Puen was used to being left behind. The first time it happened was when he stood in the doorway of his aunt's house, barely a meter tall, hiding behind his mother as her fingers carded through his hair gently, while his father stood a little far away, talking to his sister.
"We'll come back," they had promised. Back then, Puen didn't understand why they wouldn’t take him with them. He wanted to protest, to beg to not leave him alone, but like a good kid, he’d just nodded. His mother kissed his forehead while his father patted his head. And they were gone.
Years passed, and he thought of them less and less. "They wanted to live their lives as normal teenagers," his aunt told him when he got older. You were a mistake, he heard. He had often wondered about the reason they chose to bring him into the world, whether they spared his life because of their kindness or their fear of sinning, or if they ever loved him. It didn't matter anyway. Their faces had started to blur in his memories.
He moved out of his aunt’s house when he got older. The place was small. A bed, a small kitchen, and an attached bathroom. It was enough for him. Soon, his life fell into a routine. He would leave for school early, go to his part-time job in the evening, come back and have a cheap meal before going to bed. That was how his life moved along, colourless and boring.
That was until he met Singha.
He'd been sitting alone one summer night at the table behind his school. A group of guys from the school volleyball team were playing nearby. He watched them wistfully for a moment as he mindlessly scrolled through his phone. Suddenly, the ball hit his hand, slapping the phone out on the ground. The screen had cracked.
“Oh sorry, sorry,” the boy apologized profusely as he ran up to him. Puen inhaled deeply, shaking his head. He got up and hit the ball back towards the court.
“Whoa,” the boy exclaimed.
“You have a lot of strength.” Puen didn’t know how to respond so he just stood there awkwardly.
‘Wanna play with us?” he offered. Puen was hesitant but accepted nonetheless.
It turned out he was pretty good at volleyball. Exceptionally good, Singha would tell him.
“Wanna spike some more? I’ll set for you,” Singha offered.
Puen paused for a moment.
That had been the start of a beautiful friendship.
The other two guys, Nao and Leng had welcomed him into their little gang too. The four of them became inseparable after that. Jern, a girl from his neighbourhood, soon joined them. She always doted on him. He had never understood the reason for her kindness. All of them played and laughed and made dreams about the future together. This was the most fun he’d ever had. His days had gotten livelier. He bought an aquarium for his place and a framed photo of his volleyball team adorned his side table. He was happier than he’d ever been in his life. Puen silently prayed that this would last forever.
Singha was more than just a friend to Puen. It was the first real connection he made in his life. He came into Puen’s life and offered companionship when he needed it the most, and had taken him under his care when no one else would. He had introduced Puen to volleyball, his passion. For that, Puen would always be grateful.
One time, Singha had found Puen crushed, barely holding himself together, on the day his father visited his aunt after ages. He had apparently remarried and had another son. He didn’t even mention Puen. But he had talked about his mom. She was getting married to a foreigner. He had never felt so alone and worthless.
“No one wants me,” he’d wept like a lost child. “What the hell am I to them?” He’d long since stopped expecting anything from his parents, yet he didn’t know why it still hurt so much.
“I’m all by myself now.”
Singha had pulled him in his arms as he quietly sobbed. “Puen. Listen to me,” he’d said gently. “You’ve got me… and you have the team too. Hell, I can even be your dad, if you want.” Puen looked at him through teary eyes. Singha stayed by his side until he’d calmed down, letting him take all his frustration out on the volleyball field. Puen had realized then that Singha might mean more to him than a friend.
“You’re the one whom I really want to be with,” Puen said softly as he tilted his head to look at him.
They were sitting on the floor of the gym, exhausted. Singha blinked at him for a moment, smiled and nodded quietly in response. Puen didn’t know if Singha understood what he meant. He slowly moved his hand until it touched Singha’s. Singha didn’t react, but didn’t pull his hand away. Being together like this was enough. For now. They had sat there for a long time, fingers touching, as dying rays of the sun filtered through the high windows. Puen really believed it would last.
But ultimately, Singha left.
Puen had felt betrayal for the second time in his life. They were supposed to win the championship together. They were supposed to plan their future together. But Singha left like everyone else in his life after promising to stay. Puen swore off promises forever after that.
Then came Than. Like a blazing fire and raging storm.
On their very first meeting, he’d managed to get on Puen’s nerves. He was still getting over Singha's betrayal and suddenly this new guy was here to take his place after getting rejected by St. Sebastian's. On top of that, he was late to their first practice. How shameless.
Than was everything Singha was not. Singha was sweet and kind, and an amazing setter. But this new guy was brash and tardy. He lacked the strength and precision Singha had. Yet, he was slowly replacing Singha. His position. His shirt number. His bed. How dare he? It made his Puen’s blood boil.
So, he lashed out. He deliberately hit Than in the face, to punish him or to make him quit, he didn’t know. He realised it was wrong of him to do so, but he just couldn’t stand it. He taunted Than every chance he got and mocked his setting abilities.
“If you set the ball like this, it’ll always get blocked,” Puen jeered at him during their first seniors vs juniors practice.
He knew his words got under Than’s skin and the other was just pretending to be calm. Than went in for a set and replaced it with a dump at the last moment, scoring a point. He looked at Puen with a smug smile on his face, as if to challenge him. Puen glared back in irritation.
