There had always been a fear in the back of Tin’s mind about having kids. They said that as you grew older, you became your parents. The very thought of treating his own child how his father had treated him had his eyes set on a childless future.
Dating and eventually marrying Can meant there was no possibility for an accidental pregnancy scare, but the fact that the two of them couldn’t conceive together didn’t stop his husband from wanting the very thing Tin feared.
There were many late nights where the two of them sat up discussing Tin’s deeply rooted insecurities. Tin poured out his heart while Can listened, holding his hands in his lap and stroking his knuckles to assure him he was there to listen and care.
What they’d discovered was that he wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of miniature Tins and Cans running around their house. The problem came with the parenting part. No child should have to grow up like he had: alone with no one who genuinely loved him. If he really would turn into his father when their baby came out of their surrogate, he was subjecting his child to a life of torture before they could even walk.
Leave it to Can – his rock, his cheerleader, his everything – to remind him that he wasn’t as bad of a person as he thought he was. He’d made major changes for the better and stuck with them. “Remember,” Can had said, “if you were still the same giant asshole I first met at college, I wouldn’t have married you.” And well, that was a good enough argument as any.
So they took the steps – found a surrogate, told their friends and family, picked out a crib. The idea of taking such a large step with the man he loved most, while still scary, was exciting. But even more importantly, this was his chance to change the fates of Medthanan children. He swore, as soon as he heard that first cry in the hospital room, he’d do better by his children than his parents ever did by him.
As soon as Tan had entered kindergarten, he and Can had developed a system. Mondays and Wednesdays were the days Can would pick him up from school; Tuesdays and Thursdays were the days Tin would pick him up. They switched off every Friday.
Tin had refused to be absent from his children’s lives. If going into work a few hours earlier was what it took for him to make it in time for Tan to run out of the school doors and into his arms, then so be it.
It was his opportunity to hear about his son’s day and give him the attention he couldn’t when he spent long nights at the office. Usually, as soon as he strapped him into his car seat, Tan was talking a mile a minute, trying to get in every detail before they pulled up to their house.
Today, however, he was quiet. When Tin looked in the rearview mirror, he saw him staring at his lap, little lips pursed and short legs swinging slowly.
“How was school today?” Tin asked, taking it upon himself to get the conversation going. If something was wrong, he’d want to know, so he could quickly right the situation. “Anything fun happen?”
Tan lifted his shoulders in a heavy shrug. It didn’t seem like he was going to say anything, but he then gripped his seat belt and said, “Golf pulled on Honey’s hair today.”
Tin raised an eyebrow, eyes flickering between the road and the mirror to see how Tan’s body language changed. “Oh? Why did he do that?”
“Because he likes her,” he replied, sounding unsure of his own words. “He said that when you like a girl, you’re supposed to pull on her hair so she knows.” Tiny nose scrunching, he squeezed the seat belt tighter. “But I don’t get it. Why would you hurt someone you like?”
Tin couldn’t help but break into a small smile. So it seemed Tan inherited Can’s innocent, yet oddly profound logic. Though, that didn’t give him the answer as to how he was meant to explain society’s deeply rooted, early developed sexism to a seven-year-old.
“You’re right,” he started. “You’re not supposed to hurt the people you like. You’re supposed to be nice to them. How about this.” He paused to look back at Tan; he finally had his head up, and his eyes were locked onto the back of his seat. “Do you see me pulling on your papa’s hair?”
“No,” Tan said with a shake of his head.
“Do you see Papa pulling on my hair?”
“No. You give each other hugs and kisses.” Tilting his head to the side, Tan asked, “Then why did Golf say that?”
“Because,” Tin bit his lip in thought, “some people think that hurting someone shows that they care about them. But that’s wrong, okay? If you like someone, you tell them. Remember what we said? About using your words?”
“Mhm!” Tan sat up straighter, declaring, “You’re supposed to use your words, not your hands. Because you could hurt someone that way, and that’s bad. You tell people you like them and give them kisses, not pull their hair.”
