Chapter 29:

The Warzone


Elsewhere in the city, the next day, Franz's maid, Sophie, spends her work break playing rhythm games on her gold-plated smartphone in Franz's summer mansion. Her fingers fly across the screen, racking up a massive combo— only for an abrupt phone call to break it. She curses under her breath, but she's quick to compose herself , fix her glasses, and clear her throat as she picks up the phone with the perfect customer service voice.Bookmark here

“Yes, how may I help you?”Bookmark here

“Sophie, it’s Nana!”Bookmark here

“Oh, hi, Miss Nana! How a—”Bookmark here

“Is Yuri with Franz!?” Nana interrupts her with clear panic in her voice.Bookmark here

“Miss Yuri? No, I haven’t seen her since that day at the hospital…” Bookmark here

“Dammit… Now I’m really starting to freak out!”Bookmark here

“C-Calm down, Miss Nana! What happened?”Bookmark here

Nana takes a deep breath, but her voice still comes out shaky.Bookmark here

“Yuri… Was supposed to come over for a sleepover last night, but she never showed up. She's been sleeping earlier these days so she can wake up before dawn and visit Endo every day before class, so I thought she just fell asleep last night, but I just called and... she's not home... She's been missing since school got out yesterday!”Bookmark here

Sophie gasps.Bookmark here

W-WHAT!?Bookmark here

Alarmed by Sophie's yell, Franz walks in, brushing his hair with a silver comb embedded with fake jewels. Bookmark here

“What in the world was that for, Sophie? Mind your volume!”Bookmark here

Sophie covers the phone with her hand and turns to look at him with tears in his eyes.Bookmark here

“Miss Y-Yuri… Miss Yuri’s missing…!Bookmark here

Franz’s eyes almost pop out of their sockets.Bookmark here

WHAAAAAT!?Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Since Endo tore his feelings to shreds last afternoon, Romeo had been nothing better than a zombie. He sits by the riverbank on the dry autumn grass, vaguely tossing small rocks into the water. Jojo and Tama sit a few feet away on slightly higher ground, watching him with concern.Bookmark here

“So you don’t know what happened?” Tama slurps his juicebox.Bookmark here

“Uh-uh,” Jojo shakes his head. “Raging Fist Endo took him away to talk, and he’s been like this ever since.”Bookmark here

“Ya think he beat Romeow-meow up?”Bookmark here

“I don’t think so? He doesn’t have any new bruises on him..”Bookmark here

“Maybe he hit his tummy…”Bookmark here

“Tama!! Shut up! I’m serious! I think Endo musta told him something really awful! Maybe he asked him to join the Kappore gang!”Bookmark here

Tama laughs.Bookmark here

“Pfft. If Kagiya couldn’t do it, I really doubt Endo would have better luck!”Bookmark here

“.........”Bookmark here

“...Jojo?”Bookmark here

Jojo takes a sip of his drink, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, looking at Romeo.Bookmark here

“...Boss told me somethin’ yesterday. He said… That he was leavin’ the Makai gang ‘cause there’s someone he can’t get close to while he’s in it, or somethin’ like that.”Bookmark here

Eh!? He has another best friend!? Boy, you never stood a chance, huh!”Bookmark here

NO! It didn’t sound like that!” Jojo crushes the can in his hand, defensive, but also unsure if Tama was right or not. Tama shrugs and sips his juice again.Bookmark here

“Speaking of people Romeo likes better than you, where’s Meru? I thought you said you texted him to come.”Bookmark here

“Wait, aren’t you curious to know who Boss was talking about!? And of course I texted Meru, who Boss does not like better than me! It's not my fault he never replied to or even saw my message!”Bookmark here

At that moment, they heard a ding coming from Romeo’s direction. They both turn to look at him, and see his phone screen light up from where he's left it next to him. Romeo, still tossing rocks at the water, doesn't seem to notice.Bookmark here

“Um, Romeo…?”Bookmark here

Tama tries to get his attention, but Romeo doesn’t seem to listen. Bookmark here

“ROMEO!”Bookmark here

Romeo jolts with a gasp, alert for a second, before he turns listless again. He slowly turns his head towards Tama, but doesn’t say anything. Tama points at his phone on the grass.Bookmark here

“You got a text, buddy.”Bookmark here

“.....”Bookmark here

Without replying, Romeo reaches for the phone, and sees the text is from Meru. On his lock screen, he can see the message preview reads "file attached," but Romeo’s will to open whatever meme Meru must have sent him is at an all time low. Still, he feels Tama and Jojo’s eyes boring into him from behind, so he swipes the screen unlocked.Bookmark here

