Chapter 29:

Madonna's Ultimatum

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

"Wow, you really did tape posters on the ceiling," Noriko Mito said in my room's doorway. She tucked her shoulder-length, silver hair behind her ear for a better view above.

"It's been seven years since you've been in here. Things change," I replied. The wheels of my computer chair squeaked as I plopped down into my seat. Even years later, the irony of inadvertently replicating Noriko's last visit wasn't lost on me.

Like a curious high schooler, Noriko wandered deeper into the small room where she once tried seducing me. Her mesmerizing, lavender eyes eyed my twin-sized bed and then examined my shelves full of manga and anime figures. Copious amounts of colorful posters around us stared down at the woman I once almost died for.

Man, this is way more awkward than it should be. I pulled out my cellphone to just distract myself with something, anything. There was no way I'd allow my hormones to get the better of me this time.

"You still have this?" Noriko plucked out a light novel from my shelf. "Shield Heart Online! The copy I let you keep after you borrowed it from me."

"It's not like I'd toss it out. Same with your cat ears."

"Hoh?" she beamed a flirty smile. "Were you hoarding mementos of me?"

"N-No way." My blushing face turned away. "I gave your cat ears to Asagiri cuzz' I didn't care."

"Oh, right. Sorry about her," Noriko took a seat on my bed and rolled up her sleeves. She was clothed in a checkered, blue flannel that looked two sizes too large. "You said Asagiri went out so we could catch up, but I get the feeling she's just avoiding me."

"Why say that?"

"Girl's intuition." She started fiddling with the golden ring around her ring finger. "I told her when we first met that she doesn't need to worry about me stealing you away, for obvious reasons."

The fact Noriko was married still hadn't quite sunk in. "We're not in high school anymore. Is it okay to just come over to a single guy's house? While we're both alone?"

"What, it's not like we're fucking or anything." Her face seemed annoyed, like it didn't like the topic. "My husband trusts me so maybe you should trust me too."

"I don't think you're gonna try mounting me this time at least."

She playfully stuck her tongue out. "You wish I would though."

"No comment."

After some mutual giggling, we both kept to ourselves for a bit. I passed the time by scrolling through recent news on my PC. Lately, there'd been an increase in suicides relating to DeLightfuls—the death cult the woman sitting on my bed helped found. Their ideals of discovering inner peace weren't inherently bad, but needing to worship death itself often led to their followers experiencing suicidal thoughts. Asagiri and I once suffered under their influence though we'd since overcome our respective pasts; but not everyone could be so fortunate.

Damn, looks like another girl killed herself at my old high school. I scrolled the mouse wheel up to read more. Took sleeping pills in the bathroom. Pills . . .

"Wow. Looks like Cardinal is still hard at work," Noriko said right over my shoulder.

"Wah!" I jumped high in my seat. When did she sneak up on me?

Noriko ignored my reaction and stared blankly at the screen. "They've really grown since I've left them, huh?"

"You figure?" I turned to say. As she leaned forward towards the screen, my eyes were distracted by her huge, dangling boobs barely sheathed by her black undershirt. Is this how married women dress?

None the wiser, Noriko pulled back and waltzed towards the bed again. "The world is a scary place, Kazuma. I hope you don't ever let those crazies brainwash you."

"You tried converting me to them more than anyone else," I replied, still jittered. Hearing her call me by my first name felt soothing though.

She lay back flat on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. "I quit that death crap years ago thanks to you. Without me there though, there wasn't anything holding Cardinal back from creating his own personal cult."

"Isn't that what you wanted?" I remembered all the things she'd mentioned leading up to our bridge incident.

Noriko replied with a chuckle. "He had me brainwashed back then too. I thought I was contributing to something meaningful, but it was all just a farce. Maybe in my head I was thinking, 'Even if Cardinal is a liar, he'll still help out people along the way.' Biggest self-gaslighting I've ever done."

Cardinal—the enigmatic founder of DeLightfulness—reigned as one of the largest shadows overlooking Japan. Little was known about him, and he rarely made public appearances, so his true goals were largely speculation. However, neither law enforcement nor politicians dared challenge him for fear of triggering the Dead Man's Switch, which was a solemn command for millions of DeLightfuls to commit mass suicide. The laissez-faire policy led to not only unimpeded growth, but also granted DeLightfuls special religious privileges without any drawbacks of being an official religion. It was effectively the perfect cult.

