Chapter 23:

Volume 1, Chapter 19: Bated Breath

Parable of the Renegades


*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=
AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Hi! Jio Kurenai here!

It's been awhile! If you read the author's note in the previous chapter, my laptop had been showing some death flags lately. Well, it seems the time has finally come. My machine is busted and I've been spending my free time trying to find a place to get it fixed because my laptop's model was ordered from America and it's more than just foreign to where I'm from. I started writing this chapter on my laptop but I finished it on my phone. 

Until I get an update from the computer service shop I found, progress is going to have to slow down. Still, I will do my best to get the next chapter up asap!

As usual, feel free to leave a comment below. It can be anything like a random question, a comment for fun or any constructive criticism to help me improve!

A "LIKE" WOULD DEFINITELY BE APPRECIATED! YOU WILL BE HELPING YOURSELF AS WELL BY GIVING POINTS TO YOUR BADGE! BY THE WAY, COMMENTS GIVE MORE POINTS! ;)
=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*

It was only a few seconds later that Lucas finally conceded his staring contest with the door to his room. With his eyes often hidden away from everyone's view thanks to his curtain of wavy chocolate brown hair bangs, no one could ever tell when exactly he blinked but naturally, a door cannot do such a thing, so the winner of this contest was a no-brainer.

With his self-imposed paralysis out of the way, Lucas was astounded on how his life had turned upside-down in such a short amount of time ever since he allowed himself to not play safe for once.

Thanks to the simple act of following the sounds he heard in one of the many alleyways in Cameron's Feint, Lucas witnessed a party of people make a futile attempt against a male [Renegade] who didn't even try to hurt them, watch that same party get heartlessly massacred by a female [Renegade] with an occupation as an assassin, get chased back to his home by that very assassin who would then kidnap him and somehow bring him all the way to the Eastern nation of Nihan in a short amount of time faster than traveling by plane. There, she would blackmail him with a contract that required him to kill the seven [Renegade] targets she was previously pursuing in exchange for his life and for returning him home.

And it didn't end there. Even without that [Renegade's] presence, Lucas went through a day he wouldn't want to experience again - fighting an angry mob of armed fanboys to protect a girl who was also his non-blood related cousin, painstakingly stitch the wounds obtained from that scuffle, and watch his best friend give himself a concussion because of a simple lie that had a great effect on him.

That was just Monday.

Tuesday had already begun when the clock struck twelve and just like that, Lucas was already forced into another trial as soon as the day started: survive the rest of the night by getting a good night's sleep while reluctantly sharing his bed with the same [Renegade] he formed an odd partnership with. Her name was Rio Kiyodera, and she could return at any moment, ready to hit the sack for her own desire of rest.

Lucas and Rio had only known each for about a day or two and despite it resulting from circumstance, they were already going to be sleeping next to each other? Things have escalated too quickly.

The thought of sharing his bed with Rio manifested in the form of conflicting emotions for Lucas. How was he supposed to feel? Lucas was unsure how to decipher his reactions. His heart went into overdrive, his stomach tickled as though there were fluttering butterflies in it, and one hand felt clammy against his bouncing knee.

Part of him was pained with anxiety because so far, Rio only treated him like a lesser being and she could kill him in her sleep thanks to one of her [Laws], which allows her to drain his life-force while simultaneously causing him one of the most painful experiences he ever felt, so long as they remain in physical skin-to-skin contact. The bed they were going to be using was narrow, as it was only designed for one person but as Rio suggested, they could probably fit in it if they try not make any space away from each other. Whatever the case, Lucas was certain he wouldn't be able to form odd sleeping positions to keep himself comfortable that night and he was bound to wake up the next day with some mild body aches - that is if he manages to wake up at all.

On the other hand, part of him also felt excited. Like Lucas, Rio was also fifteen-years-old and was tall enough to be around his height, but she was actually shorter when examined closely.

In terms of looks, Rio was a treasure trove of Nihanese qualities that evolved from the standard physical characteristics to another level.

