“That man made the right choice not to arrest you,” Rio said as she and Lucas approached the staircase to the house’s second floor. “If he did, I would have killed him on the spot.”
“He has a family, you know?” Lucas called out her lack of concern.
Climbing the stairs, Rio looked back and down at Lucas with a mocking smile, as she was a few steps ahead of him. “Then they are lucky he will return home safely this time. Things will only become more complicated if you worked with a criminal record.”
Lucas snorted. “Says the one who wants me to kill seven people for her.”
“Did you really think I forgot about that?” Rio spoke out as Lucas joined her in a short walk down a fluffy carpet in the hallway. “I would not be the infamous assassin I am now if I did not know how to make my target’s death look natural, or if I did not know how to hide the evidence. You just do the dirty work then leave the covering up to me.”
With all being said and done, Lucas was just glad the situation didn’t end with Rio killing someone while he was involved. In the end, the policeman was no longer cranky, and his son will have a brighter day to look forward to. Although Lucas didn’t know the kid who saw him as his hero, he had to admit that he gained a little more self-appreciation for helping someone out in a way.
“By the way, can you show me that video the policeman was talking about?” Rio asked as she and Lucas re-entered his room.
Two quick claps turned the lights on, showing that the room was in dire need of housekeeping.
“I’ll show it to you after we tidy up this place,” Lucas said. He wasn’t so willing to do chores so late at night, but he was also treading along the lines of insomnia at the same time. He might as well do it now, so he wouldn’t have to hear himself complain later.
Rio wanted to scoff out of reluctance. She would have admonished Lucas for trying to order her around, but she accepted with no audible complaints since she shared some responsibility for the mess.
Several objects from the desk and books from the shelf were scattered all over the floor. At least the fragile gaming laptop on the desk only moved a few inches from its original spot – it would have been a life-long regret for Lucas if something as expensive as that was put out of commission without serving even half of its lifespan.
The two worked in delegation. Lucas picked up the numerous books littered near his bookshelf while Rio put back any objects that fell from the desk.
While picking up and putting back every object she could find from the floor, Rio eventually came across several notebooks that were once stacked on top of each other. Almost all of them had the same plain green apple design, which made them easy to ignore, but one amongst them caught her eye.
It was a black leather diary. Not only did it stand out among the notebooks she picked up, its unsecured three-digit code padlock told her it could be hiding some secrets too. Maybe it contained some embarrassing memories that Lucas would be too afraid to share. For Rio, this was too good of a chance to pass up.
With a devilish snicker that wasn’t heard from the other side of the room, Rio seized the diary and out of habit, flipped it open the way Nihanese books were always read - from right to left.
Her single eye dilated when her expectations were flipped on its quarters.
Hearing not the slightest noise from the other side of the room made Lucas assume Rio had already done her part. He turned to thank her for her hard work, only to find some fallen objects still lying around on the floor.
That was when he caught her standing still and red-handed with his diary opened wide. Even worse, the thick pile of pages on its left side told him Rio was looking at the page that was dedicated to her – the very page that contained all the data he had gathered so far from their time spent together. It also contained his unhinged thoughts on her like his humble opinion on how he felt her assassin clothes made her look “kind of sexy.”
A streak of tremors echoed on the floor with every step as Lucas made a mad dash for the girl reading his newly purposed diary.
“Give that back!” he yelled and snatched the diary out of Rio’s hands before his momentum could make him crash back-first to a wall.
The desperate sight of Lucas clutching the diary tight to his chest left Rio confused at first, but a feline smile crept to her face when she came to a realization.
“I did not think this before but when you were wiping my sweat off, you had other motives too, did you not? I almost found it strange how you kept rubbing your hand on me, almost like you were giving me a massage.”
The look on Lucas’ face and the posture he had taken told Rio everything, but she was expecting him to look more like he was cursing her for being right on the mark and not like he was burning hotter than a furnace.
“Admit it, Lucas, you were trying to—"
“I was trying to find your [Stigma].” Lucas blurted, revealing his intention before Rio could accuse him of doing something that would have turned this moment awkward.
“I see.” Rio’s tone was soft but firm. “Since you saw nothing strange even after I took most of my clothes off, you guessed that my [Stigma] must be hidden somewhere inside me, right? That explains why you took a while to wipe my sweat. You were not just trying to feel my body, you were trying to feel for any strange pulses under my skin. I did tell you a [Stigma] beats like a human heart, after all.
Lucas nodded with a tightened expression, confirming Rio’s suspicion.
“How could you!?” Rio cried. Her fearsome one-eyed glare pierced Lucas’ soul to its core. “I trusted you with some of my personal secrets. Even after all of that, you still dared to take advantage of me!?”
“Sorry…” Lucas bemoaned, a bit regretful for doing something so despicable. “But I couldn’t let a chance like that slip away.”
