THE FIRST thing he saw when he awoke was Shinjirō’s beautiful face hovering over him.
Michael gazed into the daimyō’s dark eyes, which crinkled at the edges with a smile. A few tendrils of Shinjirō’s long black hair fell into his face, sweeping across his cheek as he lay naked beneath the silk cover on the futon.
“Ohayō, Shinjirō-sama.” He smiled up at his lover.
The hot late-summer days in the Kaminishi Han west of Kyoto made Michael sleepy, so after his gardening work with Kanosuke in the mornings, he would return to Shinjirō’s room and take a nap.
The best thing was that sometimes Shinjirō would join him there.
He reached up and touched Shinjirō’s face, the skin warm and soft against his fingers. Shinjirō was ten years older than Michael, but his face was like pale smooth porcelain.
Shinjirō leaned down and kissed him. The warm, wet sensations of his tongue and lips invaded Michael’s mouth, the taste of him intoxicating. Michael’s body rose to meet his.
A gentle breeze drifted in from the courtyard, bringing a scent of bamboo and grass. Michael’s hands roamed over Shinjirō’s back, slipping over the silk kimono, relishing the muscles underneath.
Shinjirō gave a wicked smile, and Michael felt the cover being swept aside. He lay naked before Shinjirō. The sliding door to the courtyard was wide open.
He tried to pull the cover back up, but Shinjirō stopped him, laughing.
A woman’s voice sounded from the hallway. The door slid open, and the elderly woman entered, bringing in a tray.
Michael blushed and glared at Shinjirō, who barely hid his laughter. The woman didn’t look in their direction but merely arranged the teapot and cups and small plates of food on the tray before backing out, still on her knees, to the hallway.
The door slid shut.
He scowled at Shinjirō again before getting up to retrieve the tray, feeling the daimyō’s hot gaze on his naked form.
He returned to the futon, and as he set the tray down, a hand gently lifted his chin and he looked into the daimyō’s amused face. “You are a beautiful man,” Shinjirō said. “There is no need to hide yourself.”
His tone was gentle, and Michael was ashamed at his reaction.
Shinjirō chuckled, leaning forward and kissing him.
“Please,” Michael said, handing him his cup.
He lifted one of the small round manjū—pounded rice with sweetened red bean paste inside—to the daimyō’s lips. Shinjirō, amused at being fed, bit into it.
“Shinjirō-sama, I would like to cook for you sometime,” Michael said suddenly.
The daimyō glanced at him, surprised. “You wish to cook for me?” It was one of the few times Michael had seen a raised eyebrow from him.
“Yes. Dinner. Would you like that?”
He expected Shinjirō to laugh, but the daimyō’s mouth quirked instead. Michael knew what that meant. I’d like to see that.
“Then I’ll do it.” He put the half-eaten sweet manjū into his own mouth, and Shinjirō laughed.
“I’ll look forward to it.”
Michael was eager to get to the garden the next morning. Kanosuke looked up and commented in his mild voice that he was quite early.
The kabocha pumpkins still weren’t ready, but there were cabbage and negi green onions and daikon radishes. Michael had cooked occasionally while at Berkeley, though nothing fancy, and he liked to try new combinations of fresh ingredients, particularly vegetables.
He checked the leaves on the plants for insects and shored up tilting plants, moving his hands in the dirt. The morning sun was warm on his back.
Kanosuke knelt next to him. He picked a long cucumber from a climbing vine and dipped it in a bucket of water before wiping it off on his sleeve. Then he snapped it in half.
He handed Michael one of the halves. “Please,” he said, then took a small bite of his own half.
Michael bit into the crunchy green vegetable, the juice trickling down his chin. The flesh was almost sweet.
He loved the smells of the garden. The vegetables and the soil, the fresh air—it was like being released from prison. He had been held captive, after all, in a cell in the castle’s lowest level before Shinjirō took him into his bed.
“Kanosuke-san, I want to cook for Shinjirō-sama.”
The gardener stared at him, and then his face broke into a smile. “I see. Would this be for a special occasion or…?”
“Just dinner, tomorrow evening. But I’ve never seen the kitchen here.” He glanced hopefully at Kanosuke.
Kanosuke grinned. “I think I can help you with that.”
KANOSUKE SHOOED the servants out of the kitchen, then gestured for Michael to enter.
The first thing Michael noticed was the long stone structure along the wall, like an old-fashioned wood-fire oven. The oven had three large openings near the floor. Inside he could see charred wood.
On top were three smaller holes. Two were covered by wooden lids, and an iron pot with handles sat on top of the third hole.
Michael understood the setup. Wood was burned inside the oven, and pots and pans were placed on top of the holes. The stone surface was meticulously clean. It was a simple and completely efficient arrangement.
There was a wooden table for food preparation against the wall. A box of knives and other kitchen implements sat on the table.
It was perfect. “Tomorrow night,” Michael told Kanosuke.
Later that day, as twilight turned to evening, he sat in the garden next to the stream. The stream Shinjirō’s father had diverted into the courtyard flowed gently over rocks and through a garden. It wasn’t just a beautiful feature, but a water source in case of drought or siege.
He drifted his fingers in the cool water, marveling at how functionality and aesthetics always seemed to go together in Japanese life.
A hand joined his in the stream.
Michael turned his face, only to have it captured by a kiss. The daimyō’s hand held him in place so his mouth could be plundered. “Mmph,” he said, breaking the mood.
Shinjirō laughed. “Come,” he said, bringing Michael to his feet.
The room was lit by a single lantern. The flower pattern on the paper shade cast flickering shadows on the walls.
Shinjirō gently pushed him down onto the futon. “You have been in my thoughts all day, Maikoru,” he said. His warm scent and overwhelming presence made Michael still beneath him, as an animal does when caught by something powerful.
