Hank felt guilty driving away from the woman he adored in a car she let him borrow. He thought about going back and apologizing to Anna, but something about obeying Aika stuck inside his mind. He wondered how a soft-spoken cutie could make people do as she pleased. Thinking perhaps Milton might know the answer, Hank tried figuring out how to get to the estate from the road he was on.
It seemed impossible to do. Not much was making sense these days. Unsure of how to get to Milton's, Hank drove to the PEP Center instead. It was where the car had come from, as the orange tag on the keychain made ridiculously clear. He hoped Fuji would be there, but because it was Sunday the place was almost deserted. Hank told the lady at the front desk how Anna had loaned him the car and, despite the woman insisting he keep it until Anna reclaimed it, he left the keys at the Center and walked to a nearby bus stop. The first bus that arrived didn't go towards his flat, but it did go to the train and subway station. Hank got on it, figuring he'd take the subway to a place near where he knew Milton lived.
Something caught Hank's eye as he headed down the stairs to get on the subway. A woman ahead was moving quickly, working her way through the crowd. He only saw her back, noticing she wore a blue blazer. Waves of lightly curled black hair graced her effeminate shoulders, and big round red eyeglasses rested on her ears.
He called out as he drew near. "Rio!"
She turned and jostled annoyed commuters, who gave her odd looks as she ran back up the stairs and threw herself into his arms.
What is it with these women? Hank hoped he'd never learn the answer.
"Oh my God!" Rio cried, her voice muffled due to her face being pressed against his chest.
Hank patted her on the back. It was nice holding Fuji's massive body, and having Sue Marie hang from his neck was fun. Aika was soft and supple, and Anna so strong and tall. But no one hugged like Rio. She gripped him like a python.
"What are you doing here?" he asked the top of her head as she remained attached to his body.
She blubbered. "I thought… I didn't know… I don't know what to do! I need help!"
Hank found that to be a switch. The last time he'd seen Rio, she made it perfectly clear how useless she thought him to be. He had her sidestep with him into a corner, to allow people on the stairs to pass by. He tried prying her from his chest but she resisted, until he saw her tear-stained face.
She launched herself at his mouth. She bit his lower lip to force him to bend towards her, then sucked hard on his tongue, devouring him from the outside in until her forced her to stop.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "Why are you crying?"
She hid her face again in his chest and squeezed all the air from his lungs. "I can't believe it's you. Oh my God! I though they got you, too!"
"I'm fine, Rio. What's wrong?"
Her voice came from his midsection. "They got Milton."
"They got him. He's gone. The bad guys got to Milton."
Hank sorted through a hundred questions before choosing three to ask. "What are you talking about? Where are you going? Weren't you there when it happened?"
"They found where he lives. Now I have to save him."
Rio finally composed herself. She straightened the lay of her jacket and skirt before taking off her glasses to wipe her eyes and toss back her hair.
Hank couldn't control his thoughts. Good heavens. You're gorgeous.
She hoped he was too fearless, or at least too ignorant, to see the terror in her heart. "They know where he lives," she said.
"They know about Milton's place? Are you sure?"
"Hai. They are there and he is not."
"So how did you get away? Weren't you there? I mean, you know… I thought they were after you."
Rio shoulders rose and fell dramatically as she heaved on her breath. "I went home after you left," she said, sounding ashamed.
"You went home? You mean, you have someplace else to live besides Milton's?"
"Yeah, Hank. I have a home," Rio said, clipping her words. She looked around to see if anyone was listening. "Most people do, you see."
"Oh. I'm sorry. I just thought you lived with Milton."
"Yes. Sometimes I am with Milton, but I also have a life of my own."
"So you don't really know what happened, do you?"
"Hai. I wasn't there, but I can tell. I felt something wrong, you see, and when I got there he was gone."
Hank watched Rio tremble. "Are you going to be okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," she lied. "I'm fine." She smiled weakly, admiring the way his chocolate eyebrows were knit with concern. "It feels a lot better with you," she added truthfully.
"Why did you leave after I left? I mean, did something happen?"
Rio looked away. "Yeah. Well… sort of."
She cocked her head to tuck her hair behind an ear, for a breeze blew it about. She braved looking up at Hank's face, watching the breeze blow his mane untroubled. Gathering courage, she confessed.
"I got mad."
"At me? You got mad at me?"
"I got mad because Milton said it was okay for you to leave when I said it was not."
"So you got mad at Milton?"
Rio was acting weirder than usual, even for someone so strange. She cracked her neck to relieve tension, charming Hank with her masculine mannerism. She was, as always, impeccably dressed. A short panel skirt the color of coffee and cream matched the tone of her blue blazer jacket. A fake gold family crest covered her left breast pocket, highlighting the beauty of her own breasts underneath. Hank admired the crest, watching it move while Rio breathed. He remembered how her breasts felt resting on his thumbs two nights ago, in her chambers while she dangled helpless in his arms.
