Chapter 27:

Volume 1, Chapter 23: ...when our pain...

Parable of the Renegades


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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Hi! Jio Kurenai here!

Sorry for the wait, I've been uh, investing on some side projects related to this novel and I've been trying to find ways to help myself get a chapter done faster without sacrificing much on my now busier schedule in real life. 

So far, things seem to be progressing smoothly. I've got some chapters written but they're all Frankensteins in desperate need of tweaking and it was a little painful to leave them as such. I hope this means I'll be able to publish every few weeks instead of every few months because I really want to keep that momentum going! I also hope to end this scenario with the next chapter so I can get back to the buildup for some action soon! Please look forward to that!

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!

Lastly, please give yourself some credit by giving that "LIKE" button a click after reading this chapter! I'm always interested to know who's following me and I'd absolutely love it if we could start a conversation too! Likes and Comments will give points to your Honeyfeed badge, so make me recognize your mark by doing at least one of those two! I'll be singing your name in praise if you do both! ;)
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Bathed in the moonlight, Rio's scintillating raven hair fell loose around her shoulders as her pale skin glistened with an oily luster. She kept her modesty thanks to the snow-white bandages wrapped tightly around her chest, and the plain loincloth between her thighs. A single sharp-edged eye and a smile reminiscent of a cat gave off a mysterious air, leaving her intentions hard to predict.

Walking at a steady pace, she approached the one who trembled in front of her. Every step meant a rhythmic sway of her hips.

This would normally be the subject of a wet dream, but for Lucas who knew enough of this person, an avatar of death was what came before him.

He backed away from Rio's stride to go closer, unwilling to learn first-hand what a full-bodied [Reaper's Embrace] would feel like. The distance between them stayed the same until the back of Lucas' knees bumped his bedside. Losing his balance, he fell and landed on the bed's memory foam mattress. The closer Rio went, the more his mind reimagined her as what could have been hiding under her skin. It wasn't long before an abominating specter loomed before him.

"Calm yourself," Rio said, having expected his reaction. "I understand why you are afraid, but I meant what I said about cleaning your wounds. When you feel better, please sit down on the floor."

Her voice broke the illusion thanks to how human it sounded, not like the dual voices he was anticipating. The specter Lucas was seeing faded away and was replaced by the Rio he knew. She was no longer dangerous, but that was only in terms of appearance. Touching her directly was still a hazard.

Nodding but retaining some caution, Lucas sat cross-legged next to his bedside, which he used as a backrest to help him hold still while he regained his composure. After a quick examination, Rio told him his wounds leaked blood only because his stitches were pulled slightly during their fight. There was no need to replace the black thread – he’d be damned if he had to go through hours of agonizing pain from threading a needle through his skin again.

After picking up the roll of toilet paper and medical alcohol nearby, Rio knelt, inching herself at just the right distance to prevent [Reaper's Embrace] from activating while staying close to the person she would be treating. She was too close. Lucas couldn't stop the blood that remained in him from rushing to an inappropriate place.

"Hmm?" Rio raised her eyebrows and spilled a glance after she leaned forward to treat a scrape on Lucas' leg.

He may have barely managed to keep the straightest face he could from the spectacle before him, but the rest of him was a bad liar. His arms snapped straight as his hands covered what bulged down there.

*Ufufufu*

Rio giggled with childish amusement flashing in her eye before shifting her attention to the wounds that were not on Lucas' lower half. "I will pretend that never happened."

"Appreciate it," Lucas grumbled through clenched teeth as he looked away.

That accident lightened up the mood a little. As Rio doused a few squares of toilet paper with medical alcohol, her left eye went down a corner and snuck a peek at the male upper torso she would focus on in seconds. A corner of her mouth frowned.

He's nothing special.

Rio wouldn't dare to admit it, but her growing curiosity made her want to know the extent of Lucas' physique ever since she was given a tease of it that morning when he was getting ready for school. A modest pair of abdominal muscles were exposed when his shirt was lifted above a quarter of his waist, sparking Rio's internal circuits and making them go haywire. Now that she saw the whole thing, she was left disappointed. Apparently, Lucas' amateur athlete build was not up to her standards. There were bits of fat here and there and his muscles had yet to reach a suitable amount of development. It was a shame, really, but another thought followed shortly.

Well, it's actually not so bad. I guess I was just expecting more...

She took another quick glance then brought her attention back to the tissues in her hand.

He's got a long way to go, but that means there's still a lot of room for improvement...

Having doused the tissue with enough alcohol, Rio leaned closer to begin working on the first of many wounds. On the way, she eyed the rest of the injuries that occupied most of Lucas' body.

I didn’t think this earlier, but those cuts and bruises make it like he's packing some hidden ferocity. If he continues to develop himself, he might look like... like...

Her nose burned with incredible heat from a fantasy.

