Living in Promepolis was different than Lio thought it would be. Well, maybe 'living' was too strong a word. He was sleeping on Galo's couch, so it was more like he was 'loitering' or 'squatting.'
"How about 'residing'?" Meis suggested when Lio voiced his concerns.
"What's wrong with 'living'?" Gueira said, not understanding Lio's preoccupation with semantics. "You’re not leaving Promepolis, right?"
"I guess not," Lio admitted with a shrug. He had been traveling almost nonstop for the better part of a decade, so the idea of staying in one place had its appeal. "At least, not for a while."
"You mean as long as Promepolis's main attraction is attracted to you," Meis said with a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows.
"Oooh!" Gueira crowed with laughter.
Lio huffed and endured their teasing. He knew that there wasn't anything he could do to stop them, especially since they were right and there was definitely something going on between him and Galo. Lio wasn't entirely sure what-- his social skills were admittedly a bit rusty-- but there had definitely been some flirting and some lingering touches. (There was also that time when they both got a little too drunk and made out inside one of the Rescue trucks, but Galo became quiet and embarrassed when Lio tried to talk to him about it, so he was willing to chalk that up as a fluke.) But besides that, there were also the shared meals, the shared shopping trips, and the shared clothes.
As the leader of the Mad Burnish, Lio was used to being a part of something much bigger than himself. ‘Residing’ with Galo gave him a similar feeling, but on a smaller scale. It was like the two of them had carved out their own private world, hidden away from the rest of Promepolis. While Lio's days were spent wrangling chaos and navigating disaster, his nights were always the same: returning to Galo's apartment for a hot meal, enjoyable company, and a good night's sleep. It had been a long time since Lio last had something, or someone, so reliable and steadfast in his life, which made it all the more apparent when that world started to disappear.
It began with Galo staying at work for longer than usual, resulting in a few missed meals that he would have normally shared with Lio. It escalated with Galo spending his off-duty days anywhere but his apartment. It culminated with Galo suddenly switching back to solo shopping trips. Of course, he still purchased enough food for two people, but Galo stopped inviting Lio along and even made the additional effort of leaving the house early in the morning before Lio was awake.
On the third Sunday of this, Lio woke to the sound of the front door being locked and Galo's fading footsteps out in the hallway. Annoyance cut through the sleepy fog in his head and Lio forced himself awake, rolling quickly off of the couch and stumbling across the living room so that he could yank the door open.
"Hey!" Lio shouted, making Galo jump.
"I'll be back soon," Galo said with a placating smile as he continued to walk backwards towards the stairwell.
"No," Lio told him at a volume that was still nearly a shout, "Either you wait for me, or I wake all of your neighbors up."
"I won't be gone long--"
"I'm not missing sample cart Sunday again!" Lio yelled.
"See you in a bit!" Galo waved goodbye and ducked into the stairwell, thumping quickly down the stairs.
"Galo!" Lio let out a frustrated growl and sprinted down the hallway after him. He threw open the stairwell door and swung over the railing, dropping down onto the next landing directly in front of Galo.
"You will not deny me sample cart Sunday," Lio said threateningly. "Why are you avoiding me?"
"I'm not avoiding you," Galo said unconvincingly. The harsh fluorescent lighting of the stairwell made the dark circles under his eyes more pronounced. He looked Lio up and down, then quickly away. "You should put on some pants."
"Don't avoid my question about you avoiding me," Lio said, knowing full well that he was more of a threat to Galo while clad in just his boxers and an over-sized t-shirt than he would be while fully dressed. Galo tried to sidestep him but Lio stuck out his leg and braced his bare foot against the wall, blocking the way forward. "We can have this conversation here or in your apartment, but you're not getting away from me."
"I-- yeah, okay, fine." Galo rubbed a hand over his eyes, a blush rising in his cheeks. "Can you put your leg down?"
They went back inside the apartment and Lio put on a pair of sweatpants. He watched Galo carefully throughout the process, as though concerned he might make another run for it. "Why are you avoiding me?"
