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Leave some space for the years | 给岁月 一些留白

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Mo Sanbi has heard that when a person is about to die, their entire life flashes before their eyes. Or that when a person dies, the last thing they ever saw is still caught in the reflection of their eyeballs. The second thing is total bullshit – he’s seen enough dead people’s eyes to know that they don’t really reflect anything.

The first thing might not be true either, he doesn’t know. But when he sees Qiao Yicheng crumple to the ground, right in front of him, Mo Sanbi’s life does flash before his eyes. The past fifteen years roll by in a moment – in the sound of his own skipped heartbeat.

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Years and years ago, there was some kind of crime down the street from the funeral shop. To get interviews from the public, Song Qingyuan and Qiao Yicheng are dispatched from the TV station. So, Mo Sanbi meets Qiao Yicheng when he’s still a rookie running after news with his slightly too-big new suit jacket and eager eyes. Unsure why there’s two news guys in his shop, and immediately distrusting them, Mo Sanbi tells the pretty kid exactly where he can shove that microphone and threatens the young cameraman with the iron pipe that he keeps behind the counter just in case.

The two hightail it out of there pretty quick, and it’s a shock when he sees them again as he’s taking Wu Xiaowen to eat dinner at a cheap restaurant on her first day of school a few days later. It’s crowded as hell, and the only empty seats are at their table. Mo Sanbi stares at the two young men, already deciding to walk out and go eat somewhere else, when Qiao Yicheng smiles and says something like, “Hello again. You can sit down, we don’t mind.”

Mo Sanbi feels extremely awkward and begins to turn away, but Wu Xiaowen skips over to sit – so Mo Sanbi sighs deeply, rubs the back of his head and goes to sit down too. It’s pretty uncomfortable at first – Mo Sanbi sitting in silence and watching Wu Xiaowen eat, while the two young men pretend like they aren’t stealing glances at him – but the little Wu Xiaowen can’t read the atmosphere at all and begins to ask all sorts of questions.

Qiao Yicheng is good with kids. The more he talks and smiles, the more Mo Sanbi can’t help looking over at him – he’s smart without being arrogant, friendly without being condescending, and when he smiles, his eyes crinkle. By the end of that meal, Qiao Yicheng, in Mo Sanbi’s eyes, has gone from ‘the enemy’ to ‘a good guy.’

“I treated you bad last time, kid,” he says finally, after staying silent for almost half an hour. “That’s my bad. How about I’ll treat you to a meal.”

Song Qingyuan perks up. “Sounds good!”

Qiao Yicheng looks over at him. “Oh, you don’t have to-”

Mo Sanbi smiles crookedly. “I’m gonna.”

Qiao Yicheng smiles and shrugs. “Okay!” He extends his hand. “…I’m Qiao Yicheng.”

“Mo Sanbi. Just call me San-ge.” Mo Sanbi grips his hand for a few seconds.

Song Qingyuan clears his throat. “I’m Song Qingyuan. If anyone’s interested.”

Qiao Yicheng rolls his eyes.

The three of them become friends – sometimes they get drinks together, eat together, laugh together. But from the beginning, it's Qiao Yicheng that ends up being closer to him. They might look and seem completely different – one young, promising careerman and one thirty-something-year-old ex-con funeral director – but they get along surprisingly well because of their shared values and similar upbringings. To put it mildly, neither of them are particularly rich guys, both of them had some pretty messed-up childhoods, and both of them are on paths in life that are headed in better directions than where they came from.

Most importantly, Wu Xiaowen likes him. Sometimes, Mo Sanbi feels annoyed that she likes 'Qiao-shu-shu' better than she likes him.

A year on, the two of them are having a few drinks at Mo Sanbi’s place when Qiao Yicheng suddenly mentions, “I’m getting married.”

Mo Sanbi drinks deeply from his beer can, looking straight ahead with half-closed eyes. “…Huh,” he finally says. “How come?”

Qiao Yicheng turns to stare at him. “What kind of question is that?” he demands, halfway between amusement and annoyance. “She likes me, I like her, isn’t that a reason?”

“Well, if you’ve thought about it,” Mo Sanbi says, shrugging, still looking out across the yard.

Qiao Yicheng makes a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “I swear, Lao-Song said pretty much the same thing. Why is everyone this unenthusiastic about me getting married?”

“This the Ye Xiaolang girl you mentioned before?” Mo Sanbi asks casually, opening another beer can and beginning to drink deeply.

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she steal your article?”

“That… We talked about it.”

“…Huh.” Mo Sanbi snorts, then finally looks over at Qiao Yicheng with a crooked smile. “She’s that pretty?”

Qiao Yicheng hits his shoulder. “San-ge, you saying that doesn’t sound good at all,” he says with mock offense.

“…Sure must be real pretty, then,” Mo Sanbi sighs. “…Whatever. If she’s really good to you, that’s all that matters. Good luck.” He clinks his beer can against Qiao Yicheng’s. “I wish you happiness.”

Mo Sanbi is invited to the wedding, which tells him that Qiao Yicheng really doesn’t have that many friends. He doesn’t go with the excuse that he’s got a funeral on the same day but goes to the TV station to meet him and give him a red packet and a bottle of good wine a few days later.

Married Qiao Yicheng isn’t too different from unmarried Qiao Yicheng. At least at first. Later on, he becomes more tired and stressed out, and often frowns to himself, even more than he usually does. Mo Sanbi wants to reach over and manually smooth out the ever-present crease in his forehead, but he doesn’t. He just gruffly mentions something like, “Hey, kid, we’re good buddies, so if you’ve got some kinda problem, we can talk or something.”

He’s awkward about feelings, he knows, but he genuinely cares about this guy. Obviously, Qiao Yicheng doesn’t take him up on it, preferring to shoulder burdens by himself. A few times, he mentions some things in vague terms, but quickly backtracks. It's not just his marriage causing him problems, it's also his family – but he's always so reticent about his family matters that Mo Sanbi always feels like he's prying even if he just wants to give a tiny bit of moral support, for what it's worth.

Apparently, he barely even talks to his wife about family stuff, so Mo Sanbi can't complain too much. He's got the same level of clearance as Qiao Yicheng's wife – that's already impressive.

Mo Sanbi meets Ye Xiaolang a few times briefly – he immediately doesn't like her, but he's biased. Not only is she Qiao Yicheng's wife, but she's also the kind of person Mo Sanbi can't stand. Impulsive, childish, always trying to act cute and duck out of anything serious. Not someone dependable that Qiao Yicheng needs so desperately in a life of people depending on him. Whatever. When Qiao Yicheng looks at her, his eyes sparkle, and if he's happy, then Mo Sanbi should be happy too.

Ye Xiaolang doesn’t like him either – he can tell that straight away. And fair enough, that, too. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you look at and immediately think ‘kind,’ and ‘cultured.’ Qiao Yicheng seems to notice this and looks apologetic. But it’s fine. It’s not like he has to deal with the girl too often. And it’s not like he doesn’t try to get along with her, for Qiao Yicheng’s sake.

The decisive moment between them comes when Mo Sanbi comes by their apartment because Song Qingyuan had gotten a cold, and he’d promised to take Qiao Yicheng down to the train station for a business trip – and as Qiao Yicheng’s other friend with a vehicle – he’d told Song Qingyuan he could do it instead.

He parks the van on the street and knocks on the apartment door. Ye Xiaolang opens it, and then looks momentarily uncomfortable upon seeing him. “Mo-da-ge?”

“I’m filling in for Lao-Song to drive Yicheng down,” he says.

“Oh, um, well, come in,” she says, giving him a tight smile and gesturing to the couch. “Yicheng is just washing up.”

“Right.”

“Would you like something to drink?”

“Nah, I’m good. Thanks.” Mo Sanbi sits awkwardly on the couch, listening to the sound of running water in the bathroom and looking around the room. There are sticky notes on the bookshelf and pieces of paper taped to the wall with notes in what looks like English.

Ye Xiaolang goes to sit down on the chair nearby. The water shuts off. “What happened to Song Qingyuan?” she wonders to fill the silence.

“Got a cold,” Mo Sanbi says. “I heard him sneezing all over the phone when he called me.”

Ye Xiaolang makes a face and laughs. “Gross.”

“Yeah.” He rubs the back of his head. “What’s up with all the paper?”

“Ah? Oh, our English notes? We're studying for our move to America."

Mo Sanbi freezes.

Qiao Yicheng comes out of the bathroom, mostly dressed, just buttoning his shirt up, hair slightly damp. He starts when he sees Mo Sanbi on the couch. “San-ge?”

“I’ll drive you instead,” Mo Sanbi says.

Qiao Yicheng grins. “Thanks!”

"So, you're going to America?" Mo Sanbi asks, forcedly casual.

Ye Xiaolang blinks round eyes at him and nods, as if 'of course!' and Qiao Yicheng freezes in the act of tying his tie. Mo Sanbi grits his jaw but tries to smile in a relaxed way, as if it doesn’t matter, or he’s heard this sort of news before.

"I thought Yicheng told you," Ye Xiaolang says, realizing that neither Qiao Yicheng not Mo Sanbi are particularly happy at hearing that. "You two are such good friends, I just assumed-"

Qiao Yicheng looks like he's in pain but tries to smile and shrugs apologetically. Mo Sanbi hates Ye Xiaolang in that moment, more than ever before.

"Fair assumption," Mo Sanbi snorts. "But why does it look like he's only just finding out about that too?" he jokes, and immediately regrets it. Qiao Yicheng already has a lot of struggles with his wife. He shouldn't add to it. But the words are out of his mouth, and he can't take them back.

Ye Xiaolang laughs, but it’s forced, and Mo Sanbi rubs the back of his head face turned down.

He stands up and avoids looking at Qiao Yicheng. "I'm gonna have a smoke," he says. "I'll wait for you outside. Thanks for letting me sit."

