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On one of those sprawling estates that every rich family seems to own, consisting of enough land to house about five or six middle-class families with a good-sized park left over, there lived a young man named Tatsuya.

He was pretty typical of his class. He lived in a wing of his family’s manor with his own group of servants, so he didn’t see much of his parents. He’d been to university and gotten a degree in literature, but he wasn’t really using it – other than making start-and-stop attempts at a novel. He spent most of his time in the family’s vast library or riding a bicycle around the estate.

With so much real estate to cover, he never even met everyone his parents hired to take care of every little corner of the grounds – he’d be riding his bike down a rarely-explored path and come across little cottages inhabited by gardeners or maintenance crew members and wonder, huh, I’ve never seen them before.

In the evenings, he’d spend time with Konome, the girlfriend he was with because . . . well, he never quite figured out why, except that their families were in the same social class and kept pushing them together. She was pleasant to be with, sure, but there was no real spark. He’d spend an evening in conversation with her . . . and it didn’t feel like wasted time, but still, he felt like he could have been doing something more interesting.

He got his first clue as to what the “more interesting” could be one day when he was riding his bike down one of those unexplored paths. At first, it seemed like any other, until he came upon a stunning sight.

At first glance, it seemed like just another one of those cabins that housed previously unknown staff members – except it had an outdoor shower. It was a rather simple thing, made with a black hose hanging from a tree with a spray nozzle head attached. Later, Tatsuya would figure out that the color of the hose made it attract and retain sunlight, so it warmed the water within.

At the moment, though, he wasn’t thinking of that. He wasn’t thinking of much, consciously. Because standing under the spray was a very naked, very beautiful man, just shamelessly washing himself. Tatsuya’s bike skidded to a halt. He got off, and stood there, mouth agape, looking at the vision in front of him. And a vision he was – taut muscles, flat stomach, dark hair surrounding a face that was somewhere on the border between masculine-handsome and feminine-pretty.

The young aristocrat just stood there staring, staring, and staring some more. Tatsuya felt his heart pounding. His mouth felt dry. There was a warmth starting to flood his body, starting from his groin and moving over every inch of him. He couldn’t take his eyes off the man if he tried, gaze following those hands as they passed over the strong torso, down toward a very lovely cock of pretty damn decent size.

And oh, that cock. Tatsuya found himself staring at it, the warmth in his body growing even hotter and more intense, and he found himself reaching down, rubbing his hand over his own organ, which was rapidly swelling and hardening.

He couldn’t remember ever having felt this way before – at least not that intensely. Fantasies were starting to rise in his mind, of being under that shower with him, of running his hands over the man’s body like he was doing to himself, feeling warm, wet skin under his fingertips, and then the man’s hand closing over his cock, stroking . . .

The beauty turned around, and Tatsuya thought that might help get rid of the fantasies since he wouldn’t be seeing that cock anymore – but he was presented with a view of an equally beautiful ass, tight and firm and shapely and just looking to be squeezed, and now Tatsuya was consumed with a new fantasy, of rubbing his cock against that firm flesh . . .

And then, a voice called, “Who’s there?” and Tatsuya was jolted back to reality. He jumped on his bike and pedaled away as fast as he could, not stopping until he was nearly back to the manor house. At that point, he got off, leaned against a tree and panted.

What had just happened? He’d seen that guy, that total stranger, and it was as if someone had started a fire inside him. Lit a match at the bottom of his soul. Made him feel things he’d wondered if he was truly capable of feeling.

Before he knew it, he was pulling his pants down, his fingers wrapping around his cock, his mind filling with images of the beauty in the shower. He rapidly began to stroke, thinking of the other man touching him, or him touching the other man in return, hands pumping along each other’s cocks, breathing coming harder and faster . . .

When he cried out, it was the deepest, most satisfying orgasm he’d ever had, seemingly coming from the very bottom of his soul. He collapsed to the ground when it was over, panting, and lay there a long time.

Something had changed, he could feel it. Something at the base level of him. And suddenly, he was starting to feel very, very scared.

He jumped up, fixed his pants, and climbed back onto his bike, pedaling home quickly, as if he could run away from it.

* * *

Tatsuya tried to live the next several days normally. He made sure he spent as much time as he could with Konome, and tried to be more affectionate with her than normal – even going as far as to make out with her in her family’s parlor. She was pleasantly surprised, asking him, “What’s gotten into you? You’re normally not that forward.”

“Surprising myself, I guess.”

But then came another day when he was riding his bike, and without even realizing it, he was going down the same path he had the other day, heading for that cottage. I should turn back, he told himself. I need to go home and shut myself up in the library and then go see Konome . . .

But he pedaled on. And he came to that cottage, and there was no outdoor showering in sight. He breathed a loud sigh of relief.

Except the relief faded when the man walked out – fully dressed this time, in tight pants and an equally tight T-shirt. Which did absolutely nothing for Tatsuya’s imagination, since having seen the man naked, knowing what was under those clothes, just made the teasing wardrobe look even more alluring.

The man glanced over in the direction where Tatsuya was stopped. “Hey,” he said. “You’re their son, aren’t you?”

Crap. The guy was talking to him. CRAP. “Um . . . the owners of the manor? Yes, I’m their son.”

“What are you doing hanging out here?”

