It starts, Phupha thinks, when he rips one of his training shirts.
The state office gives them a new uniform every year to replace the old, worn-out ones that go through the sticky summer heat and the intense cold winters. The problem with Phupha, however, is that he tends to share those shirts with his fellow rangers who may either: need it more, have lost their own re-supply, or are too low on the bureaucratic ladder to get a spare. He’s always been able to put off a lot of heat, and his physique keeps him fairly warm on winter nights, so Phupha doesn’t mind giving away what he can for his crew to remain warm and clothed.
This leaves the remainder of his meagre collection of uniform shirts to be worn thin. They’ve survived years of tumbling through the forest, rough washing during laundry days, and brow-beating by the sun and wind. He prefers the uniform to other clothes, to be fairly honest; they’re durable, trustworthy, and have seen him through a number of rough days.
It feels a little bit like loss, then, when the collar of his shirt gets caught on a spare branch as Phupha rises from his crouch, finished with their mock trials in the woods. Before he can make a move to untangle the branch, however, Yod bumps into him from behind and pushes him straight out of the bushes. A loud rip echoes through the trees; Phupha looks at his shoulder, where there’s a rip from the collar to the shoulder. Yod pauses, his face half-caught between horror and sheepishness.
“It’s fine,” Phupha sighs, put upon. He waves a hand for everyone to start gathering up together for the day so they can have lunch and head out on patrol.
“We can ask gramma to fix it up for ya,” Rang says, referring to Meejoo’s grandmother, who often fixes up any scratches or rips in their clothes if she spots it.
“No, don’t bother,” Phupha waves off. “She’s got enough to do. Don’t tell her either,” he warns, knowing that his men are full well of being bothers when it comes to him.
He’ll ask Doc to sew it up with some thread. If you can sew together a body, clothes shouldn’t be that difficult, right?
When he’s finally trudged his way back to the unit housing, an aromatic smell hits his nose and causes him to falter. Rang peers over Phupha’s shoulder, following the scent, before he yells out, “Ai, it’s Teacher Seetian!”
This is one of the things that never changes: Tian turns to look over his shoulder, and his hair curls sweetly into his face. They’re starting to get a bit too long, but Phupha likes it. Tian first meets Phupha’s eyes, as if some unknown force has pulled them into each other’s gaze automatically, before he turns to smile at Rang. He waves a hand with a wooden spoon, motioning to the pot and then mouthing, ready in thirty.
“Is that for everyone, khun Tian?” Yod asks as he settles himself down on the table outside.
“I made enough for everyone, yeah,” Tian pushes Yod’s hand away from a bowl of shelled peanuts. “Stop that, that’s to toast later. Hi,” he says to Phupha at the end, leaning into the arms that circle around his waist.
“Eugh,” they hear Yod say from somewhere behind them. Tian rolls his eyes. Phupha gets caught by the minute movement of his lashes.
“Good day with the kids?”
“Ayi almost broke our table,” Tian tells him conversationally. His eyes brighten in a way that can only be brought out by the children, an affection so deep and pure that it softens his whole visage. “Luckily, Kalae managed to pulled him off before he could do something stupid like jump off. He and Meejoo have been thick as thieves recently…”
Phupha rests his cheek on the crown of Tian’s head, just listening to him talk. Yod and Rang have thankfully gone off to change clothes for the evening and freshen up, which leaves the both of them and the crackle of hot oil in a pan to keep them company. Tian sets aside some stir fried vegetables, patting at Phupha’s hand resting on his stomach. When Phupha doesn’t move, he whacks him with the spoon.
“Ah,” he says out of surprise rather than actual hurt, but Tian whirls around to check on him anyway. “Tian, I’m really okay.”
“That’s what you get for being clingy,” he scolds instead, but his fingers are gentle where he had hit Phupha. He takes the pan off the stove before pausing. “What happened to your shirt? Are you hurt?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. Just a clothing accident during training.”
Tian nods wordlessly. His fingers move to press down gently on the exposed skin of Phupha’s shoulder, where a faint jagged scar can be seen. There’s a matching entry wound scar on his back; Phupha knows exactly where it is after endless nights of Tian gently grazing his fingers over the edges of the scar, his eyes unreadable.
Even now, he seems to be in a world of his own, lips pressed together. Phupha takes his slender fingers and brings them up to his mouth to press a kiss against his fingertips, startling Tian out of his thoughts.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he murmurs.
“Don’t lie,” Tian says crossly, “I know that it bugs you when it rains. Or when it’s cold.”
