BLOODY BAT ROMEO
Hellfire ravages the first floor. Everyone is caught in a stampede, trying to get to the only exit while trampling over one another to get out.
On one of the walls, however, someone has broken a huge hole and is letting people use it as an alternative escape. Outside the torn wall stands Tama’s friend with 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.
“One at a time, one at a time!”
A Makai member, scared out of his wits, approaches Tama, trembling.
“I-I don’t wanna die buried here! I know we’re enemies, but please… please lemme out, too!”
Tama blinks, surprised at the sudden candor, then smiles.
“Of course, you can! There are no enemies here! I’m everybody’s friend! Come on, come on, out you go, out you go!”
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.
“Makai gang, you can escape through here, too! No time to waste! This place is going dooown!”
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.
“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.”
“O-Oh, yes, of course. Be careful.”
Yuri nods and quickly rushes outside the building. Franz runs a hand through his hair and exhales, exasperated as he looks down at Oue in that pathetic state.
“You’re so lucky I’m not heartless like you.”
He hooks his arms under Oue’s and drags him outside the building slowly through the front door.
Half an hour after the burning building nearly collapses on them, the Makai gang and the Kappore gang linger 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. Some sit on their motorcycles and some on the ground, while others pace about restlessly.
The doors on Franz’s car are fully open, with Yuri sitting in the backseat. Nana clings to her, sobbing and holding her tightly. She pets Yuri’s head while she’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.
“I’m okay, brother… I mean it…” Yuri calms down Endo on the other side of the line.
“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!”
Franz gasps after hearing this and twists his body back to take the phone away from Yuri, yelling in an uncharacteristically rude voice.
“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!”
“What the— who’s this!?”
“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!”
Sophie holds the brush with both of her hands, looking at this Franz she’s never seen before in her life. Her face heats up.
“O-Oh, my… This new side of Master Franz… has its own appeal, doesn’t it?”
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.
Away from the disaster zone and right at the outer edge of the parking area, Romeo sits on the grass. He’s listless and tired, watching the gaudy car in the distance. Jojo is reenacting Romeo and Amon’s battle with excitement.
“You went like this and bam! Then, I almost died when he whoosh! Like this!! And then, when he did that thing on the—”
“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.”
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.
“Uhh… What’s... going on there, Tama?”
Tama perks up, tilting his head to the side and pointing back with his thumb.
“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!”
“Huh!?” Jojo gasps, a bit offended that the label wasn’t exclusive to 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…”
Tama beams a smile. “Now, I just gotta think of a name for us, right? I’m thinking of Team Tamatama!”
“Uh… That’s… a real shitty name…”
“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!”
He looks down at where Romeo is sitting, who has been ignoring them all this time. He simply stares 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.
“... You can join me too if you want, Romeow-meow.”
Romeo finally seems to react, scoffing.
“Suit yourself! The invitation is open to you forever, y’know? You’re my friend, too!”
Romeo adjusts the headband over his forehead awkwardly.
“Hey! Look over there!” Jojo points in the direction of the empty street, where a figure slowly walks towards them.
“Meru!” Tama waves at him enthusiastically.
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.
“Meru!? I thought you weren’t gonna come!”
“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 with you without my help, but… it appears I’m too late, aren’t I?”
“Aw, look at that, Jojo!” Tama nudges Jojo with his elbow. “Your words did a thing!”
Jojo laughs and rubs the back of his neck, embarrassed.
“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!”
“Do you wanna join the Tamatama gang!?”
“You sure waste no time!” Jojo elbows Tama this time.
Meru brings a hand to his mouth to hide his smile.
“Maybe some other time.”
“Oh well!” Tama shrugs. “You’re all invited anyway! I mean, afterword 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.”
“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!?”
Romeo doesn’t respond. He simply looks down at the bat in his hand—which he picked up the moment he stood up on sheer instinct—and its eternal, indelible bloodstains.
“Meru…” Romeo calls to him quietly. Meru looks at him with a forced smile.
“... You must hate me now, don’t you? After everything I did…”
Romeo looks at him with a serious expression, then sighs.
“Yeah, I’m mad.”
Meru holds his arm and looks at the ground. Romeo continues.
“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.”
Meru looks at him, surprised.
“... That’s why you’re mad at me? Romeo, I sabotaged and kidna—”
“You didn’t do it,” Romeo stops him. “Amon did.”
Meru feels his heart flutter at Romeo’s indirect way of forgiving him. He smiles sheepishly, nodding.
“... Thank you, Romeo.”
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 the three of them. It takes him a moment to find the right words. He tries to keep eye contact as he speaks, but he ends up faltering and averts his eyes instead.
“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.”
“... Boss?” Jojo blinks. “What are you talking about?”
Romeo looks at Jojo with embarrassment, fixing his headband on his forehead.
Tama surprises Romeo with a tough pat on the back.
“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!”
Romeo looks at Tama with wide eyes, as if he were just finding out about it.
“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.
Meru closes his eyes, smiling. His voice is calm and very gentle, so quiet that only Romeo can hear it against his ear.
“...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?”
Meru pulls away softly, smiling at him. Romeo clears his throat and looks away, embarrassed.
Tama puffs out his chest.
“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!”
The army of thugs behind Tama enthusiastically replies in unison and follow behind him as he walks away. They head back towards the parking lot to ride their bikes and give the Makai thugs that didn’t have one a lift. Jojo and Meru wave goodbye to him.
A quiet voice turns Jojo and Romeo’s heads around. Romeo’s eyes grow large when he sees Yuri standing in front of them with her hands behind her back.
She looks at him with her big eyes, speaking in a clear, calm tone.
“... Can I talk to you?”
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. Still, he manages to nod.