Miho dipped her toe into the softly steaming water of the private outdoor bath at Kawaguchiko Onsenji Yumedono. Compared to the cooling afternoon air it was comforting, but she hesitated to go much further, peering down at the rippling surface.
“Miho?” Goto prompted, looking up from his place already seated, submerged almost all the way up his chest. “Something wrong?”
“Um, no,” she responded, her gaze dancing across the water, finding his feet, then jumping sharply up to his face. “Nothing at all.”
Of this he seemed dubious – she wasn’t even in the water yet, but her cheeks were a rosy red. He watched as she carefully stepped down, one foot, then the other, but frowned a little deeper when the towel she’d had wrapped around her body remained.
“You’re staring,” she said quietly, and Goto’s brows twitched.
“You’re still wearing a towel,” he pointed out quizzically, even more so when she settled at the far end of the pool where even if they stretched, their toes probably wouldn’t touch.
“It’s still very bright out here,” she noted bashfully. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Did I… just step into the Twilight Zone or something?” Goto blinked. “Miho, I’ve seen you naked a thousand times in full light,” he went on, then made a slight correction, “probably more. How is now embarrassing?”
“You’re thinking about what we’ve done? Right now?” she spluttered out, and looked a lot like she might curl up into a mortified ball. “You should just forget everything.”
“I should what?” Goto coughed, genuinely, absolutely confused.
Going undercover had never been so difficult for him as it had knowing Miho was in danger, and though he had devoted himself to the job and gotten the desired result, returning to learn all she’d endured without him had left him feeling beyond guilty. She said she understood, he knew she did and that is part of why their relationship would last, but still… the moment he’d been cleared by Ishigami and filled in, all he wanted to do was hold her and never be separated from her again.
Honestly, they’d been joined at the hip the last three days, through Liana and Ishigami’s wedding included -cough- but now.
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right?” he pressed, moving forward with a sweeping motion.
“I’m… I mean, now that I’m in here it’s a little warm,” she admitted, avoiding his gaze as he – totally naked- came to kneel in front of her.
“But not all right enough to even look at me?” he queried, reaching out for the hands she had moved up to cover her face.
And when she recoiled, trying to slide sideways, there was nothing he could do other than wrap her up in his arms.
“There is something very strange going on here,” he growled, low against the bare skin of her shoulder as he held her from behind.
“We can’t, not out here,” Miho whimpered. “What if someone from staff comes?”
“Says the woman who dragged me into a utility closet at the wedding of Captain Ishigami,” he retorted, easily countering the meekness of her struggles. “The woman who moaned so loud, Jazz heard you at the other end of the venue.”
“That… that’s because you…” she stammered, increasingly aware of the pressure growing between their bodies, the only thing between them her soaked towel.
“Are you really going to make me say it?” he whispered behind her ear, and she shivered.
“Say? Say what?” she exhaled, trying to rock forward off his lap, only to be pulled back down more firmly.
“That I miss you, even when you’re in the next room,” he told her softly, kissing against her trembling throat. “That it tears me apart when you look unhappy, when you’re suffering,” he went on, drifting up to her jaw. “And that I need you… out of that towel.”
“Goto!” she exclaimed, and hearing her call him that was almost as good as a slap in the face, so much so that his arms slackened, just slightly. “What if someone… heard…”
Her voice got fainter and fainter.
Panic ripped a hole in Goto’s universe when Miho fell limp, her body flopping to the side in his arms. He hauled her from the water and laid her gently back on the cool stones, fingers to her pulse and ear to her mouth before he even registered how red her face had become.
Pulse a little above resting.
Heavily, Miho opened her eyes. There was an additional, cool weight against her forehead, a cloth, and a deep shadow looming over her with the light of the bright moon streaming through the open courtyard doors behind it.
With a gasp she attempted to sit up, but her head immediately began to swim – frantic at being so vulnerable scorched her skin anew, until a concerned, gentle voice calmed all her worries in an instant.
“Just rest,” Goto told her, one hand on her shoulder, the other lifting the cloth from her forehead and dipping it to a basin of cold water.
“What happened?” she murmured.
The last thing she remembered they were in the bath, and Goto was…
As if he body could not possibly become any hotter, the recollection set her skin aflame and she turned her face to the side to avoid Goto’s eyes.
