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LOVE + FEAR

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Mu Qing had been on his way to some school-sponsored free therapy session to ostensibly work through some of his Issues, when he abruptly lost his nerve and detoured into the first suitable place he found, which was a very dilapidated dive bar with signs of old-Hong Kong neon glinting under a fine layer of grime.

Upon entering this empty dive bar, he decided to build off on this first bad decision and venture out into the world of the alcoholic beverage for the first time, at the behest of the lonely bartender on duty.

Thereafter, fairly inebriated, he found himself spilling out a vaguely coherent account of his life and various woes to that bartender.

Ergo, therapy. Of sorts.

For how sketchy the bar seemed, Shi Qingxuan actually looked like a perfectly upstanding member of society. Bright eyes, a mouth made for smiling, and a friendly sort of demeanor; he could have been any regular university student.

Not that any of this would have encouraged Mu Qing to speak with him though, had he not been deeply in his cups at this point, so to speak. (This was only a figure of speech, because he had technically only consumed two glasses of not-particularly-strong fruity wine at this point, which boded poorly for potential future exploits.)

Besides — Mu Qing was a kid from the slums, who had first grown up in an apartment building full of suspicious people, and then become an adolescent cutting himself on the gilded teeth of the upper echelon. It was only a matter of general practice to be a little distrustful.

“Aren’t you tired of being deferential?” Shi Qingxuan asked after the story was over, sounding genuinely curious. There was a deep ocean blue clip pinning back his bangs, which was the only nod to personality in an otherwise obviously patched-up secondhand outfit. He was still smiling, but there was a glimpse of a raw edge under that softness. “Don’t you just want to go apeshit?”

Mu Qing looked at him blearily, helplessly, and managed to cohere the barely cogent thought that he could be friends with this person.

There was a strange, heightened awareness of the thrum of blood in his veins, of the pulse in his body, that insistent and unwavering beating of his faithless heart in his chest.

Unbidden, he began to laugh, and he heard Shi Qingxuan join in a moment later, the sound ringing loud through empty space. It was the first time he remembered laughing since his mother had died.

Lingering on his tongue, the taste of wine — bitter, but also, strangely sweet.

 

:::

 

Mu Qing was a victim of unrequited love, but thankfully, he had the good sense not to allow himself to be consumed whole by its tender mercies.

He called himself singularly animated by practicality, as opposed to desire. It was a trait that had allowed him to survive. But that did not mean he did not desire, secretly. He was only human.

Now, for the laughable state of Mu Qing’s personal affairs.

  1. He was in love with a man with an easy laugh and broad shoulders and unwavering loyalty. Alternatively put, going on at least five years now, he had been in love with a man who didn’t even regard him as a friend.
  2. His oldest friend was a person who Mu Qing had never been quite sure actually regarded him as a friend in return. Ten years on, it was too late to ask. It was what it was.

There was a burbling stream somewhere in England, which looked deceptively charming until you stepped into it, and the currents either ripped you apart or dragged you under to unknown depths.

Love, Mu Qing thought, was much the same.

Mu Qing remembered his first two years in university, calling his mother and lying about how fantastic his life was, how many friends he had, and then hanging up and sitting in the half-darkness of his dorm room, staring at the wall, thinking: surely this isn’t it.

There was no one to lie to anymore.

There was no one even to talk to. Except a funny, cheerful, lonely bartender in the shittiest bar in the city, who was quickly becoming his best friend.

So. Mu Qing goes back to the bar, and goes back to the bar, and goes back to the bar and goes back to Shi Qingxuan.

 

:::

 

At the end of the first school term in late January, the university let out for a month of winter holiday. Mu Qing went with Xie Lian and Feng Xin to the train station to see them off, back to ye olde hometown.

It was still dawn and morning fog hung around the buildings, heavy and cinereal, cloaking everything with an amorphous, seemingly-shatterproof stillness.

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to come?” Xie Lian asked.

Hua Cheng, Xie Lian’s boyfriend, was coming along, ostensibly to meet the parents for the first time. He stood there now, a long, thin figure clothed in red and black, holding himself somehow apart and above the tableau, even though he was holding on tight to Xie Lian’s mittened hand.

Looking like Slenderman, Mu Qing thought uncharitably.

“Wait—” Feng Xin interrupted. “You’re not coming home?”

Mu Qing leveled him with a baleful glare. “No,” he snapped.

There was nothing left for him back in the place where they had grown up. He might as well save the train fare.

To Xie Lian, he said: “I’ll be fine.” It wasn’t actually an answer, but there was only one person who would have ever called him out on it.

“All right,” Xie Lian said, with a sigh that made Hua Cheng look up from his phone for the first time to glare at Mu Qing. “Take care of yourself then, okay?”

Mu Qing shrugged noncommittally and offered a half-smirk. “Don’t I always?”

With a last wave, Xie Lian boarded the train, leading his annoying shadow with him.

Then it was just Mu Qing and Feng Xin standing across from one another in the chill of early morning, their breath puffing out in hazy little clouds.

They orbited one another. They had orbited one another for a decade. Without the gravitational pull of Xie Lian to keep them there, would they be ships in the night?

Feng Xin caught his wrist, when he made to leave, and looked at him for a long moment, his gaze searching.

Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it in me, Mu Qing thought bitterly. Or — if you’re trying to divine whether or not I’m a person of worth, you’ve already decided long ago that I’m not.

“Yes?” he offered stiffly, letting his gaze frost over.

Feng Xin opened his mouth, as if to say something, then closed it. Mu Qing felt a little sick with desire under the attention anyways, phantom heat prickling his skin.

At last, Feng Xin shrugged a little helplessly and let go. “See you later?”

“Yeah.” Mu Qing said, pulling his knitted cat-eared beanie further over his freezing ears and meeting Feng Xin’s eyes for a split second before flicking his gaze away. The expanse on his wrist where Feng Xin’s fingers had firmly wrapped burned like a brand.

He tried to think of something else to say; anything that might prolong the conversation, and then realized that he was being pathetic.

Fine. Mu Qing might not have much, but he still had his pride.

He curled his mouth into a deliberate and familiar sneer.

“Well,” he said, stepping away first. “Go before you miss your train.”

 

:::

 

“Here, try this,” Shi Qingxuan said, offering up a gigantic slice of ma lai go.

Mu Qing had swung by after his own shift at the coffee shop where he worked, and his feet ached from standing for the last seven hours straight. A life consigned to these particular little aches and pains was truly the plight of minimum wage workers everywhere, he thought with a sort of wry acceptance.

Cake sounded good in theory, but if the cake had been produced by the hands of Shi Qingxuan...

“Did you make this?” Mu Qing asked suspiciously.

“Of course not,” Shi Qingxuan said with a knowing grin. “The sweet Auntie that works at the convenience store across the street made it and gave me some.”

That sweet auntie looks like she brews moonshine in her bathtub, Mu Qing wanted to say, but he held his tongue. Let no one accuse him of being a class traitor. He understood the hustle, even if he didn’t particularly want to contract food poisoning.

Not that Mu Qing would turn down free dinner anyways — he was literally a poor scholarship student, and he ate — or abstained — like one.

Upon reflecting later though, he mused that he probably could have turned this particular “meal” down.

As it transpired, the ma lai go was absurdly and inexplicably soaked in some sort of incredibly strong dessert liqueur. Mu Qing’s first meal of the day, he was buzzed well into the evening.

“Do we have a choice in who we love?” Shi Qingxuan asked later, when the last of the day had waned into the eventide, occasionally prone to the odd pointed question when he stopped chattering.

For someone that smiled so much, he had a surprising number of maudlin thoughts.

Outside, where dusk had indeed fallen, the shapes of buildings rose up dark and imposing against the hazy ink of smog covered night sky. Mu Qing had lived here for three years, and he still felt like a stranger to the city. Even though after last summer, this was his only home now. He wondered if it would ever feel like one.

“I don’t think so, no.” He thought of freckles and golden skin and an easy laugh, and then he tried to make himself stop.

These days, now that Xie Lian had returned, Feng Xin hardly ever seemed to look at him; couldn’t even be goaded into a fight most of the time. Not that Mu Qing wanted to keep fighting. But what else had there been to connect them besides mutual animosity? Killing instinct or animal magnetism.

A lifetime of knowing one another, the weight of a decade, washed out in the water. He didn’t want to believe it, but he had reconciled harder truths before.

“Yeah,” Shi Qingxuan said, a little absently, like he was thinking of someone else also. Something like pain flashed behind his pleasant mien, as fleeting but remarkable as a lightning strike reverberating through a starless sky. “I don’t think so either. It sure would be something if we did though, huh?”

 

:::

 

They were dyeing Mu Qing’s hair silver.

Shi Qingxuan’s little apartment space above the bar smelled like bleach, even though the windows were open, and their eyes were dry and stinging.

“Worth it though,” Shi Qingxuan said, when he turned Mu Qing around to face the mirror, and fanned the long silken strands of starlight silver over his shoulders.

Mu Qing stared at himself in the small circular mirror. Delicate, angular features set into pale skin. Dark eyebrows, arched over eyes that were so much his mother’s, it made him want to weep sometimes. Was there anything within him that was as good as she had been? The new: soft silver crowning his face.

“Thank you,” Mu Qing said quietly.

It had never occurred to him that he would ever find friendship like this.

“No need for thanks,” Shi Qingxuan replied. Their eyes met in the mirror. His hands — cracked from the dryness of washing dishes and glasses in wintertime — were very gentle, working his way through a small tangle in Mu Qing’s hair. “I never thought I’d have the chance to have a best friend again. This time around, I hope I will do it right.”

 

In the relatively clean but skeletal space of Shi Qingxuan’s designated kitchen area, Mu Qing scrounged up what bare ingredients existed in the cupboards and cooked them a meal. Rice porridge flavored up with some sad pieces of old ginger, white pepper, and half a container of refrigerated chicken stock.

“That smells so good,” Shi Qingxuan enthused.

“When you grow up dirt poor, you know how to make a decent meal out of anything,” Mu Qing snorted. “But it's hardly anything anyone would choose to eat if they had—” he waved the wooden stirring spoon around. “—actual options.”

“Well.” Shi Qingxuan said, and his usual smile faltered. “I was once a rich kid. And here I am.”

