Chapter 22:

The Beginning of the End

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


"Ball. Ball bouncy. Fetch ball."

I tossed the tennis ball clear across the living room as my black feline raced to hunt it down. The toy casually rolled underneath our kitchen table.

Good thing Asagiri went out with Sakura, or I'd get teased to infinity for treating our cat like a dog . . .

Furbolt strutted back to me with a green ball in his mouth, tail wagging eagerly.

"Well someone still has excess energy ever since Noriko left, huh?" I reached down to pet him and retrieve the ball. "Bet you miss her."

"Nyaa!"

"Let's try burning off some more of that energy then."

"Nyaa, nyaa!"

"Alright, fetch boy!"

Furbolt had been full of vigor since Noriko's visit, which was strange considering his favorite pastimes were sleeping or otherwise being my nemesis. Almost a week already went by, and though Noriko caught me checking in on her in Asagiri's room, she apparently had good reasoning for sending that strange text about not mentioning our pasts: Noriko was just embarrassed, and thought we'd gossip about her while she was inebriated.

But why block me from mentioning "our" pasts and not just hers? Maybe it's because our histories were so intertwined, though a safer bet would be that old Noriko still dwelled somewhere within her. But which incarnation? The one before or after she revealed her DeLightful ideologies?  Even seven years later, it was still difficult fathoming how Noriko was one of that crazy cult's founders.

Mai's warning, as detestable as she was, still rung loudly in my head:

'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 couldn't deny that just being near Noriko made me weary at times, considering my pseudo-PTSD for anything involving DeLightfuls, but she was still a good friend beyond all else. She'd apologized already for ghosting me for years, and apologized again for going dark a few months later. However, each explanation for both events were lackluster, but I wasn't about to argue against someone still suffering mentally like me.

Just turning off my brain would be less painful.

"Ball. Fetch. Go long!"

Furbolt below wagged his tail in anticipation as I readied my arm. Just when I was about to chuck his ball, our doorbell rang loudly, echoing throughout the house.

"Nyaa?"

"Yeah, who could that be? It's too early for Asagiri to be back." She has house keys already too. Noriko then, maybe?

I tossed Furbolt's ball towards his cat tower and he chased after it. The poor kitty must've been tired, so it was time for a well-deserved rest. Who says you can't teach an old cat new tricks?

My feet jogged down the hall towards our front door. The outside gate was more or less a formality we kept unlocked, so guests could just stroll right to the house's entrance.

I turned the doorknob and opened the door. "Hi, who is it—"

My heart sank. Standing in front of me was a young, well-dressed man in a creamish suit. He gently nudged cocoa-colored bangs away from his golden eyes, complimenting an unnaturally wide smile. "Hello, friend!" he said.

I stumbled backwards, tumbling over shoes—too late for me to slam the door shut. What the fuck! How did a DeLightful find my house?

"Oh my! Are you ok?" He stepped inside and attempted to help me up.

"Get out! Out! OUT!" My mouth screamed.

"S-Sorry, I just thought I'd—"

"I don't care what a DeLightful thinks! Get out!" Adrenaline started pumping through me, ready to be unleashed.

"DeLightful? Sorry, but that's not true!"

"Huh?"

He offered me his hand. A ginger, more natural smile on his face kept me from slapping him away.

"You're Nishikata, right? I'm Sonozaki, and I've been wanting to meet you."

"What for? Where'd you hear about me from?"

Sonozaki itched his cheek with a finger. "Well, uhh, it's a bit complicated."

"Tell me or I'm kicking you out."

"Alright," he sighed. "I'd hate to be blunt, but I'm Asagiri's ex-boyfriend. Complicated, see?”

"Y-You’re what?" I yelled, surprised to my core. "Ex-boyfriend?"

*

Furbolt in the living room gleefully circled around Sonozaki's feet, who patiently sat on our couch. From the kitchen, I could only stare in total dismay as my cat betrayed me yet again—this time for a dude that once dated my girlfriend; and someone who still might be a DeLightful.

I walked over to him. "Here, your ice cream."

"Thanks!" He accepted the ceramic mug, and I sat across from him in my father's reclining chair.

"Nyaa! Nyaa!" Furbolt said, eager to earn his new friend's attention.

"Oh, do you want some?" He dipped his finger into the mug, scooping out a blot of vanilla sweetness. "Here you go little guy."

Furbolt giddily waggled his tail and licked the finger clean. "Nyaa! Nyaa!"

Ha! I see your game! It's gonna take more than winning over my cat to earn my trust!

