Long Ma lay on the ground, staring up at the stars and breathing heavily. The sweat on his back was getting cold, raising goosebumps on his arms. If he squinted, he could see his breath turning to mist in the dark.
A face popped into Long Ma’s vision, obscuring the sky. Are you okay? Xiao Bo signed, looking worried.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Long Ma told him. He raised his arm, a little shaky, and poked Xiao Bo’s nose. “I almost won that one.”
Xiao Bo smiled, a hundred-watt bulb in the dark. You’ve still got a long way to go, he replied.
“Xiao Bo, that’s so harsh. I was recruited to be a pro, you know.” Long Ma tugged on Xiao Bo’s jersey. “Lie down with me. You’re tired too, right?”
Xiao Bo made a face that seemed to say it’s cold, but Long Ma was insistent as usual, and so he lowered himself down onto the court and lay down, his hands clasped together on top of his stomach. They stayed there for a time, their heavy breathing slowing back down to normal. Long Ma shivered, and Xiao Bo inched closer to him, until their arms pressed together. Long Ma smiled.
“You seem like you want to ask me something today,” Long Ma said after awhile. He turned to look at Xiao Bo. “Is something wrong?”
Xiao Bo shook his head, and then signed something that Long Ma didn’t quite understand. He caught one word, though.
“You want to know if I regret not going to America?” he asked. Xiao Bo nodded. “Don’t be stupid. I’m really talented, right? I’ll have another opportunity to go pro, but this,” and Long Ma grasped Xiao Bo’s hand, “This time in my life, I’ll only have once. I don’t want to regret it.”
Xiao Bo was blushing. He looked like he wanted to reply, but Long Ma wouldn’t let go of his hand.
Long Ma gazed steadily at Xiao Bo. “I love you, you know,” he said.
Xiao Bo covered his face with his free hand and sat up, trying to get away, but Long Ma held him back. “You understood me, right?” Long Ma said. “You already knew, didn’t you? No one else makes me feel the same way you do. Everyone in the stadium could have told me to stand up, but if you hadn’t been there, Bing Di would have the trophy instead of us.” Long Ma was almost shouting now. “You know that, right?”
Xiao Bo was peeking out from between his fingers. He nodded slowly.
Long Ma’s grip tightened. “What’s your answer?”
Xiao Bo frowned at Long Ma for a moment, then gently pulled his hand away. He signed something, a very simple answer, but Long Ma shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know that one,” he said. Xiao Bo looked frustrated, his hands balled up into fists. Long Ma wondered if he should just go.
“I’m sorry,” Long Ma said, finally. “I’m sorry, forget about it. Let’s play another match.” He stood up slowly. “I’ll definitely win this time, then we’ll see who still—”
But Xiao Bo was on his feet now, grasping Long Ma by the shoulders, looking worried. Long Ma really hated that look. He should always be smiling. The world deserved to see it.
What could Long Ma say? It’s fine, I understand, I’ll always be your friend? Maybe he shouldn’t say anything. Xiao Bo’s hands were still on his shoulders. “I love you,” he said again, because it was the only thing he could think of, the only thing that was true.
Xiao Bo smiled, surprising, beautiful, the same smile Long Ma had seen that first night they’d met, the smile that had taken his breath away. He leaned down and pressed his lips softly to Long Ma’s, the simplest answer he could think of. It said more than a thousand matches.