Mu Qing blinked at him. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he could definitely tell. The vestiges of a privileged upbringing and the trauma of a harsh fall clung to Shi Qingxuan in invisible cut strings — like the whisper of a scent on the wind, or a plume of smoke from a blown out stick of incense.

He sensed it sometimes with Xie Lian too, but not as much, because Xie Lian still carried himself mostly with the unremitting dignity of a prince, even when he had been low. It was a sweet, romantic air of noble suffering, like a protagonist in a fairytale.

Underneath his smiles, Shi Qingxuan carried himself like there was something irreversibly broken and cracked open inside of him. It was partially what had drawn Mu Qing to him — that jagged, gritty brokenness and unspeakable loneliness which called to his own.

Their fear and pain was not a pretty thing; it was something that existed without certainty of resolution. A darkness hard to look at, difficult to be around, even harder to comprehend. Enduring was the question, and it had no answer.

“Well,” Mu Qing replied at last, at a loss. He was not prepared to discuss the realities of socioeconomic stratification at this juncture in time, if ever. It was a difficult enough thing to live. “Welcome to the club, I suppose.”

“You probably wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with me, back then.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Mu Qing conceded. “But—things change. We’re both here now.”

From where he stood off to the side, staring into the pot of bubbling porridge, steam rising up into his face, Shi Qingxuan looked distant, like he was a million kilometres from this place and time. He was small in stature, but Mu Qing knew that he was strong; he was often gentle, but he was not fragile — how else could you explain the way he shouldered his heavy heart with such grace? The daring of a spirit refusing to be broken. 

He was reminded again of strength that surpassed the physical boundaries of body.

Mu Qing tapped the back of Shi Qingxuan’s hand to bring him back to the present, and had a rare moment of perspicacity. Or maybe he was only carrying on a tradition that preceded him, saying the words that he himself had needed to hear so often.

“Never give up, right? We go forwards.”

This phrase was something his mother had always ended their phone calls with in the last few years of her life. He hadn’t quite known what she’d meant at the time. Looking back, he wondered if she had always known the intimations of truth behind his actual life, even as he lied to her to spare her the worry. Even when her vision had gone, her insight had remained sharp as ever. To the last, defiant and in contravention of the strictures of nature.

And now he was handing these very words out to someone else who might need them.

Mu Qing was under no particular delusions that he was good. But — he had always been tenacious. Shi Qingxuan was both; Mu Qing felt this in the marrow of his bones, which was stronger than simply knowing it.

A small smile spread across Shi Qingxuan’s face, something far more raw but real than the wide-mouthed grins he freely dispensed. It was a smile hard won — a defiant smile that had cost something, everything, and still, persisted. Mu Qing knew the expression well. “All right.”

They ate together over the countertop, burning their mouths on bowls of too-hot food, and then Shi Qingxuan pulled him into an impromptu dance party despite his initial reluctance. They spun wildly around the tiny apartment until, sweaty and out of breath from laughing, they collapsed in a heap on the ground.

It was a good night. To Mu Qing’s surprise, when he walked back home in the drizzling rain, the moon a fat dollop of white in the sky, wind in his newly silver hair, his heavy heart was light.

 

:::

 

A few weeks in, they had somewhat arbitrarily graduated to mixed drinks and shots.

Shi Qingxuan insisted they were following some sort of hallowed, tried-and-tested programme, but Mu Qing was ninety percent sure that he was being fucked with. That was all right. This was the kind of playful mischievousness that lay between friends.

“Don’t you trust me?” Shi Qingxuan asked, jokingly.

“Fuck no,” Mu Qing huffed. But he did — trusted Shi Qingxuan to know him and his limits, when and where to push — and Shi Qingxuan knew it too.

The first night that Mu Qing stayed over was the first time they had taken shots, and Shi Qingxuan’s conscience would not let Mu Qing stagger his way back to his own shitty apartment.

He ended up sprawled out on the ratty floor rug, limbs intentionally long and loose. Shi Qingxuan was lying on his own bed, but the space was studio, and therefore, they were perhaps only a couple metres apart. They had stayed up long enough that the sky was paling into gray outside the window of the attic, which was long enough for the drunkenness to wane into something close to sobriety.

There was a stillness in the air, a liminal space where sound could not reach, when Shi Qingxuan told Mu Qing his own story — carved it out of himself like an exorcism done with a blunt saber. A whisper in the dark that demanded to be heard.

The sorry story was of his once best friend, whose family business and life had been wholly destroyed by Shi Qingxuan’s elder brother in order to ensure him a better future, unbeknownst to Shi Qingxuan himself. And then this person had clawed his way back up to the top through sheer spite, wormed his way into his life and then ruined his brother, landing him an incommutable life-sentence in prison, which was nearly as good as killing him. Maybe worse. This rather horrifying revenge plot had been particularly thorough, and it had ended up also disgracing and expelling Shi Qingxuan from the very university that Mu Qing now attended. Collateral and structural damage everywhere; like broken glass all over the floor, you could not avoid it, you could only let yourself be cut by it, helplessly and without recourse.

Two years later, Shi Qingxuan was still quietly bleeding over this.

“He Xuan?” Mu Qing said, surprised. “I know him. Hua Cheng’s friend.” He made a face in the half-darkness. Well, as close to a friend as Hua Cheng had (outside of Xie Lian, who did not count).

