“What do you mean Tian made the salad? Rang, I asked you to do it, you lazy idiot!”
“Hold on a minute,” Rang lifted a finger to shush Phupha. “Why are we talking about Tian like he still gets a guest card whenever he visits? I think we both agreed after the Laundry Incident that it no longer applies to him.”
“Rang I swear to God…”
“Oh no Phu, you’re not getting away with this one,” Nam interrupted him and covered Phupha’s mouth with his hand just for a good measure. “What Laundry Incident?” he grinned at the youngest man.
“He didn’t tell you? Doc, you’re gonna love this!” Rang smirked. “So, I was doing the laundry… It was three weeks ago I think? I mean it wasn’t the last time I did the laundry! I’m always washing our clothes once a week, I’m not some kind of savage…”
“To the point, please,” Nam rolled his eyes.
“Right! So, I was doing laundry and I’m taking the clothes out of the washing machine and there was this shirt in there, right? Definitely not mine and definitely not Phupha’s since it was too small. So…” he wiggled his eyebrows. “Someone must have come to visit, using the fact that good old Rang wasn't at home for two days.”
“You’re such a kid,” Phupha sighed. “And that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about! The thing is, when I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it, not to make someone else do it for you.”
“Hey! You're never complaining when I ask the doc to do something! All I’m saying is that he doesn’t have a guest status anymore! So all this special treatment you’re giving him is unfair!”
“Tian gets a special treatment because his jokes are actually funny, Rang,” Nam grinned.
“Also, Phupha likes him better than you,” Torfun added as she and Tian made their way into the living room with trays filled with drinks and snacks. “I mean, you can’t blame him for that… Tian’s nice and handsome…” she started to count on her fingers.
“Traitor! I trusted at least you would be on my side, Torfun!”
“Rude,” Tian rolled his eyes. “And no one’s getting a special treatment,” the corner of his lips twitched slightly as he took two glasses of juice from the tray and handed one to Phupha. “Here, I’ve put more ice in it for you.”
Rang pretended to vomit while the others openly giggled at the couple. Phupha barely looked at them before his arm wrapped loosely around Tian's waist, pulling him a little closer despite the scorching heat outside.
After a moment the apartment was busy again with people getting in and out of the kitchen, taking bowls with food, nearly colliding in the narrow doorframes. Once everything was set on the table (or on a nearby cupboard when they ran out of space on the table) the five of them settled on the sofas, friendly bickering filling the room.
“Okay, shush now!” Nam stood up and flicked lightly the glass he was holding. “May I have your attention please?” Rang snickered at his formal tone which only has earned him a quick kick from Torfun. “Right, so… Let’s not forget why we gathered here today,” he started again, raising the glass higher. “Let's raise a toast to this damn lucky guy who, in just a few weeks, will be able to ditch this city and head to his beloved mountains!” they all stood up but the doctor stopped them with a gesture from cheering, clearly not finished with his speech. “Honestly though, I have no idea why you're so drawn there Phu, especially now that you've started getting used to the warm running water… But hey! You're the crazy one, not me!"
Phupha took a playful swing at him, they clanged their glasses and drank. But as they were going to sit back down, Phupha cleared his throat suggestively and stared at Tian, making all three of his friend follow his gaze.
The sudden attention made Tian fluster as he took a nervous sip from his glass of juice.
“Tian, you too had something to say, hadn’t you?” the ranger asked with an encouraging smile.
If it was even possible, Tian’s blushed deepened.
“Um… So…” he started only to stop a second later and fidget with his glass.
“Oh come on, spill it!” Rang groaned. “I mean, whatever it, it can’t be worst than that one time when Phupha got super drunk and called…”
Faster than should be humanly possible, Phupha's hand shot towards Rang's head and smacked him.
“Rang you’re on thin ice now… You promised not to mention it,” Phupha hissed at him.
The look that Tian gave Phupha was almost unpleasant with how drilling it was. His eyes seemed to say: ‘I’m so making you tell me this one’.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Tian said slowly. “But… I’ve got a letter from the university in Chiang Mai and… They accepted my application. In October, I’ll start the educational studies course there.”
The three men started clapping while Torfun just stood there for a second, her mouth slightly agape.
