Chapter 30:

Like a Princess


Inside the building, chaos reigns.Bookmark here

The sound of glass shattering echoes across the first floor as an ocean of Kappore wreak havoc, breaking half-finished structures and slamming down empty shelves with brutish audacity. Kappore thugs clash with Makai in the bedlam, advancing up the escalators as Makai force them back down to the first floor, and further waves of Makai delinquents jumping down to join the battle downstairs fist-first. Bookmark here

Romeo and Tama slip in unnoticed within the brawling. One Kappore thug catches sight of Romeo and sneers, recognizing him, and lunges at him— but Romeo is quicker, knocking him out with a swift uppercut. Bookmark here

“So you can fight without your bat! I always wondered!” Tama remarks cheerfully.Bookmark here

Romeo looks at the second floor.Bookmark here

“...Amon is upstairs.”Bookmark here

“Eh? How do you know?”Bookmark here

Catching sight of his chance to get onto the escalator, Romeo quickly snakes through the skirmishes and starts heading up..Bookmark here

“Smoke and idiots like high places, and Amon is the king of all idiots.”Bookmark here

Tama laughs.Bookmark here

“Hurry up, Romeo! I’ll stay here and stop anyone who wants to get up there!”Bookmark here

“Thanks.”Bookmark here

When he reaches the second floor, he notices only a couple of Makai thugs are still up there: two beating someone up in a corner and laughing. But it’s not the corner Romeo focuses on: his eyes immediately dart to the center of the floor—right there, where a makeshift crate tower stands: Amon's throne. He can picture clearly Amon's impassive gaze as he takes a long drag of his cigarette, as if indifferent to the raucous free-for-all barely a floor below.Bookmark here

Romeo narrows his eyes and sprints forward, skidding to a stop as Oue dashes to intercept him. Oue spreads his arms wide with an equally wide smile on his face. Bookmark here

“...Move, Pain Killer Oue.”Bookmark here

“Bloody Bat Romeo! How nice of you to join us!” Oue claps his hands together. “Are you sure you want to go this way, though? Don’t you want to save your friend, first?”Bookmark here

Romeo looks at Oue, waiting for an explanation. At that moment, he hears a familiar voice crying behind him.Bookmark here

He spins around, and notices only now the person the two thugs are beating up in the corner is none other than Franz.Bookmark here

Shit—!!Bookmark here

I forgot his maid told me he was in here!!Bookmark here

Oue laughs hysterically as Romeo scrambles over with a flying kick to one thug's head, knocking him out. The other swings a fist at him, but Romeo narrowly dodges by dropping to the ground, sweeping his leg under the thug’s feet and knocking him head-first into the ground with a crash.Bookmark here

When Franz takes his trembling hands away from his head, Romeo can see his face is all bloody and bruised, and it looks like he had been crying. Bookmark here

“R-R-Romeo…” Franz sniffles. “Y-You…”Bookmark here

Romeo extends his hand to him.Bookmark here

“Can you stand?”Bookmark here

Franz stays crouched on the floor, gasping for air. He shakes his head frantically.Bookmark here

“I-I couldn’t do it, Romeo! I couldn’t move! The moment I saw her, I—I...”Bookmark here

Romeo’s eyes go wide, reaching down towards Franz’s collar to yank him to his feet.Bookmark here

Her? Do you mean Yuri!? Where is she!?”Bookmark here

Franz swallows some sobs before he can speak, and it feels like an eternity to Romeo.Bookmark here

“S-She’s… inside... the elevator…”Bookmark here

Ba-dump.Bookmark here

Romeo gasps, whipping his head towards the closed elevator pillar between the two escalators leading to the third floor. He feels his own fingers tremble at the thought of her being so close, and almost forgets to breathe for a second. His immediate instinct is to abandon Franz to break it open, but instead he turns his head back to Franz, clicking his tongue, frustrated with himself.Bookmark here

“...Come on, let’s get you out of here.”Bookmark here

“E-Eh!?”Bookmark here

Romeo helps Franz put an arm around his shoulders and walks in the direction of the elevator, sharply ignoring it and heading towards the escalator instead. Franz looks at him with a strange sense of admiration.Bookmark here

“...Romeo… Are you really saving me, first?”Bookmark here

“I can’t leave you here, can I?” Bookmark here

“I… W—Why?Bookmark here

Romeo scoffs, gently moving his arm away from his shoulders once at the top of the escalator. Bookmark here

“Look, I don’t hate you, you know. And I don’t care if you hate me. ...Either way, you—” Romeo pauses, then averts his eyes. “You’re important to Yuri, right? She’d be sad if you got hurt.”Bookmark here

Franz looks at him, surprised. He’s quiet for a long moment as he examines Romeo’s face, and then slowly shakes his head with a bitter smile.Bookmark here

Hah. Here I thought… that a delinquent like you would leave me here to die, but... it turns out you’re actually a good guy, aren’t you?”Bookmark here

He wipes his nose with his torn sleeve and spits out some blood with no elegance.Bookmark here

“Romeo… you’re like a real prince.”Bookmark here

Romeo cracks a smile at the absurd remark, shaking his head.Bookmark here

“Stay near the bottom of the stairs. Tamaya’s down there making sure no one comes up here. He’ll have your back if you need it— You'll know him when you see him.”Bookmark here