After the match, Coach Win revealed the starting line-up for the tournament. “Than, I’m putting you in as the setter,” he announced. Than beamed with joy and the other guys cheered for him. All except Puen who was next to him, seething in rage.
“Excuse me, sir,” Puen protested. Than’s smile dropped as he turned to look at him. “Why are you putting Than in?” From the corner of his eyes, he could see Than glaring daggers at him.
He didn’t get why Coach wouldn’t put Earth in the team when he’s played with them longer. Coach Win explained how Earth only ever set the ball to Puen and that made their opponent read them like a book. Puen understood what the coach meant, yet he refused to accept it, walking away after the coach dismissed them.
“Do you have a problem with me?” Than had cornered him shortly after. He wasn’t surprised. Than was bound to cross him at some point.
“Yes,” he confessed simply. “I doubt you have what it takes.”
“You’ll know soon,” Than declared with fiery eyes and left. Puen continued to glare at him as he moved away.
Jern rounded all of them for a group picture. Puen and Than stood side by side with hands on their knees, refusing to look at each other. Both of them stared ahead intensely as the camera clicked.
The week-long volleyball camp began shortly after. All the boys were excited for practice as they chatted animatedly and scurried to get to their beds. Puen looked at Singha’s empty bed next to him. He was broken out of his thoughts by a duffel bag thrown unceremoniously on the bed as Than flopped down on it. Puen stared at him in disbelief. Than noticed his gaze and looked back quizzically. Puen could do nothing but inhale deeply to calm himself. He looked away and started to unpack his own things.
“Is it really that hard to set a ball that I can hit?” Puen sneered at Than after their umptieth failed attempt. Coach Win had scolded them for their lack of synchrony. It was getting frustrating.
“This is how I’ve always set the ball,” Than countered. “Others don’t have a problem with it. When are you going to stop being biased?”
“I’m not biased,” Puen denied, “but I can’t play if you keep on setting like that.”
“How do you want me to set it then?” Than snapped in frustration. Everyone was starting to gather around them.
“The setter has to set the ball for the setter to spike,” he said while scoffing, “so if you can’t do it, then what do I need a setter for?”
Than was too stunned to speak. He had hit a nerve and it gave Puen a sick sort of pleasure.
“Just admit that you suck,” he taunted further, a mocking smile on his face.
“Hey, you’ve taken it too far,” Than was seething.
“Why? Are you mad?” he snorted. “If you can’t accept it then just go home.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’m not letting you stay. Go run back to your mother!” his voice echoed through the court. That was what pushed Than over the edge.
“Hey!” Than shouted back. “What do you want from me, huh?!” He demanded heatedly as he shoved Puen. “What do you want?!”
“You suck this much. If you stay and play it like this, you’re just setting us back.”
He knew he was being purposely difficult. This tournament meant a lot to him and his team, so he wanted Than to leave if he wasn’t serious. He believed Than wasn't loyal to Theppanya as he had only chosen to come here because St. Sebastian had rejected him. He didn't have much to lose in this battle. It irked Puen to no end. Than got under his skin for reasons he couldn’t explain. That guy was incredibly resilient. Every time Puen taunted him, tried to make him quit, Than stood his ground and fought back just as hard. He was replacing Singha, and a part of Puen, like a wounded animal, was lashing out in defence. It was unfair to Than, but he was too blinded with rage and hurt to see it.
“I’m not surprised St. Sebastian didn’t accept you,” he smirked cruelly and stepped closer, their faces just inches apart. “Such a sorry loser.”
“Screw you!” Than yelled and punched him squarely in the face. Before the fight could escalate, Coach Win broke them up and their teammates held them back.
Coach was furious and ended up banning them both from their first match. Their team lost the game as they could only watch helplessly from the bench.
They were boarding the bus back to school when Puen saw Than apologizing to Coach Win. He had looked desperate and determined to give his all. The coach accepted his apology and agreed to give them another chance. Than looked back and met his eyes. Puen held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. He felt Than’s eyes on him even after he got on the bus.
Puen was the one to extend an olive branch that night. After a gruelling practice, everyone was knocked out. Puen looked at Than who was sitting on his bed, shirtless with headphones in his ears, as he tended to his bruises. Puen contemplated for a moment. They had to work together if they had any chance of winning the tournament and facing St. Sebastian in the finals. Than had asked for another chance from the coach. He had looked serious. He supposed he should give him a chance too. Finally giving in, he sat up from his bed and tapped Than’s leg.
“Let’s go practice,” he left for the gym without waiting for an answer. He knew if this tournament meant as much to Than as it did to him, he’d follow.
And Than had indeed followed.
They tried to work on their set spike combo but it still wasn't working. “Do you wanna win?” He asked Than tiredly after yet another argument. Than was quiet. He looked at the ground and sighed. When he looked up, there was newfound determination in his eyes.
“How about this,” he began, “when you say ‘high’, how high?”
Puen walked up to him. “Do you see that smudge,” he pointed at the wall on his right. Than looked up and indeed there was a smudge very high up on the wall.
“That’s what I mean when I say high. If you’ve got enough strength, you’ll reach it.”