“Ah. Yes.”

Mu Qing stared up at the fine spiderweb of cracks in the ceiling. “I’ll beat him up for you, if you want,” he offered, fiercely, with all the killing intent that his body could muster - which was a considerable amount.

He hadn’t grown up scrapping in the streets and then brawling with Feng Xin for nothing. This willingness to fight, this fearsome ferocity that vibrated beneath his skin, had always been a part of him. The forces of the universe were so beyond his control, but the human aspect could sometimes be subdued. The one power granted to him.

Shi Qingxuan was startled into a choked laugh, seemingly despite himself. “No, no. I...feel like I don’t have a right to blame him. He was wronged first. Because of me.”

“I don’t care,” Mu Qing said, curling his hands into familiar fists. “I’m your friend, not his. So just say the word.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“It is unforgivable,” Shi Qingxuan pronounced — a bit too pedantically to pass for truly calm — speaking of his brother and his former friend, and of himself too, for that indirect crime of ignorance. For being loved to the point of utter destruction.

“It’s so—” He fell silent, and then tried again.

“It is not something that can ever be overcome. I can understand why they did what they did. My brother is my brother, and he did it for me. I can’t help but love and miss him even if he was so wrong. But—I also miss He Xuan too, as awful as it all is. And I know there’s no path for us going forwards. Even if there was, I couldn’t stomach it.”

He laughed the very unhappy and tired laugh of someone who generally liked to joke through their pain instead of acknowledging it. “Sometimes I wonder — were we ever even friends? All those years, those moments. Was it ever real? Were we only ever holding each other back?”

In the dark, you could be brave. “I’ve got so much—so much love, and nowhere to put it all now, it feels like.”

Oh, these unfathomable questions of the living. Of love and fear. Of loss. Loving someone, more than you loved yourself, but still hating what they’d done. How to come to terms with what had happened, which required understanding how it had come to be. Understanding someone’s motivations, knowing why, and still, being hurt regardless. Of needing forgiveness from someone, but also not being able to forgive them.

Mu Qing breathed very deeply, in and out, absorbing the way that this particular moment felt and hurt. The texture, the sound, the taste. Sensation or sense without meaning.

He thought about the people that occupied spaces within his life, even when he was all alone; even if they were now gone.

He thought of his mother — how there had been some rips and tears in clothing that even she, with her skillful needle, could not mend.

That was to say, the soul-rending lesson was that some fissures could never be fixed. Time could not turn back, however much you wanted it to, and many things could not be undone.

And some pain transcended words.

Blindly, he reached out a hand to find Shi Qingxuan’s, and they gripped each other tight, long into the rising of the sun in the east.

The meaning was this. No matter what, neither of them were alone in this world anymore.

Mu Qing turned his head to meet Shi Qingxuan's eyes, their gazes intent on one another. The undiscerning pale red light of sunrise, filtering in through the windows, turned everything to gold.

This was enough.

 

:::

 

“I have no idea how we’re still in business,” Shi Qingxuan laughed, when Mu Qing enquired.

It was a legitimate question; he could literally count on one hand just how many actual customers he had seen the bar entertain in the past month. (Two. The number was two.)

"Are you even trained as a bartender?" Mu Qing asked.

Shi Qingxuan gave him what was probably meant to be a reassuring look. "Trust me," he said. "I know these things. I'm a very heavy drinker."

It turned out that Shi Qingxuan had wandered in one day, following a strange flyer he’d been given when he had still been living in a homeless shelter, and somehow landed both the job and the shoddy living quarters above the bar. He hadn’t seen the boss around since, but he was getting the paychecks.

Sometimes when you needed the money desperately, you learned not to ask too many questions.

Privately, Mu Qing had surmised through some poking around that He Xuan was funding this little joint under the table. But he wasn’t going to say. Besides, he had a feeling that Shi Qingxuan had some inkling, even if he didn’t want to think about it.

Shi Qingxuan occasionally affected the air that he was still a ditzy airhead, but he wasn’t. The more you talked to him, the more this became obvious. If Mu Qing had been born with the necessary steel in his veins, Shi Qingxuan was someone who had had to find it in order to survive.

Looking into his eyes, Mu Qing knew for certain that this was true. It had been a brutally hard lesson to learn, and Shi Qingxuan wasn’t slumbering anymore.

 

:::

 

They didn’t drink all the time. Mu Qing didn’t actually want to torpedo his liver function, after all.

And also, on some golden nights, the bar was like a little home base of sorts, for all the assorted people that Shi Qingxuan had managed to collect somehow — wandering nomads, single parent families, lonely elderly shopkeepers; the misfits of the modern age. It was a sanctuary set apart from the vicissitudes of life, if only for a night at a time.

Sometimes Mu Qing looked at Shi Qingxuan and wondered: Do you know how good you are? How rare genuine kindness is?

He harkened back to that night of revelations too. Shi Qingxuan, you don’t know where to put all of your love? Here is where you have put it.

 

It was during one of these impromptu gatherings that Mu Qing found himself sitting by the door and watching over the children playing outside.

Despite himself, he had been charmed into laughing at the little shadow puppet show the kids were putting on, their makeshift stage illuminated by leftover red paper lanterns from the recent New Year’s celebrations.

