Our producers wish to thank the United States Marine Corps, the French Foreign Legion, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, the British Commonwealth Occupation Authorities, the Hong Kong Fireworks Factory, American Cartoon Mechanism Enterprises (ACME), DSX Machinery Ltd. (except in Nebraska), the Town of Windsor Locks, Connecticut, Samuel L. Jackson, bitches, John Christoe, Lady Gaga's wardrobe, the letter Q and the number 18, without whom all this would not have been necessary.

Miki Hiiragi was breathing at a mile a minute, yet she also felt like she was choking. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears with the sound of storm-driven waves on a beach. Every nerve in her body was supercharged with electricity, yet she dared not make the slightest move. If she did, of course, she would die. Oh, people threatened each other with guns all the time on TV or in movies, but watching those scenes, people didn't realize the horror of actually having a loaded gun barrel planted in your right temple. Far from feeling like some wisecracking action heroine, she felt utterly helpless, marooned on a narrow ledge with the abyss of death on one side and a towering, vertical cliff on the other.

And where was Yukari? How long could her chipper devil-may-care attitude last in this situation?

The glasses-wearing female clerk was openly sobbing as she waited for the store manager to answer the phone. "I'm s-s-sorry…I just keep getting his answering machine. He must be on a l-lunch break or something, or…oh God, today's his golf day!"

"Well then, call up his cellphone, bitch!" said the thin man. "I want this situation over with as quickly as you do!"

The girl's face crumpled as she began crying even harder. "I d-d-don't know his nu-num…"

The thin man punched his left hip. "Son of a bitch! Well, does he have a secretary at his other office?"

"I think he might've mentioned that…"

"Call her up and tell her that while Manager-sama is out trying to work on his backswing and deciding which of you to lay off next, people are gonna be dying in his store. I'm sure the chamber of commerce will greatly appreciate that."

"Mmm, such a lovely bottle," Yukari said, admiring some D*m Per****n champagne. "I don't believe we've had any bubbly in a while, and tonight would certainly be a fine occasion. But first for the smell…"

Not surprisingly, the cork refused to budge with just a simple tug.

"Oh my, such a naughty boy!" replied Yukari. "Well don't you worry, I'll get you off soon enough." And she grasped her right hand around the bottle's long shaft and started trying to twist off the stubborn cork with her left.

Although Yukari, like her daughter, had also once done quite well in her high school sports festivals, those days were almost a quarter-century in the past. "Rrrrghh!" she groaned, straining against the cork. "Ummph! Aummph! Ah-aaaaaaah!"

"Oh my!" she gasped, pausing to wipe some sweat off her left temple. "Not going down easy, are you? Well then, I guess I'll need some more leverage," she said, using a word she'd occasionally overheard from Miyuki and which she thought might make her sound smarter.

Yukari then placed the bottle between her legs and resumed straining at the cork.

"On hold? On hold?" groaned the thin man in the ski mask. "Do those jackasses know what's at stake here? What the hell do they think of their customers?"

"I'm s-s-sorry, sir…they just…all I'm getting now is Muzak…"

The thin man gritted his teeth. "Well, I hoped it wouldn't have to come to this, but sometimes there's only one way to get some people up off their asses." He looked towards the fat man and Miki. "Fire when ready, kid."

Miki's heard leapt into her throat. Her mouth went dry and her toes involuntarily curled inside her shoes as her lips silently moved in a final prayer. But just before she completely shut her eyes for the final time, she felt that the fat man's left hand, clasping her lower torso, was violently shaking. Time seemed to be passing slower for her in this state, yet it seemed that at least twenty seconds had passed since the thin man shouted out his command.

"Well, c'mon! What are you waiting for?"

"Uhhh," the fat man moaned.

"Are you…sure you want to do this?" Miki blurted.