When Qiao Yicheng comes down with his luggage, Mo Sanbi is leaning against the side of the van and smoking. They silently put the luggage in the car, then sit down and drive off. Qiao Yicheng is uncharacteristically quiet, and Mo Sanbi turns the radio on for a low hum.

When they reach the train station, Mo Sanbi turns to him, but Qiao Yicheng is still staring straight ahead, past the windshield, past the station itself, like he's not seeing anything. Then he looks at Mo Sanbi. "I don't want to go to America," he bursts out. "I took the exam and didn't pass, I-" he cuts himself off and takes a deep breath.

Mo Sanbi sighs and reaches out to rest his hand on the young man's arm. "If you don't wanna go, then don't go," he says. "Did you tell her?"

"I- No… I'll support her in whatever she does, but I can't just-" Qiao Yicheng's expression goes blank, and he gives Mo Sanbi a tight smile. "Sorry, I've talked a lot of nonsense."

"C'mon. Whatever nonsense you talk, I'll listen," Mo Sanbi sighs again and gives his arm a pat before drawing away. "I'll get your luggage."

By the platform, Qiao Yicheng smiles at him tightly, and Mo Sanbi gives him a pat on the arm.

“When you come back, I’ll treat you to a meal.” There’s no problem that can’t be solved with food. “Even better, I’ll cook you something up.”

Qiao Yicheng’s expression softens. “Alright.”

When Ye Xiaolang finally fucks off to America by herself, Qiao Yicheng is trying to appear like he’s the same as he always was. His life has never gone smoothly, and Mo Sanbi can only have a few drinks with him, feed him some home cooking, and talk about other stuff, hopefully to distract him for just a moment. When that woman breaks up with him over e-mail and faxes the divorce papers through to his workplace in the middle of the night, Qiao Yicheng seems to be caught between sadness and relief.

Mo Sanbi can see it in him – the struggle between mourning the loss of a relationship he really did seem to treasure, and the relief that he didn’t have to keep waiting for the axe to drop on whatever was tying him together to that woman.

They get drunk together that night – first at a bar, then stumble over to Mo Sanbi’s place. Wu Xiaowen is having a sleepover at a friend’s house and so they don’t have to worry about waking her up. From what he can remember, Mo Sanbi tries to keep him from drinking too much, but then gives up and matches him drink for drink. At some point, Qiao Yicheng has put an arm around his shoulder and gestures vaguely at nothing. “San-ge, don’t get married…” he slurs. “You absolutely… Can’t… Get… Married…” he punctuates each word with a pat to Mo Sanbi’s cheek. His eyes are bleary but intense.

“No worries there,” Mo Sanbi snorts, wrapping his arm around Qiao Yicheng’s back. It’s warm. Real warm. He loosely catches Qiao Yicheng’s hand with his other hand before the young man can whack his cheek again.

“…Promise,” Qiao Yicheng insists and pouts slightly, and his lips are… They’re nice. Qiao Yicheng is all flushed from the alcohol, and his lips are all red too. There’s a mole at the corner of his mouth that Mo Sanbi has always noticed whenever Qiao Yicheng smiles. Mo Sanbi is gripped with the compulsion to touch it, but he doesn't, he just stares at it a little bit.

“I swear,” Mo Sanbi says solemnly, then remembers that he’s supposed to be looking at Qiao Yicheng’s eyes instead of his lips. “I swear…”

Qiao Yicheng rushes forward and kisses him.

For a moment, Mo Sanbi’s eyes are wide and surprised, and his mouth is frozen, but then he kisses him back. Qiao Yicheng’s eyes are red, and his hands shake as he clutches at the front of Mo Sanbi's tank top. Something inside Mo Sanbi’s chest hurts like hell and he muffles a pained sound as he kisses the side of Qiao Yicheng's neck, falling down with him onto the bed.

The next morning, both nursing hangovers, they wake up tangled together under the quilt in Mo Sanbi’s creaky little bed. Qiao Yicheng is wearing one sock, and that’s it, while Mo Sanbi only has his ‘gold’ chain around his neck.

Mo Sanbi has his arms wrapped around Qiao Yicheng, and Qiao Yicheng has a leg thrown over his legs – but as soon as Qiao Yicheng wakes up, he jerks back, which wakes Mo Sanbi up too.

“What- Hey, what’re you doing?” he mutters, halfway between a yawn and a groan. “My head hurts…”

Qiao Yicheng clutches at his head, trying to wrap himself modestly in the sheets. “God, San-ge, I’m so sorry…” he begins.

“…Damn, it’s early. The hell are you apologizing for?” Mo Sanbi snorts and reaches for his cigarettes. “Was it that bad?”

Qiao Yicheng stares at him.

Mo Sanbi rolls his eyes, puffing out smoke and resting against the headboard bars. “I don’t remember anything,” he says, giving Qiao Yicheng an out. It’s true, he doesn’t remember much at all – just some kissing, and then everything sort of gets fuzzy and dark. Damn. He hasn't drunk like that for almost ten years.

“…Me neither.”

“Huh.” He offers a cigarette to Qiao Yicheng. “Smoke a little. It helps you not throw up.”

Qiao Yicheng takes it, takes a puff, coughs, then covers his face, and his shoulders begin to shake. Mo Sanbi freezes, then slowly reaches pat his bare shoulder soothingly. He can count the ribs under Qiao Yicheng’s pale skin and feels something in his chest ache a little.

"Hey," he begins gently.

“San-ge…” Qiao Yicheng looks up, and Mo Sanbi realizes he’d been laughing. “I’m single,” he says, with slightly hysterical laughter. “So, you haven’t become Xiao-San-

Mo Sanbi stares at him, then snorts and bursts into laughter as well. “Dude, that’s so dumb…”

They sit in bed like that, laughing, hungover, until it’s time to go to work, and they still haven’t properly talked about having drunkenly slept with each other – whether it means anything, or whether it was just some kind of crazy impulse. But whatever. They’re two grown-ass men, two good bros. Who doesn't do some crazy stuff? They don’t have to make it weird.

Except they do. They end up doing it when they’re drunk again – and again, and again – slowly progressing backwards through the stages of drunkenness to full and complete sobriety. Nothing else really changes between them – they’re still good friends, they still hang out normally, and go to Wu Xiaowen’s school events, and spend time with the Qiao siblings, and move in together…

Just like that first New Year’s when they’d first moved in together – Qiao Yicheng over at his old family house, and Mo Sanbi and Wu Xiaowen eating their New Year’s meal in Qiao Yicheng’s apartment. Mo Sanbi has kept up a good face for Wu Xiaowen’s sake, but when the kid has long gone to sleep and Qiao Yicheng comes back, he’s been smoking up a storm on the balcony.

Qiao Yicheng comes up to stand beside him and watches the fireworks for a while. His eyes are a little red and his expression is distant. Then, when Mo Sanbi finishes his cigarette, he suddenly pulls him into a hug, smelling of alcohol. “San-ge, I’m sorry…” he whispers.

“For what?” Mo Sanbi mutters. He can see his own breath steaming over Qiao Yicheng’s shoulder, and carefully rests his hands on Qiao Yicheng’s waist

“Next time, you take Xiaowen, and we’ll spend New Year’s all together,” Qiao Yicheng says. “Okay?”

“That’s your family,” Mo Sanbi says quietly. “I can’t just-”

“Even if you don’t wanna, just for Xiaowen’s sake?” Qiao Yicheng says, drawing back slightly hands linked loosely behind Mo Sanbi’s neck. His expression is so soft, then, that Mo Sanbi can’t help but keep looking at him, memorize him right then – lit up by streetlights and fireworks, backlit by the apartment, cheeks flushed from the cold and the drink, the crinkle of his eyes and the curves of his lips.

“Sure,” Mo Sanbi says hoarsely.

He can’t help but kiss him then – for the first time when they’re out of bed – just because he wants to. Qiao Yicheng’s mouth unromantically tastes like New Years’ dinner, while he’d just smoked three cigarettes in a row, and Qiao Yicheng’s cold nose pokes his cheek oddly – but Mo Sanbi has never felt warmer in his life.

From then on, he does awkwardly come over for New Year’s with Wu Xiaowen, who is beloved by everyone. Him, not so much. Qiao Sanli is very cautious of him, despite doting on Wu Xiaowen. Her husband, Wang Yiding is a stand-up guy, neither of them talk very much, and so they get along fine. Qiao Erqiang and Mo Sanbi get along pretty well as well – but Qiao Simei immediately treats him like she’s known him for all her life, which Mo Sanbi doesn’t mind at all. She’s a funny kid. Mo Sanbi also does his best to be polite to Qiao Zuwang, who treats him like some kind of handyman – which, fair enough, it’s not like he’s got any right to be there anyway. Just knowing what this old bastard has put Qiao Yicheng though, every time he looks at the guy, it sets his teeth on edge.

“Xiao-Mo, put that crate on top of the dresser.”

“…Sure.” Mo Sanbi hoists it up and puts it there.

“Ba, why are you making Mo-da-ge put it up there, isn’t that inconvenient-” Qiao Sanli begins quietly.

Qiao Zuwang claps his hands. “Sanli, you’re right! Yeah, actually, take it back down again!”

Mo Sanbi grits his teeth. He is this close to punching the guy but holds back for Qiao Yicheng’s sake. “…Yep.” He gets it down, staggering a little under its weight and putting it back where it was originally.

“So, what d’you do?” Qiao Zuwang asks, giving him an appraising look over the top of his glass of tea. “You got a job?”

This might prove to be a problem. Telling this old guy that he does funerals might result in some serious issues. “Yeah, I got a job. I, uh-”

Coming in with a plate of food to put on the table, Qiao Yicheng loudly and clearly says, “San-ge works in the event management sector.”

“Oh?” Qiao Zuwang looks faintly impressed.

Mo Sanbi looks at Qiao Yicheng with adoring eyes. If his whole family wasn’t there, he’d’ve kissed him. “Yeah,” he says. “Event management. I manage events.”

