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“Isn’t there anyone else you could ask? You know I’m not good with kids,” Phupha tried to reason as he looked around the apartment for his backpack. He was sure he’s left it by the door, as he always did, but the hall was empty safe for a couple of jackets and a few pairs of boots.

“We both know that’s not true!” Torfun argued.

Phupha sighed and looked at her sceptically.

“Don’t you remember what had happened when I went with you that one time? When I wanted to help you bring the materials upstairs?”

“Oh, come on…”

“This kid started to cry the very second she saw me, Torfun. I can’t deal with kids,” he crouched down to check if the backpack didn’t somehow end up underneath the sofa.

Where is this damn thing...

“It was Daeng’s second day! She was just nervous because of the new situation. And besides, when the boys learned you’re a ranger they kept asking me about you for two weeks,” Torfun grabbed the corner of Phupha’s shirt and tugged it gently to make the man look at her. “Phupha, please… You know how important they are to me, I can’t just leave them like this or even worse, let some random student who does it only for a few bonus credits take over my shifts.”

Phupha pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew it, of course he did. Over the past two years since he met Torfun, he had learned how seriously she took her duties as a volunteer. She never called to let the hospital know she couldn't come unless she really was sick and afraid of infecting the children. She made a list of ideas on how she could make the time of her pupils more enjoyable, scribbling it down in her notebook. She loved these children as if they were her own siblings and they returned this love. Whenever Phupha visited the girl's flat, there was always a new picture on the fridge, drawn by a clumsy hand, or a new clay figurine on the windowsill, standing between pots of flowers and herbs.

“Please, it’ll be just three months! Maybe three and a half. Anyway, I will for sure be back by the end of April!” she pleaded. “And you won’t have to go there as often as I did, just once a week, okay? I’ll feel calmer if you can give me updates on the kids.”

Phupha glanced at the clock, cursing internally. He really needed to get going. But he couldn't do this without his bag and without answering Torfun, one way or another. And refusal would only lead to another half-an-hour-long lecture on how important it was and how Phupha diminished his own abilities.

“Okay, fine,” he sighed, raising his hands in defeat. “I’ll visit them once a week.”

“And I know you’re a loveable person, so they’ll adore you right away and…” Torfun paused when she processed what Phupha has just said. “Wait, really? Like, really really?” she asked, her eyes widening comically.

“Yes, really.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she rushed forward to give the ranger a tight hug. “You’re the best! I swear you’ll have so much fun with them!”

“Great,” Phupha ruffled her hair affectionately, unable to fight the small smile that appeared on his lips. “Now, can you help me find my things? I’ll be late if I won’t leave in the next five minutes.”

“Oh, I hid your backpack underneath the kitchen sink to make sure you’ll stay here and listen to me.”

“You did what?”

 

* * *

 

“Oi, don’t just stand there, come inside!”

Phupha glared at the young man who wore a doctor’s coat and stood in the open door, waiting for the ranger with a mischievous grin.

“Nam, I told you, I don’t feel good about this. Maybe I should go when there’s some other volunteer? At least at first? You know, so the kids get used to me.”

The door swung shut as Nam walked towards Phupha.

“What? You’re going back off now? I’ve already told them they’ll have a guest this afternoon! Do you know how excited they were?”

“Yeah, but…”

“No ‘but’! Come on,” Nam stood behind the other man and started to push him towards the entrance to the recreational room.

If Phupha really tried, he could easily outmatch Nam when it came to pure strength. But it seemed like a bad idea to get into a shoving match, especially with a bored nurse watching from the end of the corridor and a group of children waiting behind a thin wall, children Phupha would see every week for the next two months.

That is, if I decide to come here again.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help Torfun or the kids. Truth be told, Phupha missed the interaction with people ever since he came to Bangkok. Having friends was one thing, but when one has spent several years watching over an entire village, meeting only people that were more or less his age wasn’t that exciting anymore. Phupha was a natural-born guardian, helping the weak and defenceless was in his blood.

However, he couldn't understand how he, a tall and intimidating stranger, could become a comforting figure for those kids that weren’t scared of smugglers and poachers but instead lacked family’s warm and attention.

His train of thoughts was disturbed as they entered the room and half a dozen heads turned towards them, small faces showing everything from excitement to curiosity.

“Look who came to visit us today! Everyone, say hello to our new volunteer! This is Phupha,” Nam introduced him and the kids raise their hands in the traditional Wai.

Phupha greeted them, trying to remember their names as they introduced themselves. He stole a glance at the walls of the recreation room covered with drawings and at the cardboard boxes full of board games, some of them home-made. There was absolutely no doubt that the hospital in one way or another owed a lot of these things to Torfun. A warmth spread through his chest.

“So, now that you all know each other, I’ll leave you with Phupha and go back to my duties, okay?” as soon as Nam stopped talking, a girl with two braids lifted her hand and started to wave it a bit to get his attention. The doctor let out a soft chuckle before addressing her. “Yes, Meejoo? Do you have any questions?”

“Doctor Nam, when will miss Torfun come back?”

Phupha swallowed a lump in his throat.

Of course they asked, she’s their favourite volunteer, I can’t just replace Torfun and expect kids to not mention her…

Nam nudged Phupha with his elbow.

Right, I can’t just rely on him to answer everything.

“Um… Actually, miss Torfun needed to leave a city for some time to help her aunt with a few things. But she told me she’d be back in a few weeks.”

“Miss Torfun told you?” Meejoo asked. “Does it mean that you know her?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Phupha eagerly nodded. “Torfun and I are good friends. She’s like a little sister to me.”

It seemed like that was a good thing to say, as the kids’ smiles became a tad warmer. Phupha decided to use this chance and continued.

“So, I came here to spend some time and play with you while she’s gone. I hope we can have good time together.”

“Excellent!” Nam clapped his hands. “Then if there are no more questions I’ll leave you to it. Kids, listen to chief Phupha, okay?”

Phupha frowned at the use of the title, but he quickly understood why Nam did it as the kids turned towards Phupha with confused looks.

“Chief?”

“Yes, chief! But I think it would be best if he told you about it himself,” with one last wink sent towards Phupha, the doctor left the room.

When the ranger looked at the kids again, there were six sets of dark eyes watching him carefully.

“Why did doctor Nam call you a chief? Are you a soldier?” one of the boys asked.

Phupha folded his hands behind his back and took a few lazy steps towards the table surrounded by chairs.

“No, I’m not a soldier. I’m a forest ranger. Do you know what’s the difference?” when they shook their heads, Phupha sat down on one of the chairs and gestured to the kids to join him. “Come on then, sit with me and let me explain.”

 

* * *

 

The time ran surprisingly fast. In theory, volunteers on a children ward were supposed to come and entertain kids between 3 and 5 PM, two hours of distraction in the otherwise dull and predictable schedule. But, as it usually happens, the nurses weren’t particularly strict on sticking to the schedule. There weren’t enough volunteers to visit the kids everyday, so once someone already came and wanted to stay a little longer, no one really complained. The head nurse only asked Phupha to leave the doors open so they could hear from the nurse room if anyone needed them and reminded him that the kids should be back at their rooms before dinner.

Once he realized that his anxiousness from the before was completely irrational, Phupha realised that the countless stories he had of growing up in a distant mountain village and of his work, which allowed him to explore the farthest corners of the country, were an invaluable treat for these children. He could describe the most mundane things and yet, for those eager ears, his words sounded like spells.

He was just talking about how his unit had helped with capturing the people who were smuggling the tiger over the northern border when one of the kids got off their chair and walked towards the cabinet. When the door opened, Phupha saw a stack of water bottles as well as metal cans filled with crayons and lots of paper. 

“Oh, right, how about we finish with the stories for today?” he suggested.

The collective sounds of protest that answered him put an amused smile on his face.

“Don’t worry! I’ll tell you some more next week,” he promised. “I was just thinking that maybe you’d like to draw something now, huh?”

Fortunately, the kids seemed to like the idea as they almost immediately got to work, creating drawings of the creatures and places from his stories. Phupha walked around them, praising their works and helping if they needed it.

A loud thud of the metal can falling on the ground made Phupha look around. One of the kids had to knock it over while colouring, the crayons rolling in all directions.

“Here, let me help you,” he said as he crouched down and began to collect them, making his way up this weird, crayon-marked path from the centre of the room to the door.

Just to make sure that no stray crayon made it past the door frame, Phupha stepped out of the room and came to a dead stop as he almost collided with a lanky figure standing right next to the recreation room’s door.

 The man standing in front of him was most likely leaning on the wall with his shoulder, but he straightened when Phupha stared at him. The guest hours were already over. There was something delicate in his features, but this face certainly didn't belong to someone who might have been a patient on the children's ward. But then again, he must surely have passed the desk at which the nurse on duty sat, and since she hadn't stopped him, the man couldn't have been just an intruder.

Phupha briefly noticed the untamed hair and pale skin of the stranger's face that contrasted with his dark shirt. He felt his lips part slightly as if reading itself to ask a question, but then he looked into those dark eyes and was unable to utter a word.

Normally, when people were standing in front of Phupha, they instinctively backed away, tried to make themselves look smaller. But not this one. There was a hesitance caused by being caught, but it quickly morphed into assertiveness, as if the stranger was about to ask Phupha what he was doing here, as if Phupha was the one who should explain himself. 

There was an itch underneath Phupha’s skin.

Who are you?

The voice calling his name made him look away from the man.

“Chief Phupha, will you help me draw a dog? We’ll have to go for dinner soon!”

“Yes, just a second!” he called back and turned his head again, but he only caught a glimpse of the man from before as he disappeared around the corner.

 

 

Chapter Text

The next week when Phupha visited, the children asked him to play the board game with them. He had no idea what he got himself into.

What was supposed to be Moksha Patam, soon morphed into a chaotic game as the kids started to add new, the most bizarre rules. Somewhere along the way, between adding the “you can go two squares further if you can touch your toes while standing” rule and one of the girls trying to prove to everyone that she can do a pirouette, they abandoned the board altogether. The girls sat together, braiding each other’s hair and the boys decided to gang up against Phupha and try climbing on his back.

The man couldn’t hide his wide smile as he pretended to fight the boys off. He even made a spectacle of falling down, twisting his face in mocked pain. As a reward, he got thunderous applause from the kids and giggles from the nurse that came by to check up on them.

That’s why the question surprised him even more.

“Chief, are you strict?”

“Huh? Why would you ask me that?” Phupha couldn’t hide his confusion.

“Phi Seetian said that military men are usually strict, so we should tell him or the nurses if you’re harsh with us,” the boy explained.

Seetian?’

He tried to remember if any of the staff members was called that, but he couldn’t remember ever hearing the name.

Is it another volunteer then? Great…’

“I’m not a military man, I’m a ranger, remember?” he tried his best to keep his face indifferent. He got it that some people could be wary of him because of his job and training. Not many people were comfortable with someone who used to carry a gun on a daily basis spending time with children. Still, it annoyed Phupha that he got judged like that. “And Phi Seetian should probably get to know me personally before he says things like that.”

“So… You’re not strict?”

The long sigh escaped Phupha’s lips as he put down the marker and wiped his hands on his trousers before turning towards the boy.

“I’m only strict if people are rude or disobedient,” he explained. “As long as you follow the rules, there’s no reason for me to be strict, okay?”

The boy nodded and went back to drawing. However, Phupha could feel him glancing his way every minute or so.

“Come one Pon, whatever it is, just say it,” Phupha said.

“So… We used to make paper decorations or clay figures for our rooms with miss Torfun, but now she’s not here and the other volunteers aren’t good at it. Can we do something like this with you next week?”

Phupha didn’t have to think too much about the answer. The nurses told him in advance that it’s okay with them if they use the recreation room as the workshop as long as Phupha makes sure kids won’t be left unsupervised, especially if they use any sharp objects, and he’ll clean up afterwards.

“Sure, we’ll make the handcraft next time.”

 

* * *

 

That day was not going very well for Phupha. In fact, it was quite horrible.

The instructors were especially moody, making them stay after the hours. He didn’t have time to even eat a proper lunch that day. On top of that, he had to borrow a car from his flatmate, Rang, as there was no way Phupha could safely transport all the materials he needed on his motorbike. Unluckily, the old jeep has decided to break down right in the middle of the highway, a few kilometres from the hospital.

Phupha sighed in defeat when time and time again his call to the towing service was answered by the answering machine.

He was late. The kids were probably waiting for him, excited to make cardboard houses as he had promised them last week, and he couldn’t get there quick enough.

It was just his third week. Phupha didn’t want to upset them. Torfun would never forgive him if he made the kids sad. He wouldn’t forgive himself either.

By the time he finally arrived at the hospital, it was long after 6PM. The car hauler driver was kind enough to give him a lift as he was going in the same direction anyway. He marched into the recreation room, preparing to find it empty or, what would have been even worse, with the kids sitting there, upset at Phupha for breaking his promise.

Neither turned out to be true. The kids were inside, but they looked far from sad. They sat in a circle, talking about something and laughing. The heavy weight was lifted from Phupha’s shoulders. He put the boxes with the materials down on one of the tables. The clatter made the kids look his way, wide smiles appearing on their faces as they greeted him.

“You came!”

“Of course I did. I’m sorry I’m late but…”

“Chief Phupha! Did you see my kite?” Meejoo interrupted him as she ran his way, her eyes glimmering from excitement, a pink, paper kite held proudly in her small hands.

“Oh, you did it? Can I see?” he asked and delicately took the fragile thing from her offering hands. He turned it around and saw the bamboo sticks of its frame and smudges of the glue on the underside where the girl’s hand probably slipped. Upon closer inspection, the kite looked stronger than he thought at first, strong enough to be able to fly one day. “It’s amazing Meejoo! Is that what you guys did today?”

“Yes!” she nodded enthusiastically. “You were being late, but then Phi Seetian came and said something came up and you may not be able to visit,” the frown appeared on Phupha’s face as he recognized the name from the last week. “But I really wanted to do something fun today, you know?” Phupha’s heart ached a little at her small pout. Then she smiled again. “So he taught us how to built a kite! Did you see the ones others did?”

Before he could answer, Meejoo took his hand and led him towards the wall decorated with half a dozen of colourful kites, many of them with drawings or their makers’ names written on them.

“Did you know that the nurse said we can take them with us when we’ll go home? I can’t wait to fly it!”

“I see,” Phupha ruffled her hairs fondly. Her curiosity and admiration of the simplest things reminded him of Torfun. “But you’ll have to wait for a really strong wind if you want it to fly, you know?”

“I do! Phi Seetian explained how it works! It’s about wind and… air resistince?”

“Resistance,” he corrected her automatically. “Looks like Phi Seetian knows quite a lot.”

“Phi Seetian is very smart! He knows almost every answer on this trivia quiz that’s on TV on Mondays!”

Phupha sighed. No matter how irritated he was when he had heard for the first time that this man talks with kids about him behind Phupha’s back, he had to admit that by some miracle he helped Phupha out this time. If it wasn’t for him, the kids would certainly be upset. Phupha just couldn't act now as if nothing happened.

On his way out he asked the nurses if it’ll be okay if he steps by on Monday afternoon.

 

* * *

 

No way.’

Phupha froze when he saw who was with the kids on the carpet in front of the TV. The young man was sitting with his legs stretched out, his torso leaning back, a hand supporting his weight.

No way.’

He had to be mistaken. Phupha blinked a few times, but the scenery didn’t change. It was the man from before. He wore a faded orange shirt this time and his hair looked like he had put some effort into combing it, but this was unmistakeably him.

There was a weekly pop quiz playing on TV, and the man sat there, one of the kids using his laps as the pillow, and the man had his head thrown back as he laughed, a sharp line of his jaw perfectly visible underneath the pale skin.

The mysterious Seetian was the same person who Phupha saw on his first day. The same person he had spent his ride home thinking about, debating whether he should ask someone from the hospital staff or not about the man’s identity.

He decided not to. Partially because he had hoped he could just meet the man and ask him directly. Partially, because there was a thrill to this mystery. But it’s been some time and Phupha haven’t seen the man again, couldn't ask his questions. He began to think that their paths may never cross again.

Now Phupha at least had a name to use while thinking about him. And an opportunity to talk to him.

“What is he doing! That’s the wrong answer!” Seetian beamed. “Oi, kids, come here, I’ll show you the answer so you’re smarter than this guy from the TV!”

He stood up and walked towards one of the closets. He opened it and after a moment of rifling through its contents, he took out a big globe. Phupha had no idea they had something like this in there. When he saw the man turning around, Phupha shifted slightly, hiding behind the door frame, hoping the man hasn't noticed him yet.

I just don’t want to disturb them,’ he tried to justify his action, although the real reason was obvious to him.

I want to see what he’s going to do.’

Seetian walked towards the table and patted the chair next to his. After all the kids were seated, he spun the globe and put his finger on it.

“Can everyone see? Good. Here, this area is called Latin America. And Nicaragua is right here,” he moved his finger over the red shape. “Who’ll read which city is the capital of it?” the kids rose their hands at once. “Pon? You want to try?”

The boy leaned on the table to get a closer look at the globe, inspecting it.

“It’s… Mana… Managua?”

“That’s right! See, you’re already smarter than that guy,” the kids laughed. “Now, who can show me where’s Bangkok?”

It was such a mundane scene. Phupha felt like an intruder.

Don’t be stupid. You have something to do.’

Phupha stepped inside the room and stopped a few feet away from the group. He cleared his throat before speaking up.

“Um… Seetian?” the man’s head immediately turned towards him at the mention of the name, his smile dropping a little as he saw who had called him.

“Oh, if it isn’t the new volunteer,” the man murmured quietly, the smile reappearing on his face, but this time it looked less sincere. He was leaning back in the chair, putting one of his ankles up on the other leg’s knee in a perfect image of nonchalance and confidence.

“Just Phupha is fine,” the ranger said, folding his hands behind his back. He greeted the kids with a small nod but they seemed more interested in the newfound game of spinning the globe and reading the names of foreign countries.

“We’ll see,” Seetian hummed, watching him closely. “I didn’t know you were supposed to show up today.”

There it was again. This stare, those eyes demanding answers. Phupha felt his back straight up. There was something unnerving in this guy. He looked down at Seetian, trying to keep his voice calm.

“I don’t have to…” he paused.

'Deep breaths. I can't be rude to him when I finally got a chance to speak to him. And I wanted to thank him, not scold him for his manners.'

“Actually… Can I talk with you for a moment?” he gestured with his head towards a corridor.

Seetian tilted his head but didn’t ask why or what about. He briefly glanced at the kids before nodding and then started walking towards the door, without looking back to see if Phupha’s following him.

Once they were outside of the room, the man pulled the sleeves of the sweater over his fingers and crossed his arms in front of his chest, leaning with his shoulder against the wall in an almost identical pose as when Phupha saw him for the first time.

“So, will you tell me now what can I do for you?”

“No, it’s not like that. I just wanted to thank you,” Phupha shook his head as he clarified. “For the last Wednesday that is. My car broke and there wasn’t anyone who could pick me up, so I got here very late. The kids would have been upset if it wasn’t for you, so… Thank you, Seetian.”

The other man shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, as you said, Meejoo seemed upset. I don’t deal very well with crying kids, so I tried to cheer them up somehow.”

“Yes, I understand. And I wanted to thank you for that. I didn’t know how to get a hold of you, but Meejoo mentioned that you’re coming to spend some time with them on Mondays.”