“Who can set it that high?” Than said in exasperation.
Puen was silent for a moment. “Well, someone can,” he answered curtly and walked back to his place.
Than practiced his setting every chance he got. Puen would catch him trying to reach for the smudge on the wall before class, during his lunch break, late into the night. He also didn’t miss the growing number of bruises on his hands and arms. Coach Win caught him staring one time and asked, “How are things going?”
“He’s still inconsistent, coach,” he sighed. “He also doesn’t have enough strength.”
“Try using this instead,” Coach Win said, handing him a basketball.
“Why don’t you give it to him yourself,” Puen was confused. Coach win looked at him like he was stupid.
“I’m not the one standing by him on the court,” he chided.
Puen looked away and sighed. He went up to Than and threw the basketball at him. Than caught it swiftly and gave him a puzzled look.
“If you keep practicing like this, you’ll never be able to set that high,” he taunted and walked away. He admitted he could have been more polite in his attempt at encouragement, but he found it awkward to be nice to Than, so this would have to do.
They were warming up for their practice match. Girls from their fan club had brought them snacks and the guys were busy trying to impress them. Leng was doing push ups with one hand as the guys cheered him on and the girls giggled. Next up was Nao who also started to show off. Puen ignored them while he stretched, a smile on his face as he shook his head at his teammates’ silly antics. They are hopeless. He slowly turned his head to look when it was Than’s turn, who had now started doing finger push ups. Puen silently took in his form. Than’s hard work had really paid off if he had built this much strength in his hands. It was truly admirable. He realized he was staring when Nao clapped his hands to bring everyone’s attention to their upcoming match. He immediately straightened up and looked away. As Nao was talking, Puen’s eyes strayed away one more time towards Than who was gazing at his hands with a determined look in his eyes. Puen looked away again.
Coach Win had gotten furious with them again. They still couldn’t make it work.
“Can I try again?” Than desperately requested.
“That’s enough!” The coach yelled at him. Puen shifted his eyes from the coach to Than in concern. “You two go and get yourself together,” he declared while leaving.
Than looked crestfallen. He bit his lip and looked down. This wasn’t the first time Coach had yelled at them, but something about the lost and insecure look on Than’s face unsettled Puen. The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“C’mon, cheer up,” he clapped, trying to lift his spirit. He couldn’t believe what he had just done. He’s not sure if Than had heard him as he still looked lost in his own thoughts. They went back to practice.
The next time Puen saw Than was on the same night. He had arrived at the gym for their usual practice when he heard quiet sobbing from the locker room. He took a few steps ahead and saw Than dressed up and standing in front of his open locker. He heard quiet sobbing. Puen was taken aback. He’d never seen Than cry, not even when his face got smashed with a volleyball multiple times.
“Damn it!” Than slammed the locker, startling him. He took a few hesitant steps forward, debating leaving him alone and coming back at a more appropriate time. That would be the sensible thing to do. What he did instead was intelligently remarking, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Than went still. He shook his head slowly but didn't respond.
“Why are you dressed like that?” He tried again awkwardly. Than still gave no response. He wiped his tears quickly and harshly, still facing away from him and began to uncuff his dress shirt.
“... See you at court,” he asked a bit unsurely. Than gave him a weak nod. Puen took it as his cue to leave.
Than entered the court after some time. Puen noticed his swollen eyes. There was a bruise rapidly forming on his cheek. He was at a loss for words. He wanted to dislike Than, but the boy standing before him felt so vulnerable and fragile. He couldn’t explain why but he really hated this look on Than.
“Give it a try,” he threw a basketball towards him. They moved to the wall and Than tried to make the ball reach the smudge on the wall. He ended up missing it by a mark.
“Take it easy,” he tried to calm him down.
“A little bit more,” he encouraged softly when Than misses again.
The ball hits the target at the next try.
“Yes!” Puen cheered. “That’s it,” he smiled but it faltered when he looked to his side. Next to him, Than’s face was empty as he stared ahead. Puen made a decision then.
“Hey,” he called out. “Go stand by the pole.” Than gave him a puzzled look.
“Go,” he repeated.
They moved to the net. “Ready?” Puen asked with a volleyball in his hands.
“Are you gonna set?” Than spoke for the first time that night. Puen inwardly cheered.
“Yeah, and you are going to spike.”
Than still looked sure but nodded anyway.
“Is that all you got? You gotta hit it harder.” Puen said after Than hit a spike half-heartedly.
“What do you want from me?!” Than snapped angrily.
Puen stayed calm. “Just do as I say. When you hit the ball, whatever it is you have pent up, let it all loose.” Than looked at him for a moment and then took a deep breath. He hit the next spike with everything he had.
“Damn it!” he yelled, slowly falling to the floor. He hid his face in his arms wrapped around his knees and violently sobbed. Puen could only stand there and watch him quietly. He had done what he could. Whatever was troubling him, Than needed to let it all out. He patted his shoulder gently and left, looking back at him as he did.
At that moment, Puen realized he didn’t know anything about Than. Maybe he had judged him too harshly and too soon. His life, his motivation, the reason for his breakdown were all a mystery to him. He would never admit it, but he found himself wanting to know all these things about Than. He blamed it all on morbid curiosity.