Franz nods, taking a painful step downwards. Romeo turns around to go back.Bookmark here

“Romeo— Please, save her as soon as you can!”Bookmark here

Hah. You don’t need to tell me twice.Bookmark here

Rushing back to the elevator, he wastes no time trying to beat it open, kicking the door over and over until it begins to dent. With the metal at the middle warped from the beating just enough for him to get a grip where the doors split, he takes hold of each door and begins wrenching the doors apart, gritting his teeth from exertion. Bookmark here

Grrghh….!!Bookmark here

Slowly, very slowly, the doors start to give in to his pulls, until he finally gets it open wide enough to look inside. His eyes dart to the center of the dark elevator. There’s some boxes and crates haphazardly piled together, and, in the middle, sitting blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back and scared out of her wits, is Yuri.Bookmark here

Romeo's heart twists at the sight. Bookmark here

YURI!!Bookmark here

Yuri lifts her head, unable to see who just spoke.Bookmark here

“R… Romeo…?”Bookmark here

“Hold on tight! I’ll get you out of there!”Bookmark here

Gripping the doors again, he pulls them apart with all his might. As the metal groans and squeals, Yuri shakes her head to loosen her blindfold.Bookmark here

“Romeo! It’s you, isn’t it!? Where am I…?”Bookmark here

“I’ll explain everything later, just—”Bookmark here

The blindfold on Yuri’s eyes finally comes loose enough for her to see through one eye, and it’s at that exact moment where a powerful kick from Amon sends Romeo flying to the side.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

“You almost burned me alive!” Bookmark here

Franz cries as he shakes his singed sleeve, crouching behind Tama’s legs on the first floor. Tama cheerfully laughs, pointing one of the paint cans he keeps on his belt right behind a gaudy, silver lighter. Despite his apparent cheerfulness, he remains alert to the Kappore and the Makai gang exchanging blows left and right.Bookmark here

“Sorry, sorry! I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a real life escort mission, so I kinda keep forgetting you’re there!”Bookmark here

“How rude…”Bookmark here

“Thanks for lending me this lighter, by the way. Didn’t peg a pretty boy like you for a smoker.”Bookmark here

I’m not! That’s a multipurpose tool I got for my birthday! It just happens to have a lighter in it!”Bookmark here

“Ohh! It’s not a lighter! So I’m not cheating on Sparky, then! That’s a relief!”Bookmark here

“Who’s Sparky?”Bookmark here

“Hey, buddy, do me a favor?”Bookmark here

“Y-Yes?”Bookmark here

“Take my phone from my pocket and text a contact named Orange. Tell him I need hella backup and give him this address.”Bookmark here

“Huh!? Why should I—”Bookmark here

At that moment, a giant flare streams from Tama’s paintcan, scaring away and burning the clothes of a couple of thugs that were getting dangerously close to the escalators. With a terrified yelp, Franz rapidly does exactly as Tama told him. Bookmark here

He slips the phone back into Tama's pocket while looking around anxiously at the commotion, and it's then that he catches sight of Oue descending quickly down the stairs.Bookmark here

Franz stands up immediately, but his ribs are quick to remind him how badly they hurt, and he holds onto the bruises with his hand to apply pressure to it.Bookmark here

Ghh… There he is… There’s that worm!! He saw me get beat up and did nothing! I knew he was a delinquent, but I didn’t think he’d be a disgusting backstabber!”Bookmark here

Tama looks over to where Franz is looking, and whistles.Bookmark here

“Oof. Yeah. That’s Pain Killer Oue. He does Amon’s dirty work and cares about no one but himself.” He quickly turns to the side to spray a flare at another couple of brawlers, then casually continues. “His nickname is stupid, isn’t it? Painkiller is one word, lol. But, yeah, even the Kappore gang knows he’s not someone you mess with.”Bookmark here

Franz grits his teeth, frustrated, digging his fingers on the wound on his torso. Tama watches him from the corner of his eye, then grins.Bookmark here

“I dunno what he did to you, but if you wanna go get payback, I’ll watch your back.”Bookmark here

“—Excuse me!?” Franz looks at Tama, offended.Bookmark here

“What? You look like you’ve never thrown a punch, but, you know what? Neither has Oue. I bet you could take him.”Bookmark here

Franz growls, wiping his nose again and glaring in Oue’s direction. His hair and clothes are a complete mess; he's got blood all over him; and almost every inch of his body is bruised. He looks nothing like a prince— so he doesn't feel all that bad letting go of his princely persona.Bookmark here

“...Hell. Here goes nothing.”Bookmark here

Oue finally gets to the bottom of the long escalator, and without hesitation he grabs one of the Makai thugs throwing punches at Kappore and yanks him down to eye level.Bookmark here

“Was your text correct, you useless bouncer!? Where is he!? Where’s Mad Dog Jojo!?”Bookmark here

The bulky thug seems taken by surprise, pointing at the entrance of the building with his finger.Bookmark here

“I saw him pedaling over here at full speed, then I lost him in all those motorcycles, but he hasn’t come in yet—”Bookmark here

