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Dear Goemon-san

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“I wanna see you soon, Tachibana-san!” Fujimoto Takatora looked nothing like his fear-striking alias on the battlefield at the moment. Tears and snot mixed freely on his face as The Assault Destroyer clasped the small, calloused hands of Tachibana Hotaru. He was unmindful of the airport crowd that streamed past them, some doing double-takes at the scene he was making. “B-But I know I can’t wish that. You’ll only come home if Papa-san doesn’t get better so… so…”

The petite sixteen-year-old offered him a warm smile in return. “No matter how long it takes, we will meet each other again… and duel!”

“You’re overreacting, idiot.” Tossing her dark hair in boredom, Ichi Akabane looked unimpressed as usual. “You can just message her online or something. In fact, you can even do it in half a day or so.”

“B-But…”

Tachibana nodded gratefully as she pressed a few keys on her mobile phone. “Absolutely! Here, let’s all exchange numbers and Twitter handles—”

“Nope,” the raven-haired woman was quick to retreat from the group, her ponytail bobbing along. “Any act of friendship grosses me out.”

“Sorry, Tachibana-san!” The towering white-haired doctor pressed his hands together in apology. “I have her info if you want. I’m just not sure if it’s updated though because she always changes her account details whenever she learns that I peeked through the personnel records for them.”

“A-Ah, no, it’s okay!” She beamed as she watched the nurse’s diminutive figure disappear into the crowd. “Tachibana is really glad that she came to see me off, though.”

Her phone’s Bluetooth notification beeped.

“That’s mine.” Hosokawa Haruka informed her somberly, glancing up from his own device. “And that’s my Nii-san’s,” he added when another beep sounded. “And that’s his vital statistics. And his likes and dislikes. And his candid photos from my private offline collection,” he identified as a series of beeps rapidly sounded off. “Make sure to remember Nii-san with all that— he will be very happy if he knows you won’t forget him.”

A sweatdrop formed on her head. “Y-You know, Haruka-san, Tachibana wouldn’t have forgotten Haruki-san even if you didn’t go through the trouble of sending all these. He is, after all…” She beamed at him. “… an important comrade of mine.”

To her puzzlement, the male’s brows furrowed in a displeased fashion. “A comrade? Just a comrade? Are you sure you can’t see him as anything else?”

“E-Eh?”

“Maybe I should send you some more provocative pictures of him to make sure…”

“Now, now, Haruka.” A grinning figure emerged from the back to tap the man’s shoulder. “Stop pimping your elder brother and leave him with some amount of dignity after this.”

“Midori-san!” Hotaru raised a palm to greet him. “Thank you for seeing Tachibana off as well.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He grinned at her fondly as he handed her a gift-wrapped box. “Our farewell gift.”

“T-Thank you.” Her eyebrow cocked up suspiciously. “This wouldn’t happen to be something that’ll set off the TSA alarm when Tachibana gets to America, right?”

“You are wary of me. Good girl,” he nodded approvingly at her. “But no, I’m afraid it’s just a little token of gratitude from Hoshihiro— ah, you’re unwrapping it already right in front of your gift-givers! Your eagerness warms my heart like so, young lady.”

“If Tachibana will be caught by the airport cops, Tachibana wants to know as early as now how she can explain it to Mother— oh!” Her verdant eyes shook when she saw the familiar white naval hat that everyone in the Team Hoshihiro wore during TCG battles.

“We all think the world of you, Tachibana-san,” explained Fujimoto as the girl ran her fingers appreciatively over the peaked cap fabric. “And we would have gladly stolen you away from your team if only you were less attached to them.”

“But then again, that almost-naive loyalty of yours is what makes the person you are now,” added Haruka quietly.

“And we’ll always think of you as our honorary member, the best one we never had.” With the trademark gentleness of his ward’s most beloved pediatrician, Midori placed the cap carefully on her crown. “Safe travels, Tachibana-kun. We wish your father a speedy recovery.”

She blinked, then grinned warmly at everyone. “Thank you, Hoshihiro!”