Although Lucas found some joy in the time he spent so far with Rio, that didn’t mean he was going to drop any precautions he already had on her. He wanted to make sure he had a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario and finding Rio’s [Stigma], her weak point, was the best idea he had for now. He hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to it.
With his ulterior motives both uncovered and rendered a failure, Lucas was certain Rio felt betrayed and likely to close her personal doors on him. If her mood was brighter, she probably would’ve mocked him.
The shape of her lips looked like neither.
"Good. At least you have some common sense.” Rio threw away her broken trust act and devoted the rest of her words and smile to praise, much to Lucas’ shock. “Lucas, I may have enjoyed what little time we spent together, and I hope there is still more to come, but no matter how you think about it, I am still the one who left you with a heavy curse without even knowing if you had a chance of surviving. You made the right choice to still think of me as your enemy."
Her declaration to him was a reassurance. He gave her a glare of his own, this one more for being cautious.
"Oh? I like that look you are giving me~” Rio placed her hands to her hips and leaned slightly forward, closing the distance between them. “I think staying with you will be more fun if I always have to watch my back, so hear me now.” She held a hand to her chest to remind Lucas who he was dealing with. “From this point forward, you have my blessing to attack me whenever you want.” Her daring challenge made Lucas purse his lips, tilt his head back and question her mentality. “In fact, try to kill me if you can," Rio continued with reckless abandon. "Do not bother telling me in advance. I want my heart to race. Feel free to stab me in the back, assault me in my sleep, try to assassinate the assassin. Do everything yo can and try to take me down.”
“And what good would that do for me?” Lucas’ hand balled into a loose fist on its own.
“Who knows?” Rio shrugged then gave him the stink eye. “Maybe my death is another way to free you from our contract~”
Upon hearing that last sentence, Lucas widened his eyes behind his hair bangs as a tingling sensation coursed through his entire body. Still, there was some doubt mixed in.
“I can’t be so sure it will be worth it since you know your [Laws] by trial and error,” he pointed out.
“True, but I will not take back this offer,” Rio said, a twisted excitement festering within her as she walked toward the bed before stopping at one end. “And here’s some friendly advice because I feel like it,” she cooed, looking over her shoulder. “As you may have just learned, searching for my [Stigma] will only be a waste of your time. If you want to know where on my body my [Stigma] is located, you have to force me to reveal it. That is all. Good luck~”
Rio kissed her hand, then blew across it to Lucas. As cute as it was, he could tell the gesture was meant to taunt him. Her manner of speaking implied she was toying with him and possibly feeding him false information, but as he already tried to find any signs or hints for her [Stigma’s] location, he would just have to leave her advice as a thought/suspicion in his diary once he had the chance to write without Rio keeping tabs on him.
“So, you’re letting me attack you anytime?” Lucas asked to make sure he understood Rio’s offer.
“You may~,” Rio chirped.
“Will I have to watch my own back for you?”
“If you must~”
Once again, the playfulness in Rio’s voice kept her answers with many possibilities open. She was going to be a firecracker to deal with.
“Whatever,” Lucas said, still uncertain if he would want to get rid of Rio so soon. He then shook the diary in his hand. “By the way, how much of this did you read?”
Upon seeing the diary and remembering what she learned from it, Rio clamped her tongue between her teeth and let herself fall back onto the bed, where she buried her head under the pillow, her arms wrapping themselves tightly around it.
“Not much,” went her muffled voice.
Lucas grumbled with worry. Letting Rio touch his belongings was a bad idea, but with him having no absolute control over her, he knew Rio needed to be occupied before she could start causing some other disturbance in his house.
An idea came at the right time. Grabbing his smartphone from his nightstand and tapping his thumbs on its touchscreen, Lucas opened his Yotube app and did a quick search for the "Lucas Thorne cannot be stopped" footage, which he found on top of the “Trending” list as the policeman had previously stated. The video he found was uploaded by another user, but it boasted the same level of quality as the original.
“Hey,” Lucas pulled the pillow away from Rio’s hands and extended his smartphone to her. “Here’s the video you wanted.”
Taking the phone off Lucas’ hands, Rio made herself comfortable before watching the video. Resting her head on the soft center of the pillow, and raising the blanket to her chest, Rio held the smartphone up with both arms slightly bent as a ruckus of violence erupted from its tiny speaker.
“You better not get used to it,” Lucas warned her after he saw how she hogged his bed like she had already marked it as her territory. “I’m going back there as soon as I’m done.”
“Yes, yes, just let me enjoy myself for now and feel free to take your time like before.” Rio brushed him off.
Indeed, she enjoyed the moment right after she tapped the “play” button on the center of the touchscreen. The video started playing, and Rio was instantly smitten with its contents thanks to it being all about non-stop carnage and brutality. While it was nice to hear about it through word of mouth, seeing actual footage was better, hands-down.