“Just . . . riding my bike?” He knew his grin looked extra-sheepish, that there were rivulets of sweat running down his neck.

“And you always come to a gardener’s cottage?”

“Is that who you are? A gardener?” Well, that was a stupid question.

“Would I be living in a gardener’s cottage if I wasn’t?”

“Well, I . . . I . . .” He looked around, frantically, for a sign from the universe that might save him. “I guess not. I just happened to be, um . . .”

“Do you have a name?”

“A . . .”

“What do they call you? Hiroki? Tomo? Late for dinner?”

“Tatsuya,” he said, quickly. “My name’s Tatsuya. And you are?”

“Well, you’re being formal.”

“I . . . I just . . .”

“It’s Shohei. That’s my name. Stop stammering and come over here.”

Tatsuya got off the bike and slowly walked toward the other man. Shohei, he thought. His name is Shohei. And the closer he got, the more gorgeous the gardener seemed. He could feel that warmth stealing through his body again.

“Now, there’s got to be things you want to know, isn’t there?” Shohei said.

Yes, Tatsuya thought. I want to know why I can’t get you out of my mind. I want to know why the sight of you makes me feel like my soul is on fire.

Instead, he said, “How long have you been here?”

“About three weeks,” Shohei said. “I was hired by the head gardener here. Came from one of the estates up the road before that. They sold off part of the land and let some of us go, so . . . I went from estate to estate until I got hired.”

“I . . . I haven’t seen you before.”

“You sure about that?”

Oh, God, Tatsuya thought, did he see me when . . . “What do you mean?”

“I mean, there was a very cute boy watching me wash the other day. And that boy looked like you.”

“You think I’m cute?” No, stupid, he thought, he SAW YOU WATCHING HIM! That’s what you should be worried about, not that he thinks you’re cute!

“You’re freaking adorable,” Shohei said. “And even more so when you’re blushing like that.”

“Oh!” That just made Tatsuya blush all the more. “It was an accident. I just saw you, and . . .”

“And you had to come back for more?” Shohei said.

“I . . . I wanted to know who you were.” And Tatsuya found himself looking away. He knew Shohei would pick up on the lie.

Shohei shook his head. “Typical rich people,” he said. “Hiding behind airs and facades, pretending you’re all prim and proper, ignoring what you really want. You’d all be a lot happier if you listened to your bodies every once in awhile instead of living inside your supposedly intellectual minds.”

“What does that mean?” Tatsuya said.

Shohei opened the door of his cottage. “Come in here with me,” he said.

Tatsuya walked in. He looked around – it was rather austere, one room with kitchen facilities at one end, a bed at the other, a bathing room and water closet at the back. He wouldn’t really be expecting a palace, given that it was a servant’s quarters.

“Now, what do you think when you see . . . this?”

Suddenly, Shohei pulled his shirt off and dropped it in the corner. Tatsuya gasped. He looked just as gorgeous and alluring dry as he had wet.

“And I could go one further,” Shohei said, unzipping his pants – and Tatsuya felt his heart nearly pound out of his chest. He watched the other man’s hands go to his waistband, start to push down . . .

“I don’t have to, though,” Shohei said. “I have the answer to my question already.” He walked over to Tatsuya – and knelt so his face was in front of his clothed crotch, Tatsuya let out a whimper. “I can see the bulge,” Shohei said. “It’s growing. It’s hard. You’re getting turned on. You want to know what it’s like to be with another man.”

“Oh . . .” Tatsuya was going nuts. That mouth so close to him . . . it seemed all he ever wanted in the world . . .

“I can give you your first lesson in what you really want,” Shohei continued. “But . . . only with your consent. I will not touch you without full permission. You can choose to walk away and that will be the end of it. But if you choose to stay . . .”

This is it, Tatsuya thought. The ball is in my court, and mine alone. I can go back to the life I had before, pretend this never happened . . . and be haunted by regrets, and what-ifs, for the rest of my life.

He took a deep breath. “I want it . . . I want to feel your touch, your skin, your body . . .”

Shohei stood up. “No turning back. Do you mean it?”

“Yes!” Tatsuya said. “Yes, definitely.”

The other man turned around. “Take off your clothes,” he said, “and get on the bed.”

Tatsuya’s fingers fumbled as he unbuttoned his shirt. This is nuts, he thought, we’ve just spoken for the first time, he’s a servant and I’m one of the lords of the manor . . .

But if he had to admit it, the latter point was part of what made it so exciting. The difference in status, the fact that Shohei was technically the servant but, in this situation, was the master . . . it made it even more erotic.

He finished dropping his clothes to the floor and lay down on his back, feeling exposed and vulnerable and harder than he’d ever been in his life, and then he looked over and saw Shohei, the pants and underwear shed, nearly as hard as Tatsuya himself.

The gardener sat on the bed and leaned over Tatsuya, the young aristocrat felt like he was on the edge of a cliff, about to be hurled off . . .

“You really are hot,” Shohei said, leaning over and stroking Tatsuya’s cheek, tilting his chin up with his fingers . . .

And then their lips came together, and Tatsuya let out a little moan in his throat. It wasn’t like any other kiss he’d ever known – Shohei’s lips were firm and commanding and yet soft at the same time, pressing on his and seemingly stealing his breath away.