“Oh, by the way…” Midori stepped closer to her and crouched down till his lips aligned with her right ear. “Won’t you be asking for my contact details, Tachibana-kun?”

“H-Huh?” Her hand shot up to cover her ear protectively.

“If you don’t write to me, I’ll get a bit lonely,” he continued huskily, enjoying her reaction to his ministrations.

Her sigh of exasperation rang out clearly. “You don’t even know how to text, Midori-san.”

Touche. “Oh well, I’ll have to settle for this then.” And before she could react, he pulled the brim of her cap down until it covered the entire half of her face.

Then with the smooth soundless movement minimally expected of an airsoft elite, he bent down and planted a light kiss on the visor, just right above the small tip of her nose.

“W-What, what?” Hearing the collective gasps around her, Hotaru pulled up the cap from her eyes in panic, but only saw the doctor’s grinning face. To her embarrassment, she felt heat rush to her cheeks. “W-What did you guys do now? Midori-san?”

Instead of responding, he gave her a slight nudge towards the gates. “You’ll be late for your flight.”

“F-Fujimoto-san!” Hotaru shifted her eyes towards her biggest ally among the group. The latter still seemed surprised, but he had recovered enough to nod at her reassuringly.

“Tricking Tachibana even till the very last moment. Really, you guys.” She offered them a final wave before heading for the concourse.

“You’re declaring a war against me and Nii-san, huh,” muttered Haruka, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

Midori let out a laugh. “What a hot-tempered otouto! This old man was merely giving his favorite protégé a proper send-off.”

“You’re the reason predators in the society continue to exist. Scum.”’

“It’s been awhile since I’ve last felt this truly despised outside the battlefield. Good times.”

Meanwhile, Fujimoto sadly glanced back at the crowd where he was sure Ichi was, certainly watching like a silent hawk. You definitely saw it, too, didn’t you, Ichi?

It was the briefest of moments, but he swore he saw it sometime before that farewell prank kiss.

Reluctance.

It was an alien notion to think of in terms of the Midori-san he knew who had painstakingly maintained the barrier between utility and attachment in all of his relationships for years. He was someone who could let go even of a soul he had once saved from darkness.

That you made him feel that way even for a moment… The kind-hearted doctor shook his head in awe. You’re even more amazing than I thought, Tachibana-san.

“Look, Papa! The statue’s so big!” A young girl in pigtails eagerly pointed to the postcard stuck on the corkboard. “Is it Kami-sama?”

“Young lady, that is the Statue of Liberty in America.” Somewhere in the middle of looking at the travel postcards Midori Nagamasa had conveniently placed across his desk, the child barely noticed the vaccine injection that he had quietly made. He didn’t even have to summon Fujimon to take on his usual role and distract his little patient.

“Why do you have Liberty-san’s picture, Sensei?” asked the girl, eyes widening in curiosity.

He glanced up quickly at her to smile before resuming his scribbles on his doctor’s pad. “My friend sent it to me. She lives there right now.”

“Do you miss her?”

Before he could respond, the child’s father guffawed. “Of course not, Baby! Sensei has many pretty nurses and mommy friends who come to his office! Ne, Sensei?” He winked at him conspiratorially, as if they were close buddies.

Garbage.

He paused from writing long enough to smile brightly at him. “Indeed. Let’s especially not forget your lovely wife who visits me from time to time, begging me desperately for a Sildenafil prescription.”

It was then that Ichi, with her too conveniently impeccable timing, entered the room with an airmail envelope.

“Sensei, a letter came in for you.” She eyed the colorful postcards littering the board in quiet disdain before meeting his gaze.

“Thank you, Ichi. You can place it on my desk.”

“Yes, Midori-sensei.” She immediately did as told.

“Do I still have patients waiting outside?”

“None. Your next appointment is after lunch.”

“Perfect.” He smiled pleasantly at her. “I will be taking my lunch break.”

Whether conversing with the nurses or taunting a target in a no-freeze arena, Ichi knew that the good doctor wore basically the same genial expression on his face. She wouldn’t have felt offended at such fact if only her devoted attention to him did not reveal a grand exception to this rule— and that was his young penpal from America. The fondness he had solely for her was undeniable.