"I have four daughters. Two of them are in college now, and the other two will be graduating high school next year. Do you want there to be an empty seat at their graduation? Do you want them to someday tell their children that the reason they don't have a grandma is because she once just picked the wrong day to go shopping? And my husband…he owns a shrine, but he once said that I'm much more important to him than the shrine. He's prayed several times for us to die at the same time…he can't bear the thought of living a day without me. I am a miko—I am prepared for the next world. Are you? And more importantly, do you think you can live with the burden of removing me from my husband and daughters' lives?" Miki's voice shook at the end of her speech.

"I…I…I…uhh, I don't kn…"

"Hey, don't let yourself be taken in by some broad's maudlin little filibuster!" snapped the thin man. "This is what we do, and sometimes our business ain't pretty. You can't let those little voices get in the way, especially at times like this! Now pull the trigger!"

Miki felt the metallic pressure against her head give way, followed shortly by a clack against the floor. "No," said the fat man. "I'm not doing it. I can't kill someone with kids. And besides, she's a miko; wouldn't killing a miko be bad luck?"

The thin man's eyes narrowed behind the holes in his ski mask. "Oh, is that so? So you want us to just take what we have now and get out before the cops get here? We can't, man. I counted; we still don't have nearly what my boss needs or what you need for your brother's defense…let alone what Mendez wants. So unless you want your brother to get the full American experience in the jailhouse showers, we gotta get that loot in the safe, and to do that, we gotta do some…persuading."

"But couldn't we have just hit another bank?"

"Like I've been telling you, dipshit, the cops are starting to figure out our M.O. with banks, especially at night. John Dillinger once said he robbed banks 'because that's where the money is'; that's also why he got caught too."

"B-but I didn't get into this to kill innocent people…"

The thin man turned his gun toward the fat one. "You think I liked it too when I started out? No one does. But dammit, once you're in, you're in. You just gotta remember the fortune and glory at the end…and of your superior allowing you to live another day. I sure as hell know Mendez won't be happy if we abort this mission, and if you think I'm a nasty son of a bitch… The guy's got hired guns all over the globe, people who make Anton Chigurh look like Hirasawa Yui. And besides, where do you think you'll be if you drop out now? On the run from the cops and Mendez's men, hiding out in dumpsters and drainage ditches, maybe the woods if you're lucky. And I know you; they'll find you eventually, and you'll be in the same shit as your brother. And if you survive prison—they pass fat softies like you around like change in there—then what? I'll tell you what you're gonna do. You're gonna get a job. That's what you're gonna do. You're gonna get a little job. Some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria. Or cleaning out toilets. You listenin' to me? And when that man walks in at the end of the day, and he comes to see how you done, you ain't gonna look in his eyes. You gonna look at the floor. Because you don't want to see that fear in his eyes when you jump up and grab his face, and slam him to the floor, and make him scream and cry for his life, and then guess what? You'll be a ruthless hardass just like me, and you'll be able to kill even…Hello Kitty without so much as a blink. So you look right at the floor, man. Pay attention to what I'm sayin', motherfucker!"

The fat man was crying now. "I'm s-s-sorry," he blubbered. "I-I-I just can't kill someone!"

The thin man steadied his gun. "Sucks for you. 'Cause I can, and I have."

Every muscle in Yukari Takara's upper arm and hand stood out as she strained against the champagne cork. It seemed her grip was somewhat more secure on it now, but it still showed no sign of giving way. She clamped her thighs more firmly against the hard green glass.

"Dear me!" she gasped between pushes. "Ah…ahhh…" Sweat trickled down her face. Her cheeks grew bright pink, fading to red. Her nostrils flared as the speed of her breathing increased. And yet still the cork remained, stubborn as ever. "Unnh…unnnnnhhh!"

Somewhere in the back of Yukari's mind a voice (which sounded rather like Miyuki) was telling her that her appearance and actions were not quite appropriate for a public setting, but as usual, she ignored it. She…just…had…to…get…that…cork off!

Then a light went on in another part of her brain. "Ah, maybe I should try shaking you too!" And with the bottle still wedged between her legs, she began shaking it hard as possible.