The silence grew long between them. After groaning, Rio confessed further.
"I got mad at myself, so I left."
Hank knew this was still not the whole truth. He thought about the possibility of a tiny assassin pining for him. I'm getting the hang of this mind reading crap, for crap was what he thought it was.
Rio disagreed. "Look, Hank, I got pissed because I'm so goddamned tired of being scared all the time. You see? Bad guys want me dead. And now…" she gasped while fighting off sobs. "They got Milton instead of me! Because I wasn't there to protect him!"
Hank placed his hands on her shoulders, hoping to calm her ragged voice. "I'm sure Milton's all right," he said. "He's a smart guy. I don't think he got himself killed or anything."
Rio punched Hank in the chest, in a way some people might think as friendly. "Of course he's all right, you moron!" She punched him again. "His Realities exist! If he were dead, they'd be gone, you see, or people would take them over, and that clearly hasn't happened."
She stepped away and turned her back, her hands still balled in fists. The crowd on the stairs had thinned, leaving them alone. With her head hung low, she used her fists on herself, beating her thighs over and over.
"I don't know where he is, and so now he may be…" She resumed crying as she beat herself harder. "He may be dead soon or be near dead, or hurt, imprisoned, tortured…"
Rio stared straight at the ground, hanging her head so low that Hank couldn't see it. He approached from behind and wrapped her up, using his strength and kindness to make her stop hitting herself.
"We have to find him!" she blurted between sobs. She wriggled a bit to loosen his grip, but kept him pressed to her back by holding his arms.
"We have to find him," she said again, in a calmer voice. "Hank-sama. Tasukete kudasai. Could you please help?"
"Of course," he whispered to the top of her head, wondering if she'd mind if he kissed her there.
They slowly unwrapped, and Rio led Hank up the stairs to the sidewalk, away from the subway station. She acted as if she was in charge, but was an obvious bundle of nerves.
Hank felt horrible for having to ask a very important question. "Um… Where are we going?"
"Back to Milton's."
"Do you think he's there?"
After a few seconds, Hank spoke again. "Didn't you say the bad guys were there?"
"Don't you think they want to, you know… still kill you and all?"
Hank tried to hide his concern. "Well then, why are we going there?"
"My plan is to rescue Bumbles. I'm certain he's locked in the basement."
Upon hearing that, it was all Hank could do to not turn around and walk away from this woman and her stupid problem. Anna was probably still at Aika's, and Aika had a whole lot more costumes in her closet that she'd like to wear. And Teek's food was delicious.
"What?" he hollered, still walking only out of sympathy. "You're gonna bust in on a bunch of killers just to rescue some dumb dog?"
"It's not really locked, you see," Rio explained, trying to not sound condescending. "There's just a latch on his kennel. There aren't even locks on the doors."
"No, Rio, I don't see. I've only gone in and out of the place using the lunch room, and that room scarcely has walls, much less any doors."
"Well, it's not locked. All we have to do is go in and get Bumbles before anyone knows we are there."
"Why don't you call the cops? Why does it have to be us?"
Rio's disdain surfaced against her will. "Ach, ā na. Yeah sure. And how do you think that would look? A secret mansion no one knows about, crammed full of the crap Milton owns." She took to having a mock conversation with the police department. "Oh, my boss disappeared without notice and his dog is in the basement, but I'm too afraid to go and get it because someone somewhere wants me dead."
Hank resisted the urge to comment on how stupid he thought that sounded. He continued in a rare fit of anger. "Well then? What can you do? Are you a superhero or something?"
At that, Rio whirled on her heels and closed the three-foot gap he'd let grow between them. "I can do this!" she snarled, sliding her purse strap down her shoulder.
She tossed her purse just behind Hank, to his left. When his head turned to follow the purse, she grabbed his right wrist with her right hand, painfully splaying his thumb. She twisted his arm to expose the elbow, forcing him to turn towards the purse. She then struck the joint with an upward blow using her other hand, stopping short of breaking his arm.
"And then this!" she yelled.
Rio continued the upward motion from Hank's elbow to his jaw, showing how she could strike him hard enough to chip a tooth. His head went back reflexively. She let out a martial arts yelp as she clawed her upraised hand and brought it down across his throat, nicking his Adam's apple. With another yelp, Rio got on her toes and chopped poor Hank a good one with both hands, placing karate blows on the soft parts of his shoulders, stinging the nerves underneath.
He tried shoving her away, but she dodged. "Now that I've disabled your arms and fractured your larynx, if you're still standing, I'll do this!"
Rio stepped into Hank and stomped her right foot on his left instep, grazing it instead of crushing it. She shifted her weight towards him, punching him in the kidney. She could have dropped him like a stone, but only made him stumble. He spun around, nearly bumping into an onlooker from the crowd that had instantly gathered.
Rio took note of her audience. Her face flushed first from exertion, then from being embarrassed. She pushed her round red glasses up her too-big nose, retrieved her purse from the ground, and continued walking towards Milton's.