Things got easier between them after that. They eventually perfected their combo and the team won the second match of the tournament. Everyone was ecstatic. The guys hugged each other on the court and jumped with joy. Than met his gaze across the court, making Puen raise his eyebrows and nod in approval. Than smiled and nodded back.
Than was talking with his brother on the phone as Puen sat next to him on the bench.
“Umm… did dad watch the match too?”
There was silence on the other side. Puen had an idea that Than didn’t get along with his family, particularly his father. He noticed Than avoided going home even on the weekends, leaving the both of them alone at the dorms.
Than hummed. “I got my answer. I’m not going back home this week. Talk to you later,” he ended the call, took a deep sigh and looked at the ground. Puen saw him and once again got the uncontrollable urge to cheer him up.
“You played well today,” he said nonchalantly while untying his shoes. “Hope it’s just not for one day.”
Than looked at him and smirked, “Just wait and see.”
Puen inwardly sighed in relief when he managed to make Than smile.
They ended up getting in trouble with Coach Win because of some teammates who snuck alcohol on camp. Coach punished Puen with an extra five laps around the field as he had failed to reinforce the rules as captain.
“I don’t think that’s fair, Coach!” Than immediately came to his defence, much to Puen’s surprise.
“If it’s unfair, then you run with him!” The coach yelled.
“You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut, huh?” Puen nagged him as both of them were running laps, entirely soaked by the rain.
“It’s understandable that we’re all punished together,” Than said, “but I’m not okay with you having to run all by yourself.”
Puen’s heart skipped a beat. He was surprised at Than standing up for him, but hearing him say these words was ever more shocking. Puen didn’t know Than cared about him. He was still staring when they were interrupted by a loud voice.
“Hey, guys,” Leng and Nao came up to join them after bargaining with the coach. They all ended up running a lap together. Puen was grateful for such good friends.
Puen met Than’s family the next day by incident. Than had gotten sick from the rain and threw up during practice. Puen took him away to get him cleaned up. When they exited the bathroom, they were shocked to see Than’s family standing outside.
“You look terrible,” his father remarked coldly.
“Are you okay?” his brother was the one who asked in concern.
Than looked at Puen. “You can go ahead.”
Puen could sense the tension in the air. He looked at the father, gave one last glance to Than before nodding and walked away. Instead of leaving, he ended up eavesdropping on a hunch. Than’s father was disappointed upon seeing him in such a sorry state. He was furious as he yelled at him for wasting his life and career by choosing volleyball. They argued loudly back and forth, his father threatening to kick him out if he didn’t quit. In a fit of rage, Than screamed,
“Fine! I don’t plan on going back anyway. Home is worse than here.”
His father was shocked into silence. Than started to walk away, failing to hold back his tears. “Than, remember your words!” His father shouted at his retreating back. “Don’t you come back!”
Puen saw Than crying for the second time that day. He felt he understood him a lot more now.
Puen brought Than medicine that night. He scrolled idly through his phone as Than swallowed the pill with some water. He waited for a bit before smiling lightly and saying,
“Your father is really fierce.”
“You saw that, right?”
He nodded. “Just playing volleyball… Why all that anger?”
Than explained how his father doesn’t want him to play. He had tried convincing him many times but he just refused to understand. Puen asked him to just show his father that he’s serious about volleyball. Than had exclaimed in frustration that he had been trying all this time but he just wouldn't listen. Having a father like him was such a pain. He hated him.
Puen slowly looked up from his phone at his words. “Well, at least you have a father to hate,” he smiled humourlessly. Than looked at him in shock.
They both stay silent after that.
Coach Win left the team after an incident with one of the team members, Pete. Puen had the responsibilities of the coach as well as captain on his shoulders now. Thankfully, the team was pulling through after minor inconveniences. They were still trying to get coach Win to come back but they hadn’t succeeded.
One day after a gruelling practice, Leng declared that their uniforms were ready. “Who’s gonna fetch them?” Everyone avoided his gaze. His eyes landed on Than and he smirked.
“Than, you go.” Than’s eyes widened. “You made fun of me a lot today. Go get our uniforms with Puen.”
Than whined that everyone made fun of him, but ultimately agreed.
They were leaning on Puen’s bike waiting for the clothes, their shoulders brushing against each other.
“Didn’t know you cared about others. I’ve never seen it before,” Than mused, referring to the time Puen gave advice for Bombe’s nosebleed during practice that day.
“Is it weird?” Puen asked in mock confusion. It was nice. Sharing this easy banter with Than.
Than snorted, “Yeah, it’s weird… for someone like you,” he grinned while looking at him.
“Why? What’s wrong with someone like me?” he whined, almost pouting. Almost.
Than huffed, “Let’s not get into it. It’ll drag on,” Than looked away, a fond smile still on his face. Puen blinked. It was a nice smile. He caught himself staring again. He didn’t have time to ponder on that thought as Leng’s mom walked up to them with the clothes.
Puen handed Than his helmet as they sat on the bike.
“I’m going to grab some fresh soy milk for the guys. They’ve practiced hard today.”
“Wow,” Than smirked cheekily. “You’re being mellow again.”
