In Love and On Fire chapter 9

Chapter 9

I assumed we’d be going to the girl’s house, but what Niimori dragged me to was a cafe in front of the station in a neighboring town. It was a holiday, so it was relatively packed.

I asked for their special, but the hamburger was tiny, and alone except for some skimpy fries.

I was famished, so there wasn’t much choice except to get back in line at the register and buy another sandwich and some nuggets. When I got back to our booth, Niimori was staring out the window and didn’t seem to have noticed I’d even left.

In a certain sense, this was a date, too. There was a huge difference in motivation between treating it like a stake out and treating it like a date. And besides, I would much rather have thought of it as a date rather than something that would definitely earn us both reprimands from our superiors if they found out. Instead of dwelling on the fact that we were probably helping out the cops by calling out a middle school girl and treating her like a suspect – we were perverts rather than kidnappers this time – it was much more relaxing to treat the situation like we were just having lunch on the terrace and enjoying the scenery.

Even if the scenery Niimori was staring at was a cram school entrance across the street.

— Is it any better if he’s just doing what I told him and not making any moves by himself?

I ate my meal staring at Niimori’s profile as he sat with his chin in his hands. “What?” he asked.

“You really want to become an investigator?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Well then why are you continuing in the command center for next year?”

My question made Niimori turn his gaze from the window towards me for the first time.

“Our posts are dictated by personnel assignments.”

“Yeah but you’re still young, and you’ve got the skills and the strength. You could be reinstated to the squad if you expressed an interest, right?”

Niimori looked back outside like he was bored.

“My dream,” I said, “is for you to pass the rescue exam next year and for us to go out on calls together again. Even if there’s no romantic attachment involved, if we can at least do that, I think that’d be fine. Next time I absolutely will not abandon you. If we’re on the scene and you tell me to pull back, I will absolutely obey.”

At my frank confession, Niimori was silent a while. “No romantic attachment involved,” he muttered.

“I mean even if you dump me. Although even if you do, I’ll probably just keep on liking you anyway.”

Niimori scowled, but didn’t say anything.

I was saddened by the idea that he hated it that much, but he suddenly stood up.

“She’s here,” he said, and left the table.

Following his line of sight outside, a boy and girl had come out of the cram school together. Both of them were wearing casual clothes, but the girl’s face was definitely the same one from the photograph Niimori had showed me. I rushed after him. But he seemed to be worried about something, and didn’t immediately say anything to them. Instead, he waited until they’d come to a bus stop to approach them.

“Afternoon,” he said. “Can we talk to you for a minute?”

Suddenly chatted up by two unfamiliar adults, the two of them exchanged cautious glances.

They looked like each other somehow, maybe they were siblings.

If that was the case, it must have been the boy who was caught on the security camera at the convenience store.

“What is it?” The boy asked, stepping cautiously in front of the girl.

She took her cell phone out of her bag and held it in front of her chest, the way one might hold a cross in front of a vampire.

As I was considering what kind of excuses we should make if she called the police, Niimori said, “We’re with the fire department.” It was a calm tone, one he’d certainly never used on me or Tsuno. “You remember this guy, don’t you? He was one of the firefighters that day at the hotel fire.”

With Niimori’s introduction, the girl turned to look at me, and our eyes met. But she immediately lowered her head.

“What is it you want?”

The boy feigned bravery with his voice trembling only slightly, and his hand softly gripping the girl’s.

If they were just onlookers, they wouldn’t be reacting like this.

It was a bit premature to swallow Niimori’s line of reasoning just based on that, but it did seem like something was wrong.

“You know, don’t you.”

That was when the bus came. They both looked relieved, probably thinking they’d been saved, but when they tried to step towards it, Niimori threatened them. “This conversation isn’t over. Or maybe we should go to your home to talk?”

With their escape closed off by such a gentle, smiling face, the two kids went pale and quiet.

Realizing they weren’t getting on, the bus continued on without letting out any passengers.

Once the sound of the engines faded, Niimori asked, “You’re the ones who’ve been making the prank calls, aren’t you?”

“We’re sorry about those,” the girl said, admitting to the calls in a thin, apologetic voice.

