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i'll keep you safe

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Tian got used to the cold long before he came to Pha Pun Dao. 

Only back in Bangkok, it was an expensive air conditioner keeping him cold. It was better than the humid heat that chased everyone in the city, but Tian grew up shivering as he padded down cold hardwood floors, and curled up alone under thick duvets.

The cold in Pha Pun Dao was nothing like the cold back home. It was sharp breezes that blew through thin reed walls, and nighttime chill that seeped through the floors because there was no insulation. The ratty blanket and bedroll Yod had given him could only do so much.

That’s why when Tian woke up with his skin sticky and a suffocating heat blanketing his back, he was confused. The hut was painted with an amber light that cast long shadows on the walls, and there was a thick arm wrapped around his waist. 

The thing was, Tian wouldn’t waste kerosene lighting a lamp all night. Not after the Chief had scolded him about it when he tried to leave the lamp burning during their impromptu sleepover the night before.

“Mmm,” he moaned, holding on to the warm arm around his waist. He was still woozy from the shots he’d downed and his stomach burned, which he tried to ignore. “The...the light...” he slurred.

“Tian?” A hand cupped his cheek, gently turning his face back. When the warm body behind him tried to pull away, he whined and clutched at the arm, halting the movement.

He blinked through blurry eyes and Phupha slowly solidified in front of him, golden and handsome, but still somehow stern even in the dead of night. 

“Tian,” Phupha repeated, stroking his cheek with the rough pad of his thumb, “What’s wrong?”

Why does he sound so urgent? Tian wondered.

“The oil,” Tian said, “it’s burning. You said—” He hiccuped, and Phupha’s face softened. He did that a lot now and when Tian saw it on his face, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He’d had girlfriends, and he’d had boyfriends, but nothing could prepare him for Phupha looking at him like that.

“It’s cold in here,” Phupha said simply, “you’re too co—” He stopped himself. “Don’t worry about it, Tian. Just go back to sleep.”

“Okay,” Tian yawned, too sleepy and drunk to complain. He rolled back over and Phupha went with him, his arm still wrapped around his waist. But it was less crushing as if he were hesitant now that Tian was awake.

Tian clutched Phupha’s arm harder until he got the hint, wrapping his arm around Tian more firmly so that their bodies were pressed together.

“I like this,” Tian admitted. He was bolder with liquid courage in his veins and staring at a wall instead of Phupha’s face.

There was a pause before Phupha asked, “What do you like?” in a low voice. Tian imagined the Chief saying it at a different time, in a different place, and he was glad that he was still drunk and couldn’t get hard.

“This.” Tian reached up to pinch at Phupha’s brawny forearm. He didn’t even flinch. “I know the ghosts won’t come when you’re here.”

“You’re not afraid of ghosts,” Phupha said, but Tian still felt him puff up against his back, adjusting and then tightening his hold on him. Tian bit back a smile. Men were so easy.

“You’re right, I lied. I like this because you’re warm.”

“That’s all?” Phupha sounded amused.

“No,” Tian slurred into his pillow.

I like this because you make me feel safe.

Luckily, he fell asleep before he could out himself with the embarrassing confession.

When Tian woke up the next morning, sunshine leaking through the wooden panels and a noticeable gap at his back, he was sure he had dreamt it all.

“Chief?” he called out, sitting up and stretching as he pawed at his eyes.

His only answer was the crow of a rooster from afar, and the muted whine of a dog.

“Figures,” Tian grumbled. He’d gone back to the ranger base. It was the weekend after all, and Phupha had already overextended himself during the week, chasing after Tian and fixing his screw-ups.

I shouldn’t be selfish, Tian thought. Of course, he’d want the rest of the weekend to himself.

But he was spoiled, so he still felt dejected and miserable as he padded outside. His eyes and his nose were immediately drawn to the dining table, which was covered in various dishes. A wicker basket of charred bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice, a china bowl of hot noodles, and a plate of omelettes stared back at him. It wasn’t special, but in Pha Pun Dao it was almost a feast.