*Ha...kushon!*

Before she knew it, she dropped what was in her hands and sneezed.

"What the? Rio are you all right?" Lucas wasn't caught off-guard by the sneeze, but what came with it provoked his concern. He scratched his head in disbelief. "That's odd... How did you suddenly get a nosebleed?"

Furrowing her brows and unpatched eye, Rio shot a fierce glare at Lucas, who flinched while she covered the lower half of her face with both hands to block the vast amounts of blood that exploded out of her nostrils. That wasn't enough to stop some of the carmine liquid from slipping in between her fingers, though.

"Nyeber baind dat. Jush geb mi sam krin tisu." (Never mind that. Just give me some clean tissue.)

Her request was muddled, but Lucas understood. Even though Rio asked for tissues, he handed her the rest of the toilet paper, which was almost fully unraveled from its cylindrical cardboard roll. The remaining paper was just enough to absorb all the blood Rio expelled and following that, the now useless cardboard roll was tossed into the room's mini-trashcan. Lucas scored a three-pointer considering the distance the roll traveled while airborne before it hit the edge of the container's interior and fell in.

After cleaning the blood off her face, Rio's imperious glare told Lucas to follow what she did when she caught him pitching a tent: pretend that never happened. Lucas complied, but he was unsure why he needed to. Everyone gets nosebleeds, right? Why was there a need to feel so ashamed about it?

"Show me your right arm," Rio requested as she prepared a new batch of tissue paper laced with disinfectant.

In response, Lucas stretched out said arm and laid it on the mattress behind himself to support it. This allowed him to show almost every injury it had without the need of worrying about physical strain. It was a given that the edge of the mattress will get dirtied with his blood, but at this point, he no longer cared. There was already a vague humanoid stain on it anyway.

The next thing he knew, a cold and wet fabric stung him on his shoulder. Lucas inhaled through his nose, making a quick hissing noise as soon as he felt the cold burn of medical alcohol on one of his smaller wounds. Unlike the bite marks on his neck, this was something he could grin and bear. The inhalation just helped him to calm his nerves.

While Rio performed first aid on one of the wounds on his right arm, Lucas tried to give himself something to do while waiting aside from twisting his arm to help Rio gain access to some of the other wounds it had when requested. He was well-aware that he would be sitting still for a while, and he was never fond of doing nothing unless it involved sleeping or watching Yotube videos on his phone or laptop, to name a few. Staying bored for too long often led to stressful headaches and it wasn't in his best interest to relapse after recovering from one.

Speaking of headaches, how did his last one go away so quickly? It usually took about six hours to an entire night of rest to relieve himself from that kind of pain.

With one arm still free and fidgeting on the mattress, Lucas had the option to watch some videos or surf the net on his smartphone. The problem was he had nothing in mind to browse at the moment. He wasn't in the mood to watch any Yotube videos either because sometimes after letting the videos on the recommended list run on autoplay, he would find himself on the weird side of the video streaming site.

He wasn't exactly fond of watching strange videos with someone near him unless he intended to share.

With the use of his smartphone now disregarded, Lucas tried to search for another way to keep himself occupied. He rotated his head to look around. His room was the same as ever, mostly that is. The biggest difference between then and now was that some books from the shelf and some objects from the desk had fallen to the floor, and they needed to be picked up and put back in their proper places. Of course, that had to wait until the treatment was finished. To Lucas' annoyance, all that time spent pondering was a waste to him because Rio was still occupied with the arm she started on.

Before long, Lucas got taken over with his boredom. An annoying kind of pain marched up the from the nape to the back of his skull and his desperation grew. There was just nothing interesting to look at. Nothing at all, except...

Lucas hissed through his nose when Rio pressed an alcohol-soaked piece of tissue into the biggest gash his right arm offered. Out of reflex, Lucas swiveled his head toward the source of annoyance and right away, something to look at was right there.

The smooth curves that made Rio's scantily clad killer body (both figuratively and literally) were all that he could see. It was obviously right there, but Lucas was trying to rule her out because he didn't want her to see him as a peeping Tom despite having her consent for just this moment. She was practically next to him and their proximity to each other only made the sight more capable of burning him.

With a sharp click of his tongue, Lucas diverted his face toward the wall in front of him. His face may have been pointing at a blank space, but his eyes didn’t turn with it. Apparently, Rio's natural charms had snagged their attention, and they refused to let her leave their sight even if it meant dehydrating from their refusal to blink.

They continued to stare until they only saw half of Rio, which became a painful experience. Lucas forced his eyes to look away by turning his head all the way to his left. As soon as Rio disappeared from his sight, his white eyes wrested control over his brain and forced the entire head back to the right...

...only to come face-to-face with a female's gaze.

For a second or two at a distance that was too close for comfort, Lucas and Rio stopped what they were doing and looked deep into each other's eyes. Then when they realized what they'd done, their faces turned beet red. Gasping, they whipped their heads away without saying a word... well, out loud, that is.