Phupha grimaces. “Well. Even if it does, you’re here to massage the pain away, right?”
Tian scoffs, but his face is pink and pleased. A smile curls up on the corner of his plush mouth, and Phupha has to physically resist the urge to kiss him. Rang and Yod would be back any minute, and knowing his luck, they’d pop up when he least wanted them to.
“Go and wash up. You smell,” he pushes at Phupha’s shoulder, before pausing thoughtfully. “And keep the shirt somewhere in the corner, I’ll take care of it.”
Phupha raises an eyebrow. “Take care of it?”
“Yes, stop looking at me like that. Go!”
When Phupha is settling into bed, his back already sore from the day and fresh from a soak in hot water from the basin outside, he spots Tian still sitting at his small wooden table. A singular fluorescent lamp hangs precariously near Tian’s temple, illuminating the shadows of his face. He’s focused on something in his hands, holding it up closer to his eyes. After a moment, Phupha realizes that there’s a needle and thread in one of Tian’s hands, and his shirt is in the other, stretched out across his fingers.
“You’re lucky the seams just ripped,” Tian hums. The mesmerizing movement of his fingers makes Phupha sleepy. Phupha still recalls the first time he had slept next to Tian, how carefully he had touched his pinky to the other’s. Tian’s hands are small, without the same rough calluses or veins from years of usage. His palms are smooth, and the back of his hands always smell nice. Even now, when he’s sewing up the rip on Phupha’s shirt, his movements are surprisingly efficient. “It’s black thread, so it might show, but it’ll have to do.”
“I’ll get more thread in Chiang Mai,” Phupha mumbles tiredly.
“No, I’ll come with you. You might get the wrong kind.” A moment passes. Tian shifts and moves the lamp so that he can see better. “Go to sleep, Chief.”
“Come here first.”
“I’ll come after I’m done. Only a little bit more left.”
“Tian,” he breathes, a sigh, a prayer. Tian looks haloed by the yellow light. His eyelashes cast long shadows across his cheeks. When Tian looks at him in response, his eyes are dark pools that Phupha wants to drown in.
Tian smiles. “Done,” he holds up Phupha’s fixed shirt. “Should I fix the pants that had a rip in the inseam, too?”
“No,” Phupha pats the space next to him on the bed.
Tian rises from his seat, turning the lamp off for the night and placing Phupha’s shirt over the edge of the chair. Phupha watches how the moonlight curves over the planes of his face, skipping off of the ends of his ebony hair. Tian stretches, his shirt rising up to show a bit of his smooth, pale belly. Phupha follows him with his eyes, but Tian simply hides a yawn behind his mouth and goes off to brush his teeth.
In the morning, when Tian is still sleeping, Phupha slips out from beside him to stretch and walk over to where Tian has left his clothes over the back of the chair. He thumbs over the worn material until he finds the fine, equal-sized stitching across the shoulder. Turning to Tian briefly, Phupha finds a smile growing on his face before he slips the shirt over his head. A glance in the mirror shows that it fits like brand new.
Phupha kneels down beside the bed, gently taking the hand that’s tucked under Tian’s cheek out from under him. He presses gentle kisses against his reddened fingertips. Even after a night of rest, the evidence of his work still shows on his fingers. Phupha wishes he could kiss away the pain and hurt for Tian as easily as he can breathe.
He can’t help it; he sets a large hand on Tian’s left cheek, cupping his small face for a brief moment. Phupha grazes the side of his face before setting the second pillow behind him in a meager replication of Phupha himself so Tian can get sleep for a little bit longer.
Nam is already eating with Yod outside, bright and chipper. Yod greets him with a weak salute, curling over his cup of coffee.
“Chief,” Yod says miserably, “Is khun Tian awake yet, by any chance…?”
“What, you don’t like my coffee anymore?” Nam asks, taking a big swig of his own cup. Phupha doesn’t bother answering, rolling his eyes while opening the cooler to get milk for his own cup of coffee. He grabs a ceramic bowl on his way to the head of the table.
“Khun Tian makes it better,” Yod groans. Quieter, he mumbles, “It tastes sweet.”
“You shouldn’t be intaking that much sugar,” Nam scolds. “Do I need to check your blood sugar?”
“He’s asleep,” Phupha cuts in, before both of them could get started with the same old fight. They’d eventually try to rope him into it as well. “Don’t bother him.”
“I feel like this is all I hear from you, chief: don’t bother him, don’t bother her. I bet khun Tian would love to make us some coffee!”
Yod withers. “Or not.”
