Chapter 1:

Outsider

Lionheart


They would be quick, Miles had said. Just restocking some tools, Miles had said. After that, it would be a normal day on the farm, Miles had said. He’d told Hiro all this at around eight in the morning.

It was now noon.

Ushiro Village’s shopping district had never been busier. Competition was fierce; everyone vied for the lowest prices. Merchants had to pull all the stops: bright neon signs, party flags all around, megaphones to announce their wares. Some even invested in life-sized holograms. This was no time to hold themselves back. After all, the village's founding day only came once a year.

Plastic bags flailed in both hands as Hiro jostled through the crowd. He panted heavily; his head spun. Music blasted from all directions. People shouted as they negotiated for lower prices. Even a farm worker with an athletic build like him had his limits. He slowly dragged his feet along the hot sand.

Trudging beside him was his coworker and senior, Johnny. He was far more rotund and had hair all over his body, except for the top of his head. His green shirt and blue overalls were drenched in sweat.

“Ugh! I’m so tired. Here, take this.” Johnny offered Hiro one of the two plastic bags he carried.

“You can’t be serious.” Hiro stepped to the side. “You’re literally only holding two!”

“Cut me some slack, man. We both know I’m the one doing all the heavy duty work on the farm. Do me a favor for once.”

“That’s a load of crap! You should do yourself a favor and take some of mine. You could use the exercise.”

“You calling me fat, asshole?”

“Come on, boys! Don’t tell me you’ve run out of gas already!” Miles said, Hiro’s boss and housemate. If there was anyone who didn’t want to miss out on the huge discounts and rock bottom prices, it was him.

Despite his old age, Miles was nothing short of energetic. His vibrant lavender shirt and yellow cargo shorts matched his demeanor. He had a cheerful smile that made everyone feel welcome. Hiro knew it all too well, as it was what had fooled him into coming along. What was supposedly a quick trip for cheap supplies ended up being an all day shopping spree.

“Slow down, Uncle,” Johnny said. “Haven’t you had enough?”

“Enough?! We have half the day left!” Miles threw his hands up. “Now stop dilly-dallying and get a move on!”

Johnny let out a frustrated groan. “You bought so much already!”

“For myself, sure! There are still so many gifts I gotta buy for people!”

“Can we take a break at least?” Hiro asked. “I’m exhausted.”

“Nonsense! You’re still young! And—” Miles gasped as he swiftly turned his head around to the store beside them. Several jackets were displayed by the window. “Seventy, eighty… They have ninety percent discounts! Boys, we’re going jacket shopping.”

“What?” Hiro raised an eyebrow. “We’re in a desert. No one needs jackets here. Why do you think they’re so cheap?”

“Oh, psh! Even jackets have to be an upgrade for you! Aren’t you tired of looking like… this?” Miles gestured at Hiro’s plain white shirt, ripped jeans, and tattered cloak. The only thing that wasn’t as drab was a green necklace that he got as a birthday gift.

“What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“You wear the same thing every day! We can at least find a replacement for your robe. Maybe a light jacket with a hood?”

“A light jacket with a hood, you say?” a man in a red uniform said from the shop’s door. He had a bionic eye and a monocle over the other. “Step right in! We have exactly what you’re looking for.”

“Well, don’t mind if I do!” Miles followed him inside.

Johnny sat beside the store’s wall and dropped his bag. “I ain’t going in there. Wake me up when he’s done.” It didn’t take long for him to start snoring.

And thus, in the midst of the giant crowd, Hiro was left alone. He dumped his bags beside Johnny and looked around for a bench. Almost all of them were taken except for one on the other block. Excited to finally get some rest, Hiro briskly walked 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. Just underneath her black cloak, he could see the sleeves of her red jacket.

“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. “I'm sorry, what?”

“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 tired. Can you ask someone else?”

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

“Then go home. Ask someone there for help.”

“Can’t. Ain’t from here.”

An outsider. Ushiro was an isolated village, surrounded by sandy hills all around. Apart from delivery truck drivers, Hiro hasn’t heard of one since he himself entered the village two years ago.

Hiro pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Look, just head to one of the stores here. They’re bound to be way more useful than me.”

“You really ain’t gonna help a cute girl like me?”

“I just wanna take a nap. Trust me, you’re better off asking someone else.”

“Tch. You selfish little…”

She fixed her eyes behind Hiro. He traced her gaze to a purple-haired man with a rifle in his hands. He wore a brown hat and black vest; rings with sparkling gems decorated his fingers.

The district was filled with guards like him who patrolled the area. Unlike the big cities further inside the kingdom of Orin, Ushiro didn’t have any police or governing body. A group known as Bandito called the shots, and had taken it upon themselves to rule the village. From the stories Hiro had heard, those who messed with their affairs either publicly apologized after getting beaten up, or disappeared entirely.