Tin chuckled. “You’ve got it. But let’s hold off on that kissing part for a while, okay? Because I don’t think your papa will be using his words with me if he finds out you kissed someone.”
Over the years, Tin had gotten used to Can’s sporadic bursts of emotions. He never thought knowing how to handle them would come in handy, but that was before he was the parent to a seven and five-year-old.
Apple barely reached his hip, but for a tiny thing, she sure could yell. She must have gotten that from her father. In her head, her anger must have been justified. Tan had taken her new train set and messed up the track pattern she had spent hours setting up. All of her hard work would have to be redone, and to someone her age, that was just unacceptable.
He and Can had come running at the first scream. Separating the two children, Can had taken it upon himself to herd Tan into the kitchen while Tin crouched down to gather a now crying Apple into his arms.
Curling her little fingers into his shirt, she mumbled, “I hate him.” Most of her tears had dried, and she was only softly sniffling.
“No you don’t,” Tin said, rubbing up and down her back to try and calm her before she said more things he and she would both regret.
But she didn’t let up. “Daddy, I hate him. Hate him, hate him, hate him.”
“Hey.” Pulling back, he took her hands in his, squeezing them tight. He took a couple of breaths, waiting until she followed. After a few rounds of that, he said, “You don’t hate your brother. You’re angry with him. And that’s okay. What he did wasn’t nice, and Papa is going to make sure he knows that.”
“But, Daddy, he ruined the whole thing,” she whined, stomping her foot to show how serious she was.
“I know,” he said.
Because he did. Long before the drug scandal and family betrayal, Tul had kicked over his block towers, stolen his crayons, ripped the batteries out of his remote-control cars. He thought he hated him then; little did he know that those were so miniscule compared to where his hatred would actually stem from.
He didn’t want his children to turn out the same. He refused to let it happen. Things like ruined train tracks could easily be resolved. If they weren’t, tensions would only build, and they would learn what real hatred for your sibling felt like.
“Tan’s your big brother, remember?” he tried to reason. “You share your cookies with him and chase him around in your toy car and push him on the swing set. Would you do all of that if you hated him?”
She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. “No. But…But he messed up my tracks, and I’m sad.”
“And that’s okay,” he soothed, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. “You’re allowed to be sad.”
“Don’t hate him,” she sounded out slowly. “Just angry. And sad.”
“That’s right.” He drew her back into a hug, holding her close and stroking her hair.
Eventually, Can brought Tan back in. His head was hung, and his shoulders were hunched as he apologized. Five-year-old attention spans were a magical thing, and she easily forgave him. Tin sighed; waterworks over nothing.
But he supposed it wasn’t nothing. He watched as Tan lead her back to the train tracks and helped her set them back up the way she liked. It was an important lesson to both of them – apologize when you do wrong and evaluate your feelings before you equate them to something they’re not. His parents had never taught him either of those things. But then again, Tul never helped him piece together wooden railroad tracks either.
“Daddy,” Tan whined. He threw his front over Tin’s legs, hugging onto them as he raised them from where they were curled around the edge of the couch and into the air. Giggling, enjoying the feeling of flying, Tan regained his pout when he was back on the ground. “Daddy, please? Pretty, pretty please?”
Tin sighed. Seeing as his distraction hadn’t worked, he supposed he’d have to face this situation head on.
Since he’d gotten home from school, Tan had been begging him for the newest video game that all of his classmates were talking about. If they all had it, then he needed it too; simple logic for a seven-year-old.
If he was the same Tin from university, he would have easily swiped his credit card and slid the disc into the console by now. But he was a changed man and a married one at that. Can didn’t like it when he spoiled the kids too much. Here and there was fine, but they had enough toys to keep them entertained for the rest of their lives. Their video game shelf alone was nearly filled up.
He should say no. It would be the right thing to do. But Tin was a weak man when it came to his husband and children. They all had the same big, bright eyes. With a pout and bat of their lashes, they had him wrapped around their tiny little fingers.
A happy medium it was then. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, peaking Tan’s attention. Scrambling into his lap, he looked up at him hopefully. “I’ll buy you the game. If,” Tan deflated, his little brows pinched together, “you set the table for dinner for the rest of the week. And you don’t argue with your sister.”