“Please excuse me.” She bowed at him and his patients before heading to the door. She’s been away for a year, but he hasn’t lost his interest in her yet. With much more force than usual, she flipped the “The Doctor is In” sign on the door and reveled in its surprising loud thud.

What sorcery does she hold over him, really?

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Dear Goemon-san…

 

Nearly all her letters started in a similar fashion, save for her very first mail. He could still vividly recall his pleasant surprise when Fujimon handed him the postcard of the NYC skyscape a month after Tachibana Hotaru had left the country.

Granted that it bore merely a generic stream of pleasantries, he was glad that she still chose to indulge an old fogey like him and wrote to him after all.

So as his way of expressing his gratitude, he wrote her back using the return address of her dormitory, along with a little care package.

Her reply came in sooner than expected, delivered to him by his trusty Fujimon. And this time, instead of a polite “Dear Midori-san”, what he got was this:

 

Dear Goemon-san,

Thank you for your package. However, a female student has no use for a wall calendar of half-naked AV idols who can’t hold guns properly to save their lives. Tachibana has promptly shredded it and tossed it in with this week’s trash.

Hope you and Team Hoshihiro are well.

Signed,

Tachibana

 

He had spent that afternoon in a strangely good mood that even his patients had taken notice of it. That very evening, he wrote her back.

 

Dear Tachibana-kun,

I am relieved to hear that you still recall the proper gun grip. I also agree with your assessments and have forwarded your concern to the entertainment group handling these irresponsible campaign models. As a medical professional working in the pediatrics field, I agree that the children of Japan deserve better gun education than this.

Do you still get an opportunity to play survival games there? It pains me to imagine a bunch of unworthy creatures of mediocrity becoming on the receiving end of your glorious bloodlust.

My team is doing well. We have won a million yen for the nth time, so I have elected to fill my bed with bills that I can roll around on when I am feeling rather uninspired. It would have filled the hole in my heart if only I’ve been bestowed with one in the first place.

Hope you are adjusting well to your new life in the States.

Signed,

Your Fellow Advocate for the Proper Demonstration of Gun Holding Among Sexy Idols

P.S.

Why am I suddenly christened Goemon-san?

 

It didn’t take a month to hear back from her again. Turning over the postcard showing the landmark 19th-century Brooklyn Bridge, he read her hastily scribbled note.

 

Dear Goemon-san,

Thank you for enlightening Tachibana as to why an invitation from an entertainment group to watch the next year’s shoot of their “Guns x Babes 2018 Artbook Collection” came in the mail.

Tachibana must also confess to asking Matsuoka-san about your home address so Tachibana can provide that information instead for their “Guns x Boys 2017” calendar + artbook bundle offer.

Between spending time with Dad, a part-time job, and schooling, Tachibana is hardly able to find time to play survival games. Tachibana does watch war game clips online during the commute, and that helped tide things over for the time being. Nonetheless, thank you for asking.

Signed,

Tachibana

P.S. Tachibana talked to Fujimoto-san about it, and he agreed that it is best to minimize references to you as much as possible.

 

That gave him an idea as to why she did it, which was confirmed by Fujimon when he asked the next afternoon.

“She has to use an alias so the hospital staff won’t gossip about a fully adult physician exchanging non-academic notes with a high school student overseas… or so Tachibana-san says.”

A child twelve years his junior knew more than him regarding the conventional boundaries he was expected to set. But more importantly, he appreciated that she, with her naive blazing sense of justice, resorted to this silly act in kind consideration of his request that she write him, too.

That night, he wrote her back.

 

Dear Tachibana-kun,

I look forward to receiving that literature you so thoughtfully ordered for me. I can’t wait to peruse through them and see how well they can challenge my current limits of taste and preferences. You alone can be so considerate to such extent of my circumstances— whether it be this or everything else.

Thank you. I am honored to accept the name of the gun you first bought (under my auspice, of course. I have excellent taste, don’t you think?)