Framing her heart-shaped face of pale skin like she was a creature of the night, Rio's hair was reminiscent of the finest silk - long, lucid and probably pleasant to touch. Its strands appeared to be straight and painted with the colors of a raven but as they traveled down to the outer curve of her spine, it gradually transitioned to a slight curl and a shade of midnight blue.

Her left eye, azure with a sly feline shape, gave off the impression of playfulness treading across the boundaries of mischief. Her right eye presumably looked the same, but it was covered by an eyepatch, not like the one commonly seen on a pirate. It resembled a symmetrical half-mask, black and accented with an azure outline. Now that Lucas thought about it, not once did he feel that Rio was handicapped without the use of one eye. In fact, he felt the eyepatch was more of an accessory that only boosted her appeal.

Then a single shock current passed through Lucas’ skull, alerting his brain.

What kind of sleepwear does Rio deem to be comfortable?

That was the thought that crossed his mind.

His first guess on the answer to that thought came from reading even just the bare minimum of the material Davis forced upon him.

His footsteps echoed loudly on the wooden floor, Lucas rushed to the bookshelf in his room and yanked out every light novel that he borrowed from Davis, letting each of them hit the floor and make a small bounce after pulling them off the shelf. Grabbing and opening random volumes before tossing them aside, Lucas ignored every word written on their pages as he skimmed through them to search only for their illustrations.

Every volume he went through had one recurring theme.

"N-no way..." Lucas couldn't help but stammer, even in his thoughts. His lips were pursed, two hands perspiring and gripping tight to the front and back cover of the last light novel he was skimming. "I-is this really going to happen!?"

The page he was looking at had an image of a slender but somewhat curvy teenage girl captured in a relaxed prone position that focused on her playful smile but also taken at an angle to allow the rest of her figure to be seen. The pose involved the girl lying on her flat belly with both of her elbows propped, allowing her to lift her chest off the floor. One hand supported her chin while the other had its palm face-up, its index and middle fingers performing a pulling hook pattern as if she was trying to invite the reader to come closer, so they could play. Both of her legs were bent in, rocking back and forth in alternate motions as her toes pointed up to the heavens.

She was dressed in an outfit consisting of a spaghetti strap shirt made out of a mostly see-through material, far more transparent than Rea's lab gown, that showed off a sample of her modest cleavage and upper body. The rest of her chest was covered by a black brassiere with polka dots a shade darker than the base color of her outfit. Attached to the shirt by a pair of straps were sheer stockings made from the same material as the shirt. Covering her backside was nothing more than a thin black triangle that curved inwards and was being held together by a pair of very thin strings that were tied around her hips.

Earlier that morning Rio was reading one of these light novels before Lucas woke up. He started to question himself about the possibility that Rio got some sort of inspiration from reading one of them. The more he pondered, the more his emotions were starting to go berserk - the girl in the image was slowly fading away and getting replaced by another person who would inherit her clothes and her pose. Raven strands of hair, a feline eye, and an eyepatch started out blurry but was slowly transitioning into a clearer form in the illustration.

He didn't want to find out how he would start seeing her if he just sat there and watched. With a panicked gasp, Lucas slammed the book shut with both hands then pointlessly hurled it against the wall before the illustration could complete its transformation.

Heavy breaths escaped from his mouth and cold sweat trickled down his forehead. Lucas urged himself to calm down before placing all the light novels he took down back into the bookshelf one by one while continuing to mildly shiver.

"I need to protect myself," he realized. No matter what Rio decided to wear to bed, he knew he had to be prepared.

Wasting no further time after throwing the two doors of his closet open, Lucas searched through the neat stacks of clothing inside for something that could keep himself safe from the deadly effects of [Rio's Third Law: Reaper's Embrace].

He put on a pair of stretchable jogging pants over his boxer shorts to protect his lower body and slipped on a pair of wool socks to cover his feet. He considered putting on the gloves he always wore to protect his hands from friction whenever he lifted heavy weights but changed his mind because they were far too uncomfortable to wear in exchange for doing their job efficiently. That, and they also smelled horrible due to the accumulation of palm sweat. Lucas didn't want to take the chance that Rio may punish him out of annoyance if she got even the slightest whiff of its odor.