He felt the other man’s tongue press into his mouth, and he opened his lips, welcoming the invasion as his body shifted under Shohei’s, skin rubbing on skin, a flat chest pressed against his, strong arms wrapping around him . . .

Oh, God, everything about Shohei was deliciously male, from the texture of his skin to his musky scent, and Tatsuya drank it in, moving against him, letting his hands run over his new lover’s back, fingers tracing patterns over the muscles, then moving up to his hair, tangling in it as they kissed hotly and deeply.

He raised his hips, spreading his legs a little, pressing his cock against Shohei’s body, feeling it rub against the flesh. Shohei moved around a little, shifting his hips, and then their erections brushed together. Tatsuya felt a shudder through every inch of him.

The feel of it . . . so damn hard, beautifully shaped, pressing against his, was the most erotic thing he’d ever experienced. He shifted a little – just a tiny bit, a little friction, so he could feel the veins and ridges of it caressing his own sensitive flesh.

When Shohei’s lips parted from his, Tatsuya drew in a deep breath and let out a long, low, throaty moan, a cry from the bottom of his heart of intense, pure lust. Shohei answered by biting and sucking on the other man’s neck, the sudden savagery driving the aristocrat’s desire even more. He started to pump his hips, rubbing himself against Shohei, and he felt the other man thrust back, rubbing their cocks together, a sensual dance that made the heat in Tatsuya’s body become pure flames.

He couldn’t imagine anything could feel that good. No, not just feel, it was a parade of sensations and senses, from the scent of musk and sweat to the heat of the other man’s skin to the sound of Shohei’s ragged breathing, the feel of his tongue tracing Tatsuya’s jawline before sliding in and out of and around his lips . .

And above else, the feel of cock on cock, hard caressing hard, sliding and rubbing over and over, drops of precome slicking both of them . . . Tatsuya reached down and grabbed Shohei’s ass, pulling him tighter and closer, squeezing the firm flesh . . .

The heat rose, and rose, and then exploded, Tatsuya arching upward, ecstasy rushing through his veins as he cried out, come pouring and pouring from him until he collapsed, utterly spent and limp and feeling wonderful.

Somewhere at the corner of his consciousness, he was aware of Shohei letting out a shout of his own, and hot wetness poured onto his belly until the gardener collapsed atop him. They kissed again, this time a lot more tenderly.

Shohei lifted his head and said, quietly, “How do you feel now?”

Tatsuya just lay under him, panting. Oh, God, were there words for it? How could you describe something so intense, so incredible, so . . .

“I feel like I’ve been waiting for that all my life,” he said.

“It’s because you have,” Shohei replied.

Tatsuya relaxed entirely, clinging to the gardener, closing his eyes. Yes, he’d found something, all right, but it didn’t feel like the end of a journey. On the contrary – it was just beginning.

* * *

He went back to the manor later, and tried to act like nothing had happened. A fling with a servant, right? It happened among all wealthy people. Nothing unusual about it, nothing to see here, folks. That night, he even went out with Konome, although when they went dancing, he drank a bit more than usual.

The next day, however, he was turning his bike in the same direction, telling himself he just liked these particular paths, he liked the scenery and the smooth ride and . . . he was deluding himself, wasn’t he? He was coming here for one reason, and one alone.

As he approached the cottage, he told himself that maybe Shohei wasn’t here, maybe he was out in the gardens, maybe he was at the main house . . . but no, there he was, hunched over a potted plant on a table, wearing maddeningly tight shirt and jeans - again.

The gardener looked up as he saw the other man approach. “You’re back,” he said.

“It was just on my way.” Tatsuya got off his bike and walked toward Shohei.

“In other words, you made it be along your way?” Shohei picked up a pair of clippers and began pruning back the plant’s leaves.

“What are you doing?” Tatsuya feigned interest in the other man’s progress with the plant.

“Freeing its true potential, so to speak,” Shohei said. “Plants can be tricky things. They all have their own idiosyncrasies. You have to learn to find them and read them – and then figure out what they need. Sometimes they look like they need water – but what’s really going on is they’re choking themselves, and they need to be cut back or put in a bigger pot. Other times they look like they’re going to wither and die any second, but they’re fine with a few drops of plant food.”

“It sounds complicated,” Tatsuya said.

“Plants can be easier to read than people sometimes,” Shohei said, running his fingers along the stem and checking the underside of its leaves. “But then, you have no experience in that, do you?”

“Plants, you mean?” Tatsuya said. “Or people?”

“Either.”

“Well, I’ve never handled plants, really,” Tatsuya said, rubbing the back of his head. “Maybe a bit in school.”

“I’m surprised they teach that at your fancy academies,” Shohei said.

“We have what’s called a well-rounded education,” Tatsuya said. “Some of the arts, the sciences, literature, history, that sort of thing.”

“And pretention,” Shohei said. “They teach you that talking is better than doing, don’t they?”

“Well, not really,” Tatsuya said. “I mean, we’re encouraged to do things, right? They want us to be active.”

“Doing what?” Shohei said. “Riding around on polo ponies?”

“Polo isn’t my thing,” Tatsuya said, quietly.

“But you were encouraged to do it, weren’t you?”

“Sort of?” Tatsuya said. “That and croquet.”

“But you said you didn’t want to do those things,” Shohei said.

