Chapter 1:

Outsider

Lionheart


 It was a boiling hot day, just as one would expect from the harsh desert. Trudging toward a small barn in a white shirt and a pair of jeans was Hiro. A green pendant glistened from his necklace. His brown, tattered cloak wasn’t enough to shield him from the relentless rays of the sun. When he finally arrived at his destination, he plopped himself down atop a stack of hay.

“When is this day gonna end?”

It was eight in the morning.

Using his arms as a headrest for his black shaggy hair, he stared at the ceiling. Flying particles of dust could be seen floating around the air. A gentle breeze—albeit warm—brushed past him. His thoughts drifted away as he slowly closed his eyes.

Hurk!

He felt a mighty blow against his stomach. His eyes, now wide open, moved up. An old woman in a pink patched-up dress stood in front of him. She had a similar necklace to his, though hers had a ruby pendant surrounded by a golden frame. Her wooden cane lay on top of his abdomen.

“Hiro! Why in the world are you here?” she asked.

“G-Granny Jay! Fancy meeting you here.” Hiro laughed nervously.

“I knew you were lounging around when Miles called me up! He told me you chased away a coyote.”

“Tch. Snitch,” he mumbled to himself.

“Get to work. Johnny’s been loading the truck all by himself.”

“Ugh… I gotta work with him this morning?”

“We only have one delivery today!” She repeatedly tapped her cane against his leg. “Up! On your feet!”

“Okay, okay!”

He followed Granny Jay out of the barn and through a dirt pathway. They headed toward a field of melon patches. There, a hairy man in blue overalls was carrying an armful of the fruit. He placed them on the back of a white mini truck. When he saw Hiro, he raised his fist into the air.

“Get your ass over here, you lazy bum!” The hairy man tossed a melon at Hiro, who barely managed to catch it. “Trying to make me do all the work. Shame on you.”

“Shut up, Johnny,” Hiro said. “I lifted way more than you yesterday.”

Johnny spat on the ground. “At least I helped, asshole.”

“Tch.”

“Now, now. Are you two fighting again?” asked an old man donning a lavender shirt and cargo shorts. He strolled toward them, seemingly unbothered by the sweltering heat.

“Miles, you need to set Hiro straight,” Granny Jay said. “I gave him this job for your sake, after all.”

“But siiisss, he’s like family to us!” Miles waved his finger in the air. “And family always helps each other. Right?”

“Exactly, and you should expect more from family. This is the third time this week he’s snuck out for a nap!”

“I’ll deal with him, okay? Just let him off for now. Please?”

She heaved an exasperated sigh, rubbing her forehead as she did so. “Fine. Do as you will. But he can’t get away with this every time, Miles. You know that.”

“Yes, yes. I do. Thanks, sis.”

“Phew,” Hiro said in a low voice.

Miles turned around and firmly placed his hands on Hiro’s shoulders. “You heard her, Hiro. We got an important delivery today, and I need you to be on your best behavior. Got it?”

Hiro saluted him. “Sir, yes sir! Thanks for bailing me out again. I do not wanna get another earful from her.”

Miles leaned forward and whispered, “Oh, that wasn’t free. After we’re done with the delivery, you’re going shopping with me!”

Immediately, Hiro’s face fell. To him, the only thing worse than tirelessly working in the farm was heading down to the village, especially in the crowded shopping district.

“Aw, why the long face?” Miles asked. “Chin up! It’s your second anniversary here in Ushiro! We have to celebrate!”

Of course they had to. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, children passing an exam—nothing escaped Miles’ calendar. Celebrations would be held every few weeks, with Miles and his gifts being the highlight of every commemoration.

Meanwhile, Johnny approached them and bumped into Hiro. “Get a move on, you two! Bandito’s waiting for us.” He continued walking toward the truck.

“Chill out, man. We can keep those dicks waiting.” Hiro, holding his melon tight, briskly caught up to Johnny.

“Tsk. Tsk. Making our biggest customers wait. What excellent service you have.”

