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between the breaths

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Phupha is, by all means, not jealous.

Jealousy is an ugly emotion, an emotion that brings out the worst in people, that makes them do terrifying things under the banner of love. It is despicable to even have that green-eyed monster rear its ugly head. Despicable to even feel something so akin to ownership, so similar to the kind of man he doesn’t want to be.

Jealousy, thinks Phupha, is for insecure people in love. There’s no reason for Phupha to be insecure. Phupha is also not in love, which is why he deduces with a note of finality he doesn’t feel, that he is not jealous.

“Tone down the glare,” says Torfun, snickering like the traitor she is, breaking Phupha out of his reverie.

“Who is glaring at whom?” asks Phupha, sneaking another glance at Tian. Longtae now holds Tian by his shoulders as they giggle along to the loud noise people in this establishment call “music”. Phupha involuntarily clutches the glass in his hand harder.

“Oh boy,” Torfun sighs quietly, prying the glass away from Phupha’s hands. “You were the one who refused to dance with Tian in the first place.”

“Because I don’t like dancing,” Phupha maintains, blinking rapidly, because he sees flashes in his mind, flashes built from wishful thinking. Of Tian in his arms as they dance, barefooted to a slow song in Phupha’s home. Of Tian, glittering and euphoric, under the flashing lights of this club, aligning their feet together to the rhythm of the noise—music that plays here. Phupha finds his heart hurting — just a bit. Suddenly, all he wants to do is walk up to where Tian is, pull him in his arms, and dance — even though he feels mortified by this idea.

Phupha breathes through his nose, and out through his mouth, unwilling to label this feeling that arises in the pit of his stomach.

He is not jealous, but he is… regretful. He is, essentially, arrested by his own reservations. If only he would’ve said yes to Tian there. Said, I could never refuse you, the way his heart sings. Said, I would forever dance with you. If he could’ve been transparent about his love here, he would be the one holding Tian in his arms, peering down at him while he glows and smiles without reservations, eyes crinkling, head-tilting. He would be the one bringing Tian’s palm to his chest to show him what this means for him — the way Longtae is clearly doing just now.

Longtae, who is young and smart and can keep up with the things that Tian talks about. Longtae, who isn’t so fully disconnected from pop culture that he can understand the media Tian refers to and can make jokes about it and make Tian laugh. Longtae, who isn’t old and stuffy, worries about Tian so much that it annoys him. Tian obviously prefers Longtae’s company more, and Phupha has no right to be drenched in vinegar.

Why shouldn’t Tian fall for someone who is this good? Tian deserves all the happiness in the world and so much more. Phupha truly has no business glaring at them, as Torfun rightly said, while he drowns in regrets. Phupha relays the clipped version of this to Torfun, who snorts and laughs, patting him on his back. “Now you’re just being ridiculous,” she says. Phupha does feel ridiculous. “You really aren’t that old, and Tian spends most of his free time with you,” she nods decisively. “If you want to dance with him, go and ask. He won’t say no to you, you know?”

“My dancing is embarrassing,” he says. He turns to look at Tian again, is surprised when he is actually looking back, a secretive small smile on his face.

Phupha looks away, his heart thudding, and drinks the rest of his beer, overlapping the bitter taste that is left in his insides with something material and real.

***

Phupha is, very decidedly, not moping.

He has no reason to, not really. It’s the first time the forest rangers, the medical team, and the teachers are out on a planned excursion to the city, to one of the best clubs here, according to Torfun and Tian. He is with the people he trusts the most, under the gleaming lights of the club. He has no valid reason to be moping. He would be moping if he were in love with Tian and couldn’t be beside him.

But Phupha is definitely not in love (it can be infatuation, attraction, but not love), so he really, truly isn’t moping.

Torfun’s sigh from beside him conveys a whole different story.

Sometime later, the club gets fuller and fuller, and Phupha loses sight of Tian from where he sits.

It’s only for the best, of course, but having some sight of Tian is better than having none, and he can’t stop the furtive glances he keeps throwing across the club for just a sign of Tian.

Torfun leaves his side too, deeming that she “can’t deal with you moping here too” and that she is “here to have fun”. At some point, the nurse from the medical team comes and grabs Torfun away, who goes willingly and pink-cheeked.

That does make Phupha happy — he has seen the shy glances they keep exchanging whenever they accidentally meet, of course.

Phupha resigns himself to nursing the stray glass of whiskey and catching Dr Nam and his wife’s eyes along the way.

Sometime later, gentle hands brush across his shoulder blades, and before Phupha can turn, an awfully familiar voice whispers in his ear, “Is this seat taken, chief?”

Involuntarily, Phupha shivers.

Involuntarily, a smile overtakes his face.

(Maybe he was moping.)

“Not if it’s you,” Phupha says, bordering too much on the larger truth: the seat beside me is always reserved if it isn’t you.

Tian smiles at him, the same secretive way that he has been this night, as though he can see Phupha’s soul as clear as the day, and takes a seat beside him, tilting his head that rests on his palm.

They’ve been in smaller places before, where they’re closer, their breaths mingling as one, but the way Tian looks at him right now, makes Phupha think that they’re the only ones here — in this club, in his city, in this whole wide world.