"He/She caught me!!!"

Forcing himself to stare again at the blank wall in front of him, Lucas now knew he couldn't keep that up for long. His eyes shifted in subtle movements toward Rio's direction until he could only catch the barest trace of her. To his surprise and without a doubt, Rio's entire face set sight upon him once more at a slight downward angle, and it was by no means subtle. She must have thought it was safe and took the opportunity to sneak in a peek at the sharp angles of his bruised and bloodied upper torso. What made this more likely was the fact that she was tending to a scrape around his wrist, where she did nothing but lightly dab at the wound, even missing it and touching nothing but the air itself occasionally.

"Rio--?" Lucas rasped.

"Left arm." Her back straightened with a sudden jerk as she interrupted him with what was almost loud enough to be a shout.

He heaved a sigh. Lucas switched the positions of his arms, placing his left behind himself on the mattress. As Rio moved over to that side, Lucas bent and rotated his right arm around the elbow joint to inspect her work on it from every possible angle.

There was nothing but a clean arm with red drying lines and some dark spots around the limb. Lucas had to admit Rio deserved some praise, especially since she never touched him directly during the whole ordeal. Of course, things were just getting started, so it was still too early to celebrate.

While he couldn't count how many injuries his left arm had compared to his right, Lucas was getting sick of doing almost nothing. His head fell back, and his nape bent against the edge of the mattress.

"I'm bored," he stated with a voice that sounded like he considered life to be pointless. "Tell me I didn’t hurt you anywhere, did I? Maybe you got some injuries that need patching or something."

"No, you already took care of that." Rio tapped a finger on the now flawless spot above her left eyebrow, the same spot that once had a massive gash when Lucas countered her last attempt to bite him with a headbutt. Speaking of that headbutt, Rio grew flustered when she almost thought about what came along with it.

At this point, Lucas was just looking for an excuse. He already saw for himself that Rio didn't have any wounds on her like he did. It was disappointing but also alleviating at the same time.

"Guess it's the waiting game for me then," he told her, leaning back and trying to relax. "Still, I'm glad you're alright now."

Echoing emotions reverberated within Rio. Hearing Lucas’ concern for her well-being made her want to give him something to do, but she had no injuries to speak off, so what could Lucas do for her?

The temperature within the room had become warm again thanks to Rio shutting the window when Lucas left her alone for the second time before he collapsed in the hallway. Despite that, shivers from wet chills still ran down her skin. Such a thing was possible only because...

An idea popped into Rio's mind, but it filled her with anxiety that ate her from the inside. Looking slightly away with quivering lips, Rio clenched her hands, thumbs gripping her fingers until her knuckles turned more transparent than her pale skin.

"Maybe... there is something you can do," she said, her voice struggling to keep its composure. "All that fighting with you made me... sweaty. Maybe you can..."

Her throat twisted itself into a knot. Still, Lucas heard more than enough - If his eyes were made of glass, they would have cracked before shattering into ghostly white shards.

To wipe away all the nectars of sweat that dripped and ran down every curve of Rio body - that was going to be her proposal if a few more words were allowed to come out.

Lucas eyed the tissue paper sticking out of the nearby rectangular box on the floor. An individual sheet was extremely thin and almost transparent. If he didn't want to waste them, to explore every nook and cranny of Rio's figure with those would be no different than copping a feel. It would mean he had access to go there, there, and there. A few seconds of deep contemplation later...

"I'll do it," he said.

Immediately, Rio crossed her arms over her chest and brought her knees in. Her face twisted itself into one who was accusing someone else of sexual harassment.

"Creepy..."

"What? You offered."

"I said 'maybe'. And you could have said 'no'."

A dry chuckle barely escaped from Lucas after hearing what sounded like an excuse, and a terrible one at that.

"You just can't admit when you realized you've gone too far, huh?" He brandished a smirk to duel with Rio's sore loser pout. "Anyway, you can have the tissues to yourself."

Getting to his feet even though Rio hadn't finished treating his left arm, Lucas walked over to his closet where piles of his clothes were stored. Opening one of the two doors by its handle, he pulled out a long, white piece of absorbent fabric from one of the shelves before turning back to Rio.

"I'll be using this," he declared as he rotated his forearm in a clockwise motion, wringing the hand towel around his right hand. It went around from the wrist up as a gradually shrinking circle until it resembled a crude cast when worn.

Returning to his bedside, Lucas sat down cross-legged and raised his covered right hand for Rio to see.

"This towel's one of the thickest I got so I won't feel a thing, probably. I think you'd agree with me when I say this is the best for the both of us."

Rio eased up, nodded, then adjusted her place to kneel in front of Lucas so they could work at the same time. Because of the change in sitting position, some other adjustments had to be made. Instead of resting his untreated left arm on the mattress behind him, Lucas had to grab on to Rio's right shoulder. Rio did the same, offering her left arm for Lucas to work on first.

