Chiang Mai, Three Years Ago
“Will you stop crying, it’s embarrassing.”
“It’s my fault,” Mix is still cradling Luke’s hand as if it’s a beloved pet that won’t come back to life. “I should’ve told Gun –”
“How? Sent him a telepathic message while you were recovering from bloodloss?” Luke rolls his eyes. “Besides, I deserve-”
“Shut the fuck up, don’t you dare say you deserved it!” Mix hisses, dropping Luke’s hand and glaring at him. “I was reckless and dragged you and the others into a dangerous situation and – and –” He’s tearing up again, and Nanon sighs loudly.
“Mix, it’s just the tip of his finger, he’ll be fine.”
“Maybe we could do with some alcohol,” Luke gives Nanon a meaningful look. The young man rolls his eyes but gets to his feet anyway.
“I’ll go on a beer run,” he mutters, heading out of the room.
“I’m really okay,” Luke tells the quietly sniffling Mix who has still not let go of his hand. “This is something we’re all supposed to be prepared for the eventuality of –”
Mix looks up at him, holding his gaze determinedly. “I’m sorry, Luke. I’ll never let this happen again.”
There are times when Luke understands why people fall in love with Sahaphap Wongratch, when his eyes shine like this, and there’s a determined set to his jaw that demands attention. Luke nods.
“I trust you,” he tells Mix.
He’s not surprised when Mix shifts closer, wrapping his arms around Luke’s shoulders and all but clambering into his lap like a child, like he used to when they were both younger and Mix counted on Luke to keep him safe. Like Mix still does, Luke reminds himself.
“I won’t let this happen again, either,” Luke says softly, running his unmaimed hand through locks of soft hair. “I made a promise too, you know. I’ll protect you, no matter what.”
Bangkok, Present Day
Podd and Earth had started Brewbells two years ago in what was more or less a leap of faith, pooling all their money into renovating a floor of Earth’s family home into a hybrid florist-café that should not have worked, but somehow did.
“I’m thinking we need to bring in someone else,” Podd says as Earth rearranges the pastry tray one evening.
Earth straightens up to look at him. “Not again –”
Podd flicks him with the towel he was using to wipe down the counter. “Maybe someone you’re not dating so there won’t be a scene when they quit.”
“I didn’t ask him to quit,” Earth says petulantly. “And it wouldn’t have been awkward forever…We weren’t awkward after we broke up!”
Podd laughs. “That’s because we weren’t actually dating. Anyway, I’m putting out an ad online.”
“Maybe if I can get them to handle the flowers, I can help in the kitchen more.”
Podd shakes his head, taking a step back as though about to protect their kitchen from Earth. “I like the kitchen the way it is, untouched by you,” he says. “We can afford a new employee but not a new oven.”
“I’m way better at cooking now,” Earth protests.
“Boiling instant noodles is not cooking.”
Earth opens his mouth to defend himself, but Podd raises a warning finger to stop him.
“Don’t tell me about your cake decorating class – you can’t decorate a cake if the cake is a lump of charcoal.”
Podd interrupts him by thrusting a tall glass of iced coffee into his hands. “Here, your friend probably needs a refill by now.”
Earth takes a second to realise what Podd means. “This doesn’t mean we’re done with this discussion, okay?”
He takes the americano to the corner of the café that Mix has made his own over the past week, switching it out for his empty glass. Mix is texting someone rather furiously, a frown wrinkling his brow. “Can I get you something else?”
“No,” Mix mutters, putting the phone down with more force than necessary. “Do you have any siblings? Have you ever wanted to smack them?”
Earth chuckles. “I have an older sister, and no, not really…?” He takes a breath, hovering uncertainly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Don’t you have work?”
“Not unless another customer comes in.”
Mix gestures with his chin towards the chair opposite him, a gesture that’s so oddly endearing that Earth hides his charmed smile by turning his head as he pulls up the chair. Mix takes a long drink of his coffee.
“I have this annoying brother – actually my whole family is annoying. They’re too protective just because of one – one stupid thing that happened a few years ago.” Mix focusses on his coffee instead of looking at Earth. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be whining at you.”
“Hey, we’ve spent a night together, I think we’re close enough for you to whine.”
Mix glares at him. “I slept in your bed, that’s all.”
“Yes, but you gotta admit, it’s a start, right?” Earth smiles wryly. “Right now, we’re having coffee together, that’s practically a date.”
Earth can’t quite decipher the surprised expression on Mix’s face – whether it’s because he hadn’t expected Earth to say something so forward, or something else entirely.
“I don’t see you drinking anything,” Mix states, pursing his lips. “You can’t just bring me a coffee and randomly say it’s a date, that’s too half-assed.”
“Hmm, you’re not wrong, this isn’t my style,” Earth agrees. He holds up a finger. “I’ll be back in a second.”
He hurries back to the counter, getting himself an espresso as a bewildered Podd watches. On the way back he takes a detour by his florists’ counter, picking out one of the daisies from the display vase.
“Can this be officially marked as a first date now?” Earth asks, presenting the flower to Mix, and he’s sure that the glitter in his eyes is amusement.