“What is all this for?” Tian asked no one in particular. He still felt queasy and empty after vomiting, so he sat down and eagerly slurped the noodles. The hot food eased his churning stomach and made him feel less liable to throw up.

“What are you doing?”

Tian looked up, dropping his chopsticks. His heart jumped when he saw Phupha striding up the steps towards him, already dressed in his uniform.

He stayed.

“Chief,” Tian said, “you can’t be mad at me for eating your food when you left it on my porch. Besides—” Tian unwrapped a bamboo leaf and plucked a ball of sticky rice from the wrapper, waving it at him. “There’s more than enough to go around. Too much, actually.” Tian popped the piece into his mouth and made an audible satisfied noise. It really did taste better than the breakfast he was used to back home.

Phupha gave him a long look, his eyes following Tian’s chewing before he said, “I’m not mad. I just want to know why you’re not wearing a jacket. You should wear one. It’s still cold out.”

He wasn’t wrong, but it was an odd thing for him to worry about after throwing Tian into a freezing waterfall and his constant ribbing about how Tian was too soft to cut it in the village.

Tian wouldn’t fall for the bait. He pointedly ignored the goosebumps rising on his arms and tried to look nonchalant. Not like a soft city boy who couldn’t even handle a morning breeze.

“I’m fine,” he said, curtly. He patted the floor beside him. “Come eat with me. I can’t finish this all by myself. Seriously, why did you make all this? Is someone else coming over?”

Phupha gave him a dry look before he walked past him and into the hut. He strode outside a moment later with a blanket which he wrapped around Tian’s shoulders as he sat down beside him.

“I told you to stop being so disobedient,” Phupha said, as he tucked the edges around Tian’s shoulders. “When an older person tells you to do something, you do it.”

“I didn’t realize it was an order,” Tian said, tugging on the blanket and lowering his head to hide his red cheeks and his hesitance. He felt awkward and unsure with Phupha hovering over him, so close that he could feel his warmth even though they weren’t touching. How was he supposed to act after last night? He remembered vomiting and regretted drinking. Then he remembered rolling Phupha’s cheeks between his palms and strong arms wrapped around his waist, and he didn’t regret any of it.

“Everything I say is an order.”

“Yes, Chief,” Tian said mockingly before he took another bite of the sticky rice. After he was done chewing, he pushed the bundle towards Phupha.

Phupha stared at him and raised a brow.

“Eat,” Tian urged.

“Tian.”

“Come on.” Tian leaned in, pressing the rice against Phupha’s lips. “I can’t finish all this on my own. Eat.” The Chief stared down at him impassively, a smirk slowly spreading across his face, and Tian realized what he was doing. Hanging over Phupha’s lap with one hand on his thigh for purchase, nagging him to eat like he was his wife.

I’m not his wife, Tian thought, the moment Phupha took a bite.

“You really are a giant dog,” Tian said incredulously when he ate the entire ball in one bite. “Did you even chew?”

“I’m bigger than you,” Phupha said, “and I’m a ranger. Of course, I eat more.” He patted his stomach and licked a stray grain away from the corner of his mouth, almost touching Tian’s skin. Tian dropped his hand immediately, turning back to the table to calm his racing heart.

“I don’t take small delicate bites either,” Phupha added.

“My bites aren’t delicate,” Tian said until he realized he was picking at his sticky rice and nibbling, doing exactly what Phupha accused him of.

“Right.” 

Tian didn’t even need to look at Phupha to know he was smug.

He pointedly ignored him as he ate the rest of his breakfast, his cheeks burning from shyness and Phupha’s eyes boring holes into him as he ate, like he was the best entertainment in the village.

Does he have to look at me like that?

Even with his stomach emptied from half a bottle of tequila, Tian couldn’t finish it all.

“I’m done,” Tian said, smacking his lips.

“Are you sure? You should eat more.”

The Chief wasn’t even touching him, but Tian felt the same way he felt the night before, being crushed in his strong arms. It was unfamiliar but comforting—being doted on.

“I’m too full,” Tian said with an amiable smile, shaking his head.

Only when he said that did the Chief tuck in. He ate twice as fast as Tian, eating for maximum efficiency instead of taste.