All the moves Lucas pulled off dragged Rio's sight back to him whenever she tried to observe the other people he fought. Rio hummed a curious tune. How did Lucas actually shatter a maple bat that collided with his bare fist, and why was his head not cracked open after it took a clean hit from behind from the same weapon?
「Did he learn how to use [Hangya--] no, that can’t be right.」
Rio was a few letters away from thinking Lucas may have utilized a [Renegade] technique she didn’t reveal to him during his short stay in her house. What made her hold the thought was her failure to notice any lack of physical changes to the arm that threw the punch as well as the lack of glowing aesthetic patterns on Lucas’ head when it was struck.
The Nihanese girl may not have been so fond of modern technology, but she kept herself glued to the video. That spot of Lucas forcing someone to vomit onto someone else’s face made her clench her throat, but it entertained her at the same time because it was something she would never think of doing. She had a similar reaction to the part where Lucas absorbed a heavy blow from a mace that caved into his stomach, only for him to turn the situation around when he expelled blood out of his mouth and into his opponent’s eyes, blinding the poor soul long enough for a free hit. Then Rio watched him block two swords with one arm without losing the limb - that explained the pair of parallel cuts she found while tending to that very arm.
From what was happening so far, Lucas didn’t exhibit anything special. And yet there he was, taking hits that would normally result in at least a serious injury. It was also strange how he fended off a multitude of weapons while wearing scarce protection. By process of elimination, Rio determined that Lucas must have possessed a skeleton far denser than the average person for all of that to be possible.
She was correct but even if she wasn’t, the facts didn’t fill her with the slightest bit of worry. To people like her, armor-like bones were wet tissue papers of an obstacle.
Rio’s immersion only grew with the continued streaming of the video. She didn’t want to miss even a second of the chaos. She may have been enjoying herself from seeing Lucas in action, but she didn’t watch only for the sake of entertainment. Just like what she preached to him when she was first teaching him about the [Renegades], Rio kept a focused eye on Lucas and analyzed every aspect of his fighting style for future use.
Throughout the fight, Lucas always stood hunched with his left leg pulled back and his knees slightly bent. Both his arms were raised with clenched fists to form a makeshift wall that covered from the vitals on his upper body to half his face. From the looks of it, he seemed to fight like a boxer with a very defensive southpaw stance, but his occasional use of other moves illegal to boxing pointed him more in the direction of a street brawler, and a resourceful one at that. Strikes like punches and kicks were not Rio’s cup of tea, but even she had to admit that Lucas was someone she couldn’t take her eye off when watching him fight.
In addition to knowing how to throw a real punch, Lucas wasn’t above hitting someone below the belt. Although such a move would be considered disgraceful, Rio didn’t criticize him for employing dirty tactics to help him win. After all, the situation he was in was no martial arts tournament with rules or restrictions to hold him back.
That wasn’t the end to it, however. The last aspect of Lucas’ fighting style that came under Rio’s analysis were the patterns of his behavior.
For some reason, Lucas always stuck to defense and counterattacked, never throwing the first punch. Whether it came from a block or a dodge, Lucas always exploited his opponents when they had become unguarded from going on the offensive. He was something that didn’t hurt others unless they tried to touch him first. This behavior reminded Rio of something she had in mind not too long ago.
Her eye widened on the sudden realization.
Not only were thorns the basis to explain Lucas’ fear of taking risks; it was a reflection of his fighting style, too.
Continuing with Rio’s view of the footage, there were only two people left standing: Lucas, who stood on a puddle of his leaking blood, and was just about ready to drop dead, and the student dressed like a biker from an apocalyptic setting, who had some ample time to recover from getting knocked unconscious and losing some teeth. The biker student charged to unleash a haymaker on the defenseless Lucas, only for the video to fade to black without warning.
For a moment, Rio was in disbelief that she must have pressed something on the touchscreen by accident to make the video stop. When she found out she did nothing wrong, she dropped the smartphone next to her head on the mattress in a fit of frustration. All that built-up anticipation from her immersion lay dormant in her lower half.
Rio was left blue-balled.
Yes, that happens to girls too.
Lucas wiped a few trickles of sweat from his forehead after sliding one last book into a gap between two other books on the shelf, having taken over Rio’s side of the work before returning to his. He also came up with a three-digit combination lock for his diary to rid himself of the worry of Rio digging dirt on him. He was just in time too. Rio had grown bored after finishing the video she wanted to watch and was probably trying to make herself fall asleep.
The mattress bounced a little when Lucas sat on its edge. He looked at Rio over his shoulder.
“Hey Rio, what are the other six targets like?”
The restless girl threw herself up in a jolt, pulled her lower eyelid down, and stuck out the tip of her tongue in a childish gesture that made Lucas gawk.