"Right, let's continue then," Lucas said, shifting in place.

Before Lucas could start, Rio took a moment to close her eye and roll her shoulders back a few times, loosening herself up and dropping her guard. Her body language as interpreted by Lucas told him he had her permission to go anywhere around her so long as that part was dripping with sweat. Lucas turned into a nervous wreck, and Rio soon followed when they realized the position they were now in. Temperatures rose from within them as they monologued the situation in their own languages.

"Hey... Doesn't this look like we're about to...!?"

Both shook their heads, fighting to dismiss the thought they couldn't complete inside their minds. They waited for the other to make the first move, which Lucas took after some hesitation. Seeing the difference in difficulty of the tasks between them, he took his time to traverse in spirals around Rio's left arm and rid it of its cold moisture. A few times he would squeeze his hand a little. No space was left untouched thanks to the moonlight revealing the glistening highlights on Rio's skin. True to his guess, the thick towel kept his hand safe from Rio's deadly touch, but he also hoped in secret that it wouldn’t prevent him from feeling any strange pulses. It also kept him from getting familiar with what he grazed or else he may end up with a mentality like a moth's attraction to fire or more accurately, a bug zapper.

That was great. Probably. Lucas wished he could say the same for his other hand - the only thing between that and Rio's right shoulder was a single square of tissue paper for safety reasons. Every time Rio disinfected a wound, the hand of that arm would twitch, its fingers kneading into the shoulder it held. For a dangerous person, Rio appeared to be quite delicate to touch - so fragile, Lucas was almost convinced he could crush her bones in his grip despite his lack of pride in his strength.

Working with one arm each wasn't the only reason their progress was being hindered. There were such things as distractions.

Lucas kept his head unturned from Rio's arm, but his eyes only pretended to focus on the task at hand.

That icy enchanting yet sinister contour of her cervical to her acromial... Those bandages and loincloth covering only the minimum just makes her so… If only that [Law] didn’t exist! Oh no... Lucas, what’s wrong with you!?

Even he couldn't believe the analogies in his head as he grabbed every three-second opportunity to spy on the deadly combination of Rio's curves with her minuscule clothing.

Turns out he wasn't the only one whose eyes were sneaking into enemy territory.

Now that I'm looking at it again, I’m having second thoughts on my standards. He doesn’t look so bad. I wonder if I should teach him how to roll with me. It might keep him entertaining.

Rio studied the wounds that would soon become scars in tandem with the shadows stressing around Lucas, which were made possible from a minimum level of muscle growth. That wasn’t the only thing she was thinking about.

With all those cuts and gashes, I wonder what will happen if I were to rip one of them open. Will you also [Revert] like what you nearly made me do?

It didn't take long before they caught each other red-handed, but neither of them spoke up or broke into a panic. Both Lucas and Rio knew they themselves were guilty as charged, and any attempt to accuse the other would only create an opening for the other to label them as a hypocrite.

The silence only grew more awkward as they continued to pretend they weren't sneaking peeks at peculiar parts of each other. At the rate they were going, it wouldn't be a surprise if the sun had already risen over the horizon when they finished. One of them had to come up with an alternative, and fast.

"If I didn't suggest the medical supplies, were you planning to -- uh... oh shit."

Lucas was too late to take back what he already said. He berated himself for almost trying to strike a conversation with that kind of a question, especially with what he was about to say. Rio turned to his breaking mask of a straight face.

"No, I was going to lick only the wounds on your neck. Those were small compared to the rest," she answered, saving him the trouble. "Most of my teeth got you, but only two went in. I may not mind the taste of blood, but that does not mean I will let myself drink a glass of it."

Rio's casual tone and manner of her answer implied she had no issues tackling this kind of topic. It reminded Lucas of their differences in culture. The Nihanese considered the act of licking not to be something dirty or inappropriate, at least so long as blood was concerned. Fascinating, but kind of weird to him. Still, something in Rio's answer allowed this subject to continue a little further.

"Two?" Lucas asked as he grazed his toweled hand once more around Rio’s arm in case he missed a spot.

She lifted a corner of her upper lip, flashing some of her teeth. One particular tooth caught Lucas' attention.

"Did I just see a fang?"

"We call it, 'Yaeba'," Rio said. "All the Nihanese girls want teeth like these." A pause before a hushed tone in her voice. "Not like I am one of them, just so you know. Mine happened naturally."

"And that's supposed to be considered cute?" Lucas narrowed his eyes as his head sank, a little skeptical.

"Are you not convinced~?" Rio curtained her teeth behind the subtle smile on her soft lips. "Then how about you come closer and see them again? I bet I can change your mind."

