Dear Nicole

 
 
 
 

Dear Nicole Volume 1 Chapter 1


Chapter 1: Don't Cry, Nicole
Translated by Mana
Version 1.0 (2017/07/01)

Niko wants bread for breakfast, but Granny only knows how to make Japanese food.

The freshly steamed white rice is from Yasuda next door, the miso soup is homemade by Granny, the eggplant and ginger are grown in Gramps' field, and the eggs rolls are from the chicken they keep.

But when Niko requests bread for breakfast, Granny always replies in the same way.

"Granny doesn't know how to bake bread."

No no, you can just buy bread at the shops, he wants to say—but alas, Granny and Gramps are fundamentally 'Do It Yourself' people. They also see bread as a type of snack, so they say it isn't something a working farmer should be eating in the morning.

They're still feeding me, so I guess I can't be picky.

Despite his complaints, Niko is still a growing third year high school boy, so he eats two servings of rice before leaving the house. The chicken are enjoying their morning walk in the garden, outside of their coop. A couple of chickens rush at Niko, but he smoothly evades them before mounting his bicycle.

Once, during primary school, a transfer student from the city got very upset at Niko for beheading a chicken and eating it as stew.

"I think what Kumihama is doing is horrible."

They brought up Niko's name at the end of class that day, and Niko muttered his dissent under his breath.

"But… chicken is delicious…"

The transfer student, who kept a parrot at home, was even more shocked at that. "…I feel sorry for the bird," they said, before bursting into tears. The majority of the class also kept chickens as a food source, so they started to chatter noisily.

"Huh? Is it bad to eat chickens?"

This caused the homeroom teacher to launch into a floundering speech about 'the weight of life' and 'appreciating your food', somehow resolving that case. Apparently, there was a different world to the one Niko lived 'here'. That was the first time he realized it.

From the open front door, a grand view of mountain ranges extends into the clear blue sky. Niko easily weaves through Gramps' ploughed vegetable fields on his bicycle.

Pulling up at the old station building 15 minutes later, he parks his bike haphazardly in the tin bike shed. He doesn't lock it. No one would steal it—the villagers all recognized Niko's bike, so any thieves would be caught immediately.

The single train line out of the village is a one carriage, one-man operated train that requires a button to open the doors when alighting. Once, when he was a child, Niko went to the city with his family and was shocked by the train doors automatically opening. That's why he nods in understanding when he sees foreigners on TV in awe at Japan's automatic taxi doors.

Niko commutes to high school by a train that only arrives once an hour. Outside the window, plots of land with large houses are scattered between the endlessly expanding rural fields. As he stares at the tranquil scenery while listening to music on his phone, Niko's pocket suddenly vibrates. It's a text from his father.

Morning. How are you? I'm doing sell. I'll be back for the Bon Festival next month. Looking forward to seeing you. What do you want for a souvenir? Ask Grandma and Grandpa too.

He sends a reply while laughing at the typo of 'well' as 'sell'.

Hey Dad, since when did you start doing sell? Granny, Gramps and I are all sell too. I'll text you again later about the souvenirs. I'll ask Granny and Gramps too.

Niko leans back in the seat and resumes listening to music while watching the passing scenery.

With no jobs in the small mountain village, Niko's father works at a facility management company outside the prefecture. He used to commute from home, but with the recent recession causing bonus cuts and increased overtime, Niko's father is now living in the company dorms. He only comes back during the New Year, Bon Festival, and Golden Week.

Niko's mother cheated with a man from town and left when Niko was still young. He doesn't really remember her, but looking at her photos he can tell she was quite beautiful. Niko's often told that he resembles her. Cheating aside, now that he's reached puberty, Niko is grateful he looks more like his mother than his hulk of a father.

As the train approaches the interchange station, Niko reaches into his pocket and takes out a hair tie with a polka dotted bow, delicately tying it to his brown-dyed hair. Taking out a compact mirror, he gathers himself and smiles, transforming from Niko into Nicole.

Alright, let's get this show on the road.

The train approaches the station just as he is ready, and he presses the button to alight the train. On the train across the platform, there's a crowd of commuting adults and high school students wearing the same uniform as Niko.

"Morning, Nicole!"

The first person to call out to him is a girl from his class who always catches the same train.

"That hair tie is so cute, Nicole."

"Thank you. Miki's bob cut is also really cute!"

He inclines the tone at the end of his sentences, as if answering with a heart emoji.

"Nicole, there's swimming today. Which swimsuit are you gonna wear?" another girl asks him.

"Of course I'm going with the girls' one. The pink two-piece," he teases lightly, and the girls on the platform all burst into laughter. When he adds, "I'll be in the girls' changing room too, obviously," the girls all laugh harder and protest.

"Hey!" they say, "Don't do that!"

"Don't discriminate against trans people! But fine, I'll just go to the boys' changing room instead. If you want to know the size of the boy you like, this is your chance to ask me! I'll be sure to observe them closely for you."

"Silly Nicole, stop it!" the male students laugh over the top of the girls' squeals. Amongst those noises, a single voice yells. "Nicole, the prince is coming!"

Glancing over, he sees Isshiki Sakae coming down the station stairs. Niko enthusiastically waves both arms.

"Sakae! Good morning!"

Sakae looks his way. He lifts a hand in greeting.

"You're always so hot, Sakae! Go out with me!"

Sakae raises his hands and forms a cross above his head. A roar of laughter explodes from his instant reply. Niko laughs together with them. The polka dot bow sways next to his head.

The single train line with only one train an hour.

Grocery shopping is done at a small supermarket on the same road as the town hall, and the dating hotspot for middle school students is the JUSCO department store, half an hour away by train. Despite being gay in an conservative countryside village, Niko has somehow secured a place for himself by acting as a bright effeminate character.

Niko was bullied in middle school.

At the time, Niko was already aware of his homosexuality. He detested himself for being different to everyone else, and suffered from having no one to confide in.

The branch school he went to with a few of the kids from his village had 16 people in one class. Everyone got along well, for the most part. But there was once a transfer student from Tokyo who was so isolated from the class, they immediately transferred to a primary school in town. Niko's village was laid back, but had no mercy towards the unknown.

He absolutely had to keep the fact he was gay a secret. To release the build-up of stress, Niko vented his feelings for his favorite male idol into a notebook every day. But one day, he forgot the notebook in the classroom, and a male classmate discovered it.

The next morning, huge letters were scrawled on the blackboard.

Niko's a homo!

The moment the word 'homo' came into view, his face went deathly pale. Staying upright on his trembling legs was all Niko could do as he silently watched the text he poured his deepest secrets into be mockingly read aloud.

In a close-knit country village, rumors like Niko's spread quickly.

"Niko, don't worry. We'll go to the big hospital in town together."

Being told that by Gramps while Granny nodded at his side sank Niko into further despair. The two of them meant well. They just thought of homosexuality as a disease.

Over the phone, his father only said "I see."

Of course, his father understood that homosexuality was a sexual preference and not a disease. But that only made it all the more embarrassing for Niko, who was still in puberty.

The bullying was tough.

Photo cutouts of the idol he liked were glued to his desk with obscene comments scribbled on them. Niko's desk was moved away from the others, like a small, isolated island. When the homeroom teacher noticed it, they ordered the students around Niko to move the desks back. Hearing the soft muttering under the noisy clatter of the approaching desks tore him apart further.

"The homo might spread."

"How gross."

The exchange of whispers made his eardrums feel like they would burst alongside his heart. It was disgusting for a man to love another man. It was an embarrassment. Clenching his fist around the leg of his school pants, 14-year-old Niko bit his lip as he looked at the floor.

I should die.

That same day, Niko took a thick rope used to fix harvested vegetables to the pickup truck from the shed, stole the heavy stone weight Granny used for pickling food, and left the house in the middle of the night.

In the pitch black darkness of the countryside, a choir of frogs resounded around him as he staggered under the weight of the stone down the empty road towards his middle school. The stone was heavy. It held the weight of Niko's life.

He couldn't carry the stone while jumping over the school gate, so he threw it over first. It landed with a hard, echoing thunk. Niko expected it to crack, but it didn't. He cut straight across the grounds towards the pool. There was a low gate at the pool, so once again the stone was thrown over first. It landed with another hard thunk. He expected it would crack this time, but it still didn't crack.

Even though he dropped it twice, it was surprisingly tough.

Maybe life was like that too.

As Niko sat at the side of the filled pool, wrapping the rope around the stone and tying the ends to his ankles, he wondered if he would suffer. No matter how much he struggled against this stone, it would keep him in the water. It wouldn't break even if he kicked it.

Niko's hands belatedly started to tremble as he cast his eyes over the dark water surface. He was going to die. The faces of the family he hadn't considered yet floated into his mind. Dad, Gramps, Granny. They'd probably cry. But no one from school would come to his funeral. What would his family think if they knew how hated he was at school? He should at least hire some people to pretend to be his friends at the funeral. The more he thought about it, the blurrier his vision became.

Why am I crying?

I've already decided to die.

There's no point in thinking about what happens afterwards.

He was trying to commit suicide in the middle of the night by tying a stone weight to his feet and throwing it into a pool. He was so pathetic. Yet the pulse in his clasped hands still pounded loudly. It was irrefutable proof that he was alive—which he hadn't felt until now. How ironic, to finally notice as he clasped his hands before his death. But he couldn't laugh, and tears fell one after another.

"What are you doing?" a voice called out from behind him, making him jump in surprise.

