Chapter 32:

Bonus Side Story: A Dinner Date for Two?

Parable of the Renegades


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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Hi! Jio Kurenai here!

Parable of the Renegades: Volume 2 is just around the horizon! I know I announced something like this before, but I went through a change of plans. I temporarily stopped working on the next volume so I could write a one-shot for Honeyfeed's Halloween event and I gotta say, putting a current project on hold for a while was a great way for me to slowly make me want to get back to it more and more. 

Even though the Halloween event is now over, my one-shot "For your smile, my sweet little girl," is here to stay. If you can, please take a little time to read the story where I went in what I would call the opposite direction of what I normally do here. If you could at least give me some feedback (Likes would be a big plus!), that would definitely be appreciated, especially since the style I used when writing that story was kind of an experiment! A big shout out to those who voted for my work as part of the event. I may not have won, but the number of votes I was given during the allotted time was more than I expected! Thank you so much!

Now that I'm back to working on my brainchild once more, I'd like to keep you guys busy with a bonus side-story I wrote some time ago and dug up while I continue to polish the first few chapters of the upcoming volume. All I can say is that the events in this scenario take place after volume 1, but when exactly I'm not sure. 

I should also let you know that based on my current plans, Lucas and Rio (sort of) will not make any long appearances (if they have any) in the first few chapters of the next volume. No, the spotlight's gonna shine on some other characters to begin the next string of events, so this side-story right here will be the only one for a while to have an extensive feature of the two characters who work like water and oil, but do make attempts to mix. Here's to hoping you'll be looking forward to them again sometime after this! 

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! If there's anything I like more than writing a story, it's interaction with those who are reading it. I must admit, that's one of the best feelings in the world for me!

Lastly, please give yourself some credit by giving that "LIKE" button a [insert verb that can substitute for "click" here] 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! ;)

Oh yeah, one more thing!

I have a Twitter account now, where I (mostly) post all sorts of news related to this story such as official artwork illustrated by the ultra-talented HikariSoul! I'll leave a link to both our Twitter accounts alongside HikariSoul's DeviantArt account as a comment below. Please follow us both! If you follow me on Twitter, I'll follow you back in a heartbeat!

*Phew* That's all for now. I hope you have fun reading this as much as I had fun writing it!

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"You better have a good reason for bringing me back to Nihan on such a short notice."

Lucas breathed in some fresh mountain air as he rubbed a thumb on his temple, trying to alleviate it from the throbbing pain of a headache that by this time, had eased up a little. He wore a comfortable black t-shirt, stretchable navy jeans, and running shoes. He also had a form-fitting jacket on, but it wasn’t because the area he was in was chilly at night with temperatures of around 10 degrees Celsius – it was more of meant to protect him from the hazardous touch of a certain someone.

"Oh, believe me, this will be worth everything," Rio proudly said as she adjusted the pronged ornament wedged in her midnight-bluish raven hair. 

She stood next to Lucas in a set of casual clothes, and Lucas couldn't shake off an odd feeling that possessed him ever since he first examined what Rio was wearing. 

If he had to describe her choice of attire in one word, it'd be "unusual."

Rio was dressed in a sky-blue designer coat that went down to her hips and was tight enough to show off her curves in all the right places. She also wore black tights that hugged the rest of her lower body, brown leather heels, and a purse the same color as her footwear was slung over her shoulder. This was not the Rio Lucas was used to seeing - she always preferred to wear traditional Nihanese outfits like kimonos or plain clothes that would help her from standing out in public.

Still, that didn't stop Lucas from baring an imminent scowl at the suspicious grin that adorned the upbeat girl's face. 

"Just so you know, you're walking on very thin ice right now," he grumbled when he remembered why he was all the way in another nation far from home. "This had better make up for the fancy lunch you ruined."

"Fancy lunch?" Rio, with an eyebrow raised, questioned with no tact. "You just sprinkled decorations on a steak and called it 'fancy'."

"Uh, for your information, it wasn't just a 'steak'." Lucas began to fume as he retraced what recently happened. "It was a tomahawk sirloin that I imported from Oztralia! Not to mention, it's not imported if it isn't expensive!" His head creaked down and glared at how every finger on both his hands wriggled and clawed in erratic motions. They had no desire other than to get themselves around Rio's dainty neck and strangle her.

"Now listen here…” Lucas spoke, still mildly deranged. “…That tomahawk was made from a special cow…”

“So?” Rio scoffed.

“…Whose mother was killed in front of it on purpose…” Lucas continued.

“That is just – I mean, go on.”

“…So the traumatic experience could set it on a path of revenge…”

“Tell me more.” Rio grew giddier.

“Which will heighten its flavor, so it could dance madly on my palate!”

“Yes! It all makes sense now!” Rio exclaimed and tapped the underside of her fist down on an open palm as nectar-like drool trickled down a corner of her soft lips.

Lucas looked Rio’s way and concurred, full of enthusiasm. “I know right? And that is why…” he smiled up with his eyes closed for a moment as he took in all the oxygen he could inhale. “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU SHOWED UP AT THE WORST TIME EVER!!!” 