Seetian frowned at that.

“Is that why you came here today?”

“Partially?” the steel in the man’s voice surprised Phupha. “I wanted to make it up for them anyway and today’s as good for it as any other day. I promised them we’ll make some handcraft together,” he scratched the back of his neck.

This answer seemed to satisfy Seetian, the corner of his mouth lifting slightly as he glanced through the ajar door at the children playing. Phupha cleared his throat before continuing.

“Well, since you’re already here… Would you like to join us? There’s never too many hands to help,” he proposed.

Seetian looked Phupha right in the eyes, and it was just as electrifying as the last time. The distant cold in those eyes and stubborn set of shoulders didn't add up with how soft the man seemed a few moments ago while surrounded by kids. The same question appeared again in Phupha’s mind.

Who are you?

He had a name, but it wasn’t enough.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” the man smirked, gesturing with his head towards the room. “My show is almost over anyway and it looks like you have everything under control, so I’ll get going,” he pushed himself off the wall and started walking backwards, mischievous smirk still present on his face as he carelessly lifted one of his hands in the mocking salute. “See you around, chief.”

Phupha had no idea if it was the way he smirked or the way he said the last word, with a mixture of teasing and something that sounded like a promise, but Phupha instinctively took one step towards the man walking away. Before he could stop himself, Phupha called after him.

“Are you coming here only on Mondays?”

But this teasing smile was the only answer he got as Seetian twirled around and strutted towards the elevator. Phupha was frozen, following the younger man with his eyes until he disappeared behind the corned, just like he did on Phupha’s first day here.

“Oh, I see you already know Tian!”

Phupha’s head spun around. He hasn’t heard when one of the nurses, the middle-aged woman with deep wrinkles around her eyes caused by frequent smiles, came up to him.

“Tian?”

“Yes, it was him you were talking to, wasn’t it? I would recognize this little rascal everywhere,” she shook her head fondly.

“You mean, Seetian?” he asked, less confused now, but to his surprise, the nurse chuckled at the name.

“Well, that’s what the kids call him. It’s such a cute nickname isn’t it?” she beamed.

Phupha glanced at the empty corridor and wondered why the man hasn’t pointed out his mistake. He decided to ask about it the next time he sees Tian.

Oh, right, she should know too.’

“Miss, do you happen to know which days… Tian shows up here?”

“Hmm, he’s here almost every Monday, but he tries to stop by every time there’s no volunteer scheduled or if he just hears that one of the kids is upset,” Phupha’s frown only deepened when he heard it, the part of his brain that was responsible for his weakness for order and obeying rules didn't let him ignore this.

“Is that even allowed?” he asked. “I thought volunteers need to stick to the days they’re assigned to and notify in advance if they’re planning to come by on another day.”

The nurse looked at him in astonishment. Only after a moment, a glint of understanding appeared in her eyes. She smiled sadly at Phupha and gently patted his shoulder.

“Oh, I see, so you don’t know, huh? Nobody told you about Tian before, is that right?” when Phupha confirmed, the woman let out a long sigh, her eyes softening at the thought of the young man. “Well, we don’t bring him up in the conversation with all of our volunteers, but… Since miss Torfun asked you personally to fill in for her, I think it’s okay to tell you. You see… Tian isn’t a volunteer. I know he may look like one since he insists on wearing normal clothes, but he’s a patient here.”

“A patient?”

“Yes. Normally we don’t allow the patients from other wards to enter this floor. Tian… Is an exception. Inta, one of the girls who stayed here some time ago, brought him here one day, I swear this girl acted as if she found a lost puppy!” the woman smiled lightly, but her face soon became serious once again. “It was pretty clear from the beginning that he has a way with kids. We had talked about this with his doctors and as it seemed like being here helps him to acclimatize in the hospital, we decided to let him come here every now and then.”

Phupha listened carefully to every word, nodding slightly from time to time. Images from earlier popped into his mind, the way Tian smiled freely when he spoke to the children, how he answered their questions in an easy-to-understand way, his voice soft and calm. No wonder the kids seemed to adore him, the man almost emanated a soothing aura while around them.

With these few puzzles he managed to get a hold on, Phupha started to create the image of who Tian was. He had a name (a real one this time), he had a few facts.

He clicked his tongue.

It still didn’t feel like enough.

Chapter Text

Tian's visits were always somehow unexpected but also regular in a way. Sometimes he showed up ten minutes before Phupha was supposed to leave. Sometimes he stopped by for half an hour, hardly acknowledging Phupha with a simple nod as he came in and not looking at him at all before leaving. Sometimes, Phupha would visit half an hour earlier than usual and Tian would be already in the recreation room, playing with the kids. And he would stay until the very end, joining the game of charades or helping kids with creating small constructions from the colourful building blocks.

Phupha was beginning to be hyperaware of him. When the man didn’t show up for a long time, Phupha’s eyes wandered towards the doorway. And when he came, Phupha often caught himself staring.

When talking with kids, Tian’s voice always became softer and his smile brighter. When he talked to Phupha there was a note of teasing or a challenge.

No matter how many times Phupha tried to ask the nurses about Tian, they just smiled at him and said they’re not allowed to share patients’ information. Which was fair but still slightly irritating.

It felt like Tian had pulled Phupha into a game the latter didn’t know the rules of.

So Phupha tried to learn. To figure it out. And he did this in the best way he could, by observing.

“Do I have something on my face?”

Phupha didn’t stop staring at the man sitting on the chair next to his. Tian lifted his chin and stared right back at him. But Phupha wasn’t that easy to fluster.

“You don’t make sense,” he whispered.

“Oh?” Tian rose a brow in question and propped his head on his hand. “Am I making you uncomfortable? Do you want me to leave?”

It was an obvious challenge, a test just how blunt the ranger could be and Phupha had no intention to back out now.

“I just want to talk to you.”

“Aren’t we talking now?”

“No. Not really. Not in a way that matters.”

The sincerity in his voice seemed to take Tian aback. Maybe he wasn’t used to dealing with someone who didn’t back away after the first snarky comment or provocative look. Maybe that’s what made them similar in a way. Both trying to figure each other out, to see past the facade of the dutiful volunteer or the patient trying to cover his true thoughts with false confidence.

Maybe he also doesn’t know the rules.’

Phupha observed the way Tian bit his lower lip, the way his fingers fidgeted, tying and untying a ribbon he grabbed from one of the boxes. He looked younger like that.

“Okay then. Ask. I’ll give you one question.”

The power Phupha got with this promise was illusionary. He had already figured out that Tian was careful with his words, and right now he didn’t guarantee Phupha that he’ll give him any answer. Only a chance to ask. Once again, Tian seemed to be in control of this game, leaving Phupha wandering helplessly in the thick fog.

The ranger leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, eyes still fixed on Tian’s face. He didn’t want to cross some unspoken line and scare him off but he didn’t want to let the chance slip through his fingers. Phupha needed this first piton.

Something simple but not without a meaning.’

“How did you learn so much about constructing?” he gestured with his head towards the shelves full of models. Wooden bridges, little ships made from junk. Everything steadier than what a random person could have made.

“I used to be an engineering student.”

“Used to?” there was no way Tian was old enough to already finish his degree. And with how smart he proved to be, there was no way he has failed his exams and got kicked out of school.

“You already asked your question, chief,” Tian rolled his eyes. „My turn. Why are you here?”

“I was asked by a friend to fill in for her since she had to leave the city for some time.”

“I knew that already,” Tian shook his head. “But why do you come so often now? At first, you showed up only once a week, but now it’s rare for me to see you less than three times a week.”

Phupha sensed his opportunityto pay back and leaned even further forward, his hands inches away from Tian’s knees.

“Why? Am I making you uncomfortable?” he teased.

A barely visible blush appeared on Tian’s cheeks. But the man didn’t flinch away.

“Just answer the question. I have answered yours.”

“Barely,” Phupha straightened up with a sigh. “Is it so hard to believe I care about the kids?”

“No, but it doesn't feel like a full answer either.”

Something in Tian’s cheeky tone and words that were almost accusing in a way, made Phupha want to push and pull at the same time.

Two can play this game.’

“Maybe it’s not,” he said, still staring at those eyes.

 

* * *

 

“So, what can this humble doctor do for you today?”

Phupha didn’t really have a plan when he knocked at the doors of Nam’s apartment, a bag with plastic containers full of food hanging from his hand. But he never needed a plan when it came to Nam. Whenever Phupha showed up, his friend greeted him as if he was expecting him to come.

The doctor quickly cleaned up the living room so they could sit down on the couch without any books or notes lying around them.

There were two mugs filled with some cheap alcohol, standing on the table. One of them was chipped. When they were younger they celebrated every opportunity to get a drink, they took the glasses from the top shelf of the cabinet. Now, between one stressful day and the other, when they sat in front of the boxes with take-out food, it didn’t matter that much what they drank from.

“I have a question.”

“Yhm,” Nam mumbled through the noodles he’s been shovelling into his mouth.

“When I visited kids, I met this guy…” Phupha didn’t look at Nam, but he could feel the other man eyeing him curiously. “The nurse said he’s a patient from another ward. I was wondering if…”

Nam lightly hit his chest with his fist and washed the food down his throat with the huge sip of water from the bottle that was lying nearby.

“You know very well that I can’t share patient’s personal information. Or any information regarding them, to be honest.”

“I know, I know,” Phupha sighed and hid his face in his hands. “Sorry. It’s just…”

He let his voice drift off, unsure what words to use.

“You can’t figure him out, so you hoped I could help?” Nam suggested, already digging with his chopsticks into another container. “Did you try asking him?”

“I did.”

“And?” Nam pressed.

“And nothing. He gave me an answer but it didn’t really mean anything. Why does he have to be so difficult with me?” Phupha swallowed a mouthful of alcohol.

“Tian was never easy to get close to. To anyone. Well, except for the kids,” Nam chuckled. He lifted up his mug and pointed with it at Phupha. “But you’re one of the most stubborn people I know. You’re not going to give up so easily, are you?”

 

* * *

 

The afternoon sun illuminated the room, painting the walls with a warm, orange glow. It was peaceful, the barely audible lull of the radio from the nurses’ room, kids busy with preparing small ornaments and drawings they would later use to make their rooms feel more comfortable.

Of course, Tian was there too. Like most of the time these days. He was just explaining to one of the boys that dolphins weren’t exactly fishes.

“Phi Seetian, why do you never draw with us? Don’t you want a drawing for your room too?”

Phupha never really thought about it, but now that Meejoo has mentioned it, he realized she was right. Tian gladly helped the kids with handcraft and answered their questions as best as he could, but he never took anything with himself. Even the works kids did specifically for him were all hanging on the walls in the recreation room.

“Nah, it’s okay,” Tian waved his hand dismissively, his lips stretching in a wide, lazy smile. “Besides, I’m terrible at drawing, so it’s better if I don’t.”

“Then why won’t you ask chief Phupha for help? He helped me with my drawing earlier!”

Tian snapped his head up, the moment before their eyes met, Phupha saw a quick clench of a muscle as Tian gritted his teeth. The ranger could already guess what the other man was going to say, so he rushed his next words.

“Of course I'll help him, don't worry Meejoo,” Phupha ignored Tian’s glare and turned towards the girl, sending her a reassuring nod. “You can go back to your drawing. Khaonueng, can you switch seats with me?"

Phupha sat on the chair next to Tian and finally looked at him. The man had his arms crossed in front of his chest and it looked like he was trying really hard not to pout. It was hard for Phupha not to call him ‘cute’ in his head.

“What do you want me to draw?” Phupha asked while reaching for a new paper sheet. He opened a black marker and looked at Tian expectantly.

Tian, on the other hand, looked like he wasn’t sure if the chief is making fun of him or not. He hugged himself with his arms just a little tighter and lowered his head. He bit his lower lip and Phupha wanted to ask him to stop it before he hurts himself.

“You decide, chief,” Tian shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not picky."

It’s not about being picky,’ Phupha thought, but he kept it to himself and started to work.

While staying in his first base as a ranger, Phupha had to learn how to deal with boredom. Games of cards and football games with fellow rangers could entertain one only for so long. Besides, being an introvert, Phupha needed also time to recharge his batteries while alone. Walking through forests and mountains was the best option for him, but when his former supervisor threatened to cut Phupha's patrols if he didn't, quote, "start behaving like a human being and not some creature from the wilderness," Phupha had to figure out a way to keep himself busy without leaving the base.

So Phupha started to draw. At first just shapeless doodles, but soon he started to draw things he was familiar with. The twisted tree that stood in front of the base, the mountain range he could see on the horizon.

After a few years, it became a new habit. Whenever he moved to another unit, he drew the maps and landmarks from the area he was currently watching over. It helped Phupha remember why he’s doing it, why his job matters.

Pha Pun Dao was the first place in which he drew not only the landmarks but also the people.

“Whoa, it’s so cool!” the excited voice of one of the boys brought Phupha back to the present. “What’s that?”

There was a blue-green drawing on the paper. Phupha could recognize the shape of stones everywhere.

“It’s a waterfall that was close to one of the villages where I was stationed,” he explained.

It wasn’t perfect, but Phupha didn’t feel like working on more details now. He handed it to Tian who was leaning back on the chair, watching him carefully with this unreadable expression of his.

“Here.”

Phupha observed how Tian’s eye widen in surprise, the movement of his hands was still slow, unsure, as if he’s waiting for someone to tell him it’s all a trick, that he can’t have this drawing. This type of seriousness didn’t look good on him.

It’s just a picture.’

Phupha cleared his throat before speaking.

“What do you say when someone older is giving something to you?”

Tian's head lifted rapidly . And there it was, that familiar heat in those eyes. It wa s hard not to think about their knees almost touching underneath the small table, as Tian leaned in, making their face get closer than ever before. Phupha swallowed, fighting the urge to lick his lips that suddenly felt so dry.

Phupha watched how Tian’s mouth opened, his nostrils moving as he breathed in.

“Thank you chief!” Tian almost yelled, making Phupha wince from the sudden noise, and yet his voice was still dripping with sarcasm.

The kids burst into laughter around them and Phupha was grateful it’s not that easy for him to blush.

Oi, Shouldn't you guys go to your rooms?” he asked, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Dinner should be served soon. I’ll clean up for you this time.”

A chorus of protesting whines filled the room.

“Chief Phupha is right,” Tian said. “It’s getting late.”

Knowing very well that the argument with both of the adults would be futile, the kids said their goodbyes before walking out of the room, a few of the boys sending Phupha playful salutes before walking out. Once the last one of the kids left the room, Phupha let out a long sigh.

“You’re a real Green Giant, you know? So mean,” Tian’s voice startled Phupha a little and the nickname made him rise a brow in a silent question. Normally the man didn’t stay after the kids went back to their rooms. “Did you have to call me out like that when the kids were here?”

I just wanted to remind everyone they should have some manners. And you made them laugh at me too, so I guess we’re even,” he started to clear the table, but Tian still didn’t make a move to leave, spinning Phupha’s drawing with one hand.

“You said I don’t make sense. But I’m not the only one,” when Phupha stopped the cleaning and looked back at him, Tian continued. “Shouldn't you be in some national park or something? What's a man like you doing in the city?”

“Believe it or not, but even the state officers need to have certain qualifications if they want to get a higher rank.”

“So you’re here because being a chief wasn’t enough?”

No,” Phupha started to collect the crayons and markers once again, trying to busy his hands and avoid Tian’s eyes. “The higher-ups sent me here so they could officially promote me and get rid of tons of paperwork they have to go through now. I’m just doing my duty.

It was silent in the room for some time.

“I didn’t think you’d be so good at this,” Tian said as he inspected the drawing, head bent down, slim fingers tracing over the edges.

“You mean, you didn’t expect someone with a military background to be able to draw?”

“I mean, you don’t look like an artistic type,” Tian looked up at him, a smirk appearing on his face. “Besides, aren’t you the one to always repeats that rangers aren’t the same as military men?”

Phupha decided to ignore the remark, but it made him stop his movement for a split second.

And what type do I look like to you?’ the question appeared in his head, but he didn’t dare to ask it and just moved to putting the cans inside the cabinet.

The silence that followed almost screamed at Phupha to say something. But not to break the tension or avoid awkwardness. It was the silence full of waiting, of the other person expecting to hear something, anything.

Phupha didn’t say a word.

“Well then,” Tian got up from his chair and in his voice, one could feel something resembling disappointment, “I guess I’ll see you later.”

Phupha closed the cabinet and finally looked at Tian, noticing that he was holding Phupha’s drawing in his hand.

“You can always throw it away if you don’t like it,” Phupha called after him.

Tian turned around and glanced at the sheet of paper before smirking at the ranger.

“It would be rude to throw away something that the older person made for me, wouldn’t it, chief?”

“So you have some manners after all?” Phupha raised a brow in silent provocation. But it seemed like Tian was expecting it.

“Maybe I just don’t feel like showing them to you.”

It wasn't that Tian was being particularly rude to him. But there was a difference between how Tian treated Phupha compared to different people. Tian wasn't acquiescent or soft with Phupha. He didn’t ask the man with a smile how his day was and didn’t agree with everything he had suggested. Quite the opposite. Whatever Phupha said or did, Tian disobeyed. But not in a malicious way, it was more like he was constantly testing how much he can do before the other man snaps.

And yet, Phupha was drawn in by those glares that were sometimes so cold they could burn and other times filled with so much fire that Phupha felt his palms sweat. These sharp edges were part of Tian and there was something intimate in being allowed to see them all, to get close enough to them to feel the threat of getting cut. Tian hasn’t pretended even for a second since Phupha had met him that he was anything but trouble.

But after years of dealing with his own sharp edges, Phupha was used to bruises and scratches. Moreover, he knew that it was often the most treacherous paths that led to the most breathtaking places.

 

 

* * *

 

“Tell me.”

Phupha sighed and placed the phone between his shoulder and cheek so he could continue to wash the dishes.

“You’re insufferable Torfun, you know that? You could at least pretend you’ve missed me and want to catch up.”

“Come on! You know I miss you, but tell me!” she squealed.

So Phupha started to talk. He told her about the story he had told children this week and about how they demanded he told them the stories from his job near the northern border. He mentioned that Pon is supposed to get released soon and how one of the dices fell under the wardrobe and the kids tried to reach it and failed. He told her how awestruck they were when Phupha effortlessly pushed the wardrobe away from the wall.

“They were looking at me like I was Superman,” he smiled at the memory.

“You like them.”

It wasn’t really a question, so Phupha didn’t feel like he needed to answer.

“How about you? Everything’s fine?” he asked instead.

“It’s not that bad, but I won’t be able to come back sooner,” the disappointment in her voice was hard to miss.

“Hey, it’s not like you’re staying there forever. You’ll come back and you’ll have plenty of chances to spend time with the kids,” he dried his hands with a kitchen towel and walked towards his room where he sat on the edge of his bed.

“I know, I know… But I really miss them.”

“Hmm…”

“Well, anyway, since you’ve given me an update on my precious ones, how’s life in general? Anything interesting?”

“Not really. You know I don’t really spend my time with people other than you, Nam or Rang.”

“Oh yeah, Phupha the ultimate hermit. How could I forgot?” Torfun chuckled.

“Hey, I’ll have you know that I’m increasing the number of people I talk to.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes, one of the nurses even gave me some homemade pie the last time I visited,” that won him a full belly-laugh from Torfun. It was nice to talk to her. But whenever he thought about the hospital, his thoughts always ended up on this one person, a fixed point he couldn’t escape from. “Hey, I have a question.”