Mo Sanbi experiences firsthand how Qiao Yicheng really knows how to look after people. Unlike Mo Sanbi, he has a good bedside manner, knows how to speak gently, knows how to say bad things so they don’t even sound too bad. Of course, as expected of a guy who’s had to raise three kids since he was a kid himself.

Wu Xiaowen’s personality is similar to Mo Sanbi’s – she gets angry easily, mostly acts sullen and has occasional outbursts, stubborn as hell – if she’s happy, she laughs, if she’s sad, she cries. That’s probably why they’ve always grated on each other – but a more restrained person like Qiao Yicheng gets a better response from her.

At this point, Mo Sanbi can say with a clear conscience that Qiao Yicheng has played a big part in raising Wu Xiaowen – someone who could make up for the things Mo Sanbi is lacking. Wu Xiaowen knows this, and in her eyes, ‘Qiao-shu-shu’ is like a second father to her.

Qiao Yicheng was the one who made sure she got into a good high school, was the one to sit her down and awkwardly give her ‘The Talk’ when she woke up one night at fifteen with blood in her bed while Mo Sanbi was panicking that the kid was going to die, and getting ready to drive to the hospital – Qiao Yicheng was the one Wu Xiaowen would run to when she’d been yelled at by Mo Sanbi.

Mo Sanbi remembers when Wu Xiaowen had gotten into a fight after school. When Wu Xiaowen had come home that evening, with a bloody nose and split knuckles, blood down the front of her uniform, Mo Sanbi had freaked out – ready to go and burn down the whole school if he had to. Then she’d muttered something about losing her temper with a girl who’d taken her pen and hadn’t returned it – and Mo Sanbi got mad.

“Getting into fights because of dumb shit like that?! We’re not so poor we can’t buy you some goddamn pens! You’re going to school to get a goddamn education, so you don’t end up like me and actually do something useful like Qiao Yicheng!” He rips her schoolbag out of her hands. “You wanna get kicked out?! Ah?! Wu Xiaowen, if you don’t wanna go to school, I’ll pull you out right now! See if I don’t! Then it’s working yourself to death or eating jail meals for the rest of your life! You want that?!”

Wu Xiaowen starts sniffling and bursts out, “Everyone at school looks down on me! Big deal I got into a fight! Who doesn’t fight, ah?! At least now everyone knows not to mess with me! Anyway, Qiao Yicheng isn’t my dad!”

“You-”

And neither are you!”

And then she runs out of the room and towards the entryway, where Qiao Yicheng had just come in, leaving Mo Sanbi to stand in the middle of the living room, holding her schoolbag. He throws it down furiously and throws himself to sit down on the couch. He hears them talking and grits his teeth.

“Where you going, ah?!” Qiao Yicheng snaps at the infuriated teenager. “Stay right there.”

Wu Xiaowen sniffs, seeming to wilt. “Qiao-shu… You… Heard everything?”

“Not just me, the neighbors probably heard too, ah?” Qiao Yicheng scolds. “Your dad is this worried about you and you’re making him worry even more? Wu Xiaowen, I’m telling you, don’t start causing trouble! You’re thirteen years old, you should be studying well, not making problems for everyone! If someone’s bullying you at school then just tell your dad and me – we’ll sort it out for you as best as we can!"

Wu Xiaowen cries a little louder.

Qiao Yicheng sighs. “Go get cleaned up. You get blood out of clothes with cold water, not hot water, got it?”

“Qiao-shu…” she cries, and Qiao Yicheng makes an ‘oof’ sound as she launches herself towards him in a hug. “Qiao-shu, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-”

“What are you apologizing to me for, ah? Get off, get off, you’re a big kid, what are you doing?” he grumbles. “Go and apologize to your dad.”

“Qiao-shu…” she sniffles pitifully.

“Qiao-shu, what Qiao-shu? Ah? Go, go, go, go.”

That night, Mo Sanbi is smoking in bed, still pissed off. Qiao Yicheng sits up in bed beside him with his work spread out over the blankets. At some point, Qiao Yicheng sighs quietly and takes the cigarette from Mo Sanbi’s lips.

“…San-ge.”

Mo Sanbi looks away. “You’re just this gentle with her ‘cause she’s not your kid,” he says gruffly, regretting the words as soon as they’re out of his mouth.

Qiao Yicheng is quiet. “That’s probably true,” he says eventually.

“Not that she’s my kid, technically, either. …Xiaowen really must’ve owed me in her previous life to have an old man like this now.”

“Come on. You’re… You lose your temper with her too easily, but you care. You’re not related to her, but you actually care about her. You’ve raised her up all these years, made her food, bought her clothes, celebrated her birthdays, made sure she went to school, scolded her for doing something wrong, praised her for doing something right. More than anyone else in the world, you’re qualified to be her old man.”

Mo Sanbi sighs, rubbing his face. “Just ‘cause I’m not a spectacularly shitty father, doesn’t mean I’m an actually good one,” he sighs.

Qiao Yicheng shrugs. “All you can do is try your best. And wait until she grows up a little,” he says. “Then ask her. She’s at the age where she’s going to be like this for a while. It’s… Hormones and stuff. Just wait until she grows out of it.”

"Fuckin' hell…" Mo Sanbi turns and buries his face in the junction of Qiao Yicheng's neck and shoulder, sighing loudly again. Qiao Yicheng makes a sound halfway between laughter and annoyance as Mo Sanbi's mustache pokes him. Mo Sanbi wraps his arms around Qiao Yicheng's middle and nuzzles in more to the side of his neck. "You're a good guy, you know that?"

Okay, so they’re maybe seriously dating without having ever once talked about it. Or maybe they’re just good friends who do it a lot. After all, there are practical reasons for moving in – it's a better high school district for Wu Xiaowen, it's easier to split the rent, it's easier to have someone else do the cooking and the cleaning half the time. It’s easier because they’re friends. It’s easier to sleep with each other rather than go out and go through all the effort of finding someone else.

Someone like Qiao Yicheng, serious and sincere, probably hadn’t slept with anyone that wasn’t his ex-wife until accidentally falling into bed with Mo Sanbi. And it would probably go against his whole character to go and try to pick up someone in a bar.

Sometimes, Mo Sanbi does think that they really are just fuckbuddies – their lives intersect but aren’t mutually intertwined. Qiao Yicheng’s family goes through a crisis every year, and Mo Sanbi doesn’t know about it until afterwards – can’t even comfort him with a few awkward words and a can of beer – much less try and help him out. He knows for sure that if Qiao Yicheng has a problem, if Qiao Yicheng is hurt in some way, Qiao Yicheng won't tell him. He'll keep it to himself, and give him a wan smile, and Mo Sanbi will be left guessing.

Is it because Mo Sanbi isn't dependable enough? Is it because Qiao Yicheng genuinely can't fathom ever sharing his troubles with another person? Is it because he's just overstepping his boundaries, and they're not actually that close at all?

Maybe it’s Mo Sanbi’s fault – he’s the kind of guy who can’t do anything by halves. If he cares about the guy, he’ll care with his whole heart.

At this point, they've been together for years – lived together, slept together, paid for the same apartment together, pretty much raised a kid together – hell, they've done almost all the things that married people do except for the actual getting married part.

The one time when he is fed up with being kept at a distance and finally pushes Qiao Yicheng to tell him what the matter is – that is one of their biggest ever fights. During the time of Qiao Simei’s husband cheating on her for the second time. Mo Sanbi sees that there is something wrong – Qiao Yicheng is tired, harried-looking, distracted – Mo Sanbi only receiving some noncommittal response in answer to his inquiries.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Aren’t we friends? You can’t tell me shit about your problems-”

Friends?! You- My problems aren’t your problems; since when are you this nosy?!”

And then Qiao Simei herself comes to the door, crying for her Da-ge, panicked at the new development – the family of the mistress harassing the Qiao Family for money – and Mo Sanbi gets the whole story. The girl weakly leans against him and cries into his shirt, and when Mo Sanbi finally understands what’s going on, he shakes her off and gives her a silent nod.

He’ll deal with it.

His first reaction is to go and fucking kill the guy. He’s been to jail before, he can handle it. This son of a bitch is going to die by his, Mo Lao-san’s, hand tonight. As Qiao Simei sinks to the floor sobbing, he grabs the cleaver from the kitchen, but Qiao Yicheng grabs him by the front of his shirt.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” he roars. “She’s not even your sister, what the fuck are you behaving like?!”

“So what she’s not my sister?!”

“You say you’re a friend, what gives you the right to mess with my family’s affairs!”

Mo Sanbi slams the cleaver down on the counter. “…Fine! Your family, your apartment, your affairs, they have nothing to do with me, right?! When Xiaowen comes back from Beijing over school break, I’ll make sure she won’t bother you, Qiao-laoshi!”

Mo Sanbi doesn’t come home that night. Rather, he doesn’t come back to Qiao Yicheng’s apartment. He spends the night at the funeral shop and goes to find a second job as a bouncer at a nightclub the next morning.

They’d fought before, but not like this – they’d always been bad, but worked it out in the end, even if it took some yelling. Just like when Qiao Yicheng had come home, complaining that Qiao Erqiang had found that ‘old woman’ of his again – and Mo Sanbi had gotten pissed off.

“Are you done? What the hell’s your problem? If he likes her and she likes him, isn’t it enough?! They’re both adults!”

“She’s much older than him, and she has a kid from a previous marriage. I’m just afraid they’re not suitable. It’s that Erqiang-”

Mo Sanbi slams his hand down on the table, making the dishes rattle. “So, according to you, a middle-aged person can’t love someone? If you’ve got a kid, you don’t got the right to find happiness?” he snaps.

“San-ge-”

He stands up and storms off, just to take a walk around the block, but he comes back, he finishes his dinner alone, he lays in bed beside Qiao Yicheng silently, with his back facing the younger man. When Qiao Yicheng curls around his back warmly, whispering that he’s sorry, that he spoke too quickly, that he’ll wait to pass judgement until he meets the woman, Mo Sanbi can’t help but forgive him.

