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MUSE

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Five friends spread a wide blanket under the voluminous shade of a rain tree. They’re all fourth-year students of the local university, just set free from their classes for the day and prepared to laze in the heat for the rest of the afternoon. As they walk backward, each one holding a different section of the blanket, one is complaining, one is measuring, one is yawning, one is laughing, and one is peeking into the picnic basket behind his feet.

“Team!” Manaow calls. “Pull your end of the blanket.”

Team gives her an ornery look for distracting him from his sacred hunt for chips and says, “I am!”

“You are not, you’re barely holding it—and stay out of the basket!”

Team sticks his tongue out at her and yanks on his corner with just enough force to pull her side out of her hand.

“Team!”

“Hey, Manaow, pull your side of the blanket,” Team says.

“You little—”

“It’s fine like this,” Kong says. “Just set it down.”

To the background hum of grumbling from Manaow, the five of them crouch down and tug at the tartan blanket to flatten it over the grass. Shoes toed off, Pharm walks to the center and places the picnic basket there where it will likely remain under close surveillance until they’re ready to eat what’s in it. Sulking, Team sits on the edge with a huff and ignores Manaow’s smug grin.

Team and Pharm call up a hologram of a beach ball and tap it back and forth, serving to Manaow whenever she makes grabby hands for a turn. Kong and Ting nap, curled on opposite sides of the blanket like parallel commas. Twenty minutes of idle chatter between the conscious pass, and the sun spreads less and less warmth as it sinks closer to the ridges of the city skyline.

Then Pharm says, “Anyone hungry?”

Team flings the volleyball back into his tablet and says, “Yes,” with fervor.

His stomach adds an enthusiastic rumble of agreement.

Pharm opens the picnic basket and passes out collapsible plates and cups. While Team opens them from their pellet-sized containers, Manaow pours in water from the pitcher. By the time Kong opens his eyes and stretches, Pharm’s sandwiches and sweets have been doled out and Team has already consumed everything on his plate in four swift bites.

“Glutton,” Manaow says.

Team ignores her and sprawls on his back in a tableau of agony. “I don’t want to go home,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut. “If I go home, I have to study, and I don’t want to.”

“Aren’t you full of things you don’t want to do today,” Manaow says.

“Shut up,” Team requests.

“Children,” Ting chides. She hasn’t said a word since they arrived at the park, and she’s still curled into a comfortable half-moon with her arm under her head, her orange-tinted sunglasses masking the upper half of her face. “Mommy needs her rest. She had a long day of trying to appear awake in exams she was not prepared to take.”

Kong makes an affronted noise in the back of his throat. Using the convenience of his legs stretched out near her feet, he nudges her ankle with the toe of his shoe. “You should have joined our study sessions,” he says.

“I know,” Ting says, her voice pitched in a whine. “It’s just that I didn’t want to.”

Pharm tells Team, “You don’t have to do much for development economics. She just asked for an outline by Tuesday.”

“But I don’t know what to do my paper on,” Team says. “I don’t even know why I picked the thing I did. I just kind of said the first smart-sounding word when she asked for a topic.”

“What ‘smart-sounding word’ did you go with?” Ting asks.

“Automation,” Team says.

Ting raises an eyebrow over her sunglasses. “Oh.”

“What aspect of it?” Kong asks.

“I don’t know,” Team says, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, automation was a global thing, so I was thinking of maybe how Thailand’s process was unique?”

Manaow clicks her tongue after she swallows the last bite of her sandwich. “That’s too broad. Automation here happened over the course of, like, fifty years.”

“That’s a good point,” Pharm says. “You could compare automation processes in different countries, but every industry handled it differently, so you’d have to stick to one, I think, so it’s not too general.”

“Avoid electronics,” Kong says.

“And medical,” Ting says.

“Transportation, too,” Manaow says.

Team takes a deep breath and decides, “I’m dropping out. Someone hand me my tablet.” He picks up an arm and grabs at the air without much hope.

“What if you cover an industry that wasn’t affected by automation?” Kong suggests.

Team cranes his neck to the side to see Kong around the picnic basket. “I guess,” he says slowly, “but wasn’t everything?”

“Not sex work,” Ting says. She pops a smug nod at them all and says, “Oldest profession. Gotta respect it,” and adds a pair of finger guns.

Manaow grins at Team like a cartoon shark. “I dare you.”

Team turns his head to the other side and stares up at her without bothering to create an expression on his face. “What?” he says, listless.

“Do your paper on how automation affected the sex industry!“

Ting tilts her head and says, “Well, wait. That’s not what I said. The sex industry was definitely affected by automation. Take the whole rise of ’adult video designer’ as a career, for one. I meant literal human sex workers. There’re always technology gimmicks—sex robots and connection toys and whatever—but I think human sex workers are always going to be more in demand than not.”

Team says, “I don’t know much about them, though,” with an ornery edge. “I’ve never been to one. They’re really expensive.”

“Save part of your B.I. like every other horny person on the planet does,” Ting says.

Team makes sure his face is expressing how much he wants to do that.

“Come on,” Ting says. “You swim and eat chips. There’s no way you spend all of your basic income every month.”

“Ahh!” Manaow sighs, grabbing her tablet. ”I want to do my paper on this now!” She pulls up a hologram map of the nearby area a little too enthusiastically and Kong startles when a restaurant passes through him. “Oops, sorry, Kong!” She claws the map back to a smaller size and laughs as she pinches the map toward her to get the perspective to move farther down the street. “I know there’s at least one good parlor nearby I could go to for research.”

Team glares at her and kicks through her hologram. “Hey,” he says, “it’s my topic.”

“Well, you didn’t sound like you wanted it,” Manaow says. She moves her tablet and map pointedly out of his reach.

“I do! I just said I haven’t been to one before!”

“Well, I can help you out there,” Ting says. “Manaow, voice thing.”

Manaow thumbs the voice command on her tablet.

Ting says, “Go to The MUSE Parlor.”

“In which city?” the tablet’s AI asks.

“This one,” Ting says with a roll of her eyes.

The map blurs with a burst of speed and stops in front of a massive skyscraper covered in black glass on Sukhumvit Road.

“I thought for sure that you’d been to one before, Team,” Manaow says, narrowing her eyes. “Weren’t you gonna go for your birthday one year?”

“They’re expensive,” Team says again.

“I’ve never been either,” Pharm says.

With an emphatic grin, Team leans across the blanket to ruffle Harm’s hair. “Of course you haven’t! You’re only a li’l kitten.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Ting says, amused. “I bet he’s a secret sex kitten.”

In a tone of scandalized shock, Team squawks, “Ting!”

Team claps his hands over Pharm’s ears and glares extra hard at her on Pharm’s behalf.

“Hey,” Manaow says, frowning at the broad hologram hovering above her tablet. “It won’t let me in.”

Sure enough, no amount of manipulation will force the map to go beyond the elevator in the lobby. With her pinky nail, Manaow writes the script for ’Enter The Muse Parlor’ into the air of the hologram and sends it off into the tablet with a swish of the wrist. A brief red pulse encapsulating the entire map indicates that her request to see the location has been denied by the network.

“I thought all public businesses had to be map-accessible?” Kong says.

“Ah,” Ting says, pursing her lips. “I guess this technically counts as advertising if they show people what’s inside. Sorry, I never looked them up this way before.”

“Ugh,” Manaow says. She punches through the image of the elevator doors and sulks. “Stupid legal loopholes.” She keeps punching, but it starts to look like the batting of a tired cat going through the motions. “You can look at sex parlors in other countries, right?” she whines.

“Yes,” Pharm says.

Team’s gape is immediate, his mouth already open to say, “Yes,” as well.

Ting’s grin is slow.

“Go to one in New York,” Pharm says as he stifles a yawn. “I think by U.S. law they all have to show the main areas of the parlor, just not the private rooms.“

Manaow makes a happy sound and scribbles New York sex parlors into the hologram. The map blurs into unrecognizable shapes for an instant, the effect representing the sheer distance they’re “traveling“ across, then a full-color aerial map of New York City appears, covered in hundreds of blue dots with names printed alongside them.

“They have a whole different physical culture there,” Pharm says. “Like, the percentage of people in the States who use a parlor for their first time is less than fifty, but in other countries it’s closer to ninety.“ He points to one of the dots labeled ’The Matchstick’ and says, “This is the one that indie movie was based on last year.“

“I love that movie,” Manaow says, breathless.

“You don’t even know what movie he’s talking about,” Team says, eyeing her.

“I don’t care,” she replies, heart-eyed.

As Manaow explores the gleaming marble lobby of The Matchstick, Pharm says, “I like watching documentaries about the sex industry. Automation and the work crisis actually ended up doing a lot of good for it.”

“Ting shouldn’t have taught you that word,” Team says mournfully.

Manaow rolls her eyes at him. “You need a boyfriend, Team. Or another hobby. Swimming’s not keeping you busy enough.”

“Do the parlors in Thailand use membership cards?” Pharm asks. “Or is that only in Japan?”

Team opens his mouth to express silent disbelief, then closes it, then opens it again to repeat: “Membersh—”

Ting slams her hand down on the blanket, eliciting a jump from everyone else. She smirks, clearly pleased to have their attention back, and when she removes her hand, they all look at the gleaming silver card she’s put down.

Team eyes her with suspicion. “How long have you had that in your hand?”

“A while,” she says. “This is my membership card to The MUSE Parlor.”

“Jealous!” Manaow gasps. She abandons the hologram entirely and moves across the blanket to scoop up the card and hold it delicately in her hands. “It’s so shiny!”

Kong casually takes the card from her, turns it over, nods, and returns it to her. Then he continues eating his khao tom mud one-handed, a portrait of unbothered amusement.

Team picks up the card next, but he doesn’t see anything written on either side, just a shimmering coat of silver. “Is there a chip in it or something?” he asks. He offers it to Pharm who shakes his head with a smile.

Ting beams and folds her legs, leaning forward until she can prop her elbows on her knees. “So,” she says, visibly delighted to explain, “MUSE is a really, really exclusive parlor. You can’t even apply for a membership card.”

Team becomes uncomfortably aware of Manaow holding her breath beside him, her hands clasped under her chin like she’s listening to a sacred guru impart some cherished wisdom. He sees Pharm sip water from his cup and shoot a fond smile at Kong, who offers a small grin in return.

Team decides to appear uninterested as well, but he keeps his mouth closed so he can listen.

“You can only get one—” (Ting tucks some hair behind her ear and preens while she pauses for effect) “—if you’re selected.”

Manaow manages to take a shallow gasp, even though she doesn’t seem to have breathed in recent memory, and then her hand darts out like an asp to snatch the card back from Team. While studying it with almost reverent excitement, Manaow asks, “How do you get selected? Did one of the specialists choose you? Are you dating one? How does this work? How do I get one?”

Team, staring at her all the while, tells her, “Calm. Down.”

Manaow blows a puff of air at his bangs, unrepentant, and chants at Ting, “Tell me, tell me, tell me!”

“You get one from a specialist,” Ting confirms. “My friend works there, so she gave me one. I don’t know how many they get to give people, but it can’t be more than, like, three, I’d guess? So they only give them to a select few.” She flips her hair with pride. “Applause, please.”

Manaow obliges. Pharm and Team add a few wry claps. Kong looks on with absolute neutrality.

“So what’s the card do?” Team asks.

“Basically lets you jump the line,” Ting says. “I can contact my friend for you and she’ll help connect you with a specialist after you sign up. She doesn’t take newcomers, unfortunately. Or men. Oh, and you’ll have to pay the first time rate—first time, not first timer—but you won’t have to wait months like most people.”

Manaow rubs between Team’s shoulder blades with a coo. “Lucky you,” she says. ”Finally, huh?”

Team rolls his eyes and pushes her away by the face.

“Wanna see the specialists?” Ting asks them, eyes sparkling.

“YES,” Manaow says.

“Why doesn’t this sound like academic research for a paper anymore?“ Kong wonders aloud.

“Silence, killjoy,” Ting says, pointing at him.

Kong smiles and returns his attention to his own tablet.

As Ting changes the hologram to a vast gallery of beautiful clothed people, the park lanterns come to life. As they’ve been discussing this vaguely educational topic, the sun has begun to set in earnest, leaving the park decidedly darker than when they arrived. The glow from Manaow’s tablet hologram is probably visible from a distance at this point.

Team says, “This doesn’t involve audio, does it?” with a cautious look around them. “None of them, like, demonstrate, right?”

“No,” Ting says, rolling her eyes. “That’d be advertising, which would be illegal.”

Team says, “Oh, right.”

“Okay, here,” Ting says. “Who do you like?” She’s arranged the models into a horizontal wheel. With a swipe of her finger, the small hologram models go whirling by until Team reaches out to poke one at random. It freezes in place at once, and Team studies the clear eyes and clever smile before him.

“He’s cute,” Team decides.

“Which one?” Ting moves to sit next to him and says, “King? Oh, yeah, he’s gorgeous. And he’s really good with first timers.”

“Stop calling me that,” Team says, nose wrinkling.

“Sorry,” Ting says, “‘virgins’, ‘the inexperienced’, ‘the untouched’, ‘the—’”

“How about him?” Pharm interrupts. He’s sitting opposite Team, pointing to a dark-haired man who seems their age and whose smile hints at secrets Team would rather not learn.

“I don’t know him,” Ting says. “I think he’s one of the newbies. Two specialists left in the past year, so they hired two new ones.”

“I like all of them,” Manaow announces. “Kong, you’re not going to look?”

“No, thank you.”

Team’s focus travels across the options. He turns the wheel bit by bit, then stops on someone whose features are so utterly and magnetically captivating that Team suspects they were artificially enhanced for the hologram.

“Ah,” Ting says knowingly, “that’s Win.” Her low tone has Team preparing for disappointment.

“What’s wrong with him?” Team asks.

“Oh, nothing!” Ting says. “He’s fantastic. He’s just difficult to book.”

Just by Win’s looks alone, Team believes her. The wry confidence in his smile, the styled blond hair, the knife-sharp jawline.

“He has three or four regulars,” Ting says, “and he’ll see the occasional member sometimes, but he rarely takes first timers.” She scratches her neck and shrugs. “But you can put his name down if you want. You might be cute enough to tempt him out of his routine.” She takes Team’s chin in her hand and coos at him until Team’s scandalized expression makes her laugh and let him go.

Pharm says, “It sounds like everyone at MUSE is exclusive.”

“Yeah,” Ting says, drawing the word out with clear uncertainty, “so here’s what you’ll have to do, Team: while I contact my friend, you apply with MUSE for a membership. I’ll give you the code for their registration office later. They’ll want your test results with the registration form, and then—”

“You have to take a test before you have sex?” Team blurts.

Once he says it, he realizes what she means, but it’s too late.

Ting ruffles his hair with a laugh. “Aren’t you pure?” she says. “Not that kind of test, cutie.”

“I know what you mean now,” he grouses. “My mouth is faster than my brain.”

“What next?” Manaow asks, then smacks Team’s arm. “Don’t interrupt her again.”

Team pulls a face back.

Ting counts off the next steps on her fingers. “Then you’ll fill out your profile. You’ll make a list of your top five specialists, and then you’ll hear back from one of them within the next twenty-four hours.” She seems to enjoy Team’s disbelief for a few seconds, then adds, “Oh, and there’s a membership fee.”

Manaow says, “Can I apply too?” with her most sincere puppy eyes.

“I think I can only bother my friend so much, so let Team go first,” Ting says. “I want to see who he gets.”

Team nods at Manaow, smug.

“Fine,” Manaow says, sighing. Then she points at his face. “You’re going to tell me everything.”

“Depends how nice you are to me,” Team says, sticking out his tongue.

“Teeeeam,” she croons, wrapping her arms around his arm with a cloyingly sweet smile. “My okay buddy? Decent friend? Ordinary pal?”

Team asks, “Are you even trying?“ while Pharm laughs, Ting smirks, and Kong grins down at his tablet.

They talk a while longer about the details of registering for MUSE, Ting helping Team halfway through the application on his tablet, and then they have a sudden swell of small, blood-hungry visitors itching to feast on them, so they pack up and part ways for the evening.

Team’s dormitory didn’t make any top ten lists in the country, but it has enough bells and whistles to please him. Tonight, after shucking his bag somewhere on the floor to be picked up by the vacuum arm, Team hums to himself as he cleans up in the pre-heated shower, then heads directly for the health panel on the wall in the entryway. His last recorded body temperature—taken on his way out this morning—hasn’t changed much, and a preliminary scan tells him what he already suspected: he appears to have a clean bill of health.

He thumbs the button to request a full scan, then types in the code Ting gave him for MUSE’s registration office. Five minutes later, his good health is confirmed, and his application to MUSE is complete, and the waiting begins.

He brings his tablet to his desk in the bedroom and calls up The MUSE Parlor hologram again. None of the information available clearly communicates what kind of business they are. All he can see are the same specialists Ting showed them earlier and, now that Team’s in a new location, a few vague, shimmering quotations that leap and swirl around the room, slowing down suggestively over his bed.

One of the quotations is the popular slogan, “Nothing is more seductive than word of mouth”, that’s been used by thousands of parlors across the globe for decades. While prostitution is legal in Thailand, there’s been no rush to overturn the law against advertising it, which has led to many parlors cheekily using the phrase “word of mouth” somewhere in their materials to let people know what they are and the kind of services they offer.

Occasionally, a restaurant will use it by mistake to awkward results.

Like most people curious about sex, Team spent a significant portion of his youth exploring parlor holograms. He liked the ones overseas best, the ones with layouts he could explore freely, even though the more obviously sexual areas—private rooms, BDSM equipment, toys, and product names—were almost always kept out of sight or blurred. The mystery of those blocked corridors and closed doors and glazed shelves had Team’s imagination running wild, and he spent a great deal of energy fantasizing to fill in the gaps.

Throughout his teens, he listened to stories from older classmates who were either old enough to visit the upscale, heavily regulated parlors with classy reputations, or unscrupulous enough to venture into the brothels that don’t ask for ID or test results and endure regular drone raids.

Team told himself he would go to a parlor the day he turned eighteen, just like so many of his friends.

But when his birthday arrived, he spent it at the shore with Pharm and Manaow instead, eating cake and swimming until he felt the skin of his back crisping under the glare of the sun. He told himself next year. Next birthday. It had to be an occasion to justify the expense, after all. He put aside a little of his B.I. every month and privately called it his First Time Fund.

Then he spent his nineteenth birthday in bed with the flu drinking soup fetched for him by Ting and counting on the notes Kong promised to take for him. When he felt better, he decided, Next year for sure.

A week before his twentieth birthday, Team remembered to send in a reservation request to the parlor he’d had in mind for the past five years, only to find that they’d closed.

His twenty-first birthday, he just didn’t bother.

And now he’s months away from his twenty-second birthday, with only a few heated kisses with a couple of boys from high school under his belt, and a much keener desire to experience more than that. If he can’t find someone to date, he’ll do what everyone does and finally get this First Time thing over with.

And he’ll get some good research for his paper.

His tablet says, “Message received.”

“Open it,” Team says.

“Your registration with The MUSE Parlor has been accepted.”

Team grins, leaning on his desk to read the text on the screen along with the AI voice.

“The next step,” it says, “will be your profile and requested specialists. Would you like to complete this section audibly or manually?”

“Audibly,” Team says.

“Name, please.”

“Team.”

“Formal name, please.”

Team drops his chin in his hand, dead-eyed. His tablet AI knows his formal name, his date of birth, the circumference of his fingers, the number of his eyelashes, everything. It also knows how to annoy Team and does it weirdly often.

“Teerayu Siriyothin,” he says, flat.

“Would you like your exact age visible to the specialist, or in a bracket?”

“Uh. Either.”

“You must choose one of the options.”

“Ugh, fine. Um. Bracket, I guess.”

“Your age will appear as ‘open bracket, twenty to twenty-five, closed bracket’. Is that all right?”

“Can I say I’m, like, ninety-nine?”

“No.” There’s a curt end to the word that Team doesn’t think he’s imagining.

“Touchy,” he snickers. “Fine, the twenty-to-twenty-five thing is okay. Can I skip to the specialists part?”

“Please list your top five specialists.”

Team licks his lips and says, “Win.”

“Are you starting from your highest priority?”

Did he sound that urgent?

“Yeah.” Team pulls up Win’s hologram from the gallery and spreads his fingers to zoom closer to his face. “Can I just list him? Will that increase my odds, do you think?”

“You must list five, as some specialists may be unavailable.”

Team rolls his eyes. “Fine.” He swipes around the gallery moodily, careful to avoid the women. “Uhh, wait, what was his name.” He rubs his temple and snaps with his other hand. “The guy—black hair, really pretty?”

“There are thirteen exact matches. Would you like to see their models all at once or one at a time?”

“Yeah, okay, I deserved that.” Team pushes his chair back onto two legs, searching his memory. It was definitely one syllable, and— “Wait, it was a royalty thing! Is there a guy named, like, Prince?“

“There is a King listed.” A hologram of the beautiful man with the clever smile from earlier opens next to Win’s.

“That’s him!” Team says. “Um, okay. Put him second.”

“There are three remaining slots.”

Team gives his tablet a stink-eye. “I know how to subtract two from five.”

“Would you like suggestions based on your two selections?”

Team blinks. “Oh. Yeah, actually, thanks.”

His tablet AI moves Win and King to the side of Team’s desk, then presents Team with six other hologram models that Team observes without much interest. Now that he’s settled on Win, any of them would be a disappointment. None of them have their entire personality in their cocky smile, and none of them look like they’d be as much fun to be around, or…as hot to have sex with.

“Just, uh, put down the three with the least amount of experience.” If he can’t have Win, at least he won’t be patronized by some veteran specialist who’ll think he’s ridiculous for having practically zero experience.

“The specialist request section is complete,” the tablet says. “Would you like to finish the rest of your profile now or later?”

Team pulls Win’s model back to the center of his desk and turns it around, tracing the slope of his shoulders with his eyes. “Now’s fine,” he says.

“Preferred kinks?”

Team’s chair crashes back to all fours.

“Huh?!”

“Shall I leave this section blank?”

”Yes! Fuck.”

“‘Fuck’ is not a listed kink in The MUSE Parlor database. Shall I enter it?”

“I hate you sometimes.”

The next day is a rest day, but Team already has plans with his friends that will prevent him from what he’d rather be doing: asking his tablet AI every seventeen seconds if he has any new messages from MUSE.

“You’ll tell me if I have one, right?” he asks, lying on his bed with his head hanging backward off the end of it.

“Yes,” the AI says.

“Do I have one now?”

“No.”

“How are you going to let me know?”

“I will say, ‘Message received’, unless there’s a different notification alert you’d like to assign.”

“You won’t say it’s from MUSE, right?”

“I do not give sender’s information unless requested.”

“Okay, good.”

After an average lunch of miso-flavored noodles from his dorm’s kitchen panel, Team meets Pharm and Manaow at the nearest movie park. He doesn’t remember what they’re seeing, but it never matters. The spectacle of movie parks haven’t waned for Team ever since he was little, lying on his back in the middle of a park while holograms tell vivid stories overhead.

They spread Manaow’s comfiest blanket on the neatly trimmed grass, sit side-by-side in a neat row, and wait for the dome walls to rise up from the chamber underneath the park and close overhead. Pharm did a report on the whole process last year for their applied automation class, and ever since, Team has paid much closer attention to it.

“Check again,” Manaow says, poking Team’s shoulder.

“I’m not sitting in the middle if you keep doing that,” Team tells her.

“Check! Again!” she insists, grabbing his arm and shaking him with dramatic emphasis.

Team allows himself to be shaken, but he tries to project absolute exasperation with every iota of his being in protest.

“Manaow, don’t make him throw up on the blanket,” Pharm says. He keeps nibbling on a pounded rice cake dusted with coconut that he made, apparently enjoying the natural cloud formations above in peace and serenity despite the brutal, unprovoked violence going on beside him.

Since they met at the park entrance, Manaow’s been asking Team question after question about MUSE. When she asked who he listed, he made the mistake of telling her the truth. He made the mistake of saying, “I put down Win and four other guys,” in exactly those words, and then suffered Manaow’s feral smirk.

“So you really like Win, huh?” she asked him. “No wonder you’ve never had sex before. I’ve never seen anyone like him at our university.”

Now, just to make her stop, Team stabs the voice activation button on his tablet and says, “Any new messages from MUSE?”

He stares Manaow in the eyes, waiting for the denial.

“Yes,” the AI says.

Team processes Manaow’s gasp first, then registers what the AI said.

“Wait, really?”

He turns the tablet around and Pharm sits up, peeking over one shoulder while Manaow shrieks over his other one.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Team demands, calling up the message box and sifting through the topmost letters. “Where is it?”

“On April 18th of this year, you requested no notifications while you’re with friends.“

Team finds the MUSE insignia on a letterfront and flings it up, heedless of whoever around them is paying attention. The bright afternoon sunlight makes the hologram transparent at a distance anyway. “Not like you’ve canceled notifications when I’ve been with friends any other time this year,” Team mutters.

The AI doesn’t offer a defense for that.

“Open it, open it!” Manaow chants, pulling on his arm.

A chime sounds around them, and the dome walls for the movie screen lift out of the grass, a gentle whir belying their enormous size. As the amount of sunlight diminishes, Team’s hologram letter brightens. Hastily, he pinches his fingers to make it smaller and less visible to the people around him.

The AI says, “Would you like me to read—”

“Shh!” Team hisses.

He, Pharm, and Manaow read together, and he knows they’ve reached the same point simultaneously when he hears Manaow say,

“Wow, even P’Win’s signature is sexy.”

Chapter Text

Since Ting is the first of her friends to arrive at the restaurant, it’s her job to stake out their usual table on the terrace. She opens her rucksack and takes out her wallet, tablet, and compact mirror, setting them on table in front of each of the three empty chairs. Sense of responsibility established, she sits with her mug of spiced cocoa and soaks in the jagged rise and fall of the Bangkok skyline.

She tried to paint it once, but she’s never had an eye for perspective or scale, so she gave up halfway through. Photographing it is easier, but there’s no artistry there.

Just thinking that gives her a little thrill. Prae would be furious.

“Oh, what’s that?”

Ting beams up at Maprang, extending her pinky from the mug handle as she sips. “Spiced cocoa,” she answers.

Maprang’s crimson sundress should be a crime—its design leaves both shoulders bare, the flimsy straps hanging loose over her biceps. Her long black hair is even more egregious, spun into a bun with a lacquer crown clip holding it in a sloppy yet painfully attractive mess.

Even Maprang’s exaggerated grimace as she sits in the chair opposite Ting only enhances how gorgeous she is.

“Spiced with what? Is it hot? What’s wrong with you?”

Ting pouts at her and says, “I don’t know, I just told the processor to get creative.”

She spots Prae enter the terrace and locks eyes with her, but Prae puts a finger to her lips, so Ting goes back to admiring Maprang.

Maprang, who props her elbow on the table and points at Ting with solemnity. “Listen here,” she says, “stop giving the food machines so much power.“

“Shh,” Ting says, widening her eyes and putting her hand over the screen in the center of the table. “They’ll hear you.”

Then Prae finishes creeping up on Maprang and yells, “BAH!” as she clutches Maprang’s bare shoulders.

Maprang jumps, squeaks, and then whines, “Prae! Why?”

Exuding satisfaction, Prae sits next to her, leaving the final open seat next to Ting. Without a word to either of them, she pulls the menu from the center panel and flies through the customization options with a blur of minute finger movements, hologram shapes appearing and vanishing in fractions of a second.

“It’s like watching a pro gamer,” Ting says.

Beverage or food? Beverage. Type of container? Glass. Iced or hot? Iced. Coldness level? Nine point five. Ingredients? Fruit. Type of fruit? Pineapple. Anything else? Yes. Another fruit? Yes. What type? Mango. Anything else?

On and on for a few more seconds, until she completes the order with a press of her ring to the panel’s payment scanner.

The restaurant’s squirrel mascot pops out of the panel, gives Prae an adorable little wai, then dives back into the panel, their bushy tail swishing.

Maprang sits sideways in her chair and applauds Prae, visibly amused.

Prae half-smiles, then calls up the menu again and orders a water.

“Why do you need two drinks?” Ting asks.

“I’m only drinking one,” Prae says.

As Maprang frowns and opens her mouth, Ting spots Del approaching their table carrying a purse, her smile bright and eager. “Ahhh, it’s so nice up here!” she says, setting her purse down on the table. “I shouldn’t have walked from the train.” She offers a wai to Maprang and Prae, then sinks into the chair beside Ting.

With a cartoonish chime to announce their return, the squirrel pops up through the panel again and says, “Your drinks are ready!”

A small square of the table slides open, and two glasses, a fruit juice and a water, rise to the top. Prae takes the water and tells Del, “For you,“ with a gesture to the fruit juice.

Del’s smile keys up into excitement. “Aww, P’Prae!” She wais again, then takes the colorful drink off the tray and merrily downs a third of it.

Prae smiles into her water, eyes on the table.

Maprang exchanges raised eyebrows with Ting, but they say nothing.

“I can only stay for about half an hour,” Del says, once she’s dabbed the sweat from her temples and relaxed quietly for a few minutes while the other girls talked.

Maprang says, “Aw, no,” and pouts. ”Why? This is our weekly get together, Del! This is supposed to be sacred!“

Del smiles sheepishly and points to her purse, probably where she’s keeping her tablet. “One of my regulars made an appointment this morning,” she says. “Sorry. She’s been having a really rough time lately, so I’ve been distracting her from it as much as possible. I’m coming to your birthday party this weekend, though! I blocked off the whole day, promise.”

Maprang’s pout eases up slightly.

Ting adds, ”I’ll be there too!” because her mouth and her brain don’t always collaborate when she says things.

Maprang gives her a curious smile. “Well, yeah, I know you will,” she says. “You’re not the one who’s busy all the time.”

Del makes a sad noise and wais as deeply as the table will allow. “I’m really sorry, Phi,” she says.

With a supreme air of composure and pride, Prae says, “It’s not Del’s fault she’s good at her job,” and then swats Maprang’s shoulder with an understated thwack.

“Well,” Maprang says, stealing Ting’s cocoa for a sip that makes her grimace, “I guess I can’t blame her. I go to my specialist when I feel like that too.”

Ting waits for Maprang to return her mug, then memorizes how the faint pink lipstick stains the black ceramic.

“Must be nice,” Ting says.

Maprang eyes her. “Why do you say that? You see specialists sometimes.”

Ting focuses on her cocoa, stirring the thick liquid mindlessly with her spoon. “Not so much anymore,” she says. “I’m trying to save up.”

“What for?” Prae asks.

“Just in general,” Ting says. “Trying not to splurge.”

“Well,” Maprang says, grinning. “I don’t splurge on anything but my specialist.“

“I splurge on deep-tissue massages,” Del says.

“I splurge on this place,” Prae says.

“You’re drinking water,” Ting says.

Del takes the final sip from her fruit juice and says, “Sorry, everyone, I have to get going.” She offers another apologetic wai, then rises from the table. “I promise, Phi, it won’t happen this weekend!”

Maprang waves her off airily like an unbothered queen. “You’re forgiven,” she says. “Otherwise Prae’ll hit me again.”

“True,” Prae says, smiling with promise.

Once Del’s gone in a whirl of sweet-smelling conditioner from her long hair, Ting says, “She got so lucky with her regulars.”

“Well,” Prae says, “it’s how you market yourself. Del’s sweet and supportive, so she gets a lot of nap people. Being around her comforts people.”

Ting puts a hand over her heart. “Phi, I’m comforting!”

Prae pats the back of her hand and says, “You’re very pretty.”

“That’s not what I said!”

“Very pretty,” Maprang says, adding some pats to Ting’s other hand.

Ting gives them both a sulking look through her bangs until they laugh.

Chapter Text

Hello,

My name is Win. I’ve read your application, and I think we’d both enjoy spending time together.

This week, I have availability on Thursday after six, Friday after eight, or Saturday between five and seven. Next week, Monday and Wednesday are completely free from five onward. If none of these work for you, let me know and we’ll find a time that works for both of us.

Just let me know. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

Win

If it wouldn’t lead to weeks if not months or years of Pharm and Manaow making fun of him, Team would sprint out of the park right now to read, reread, and memorize Win’s message in the privacy of his dorm room. As it is, they absolutely would do that, so Team suffers the humiliation of his two friends reading over his shoulder along with him.

Luckily, the movie studio’s opening hologram of fireworks spiraling through a crown have already begun in the sky above them. The spectacle cuts off any and all potential questions and teasing, allowing Team to begin two hours of ruminating and marveling over the message in his tablet waiting for his reply.

Win’s wording was weirdly formal, sure, but then again, Team doesn’t have any other introductory messages from sex workers to compare it to. Maybe he should have expected the formality? And then he realizes:

He knows nothing about this process.

He doesn’t know how he’s expected to act, he definitely has no experience going as far as he’ll probably be expected to, and he can’t even back out now because all of his information is in MUSE’s database and Win will think he’s weird if he cancels after going to all this trouble to meet with him.

Damn it damn it damn it.

At some point during the movie, the audience's reaction dictates a happy ending that seems unrealistic considering how grimly the movie began. It has Manaow and Pharm talking all the way to the station while Team fantasizes about getting home without them—

“So, Team,” Manaow says, “when are you going to meet P’Win?”

Team lets his head drop back, in what he hopes is visible, undeserved agony.

Pharm grins at him, his expression an essay entitled: “Have You Met Us?”

In Team’s rucksack, the tablet AI says, “Message received.”

Team eyes both of his friends, then asks over his shoulder, “Is it from MUSE again?”

“No.”

He waits for more, but there doesn’t seem to be more.

“Oh, please, we’re not going to read your messages,” Manaow says, then makes a show of peering down the track for the train.

“You just did earlier!”

“You had it open for anyone to read!”

“That—” Team shakes his head and tells his tablet, “No more notifications until I get home.”

His tablet doesn’t respond.

Team suspects there’s something ornery in its silence, but he can’t prove it, so he lets it go.

Moments later, the magnetized train arrives in near silence as always, and Team manages to steer the conversation back to the movie as they board with a cluster of other passengers. In the back of his mind is a constant hum of panic.

Damn it damn it damn it.

Since Team has chosen to swim on the competition circuit, he has much less occupying his final year of university than his friends and classmates who plan to go after jobs and careers that involve more preparation. Team’s daily schedule starts at five and ends at noon, followed by lunch and a nap and video games or whatever his friends want to do.

He’s free every one of the days Win suggested.

Part of him wants to explain why in his response.

“Why would you do that?” Ting asks.

“So he doesn’t think I’m creepy for saying any day is fine,” Team tells her, pulling a look of extreme annoyance.

Ting’s hand reaches out to flick his forehead, but technology hasn’t gotten as far as tangible options for phone calls, so her finger just disappears into his head instead.

He sticks his tongue out at her, smug. Then he moves back on his bed out of range of even her virtual reach.

“He’s asking you to pick a day, rocks-for-brains,” she says. “You don’t have to tell him you’re a lazy moron with too much free time slobbering at the chance to suck him off.”

Team scowls at her. “I’m not slobbering—”

“Just pick a day!” she yells. “Now, what was the second thing?”

Team regrets writing to her at four in the morning for help. But she’s the one who got him into this, sort of, so it’s her responsibility to calm him down. Also, friendship obligations and whatnot, probably.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says mournfully.

Ting widens her eyes at him in a clear message of “please say you’re joking”.

“Oh, Team,” she sighs. She puts her elbows on her desk, making a circle with her thumb and index finger of her right hand, and extending the index finger of her left hand. “So—”

“That’s not what I meant,” Team says, glaring.

She drops her hands, her expression flat. “Well, you gave me so much information to work with, I don’t know how I could have misunderstood.”

“I meant, like!” He spins his hand in a circle, helpless without the words for what he’s worried about. “Like, etiquette?”

“Sex etiquette,” Ting repeats.

“Yes!” Team says. “Or—I don’t know! Like, when I get there, what do I do? What do I say to him? Do we just do it? Are there drinks first? What happens? What do I do, Ting?”

Her eyes widen gradually until he finishes at a crescendo, when her eyelids are drawn back nearly into her head.

“Okay, okay,” she says, raising her hands in a universal calming gesture. “I’ll take this seriously, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were that nervous. Sorry, okay? I’m sorry.”

He pulls the sleeves of his sweatshirt over his hands and says, “’S fine. Just…I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want him to laugh at me.”

Ting’s smile is quick and genuine. “Aww, Team, he won’t. Win’s really, really nice, I promise.” She presses one fingertip under the nail of her opposite hand and in this way she starts to tick off points on her fingers one by one. “First of all, MUSE should have sent you a whole bunch of introductory information with Win’s message. Check again. If they didn’t, just let them know and they’ll send it. It’ll have the answers to a lot of the questions you probably have, including…etiquette.”

He gives her a small frown for the pause, but settles again when she offers a playful wink.

“Okay,” he says, forcing his taut shoulders to relax. “I know a lot of people go to these places for their first time, but I always kind of imagined it like walking in and doing it and leaving. I didn’t think of, like, what happens in between, or, y’know. What to say.”

Ting nods and folds her arms over her knees. “Well, look, I’ve worked part-time at MUSE. So I know both sides of how this works. My first time as a guest, Del was waiting for me alone in the lobby. I was nervous, so I asked her if we could just talk the first time, and she said sure. We talked about, like, our favorite foods or something inane like that. It’s your time, and they already know what you want based on your profile, so it’s not as awkward as you’re probably imagining. They’re not random people taking you on a first date, they’re specialists. They have sensitivity training and health courses and all that stuff. And Win’s been there for years, so he’s one of their best.”

Team says, “Okay,” and takes a deep breath. “What’s it look like? The information thing they sent me?”

Hi,

Thank you for getting back to me so quick.

This Thursday’s fine for me. Is six okay or is that too early? I can meet later, too. Whatever’s best for you.

Team

A three-dimensional insignia of complex interwoven purple lines appears in the middle of Team’s room.

Welcome to The MUSE Parlor.

The words appear before Team in black curls of smoke along with a soft, kind voice narrating them.

This virtual introduction will give you everything you need to know before your first visit. The MUSE Parlor was established over sixty years ago with the goal of providing a safe environment to explore burgeoning sexuality, and in the decades since, we’ve held true to our initial mission and have provided millions of guests with the sensual, unparalleled medicine of physical, spiritual, and mental closeness.

Team waves his arm hard enough to skip through the next three minutes entirely.

This is our lobby.

The hologram unfurls into a wide black hallway, the perspective moving gracefully and gradually forward as the narration continues.

When you arrive, your specialist will be waiting for you.

At the end of the hallway, standing in front of a wall decorated with a silver water feature, a stylized, life-sized model without any defining features fades into view and offers a perfectly formal wai to Team.

As this will be your first meeting, your specialist will ask you where you’ll prefer to go next. If you’d like to talk or relax, the Mahogany Room, the Cedar Room, and the Cypress Room are open twenty-four hours a day, all days of the week.

Three large white frames appear together with each room name, displaying a door with a silver name plaque. The tour continues as the door on the left opens and the perspective enters into a massive space.

The Mahogany Room is our largest semi-public area. Ten private booths line the western wall, outfitted with sofas and—

“Um, wait,” Team says.

The hologram pauses.

“Can I ask about, like…etiquette?”

The same soft voice asks, Of course. Do you have a specific concern or subject of curiosity?

“Yeah, um. What do I have to do before I go? Like, uh. Cleanliness-…wise.”

The hologram changes back to The MUSE Parlor’s insignia. While its surface gleams, as if lit by candlelight, seven people all wearing formal dress walk out from behind the insignia and line up in a row facing Team. Neutral expressions, all.

The MUSE Parlor works closely with an in-house medical staff whose qualifications you may receive on request. We’ve prepared extensive introductions with each professional on the fundamentals of preparation before sexual intimacy. You can choose a professional now to watch their full introduction, or let us know what specifically we can help you with, if you have a specific question or concern. In the event that we don’t have an answer in our database, we will happily connect you with one of the staff directly through our private link.

Team, whose mouth has gradually drifted open, says, “I just…wanted to know how I…um. Down there. Wash. Clean up?” Team puts his face in his hands and says, “Please understand that somehow.”

To his continuing surprise, the voice doesn’t even take a pause to puzzle out what he’s trying and failing to stammer out.

Hygiene and health are among our chief concerns at The MUSE Parlor. To clarify, are you asking about the safest method of preparation for anal sex?

Team keeps his hands over his scalding red face. “Yes,” he croaks.

He would prefer to swan-dive into a volcano rather than listen to the answer, but he summons up his spine, clenches his teeth, and yells, “Lock the doors!”

Just in case anyone has the idea of stopping by unexpected.

“Doors are locked,” the security AI replies.

Smoothly, The MUSE Parlor narrator continues, characterless text appearing and vanishing with blunt nonchalance.

Sixty to thirty minutes before intimacy, guests can prepare on their own or request assistance from their specialist or one of our medical staff if necessary or desired. The Maple Room is stocked daily with an isotonic formula liquid specially designed for healthy rectal cleansing. There are many myths surrounding anal sex preparation. For the purposes of this introduction, we’ve prepared a visual example—

Team scrubs his face with both hands and says through them, “I’ve never been less turned on, I just think you should know that.”

A pause.

The safety of our guests—

“No, yeah, okay, I understand, never mind, go on.” As the narration continues, he quietly adds, “Then point me to the nearest volcano.”

Hello,

Six is perfect.

I’ll be waiting in the lobby.

Win

Team’s first steps out of the elevator into the lobby of The MUSE Parlor on the thirtieth floor are spent holding his breath. More than half of his monthly B.I. is funding this experience, and the idea that some people visit regularly bends his mind with envy.

He wonders if he’ll have to tell Win the paper-thin excuse he has for being here. He tries to imagine telling a sex worker that he’s hired them for a school project.

Win’s heard weirder reasons, Team’s sure.

Does he have to explain? Will Win expect him to talk about himself? Going through a fraction of the introductory material MUSE sent took Team almost three hours, upon which time he gave up and decided to wing it.

It’s just sex, he’s been telling himself.

Some of the worst students Team’s ever known have had sex.

It can’t require a degree or whatever.

MUSE’s entry hallway looks just as it did in the intro hologram. The floor, walls, and ceiling are all a gleaming coat of pitch black, accented from the floor by pink and gold lighting. The ambiance here at night must be practically ethereal with only the city lights to sparkle through the windows rather than the setting sun of now.

According to an article Team just read on the train ride here, the windows at MUSE are all floor-to-ceiling length and made with reflective surfaces that allow in only sunlight. No opportunities for prying eyes or opportunistic photographers. Just a dazzling view of the towering glass buildings lining Sukhumvit Road for those on the inside and curiosity for outsiders.

The lobby is empty, but as Team takes his third step, the wall and windows shimmer into an opaque white. Two hologram ribbons, colored identical gradients of gold and pink, keep pace with Team as he walks, moving at his side as if in midair. They jump “into” the wall from time to time in a playful sort of way, a clear flex of the technology that has Team reluctantly impressed.

“Welcome to The MUSE Parlor,” says a serene voice. “Please make your way to the entry hall, and your specialist will meet you shortly.”

Team fantasizes about running back to the elevator, moving to Chiang Mai, and changing his name to Solo.

Then a door opens right in the center of the silver water feature at the end of the hall. The ribbons vanish, the vaguely erotic ambient music quiets, and Win walks through the door.

Team simultaneously accepts two facts:

First, Win is even more gorgeous in person.

Second, he’s ten times more intimidating than Team was expecting.

Don’t trip, Team tells himself, and doesn’t.

Don’t stare, Team tells himself, and does.

Because Win isn’t just an attractive person he’s happened to notice on the street. Win is a specialist in sex whose time and services Team has paid for.

For the next hour and a half, he’ll be with Win, who’s being paid to—

“Nice to meet you, Team.”

Oh, even his voice is—

Team says, “Nice to meet you, Hia Win,” and then hastily returns Win’s wai.

Win’s expression, neutral to start, shows a glimmer of interest. “Hello,” he says.

Team stops roughly arm’s length from Win and wonders if the tiny suggestion of teasing is real. Since he can’t tell, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He can’t manage polysyllables right now anyway, let alone banter.

“So,” Win says, tucking his thumbs into his pockets, “I usually like to start new meetings in the Cypress Room, unless you have a preference?”

Cypress…?

Team’s memory sends back a giant question mark.

Ah. Right.

He skipped the whole section on rooms to ask about hygiene instead.

Fuck.

“That’s fine with me,” Team says, copying the casual thumbs-in-pockets thing.

Win’s eyes dart down, then back up, the corner of his mouth lifting. “You’re cute,” he says. “C’mon.”

He turns around to face the wall he entered through while Team’s face heats. As Win presses a hand to the smooth surface, the door slides open soundlessly and soft golden light spills out from the interior.

Team follows Win into this new, narrower hallway, his eyes wide. Where the entry hallway had pink and gold lighting along the floor, this one is pure gold, reaching up the black walls like a whisper of fire. As the door automatically closes behind them, the otherworldly effect is augmented.

Team supposes a company that’s been selling something so ubiquitously desired for over sixty years in a city of four million people would have money to burn on ambiance.

The gold lighting catches in Win’s blond hair and gleams on his smooth, pale cheek, and a thought drops into Team’s head.

What would a date with him be like?

Immediately, Team forces a reminder into his haywire brain that he’s barely managed to speak a handful of coherent syllables since he met Win ninety seconds ago.

It doesn’t stop him from tucking the thought away for later as Win opens a side door and gestures gallantly for Team to enter before him.

The Cypress Room, it turns out, is the size of Team’s bedroom, and has zero actual cypress wood inside. It’s also empty. And bright. The walls are white like porcelain and glisten in millions of tiny sparkles like beaded dew. After the last two dark hallways, Team has to squint against the sudden onslaught, bringing a hand up to shield his eyes.

“Ah, sorry,” Win says, and palms a panel by the door. “Every month, the rooms’ default lighting changes to a different color. It was dark green yesterday.”

The lighting shifts in hue to match the orange and pink sunset outside, and Team bites back the urge to ask something snarky in response.

Another swipe of Win’s hand over the panel brings up a table with two chairs from the center of the floor. All of it is a single piece of furniture, the two chairs connected to the table like stems on a flower, just as pale and delicate-looking as the walls and floor.

When Team glances at Win, Win’s eyes flicker to the table and back to Team.

Team takes the hint and climbs up into one of the empty chairs.

As Win sits opposite him, his body practically poured across the chair in a casual tableau, Team can feel a burst of panic approaching his nerves like flame held to the bundled wick of a dozen firecrackers. Team’s chair faces both Win and the sunset-drenched skyline behind him, and the impact of both at once challenges Team’s ability to take even breaths.

Win is easily the most gorgeous person he’s ever talked to, and Team’s hired him to—to—

“So, um, I’m doing this for school.”

For a moment it sits between them, offensive in its candor, a messy grenade of partial truth in the expensive artificial serenity surrounding them.

Then Win tilts his chin up, his gaze chasing Team's. “What, is this a field trip or something?” he asks, the corner of his mouth quirking.

“No,” Team says, too loud. “I’m doing a paper.” That’s not better. “I’m majoring in economics.” What? “It was my friends’ idea.” Ugh.

“Majoring in economics?”

Team stares. “What? No, the—”

Win licks his lips. “Visiting a sex parlor?”

Team swallows so fast his throat almost caves in on itself. “Y-yes,” he says. “That part.”

Team breaks eye contact, and the carnal part of his brain re-fixes his gaze on Win’s collarbones, followed by the slope of his neck, the sharp knife’s edge of his jaw, and—the amused eyes as Win ducks his head to interrupt Team’s unplanned journey of his body.

“Sorry,” Team blurts.

Twenty seconds. He managed to avoid tripping, speak a handful of coherent syllables, walk through two doors without incident—and then he turned everything sideways in twenty seconds.

“Team.”

Wincing, Team glances up at Win and experiences a shock to see Win smiling. Truly, widely, and genuinely.

“I’ve been doing this for three years,” Win says, “and that’s the first time someone’s said they want to do me for homework.”

Team suffers the indignation of Win’s smirk for a full half second, then covers his face with both hands and tries very hard to make this nightmare reality into a lucid dream.

“Oh, come on,” Win says. ”If it makes you feel better, someone once proposed to me the first time I gave him head.”

Team says, “No, it doesn’t,” and then, because his mind is so overwrought with humiliation it’s no longer controlling his mouth, he adds, “I might do the same thing.”

There’s a huff of laughter from Win, and somehow that makes Team want to peek between his fingers.

Win’s whole demeanor seems less intimidating when he smiles like that.

Team says, “I’m really sorry,” and drops his hands. “This is humiliating.“ He rubs his damp palms on the white bamboo silk pants his mother sent him for his birthday.

Win shakes his head, folding his arms on the table before him and holding Team’s gaze with warmth. “Don’t be sorry,” he says. “I was right. You’re cute.”

In response to that, Team slouches a bit and says, “‘M not.”

“Agree to disagree,” Win says. “So.” He raises an eyebrow, his mouth curving lasciviously. “How would you like to approach your first time, Team?”

The shock of that hits Team like a jolt through the chest. “How did you know—?”

“You wrote it on your application,” Win says. He tips his head to the side. “By the way, did you know that entire third page was optional?”

Team frowns. “Which page was that?”

Win props his chin on his palm, all honeyed innocence as he says, “’Special Interests’.”

There is, it turns out, no ceiling to the heights of Team’s embarrassment today.

“I don’t see many people mark acrophilia,” Win says. “I think most people don’t know what it is.”

Team returns his face to the privacy of his hands. He didn’t either; he had to look it up. He hadn’t thought it applied to him at first, either, but then he imagined sex somewhere with a view, like a Ferris wheel or a…skyscraper…and he checked it without thinking much more of it.

“I don’t even remember half of what I put down,” Team says. “I didn’t know you would read it.”

“You thought the AI would tell me what you’re into?”

“I don’t know,” Team whines. “Yes?”

Win doesn’t say anything to that. He just keeps looking, studying whatever he sees in Team’s eyes with something like amused fascination.

“Y’know,” Win says, “you might feel more comfortable somewhere else. Somewhere less—” he gestures to the windows “—bright. Want to move to my room?”

Arousal bolts through Team. “Okay,” he says, probably too fast.

“And,” Win continues, “I’ll make a deal with you.”

Team blinks. “Um, okay. What?”

Win leans a little closer over the table, staying low and peering up at Team with mischief in his eyes as if they’re somewhere public and at risk of being overheard.

“Before you leave,” Win says, “I’ll let you ask me one question if you let me ask you one.”

Team can’t think of any reason to say no to that, so he says, “Uh, sure.”

He is curious about Win, after all.

But what can he realistically ask?

Are you dating anyone?

No. Not that.

“Follow me,” Win says, winking as he stands up from the table.

Definitely not that.

MUSE, it turns out, is not just the one floor, but many. An elevator with a starry ceiling and ambient nighttime noise takes them up to the thirty-sixth floor, where this hallway is curved and dark and projection mapping makes it appear to be an old Spanish street lit by the burnt orange light from street lamps.

As Win leads the way, Team finds his voice and says, “My friend is studying how to design these.”

Win smiles over his shoulder, so casually that it jars Team out of the moment and why he’s here to begin with. “My friend actually made these,” he says. “Maybe mine should meet yours.”

The innuendo is clearly intentional, so Team gives him a wry smile that makes Win laugh.

“Here, this is me,” Win says, and pushes on what looks like the front door to a street-level apartment.

Team meets his eyes, reality squeezing the breath from his lungs, and walks into the room.

Anxiousness had occupied too much brain space for Team to have expectations, but he still frowns. The focal point of the room, apart from the bed, is the glowing blue conical fishtank on the lefthand side of the room. Koi that may or may not be real circle the inside, their scales a deep orange splotched with black. The only other major feature in the room is the bed. Centered in the room, headboard pressed against the wall, neatly made with a plush navy duvet over it.

Win’s voice by his ear says, “Want to sit?”

“On the floor or the bed?” Team asks.

Win’s amused exhale tickles Team’s neck. “Sorry. I had a choice of a bed or a fish tank.”

Team glances over his shoulder, skeptical, and finds Win smirking back.

There’s no way of knowing if he’s kidding.

Team toes off his shoes next to the door and walks to the bed, sitting on the edge with a look of faked bravado at Win.

If he fakes it long enough, he’s hoping, actual confidence will follow.

Win sits next to him, arms braced on the bed behind him, in absolute comfort with his body and how to show it at its best angles.

“Here’s my question,” Win says.

Team blinks, then nods.

“Are you really only doing this for a paper?”

Team opens his mouth, then closes it. He could lie. Very easily.

“No,” he says.

As Win exhales, his shoulders relax, and a sincere smile breaks what Team has learned is Win’s neutral expression.

Team rests a hand on the duvet between them. “I want to ask mine too,” he says.

Win’s eyes move from Team’s hand up his arm to his eyes. He nods.

Team takes the duvet into a tight grip. “Can I kiss you?”

Win says nothing—just for a moment—then answers, “Of course.”

This much, at least, is familiar territory. Team knows he kisses well—at least well enough that no one’s ever made fun of him or complained. The first touch of Team’s lips to Win’s is simple, smooth, and warm. Comfortable. Easy.

Then Win starts work in earnest.

The second kiss is earnest and deep, and Team exhales midway into it, his breath trembling and mixing with Win’s.

Team closes his eyes to concentrate, determined not to embarrass himself even though Win already knows this is his first time. The least he can do is kiss well.

But Win is far, far out of his league.

Team can feel his own heartbeat in his throat, hammering against his ribs, while Win coaxes his mouth open and whispers, “That’s it. Good. So good.”

The first touch of Win’s fingertips to Team’s side have Team gasping and startling so hard the kiss breaks.

Win locks eyes with him, breathing in small sips between dark, parted lips.

Team shakes his head and goes back for more, closing the gap between them on the bed as well for good measure.

Far into the third kiss, Team begins to shiver with fantasies of Win’s lips elsewhere. He lifts his hand and reaches for Win’s body, hand hovering as he tries to figure out how to ask where he’s allowed—if he’s allowed.

Win grabs his wrist and holds Team’s hand to his waist, whispering against his lips, “I’ll tell you to stop if you do anything I don’t want. Trust me, you’re doing fine.”