He contorted his face into a deformed monstrosity of anger and shouted loud enough to blow Rio’s hair with the gust of wind his voice created. It didn’t faze her; not one bit. Rather, it left her amused.

“It was supposed to be perfect.” Lucas looked like he was inches away from sobbing.

“How?” Rio questioned as she wiped away her drool, which she hoped Lucas didn't notice.

“Okay. I’ll tell you,” Lucas sniffled, closed his eyes, then dove deep into his mind at the thought of wanting to say everything in detail. “First off, that tomahawk had to be ordered several weeks in advance from the butcher store, and those weeks… they felt like years—"

“We have not even known each other for a year,” Rio interrupted.

“Hey, I’m trying to tell you how much this means to me and why you should be regretting yourself right now,” Lucas argued before returning to his story. “When the day finally came, you could only imagine how I felt when the tomahawk was presented to me. It was swaddled in pure white paper with a royal blue ribbon tied around it. I was beaming… and drooling for the day I get to devour it.”

Remembering the delivery of his imported tomahawk sirloin brought Lucas gazing into the sky in a state of ecstatic bliss that left Rio mildly disgusted.

“For once, the journey back home no longer felt simple. I walked all the way home, cradling the tomahawk safe in my arms from the hungry predators lurking the streets. I even clobbered someone when he attempted to get his grubby hands on my tomahawk. Of course, I apologized. The tomahawk was supposed to be my lunch, not a weapon. When I finally reached the safety of my house, the first thing I did was to give the tomahawk a special bath.”

Rio gawked. “What?”

“For twenty-four hours, I kept it marinated in a massive container filled with fifty-year-old Nihanese soy sauce, gilded olive oil, lemon juice, eighteen-month Germainian Worcestershire sauce, minced Sulmona garlic, Italyan basil, Indanisian white pepper, and Habanero sauce all melded to perfection in a blender.”

“And I guess most of those ingredients could not be found in the same place?”

Lucas aimed an annoyed glare at Rio as if to give her a very hard “precisely.”

“I never left its side until its flavor reached perfection. Before sleeping next to it, I read it a bedtime story,” he said.

Rio was befuddled by the ridiculousness Lucas was putting himself through. “You actually did that?”

“It just works,” Lucas claimed, throwing his hands next to his head for emphasis. “Now stop interrupting me, you’re ruining my momentum. Alright, now where was I? Anyway, when the time came, I powdered that tomahawk with Kambodian pepper and black lava salt before I placed it on my expensive charcoal grill. Let me tell you this. Cooking a tomahawk sirloin is not as simple as putting it over the flames and letting the heat do the rest! In fact, I placed the meat away from the flames, as in on the other side of the grill with no charcoal, so I could cook it at low temperature. Every five minutes, I flipped it and made sure both sides were getting a fair share of the heat. Then when the meat turned brown, I let it cool for a bit on a sheet of aluminum foil. And then, the final step of the cooking process arrived. This time, I roasted the meat in flames until parts of it turned black. By preparing it this way, the result was a tomahawk steak that was crispy on the outside, but juicy enough to melt in your mouth on the inside! And to give it an extra kick, the sauce I poured all over it was made of the unholy combination of Himalayan sea salt, various herbs too many to count, and melted bone marrow!”

With his story nearing its end, the anger within Lucas’ stomach simmered to its boiling point.

“And I was so close, Rio! I just cut myself a piece of that tender and heavenly meat! But before it could touch the tip of my tongue, you just had to barge into my house unannounced and knock me out…. You did all that, so you could bring me back to Nihan!?”

“There, there. No need to be upset~” Rio tried to console Lucas with some sweet-talk. “I was only trying to give you a surprise hug~” she cooed in a meek tone.

She could've left an ordinary person with diabetes from the way she talked, but Rio failed to lighten the mood. That is to say, she probably would have fared better by a sliver of a chance if she wasn’t also bouncing her hand on Lucas’ fluffy hair to his chagrin.

“Oh really?” Lucas shook his head until he threw Rio’s hand off before he cast a hard glare from one of the ghostly white eyes that peered from behind his curtain of bangs. “Then maybe I should return the favor and hug you back. You know, the same way you did me? My arms wrapped tight around your neck from behind before I slowly drag you to the ground and choke you until it’s lights out!”

Hands clasped behind her, Rio stared back at Lucas with rapture screaming from her face. Theoretical sparks flew out their eyes and met in the center, crackling as a stalemate.

“Is that a challenge~?” Rio boldly drew herself closer to Lucas, her sparks pushing his back with every step until the distance between their eyes was dangerously intimate. Her aromatic breath, visible in the cold air as white smoke, tickled his face. “Sounds like fun. I could use a dance partner for a submission grappling match after we eat~”

“Nevermind, forget I said that.” Lucas backed away with his hands held upfront following the extinguishment of his eye sparks. He called for a ceasefire, knowing all too well he would end up helpless and dominated in Rio’s clutches if he were to go ahead and challenge her. “Anyway, you once told me Nihanese wagyu is the best steak in the world, and there are many ways they can be prepared, right?”

“Of course, I did say that before," Rio’s feisty demeanor faded away but it was replaced with mild confusion from the way she rolled a raised hand. "But I am uncertain why you would say that right now.” 