A soft but bewitching voice in tandem with the hypnotic fluttering of eyelashes were Rio’s tools for an invitation. They worked like a charm judging by how it didn’t take long for Lucas to be brought under their spell. Rio opened her mouth half-way as Lucas leaned forward, curiosity in his eyes and paranoia for physical contact forgotten. While most of Rio's teeth had flat edges just like an ordinary person, there were indeed two teeth on the corners of her upper jaw that stood out from the rest. Pointing away from each other as well as being very pronounced and sharp, they sort of resembled the teeth of a carnivorous animal or maybe a demon if those actually existed. Lucas couldn't understand, but there was something enticing about girls hiding a physical feature that looked kind of dangerous.

Lucas stopped inching when he felt he was close enough, but his view of Rio's teeth continued to expand. Her tiny jaws separated to their limit...

*CLACK!*

...and they snapped shut. With a yelp, Lucas was sort of reminded why getting too close to Rio was like playing with fire - she was this close to biting one of his eyes off.

"You Nihanese have weird tastes," Lucas clicked his tongue as he recovered from his last-minute backward jolt.

Rio gave a carefree shrug and hid her teeth behind a playful smile meant to disregard her previous actions.

*Ufufufu* "Losing is nothing to celebrate about, but at least I almost had you there~"

A bewildered expression made Lucas' face. He shook his head. "No, you won."

"Haa?" A surprised frown accompanied Rio’s dilated eye.

"When I said, ‘weird tastes,’ I didn't mean it in a bad way." Lucas hid Rio from his sight and scratched the back of his head. "After all, you almost had me."

Giving direct bold compliments to girls was not something Lucas could do on a whim. He may have managed to force one out not too long ago, but that one time didn’t mean he had gotten used to it. That was why he twisted his words. Still, it was taken well considering the shy smile that carried Rio's appreciation.

“Can you not be a little more direct?" Her smile expanded a little on one side to allow one of her fangs to peek out.

Lucas played coy and met her gaze. “It's more fun to keep you guessing.”

*Ufu* “I suppose.” Rio stifled a laugh with a hand covering her mouth.

Lucas brought the towel back to where he was wiping but stopped midway after growing paranoid of how Rio had always been able to trap him despite his self-imposed warnings.

"You don’t have surprises left, do you?"

"Not for now, if ever~," Rio teased.

He could only trust her words with a quarter of his heart, Lucas went back to his side of the work while Rio tended to another cut on his arm. Their banter was helping to improve the mood as they were getting more comfortable with what they were doing; at least one of them got too comfortable. Lucas had not a hint of anxiety when his hand traveled down the left curve of Rio’s waist.

*HAAHNN!!!!*

She yelped and sprang like a cat, which had the natural instinct when frightened to cling to the closest object to them while hanging on for dear life. That would have happened to the person in front of her if it weren’t for the bed behind him serving as a good momentum stopper. Even after it was over, Lucas wasn’t ready to breathe yet. Rio’s arms were still around him, her fingers clawing deep into the mattress. At least there was no skin-to-skin contact involved despite what it looked like.

"Lucas!" Rio hissed to whom she nearly hugged before pulling her arms back to herself and curling them around her stomach. She tilted her head down, pouting while maintaining eye contact. "B-be gentler, okay? I am... a little ticklish there."

Lucas, whose entire back stuck against his bedside as if it were a wall, nodded wide-eyed without saying a word. To think he’d get one jump scare after another. Rio didn't do the second on purpose, but still, that was too close.

Still, he discovered a weak point. Now that Lucas thought about it, he had exploited it before, but with no prior knowledge. What jogged his memory and left it steaming was how Rio moaned a few seconds ago.

“Are you telling me my punch only tickled you?” Lucas recalled how he got Rio off him during their first encounter.

“It hurt a little, but yes,” Rio said after regaining her composure.

Lucas groaned as his shoulders fell limp. “Well, that’s a bummer.”

“Do not feel too bad about it,” Rio assured him with half a smile. “You were not standing, after all.”

Her correct statement gave Lucas some relief. A punch without help from the twist of the hips and a push from the feet will always be weaker. That didn't mean Lucas was no longer sour on its outcome, though.

"Rio?" Lucas called for a change of topic.

"Hmm?"

"Those things I said about you... since you don't think 'sorry' is enough, let me at least promise you that I'll never bring them up again."

Rio grabbed another tissue paper that stuck out from its rectangular box. "All right, I suppose we can put that behind us."

"I'm not done yet," Lucas told her. "About you being lonely, I'm probably the last person who should be saying that."

Rio spared him a bewildered look that asked him "why?" Lucas went on to explain.

"You're not the only one who's having difficulty with making friends. If anyone deserves to be ridiculed for having little to none, it's me. I can actually count them with one hand." He took a second to look at the outstretched fingers he had before folding two of them. "Unlike you, there's no strange power from me that ruins my social life in any way. [Laws], [Influence], or any other [Renegade] lingo, I have none of that." He paused to question the certainty of his words. "Well, as of now that is. I think the best way to explain this is that I just can't find it in me to make the first move, you know? I wouldn't be surprised if all the people I call my 'friends' reached out to me because of pity."