“He better not have or else I’ll have the boss scalp you!”Bookmark here

“Y-Yes, sir! I’ll be on the lookout!”Bookmark here

Oue releases the thug who clumsily runs towards the door again.Bookmark here

“...Hey, Oue.”Bookmark here

Oue turns around, and comes face to face with Franz, bloody and beaten. It takes him a second to recognize him like this.Bookmark here

Franz? Is that you? Wooow… My boys sure did a number on you, huh? Glad to see you’re still alive, though.”Bookmark here

Franz clenches his fist. Bookmark here

“You scumbag… Why did you take my Yuri!?” Bookmark here

Oue rolls his eyes. Bookmark here

“I told you you’re a creep, but you didn't get the hint. How is it on me that you tracked her phone? You getting beat up is aaall on you. You could’ve just taken her to your castle somewhere but no, you just had to get involved.”Bookmark here

“I... don’t get it…” Franz winces with pain, taking a step forward. “Why would you tell me to take her if you were planning to kidnap her anyway?”Bookmark here

Oue sighs and brings his hands to his hips.Bookmark here

“Honestly? Just because I could. And because Bloody Bat Romeo can go to hell, for all I care. Either I was gonna get you to take Yuri outta the picture, or I was gonna use her to keep Romeo in line, and, turns out, the latter's what we needed. Our boss was gonna sabotage his mission from the start, but Romeo was a bit more efficient than expected. You turned out to be pretty useful. It's all thanks to you that I found out about Yuri in the first place!”Bookmark here

Franz feels his blood boil with rage, but, before his instinct lets him swing a punch right at Oue's smug little face, the thug acting as a bouncer suddenly dashes past them, screaming.Bookmark here

HE’S COMING!! HE’S COMING!! Mad Dog Jojo’s going berserk!!Bookmark here

Oue and Franz whip their head towards the glass entrance to the building in the distance just as it shatters into millions of tiny pieces. Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Romeo staggers to his feet, dizzied from the kick that slammed him into the concrete pillar. His vision blurs and sees double in the dim light, but, when it settles, he sees Amon leisurely walking towards him. Bookmark here

He barely manages to bring up his arms to defend another kick to the face.Bookmark here

Ngh—”Bookmark here

This time he only skids back a few feet, glaring at Amon. Amon slowly lowers his leg again and takes one more drag of his cigarette, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke.Bookmark here

“...You took the bait, huh. You’re easier than I thought.”Bookmark here

Romeo fixes his headband without taking his eyes off his former boss.Bookmark here

“...Bone Crusher Amon. Finally fighting your own battles?”Bookmark here

“............”Bookmark here

“Let Yuri go.”Bookmark here

“Can’t.”Bookmark here

“She has nothing to do with this!”Bookmark here

“Wrong. If she weren’t here, you wouldn’t be here.”Bookmark here

Romeo’s eyebrow twitches. His head slowly turns towards the elevator, where Yuri had wriggled her way towards the small opening, watching both of them fearfully through the parted doors. Romeo looks back at Amon.Bookmark here

No… I can’t let Yuri watch me fight... or this would've all been for nothing...Bookmark here

He takes a deep breath, bracing himself.Bookmark here

“...Fine. I’m here now, so if you wanna beat me up, just do it.”Bookmark here

Romeo!” Yuri cries out from the elevator, and it takes everything in Romeo’s power to not turn around.Bookmark here

Amon scoffs.Bookmark here

“You think I called you out here just to beat you up? ...I called you to do one last, real job for me.”Bookmark here

“...What’s that?”Bookmark here

Amon takes one last drag of his cigarette before flicking it to the floor, crushing it under his heel.Bookmark here

“Get rid of the Kappore gang, right here, right now. All of them.”Bookmark here

“Huh!?”Bookmark here

Amon simply looks at him, as if expecting Romeo to simply agree and run off to do so. Romeo scoffs, incredulous.Bookmark here

“I’m not gonna do that! No way!Bookmark here

Not with Yuri here… Bookmark here

Amon softly exhales the smoke still in his lungs.Bookmark here

“...You won’t, huh.”Bookmark here

Romeo’s hand twitches, empty without his bat. He expects Amon to sprint towards him any second now, but instead, Amon turns left, slowly heading towards the elevator. Romeo gasps, and ends up sprinting first instead.Bookmark here

“Don’t you dare!Bookmark here

He swings at Amon’s face but he catches his fist with ease, crushing Romeo’s fingers through grip strength alone. They both hear his straining bones cracking under the sheer pressure.Bookmark here

Aagghh….!!Bookmark here

“See?” Amon speaks in his usual, languid tone. “She needs to be here.”Bookmark here

Romeo throws a kick aimed for Amon’s side, but Amon lets go of his fist and jumps back before it lands. With a quick leap, he circles behind Romeo and launches a powerful kick to his spine. Romeo feels all the nerves in his body convulse with pain.Bookmark here

He falls on his side, every inch of his body aching. No sooner had he rolled onto his back in hopes of getting to his feet than Amon was already standing before him with a kick swinging into his side, slamming him right into the concrete pillar.Bookmark here

Romeo!!!” Yuri cries out again in a panic.Bookmark here

Yu...ri… Please… don’t look…Bookmark here

He hears Amon's steps grow steadily closer before Amon grips him by the face, lifting his head up off the ground. No matter how fiercely he tries to pry Amon's wrist away, he can't stop Amon crushing his head against the concrete pillar, his skull straining the more pressure Amon applies to his grip—the move that got him his nickname.Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Glass shatters around Jojo as he crashes through the glass doors without any control of his bike, mowing down Makai and Kappore thugs alike until he crashes into the wall beside Franz and Oue, who stand there in disbelief.Bookmark here