Niimori and I both stayed silent, and she continued, explaining her reasons. “There’s been nothing but tests lately, and we’ve been so stressed out. It won’t happen again.” Her tone was dull and dry, like they’d decided on what to say beforehand.

“And coming to the fire?”

“Just– because I wanted to see it. That’s all.” The girl apologized again and bowed her head.

“Listen, if you’re trying to protect someone, this isn’t going to do it. If you want to stop the fires, you have to do more than just call in locations.”

The boy, who’d been quiet until then, suddenly spoke. “What are you talking about, fires?”

“You two know the person who set them, don’t you.” Niimori said it straight without any haggling, and the girl started crying.

The boy, though, insisted. “I don’t know what you mean.”

But I could see his fists shaking, and I was convinced. He did know the criminal after all.

Another bus came. The boy glanced at it. “If you come to our house, we’re calling the police. If you think we know a criminal, you oughta come with the cops anyway. But you don’t have any proof, do you?” he asked, his words pretty biting for a middle schooler. But Niimori didn’t seem impressed. He took a slip of paper with his contact information written on it out of his pocket and pressed it into the boy’s grip.

“If you learn where the criminal is, or you feel like you want to tell the truth, you contact me. And when you figure out where the next location is, too.”

The boy tried to give it back, but Niimori wouldn’t take it. “If they bring out a corpse,” he spit out coldly, his voice completely changed from the gentle tone he’d been using until then. Both kids’ shoulders jumped in surprise. “If they bring out a corpse, are you two going to take responsibility for that? Is it okay if your relative becomes a murderer?”

The instant the door opened, Niimori looked straight down at the boy and said, “your relative” like he was lowering a scythe.

“If you won’t stop them,” he said, “we will. So contact me before they commit another crime.”

They gave up on handing back the paper, and escaped into the bus.

In the end, I hadn’t even said a word, I’d just watched the three of them go back and forth.

“Is it okay to just let them go home?”

“There’s no point in driving them into a corner. They don’t know the times or locations of the arsons, and they know it’s pointless to just call in, they’ll definitely contact me. They seem pretty desperate to stop the criminal. I’m sure they don’t want their relative arrested by the police, but they’d hate for them to become a murderer even more than that.”

Niimori looked in the direction the bus had gone. It had turned at the first intersection, so we couldn’t see it anymore. We had no way of knowing what the two of them were talking about right then, but if they didn’t even know where the arsonist was going to strike again, there was nothing else we could do – which was irritating.

“Listen, you’re really not going to even consult the police, or the higher-ups?”

“I told you, I don’t have any proof. It’s just circumstantial evidence, that’s not enough. You’re the only other person who believes the arsons and the prank calls are even related.”

“Honestly, I had a hunch they were connected too, I just didn’t really understand how. Anyway, whatever it is you’re thinking is right more often than whatever it is I’m thinking.”

I’d realized that fully after what happened in that factory. I should have pulled back immediately when I was told to – how many times had I thought that since then. I still regretted it.

“But maybe we should have pressed them for their names and address or something?”

The way the conversation had felt to me, it didn’t seem like Niimori’s line of reasoning was wrong. And if it were true, I was a little worried we’d let them go too early. Of course, if we’d hit the nail on the head, and it was their relative, we should have gone to the police to begin with.

“How do you think I knew to come to this cram school today? I investigated everything.”

I stopped. “How did you do that?”

“The reason the arsons are gradually increasing within our jurisdiction is because that’s where they live, right? Normally, arson is something that comes into your life from outside. I figured if the criminal was a relative, the calls were probably coming from within our jurisdiction, too, so I picked a couple of middle schools.”

“Jeez, you haven’t been hanging around in front of middle schools, have you?”

Niimori could put up a pretty sociable front, but someone would question him doing that.

“Of course not. A guy I know is a middle school teacher. I used him as an intermediary to show the faces around to other teachers, and I found out their history. Good thing it was a local public school. Thanks to that, I was able to figure out their family name and address.”

I wondered if that teacher should really be giving out personal information on their students, but I didn’t dare put my hand on that chopping block.

“How do you know a middle school teacher?”

“You met him, too. In front of my house.”

I remembered the pro-wrestler type. “He’s a teacher? Is that alright, I mean, with his male students?”

“He likes older guys anyway. He liked to pretend we were brothers.”