He gazed up at the daimyō, enraptured.
He’d never wanted to hold on to anything harder in his life. Shinjirō and living at the castle—everything was perfect. If nothing changed, Michael would live and die a happy man. “Shinjirō-sama,” he said.
Michael reached a hand up to Shinjirō’s face.
The daimyō captured his mouth in a deep kiss and lowered himself to rest on Michael. The contact made Michael’s body come alive. He opened his legs and hooked his ankles behind Shinjirō’s legs to increase the pressure where their groins met.
Michael raised his hips and Shinjirō grunted his pleasure. “You are wicked,” Shinjirō said, and Michael laughed softly.
He took Michael’s hands and held them down on the futon on either side of his head. Their intertwined fingers felt good. Michael squeezed, and Shinjirō squeezed back, a faint smile gracing his perfect face.
The daimyō dipped his head and nipped at his earlobe, making Michael yelp. Shinjirō immediately tongued the reddened area, then behind his ear.
Michael’s cock hardened. He squirmed, wanting more.
Shinjirō sat up, straddling him and opening his yukata. He circled Michael’s nipples roughly with his thumbs.
Michael drew in his breath and narrowed his eyes.
This was a game they played. Shinjirō liked to make him beg for it.
He set his mouth.
Shinjirō moved down, lightly touching Michael through his fundoshi. He pulled the undergarment off, then trailed his fingers along the underside of Michael’s cock as Michael shivered.
He tried to move his legs but Shinjirō had him pinned. He wanted to touch himself but that was forbidden.
The daimyō’s teasing touch drove him mad. He was fully erect now.
When Shinjirō lightly rubbed the pad of his thumb over the slit, Michael squirmed, shutting his eyes, but Shinjirō was relentless.
He finally gave in. “Please.”
Michael watched as Shinjirō removed his own fundoshi and prepared himself with oil, then lifted Michael’s legs over his shoulders.
It was a slow entry. As he was filled with Shinjirō’s bulk, Michael breathed slowly and deeply, pushing out with his lower muscles to ease the insertion as much as he could.
Shinjirō still wore his kimono. He began to move in and out, and one shoulder was bared as the material slipped down.
Michael lost himself, Shinjirō’s thickness the only reality, an extension of the daimyō’s will as much as his body, joining with him in a way that felt sacred.
The lingering heat from the day, the shadows cast on the walls in the darkening room, Shinjirō’s kimono flowing over them like a shroud—all induced a kind of altered state in him.
As he climaxed, Michael’s eyes filled with tears.
Shinjirō came soon after, driving impossibly deep into him.
Michael felt Shinjirō withdraw after a time, and his sore body was gathered into the warlord’s arms.
“I wish I could stay like this forever.”
Shinjirō’s hand stopped stroking his hair for a moment, then continued as if he’d said nothing.
HE FELT Shinjirō’s eyes on him as he set the tray inside the room, then slid the door shut.
The dinner was easier to prepare than he’d expected. Norio, Shinjirō’s longtime retainer, had even stood by the kitchen door to keep the other servants out while he was cooking.
In the end he made a simple meal of pan-fried mackerel with miso soup, rice, cabbage, and pickled daikon radish on the side. The pickled radishes and rice had already been prepared by the servants earlier at Kanosuke’s request. It wasn’t a fancy meal by any means, but Michael imagined Shinjirō would enjoy it.
He set the tray on the low table next to the futon. Again he felt Shinjirō watching him as he arranged the dishes and poured tea.
Michael looked up and met the daimyō’s gaze. “I hope this humble meal meets with your satisfaction.”
“It already has. You made it for me with your own hands. That makes it special.”
They ate in comfortable silence, the lantern light flickering and making Shinjirō’s shadow loom large on the wall behind him. The sliding door to the garden was open, and the air was still pleasantly warm as daylight waned.
The mackerel was flaky and tender, and the cabbage, fresh from the garden, its perfect flavorful complement. “The simplest things are the best,” Shinjirō said, and Michael ducked his head and nodded at the indirect compliment.
After the meal, they sat in the doorway to the garden. Michael poured sake into small cups and settled himself next to Shinjirō.
Shinjirō sat with his back against the doorframe, gazing at the garden. Michael loved seeing the daimyō like this, released from the cares of rule for a few precious moments. The planes of that beautiful face caught the fading sunlight and his eyes softened slightly, as if seeing something other than what was in front of him.
Shinjirō pulled him close, and Michael nestled against him with his face in the daimyō’s chest. He’d gotten over feeling like a girl when Shinjirō did this and just let himself enjoy it.
They rested for a long time as the evening shadows lengthened, Michael refreshing their cups with the sake bottle as needed.
“You are enjoying this moment, yes?”
“That is what is important.” Shinjirō put his cup down and, to Michael’s surprise, took his cup as well and set it on the floor. “Because it won’t always be this way.”
Michael froze. He stared at Shinjirō. “What do you mean?”
“Life is about change. The unexpected. The things you think will always be….” Shinjirō smiled. It was a gentle and sad smile. “People come and go. They grow old and die. Nothing stays the same.”
He touched Michael’s face. “You are young, Maikoru. You are happy now and want everything to stay this way forever. But that cannot be.”
Michael was indignant at being patronized. He covered Shinjirō’s hand with his own. “Shinjirō-sama—”
“Hush,” Shinjirō said calmly.
He brought his beautiful face close to Michael’s. “Who you love, you were meant to love. Love with all your heart, but do not hold on. When the time comes, you must let go.” He smiled at Michael. “Those who love will see each other again.”
Shinjirō brought his lips to Michael’s forehead.