Clasping the bottle's long neck, she shook until her hands were both numb. Then, concentrating all her strength, she drove away at the cork. She then repeated the process two more times. Her hands and thighs had become numb and sore, but she wasn't tired. The effort actually increased her determination. "Rrrrghhh…ahhhhh…" she groaned. "Come on…come onnnnn…" There was a small groan as the cork moved…barely noticeable at first, but soon enough slightly looser.

"Almosssst…" Yukari growled, as she rocked the bottle back and forth with all her might. There was a slight hissing from below the cork. She stopped shaking and drove into it again. "Ah…ahhhhhhAHHHHH!"

ShhhhhhhUMPP! The cork flew from the bottleneck on a column of white spray. Yukari's knees gave out, and she slumped to the floor, gasping. Sweat dampened her flushed face and tensed arms, and the champagne foam draped back over her body, soaking her white blouse and gray-blue skirt. For about half a minute, the childish housewife just sat there, listening to the tiny bubbles hissing on her clothes and skin and the floor; her breathing rather hard.

Then, all of a sudden, she sprang to her feet and rushed toward the women's restroom. Hopefully no one else would be in there.

The champagne could wait. She'd gotten a whiff of it when she was splashed, and it smelled fine.

"C'mon, man," the thin man snarled, "if you wanna actually see your brother go free, pick up the gun and do your job. Otherwise…well, either way, this broad's life is gonna end here and now."

"Like I said," the fat man sobbed, "I'm not killing a miko! Especially one with kids! If you wanna shoot someone…shoot me! Come on! Go for it!" He stepped away from Miki. "Right between the eyes!"

"Hey, you forget that she's our bargaining chip here, as in we tell the cops; you come in and the broad gets it. I could just kill you and her right now, gangland-style, or right afterwards as sort of an insubordination thing, or Mendez's goons will be on you like ants on sugar once they get word. She's our captured queen; you're just a pawn."

"S-so if I'm so…fucking worthless," the fat man said, "why're you taking so long? Why am I still alive if I'm just a pawn? I…I could give up now, go out to the police, m-maybe tell 'em all about our little operation, about Mendez, about the guerrillas in the Phillipines, about Petrov and Yukio and the dru…"

Just as the fat man uttered the world "operation", there came a hollow thudding sound, almost like a muffled gunshot. At this the thin man jerked, then his head started to crane in it direction. Then there was a high-pitched zing, much like an actual gunshot richochet. But instead of a bullet, a champagne cork careened off the supermarket ceiling, then struck a large economy-sized jar of balsamic vinegar with a hard tunk! Time seemed to stand still for a beat, then slowly regain momentum like a train leaving a station, as the jar toppled forward, fell almost like a tumbling autumn leaf, and then come in contact with the thin man's right arm, which happened to be holding his gun.

A sharp bang. The thin man grunted and grimaced in agony as the white puff of gunsmoke floated by his face. To Miki Hiiragi, the sharp report filled the world, reverberating inside her head, drowning out the screams of the other shoppers surrounding her. Something warm and liquid splashed against the side of her head. Her mind screamed at her left hand not to touch it, but it went anyway.

It was spongy yet mixed with some white shards, bright crimson with some specks of pink.

She felt as if she were underwater when she turned around to see the fat man lying on the floor, a huge, bleeding hole where his face used to be. She then felt a hot, wet gush in the area of her crotch and didn't care. She also didn't care when she involuntarily jerked away, bent over, and emptied her stomach contents at her feet.

