On the weekends, Tian liked to spend a little time in the vegetable garden with the kids and their parents, harvesting and tending to the vegetables. Usually Saturday morning, before the sun got too warm, they would gather up and tend to the garden. Tian liked to catch up with some of the villagers while they worked.
It was amusing when Khaonong’s mom asked Khama’s wife, “So where’s Longtae? He used to join us in the garden when he was on break. Isn’t he out of university for two weeks for the holiday?”
Tian couldn’t help but snort, and Longtae’s mother gave him a chastising look. “Don’t be mean to your friends. Longtae is very happy.” She smiled proudly at the other women around her. “Longtae is shy about it, but he’s got himself a boyfriend and he visits on the weekends and they stay in town together.”
Several of the other mothers cooed. Longtae was still one of the village children to them, even if he was nearly Tian’s age, so they treated him like one of their kids. “That’s sweet. Did he meet him at university?”
Tian grinned. “Actually, it’s my best friend from Bangkok,” he said. “They met when they were both staying with me to give support when Chief was in the hospital. I’ve known Tul since we were children so he dropped everything to come be with me while I was so upset and scared for my husband.”
“Oh, that does sound like a good boy,” Kalae’s mother said. “To come all this way to support a friend, that’s a good-hearted boy.”
Tian nodded. “Chief doesn’t trust him with Longtae, but Chief is a grump when it comes to Tul,” he joked and a few of them chuckled. “Tul is like me, grew up wealthy and has no issue spending his money. Chief hates wastefulness. And you all met Tul when he visited. He’s loud and showy. Chief doesn’t like that, either.”
“Khama had his reservations about the wastefulness,” Longtae’s mother confessed, surprising Tian. “But it allows him to be able to come visit when Longtae has a free weekend. For that I’m grateful.”
“Oh to be young and in love.” They all turned to see Nam walking over.
“Doctor Nam, what a surprise,” Khama’s wife said. “You don’t usually come out to the garden.”
He smiled tightly. “I actually need to borrow Tian,” he said, and Tian instantly looked at his medical bag and tensed. “I’m afraid Chief overworked himself again and I need Tian to come talk some sense into him about taking a few days’ rest.”
Tian sighed, putting a hand to his forehead. “That man is going to drive me insane.”
“Is Chief alright?” Khama’s wife asked in concern.
Nam nodded. “He’s just trying to push himself too hard. I told him he won’t get back to his usual strength if he doesn’t do it gradually, but he’s a stubborn man.”
“Trust me, I know,” Tian said dryly. He wiped his hands off on his pants. “Well, I have a husband to go nag,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a man as stubborn in this village as Chief.”
“Wait until you have a son,” Longae’s mother said with a small smirk. “They’re far worse than husbands.”
“Great,” Tian said playfully, but waved to them as he and Nam left.
After they got a bit away, Nam looked at him. “Don’t be too hard on him,” he said gently. “He’s really upset. I see what you were talking about the day with his knees. I’d say he was almost borderline throwing a tantrum, but I think it’s more an emotional episode. He knocked my files off my desk out of anger and he never has outbursts like that in all the years I’ve known him.”
Tian’s heart leapt. “Oh no. Phupha.” He hurried his strides as he and Nam set off to the rangers station.
Nam left him when they got to the rangers station and, as soon as they got to the door to Tian and Phupha’s room, they could hear sniffling. Nam solemnly hung his head and patted Tian’s shoulder supportively before leaving him to it. When Tian gently walked in, he saw the most heartbreaking sight: Phupha was sitting on the floor crying in his underwear, amongst his strewn uniform on the floor around the room.
“Oh Phu,” he whispered.
Phupha looked up, sniffling. “I got dehydrated. I never get dehydrated,” he choked out, tears on his cheeks. “I had to go get a fucking IV, Tian.” He let out a sob. “I drank water. I just got too hot and I got dizzy. A regular training exercise. And I had to go get an IV because I was dehydrated.”
Tian went to him and knelt in front of him, pulling him into his arms. “Shhhh, I’m here. I’ve got you.” Phupha grabbed him tightly and clung to him, fingers fisting in his shirt. “Oh Phupha, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Why can’t I get stronger?” Phupha let out a hoarse sob into his neck. “Tian, why did all of this happen? I’m their leader and I can’t even keep up! I devoted my whole life to this job. What if I’m done? Tian I can’t stand this. It hurts so much.”