A chill runs down his spine.Bookmark here

The text contains an address and a meeting time of two hours from now, and a picture of Yuri— blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back, slumped against a dark storage room wall.Bookmark here

Romeo jumps to his feet, staring at his screen incredulously, his entire body shaking. Bookmark here

“W... What…..….”Bookmark here

Tama and Jojo get to their feet, too, slowly approaching him.Bookmark here

“What’s wrong, Boss? What is it?”Bookmark here

“You okay, Romeo?”Bookmark here

Romeo looks at them, his face white with panic.Bookmark here

“Meru… Meru has Yuri!”Bookmark here

Tama and Jojo look at each other, then back at Romeo.Bookmark here

“...Who?”Bookmark here

Romeo adjusts the band over his head in a frenzy.Bookmark here

“I gotta go right now—”Bookmark here

He reaches behind him instinctively for his bat, but gasps when he feels nothing there. Bookmark here

Then he remembers.Bookmark here

Shit… Shit!!!Bookmark here

“...Boss? You’re freaking me out…”Bookmark here

Jojo!” Romeo suddenly raises his voice, startling the other two. “Call Meru; see if you can reach him. Ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing. I need to go right now!”Bookmark here

“H-Huh? What!? Wait, Boss!”Bookmark here

Romeo dashes to the top of the riverbank as fast as he can.Bookmark here

“I’ll follow him, Jojo!” Tama pats Jojo’s shoulder. “See what you can find out. I’ll make sure he stays out of trouble!”Bookmark here

“R-Right. Thanks, Tama.”Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

“Are you sure we’re going the right way, Sophie!?”Bookmark here

Franz and Nana sit in the back of a gaudy, expensive car speeding down the roads. Their eyes are glued to Sophie's phone in Nana's hand, where a dot blinks on a map.Bookmark here

“Yes, Master! This should be the fastest route, too!” Sophie replies from the driver’s seat, flooring the gas far past the speed limit.Bookmark here

“Unbelievable!” Franz exhales. “We’re practically driving an entire city away!”Bookmark here

“I… I don’t understand…” Nana’s voice is quiet and shaky. “Why would Yuri be so far away? She never leaves town unless she’s with her family…” Bookmark here

Franz shakes his head.Bookmark here

“I don’t know, but we’ll soon find out. In the meantime, how impressed are you that my quick thinking saved us all a wild goose chase?”Bookmark here

Nana glares at him.Bookmark here

“What, you want praise for putting a tracker on her phone? You’re a major creep, you know that!?”Bookmark here

Franz stammers but quickly clears his throat, running his fingers through his hair.Bookmark here

“A-Anyway, let’s clear up what I’m sure is a simple misunderstanding with my Yuri as soon as we find her, yes? There’s no need to panic—”Bookmark here

“We’re here, sir,” Sophie suddenly says as she hits the breaks. Franz hits his head on the window.Bookmark here

“Ow!”Bookmark here

The limousine stops in an empty parking lot on the outskirts of town. A dilapidated, abandoned shopping mall looms over it, blocked off by old caution tape on every side. An aged notice on the partially broken, glass entranceway makes it clear the place was never opened to the public in the first place, as it was built over a poor foundation that could collapse at any minute. The notice states the mall's demolition date, but years have passed since.Bookmark here

Sophie reads the notice to Franz and Nana as they catch up to her once they've left the car. She looks to Nana, still holding Sophie’s gold-plated phone, whose eyes remain fixed on the flashing dot on the screen.Bookmark here

“It… It must mean she’s inside…”Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Nana responds without looking at Sophie. Franz slowly turns his head towards the building— eerie and spooky despite it being broad daylight. Bookmark here

“O-One of us should go in to look for her, yes?”Bookmark here

Nana raises her head.Bookmark here

“Yeah, someone should,” she says, pointedly looking at Franz. Franz turns his head away and immediately looks at Sophie.Bookmark here

“Well, then, my servant, why don’t you—”Bookmark here

Nana clears her throat loudly, glaring at him. Franz coughs.Bookmark here

“W-What I meant to say was that I, the real life Prince Francis III, would be honored to go instead of you lovely ladies.”Bookmark here

“That’s what I thought,” Nana crosses her arms.Bookmark here

Franz holds back from glaring back at her and instead carefully pushes the one good glass door open, walking inside. A creeping darkness roils throughout the dust-ridden inside, with only the light filtering through the windows of the shops that could've been offering Franz dim visibility. Not far from the entrance are two, thick pillars, and between them stands the doors of an elevator. Beside each pillar stand old, non-functional escalators. Bookmark here