“Ask away.”

“You’ve been a volunteer for some time now. What do you know about Tian?”

“Tian?” Torfun said the name slowly as if testing the sound of it. “Honestly, not much. I saw him only once or twice when I came earlier than usual, but he never stayed around. Sometimes kids mentioned him though. Why do you want to know about him?”

Phupha really hoped she wouldn’t ask.

“He comes by often when I’m visiting the kids. And he definitely doesn’t just go away,” he pinched the skin on the bridge of his nose. “I wanted to know if he was like this with you too.”

“Ohhh, so that’s the mysterious guy Nam mentioned you were asking him about!”

Phupha grimaced in irritation.

Seems like one doctor needs to be reminded not to snoop around.’

“Nam talks too much and I need to go. Bye.”

“Hey! Don’t hang up on…” she didn’t make it before Phupha pressed the red button to end the call.

He put the phone down on the bedside table and lay on his back, staring at the long shadows on the ceiling.

Chapter Text

It happened on Friday. Phupha came a little later than usual, the streets were full of people trying to leave the city for a weekend making him waste more time than usually in a traffic jam.

“What are you doing?” he asked confused when he walked into the room.

A dartboard was hung on one of the walls and the children stood with Tian a few metres away from it, close to the line made of crayons marking the place for standing while throwing darts.

“We’re training Math,” Tian answered with a grin on his face.

“Math? From what I see you’re trying to teach kids how to play a bar game,” he eyed disapprovingly the sharp darts in Tian’s hand. They definitely weren’t safe.

“Oi, don’t insult me like that! Or the kids! Everyone knows they have to be super careful, right?” a chorus of voices responded with a ‘yes’. “Besides, we’re really learning Math! Look! Meejoo, the stage is yours,” he said and bowed theatrically in front of the girl, handing the darts to her.

Phupha wanted to step in and take the darts from her hand, but Tian has risen his hand, asking him to wait and see. Phupha couldn’t help but obey and watched as the girl took the stance and threw the first dart. It landed on the green spot.

“Nice throw!” Tian clapped his hands before pointing at Phupha. “Now, let’s show chief how it’s done. Khaonueng! How much is 9 times 3?”

“27!”

Tian sent a quick glance Phupha’s way before turning back to kids.

“Meejoo, next one. Good. Noi, what do we get when we add 18 to 27?”

The boy quickly scribbled the numbers on the paper before answering.

“45!”

“Yes! Last one… Oh, that’s a zero,” Tian hummed as the last dart bounced off the board and fallen on the floor. “Don’t worry, you’ll try again later,” he ruffled her hair. “Okay, we had 208 points left before. Who’ll tell me how much we have now?”

“163!”

“Correct!” Tian shouted before turning to Phupha, holding up three fingers. “Multiplication, addition, subtraction. See? We’re practising Math.”

It was so bizarre, so utterly ridiculous and so Tian that Phupha couldn't fight off the broad smile that was already forming on his face.

“You’re crazy. No one else would try to use Math as an excuse for playing darts,” he chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I prefer if you call me creative,” Tian replied. “So, can we continue now, or do you still have objections to my teaching skills, chief?”

There was no way Phupha could ask them to stop. Instead, he walked a few steps closer with his hands folded behind his back, trying to regain a stern look on his face and failing miserably in doing so.

"Do I even want to know where did you get this board from?"

"Probably not," Tian smiled at him, one hand placed casually on his hip, the other one running through his dark hair.

So Phupha didn’t ask.

 

* * *

 

At some point, it was Phupha’s turn to stand in front of the board, three darts in his hand.

“Oi chief, are you up for a little competition?” Tian was next to him, watching him with those playful eyes.

It was a weird question, by know Tian should know that Phupha had a hard time backing off the challenge.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Let’s play a regular game this time. The kids never saw a real match. You versus me. We start at 501 points, the first one to reach zero wins. What do you say?” there must have been a hesitation visible in Phupha’s face since Tian tilted his head to the side and continued. “Of course if you’re not afraid of losing?”

It had been a while since Phupha last played darts, but he knew very well that he had a good aim. In other circumstances, he would probably suggest something to spice up their bet, a reward of some sort. But it didn’t seem fair this time. He quickly glanced over Tian's slender figure, the man didn't look like someone who trained any kind of sport, even the one requiring minimum effort. That meant Phupha was probably going to have a huge advantage over him.

“Do you want to start?” Phupha asked instead.

Tian’s smile widened as he took a step back.

“Oh no, you go first.”

With a nod, Phupha turned towards the board and focused. He briefly considered if he should play it easy, but the thought felt almost insulting. Tian proposed competition and that's what he should get, not an easy win handed over to him.

Three darts quickly got stuck in the board. With a proud smile, he walked closer towards it to collect the darts.

“140,” he said as he placed the darts at Tian’s extended palm.

“Nice round,” Tian hummed, but there was no nervousness in his features. Phupha had expected to put at least some pressure on Tian with a start like that.

But the man just took a few lazy steps towards the line. Phupha observed a relaxed slope of his shoulders, the way Tian’s sleeve hugged his biceps when he lifted his arm for a throw. The way the hem of his shirt lifted ever so slightly, the material bending in all right places and showing the outline of the narrow waist.

Why does he look so thin?’

Three darts were sticking from the slim, red square before Phupha was able to process what was happening.

“180,” Tian turned towards Phupha with a cheeky smile.

It had to be a fluke.’

It wasn’t. It couldn’t be, since on his second round Tian again got clean 180 points. Phupha watched him astounded.

“How…?”

“I used to play a lot,” Tian didn’t even try to hide his amusement. “Don’t feel bad about this. You didn’t really have a chance from the start.”

This unshakable certainty caused a string of irritation in Phupha. He made his throws. There was still a little over 70 points left for him.

“It’s not the end yet,” Phupha said, calculating what are the chances that he’ll be able to win the game in his next round.

“Oh really? Look carefully, chief,” Tian raised a hand with his first dart. “Treble 20,” with a swoosh, the dart landed right there. “Now treble 19,” and again, without a miss. Phupha felt the blood rush to his head, a dull pounding in his skull. Tian looked over his shoulder and winked at him. “Double 12.”

The tip of the dart sticking from the red square. The arrow that ran through Phupha's guts.

Game over.

Phupha couldn’t tear his eyes away from Tian. And the latter started to laugh, a deep, warm sound coming from between his lips. Faint smile lines visible on the sides of his squinted eyes. Hands circling this small waist as Tian bent in half. The way his cheekbones became even more prominent. The curve of his back. Everything.

He should have suggested this bet. Losing to Tian would feel like winning anyway.

Time is a funny thing.

When someone says that the second is all it could take for everything to change, people tend to roll their eyes and laugh it off. At the same time, there's a collective belief that in certain situations time seems to stop, indicating that something earth-shattering is happening.

The first one is actually a truth. A second is way more powerful than we would like to believe, a part of it more than enough for the world to crumble down. A blink of the eye, that's all it takes.

The second one, in contrast, is a lie. Time never stops. Our consciousness can freeze, making us unable to comprehend what's going on around us for a time being. And when we come back to our senses, the flood of information overwhelmes us, makes us feel as if somebody set the double speed before pressing the "Play" button. But time is ominous and it never stops, it's always moving forward at the same, steady pace, not bothering to check if everyone’s keeping up with it.

Phupha blinked and that was his mistake.

Tian wasn't laughing anymore, there was only a ragged breath and violent cough, shaking his ribcage and making him bent even further down.

„Tian?”

Phupha didn't register the moment Tian fell. Or when he ran over to the man. Or when he put Tian's head on his leg. Or when the nurses rushed into the room.

He could only see dark eyes, open, unblinking, mouths agape, trying to catch a breath. He could hear only his own voice calling Tian's name over and over again.

One of the nurses pushed him away, gently but leaving no place for arguing. The second one ushered him and the kids outside. She squeezed Phupha's arm and talked to him in a firm tone.

"We've got this. You take the kids back to their rooms. They shouldn't have to just stand here like this. I'll send someone to check on them soon."

Phupha wanted to deny and stay, to try and help however he could. But he couldn’t. The part of him that was trained to act in situations like this wouldn't let him. Not before he took care of the kids.

So he did what was expected from him, he put up a brave face and turned towards the children.

"Come on guys, let's get you to your rooms."

Afterwards, Phupha made his way back to the nurses’ room, questions on the tip of his tongue, heart squirming in anxiety.

“There's need to worry, we took Tian back to his room, he has to rest, but he'll be fine,” Phupha felt the tight clutch on his throat loose a little. “The doctor’s probably done checking up on him by now,” the nurse smiled at him reassuringly and patted his shoulder. “You should probably go home and get some rest now. It’s getting late.”

“Tian should be okay by tomorrow, right?” he asked.

“It seems so. It’s been a while since he fainted like this, but he was normally okay on the next day.”

Phupha didn’t like the fact that she used the word ‘normally’.

He’ll be fine. You’ll see him on Monday, he wouldn’t miss his stupid pop quiz.’

“There’s no volunteer scheduled for this weekend, right? I’ll visit tomorrow.”

 

* * *

 

T ian didn’t show up the next day. The kids kept nagging Phupha for answers but he could only repeat what he had heard from the nurses when he had asked them about Tian earlier .

“He’s doing fine now. The doctor’s visited him already, there’s nothing to worry about.”

It didn’t sound convincing even to him when Tian didn’t show himself. Of course, he didn’t suspect nurses of lying to him, they’d certainly let him know if something serious had happened, if for no other reason than because he’d have to know in advance to not make impossible promises to the kids.

Everything’s fine, he’ll be back soon and irritate you so much that you’ll wish he stayed away for longer.’

This felt like a blatant lie.

 

* * *

 

 

On Tuesday, Phupha decided he waited long enough. He was getting restless, unable to focus on anything during the day. Unable to sleep during the night.

Tian still didn’t show up, none of the kids saw him too. The nurses didn’t know why he hasn’t shown up yet or they decided not to share this information with Phupha.

Either way, Phupha was growing impatient. And that’s something, considering how crucial patience was in his line of work.

On the Tuesday afternoon, after he ended his visit with the kids, instead of going to the main entrance and leaving the hospital, Phupha went to the office where he knew Nam was supposed to be.

He knocked at the door and without waiting for the invitation, he walked inside. Nam heaved a sigh when he saw that Phupha was the intruder, but he didn’t look surprised at all.

“Doc, I know it’s highly unprofessional, probably even illegal, but…”

“Here,” Nam interrupted him and handed a folded piece of paper to Phupha. The ranger stopped in his tracks, frowning in confusion. “Take it,” Nam said, wiggling his hand. “That’s why you’re here, right?”

Phupha took the note and unfolded it. He knew that was exactly what he came here for.

“Why?” he asked cautiously. Phupha was prepared for a long argument and reasoning why Nam should risk his carrier for Phupha’s selfish request.

“His doctors tried to convince him for a few last days to leave his room. As you can imagine, it didn’t work. Even one or two nurses from our ward tried to visit him, but he didn’t even talk to them,” Nam looked Phupha in the eyes. “It seems like you’re the last person who could have any chance in talking some sense into him.”

 

* * *

 

Tian’s room was on the sixth floor, almost the top of the building. Phupha exited the elevator and read the letters written over the glass door.

Cardiology ward.

That explained a few things.

The corridors lacked the green paint and fairytale creatures’ paintings he got so used to while walking around the children’s ward. He walked towards the nurse’s desk, nodding at her and flashing her a visitor card he got from Nam. She reminded him that the visiting hours will end soon and asked him to write down his name and the name of the patient he was going to visit in the register book.

Phupha quickly scribbled his name but he hesitated when he glanced at the second column labelled “patient’s name”.

He tried to glance over the register but he didn't see any entry anywhere on the two pages in which the word "Tian" would appear. All he could hope for was that a nickname would suffice.

The nurse’s eyes widened in shock when she checked the register. She looked at Phupha, her mouth agape. After a moment she cleared her throat before speaking in a rushed, nervous tone.

“Sorry, it’s just… I didn’t expect… Sorry,” she shook her head. “Please, don’t mind me. It’s the room at the very end of the corridor, you won’t miss it. Oh, and,” she paused before sending him a hesitant smile.” Please don’t worry about the guest hours, take all the time you need.”

Her reaction made Phupha’s insides twist unpleasantly. How long was it since Tian had a guest to make the nurse look so surprised someone would want to see him?

The first thing he saw when he entered the small vestibule was the second pair of doors, most likely leading to a little private bathroom. The room itself wasn’t too big, but surely more than one bed could fit in it. Or it could have been if it wasn’t for the gigantic mess, numerous piles built of books that were in every corner of the room. He could see new books, with bright coloured, shiny covers and old copies with yellowed pages and hardcovers. Some were scattered all over the floor, others arranged into high towers that reached almost all the way up to Phupha’s waist.

So it was like this: a single bed in the middle of the labyrinth made of books. A small bedside table with a lamp on the one side of the bed, a standard hospital chair for visitors on the other side. Two huge windows facing south, and an old, leather armchair standing next to them.

In this armchair sat Tian, with one leg carelessly thrown over the armrest, one bare foot dangling a few inches above the floor. He was dressed in baggy clothes and in his hand, he held a book. However, his face turned in Phupha's direction the moment the door squeaked, closing behind him.

What are you doing here?” Tian’s voice was rough but very much still there, very much alive.

Hearing it made Phupha’s irritation and worry morph into anger.

Phupha straightened his back and crossed the arms in front of his chest. Now that he saw Tian, looking as well as the patient could possibly be, staying in his room and… Doing what? Brooding for the last four days? It wasn’t the time for niceties.

“I should be the one asking you this,” Phupha started, making Tian look at him in disbelief.

Excuse me? This is my room, where else would you expect me to be if not here?”

“I don’t know, maybe down with the kids who are worried sick about you?” Phupha fumed. “Do you have any idea how worried everyone is? And you won’t even go outside for a few minutes to reassure them? To show that you’re fine? To explain?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to anyone! And why are you here? You’re not even supposed to know where’s my room,” Tian easily matched Phupha’s anger. He threw the book he was holding on the floor and stood up from the armchair. There was still a few steps and at least a dozen books laying between them and Phupha felt the sudden need to close the distance between them, grab Tian by the shoulders and shake him.

“Well, if you wouldn’t cut everyone off, I wouldn't have to come here.”

“Oh, I see. So now what?” Tian raised his arms in irritation. “You’ll ask me to go out and put up a smiley face so the doctors can pat each other on the back, happy that yet another problem got solved?”

No,” Phupha shook his head and took a few steps forward, they were on the arms reach now. “I’m not asking for anything because somebody asked me to. I’m here because someone has to make you understand what you’re doing now by isolating yourself,” he let out a sigh and looked at Tian pleadingly. “You don’t have to do anything because a nurse, a doctor or I am asking, but the kids are missing you. Do you think they’ll worry less if you just keep avoiding them? They have no idea what’s going on. They’re confused. If you really cared about them, that should be enough of a reason for you to stop whatever it is that you’re doing right now. Or do you not care about them?” Phupha provoked.”

Don’t you dare,” Tian started, taking half the step closer to Phupha, but the latter interrupted him.

“Don’t I dare what? Say what it looks like? Because to me, it looks like you're running away from them, Tian. Were they just a temporal distraction for you? Did you do this just because you were bored and needed something new to do?”

Tian flinched back as if he was slapped in the face.

“No. It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it Tian?” Phupha pressed. “Why are you running away?”

Shut up! How do you think I can face them now?” the tears shone in those dark eyes and made Phupha feel like the worst scum but he couldn't apologize now. He had to let Tian continue, even if it meant he had to see him break a little. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this! They weren’t supposed to see me like this!” Tian yelled, hand pressed close to his chest. “You say I should go out and show them I’m fine? Well, here’s the thing chief, I am not fine. I wasn’t fine for a very long time. But I kept pretending because I didn’t have a right to complain and for some time it worked and I let myself hope and you know what? Misfortune, as it usually does, has chosen that very moment to come back to me and remind me that it’s all bullshit. I don’t want it. But I have to deal with all of this. Even if I sure as hell am not strong enough to do it. I’m not strong enough to act like a brave guy and smile in front of them anymore.

When Tian finished, his breathing was again heavy and ragged, as if he had just emerged from under the water after a long dive.

“Call me a coward or a weakling if you want. But honestly, what would you know about any of it, huh, chief?” as the last word left his lips, Tian seemed to choke on the air, two tears falling down his cheeks, regret written all over his face.

They both hurt and both knew it. They both crossed all the lines they so religiously kept away from ever since they met. Tian opened his mouth but didn’t say a word and instead turned his back to Phupha, walking towards the bed. He sat on it and pulled his legs close to his chest, letting his forehead rest on his knees.

The atmosphere changed, it felt like someone had poured a bucket of cold water on each of them. Phupha took a deep breath to calm himself down. He wasn’t angry anymore. He hoped he could just make things right once again, erase everything that had happened in the past week.

But that was impossible. All he could do was to look for a way out of this situation.

“No one’s asking you to force yourself to be brave,” he tried.

“Oh really?” Tian laughed bitterly, his words muffled as he didn’t lift his head. “Because to me, it seems like that’s what everyone who came here has been asking me to do.”

The silence that followed was filled with shame and hurt.

“Tian, what happened that day? Why did you faint?” Phupha finally asked, his voice filled with soft worry.

Tian took his time to compose himself before answering. Or maybe he needed to think how much he was ready to share after his outburst moments before. He cleared his throat, looked at Phupha and tried to smirk but Phupha could see the corner of his lips twitch ever so slightly and the drying stains on his cheeks.

“What can I say, chief? Apparently, when doctors tell you that you have to do daily exercises to maintain a healthy body, they don’t mean playing cards with kids. It was bound to happen one day. I was just unlucky that it had happened when I was out,” he said before lying down on the bed and pulling the blanket over his head.

Phupha sighed and shook his head in disbelief. Tian was trying to escape once again, but this time he couldn’t do so with carefully picked words. With this newfound rawness, he couldn’t hide behind the mask of sarcasm.

The answer he got wasn’t the one Phupha wanted. Tian knew it. And Phupha knew that he knew. They could keep waltzing around each other, acting as if that was enough, that not knowing was better than knowing too much and having to face the truth. Or they could end this little dance of pretending, risking the fall.

Knowledge often requires the courage to ask.

“Tian, why are you staying here?”

“I already told you, I don’t feel like seeing the kids,” he mumbled from below the blanket.

Phupha clicked his tongue as he manoeuvred around the books to get to the bed and sat on the chair next to it.

“You know what I mean,” he lightly poked Tian’s arm with his finger. “Why are you at the hospital?”

The fact that Tian didn’t answer immediately with a snarky comment or mean words was the reason why Phupha found the patience to wait. Tian could have a sharp tongue and a quick mind that provided him with scarily accurate remarks, but some things were hard to talk about. Some things squeezed one’s insides whenever they tried to make any sense of them, not to mention vocalize their fears. Phupha knew that. After all, he was an expert in keeping emotions from the others’ eyes.

He waited patiently, watching the way this strange chrysalis made out of the blanket rose up with every breath of the person hidden inside it.

Eventually, Tian’s head reappeared, his dark eyes looking tired, face lacking the usual smile, no trace of bravado in his features.