“Wore him out last night?” Nam winks, leaning over to suggestively nudge at Phupha before the other levels him with a look to keep him in place.
“No,” Phupha says, “He was just up doing something.”
Nam scoffs. “Doing yo – “
While Nam cackles over his morning caffeine, Yod seems to wake up enough to notice that Phupha is wearing the same uniform shirt as yesterday, the one he had indirectly ripped. “Oh, Chief! You got your shirt fixed? Did you end up going to gramma after all?”
Phupa clears his throat and looks away when Nam, the ever-fervent bloodhound when it comes to Phupha’s personal life and details, immediately turns to stare him down. He pours himself a cup of coffee the way Tian had made it for him once; a bit strong – honestly stronger than he usually liked, until he slowly got used to it – with a splash of milk. He scoops out a bowl of porridge from the middle of the table and starts digging in.
“Oho, this doesn’t look like gramma’s work,” Nam says, pushing at Phupha’s shoulder with curious eyes. “It’s neat, but not that neat. Don’t tell me… did Nong Tian do it for you?” he finishes with a sly tone.
Phupha swallows his mouthful. “Yes,” he says shortly. This is the best way to deal with Nam when he delves into that familiar teasing: short, sweet, to the point, with the short but furtive hope that he’d let the subject drop.
Unfortunately for him, Yod and Nam share one look with each other before devolving into snickers.
“Drills, two hours for you,” Phupha snaps at Yod, taking a second bowl of porridge before downing half of his coffee. “And don’t you have to get back to the medical base? Why are you always here?”
“Chief,” Yod says pleadingly, but lets it go after a moment. He grumbles something under his breath and gets up to trudge to the training grounds.
“Hey now, don’t punish Yod because you’re feeling shy,” Nam tsks at him, “Be proud! That’s such a lovely thing for Nong Tian to do. And hey, his stitching looks pretty good! Maybe I should ask him to try some surgery stitches on banana skins?”
“He already has enough to do. Are you trying to rope him into being your nurse?”
Nam argues, “He’d be a cute nurse!”
Phupha is assaulted by a brief image of Tian in blue scrubs, smiling at him in hello, offering to take care of his wounds –
He sets his empty bowl down a bit heavily. It clangs out in the still morning air.
Nam looks at the bowl, then at him. He shifts back, but there’s a quirk to his eyebrow and his mouth that is mischievous and teasing. “Oho.”
Phupha grabs him by the nape of the neck to drag them both out before Tian can wake up and be bombarded by Nam’s laughter.
When Phupha slips away to see Tian at the end of the school day, leaving half of his men behind to have a break for today’s session while the other half heads out for the evening patrol. If he sees some of them sighing in joy that their usually rigid and unyielding chief being more lenient nowadays to see “his lovely teacher” (as per the rangers), then he doesn’t comment on it. He’ll let them have it for now.
Unlike the first time Tian had taught, there isn’t a long-standing ranger to look over the teacher and the kids for their safety, but Phupha is sure to have someone make rounds there per hour just in case. Sometimes the rangers like to stay there, standing on the sidelines to be an extra pair of eyes and arms to watch over the kids. Rang, especially, likes to stay behind to bother the children during lunchtime or sneak snacks off of Tian. Phupha spies him nibbling happily on a box of flavored crackers now, leaning back and watching Tian go through a physics lesson with empty, but supportive eyes. That promptly ends when Phupha lands a firm hand on his shoulder with a raised eyebrow.
“Aha, chief,” Rang starts, “This isn’t what it looks like.”
Phupha raises an eyebrow, jerking his head toward the exit. An explicit notice to get the hell out before he decides on some punishment for walking out of bounds during his patrol. Phupha very pointedly ignores all the times he had squeezed through the tiniest loopholes to spend more time with Tian and the kids.
When Tian goes around checking the work papers of his kids, stopping beside the younger children who were doing math problems separately, he catches sight of Phupha. With a raised eyebrow, Tian questions, you’re already here?
Phupha smiles at him, a small and quiet thing.
Tian turns away, waving at him for a moment to acknowledge him.
Phupha loves Tian in many ways, but he thinks that the feelings the rise in his chest when he sees Tian in the classroom is the purest and sweetest kind. He recalls the first few times he had seen Tian in this very space, like a lost fawn staring out at the open forest. Something about that painful naivete, the fire in his eyes when he looked at Phupha as if he wanted to kick him, the way he’d never back down – it had piqued Phupha’s interest, and then, his affection.