I have enclosed videotapes of my Matsune and his friends playing in the outdoor field. I can send you more if you want— I have an enviable network I can tap on anytime to do my bidding.

Signed,

A Future Fan of the Guns x Boys Franchise

 

A week after he received the artbook and wall calendar, he heard back from his benefactress.

At the back of a lit-up New York City nightscape postcard, she had written:

 

Dear Goemon-san,

Please don’t send Tachibana any more photos or videos of everyone back home. It’s difficult as it is. Tachibana will only miss everyone more.

Signed,

Tachibana

 

Despite himself, he felt anxious at the almost-curt length of the message. Excusing himself from the rest of his shift, he hurried to the postal office the same day to send a priority mail to her.

 

Dear Tachibana-kun,

When not on the battlefield, I endeavor to go against the little, excited voice in my head and refrain from causing anyone pain. If I caused you such with my previous mail, you have my utmost apology. I went too far with that one, I believe.

Write me back?

Signed,

Your Foolish Old Man Penpal from Japan

 

He quietly waited with bated breath for her response. It came in two weeks after, via a postcard showing a beautiful fountain and statue amidst the greenery. However, it was inside a bigger envelope, which had a slightly longer letter with it.

 

Dear Goemon-san,

This is the Angel of the Waters. It is situated in the Bethesda Terrace in the Central Park. A city guide said that an angel was said to have blessed the water and healed the sick, like it did for the cholera-stricken city many centuries ago.

Tachibana learned that Bethsheda’s word origin can either mean a place of shame or a place of grace. It reminds Tachibana of you. You are both an angel of healing in the hospital and an angel of shaming in the battlefield. Tachibana accepts both faces because they both belong to a good friend. If you go over the line at either end, Tachibana will fight to bring you back.

What Tachibana is trying to say is… thank you, apology accepted, and Tachibana looks forward to receiving a new mail from Goemon-san.

Signed,

Tachibana

 

Only then could he let out a huge sigh of relief. For what, he did not endeavor to determine. All that mattered to him was that their flimsy connection— whatever it was— had not been severed.

He went on to pen his response, in what inevitably would be one of the many more letters they would exchange over the year and the months beyond.

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Nagamasa Midori deftly opened the US-postmarked envelope with a paper knife. To his surprise, inch photo slipped down the table. It was a photo of Tachibana Hotaru together with a couple that he assumed to be her parents due to the unmistakable resemblance.

Ah, so this is how the young lady would look like had she been blessed with more calm and finesse. 

Despite the bony, devastated tautness the advanced stage of his disease brought to him, the Tachibana patriarch’s inner peace blossomed through. He knew first-hand the therapeutic impact having one’s family close among even the illest of his patients.

The mother, on the other hand, was a rock of stability and principled righteousness. He had no question anymore as to where Tachibana-kun derived her convictions from.

And speaking of Tachibana…

She had grown out her hair, huh? Wild tufts of light golden tresses escaped from her slipshod attempt at a low ponytail, but he found them all endearingly true to the young lady’s quirky personality. The months had also lent a touch of curves on all the right places, and he mused that the next time she competed in the TGC, she wouldn’t get away with her disguise as easily as she could before.

After spending a few more moments appreciating the photo, he reluctantly let go of it to read the accompanying note.

 

Dear Goemon-san,

Tachibana is not a fan of taking pictures, but since Mama and Papa insisted on one, things ended up with you holding one of the copies Tachibana made.

Papa is having trouble sleeping lately and he has lost a lot of weight. But Tachibana knows Papa is fighting to stay here with us. As a physician, if there’s any other advice you can share to make sure Tachibana cares for Papa well, please let Tachibana know.

Signed,

Tachibana

P.S. Tachibana will get you a proper postcard the next time she goes sightseeing in the city. Tachibana really misses Japan.

 

The doctor picked up the photo once more, gazing thoughtfully at it. Then carefully he picked it up and tucked it in his wallet, along with a few choice possessions he had that held great value to him.

He then exited the clinic and headed for the nearby tourist shop.

