The house is too quiet.
Zi Feng sighs heavily and rolls from his side onto his back. Again. Then he curses under his breath and kicks off the covers. Again.
His bedroom is too hot. It’s also too cold. His mattress is too hard, and also too soft. The bed is too big, too small, too. . .
“This is ridiculous. What’s wrong with me?”
The surrounding darkness offers no answers.
Zi Feng mutters another curse and then snatches his phone from the bedside table. His home screen tells him it’s 11:47 PM, and 52 degrees under partly cloudy skies. He has no new emails, and no new texts.
If I don’t get some sleep soon, I’m going to be useless at work tomorrow . Zi Feng groans. He supposes it’s a good thing he’s the boss. Amy might raise an eyebrow at him, but nobody will say anything if he comes in a couple of hours late. Ya Nuo is the only one who would read Zi Feng the riot act for making him worry if Zi Feng didn’t show up on time, but Ya Nuo won’t be there in the morning. He’s still on leave.
Ya Nuo. He wonders what Ya Nuo is doing right now.
He’s sleeping, you idiot. You should be asleep, too. Maybe Sister Feng has hot chocolate mix in the kitchen. Ya Nuo says it helps you sleep . . .
Zi Feng flips through his phone to his text conversation with Ya Nuo. His last response to Zi Feng was nearly three hours ago: You worry too much. I’m okay. Tired. I think I’ll turn in early. You should go to bed early, too. It’s been a long day.
“Ya Nuo,” Zi Feng sighs and shakes his head. It amazes him how someone so exuberant and verbose when he’s happy can so easily become king of the understatement when he’s suffering. If only Ya Nuo would be as considerate and supportive of himself as he is to those he cares about, he might give Zi Feng a chance to prove his shoulder is more than sturdy enough to cry on.
I want to be your comfort and your shelter, Ya Nuo, the way you are mine.
Damn Han Sheng and damn Zhe Rui for hurting Ya Nuo and ruining what had started out as a wonderful day, and damn Qing Yang for convincing Zi Feng to bring Ya Nuo to the confrontation with Han Sheng, and damn himself for not following his gut. And damn this infuriating, full-bodied itch just beneath his skin . . .
“Ya Nuo,” Zi Feng breathes, and that itch simultaneously eases and heightens.
“No. I won’t. He’s asleep.”
You have to do something. You’re driving yourself crazy.
“True,” Zi Feng mutters, and then flips through his contacts and hits a call button.
The phone only rings twice. “What’s wrong?” Qing Yang answers. The hint of sleep in his voice would be imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know him well.
“Are you asleep?”
“Not anymore,” Qing Yang says. “What time is it?”
Zi Feng winces. “Almost midnight.”
“Which prompts me to repeat my question. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Zi Feng sighs and tugs a hand through his hair. “I can’t sleep.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line, and then Qing Yang says, “Okay. I’ll heat some sake. See you in ten.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called. It’s just . . . Qing Yang?” Zi Feng pulls the phone away from his ear and sees the call has been disconnected. He smiles. That is just like Qing Yang. He’s a man of few words, but when he says them, he means them.
“Looks like I will be late to work tomorrow,” Zi Feng mutters, and then hauls himself out of bed.
Qing Yang is sitting at a table in his pajamas, two flasks of sake in a bowl of steaming water setting at its center, when Zi Feng enters the cafe. He presses a finger to his lips and then points at the ceiling before gesturing for Zi Feng to fill the empty chair.
“Is Uncle asleep?” Zi Feng whispers as he sits down. It’s an inane question, he knows, but it’s as good an icebreaker as he can manage in his current, itchy state.
Nodding, Qing Yang fills an ochoko from one of the flasks and slides it over to Zi Feng. “As one tends to be at this hour. It’s Na Na I’m wary of disturbing, though. Her room is right above us and she’s a light sleeper.”
“I’m sorry, Qing Yang. I had no business calling you this late.” Zi Feng says, filling a second ochoko. He slides it over to Qing Yang. “I certainly didn’t mean for you to go through all this trouble.”
Qing Yang nods his thanks for the sake, ignores it, and pins Zi Feng with a contemplative stare. “After remembering the last time you called me at midnight to tell me you couldn’t sleep, I realized this was the most appropriate course of action.”
Zi Feng sips his sake, searches his memory, and comes up short. “When was that?”