"Let's keep moving, Asshole!"
She instantly wished she hadn't cursed. I've got to learn to be nicer!
Hank rubbed his sore arm while closing the gap Rio had made between them. This chick is hot! he thought, adding, and she's going to get us killed.
When he caught up to her, she had a forlorn look on her face. She shook her head to get rid of it, but it returned hard enough to make her wince. She spoke with confidence in spite of this, seemingly to herself.
"Milton has a place we call the redoubt. I'll base observations there. It's hidden from the house by the hill. It faces the sunroom, and inside is a stairwell. Down to the master kitchen and through the dining hall, and in the next room is Bumbles."
Hank stopped listening. He thought about how Rio could go on all day about dying, and how today she planned on using stupidity to achieve it. He did recall, however, the low-slung building in the woods. From the way Rio was yakking, it was a bombproof shelter stocked with enough food and munitions to survive the apocalypse.
It sounded like way too cool a place to not at least check it out. "And then get out of there," Rio concluded.
Hank had missed some steps in the doggie rescue plan. Still, Rio and Milton had been generous to him, and he owed a debt of gratitude. Rio was afraid and alone, and had asked sincerely for his help. He'd do what he could to assist her, so long as she didn't ju-jitsu him again.
"Why are we walking?" he asked. "Don't you own a car?"
"Why not? Milton has dozens."
"I don't drive."
"Well, let's take a taxicab."
"I don't like cabs. They're confining."
Hank had to bite his tongue. A house packed full of killer clowns didn't bother Rio, but the back seat of a cab? Ooh! Scary!
She knew he was thinking poorly of her, so she tried to explain herself pleasantly. "Look, I suck at driving, you see? And I don't like being trapped in a car with some damn stranger I don't know."
He stepped in front of her to make her stop walking. "You do know you sound crazy?" he asked with contempt. "Right?"
She gave him her best death-ray stare. Then, as Hank had grown used to seeing, she relaxed and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was not so much the stinker she had been before.
"Yes, I know," she said, her smile genuine. "Let's just keep walking. Okay? It makes me feel better and I promise to be nice."
Silent Hank had returned. He said not one word, making her beg.
"Please? I won't make us hurry."
Hank's butterfly eyelashes fluttered, as Rio again seemed close to tears.
"I really need someone to talk to right now, and I don't know anyone like me." She sniffled. "You see? Without Milton, I can't talk about RMing, and other stuff like that."
"Okay," Hank said while taking the lead. He stuck his fingers in his pockets and slouched along, moving as slow as he pleased. "Go ahead and talk."
"Ah… okay," Rio trailed behind respectfully, playing up the cuteness of her Japanese accent. "Taxis are not so good for people like you and me."
Speak for yourself. "And why is that?"
"Because Reality changes in them real fast. So many people going in and out, leaving behind dreams and memories."
"That is such a bunch of bull."
Rio caught up, catching Hank by surprise. He glowered down at her.
"No," she said up to his face, acting sweet and pretty. "It's not."
"Yes," he said down to her. "It is."
"I want you to think about the last few days. Hai? Think about them for me. Please?"
"Okay," he said warily.
"You got PEPed and found you were a Dot…"
"No I didn't. I walked out on them."
"Look, Hank-sama! Look right there! That's a crazy thing to say! I mean, you walked out on a PEP Scan? You just got up and left, with everybody watching?"
"Well. Yes. That's what I did."
"That's crazy. No one does that. No one could if they tried. That is what is bull."
Fuck you. "Well, I did."
Rio agreed wholeheartedly, wearing the most beautiful smile. "Yes! That is what you did. And what happened next? More crazy stuff perhaps? Like, you quit the only job you've ever had? You ditched your apartment and all your stuff, and whole entire life?"
"And you moved in with a super-secret billionaire, who I might add, offered to give you everything he had on more than one occasion?"
Hank already got the point Rio had been making, but she carried on. "To hang out with his gorgeous and crazy, smoking hot little assassin, with the dark and shiny death-ray eyes?"
Hank's mouth fell open as Rio ticked off every word he used to describe her, as if plucking them from index cards in his brain. She touched his elbow, ever so kind, letting him know she was sincere.
"Crazy is what we are," she said. "Crazy is what we do."
Hank closed his mouth and pulled ahead, making her trail him again. "I'd rather you didn't talk like that," he said. "You're the one who's crazy."
"All right. So maybe crazy isn't the word. How about unusual? Things are different now, hontō ka?"
- Upright. In the Den.
- Sci-Fi Action Adventure, propelled by a little Romance.
"Arise!" The star-studded empress of night
Gave me the keys to her city.
Bathed me in breath, told me of plight,
Force-fed my conscious with pity.
Pointed toward East, down past the yard
Through revolving doors of her courthouse.
Megaphones cry. "A guinea a head!
"Everything's fun at the Circus!"