“You really want to know? Take out Fenris first. Then you will learn who is next.”
In the back of his mind, Lucas knew Rio wouldn’t just tell him about the other people he would have to hunt down, but there was no harm in trying. That response of hers was a piece of work, though.
“Figures,” he said after exhausting his chuckling. “Well, could you at least tell me where the others live?”
Rio darted an eye up and raised a corner of her lip, giving herself a moment to think.
“If you can make some progress on the contract, you can expect a lot of culture shock along the way,” she told him. “Each of the other six targets is from a different nation scattered across the planet, where you can expect some attractions like sights or the local food.” A snicker followed. “At the same time, however, you might be exposed to… certain politics that run the place. Who knows? You might just find yourself questioning the sanity of the people who live there.”
Lucas’ heart pumped faster. What awaited him was going to be scary for sure, but the potential for excitement lurked there as well.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about what the policeman said.” He leaned forward and ran two fingers across the ridges on his chest with a newly formed quivering smile. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I? This contract will keep reminding me that I can either try or die.”
“Or die trying,” Rio interjected.
Lucas twisted his upper half to her and scowled at her mocking smile before moving on.
“Anyway, the policeman’s son risked himself to get rid of the people who bullied him. Although he was put through a lot, he came out alive like he won. Taking a risk and failing is better than not trying at all, isn’t it?”
Rio said nothing, knowing for sure that there was still more to be said. Lucas recalled that recent moment she told him to think as she cleaned the biggest wounds on his back.
“All this time, I’ve been looking at your contract from its surface, but worrying won’t help me feel better. I should’ve realized sooner there is such a thing as stops on the road to killing the seven targets after all.”
“So, what does this mean?” Rio asked as she laid on her side, an elbow propped to support her cheek.
Lucas directed his gaze to her once more.
“Every step I must take to get rid of your curse will mean I’ll be going places. There’s a word for that. It’s somewhere on the tip of my tongue…” He jolted like a lightbulb activated above his head. “Ah, it’s called an ‘adventure!’ That’s what I’ve been shying away from for so long!”
As Lucas made his declaration, Rio smirked from sensing the new aura of determination that enveloped him.
“Correct answer,” she cheered. “It is fine to let that bright side of the contract be what drives you. Just be sure you do not forget what must be done.”
Lucas gave her a solid nod, now ready to accept what happened to him after getting a boost to his morale.
Something, however, continued to linger.
“That being said, I’m still afraid.” Lucas trembled with his hands clasped together as his smile shifted into a mixture of fear and excitement. “Rio, if you’re going to stay behind for your own reasons, I also want you to push me while you’re at it.”
Rio tilted her head in utter confusion. “Push you?”
“What I mean is that while I’ll do what I must to get rid of all these black arrows on my chest, I also want to smell the roses on the side. Excitement, thrills, I want everything that can give me a reason to be alive!” After his display of enthusiasm, Lucas was reminded of what kept him from pursuing that desire. “It’s just that I know not every part of me is ready to do this, but I also don’t want you to think I’ve given up. Somewhere along the way I’m gonna get distracted or feel like backing out, so whenever you think I’m going too far, I want you to push me back to the right direction and remind me why I should get the job done.”
“Hmm…” Rio allowed herself to fall back onto the pillow, shut her eye, and pondered over Lucas’ request. It was nice to know that he found a way to motivate himself, but to do so, she had to take care of him? That sounded like a drag. She was hoping she could just stand by, watch, and do whatever she wants at her leisure.
After giving the request some thought and consideration, Rio lifted herself back up, arms straightened and planted behind her.
“Alright, I will do as you ask.”
Before Lucas could jump and shower her with his appreciation, Rio extended her right hand to him. All its fingers were folded to form a fist except for one. Lucas recognized her gesture.
“You… want to pinky swear on it?”
Rio nodded with a hum. “Mm-hmm. If you can connect our two little fingers, I will swear an oath to do what you asked…” Then a nasty grin revealed itself. "…but I must be able to see every part of your hand, and until I complete my oath, you must not show even the slightest sign of pain. Fail, and I will pretend this never happened~”
Lucas bit his lower lip. If that condition of allowing Rio to see his entire hand didn’t exist, he would have taken down the challenge in an instant. Being given only one chance to succeed intensified the pressure in his gut.
“And the reason why you’re doing this is?” he asked.
“To see if you have any resolve,” Rio replied, transforming her grin into something friendlier. “Do you want my assistance that badly? Then prove it.”
Crossing his arms and droning, Lucas erased Rio from his sight and pondered over how he could pass the challenge she gave him.
His first option was direct. Simply go ahead and try hooking their fingers together while doing his best to endure the pain that [Reaper’s Embrace] will inflict on him. Then again, even if he held himself from screaming, it was very likely that the rest of his face would tell Rio he failed.