“Oh! I can just ask him instead!” She skipped her way toward the purple-haired man.

At last, Hiro sat on the bench and found his respite. He had a brief thought of warning the girl of Bandito, but quickly put it aside. Miles could be coming out any time soon; he had to get as much rest as he could before resuming his role as a pack mule. Still, he couldn’t find it in himself to sleep, so he decided to keep observing her.

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

The man took a quick glance at her before turning away.

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 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 jumped and grabbed his arm. She sunk her nails deep into his skin. No matter how much he shook, he couldn’t get her off; it was a bitter struggle. He struck her face with the butt of his rifle until her grip loosened. A kick to her stomach sent her to the ground.

“This stupid brat.” The man looked at the wounds on his arm. “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. She brushed the sand off her cloak as she scrambled to her feet. “You bastard!”

He cocked his gun. “What? You wanna try that again?”

“Hey, hey, hey! Kin, what’s going on? Who is this?” a curly-haired woman in the same Bandito uniform asked him.

“The hell should I know, Chiho? Just some kid,” he said.

Chiho leaned closer and whispered in his ear. After a while, Kin turned to the girl.

“Change of plans. You’re coming with us,” he said. “We got some questions to ask you.”

“Huh? Who? Me?” The red-haired girl pointed at herself. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but I asked first.”

“You don’t get a choice here.” Chiho walked up to the girl’s side. “Come with us. Don’t make this hard on yourself.”

“Hmph! Oh yeah? Well… Oh!” The girl quickly spun her head to Hiro and waved at him. “Hey! Big bro! Over here!”

“Big… bro?”

Hiro glanced around in surprise. At first, he thought that she might’ve been talking to someone else. Alas, the longer he waited, the more reality sunk in. He stood up and tried to blend into the crowd, but it was too late. All eyes were on him.

“Hey, you! Get over here.” Kin gestured for him to come.

Hiro didn’t move. His mind raced.

“Don’t make me ask twice.”

Reluctantly, he walked up to them.

“You her family?” Chiho asked him.

Hiro waved his hands. “N-No! Of c—”

The girl clung to his arm. “Hey! What took you so long!”

“What are you doing?” Hiro whispered to her in a snappy tone.

“What do you mean, Brother? You told me you'd wait for me there, and you did!” She had a wide grin across her face.

“Huh. Well, if that’s the case, you’re coming with us too,” Kin said.

Hiro shook his head violently. “No, no, no! This is a big misunderstanding! I’ve never met her before in my life! She’s just spitting nonsense!”

“What? Are you calling me a liar?” The girl looked up at him with large, beady eyes.

He had never been this close to punching a girl before in his life.

“I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but screw it.” Kin pointed his gun at Hiro. “You’re both coming with us. Now.”

Hiro instinctively took a small step backward, but stopped himself from moving any further. “Wh-Where are we going?”

“That ain’t your concern.”

“How long are you gonna keep us? I have family waiting, and—”

“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 asking.”

“Then stop asking. Follow me.”

All those stories Hiro heard about Bandito came rushing to his head. He started gasping for air. His fingers felt numb. He began to see double. His mind turned blank.

He was afraid.

“Hello? Did you hear me?”

Kin reached for his arm. Suddenly a green flash of light shone from Hiro’s eyes. His voice cracked as he screamed and slapped his hand away. Before Kin could lift his rifle up, Hiro grabbed it and aimed down. A bullet fired into the ground; chaos erupted from the crowd.

Chiho took out her pistol. Before she could fire, however, Hiro kicked Kin toward her; they both crashed onto the ground. He turned around to run away, but the girl still clung to his arm.

“Let go of me!” he yelled at her.

“No way! Not after that!” She had a look of excitement on her face. “That was so cool! What happened to your eyes? They’re glowing!”

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 go already!”

“Nope! I decided I’m comin’ with you!”

“Urgh!”

He could hear the Bandito members’ groans as they struggled to stand up. With no time to lose, he picked the girl up and carried her under his arm. He sprinted away with her into the panicked crowd. Mere moments later, a gunshot could be heard from where they came from.

The girl struggled to break free from Hiro’s hold. “Hey! I didn’t say you could grab me! Let go, you creep!”

“Are you nuts? They’re gonna kill us!”

“Help! I do not consent to this!”

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

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

“Hiro?”

He slowed himself to a halt and jerked his head to the side. Miles stood in front of the jacket store with a plastic bag in hand.

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

More shots could be heard. A growing group of Bandito members rushed to Hiro’s location. Their guns were an excellent deterrent to anyone who got in their way.

“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!”

“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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