It wasn’t too bad of a deal, but second graders were tricky cases. Clearly not the answer he wanted, Tan let out little irritated huffs as he squirmed in his lap. It was the perfect opportunity for him to give in – seeing as his son had the cutest pout in the entire vicinity of Bangkok – but he stood firm. In the end, it would benefit him.
He and Tul were spoiled as children, and look where that had landed them. Given whatever they’d wanted without question, they’d grown into entitled, rich brats. Luckily, he’d learned and grown. But for his children, he didn’t want it to even be a possibility.
Holding out his hand to him, he asked, “Do we have a deal?”
Tan eyed his hand skeptically. “You promise?”
“Yes, sir,” he assured, moving his hand a little closer. “You never go back on a hand shake.”
Seemingly satisfied, Tan grabbed his hand and shook it with all his might. “Deal!”
Tin ruffled his hair just as he jumped off his lap and ran towards the kitchen. He vaguely heard him ask Can to help him reach the plates, followed by his husband’s choked gasp of surprise.
Tin shook his head, fond smile inching onto his face as his best friend caught his daughter in a hug. As Pete pulled her onto his lap and chatted with her, Tin popped open the two lawn chairs he had under his arms and set them along the boundaries of the football field.
Both teams were already on the field, going through their rounds of practice drills before the game officially started. Can stood by the goal, watching as each player approached it and kicked the ball into the back netting. He’d encourage them on with a wide smile and a clap of his hands. In that way, he was the perfect youth football coach, at least in Tin’s humble opinion.
Turning back to Pete, he laughed softly when he noticed Apple getting comfortable against his chest. “You know you’re going to be stuck like that for the entire game, right?”
“That’s fine,” he said, using his free hand to stroke through her ponytail. The other was rested on the armrest, palm side up and intertwined with his husband’s. “At least I’ll have someone paying attention to me for the next hour.”
“Think I’ll even get a hello out of him?” Tin asked to which Pete only giggled.
“I wouldn’t hold your breath.” He squeezed Ae’s hand and followed his intense gaze to the littlest player on the field, drowning in his too big red jersey.
“It’s almost been a full season since Pin joined the team,” Tin pointed out. “Shouldn’t he be less worried by now?”
“We’re talking about Ae, right? My husband? The same one who is convinced that if he looks away from the field for even a second, Pin will get hit in the head with the ball?” Pete rolled his eyes. “It’s easier to let him worry than convince him not to.”
The whistle blew, and each team went to their respectful benches. From across the field, Tan spotted Tin and began furiously waving his hand, jumping up and down to make sure he saw him. As it was impossible not to, Tin waved in return, sitting back in his chair with an affectionate sigh.
The match started as well as cheering from each set of spectators. Nothing was too intense, seeing as it was a field full of elementary aged children. But the families were enthusiastic regardless, all of their shouts encouraging and proud.
Closing in on the first half of the game, the crowd quieting down as the referees set up for a penalty kick, Tin was pulled away from the field and towards Pete when he said, “I never imagined starting university meant the two of us were signing up for a lifetime of football games. Though, I’m sort of glad it did.”
Crinkle to his brow, Tin asked, “Why?”
Resting his chin on Apple’s head, Pete’s smile was warm as he said, “Because it shows how much you’ve grown.” Reaching to his shoulder, he squeezed it. “You’re a good dad, Tin. Tan and Apple are lucky to have you.”
Stunned into silence, Tin could only stare at his best friend. Out of anyone in his life, Pete had known him the longest. If he had changed, he would be the one to notice. He’d told him in the past how different post-university Tin was to pre-university Tin, but something about this sentiment, about him assuring his role as a parent, hit much harder.
Pete didn’t have the rose colored husband goggles that Can did. Despite their long friendship, he was still an external source, looking in from the outside. He also knew the typical Medthanan parenting style. Being a good father was a direct contrast to that, proving that he was slowly but surely achieving his goal.