Unnerving echoes resound through the first floor. Franz takes a few cautious steps forward, calling out Yuri’s name quietly, almost as if he were hoping nothing too scary would hear him.Bookmark here

“...Yuri? Are you here, my love?”Bookmark here

Suddenly, the sound of something breaking startles him and he yelps. The sound comes from the floor above, drawing his attention upwards. Uneasily, he slowly inches toward the escalator, and he realizes what the echoes are: the faint sound of chatter and laughter from above. Someone is up there.Bookmark here

“Yuri!? I’m coming for you…!Bookmark here

He rushes up the escalator, each step a loud clank against the metallic steps, but, as the second floor comes into view, he stumbles to a slow stop, eyes wide. Bookmark here

Before him sits a vast array of thugs, lazing about the floor and unfinished surfaces, laughing and joking with sharp grins. One by one, their gazes fix on him, as if an ocean of sharks set upon a scared little fish.Bookmark here

“Ah…”Bookmark here

“Who the hell are you?” The one closest to the escalator suddenly speaks. Franz jolts.Bookmark here

“I-I-I’m, my name, is Franz, I’m looking for— f-for…”Bookmark here

“...You looking for the girl?” Bookmark here

Franz stops trembling and gasps.Bookmark here

“Y-You know where Yuri is!? Where!?”Bookmark here

The thug suddenly bursts out laughing.Bookmark here

“The hell? You one of Bloody Bat Romeo’s pals? Haha! No frickin’ way! Look at you! You’re so scared you’re about to piss your pants!” Bookmark here

“Huh? That nickname—”Bookmark here

Franz doesn’t have time to react to that familiar name he heard from Oue before the thug straightens up and cracks his knuckles, walking slowly towards him.Bookmark here

“Welp, we were warned you guys were comin’. Guess we’ll just start with ya while we wait for the main course.”Bookmark here

“—Eh!?Bookmark here

“Hey, Boss? Can I handle this one?” Bookmark here

The thug looks back towards a pile of crates stacked high at the center of their gathering. Sat upon the very top, Amon lounges like a king. Bookmark here

“...Do what you want.”Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Outside, Sophie and Nana stand restless. Sophie bites her nails beside Nana, who's trying to get a signal on her phone.Bookmark here

“Dammit… We’re too far from the city… What’s even taking Franz so long?”Bookmark here

“Calm down, Miss Nana. Isn’t this a good thing? Master Franz is pretty cowardly, so if he’s taking his time, it means he’s looking for her quite thoroughly…”Bookmark here

“...I guess so… Huh?”Bookmark here

Nana turns toward the sound of motorcycles in the distance fast approaching down the empty street.Bookmark here

“Sophie! Something’s coming!”Bookmark here

“L-Let’s get in the car, Miss Nana! It’s bulletproof!” Bookmark here

“Good idea! Wait, why is it— nevermind!!Bookmark here

They both hurry back inside the car, slamming the door just as the army of motorcycles pulls into the parking lot. They park haphazardly anywhere they can, taking quick notice of the lone car in the otherwise empty space. A few curious riders hop off their bikes to press their faces against the tinted windows, whistling and admiring it wryly.Bookmark here

They’re all fairly young, wearing patches on their clothes with a ‘K’ on their chests and on their backs.Bookmark here

One of them taps the window.Bookmark here

“Heeey, we saw you go in there. Come out, come out!”Bookmark here

Sophie yelps and shakes her head frantically.Bookmark here

“D-Don’t listen to them, Miss Nana! They can’t see or hear us! They can’t break the window, either!”Bookmark here

The thugs suddenly start shaking the car and tapping it with blunt weapons, trying to get them out.Bookmark here

Nana frowns.Bookmark here

“Sorry, Sophie, let me deal with this,” she says, unbuttoning the front of her shirt partway and mussing up her hair a little before rolling down the window halfway, startling the guy whose face had been glued to it.Bookmark here

“... Yes? Can I help you?” Nana asks, annoyance clear on her face.Bookmark here

The guy blushes, not expecting Nana to just greet him like that. He stammers for a moment before finding the first words that come to mind.Bookmark here

“Uhh… Are you girls... from the Makai gang?”Bookmark here

Excuse me?”Bookmark here

“Oh, uh, sorry… are you from another gang? The Sombra gang? Acid Rain? Wait, you’re chicks, so you’re probably from the Needle gang, huh…”Bookmark here

“What are you mumbling about, idiot? Can’t you see me and my friend here are trying to have a moment alone?”Bookmark here

