Pi Ya Nuo dreams she’s eating candied sweet potatoes. She knows she’s dreaming because she’s lounging on a blanket beneath a cherry tree in full bloom, and she’s wearing a silken dress in the very same shade of pink as as the petals above. She doesn’t own a pink dress, or any dress for that matter. Also, it’s winter.
In her dream, Zi Feng lies propped up on his elbow beside her, his dark eyes locked with hers, the heat of his gaze warming her through. He feeds her a small piece of yam with his fingers, and she dares to suck the syrup from his skin.
He slips his finger from her mouth and traces the wet line of her lower lip. The fire in his eyes blazes so hot she’s afraid she might spontaneously combust.
“How does it taste?” The low rumble of his voice rolls down the length of her spine and tingles her toes.
He quirks an eyebrow and graces her with that playful, roguish smile she fell completely in love with the first week she met him. “The yam? Or me?”
She flushes from her nape to her heels. “All of it.” But mostly you.
“Hmm,” he purrs, brow furrowing. His lips purse with faux skepticism, but his eyes smile. They’re brighter than the sunlight streaming through the cherry blossoms and, God, but she loves him. She loves him so much. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I think I’d better taste for myself.”
“Oh,” she frowns, shifting onto her back and pushing up on her elbows. She pulls her gaze from his and glances around the blanket, her mind flying at a million miles a minute as to how to best accommodate him, the way it always does when it comes to Du Zi Feng. From the first, she has felt like a moth to his flame. Her utmost desire is to do anything in her power to keep that flame burning brightly, and right now she can’t find the damned box of candied yams. She doesn’t remember seeing it. It’s almost as if Zi Feng had plucked the pieces he’d been feeding her out of thin air, and she’s not at all confident she possesses that same skill. “Where are . . .?”
“Ya Nuo,” Zi Feng murmurs, and she feels her name caress warm against her cheek as he pulls her into his arms.
She melts into his embrace, nestles her face against the crook of his neck and breathes him in. This is her favorite spot in the whole world, warm and soft and scented faintly of sandalwood, his pulse thrumming gently against her skin. If it were up to her she’d settle in and live here, but she barely gets comfortable before he pulls back and tilts his head down to hers, his eyes, dark as warm molasses, mere inches away.
There’s an intensity in his gaze she’s never seen before. He looks hungry. Ravenous. Her heart races. “Zi Feng . . . “
“Ya Nuo,” he breathes, and then she tastes her name on his lips pressing against hers, warm and sweet and insistent.
Zi Feng . . . We’re kissing. Her mind reels. We’re kissing, and it’s not an accident. We’re kissing and . . . and I want . . .
She wants more of him, needs more of him. He’s awakening something inside of her she didn’t know she possessed. Something feral and half starved takes control, wraps her arms around him and presses her body hard against his. It tangles her fingers into his hair and opens her mouth to him.
The moment his tongue rolls over hers a bolt of lightning erupts from her core and ignites a throbbing ache between her legs. Their tandem moans reverberate through her body and tingle over her skin, intensifying the ache, and the wild, desperate thing inside of her pulls Zi Feng down onto the blanket and shamelessly ruts her pelvis up against him.
The sound he makes is half growl, half cry, and all need. Ya Nuo swallows it down greedily and feeds him needy moans of her of her own as he grips a handful of her backside, holds her firmly in place and thrusts against that throbbing ache, which builds and brightens and threatens to consume her.
He’s hard in the way only a man can be, in a way she can never be, and the awakened woman within Ya Nuo revels in the solid length of him, in the growing heat of his arousal radiating through their clothing and setting her to burn.
She needs him inside of her. Now.
They’re wearing too many clothes. Ya Nuo rips out of their kiss, panting, and yanks upward on Zi Feng’s sweater. “Off,” she growls. “Need this off. All of it. Need . . .”
“Ya Nuo,” Zi Feng presses her back down against the blanket, seemingly oblivious to her desperate efforts to disrobe him. He raises his head and stares off into the distance. “Listen. A whistling thrush. Do you hear it?”
Yes, she hears it. Not just one but a whole flock of them judging by how the world has suddenly erupted in birdsong, but she couldn’t care less. Right now, she needs to get this damned sweater off of her sworn brother and make him her lover before this throbbing, aching inferno blazing at her core incinerates her to ash and she drifts off into the ether. “Zi Feng . . .”
The birdsong grows louder. Frustrated, Ya Nuo glares up at Zi Feng and sees not the man she loves, but the giant, blue head of a whistling thrush wearing his sweater.
“Zi Feng!” Ya Nuo startles awake.
She feels disoriented and oddly heavy, and she succumbs to a brief moment of paralyzing panic before reality settles back in. Relief flows through her body, relaxing her tensed muscles and prompting her to breathe.