There was a long pause. “He’s younger, huh.”

In addition to that unexpected fact, learning that his tendency towards violence wasn’t the only strange thing about that guy put me in a bad mood. Plus, the fact that Niimori had seen him again did not make me happy.

“Sleep with him?” I asked, wondering if he hadn’t used their physical relationship as a bargaining chip.

Niimori answered like it was nothing. “That seemed like it’d cause problems later, so no, I did not. I did promise to introduce him to one of my juniors, though. I can pass him off on Tsuno.”

That was unfortunate for Tsuno, but leaving Niimori with the guy was evil, so I’d have to send my condolences to my cheeky junior. He was strong, anyway, he’d be fine if anything happened.

“It bothers you?” Niimori asked.

“Of course it does.”

At first, I was annoyed by my feelings for Niimori, but now I answered his question without hesitation. Maybe it was because Niimori wasn’t taking me very seriously that it was so easy to say.

But at the moment, I was more worried about whether I should leave Niimori to go home like this. If I let him go, he was bound to end up alone someplace where there’d been a prank call or an arson again. If he went somewhere that we’d had a prank call on, and he ran into the arsonist while the guy was committing the arson– My head was pounding just thinking about it.

I didn’t have the conversation skills to just persuade him, and what was I supposed to say to someone as obstinate as he was anyway, to get him to stop doing such dangerous things. I was meditating on the problem, when someone called me from behind.

“Kousuke?”

I turned at the soft voice, and there stood Ishiwatari with some friends.

The sudden reunion surprised me. She smiled at me, her cheeks reddening.

“You have the day off from training today?”

“Ah, sort of. You guys out shopping?”

“Yeah. Nishini-cho Mall is having their closing sale. What about you, Kousuke?”

“A little bit of work. Niimori, this is the girl from the bar last year,” I said, urging him to say hello, when she seemed to recognize him.

“Ah! Thank you very much for your help that day. We’ve remodeled the shop, you’re welcome to stop by any time.”

Niimori gave a short nod.

While Ishiwatari spoke to Niimori, I could hear her friends whispering amongst themselves – “Kousuke? Like, that Kousuke?” “Princess mode: ON.” “This is the guy Kana’s always going on about?”

They seemed to be enjoying the situation as much as the guys at the station.

“If you have some time, would you like to have lunch together? I’d love to hear some firefighter stories,” one girl, who was flashy even among Ishiwatari’s friends, said to Niimori, rather than to me.

Watching Niimori be as popular as ever, I started to get upset. Before, I’d been jealous of him, and disgusted by the difference between his good looks and his terrible personality. But now I felt bitter towards this girl, turning up the charm on Niimori. And I knew for a fact he wasn’t even interested in girls.

“I’ve got some more work to do, actually,” Niimori answered unexpectedly, adding, “Sorry,” with a smile plastered on his face.

“Me, too,” I said, “Sorry, I can’t go either.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. We finally met in person, too.”

I apologized and turned to go, but a woman’s hand suddenly wrapped around my arm. The owner of the gaudily-colored claws was that flashy girl who’d invited Niimori out for drinks just a second ago.

“Please, you should make some time. This girl really won’t stop talking about you, Kousuke.”

I felt an unfamiliar sensation on my bicep and when I turned my eyes in that direction, her chest was touching me.

Her shirt was wide open, and I was surprised at the soft, moist sensation of her exposed skin.

“I’m not letting go until you promise to meet us again.” She seemed to enjoy rattling me, and said, “Sorry, but,” as she drew her body even closer to me.

Niimori must have gotten disgusted with seeing us like that, because he quickly walked away, leaving me behind.

I tried to chase after him, but she wrapped around my arm even tighter than before.

“It really would be just for a little bit, you really can’t?” Ishiwatari pleaded, and I apologized. There was no point putting off the inevitable, I thought.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Ishiwatari directly, rather than the flashy girl, who’s arm I peeled off by force. “I think I mentioned it in a text before but, there’s already somebody I like.”

Seeing Ishiwatari’s sorrowful face, I instantly regretted it – I shouldn’t have embarrassed her in front of her friends at least, but I couldn’t raise her hopes any further. Maybe it had been a mistake to exchange numbers in the first place, I thought, I’d been promising something I couldn’t deliver.

