“Move! Out of the way!”
Hiro shoved bystanders aside as he bolted away as fast as he could. From the increasing number of gunshots behind him, he could tell his group of pursuers was getting larger. It was only a matter of time before they caught up.
The girl in his arms didn’t make it any easier for him either.
“This is harassment! Let me go, hobo!”
She let out an ear-piercing shriek. When Hiro tried tuning out of her incessant complaints, she dug her sharp nails into his thighs.
“O-Ow!” He dropped her on the ground and fell on one knee. “What the hell are you doing, kid?!”
“Not a kid! Get your filthy hands off me, hobo.” She brushed the sand off her cloak. “ Just ‘cause I’m interested in you doesn't mean I’m that interested in you.”
“Whatever. If you wanna stay and die, be my guest. I’m outta here!” Hiro tried to dash away, but she grabbed his hand, stopping him in place.
“Don’t run too fast! I got so many questions I wanna ask!”
He tried to pull her away. “They’re gonna catch up! Let go of me!”
This time, she gripped his arm with both hands. “No! You’re takin’ me with you!”
“Urgh! Fine! But we can’t stay here!” He sprinted forward, dragging her with him.
The sound of stray bullets grew louder. People cowered inside the stores, leaving less and less cover to hide around. At the end of the road, Hiro could see a barricade of armed Bandito members blocking the path. His legs were getting tired; he was running out of options.
He noticed a tight gap between two buildings. It was quite narrow—barely enough for only one person to pass through at a time. No one used it as a passageway; instead, it had collected a large pile of litter over time.
It seemed like the perfect place to hide.
The girl shook her head violently; she knew what Hiro’s plan was. He grabbed her shoulder and covered her mouth with his hand. Taking a deep breath, he dove underneath the trash. After that, it was a long waiting game. Eventually, he heard several footsteps.
“Where the hell are they?” one of them asked.
“There’s nobody left in the street,” another reported. “We blocked the other side, so the bastards have to still be here.”
“Get moving then! We’ll have every single building here stripped and searched.”
They soon marched away. Hiro breathed a sigh of relief, though the foul stench of garbage led him to cut it short. He almost screamed out loud when he suddenly felt a sharp pain on his hand. The girl was fed up and decided to give him a good, hearty bite.
Hiro finally gave in. With his other hand, he struck the top of her head. She immediately loosened her teeth.
“I’m gonna let go of you, and if you make any noise, I’m ditching you. Got it?” he whispered.
He took his hand off. A mixture of blood and saliva trickled down his hand. As he was shaking it off, she pinched her nose and gagged.
“Bleh! Of all the places you coulda chosen, you picked this dump,” she said.
“Gee, sorry for helping you out. That was my bad.”
“Help? All you did was harass me!”
He shushed her. “Are you trying to get us killed? Pipe down.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Psh. Those bozos? Kill me? A lil’ bit of a reach there, buddy.”
“Are you nuts?! They’ll kill you! Hell, they’ll kill us!”
“Whoa there, look who’s raising their voice now? Besides, I coulda taken ‘em on.”
Hiro placed his hands on his head and curled up into a ball. “Crap… They really are gonna kill us, huh?”
“Um, are you oka—”
“I shouldn’t have kicked them down. Why did I do that? They just wanted to ask me questions.” Hiro’s breathing grew heavier with every second.
“True, that was on you.”
“I even ran! I got scared and just ran away! Of course that’s suspicious!”
“Not to mention carrying me around like a kidnapper. Very suspicious.”
“I… I just… panicked. I didn’t know what to do. It’s ‘cause…” Slowly, he turned his head to her. His brows furrowed, and his nostrils flared. “It’s ‘cause of you! Why did you drag me into this mess? I told you to get lost! What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Now, now.” She patted his shoulder repeatedly. “You’re panickin’ again. Don’t want a heart attack now, do we?”
“Getting a heart attack is the least of my problems right now.”
“Relax, will ya? You’re actin’ like it’s the end of the world. They’re just a bunch of bozos, you know?”
“Bandito. They’re called Bandito.”
“Pff! No way! That’s their name? It’s so… perfect! A stupid name for a bunch of stupid folk!”
Hiro couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Here he was, almost in tears. His impulsive acts might’ve ruined his life in the village—for everyone back at the farm, too. Yet, to this girl, it seemed like a normal walk in the park. Oddly enough, he found her brash confidence to be rather comforting.
He exhaled, taking some time to calm down. “Okay… We can’t stay here for long. Luckily, I live on a farm on the outskirts. I can just hide in there until this situation dies out. As for you—”
“Perfect! Take me with you.”
“You’re excused! Plus, your farm folk can help me find my friend!”
