Chapter 23:

Flame and Friendship



The loud, metallic impact of Romeo’s bat against Tama’s paint can resonate throughout the entire arcade. The attack happened in a matter of seconds. Tama shoved Jojo out of the way the moment Romeo charged him, defending himself with just the paint can.

Tama manages a smirk, his hand trembling from the strain as Romeo keeps the pressure off his bat on the can.

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

“... Shut up.”

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.

“Boss…? Tama…”

Tama turns to look at Jojo and laughs.

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

Jojo nods then look 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 checks how he was with a glance, but Romeo never once turns to him. Jojo looks away.

“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.”

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

“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?”

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

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

“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 reason.”

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

Tama laughs, lifting the can and shaking it.

“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.”

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

“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.”

Romeo grips his bat in front of him with both hands, sensing a shift in Tama’s demeanor. Tama finally pulls a 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.

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


A blast of fire blazes out from the can as the flame from Tama’s lighter ignites the stream of paint he had sprayed directly at Romeo. Romeo only barely manages to whip his arm over his face and turn away before it burns him. The flames roar past him by a hair.


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

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

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

“... That’s underhanded.”

“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?”

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


Hehehe,” Tama’s laugh echoes mysteriously throughout the arcade. 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?”

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

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

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

“... 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.”


“...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.”

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.

“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.”

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

“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!”

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

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

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

“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.”

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.

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

Hellooo?” Tama pries again.

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.

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

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

Romeo squints at the ceiling, readying his bat.

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


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.

What the—!?

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.


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 light up to build an inferno.


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

“S-Stay… away…”


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.

“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.”


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

“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!”

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

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

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

... Oh.

Romeo blinks, his grip coming loose.

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

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

Both Jojo and Tama turn to look at him.

“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—”

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

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

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

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

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

“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…”

Romeo coughs into his sleeve once, looking at Jojo, who’s continuing to talk just a couple of steps away.

“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!”

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

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

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

“Yeah!? What’s that!?”

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

“You gotta tell Jojo you appreciate his friendship!”

A long silence develops as Romeo stares blankly.

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

Nooo! Boss!!”

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

Just like that, the tense atmosphere between the three of them slowly begins to settle—cheerful laughter taking its place.