Zi Feng pushes his ochoko aside and drops his head into his hands with a groan.
“Still so troubled, I see,” Qing Yang says gently. “This is about Ya Nuo.”
“I should have never taken him with us to see Han Sheng,” Zi Feng laments quietly, staring down at the table. “It was a clan matter. You and I both know to be on guard for anything, but Ya Nuo is ill prepared to deal with the likes of Han Sheng. He’s so innocent, Qing Yang, I’m meant to protect him, and I failed. Again.”
“Had we not brought him with us, he would have gone to Han Sheng on his own,” Qing Yang reasons. “Bringing him along was the best way to protect him, considering his reaction to Han Sheng’s accusation of Zhe Rui. Imagine what might have happened had Ya Nuo laid Han Sheng out like that on his own turf, and you hadn’t been there to lay down the law. Han Sheng’s men would have killed him.”
Every muscle in his body tenses. Zi Feng digs his fingers into his scalp, trying to drive out the image. “If that had happened, I would have ripped them apart, Qing Yang. I would have killed them all.”
“It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen, because you were there to protect Ya Nuo. He’s okay.”
“No.” Zi Feng shakes his head into his palms. “He’s heartbroken.”
“No. He’s not.” Qing Yang clears his throat. “Ya Nuo does not want to believe Zhe Rui could betray him. He’s afraid of being hurt and disappointed if Han Sheng’s accusation proves to be true, and he’s worried about his friend, but Ya Nuo is not heartbroken.”
“You saw him,” Zi Feng moans, still staring down at the table, his sake forgotten. “Ya Nuo shed tears over this. How can you say he’s not heartbroken?”
“Zi Feng. Look at me.”
Qing Yang’s command brooks no defiance. Zi Feng lifts his head from his hands and meets his friend’s patient eyes.
“Ya Nuo is not heartbroken,” Qing Yang repeats firmly. “He cares deeply for Zhe Rui, yes, but even so, Zhe Rui does not have the power to break Ya Nuo’s heart. There’s only one person in the world with the power to do that, and he’s sitting across from me.”
Zi Feng stares at him in stunned silence. Qing Yang’s words flood heat through his body more effectively than any warm sake.
Qing Yang picks up his ochoko, gives Zi Feng a nod, and then drinks it dry. “Now. Let’s talk about the real reason you can’t sleep.”
“You’re saying . . .” Zi Feng sputters. “You’re saying . . . why do you say I’m the only one with the power to break Ya Nuo’s heart?”
“Because a man as steadfast as Ya Nuo has only one heart to give, and he’s given his to you.” Qing Yang’s gaze is steady and compassionate. “Ya Nuo is in love with you, Zi Feng.”
“No. He’s not.” Zi Feng moans and slumps back into his chair. “He told A Chao he could never fall for anyone of the same gender. We’ve talked about this . . .”
“Not all brothers are as open and honest with each other as you and I. And even if we mean to be, we’re not always capable of being honest with ourselves. I don’t know A Chao well, but he does not strike me as the type of brother one seeks out for delicate council. Think about it. Would you feel moved to confess your heart to A Chao?”
“No.” Zi Feng snorts. “But . . .”
“You weren’t ready to hear this at the time, but I think you may be ready now.” Qing Yang leans forward and pushes Zi Feng’s sake toward him. “Fortify yourself.”
Eyeing Qing Yang warily, Zi Feng picks up his sake and downs it. “Okay.”
Qing Yang refills his ochoko, but pulls it back when Zi Feng moves to reach for it. “Not yet. I need you sober right now. This is for after, if you need it.”
“I’m suddenly not sure I want to hear what you’re about to tell me.” Zi Feng forces a chuckle, but his insides are churning.
“You blame the reason you didn’t confess to Ya Nuo on what you overheard him say to A Chao, but that was just an excuse. The real reason you didn’t confess to Ya Nuo is because you weren’t truly certain of your feelings, and you were still too conflicted over being attracted to a man. You weren’t ready.”
“No. I was ready,” Zi Feng insists. “You weren’t there. You didn’t hear how firm Ya Nuo was in his convictions.”
“You can lie to yourself, Zi Feng,” Qing Yang sits back and crosses his arms over his chest, “but you can’t lie to me. You were scared. You’re still scared. The fact that Ya Nuo is a man still hinders you, but it’s different now, because now you’re certain of the only issue that truly matters.”