Tian rocked him, stroking his hair as he blinked up at the ceiling, trying to keep his own tears at bay because Phupha needed him. “What do you need from me?” he whispered. “Anything, my darling. Whatever you need, I’ll do it. Just tell me what I can do.”
Phupha whimpered. “Hold me and don’t let go?”
“Always,” Tian promised firmly. “But let’s at least get on the couch, okay? This floor is hurting my knees.” He knew that he shouldn’t bring up Phupha’s back right now, so he lied and said he was the one hurting, because Phupha, even in a breakdown, would do anything to help Tian be comfortable.
When they got to the couch, Tian pulled Phupha to lay against his chest and he held him tightly, letting Phupha cry out his pain and fear into Tian’s chest until his shirt was damp from the tears. The whole time, he just softly sang to him and stroked his broad shoulders and thick hair soothingly.
When Phupha fell asleep, Tian held him and, as promised, didn’t let go. For the rest of the day, he held him. He didn’t care that as lunchtime approached, he got hungry. He promised Phupha he would hold him and not let go, so he didn’t. Nam came to check on them around one in the afternoon, but Tian just shook his head, tear-streaks staining his face, and Nam nodded, quietly leaving the room and shutting the door.
Tian had never seen Phupha so upset. Even in his recovery, at his worst health, he was strong of spirit. Now his husband was finally crashing down from all the stress. Tian’s legs had gone numb a while ago from the weight in his lap, but he didn’t care. This was his man. His husband. And he was utterly heartbroken.
Phupha woke up slowly and blinked as he felt a kink in his back, only reminding him how weak he was now. He looked up and was confused to see Tian still holding him, looking at his face. “You feel any better?” Tian asked softly.
Phupha yawned blearily. “What time is it? Did I fall asleep?”
“It’s around four-“ Phupha sat up quickly, eyes wide.
“What?! Four?!” He cupped Tian’s face in his hand. “It wasn’t but around eleven when you got here!” He instantly reached down and rubbed Tian’s thighs. “Are you alright? Shit, Tian, why didn’t you wake me?!”
Tian stopped him, taking his hands in his and holding them as he got Phupha’s attention. “I promised to hold you and not let go,” he said softly, and Phupha’s eyes burned with tears of a different sort from this morning. “Oh don’t cry again, my love,” Tian whispered, releasing one hand to cup his face. “It hurts so much to watch you cry.”
Phupha was in awe. Tian had held him in his lap for nearly five hours. His legs had to be in pain and numb and he didn’t even try to shift Phupha. “What did I do to deserve you?” Phupha asked breathlessly. He leaned in, quickly kissing Tian, who kissed back with passion, pulling him closer by his neck. “I love you so much.”
“Phupha,” he said gently. “You’re not doing well,” he all but whispered. “Maybe you should see the doctor again about- about mental help with this recovery.” Phupha tensed and Tian instantly shook his head. “I just think you’ve suffered so much stress that it might be good for you to get counseling. You suffered such a traumatic event. This breakdown today was probably coming for a long time but we both ignored the threat, trying to go back to normal.” Phupha let his forehead thump against Tian’s but didn’t deny it. “I promise, I only say this because I love you so much,” Tian whispered. “But you can’t keep getting so mentally distressed when things don’t go along as quickly as you want to recover. We’ve had so many issues all this time because you can’t accept that recovery takes time. And I don’t know how to help you with that.”
Phupha exhaled heavily. “I know,” he confessed. “I know I’m putting too much on your shoulders-“
“This isn’t about me,” Tian interrupted. “I can take it. I can handle all of this. But I can’t help you,” he stressed.” Phupha looked into his eyes. “Phu, I don’t know how to help you with this, and it scares me. I can care for your physical health. But you breaking down like today broke my heart because I had no idea how to help you.” He shook his head. “I will do whatever I must to get you help, but I can’t give you it for this.”
Phupha closed his eyes. “I can’t- I can’t do that, Tian. You know how hard it is for me to talk about feelings. I only trust you. I don’t even want to talk to Nam about real emotions.”