He probably has a lot of things to do, Tian thought guiltily. And he’d side-tracked Phupha again, forcing him to carry Tian home and take care of him all night so he didn’t choke on his own vomit. Then he’d woken up early and made him this breakfast too.

“Hey,” Tian said slowly when Phupha was finished and wiping a wide hand across his mouth. “I want to say...thank you.”

Phupha stilled and stared at him, making Tian squirm.

“For taking me home, and cleaning me up. And for breakfast.” Tian ducked his head. “Thank you.”

“Well,” Phupha said after a moment, “this is a first.”

“What?”

“You thanking me without being prompted.” His words were teasing, but he sounded pleased.

“I know you don’t believe it,” Tian said, “but I know how to be thankful, Chief.”

“I like it,” Phupha said, and then he patted Tian’s head, his fingers sinking into the long strands. “Do it for me more often.”

Tian rolled his eyes but he couldn’t stop himself from leaning into Phupha’s hand, his long fingers firm, but gentle.

He met the Chief’s eyes and his smile faded, cowed by the intense look on his face, too charged for an early morning breakfast on a Sunday. It made Tian feel pinned, like a small animal held in the jaws of a much larger one.

“Well,” Tian said, softly, clearing his throat, “take care of me, and I’ll thank you more often.”

“Isn’t that what I’ve been doing?” Phupha asked.

“That’s why I thanked you,” Tian said, leaning in. Phupha had started stroking circles into the crown of his head, and it was making him feel drunk again. If he leaned in a little closer he could kiss him, but Tian wasn’t that brave. “But you’ve done enough for today.”

Tian stood, Phupha’s hand falling away, and he headed inside.

“It’s the weekend, Chief.”

“So?” Phupha followed behind him, striding inside and then leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed, keeping a watchful eye even as Tina took down his mosquito net and rolled up his bed mat.

“We’re both off the clock,” Tian said, “You don’t have to watch me. You can go do your laundry or watch your favourite drama or...I don’t know. Whatever you do in your spare time. Relax.”

Phupha smiled and asked, “What will you do then? Relax?”

Tian hooked his backpack over his shoulders before turning to him.

“I’m going to the city centre.” It was the only place he could stock up on his medication without anyone in the village knowing. “I need to buy some more...soap. And clothes.” They were easy lies.

Phupha’s smile fell, quickly replaced with a serious expression.

“I’ll take you.”

“It’s okay,” Tian said, “There’s a bus that goes to the city, you know? I checked with Yod. It comes every other Sunday. This is my lucky Sunday.”

“It’s dangerous,” Phupha said sternly, “Do you know how many times that bus has crashed just in the last year? You’re not taking it. I’ll take you.”

“Chief.” Tian crossed his arms, annoyed. He was trying to give the giant the weekend off and he was still complaining? “I can take the bus. I’m not that fragile.”

“Get your things and wait outside,” Phupha said, ignoring his protest and striding outside. “I’ll come back around with the jeep.”

“Chief! I’m taking the bus!” Tian called out as he followed him outside, but Phupha was already marching past the gate and down the dirt road. “This man...” Tian grumbled, splaying himself out on the steps. He hissed when his foot got caught on the faulty plank. He really needed to fix that.

Phupha arrived within fifteen minutes, his jeep rumbling in front of Tian’s house.

Tian begrudgingly jumped in, throwing his backpack in the backseat before he settled next to Phupha.

“I told you I was going to take the bus.”

“And I told you you’re not taking the bus. Put your seat belt on.”

“The bus station is just down the road so you can just—hey!” Tian whined when Phupha ignored him and reached across his chest, pulling the seatbelt over his waist. He held Tian’s eyes as he buckled him in, smoothing out the seatbelt and checking if it was secure, which wasn’t necessary. Tian’s skin tingled under his clothes, from where Phupha had touched him.

“You complain too much,” Phupha said before he sighed. “I’m taking you because I want to, okay? I don’t have any laundry to do or dramas to watch. It’s not a big deal.”