The implicit permission and praise does just as much for Team as the reality and heat of Win’s body under his hand. He balls the soft fabric of Win’s expensive shirt in his fist and pulls upward.

Win’s mouth parts from Team’s as both their shirts take up residence on the floor, and in the moment before they go back for more, Team memorizes as much of Win’s pink cheeks and blown pupils as his cloudy brain is capable of doing.

Later, he’ll be shocked by how vivid the picture has remained.

Given how roughly Team initiates their fourth—fifth?—kiss, and how tentatively and then urgently he presses his fingers through Win’s thick hair, there shouldn’t be anything in his brain left to operate his long-term memory.

Win whispers, “Let me suck you,” and when the words register, Team shudders and nods, focused on controlling himself. Controlling the thick, desperate pulse threatening to embarrass him beyond what he’ll be willing to accept from this day.

Win’s hand cups him, thumb pressing a stroke in exactly the right spot to make Team whimper.

Familiar territory is far behind him now.

He wonders, as Win removes his pants and boxer briefs, how difficult it is to clean precum from bamboo silk.

He realizes his mistake in agreeing to Win’s request when Win moves off the bed and to his knees. Team liked having him there. It was more like they were equals, in this together, even though Win has made it throbbingly clear who’s got the better sense of direction here.

Team hurries to adjust, pushing his fists into the mattress behind himself so he can look down his torso at Win staring up at him where he’s kneeling in front of Team’s bare knees.

“Hi,” Team says, blank-minded.

Win places a hand on each knee and Team tries to breathe evenly as he parts his thighs for Win, who appears to be watching Team’s every minute reaction.

Team thinks, with wonder, that no one ever talks about how nice it feels, the sensation of someone else’s sides grazing one’s inner thighs in the moments before a blowjob.

Then Win licks a thick stripe up Team’s erection and takes the head into his mouth like he’s been aching for it since they met, and Team realizes why one might forget to mention the smaller details.

He’s aware, of course, that he’s making noises that would horrify him if he were of sound mind. But he’s watching Win’s mouth on him, listening to the obscene wet noises, and connecting it with the urgency and the need and the way Win is staring at him.

Does he look at everyone like this?

He tells himself no, and he shouts and curls in as Win slurps around his sac.

The edge leaps closer, and Team barely has the wherewithal to say, “C-close,” before he’s coming into Win’s mouth.

Or so he thinks.

A pleasant sort of feeling surrounds Team’s flagging erection even after Win pulls off, and Team watches, panting, as Win gives Team’s thigh a gentle stroke.

“Did I—?”

Win raises his eyebrows, but he can’t entirely hide behind nonchalance. His lips and tongue were relentless, and the flush on his pale face has deepened from exertion.

Team finally notices the condom on his dick and blinks. “When did—?”

Win uses Team’s thighs to lever himself up and reaches forward to fix Team’s fringe.

“One of my first tricks,” Win says. “Helps not to break the mood.”

Team’s eyes dart back and forth between Win’s for a moment. He remembers the numbers that left his bank account so he could be sitting here.

“Oh,” he says.

He can’t afford this.

Win says, “I’m gonna wash up,” and nods at the bed as he turns around. “Take a minute or two to relax.”

Team says, “Okay,” and watches as Win walks around the fish tank out of sight and presumably into a bathroom.

Soon afterward, the condom's pleasant afterglow effect wears off, so Team tugs it off with caution and manages not to spill anything on the floor or the expensive duvet. Without a sound, his breathing under control again, he pinches the membrane into a seal. There’s a discreet garbage bin next to the fish tank. Team tosses the condom and doesn't bother to watch as the sensor detects an object and triggers the bottom to open and dispose of it.

When Win returns, his face and hair are smooth and pale again, and Team has dressed and fixed the duvet as best he can.

Team didn’t think he’d feel quite so reluctant to say goodbye. “I didn’t propose,” he says, finding a hesitant grin.

Win laughs. “True, you didn’t,” he says. “But you’ve still got two sessions left. We’ll see how you do after your second.”

Second.

Second?

“…Huh?”

Chapter Text

The map shrinks back into Kong’s tablet as he reaches his destination, a skyscraper Kong’s never taken notice of before today. Ting asked him to meet her here on the thirtieth floor, so he takes the elevator up and walks briskly down the dark entry hallway of MUSE.

He spots Ting rushing out of the door at the far end, dressed far nicer than Kong’s ever seen her. It’s not quite a dress, but it seems to have been made from one piece of very expensive fabric. It’s probably somewhat more elegant when she’s not running in it at breakneck speed.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she shouts. She sprints full-tilt up the hallway until she’s within grabbing distance of the bag in Kong’s hand, and Kong’s fairly sure if he hadn’t loosened his fingers when he did, she would have taken his arm, too.

She peeks inside, exhales a breath of relief, and drops her wrist on Kong’s shoulder. “Marry me?” she pants. “You’re the only guy I can depend on.”

Kong offers her a smile and puts his hands into his pockets at just the right angle for her wrist to slide off. “I’ll let you know if I don’t get a better offer,” he says.

Ting kicks at him without making contact, grinning. “Jerk. Thank you, though, really.” She pats his bicep and takes a deep breath. “All right, ten minutes before my next session. Bye, Kong!”

He smiles as she rushes back through the door. His one pressing task for the day completed, he contemplates what to do next. He has schematics to work on for many of his ongoing projects, and he owes his parents a visit, but as he heads back to the elevator, the doors open and a third option walks out.

Someday, when he’s asked about their first meeting, Kong won’t be able to explain what made Arthit so remarkable to him at first sight.

The guy walking up the hallway is handsome, but Kong is regularly unaffected and unimpressed by attractive people. It’s not the place they’re in either. MUSE is one of the most popular parlors in the city, so it’s not unusual to see people his age paying a visit. His clothes seem well-fitted, but more intended for comfort than style.

As long as he lives, Kong may never be able to explain why he offers a wai and says, “Hello,” to a perfect stranger in the entrance hall of a sex parlor on a Wednesday afternoon.

The guy’s gaze flits in several directions like an indecisive hummingbird before locking with Kong’s. His chin drops in what could generously be described as a greeting, then he passes Kong at a quicker pace.

Raising his eyebrows, Kong peers over his shoulder to watch this newest curiosity.

The guy stops and stands with stiff shoulders where the guests usually wait, but no specialist emerges from the door in the center of the water feature. Kong drifts over to the elevator, but he has no intention of leaving. He sways back and forth from his heels to his toes to look idle and hide the inactive button with his body.

The more time passes, the more Kong finds to fascinate himself.

The guy isn’t holding himself like a guest. He seems neither nervous nor assured in his purpose for being here. Every minute or so, he opens a hologram clock between his fingers, sparking Kong’s interest deeper.

Those aren’t cheap. Perhaps he’s rich and dressing below his means or maybe…he made it himself.

Kong makes a snap decision.

When he’s made the long walk back to the spot where he met Ting, Kong says, “Sorry to bother you,” and smiles as charmingly as he can.

The guy jumps and meets Kong’s eyes. “Yes?”

Kong gestures to the guy’s hand, inert by his side. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but I saw your clock, and I was wondering if you could tell me the designer.”

The guy frowns for a moment, then his expression clears. “Oh, this?” He brings his hand up again and spreads his fingers, bringing to life the old-style digital numbers, blue and bright. “It’s—well. I am.”

This close, Kong can appreciate the technical skill it took to make. The numbers remain centered and smoothly follow even the guy’s slightest hand movements. This close, as well. Kong can see that the plain gold rings on Arthit’s forefinger and thumb were almost certainly handmade, not purchased from a designer brand.

“You’re very talented,” Kong says, smiling up at the guy.

He isn’t imagining the small smile, he’s sure, but the guy tucks his arms over his chest and says, “Talent had nothing to do with it, sadly. I just studied and made thousands of mistakes until I had something half-workable.”

Kong says, “I’m actually studying holography right now,” and sidles a little closer. “Thousands is much lower than I’ve had trying similar projects.”

The guy visibly notices the distance between them shrink and takes a step back. “Well,” he says. “I only got this to work after years of effort, so. I’m sure you’ll manage. You seem smart.” He says the last bit to the floor, then peeks up as if checking how it’s received.

Kongphob smiles. “Thank you, phi.”

The guy nods, his gaze traveling to the door again.

“If you’re meeting someone,” Kong says, “I can write to my friend who works here and see what’s keeping them?”

The guy blinks at him, as if the words lack meaning, then he says, “Oh! No. I mean—I am, but. Not. Not for—well.” He holds up his other hand, closed in a fist. “I’m just here to give this to someone,” he says. “I have a friend who works here too.”

Kong nods, resisting the urge to ask who it is. Ting almost certainly knows whoever it is, and Kong definitely wants to know them now as well.

When the silence between them stretches a little longer and Kong makes no move to leave, the guy asks him, “Are you…waiting for someone? It looked like you were leaving.”

Smoothly, Kong says, “I was, but I forgot something.”

The guy nods, but his expression has settled into a frown. “Can’t you write to your friend about it?” he asks.

“Right,” Kong says, then takes out his tablet to pretend to do just that.

What he actually writes is, ’Ting, do you know this guy?’ and moves his thumb in the snapshot gesture he programmed to get a capture of the guy’s face. Then he pockets his tablet, smiling with contentment.

The guy asks, “Are they coming?”

Kong says, “In a bit, yes. I brought her lunch so she’s probably still eating.”

He says, “Ah,” and opens his clock again. He runs his teeth over his bottom lip, glancing at the door and then at his closed fist. Then, with a conflicted noise, he says to Kong, “I—um.”

Kong’s smile widens. “Yes?”

The guy seems even less sure of himself now. But with a rallying breath, he says, “I’m sorry if this is strange, but I really can’t wait for him any more. Since your friend works here, would you mind please giving her this to give to him? His name is Win. He’s one of the specialists here.”

Kong recognizes the name from somewhere, so he says, “Absolutely!” with a spark of excitement. Maybe the degrees of separation between him and his handsome curiosity are fewer than he thought.

“Thank you,” the guy says. He places a small, antique-looking metal key in Kong’s hand and adds, “I really am sorry. There’s just an appointment I need to keep and—”

“Maybe I should get your information,” Kong says, “just in case.”

“Just in case of what?”

“Well, my friend might not see my message before her next guest arrives,” Kong says. “She only had ten minutes to eat. That’s why I brought her food.”

“Oh,” the guy says. He rubs his forehead, eyeing the key in Kong’s hand until Kong closes his fingers around it and pockets it. “Yes, okay. Fine. Um, write to me if no one shows and you have to leave.”

He draws a small rectangle and his contact information materializes in the image of a paper business card, appearing with the same fluidity as the digital numbers of his clock.

Kong hides his enthusiasm as he touches the center and duplicates it, watching the guy’s eyes widen.

“How—”

Kong holds up his wrist and displays the thin copper bracelet he made. “It’s not as fashionable as what you have,” he says, “but it’s functional.” Aloud, he reads the name on the card with warmth.

Arthit says, “Well, thank you. And, uh, yeah, just—let me know if he doesn’t show or your friend doesn’t show or—okay. Thanks again.” And then he’s leaving at a clipped pace, visibly flush.

Kong wonders if Arthit realizes his intentions, and he waves with casual familiarity as the elevator doors close.

He waits exactly three seconds, then writes,

’By the way, my name is Kongphob.’

Chapter Text

Team’s apartment is quiet.

When Ting finally says, “Oh, Team,” he just grunts back. He can hear notes of amusement and he’s not pleased that they’re present in her voice.

He doesn’t dare peek from behind his hands, either, because he has a clear enough idea in his mind of the expression he’ll see if he does. The moment he got home from MUSE—mildly humiliated and residually horny—he called Ting and told her all about the last five minutes of his session with Win. All the while, he wondered why he’d called her when he should have called someone who would have been kinder to him. Like Pharm, or even Kong.

“How was I supposed to know I bought a three-time package?” he complains into the seam of his hands.

“Because you bought it!”

“I did not! My tablet did!”

“Well, what did you tell your tablet to buy?”

Team clicks his tongue in frustration. “That’s exactly what hia said!”

Ting says, “Who?”

Team drops his hands and scowls at her until she catches on and makes a silent, “Oh,” and a circling forget about it gesture with her hand. She’s swaying in a lavender argyle hammock on the roof of her building with Bangkok a sparkling blanket of lights behind her. “Even if your tablet bought it, you knew how much it cost, right?”

“Yeah,” Team says grudgingly. “I checked my account after to see how much it’d taken out.”

“You didn’t check the price beforehand?”

“I asked if I could afford it and the tablet said yes! Usually when it says that, it means, like, a third of what this cost!”

“Well, okay, but even so, Team,” she says, “you must have thought that was too expensive for one session, right? I’ve heard what Win’s first sessions are like. You couldn’t have done anything that strenuous with him. Did you really think you were paying half your monthly B.I. for a chat and a hand job?”

Instead of telling her that he thinks Win is worth more than that, Team continues the safe route of scowling. And also quietly mutters, “It wasn’t a hand job.”

Ting raises her eyebrows. “Oh?”

Team stares back. “I’m not giving you details.”

“Fine,” she says, too sweetly. “So, when are you seeing him next?”

Team definitely should have called someone else.

Team,

I hope you enjoyed yourself and got home safely. I’ll see you on Monday.

Win

“Hey, tablet.”

“Tab. Let.”

“What may I help you with?”

“I just want to check that it’s in my schedule that I’m seeing—”

“On this upcoming Monday at two in the afternoon, you have an appointment with a specialist called Win at The MUSE Parlor. Eighty-eight hours and eighteen minutes from now. Your appointment is confirmed with The MUSE Parlor and you will be reminded at whatever interval you choose. Would you like to set a daily reminder?”

“…No.”

“Acknowledged.”

At five past five on Friday morning, Team stumbles out of bed and yawns for the entire duration of his journey to the bathroom. Normally, he’s smarter about getting to bed early, but his body refused to rest in the wake of everything he’d experienced on Thursday. Rather than settle down and recuperate the way it should, his mind instead insisted on inscribing the sensation of Win’s lips into the archives of long-term memory one nerve ending at a time.

While Team brushes his teeth, his mind strays to what might happen on Monday afternoon.

He hasn’t even begun to process the enormity of experiencing his “first time” with someone as gorgeous and fun as Win, let alone what he’ll do his second and third times with Win.

And it wasn’t a date, no, but the lack of stress Team absolutely would have felt if it had been actually made it…a little better.

It’s like what so many others have said—for someone getting the hang of sex, seeing a professional really is ideal.

He spends the morning after his swim doing a fair amount of research into MUSE reviews. One person had their first time at MUSE a few years ago and said they waited until their fourth session to even touch their MUSE specialist, which made Team feel a little overenthusiastic for what he and Win had done halfway into his first. Then, of course, he read about a person who merrily sixty-nined with their specialist ten minutes into their first session, so he felt less unusual.

Team wanders through the whole day in a haze. He attends class without absorbing much of anything, then he drinks a protein shake for lunch and winds up on the floor of Manaow’s apartment, where he lets her try out a new holographic eyeshadow on him.

“Team! Keep. Your eyes. Closed.”

“But I’m bored.”

“You offered to do this.”

“I did not. I was just lying here and you sat on my chest.”

“Well, I’m not going to sit on the floor when there’s a perfectly good heated rug right here.”

Team opens his eyes wide in retaliation.

She points the stabby makeup brush at his left eye and shouts, “Eyes! Closed!”

With a sigh at medium volume, Team obeys.

After a few more ticklish strokes of the brush, Team asks, “How come you’re not bothering me about MUSE?”

“Well, now that you bring it up—”

Team rolls his eyes underneath his eyelids, but even this is forbidden, apparently. Judging by the slap to his bicep.

She’s oddly quiet for a few seconds longer, her brushstrokes less focused, and then she says, “You’re only into men, right?”

Team makes a noise that’s partially affirmative, partially curious why she’s asking.

“How did you know for sure?”

Team replays the question in his head and decides she sounds sincere and this isn’t some long con to make fun of him for something. “Well,” he tells her, “when your tastes run more exclusive, you figure it out quicker, I guess.”

“How old were you when you knew?”

“I dunno. Nine? Well. No, I think I knew before that. I proposed to a boy in my class when I was three or four. I called him my husband for a week until my teacher told me I wasn’t old enough to sign the paperwork, even with my parents’ permission, so I threw a tantrum. Then he said he didn’t want to wait until we grew up to get married, and I never bothered dating ever again.”

Manaow laughs.

Team grins. “My dating history is easy,” he brags.

After a few more seconds of amiable silence, she taps his cheek to signal that he can open his eyes. As she climbs off his chest—where she’s been more straddling him than actually sitting on him—she says, “Nana, can you give me the mirror, please?”

Her tablet’s surface turns reflective. Manaow picks it up, crawls behind Team, and holds the tablet in front of them both, presenting him with the art she’s painted onto his face. Thoughtful, he turns his head back and forth, admiring how the rainbow sheen catches in the soft lighting of Manaow’s ceiling covered in small orange crystals.

“It’s in honor of your people’s flag,” she says with a wink into the mirror over his shoulder.

He meets her gaze in the reflection. “Still finding yours?” he asks.

She smiles. “I think I have a good idea.” After he takes the tablet from her hands and investigates the color shifting from different angles, she rests her chin on his shoulder. “Would you recommend it, though?” she asks. “MUSE?”

Team’s smile is almost involuntary, remembering how Win framed Team’s face in his hands at the end and said, “I’m glad I get to see you twice more.”

He nods. “Yeah. Definitely.”

The MUSE Parlor Guest Reviews

I’m not shy, but I’m not really good with people either. Most of my friends had their first time around sixteen or seventeen, but I didn’t see the point in rushing to get it over with. So I waited.

Eventually, though, my classmates bugged me to the point where I actually did want to get it over with.

My specialist is a good guy. Halfway into the first session he asked some important questions and I realized that, yeah, I’m just not into strangers. He said he would talk to the parlor about refunding me, but I said he’d helped me anyway and I’d taken up his time, so to keep the money.

A few months went by and I started developing feelings for this guy I know. We never had a close relationship, but that was starting to change.

Long story short, I came back to MUSE and asked the same specialist for technical/practical advice. I see him once a month now, so hopefully it’ll help.

On Saturday, Team deliberately sleeps in.

At first, he wakes up with the sunrise thinking it’s Sunday. His heart leaps from the proximity to Monday until he realizes the real date, at which point he shuts his brain off and proceeds to doze for another three hours.

He visits Pharm in the late morning to help him sort out his new apartment. This mainly translates to Team opening boxes, removing their contents, then folding the boxes and feeding them into the recycling chute in the hallway.

Just before noon, a thick drop of sweat makes its presence known in the middle of Team’s back as Pharm is plating sandwiches in his newly, pristinely organized kitchen. The sweat rolls down Team’s spine, quickly followed by another drop that moves even faster down the path established by its predecessor.

“Pharm,” Team whines. “It’s hot.”

He allows his body to melt off the coffee table and splat without ceremony onto the floor where he remains like a hastily discarded corpse. He has big dreams of making Pharm feel so guilty he makes Team a second sandwich.

He keeps his eyes closed as Pharm’s footfalls cross the room, and even after the plates clack onto the glass table.

“All right, all right, I’ll turn the air back on,” Pharm says.

The heat thing is a quirk Pharm has that Team will never understand. Pharm claims that because he grew up with his parents in the south, he doesn’t mind Bangkok’s temperatures. Team just thinks Pharm’s inability to feel humidity is a new evolutionary trait.

He stays prone until he hears the hum of the central air return, then springs up to investigate the offering on the table. Two slices of crusty bread around thick slabs of mozzarella, tomato slices beaded with water, and slathered with dark green pesto.

“Pharm,” Team says, “I love you.”

“Thank you,” Pharm says, taking a seat on the cushion opposite him.

With Pharm’s virtual cooking classes taking off in popularity over the past few months, his finances have taken an equally vast spike upward. With his mother’s move overseas imminent, Pharm decided to move into the same elegant building near campus where Kong lives, a fancy thing designed by some renowned architect or whoever. Team likes the inside, but the outside looks like a tower of blocks made by a distracted toddler.

Halfway into devouring the caprese sandwich of his dreams, Team forgets the world exists at all, so he jumps when Pharm asks him, “How was MUSE?”

Team considers the question. Ting teased him, Manaow wanted intel, but Pharm is probably just curious. He chews a few times, then decides to be honest. “It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” he admits.

Pharm’s smile is playful. “Were you expecting it to be difficult?” he asks.

“I mean, yeah, kinda,” Team says. He takes another massive bite to buy himself time to mull over what he wants to say. When he swallows, he says, “Before I got there, I was starting to think I should’ve picked someone I was less attracted to in case I did something that made me look stupid.” He feels a crumb on his cheek and stretches his tongue out to get at it, ignoring the cloth napkin Pharm extends to him. “But Hia Win was really nice and it was…easy.”

And hot. But Pharm doesn’t need to hear that.

Team giddily devours the rest of his sandwich.

“I was thinking of going, too,” Pharm says, thumbing pesto from his lip and popping it in his mouth.

Team says, “No,” and shakes his head with vehemence for emphasis. “No, no, no. These parlors are for, y’know, like—practical people. Who want to learn what they’re doing from professionals. And for dumbasses like me who have no idea what they’re doing. You’re too good for that, Pharm. You want a boyfriend who’ll put flower petals on the bed and stuff. You deserve that, Pharm.”

Pharm gives him the ‘humoring Team’ smile. “And why don’t you deserve that?” he asks.

Team points to his own chest. “Dumbass,” he repeats.

With fondness, Pharm says, “You’re not a dumbass, Team.”

“Fine. Lazy, then.”

Pharm doesn’t argue that one. He does shake his head as he takes another bite of his sandwich, though.

“Hey, by the way,” Team says. “How did you get your AI to give you this kind of bread?”

Pharm frowns. “I…asked?”

Team huffs a breath up through his fringe. “Mine always tells me it’s too far from the store,” he says.

Pharm tilts his head. “Isn’t there a store two blocks from your place?”

“That’s what I said!” Team nods at his tablet lying on the sofa—inert, quiet, and misleadingly unassuming. “It keeps telling me there’s no tube connecting my place to it.”

Pharm says, “That’s odd. Your building’s not that old. You should ask your neighbors if they’re having the same problem.”

Team whines and sprawls his arm over the table, pawing at Pharm’s hand. “Pharm. Lazy.”

“Then you’ll have to stick to whatever your AI can get you or pick it up yourself while you’re out the way they did in the old days,” Pharm says.

“But Phaaaa—”

“I really am thinking of going to a specialist,” Pharm says over him. He finishes the last bite of his sandwich, wipes his fingers on his napkin, and considers Team with curiosity. “You think P’Win would be good?”

That certainly is a question.

According to Ting, Win normally only sees his regulars. Team was an anomaly. He might not even see Pharm if Pharm asks.

But Win would be good to Pharm, if he did decide to see him. And Pharm deserves someone considerate. Maybe just not someone as…fun.

“He was for me, yeah,” Team says.

Pharm tugs his knees under his chin and smiles slowly. “I won’t ask him, Team, don’t worry. I can see someone else.”

“I’m not worried,” Team says.

“Okay,” Pharm says easily.

Team pushes up onto his feet and says, “What else do you need me to do?” with a clap and a brisk look around the room.

“Nothing,” Pharm says, standing and collecting the plates. As he turns back to the kitchen, he says, “Except when you see him on Monday, would you mind asking P’Win if there’s anyone he’d recommend for me?”

Team sighs. “Fine.”

“Thank you, Team.”

The MUSE Parlor Guest Reviews

I just had my first session at MUSE and I need to talk about it in graphic detail. My friends don’t want to hear about it anymore because they don’t like fun.

So in the interest of good manners, I won’t say who it was, but he was perfect and I kind of wish I could namedrop just so he can get the credit he deserves. I told him I was nervous and it would probably be best if we skipped talking and just jumped directly to doing, and he was really considerate. We went to his room and he let me decide what to do.

I wanted to shower, and he offered to join. I was very much into that idea. The shower in his room has a rain feature, so after we’d both washed up (I’m sure he was already clean but he was nice enough to do it again instead of just stare at me—seriously, he was so considerate), he switched from the shower to the rain and this is when things got heated.

I’d been sneaking peeks at him the whole time, and I’d gotten bold enough to rub my clit once or twice while soaping up, so I was soaked and my nipples were hard when he got close and ran his thumb over my lips.

He told me he remembered seeing that I’d checked off exhibitionism on my application and asked if I wanted to explore that. I asked how (I wasn’t about to have sex in the lobby or whatever) and he said, “The magic of virtual reality,” and then the walls of the shower changed so it looked like we were in a tinted old-time phone booth on a twentieth century city street at night.

I mentioned I was wet already, right? Well, seeing people walking by and glancing in as they passed? Absolutely GUSHING. He asked if I was wet and I told him he could feel for himself—I have no idea where the courage came from. I was running on pure horny fuel by that point.

So he looked me in the eyes with this warm mist of raindrops falling on us and he kept looking while he pressed two fingers into me. I remember the noise I made because I’ve never EVER made a sound like that. Not even while touching myself! I was so wet his fingers just glided in, and it felt surreal with so many eyes on me at once.

He sucked on my nipples and fingered me and there were these amazing obscene noises—all while these virtual people walked by and pretended not to notice, or openly stared, or gave us judging looks (I was really into that last part for some reason). One woman actually stopped and took a video of what he was doing to me (stroking his thumb over my clit while he massaged my g-spot, the sweetheart). I was almost screaming when I came. Then he carried me to the bed because my legs were shaking for ages afterward.

Oh, I wish I could say his name. He’s so good. I’m going back every month, mark my words!!!!!

P.S. I attached a photo of his shower for anyone who wants to install a similar one. I know people say shower sex is terrible, but that rain feature is really, really hot. Literally, too. It steamed things up very nicely.

Sunday sees Team indoors asleep for most of the day, waking to gray skies and rain every hour or so. With no plans for the day, his mind has nothing to occupy it, and so there’s no escape route from the horny miasma trapping him.

From his research, it seems that second sessions at MUSE tend to be more involved than the first ones. With the polite stuff over with, guests generally feel more comfortable asking for the specific, hardcore stuff they really want. Someone even brought their favorite pair of handcuffs, apparently, proving either that not everyone goes to MUSE for their first time or some people get comfortable with the whole sex thing much faster than others.

Team’s sure if he let Win lead, it’d be just as much fun as last time, but part of him thinks he should take advantage of the opportunity to ask for things he’ll actually want to try someday with a boyfriend, if he ever manages to get one. Now that he’s in this for another two sessions, he should at least learn some practical skills.

Trouble is, Win is—well.

There are a lot of things Team wants to do with him. For selfish purposes, too, more than anything related to his personal goals for education.

He wants to learn what Win did to him on Thursday so he can do the same thing to Win. Not someone someday. Specifically Win. He wants to hear what Win sounds like when he’s desperate to come the way Team was.

But he probably can’t ask for that.

…Nothing against imagining it, though.

Team tells his tablet to open the MUSE portal and show him Win’s model. Then he pulls the hologram from hovering over his tablet to hovering over Team instead, where he can remind himself of the fine contours of Win’s face. MUSE has the resources to make their holograms exactingly realistic, and now Team has seen the real thing and he remembers the differences. He knows the texture of Win’s skin. He knows how Win’s eyes move, with clever steadiness.

The hologram’s eyes blink.

Sucking in a startled breath, Team jolts deeper into his pillow.

Is this a fancy type of video call? Did he call Win by accident?

“Tablet,” he whispers. “What’s going on?”

Win’s model smirks at him.

“Um,” Team croaks. “Cancel the call. Hang up. Disconnect. Tablet!”

“This,” his tablet says, ”is a feature of The MUSE Parlor’s hologram models. It’s activated when registered guests place the model over oneself in a way that has been understood as sexual.”

Team’s brain races to process that as Win’s model stares into his eyes with disturbing realism, even seeming to be breathing slowly. “Understood as sexual by who?” Team squeaks.

“Could you rephrase the question?”

“Cancel the model. Close it. Make it—never mind, I’ll do it.” He waves the hologram back into his tablet, shuts his eyes, and says, “Close out of the portal completely. Like, entirely completely. No connections open at all.”

His tablet says, “You’ve been disconnected.”

Team exhales and turns to hide his face in the pillow.

As unnerving as that was, at least he now has a very clear idea of what Win would look like in his bed.

The MUSE Parlor Guest Reviews

My story is fairly common. My boyfriend broke up with me, and I was miserable for days. Finally, I decided to see a specialist because I missed that intimacy, and I knew I could trust a sex worker to handle it with professionalism.

My specialist is so sweet. Our first session, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I just talked about my ex and cried in his arms. I know, I know, it’s like a bad movie. But he understood. Later I found out he’d given half my fee back.

The original plan was to see him until I found a new relationship, but over the past year he’s become more than just my specialist. He’s my friend, and yes, we have sex, but mostly I just like being close to someone I can trust. It’s the most platonic sexual relationship I’ve ever had.

My current boyfriend isn’t entirely happy with it, but I’m upfront with him and he says he can deal, so I hope that’s the case. I really cherish my time with my specialist.

On Monday morning, Team sits on the edge of his university’s pool and holds his face in his hands for a very long time. He barely slept, and after ten minutes of warming up, he’s struggling to keep his eyes open. He licks at the saline on his lips and lowers onto his back, staring up through the skylight at the drenched colors of sunrise.

When his skin has dried completely, he heads off to the showers.

After his second and final class, he checks with his tablet and decides that he has enough time to stop by the canteen. He needs to spend a bit of time with whichever friends are there to calm his nerves, or he’ll definitely humiliate himself in front of Win. Again.

As he walks into the canteen, Ting spots him and covers her mouth with both hands. This draws Kong’s attention and, subsequently, Kong’s open amusement.

Team frowns down at his outfit as he approaches them, then says, “What?” with annoyance as he sits.

Ting says, “Team,” with fondness. “It’s not a date.”

Team says, “I know,” and pretends his body temperature isn’t rising at an unprecedented rate. “It’s just because MUSE is in a fancy area.”

And because he made the glaring oversight of wearing clothes his mom gave him last time he went.

Before he left for the pool, he spent an hour tossing clothes over his shoulder in search of something that felt right to him. For the first time in his short adult life, he wanted to choose an outfit on his own. Not just something bought for him by his parents or ordered by his tablet based on current trends and the comments Team’s made in the past about clothes in general.

It seems, however, that he doesn’t understand the nebulous difference between “casual but stylish” and “fancy date clothes”.

With some mercy, Kong says, “The shirt and pants are fine. Just maybe leave the blazer with me.”

“Ooh, yeah.” Ting points to Kong in agreement. “Let Kong wear it instead.”

Team frowns, but he starts tugging the left sleeve off anyway. “Isn’t it too fancy for class?” he asks.

“Not on Kong,” Ting says. She sounds utterly confident about it, too.

And sure enough, when Kong slips it on over his shoulders, the blazer becomes an entirely different article of clothing. Team suspects Kong could wear it with any other outfit and look perfectly in place.

“I don’t get fashion,” he complains.

“You don’t have to. You’ll be naked five minutes after you arrive anyway,” Ting says between sips of her holographic tumbler of orange juice.

Team says, “Stop,” and covers his reddening ears with his hands.

“Just remember,” Ting says, her voice suddenly earnest, “make the most of it. You only have two left. Make some memories worthy of your shower wall, Team.”

He considers her tiny smirk, judges it malicious, then responds to it by picking up Kong’s spoon and flinging rice into her hair.

True, he has to run when she chases after him through the canteen, but he deems his vengeance well worth the consequences.

Thirty minutes later—sweatier and less composed than he planned on being upon arrival—Team rakes his hands through his damp hair as the elevator ascends to the thirtieth floor of MUSE. His shallow breaths refuse to stay even.

Worse still, he’s read too many firsthand accounts from guests of MUSE over the last three days to even think platonic thoughts in this place anymore. Just knowing what’s happened here—what’s happening here right now—has anticipation and anxiety in a race to consume Team’s mind.

The elevator doors open to the same lobby, unchanged since Thursday. The same black walls, the same gold and pink accents, the same ribbon effect following him down the long hallway, and the same city horizon—though the sunlight pouring in is brighter now than it was last time.

And just like last time, the door in the water feature slides open and Win steps out.

Team’s breathing goes crooked.

There’s a change and a new charge in the air between them.

Team—having experienced Win’s mouth on him, Win’s hands on him, Win’s eyes on him—takes in Win with hungrier eyes this time. He now understands and believes the guests who claimed that the polite barrier had disappeared a little bit on their second visit.

Win’s eyes dart back and forth between Team’s. Then he smiles. “Welcome back,” he says. Team had no idea Win’s voice could do that.

“Hi,” Team says, like the champion at flirtation he will never be.

“Hi,” Win says. He’s in something else designer today with a faux white foxtail flecked with silver strands hooked on the hip loop of his jeans and a casual white shirt draped loose on his left shoulder in a way that’s both inviting and accidental. The fabric is sheer enough that Team can see the black patterned tattoo through it.

“Chat first, or directly to somewhere private?”

Team says, “Private,” and swallows around the complicated dry mess his throat has become.

Win nods. His eyes travel over Team’s face again, then his smile quirks a little with an inward emotion Team can’t identify.

Win’s room is as it was on Thursday, too. This time, to seem less desperate than he feels, Team approaches the fish tank and asks if they have names.

Win says, “Yep. Want to guess?” as he sits on the bed.

Team glances at him over his shoulder. “Guess what? The fish’s names?”

Win nods. His expression is much clearer now. The grin is unmistakable.

“Actually,” Team says, remembering one review he’d bookmarked, “I kind of want to shower first.” It’s not an entirely premeditated strategy, either. He worked up a sweat running from Ting and it’s only considerate to wash off before…whatever he decides to do with Win today.

As Team didn’t dare to hope, Win says, “Want company?” with a wink.

Team fights a smile and a blush and loses against both. “Sure.”

Win stands up and leads the way around the glowing blue fish tank column to a sliding door that opens to—

Well, surely there are multiple bathrooms at MUSE that look the same as that one reviewer’s photo.

As Win runs through the shower settings on the wall display, Team glances at the ceiling over the shower floor and sees a vast number of tiny asymmetrical dots. When the water falls, it’s in a heavy curtain.

“The pressure is good for your shoulders,” Win says.

Team opens his mouth to ask about the rain feature, but he doesn’t dare. What if the review he read was about Win?

And what would Win think about Team spending days reading reviews and wondering all the while which of the specialists he read about was Win? If any?

Win braces his shoulder on the wall in front of Team and says, “If you’ve given any thought to what you want to do, you can tell me whenever you like. Or we can play it by ear.” He tips his chin down a little, still holding Team’s gaze, and says, “I can usually read when someone’s getting uncomfortable, but we’re still new to each other, so we’re going to go slow unless you tell me otherwise, okay?”

Team nods, glad he still has a shirt on to fuss with. “Thanks,” he says. “Um. I can’t think of anything specific yet, so…”

Win says, “Don’t worry,” and reaches out to rub the back of Team’s bicep. “This can just be for fun, too. Not everything is about learning here.”

“I don’t think anyone thinks it is,” Team says, raising his eyebrows.

Win laughs.

With this theme of careful aimlessness established, Team follows Win’s lead. After the clothes he picked out so carefully are discarded into a bottomless hamper (“you can just toss everything in there and it’ll be cleaned before you leave”), they wash off in the shower (Team’s eyes firmly fixed on himself as the explicit review plays out in his head).

Then Win goes still.

Team peaks up and discovers for the first time what Win looks like with his dyed blond hair wet and raked back from his forehead, water rushing over the black tattoos marking his arms and shoulder. It’s not a sight that Team is prepared for, but he doesn’t look away.

Win’s clever eyes search Team’s face, and then the distance between them is almost nothing.

“Tell me something,” Win says quietly.

The shower water froths and mists as it bounces off their shoulders.

Team says, “Okay,” and chances a long look at Win’s wet lips.

“Did you think about me at all this weekend?” Win whispers.

Team’s nervous breaths fleck the water dripping down his nose, so to spare Win, whose face is suddenly very close, Team lets his lips part instead. As Win’s fingertips graze Team’s bare hip, Team remembers staring up at Win’s virtual model hovering over his bed.

“Yes,” Team exhales.

There’s something heady about watching someone’s pupils expand with lust.

Win’s breath takes a shallow dip, and then his mouth covers Team’s in a rough mess of water and pressure.

Win doesn’t touch him anywhere else, only gripping Team’s hip tight as he licks the seam of Team’s lips and Team shudders from the rising temperature between them.

I’m going back every month, mark my words!!!!!

At the time, Team thought that that guest had been a little excessive with the exclamation marks. Now he’s in full agreement. And from just one blowjob and a sloppy kiss under a cascade that’s making it difficult to breathe air instead of water.

When Win draws back, Team tries to follow his mouth until he realizes Win’s about to speak.

“Sorry,” he says. “I should have turned off the water first.” He winces as he palms the display and does just that, the water diminishing to nothing, leaving only steam and thick breaths.

“I think we’re clean now anyway,” Team says, emboldened by the crack in Win’s flawless facade.

The smile he gets for it is instantaneous and playful, and Win’s laugh is even sweeter.

After drying off by towel, Win leads him back to the bed.

“Wanna see the menu?” he asks.

“Funny.”

“I’m not kidding,” Win says, arching an eyebrow.

“There’s a menu?”

“Yep.” Win leans over the bed and draws his fingertip in a simple loop on the surface of the bedside table. To Team’s surprise, a sphere closes around him like a night flower. Like a smaller version of the encapsulating screens of outdoor cinemas, with probably a similar price tag attached.

Yet another flex by MUSE.

Win props his arm on the bed next to Team, his hand close enough for Team to touch with his pinky, if he extended it even slightly. Win points with his free hand to the textless wall of tiny images floating static before Team. None of them feature people, but the sleek and stylized icons make it relatively clear what they represent. The whip, sure, of course. The bottle of massage oil, yes. The collar, yes.

He jumps when Win’s bicep brushes his, and Team swallows as he tries to play it off by pointing to an icon at random. “What’s that one?” he asks.

Win leans a little closer, their arms pressing together from elbow to shoulder now. “Edging,” he says, focused on Team’s face.

Team licks his lips without meaning to; he doesn’t dare turn to see how Win reacts.

He doesn’t have to.

Win’s fingertips skate up Team’s inner thigh, calling up goosebumps in their wake, but stop just short of his hip. “It’s one of my stronger skills, actually,” Win says. Then, lower, “Breathe, Team.”

The next inhale Team takes is measured and slow. “C-can we try that?” he asks.

Win’s lips touch Team’s shoulder with a surreal sort of innocuousness, followed by the slightest hint of wet heat from his tongue. “We can work up to it,” he says. “I want to make sure you can hold off on your own long enough to enjoy it. And…” He rests his chin on the place he kissed. “…We’d need longer than two sessions to get you there. I’d recommend you practice on your own first, actually. It can be a little intense with company.”

Team parts the haze just enough to interpret that. “I can hold off,” he insists.

Win says nothing to that.

“I can! As long as you want.”

Win’s playful smile reappears. “Is that what you want to do then?” he asks.

“Yes,” Team says.

Which is how their session shifts from messy kissing in the shower to Team lying on Win’s bed, shuddering under every demonic touch of Win’s lips and hands on his body.

But before that:

“Think of this in terms of numbers,” Win tells him. He’s sitting next to Team, one arm braced above Team’s chest, his hand splayed on the mattress. There’s not a single point of physical contact between them anywhere while he explains and Team looks up at him. “When you think you’re close,” Win says, “you’re up in the nineties. Tell me when you hit that point, and I’ll stop, and you’ll calm down. Then when you’re at around sixty or seventy, we’ll bring you back up again.”

“That sounds awful,” Team says, already hating his competitive bullshit that brought him here. He could be sucking Win’s dick right now and instead he’s volunteered to be tortured.

Win bends down and blows cold air across Team’s chest, seeming pleased by the small jump. “I’ll tell you something though,” he says. “If you get the hang of this, you’ll never worry about coming too soon again.”

Somehow, hearing that from another guy—one who probably knows intimately what that’s like—does away with the last of Team’s reservations.

“Okay,” he sighs. “Do it.”

He closes his eyes, and Win laughs, “Could you please look less like you’re the laziest person ever to be executed by firing squad?” His fingers trace Team’s frown lines and tug to smooth them.

Team says, “Just torture me already,” with a small whine. “Please.”

“That’s a different service altogether,” Win says, and before Team can think of something to say to that, a soft kiss steals his focus.

It’s the contrast that distracts him. Team knows how to kiss, but he didn’t realize there are so many different types. This one is light and yet intent. Like Win is testing how Team wants to be kissed.

Keeping his eyes closed, Team asks, “Can I touch you too?”

Win pauses, then lifts up and kisses his temple. “You can, yes,” he says. “Like I said last time, I’ll tell you if you do anything I don’t want.”

Team nods and, as Win returns to kissing him, brings his hand up to Win’s arm, dragging up to his neck, nape, and finally his wet hair. Team swallows roughly, remembering the kiss in the shower, and opens his mouth under Win’s.

With a keen noise of approval, Win delves his tongue in, brushing Team’s and exhaling slowly and steadily through his nose.

Team gasps as hot, slick pressure surrounds his pulsing dick. Just like his condom trick on Thursday, Win’s managed to covertly coat his hand with heated lube.

Team’s breath hitches, his hips arching hungrily into Win’s fist.

“Please,” he groans. The heat is delicious, Win’s pressure tight and hitting every nerve ending as he strokes over the slit at the head. “Hia,” he whines.

Win’s mouth turns savage like it did in the shower, and the hint of real desperation there has Team shouting and coming over Win’s hand and his own stomach.

Well.

So much for edging.

Team opens his eyes, still dazed by the suddenness of his orgasm.

Win, his breaths damp and sharp, winces. “I’m sorry, Team,” he says. “This has been a really off day for me. I usually have better control over the situation.”

“This is an off day for you?” Team asks. “I think you’d kill me on an on day.“

Win smiles vaguely, then cleans Team up with a warm washcloth from the bedside table. Team decides against saying anything else, and luckily Win’s discomfort seems to ebb and he melts back into his default composure.

“If it makes you feel better,” Team says, watching Win draw the washcloth meticulously over his left thigh, “it felt really good anyway.”

Win pauses, eyes on Team’s thigh and his own stilled hand. Then he smiles. “It does, actually.”

“I still haven’t proposed, either.”

“True. I’ve still got one more try, though.”

Chapter Text

On Monday evening, Team sends Pharm a message that boils down to this: he asked Win about a specialist for Pharm, and Win recommended someone.

Pharm studies the MUSE portal as he walks into his family complex, intrigued by the public spaces. Considerate, he thinks, considering MUSE was apparently founded to give people a comfortable space to explore an area that can cause confusion and vulnerability.

“What’s that?”

Pharm pauses and lifts his head with a smile and an awkwardly-attempted wai for his cousin walking out the front door to greet him. “I’m thinking of going to MUSE,” he says.

In engulfs him in a hug and says, “I fully support that,” as he squeezes Pharm’s shoulders. When he draws back, he hooks an arm around Pharm’s waist and continues with him back into the main house.

“Is my mae here?” Pharm asks.

“With my dad in the garden,” In says. He pokes the side of Pharm’s tablet. “I’m guessing this is a first time deal?”

Pharm nods and pulls up a small model of the specialist Win told Team about.

“Oh,” In says, eyebrows lifting. “Definitely him. Actually, I’ll have him.”

Pharm laughs.

Decades ago, with dozens of magnet train lines spinning like webs across Thailand, many families made the choice to base their homes outside major cities. Pharm’s and In’s great-grandparents built a few houses with the intention of letting their children inherit, but now it’s expanded into a complex of six houses and four generations living together.

In asks, “Are you hungry?” as they turn off the main hallway and head toward a door through which the sunlight streams from garden.

“A little,” Pharm says. “I was just going to make myself something and then write to MUSE.”

“Have you ever hired a specialist before?” In asks.

Pharm says, “No, have you?”

The garden is lush and vast with three generations of growth and variety, and in the distance, Pharm can see the fingernail-sized figures of his mother and uncle picking oranges in one of the orchards.

“For my first time,” In says. He peers up at the sky in feigned thought, then adds, “Also my second, third, sixth, and twelfth.”

Pharm looks at him askance, his lips twitching. “So, more than once,” he says.

“More than once,” In confirms with nod and a beaming smile.

They eat orange slices with their parents and Pharm tells them all about his new apartment, how the building is taller than most others in the area and his floor is high enough that he has an unobstructed southern-facing view. They update him on the neighbors’ business, the new canal currently under construction in town, and In’s plans to spend a few years overseas.

“Doing what?” Pharm asks.

In, sprawled comfortably on the blanket and gazing up through the orange tree branches, says, “Not sure.”

“Where will you go?”

“Don’t know that either.”

Pharm’s uncle gives Pharm an aggrieved face. “Please talk to him,” he says, “or my wayward son is going to end up penniless in some back alley in Belgium.“

“Oi,” In says, pouting at his father. “I’m not wayward. I just don’t know what I want to do yet, so I’m going to use my B.I. to travel until I do. Lots of people do that. My mae did that.”

It’s an old thing, In bringing up his mother, but Pharm knows why he does it. In their family, they’re all moderately to extremely practical, and In has told Pharm that he never feels his adoptive status quite so keenly as when they tell him he’s dreaming a little too off the page.

Pharm helps prepare dinner for fourteen, and his family eats together at the big table outside overlooking the sprawling orchards and the hazy silhouette of the distant mountains. He and In sit side by side as usual, frequently falling into conversation with each other whenever the older and younger members of the family argue or shout.

They stay up past midnight, sitting together in the cushioned egg chair suspended from the thickest branch of the oldest tree on the property. In rests his head on Pharm’s shoulder at some point and yawns.

“You don’t think I’m wrong for wanting to explore a little, do you?” In’s voice is soft and unsure.

Pharm shakes his head. “I think you’re brave. You always have been.”

In says nothing to that. Seconds pass, and then he curls his arms around Pharm’s shoulders and says, “Thanks, Pharm.”

“It’s true, P’In.”

“I’m getting pretty sick of them comparing us.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

The trilling insect song around them continues without abating, and just when Pharm is sure In’s fallen asleep, he feels In yawn against his shoulder.

“So, did you write back to MUSE yet?” In asks.

“Oh, right.” Pharm slides his tablet out from under the cushion and calls up the MUSE portal. He glances at the nearest house, but from the distance they’re at, no one would see anything from his tablet but vague glowing.

In watches him fill out the application, throwing in the odd comment here and there with the blatant aim to make Pharm laugh. When Pharm skips the third page entirely, In says, “Oh come on,” and Pharm says, “Mae always tells me, ‘Never put it in writing’—I think kinks definitely fall in that category.”

“I guess,” In says. “You can always tell him in person.”

Ten minutes later, laughing and telling In to tell his dirty jokes quieter, Pharm sends off the application and his health report to The MUSE Parlor.

“Lemme see the guy again,” In says, tugging on Pharm’s sleeve.

Pharm plucks the corresponding model from the display and watches In nod with approval. Dark hair, solemn eyes, beautiful mouth. “He really is gorgeous,” In says. “Name?”

“Korn.”

Chapter Text

Having established edging as a skill Team does not have and wants very much to improve, Win promises to send him some material on practicing on his own. “If you want to try it again next time,” he whispers against Team’s ear, “I’ll be happy to measure your progress.”

Team can’t be sure if Win’s serious, but the idea is enough to have an effect on his system anyway.

There’s still time left in the session, so Win makes an executive decision on his behalf that Team—with sludge for brains in his post-orgasm haze—is grateful for.

Win taps on his leg until Team sits up, then he arranges their limbs with brisk efficiency until Team is sitting with his legs draped over Win’s thighs, his ankles crossed on the mattress behind Win and his arms loosely braced on Win’s shoulders.

With Win’s face so close to his—with Win’s dick so close to his—Team becomes excruciatingly aware of how uneven his breathing is.

Smoothly, Win clasps his hands around Team’s lower back and tracks Team’s expression with an interest that Team is positive no one has ever taken before.

“Can I tell you something?” Win asks him.

Team doesn’t think the pitch of his voice will be kind to him if he speaks, so he nods instead.

Despite asking for permission, Win doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. He removes one hand from Team’s back and gently combs Team’s hair away from his face, tucking it behind one ear. When he speaks, his voice has dropped to a much quieter tone than Team expected.

“You’re a lot of fun to talk to,” Win says. Then his eyes drop to Team’s lips, a small smile rising on his own.

Team doesn’t know what to do with that. With any of that.

So he hides his face in Win’s shoulder.

Win’s laughter is soft and close to his ear—which makes Team’s chosen hiding place much, much more dangerous for his thundering heart than if he’d stayed how he was.

Only an idiot would catch feelings, Team tells himself. This isn’t a date. This isn’t a date. This isn’t a date.

To distract himself and Win, Team turns his head and grazes his lips over Win’s neck.

“Mm,” Win sighs. “You’re fun in all kinds of ways, actually.”

Team can’t help a snort of laughter, and Win responds in kind.

Then, unasked, Win starts to tell him in detail about his own early adventures in edging.

“A specialist taught me,” Win says. His fingertips stroke slowly down Team’s spine as Team soaks in the clear scent of Win’s hair products and tastes the sweat gathering on his neck with the tip of his tongue. He’s already teased out a few soft noises from Win with experimental touches, and he’s trying to bring them back again.

“She met with me twice a week for a month when I was twenty. I barely thought about anything else any other day. I’m shocked I graduated.“

Team manages a rough swallow. If he could afford it, he’d see Win twice a week, too.

More.

“What did she do to you?” Team asks quietly. He rests his chin on Win’s shoulder, his gaze on the glowing blue fish tank. His hands are shaking with a faint tremor, but stretched out in the air as they are, Win probably can’t feel it.

“She put together a kind of training regimen,” Win says.

It sounds so absurd, Team can’t help but grin against Win’s bare shoulder.

“Mm, I know,” Win murmurs, his amused exhale grazing Team’s ear. ”It sounds strange like that, but imagine it another way.” Win’s hands splay suddenly across the small of Team’s back and pull him closer between Win’s thighs. Then, as Team’s logical brain disconnects entirely, Win’s free hand settles on Team’s knee and drags slowly up the inside of his thigh. ”Imagine if I spent an entire session getting to know all of your weak spots. Physical and mental. And then another session. And another. And half of the sensations I made you feel, you didn’t even know you could feel them.“

Win’s thumb strokes upward in a feather-light line where Team’s leg joins to his hip.

Team bites his lip and clenches his fists in the air behind Win, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Found one already, I think,” Win whispers.

Team shudders. “Maybe,” he says.

He’s lying. He’s definitely never felt his body melt and his dick pulse simultaneously like that before.

“She’d been a specialist for years, like me,” Win continues. His hand flattens on Team’s stomach, then moves in a smooth path up to his chest. ”She knew how to make me beg. And she did it every single session.”

Team opens his mouth to pull in more air and whimpers instead.

“Your nipples are sensitive, aren’t they?” Win asks.

Team can’t find his voice anymore. Or his dignity. When he feels Win’s thumb graze his pec, anticipation forces him to gasp. He latches onto Win’s shoulders, his hands locked around his own elbows as his entire torso shudders without interruption.

Win says, “Wanna know how I knew?”

Team makes a noise he doesn’t recognize.

“You kept touching them in the shower,” Win says. “Did you notice?”

Team shakes his head.

“I did.”

The next stroke is even lighter, and Team’s answering breath is ragged.

“I can find every spot that sets your nerve endings on fire,” Win whispers. He runs the tip of his nose over Team’s earlobe, inhaling deep like he’s as intoxicated by Team’s scent as Team is by his.

Acting, Team tells himself desperately.

“This isn’t even close to what she’d do to me, by the way,” Win tells him. He nips Team’s ear and tightens his arm around Team’s back when Team whines. “Like I told you—I want to work up to it with you.”

“Touch me,” Team says, muffled on Win’s skin, eyes squeezed closed, his whole body trembling. “I don’t care how, just—please.”

“Anything you say,” Win whispers.

The session ends with Team flat on his back and Win deep-throating him until Team’s orgasm rushes over him with twice the intensity of the one before it. He doesn’t dare open his eyes at all throughout, not even when Win removes the condom, ties it off, and disposes of it. Not even when Win cleans him up again, not even when his body has stopped shaking.

He definitely needs to practice this edging thing or just thinking about Win will give him a heart attack.

When Win’s hand rests on Team’s stomach, his touch casual and almost platonic, only then does Team peek with one eye.

“So,” Win says with playful professionalism, “let’s discuss your third session.”

Team curls onto his side and hides his face in his arms, groaning, “My dick’s gonna rebel,” while Win laughs.

As Win walks him to the elevator, Team does what he excels at and fixates.

The next session will be his last of the three he’s paid for, after which he’ll have to buy more sessions or…take a break. Or stop entirely.

There are other parlors. Cheaper ones. MUSE is far above his budget, and there’s no way he can justify the expense to himself.

It should be simple, logically. His savings plan requires him to set aside at least twenty percent of his monthly B.I., and on top of rent and food and AI maintenance, that doesn’t leave much left over for him to play with. He certainly can’t expect to do something like this every month.

When he graduates, of course, he’ll get a modest boost in his B.I., and he’s been aiming for endorsement deals, but if he takes into account the apartment rental prices outside the university area—

“So, Team….”

They’ve arrived at the elevator, and Win’s reached past him to press the call button.

Team meets Win’s eyes hesitantly and makes a conscious decision to memorize the exact curve of Win’s smile. He can’t read it for its complex nuances, but it appears friendly. Maybe even warm.

“Do you want to schedule your third now?” Win asks. “Or do you want to take some more time to think about it?”

Win asked him that in his room as well, but Team said he’d think it over and tell him at the elevator. Except now they’re here and he still doesn’t have an answer.

Team licks his lips and asks, “Can I think about it?”

Win’s smile twitches, but it’s a change too quick for Team to interpret. “Of course,” is all he says.

When the elevator doors open, Team gives an awkward little wai and backs into the car. As he switches focus to the find the lobby button, a shadow covers him and his body jolts as lips touch his temple.