Galo shrugged, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. It was strange to see him like this; evasive and unsure. Lio wondered what had changed to make Galo behave so differently and his own confidence wavered.
"Did I do something wrong?"
"No, of course not!" Galo exclaimed, seeming more like himself, but then he lowered his eyes again. "I just... I thought I was bothering you."
"What?" Lio almost laughed at the idea, but Galo's somber expression hadn't changed. He crossed the room to where Galo lingered by the kitchen, scratching at an imaginary stain on the counter. "You're not bothering me. Why would you think that?"
"I..." Galo frowned at the counter, his hand closing into a fist. "I know you don't have a lot of options right now, for housing or food or anything... I mean, I'm happy that you're staying here, but I don't want you to think that you-- that you owe me anything or that you're obligated to do anything for me."
“I know that.” Lio stepped closer and put his hand on Galo’s chin, tipping his head down so that their eyes met. “When I first moved in, you said we were friends and that friends weren’t allowed to pay rent, remember?”
“So, what changed?”
“Nothing!” Galo stepped out of Lio’s reach and his hand dropped away. “I just-- I was worried that I was asking for too much and I heard something that made sense and--”
“Heard? Galo, did someone say that to you?” Lio’s eyes darkened. Galo snapped his mouth shut and his eyes widened, confirming his suspicions. “Tell me who it was. I will remove their teeth.”
“Fine, they can keep their teeth,” Lio sighed, “But I will be making some very explicit threats.”
Galo crossed his arms over his chest and looked away from Lio again. “You’re gonna be mad.”
“I’m already mad!”
“Then, the worse one.”
“You’re gonna be disappointed.” Galo took a steadying breath and steeled himself for Lio’s reaction. “I visited Kray.”
“You…!” Lio forced down the bile rising at the back of his throat. The trials had ended a few weeks ago and Kray was due to be transferred to a high-security facility farther out in the desert. Lio knew that he was being kept in a prison at the edge of Promepolis during the interim, but he had been hoping that Galo would never have to see him again. “Why?”
Galo shrugged, but the tension didn’t leave his shoulders and his arms stayed crossed. “To talk to him one last time, I guess.”
Lio’s frown deepened. “Galo, he was cruel to you.”
“I know. But, for most of my life, he was the closest thing I had to family.” Galo laughed humorlessly. “I thought that maybe-- No, I don’t know what I thought. Nothing about him was different. I’m still an idiot and I still let him get in my fucking head.”
Lio stepped closer again and lay a hand on his arm, bridging the space that Galo had put between them. “You’re not an idiot.”
“Yeah, I really am! And you know what the stupidest thing of all is? Even after everything that’s happened-- everything he did to you and all of the people he hurt-- I’m still scared of not having him in my life.” Galo’s face flushed with shame. “Because if Kray was never there for me, then that means no one was.”
Lio opened his mouth to protest, but he wasn’t sure what to say. It sometimes hit him just how little he knew about Galo’s past. For as much as Galo liked to talk, he never spoke about his childhood or his life before Burning Rescue. Lio only knew about Kray killing Galo’s parents because it had come up during the trial. However, what Lio did know was that Galo was incredibly receptive to physical contact, so he stood on his toes and wrapped his arms around Galo’s shoulders, pulling him close.
Galo slowly started to uncross his arms. “You don’t have to--”
“Shut up and hug me.”
Galo embraced Lio a little too tightly and buried his face in the crook of his neck. A shiver ran through his frame and Lio rubbed circles over his back.
Here was another thing that Lio had learned about Galo; he hated to cry in front of other people. "Do you want to lie down?"
"No," Galo said, the word muffled by Lio's shoulder.
"Are you sure?"
"...No." Galo picked his head back up and released Lio from his hold. He quickly scrubbed his hand over his face, wiping away any trace of tears, but his eyes were red-rimmed. He allowed Lio to take him by the hand and lead him back into his own bedroom.
The blinds were still closed, but Galo’s room was lit with the soft glow of pre-dawn light. He didn’t bother to turn on any lights and immediately belly-flopped onto his mattress, pressing his face into the pillow and folding his arms underneath it.