The two bumped shoulder to shoulder, snarling at each other as they did so. They continued to place the melons in the mini truck that way. Miles laughed at them as he carried multiple melons in each arm. Despite his age, he had about the same energy as an athlete. In no time, the three loaded the truck. Johnny and Miles hopped inside. Hiro stood outside and waved at them.

“What are you waiting for? Get in!” Miles told him.

Hiro groaned. “I’m not going.”

“Ugh! Stop adding more problems than you already are, asshole! Get in already!” Johnny yelled.

“Who knows what Bandito will do?”

“They’re not going to do anything,” Miles said. “We’re law-abiding citizens!”

“And they’re not the law!”

“But they’re all we have. Besides, remember? We made an agreement earlier!” Miles winked.

“Eugh…”

“We’re just delivering melons. Nothing more.”

After a moment of hesitation, Hiro finally gave in.

The three squeezed inside the cramped truck, with Miles sitting between the two. They made their way out of the farm and into the vast desert. Gusts of wind blew sand onto the windows, which needed the wind wipers to get rid of. Johnny turned the radio on, but all they could hear was static. Every now and then, Miles would make small talk, but the other two would only reply with a single word or phrase. It continued like this for another half hour until, finally, they reached their destination.

On the side of a small hill was a large metal warehouse. A driveway connected it to the bottom of the hill; a tall barbed wire fence surrounded the whole establishment. Danger signs were scattered throughout the fence, warning people of the electric shock they would receive should they attempt to climb it. Armed men wearing black vests and brown hats patrolled the area. Tattooed in their arms was the word “Bandito” in golden cursive letters.

Their truck arrived at the bottom of the hill, where two of the armed men were guarding the gate. Johnny rolled down his window.

“State your business,” one of the men asked. His curly hair was tied into a bun.

Johnny stretched his arms and scratched his chin. “We got your mel—”

“Good morning, fine gentleman!” Miles pushed Johnny’s face aside and leaned closer to the window. “We’re from ‘Jay’s Goods’! We have the usual monthly delivery for Bandito. Twenty-five melons!”

The man pointed behind him with his thumb. “You know the drill. Step out of the vehicle.”

Following his orders, the three hopped out of the truck. Hiro was relieved to finally have some room to stretch his legs. As he was doing so, a sudden thud on the ground startled him.

The man had slammed the stock of his rifle against the road. “Get in line. Lift your arms to the side. We don’t got all day.”

One by one, he patted them down, searching for any possible weapons. First, Johnny, then Miles. It was Hiro’s turn; he lifted his arms up as the man instructed. While he was being searched, he looked to his right, avoiding eye contact with the guard. Suddenly, he felt a surge of pain on his foot as the guard had struck it with his rifle. Hiro tried to move his foot away, but this only led the man to push his gun down even more.

“Is something the matter?” the man asked. “Where are you looking at? Hm?”

“N-Nothing, I—”

“Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing you in any previous delivery. You new?”

“No, but… uh…”

“Ah, pardon him!” Miles came to the rescue. “He works at the farm, but we don’t normally bring him along for deliveries. He’s a bit, um, shy!”

“‘Shy’ doesn’t excuse insubordinate behavior. If you don’t want us suspecting you, don’t look suspicious.”

“Hey, what’s the hold up?” the other guard yelled. “They’re blocking the gate!”

“We apologize!” Miles bowed his head. Grabbing the back of Hiro’s head, he forced him to do the same.

With his head still bowed, Hiro felt the ground rumble slightly. He looked behind him to find a massive truck slowly approaching them. It was noticeably different from the other trucks; not only was it much larger, but it was also painted in a camouflage pattern.

“Alright, alright!” The man looked at Miles. “You’re off the hook for now, but you better teach this kid some manners.”

“Of course. Thank you very much.”

Turning around, the man took out his radio and walked back to the gate. Not long after, a black pickup truck descended from the hill. Two more armed men hopped out of it and transferred the melons over to their truck.

Meanwhile, Miles elbowed Hiro’s side. “That was too close,” he whispered. “What got into you?”