Even now, watching Tian teaching is one of his favorite past times. He likes the way Tian’s face brightens, how the kids lean toward him like wildflowers toward the sun, how gentle his hands are when he leans down to run fingers through Ayi’s hair or when he’s braiding Meejoo’s mane. How he tilts his head when he’s focused on something. How his voice turns soft and insistent, or high and excited, when he wants to make a point. Tian walks around the classroom like a butterfly flying from one stem to another, never stopping its constant motion.
“Alright, time to go,” Tian announces, clapping his hands once and leaning down to ruffle Khaoneung’s hair as the pre-teen latches onto Tian around the waist. He’s turned tall enough to reach his chest, but he, like the other kids that had been taught by Tian two years ago, like to act younger around him.
When most of the kids have filtered out of the classroom, Rang taking home some of the younger kids, Phupha reaches out to pull Tian into his arms as the other packs up his bag.
“How did the shirt hold up?” he asks, accepting Phupha’s nuzzle at his neck with a smile. He gets sidetracked by the mole behind the curve of his ear. Tian turns around and appraises it for himself. “Oh, very nice. You know, Doc offered me a job today.”
“No,” Phupha cuts him off, pulling away to face Tian eye to eye. He’s smiling one of Phupha’s favorite smiles, with eye crinkles and a knowing glimmer.
“I could be a very pretty nurse.”
“No,” Phupha says again. “The kids would miss you.”
“Only the kids?”
Phupha squeezes him in his arms. “Maybe I would too.”
“Ah, can’t have that,” Tian says, reaching a hand up to curl around his nape. He pulls him down insistently for a short kiss, pressing his lips against Phupha’s before tilting his head back with a curious look in his eyes. “How long has it been since you last cut your hair?”
A little surprised at the new segue way that their conversation has taken, Phupha runs a hand through his hair. It has been getting a bit too long recently. The back of his nape hasn’t been covered like this in a long time. “A couple of months, I think. I’ll leave it how it is for now; it’ll be better for the winter.”
Tian’s nose wrinkles. “It’s growing every which way. I’ll trim it clean for you tonight. Bring your electric razor, okay?” He kisses Phupha’s cheek. “Will I be escorted home?”
“Considering what a magnet for trouble you are, I think it’d be best if I did.”
“I’ll have you know that there’s one certain officer that always protects me.”
“Well,” Phupha gets a certain glint in his eye, “Makes sense. I guess officer’s wives should be protected at all times.”
Tian rolls his eyes, but his ears have flared a brilliant red. The flush begins to spread down to his neck, crawling up the apples of his cheeks, and he doesn’t do more than pinch Phupha’s bicep for the ribbing. Shouldering his bag of books and papers higher up on his shoulder, he slips his arms around Phupha’s right arm.
He offers little tidbits of his day, starting from the smaller kids and how he’s begun to place them in separate classes aside from the older kids, how it’s a little harder to juggle the two separate lessons but he’s been managing through heavy-handed time management and a little bit of mentoring action from the older students themselves, and especially about how Ayi seems more and more interested in engineering as the days go by. Tian wants to help him study hard enough to get into a good school in Chiang Mai, not too far from the village, but far enough that Ayi would be able to find himself in a better school than whatever Tian can teach him.
Khaoneung already has some sharp aptitude for business, from what Tian can see in his innovative ideas and insight. Meejoo and Inta have been fighting over something recently, but they’re still thick as thieves when it comes to arguing against the boys during break time. Kalae has expressed worries about his weight, since his parents keep trying to feed him, but Dr. Nam says that if he wants to stay healthy as an adult, he has to turn some of that weight into muscle. Should he spend some time teaching a health class?
“I mean,” Tian muses, squeezing Phupha’s arm as he jumps over a bramble of tree roots, “It’s not like they’ve gotten any proper health education. I remember phi had told me that everyone believed in the spirits as well as the shaman, but it’s still no excuse to not learn about our bodies.”
“When I was young, Khama had taught me what I needed to know,” Phupha offers.
“Oh? And how did that go?”
Phupha grimaces, recalling the confusing and somewhat terrifying talk he had gotten from Khama that involved a lot of metaphors, gesturing toward the flower fields, and some intense eye contact. “I figured things out eventually,” he finishes evenly.
Tian snorts. “Be that as it may, it won’t be enough for a bunch of kids that are about to be teenagers soon.”
“Then teach them.” They meander their way into the unit housing, greeting some of the other rangers from a distance. Even Doc is here for today, wasting time around Yod and Rang. “I’m sure that you’ll find a way. You always do.”