"Do you want me to stay?" Lio asked, hovering near the door.
Galo honestly didn't know whether or not he wanted that, so he shrugged. His heart skipped a beat when he felt the bed dip with Lio's weight.
Lio perched himself at the edge of the mattress, close enough to reach out and touch Galo if he wanted to, but far enough that he hoped his presence wouldn't be overbearing. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?" Galo turned his head so that he could breathe, but still faced away from Lio. He scowled at the bedsheets. "About how stupid I am? How I let the person closest to me lie to my face for years?"
"You didn't do anything wrong, Galo.” Lio’s voice was quiet but forceful. “You trusted him and he deceived you, but that's Kray's mistake, not yours. Choosing to believe the best in others isn't a flaw."
"It is when you're seeing something that isn't really there. Nothing I loved about him was real. He hated me. That was real. And I never saw it until he shoved it in my face."
"He fooled everyone, Galo, not just you."
"He didn't fool you."
"No, but he was actively sending people to kill me, so I had a bit of an advanced warning." In the silence that followed his poor attempt at levity, Lio decided to change tactics. "I'm grateful that when I was at my worst, you still chose to see the best in me."
Galo slowly turned his head, pressing it back into the pillow for a moment before finally looking at Lio. "Y'mean dragon-Lio?"
Lio gently swept a hand over Galo's forehead, pushing his hair away from his eyes. Even in the half-dark, his blue eyes glittered. "You saved me."
"You saved me, too."
"Well, I couldn't watch you be almost-murdered and do nothing." That one landed a bit better and they smiled at each other.
"No, I mean-- okay, yeah, thank you for that. But what I mean is, you believed in me. And you listened to me. No one has ever really done that before." The back of Galo’s neck flushed and he pressed part of his face into the pillow, but his eyes were still watching Lio.
"The world would be a much brighter place if more people listened to you, Galo Thymos.” Lio hesitated, but then he decided to go for broke. “At least, my world certainly is.”
There was another long silence from Galo and he shuffled on the bed, moving away from Lio. But then he pat the newly empty space on the bed next to him and Lio breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he had said the right thing. He lay down carefully, curling on his side to face Galo, but leaving what he judged to be an appropriate distance between them.
"I don't want you to be with me just because you feel like you have to,” Galo said.
“Do I strike you as the sort of person who does anything that they don’t want to do?”
“You would if it meant protecting the people you care about. You would if you thought that keeping me happy meant that Burning Rescue would keep working with the Burnish.”
"You've really been thinking yourself into a hole over this, huh?" Lio stuck out his leg and pushed his toes against Galo’s shin. "I do care a great deal for the Burnish, but I also care about you. Do you really think I'm capable of doing something like that?"
"...No," Galo admitted. "You're pretty bad at pretending to be nice to people you don't like."
“Damn right I am.”
“What’s your family like?” Galo asked abruptly.
“Loud, obnoxious, volatile. But you’ve met Gueira and Meis,” Lio said with a wry smile. “Mad Burnish has been my family for a long time now.”
“What about your parents?” Galo said softly.
Lio prickled the same way he always did whenever his parents were mentioned. He didn’t like to talk about them, but it seemed worse that Galo didn’t get a choice in who knew about the trauma that defined his childhood; it was out there for the whole city to know. “I never really got along with my parents. Neither of them were Burnish and I came into my power when I was very young. They couldn’t understand why I needed to burn, why I needed to fight and protect others like me. So, when the Mad Burnish rolled through town one day, I left with them.”
Lio realized as he spoke just how unfair it was. Here he was with perfectly living, breathing parents-- yes, he had looked them up after the Second World Blaze, although he did not reach out to them. And there was Galo, who had spent most of his life chasing after a father figure who profited from his tragedy. Galo, who deserved more love than Lio knew how to give him.
“How old were you?”
“Christ on a bike.” A laugh shook Galo’s shoulders. “You didn’t ‘leave,’ you ran away. Oh man, have you always been the shortest person in your gang? How tall were you?”
“Galo,” Lio said in a tone that suggested he should tread carefully. Unfortunately, Galo had always lacked regard for his personal safety.