Everything’s okay, Pi Ya Nuo. You’re in Uncle Du’s home. It’s morning. The birds are singing. And Zi Feng . . .
Zi Feng is curled up against her like an oversized cat, one arm slung across her hips, one leg resting heavily across both of hers, his head pillowed on her chest. Tendrils of his sun-kissed dark hair tickle her neck, and his breath, warm and sleep-heavy, blows a slow rhythm against a peaked nipple laying atop a breast too soft to belong to the man she’s supposed to be.
Oh! This shirt is much too thin . . . Why did I take off my sweater? Stupid. Stupid, Pi Ya Nuo!
Tensing, she bites back a sigh, and then forces herself to relax again. It hadn’t been stupid to strip the sweater, but practical. In a perfect world, she’d be wearing her favorite set of gender concealing pajamas right now, but the extended visit with Zi Feng’s father had been impromptu. She’d taken off the sweater before bed last night because she’d been wearing it for two days already, she’d slept in it the night before, and it smelled faintly of fried fish. Zi Feng had tried to coax her into stipping down to her underwear, as he intended to do, but she’d managed to beg off by claiming to chill easily during the night. He’d teased her about being too shy, but otherwise accepted her excuse with good grace. She’d gotten into the bed they were sharing sans sweater, but otherwise fully dressed, and pulled the covers up to her chin, and he’d chuckled and turned off the light.
She dimly remembers Zi Feng sliding into bed beside her, but she’d been nearly asleep by then. Oh my God. Did he strip down to his skivvies?
Slowly, she cranes her neck up from the pillow, looks down the length of the man sleeping mostly on top of her, and sees miles of lean muscle clothed in nothing but light, golden skin . . . marred only by a pair of black, satiny boxer-briefs that cling to the curves of his bottom and leave nothing to the imagination.
He’s beautiful . . . He’s so very beautiful. And so very . . . bare . . .
Ya Nuo drops her head back to the pillow and feels the ache from her dream tingle into reality between her thighs.
Oh! This is not good. This is so not good. She silently curses her traitorous body, because as much as she’d like to be a woman in this moment, with Zi Feng draped over her like a lover, she can’t. Not yet. For a few more weeks, Pi Ya Nuo must be a man. He must be a best friend, a sworn brother, and, above all, a good and loyal son.
It’s time to remove yourself from this situation, Ya Nuo. He’s deeply asleep. If you’re very careful, you can slip out from beneath him without waking him this time . . .
Yes, she supposes she could manage to get up without disturbing him. Instead, Ya Nuo finds herself carding her fingers through his hair. It’s so thick, and softer than it looks, like rough silk. Besides, turnabout is fair play. The past two mornings she’d awakened in the very same position Zi Feng was in right now, and it had been Zi Feng’s fingers stroking through her hair, his face nestled against her crown, breathing her in.
She’s not sure when her other arm wrapped itself around him and pulled him more snuggly against her, but it feels so good to hold him like this. She feels warm and happy and complete in way she’s never felt before . . . like there was a piece of herself she didn’t know was missing. With Zi Feng in her arms, she feels whole. She feels . . .
She feels Zi Feng’s fingers drawing lines back and forth over her jeans-clad hip. She feels his breath quicken against her breast. He’s awake.
Ya Nuo stills. “Zi Feng?”
“Shh. Sleeping.” Zi Feng yawns and snuggles closer.
“We should get up,” Ya Nuo says in the manliest voice she can muster, which, to her own ears, sounds very much like a little boy who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. She grimaces and drops her arms to her sides.
“Noooo,” Zi Feng moans almost directly against her over-sensitive nipple. “Still early.” His voice rumbles through her breast and directly to her groin, while his hand slides up her body to the curve of her waist and grips tight in a silent command for her to stay put. Ya Nuo barely stifles her own moan, and she realizes she’s half a breath away from grabbing that hand on her waist and putting it where she wants it most.
And wouldn’t that be one hell of a confession.
It’s called filial piety, Ya Nuo. Her mother’s voice admonishes. Do you understand?
Yes. Ya Nuo sighs. Filial piety has been drilled into her head day in and day out for more than twenty-five years, and she understands all too well. Just a few more weeks, and then she’ll tell Zi Feng everything. She’ll beg his forgiveness and confess her feelings and hope that he . . .
“Why’d you stop?” Zi Feng murmurs.
“Huh?” Ya Nuo startles out of her thoughts. “Stop what?”
“Stroking my hair.” He yawns again, and shifts his head against her breast, making himself more comfortable. His grip on her waist loosens, and his thumb caresses lazy circles there. “It felt nice.”
“You want me to stroke your hair?” Ya Nuo chuckles to cover the sudden swell of her emotions, which range from nervous uncertainty to love so overwhelming it might burst her chest. “Are you secretly a cat?”