“Sweet-talker,” Tian mutters underneath his breath, but he presses his cheek against Phupha’s shoulder in a display of unbridled affection.
Tian disappears for his bath after running around after a bunch of children all day. Phupha sets his bag down at the table and squints at the sunlight pouring through the open window. The mountain air is crisp and fresh, bringing in a sweet breeze. If he listens hard enough, he can hear Tian’s humming in the bamboo enclosure out back. Phupha is half tempted to strip himself of his clothes and join him, but his limbs refuse to move. For this one, exact moment, he thinks that he’s indescribably happy.
“Ugh, you smell,” Tian’s nose crinkles when Phupha grabs him from behind, arms linked around his waist. In the dark cover of their home, Phupha rubs his nose against the nape of Tian’s neck, turning the skin red. Tian squirms, tickled by the sensation of his five o’clock shadow, before slapping at the hands around his middle. “Aren’t you going to clean up?”
“I brought my razor,” he mumbles. “Did you make dinner? You smell like smoke.”
“Yod wanted to smoke sausages,” Tian explains, turning around in his arms. He reaches up to thumb at the stubble growing on Phupha’s chin. “Wait here.”
Phupha settles down on the chair Tian had been sitting on when he was fixing up his army shirt, facing the mirror. Tian disappears to bring out the razor and check its batteries before grabbing a clean comb. He pours some water from a thermos into his hand and dampens Phupha’s hair, smoothing it down with his fingers. When he runs his hands through the short hairs at the back of Phupha’s neck, scratching gently at the skin there, his close in pure bliss at the sensation. A knot that he hadn’t even known existed there relaxes minutely.
Only the sound of the electric razor buzzes in their room. Phupha can also hear the sound of Nam, Yod, and Rang having dinner, fighting over which bowls to use, questioning if the rice porridge is burnt – did you make that, Nam? You always burn the porridge! – I got here literally ten minutes ago, idiot – Tian hums something underneath his breath, a lost lullaby that he’s been fond of the last few days. When he gently pats Phupha’s should, he cracks open an eye with difficulty.
“Shower, eat, then sleep,” Tian tells him. “And only sleep. You’re exhausted. How long do you think you can carry on like this? A chief has a duty to take care of himself, too.”
Phupha reaches up to grab at the smooth hand on his shoulder, his head leaning down lazily to press a closed mouth kiss against Tian’s wrist bone. “You take care of me instead.”
Tian reaches down to flick his forehead with the other hand. “I’m hungry, so hurry up.” After a moment, Phupha feels Tian press a shy kiss to the top of his head. “We take care of each other,” he says quietly, the same way he speaks when the emotions get to be too much and rise to his throat. Phupha turns and pulls him down for a proper kiss, then, unable to resist the call of Tian’s mouth, his unseen sweetness, how easily he shows Phupha how much he cares through every little action. Tian is easily swept up into it, fingers digging into the meat of his shoulders, before he swerves around and easily slots himself onto Phupha’s lap. His hands find their way to Tian’s waist, slipping underneath his butter-yellow pullover to graze at the warm skin there.
Phupha likes to kiss Tian any way that he can, from any angle, but he likes this the most, sometimes. Tian’s body heat warm and insistent on his own, with his chest at the perfect angle for Phupha to lean forward and rest his head against Tian’s ribs. He searches for the familiar, riveting sound of Tian’s heartbeat, a melody that has kept Phupha awake in worry and awe in equal turns on most nights. He squeezes Tian around the middle, reveling into the warmth of his body and the way it gives into Phupha’s ministrations, before Tian’s breath hitches.
He chases one last kiss from Tian’s mouth, which has turned pink and slightly swollen from Phupha’s attention. His eyelashes tickle Phupha’s cheeks. He smells like mountain air and smoke, his body wash and Phupha’s shampoo.
“That door isn’t closed,” Tian warns, before pulling away. Phupha physically moves with him, a star orbiting its sun. Tian’s mouth quirks up in a smile, a hint of white teeth and dark eyes. “Come for dinner,” he says instead of what his face suggests, reaching up to fix his hair and then to fix his pullover.
Phupha watches every step as he goes, only deigning to move when his body is no longer locked under the same spell Tian always puts him under. He runs a hand through his hair, stopping at the unfamiliar situation. With a quick glance in the mirror, he spies the neat cut that he always sported when they first met. A memory of Tian’s fingers in his hair makes him smile. Phupha heads out to shower, solely focused on returning to his reality, no longer content to focus on dreams when reality is so, so much sweeter.