“O-Owww… cough… Dammit… That hurt…”Bookmark here

Jojo staggers to his feet, removing his helmet and rubbing his head. Romeo’s bat shines when the light hits it, securely strapped to Jojo’s back. Oue’s eyes go wide the moment he recognizes it.Bookmark here

“You! Where did you get that!?”Bookmark here

Jojo shakes his head and blinks, patting himself to make sure he’s fine. Then he looks over at Oue, squinting.Bookmark here

Ugh. Of course you’re here. Where’s Romeo? I need to get this to him fast.Bookmark here

“Hah! Like I would ever tell—”Bookmark here

“He’s upstairs!” Franz immediately interrupts. “He’s trying to save Yuri!”Bookmark here

“You little—!!”Bookmark here

“Thanks, man, I owe ya!” Jojo nods at Franz despite not knowing who he is; anyone who'd screw over Oue is someone he can trust. He rushes up the escalator immediately while unwrapping the bat from his back.Bookmark here

After him!Bookmark here

Oue yells at a few Makai thugs around them, who all nod and quickly rush after Jojo. He’s so distraught he doesn’t notice Franz creeping close to him and tackling him to the dusty, dirty floor.Bookmark here

AAAAHHHH!!??! F-Filthy!! FILTHY!!! L-Let me go!! Let me goooo!!! AAHHH!!Bookmark here

Franz grips his legs for dear life even as Oue kicks at him. Oue twists enough to sit up, hitting Franz on the head while yelling in a panic. Franz lets go with one hand to take a fistful of dirt and debris from the floor, and, without a second thought, stuffs it into Oue’s mouth.Bookmark here

“Shut the hell up!!”Bookmark here

MMMPHHGHHH!!!?!!?!!?Bookmark here

Oue falls to the ground in a state of shock, tears forming in his eyes before he passes out, still firmly in Franz’s grip.Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

The thugs get to Jojo the moment he reaches the top of the stairs, tackling him and trying to drag him downstairs again. Bookmark here

Wagh! Lemme go!!Bookmark here

Jojo fights tooth and nail to get away from them without letting go of the bat, scratching at the floor as he tries to crawl away. Whipping his head forward, he gasps seeing Amon gripping Romeo by the head, and instantly he’s filled with the strength to rip free from their clutches, tripping over his own feet as he runs towards the two of them, lifting the bat.Bookmark here

BOSS!! I GOT YOUR BAT!!”Bookmark here

Amon slowly turns his head towards Jojo, but he’s met with a flying bat heading straight at his face. He releases Romeo instantly to dodge before it makes impact. He turns his gaze back to the pillar, only to see Romeo with his head hanging low, catching his breath... with his bat firmly caught in his hand by the grip.Bookmark here

Jojo gets caught almost instantly by the thugs again who keep him pinned down on the floor, but the look on his face, more than pain, shows a strange sort of elation at the sight in front of him.Bookmark here

Amon’s eyebrow twitches. Romeo slowly lifts his face, his eyes glowing and bangs obscuring his expression— a sight Amon recognizes all too well. Romeo was only Romeo at his most feral; this was the beast he so dearly treasured; this was the dog he wanted leashed to Makai. A grin, so rare for him, splits his stoic expression. How wonderful it is to see Romeo this way again.Bookmark here

“Finally getting serious, Bloody Bat Romeo?”Bookmark here

Romeo doesn’t answer. He sprints towards Amon instead, swinging his bat at him. The blow misses Amon by a hair; his bat hits another of the concrete pillars in the building instead, cracking the surface from the sheer strength behind it, the impact causing rubble to fall from the ceiling. Bookmark here

Romeo draws the bat back and his eyes dart in Amon’s direction. Amon disappears from his sight, dropping down to land a powerful punch straight at Romeo’s stomach. Bookmark here

Ghhahh!Bookmark here

Romeo’s eyes go blank for a second, keeling over and as he presses a hand against what feels like a broken rib.Bookmark here

Amon straightens up, still unscathed.Bookmark here

“...You couldn’t defeat me before, so what makes you think you can now?”Bookmark here

Romeo glares at him no different than a snarling animal. Only bloodlust pulses through his cloudy mind, and nothing else, not even his aching body, registers to him. Jamming his bat into the ground, he uses it as a support to stagger back to his feet, breathing heavy.Bookmark here

“You’re wasting your talents. Instead of fighting me, you should be doing as I ordered. We’d have been done by now if you had.”Bookmark here

Romeo barely hears him. He tightens the hold on his bat and swings it back over his shoulder, ready to strike again.Bookmark here

“...Romeo…”Bookmark here

....!Bookmark here

Yuri’s quiet voice knocks more sense into him than Amon ever could with his blows. He doesn’t look her way—he doesn't want to draw Amon’s attention to her—gritting his teeth instead.Bookmark here

But Amon notices his brief lucidity. He scoffs and cracks his knuckles and the bones in his neck.Bookmark here