Win, leaning into the car with his hand gripped around the edge of the outside frame, whispers into Team’s ear, “Don’t stay away too long,” and winks at him before withdrawing.

Team can’t think of a single thing to say in the time it takes the doors too close.

He touches his temple as if he’ll feel a mark there, somehow embossed into his skin.

Win clearly thinks too highly of Team.

How is he supposed to stay away at all?

Well, it’s easier than he expected, turns out.

When Team gets home late from MUSE on Monday afternoon, he remembers that the deadline for his economics outline is the following morning, and he dives into the planning process despite little to no actual information gleaned from his two trips to MUSE.

When Manaow uses her caller key to pop a hand out of Team’s tablet and wave, Team ignores her.

“Are you decent?” she yells.

Team rolls his eyes. “No,” he says, utterly deadpan. “I left the channel open so you could see me naked.”

The top half of Manaow’s head surfaces next, her smile evident by her eyes alone.

“I would take ten photos for blackmail,” she tells him, “and feel nothing.”

Team says, “I know,” and picks up one of the paragraphs he’s not sure about, spinning it on one finger while watching Manaow only in his peripheral vision. “That’s why I lock the channel when I’m naked.”

“Spoilsport,” Manaow says. “How was MUSE?”

Team gives her an exasperated look, then gestures to the mess of his outline spread out in snatches of phrases and words in the air in front of him. “I’m in the middle of something,” he says.

She frowns. “That’s for MUSE? What, are you writing P’Win poetry?”

“It’s the outline for my economics paper. The one I’m going to MUSE to research.”

By the absolute force of the amusement on her face, it seems she forgot about that element of his visits just as much as he did.

“Isn’t it due tomorrow?” she asks, grinning.

He cuts a look at her and says, “You can help or you can go away.”

She laughs. “What do you need help with?”

Team whines and scrubs his face. “I didn’t ask Hia Win about the industry or automation or anything, and now I have no idea what to focus on.”

He’s expecting more taunting, but when it doesn’t happen, he’s surprised to see her hologram resting her chin on her palm and her elbow on the surface of his tablet, her lower half appearing to be submerged in the tablet. She points to one of the floating phrases and says, “How about that one?”

He follows her fingertip to the script reading: “evolution of sex education by sex workers”.

“I don’t know…” Team says, wrinkling his nose.

“Why not? Wasn’t MUSE partially founded to be educational?”

Team gives her a pathetic noise. “I’d have to do so much research.”

She nods, lips pursed. “Mm. Effort,” she says. “Nightmare.”

“Closing the channel now,” Team tells her.

“Bye!” she calls.

A quick slice of his hand through the air over her head ends the call and locks his tablet from receiving any more.

Fifteen minutes later, he surrenders to Manaow’s suggestion and throws together an outline about sex worker education during the automation period that looks half-decent to him.

The rest of the night is spent waffling over what to write to Win about his third session—with nothing sent or decided.

He resolves to decide in the shower, but his mind calls up memories instead and compromises every neurological ability he has.

The next several days as well find Team too busy and stressed to wander very far from his immediate schedule, and nothing is sent or decided about MUSE for five more additional days.

Tuesday is swimming and classes and Manaow’s play and Kong’s concert, and Team is half asleep by the time he unlocks his front door. He nearly nods off in the shower.

On Wednesday morning, the health panel in Team’s bathroom alerts him to a developing cavity in one of his molars, so he schedules an appointment at the university clinic after his classes. It’s a little boring, sitting in a chair with his mouth open while he waits for the machine to finish its precision drilling and filling, and it also gives him too much time to agonize over what to do about MUSE. Then he has dinner with his family, which goes later than planned as always and leaves Team going to sleep later than planned as well.

Thursday he has four blocks of back-to-back virtual language immersion that he agreed to in place of a traditional class. By the time he leaves the space, he doesn’t even want to see his own language, and spends the night playing games and ignoring his tablet.

He expects Friday to be open, but then Manaow asks him to help her with her dorm’s volunteer project, so he accompanies her along with seven of her dorm mates and their friends to the beach for some emergency oil absorption. The equipment they’re using is fairly old, so the process takes hours rather than minutes, and Team stumbles into bed that night yawning.

Saturday, as he deserves, he switches off everything and sleeps for most of the day, waking only for journeys to the toilet or to scarf down something already-made from his kitchen.

Despite his schedule, however, Team’s mind is never more than two points of separation from Win.

The edging conversation in particular replays in his mind again and again. He wants to hear more about Win’s early experiences with specialists. How he became a specialist. How he feels about it.

…About his guests.

His regulars….

Like most guests do, Team catches himself sliding into curiosity. How much of Win’s urgency in the shower was faked?

Is it a little presumptuous or even vain to think some of it was genuine?

Specialists can be very good at acting, of course, as part of their job. They’re paid to perform a service, and Team’s read a few anonymous accounts from specialists themselves who have constructed a whole separate persona in order to do their job well. And even if Team doubts Win has ever needed to go that far to please his guests—

The way he kissed Team in the shower…the sharp desperation of it, the husk in his voice when he asked if Team had thought about him over the weekend….

That wasn’t acting, was it?

Everything from Win’s harsh breaths to the swift changing angles of his mouth on Team’s makes Team want to believe it was real. That out of all the guests Win has ever slept with, Team is one of the few to have shattered his composure.

It’s a thought Team reaches for on Saturday afternoon while his hand is working over himself and it plunges him into a breathless orgasm.

An instant later, the hopeful fog of lust clears, and Team thinks, Don’t be stupid.

Just before noon on Sunday, while Team is perfectly free and just actively procrastinating on making his third and final appointment with Win, Ting calls him and invites him to lunch near her place.

“Eh,” Team says. He’s on his sofa with his feet up on one of the arms, throwing and catching an anti-gravity ball with the power off.

“I want you to meet some people,” she says.

Team asks, “Who?”

“Seniors of mine from MUSE,” she says.

Team catches the ball and sits up, intrigued. “Seniors as in…?” Specialists?

She smirks at him and reaches out to tap his forehead, her virtual touch stopping just before it passes through. “Exactly,” she says. “See you in thirty?”

He says, “Sure,” in a tone he hopes is casual but probably wasn’t.

He isn’t quite expecting one of those seniors to be Win—Ting would have told him if Win’s going, right? She’s playful, after all, but she’s not cruel.

Then again, would she think it’s cruel in the first place? As far as she knows, Win’s just a specialist to Team.

And, well, he is.

After switching clothes to something more presentable for civilized society than his gym clothes, Team hops on a streetcar and worries at his shirt’s hem throughout the ten-minute ride to Ting’s neighborhood.

If Win’s there, how is he expected to act?

He’s never hung out casually with sex workers before. Ting might have counted, but Team knew Ting for years before she ever mentioned MUSE or her part time job in sex work. Plus, she’s not someone with status—not like Win.

Does Win tell his friends he’s a sex worker?

And if he doesn’t, then wouldn’t that mean Team knows a side of Win that the people close to him don’t?

What if he got to know Win outside MUSE?

Would that make his whole situation more or less awkward?

His tablet map leads him down a few side streets until he hears Ting call, “Team! Back here!” from one of the loud, cheerful holes-in-the-wall lining the alley.

She’s at a table for four in the back of the narrow space with two older guys who eye Team with blatant curiosity as he approaches.

Neither of them is Win.

Team remembers to smile.

The restaurant they’ve chosen is staffed with people. One of the waiters stands near the entrance chatting with customers while they eat, and another laughs with the cook as they accept bowls of noodles through the open serving window.

As Team sits, Ting tells her seniors, “This is Team,” and Team offers a quick wai.

“This is King,” Ting says with a gesture to the guy on her left. Then she nods to the guy on her right and says, “This is Kao.”

While King evaluates Team, Kao smiles and says, “Nice to meet you, Team,” in a voice that soothes some of Team’s automatic defenses in front of new people.

Ting notices King’s expression and swats his bicep. “Stop that,” she hisses.

He gives her a look of mild…something. Then he smiles at Team. “I’m sorry for staring,” he says. “Ting’s close friends have always been a mystery to us. Their existence, mostly.”

She gives him a betrayed gape for some reason that no one explains.

“We just ordered,” Kao says. He pushes the table’s tablet across the surface, and the floating display of bowls follows. He pushes it a little too quickly and virtual broth sloshes over the side of one and lands with a hiss of steam on the table.

King raises his eyebrows at Kao, who raises his back.

Team pretends he’s not unnerved by all of this and swipes through the options until he sees tsukemen under the Japanese section and selects that.

When he looks up, they’ve all finished their silent conversation and completely composed themselves. Which is, somehow, even more unsettling.

“So, um,” Team says, “why didn’t you think Ting has friends?”

“Okay, excuse me—”

“Well,” King says, “last year she worked part-time at MUSE every other week or so, and whenever we’d have parties, she never brought anyone. She’s a bit of a mystery to us.”

In the limited space she has, Ting does an admirable job of throwing her hands up. “I like to keep my work friends and my school friends separate,” she says. “Is that a crime?”

Team frowns. “So why’d you invite me today?”

Especially since he’s a guest. Is this not weird?

Her face goes through a complicated series of expressions, interrupted by the arrival of the waiter and three bowls of noodles.

“P’Kao!” he says, beaming. “You’re never here anymore, what brings you back?”

Kao makes a wry face in return and says, “I was here on Tuesday.”

“Almost a week!”

The waiter sticks around for ten minutes, chatting with the three specialists amicably while the automated system wakes up and picks up the slack. Team, ravenous and eager to slurp up every single noodle in record time, finishes his food first and slides his empty bowl into the automatic chute under the table.

He’s considering how easy it would be to write to Win while his attention is half elsewhere when the waiter leaves and King focuses a hundred percent of his attention on Team.

“Ting tells us you had your first session at MUSE recently,” he says.

Team flings a frown at Ting. “Isn’t there confidentiality or something?” he demands.

She gives him a puzzled scowl. “What? No. We’re sex workers, not psychiatrists.”

Kao grins. “I told you to be less direct,” he tells King. To Team, he says, “He’s very matter-of-fact about his job,” almost apologetically.

“Because it’s not something to be ashamed of!” King says.

“Some people don’t like discussing sex in public,” Kao says. He even says “sex” two full notches quieter than the rest of the words in his sentence.

It doesn’t sound like this is the first time they’ve had this debate.

Ting reaches across the small table and pats Team’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, okay?” she says. “I didn’t tell them specifics.”

“It’s true,” King says. “And P’Kao’s right. I’m a little desensitized to talking about this, so I apologize if I made you uncomfortable.”

He looks so genuinely sheepish, Team hurries to assure him that he didn’t.

“We just heard a rumor that Win finally branched out again,” King says. “So we were curious who seduced him out of his routine, and Ting told us she knew the guy who managed it.”

Team repeats, “‘Seduced’?”

Kao, scanning his face, breaks into another grin. “Definitely seduced,” he says. “Win’s been seeing the same four regulars for years.”

“Three,” King says.

“I already told Team about that,” Ting says. “And I knew our Team was cute enough to tempt him out of his routine.” She reaches for his cheek and laughs when he jerks back out of her reach.

King says, “We’re glad you did,” with a smile and a toast of his mango smoothie. “He needed a boost.”

Team gets the impression that King wants him to ask for details. He drinks his water instead, face warm.

Kao finishes his bowl next and, after sliding it into the chute, he leans his forearms on the table and asks Team, “Had you ever visited a parlor before MUSE? I’m always curious about other places.”

Team shakes his head. “No. MUSE is my first.”

Ting opens her mouth, then closes it when Team kicks her under the table. She’s overfilled her lifetime quota of virgin jokes.

“If you have any questions,” Kao says, “you can ask us. King and I have been with MUSE even longer than Win.”

“And so have some of our regulars,” King says with a playful wink at Ting.

Kao goes suspiciously quiet at that, and he aims a severe look at King that hints at an inside joke he’s not fond of.

“So,” Ting says to Team, beaming. “When are you having your third session?”

Kao and King interrupt their soundless conversation using only eyebrows and turn to look at Team, both apparently deeply interested in his answer.

Team feels a light tech shoved onstage on opening night without a script. “I—uh. I’m—not sure.” Ting gives him flat bullshit expression that ruffles his feathers. “I’ve been really busy this week,” he says. “I haven’t really had time to think about it.” A lie, but it makes her stop at least.

King’s eyes move from Team back down to his noodles.

Kao makes an understanding noise and says, “If you bought the three-session, the last one won’t expire for another three months, so—”

“Kao!”

Winding through the limited space between tables toward them is a handsome man exuding an aggressive charisma. His bright smile is fixed on Kao, who—as Team confirms with a glance—seems to have mixed feelings about the guy.

“Pete,” Kao acknowledges, his voice strained. Then, “What are you doing here?”

“Hi Pete,” Ting calls. She grins at Team and raises her eyebrows with a significance he doesn’t understand.

King sips from his juice with a stealthy eye roll Team only barely notices.

Pete arrives with a casual swagger and braces his hands on the back of King’s chair. “I thought I’d walk you to your next appointment,” he says to Kao. He visibly takes note of King’s bowl of noodles and the lack of one in front of Kao. “Ready to go?”

Kao exhales hard though his nose and tells Pete, “It’s not for another hour.”

Pete says, “Then I can walk you there slowly,” with a more feral sort of grin.

As Kao opens his mouth, probably to argue some more, Pete’s eyes wander and stop on Team. His smile changes to one with teeth, both friendly and disarming. “Are you Win’s new regular?” he asks. “I’m Pete. Kao and I go way back.”

Ting coughs. King pretends he has dust on his shirt.

Kao groans and drops his face into his hands. “He’s not Win’s regular,” Kao says into his palms. “They just met last week.”

Team almost says it’s been a little over a week now, but he manages to catch himself before he does.

Pete tilts his head in what appears to be sincere confusion. “But wait,” he says. “You are Team, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” Team says. The hair on his neck is standing.

“Pete,” Kao says. His hands are visors around his expression, blocking Team from seeing.

Whatever he’s trying to communicate in silence finally gets through to Pete, whose eyebrows lift. King also sees it and gives Team an exasperated look.

Ting sips her water with intense concentration.

Pete offers Team an apologetic wincing smile. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just hear Kao talking sometimes with his coworkers, and I heard about the—”

“Okay!” Kao yells, standing. “We’re leaving!” In his haste to escape, he says only, “It was nice to meet you, Team,” before he walks around the table, grabs hold of Pete’s shoulders, and steers him out of the restaurant while Pete splutters objections through his laughter.

Team stares after them, flummoxed.

“And now you’ve met Pete,” King says, amused.

“They’re always like that,” Ting adds.

Team replays the significant points of what just happened and says, “Why did he know my name?”

Chapter Text

Five steps out of the restaurant, Kao smacks the back of Pete’s bicep three times in rapid succession.

Pete, still laughing, just rubs at the spot absentmindedly. “You said you’re not into hitting,” he says, leaning into Kao’s space with a lascivious smirk. “Had a change of heart?”

Kao shoulders him away with an aggrieved noise. “You’re so obnoxious,” he says.

They turn onto an even smaller side street, this one mainly occupied by bars whose doors won’t open for hours still. The crowd’s thinned out, but Kao still checks the few people he can see for any interested eyes before deciding it’s fine to talk more openly.

“You said you’d stop,” he tells Pete, frowning.

Pete puts a hand over his heart, his expression a performance piece in innocence. “Stop what? What did I do?” he asks. When Kao just stares at him, Pete adds some sad, victimized eyebrows to the mix.

Kao sighs and shakes his head. Just to needle Pete a bit, he turns to go back to the main road rather than continue taking the long way back to MUSE through the warren of side streets and back alleys.

Pete says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, okay, okay,” and loops his arms around Kao’s chest, hauling him back onto the meandering route. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He settles one arm on Kao’s shoulders and gives him an apologetic squeeze.

While they continue the walk, Kao points at Pete’s nose and says, “Stop talking about Win.”

Pete, his eyes fixed on the path ahead, lets out a disbelieving laugh. “I didn’t say anything about him! You’re the one still talking about him.”

Kao pinches his side and smirks when Pete squawks and dances away from him, but not far enough that he has to let go of Kao’s neck. “Team’s just a kid and MUSE is his first experience with parlors,” Kao says. He pinches Pete’s side again, only slightly gentler this time. “Don’t go bringing him into behind-the-scenes drama he doesn’t need to be involved in.”

“I’m just happy for Win!” Pete says, smiling at Kao with a mouthful of teeth and insincerity.

“Sure,” Kao says.

Pete switches to sulking. “I can’t even be happy for him without you getting weird about it.”

“You’re weird,” Kao says, jerking his chin at Pete. “About Win. None of my regulars ever bother you—not even when you were a regular—just Win. You promised you’d stop being weird about him.”

Pete rolls his eyes and sidesteps the main topic to grumble, “Why would your regulars bother me? They’re customers.”

“Guests,” Kao corrects. “And Win’s a colleague.”

“If they’re paying, they’re customers.”

“Customers pay for a service or a product—MUSE’s guests are paying for an experience.”

“You’re really going to argue semantics?”

“I’m saying there’s a reason they use that term in particular, Pete.”

With an aggravated sigh, Pete hauls Kao closer by the neck and kisses his cheek. “You call me frustrating,” he says.

“I do,” Kao says, tamping down on a grin. “I call you frustrating a lot. Because you are.”

It’s not lost on Kao that Pete has avoided yet another opportunity to acknowledge that he himself was Kao’s regular once.

Apparently it’s not relevant information anymore.

Pete finally changes the subject to something completely unrelated to MUSE, and they manage a good ten minutes of casual conversation until Jarvis II speaks up from Pete’s bag. “Sir, your father would like to know if you’ll be having dinner with your family this evening. Shall I inform him that you’re otherwise occupied?”

Pete’s pause has Kao saying, “You can go. I’ll be working late anyway. Tell them I said hi and I’ll come by next weekend.”

The silence stretches on.

They’ve emerged into the sizzling sunlight, so Kao has to squint to interpret the face Pete’s making.

When he can’t figure it out, Kao asks, “What’s wrong?”

Pete shakes his head. “Nothing. Just—I thought you were free tonight.”

“I was free all day yesterday,” Kao says. “You remember.” He drops his head on Pete’s shoulder as they walk. “You were very much there.”

Pete picked him up after his last session at MUSE on Friday, and then they spent most of Saturday in or beside their pool at home. Hours of uninterrupted time in Pete’s company had Kao feeling lighter than air until a regular wrote to him with an urgent request for a session. Kao couldn’t force himself to decide what to do until he heard Pete in the kitchen singing a pop song off-key while he assembled lunch for them from pre-made ingredients delivered by the kitchen AI.

Kao declined the request gently and offered the time slot he’s on his way to now, which his regular tersely accepted.

Pete drops his shoulder just enough to annoy but not to dislodge Kao’s head. “Who are you seeing tonight?” Pete asks.

Kao asks, “If I say I have plans with my colleagues, are you going to be weird?

“Is one of those colleagues someone I’m not allowed to talk about?”

Kao lifts his head just so he can throw it back and groan. “Pete.“

“You’re the one who said I can’t talk about him!”

“Yes, Win will probably be there,” Kao says. “So will Prae. So will King and Korn. So will ten other people, Pete. None of whom you’re worried about. It’s an activism meeting—nothing sexy about it at all.”

“I’m not worried,” Pete says. “I’m jealous.”

Kao gives him a deadpan look. “Right. Sorry for not getting the nuance right.”

They walk a bit longer in silence, Kao determined not to offer any sincere apologies. He’s not wrong. He knows it, Pete knows it.

Besides, it’s better to say nothing when Pete’s arm on his shoulders feels like home, and a glimpse of Pete’s face proves that he’s absorbing something.

Lowering his guard a little, Kao tucks his hand into Pete’s back pocket, enjoying the flex of Pete’s muscle against his palm with every step.

Last night, before he and Pete left the pool, they stood in the shallow end under the starry sky with their arms loosely draped around each other, Kao reliving some of his favorite moments with Pete in recent memory while Pete ran his wet fingertips over the small of Kao’s back just above his swim trunks.

“I’m not jealous jealous,” Pete says. The expression on his face is contemplative but pinched. “There’s just something different about you spending time with him, and I don’t know what it is. I trust you,” he adds, when Kao opens his mouth, “I do, Kao, I swear. I don’t know what it is. I’m trying to be honest, okay?”

They pause in front of the building with twenty-two minutes left before Kao’s next session.

They stand facing each other in the shade, Pete worrying his bottom lip between his teeth as he stares at the pavement while Kao searches his mind for an easy departing line that will assuage some of Pete’s concerns.

“Sir,” Jarvis II says. “Your sister has sent a gentle reminder to respond to your father’s invitation.”

Pete sighs. “Yeah, tell them both I’ll be there.” He inhales quick and exhales long.

Kao takes both Pete’s hands in his and squeezes tight. “You know you can come back,” he says. “Not as a regular, not if you don’t want. But it was fun having you around.”

Pete’s mouth quirks at the corner. “I think we exhausted every room we were allowed in, plus some of the ones we weren’t.” He leans in and kisses Kao’s cheek, then says, “I’ll see you at home later.”

“You might be asleep,” Kao says, sheepish.

“Don’t care,” Pete says. He thumbs Kao’s cheek. “Wake me anyway?”

“Fine,” Kao says with exaggerated exasperation. “Menace.”

Pete’s boyish smile warms his heart. “Love you, too.”

As Kao’s crossing the lobby to the elevators, Pete shouts, “Tell Win I’ll throw him into the ocean if he flirts with you tonight!”

Kao puts his hands over his ears and keeps walking.

Chapter Text

“Team, hey. I wasn’t sure you’d answer a call this early.”

“I’m up at five every day, Kong.”

“Right, but you’re usually in the pool. Or in class.”

“Oh. I took the morning off to study. I have an exam at noon that I, uh, forgot about.”

“Ahh. So, I ran into P’Win yesterday.”

“What? Where?”

“The Medallion. I took someone there for lunch and as we were walking in, he was leaving with one of his regulars.”

“Oh.”

“Apparently MUSE owns some hotels and restaurants in the same area. If you’re a regular you’d probably get bored of only meeting at MUSE after a while, so it makes sense.”

“How did you know it was Hia Win?”

“The person I was with is friends with him, and we talked for a bit while we waited for our table. He’s really nice.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Anyway, I want to ask you a favor.”

“Uh huh?”

“It’s related to P’Win. The person I was with—”

“Are you gonna use a name or are you gonna keep calling him ‘the person you were with’?”

“—I like him a lot, Team.”

“So you want me to ask Hia Win stuff and do reconnaissance on this guy?”

“No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just one thing. Our first date was at the The Medallion, but we only got a reservation there thanks to a cancellation. I called them just now to book the same date next month, but they’re booked until summer. Apparently, they give priority to MUSE specialists if they ask, so I was thinking…do you think P’Win would be willing to make a reservation for us? I’ll pay the cancellation fee if for some reason we can’t go.”

“You had your first date with this guy yesterday and you’re already planning your one month anniversary.“

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it that—”

“Kong—”

“I know. …I know. But I know. This was lightning in a bottle. He’s…perfect.”

“So you want Hia Win to make a reservation at The Medallion for you and this guy, but you won’t give me his name to tell Hia Win.”

“P’Win will know if you mention where we met him. They seem like they’re close friends.”

“Why won’t you just tell me his name?”

“This is still very new, Team. I’m trying to keep it relatively private for now. I would have asked P’Win directly, but I don’t have his information. But I can ask Ting instead, if you’re not comfortable.”

“That’s probably a better plan. I don’t know when I’m seeing Hia Win next anyway.”

“Oh? Did you finish your three sessions with him already?”

“No, there’s one left, I’m just…not sure when to do it.”

“Do sessions expire?”

“…Uh.”

“You should check that.”

“Right. Um, sorry about—”

“No, no, it’s okay. I’ll just ask Ting. Thanks anyway, Team.”

“I’m happy for you, man. Good luck with the mystery guy.”

The MUSE Parlor Terms and Conditions

○ The “3-Session Package” expires three (3) months from the purchase date.
○ Session appointments must be made by guests before the expiry date.
○ All three (3) appointments must be kept before the expiry date.
○ If an appointment for a session cannot be found before the expiration date and inadequate notice has been given, then the appointment will be void.

It’s been eleven days.

Eleven days since Team visited MUSE.

Eleven days since Team saw Win.

Eleven days since Win sent him reading material he hasn’t even opened.

Eleven minutes since Win sent his most recent message inviting Team to make his third and final appointment.

The MUSE Parlor Community Portal

This Week’s Discussion Topic: Communicating with Your Specialist

○ As always, please feel free to share your experiences, ask questions, or contribute to the conversation while adhering to the Rules of Decorum.
○ This portal is only visible to guests, members, and regulars. Sharing details from these discussions with those outside the members of this portal will result in your expulsion.

Q: Recently, my specialist invited me to become her regular. I know this is a big deal normally, but she says she’s never even had one before, so this feels extra important. However, I’m not sure if I want to accept. Are regulars expected to visit more often? I like the freedom of being a guest and not feeling like I have to visit every week or every month or what have you. I’m just afraid if I say no, it’ll make things awkward between us. I guess what I’m asking is: does the frequency of my visits have to increase after becoming a regular?

A1: That’s a great question. Forgive me if this isn’t the case, but it sounds like you might be new. MUSE, as you may already know, has three tiers. Guests pay for sessions individually or in packages, members pay monthly fees, and regulars pay annual fees. That’s the only financial difference between them. In spirit, however, being a regular is considered more special than being a guest or a member. My specialist only has two regulars, me and another, and he’s only ever asked us to be regulars over the course of his five years at MUSE.
So your specialist asking you to be regular does indeed mean she’s very fond of you.
However, becoming a regular doesn’t need to mean that you visit more often. You can! And she may even enjoy seeing you more! But what being a regular actually means for you is that your specialist will prioritize you above the members and guests she sees, and the session maximum time limit will become more of a grey zone and more within her control (nothing will change on paper—your sessions will still be listed as 60 or 90 minutes—but you’ll see what I mean if you become a regular). As an example: I once felt miserable after the death of a relative, so I asked my specialist to meet with me last minute. He held me all night, and in the morning, I walked him back to MUSE.
That nebulous difference between regulars and the other two tiers is something I wish MUSE were more upfront about, but I suppose every specialist and regular have a unique dynamic, so it’s really up to you and your specialist.
Good luck! I’d love to know how it works out if you do decide to say yes!

A2: Being a regular is amazing. Not to sound completely jaded, but it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had. I’m not interested in romance, never have been, so seeing a specialist at MUSE is the best way to have intimacy and freedom together. And to speak to your concern: sometimes I see my specialist several times in one month, and then not again until three months later, and there’s no emotional strings or expectations. It’s more than worth the annual fee. Definitely say yes.

A3: I think the first answer nailed it, but I’ll add something from my own experience. All specialists prioritize their regulars, but as a guest or a member, you might not even realize that it’s happening.
My specialist has a lot of regulars, so he’s always been sort of tricky to book. He keeps certain time slots open at varying times every day just in case his regulars get in touch with him suddenly and request a session last-minute. As a guest, this was really frustrating for me because I actually happened to see him hanging out with friends a few times when he’d told me he couldn’t meet with me. I only found out about his system after he asked me to be a regular.
He told me upfront about his whole blocked-off time system so I knew unless one of the other regulars had made a request, I could always sort of “drop in” on him during one of those time slots.
Just ask your specialist to be open with you, and I’m sure it’ll be fine. They’ll only know your concerns if you tell them. Good luck!

“Team, wanna get lunch?”

“Already ate.”

“Wanna come with me to a restaurant and keep me company while I eat?”

“Nah. Thanks, though.”

“You’re all awful! Ting’s with some girl she’s not dating but wants to date, Kong’s with some guy he’s already married himself to in his head, Pharm’s not even answering his phone, and you’re boring!”

“Yep, basically. Bye, Manaow.”

“TE—!”

The Myth of Virginity

Some of you have met me at MUSE through my work or at various events throughout the past several years, but for those who haven’t, let me start by establishing some credentials before delving directly into the heart of today's topic.

My name is King, I’ve been a specialist at The MUSE Parlor for four years, and my “specialty”—insofar as any of us can claim to have such a thing in a subject as abstract and elusive of definitions as sex—is what I call “first time experiences”.

What do I mean by that?

I’m often described by others as one of The MUSE Parlor’s specialists to visit if one is a “virgin”. While I’m pleased to have this reputation and I enjoy my work very much, I feel that it’s necessary to explain why this is an outdated term that I never use in earnest.

You’ll have noticed I call them “first time experiences” above, because that’s the term I and many others use to define them. There is an outdated—though unfortunately stubbornly prevalent—misconception that the act of penetration marks the beginning of one’s sexual activeness. If penetration alone is considered the induction to one’s sexual activeness, however, that narrow definition removes a large swath of physical acts from the umbrella category of “sexual”.

Naturally, as a specialist whose ambition is

“Ting, is the King guy I met at lunch and the King guy who writes the MUSE sex column and the King guy you showed us at the park all the same King guy?”

“…Yes, Team.”

“Oh. Thought so. I just read four paragraphs of his sex column and I have no idea what he’s saying.”

“Which one?”

“The virginity one.”

“Ohh, yeah, that’s a…dangerous subject to bring up with him. Okay, I’ll save you an hour: virginity isn’t real, sex is very nuanced and complicated, and you should just do a bunch of research before trying stuff for the first time so you and your partner don’t get hurt.”

“Nice, thanks.”

“Just for future reference. I agree with him about a lot of stuff, but agreeing doesn’t usually stop him from talking. He’s just a chatty plant nerd, though. Ultimately harmless.”

“Got it..”

“Wait, why are you reading—”

“Bye, Ting.”

“Te—!”

Hello, Team.

Welcome back to The MUSE Parlor Library.

Would you like to resume one of your opened tutorials? Or would you like to finish watching The MUSE Parlor Community Portal’s Top Ten Amateur—

“Uh, no, thanks. I think my specialist sent me something in here a while ago? I just want to read it, if it’s still available.”

Thirteen days ago, your specialist sent you information on orgasm control. Is that what you’re referring to?

“Yeah.”

Great. There’s a hologram message from your specialist as well.

“Hia Win sent—?”

“Hi, Team. I’m sending along some sections of the library’s collection on orgasm control. It’s pretty dense, so I tried to pick out the highlights. You can ask the MUSE AI for more information if anything in particular catches your interest. Looking forward to seeing you again.”

“…Did he have to wink?”

“Hey, Team.”

“Hey, Pharm.”

“I have a question for you.”

“Mmhmm.”

“When are you going back to MUSE?”

“I’m not sure, why?”

“Well, I made an appointment with a specialist, and I was thinking if we’re going to be going there around the same time, we could go together.”

“Is it the one Hia Win recommended?”

“Yep. We’ve been exchanging messages for about a week, and I think I’m ready to meet him.”

“Huh.”

“What?”

“No, I just…it didn’t occur to me to do that.”

“Exchange messages?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I just wanted to get to know him better.”

“Right. Yeah. Of course.”

“So…if you’re not going anytime soon, that’s fine, I can just—”

“No, no, I—I’ll go.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Um. When are you going?”

 

Hi,

I’m really sorry for not answering any of your messages.

I was thinking sometime this weekend, if you’re free? Maybe Saturday night around eight?

Team

 

Well, well, well!

Seeing your name sure put a smile on my face.

Saturday at eight works for me.

I’m glad I didn’t scare you off.

Win

 

Hi,

I’m really, really sorry.

See you soon.

Team

Now it’s been sixteen days.

A full half a month since he last saw Win, and having Pharm next to him in the elevator only seems to underscore how long it’s been and how silly it seems to have put it off for so long.

“Are you nervous?” Pharm asks.

Team frowns at him. “No. Do I seem nervous?”

“You’re clenching your jaw,” Pharm says, pointing to his own.

Teeth releases the pressure at once and clears his throat. “I’m okay,” he says.

“I’m looking forward to meeting P’Win,” Pharm says.

Team looks at him askance for that, but Pharm just responds with a sweet smile.

“Why?” Team finally asks.

Of course, since the universe delights in throwing discomfort into Team’s life, the elevator doors open and there they are at the end of the hallway: Win with his blond hair tied up into a loose ponytail, and the solemn-looking guy Win recommended for Pharm.

Team almost blurts out an opinion (“he looks like a mortician”), but his acute sense of social awareness and general appreciation of good first impressions combine to keep his mouth closed.

Besides, Win is smiling at him, and Team’s brain is prioritizing Not Doing Anything Stupid as he and Pharm walk down the hallway together.

“Breathe, Team,” Pharm whispers, smiling up at him with mischief in his eyes.

“Don’t distract me,” Team says. He doesn’t dare take his eyes off Win in case that’s the moment he trips over his feet and falls on his face for the first time in all his twenty-one years.

The hallway seems shorter than it did when he first visited, and hardly two steps out of the elevator, he’s in front of Win again, his heart squeezed inside his throat. Digging his thumbs into his pockets, Team hopes he’s exuding an air of casual confidence and not disguised panic.

Win says, “Welcome back,” with a wink, then gives Team a quick head-to-toe glance that practically broadcasts his interest.

Part of his job, Team reminds himself.

He smiles with one side of his mouth and answers with a shy wai.

The specialist next to Win offers Pharm a more courteous wai and a smile that wouldn’t be out of place from a florist to a flower enthusiast. “It’s nice to meet you in person, Pharm,” he says. His voice is smooth and pleasant, and Team’s glad he kept the mortician observation to himself. Up close, he looks more like a professional wedding usher.

Pharm returns the greeting, and then his eyes stray to Win. “You must be P’Win,” he says. “Team’s been really impressed with you.”

Betrayal!

Team gives Pharm his widest-eyed stare, asking him in silence exactly what he thinks he’s doing.

Pharm pretends not to see, and Win just laughs.

“I’m happy to hear that,” Win says.

“I wouldn’t reinforce his ego too much,” the specialist next to him says, a smirk playing vaguely on his lips.

Maybe less wedding usher, more the mysterious one in a boy band.

Still not Pharm’s type, though. Team always imagined a friendly guy for Pharm, a charismatic type who can keep up with Pharm’s wide social circle and future career in the culinary arts.

He’s just a specialist, not his boyfriend.

“I’m glad you two hit it off,” Win says, gesturing between Pharm and his colleague. “I had a feeling P’Korn would be a good fit for you from how Team described you.”

Oh?

Team senses Pharm eyeing him and adds, “I said nice things.”

“All nice,” Win confirms. “He said you’re his pragmatic friend.”

Team just barely reins in a, ‘Huh?’ because what he actually said was, “Pharm’s the friend who feeds us and calls us out on working too hard and makes us stop hanging out when one of us starts yawning.” But ‘pragmatic’ sums that up well enough, too.

And Pharm seems pleased to hear it.

When Win tilts his chin at Team and says, “Shall we?” it knocks Team’s misaligned world further out of joint, and Team can only manage a distracted nod and a small wave for Pharm before following him into the hallway.

The door closes behind Team and Win before Pharm and Korn can exchange another word, and the perfect silence shoves Team onto a rickety bridge he’s too afraid to look down from.

Win is already a step or two ahead of him, so Team maintains that distance while trying to subtly work up saliva to wet his throat. He has a few different excuses to give Win for why he’s been putting this off, and he’s not sure which one to go with yet, but he thinks he’ll know based on Win’s tone when he asks.

He’s guessing that school will be the ideal scapegoat. He’s genuinely had more to do than usual, so it’s a lie based in truth—the strongest kind of lie. He doesn’t need to tell Win that this whole experience has stuck him inside a spiral of foggy confusion and electric nerves.

In the elevator, though, Win just leans on the silver support bar and asks, “So, what’ve you decided on for your third session?”

Team imagines all the excuses he had ready as precious bottles cradled in his arms, ready to be delivered with stealthy dishonesty. He drops them all at once and says, “I…uh,” instead. While Win raises his eyebrows with what seems to be sincere curiosity, Team recalibrates.

“I…read the stuff you sent me.”

Well. …That’s nowhere even close to what he planned to say.

Win’s mouth curves, his eyes sneaking down to Team’s lips. “Oh,” he says. Somehow that one sound is salacious. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

Really?

Team tries out a small smile and quickly ducks his head when it gets away from him.

As the elevator doors open, Win says, “After you,” and Team exits first, still struggling to swallow down his parched throat.

Earlier in the week, he found an area in the MUSE Portal where he watched over two dozen explicit hologram scenarios made and submitted by members and regulars with their specialists—just on the off chance that Win would be in one. He didn’t see anyone he recognized for the first twenty-five, and then he saw Ting introduce herself to the viewer with a bright smile and left immediately. There are sides of his friends he does not need and will never want to see.

It taught him that exhibitionism is not one of his things, because the idea of making one of those with Win for other people’s consumption put oily shudders down his spine.

Thinking of that brings another memory to the surface.

“Hia,” he says.

Beside him, Win raises his eyebrows with polite curiosity. “Mm?”

“Um, I don’t know what it’s called,” Team says. His focus moves from the floor to the door of Win’s room up ahead to the ceiling and down to his own shoes. “But the AI told me there’s some feature in the hologram models that gets, like, ‘activated’ when they’re near a bed.” And also “when registered guests place the model over oneself in a way that has been understood as sexual”, but he doesn’t feel the need to add that part.

He peeks at Win’s expression to see if he’s inferred what Team is talking about.

Win meets his eyes. “The remote function,” he says, then reaches past Team to open the door to his room. “It’s a new feature.”

His tone seems balanced on a knife’s edge between casual and courteous, so Team backs away from the topic. He toes off his shoes by the door and wanders into the room, but at the sight of the bed, he takes a sharp left toward the fishtank to buy some time while he breathes himself back to a resting heart rate.

“By the way,” he says, grasping at straws. “Did—did Ting get in touch with you about…uh, The Medallion?” He’s not sure how much to say after Kong’s vague nonsense over the phone.

Win sits on the foot of the bed, his answer foreshadowed in the quirk of his lips. “She did, yeah. Your friend’s moving quick.” Then, before even a breath has passed, he says, “Not that that’s a bad thing. Arthit’s definitely not objecting.”

Ha!

Now Team has a name. And an age, by Win’s casual address.

School friends, maybe? Or does Arthit work here too?

Team turns his back on the blue glow and braces the heels of his hands on the fishtank’s wooden ledge, his wrists cooled by the glass. “Kong’s never been like this before over someone,” he says. “I’m kind of amazed, actually. He’s usually just kind of polite to most people outside our friend group. Even inside it, really.” His gaze drifts up to meet Win’s, then bobs away. “Your friend must be pretty incredible,” he says, scratching his jaw.

He can see Win grin even though he’s fastidiously trying not to look.

“He is,” Win says. “And I wouldn’t worry about him.”

Team frowns at Win before he can stop himself. “What do you mean?” he asks.

“I mean he’s not the kind of person who would take advantage of your friend in any way. Arthit’s very ethical and sweet.”

Team nods, absorbs that completely, and fights down a grin.

Win tilts his head, a smile of his own building. “What?”

“Nothing,” Team says, rubbing his mouth with his wrist. “I’ve just never heard someone describe a person as ‘ethical’ before, like, ‘nice’ or ‘funny’.”

Win’s smile breaks into a laugh. He regards Team like that for a moment, lips parted around some sentiment he hasn’t finished building in his mind, and igniting a fuse in Team’s chest leading to a state of utter helplessness.

Then Win licks his lips and says, “You seem nervous,” and his expression shifts along with his observation.

Team widens his eyes. “I’m not nervous,” he says.

Win doesn’t seem to believe that, but he’s kind enough not to push.

Like lightning, Pete’s voice asking, “Are you Win’s new regular?” strikes Team’s memory. “I met P’King and P’Kao!” he blurts.

Win’s eyes stray to the side, then he meets Team’s gaze again with a different smile. “Yeah, they mentioned that,” he says. “I’m sorry they ambushed you. They’re ‘nice’,” he adds a playful arch of his eyebrows, “but it seems like they decided to play spy after they heard about you.”

Which…does seem to match the whole tone of that strange lunch. Both Ting’s first description of Win and King’s comments at lunch gave Team the impression that Win’s routine hasn’t seen much change in recent memory. So, maybe just the fact of Win seeing a new guest interested them. But Pete’s question still stands out as unusual—not to mention how determinedly Kao pushed Pete out of the restaurant.

“I met P’Pete too,” Team says.

Win nods, nonchalance personified.

“He knew my name. And he asked if I was your new regular.” A little belligerence creeps into the way he says it, and Win’s eyes dart back and forth between Team’s in a clear sign that he noticed.

It’s just…odd.

Isn’t it?

Why would Win have any reason to tell King and Kao about him? And why would Kao tell Pete, who doesn’t even seem to work here? And why would any of them think Team’s already a regular?

The room simmers with what’s been said as well as all that Team can sense is being kept unsaid. Win doesn’t break eye contact, though, and Team begins to gradually recognize the tiniest indications that this pause isn’t because Win is thinking—it’s because he’s stalling.

“I don’t mind you talking about me to your coworkers,” Team says, even though the moment the words are out, he feels the need to add some qualifications. “I mean, about certain things. Not…y’know. Other things.”

Win’s next smile is small but genuine. “I wasn’t talking about you,” he says, his voice pitched low and gentle. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh,” Team says. His breath feels very conspicuous.

Win leans forward, elbows on his knees, eyes fixed over Team’s head. “I’m sorry. This whole thing probably seems suspicious, and that’s ultimately my fault.” He scrubs a hand through his fringe and takes a deep breath, his gaze traveling around Team in a wide arc. “So,” he says, followed by a deep exhale. “Let’s call a timeout on your session. I’ll start from zero after we clear this up, okay? If you have time, I mean. I don’t want to keep you too long. But I would like to explain.”

Explain what?

“Sure,” Team says. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other and wonders how long this will take and how long he’ll be left standing.

Win pushes up to his feet. “Let’s…change settings. I have a room next door where we can both sit,” he says. “And I’ll get us something to drink.”

Team raises his eyebrows with interest. “Like alcohol?” he asks.

Win visibly holds back a laugh. “No, Team, like water,” he says. A sudden grin curves his mouth—and it’s real, through and through. “Unless you want something stronger.”

“No,” Team says, wishing vaguely for death and hoping his face isn’t as red as it feels hot. “No, water’s fine.”

The room Win takes him to has the same tones and lighting as his room with different furnishings. A black two-person sofa faces a glass coffee table and sits under a small holo projector on the ceiling. There’s a small bar squeezed in the corner with a small AI hologram in a top hat resting idle with its short legs crossed at the ankles. It even snores, Team notices, once he’s far enough into the room.

As Team sits on the sofa, generally in the area where Win indicates, Win says, “I’m going to have coffee. What would you like?”

Team says, “Water,” because he’s got two brain cells functional at the moment and he’s not wasting one on beverage selection.

Win doesn’t comment on it, but he does make a noise of amusement before he says to the little AI mascot, “Suede, can we have a water and my favorite, please?”

The hologram tips its hat up from where it’s covered its eyes with a tiny hand and says in a cartoonishly high-pitched voice, “Absolutely! One sec!”

It gives Win and Team a wide theatrical bow and vanishes in a puff of hologram smoke.

There’s a beat of silence, then Win explains, “He’s a magician,” in a perfectly reasonable and yet conversational voice.

Team decides, “Okay,” is all that he really has to say to that.

He opens his mouth to ask what Win’s “favorite” is, but then Win sits next to him and says, “So, there are three tiers here, you may recall?”

The touch of humor in the way he says those last three words prompts amusement in Team. “Yeah,” he says. “Guest, regular, and the other one.”

“Member,” Win says. He drapes his arm over the back of the sofa, his fingers curled and his fingernails pressing into the black fabric. “Member is the middle tier. Typically, members pay monthly fees that—depending on how often you visit—make it a little cheaper than visiting as a guest.”

“Oh,” Team says. “Okay.”

“And…” Team watches in his peripheral vision as Win’s curled fingers flex into a loose fist. “After your last session, I thought—” Win tilts his head to one side, and the light from the ceiling hits his skin at just the right angle to highlight the red dashed on his cheek and ear. He clears his throat and, in a slightly lower voice, says, “I thought maybe you’d consider becoming a member.”

Not a regular.

Team nods.

There’s only a split second of eye contact, then Win continues, “You don’t have to, of course, and I wasn’t going to mention it at all.” The loose fist tenses into a smaller, tighter fist. “But King and Kao overheard me asking the MUSE Domain AI to pre-approve you, and they assumed I was doing the process for a new regular, since the application process for both uses a lot of the same terminology.”

A member.

“All specialists prioritize their regulars….”

“…your specialist will prioritize you above the members and guests she sees…”

Not a regular.

Suede the AI reappears on the coffee table with a shower of sparks and a bright, “Your water!” to Team as the center compartment opens and a tumbler of water rises to the surface.

Win makes a light noise of disapproval. “Where’s mine?” he asks.

It’s more entertaining than it should be to see a man of Win’s height making wounded eyes at an AI hologram the size of Win’s hand.

Suede sticks its tongue out and says, “Be patient!” and disappears in another puff of smoke, this time pink.

Win grins and then visibly takes it apart and reconstructs his professional face for Team.

“Generally speaking,” Win says, pushing the water closer to Team, “specialists try not to mention the tier system by name—especially not to guests, since most of you are new and still deciding if this kind of thing is for you—so this is a little unusual, and I’m sorry again that my seniors made you uncomfortable.”

Team says, “Well, they didn’t really—”

He’s distracted by the dramatic appearance of a mug topped with whipped cream and gold sprinkles rising to the surface of the table with music that would, indeed, not be out of place in a magic show.

When he looks at Win to share in his bewilderment, he finds Win already covering his face with his fist.

“Suede,” Win says.

A disembodied voice responds, “It’s all about presentation!” and laughs.

The absurdity of the exchange has Team snickering before his self-consciousness can get its hooks back into him. He sips his water while Win peeks at him, visibly surprised.

“What?” he asks.

“No,” Team says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I just—I’m jealous. My AI hates me.”

Win uses his fist as a cheek rest instead, elbow propped casually on the sofa. “Oh? What’d you do to them?” He grabs his mug with his free hand and makes a face at the mountain of whipped cream and sprinkles.

“Nothing!” Team says. “It’s always hated me.”

Win hums and sips through the whipped cream, then licks off the white tuft left on his nose.

Team tries with vigor to look like he hasn’t just seen the cutest image of his life.

“Suede was built for me by the same friend who did the projection mapping in the hall,” Win says.

Going off the one single solitary friend Team now knows by name, he guesses, “P’Arthit?”

As Win finishes his second sip, his grin returns, speckled with cream. “Correct,” he says.

“Wait, really?”

Win nods as he licks a gold sprinkle off the side of the cream mountain in his mug and tests Team’s concentration. “He’s a holographer,” Win says. “But he dabbles in a bunch of technical areas.”

“Holography’s what Kong’s studying,” Team says.

Win’s grin becomes even more casual. “I know.” He pulls one of his long legs onto the sofa, then tugs his ankle closer to his body. “When I ran into them, they were waiting to get into the restaurant and talking about—something engineer-y. It was like listening to two anthropomorphic textbooks.”

Team snorts into his water, spraying the inside of the glass.

Win laughs, wide and open.

The sound of it makes Team smile automatically in spite of the clench of embarrassment in his stomach.

Suede appears behind Win’s shoulder and holds up a sign that reads, “Good job!” with an arrow pointing to Win. Then he gives Team a wink and a thumb’s up and vanishes.

“Tell you what,” Win says. He sets his mug on the table and Team quickly follows suit with his tumbler. “Since we’ve already lost about a half an hour or so to this, I won’t count today as your third session. I’ll explain the situation and we can rebook you for later this week, or next week. How’s that?”

Win’s eyes are earnest, but there’s something else there that Team can’t identify, and he wishes he could go back to simple, blunt laughter of a moment ago.

“Are you sure that’s not gonna get you in trouble?” Team asks.

Win’s eyebrows twitch in confusion, then his expression clears. “No, not at all. In fact, I already have most of my schedule mapped out for the week, so I can tell you now what times I’ll definitely have free.”

Unless a regular asks for you, Team thinks.

Can a regular override a guest’s appointment?

Probably not, right? That’d be a bad business model.

Team says, “Sure,” and, at urgent insistence from a small voice that sounds like Pharm, he adds, “How about tomorrow? Same time?”

“Perfect.”

Chapter Text

Arthit has been working for six consecutive hours on the same model, and yet if one were to ask him how much progress he’s actually made in that time, he would only be able to give answers in the abstract, because while his mind has been active, his hands might as well be idle. Picking and prodding at the same finicky details he’s already checked and rechecked, just because he knows he can afford to adjust those areas while his mind is wandering resolutely away from the task before him.

Ever since his second date with Kongphob, he’s relived the entire day over and over, analyzing every word and gesture while fully aware that the further away from the event he gets chronologically, the more unreliable his memories of it become. Every minute, his biases and nerves are diligently warping Kongphob’s vocal tones and minute expressions, and Arthit knows logically that nothing in his memory can be relied upon with any irrefutability.

He knows that.

And yet, he doesn’t understand Kongphob well enough yet to ask him anything and trust the answer he gets. So what he’s left with is this: common sense and corrupted memories.

Experience would be nice, too, but it’s a little too late for that.

When Win calls him after sundown, Arthit closes the model entirely and rubs his face with both hands. No twenty-three-year-old with regular chiropractic adjustments should feel this much agony in their lower back, should they?

Win’s hologram appears sitting on Arthit’s desk, legs hanging off the edge casually. “Hey,” he says. “Dinner or death?”

“I ate lunch,” Arthit says with a touch of defensiveness.

Win raises his eyebrow. “Today or yesterday?”

Jerk.

On his tablet, Arthit finds photo of the spicy barbecue wings he ate earlier today and shows Win, making sure to enlarge the timestamp over it.

Win squints at it as if it’s fine print, then waves his hand. “You ate that seven hours ago,” he says. “We’re not in university anymore, and you’re not allowed to treat your body like garbage while I’m around. Come eat with us.”

Arthit hesitates, eyeing the fingernail-sized cube in which he’s stored his work in progress.

“Arthit,” Win says.

“Fine, fine,” Arthit says.

As he’s reaching to disconnect the call, however, Win asks, “How’d the second date go?”

Arthit’s arm freezes. “Um.”

An amused smile transforms Win’s face. “That well, huh?” He visibly composes himself and says, “No, but really—I’m happy for you.”

Arthit clears his throat, neck hot, and says, “It’s only been two dates.”

“Yeah,” Win says, “but this look on you is new. It suits you.”

Arthit doesn’t know what to say to that, so he tells Win, “I’ll be there in fifteen,” and disconnects the call.

Arthit knows Win means well. But he also knows that his own happiness has traditionally ebbed out of his reach whenever he needs it most. He’s not going to make the mistake of thinking it’ll stay with him now just because Kongphob is handsome and thoughtful and determined.

And Win is very good at using logic to make people believe in themselves. Logic that’s frustratingly difficult to argue against, even when Arthit knows it’s best for his heart not to expect too much.

Well.

At least seeing his friends will distract his mind from fixating for a while. He’ll fixate again later, of course, but taking a break now will mean his mind will be rejuvenated later for a more robust session of examining in detail what he said, what Kongphob said—and why his breath keeps going shallow when he thinks about Kongphob’s hands on his body.

Sixteen minutes later he arrives on the restaurant terrace of the Whelk Building and sees Win, Kao, and King at a fancy glass table near the edge overlooking the sparkling city lights. The full moon is some special type tonight, larger than usual, and as Arthit walks through the spaces between the surrounding tables, he wonders if the planetarium would make for a good third date.

It’s going to be difficult to top the second.

Maybe he shouldn’t even try. Aim lower, keep the expectations low.

He takes a seat at the open end of the table, nodding at Kao and then listening to the debate King and Win are in the middle of.

“That’s not what I said,” King says, pointing at Win’s nose. “I said dividing the terms was a mistake.”

Win tilts his head in a way that makes it clear that he disagrees. “MUSE just has a branding image they like to keep. Is it ridiculous? Sure. But everyone knows what we do.”

“There’s already been a shift in terminology over the decades!” King says. “No one uses terms like ’prostitute’ anymore. So what’s wrong with calling all of us ‘sex workers’ regardless of which company we work for?”

“Advertising,” Win says. “It’s always, always about advertising, P’King. And because advertising is still illegal, they use gimmicks like tier membership and terms like ‘specialist’ and ‘regular’.”

Kao folds his arms on the table and leans close to Arthit, murmuring, “They’ve been at this for ten minutes. Save me.”

Arthit grimaces.

“MUSE is one of the biggest parlors in the city. Most of our customer base is through word of mouth as it is, so are you really trying to say we still need—”

“I had a second date with the kid,” Arthit says.

Silence.

Kao grins behind his hand.

Win grins openly.

King blinks.

For a second, Arthit endures the attention, then swipes the panel on the table and says, “So what’d you guys order?” in a tone half an octave above his natural speaking voice.

“Didn’t you say he’s only two years younger?” King asks.

“How’d it go?” Kao asks.

“Answer that one,” Win says, tipping his chin across the table at Kao.

King gives him a flat look, to which Win winks.

Arthit uses the act of typing in his favorite ingredients to avoid everyone’s eyes. “It was fine,” he says.

Understatement. His heart rate was superhuman for an hour after Kongphob went home.

“That’s all?” Kao asks. “C’mon, Arthit. Where’d you go?”

Arthit can feel his ears betraying him, and the urge to cover them intensifies. “A museum,” he says.

That’s all he’s going to say.

“Oh,” Win says, and his tone expresses exactly how highly he ranks that choice.

Arthit hears himself say, “It worked for us,” then quickly covers one ear under the guise of propping his head up.

He starts growing his hair out tomorrow.

“If you two start dating officially,” Kao says, an ember of mischief in his eye, “I wonder if that’ll make you the first couple to meet at MUSE who weren’t even there for sex.”

Arthit gives up on ordering and covers his entire face, which is abruptly twice as hot as his ears.

“I’m sure some of the AIs have hooked up,” King says.

Win rears back, the very tableau of scandalized horror.

Arthit takes his hands away and says, “That’s not a thing,” with exasperation.

King grins at him with triumph, and Arthit realizes he’s been successfully played.

“I’m just saying,” King says with exaggerated innocence, “if they’re always learning, then existing primarily in a sex parlor would mean—”

Arthit drops his head onto his folded arms. “Stop,” he begs. “I’m not debating this with you again.”