“Could you ride a motorbike or did you have, like, a huge tricycle?”
Lio sighed deeply. “I used to beat the shit out of guys like you.”
“There are no other guys like me,” Galo said, sounding more self-assured, more like himself. He startled Lio by suddenly pushing himself up from the bed and scrambling over him. He grabbed a small trashcan from the corner of his room and brought it over to the closet with him.
Lio sat up and watched with mounting bewilderment as Galo rummaged around on the top shelf of his closet and pulled out an old shoebox. Galo flipped the lid off with his thumb, scowled at the contents, and promptly upended the entire thing into the garbage can. A mix of letters, greeting cards, and a few photographs tumbled out. Lio recognized the letterhead of the Foresight Foundation on some of them. “Galo?”
“I kept all of them,” Galo said bitterly. He crouched to pick up some of the paper that had missed the trashcan, crumpling it in his fist. “He always said that he was too busy to spend time with me, so I used to write him letters. Sometimes he would write me back but, y’know, now I don’t even know if he wrote his own letters or if some poor sucker was tasked with answering his fan mail. I kept all of them.”
Galo stood back up and glowered into the mouth of the trashcan. “Just throwing them out doesn’t feel like enough.”
“We can burn it,” Lio suggested.
“That’s your solution for everything.”
“Yes, but burning things has never not worked for me.”
“Hmm,” Galo said. His pride as a firefighter would not allow him to admit out loud that Lio had a point. “I’m not lighting a fire in here.”
"We could go up to the roof.”
Galo eyed him suspiciously. “Have you... been burning things on the roof?”
Lio shrugged and got up from the bed. “I haven’t not been burning things on the roof.”
Galo stared in disbelief at the large, scorch-marked, metal basin. It was nearly five feet in diameter and appeared both too heavy and too unwieldy for Lio to have gotten it up there by himself. “How…?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lio said. It was actually a pretty good story involving Gueira, Meis, and an elaborate pulley system, but right now his focus was on helping Galo grieve. He set down a duffel bag that he had grabbed on their way out of the apartment and unzipped it. “What kind of fire do you want?”
“Uh, an emotionally cleansing one?”
“That’s excellent, but I meant in terms of its physical properties.” Lio rummaged through the bag and brought out one item at a time to show Galo, naming them as he did so. “I’ve got matches, lighter fluid, a spark lighter, a lighter-lighter, I think there’s still some charcoal rattling around in here--”
“The matches are fine,” Galo said. Then, “Lio, what the fuck?”
“We’ve all got coping mechanisms.” Lio yanked a small fire extinguisher free from the arsonist grab-bag and passed it to Galo. “Here. That better?”
“Yes, thank you.” Galo traded him for the trashcan he carried in his other hand. Lio tried to give him the pack of matches as well, but Galo shook his head. “Could you…?”
“Yeah. I’ve got it.”
The sun was still low on the horizon and most of the city was shrouded in deep purple shadows. Where the light did hit, glinting here and there on the reflective surfaces of buildings, it glowed almost too brightly to look at. It was strange enough to be lighting a fire, let alone one so early in the day, but Galo couldn’t deny the satisfaction he felt in seeing Kray’s memorabilia disappear into smoke and flame. In one hand he still clutched the fire extinguisher and the other hung loose at his side, the back of his hand brushing against Lio’s. He stared into the fire, watching how it flickered and danced. “Should I say something?”
Lio cast a sideways glance at Galo. “What, like a eulogy?”
“I guess. What do you usually do?”
“Not much. Usually, I just watch. And listen.”
“Come here.” Lio slipped his hand into Galo’s and brought him a few steps forward, to the edge of the basin, and instructed him to sit on the concrete. Lio stood behind him, his hands resting on Galo’s shoulders. “Close your eyes.”
Galo did as he was told and waited for the next instruction, but Lio said nothing. “Now what?”
“I’m already breathing.”
Lio clicked his tongue. “Of course. Then, tell me what you smell.”
“Are you asking me?”