Mix takes the daisy, twirling it between his fingers thoughtfully. “Did you just grab the first flower you saw?”
“Of course not!” Earth scoffs. “That,” he says, his fingers dancing on Mix’s where he’s grasping the stem, “That’s a daisy. In the language of flowers, it means new beginnings, fun and affection.”
Earth lets his fingers linger for a moment longer before pulling away. “Let’s start with new beginnings for now,” he smiles.
Mix seems to consider it for a moment, then nods, holding up his coffee. “To new beginnings.”
The problem with having a thesis semester is that it means Mix is required to supervise more family activities than he normally would have on a school day. Not that he minds – it’s part of his duty as a member of the family, and his brothers trust him to take care of things on his end. However, today this interrogation is running too long, eating into the time that Mix likes to spend at Brewbells, and it’s annoying him.
The man tied up in the chair is a member of a small mafia family that’s been trying to move into their land in South and South Eastern Bangkok, Mix’s territory. He refuses to reveal where their funding is coming from, whether they have businesses or shell corporations to their name, and Mix is tired of waiting for him to crack.
He sighs, pushing back the sleeves of his shirt and stepping up to the man in the chair, bidding the two who’ve been questioning him to step away. From his pocket, he withdraws the slim, elegant handle of the folding scalpel blade that Luke gave him for his sixteenth birthday. Sure, firearms are weapons of choice for most people in their world, but Mix likes the subtlety of this blade and the way it presents him with a quiet way of dealing with a problem.
“We’ve been here for four hours,” Mix complains, reaching out and grabbing the man in the chair by his hair, yanking his head back and looking down at him.
“I have better things to do than wait for you to give me answers.” He raises the small knife to the prisoner’s eye level, letting the blade catch the dim light just so. “Did you know the Chinese have a method of killing called the Death of a Thousand Cuts?”
Mix lets the blade rest on the man’s cheek, tilting it ever so slightly so that it pricks the skin, a bright red line of blood trickling down from the cut. He’s spent years learning how sharp it is, what different levels of pressure would do. “I don’t have time for a thousand, but maybe a handful should do the trick…” He trails the knife to the man’s neck. “Actually, I think I can manage with just one more.”
The man’s Adam’s apple moves as he swallows, and Mix smiles a little bit, watching the sweat bead up on his skin. So much for the brave martyr act. “What?” he hisses, “Why do you look so scared now?” He lets the tip of the knife pierce the skin of the man’s neck, again only enough to break the skin, but not so much that he’ll bleed out. “I thought you weren’t afraid to die for your family.”
Earth starts getting used to the routine of Mix’s visits to the café.
Mix comes to the café at three every afternoon, sticking around until closing. By seven thirty, if there are no new customers, Earth grabs a cup of tea or coffee and a daisy – always a daisy – and joins him. They talk about the café and how they came up with the idea for it, Mix talks about his thesis – he’s a history major in his final semester of grad school, working on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Earth has never read a book that is more than fifty years old, so he just listens as Mix relates how Cao Cao deserves justice and how if people had just listened to Zhuge Liang… and is charmed by how excited he is by his dusty old book. Sometimes Podd hangs around to listen too, apparently to know what the fuss is about but – as Earth learns when Podd joins for weekend drinks with Joss and Tul – more to see Earth make puppy eyes at Mix.
After a week of daily flower and coffee ‘dates’, Earth manages to get Mix’s Line id out of him, and it takes all his self-control not to text him inane things through the day.
“You know your problem right?” Tul asks him over drinks.
Earth waits patiently for his friend to expand on the problem he has most recently identified as requiring attention.
“You’re not used to being single,” Tul says, and Joss and Podd make general sounds of agreement that Earth frankly finds offensive.
“That’s ridiculous,” he retorts. “I’m single right now!”
“Are you?” Podd asks, looking at Earth’s phone that has just lit up with a text – a tired cat emoji in response to Earth’s ‘didn’t see you at the café today, how are you doing?’. It’s adorable, Earth can’t help but smile, and he looks up just in time to see Podd roll his eyes. “Are you sure you’re single?”
“And if you are,” Joss interjects before Earth can answer, “Are you sure you wanna be?”
Earth opens his mouth to protest, then closes it again as he sees the notification for Mix’s ‘good night’ cat emoji pop up on his screen because, well, they have him there.
“But really, this guy you’re not dating,” Podd says, “Chauffeur driven fancy car and a daily pick up… Do you think he’s like rich rich?”
Earth laughs. “Either that or he’s in the mafia.”
The Phunsawat Family base is a century-old house in central Bangkok that had once been a royal residence. It’s huge and luxurious with enough room to house most of the main members of the family and provide a space from which to control their major operations. Outwardly, it is the home of a reclusive billionaire who controls his overseas business from the comfort of his palatial home. Mix has spent nearly half his life growing up in the mansion.
When Mix’s car pulls up into the compound, he is surprised to see a silver Range Rover parked beside the Boss’s sleek red BMW.