I chased after Niimori. I heard dissatisfied voices behind me, but I ignored them and pushed my way through the crowds.

I chased Niimori all the way to the elevator that connected to a multi-story parking garage.

When he realized I’d come after him, he looked surprised.

“They were inviting you, you should’ve gone. Isn’t that the kind of girl you like?”

“We’re just friends.”

“That’s not what it looked like. That’s her, isn’t it, the girl you rescued and she fell for you at first sight?”

So the story had spread even to the command center. Actually, when I’d called the office the other day about some paperwork, the guy who’d taken the call had made fun of me, too – “Whatever happened to that girl?”

Everyone in the office knew I’d never had a girlfriend, so they were all extremely interested.

“Yes, but there’s nothing between us.”

“It’s not like we’re going out, you don’t have to make excuses to me,” Niimori said. “We only slept together, twice.” He spat the words out like he was mocking me. “Although, you were unexpectedly good at it, so if you just wanted to mess around sometime, I’d be up for that.”

Niimori’s hand touched the same place that girl had touched before. The sensation was totally different.

Those long, firm fingers, the skin of his hand hardened from days spent training.

He’d been angry about the other day until just a minute ago, but now he smiled invitingly. He must have drawn close thinking he would enjoy seeing my reaction in a place where people did occasionally come by, even if there were no signs of anyone at the moment.

“Stop it.”

I’d told him earnestly that I liked him, but he was always making fun of me. It pissed me off, and I removed his hand from me. It was a rougher move even then I’d used on the woman earlier.

Niimori looked composedly at me, his expression bored.

“What the hell, a girl’s better after all?”

“It’s not like that.”

Denying it at this point was just fake bravado. But I was desperate to keep my cool.

Niimori’d likely had only lust on his mind when he’d reached his hand out, still without any romantic attachment, no acknowledgment of my feelings.

If I slept with him then, that day would end up as just another transaction in exchange for my silence, like our date before this. When I thought about all the things I wanted to try in the future, I just couldn’t do it.

Besides, if there was going to be a third time, I wanted to do it without forcing anything. There wouldn’t be any point otherwise.

Of course I wanted to touch him – it was better than being made fun of. After all, I’d put my hands on his body before without ever putting them on his heart, and more practical thoughts were definitely floating around my head.

But in the end, the elevator arrived without my making any reply, and I couldn’t make myself get on it.

“Aren’t you getting on?”

“I don’t want to argue with you, so no, I’m not.”

If he doubted my feelings any further, things would get dangerous.

I’d been a virgin until just recently, so I still hoped to hold on to the dream as opposed to just the passion, and I wanted to do things honestly. Seen from Niimori’s point of view, it must have been pretty funny – we were the same age, for crying out loud.

The doors closed on Niimori’s cold glare and the elevator moved without him saying anything.

“Ah, shit,” I muttered, scratching my head as he disappeared from sight. I couldn’t get anything right.

It probably wasn’t just my lack of experience – Niimori was my partner, of course it was going to be like this.

I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do to put my hands on his feelings, but I did know what to do right at that moment. Although, doing it was going to send Niimori’s feelings as far from me as they’d ever been.

I knew it, too, but I couldn’t just sit around waiting for those middle schoolers to contact someone.

Niimori detested the idea of talking to the police, the investigators, and the higher-ups, but luckily, he hadn’t mentioned anything about anyone else.

“He’s going to be pissed when he finds out, though.”

Resigned to being even more hated than before, I headed for the office. It was Saturday, but no doubt my fellow alumnus would still be at the reception desk.

He must have had a lot of free time indeed, because I caught him secretly doing a crossword under the counter. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said.

“What’s up? Training too much for you?” he asked with a blank stare – he’d been an academy instructor before he came here. Before that, he’d been a firefighter with more than twenty years on the line. My thoughts were a jumbled mess, and I felt like he might be able to come up with a better strategy than entrusting the entire matter to Niimori’s recklessness.

“Listen, if I pass the final next week, I’ll be on the rescue squad the week after that. Please don’t say anything ominous.”

“Huh. Well, what then? Is it a romantic problem?”

“It’s more serious than that,” I said.