“And why do people have to stay for so long in the hospital, chief? There are just some parts inside me that don’t want to work anymore.”

Phupha felt his mouth go dry. He had supposed this much already, especially after Tian collapsed and then when he saw what ward he was staying on. And yet there’s a colossal difference between believing something is true and hearing the confirmation from someone else.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” Tian laughed bitterly. “Trust me, I don’t deserve this pity,” before Phupha could protest, the man continued. “I like to think it’s destiny’s cruel joke, but the truth is, I brought this down on myself. You see, I knew my heart was weak and yet I did everything to contradict my doctor’s orders. Every. Single. One,” he emphasized each word. “I made my family miserable. I made my mother cry. I don’t deserve your sympathy.”

Phupha gritted his teeth, his fingers clenched tightly, knuckles turning white from the pressure. His mind was in overdrive, processing every word.

“Is that why you’re here?” he finally asked. “Something happened and they sent you here?”

“They wanted to send me all the way to the United States,” Tian sounded almost amused, as if all of it was a joke. “But we made a deal and they let me come here instead.”

“And where are they now?” Phupha interrupted, feeling the anger rising in him. “You never mentioned them visiting. You never mentioned anyone visiting you, not to the kids, not to the nurses. Why aren’t they here Tian? Is it also a part of the deal?” he spat the last word.

Tian didn’t look at him but instead, he once again hid his head underneath the blanket.

“Go away, I’m going to sleep now.”

“Tian.”

“I get it that nagging the patients is pretty much a part of your job description as a volunteer, but could you just leave me alone this time?”

“Tian,” even though he used his best commanding voice, Tian only curled up even more.

Give him some time. It’s enough for today. He’s not ready to tell you more. Not yet.’

Phupha could give him time. But not enough for Tian to think that he gave up on getting answers.

“Rest well. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Phupha barely noticed the nurses at the front desk wishing him goodnight as he had stormed out of the hospital, walking towards the parking lot.

He had no idea what had gotten into him. But when he was in that room, listening to Tian, he just got so angry. At Tian’s parents for leaving him like this when he was clearly so confused and scared. At Tian for talking about himself that way, like he didn’t believe he deserved to live, like he gave up a long time ago. At fate for being so cruel. At himself for being so helpless.

Phupha crouched down next to his motorbike and let his forehead lean against the cold metal of the machine, counting his breaths and trying to calm his thoughts.

When he came back to his senses, he replayed their conversation in his mind. It was obvious that he couldn’t fix everything right away, but there had to be something, the starting line he could use.

The first step.

Phupha took the phone out of his pocket and dialled the number.

“Hey Doc, I have a few questions.”

Chapter Text

It was six o’clock and Phupha was unamused.

The view that has greeted him as he walked into Tian's room was beguilingly similar to the one from the day before. Cramped room, old armchair, Tian sitting in it. The only noticeable difference was the fact that this time, Tian instead of reading was preoccupied with biting on his nails nervously.

Phupha sighed, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“What do you think you're doing?”

Tian shuddered, straightening his back, big eyes transfixing on the ranger's figure.

“What... Why are…?”

“I told you yesterday that I'll be back, didn't I?” Phupha interrupted him with an eye-roll.

On the mention of their previous conversation, Tian gulped.

“Chief... About yesterday... I'm sorry. I spoke out of line.”

Here it is again. This type of seriousness really doesn’t look good on him.’

It wasn’t even about the seriousness itself as much as about the hesitance and some self-proclaimed guilt Tian seemed to emanate at the moment. Phupha just kept staring at the other man with his head tilted slightly to the side.

“Do you think that's why I'm here? To get an apology?”

Do you really think I could be mad at you or expect something from you for finally telling the truth?’

“Well, I mean… I probably offended you or something…” Tian scratched his nape.

An idea formed in Phupha's mind how to play this. Perhaps luring Tian out of his room might have proved simpler than he had assumed at first.

“Hmm… You know what? You’re right,” he pushed himself away from the wall and took a few steps closer to Tian. “I should expect compensation from you, shouldn’t I?”

Tian's face clouded when he heard these words, cold calculation evident in his eyes as he answered in a gruff voice devoid of the usual warm note.

“Sure, that’d be fair. So, what can I do for you, chief?”

“Oh, I have something in my mind already. Follow me.”

Phupha turned on his heel and left the room, then heading towards the other part of the ward that Nam had mentioned to him earlier. He didn't stop or look back to see if Tian was indeed following him, but just a moment later he heard a second pair of footsteps echoing down the empty corridor.

“Oi, chief, wait! Where are we going?”

Phupha just smiled slightly and walked on. When he finally found the right door, he took a key from his jacket pocket and opened it, turning around for the first time and motioning with his head for Tian to come inside.

The suspicious look on Tian's face didn't disappear when he got inside.

“What the hell is this supposed to be?”

“Huh? I thought it’s pretty obvious, but if you need someone to say it out aloud, fine. This is your new training room you’ll be using from this day on,” he motioned around the spacious room filled with basic equipment. Then he walked towards the treadmill standing next to the wall and patted it. “And this is your new best friend.”

“Are you nuts? How do you even know about this place? Even I didn’t know it existed!”

“Well, you would know if you followed your doctors’ orders and got some exercise every now and then,” Phupha sent him a scolding look, but Tian’s only answer was frown and pout. “Oh by the way, before you ask: I talked to the doctors. They agreed that starting with simple walking exercises will be the best way for you to build up some stamina. And yes, they are okay with us using it in the evenings. I asked them already since I thought you’d prefer to not have any spectators, at least at first. And I can’t really come in here at any other time than late afternoons anyway,” he explained.

“Thanks for your consideration, but no. I’m not doing this,” Tian hissed.

“Too bad. You’ve already told me you’re willing to repay me for how you acted yesterday, haven’t you? That’s my price. You come in here and train with me,” seeing how Tian opened his mouth to argue, he quickly added. “Or are you backing from your word?”

It didn't take a genius to see how much Tian disliked this turn of events. He clicked his tongue, looking at Phupha with frustration.

“Ask for something else.”

“No. That’s the only thing I’ll accept.”

Tian pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Okay, let’s presume I’d agree. Then you’re going to what? Watch me walk? There’s only one treadmill in here.”

“No, I told you, we’ll work out together.”

Tian looked dumbfounded.

“And how exactly do you imagine that? What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Phupha shrugged his shoulders. “Some basic stuff probably, push-ups, squats… Trust me, I’ll make myself busy for as long as you’ll be able to walk.”

“Oi, wait a minute. Are you out of your mind? Each of these is way more exhausting than walking.”

“Well, seems like we’ll have to see if you’d be able to walk for long enough to make me tired,” Phupha said half-jokingly.

He really wanted to lighten the atmosphere a bit, to make this Tian who was now standing in front of him, looking a bit lost, a bit uncertain and also a bit angry at Phupha for trying to persuade him to do something Tian didn't feel like doing, disappear and be replaced by that Tian whom Phupha had known until now.

At the same time, as the quiet voice spoke, Phupha wished he had more time to get to know the person behind it, to peel off one by one the daintily arranged layers of delusion and reach inside.

“You can just work out without me being a clown, chief.”

Phupha sighed.

“It’s not about competing this time, Tian. Sometimes just you need someone beside you to keep going.”

 

* * *

 

“Okay… Okay, I’m done,” Tian puffed before turning off the treadmill. He stood there, leaning his head forward, trying to catch his breath.

Phupha watched him out of the corner of his eye as he wiped the first drops of sweat that had begun to appear on his own forehead. However, he was relieved to see nothing more than the usual signs of fatigue, which the doctor assured him were completely predictable after Tian has neglected his exercises for so long.

He tried to ignore the fact that their little deal proved to be even more unfair than it seemed at the start. Tian’s stamina, or rather lack thereof, worried him.

Making sure his voice wasn't too breathy, Phupha spoke up.

“Well, looks like you’ll have to try harder the next time. I’m still good to go.”

Tian frowned at the indication that there will be the next time, but a silent whine was his only response.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tian nodded as he slowly made his way towards the bean bag chair standing nearby.

“Now that we know what are your limits, we can start the real work from the next time on.”

Tian groaned at that, sinking deeper into the soft material.

“Oh come on, chief, why are you so cruel? Is it a weird, ranger fetish? To make others feel miserable? Oh no, wait, I know what it is!” he pointed an accusing finger at Phupha. “Being so far away from your mountains turned you into a sadist, am I right? You’re frustrated that you can’t see the crying women you’ve left on the North and you’re taking it out on me. I bet there’s someone missing you in most of the places you’ve worked in. I’m just a poor little prey you can take this frustration out on, aren’t I? Will you just forgive me if I nicely apologize?” his lazy smile disappeared when he saw the other man’s face.

It's hard to decide what hurt Phupha more, the accusation that he dragged Tian here for any reason other than concern for him, the suggestion that he would take joy in making someone look miserable or perhaps the implication that Phupha had left someone important back at North. Well, multiple someone’s, from what Tian had suggested.

“No. It’s not like that. I'm not a sadist. And I can assure you that I’m not a type to have a woman in every place I visit,” Phupha started to throw his things back into his bag, putting way more force into it than was necessary.

When Tian spoke up again, his voice was abashed but sincere.

“Sorry,” when Phupha only huffed as he quickly finished packing his bag, Tian added with a small, unsure smile. “Well, see you around, chief.”

The ranger stopped at the doorway and exhaled slowly, trying to temper his irritation.

“Tomorrow,” Phupha corrected. “I’ll be back tomorrow at the same time.”

 

* * *

 

It soon became part of their routine. At first, Phupha needed to come and pick up Tian from his room, every day the same surprised face greeting him as if Tian really was expecting Phupha to not show up. It took some time before Phupha’s promise seemed to sink in, and when it finally did, Tian started to wait for Phupha in the training room, his eyes shining just a bit brighter when he saw the ranger entering.

If he could, Phupha would come a little early and play with the children before saying goodbye at 6pm sharp and heading to the sixth floor. If he was busy, he would go directly to the training room after arriving at the hospital. Nam must have mentioned something to the nurses, or perhaps they found out from another gossipy source because after just a few days they no longer asked him to sign in on the visitors' list and only greeted him with a nod when he came in long after the official visiting hours were over.

After some time, Tian started to show up downstairs as well. When he came for the first time, it ended in some joyous tears and a group hug from the kids. Everything seemed to slowly go back to normal.

Except, Phupha didn’t shy away anymore from calling Tian out if the latter was slacking off on the treadmill or making excuses not to go to the training room. Some days a disapproving look was enough to set the man straight. Some days convincing Tian to get going was far harder.

“Will you go on your own, or should I drag you?” Phupha asked, standing so close to Tian that he had to perk his head at an uncomfortable angle to look at the ranger.

It was already quarter past six and Tian still didn’t make a move to get up from the carpet where he sat between two kids, helping them build a mini trebuchet from a bunch of doctor’s spatulas, elastic bands and a plastic spoon.

The scandalized look the younger man had sent him was pretty good. But Phupha dealt with far more threatening things in his life.

„You wouldn't dar...” Tian stopped abruptly. It was obvious that he knew very well that Phupha would.

Phupha couldn’t help but smile. It was nice to be known.

Gradually, they started to talk, fill in the dull silence of the room, previously interrupted only by the whir of the treadmill and their panting. Phupha learned to crave this moment when Tian was starting to get bored by the monotonous task but wasn’t tired down yet. It was that moment, the chance to talk. Because even though Phupha could predict what Tian would behave like in certain situations or what carefully crafted teasing remark he would use, he still had no idea what was Tian’s favourite colour or whether he preferred to spend his vacations in the mountains or on the beach.

And that lack of knowledge had irked him more than he’d like to admit.

Phupha learned that Tian was 21, preferred cats to dogs and was a miserable cook. He once went for an entire month eating only frozen food and instant noodles when his parents let him stay in the dormitory during the first year of college. Once they found out what he was doing, they took him back to their house and prohibited him from living on his own before he ends his studies. Phupha learned that the armchair in Tian’s room was brought all the way from his parent’s house, a memoir after his late grandmother.

(Tian mentioned his parents quite a few times, but he never gave Phupha any details. He also never mentioned the circumstances of him dropping out of the university.)

Tian learned that Phupha turned 30 just a few weeks before. He learned that Phupha knew Nam back from the time the doctor has spent as a volunteer in one of the villages Phupha had been stationed in. That Nam introduced him to Torfun after Phupha was sent to Bangkok. The doctor hoped that his socially withdrawn friend could become more open around a bright and lovely hospital volunteer. It partially worked, Phupha gained another trusted friend but it didn’t change his lonely nature.

(Phupha didn’t mention the name Pha Pun Dao, it was too precious to give away in the light conversation, even if it was a conversation shared with Tian.)

“Your friend is going to come back soon, right?” Tian asked one day.

“Yes, in a few weeks.”

“The kids will miss you.”

Phupha didn’t immediately connect the dots. The ‘once she’s back, there’s no reason for you to come’ was left unsaid, but when one thought about it, it was obvious that Tian must have been thinking that way.

Phupha’s thoughts were completely different.

“Well, I still have almost a year left to finish my studies, so I guess I could come by now and then.”

Tian plucked at the corner of his faded blue shirt. It was made of light material and didn’t stick to his sweat-covered torso.

“That’d be nice,” he kept his head bowed but Phupha could still see the red tips of his ears. “I mean, the kids would definitely like it if you visited now and then.”

“Yeah, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to hear it.”

 

* * *

 

“How are you feeling?” Phupha asked, crouching down in front of Tian who was lying sprawled on the floor.

“You don't have to call for the nurse yet,” Tian tried to joke but he was so out of breath that his words didn’t give the right impression. Phupha stared at him.

“You should stop with these jokes. They aren’t funny.”

“They’re not?” Tian pushed himself up on on hand and raised a brow provocatively.

“No. They’re not,” he lowered himself on the floor, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Swiftly, Phupha reached over to his duffel bag and fished a water bottle out of it. He handed it over to Tian, who accepted it with a grateful nod.

A human body is a miracle full of secrets, billions of tissues, veins, muscles and sinews working all together in a mysterious way, hidden underneath our skin, unwilling to show us at the first glance all of the complexity of this divine machinery we call our bodies. People studied anatomy for centuries now, they’ve learned a lot, and yet, as individuals, we’re so utterly clueless. So we do what we can to learn, we observe, we make hypotheses. We fail and try again to find answers.

There was no power in this world that could convince Phupha to look away when those knuckles whitened while unscrewing the cap of the bottle. His eyes followed the bobbing of Tian’s larynx, the tip of Tian’s tongue darting out to catch the wayward droplet that tried to slip down his chin. If it hadn’t been caught, it would travel further down, exploring the line of the neck, the bump of the collarbone, disappear under the collar of his shirt…

„How are you? For real this time.”

Tian didn’t meet his eyes, his hands restless, fiddling with the cap. The blue plastic looked hypnotizing as it moved between his fingers.

„If you already know how I'll answer, why bother asking?”

Indeed, why bother?’

„Aren't you tired of pretending?”

You still don’t think you can trust me? Or is it something else?’

Tian squinted his eyes at him.

“Aren’t you tired of playing the psychologist?”

“Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea if you went to one,” Phupha’s heart skipped a bit when he realized how harsh his words have sounded. But before he could try to explain what was on his mind, Tian hummed, taking another sip from the bottle.

“Sorry chief, not a fan of somebody poking inside my head,” he tapped a finger against his temple in a mocking gesture.

“You know that’s not how it works. You don’t have to deal alone with the stuff that is happening in here,” Phupha mimicked the gesture, poking his temple. “It’s their job to help you with it if you want to. Why don’t you give it a try? No harm in going for half an hour and talking to someone. Then you decide if you want to continue or not.”

Tian didn’t answer. Phupha sighed and outstretched his legs. Given how close they sat in the first place, now their shoes were almost touching. If Phupha shifted he could put the heel of his shoe on the top of Tian's untied shoelace, act like he could immobilize him this way, make sure Tian wouldn’t run away.

But it wasn’t that easy. All Phupha could do for now was to try to get close enough to be able to catch Tian before he decides to fly away.

So he asked another question.

“What's the deal with the books?”

“Huh? Are you judging me? I didn’t expect that from a guy who likes to draw with a bunch of kids,” there was no real insult in his voice. If anything, Phupha could sense the gratitude for changing the topic. “Or are you hiding something more? What else can you do? Ballet? Gymnastics? Piano? You lowkey give me a piano guy vibes.”

“I asked first. Answer me and I’ll answer you.”

That seemed like a reasonable deal to Tian.

“Not many things one can do in a hospital. They have sent me a book a few days after I came here. I didn’t return it like I did with other things, so they just kept sending me a few books every week,” Phupha didn’t ask who’s they. And he didn’t yield to the temptation of going back to Tian’s room and counting the books, trying to figure out how long Tian had to stay in there to gather so many of them. “Your turn.”

“I play Khlui.”

Tian let out a snort.

“Not fair chief. I thought we’re being honest.”

Instead of arguing, the next day Phupha brought Khlui along with spare clothes. Tian watched Phupha as he took the instrument out of his duffel bag, his eyes wide open, one brow raised sceptically.

Phupha didn’t waste breath for banter. He lifted the flute to his mouth and played an old tune that he had spent most of the previous night trying to recall.

“So? Now you believe me?” Phupha asked when he finished.

Tian observed Phupha for some more time before standing up and walking towards the treadmill. He stepped onto it and deftly adjusted the speed to his usual pace. Only when the machine turned on, Tian spoke.

“Play it again.”

Chapter Text

I like him

Multiple containers of paint stood on a foil-covered table. Between them, cups with water dyed in various colours from the brushes being dipped in them. The kids sat around it, their faces decorated in cat’s whiskers or painted in bright colours, in theory resembling wild animals, in practice: unrecognisable shapes covering their skin.

When Phupha bought the face paint he was expecting the kids to get excited. What he didn’t expect, was for Tian to bring his chair in front of Phupha, blocking any possible escape route, and announce that he’s going to paint Phupha’s face himself.

“What are you doing?”

“I’ve told you already. I’m giving a proper camouflage to our Green Giant,” Tian replied.

Phupha wondered if Tian knew that he had a habit of sticking the tip of his tongue between his lips when he was focusing on something. He trembled involuntarily when the brush skimmed the skin next to his ear.

“Don’t move, I’m almost done,” Tian scolded him.

It was hard to breathe when Tian leaned closer, working on the details. The smell of paint has filled Phupha’s nostrils, along with the scent of bergamot, pine shampoo and something unknown that supposedly could be categorized only as Tian. Sitting like that he had a free pass to observe these delicate features and dreamy eyes. The only rule was for Phupha to keep his hands clasped tightly around each other, to keep them away from Tian.

You can admire. You can dream. But you can’t touch him.’

He didn’t have to. Tian did it for him.

“Here, let me see…” Tian grabbed his chin and turned it gently, so the light illuminated Phupha’s cheek.

The skin to skin contact made the last ounce of Phupha’s composure crumble to dust. He couldn’t control himself when his mouth opened ever so slightly and the goosebumps rose on his arms.

Tian seemed unfazed, free hand reaching up and combing Phupha’s short hair back so he could get a better look at his work.

The touch of fingers on his scalp as they slowly made their way through the thick hair pulled a quiet sigh from Phupha's lips. Tian froze at once, realizing what he’s doing, his eyes meeting Phupha’s.