The guy blushes to his ears and wildly glances at Sophie, mortified with her face in her palms. He raises his hands, stumbling back. Bookmark here

“Whoa, hoh… uhhh…. We’re… We’re all from the Kappore gang, y’see, we were told to come here and beat Makai once and for all, so we thought you guys, I mean, uh, girls, were also here for… that…”Bookmark here

“Well, we’re not, so,” Nana shoos him away with her hand. “Skedaddle!” Bookmark here

The guy gives Nana an apologetic gesture while she rolls the window back up.Bookmark here

Nana sighs and rests her head against the back of her seat. Sophie finally looks up, her face burning.Bookmark here

“M-Miss Nana, you’re reckless!Bookmark here

Nana shrugs and smiles at her.Bookmark here

“What can I say? I’m used to it. When the guy you like is exactly like one of these guys, you learn how to deal with them.”Bookmark here

Sophie shakes her head slowly, looking out the window at the army of Kappore thugs walking into the building.Bookmark here

“I wonder what that was about… It seems as if some sort of gang war is taking place here, huh…”Bookmark here

“I dunno. Gangs are stupid.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Sophie sighs as the last thug waltzes inside. “I feel like we’re forgetting something, though…”Bookmark here

After a few seconds of silence, they both look at each other with their eyes wide open.Bookmark here

FRANZ!Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

“Romeooo, wait up!”Bookmark here

Romeo hadn't stopped running since he'd gotten off the train, and Tama rushes after him, trying desperately to keep up. No matter how much Tama's called for him, Romeo hadn't answered, his mind racing still. Bookmark here

He skids into the parking lot of the abandoned shopping mall and gasps at the sheer amount of Kappore motorcycles parked outside.Bookmark here

“Whoa… Those are the Kappore gang’s bikes… What are they doing here?”Bookmark here

Romeo pauses for a moment, then walks towards them anyway. Bookmark here

As they pass through the sea of motorcycles, Nana spots him through the window, gasping and rolling it down again.Bookmark here

“Romeo! Hey!Bookmark here

Romeo stops in his tracks and turns towards the voice. Nana waves at him to come over. Romeo hesitates, feeling like he’s wasting precious time, but he recognizes Nana as Yuri’s friend. He approaches the car.Bookmark here

“Romeo,” Nana looks at him with concern. “Why are you here!? Is this about the gang thing!?”Bookmark here

Romeo frowns, placing his hands on either side of the window.Bookmark here

“Where’s Yuri?”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

“Is she with you!? Where is she!?”Bookmark here

“Romeo…”Bookmark here

“Sh-She’s in there, we think…” Sophie speaks up from her seat. “We came looking for her…”Bookmark here

Romeo bangs his fist on the hood of the car, startling the girls.Bookmark here

“Dammit, Amon! This has his name written all over it…”Bookmark here

“Um… Mister Romeo…” Sophie speaks in a quiet, quivering voice, leaning towards the window. “Master Franz went in there, too…”Bookmark here

Romeo clicks his tongue.Bookmark here

“Stay in here. I’ll go find them.”Bookmark here

“Be careful!” Nana calls after them, only rolling the window back up when they've been left alone again. Tama catches up to him.Bookmark here

“Romeo, Jojo still can't get ahold of Meru, but he’s still trying. Do you know where he lives?”Bookmark here

“No.”Bookmark here

“Ughhh… Okay, I’ll tell him to keep looking.”Bookmark here

Romeo starts heading towards the glass door, but Tama grabs his arm.Bookmark here

“Wait.”Bookmark here

Romeo turns around and glares at him. Tama simply smiles.Bookmark here

“...Stop making that scary face. You’ll get your friend back. You’re not alone here, you know?”Bookmark here

Romeo blinks, surprised. It dawns on him that he’s been worrying Tama and Jojo all this time with his selfish bravado, and, suddenly, he feels ashamed of himself.Bookmark here

“...Thanks, Tamaya.”Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Back in the city, Jojo's out of ideas. He's checked the handful of places Meru frequents with Romeo and Jojo, but, beyond those, he comes to the grim realization that he really doesn't know much else about him.Bookmark here

“Dammit, Meru. You just have to be all mysterious and shit, don’tcha?”Bookmark here

Tama had been keeping him updated on Romeo's mental state and new developments via text. But what was gnawing at Jojo most was the picture Tama had described; the disturbing photo Meru had sent Romeo. He looks at his phone and the long chain of texts he’s been sending Meru throughout the day, and sighs.Bookmark here

“Meru… You idiot… What did you do?Bookmark here

He stares at the screen for a second, then immediately starts typing another text to him.Bookmark here