Zi Feng tenses. “And what would that be?”
Saying nothing, Qing Yang gives him a small, patient smile, and waits.
“I’m in love with him.” The words bubble up from out of nowhere, but now that they’re out, Zi Feng realizes they were nearly bursting his chest. “I’m in love with Ya Nuo.”
“Yes. Yes you are. And that’s why you can’t sleep.” Qing Yang nods. “But you can rest easy, brother, because Ya Nuo is also in love with you.”
“How . . .” Zi Feng swallows hard. “How do you know?”
“Please.” Qing Yang smirks. “The man wears his heart on his sleeve and he looks at you like you hung the moon. How was that kiss this afternoon, by the way?”
“The kiss was nothing,” Zi Feng scoffs, but he feels himself blush. “We lost a game.”
“Best game you ever lost, I’d say.” Qing Yang chuckles. “I was worried I was going to have to mop you up off the floor after Ya Nuo melted you into a puddle.”
“Bite me,” Zi Feng scowls, but then he grins.
“Was it on par Weng Mei Rin?” Qing Yang waggles his eyebrows.
“Weng Mei Rin! I can’t believe you even remember her.” Zi Feng laughs. “That had to be fifteen years ago.”
“Shh.” Qing Yang chides, pointing at the ceiling. In a hushed tone, he says, “Ten. I remember because you wouldn’t stop gushing about her, and I was terrified you were going to propose and inflict that obnoxious jasmine perfume on us for the rest of our lives.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“It was putrid.” Qing Yang grimaces. “And she was obnoxious. She whined, Zi Feng. All of the time.”
“It wasn’t a real kiss. More like losing a bet, so it doesn’t count. Not really.” Zi Feng reaches across the table for Qing Yang’s ochoko and refills it. “Even so, kissing Mei Rin was like kissing a turnip compared to kissing Ya Nuo.”
“Ooh boy. You’ve really got it bad.” Qing Yang shakes his head, and accepts the sake Zi Feng pushes toward him with a grin.
“I woke up in his arms this morning,” Zi Feng confesses. He slides his own ochoko to his side of the table and toys with it, ignoring the skyward shoot of Qing Yang’s eyebrows. “You saw the place where Dad is staying. It’s small. Only one guest room with a mattress on the floor, so Ya Nuo and I have been sharing.” Zi Feng smiles. “Sleeping with Ya Nuo is like sleeping with an octopus, so I’m not surprised when I wake up with him half on top of me, all tangled up in his arms and legs, drool on my shirt. But this morning, I woke up from the sweetest dream of him and discovered I was the octopus, and he was holding me. He was stroking my shoulder and running his fingers through my hair and I felt so . . . so . . .”
“Happy?” Qing Yang supplies, and then gives a awkward clear of his throat.
Zi Feng tears his gaze away from the safety of his sake and looks at him. “Yes. But more than that. I felt like I was exactly where I belonged. I felt like I was home.”
“That . . . that is a significant feeling,” Qing Yang says.
Sighing heavily, Zi Feng nods.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know, but I know the reason I can’t sleep is because I’ve slept with him the past three nights, and now my bed feels too empty without him.” Zi Feng shakes his head, and chuckles. “I want to wake up beside him every morning. I think that means I want to marry him, Qing Yang. Does that sound crazy?”
“No. Not at all,” Qing Yang says, his eyes shining with sincerity. “Does it sound crazy to you?”
“I should probably confess that in my dream this morning, Ya Nuo was wearing a dress.” Zi Feng grimaces. “Also, he most definitely did not have a penis.”
Without looking away, Qing Yang downs his sake. He shoves his ochoko toward Zi Feng and gestures for a refill. “Have you given any serious thought about having sex with Ya Nuo?” He asks, as Zi Feng complies. “To having sex with Ya Nuo as a man, I mean. With all the . . . um . . .equipment that entails?”
Zi Feng quirks an eyebrow. “Are we really going to have this conversation?”
Nodding, Qing Yang pushes Zi Feng’s ochoko toward him.
“Yes.” Zi Feng rolls his eyes, then picks up his sake and downs it. He shoves the empty back toward Qing Yang. “Yes, I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. ”
“And?” Qing Yang pours out another refill.
“And?” Zi Feng mimics, reaching for his ochoko.