They could stare like that at each other for hours and Phupha wouldn’t mind at all.

But then Tian let out a nervous cough as he cleared his throat. He leaned back, a shy smile on his face, the dust of pink on his cheeks. When he took his hand back, Phupha barely stopped himself from whimpering.

“Okay, give me your phone,” Tian wiped his hands on the trousers and hold out his palm, waiting for Phupha to give him the phone.

Once he had it, he took a few pictures from different angles and quickly inspected them before turning the phone back to Phupha. The ranger took it gently, unable to stop himself from letting his index finger brush over Tian’s skin. It was soft and chilly in touch, a little damp, maybe from sweat, maybe from the water he had used to clean the brush. It felt just like the first time when Phupha had touched the water pouring gently down the rock walls around the Pha Pun Dao waterfall, the stone smoothed over the centuries by the water stream.

“So? What do you say?”

Phupha couldn’t tear his eyes away from the picture. His cheek, his temple and part of his forehead were covered with delicate green twigs from which countless leaves sprouted. The edges of the leaves were uneven, in some places it was clear that Tian's hand had trembled. Overall, the painting on his face looked as if it had been done for an art class by an unskilled teenager.

Phupha loved it. Every wry line. The effort Tian had put into it was evident and it made everything so much more precious.

“You were right, you know?”

“Hmm?” Tian almost choked on the water he was sipping nervously. “About what?”

“Artwork isn’t your thing, better leave it to the kids.”

“Oi!” Tian slapped his shoulder and started to chuckle. “You’re so cruel! It’s not that bad!”

And now Phupha was sitting on his bed, looking at the picture he had on his phone and touching his cheek absent-mindedly, feeling the slight roughness where his skin was covered in paint.

I like him

The realisation hasn’t really shocked him. Phupha supposed that the feelings were there for quite some time, lazily basking in the daylight, not bothering him since they were left unbothered by Phupha himself. These three words explicitly appearing in his mind didn’t change much.

Nevertheless, it felt good to finally have a way to voice them.

 

* * *

 

It was already seven minutes past their usual meeting time, which made it completely acceptable for Phupha to go and search for Tian. Unsurprisingly, he found him in his room, reading a book. The only difference from the usual was the fact that he was lying on the bed, covered in a blanket instead of being spread over the armchair.

“You’re late.”

“Sorry chief, but I think I’ll stay here and read something today,” Tian said, his lips outstretched in a small, forced smile. He didn’t look surprised to see Phupha walk into his room so unceremoniously.

Phupha almost argued that they can't just stop now. Almost asked why Tian felt the need to wear this fake smile in his presence. Almost demanded Tian to be honest with him and don’t play games this time.

Almost.

It was the way Tian have said ‘chief’ that got him. Usually, this title became an open fire when Tian said it, luring to come closer, promising everything from melting your ice-cold heart to burning you and leaving a nasty scar.

But not this time. When the word ‘chief’ left Tian's lips today it merely had the warmth that remains from a campfire that no one has watched over the night. A few smouldering coals in the very centre with a heap of lukewarm ash around.

“What’s wrong?” Phupha looked closer at him, noticing dark circles around his eyes.

Tian shrugged, lowering his gaze to look back at the book he was holding.

“Nothing. The weather is shit. It gets too warm too quickly. The doctors said I can tone the exercises down for some time.”

Obviously, there was more, but Phupha knew pressing Tian for answers wouldn't do him any good. So he sighed and dropped his bag on the floor. Tian glanced at him nervously when Phupha just stood in the middle of the room, not making a move to leave or come closer to him.

“I really don’t feel like training today,” Tian whispered, hint of embarrassment in his voice, hands clenched on the cover of the book.

“I get it,” Phupha still didn’t move.

Now Tian was openly glaring at him, brows frowned in irritation.

“Well then, if that’s all, I think you should go and do your daily thousand push-ups or whatever somewhere else.”

Phupha looked up at the ceiling as if he was contemplating the thought.

“I don’t think so,” he finally said, crossing arms in front of his chest. “It’s just not the same without my workout buddy.”

Tian cringed.

“Please, don’t call me like that ever again. Like, ever. If you say it again, I may throw up.”

The teasing remark was already on the tip of Phupha’s tongue. And yet something stopped him from saying it. Instead, Phupha took a few steps into the room until he was standing behind the old armchair, his hands grabbing onto leather-covered backrest, a makeshift shield standing between them. He had no idea if it was to keep the distance from Tian in case he decided to come closer or to stop himself from rushing forward.

“Then,” Phupha licked his lips nervously, “What would you like me to call you?”

Tian placed the book on his laps and tilted his head, watching Phupha carefully.

“Do you need to ask?” his voice was trembling slightly. Phupha hoped it wasn’t just his imagination.

“I prefer to ask than to scare you away,” he risked telling the truth. “I don’t use sugar-coated words. You may find me unpleasantly blunt.”

“I’m not that easy to scare. And anyway, what if I like blunt men?”

Phupha felt his heart skip a bit. It was hard to look away from Tian’s eyes.

“If you’re not that easy to scare, then tell me what you want me to call you.”

A deep blush covered Tian’s cheeks, making Phupha smile. There it was, his proof that Tian really was made of flesh and bones after all. It was relieving. It meant Phupha wasn’t trying to make the lost cause possible.

It was already known to him that they’re both full of flaws, but adding one more to the list still made him braver.

“Well, no need to hurry, I think I’ll just sit here and read for the rest of the day,” he circled the armchair and plopped down, immediately sinking into soft pillows. It was easy to understand why Tian liked this armchair so much.

“You know you can just go home and rest?” Tian asked him with a frown. “Or go out with your friends? It looks like it’s going to be a nice evening.”

“I know,” Phupha simply said, avoiding Tian’s eyes as he did. He pointed with his chin at the nearest pile of books. “So, since you’re the expert: which one would you recommend?”

Tian started fidgeting again, torment perfectly visible in his eyes. All Phupha could do was to wait and silently pray that he won’t be sent away.

“Try ‘Catch 22’,” Tian finally said. “It’s my favourite. May seem strange at the beginning, but it’s worth it in the end.”

It was hard for Phupha to stop himself from letting out a relieved sigh. With little guidance, he found a battered copy of the book and once again settled down in the armchair, content that Tian didn’t comment on Phupha using his beloved piece of furniture.

Truth be told, Phupha tried to appreciate the novel and concentrate his attention on it. He really did. But the task was beyond impossible when he could look so openly at Tian.

Tian, on the other hand, seemed peaceful and completely immersed in his book, relaxed fingers supporting its back, hairs falling on the forehead, setting sun casting soft shadows on his face. The chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm.

The thing is, Tian is a terrible liar. In almost two hours that Phupha stayed in the room, he didn’t turn the page even once.

 

* * *

 

Where are you?’

“Everything’s packed? You checked twice, right?”

“Yes, chief Phupha! I have everything!”

He tried to stall, hoping Tian would show up at the door with a big smile and warm words. But there was just so much time Phupha could steal.

“Okay then, let’s go back to the nurses’ room. Your dad should be done with the paperwork by now,” with one hand Phupha grabbed the small suitcase and reached with the other one towards Meejoo, walking her down the corridor.

Tian said to him the day before that he’s not sure if he’s going to see Meejoo off. And yet a part of him still hoped that maybe he’ll change his mind. Judging by the way the girl kept looking around as they walked, he wasn’t the only one hoping.

Discharging a patient was always a joyful event. The day before, the other children and the nurses had signed the kite that Meejoo had made a few weeks ago and which she now held tightly in her hand. She hugged everyone goodbye while Phupha assured her dad that it was no problem for him to help carry the luggage to the car.

Where are you?’

“Hey, sweetie, are you happy you’re finally coming home?” Meejoo’s father asked her as they walked down the stairs that led from the main entrance to the parking lot reserved for the patient’s guest. It was way bigger than the one near the side entrance used by the hospital staff and volunteers.

“Yeah…”

“Huh? What’s with that sad voice? You’ll get to play with your brother again, isn’t that good news?” the man sent a confused look Phupha’s way, clearly he wasn’t expecting his daughter to look so upset at the day like that.

Where are you?’

“Meejoo… It’s a good thing you’re going home, you’ll finally get to fly this kite, right?” Phupha tried to cheer her up.

“Yes, but…”

“No ‘but’ young lady!” that voice. Phupha’s head turned before he knew what he was doing. “I didn't get my fingers glued together when we made the frame for it just so you would let this kite lay in your wardrobe. Do you know it took me a week to get rid of all the glitter you had spilled on my hair back then?”

And there he stood. Leaning against a nearby car, with his jacket unzipped and a cheeky grin.

Tian.’

“You came!” Meejoo shouted in excitement.

“Of course I did! How could I miss the opportunity to say goodbye to you?”

Somewhere, in what seemed to be another reality, Meejoo ran towards Tian and hugged him around his middle. Tian’s smile shone like a sun as he explained who he was to Meejoo’s father, accepting a handshake and words of gratitude for making his daughter’s stay in the hospital more tolerable. There were a few more hugs and promises of never forgetting each other. At some point, Meejoo’s father packed the luggage inside the car’s truck and rushed the girl inside. Even as they were driving off, the girl kept shouting her goodbyes at them, skinny arm waving through the open window.

Phupha watched as Tian stopped waving back, lowered his arms and wrapped them around his waist as if to fill the emptiness left after Meejoo's embrace. The late afternoon light made his cheeks look almost tan and Phupha couldn’t stop himself from walking closer and just looking.

“I was worried you wouldn't come,” he admitted.

Tian flinched slightly and then relaxed when he saw who was standing beside him. A small smile curved his lips, dreamy eyes following the car before it disappeared behind the turn.

“I needed a little head start, that’s all,” Tian said, glancing back at the steps leading to the main entrance.

They stood like that for a few moments, shoulder to shoulder, watching the road that was almost empty safe for a few cars appearing now and then.

“Miss,” Tian called to the nurse that was standing a few meters away. “You can go back now, I don’t want to take any more of your time,” he bowed his head politely to her. “Thank you once again for coming here with me.”

“No need to thank me! And don’t worry, it’s my duty to take care of you. Are you ready to come back now?”

“Miss, you really can go, I…”

“I can walk Tian back,” Phupha chimed in, making both of them look at him. “I know where his room is, I can take him there. Of course, if that’s okay?”

“Oi, I don’t need a nanny to walk me back!”

The nurse sent a quick, amused glance Tian’s way before nodding.

“Tian looks pretty lively today, so I think it’s okay. But if anything seems off, just yell and someone will come and check up on him, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay, I told you already…” Tian tried to interrupt, but Phupha cut him off by placing a hand over his mouth.

“Of course, thank you so much for your help miss,” Phupha addressed the nurse with a small bow.

Once the woman started to make her way up to the hospital, Tian hit Phupha at the wrist, finally freeing his mouth.

“What’s wrong with you, chief? I don’t need you to babysit me!”

“I know,” Phupha rolled his eyes. “But she wouldn't let you out of her sight if you were alone, am I wrong?” he asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I thought that I am a better alternative.”

That seemed to baffle Tian. He cleared his throat before speaking up.

“Well, you can go home now. She won’t come back.”

“I know,” he repeated once again, not moving an inch.

Tian huffed an annoyed sigh before starting to walk towards the main stairs, Phupha followed right after him.

Seeing the cloudy expression on the younger man’s face, the way he lifted his head, preparing for a challenge as they approached the base of the stairs, Phupha reached out to him. Palm up, a gesture equally beseeching and offering. Tian watched this waiting hand, then he turned his eyes back to Phupha.

“It’s a nice day. I wouldn’t mind spending some time outside with you,” Phupha shrugged his shoulders, hoping it looked casually.

Tian hadn't made any move right away. At first, he spent a few moments staring at Phupha, searching for something in his face.

The touch of Tian’s fingers was chilly against his skin and Phupha had no idea if it was because of the man’s low body temperature or the way his own skin seemed to burn. Nevertheless, Phupha entwined their fingers, squeezing ever so lightly as he let their hands hang between their bodies.

Perhaps Phupha has never walked so slowly in his life, not since he was a toddler trying to learn how to walk. But in the way, moving like this was very similar to taking one’s first steps. There were so many things to relearn, from matching the tempo with another person’s pace, to not fainting from happiness when Tian hasn’t taken his hand away. Step after step, it was still there.

Wordlessly, Phupha tried to remember angles and textures, the feeling of delicate bones and knuckles against his rough skin. Phupha could swear that when he dared to pull at this hand, make their wrists grind together just a little tighter, he could feel the pumping of blood in Tian’s blue-ish veins. It made him swoon.

44 steps. Four sets, eleven steps each. 88 in total if one had to go there and back. Phupha knew it was a lot for Tian, especially lately when dry air made it harder for him to breathe. And yet, they did it. Tian did it. Slowly, focusing on willing the oxygen into his lungs, pausing from time to time. But he did it.

Chapter Text

These days, Tian rarely appeared downstairs. Even if he did, he hardly ever stayed for longer than an hour before excusing himself and going back to his room. At first, Phupha just let him go back on his own, but after some time he started to excuse himself as well and accompany the younger man back to his room, staying there with him for another hour or two.

It took Phupha a little over a week to finish ‘Catch 22’. When he had closed the book, Tian was watching him with a tilted head. They’ve spent the rest of the evening talking about this story. On the next day, the leather-covered book was already lying on the seat of the armchair. Tian was out for some check-ups so Phupha just made himself comfortable and started to read.

When Tian came back, he greeted the ranger with a smile before sitting cross-legged on the bed and opening his own book, both of them taking pleasure in the simple, silent presence of the other person just sitting nearby.

On some days, they sat together on the bed and talked about everything and anything. Phupha brought a deck of cards and they played a little. Tian proved to be surprisingly good at poker and just smirked at the ranger whenever he won. They both proved to be unsurprisingly horrible at building towers of cards.

Gradually, Phupha found his feet instinctively carrying him to the elevators after entering the hospital, the arm raising just enough to press the button with the number 6 written on it.

Tian seemed to be torn whenever he saw Phupha coming so early as if he wanted to ask him to go back down and spend more time with the kids but at the same time couldn't resist the temptation of welcoming him in their own sanctuary decorated in books and warm smiles.

Phupha kept promising he’ll pay the visit to the kids later on. That he’ll make it up to them. That he’ll spend the next day just with the kids.

But each time, on the next day, the unknown force made him once again appear at Tian’s door. And, by some miracle, Tian let him stay.

 

* * *

 

“I wonder if you remember the first time I saw you.”

“Oh, on my first day as a volunteer? How could I forget? You've left quite an impression.”

“Hmm, no, it wasn't then. I saw you before. “

“How come? “

“One day you came to pick up miss Torfun. It was raining and she convinced you to stay for a moment and help her tell a story to the kids.”

“Oh, yeah, it happened once. But I don't remember seeing you there.”

“I was watching from the corridor.”

“Stalker…”

“Shut up.”

“Oi! Don’t kick me!”

“Then don’t say stupid things.”

“Fine, fine, calm down… Hey.”

“Hm?”

“Is that why you keep calling me the Green Giant? All because of the character Torfun asked me to play?”

“Yeah. You were adorable. I couldn't take my eyes off of you.”

“But you haven't talked to me that day.”

“No. I didn't. But I hoped I could see you again.”

 

 

* * *

 

Phupha’s been trying to ignore the whispers that seemed to follow him like dark shadows as he walked down the hospital corridors. The nurses were suspiciously nice to him, bringing his coffee from the vending machine when he stayed late with Tian even though he never asked for it. When they exchanged a few words with him before he went home, they always said he's welcome to visit anytime and let him know that there was a new volunteer, so the children had someone who’d spend time with them and Phupha could go on with his own affairs.

Nam was being weird too. A few times he had offered to drive Phupha back from the hospital even though their apartments were on different sides of the city, he’s been bumping into the ranger in the hospital hall even though Phupha’s pretty sure that the doctor wasn’t supposed to have a shift on that day. He asked Phupha how he’s doing one time too much for it to be a coincidence or his natural friendly protectiveness.

Something was off. And it had to be something big to make everyone behave so strange. It felt like there was a gigantic clock ticking off hours until something horrible happens and he’s the only one who can’t see it clearly.

Somewhere inside Phupha knew there was only one possible reason for all of this. And yet he tried to convince himself that he’s just being paranoid. He tried to find another explanation for the coughing and warm sweaters despite the spring outside, for skin that was getting even paler, turning into the sickly, grey-ish shade.

Torfun called him and he tried to keep the conversation going but instead, he kept zoning out.

“Phupha? Are you alright? You sound worried.”

“Yes, yes I’m fine,” he rubbed his face in an exhausted gesture. “I’m fine.”

But there’s someone else who isn’t, and I’m not okay with it, he didn’t add even though he wanted to. But Torfun was far away dealing with her own problems and he didn’t want to burden her even more.

“Hey, just two more weeks and I’m back. We’ll meet and talk then, okay?”

“Yeah, two weeks. Sounds nice.”

Two weeks. Right now, when Phupha learned to count hours instead of days, it felt like a lifetime.

 

* * *

 

Phupha opened the door and knocked on its frame.

“Hey,” he started. “Can I come in?”

Nowadays, walking into the room made Phupha feel the same tightness in his throat as one felt while committing blasphemy. There was certainly something otherworldly in this pale skin that seemed almost luminous in the hospital lighting, it looked like Tian wasn’t fully terrestrial, only a blue pyjama and the clutter of objects around him keeping him in his mundane form.

But if that was the case, then Tian had to be the most fragile and lonely god in this world.

He looked smaller now, less lively without a usual glimmer in the eyes. It’s been over a week since the last time Phupha had suggested going outside of the room.

“Come on, chief, you never asked for permission before.”

“Sorry I couldn’t come earlier, I had practical classes today," he ignored the remark as he walked inside the room. "We went to the shooting range outside of town.”

“Hmm… Traffic on your way back had to be a real pain in the ass,” Tian hummed.

It was already well past 7pm, the sun disappeared below the horizon, the world outside the windows covered in the blanket of night, making everything seem more intimate and calm.

Phupha used to like night. The streets even in a big city like Bangkok were less crowded after most of the people went back home from work. Riding the bike under the street lights was one of the few moments when he didn't hate being here, when he didn't miss the mountains that badly.

Now nights meant something different, they meant that he had to go back to the apartment soon, leaving Tian to spend the night alone. And then to be alone in the morning. And in the early afternoon. Night meant departure and he was dreading it more and more each time, started to make excuses to stay for a moment longer.

He stayed to water the plant (he bought it for Tian a week before and insisted that he needed to look after it since he's a ranger and Tian probably has zero experience in caring about plants).

To finish the chapter of the book (he never brought any of the books with himself even though Tian offered he could do so on more than one occasion).

To tell one more story about his day (even if it was just about how he saw a cat in the parking lot).

To play one more game of cards.

To be there, just because.

When Tian started coughing, Phupha immediately moved closer to him, placing his hand on Tian's shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly, waiting for the fit to stop.

“Easy there… Here, let me help,” Phupha took the cup with water from the bedside table and helped Tian drink a few sips. Once he was finished, Phupha helped him lie back down and tucked him in the blankets, making sure that Tian’s properly covered.

“You’re like a professional now, chief. Did you took some lessons from the nurses?”

