Chapter 30:

Running From Ourselves

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

Seven Years Ago

Every step, every breath, every thought—all our lives were set in stone since birth. I recalled reading about different outlooks that argued the opposite: that people's futures were carved into sand, not rock. Destiny was malleable, but wasn't that only a consequence of freedom of will? Sure, someone could exhibit self-determination, though only insofar as to not alter their final destination.

So, why was I trying so hard to change fate?

With every stride and controlled breath I took, the red track course underneath my shoes raced by. Bright sun above shone down on me and Noriko as we jogged around the perimeter of a wide sports field. We were in our own track lanes, separated by white lines like some poetic manifestation of our ideological barriers.

Still a mystery why we're doing this during lunch . . . My chest heaved up and down as I struggled to maintain Noriko's steady pace. She was just ahead of me but close to leaving substantial distance between us. Her long, silver hair that stretched past her black skirt bobbed around as it cloaked herself from behind. Our gothic-esque school uniforms made us further stand out as the only people on the entire course. This isn't the best outfit for running!

"H-How much longer?" I panted. Jogging by our school's gymnasium indicated this was at least the fourth lap we'd completed. The red course was located beside a wide, grassy knoll where our school was situated above.

Noriko peeked back towards me but didn't say a word. Her face wore a strange mixture of annoyance and pity, though clearly not exasperated from out workout. Instead, she picked up the pace and put more distance between us.

"Noriko?" I had no choice but to push myself to my limits. Legs already burning from exhaustion footed my final burst of energy as I raced to catch up. When I groggily reached her side, she purposely turned her face away from me. 

"Are you angry?" I said.

After we traversed a curve on the oval track, she let out an audible sigh. "It doesn't feel nice running away from yourself, does it?"


We jogged a few more meters before she spoke again. "Death isn't something you can just run away from, Kazuma. It's always right behind us, whether we like it or not."

"Yeah I get that, but do we have to literally run for this?"

Her face cutely puffed up. "You said you'd hear me out all this week, didn't you?"

"That included a workout?" 

Last Thursday, she confessed to helping orchestrate the birth of some pseudo-cult that worshiped death itself. They'd garnered a huge following online that'd likely explode into something sinister eventually. Stopping their growth wasn't my goal though—convincing Noriko not to kill herself was. I'd promised to hear out her DeLightful ideals for one week, while I pretended to debate committing suicide with her or not. Saving Noriko from herself was my main mission, and I'd already laid the groundwork for how she'd be freed from anguish.

At a steady pace, Noriko continued jogging along as I struggled to keep up. She appeared to ignore my complaints and instead created another small gap between us.

Is this supposed to be a metaphor? For her always being out of my reach, or something? I summoned more stamina to catch up again but this time got shoulder to shoulder with her.

"Listen!" I said with vigor. "I'll hear out everything you say—everything! Just don't do anything rash without telling me first."

Noriko's irked frown turned into a smile, and she gave me a light shoulder bump. "Dummy, I wouldn't leave without saying something. There's still things I wanna get off my chest anyway."

"Chest, yeah, haha." I glanced down at her enormous breasts bouncing with every step that her black uniform failed miserably to restrain.

"Eyes. Up here," she stared in my direction.

"A-Ah, my bad," I fake laughed. "Guess I know why you're always trying to be ahead of me now."

"Humph! You had your chance to have me." Noriko jogged further ahead. "But it's too late. No one gets to have me now."

I still kind of want you though . . . "But think about it! If you die, you'll never get married, or find love and stuff. It doesn't need to be me."

"It does need to be you!" Noriko jogged more forcefully, and finally began showing signs of fatigue. "I'd been saving myself—just for you, Kazuma! That day we met in the library, I was happy I finally got a chance to talk with you, and we clicked so quick! It was like fate!"