“I’d rather ride my bike,” Tatsuya said. “Like you’ve seen me doing. It’s, well, peaceful. And it’s something I chose myself.”

“You don’t make enough of your own choices, do you?”

Tatsuya looked away. “There’s things that are expected of me.”

“You don’t have to do them all the time,” Shohei said.

“But . . . if I don’t . . .”

“If you don’t, what? You lose your standing in their society? If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, what’s the point of being part of their society in the first place?”

“I . . .” Tatsuya looked away. “I don’t want to be disinherited.”

“I never had to worry about an inheritance,” Shohei said. “I’ve always lived on my own terms.”

“Then gardening . . . it’s what you’ve always wanted to do?”

“Plants and I get along great,” Shohei said. “Always have. They were around all my life – I was surrounded by them. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I did it.”

“Your father did this, too?” Tatsuya watched the other man’s hands as he gently turned dirt in a second pot. He seemed to touch everything with both strength and delicacy – the way he’d touched Tatsuya’s body.

“He worked on another estate like this,” Shohei said. “Not as a gardener, though. As a handyman. The rich people had him working day and night. Fix this, patch that. God forbid anything on their perfect manor be a little bit out of place.” He paused. “He fell off a roof and died.”

“I’m sorry,” Tatsuya said.

“I tried to tell myself that he died doing what he loved – he liked working with wood as much as I liked working with plants.” Shohei reached for a watering can and poured some of the contents of a bottle of plant food into it. “But it didn’t make it any easier.”

“Were you still a child when it happened?”

“Nope. By that time, I was through school and apprenticed to another gardener. The idea was I would get a job at a park, or a university, or anything but working for rich people. But, of course, I ended up at another manor – and then ended up here.”

Tatsuya was quiet for a long moment. Well, that explained his contempt for the rich, didn’t it? That other family had literally worked his father to death.

“I’m not like that,” he said. “I know that the people who work here are PEOPLE, not machines.”

“You have the potential to be like that,” Shohei said. “You’re at a point of your life when you’re making choices – whether to be yourself or just another one of them, keeping up appearances and fitting in.”

“I don’t feel like I am,” Tatsuya said, quietly.

“You’ve made one choice, haven’t you?” Shohei said. “You’re here. You could be puttering around the manor house, or out with your girlfriend, but you came looking for me.”

Tatsuya looked surprised. “How do you know I have a girlfriend? I haven’t mentioned her.” Of course I haven’t, he thought. The first time I met him, we barely spoke before we had sex. What kind of insanity is that?

“There’s always a girlfriend, isn’t there? Rich people breed themselves off like rabbits, sending their kids off to date ‘suitable’ members of the opposite sex. Never mind what they really want.”

Tatsuya looked down and blushed. “I wouldn’t call it breeding . . .”

“But you wouldn’t call the relationship what you really want, would you?”

“She’s . . . pleasant,” Tatsuya said. “I like being with her.”

“And yet, what you really crave is the touch of a man,” Shohei said. “You fell into my bed like a thirsty person falling into water.”

“I haven’t felt that before!” Tatsuya said, quickly. Too quickly.

“Are you sure about that?” Shohei said.

Tatsuya paused. No. No, he wasn’t . . . and he was willing to admit that to himself now.

“There were boys in school that I . . . I had crushes on. I’d look at them, and feel my heart beat faster, and wonder what it would be like to kiss them . . .”

“And yet, you did nothing.” Shohei finished his job and reached for a rag to wipe his hands off. “Until now. Until you saw me.”

“It was seeing you naked . . . I couldn’t help myself. I came upon you showering outside . . .”

“Are you sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a servant? I’m someone who it’s safe to release your desires with?”

“Um, well . . .” Tatsuya found himself blushing again. He had to admit that the master-servant thing was a definite turn-on. There was something exciting about the fact that he was supposed to be the one in charge, he was one of Shohei’s employers . . . and yet, he was lowering himself to the servant, putting himself entirely in his hands.

“But you ARE releasing them,” Shohei said. “You’re admitting you kept a part of yourself penned up, and now you’re letting it out. The question is, what are you going to do from here? Are you going to keep going with this? Or are you going to retreat back behind your wall of public image and safety?”

Tatsuya paused for a moment. Then, he grabbed Shohei by the shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him hard, pouring all his lust into the kiss, probing the other man’s mouth with his tongue.

He pulled back and said, “Does that answer your question?”

“For now,” Shohei said. And before Tatsuya could speak or think further, the gardener was pulling him into his arms, and he was kissing him again, deep and wet and hard, and the world was swirling around them both.

* * *

Everything about this situation excited Tatsuya. Everything. The fact that he was laying naked on sheets more roughly-textured than the silky ones in the manor, the faint scent of cooking and plants and dirt and sweat that hung in the air . . .

And there was Shohei, leaning over him, equally naked, his fingers slowly brushing back and forth over the aristocrat’s nipples.

Tatsuya closed his eyes, taking a deep, shuddering breath as the gardener expertly teased him, rubbing in slow circles around the areoles, then over the bud, then back to the surrounding pink again. It sent tingles of pleasure running through him – but also created a desire for deeper, more intense pleasures.

“What do you want?” Shohei took each nipple in his thumb and forefinger and gently squeezed. Tatsuya arched off the bed, moaning.