Lucas tore his gaze away from the girl who kidnapped him again and redirected it to what was in front of them. “Well, I hope the food isn’t like what I see in front of me. If you want me to tell you straight, the place looks like crap.”

“How rude!” Rio crossed her arms and pouted with puffy cheeks. “Its simplicity is what makes it so great. Now if we are done fooling around here, we cannot waste any more time!”

With force, Rio dragged a reluctant Lucas by the sleeve of his jacket into the humble wooden structure that once loomed over them. He could've tried to give her a hard time by planting his feet on the ground, but now that Rio had a hold on him, Lucas had to consider it the same as being subdued.

The structure was a traditional Nihanese restaurant about a five-minute walking distance from Rio’s house. Thanks to its isolated location in the countryside, the restaurant had no neighbors which greatly benefited Rio as that meant a lower chance for others to fall under the enticing effects of her [Influence]. The lack of other structures also allowed a pleasant view of the non-civilized side of Nihan, which was greatly appreciated by those who preferred the simple life.

The name「川口」was carved onto a wooden sign perched over the entrance. With no language proficiency in Nihanese, Lucas, even if his life depended on it, could never hope to read the sign. Still, it occurred to him that the two Kanji characters looked easy to remember.

“I think I’m stating the obvious, but the money I have on me right now won’t work here,” Lucas informed Rio when they were just a few steps away from the entrance.

“No kidding,” Rio smirked at him. “That is why tonight’s dinner will be my treat. Rejoice, because we are going for the most expensive and tastiest dish this place has to offer!”

Her smirk was often the reason why Lucas would be burdened with an uneasy feeling in his chest. With what happened between them so far, it came to mind that Rio was setting him up for another trap meant for her own amusement. With no evidence in sight, Lucas steeled his senses to keep himself alert and observe Rio’s actions like how she’d always advised him since the day they met.

Rio placed a hand on the restaurant’s front door, her fingers latching themselves to a gripping section in its gridded surface. Looking over her shoulder at Lucas, she said, “If you thought my cooking was good, wait until you try what is served here.”

She slid the door to her right.

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「いらっしゃいませ!」

Someone from within the restaurant called out that greeting the moment they heard the hollow sound of wood from a sliding door opening to its limit. It was then followed by two more people who called out the same line like they were improvising an echo. To Lucas, there was a notable lack of enthusiasm in the three times the greeting was spoken despite its volume, but it also came bundled with a welcoming atmosphere. Figuring that out, there was no need to ask Rio for a translation.

Entering the restaurant after Rio, Lucas was greeted by a peaceful and tranquil interior design.  Dimly lit paper lamps hanging from the ceiling illuminated the venue of furnished wood with a warm light that complemented the simple color scheme of reddish brown. The walls had paintings of trees and birds with an art style that made use of minimal colors to give it a simple but fascinating look.

The array of tables carried a set formation of plates with different shapes and the chairs were spaced by even gaps. Preparing a table for guests was a basic rule in every restaurant, but the arrangements made in this one were so alike, it’s as if there was no room for any mistakes by even one millimeter.

With only a few other patrons that Lucas could count them all without getting tired, the place was mostly quiet. What few people he could see wore modern formal attire such as business suits or dress shirts and slacks. They were salarymen who were letting loose with their unhinged chatter after working overtime. The reddish tint on their cheerful faces came from drinking a Nihanese alcohol beverage made from fermented rice, called sake.

The restaurant’s interior was certainly a step up from its appearance on the outside, but it was nothing worth praising… at least that’s what Lucas thought at first.

「個室ありますか?」Rio asked, hands clasped in front with a straight back to present herself with a polite posture.

「はい。あります。」The person she was talking to, bowed while answering in a raspy voice.

As Rio was making arrangements with someone who worked in the restaurant, it came back to Lucas that he was once again stepping foot in another nation. Out of a gutless instinct, this made him inch a little closer to Rio almost like he was about to assault her. In this situation, he saw her as some sort of security blanket. Paranoia was on time to take over him when he questioned if his current behavior would be considered acceptable even though he was just standing still.

“Alright, Lucas. This man will lead us to our table.”

Rio gestured with a quick head tilt that told Lucas to follow the wrinkled old man walking ahead of them. Lucas was thankful she didn't bring up how unusually clingy he was to her ever since they stepped foot into the restaurant. As they were led deeper inside, they passed by several empty tables that could have easily been used by at least two people.

“Could I ask you something, Rio?” Lucas whispered from behind while continuing to stick close but not too close to his companion as they passed what few patrons the restaurant had. “Does that guy know what you really are? I thought you told me your [Influence] made talking to others difficult, especially if they don’t know about it. It sure didn’t look anything like that just now.”

Finding his concern for her to be adorable, Rio teased Lucas with a mocking smile he’d seen countless times before answering his question.

“The name of the person leading us to our table is ‘Kawaguchi’. He is the owner of this restaurant, which since you could not read the sign, is named after him,” she said. “While my [Influence] did make his emotions act up like everyone who goes near me, Kawaguchi-san is already married and very devoted to his wife. That is why he was able to resist me.” She hummed, “If only more men and some women behaved like him, I would be around more people instead of just you.”