When it came to the upper body, Lucas put on an olive round-neck sweater. He had a few more of other colors that were not made with protective material, which would have brought in some discomfort while sleeping. Before he made his choice, he considered going back to the laundry room to get the "FREE HUGS" sweater that Rio left behind as it was probably the most comfortable one as she herself stated but wearing that just hours after a girl did may lead to some unnecessary drama.

Looking at himself in the mirror on one of his open closet doors, Lucas examined what was considered an unusual set of sleeping attire for him and felt certain he was going to sweat a lot. Day or night, the residential village of Falcon Rock was always filled with chilly air due to its location being set at a high altitude on a mountain. It was great for Lucas because he enjoyed the cold even though he would sometimes shiver from it. This was because his natural body temperature was warmer than the average person, the exact reason why was debatable, but it had something to do with stress and his gender.

The hallway was still silent. Apparently, Rio had yet to finish changing. Looking around his room, Lucas sought an alternative to keep himself distracted rather than wait for Rio's return while doing nothing.

After examining the entirety of his room from a corner, Lucas came across a stack of notebooks on his desk. They were a set meant to be used for the next school year after summer vacation ended. Approaching the stack, Lucas opened each of the notebooks one by one before re-stacking them. Most of them had horizontal lines printed on their pages while a couple had pages with a grid of green lines.

However, there was one notebook hidden behind the stack, black with a cover made of leather and no longer than Lucas' outstretched hand. Its exterior was dirty but inside, its beige-colored pages were plain and spotless. A strap with a built-in passcode lock originating from the notebook's spine was included to prevent anyone other than its owner from opening it. The lock consisted of three small wheels with dented gaps that displayed a number from 0 to 9 when spun. All the wheels currently had the number zero on display, which was also the starting passcode as Lucas had yet to follow the instructions in the notebook on how to set a new combination lock of his own choosing.

It was an empty diary that Lucas received from Rea on Christmas a few years after he was adopted by her. Being much younger than he was now, Lucas had no interest in writing on paper and was expecting something fun for people his age like the latest gadgets. As a result, He simply left the diary on his desk without bothering to write on it.

Never moving away from its spot, the diary continued to wait. It had been collecting dust and cobwebs as the years went by, but now its patience was finally rewarded.

Lucas was now bound to a mission where he needed every last bit of information involving the [Renegades] if he wanted to increase his chances of survival. He could use a reliable tool for which he can log everything he knew as he was certain his own stock knowledge will just get fragmented if he only kept it in his head. Then there was the fact that Rio said she would no longer confirm his observations. Whether or not she would eventually change her mind, Lucas decided to take it all into his own hands.

He grabbed the diary and brushed the dust away before opening and examining it. With its plain pages, there was absolute freedom on how anything can be written or scribbled down. The passcode lock-strap meant no one other than Lucas would know its contents. Everything he thought no matter how cynical or honest they were would be hidden away from the prying eyes of everyone else.

It now had a purpose. Lucas decided to turn the aged diary into his personal journal on [Renegades].

Taking his pen and opening the diary, Lucas began jotting every last bit of knowledge he could recall from Rio's crash course on [Renegades]. He reserved the first few pages for terms related to them, making sure to leave some extra space for any new pieces of information he may learn along the way.

The first page was all about the [Renegades] in general. When Lucas stopped writing, the page contained the following:

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

<RENEGADES>

Basic Information

➤ Mysterious beings with special abilities that people consider to be a threat because the public lacks knowledge about them in general. Thanks to that, they can blend into society.

➤ They have strangely colored eyes. Rio's eyes, for example, are a shade of blue not like that of others. Spotting a [Renegade] by their eyes is not a reliable method because they can always wear contact lenses to mask their true color.

➤ According to Rio, a [Renegade] is just as strong or intelligent as the average human being, but there are exceptions. [Renegades] with superhuman capabilities are said to be very rare.

➤ Every [Renegade] was born human but evolved into what they are now by some unknown process. Rio claims it has something to do with your character being tested.

Thoughts and Suspicions:

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Lucas left the "Thoughts and Suspicions" section blank for the time being because he felt it should be reserved for more significant thoughts and he had just begun to know about the [Renegades].