“Nanon’s back?” Mix hops out of the car and half jogs inside, waving and nodding quickly at men who join their palms in greeting in the veranda and foyer as he heads straight into the living room.
The opulent living room of the Phunsawat Mansion has been left as it was when they bought the house, with uncomfortable but expensive sofas on either wall of the large room, imported tapestries adorning the walls, and a tacky but extremely detailed tiger carved out of wood standing threateningly just inside the door. At the head of the room, like the throne of a king, is the armchair that seats the Head of the Family.
Mix automatically raises his hands to wai the Boss, his brother Attaphan Phunsawat, referred to as Gun by close and high-ranking members of the Family, and known as ATP to everyone else. Not a lot of people had seen him face to face – or survived to talk about such a meeting – but Mix always marvelled at how his brother, so slight in build it made him look like a child, could have built up a reputation as one of the most dangerous men in Bangkok.
Gun notices Mix’s arrival immediately, and smiles. “I was wondering when you’d get here! Look who’s back from Chiang Mai!”
The grin is already growing on Mix’s face as a tall young man extricates himself from among the many seated on the sofa and leaps forward to wrap Mix in a warm hug. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too! When did you get here! Why didn’t you text?”
Nanon was Mix’s first ‘man’, the first person recruited to work as Mix’s direct subordinate. He’d stayed behind in Chiang Mai after the incident three years ago to handle the Phunsawat withdrawal from those territories and Mix is ecstatic to see him again.
“Nanon has some news.”
Mix only now notices that most of the upper echelons of the family are already gathered. He cringes inwardly thinking that they must have been waiting for him while he was chatting over coffee with Earth, but Luke catches his gaze and winks, then moves to one side so that there’s place on the sofa beside him, and Mix releases Nanon to sit down.
“Now that we’re all here,” Gun says, looking around the room, “Nanon, would you like to report the news from Chiang Mai?”
Nanon nods, swallowing. “We’ve successfully shut down all our operations in Chiang Mai and moved them to Lampang,” he says.
Mix feels a little tug of nostalgia – Lampang had been home for him once, before all of this – and pushes it away. Gun always did tell him not to be so emotional.
“When we began setting up in Lampang, we clarified, as you know, Boss, that there were no major players already present there, but a couple of weeks ago, we lost one of our gambling houses to the Ruangroj.”
There is a hiss of apprehension from someone in the room. The last time they’d been in conflict with the Ruangroj in the north, they’d lost, badly. Mix’s eye flickers to Luke’s hand – the omnipresent glove hiding the maimed finger – a marker, like the scar on Mix’s hip and the memory of a lost friendship, of his own incompetence.
“Are they really trying to move in on our property again?” Mond demands.
Mond Tanutchai is, as far as Mix is concerned, de facto the next head of the Phunsawat family despite what everyone believes. Like the current head, and like Luke, Mond is Mix’s brother in all but name and blood, and he’s been part of the household for as long as he remembers. Mond knows pretty much everything there is to know about their operations. If it hadn’t been for the injury three years ago…
Luke nudges him slightly, bringing Mix back to the present, where Nanon is outlining the state of their businesses in Lampang.
“We can handle the north, we’re confident,” Nanon says, “But I had to come back because of what I heard is happening here. The Ruangroj are planning an alliance to take Bangkok from us –” He swallows again, looking too nervous for it to have been for effect, “– and they’re willing to take our heads to do it.”
Another murmur passes through the room as the weight of Nanon’s words sinks in.
“What do they even think they can do?” Gun asks calmly.
Nanon swallows again. “I don’t know, Boss.”
Gun nods. He indicates that Nanon can sit, and then looks around the room. “We don’t know how the Ruangroj will move from here on, but we’re going to be careful and we’re going to secure our properties. Mond, Luke, Mix, I know you all have your information networks, I need the three of you to identify areas that you think are sensitive to takeover – focus on territory that other groups have been eyeing, in particular, the Ruangroj will try to swallow them first.”
He waves a hand, indicating dismissal, and Mix follows Luke and Mond outside.
“Mix,” Luke begins immediately. “I think you need to stop spending time at that café of yours.”
Luke’s mouth is a thin line of displeasure. “It’s too dangerous – you heard Nanon – what if another civilian…” He trails off, realising what he’s said.
Mix’s vision flashes red. He is usually slow to anger, but now rage shoots through him, tears pricking his eyes. “How dare you use what happened with Ter against me,” he hisses.
“I’m just reminding you of what can happen if you’re careless!”
It hurts more than he thought it would. “Careless? Listen, Luke, you –”
Mond steps in between them before he can continue, a hand on each of their chests holding them back even though they aren’t actually going to fight.
“Let’s not focus on that now, okay?” Mond says calmly. “We have our assignments, we should get to that and –” He looks at Mix. “Make good decisions?”
Mix nods at him, though he turns a lingering glare in Luke’s direction before turning away, despite how petty it may seem, and despite the fact that he knows that there are still tears welling up in his eyes. It’s only when he’s walked away, back to the privacy of his rooms in the mansion, that he lets go of the breath he’s been holding and lets the tears fall.