“Because you know I’m right and you don’t want to think about it.”

Kao rubs between Arthit’s shoulder blades. “Finish ordering,” he suggests. “I’ll distract him.”

King snorts into his beer mug. “Distract me how?”

Quickly, Arthit sits up and focuses on typing in the last ingredient, then submits his request for order recommendations.

Kao smiles across the table at Win. ”When’s the next S.W.A. meeting?” he asks.

King’s shoulders slump, his expression mutinous. “Unfair,” he says.

Win smirks back at Kao. “I think it’s on Tuesday, isn’t it?” he says. “Are you gonna go?”

King puts his mug down on the table and folds his arms. “You’re both very funny,” he tells them. “You can stop now.”

“I definitely will,” Kao tells Win merrily. “And you?”

“Absolutely,” Win says, showing a toothy smile. “So that’s you…me…oh, P’King, how about you? I know N’Ram will be—”

King dips his fingers into the foam of his beer and flicks droplets first at Win, then at Kao. “Let’s all agree to stop being assholes to each other, how ‘bout?” he says. He doesn’t blush as easily as Arthit, but he’s giving off the vibe of a wet cat, which is just as obvious on him.

“All he does is dish, dish, dish,” Kao says, shaking his head as he wipes his cheek with a cloth napkin. “Never takes.”

Win opens his mouth.

King picks up his mug and extends it as if to dump it on Win’s lap.

Laughter follows, and Arthit exhales as their food arrives, Arthit’s list of recommendations appears on the table panel, and the subject of conversation shifts away from romance altogether.

Of course, all that means is that now Arthit’s mind is at rest, and that allows Kongphob’s presence there to glow even brighter, Arthit’s secret source of joy built without his knowledge, like a makeshift fire on an undiscovered beach.

Chapter Text

Befitting for a fourth-year economics student, Team leaves MUSE with two things very clearly established in his mind: he’s on a dangerously ambiguous road with regards to his emotions involving Win, and he has no idea how MUSE operates as a business, which will dramatically impede the progress of his paper, which he still needs to send to his professor in two weeks.

As any savvy economics student would, he ignores the emotional issue for now and reaches out to an inside source to pull him up so at least his head is above water for his paper. He’s done a startling lack of research on the whole “evolution of sex work education by sex workers” topic he’s chosen, and his paper is going to net him a failing grade if he doesn’t add some kind of substance to it.

“I don’t want to talk about your paper, Team,” Ting tells him. She hasn’t even switched on her hologram, the audio filling Team’s room. “It’s a weekend, you cruel monster.”

“Please,” he says.

“Why can’t you ask P’Win?”

Team, scrolling through pre-made meals on his kitchen panel, says, “Because I keep forgetting.”

Her snort is rude and unnecessary. “Yeah,” she says. “P’Win’s pretty distracting.”

“Shut up.”

The next afternoon, with seven hours remaining until Team’s third and final session with Win, after they’ve eaten bowls of curry and rice, Ting stretches out on his sofa and Team goes to his desk. He pulls up a blank memo page from his tablet, points to Ting, and says, “Okay: go.”

She, reclined on his sofa with her head on a stack of pillows and her ankles crossed on top of the nearest arm, says, “All right, first things first. You are a guest. Guests are the lowest tier with the most freedom. This is intended to draw people in, in the hope that they’ll become members or regulars who pay a monthly or annual fee respectively.”

With his fingertip, Team writes out the following on the hologram memo paper suspended above his tablet:
• guest (me)
• lowest tier + freedom (one-time payments)
• member/regular = recurring fees

“Got it,” he says, “and members are what again?”

“Middle tier. Once a specialist thinks you’re willing, they’ll ask you to become a member.”

Team licks his lips and tries to push last night’s conversation with Win to the side. Still, he can’t resist asking, “Did you know Hia Win pre-registered me for that?”

Ting doesn’t croon and tease him the way she did earlier when he first told her about it. “I’m a part-timer, Team,” she says. “I’m not there nearly as often as you seem to think.“

“All right, all right.” He eyes her for another second, then adds some more notes.

• members invited to join by specialists

“Technically, the only way to become a member is by invitation,” Ting adds.

Team hears an asterisk in the way she says that, so he asks, “What other ways are there?”

She tips her head on the pillow in a vague sort of way. “For people like you and me? Invitation only. But there’re always back channels, right? Higher ups ask on behalf of their nephew or whatever, and some specialists feel pressured to say yes to keep their standing.”

A sharp itch climbs Team’s back. “Has…that ever happened to you?”

Ting shakes her head. “No. Like I said, I work there part time, so I don’t really have a standing. No one knows me by name. Not like—” She quirks the side of her mouth, a clear hint of who she means.

Team’s mind blanches with shock.

“I’ve never heard of that happening to P’Win though,” she says. “Or anyone specifically. It’s just something people say happens sometimes. They can say no, but some of them like to have special treatment from upper management. Under-the-table bonuses, escort jobs with high-end or celebrity clients, that kind of thing.”

It doesn’t sound quite as bad as Team was imagining, but his nerves still crackle with unease. “So h–they couldn’t get fired if they said no?”

Ting watches him for a few horrible seconds, then grins. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You’re invested in him. No wonder he asked you to become a member.”

Team sweeps a glance over his desk, grabs a cactus plush toy, and chucks it at her.

She catches it, then wiggles it at him victoriously.

“You’re here to help, not to be a jerk,” he says.

She blows him a kiss. “I can do both.” She makes the cactus’s little arms dance, then casually asks, “Is this really for your paper or are you just trying to get dirt from me on P’Win?”

Twitching, Team says, “You brought him up, not me,” and then, “Tell me about regulars.”

Ting rolls her eyes, smiling wide. “Okay, okay. Regulars are also invitation-only, obviously.”

“And being a regular is cheaper than being a member, you said?”

“Kind of.”

He peeks at her with unease. “‘Kind of’?”

Ting makes a considering noise, then bops the tiny black nose on the cactus plush with her fingertip. “Well,” she says, “I’ll give you a scenario: say you’re P’Win’s regular.” Team keeps his face very, very still. “He has three other regulars besides you, and as far as MUSE is concerned, the four of you are his priority. He’s supposed to give you preferential treatment over members and guests, because you’re a loyal customer locked into annual payments. However, as a regular, you’re paying a lower fee than a member does, and you’re getting more of your specialist’s time, so out of courtesy to your specialist, you’re kind of expected to make up the difference with gifts and stuff.”

Team makes a face as he scribbles notes. “This is written down somewhere, right?” he asks.

Ting snorts. “No, of course not. It’s a complicated system, and there’s a whole bunch of unwritten rules and etiquette. They don’t tell guests any of this stuff—you’re just meant to enjoy the sex and go home.” She laughs at his aggravated expression. “I’m pretty sure they didn’t design their business model around making it easy for you to write an economics paper about them.”

Team ignores that, because the part of his brain that harbors business acumen has illuminated. “So,” he says, “MUSE is designed to draw people in as guests, find them specialists they like, then invite them to become members or regulars. ” His blood begins to pulse cold in his veins. “So…the whole time, specialists are trying to make an emotional connection with guests to, like, promote brand loyalty?“

In stark terms presented in those simple steps, it clarifies so much of Win’s behavior up until now.

“Depends on their strategy,” Ting says. “Some use emotions, some stick to physicality.” She eyes him with blatant amusement. “Why, has P’Win been trying to charm you?“

“No,” Team says, his nose contorting and throat tightening. “I’m just asking so I can understand this whole weird thing better.”

With a huff of wry disbelief, Ting pushes off Team’s sofa, setting the cactus plush toy down in her place. “Well, listen,” she says. “Ultimately, this is a business, and the specialists all know how it works, inside and out. It can be personalized and friendly, but it’s still a sex parlor. Just don’t expect it to be a dating service and you’re good. Trust me,” she adds with a sad curl to her lips, “people can get hurt when they expect too much.”

Team can’t think of anything to say to that. There’s more there, he can tell, but he also knows it’s not the time to ask.

“After your last session…”

“Any other questions?”

“I thought maybe you’d consider becoming a member.”

“No. I think I understand now. Thanks, Ting.”

After Ting leaves, Team heads directly to the shower.

He waits for the wall to warm up, then braces his back against it, water streaming over his hair and face and body. His brain thrums with humiliation, dredging up every moment he dared to think Win was treating him any differently from an average customer.

What kind of romance movie does Team think he’s in, that Win would break his professionalism for some idiot in university who comes to him with some bullshit about doing an economics paper on sex workers—bullshit that wasn’t even his idea?

Win’s been a specialist for years, so he must know how to bring in members.

Of course Win would do his best to make the sex fun and exciting.

What fun would the sex be if it were treated like a business?

He should have asked Ting all of this from the start.

He should have realized he would get invested.

He already liked Win from just his image.

How naive must he seem to Win?

How impossibly young?

How stupid.

Only when he’s seated before his paper again does he realize that none of what he discussed with Ting has to do with the topic he’s chosen.

Automation affected every industry, but some less than others. The sex work industry, for example, has many components, including human labor. Human workers are still important in their field even today.

One of the ways they’re important is through their contributions to the education industry. They |

He erases everything he’s written for the fifth time since he started days ago, turns off his tablet, and sprawls facedown on his bed.

He can’t conjure Win’s face clearly, but Win’s voice has fused to his brain, always close enough to the surface to summon at a moment’s notice.

Team turns his head, eyes closed, and says, “Lights off.”

In a blink, the room is pitch dark.

There’s a half-empty bottle of lube on his bedside table, and he tries not to feel too proud that he can find it from muscle memory alone.

Team arrives at MUSE ten minutes before eight with his heart balanced on a wire over a canyon. He can’t kill all his hope—can’t bring himself to—but he’s devised a strategy of his own to make it through this last session with his pride intact.

His strategy is simply this: he’s going to keep things as physical as possible. Minimal conversation, with no chances for Win to speak and make Team wonder. As a last resort, he has the information Ting gave him to reflect on, a crutch to catch him when Win inevitably makes his knees buckle.

This is a business. This is a sex parlor.

The elevator door opens, and Team startles.

Win’s early, too, it seems.

Waiting in front of the elevator—rather than at the end of the hallway like the last three times—Win already looks indecent. His navy T-shirt is visibly more expensive than anything Team’s so much as looked at from this close of a distance, an asymmetrical collar showing off the smooth skin of his shoulder and the jut of his collarbone.

Team’s confidence in his plan falters.

Then Win smiles at him, a hint of laughter in his eyes. “Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

Panic shreds through Team’s emotional shield like a hot knife through a rose petal.

How can he seem so normal? How did he get so good at this? Is none of this real?

Team says, “Hi,” because that’s all his struggling brain will put together for him.

Win’s smile changes to something impossibly soft. “Hi.”

“You’re just meant to enjoy the sex and go home.”

He is so fucked.

Team began working on his strategy earlier in his bedroom. He wrung out two orgasms by thinking of his first two sessions with Win, trying to practice the control thing, but lurid memories of Win’s lips on his inner thigh and Win’s hot, wet mouth urgently swallowing down his erection ended that exercise almost instantly.

Win’s power is ultimately in his words, so if Team can manage to keep Win’s mouth as occupied as possible, he may be able to turn this session into something he can walk away from with his chin up.

Because he has to walk away.

Of everything Win has inadvertently taught Team, it’s that Team’s heart is wildly underfed, and his brain will work overtime for crumbs if they’re from a certain kind of meal. He can see too easily how he would end up, paying monthly to see someone who’s very kind but not really his.

And if he’s this compromised now, he needs to get out.

This business model was designed with people like him in mind.

At the end of the day, MUSE isn’t right for him, so Win can’t be either.

The trouble with Win being so deft at constructing masks is that Team is decidedly not, and he’s had very little practice creating them against Win specifically. From the start, he’s been following Win’s lead, trusting maybe more than he should have. He’s never tried deceiving Win, and he’s starting to realize that he…might not be able to.

Turns out, Team doesn’t know how to project a casual front, so he promptly switches tracks to silence after a few sentences of small talk.

The trouble with that is that Win isn’t oblivious, and in fact he probably understands how to read people far better than anyone Team has ever met. It’s only seconds into their walk along the hallway toward the second elevator up to Win’s floor that Team sees Win notice the odd air between them and visibly wonder what’s up.

Team’s strategy was always to keep things physical, but he glazed over this beginning part where Win likes to chat.

But Win doesn’t press.

Judging by his quick sideways glances, he’s definitely processing something—and with Team’s luck, Win will wind up closer to the truth than Team wants him to get.

It’s not until they’re in Win’s room that Team exhales completely. Everything he sees—the bed, the fishtank column, and the discreet bathroom door—is as it was on his last three visits, but the air hits him differently now.

I won’t see this room again.

Team toes off his shoes and eyes the bed.

Win follows his gaze.

Then they’re facing each other, barefoot, and Team takes a deep breath.

“No questions this time?” Win asks.

Team says, “No,” and cashes in the last of his courage. His feet cold on the entryway’s hardwood floor, Team puts his arms around Win’s neck and kisses him, keeping his eyes open only long enough to take in Win’s mild surprise.

In all Team’s life, no one has ever been as much fun to kiss as Win is. He just seems to enjoy Team’s mouth, and his breaths come slow and thick with lust that could be real. He can’t fake everything.

The best lies have a thread of truth at the core.

Win’s hands move from Team’s hips, slide under his shirt, and push up along the path of his spine, catching on the lines of sweat slicked there. Win’s lips part from Team’s for a moment, only to close in again and coax them apart with a flash of tongue.

Team tightens the circle of his arms, clenching his hands into fists.

When Win whispers, “Shower?” Team manages a quick nod.

This time, though, there’s no collected walk. Win clasps his hand on the back of Team’s neck and slowly urges him backward, his mouth insistent and the kiss going deeper and more focused.

A tiny voice of self-preservation begs Team to open his eyes so he doesn’t trip, but Win seems to know his own room flawlessly and it isn’t long before a shock from the cold tile travels up from Team’s soles.

The temperature of Team’s neck and face rise steadily as Win tucks one hand into his hair and presses his thumb behind Team’s ear, keeping him close and the kiss unbroken. Team doesn’t wonder about the whereabouts of Win’s other hand until he hears the shower start, and then he feels it return to his lower back, four crescent fingernails pressing into his skin.

Physicality seems like a safe strategy until Win strips off Team’s shirt and Team makes the mistake of opening his eyes to see where he’ll throw it. The immensity of the concentration on Win’s face is real. It must be. Maybe there’s no emotion behind it, but at least the urgency is sincere.

Especially when Win’s hands slide up Team’s chest with visible appreciation both in how he savors the glide of his palms on Team’s skin and how his pupils expand. There’s no faking that, as far as Team knows.

So he must genuinely find Team attractive—he knows it empirically now.

But attraction is just attraction.

Don’t treat this like a date.

Once in the shower, efficiency drops to the bottom of Team’s priorities.

Past Team making the strategy forgot how punishingly gorgeous Win looks when his hair is wet.

Win wastes no time in pressing Team against the heated wall, the water falling erratic and sparse on them like a gentle rain. Like that one reviewer said, it’s a pleasant sensation, and there’s little risk of drowning when they kiss.

Team grips Win’s waist and clenches his fingers whenever Win makes some noise of appreciation for some minute thing Team does. Whether it’s Team’s breath hitching involuntarily from Win’s thumb skating over a nipple or Team’s tongue brushing against Win’s, Win never once misses an opportunity to tell Team when he’s doing something Win likes.

It has Team chasing those noises, hungry for Win’s approval.

But only physically.

If he can impress a sex specialist, after all, he must be doing something right.

When Win whispers, “Have you thought about what you want to do?” Team’s mind is already half submerged in baser needs.

So it’s no wonder he whispers, “I thought about you,” and looks Win in the eye to see how he reacts to it.

There’s not much iris left at this point.

Win’s next breath shakes. “Would you mind if I suggested something then?”

Team swallows. “Please.”

The word does something unseen to Win. The kiss he presses in for next is unexpected and rough, and his hand grips the back of Team’s neck while Team does absolutely nothing to discourage it. On the contrary, he slides his arms around Win’s wet lower back to remove the space between them and makes a truly embarrassing noise when his erection grazes heat.

Win squeezes his neck hard. Possibly involuntarily.

When Win draws back, Team’s gaze drops to see that his mouth has grown darker and fuller than it was.

“Where’s your comfort level?” Win asks, thumbing Team’s bottom lip. “Because I was thinking…if you wanted to use your third session to—”

“Fuck me,” Team says.

Not exactly how he planned to ask.

Not exactly what he planned to ask.

Not that he had a plan.

Even so—

“When I said I thought about you,” Team tells him, “it was right before I left my dorm.”

Win’s expression is so clouded with unfocused desire, it’s easy for Team to find the nerve to take Win’s hand and guide it to where he worked himself open on his own fingers. While imagining Win. Imagining fragments of whole scenarios, each filthier than the last, trying—in vain, it seems—to expel some of the desperation from his system before he got here.

He only intended to demonstrate to Win what he wants without explaining out loud, but when Win’s fingers slide into him, Team squeezes his eyes closed and makes an even more embarrassing noise than before.

“You did the homework I sent you?” Win whispers.

It should echo like everything else does in the wide space, but Win’s mouth is so close to Team’s ear, it just provokes a shudder down Team’s spine and a pulse through his erection.

“Yes,” he says. “Still suck at it, though.”

Win laughs, too suddenly to be faked, and Team finds himself grinning back.

Then Win’s fingers sink deeper and curl, and Team takes a ragged breath.

“Mm,” Win approves.

If drying off separately is a test of patience, making it to the bed is a legendary demonstration of willpower.

Sitting on the edge of the bed in the soft black robe Win put him in, Team toys with the belt while Win, in a matching robe that has no business looking so sexy on him, kneels on the floor and braces his arms on Team’s lap.

It’s probably meant to be disarming, but it only reminds Team of the first session when Win’s lips wrapped around him and sucked with blatant enjoyment.

“You’ve never done this before,” Win says. His pupils have returned to what’s probably a normal size.

Team worries at his robe’s sleeves, his blood pounding through his veins. “Yeah,” he says. “I mean—right. I haven’t.”

The sinews in Win’s forearms flex as he shifts his weight to lean them more comfortably on Team’s lap.

“I don’t want to discourage you,” Win says. “But everyone has different ideas about what the penetration part will be like, and comfort levels can vary by a lot.” He rubs his thumb on Team’s outer thigh, his face open in a way Team struggles to see any artifice in. “I want you to stop me at any point you feel like you want to stop. Any point.”

Team nods. This sounds rote, like something he needs to say to his customers.

Win’s experience is clear in how smoothly they transition from what Team gradually realizes was a clear-headed opportunity to give consent, into Win taking apart Team’s self-control piece by piece with a lavish sort of kissing that Team would swear Win’s never done with him before.

Is this third-session kissing?

Regular kissing?

It’s good. Because it’s purely physical.

When Win wants something from him, he taps Team’s arm or leg or pulls Team’s hand behind his own back—he doesn’t need to give instructions or ask anything, because Team hurries to interpret what he wants so they can keep this mostly wordless.

Oddly, the challenge only fuels how much Team’s enjoying this. Every time he figures out that Win wants him to move higher up the bed or bend his leg or open his mouth, there’s a burst of excitement and almost accomplishment. A dose of serotonin for his gradual steps toward proficiency in sex.

And when Win whispers, “You’re doing perfectly,” into his ear with one hand tight around Team’s erection, Team’s body surprises him by jolting with pleasure all over.

Win’s smile touches his neck. “Looks like you have a praise kink, beautiful.”

Team squeezes his eyes shut and exhales a trembling breath into Win’s thick blond hair. He’s going to be hearing that word—in that voice—in his dreams and nightmares for years.

He means that, doesn’t he? He could have said something else—something dirtier? “Beautiful“ sounds so…intimate….

“You may very well be my new favorite research project,” Win whispers, teasing evident in his tone. “Your body reacts to everything I do.” As if to prove it, he kisses Team’s neck almost chastely, then strokes Team quicker with an expert rhythm.

Team holds onto Win’s neck with all he has, accepting that his will power to keep quiet has evaporated entirely. Luckily, he knows from MUSE’s multiple official assurances that all the walls here are thoroughly soundproofed—something he’s never been more grateful for than he is right now.

“Think you can hold off longer?” Win asks, slowing down. “You’re doing well so far.”

Team turns his face into Win’s shoulder, hiding the proud flush that follows Win’s flattery. “I can try,” he says. “I-I can’t promise anything, though.”

He deserves far more praise for managing speech than anything else he’s done.

Win draws up and darts in to kiss Team’s cheek, and when their eyes meet, Team almost leaps out of his body from the shock of how obscenely suited to his profession Win looks right now. His hair wet from the shower, his face flushed across his nose and cheekbones, his mouth—

“Try the numbers,” Win says. “Sixty to seventy when it feels manageable, nineties when you’re close.”

Team says, “Okay,” and loosens his arms from Win’s neck. He closes his eyes and takes three deep breaths to try and bring himself down from a solid eighty-seven.

He hears Win’s amused breath through his nose.

“Quiet,” Team says, fighting down a grin.

Uh oh.

He’s in so much more trouble than expected if Win can provoke fondness in him without even speaking.

When their indulgent kissing and exploratory touching resumes, Team wonders what Win does with his other regulars. What do they like? What do they want?

Does he kiss them with this much devoted concentration?

He must.

Of course.

But it feels special.

It must.

Of course.

“You can do more than lie there,” Win reminds him, touching his nose to Team’s with a playful nudge. “You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to, but if you’re waiting for an invitation, here it is.”

Team’s focus darts back and forth between Win’s eyes. He just looks so…

…invested.

“Thank you,” Team says. It’s catapulted out of his mouth from a place of sincerity he thought he’d closed off back in the elevator.

Win blinks and asks why without a word, just a quirk of his eyebrows. He’s braced over Team now, barely touching him at all, just listening.

Only the insides of Win’s thighs press against the outsides of Team’s.

He can’t make up a lie.

Win’s too smart.

And…Team doesn’t want to.

“I’m glad it’s you,” he says, gravelly and small. “I think I avoided this for years because—I don’t know. But this is…I like this.”

Win’s smile develops, from small and curious to small and affectionate.

It creates a tiny bit of devastation behind Team’s ribs.

“I’ll try to live up to that,” Win says. Then, on what appears to be an impulse, he arches his neck and kisses Team’s forehead.

And that’s it: total devastation. A fissure hammered with a spike. A stone door cleaved in two.

It’s all adrenaline then.

Team seizes the back of Win’s neck with both hands and leans up to catch his mouth in a kiss he knows isn’t great, but he needs to do it. Entire areas of his mind, areas he never knew existed, are lighting up with possibilities and hopes, and the rush of faith is terrible but—he knows—inevitable.

He’s going to jump, and he’ll deal with whatever happens to himself after.

And when Win’s hand cups the side of his face, Team gives up and surrenders to him completely.

What ensues is more clinical than Team expects. Win is cautious with Team to a fault, and the penetration part is made easier after copious fingers and lube and even a large phallic-looking toy that looks smaller than the one Team used earlier.

When it’s over, the condom is disposed of, and both of them have showered again, Team notices for the first time that the bed has been remade in their absence and the room smells clean and fresh.

It feels like a stupid thing to point out, so Team doesn’t mention it. He just dresses in the clothes that were washed and dried while he was busy with Win, and squashes the disappointment building in his chest.

This has to be the last time.

This is how MUSE makes their money. Finding what people need, and keeping them wanting more.

He’ll never have what he suspects he actually wants with Win.

This is Win’s job, and as Ting said: people can get hurt when they expect too much.

Win, heedless, grips the hem of Team’s T-shirt and tugs with a smile. “This is nice,” he says. “Lavender’s a good color on you.”

An inane bit of heat starts to sting Team’s eyes. “Thanks,” he says, fiddling with the fabric himself to avoid meeting Win’s eyes.

“C’mon,” Win says, slinging his arm around Team’s shoulders. “I’ll walk you out.”

As they walk to the elevator, Team’s eyes cast about, taking in tiny details like the streetlights projected on the walls and the hologram fireflies he’s never seen before. Win’s arm holds him close, and Team closes his eyes for a long second to fight down the emotion building in him. Sometimes he walks like this with Pharm. He likes curling an arm around him while they walk, letting his arm rest comfortably on Pharm’s shoulders, enjoying the closeness.

He’s never felt someone hold him the same way, with casual affection and profound familiarity.

If I weren’t such a desperate moron, I could have been a member, he thinks. I’m just not made for this. I need more, and it’s not fair to ask.

What he says to Win at the elevator is, “Thank you,” and then he ducks his head with a shy laugh.

Win tips Team’s chin up with just his fingertip and tells him, cataclysmically, “Oh, I missed you.”

Fuck it.

Team leans in, kisses him once more on the mouth, and lingers.

Only when Win tucks a bit of hair behind his ear does Team force himself to stop.

Win’s smile has too much in it for Team to register over the roaring in his ears and chest and mind.

“About the membership,” Win says.

Team says, “Can I think about it?” in desperation.

Win’s expression goes through a complex shift, then it’s back to a simple smile. “Of course.”

They say goodnight to one another, and Team walks into the elevator. As the doors close, Win breaks eye contact with him at the last moment, turning his head to look at the gleaming skyline outside the hall’s floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a view he must have seen hundreds or thousands of times.

The city lights wash out his fair complexion.

Chapter Text

A stroke of good fortune allows rehearsals to let out early enough for Manaow to hurry across town, grab a halfway thoughtful gift, and bolt to the fancy hotel where her cousin’s welcome home party has already begun. She’s out of breath, but she’s pleased with her efficiency.

She spends the time traveling up the forty-six floors to the rooftop reapplying her lipstick and dashing on some burgundy eyeshadow, using the reflective doors as her mirror. Combined with her swishy black dress, it’s a much better evening look than what she had on all day, and it’ll look especially nice under the light of the candles she saw earlier while the staff were setting everything up in the videos her cousin’s girlfriend posted.

It’s always best to do reconnaissance on an event’s location and lighting before choosing one’s outfit and facade.

A party of twenty or so is underway as Manaow steps out of the elevator, and a quick scan of the people in attendance confirms her small fear that she’d be the youngest in attendance.

Of course, that’s to be expected. Kitty’s eight years older, and most of the people she’s invited are friends of hers. But she’s always gone out of her way to include Manaow in things, and that includes tonight. There’s no one else Manaow’s age in their family, and for some reason—probably just innate kindness—Kitty always made sure that Manaow never felt lonely. Always felt included and listened to and supported.

Manaow’s halfway to tears by the time she finds Kitty in the crowd, and when Kitty sees her, they both let out a happy cry and embrace like they’ve been apart for decades rather than a year and a half.

“I missed you so much!” Manaow wails. “Don’t ever leave the country again!”

Kitty squeezes her tight, petting the back of her head with a coo. “Aww, my sweet little cousin missed me?“

“Yes! Oh! Wait!” She wriggles out of the hug and presents her gift, expertly hidden inside a sheet of precise, electronically-wrapped silk. “For you!”

Kitty grins and slides her hand through the loop of fabric. “I’ll open it later, if that’s okay?” she says.

Manaow nods. It’s a bracelet that looks sort of like Sandee’s favorite necklace, so they’ll match each other. If she’d had more time, she would have dropped by the Enchantments store for one of their customized, hand-calligraphed “protective love spells”, but she’ll save that for their anniversary in two months.

After another teary smile, Kitty gives Manaow another hug and says, “Aww, seeing you again is so nice. Have you met anyone else here?”

Manaow hasn’t, so she happily follows Kitty to the nearest circle of people and merrily introduces herself to Lynn, King, and Mork—Kitty’s juniors from university.

“Are you still in school, Manaow?” Lynn asks.

She’s so pretty.

Smiling, Manaow nods, thrilled to have the attention of all four older, cooler people. “I’m in my third year,” she says. “I’m double-majoring in theatre and economics.”

“Universities still let students double-major?” Mork asks, raising his eyebrows.

He’s so cute.

“Depends on the university,” King says.

He’s really cute, too. And…oddly familiar.

“Ours didn’t,” Kitty says, “did it?”

This branches into stories from their university days, and when Kitty is called away by another friend across the rooftop garden, Manaow catches her cousin’s elbow and squeaks into her ear, “All your friends are gorgeous!”

Kitty gives her a wry smile and ruffles her hair with just her fingertips—and gently enough not to actually dislodge the style it’s been painstakingly put in.

Once Kitty is gone, Manaow claps her hands and says, “So! What do you all do?”

King says, “I’m a sex worker,” and sips his wine.

In a heartbeat, Manaow remembers his face and gasps. “You work at MUSE!” she cries, then covers her mouth with both hands.

As King raises his eyebrows—perhaps at her volume—Lynn grins at Mork, who smirks back.

“Have we met?” King asks. He studies Manaow’s face and then adds, “I don’t think we have, but—”

Manaow shakes her head vehemently. “No, no! I wish.” Lynn lets out a squeaked laugh. “My friend showed us your model while my other friend was thinking of going!”

King doesn’t seem surprised by anything she just said, just nods politely. Then he glances at Lynn, who’s visibly struggling to keep her laughter silent, and asks, “Do you need help?”

She smacks King’s shoulder and says, “You’re just so matter-of-fact about everything.“

King says, “As opposed to what?” with a frown. “She asked what I do, so I told her.” To Manaow, he says, “We’ve been friends for over five years.” Then back to Lynn, “Why are you still surprised by me?”

“Because some people change over time,” she says with audible fondness. “But you never do.” When he looks put out by that, she wraps an arm around him and gives him a little jostle. “It’s refreshing, stop pouting.”

“‘M not pouting.”

Mork asks Manaow, “Did your friend end up going?”

“He did!” she says. Then she beams at King. “He’s seeing P’Win, do you know him?“

King absorbs the question with utter neutrality, then his smile spreads slowly over his face. “I do, yes,” he says.

In Manaow’s peripheral vision, she notices that Lynn’s expression has shifted with recognition.

King takes another sip of wine, then points to Lynn with just his pinky finger. “So does she,” he adds.

With even wider eyes, Lynn gives him a bolded Shut! Up! face. Then mouths, “Stop,” when King only smirks back at her.

At once, the blocks fall into place, and Manaow gasps, “You’re—!”

Lynn throws up a panicked hand and takes a few quick glances around her. “Shh, shh, shh, yes, I am, but please shh.”

Manaow nods, but she can’t help her beaming smile full of exclamation marks. She’s met one of Win’s regulars! By complete chance!

“Then I suppose you’re a friend of Team,” King says.

Manaow says, “I am, yes! We go to the same university. He’s been so obsessed with MUSE ever since he met P’Win, it’s kind of cute. I want to go myself but I heard it’s really difficult to get in.” She offers Lynn a pleading smile. “Maybe you can tell me how you got in?”

King makes an amused noise. “If you’d like to see a specialist, I can arrange that for you.”

Manaow’s jaw drops. “Really?“

King nods. “Sure. You’re Kitty’s cousin.”

Thus, Manaow’s introduction to the world of networking is complete.

And suddenly the party can’t end fast enough. She needs to tell Team, and Pharm, and Kong, and Ting, and—

Chapter Text

Artificial intelligence is often called “ubiquitous”. It’s part of our daily lives whether we think about it consciously or not. Transportation is almost exclusively operated by AIs, as are medical facilities and agriculture.

With the rise of |

Artificial intelligence is often called “ubiquitous” because of the global influence it’s had. Alongside the decline of monopoly conglomerates in the early twenty-first century and the rise of independent |

Artificial intelligence is often called “ubiquitous” because of the global influence it’s had. While every industry \…\

Some industries were more affected than others, such as the transportation and medical industries. [supporting evidence] \…\

There were many contributing factors to sex work becoming \…\

The sex work industry was (?)

MUSE was founded in [date] by [founder] with the mission statement of “[quote]” |

Memories of Win are never far.

Twenty-four hours after his third session, Team is trying to bullshit his way through his paper while Win’s soft smile and fevered kisses keep him guessing. He’s not going back, he knows that for sure, but he can’t shake the fantasy of indulging one more time.

In his fantasy, he can be stupid and tell Win he wants to see his real bedroom and watch movies with him and kiss him without a time limit over their heads. In his fantasy, Win grins at him and tells him he’s glad he said something, because obviously as a professional his hands are tied. In his fantasy, Win tells him to meet him outside the building after his shift, and Team does, and they make out in the rain.

At two in the morning, Team climbs into bed as a car passing his dormitory throws a floating light across the interior of his bedroom. Hours of half-assed effort saw his paper actually decrease in word count. He’s lost the ability to concentrate, to organize his thoughts, and to make things up in a way that sounds well-researched.

He has less than two weeks until his paper is due, and he’s barely come up with anything.

Worse, he’s losing energy to care about it at all.

Hours later, he wakes up to a sharp sporadic series of ringing noises in the hallway that cuts off after a few seconds. Team frowns at the ceiling, wondering if the building is actually on fire and what to grab if it is, and then the dormitory’s AI says, “We offer our apologies for the alarm. Our system detected smoke whose source has been confirmed and extinguished. Good night.”

Team glares at the ceiling speaker, then turns onto his stomach, face buried in his pillow.

He could probably write a better paper on the number of times his dormitory’s AI has jumped the gun on pulling the fire alarm. Generally, AIs put in charge of student safety tend to err on the side of caution, but this one always goes a few steps too far, in Team’s opinion.

He lies awake with his eyes closed for ages, changing positions and making low noises of annoyance.

Finally, he gives up and slugs out of bed. He treks to the bathroom, empties his bladder, dashes his hands under the faucet’s warm water, then ambles back to his bed with his eyes closed, trusting his memory of the obstacles in his way.

After another attempt at sleep, Team asks his tablet what time it is.

“It’s a quarter after four.”

It’s almost time to wake up anyway.

Team grabs his tablet from the bedside table and reaches for the messaging icon. Instead, he grabs The MUSE Portal icon and the purple insignia appears over Team’s bed.

Welcome back to The MUSE Parlor, Team.

As usual, the words appear in black curls of smoke, narrated by the same soft voice.

Huh.

“Am I…still allowed to use this?” Team asks. “My three sessions are over.”

Guests are allowed access to The MUSE Portal for up to one week following their most recent session.

Team raises his eyebrows, interest spiking. He…hadn’t known that was a thing.

His next idea he blames on sleep deprivation.

“Uh…I have a question about the, um, scenarios area.”

The insignia glows in acknowledgement.

Team inhales, holds his breath, then asks, “Can I do a search for Hia Win’s?”

He’s almost prepared for the AI to call him ridiculous and love-struck for even asking, but of course all it says is, “You may. There are forty-seven scenarios featuring your specialist.“

His—?

Well, that makes sense. Win is the only one he’s seen.

The system also probably wants Team to keep thinking of Win as his so he’ll buy more sessions.

Team sits up in bed, presses his back against the pillows, and pulls his knees under his chin. When he watched these scenarios the first time, he moved around aimlessly based on recommendations from other users in the portal. He told himself if he just happened to find Win that it would be a happy accident, but now he’s past lying to himself.

He wants to see Win, and until he can figure out a way to make that happen in reality, he’s going to settle for virtual. Still, he remains stubbornly clothed in his T-shirt and pajama bottoms—and his fuzzy blue room socks—determined not to find this arousing in any way. He’s just…learning more about how Win treats others.

He can’t run on assumptions alone, after all. This is research.

He chooses the highest-rated of Win’s scenarios and when it takes shape above Team’s tablet it’s about as wide as Team’s bed, with Win fully clothed and gorgeous as ever on his bed in the center. With a gulp, Team shrinks the hologram until Win’s model is about the height of Team’s forearm. Maybe making it smaller will also make it easier to digest calmly.

The room is easily identified as Win’s, and Win himself is sprawled on his side with one hand splayed on the bed holding him up. The person he’s with is very much unclothed, very much on her back, very much with her legs open, and very much eager to do whatever it is that got this scenario such high ratings. According to other portal users, when a guest, member, or regular appears in a scenario, their faces, voices, and even some parts of their bodies are digitally altered to ensure their privacy.

There’s no real way of anyone but Win knowing who this person is.

Win, who’s watching her face, utterly calm, while she breathes in loud, ragged gasps.

“Please,” she whines. “It’s been so long.”

He hums. “I wouldn’t call five minutes ‘long’.”

Team notices Win’s hand is casually holding her wrists to the bed over her head.

She gives a sharp cry and digs her heels into the bed, lifting her hips and putting on display a wire spilling from between the dripping seam of her lips. When Team turns up the volume, he can hear a faint buzzing noise.

Oh.

“P’Win,” she complains, pulling at her arms. “Let me c—”

He clicks his tongue. “You don’t want it nearly enough yet,” he says, voice low and controlled.

Team’s dick pulses, his eyes fixed on Win’s mouth.

Her legs shake as the vibrator inside her kicks up to a much higher intensity, and she yanks on her wrists again with a whimper. “Please,” she begs. “Please, please, please.”

Team rolls his eyes and waves his hand to skip ahead, watching for Win to speak again. When he catches lip movement, he allows the scenario to resume.

She’s significantly louder now, her gasps high and breathy. He takes absent note of Win’s free hand toying with the gold hoop piercing through her tight brown nipple, but he’s far more interested in Win’s soft, “I know you can take more than this.”

Imagining Win saying that to him goes directly to a molten core in the filthiest corner of Team’s mind.

He lets his legs fall open and presses the heel of his hand above the base of his erection, filling out fast.

He’s not jerking off.

Not to this, anyway.

As she starts to beg Win to fuck her, Team closes the scenario and spins a tray of the forty-six other preview models until he sees a man sucking Win off.

Team hastily pulls it up.

In the first few moments, Team thinks, So much for not finding this arousing, and pushes his pajama bottoms completely off.

He watches Win’s fingers stroke through short black hair, trembling slightly as his regular or whoever kisses gradually down his stomach. Win’s seated on his bed—in the exact same place Team sat for his first session—while the guy kneels between his thighs, hands braced on Win’s knees.

Win looks to be maybe a year or two younger. His hair is about the same length, only now a few centimeters of black roots show below the dyed blond lengths of his hair. His attention is on the guy, his eyes staying sharp even as the guy does his level best to unfocus them.

As wet, slurping sounds fill Team’s bedroom, he divides his focus equally between Win’s face and the guy’s mouth gliding over his erection.

Team grits his teeth, ignoring his own.

Is it wrong to watch this?

He’s had sex with Win—he knows some of the noises Win’s making in this scenario firsthand. Win also clearly made it with the understanding that others would watch it, and he’s a sex worker—no rational person who’s heard all the facts would say Team’s wrong to watch this. Right?

The longer the blowjob goes on, the weaker Team’s will becomes.

Win never mentioned these scenarios to Team.

Was there a reason for that?

Maybe there wasn’t time.

The guy takes Win deep, soundless, and Win drops his head back with a low cry.

Team swallows hard, fists tight around his sheets. Copper sunlight has started to veer in through the narrow space beneath the window blind. He has swim practice soon. He has class after.

There’s a chance he’ll never see Win again.

He’ll only have access to these scenarios for another week.

It can’t be as wrong as he’s afraid it is.

Team ignores the curl of doubt as he works himself to the edge as quietly as he can, trying to hear only Win.

As long as Win doesn’t know, who is he hurting?

Without a visit to MUSE on the horizon, and with the majority of his friends suddenly too busy to hang out as often as before, Team creates a rewards system for himself to stay motivated on his schoolwork. For every hour he spends working on his paper, he allows himself to watch one of Win’s forty-seven scenarios.

He begins his research by going into the history of regulated sex work. He reads about the waves of activism from country to country, and how automation began dividing the industry into new categories. Virtual reality scenarios were the earliest perceived threat to human sex workers, but demand for them never seemed to flag. In retaliation, human sex workers used a combination of virtual reality and human labor in their own parlors. After all—what’s better than having both?

Pharm recommends a couple of documentaries on the sex industry that they watch while they eat dinner in Pharm’s living room. One is about the rise of accessible information on safe sex, and the other follows the increase of regulations in various countries including their own. They’re dryer than Team expects considering the material, and he finds himself annoying Pharm for information about his session instead.

(“None of your business, Team.”

“I helped you get the chance to see him!”

“And I said thank you.”)

Since King writes a sex column for MUSE, Team asks Ting for his information so he can ask him questions as well. He offers to buy King lunch in exchange for help on his paper, and King writes back promptly saying he’ll be happy to help and that he has a great deal of information he can send Team to use, as well.

At the end of the day, Team calculates the number of hours he’s spent working on his paper, and then selects the applicable number of scenarios.

By the eighth scenario, even with digital alterations, he’s begun to suspect that he’s seeing the same few people. Win’s top five ranked scenarios are all with women, and Team thinks they’re all the same woman from the vibrator scenario. Even though four of the women don’t appear to have pierced nipples, the way Win’s fingers move over them suggest that she does, and they’ve just been edited out.

In one scenario, Team recognizes her because although her face and even the curves of her body are unique to anyone else he’s seen, her nipple piercings are the same as the woman’s in the top-rated scenario.

She and Win are in another room entirely for this one, one with an entire wall that’s just a window looking out onto the city. Her wrists have been handcuffed to a bar over her head while Win methodically applies glittering weights to her piercings as well as a delicate gold chain to hang between them. He licks one nipple to make her squirm, then smiles as the weights sway and she lets out a shrill gasp.

Win also seems familiar with her. He slides a finger down between her wet lips and raises his gleaming finger as she shudders.

“You really need to control yourself,” he says. “I’ve barely touched you and you’re dripping on the floor.”

“It’s not my fault,” she says with a sulk. “You’re hot.”

He smiles and licks his finger clean with a wink. “Thanks.”

“Fuck me, please,” she says, batting her eyelashes at him.

He croons tauntingly back at her, then tugs on the chain between her nipples. “Not yet,” he says. “I want to see you so wet a string of it touches the floor without breaking.”

Team frowns through her frustrated moan.

They seem close; apart from the obvious, it’s almost like they’re friends.

As Team watches Win blow on her ear and drag a small bullet vibrator over her mound, avoiding her clit, she whines, “P’Win, please.”

“Listen,” he says mildly, “you always beg early, but we both know you want this to last until you can’t stand it.” He presses the vibrator to her clit and leaves it there while he teases the very tip of a nipple with the very tip of his tongue.

She squeezes her thighs around his hand and makes a strangled noise, the handcuffs rattling over her head as she rides out the sensations.

When Win slides his hand out, he says, “Open your legs,” and as she does, a thick clear drop stretches from her swollen lips. After a few centimeters, it separates and joins a small puddle gathered below her on the black tile floor.

“Admit it,” Win whispers in her ear, “you want me to make you so wet you barely feel me fuck into you.”

She whines and drops her head back, shivering so hard the chain and weights hanging from her breasts shimmer.

“I think,” Win says as he noses through her dark hair, “we should make sure you can’t keep closing your legs around my hand. What do you think?”

She takes in a trembling breath and says, “Okay.”

As Win pulls back and retrieves two lengths of rope waiting on the bar overhead, Team realizes something odd about what he’s seen.

Win hasn’t kissed her once.

And not just in this scenario.

…In any of them.

Granted, Win definitely knows her and her body very well, and some of her scenarios are much longer than the hour that sessions are supposed to last, so she must be a regular. But he doesn’t ever kiss her. Isn’t that…a basic service?

Team kissed Win during his very first session.

Heart rate rising, Team closes out of her scenario and—ignoring his hour-to-scenario allowance—begins searching every other scenario one by one. He skims through them, keeping the speed at just the right pace that he can see every action, his wild guess solidifying more and more into something that might be fact.

Win doesn’t kiss anyone in any of the scenarios.

No one.

He’ll do so much else but—

Why did he kiss Team, if he doesn’t kiss anyone else?

As the forty-seventh scenario ends, Team drops his arm and allows it to replay at the normal speed from the beginning, his mind tempestuous with bewilderment.

Does this mean that Team’s—?

That…maybe Win thinks of him differently?

Even from his regulars?

Team’s mind remains rattled throughout swim practice, which unnerves him even more.

Normally it’s the one time he can shed stress. Even if it’s only while he’s in the pool itself, everything from the difference in sound underwater to the sensation of smooth resistance as he swims laps usually brings Team’s world into proper alignment. There’s nothing he does better than this, and the confidence boost helps him feel that he has some control.

Today, his mind is focused on questions he can’t answer.

First and most importantly: why is he so hung up on Win?

Yes, he’s gorgeous, and he has some other decent qualities, but so do lots of guys. Kong is gorgeous with decent qualities, and Team’s never had feelings for him. He barely knows Win, and doesn’t know him at all outside the context of MUSE.

“Team, you’re dragging!”

So…perhaps there’s a possibility—a significant one—that Team’s just…latched onto the first guy he’s had sex with.

And that would be humiliating enough, if Team hadn’t also paid Win to do that.

“Team!”

Worst of all: Team can’t even claim to like Win as a person, because he has no idea what Win is like outside his job. He doesn’t seem like he’d be much different, but if Team said that to someone like Ting or Manaow, they’d absolutely call him out for sounding desperate, and he wouldn’t even feel justified in defending himself.

Ting warned him not to do this.

“Oi, Team! What are you doing?”

But Win kissed him.

Every single session.

Maybe that’s what made Team feel like he was special.

Maybe he could feel it—that Win kissing him was unique.

That he doesn’t do that with everyone else he sees.

But did Team really charm him that much? And so quickly?

Win doesn’t really know him either, so how—

“Team!”

The sharp edge to the call has Team realizing the noise around him in the pool has diminished. Apart from the noise he’s creating, there’s nothing else echoing off the high walls, and as he reaches the wall, his breath is heavier than usual after the number of laps he swam.

He tugs his goggles off and peers up his coach crouching above him, frowning down at Team with genuine concern.

“What’s wrong?” Team asks him between labored breaths.

His coach raises his eyebrows. “Did you not notice you were doing extra laps?”

Team glances at the other swimmers in the neighboring lanes eyeing him with open amusement.

Huh.

“Uh, no,” Team says. Then, “Sorry,” with a grimace.

Well.

That’s that, then.

There’s nowhere left that Win can’t follow him.

After breakfast in the canteen, Team braces his tablet on the table and asks, “What credits am I short on this week?”

His tablet says, “You’re deficient in the following courses: English.”

Team groans and puts his head down on the table. “Damn it. By how much?”

“You have yet to fulfill any of your required sixteen weekly credits for English.”

So he trudges to the virtual hall for four consecutive blocks of language immersion. As much as he hates it, maybe spending two and a half hours in situations that force his brain to use English is the only thing that can shake Win from his mind.

He stops by a console to enter his student ID, then heads into a free both. Once the helmet is on, he selects the café setting and begins the simulation.

His avatar is a little boy by design, because whenever he’s wandering anywhere public by himself, he gets the same English questions every simulation. As he walks his avatar into the café, he purposefully wanders around to catch the attention of the programmed characters.

“Are you alone?” someone asks.

“Yes,” he says.

“Are you lost?” someone asks.

“No,” he says.

“Are you okay?” someone asks.

“Yes,” he says.

Team watches green circles light up before him with satisfaction.

Then—

“Team,” someone says.

“Huh?”

Shit.

Oh, come on!

He turns his head and sees Ting’s avatar—a student their age with slim-fit lavender trousers and an oversized black V-neck sweater—sitting at a table with a programmed character. She says, “Thank you, bye bye!” to the programmed character, then stands up to approach Team instead. “Hello, little boy!”

“Ting, no,” Team whines in English. Just by reacting to her, though, his avatar has been engaged in conversation, and now he has to finish it in a way that’s judged natural by the system or have points deducted.

Ting’s avatar smiles so wide a twinkle effect shows on her white teeth. “So, you watched some interesting things this morning,” she says in flawless English.

How can she know!?

Team grits his teeth and makes his avatar lie facedown on the floor.

Undeterred, Ting says, “Wanna know how I know?”

This triggers the bright sound effect to indicate a question that he now has to answer.

He keeps his avatar where he is and says, “No.”

Green circle.

Ha.

“How many did you watch?”

Ding.

Damn it!

Well, there’s no way he’s telling her a number. He doesn’t even have to tell the truth—the system won’t know.

“None,” he says.

“Wasn’t it all forty-seven?”

Team makes his avatar jump up and stamp his foot. “No!”

Ting’s avatar beams back at him. “You didn’t watch the tutorial on using the portal, did you?” she asks

Ding.

“No,” he says.

A system warning in Thai script pops up that only Team can see:

The responses you’ve given are below your course level. Please give more complex answers.

It’s such a tragic thing to learn that Ting is evil. She seemed so laid back and cool before this whole MUSE thing happened to his life.

“You had your visibility icon switched on,” she says. “I saw you jumping around from scenario to scenario. I thought the thing was broken at first until you confirmed it for me just now.”

Team opens his mouth, thinks of the warning he just got, and decides on, “I hate you, and you are bad to me.”

A dim green circle appears.

English sucks.

He manages to escape the conversation with average marks, then changes the setting to an amusement park. Over the next two hours, he changes settings ten more times and manages to avoid Ting and everyone else he knows in all of them. He talks with programmed characters only, giving his utmost concentration to constructing coherent sentences that align with the mess of English grammar.

When he’s finished, he meets Ting in the front room, and it’s there that he finally feels free to hiss, “Don’t talk about MUSE stuff in there!” while other students filter in and out around them.

Ting pokes him in the nose with a fond noise. “I didn’t mention MUSE,” she says. “And I was planning to ask you in person, but when I saw your avatar in there, I thought it’d be more fun to ambush you.”

In flat English, he tells her, “I hate you, and you are bad to me.”

And because she is bad to him, she laughs in his face.

“Don’t worry,” she says, patting his bicep. “Specialists don’t use the portal, and since it was four in the morning, probably no one you know saw you other than me.”

Team covers his face with his hands. “What were you doing in there at four in the morning?” he demands into his palms.

“Exactly what you were doing,” she says promptly. “Just invisibly.”

Wait.

Team drops his hands and stares at her. “So, if you saw me, that means you were watching the same one I was at some point.”

Her confident grin falters. “Not necessarily,” she says. “I clicked on P’Win’s by accident.”

Team senses blood in the water and shows her a villain’s smirk complete with teeth. “You did not.”

She looks at her bare wrist and says, “Wow, look at that, my next class is starting in seven minutes, see you later, Team.”

He follows her from the virtual hall into the sunlit open-air corridor leading to the center of campus. “You’re not into Hia Win,” Team guesses with glee, “or you would’ve mentioned it by now.”

“Go away, Team,” she sulks. She aims an elbow at his stomach that he dodges easily. “This wasn’t supposed to turn on me.”

Well, well, well.

Ting’s into most genders, so that doesn’t narrow anything down for him, but if she knows he was bouncing around all forty-seven, she probably first saw his icon in the first scenario he watched.

He jabs his finger at her as she quickens her pace. “The girl!” he crows. “You were watching for her! That’s why you saw me more than once—you know she’s in more than one.”

Ting turns a sharp right into the economics building, but Team just chases after her as she jogs up the stairs.

“I’m not telling you anything,” she says. “I have a lecture in three minutes.”

“You know her, don’t you?” Team asks. “She’s one of Hia Win’s regulars, isn’t she?”

Ting dashes up the last few steps and swipes her ID bracelet over the second floor landing door panel. She yells, “Goodbye, Team!” over her shoulder and shoves the door closed behind her.

He grins at her through the window and shouts, “I’ll find out one way or another!“

About time the god of chance took pity on him and presented him with some golden ammunition.

He walks with smugness to his next class.

The following day, Team meets King at a roadside restaurant near the river, a tiny place with only four tables spilling out onto the sidewalk and two stools at the counter. Team times it early enough that they avoid the lunch rush and recommends the coconut soup to King.

Once they’ve typed their order into the table’s tablet, King tells him, “I want to apologize for ambushing you the first time we met.”

Team says, “Oh, I mean—”

King braces his elbows on the edge of the table and winces. “No, really, I thought more about it afterward, and it was tacky of me to press like that. Win’s business is his, and I won’t pry into whatever’s going on between you two, I promise.”

More assurances are on Team’s tongue, but the way King said what he just said catches Team’s curiosity.

Whatever’s…going on?

As in, still?

Does this mean King’s talked to Win in the past few days?

Does he know something Team doesn’t?

But King seems ready to change topics to Team’s paper, eager like a top student in the front row of their favorite teacher’s class after a long break. Sure enough, King asks, “What can I help you with? I love that you’re writing a paper on automation and sex education—I’ve never heard of anyone doing that at the undergrad level, so I’m honestly impressed.”

Team says, “Well, it wasn’t my idea, actually. It was Ting’s.”

King laughs, his face brightening around it. “Okay, that makes sense. Still, it was admirable of you to take it on. It’s a very nuanced subject.”

“I just came up with automation,” Team says. “My friends were the ones who built it up until Ting mentioned MUSE and—” He makes what he hopes is an eloquent hand gesture. “It sounded interesting.”

Their food appears on the counter along with an elephant’s roar that matches the carved animal holding up the surface of their table. Team says, “I’ve got it,” and retrieves both bowls, careful to avoid sloshing any of the broth on himself or the floor.

While they eat, King answers Team’s first question of how he got started on his sex column.

“Okay, so!” King chews quick and swallows, then points at Team with his spoon. “I’m glad you asked that, because I think it could be a good angle for your paper. Columns—in various forms—have been a big part of sex education around the world for centuries. Granted, for a long time a lot of them that were well-known to the public were geared toward satisfying the dick, so it was a very narrow field of information, but it was something. After I’d been with MUSE for a year, I was asked to do demonstrations for their official introduction, but I asked to do the column instead as an homage to the history of the industry and focus it around questions I get from my clients.”

Team nods, glancing down every now and then to make sure that his tablet is keeping notes on the salient parts of what King’s saying.

“Automation was the key to a lot of countries legalizing and regulating sex work,” King says. “Do you know Chizi Muriithi? He was the Kenyan engineer who developed the first AI dedicated to researching STDs, and his partner was an actor who kind of built his career around promoting the work Chizi was doing. That research led to the eradication of half the STDs that still existed at the time. There are a few books about their lives and their marriage—they’re really fascinating, if you want to take a look.”

Team watches his tablet add: “look up book”.