Hiro didn’t answer, shaken by what happened. While Miles often spoke highly about Bandito being the protector of the village of Ushiro, Hiro had otherwise heard stories from Granny Jay—stories of people apprehended by Bandito for reasons of all sorts. Some were lucky and returned with only a public apology to Bandito. There were those who returned pale and thinner than before. Others disappeared for weeks or months and would come back completely changed.

And others don’t return at all.

After the unloading was done, one of Bandito’s members handed Johnny a small envelope. “Your pay.”

Johnny counted the money. “Looks good.”

“Thank you for your patronage!” Miles bowed his head.

Grrrreat. Now get outta here.”

With that, Miles said his final thanks, and the three entered back into their truck. As they left the premises, Hiro’s gaze was glued to the camouflaged truck. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen one like it. These massive trucks would come to Bandito’s base every few months or so. No one knew what was inside them. No one was allowed to question it. They were always heavily guarded, taking routes that passed around the village instead of through it.

Miles clasped his hands together. “Alright! We’re done for today! Who’s ready to go shopping?”

“Oh, hell nah,” Johnny said. “I’m dropping you two off at the village square. As for me, I’m heading home to snooze.”

“Sounds like a plan! Get a good, long rest.”

“WHAT?” Hiro yelled. “Why do I have to go, but he doesn’t?”

“Of course you’re coming!” Miles gripped his shoulder. “We had a deal, remember?”

“But—”

Miles moved closer to his ear and whispered, “And if you didn’t sneak out for a quick nap, things would’ve played out differently. Right? Not to mention almost getting in trouble with Bandito.”

Hiro fell silent.

Johnny angrily turned the radio’s knob around, hoping to get even an ounce of signal, but soon gave up. The rest of the trip was rather quiet, with Miles’ incessant humming being the only source of music—or, as Hiro would prefer to call it, noise—for the remainder of the way. Finally, Johnny dropped them off at the village square. Roads from all around Ushiro led to this area. One particular street was crowded, with villagers heading toward the shopping district.

After saying goodbye to Johnny, Miles placed his arm firmly over Hiro’s shoulder. “You ready to go?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be…”

With Miles leading the pace, the two marched forward. The village of Ushiro was rather quaint and small compared to the large, bustling cities deep in the heart of the kingdom of Orin. Mud bricks and clay were the materials of choice for the houses and buildings. Nothing but sand and a few cacti decorated the unpaved roads. A tall wooden fence was planted along its perimeter, with entrances at the east and west sides.

They reached a crowded street that led to the shopping district. It was narrow; cars couldn’t pass through it. Those who passed by them greeted Miles, wishing him a good day. He always answered back with a bright and cheery response.

Several stores were lined up on both sides, selling a variety of clothing, jewelry, and many other accessories. Party flags were hung on walls as an invitation to come. Large, electronic signs flashed in a multitude of colors, displaying their all-too-appealing discounts. Crowds gathered around as boisterous salesmen advertised their products.

There were also several armed men from Bandito roaming around—far more than usual. They seemed to be on high alert. Hiro put on his hood and kept his head low.

“Ohoho! Look at this, Hiro!” Miles’ eyes were glued to the nearest store. Several jackets were displayed by the window. “Seventy, eighty… They have ninety percent discounts?! We can buy lots of jackets!”

Hiro raised his eyebrow. “But Miles… We’re in a desert. No one’s gonna wear jackets here. Maybe that’s why they’re so cheap.”

“Even jackets can be an upgrade for you! You have to be tired of wearing plain white shirts all the time.”

“But what if I like white shirts?”

“And what if you like what I pick? There’s only one way to find out!” Miles rushed inside the store.

Hiro was left alone outside. The nearby benches were taken, so he leaned against the clay wall and sighed. There was no stopping Miles once he got excited like this. As much as he would like to sneak home, the thought of ditching Miles seemed too much, even for him. He took out his phone.

The clock said ten in the morning.

“This is going to be a long day…”

Finally, someone stood up from their seat. In a hurry, Hiro got up and walked briskly toward it. Just as he was about to sit, however, a pair of hands slammed against the bench. They belonged to a short girl with a crimson ponytail, wearing a red jacket underneath her black cloak.