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Dear Tachibana-kun,

Your father has done very well. But things will only become more difficult from this point on. Just stay by his side. No matter how scary or bleak things can be, don’t waver your eyes away from his…

 

Tachibana Hotaru sank on the grass-carpeted ground that enveloped the cemetery, sobbing and unable to continue reading the postcard anymore. Her mother had left right after handing her a priority mail from Japan.

Even without looking, she knew her mother’s face bore the stony impassiveness concealing the grief in the widow’s heart. The woman responded to the death of her childhood love with a steely determination to be their daughter’s rock no matter what it takes.

It took a few minutes before the insistent sound of her ringing phone registered in her ears. Taking a few shaky breaths, she struggled to calm herself as she answered the call. “T-Tachibana here.”

“Tachibana-kun?”

A wave of surprise shook her to the core. Rubbing her eyes quickly, she called out, “M-Midori-san?”

She heard him pause uncertainly, and then, “My postcard didn’t make it in time, I suppose?”

“T-The postcard is beautiful,” she replied, a tad too quickly. Then with a defeated sigh, she continued, “P-Papa would have loved it.”

“I’m sorry, Tachibana-kun.”

The uncharacteristic concern in his voice choked her up. “T-Thank you. He passed away three nights ago.”

“I see. It must have been hard.”

She shut her eyes tight, involuntarily recalling her father, who was in pain all day and night but was blessed to go when he was peacefully asleep. “Tachibana… Tachibana didn’t waver from him… ”

His silence told her to go on. So she did.

“It was frightening every time Tachibana thinks that Papa is surrounded by all these medicines and doctors but no one can do a thing for him… it was frightening to feel so helpless for the first time in life,” Heartbroken sobs threatened to snatch her voice away but she soldiered on. “T-Tachibana… Tachibana did her best to not look away…”

“Good girl.” His voice was silky smooth and soothing. Peculiarly, there was a complete absence of the usual mockery in his tone.“You did well, Tachibana-kun.” No words felt like a better balm to her broken soul than hearing his words of quiet support and pride.

She wiped her tear-streaked cheeks with the back of her palm. “Tachibana and Midori-san had the same idea in the end, huh?”

“Loss is a universal human experience,” he replied solemnly. “But it makes me happy that you think that way, Tachibana-kun.”

“Thank you for calling, Midori-san.” Only then did she recall to check her screen. “Is this a long-distance phone call?”

“I had Matsune share your phone number,” he explained swiftly. “Looking at your father in the photo you sent, I felt I had to get in touch with you sooner.”

“M-Matsuoka-san gave it to you?” She was aware of how her teammates and friends at Toy Gun-Gun can become extremely protective of her.

“Yes, but his four-eyed buddy made sure to threaten the very fabric of my existence before giving in. Needless to say, I was thrilled beyond words.”

“No doubt you were, Midori-san.” She clasped the phone close to her ears, suddenly recalling how the doctor had spoken to her that day at the airport. “You should go. It must be late at night where you are right now. Plus, calls like this can get expensive.”

“Don’t look down on a grown-up’s finances, young lady.”

She managed a small chuckle at his playfully cocky reprimand. “Well, maybe a one-time overcharge on the phone bill should be fine, even for an adult who spends a fortune on his toy guns.”

“Ah.”

Her forehead creased at the odd sound she heard from the other end of the line. “Midori-san?”

“I was thinking… if you’re still seeking revenge against me on your friends’ behalf, the best way is to attack my wallet.”

“H-Huh?”

He spoke hurriedly— which was quite unusual for the calm, easy going king of the survival game scene in Japan. “What I meant is… you can keep accepting these expensive international long distance calls from me so I will be left with little budget to live on.”

She scratched her cheek. “Midori-san, as you once told Tachibana in your clinic, people must separate their lives on the battlefield and in real life. Tachibana does not wish anything else for Midori-san anymore except for him to be well always.”

To her surprise, he let out a sigh of resignation. “You’re one tough customer, you know that, Tachibana-kun?”

“I-I don’t understand…” She must have been utterly confused that she inadvertently slipped out of referencing herself from an outsider’s perspective.