"Even Crane-san?" Rio asked, bringing up Davis, the person she considered to be nothing more than a Nihanophile.

For a few seconds, Lucas was unable to give an answer. "Sometimes, I wonder if that's the case," he finally admitted with a weak laugh. "But I'd rather not think about it."

As their conversation went on, Lucas and Rio eventually took their hands off each other’s shoulders, having finished their job on them. To be free from one less nerve-wracking interaction was quite the relief if they had to say.

"You're lucky you have your sister to keep you company," Lucas said, remembering Rio's androgynous sibling. “I’m an only child so I’ll probably never know what that feels like.”

"Yakumo?" Rio stopped cleaning a wound on Lucas’ shoulder. The three syllables of her sister's name made her want to smile, but it lasted only for a moment before it turned ambiguous, straightening between a smile and a frown. "I wish I could agree with you."

“What do you mean?" Lucas paused as well.

"Make no mistake. I love my sister, and my sister loves me, but..." The rest of Rio's words came out solemn and her frown deepened. “...Yakumo and I have drifted apart.”

This was far too unexpected for Lucas considering how the two sisters interacted in front of him back in Nihan. “Since when did that happen?”

"Sometime after we became financially stable," Rio said, crumpling the scarlet tissue paper she was using.

"How?" Lucas couldn't continue working after hearing something he felt needed every last ounce of his attention to understand.

Rio tossed her crumpled tissue paper into the mini-trashcan, scoring a three-pointer of her own. "Do you enjoy stories?"

She offered Lucas a break. Then she unveiled her past, a decision he found to be questionable, but he kept quiet to give her his full attention. Rio didn't dive into the smallest details, but she confided everything she felt was okay for Lucas to know. The circumstances of her birth including her frail condition, her years of confinement until the age of ten, the night her parents died because of a thief, her discovery of [Reaper's Embrace], and the path she walked as an assassin to earn money.

"Maybe when we had nothing but each other, my sister and I were best friends," Rio continued, murmuring. "But when I brought in money from my job, things began to change. The first step in rebuilding our home was to buy everything we needed to make our lives easier. While I went after what we once sold off, Yakumo was more interested in the technology the people living in the city used. A personal computer, a smartphone, a flat screen television, a video game system; Yakumo wanted them all. With the steady income I was earning, I thought nothing could go wrong, but I failed to realize how they would affect my sister until it was too late. Soon enough, we hardly knew each other.”

“Nihan has some pretty advanced tech as far as I’ve heard,” Lucas commented. “But is that really it?”

Rio heaved out a sigh that contained all her resentment for modern technology then shook her head. “Forgive me, I should not be blaming everything on her gadgets. I should have realized the answer is far simpler. Yakumo and I like different things, and we hardly see each other because of my job and her activities at school. From what I have seen, my sister is more into sports, shopping, going out, partying... all sorts of things that are fun to do with others; all sorts of things I cannot do without causing a problem."

"But your sister sure looked really happy to see you when you had me over," Lucas pointed out, only for Rio to direct her dull expression at him.

"And how do you feel when you step into my [Influence]?"

Her blunt words struck hard. That reminder was all he needed to hear.

From Rio’s point of view, all Lucas did was bite his lower lip and nod once to show his understanding. It came to him that Rio’s loneliness was far worse than he thought. Even the only family member she had, her sister, kept some distance from her.

"If you were not there, Yakumo would have been fooling around with her smartphone on the dinner table after she greeted me. I wish I could boast, but last night was our longest conversation in a while. And it was all about you."

Recalling these events weren’t easy for Rio. There were moments where her voice wavered, but after letting out just enough, she found it easier to say the rest. Counting to ten helped her return to a better mood.

Meanwhile, Lucas’ first impression fought with his second thoughts of the girl who had turned his life upside-down. He still didn’t want to accept her constant bullying of him, but now that told him the inner child in her was trying to cope for the ten years she missed. Yes, Rio was still young at the age of fifteen, but it must have been devastating for her to feel like she could have had ten more years of youth.

“I don't know if this was the wisest decision you've ever made, but thanks for opening up to me," Lucas said like he was entrusted with one of the world's greatest secrets. "No one else will know about this.”

"Please, because if you tell, I will be very sad~," Rio cooed. "And I will not feel better until I hear all your bones snap~" She sent a playful wink and hummed a laugh at the mixed expression Lucas made in response - worry peppered with a little amusement for her exaggeration to sound depressed. "Had you not known anything about the [Renegades], I would have told you a longer version of this story in preparation for [Broken Vow]. Still, I must admit, it felt like I needed to do this one way or another.” She widened her face in surprise then narrowed it down, bringing back her feline smile. "In fact, I think I told you too much. Now it is my turn to ask you a question."