“You over heated after three minutes in the bath, and fainted,” he explained, wringing out the cloth and applying it to her forehead again. “I think I should take you to hospital; there is something seriously wrong with your body’s temperature regulation.”
“I’m sorry,” Miho sighed. “I’ve ruined this for you.”
“I’m just worried about you, Miho,” he scowled in the dimness, lying next to her on the futon.
Which highlighted just how close he was, that they were in the same bed – and this set her quivering again.
What if he tries to kiss me?
“I think it would be best for me to sleep over there tonight,” Goto exhaled, pushing himself back up and motioning with his head to the other futon.
Even in the dark she could see he was disappointed, sad even.
His name, his first name formed on her tongue, but it was just too embarrassing to say. All she could do was watch him move several metres away and settle beneath his own covers.
“if you need anything, just wake me,” he told her, smiling a sober smile.
Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep, leaving Miho to stare at him. But sleep eluded her now. How was she supposed to sleep when he was in the same room?
“WHA!” Miho shrieked, her body jolting awake with such force she nearly head-butted Goto who’d been asleep to her right with his arm draped over her.
“Miho?” he frowned, trying to blink away sleep as she sat up, panting.
“Holy shit,” she gasped, her hands gripping the bedding in clenched fists. “I just… I just had the most intense nightmare.”
“Understandable,” he told her, placing his hand in the small of her naked back and sliding it up a little way.
“No really,” she insisted, looking down at him with terror still flashing in her eyes. “We were in the private bath, and you were trying to get close to me but I wouldn’t even take off my fucking towel!”
At this, Goto let out a chuckle. His first thoughts were that she’d dreamt of Daisetsu and that whole ordeal, but it was so incredibly Miho for such potent fear to come from not being her usual, intimate self.
“Stop laughing!” she barked, throwing back the covers and slinging her leg over him, sitting there glaring down, even when his hands came to rest on her hips.
“You’re probably just overly tired,” he told her, unable to keep all the amusement from his tone. “We did…”
“Remind me,” she hissed, leaning down to kiss him, lifting her pelvis to allow enough room for her hand to wrap around his cock.
“Again?” he questioned, but flinched when her cool fingers closed in around him and immediately began to stroke. “You probably had your nightmare because we walked through the door, tore each other’s clothes off and didn’t stop until dark.”
“I have to get these images out of my mind somehow,” she told him, shaking her head in frustration, until Goto moved his hands to her face and captured it between.
“You are a very strange woman,” he declared, before drawing her down for a deep and lingering kiss. “My very strange woman,” he added when their lips parted.
His eyes closed involuntarily as she reawakened his desire, dispersing shocks of energy to muscles made tired by their earlier exploits. Surprisingly nimble fingers squeezed around her breasts and teased her nipples, while she rekindled the throbbing tension of his groin.
Their time apart, eventful though short, had highlighted just how invested he was in her, and vice versa – mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Her body was already patterned with little marks where he’d sucked on her skin; now she wasn’t involved in date scenarios she was free to do with her body what she wanted, and what she wanted his mouth suckling, nipping, biting her flesh, with just enough strength for it to sting, to leave his impression on her.
“You’re just a tease,” he growled, his fingers digging into her ass cheeks as she sandwiched his cock between the wet heat of her folds and his abdomen, “waking me up just… to…”
“Just to?” she grinned down at him, denying him full gratification but grinding a path back and forth.
“Now who’s the monster?” he grated out, but he didn’t pressure her into anything more than she wanted to give.
She was still fragile, and he knew she covered much of it with a veneer of control and sexual confidence – not that either of those things weren’t normal of course.
“Hey,” she barked, sitting back and slapping his chest as it seemed his mind had wandered.
“So now you want to play rough?” he chuckled, catching the wrist of her next attempted swipe.
“Do you know how to play rough, Lieutenant?” she goaded, digging her fingernails into his pecks, dragging them down until he cringed, took hold of her upper arms, and flipped her on her back.
“I know how to play rough,” he told her plainly, as he sat back on his heels and dragged her, legs spread, up into his lap. “Tired of the sweetness?”
“I just need a healthy balan….” she began, but nearly had the wind knocked out of her when he pulled her sharply the rest of way against him, driving his erection into her with enough force to elicit a loud, breathy grunt.
And he gave her what she asked for.