“Wait, really?” she finally blurted. “Oh my God, it’s so cool! Come here,” she took Tian by the wrist and pulled him toward the smaller sofa. “You’ll have to tell me how it is once you’re there! I was thinking about making a degree in educational studies once I’m done with photography…”
“Well, seems like your man found someone more exciting for this evening,” Nam said mockingly, leaning on Phupha's shoulder with all his weight and causing the ranger to wobble.
“Yeah, Doc’s right,” Rang echoed as he stood on the other side, perfectly mimicking Nam’s pose. “Just like in the good old days, you are stuck with us, big guy!”
Phupha just elbowed them both in the stomachs and rolled his eyes.
After that it was just one long stream of talk and jokes, Phupha watched with a soft smile how Tian and Torfun discussed something in hushed voices and Rang and Nam (who sat on both sides of Phupha, keeping him from getting away) teased him mercilessly whenever he seemed to get distracted.
The night has fallen. The later it got, the more bottles appeared on the table, more and more of them had listed ''alcohol'' as one of the ingredients inside. Rang and Nam started giggling at jokes known only to themselves and Torfun fell asleep curled up in an armchair, exhausted after a busy day.
Phupha watched it all with a small smile and peaceful sleepiness swaying in his mind when Tian touched lightly his shoulder and gestured with his head to follow him.
They walked out on the balcony, the streets beneath them busy with the traffic, the shops’ neons reflecting from the windows and illuminating their faces in shades of purple and blue. Hands found each other on the metal railing, shoulders leaned against each other, whispers filled the warm air between them.
“I love you.”
And, just like that, it happened once again. Four words, eleven letters, endless possibilities, infinite happiness.
“I love you too.”
“How many more of these?” Phupha placed the carton box on the floor, using one of the last free spaces in the room.
“Huh? What was that?” Tian looked around the shoulder and smirked at him. “Is someone getting tired?”
“You wish. I just don’t get it why do you needed to bring so many things with yourself!” he pointed at the numerous boxes stacked on top of each other and forming towers that looked as if they were on a verge of falling.
“Well, I need these things! And besides, half of it is my books!”
Tian turned his back on him, not quickly enough, however, for Phupha to miss the pouting look on his face. The ranger sighed quietly and manoeuvred towards the other man, wrapping his arms around Tian’s waist and pulling him into a tight embrace.
“No! I mean… Yes. No, I…” Tian groaned softly, his shoulders sinking down a little. “I don’t know. I mean… I’m happy to be here and I don’t regret this decision. But it’s just… Terrifying. To see all those possibilities, all this future. Because it may not turn out as I want it to, there are so many things in which I can fail and then I’ll have to live with the consequences. I’m just… I guess I’m not used to worrying about all of this.”
“It’s okay, we’ll work this out, one day at the time.”
Tian turned around and hid his face in the crook of Phupha’s neck, humming quietly.
“Did I tell you that you’re the best, chief?”
“Hmm… I think it’s been at least two days since you’ve called me that,” the half-hearted smack on his shoulder made him chuckle. “Okay, it’s getting late. Why don’t you make some tea for us while I bring up the rest of the boxes? The kettle should be in the box marked ‘kitchen stuff’, I'm pretty sure it should be... Somewhere in this room.”
The atmosphere in Chiang Mai was... Eerie. The streets, lined with cars and motorbikes, were a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. At the same time, they were busier and louder than the mountains ever got. The smell of the gasoline was still there but not as disturbing as it used to be. Everything was both muffled and sharpened, left in a limbo state between what Phupha remembered from the past and what he had become used to over the past months.
He wondered if the North will feel strange too.
It’ll certainly be weird to be separated from Tian after so long, but it couldn’t be helped, it would be dangerous for Tian to move into the rural area right now. A three hours ride from the village to the newly bought apartment was a small price to pay for peace of mind.
But it didn’t mean Phupha couldn’t try to make things more bearable for himself.
“Hey, do you have any plans for Friday?”
“Oh no, don’t try any lame pick-up lines on me now,” Tian shouted from the kitchen. “My arms are burning and we haven’t even put the bed together, so we’ll have to sleep on the mattress which I’m not going to like in the morning!”