He turns back to face Qiao Yicheng, and Qiao Yicheng smooths his fingers over his forehead. “San-ge… I really am sorry. I wasn’t thinking when I said that.”

“What’re you apologizing to me for?” Mo Sanbi mutters. “Go apologize to Erqiang and the lady.”

Mo Sanbi remembers this warm night when he’s coming back to the funeral shop after a rough night at the night club, having broken up two fights, and almost getting into one, himself. It’s damn cold, there.

By the end of the week, working all night as a bouncer, all day as a funeral director, and sleeping occasionally somewhere in between, he’s gathered up a lot of money combined with some of his own savings, and goes to the old Qiao family house to find Qiao Simei. Thankfully, it’s only her, the little one, and the old man at home – and she’s doing laundry in the yard with her daughter watching, so he doesn’t have to deal with the old man.

He knocks on the gate as he walks through. “Hey.”

“Mo-da-ge? What are you doing here?” She turns around to stare at him, and he awkwardly rubs the back of his neck, taking the envelope of money out of his shorts pocket.

“Uh, it’s not much, but it should help,” he says.

Her hands tremble, but she doesn’t take it, so he takes her soapy hand and slaps the envelope into her palm, then gives her a pat on the shoulder.

“Don’t tell your Da-ge,” he cautions her. “And get rid of that-” he notices Qi Qiaoqiao playing with the soap bubbles on top of the laundry, and quickly switches his way of speaking, “…That bad guy. He’s not worth it. Really. …I get it. You’re used to loving the guy. You’ve even got a kid with him. But if the guy you love doesn’t love you back, what are you gonna do? If he screws things up for you again, I don’t care what you or your Da-ge says, I’ll go chop his-” he pauses, looking at Qi Qiaoqiao again, “…I’ll go chop something important off.” He gives her shoulder another pat. “You’re a good kid, Simei. Really. Nobody likes to see you hurt.”

Qiao Simei hangs her head and bites her lip.

Mo Sanbi sighs, gives Qi Qiaoqiao a pat on the head, and begins to shuffle out.

Qiao Simei calls after him. “Thank you, Mo-da-ge. I’m sorry.” Her eyes are red when he turns back to her.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it. And remember, don’t tell your Da-ge-”

“…Don’t tell me what?”

Mo Sanbi startles and turns around to see Qiao Yicheng standing in the gateway. Qiao Yicheng looks a little gaunter than usual, but his jaw is set stubbornly. Mo Sanbi pauses, stuffing his hands in his pockets and looking down. They’re both proud, stubborn guys, prone to anger – but they’re both old enough to know better afterwards.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it. I’ll be at work, now,” Mo Sanbi mutters. “‘Scuse me.” He moves past Qiao Yicheng and begins on his way back to the funeral shop.

A few hours later, when he's loading the van full of supplies, Qiao Yicheng turns up. Mo Sanbi waits for him to talk first, caught between awkwardness and the urge to scoop the man up in his arms and hug him till they both crack. He rubs the back of his head.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Mo Sanbi clears his throat.

“San-ge… What happened to your face?”

Mo Sanbi touches his face and then realizes he’s got a split lip from breaking up a fight outside the club just the other night. He’d totally forgotten. “…Made a mistake at work,” he says. It’s technically true.

“You’ve been gone all week.”

“Yeah. Needed to cool down.” Mo Sanbi rubs the back of his neck again, looking down. “Give you some room too.”

“Were you planning on coming back?”

Mo Sanbi smiles crookedly, looking up. “What, you got rid of all my stuff already?”

Qiao Yicheng looks shocked, like Mo Sanbi has just hit him, and he shakes his head, almost tripping over his words to get them out, “San-ge- No, I-”

“I was joking. Hey, don’t take it to heart,” Mo Sanbi says quickly. “What are you gonna get rid of, anyway? My four shirts and two pants? I might’ve left a pack of cigarettes in the beside cabinet, too,” he snorts.

Qiao Yicheng’s expression relaxes only slightly, but there’s some kind of sad struggle in his eyes.

Mo Sanbi claps him on the shoulder. “I’m the kinda guy that can’t mind his own business,” he says. "I figured… I dunno what I figured. Simei's thing, that wasn't about undermining you or whatever. I just wanted to help. I guess I overstepped. Sorry. I was wrong."

“San-ge. I was wrong. I haven’t been-”

Mo Sanbi shrugs and gives him a pat on the shoulder again. “I’m not resentful. I’ve got a kid to look after, myself. You’ve got four. I’ve got no right to butt in. Like you said. Who am I, anyway?” He goes back to loading the van. “…I’ll be home tonight,” he throws over his shoulder. “What you want for dinner?”

There is a long silence, and then Qiao Yicheng sighs. “…Up to you.”

“I’ll get a fish from the market on my way home, then,” Mo Sanbi says, turning around with a grin that he does his best to make it seem like it’s reaching his eyes. “You look like hell, man. Take care today, ah?”

Qiao Yicheng nods, and then smiles slowly, a little painfully. They’ve understood each other. “You too.”

They go back to normal, and yet Mo Sanbi, who has always felt the distance between them so keenly, feels it even more sharply and coldly than ever before, even while curled around Qiao Yicheng’s skinny body in bed, as physically close as two people can be. Maybe it’s that he’s getting older and weaker, more self-pitying, and lonelier, with the kid out of the house for most of the year.

And then, just a few months ago, Qiao Yicheng becomes even more distant. He stops coming home altogether for weeks at a time, looking oddly pale when he does, and goes to bed to sleep pretty much immediately. Mo Sanbi gently nags at him to eat properly, asks him what’s up, but Qiao Yicheng just shrugs him off. There's something at work. Or he's just tired. Qiao Yicheng is getting further and further away from him, as if he’s purposefully avoiding him.

Mo Sanbi wonders whether he’d done something wrong, but if he starts asking Qiao Yicheng why he’s being like this, he’ll just sound like some kind of desperate wife. Again, Mo Sanbi realizes he’s overstepping – even after all these years, they’re not that close, after all. He gives him a pat on the shoulder and tells him to rest early.

When Mo Sanbi comes home late from the funeral hall, the apartment is empty. Now that Wu Xiaowen has gone off to university, it's just the two of them. Except now, Qiao Yicheng isn't home again.

He finds the note on the kitchen table.

'San-ge,'

'I really don’t know how to say it, so I can only do it this way. It’s probably best if we don't see each other again.'

'I'm sorry.'

Mo Sanbi's jaw tightens, he crumples the paper in his fist and kicks a chair over in a fit of rage. Alone, in the middle of the kitchen, he tries to take a calming breath. Then he leans back against the wall and slowly slides down until he's sitting on the floor, and carefully uncrumples the note, staring at it for a while longer.

He waits a day, but Qiao Yicheng doesn’t come back. So, he goes around, looking for him, just to see him and talk to him. Just for five minutes. To get an explanation. What did he do wrong this time, to be left alone in an apartment that isn’t even his?

He goes up to Qiao Qiqi’s computer café, but then leaves when he reaches the top of the stairs and doesn’t see anyone he recognizes inside. He stops by Wang Yiding’s garage and chats with the guy about cars for a few minutes, under the pretense of having some engine problems with his van. When Qiao Sanli comes back from her work, Mo Sanbi quickly makes his excuses and gets out. Mo Sanbi even goes to the old Qiao Family house and peeks in around the entrance, but there’s some big old lady he doesn’t recognize in the front yard, and he leaves before she sees him, ducking slightly so that Auntie Wu doesn’t see him over the wall where she’s doing her laundry.

He drops by Qiao Erqiang’s restaurant and loiters outside for a few minutes, until he finishes smoking one cigarette.

“Mo-da-ge?”

Mo Sanbi startles, seeing Qiao Erqiang’s wife, Ma Suqin, opening the restaurant door to look at him. “Oh, uh, hey.”

She smiles, and her dimples deepen. “Come on in, have something to eat.”

He orders a bowl of dumpling soup and stuffs some money under the cash register when Ma Suqin has her back turned, after she refuses to let him pay. Ma Suqin is a good woman, she and Qiao Erqiang seem very happy together – they’re the kind of people Mo Sanbi understands and gets along with the most. He and Ma Suqin are about the same age, their kids are about the same age, too – Ma Zhiyong and Wu Xiaowen get along like a house on fire.

“Did you come here to look for Erqiang?”

Mo Sanbi rubs the back of his neck. “Nah… I just…” He knows he looks like he hasn’t slept in a week, and it’s all really awkward, but he just asks, “Have you seen Yicheng around, recently?”

Ma Suqin’s eyes become shrewd. “He was here a few days ago. There was a family meeting. Why?”

Mo Sanbi nods. “You know where he is?”

Qiao Erqiang pokes his head in from the kitchen. “He’s not with you?”

Mo Sanbi looks down. “Nah.”

Qiao Erqiang sucks in a breath from his teeth. “Oh, you fought?”

Mo Sanbi looks up with wide eyes. “We didn’t even fight! I just came home, and he isn’t there! Left me a goddamn note-” he cuts himself off. The goddamn note in question sits folded in his pocket at the moment, and has been, for the past week. “Who does that?”

Qiao Erqiang meaningfully raises his eyebrows at Ma Suqin. Ma Suqin narrows her eyes at him. he shrugs.

“Uh, well…”

Mo Sanbi sighs. “Hasn’t been back for almost a week now. So I’ve been walking around. Looking for him. Whatever. If you dunno where he’s staying, that’s that. I’ll keep looking. Sorry to bother you guys.” He begins to eat. “…This is great soup.”

Qiao Erqiang looks worried, but then beams at the compliment.

After going searching for him like this and not finding him, Mo Sanbi realizes that he's being half-assed, afraid of what he’ll find. Qiao Yicheng owes him an explanation, if nothing else. No matter how much Mo Sanbi loves that stubborn son of a bitch, Qiao Yicheng has the right to kick Mo Sanbi out of his life. But not without an explanation.