The old man crossed his arms and leaned forward, an excited look on his face. “What is it?”

The hell of training ended, and I safely passed the rescue exam, but my office assignment didn’t change, so nothing was especially refreshing, as far as that went. Internal business affairs didn’t change from the norm either.

The other guys seemed even more interested in other people’s business than ever. Well, it wasn’t just them.

When Tsuno realized I was back, he immediately asked about Ishiwatari. “I told her there was someone else I like,” I answered, “right in front of her friends, so she hasn’t contacted me.”

He stared at me. “You are the worst.”

My stock had been falling with him recently. Okay, so I hadn’t given it much forethought, but Tsuno didn’t know how it felt to have every outer defense hardened against you.

“Your pal Niimori’s been a little too gloomy lately, though, hasn’t he? What the hell happened while you were training?”

The day Niimori had taken me with him to meet the middle schoolers, I’d come clean about everything to the receptionist.

He’d nodded quietly and said, “Go to a mochi store, you’re gonna walk out with mochi.”

“But there’s nothing that really constitutes proof. All we’ve got is circumstantial evidence, and I don’t think the police will make a move on that.”

I repeated Niimori’s pitch to him, and he smiled, “So you make the investigators move. Once you get the investigators going, they’ll get the police going.”

“Niimori already spoke to the investigators, they brushed him off.”

“That’s a lazy man’s excuse. They have responsibilities, and one of them is listening properly to Niimori’s story. I don’t know if there really is a consequential relationship between the prank calls and the fires, but there aren’t any other major leads, so they’ve got a responsibility to investigate this one, even if it’s only a one percent possibility.”

The old man took the whole story to Niimori’s superiors before I could take a breath, and he set up a meeting where Niimori could talk to the investigators directly. He announced to the person on the other end of the line that he’d like to sit in on the proceedings, too, and hung up, and I watched him lean back in his chair. Now that I thought about it, pretty much everyone older than me and younger than the commander was one of this man’s students.

Of course, that included Niimori’s supervisors and all the investigators.

“Next time,” he said, “come talk to me right away. OB stands for observer, you know. Oh wait, observer…”

He pulled his puzzle magazine out with a gasp and fit the word he’d just said into the boxes.

Every other time I’d seen the OB, he’d just seemed to have too much time on his hands and had been teasing everyone else, this was the first time he’d seemed so cool.

But Niimori had no intention of making any big moves until he had proof positive, and just as I’d expected, he was pissed about the whole thing. He started ignoring me altogether. Well, talking to the OB without his permission certainly had been my bad.

But there was nothing I could do about it, even if Niimori did think of it as an act of betrayal. I knew it meant his superiors would discover what he’d been up to and would put the screws to him, but the result was that the investigators got his story through to the cops.

Through them, we learned that the middle schoolers had an older brother who’d failed his university entrance exams and then disappeared. The cops got ahold of his photograph and asked around, and discovered that he’d been witnessed at the scene of multiple arsons, and also that components of the incendiary devices used in the crimes had been purchased with his credit card.

The middle schoolers, it seemed, were keeping their mouths shut as tight as ever, but you could almost say the matter was just about settled.

Maybe he’d noticed the long arm of the law drawing near, but there hadn’t been any arsons lately, and the prank calls from those two kids had stopped, too.

Maybe Niimori could get his satisfaction if only they could catch the criminal, but we had no idea where he was, and so Niimori’s mood showed no signs of improving.

Tsuno and I caught sight of him in the training room – he looked like a bundle of nerves – and Tsuno sent a glare my way.

Our eyes met, but I immediately looked away. Tsuno came over to me and whispered.

“What the hell happened? Where’d you get your jizz on him this time?”

“It’s nothing like that. Stop assuming everything’s because of my beast mode every time.”

“Well okay, but Niimori’s not gonna break, you better hurry up and do it yourself.”

I did my exercising, ignored Niimori’s nerves, and eventually Tsuno said to me, “Christ, Adachi, your stamina’s improved since you made Rescue.” He was out of breath, and ended up leaving before either Niimori or me, which just made things more awkward. But while I took the time to wonder if I should apologize, Niimori disappeared.

Maybe he was uncomfortable, too.

— Okay, so saying whatever to whoever was wrong, but the OB forced an open meeting, that was right.