Galo bit back an annoyed remark and sucked in a deep breath, releasing it slowly through his nose. “I smell burning paper and… melted plastic?”
“Yeah, I don’t really clean this thing out,” Lio admitted. “What else?”
Galo scrunched his nose and caught a whiff of something acidic. “There’s… I think I can smell the coffee place down the street. Maybe gasoline from the road. And that, like, wet morning-dew smell from the night.”
“Good. What do you hear?”
Galo took another deep breath, eyes still closed, and tried to clear his thoughts. He focused on the feeling on Lio’s hands on him, warm and reassuring. “The crackling of the fire. A car passing by. The wind, a little.”
Lio hummed in agreement and his thumbs rubbed circles over Galo’s skin. They stayed like that for a few minutes, still and quiet as the fire burned down. Galo opened his eyes and stared into what was left of the flame.
“I lived with a few different foster homes, but nothing lasted longer than a year. I used to tell myself that it was okay that I didn’t have a family, because I had Kray.” Galo sighed and Lio felt his shoulders sag. “I just… I want something real. I want something that’s not just in my head.”
“I think that Burning Rescue would gladly call you part of their family.”
“Probably,” Galo agreed. “But, I dunno. Even though we saved the world, I’m still technically the rookie on the team. I’ve only actually been part of Burning Rescue for a few months. I think it’ll feel more real after I’ve been there a full year. There’s supposed to be a ceremony and everything.”
Lio thought for a moment. “How would you feel about becoming part of my family?”
“What!” Galo whipped his head around and tried to gawk at Lio over his shoulder. His face and neck were flushed again. “What do you mean by that?”
“You can be part of Mad Burnish!” Lio grinned at him. “The only requirement for initiation is that you burn something.”
“But, you were the one who made the fire just now! You and your highly suspicious bag full of incredibly flammable objects!”
“Sure, but didn’t you say that you lit your first fire for me?” Lio said coyly. His smile only widened when Galo floundered for a response.
“Yeah, but that was--”
“If you really want to make it official, we can pierce your ears. My first gang all had these.” Lio touched the triangle that dangled from his left ear lobe. “And we can invite Meis and Gueira over if you want to be punched affectionately.”
“H-Hang on!” Galo quickly got back on his feet and regarded Lio with wide eyes. “I… I’m not even Burnish.”
“No one’s Burnish anymore. We saved the world, remember?” Galo still looked unsure, so Lio wheedled a little more. “And you did actually use the Promare I gifted you for a little bit, so that counts.”
Galo rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and Lio waited anxiously for his response. Finally, he said, “Do you think I’d look good with pierced ears?”
“Definitely,” Lio said instantly. “But if you’re nervous, we can start with bread tag earrings. We used to make those for the kids.”
“Bread tag earrings?”
“Yeah, I’ll show you. But we need to buy bread.”
“Wait a sec.” Galo turned back to the basin and sprayed the final few embers with the fire extinguisher. “Okay, now I’m ready.”
Lio repacked the duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. As he approached the door to the stairwell, he stepped into a shaft of sunlight and was illuminated with a soft, golden glow. Even dressed in his sleepwear, Lio was ethereal and beautiful, his skin transformed into porcelain and his hair was like spun gold. He squinted at the sun and raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Fuck, that’s bright. Let’s get going before the supermarket gets too busy.”
Galo realized that he had been staring and shook his head to snap himself out of the spell. He followed Lio to the stairwell and caught his wrist before he could open the door. “Do you really mean it?”
Lio’s expression softened and he smiled fondly. “Of course I consider you family, Galo. We have the same soul, don’t we?”
It took a moment for the full impact of Lio’s words to hit, but when it did Galo’s eyes filled with tears and he threw his arms around Lio in a rib-crushing hug. “ Lio! ”
“Galo,” Lio wheezed. When Galo relaxed his hold enough for Lio to breathe properly, he dropped the duffel bag with a sigh and hugged him back. He pressed his cheek to Galo’s shoulder and smiled. “When we’re at the store, remind me to get more charcoal.”
“Okay, but only if you remind me to have a discussion with you about your secret arsonist hobbies after we get back.”