Mo Sanbi shows up to the TV station. Qiao Yicheng isn’t there, but he does find Song Qingyuan. It’s his lunch break, and Mo Sanbi silently takes him under the elbow and drags him aside, glowering.

“Lao-Mo,” Song Qingyuan sighs. "How about you tell me what's going on?"

"That's what I wanna know," Mo Sanbi says, deflating. "It’s Yicheng. Is he alright? What's his problem? Where is he?"

Song Qingyuan takes off his glasses. "No- I mean really, what did you do?"

Mo Sanbi holds himself back from driving his fist through the wall, but only barely. "If I fuckin' knew, I wouldn't be running 'round the whole goddamn city looking for him!" he grits out. "He just disappeared on me! Wrote me a goddamn note."

"The other day, Yicheng took leave from work. For a long time. Didn't say why."

Mo Sanbi stares at him. "He's never done that."

"I know, right?!" Song Qingyuan shrugs expressively.

"If he calls you up to talk with you, tell him I'm looking for him. Tell him I think his note is bullshit and he should know that better than anyone. Tell him… I don't agree."

"Just that?"

Mo Sanbi sighs. "Some stuff, it's better to say directly to his face. It'd be weird, coming outta your mouth," he admits.

Song Qingyuan snorts. Mo Sanbi realizes that he’s probably always known. "…Fair enough."

After a few days, Song Qingyuan gives him a call. "Lao-Mo?"

"Yeah."

"Yicheng took me out for lunch just now. I'm starting to worry about him, but he didn't tell me too much. I told him the stuff you said when we saw each other."

Mo Sanbi watches the function room through the glass panel on the door. The wife of the dead guy is crying her eyes out in the front row. "Yeah?" he says. "What’d he say?"

"Nothing much." Song Qingyuan huffs. "I don't know what to tell you."

"How'd he look?"

"Ah?"

"…He look like he was eating enough?" Mo Sanbi sighs and rubs his neck. He sounds like a nagging, worried wife. "…Sorry, forget about it-"

"Yeah, he did look kinda tired," Song Qingyuan says.

Mo Sanbi mutters some awkward thanks to Song Qingyuan, hangs up, and wonders what the hell he's supposed to do now. Finally, he realizes his last resort. If there's anyone who was to know where Qiao Yicheng had gone, it would be his cousin.

Qi Weimin gets off work pretty late, and Mo Sanbi waits outside the building. "Mo-da-ge? What are you doing here?"

Mo Sanbi knows Qi Weimin by appearance. They've exchanged maybe ten words between them in all the time Mo Sanbi has known Qiao Yicheng, but from the bits Mo Sanbi has picked up, Qi Weimin is the family golden boy, someone who Qiao Yicheng both envies, is often furious at, and trusts deeply. If nobody knows where Qiao Yicheng is, then Qi Weimin knows.

"I'm looking for Yicheng," he says directly.

Qi Weimin's expression becomes difficult to read.

"I figured you'd know where he's staying. I need to talk to him."

"He hasn't let you know where he is?"

"I wouldn't be here if he did.”

Qi Weimin nods. “Are you looking for him with any reason in mind?”

“We're roommates. If he disappears, I gotta know where the other half of the rent is." Mo Sanbi says, leaning against Qi Weimin's car.

“Really?”

Mo Sanbi rolls his eyes. “No.”

Qi Weimin says politely, "I'm not sure I can help you-"

"Cut the crap, kid," Mo Sanbi growls.

"Mo-da-ge…"

Mo Sanbi slaps the hood of the car really hard. "He's all alone again, tryna take everything on himself, suffering in silence because of some problem or another that he doesn't want to ask for help on 'cause he doesn't want to owe anyone!" he snaps. "You know better than me what kinda guy he is! Even if he kicks me out on my ass, I just wanna have a look at him, make sure he's alright! I'm out here bothering you… He'd probably lose it at me just as it is for doing this."

Qi Weimin wavers, and Mo Sanbi shuts his eyes, trying to calm himself.

“Look, we don’t know each other too good, but you gotta believe me that I-”

"I'll give you the address of the hotel he's staying at," Qi Weimin says decisively. "If he asks, it wasn't me." He tears off a piece of paper from a pad in his briefcase and jots down the place.

Mo Sanbi takes it from him with a mostly steady hand. "Thanks," he says, earnestly.

Qi Weimin looks exhausted. "Mo-da-ge, I couldn't talk any sense into him. There are things he should tell you that I can't. But where I failed, I hope you'll succeed."

That very night, Mo Sanbi goes right to the address on the paper. Qi Weimin’s reticence has put him even more on edge than he ever had been before, even with Qiao Yicheng’s just leaving like that. It all boils over into a rage and desperation that he vents on the door.

“Qiao Yicheng! Qiao Yicheng, you open this goddamn door for me right now, hear me?! I know you’re in there! Qiao Yicheng!” Mo Sanbi pounds on the door furiously again and again. “I’ll stand out here all day if I’ve gotta! No, screw that! I’m gonna break down this door! I used to collect debts like this, you think I won’t do it?! Open up! Qiao Yicheng!”

Qiao Yicheng knows him better than anyone. Mo Sanbi is a stubborn bastard – if he says he won't go, he won't go. It's only a matter of time before Qiao Yicheng opens up.

People are beginning to open their doors and peek out, but Mo Sanbi ignores them. He hammers on the door, teeth gritted and eyes blazing. “I know you can hear me! Just watch me, I'll get in here one way or another!”

Finally, the door lock clicks, and the door begins to open slowly.

Mo Sanbi wrenches it open wider, glares at Qiao Yicheng meaningfully, pushes past him, and slams the door behind him.

“You…”

“Took me a whole fuckin’ week to find you. You don’t wanna be found, huh?” Mo Sanbi says through his teeth.

“Oh…”

Mo Sanbi’s jaw tenses and he takes a breath in through his nose. “I’ll say it straight,” he says. “The reason you left with no explanation and left that bullshit note about not seeing me again – you’ve got some kinda problem, right? What’s up? You’ve got debts? How much money you need? You run the wrong kinda news and now someone's after you? If anyone comes after you, I’ll fuckin’ kill them.”

“Nothing like that, I just…” Qiao Yicheng winces and goes to sit down. His face is pale and sallow, and there’s a sheen of sweat on his brow.

Mo Sanbi crouches down in front of him. “You look like shit. Did you get sick?” He goes to put the back of his hand to Qiao Yicheng’s forehead, but Qiao Yicheng pushes it away.

“San-ge… It’s really not something you have to worry about. I… I got sick, but… It’s my own problem. I don’t want to drag down other people-”

“You got sick?! How bad is it?! Fucking hell! What’s wrong with you? Oh, you don’t wanna drag down,” Mo Sanbi’s jaw tenses and he hits his palm against the arm of the chair, voice thickening with suppressed anger, “…Other people, huh.” Mo Sanbi stands up, nodding, huffing out a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, okay. Sure.”

Qiao Yicheng sighs. “San-ge-”

“…No, you’re right!” Mo Sanbi roars, slamming his hand down on the table. “I am an outsider! All these years, and you still-”

Qiao Yicheng winces and tries to smile “…I didn’t mean that-” he begins.

“I sure am an outsider! You don’t want me here – fine! I’m not rich or cultured! I’m an old ex-con! I make money off dead people! But even like this, I care about you!” Mo Sanbi slams his hand down on the table again and again. “You won’t even let the people closest to you care about you, and for what?! Ah?! You told me! All your life, you’ve wanted to be alone. To live for yourself for once. It didn’t work out. So now you’re determined to die alone?! I’m telling you, there’s no way! Fine, you say we're not close, I'll believe you. You tell me to fuck off, I’ll go! But if Erqiang did something like this, you think you’d let him?! If Lao-Song did something like this, you’d think it was alright?! You think that people who love you are just gonna give up on you that easily if for once you’re not the one who’s taking everything on himself?! If something’s wrong with you, I want you to bother me! I want you to annoy the shit outta me no matter if it’s a fuckin’ papercut or a death sentence! I don't want you to give me a single goddamn moment of peace until the day I die!”

Mo Sanbi’s eyes are red, and his voice is gruff from yelling. He leans heavily on the table, head down to hide his expression, back heaving as he catches his breath.

Qiao Yicheng covers his face with his hands, and his shoulders shake as well. “San-ge-”

Mo Sanbi kneels in front of him right there and hugs him tightly. “…The college semester's almost over. Don't let Xiaowen miss you when she comes back from Beijing,” he mutters hoarsely. "Yicheng, ah… Come home."

Qiao Yicheng holds onto him, and Mo Sanbi feels some dampness soak into his shirt. He’s completely silent, giving just a few shuddering breaths, but Mo Sanbi pats his back like a child, strokes his fluffy hair, jaw tight and silent, arms even tighter around Qiao Yicheng.

Qiao Yicheng tells him some stuff. How his dad is paralyzed and slowly dying. How there’s some old hag with her heart set on the family home taking advantage of the old man’s illness. How Qiao Yicheng himself got sick, but don’t worry, he’ll be fine. He just needs to get some stuff done first – as soon as he does, he’ll go to the hospital for treatment. No big deal.

Mo Sanbi, like the dumbass he is, believes him. He hears him out, sighs a few times and nods. “Okay. Whatever you need, I’ll do it for you,” he says. “Don’t leave me anymore bullshit notes. If you wanna say something, say it to my face like a man.”

Qiao Yicheng sighs. “You… You deserve better. You have a kid… You don’t have it easy- I haven’t been good to you, really, these years…”

There is a long silence, then Mo Sanbi snorts, trying to look serious and suppress his laughter. But he bursts out laughing, shoulders shaking, tears almost coming to his eyes. Qiao Yicheng stares at him. Mo Sanbi finally gathers himself and looks up. “Yicheng,” he says as gently as he can, “That’s a load of crap and you know it. Xiaowen is all grown up, anyway. I deserve better? C’mon, look at me! Don’t even think about my past or my lack of money… I wore the same two shirts for almost ten years until you made me wear something else. I hit the jackpot with you… I got no idea what you see in me.” He rubs his head, shrugging, then grins crookedly. “I get it. It’s this face, right? I’m the big boss reporter’s arm candy.”