Lucas was left with a disconcerted look. He didn't know how to comprehend the ambiguity of Rio's last statement.

They eventually stopped by one of the few sliding doors in a hallway some distance away from the tables. Kawaguchi opened the door, then with a hand pointing inside, made way for Lucas and Rio to enter.

“You got us a private room?” Lucas asked a little stunned to which Rio turned his way and confirmed with a soft “Mm-hmm.”

After taking off their shoes as part of the restaurant’s rules, they stepped into the room, their feet now treading on tatami mats, which had small bumps that felt pleasant to step on.

「ごゆっくりどうぞ」(Enjoy your stay)

Kawaguchi wished them well as he slid the door back to a close from outside.

The room itself was small, square-shaped and minimalist; aside from a few warm lights to illuminate it, the room only contained a set square table standing from a small pit of the same shape.

Instead of chairs, there were four cushions for each side of the table. None of them were very fluffy but they provided enough comfort for anyone to kneel without stressing their knees. Kneeling wasn’t a requirement though; sitting on the cushions was fine too, and the small pit beneath the table allowed anyone to let their legs hang while sitting down as if they were on a chair.

Finally, there was also a single window built into the wall, which gave its patrons a pleasant view of the mountain ranges, lakes, trees and other natural beauties of the Nihanese countryside.

“Lucas, what are you doing?”

Rio, after selecting a cushion to kneel on, eyed her companion, who took action right away to inspect every nook and cranny of the room including under the table, which Rio was mildly uncomfortable with. Admiring the simple design was fine, but it didn’t look fine for him to stare daggers while grazing everything his hands could reach.

Seeing the message of his actions left Rio with a frown.

“If you think there is a trap hidden somewhere in this room, think again.”

Lucas stopped his thorough searching and brought his gaze to the one reprimanding him. For a few seconds, he couldn’t think of anything to say besides admitting that her suspicion was right on the mark.

“Sorry, I guess its kinda becoming a habit,” he finally said as he sat on the cushion opposite to Rio from the table.

Ever since Rio gave him this odd permission to attack her anytime he pleased with a possibility of her doing the same, Lucas had been keeping his senses on high alert whenever he was by her side. If Lucas had to be frank, keeping his guard up at almost every waking hour was very tiring to the point that sometimes he would check his surroundings for any telegraphed traps Rio may have set whenever they went somewhere that was her idea. He was reminded that Rio gave him that challenge because she expressed the possibility that killing her could be an alternate method to end the life or death contract between them. Also, she had this strange love for the thrill of danger. Still, Lucas couldn’t find it in himself to get rid of someone who while making his life more painful and difficult was also making it more gripping and exciting at the same time.

“Tell me, why do you think I arranged a private room for us?” Rio asked.

“So… those affected by your [Influence] won’t find you?” Lucas said based on what popped into his mind first.

“Well, there is that,” Rio admitted. Seconds later, Lucas watched in awe as she tottered her shoulders and broke eye contact with him for a moment. A shade of pink stained her cheeks as she spoke with her head up in the clouds. “But did you ever think that maybe I wanted the two of us to be… alone?”

And just like that, a rock impacted and sank itself deep into Lucas’ gut while a minigun went trigger happy with a bullet storm in his chest. It was just his imagination, but a stimulated mind can make such things feel real. His face followed suit in turning pink too. 

Now that he thought about it, weren’t Rio’s clothes a little too fashionable for her taste? Not only that, her current hairstyle was something new too - let down as a loose ponytail with all the long wavy locks of hair draped over one of her shoulders. It looked like she was trying to get him to notice her. The thought didn’t cross Lucas’ mind until now, but since he and Rio were spending time together out of leisure, wasn’t this kind of activity called…

“Are you saying we’re on a date!?” Lucas exclaimed, his hands slamming and clutching his knees. All of his fingers scratched and clawed to try and divert his attention but to no avail. “I-I’ve never been on a date before, so I’m kinda unsure how to take this,” he said, his voice unstable.

“I-It is not like that!” Rio replied in haste, both hands slamming the table, which brought Lucas’ eyes on her. Her hands slithered themselves back to her in shame for causing such an outburst. “And if you think I am trying to look good for you, I just like to try a different style once in a while. Also, we both know my [Reaper’s Embrace] can still hurt you. That should tell you enough.”

“Oh, right.” Lucas began to recover his emotions as his face returned to its original color. What Rio stated was supposed to be solid proof of how she truly felt about him, but that didn’t mean no harm had been done. "Either way, you have a good taste in fashion, I'll give you that," he said in a low voice.

Rio was stunned for a second by the compliment. Within her, the instinct to comfort the one she shunned showed itself a little.

“Look, I know what I just said, but you should at least know that I do not hate you,” she was meek while pretending to be busy with the way she paid close attention to the locks of hair over her shoulder.

Lucas fidgeted and muttered, “Yeah. I guess that’s also true.”

Silence engulfed the room following that.

Then Rio spoke up.

“I am doing this because I want to... I want to thank you,” she struggled to say. “All this time, I have either pushed you around or away, but no matter how mean I was, you never left me.” She sighed and swept a hand through her hair. “I guess while having you around was something I didn’t… want.” She paused from the difficulty of saying the last word. “It was something I needed.”