It reminded him of home, which was a place that only existed in his memory now. There had been so many kids in his apartment building who had needed looking after when their parents were at work, from dawn to dusk. All they had was Mu Qing, in all his bitter, teenage glory. Back then, he thought it must have been a cosmic joke, that he of all people was attempting to help raise them right and give them a good childhood, even though he was so fucked up himself. But oh, he had tried.

He was not years in the past now; he was in the present.

Inside, Shi Qingxuan was spinning round and round in the middle of the bar, where tables and chairs had been cleared to make a space for a makeshift dance floor, surrounded by a ring of clapping people. There was something fast-tempo and instrumental emanating from a phone that had been placed into a clean drinking glass to amplify the sound. He was wearing a pale blue-green skirt over gray leggings, frayed at the hem, but still beautiful, and it flared and rippled around him, like the tossing of waves, or the movement of sea breeze over water.

Lit by the flicker of cheap fluorescent light bulbs, his eyes were closed, and he was smiling.

Mu Qing had been coming to a lot of realizations recently.

Here was one. Happiness was a difficult thing to construct. So when it came to you at the oddest moments, you simply had to let yourself be.

This was what he had on his mind when his phone lit up with an incoming call. It was Feng Xin.

 

:::

 

“Yeah?” Mu Qing said, when he picked up, a little breathless, the last traces of laughter still in his voice.

“Are you with someone?” Feng Xin demanded after a strange pause.

“Yes,” Mu Qing said, startled into honesty. “I’m—hold on.” He snapped a picture of the children and their shadow puppets, and sent it to Feng Xin. There was a corresponding buzz on the other end.

“Are you playing with kids?” Feng Xin asked, sounding strangled, maybe incredulous.

Mu Qing was instantly defensive. “Fuck off. I’m at a friend’s get-together or whatever. And the kids are cool.”

“No! I think that’s really—really awesome.”

“Yeah okay,” Mu Qing snorted doubtfully, rolling his eyes, but decided not to pursue the fight further — not when he was languid tonight, with something that felt like contentment.

Happy. He was happy. What a prosaic, yet foreign feeling.

“Why did you call?”

Feng Xin cleared his throat. “I saw the auntie at that stand Xie Lian used to drag us to after school for egg puffs - do you remember? She’s doing well. Told me to say hi to you.”

“Ha! I remember her smacking you on the head with a rolled up newspaper anytime you said something stupid. So, all the time.”

“She always liked you best,” Feng Xin agreed, with a smile in his voice.

Mu Qing was not about to say so, but that was probably because Yiyi had been old friends with his mother, and had been the one to watch over him when he was still too young to be left alone, and his mother had to work late at the sewing shop. Not precisely halcyon days...but they had been simpler times.

“I miss it sometimes,” Mu Qing murmured, thinking about the gilded naivety of youth, images flickering behind his eyelids too fast to register aside from the general emotion of nostalgia. “Even—even if it was bad sometimes.”

“Me too.”

The kids had gone inside with a last wave to him, and so he sat outside alone, keeping strange vigil. City lights loomed above, overlooking the darkened areas where the bright light seemingly did not venture. There was a tired metaphor there that he didn’t want to explore.

“You didn’t tell me—” Feng Xin paused. “You didn’t tell me that your mother passed last year.”

Of all the things that Feng Xin might have said, this was one that Mu Qing hadn’t quite expected. But also — what had Feng Xin actually expected? This phone call was basically the nicest direct interaction they’d ever had.

“Yeah,” Mu Qing responded awkwardly. Yiyi had probably said something to give it away. Did Feng Xin expect him to cry about it now? He’d already cried himself dry at the funeral last year, and for some months after that.

And then he’d sold the fucking shop in the summer, after bawling about that too, because sentiment didn’t count for much when you were poor as fuck. But something he’d realized recently — he held his mother in his heart, wherever he went. The shop didn’t matter. She would’ve told him that if she was here.

The unbearable grief had passed. It came at him in swells still, sometimes, but it was easier to bear now.

“I’m sorry,” Feng Xin said, hundreds of miles away, right against his ear. “Mu Qing, I wish I’d known.”

“Why?” Mu Qing asked plainly.

He was thinking back to the days of the funeral, of getting the call, even though he’d known it was coming, dropping everything and rushing back on the first train out. Of how cold he had been, standing there in the cemetery with Yiyi and a few other kind souls that his mother had befriended over the years, even though he had been staring right into the glowing orange maw of the blazing furnace where he’d tossed over a bundle of joss paper money meant to speed his mother on her journey. In that time, he’d only had the distinct sense, mired and adrift in a sea of grief, that he simply had to keep breathing through this terrible pain, and this moment too, would pass.

Survival instinct — he’d always possessed it, even if he sometimes wished that he didn’t.

That was sort of the thing. When despair came knocking at his door, he was loath to go, but he would answer.

“So I could’ve been there for you.”

Mu Qing bristled. “I didn’t need—”

“I know you don’t need help, you’ve never needed it,” Feng Xin interrupted, his voice coming over a little crackly through the phone speakers, but still so familiar and solid. So like home, even if Mu Qing didn’t exactly know what that was at the moment. “But I would’ve liked to have been there anyways.”