Illuminated by the bright light of the moon, a boy looked down at Niko.

"What's that? What a big rock. Why is there rope around your legs?"

The boy seated himself down next to Niko and peered at the stone weight curiously. He looked to be around the same age as Niko, but Niko didn't recognize him. Once he realized the boy wasn't from the village, Niko actually felt less wary.

"It's a rope to commit suicide with, and a stone weight to keep me from floating."

"Eh, you're gonna die? With a stone weight?" The boys eyes widened, and he reached over to touch the rope connecting the stone and Niko's ankles. "…Wow, that's new."

"Who are you?" Niko asked, and the boy stopped fidgeting with the rope to look up.

"I'm Naitou Sakae. My family name might change though. Who're you?"

"Kumihama Niko. You're not from around here, right?"

Sakae was a second year middle school student like Niko, living in the next prefecture over. His parents were in the middle of a divorce and he had been temporarily taken in by his mother's family. Apparently, he was feeling restless from the thought of staying here after the divorce, and decided to sneak into the pool in the middle of the night as stress relief.

"Is this village really that rural?"

"There's nothing other than farms and fields." Sakae's light attitude was refreshing. "So, why are you trying to die?"

"Because people found out I was gay and started bullying me."

The words fell out of Niko's mouth easily. It helped when his conversation partner wasn't a resident of the shitty village.

"Eh, by gay you mean like a homo?"

The indifference and lack of reservation in the question felt nice. Though there was no delicacy in Sakae's words, the lack of prejudice made it feel all the more honest.

"Hmm. Gay, huh." Sakae leaned back on his hands and murmurs wonderingly.

The silence continued like that. The quiet passing of time brought back Niko's composure. A rope tied around his ankles, and a large stone weight. The stone that would have ended Niko's life rolled heavily at the side of the pool, carrying the weight of his life.

"I see. So, you're gonna die."

Sakae reached a hand out and gently stroked the stone weight. It was a faint presence, but it traveled down the rope to Niko's ankles, as if he was the one being patted.

Niko started to weep. A shuddering breath escaped him as he buried his face behind his knees. Pitiful sobs cut through the silent night air. It was embarrassing, but more tolerable in front of a stranger.

"It's alright, just cry it out."

A hand touched the top of his head, and the soft pats made him want to cry harder. It felt like his wandering heart finally had a place to settle itself.

"Say, if you've got the guts to commit suicide, why don't you focus that into getting laughs?"

"…Why laughs?" Niko sniffed back his tears as he looked at Sakae.

"My dad said that no matter where you are, the funny guys are the strongest. His hometown was Osaka, after all. But Osakan norms don't really make sense, right?"

Sakae grinned widely at Niko's nod and stood up, pulling Niko's arm along with him.

"Now, let's swim."

"Eh? No, I-I can't swim." That's why he chose a pool to commit suicide in.

"That's just cause you've got something like this on."

Sakae untied the rope from Niko's ankles, then threw the stone weight into the pool with a grunt. The splash created a large crown on the water surface.

"You're free now!"

The stone weight Niko struggled to carry all the way from home sank into the depths of the midnight pool. Air bubbles slowly floated up. The stone that he considered as heavy as his life…

As he watched on with mixed feelings, a sudden push at his back sent him flying. Niko yelped in shock as he fell into the pool. There was nothing to grab onto in the darkness of the pool. Pitch black shadows completely enveloped him. The absolute darkness was almost being at like school itself. Alone in a classroom full of people, surrounded by the dark.

He couldn't breathe. He couldn't see any light.

He was going to die. It hurt. He was going to die. Someone help.

In the middle of that blind darkness, someone grabbed the hand he flung up desperately. Dragged to the surface, he broke through the water with a gasp. Right in front of his eyes was Sakae's smiling face.

"Wow, you really can't swim."

"That's what I said. I-I nearly died."

Gasping for breath, he glared at Sakae through his tears.

"But weren't you planning on dying?" Sakae asked amusedly.

When Niko fell silent at that, Sakae says "Shall we swim, then?" and took Niko's hand firmly as he slowly backed through the water.

"I-I can't, I'll… sink… buh!"

He thrashed his feet desperately, but that only made him sink further.

"You'll only sink more if you struggle. Relax. Stop moving and trust me."

Niko slowly relaxed his death grip on Sakae's hand as the water gradually became gentle around him. The suffocating water that had persistently grabbed at him now softly held him afloat.

"I-I'm floating."

"Of course you are. Humans bodies naturally float," Sakae laughed, while pulling Niko towards him.

"…Sakae, aren't you grossed out by me?" Niko asked as he was pulled lightly through the water. Sakae tilted his head in question.

"I'm gay, you know."

Sakae looked even more confused. "Does you being gay cause any inconvenience to me?"

"It doesn't."

"Then it's fine. You're not gross, you're actually rather fun."

Sakae contentedly gazed up at the clear moon in the navy night sky.

"I've already taken a week off school. Just thinking about living out here in the sticks if my parents divorced made me so tense I came to the pool out of irritation. Yet there you were trying to kill yourself with a stone weight tied around your legs. It was so depressing to see, I actually feel better."

"It's not something to make fun of."

"But think about it. No one normal would think of drowning themselves with a stone weight."

"Really?"

"Yeah, Niko's actually a pretty funny guy."

Ah… It had been a while since anyone his age had called him "Niko" without any malice.

"What about you, Niko? Are you having fun right now?"

"Y-Yeah, a lot of fun."

He was swimming fully-clothed in a pool, in the middle of the night, with a guy he met for the first time.

"Then don't say you'll die anymore."

"Okay," Niko nodded, and his emotions rose like a flood within him.

What should he do? Don't die. That one phrase nearly had him crying from happiness. Teardrops slowly gathered and fell one-by-one from the end of his nose. Since they were both dripping wet, Sakae didn't notice that Niko was crying.

"Don't lose. It's a promise."

Sakae opened his mouth in a wide grin. His thick eyebrows and downward-slanting eyes gave him a sweet aura. Even though he was the same age as Niko, he was unmistakably manly.

His heart thumped in realization. Though they were in the water, the hand he had linked with Sakae felt incredibly hot. His will to die had completely disappeared, to the point that his heart was now beating violently for Sakae.

"Sakae, will you come to the pool again tomorrow?"

For some reason, Sakae blinked blankly at his question. "I'll come. If Niko does too."

"Then I'll definitely come."

Underneath the moonlight, the two of them made that promise.

But the next night, Sakae didn't come to the pool. Instead, a T-shirt was caught in the chain-link fence. It was the one Sakae wore yesterday, with a message written on the back in marker.

Dad came to pick me up, so I'm going home. Sorry. Hopefully we can meet again someday.

The hasty scrawl conveyed how much of a rush he must have been in. And yet, he went out of his way to leave his T-shirt here. Feelings of disappointment and happiness blended together until Niko was sitting at the poolside, crying into the T-shirt.

They had only met once, only swam together in a pool for a few hours in the dead of the night. They probably won't meet again. The memory of Sakae burned into Niko's heart like a precious jewel. That was how his meeting with Sakae, his savior and his first love, changed Niko.

But like, if you've got the guts to commit suicide, why don't you focus that into getting laughs?

My dad said that no matter where you are, the funny guys are the strongest.

The next morning when Niko left the bathroom with a colorful pompom tied to the top of his head, Granny and Gramps' mouths fell open.

"What's with your hair? It's girly and unsightly," they said, but Niko just ignored them and went to school.

Niko's classmates were also dumbfounded at the sight of the pompom hair tie.

"Morning, everyone! From today on, call me Nicole!"

Inclining the end tone of his sentence, he tilted his head with his hands under his chin. It was a pose he'd often seen drag queens do on TV. Niko might be gay, but he wasn't trans. He didn't want to crossdress, nor did he want to talk like a girl. He wanted to love men as a man. That's why this effeminate character wasn't Niko's true self. But it was fine like this.

A battle avatar has to be easy to understand.

In the classroom that suddenly fell silent, someone murmured, "…Scary." As if on cue, mocking laughter echoed around the room, ringing in Niko's ears.

"How stupid. What are you thinking?"

"What the hell is a Nicole? How gross."

Ignoring the scorn and ridicule, Niko boldly marched to his seat with his head raised. A floor rag flew out of nowhere and hit him in the head. His vision was blocked by the dirty cloth. Niko picked up the cloth between two fingers and forced a grin as he listened to the sound of his heart cracking in his chest.

"Oh no, who threw that? You girls? There's no need to be jealous of how cute I am. Or was it the boys? Trying to tease your crush?"

The class watched on coldly as Niko touched his hand to his cheek in mock embarrassment. This was tough. It hurt. His tears were threatening to drop at any moment now. But he wasn't going to cry.

Don't lose. It's a promise.

Every day Niko recalled Sakae's smiling face as he acted out his trans character. The bullying got worse, but eventually started to change as he kept up the act. His simple trans character settled as a joke, and gradually became funny to everyone. By the time he entered the town high school, Niko's character was even more well received. A regular, good-looking guy like Niko, acting like a girl. With his brown hair tied back in a cute hair tie and bright feminine speech, Niko received such fierce support from the girls, he established his status as the most popular kid in the school.

"Niko, wanna come along to karaoke today?"

"Yep! I've practiced a new song, so I'll dance my feet off today!" Niko replied enthusiastically.