“It’s not that, I just have an idea,” Phupha rolled his eyes.
“Well if that’s so,” Tian entered the room and handed him one of the mugs. “I’m all ears, chief.”
On the weekend, they drove through the mountain roads to visit Pha Pun Dao. For the first time together.
Phupha told Tian about the national park and showed him the forest outside the car’s windows.
Something in the back of his mind whispered:
‘This is me.’
He pointed at the traditional huts and dusty roads that became all muddy whenever it rained, so unlike the smooth asphalt of Bangkok.
‘This is me.’
He introduced Tian to Khama and other village elders, all of them wearing traditional clothes soaked in the scent of incense and herbs used by the shaman.
‘This is me.’
He laid himself for display, every bit of his extended self in the plain sight, trusting and vulnerable.
And Tian watched it all with eyes filled with awe.
Khama’s wife wrapped a warm scarf around Tian’s neck and he looked like he had just received the most precious gift on Earth. He somehow found the common language with the village men, asking them about the tea plantations or home construction and listening to every single word they said. When it was time for dinner, the traditional dishes were piled in front of them on a dozen plates and Tian tried to taste each one, kept asking, kept smiling with disarming sincerity.
Phupha made sure that he ate only those that weren’t too spicy for him, but sometimes it was hard to concentrate when he saw this brilliant man right in front of him acting so comfortable as if the place was as familiar to him as Bangkok was.
Tian fit in Pha Pun Dao like a missing piece of the puzzle, making Phupha feel like finally everything was right. Places where Tian stumbled or stopped were catalogued, fleeting traces of presence collected and remembered so that in the weeks to come when he missed that warm smile, Phupha could recall what it was like when Tian walked those paths with him.
In the late afternoon, Phupha took Tian to the waterfall.
“The villagers use this place to do the laundry, but in summer it's quite a popular swimming spot. The water is constantly cold, so it's a great remedy during the hot days,” Phupha explained as he stomped on the damp stones.
Tian didn't answer him nor did he hum in acknowledgement, so Phupha looked back only to find the man wearing only one shoe, the other one thrown at the ground.
“What are you doing?” he asked with a frown while Tian took off the second shoe.
“I don't know.”
There was something manic in the way Tian smiled as he ran barefoot right in front of Phupha.
“What... Tian!” the ranger tried to catch him by the arm, but he missed, fingertips only grazing the warm skin.
“I don't know!” Tian only laughed and ran farther away towards the water, he took off the shirt and jumped into the depths with a scream on his lips and no fear in his heart.
He re-emerged on the surface only seconds later, with curses on his lips and wet hairs sticking to his forehead.
“Fuck!” he yelled. “Goddamnit! Holy shit it's freezing!”
And he laughed and laughed and kept swimming and cursing the cold and it seemed like he had no intention of coming back ashore.
And he was lovely and happy and it made Phupha feel like the sun was living under his skin now and he didn't need to fear cold anymore.
So Phupha cursed at Tian and smiled at him all that while he was taking his boots off to join him.
The first thing he heard was the car door slamming. The second thing he heard was raised voices. The third thing he not only heard but also saw was Tian.
A very angry Tian.
One of Phupha’s subordinates was visible over Tian’s shoulder, the poor man visibly uncomfortable and with no idea how to behave.
“Tian? What are you doing here?” Phupha asked while gesturing for the man to go away.
The young ranger didn’t need additional encouragement, he fleeted right away.
“What am I doing here?” Tian fumed, voice raising to the verge of breaking awkwardly. “Oh no, that's my line! What the hell are you doing here?”
Phupha frowned, failing to understand and tilted his head to the side. It seemed to only ma k e Tian more angry.
“SEVENTEEN DAYS,” he yelled. “Over two freakin' weeks since you last graced me with your presence! Four days since the last time you've called me! What the hell do you think you're doing?”
The thin material hanging at the entrance to the room, poorly imitating the doors certainly wasn't enough to muffle Tian's outburst. Phupha glanced nervously in that direction, gulping.
“Tian, will you please calm down…?”