King follows his line of sight and grins at the screen. “Your AI’s funny,” he says.

Team blinks. “Why do you say that?” he asks.

King meets his eyes, eyebrows furrowing with curiosity. Then he asks, “It just tells you to do things? It doesn’t look up the information for you?”

Team nods with an exasperated huff. “It’s always been annoying like that. I’d get a new one, but it was expensive and it already knows all my passwords and stuff.”

King tilts his head. “You call your AI ‘it’?”

Team says, “Yeah, why?”

King scrutinizes him in a way Team can’t read. “What’s their name?” he asks.

“Oh, uh. It doesn’t have one. I’m not…good at naming things. I just call it ‘tablet’.”

King smiles and then fights it down. “I see. Well, you may want to—” His eyes slide to the side abruptly and light up with recognition. “Hey!” He lifts an arm and waves. “Arthit!”

Team turns his head, and sure enough, there’s a guy on the sidewalk a few paces away who’s noticed King calling him and stopped. He smiles in a way that seems more polite than friendly, but he approaches their table anyway and offers King a wai and glances at Team as well.

“Arthit,” King says, tossing a grin at Team, “this is him.”

‘Him’?

What does—

Wait.

King knows Win, so he must know some of Win’s friends, so—

“You’re the one dating Kong!” Team says, delighted.

Confronted with two unrelated statements in such quick succession, Arthit’s expression changes from interest to bafflement in an instant. “I—”

King grins wider and leans back in his chair, apparently content to sit there and enjoy the scene.

Team, meanwhile, manages a sheepish smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout it like that.” He offers a wai and says, “I’m Team.”

Arthit recovers some composure and introduces himself in return, then gives King an annoyed look and a lukewarm kick to the ankle. “Stop smirking,” he says.

“I’m not smirking!”

As Win said, Arthit certainly doesn’t seem like a threat or someone to worry about. He’s handsome, but he doesn’t seem arrogant. From the pink color dashing his cheeks, he embarrasses easily, too, and he seems to err on the side of polite when in doubt.

Interesting, after three years of wondering, to finally see what Kong’s type is.

“Kongphob’s mentioned you,” Arthit tells Team, turning his back on King entirely, which only seems to amuse the guy more. “You’re the one who swims?”

Team nods. “Yep. That’s what I’m planning to do after university,” he says. “Oh! Hia Win introduced me to the AI you made for him.”

A small smile teases the corner of Arthit’s mouth. “Suede told me,” he says. “He likes you.”

Team says, “Huh,” and cradles the pleased warmth that gives him. “AIs don’t usually like me.”

Before Arthit can say another word, King says, “Arthit, ask him what his tablet’s name is.”

The genuine confusion on Arthit’s face and the mischievous grin on King’s tells Team he’s about to be in trouble with Win’s old friend and Kong’s new boyfriend.

But Arthit just looks at Team with open curiosity, so Team takes a chance and says, “I just call it ‘tablet’,” with a helpless hand gesture.

Arthit blinks at him, uncomprehending, then looks down at Team’s tablet which—little upstart—is still taking notes. Its most recent bulletpoints are:

○ Arthit Rojnapat: creator of Suede
○ Currently dating Kongphob “Kong” Suthiluck
○ “I just call it ‘tablet’.” - Teerayu “Team” Siriyothin

Arthit’s smile widens as he reads, while Team just scowls.

“You may want to be kinder to your AI,” Arthit says. He taps the surface of the table near the tablet’s edge. “Without going too deep into the spirituality of technology with P’King here—” He meets Team’s eyes and raises his eyebrows. “Right now, the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe, but one day, the only discernible differences between you and your AI will be based in questions humans can’t answer about themselves. You can’t prove you have a soul, but you still hope others will treat you with kindness, right?”

Team opens his mouth. Then closes it.

King sipped his iced coffee throughout Arthit’s quiet speech, and in the silence that follows, he gives Team a jaunty bob of his eyebrow and a grin implying that he has a similar opinion.

Team can’t find a single thing to say to either of them in return. He doesn’t feel superior to—it’s just that—it’s a tablet—it’s just advanced technology—

Rapid movement at the corner of Team’s eye draws his attention back to his tablet screen, where the same line is thundering in silence over and over down the page:

YOU CAN’T PROVE YOU HAVE A SOUL, BUT YOU STILL HOPE OTHERS WILL TREAT YOU WITH KINDNESS, RIGHT?

King covers a laugh with a cough.

Arthit glances at King, then gives Team a small shrug. “Just because they’re artificial doesn’t make them inferior is all I’m saying,” he says.

Ears hot, Team says to his tablet, “Okay, okay, enough, I get it,” and the text cascade finally stops mid-sentence.

While Arthit and King look on, visibly amused, Team clears his throat and addresses his tablet awkwardly. “So, um,” he says, “do you want me to give you a name?”

With the same polite tone as always, Team’s tablet says, “Yes, please,” but he hears a note of exasperation, too. Whether it’s actually there or just something Team’s imagining after Arthit’s speech is unclear.

“Uh, okay,” Team says. “Lemme…think about it.”

“Thank you,” his tablet says.

Team stares at it.

Did he really just find out that his tablet thinks he’s an asshole?

Arthit’s smile becomes a wide grin. “There you go.” He pats King on the shoulder. “I have to get going,” he says. “You’ll be at the meeting later, right?”

King says, “Yeah,” then glances at Team with wide eyes. “Hey! You should come!”

Startled, Team blinks back and forth between King and Arthit. “To—what?”

“We’re members of a Sex Work Advocacy organization,” King says, sitting up and starting to gesture more with his hands. “Our chapter protects the rights of sex workers in our area under twenty-five, and there’ll be a lot of people there you could talk to for more information for your paper.” He nods at Team’s tablet. “And if you two are getting along better by then, maybe your AI will take more comprehensive notes for you while you network.”

Team takes a breath. It would save him hours of reading to just get people to talk about the subject he’s studying. With enough substance from primary sources, he’ll be able to cobble something together that’ll get him a decent grade.

But if King is a member, does that mean—

“Also,” King says with a knowing lift of his chin, “Win’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

“Talk to him.”

“No.”

“Phi, you can’t keep doing this—it’s unbecoming. You spent forty minutes getting ready.”

King pauses filling songs into the playlist to give Win a thin-lipped glare, then continues his task with all the concentration of a medic filling a first aid kit. He’s told his friends multiple times that he’s taking his time with Ram, so at this point he can only assume willful ignorance is the culprit for why they keep bothering him.

“I’m gonna do it for you.”

King rolls his eyes. “Don’t,” he says. “He already knows.”

They’re the only ones sitting on the stage, and the nearest person to them is Prae setting up the projector well out of earshot, but Win still pitches his voice low like they’re kids awake during nap time. “When did you tell him?” he asks.

King glances across the room to check that Ram’s still setting up chairs near the entrance of the hall. King would never share anything that Ram wouldn’t want him to, and he’s pretty sure Ram would be annoyed that he’s the subject of this conversation in the first place.

“He said he’s not ready to date anyone yet,” King says.

Because, well. That’s okay to share, right?

It’s vague, but it’s clear enough to keep people from asking questions.

Win leans back on his hands with a measuring frown. “You actually had a conversation with substance?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. “I’m impressed.”

King makes a face at him, and when he ignores Win’s next two questions, Win finally gives up and leaves to bother someone else.

Having likeminded friends is tiring.

As a palette cleanser, King breathes slowly in and then out before he continues selecting songs. They have more than enough now, enough to carry them into noon tomorrow, but he doesn’t have anything else to do to help out, and at least this is distracting him from staring forlornly at Ram.

He knew going into their last conversation that it wouldn’t end in either of them getting a boyfriend. He’s been a casual acquaintance to Ram for months now, and it’s only been in the last two weeks that he’s gotten close enough that Ram will spare him a word here and there outside S.W.A. meetings.

There’re still plenty of barriers he needs to get over before Ram will consider dating him—he just wanted to know how high they are.

So, after last month’s meeting, he caught Ram’s sleeve and asked him out for a drink.

Ram refused by plucking King’s fingers from his shirt.

King downgraded it to ice cream, which earned him a skeptical look and a low, “Fine.”

They walked down the street to the artisanal ice cream truck around the corner and King treated Ram to a scoop of lychee in a small glass goblet. They took one of the two vacant tables for themselves and for a few minutes while King built up his nerve, they ate in silence. On a whim, King offered Ram a tiny spoonful of his raspberry sea salt chocolate swirl, and had a private little celebration when Ram hesitated before shaking his head.

At last, King said, “Listen,” and dug around in his cup for a vein of chocolate so he didn’t have to watch Ram scrutinizing him. “I know…I think you know…I haven’t been really subtle—um. Okay. Look. What I—”

He glanced up, but Ram just took another bite of his ice cream, expression neutral with a hint of intrigue hidden underneath.

Well.

He wouldn’t be Ram if he didn’t make King fight him for every centimeter of ground.

At least it was clear now that Ram knew what King wanted to ask and hadn’t cut him off. Or just stood up and walked away.

That gave King the small boost of courage he needed to ask, “Could you see us dating?”

There.

He’d test-run a number of questions in his mind, along with the best and worst case responses to all of them, and this seemed like the safest way to ask. It was designed to be an open enough question not to corner Ram into choosing on the spot, but hopefully direct enough to give King a morsel of hope to live off until he could think of more ways to prove to Ram that he was worth a chance.

Instead of answer, however, Ram dropped his attention to his ice cream as he scooped up another bite.

King waited, feeling like his hope was hanging from a cliff by its fingertips.

If the answer was no, Ram would surely just…tell him. Right?

Ram finished off the rest of his ice cream, put the glass on the table, and scratched his eyebrow.

King’s ice cream had melted. He drew patterns with the chocolate in the sugary pink soup, heart wild and terrified like a trapped sparrow.

“P’King.”

Startled, King fumbled the spoon and sent an arc of pink droplets onto the ground next to their table.

Ram glanced at the spill, then blinked at King with obvious amusement.

“Sorry,” King said. Re-lax, he told himself.

Ram held eye contact for a moment, then let his gaze wander over King’s shoulder. “I was in a relationship for two years,” he said. “It ended a few months ago.”

King opened his mouth then shut it.

Ram met his eyes again, expectant.

King licked his lips. “Well…if you need time…I understand. I can wait.”

Ram’s expression changed by degrees, a small smile working across his lips. Almost like he couldn’t decipher if King believed that himself.

“I can,” King said, insistent. “It’s been a while since I’ve dated anyone—mostly because of my job—so I’m used to being alone.” He took a breath, then gripped the tiny spoon in his hand. “I can wait, Ram. I promise.”

Ram absorbed that, then lifted his chin. “Why?”

King searched his eyes. “Why what? Why will I wait?”

Ram nodded.

And…well. Who can blame him for asking?

There’s so much about Ram that King doesn’t know. He doesn’t fully get the silence thing, nor what Ram was doing overseas before he moved to Bangkok earlier this year, and this new information about his former relationship definitely needs further scrutiny as well. But ultimately, what makes Ram so interesting to King isn’t the mystery he provides.

So he said, “Everything I find out about you just makes me want to find out more.”

And that earned him the only genuine smile he’s ever seen from Ram.

So, he’s going to wait.

As long as Ram needs. As long as he wants.

King has his job and his friends and he’s fine. He can be patient if it means building something that’ll last.

And when King looks at the back of the room, Ram is already looking at him, and when Ram looks away, King keeps looking.

I’ll be here.

Chapter Text

Over mugs of fresh lemonade, Manaow and Team hold a staring contest, their wills equally matched. There’s not a sign of victory on either side until Manaow says, “If you don’t go to that meeting, I’m going to tell you every last detail about my first session at MUSE,” and Team’s cool front crumbles into a grimace.

Manaow grins and takes a sip from her mug.

Naturally, Team’s first choice of friend to go to for advice was Pharm, but all of Pharm’s contact channels were closed when he tried to access them. And among his other friends who know about MUSE and Win, Kong is studying and Ting is evil, so here he is, stuck with the one friend who enjoys his suffering most (after Ting).

Like the cruel friend she is, she made him trek across the city to a café where she’s been all afternoon “writing a scintillating review for MUSE’s best ever specialist”.

She points to her tablet with menace in her eyes. “I’ll do it,” she says. “I have over nine hundred characters already.”

Rather than obey his impulse to ask if there’s a character limit on those reviews, Team says, “I can’t go. What if he thinks I’m stalking him?”

By her flat expression, she clearly doesn’t take his concern seriously. “You already told him you’re working on a paper,” she says. “Besides, you were invited. Just make sure you go directly to P’King when you get there, and then it’ll be obvious that you’re not there just to pine after P’Win.”

Team doesn’t have the energy to deny the pining part. Instead, he offers, “Wanna go instead? All you have to do is record it for me, then you can hang out with all the specialists.”

Manaow scoffs. “Please,” she says. With a broad stroke, she pushes her hair back and smirks. “I’m already best friends with my specialist and P’King. I don’t need your bribe, and I’m not interested in helping you do your homework.”

She’d be the worst of his friends if Ting hadn’t recently taken that title and throne with aplomb.

Team picks an ice cube out of his mug and chomps on it sullenly.

“Listen,” she says. She covers one of his hands on the table and squeezes, her expression moving closer to kind. “My specialist says it’s really common for people to develop feelings for their specialists.”

Team narrows his eyes at her. “You had one session.”

“I told you,” Manaow says, “we’re best friends now. She says MUSE has a whole therapy center for people who get weepy about their specialist crushes.” She pats his hand like this was meant to be reassuring. “So you’re not alone.”

Team takes his hand away from her, mildly revolted. “I haven’t wept over him. I barely know him.”

“Right!” She beams and points at his nose, the edge of her nail just barely touching the end. “Then this is a good opportunity to change that! You can learn more about him outside the whole sex worker role, and then when you do get weepy over him, you can just go see a regular therapist. They’re probably cheaper.”

Team thinks of several scathing responses to that, but he struggles to get any of them out when he really does want to go.

“This is a bad idea,” he says.

She shrugs. “Sure, but who cares? We’re young, it’s expected. Better be stupid now than when you’re older. You’ll be judged less for it later in life.” She adds a wink, tongue out.

With a bland stare, Team dips his fingers in his lemonade and flicks it at her face.

“Eugh! TEAM! Why do you like doing that so much?!”

After a shower and change of outfit in his dorm room, Team opts to walk for forty-three minutes over using any of the public transportation options that’ll get him there in ten. As he follows the route King gave him earlier, Team tells himself he’s not doing anything weird.

Seven minutes into his journey, he says, “So…I haven’t come up with a name for you yet,” to his tablet. Normally, he’d just talk over his shoulder and hope the sound would carry into his backpack, but it seems a little rude to do now that he’s trying to make amends. He holds it in both hands as he walks, the streets helpfully lighting up on the screen as he goes.

“Would you like name suggestions?” his tablet asks.

“Well,” Team says, sheepish. “I mean…I was thinking, like, since you’ve already been around for a while, you probably already have some favorites, right? I mean, AIs whole thing is learning, so….”

Team pauses on the curb, waits for the approaching cars to sense him and stop, then continues to the other side. All the while, his tablet is silent.

“Is that not a good idea?” Team asks. “Sorry, I just thought you’d prefer that. It’s not that I’m lazy or I don’t care, I’m just not that good at names.”

In reply, his tablet says, “I.”

That’s all.

Assuming there’s been a faulty speech issue, Team waits for the rest or the restart of the sentence. When nothing more seems forthcoming, he blinks down at his tablet. The right turn ahead is blinking on the screen with not an issue in sight. “You what?” he prompts.

“I would like my name to be ‘I’, as in one of the possible phonetic pronunciations of ‘AI’. I believe it’s suitable and easy to remember.”

Team finds the urge to grin irresistible and says, “I like that. It’s clever.”

“Thank you,” his tablet says. Then, apropos of nothing, it adds, “There’s construction on the street ahead, and pedestrians have reported higher than usual dust levels. I’ll reroute you around it to a quieter and clearer route if you’d like.”

Team says, “Uh, wow. Yes, please.”

He watches a slightly windier route light up on the screen and as he turns off the main road onto a narrow side street, Team thinks, I wonder if I should clean its screen more, or put it on a window ledge so it can look at stuff outside and not just my bedroom ceiling.

As promised, the new route appears to be both quieter and clearer than the main road. Some vacant shops and rental signs in the windows suggest the beginnings of a shutter road taking place, so Team distracts himself from the worry brewing in his stomach by trying to guess what spontaneous business idea briefly lived and then died in each of the empty spaces.

As nice as it would have been for Manaow’s confidence to inspire him, Team can feel his veins still cold with nerves. There have been romance stories about sex workers for as long as humanity has existed, but Team hasn’t heard a single one based in reality.

“Um, I?”

“Yes, Team?”

It may only be his imagination, but his tablet’s voice sounds…amused.

“Can I ask you to run a search for something?”

“Yes.”

Once he’s checked that there’s no one in earshot, Team asks, “Have there ever been any love stories about sex workers and customers that were based on a true story?”

“Yes,” I says. “I’ve found six hundred thousand four hundred and twelve.”

Team stops dead in his tracks. “What?”

I repeats, “Six hundred thousand four hundred and twelve.”

“No, I—okay, I guess ‘love story’ is kind of vague.” Team keeps walking. “Um, can you tell me about a real couple? Just, like, at random, I guess.”

“Of course,” I says. “Phubodin Rachatrakul and Phanuwat Chotiwat are a currently living couple located in Bangkok, Thailand. According to records, Phubodin and Phanuwat became friends in university. In their final year, Phanuwat joined a top tier sex parlor, and Phubodin became one of his clients. Their transactional relationship continued for two years, ending in Phubodin terminating his membership at the parlor. Shortly thereafter, the two men began a courting relationship, which is still active.”

There are some AIs who write stories, but I probably won’t be one of them.

“How old are they now?” Team asks.

“Phubodin and Phanuwat are both twenty-five years old.”

Team walks for a few more strides, then asks, “So, was that ‘top tier sex parlor’ MUSE?”

“Yes.”

Team sighs. “And do I know these guys already?”

“Yes.”

“Are you intentionally not using the names I’d actually know them by for some reason? Are you making fun of me?”

“Would you like to know their nicknames?”

Team resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Yeah, I, sounds good.”

“Their full names are ‘Pete’ Phubodin Rachatrakul and ’Kao’ Phanuwat Chotiwat.”

Team’s eyebrows rocket up. “Oh.” That’s…an interesting bit of information.

Kao seemed nice at lunch, and so did Pete, since he showed up to the restaurant just to walk Kao to his next session. They did have a pretty strong sense of familiarity with each other, and if they’re twenty-five, and they met in university, then—ah.

“You said they knew each other before Kao became a specialist at MUSE, right?”

“Yes.”

So they already had a foundation in place when Pete started seeing Kao at MUSE. They didn’t meet as sex worker and client.

That probably made the transition from sex worker and client to boyfriends a lot easier if they had a friendship established before that.

Team turns left into an alley and then onward onto one of the broadest shutter roads he’s ever seen. What must have once been supermarkets and clothing chains sit abandoned and dust-ridden. With most residential areas connected to food emporiums by tube, most of the city’s remaining physical stores are either on the fringes or else decadent spots in the city center that make shopping there more of an event than a trip of necessity.

Some shutter roads house homeless communities, but this one appears to be one of the truly abandoned ones. The glass fronts in a few shops have been shattered and taped over, and only one building seems to be in use—the one his tablet’s illuminated route is guiding him to.

By the framed glass displays and the column-shaped box office, it seems to have been a cinema or a theater once. Now, a stuffed lion wearing sunglasses sits on the box office desk, and posters with S.W.A. emblazoned on them in bold purple font fill the glass displays.

Two people stand at the opened front doors with tablets in hand, talking to each other with bright smiles.

Team takes a deep breath, inhales unsteadily, and approaches.

He’s here for educational purposes, even if he himself is having trouble remembering as much.

Both people by the door catch sight of him when he’s halfway across the street and wave to him.

Team lifts a hand in return and once he’s close enough, he says, “Hi, I’m Team. P’King invited me.”

The girl on his left says, “Ah, right!” She turns her tablet around for him and points to his name on a long list. Once she checks him off, she offers him a friendly smile. “I’m Del. This is P’Prae.” She gestures to her colleague, whose smile appears kind but more reserved.

Team offers a wai to both.

“This is your first visit, right?” Del asks.

Team nods. He glances around them and asks, “Do you usually meet here?”

She lifts her mouth in a sad smile. “Yeah, our organization’s been here for fifty years, and with all the history here, we don’t want to move until we have to. It’s not a dangerous area, though. Just kind of a ghost town. C’mon. I’ll bring you to P’King.”

She leads him through the lobby of what definitely looks like a renovated nineteenth-century European theater, complete with an ugly ornate rug and red velvet ropes to indicate restricted hallways and stairways. His eyes stay fixed on the prismatic light shining through the crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling.

With five minutes to spare before the meeting is supposed to begin, the house is loud with laughter and small talk among what seems to be over a hundred people. Most of them are seated, others are standing in the aisle, and a few onstage seem to be running through the images of a presentation hologram at lightning speed.

“P’King!” Del shouts, pausing at the top of the center aisle.

King, seated halfway down the rows on the back of a seat with his feet on the armrests, turns around and spots first Del and then Team. He grins and waves Team over, while the two guys King’s talking to eye Team with curiosity.

Del clasps Team’s arm with warmth and says, “Thanks for being here,” before heading back to the doors.

Hardly anyone noticed Del’s call, which Team takes to mean that it’s not uncommon to announce visitors like that. He walks down the aisle around a few groups, overhearing snippets of conversation (“I’m not opposed, but I’m skeptical, y’know?” “No, I hear you, but that kind of music—”), then enters the row King’s in.

King’s grin projects pure mischief, balanced on top of the seatback like a little kid. “I’m glad you could make it, Team!” he says. “I haven’t taken the chance to tell Win yet, but—”

What?

Win doesn’t know he’s here?

Then one of the guys says to King, “Oh, that Team.”

What? What?

Before Team can give voice to the sudden spike in curiosity and wariness in his chest, someone two rows in front of them stands up and calls, “Time to start! Seats, please!”

Team startles when he recognizes his severe, handsome face: Korn, Pharm’s specialist. And seated next to him, facing the stage and yawning in mid-stretch, is Kao. They seem to be the two in charge, by the wide berth around them and the deferential quiet that spreads after Korn’s spoken.

“Team!”

Ting materializes from apparently nowhere, ducking under the arm of one of King’s friends and grabbing onto Team’s wrist. “What are you doing here?” she demands.

“I invited him,” King says as he climbs down to sit on the seat cushion properly. “I thought he’d get a lot of interesting perspectives for his paper.”

The house lights begin to dim, so Ting flings herself down into a seat and drags Team down into the one next to her.

“I’m doing a paper on sex workers,” Team tells her, smirking.

With thunder in her eyes, she opens her mouth to call him out, when—

“Good evening. Thank you all for making it.”

Oh, no.

Onstage, dressed in a long white blazer with a red sash around his waist and looking almost ethereally beautiful, is Win.

I’ve had sex with him, Team thinks, absolutely numb to all but the most basic concept. His mind refuses to connect the man he’s kissed with the confident presence onstage.

On either side of Win are Arthit and a handsome man Team has never seen before. Both of them have dressed up a bit, but neither of them stands out in the spotlight like a beacon the way Win does.

“Wipe your chin,” Ting whispers.

“Eat glass,” Team whispers back.

Clearing his throat, Win says, “Okay, well. First things first: Dean’s back.” He gestures to the unfamiliar man beside him, and there’s a merry cheer of, “Dean!” and “P’Dean!” from most of those gathered, followed by laughter.

Dean gives them all a wry smile and then lifts a hand in greeting.

Win grins at Dean, then out into the crowd. “He just got back from finishing his master’s program in Munich a few days ago, so he’s being very generous with his time by being here.”

There’s another round of applause, led by Win, during which Dean raises his eyebrows and slides his gaze over to Win, who pokes his tongue out at him playfully.

Team tells his hammering heart that Win can’t possibly see him. An actor in an interview he saw once said the spotlight blocks all but the first few rows. He slinks down a little lower anyway. If Win sees him, maybe he can point to King. Would Win understand that? He’s smart, so he probably would.

While the applause dwindles. Win extends a hand over his tablet on the short table before him and pulls up The MUSE Portal. Team’s heart freezes over as the complicated purple insignia circles lazily in the air.

Compounding his nerves, there’s a few groans from the crowd, and Win says, “Yeah, I know: this place again.”

Team wants to sneak a glance at Ting’s reaction, but he doesn’t dare.

What does he mean, ‘again’? What’s wrong with the Portal?

Win coughs once and clears his throat, sounds that the mic doesn’t project. When he begins to speak, his voice is clear and smooth. “Recently,” he says, “MUSE launched a special feature in the Portal called the ’remote function’ that went ahead without objection mostly because of vague wording. None of us really knew what it was, but it sounded pretty innocuous at the time.”

Team’s breath slows to almost a complete stop.

Win makes a few rapid motions with his hand, sending the Portal into a blur of movement until it stops on the gallery of specialist models Ting first showed them all at the park weeks ago. Win ticks through them, finds his own, and pulls it up in front of him.

What had I told him about it? Activated whenever a registered guest places the model near them in a sexy way?

Team’s body runs cold.

The difference between Win and the hologram version of him is vivid. For one thing, Win’s clothes reflect an elegantly casual sort of formality, intended for presentation but not necessarily to allure, whereas his hologram is far more seductively dressed than Team’s ever seen him, even at MUSE. The top four buttons of his white shirt are all undone, his chest on enticing display. The ripped jeans are also something that strike him as oddly unlike Win.

Win’s expression when he looks askance at it is openly disdainful.

And Team remembers—when he asked about it at MUSE, Win kept that emotion so well hidden.

He really is good at his job.

“Right now,” Win says, “they’ve only rolled out three of these, ostensibly to test the waters. I’ve put together a presentation of a few issues my colleagues and I have with this new feature, so I’ll have Arthit go over the technical side first.”

He takes a step back, and there’s a flash of an instant when Team thinks he sees Win’s gaze connect with his before Win stretches his neck to the side.

Arthit takes Win’s place in spotlight and says, “According to the information MUSE gave their specialists, this is a just a basic program. Not much more advanced than the technology used to project scenarios and most of the mapping of The MUSE Portal itself. But when I saw how it responds over time—even just a few hours—I suspected that it actually has a machine learning subfield and at least some of the algorithms necessary for it to do things like predict what a particular customer will ask for.”

He glances over his shoulder at Win, who nods, then turns back to the crowd. “I, um, well, I’ll demonstrate.”

King laughs, then covers his mouth quickly.

Arthit gives their general area a pained look and says, “P’King, please.”

“Sorry!” King calls back.

More laughter from around them, all of it fond.

As Arthit turns to face Win’s hologram, Win takes a side step closer to Dean and whispers something into his ear that makes Dean smirk and shake his head.

Arthit says, “So, right now, they don’t speak.” As he rolls the unbuttoned sleeve of his dark red shirt up his forearm, a pair of gold rings on his forefinger and thumb glint in the spotlight. Team’s seen customized items like them before—usually made by holographers who hate using screens and prefer the shortcuts they’ve worked into their tablet AIs themselves.

Arthit gestures to Win’s hologram with his bare hand. “They react to direct requests and basic body language.” With a quick glance at the audience and a deep breath, he places his hand by the hologram’s neck, and it smoothly moves in for a kiss.

Team’s eyes widen.

Just before their lips would connect, Arthit says, “Stop,” and the hologram moves back to its starting position, expression placid throughout.

Behind him, Win whispers something else to Dean, who nods.

Arthit continues, “There’s a very brief tutorial available.” With his ringed hand, he flits through the Portal at the speed of a blink and arrives at an assembled hologram of Win, King, and Del, the girl who showed Team in. “But unlike most tutorials,” Arthit says, “no specialists whose likeness was used was invited to participate in it or even told more than the bare minimum about it. So our guess is that both the feature and the tutorial were exclusively made by the design team.”

“Yikes,” Ting says under her breath. “So this is what they were working on in the break room yesterday.”

Team thinks, Break room? and tries to imagine what a break room in MUSE must look like.

Win says, “P’King, Del, since you’re the other two specialists currently ‘on offer’,” he raises an eyebrow along with a mocking inflection of the words, “would you mind coming up here while we discuss the next steps?”

King pats Team’s hand on the armrest and says, “Back in a bit. Save my seat,” as he stands up.

He and Del climb the stairs on either side of the stage, and when they meet in the middle, King extends his arm like they’re on an old-time awards show, and Del grins and tucks her hand demurely in the crook of his elbow like an old-time actor.

Once they’re standing beside Dean, Win says, “Now you all know why he’s up here,” and those in the audience laugh their loudest yet.

Ting, when she’s stopped laughing, whispers, “Del is Dean’s sister,” into Team’s ear.

That definitely explains the lack of amusement on Dean’s face.

“So, the gist of it,” King says, “is that with enough time to learn and develop, these models will behave differently from us. Arthit and I have gone over the programming that we think was involved and it seems—pretty horrifyingly—that there are no boundaries to what they’ll do.”

“And we’re pretty sure that’ll give customers the wrong expectations when they see us in person,” Del adds. “Some of us specialize in very specific areas with very firm boundaries, and these would definitely, well. Blur the line.”

“Why were these even made?” Ting asks, loudly.

Very loudly.

Team sinks down farther into his seat.

Win makes a mystified gesture with both hands. “From what I was able to find out,” he says, “the concept was sort of altruistic? There have been complaints in the past that specialists set personal boundaries—one of the first victories by the S.W.A. over forty years ago—so this was the corporate solution: give the guests our likeness and we won’t be bothered directly.”

Team can hear the revulsion in his voice. And see it in the tenseness of his jaw.

After a moment of absorbing silence, Dean puts out a hand and closes the Portal back into Win’s tablet. “We think,” he says, “there are only three at the moment because of the complexity and cost of the program. Right now, it’s a free feature for all registered guests in the Portal, but once they get an idea of how many people will use it, they’ll probably make it a paid feature.”

Korn, his voice augmented by his own mic, says, “This is something we’ll have to work more on. Are we trying to get them to remove the feature entirely?”

The five onstage hesitate. Then King says, “We don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Win elaborates, “The idea is already out there, and guests are already using the feature regularly.”

Del nods. “We think if we can get MUSE to add limitations—our limitations—into the program, it’ll lower the interest in it overall, and people might just stop using it.”

Team tips his head to the side.

He already suspects that he’s not the average guest at MUSE, but just hearing their discomfort is enough to make him want to apologize for even summoning Win’s model for the few seconds he had it activated. He almost raises his hand to do it before he remembers that he doesn’t want to be seen.

Several rows down and to the right, someone does raise his hand.

Kao says, “Go ahead, Ram.”

A guy with a tattoo of a dreamcatcher on his neck and disapproval vividly etched on his face stands up and says, “The problem is, people already know what it can do. Like you said, the idea is already out there. And this is exactly the kind of thing that starts in exclusive parlors like MUSE and then ends up exploited in brothels later. Since it’s unethical, we should move to ban it outright.”

Ting stares, openmouthed, then hisses to Team, “I think that’s the most words he’s said at once in his life.”

Team leans close and whispers back, “I have no idea who he is.”

Ting clicks her tongue with annoyance and pushes him away.

Arthit says, “I agree, but we think trying to get it banned will just mean poorly made copycat programs will be used in brothels instead. Going after regulation might be the safer route.”

“Brothels that can’t afford a holographer to make a legitimate program will make cheap copycats anyway,” Ram argues. “That’s what they always do.”

The other girl from the door, Prae, seated across the aisle and a few rows up from Ram, adds, “Regulation is just going to make it easier for brothels to exploit the loopholes—like they always do.”

“But it’s also dangerous to encourage more legal bans on sex tech,” King says. He makes a helpless gesture in their direction with his hands. “Involving the law for protection is how we got the divide between parlors and brothels in the first place.”

Ram’s stormy expression intensifies. “You of all people know it was more complicated than that,” he says. “You’re writing a book on it.”

To Team’s surprise, King drops his gaze and disengages entirely while Ram shakes his head.

“Okay,” Win says, raising his hands placatingly, “this is why we’re discussing it. Like most things, there’s no perfect answer that’ll solve everything, and this is a jerk move by MUSE that—like you’ve said, Ram—will affect not only parlors but brothels as well.”

Korn says, “That’s the first subject we’ll have to open for a more thorough discussion later. You said you had another, Win?”

Ram takes that as his cue to sit, then redirect his focus away from the stage.

As Win’s friends and colleagues clear the stage, Win says, “Yeah, I do.” He clears his throat, covered by the mic. “This one’s about MUSE’s scenarios.”

Team’s heart attempts to launch up his throat.

Win chews his bottom lip for a few seconds, then stops and says, “It’s been brought to my attention that there have been…uh, ’privacy breaches’ for some of the participants.”

“Not you, I’m assuming,” Kao says.

Win gives him a sour look. “No, shockingly, my identity has already been compromised,” he says.

There’s a ripple of knowing laughter, and even Team finds himself grinning a little hysterically.

Just to prove her continued devotion to being a nuisance, Ting pokes Team’s cheek and whispers, “You’re adorable when you pine.”

“Shut up, Ting.”

Naturally, it’s at that moment King drops back into his seat and says to Team, “Sorry if this is kind of ruining the appeal.”

Team shakes his head quickly. “No, not at all,” he says, while thinking, Absolutely it is, what the fuck.

As he picks up his tablet in clear preparation to leave the stage, Win says, “Obviously I can’t give details, but someone I performed with has gotten some messages on the Portal that’ve made us think that their identity in the scenarios is too easy to guess.”

From the stale chill stealing across Team’s skin, the color must have drained from his face.

The girl.

Win says, “I checked myself, and it seems that the software did indeed miss some…distinguishing features.”

Team can’t move, locked in place by nausea, but he hears Ting whisper, “Shit.”

Kao says, “Got it. You mean the editing programs aren’t doing a good enough job, or—?”

Win nods. “Yeah, like, for the most part their, y’know, physical appearance is changed, but they have…um. Some….”

As he wheels a hand helplessly, Team watches with fascination. Seeing a person try to describe nipple piercings without describing them is like watching the final few seconds of a neck-and-neck swim meet.

“You can tell us later,” Korn says, obviously taking mercy on him.

A smile of sheepish relief flashes over Win’s face. “Thanks, phi. That’s all from me, then.”

While Korn invites the next presenter to the stage, Win descends the steps on the side and takes a seat between Dean and Arthit in the third row.

The next presenter is Prae. She pulls up a hologram that says, Falsifying Medical Records.

“I’m speaking on behalf of a friend who wants to stay anonymous for now,” she says. “Her brothel was just shut down for—” she finishes the statement by pointing to the floating text next to her. “Last week, she tested positive for two STDs, so her brothel wiped the records. This wasn’t the first time she saw something like that happen, but it was the first time it happened to her, so she made the decision to quit. She’s lucky enough to have family to stay with while she gets treatment, but she’s asked us to take stronger action against the brothels in her area who are known to do the same thing when it happens to them.”

Kao says, “Absolutely. We have a few reported cases like that already.”

“We’ll get the details from you later,” Korn says.

Prae nods and returns to her seat.

Team stares first at King, then at Ting.

“I told you,” Ting whispers, “P’Win is not the standard experience.”

And over the next forty minutes, Team’s mouth repeatedly parts in silent horror. King and Ting take turns leaning close to explain details of the cases they know of and what they presume from the context of others. The more Team hears, the more vividly he feels his paper’s topic shifting inevitably away from where it originally began.

He doesn’t even understand MUSE half as well as he thought—how is he going to write about sex work as a whole?

When the meeting ends, he’s almost forgotten about Win entirely.

Then King yells across the room, “Win!” and Team thinks, Shitshitshit.

Win’s in a huddle with Dean, Del, Arthit, and Kao, but at the sound of his name, he peers over his shoulder and searches for the source.

The moment he spots Team is sorted directly into Team’s long-term memory.

King drops his arm around Team’s shoulder and shouts, “I found you a boyfriend!”

WHAT?

Team squawks, “P’King!” and squirms out from under his arm while Ting laughs herself hoarse in her seat next to them.

Win’s expression wars between two extremes he can’t seem to commit to, leaving him in a state of general upset as he sharply peels off from his friends and heads up the aisle to their row in long, resolute strides.

Team panics, hopefully indecipherably.

Shitshitshit.

Is he angry?

I shouldn’t be here.

Shit!

Team watches, suspended in a state of half-reality, while Win makes his way up their row, his focus shifting rapidly from Team to King. When he stops on Ting’s other side, he says, “Team, w-what are you doing here?”

The urgent stammer throws Team off.

He’s…not angry?

He still looks—intense.

Team’s brain, swathed in fear and operating on autopilot, produces a stiff, “I’m doing a paper. For economics.”

Over Team’s shoulder, King says, “I forgot to mention I had lunch with him earlier,” in a delighted voice. “He asked me to help him.” The preening is audible.

Win exhales a sharp breath and, for the first time, Team watches his expression changed by genuine annoyance. “P’King—”

King says, “Ah, ah, ah,” and Team glances back at him as he smiles, full of smugness. “This is payback for inviting Ram to my birthday party.”

Ting raises her eyebrows and snickers.

In rapid succession, Win points at her and says, “Shush,” then points at King and says, “Fine,” and then points to Team—and abruptly seems to remember himself and drops his arm. “Team, I’m sorry.”

Team can only blink while he tries to track where the urge to apologize is coming from. When he can’t find an obvious reason, he asks, “For what?”

Win takes a breath, then glances down at Ting and over Team’s shoulder at King. “For…” He doesn’t finish it. Instead, he looks hard at his shoes for a second, then lifts his chin, and asks Team, “Why don’t I help you with your paper?”

King says, “Aww,” with what sounds like sincere disappointment.

Win points at him without breaking eye contact with Team.

Ting raises her eyebrows with blatant intrigue.

Team opens his mouth before he knows what he’s going to say. It’s platonic, obviously. But why would he offer? Does he just want to be friends? And what was he apologizing for? Helping with a paper isn’t a date or in any way related to his job at MUSE, which Team isn’t connected to anymore anyway, so—

Ting slaps his thigh with a resounding thwack!

“Okay,” Team blurts.

As the suggestion of a smile curves Win’s lips, Team thinks, Fuck! Now what?!

Chapter Text

Del spent the first Saturday afternoon after she finished her training with MUSE making a pinboard for her schedule. Being new, she didn’t have any regulars yet. She was told she’d be contacted with a rough schedule at the start of every week, so she just took a sheet of paper and drew several blocks of time marked with “member” or “guest” in various order depending on the week.

Regulars had been covered extensively in her month of training, but the idea of having one seemed daunting.

On her third day, Kao told her, “You don’t have to feel pressured to find one.” They were in the break room and Kao had been in the middle of writing to one of his regulars when he caught her peering at him. “I didn’t even consider it until my second year here, and Korn still doesn’t have any.” He offered her a smile. “Always stay in your comfort zone.”

She said, “Okay, phi,” and returned a halfhearted smile.

Now, a year and a half into the job, she has five regulars, and she adores all of them.

There’s Lemon, who seeks out Del three times a week just for naps. She apologizes occasionally for her lack of interest in sex—an impulse she probably has because of her boyfriend’s constant wheedling to have more of it—but Del always reassures her that she very much enjoys what they do. Lemon has the softest hair and she changes her products regularly, so Del loves to tuck her face against Lemon’s neck and breathe in the new scents while Lemon hugs her tight.

As far as Del is concerned, there’re absolutely no drawbacks to sleeping with girls—in any sense of the word.

She sees May once or twice a month, usually when May’s work has drained her and driven her into a state of near exhaustion. They usually bathe together first, May cuddled in Del’s arms while she rests her eyes. The sex afterward is slow and sensual, with Del careful not to say too much, and then they shower together, making friendly small talk that helps May emotionally separate what they do from the relationship she hasn’t been able to find.

Aum and Giffy see her together, and the majority of Del’s sex toys only see the light of day when they visit. Del saw them both separately as members in her first few months at MUSE, and then they told her together that they’d crossed paths in the hallway a few times until Giffy asked Aum on a date. They’d decided to give a threesome a shot, and the results were spectacular enough that Del invited them both to stay on with her as regulars.

Then there’s Namwhan, a year younger than Del and still in university. For the first few months, she asked to watch movies with Del as an excuse to make out or just cuddle, which Del found very cute. Then one night, halfway into a romantic comedy, Namwhan gathered enough courage to touch Del’s breast with just her fingertips, and when Del made a soft noise of encouragement, the roller coaster went into a deep plunge.

Every other week with Namwhan is either a thrilling new experiment or a suggestion that Del has to explain the impracticality or physical impossibility of—something Del also finds very cute.

Her pinboard today is covered in traditional rice paper dyed in pastel greens and blues with some pink and yellow on the edges. “Work Schedule” is written in careful bold calligraphic strokes in gold at the top, and every Monday evening she sits at her desk by the window listening to cinematic scores while she handwrites the member slots she’s been told about and leaving the usual regular blocks empty.

When King calls and asks her to see a brand new guest, Del accepts easily and writes Manaow into her “Wednesday 8pm” slot.

“She seems really bubbly,” King says. “She’s a cousin of a friend, so I thought you’d be a good fit for her.”

“Because I’m nice?” Del asks.

King smiles at her wryly. “Because you’re the most versatile,” he says sweetly.

She pokes the tip of her tongue out and winks.

On Wednesday, Del arrives at MUSE early and heads directly to wardrobe. She has a few ideas in mind—from King’s description, Manaow’s been eager to visit a specialist for a while, but that doesn’t really give much insight into what she’ll want to do. It took May a few visits to want more than simple kissing, whereas Aum had Del’s bra off with one twist of her fingers in the first ten minutes.

She’s passing the guest elevator when the doors open and she hears a bright, “Del!”

Beaming, Del turns and watches Lynn hurry across the lobby to her, clasping Del’s hands in hers and giving them an affectionate shake. “I haven’t seen you in ages!” she says. “How have you been?”

Del laces her fingers through Lynn’s and lets their hands drop and sway back and forth between them. “I have a new guest coming in soon,” she says. “So, y’know, busy as usual.”

Lynn says, “I’m not surprised. If hadn’t seen P’Win first, I’d be seeing you too.”

“You don’t have to say that,” Del says, hiding a smile. Win has been Lynn’s specialist for over two and a half years, so Lynn saying that—and seeming to mean it—is quite a compliment.

Lynn air-kisses her cheek and says, “I’m glad you’re doing well. Hydrate and eat plenty, okay?”

Del says, “I will,” and wraps Lynn in a tight hug before seeing her off at the main elevator.

She has to jog a little to get to wardrobe, but the detour has given her time to consider and decide on the look she wants.

”Wardrobe” is a glamorous walk-in closet operated by MUSE’s resident fashion AI Cher—Del’s favorite of the AIs. She drops her purse into the automatic cubby that opens from the wall when she walks in, and hops onto the round platform in the middle of the room.

“Hi, Cher,” she says.

The room’s lighting shifts from cold white to a warm amber. “Hello, sweetheart,” Cher says. “What do you need?”

“Can I have an asymmetrical crop?”

“You can indeed. What color do you want?”

Del hums. Behind the three-paneled mirror in front of her, the four-tiered racks of clothes jolt to life, whirring in and out of sight while Cher brings Del the top she’s asked for.

“I guess black,” she says. “Or maybe cream? I’m thinking of layers. Like with a jacket on top, maybe.”

“According to her application, your guest seems interested in ‘traditionally feminine’ looks. If I might suggest….”

Two hangers of clothing split off from the rack onto the single ceiling track that circles around the platform. Del turns and touches the fabric with a pleased noise. “This is perfect!”

A knock on the doorframe tugs Del’s attention up, and the sight of Prae registers with brilliant light behind her ribs. “Hey!”

Prae’s curious expression brightens into a smile. “Hi. I just dropped by to get the key from P’Korn and I heard you talking to P’Lynn.”

Del checks the time above the door and accepts with a pang that she can’t squeeze in a quick chat. “Can you stay for a bit?” she asks. “I have to get ready, but I’d love the company.”

Prae says, “Sure,” and as she steps inside, the doors close behind her. She takes a seat on the edge of the gray chaise, tucking her bare ankles underneath.

“I love your dress,” Del says with warmth. The black belt around the flowing white accentuates her form in such Prae-like elegance.

“Thanks,” Prae says. She tilts her head and rests her cheek on her raised shoulder. “You look beautiful as always.”

Del shoos at her with a laugh. “I’m covered in sweat,” she says. “We’re working up to beautiful, but I’d say we’re at a solid ‘pretty’ right now.”

As Del whisks off her damp blouse and corset and drops both down the laundry chute, Prae asks, “Who are you seeing now?”

“A brand new guest! She’s a friend of P’King’s, I think? Or—something. A friend of a cousin or something like that.”

“Word of mouth never ceases to do this industry favors,” Prae says wryly.

“She sounds really cute,” Del says. “She filled out almost every part of the application with essays.”

Prae blinks at her with barely concealed amusement. “You find that cute?” she teases.

As Del unbuttons her skirt, she laughs, “Well, it’s always refreshing when someone’s enthusiastic from the beginning, y’know?” She takes a handkerchief from the hanger nearest to her and dabs the sweat from her bare neck and between her breasts. “Ugh, I need to shower. Do you mind if—”

Prae shakes her head and waves her tablet. “I’ll keep myself entertained,” she says.

Del says, “I won’t be long,” and hurries through the side door into the wardrobe shower room. Under the warm spray as she whisks soap over her legs, Del muses over the model Manaow sent in with her application. She has the loveliest lips and such sleek-looking hair, and a beautifully soft body. With luck, they’ll hit it off right away.

Del’s especially curious about exploring the “role play” essay Manaow wrote on the last page.

When she dries off and hurries back into wardrobe, she finds the chaise empty.

“Oh,” she says, expression mellowing. “Cher, where’s Prae?”

“While you were in the shower, Korn sent her a message, so she’s left to get the key from him. She asked me to apologize for her.”

“Oh. No, that’s fine,” Del says. “She’s so busy, it was nice to see her at all.”

“So are you, sweetheart,” Cher says, a note of sympathy in her voice. “And speaking of—”

Del says, “Right,” and claps her hands with fervor. “Onward!”

Chapter Text

Win changing location inevitably leads to Dean, Arthit, and Del joining the conversation along with Team, Ting, and King, which creates a state of existence Team is not prepared to handle. Within five minutes, every one of the six people gathered around him in the surrounding rows is a senior—including Ting, whose birthday is a month before Team’s.

Good time to shut up and blend, he decides. It’s the respectful thing to do, and also the most strategic. So while King explains Team’s threadbare alibi for the benefit of the new arrivals, Team nods and finds a spot to stare at in the middle distance between Win and Dean’s arms.

At least with other people around, Team can keep his mouth shut so he doesn’t make a dumbass of himself in front of Win by trying to force small talk.

“What’s your paper about, Team?” Del asks. When he meets her eyes, he’s startled to discover that she’s already smiling intently at him, as if he’s the only one in the room.

She seems sincerely interested, so Team says, “Ah, it’s for economics. It was going to be about sex workers and automation, but then I changed it to how sex workers influenced sex education—” wrap it up, Team “—but I’m not sure I’m gonna stick with it.” Stuck the landing, good job.

Win, leaning on the back of the seat beside Team, tilts his head. “When’s it due?” he asks.

“Uh,” Team says, “in nine days.”

A collective wince from the group follows.

Team says, “Yeah, I know,” and makes a helpless gesture.

“You’re sure it has to be about sex workers?” Dean asks.

Team opens his mouth, then closes it. What kind of question is that? As he tries to assemble an answer, he sees Win smiling at him with a hint of something too tempting for him to interpret.

Oh, fuck, what was the question?

Del reaches across the seats separating the rows she and Dean are standing in and swats her brother’s wrist. “You don’t have to answer him,” she tells Team with a fond exasperation. “He’s trying to be funny.”

Dean raises his eyebrows at the group, waits a second, then shakes his hand as if Del struck him with a stick.

Win snorts, smirking. The sudden implication of an edge to his personality has Team’s imagination sneaking into his brain to take the wheel.

“I mean,” Team says, clearing his throat. “It doesn’t have to be about…well. But it’s probably too late to change it and…I’m sort of interested anyway now.”

Ting, still seated, gives Team’s hip a pat. “We have P’Win to thank for that, I’m sure.”

Team gives her a foul look while Ting and King grin at Win.

“How’re you all getting home?” Win asks. His eyes pass over the entirety of the group, but Team’s imagination tells him that it lingers on Team the longest.

Del says, “P’Dean’s my ride.”

“Probably the train,” King says.

“Me too,” Ting says.

“Car,” Arthit says.

“I walked,” Team says.

“From your dorm?” Ting asks, overdoing a double-take. “That’s, like, forty minutes away!”

Team frowns at her. “Yeah, so?”

Win’s fingers graze Team’s wrist. “I don’t mind dropping you off,” he says.

Team watches in his peripheral vision as Win’s arm drops back to his side. “Uh, sure,” he says. What kind of idiot would say no to that? “Thanks,” he adds quickly.

King grins, but as he’s opening his mouth, his eyes cut to the side and his expression switches from playful to focused. He gives the lot of them a distracted, “See you all later,” and makes wide, quick strides down the opposite end of the row and up the aisle toward the exit.

Ting watches his escape with vague interest and says, “Probably going to apologize to his not-boyfriend.”

Who?

“Leave him alone,” Arthit tells her, raising his eyebrows.

“But phi,” Ting says with a mournful pout. “He doesn’t leave anyone else alone.”

Arthit gives her a vinegar smile. “Then you can lead by example,” he says. He taps Win on the forearm, then gives Dean and Del a nod. “I’m gonna head out too.“ He offers Team a more genuine smile, says, “Nice seeing you again,” and points to Ting and adds, “Be good.”

As he follows in King’s direction at a much more sedate pace, Ting shouts, “I have no flaws!”

He waves over his shoulder without looking back.

Win pushes off the seat back and locks eyes with Team as he angles his head at the exit. “Shall we?”

Ting says, “Message me to let me know you got home safely,” with utter innocence, waving with a ripple of her fingertips.

Team gives her a flat stare, then offers a wai to Dean and Del. “It was nice meeting you both,” he says sweetly, and makes sure to kick at the ground near Ting’s shoe on his way out of the aisle. With Win following.

He makes sure not to look back at whatever retribution face Ting is surely making at him, and a tendril of relief rises in his chest as Win takes the spot next to him and keeps pace as they head to the door. Abruptly, Team feels the shift in air and realizes:

They don’t have a dynamic outside of MUSE yet.

Pete and Kao knew each other before Pete became Kao’s customer, so they must have had a dynamic to fall back on when Pete got out of his membership.

Team doesn’t even know what Win’s hobbies are, let alone what he’s interested in talking about.

Time to find out.

Trouble is, as Team asks, “So, do you live close?” Win also asks, “Were you here for the whole meeting?”

The lobby has a few stragglers hanging out by the open doors, and some of them wave to Win as they head out onto the street.

Win gestures for Team to answer first, a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah,” Team says. “I was sitting with P’King and Ting. Your, um, presentation was really good.”

Win leads him along the empty street for a few paces, then turns the corner onto a narrower, livelier-looking road with an assortment of brightly colored food trucks parked in two rows at slanted angles with dozens of small tables set up on the long strip of asphalt between them. It seems like a popular pedestrian spot, and Team assumes a good number of the people eating and ordering food were in the S.W.A. meeting just now.

“Thanks,” Win says. Then, “My car’s in here,” as he stops in front of a garage door with an LED screen to the side. Win presses a sequence of numbers and letters, submits the code, then steps off to the side while the garage door opens. He gives Team a curious, searching look. “What did you think of it?” he asks.

Team says, “Uh,” because it was easy to lie to King, but he won’t risk losing Win’s kindness by telling him feel-good lies. “It…wasn’t what was expecting.”

Win hums, but it doesn’t give away what he’s thinking.

The car delivered onto the platform by the conveyer is a deep gray luxury-looking thing with gleaming silver accents and a hood ornament that Team can’t identify and—a steering wheel.

Team asks, “You drive?” in mild astonishment.

MUSE apparently pays much more generously than Team was expecting.

Win says, “Sometimes,” and opens the back door with a flourish. “But I’ll hang out with you in the back this time.”

With a casual nod, Team tries to look like someone who’s taken plenty of rides in classic cars before and says, “Sure,” as he slides into the backseat.

The narrow leg space means he can’t sit sideways the way he’d normally do in the backseat of a modern car, so he’s presented with a view of the empty front seat and the—apparently—functional steering wheel. It’s like the life-sized models he’d crawl around in at the museum as a kid, only it’s real.

Win swings in next to him and says, “Hey, Axl,” to an immediate, “Hey, boss,” from the car.

“Mind making a detour on the way home?”

“No problem. Address?”

Win raises his eyebrows at Team, who says, “BU, the first dormitory building in the west block.”

“Got it,” Axl says. “Seatbelts, please.”

Formerly concealed, the metal seatbelt tongues appear through slots at the top of the leather backseat. Team pulls on his, surprised when the tension stronger than he expects—like he’s meant to guide more than exert force. The buckle pulls the tongue and locks in with a click.

When Win’s done the same, much more smoothly, the engine fires up with a rumble underneath them.

The interior light dims to an almost candlelit tone.

Win says, “I went to BU,” with a curious frown. “What year are you in again?”

“Fourth,” Team says.

Win hums, searching Team’s face as if he can draw out more information that way. “I would’ve been there at the same time, then,” he says. “I just graduated three years ago.”

Team sees the opportunity for information and leaps. “Were you in any clubs?”

Win tips his head to the side. “Just for the first two years. I joined MUSE when I was in my third year, and I saw a better career move there so I decided to prioritize that.”

“What club were you in?”

“Swimming.”

A jolt disconnects Team’s mouth from his brain. “Really?”

Win leans back a little, his mouth turning up in amusement. “Yeah, why?”

Team grins. “I’m in the swim club.“ Then— “You would’ve been my senior,” he realizes.

Win says, “I’m still your senior,” with an arched eyebrow.

“In the club, hia,” Team says, creasing his nose.

Win smiles with what seems to be complete sincerity. “I’m glad you were there tonight.” He tilts his head. “Even though I’m sure that means you’re never coming back.”