Qing Yang places his palm over the top of the cup and shakes his head. “And how does it make you feel, the thought of interacting with Ya Nuo’s penis? Be honest.”
Slumping back in his chair, Zi Feng tugs a hand through his hair and sighs.
“Zi Feng . . .”
“Okay. So at first the whole penis thing completely freaked me out, right?” Zi Feng fidgets, talking fast. “And then I forced myself to think about why it freaked me out, and I realized it was because I was scared I wouldn’t know what to do with it, which is completely ridiculous, because I have one. Which, I figure, pretty much makes me an expert, yes?”
Qing Yang shrugs, then nods and pushes the filled ochoko over to Zi Feng. “So the thought of . . . you know . . . doesn’t turn you off?”
Accepting the sake, Zi Feng looks Qing Yang in the eye. “The thought of making Ya Nuo come undone is the hottest thing ever.”
“Good. That’s good.” Blushing, Qing Yang clears his throat. “And you’re okay with the idea of never making love to a woman again?”
“I don’t want anyone other than Ya Nuo.”
“You’re being sincere.” Qing Yang nods. “You sound certain.”
“I am.” Zi Feng shakes his head at the wonderment of it all, and grins. “I love him, Qing Yang. I’m in love with Ya Nuo. He’s my future. My life.”
“I’m sincerely happy for you.” Qing Yang stifles a yawn. “So when are you going to tell him?”
The smile droops from Zi Feng’s face. “I guess maybe when I stop dreaming he’s a woman.” He scowls and tosses back his sake. “I disgust myself. Ya Nuo deserves to be loved for exactly who he is, and here I am, dreaming about him wearing this silky, pink dress . . .”
“Forgive yourself.” Qing Yang waves off the concern and reaches for the sake flask. “Even if Ya Nuo wasn’t a rather effeminate man, dreaming such things is completely natural, considering you’re not gay.”
“Yeah? Well I don’t suppose fantasizing about making love to him exactly makes me straight, so . . .”
“You’re Ya Nuo sexual.” Qing Yang says, matter of factly. “Would you love him more if he were a woman?”
“No.” Zi Feng answers immediately. He sits back and makes himself really consider the question, and then answers again, a sense of calm finally quelling the itch that has vexed him since he crawled into bed earlier in the night. “No. Nor would I love him any less. I . . . I just love Ya Nuo.”
“Tell him how you feel, Zi Feng.” Qing Yang drains the sake flask into Zi Feng’s ochoko. “You’re staying here tonight. There’s a bedroll in the store room. I’ll make hangover cure coffee in the morning.”
“Hangover cure coffee?”
“Trade secret.” Qing Yang says. He throws back the rest of his sake and pushes back from the table. “Goodnight.”
“Thank you, Qing Yang.”
Nodding, Qing Yang claps a hand on Zi Feng’s shoulder and squeezes, and then he disappears up the stairs.
The itch is back.
Zi Feng lays atop the bedroll on the store room floor and stares up into the darkness. Then he groans and rolls over onto his side.
This is ridiculous. I have enough sake on board to sedate a small herd of cattle. Why can’t I sleep?
Zi Feng flops onto his back and pulls his phone out of his pocket. His home screen tells him it’s 01:42 AM, and 52 degrees under partly cloudy skies.
I’m in love with Ya Nuo.
I miss Ya Nuo.
I need to see Ya Nuo. Right now.
Yes. It’s the only way I’m going to get any sleep.
Zi Feng kicks off his blanket, sits up, and scrambles around the darkened store room for his shoes.
This is madness, Zi Feng. You can’t possibly be thinking of showing up at Ya Nuo’s house at this hour.
Congratulating himself for remembering to still the bell above the cafe door as he leaves, Zi Feng manages to slip out into the chill, damp night with a minimum of noise. He’s too inebriated to drive, so he pulls his coat tighter around himself and sets out on foot.
Ten minutes later finds him squatting outside of Ya Nuo’s bedroom window. His nose is running, he’s chilled to the bone, and he has no idea what he should do next. Knock, maybe?
Whatever you do, don’t wake up Auntie Pi. She will decapitate you first and ask questions later.
Zi Feng shudders in agreement and spares a few seconds to wonder why Auntie Pi is so strange and terrifying. Then he slips his numb fingers beneath the bottom edge of the window pane and pushes up.