Qiao Yicheng bursts into laughter and cups Mo Sanbi’s face, his thumb drawing a cold line over his mustache. “Yeah…” he says hoarsely, smiling. “That’s it… What I’m in love with… Is just your face.”

Mo Sanbi has lived for four decades and a bit already, but he feels overwhelmingly moved emotionally by even those joking words – as if he should’ve known all along that what Qiao Yicheng had for him was ‘love,’ that thing. It’s both warm and painful. He clears his throat and nods once, a little stiffly. “Well, you treat me too good for me to just go,” he says. “You’ll have this arm candy for a while longer.”

Qiao Yicheng nods. “Alright…”

“And before you start – I know you think the worst thing in the world is to owe someone,” Mo Sanbi says. “I get it, man, believe me, I do. But you don’t owe me anything. No- Shut up-” he puts his fingers over Qiao Yicheng’s lips. “You know why you don’t owe me anything?”

Qiao Yicheng blinks slowly, eyes red. His head twitches to the side, a weak headshake. He doesn’t know.

“‘Cause I said so,” Mo Sanbi says simply. “That’s it.”

“Just as easily as that?” Qiao Yicheng huffs.

“Yeah. Just like that.”

Qiao Yicheng shuts his eyes, nodding quietly.

Mo Sanbi nudges him. “If you really wanna count things carefully, it might turn out that I’m the one who owes you more."

Neither of them goes home that night – they lay together on the cheap, tiny hotel bed that creaks horribly any time either of them so much as moves a leg. Qiao Yicheng falls asleep with his head pillowed on Mo Sanbi’s chest and his arm thrown over his stomach. Mo Sanbi lays awake for a long while, staring up at the ceiling, absentmindedly ruffling Qiao Yicheng’s hair.

Qiao Yicheng shifts in his sleep, muttering something, and Mo Sanbi looks down at the top of his head, unable to see his expression. That hair is all dark, but he thinks he can see a gray strand there too.

The next day, the world still turns. They still have to get up, take showers, eat breakfast, go to work. Mo Sanbi has to pick up twenty bouquets of white roses, has to drive down to the funeral hall and make sure the decorations are put up properly. He’s on edge, certainly, and almost gets into a fistfight with the piano player when he starts complaining that the chair they got him was too low. He hates open-casket funerals – the body always looks disturbing with indoor lighting, even with makeup, and all the flowers in the room still can’t mask the scent of formaldehyde.

When the damn funeral is finally over, and the dead guy has been taken away to get cremated, and it’s all no longer Mo Sanbi’s problem, it’s already dark out, and he drives back to Qiao Yicheng’s apartment.

Inside, none of the lights are on, and Mo Sanbi’s heart sinks when he thinks for a moment that Qiao Yicheng is gone again, but then he sees the man’s huddled shape on the couch. “Yicheng?” he asks cautiously. “You good? You need me to take you to the hospital?”

Qiao Yicheng looks up, and he looks so tired that Mo Sanbi immediately goes to him and sits down next to him. “…It’s my old man,” he says quietly. “He… He died today.”

Mo Sanbi nods slowly and puts an arm around his shoulders. There’s nothing to say in moments like this – he knows better than anyone.

They stay on the couch like that in the dark, in silence for a long time.

Mo Sanbi eventually gets up to cook up a quick dinner. “Even if you’re not hungry, you’ve still gotta eat,” he says sternly. “I’ll make some soup.”

Qiao Yicheng says quietly, “I ate already.”

“Well… It’s not eating if it’s soup,” Mo Sanbi insists. “That’s drinking.”

Mo Sanbi stands over the stove and stirs, heart feeling heavy and occasionally looking over at Qiao Yicheng’s slumped form on the couch. He goes to find some pepper in the spice drawer, but when he comes up, Qiao Yicheng is behind him.

“San-ge…”

“Hey.”

Qiao Yicheng wraps his arms around Mo Sanbi's middle from behind and rests his forehead against Mo Sanbi's shoulder.

Mo Sanbi stirs in the pepper and leans back against him just slightly, to show he’s returning the hug. “I’ll be done in a few,” he says.

“Thank you.”

Mo Sanbi pats his arm. “Don’t thank me.”

Qiao Yicheng sighs. “I hope that one day, you’ll forgive me,” he says. “I… Tomorrow, I need to finish some things, and then…”

“And then you’re gonna go to the hospital. If you get sick worse, I definitely won’t forgive you.”

Qiao Yicheng hugs him tighter. "I…" he begins, voice weak and whispery, "I need you…"

Mo Sanbi feels something in his chest snap and hurt, worse than ever before. He puts his hands over Qiao Yicheng's and says hoarsely, "I said before… I'd leave if you told me to. But now, even if you told me to, I won't leave. You can't get rid of me. Got it?"

"Alright…"

They drink their soup in silence, and fall asleep together in Qiao Yicheng’s bed, holding onto each other tightly. Somehow, Mo Sanbi feels that if he doesn’t hold onto him, he’ll fly away, like some hollow-boned, long-legged crane. So, he has to hold him tightly, keep him warm, do everything he knows how to do to keep him down on the ground.

In the light of day, Qiao Yicheng looks even worse. Mo Sanbi grits his teeth – this guy is really stubborn! "Whatever you’ve gotta do, it should wait. Yicheng, just go to the hospital already."

Qiao Yicheng takes a few pills with his morning tea. "I have some medicine. I'm fine, really. I just need to get this done, and-"

"I'll drive you. I'll drive you to the old house, and then as soon as you're done, I'm driving you to the hospital. Hey. Don't even think about arguing with me."

Qiao Yicheng smiles at Mo Sanbi. “Alright.”

Mo Sanbi takes the van to the old house, driving with one hand on the wheel and one hand on Qiao Yicheng’s knee – something halfway between an affectionate and frightened gesture.

Mo Sanbi claps him on the shoulder. “I’ll wait for you outside,” he says. “Get that old bitch out of your family home. If you need me, just call.”

Qiao Yicheng laughs quietly, holding up his folder. “I have this, what do I need you for?”

“If she's got backup, I'll beat them."

"This is an old woman, not a gang boss."

"You never know." Mo Sanbi shrugs and gives a crooked smile to show he’s not completely serious.

Qiao Yicheng goes in. Mo Sanbi begins to smoke outside. He waits, scuffing his slippers over the ground, one hand in his pocket, leaning back against the stone wall.

“…Even if you beat me to death, the house won’t be yours!”

Mo Sanbi hears yelling and rushes in without a second thought, pulling the young man off Qiao Yicheng and decking him. There are shrieks from the old woman in the house and the young girl running up.

“Don’t fuckin’ touch him!” Mo Sanbi roars, pulling his fist back for another punch.

Qiao Yicheng pants, leaning against the wall. “…San-ge, that’s enough.”

Mo Sanbi immediately forgets about punching anyone and goes to support Qiao Yicheng by the arm. “You okay?”

“You’ve even got gangsters helping you now?!” the old woman shrieks.

Mo Sanbi opens his mouth to cuss the hag out, but Qiao Yicheng claps a hand over his mouth. “San-ge,” he says in a raspy, low whisper, “How about you go out. I’ll be right out too.”

“You sure?” Mo Sanbi asks. Qiao Yicheng looks too pale, and his eyes are a bit glassy.

“Yeah. Go on.” Qiao Yicheng smiles. “I’ll be right out.”

Mo Sanbi claps him on the shoulder, glares at everyone, and goes back out to where he was standing at the gates. He waits for a few minutes more, and then he finally sees Qiao Yicheng come out.

Mo Sanbi grins at him and gives a wave.

Qiao Yicheng takes a few shaking steps out of the old house, meets Mo Sanbi’s eyes, smiles slightly, and then crumples to the ground.

--

 

--

Mo Sanbi hates hospitals. It smells like death around every corner – antiseptic, shitty coffee, anxious people.

In his career as a funeral director, he's sent off old people with huge families to mourn them, and old people with barely anyone to care. He's sent off kids who died too young – whether from sickness, by accident, or suicide. He's sent off young and old, cared for and ignored, rich and poor – as long as he gets paid enough to do what he does, it doesn't matter.

But he'd stupidly thought that those things don't have to do with him. He feels bad, obviously, he's not a monster – but that's someone else's father, someone else's daughter, someone else’s husband. He doesn't see them slit their wrists in the bathtub. He doesn't see them look down to check their phones and get mowed down by a truck. He doesn't see them lying in hospital beds, pale and weak.

He just does his job and goes home, stinking of incense, cooks up some dinner for the kid, and then cracks open a can of beer. When he stands on the balcony with the rushing traffic below, it drowns out the sound of sobbing and sniffling and utter silence. And maybe, if he's not working late, Qiao Yicheng comes up behind him and hugs him silently, resting his forehead against his shoulder.

Mo Sanbi is a practical sort of guy. Despite being very traditional in a lot of ways and being very deeply involved in folk funerary and death-related customs, he's not too superstitious. And at the core of himself, he's not a complete pessimist, even if he might seem like one at first.

Qiao Yicheng lays in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines. The color of his face is grayish, and if it wasn't for the faint rising and falling of his chest and the little beeps coming from the heart monitor, Mo Sanbi would've thought he was a corpse.

Qiao Yicheng’s siblings know that he’s their Da-ge’s old friend and roommate. Over the years, he’s gotten along with them and met them all – even though he’s only met Qiao Qiqi a few times, but he’s a good kid and they get along fine. Mo Sanbi isn’t part of the family. He shouldn’t be here. Except for the fact that Yicheng had told him, the night before, “I need you…” like it was the most painful thing he’d ever said in his life.

How can he be anywhere else after that?