"Were you really willing to die over someone like that?" I said seriously.

She raised a hand up and fiddled with her ring again. "There's lots of reasons why I wanted to die. Figuring out my ideals were being twisted for someone's benefit did hurt a lot though."

"Then why try to convince me to kill myself over those ideals?"

Noriko didn't respond. I simply watched her stare up at the ceiling with blank, uninterested eyes. Her silver hair was spread out over the bed like a silky web. Then, one by one, a few cackles escaped from her lips.

"You know, Cardinal has always been paranoid," she said. "He's always thinking one step ahead."

Change of subject? "Sounds like you knew him pretty well then."

" I still do." She slowly sat back up on the bed. Her eerie expression resembled that of someone possessed. "Wanna see?"


Noriko nudged her head towards my doorway. "Asagiri's room is facing the front of the house. Go look out her window and tell me if you see anything."

"Ummm, okay?" I crept out of my computer chair and ventured down the hall. The door to Asagiri's room was closed but not locked. I turned her doorknob and peeked into a dark, desolate area with the curtains drawn. I could fathom Noriko's cold eyes burning into my back, as if egging me forward into danger. Creeping far inside, my hand lightly tugged the curtain back, just enough to see down to street level but keeping myself hidden from view.

Looks pretty normal so far. The scenic, narrow street offered limited mingling space but had multiple goings on: a stray cat resting along a brick wall, a few birds perched on a power line, a neighbor watering his plants, and then a pedestrian walking her dog came into view. Maybe Noriko was just messing with me.

The little white dog wagged his tail as he pulled his owner along. A long leash allowed it to sniff every exotic object in sight, from fire hydrants to trash bins to parked cars. Then, it cautiously stopped in front of a large power pole and appeared to growl.

From my closed window above, I could hear the little dog start barking a storm. Its owner wearing a school uniform rushed over to investigate and tried calming it down. She resorted to scooping up the pooch into her arms and quickly bowed to someone lurking behind the power pole. The frightened teenage girl scurried away down the street with her agitated dog.

An ominous figure hidden behind the power pole stood motionless. Under clear, sunny skies he was wearing a gray raincoat with the hood on. His current position made it impossible to spot him from most angles, except this window Noriko had directed me towards. Goosebumps surfaced on my arms as he slowly turned around and stared up towards me with a wide grin.

But I closed the curtains—too shaken to offset a panic attack. A fear I hadn't felt since encountering DeLightfuls at the theater hastened my breaths, and a cold sweat slid down my neck. I pressed my hand into my throbbing chest and commanded myself to calm down.

What the fuck? Who the fuck was that? Scrambled thoughts overpowered me. What the fucking shit was that guy doing here? Damn it!

"Kazuma?" Noriko's soft voice traveled down the hall, causing an eerie echo. "Is everything okay?"

I didn't respond. Too many scenarios were buzzing around in my head, each begging to be indulged. But the best source of answers possible was currently resting on my bed, waiting.

I straightened my beige shirt and traveled back down the hall to my room. Noriko was sitting with crossed legs while a humored grin was scrawled across her face.

"So? What did you see?" she calmly said.

"Cut the crap! Who was that?" I still hadn't calmed myself.

Noriko's hand rushed to cover her mouth as she seemingly tried holding back a laugh. "He's my stalker—or more specifically—one of many. It's amazing, right?"

"Amazing? I'm being serious here! Should we call the police?"

"And what the fuck would those limp dickers do about them?" she yelled, breaking her collected persona. "You think I hadn't considered that already?"

"They could start an investigation. Maybe track down—"

Her eyes turned hostile. "I don't think you know who you're dealing with, Kazuma."

"W-What?" I backed up from her sudden change in tone. "What do you mean?"

Noriko smiled and patted the spot beside her on the bed. "Sit."

I reluctantly followed her order and sat clear away from her. She scooted closer.

"Remember how I suddenly came back after a few years?" Noriko softly said. "And then I disappeared for a while again?"