Ya Nuo’s window slides miraculously open. Zi Feng can barely believe his luck as he pokes his head and shoulders into the dark warmth of Ya Nuo’s bedroom.
Something grasps hold of his coat collar at the nape of his neck. The next thing Zi Feng knows, he’s flying through the window. Then he’s thrown onto his back and pinned to the floor by a knee exerting a thousand pounds of pressure on his sternum, and an elbow threatening the same at his throat. He lets out an undignified squawk, and then gasps, “Ya Nuo!”
“Zi Feng?” Ya Nuo whisper-hisses.
“Ya Nuo . . . I . . . Can’t breathe . . .”
The pressure vanishes off his sternum, and then the room explodes with light. Gasping and clutching his chest, Zi Feng squints up at a looming shadow he hopes is Ya Nuo and tries to smile.
“Du Zi Feng!” Ya Nuo comes into focus. He stands over Zi Feng with his hands on his hips, and he looks supremely pissed off. “What in the Hell are you doing here? I nearly killed you just now!”
Zi Feng stares up at him, speechless. God, he’s beautiful. He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen . . .
“Zi Feng!” Ya Nuo snaps his fingers. “Hey! You awake in there?”
“Yeah.” Zi Feng grins. “I can’t sleep.”
“You can’t sleep?” Ya Nuo repeats, his expression incredulous. “Du Zi Feng. Are you drunk?”
“Yes.” Zi Feng giggles. Ya Nuo looks so damn cute when he’s pissed. “But it isn’t helping me sleep. At all.”
“So you decided to sneak through my bedroom window in the middle of the night like some psychotic serial killer because . . .?” Ya Nuo taps his fingers against his hips, but his expression softens.
“I thought maybe I could sleep here.” Zi Feng gives Ya Nuo his most hopeful smile.
“You thought . . .” Ya Nuo huffs and shakes his head, and then he reaches down, grabs Zi Feng by the wrist and hauls him to his feet. “Have you met my mother? You realize she’ll kill us both if she finds you here.”
“Yeah. Why is that, exactly?”
“Because . . .because . . .” Ya Nuo bites his lower lip, and Zi Feng has a sudden desire to kiss it. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter!” Ya Nuo shoves him toward the window. “You have to go.”
Zi Feng twists out of Ya Nuo’s hands, pulls Ya Nuo into his arms and hugs him close. “Please . . . please, Ya Nuo. I need you.”
Ya Nuo stiffens, but just for a second before he melts into Zi Feng’s embrace. He rests his head against Zi Feng’s chest, over his heart. His arms hook around Zi Feng’s waist and pull him closer. “I couldn’t sleep, either,” he murmurs.
“Thinking about Zhe Rui?” Zi Feng manages to keep the question light, with only the barest trace of bitterness.
Ya Nuo nods against his chest. “Some. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about your dad.”
“Hmm. I feel like we made some good progress with him over the past few days.” Ya Nuo pulls back to look up at him. “I think it’s important to keep that momentum going.”
Zi Feng rests his brow against Ya Nuo’s and closes his eyes. “What were you thinking?”
“Would you mind if I went and spent some time with him while you’re working? I’m still on leave, and . . .”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Zi Feng murmurs.
“You sound sleepy,” Ya Nuo smiles.
“Um hmm. Let me stay?”
Ya Nuo pulls out of Zi Feng’s arms. “Get into bed,” he demands, and then crosses the room to lock the bedroom door.
Grinning, Zi Feng shrugs out of his coat and kicks off his shoes. He pulls his sweater off over his head and shucks off his jeans.
Ya Nuo watches him out of the corner of his eye while pretending to occupy himself with straightening out the bed linens. “Want some clothes to sleep in?”
“Not really,” Zi Feng shrugs, and then climbs into Ya Nuo’s bed.
Ya Nuo flips off the light and then climbs in beside him. “Are you sure you won’t be cold in just your underwear?”
Zi Feng curls up against him, picks up Ya Nuo’s arm and drapes it over his shoulder. “Being near you keeps me warm.”
“Oh.” Zi Feng hears the smile in Ya Nuo’s voice, and then he’s being shifted more fully into Ya Nuo’s arms. He pillows his head against Ya Nuo’s chest and snuggles closer.
Feeling warm and safe and home, Zi Feng sleeps.