He moved to the second page where [Stigma] was the topic. Unlike the other terms, Rio did not reveal too much when it came to this. As a result, the page was filled with more questions than answers.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

<STIGMA>

Basic Information

➤ The source of a [Renegade's] [Influence]. It is said to take the form of a colored tattoo that is located in a certain part of the [Renegade's] body and it glows and works like a heart.

Thoughts and Suspicions:

➤ After learning the basic information, I immediately guessed that the [Stigma] was also the [Renegade's] weak point, which Rio confirmed.

➤ Since Rio told me the [Stigma] is located somewhere on a [Renegade's] body. I guess I can assume the location will vary from [Renegade] to [Renegade] just like the emotional triggers of [Influences].

➤ Unlike the other terms Rio taught me, I've never seen an actual example of a [Stigma]. It makes sense she wouldn't show me the location of her [Stigma] because well, it's common sense not to show your weak point. For now, I can only guess what it looks like.

➤ Rio told me I would need a weapon to destroy one of these. Why? Will punching the [Stigma] hard after I find its location not work?

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The third page focused on [Influence].

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

<INFLUENCE>

Basic Information

➤ An invisible field surrounding a [Renegade] from every direction. It's said to be spherical in shape, so I'm thinking it's kind of like a hamster ball.

➤ An [Influence] covers a range that is said to vary between [Renegades]. According to Rio, a [Renegade] with a smaller [Influence] is said to have very powerful [Laws] and it goes the same way around, but she also told me this is not always true.

➤ When anyone steps into an [Influence], they will start to feel an emotion. These emotions can be either negative like anger or even positive like happiness. Every [Renegade] seems to have their own unique emotional triggers; it's kind of like a signature. The feelings will fade away in time by staying within range of an [Influence] but I don't know exactly how long. Stepping back in will reset the process.

➤ When someone who feels a specific emotion enters an [Influence] that triggers that very emotion, they become persuaded to act upon their feelings without restraint. Even worse, as told to me by someone who was affected by it, their actions felt natural like they were just following their instincts. Rio told me the only method to snap them out this trance is by force, but I hope there's another way.

➤ [Influences] also serve as the range where a [Renegade's] [Laws] will be work.

Thoughts and Suspicions:

➤ When I first entered an [Influence], I felt that the emotion flowing into me was natural since it came in slowly. In another one, I think it also felt forced because I had no idea why I would feel such a way in a situation that did not call for it.

➤ Rio's [Influence] made me feel what I described as "climactic happiness" (and she somewhat agreed with me). I thought this feeling was just me being a guy at first but after seeing how her sister reacted to it, I'm a bit unsure. At this time of writing, I've gone in and out of Rio's [Influence] and now all I feel is that she's nearby. Maybe becoming aware of what an [Influence] is made me develop some kind of resistance to its deadlier effects. Maybe I can take advantage of it to sense other [Renegades] instead.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Lucas put a temporary stop to his notes on [Influence] by drawing a simple stick figure of a person within a big circle of broken lines as a reference to the [Influence] being invisible and the theory that it was spherical in shape. He also drew random symbols like spirals or stars within the circle as a reminder that a [Law] can only work within an [Influence] to at least be activated.

The fourth page gave more insight on [Laws]

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

<LAWS>

Basic Information

➤ Strange effects that are passive, but will activate immediately when certain conditions are met. They can only affect those within a [Renegade's] [Influence].

Thoughts and Suspicions:

➤ According to Rio, every [Renegade] has at least two [Laws]. I'm unsure why it works like that.

➤ Some [Laws] can work outside of an [Influence], but only after its conditions have been met while within the [Influence]. The effects of Rio's fourth [Law], her contract with me, is an example of that.

➤ Rio told me I can use another [Renegade's] [Law] if I fulfill the conditions for it while I'm within their [Influence]. Going by that logic, I think I would have started draining Davis' life earlier if Rio was close enough to us. As much as I'd like to have myself healed, the price was too high. Not only would I end up hurting my friend, I would also make him suspicious that something strange was going on.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As every [Renegade] was bound to be unique and with the notebook having a lot of pages to spare, Lucas decided to also use pages for the sole purpose of focusing on specific individuals. He chose the last page of the notebook as the starting point

The first [Renegade] that came to mind was someone whose name Lucas wrote several times in the notebook. She was the source from which he got his start on the [Renegades]. Now, he started a page all about her.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

< RIO KIYODERA >

Basic Information:

Age: 15

Nation: Nihan

Stigma Location: ???