“I want you to make me come,” Tatsuya murmured.

“You want me to touch you?” Shohei reached down with one hand and grasped Tatsuya’s cock, starting to stroke it slowly, his grip firm and caressing. “Like this?”

“OH!” Tatsuya cried. “Yes . . . yes . . .”

“And like this?” Shohei ran his thumb back and forth over the tip causing Tatsuya to moan again.

“Please!” Tatsuya cried.

“What if I told you this was a two-way street?” Shohei removed his hand. “What if I told you I couldn’t make you come until you made me come first?”

Tatsuya opened his eyes and looked up at the other man, breathing heavily, thinking, he’s just so damn beautiful, he’s all I ever wanted, he’s like every lustful dream I’ve ever refused to believe I’d had come to life . . .

He leaned up, brought his lips to Shohei’s, and then wrapped his arms around the other man, flipping them both over until he was on top . . . and then he began to kiss his way down the gardener’s torso quickly, aggressively, wrapping his lips around a nipple and sucking hard.

God, he was delicious, he felt and tasted so damn good, his strong muscles and flat stomach were like heaven under Tatsuya’s exploring fingers, and then he explored more, kissing over his stomach, moving further and further down . . .

When he reached that glorious erection, he opened his mouth, tentatively licking the tip of it, pulling his head back, licking it again . . .

Then he wrapped his lips around it, sliding down slowly, feeling it fill his mouth as he shuddered in delight. This was what it felt like to suck cock. It was wonderful. It was nearly choking him – but he didn’t mind. In fact, as he started to pull back slowly, then slid down again, he found his mouth and throat were relaxing, that he could get more of his new lover in than he did before . .

He began to suck hard, moving his head back, then down, his senses filling with the musky scent and taste, the feel of lust-stiffened flesh against his lips and tongue, the feel of Shohei’s hands gripping his hair . . .

“Fuck, yes,” the gardener murmured. “Suck me good.”

Tatsuya needed no further encouragement. He opened his lips wider, thrusting down hard, taking Shohei deep as he could, sucking aggressively, letting his hands run up his lover’s torso until he found his nipples, which he caressed as he moved faster . . .

He was burning up with lust, not being able to get enough of this, feeling like he was devouring the cock that seemed to just keep getting harder, and he moved down on it again and again and again, feeling his lover writhing beneath him, hearing his breathing get more ragged . . .

“Fuck,” Shohei yelled. “Fuck, I’m gonna . . .”

And then Shohei let out a cry, and Tatsuya choked as bitter fluid started to fill his mouth. He pulled back, quickly, and found himself swallowing the come, which just brought about another rush of lust.

Shohei lay there for a moment, panting and sweaty and shuddering, then leaned up to kiss Tatsuya hard, thrusting his tongue into his mouth.

“Oh, fuck, have you earned this,” Shohei growled when the kiss broke.

Then Tatsuya found himself rolled onto his back, and he felt Shohei’s mouth on his cock, moving down deep right away, sucking hard. A deep shudder of pleasure ran through the aristocrat’s body, knowing he was feeling the same thing he’d just made Shohei feel.

The hot wetness slid over his cock, then pulled back, each movement bringing a new wave of hot sensation, and Tatsuya moaned loudly, thrusting his hips upward, plunging deeper into Shohei’s mouth. The gardener took it all eagerly, moving faster, his fingers running along whatever his mouth wasn’t devouring, reaching down to his balls, teasing them lightly . . .

Tatsuya was lost in pleasure. This felt better than any of his fantasies, the wet heat surrounding him and driving him closer and closer to ultimate ecstasy. He grabbed Shohei’s head and pulled him closer, wanting this to just keep going forever . . .

And then there was a particularly deep and hard thrust, and Tatsuya let go, crying Shohei’s name out as blinding whiteness overwhelmed him and he shuddered intensely. The orgasm went on and on, until everything was drained out of him, and he collapsed on the bed, a panting heap.

Shohei moved up and kissed his lips, and Tatsuya grabbed into him with both arms, pulling him close, letting out a deep sigh of contentment as he basked in the afterglow.

Right now, he was more at peace than he’d been in his entire life.

* * *

It continued like this for the next couple of months.

Tatsuya would go to Shohei’s cottage every afternoon. They’d talk for a while, Tatsuya telling Shohei about the parties he was forced to attend (boring) and the aristocrats he had to meet (even more boring), Shohei talking about his work with the plants and about his life. It seemed he’d attended a public school until graduation, had a few serious boyfriends but nothing that threatened permanence, and was quite happy to stay in his cottage and not mingle much with the other servants.

“They gossip all the time,” he said. “I hate gossip. If all you want to do with your time is talk shit about other people’s lives, maybe you need to reevaluate your own.”

The two of them would ultimately end up naked on the bed, exploring pleasure, finding out what each other liked best and giving it to him. One of the biggest peaks of pleasure, as far as Tatsuya was concerned, was when they found out that with some artful positioning, they could suck each other’s cocks at the same time.

All this was done with mouths and hands and friction. Shohei didn’t penetrate Tatsuya except with fingers, and that was enough to leave him longing for more – especially when Shohei pushed in deep enough to stroke his lover’s prostate, which he did until Tatsuya came with a loud shout.

