BLOODY BAT ROMEO
As night rolled in and both went their separate ways, Jojo finds himself walking listlessly home, heartbroken over the conversation he just had with the person he considers his best friend. The intersection he wanders through bustles with people leaving work, the glare of the neon lights and electric billboards obscuring the sadness in his heart.
He walks staring down at his phone, wondering if he should say something to Romeo or let it be. Part of him knows Romeo just said those things to protect him, but another part of him feels like he'll lose their friendship if he pries too much.
He stares at his phone a few more seconds before deciding to put it back in his pocket with a dramatic sigh.
“I didn’t do anythin’ wrong, but I wanna get back on his good side…”
Befriending Romeo hadn’t been easy: Jojo started following him around until he eventually became part of his life, but it had taken such a long time to get to that point. Jojo was afraid he'd burned that bridge by trying to be a better friend to him, and now things were going to end on a sour note. Worst of all, he was concerned that Meru would replace him as his best friend now.
He clicks his tongue and kicks an empty water bottle on the street.
“Stupid Meru. Why doesn't he get treated the same as m— Ah!”
He realizes a moment too late that he had just kicked someone’s trash, and quickly runs after the bottle.
It leads him into a busy part of the city, close to an arcade, still bustling with life even after dark. He picks up the bottle while peering inside, his eyes immediately fixed on a crane game machine where the prizes are all from one of his favorite fighting games— most of them plush dolls of the girl he mains, the cute magical girl Macaron.
“Aaah… I haven’t been to this side of town in a while… Can’t believe there’s new merch of my daughter!”
He disposes of the bottle in a trashcan before rushing into the noisy arcade, making a beeline toward the crane machine with excitement— his worries over his friendship with Romeo taking a backseat in his mind almost immediately.
He reaches inside his pocket for his wallet and gets to playing. No matter how much he concentrates and talks nicely to the machine, his first two attempts end with nothing— not even a little close to victory.
“Dammit, I used to be so good at this!”
For his third attempt, he switches to cursing out the machine instead of complimenting it, and, to his surprise, he’s able to lift one of the plush toys a few centimeters before it falls down again, filling him with hope, and then anger. He bangs his fist against the glass.
“Come on! I need a win today! Pleeeease!”
The fourth attempt, unfortunately, isn't as good as his third. He can't get the crane to grab any Macaron plushies, never mind lift them. As a sad jingle plays, he lets go of the machine and messes up his hair with his hands, frustrated.
“Whyyyyy!! Why is nothing going right for me today! What did I do to deserve this!?”
He bangs his head on the glass and leaves it there, whimpering softly as he wallows in his misery. He's convinced this is a bad omen, and how failing to get his best girl is a sure sign that everyone's rejected him.
“It’s over… I've lost it all…”
Softly, he puts a hand on the glass and lifts his face, looking inside the machine at all the prizes inside, sighing.
“Am I really that useless…?”
“Hey, come on, it’s just a crane game!”
From behind him, a voice snaps him out of his self-pity spiral. He turns to look at the source: it’s a young boy around his age with spiky, dark red hair. He’s wearing a different school’s blazer, albeit the long sleeves from it are messily ripped just below the elbow— same as his pants, torn in the exact same way just below the knee. Instead of a shirt, he has bandages wrapped around his chest and a small cut on his nose, also patched up. Jojo blinks.
“Whoa! Cool scar!” The boy immediately points at Jojo’s eye, impressed.
Jojo blushes, instinctively covering his eye with his hand. Despite how he acts when he’s with Romeo, his real introverted self comes out when he’s by himself, especially when someone this blunt approaches him.
“Oh, this? H-Haha… I always forget it’s there…”
“How’d you get it!?”
Jojo averts his eyes with embarrassment. “I… rode a bike really fast… downhill… I must have hit something sharp on my way down…”
By ‘something sharp’ he means an earring or a blade from one of the Kappore thugs he accidentally ran over that day, but there’s no reason to bring that up now in front of a stranger.
“Can I touch it!?”
Before Jojo can react, the other boy's already reaching for his head with both his hands, pushing Jojo’s hand out of the way and running his thumb over the scar. His grip on Jojo’s head is so tight Jojo can’t help but stammer in disbelief as this guy smushes his face before he finally composes himself and pushes him away.
“W-W-What the hell, man!?”
The boy looks at Jojo with a confused look but an unwavering smile, his hands hovering mid-air.
“You said I could touch it!”
“I did not!”
“Ohh…” The kid moves his hands behind his head, crossing one foot in front of the other. “I thought you did. My bad!”
Jojo rubs his jaw with his palm, glaring at him. But before he can yell at him again, his eyes set on a keychain hanging from the other boy’s belt— a Macaron keychain, the same character he was trying to win a plushie of just moments ago. Jojo immediately lights up and points at it.
“No way! You’re a Macaron fan, too!?”
The other boy looks down at his belt to see what Jojo’s pointing at before his gaze darts back up to Jojo with a big, cheerful smile.
“Damn right, I am! She’s the best! The cutest! And totally underrated! She should be the main fighter if you ask me! Front and center, right in the middle of the title screen!”
Jojo balls his fists and shakes them with joy in front of him.
“Right!? Right!? That’s what I always say!! Most people don’t even bother using her ‘cuz she doesn’t have a long range, but that’s only ‘cuz they don’t know how to use her!”
The other boy copies his stance, his voice matching Jojo’s loudness.
“Yeah! You get it, scarface! Wooow! I’ve never met another hardcore Macaron fan in my life! I keep her on my belt for good luck, and this is the first time anyone’s ever recognized her!”
“Yeah!! This is so crazy!”
Jojo feels a spark of happiness formed by kindred interests that he’s never felt with anyone other than Romeo before. The other boy thumps Jojo’s shoulder with one hand while pointing at himself with his thumb with his other hand— his cheerful smile never faltering.
“You can call me Tama! And lucky for you, I’m amazing at crane games!”
Jojo blinks, a little overwhelmed.
“I’m Jojo… Wait, are you saying—?”
Tama takes a step back and pushes Jojo aside, moving in front of the machine as he rolls his sleeves up.
“I sure am! To commemorate our everlasting friendship, I’ll get you your Macaron plushie!”
Jojo grips the side of the machine dramatically, looking at him with his big, teary eyes. Tama laughs, extending a hand to Jojo.
“Ah, but you’re paying, though, hehe.”
Nodding, Jojo takes out his wallet again and hands Tama enough change for a few tries, but Tama gives most of it back, shaking his head.
“Nope,” he says, giving Jojo a confident smirk. “I won’t need that much. Just one try should be enough for me.”
Jojo latches against the glass on the side of the machine again and watches how Tama carefully maneuvers the claw until it drops down and grips a Macaron plushie securely, dragging it higher and higher.
To his own surprise, Jojo’s eyes are not focused on the game, but rather on Tama himself. His interest in the prize faded gradually the moment Tama brashly declared them as friends everlasting, and, for the first time ever, Jojo feels like he doesn’t need Romeo in his life after all.