirled around like a ballerina. "Yup! Remember that forum thread I made about a name change when I went to your place? Everyone including Cardinal himself loved 'DeLightful' the most, so that's our new name!"

"There a special meaning behind it or something?"

"Of course! It's a portmanteau! We wanted something positive sounding, along with an innuendo to the light of death. DeLightful expresses us perfectly, doesn't it?"

I just have to keep playing along, long enough for her to trust me. "Interesting. But even though I hate life too, it's gonna take more than just a fancy name to convince me to commit suicide with you."

"I already offered you my body," she said with a chuckle. "I'm not sure if I should be happy or insulted that you said no."

"Resisting definitely wasn't easy," I said as I sat down and faced a distant inferno. "But it wouldn't make sense to force you into something you don't want right before you end yourself."

"When'd I say I didn't want it?" She plopped down right beside me, pressing her upper thighs and arms against mine. "I want you, Kazuma, and you want me too. It'd feel great to have sex with the girl every other guy can only masturbate to, wouldn't it?"

Noriko had a reputation of being an unattainable, unapproachable beauty which only made her that much more desired. Since befriending her, multiple guys had approached me and asked what my relationship with her was. Insinuating she was the sexual fantasy of half the boys here wouldn't be an exaggeration.

My body tensed up. I could feel Noriko's soft breathing on my nape as her lips just barely glided over my skin. Her hand caressed my knee and slowly traveled upwards towards my groin.

"L-Let's save that for when I make a decision about suicide," I stammered, scooting away from her."

A quick grin spread across her face. "If you're so easy to tease, someone might take advantage of you someday."

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, haha."

We sat quietly to ourselves for a minute as we marveled at the burning destruction. Noriko's spectacular, lavender eyes absorbed every detail like a sponge. Suddenly, she pointed her finger towards the mountains.

"Death is like fire," she said. "People are scared of it because they don't understand it, and judge solely on surface level observations. For fire: steel melts, wood burns, flesh chars, water evaporates, gasses ignite—but fire also cooks your food, keeps you warm, and breathes life to stained glass. Equally, I want to show you everything death has to offer. Will you let me, Kazuma?"

It took all I had to resist hugging and comforting her in my arms. What did you go through to become like this, Noriko?

"You have me for seven days," I said. "I'll hear out everything you say until then."

She slowly stood to her feet and gazed over the horizon. Wind licked her long, silver hair as it danced within a breeze. Soon, two fingers kissed her lips and she appeared to pretend smoke a cigarette, exhaling an invisible puff of smoke.

"How do you save someone who doesn't want to be saved?" she said. "Was that your plan? Stall for a week to figure out how to stop me from killing myself?"

I've already figured out how. "No. You've already made up your mind. These days are just to try convincing me to follow you."

"Good. Because if anyone, especially my mom, start acting differently around me for any reason, I'd kill myself right then and there—and you'll be to blame."

"I'm not telling anyone you're gonna commit suicide, don't worry."

She shot me a quick smile and flicked away her pretend cigarette. "As one of DeLightful's founders, this honestly feels like a rite of passage for me. The only thing I'll really regret is not seeing us expand to our full potential."

"Expand?" This is what I'm curious about.

"Yes. We desire to spread the beauty of death across the country, and eventually the world. Cardinal already laid the groundwork for how we'll grow unfettered, hopefully transforming into something akin to religion one day."

"No offense, but that sounds more cult-like than a religion."

A strong gust blew by, swaying Noriko's school uniform as her eyes took a determined look. "We'll adhere to whatever best conveys our principles, no matter what form it takes. Our commitment to death's beauty isn't something hollow, and it'll persevere long after I'm gone."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to not kill yourself then, so you could keep spreading your ideals?" I hoped she wouldn't mind the logic.

"There's no saving me anymore." She looked down at her left hand, as if carefully analyzing it. "Besides, the philosophies I've harbored since I was a kid have already been taught to everyone on that forum. There's no need for me to live anymore."

I caught the slightest glimpse of confliction in her eyes. "You sure there's nothing left for you to do?"

"Heh. You're the biggest reason I haven't killed myself yet, Kazuma. I had fun these past two years, but if I can't live life how I want, then there's no point in living at all."

Airtanker planes flew overhead, likely on their way to fight the distant fires. Noriko's gaze followed them over the horizon.

"What do you mean?" I replied.

She smiled and started climbing down the structure we stood on. A mechanical unit on its side cushioned her descent onto our school roof again. "There's still six more days to explain things. Who knows, maybe I gave you this week to try changing my mind about suicide."

"Somehow I doubt that." I said, climbing down as well.

"Teehee. Well if you want to kill ourselves earlier, that's fine too. We can escape into another world, just like a real isekai!"

"Gonna need my own harem or no deal."

"I'll be the first member!" she giddily said.

"Eh? Let's pretend that gag never happened . . ."

As we walked back inside and locked the door behind us, I noticed someone standing below at the stairwell's next level. A window behind them cast an eerie, reddish-orange glow as her crimson eyes glared up at me.

"Mai?" I said. "What are you doing here?" Was she listening in on us?

My acquaintance was dressed in our school's black uniform, which radiated a slight gothic aesthetic. Mai's short, red hair barely crept past her ears and helped accentuate designer glasses. Modest physical features highlighted a poignant, pointy nose.