Puen rolled his eyes. Suddenly, an idea for revenge sprang in his mind. He started the engine and gave the bike a jerk. Than yelped as he collided against his back and grabbed his shoulder.
“P!” He cried out. “I almost fell. Drive nicely,” he whined. It was cute. Puen smiled, satisfied with himself. He could get used to this.
They won the next match. Everybody celebrated as the crowd cheered. Overwhelmed with joy, before he knew it, he had pulled Than into his arms, hugging him tightly. Than was stunned for a moment, but Puen felt him slowly move his arms across his back and hug him back just as tightly.
They sat together on the bus back to school. The team was fired up for their final match. Soon, everyone was chanting for revenge. Than joined them. Puen smiled quietly.
The final match was in a week. Ms. Best had given three tickets each for the finals. Puen saw Than giving his away to their teammates who had asked for extra tickets.
“Don’t you think your family will want to come and watch you?”
Than who was busy scrolling through his phone, looked up and nonchalantly said, “Nah.”
Puen could see through his act of indifference. He decided not to pry. Instead he asked, “You're not going home, right?”
Than shook his head.
“Let’s get something to eat then. I'll have to stop by my place.”
“Hey, why did you bring me here!” Than whined as Puen stopped the bike in front of his house.
“At least, tell your family you made it to the finals,” Puen scolded him.
Than grumbled and looked away.
“They’re your family after all. Go. Stop dawdling.”
Than sighed defeatedly and got off the bike.
Puen saw Than speak with his brother with a gentle smile on his face. Than getting pampered by his brother was endearing to watch. His brother hugging him made something twist in Puen's heart.
They had dinner afterwards and headed back to his place. Than was shocked to learn that he lived alone. He eagerly looked around. Puen rolled his eyes at his excitement.
“Whoa! Best spiker award,” Than announced cheerily as he picked up his award from the side table. Puen cheeks burned from embarrassment.
“Don’t mess around, dude. Just sit still,” he tried to act annoyed. For once in his life, he was grateful to the landlord for cutting his electricity.
“Oh,” Than remembered something, “ Ms. Best gave us our group photo the other day. There is one for you.” He hummed in response as Than put the picture on his table.
“What did you mean when you said you live alone?” Than suddenly asked. “Did your parents die?”
Puen stopped sifting through his clothes. “Even if they aren’t dead, it seems like it,” he replied casually.
“Damn. That’s wicked,” Than remarked intelligently. Not the response he was expecting, but Puen supposed it was appropriate.
“How so?” he pried further.
Puen sighed deeply. “What’s with all the questions?”
“Well, I just wanna know,” Than replied innocently. “We’re on the same team, don’t forget.”
“I’ve never told anyone about it. Why do I have to tell you?”
“Well…” Than pauses for a bit. “I’m the setter and you are the spiker,” he declared like that explained it. Puen wanted to laugh.
Than went on about how they were supposed to be best buddies who tell each other everything by virtue of their positions. He had even told him about his dad. So it was only fair that Puen told him about his family. But sensing Puen’s reluctance, he gave up, but not before confidently proclaiming that he could just tell him when they got even closer.
Puen processed it for a moment. They had never called each other friends before. Even though they had started off on the wrong foot, they had eventually gotten close. Something had changed after Than’s breakdown in the gym. The animosity between them was replaced by a mellowness he couldn’t quite explain. They spent a lot of time together even outside practice as they were the only ones left at the dorms during weekends. He supposed they were friends. But best friends? He wasn’t sure. Than had casually implied that they would stay together long enough in the future for him to open up about his feelings. He felt a tug on his chest. These words carried a promise which both frightened and gave hope to Puen. He got off the floor.
“You're such a chatterbox,” he remarked dryly as he walked towards the window and leaned on the railing. Than looked towards him, pointing his phone in his direction.
“Put it down, you’re blinding me,” he said, annoyed.
“Sorry, sorry. I just can’t see things,” Than apologized.
Puen took a deep breath and began, “When I was a kid, my parents left me with my aunt-” he heard a chuckle.
“So you are gonna tell me?” Than snickered.
This cheeky bastard. “Are you gonna listen to it or what?” Puen deadpanned.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Than got serious.
So, he told him. About his parents leaving. How Theppanya was more of a home to him than his actual place, the people there more of a family to him than his actual relatives.
“Me included?” Than curiously asked.
Puen raised his eyebrow at his confidence. “Not at first,” he replied honestly. Than smiled softly to himself, apparently satisfied with the answer.
“How did you start playing volleyball?” he inquired.
He told him about how he met Singha and how he left.
“Your life is jinxed, huh? People keep breaking their promises to you.”
Puen was too stunned to speak. Than looked like he regretted his words the moment they were out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding guilty.
“When we get back there, you choose some for yourself. I’ve packed extra clothes for you,” Puen changed the subject and walked away from the window. Than sat there seemingly with nothing to say.
Despite Than's insistence, Puen didn't believe that his family would not want to come watch him play. He had gotten them all tickets, just in case. Than didn't have to know.
Ms. Best treated them to dinner that Sunday. He sat beside Jern, who was doting over him like usual. Than was sat on his other side. Jern went up to the stage on a dare in exchange for a wish. She sang her heart out. It wasn’t great by any means but her confidence made up for it. All the guys were cheering her on. When she got back and excitedly asked him how it was, he didn’t hide his embarrassment.