With her hips gripped tightly, he rocked himself solidly to the deepest reach of her core, withdrawing quickly only to bury himself again. Heavy breathing, moaning, and the swift escalation of Miho’s voice, laced the air with thick, passionate heat until there was nothing for either of them but to let go of nightmares, and just indulge in the carnality of their lust.
Cold air tingled against Miho’s inflamed skin, that still glowed with the most recent memories of Goto all over it: on the futon, in the doorway, in the shower.
On the porch outside their room she sat drowsily waiting for Goto to bring out tea, despite the late hour.
In the quiet – leaves rustling, wind breathing, clouds skittering across the sky, brushing the face of the moon – she felt herself slide into contemplation.
And closed her eyes.
Her hands were white.
No matter how long she stared at them, she could not erase the blood.
They were empty.
In them she held the significant weight of death, perhaps heavier than the bodies themselves she had hewn, strangled, poisoned.
Clean, guilty hands that didn’t even belong to her.
The Gotoshima Clan owned those hands, just as they owned every inch of her body – just not the metaphysical parts that dragged behind her the lives of others she’d taken in its name, on its order.
“It’s rare,” a male voice said, and he was already at her back and within arm’s reach when he spoke, “for me to be able to sneak up on you.”
Even then she continued, unblinking, to peer at her palms.
“And you have nothing to report to me?” he persisted, stepping down off the veranda where she sat, and studying her expression.
She was not one to show a lot of emotions, like her sensei before her, but now there was a mask of porcelain obscuring the truth of her turmoil.
“Milord Seiji,” she said finally, her voice a pale shade of her usual confidence. “May I ask a question of you?”
“Of course,” he frowned mildly, sitting beside her, their shoulders brushing lightly.
“You are a warrior, a noble samurai,” she began, curling her fingers to her palms and digging in short fingernails – the sensation of physical pain. “You take up arms against your foes,” she continued in a monotone. “You cut them down and they bleed, into dirt and dust, against cloth and tatami and the arms and hearts of their loved ones.”
The only son of Gotoshima Shinichi, leader of the Gotoshima Clan listened intently, though he was certainly under no obligation to do so – and though he was still a young man, there were also few who would dare say such brazen things to him. She too was young, a year younger in fact, but it was not through naivety she spoke so openly.
“Do you ever wonder what might have become of those lives had you not taken them?” she enquired finally, but didn’t quite seem finished. “Of those left behind had they not been scarred by the sorrow of their loss?”
Seiji did not reply immediately, for he could see her questions were not asked lightly.
“No life I have ever taken was extinguished without purpose,” he said finally. “The edge of my blade serves the future of this clan, and to protect the innocent people who depend upon it for safety, stability and prosperity.”
She remained motionless as he spoke, gaze still fixated upon the curl of her own fingers.
“Duty excuses blood?” she queried, her tone unchanged.
“Excuses?” he repeated. “Perhaps there is no true excuse, but I can feel no guilt for killing fifty enemy soldiers who would slaughter a hundred of our people, people for whom I have a responsibility. Still, it is never easy to take a life, nor should it be, but while those gods who watch amused over the affairs of mere mortals may not forgive you the souls you return to their care, to save the many can be justified.”
“And if those were fifty allied soldiers, and those one hundred were innocents of an enemy? If the many are our foe?” she probed further, and this time she looked to him, brown eyes mingled with green in search of more than just answers from him.
He and his father had sent her off to dispatch countless difficult enemies who had eluded them on the battlefield – nineteen years old and murderous seductress of significant talent, and only now that he saw death carved into her face did he realise the toll it took.
“I do not think I can answer that question to your satisfaction,” he admitted soberly, and alone in the garden, he placed his hand over hers. “Politics and ethics rarely agree.”
“I know I am a puppet,” she told him, lifting her chin a little, like she found no shame in the fact she’d just declared. “I am yours to wield as you see fit, and I will, the serpent, bed any man or woman who stands against you and I will end them… but…”
There, Seiji interrupted her with the squeeze of his hand.
“There is only one bed I truly wish you into,” he asserted with quiet vehemence, though it was a pointless and selfish admission.
Standing, the ninja-assassin pulled their hands apart; but he could read her well enough to know it was not because she was affronted – he knew her painful desire also.