“If you want me to hurt her that badly, you could’ve just asked.”Bookmark here

“Leave her alone!”Bookmark here

Romeo immediately dashes over, swinging his bat at him with all his might. Amon brings an arm up to block it, but for once, that alone doesn’t cut it. It knocks him off balance; not enough to make him fall, but enough for Romeo to take that fraction of a second as an opportunity to strike his unprotected side. Bookmark here

The blow shatters Amon's ribs, drawing a growl from his lips. He staggers towards a pillar, holding onto it while glaring daggers at Romeo. Romeo lifts his bat up high— higher than Amon’s head, ready to deliver the final blow.Bookmark here

“You little bitch—”Bookmark here

Amon cusses him out one last time, before Romeo swings his bat with all the strength he can manage.Bookmark here

CRACK!Bookmark here

But the blow doesn't strike Amon. It crashes into the pillar behind him, deep fissures shattering the concrete and the ceiling rapidly crumbling beneath its own weight with one support beam breaking fast. Romeo knew it; the weak infrastructure could barely hold under his last hit, never mind a strike done at full power. All around them, the building starts rumbling as more and more rubble pours from the ceiling with no sign it'll stop.Bookmark here

Amon, breathing hard, grips the crumbling pillar behind him. He glares at Romeo; then, he grins. A second later, he begins to cackle.Bookmark here

“Hahahaha!! You couldn’t do it! After all this time! You’re still nothing unless someone’s telling you what to do, ain’tcha!”Bookmark here

“.........”Bookmark here

“Finish me off, coward! Do it! Come on!! Finish me off or your girlfriend will—”Bookmark here

Just as Amon's lips twist into a vicious snarl, a chunk of the ceiling crashes down right where he stood.Bookmark here

Romeo gasps, looking up at the roof, coming down in massive chunks. With every impact of the ceiling debris, cracks form across the floor, and the first floor begins to rumble, too.Bookmark here

BOSS!!!” Jojo yells, the thugs that were pinning him down now running frantically down the escalator. “Tama burned down something downstairs and the place caught on fire! We gotta get outta here!”Bookmark here

Romeo, still shocked by Amon's abrupt disappearance beneath the rubble, doesn't immediately process what Jojo said. Bookmark here

“Nnnh… Romeo…”Franz, disheveled, painfully makes his way to the top of the other set of stairs, holding onto the rail. “Yuri…”Bookmark here

Romeo swallows, then turns around towards Franz, nodding.Bookmark here

“Stay right there.”Bookmark here

“Eh?”Bookmark here

Romeo rushes over to the elevator, getting hit on the head a few times by small pieces of debris. One in particular hits his temple, and the blood that trickles down from it almost blinds him in one eye.Bookmark here

He looks inside, his eyes meeting Yuri's own, and she startles at the sight immediately. Romeo feels a tinge of pain at her recoiling away from him like that. He averts his eyes and grips each side of the door again, slowly pushing it more and more open.Bookmark here

“Nngghh… Just… a little… more…”Bookmark here

THUD-CLANK!Bookmark here

Finally, the last portion of the doors slide away with ease, and Romeo quickly kneels down and moves towards Yuri, circling his arms around her. Yuri feels her face heat up, confused for a second, until she realizes Romeo’s only doing it to untie her hands behind her back.Bookmark here

As he does this, her eyes slowly look at Romeo, who is doing everything in his power to not look at her.Bookmark here

“...Romeo—”Bookmark here

“All done.”Bookmark here

Romeo coldly speaks before she can say anything, pulling away from her and standing up. He offers her his hand and waits for her to remove the loose blindfold on her own.Bookmark here

“We have to go now.”Bookmark here

After a second, Yuri nods sadly, taking his hand.Bookmark here

Romeo safely pulls her away from the elevator,hand in hand with her as he tugs her towards the escalator where Franz awaits. Yuri looks at Romeo’s back. Hidden from her view, Romeo allows himself a moment to grieve over this feeling— the sensation of Yuri’s warm hand on his own. Bookmark here

Yuri!” Franz perks up the moment he sees her, rushing over to them. Bookmark here

Romeo lets go of her hand, and Franz quickly pulls her into a one-sided embrace.Bookmark here

“I thought I lost you, my love…”Bookmark here

“Franz…”Bookmark here

Yuri, still confused, slowly brings a hand to Franz’s back, barely touching him.Bookmark here

“Can you get her out of here?” Romeo interrupts.Bookmark here

Without letting go of Yuri, Franz looks at him and raises an eyebrow.Bookmark here

“Are you sure it should be me…?”Bookmark here

Romeo looks away and nods.Bookmark here

“I’ll go get the others.”Bookmark here

“Romeo, wait!” Yuri calls to him, but Romeo simply turns around and runs towards the other escalator where he'd last seen Jojo.
Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Hellfire ravages the first floor. Everyone stampedes, trying to get to the only exit, trampling over one another to get out.Bookmark here

On one of the walls, however, someone had broken a huge hole and was letting people use it as an alternative escape. Outside the torn wall stood Tama’s friend with the bright hair, Orange, along with every other follower of Fire Jet Tamaya. Crane and wrecking ball handy, they let out every Kappore they knew safely out into the parking lot. Tama was supervising the order from the inside.Bookmark here