Although Mo Sanbi feels awkward there, with Qiao Sanli crying her eyes out at his bedside and Qiao Erqiang pacing the room like a caged tiger, Chang Xingyu and Qi Weimin both biting their lips anxiously in the same way – he stands at the back wall and looks steadily forward, at Qiao Yicheng’s motionless form in the hospital bed hooked up to machines.

Nobody asks what he’s doing there.

“If… If something happens…” Qiao Yicheng begins, when his siblings have left the room, and it’s only Mo Sanbi. “I want you to-”

"You can’t die," Mo Sanbi cuts him off, the words bursting suddenly out of him after hours of painful thoughts running in circles in his head. He sits down on Qiao Yicheng's bedside and takes his hand. "Okay? You’ve gotta live. Don’t give up." He rests his forehead against the back of Qiao Yicheng's hand that he grips with both of his. "You can't die before me, got it? I get to go first. I'm older. It’s only fair."

"Alright," Qiao Yicheng says gently. “I’m just saying… What if.” He sighs. “…Alright, alright, I’ll be fine…”

"I don't wanna hear a goddamn word out of your pretty mouth unless it's true," Mo Sanbi growls. "You're in pain right now, aren't you?! So, complain about it!" He looks up into Qiao Yicheng's wide eyes.

Qiao Yicheng smiles weakly. "San-ge…" He huffs out a laugh. "It… It does hurt."

Mo Sanbi's eyes burn, and he hides his expression by dipping his head and futzing with the hospital blanket. "Yeah?"

Qiao Yicheng sighs. "See, you're upset."

"And you're in the hospital, man, get your priorities straight," Mo Sanbi grumbles. "Whether I'm upset or not, that my own problem. I'm not a little kid who you've got to be careful around and not say too much 'cause god forbid they'll think you're human and feel like they've got nobody in the world to depend on. I’m not your little brother. I’m a grown-ass man – hell, I’m ten years older than you. I care about you, of course I’m upset. But if you start trying to make it out like it’s no big deal, I’m gonna get more upset. Don't always keep everything inside you. It's bad for you, ah?"

"San-ge, you should've been a psychologist."

Mo Sanbi laughs quietly. "Yeah? Maybe. How much do those assholes get paid?"

Qiao Yicheng smiles crookedly, eyes closing tiredly. "More than funeral directors…"

"Shit, I missed out, huh."

When it’s time to give Qiao Yicheng some rest, he gets up and goes without a word. He sits on the plastic chair in the waiting area outside, then stands up and gives it over to Qiao Sanli who shakily walks over, supported by Wang Yiding.

Everyone talks in low murmurs, a whole crowd of people in the hallway. Mo Sanbi is silent.

“Are you the patient’s family?”

Mo Sanbi freezes and looks down as the doctor approaches. His throat closes. They’re all there – Qiao Yicheng’s siblings – and he doesn’t have the right.

“Yes,” Qiao Sanli says. “What’s the matter?”

The doctor says that the illness has progressed too quickly to be treated. The only way for him to survive is a kidney transplant. Mo Sanbi hits the wall with his fist and hides his face in the crook of his arm, his back to the rest of them. If he could, he’d reach behind his own ribcage, tear through his own skin with his own hands to get whatever Qiao Yicheng needs. If it was only that simple, he’d really do it, right then and there in that shitty hospital corridor. He takes a breath and turns back.

Mo Sanbi is used to grief. He sees all sorts of stuff in his line of work – people who scream and cuss, people who cry, people who laugh, people who go all blank and can’t say or do anything, just stare blankly into space. The Qiao family all have various reactions, but there’s something Mo Sanbi hasn’t gotten to see before – there’s a thread of hope running through all of them. Mo Sanbi has never seen that sort of hope before – he shows up when there's no hope at all anymore.

There’s still a chance.

Everyone is going to test and see if they’re compatible, and of course, since there’s so many of them, there should be somebody, right?

Qiao Simei bursts into loud tears and goes to cry on the nearest surface, which turns out to be Mo Sanbi himself. He awkwardly puts an arm around her shoulders and pats her hair like a little kid as she holds onto the sides of his shirt and sobs.

Qi Chenggang stands awkwardly to the side with Qi Qiaoqiao.

His own throat closes completely to the point where he can’t say anything, just nods a few times. There’s hope. He’ll be fine.

It isn’t like ten or twenty years ago – medicine is better now; somebody is going to figure something out. When Qiao Yicheng is out of the hospital, Mo Sanbi is going to do everything he was afraid to do before – say all the stuff he didn’t, make promises he’ll keep, grab him, and never let him go.

Mo Sanbi sits at Qiao Yicheng’s bedside again that evening. He looks even worse, paler, and doesn’t seem to be easily awake, weakened, and tired.

“Hey… Don’t let Xiaowen miss you, ah? Get better quick so you’re outta here and back home by the time the semester’s over,” he orders gruffly.

Qiao Yicheng smiles at him silently.

“Stay strong. Just hold up, yeah?” Mo Sanbi pats his hand.

Qiao Yicheng’s voice is a faint whisper. “You must be tired…”

“I’m not tired,” Mo Sanbi says with a shaky, crooked grin. “I’m jacked on hospital coffee.” He reaches over and rubs Qiao Yicheng’s stubbly jaw affectionately. “Couldn’t fall asleep even if I wanted to.”

Qiao Yicheng laughs weakly. "You… Rest."

"I'm resting now," Mo Sanbi says, and impulsively climbs into the hospital bed beside him. It creaks, but it holds up fine, and he takes Qiao Yicheng’s hand. “See?”

“…San-ge…”

“Yeah?”

Qiao Yicheng smiles. “San-ge…”

“I’m here.”

“San-ge, ah…”

Mo Sanbi brings their linked hands up to his lips and shuts his eyes tightly. When Qiao Yicheng whispers that he’s glad to have met Mo Sanbi, Mo Sanbi’s throat closes up and he can’t talk at all. He only nods and grips Qiao Yicheng’s hand harder.

For forty-something years, he's lived on the earth, and he's never said 'I love you,' those three words out loud. Even if he's felt it, never had the occasion to say it, or it wouldn't have been suitable, or it doesn't need to be said. But right then, he desperately wants to tell Qiao Yicheng – just so he knows.

He can't say it. Right now, if he says something like that, then it'll sound like a goodbye. And he can't do that.

"I'm glad we've met, too," he says hoarsely, finally. "And I'm glad we're gonna keep seeing each other. Qiao Yicheng, you're gonna have to put up with me for the rest of your life."

Qiao Yicheng smiles. "Alright."

"For a long, long time."

Qiao Yicheng falls asleep, and Mo Sanbi leaves the bed as quietly as he can. He doesn’t want to go back to the apartment. There’s no way he’s sleeping in the funeral shop. So, he just drops into one of the plastic chairs and passes out.

When he wakes up, a couple of hours later, his back hurts like a bitch – he’s not young enough to be sleeping like this, but what wakes him up isn’t the twinge that goes through his stiff shoulder, but someone sitting down in the chair next to him.

Qiao Qiqi looks blankly over at him, and says politely, “Sorry for waking you up, Mo-da-ge.”

“Ah? Uh, no big deal,” Mo Sanbi says blearily. “How come you’re still here?” He winces, realizing how that sounds. Qiao Qiqi has more of a right to be here than he does. “I mean, it’s pretty late. I’ve not really got anywhere else to go.”

Qiao Qiqi smiles faintly and shakes his head. “My blood test got done last. I just want to wait ‘til the results come out.”

“Oh, right.” Mo Sanbi rubs the back of his neck. “I’m gonna get some more coffee. You want some?”

“No, thank you.”

“Hot water?”

“…Sure.”

Mo Sanbi gets a two paper cups and comes back, holding them carefully. He chugs his and makes a face, while Qiao Qiqi slowly sips at his. He’s a good-looking kid, and it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking – Mo Sanbi realizes that he looks the most similar to his older brother.

The silence between them isn’t awkward, both of them aren’t talkative, and Mo Sanbi is tired. At some point, he must’ve dropped off to sleep again, because the next time he opens his eyes, Qiao Qiqi isn’t there, and when he shuts his eyes to blink again, the whole family is there.

Apparently, at first, Qiao Yicheng refuses to take the kidney from Qiao Qiqi. Mo Sanbi only hears about this after he wakes up in the chair again, this time from Qiao Simei sitting down next to him.

“He refused?” Mo Sanbi can’t believe his ears. “Is he fucking kidding me?! He-” He turns away, voice cracking, covering his face with his hand. “I know I’m an outsider and I’m not qualified to say anything,” he says hoarsely, when he can speak again, “But-”

Qiao Simei grips his arm. “Qiqi won’t let him,” she says. “He won’t let him not take it. You probably don’t know, but Qiqi is a good kid. He’s… He won’t let him.”

Mo Sanbi realizes he’s being comforted, and he quickly turns back. “I- It’s-”

Qiao Simei's expression is stern and determined. “Da-ge won’t die,” she says, to him, to all of them. “He just won’t.”

They wait while Qiao Yicheng’s cousin and aunt go in. While his youngest brother talks some sense into him. He sprawls in the hospital chair, sipping terrible coffee until Qiao Erqiang pries the cup out of his hand.

He looks blearily up at the younger man and sighs. “C’mon.”

Qiao Erqiang rolls his tired eyes, then downs the rest of the coffee himself. “I needed that.”

Mo Sanbi snorts and shakes his head. “Fine.”

He gets up and plods outside, needing to breathe. He’s getting a headache.

Mo Sanbi is smoking outside when Qi Weimin comes out to stand beside him. Qiao Yicheng's cousin's expression is pinched and tight – and Mo Sanbi offers him a cigarette.

Qi Weimin grabs it impulsively, and let's Mo Sanbi light it for him. He takes a drag, then starts to cough – and Mo Sanbi claps him on the back a few times. "Easy, easy," he says.

“I don’t smoke,” Qi Weimin says hoarsely. "Excuse me."