“Well, I don’t mind. The prize is worth the chase.” His tone sounded final as he spoke, as if he himself had realized something and had come to peace with that epiphany. “Get some rest, Tachibana-kun. Your father will want you and your mother to be well, at any cost.”

“Thank you, Midori-san.”

“I’ll call you again.”

For some reason she couldn’t fathom, his earnest-sounding promise made her heart skip a beat. “Suit yourself. But if you do, you should hook up with a phone subscription so you can get discounts.”

He let out a hearty laugh. “This is the first time that I’ve spoken with a woman who ended the calls with budget tips instead of erotic plans for the evening.”

“Well, Tachibana cannot be compared to women like them because you see all of us differently.”

“Indeed,” he agreed smilingly. “My lady is incomparable to anyone else.”

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“It has been two years, huh, Midori-sensei?”

“Hmm?” Nagamasa Midori carefully dabbed the corners of his mouth with a lunch napkin and offered his attention to his trusted nurse and combat sniper, Akabane Ichi. Beside her, Takatora Fujimoto and Hosokawa Haruka paused from their respective meals and turned to her as well.

“Since that girl left.”

He smiled pleasantly. “Ara, has it been that long?”

“You had to buy a bigger board to accommodate all those postcards,” chimed in Haruka.

“You’ve racked up quite the bill monthly on Skype and online airsoft equipment deliveries,” added Fujimon, bless his helpful little heart. He made a silent note to deal with his subordinate’s talkativeness later on.

“Interesting,” remarked his nurse. “You haven’t participated in the TGC for the past two years.”

He shrugged. “What can I say? After competing against Tachibana-kun, pretty much no other player can excite me enough to play.”

Ichi sighed. “If she’s your yardstick, then I’d say you’ll have to hang up the laces of your training shoes. No one else will come close to beating her in your scale.”

“I suppose.” His phone rang, mercifully saving him from his team’s pointed interrogation. One look at his phone screen and a genuinely fond smile broke on his face. “Excuse me.” He hurriedly got up the table.

The trio watched their departing leader with looks of wonder and exasperation.

“It’s her.” Haruka bit on his muffin soundlessly, venting his ire on the pastry. “That disgusting expression on his face says it all.”

“He’s always had a soft spot for Tachibana-san,” gushed Fujimoto, a happy nostalgic tone in his voice. “From the start, I’ve seen how hard he subconsciously tried to show her his gentle side. Usually, he wouldn’t have been moved to do that for anyone. But she has always been different from the rest of us.”

I know that. Ichi glumly chewed on her sandwich. The only person to draw out a tapestry of emotions that otherwise she wouldn’t have known had existed in him— it couldn’t be anyone but her. And despite herself, she couldn’t deny her gratitude to Tachibana Hotaru for bringing out that beautiful side of the man she had loved one-sidedly for so long.

“Cheer up, Ichi!” The ash-haired doctor beamed at her sympathetically. “Yukimura-san says you have ample assets that men and women can easily fall in love with— AAARGH! GRAAAAAK! HARUKA-SAN HELPPPP!”

Haruka carefully slid away from the brutal slaughter happening beside him. He was too busy finding a suitable match for his brother in the dating app to bother himself with trivial matters such as the life and death situation of a co-worker.

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“Tachibana is so sorry for disturbing you at work, Midori-san. Were you with a patient?” asked Tachibana Hotaru nervously as she leaned back against her bed’s headboard. Behind her, the neon lights twinkled sharply against the velvety darkness of the midnight.

“Not at all. I was having a meal over a little inquisition.” He leaned back against the endlessly white hallway outside the lunchroom.

“An inquisition, huh? About what?”

“About a topic I hold dear.”

“Torture?”

He let out a loud entertained laughter. “Heavens, have I made quite an impression on you, huh?” Still chuckling, he asked, “So to whom do I owe this honor of being called on by my lady?” She found that he had long stopped calling her ‘young lady’, perhaps in recognition of the fact that time does move even for the likes of her.