“I don’t know about that, but if we wanna escape, you’re gonna have to cooperate. For now, let’s get outta here before they find us. We’ll try to get to the other street.”
After checking to see if the surroundings were clear, Hiro got to his feet and ever so slowly squeezed himself further inside the gap. The girl followed him, covering her face as she did so. The path was littered with bird and rat droppings. Years of uncleaned puddles led to the ground being quite slippery.
“Ugh, distract me from this smell, hobo,” the girl said. “Talk to me for a bit.”
He rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”
“Those uh… Bandito bozos. Why’re you so afraid of ‘em?”
“I mean, it’s kinda simple, isn’t it? They have guns; I don’t. I’m not risking my life trying to rebel against them. They can have the power.”
“And yet, here you are. Funny how that works out.”
“And whose fault do you think that is?”
“Hey, your fault for rejectin’ my cry for help. I had to go to them of all people.”
“Help? That’s the last thing they’re doing,” he scoffed. “Once they’re done with you, they’ll toss you aside like a used condom.”
She spat out laughing. “Damn, you really are at the bottom of the food chain, huh? Embarrassin’, but to each their own.”
“You say that like it’s my choice.”
“Oh, silly, there’s always a choice! Um… What was your name again?
“Shouldn’t you tell me yours first before asking?”
“Name’s Maki!” She moved faster to match his speed. “But that’s all you’re gettin’. Now tell me yours!”
He didn’t respond.
“I never said I’d tell you mine.”
“Hey! That’s cheap, asshole! Not fair!”
“Tsk.” He started moving faster.
“I wanna know! Come ooon! Tell me!” She tugged his arm. “You don’t want me callin’ you hobo all the time, right?”
Hiro raised his voice. “Get off! Don’t act all chummy with me. Not after putting me into all this trouble.”
“Oh, boo hoo!” Spit flew out of Maki’s mouth. “Who said you had to kick ‘em down and run away? Definitely not me. You chose to do this!”
At this point, the two had already stepped out into the street. They were too engrossed in their fight, however, to realize that they were out in the open. In the heat of the moment, they had completely forgotten what they were doing in the first place.
“If I didn’t, who knows what they would’ve done to you!” Hiro raised his voice.
“They woulda bowed down in respect to the queen, that’s what! If anythin’, you spoiled my fun!” She pointed at him.
He raised his fist at her. “You ungrateful—”
Not keeping his eyes on the road, Hiro collided face-first into what felt like a bulky wall of metal. There was a sharp ringing in his ears as he fell to the ground. He rubbed his nose; there was blood.
He lifted up his head. “Why, watch where…”
After seeing the tall, burly man with black wavy hair stand before him, Hiro was speechless. On the man’s left cheek was a burn scar that ran down to his neck. His left arm was prosthetic—made of metal. The word “Bandito” was tattooed in golden letters on his right arm. He wore the same uniform as Bandito, but unlike their brown hats, his was black.
It was their boss.
Hiro crawled back a few steps. Of all the people he could’ve bumped into, this was the worst encounter. Bandito’s boss was silent, but his eyes stared daggers at Hiro. It signaled a calm, yet furious rage. He rarely ever left their base, much less strolled around the village in the middle of the day. So why now, of all times?
Hiro had never seen him before, but Miles would often sing praises of him being a former marine deserving of respect. Instead of respect, however, fear and dread crept in. Beads of sweat ran down his cheeks. As much as it bothered him, he couldn’t bring himself to wipe them off.
The boss was accompanied by two of his armed subordinates. One of them kicked sand onto Hiro’s face. “Watch where you’re going!” he said.
Hiro’s eyes watered as he coughed violently. Maki stomped on the ground, sending more sand onto Hiro’s clothes.
“You’re the ones who bumped into us, you dicks!” she yelled.
“Whoa there!” the subordinate said. “You got any idea who you bumped into?”
“The hell should I know?!”
“It’s gonna cost you two,” the other said, pinching his fingers together. “If you want us to let you go easy, that is.”
“Are you two nuts?!” she yelled. “You were the ones who bumped into us! Therefore, you should pay me!”
“What the— You got some nerve to talk to us like that, kid.”
Maki turned to Hiro. “Hey! Help me out here, man!”
He didn’t answer.
She drilled her finger into his cheek. “Hellooooo? Earth to stupid! Say somethin’!”
Hiro stared down at the sand. He tried to think of a way out, but nothing came up. Every second felt longer than the last as his breathing grew more and more unsteady. Suddenly, his thoughts were abruptly interrupted when Maki chopped him on the head.
“Stop spacin’ out!” she said. “The hell happened to you?”
“Hey boss, what do we do about these two?” one of the Bandito lackeys asked.