I might grind or clench my teeth, sweat might trail down my forehead, Rio might check my eyes if they’re squinting, and the rest of me will have a hard time holding still for sure.
His hands clawed into his knees. With him only having one chance, Lucas was unwilling to trust himself from making involuntary actions.
They weren’t the only factors he had to worry about.
I’m sure Rio won’t allow this to be easy. If she’s going to swear an oath, she might speak slowly, or her oath might be like an essay several pages long. The possibilities could be endless, and that just makes the first option way too risky. I must find another way.
“Lucas, how long will you keep me waiting?” Rio dropped her arm after growing tired of keeping it elevated and watching Lucas mumble in his own little world.
“Shut up, I’m thinking,” he said without shifting his attention to her.
Lucas was so focused on his thoughts that he forgot his sense of tact at that moment. This made him fail to detect the small burst of killing intent behind him, but it almost didn’t matter because it went away a few seconds later after Rio suppressed the urge to punish him on the spot. There will be a better time for that.
Then the wooden floor creaked when Lucas pressed his feet onto it. His white eyes gleamed. An epiphany had come to him.
“Give me a minute,” he said, walking toward his bedroom door.
Rio stretched herself before shifting her position for better comfort. She had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before she had to give up some space on the bed that unlike her futon back home, was comparable to sleeping on a cloud.
Before Rio could count to “60”, the doorknob turned, and the bedroom door opened with a low groan. A returning Lucas sat on his side of the bed, facing Rio with a triumphant grin now etched on his face.
“I won’t have worry about you hurting me if our fingers were connected... with this!”
He flashed his hand from behind his back.
Between his thumb and index finger, Lucas dangled a long piece of string. Rio eyed his answer to her challenge, and a series of warm implosions occurred within her.
“W-where did you get that?” she cried in a startled tone. Before she knew it, Lucas had already tied one end of the string to her right pinky finger before tying the other end to his own.
“I ripped it from my hoodie,” he said with pride. “It’s all torn up now, but it was one of my favorites, so I didn’t want to throw it away so early. Good thing I didn’t because I found one last use for it.”
With a final tug to test its security, the string was now tied. Lucas and Rio’s pinky fingers were now connected without the need for them to touch each other. Rio herself was stunned – not because Lucas managed to find a solution – it was the color of the string that left her with sensations traveling from the crown of her head all the way down to her feet.
The string used to be white and part of the countless other fibers that made Lucas’ hoodie. Now that the hoodie had been torn to shreds from protecting its wearer, almost all of its strings had been dyed a different color with his blood – a brilliant scarlet red.
To Lucas, it was just a red string to justify the means. To Rio, whose culture was different, it meant something else - something far more special.
The Nihanese held several superstitions. One of them claimed that if two people were tied by a red string on their smallest fingers, they will be destined for each other until the end of time. No matter how separated they may be, their destiny for each other will never change. It was known as:
「Unmei no… akai ito.」
(The red string… of fate.)
Flaring crimson, Rio muttered its name as if she was in a trance. This left Lucas confused, but before he could ask her what was wrong, Rio pushed ahead as her false heart struggled to maintain its balance.
“Lucas…” She had spoken his name several times by now, but this one sounded timid. “You know nothing about what the Nihanese believe in, right?”
“Sorry, but no,” Lucas answered. “Although I’d be interested if you took the time to tell me.”
With that being said, the rapid beating in Rio’s chest slowly returned to normal. Her cheeks lost their color. Now calm again, she let herself tease Lucas with a playful giggle.
“Maybe some other time~”
The string wasn’t the answer Rio was expecting. Not only did Lucas find a way to abide by the conditions she set, he even did so in a way that would allow him to avoid the effects of [Reaper’s Embrace] entirely.
She would only look like a sore loser if she were to try and hurt him after what he had done.
“Alright, you pass.” She patted a spot on the mattress, inviting Lucas to sit close and across her on the bed. “As we agreed, I will do as you ask but after I swear my oath, I want us to pull the string apart then tie the rest around our fingers. So long as your end of the string remains tied, I will continue to keep my promise.”
Lucas looked at the end of the string opposite to his own, which he tied around Rio’s pinky. “Well if you’re going to put it that way, that means you want me to swear an oath for you too, right?”
“C’mon, stop trying to play dumb,” Lucas puffed. “When we break that string, you will also have one end to yourself. So what do you wish from me?”
With crossed arms, Rio pouted away. “I have nothing in mind,” she stated with a bit of unease.
Lucas suppressed a laugh and snickered instead. It was plain as day for him to know Rio was trying to deny him. Still, he knew what she really wanted. After everything they’d been through, it became far too obvious.