Though her delivery was shaky, it was also carrying hints of a genuine warmth that made Lucas want to chime in. “Hey, no worries. I’m just glad even I could do something to help.”

After a nervous chuckle, Rio said, “But you were only doing it because you were keeping your side of our promise, right?”

A tremor echoed in Lucas’ chest when Rio raised her right hand to emphasize what she meant. All her fingers were folded except for her pinky, which had a thin red string tied around it.

Lucas had half of that very string tied around his own right pinky as well. It was a symbol to represent a promise they made in addition to their contract. In exchange for Rio making sure Lucas would continue taking steps to hunt down the seven [Renegade] targets of her hit list, he will keep her company, so she always has someone to interact with.

Seeing her stringed finger and hearing her assumption did not end well for Lucas. It only made him bare his clenched teeth as if they were fangs. It took every last ounce of his self-restraint to not hammer a fist on the table, or deliver a hard slap to Rio's face.

“I wish you didn’t bring that up! You’re making everything I’ve done for you look fake!” For a moment, Lucas lost control of his temper. This time, it was enough to flinch the usually superior Rio into wide-eyed silence. After taking a little time to find his center, Lucas scratched the back of his head with a mild frown as he said, “To be honest, I only suggested what I’d do for you so that we’d be even. The fact that you also have a string around your finger hardly crossed my mind, that is until now.”

His sincerity brought similar tremors within Rio that made her head lean forward at a slight angle. Lucas staying by her side whenever possible had always been of his own volition and not because of some symbolic promise. Having realized that only now, Rio could only be ashamed of herself.

“I see. So I have insulted you,” she cracked a whisper, her glazed eye narrowing until only a glimmer of life on it could be seen.

“It’s nothing new,” Lucas pointed out. “You’re always tearing into me because it’s fun. I get that, and that’s why I can take your hits. Maybe I can even laugh some of them off. This time though, you went too far.”

Rio remained silent and motionless, unsure what to do next.

Looking at her again, a part of Lucas almost wanted to blame himself for putting her in that state. If there’s something he didn’t want at that time, it was for what should have been a nice evening meal between them to turn into a moment of awkward silence.

He contemplated his next string of words without removing his gaze on Rio, who still appeared to be feeling down with how she stared at the empty space of their table. There was no sugarcoating in what Lucas felt.

Seriously, I’m never getting used to that kind of look on you. This is why you always make me do the dumbest things…

“Look, I’m not that angry at you, so cheer up.” Lucas tried to mellow himself and sound more pleasant. “Let’s just pretend this never happened, alright?” He held up his right pinky for a moment to show that his red string was still tied around it and secure. “So long as our strings remain tied, we will continue to do as we agreed, but I think it’s best we don’t talk about it again. Knowing you, I don't expect an apology. But if you really want to, just be sure dinner ends up being your treat like you said.”

Following that, Rio lifted her head back up and locked eyes that were returning to life with her companion.

“It will,” She murmured a weak laugh and spoke with what seemed to be an apologetic wind in her voice. “You have been a good… friend, Lucas.”

The vibrant expression that gradually followed told Lucas that Rio was relieved of her burden. For some reason, he couldn’t help but feel relieved as well. As much as it was annoying, that playful expression Rio always liked to flaunt was also a pleasant sight to him. It was what he would call her normal state.

And then there was that complement of hers. Was it really that difficult for Rio to call him her friend? Come to think of it, this was the first time she ever called him that.

With the food still on the way, Lucas let out a small yawn and propped an elbow on the table to support his drooping head. With one issue out of the way, another one involving drowsiness and hunger came back. The increased warmth and weariness Lucas had been feeling while waiting was his body clock’s way of telling him to get some rest.

“So anyway, what kind of Wagyu are we going for?” he asked, anticipating how delicious the upcoming food was going to be.

“Wagyu?” Rio threw her head back a little.

“Yeah, isn’t that why you brought me here?” Lucas pressed on. “So you could prove to me that there’s something that tastes better than my tomahawk?”

Now Rio understood why Lucas brought up the topic of wagyu before they entered the restaurant. She gave him the news that would leave him disappointed.

“This place does not serve that or any kind of steak.”

“What!?” Lucas would’ve slammed his chin on the table right after it slipped off his hand if it weren’t for his danger reflexes kicking in and waking him up at the last second. “I thought you brought me here, so we could eat some wagyu that tastes better than my tomahawk!”

“That was never the plan,” Rio confessed. “What made you think that?”

「お待たせしました!」 (Thank you for waiting!)

Before the situation between Lucas and Rio could go wrong again, a young waiter in a plain white uniform and navy-blue apron announced his intrusion as he let himself into the room with a massive round plate balanced on one hand. From the angle at which they sat, neither Lucas nor Rio could see what was on the plate. Of course, Rio knew what it was. She did order it after all.

「どうぞ。召し上がってください。」(Here you go. Please enjoy your meal.)

The waiter slowly knelt by an unoccupied side of the table and placed the dish in the center where anyone from any of its four sides had a fair reach.

「どうも。」(Thank you.)