It is a big deal, Tian thought. Yod told him Phupha had put aside his duties to follow him around the other day, and now he was sacrificing his weekend too. It made him feel guilty and coddled, and he hated it. He was supposed to prove how self sufficient he could be, and here he was doing the same thing he did back home.

“You’re worried about me,” Tian teased, to distract himself, cheekily poking at the Chief’s side. 

“Yeah,” Phupha admitted, “What if I am?”

Tian faltered.

“The village already lost one teacher,” Phupha said sombrely, “I don’t want them to lose another one.”

The reminder of Torfun was like a bucket of cold water. Phupha wasn’t worried about him because he cared about him. Tian wasn’t special. He was only taking care of him because he felt guilty over Torfun’s death and he didn’t want to have to tell the kids they’d lost another one.

Tian blinked back tears as he looked down at his lap, his fingers sliding under the red string Phupha had wrapped around his wrist the night before. He looked at the Chief, but he didn’t look back, focused entirely on the road.

If you knew I had her heart in my chest, would you have still given this to me? Tian wondered. Would you still be my guardian? Would you even care about me at all?

Tian was afraid to open his mouth and find out. Instead, he closed his eyes and let the bumps of the road lull him into an uneasy dream.

 


 

When Tian woke, they were in the city. The screech of motorbikes and cars and the chatter of people were painfully loud compared to the silence he’d become accustomed to in the countryside. There was so much going on that it made his head ache as he clambered out of the car.

“It’s always like this,” Phupha said before Tian could say it aloud.

“Huh?”

“The noise,” Phupha explained. “After living in Pha Pun Dao...it’s hard to get used to all the noise in the city.”

“I never realized before,” Tian said, surprised, “how loud it really is.” Bangkok was ten times worse and it was the same at Tian’s home. There was always a phone at the dinner table, a TV blaring, or a maid or two within arm’s reach whispering amongst themselves.

“Born and raised in Bangkok, you’d never know,” Phupha agreed. “So then, where are we going?” he asked, leaning against his jeep. He looked hulking and out of place with his height and his ranger uniform, especially in the city. 

Tian smiled and playfully pinched his arm. “Come on, Chief. You don’t need to escort me too. This part I can do on my own and then we can meet back here in...” Tian looked down at his watch. “An hour for lunch?”

“Why wouldn’t I go with you?” Phupha asked, his brow furrowing. “I wasn’t the one who wanted to come out here. I have nothing to do.”

“Don’t you want to go buy something for yourself?” Tian tried, “Some new clothes...maybe?”

Phupha stared back at him blankly.

Why did he think that would work? Phupha was the least materialistic man he’d ever met. Nevertheless, Tian needed him to leave him alone so he could buy his meds.

“Ok, fine.” Tian sighed. “You can come with me. Just...don’t look so menacing. You look like a military escort.”

Phupha looked amused, but he nodded before they headed down the street. The Chief tried, walking with less importance than he did back in the village, but most people still gave them a wide berth. At least until someone shoved Tian as he rushed past them. Phupha quickly put a hand on the small of Tian’s back, drawing him to his side and looking unhappy. 

“Where are we going?” Phupha asked, “Let’s get out of here sooner rather than later. It gets dark up here sooner.”

“It’s only two,” Tian said with a roll of his eyes, but he couldn’t muster up much annoyance. Not when Phupha’s hand was holding him so firmly, gripping him high enough to be respectful, but low enough to be more than friendly. 

“We’re here.”

During the week he’d used the computer at the ranger base to look up pharmacies closest to the bus terminal where they’d parked, and this peeling and run-down pharmacy was the closest one.

“Why are we going to a pharmacy?”

“They sell toiletries too,” Tian lied, spinning out of his hold to stand in front of him. “I told you, I need to buy soap. Some lotion too.”

“Mmm,” Phupha said, “Okay.” He moved to go inside but Tian quickly pressed a hand to his chest.

“I can go by myself.”

Phupha gave him a suspicious look, and Tian regrouped.

“What’s going to happen to me inside a pharmacy?” Tian asked. “I’ll be right out!”