“Leave them be,” he said with a gruff voice. “They’re not the ones we’re looking for.”
“We’re handling urgent matters right now. This is not important. Let’s move.”
As the boss was turning away, Hiro’s eyes widened. It appeared that they weren’t informed yet about what happened earlier in the shopping district. If so, this might be his one chance to try and clear things up.
“Um, excuse me!” Hiro raised his hand.
The boss stopped in his tracks. “What?”
“Well, actually… There might’ve been a bit of a misunderstanding with some other members of Bandito. Actually, we’re just here to enjoy Ushiro’s founding day, but I think they mistook us for something else.”
The boss looked at Maki and surveyed her face. “Hm…”
“Whaddya want?” Maki glared at him.
“Wh-Whoa whoa!” Hiro swiftly covered her mouth, pinching her cheeks together tightly so she wouldn’t bite him. “Sorry, she has such a nasty mouth! I keep telling her about it, but she just won’t shut up.”
She responded with muffled noises.
“...Right. Whatever you have is not my problem. Now get out of my sight. We’re in a hurry here.”
“Of course.” Hiro bowed his head. Even though his problem wasn’t completely solved, he still felt relief from the boss taking his leave.”
Maki swung her elbow against Hiro’s stomach. When his hold loosened, she bit his finger, forcing him to let go. She then pointed at the boss’s face. “Hey, you! You said you were searchin’ for someone?”
His eyes furrowed. “Yes. What about it?”
“You mentioned hair color. If it ain’t mine, what was it?”
“Pink. And significantly taller than you too.”
“The last part wasn’t necessary. Aaaaanyways, why’re you lookin’ for ‘em?”
“Oh? Why do you ask? Do you happen to know her?”
“Her? Oh, so she’s a girl. Gotcha, gotcha.”
“Answer my question. Do you know who she is?”
“Maybe. None of your business.”
The boss leaned forward. His voice took a lower tone. “I believe it is very much my business. Now tell me what you know.”
While the two were speaking, Hiro slowly inched away. This was no longer his problem, and he didn’t want it to be. When he felt he was at a safe distance to turn around and escape, one of the Bandito members shouted at him.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” The subordinate aimed his gun at him.
Hiro raised his arms. “Wait, wait, wait! I thought we could just go now.”
“Obviously, there’s been a change of plans,” the boss said. “You and this girl will tell me everything you know about our runaway killer.”
“There was a commotion last night. She killed two of my men and turned them into some kind of… abomination.”
“Pfft, already?!” Maki yelled. “And after all that crap she went on about lying low, too. Look at her now!”
Hiro shook his head rapidly. “I have no idea who she is, or what you’re talking about.”
“Oh? Your friend here seems to recognize her.”
Hiro jerked his head to Maki, who casually waved at him. “I swear, I don’t even know who this girl is. I was just kinda dragged into this mess.”
The boss snickered. “Okay, that’s an obvious lie. Men, hold them down.”
At his command, the two subordinates rushed forward and pinned them down. They held their guns close to their heads. Initially, Hiro thought of resisting and running away again, but this time, he was facing the boss. Being hunted by him was a point of no return in an isolated village like Ushiro.
The boss slowly walked towards Hiro. Each heavy thud of his steps only served to increase Hiro’s anxiety all the more. Before he could speak, however, a voice in the distance called out to him.
“Boss! That you?”
They all turned their heads to a group of Bandito members coming their way. At the forefront was Kin waving his hand.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the boss asked. “You’re supposed to be on guard at the shopping district.”
“I bet they’re goofing off,” said the man holding Maki at gunpoint.
“I-I didn’t expect you here, boss,” the purple-haired man said. “See, we got a few hiccups, and now we’re looking for a few troublemakers, who uh… managed to sneak away.”
The boss stood back up and cracked his neck. “Troublemakers? What did they do?”
“We tried to bring them in for questioning, but they fought back, and—”
“You mean these two?” The boss gestured to Hiro and Maki.
“Well, I’ll be…”
Maki gave him a wide smirk. “Missed me?”
“Looks like you already caught the troublemakers, boss. Too bad, we even had some volunteers who were kind enough to lend us a hand.”
Hiro looked up. His eyes widened as he saw two Bandito members dragging Miles and Johnny to the front. They shoved them to the ground and pulled their heads up to face Hiro and Maki.
“You know these two?” Chiho asked.
Johnny pointed at Hiro. “YOU! I can’t leave you alone for one minute?! What the hell did you do?!”
Hiro ignored him. His eyes were locked at Miles, who was carrying a plastic bag in one hand. Somehow, despite Bandito’s rough demeanor against him, he still kept his welcoming smile. When he saw Hiro, his eyes welled up.
“Hiro… I’m so glad you’re alright.”
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