Rio bowed her head slightly as she gave her thanks. Her gesture tempted Lucas to do the same out of trying to respect the proper etiquette of the nation he was currently in. For a simple gesture, his bow was riddled with shakiness from doing it for the first time.

「でわ、しつれします」(Now then, please excuse me.)

Following a slight bow of his own, the waiter let himself out the same way he came in. The procedure was almost robotic despite the humanity in his voice. It should also be noted that Rio never left the young man’s eyes until the sliding door closed between them. Perhaps it was because she already had someone with her that the waiter’s professionalism won over his taste in females this time.

With Lucas and Rio having once given their full attention to the waiter, it was time to move on to what Rio ordered for dinner.

The large blue plate contained an arrangement of seemingly countless petal-shaped morsels arranged in layers of circular patterns. Their formation resembled a crystal chrysanthemum flower with each individual “petal” textured with a cloudy translucence. At the very least, the dish deserved some credit for presentation.

“Whoa.” That was an understatement to justify how Lucas marveled at the presentation. “What is this?”

A slight sense for preserving beauty almost made him not want to eat what was within his grasp.

Sashimi,” Rio informed him. “It is like the nigiri you tried at my house, except there is no rice and this was made from a different kind of fish.”

Among the tasty Nihanese meals Lucas had already tried before, nigiri was tied neck and neck with wagyu. The absence of rice didn’t faze Lucas one bit – the raw fish was the best part after all. He could still remember the sensation of how a fatty and marbled pink flesh of salmon could easily melt within the lukewarmth of his mouth. It had to be one of the best experiences he’d ever have with food.

Now knowing what the meal was, Lucas made himself forget the thought of preserving the beauty before him; it was time to sink his teeth into delicious raw slices of fish once more.

Of course, with Nihan’s countryside as the current location, a familiar foe came back to haunt him before he could that.

“I see chopsticks are still too much for you to handle,” Rio commented, trying to stifle her laughter, which she would have allowed to run free had it not been for her personal moment with Lucas only minutes ago.

“Will you please quit rubbing the fact in? -- ugh, dammit,” Lucas groaned and cursed after his first piece of sashimi slipped between his twin wooden utensils once more. “I never found time to practice.”

She found it funny at first, but Rio was eventually left tapping a fingernail on the table as she had grown weary from watching Lucas fumble repeatedly. She did become a little excited when Lucas managed to pick up a piece of sashimi, but it all ended in vain when the moist cut of fish would fall back into the plate before the chopsticks could bring it inches closer to Lucas' mouth.

At some point, Rio had already lost count on how many times this mishap had occurred, and she was done seeing it for the last time.

“Well, I guess this means I have no choice,” Rio said, standing and picking up her seat cushion along the way. “Make some room for me, will you?”

“Huh? Why?” Lucas asked right as the slippery sashimi escaped the loose grip of his chopsticks again. Knowing how Rio would always make sure she had her way, he complied and scooched himself along with his cushion a little to his left, away from where Rio was approaching.

Rio’s cushion landed right next to Lucas’ before she knelt next to him. The proximity of her kitty smile caught his attention for a moment.

“So I can feed you, of course~”

It would be a lie to say his heart didn't skip a beat. Lucas looked away for a second at the thought of a girl like Rio helping him eat from such an intimate distance.

“Oh, uh… that’s okay, I… I’ll get the hang of this soon,” he said with his tongue performing backflips and the chopsticks quivering out of place in his hands. “You don’t need to – wait, did you just…!?”

He yelped when some lightweight pressed his right shoulder without him noticing. The minor burden went away as soon as he looked back.

“What are you talking about?” Rio with both hands resting on her lap seemed a little puzzled.

“Did you lean on me just now!?”

“My, you must be really hungry if you are starting to imagine such nonsense.” Rio kept a straight face, although a guilty smirk exposed itself mid-sentence before it disappeared back into obscurity as a blink-and-you-miss-it moment.

Seeing as how she refused to admit what she just did, Lucas scowled with a reminder. “Just remember I still haven’t gotten over how jumpy I get whenever someone touches me out of nowhere. And then there’s that painful touch of yours.”

“Noted” was Rio’s quick reply before she took Lucas’ chopsticks off his hands. Before assisting her companion, Rio wanted to have some harmless fun with him first. She drew Lucas' attention to her hand, where she spun the twin sticks of wood around two of her fingers in opposing directions before stopping and holding them in the right position. Just a playful jab to remind Lucas he still sucked at handling them.

Lucas was hardly amused.

Observing the way Rio positioned her fingers around the chopsticks, Lucas watched her grab the same piece of sashimi that kept escaping him with one fell swoop as if it were child’s play. She laid the piece flat on a saucer containing a shallow pool of soy sauce mixed with citrus juice, bonito flakes, and seaweed.

With the piece of raw fish now bathed and seasoned with condiments, Rio picked it up again and held it closer to Lucas’ mouth while leaning toward him. She left her remaining hand open under the end of the chopsticks, ready to catch the sashimi in case it fell off.

"Here you go, Lucas. Say, 'Ahn~'"

Rio narrowed her eye as she opened her mouth a little to emphasize what she wanted Lucas to do.