“Chief, you have to,” Tian urged. “If you need, I can come with you. I can be at your side. But you need help I can’t give you and Nam can’t give you. At the very least, can you go pray with the shaman?” he asked.
Phupha snorted. “You don’t believe in the spiritual practices of the shaman,” he pointed out, and Tian shrugged.
“And? I still was grateful he prayed for you at the hospital.” Phupha’s eyes widened.
Tian raised an eyebrow. “Has that never come up?” He nodded and Phupha’s heart warmed. “Khama sent him. When he wanted to pray over you, I was so grateful. Anything and everything was welcome. And when he told me you weren’t meant to die young, I felt hope. Even if it isn’t my belief, it still was kindness and gave me hope.”
Phupha melted a bit. “I’m not very religious, Tian. But if you will feel better, I’ll ask him to pray with me. I know I probably need real help, but I just- I can’t trust people that way easily.”
Tian cupped his cheek and leaned closer, pecking his lips sweetly. “If nothing else, the meditation can help. You don’t have to be religious to find peace in meditation. And if the gods are listening, they can only help calm your mind.” He smiled sadly. “Trust me, I know. Sitting and just calming my mind helped me a lot when I thought I was dying. I still would go out at night and party the night away, but at least during the day I wasn’t massively melancholy if I centered myself.”
Phupha hugged him, kissing his head. “So many miracles have happened for both of us. I guess I should focus on the obstacles that gave us this life and try to be grateful for what we have, even if I have to admit some weaknesses in myself.”
“You’re not weak,” Tian murmured, squeezing him some. “You survived something most everybody else would die. I know you feel weak right now, but you have to understand that you really, really shouldn’t be alive. I shouldn’t have you. I know that doesn’t calm your feelings of weakness, but you really shouldn’t be here in my arms.” He pulled back, looking into Phupha’s eyes. “You shouldn’t be here. But you are. You can get better,” he said gently. “You couldn’t have come back from being killed outright up in the forest.”
Phupha could see in his eyes that he really meant it, but he also could sense that he wasn’t trying to belittle Phupha’s feelings about his current state. He truly was the perfect husband. Phupha could only hold him tight again and breathe in the sweet scent of his Star that had fallen to him to make his life better.
Tian and Phupha met Khama and the Shaman the very next day and Phupha reluctantly explained that he just didn’t feel like the man he was before his injuries. Most of the village knew he’d been shot, but Khama and the Shaman really knew how close to death he came. Khama had been informed and he had asked the Shaman to go pray for him because of just how gravely he was injured.
“I’m not recovering my strength as I hoped I would,” he explained reluctantly, holding Tian’s hand as he held his head down. Tian was proud of him either way. “I just- I was hoping maybe a blessing might help me.”
Tian looked at them hopefully and Khama’s smile was gentle. The shaman, as always, had a plain face, but he nodded. “Of course, Chief. As I told your husband, you are meant for much greater things than what you have blessed our people with so far.” Tian looked to Khama, who nodded.
“Tian, you alone have changed so much in this village. Chief has guarded us all for so long. I’m sure the gods have favor on your husband to help us even more. Chief, you saved our village many times, so clearly you are blessed by the gods as well,” Khama said.
Phupha sighed. “What if my blessing by the gods was just to bring Tian to us?” he asked and Tian tensed, having never even considered that. “What if I- I fulfilled my duty by marrying him and I’m meant to finish my time as Chief?”
“Would that be so bad?” Tian tensed, wanting to glare at the shaman, but not daring to. He felt Phupha clench his hand. His eyes were kind though. “My son, I do not think that is so,” he reassured. “But if that is the will of the gods, is that so terrible?” he asked. “Nong Tian has changed our village for the better. If that was your purpose in life, would that be so bad? To bring your husband to grace us with his gifts?”
Tian wanted to argue, but Phupha relaxed a bit. “No,” he said gently. He looked at Tian. “No it wouldn’t.” He hesitated. “But I am selfish. And stubborn.”
“Phu-“ Tian was cut off by the shaman.