Emotional Trigger from Influence: "Climactic Happiness"

Influence Range: ???

Description:

An assassin and [Renegade] who forced me to take over her assignment of hunting down and killing (because I can't assassinate, apparently) seven other [Renegades] in exchange for sparing my life. I'm technically her slave...

Distinguishing Features:

➤ Alluring blue cat eyes (presumably for both eyes)

➤ Delicate-looking pale skin like she never saw the sun

➤ Long silky black hair that kind of looks dark blue when examined closely

➤ Eyepatch with a few blue accessories over her right eye

Equipment:

➤ Katana

Laws (While within Rio's Influence):

Rio's First Law: ???

Rio's Second Law: ???

Rio's Third Law: Reaper's Embrace

➤ If Rio touches someone through skin-to-skin contact, she will drain their life in order to heal herself so long as she remains in contact with her victim. More physical contact will make this [Law] more powerful. It might not look bad but it really, really, hurts to get the life sucked out of you. It almost tops the list for the most painful experience I've had so far - and that was just Rio grabbing me with one hand.

Rio's Fourth Law: Broken Vow

➤ This allows Rio to forge a life-or-death contract with anyone she "defeated" by making that person admit defeat in his heart. I think I felt defeated when Rio effectively trapped me in the nation of Nihan with almost no chance of escape.

➤ When someone gets "defeated,” a black mark appears on their chest. The mark sort of looks like a heart. Whenever Rio reveals a secret related to herself and if the victim understands it, a black arrow will appear pointing at the chest mark. Rio has half a day to create as many black arrows as she wants by revealing more secrets.

➤ The victim must perform one possible task for each black arrow they have. Completion of a task will remove an arrow and if all the arrows are gone, the victim will be freed from the contract and can never be affected by this power again.

➤ If Rio becomes convinced that the victim has given up on her tasks, the remaining black arrows will strike the chest mark, instantly killing the victim. Only one arrow is needed to kill.

My thoughts about her:

➤ Rio is at least bilingual as she can speak English fluently aside from her native Nihanese. Her choice of words when speaking in English can sometimes make me feel a bit... funny.

Rio is quite fond of submission holds, something I don't know how to fight against since I always compete in Battle Royales in the Underground Arena (where those techniques are probably useless). Because of that, I must admit for now that Rio is the more dominant one between the two of us, even if I'm physically stronger than her. One day, I want to make her beg for mercy. I'm curious about how she will sound like when that time comes.

➤ I think Rio's assassin clothes make her look kind of sexy.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The fingers on Lucas' left hand went stiff and his pen slipped out, making a couple of "clink" sounds when it hit the desk. His face went shocking pink when he read his last written thought about Rio.

It was just him being honest about his first impression of her, but now that his thoughts had been released from his head and immortalized on paper, Lucas couldn't help but feel guilty.

Oh no... I'm starting to become like Davis...

He considered scribbling the opinion away but changed his mind because he had already decided that the diary will be used for his own privacy and therefore it was a safe place to keep his honest opinions. He thought that maybe, writing everything down will also get them off his chest.

Lucas turned to the second to the last page and had just finished entitling it as "Fenris" when he heard footsteps coming from the hallway, becoming clearer with each subsequent step.

Rio was done changing and was just about to re-enter his room. The light novel illustrations Lucas previously viewed rushed back immediately to his subconscious thoughts.

Placing the notebook back to where he found it, Lucas made a short beeline for the door. Out of reflex, he pressed a button on the center of its doorknob, effectively locking it before Rio's hand could get a grip and turn it.

"What is the meaning of this?" Rio voiced her annoyance after noticing the doorknob wouldn't budge. Lucas could have held his breath before he heard hollow sounds from the door taking hits as Rio hammered it with a clenched fist from the other side.