A noncommittal grunt was the only answer he allowed himself to give. The nurses did their best despite having to take care of so many patients. Nevertheless, Phupha’s mind was busy with thinking about how Tian didn’t have to be alone in here and how he didn’t have to wait for Phupha to come and keep him company . After all, Tian had a living family that could be there for him.

“Tian, why your parents aren’t here?”

“They’re busy,” when Phupha just stared at him, Tian rolled his eyes and started once again. “Okay, okay, they… Well, actually they may not know about… All of this. At least I hope so.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Phupha frowned.

“You know I’m a legal adult, right? I can ask the hospital staff not to inform anyone about changes in my condition or to not let anyone visit me.”

Phupha looked away, licking his lips in a nervous gesture before whispering.

“And yet, I am here.”

The smile on Tian’s face faded away replaced once again by this guilty look that sometimes appeared on his face when he thought Phupha wasn’t paying attention.

The thing is: Phupha was always paying attention to Tian. It’s just that he didn’t have the guts to ask what this was about. Even now, instead of speaking his mind, he let out a sigh and sat on the chair next to the hospital bed.

It started like it usually did, with talking about their days. Phupha mentioned how he had met the nurses from the children's ward in the elevator. Tian listened to him, nodding from time to time.

Phupha found it hard to concentrate on the story he was telling when he saw Tian’s fingers shifting slightly every now and then, grasping the thick, grey blanket, reaching for something and then withdrawing again.

After a few minutes Phupha couldn’t help himself and grabbed this hand in his own, noticing with worry how cold it was.

“If you want me to hold your hand, you should have just said so,” he tried to keep his voice calm and strict. “Are you cold? I can go and bring you another blanket.”

Tian shook his head but didn't take his hand away.

“I already have three if you haven’t noticed. And they don’t even help that much, I’m just constantly cold.”

The cold weather never bothered Phupha, he was a child born in winter, he grew up in the North. The freezing wind from the mountains never bothered him, his body naturally had a high temperature no matter the weather conditions.

Maybe this time it could be helpful.

“Hey, I have an idea. Can you move a little bit?”

Awkwardly, he helped Tian move closer to the edge of the bed, being careful with the IV tube and checking several times the placement of the pillows and blankets to make sure Tian was comfortable in his new position. Then, with tentative, slow movements, Phupha lied down on the bed next to Tian, turning onto his side so that Tian's back was pressed against his chest.

“Is that okay?” he asked for what had to be a tenth time.

Tian hummed in approval, snuggling closer and pressing the soles of his feet into Phupha’s legs. It felt cold despite the layers of material between their skin, Tian’s socks and Phupha’s trousers. The ranger didn’t really mind as long as he could hold Tian so close. Feeling particularly brave, Phupha reached out with his arm and circled Tian’s waist, his hand covering Tian’s hands.

The feeling of muscles relaxing against his chest was indescribable.

“You’re warm… And comfy…”

“I’ll take that for a compliment,” Phupha chuckled, rubbing Tian's fingers to warm them up a bit.

“You should.”

There was no clock in the room, Phupha could use only his heartbeat to measure the passage of time. They lied in silence for minutes, maybe a quarter or two. The usual background noise of the ward muffled by the closed doors.

Phupha started to think that maybe Tian fell asleep like that, cuddled next to him. The thought was strangely flattering to him.

But then Tian spoke up.

“Why did you choose to be a ranger?”

“Huh? Why do you ask?”

“Because I want to know.”

Because he wants to know.’

It was more than enough of a reason for Phupha to tell him everything. About growing up in a village in the mountains, about his father being a ranger and wanting to follow in his footsteps ever since Phupha could remember.

He also told Tian about his father’s last sacrifice, because without this detail Tian wouldn’t truly understand. He told him about his heartbroken mother and his own ache and how the watch with broken glass he was wearing every day was one of the few keepsakes he had left after his father. Finally, he told Tian about how he understood everything once he was old enough to wear that uniform himself.

“When you see those people, how they rely on you… How they trust you…” Phupha continued. “You realize that it’s all worth it in the end. And if you really love those forests and those people, the danger doesn’t scare you so much.”

“So you’re not scared of death?” it sounded like a tricky question.

“I…”

Phupha didn’t know how to answer it.

His life could be divided into three major parts. The first one ended when his father died. At that phase he’d certainly answer no, death is terrifying. He was just a kid after all.

The second phase was the one when he grew up and became a ranger. He got used to the thought of dying, he finally started to understand so many things and his mindset changed drastically. That Phupha could easily say yes, death isn’t that scary as long as it’s meaningful.

But Phupha now, Phupha of phase three was used to breathing hospital air that always had the underlying scent of death and illness. Only recently he started to consider what it would feel like if death touched someone else before him and not because of Phupha’s incompetence as the ranger but just because that was the fate written in the stars.

The present Phupha learned that ‘death’ contained so many things, each one way scarier than ‘dying’. There was fear. There were forced smiles and pretending for somebody’s sake. There was loss. There was a futile hope.

“No, I am scared of death. I am very scared,” he admitted. “I only got used to the thought of dying on the duty and feel like it wouldn’t be the worst possible ending for me.”

“Sorry chief, but that sounds just awful,” Tian chuckled softly even though there was no amusement in his voice. “Haven’t you thought about doing something else? You want to honour your father and you genuinely care about this job, that’s obvious. But doesn’t it feel like too much for you?”

“I don’t know. I never really thought about it this way.”

“Hmm… You’re really strong, chief,” Tian hummed.

Phupha thought about how Tian kept smiling and making sure the kids were always happy. About how he never complained about being alone or uncomfortable.

Not as strong as you are.’

“Tian, tell me about your parents. Please.”

There was a long silence, but Phupha couldn’t rush him about this. He was ready to wait for however long it took, an hour, the entire night. He was ready to wait for as long as he had to if there was even a small chance for Tian to share this story with him.

“Um…” the low vibrato was so unexpected that it startled Phupha. “I… They aren’t so bad, you know? I mean, sure when I was a kid they didn’t pay that much attention to me since they were always busy with their work and then when I’ve got diagnosed they got overprotective. They… They wanted to put me in a golden cage, you know? It was suffocating,” the narrow shoulders hunched and Phupha found his thumb rubbing calming circles in the pale skin of Tian’s arm. Freedom has always been the most important thing for Phupha, he couldn't fathom how would it feel if someone has taken it away from him.

“But they tried, you know?” Tian continued. “It wasn’t easy for them and then I made it even harder. One night… One night I went too far. I blacked out outside of the club. There was so much alcohol in my blood that it would have been dangerous even for a normal person, my heart almost gave out completely back then,” he paused and let out a shuddered breath. “I was unconscious for four days. The doctors were thinking I may not wake up at all. And my parents decided that that’s it. They couldn't deal with it anymore and decided to send me to the clinic in the US. But I didn’t want to go.”

“Why?” Phupha rasped.

“It just seemed pointless. I already dropped out of school at that point, I didn’t contact a majority of my friends, I went out only to get drunk or to take part in a street race… There was no purpose in my life. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just let me die.”

“Tian…”

“I know,” Tian interrupted. “A lot of things has changed since then. I have changed. But… Yeah, back to the story. We fought a lot about this. No matter how important my father is here, he wouldn't have power over me on another continent, so I threatened them that I’ll run away as soon as I set a foot in the US. So they said I’ll have to stay in the hospital here, in Thailand. I think they were relieved in a way, in here they can monitor my every move. I can bet they have someone in the hospital constantly reporting to them about my condition. Well, at least they probably used to have. Not sure about it anymore.”

It didn’t add up at all.

“Wait, so why aren’t they here when you need them?”

“I asked them not to. Actually, I refused to see them ever since I got here. I yelled at them to the point that the nurse wanted to give me sedatives. Once I even tried throwing a potted plant at them,” Tian started to play with their entwined fingers, voice impassive and distant. “When I realized what I did for all these years… What I kept doing to them… I hoped I could make them hate me, you know? I hoped that this would make it easier for them in the end. But I’m still being selfish, right?”

Phupha wanted to scream at Tian, to do something to make him realize how wrong all of it felt. Sure, Tian could be called moody, sometimes even rude, but he was never selfish. This man, ever since the first day Phupha knew him, didn’t show a selfish bone in his body. Sometimes he was lost, sometimes he isolated himself because he didn't see what else he could do, but none of this had anything to do with any selfish motives. The thought of how much it had to cost Tian to forcedly drive away his parents ached Phupha beyond words.

“Tian, you’re the kindest and the most selfless person I know.”

“That’s a lie. If I weren’t selfish, you wouldn't still be here.”

There was a cold dagger piercing through Phupha’s chest.

“Don’t say it like I haven’t chosen to be here. Tian, no one deserves to be left alone. Definitely not you. It’s not selfish to want for someone to be beside you,” he squeezed their hands a little tighter. “I never thought about you as selfish. And your parents shouldn’t have left you here like that.”

“I wouldn't let them stay close even if they tried.”

“It doesn’t matter. They still shouldn’t have given up so easily. That’s what family is for,” Phupha said, thinking about his own family, the one that he was connected to by blood and the one he had found along the way.

“It’s easy to say so, chief. But I was a real menace back then. Way worse than what you’ve ever seen. Everyone would give up eventually.”

“No. Not everyone.”

Phupha’s voice was filled with so much certainty, that Tian couldn't really argue. Instead, he let out another sigh and trembled slightly.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore, chief. Please, tell me something else. Tell me about a place you liked the most,” Tian asked.

And Phupha did exactly that.

“Do you remember that drawing I did for you? The one with a waterfall?”

“Yeah,” Tian hummed, snuggling so that his back was pressed even closer into Phupha’s chest. “It’s in the drawer,” he pointed with his head at the bedside table.

Phupha’s heart melted when he heard that Tian kept it after all.

“This waterfall is nearby the village called Pha Pun Dao.”

And just like that, Phupha started his tale. He told Tian about the village and the people living there. About national park full of wild creatures that were left undisturbed and lived freely. About tea plantations and the distinctive smell of leaves that hovered over the hills on scorching days. About a waterfall with crystal-clear, eternally cool water flowing from a spring located at the foot of the mountain. About the cliff with a top so high, that when one stood on it at night, it felt like the sky was on the arm’s reach.

“It sounds so beautiful…”

“It is,” Phupha admitted. “There are many beautiful places on the North, but you won't see anything like this in any other place. Bangkok will never be able to compare to it. Up there, deep in the mountains, where there's no light pollution, you can see thousands of stars each night. When they shine on a cloudless night, it feels like the magic is real. There's even a legend about it. On the last night of the year...”

“I wish I could see it one day," Tian's dreamy voice has interrupted him.

Phupha felt his heart break in half. It wasn't the tone one used while talking about plans they believe could be made real one day. Instinctively, he hugged Tian a little closer, careful not to harm the fragile body. Phupha snuggled his face into Tian's shoulder, silently praying that the latter wouldn't notice, or at least wouldn't comment when wet drops soaked into his pyjamas.

“You will,” he promised. “I'll take you there.”

Chapter Text

“I was thinking about getting a short leave. Taking a few weeks off would be nice,” Phupha said while peeling one of the tangerines he had bought at the market earlier that day.

Tian momentarily stiffened, the hand previously busy with spinning a pen between his fingers became motionless, his eyes lifted from the crossword puzzle book for a second before lowering once again.

“Oh? Are you planning to go on a trip?” there was a strained note in his voice that took all of the casualness from these words. “Can’t say I didn’t think that’d happen. Still, I’m surprised it took you so long to get tired enough of the city to take a break.”

For a moment Phupha wondered if Tian really thought he was being convincing.

“No, I just feel like I could use a little more free time. You’ve mentioned that new TV show just aired, right? How about we binge watch it together?” he began to divide the fruit into pieces, handing half of them to Tian on a small plate.

Tian barely looked at it as he placed the plate on the bedside table.

“We can watch it on the weekend when you’re not busy.”

“Are you forbidding me to take a break?”

“Not at all. I'm just suggesting that if you want to take a break, you should have a reason for it.”

“There is a reason,” Phupha ignored the rest of the fruits, watching Tian carefully.

“You don’t even care about the movies or TV shows.”

“Even if, there still is a reason.”

“From what you’ve told me, there’s no reason,” Tian raised his voice ever so slightly.

“Tian…”

“Phupha, no.”

That has silenced the ranger. It was the first time Tian didn't address him as 'chief', 'volunteer' or by using the usual 'you' but actually called his name.

A couple of times, as he had laid late at night, unable to sleep because of the noise outside and the chaos in his thought-filled head, Phupha had allowed himself to imagine that moment. That slightly nasal voice dragging the vowels of his name, those lips stretching at the last sounds, almost forming a smile. In those imaginings, that moment was always filled with warmth and sweetness.

Reality painted it in colours of irritation and forced distance.

“Does it bother you? Don’t you want to spend more time with me?” Phupha tried to sound casual despite the fear piercing right through his flesh like a red-hot heated steel.

“I want you to spend time on something meaningful. Go out with your friends, visit the places you love… Hell, if you really want to be so stubborn and keep on coming here, go downstairs to the kids,” he lifted his finger in a shushing gesture when he saw Phupha opening his mouth to argue. “It’s not that difficult, anything works as long…”

“As long as I’m not spending time with you?” this time Phupha didn’t let Tian silence him. “Is that what this is about? You’re trying to push me away now?”

“As long as you’re not throwing away your life just for my sake.”

“No. You’re not getting to decide on this one, not when you’re like this. And it’s not like I’m throwing away anything by deciding to be here with you.”

“Can’t you see that I’m trying to help you here?” Tian’s voice sounded pleading, one of his hands curling at the front of his shirt. Phupha sat on the bed next to him and covered it with his own hand.

“You want to help? Fine. Then don’t try to push me away. Because that’d be the most cruel thing you can do to me.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Tian’s face morphed into the mask of pure agony, tears falling down his cheeks.

“Hey, shh… It’s okay, it’s okay…” Phupha pulled Tian into a hug, a steady hand resting on the back of the younger man’s neck and guiding Tian’s face into his chest, trying to make him feel safe, to calm him down.

“I’m sorry it’s just…” Tian pulled away a little, not enough for Phupha to drop his arm from where it rested on his back, and wiped the tears from his eyes before looking up at the ranger. “I don’t want you to sacrifice anything for me. I don’t want you to regret it later on.”

“Why would you think I’ll regret anything?” Phupha couldn’t understand. He didn’t want to. “Just… Let me be a judge of what’s right for me, okay? Don’t worry about it anymore.”

There was a bitter laughter.

“That’s not going to happen,” Tian shook his head. “You’re not being logical about this.”

What if I don’t want to be logical about you?’

 

* * *

 

The old leather armchair had changed its position some time ago, standing now right next to Tian's bed, so that when Phupha sat down on it, it was enough for one of them to stretch out their arm a little and they could touch the other, pull at the other one’s clothes to draw attention to something or just find the soothing warmth of the other being.

On some days, Phupha sat in that armchair and read aloud to Tian. Other times he abandoned the piece of furniture and sat directly on the bed, his arm resting on Tian’s shoulders.

They became experts at coming up with excuses, even if they only needed them to break their own promises, to silence their own consciences for a while.

You must be uncomfortable sitting there for hours, don’t you want to stretch your legs for a moment?

You look cold. Let me… It’s just sharing heat, right?

Hey, look what I found… No, come closer and take a look.

Huh? What do you mean you can’t complete this level? Come here, I’ll show you how you’re supposed to do it.

Tian was tracing patterns on the back of Phupha’s hand. Sometimes it felt like he was writing something on them, trying to make Phupha’s skin absorb the words directly into his organism, make the meaning behind the words flow with Phupha’s blood straight to his heart and his brain. Other times it felt just like a wandering curiosity, Tian inspecting each joint and prominent vein, memorising all the angles and rough patches of skin.

“I'll miss you.”

Phupha knew that he wasn’t supposed to hear that sentence, it was clearly one of the ghost conversations Tian always kept to himself but that affected him enough to sour his mood even on the most sunny spring day. He also knew what Tian meant when he had uttered these words, but he chose to pretend.

Time was moving forward and they had to move forward with it. And with each day they got closer to the edge of this rope they have stepped on some time ago, there was no way to deny it. But there were tricks one could try, taking little steps instead of regular ones. And then making them half of these steps. And then half of it. And half of it. Regressus ad infinitum.

It was their own crusade to trick whatever fate has prepared for them.

“I'll be back tomorrow. There are so many stories I want to tell you.”

At least he didn’t lie.

 

* * *

 

“What’s that?” Phupha asked, his fingers hovering above a small cut, just above Tian’s jawline.

“Huh? Oh, that,” the man raised his hand mechanically to touch the skin there, their fingers brushing before Phupha could withdraw his hand. “I asked the nurse to help me shave this morning.”

It was obvious that someone had to take care of it, especially lately when Tian was getting more and more tired and probably didn’t have the energy to properly take care of it himself and yet, Phupha never considered it. He looked at Tian’s face, deep in thoughts, trying to notice other things he could have overlooked before.

“Do you often ask them to do that?”

“Every two days? The stubble irritates me.”

“Seems like they didn’t do that well this time,” Phupha’s fingers brushed again over the cheek, he tried to imagine how Tian would look like with some facial hair.

“Cut them some slack, chief,” Tian poked him in the side playfully. “Considering they don’t have first person experience, I think they’re doing great. A little cut can happen to the best.”

“Then why haven’t you asked me to help you? I certainly have more experience than them.”

“Huh? Why would I? The nurses are here and can help me whenever I need it. No need to trouble you,” he shrugged his shoulders.

“And what about your hair?”

“What now? Are you complaining about my looks?” Tian raised one brow teasingly and puffed in amusement.

“Yes,” Phupha teased him back. “Your fringe is getting in your eyes when you're reading. And it makes you look like a teenager who wants to create a band in the garage.”

“Hey! My hypothetical band would be great, you know?”

Phupha shook his head, this man was truly unbelievable. Then, as he lifted his hand once again to brush over the bangs, his smile morphed into something more serious, still with a noticeable tinge of fondness, but more sincere.

“Do you want me to cut it for you?”

Tian looked taken aback for a moment. But he quickly recovered and shrugged his shoulders once again.

“If it bothers you that much I'll ask the nurses to help me with it tomorrow. Although I can’t vouch for the results.”

“It doesn't bother me,” Phupha corrected. “But if you want to get rid of it, I'm more than glad to help.”

“I won't let you give me a buzz cut,” Tian squinted his eyes suspiciously, the gesture looking so adorably that Phupha couldn’t fight back his smile widening.

“I know how to trim hair properly,” he placed a hand over his chest, acting as if the accusation had hurt him deeply.

“Okay, okay,” Tian raised his hands with a grin playing on his lips. “No need to pout chief. If you want it so bad, I'll let you do it.”

That was enough for the ranger to perk up.

“Great. I'll go ask for a wheelchair, it'll be easier that way,” he said, already walking out of the room.

“Wha... Wait, what? You mean now?”

A few minutes later Phupha was back, with a wheelchair in front of him and a small bag with hair clippers and scissors that the nurses had given him under his arm.

Tian rolled his eyes at the ranger behaving so spontaneously but nevertheless, he sat on the wheelchair and let Phupha drive him into the small, private bathroom. When they entered, Phupha eyed critically the shower and decided that it’ll be better to opt for washing Tian’s hair in the sink instead.

Shampoo and towels were on the counter, so Phupha didn't have to waste time looking for them. When he opened the bottle, the scent of pine and bergamot spread across the room. He inhaled deeply, this mixture had quickly become his favourite one.