“Alright then, how about I suggest one?” he faced a hand up. “In exchange for you making sure I don’t veer off track, I’ll keep you company whenever you don’t feel like being alone.” Slightly embarrassed, he twirled a finger around a lock of his hair. “Either way you slice it, we’re gonna be stuck with each other for a while. That, and I'm kind of a loner too.” He looked at her, ready for her answer come what may. “What do you say?”
Rio didn’t give a verbal answer, rather she couldn’t. Her voice was hindered by a figurative tightening in her throat, and her eye twitched from a growing wetness. She tried but failed to hold back a pair of shining tears that cascaded her face; the one from under her eyepatch streaked down before the tear from her left eye could follow. Her hand gripped tight on the intersecting collars of her kimono and tried to quell her false heart, which was acting up again.
Feeling like approval from Rio was out of the question, Lucas gently held his upper fist against his chest.
“I might not be much, but if you’re still alright with someone like me, I’ll stay by your side for as long as you want.”
As soon as Lucas said that, the emotions dwelling in Rio were joined by another. Her hand jumped from her collar to her mouth, and her cheeks filled themselves with air.
*Pff! Ufufufufu… Ahahahaha!!!*
It was strange. Rio appeared to be laughing and crying at the same time. Her laughter was the loudest Lucas had ever heard from her, so far. It ticked him off a little because it got to him that the laughter may have been forced.
“Hey! Can’t you give a guy a break and let him try to be sincere!?”
“No, i-it is not that,” Rio finally managed to say. She brushed away the tears that leaked from both eyes. “It was that other phrase you said. Translated to Nihanese, it would have meant that you accepted…”
“Accepted?” Lucas parroted in confusion. “Accepted what?”
Rio tried to compose herself. Before she could whisper in a manner that only Lucas was meant to hear, Rio broke eye contact with him as an involuntary shy smile beamed itself.
“If I asked you… to marry me.”
Every sound in the room fell into silence. Even the crickets and owls outside stopped making noise.
Lucas burned with the brightest overheat to his face thus far. By all means did he not expect Rio to say anything like that. So infernal was this heat, he failed to realize that he had shifted his weight too far and spilled off the bed with the wooden floor ready to break his fall and make it painful.
His head and back would’ve landed with a nerve-wracking thud, and the red string would have snapped prematurely if it wasn’t for a timely hand that grabbed him by his sleeved wrist just as he was mere inches away from the hard surface. Lucas opened his eyes to the savior above him. An amused Rio slowly pulled him back to her side, contrary to his expectation that she was going to drop him after putting him in a state of false security.
“You alright?” She asked after Lucas was back in a more stable position.
“Y-yeah,” Lucas fidgeted with the hair on his head. “That was just out of nowhere.”
“Well, no need to take it seriously,” Rio assured him, having gotten over the recent event. “It should be the girl who says your line after all.”
With the misunderstanding out of the way, there was nothing more to do other than seal the deal. Lucas and Rio tugged at their ends of the red string until it straightened into a delicate bridge that connected them by their smallest fingers.
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Lucas took a deep breath as he volunteered to go first. “I swear to you, Rio, to always stay by your side if you need me. If you have something to say to me, I’ll listen. If you want to go somewhere, I’ll be there if you need a companion. So long as your part of the string remains tied around your finger, I will keep my promise no matter what.”
“Admirable, but far too generic,” Rio commented, poking fun at the simplicity of Lucas’ oath. “Now listen to this.”
She pulled from her end of the string and slowly dragged Lucas’ hand to her. The strength she exerted was gradual, as to not break the link between them yet.
“I swear to you, Lucas… ON MY LIFE!” Rio raised her volume in dramatic fashion as her eye re-adopted an intimidating demeanor. She sneered. “Whenever I see you hesitate, I will make sure your life only becomes more difficult and terrifying. I will not hesitate to push you off a cliff, and I will not hesitate to push you into the deepest oceans. I swear to do what I must to make you move forward into the great unknown, where only the harshest of reality awaits you.”
Rio could see Lucas looked like he was on the verge of welcoming dark days from the way she twisted his wish, but she wasn’t finished yet.
Her voice mellowed down.
“But know that it is good you are afraid. An adventure is not worth its name if it does not scare you. If in the end, you do overcome everything and manage to lift the curse of [Broken Vow], I can no longer do anything to put you down. So be proud when you one day tell yourself… ‘I went through an adventure that made my life a living treasure.’”
And just like that, Lucas brightened up from the falling to rising action of Rio’s oath. That didn’t mean Rio forgot his previous expression.
“Aww... You looked so adorable when you were scared~,” she teased.
“And you should’ve seen the look on yours when I promised to stay by your side.” Lucas countered.
Before they knew it, both Lucas and Rio chuckled together. Then it escalated into shared laughter.
“Does this mean we’ve settled it?” Lucas asked after their laughter subsided.
“Not yet,” Rio said, eyeing the string. “Unlike you Westerners, pinky swears are very sacred to the Nihanese. Now, follow my lead.”