“Tian—”

Tian went inside before he could argue with him some more, and luckily, Phupha just crossed his arms and leaned against the door which he could see through the glass.

Good, Tian thought, sighing in relief. He didn’t know what he would have done if Phupha insisted on coming with him.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his prescription before heading to the pharmacy counter.

“Hello, Miss,” he said, nodding at the pharmacist before sliding her his script, “could I get this filled please?”

After a few minutes, his order was ready. He thanked the woman before loading the pill bottles into his bag, keeping one eye on Phupha who was still standing outside.

With a few minutes to spare, he wandered around the store, running his fingers along bottles of lotion and creams, before grabbing one. He needed to have something to show the Chief to back up his little white lie. Abruptly, Tian stopped in front of the rows of condoms.

I don’t need these, Tian told himself, I don’t. His eyes still lingered on the colourful boxes for a few seconds longer than necessary. Specifically, the ones with tacky gold L and XXL labels.

I am definitely getting ahead of myself, Tian thought, but he still thought of Phupha’s hips pressed against his backside and tried to guess which size would fit him best.

He was pulled away from the condoms by a familiar voice, and not the one he’d come with.

“We can never go back there, you do realize that, right? You fucked up.”

“How was I supposed to know the rangers were that close? It doesn’t matter, anyway. There’s another village fifteen miles west that’ll work just the same.”

The two men were three rows over but Tian could see them from his aisle. They were loading up on over-the-counter medication, sweeping entire rows of cheap, common medication like Tylenol and Aspirin into a small cart.

With the scam they tried to pull in Pha Pun Dao, Tian wouldn’t be surprised if they were stocking up to resell them for double the price to ignorant farmers in a different unfortunate village.

I should confront them, Tian thought. They’d still stolen buckets full of tea leaves from the villagers, speeding away before Phupha or the other rangers could stop them. But despite his resolve, Tian felt rooted in place, his hands trembling with phantom shakes. 

The mind was a powerful thing. His body had healed, but he still remembered being pinned to the ground and punched, and the way his blood had frozen when they pulled a knife on him.

Despite his self-destructive behaviour, Tian had lived a soft, sheltered life. He’d never gone through anything like that before.

“Tian.” A hand slammed into the wall next to his head.

Tian jumped, his heart in his throat, but it was Phupha standing over him, his hand pressed into the wall keeping him there.

“Are you done? You were taking too long.”

Tian’s tremors subsided now that Phupha was here, but he still felt cold and off-kilter. Phupha hadn’t noticed yet because he’d gotten distracted by the boxes behind him.

His face hardened. “I don’t know what you think they hired you to do in Pha Pun Dao, but you’re there to teach. Not...” Phupha waved at the condoms, disdainfully, a hard set to his jaw.

Tian couldn’t even explain that he wasn’t planning on sleeping with some naïve village girl because his body was still frozen with fear. Phupha must have read it on his face because the jealousy and anger faded, his eyes squinting as he looked at him more closely.

“What’s wrong?” Phupha asked, cupping his face. He looked over Tian’s shoulder and Tian knew when he saw the men because he stiffened. Phupha quickly pulled Tian’s head to his shoulder and turned them to the side so they were both hidden behind a shelf, or as hidden as they could be with Phupha’s height.

“Don’t look at them,” Phupha whispered in his ear, pushing Tian in front of him and herding him out, so if the men looked back, they’d only see Phupha’s broad back covering him.

Luckily, the men never spotted them. Tian let out a gasp of relief when the hot sticky air of the street hit his face, finally able to breathe. They sped walk down the street before turning onto another one, and then into an open alley.

“Are you okay?” Phupha asked, “They didn’t do anything to you?”

“No,” Tian said, shaking his head. “No...they didn’t. I wanted to say something, but when I saw them it’s like I...I couldn’t move.”

It humiliated him to admit it. It was so much easier to confront them the first time, when he was headstrong and naïve and didn’t have the memory of having a knife being shoved in his face.

“I should have done something,” Tian said, upset with himself. “I should have confronted them.”

“...what are you talking about?” Phupha asked. His tone was frighteningly angry without being loud.

