Chapter 17:

Flame and Friendship


CLANK!Bookmark here

The loud, metallic clash of Romeo’s bat against Tama’s paint can resonates throughout the entire arcade. The attack happened in a matter of seconds: Tama shoved Jojo out of the way the moment Romeo charged him with only his paint can to defend himself.Bookmark here

Tama manages a smirk, his hand trembling from the strain as Romeo keeps driving down his bat against the can.Bookmark here

“Whoa… Why are you so angry all of a sudden?”Bookmark here

“...Shut up.”Bookmark here

Romeo pulls back his bat and jumps back away from Tama, glaring daggers at him. Tama seems unfazed. Jojo, who'd been pushed onto the scorched floor, staggers back to his feet.Bookmark here

“Boss…? Tama…”Bookmark here

Tama turns to look at Jojo and laughs.Bookmark here

“Sorry I pushed ya, Jojo. Romeo here jumped me for no reason, and I didn’t want you to get hurt. You okay?”Bookmark here

Jojo nods, then looks in Romeo’s direction. Romeo’s eyes remain fixed solely on Tama. He waits a moment to see if Romeo will look his way and check on him— if he'd at least bother asking if he's okay or check how he was with a glance, but Romeo never once turns to him. Jojo looks away.Bookmark here

“I don’t wanna do this, but I also don’t like wasting time.” Romeo readies his bat again. “Next time I won’t miss, Fire Jet Tamaya.”Bookmark here

Tama lowers the paint can and rubs the back of his neck.Bookmark here

“Hey, hey… You're not even gonna acknowledge you tried to jump me just 'cause I almost stole your friend from you? You’re that afraid he’ll leave you for me?”Bookmark here

Romeo’s eyebrow twitches. Jojo swallows, but for once, doesn’t interfere; he wants to hear Romeo’s response, too.Bookmark here

“You’re more interested in that than knowing why I need to take you down?” Bookmark here

“I mean, that was literally the first thing I asked you,” Tama shrugs, “and you didn’t give me an answer, so I figured you won’t tell me ‘cause it’s for a stupid a reason.”Bookmark here

Romeo scoffs. “Good. You don’t need to know, anyway.”Bookmark here

Tama laughs, lifting the can and shaking it.Bookmark here

“It’s true that I’m not really strong without my gang around, but I don’t need all my friends here for a power-up. Jojo's more than enough.”Bookmark here

“Tama…” Jojo feels his heart constrict again, and Tama winks at him. Romeo rolls his eyes.Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, Jojo. I’m not gonna make you fight.” Tama reaches into his pocket and rummages around, as if looking for something. “Remember I told you how some delinquents trashed this place? They only ran away after it caught on fire, but... hehe.”Bookmark here

Romeo grips his bat in front of him with both hands, sensing a shift in Tama’s demeanor. Tama finally takes the hand out of his pocket and reveals his bright red lighter. He holds it far away from his face, the paint can right behind it.Bookmark here

“—The truth is, I burned this place down.”Bookmark here

FWOOSH!Bookmark here

A blast of fire blazes out from the can as the fire ignites the stream of paint.Romeo only barely manages to whip his arm over his face and turn away before it burns him, avoiding the flames by a hair.Bookmark here

BOSS!!Bookmark here

Jojo yells in a panic, briefly blinded by the sudden light inside such a dimly-lit place. Tama’s laugh echoes loudly.Bookmark here

“Hahaha! Caught you by surprise, Bloody Bat Romeo?”Bookmark here

Romeo coughs, swatting away the smell of paint with his arm.Bookmark here

“...That’s underhanded.”Bookmark here

“Hey, don’t be like that! It’s not any worse than using a metal bat as a weapon! How did you get those nails in it, anyway?”Bookmark here

Romeo charges at him again, aiming his swing for Tama's side. But Tama darts behind a broken machine, and the bat clangs loudly against it on impact. Romeo rushes to circle around it. To his surprise, Tama isn’t there anymore.Bookmark here

“Where—?”Bookmark here

Hehehe,” Tama’s laugh echoes throughout the arcade mysteriously. Romeo and Jojo whip their heads around trying to find the source. “I know this place like the back of my hand. You really thought I wouldn’t have a home field advantage here?”Bookmark here

Romeo grips his bat tightly between his hands, his eyes darting around the dark arcade as he tries to pinpoint the source.Bookmark here

“Hey, Tama… What do you mean, you burned this place down?” Jojo asks suddenly. “I thought this was your eden…”Bookmark here

The arcade falls silent for a brief moment before Tama speaks up, his voice faintly remorseful.Bookmark here

“...I didn’t do it ‘cause I wanted to. It was just the only thing I could think of at the time to get rid of all those bad guys.”Bookmark here

“Tama…..”Bookmark here

“...I regret it, obviously. I ruined my friends’ favorite place, and my own. That’s why it’s my responsibility to find a new one for all of us.”Bookmark here

Romeo walks as quietly as he can through the aisles, trying to get closer to the source of the voice. He realizes he should keep Tama talking to buy himself the time he needs to find him.Bookmark here

“I’m not gonna apologize for what I did to your gang outside,” Romeo says as he weaves softly through the machines. “But Jojo’s right— If you give up now, I’ll let you walk away.”Bookmark here

“Oh, will you? Just like that?” Tama snickers again. “Somehow, I don’t believe you.”Bookmark here

“It’s true, Tama!” cries Jojo. “Romeo’s a badass, but he’s also not the type to hit someone that doesn’t fight back!”Bookmark here

Romeo flinches, recalling all the times he’d hurt someone pleading for mercy at his feet, including Raging Fist Endo. Bookmark here

“Hmm. If you say so, Jojo, I guess it has to be true. I believe you.”Bookmark here