“One at a time, one at a time!”Bookmark here

A Makai member, scared out of his wits, approaches Tama, trembling.Bookmark here

“I-I don’t wanna die buried here! I know we’re enemies, but please… please lemme out, too!”Bookmark here

Tama blinks, surprised at the sudden candor, then smiles.Bookmark here

“Of course you can! There are no enemies here! I’m everybody’s friend! Come on, come on, out you go, out you go!”Bookmark here

The thug gratefully thanks him and scrambles through the makeshift exit. Tama rushes towards a large pile of rubble in the middle of the floor and points his flare to the ceiling to get people’s attention.Bookmark here

“Makai gang, you can escape through here, too! No time to waste! This place is going dooown!Bookmark here

Still in a frenzy, the Makai gang and the Kappore gang safely escape the collapsing building. Franz protects Yuri all the way to the exit, but then he sees Oue passed out with dirt in his mouth, and clicks his tongue.Bookmark here

“Yuri, my darling, could I trouble you to walk outside on your own these last few steps? There is something I need to take care of.”Bookmark here

“O-Oh, yes, of course. Be careful.”Bookmark here

Yuri nods, and quickly rushes over outside the building. Franz runs a hand through his hair and exhales, exasperated as he looks down at Oue in that pathetic state. Bookmark here

“You’re so lucky I’m not heartless like you.”Bookmark here

He hooks his arms under Oue’s and drags him outside the building slowly through the front door.Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Half an hour after burning and almost fully collapsing an entire building, the Makai gang and the Kappore gang stand outside—confused, tired, and bruised all over. They’re all talking to each other, some among their own members, some with the members of the other gang, sitting on the Kappore motorcycles and on the ground with a few others pacing about restlessly. Bookmark here

The doors on Franz’s car are fully open, with Yuri sitting on the backseat. Nana clings to her sobbing, holding her tightly and petting her head while Yuri’s on the phone. Franz is sitting on the other side while Sophie is standing in front of him, carefully brushing dirt out of his hair.Bookmark here

“I’m okay, brother… I mean it…” Yuri calms down Endo on the other side of the line.Bookmark here

“He got you into this, didn’t he!” Endo’s voice booms out of the phone for all to hear. “Even after I told him not to get close to you! That good for nothing Romeo just does whatever the hell he wants! I oughta bash his head in!”Bookmark here

Franz gasps after hearing this and twists his body back to take the phone away from Yuri, yelling in an uncharacteristically rude voice.Bookmark here

Zip it, Endo! You weren’t here! Romeo is a hero! He saved me and the princess in the tower, and he’s more of a man than anyone I’ve ever met!”Bookmark here

“What the— who’s this!?Bookmark here

“Oh, you know exactly who I am! I’m the guy that will marry your sister, but not before I beat Romeo— fair and square, to Yuri’s heart!”Bookmark here

Sophie holds the brush with both of her hands, looking at this Franz she’s never seen before in her life, feeling her face heat up.Bookmark here

“O-Oh, my… This new side of Master Franz… has its own appeal, doesn’t it?”Bookmark here

Endo and Franz keep yelling at each other on the phone, while Yuri’s attention slowly turns to the edge of the parking lot with concern.Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Away from the disaster zone and right at the outer edge of the parking area, Romeo sits on the grass, listless and tired, watching the gaudy car in the distance. Jojo is standing up and acting out a recap of Romeo and Amon’s battle with excitement.Bookmark here

“You went like this, and bam! Then I almost died when he whoosh! Like this!! And then, when he did that thing on the—”Bookmark here

“Nope,” Tama’s voice interrupts suddenly as he makes his way over to them. “Amon’s gone, man. He’s not in there, not on the second floor or nothing.”Bookmark here

Jojo stops shadowboxing to look at Tama, blinking. Behind Tama stands a large array of his followers, Makai gangsters, and Kappore gangsters alike, all obediently holding their hands behind themselves out of respect.Bookmark here

“Uhh… What’s... going on there, Tama?”Bookmark here

Tama perks up, tilting his head to the side and pointing back with his thumb.Bookmark here

“Oh, this? Haha. Well, it seems like neither Kappore nor Makai have a leader now, yeah? So these guys suddenly decided to tag along with me and my pals. We’re all everlasting friends now!”Bookmark here

Huh!?” Jojo gasps, a bit offended that the label wasn’t exclusive for him. Then something else comes to mind—something someone said to him once. He bites his nails, mumbling to himself. “That’s right… they’re all headless chickens…”Bookmark here

Tama beams a smile. “Now I just gotta think of a name for us, right? I’m thinking of Team Tamatama!”Bookmark here

“Uh… That’s… a real shitty name…”Bookmark here

Hey, it’s a work in progress! Either way, you’re welcome to join my new gang anytime, Jojo! We’ll have lots of fun and hopefully find the perfect arcade soon enough! Though, it’ll be hard to find one that suits every one of our tastes, but that makes the challenge even more fun!”Bookmark here

He looks down at where Romeo is sitting, who has been ignoring them all this time, simply looking over at the car still parked near the building. Tama puts his hands on his hips and tilts his body to the side to look at Romeo’s face.Bookmark here