“Tian, that’s what got you into trouble last time,” Phupha said harshly, backing Tian into the alley wall. His eyes were red-rimmed and dark, and Tian didn’t know why. Nothing had even happened. “The only thing you should have done was gone and got me. With your condition—” He hesitated, and Tian’s face turned white.

“With my condition,” Tian repeated, stunned. “You...” 

You know.

He got so dizzy he had to sit down, crouching on the curb with his head between his knees.

“Tian, what’s happening?” Phupha asked, kneeling in front of him. “Tian!?”

Tian’s face crumpled and Phupha’s face fell.

“Do you want me to leave?” Tian asked, struggling not to cry. It was futile because tears were trickling down his face and his chest felt like it was going to cave in on itself, his breath coming out in sharp gasps. “Now that you know, do you want me gone? Is that why you offered to take me to the city today?”

His mind was in overdrive, and he could only think of the worst-case scenario. That this was all a ruse, that Phupha hated him now, and that he was planning to leave him here instead of taking him back to the village.

“Calm down first,” Phupha said. He crouched down in front of him and pulled Tian’s head to his shoulder, enclosing him in his arms. Tian desperately clutched at his shoulders, and Phupha let out a noise of surprise before he held him back just as fiercely. “I’ve got you,” Phupha said, “I’ve got you, but you need to breathe.”

Tian struggled to listen, to not be so disobedient because that’s all he knew how to do.

“Match your breathing to mine,” Phupha ordered, as he pet the back of Tian’s head. Phupha’s breathing was steady and even, and held in his arms, it was easy for Tian to match it. After a few minutes, the tightness in Tian’s chest subsided and breathing became a little easier, even if tears were still escaping his eyes.

“That’s it,” Phupha said gently. He pulled Tian’s face away from his shoulder to wipe his tears away with his thumbs. His mother would have used a handkerchief, but Phupha didn’t care. It made Tian cry more, but it didn’t matter because Phupha wiped those away too. He was too gentle for someone so big.

“That’s a good boy.”

“I’m not...not a dog,” Tian sniffled, and Phupha smiled.

“You were the one who said you were a Pomeranian,” Phupha said, his voice low.

Tian giggled and some of the tension eased, along with the anxious panic. He couldn’t panic much with Phupha holding him tight and wiping his tears faster than they could fall.

“Listen to me closely,” Phupha said, leaning in so they were forehead to forehead. Tian inhaled and instinctively tried to pull back, to keep a proprietary space between them, but Phupha’s arms held him still. “I don’t want you gone. That’s the last thing I want.”

The relief that poured over Tian was warm and comforting.

“But I am angry.”

Tian stiffened and looked down.

Because of Torfun.

“Because why didn’t you tell me?” Phupha asked. Tian’s eyes darted back up to meet his gaze, surprised. Phupha looked anguished. There was no other word for it.

“If I knew you were recovering, I would have never taken you to the waterfall. I would never have taken you to eat at Khama’s. I wouldn’t have...” Phupha looked frustrated, his face scrunched up as he thought back on the past. “You should have told me. I would have taken better care of you.”

“What purpose would that have served?” Tian asked, “All the villagers already thought I was a spoiled rich boy, you included. If I arrived with a long list of medical problems, I would have been more of an outcast than I already was.”

“You should have told me,” Phupha repeated in a hard voice. “You wouldn’t have been an outcast. I wouldn’t have let that happen.”

“Do you know whose heart is in my chest?” Tian asked, with a manic giggle, “They would have sent me home the day I arrived.”

Phupha stared at him with wide eyes, and there was just enough shock in there for Tian to realize—Phupha hadn’t known. He might have known the broad strokes, but he hadn’t known the dark truth until just now.

Tian gulped and tried not to let the panic take hold of him for a second time.

“I had a heart condition,” Tian said, his voice shaking, “Torfun died the same night my heart started failing, and I got her heart and...I just wanted to know her.” He cried silently, remembering her smiling moon-cheeked photo and her journal entries, and how the villagers loved her. She was so beloved, and Tian had her heart in his chest.