“Really!?” Jojo perks up. “Does that mean you’ll lay low for a while instead of getting your ass kicked!?”Bookmark here

“Hey, hey, could you stop saying that? Haha. Buuuut, maybe, yeah. I gotta hear it from Bloody Bat Romeo, though. I gotta hear why you’re doing this, man.”Bookmark here

Romeo walks faster, following Tama’s echoing voice. He whips his head to the charred ceiling, scouring it for any possible openings near the broken light panels.Bookmark here

I can’t hear his footsteps at all… Is he in the vents!?Bookmark here

Hellooo?” Tama pries again. Bookmark here

Romeo clicks his tongue and stays put under one particularly broken part of the ceiling, looking up as if expecting something to happen. He figures he's close enough to where Tama is that he should bait him out of hiding with an answer.Bookmark here

“...The Makai leader told me to take care of you guys on my own.”Bookmark here

Eeh!? He did? Wait— by ‘you guys’ you don’t mean all of us Summer Fireworks!?”Bookmark here

Romeo squints at the ceiling, readying his bat.Bookmark here

“Stop hiding already. Unless you want to end up like your friends out there.”Bookmark here

YOU!!Bookmark here

Tama’s tone immediately rises in rage as Romeo expected, but what he didn't expect was Tama's hand bursting up from the ground—not the ceiling—and gripping his leg.Bookmark here

What the—!?Bookmark here

He whips his head down and sees Tama's arm sticking out from between two loose, large tiles on the floor right next to where he stands. Tama’s other hand quickly shoots up holding a paint can, and Romeo barely covers his face with his arm before Tama sprays him.Bookmark here

AGH!!Bookmark here

Before the bright neon paint even settles, Tama drops the can and reveals the lighter he was palming in his same hand. He flicks it open and ignites it, all the paint on the ground and in the air lighting up in a building inferno.Bookmark here

Boss!!!Bookmark here

Jojo rushes over toward the fire, gasping when he sees Romeo—free from Tama’s grip, his red coat splattered with bright, neon paint—leaning onto a machine, coughing. Romeo painfully opens one eye and looks at Jojo.Bookmark here

“S-Stay… away…”Bookmark here

No!Bookmark here

Jojo rushes over to his side to help pull him away, but Tama leaps up from the ground and lands in front of him. Jojo gasps, startled.Bookmark here

“It’s okay now, Jojo. You don’t hafta put up with him anymore. He’s a jerk who doesn’t value your friendship— not even now.”Bookmark here

“Tama…”Bookmark here

Tama smiles and places a hand on Jojo’s shoulder.Bookmark here

“I know it’s hard to hear, but your ‘boss’ here is a bad guy. Not only that, he’s frickin’ insane. If he’s gonna take on all the Summer Fireworks, he’s gonna need help or else he’s gonna get killed!”Bookmark here

“That’s what I said!” Jojo’s voice breaks.Bookmark here

With Tama distracted, Romeo, who had been clearing the smoke and paint from his lungs, approaches Tama quietly from behind, gripping his bat tightly in one hand. He feels his thoughts fading away as feral instinct slowly takes over.Bookmark here

“I don’t want him to get hurt, but Boss doesn’t listen!Bookmark here

...Oh.Bookmark here

Romeo blinks, his grip coming loose. Bookmark here

Tama laughs under his breath, endeared. “That’s because you’re a very loyal friend, Jojo.”Bookmark here

“...And I told you, you’re an idiot, Jojo.” Romeo's voice resonates through the arcade. Bookmark here

Both Jojo and Tama turn to look at him. Bookmark here

“I won’t get hurt. You, on the other hand, wouldn't even last three seconds, can’t you see that!? And that’s not the worst part. You’re so stupid, you—”Bookmark here

Romeo cuts himself off and the place stays silent for a moment until he continues in a quieter tone.Bookmark here

“......You can’t even tell that I’m trying to keep you away from all this shit.”Bookmark here

Jojo’s eyes open wide as he tries to process Romeo’s words.Bookmark here

“...You’re… really just pushin’ me away... so I won’t get hurt?”Bookmark here

Romeo turns his face away and doesn’t answer. Jojo steps closer.Bookmark here

“Boss… You saved my ass once already… You’re not responsible for my well-bein’ and stuff anymore. I knew what I'd be gettin' into when I decided to follow you, and since the first time I met the Makai boss and the guys in the gang…”Bookmark here

Romeo coughs into his sleeve once, looking at Jojo, who’s just a couple of steps away from him now, as he continues.Bookmark here

“And, yeah, they’re all scary as hell, but it’s not like I don’t know that. Boss, I ain’t tryin’ to be a burden. I’m here ‘cuz you’re my friend, and I wanna be here for you, man!”Bookmark here

Romeo straightens himself up and dusts his arms, looking away with a slight tinge of embarrassment on his cheeks. Bookmark here

“...I see.” Tama grins, apparently satisfied. He places his hands on his hips, exhaling. “Well, I suppose I could give up and let you hold onto my lighter as proof that you defeated me, but… you gotta do something for me first.”Bookmark here

Jojo turns to look at Tama, excited, as if he had been the one addressed.Bookmark here

“Yeah!? What’s that!?”Bookmark here

Tama tilts his head to the side and looks at Romeo.Bookmark here

“You gotta tell Jojo you appreciate his friendship!”Bookmark here

“...........I could just take you out right now instead,” Romeo responds, readying his bat with his face even redder than before.Bookmark here

Nooo! Boss!!”Bookmark here

Jojo dives in front of Tama in a panic to protect him while Tama laughs his head off. Bookmark here

Just like that, the tense atmosphere between the three of them slowly begins to assuage— dwindling down into nothing and leaving cheerful laughter in its place.Bookmark here

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