She started counting her fingers, one by one. Noriko soon moved onto the other hand and stopped counting at her seventh finger. "Seven years. That's about how long it took for Cardinal to figure out I was still alive."

"H-Huh?" What's he gotta do with this?

"A few months after you and I started talking again, that's when it happened." Her hands started trembling on her lap. "I noticed I was being followed around. They've never done or said anything to me, but with how they dress, act, look—it's obvious they're DeLightfuls sent by Cardinal to watch me."

"You're not making any sense." I was tempted to comfort her shaking hands, but the golden ring kept me away. "What would Cardinal want with you after all this time?"

"Probably a warning," she said with dispirited eyes. "Something like, 'Don't challenge my authority, or I'll end you whenever I want,' probably."

Noriko Mito, known as Madonna to her peers, was one of five founding DeLightful members. Seven years ago, she'd attempted suicide on our city's largest bridge, but I managed to thwart her and also completely changed her outlook on life. DeLightful's other high-ranking members only knew Noriko by her Madonna pseudonym, so they likely assumed she'd killed herself anyway since she never contacted them again. As time went by, Cardinal's grip on power tightened as the remaining founders all conveniently committed suicide one by one until only Cardinal remained.

But now, Madonna had returned, and she was potentially the one person in the world who could—in addition to usurping Cardinal—reform or disband the DeLightful cult entirely.

The weight of sitting next to someone with world-altering power dawned on me as she looked in my direction. But her watering, forlorn eyes were not Madonna's or some cruel god's, but the vivid lavender eyes of Noriko Mito.

"I'm not scared of him though," she said, wiping away a tear on her sleeve. "You're the one I'm scared for, Kazuma."


Noriko nodded. "That's why I stopped talking to you again. I didn't want you involved with Cardinal now that he knew I was alive. You could still live a normal life, unlike me."

"What about you?" I retorted. "Aren't you allowed to be happy? Why do you have to deal with all this by yourself? You're married!"

She looked as if she wanted to say something, but cut herself off half-way through. "I-I don't want anyone I care about getting involved with Cardinal. Maybe it's selfish, but I just thought it'd be nice if me and you started talking again—like the old days, you know?"

But what were the old days? We only talked on and off back then until she confessed her DeLightful ideals to me. Both of our reputations were that of loners, pariahs, and outcasts that mostly kept to ourselves. High school only became more tolerable after we met each other, but even then she still resolved to kill herself. Was I really some special light in her life that's worth wanting to relive?

"We can," I replied to her. My eyes glanced at the floor to avoid eye contact. "Things are just different from seven years ago."

"Maybe, or maybe not." Her feet started cutely fidgeting as she stretched her legs out. "But even me being here is probably super risky; you shouldn't get mixed with creep-o stalkers because of me."

Asagiri who went out earlier was cause for concern, though it was unlikely they'd touch her. "Your problems are my problem too. I wanna help if I can."

"It's fine." Noriko took a deep breath and sighed. "They don't always follow me around, and I doubt they'd do anything if I lay low—basically what I've been doing for years now."

But why start laying low right after that night on the bridge? "Well, if your stalkers ever try getting rough with me, I'll let you know if I'm alive."

"Try?" She stared at me with malevolent eyes. "No. There is no trying. If Cardinal ever hurts you, or anyone I care about, I'll destroy him and everything he's built."

"Ummm, don't gotta go that far for me," I fake chuckled. Her words rang hyperbolic, but I knew her ultimatum wasn't empty.

Noriko looked down at her hand. She eyed her wedding ring like it was an enemy. "Everything that's good goes fast, everything that's bad goes last. My mom taught me that better than anyone else."

"Your mom?"

No reply. Noriko continued staring at her ring with fathomable contempt, then straightened her flannel shirt before standing up. "I should leave. Probably not smart to let them know how close we are."

"Oh, Asagiri should be home soon. I'll text her and see if—"

"Maybe next time. Tell her I said 'hi' though." She nudged her head towards my doorway. "Wanna walk me out?"

Something was definitely going through her mind, but that's how she'd always been. 

"No problem," I replied. "Maybe next time let's meet up somewhere besides my house—freak out your husband less."

The warm smile that'd never faded, that had always balanced out her darker side, graced my presence again. "It's a promise," she heartily said.