His response was to stubbornly seal his mouth shut, thinking how such an act would be a blow to his pride. Rio tried to resist the urge at first, but she was eventually provoked to tease Lucas by repeatedly jabbing the raw fish onto his lips and forcing him to “kiss” it.

“Come on, I promise you will like it!” She urged him after momentarily refraining. She eyed how flustered he had gotten from experiencing a moment like this. “No one else is watching. What happens next will just be between us~”

She wasn't wrong. They were dining in a private room if Lucas was in need of a reminder. It took a bit of self-forcing but after considering Rio’s words, Lucas gave in and his jaws snatched the sashimi off the chopsticks.

The moment his taste buds first sampled the goods, Lucas’ ghostly eyes sparkled with new life. His lips curled in like his mouth was trying to swallow itself.

Just like the raw cuts of salmon he tried back in Rio’s house, he was astonished at how his teeth were able to cut through the mellow flesh almost like it was non-existent. The texture was nice and all, but it wasn’t the main attraction and he was certain everyone else would agree.

The actual taste… was on a whole another level. He never thought such an exquisite taste could exist!

The slice of raw fish meat slid around the insides of his mouth, rubbing its rich flavor everywhere and exciting even the parts that were incapable of tasting. Everywhere it went, a strange sort of paralysis followed. Lucas found it difficult to chew after the first few tries but it was hardly an issue as the moisture of the meat allowed it to easily go down his throat.

Rio held back on laughing by covering her mouth with her remaining hand. “Judging by how funny you look right now, I assume this means it was good?”

Without discarding whatever hysterical expression he had, Lucas nodded a couple of times in agreement.

Rio beamed a radiant smile. “I am glad you like it. Here, have another.” She picked up another slice of sashimi and put it through the same process as the last one before extending it over to Lucas who ate it without hesitation. Getting fed something so delicious by a girl with alluring beauty was something he could get used to.

“Aren’t you going to get some for yourself?” Lucas asked Rio after she fed him his fifth sashimi.

“There is still plenty left.” Rio eyed what remained on the dish, which was still far too many to count without getting tired. “Just eat as much as you can, then I will take the rest once you have had enough.”

Is that so?

Lucas smiled.

Or rather, he failed to smile thanks to how pleasantly unresponsive his facial muscles were. That wasn’t a problem, however, it was great that Rio wouldn’t be seeing how devilish his look would’ve been. With how thin and small an individual slice of sashimi was, Lucas believed there was still plenty of room for more in his stomach. While he was no glutton, the delay of a meal for several hours left him far more ravenous than usual. He was so hungry he could devour a horse - in a metaphorical sense, of course.

His mind was made up. No way in Hell was Lucas going to allow Rio to take even the smallest cut of sashimi for herself. She’ll be feeding him until that plate had nothing left.

And thus, some time would pass for a scene akin to a slave feeding her master. Rio, with no signs of slowing down, picked up more cuts of sashimi off the plate one by one and fed them straight to Lucas, who in a relaxed posture, ate them all without a care in the world for the one feeding him.

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“Excuse me. I came to check if there are any problems.”

Columns of wood collided to create a dissonant sound that almost made Lucas jump from his sitting position as the private room’s only sliding door opened for an unannounced guest. What surprised Lucas wasn’t the fact that Kawaguchi reappeared before himself and Rio, but the fact that…

“You can speak English?” 

Lucas almost said that in a startled tone to which the owner nodded once as he beamed a bit of a smile.

“Most of the English-speaking Nihanese live in the city since they often work jobs that involve dealing with tourists,” Rio explained. “That being said, I am only talking about 5% of the population. Those who live in the countryside like me or Kawaguchi-san here are even more uncommon.”

The owner approached Lucas and kneeled before him with a bow. 

“You are a very brave man. Never before have I seen such courage from someone as young as you.”

Lucas raised an eyebrow out of uncertainty. That was… great? Something was amiss. He couldn’t picture why eating something so delicious would label him as brave.

Kawaguchi pushed himself up from his bow. “What I mean to say is that normally only those who feel like they had accomplished everything in their lives would try to eat something like Tora fugu sashimi,” he said, after seeing the perplexed look on Lucas’ face.

“Why?” Lucas asked.

The old man’s smile extended into a toothy grin. “Because in the hands of a careless chef, what you are eating is very poisonous!”

And just like that, the world for Lucas stopped turning. 

The timing couldn’t have been any better. Despite how Kawaguchi’s heavy accent filtered his speech, Lucas understood him word for word – especially that last one, and it had to be said right after Rio fed him another of said poison with a seemingly loving smile on her face. 

His body stiffened and was no longer able to maintain its composure. With a little difficulty, Lucas turned to the blue dish of Tora fugu sashimi and saw that while the number of pieces left could still form a pattern, it no longer looked anything like the beautiful chrysanthemum flower it originally was. Rio had picked them out in such a way that what remained now resembled a different kind of symbol.

It now resembled a skull and crossbones, the symbol of a toxic hazard.

“Oh, how interesting!” Rio put the chopsticks she was holding to rest and addressed the owner with her hands clapped together. “Please tell me. What are the signs that you have been poisoned?”