“I do not think that was your meaning in life,” he comforted Phupha. “You still have so much to give. I told Nong Tian when you were unwell that you had more to give. And you do. But you must trust that.” Tian looked over and Phupha nodded.
Khama clapped his hands. “We should pray together then. And whatever destiny Chief Phupha has in his life, it will be encouraged.” He gave Phupha a meaningful look. “And if that is to continue being the commander of the Pha Phun Dao rangers or something else, it will come to pass accordingly. I will pray you can accept whatever blessing the gods mean for you.”
Phupha swallowed hard and nodded. “I-“ He looked at Tian. “I am a proud man,” he said quietly. “But I was already blessed in life. If my body cannot continue as Chief, I need to accept that.” He looked at Khama. “I want to have children,” he said barely above a whisper. “We want to adopt. If I have to give up my career…. Well it’s been a good one.”
“Oh my darling,” Tian choked out, unable to help himself as he clenched his hand.
“You will be.” The Shaman nodded as he gathered his herbs and holy water. “Whatever your future as Chief, you will be a father.” Tian’s heart leapt in hope as he looked at Phupha and met his eyes. The shared a smile before bowing their heads.
Though it was traditional to bow with your hands together, they couldn’t release one another, so they sat silent and listened to the prayers with their hands tangled tightly, praying with the shaman that Phupha would be well and that their future would be fruitful.
Tian had never felt more joy in his life than as he held his son in his little white suit while watching Tul and Longtae take their vows before Khama. It was a blended ceremony, given Tul’s parents wanted a modern wedding but it had to be traditional for Longate, and Tian just bounced his little boy on his hip as they watched them.
Phupha stood beside them, arm around them both, because even if he still didn’t like Tul, a wedding in the village was very rare so it was a happy occasion.
Somchai had come to them from both the worst and most honored condition ever. A pregnant young lady had come to the village for refuge from her family after falling pregnant without being married, but her family had discovered her and wanted her to come home, but she couldn’t care for the baby alone. When she asked Khama, through her pain, if someone could keep her child, Tian had immediately been the first to be asked. He had agreed and told the poor girl that she could always come back and see her son, and she had agreed. They and Phupha had all decided that, since she was only a high school student only a few hours away, she was always welcome to come to their home to see her son, but she trusted them to raise him as their own. The poor girl was only sixteen, and in no state to be a mother, but she was grateful they would allow her to stay in touch.
It had been three years since Somchai was born and Tian was amused to see Tul getting married, but when they asked Somchai to bring them their rings in the modern tradition, Tian had no arguments. As he stood holding Somchai as they happy couple danced among the torchlight, delighted in a happiness that Tian knew well, he was startled as his husband came up and kissed his cheek.
“Memories of our own wedding?” he teased.
Tian snickered. “Including city parents standing by very confused,” he said, nodding to Tul’s parents – and his own – who were sitting at a table looking around, trying not to seem bewildered.
Phupha hummed and nuzzled his temple. “Should I take Somchai to bed? It’s getting late. I’m sure you want to stay a bit longer.”
Tian warmed at the prospect and looked at his son, who was clearly flagging though the excitement had him wanting to stay up. He kissed his head and looked at Phupha and nodded. “I’ll give your regards to your parents and to the happy couple,” he said, then offered their toddler to Phupha.
His heart sang with love when Phupha’s entire face lit up as he took the boy. Their son was the light of Phupha’s life.
Phupha had, sadly, had to let go of his position as the commander of the Pha Phun Dao rangers. However, he still was a member and still got to work with them. But his injuries never healed enough for him to be the leader he needed to be. If he needed a day off, he took a day off. Them adopting Somchai gave him the motivation he needed to accept he wasn’t worthless without being the leader. Now Yod, the leader, led them well but still came to Phupha for guidance, which gave him the fulfillment he needed while being a subordinate.
But Somchai was his pride and joy. Tian thought he loved Phupha more than he ever could but seeing him be a father made him love him even more.
They were both doing well in general health. They both were looking at a long life with their son. Their home was full of toys and books and Tian already took Somchai to the school with him, even if he wasn’t quite at the age to join the youngest children’s lessons. As Tian watched Phupha leave with Somchai, the smile on his face nearly hurt with love.
Their life was perfect in every way that mattered.