“And there is only one bed I can never have,” she whispered, her back to him and her eyes closed.
That was the rule, of her sensei, of the Gotoshima lord – to keep a female ninja, to prevent her presence, fleeting as it might have been at any one time from disrupting the men, any she slept with were fated to die by her hand.
“Let the gods damn me for what I am, for what I do,” she continued, her voice gathering momentum and vehemence, “but tell me you do not, you will not, and my conscience will be appeased.”
His body commanded him to wrap her in his arms, but his duty had to transcend that.
“Any blood upon your hands is mine,” he told her clearly, stepping up behind her – but this time he ensured there was some space between them, even though he ached to close it. “Pass the dead to me and I will carry them for you.”
“I do not wish that for you either,” she actually sighed – sighed because no matter what she wished for, her fate and his, was completely beyond their control.
“You are my puppet,” he sniffed, adopting a tone haughty, and perhaps more befitting that of a lord. “If you will not give them to me willingly, then I shall simply order you to.”
“Dozing off?” Goto’s voice floated in through the haze, and Miho’s eyes fluttered open where she had come to rest back against the outside of their room. “You’ll catch a cold.”
He crouched to place down the tray upon which sat two cups of tea, but didn’t sit beside her. Instead, he gently nudged her forward so he could settle in behind her, before draping a blanket over their legs.
“Thinking,” she murmured, snuggling back against him as he enveloped her and nestled his cheek against hers.
“About?” he prompted, kissing her gently, tea totally forgotten.
“Can I ask you a question?” she enquired, a strange echo of the distant past.
“Anything,” he assented.
“Have you ever… killed anyone?”
Given their most recent activities, that wasn’t quite the topic of inquiry Goto had been expecting, however, he was not all that surprised. They had already spoken about Daisetsu’s death and her part in it, but he knew guilt all too well, understood the way self-blame got under the skin and spread so far, became so pervasive, it was difficult to dig out.
“As a police officer I mean,” Miho added after a few seconds of silence she might have taken as misinterpretation.
“I have,” he admitted somberly. “Gun crime itself is fairly rare in Japan, and we teach non-lethal techniques at the academy.”
Lightly he caressed her arms he continued.
“But sometimes we’re not given a choice. Sometimes the bad guy forces your hand, threatens things worth more than their life alone. Like Issei. Fighting Daisetsu like you did saved him.”
“In my mind I understand that,” she exhaled. “And even, if I could go back and in that moment… I would still do what I did… but…”
“It leaves a mark on you, doesn’t it?” Goto filled in, pulling the blanket up a little more. “You can’t see it, but it’s there, in your heart, behind your eyes.”
“I don’t want him in my heart,” she shuddered out, shrinking against him a little. “That place is yours, no room for monsters of the past – so why can’t I let it go? Why does she have to haunt me?”
“You loved him once,” Goto said softly, his embrace all around her. “And even if you hadn’t, monstrous behaviour aside, he was a person and you – you’re far too human to see another person as completely empty.”
“What do I do?” she whimpered, turning her face to his arm and pressing her forehead against it. “I feel like, like it’s suffocating me, like I’m dirty, covered in filth standing shoulder to shoulder with murderers.”
“Shhh,” he soothed, gliding his fingers through her hair. “I wish I could take this burden from you,” he breathed. “I wish I could put myself between you and him, but that isn’t within my power. What is, is to hold you when it gets too much, to pull you back when you feel like you might lose yourself…”
He paused to reposition himself just enough that he could look into her weeping face.
“And when you feel like you might suffocate,” he frowned intensely. “I will remind you how much I love you, how much I need you, how much my life is made better because it will be spent with you.”
“God damn you’re smooth,” she coughed out in a thick half-sob half-chuckle.
“I mean it,” he insisted, then kissed her, just the lightest of pecks, then against the tears on her cheeks. “I feel like maybe… there’s this sense of déjà vu, and I don’t think I got it right last time. I want to get it right, I don’t want you to feel alone.”
Miho emptied her lungs entirely and slumped, and she could do so because there were strong, dedicated arms there to catch her. The pressure against her conscience might return, a spectre, a ninja hiding just out of sight waiting to pounce in a vulnerable moment – but Goto’s reassurance took some of the fear out of having to face it.
He made no ludicrous demands, nor promised the unattainable – just what he could give as the man who loved her.