“Yes.” Zi Feng makes a sound that’s half mewl, half moan, and Ya Nuo feels him grin against her chest. “Pet me.”
Tentatively, Ya Nuo raises her arm from her side and threads her fingers through his hair. “Like this?”
“Mmmmmm,” Zi Feng purrs. “Perfect.”
“Oh.” Ya Nuo smiles, warmed by his compliment. “Good.” Feeling very self-satisfied, she wraps her free arm back around him, and he rewards her with a happy sigh and a full-bodied snuggle.
“Still perfect?” She somehow manages to make her loaded question sound light.
“Hmm,” he hums. “Even more perfect.”
She holds him and strokes his hair and feels him melt against her, utterly relaxed, and she wonders how she became so incredibly lucky. How did the cursed child Pi Ya Nuo become so blessed by the miracle that is Du Zi Feng?
How is it she should find herself here, awakening with Zi Feng in her arms? How is it that she should have her face nestled against his crown right now, her fingers tracing lazy patterns over his bare shoulder, his warm breath against her breast? How, when she is a man to him?
Besides Zi Feng and Liao Guang Chao, Ya Nuo doesn’t really have any other male friends, or any friends at all. Xiao Jing and Brother Zhe Rui don’t count, because they know she’s a woman. But A Chao . . . A Chao completely believes she’s a man. She tries to picture herself holding A Chao like this, and the image is so ludicrous she has to bite back a giggle.
She is a man to A Chao, but he has never once cooked for her, or hugged her for more than a brief moment, or touched her for no other reason than to touch her. They’ve never had a single tickle fight, and on the few occasions they’ve shared a bed, neither of them had any problem keeping to their side. Most of all, A Chao has never looked at her the way Zi Feng does . . . like he sees her soul and wants to protect it with his own.
She is a man to Zi Feng, and yet she had nearly kissed him the night before last. Moreover, he had nearly let her.
Don’t worry. I like women. How many times has he said this to her?
If you were a woman, I’d fall for you . . .
Ya Nuo’s heart races. She wonders if he’s noticed. “Zi Feng?”
Her fingers falter mid-stroke through Zi Feng’s hair. “Are you sure you’re comfortable with this?”
“Huh?” Zi Feng tenses, but just a little. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well . . . because I’m a man to you, aren’t I?” Ya Nuo resumes the glide of her fingers. “Doesn’t this seem rather . . .”
“You’re my sworn brother.” Zi Feng relaxes back into her touch. “It’s different.”
“So you do this with all your sworn brothers?” Ya Nuo frowns, imaging Qing Yang in her place. It’s a picture she doesn’t appreciate at all.
“I have no other sworn brothers.”
“Qing Yang!” She shoots back, and then grimaces at the sharpness of her tone.
“Qing Yang isn’t . . .” Zi Feng sighs heavily, and his whole body tenses. “Qing Yang is Qing Yang and you are Ya Nuo and it’s different.”
“How?” She pouts.
Very much like a disgruntled cat, Zi Feng groans and pushes up out of her arms. He braces himself above her and pins her with a gaze so vulnerable with sincerity, it causes Ya Nuo’s breath to catch. “It’s different because you are my one and only Pi Ya Nuo. You are the only person in the world I can be myself with. You are the only place I feel completely at ease.”
“Zi Feng . . .” She breathes. I love you. I’m so completely in love with you. She bites back her heart and swallows hard.
His gaze becomes pleading. “I hope these truths don’t make you feel uncomfortable. If they do, then I . . .”
“Hush.” Ya Nuo reaches up and pulls him back down into her arms. She settles his head against the pillow of her breast and resumes stroking his hair. “I’m not uncomfortable. I want to be that person for you, Zi Feng. I want to be that place for you. Forever.”
“That’s good,” he says, snuggling against her. He wraps his arm around her waist and a leg around both of hers, “because I can’t live without you.”
If only that were a confession . . . maybe someday, it will be. She presses a kiss to the top of his head. Just a few more weeks, Zi Feng, and I will share everything with you. I hope you’ll still feel the same way then . . .
“Ya Nuo . . .”
“So sleepy,” Zi Feng murmurs.
“Go back to sleep, then.” She hugs him closer.
“You sleep, too.” Zi Feng’s voice is drowsy thick. “I was having the sweetest dream about candied yams, but then you disappeared. Don’t wake up without me this time.”
“Okay.” Ya Nuo smiles. She supposes she should feel stunned they’d both been dreaming of candied sweet potatoes, but she doesn’t. Instead, she wonders if she was wearing the pink dress in Zi Feng’s dream. She hopes that she was. “I won’t.”
“I promise,” she says, and closes her eyes.