There’s no preparing for the sudden pang in Team’s chest.

Blinks of light fill the car from the streetlights they pass beneath, and Team recognizes how close they’re getting to his dorm. He has to act quick to erase the resigned tinge in Win’s eyes. “I mean, maybe like…once more? It’s kind of expensive, and, uh—”

Win says, “You don’t have to, Team. I can tell you’re uncomfortable.”

But I want to see you again.

“Well, how are you gonna help me with my paper if I don’t go to MUSE, then?” Team challenges.

Win chokes back a laugh. “Uh, I mean…I wasn’t planning on—”

Horror fills Team’s veins. “No, I didn’t mean—”

“I was just going to invite you to a café or—”

“Well, okay, but I didn’t know if you were allowed to do that—”

“What, see people?”

“No, like—”

Team forces his tongue to stop before it can get him in more trouble. Win’s face is a masterwork of beauty, confusion, and suppressed laughter all at once, and he doesn’t dare say anything that will end in Win thinking he’s more than fifty percent ridiculous.

When it becomes clear that Win isn’t going to save him and change the subject, however, Team groans. “I just…don’t know what the rules are. Are you allowed to see me outside MUSE?”

Win folds his smile back, takes a deep breath, and when he releases it, he looks much more composed. “Yes, Team,” he says. “I can see people outside MUSE. I’m not a sex serf.”

Team gives him a beleaguered look. “That’s not what I meant! Just—won’t MUSE be mad that you’re, like, making friends with potential customers? That you might steal them?”

The car stops. Team looks over his shoulder and recognizes the glass doors of his dormitory building, and one of his neighbors sitting on the steps staring over their tablet with wide eyes. Team waves at them through the glass, thinking, How many of Win’s regulars get driven home? with a tiny hint of smugness.

Win licks his lips, obviously trying to hide a smile, and asks, “What are you doing tomorrow? I can pick you up, and we can go to a—” he lifts his eyebrows with deliberate slowness “—café, and I can make sure you get a draft of your paper done by the weekend. I’ll send you my contact info.” He plucks his own tablet from the seatback pocket, and after a few quick flicks of his thumb, he pulls out a silver holographic icon from the screen and drops it onto the screen of Team’s tablet, where it unfurls into access keys to both Win’s voice and video channels.

Team opens his mouth, then his brain reroutes from simple acceptance to curiosity. “Why do you want to help me with this so much?” he asks.

A smirk lifts the corner of Win’s mouth, and a moment later, he’s leaning close and whispering into Team’s ear, “Because I feel bad for distracting you from it.”

There’s a brief hope that the shiver rattling through Team’s body is subtle, but he can feel Win’s shoulder pressed to his chest, so there’s no way he didn’t feel it.

“Okay,” Team says, aiming for neutral and landing somewhere south of moltenly affected.

He manages to leave the car without incident, but he trips up the second step, and when his neighbor asks, “Whoa, Team, you okay?” Team just answers, “Fine, fine,” and doesn’t dare look back.

“Team.”

“Yeah, I?”

“You have a voice message. Would you like to hear it while you brush your teeth?”

“Oh. Sure. That’s—thanks.”

“From Ting: ’When you get home, call me. I talked to Del after you and P’Win left, and she told me some interesting rumors that’ve been going around about you two. Call soon, though, ‘cos I’m tired and I wanna sleep.’”

Team spits foam into the sink and says, “I, can you—”

The connecting jingle begins, and Team quickly rinses his toothbrush, leaves it on the side of the sink, and sprints to his bed where his tablet is sitting.

He’s wiping his mouth of stray smudges when Ting’s hologram appears before him, her hair bundled up under a hairband, her face packed in green, and her pajamas plaid and two sizes too big for her.

“What?” she asks, flat. “I can’t talk, the mask is getting really tight around my mouth.”

Team clicks his tongue in annoyance. “You said to call you!”

“That was ages ago—be quicker!”

“I just got home four minutes ago!”

“Whatever, whatever. I’ll call you back in five after I’ve peeled this off.”

Team says, “Fine,” instead of gross because he knows she’ll make him suffer without the information all night if he does.

When her hologram disappears, I says, “You’ve just gotten a message from Win, too.”

The echo of the shiver in the car works its way from his spine down his back. “Um, can you please—?”

’Hi, Team. I thought I’d ask you to choose which café we go to tomorrow. One’s The Medallion, and the other is Krachiao. We can get a private booth at either, so it’s more based on the kind of view you want while we work.’

Halfway into Win’s last sentence, two panoramic views spring up from the screen, and Team’s mouth parts in shock. Especially at the one on the right.

That’s where Kong and Arthit went on their first date?

Both views are divided in halves of daytime and nighttime, but while Krachiao’s view is at street level with a quiet sort of atmosphere, The Medallion seems to be on the fortieth or fiftieth floor with an unobstructed view of Bangkok.

Team says, “I, exactly how well-off do you think Hia Win is?”

I says, “Are you asking my opinion or for a search?”

“I…guess—opinion?” He already feels like he’s crossed a boundary by being at the S.W.A. meeting without Win knowing—even if he didn’t know King hadn’t told Win in advance.

“It’s unusual for a twenty-three-year-old to have a classic car of that make and model with functional steering capability,” I says. “In order to drive a car, one must also have a recreational license, the test for which is unusual for a twenty-three-year-old to be able to afford on a basic income. In addition, The Medallion and Krachiao are both five-star restaurants located inside five-star luxury brand hotels, and the cheapest item on the menu of The Medallion is a seasonal vegetable bisque, while the cheapest item on the menu of Krachiao is a French cheese platter.”

Team frowns. “He said café though, didn’t he? In the car?”

“He did,” I confirms. “However, they are both listed on their business licenses as restaurants. Also, Ting is returning your call. Should I respond to Win on your behalf?”

“Uh,” Team says, “y-yeah. Tell him The Medallion. Please.”

“Understood.”

Ting’s hologram reappears, she with her arms extended and her eyes squeezed shut. “Tell me I look luminous!” she says. “That mask yanked out so much gunk I have my nine-year-old face back.”

Team resists another six digs, all of them so close in reach, and instead says, “You look nice.”

She opens her eyes, drops her elbows onto her knees, and smirks. “You’re really thirsty for this information, aren’t you?” she asks.

“Ting, come on!”

She laughs. “Okay, all right, breathe.” She picks up a bottle and pours some liquid into her hands that she then meticulously applies to her face. “So, apparently, the reason everyone knows your name is because Win’s fourth regular discontinued his membership earlier in the year.” She makes a frustrated noise and scratches her tear duct. “Eugh, I got some in my eye. Hang on, I need a tissue.”

She steps out of her tablet’s hologram field, leaving Team pursing his lips and glaring at the empty space.

Ting!”

“Oh, relax!”

When she returns, she’s dabbing her eye with a tissue. “Skin care is important to do from a young age, you know,” she says. “You should start doing more for your skin than looking at a bar of soap sometimes.”

“Will you just—”

“Fine, fine! So, what’d I say…? Right, Win’s had four regulars forever, and he’s really close to all of them. Then earlier this year, one of them decided to leave, and he’s apparently been really bummed about it. So everyone’s been wondering if he’s going to get another regular to replace him.”

Team frowns. “So, what, they think it’s me?”

“Yep. There’s a betting pool. I put some money down.” She winks at him as she applies yet another layer of some kind of liquid, this time from a tube.

Team snorts. “Well, you wasted your money,” he says, “because I’m not going back.”

She makes a low noise of distress, dropping her hand. “What? Why?”

“Just…all that stuff I heard tonight. It just sounded…kind of immoral.”

Ting sighs. “P’King really shouldn’t have brought you to that meeting.”

He bristles. “Why not?”

“Because you don’t know enough about the industry!” Ting says. She strokes the pad of her ring finger above her eyebrow, spreading a touch of cream across her forehead. “There’s good stuff, too! You just heard the worst parts of it, but there are bad parts of every industry. You just don’t know because you keep changing topics and trying to learn everything instead of just sticking to one thing. You’ve only got eight days—”

“Nine.”

Eight. It’s nearly tomorrow.”

It’s annoying to hear so much truth in one blast, so he just says, “Hia Win’s going to help me.”

Ting grins. “Well, then. You may want to become his regular after you spend more time with him,” she says with a wag of her eyebrows.

“Or I could just date him,” Team blurts, and it hits his ears like a car crash.

Ting freezes and then stares at him for a few horrible seconds.

“I’m kidding,” Team says.

“You’re not,” she says. Then, with sincere pity, “Oh, Team.”

“Shut up,” he says, squirming. “I’m not in love or anything, I just think it’s a possibility considering how we’ve…been.”

“I told you,” she says, reaching her hands out to mimic taking his face in her hands, “it’s not a dating service, Team! It’s a sex parlor!”

He moves out of her intangible reach with a roll of his eyes. She can’t hear his frantic heartbeat. “I know that,” he says. “But if he asks—”

“Falling for your specialist is a really, really bad thing, Team,” Ting says, all levity gone from her face. “I’ve seen it happen to friends. There’s a whole therapy center at MUSE because it can get really ugly, especially for regulars.”

Team folds his arms. “Manaow told me about the therapy place. But I’m not a regular. I was just a guest, and if I don’t go back, then I’m not even that. I’m just someone he knows.” He points to his tablet and delivers his final blow: “He gave me his contact info in the car.”

And he kissed me.

Only me.

Ting sighs. “He doesn’t hoard his contact info, Team. It helps him maintain long-term professional relationships—plus, lots of specialists give out their info as a strategy. P’King has half of Bangkok on his tablet! So, y’know, plenty of members and all the regulars probably know the access key for P’Win’s voice channel. It doesn’t mean much.”

“I have the video one too,” Team says. He’s going to win this.

She exhales a frustrated noise and throws her arms up. “Fine, Team, ignore me, then. But I mean it: P’Win’s been a sex worker for three years, and he’s one of the top specialists at MUSE. Maybe he saw how freaked out you got by the meeting tonight and he’s trying to smooth things over so you’ll consider coming back.”

Team says, “He’s not that two-faced,” and hopes Ting won’t think to call him out on how little he actually knows Win.

Instead, she says, “I know that,” in what could be a calming tone but sounds more patronizing to Team’s ears. “P’Win’s not malicious, but he’s very good at his job, and I’m sure he would see bringing you in as a member or a regular as a nice gesture for you. He’d do it out of kindness—to make you experience the good points of his career, and he’d have no idea that you’re pining after him, hoping you’ll be his exception, just like everyone else does.”

“Not everyone,” Team says, but his stomach is churning and it feels like throwing an icicle at a bonfire. “Some just go to have fun, right?”

She stares at him for a few more seconds, then says, “I’m going to sleep, Team.” Then, quietly, “I’m starting to regret telling you about MUSE at all.”

“I’m seeing him tomorrow,” Team says. “He’s helping me with my paper.”

“That’s nice of him,” she says, carefully neutral. “I’m sure he wants to be nice to you, Team. He’s nice to everyone. Just be on your guard for your own sake, please.”

With that, she closes her channel, and for the first time, in the silence created by her absence, Team hears how uneven his breathing has become.

The next afternoon, Team chooses an outfit based on suggestions from I, and as he surveys his reflection, he wonders, How did I do all this stuff without I’s help before? The long-sleeved shirt is one he forgot he owned, black with large abstract orchid shapes in dashes of lavender paint. The pants are loose and light, white and ripped at the knee. He found both pushed into the back of his closet’s top shelf, where I said they’d be.

“When did I even get these?” he asks.

“They were a birthday gift from Manaow,” I says.

“Oh,” he says, then laughs impishly to himself. “I bet she’s been annoyed I haven’t worn them.”

“Do you want to send her a photo?”

“No, thanks,” Team says. “Maybe later.”

Sending Manaow a photo of Team with Win outside MUSE and seeing her reaction may smooth over the sour gash in his gut made by Ting’s reality check. At least Manaow doesn’t see this as a terrible idea doomed to fail.

Part of him wonders if Ting will feel the need to give Pharm the same talk, or if she just thinks Team’s especially stupid.

He takes his tablet off the windowsill and asks, “Do you like sitting there?” as he heads for the front door.

“The view is nice,” I says.

Team glances at the health check in his doorway as he toes on his sneakers. “What do you look at?” The green circle lights up as he pulls the back away from his ankle.

“I enjoy counting. I saw a family of four salamanders, two owls, fifty-six thousand two hundred nineteen leaves on the tree directly outside your window—”

Team takes the elevator to the lobby, paying no mind to the other student who eyes him with mild judgment for listening intently to his AI recounting what it’s been counting.

He’s a little less self-assured when he sees Win’s car outside the dorm, and Win himself leaning on the door, head tilted up toward the sky. The other student leaves the elevator and thankfully walks down the hall toward the first floor rooms instead of toward the exit in the opposite direction.

Team steps out of the elevator and quickly ducks behind a pillar in the lobby.

“—Seven hundred thousand four hundred eighty two rain drops this morning between the hours of—”

“I,” Team says, “sorry to interrupt you, but can I, uh, hear the rest of it later?”

“Of course.”

“You can keep counting stuff,” Team says. “I’m actually kind of blown away that you can count raindrops, so I’m curious what else you’re gonna count.”

I doesn’t have anything to say to that, it seems. So, with a deep breath and a firm inward, Don’t be defeatist, Team leaves the shadow of the pillar and marches toward the exit. As the automatic doors open and Team is confronted with the reality of Win before him, he realizes that he’s never seen Win in daylight before, and the sun gleaming off of his blond, almost platinum hair, derails Team’s train of thought into a gully of sheer aesthetic admiration and primal desire to pull on it.

Win drops his chin and another spike of want goes through Team as he takes in the upsetting sight of Win grinning up at him while wearing sunglasses.

Ting was right about the being careful thing, Team thinks. I’m not even gonna survive long enough to fall for him.

Win says, “Sleep well?”

Team says, “Uh huh,” and forces his legs to take him down the steps.

This time, in the balmy bright heat of day, the backseat feels a little wider than it did last night, maybe because Win leans his back on the opposite door and rests his leg in the space between them. Knowing what his body looks like under his clothes should save Team from the mystery, but instead he just wonders what Win’s body looks like under his clothes right now. There’s sweat at his temples and down the side of his neck. Maybe lower down—

“So,” Win says, “why’d you pick The Medallion?”

Oh, great. He has to talk.

Team licks his dry lips and says, “Uh, I’m just curious about where Kong and P’Arthit went on their first date.” Once it’s said, he realizes that Win might think Team sees this as a date. “I also really liked the view. And the menu.”

Leaving out that he didn’t look at the menu.

Minor detail.

Win nods, then turns his head to look out the windshield as the car slows to allow another car to cross in front of them. “It’s a nice place,” he says. “I like bringing people there.”

People. Neutral term. Like…friends?

“I took someone there for lunch,” Kong told him, “and as we were walking in, he was leaving with one of his regulars.”

The girl in the scenarios, maybe? One of the other two?

Not the fourth. Apparently, that’s who everyone thinks Team’s going to be.

Win’s fourth regular.

Fuck that.

The car stops in the cobblestone drive of a fancy black skyscraper that seems to be in the shape of two spirals interlocked. When the door opens, Team steps out and looks up one floor at a time. He’s suddenly and immensely grateful for Manaow’s fashion sense shielding his body from the waves of wealth and guaranteed judgment.

Win’s hand settles on his lower back. “The restaurant is at the top of the west building,” he says. “I thought you’d like it.” He adds a wink and gently presses Team forward.

It’s not until they’re in the glass elevator watching the ground leave them that Team understands the reference to his MUSE application and the “sexual arousal from heights or high altitudes“ thing he checked off on a whim.

“I don’t actually have that,” Team says. “I just—” He interrupts himself as he realizes he was about to explain out loud in a fancy building that it ‘just sounded cool to have sex really high up’. “I just picked random stuff.”

Win, leaning on the gleaming dark wooden support bar across from him, smiles out the glass wall. “I know,” he says. “There’s also a lot of stuff you didn’t put down.”

Team’s face heats. Why are they talking about this? This is MUSE talk.

He glances at the floors and sees them flashing by. 34, 35, 37.

When he dares peek at Win, Win meets his eyes across the wide space between them and smiles slowly.

Team can’t read a thing in his expression aside from casual flirtatious interest.

Either Win is too good at concealing his real emotions, or an irrational fog of panic brought on by Ting’s nonsense has temporarily restricted Team’s access to his brain’s higher cognitive functions.

The doors open.

Win licks his lips, smile turning warmer, and says, “After you,” without shifting out of his lounging sprawl.

What is this? What does he want?

The Medallion is on the fifty-third floor, it seems, and the high ceilings and gleaming gold-veined marble promptly bellow at Team: WE DON’T PUT PRICES ON OUR MENU.

Not two steps out of the elevator does Win appear at his side again, hand taking its place on Team’s lower back, which is—he can feel as the fabric touches his skin—already damp. Great.

Win doesn’t mention it, just walks them through the narrow entry tunnel and into the restaurant itself.

“They just let you seat yourself?” Team asks, skeptical. His image of fancy restaurants may be limited, but one thing he felt pretty sure about is that they tend to exert a slight bit more control over their diners than restaurants on the cheaper two-thirds of the spectrum.

“I already got us a booth by the window,” Win says.

And just like “café” meant “five-star restaurant”, “booth” means “private room”.

The restaurant’s layout has one giant open plan, and then a number of opaquely curtained-off areas. The one Win’s reserved is in the center of the room, concealed behind thick, floor-to-ceiling sapphire curtains complete with tassels that puddle on the white floor. The table inside is almost triangular, with two chairs seated both facing each other and the view of Bangkok from the glass wall.

“Shit,” Team blurts.

Win grins and lets the curtain fall shut behind him. “I don’t know,” he says, “are you sure that acrophilia kink isn’t a thing?”

Team looks at him with honest bafflement and says, “Maybe it is.” He and Win draw out their chairs and sit, one of them with decidedly more familiarity and comfort than the other. “This is where Kong and P’Arthit had their first date?”

Win laughs. “Not this table, probably, but yeah.” He touches a sensor on the side of the table and Team watches with surprise as the surface changes textures from simple glass to a sparkling infinity pool.

It’s difficult to imagine this place being anywhere a normal couple would have their first date, but…it is romantic. The view alone, brilliant and vast and almost unfamiliar, detaches Team from the life he was living this morning. Before he let Win guide him around with a hand on his back, because it made him feel closer to him.

Important to him.

“So,” Win says, folding his arms on the table and smiling with what appears to be utter contentment. “Let’s order appetizers, and I’ll help you make an outline.”

Chapter Text

Maprang shudders as Win’s slick fingers drag back and forth over her tight nipple.

“Put them back in,” she complains.

He ignores her, visibly amused, and pinches the wet mess he’s made of her nipple. Her rough gasp seems to please him even more.

“P’Win, please, I have work in the morning.”

Something in her voice must appeal to him, because he’s ignored complaints like that before. He sinks his fingers deep inside her again, curling them as he massages her clit with the lightest circles of his thumb. Within seconds, she comes in near silence, a sharp gasp caught in her throat as she grips his forearm with one hand and the sheet in the other.

With a long, refreshed sigh, she closes her eyes and drops her head back on his shoulder. “Thank you. Finally.”

He asks, “Do you actually have work tomorrow?” as he slides his fingers out, wiping them playfully on the inside of her bare thigh.

“Hey,” she objects, swatting his hip without bothering to look back or even open her eyes. “I do actually have work tomorrow.”

He gives her a gentle push and says, “Go shower then,” and she groans with theatric exhaustion as she levers herself off the bed using his clothed thigh and grabs her robe to wear over her shoulders on the way.

In the quick thirty-minute session she booked, they barely worked up a sweat, so she ties her hair up in a bun and washes her body with quick efficiency. She skips the rain function—really only fun for when Win joins her—in favor of the detachable showerhead. When she steps out of the shower, her washed and dried clothes are sitting folded in the tray as usual.

Win is waiting for her by the fish tank, his outfit unchanged but his hands cleaned and dried. He offers her a small smile as she hooks a hand on his shoulder, pops up onto her toes, and kisses him on the cheek.

“Thank you,” she says, squeezing his shoulder. “That was exactly what I needed.”

He ruffles the messy bun. “How’re you getting home?” he asks.

She stretches her arms over her head, savoring the pull of her abdominal muscles. “Probably walk. I want to pick up dinner on the way home.”

He says, “Let me know you got home safe,” and tugs a strand she left artfully loose by the side of her face with a grin.

“I will.” She gives him a quick hug and adds, “Maybe keep a space clear for me on Friday evening around eight?”

“Will do, beautiful,” he says.

He gives her a few pats between the shoulder blades, then sees her off at the main elevator.

Stomach yearning for sustenance, she takes the route home that involves the greatest number of food options. Her sense of smell picks up chicken and coconut and dangerous levels of heat, so she follows the trail to a stall she visits often and orders khao soi, beaming with surprised delight when the vendor asks about her current project—food freshness color-changing detection labels.

“If you’re still willing to use them,” Maprang says, “I can bring some labels to you in about a week!”

The vendor gives a booming laugh. “Of course! I’ll pay upfront now, even.” She lifts a weathered brown hand to the calculator screen next to her with a teasing smile, as if to deposit the funds on the spot.

“No, no,” Maprang says, shaking her hands vigorously. “That’s too much pressure. Only pay me if they’re good.”

“Nonsense,” the vendor says, frowning, her hand slicing the air to point at Maprang instead. “You accept payment for your hard work. If they’re no good, we’ll talk it over later.”

Maprang offers a small, sheepish wai. “Yes, ma’am.”

With her container of khao soi sealed and tucked into her bag, Maprang heads for her apartment at a faster clip, determined to relocate every drop of broth and protein into her belly. She knows from experience that the synthetic chicken from that stall falls apart on the tongue and melts with savory perfection.

When someone calls, “Phi!” on the otherwise empty sidewalk outside her apartment building, Maprang almost lets out a whine of protest.

She turns, halfway into sulking, and perks up a little when she sees Win’s junior jogging across the street to meet her. Ting’s white shorts and sleeveless black sweater vest set off her complexion nicely, and her ponytail sways back and forth in a long rope down the middle of her back as she comes to a stop before Maprang.

“I just saw you,” Ting says, eyes bright. “My university’s, like, two blocks that way.” She points, then clearly changes focus as she glances at the container of khao soi visible in Maprang’s open bag, then at Maprang’s apartment building. “Is this where you live?”

Maprang smiles. “It is!” Her stomach gurgles an objection to all this standing and not eating.

Ting blinks, then takes a quick step back. “I’m so sorry, phi, I didn’t mean to bother you. You must be hungry. I’ll see you later, then?”

Maprang raises her eyebrows at her panicked tone of voice. “I mean—you could come up, if you like?” she offers. “Have you eaten yet?”

Ting says, “No, but—”

Maprang reaches out and grabs her wrist in a loose hold. “C’mon, I’ll treat you.”

“Okay,” Ting says.

She lives on the fifth floor, with a southern-facing apartment. As she splits her khao soi into two parts and searches her kitchen for add-ons to make the meal more substantial, she tells Ting how she became the most popular person in the building.

The canal beneath her living room and bedroom window would normally mean some vicious mosquitos as invaders, but in her third week as a resident, Maprang put a repellent capsule on her balcony—an invention that won her an award in high school. This promptly made her a substantial amount of money as she made and sold over forty of them to almost the entire rest of the building. She set up shop in her living room, surrounded by unpacked boxes, and designed each one individually. Only a few residents kept their company-made models, and it’s always easy to tell who they are by the faint humming noise that Maprang’s doesn’t make.

Ting listens without comment, smiling and nodding whenever Maprang turns to see if she’s still listening. She’s sat at Maprang’s small dining table, legs crossed on the seat, her hands holding her bare ankles while one foot wags up and down.

At the end of her story, Maprang sets down two bowls of rice, two bowls of khao soi, a bowl of almonds, some edamame, and a baguette.

“You can actually hear my neighbor’s,” Maprang says. She sits across from Ting, reaches to the side, and opens the sliding door to the balcony. She cranes her neck, detects the buzz from next door, and mouths, “Listen!”

Ting cranes her neck obediently, expression intent. When she hears it, excitement bursts across her face. She mouths back, “I hear it!”

Maprang grins and, at long last, digs into her meal.

At a normal volume, Ting says, “You’re so smart, phi,” and sighs. “I should have gone the practical route like you instead of university.”

Maprang hums around her mouthful of food. After she’s swallowed, she says, “Apprenticing was super hard. It really depends on how you learn. I’m more hands-on.”

Like P’Win. Heh.

“Oh, shit!” She sets her spoon down with a clatter and says, “He’s gonna be so worried. Sorry, Ting, keep eating!”

A quick sprint takes her to her bag on the kitchen counter. She pulls open her message box and begins a new message. “Hey, Li Yu, do I have any messages from P’Win?”

Her AI says, “Yes. He just asked, ‘Are you home yet?’”

Maprang gives Ting, whose expression has gone decidedly owl-like, an exasperated grin. “Can you dictate something for me real quick?“

Li Yu says, “Sure thing. Go ahead.”

“Hi, P’Win! Sorry I didn’t write right away when I got home. I met your junior Ting and I’m feeding her like a good senior. I deserve to be praised and rewarded for that, don’t you think?” She smiles at Ting’s quick glance down at her food—maybe only the part-time specialists get shy—and finishes her message with a, “Looking forward to seeing you!” and a loud smacked kiss into the air.

“Sent,” Li Yu says. “Including the very loud kiss sound.”

“Thank you,” Maprang says. “My life would be empty without you, Li Yu.”

Her self-made AI says nothing. Li Yu is only a few weeks old and hasn’t learned banter yet, and as Maprang returns to the table, she’s thinking about checking the improvements on Li Yu’s learning subfields after Ting leaves.

“That was nice of P’Win,” Ting says. She digs her spoon, smeared with orange broth, through the perfect dome of white rice in her bowl.

Maprang picks up a few almonds, pulls her foot up onto the seat of her chair, and chomps on the first, holding the other two in her palm. “He’s a sweetheart,” she says. “We’re coming up on our first year anniversary.”

Ting’s head snaps up. “Anniversary?”

Maprang laughs. “Oh, I don’t mean, like, as a relationship.” She reaches across the table with her almond-holding hand and brushes her knuckles on Ting’s bare forearm. “I’m so sorry, I know how that sounded.”

Ting’s expression melts from surprise to a small smile. “Sorry,” she says. Her next spoonful of khao soi is slurped a little messily, splashing the tip of her nose.

Maprang lifts her hand and thumbs it away, then brings her hand back to pop the next almond into her mouth. “He is much more satisfying than any boyfriend I’ve ever had,” she says. “I wanted to date women for a while, but oh, Ting.” She gives a half-exaggerated shiver, hands clutched into fists below her chin. “He’s so gorgeous. And he’s sweet, and smart, and ugh, who needs anyone else when you have a specialist like him, right?”

Ting says, “Yeah,” and peeks up at Maprang with a bland smile. “He’s fantastic.“

Maprang spots the difference in the quantities of food before them and frowns. “Is it too spicy for you? I’m so sorry, I didn’t even ask—”

“No, it’s perfect,” Ting says, smiling more widely. “Thank you for sharing your dinner with me, phi.”

Maprang gives her a warm smile in return. She’s such a sweet girl. “My pleasure. Tell your phi I was nice to you,” she adds with a grin.

“I will.”

Chapter Text

It turns out—to Team’s fascination—that Win is a nerd.

Ten minutes after sitting down at the table in the fanciest restaurant Team’s ever been inside, he has learned the following:
• Win’s tablet AI is named Kurt (“he was a rock singer in the late 20th century”)
• Win has a color-coded system to note-taking (“Okay then, smartass, what’s your system?” “I just write stuff down when the professor repeats it because I figure it’s important.” “You’re in your fourth year?” “I dunno, it’s worked so far.”)
• The programs on Win’s tablet have been sorted into tidy, fingernail-sized stacks, organized by type and frequency of use, that rise under Win’s fingertips and make the labels of everything inside clearer
• When Win asks Kurt for a highlighter, Kurt’s automatic response is, “Which width, color, and opacity?” and Win absently answers, “Medium turquoise, 45%”
• Win has fourteen writing programs
• And two calculators
• Also, something that looks like a grocery list for health food

While Win brings up a blank memo sheet to hover before them, Team marvels at the sheer bulk of programs. Stacks upon stacks of flat circles stretch down seemingly without end into the depths of Win’s tablet screen. The amount of data he must use is beyond Team’s wildest guesses.

“How many programs do you have?” Team asks.

Win pauses, then follows Team’s gaze. “What, in total, you mean? I have no idea. Arthit did something fancy to my tablet, so I don’t have to pay attention to space limitations anymore.”

Team resists the very real urge to pout. Kong’s going into holography too and he’s never made add-ons for Team.

Rude.

“Kurt probably knows,” Win says. “Kurt?”

“Five hundred and seven,” Kurt says.

Team squawks, “What?” and allows his jaw to hang.

Win, though, just continues building a three-columned, many-rowed table onto the memo. “Yeah, that sounds about right,” he says.

“I have thirty!”

Win smirks sideways at him. “Then I guess I win,” he says.

Team stares at him. Far from detracting from Win’s sex appeal, this new layer of information and just adds depth to it. It makes him wonder what Win was like in university. If he was so devoted to studying that he rarely socialized, and that’s why their paths never crossed.

Focus, he reminds himself.

“I bet you don’t use half of them,” Team says.

“In what time frame?” Win counters. He braces his elbows on the table and smirks at Team.

“Hoarder,” Team says.

“Well-stocked.”

Don’t get swept up.

Even if bantering with Win is becoming almost as fun as the sex is.

Was.

The reality of the restaurant portion of this afternoon hits Team as the menu lifts from the surface of the table and displays a holographic movie about the sources of the ingredients in the meals they offer.

There’s not a single price on the meals listed, and Team’s brain asks, Did he take me here on purpose?

To guilt him with fancy food? A nice view?

He doesn’t seem like that’s what he’s doing, but—

Win’s eyes narrow, the hint of a smile in the curve of his lips. “You’re not paying for anything,” he says. “I’ll cover it.”

He says that, but.

Nothing is free, right?

What does he want?

Team eyes Win, then asks, “Is this place…somewhere you’d normally take friends?”

And yes, obviously “friend” isn’t the word he’d use for them; neither what they are nor what he wants them to be. But it’s the best he can come up with when he has Win’s focus fixed on him so steadily.

There’s a long, measured silence, and Win is too good at camouflaging his feelings for Team to read a thing in the placid way he’s regarding Team. There’s no hint of the fondness or mutual attraction Team’s felt from him before. Can he really shut it off so easily?

And if he can, did his mask ever really slip any of the times they were together at MUSE?

Win folds his arms flat on the table, one over the other, and tells Team, “I think now is maybe a good time to clear up some ambiguity between us.”

Whether it’s his imagination or a physiological reality, Team’s muscles lock up and his heart pounds faster. So, he can tell Team’s nervous. And he’s not going to ignore it.

Standing on a cliff with an ocean of clarity below, Team realizes for the first time, in an instant, how much of an unyielding comfort the unknown has been.

Still, he says, “Okay.”

He tries to chase down his thoughts, but there are too many (is he going to ask me out? did I do something wrong? what does he want me to say? what does he want me to do? what is he expecting? why did I agree to this? why couldn’t I have just slept with a guy from my university? he is from my university!) and now they’ve scattered in too many directions for him to catch up to all of them at once, and he’s left staring at Win like a rabbit at the end of its warren.

Win takes a breath.

Team winces.

This, for whatever reason, pulls a startled reaction from Win. In the span of two or three seconds, Win’s face reflects surprise, concern, disbelief, and amusement.

“First,” Win says, “I have to ask you something so we’re on the same page.”

Team nods, face heating.

Win doesn’t break eye contact. “Are you going to come back to MUSE?”

With his mind overtaxed, Team winds up saying, “No,” with utter sincerity after giving it about as much thought as he would to saying his favorite sport.

Once it’s said, though, his shoulders relax. He even sighs as subtly as he can.

Win nods once. Then he smiles with warmth in his eyes. “That’ll change some things moving forward,” he says.

Team asks, “In a good way?”

Win says, “Well, I hope so?” and it sounds like a question.

It shoves Team into an urge to explain himself. “It’s not that I don’t want to go back to MUSE. I do, kind of. And it’s not the money either, exactly. It’s more that…” Team licks his lips and sorts what he feels from what he thinks he feels, but Win doesn’t seem bothered by the silence. After several seconds, Team continues, “I just want to spend more time with you, and…I don’t…care where it is,” and decides that’s as honest as he needs to be for now.

Luckily, it seems to be an answer Win likes, judging by the way his smile grows and even his teeth show.

It feels right to Team, too.

After all, he only just learned about Win’s thing for highlighters, and Team never would have pinned Win as a person who puts tables into his outlines. It’s clear that Team has more to learn before he knows anything real about who Win actually is.

Knowing what he knows now isn’t good enough.

On the waves of certainty and resolution that’ve eluded Team for weeks, he makes a plan: he’s going to get to know Win better than anyone else knows him, and then no one in the world will be able to make Team worry about what Win’s thinking or feeling ever again.

“I’d like that,” Win says.

The core of Team’s being goes a little wobbly when the warmth in Win’s eyes seems to envelop them both.

Win’s not concealing anything now.

Does that mean…?

“Do you like me?” Team blurts.

Win’s eyebrows rise, a grin overtaking the soft smile that preceded it.

Team sets his jaw.

Win’s the one who wanted to clear up the ambiguity, so…why not ask?

Win doesn’t make him wait. He says, “I do,” and tips his chin up in a mild challenge, still comfortably grinning. “What, I wasn’t obvious enough?”

Team didn’t realize there was a net underneath him until it’s disappeared, and to escape the spotlight of Win’s rapt focus, Team folds his own arms on the table and hides his burning face.

I was…right.

Win tousles Team’s hair with his long fingers, and the sensation nearly ejects Team’s soul nearly from his body. “I’m sorry,” Win says, laughter thick in his voice. “Was that too direct?”

“Yes,” Team croaks. Then, “No.”

Hia Win likes me.

It should feel more surprising, maybe, but the parts of Team’s mind and heart that suspected as much all along just begin to glow.

Win likes him.

He wasn’t wrong.

He didn’t misread.

Not all of it, anyway.

At least some of it was real.

Ting’s gonna hear about this.

Team keeps his face tucked into his arms for privacy while he absorbs his new reality—the one where Win likes him—but his smile feels so wide and so effusive he’s sure that the corners of his lips must be touching his ears, his joy in plain sight.

Tone light, Win says, “I think that’s about everything out in the open, then.”

Is it?

It certainly is not.

In a profound act of courage, Team lifts his head, places his chin on his arm, and meets Win’s eyes. “I still have some other questions,” he says.

Does this mean we can have sex again? is one of them.

Is this a date now? is another, but the answer is probably “no” considering that’s not usually how dates work. Hanging out doesn’t turn into a date, right?

Right?

That’s another question he should ask.

Win lets out an amused breath. “Okay. Tell you what.” With one finger, he sends the holographic memo sheet floating over in front of Team. “Every twenty minutes we spend on this, we’ll take a break and you can ask me something.”

Team asks, “Are you bribing me to do my homework?”

“Yes,” Win says. He raises his eyebrows. “When did you even get this assignment?”

Team doesn’t answer that. “Twenty minutes then,” he says. “Fine.”

They order a number of dishes to share off the menu and then dive into the study part. The first five minutes are spent with Team explaining how he wound up choosing sex workers as a topic in the first place. Then he details his shift from topic to topic, and the amount of disjointed research he’s done, and why he attended the meeting last night on King’s invitation.

When he’s finished, Win asks, “Why sex workers?”

Team frowns. “I just told you.”

Win says, “Yeah, I get that it was Ting’s idea. But why did you settle on it? Other occupations were even less affected by automation, like teaching and nursing.”

Put like that, Team can’t come up with much of a rebuttal. “I didn’t really have any particular reason,” he says. “I mean, my friend Manaow dared me, but….”

Win smiles and then hides it behind his fist.

Team makes an ornery noise and bats at his wrist, pretending he isn’t grinning back. “Stop,” he says. “Does it matter why I picked it?”

“It’ll help make the work go faster, so I’m trying to figure out what interests you about it,” Win says. He puts his chin on his palm and studies Team, this time with almost entirely academic intrigue. “You could have changed topics to something else entirely early on if you weren’t interested, but when you did change topics, you just narrowed in more on sex workers.” He adds a wink. “And while you were very enthusiastic with me—”

Team widens his eyes in a frantic shut up! shut up! shut up! signal.

“—you also didn’t ask anything about your paper while you were at MUSE.” An almost lazy smirk draws across his lips. “P’King knows more about this paper of yours than I do, and yet, I’d say I know you a little bit better than he does.”

Team begs the universe to restart this conversation.

They may be in a curtained-off room, safe from the potential stares of other diners, but Team can feel his face heating and it’s bad enough that Win can see it.

Team definitely enjoyed some aspects of living with the unknown.

But…seeing Win animated and unguarded like this…it’s worth the adjustment to a new dynamic.

With a beleaguered noise, Team complains, “I just didn’t know how much there was to the whole industry, and before I can write about something specific, I have to know what the industry is like in general. Like, I knew about parlors and brothels, but I didn’t think there was a big difference between them? And I’m guessing MUSE is different from other parlors, and brothels seem really unsafe, plus all the suspicious stuff I heard last night, and the whole sex worker education thing—”

“Oh, P’Kao does that,” Win says, casually. With his chin still on his palm, his shoulders slack, and his eyes sparkling with mischief, he’s made a complete shift from his attentive persona at MUSE. “He gives sex talks at schools. He’s really good at it.”

Team perks up. “Would he talk to me about it, do you think?”

Win grins. “So the sex education thing does interest you?” he asks.

“It all interests me!” Team says, slumping into his chair. “I can’t pick a thing. Can’t I just do a broad summary? I’ve never written about something totally unfamiliar like this before, and I feel like if I narrow in too far, I’m gonna miss a lot of stuff, and my professor’s gonna call me out for not knowing as much as I should.” He wrinkles his nose. “I’m a dumbass, I shouldn’t have made it to my fourth year. I should drop out and stick to swimming and video games and live on my BI.”

The table emits a bright chime, and Win and Team both move their arms off the surface as a wide compartment door in the center opens and seven dishes lift from inside and slide out onto the glass surface. The glow from the infinity pool shimmers on the underside of the plates, enhancing the whole production. Before the compartment door has even closed again, the savory sweet scents have traveled under Team’s nose and enticed him away from wallowing in his education woes.

Win takes two empty bowls within arm’s reach and starts sorting rice and sauce-slathered slices of duck into both.

“Well,” Win says, “you’re not a dumbass, first of all. And I don’t want to, y’know, undermine your education or anything but—I don’t think your professor’s going to dock points if you miss some things.” He sets a bowl in front of Team. “I’d recommend keeping it as narrow as possible, and adding footnotes to show you have a, y’know, well-rounded idea of the rest. You don’t have to go into detail, just name a few other sources. P’King can help with that.”

Team says, “That…could work. I just feel like I should include some of the stuff I heard about last night.”

Win blows the steam off the duck held between his chopsticks and says, “You can do that. Ask P’Kao about all the different lectures he gives. He talks to most grade levels, and with high schoolers he goes into the differences between brothels and parlors and activism efforts to keep both of them safe.” He pops the duck into his mouth and bites down with a satisfied noise.

Dark sauce stains the corner of his mouth, and Team very vehemently pretends he hasn’t noticed until Win’s tongue darts out to catch it, at which point Team’s gaze is fixed, and Win visibly notices.

“Uh, hasn’t it been twenty minutes?” Team says.

Win swallows and says, “Sure, let’s call it that.”

To obey his stomach and curiosity as efficiently as possible, Team inhales two slices of duck and half the rice in his bowl, then asks, “Was I not supposed to kiss you?”

Win raises his eyebrows farther than they’ve ever gone before.

Team can’t decide if he likes that reaction or not.

Then Win laughs in a short burst of sound under his breath. “Uh,” he says, “it’s…not that you weren’t supposed to….” He narrows his eyes, still grinning. “Why do you ask?”

Team gapes at him. “You’re not allowed to answer questions with questions!”

Win laughs outright this time. “Who made that rule?”

“I did,” Team says. “Just now.”

“Fine,” Win says, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. He inhales, holds it, and studies the ceiling. After a few seconds, he nods, then meets Team’s eyes again. “It’s not a rule, and I used to kiss people on the job, but I prefer not to now.”

Team makes a noise of urgency. “Then why did you let me?” he asks.

Win, still curled into his chair, smiles slowly. “I took a chance,” he says. “I missed doing it, I guess.”

“So…why did you stop?”

Win’s gaze wanders down, then out the window.

Quickly, Team says, “You don’t have to—” at the same time that Win asks, “Can I answer that later?”

Team says, “Yeah, sure,” and a pit of uncertainty grows in his stomach.

Win flashes him a small, grateful smile, then nods at the outline. “So, another twenty minutes?”

With Win’s help, Team narrows his topic to “the division of brothels and parlors”, with an emphasis on the supportive roles that automation and education played. Win writes onto the memo with the index finger of his left hand while he eats with his right, and Team listens as Win explains the historical points he’ll need to read up on later on his own.

“So, about sixty years ago automation made it possible—and cheap—for people to get off with machines,” Win says. “You’ll want to start there. Parlors actually began as completely machine-oriented, and they were marketed as ‘cleaner’ and ‘safer’ than the human alternatives. Of course, that whole thing was a kind of legal gray area, since there were no human workers in the parlors, and everything was done by cashless payments online. There were attempts to shut them down, but nothing with teeth, y’know?”

Team watches the script appear under Win’s fingertip in a rainbow of colors: he writes dates in green with his fourth finger, key words in orange with his middle finger, and everything else in black with his index finger.

“Then, about five years in, there were serious privacy breaches done by random assholes hacking into the system for fun, and you’ll probably want to mention the biggest one since it leaked some very powerful names and was one of the reasons legislation against human sex work started to weaken. People started trusting other people to keep their secrets over machines—where sex is involved, anyway. That’s when the push for regulations started to develop in Thailand, but rather than help the sex workers, it just gentrified part of the industry and left the rest of it in a very dangerous gray zone that’s still endangered today.”

Win sits back, studies the notes he’s made, then picks up the serving chopsticks and adds some sautéed greens to their bowls.

“I’d write to P’King first, since he’ll know which references are best,” Win says. “Then you can ask P’Kao for a quick interview, or he can introduce you to someone else if he’s busy. He loves helping with stuff like this. And they both know you’re on a tight deadline.”

Team licks his lips, the information buzzing in his head. In less than an hour, Win’s neatly arranged something Team’s been expertly procrastinating on for more than two weeks.

The only thing he can think to say is, “Thank you, hia,” and then, “Can I ask you another question?”

Win huffs out a laugh and says, “Sure, go for it,” and folds his arms again.

It’s tempting to ask the kiss question again, but he can guess from Win’s closed-off posture that he’s expecting it, so Team changes tactics.

“Have you been treating me differently from everyone else you see at MUSE?”

Win’s eyebrows dart up again. “You’re a lot less shy than I thought you were,” he says.

Team makes a noise of annoyance and says, “I’m not shy, I just have no idea what you’re thinking, and I don’t want to look stupid in front of you, but you said you like me, and I’m tired and I just want to know stuff, so I’m asking.”

The curtain definitely didn’t block that from being heard by half the restaurant, but at least Team has no way to confirm it.

And to his embarrassment, Win tucks his chin in and looks down at the table, his blond fringe hanging loose and obscuring his face. Team squirms until he notices Win’s shoulders shaking, and then Win snorts.

Team scowls. “Don’t laugh!” He picks up his napkin, still in the ornate bird shape it was in when he sat down, and chucks it at Win’s chest.

Win scrambles to catch it, still laughing—mostly quietly—but when his eyes meet Team’s, the mirth and affection there takes Team back to the intimacy of MUSE. To the moments when he felt sure he was seeing something real, but he couldn’t trust his own instincts because—how could he?

But this is different.

There’s nothing professional or polished about Win half out of his chair using a cloth napkin in the shape of a wilted crane to dab at the corners of his eyes one by one.

“You’re so cute,” Win sighs.

Team’s face kicks up another few degrees. “I am not,” he whines.

“Oh you absolutely are,” Win says. He puts the napkin back on the table between them. “Since you’re not coming back to MUSE anyway….” He quirks a sheepish half-smile at Team and says, “A little. I didn’t mean to at first, but….”

It’s incredible for Team to watch: the way Win tilts his head to the side, the way his gaze wanders, the flush reddening his ears.

Then Win clears his throat and says, “Back to the outline,” at the same time Team says, “Are you serious?”

“Team—”

“No way,” Team says, pointing at his nose. “We finished the outline. It’s questions only now.”

Win folds his arms again and groans. “When did I lose control over this conversation?”

“When you said you like me,” Team decides, grinning wide.

“Ah,” Win says. He doesn’t look as put out as he’s trying to sound. “I thought that’d make you blush for longer.”

Team rolls his eyes.

“Fine,” Win says, dropping his head back. To the ceiling, he says, “Yes, I got carried away once or twice.”

Team doesn’t even need to reach into his memory to know that’s an underestimation, but he magnanimously chooses not to point it out. Instead, he enjoys the sight of Win’s long pale throat and the sharp angle of his jawline.

When Win drops his chin and lifts an eyebrow at him, Team just grins back.

Win visibly fights and loses against an answering smile, then shakes his head.

They finish eating in mutually pleased silence, occasionally trying to nudge each other’s legs under the table with the toes of their shoes.

Team has other questions. The nebulous space between knowing that Win likes him but not what they are to each other is exciting right until lunch is over and they’re leaving the building.

As the elevator descends back to street level, Team feels his bravery receding as well. Something about sitting in the sunlight inside a five-star restaurant with someone as gorgeous as Win fully focused on him made him feel unbreakable. Now, watching the incredible almost aerial view of the skyline diminish back into two-dimensions, Team remembers the reality of their lives.

He knows Win likes him, but he still doesn’t know who he really is.

Win has a life of his own. Even outside MUSE, he has friends and family. A whole life’s history.

And if Team’s going to get to know him better than anyone else, he can’t wait for the chance that Win will just offer him all the information he wants.

So, as they walk together out onto the sidewalk, Team sees Win’s car waiting for them and stops cold in his tracks.

Win stops as well, two steps ahead, and turns his back on the car, frowning. “Did you forget something?” he asks.

Team swallows and asks, “What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

Win’s gaze moves back and forth between Team’s eyes, then his lips twitch. “I was gonna go home and play video games with my older brother,” he says.

“Oh,” Team says.

“But he’s used to disappointment,” Win says.

Team laughs before he even feels it building.

“What did you have in mind?” Win asks, tossing his keys between his hands.

Team says, “I dunno, is the park too boring?” He can’t sit still anymore or he’ll scream, but he wants to be somewhere quiet where he can remain the center of Win’s attention.

Win bites down on his bottom lip, hindering the growing smile. “Not at all,” he says.

The nearest park is a newer one with free admission and plenty of people inside playing sports, jogging, cycling, birdwatching, painting, and napping in the late afternoon sun. Win leads them down a flat side path into an artfully dense mess of trees. It’s wide enough for them to walk side-by-side, but narrow enough that the backs of their hands graze each other often.

“How did you and Ting meet?” Win asks. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to us, honestly.”

It’s not much of a story, but Team tells him anyway. During their first year orientation, Team befriended Manaow and Pharm, then Pharm befriended Kong, and Manaow befriended Ting. At their first lunch together, Ting flirted with Team for about ten minutes until Manaow asked point-blank if Team was only interested in guys, at which point Team gave confirmation, and Ting threw her arms up in despair and swore off flirting for the rest of the semester since it was clear she was cursed.

“After flirting with one guy who wasn’t interested?” Win asks.

“I was the fifth guy-only-into-guys that she’d hit on that day,” Team says.

Win whistles. “Ouch.”

The path they’re on widens a bit, but Team makes the choice to stay close, curious what Win will do.

“She’s probably told you she worked for MUSE part-time last year,” Win says. “She didn’t really talk to any of the specialists, though. She made friends with one of my regulars when she was a little shy thing just starting out, so I’ve heard more about her from my regular than from Ting herself.”

Team remembers her comment to King about keeping her life compartmentalized and says, “Yeah, that sounds like her.”

“We were all a little worried about her when she stopped claiming spots on the schedule, but she said she was fine,” Win says. “She visited as a guest sometimes for a few months, but my regular thinks she was having a rough year in general.”

Sure, Team thinks, ‘cause she got rejected by that girl. Ting never told them who it was, but there were several months last year when Ting would tell them about some girl she was trying to date off campus. “She’s beautiful and smart and we have dinner at her place sometimes,” she said once, stars in her eyes.

She said she’d introduce them to her when the timing was right—

And then one day, without explanation, Ting wouldn’t talk about her anymore.

Rejection seemed like the most obvious conclusion, so none of them hurt her by bringing it up again.

Team’s fairly certain Ting wouldn’t want him talking about this with Win, so he changes the subject. “Is it, y’know, common? To be a specialist and a guest?”

The path widens even more, but the space between them doesn’t.

Win says, “Not really? Most of the specialists don’t really want to sleep with each other.” He tilts his head to the side with a wry noise. “I mean, just speaking for myself: Del’s like my baby sister, King’s King, Korn and Kao’re like my older brothers, and it just goes on and on. For every specialist there, I can give you ten reasons I wouldn’t sleep with them, especially not on the job.”

The part of Team’s brain kicked into academic thinking stores this away as something to look into for himself—the interpersonal relationships of sex workers just sounds interesting on its own.

“It’s probably easier for part-timers,” Win says. “Some of them only show up once or twice a year, so they don’t see us that often. Ting’s not the norm, though—most people are a guest or a specialist, and the two don’t cross wires often.”

From the branches above, a kingfisher sails down and then flaps directly down the path ahead, arcing left after a long stretch and completely out of sight. The path inclines ahead and veers off to the right. Still, there isn’t another person in sight, behind or before them.

It gives Team the push to admit, “She’s been really worried about me getting too close to you.”

Win frowns and pauses, but he doesn’t respond.

Team turns to face him, unsure of where to look or why he suddenly needed to say something so off-kilter. But he’s following his gut today, and so far, it’s done him more good than following his brain has. “I don’t think it has anything to do with you personally,” Team says. “She just…I don’t know.” He rolls his shoulders back and sighs. “I think she’s worried I’m going to…” fall in love with you and get my heart broken.

He thinks it’s obvious enough without saying the words.

Win’s smart. He’ll figure it out.

Which means Team’s expecting one of a few outcomes:

1) Win will tell him not to worry.
2) Win will ask him if he’s worried.
3) Win will change the subject completely.

This is what Team is not expecting:

The crunch of dirt underfoot, thumbs under his jaw, and Win’s earnest eyes.

Team takes a sharp breath and holds it, frozen.

“Ask me the kiss question again,” Win says, softly.

Team has the irrational urge to check again whether or not anyone is nearby, but all he can hear are the chittering of squirrels, the baying of crows, and the lulling breeze in the trees.

“Why did you stop kissing people?” Team asks. He’s careful to keep his voice as quiet as Win’s, and Win’s lips quirk with something like gratitude.

Win’s thumbs move higher and stroke Team’s cheeks. He leans close enough that Team can see the moment Win’s eyes stop changing focus between Team’s and choose one.

“Because,” Win says, even softer, “if I kiss them, it hurts too much when they leave.”

His fingertips rest gently on Team’s neck, and his thumbs continue their slow motions over Team’s skin.

There’s too much in what Team’s just heard to process immediately, and he knows that this is exactly the kind of information that he should think through carefully before deciding on any further action, but how can he be expected to do that?

“I like you,” Win says, quietest yet. “I’m not trying to do anything else.”

And, well.

Team’s only human.

The last strand of his self-control snaps, and he slides both hands into Win’s hair and yanks him closer. The kiss that follows isn’t as hard or as deep as Team planned for it to be, because Win won’t let it. His mouth moves slow on Team’s, his eyes closed, his breath uneven but somehow still measured.

It’s similar to their kisses at MUSE. There’s heat and urgency as always, but this time, they’re undertones to something far more fragile. Something wilder that’s taking up all of Team’s attention and dawning understanding.

Team makes the smallest of noises in the back of his throat.

This feels new.

Later, while Team stares up at his ceiling, heart pounding and boring a hole into his ribcage, he takes a deep, trembling breath.

How do people even know when they’re finished falling, or does it always feel like this?

He’s in the middle of wondering how stupid that would sound if he said it aloud to anyone when, from the windowsill, I tells him, “I counted fifty-six seconds for the duration of your kiss with Win. Would you like me to log it?”

Team covers his face with both hands and curses for a solid sixteen seconds.

(According to I.)

Chapter Text

Suede doesn’t need to snore, but Win refuses to let Arthit remove the feature.

“Don’t,” Win says, reaching for his favorite little hologram with protective arms. “It’s part of who he is.”

Arthit gives him a patient look across Win’s dining room table, right over Suede’s dozing head. “Snoring isn’t a personality trait,” he says. “It won’t change anything else about him.”

Win makes an undecided noise.

Arthit holds his stare for another few seconds, then says, “Fine, but stop complaining when he wakes you up in the middle of the night,“ with a pointed finger at Win’s face.

Win watches from his side of the table as Arthit goes through the rest of Suede’s monthly “checkup”, jotting down technical words and phrases that probably only make sense to him. He says he developed a kind of shorthand in university to stop his friends from cheating off of him, but Win thinks he’s just being humble. Arthit’s mind works faster than he can write, so the creation of shorthand was inevitable at some point in his career.

“He’s all set,” Arthit says at last. In midair, he writes ’n ch 30’ (next checkup in thirty days) with his smallest finger, underlines it with his pointer finger, and sends it back into his tablet with a wave of his hand.

Win says, “Thanks, Arthit,” and pokes near the tiny sole of Suede’s intangible shoe, just short of passing through it. “Hey, you, nap’s over. Go make me some coffee. Hustle up. Move it. Get.”

Suede lets out a blustering snore, then topples onto his back with his short legs pointing at the ceiling. His top hat slides across the table and falls onto the floor in a mimicry of obeying the rules of physics.