“...You can join me too if you want, Romeow-meow.”Bookmark here

Romeo finally seems to react, scoffing.Bookmark here

“No, thanks.”Bookmark here

Tama laughs. Bookmark here

“Suit yourself! The invitation is open to you forever, y’know? You’re my friend, too!”Bookmark here

Romeo adjusts the headband over his forehead awkwardly.Bookmark here

“Hey! Look over there!” Jojo points in the direction of the empty street, where a figure slowly walks towards them. Bookmark here

“Meru!” Tama waves at him enthusiastically.Bookmark here

Meru raises his hand as he approaches with a gentle smile. His presence gets Romeo’s attention, bringing him back to his feet. Jojo seems just as surprised, too.Bookmark here

Meru!? I thought you weren’t gonna come!”Bookmark here

“I changed my mind shortly after you left,” his voice is calm and a little ashamed. “Your words made an impact on me, and... I realized whatever harm I could cause by helping you out would be nowhere near the harm Amon could deal to you without my help, but… it appears I’m too late, aren’t I?”Bookmark here

“Aw, look at that, Jojo!” Tama nudges Jojo with his elbow. “Your words did a thing!”Bookmark here

Jojo laughs and rubs the back of his neck, embarrassed.Bookmark here

“Aw, shucks…”Bookmark here

“I knew you were a fishy guy the moment I met you,” Tama looks at Meru suddenly, “but I never expected you to be Silent Step Meru! You were a legend back in the day! I didn’t even think you were real!Bookmark here

“Haha.”Bookmark here

“Do you wanna join the Tamatama gang!?”Bookmark here

“You sure waste no time!” Jojo elbows Tama this time.Bookmark here

Meru brings a hand to his mouth to hide his smile.Bookmark here

“Maybe some other time.”Bookmark here

“Oh well!” Tama shrugs. “You’re all invited anyway! I mean, after word about this war gets out and people find out the Kappore and the Makai gang are basically dissolved now, lots of other gangs will come around looking to rise to the top and get this turf. I have a feeling the Acid Rain gang in particular will try to recruit Romeo, too.”Bookmark here

“That’s insane!” Jojo brings his hands to his head, shocked. “They can’t do that! Ah! Boss is retired now, anyway! Ain’t that right, Boss!?”Bookmark here

Romeo doesn’t respond, he simply looks down at his bat in his hand—which he picked up the moment he stood up on sheer instinct—and its eternal, indelible blood stains on it. Bookmark here

“Meru…” Romeo calls to him quietly. Meru looks at him with a forced smile.Bookmark here

“...You must hate me now, don’t you? After everything I did…”Bookmark here

Romeo looks at him with a serious expression, then sighs.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m mad.”Bookmark here

Meru holds his arm and looks at the ground. Romeo continues.Bookmark here

“Why didn’t you tell me Amon still had you on a leash, huh? We could’ve found a way to get you free for good sooner if you would’ve told me.”Bookmark here

Meru looks at him, surprised.Bookmark here

“...That’s why you’re mad at me? Romeo, I sabotaged and kidna—”Bookmark here

You didn’t do it,” Romeo stops him. “Amon did.”Bookmark here

Meru feels his heart flutter at Romeo’s indirect way of forgiving him. He smiles sheepishly, nodding.Bookmark here

“...Thank you, Romeo.”Bookmark here

Somehow, hearing Meru thank him feels wrong to him. A strange, empty void eats at Romeo from the inside out. He sighs, and looks at all three of them. It takes him a moment to find the right words. He tries to keep eye contact as he speaks, but ends up faltering and averts his eyes, instead.Bookmark here

“Listen… I’m… I’m sorry... for dragging you all into this mess. It was my battle, and you all got hurt because I was selfish and stupid.”Bookmark here

“...Boss?” Jojo blinks. “What are you talking about?” Bookmark here

Romeo looks at Jojo, embarrassed, fixing his headband on his forehead.Bookmark here

Tama surprises Romeo with a tough pat on the back.Bookmark here

“Yeah, Romeo! What are you talking about! I told you the moment we stepped inside the building, didn’t I? You’re not alone! We’re here with you because we want to be! We’re all your friends!”Bookmark here

Romeo looks at Tama with wide eyes, as if he were just finding out about it.Bookmark here

“Tamaya…”Bookmark here

“Romeo,” Meru steps in front of Romeo as silent as his nickname. It startles him, but not as much as Meru gently opening his arms and pulling him into a tight hug.Bookmark here

....!Bookmark here

Meru closes his eyes, smiling. His voice is calm and very gentle; so quiet that only Romeo can hear it against his ear.Bookmark here

“...You’re a good person, Romeo. So stop being so hard on yourself. It’s okay to be vulnerable and ask for help sometimes. You taught me that, yourself, so isn’t it about time you do the same?”Bookmark here

...Meru… Bookmark here

Meru pulls away softly, smiling at him. Romeo clears his throat and looks away, embarrassed.Bookmark here

Tama puffs out his chest.Bookmark here

“Okay guys, I gotta get going now before the police or the fire department get here. Gotta show my new friends around my hideout, too! I’m excited!” He turns to look at all his old and new followers standing by obediently behind him. “HEY EVERYONE!? Let’s go!”Bookmark here

The army of thugs behind Tama enthusiastically reply in unison and follow behind him as he walks away, heading back towards the parking lot to get back on their bikes and carry along on them the Makai thugs that weren’t riding one. Jojo and Meru wave goodbye to him.Bookmark here