"Well, start justifying yourself," I fake coughed. "Only reason you're in this house is because you promised to explain why you're here, and since Asagiri already mentioned she had an Ex before."

"Did she? Maybe that's a good sign then."

"Huh?"

Sonozaki brought a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth before setting the mug on the nearby table. "First, sorry again for imposing and asking for something cold. It gets hot walking around in this getup."

"If you're a DeLightful just come out and say it."

"But I'm not, er, at least not anymore."

Anymore? "What do you mean?"

"It'll probably be easier if I start with some basics then.” He looked towards me with an inquisitive expression and crossed his arms. “Assuming you've been out of high school for a while, do you know what teen culture has become?"

"What, like trends? Outside of geek stuff and anything Asagiri mentioned, I'm in the dark."

"Hmmm . . . Short story is: the hottest trend for teens right now is to become a DeLightful."

"The fuck?" My jaw practically dropped. "Joining the DeLightfuls is a trend now? You gotta be shitting me."

"Wish I was but it's true—I'm a former DeLightful myself, if the clothes speak for themselves."

"Yeah! If you're ex-DeLightful, why do you keep dressing like one?"

He pinched and tugged on his creamish sleeves. "Wearing DeLightful-esque attire is a good way to keep actual DeLightfuls from bothering you. All you gotta do is give them a big smile when you walk by, or they'll suspect you're not one of them."

Why haven't I thought of that yet? "Then why did you give me a creepy grin when I opened the door?"

"Just used to smiling at people now, sorry about that."

"Ugh . . ." I facepalmed. Heaps of information were being chucked at me, and I suspected it was just the start. "How does all that work with DeLightfuls who don't wear pompous clothes then? Only dedicated members dress to impress; everyone else is incognito usually."

"Low-profile DeLightfuls never confront people, so it doesn't matter anyway."

"Oh right, can't tell who is and isn't a member since most practice the ideology in secret." Images of Noriko—the friend who helped unleash this cult on the world—flashed in my mind. Is this all what you wanted? Or what you wanted to escape from?

Sonozaki splurged on another spoonful of ice cream. "And that's where I come in. Both me and Sakura have been unofficial DeLightfuls since high school."

"Wait, Sakura? She's how you found out about me?"

"Mhmmm. She's been telling me everything Asagiri mentioned about you."

I remembered that pink-haired, trench coat fiend. I hadn't heard from her since the park confrontation, but after everything came out, she didn't come off as a bad person. Sakura did confess to passing info over to someone, but I was conflicted now that I knew who it was.

'. . . if they come, that'll be the end of your relationship as you know it.' Her last warning still haunted me, like a dark cloud over my head.

"So, are you mad about something Sakura said then?" I replied, imagining scenarios. "Thought me and her saw eye to eye in the end."

"Believe it or not, she's been mostly positive about things. I trust her so I trust you."

"Then why visit? Especially when Asagiri isn't home?"

Furbolt's ears off in his cat tower perked up, as if he sensed the inevitability of approaching revelations. A brief silence leaked into the air.

"Before I continue," Sonozaki started, "Asagiri probably wouldn't like that I'm here, or what I'm about to explain—are you still ok hearing me out?"

That's the big prize question: what would she do if she were in my shoes? I thought of my gorgeous girlfriend and how she'd always tiptoed around conversations of her past. Why? She's open to sex jokes but wasn't cool mentioning what she was doing a year ago? Everything always seemed backwards, as much as I tried to ignore it.

Her ex-boyfriend didn't come across as jealous or a bad actor; but whatever entanglement they might've shared, it seemed pertinent to know, even if it wouldn't be all sunshine and rainbows.

"Go ahead," I sternly said. "Sakura is probably distracting her right now so you could speak your mind anyway."

"Ahhh, you caught on," he giggled. "We've always been schemers trying to protect Asagiri so I'm sure she'll understand. It's for her own good after all."

"If it's that important then hurry up."

Sonozaki reached over one last time and gulped the last of his melted ice cream. A speck of confliction streaked across his face, but he remained resolute. "Ok. You have the background info you need, and I have yours thanks to Sakura—we can hop into the nitty-gritty now."

My eyes glanced over towards his, unaware of whatever emotion I conveyed. All my thought processes focused on computing the anticipated storm.

"Well," he started, "you know Sakura and I were both former DeLightfuls, but to be frank, we were DeLightfuls in name only."

"Yeah, what does that mean?"