“Oh no, you're not getting to tell me to calm down Phupha! I get it that we can't see each other so often because of your work and my studies. I get it that sometimes you have to leave and I won't even know when exactly you'll come back,” Tian started to walk around the room, gesturing wildly. “But you've said that you're not going to have any out of the base missions this month and yet we don't spend the time together at all! What am I supposed to think when you ignore me like that?” he finished, turning back to face Phupha.
It was the sight of those eyes glistening from held back tears that made Phupha realise how badly he had messed up. Of course that wasn't his intention, Phupha didn't think he would ever be able to deliberately do something that would hurt Tian.
However, it didn't really matter. It had happened, his lack of consideration had made Tian feel rejected, forgotten.
“Tian, I’m sorry…”
“I don't want your apologies! What I want is an explanation.”
Phupha pinched the bridge of his nose, his own mistake irritated him. Of course Tian would come up with some ridiculous scenario, Phupha should have predicted that and be more careful. And now the surprise was spoiled and he could blame himself for a huge part of it.
“So you want to know why? Fine,” he grumbled and took one of the bandannas lying on the shelf nearby, before walking towards Tian.
“Wha... Oi, what are you doing?” Tian took a step back, holding a hand in front of himself, anger on his face mixing with hesitation.
“You asked me why I didn't have time for you, so I'm planning to show you. If you want to completely spoil the surprise, that's your decision, but at least let me do this my way, okay?” he sighed. “Tian, I'm not asking you to wait, you'll know your answers in less than half an hour. Just please, trust me with this one. I want to surprise you at least a little,” he raised the hand with a bandanna.
Biting his lowers lip, Tian nodded.
Once his eyes were covered, Phupha gently took Tian by the arm, one hand resting on the lower back to guide him safely as they walked towards the motorbike.
The ride took him about fifteen minutes but only because Phupha was being overly careful, riding slowly to make sure that Tian won’t fall.
(And maybe, just maybe, because even if Tian was still angry at him, he pressed just a tad bit tighter to Phupha’s back, sending a pleasant shiver down his spine.)
“Careful now, we’re here.”
“And where exactly is that?” Tian inquired impatiently.
“Just bear with me for a minute, okay? Let’s get you down from the bike first,” Phupha reached behind himself, trying to help Tian with keeping his balance as he threw a leg over the vehicle.
“I really don’t get it why all this secrecy!” he kept nagging. “I wanted you to give me an answer, not to take me for a ride! If you don’t tell me what’s going on right now, Phupha, then I swear to God…”
He never finished this sentence because that was the moment when Phupha untied the cloth covering his eyes and Tian finally saw their destination.
The next words that left his mouth were hushed, confused, with no trace of anger.
Phupha chuckled as he walked towards the construction.
“What are you waiting for, you wanted to know why I haven’t visited you, right?”
Even if many parts weren't finished yet, there was a ladder rather than a proper steps leading inside and the top was covered for now with a building foil, one couldn't fail to recognise what this place was going to become in some time. There were a few homemade shelves standing against one of the walls. A half-finished table with only three legs, the fourth one lying nearby, next to the old, rust-covered toolbox.
It was a home. A small hut built on pillars.
Tian was completely silent when he stepped inside.
“Careful, I didn’t have time to finish off the flooring so it may be a little shaky in places.”
Phupha stopped at the centre of the main room and gestured around.
“As you can see, there are still a few things to do, but the layout is more or less planned. The kitchen will be there,” Phupha pointed at the small, open space on the west side of the building. “And right there, on the opposite side the room where you can work on your stuff whenever you feel like it. The shower’s not built yet, but there is a stream only two minutes from here, so we won’t have to go far the fetch the water. I also talked with the guys at the base and they agreed that I can take one of the old generators. It’s too small to power up a base on its own, but it should be enough for us,” he observed how Tian walked along the walls with his hand sliding along the wood, gently, as if he was afraid that the walls would melt under his touch like a summer dream. He was quiet. “I mean, I know it’s not ideal, but I thought it would be a good start. Oh, by the way, the house is more or less halfway between the village and the unit base, so I could just go and check up on the other rangers instead of living with them all the time. And the path to the village is quite easy so you wouldn’t have a problem with getting there on your own. It takes about… fifteen minutes to get there, I think?”