“Um….… Romeo?”Bookmark here

A quiet voice turns Jojo and Romeo’s heads around. Romeo’s eyes grow large when he Yuri standing in front of them with her hands behind her back.Bookmark here

“Yuri…”Bookmark here

She looks at him with her big eyes, speaking in a clear, calm tone.Bookmark here

“...Can I talk to you?”Bookmark here

Ah…Bookmark here

Romeo’s mind immediately bombards him with scenes from his fight with Amon, the moment he lost his sense of self, and how it all happened right in front of Yuri’s eyes—exactly what he tried so hard to avoid this whole time. He thinks of Yuri’s frightened expression when she saw him open the door, and his soul crumbles inside his body. He nods.Bookmark here

* * *Bookmark here

Yuri and Romeo walked some distance away from the rest, near the back of the crumbled building, under a big tree with colorful autumn leaves. They stand face to face with a few feet of distance between them. Bookmark here

Romeo looks at her, feeling his nerves get the better of him as time passes, but mostly he feels disappointed in himself.Bookmark here

...After all this time… everything I did was for nothing. I didn’t change, and she saw me at my worst, too. I have no right to even talk to her at all...Bookmark here

“Back in there,” Yuri finally speaks, moving some hair behind her ear as the wind gently blows. “I wasn’t sure what was happening for awhile. It was scary, and… I didn’t think I could get out of there on my own...”Bookmark here

“......”Bookmark here

“And then, when you opened the door, I saw you.”Bookmark here

Ba-dump.Bookmark here

“I saw you fight, with your fists and your bat, and I realized that… you were hiding that side of you from me since we met.”Bookmark here

Ba-dump.Bookmark here

“That day in the alley… That bat you were using… it was yours, wasn’t it? It’s the same one you used today…”Bookmark here

“Yuri, I—”Bookmark here

“—You’re a delinquent, aren’t you?”Bookmark here

Romeo holds his breath, looking at her. Bookmark here

He feels trapped and caught; his lips trembling as he struggles to find his next words. He knows whatever he says next could mark the end forever.Bookmark here

To his surprise, Yuri looks down and continues, twiddling her thumbs.Bookmark here

“It… must have been hard, hiding such a big part of your life…”Bookmark here

………..Huh?Bookmark here

Yuri takes a deep breath, shutting her eyes closed.Bookmark here

“The truth is I… I like you, Romeo!”Bookmark here

Yuri confesses suddenly, and Romeo looks at her with his eyes wide open, unable to believe what he just heard. Yuri’s face turns completely red, and she starts waving her hands in front of herself as her voice breaks.Bookmark here

“B-But today I realized I don’t know anything about you, and it doesn’t seem fair to force my feelings on you like this!” Bookmark here

Yuri begins rambling in complete panic. Bookmark here

“M-My friend Nana told me most boys only want one thing s-so, I thought if you were one of those boys, I should never go out with you! B-But! I don’t even know if you like me or if you would even go out with me— ah! N-not that I was considering it! S-She just b-brought it up so I simply answered! But it doesn’t mean I’m not interested— I, I mean! I want to! I want to go out with you! B-But I think I want to get to know you, first!”Bookmark here

She starts taking in deep breaths as soon as she’s done; her face looking like it's about to explode.Bookmark here

Romeo looks at her without moving, shocked to his core, mouth agape and eyes wide. He hears every word, but each one of them was more surreal than the last, and it’s taking him a moment to get this all through his brain.Bookmark here

Yuri, increasingly unsettled by his lack of reaction, immediately begins to feel self-conscious. She covers her face with her hands and speaks in a muffled voice.Bookmark here

“P-Please… say something…”Bookmark here

Romeo closes his mouth and blinks. Bookmark here

It slowly dawns on him that not knowing each other was always a two-way street. He knows, more than anyone else, that what she just did—opening up to someone about your feelings with such fervent honesty—could not have been easy in the least. Maybe the way she did it was a little frantic, but… It was worth admiring. Bookmark here

Above all, seeing her react so cutely like that… it truly cemented one thing in his mind: despite Endo bringing them to question, his feelings for her were definitely real.Bookmark here

There’s still a chance she won’t like him once she gets to know the real him, he figures, but strangely enough, the thought of that now isn’t as frightful as he thought it’d be. Bookmark here

Between being hated for being yourself or being liked for pretending to be someone you’re not, Romeo knows exactly which he’d choose. Bookmark here

And it’s the wrong answer. Bookmark here

So he has to start by learning how to be honest, too.Bookmark here

Slowly, Romeo takes a few steps forward, and the sound of the crunching leaves under his shoes makes Yuri gently lower her hands from her face. When she looks up, it startles her to see that Romeo is right in front of her, looking at her with a determined expression, yet a slight blush on his cheeks. Bookmark here

There’s a slight hint of nervousness in his voice when he speaks; struggling to match her courage to bare his feelings out in the open. Bookmark here

“I… I want to get to know you, too.”Bookmark here

Yuri gasps, covering her mouth with her hands, looking at him with big, sparkling eyes. Bookmark here

“And for that,” he continues, “I gotta tell you about my three-word nickname.”Bookmark here

Bookmark here

* * * * * *Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.