“Tachibana… uhm, Tachibana has just been informed by the school that she’s graduating with honors so… well, Tachibana wanted you to be among the first to know.” She clasped the phone closer to her ear, wondering if she was acting too conceited, calling an accomplished physician like him in the middle of the day to brag about her school feats. She imagined the corners of his mouth twisting sadistically as he mouthed off a few choice shades on her. She only knew too well how capable he was of that.

But to her utter relief, he sounded nothing else but genuinely delighted. “Congratulations, sweetheart! That is excellent news!”

She silently castigated herself for getting beside herself upon hearing his word of endearment. “T-Thank you, Midori-san. After graduation, Tachibana plans to visit Japan for a month in order to prepare to go to a university there. Mama has reclaimed our old home from our relatives, so it should be okay.”

“Ah, so you’re coming home. Finally.”

The words sounded so sweet coming from a man she least expected them to come from. “Y-Yes. We can finally test all that airsoft equipment you’ve been dumping at our house.”

“As a matter of fact, they are yours, my lady.”

Her hackles rose. “NO WAY! Tachibana refuses to accept them unless you let her win it by gun testing just like before!”

“Fine, fine.” He sounded like a doting father indulging his favorite princess. At that thought, a feeling of disappointment surged through her. But just as quickly, she shook her head vehemently, as if clearing away these unreasonable feelings.

“B-Besides, d-does Midori-san…” She gulped inwardly, wondering if she had the guts to continue her question.

“Hmm?” He sounded lighthearted, and she could almost imagine him grinning innocently before him as his brain cooked up a dozen ways to skin her alive. “I’ve just been through an interrogation, so one more question from my lady will not bother me terribly.”

Er, good? She bit her lower lip. “Does Midori-san… treat all his female friends this way?”

“Ahh,” she heard him say, and she could practically see a light bulb popping over the man’s head. “You sound interested, Tachibana-kun!” he drawled in a honeyed tone, making her blush from the roots of her hair to the tip of her toes.

“M-Midori-san!” Her face felt positively hot at that moment. “T-Tachibana just doesn’t want you to be misunderstood by other girls. Y-You can be someone’s friend without spending an inordinate amount of money!”

“So friends don’t spend money on their friends?”

She clutched her phone tightly. “O-Of course!”

“So if I’m spending money on you, what does that make you then?”

She felt her heart pound. “Uhm… s-someone taking advantage of you?”

To her surprise, he let out a now familiar resigned sigh.

“I-Is Tachibana wrong?” she asked nervously.

“No, my lady. Like many others, you have won me over with your noble sense of justice. Or at least mellowed me to some point.” He let out a low, husky chuckle. It sent excited shivers throughout her body, especially with the phone pressed so close to her ear. “I guess I’ll just have to keep on trying until you finally understand.”

“U-Understand what?”

“In any case, I will see you soon, my Tachibana-kun,” he promised meaningfully.

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Tachibana Hotaru did not expect him to keep his promise so soon.

Standing some distance away from the graduation venue was Midori Nagamasa himself, donning a dark coat over a pair of equally dark trousers and a maroon dress shirt. He was holding a bouquet of assorted carnations.

Beside her, she felt her mother stiffen. Tachibana Kane had not been introduced to this older, bespectacled man yet. Her motherly instinct told her though that this man’s presence was not good news for her.

“Good evening, Tachibana-kun, Tachibana-san.” The male bowed politely before them before offering the flowers to the younger woman. “Congratulations to the graduate.”

Despite her bewilderment, she went ahead and took the flowers from his waiting hands. “T-Thank you, Midori-san. But why are you here?”

“I promised I’ll meet you soon, did I not?” He flashed her a grin innocently.

“B-But…”

He bowed once more to the matriarch. “My name is Midori Nagamasa. Your daughter and I have played together in the TGC a few years ago.”

The woman eyed him suspiciously— one of the rare times that a woman did not immediately become smitten with him. Truly, the Tachibana women are most formidable beings, he thought with a grin. According to Matsune and his buddies, Tachibana Kane’s sadistic tendencies matched his point-for-point.