“Well, if you must know…” Kawaguchi placed a hand on his chin as his eyes drifted up in thought.

Lucas could tell – no, he knew something was wrong. Very wrong. Rio and Kawaguchi having a conversation was nothing strange, but for them to be doing it in English!? It was obvious they wanted him to understand everything!

“Since fugu is made from tiger blowfish, one of the most poisonous animals in the world, the poison we are talking about is called ‘tetrodotoxin’,” Kawaguchi spoke again after organizing his thoughts. “If I remember correctly, the first sign you have been poisoned is a strange numb feeling in your mouth. Then you will find it very hard to breathe to the point of suffocation. Your body will stop moving, and then slowly and painfully… you will die.”

As if on cue, the sliding door opened by a small gap. It was just enough for a chef in his plain white uniform to poke his head in and see the results of his work.

“Ah, but not to worry though.” The menacing aura disappeared alongside Kawaguchi’s twisted expression. “You can trust our chefs! They know what they are doing!”

He pointed a hand to the visiting middle-aged chef, who flashed them a thumbs up, a wink, and a smile that was bright enough for his teeth to *ping* with a sparkle. It was his way of ensuring that the dish had been carefully prepared and was 100% safe to eat.

"Did you hear that, Lucas?” Rio clasped Lucas by his shoulders and pulled him closer, almost like she was about to embrace him. “You just ate something most people would be afraid to even consider trying!" Her eye narrowed down and her lips curled up to show how impressed she was. "You know, you seem kind of cooler now." The look on her face changed again. "Hmm? Lucas?"

The young man in question didn’t respond or show any signs of life. His face had turned into a dark shade of purple. His mouth hung wide open with a dangling trickle of drool, and upon closer inspection, his eyes had rolled into the back of his skull.

His head tilted itself backward before it hung loose. A second later, Lucas dropped to the floor with a thud like a ragdoll. Rio, Kawaguchi, and the chef had no words to give after watching how he collapsed.

Then...

*Ufufufu*

The silence in the small room was broken by Rio’s impish snickering. Not long after that, Kawaguchi and the chef joined her too, finding it too hard to resist after witnessing the spectacle before them.

「 It looks like he made himself believe he was poisoned. The human mind is capable of so many feats when convinced, is it not?」

Rio looked down on her sprawled-out and twitching companion before she turned to the owner and the chef who nodded, apparently certain that no real harm had been done.

Everything went better than they had planned.

No one else in the restaurant knew what happened in that private room.

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When he could see a warm light even through his shut eyes, Lucas realized he had been asleep or unconscious for some time. He was relieved to know that his lungs were now expanding and contracting like normal. Breathing no longer felt like a chore, rather, it never should have.

He felt for what was close to him. Something soft and creamy was cradling his head and preventing it from resting on a hard and flat surface as he expected. Not only that, something thin and delicate was running through his wavy hair, giving it a soothing massage.

His eyes fluttered open at a slow pace to adapt itself to seeing the light. When his vision cleared, the upside-down kitten smile of a familiar girl was there watching wake up. The strands of her long hair nearest to her face cascaded down and tickled his face.

“Hey there, sleepy-head. Did you have a nice rest~?”

“Rio, is that you?” Lucas whispered to his companion, who welcomed him back.

Now this scenario seemed familiar. Once again, Rio took it upon herself to let Lucas use her lap as a pillow while he was unconscious. She even provided him with some extra comfort by stroking her fingers through his hair. Lucas never told her straight, but the lack of resistance from him conveyed how much he liked that.

“We are still in the restaurant, and it is already past closing time, but Kawaguchi-san was kind enough to let us stay until we finish all the fugu sashimi left on our plate.” Chopsticks in hand, Rio picked up one of the many pieces left and seasoned them with condiments. “I did say they were very expensive, so it would be a waste of my money to leave the last seventeen pieces behind.”

Upon hearing what Rio said, everything came crawling back in a creeping flash. What Lucas had been eating was made from one of the most poisonous fishes in the world, and they were all prepared raw. The very thought that they could be toxic and contaminated at the same time brought in a sickening air in his throat that made him almost want to vomit.

“Now then, where were we? Oh yes,” Rio held a new slice of sashimi over his mouth, ready to drop it in. “Say ‘ahn~’”

“AAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

With a terrified scream, Lucas sprang away from Rio’s care with a burst of adrenaline coursing through his veins. His sense of decency had been thrown out the window in both a figurative and literal sense when he dove head-first like a missile through the only window in the room, not showing concern for the property damage as well as all the shards of glass that scratched or embedded themselves into his skin. Escaping the place wasn’t enough – he needed to be at least a mile away from that horrifying dish!

And just like that, Lucas lost all his love for dining on raw fish.

With Lucas now out of her sight from disappearing into the night, Rio, with a carefree shrug, gave herself the sashimi she meant to feed him with. Almost immediately after she started chewing the elastic meat, her mouth and tongue were forced to dance from a numbing and electric sensation given by the fugu sashimi’s flavor and chemical properties.

「Mmm! So yummy」 Her cheeks flushed a vivid pink as she moaned in ecstasy with a hand on her cheek. 「But I must admit, that tomahawk tasted way better~」

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