Mo Sanbi shrugs.

"You've been friends with Yicheng for a while, right?" Qi Weimin says, clearing his throat.

"Yeah," Mo Sanbi says.

Qi Weimin nods, then slaps the railing with his hand suddenly. "How the hell do you put up with him?"

Mo Sanbi shrugs. "We yell sometimes. I tried to stay out of his business. Until… Until I couldn’t." He lets out a long stream of smoke. He looks over at Qi Weimin. "…He’s always thought you're better than him," he says gruffly. "But you're also probably the guy that understands him the most."

Qi Weimin sighs. “He’s really…” He shakes his head. “Thank you for looking after my cousin all these years,” he says quietly.

“…Don’t thank me. I didn’t do too good. …Hey,” Mo Sanbi says. “Did he… Did he agree?”

Qi Weimin nods.

The breath goes out of Mo Sanbi, and he nods shakily a few times. “Great.”

When Qi Weimin leaves, Mo Sanbi goes to stand outside the hospital entrance for better signal, flipping his cellphone open. He presses Wu Xiaowen’s number and waits.

"…Hello? Xiaowen."

"Ba! Hey!"

"Hey, kid. You, uh, you good over there? How's classes?"

"Great! I'm doing real good. Classes are over, so I bought a train ticket to come down today."

"Yeah? That early?"

"My exams were scheduled the earliest. I mean, that sucked, but at least it's over!"

"Yeah… You're coming home?"

"Yeah! I’ll be back in the evening. I've been missing home more and more; I can't wait to get back. They don’t make food the same up north.”

Mo Sanbi snorts. “You just know how to eat, ah.”

“How's Qiao-shu?"

Wu Xiaowen’s voice is light, and he can hear the smile in it. Mo Sanbi's throat closes. He shuts his eyes, jaw tensing and fists clenching so hard his hands hurt. "He's…" he begins, and his voice cracks. “I- He’s- Right now…”

"…Did something happen?"

"He's in the hospital," Mo Sanbi says, forcing evenness into his voice. "He'll be fine, medicine can do crazy amazing stuff nowadays," he convinces both of them, "But he's… There's some kinda problem with his kidneys. I don't get it. But… It’s-" He takes a shaky breath. "Anyway, don't freak out. He’s getting a transplant and all that. Come home on the train tomorrow, and you can come see him at the hospital. Yeah?"

Wu Xiaowen is uncharacteristically quiet. "Okay," she says. "Can I talk to him?"

"He's resting now. Don't worry, Xiaowen, ah. I'm telling you; modern medicine is like magic."

"Okay."

"Okay. Then, be careful on your way. A little girl, traveling alone, don't let anyone mess with you, okay? Remember how I taught you? Go for the throat and the eyes."

Wu Xiaowen laughs shakily. "Yep, got it."

"Bye."

"Bye-bye!"

Mo Sanbi snaps his phone shut and stuffs it in his pocket, taking a deep breath and rocking back and forth on his feet a little, looking up at the ceiling to compose himself. He rubs his face and tries to calm his shaking breaths.

“Mo-da-ge?”

Mo Sanbi jumps a little and turns around only after he wipes his face off on his shirt. “Simei,” he says, clearing his throat a few times. “What’s up?”

Her eyes are just red as his. “They’re starting the surgery tomorrow morning.”

Mo Sanbi nods a few times. “Cool,” he says. “Great.”

They sit on the steps, looking out at people coming and going in front of the hospital. Qiao Simei leans back and looks up, stretching her legs out, and Mo Sanbi sits with his elbows resting on his knees, staring down at the concrete.

Qiao Simei’s voice is soft. “How’s Xiaowen?”

“She’ll be back tonight.”

Qiao Simei nods.

Mo Sanbi pulls out his cigarette pack. There’s only three left. He takes one and offers one to Qiao Simei, but she shakes her head. He smokes quietly, slowly regaining some sort of composure.

Qiao Simei smiles quietly to herself. “You know… When Xiaowen got that scholarship into BeiDa, Da-ge was going around and telling anyone who would listen.”

Mo Sanbi can’t help smiling a little. “For real?”

“I remember he visited and ate dinner with us that night, and… I almost felt kind of jealous, you know? I wasn’t ever really good at studying. He had to beg my teacher to let me retake the exams to pass. So… He never bragged about me.”

“He did.”

“Ah?”

“When you got promoted as a manager, he came home and told me. Huge grin on his face,” Mo Sanbi says. “That was when Xiaowen was still in middle school. That night, we… We were talking about what high school Xiaowen should go to, and that’s when he told me to move in with him so she could go to a good one. But he was saying… He said that getting educated is really important because it gives people more choices. You can work hard and be happy doing anything, but it’s having more choices that can make it easier to be happy with what you end up doing.”

Qiao Simei looks away, nodding a few times. “…Da-ge… He really didn’t get a lot of choices, huh,” she says, voice a little strange. “Just a lot of stuff he had to do. At least he likes his work.”

“Yeah,” Mo Sanbi says.

“I kinda miss that time. When we were kids,” Qiao Simei says. “We were a lot worse off, and everything, but… The eighties had a feeling of hope, right?”

“Dunno. I spent the best part of the eighties in jail,” Mo Sanbi says absently.

Qiao Simei stares at him.

Mo Sanbi looks back at her and shrugs.

They both burst into quietly hysterical laughter at the same time.

When Wu Xiaowen gets back, Mo Sanbi tells her to go and take her stuff home. She’d come by taxi straight from the train station to the hospital, with all her luggage and everything. He scolds her lightly, too tired to do anything but hug her back when she rushes at him. She tells him she’ll do it later.

They go to see Qiao Yicheng together, meeting Song Qingyuan in the hallway. The three of them show up in the hospital room, all putting on brave, smiling faces, Wu Xiaowen chatters endlessly and nervously about life in Beijing, Song Qingyuan interjects with slightly off-key jokes, and Mo Sanbi sort of grunts in agreement here and there.

Qiao Yicheng smiles weakly at them with half-closed eyes from the hospital bed.

And then it’s back to plastic chairs, waiting rooms, and hospital coffee, now with a few more people around. The time seems to crawl endlessly, then rush by in waves.

Mo Sanbi sits in the waiting room, staring at the lit-up sign ‘In Surgery’ until his eyes cross and go blurry. The whole family is there – even the little kids and Qiao Simei's ex-husband. And then there's him and Wu Xiaowen.

She's fallen asleep on his shoulder like she used to when she was a little kid, tightly gripping the handle of her bag in her sleep, knuckles white. Mo Sanbi's eyes are red, and he finally shuts them, leaning back in the hard plastic chair.

--

 

--

Everyone piles into the hospital room, surrounding the two beds. Qiao Qiqi is still sleepy and loopy from the anaesthetic, but Qiao Yicheng is mostly awake and alert. Mo Sanbi stands at the back wall, watching the Qiao family fuss over the youngest and oldest brothers. He feels like he's floating, so exhausted with relief that he can barely stand. He watches Qiao Yicheng smile faintly at Qiao Sanli, and nudges Wu Xiaowen with his elbow. "See, told you he'd be fine, kid," he says.

Wu Xiaowen elbows him back. "You were the one freaking out, old man."

Qiao Sanli waves them over. "What are you doing over there? Da-ge is asking for you."

Mo Sanbi obediently shuffles over, eyes full of nothing but the man laying in the hospital bed. He sits down on the edge, carefully patting his knee through the blanket. "Hey," he says, voice a little hoarse. "You good, man?"

Qiao Yicheng smiles up at him, eyes sparkling. "Yeah."

Mo Sanbi takes his hand gently, nodding a few times. "Good. That's good." He huffs out a weak laugh, throat tight and eyes burning a little. "Look at you…!"

"…I look good?"

"Nah, you look like hell." He blinks a few times, dispelling some strange blur from his eyes.

"So do you."

"You look worse."

"…You're a big man, you don't suit childishness," Qiao Yicheng rolls his eyes.

Mo Sanbi snorts. "You started it."

Qiao Yicheng gives him a weak grin.

Mo Sanbi feels like his chest is going to burst, like his ribs are going to crack with pressure coming from the inside. He smiles back crookedly, holding Qiao Yicheng’s hand between both of his.

--

 

--

Qiao Simei messes with the settings on the digital camera and tracks her older brother and Mo Sanbi walking side-by-side down the narrow alleyway. Qiao Yicheng adjusts his jacket, while Mo Sanbi shuffles along with his hands stuffed in his pockets.

Qiao Yicheng looks over and says something that makes Mo Sanbi nudge him with his shoulder. Qiao Yicheng slaps him on the back a few times, laughing quietly as Mo Sanbi rolls his eyes. Qiao Simei snaps a picture for the family album, but then keeps looking through the viewfinder, lost in thought.

Even though she's grown up, Qiao Simei is still a romantic at heart. She's past the point of wishing a handsome idol would whisk her away, and definitely past the point of putting her entire heart and faith into a man. But she believes in love with all her heart – sees the way her second brother still calls his wife 'Shi-fu' with sparkling eyes, sees the quiet affection between her older sister and Wang Yiding.

Love might not be the be-all end-all of life, but it sure is an important part – and if it can make someone happy, then it's all the more important. Love doesn't need to be wrapped in shiny and glorious coverings to be beautiful – sometimes the most unglamorous people have it; like her awkward, snappish eldest brother stalking purposefully along in the fugliest orange sweater vest Qiao Simei has ever seen, and the equally awkward and snappish Mo Sanbi with his floral shirt and the cigarette behind his ear shuffling along beside him.

Qiao Simei has only seen her Da-ge grinning that brightly a few times in her life.

Mo Sanbi drops an arm around Qiao Yicheng's shoulders and briefly leans in to steal a kiss. Qiao Yicheng smacks him. "Hey, watch it," he complains, "There's people."

"What people?"

No people. Qiao Simei quickly ducks away and goes to chase her daughter down – the kid's hands are sticky, what is she grabbing?!