The music inside the bar had changed, and the faint sounds of Anita Mui drifted out from the cracked open door and into the street. If he shut his eyes for a moment, he could almost pretend that he was back home, sitting at his mother's knee as she played her favorite CDs.

“Well,” Mu Qing said quietly, after a time. “Thank you, then.”

 

:::

 

The thing was, the more time Mu Qing spent with Shi Qingxuan, the more comfortable Shi Qingxuan seemed to get with the idea of giving him alcohol poisoning.

“You just want to get me fucked up!” Mu Qing accused. They’d had iterations of this argument too many times to count at this point.

It was nearly the end of winter break. Mu Qing’s alcohol tolerance was by now significantly improved, but based on the impish glint in Shi Qingxuan’s eyes, he didn’t think it could withstand whatever new experimental onslaught that he had prepared.

“Yep!” Shi Qingxuan said shamelessly, swirling the mystery drink ominously. The sloshing liquid inside was bright green; the hue of toxic radioactive waste. What an absolute menace to society. Mu Qing couldn’t imagine life without him anymore. “Drink up!”

“This is the peer-pressure that my mother warned me about,” Mu Qing complained, and drank anyway.

It tasted like it was nearly pure, undiluted baiju in a blasphemous coffee mug of all things, which was to say that it was absolutely disgusting. Practically blindness-inducing. Mu Qing downed the whole thing in one go and coughed for ten minutes afterwards from the burn in his throat while Shi Qingxuan laughed himself stupid.

Mama, Mu Qing thought. Wherever you are, I hope you know I’m doing okay.

 

:::

 

On Mu Qing's way back home, his phone rang. He ignored it in favor of concentrating on keeping the line of his walk from listing too much.

As karmic retribution, when he finally dragged his body up the stairs and to his apartment door, he found Feng Xin waiting outside. He hadn’t known Feng Xin was back. He hadn’t even realized that anyone knew where he lived.

Well, at the very least, it was comforting to know that if he ever died in his apartment, someone would eventually know where to come pick up his decomposing body.

“You dyed your hair,” Feng Xin finally said, when they had stared at each other in the dimly lit hallway for a few minutes. His gaze was a heavy thing. His tanned skin was very golden in the warm yellow light, and it glowed faintly, almost like he held the sun beneath his skin.

“No fucking shit,” Mu Qing snapped instinctively, reaching out for a fight like a ritual act of war.

Instead of snapping back though, Feng Xin grinned, eyes curved into luminous crescents. “It’s good to see you.”

Mu Qing’s traitorous heart skipped a beat, and he felt heat creep up into already alcohol-flushed cheeks. “Why are you here?”

Feng Xin could be so overwhelming sometimes. He was handsome in a way that made Mu Qing ache. So instead of looking directly at him, he looked at the way their shadows flickered on the walls, close enough to touch, and pushed the visual image into his memory.

“I wanted to see you,” Feng Xin said artlessly, as if that were reason enough. Brave, stupid, and wonderful. Mu Qing could never have said those words that Feng Xin seemed to dole out so easily. “And — I brought these for you.” He shoved a stack of developed photographs at Mu Qing.

Mu Qing flipped through them and felt his heart pang.

They were candids of him and his mother through the years — pictures he hadn’t even known had existed, although doubtless they had been taken by Yiyi. Snapshots of a life immortalized in film grain. The last one, anachronistically, was of him, his mother, and his father, laughing. He didn’t even recall the memory, but there he was, swinging between his mother and the man who must have been his father.

He wouldn’t have been ready to look at these a year ago. He knew why Yiyi hadn’t given these to him then. But he was ready now.

When he looked up, Feng Xin was watching him with something like deep tenderness in his eyes.

“Thanks,” Mu Qing managed to say through the tightness in his throat, because Feng Xin hadn’t had to do any of this for him, and he had.

It occurred to him that he had thanked Feng Xin twice now, which was probably some sort of record.

“No problem,” Feng Xin said quietly.

He turned to go, but then halfway to the stairs, he paused and half-turned, the silhouette of his profile a miraculous thing in the half-light. “Why did it take so long for us to start talking?”

“If we keep it up, maybe in thirty years we’ll have graduated to friendship,” Mu Qing smirked, a beat too slow given his liquor saturated brain, although his wit had not deserted him entirely.

He watched Feng Xin laugh with a half dazed wonder and thought — I made that happen.

“Maybe…” Feng Xin hesitated, his grin a little cautious around the edges. “...maybe we should start picking up the pace.”

“I always wanted to be friends,” Mu Qing blurted out, when Feng Xin turned his back again. Immediately after he said it, he almost lost his nerve, but he had come this far already. Gods above though, this vulnerability was so painful.

“I wanted us all to be friends. I know I’m difficult to be around, but do you think that was ever possible?”

“Xie Lian is your friend, and I—I’ve wanted to be too, for a long time,” Feng Xin insisted, his brow furrowing in consternation. “Mu Qing, I—”

“It’s fine.”

Mu Qing held up a hand to cut off Feng Xin, suddenly feeling very sharp despite the lingering torpor of drunkenness. Don’t lie to me, I can take it, he thought, angry and embarrassed and hurt. The familiar sting of humiliation — and also, profound disbelief.