Jern’s smile faltered and he missed the hurt look on her face.
”Well, what is your wish?” he asked her.
Jern smiled quietly. “I wish you… to be happy. Happy birthday, Puen.” Everyone around him started clapping and cheering. Than was as shocked as him but clapped and cheered along with the rest. They revealed that this dinner was supposed to be his birthday celebration. Puen was grateful. He didn’t think anyone would remember.
At the end of the night, Jern’s car had broken down so he was there to keep her company until the mechanic arrived. They were joking around when Jern asked him suddenly, “What is your type?”
He was unwilling to answer at first but decided to indulge her after she insisted.
“If I like spending time with someone and it feels good, that’ll do,” he answered honestly.
Jern had kept on questioning. He continued to humor her.
‘Boy or girl?” She laughed.
“If it feels right, all’s ok,” he smiled back at her.
Jern was shocked. “That's deep,” she said in disbelief and became quiet.
“What is your type?” Puen asked her.
There was a long pause. “You,” she muttered softly.
He gave her a bewildered look. “You're being funny,” he replied, baffled. The mere idea of her liking him sounded ridiculous.
“Jern,” the mechanic had arrived then.
Once again, he missed the heartbroken look on Jern’s face. After Jern’s car was fixed, that was Puen’s cue to leave. He said goodnight to her and headed back to the dorm, unaware of the weeping girl he left behind.
Than was in the shower room when he arrived at the dorm. There was a sad song playing on the phone while he bathed.
“I didn’t know it was your birthday,” Than mentioned quietly.
Puen gave a nonchalant shrug.
”Do you want anything?” Than asked him as he dried his hair with the towel.
Puen raised his eyebrow and pondered for a moment. “I wanna be the champ.”
Than gave a small laugh. “Sure. I’ll promise I’ll make our team the champ.”
“Don’t promise,” he looked at Than.
“Just make it happen.”
Than stared back at him before nodding silently. Puen went back to washing but still felt the weight of Than’s gaze on him for a while longer.
He was awoken by a phone call. Singha had been in a road accident and was now in the hospital in critical condition. Puen felt his world crash down.
They had rushed to the hospital. Puen wailed while holding on to the door of the operation theatre, while Leng, Nao and Jern tried to comfort him. They were all sobbing. All the anger had evaporated and all Puen wanted was for Singha to wake up. To stand across from him on the court. He had to live because he still had to beat him.
But Singha was not waking up and Puen lost all motivation to play. He became a shell of his former self. He skipped practice and didn't attend class. He knew his friends were worried about him, but he couldn't bring himself to care about anything. Than had called him multiple times but he hadn’t picked up. He ended up slamming his phone on the floor.
They confronted him eventually. He was sitting at a cafeteria table when he was cornered by Nao, Leng, Jern and… Than. Why him?
They asked him about his reason for skipping practice. He told them the truth. With Singha gone, he didn't know what to compete for anymore. He begged them to realise that Singha was the one who made him dream about the future. It was all pointless without him. His friends were furious. It was understandable. They had felt betrayed and lied to. They questioned if their promise even meant anything to him in the first place.
“It’s not like that,” he tried weakly. “You’re all important to me-”
“But Singha is more important,” Nao cut him off firmly, tears streaming down his cheek.
He had nothing to say in return. The contempt felt well deserved. They were hurting and it was his fault. Leng had punched him out of frustration. Jern tried to hold him back as she cried silently. Puen didn’t defend himself. He probably deserved that too.
“When Singha told us he’s leaving, I told him that he was selfish. But you’re even more selfish than him!” Leng accused him angrily. “If you don’t want to compete, that’s fine. But I will because I made a promise to my friends,” he declared, turning around.
“Let’s go. What a waste of time.”
Leng and Nao left. Than had remained quiet, but his gaze was piercing. Puen had not met his eyes the entire time.
Than walked up to him. “Singha is so important to you…” his lips trembled as he began, “that you are unable to see all the others around you?”
Puen still couldn’t look him in the eyes.
“Huh?!” Than provoked him as his voice got louder. “Is he so important that you forget what we’ve all been together?”
Jern tried helplessly to calm him down, putting her hand on his shoulder. Puen finally looked at him. There was hurt and betrayal in those eyes. He looked away again, still unable to say anything.
“You said we were like a family to you… Why did you say that?!” He demanded angrily. “Why say such things when you are going to leave everyone?!”
The hurt was evident in his voice. Puen took deep breaths and tried to blink away his tears, as he stared back at him.
“You said people are always leaving you,” Than stepped closer, their faces only inches apart. ”But you are just doing the same,” he said bitterly.
Puen saw red. “Are you done?!” He snapped, grabbing Than’s collar.
“Why?!” Than retorted. His breathing had gotten rapid, his face flushed red.
“Please, guys,” Jern pleaded helplessly as the situation escalated.
“It’s the truth! Wanna punch me? Do so,” Than challenged. Puen stared at him furiously.
“Do it!” Than snapped and shoved him angrily.