“So you live in Japan,” the woman said slowly, gauging his worth all the while. “But you are here in New York because you are interested in my daughter, is that right?”

He pushed the bridge of his glasses back up his nose. “That is accurate, Tachibana-san.”

The younger Tachibana exhaled sharply, not expecting his words.

Kane, on the other hand, scowled in utter displeasure. “And how old are you? Twenty-five? Twenty-seven?”

“I’ve turned thirty this month, Tachibana-san.”

Both women’s eyes widened at how deceitful a handsome man’s appearance could be.

“My daughter has just turned eighteen,” she hissed, recovering from shock. “Do you intend to take away her future because of your selfish desire—”

“M-Mama!” Hotaru stepped forward between the two. “M-Midori-san likes to kid around, d-don’t you, Midori-san?” She grinned forcibly at him, begging for his cooperation.

He smiled brightly back at her. “I was Tachibana-kun’s first kiss. It happened in a—”

“GRAH! She slapped her bouquet-holding hands over his mouth to stop him, but felt herself do a double take when she realized that after two long years, he was finally right in front of her— in the flesh. And she was touching his skin once more.

In response, the man clasped both her hands and planted a gentle kiss on her fingers. The momentary contact nearly set her whole body on fire.

M-Midori-san! To do this in front of my mother… From the corner of her eye, she stealthily glanced at her mother and braced herself for the latter’s reaction.

Watching them warily. Kane stepped back with a shrug. "From the looks of it, 30-year-old-san, my daughter seems to be quite taken with you, too.” She started to walk away, waving a hand. “I have reservations in the nearby restaurant at 8. I’ll see you both there.”

“Thank you, Mama!” It was the doctor who spoke with utmost cheerfulness.

“Midori-san!” She forcefully snatched back her hands away from his. “Seriously! There should be a limit to your pranks, you know!” she cried as she lowered her heels to the ground. Yet despite her high heels, the man was still impossibly taller than her. Even with the gap of two years, she had a long way to go before she could catch up with this nettlesome man. “Mama might misunderstand.”

“So your mother is faster on the uptake than you?” he asked softly, caressing her cheek with his hand. It was not the first time he had done it, but it was the first time that this gesture had caused her heartbeat to race this abnormally fast.

“You… you can’t expect Tachibana to believe that you… you…” She struggled to piece together her thoughts as his face slowly lowered towards hers.

“Yes, sweetheart?” he murmured, his breath fanning her face. She could see the tiniest teasing twitch on the corner of his mouth.

“… you like me?” she managed to ask before their lips could touch. She unwittingly shut her eyes tight, not daring to look at his expression should he announce that it was all a joke she gamely played along with.

Instead, she felt a momentary silky whisper in her ear.

The voice of the man who handpicked her H&K G3SAS High Cycle after becoming the first one to figure out who she was.

The man who mentored her unconventionally through a mix of harshness in the battlefield and gentleness in real life.

The man who praised her for giving her partner weapon a cool name.

The man who received her first kiss.

The man she drew strength from as she tried to come out to her friends one more time.

The man who Fujimon said collected all her postcards and lit up whenever they came in the mail.

His voice spoke to her softly. Sincerely.

“Like you? I am in love with you, Tachibana Hotaru.”

Her eyelids fluttered open in surprise, but they closed just as quickly because he was done with speaking. His mouth finally, hungrily claimed hers in sweet longing and desire.

.

.

.

Matsuoka Masamune threw his phone down on the couch in disgust. “Ugh. The moment Midori-san first learns how to send a chat message, he sends THIS.” He was referring to the photo of the doctor giddily embracing their blushing little Hotaru who was garbed in her graduation gown.

He turned to his bespectacled best friend peering down at his phone with an equally dark expression. “He sent you the same thing, didn’t he, Yukki?” 

“Yep.” The erotic manga author inspected the chat window. “Us and all his four hundred contacts including the hospital staff, his patients, and everyone in the TGC.”

Masamune crossed his arms over his chest. “You think he made a noob mistake? He had never learned to use apps till now.”

“Nah. That guy’s definitely rubbing it to our faces. That bastard.”

THE END