The boy who invited him came from the same middle school. He had once called Niko a drag queen, telling Niko to stay away from him. The boy might have forgotten what happened, but Niko will never forget. But he pretended he did as he laughed. That was the only way he could live.

However, not everything went that well. While people his age found him funny, the elders that populated his village judged him harshly. The village elders mistook being gay as a type of illness, so Granny and Gramps kept worriedly suggesting that they go to the hospital together, which Niko always brushed off with a laugh and an "Eventually."

But no matter how well received his trans character was, it was all an empty show in the end. In his village, Niko's existence was nothing more than a heresy. If he didn't keep that in mind, he would be hurt again. Though his days may seem fun at first glance, Niko's loneliness was buried deep into the earth.

It was during these days that something unimaginable happened.

The summer of his second year in high school, Sakae transferred into Niko's school. The first love he only met once, at a pool in the dead of the night. The first love he never replaced, even in high school. Niko's heart felt like it could burst meeting Sakae again.

But he couldn't talk to him. High school Sakae was so much more handsome and mature than Niko remembered, and girls surrounded him from the moment he transferred in. Niko wanted to talk to him too. But Sakae had probably forgotten him.

I don't really want him to see me right now anyway.

A hair tie with a pink bow. Feminine language. Niko got as far as Sakae's classroom before turning back. But there was nowhere for someone as flashy as Niko to hide, and he was eventually approached first.

"Hey, you're Niko right? Do you remember me?"

Shock and delight made his heart beat like a drum.

"Y-Yep, I remember. Naitou Sakae." Niko was helpless to the blush creeping up his face.

"Oh good, you remember. Though it's not Naitou anymore."

"…Ah, did—did your parents divorce?"

"Yeah, at the start of this year."

Though they made up once, Sakae's parents ended up divorcing, leaving him with his mother's maiden name, 'Isshiki'. He was now living here with the grandparents on his mother's side. After Niko asked for his address, he found out that Sakae's village was 20 minutes away from his house by bike.

"When my transfer was decided, I wondered if I'd meet Niko again." Sakae brought his smiling face closer to Niko, whose heart was threatening to jump out of his throat from happiness.

"I was always worried about you, so I'm glad to see you're doing well."

The murmuring voice, lower than Niko remembered, made his ears burn.

"…It's cause I promised you." Niko's promise with Sakae was his greatest pillar of support.

"I see, you did well." Sakae gently ruffled Niko's hair as Niko inspected his feet. As Niko tried to resist the feelings of sweet elation rising within him, Sakae suddenly laughed.

"But," he said. "This transformation was unexpected."

[[ILLUST.1]]

He tugged on the hair tied up with a pink bow, and Niko flinched.

"Ah, this—this is weird, right? Even I know that."

What should he do? Sakae was going to be grossed out. Panic bubbled within Niko.

"I was a little surprised, but it's cute." Sakae smiled. Niko almost started crying with relief, until a bright voice called out from behind him.

"Nicole's hitting on the transfer student!"

When Niko turned around, the whole classroom's attention was focused on the two of them standing in the doorway.

"Sakae, Nicole hits on hot men all the time, be careful!"

"If you let your guard down he'll knock you over and pop your cherry!"

Shocked by the vulgar joke, Sakae's eyes jumped to Niko.

"Ah, no, I'm not—"

He needed to deny it. But his head had gone completely blank and he couldn't find the words. The panic overwhelmed him, causing the nerves and shame he was furiously holding back to burst forth.

"Aww, was I caught?" Niko donned his usual effeminate mask and posed cutely. "I've called dibs on Sakae, so you girls better not touch."

He puckered his lips and leaned in, causing Sakae to shove Niko's face away in surprise. The class roared with laughter at his ugly grimace, and Niko's first love shattered.

"Too bad! Nicole got rejected!"

"Sakae, don't fall victim to Nicole's advances!"

The treasured memories of Niko's fleeting first love—the ones he'd kept locked in his heart for all these years—were thrown to the wind and turned into a pathetic joke for the trans character he created to protect himself with. Sakae, knowing nothing, laughed along with the joke.

"What are you doing? Don't surprise me right after our reunion.”

"Ahaha, sorry!" Niko swallowed down his tears as he kept laughing.

That night, Niko cried into the t-shirt he received from Sakae.

Dad came to pick me up, so I'm going home. Sorry. Hopefully we can meet again someday.

He had always wanted to meet Sakae again. Once he became an adult, they would reunite somewhere, and that would be the start of their love story… that was what he dreamed about.

To Niko, Sakae was a shining star against the dark night sky of the countryside.

What does Sakae think of him now?

Of a ridiculous trans character like that—

Tears spilled one after another and Niko buried his head into his blankets, drowning his pillow in snot and tears while muffling the sound to stop Granny and Gramps from overhearing and worrying.

Just give up. There's no point in falling in love in this village.

And yet, when morning came, Niko gathered up the remains of his first love that laid scattered around him. The happiness from hearing Sakae say that he was always worried and glad to see him doing well didn't disappear. Even as he cursed himself for it, Niko knew that love was unreasonable like that.

From then on, Niko would blow Sakae a kiss and tease him every time he saw him.

"Sakae, you're so hot today! Go out with me!"

Sakae jokingly pretended to catch the flying kiss and throw it away.

"Aww, I was rejected again!"

Everyone laughed at Niko's overly exaggerated cute reactions. The prince of his dreams was right there in front of him, yet he couldn't get close. Underneath the protection of his bright and lively trans character, the real Niko detested himself for his cowardice.

One day, Sakae visited his house by bike.

"Sorry. I didn't know your phone number or e-mail, so I asked my grandmother for your address."

Apparently, Sakae had something to ask him. Niko tilted his head in question. "What is it?"

"I can't really say it here. Can we go somewhere else?"

Sakae's embarrassed look made Niko's heart suddenly swell in anticipation.

Was it something he didn't want other people to hear? Could it be a confession? I've always loved you too… or something. No, it couldn't be. But…

They rode to the riverbank on their bicycles while the inside of Niko's head span around in circles.

However, Niko's hopes were utterly crushed.

"There's a guy you're interested in?"

Sitting alongside each other on the riverbank, Sakae hugged his knees and nodded at Niko's question. Sakae's cheeks and ears seemed red, but the orange glow of the sunset made it hard to tell. Niko was glad it was evening.

"He's a friend from my old high school, and his name's Endou Naoki. He's really small and cute. His personality can be a little selfish sometimes, but I never found it annoying at all. I actually find it rather cute, so I've been thinking about him a lot since coming here. Endo also often messages me on LINE, and I get strangely happy whenever I see him say 'I'm lonely' or 'I miss you'…"

There was no sign of the usual straightforward Sakae as he continuously showered praise for Endo over Niko's occasional hums and nods.

"Do you think I'm in love with Endo?"

How should I know? Niko wanted to say.

"Does that mean I'm gay too, then?"

As much as Niko wanted to tell him to ask someone else, Sakae's eyes and expression were dead serious. The talk was too sensitive for anyone other than Niko to be able to help.

"I've read in a book that it isn't unusual to be attracted to the same sex when you're young." Niko chose his words carefully as he spoke. "But it said most of those cases are just brief infatuations that naturally go away when you grow up. And if you're okay with girls as well as Endo, you could be bi."

"Bi?"

"It means you can go for either sex."

"What about you, Niko?"

"I don't like girls at all so I'm gay. Do you have any girls you like, Sakae?"

"Nope." Sakae answered immediately.

"There was actually someone else I liked before Endo. He was a guy too."

Niko turned to him in surprise, and Sakae shyly averted his eyes.

"Well, I just thought he was cute like an idol, and didn't really think of it as love. I guess you could call it the fleeting first love of my childhood."

He tried to laugh it off, but Sakae's eyes glistened faintly as Niko received his second shock of the day. His own first love was Sakae, who he kept loving from the second year of middle school until now, the second year of high school. But that wasn't the same for Sakae. It was a very obvious fact, but it still hurt to hear out loud. Niko pulled at the grass by his feet to hide his heartache.

"Then that means Sakae's gay too." He tried to be careful, but the words came tumbling out bluntly.

"…I see. So I'm gay after all. Well damn."

Sakae looked up at the sky, sighed, then looked at Niko.

"Just now, I wasn't trying to ridicule Niko or anything."

"Yeah, I know." Niko nodded, and relief washed over Sakae's face for a moment before he returned to his thoughts.

Next to him, Niko hugged his own knees, silently watching the sunset over the river surface. Happiness from the fact Sakae was also gay. Sadness from the heartbreak of knowing that. He didn't think he had a chance to begin with, so the disappointment following the short-lived elation left him right where he started… no, that wasn't quite right.

The person he loved was talking to him about the person they loved.

It was the worst thing that could have happened.

"Sorry, Niko. For asking something so weird."

"No, it's fine. Don't worry about it."

"But you don't seem very happy, do you have something on your mind too?" He asked worriedly. Niko rushed to put his smiling mask back on his face.

"Nope, I don't have any worries. I have so much fun every day. Well, I'm in love with Sakae too, so being told you had someone else you liked was a bit of a shock." Nicole replied in his usual tone, and the corner of Sakae's mouth twitched.

"I'm asking you seriously here."

"I'm serious too. In Sakae and Endo's case, it'll be a long distance relationship. But high schoolers can't pull off a love like that. So how about you just rebound with me instead?"

Niko leaned on him jokingly, and got pushed away with a "Don't be silly."

