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 horizon, a set of towering mountain ranges were ablaze. Distant fire pockets sparkled like fiery stars that unleashed plumes of smoke up into the orange sky. A bright sun somewhere above was eclipsed by hellish, titian hues that now blanketed our entire city.
“What do you see?” Noriko Mito behind me whispered into my ear. Her tone carried a threatening aura.
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 still shined somewhere above.
"Same thing I was seeing before you covered my eyes," I replied to her. "The Hamatsuri mountains burning, like they sometimes do every few years."
"Wrong." She rested her hand on my shoulder. "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 mountains. 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 currently tinged with slight orange hues thanks to smoke clouds high above. On the school roof, we boasted unbridled viewpoints of not only the blazing mountains, but also of everyday life continuing around us, as if it was another ordinary Friday: cars in the streets, students in the courtyard, trains on the tracks—was society really that ignorant of the rising cult in their midst?
"The deal was I'll hear out all your death lessons this next week," I said, "but that doesn't mean I'll ever see things from your perspective."
"That's fine," Noriko replied. "After I die, my DeLightful ideals will live on through our devoted followers anyway."
She stretched her arms out and slowly 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!" Noriko continued her dance display. "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 if my life is lame, it's gonna take more than fancy names to convince me to commit suicide with you."
"I already offered you my body," she chuckled "Not sure if I should be insulted or not that you rejected me."
"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 kill yourself."
"Who said I didn't want it?" She plopped down right beside me, pressing her upper thighs and shoulder 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?"
In our school, Noriko harbored 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 would not be an exaggeration.
My body tensed up. I could feel Noriko's soft breaths on my nape as her lips just barely glided above my skin. Her hand placed itself on 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. Resisting takes everything I have!
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 mountains far ahead of us. Noriko's spectacular, lavender eyes absorbed every detail like a thirsty sponge. Suddenly, she pointed her finger straight ahead.
"Death is like fire," she stated. "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. Two sides to every coin, so to speak."
I pulled in one leg to my chest and hugged it. "Basically, death is just misunderstood then? And it can offer just as much as life?"
"Yeah! Yeah!" she giddily nodded, like my reply just made her day. "Life is beautiful, but I want to show you everything death has to offer. Will you let me, Kazuma?"
It took all I had to forgo grabbing and comforting her in my arms. What did you go through to become like this, Noriko? Why didn't you tell me all this earlier?
"You have me this whole next week," I replied. "I'll hear out everything you say no matter what." Starting Monday, I'd commence my secret plan to emancipate her.
Without warning, she stood up to her feet and gazed over the horizon. Wind licked her long, silver hair as it danced within a slow breeze. Soon, two of her 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 idea? Stall for a week to figure out how to stop me from killing myself?"
I've already figured out how. "If I can change your mind, that'd be nice. But this week is all yours: teach me what you want, or convince me to commit suicide too."
"Thanks, that's what I wanted to hear," she smiled. "I don't want you or anyone else acting any different around me."
"Hmmm? Does someone else know you wanna die?"
Noriko's gentle eyes suddenly went hostile, and she stood over me with a menacing glare. "No. No one in my life is allowed to know, and if anyone—especially my mom—start acting differently around me, I'd kill myself right then and there. Understand?"
I shrunk back from her imposing presence. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna tell anyone about it. They'd probably try changing your mind more than me."
Like a switched flipped, she put on a happy face and flicked away her pretend cigarette. "As one of DeLightful's founders, killing myself feels like a rite of passage. The only thing I'll really regret is not seeing us expand to our full potential."
"Expand?" Now this I'm curious about.
"Yes. Spreading the beauty of death across the country, and eventually the world, is our long-term goal. Cardinal already laid the groundwork for how we'll grow, and maybe transform into something like religion one day."
"Honestly, that sounds more cult-like than than religion." I hoped my remark wouldn't offend her.
A strong gust blew by, swaying Noriko's school uniform as her eyes took a determined look. "We'll adhere to our principles, no matter what form they take in the end. Our commitment to death's beauty isn't something hollow, and it'll persevere long after I'm gone."
Her ideals needed to be challenged, to make my job easier next week. "Wouldn't it make more sense not to kill yourself then so you could keep spreading DeLightfulness?"
"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? At all?"
"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 clear across the orange sky.
"What do you mean?" I finally replied.
With a forced smile, she started climbing down the side of the stairwell chamber we stood on. A mechanical unit on its side cushioned her descent onto our school roof again. "There's still time to explain things. Who knows, maybe I'm secretly hoping you 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 clapped her hands and jumped in place.
"Eh? Let's pretend that gag never happened . . ."
As we walked back inside the stairwell chamber and Noriko 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 walked over to the stair's edge. "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 her designer glasses. Modest physical features highlighted a small but poignant, pointy nose.
But she ignored my question.
Noriko behind me peered down towards her, and the subsequent antipathy between them became palpable. It was like the air itself became energized with pure 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. Cold but controlled bloodlust was etched across her face.
Huh? Wonder if there's something between those two.
Mai's hands ruffled her red hair and she glanced 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 and stoic aura. "What's up?"
She stood silent for a moment, then glanced towards me. "I guess just—I'm wondering how you've been."
Eh? She's worried about me? "Fine thanks. How are things with your boyfriend?"
Her energy petered out and she slumped into the wall. "We broke up, no biggie. Thanks for hearing me out back then though."
Back before I befriended Noriko, girls had a habit of sometimes approaching me just to chat. They likely knew I was too timid to try flirting, so I served as their personal pseudo-therapist. 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.
"Time sure flies, huh." I joined Mai by the wall. "Hard to believe graduation is right around the corner."
"Yup. Don't really know or care what I'm doing after." She shifted her eyes towards mine. "But I noticed you and Mito have gotten close lately. In a relationship now?"
"N-No. We're just talking about, you know, stuff we're planning after we graduate too."
"Oh?" Mai straightened her skirt and took a seat on a nearby upwards step. "Just curious, but how well do you think you really know her?"
"Uhhh, I imagine better than most people. Why?" I itched my head.
"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 in a defiant tone. "She's the only friend I have who actually stuck around until the end."
"That feels directed at me but whatever," Mai replied, crossing her legs. "I came here today to give you a warning."
"Yeah, about Mito."
"What about her?" Surges of rancor welled within me the longer I heard Mai speak. My eyes needed to be suppressed to avoid sending death glares.
She 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 about her."
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."
"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."
One of my hands curled into a fist at my side. "It's obvious where this conversation is headed. I should leave."
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 scream to back off in front of everyone. 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, okay?" Mai's body started trembling. Shivering hands reached to scratch at her head repeatedly. "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 in a cold tone and walked away.
"Wait!" She stood and chased after me, grabbing my hand. It felt like a disease-carrying fly just landed on me.
"What. Do you. Want?" I conjured all my spite into one resolute glare, causing her to recoil and back away. Her face was a melting pot of confusion mixed with desperation.
"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. "W-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 cleaning 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!"
"I'll take my chances. If that was your 'warning', I'm going now. "I wiped the hand she touched on my uniform and started descending stairs into the school hallway.
"She's worse off than you!" I heard Mai scream behind me. "She'll drag you to hell if you let her!"
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 or anyone thought of me anymore.
The beginning of the end was here.
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