Feng Xin stood frozen at the end of the hallway, the balance of his body weight such that he looked like he was about to lurch forwards, back to Mu Qing.

“It’s late, Feng Xin.” That too had double meaning. It was late at night. But it was also, maybe too late for them. Perhaps it was better not to rock the boat after all.

Mu Qing finally got his key to turn in the lock. “It’s fine,” He repeated again, with more force. “Thanks again for the pictures.”

The door slammed shut behind him. He downed the entire pitcher of water on the counter, brushed his teeth, and then fell into bed and slept as if he were dead. He did not dream — or if he did, he did not remember it.

 

:::

 

Mu Qing woke up to a dry throat and the sound of insistent knocking on his door.

Judging from the missed calls and text messages blinking on his dying phone screen, it was Xie Lian who was ringing his doorbell at this offensively early time of day. What was up with people turning up where he lived? He hadn’t even been aware his address was common knowledge until last night.

Mu Qing was vaguely tempted to bury his head underneath his pillow and just go back to the sweet oblivion of sleep, but he also knew that Xie Lian could be uniquely stubborn when the occasion called for it. He rolled over, stared at his ceiling for a minute and contemplated death.

“Is this about last night?” he groused, when he finally got up to let Xie Lian in. “Because I was drunk. We can pretend that Feng Xin never opened his stupid mouth.”

“No,” Xie Lian snapped, pacing around Mu Qing’s doorway. “We can’t.”

Mu Qing froze at the uncharacteristic vehemence.

A memory flashed through his mind - the image of the boy who had wept furiously and silently under cherry tree groves in the back of the school, who had wanted nothing more than for Xie Lian to be his friend, who had wanted to be more than an obligation, an acolyte. And then, Mu Qing thought, he was still that boy.

He thought of all the lost time that fell between them, and then of the quietly kept peace of the past few years. If this was the boat, how long might it stay afloat?

Xie Lian took a deep breath, still unceasingly earnest, even after everything. “Mu Qing, you’re one of my best friends. You’ve always been my friend. Even when we fell out for all those years, you were my friend.”

Mu Qing buried his face into his hands, disbelieving.

It was—it was so early in the morning. He had woken up just to fall into a dream that stretched beyond the limits of his wildest imagination.

He had long since stopped hoping; hadn’t thought that he deserved it. Confronted with this impossible conjuration, he didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or weep.

“Xie Lian…”

A tentative hand on his shoulder, and then — astonishingly, improbably — arms around him, solid and warm and somehow familiar. Mu Qing held himself rigidly for a few fraught moments, waiting for it to be snatched away. When the hug remained, he finally let himself believe it.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say so sooner,” Xie Lian said. “I never imagined you didn’t know. But it’s going to be better now, I promise.”

So much history and hurt and forgiveness and growth and care between the both of them. When Mu Qing looked at Xie Lian, he saw, for the first time, that they had come so far.

Maybe ten years wasn’t too late. Maybe it was long enough.

 

:::

 

Mu Qing was sitting under an orchid tree on campus after class, thumbing through the red inked comments on an essay from the last term that he’d just gotten returned, when some random first-year approached him.

“Are you Mu Qing?” the kid asked. She was wearing a shiny synthetic sports jacket which broadcasted that she was part of the university archery team. That meant she probably knew Feng Xin, who was the captain of the team.

“Who’s asking?”

“Whatever,” she said, unfazed by his fuck-off attitude. “Your boyfriend’s fighting people right now for talking shit about you. Just thought you should know.”

“My what?”

 

When Mu Qing ran to where the girl had pointed him to, Feng Xin was brawling with two randoms in the back parking lot. He was winning, of course he was, but Mu Qing didn’t even have to think about it before he jumped in.

This was easy, at least. When they weren’t busy fighting one another, they worked well as a team. It had always been this way, ever since they were kids, back to back, fists flying. Synergistic.

When they were done and the two boys had slunk off in defeat, Mu Qing shoved Feng Xin. Anger slithered around his hopeful heart to armor it.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Feng Xin stumbled, let himself be moved, but didn’t strike back. It infuriated Mu Qing, made him desperate and vulnerable in a way he hated.

“Come on, fight me back!”

“I don’t want to fucking fight anymore, Mu Qing,” Feng Xin shouted.

“Stop—stop ignoring me!” Mu Qing yelled, chest heaving with something that felt like devastation, a yawning pit — no a fucking abyss — in his stomach.

This, the breaking point, the half-lucid space between dreaming and waking. He’d had to let go of so much in the past year, he could let go of this, it wouldn’t kill him. But not without a fight. Not without a fight first.

“Mu Qing, what do you want?” Feng Xin asked, like he was being genuine. Like life had ever cared what Mu Qing wanted. Like it had ever given him anything he hadn’t clawed and scrabbled in the dirt for, and sometimes, not even that. But then again, he probably was, wasn’t he? Feng Xin was never anything but genuine; had never needed or wanted to be anything but.

“I want—I want—” Mu Qing wanted to howl, he wanted to sob, he wanted to turn back time. He wanted to do things differently, be a different person. He wanted to be more. He wanted to know how to exist when his heart was so heavy. He wanted to be loved. He didn’t need. But oh, he wanted.