Though he wished he would have chosen any other time to give him that affirmation. Hand on his cheek, Tin pushed Pete’s face back in the direction of the game. “Eyes on your kid. Never know when Ae will blink and potentially miss Pin tripping over his own laces.”
Pete laughed, but his sentiment wasn’t lost in it. They focused back on the field, but Tin couldn’t help the happy buzz that ran through his body for the remainder of the game.
Hushed voices on the opposite side of the bed stirred Tin from his slumber. Blinking to adjust to the darkness of what he could only assume came from the too early hours of the morning, he turned onto his side. There he found his husband, wide awake and lying flat on his back. His hand ran up and down the back of the little girl lying on his chest.
“We have a visitor,” Can said when he noticed Tin staring.
“I see that,” he said, reaching over to brush some of the hair off of Apple’s forehead. “And just what is she visiting for?”
“Nightmare,” she said sadly, nuzzling her face closer into Can’s chest. “It was scary, Daddy.”
He cooed sympathetically. The poor thing was up far past her bed time, and with how much she’d been crying, she would undoubtedly have a head ache. And on top of all of that, she was terrified, shaking in Can’s arms and clawing as close as she could into his night shirt.
“I’m sure it was,” he assured softly. “Do you want to tell us about it? Would that make you feel better?” When she only shrugged, unsure, he encouraged more, “If you tell us, we’ll make it better. Sounds good, hm?”
She waited a moment, thinking about it, before she whispered, “You didn’t want me anymore.”
The room stilled, and he and Can shared a worried glance over the top of her head. Before the two of them could comment, she continued, “You said you only wanted Tanny, not me. You walked away and didn’t come back and I couldn’t find you and, and, and–”
“Shh,” Tin quieted her, carding his fingers through her hair as Can wrapped both arms tightly around her. “Breathe, sweetheart. You’re okay.”
They were quiet until she stopped choking on her breath and her little heart stopped racing. Only then did Can say, “We would never not want you. Never ever.” He buried his face into the top of her head. “I hate that you dreamed about that. I hate it so much.”
“We’re never going to not want you,” he continued for his husband, alternating between petting both of their heads. “You’re our little Apple Pie. How could we not want you?”
“But, what if–”
“No buts,” Tin cut her off, tone stern. “No what ifs. We are always going to want you. We’re never going to leave you. We love you.”
“So much,” Can murmured into her hair.
“You and Tan are everything to us. We would never give that up.” Sliding his hand down to cup her cheek, he pinched it softly, if only to see her smile. “So never worry about that, okay? It will only ever be a bad dream.”
“Only a bad dream,” she repeated, sniffling back a few stray tears.
Humming in approval, Tin reached down to pull the blankets up over her and Can. He then tucked himself close, arm wrapping around the both of them. “You want to sleep here for the rest of the night? Will that make it all better?”
Readjusting herself on Can’s front, she grabbed onto Tin’s arm, needing a hold on both of them. She nodded, eyes slipping shut. In little time at all, she was asleep, no doubt exhausted from how worked up she’d gotten.
He waited for Can to follow after her, and only then did he allow himself to drift off. The two of them would have to have a longer conversation about this on a much more mature, adult level, but for now, he would just hold the two of them. Right now, he just had to make everything better.
As soon as Tin walked through the front door, he was sent five steps back from the two little ones running face first into his knees. Their happy, matching cries of “Daddy!” made it easy to forgive them.
Reaching down to lift Apple into his arms, he ruffled Tan’s hair. He was burying further into his trouser leg by the second, but Tin supposed he could live with standing and cuddling with them for a bit. After all, he’d missed them just as much as it seemed they had missed him.
Can joining them was the only thing that could make it better. Stepping around Tan to tuck himself into his side, he nuzzled his shoulder before giving it a kiss. “Welcome home,” he murmured, arms going around his waist in a tight hug. “Good day?”
The amount of love he was receiving – the love he at one point thought was near impossible to find – made him warm from head to toe. His three people made him feel like the luckiest man in the world. And he was; this moment was proof enough.
Pressing a kiss to Apple’s cheek and then one to the top of Can’s head, Tin buried his face into his hair. “It is now.”