But she didn't reply.

Noriko on my side peered down towards her, and the subsequent antipathy between them became palpable. It was like the air itself became energized with acrimony.

"Can we talk, Nishikata? Alone?" Mai said, her icy stare unnerving even me.

"Uhhh, maybe later would be bett—"

Before I could finish, Noriko already calmly descended the stairs. Without a word to either of us, she took another turn downwards and disappeared from sight.

Huh? Wonder if there's bad blood between those two.

Mai ran her hand through her hair and glared up at me. "Well? You gonna come down or what?"

"R-Right! Be right there!"

I rushed down the stairs to her level, wondering what to expect. Mai's short height contrasted her otherwise intimidating aura.

"What's up?" I said.

She stood silent for a moment, then glanced towards me. "I guess just—I'm wondering how you've been."

Eh? She's been worried about me? "Fine thanks. How are things going with your boyfriend?"

Her energy petered out and she slumped into the wall. "We broke up recently, no biggie. Thanks for hearing me out back then though."

Back before I knew Noriko, girls had a habit of sometimes randomly approaching me just to chat. My shy self would've been too timid to flirt or ask them out, and they likely knew that. We'd talk about their boyfriends or their crushes, and I'd give the girls advice on how to make themselves more appealing. Always, once they'd obtained their desired relationships, they'd ghost me and I'd never hear from them again.

Until now.

"Time sure flies, huh." I said. "Hard to believe graduation is right around the corner."

"Yup. Don't really even know what I'm doing after." She shifted her eyes towards mine. "But I noticed you and Mito have gotten closer lately. In a relationship now?"

"N-No, we're just talking about stuff, you know, that we're planning after we graduate too."

"Oh?" Mai straightened her skirt and took a seat on a step. "Just curious, but how well do you think you really know her?"

"Uhhh, I imagine better than most people. Why?"

"You do know the reputation she has around here, right?"

"Of being popular with guys?"

"No, besides that."

I'd hate to admit it, but just like me, Noriko had little fanfare among classmates. It was one of the main driving forces that pushed us to meet and understand one another; though, with how long she'd kept hidden her DeLightful ideologies, maybe I didn't know her very well after all.

"To be honest, I don't care what anyone else thinks of her," I said. "She's the only friend I have who actually stuck around until the end."

"That feels directed at me but whatever," she replied, crossing her legs. "I came here today to give you a warning."

"Warning?"

"Yeah, about Mito."

"What about her?" I defensively said.

Mai pulled out a cleaning cloth and started scrubbing her glasses on her lap. "I wasn't listening in on you guys, if that's what you're worried about. But since you and me were friends in the past, the least I could do is give a heads up."

Heads up? What's there to give a heads up about? "Alright. I'm listening but only for one minute."

"Look at you, finally grown a backbone after all this time," she said with a chuckle. "It doesn't matter now though. Nothing matters anymore except the future."

"Why future?"

"As in, what future do you see yourself having with her?"

"I don't think that's any of your business."

"Come on, I'm just trying to help out here."

"It's obvious where this conversation is headed."

Mai sneered, slowly contorting her face into a crooked smile. "Noriko Mito: all she has is looks going for her. Deep down though, you know she's nothing but mental and personality issues incarnate. You've seen how she treats people."

I'd tried turning a blind eye to it all, but it was hard to deny Noriko wasn't exactly a normal classmate. She'd often outright ignore anyone that tried talking to her, like they weren't even there. If the person persisted, Noriko would freak out and yell to back off in front of everybody. Boys tolerated her because of her looks, but her reputation was abysmal when it came to female classmates—for multiple reasons.

"I-I'm not jealous of her or anything, ok?" Mai trembled, scratching her head with both hands. "It's not like I minded that my ex-boyfriend would randomly moan her name while he was fucking me. It's not like I care that every guy checks her out when she walks by, but all ignore me. It's not like I'm annoyed her tits are ten times bigger than mine, or that she mastered resting bitch face but still looks gorgeous. In fact, I'm not bothered at all by—"

"Your minute is up," I said, walking away.

"Wait!" She stood and chased after me, grabbing my hand. I'd never felt more disgusted; it was like a disease-carrying fly just landed on me. 

"What. Do you. Want?" I conjured my spite into one glare, causing her to release me and back away.

"T-This is all for you, Nishikata! For your own good! Do you really want to be around when she finally snaps! She's mentally unstable!"

"Have you tried looking in a mirror lately?"

Her left eye started twitching. "We're not talking about me! You know she can't be trusted! She's lied before to turn down confessions; lied to get out of classroom duty, lied about why she's late to class—if she's willing to lie about nothing, imagine how easily she'd lie about something! Who knows what she'll lie about in the future, if she's not lying to you already!"

"If that was your 'warning', I'll be leaving now, thanks. "I wiped my hand on my uniform and started descending stairs into the hallway.

"She's worse off than you!" I heard Mai scream behind me. "She'll drag you down somewhere you'll never claw out of again!"

Maybe. Probably. But I didn't care.

Crowds of students in the hall acted as my camouflage as I blended among them—it didn't matter what they thought of me anymore.

The beginning of the end was here.