Phupha took his time. He thoroughly wet Tian's hair with the warm water, spent probably more time than was necessary massaging the shampoo into the hair. Everything felt quiet and peaceful, Tian closed his eyes and Phupha, taking that for a good omen, continued. Lazy circles, nails lightly scratching the skin of the scalp.

The water mixed with the foam formed a vortex in the drain and Phupha let himself be drawn into its hypnotic effect, losing himself in the mechanical movements. He dried Tian’s hair with a towel just enough to stop the water from dripping on the floor and then he turned the chair so Tian was now facing the sink.

Tian watched him in the mirror as he took the scissors from the small bag.

“I'm putting my trust in you, chief. And I hope to go to sleep with two ears intact," he joked.

Phupha only smiled. He cautiously combed Tian's hair, taking care not to pull at it any more than it was necessary, and set to work. The monotonous snipping of scissors filled the room.

As with everything up to this point, Phupha was careful and patient. And despite feeling the heavy gaze of the eyes observing him from the mirror, he allowed himself to investigate and cherish the sweet mystery that was right in front of him.

Phupha tried to memorise the shape of Tian’s ears, as he cut the hair just above them. He tried to remember the way Tian’s hair curled on the left side of his head if they weren’t short enough, the warmth of Tian’s slender neck underneath his fingers (it was the warmest Tian ever felt). He tried to remember the way the goosebumps raised on this skin as Phupha dragged his finger from the base of Tian’s skull down to the slight bump where the neck joined the rest of the body. And then when his finger draw a circle around it and went up the same way. And higher, into the hair with its roots still damp. And down left to the temple, and back through the slope of the ear.

He wanted to imprint these details in his mind so clearly, that on the last night of his life Phupha could dream about this neck, those temples, that unruly hair as if they were on the arm’s reach.

Tian shivered and Phupha knew it wasn’t from the cold.

The way he gently wiped the remaining hair from the nape of his neck with a towel felt like a ritual of a kind. He lost himself completely in combing Tian's hair again so he could admire his work, see Tian's face unobscured by the unruly fringe.

The world outside kept spinning, but it was all meaningless to Phupha, all of his attention focused on the 38 square feet of the bathroom he was standing in, the dark eyes no more hidden behind the black hair looking at him from the mirror, the beating of his heart that sang joyful songs just because Phupha has been allowed to share this moment with Tian. Because he was the one to be here, the chosen one of this story.

“Can I kiss you?”

The words that were on his mind for quite some time now, seemed to finally break the chains made of self-discipline and started to live their own life, leaving Phupha’s mouth without his conscious permission.

So what?’

Phupha wasn’t stupid. And despite what his friends could think of him, he could read people’s emotions just fine. It wasn’t a secret to him that the glances he’s been sending Tian’s way didn’t go unnoticed. Moreover, the other man reciprocated them on more than one occasion. Shared smiles tasting like secrets, the warmth of joined hands, time spent together and midnight conversations. It was obvious to Phupha that he wasn’t alone in his affections.

“No.”

The world stopped at once.

“It’s not like I don’t want you to.”

Phupha swallowed, trying to loosen the tight knot forming in his throat.

“Then why not?”

“It’s not that simple,” Tian looked down on his hands and sighed, in a way that old people do when they think about how to explain something to those younger than them.

It felt ridiculous. Phupha was the older one, the more patient one, his job required him to be the reasonable one. Those were facts.

Facts didn’t matter when it came to Tian. Phupha was always left defenceless. He had learned a long time ago that all he thought he had known about himself could be proved wrong as soon as Tian’s taken into the equation. When Phupha saw that smile, he couldn’t be stern any longer, when he saw sadness in those eyes, he couldn’t keep quiet.

“Believe me chief, if our lives were different… If there was a chance for us to meet somewhere else, in the universe that would be kinder to us… I would take it. I would take it without asking a single question,” Tian looked up at him.

This time there were no tears shining in those eyes. Maybe that’s why it all felt so wrong. A single word was playing on repeat in Phupha’s head, a broken record, a whisper piercing to the bone like a fierce, north wind, but this time, Phupha’s thick skin wasn’t enough to guard him against it.

Acceptance.’

“But we’re stuck in here,” Tian continued. “And I have to think about what I can and should do here and now. Do you remember how you asked me to not push you away? That I’d be cruel if I did so?” Phupha could effort only a single nod. He didn’t like where this was going. “Then let me keep that promise. And at the same time, I have to ask the same from you, to not to be cruel to me.”

Phupha wanted to interrupt, to argue but then Tian lifted his hand and put it on Phupha’s left wrist, thumb brushing over the leather band of his watch.

“How do you think I’d feel if I gave you more only to leave you behind afterwards? That would be cruel to both of us.”

Phupha felt ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” he couldn’t risk saying anything more in case the hot weight on the back of his throat proved to be too much to handle.

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault,” Tian smiled. “The universe should be sorry, not us.”

Even this shy smile made Phupha’s heart flutter painfully.

Why are you so wonderful?’

As soon as Tian busied himself with wiping the remnants of the water that dripped from his hair, hiding his face in a fluffy towel for a moment, Phupha let his eyes close, let his right hand clench so hard around the handle of the wheelchair that it felt like breaking and directed his thoughts towards the very centre of the universe.

Why are you so ruthless?’

 

* * *

 

The room was empty.

“You’re going to turn into a savage despite living in a city. I mean, that’d be quite an accomplishment, but I’m not sure if it’s the kind people like to boast about,” Tian said to him an hour before. “You need to get out of here every once in a while. No, don’t argue with me! Go away!”

So Phupha went home. For an hour, to take a proper shower, change clothes and eat something other than the cafeteria food. It was part of the unspoken deal. Phupha didn’t show up before 4pm during weekdays when he was supposed to be busy with “real life”, as Tian had called it, and, in exchange, he could spend most of the day in the hospital during the weekend. Phupha didn’t argue when Tian practically kicked him out of the room and, in exchange, Tian only rolled his eyes and let him be as Phupha came back after an hour or two.

The lukewarm coffee from the vending machine tasted as awful as ever when he sipped it as he passed by the empty nurses' room. It didn’t really bother him now, it was just a fuel he used to keep his body awake.

And then he walked into the room and it was empty even though it wasn’t supposed to be.

Phupha felt the panic rising in him, the cup fell from his fingers, dark liquid splashing all over the floor. He ran out of the room and rushed down the corridor, looking around searching for someone, for a doctor, a nurse, anyone who could tell him what had happened. He stopped in front of the still empty nurses' room, his breathing was rushed but it felt like not even a single breath of air was reaching his lungs. His head grew lighter and lighter and his body felt its weight painfully, gravity mercilessly pressing him into the floor, thoughts pounding in his head, each hit sending another wave of anxiety throughout his body…

“Chief Phupha?”

He turned on his heel and grabbed the nurse standing in front of him by the shoulders. Perhaps his fingers squeezed her a little too tightly, but Phupha was not thinking rationally, there was only one thing that mattered to him.

“Tian…?” he only had enough air for this short whisper.

The woman tried to keep a neutral smile on her face.

“Chief Phupha, you need to calm down first.”

Phupha started to shake his head because, no, how could he calm down when Tian wasn’t there?

“Calm down,” the nurse repeated. “Tian has been taken to the surgery.”

Phupha felt his heart stop.

“They found a donor that matches him. He’ll have a heart transplant.”

And his heart started beating again.

It was as if someone turned the switch off, his arms suddenly became numb and dropped along his sides, his legs gave out. Without the skilful reaction of the nurse, who quickly caught him around the waist and helped him regain his balance, Phupha would probably have slumped to his knees.

It wouldn't bother him. He felt like kneeling, praying and singing choruses of praise anyway.

“Transplant… He’s going to get a new heart,” he repeated stupidly. His face lit up with a smile, almost childlike in its infinite euphoria.

Phupha looked at the nurse and kept shaking his head, this time in disbelief and relief and happiness.

“Thank you, thank you so much.”

It felt like a dream, like arriving unexpectedly at the place marked with an X on a treasure map and finding that it wasn’t the chest of gold buried in there but rather the whole vault.

It’s happening. It’s really happening…’

“Chief Phupha, are you okay now?” the nurse asked him with a worried expression.

“Yes… Yes, I’m fine,” he panted, finally able to breathe. He steadied himself.

“Good. I need you to remember that this is a serious operation, but the doctors will do everything to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible. I assume you’re going to wait for it to end,” she smiled knowingly even before Phupha nodded. “Well, it’ll take a few hours, is there someone you can call to be here with you? Waiting alone will only stress you even more and I’m sure Tian wouldn't want you to worry too much, right?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I… I’ve got it. I’ll call someone right away. Thank you miss.”

Dozens of thoughts ran through his head. Chaos, adrenaline bubbling through his veins. He tried to calm himself, to even out his breathing but his efforts were futile. Phupha needed someone to share this energy with, to listen to him and to answer his questions. He pulled out his phone to see if Nam had a shift that day.

There were seven missed calls. Neither of them was from Nam.

Phupha hadn't even had time to wonder what could have caused his flatmate to call him so many times over the last fifteen minutes when the phone vibrated in his hand, signalling another call.

“Yes? Huh? Wait, Rang, calm down and speak slower. What? I said, calm down…! Huh? What did you said about Torfun?”

 

Chapter Text

“Are you really that stupid, or are you just pretending? You almost gave me a heart attack, you idiot!” Phupha smacked Rang at the back of his head. He heard a snicker from behind and turned rapidly, pointing a finger at Torfun. “And you… Don’t behave like you’re any better. Did you forget the basic safety rules? Even children know that they shouldn’t just walk on the street like that!”

Torfun blushed and crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“I already told you that the wind blew away one of my photographs! It's not like I just stepped on the road for fun! Anyways, how was I supposed to know that this guy wouldn't be paying attention…” she started, but Phupha interrupted her.

“YOU were the one who was supposed to pay attention since YOU weren’t supposed to be there in the first place! Torfun, from that driver's perspective you just appeared right in front of the mask of his car! And it’s just a photograph!”

“It was one of my Polaroids! You know very well that they’re the only copies I have…”

“But the damn photo isn’t as important as your life, Torfun!” he finally exploded and the overwhelming emotions made his voice crack when he said her name.

Torfun stood quietly, with her head bowed down. The hunched shoulders made her look even smaller than she really was. Rang kept to himself, glancing left and right, impatiently waiting for a sign that he could finally flee, get away from the tense atmosphere. People passed around them and gave them occasional glances, without a doubt attracted by Phupha's raised voice. The ranger pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed deeply trying to calm himself down. If he continued to behave so loudly, one of the policemen he had just finished talking to would undoubtedly come out to check if everything was alright.

The thing is, Phupha didn’t feel alright.

“I’m sorry,” Torfun said quietly. “I didn’t… I didn’t think. I’m so sorry…”

The image of her shoulders shaking from holding back the sobs was enough to make Phupha’s anger vanish. He was still worried and sad and to some extend disappointed with her but he came closer and hugged her tightly, letting out a relieved, long sigh.

“I’m just… I’m glad you’re fine. But if it weren’t for that guy who pulled you back from the road… If something happened to you…” he didn’t finish, he couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Torfun just repeated in between the sobs.

They stood like that for a few minutes before they both calmed down enough to let go. Phupha ruffled Torfun’s hair, she managed to smile shyly at him.

“You’re good now?” Rang asked.

“I’m not finished with you yet,” Phupha growled before glancing at his phone to check the time. He really should head back soon. “We need to have a long chat about how messages should be delivered and how important it is that instead of hanging up after giving vague information, you explain that it all ended with a few bruises and scratches.”

“But Phupha, the policeman wanted to talk to Torfun and I couldn’t leave her alone! That’s why I hanged up on you!” he tried to explain, but Phupha raised a hand to shush him.

“Rang, I really don’t have time for this now. Can I ask you to take Torfun back to her apartment? Safely?”

The two looked at him confused.

“Aren’t you going with us? I thought you were going to not let her out of your sight for at least the next two days!”

“Believe me, normally I would do just that. But not today. I have to go back to Tian.”

At the mention of the name, they immediately stiffened in alarm.

“What’s going on?” Torfun asked.

“He’s having a heart transplant.”

“Wha… Really? That’s fantastic!” she threw her arms around his neck. “Do you know when? Is it soon?” her face was brightened by the beaming smile.

“Now,” Phupha corrected. “They took him to the surgery right before Rang has called me.”

He could see both of them freeze.

“Shit,” Torfun said.

“Oh fuck,” Rang said at the same time.

Phupha didn’t feel like scolding them.

“Yeah, I have to go. Rang, I’m leaving Torfun to you,” he had already started to turn away when he felt Torfun's hand tighten on his shoulder.

“Wait, you can’t drive like that. It’s dangerous if you race on your bike all the way back,” she scolded him. Before he could open his mouth to argue, she continued. “We’re going to give you a lift with the jeep. Rang will come back for your bike later. Right?” she turned her head towards the younger man who was already taking the keys out of his pocket and walking towards the battered car.

“Of course, come one both of you, hop in.”

“You don’t have to,” Phupha tried to argue. “Torfun, you need to rest. First the long journey, then the accident…”

“It was barely an accident, I just got my butt bruised, more fear than harm. Trust me, I can manage. And taking you to Tian is way more important now.”

“She’s right, that’s what friends are for,” Rang smirked at him. “Come on, let’s get you to your man.”

Phupha wasted no time expressing his gratitude and just climbed into the seat of the jeep next to Torfun and slammed the door behind himself. As they drove, he could feel the adrenaline still buzzing through his veins, his leg bouncing up and down from too much energy.

Faster, faster…’

“Hey, he’ll be fine,” Torfun reached for his hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

Phupha squeezed back and hoped she was right.

 

* * *

 

It took them about half an hour to get through the crowded streets back to the hospital. It took Phupha another ten minutes to convince them that no, they don’t have to wait with him and should instead go back to Torfun’s apartment to get some rest, yes, he was sure about that and yes, he will call if he changes his mind or if he gets some news.

The walk up the stairs and then the ride in the elevator seemed longer than ever. Phupha felt a heavy weight once again settling in his stomach as he walked through the corridors.

For a moment, he wasn’t even sure if they’re going to let him know anything. After all, he wasn’t Tian’s relative, he had no legal right to receive any information about him, all he could hope for was the fact that nurses knew him and would be willing to overlook the rules.

The thought of not knowing whether something went wrong scared him. If he knew how to contact Tian’s family…

Do his parents even know what’s going on now?’

But, as it turned out, he was worrying unnecessarily. As he made his way towards the area where the patient’s relatives were supposed to wait, one of the nurses he had met a few times while visiting Tian saw him and informed him that Tian’s surgery was going to last for the next few hours and that someone will surely let him know once it’s finished.

Now, he just had to wait.

Phupha never suspected that sitting in one place could be so difficult. All sorts of possible scenarios appeared in his head, these worst-case ones mixed with those that verged on wishful thinking, so that after a while he no longer knew which thoughts really belonged to him and which were the ones that the pessimistic part of his mind wanted him to believe in.

He’ll be fine, the doctors know what they’re doing.’

No, he won’t be. People make mistakes. Something can happen. Something may be happening right now.’

His mind was a battlefield of concepts and all Phupha wanted to do was to flee from his own head. His legs carried him forward on their own when he could no longer bear staying in one place. A row of chairs, a miserably looking plant at the end of the corridor, a window from behind which the world was watching him, the world which at that moment didn't matter to Phupha at all, and back to the chairs and tables with colourful leaflets.

And, of course, the clock. Yet another constant that instead of soothing his nerves, made Phupha feel anxious. A white circular clock face, which was separated from the white wall by a red framing line. Red like blood. Red like fate.

It felt like too much. He couldn’t look at the slow hands of the clock anymore, so he sat down again and lowered his head so that he could see only his own dusted boots and a narrow strip of the floor right in front of him.

At some point, someone else’s shoes appeared in his sight, white doctor shoes. The cold sweat appeared on Phupha’s forehead, the muscles of his neck tensed and didn’t want to let him look up even if part of him was dying to know.

“Hey, Phu.”

A relieved sigh escaped from his mouth. Phupha greeted Nam with a grunt, eyes still fixed on their shoes.

“Phu, it’s already past midnight.”

“Doc, I know you’re going to ask me to leave, but I can’t, okay?” something in him broke, the words poured out of his lips, his usual filter too damaged by the stress, late hour and exhaustion to keep them in. He finally looked up and saw his friend standing right in front of him, one hand holding a ceramic mug, the other hidden in his coat's pocket. “Call me irrational if you want, but I have to be here. I know I can’t do anything, but… I just can’t… I can’t leave him, okay?”

Nam stood there for a moment, without saying a word. Then he sighed and shook his head.

“Well, I’m not sure if I should be offended or not. The thing is,” he continued as he sat on the chair next to Phupha. “That even after years of being friends, I may still know you a little better than you know me. You see, I was correct when I thought you weren’t going to leave, even if I asked you. You, on the other hand, failed miserably. I didn’t come here to chase you away, but to give you this,” he handed over the mug he was holding.

“You’re… Not going to ask me to leave?” Phupha frowned, looking at the drink.

“The fact that you have to ask me again means that you really need this,” Nam pushed the mug into Phupha’s head. Seeing that the latter was still frowning, he added. “Don’t overthink it. The surgery will take a few more hours and you need some stimulant to stay awake. And before you come to the wrong conclusion, I’m not giving you the coffee that was supposed to be mine, I have my own mug back in my office with three spoons of sugar in it.”

Phupha took a sip. It was bitter, with a dash of milk. Just the way he liked it.

“Thanks, Nam.”

“No problem,” the doctor pulled him into a short side hug. “My shift is about to start, so I have to go now but I’ll be back later, okay? And if you feel like you don’t want to wait alone… Call Rang or come down to my ward, okay?”

Somehow, waiting got even harder after that. One of the nurses stopped by and asked him if he wanted to get a blanket and try to take a nap but Phupha declined.

The clock was still mocking him, bending time in all the wrong ways, stretching sixty seconds into sixty small infinities. Phupha closed his eyes and let the coffee that was cooling down inside the mug he was holding serve as a time indicator. Once it was completely cold, he just let himself be pulled into the timeless void.

The doctor came to him at 3:43.

“You’re waiting for the results of Tian’s surgery, right?”

Phupha immediately jumped on his legs.

“How is he?”

“The surgery went well, he’s a strong one,” the doctor smiled. “Of course we don’t want to speak too soon but for the moment Tian's condition is stable. He’ll be at the ICU for the next two or three days so that we can monitor whether his body shows signs of transplant rejection. If all goes well, he will be able to return to his private room afterwards to recover. Of course even when Tian will leave the hospital his life will change drastically, there will be limitations, but with time and rehabilitation, he’ll get to live a fairly normal life. For now, though, let’s just focus on the next few days.”

Phupha listened to every word, getting intoxicated by them.

He’s okay. Tian’s okay.’

“Thank you, doctor, thank you so much,” Phupha shook the man’s hand, not even trying to hide the grateful smile that spread across his face.

“It’s my job, young man. And I’m glad I could give you good news. Now you can go home and rest. Someone from the hospital can contact you as soon as we know something new.”

“Oh, I… Thank you, doctor, but I want to wait until he wakes up. I promise I won’t cause any trouble, I’ll just sit here and wait,” Phupha gestured towards the row of plastic chairs.