There was a wetness on his face, even though Mu Qing could not say when he had started crying. His cheeks felt hot, and he knew that he was probably flushed with upset. Grotesque with his yearning.

He stood there, torn open.

“It’s all right,” Feng Xin said, suddenly gentle. “I get it now. I’ve got you.” And then arms were reaching out for him, and Mu Qing was being held.

“I can fight my own fights!” Mu Qing managed to choke out, muffled from where he was smothering quiet sobs into Feng Xin’s shoulder.

“I know,” Feng Xin replied simply, running soothing hands firmly up and down his shuddering back until at last, Mu Qing quieted. “Of course I know that. You’re the strongest person I know.”

They breathed together for a moment, two bodies moving together — so familiar with one another and yet, brought together in a new way. They slotted up against one another like puzzle pieces that had needed time to grow to fit together.

“You like me?” Feng Xin asked, bruised and beautiful. He was broad and strong, and upright and solid and good. Mu Qing had wanted so intransigently for so long.

Mu Qing opened his mouth to dissemble, but then looked into dark, honest eyes, and was lost. “I didn’t mean to,” he said sulkily, tears still sliding down his cheeks.

“Mu Qing,” Feng Xin said insistently, a smile pulling the edges of his mouth up, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You dumbfuck. I like you so much.”

Mu Qing closed his eyes for a moment and trembled. He let himself be moved by warm hands to face a destiny he had not dared to anticipate. A desire so old that it felt primordial.

Mu Qing, you are in love.

Feng Xin took both of his hands, slender pale fingers caught in the clasp of broader, tanner ones. There was blood, slick and crimson, on his hands, but they were somehow incomprehensibly gentle.

“Mu Qing, I’ve loved you for years. Even— even before I could name what it was, I loved you.”

He brought Mu Qing’s hands to his lips, and pressed a kiss over raw knuckles that had hit out at him time and time again in the past like it was simple. “Will you let me love you?”

 

:::

 

Spring had come, after the thaw of winter.

The breeze, blowing in from the south, was lush and pleasant on Mu Qing's skin as he made his way down that now familiar path to the dive bar.

In the grimy window of the bar, Mu Qing saw Shi Qingxuan and He Xuan sitting across from one another at a table.

They were speaking.

Mu Qing watched from a safe distance for a moment. There was a solemn, but not anguished expression on Shi Qingxuan’s expressive face as he listened to He Xuan speak. He nodded slowly, and said something in response that made He Xuan’s usually impassive face fracture open to reveal something uncomfortably intimate in its sheer rawness.

Two figures, tossed about in a violent storm, a tempest that should have killed them; now picking up the splintered wreckage in wine-dark waters finally gone quiet, and finding it somehow, perhaps not beyond repair.

Even though there was perhaps no real danger of customers, Mu Qing went and flipped the Open sign on the door handle to Closed, before leaving them.

Mu Qing still did not quite know what he thought about the concept of deserving, but he was decided on this much. Shi Qingxuan deserved a happy ending. Barring that, he deserved a chance to be set free.

Maybe, somehow, inexplicably, in the utterly mystifying way of the universe, He Xuan was a part of that.

 

:::

 

The rising tide that lifted all boats.

The current state of play. The world had not encountered a fundamental tilt off its axis. And yet, somehow, in Mu Qing's eyes, it bloomed in more riotous color than ever before.

A year of irreducibly and inscrutably becoming wiser, sadder, freer, and more himself than ever before.

(Mu Qing goes to school, he goes to work, he goes forwards.)

He spent a lot of his free time with Shi Qingxuan, his best friend. He still drank Shi Qingxuan’s experimental brews, which were actually getting better. Or maybe his taste buds had been burned out.

They contemplated dyeing his hair again. But Mu Qing liked silver — he felt like himself, in silver. So they dyed Shi Qingxuan’s hair a gradient of pale green instead. Green made Shi Qingxuan look even more effervescent. It suited him like silver suited Mu Qing.

He Xuan, now a more tentatively palpable presence, looked thunderstruck the first time he witnessed it — and every time he saw it afterwards. Mu Qing was not in the business of hypothesizing too much about the future. But — he thought they might turn out all right after all, which was a foreign, but welcome concept.

The two-person Sad Boys Club might have to contemplate a name change at this rate.

There was time enough, and what would be would be — love and fear and everything in between. Mu Qing was better reconciled with this now. After all, living was an act you could not premeditate.

He hung out with Xie Lian and Feng Xin, who were his friends for sure. (Well, the latter a bit more than a friend.) He learned to tolerate Hua Cheng’s presence through informal exposure therapy.

He went on dates and kissed Feng Xin, who love-loved him, even when he was infuriated by him, even when Mu Qing pushed him away.

Love was not a fix-all — but gods above, it was so sweet.

Mu Qing dreamed about being loved, and woke up in a world where he knew that he was.

 

Here is an image, a reality. Somewhere in a big city, in a small apartment, under the semi-darkness of a starry night, Mu Qing lies wrapped up in bed with Feng Xin. Head on his chest over a steady heartbeat.

Half-awake, Feng Xin tangles a hand into silver hair and kisses the top of his head. Deep in slumber, Mu Qing smiles.

He is in love.