"Lucas..." she tried to keep her voice steady. "If you do not open this door, I will..."

"Just answer my question first!" Lucas said, keeping a hand firmly grasped on the doorknob despite knowing it was already locked.

Rio stopped attacking the door and spoke after a few seconds of silence.

"I am listening..."

"Okay..." Lucas took a few heavy breaths as he prepared to ask, "Are you wearing something... indecent?"

"I am not sure I understand what 'indecent' means. Care to explain?"

Taking one last breath, Lucas braced himself as he prepared to clarify. Rio wanted an explanation? There was no turning back now.

"SOMETHING SEDUCTIVE! HOT! SEXY! SUGGESTIVE! TITILLATING! LIKE THE LINGERIE WORN BY THOSE GIRLS IN THE LIGHT NOVEL ILLUSTRATIONS!? THERE! I FINALLY SAID IT! ARE YOU WEARING SOMETHING LIKE THAT!?"

Clenching his teeth, Lucas waited for Rio's possibly violent reaction but all he got was...

"...Haa?"

...A monotone reply.

Rio was confused at first, but after thinking back to what she was doing that morning, something inside her clicked. Her sleepy eye awakened full of vigor and a grin reminiscent of the Cheshire cat crept onto her face.

"Do you want me to wear something like that, next time~?" she teased. "What I am wearing now is the complete opposite. Almost every part of me is covered."

"Really? You're not lying right?" Lucas said from the other side of the door.

"Yes, now can you please open this door? I want to go to bed already."

The tone of desperation in Rio's voice told Lucas she was being honest. He turned the knob from his side clockwise, unlocking the door and slowly opened it. When a thin gap was made, Rio spoke again.

"Maybe I should show you what I really look like... without these clothes~."

Without hesitation, Lucas' simple response was to slam the door back shut. A click from the doorknob reached Rio's ears, telling her he locked it.

"Lucas? I was joking~. I would never do such a thing, especially to you~."

Seconds later, Rio heard the doorknob click again but kept her silence this time as Lucas opened the door once more. Just like before, he was opening the door slowly, not wanting the Nihanese girl to unveil a nasty surprise.

The time he was taking just open a door got on Rio's nerves. Without a care, she thrust an arm forward and forced the door open all the way; it made a *bang!* noise when it hit the wall.

When Lucas saw Rio's idea of comfortable sleepwear, his mind was blown to smithereens.

"Wha-what are you wearing?"

Despite his words, what Lucas saw before himself was nothing new, but it was completely unexpected. It was long and flowing, reaching all the way down to Rio's feet and hovering just barely off the floor. A garment as white as the purest snow was wrapped around her body with sharp pink petals swirling upwards like a twister then scattering everywhere the glossy white material went. A sky-blue sash was tied around her waist to form a big ribbon behind her, and a pair of voluminous sleeves almost swallowed her arms, leaving just her hands to barely stick out.

Rio's choice of sleepwear... was also a kimono. The same kind of clothing Rio wore when working as an assassin but this time, her kimono was full-bodied and looked deceptively peaceful instead of the other way around.

"See~? I was telling the truth~," she purred. "Every part of me is covered except for my face, hands, and feet~."

Rio twirled in place, her arms outstretched. Her sleeves weaved a short curving trail of white as she spun with no intention to rush. After making half a revolution, Rio naturally stopped and unknowingly struck a pose where she looked at Lucas over her shoulder after twisting her body into a spiral, hands clasped together behind her while one foot stood on its toes.

Rio's intention was just to show Lucas that there was no indecently exposed skin that came with her attire but despite that, he was still mesmerized by the display in front of him. To Lucas, the combination of Rio's graceful motions and the fascination of seeing a foreign outfit left him in awe.

"This kimono is for sleeping thanks to the fine silk it is made from. Let me add that it feels very good on the skin and I also think it puts your western night clothes to shame. So, Lucas, how does it look on me?" Rio smirked.

Her question went unanswered when Rio noticed a little too late that Lucas had already turned away from her to hide his face.

"Hey, look at me when I am talking to you." She tried to grab his attention by tapping his shoulder from behind but besides a jitter, Lucas refused to comply.