Fate. My stubborn dogmas dictated that all was set in stone from birth. The fact I would have a miserable social life was likely orchestrated by some cruel god who took pleasure in dealing first-world problems. But even through mediocre high school years, I'd never considered suicide for even a moment. Noriko, who'd faced similar social isolation as me, did the opposite and actually founded a suicide cult. How much more suffering had she been enduring than me?

And was there something I could do to alleviate it?

I jogged harder to catch up to her side. "If I said I'll be your boyfriend, would you call everything off?"

"No!" She shook her head several times. "I told you it's too late. I want to die, and nothing will change that."

"You're not making sense though. Don't you want to experience life? Didn't you say life and death are both beautiful?"

Noriko looked in my direction with conflicted eyes. Beads of sweat trickling down her chin almost looked like tears. "Kazuma—even if I do live—I promise I'll never get married, not to anyone ever. The only person I care about already rejected me, but that's irrelevant to everything anyway."

I looked down at the red track beneath me in shame. Could I have saved Noriko if I just accepted her advances in my room that day? If there's a God out there, they know I wanted the sex more than she did, but I wasn't about to take advantage of my only friend in her moment of weakness. Thanks to that though, I was now putting both our lives at risk for the plan I had laid out. I'd just need her to accept a favor in several days time.

A cold, March breeze blew by us, granting a spell of soothing relief from our exercise. The fire in the mountains the other day was fueled by heavy winds but had since been extinguished. Under clear skies, only small hints of smoke-scented air remained, like a constant reminder of my ticking time with Noriko.

We jogged in silence for a while. She could no longer hide her exhaustion and slowed down her pace. Any other time, I might've been aroused by her feminine panting, but all I felt was a call to action.

"Let's stop," I stammered, and pinned my hands to my knees to catch my breath.

Noriko almost tripped over herself as her wobbly legs screeched to a sudden halt. She craned her neck around to check on me.

"Well?" she panted. "How are you feeling?"

"What? Tired of course. Don't tell me we r-ran just for that."

She reached into her black blazer and pulled out a scrunchie. Soon she'd tied her long hair into a silver ponytail, then Noriko glanced towards me with a warm smile. "Sorry. I just wanted to see how long you'd humor me."

This girl is gonna kill me before she kills herself . . . "Whatever. I said I'd put up with anything you want this week." I meshed my fingers into my damp, black hair. Sweat drizzling down my neck made me wish for a cold drink.

The sound of footsteps prompted me to look up. Noriko stood over me with a white handkerchief in her hands.

"Here," she gingerly said. "Pat yourself off a little. Chilly breezes will help out too."

"Oh, uh, thanks." I took the white cloth from her hands. "But don't you need it too?"

"I'll just use it after you," she giggled. "Less weird that way, right?"

"It's weird no matter who uses it first!"

Wholesome laughs escaped our mouths as we basked in the serene moment. We'd always had a knack for completing one another, which was part of the reason I fell for her. We expressed buried emotions, showed each other sides we hid from everyone else, and treasured similar interests we had no shame in sharing. In an ironic twist, she's probably the only reason I never considered suicide all throughout high school. Now that the tables were turned, it was my turn to return the favor.

Noriko started pacing around as she waited for me to finish patting myself off. At one point, she appeared to hold her hand up to the sun, as if examining a wedding ring on her finger.

"Selling death to someone," she said, "it's kinda like a car salesman trying to sell a beat-up old van; not very easy, haha."

I folded her handkerchief into my pocket. "At least you're trying to help people, instead of ripping them off."

She shook her head. "Almost everyone we recruit is already predisposed to our way of thinking. All they needed was someone to translate what their hearts were already saying."

"Sure making yourself sound like a messiah."

"Heh." A quick grin shot across her face. "Nah. Cardinal is the one with a big ego—maybe a bit too big though."


"N-Nothing! Anyway, how did you like your first day of DeLightful lessons?"

Probably can't expect her to be that close to the bigshot. "Fine I guess. Still don't get why we needed to run though.

"Isn't it obvious?" She pranced into the grassy area on our right. Gentle winds swayed her black uniform as blades of fresh-cut grass flew about. "I don't want my last week just being a snoozefest for you. So we'll have fun between our soul searching too."