The doctor eyed him sceptically but only nodded and clapped him on the shoulder before walking away.

Phupha let out a relieved sigh and slumped down, hiding his face in his hands.

There was a smile and there was joy so great that his heart couldn't contain it and had to let some of it fall away with the tears.

 

* * *

 

When Nam came back again, Phupha was ready to share the news with him, but the doctor shushed him and took him by the arm, dragging him down the corridor.

It was odd enough to rise another wave of fear in Phupha.

“Oi, doc, where are you taking…”

“I told you to keep quiet, didn’t I?” Nam hissed at him and pulled him behind himself through one of the doors he had opened with his ID card.

It was a small room, or more accurately a storage, high shelves filled with carton boxes. Nam opened one of them, rummaged inside for a bit, then took out a small bundle and threw it towards Phupha.

“Get dressed,” when the ranger only stood there, looking confused, he clicked his tongue in irritation. “We don’t have time for it Phu, just do as I say.”

Maybe it was because they’ve known each other for long enough to share this unique bond made of trust, or maybe it was because of that strange softness Phupha saw in Nam’s eyes, but he didn’t ask another question as he ripped the foil wrapping and put on the medical gown and the mask. Once he was dressed, Nam put the surgical cap on his head and gestured to him to wait, while he himself looked out at the corridor.

Phupha felt the adrenaline rush through his veins, he didn’t want to get his hopes up but a greedy part of his mind kept whispering to him what all of this might mean.

They walked through the glass door with a ‘Staff only’ sign and saw the corridor with rows of identical doors on each side. Nam kept looking around as he pushed Phupha further until they stopped in front of one of them.

“You have five minutes,” Nam leaned closer and whispered. “The other patient should be still unconscious but if he wakes up you’re leaving immediately, got it?” he waited for Phupha to nod before opening the door and pushing him inside. “Go. And remember, five minutes.”

The first thing he saw when he had entered the room, was a bunch of machines, each of them beeping and flashing some numbers or lines on their screens. Then he saw two identical beds standing on the opposite sides of the room. And then…

And then he saw Tian.

Phupha was frozen in place, his brain struck useless by the flood of thoughts. He wanted to get closer and, at the same time, to stay right where he was and take everything in, the white sheets and mop of dark hair on the pillow, the monitor beeping in a steady rhythm. It terrified him that maybe if he took another step he would fall down through the floor and keep falling for eternity or until he’d woke up from that dream.

A part of him wanted to look away because this scene looked so vulnerable, so tender. A part of him wanted to remember everything, from the angle of the dawn light to the number of the tiles on the floor because that very moment was a milestone, evidence that everything that had happened up to that point was a twisted prologue and now they’re getting to finally live through the real story.

That’s it. That’s how everything starts.’

“Chief?”

There were no more dilemmas, not when that voice was calling him, making Phupha's legs move. He crouched beside the bed and took Tian’s hand.

“Hey… Hey, I’m here,” he said in a trembling voice, his free hand reaching up to brush Tian’s hair.

“I didn’t want to go…” Tian’s voice was quiet but it didn’t matter. Phupha would be able to hear it in the middle of the storm, a whisper would be enough to call him from the other side of the world. “When you weren’t there. But they told me we had to hurry. Sorry I didn’t wait for you.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Phupha choked on the tears he was holding back. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Okay… Wait,” Tian opened his eyes a little more. “Are you even supposed to be here?”

Phupha just shook his head, cheeks aching from smiling, eyes still dangerously watery.

“Huh, look at him,” Tian hummed. “I’m not here for a few hours and he turns into a rebel…”

“Then ask me to leave,” Phupha whispered.

It could have sounded harsh, like a challenge or another provoking remark, but what it really meant was: Tell me to leave because I won’t walk away from you on my own and you need to rest.

“Oh, come on, chief. We both know I don’t have any power over you,” Tian said with a knowing smile that Phupha wished he could kiss away from those lips.

“Are you teasing me again or are you really that oblivious?”

“Take a guess.”

Phupha saw that smile and he didn’t have to guess, he knew what Tian meant.

I want you to stay with me, even if I’m afraid to say it out aloud.

Chapter Text

It took him four days from the surgery, two days from when Tian was relocated from the ICU back to his private room, to gather up the courage to ask once again.

The nurse has just left the room after redressing Tian’s surgical wound. Phupha was quietly leaning against the wall as she worked, observing the skilful hands and white bandage that covered half of Tian’s torso, hugging tightly his slim silhouette. When they were finally alone, he helped Tian to get under the blanket, Tian’s face grimacing a little since he still felt uncomfortable while moving around too much and… Phupha found himself calm, peaceful even.

“Can I kiss you?”

Tian’s ears turned red as he murmured something and turned away from Phupha, claiming he was tired and wanted to sleep.

So when the next day Tian was growing more and more irritated because of, in his opinion, pointless exercises of standing up and sitting down time after time, Phupha once again asked him the same question. Because, no matter how much Tian complained, he kept going. Because he actually listened when the doctors or nurses came and talked to them about what will Tian’s life look like after he gets out of the hospital. Because… Just because. Tian was there and that was enough of a reason to ask.

This time Tian ignored it completely and asked him if Phupha had any news from the children ward, if any of the kids were discharged while he was on the ICU.

Four words, eleven letters, endless possibilities, infinite fear.

“Can I kiss you?”

Times and times again, after unpleasant tests and tiring exercises. During dinner and games of cards, Phupha kept being brave and kept asking. And something told him that whatever was it that hold Tian back this time, it became weaker and weaker each time Phupha repeated his question.

Here are some facts: when Tian decided to finally answer him, it would be in one of three ways.

First way: No.

If Tian asked him to stop, he would. Just like he did the first time around, what seemed now like a lifetime ago.

(It was this feeling that everything has changed, that they live in a completely different universe now that made him ask again.)

But Tian never said no to him. Never ordered him to stop asking, and Phupha took it for silent permission since he knew very well that Tian wasn’t a person who would keep quiet if they didn’t like something. If Tian wanted him to stop, he’d say so, clearly and bluntly.

But he didn’t. He was blushing, turning his head away from Phupha, glaring at him or changing the topic, but it was never an open rejection.

Second way: Maybe.

Sometimes maybe meant no, toned down by politeness into something mellow, something evasive because truth can be too harsh to say. Sometimes maybe meant yes, veiled in the smile with one corner of the lips raised slightly higher than the other one, glistening eyes and lazy posture. Suggestive, daring.

Maybe was also inextricably linked to hope, and Phupha didn't want Tian to give him hope when it came to this. On this one issue Phupha knew that he could and should demand a straight answer. No teasing, no games, no leaving this to hope, fate or whatever that wasn’t Tian.

Whatever you do, don't say maybe. Say no or yes or don't say a thing. Just don't say maybe.’

Third way: Yes.

“Oh, I forgot to mention before, but you don’t have to come tomorrow,” Tian barely looked up at him from his phone.

“I don’t have to come at all. I do it because I want to,” Phupha frowned.

There was a brief moment when this fear was once again crawling up his back, whispering right into Phupha’s ear that maybe in his bluntness he had pushed them back to the phase when Tian was more reserved towards him.

“That’s not what I mean,” Tian rolled his eyes. “I’ll just be busy and I don’t know how long it’ll take. It would be unfair to keep you waiting for who knows how long, chief.”

“Huh? What are you planning to do?”

For a second Phupha thought that Tian may ignore him, but then the younger man bowed his head lower so that Phupha couldn’t see his face and mumbled something.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

Tian’s head snapped up, cheeks dusted with pink, eyes filled with irritation.

“You’re the worst,” he spat before avoiding Phupha’s gaze once again and muttering, still quietly, but clearly enough to recognize the words. “I’m… I have an appointment. With… Psychologist.”

Phuph's eyes widened, and he was sure that for a moment he had forgotten how to breathe. His mouth stretched into a smile, his head was filled with pride and happiness, the kind he could only hope Tian would be able to read from his eyes.

Before the words, the question well known to both of them could leave his mouth, Tian grabbed the pillow and threw it right at Phupha’s face.

“Shut up.”

It didn’t bother Phupha. He laughed and then kept smiling as he asked Tian if he’s hungry. He was a stubborn man after all, he was going to ask again another time.

 

* * *

 

In the afternoon, when Phupha entered the room, Tian seemed to barely notice him, completely absorbed in thoughts.

“Oh, did you already get your diet plan?” he asked, gesturing with his chin towards the piece of paper Tian was spinning around in his hands.

“Hm? Oh, no. It’s… a letter.”

“A letter?”

“Yeah, I know, right? Who writes letters these days? It’s just so… outdated,” he threw the piece of paper a few inches away from himself and leaned back on the pillows.

“I don’t know,” Phupha shrugged his shoulders. “I wouldn’t mind getting a letter.”

“Huh, is that so?” Tian grinned. “Well, chief, I can always delete your number and write you letters instead…”

He reached toward his phone that was lying on the bedside table but Phupha was faster, snatching it out of Tian’s reach.

“On the second thought… I may prefer immediate communication.”

Tian puffed a laugh at that, slowly shaking his head, but his face soon became serious once again.

“Hey, what’s up?” Phupha flicked him on a cheek while placing the phone back down.

“The letter… It’s… From my parents.”

Suddenly the room felt colder than it should in late April. Phupha stared at the white rectangle that looked so innocent only a moment ago. A voice spoke in Phupha's head, urging him to reach for the envelope and see what was inside, to read the words that could have been a sentence or a pardon.

The hope that it was something good was faint, almost non-existent.

But he didn’t surrender to that burning itch. As much as it terrified him, it had to be at least ten times harder for Tian.

So he waited. And when Tian didn’t continue right away, Phupha sat on the bed next to him and placed an arm around his shoulder, rubbing reassuring circles into his skin.

“They… Well, the letter was written by my friend, Tul. I’ve mentioned him to you, remember?” seeing the other man nodding, Tian took a shaky breath and continued. “But… It doesn’t make sense. I mean, I know that they asked him to write it, okay? And that means that they had… No, that they have someone who’s sending them news about me but I thought… I was afraid that… God, how can I look them in a face after everything? I don’t even know if I want to, I…”

“Tian,” his voice was gentle but firm, stopping Tian before he could spiral.

“Yeah… Yeah, sorry, I know,” Tian took another deep breath. “So… In short, it says… That they’re glad everything worked with the operation and that my parents are proposing to cover all of the rehabilitation fees and…” his voice broke a little. “They already have rented the apartment where I’ll stay with Tul for the duration of my rehab.”

The anxiety clenched Phupha’s insides. It was obvious that this day would come, that Tian would leave the hospital and start his life elsewhere. However, a future where Phupha couldn't just stop by and visit Tian whenever he wanted was still hard to imagine. In his cowardice, or maybe ignorance, he had refused until that very moment to think about what happens next, what the world would look like in a few weeks' time.

So reality stepped in between them on its own.

Calm down. It’s just a change of the scenery. Everything will work out.’

From the scraps of information Phupha had so far heard from Tian about Tul, the boy seemed nice and supportive. It was unlikely that he would be any kind of obstacle for them. The only possible problem was…

But his parents didn’t seem to want to take him away. They’d just show up if that’s what they wanted.

Trying to calm his thoughts and to be rational, Phupha cleared his throat. He reminded himself once again that he couldn't be selfish about this, it was Tian and his feelings that mattered the most.

“And how do you feel about it?” Phupha asked softly.

It took a few moments before Tian sighed, leaning against the touch and hiding his face in his hands.

“Honestly… I don’t know,” he sounded tired and Phupha wished he could lift this weariness and bear it on his own. “I’m a little glad. I’d like to live with Tul again. But I’m also more than a little scared. I haven’t… I didn’t…”

“You haven’t planned what would it be like to contact them again?” Phupha suggested.

“Yeah.”

With a sigh, Phupha pulled Tian even closer, making the younger man lie on his side with his head propped up on the ranger’s thigh. He ran his hand through Tian's dark hair, looking at his closed eyelids and clenched jaw.

“The fact that they wrote to you or set it up doesn’t mean you have to put up an act and pretend that everything’s fine.”

“So what, I should just… Confront them? Hear them out and let things be?”

“I don’t know Tian, that depends on you. But as I see it, you talk to them when you’re ready and work something out together. And in a meantime, you focus on the most important thing, your health.”

Tian turned his head to look up at Phupha, his forehead was wrinkled in worry and Phupha wanted to smooth the skin out.

“And if they want me to come back? If they want to watch over me all the time like they did in the past? I don’t think I could take it, chief.”

The panic was rising in Tian’s voice, Phupha took his hand and squeezed it before answering.

“Then you won’t go. Did the letter mention anything about them checking up on you personally? Or about you living with them?”

“No, but…”

“So we suppose, at least for now, that they want to support you from afar. They may have felt awkward after everything that happened and thought that asking your friend for help would be the best option.”

Soft words didn’t seem to work, so Phupha took Tian’s chin in his hand and made him look at him.

“Tian. Listen to me. No one can force you to do anything. No one,” he repeated with emphasis. “And if you feel even for a second that they want from you more than you’re willing to give them… We’re figure something out, okay? I’m not leaving you with this.”

I’m not leaving you. Period.’

 

* * *

 

When it happened, Phupha was in the middle of telling Tian about that one time when Nam, Nam’s girlfriend and he went to the Korean restaurant and the doctor ordered a soup so spicy that he couldn’t eat two spoons without chugging on water but still was determined to finish the whole bowl of it (to his girlfriend’s and Phupha’s amusement).

The change of the atmosphere was subtle but Phupha sensed it right away. Sometimes it felt like he was always more sensitive around Tian.

He looked to the side, where Tian was leaning against the windowsill. They started to take short walks around the room just a few days before, yet another way of making sure that Tian was recovering correctly and will be able to get out of the hospital sooner than later.

When their eyes met, Phupha’s realised just how dry his mouth felt. Tian was looking at him.

No, not just looking, this was something more.

His gaze was piercing through him, cutting him into billion little fragments and watching each one of them like a piece of the most mesmerizing puzzle. But it also felt so strangely safe and warm, like Phupha’s heart knew that being undone in this very moment was in fact the act of the greatest delight.

“Can I kiss you?”

For a second Phupha thought that these words once again escaped from between his own lips. But when his hands moved to rest on Tian’s waist, his head bending down just a little to get a proper angle, he realized what his body already knew. That the voice from a second before didn’t belong to him.

That voice belonged to Tian.

The most beautiful phenomena are so often hidden in four letter words. Home. Hope. Heal. Love. Life. Luck. Kiss. Tian. These four letters hardly ever do them justice. But then again, words can't describe anything, it's ourselves that give these turns and lines the meaning. Our smiles aren't caused by the ink colouring the page, they are caused by the thoughts and feelings we experience when we look at it.

Kissing Tian was like staring at the page filled with those four letter words and feeling all of them at once. It tasted like 64% of luck, 34% of home and 2% of salty aftertaste, the one that makes you thirsty and leaves you begging for more.

“It’s been a few weeks now and you still haven’t answered me,” Phupha whispered when they parted, faces still close enough for his breath to ghost against those lips glistening from the just-broken kiss.

“Huh?” Tian was a little breathless, his eyes unfocused. Phupha couldn’t help but chuckle at that sight.

“I asked you what you wanted me to call you and you still haven’t answered me.”

“What? You’ve asked me this ages ago! I’ve almost forgotten about it by now.”

“Well, I haven’t forgotten. So, what would it be?” Phupha tightened arms around Tian’s waist, letting him know that this time he won’t let go until he gets the answer.

“Um… Can’t you just… Keep calling me Tian? I mean, I know it’s nothing special, but somehow when you say it… It’s different from when others call me that.”

It made sense. It really did. Everyone could have their darling, honey, or sweetheart. But none of them had Tian. A name that would be special because Phupha’s the one saying it. His own form of prayer, a secret word only he’d knew how to use. He would be the only one to say this name in a way that matters. Tian would be the only one who could be called that by him.

And as for the name itself… Phupha would make sure to say this name as if it meant all those words that didn't have four letters even though they should. Joy. Happiness. Safety. Dream. This unspeakable thing I feel whenever I look at you.

Tian,” Phupha whispered.

And then he kissed him again, his home and luck and love. His Tian. He kissed him again and again and again.

Another word appeared in his head. Not four letters long, but still precious and beautiful.

Future.’

 

* * *

 

May was barely a few days away which meant that the weather was nice and warm. In a few days, Tian was also going to be discharged from the hospital. With the doctor's permission, they were able to spend some time outside, basking in the sunshine on the small patio at the back of the hospital.

A warm, western wind rustled through the leaves of an old tree, the trunk of which Tian was leaning against while sitting on a jacket spread out on the ground.

“You know that I don’t care about the grass stains on my trousers, right?”

Phupha didn’t answer him straight away, pretending to be completely absorbed in watching the white clouds above them while lying down on the grass, his folded hands serving him as a pillow.

“I used to do that as a kid,” Phupha started, completely ignoring the other man’s words. “Watching clouds I mean. My grandmother used to tell that if someone tries really hard, they can see a future in shapes of the clouds.”

Tian raised a brow sceptically.

“Oh really? Does that mean that you see something now?”

“No. Not a thing,” Phupha’s glance drifted to the side when he heard a quiet snicker.

“Oh? Are you not trying hard enough? Or maybe your third eye is broken, huh, chief?”

Phupha had no idea why Tian kept calling him that more often than his given name. But, truth be told, it wasn’t like he didn’t like the way that title sounded when Tian said it.

“So bratty,” he sighed. “As if you can see anything…”

“I do.”

“Oh?” he turned his head to the side and asked. “Then, will you share your wisdom with me?”

“Hmm… My wisdom has a price.”

“Name it,” there were a few things Phupha hoped Tian would ask for. But even if it was something else, he was still going to say yes.

“I’ll tell you if you answer my question first.”

A question for a question. A secret for a secret. A thought for a thought. It seemed like this kind of trade was going to become their thing, a way to get to know what was happening in each other’s heads when simple gestures weren’t enough.

“I’ll try my best.”

Tian was silent for a moment, out of the corner of his eye Phupha could see him biting his lower lip nervously. The ranger bent his leg in the knee and poked Tian lightly with it, letting him know that whatever it was, Tian can tell him.

“What happens next?”

“Hm? Haven’t we talked about it already? You move in with your friend, continue your rehabilitation… “

“No. I mean, what happens next?” he repeated, dragging the vowels suggestively.

Phupha turned to his side so that now he was facing Tian. A blade of grass tickled his ear.

“What do you mean?”

“You know,” Tian sighed and poked him in the forehead. “When autumn will start, you’ll go back North. I’ll be stuck somewhere near the hospital for some time… What happens to us?”

“Oh, that’s what you’re talking about,” Phupha propped himself up on the elbow, picked up one of the leaves lying around and started to twirl it in his fingers. “Do you want to end it?”

“What? Of course not!”

Phupha couldn’t help but smile at the outrage in Tian’s voice. He looked him in the eyes.

“Then the answer is simple. We continue,” he lied back down and moved his gaze up at the sky. “Now, tell me what you see in the clouds.”

Chapter Text

~summer~

 

 

“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.”

 

~autumn~

 

 

“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.

“Still nervous?”

“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.

 

 

~winter~

 

 

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.

Unforgivable.’

“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.

“Huh?”

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.

 

 

~spring~

 

 

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.”

“Agreed.”

One.’