“Do it!” he yelled again. Puen’s throat tightened as he clenched his fist. he couldn’t find the strength to do it.
“I’ve always thought that you wanted to win together,” Than’s voice cracked as he held back his tears, “but all that you’ve done,” he paused, ”is just to get back at someone who left you.”
Puen was stunned. Than’s words had stabbed through his chest, piercing his heart. His eyes trembled.
“Shit,” Than cursed like he couldn't believe it. “Such a wimp you are,” he said mockingly as he shoved Puen’s hand away and turned around to leave.
Puen couldn’t move. He was alone once again in his life. But this time, it was his own fault.
Puen was sitting on his bed with his back against the wall. It was almost midnight. The light from the aquarium bathed everything in a blue hue, quiet drone of television the only noise in the room. Recent events kept replaying in his head. Singha in the hospital. Nao and Leng’s hurt faces. Jern’s crying. Than. His piercing gaze. Those eyes had always made him feel vulnerable. Seen. He hadn’t meant to lose his temper, but Than always managed to get a rise out of him. He couldn’t get his words out of his head. Was it true? Everything he did was to get back at someone who had betrayed him. Perhaps it was. He picked up the group photo from his side table that Than had left for him. He stared at it longingly. Than’s fierce eyes stared right back. Both of them really couldn’t stand each other back then. How fast the time had changed. These people were his family. It was a fact that Theppanya would always be his home. And now, he had ruined everything. He had taken them for granted out of his selfish need for revenge. He had broken his promise to the team and hurt his friends. He was in no position to feel betrayed or angry with someone when he had done the exact same thing.
He had been the happiest when he got to play volleyball with his teammates. But was he allowed this happiness anymore when Singha lay unconscious in the hospital? He was the one who had introduced this happiness into his life and now there was no certainty that he himself would ever wake up. His attention shifted to the television when an interview with St. Sebastian’s coach played. He said Singha’s absence hadn’t affected the team much and they’d still won the game. Puen’s thoughts turned to static. The thought of Singha being so easily replaceable made him sick to his stomach. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head against the wall and tried to calm himself.
That’s when he heard a thump against his wall. Confused, he got up from his bed and slowly walked up to the window. He was shocked to see Than standing outside in his uniform jersey, throwing a volleyball against his window. He stopped when he noticed Puen.
“Puen,” he began carefully after a moment.
“You told me to set the ball with precision, I can do it already. And I can set it way higher than that smudge too.” He looked at Puen intently.
“So?” Puen said simply.
Than took a deep breath. He mentioned that everyone on the team was practicing hard. They had gotten a lot better.
“What about you?” Than asked him, “what have you been doing?”
Puen wasn’t ready for this conversation again. He turned around to leave.
“Hey!” Than called out hurriedly, making Puen stop.
“I didn’t come to pester you,” he paused and shook his head lightly. “You said that you don’t want to play in the final round because Singha isn’t there to compete with you… and you don’t know what to compete for.” He paused again as he seemed to prepare himself for his next words.
“I understand,” he admitted in frustration. Puen was speechless. He didn’t expect Than to say something like this.
“That’s your problem,” Than continued. “But it’s my problem too, you know.”
Puen still didn’t know what to say.
“You think I’m okay with you being like this?” He asked, frustrated. “I’m not!”
Puen averted his eyes, taking a deep breath as tears threatened to well up.. He didn’t understand why Than was saying such things.
“I know that you won’t listen to anyone right now,” Puen looked back at him. Than’s eyes hadn’t once left him.
“But I want to listen to you,” he pleaded softly.
Puen looked away again and tried to blink back his tears. “I’ve said it all,” he said harshly. “There’s nothing else to say.”
“I know,” Than replied. Puen watched him as his confusion and irritation grew. What did Than want from him?
“So you can leave then,” he shot back.
“I’m not going!” Than said defiantly, as he stared with determination. “I’m not leaving you like the others.”
Puen was struck speechless again. Than had managed to reach into his heart and peer at his deepest insecurities. All his life, he had feared that people would always leave him behind, that he’d be all alone in the end. Than had seen all that and refused to do the same. He wouldn’t leave him alone even when Puen actively tried to force him out. Hope threatened to break his resolve. Overwhelmed with emotion, he couldn’t look at Than any longer. He turned around and walked away from the window.
Than held back his tears. He had poured his heart out but still failed. His shoulders hunched, as he turned around to leave. He turned back in surprise when he heard the front gate open. His face lit up immediately when he saw Puen standing there. Puen's gaze softened on seeing Than’s face.
“Do you have anything else to say?” he asked instead.
“On your birthday, I made you a promise, and you told me not to promise but to make it happen.”
“This is it,” Than proclaimed.
“I’m gonna do it.”
Puen showed up to the match. He had a promise to keep. Everyone was relieved to see him. Nao and Leng grilled him a little, but were happy that he had come around. He met Than’s gaze from across the locker room. Something unspoken seemed to pass between them, a quiet sort of understanding.
The match began shortly after. Their opponents were tough and they lost the first two sets. All of them were tense and frustrated, but he still couldn’t get his head in the game. Than walked up to him during the break.
“You’re still thinking about Singha, aren’t you?” His tone was accusing. He asked if Puen would let this one incident ruin his dream. He took a deep breath before surprising Puen with his next words.