The thin man dropped his gun as the vinegar jar collided with the floor. "AUUUUGHHHH! My arm! It's brokennnn! YAAARRRRGHHH!" His cries of pain were interrupted when he noticed the figure lying prone on the floor next to his now-puking hostage. "Whoa…whoa…man. I didn't mean to…I wasn't gonna…no…no…nooooo…OWWW!" he groaned as he shambled over to his fallen partner, meanwhile favoring his injured arm. When he arrived at the fat man's body, he collapsed to his knees. "No way…noooo…I wasn't really gonna do it, man…I wasn't really gonnaaaa…you know I gotta be forceful sometimes, kid, but I wasn't really gonna…YAAAOWWWW! I didn't mean to…I didn't meeeeann toooo…YA-HA-HAAAOWWW!" he blubbered, his sobs mixing with his cries of pain.

"Ah, that's much better," Yukari breathed as she left the women's room, her face still a bit sweaty and flushed. "A bit awkward, but I suppose there's a first time for everything." She wondered if she should tell her husband that night when he got home…and giggled sweetly. She was hoping to make it a special night… But anyway, now that she had all her other needed items, she could fulfill the original intent of this trip to the supermarket and pick up the beef.

Her violet eyes went wide at the sight that beheld her.

Near the large stack of vinegar jars, lying on the floor, was what looked like a gun. Of course, it was probably just some toy. And, unfortunately, it looked like one of the jars had fallen off the stack and smashed. Had there been an earthquake while she was in the little girls' room, or something (not counting the world moving)? Then, in the meat department, she noticed two figures; a large man lying on the floor, and a smaller one kneeling at him. Had the large man had a heart attack? She wished she'd gone with Miyuki to that CPR class; then she could at least help him. But then, to the left, she noticed a larger crowd gathered around a thin, dark-purple haired woman. She was crouched on the floor in front of what looked like vomit, her skin chalky, and a haunted, stunned expression on her face.

"H-Hiiragi-san!" she gasped. "Are you…you look like you've been sick! Is everything all…"

Miki Hiiragi would have loved to have seen her husband or one of her daughters come up to her right then, but of course her daughters were at school and her husband was at work. She had only met Yukari Takara a few times now, but at that moment she needed some semblance of normality, some sign that somewhere the band was playing and somewhere hearts were light. Some reminder that not every person could kill Hello Kitty at the drop of a hat, and not every person was just a pawn in some unspeakable game. Most of all, in her weakening state of mind, she needed a shoulder to cry on.

"Takara-saaan!" she bawled, falling onto Yukari's right shoulder and bursting into tears. "Takara-sa-ha-ha-haaaan!"

Yukari Takara was not the most perspective person on Earth by any means, but ever since her only daughter had gone off to preschool, whenever she came home crying or just looking down, her first instinct was to give her a hug. And so she wrapped her arms around Miki's trunk, patting her on the back. Miki responded by wrapping her arms around Yukari's back and clinging on as if for dear life.

The sobbing, purple-haired woman didn't care as the thin cried over his fallen companion, or as the police sirens grew louder until they were right in front of the store, or as the cops yelled to come out with your hands up, dirtbag, or as the blubbering thin man came out, holding up his left arm and occasionally wincing with pain.

I've been working on this story on and off for about a year now. I didn't know if I was going to release it since I couldn't figure out how to end it…until only about last weekend. Hope you think it was worth it.

The end (and also further development of the OC's) came to me rereading a line from one of my favorite movies, Runaway Train, starring John Voight and Rebecca DeMornay (okay, not so much the actual circumstances of the end, but more the impetus to finally finish this beastie). I kinda paraphrased the thin man's speech about "get(ting) a little job" from the movie. As you might guess, I'd recommend seeing it (although it is pretty violent and dark, and it may end up leaving you as jaded as me). The main premise of this shindig was partially based on Stephen King's The Mist (again, if you've read it, you'd know why) and there's also some references to an Azumanga fic called "Control" (which, of course, is also quiiiite grimdark but really well-done; you might not see the characters the same way again after reading, heh. It's in my favorites).

And, well…that's about it. I don't really think anyone learned anything here, but, well, I usually don't write stories with a moral in mind. Unless it's that oftentimes chance occurrences save the day rather than book smarts. But meh, that's kinda how my writing style works anyway.