It's already become a habit to make a joke out of himself whenever the going got tough. It was the worst. He was the worst. As he laughed away his grief, he noticed Sakae staring at him.

"What is it?"

"Nothing, I was just thinking about how normal it is."

Not quite understanding his words, Niko tilted his head.

"You're talking so normally right now, how come you talk like a girl at school?"

"…Ah."

Crap. It seemed like he was panicking more than he expected from this situation alone with Sakae. It was too late to switch to his feminine speech now. Niko let out a deep breath.

"That's cause it's a joke character."

"A joke character?"

"I'm gay, but I'm not trans."

"There's a difference between gay and trans?"

"Well you like men too, but you don't talk like a girl, right?"

Sakae's eyes widened in realization. "You're right."

"Make sure you hide the fact you're gay, Sakae. If people find out, you'll have to make a joke out of yourself if you don't want to be bullied relentlessly. The countryside is scary like that."

"Come to think of it, you tried to kill yourself over bullying before."

"I was saved because of Sakae. If you've got the guts to commit suicide, focus that into getting laughs. You told me that no matter where you are, the funny guys are the strongest."

"I said something like that?"

Sakae himself didn't remember the words that saved Niko. Sometimes it's the casual remarks that reach the heart better than carefully crafted words of consideration.

"Then you better be grateful you met me, Niko."

"Of course I am. I've surpassed the realms of gratitude and fallen completely head over heels."

"Yeah yeah, thanks for the flattery." Sakae passed it off with a laugh.

He wasn't telling any lies. Yet, the words falling out of Niko's mouth didn't sound like the truth. It reminded him of the boy who cried wolf.

"But I'm glad Niko is here." Sakae suddenly sighed. "I couldn't tell my family or friends I was gay, and it felt like there was a line between me and everyone else. It was scary."

Niko understood what Sakae was trying to say very well. Everything on that side was wide and open, while this side was narrow and cramped. The helpless feeling of watching the line separating him from the world being drawn at his feet.

"That's when I thought of Niko. That Niko was also 'like me'. And that maybe Niko had felt the same once. Just the thought made me feel a little better. Because I wasn't alone."

Sakae smiled softly at the ground. "I talked big at Niko but I'm like this myself, how lame."

"That's not true." Niko furiously shook his head.

In a place like school, blending in with the crowd was essential, while heretics were repelled. Especially in this countryside town, where being gay was on the same level as a crime or sickness.

"I was also saved because Sakae was there. Otherwise I would've died with a stone weight."

"Come to think of it, what happened to that rock? We just left it there in the pool, right?"

"The sports teacher found it the next day and carried it around the village for a month looking for the culprit."

"Do they have nothing better to do?"

"It's just that kind of place."

Sakae frowned, lying back against the grass of the bank. "I probably wouldn't be able to keep going if it wasn't for Niko."

That one line soaked into Niko's heart like spilled water on the ground in the middle of summer. It seeped into his veins and traveled through his limbs, sending little tingling shocks through Niko, making him restless. Niko grabbed his knees and fought down his elation.

I really do love him.

But Sakae had someone else he was interested in. It would be best to give up. He knew that, so he should stop already. Niko hugged his knees tighter, as if he was trapping his resolute feelings from escaping. Behind him, Sakae sighed.

"Say Niko, can I come to you to talk about Endo from now on?"

With his back turned towards Sakae, Niko grimaced. In his heart, he answered no. But he couldn't actually say that out loud, so he forced the wrinkle between his brows to smooth before turning around.

"I don't want that. I'm in love with Sakae, after all." He wrapped his honest confession in a joke and laughed, making Sakae frown again.

"Unlike Niko, I'm serious here. The one that's synonymous with 'earnest' and 'sincere'."

"I'm being sincere too. Super earnestly sincere!"

Niko said in a singing tone, swaying from side to side as he hugged his knees to his body. The crimson sunset sank behind the mountain, making the underside of the clouds in the sky glow a faint pink.

There's no happiness for me in this village.

No one knew the ordinary Niko behind his bright and happy facade.

17-year-old Niko's life was filled with laughter and loneliness.

Thus, Niko starts his third year of high school, getting through his days behind his never-changing trans character.

After dinner, he rides his bicycle to a rusted park ten minutes away. It's a bit of a mystery that a shabby park was made in a village overflowing with nature, but because barely any locals ever drop by, it's the perfect place to meet up with Sakae.

"You're late, Niko." Sakae is already here.

"Sorry. I brought snacks though."

He takes out a box of chocolate-covered mushroom-shaped cookies from his bag as Sakae voices his complaints next to him.

"I prefer the bamboo sprout version."

"Then don't eat it."

"I'll eat. I have this."

"Ah, sour cream potato chips. I like that too."

"That's why I brought it. Yet Niko brings mushrooms."

"Yeah yeah, I'll bring bamboo sprouts next time."

The conversation devolves into useless chatter about their snacks. There's nothing resembling a convenience store in the village, so carrying your own supply of snacks around here is a must.

Almost one year passed since Sakae moved here, and Niko and Sakae are now close enough to be considered best friends. But at school, Niko had established his place as one-sidedly in love with Sakae, and didn't approach him any further than that. Sakae says he should just talk to him normally, but Sakae might be outed as gay if he was too friendly with Niko, so Niko avoids him out of consideration.

"I've decided to go to Tokyo for university." Sakae says as he sits on a log enclosing the sandpit.

It's the season for deciding their futures, and after graduating from high school most kids around here leave the village for all corners of the country. Sakae is planning on entering university, while Niko has vaguely decided to look for employment in Tokyo.

"I would have been fine with either Osaka or Tokyo, but since you said you were going to look for work in Tokyo…"

"For my sake?" Niko teasingly peers at Sakae, but is ignored as usual.

"Endo's going to a university in Tokyo too, and he's been noisy about me coming along."

So that's what your real motive is. Oh. Well then. That makes sense.

He had felt a little depressed the first time they talked about Endo, but one-sided crushes never work out in high school, so there was always some sense of warped hope. But contrary to his expectations, Sakae still keeps in close touch with Endo. LINE and Skype are powerful allies of long-distance relationships.

"Do you think Endo might be interested in me too, Niko?"

"I think he thinks of you as just a friend."

"Hey, couldn't you at least encourage me a little?"

Ignoring Sakae, Niko continues munching on the mushroom cookies. To be honest, he does think that Endo might like Sakae. But he'll never say it out loud. If they're fated to be, then they'll find their way together eventually. So he leaves them to struggle for themselves. He has a bad personality.

"How about you, Niko? Have you narrowed down somewhere to work yet?"

"Not yet. As long as I can leave for Tokyo, anything is fine."

"Dumbass, you should think carefully before you decide."

It's a bit absurd, but Niko truly thinks that anywhere is fine as long as it's in Tokyo. After deciding on death at 14 years of age, followed by four years of acting as a trans out of fear of bullying and discrimination, Niko is ready to let his stress explode in Tokyo.

"Ah, I want to go to Tokyo soon. Gays are probably a dime a dozen in Tokyo, no one would look at you with judgmental eyes, and you'd be free to love who you want."

Countless stars twinkle in the clear navy night sky. The adults all say that you can't see a sky like this in Tokyo. He's okay with that. He's seen enough of the overly beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

There's no place for him here.

"If only Niko was going to university too. We could've had so much fun."

"It's fine. I've already decided on work over more education."

Lately, Granny and Gramps' age has been catching up to them, making work in the field difficult. His father's company hasn't been doing well either, so his father's salary won't rise. To put it bluntly, Niko's giving up on university because of financial reasons. But he can't say that out loud. There's always the option of scholarships if he really wants to pursue more education, but he doesn't want to study that much.

"Besides, I've already been given enough freedom. When I said I wanted to work in Tokyo, neither Dad nor Granny and Gramps opposed it, they just wished me luck out there in the world. Even though they probably wanted me to take over their work in the fields. I have to be grateful for that."

"……I see," Sakae mumbles lowly. "That part of Niko is really like an adult."

"It's normal, isn't it?"

"It's mature. Even though you're normally an idiot."

When Niko looks to his side exasperatedly, his eyes make contact with Sakae's gentle expression. A large hand pats him softly on the head, and proceeds to ruffle his hair.

"We'll be in the same Tokyo, so let's meet up sometime."

Niko nods in agreement. The feeling of Sakae's hand makes him happy.

"I'll introduce you to Endo too, so let's hang out together with the three of us."

"I'll pass on that. I don't want to meet my rival in love, " Niko says, and Sakae laughs.

"Putting aside your fake crush on me, do you want to see Endo's photo?"

"I've seen it a hundred times already."

"This is a different one," Sakae says as he shows him his phone screen.

Sakae occasionally meets up with Endo at a city halfway between their houses, two and a half hours away by a train and bus. They apparently went to a theme park the other day, as the stream of peace-sign selfies with roller coasters in the backgrounds suggests. Sakae stops on one of the photos.

"Isn't this Endo the absolute cutest?"

It was a photo of him looking at the camera while licking a soft serve.

[[ILLUST.2]]

"A Showa-era idol?"

"Yup, he's cute like an idol," Sakae says with hearts in his eyes.

Sarcasm won't even reach this romantic fool anymore.

Soft black hair, long narrow eyes and plump lips that betray an otherwise cool image. It's vexing, but Endo really is cute. And unlike Niko's trans act, Endo's cuteness is natural at first glance, yet has an underlying sense of calculated cunning. He definitely knows exactly how cute he is—or at least, that's what Niko thinks.