Her pinky twirled and wound up the string, wrapping inches of it around the finger in spirals while shortening the connection between herself and Lucas, who did the same. When the connection was rendered short and their fingers just a few inches apart, Rio flicked her wrist up and down in a smooth rhythm, anchoring Lucas to follow.
He couldn’t believe his ears when Rio started to sing. He couldn't follow a song in Nihanese.
「♫ 指切りげんまん、うそついたら針千本飲ます 指切った。♪」
(♫ Yubikiri genman, uso tsuitara hari senbon nomasu, yubi kitta ♪)
“What was that all about?” Lucas questioned, his interest in something foreign showing itself in his tone.
“A chant that binds us to what we swore,” Rio answered. “In case you want another translation, it means I get to cut your finger off and make you swallow a thousand needles if you break your side of the promise. So do your best to protect your string, okay~?”
Rio enjoyed an impish laugh at Lucas, who held his stringed pinky with all the protection he could give. He deadpanned at how Rio was also bound to the same rule but pretended like she had nothing to worry about.
While waiting for Rio to run out of steam, Lucas studied the girl in front of him with an air like he was meeting her for the first time.
Now that he thought about it, Rio was, in a way, a representation of everything he was missing out on. The oriental design and style of her clothes, her distinctive features like the shape and glow of her eyes, and the intriguing music her language brought to his ears. Rio Kiyodera was but a sample of the outside world Lucas didn’t know, and he couldn’t wait to one day immerse himself in what he had been reluctant to jump into for so long.
Slowly, their hands pulled away from each other. Before the string broke, Lucas and Rio spoke one last line in succession.
“It’s a promise.”
「Yakusoku da yo.」
(It's a promise.)
With everything between them now settled, what should’ve happened next was to sleep the rest of the night away – if only it were that easy; Lucas and Rio arrived at another dilemma after turning off the lights when they learned about each other’s contradicting ideals on what was considered a good night’s sleep.
While waiting and hoping for sleep to take them out, the pair engaged in a childish debate on whether the window next to the bed should be opened or not. In the process, Lucas was given an indirect explanation of why Rio had disturbed him while still asleep, leading to their mess that had its ups and downs.
Contrasting Lucas, Rio hated the cold. Her translucent skin was sensitive to it, and living in a mountaintop house that relied on open-air ventilation did her no favors. There were times when she had gotten complaints from her sister for sleepwalking in the middle of the night, especially when the temperatures had dropped really low.
They debated until one of them was given a reason to concede.
“I can’t sleep.” Lucas’ mumbled minutes after he settled his argument with Rio. He laid with eyes that flipped back open whenever he tried to shut them close. He could feel his right side getting tickled by vibrations coming from the person next to him.
“That makes two of us,” Rio concurred with spite, every part of her shivering under the blanket she shared with him. “Why, oh why did I let you convince me to open the window?”
“Remember who gets the bed all to herself while I’m off at school,” Lucas reminded her. “I think it’s because all those things we went through forced my brain awake, and it still doesn’t feel like shutting down.”
“Then how about you stay awake for the rest of the night?” Rio suggested, the frequency of her shivering not getting any better.
Lucas shook his head. “I know I’m gonna regret it later when I start sleeping in class.” A menacing vision of his history teacher, Mr. Soren Faust loomed over him from the shadows of his mind. He performed his usual warning gesture, where he tossed and caught his signature weapon that always inspired fear into his class – a single piece of chalk.
The thought of incurring his infamous teacher’s wrath made Lucas shudder. “I’d do anything to fall asleep right now,” he moaned. At least after one more week, he would be free from Mr. Faust's classes for the rest of his high school life.
Rio sat up slowly and rubbed her restless eye, annoyed at her bedmate’s complaints.
“Maybe I can help you. In fact, it could help both of us.”
“Really? How?” Lucas asked.
“Just sit up, turn away from me, and hold still," Rio instructed, twirling a finger clock-wise as she spoke. "Oh, and do not look back no matter what."
Lucas was suspicious, but his desperate need for sleep clouded his judgment. He did as he was told and sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed.
The atmosphere around him turned unsettling.
Parts of the mattress behind him were sinking into tiny craters. Without looking, he could tell Rio was creeping up on him by the second.
Then it turned pleasant without the involvement of her [Influence].
Lucas tensed up when a pair of exposed feminine legs went over his hips before slowly encircling themselves around his waist. A pair of delicate arms slithered over his shoulders, their silky kimono sleeves caressing either side of his neck and stimulating the tiny hairs on his nape to stand before they curled themselves in. The cinnamon scent of Rio's hair worked its aphrodisiac effect as she closed in from behind.
"R-Rio...?" Lucas, his cheeks flushing pink, struggled to look back, but the warmth of a girl’s breath grazing one of his ears enticed him to stop.