Holding his breath in rigorous anticipation, Lucas steeled himself for whatever Rio may ask from him. Was this all meant to be another setup to one of her machinations?

Lucas sharpened his eyes with disheartening looks that would have horrified anyone who saw them for the first time.

Depending on what you ask, I may have to put my foot down even if it means ruining this moment.

The trading of casual questions was a means to pass the time while diverting away from awkward silence as they cleaned each other of blood and sweat. However, there were no agreements to a give or take. Circulating within Lucas' thoughts was the belief that Rio may have told him her life story as a ticket for him to be obligated to answer any question from her even if it was personal. However, Lucas felt like he had the right to refuse because he never asked Rio to reveal her past. That was her own doing. He only asked about what led to the strained relationship between Rio and her sister. He was thankful he gained some understanding of her, but still, Lucas tensed himself, every muscle in his body hardening.

Maybe I'm overthinking things, but ever since you told me to observe, I've been putting it into practice whenever I could. You said it was the key to surviving around the [Renegades] right? Then you're no exception.

The posture displayed in front of her delayed Rio into a state of consideration. She kept herself unassuming on the outside, but that didn't reflect her inner thoughts.

You need to learn to hide that look you're giving me. I don't even need "that" to figure you out.

Lucas sat still, cross-legged and proactive. His hands clasped together, fingers interlocking as if they were in prayer except for his thumbs, which he used as a platform for his chin. It was far too obvious for Rio that he had become defensive out of worry.

And here I thought I would learn why a touch from behind can scare you and why you fainted in the hallway. Oh well, I guess they will have to wait for now. Third question it is then.

She asked away. "You know, none of this would be happening if we did not meet in that alleyway. Would you mind telling me your reason for being there?"

Lucas widened his eyes a little. That was a question he didn't see any harm in answering. It looked like things will go smoothly for them after all.

"I was there because I wanted to know what was going on," he said without a sense of worry. "I overheard some people saying they wanted to hunt down this [Renegade] who seemed to roam around there."

"Do you go there often?" Rio added a layer to her question.

"Not really. If it wasn't my first time, I couldn't remember the last time I've been there."

Rio tossed in another. "Well then, why now and not before?"

Placing his hands on his knees, Lucas closed his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts. Expecting a long answer, Rio suggested he keep his eyes shut to help him think better as she tended to the set of injuries on his upper torso.

There was another side to her suggestion.

With no eyes watching her, Rio forged a devious smile and left it for a second. She was now free to get a closer look at her patient for as long as she wanted at her own discretion. It was tempting, but she tried not to abuse the privilege. In the middle of quiet hisses and wincing from alcohol burns, Lucas spoke from the heart.

"I think… I just wanted to make a different choice for once. For as long as I could remember, I've been ignoring everything that happened around me so long as I wasn't a part of it. Then on that very night, when I heard all that noise in the alleyway, I asked myself if I was satisfied with how every day had been running for me. I couldn't lie to myself any longer. Playing safe may have kept me out of trouble but it left me with nothing to remember. So, I looked for the source of that noise. You know what happened after that."

The alcohol burns stopped as there were no more laced tissue papers jabbing his wounds.

Displayed before Lucas' eyes when he opened them was Rio’s smirk, which had become as wicked as the devil. Something clicked in her.

"I see,” she said, caressing her chin. “Either you consider your life right now to be boring, or you want to replace what you remember with something better. Maybe both."

It may not have been exactly what he was thinking, but Lucas couldn't tell Rio that she was inaccurate. Upon taking in both accounts, his heart stilled from what felt like a hidden truth about himself being shoved right in his face.

"I can understand what you desire because I too sought excitement." A quiet ferocity increased with every word Rio spoke. "See, I once thought books had the answers to everything outside my house, but no, they can only bring you so far. It turns out there is such thing as knowledge you can only learn when they hit you, and I might have resigned to my weak condition if Rio was not my name." She reached out for her kimono, which lay sprawled out on the floor. Holding it by the sleeves, Rio stretched it out wide for Lucas to gaze upon the swirling pattern of pink petals on its glossy white fabric. "My name bears a slight connection to these petals called 'Sakura'. They bloom only in the spring and after two weeks, they wither and die. It is their cycle of life that told me to chase after my desires immediately even it meant sacrifices or my death in a year or two. All I can say now is that I have no regrets with my decision."

The personal nature of her rant made her burn with a passion so cold it brought Lucas to the verge of frostbite. Oh, but Rio wasn't finished yet.