“Mine!” she yelled with a shrill voice. Sticking her tongue out at him, she plopped herself onto the seat.

Hiro rolled his eyes. “Kids are so rude,” he mumbled.

He was in the middle of turning around when she tugged his cloak.

“Hey! I heard that, you hobo! First off, I’m not a kid. Full grown adult here.”

Hiro jerked his head backward, taken aback.

“Secondly, you look like a not-so-busy guy. I got— I mean, my friend got lost, and I need help findin’ her.”

He shook his head. “Sorry, but I’m not the right guy to ask. I don’t really know much of the folk in this village.”

“Wait, wait! I’ve been askin’ around and nobody wants to help. You’re all I got, man.”

“I’m sure if you keep asking, someone helpful will come along.”

Pleaaase? It’s not like you have anything better to do.”

“You don’t know that.”

“You wouldn’t be lookin’ for a seat if you did.”

“...”

“Well? You wouldn’t leave a cute girl like me alone, right?”

“...Fine. I can at least hear you out.” He squatted on the ground. “So, what does your friend look like?”

Uhhh…” She raised her hand high up but quickly retracted it to just above her head. “She’s juuust about this tall.”

Rrrrright. Anything else?”

She placed her hand on her chin. “Let’s see. Well, she doesn’t really talk much. She does like to hit me though. Oh, she’s a girl by the way.”

“That’s… not very helpful.”

“And neither are you, but I don’t have any other cho…”

Her voice trailed off as she fixed her eyes behind Hiro. He traced her gaze to one of Bandito’s men on the other side of the street. He had purple hair, his hands decorated with rings of various colors.

“Oh! I can just ask him instead!” She stood up and was about to head toward him, but Hiro quickly got up and grabbed her shoulder.

“Hey, hey, hey! Where are you going?” he asked.

She tugged his hand away, but his grip was too strong. “Well, since you’re so insistent on not helpin’, I’mma ask them!”

“Are you not from here? Those are the last people you wanna ask!”

“Whatever! I bet they’re way more helpful than you!”

“Trust me, they’re bad news. You don’t wanna mess with them.”

“Nah, I got this! Just watch! Unlike you, I’m filled with charisma and charm.” She puffed her chest.

“Alright, suit yourself then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Yada yada, hobo.” Her hand mimicked his mouth.

Hiro watched on as she skipped her way toward the purple-haired Bandito member. He looked down, ready to turn around. It wasn’t his problem anymore. At least, that was what he tried to tell himself. After all, to him, she was just an annoying child who happened to come across his way. Whatever problem she would soon face was none of his concern.

But somehow, he still couldn’t leave her alone.

Sneaking through the crowd, he slowly followed her from behind.

With hands on her hips, the girl stood before the purple-haired man. “Hello there!”

He looked at her briefly before turning away. To Hiro’s relief, the man continued to patrol about, ignoring the girl’s attempts to grab his attention.

Cupping her hands over her mouth, she yelled with all her might. “Listen to me, will ya?!”

Everyone around shifted their attention to her. Hiro shook his head in disbelief.

The purple-haired man approached the girl, towering well above her. “What do you want? Get lost.”

“Whoa, whoa!” the girl said. “No need to be so aggressive! See, my friend’s lost, and I—”

“I’m not repeating myself. ”

As he turned around to walk away, the girl leaped toward him and grabbed his arm. He tried to shake her off aggressively, but she held on, sinking her nails into his skin. It was a bitter struggle that ended with the back of his rifle striking her left cheek. When she let go, he kicked her in the stomach, sending her to the ground.

“This stupid brat.” The man looked at the wounds on his arm before staring down at her. “You’re lucky that’s all you’re getting. Now get the hell outta here before I change my mind.”

The girl groaned as she held her hand over her stomach. Brushing the sand off her cloak, she scrambled to her feet. “You bast—”

Unable to keep still any longer, Hiro dashed toward her and covered her mouth with his hand. “Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Muffled noises came from her mouth.

“Who the hell are you?” the purple-haired man asked.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Bandito!” Hiro said. “She’s my sister. She got lost earlier. Big crowd today, huh?”