“Why haven’t you put it in me?” Shohei asked one afternoon as they snuggled together after one of their aggressive sessions.

“I’m saving that for the man you choose to spend your life with,” Shohei said. “That should be his privilege.”

“But . . . what if I don’t choose a man . . .”

“Then you’ll never know what it’s like, will you?”

Through all this, Tatsuya managed to keep up appearances and still see his girlfriend . . . but with less and less enthusiasm. He knew now that to go through with what his family wanted, to marry her, would be an extreme sham – and unfair to her.

He just didn’t know how he could get out of it. Young men of his class were unprepared to survive by themselves in the workaday world – and what else would he do? Where would he go?

And then, suddenly, a life change reared its head, and he knew the choice Shohei talked about would have to be made.

* * *

It began when his grandmother, who had an estate in the next town, visited them for the first time in quite awhile. She’d never been a consistent presence in Tatsuya’s life – she was one of those people who dropped in and out. Nonetheless, he was glad to see her.

They had a bigger than usual family dinner for her, after which everyone retired to one of the parlors for after-dinner drinks. Tatsuya sat by himself, slowly sipping from an oversized snifter of brandy. He didn’t feel much like conversation. He wanted to think – about Shohei, about his double life, about what his lover said about him choosing a man . . .

His grandmother hobbled across the room and sat next to him. “You look troubled, Tatsuya.”

“Me?” He felt suddenly and violently caught off-guard. “No, no, I’m just . . . thinking.”

“You looked troubled all the way through dinner,” his grandmother said. “There’s something weighing on your mind, isn’t there?”

“Um . . .” Oh, there was something weighing on his mind, all right, but he wasn’t exactly about to tell his grandmother about the hot affair he was having with the family’s gardener.

“I’m not going to pry.” His grandmother covered Tatsuya’s hand with her own and gently squeezed. “Especially if it has something to do with matters of the heart. I noticed you didn’t invite your young lady over tonight.”

“She’s busy with her own family stuff,” Tatsuya said. Which was not a lie – but hearing that she couldn’t come had been a relief to the young man.

His grandmother nodded. “If there IS anything you want to talk about, you know that you can tell me. I’m not going to gossip to my son. I don’t do that.”

Tatsuya took a deep breath. “It’s just that . . . well, sometimes expectations can be heavy things to carry, you know? And there’s times I wish I . . . didn’t have them. That I was just a regular guy, not part of a family like this.”

The older woman looked thoughtful for a long moment. “You’re afraid if you do something your father doesn’t like, that he’ll disinherit you, aren’t you?”

She hit the nail on the head. Tatsuya nodded, quietly.

“Then ask yourself this question, Tatsuya – what would be worse, to live without the money, or to live without what it is you truly want?” She patted his hand. “Besides – you’re going to be fine, by any means.”

“You think my father would be forgiving?” Tatsuya said.

“Well, I DID try to raise him to be a decent person,” said his grandmother. “But I have the utmost confidence that you’ll be fine.” She stood up, slowly, and then leaned over, as if in pain.

Tatsuya looked shocked. “Grandmother!” he said.

She waved a hand. “It’s fine. My age catching up with me, that’s all. You think about what I said, okay?”

His grandmother hobbled off, and Tatsuya took another long drink of his brandy. What would be worse, he thought, to live without money, or to live without what he truly wanted . . . to spend the rest of his life in rich surroundings, but stuck in a marriage without true love or physical satisfaction . . .

He found himself wishing he’d never met Shohei. He’d never have this dilemma, never know his true desires. But in a way, that would be even worse, wouldn’t it?

* * *

The next day, instead of getting on his bike to ride to Shohei’s cottage, he went to Konome’s place instead.

She was in the family’s indoor swimming pool. When her servant led him to the room, she got out of the water, looking surprised.

“Tatsuya? I didn’t think I’d see you right now.”

He turned to the servant. “Leave us,” he said. “I have something important to discuss with her.”

“I’ll get dressed,” she said. “Then we can meet up in the . . .”

“No,” Tatsuya said. “We need to have this discussion now.” Before I lose my nerve, he thought.

She sat down on a poolside lounge as the servant bowed and left. “What is it?” she said. “Did something happen? Did . . . did I do something wrong?”

Tatsuya sat next to her. “You did nothing wrong. Nothing at all. You’ve been wonderful the whole time I’ve known you – and I wish I could be the kind of husband you need. But . . . I can’t. And I want you to find a man who can.”

She looked confused, then horrified. “You’re breaking up with me?”

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” he said. “But I know something about myself now. Something that would get in the way of us having a good marriage.”

“Whatever it is, we can overcome it!” she said. “Is it something to do with your family background? Tatsuya, I don’t care about that! Families like ours bury skeletons in the closet all the time! If your true father was one of the servants, so what? That doesn’t mean that you . . .”

“It’s not that,” Tatsuya said. “I’m . . . I’m gay, Konome.”

She looked horrified. “What?” she said. “WHAT? How do you know that?”

“I . . . just know,” he said. “I’ve been keeping it to myself all this time – refusing to admit it’s there, really. But I know for sure now. And for me to keep having a relationship with you would be dishonest. I know both our families want us to get married, but is that any reason to do anything? You deserve better than a sham marriage of convenience, Konome. You deserve a man who can be a true husband to you on every level.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this!” She turned and ran from the room, in tears, leaving Tatsuya sitting there, staring into the water of the pool.