"Remember how I said being a DeLightful is a high school trend now? The vast majority of us only claimed membership to sound 'cool', so it wasn't something we literally practiced."

"I'm pretty sure schools cracked down hard on DeLightful clubs and activities though. How'd you guys get away with it?"

"Easy: set up a random club as a front, and behind the scenes advertise it as DeLightful centered. People would join just to keep up with trends."

"Why is it a trend in the first place?"

"Your guess is as good as mine; probably a mix of the rebellious phase and maintaining appearances—and also social media."

"Social media?"

Sonozaki pulled out his phone and scrolled through it. "It's complex so I won't detail it much, but basically: DeLightfuls started recruiting en masse by sending out cryptic messages and images on social media, where young people would 'crack' them and share around their accomplishment. It became a viral game and things spiraled from there."

I coddled my chin. "Yeah. I've heard of stuff like that, but didn't know it was so extreme. Luckily, my little sister aged out of high school just in time to avoid that crap."

"For the better. Though, people already in the know join DeLightful-orientated clubs through private groups or chat rooms. That's where I gave into temptation and joined a choir club—mostly just a front, of course."

"Ok, but what does Asagiri have to do with any of this?"

"Well . . ." His complexion became dispirited, like he didn't want to continue. "You know teens liked unofficially joining DeLightfuls, but on the other side of the coin, there's still people who become a DeLightful unironically. They're the serious ones about the ideology, and aren't there just for looks."

"And?"

I could see Sonozaki's fists tightening as his face radiated nervousness. He took a deep sigh to calm himself. "Asagiri was one of those —a true, bonafide DeLightful."

What? What did he just say? "Wait, my girlfriend was part of that death cult before?"

"Not just part of it, obsessed with it. She'd try preaching lessons to us during club and attended their sermons after school. She was the only legitimate DeLightful in our entire group."

My brain still couldn't process what it was hearing. Asagiri—my lovable, huggable, sassy girlfriend had once taken part in the cult that almost obliterated both me and Noriko seven years ago? Even up until Asagiri herself showed up, I was slowly sinking back into similar dogmas that would've led me to suicide.

"You alright?" Sonozaki said.

"Y-Yeah, sorry. It's just a lot to take in."

"If you don't want to know more, we can stop."

"No, this is for my own good too. Tell me more."

Furbolt strolled up to me and nudged his head against my leg. "Nyaa! Nyaa!"

Cat! Do you sense my apprehension? Are you trying to cheer me up?

"Nyaaaaa . . ." Its tone had a hint of annoyance.

Nope. Probably just hungry. Dumb Cat!

Sonozaki across from me smiled. "On a side note, I didn't come all this way just to help out Asagiri. I wanted to check for myself how you were as a person, buuuuut you seem fine!"

"Thanks, I guess?"

"Heh. Anyone could be a wolf in sheep's clothing after all. Like me wearing this DeLightful getup—though that's more like, sheep in wolf's clothing, haha."

We both laughed for a tad before the somber atmosphere settled back in.

"Anyway," he said, "I'd be shocked too, that such a troll-y girl was a true DeLightful before. She was completely different before though."

"What do you mean?"

Furbolt strolled up to Sonozaki, probably for food. A gentle hand caressed my kitty and sent him on his way.

"For most of high school," he said, "Asagiri was the biggest introvert and social recluse possible. She didn't have friends and kept to herself; anytime she'd speak it was usually with a whimper."

"That's way harder to believe than being a former DeLightful," I awkwardly giggled.

"Don't blame you. The more problematic thing was how much she was bullied for it."

"Bullied?"

"Yeah. I don't know all the details, but she was known around our school for being its verbal punching bag."

"Huh? She doesn't seem like someone that'd put up with that."

"Like I said, different person back then." His face looked as if he had second thoughts about exposing all this. "People picked on her because she basically let them, and the fact her skin was extra tan even for someone from Okinawa didn't help either."

She's from Okinawa? Well, guess I shouldn't be surprised. I pictured my own lonesome life in high school before meeting Noriko, and how I wouldn't wish that fate on anyone. The mental claustrophobia of ever closing-in walls would eventually break anybody, and Asagiri endured that alongside a barrage of indiscriminate bullying.

"So, this is all building up towards what pushed her towards DeLightful ideas, right?" I said.

"Hard to say," he replied. "Her family moved from Okinawa to the mainland around when she started high school, and she suffered alone her first two years. Somewhere in that time is probably what influenced her romanticization of death."