“Put that brat under control. Kid’s got no manners.”

The muffled noises grew louder. Hiro pinched her cheeks tighter, which only led to a trail of saliva dripping down his hand.

“I’m soooo sorry.” Hiro’s voice quivered as he felt the girl’s cold dribble. “We’ll make sure to watch over her this time.”

The man nudged his gun forward. “Good. Get her outta my sight before I change my mind.”

“Thank you so much!”

Hiro was about to leave with the girl when they heard a voice behind them. A woman who wore the same Bandito uniform ran toward the purple-haired man.

“Hey, hey, hey! Who are those two?” she asked.

“The hell should I know? Just a bunch of kids,” the man said.

The woman leaned closer and whispered in his ear. Hiro tried to inch away into the crowd, but the man called out to them.

“Hey, you two! Get your asses back here!”

Hiro stopped in his tracks, still holding the girl’s mouth. Slowly, he walked back to them.

The man pointed at the girl. “Turns out I need your sister to stay after all. We got some questions to ask her.”

Hiro instinctively took a small step backward. “H-How long do you need her for?”

“That ain’t your concern.”

“Our parents are gonna wonder why I’m returning without her.”

“Just tell them Bandito took her. They’ll understand.”

“Why do you need her? Did she do something wrong?”

“Huh? What’s this? Are you saying no to me?”

“N-No, of course not!” A drop of sweat trickled down Hiro’s face as he tittered. “I was just ask—”

“You’re coming with us too, then.”

“What?!” Hiro let go of the girl and pushed her aside. “I was just asking! You can take her!”

“Nah. Too late, buddy.”

“Look, she’s not even—”

The girl held Hiro’s hands. “What’s happening? Are you gonna leave me alone, big bro?” She stared at him with pleading eyes.

He tried to shake her off. “What are you doing?!”

The man pointed his rifle at Hiro. “Enough joking around. You two are coming. No more questions.”

Hiro’s mind was blanking. The man’s voice faded into echoed noises. The girl kept tugging on his hands, but he paid no heed to her. It wasn’t as though they blatantly said they would hurt him; they only wanted to ask questions. Recollections of the stories he had heard came flooding into his thoughts.

He was afraid.

The purple-haired man reached for Hiro’s arm. Suddenly, a flash of light shone from his eyes, illuminating them into a bright, glistening green. He slapped away the man’s hand. In response, the man tried to lift his rifle up, but Hiro pushed it down. A bullet fired into the ground; chaos erupted from the crowd. The Bandito woman aimed her gun at Hiro. Before she could fire, however, he kicked the purple-haired man, sending him crashing toward the woman.

Meanwhile, the girl stared at his face. “Whoa! What's with your eyes?”

Hiro shook his head. The green light faded back into his usual jet black eyes. “What’re you talking about? Do I have something in my eyes?”

“Wh— They’re gone.”

“Must be your imagination. Now, let’s get outta here!”

While the two members of Bandito struggled to get up, Hiro carried the girl under his arm. He sprinted away with her into the panicked crowd.

She struggled to break free from Hiro’s hold. “Let go of me, you creep!”

“Are you nuts? Didn’t you hear the gunshot? They’re gonna kill you!”

“Help! I’m being kidnapped!” she yelled, ignoring his words.

“Shut up! I’m trying to help you here!”

While he was running, he heard a familiar voice call out to him.

“Hiro?”

He jerked his head to the side to see Miles standing in front of the jacket store. He was carrying a plastic bag in his hand.

“Hiro, what’s going on?” Miles walked to him. “And who’s this girl?”

More shots could be heard. Hiro looked behind to find the Bandito members running toward them, using their guns to scare away the crowd.

“I’m sorry, Miles. I have to go,” he said.

“Go?” Miles’ lips quivered. “That’s Bandito, isn’t it? What did you do?!”

“No time to explain!”

“No! Stay here! You have to apologize to them!

“Sorry! Don’t follow me!”

“Hiro!”

Hiro bolted away into the crowd, the red-haired girl still flailing about in his arms.

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