He felt like a heartless jerk, like he’d just stabbed her in the back. But also, he felt like a 10,000-pound burden had been removed from him.

* * *

He arrived back at his own estate in brooding silence – to find his father waiting for him.

“Konome just called,” he said. “She was in hysterical tears. She said you broke up with her.”

“I had to,” Tatsuya said, quietly. “She deserves better.”

“Deserves better?” his father said. “What the hell kind of talk is that? You’re throwing away an ideal match for you because you’re having an attack of melancholy? Go over there and patch it up with her right now!”

“It’s not an attack of melancholy!” Tatsuya said. “It’s me. It’s something that’s part of who I am that will never change.”

“Tatsuya, you will stop this nonsense talk right now and make up with that young woman. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I don’t like it one bit. What could have possibly happened that you’d break off a suitable match after years of . . .”

“I’m gay, Father!” Tatsuya shouted. “That’s it. I’m gay. I like men, not women. If I married her, it would be . . .”

“You’re WHAT?” His father looked like he was going to keel over. “We have NEVER had that in this family before, Tatsuya. NEVER.”

“More like you’ve had it and you’ve hidden it,” Tatsuya said. “That’s gone on for years, hasn’t it? Gay men being forced to marry women of their own social standing just to save face. Well, I’m not going to let it happen to me. It’s my life and my decisions!”

His father’s face turned beet red. “If you do not take that back,” he said, “if you do not drop this nonsense right now and go back to that girl, then so help me, I will . . .”

Suddenly, the family’s butler ran up to them. “Sir!” he said. “I hate to interrupt, but this is urgent!”

“This is more urgent!” Tatsuya’s father shouted.

“But it’s your mother, sir,” the butler said. “She’s collapsed and been taken to the hospital. Her lawyer just called – she’d been in a meeting with him.”

Tatsuya’s father suddenly dashed off. “Get the car!” he shouted. “I’m going there right away!”

The young man was left standing there, in stunned silence – both that his grandmother was in peril, and that he’d just told everyone the truth about himself.

What have I done? He thought. And what’s going to happen now?

* * *

His grandmother lingered for a few days before she passed on. It turned out she’d been sick for a while, but nobody had known about it. This family is good at keeping secrets, Tatsuya thought.

During the whole ordeal – the end of the illness, the mourning period, the funeral – his father barely spoke to him. The rest of the family eyed him uncomfortably – because they knew about the breakup and the coming-out, too, without him or his father having to say a word. The servants were notorious gossips.

He didn’t go see Shohei during all of this. He didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. That didn’t stop him from wondering what the gardener thought, and if he’d chosen another paramour.

Finally, the family was called to his grandmother’s estate for the reading of her will. Everyone knew it was just a formality – everything she owned would be equally divided among her two sons and daughter. They’d raid the home to take everything they wanted, and the balance would be sold off, followed by the sale of the estate and grounds itself, the money being split three ways.

Except when the will was read, they were in for a surprise.

“I bequeath the estate, all its contents, and half my money to my grandson, Reizei Tatsuya. The balance of the money is to be split among my three children.”

There was stunned silence in the room. Me? Tatsuya thought. She’s bequeathed everything to . . . me? Well, nearly everything? And as wealthy as she was, half her money is . . . well, enough to live on for the rest of my life. If it’s invested . . . it’ll be even more.

“That can’t be it!” his father said. “That’s not the will! Look around – there’s got to be another!”

“That is the final will,” the attorney said. “I know this for a fact.”

“HOW?” Tatsuya’s father shouted. “How do you know?”

“Because, sir, I had finalized this will with her mere moments before she collapsed. She called me in and had me draw up a new will. These are her final wishes.”

“So . . . it’s really all mine?” Tatsuya said. “Her house . . . all her possessions . . .”

“Yes, my boy,” the attorney said. “You have your own estate. Congratulations.”

“This is ludicrous!” Tatsuya’s Aunt Himeno jumped to her feet. “Why Tatsuya and not my Hideki? She was always a lot closer to him!”

“She hadn’t seen Hideki in years,” Tatsuya’s mother said.

“But he spent every summer with her when he was a child!”

Silently, Tatsuya replayed his last meeting with his grandmother in his mind, the elderly woman telling him, “You’re going to be fine, by any means.” She did this because I was afraid of being disinherited, he thought. She sensed that what was bothering me was something that could get me booted from the family’s good graces. So, the last thing she ever did was change her will and make me her primary heir.

He looked over at the lawyer. “What do I have to do now?” he said. He didn’t want to worry about the yelling going on around him. He just wanted to claim what was rightfully his. And then . . . it was time to get on with his life, wasn’t it?

* * *

He rode his bike down the now-familiar path, wondering how long it had been since he’d done it. It seemed like eternity. Maybe it was.

Maybe he’s not here, he thought. Maybe he packed up and left during my absence. Maybe I’m not going to see him again. But . . . I have to try, right? All of this . . . it’s because he came into my life.

As he approached the cottage, he didn’t see anyone, and his heart sank. He’s not here, he thought. He’s not here, and . . .