"And what about you, Lucas Thorne?” she whipped and hurled her kimono to the bed behind him. “That name of yours… I think it has meaning too. Surrounded by a distant world full of secrets both dangerous and exciting, you are trapped in the center where everything is familiar, kneeling with your arms and legs tied by thorny vines. They may be easy to pull apart, but they will not do so without the thorns pricking and scratching you first. This pain is not like what you feel from a fight. No, this one hurts you on the inside and is scary enough to hold you in place! All this time, you have done nothing but stare into the distance from afar instead of going there yourself! As long as you keep up this mentality, you will never experience what the world has to offer!”

What in the world was she saying? A shaken Lucas couldn’t comprehend Rio’s analogy regarding his last name, which had now taken a philosophical turn.

“Just spit it out, already!” He demanded.

Right after his last word came trembling out, a flash of Rio before his eyes made Lucas freeze. She got up close and personal with him, her face mere inches away before his brain could alert the rest of his body.

"We have similar desires, you and I, but only one of us had the courage to go out and take a risk. In the end, I have a storybook of memories to look back on while you have nothing worth sharing."

Rio’s azure eye sharpened itself and glazed against the opposing ghostly white as if challenging Lucas on the spot to prove her wrong. His teeth gritted against each other. He wanted to deny her, tell her she knew nothing about him. At last, his heart told him that everything Rio spoke of was nothing…

…but the truth.

There may have been no walls to stop him from leaving, but Lucas hardly stepped out of the boundaries of his home. As such, most of his life had been the same old song: Go to school on the weekdays, fight in the Underground Arena for a chance of a big payday on Friday evening, get treated in Rea’s clinic, then lie in bed while surfing the internet for trivial subjects with what little time he may have left.

To take part in an experience like what he had absorbed from movies, comics, and manga; for a long time, that was the desire he craved but was always too afraid to chase. He was always uncertain if he would know how to survive in a world with no one to make him feel secure. Will he be able to get around safely; will he be able to talk to the locals that inhabited those places; will he have a backup plan in case things don’t go as planned? The potential consequences of taking a leap of faith were too much for him to face.

It was only now that he acknowledged the long-term existence of a perturbing feeling in his stomach. The truth he never wanted to admit came rushing in until an overload to his psyche shut him down.

Slowly, Rio crawled back into a kneel. The sight of Lucas crumbling forward and blank-faced was a treat for her to see, but she moved on before she could let herself drown in that kind of pleasure.

She had broken him down. It was now time to put him back together.

“When we met in that alleyway, you had taken the first step to what you wished for,” went Rio’s soothing whisper. “Now you must keep moving forward, away from your comfort zone and into the great unknown. If you continue to keep yourself in a safe place, you will never achieve a life worth living.”

They were words easier said than done, but their message brought a little life back into him. As if he was gradually rising from the ashes, Lucas raised his head, eyes cloudy with wetness.

“Way to not hold back.” His attempt to make himself seem less pathetic with a dry laugh was full of cracks. “Never thought you’d be the one to give me a wake-up call.”

“I only did what I felt like doing,” Rio replied as she moved to sit a few feet next to Lucas on the bedside. She stared at his chest, where their contract, the black heart surrounded by seven arrows was marked. “I myself could not believe it either, but our time just started. It would be a shame for it to end so soon.”

For a moment, Lucas blushed, which didn’t happen during his sudden stare down with Rio. Was she saying she enjoyed being with him? Then again, it wasn’t difficult to remember how many times she had fun at his expense.

“So, what now?” Lucas asked, also gazing at the contract.

“For now, turn around,” Rio instructed as she laced a new batch of tissue papers. “While I work on your back, I want you to think carefully about what I said. You will be given some time to come up with a decision regarding your hunt for the seven targets, but do not keep me waiting.”

Following her, Lucas rotated on his behind until he could cross his arms on the memory foam mattress and use them like a pillow. There was so much to take in. He wanted to sleep on his dilemma and leave it to the Lucas of 7 am, but every time he tried to drift away into his dreams, burns seeped into his injuries and brought him back. The worst he had were all located behind him, especially that diagonal gash that covered more than half his torso. There was no point in trying to let the world turn without him for a while.

He had to use this time to think. What Rio requested was beginning to seem odd. Come up with a decision? He only had one sensible choice, right? If Rio became convinced he would not do the tasks she bestowed upon him, the violated contract will kill him without a second thought.

Then Lucas’ eyes widened… sort of (they were still shut).

What if Rio wasn’t talking about whether he will fulfill his side of the contract or not?

As Lucas held still in the depths of his thoughts, Rio had all the freedom in the world to exploit him. He was unguarded and unaware of when Rio could just take his vitality for herself, but true to her word, she left her efforts to atone for re-opening his injuries.

She began to think of him as a damaged person like herself. This moment they were sharing made her want to hold off any malicious intent for the time being.

As she dealt with the biggest wounds Lucas had to offer, Rio encouraged him within her thoughts to think carefully about what she said. There is an answer to her question, but it wasn’t one that could be thought off on a whim.

From beginning to end of this reconciliation period, not once did [Reaper's Embrace] activate.

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