The very concept of death idolization didn't mesh with Asagiri's image, at least the one she'd been projecting for me. With how Sonozaki described things, my high school life was heaven compared to hers. 

"Where do you and Sakura come in then?" I said.

He opened his mouth to speak but suddenly pulled out his phone after a text bing. His face looked like bad news just rolled in.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

"N-Nothing. There might be a little issue soon, but we'll worry about that later." He slipped his phone away. "Anyway yeah, Asagiri's life really changed in her last year of high school when she met me and Sakura. Sorry in advanced if this turns kinda ranty."

No matter what I hear, I won't let it make me think any differently of her. She's still my girlfriend and nothing's going to change the image she worked hard to build for me.

He started. "That choir club I mentioned earlier—it was more like my own glorified fan club, since I was the only male member and the girls were kinda obsessed with me."

"Totally not jealous," I pouted.

"Heh." Sonozaki continued. "I got invited in in my second year and that's when I first met Sakura. Apparently, the club was another 'DeLightful friendly' hangout teens just joined to look cool; same reason I basically joined to be honest. But it's because of that that I met a Keiko Asagiri."

My ears perked up on hearing her full name, and I paid full attention.

"Me and everyone else in the group were just ironic, in-name only DeLightfuls. But Asagiri joined with the full expectation she was entering an actual DeLightful-affiliated club. The girls happily took her in, glad to have the school pet under their wing so they could have a new plaything."

"What does that entail?"

"Isn't it obvious? Her bullying only got worse. Sakura and I were the only sane ones there, but neither of us wanted to risk our reputations to stand up for her. 'It's not like she minds,' is what we told ourselves as our cope."

"How wouldn't she mind though? Why would anyone just take abuse lying down?"

"She probably did mind but tolerated it, because we let her preach her sermons to us. Asagiri's mentality was probably that she wanted to 'save' us from the ignorance of death, but she meant well. I don't think anybody disagrees with absolutely everything DeLightfuls say, though that's how they reel you in bit by bit."

A pit formed in my stomach as I remembered how Noriko steadily, and almost, lured me into her ideology in that one week I gave her seven years ago. Just how far ahead was she thinking back then?

Sonozaki resumed. "Eventually, Sakura and I bit the bullet and tried befriending her—see if we could break her out of her shell and maybe help her move past DeLightful dogmas. For a while it seemed to be working actually, until the other girls got involved."

"What did they do?"

"What vindictive people usually do: they started harassing her even more and spread nasty rumors meant to coerce her to finally kill herself. The girls turned on Sakura too and that's when I put my foot down." He literally stamped his foot down, perhaps for dramatic effect.

"Hmmm?"

"I asked Asagiri out on a date!" Sonozaki proudly said. "I wanted revenge on the girls who called themselves my fans but treated a club member like shit! If Asagiri wasn't gonna stand up for herself, it was time someone else did!"

". . . by taking her on a date?"

"If you want to change someone, you need to get close to them. Besides, I was kinda popular in high school, so dating me might boost her self-esteem."

"Sounds awfully convenient." Both me and Furbolt stared him down.

"I-It'll make more sense later!" he stammered, smoothing his cocoa-brown hair back. "A-hem. Of course, she accepted my proposal. From that point on, Sakura and I didn't care about our reputations anymore, so all three of us left the club and decided to focus full time on our daughter."

"Daughter?"

"That's just what we called Asagiri sometimes! Anyway, we tried to protect her from any more bullying we could, had fun when we could together, and eventually started dragging out the Asagiri you know today."

"Probably would need a leash for that."

"Y-Yeah, she's gotten a bit sassier I heard, but sounds like she hasn't regressed to her old self at least."

We both looked deep into each other's eyes, as if we knew the most difficult to stomach aspect of Asagiri's history was upon us.

"Even though we'd broken her free from her introvert shell," he said, "at her core, she was still obsessed with DeLightful dogmas. I'd been her boyfriend for months by now, and it was obvious she never really cared about me like I did her."

"What makes you say that?"

Sonozaki's hand clasped his mouth, like he wanted to hide his complexion. "It's not like I was super interested in sex or anything, but if we could go just one date without her trying to turn it into a sermon—sure would've been nice."

So it was that bad, huh? "How did you finally hook her off DeLightful dogmas then?"

"We didn't. Sakura couldn't really help her anymore, and even me as Asagiri's boyfriend couldn't do much either. We'd held hands and kissed, but they always felt like things she did to placate me instead of things she wanted."

Kissed. I'd have to word myself carefully, so I didn't look like a curious cat. "You two got pretty close, huh?"