Tian still didn’t say a word. It started to make Phupha anxious.
‘What if he doesn’t want to live here? What if it’s too soon for him?’
Under the summer sun when he first came up with his idea, it sounded perfect. Now he could just curse himself for acting on his assumptions instead of talking it out with Tian like he should. There was a viselike grip of insecurity tightening around his mind.
‘I should have asked him first.’
“I mean, it’s just an idea, if you don’t want to, we don’t have to… I mean, it’s obviously not as comfortable as your apartment now and I know you still have to finish your studies, but I just thought that you could have a place here to stay when you’re finished with it… Of course, if you wanted to! I’m not…”
“Oh, would you shut up for a second?” Tian interrupted him and it all felt wrong, the shaky edge in his voice, the hand reaching up and resting on the pillar, his forehead following only a second later. “Phupha, this is… Fuck,” he turned around and started walking towards Phupha.
‘It’s too much. It’s too soon. It’s not what I want…’
Phupha prepared himself for a shout, a slap, maybe even a hit…
Tian hugged him, his hairs tickling the skin below Phupha’s ear.
“It’s perfect,” Tian whispered. “I don’t care if we have electricity or anything, I… It’s just perfect,” he took a step back and took Phupha by the wrist. “Show me the rest?”
And just like that, breathing was easy once again.
They slowly travelled through the rooms, exploring and making plans. Phupha told Tian how he almost hit his hand with a hammer when he was putting together the shelves standing next to the wall and how the four of the rangers had to spend half an evening fixing the windows. He showed him the little storage underneath the hut, the second small room that was supposed to be their bedroom. He talked about how he’ll make a railing and a bench outside so that they could eat there if they wanted.
He talked and talked and Tian hung on his every word, asking questions and adding his own ideas.
We could make a little garden behind the house. I’ll ask women from the village to help me with it.
Do you think we can put some planters in the windows? I always wanted to have these hanging ones, they look amazing.
I can still finish my degree while living here, I’ll just have to show up every month or two in Chiang Mai to pass a few tests and regularly send the assignments to my professors. There’s this one girl in my class that does it.
“When will it be ready?” Tian asked with those wide, doe-like eyes.
“A few more weeks. A couple of guys from the unit are helping me, so we should be done sometime in spring.”
Tian looked up at the unfinished roof and sighed.
“You know, you could have asked me to help.”
“Then it wouldn’t be a surprise at all.”
Tian rolled his eyes.
“It would still be a surprise even if you told me about everything when you started planning this. Besides, I could be useful! Don’t forget that I’m an engineer!” he hesitated for a second before waving his hand dismissively. “Well, kinda, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I could have helped you!”
“I know and I’ll definitely leave the decorating part to you,” Phupha smiled and pulled him closer.
Three weeks ago Phupha took the unit’s jeep and moved the most important things from Tian’s flat in Chiang Mai to their new home. By some miracle, this time Tian managed to pack everything he needed in six boxes what made the unpacking process way shorter and easier.
However, it didn’t mean that they had lots of time for themselves during this first week. They still needed to make some final adjustments, Phupha had to figure out the details of how to separate work from home, make sure to spend enough time in the base, fulfilling his duty, but at the same time don’t neglect Tian. Tian had to figure out just how often was often enough for Phupha when it came to Tian's check-ups with the volunteer doctor that's been staying in the village for the last six months.
On the other hand, the villagers had organised an official welcoming ceremony for Tian and the whole week was spent preparing for it. And even though Tian already knew them all well from the time he had visited Phupha, being officially welcomed as a member of the community brought tears to his eyes.
Phupha watched with pride how blessing strings were tied around Tian’s wrist and listened closely to the warm words of the village’s elders. And when everyone went outside the pavilion to enjoy the feast, he walked to Tian to say his own blessings.
(“I hope you’ll find your home here and stay for a long time.”
“My home’s already here, chief.”)
Two weeks ago Tian came back with his eyes burning in determination and ranted at how he had talked with Khama and heard that no one from the foundation was assigned to Pha Pun Dao as a teacher for the next semester.
Tian was furious, he kept walking in circles around their living room, muttering curses and worrying whether the children would even want to continue learning after such a long break.