It was all in hindsight, of course, but the goal was to catch the criminal, so there was no reason for Niimori to be the one to stick his neck out into such a dangerous situation. But at the same time, Niimori had lost the opportunity to punish the criminal himself. Niimori had never mentioned anything about wanting to mete out punishments, but I couldn’t think of any other reason for him to get so heated about it as to go as far as that.

“Guy has such a short fuse anyway,” I muttered to myself, and heaved a sigh – I was one to talk – and then finished my extra-long training session and headed for the shower room.

It was built just like one at a gym or a pool, box-type shower stalls lined up along one wall.

When I came in from the emergency disinfection room, somebody else was already buried in a booth further in.

I put the change of clothes I’d brought with me on the shelf and used the nearest shower.

Standing under the hot water, I rubbed the bar of soap I’d brought over myself, not bothering with a washcloth. After I’d worked up a lather and rinsed off, I turned off the water, wiped myself dry and wrapped the towel around my waist, and then stepped out of the booth.

That was when I realized that the person changing their clothes in the undressing area a couple of steps from me was Niimori.

Apparently he’d been the one using the interior shower stall. He’d left the training room a while before me, so I’d assumed it was someone else. When I stopped dead, Niimori noticed something suspicious and turned around.

He’d already got on his underpants, but he hadn’t dried off very well, and a drop of water rolled down his back.

Our eyes met, and Niimori clicked his tongue.

“Oi, don’t take one look at someone’s face and make that noise.”

“Don’t talk to me.”

“It’s not anything to be that pissed about. You got better results than when you were investigating by yourself, didn’t you?”

“Those two kids locked their mouths shut the second the cops got involved,” Niimori said angrily. “If you hadn’t made your move, they would have come clean to me about everything.”

That was an optimistic prediction, but I’d lose no matter what objection I raised, and I was trying to repent for telling on him to everyone. Of course, I had tried everything to earn his understanding, and still couldn’t get any kind of favorable response, that was how I’d ended up with no other choice but to selfishly give him away.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But why were you so fussy about doing it all yourself anyway?”

“Because hunting down an arsonist is asking for trouble. If you focus on arresting him, you’re not going to learn anything. And there’s a chance they’ll just give up and kill themselves. I didn’t want to go large-scale until I had something concrete.”

“I mean, okay, but isn’t it best to leave searching for a criminal to the police?”

“Just because the cops are involved doesn’t mean he’ll go on the wanted list. You said you thought I was right, but never actually thought that, did you? I trusted you, but you never trusted me. I should have known it after that accident, but still.”

Niimori’s words weighed heavy on me. In the end, he and I were both stuck on that accident.

Which was exactly why we couldn’t go back to the past. The best we could do was promise never to do it again. But when the other person has stopped trusting you, it doesn’t matter how many promises you make.

“You’re the one who didn’t trust me. How many times have I told you I love you, you’ve never believed me.”

Niimori continued with putting on his clothes. “So you betrayed me? Like that? If I had believed you, I’d look like an idiot now. I’m never making any deals with you again.” He never even looked in my direction. I watched him leave the showers, not knowing whether it was okay to call out to him, or how.

I watched the door shut, and realized I’d been rejected in no uncertain terms.

Because you betrayed me was a worse reason even than because I don’t like you.

This final loss of confidence was harsher than the lost love. I wondered if I couldn’t have conducted myself better, but I knew the answer. Of course there had to have been some way to do it without hurting him so much, but I couldn’t find it. And there hadn’t been time to grope about for one. No other solution had come to me.

Alone in the shower room, I told myself again that I hadn’t been wrong. But the day soon came when I regretted my actions.


In Love and On Fire

In Love and On Fire

Koishite, Enjou, 恋して、炎上
Score 9.2
Status: Completed Type: Author: Artist: , Released: 2013 Native Language: Japanese
Virgin Firefighter Adachi learns one day that his disagreeable co-worker Niimori is gay, and prefers the lowest type of guy. Thinking he’s found something he can lord over Niimori, he ends up attacked himself, but quickly turns the situation on its head and ends up embracing Niimori himself…!? Special Electronic Edition short story, “In Love and Purehearted” is included, which tells the story of that night from Niimori’s perspective.

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