"I was head over heels for her by now, but like I said, she was probably going steady with me for different reasons. If Asagiri really wanted to save herself, she'd have to put in some personal effort."

"What happened next then?" I leaned forward, as if that'd help me hear clearer.

"Well, we noticed she hatched a fancy for memes and zoomer culture. When she wasn't talking DeLightful stuff, she'd be spouting a dead meme or something. Combined with just in general becoming more down to earth over time, Sakura and I figured out probably the best way to help her."

I could practically hear a drumroll in my head.

Sonozaki reached over and grabbed his empty ice cream mug. "She needed a distraction—something that would help get mind off DeLightfulness. Ever since we'd befriended her, she'd been calming down anyway. She was still a member of that cult at heart, but there were definitely less of her sermons coming out as we humored her personality change into the meme lord you know today."

Huh? "You're telling me memes saved her?"

"Not exactly. They were just the catalysts for figuring out something more permanent we could do for her. Graduation was getting close, so Sakura came up with a special proposal."

At first I thought about commenting something snarky about Sakura, but then I remembered her powerful words from the park:

'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.'

I took a deep breath. "So, what was Sakura planning to do with Asagiri?"

"Before we graduated, Sakura wanted to ask her if she'd—"

The sudden sound of the front door swinging open startled us both. A single set of steps echoed through the hall as they rushed straight towards us.

And then a panting, sweating Asagiri raced into the middle of the room, staring Sonozaki down.

"Asagiri?" I said" Thought you were with Saku—"

"What. Are. You. Doing. Here?" She asked Sonozaki in a macabre tone, completely ignoring me.

Why did the air get toxic all of a sudden?

"Ah, sorry for dropping by," Sonozaki said. "But I thought it was about time I met your new boyfriend."

"What did you tell him?" Her eyes had never looked so hostile.

"It was time, Asagiri. There's no point in being ashamed of your past, or present; so I've told Nishikata almost everything about our high school days."

I stood up and tried walking over to her. "Hey, none of this changes how I think or feel about you, ok? In fact, I think we could—"

Before I could finish speaking, she'd turned and sprinted upstairs, a face on the verge of crying devastating my soul.

"Wait up! We can talk things ou—"

"Just let her go," Sonozaki said from the sofa.

"What do you mean let her go?" I angrily replied. "If you knew she'd react like this, why come over at all?"

"I told you it was for her own good. Now that you know her history, you have no reason to hide yours from her, right? Take the opportunity to get closer with each other, and save her from herself."

My fists curled up at my sides. "Weren't you her boyfriend first? Doesn't it bother you to see her living with someone you barely know? Let alone trusting him to be her glorified therapist?"

"Should be obvious, but we broke up already." Sonozaki stood and dusted himself off. "By the end of everything, I really thought I loved her, but apparently she never saw me the same way. Being a couple was just—her way of thanking me for standing up for her when barely anyone else did. So, if I couldn't make her happy, maybe you can."

I was speechless from his sudden gentlemanly speech. Hang in there, man! You'll go way further than me in life! 

"Sakura texted me earlier." He made his way to Furbolt's cat tower and petted him. "Said she'd lost track of Asagiri at the park, and that she was probably running back over here after figuring out our scheme. Nothing I could really do, but it made me happy that Asagiri was trying to preserve this new image of hers."

"What if she's only changing her outward appearances? What if she'll always be a DeLightful at heart?"

"She's already pushed aside a lot of that nonsense; I could tell just by looking at her," he smiled. "It's up to you to finish what me and Sakura started."

It wasn't that I didn't trust him—clearly Furbolt and Sakura did—but maybe I just didn't trust myself enough to save someone else after I barely managed to cure Noriko from her own DeLightful ideals. The aftermath of the bridge incident still weighed on my consciousness, yet, something was still accomplished that night even if the chain reaction ultimately led to history repeating itself.

But this time, I wouldn't let luck determine my future, or the future of people I care about. It's beyond me to rely on chance. 

"I-I'll try my best," was all I could muster to say.

Sonozaki extended out his hand, as if to offer me a shake. "Good luck! No hard feelings about dating my Ex either."

"Eh?"

"Asagiri's sweet at heart; maybe you'll see that side of her someday if you haven't already."

Wish she'd show off that sweetness more than her moochiness . . .

I reached out and firmly shook his hand, forging the gentlemanly bond only two men who once dated the same girl could form.

"Guess I got a long road ahead of me," I said with a chuckle.