“You… Stupid… Idiot… I… Will… Kill - in capital letters - you! ...Send!”Bookmark here

DING!Bookmark here

He hears a phone chime from somewhere nearby. Bookmark here

“...Huh?”Bookmark here

Thinking he imagined it, he lets a second pass, then sends another insulting text to Meru. He hears the ding again.Bookmark here

“...Meru!?”Bookmark here

He turns the corner and finds himself face to face with the Makai hideout. He gasps.Bookmark here

“Oh… that’s right… I walked over here for a reason, huh… Wait, is Meru inside!?”Bookmark here

Jojo rushes through the familiar entrance, avoiding the rubble on the floor, whipping his head from side to side. The inside is unusually empty.Bookmark here

“Meru!? Are you in here!?”Bookmark here

“Hello, Jojo.”Bookmark here

From behind him, resting against the wall near the entrance, Meru greets him with his hands behind his back. Jojo jerks around to look at him, startled.Bookmark here

“M-Meru! What are you doing here!? Do you even know what this place is!?”Bookmark here

Meru gives him one of his usual smiles, shrugging. Bookmark here

“Unfortunately, I do. I’m intimately familiar with it.”Bookmark here

Jojo swallows.Bookmark here

“Meru… W-What’s going on? Are you part of the Makai gang? ...Did you kidnap that girl in the photo?”Bookmark here

Meru’s smile turns bitter, and he averts his eyes.Bookmark here

“...I used to be Amon’s secret weapon, you know. I was chained to him, forced to do his bidding—until Romeo took my place, for no real reason. He never blamed me, or tried to force the leash back onto me. He simply took it all upon himself to save me.”Bookmark here

“Meru...…”Bookmark here

Meru turns his gaze back towards Jojo.Bookmark here

“...The truth is, Amon never really let me go. He kept my leash and put one on Romeo, too. He said he would hurt him if I ever told him anything, so I had to stay quiet. I was already acquainted with Cutter Knife Matsuri, so Amon had me take him down just to keep Romeo from defeating all three of the Summer Fireworks.”Bookmark here

“So it was you,” Jojo’s hands tremble as he speaks, trying to process everything Meru just said. “You got in his way… for Amon? That… makes no sense! Amon was the one that ordered him to defeat all three!”Bookmark here

Meru laughs quietly.Bookmark here

“I know, right? Amon is one messed up guy.”Bookmark here

“I’m serious here! Why is he doing this!? Who is that girl!? What happened to her!?”Bookmark here

“...Her name is Yuri. She’s Raging Fist Endo’s sister. Romeo took a liking to her and, unfortunately, Amon found out, so he’s using her to lure Romeo into the warzone.”Bookmark here

“Huh!? Romeo likes a girl!? Wait, warzone!?”Bookmark here

Meru nods.Bookmark here

“Amon challenged the Kappore gang to an all-out fight for the entire Makai turf, using the defeat of Endo as an excuse, and it’s happening as we speak. He knows he needs Romeo by his side to win anyway, so he plans to take advantage of this opportunity and let the girl see him at his worst. That way, Romeo will change his mind about leaving the Makai gang for good.”Bookmark here

“That— That’s crazy! What the hell!”Bookmark here

“Jojo,” Meru gives him a serious look. “You came back for this, didn’t you?”Bookmark here

Meru brings to the front the familiar blood-stained metal bat with nails. Jojo's eyes open wide.Bookmark here

“Boss’s bat! Yeah!!”Bookmark here

He rushes over to take it from a smiling Meru with excitement, then looks at him, worried.Bookmark here

“...You’re just gonna give it to me?”Bookmark here

Meru laughs.Bookmark here

“Are you surprised? I want Romeo to win this just as much as you. I’m tired of being tied up, unable to help. I know in my heart that he's going to win this time..”Bookmark here

“...Why don’t you come with me, Meru?”Bookmark here

Meru's eyes widen for a split second before a pained look overtakes it. He turns his head away from Jojo to conceal it a little too late, letting his hair cascade down his face.Bookmark here

“I can’t. If Amon sees me helping Romeo, I’m afraid of what could happen to him… or any of you.”Bookmark here

Jojo feels his heart wrench. Meru looks at him again with a forced smile, taking on a knowing tone.Bookmark here

“Besides, you’re his best friend, aren’t you? You should be the one to bring it to him.”Bookmark here

Jojo immediately perks up.Bookmark here

“Y-Yeah! Yeah!!! I am!” He clutches the base of the bat tightly in his hands, raising it up to look at it. Bookmark here

“Sit tight, Boss! I'll be over before you know it!” Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.