"This level of cuteness should be illegal on a man."

Irritated at Sakae's love-struck fawning over the tiny screen, Niko snatches the phone. He pulls Sakae's shoulder towards him, snaps a selfie and shoves it at Sakae's cheek.

"Here, look closely. I can be really cute too."

"I guess that's true."

Sakae wipes the screen with his sleeve, then flips between the photos of Niko and Endo.

"Well, Niko's pretty too. Your face is small, eyes are big, and nose bridge is high."

"Right? My mom was a legendary beauty in this village, after all."

"A legend in a village where a stone press in a pool can be a rumor for a month?" Sakae laughs and puts a mushroom cookie into Niko's mouth. "Just kidding. Niko's hot. But it's not enough."

"Why not?"

"Even if you ask me why, I…" Sakae stares at empty space in thought.

"I don't really know, but isn't that how love works?"

At that, Niko is caught off guard.

"Endo might appear pure and innocent, but his personality is quite pushy and he can be kind of selfish at times. I sometimes get annoyed at how spoiled he acts, but…"

"I get it." Niko throws a small chocolate cookie into his mouth. "Mmm, chocolate mushrooms are the best. Bamboo sprouts are no match for them."

He furiously munches the snacks while repeating 'I get it' in his heart. He's the same. There's no logic to love. By the time you've noticed you've fallen in love, there's no turning back.

Sakae unknowingly discards Niko's feelings. It's cruel. But it isn't Sakae's fault. Sakae doesn't know how Niko feels, he's only being loved one-sidedly, so it's not a crime to not return those feelings.

It isn't Sakae's fault.

But it's tiring for me too.

Niko snaps the cookie part of the snack with his teeth.

"Thank you, Niko."

"Eh?"

"It's a big help being able to talk to Niko about these things."

Having Sakae's shy smile directed towards him feels like a needle pricking his heart. The reason why Niko withstands the pain of listening to Sakae talk is because he wants to spend time together. But deep in his heart, he secretly hopes that Sakae's one-sided love will end, so that he can have his chance…

Until now, love has been neither fun nor bittersweet for Niko. He's happy he's Sakae's best friend, but seeing the other sides of Sakae make his feelings become muddled all the more. He's starting to get tired of everything.

Whether he continues or gives up his one-sided feelings, it's all up to him. From the summer they first met in the second year of middle school to the third year of high school right now, when everyone is seriously planning their future. He's starting to think about whether he should cut his losses too. About his future, love, whether to give up, whether to confess.

The summer of his third year of high school goes by in a flash. With his exams coming up, Sakae can't hang out as much, so as part of the job-hunting group Niko spends most of his days helping out in the fields.

"Hey Nicole, have you found work yet?"

He's asked one lunchtime, loitering in the hallways with his classmates.

"Not yet, but I've discussed it with the teacher and we've narrowed it down to a few companies."

"Which drag bar is it?"

"Hey, don't make assumptions! And I'm not a drag queen." Niko pouts his lips unhappily, and another boy interrupts.

"Drag queens and trans people are the same, aren't they? They're not normal either way." The boy smiles with no ill intent, but it rubs Niko the wrong way.

He prefers the word "straight" instead of "normal". The antonym of normal was abnormal—in other words, that side of the line was natural, while this side was unnatural. But no one is thinking that far when they speak. Niko knows that. That's why he has to endure it, even if it irks him. If he gets mad here, it will only make the atmosphere tense.

"It must be hard for trans people to get a regular job, hey."

What's with that bigotry?

"Right? Must be difficult with all the discrimination."

You're the ones who are doing the discriminating.

"It's fine. Nicole's really cute, so he'll definitely be the most popular in a drag bar. Ah, hey, let's all go ask for Nicole at his bar when we graduate!"

"A drag bar tour of Tokyo, sounds good!"

I said I'm not a drag queen. Don't decide other people's lives for them.

As he fights to keep the smile on his face, Sakae comes down the corridor.

One of the girls call out to him. "Isshiki!"

Sakae turns their way and upon noticing Niko, casually fires finger guns in a way only Niko would understand. Niko's face instantly cracks into a genuine smile.

"Hey Isshiki, you're also going to Tokyo, right? Let's all go on a drag queen tour over there."

Sakae gives a confused look at the girl's words.

"We're talking about work. Cause when Nicole graduates he'll be a super hot drag queen in a Tokyo bar."

"Isshiki's Nicole's favorite, so let's go on the tour together."

Sakae looks at Niko without answering the question. "Did you find somewhere to work?"

"O-oh no, no I haven't. Everyone's just teasing and making their own deci—"

"It's a good idea though! I think a drag bar would be perfect for Nicole."

"That's right, living true to yourself is less stressful!"

The ribbon tied in Niko's hair is tugged on, and it feels like Niko's heart is being tugged along with every pull. Sakae looks at Niko, who smiles bitterly at being jerked this way and that.

"Hmm, living true to yourself? Wasn't there a song about that?"

Sakae launches into a song that was popular a few years ago about 'letting it go', and everyone laughs. Niko finds himself feeling bitter towards Sakae. He wasn't expecting Sakae to stick up for him, but—

"Then does that mean you guys will be working at host and hostess bars in the future?"

Everyone falls silent at Sakae's words.

"If it's best for trans and gays to work in gay bars, then that means guys who like girls should work in a host bar, and girls who like guys should work in hostess bars, right?"

"Haha, don't be ridiculous."

"The things you can say to others while laughing are suddenly ridiculous when they're said to you?" Sakae points out, and everyone stops laughing.

With a final glance at everyone exchanging awkward looks with each other, Sakae and his friend say their goodbyes and walk off. His slightly squared shoulders make his anger evident to see.

As Niko watches those broad shoulders retreat, someone softly calls his name. "Nicole…"

"We're sorry. We didn't mean anything like that."

"We got carried away. Sorry."

"…No, it's fine." Niko nods as his heart swells with his feelings towards Sakae.

One-sided love is neither fun nor bittersweet. It's so tiresome, yet when you try to quit, your heart pulls you back twice as hard.

Niko comes to a conclusion.

On graduation day, I'll confess.

If he's rejected, he won't see him after graduating.

The fact that he's thinking this shows that he's already resigned himself to being rejected.

He can only be with Sakae for a little while longer—Niko looks at the clear blue sky outside the window, stretching on endlessly.

At the end of the year, his father comes home.

He invites Niko to a meal in town together. Already in his third year of high school, Niko doesn't want to go out with his father. But when his father offers to buy him clothes, Niko happily jumps at the chance. Clothes are important to Niko, who'll be going to the Tokyo soon.

He buys a coat, shirt, scarf and beanie at a department store in town. His father is feeling particularly generous today. It's a little early, but they enter an okonomiyaki place for dinner.

"Niko, congratulations on finding work."

On the other side of the iron plate, his father raises a glass of beer. The reason why he wanted to come out with just the two of them was to celebrate Niko's employment. Niko thanks him as he lifts his glass of cola, and taps it against his father's.

"…But I'm sorry for making you do this. I'm sure you actually wanted to go to university." He suddenly bows his head and apologizes, to Niko's surprise.

"I-It's fine. I never really liked studying that much anyway."

"If only I had worked harder."

"Don't say that. I know you worked your butt off, Dad."

After his mother cheated with a man from town and left home, his father proudly raised Niko in a merciless, rude and nosy village that valued marital gossip more than anything else. Even when he found out Niko was gay, he just accepted it with a "Is that so?" without blaming anyone.

Granny and Gramps are the same. "Niko, don't worry. We'll go to the big hospital in town together," they said. Their understanding of gays is in the negative levels, but they really do worry from the bottom of their hearts. Even though people around them must have said many things, those words never reached Niko's ears.

"And I'm looking forward to working anyway. Here, look at this." Niko takes out his phone and shows him the website of the company he'll work for.

"It's a company that does interior design for brand name shops. Isn't it cool?"

When he shows the famous brand names that even his country bumpkin of a father can recognize, his father's eyes widen in surprise. The introduction text sung praises of the company's creativity.

"I see. Niko's finally come of age." His father smiles gently as he looks at the website.

"I'll work my hardest. Once I get my paycheck I'll buy something for you, dad."

"I don't need anything like that. Use your paycheck on yourself. Or save it. You've endured a lot until now, so you should live freely in Tokyo instead of worrying about me or Gramps."

"…Dad."

His father is a man of few words, and rarely lectures or scolds him. But he always knew when Niko was having a hard time.

"Thank you. I'll do my best."

He didn't want to cry, but his vision was blurring around the edges. His father looked away and focused on checking the okonomiyaki ingredients, ordering another beer instead.

After they leave the shop, they cheerily walk towards the station together.

"Niko." A voice suddenly calls out to him. He turns around to find Sakae standing there.

"…Ah, Sakae."

No further words come out. Standing next to Sakae is the crush Niko had only seen on a phone screen before. Endo seemed like a strong-willed Japanese beauty, but was much more beautiful in the flesh.

Sakae shyly brings his head closer to Niko, who is simply standing there in a daze.

"He suddenly said he wanted to meet up," he whispers in a happy voice, as Niko's feelings feel emptier and emptier.

"Hello." Endo greets over Sakae's shoulder, and Niko hurriedly bows his head in a panic.

"Niko, are these your friends?" His father asks. Niko's eyes wander from his father to Sakae, Endo and back.