Like someone desperate for attention, Rio circled and darted around Lucas, trying to meet his gaze. No matter how many times Rio attempted it, Lucas would always whip his head away quickly or turn to another direction when the slightest bit of Rio's sneering face came into his view. Finally, Rio came to a stop, knowing that this was going nowhere.

She began to treat Lucas like a sandbag. Rio playfully jabbed him from behind with an elbow. Her shots were weak and far from painful, but Lucas flinched with every hit because Rio was solely aiming for his flank close to where his kidneys were located.

*Ufufufu* "Anything wrong, Lucas?"

"Yeah, my wounds might re-open if you keep doing that!" Lucas hissed.

"Then what are you going to do about it!?" Rio hissed back.

Over and over again, Rio continued to push Lucas around from behind, throwing in a grim snicker with every elbow jab she threw. After enduring several hits, Lucas bared his teeth and would have begun lashing about if it wasn't for a timely statement from Rio.

"I only asked for your opinion. Is it too difficult for you to give me an answer to such a simple question? Are you really that weak?"

It turned into a match of psychological warfare. Having grown tired of Rio's bullying, Lucas decided that it was time for him to stop taking hits and time for him to strike back - the way Rio asked for it.

"You look... beautiful."

It was only a simple act, but he found getting his honest answer to come out of his mouth to be more difficult than he thought.

Lucas trembled with his voice, but it was full of sincerity.

"W-what?" Rio stopped attacking and recoiled in surprise when she felt what seemed to be Lucas landing a strike on her with his words.

"I-I mean those clothes look beautiful... on you, not that you look bad or anything." Lucas suddenly re-worded his answer while continuing to look away from Rio's astonished face. After saying the first three words to his answer, Lucas found it easier to expand upon that. "For a second, I forgot you were an assassin. When you first showed up in that robe... I almost thought I was being visited by an angel. You were this close to fooling me."

With every word that her ears picked up, more and more invisible blows pummeled Rio all over, each one heavier than the last.

She started to pant; her throat tied itself into a knot and her body quivered as if her nerves became more sensitive. She would have fallen to her knees if it wasn't for her coming to her senses at the last second to plant a foot down on the floor before it was too late.

Rio managed to keep herself standing... barely. She could no longer keep her knees straight as they started to buckle.

She had been teasing Lucas for the sake of amusement and to kill some time while she still felt awake. Rio thought this playful ribbing would end in her favor no matter what kind of action Lucas took. If he remained silent and just absorbed her blows, she would have continued to poke fun at his insecurity until her need for sleep caught up with her. If he said something along the lines of "you look ugly,” she would have punished his insolence with a submission hold. And if he had the guts to compliment her, she would have simply let him off and moved on after graciously accepting his words.

She was naive to think the latter would have been easy.

When Rio heard Lucas' words of praise with not the slightest trace of dishonesty, she realized she bit off more than she could chew. She stopped her teasing but couldn't express her thanks right away because she was too occupied with a tightening sensation in her chest. She looked back into the last time she was complimented like that.

How many times did her parents, or her sister tell her she was beautiful?

Far too many to count: Rio eventually felt almost nothing from hearing their enthusiastic praise and soon enough, they were traveling in one ear then out the other. They were her family. Of course they were more likely to think of her as perfect despite the flaws she saw in herself.

How many times did someone outside her family tell her she was beautiful?

Only one: from a person of the same age and of the opposite gender. The way he spoke was honest and gentle, but the impact Rio felt from his words was powerful. Whether Lucas meant 'beautiful' to be for the kimono or the one who wore it, Rio took it at her own discretion.

She felt a tug on one of the many strings within her false heart. As if she was trying to stop its throbbing, Rio held her hands tenderly close to her chest, thumbs fidgeting as her head tilted down almost like she was apologizing. Her soft lips curled into a shy smile.

"I see... Thank you..."

It was a faint whisper, but Rio's words lacked the tone of mockery. Her response was that of genuine gratuitous appreciation.

In silence, the two continued to keep their gazes off each other. Lucas was unaware that he was no longer the only person in the room to have a face painted with the colors of a rose.