Then, the door opened, and the familiar figure came out. Tatsuya’s heart leapt. Shohei was as gorgeous as he was the first time he saw him – maybe more so. He pedaled in the direction of the cottage, waiting for the other man to notice him.

It didn’t take long. The gardener looked up and blinked. “I thought you were gone,” he said.

“No,” Tatsuya said. He parked the bike, got off and walked toward Shohei. “Not yet. I’m packed up to go, but I’m not leaving until tomorrow.” He paused. “I guess you heard, huh?

“Word travels fast around these parts,” Shohei said. “Soon as you inherited your grandmother’s place, life on other planets found out.” He paused. “So, I’m guessing you’re marrying that girlfriend and she’s going to be lady of the manor?”

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s why I’m here.” Tatsuya shifted from foot to foot. Here goes nothing, he thought. “I . . . I want you to come to my estate with me.”

Shohei looked away. “You can hire another gardener,” he said. “I know plenty.”

“No! Not as my gardener! I mean, yes, you’ll be performing the functions of a gardener if you want to, but . . .” He ran up to the other man and grabbed his arms. “You said I should choose a man to be in my life. Well, I choose you.”

“Me?” Shohei paused. “You haven’t even had a chance to meet other gay men yet.”

“I don’t need to. I KNOW. You . . . you awakened feelings in me that I never knew I had.”

“And someone else could awaken them as well. Someone who’s . . .”

“Who’s not a gardener? Who’s another aristocrat?”

Shohei pulled out of Tatsuya’s grasp and turned away. “I didn’t say that.”

“But you implied it.” Tatsuya ran in front of Shohei. “Please – just listen to me. If you won’t come live with me as my boyfriend – at least yet – will you at least come to my estate as my gardener? Please? And . . . and we’ll see how things work out from there? We’ll continue as we were, and see if . . .”

Shohei suddenly pulled Tatsuya into his arms and kissed his lips. Tatsuya kissed back, eagerly, feeling the other man’s strong arms wrapping around him, pulling him close.

“Do you know how hard it is to say no to someone giving you puppy dog eyes like that?”

“Then you’ll do it?” Tatsuya said. “You’ll come?”

“As your gardener, remember. Things continue as they were. You make an effort to meet other gay men.”

“And if I did . . . if I met an aristocratic gay man and he became my boyfriend . . . how would you feel?”

“Don’t ask me that.”

“I AM asking you that, Shohei.”

“Fine. You want an answer? I’d miss you like hell. But . . .”

“No buts,” Tatsuya said. “No saying you want me to meet someone who’s something other than a gardener. You’re the first person I ever met who seemed REAL, not like some kind of phony. You think being a servant makes you less valuable? I think it makes you MORE valuable.”

Shohei sat down on the bench next to his table, head in his hands. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said anything like that to me,” he said.

“Then it’s time that you heard it,” Tatsuya replied. He sat next to Shohei. “Everything I did . . . breaking up with my girlfriend, confessing to my grandmother that something wasn’t right in my life, coming out to my father . . . I couldn’t have done any of it without you. You made me realize who I really am. You helped me claim my own life. And now, I want to share that life with you. Please . . . please say you will at least try.”

Shohei took Tatsuya’s hand in both of his. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll try. I’ll go to your estate with you, and see how things work out, and . . .”

“You won’t regret it. I promise you. It’ll work out, I know it.”

They sat there for a long, silent moment, just holding hands, until Shohei said, “Oh, shit, I’ll have to give your father notice.”

“I expected that,” Tatsuya said. “That’s why I told him to start looking around for another gardener already.”

“You did?”

“I told him I wanted to bring you to my estate because everything you do is perfection. I’m not wrong.”

“You can be silly as hell, you know it?”

“And you don’t mind.”

Shohei leaned over and gave him another kiss. They knew they were an unlikely couple, but they were both willing to give it a shot and see what they could build together. Or, in a matter of speaking, planting a seed and seeing what they could make grow together.

Tatsuya had no doubt that it could be something very beautiful.

* * *

One year later, they were living together in the manor house that had once been the grandmother’s, having built a strong and deep relationship. They had friends from all walks of life – their home was especially known as a welcoming salon for those who were creative and artistic types. Tatsuya helped establish an art gallery in partnership with a few sculptors and painters, and even took part in the day-to-day running of the facility. It was something that he realized he very much enjoyed doing.

Shohei continued to function as the primary gardener as well as being the man of the house – and he brought on young apprentices to assist him and learn his trade. Their home got a reputation for being almost as much of a horticulture school as an artists’ salon.

Their sex life continued to be intense and thrilling – and, yes, once their relationship was fully established, it began to involve full penetrative sex when they were in the mood for it. They weren’t adverse to having a friend in their bed for occasional three-way fun, but for the most part, they remained completely devoted to one another.

Tatsuya continued to have a rather uneasy relationship with his family of origin. He knew they weren’t crazy about the fact that he was gay, even less crazy about his having chosen a gardener. He didn’t care. He had his own life – and he didn’t have to conform to their mores. Not anymore.

Sometimes, he wondered if some hand of fate had guided his bicycle down the path to see the gorgeous man bathing outside. But he knew in the end that how it happened didn’t matter. He was living the life he was always meant to live. And he couldn’t ask for anything more than that.