"Yeah, this is Sakae. A friend from high school. That over there is…"

"Nice to meet you, I'm Endou Naoki." Endo offers a greeting first.

His well-mannered attitude reminds Niko of the story he heard about Endo's father being a vice principal at a local middle school.

Niko's father tells Sakae, "Thank you for always looking after Niko," and then turns. "Are you from the same high school?" he asks Endo.

"No, I'm Sakae's friend from his previous high school. But we meet up often. Right?"

Endo looks at Sakae. At the same time, Sakae looks at Endo. The two of them nod and exchange a smile. The intimate atmosphere between them gently squeezes at Niko.

On the train home, his father repeatedly expresses his praise.

"Kids these days are really stylish. Sakae is more mature than some adults, and Endou is cute like a girl. Of course, Niko was the most stylish one there."

"Aren't you just being a doting parent?"

"That's not it. You look like your mother, after all. Your mother was the idol of the village when she was young. All the men in the village were in love with her, yet your dad was the one to snatch her up."

The beer from the okonomiyaki shop seemed to have put his father in a good mood, as he rarely ever reminisces about his mother. His father still had lingering feelings for his mother, despite the cheating and eloping. Niko is often told his appearance resembles his mother, while his personality resembles his father. It's true that his tendency to drag out a love is probably inherited from his father.

After a while, his father slumps down in the seat, nodding off as Niko stares at his reflection in the pitch black carriage window. Endo had much more refined features than in the photos. He gave an impression of elegance, the complete opposite type to Niko.

But it's no longer a matter of appearances.

The sweet atmosphere that circulated between the two of them. Their feelings for each other are surely mutual.

The more he stares at his reflection in the carriage window, the more his resolve to confess to Sakae wavers.

After winter vacation, third years barely go to school anymore.

Lately, Niko has been working part-time at a farm in the next town. Gramps told him to work at home if he needed pocket money, but Niko found it difficult to ask for money for helping out his own family fields. That's why he works separately to helping out at home, making every day pass by in a busy blur.

Last week, he used his paycheck to buy Sakae's birthday present, which was the whole reason Niko started working part-time in the first place. For Sakae's birthday last year, all they did was toast their juices to each other in the usual park. Even if he's able to joke about being in love, giving a present made the truth too obvious, so he couldn't do it.

But this year is different. Their friendship will probably end when he confesses to Sakae on graduation day.

After running into Endo and Sakae at the end of last year, he considered maintaining their current friendship without confessing his feelings, but when he thought about how he inherited his father's tendencies to drag out feelings, he felt it was time to wrap things up.

If this is to be the end, then I want to leave something behind.

Niko came up with many ideas, but decided on the limited edition sneakers Sakae had wanted before.

They'd be thrown away once they become worn-out, but that was perfect for a one-sided love like this.

He's made a promise to meet up with Sakae today, the day after Sakae's birthday. Niko actually wanted to meet up on the day, but was rejected in favor of a Skype promise with Endo.

He was so jealous, he wished the internet would be obliterated. But that wasn't really the problem here.

Without internet there would be telephones instead, if not letters. That's how it goes when two people like each other, after all.

He'd only get depressed if he thought too hard about it, so he tried to be as indifferent as possible. It's a birthday celebration one day late, but it's fine. The present is wrapped neatly, and he's wearing his new shirt and coat. He should be more stylish than usual today.

But when Niko arrives at his part-time job in high spirits, he's given compost duty of all things. What should he do if the smell sticks to his hair and body? The other workers are assigned to harvesting. He tries to ask them to swap with him, but everyone hates compost work. With no other choice, Niko changes into his work clothes and heads to the field.

I even went through the trouble of dressing up nicely. This sucks.

Even while complaining he does his best at the compost work, finishing after everyone else has long left. There isn't long until the meetup time. Since everyone else has left already, Niko quickly changes behind the curtain that separates one corner of the worker's shed.

As he checks his clothes for any lingering smell, he feels a presence approaching from the other side of the curtain. When he pulls back the curtain to check who it is, he sees the owner's son, Masato, standing there.

"Ah, Masato. You surprised me, what's up?"

Despite being in second year of middle school already, Masato didn't help out around the house. He was a gloomy kid who would always look down on the rare occasions they passed by each other. Niko's heard through the grapevine that he's being bullied at school.

"Is something wrong?"

Masato glares at Niko through a gap in his long fringe. "…Is it true?"

"What is?"

"Is it true you're a homo, Niko?"

Niko's jaw drops at the sudden question.

"Is it true you like men, even though you're a man?"

Masato takes one step forward. He closes in on the already narrow space. This seems like a bad situation. When Niko tries to take a step back, his shoulder is grabbed forcefully. He loses his balance and falls on ass, Masato leaning over him immediately.

"I-Is it true that any man is fine for you?"

Niko's eyes grow wide in shock. But there's no time to be surprised.

"That's absurd, let go of me."

"Then that means you'd be okay with me too, right?"

"Listen to me!"

But Masato had completely lost it, not hearing Niko's words at all.

Masato's frame was rather muscular for a middle school student, and he tightly traps Niko's face between his hands as he eagerly brings his face closer.

"Stupid! Dumbass! Stop it! ……Mmmrphh!"

He forcefully pushes his mouth against Niko's. Niko's head goes blank.

My first kiss…

Niko would rather die than let Masato's tongue in his mouth, so he keeps his lips pressed closed with all his might. The sounds of heavy panting makes him feel sick to the stomach. Masato's hand slides down towards Niko's crotch. Niko gets goosebumps. No. He'd rather die than let this go further. But his fear paralyzes him. Sakae, help. Sakae. Sakae.

As he desperately calls for help in his head, the curtain is suddenly pulled open.

"Is someone still here…? Kyaa!"

It's Masato's mother. When Masato whirls around in surprise, Niko takes the chance to land a well-aimed kick at Masato, knocking him off. Standing up in a panic, hair and clothes both ruffled, he grabs the present bag and things that were thrown to the floor.

"Hold on Kumihama, what were you doing to Masato?"

"N-Nothing. Sorry. Bye." In a fluster, Niko flees the worker's shed.

Why should the victim apologize for being attacked? But right now he is more preoccupied with fear over frustration and anger, and wants to get as far away from Masato as possible. He furiously rubs his lips before hopping on his bike and heading off to meet Sakae.

When he reaches the park they promised to meet up at, Sakae widens his eyes in surprise.

"What's up with you? You're a mess."

"I-I tripped and fell on the way here." He's too embarrassed to say he was attacked by a middle school kid.

"You tripped? You're not a little kid, geez. Oh man, you're covered in mud."

Sakae brushes off the mud on Niko's backside with his hand.

"…Thank you."

Seeing Sakae's face helps him calm down, belatedly making him aware of his own appearance. The worker's shed had a dirt floor, so being shoved down had left his coat and pants covered in mud. The new clothes he went through the trouble of wearing were ruined, making him feel even more frustrated.

Even more shocking was the state of the present bag, which had a footprint on it. Masato had stepped on it. The box that had been elegantly decorated with a ribbon was crushed. What should he do? You can't call something this battered a present.

He hangs his head sadly, and Sakae's feet come into view. Niko's eyes widen in shock.

"Sakae, those sneakers…"

They were the same sneakers Niko had bought.

"Oh, I received them from Endo. They were delivered out of the blue yesterday."

Sakae lifts one foot up enthusiastically.

"There was even a message that came with it. 'Happy birthday. From next spring we'll be together in Tokyo. Let's do our best at the exams!' it said. He never told me anything, so I was really surprised." Sakae says shyly between the frequent glances to his feet.

He doesn't notice Niko, on the verge of tears as he watches him.

"We were actually talking about living near each other in Tokyo if we both make it into university."

"Hmm, really."

Aah, that sounds nice. He really envies Endo from the bottom of his heart.

Just once, he'd like to be in Endo's shoes.

To be thought of in that way by Sakae.

"It'd really suck if I messed up now."

"It'll be fine. With your marks, anyway."

Niko hides the footprint-marked present bag behind himself and laughs.

"Happy birthday, Sakae," he says, taking out a drink and snack from his bag and offering it.

"Thank you. Ah, it's the bamboo sprout ones."

"Since it's your birthday."

"Bamboo sprout cookies for a birthday present, how frugal."

"Then do you want me as a present?"

He makes a heart with his hands and Sakae instantly replies with a "I'm good with just the bamboo cookies," at which Niko roars with laughter. He laughs and laughs, desperately holding back his tears.

They continue with their usual useless chatter for two hours, before parting with a wave. After he watches Sakae ride off into the distance, Niko sluggishly pedals his own bicycle. He's exhausted from straining himself the whole time. The present he didn't end up giving away hangs heavily from his arm. Even though it was the last birthday they'd spend together, nothing changed from last year.

No, it was worse than last year.

His first kiss was taken in an attempted rape, his new coat and pants were covered in mud, and the present he toiled over was stomped on, crushed, and marked with a footprint, on top of being the exact same as Endo's.

What is this? A comedy skit?

His pedaling comes to a complete stop at the riverbank and he leans over the handles, burying his face in his arms. He's pathetic. How lame. What did he do to deserve this?

He can see the dirty present bag in the corner of his obstructed vision. The first and last present, that he couldn't hand over. Biting his lips, Niko impulsively hurls the bag into the riverbank.

"You're an idiot, Sakae!"

The present arcs through the crimson sunset sky, landing in middle of the long winter-withered grass. After seeing it land with his own eyes, Niko starts pedaling once more.