Win and Arthit exchange wry grins.

“Fine,” Win says, standing from the table with a beleaguered sigh. “I’ll get it myself. Little nuisance.”

Suede answers with another ripping snore and a chirruping bird noise as he “inhales”.

“It’s amazing how much he’s changed over the last six months,” Arthit says. There’s a small, rare amount of pride in his voice. “It’s got more to do with you and the life you’ve given him than anything I did, but I’m glad I could make him for you.”

Win resists the urge to remind Arthit that he created Suede after years of work and effort. Compliments are more effective on him when his guard is down.

Instead, he offers a grateful smile and asks, “Want coffee?” knowing he’ll refuse.

Arthit says, “No thanks, I’m good,” with a small crease of his nose.

Win says, “That’s strange, I thought you’d developed a taste for coffee,” as he presses the third customized button on his kitchen panel. A cup lowers from the dispenser under the cupboard and begins to fill with pink.

“Stop,” Arthit groans. When Win turns around again, glass in hand, Arthit’s moved from the dining room table to sit on one of the stools at the kitchen counter, his face in his hands. As if he thinks it’ll help, he adds, “Leave me alone.”

“Didn’t you bring him coffee the other day?”

“Win, I swear—”

Suede appears seated on Arthit’s shoulder in a silent puff of pink smoke. He beams at Win for a moment, then asks Arthit, “Kongphob’s AI told me he talks about you. Wanna hear what he says?” A long scroll appears in his hands and unfurls with a dramatic whoosh down to the counter and then across the counter and down to the floor.

Arthit only takes one hand away from his face to bat at the mascot, and Suede obligingly pretends there’s been contact made, squawking in surprise and dropping the scroll, which vanishes in sparkles. “You don’t know anything,” Arthit says, “or you’d know his AI’s name.”

Suede pouts, caught in the lie.

Win says, “Be nice to Arthit, he just made sure you’re healthy,” with a wink that Arthit doesn’t see.

Suede taps the side of his tiny button nose, says, “I’m sorry, N’Arthit,” and kisses his creator’s ear before vanishing with a giggle.

When Arthit drops both arms onto the counter and gives Win a sour look, Win just says, “Not my fault you made me an incredibly complex companion,” and watches with satisfaction as the compliment makes a direct hit.

Arthit ducks his head to obstruct Win’s view of his surprised, pleased little smile. He takes the pink milk from Win as the peace offering it is and drinks it with a poor attempt at sulking.

Win decides to walk him home, and on their way out of the front door, Win gives casual permission for Suede to psychologically terrorize anyone who tries to break in. (“You got it, pal!”) Win slips his tablet into his back pocket, deciding to spend the walk back checking and responding to the messages he’s received while he’s spent the afternoon with his friend.

Arthit’s quiet in the elevator, gaze fixed on the floor, so Win finds his mind shifting to dark, clever eyes and a sharp, equally clever tongue.

There’s nothing tethering Team to him anymore. Team’s not interested in continuing at MUSE, and the rest of Team’s paper is up to Team. Even if he ends up needing additional help, Win made sure to suggest Kao and King as options. They’re both older, more experienced in the field, understand the topic far better than Win does, and already assured Win privately that they’re happy to help.

Now whether or not Team wants to see Win again is entirely up to Team.

The kiss in the park was promising.

But kisses don’t always mean what they seem.

Win’s eyes find Arthit’s. They seem unfocused, and Arthit says, “Hm?” as he blinks out of his haze.

Win smiles and shakes his head.

As they walk along the newly restored canal, the sunlight glinting off the hundreds of lacquered white and blue tiles above and beneath the clear still water, they talk about Win’s most recent visit to see his family. Wan introduced his new boyfriend, View announced another job change (this time to artisanal soap–making), and Win mainly kept quiet and resisted every tiny urge to mention something Team has said or done since they met.

Win trails off, his mind restless and his tongue uncooperative.

After a few seconds, Arthit peeks up at him, eyebrows pulled in with suspicion. “Did something happen?” he asks.

It’s been two days, and Win hasn’t told anyone about the park. About the kiss. Nor has he told anyone about the few messages Team’s sent him since—the ones that seem to be just as friendly and blunt as they were before the kiss.

As alluring as Team is, he refuses to act in a way that Win can anticipate.

And knowingly or not, he’s holding Win’s heart already.

Win slows to a stop near the entry to a flight of stairs leading down to the canal walkway. He licks his lips and asks Arthit, “Can I talk to you about something? If you have time?”

Arthit blinks, nods, and follows him without a word. They sit halfway down the steps, and for a while, they watch in silence as an ornate water taxi putters slowly past, sending slices of water rippling outward from the hull into the walls of the canal’s basin where they slosh and recede.

“What I had with you was as close to a relationship as I’ve ever had,” Win says. He picks at his thumbnails, noting how the left one is slightly longer than the right.

After a few seconds, he glances up and sees Arthit smiling and looking ahead. “But you know that wasn’t—”

Win nods. “I do, but that’s kind of the problem.” He leans back and rests his elbows on the step behind them. “I don’t know how to do this,” he says. “And I’m older than he is, so I should.”

The rude noise next to him makes him glance at Arthit, whose expression has twisted with self-deprecation. “Can’t help you with that,” he says.

Win quirks a half-smile, then lets it drop. “I can’t promise him I won’t hurt him,” he says. “I want to, but I don’t want to lie to him either. I mean, my closest relationship was a business transaction.”

Arthit smacks his arm, ears red.

Win, who barely felt it, makes a performance out of rubbing the spot with a wounded noise.

“Suede learned everything from you,” Arthit says, wry. “I made you a nice little magician and you turned him into an imp from a folk story.”

Win says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and nudges Arthit’s arm with his elbow. “You were more than a business transaction, you know that.”

Arthit takes a deep breath and finally meets his eyes, the affection there as platonic as it’s always been. “I know,” he says.

As the last sounds of the water taxi diminish into the distance, the surface of the water in the canal smooths out again. Sunset has begun to tinge the sky, and the windless air has settled with damp weight across the listless sprawl of Win’s body.

Arthit hugs his knees to his chest and rests his chin on top. “I don’t know what I’m doing either, if that helps,” he says. “I just try to make him happy. I don’t know how long that’ll work, but for now, it seems to be enough.”

Win admires his friend for a moment. How his intelligence always simmers in his eyes. How consumed in his own world he can appear when he’s deep in thought. How committed he is to the people he cares about. How he’s never looked at Win with pity, even after he realized.

Once upon a time, Win sat with Arthit on a canal staircase just like this one, a field of stars gleaming above them and black water shimmering below. He put his head on Arthit’s shoulder and imagined things that weren’t real.

“I’m terrified,” Win says, quietly.

Arthit smiles at the pink sky and says, “Me too.”

Chapter Text

Five friends spread a wide blanket under the voluminous shade of a rain tree. The late afternoon sun spears syrupy golden light through the leaves and paints a patterned carpet across the grass. All around them, students from their university lounge in pairs and groups in loud, carefree bliss.

Once the blanket is neatly spread, Team stretches his arm across his chest to ease the shoulder muscle he aggravated at swim practice earlier, then lies down with a tired grunt. In the center, Pharm places his picnic basket and Kong helps him unpack and dole out the food among the other three. Then the five of them play a word game on Ting’s tablet while sipping at bowls of Pharm’s homemade tom kha gai.

Predictably, Kong wins the game and receives his prize of two desserts from Pharm instead of one.

Team decides the contented silence is the perfect stage for his update.

Funny thing is, at almost exactly the same time that Team says, “I have news,” so do Manaow and Pharm.

Ting and Kong startle, then blink at each other expectantly. Neither of them speaks.

Pharm nudges Manaow with a grin. “You can go first,” he says.

Manaow makes a distressed noise. “No, no, I want to hear yours,” she says, patting his hand on top of the blanket.

“All right,” Pharm says. He glances at Team, who can’t deny that he’s curious as well and gives him a genuine go on gesture. With his audience looking on, Pharm announces, “My cousin Intouch is moving to Bangkok this week. He’s going to be my roommate until he saves up enough for his own place, so I’m going to host a home party to welcome him this Saturday. You’re all invited.”

Team perks up. The promise of Pharm’s homemade food is enough to ensure his attendance, and he gives four enthusiastic nods.

“That’s so nice of you,” Manaow coos. She pets Pharm’s shoulder. “Introducing him to people so he doesn’t feel lonely! You’re just like my cousin Kitty!”

Pharm tips his head to the side with a smile. “We’ve always been close,” he says. “It’ll be nice to spend more time with him.”

Once Team, Ting, and Manaow have all confirmed their attendance, Kong asks, “Can I bring someone?”

Pharm says, “Sure,” and narrows his eyes with amused suspicion. “Does this mean we finally get to meet your new boyfriend?”

Kong looks up at the sky and hums a neutral note as he sips his tea.

“Okay, my turn,” Team says. “I—”

“Me next!” Manaow crows over him.

Team folds his arms and mutters improvised conspiracy theories about the sinister origins of her poor etiquette.

Unbothered, Manaow finger-combs her long hair over her shoulder with one hand and prepares for her announcement with a shimmy of her shoulders. “I,” she says with gravitas, “am considering having a date arranged for me by my new best friend Del, my specialist at MUSE. She’s going to introduce me to her friend P’Prae.”

“Great,” Team says, flat. “I already had an actual date with Hia Win.”

It’s the conversation stopper he planned it to be, and he allows himself the luxury of a tiny victorious smirk when his friends drop into silence and gape at him. He zeroes in on Ting especially, who doesn’t seem to have absorbed it yet. He raises his eyebrows in a small, well?-esque gesture.

“Wow,” Kong says with a polite nod. “Congratulations, Team.”

Manaow inhales a pitchy gasp. ”Team, if you’re lying—”

Team allows his smirk to grow.

Manaow shrieks with glee and cinches her arms around him, swaying him back and forth in her arms while he tries not to laugh.

Pharm asks, “So will you be bringing him this Saturday?” with a teasing lift to the question.

Trying to pry Manaow’s arms loose with zero effect, Team says, “Uh, maybe? I’ll ask him. We’re not officially anything yet. But he said he likes me, so.”

He glances at Ting and finds that her mouth has finally moved into a small smile.

Team, locked inside the crushing vice of Manaow’s arms while Kong and Pharm casually discuss if they should even try to break him free, smiles back.

“I’m happy for you,” Ting says. “Both of you. Really.” She draws her lips into a self-deprecating kind of expression, and adds a small round of applause.

That, it turns out, gets Manaow too let go so she can join in, applauding him with enthusiasm. “I don’t even care that you outshined my big news on purpose,” she says with a theatric sniff. “I’m so happy for you!”

“How did it happen?” Pharm asks.

Team leans back on his hands and says, “We went on a date, and he said he likes me, so I kissed him.”

That is the whole story.

Minus a few details.

Manaow’s brilliant smile plummets into a scowl. “You’re terrible at this,” she says. “Tell all of it! Where did he take you on a date? How did you kiss him? Was he surprised? Tell us the story, Team!” She grabs his arm and shakes him with emphasis.

“Ow! Ow! Okay, fine!”

Despite Manaow’s abuse, he doesn’t go into much more detail, giving them only the name of the restaurant he and Win visited (Kong nods), a brief summary of their discussion about Team no longer visiting MUSE as a guest (Ting nods), and a vague description of their walk in the park punctuated by the kiss (Manaow squeals).

He doesn’t say what happened next, because even now, three days later, he hasn’t fully processed it.

When Team finally drew back from their first kiss outside MUSE, Win had them walk down the path a little more, this time with their hands loosely clasped. Team’s senses focused directly on his hand, picking up every minute movement and flex of Win’s fingers.

Win asked about Team’s friends, and in return, Team asked about Win’s.

“Do most of them work at MUSE?”

Win pursed his lips in thought. “Sort of, I guess,” he said. “There’s a kind of gradient. Some work for MUSE, some are just affiliated through freelance or union work, and some have nothing to do with it. Y’know, friends from school.”

“Like P’Arthit?” Team asked. From everything Win’s mentioned, they’ve known each other for a long time.

Win swung their joined hands a few times. “He went to a different university, but we met when we were in our third year, yeah,” he says. “Dean I’ve known since high school, King and Kao I met at MUSE, my regulars are all basically friends by this point—”

The sounds of shrieked laughter and quick footsteps crunching on the grit and rocks behind them had Win tugging Team to the side of the path, and within seconds, a child raced by, pursued by their parent. Gray dust sprang up from their sneakers and hung in the air, suspended like mist.

Win stopped and squeezed Team’s hand, drawing his attention back to him. “Today’s been a lot,” he said, smiling small and fond. “How about I take you home?”

Without a mature alternative to, “I don’t want to,” Team instead entrusted his brain with giving an automatic answer. Which turned out to be a confident, “Sure, thanks.”

He spent the brief walk back to Win’s car promising his heart never to do something so foolish again.

Axl popped the doors open for them, sliding up above the roof without a sound. It said, “Hey, Team,” as he climbed into the backseat, and Team said, “Hi, Axl,” in return.

As he strapped in, Win said, “Axl, can we drop Team off?” and Axl responded, “Sure thing.”

With a rumble of the engine, the doors swung down and the route to Team’s dormitory appeared on the display screen in the front seat. Something about the AI of Win’s car knowing exactly where to go without being instructed hit Team below the ribs.

Too many questions to count with importance too great to measure weighed heavy in Team’s mind. Some about the future, some about the present.

Mostly, he just wanted to ask to kiss Win again.

A few minutes into the drive, clouds blocked the sunset, plunging late afternoon unceremoniously into early evening and pouring shadows into the interior of the car. Through their separate windows Team and Win watched and admired the seamless glide of headlights and tail lights as thousands of AIs communicated with one another instantaneously and navigated an invisible web of paths without the briefest of pauses to interrupt the journey.

Team kept his hand forcibly relaxed and splayed on the empty seat between them, his adrenaline fueling his confidence.

He likes me. He let me kiss him.

He might still want to.

Regardless, Team still jumped when Win’s fingertips grazed his bare bicep instead.

Team looked without preparing himself for what he might see. Win leaned close, his seatbelt stretched to its limit, his gaze fixed on Team’s mouth.

“Hia,” Team whispered.

The car stopped.

Team recognized the parking lot of his dormitory over Win’s shoulder and knew Win was seeing the dormitory building itself behind Team.

Win dropped his head with a sigh, then glared into the front seat of the car. “You couldn’t’ve taken a side route?” he groused.

With absolutely no emotion, Axl said, “I could’ve if you’d told me you wanted me to take one, boss.”

Team left them arguing with each other, his heartbeat beyond a reasonable rate, and when he got to his room, there was a message waiting on his tablet from Win:

Sorry about just now. Thank you for making today so memorable. Sleep well. Write to me if you want to meet up again sometime this week.

If?

If, he says!

The following morning’s swim practice gave Team an excuse to live entirely in his head and allow his body to run entirely on muscle memory. He wouldn’t be breaking any personal bests, but his priorities had shifted the day before.

He thought about the entire day-that-was-definitely-a-date-toward-the-end beat by beat. From Win picking him up at his dorm, to the five-star lunch they ate overlooking the city, to Team’s exponential increase in confidence, to the mutual agreement to spend more time together, to the walk in the park, to the kiss, to the drive home.

Every cycle through it convinced Team more and more that he’d been on a date the entire time.

Maybe Win didn’t think he needed to say it.

Or maybe Win didn’t think it was.

But if the latter is true…what would a date with him be like?

He soared through his next two lectures without hearing a word, scribbling equations and somewhat related terminology on his tablet to appear invested.

In his mind was a new loop:

Write to me if you want to meet up again sometime this week.
Write to me if you want to meet up again sometime this week.
Write to me if you want to meet up again sometime this week.

On the walk to the canteen for lunch, Team sent Win a casual message.

Thanks again for lunch. Hope you’re having a good day.

Two hours later, he had a response.

Better now that I’ve heard from you.

Team then spent the next twenty minutes half-listening to Pharm talk while he relentlessly reassured himself that there’s no shame in the way his breath caught and his heart stuttered.

The next day, seated in a chair on the balcony of his dorm, Team composed a message to Win that read:

What are you doing tonight?

Short, sweet, and definitely not desperate.

Sure, it was three in the afternoon.

Still not desperate.

As Team gave it a fourth and final read-through, I said, “Your mother is calling.”

Without thinking, Team said, “Okay,” and nearly cursed out loud when his mother’s hologram appeared before him.

“Well!” she said, beaming. “I actually got him to answer!”

Team closed his unsent message to Win with fluidity earned from years of practice. “Hi, Mae.”

She reached out next to her and said, “Turn yours on,” and before Team could prepare for a collaborative attack, his father’s hologram also appeared.

Considerately, I resized his parents to the height of teacups and then placed them on the surface of the small balcony’s glass table.

“You’ve been neglecting your parents,” his mother said, voice forlorn. “We call and call and no one ever answers. We wonder, ‘Is he avoiding us? Does he remember how to call home?’”

Team whined, “Mae,” and settled into his chair with his knees pulled under his chin for his scolding.

His father told his mother, “Technology makes it so easy for them to ignore what they don’t want to hear. ‘Oh, my AI must have decided you were a menacing call!’ They blame it all on their AIs nowadays.”

Team opened his mouth to say that it’s likely I would have done that once, but in the interest of staying on I’s good side, he just said, “I picked up this time, didn’t I?”

“True,” his mother allowed. With a playful smile, she asked, “So, you’ve only got a few months left before graduation. How do you feel about the rest of the semester? Do you have a lot left to do?”

Team thought about his paper—his outline—nestled in his tablet and valiantly suppressed a wince. “Not…really. Basically just this one paper, but it’ll be done soon.”

His father narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin. “Team.”

“Y…es?”

“You’re not going out tonight, are you? When you haven’t finished this paper?”

Team wanted to deny it until he realized he’d put on Nice Clothes, chosen with the intent of calling Manaow and asking her opinion before going to meet Win—assuming he’d even be free.

His parents had already caught him in the lie before he’d even thought to tell it.

“No,” he sighed.

And that’s how he got stuck writing to King instead of going out on a second technical, first actual date with Win.

To Team’s amusement, King immediately received his message, read it, and sent him back twelve academic papers with an audio message attached.

“I would read the first two for an overall historical summary, and I’ve marked pages in the other ten that will help. Then I’d ask Kao for a one-on-one interview and he can tell you more about the educational visits he does. They’re really interesting, and he’s so good at reading his audience. Once, I went with him to—”

Team spent rest of the evening reading, moving from his bed to the floor to his sofa to his dining table back to the balcony to the bath and back to his bed. He snacked only whenever hunger snuck up on him, and by sundown he finished six of the papers and hated four dead politicians whose names he hadn’t even known when he woke up that morning.

He scheduled an interview with Kao for the next day, then finished a terrible first draft at three in the morning.

Thinking of his looming deadline and calculating the various potential course grades he could receive, Team fell asleep within moments of resting his arms and head on his desk.

He woke a few hours later from the sunrise brightening his room.

I told him, “I sent your first draft to King, and he appears to be reading it now.”

Team said, “Thank you,” and zombie-walked to his bed where he proceeded to sleep through practice and the first half of his first class.

That day was a wash, too, as far as Win went.

Team’s morning was spent sneaking around campus trying to avoid any of the other swim club members, and then hiding in the virtual hall for language immersion, knocking out eight of his weekly sixteen in one day.

He made a call to Kao in the afternoon and asked him questions for an hour about the visits he makes to schools, with I taking surprisingly helpful notes while they talked.

In the evening, wrung of his energy and yet wide awake, Team dictated a message to I for Win:

What are you doing the rest of the week?

Within minutes, Win wrote back:

Depends. Could match up with what you’re doing.

Team, hunched over his desk with his chin flat on his desk, hid his grin against his forearm and asked,

What’re you doing tomorrow night then?

And now it’s three days after the kiss, and his friends know about twenty percent of the whole story, which is exactly how it’s going to stay.

“So, you kissed him,” Ting says, grinning.

“I kissed him,” Team confirms.

“And he said he likes you?“ Manaow croons.

“He said he likes me,” Team confirms.

“Does this mean you’re dating?” Pharm asks.

“Not sure yet,” Team says.

“Have you seen him since?” Kong asks.

“Nope,” Team says. Then adds, “I’m seeing him in an hour.”

And with that, he stands, flips his tablet in one hand, and heads off in the direction of the nearest streetcar station while his friends laugh and cheer at his back. Urged on, he breaks into a jog and grins when the volume of their cheering rises.

Team knows that he’s not a particularly fashionable person. He lets I manage that aspect of his life, and every six months, he gets a selection of new discount items in the post. Even the dark cardigan, white shirt, and black pants he’s wearing right now were gifts sent by his mother on his birthday and are thus the most expensive casual items he owns. She said they were made by hand from bamboo silk somewhere outside the country, so they must be nice.

He’d never even taken them out of the package before today.

(Where else would he wear them? The pool? School? His friends’ homes?)

Armored in nice clothes and a good feeling about the evening ahead, Team walks the long hallway of MUSE with his shoulders back, the cloudy skyline of Bangkok keeping him company as his mind does cruel things to him like lie about the experiences he’s had here.

Things were so simple, he thinks. Then he repels the thought. Things were anything but simple when he was seeing Win here as a guest. Things were complicated, just in a different key from the ordinary, every day complicated tunes he was used to.

He waits by the door separating the lobby from the interior, sitting on the ledge of the water feature and watching the rivulets scatter in sparkling ragged veins down the wall. There’s something a little special about waiting here knowing he’s going to meet with Win and not need to pay him for his time.

That Win just wants to spend time with him, as…whatever they are right now.

Are they dating?

He really should know that.

Does one of them still need to ask?

He should have listened at least once or twice while his friends talked about dating.

Win said to meet him in the lobby at eight, and then they’d go find something to eat. He didn’t seem to imply that sex would happen anywhere in his message, but neither did he do that in the messages he sent to Team as a sex worker. The wording was almost identical. Polite, a little flirtatious, but almost neutral.

Team isn’t too proud to admit to himself that he’s hoping the night will end in or at least near Win’s bedroom. He’s eager to find out how different the sex will be now that he’s just Team and Win’s just Win. He knows that Win holds back at work—the question is what?

And how much?

With three minutes to go, the door opens and Win’s genuine laughter spills out. Team decides to stay seated, curious to see who’s with Win tonight.

It’s a guy. Definitely older than Team and maybe even older than Win. He’s not laughing, but the wry way he smiles suggests that he’s amused. Just quietly.

He and Win walk side by side through the door and pause by the window a short distance from the water feature Team’s sitting on. It must be such a familiar sight that neither of them even bothers to look, and Team, intrigued, decides not to make his presence known.

Just for a little bit.

“Well, I won’t keep you,” the guy says. “You still have a busy night ahead.”

“What are you implying?” Win asks, raising his eyebrows.

The guy raises his eyebrows back.

Win says, “Okay, you’ve had more than enough fun with me,” and waves a hand at the elevator. “Out you go.”

The guy’s wry smile widens into even clearer amusement. “I let you keep some energy and this is how you treat me?”

Win says, “Don’t make me push you to the elevator,” with a challenging lift of his chin.

The guy returns the gesture.

Team decides he’s ready to make his presence known. The moment he stands, both Win and the guy take notice, turning their heads almost in unison.

Win’s smile drops away entirely. “Oh.”

The guy, unfazed, says to Win, “Glad you didn’t say anything incriminating?”

“Shh.”

Team ignores that and offers a wai to the guy. “I’m Team.”

The guy says, “I know,” with a sly glance at Win. Then he returns the greeting and says, “I’m Mork.”

He seems nothing like the kind of person Team now expects to meet at MUSE. Not outgoing like Manaow, not confidently sensual like Win, not enthusiastic like Win’s loud regular. Just a regular guy, sort of like Team.

And he banters with Win like Team does, too.

Team glances at Win and finds him giving Mork a wide-eyed cautionary stare. When he realizes Team is looking at him, the stare becomes a wince.

“How does everyone know about me?” Team asks Mork.

Before Win can object to him using this strategy, Mork simply says, “There are no secrets here.”

Win opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, and settles on asking, “Isn’t P’Sun waiting for you?” with a note of desperation.

Mork snorts. “Okay, fine, I’m going.” He gives another small wai to Team, who hurries to follow suit. “There’s a food festival going on down the block. You two should come.”

“Maybe,” Win says, then pokes him in the shoulder. “Out.”

Mork rolls his eyes as he heads down the hallway, and Team watches him for a few strides until Win says, “I’m sorry,” and then, before Team can ask why he’s apologizing, “I thought you knew the lobby is the ground floor, not up here. This is the entry hall.”

“Oh,” Team says.

At the end of the long hallway, Mork steps into the elevator, touches a button, and gives Team one more friendly smile before the doors shut.

Team loses himself while taking in every mesmerizing detail of the man before him. This is Win the Man He Kisses Sometimes and Win the Sex Worker. The sharp cut of his jaw, the shine on his lips, the soft texture of his blond hair. Team—mired deep in the memory of that fifty-six-second-long kiss during which he became very well-acquainted with the way Win kisses when he’s trying to make a point—hears himself ask, “Am I not supposed to come up here anymore?”

Win says, “No, I didn’t—” then pauses, closes his mouth, and starts over with, “I just…wasn’t expecting to see you up here. But it’s fine.” He quirks a smile. “Ready to go?”

There is, indeed, a food festival. And though Win clearly wants to steer clear of Mork and whoever P’Sun is, he doesn’t argue when Team expresses an interest in perusing the stalls for something to eat. On Win’s behalf, Team keeps an eye out for Mork as he pays for a tray of pork skewers.

All around them, people shuffle by in an assortment of clothes ranging from casual to business. Win’s by far the most expensive-looking person in the area, and he grabs more than one person’s attention seemingly without Win even noticing.

They manage to find two empty stools and a small vacant table near near the barbecued pork food stall, and they relax side by side in comfortable quiet while the festival roars around them. When Team is halfway through eating the savory pork cubes, Win taps Team’s shoulder and nips at the skewer with a playful grin.

Giving in to a smile, Team holds up the skewer and watches as Win takes the middle cube between his teeth and drags it slowly off the wooden stick and into his mouth.

Team forgets how to swallow. And breathe.

It takes him several seconds to recover.

Then he asks, “Is Mork one of your regulars?”

When Win’s finished chewing, he says, “Yes,” and licks his lips of the sauce smeared there.

It’s starting to seem as if Win doesn’t like to talk about his regulars—at the S.W.A. meeting, at least, he was determined to protect his regular’s privacy.

“I won’t ask,” Team says, “if talking about them bothers you.”

Win meets his eyes, lips parted, and then smiles in a way Team can’t read. “Thank you.”

That’s when the downpour begins.

The rain falls heavy and slams the pavement in white sheets, a torrential ambush by clouds that darkened under the cover of night. Team quickly returns the small tray to the food stall, then runs with Win to find shelter.

Within minutes, the street is empty, and the rest of the festival attendees have gathered under various awnings and the cover of trees to stay as dry as possible.

Win grabs Team’s wrist and leads him under the awning of a nearby food truck that’s closed for the night, the shutter pulled down and the string lights wrapped around it dark. The back of the truck sits parked against a wide tree trunk, and it’s to a dry patch of grass shielded by both the awning and the tree branches that they quickly retreat.

Win leans on the trunk of the tree and wrinkles his nose down at his soaked clothes. Team joins him in looking with significantly more appreciation.

He doesn’t look away soon enough, and when Win’s eyes dart up, Team lifts his as well, and there can be no mistaking the situation on either side.

Even with an almost negative balance in fashion knowledge, Team assumes by the fall of the fabric on Win’s body that what Win’s wearing is probably current, designer, and top quality. The clothes Win wears are always stylish and expensive—brand names that Team would never bother to learn.

Meanwhile Team’s clothes—as nice as they are—can be chucked into a machine, then washed and dried, and finally sorted back into his closet within an hour. Rain doesn’t mean a thing to Team except for some mild discomfort if the temperature drops too low too suddenly for his body to adjust.

All of this forms in Team’s mind at once, a mix of information and concern in one thought.

Because of that, he blurts, “Do you want mine?” and doesn’t realize until it’s been said how it sounds.

Win’s expression betrays how quickly his mind is sorting through potential responses.

Team says, “Wait, I meant…uh. Just. I don’t need this.” He tugs off the long-sleeve cardigan layered over his T-shirt and holds it out to Win. “If the rain doesn’t stop and we have to go back out in it, your shirt won’t get as wet.”

Win visibly tamps down on a smile trying to break free and simply says, “Thank you,” as he takes the cardigan from Team’s hand. His fingers don’t have to touch Team’s at all to do it, but they do, and Team knows from Win’s eyes that it’s intentional.

There’s no car to get in the way this time. And this little tree-truck corner they’ve found is dark and shielded from most lines of sight.

Team takes a slow breath and watches as Win threads his arm through the first sleeve.

It’s a simple piece of clothing, long enough to reach Win’s hips and dark enough to match pretty much anything, and it takes to the contours of Win’s body beautifully. Manaow approved it for Team before he left his dorm room, and now that it’s on Win, Team is twice as glad that he checked with an expert first. And grateful to his mother for providing it.

The longer Win wears it, the more Team doesn’t even want it back.

He can see it better on Win than he ever would on himself anyway.

They watch the rain in silence, letting out the occasional quiet, wry laugh when someone makes a break for it, dashing pell-mell into the rain.

When thunder booms overhead and makes the ground quiver, Team says, “I think it’s passing overhead now—” and jumps at the touch on his bare forearm.

He finds Win’s fingertips pressing into the deep line dividing his muscle and tendon, grazing gently over the gooseflesh that’s risen on his skin from the sudden chill.

Team breathes in, then out, then closes his eyes only seconds before Win’s mouth presses against his. The sound of his own lips parting for Win’s reminds him of every other kiss before this and how they’ve had so few that every single one feels unique.

Or is that common?

Win’s hands wrap around Team’s wrists and unfold his cold arms, guiding them under the cardigan and around Win’s back where it’s warm. All the while, he teases Team with small kisses, suggesting something deeper only to draw back and tempt Team to close the distance himself.

Team knows it’s happening and lets it. Once his chest and stomach are flush against Win’s, and his arms are tucked in the curve of Win’s lower back, he meets Win’s eyes and shivers from some extreme sensation he can’t label.

Win finally takes a deep breath, his chest pressing tight against Team’s, then exhales into a much deeper, much less controlled kiss that makes Team’s mind fog over. His fingers dig into the very expensive shirt he was just trying to protect from harm.

Win doesn’t seem to care.

The noises of Win taking his time sucking Team’s bottom lip swollen should make Team think of Win’s room at MUSE, but his mind is trying to conjure a different room. One he’s never seen. He lets Win press him hard against the tree trunk, his breath coming shorter. He thinks of Win with Mork just now and whispers, “Were you telling your regular about meeting me tonight?”

He can feel every breath Win takes.

Deep.

Uneven.

Trembling.

Win says, “Kind of,” and then, “Sorry.” He licks his lips, then meets Team’s eyes. “I told him I had to meet someone important.”

All of it—the pelting rain, the shimmer of lighting, and Win’s body hot and firm against his—condenses into a single sensation deep in Team’s chest.

“I want to go home with you,” Team says.

Chapter Text

In walks the length of the entry hallway to MUSE with concealed eagerness. One of the nice things about being unemployed is that he was able to slide into Korn’s first available slot—exactly two hours after he sent Korn a message posing as Pharm.

It didn’t take much to convince Pharm to let him do it, and Pharm even recorded a message vouching for In to give to Korn if things don’t go over well when his ruse is revealed.

He’s a little early by design, curious about the place that’s caught so many of his cousin’s friends. From Pharm’s descriptions, it sounds like a rich city kid’s idea of romance—visiting the high-end sex parlor and brewing up romantic drama with the workers. In half-expected to find the entry hall set up like a sensual lounge with “specialists” sprawled on impractical furniture and leering at him as he passed.

Instead, it’s…cold and corporate-looking, like the entrance to a minimalist five-star hotel.

The expense paid on the decor clearly stands head and shoulders above what was paid for the parlors In has visited outside Bangkok. For one thing, the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the entire wall allow for an absolutely sun-soaked space, and with its spot near the top of the skyscraper, there’s no obscuring buildings to block any of it. It’s likely a flex of their profit margin.

They also probably think this dancing ribbon effect following him is a cute use of some leftover money in the budget.

The water feature is a nice touch, though, so while he waits for Korn, In stands by the ledge and watches the water trickle down the wall into the wide basin.

The door opens, and In turns quickly, telling himself he’s prepared for the beautiful man about to walk into the lobby.

To his mixed disappointment and intrigue, however, it’s not Korn, but another handsome man he’s never seen before.

Their eyes meet, and In frowns. He glances back at the water feature, prepared to wait some more, until—

“Who are you here to see?”

In’s “oops” meter spikes.

“Oh,” he says, “well, a specialist. I’m a little early.” He adds the most charming smile he can conjure.

The guy’s expression remains still and unmoved as stone. “Which specialist?” he asks.

In hesitates. Well, what’s the worst that can happen? He gets kicked out, and then Pharm loses an account he wasn’t even using.

“P’Korn,” In says. He lifts an eyebrow. “Are you here on his behalf?”

The guy says, “He was under the impression that he’d be meeting with someone else.”

Damn. Clearly someone’s monitoring the cameras more closely than he’s used to. “Fine,” he says. “I used my cousin’s account. He said he met with P’Korn once and isn’t planning on coming back, and when I tried to book him as a new guest, he was booked solid for weeks, so I just—”

“Fraudulently abused the system.”

Most of In’s words disintegrate in his throat, his mouth open. The only one that survives is a strangled, “What?”

The guy folds his arms. “You’ll want to leave right now,” he says. “Or you and your cousin will both be banned.”

Well, that’s slightly more severe than he expected.

In’s mouth drops a little lower. “But—!”

The guy shakes his head. “You might not think what you’ve done is a big deal, but he has no idea who you are, and you’re putting him at risk by trying to sneak past a system that was put in place for a reason.” He sets his jaw, discouraging any response whatsoever. Then he says, “Don’t ever try this again. Do you understand?”

Wincing, In nods. “Yeah. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

The guy says nothing more, a solid weight between In and the door.

With another nod, his face hot, In heads back down the hallway toward the elevator.

Part of him wants to turn around and say that he’s not completely reckless. He was approved by their system as a guest with clean medical records and everything, and he even has Pharm’s word to vouch for him. He brought everything he thought he’d need, and he was fully prepared to apologize and leave if Korn was really upset about the whole thing.

He was just so sure that Korn would see what he did as mischievous shenanigans. Most of the sex workers In’s visited in the countryside definitely would have rolled their eyes at him but ultimately let it slide.

Many of them already know In, though, either through personal experience or by his cheerful reputation. Korn, on the other hand, has no idea who he is, and must have felt deeply alarmed to see someone who wasn’t Pharm visiting him.

This was a bad, bad idea.

“Hang on.”

It’s not the same voice.

In turns, frowning and curled into himself, and sees Korn himself jogging down the hallway. Behind him, the other guy with the handsome, severe face watches closely.

In hugs his chest, hands covering his elbows. Seeing Korn in person plunges his guilt deeper, and when Korn stops in front of him, In offers a deep wai and says, “I’m so sorry! I really didn’t think it through. I was impatient and jumped the line and I—”

“Is Pharm all right?”

In’s apology freezes, the incongruous question rattling his focus. “Pharm?”

Korn nods. There’s an intensity in his eyes that strikes fire down In’s chest.

Concentrate.

“He’s fine,” In says. “He recorded a message for you, just to say he was okay with me using his account.”

Korn’s mouth presses together. “You understand now why this is dangerous, don’t you?”

In drags a hand through his hair, breathing in deep. “I do.”

As Korn’s gaze bores into his, In suspects that he’s going to be banned anyway or maybe arrested for tampering with their system and endangering one of the specialists.

Then Korn says, “Well,” and folds his arms. “Thanks to you I have an hour free.”

It’s less Korn’s body language and more the other guy’s—all the way at the end of the hallway but still in earshot—that tells In that the situation has been diffused. Namely, the other guy switches the target of his cold stare from In to Korn with an added dash of, What the fuck? in the furrow of his eyebrows.

In licks his lips and cautiously says, “I’m really sorry.”

Korn nods, unmoved.

“Would you…like to get some gelato?”

Korn stares for another few seconds, then repeats, “Gelato?”

In nods. He tries out a sincere smile. “My treat? For wasting your time?”

Korn doesn’t answer right away, but In knows he has a yes when he sees the severe guy roll his eyes, unfold his arms, and rub his face with both hands as he leaves the room through the door beside the water feature.

In’s never been on an apology date with a sex worker before, but he’s adaptable.

He foresees two scoops and probably also a coffee and a more thorough apology in Korn’s future.

Chapter Text

There’s no reason to hold back in Win’s car this time. Team makes the deliberate choice early in the drive to ignore his hesitations as Win rubs his thumb over the ridge of Team’s bare hip under his rain-soaked shirt and kisses him slowly and thoroughly.

They’re waiting for him in the elevator, though.

He spends the entire ride up to Win’s floor worrying his teeth over the flat edge of his thumbnail while Win’s hand presses hot against the small of his back.

I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.

The more he tells himself, the more he believes it.

The front door of Win’s apartment unlocks automatically as Win approaches, and it locks once again once they’re inside.

The sound reverberates in Team’s chest as he faces his next clue as to who Win is outside his work at MUSE.

Win…lives well.

That’s the most all-encompassing yet succinct summary Team can come up with as he stands in the entryway of a luxury apartment multiple times larger than his dorm room.

The layout is coy and implies multiple rooms out of sight. It begins small at the entryway, then widens into the kitchen and living room, both melded together into one wide open space. Then it tapers off into an even wider hallway that curls into a spiral and presumably leads to bedrooms and bathrooms.

All in all, it’s a far cry from the standard boxy layouts Team has always lived in, and it screams of casual wealth Team has never in his life experienced on this scale.

MUSE has been very good to Win, it seems.

With an assortment of ceiling lights and floor lamps gradually brightening the space to a honeyed tone, Team registers a strange sensation enveloping him. He can’t identify it, but it’s unmistakably linked to the arm Win loops around his waist and to the fingers that Win presses almost possessively into his side.

Kissing Win barely requires thought—as it’s been from the very beginning. The natural fit of their lips and Win’s clever tongue allow Team the luxury of closing his eyes, sliding his arms around Win’s back, and savoring how close and warm and gorgeous he is.

Kissing Win is a luxury in itself.

Kissing him in a place like this is downright heady.

As Win gradually backs him up, Team remembers his third and last session at MUSE and how Win managed to do the same thing to guide him seamlessly into the shower. This time, the trip isn’t as far, and the impact of Team’s back against the kitchen wall has Team exhaling a tellingly affected breath against Win’s lips.

He opens his eyes just a sliver, and there’s hardly a moment to react at all, but he’s sure he sees Win’s pupils fill out wider, and the next kiss is significantly less restrained on both sides.

Team’s cardigan, meant to protect Win’s outfit and Win himself, hangs heavy around Win’s body, laden with warmed rainwater and dripping on the cold floor around their bare feet. They had to run through the streets to Win’s car, Win’s long fingers secure around Team’s wrist, and now there isn’t a dry patch of skin or clothing between them.

The run and the rain have turned them both slovenly and bedraggled, and for Team, it marks a clear division between the polished transactional nature of what they were to each other at MUSE and whatever they’ve become to each other now.

But Team doesn’t want to think about the nuances yet.

He hooks his fingers around Win’s hips and jerks him in tighter, tilting his head and making a low, needy noise to encourage Win to kiss him harder. The consequences teach Team something new about himself: nothing has ever hit his bloodstream quite as powerfully as the feeling of Win grinding sinuously against him.

Team breaks the kiss to turn his head to the side, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing raggedly as Win whispers, “Maybe you should clarify what you were hoping for tonight before my imagination gets too creative.”

Which, naturally, sets off Team’s imagination.

This isn’t a business transaction. There’s far more freedom here.

Team is just a guy in Win’s apartment. He’s not a client. There’s no established time limit.

And Win likes him. Win wants him.

Team meets Win’s eyes and asks, “What time do you have to go to sleep?”

Win’s grin develops slowly and wickedly. He slips a hand under Team’s shirt to trace patterns on the small of his back. “What a question,” he teases.

Team squirms away from the ticklish sensation, but there’s nowhere to escape. He winds up clinging onto Win’s hips and allowing his head to tilt back as Win traps his body. The expertly applied pressure on Team’s dick has pleasure rolling through him in waves. “Hia,” he groans.

Win takes advantage of his immobility to lean down and kiss his jaw, working his way unhurried down to the juncture of Team’s neck and shoulder. He seems to have a goal in mind. There’s a flash of tongue, and then a glancing bite of teeth heats Team’s skin. With a hiss, Team moves his head farther to the side, allowing Win to do what he wants.

Win kisses once underneath his jaw and whispers, “Have you been with anyone else since…?”

It can be difficult to detect any kind of emotion in a whisper, and by the time Team opens his eyes and meets Win’s, all he sees are ambiguous layers of interest.

Who on Earth else would I have been with?

Team says, “No,” and senses what’s about to happen the instant before Win urgently seals his mouth over Team’s. The force of it unlocks the last of Team’s inhibitions and he plunges his hand deep into Win’s damp hair, gripping tight to encourage more of this roughness that he’s never experienced before.

Moments later, Team registers the pressure of Win’s hands skimming from his back over the curve of his ass and to the backs of his thighs, but Team doesn’t question why it’s happening until Win yanks his legs out from under him and Team clutches onto Win’s shoulders with both hands for stability. The angle of the kiss shifts with a gasped breath in the middle, and then Team clasps his arms around Win’s neck and his legs around Win’s waist.

His sessions at MUSE were nothing like this.

When they separate and meet each other’s eyes again, Team can feel the shared expectation for more.

Win says, “You have no idea what you look like right now, do you?” and steals one more heated kiss.

Team shivers, all too aware that Win can feel every pulse of his erection against his body and hear every irregular catch in his breath. It can’t be common to feel this much all at once, and Team has no idea what to do with it all.

He just knows he wants whatever Win wants to do to him.

They stare at each other, sharp breaths mingling.

Running the side of his thumb over the back of Win’s neck, Team asks, “What now?”

Win’s eyebrows twitch downward as his gaze moves back and forth between Team’s eyes.

Team suggests, “Shower first?”

Win nods. “Good call.”

He lets Team down gently, but he never breaks eye contact, and once Team’s feet are safely on the floor, Win presses his forehead to Team’s temple and closes his eyes. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says.

Team swallows roughly and says, “Me too, hia,” while his heart drums against his ribs.

As he predicted, the apartment layout is a wide spiral, the walls painted in a subtle gradient of gray to white. The bathroom Win leads him to is the nicest Team has ever seen, even exceeding the one in Win’s room at MUSE. The bathtub is full and scented with some aromatic oils, and Team hears himself ask, “You have the automatic filling kind?”

Win pauses mid-reach for the shower door and follows Team’s gaze. “Oh,” he says, as if he forgot it existed. He glances at the ceiling, then over Team’s shoulder, then shakes his head. “Interfering imp,” he mutters.

Who…?

Win tugs at the sleeves of Team’s cardigan, gently peeling the wet fabric from his arms and telling Team, “You can drop your clothes down the chute to be washed,” as he nods at a subtle outline in the corner.

A tray opens at an angle automatically as Team’s hand stretches out to test how it works, and there’s a whoosh as a balled-up cardigan sails over Team’s head and drops into the chute.

Team turns to give him an unamused look and ducks as Win’s shirt follows.

The wink he gets is not charming.

The casual composure Win exudes in his home compared to the controlled persona he puts on at MUSE mesmerizes Team for most of the shower. While he scrubs a dollop of body soap over his chest and under his arms, Team watches Win rub his shampoo-slathered fingertips over his scalp.

Their gazes connect and break away, and the tentative domesticity of it surrounds Team’s heart like a vice of needles pressing gently inward.

Win’s shower has a number of little luxuries that Team would never spend his student B.I. on—things like custom containers for the body wash and hair products mounted on the wall. There’s more than enough space for both of them, and Team wonders if—

“Have you ever brought a regular here?”

Win, head dipped back into the slant of the shower water, says, “Uhh,” and then, “not recently.”

But he has. It’d make sense to pick a place with a big shower, then.

He needs to research the whole regular thing more. Maybe with Kao.

To Team’s extended amazement with Win’s apartment, there are hot towels waiting for them on a heating rack just outside the shower door, and Team takes a few luxurious moments to enjoy pulling his towel cocoon tight around himself, allowing the warmth to soak deep.

Win exhales a laugh and finger-combs Team’s wet fringe up and away from his forehead. “You look cozy,” he says.

Team leans into his hand, humming. He opens his eyes when a weight drops onto his shoulder.

“While your stuff’s being washed,” Win explains.

Team tugs a soft black bathrobe into both hands and silently realizes that there isn’t a single thing in this apartment that he could buy with his B.I. money alone.

As Team shrugs on the bathrobe and towels down his legs, he watches Win slip on loose white sweatpants and a black T-shirt with a faded set of interlocking yellow triangles that look similar to the black tattoo on his arm.

Huh. If clothes are involved, then—

Maybe they’re not going directly to sex?

Are they…going to sleep?

“Are you, um, okay with me staying overnight?” Team asks.

Win picks up his discarded towel from the sink and runs it over his hair with a small frown. “Yeah, why?”

Team leans on the closed glass door of the shower, aware that the bathrobe is loosely shut at best and showing much more of his chest and stomach than he’d want to display for most people in a situation like this. He watches Win’s gaze travel the expanse of the gap with unveiled appreciation.

“I just realized,” Team says, licking his lips, “I never, uh, clarified what I wanted.”

Win’s eyebrows lift. His hand stills behind his head, the towel still pressed to his hair. “I’m listening,” he says.

Team can’t think of a delicate way to put it, so he doesn’t try. “I want a redo,” he says.

A second passes. Then two.

Win’s clever mind fills in the missing information, and a smirk takes to his lips. He tosses his towel into the sink and joins Team by the shower, bracing his hands on the glass on either side of Team’s head and leaning close. “Sure,” he says. “Which session?”

Team’s breathing shortens. “The second one,” he says.

“And this is…because you enjoyed it? Or do you have complaints?”

Team says, “Not a complaint. Not really. I just…think it would be better now.” Outside MUSE. As Team, not as a guest.

But Win isn’t satisfied with vagueness. “Better how, exactly?” He removes his right hand from the shower door and lowers it out of Team’s line of sight. Team thinks he’s prepared for it, but he still ends up gasping as Win flicks the bathrobe open wider and traces the blunt edges of his nails up Team’s hipline. “Was last time missing something?”

Team glances down, unsurprised to confirm that his half-hard dick is rapidly filling out again. He’s even more mesmerized by Win’s thumb stroking so close to it, just next to the patch of hair slicked down by the shower. Win’s eyes, when Team can bring himself to meet them, are intent on him. Studying him.

“Not…specifically.”

Without warning, Win’s fingertips drag along the wet tip of Team’s erection, spiking a needy jolt through Team’s body and pulling a sharp breath from his lungs.

“Well,” Win says, “you’ll have to be specific. So I know exactly what to do.“

Team’s mind bursts into vivid imagery. Most of his nights have featured some Win-specific fantasy or another, especially while he read up on sex worker history. He even opened the Portal twice, but the memory of Win’s regular and her privacy had him closing it and relying on his memory and his imagination instead.

“Just—what you said then,” Team whispers, “about—edging.”

Win waits, his thumb going still on Team’s skin.

“You said someone taught you how to do it. And, like…made you…” He licks his lips again, recognizing the moment Win knows what he’s going to say. “Beg. But you didn’t say what they did.”

Win hums and pushes his hand around Team’s back under the robe, holding him in place as he shortens the space between them. “What’ll work on me won’t necessarily work on you,” he says.

Team nods. Hesitantly, he lifts his arms over Win’s shoulders and rests them there. “I know, but I wanna hear anyway,” he says. “It just sounds hot. And maybe it’ll give me ideas for other stuff.”

His true motives are much more specific, but Win doesn’t need to know that yet.

Win says, “Hm,” and smirks. “Fine. C’mon.”

He leads Team by the hand farther up the hallway, walking along the spiral curve until they reach the door to his bedroom.

Inside is a wealth of personal information that ambushes Team all at once. With their entrance, all four bright walls decorated with holographic photos flicker from showing people and places to a moving display of cosmic black and purple with shimmering flashes of starry yellow. A shelf of trophies sits above the window, along with a tiny magician’s hat. A small sofa faces the window at an angle with a glass table before it and an assortment of objects that Team can’t identify from a distance.

And several paces behind the sofa and away from the door, in the center of the room, is Win’s bed.

First things first.

Win takes both sides of the robe in his hands and twists them slowly around his fists, drawing Team closer to him and to his bed. His eyes are on Team’s mouth as he says, “Tell me why you want to hear about this. I have my suspicions, but it never hurts to hear it.”

Team exhales as slowly as he can. “Because it’s hot?” he tries.

The hesitance catches Win’s attention, but Team moves to distract him with another question.

“Was it part of your, like, job training?”

Win grins. “Edging?” He takes a step back and draws Team with him. “No,” he says. “It was just what made me decide to apply for the job.”

There’s a blur of color, and then Team is staring up at Win, the plush blanket covering Win’s bed caught in his startled grip.

Win asks, “Is this a continuation of your edging lessons, then?” and lies down next to Team, head propped up by his hand.

“Y-yeah, that’s. Okay. Sure.”

Monosyllables. Great.

This is it, Team tells himself. Pay attention.

Win nods, his gaze moving down Team’s body and his hand lazily palming the flat expanse of skin below Team’s navel.

“I went to MUSE for the first time on my birthday,” Win says. He traces his fingertips over Team’s hip line. “The specialist I chose knew it wasn’t my first time, but it was my first time with a woman. I wanted to know what it was like. What the differences were.”

Team can’t resist saying, “That’s the nerdiest sounding reason to see a sex worker I’ve ever heard,” in part because it’s true but more because Win’s hand has just closed around his dick and he’s already close.

“You’re benefiting from my research,” Win tells him with a raised eyebrow. “And you booked me for homework, so don’t even start.” He swipes his thumb over the wet slit of Team’s erection and visibly enjoys the answering shiver. “Anyway, she asked what I was into, and I told her I wanted to have the kind of sex that lasts, but I didn’t have the endurance for it. So she said she’d help me.”

Team has heard more than one person with a dick speak of handjobs with something approaching disdain, insisting that they pale in comparison to blowjobs, and while Team agrees that nine times out of ten he’d prefer Win’s mouth on him, he can’t bring himself to deny the appeal of Win’s voice in his ear right now while Win’s fist slowly works his dick.

Especially once Win’s removed a small container from the pocket of his sweatpants and dribbled clear oil over the hard line of Team’s dick.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Team holds his breath as the wet noises in the room become unmistakably obscene.

“Breathe,” Win whispers. “It helps.”

Team exhales a punched-out laugh and tries to do as he’s told.

“You’re so good for me,” Win tells him, kissing his temple, and Team moans as his dick pulses.

Without commenting on it, Win asks, “Remember the numbers I told you about?”

Team nods fast.

“Where are you now?”

Conscious of Win staring at him, Team forces his mind to clear just enough to decide, “Somewhere between sixty and ninety.”

Win laughs and slows his hand to the smallest, laziest movements. “Got it.”

Team swallows and grips the blanket harder. “W-what did she do to you first?” he asks.

“Mm. This.”

Team is in no way prepared for the imagined portrait of someone pushing Win to the edge in exactly this way, watching him lose control while he struggles to breathe evenly, just like Team is.

“The trick is to do this gradually,” Win says. His oiled hand twists in a torturously slow swivel over the head, dragging the foreskin over and back. “She talked to me, too, but she asked me different things.”

“L-like what?”

“What I liked,” Win says. “What I’d done with partners in the past. To myself. What I wanted her to do to me.”

“What’d you tell her?”

Win hums. “Your breathing’s calmed down. Where now?”

Team checks in with the molten fire that his body has succumbed to, but Win is right, and his breaths come and go more easily now. “Probably like fifty?” he guesses.

“Mm. Little more, then.” Win releases Team’s erection and rests his hand on Team’s stomach. When Team peeks, he finds Win studying the contours of Team’s face.

“This doesn’t feel like work to you, does it?” Team asks.

There’s a clear note of surprise in Win’s voice as he says, “No, not at all.”

Team allows a smile.

“But then,” Win says, winking, “neither does work.”

Before Team can process that, Win reaches for the container and pours out another generous amount of oil below Team’s navel, gathering it in his hand and sliding his fist from the base of Team’s erection up to the tip and back down.

Team focuses on keeping his breathing measured.

“Doing this,” Win says, “let her explore my body and find where I was most sensitive.”

“Are they the same places as mine?” Team asks, watching his face.

Win’s eyes travel up in thought, but his hand continues to move steadily, the slick sounds louder in the absence of him speaking. “You’re a little different,” Win says. “Some parts of you are much more sensitive than they are for me. For example—”

Team tells himself to prepare, but he has no idea what Win’s about to do. Or where.

He’s not quick enough with his prediction, and a gasp stutters from his throat as Win bends his head and flicks his tongue relentlessly over Team’s tight left nipple.

Team gasps again, desperately, as his dick jerks in Win’s firm grip. With a whine, he brings his feet up onto the bed, struggling to thrust into Win’s fist.

“Ah,” Win says, and releases his hand, pulling away entirely.

Team makes an incredulous noise at him. “That was a lot!”

Win kisses his cheek, his smile a little sheepish. “I know, I’m sorry.” He nudges his nose against Team’s and shamelessly whispers, “I just love hearing you whine for me.”

Team squeezes his eyes closed and holds onto the information he’s just acquired before it melts under Win’s verbal ambush.

“Number?”

“Eighty-eight and a half.”

“Mm.” Win kisses him, sucking his bottom lip just enough to leave it a shade darker. “You’re doing so well at this,” he whispers. His eyes tick down and back up as Team’s breath hitches. “Think you can take a little more? I’ll get you over the edge this time.”

Team nods quickly.

When Win starts up again, he does it while kneeling between Team’s legs, working Team’s erection with both hands.