“Why didn’t you dance with me?” The noise that surrounds them is loud, which is why Tian has to lean towards Phupha, his one hand around his neck, his mouth near his ear to say this.

Phupha’s stomach clenches at the vision of Longtae and Tian curled around each other.

(Maybe he was jealous.)

Phupha’s heart thuds at the non-existent distance between them.

“You seemed to be having the time of your life.”

“I was,” Tian hums, still leaning ahead from his chair, almost in Phupha’s arms, if he were to dare. "I would've been having a better time with you, though."

"Really?"

"Nobody really has made me laugh the way you do," he says in a serious tone.

"Ah."

Tian looks at him as though he’s expecting more of an answer, more of an explanation. Floundering for it, Phupha says, his heart in his throat, “I look funny when I dance.”

Tian curls his other arm around Phupha’s neck, pulling him closer. “You could just sway with me.”

Hesitantly, mostly because of the fear that Tian would tumble down, Phupha reaches out to hold Tian by his waist. The smile that curves on Tian’s lips after that is almost fond.

“I don’t know how to sway,” Phupha admits.

Tian huffs a peal of laughter. Phupha, seemingly prepared for his warm breath on his neck, shudders despite it, his hands tightening on Tian’s waist. “Is that why you were glaring at us?”

Hot shame curdles in his stomach. He wasn’t jealous out of the intention of… possession or something close. He was, he thinks, jealous of Longtae’s ability to be open where Phupha isn’t, jealous of the fact that he could make Tian laugh freely with him.

(Okay, so maybe, Phupha admits, he was a little insecure too. Sue him.)

(And, Phupha thinks, if he is given the chance again, he’d dance with Tian too.)

“I wasn’t glaring,” Phupha says, looking away from Tian, pretending that the condensation on his glass is more interesting than Tian.

“Mhm,” Tian says, “you can’t even look at me when you say it.”

Phupha turns to look at Tian, which is a mistake because he is closer than ever, their noses almost touching, his eyes twinkling. These juvenile reactions, Phupha thinks, of his mouth drying and his hands cold, and his neck hot does not suit him, but he can’t really help it — not when Tian is looking at him as though he is feeling the same things that Phupha.

"I wasn't glaring," he says.

"Okay," Tian acquiesces, eyes narrowing playfully. "But you were thinking that I was having more fun without you by your side."

Phupha doesn't reply, but he does blink owlishly. He rarely knows of people who can read him as well as Tian does, and that too takes them months. Tian has seen his soul bare from the first day he came to Pha Pun Dao, flushed and bright-eyed, looking through the walls built around Phupha as though they were made out of paper and not stone. Tian nods slowly, searching Phupha's eyes, knowing that he is right.

Suddenly, this proximity, this line of questioning, is intoxicating. It’s making Phupha dizzy, pulling the ground from underneath his feet and all Phupha wants to do is— he wants to—

“Do you want to dance with me?” Phupha asks.

Tian’s eyes don’t widen in surprise, but his mouth does twist in a knowing smile. “Of course,” he says, leading Phupha towards the crowd.

Phupha can only see Tian, here and everywhere. His eyes aren’t meant to hold anyone else. The only beacon of light in the darkened, non-existent faces of the crowd. Tian looks at him with the same small smile, eyes glittering, head tilting, his hands snaked behind Phupha’s neck, his face absorbing the flashes of blue, purple, green that shine across the club. He looks ethereal, magnificent.

(In his mind, Phupha concedes just a little bit. He is in love with Tian — not a bit like he’d initially thought, but way more than he’d imagined. It’s an all-consuming feeling, words too big for his mouth to hold, feeling too big for his body to encompass.)

Slowly, they start swaying. The song behind them is fast-paced and heavy, but here, they find their own rhythm, wobbling and reeling. It’s a little awkward, Phupha can tell, but Tian is relaxed and laughing in his arms and that’s the only thing that matter more than how dancing in front of other people makes him feel like he is too small for his body.

Tian’s lips move and to hear him better, Phupha bends forward, moving closer. He can hear Tian’s smile without even looking at him. “You can sway,” he says, accusatorily.

“I didn’t know that before,” Phupha says, smiling as well.

“Obviously,” Tian says, “How would you know if you wouldn’t give it a shot?”

“I didn’t know that this was worth giving a shot before,” Phupha answers honestly.

“And now?” Tian asks, his nails raking in Phupha’s scalp.

Phupha brings him closer, their bodies moulded as one as they sway, hugging each other on the dance floor. His body seems to instinctively follow Tian’s lead. “After meeting you, everything seems worth it.”

Tian momentarily freezes in his arms before he melts again, holding Phupha tighter, closer to him. “That’s how I feel too,” Tian replies in a small voice.

A knot in Phupha’s stomach loosens. “Good.”

“Good,” Tian echoes, pulling Phupha impossible closer. Phupha goes willingly, his head now resting in the crook of Tian’s neck, arms around his waist.

Phupha won’t reveal the depth of his feelings just yet — he can’t, not yet — but he mouths, I love You, I love You, I love You, in the safety and warmth of Tian’s presence.

Tian holds him closer as though he can feel the words Phupha mouths. For a moment and more, Phupha doesn’t feel greedy and selfish with the inscrutable amount of love he has for Tian. For a moment and more, this feels enough: months of longing condensed and kept safe between their breaths.