He threw it away. He actually threw it away. Ahh, it feels so refreshing.

Now everything is over. He's giving up on Sakae.

He triumphantly pedals for a while, but quickly comes to a stop and turns around. The area where the bag fell is as silent as death. That bag will probably lie there hidden, forever.

Exposed to the wind and rain, breaking down.

Slowly becoming rubbish, unnoticed by anyone.

It was as if Niko had thrown away his own feelings. Parking his bicycle by the side of the road, he makes his way trudging into the long grass. But it's not where he thinks it is. The surroundings gradually get darker. Where is it? Where did it go? Niko frantically searches the grass. By the time he finds it, he's on the brink of tears.

Sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry for throwing you away.

The box that was stomped on and crushed was like a reflection of his own feelings, as he hugs it tightly to his chest. I'm sorry even I tried to throw you away.

Niko cries in the tall grass.

But for now, he has to kill that perverted brat first.

On the late night that he decides this, something hits against his window. In the summer, bugs—mostly giant moths—would often hit his window, leaving him the tiring job of cleaning up the dust next morning, but it's winter right now. He fearfully peers out from behind the curtains, but there's nothing there. When he stretches his neck to look, he hears an "Umm."

Looking down, he sees the perverted brat standing there.

"What the hell? Did you come to die?"

Taking the metal baseball bat from his room, Niko goes down to the back garden to face Masato. Masato buries his face in the scarf wrapped around his neck and stays silent. Niko exhales a sigh.

"Alright, I've decided. You die. Right now." He swings his bat up behind him, and Masato frantically raises his head.

"U-Umm, no, that's not it…!"

"Hah?"

"I-I, I wanted to apologize."

"If things could be settled through apologies we wouldn't need the police—or metal bats."

"I know. I-I wouldn't complain if you k-killed me."

Being told that makes it harder to kill him.

"I-I don't mind being killed, but I… wanted to a-apologize… uuh…"

His knees give out and he breaks down in tears, squatting on the floor.

"I was fine just watching you in secret, b-but when I heard Niko was fine with any man, I-I just lost my mind…" He connects his word together through a stuttering flood of tears.

"Are you 'that way'?" Niko asks. After a long pause, Masato faintly nods his head.

"And you like me?"

Masato nods once more, and Niko sighs heavily.

Damn it, I can't kill him like this.

Niko tucks the metal bat under one arm and crouches, peering at Masato's sobbing face. Crying like that after stealing someone's first kiss is unfair. He wants to tell him that, but seeing Masato cry reminds him of his old self so much, he doesn't feel like condemning him anymore.

"Don't cry anymore. It's fine now."

Niko pats Masato's head gently, like Sakae sometimes does to him. Masato raises his head and sniffs. Seeing Masato tremble like a cornered animal makes Niko's shoulders droop sadly.

"Being in a countryside like this is tough for guys like us, huh?"

"…Niko."

"I can't go out with you, but I understand how you feel."

When he says this, Masato eyes start watering again. Niko had thought Masato was being bullied because of his gloomy personality. But he was probably wrong. His original personality was probably nothing like that, and he had just closed off his heart from his surroundings due to his differences.

"You can talk to me at any time if it gets really tough."

Niko takes out his phone and exchanges numbers with Masato.

"T-Thank you very mu… a-achoo! Achoo!"

Masato lets off two very large sneezes through his tears. Apparently he had been standing in silence for over an hour, trying to work up the courage to call out to Niko. Niko brings him a disposable hand warmer from his house. Masato thanks him, sneezes, and goes home sniffling.

A week later, the incident where Niko was attacked by Masato has somehow turned into an incident where Masato was attacked by Niko, and spreads around the village. The source of the rumor was Masato's mother, according to Masato's blubbering message on LINE.

I'm sorry, Niko. I'll tell my mother the truth.

But Niko says to him, Don't tell your parents.

He's going to graduate and leave the village soon. But Masato still has to live here for a while. Rather than force him to bear the scars of his crime, it would be better to wait for the storm to pass quietly, then escape when the timing is right.

It's not cowardly. It's a survival method for the weak.

I just have to endure a little.

I'm used to it.

It doesn't hurt me.

However, his remorse towards Granny and Gramps grows stronger.

"Niko didn't do anything of the sort. We know," Gramps suddenly says after coming in from the fields, setting plates up at the table for lunch. Granny nods in agreement and serves rice into everyone's bowls.

"Eat up and gain your strength."

Taking the bowl that was heaped with nearly two servings worth of rice, Niko bows his head in gratitude and apologizes in his heart. They've probably heard the rumors about him and Masato. Just how much have Granny and Gramps suffered until now? He's gay. He no longer believes that's a bad thing. But it's tough watching his relatives suffer for it.

"Honestly, there's something wrong with the way this village thinks. There's no way Niko would do something like that."

Despite his old age, Gramps crunches on the pickled food energetically.

"…Gramps." Niko's chest aches with affection.

"Don't you worry, Niko. Medicine is advancing rapidly these days, there's plenty of good drugs." Gramps says in a huff. Niko's shoulders slump lower.

"Yeah, haha, thanks." He laughs it off.

There's no lack of affection here. If only they had a little more understanding… but that's probably asking for too much. Yeah, it's fine like this. Filling his stomach with the delicious meal Granny had cooked, Niko is about to go help in the field when he receives a message from Sakae.

Niko, come here right now.

What for?

Just come. I'm waiting at the usual park.

That was enough to get him to close his phone and apologize to Gramps for slipping away from helping. He heads to the park while wondering what it could be.

Upon his arrival, Sakae asks angrily, "Why did you keep quiet about it?"

"About what?"

"The rumor that you attacked a middle school kid at your part-time job. I was shocked when I heard about it from my grandma."

Niko's heart nearly jumps out of his chest. To think it had reached Sakae's ears…

"I didn't do anything."

"Of course you didn't!" Sakae's yell cuts through his words.

"It was the day we met up for my birthday, right? You were covered in mud. Why did you lie about falling? You were the one attacked, right? Why didn't you tell me the truth?"

"Eh? Well, umm."

"What did he do to you?"

"He didn't do anything."

"Answer me honestly. Did he do something that's… hard to talk about?"

"Nothing happened!" Niko snaps back reflexively.

It has an opposite effect as Sakae takes it as an affirmation, his face going pale in horror.

"I'll kill him. It's the brat from the huge greenhouse in Hino Village, right?" He turns on his heel and Niko rushes to hold him back.

"Wait! He really didn't do anything, it was just a kiss, just that!"

Sakae turns back with an incredulous look on his face. "There's nothing okay about that."

"…Ah, well, I didn't care."

It's vexing that his words won't come out. He doesn't want the man he loved to know that his first kiss was stolen in an assault from a middle school student. Niko forces his face into a semblance of a smile.

"It's no big deal. I'm not a girl."

"That's not the problem."

Sakae's lowers his brows in a fierce scowl, making Niko's stomach shrivel inside him.

"But I'm honestly fine. That much was nothing to me."

That's right. That's why he has to keep laughing. This is nothing. It's just a little more until graduation. He only has to endure a little more.

As he's standing there laughing weakly, some children pass by the front of the park. Their mothers are following behind them. The children stop in their tracks and point this way. "Ah!"

"It's Niko the homo!"

"If you get close to him he'll do dirty things to you!"

Their innocent voices become sharp blades slicing into Niko's heart. He clenches his fist on reflex. They're just children joking around. Don't let it get to you. Pay no mind. But this timing is the worst. At this rate, he'll start crying, so Niko turns and runs towards the children.

"You brats! Just see what happens when I catch you!"

He chases the laughing children around, grabbing them by the hood of their coats and putting them in a headlock. He isn't being rough. But their mothers' expressions immediately change and they come running.

"Hey you! Don't you dare do anything strange to my child!"

"Eh? Huh?" Niko pauses, at a loss for words at suddenly being treated like a pervert.

The children who were fooling around also freeze, mouths gaping at the menacing look on their mothers' faces.

"I'll call the police if you try anything on my child!"

Why? We were just playing around.

The words are on the tip of Niko's tongue. But waves of resignation soon wash over him. The 'different' one here is him. He's experienced this time and time again, so much that he's past the realms of rage and frustration and nearly reached a state of enlightenment. It's easier than getting angry at every little thing.

"…Yes ma'am, I'm sorr—"

"You don't need to apologize."

Niko turns and makes eye contact with an awfully enraged Sakae.

"You haven't done anything wrong, right?" Sakae stands next to Niko, facing the mothers of the children.

"Your kids called Niko a 'homo', lady. They were the ones who were rude first. If you're going to scold anyone, scold your own kids first. It'd be nice if you could teach your children proper manners like that."

"What are you saying? He's the one who touched my child."

"That's right. He wrapped his arm around his shoulder like a hug."

"That's a normal headlock. You'd know it if you watched your sons play around every day, lady. So why does your expression change when Niko does the same thing? Do gays have to be treated like criminals just for living normally? Isn't that discrimination?"

"No one said anything like that."

"You did. You said you'd call the police. Perhaps you're being influenced by some stupid rumor about Niko assaulting a middle school kid. Niko did no such thing. Is it that fun for adults to gang up on a high school kid over a rumor with no basis? The adults in this village are the worst."

While Sakae didn't raise his voice, the extent of his anger is clearly conveyed through his expression and voice. The mothers exchanged glances with each other awkwardly, and the children start to sniffle and whine.