He was a poor substitute.

“I wanted to know her,” Tian repeated, “but I met you, and the kids, and I regret it. I regret all of it.”

“Why?” Phupha asked gently.

“Because she should be the one here,” Tian insisted, “not me.”

There was a quiet moment, as quiet as it could get in a city alley, before Phupha said, “Oh, Tian.”

And then he gripped the back of Tian’s neck and kissed him. 

It was unlike any kiss Tian had ever had. Instead of booze, he tasted his own tears, and instead of a harsh clash of lips, there was only tenderness, Phupha’s fingers pressed into the curve of his neck, and his lips firm but open against his. Tian moaned in protest when he broke it to gasp against his mouth, the both of them out of breath. Tian pressed his hand to Phupha’s chest so he wouldn’t topple into his arms and felt his heart pounding through his thick uniform.

“Phupha,” Tian whined, and Phupha let out a shaky breath. It was the first time he’d said the Chief’s name. But more than that, it was the first time Tian had ever seen his strict man so unbalanced.

“Tian,” Phupha said before he kissed him once, and then twice, until they were both panting into each other’s mouths. It was Tian that stopped it, curling his fingers into Phupha’s collar and tugging until he got the hint because he needed to breathe.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Phupha panted against his lips, his voice rough from all the kissing, “I wouldn’t want anyone else here except you.”

Tian didn’t know how to respond after days of skirting around each other, days filled with longing looks, and unsaid words. He never expected Phupha to be the first one to speak.

“I like you,” Phupha confessed, “I might even—” He stopped and shook his head, and Tian wondered what he was going to say. “I’ve liked you since I first saw you, Tian. More than I’ve ever liked anyone.”

“I...I like you too,” Tian said, and it was an inadequate word to describe how he felt about Phupha. Like didn’t encapsulate how Tian wanted to be crushed in his strong arms until he couldn’t breathe, and how he wanted to trace the handsome lines of his face until he fell asleep.

“I miss Torfun, but she’s gone. She was gone the moment she got hit, and you getting her heart didn’t change that. Regretting it, when it wasn’t even your choice, is the same as regretting being alive. You shouldn’t regret anything.”

Phupha was right, but it was another thing to believe it when Tian had felt unworthy for so long. Not just after waking up after his transplant, but in the waiting room after the doctor told him his heart was failing, and in the months after where he tried to kill himself with reckless behaviour because he felt like he was already dead.

“Do you understand me?” Phupha asked, somehow stern, even with his lips still swollen from kissing.

Tian nodded, and Phupha leaned in and kissed his forehead.

“Good boy.”

Tian didn’t reprimand him for it this time, allowing himself to be doted on, even if he didn’t feel deserving yet. He felt more deserving than he had even a day ago, Phupha’s words a healing balm for his troubled mind.

“I never thought you’d be so good with words,” Tian croaked, “Chief.”

Phupha smiled. “I’m good with words when it matters.”

He helped Tian to his feet and wiped his face with his hands before brushing off his backside like he was a child.

“What happens now?” Tian asked. He wrapped his arm around Phupha’s tentatively and he curled it, giving Tian permission to hold on to his bicep.

“I’m going to call Dr. Nam,” Phupha said, “And you’re going to tell him everything. If you’re going to stay in the village, you’re going to have a doctor on call that knows your entire medical history. That’s not negotiable.”

Tian pouted but nodded. “Okay.” Dr. Nam wouldn’t tell the other villagers, and he was Phupha’s friend.

“And then we’re going to go home.”

Tian jolted. He was still used to thinking of his house back in Bangkok as home. The freezing mansion with more maids than family members, his father always locked away in his home office and his mother always at charity events, or hovering over him.

But then he remembered Phupha’s words from the night before.

Where we feel safe and happy, we feel like home.

The village still felt unfamiliar and new. Tian didn’t know the norms of the land or all of the villagers, or even feel like he belonged.

But he knew how Phupha made him feel. And maybe, for now, that was enough to make a home.

“Yeah,” Tian agreed, looking up at Phupha. “Let’s go home.”