“Then why don’t you try? I know you’re still not finished with your studies, but why don’t you become a teacher for them?”
In the night they have made a list of pros and cons and talked about all of Tian’s insecurities, even the most absurd ones. And in the morning, Tian made a call.
After a long conversation, he was told that he was to visit the foundation's office in Bangkok in three weeks' time and if the chairman accepted him, he could be permanently assigned as a teacher at Pha Pun Dao.
A week ago Tian threatened Phupha that if he’s still going to postpone their trip to the Pha Pun Dao cliff, Phupha won’t be allowed to sleep in their house for however long it’ll take him to, quote, ‘stop being ridiculous’. So Phupha had no choice but to take a Saturday off, pack a few essentials into an old military backpack and set off on a trip that somehow felt like another turning point in his life.
Now his life could have been divided into five parts, and although the fourth one, which began on one April morning at sunrise in a sterile room filled with beeping machines, had been happier than the previous three combined, Phupha greedily hoped that phase five would bring him even more joy. Because Tian was going to be right beside him this time and so would be a place Phupha learned to call his home.
And now Tian stood there, on the edge of the cliff, arms thrown sideways as if he wanted to embrace the entire valley below them, a long, loud shout leaving his mouth as if he wanted to let everyone know that he's here.
This shout was a message. It said: I am here. I made it. You wanted to make me disappear and yet, here I am.
Phupha sat down at one of the stones and watched Tian's silhouette standing out against the blue sky. And when Tian turned around, Phupha watched this grin that was ready to challenge the world, the glimmering eyes of godly conqueror and he couldn't believe how lucky he was.
“What are you thinking about?” he found himself asking.
Tian smirked at him.
“First tell me what you are thinking about.”
“Lots of things,” Phupha started without missing a beat. “How beautiful you are, how happy I am, how perfect today is. I think about you and your smile and…”
“Whoa, easy there, chief!” Tian laughed sitting next to him and bumping their shoulders. “That’s a lot of things to think about at once.”
“I warned you,” Phupha only watched him for a second, gaze running over the sharp jawline and the slim line of the neck, admiring the invisible bumping of the veins hidden in there. “Your turn.”
Tian took a moment to look at the sky and the white clouds gliding lazily through the azure hanging above them.
“Do you know how thousand seems so special to many people? Like, they choose a thing and say that a thousand of it will be a token of luck. A thousand origami cranes to guarantee your wish of being healthy, a thousand stars to ask for love…”
“Did you do it?” Phupha interrupted, because even if there was an unwritten rule about him not asking Tian about the time Before, he suddenly felt that had to know. “A thousand paper cranes I mean.”
“I suck at handcraft, remember?”
“You're not that bad.”
Phupha wondered briefly if this was the moment when he should hug him or say reassuring words or just let him know that it’s over now and they’re fine.
But Tian didn’t need him to do any of it. He was strong and he smiled and stood up with hands on his hips and his head held high.
“Anyway, everyone seems to be obsessed with a thousand of something... How about we also have something like this?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Hmm... How about...” he reached out a hand and pulled Phupha up so that now they were both standing, facing each other. “Starting from now, when I give you a thousand kisses…”
He didn’t end, starting to kiss Phupha instead. And again. And again.
“Then what?” Phupha breathed as he moved his head back just a little.
“Hm?” Tian asked, already leaning in for the fourth kiss.
“When you give me a thousand kisses then what?”
“I don't know,” five. “We'll figure something out,” six.
There was a lingering uneasiness in Phupha.
“I'm not sure if I like it. It feels like something will end once we get there.”
“Token of luck, remember?” Tian chuckled. Seven. “But if that bothers you so much... I guess it's a good thing that I'm horrible at math when I get distracted. And it’s so easy for you to distract me…” his fingertips traced over Phupha's collarbone. “Where were we now? At number five?”
“Should I let Khama know that our new teacher is so bad at math?” Phupha teased, spinning them a little just because he could.
“I’m occasionally bad at math, I can teach kids just fine. But oh, you’ve interrupted me and I forgot the count… Four, right? Or was it three…”
Phupha grinned at this perfect, incredible, ridiculous man.
“We can always start from the beginning when you lose the count.”