"Shhh,” Rio pacified him with a direct whisper. “Let me do all the work~"
A chill of sheer cold ran down Lucas' spine. His heart rate flew off the charts when Rio pressed herself onto him from behind. Lucas felt like his upper back was going to explode when it experienced an odd sensation of two soft hills melting into it.
Soon enough, the gap between Lucas and Rio turned non-existent, and the bed they shared gained more unoccupied space. As insane as it was for Lucas to let Rio cuddle him like he was her hug pillow, sharing an intimate moment with someone of the opposite gender was too fascinating for him to reconsider.
His mind discarding its sense of thought once more, Lucas surrendered himself and allowed Rio to do as she pleased.
And that was why Rio had the makings of a brilliant assassin.
『裸絞 Hadaka Jime 裸絞』 (Naked Strangle Hold)
The limbs around his neck and waist clutched themselves tight, squeezing him in a suffocating embrace. With Lucas now immobilized in her hold, Rio shifted her weight to her left and toppled both herself and her captive onto the soft mattress. Their heads landed on the fluffed pillow at the same time before she let one hand throw the blanket over the both of them.
"You know what a 'Rear Naked Choke' is, right~?" Rio teased and tightened her pressure around the boy’s throat.
She asked a question but knew she wouldn’t receive an answer.
The bed rumbled as Lucas coughed and gagged while trying to struggle himself free. He grabbed hold of the arm around his neck and tried to pry it off, but his efforts were futile. Rio had already completed her chokehold and locked it tight. Lucas’ heart rate spiked even higher from a panic attack and his desperation to escape became more vicious. Rio took pleasure in his resistance and squeezed harder, elated like she was trying to tame a wild animal and make it acknowledge her as the superior being.
Then the world for Lucas grew darker; a murky blackness was closing in from the edge of his sight. Every last shred of his consciousness was fading away with every passing second.
"Oh? Giving up already~?" Rio taunted when the fighting in her clutches turned into weak involuntary twitching. "Maybe you do not want to submit, but your body already did."
There was no response from the person she talked to, be it vocal or physical.
“Hello? Can you hear me?” Rio mocked.
Still no signs of activity from Lucas. Even his twitching stopped.
Rio sighed when she felt no resistance. “It was fun while it lasted. Time for me to save you, again.”
Before Lucas could lapse into a coma, Rio loosened her hold but didn’t let her captive go. When he realized he could breathe again, Lucas wasted no time in taking back the oxygen he was owed. His breathing was very audible, anyone would know he was hyperventilating.
"THAT’S A TWISTED WAY TO HELP ME FALL ASLEEP!!!" he finally exploded.
"It was worth a try~," Rio played coy.
“Yeah, well you’ve had your fun. Now let me go.”
“I did give you permission to attack me anytime from now on, right~? By holding you like this, I can ensure my safety and sleep without a care in the world until the morning comes.”
Lucas grimaced through his teeth. “It never crossed my mind to attack you so soon, but I’m starting to have second thoughts now.”
“Aww... do not be so mad.” Rio gently wove one hand through Lucas’ thick and wavy hair, caressing the strands her fingers flowed through. “If you must know, there is one more reason.”
“And what is that?”
Another smirk from Rio.
「Kono moufu yori anta no hou ga atatakai dakara yo~」
An angry vein throbbed on Lucas’ cheek. "In Nihanese!? Really!?"
"You never told me I should say it in English~” Rio’s hand intensified its previous action, now tussling the boy’s hair into a bigger mess. “Maybe this will teach you to be more specific next time~"
"Fine... I'll keep that in mind," Lucas grumbled as his eyes took a steady pace to close themselves.
Despite what she preached, Rio wasn’t completely serious. After all, she told the truth but didn't want Lucas to understand. Her reason for hugging him with a submission hold was because she found his natural body heat to be warmer than the blanket they shared, proven by how she no longer shivered.
As Lucas tried to make himself fall asleep despite some minor discomfort on his neck and waist, Rio savored the moment that could only last for a few more hours. It was nostalgic to hold someone in her arms again. The gap of time between now and then brought back long-lost feelings of comfort a part of her thought she didn’t deserve.
It went out of hand for a moment when Rio closed her eyes. She held Lucas tighter in a loving manner, but the name she whispered belonged to someone else. Luckily, Lucas failed to hear her. He was too focused on trying to fall asleep.
Her slight mishap and what little vitality she absorbed from Lucas during their fight kept her awake for a little longer. Rio examined the string tied around her finger. Neither happiness nor sadness dominated her eye.
「Are we truly meant to be, Lucas? 」
And so, the night ends for Lucas and Rio on a somewhat peaceful note, but a new day is coming. Their actions have made way for the creation of sparks, one of which had just started to turn into a flame.