"…That's enough. Let's go." The mothers take their respective child's hand and pull them away.

One child turns back and apologizes while sniffling. "Sorry, Niko."

Niko nods and waves a hand. With just the two of them left, Niko glances next to him.

"…Thank you, Sakae."

"You shouldn't be apologizing to them either."

Sakae's expression is still laced with traces of anger and frustration. As Niko stands there silently, Sakae's expression slowly changes. The anger and frustration recedes until it looks like he's about to cry.

"…Why didn't you get mad? You should be angry. I don't like seeing Niko being talked about like that. It makes me as angry as if I'd been insulted myself."

Sakae's expression crumples and he looks at his feet.

"…Sakae."

Ah, what should he do? He really does love Sakae.

Niko's always told himself to endure it all—the bullying in middle school, the teasing about job hunting, rumors with Masato—just until graduation. That was how he survived. But honestly, he had felt angry. It was frustrating. And it was Sakae who always rescued him from the depths of it all.

Ah, crap. His vision is blurring at an incredible pace. Unable to hold it back, he drops his head just as the first teardrops start to fall. He wipes them with the back of his hands in a panic.

"Ah, no, Niko, I'm sorry. I said too much." Sakae hesitantly reaches a hand out.

Niko shakes his head. Sakae had gotten mad on his behalf, saying he was angry as if he had been insulted himself. He was so happy hearing how Sakae felt that he couldn't even feel his own disappointment and self-pity.

These are tears of joy.

Even though he wants to tell him this, his voice catches in his throat and comes out in hiccupping squeaks.

"Don't cry anymore. I don't know what to do when you cry."

"S-Sorry… I just can't stop… hic!"

The more he tries to hold it back the worse it gets. His own childishness makes his ears grow hot in embarrassment. Damn tears, stop. Stop. As he grows more flustered, he suddenly feels arms wrap around him.

"Alright, I get it. Don't stop. Cry it all out. I forgive you."

What is he forgiving? How conceited. And yet, Niko feels happy. Sakae is hugging him.

He repeatedly voices his gratitude between heaving sobs. He can't live in this village. That was the honest truth. Even so, he didn't think he was lonely as long as Sakae was there.

[[ILLUST.3]]

The night before graduation, he lay awake the whole night.

The ceremony itself ends without leaving any memorable impression. Niko's family sit in the reserved seats and smile as they watch him accept his graduation certificate with a bright red ribbon tied in his hair.

After the ceremony, the whole class gathers to write a message to their homeroom teacher. As the most popular trans person in the school, Niko gets a lot of photo requests. Surrounded by lowerclassmen, he gets handed a lot of ribbons and barrettes by the girls with a "I hope you can find a wonderful boyfriend in Tokyo, Nicole."

"Nicole, we're having our farewell party at the karaoke box near Kada Station."

Niko answers the classmate who calls out to him with an "Okay!" before hurrying to find Sakae. Unlike Niko, whose popularity revolves around his joke of a character, Sakae is popular in the more orthodox way.

"Isshiki, do your best in Tokyo."

"We're thinking of sitting for the same university next year."

Girls aggressively crowd around Sakae, making him blush shyly. Outside that crowd is another ring of girls who are watching on with tears in their eyes. Their sincere feelings make it hard for them to approach, making their emotions simmer in the hearts painfully. Niko understands that feeling too well.

Niko watches Sakae from outside the two rings of girls.

Sakae looks around after finishing his greetings. His eyes light up when they land on Niko, and he approaches while calling his name. At school, Niko was always the one who called out and flirted with him one-sidedly, so everyone does a doubletake.

"Eh?"

"Since when did you get along that well?"

That's what their faces are saying.

"Stupid, don't come over when we're at school."

"It's graduation day. It doesn't matter anymore." Sakae states simply, and Niko smiles.

"I see. Yeah, you're right." He nods, then stretches both arms towards the sky. "Ah, I'm finally free!"

From today on, he won't have to talk or act like a trans anymore, and just live as himself. Sakae's class was having their farewell party at the bowling alley behind the station, so they head to the station together.

"Today's the last day down this road, huh."

"It's not like there's much to this station other than the school."

He sticks his hand into the pocket of his coat, and they wander down the road while chatting. Despite the casual appearance of the scene, Niko's heart felt like it would explode from nerves.

Today, I will confess to Sakae.

It's definitely going to end in rejection. He's okay with that. Four and half years had passed since they first met. The precious feelings he had carried around the whole time. He wasn't going to throw them away, but rather set them free.

"I have something to say to you." Niko pushes down his nerves and forces the words out.

"Huh? No way, I have something to tell Niko too." Sakae comments on the coincidental timing as he looks this way.

"What is it? You go first."

They won't be able to talk normally after he gets rejected. Sakae scratches his chin and hesitates. "Then…"

He starts fidgeting nervously, and a bad feeling rises within Niko.

"I've started dating Endo."

Ah…

The sound of shattering glass echoes through his mind.

"When we were telling each our entry results, I made a joke that we should live together, and he jokingly agreed. Putting aside whether we actually do that or not, I told him I was serious about my feelings and Endo said he felt the same, so then, y'know, we just went with the flow…"

Next to the furiously blushing Sakae, Niko stares at the familiar scenery of the town as he walks. It's fine. He expected a complete rejection anyway. Sakae and Endo getting together is a different matter to Niko's feelings towards Sakae.

He should confess anyway. Get it done with, then graduate on a clean slate.

Now. Show some courage. Go on—

"Hey, Niko." He makes eye contact with an embarrassed Sakae.

"Thank you. This is all thanks to you being there for me, Niko."

"Ah…"

Something heavy lands on the glass shards, crushing them into dust.

How oblivious can you be, Sakae? I'm trying to confess to you right now. Dumbass. You really are a horrible guy. A terrible guy. Awful.

And yet, even so, Niko loves him so much.

Niko gathers together the dust and forces his face into a smile.

"Good for you. Congrats."

"Yeah, thanks. What were you going to say?"

Sakae doesn't drag things out with his usual lovey-dovey talk.

"…Uh, yeah, what was it? Eh, it wasn't important." Niko laughs it off.

He didn't expect anything. He was prepared to be fully rejected. But that's not to say he was willing to confess after being told how well things were going with Endo.

Right now, Sakae is happy. Niko doesn't want to ruin the moment for him. Niko wants to curse at the series of events that led to this worst possible outcome. At how pathetic he is for always slipping up at the most crucial moment. All these emotions mix together, making him confused. He finds himself asking Sakae to tell him his new address and inviting him to hang out in Tokyo, letting the conversation flow past him in his dazed state.

"See you."

"Yeah, later."

They part easily with a wave under the assumption they'll meet again soon.

After Sakae heads to the bowling alley, Niko hops on the train to the karaoke box one stop away. It's filled with students in the same uniform, calling out to him. He would usually reply cutely with a "Yes?" but today it's all he can do to keep his mouth smiling.

The train arrives at the station quickly. The doors open. But Niko doesn't stand up. He can see the girls from his class on the platform through the window. They've noticed him too.

"Nicole, the farewell party is here."

Niko doesn't respond to their inviting smiles. The doors close, and the train gives a big lurch before moving off. The sight of the girls with their mouths open in surprise gradually get smaller. Niko slumps down on one of the glossy green seats and closes his eyes, letting his body shake along with the movement of the train.

When he gets off at the interchange station, there is a huge crowd of the same uniform.

"Ah, Nicole, congratulations on graduating."

"Oh, Nicole. I heard you found work in Tokyo. In the gay district?"

"Trans characters are all the rage right now. Become a celeb and climb the ladder of fame."

People call out to him even as he walks to the opposite platform. Usually, in times like this, he would respond in overreactions, flirting and blowing kisses. They were his shield of armor, necessary for protecting himself while he lived here. But now—

"Everyone, listen." Niko stops and turns back.

Everyone looks at him, their faces filled with expectation.

"Thank you all for being friends with "Nicole" until now." He uses his regular-pitched speaking voice, without any trace of feminine speech.

The crowd falls silent.

Niko unties the red ribbon from his hair and hands it to a female underclassman nearby. "You can have it."

Still in shock, the girl just blinks blankly.

"It suits you more than me." When he smiles with his real smile, the girl blushes.

"Bye everyone. Take care."

Niko waves a hand at the dumbfounded crowd and heads towards the opposite platform.

The single, inconvenient train line with only one train carriage every hour. It pulls up at the station perfectly on time today. In the bare carriage, there's only one other old lady sitting in a seat nearby.

Despite the abundance of empty seats, Niko stands next to the door and watches the scenery outside the window pass by.

For the very last time, the train arrives exactly on time.

He's finally graduating from Nicole, the role that kept him afloat since his second year of middle school.

There's no need to lie to himself anymore.

He doesn't need to buy cute hair ties anymore.

His Tokyo dream starts in April.

He'll work in a creative and stylish workplace, meet a handsome guy in a gay neighborhood, then fall in love. Unlike the countryside where gays are treated as criminals, he'll have so much fun.

His future is full of hope. He's looking forward to it so much.

Yet even as he thinks this, the corners of his vision start blurring.

Because in the end, he wasn't able to convey his feelings.

Will he really able to start afresh while burdened by such regrets?

He had wanted to spit out all his feelings to reset everything. But life doesn't work like a game does, pushing him to move forward under the weight of his hopes and regrets. It's a little scary. But there's no way but forward.

The scenery flowing outside the window is illuminated by the cool and clear March light.