"Guess that's what we're calling your lessons, haha." I let the cool winds blow into my matted hair. "But let's head back. Lunch will be over soon."

Noriko gestured to join her by concrete stairs up the grass knoll. A delicate smile radiated enough warmth to draw in my whole universe. "Yeah. Got a crazy week ahead of us, Kazuma."

We climbed the stairs side by side together as we chit-chatted about random topics. We'd been running around a track course behind our school, though the excursion cost us our valuable lunch break.

"Still, the jog was nice," I said. "Reminds me of the days we'd walk by Central bridge."

Noriko, now ahead, reached the end of the stairs first. Her lips opened as if to reply to me, but then she froze cold.

"Noriko?" I saw her glare at something straight ahead of us. As I reached the top of the stairs, someone in the distance emerged from the shadows of our gym building. She was short and had even shorter, crimson hair that glowed bright red as she stepped out into sunlight. The gleam of her glasses contrasted the blackness of her school uniform. Soon, it was apparent she was walking right towards us.

"Huh? M-Mai?" I stammered. What's she doing here? The last time I encountered her was when we'd argued about Noriko's affiliation with me. Mai's demeanor back then was less than applaudable, and I had zero intention of ever reforging the kinship we once shared.

The one woman in this world I resented carried what looked like ice-cold drinks in each hand. Tantalizing, sparkling condensation dripping down each water bottle was apparent even from this far away.

Noriko beside me was tense; it was clear she wanted to storm off. For as long as I'd known her, she'd never once had an amicable relationship with anyone except me. It was always the same cold, distant look in her eyes for everyone else—however, against Mai, that glare was amplified several fold. The same palpable tension in the air present during that fiery day had electrified our surroundings once again.

Mai stopped a few meters ahead of us. Her body language was: nervous, fidgeting, and bashful. The harder she avoided eye contact and looked at the ground, the more she appeared to blush.

"I-I-I s-saw you two r-running," Mai managed to mumble, "a-and I thought I-I'd . . ."

The unopened water bottles in her hands absorbed copious amounts of trembling. I almost worried she was having a seizure.

"Do you need something?" I gently asked her.

"N-N-Nevermind!" Mai bolted away back towards the main school building. It was like she just got cold feet before a love confession; somewhat cute actually.

"Well that was weird," I stated. "Do you think she wanted to give us those drinks?"

Noriko was silent, but her tension steadily declined. A deep breath and she was back to normal. "I don't know, I don't care. She's just bad news."

"There bad blood between you two or something?"

"No. But she gives me the stink eye, so I give it to her back."

You give everyone besides me a death glare though! "Never done something to upset her?"

"Doubt it." She crossed her arms and pouted. "I've never even done anything to her."

I remembered Mai's spiel about Noriko essentially seducing Mai's ex-boyfriend, which marked the downfall of her social life. I'd heard Mai wasn't much better off than myself now, but since the whole chain reaction was inadvertently Noriko's fault, that was quite the grounds for a grudge. So why try to offer us drinks? She must've known how parched we are too.

"Humph! Let's just go in." Noriko stomped away towards the main school building too. "Hopefully we don't bump into her—or anyone!"

"Considering the hour, that's highly unlikely." But I humored her demand and followed right behind her. Placation this whole week was paramount to my plans, but I'd also need to gather more information. Who really was the woman known as Noriko Mito? And what made her so obsessed with death? I still knew next to nothing about her personal life or her family situation; but in particular, I'd noticed she gets chagrined at the topic of her mother. Noriko was still an entire cavern I needed to dig further into—deep enough to find the core of her problems. Only then could I possibly save her from herself and avoid the last resort.

Day 1 of DeLightfulness was over, but a creeping feeling suggested they had far more in store for me eventually. Noriko had helped construct something that either she was now running away from, or was now taking responsibility for.

Whatever the case, even if it took years, someone would likely die by the end.