“After this match, let’s visit him, then,” he offered firmly. “I’ll take you.”
“But right now, can you be with me,” he pleaded.
That had shaken Puen up. He couldn't stay hung up on the past and let it all their hard work go to waste. They had come this far and he had to win for his teammates. The team played very well and won the next set. They had a chance.
But, ultimately, they ended up losing the match. Everyone on the court was devastated. His teammates held on to each other as they cried tears of frustration. Slowly, the hall echoed with cheers for Theppanya. They didn’t win the cup, but they played well. Once upon a time, this defeat would have completely crushed him, but now he knew what was truly important. Sure, he was disappointed, but it was overshadowed by the amount of fun he had playing beside his friends. He was grateful to reach this point together with his teammates. That mattered more to him than winning. Together with Nao and Leng, with silver medals around their necks, he took in the scent of the court one last time like they had done ages ago.
He followed Than into the hall where they were alone.
“Than,” he called out.
“Oh,” Than turned around and smiled. Puen smiled back and stopped in front of him.
“I’m sorry,” Than said softly. “That promise of handing you the champ title, I couldn’t keep it to you, like the others.” He looked guilty.
“Never mind,” Puen smiled at him. Than had given him something much more valuable than a mere title.
“You’ve done much more for me,” he confessed, still smiling.
“I’ve had so much fun playing with you. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Thanks a lot, for playing with a douchebag like me for so long.”
Than laughed. “No worries.”
Puen suddenly pulled Than into his arms, surprised by his own impulsiveness. As always, he’d acted before thinking when it concerned Than. Than was startled but hugged him back tenderly.
“Thanks for bringing me back,” Puen muttered softly.
Than didn’t respond but gave his back a gentle squeeze as he subtly buried his face in Puen’s shoulder.
“Shit, that’s enough. I’ll cry,” Than laughed. his eyes shining.
“What? Are you crying?” Puen teased him.
“Crying? Someone like me won’t cry that easily,” he denied while wiping away his eyes. They moved apart. There was something palpable between them, a shyness of sorts.
“Hey, watcha doing?” Jern appeared between them suddenly, startling them both. Her tone was teasing, like she had walked in on something.
“Nothing,” Puen didn’t know why he got defensive. He looked at Than who looked just as awkward.
“Ohhh…” Jern looked between them knowingly. “Okay,” she said slowly and walked away. Puen thought he imagined her shoulders slumping as she did.
“Huh.” Than was confused. The atmosphere gets really awkward all of a sudden.
“What's with her?” he laughed lightly. Puen wasn’t entirely sure either.
Singha had woken up. Than took Puen to visit him like he had said. He waited outside while Puen talked to Singha. Puen could understand now. Singha had his own reasons for leaving. He was a douchebag for not supporting or trying to understand his friend. He had been too angry to see past his feelings of hurt. But he, too, had his reasons to stay. He wanted to win together with his friends. Singha had always understood that. Singha revealed to him that he still wanted to play volleyball together.
“But I want to play against you,” Puen told him.
They didn’t get to compete against each other so they still had unfinished business. He wanted to beat him together with his team. Singha promised him that they’d get to face each other in college. Puen smiled. He told Singha to not promise and just meet him on the court.
“Send my regards to Than,” Singha said as Puen was about to leave.
Puen was startled. He nodded quietly. “He’s the bomb” Singha said, making Puen almost snort, but he silently agreed.
“He sets the ball for you way better than I did.”
Puen couldn't help but sense an underlying meaning to his words. It felt like Singha gave his blessing to Than, for what exactly he didn’t know. He didn’t dwell on it for long and bid Singha farewell.
"Why are you here?”
Puen finds Than in the gym. “It’s almost dawn.”
“I can’t sleep. It feels funny that there’s no club practice.” Than asked him back as he smirked, “why can't you sleep?”
Puen didn't answer. “Set the ball for me,” he said instead
They sat on the floor as the sun began to peak into the windows.
“It’s so much fun playing with you,” Than confessed, sounding earnest, “but you’ll graduate soon.” The hint of sadness and insecurity in his voice made Puen look at him. His gaze softened when he realized it. Than wasn’t sure if they would get to play together once he graduated. He wanted Than to know that he felt the same way.
“We’ll play together again,” he smiled softly.
Than’s eyes widened as he looked at him in surprise.
Puen gazed back at him, still smiling, “I promise.”
Than took a moment to process and when he realized what Puen did, his eyes shone and a bright smile appeared on his face. Puen decided he really liked this smile.
Puen never imagined he would ever make a promise to someone again. Every promise in his life had been broken and his fear of commitment made him swear off all hope and expectations forever. But Than entered his life and slowly wormed his way into his heart. He managed to peer at his insecurities deep within and tore them out one by one. Than had made him believe in promises again by never leaving his side. It was Puen’s turn to make a promise of his own.
Both of them lean back, faces turned towards each other as they smiled, the rays of sunlight filtering from the window painted them golden. Their hands were mere inches apart, not quite touching but with all the promise of the future between them.
On the path that I’ve messed up and been travelling alone
I didn’t know who else wanted to come with me
Until the day you entered into my life