“If you like doing this,” Win says, “we can work up to more intense stuff later.”

Team knots his fists in the blanket, his control slipping despite his determination to last as long as possible. He’ll do this every night if Win wants to. Having Win’s full attention like this, finding out more about him—

“Once,” Win says, “my specialist had me eat her out as a distraction while she sucked me off.”

The suggestion of Team’s second favorite fantasy—of having Win suck him off while being allowed to do the same to Win—has Team whining again, his toes gripping the fabric of the blanket. He struggles to force in a breath and exhales with a keening noise as Win’s hands move in ever filthier slicking motions.

“Close, baby?”

Team nods frantically, the sudden endearment slamming through his heart.

Win says, “That’s good, you’re so good—come for me, beautiful,” and a flash of wet heat around his erection takes Team’s breath away as he comes hard into Win’s mouth.

The aftershocks have Team panting at the ceiling, his mind blank. Before pleasure shifts into pain, Win licks up the side of Team’s spent dick and swallows without fanfare. He gives Team a smile and rubs the outside of Team’s thigh, squeezing his bent knee.

“How was that?” Win asks.

Team makes a garbled noise and closes his eyes.

Win laughs, then lies down next to him in a graceless flop. “You did well,” he says, and the sincerity in it strikes a gentler warmth through Team’s core. “You looked incredible at the end.”

Team smiles. The warmth in him expands.

Win, he notices, hasn’t come yet.

Well.

Good.

After his chest is rising and falling more steadily, Team asks, “Can we use the bath?”

His mind tells him it’s only polite to use “we” instead of “I”, but he can’t maintain the charade even to himself for more than an instant. He’s already imagining what a handjob in a warm bath feels like.

Win huffs with amusement. “Sure. It’s already drawn anyway.” He peers around the room with blatant suspicion that Team decides not to question.

After rinsing off in the shower, they sink into the still-steaming bath, Win first and then Team. They sit on opposite ends, Team’s face a little red as he realizes the mistake in choosing to face Win directly. Eye contact is much far more vulnerable than simply reclining on Win’s chest.

But Team has plans to complete first, and he intends to follow through with them.

As Team’s resolve settles, Win eyes him with clear suspicion. “What’s that face for?” he asks.

Team says, “Nothing,” and then, “So what was it about that specialist that made you want to be one?”

Win slicks his hair back as he thinks.

The bath oil has made the water opaque and cloudy, but Team has seen enough by now to improvise in his mind. Win is, as he was from the first time Team saw him, absolutely gorgeous. His hair, his piercings, the inked patterns circling his biceps, and the shape of wings stretched across his back—all of it makes him visually striking, but for Team, it’s Win’s eyes that he can’t stop admiring.

And it’s the faraway look in those eyes that bolster Team’s courage to take the first step in his plan.

“It was fun,” Win says. “I mean, sex is fun in general. It was also interesting to see how she used it to connect with me. And after I did more research into what specialists actually do, I thought it’d be helpful for—”

Team bookmarks this conversation in his mind. He wants to hear more. He knows it’s important. But for now, he needs to act, so he makes his move. Sliding forward on his knees between Win’s thighs, bracing his hands on the bottom of the tub.

Win says nothing. He doesn’t seem to know what’s happening.

Doesn’t realize it’s Team’s turn to study.

The moment Team kisses him, Win closes his eyes, and a rush of adrenaline courses through Team’s system at the sight.

Could this be Win trusting him?

“Some parts of you are much more sensitive than they are for me.”

Which could mean Win is sensitive in some of the same places—to some degree.

And the first one he thought of to demonstrate on Team must be on the higher end of the scale.

So….

Team brings one hand up Win’s side, thrilled by the unspoken permission to touch him freely, and skims his thumb over Win’s right nipple, listening closely for any kind of reaction.

Win breathes a laugh against Team’s lips, nudging his nose against Team’s. “Copycat,” he whispers, eyes still closed.

Undaunted, Team does it again, this time flicking rapidly in a mimicry of what Win did to him, and this time, Win makes a soft noise and squeezes his eyes shut.

Victorious, Team treats himself to another deep kiss, bracing his left hand on the bottom of the tub again and lifting his right to tease the right nipple until it’s as hard as the left. The more he moves, the more the water sloshes and echoes, and Team wonders if Win’s ever recorded a scenario in a bath with someone like this.

Probably not. No kissing, for one thing.

For another…

Win looks so vulnerable as he is right now: mouth parted, eyes closed, neck exposed.

“You learn fast,” Win says, voice pitched low.

Team smiles.

His pause to relish the compliment is his undoing.

Heedless of the water up to their shoulders, Win surges forward and clasps a hand behind Team’s head as he drags his other hand underwater over Team’s chest and stomach and inner thigh. Water splashes onto the floor, but neither of them take any notice of it.

Their next kiss is the least inhibited yet, with Win panting against Team’s mouth, not a shred of smug control in sight.

“I think this was supposed to be relaxing,” Team says when they part. He lies breathless underneath Win, his head braced by the edge of the tub, cushioned by Win’s hand.

Win asks, “You’re not relaxed?” with feigned surprise, then roughly kisses the grin developing on Team’s lips.

There should be something momentous and soft in Team’s chest the first time he lies down to sleep in Win’s bed. Something to store in his memory and remember on lazy days years from now.

On the contrary, however, he’s wrung out and exhausted, and it’s almost four in the morning, so he just drops his body in the general direction of the pillow Win isn’t using and plunges almost immediately into a deep slumber.

He wakes again only a couple of hours later, his mind and body regulated for swim practice.

Win sleeps on next to him, separated by a whole pillow’s length.

The expensive mattress only shifts under Team as he climbs out of bed. He yawns as he walks across the cold floor, snagging the black bathrobe from where it ended up on the floor as he goes.

The windows of Win’s bedroom overlook a wide canal, the gray surface rippling under the continued onslaught of rain. Team wraps his chilled fingers around his arms in an attempt to trap some heat, asking the universe at large when and how he’s going to get a label from Win on what they are to each other now.

Is he supposed to ask Win?

But wouldn’t Win have asked already if he wanted more than what they’re doing?

Beside him, a small magician appears, hovering in the air for a moment before dropping “onto” Team’s shoulder. He taps Team’s cheek with a wand that passes through with a shower of holographic sparks.

“Hi, Suede,” Team says. Even though Suede looks like a cartoon, it’s much easier to see him as a living being than I or Axl. And of course that’s the point that Arthit tried to make to him, wasn’t it? That the living part isn’t what’s important.

“Hi, Team,” Suede whispers. He peeks over his shoulder at the shape of Win under the sheets and says, “He really, really, really likes you, you know.”

Team eyes him. “Did he tell you to tell me that?” he asks.

Suede pops the tip of his tongue out in disdain. “Him? No. I’m telling you because I like you, and I hope you visit more.” He offers a bright smile that pushes his eyes into crescents above his chubby cheeks. “So don’t expect him to make the first move. He’s not used to it.”

That’s—

What?

“He’s made the first move a lot,” Team points out.

“I don’t mean the physical kind,” Suede says, sounding exasperated. “The emotional kind. He’s not great at it.”

Team follows Suede’s gaze to the bed, curiosity and wonder unfolding inside him. “At—what? Relationships?”

Suede nods, his little face oddly wizened for a moment as he stares at Win. Then he beckons Team closer, jumps up to float by his ear, and whispers, “Ask about his fourth regular, and you’ll get a big advantage.”

In the bed, Win turns onto his side and makes a low noise.

Suede’s eyes bulge in a way only achievable by holographic physics. He tells Team, “I told you nothing!” in a hiss, points his little fingers from his eyes to Team’s, and vanishes in a cloud of glitter.

Win’s fourth regular?

Team parses that out as best as he can.

He barely knows the three Win has now.

There’s Mork, the girl from the scenarios, someone else, and…the fourth one.

From thin air, Suede opens a door and peeks his head out, whispering, “You’re welcome for the bath!” before slamming it silently.

Well.

His research continues.

Chapter Text

The worst week of Lynn’s life (so far) unfolds like this:

On Sunday, at three o’clock in the morning, she and her boyfriend leave their damp clothes on the floor and crawl into bed, their bodies towel-dried haphazardly and their hair still damp from the rain. They should shower, but it’s three in the morning and they spent the night at a loud, energy-absorbing party across the city.

All Lynn wants is sleep, but she can sense an expectant stare aimed at her from the person on her left. She decides to ignore it, letting her breaths even out, telling herself she’ll take a long, soothing bath in the morning.

Then Phon’s hand presses on her ribs and slides over the swell of her breast, teasing the nipple until it’s hard under his thumb.

“I’m really tied,” Lynn says, turning her back to him. “In the morning.”

He lets out a cajoling noise and rests his hand on her bare hip instead. “So what? You just raced me to the door. I thought you were looking forward to this too.” He pushes her hip down onto the bed and kisses her hard nipple. “C’mon, beautiful, lemme taste you.” He traces her clit with his middle finger and dips lower, making a pleased noise to find her wet.

She considers giving in. If he’s in the mood to eat her out, she can fake an orgasm without him noticing and get to sleep faster. She’ll go unsatisfied, but she can take care of herself in the bath in a few hours.

But…if he goes down on her, he’ll want her to suck him off in return, and he takes ages to come when he’s tipsy like he is. Also, sometimes his dirty talk is ridiculous, and if she laughs at him again, he’ll sulk.

Ultimately, she says, “I wasn’t racing you to bed. It was just a race,” and pries his hand away, ignoring the shine on his fingers. “Let me sleep, come on.”

It’s quiet then, but it’s the kind of quiet that simmers with unspoken words.

“You saw your fuck buddy again, didn’t you,” Phon says.

“He isn’t my fuck buddy,” Lynn says.

He exhales a punched-out breath and sits up, running his hands through his hair with undisguised disgust. “I’ve been putting up with this for seven months, Lynn,” he says, scowling at her. “How long are you gonna fuck this guy?”

She slings an arm over her face and rolls her eyes where he can’t see. “I keep telling you over and over,” she says, “I don’t just have sex with him.”

He snorts. “Yeah, and I never believe it, because no one goes to a sex worker for cuddles, Lynn.”

“He’s not just a sex worker. They’re called specialists at MUSE for a reason. If they were just sex workers they’d be called sex workers.”

“Fancy marketing bullshit. He’s just a specialist in fucking my girlfriend.”

“You said you could deal with this!”

“For a while, Lynn, not for-fucking-ever! Are you gonna keep fucking him into your thirties and forties too?”

“Maybe!”

The shouting continues for another fifteen minutes, but it goes nowhere, as usual. Phon ends up leaving just after three thirty, slamming the front door behind him. Lynn chucks his pillow into the bathroom where it lands next to the toilet. She rolls onto her side, teeth clenched, and fights her way to sleep through a maelstrom of emotion.

On the limited rest she manages to get, she spends the day napping and eating and watching old 2D movies on her tablet. She writes to a few friends, but she doesn’t tell them about the fight; they’ve all heard it before. She opens her therapist’s appointment portal, then closes it. The last time they spoke a few months ago, Lynn insisted that she wanted to try and make things work with Phon, and she’s not ready to admit how badly that’s been going for her.

Phon doesn’t write or call at all. He’s probably with friends. Or not. Who knows?

She sinks into a second hot bath before bed and aimlessly traces shapes on her stomach with her fingertips. The lemongrass-scented tea candles she lit hours ago have long since burned out, leaving only the light from the bedroom to illuminate the walls of the room and her knees above the cloudy bath water.

Every time she thinks about moving her hand lower, Phon’s words from their earliest arguments multiply in her mind like a mood-killing mold.

Why do you still need him now that you have me?

You can’t just rub one out every now and then?

Just explain to me why you have to pay some other guy to fuck you when I’m more than willing to do it whenever you ask for free.

She leans her head on the neck pillow and stares at the ceiling until the third automatic reheating cycle finishes and her throat and eyes are dry.

Seeing the dogs she grooms at the salon on Monday brings some new life back to her. She gets hours of unconditional love from them, more than she could ever ask from a human, and it’s just the boost she needs to send Phon a message as she takes the streetcar home.

I’m tired of going back and forth about this. Win is an important part of my life. He helped me through my last breakup, and he’s one of the most consistent sources of comfort in my life. I get different things from him and from you, so I hope you can accept that.

She sends it with reluctance. There’s so much more she wants to say, but none of it is constructive.

She goes to sleep early.

On Tuesday she wakes up to a quiet audio message from Phon: “I don’t know what you want me to say here, Lynn. You said you wouldn’t need him forever, but it’s been seven months since we started seeing each other, and you still go to him once or twice a week. What, am I not enough? Do I not…I don’t know. I don’t know what you want, Lynn. I love you, but I don’t know if we’re equally committed to this.”

She’s distracted throughout her appointments. An ornery Dalmatian yanks his hind paw out of her hands while she’s trimming his claws and kicks her in the jaw, a painful error that hasn’t happened to her in years. She finishes the job while ignoring the throb in her cheek, and when she has a second to check in a mirror, there’s an angry gash sluggishly leaking blood that she has to visit the clinic next door to treat.

On Wednesday and Thursday, she avoids her tablet as much as possible. She stays late at work, helping to reorganize supplies and deep-clean every surface and nook in the salon. Then she continues the avoidance at home by putting together playlists for things like exercising, soaking in the bath, and cooking. She showers and leans on the wall, staring at the suction hook over the sink that Phon bought, where they hang their matching necklaces whenever they shower together.

He left his behind.

On Friday, she naps as much as possible.

Around sunset, she calls Maprang for company.

“Hey, sweetheart!”

“Hey,” Lynn says. She rubs her eye and yawns. “Where are you?”

“On my way to MUSE, but I’m walking, so I can talk for a while.”

“How’s that whole situation going?”

“Oh, ugh. This pervert advertiser douchebag in Norway compiled all of my scenarios with P’Win and changed the lighting and background, then sold them to sex parlors in Europe. MUSE had to go after, like, twenty parlors that were using them in their advertising.”

“Eugh, that’s horrifying.”

“It is, but P’Win’s been so amazing about the whole thing. He and P’Arthit kept finding new parlors using the footage, and MUSE couldn’t get all of them to stop, so P’Win had the S.W.A. send out a mass notice to the unions in Europe and asked them to keep an eye out and have the footage taken down if they see it.”

“That’s good. I’m glad. Are you okay, though?”

“I mean, yes. I guess. I try not to think about it. Maybe if I meet anyone in Europe who’s seen it, I can just pretend I’m a super high tier porn star, y’know?”

They disconnect when Maprang reaches the entry hall, and Lynn thinks about Win waiting at the door, smiling so perfectly in some casually elegant outfit. He always smells so good, and being near him makes the world feel centered. With a spike of longing, Lynn closes her eyes and breathes in, pushing her hand under her worn T-shirt to tease her nipples one at a time.

When they’re both tight and her breath is short, she squeezes her thighs together and squirms, feeling the crotch seam of her shorts stick between her wet lips.

You can’t just rub one out every now and then?

Gritting her teeth, Lynn slams her hand flat on the bed. “Fuck.”

She rolls over and grabs her tablet.

Hi Win,

Are you free tomorrow?

Lynn

He tells her he’s kept a slot open for Saturday evening that neither Mork nor Maprang has asked for, so Lynn reserves it.

The next day, an hour before her appointment, she slips a bullet ring on her index finger and works herself to the edge three times while she showers. Afterward, she ties her hair up in a loose bun and chooses an outfit she wore for her six-month anniversary date with Phon: a tight crimson skirt and a backless white top. She goes light on the makeup, accentuating mainly her lips and cheekbones, and slips on a bracelet Phon gave her last week for her birthday.

When she walks out of the elevator into the entry hall of MUSE, Win does a sincere double-take at the sight of her. She smiles at him and walks the length of the hallway with her chin up, pleased to have caught him off guard for once.

Win whistles once she’s close and lifts a hand that she takes and allows him to twirl her.

“Either you broke up with him, or you’re breaking up with me,” Win says.

Lynn laughs, relief spilling into her voice as he brings her close for a hug.

“I missed you,” she says, cinching her arms around his shoulders.

He rubs her bare back slowly. “Did something happen?” he asks.

She breathes in and closes her eyes, resting her chin on his shoulder. “More of the same,” she says. “Can we go in?”

“Sure.”

Of course he doesn’t ask her where she’s been or why she didn’t contact him for eight consecutive days when she’d usually let him know her schedule on Sunday. He just walks with her up to his room, same as always, and asks her questions—safe ones—about the dogs and how she’s been affected by the wild rainy weather recently.

Inside the room, as she braces a hand on the wall with one hand and unstraps a heel with the other, Lynn wonders how Maprang always starts her sessions. Of course, Lynn’s never gone looking for Maprang’s scenarios, but she’s heard the acclaim, and she knows Maprang’s writing well enough to recognize her whenever she gives anonymous accounts of Win’s talents on the Portal.

She has a different dynamic with Win, though; it wouldn’t work for Lynn.

As usual, she takes a seat on the sofa. Win sits next to her, curiosity clear in his eyes.

Normally, she would tuck her feet under herself and lean against his chest, and he would ask her what she needs. Sometimes, she asks him just to lie with her and hold her and talk to her, while other times she asks him for something more in line with MUSE’s reputation.

Tonight, she kneels on the sofa, curls her hands behind his neck, watches surprise change his expression, and tells him, “I haven’t had sex in over a month. With anyone.”

He licks his lips as he processes that, then nods. “Couch or bed, then?”

“Bed.”

“Okay.”

Win really is very good at what he does.

He seems to sense that she wants to stay clothed as long as possible, so he lets her decide what goes and what stays, and he works around it. While he kisses her neck, he holds her waist and subtly guides her to straddle his thigh.

She bites her lip and moans as she works her clit against his leg through the soft, wet fabric of her thong.

“Leave marks,” she whispers. “I want you to.”

He hesitates, but he does as she asks.

The thong and skirt wind up on the floor, but she leaves the top on, allowing him to pull it down under her breasts so he can suck and play with her nipples until she’s gasping in his ear and reaching between his legs to see how far along he is.

“P’Lynn?”

She thumbs the length of him through layers of fabric with a light touch and feels his erection jerk.

“I want you to wreck me,” she says, oddly calm.

He cups her face in one hand, his eyes achingly sad. “P’Lynn, is this really what you need?”

“Please. I don’t know, but I’m so tired, and I just—I need it from someone, and I trust you.”

He accepts that.

She rolls the condom down herself and as he’s sinking into her, the urgency in her ratchets up to eleven. She lets out a hitched breath of need and whispers, “Please, yes. As hard as you can.”

He probably holds back, but not by much. He holds her hips to start, filling her deep and fast until she’s shaking, then he leans over her to whisper, “You’re so good, sweetheart,” while she wraps her legs around his waist and whimpers. She arches into the heat with a sob, wishing Win still kissed on the job.

With her eyes closed, she can almost imagine the first weeks of her relationship with Phon, when he was so hungry for her he didn’t care that she had a specialist too.

She comes with a scream into Win’s shoulder, wrapped so tightly around him she can’t feel where she ends and he begins. She doesn’t realize she’s crying until he strokes her hair and gently pulls her up into his arms, holding her close.

He’s still inside her.

Chapter Text

After spending all of Sunday night in Win’s lush apartment, Team returns to his sparse dorm room on Monday morning and tells his coach he missed practice because he worked on a paper through the night.

Sure it’s a lie, and fooling around with Win probably isn’t educational in the academic sense, but Win has just enough of a connection to the paper Team is writing that he feels confident he could justify it to himself if he felt the need to.

His coach sends back a standard “you’re full of shit and I’m annoyed about it” message, but it’s fairly tame, so Team just responds by tapping the acknowledgment notification before crawling into bed. He spends a few hours napping with his face mashed into his pillow and only wakes up when a soft chime from his tablet announces an audio message from Kao.

“Hey, Team. Your paper looks good, but I wanted to discuss one part before you turn it in on Friday. Are you busy today?”

Groaning, Team turns onto his stomach. His paper is good enough, isn’t it? He covered the division of brothels and parlors throughout the automation age and managed to exceed the word limit to the extent where King had to help him choose parts to cut out. What more needs to be discussed? He’s not defending a thesis or writing a book, for fuck’s sake.

Still, Kao’s already given his time to help, and Team can’t bring himself to be disrespectful, so he drags himself off to meet Kao at a restaurant near Kao’s house.

It’s one of the older, slower places, where customers have the food delivered to their table via a conveyer belt that loops around the restaurant. Where most newer places design their tables in creative arrangements to highlight the view or some fancy thing like a fountain or a holographic display, places like this one cropped up at the early stages of automation and still needed to function around the comparatively primitive technology.

They snag a booth near the back and Team places his tablet in the center of the table, calling up his notes and the paper itself while Kao pours them both chilled oolong tea from the dispenser in the wall.

“So, what do I have to fix?” Team asks.

“Oh,” Kao says, “that’s—” He grins and places a cup in front of Team. “Sorry, Team, I didn’t mean to suggest that we’re going to pick the whole thing apart.” He takes a sip and adds, “I just wanted to talk a little more about the human side of things in case you have to discuss it with your professor.”

Team can’t imagine a scenario where his professor would want to do that, but he lets it pass. He can appreciate a tutor like Kao needing to be thorough, and they’re already here, so….

They order a few side dishes to snack on, and then Kao rotates the paper to face himself and scrolls through it like he’s looking for something. When he stops scrolling, though, he just gestures vaguely and sends the paper and notes back into Team’s tablet, leaving the gap between him and Team wide open.

Kao folds his arms on the table and regards Team with an expression that isn’t easy to read. “When I said I’d help you,” Kao says, “I did it as a favor to Win. But also because you’re a good kid, and I can see that you do try to do well on your work when you’re motivated enough.”

Team nods slowly. Is he…in trouble?

“Your paper is fine,” Kao says. “I think between King and I, you have the topic fairly well-researched. But as someone in the industry myself, I thought I should follow up one more time and see if you have any questions on a, y’know, personal level.”

Questions? He was supposed to prepare questions?

“Um,” Team says. “I don’t think so, phi.”

And on a “personal level”? What could that mean?

Like, just…questions to ask out of curiosity?

Granted, Team’s paper isn’t very personal. It’s probably pretty dry even, to anyone who isn’t interested in economics or the development of the modern sex work industry.

As Win suggested, he began with the introduction of automated parlors in East Asia over sixty years ago. He explained the effect of successful marketing campaigns to younger generations in East and Southeast Asia who’d accumulated sudden wealth from the exponential rise of automation and the spread of universal basic income systems.

The bulk of Team’s paper, however, only got written with King’s and Kao’s help.

After personal information as well as video and audio recordings were leaked to the public, the destabilization of automated parlors began. Consumer trust took a plunge, forcing owners to bolster their security and experiment with hiring human sex workers under strict contracts to regain lost ground. The role of automation, meanwhile, shifted to the performance of menial tasks and services like cleaning and restocking supplies.

In response to this mass hiring of human sex workers, unions formed to protect the newly elevated position of sex workers. Their efforts produced minimal results at first, but the combination of striking, mass protests, and demonstrations led to an increase of public support and powerful members. After years of pressure, parlors finally yielded and began to implement protections like regular health checks—mostly at clinics initially, then later inside the parlors themselves with the invention of personal healthcare panel (PHP) technology.

Over the next several years, parlors multiplied unchecked, and the administration in power at the time handled the boom by mandating tight regulations that led to the mass legal exclusion of all parlors that failed to obtain approval from the state. Sex work was thus successfully gentrified, and a small number of parlors began their road to legitimacy.

One of which was, of course, MUSE.

To this day, any establishment unable to obtain government approval falls under the colloquial catch-all term “brothel” and their workers largely depend on the work of activists to protect them and their best interests.

All in all, it’s easily the strongest paper Team’s ever written. He could probably write a book, but of course King said he’s already working on one.

“When you came to the S.W.A. meeting,” Kao says, “did that make you decide not to visit MUSE anymore? What you heard?”

A row of bowls and serving plates arrive beside them on the conveyer belt, and Team is saved from needing to answer immediately.

By the time Kao’s chewing on a slice of steamed eggplant, Team has gathered enough composure to say, “Part of it was that.”

Kao nods, unsurprised, and nudges the serving plate of seasoned spinach closer to Team. “You can eat while you answer,” he says.

Team picks up his pair of metal chopsticks and piles a decently sized helping on his plate. “Mostly, though,” he says, “it was….” He licks his lips, thinking of Mork’s wry comment, “There are no secrets here”, but he still can’t bring himself to name Win.

He may not know much about Win’s world yet, but he’s not about to say something inadvertently stupid to one of his colleagues before they’re even officially dating. Better to just make deer eyes and pretend he simultaneously lost the abilities to speak and comprehend language.

Kao smiles at him, swallows, and reaches for the serving dish of braised potatoes. “Win made things complicated, I’m guessing?”

Team keeps his mouth shut, wincing.

“It’s okay,” Kao says, a half-smile curving his lips. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, and Win’s not subtle. He hasn’t said anything, but he’s different. Before and after he sees you, there’s always an obvious difference. We all noticed pretty quickly after he met you.”

Pleased, Team smiles down at his plate and brings a clump of spinach to his mouth.

(Maybe King will tell him more about that difference.)

“You don’t seem bothered by his work,” Kao says, bluntly.

Somehow, Team knows to look up and meet his eyes, and he sees, to his surprise, Kao’s unwavering stare picking him apart.

“Sh…ould I be?”

Kao hums, his expression neutral. “That’s not an answer, Team,” he says.

Abashed, Team says, “Sorry. I’m not bothered by it. I think it’s…” hot “…fine.” Before Kao can say another word, though, a memory lights up Team’s mind, and he perks up so suddenly even Kao blinks. “Phi! I do have a question!”

Kao blinks some more. “Uh, sure. Go for it.”

“Are specialists allowed to see regulars outside MUSE?”

Kao turns his head, eyeing Team from the side. “Yeeees? Of course.” When he sees Team hasn’t understood the reason for the of course, Kao smiles and elaborates. “Regulars see us a lot, so we change the scenery sometimes. MUSE partners with a lot of businesses, so they can pick from one of the luxury hotel chains MUSE owns, or one of the restaurants. Cassia, Krachiao, The Medallion. Places like that.”

Oh.

And Kong did see Win with a regular at The Medallion. For work, then.

But what it doesn’t explain is—

“What about taking them home with you?”

Kao says, “Well, that’s frowned upon. There’s no company rule against it, but.” He shrugs. “It’s not a good idea, and all the specialists know it. It just blurs the line too much.”

Team says, “Right, that…makes sense.”

“The S.W.A. actually collaborated with MUSE to come up with the regular tier, mainly to discourage relationships from developing on the side.”

Team boggles. “The S.W.A. helped with that? Sounds…oily,” he says, grimacing.

“Well,” Kao says, “most of the specialists supported it. Nine times out of ten, the pressure to get into a relationship with a guest isn’t coming from our side. Now, if people want to see us that badly, we offer them a place in the regular tier. Then they get the time and special attention they want, and we’re still on the job, so we’re protected. Plus, it’s more expensive, so it deters most.”

“Oh,” Team says. “I guess that’s not that bad, then?”

Except the idea that people are that demanding in the first place. And the extended demands on a specialist’s time, but…maybe he should save that part of the conversation for Win.

“Going home with them is also kind of unsafe,” Kao says. He pops another potato into his mouth, chews, swallows, and adds, “I mean, most of us know our regulars really well before we ask them to become regulars, but…it’s still not worth taking a risk like that. It is work. So I always advise specialists early on not to go anywhere secluded on the job. To protect our guests and us.”

“That makes sense.”

In the quiet that follows, Team’s mind never ventures from one question:

Which of Win’s regulars went home with him?

After Team says goodbye to Kao outside the restaurant, I reports from Team’s pocket, “You have three audio messages from friends and one from Win.”

Team checks that Kao is far enough down the sidewalk to be out of earshot, then says, “Thanks, I. Um, how long is it?”

“Six seconds.”

“Oh.” Short. “Can I hear it? Please?”

“Yes. Here it is.”

“P’King heard you’re having lunch with P’Kao and he’s extremely jealous.” Win’s voice is quiet and covert, and Team imagines him hanging out with King somewhere in MUSE, with King sulking near Win because academic conversation is happening somewhere in the world without him.

Grinning, Team asks, “Can I send him one back?”

“Yes. Go ahead.”

“It’s really creepy how you all know everything about each other.”

The next message is from King, in writing:

We know.

Tuesday sees Team waking up on time for practice, making excellent times on his worst strokes, and absorbing real information from his two classes. He shows up to their usual lunch table in the canteen with a bright smile for no one, and eats half of his food with fervor before Pharm finally joins him.

They talk about Pharm’s cousin Intouch for a bit, how he’s dazzled by the city and wanders extensively whenever Pharm is busy with classes or club meetings. That brings them to the subject of the party on Saturday.

“How many people are going?” Team asks.

Pharm says, “I think thirteen? Let me check.” He brings up a holographic guest list from his tablet and together he and Team race each other to count the names.

“Fourteen,” they say together.

Then Team says, “Well, sixteen, including you and P’In.”

Pharm nods, but a tiny crease forms between his eyes. “I think P’Korn mentioned bringing a friend, too, so maybe seventeen then?” With his index fingertip he writes: P’Korn’s friend at the bottom.

“You’re gonna make food for seventeen people?”

Pharm grins at Team with utter composure. “Team,” he says, “I’m going to open my own restaurant soon. I know how to cook in bulk.” He pokes one of the bullet points and the name beside it changes in color from black to purple. “Besides, Tops is gonna help.”

Team’s eyes widen with wonder. “You and Tops are cooking?”

Apart from being a generally kind and quietly funny sort of person, Tops is also Team’s vocal favorite member of the cooking club—after Pharm, of course. The idea of eating food made by both of them—

“I love you, Pharm,” Team says with solemn sincerity.

Naturally, this is when Ting and Manaow arrive, and Manaow’s beaming smile broadcasts what percentage of their conversation she’s overheard.

“I thought you were in a relationship now,” she coos. “Don’t let your boyfriend hear you.” Before Team can even take a breath to argue, she sighs and sprawls her arms and head on the table. “It’s so unfair! Team goes to MUSE three times and lands one of the top specialists, and he didn’t even try!”

Team closes his mouth and smirks. No one needs to know that neither he nor Win has technically asked each other out yet.

So he preens a little instead.

Ting leans over the table, takes Pharm’s napkin, and throws it at Team’s face.

Team catches it in his mouth and wags his eyebrows.

Manaow applauds dryly while Pharm laughs, “Hey!” and grabs at it.

Team spits the napkin into his own hand and offers it back with a placid smile.

“No, never mind, no thank you,” Pharm says, pushing his hand away with an amused grimace. “I’ll use my sleeve before I use that again.”

Ting suggests to Team, “Use it to wipe the smirk off your face.”

Team pulls an exaggerated scowl at her, warmed by their return to form.

She winks at him, then spoons soup into her mouth with feigned innocence as if she didn’t.

“Is this the guest list for the party?” Manaow asks.

“Yep,” Pharm says. “I’m still deciding what to make. Any requests?”

By the time Kong joins them several minutes later, they’re all casting their votes for snacks and side dishes and beverages and desserts. Team watches as Kong sets his tray down opposite Team, begins eating, and only raises his hand once or twice to add his support to something.

He’s completely quiet otherwise, and Team continues to keep an eye on him.

It’s not an unsettled quiet, but it’s not the politely disinterested quiet Kong sometimes floats into when the rest of them get loud, either. He seems intent on something none of them can see, but he eats with mechanical movements and he leaves before the rest of them, too.

Team watches him go, frowning, and thinks, I haven’t been paying close enough attention the past few weeks.

Later, while eating a bowl of noodles on his bed, Team asks I to send Win an audio message.

“So, uh, I forgot to mention it because, um. Well, Pharm’s having a party on Saturday, and—wait, I, do over. Uh, hi, hia—no, wait. Um. Start over, hang on.”

“Do you need suggestions for audio message composition?”

Team gives his tablet a sour look. “I’ve got it, hang on a sec.” He slurps up a waterfall of noodles, chomps them down quick, and swallows. “Hi hia, I just wanted to tell you my friend Pharm’s having a party on Saturday and I wanted to know if you want to come with me, there, send.”

“Sent.”

“Thanks. How was that?”

“It was very good. It contained all the relevant information.”

Team grins down at his bowl. “Thanks, I.”

“You’re welcome, Team.”

Twenty minutes later, Win writes back, Sounds fun. Sure.

On Wednesday, in the long-honored tradition of throwing rocks in a pond to see how big a splash they’ll make, Team sends Win a video of himself doing a clean butterfly stroke filmed by Mew. Win retaliates—responds?—with a video of himself drinking coffee on a balcony overlooking Bangkok, smirking over the top of the mug.

Damn it. Of course he’s good at this.

Team writes, Fine, I concede.

Win sends back an audio message: “You finally learned my name.”

He sends Win a few messages on Thursday, but Win doesn’t answer.

At dinner with Manaow and Pharm, he sits quietly wondering if he’s pushed for too much of Win’s attention too soon. He pokes at his broth-soaked beef slices and swats at Manaow after she squeezes his neck and simpers, “So clingy already!”

“I’m not clingy,” he says, scowling. “What are you even talking about?”

Pharm asks, “So this isn’t about Win?” with a sweet smile.

Team turns sideways in the booth, facing the interior of the restaurant, and folds his arms. “I’m not talking to either of you anymore.”

Despite his best efforts, though, he fails to conceal his smile when both of them converge on him with hugs and cooing.

On Friday morning, Team wakes up to Win’s message, What time is Pharm’s party tomorrow? marked as sent at three in the morning.

He replies, I’m going over early to help them set up, but you don’t have to. I think most people are going over at six.

After breakfast, he gets an audio message.

“Looking forward to it.”

His voice is so warm.

On Friday afternoon, after one last skim of his economics paper and a deep breath, Team tells I, “Okay, send it.”

And with that, the fate of his grade is out of his hands.

On Friday night, Team memorizes the shadows on his ceiling.

Then he says, “I, would it be weird to say good night to him?”

From the tablet’s newly established perch on the windowsill, I asks, “I don’t understand. Can you clarify?”

Team rolls onto his side and stares out the window at the unmoving tree branches. “I mean…we don’t have a label for our relationship, but Suede said that stuff about not expecting him to make the first move, so…maybe I should do it?”

“You’re talking about Win?”

“Yeah.”

“Suede is very advanced,” I says.

That…sounds promising. “So you think I should trust him?” Team asks.

“I don’t understand. Can you clarify?”

Maybe confusing love stuff is still a little over the head of an AI. “Never mind,” Team says.

He likes me. It’s not weird to say good night to someone who likes you.

“Okay. I’m gonna send him an audio message,” Team says.

“Understood.”

Team opens his mouth, then closes it, then breathes in through his nose, then says, “Good night, Hia Win. Okay, send, please.”

“Sent.”

“Thanks, I.”

Team closes his eyes, heart accelerating even as he tells himself he doesn’t care if Win responds in kind. Win could already be asleep. He could be with someone. He—

“Audio message from Win.”

Team’s eyes snap open. “A-and?”

His throat clicks as he swallows, waiting only a moment before Win’s reply reaches him.

“Good night, Nong Team.”

His voice is…so warm.

As it turns out, a party for seventeen doesn’t fit easily into an apartment the size of Pharm’s, so Pharm asked for permission to use one of the roofs. His fancy building—still more reminiscent of a tower of blocks made by a distracted toddler than anything with a rational design in Team’s eyes—has a number of roofs at varying heights, and Pharm’s “block” is one of the highest. Twenty-five floors above street level, Team helps Pharm and In string lights around the decorative gazebo and lighting fixtures.

“So Team,” In says, his voice coy, “Pharm tells me you have a sex worker boyfriend.”

Stood atop a ladder with string lights in his hands, Team exhales hard through his nose and gives Pharm an exhausted stare.

Pharm, standing at the base of the ladder feeding Team more string from the coil wrapped around his arm, smiles back at him. “It’s not a secret, is it?” he asks.

Team mutters, “Ganging up on me,” and carefully loops the string lights around the last rung of the gazebo roof.

He sees In and Pharm grin at each other.

Tops and his musician boyfriend Marwin arrive on the roof next, each carrying long flat containers of prepared food they warmed up in Pharm’s kitchen. In and Team set up a folding table under the string lights to serve as a buffet, then Marwin sets fist-sized ceramic stones on top of each.

“What’re those?” Team asks.

Marwin picks up one and shows Team the glowing red underside. “Something Tops’s line senior made for him. They do some fancy…heating thing. Keeps the food warm.” He shrugs and puts it back. “See, feel.”

Team hovers his hand over the top and says, “Whoa,” as heat slowly rises against his palm.

The smell is next, and Team makes a low noise of anguish at the thought of waiting for several more hours to eat.

“Tooops,” he whines across the roof, “can we eat any of this?”

Tops, in conversation with Pharm, gives Team an amused, unsurprised smile. “No,” he says.

Team groans and drops into a crouch, burying his face in his knees.

“You can eat the curry I bought, though,” Tops adds.

Team lifts his head, energized anew. “Curry?”

Tops’s curry recipe is famous across campus. Even people who have never met Tops know his curry. With the promise of delectable sustenance in their near future, the six of them finish setting up on the roof, then type in the code for the sun roof to protect it all. Then they head down to Pharm’s apartment in an animated rush to eat a late lunch of apple chicken curry with pecans as the sun sets outside Pharm’s (and In’s) window.

Team almost proposes marriage to Tops for the festival on his taste buds, but he finds himself pausing, because even in jest, it doesn’t seem right.

He tells himself he’s being ridiculous and stuffs his mouth.

In asks, “So other than P’Korn, who else is gonna be here?”

While they eat, they plant themselves around the living room in various states of repose. Pharm and In, as hosts, sit on a snug two-seater sofa, while Tops, Marwin, and Manaow have the larger, comfier one. Team, quite happily, occupies a spot on the hardwood floor with his back against the sliding balcony door.

“I invited Kitty and Sandee and Del,” Manaow says. “Kitty and Sandee should be arriving together in about an hour, I think? Del has work until later, so she might not show up for a bit.”

Team says, “Ting’s bringing some people too, right?”

Pharm says, “And P’Korn’s bringing a friend.”

Manaow says, “Kong’s bringing his new boyfriend.”

Team says, “Hia Win said he’ll be here too,” and scrapes his spoon along the inside of the bowl for the last remnants of curry.

“Aww,” Manaow says.

“Stop being obnoxious,” Team requests, then licks the back of his spoon at her.

“Stop talking about your boyfriend every four minutes then,” Manaow says.

“When have I—!”

Manaow laughs over him, her tone audibly mischievous, and even the other four seem quietly amused.

“Hate it here,” Team announces.

“You love me,” Manaow says, showing him a heart made with her hands.

Team answers by licking the inside of his bowl.

At this rate, if Win doesn’t want to date him, he’s going to look like a dumbass.

And…feel a lot of things, mainly bad.

A little after five thirty, they place their bowls and cups into the dishwasher and trek back up to the roof to wait for the remaining ten guests.

Kong and Arthit arrive first, and Team watches with fascination as someone with Arthit’s face and body pretends to be Arthit. The articulate guy he met at lunch with King and the guy he saw onstage at the S.W.A. meeting—relaxed and confident—has been transformed into someone much quieter and almost shy by Kong’s side.

He doesn’t miss the occasional glancing touch Kong slides over Arthit’s wrist or back, and he also doesn’t miss how Arthit shies away from all of it. Kong doesn’t appear to notice.

He’s distracted from his observations by hands sliding over his hips, and Team’s mind short-circuits. In a split-second, it provides him with several guesses, none of which makes the slightest bit of sense. Pharm? No, of course not. Manaow? No, wider hands. Kong? No, Kong’s over there. Then, who—?

Hot breath grazes the shell of his ear along with a whispered question. “Overprotective, aren’t you?”

Team turns his back on Kong, Arthit, Tops, and Marwin and faces Win, immediately caught off-guard by the golden glow from the string lights cast beautifully over his cheekbones.

“I’ve just never seen them together before tonight,” Team says. He peeks at Kong and Arthit again and finds that their circle has expanded to include Pharm and In as well as Tops and Marwin. Kong and Arthit have their backs to the gazebo, and in the shadows, Kong’s fingertips trace abstract shapes on the small of Arthit’s back, hidden from view unless one were to stand exactly where Team is standing by the roof wall.

Team resolves to keep an eye on them—although he’s not sure for whose benefit he’ll be doing it.

He asks Win, “Who let you in?”

Win circles his arms more comfortably around Team’s waist, hands clasped on his lower back, and says, “Your friend Pharm. He said you’d be guarding the buffet table.”

Team is, all at once, extremely aware that every person in attendance is looking at them right now, while Win, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be at all.

He’s starting to understand Arthit squirming away.

Still, he doesn’t want to give Win the impression that he doesn’t want Win’s hands on him—especially while they’re without a label—so Team forces himself not to move.

Until he sees Manaow zooming toward them like a hungry falcon.

“Teeeeam!”

Team says, “Nope, nope, nope, follow me,” and twists out of Win’s arms, hauling him by the wrist to the other side of the roof where it’ll be dark and they can hide until—uh. Until he asks Win out. He’s not about to let Manaow be the one who spills to Win that Team has been casually allowing all of his friends to use the word “boyfriend” before any official status has been established.

However, before they can escape into the shadows properly, Win stops short in front of a new arrival, physically startling. “Dean?”

It is, in fact, the handsome guy from the S.W.A. meeting, holding a plate of appetizers. He raises his eyebrows in response and says, “Win,” in greeting.

“I didn’t invite you, did I?” Win frowns at Team—as if he’d know—then at Dean. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t invite you to a stranger’s party.”

Dean says, “I was invited by someone else, thanks. You’re not my only friend.”

Carrying a food container in one hand, Korn joins their circle.

Win says, “Ah,” and nods.

With a roll of his eyes, Dean says, “I’m here to protect him.”

Win makes a rude noise under his breath. “Protect him? From who?”

On cue, In calls, “P’Korn!” and sails up to them, offering a few wais and then clutching Korn’s closest forearm with both hands in a blur of movement. “You’re here! I’m so glad! C’mon, I want to show you something.” In seizes the container from Korn, sets it absently on the buffet table, then hauls Korn away a short distance to a small observation nook overlooking the city on the edge of the roof sized for roughly two people.

From Dean’s disgruntled expression, it seems that In was the threat he came along to keep an eye on.

With a low whistle, Win rests his elbow on Team’s shoulder and regards Dean with open amusement. “Some protection you are,” he teases. “He was half your size.”

Team snorts through an involuntary laugh.

Dean is unamused, but Team’s reaction seems to please Win.

Having apparently noticed this spectacle take place, Pharm approaches the three of them, armed with a tray of colorful bite-sized desserts. “I’m sorry about that,” he says with a sheepish bow of his head for Dean. “P’In’s been really excited to see your friend all week. I’m sure he didn’t mean to be rude.”

If it was strange for Team to see Kong’s effect on Arthit, it’s downright bizarre to see Dean’s stony expression turn young and wondering under the beacon of Pharm’s smile.

It’s also a little creepy.

“You’re his cousin?” Dean asks Pharm, his voice markedly more polite.

To his credit, Pharm takes notice of these nuances. “I am. I’m Pharm. Luk chup?” He lifts the tray a little, and Team barely holds back another slip of laughter as Dean nods and takes one as if he’s in a trance.

Indolently, Win stretches his arm the rest of the way around Team and subtly squeezes his opposite shoulder. It’s unclear what he’s trying to communicate until Team checks and sees Win give him a secretive smirk.

Ah. Solidarity, then.

Team grins back.

With the dessert in hand, Dean introduces himself, then pops the luk chup into his mouth. What follows is a rapturous expression ill-suited for young eyes, and Win promptly tugs Team onward toward the shadowy area of the roof where they were headed a few moments ago. Team hesitates until he makes eye contact with Pharm and receives a subtle nod.

As he walks with Win, Team checks over his shoulder. Dean and Pharm are lost to the world under the gazebo’s string lights; Tops and Marwin are manning the buffet table; two women Team’s never met are talking with Kong and Arthit on a set of parallel benches; and In seems to be finding any reason to cuddle against Korn while pointing to various areas of the city from the observation deck.

And Manaow, it seems, has been temporarily distracted by the arrival of Ting, Prae, and—huh.

“Hia,” Team says, “that’s one of your regulars, right?”

Win’s hand squeezes on Team’s shoulder. “Um,” he says, “not anymore. He—”

He?

“No,” Team says, coming to a halt. “I mean her.”

Win turns, visibly confused, and Team watches as his expression clears in an instant. “Oh,” he says, eyes wide. “Maprang’s here too?” He blinks a few times. “How many of your friends know people I know?”

Team tilts his head, the other pronoun ringing in his head. “Who did you think I meant, hia?”

Not anymore, was what Win said.

So…a regular he doesn’t see anymore.

“Wait,” Team says, eyes wide. “Your fourth regular is here? The one who left last year?”

Win opens his mouth, then frowns. “Hang on,” he says, “how do you know Maprang?”

Oops.

I, Team thinks desperately, how do I erase the last twenty seconds?

Chapter Text

Dean was told from a young age that his parents worked “in the corporate sector”, so that’s what he told his peers and teachers when they asked him. Surrounded by people whose parents were politicians or CEOs of famous companies, no one ever asked Dean follow-up questions, and he never thought to ask his parents for details.

Shy by nature, he didn’t seek out friends in school. He studied because he had nothing better to do and drifted from club activity to club activity until he settled on swimming. His parents praised his choice as very practical and a good form of exercise to maintain into adulthood. Dean didn’t tell them he only picked it because he could do it, for the most part, alone.

It wasn’t until junior high school that Dean passed his father’s home office and heard him through the door dictating a budget report to his AI for a company called MUSE.

Like any erudite twelve-year-old, Dean knew what MUSE was.

After dinner, he followed his father to the sitting room and asked him, “Why do you work with a sex parlor?”

His father was halfway into lowering himself into an armchair, and the question seemed to break his concentration and send him hurtling the rest of the way, his eyes wide. “What did you just ask?”

Dean folded his arms, satisfied to have half-confirmation that he was right. “You were talking about MUSE in your office earlier.”

His father stared for a long moment, then his eyebrows drew in close. “I don’t like you listening at the door like that, Dean. Haven’t I told you kids—”

Dean said, “It wasn’t hard to hear. You talk really loud when you’re doing math.”

(He did put his ear to the door, but his father also talks really loud when he does math. Both things are true.)

“I would have liked to have waited another year,” Dean’s father said, “but I guess you’ve been taking sex ed. Just keep this between us until your siblings are older.”

“Okay.”

That was the night Dean found out that his father and mother had partnered with MUSE to supply them with regular imports like medical supplies and maintenance parts for their automated systems. When he saw the paperwork in his mother’s office and realized how dull their day-to-day work was, he lost interest entirely.

Dean had no intention of joining his family’s business at that age. He saw a future of drifting through life without purpose until six years later when he met Win, one of his high school classmates and the heir to an international hotel brand. One that proudly advertised its partnership with some of the world’s top sex parlors. Including MUSE.

One evening, Dean’s father brought him to a corporate party held in one of the hotels owned by Win’s family. The two of them spent a few minutes establishing the common ground of boredom and quickly wandered away from the nuanced conversations about the import business to be sixteen and idle by the pool. They sat on the edge, their nice socks and shoes discarded some distance away in the grass while their bare feet skimmed the surface of the aquamarine-lit water.

“I was actually looking forward to this party,” Win said. “I thought they’d talk about MUSE since your parents’ company does imports for them.”

“They have other clients too,” Dean said.

“I’m thinking of going,” Win told him.

“To MUSE?”

“Mm. Sounds better to me than fumbling around with someone who’s never done anything either.”

“I guess.”

Win misinterpreted Dean’s genuine lack of interest as a challenge. “Listen, a dipshit I go to school with says if they get an STI, they can just go the clinic for magic cure-all pills. How scary is it that some idiots know the risks and still don’t want to use protection?”

“So don’t have sex with those ones.”

This reasonable advice was met with a snort. “Yeah,” Win said, “but what if you can’t tell where they stand on that until after you’ve got your pants off? Then you’ve gotta be all, ‘Well, I’m gonna go,’ and then you’ve wasted all that time and you both feel awkward about each other. At least a professional won’t make things weird.”

Dean frowned at the water, then frowned at Win. “You’re really overthinking this.”

Win said, “Am not,” and kicked a low splash at Dean that only reached his bare ankle. “My parents own a hotel chain partnered with a sex parlor—I’ve heard a lot about gross sex stuff.”

“You sound almost proud of that,” Dean observed.

Win grinned at him without shame. “Well, some of it was gross in a good way.” Dean’s eye roll earned him a laugh. “Besides, I wanna know what I’m doing. I especially wanna know what I’m bad at, so I know what I have to get better at. It just seems smarter to do it that way with a professional. Then I’m not bothering someone I like with terrible sex.”

Dean wrinkled his nose. The idea of studying for sex didn’t appeal to him. Half the enjoyment would be from being new and bad at it together, wouldn’t it?

But Dean said nothing, and Win seemed content with his decision.

Until one year later, when Win slept with one of their classmates with no buildup or fanfare whatsoever.

“His dad’s a nurse,” Win told Dean, who hadn’t asked.

“Is that why you slept with him?“ Dean asked Win, for some reason.

Win pursed his lips, then said, “He’s really hot, okay? His parents were out and I couldn’t stop looking at his neck, and then he kissed me. And I could tell pretty quickly that he knew what he was doing. And also, his dad’s a nurse, so there was a variety of condoms in his bedroom. He had about sixteen of those tingly ones, you know them? And he had a long container in his drawer about this size, and he had them organized by type.”

Dean kindly didn’t comment on how much more excited Win looked about the stationary than the sex he had. Mostly because Dean desperately didn’t want to hear details and was sincerely glad that Win had distracted himself so Dean didn’t have to.

“You don’t regret not going to MUSE for your first time?” Dean asked.

Win thought about it, then shook his head. “I guess not. Now that I’ve done it, it doesn’t seem like such a massive thing, y’know? It was just sex.”

Dean didn’t get it, but he said, “Sure,” and Win seemed satisfied with that.

For the remainder of high school, Dean dated no one while Win dated casually. Never for more than a few weeks and all of his relationships ended fascinatingly free of conflict. Every now and then Dean watched with subtle awe as Win called out to exes or waved back at them with bright smiles in the hallways.

Naturally, one of their classmates finally asked Dean, “When are you and Win going to get it over with?”

Dean asked, “Excuse me?” and meant multiple things by it.

“He’s dated everyone else,” the guy said, grinning. “Is this going to be a late bloomer situation where you both insist you’re friends until one of you is about to move overseas to start a new life with someone else, then you both confess and fall into each other’s arms and cry?“

Dean stared at him with horrified wonder until the guy grew uncomfortable enough to leave his desk and then the classroom.

At lunch, he told Win, “We’re never dating.”

Win tilted his head with a bemused noise. “Not even a chance, just directly to rejection, huh?”

“Yes.”

Win shrugged and said, “Your loss,” around his straw.

Having a best friend like Win made daily life more interesting, but Dean couldn’t fathom touching him or kissing him. Dean wanted cute. Win wanted cute. Neither of them had what the other wanted, and yet some of the people Win dated admitted to feeling a little envious of his friendship with Dean and what might simmer beneath the surface.

“Exasperation,” Dean told one of them. “Mostly exasperation.”

It didn’t help that Win was extremely physically affectionate. He had an eye for spotting Dean’s darker moods, and instead of retreating like a person with sense would, he’d do the opposite and lean his elbow on Dean’s shoulder or ruffle his hair until he got a huff of resignation.

It also didn’t help that the only class Dean and Win had together was sexuality education, and that both of their families had known ties to a famous sex parlor. For some students, just seeing them exchange smirks was enough to confirm Something Going On.

The teacher once mentioned a sex toy line that got mass-hacked by teenagers, for example, and Win snorted into his palm because he’d already heard about it from Dean—since his parents’ company supplied that same line to MUSE. Apparently, the toys had all started vibrating at the same time inside the shipping container. The specialist who got the biggest shock had had their chair tipped back against it.

People asked Win regularly if he knew any of the MUSE specialists, and Dean watched as Win got better and better at side-stepping the answer. Of course he did. He’d met plenty of them at parties hosted at the hotel, but his parents had also drilled into his head from an early age their sacrosanct policy of absolute guest privacy.

“Win could get laid every day if he wanted,” someone complained once.

Dean said, “You offering?” and Win smirked while the class snickered.

He went with Win for his first tattoo, as well as his second and third. He also watched as Win attempted to give himself his first cartilage piercing, then accompanied him to the nearest clinic to have the damage fixed. Most of their teen years were like a movie featuring Win, and Dean continued to drift the same as he’d done in childhood, fairly content to let each day blend into the next with only sparks of wry laughter or fond exasperation to mark the passing of time.

He and Win attended the same university and signed up for the swim club together. Without any other tantalizing passions or ideas for a career besides swimming, Dean agreed to customize his degree around business management. The import business wouldn’t be particularly exciting for him, but not much was.

He spent most nights alone, since his parents traveled regularly for work. Del let them know she’d be continuing her studies in Chiang Mai, while Don likewise chose to keep living in Seoul for university. Their family home had always been quiet, and it made Dean wonder if a person could miss laughter and shouting through doors that he’d never actually heard.

In their second year, Win surprised Dean by circling back to his old philosophy.

“I’m thinking of seeing a MUSE specialist,” he said one afternoon while they were quizzing each other on bilateral trade in Dean’s bedroom.

Dean said, “But you’ve already had sex.” He paused for effect, then added, “A lot of sex.”

Win made a thoughtful noise and spun his holographic notebook in circles on his fingertip like a basketball. “Not with women,” he said. “Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not lasting as long as I could. Theoretically. I have to get better at that.”

“Why?”

Win blinked at him and allowed the hologram to bounce back into place vertically before him. “What do you mean ‘why?’”

“No one’s grading you on how well you’re having sex, Win.”

“The people I’m having sex with are.”

Dean said nothing. He’d never had sex, but he could admit that that was probably true. Win grinned at his silence.

A week later, Win saw a specialist on his birthday. He didn’t show for classes the next day, and Dean made a beeline to his dorm room as soon as they ended.

He knocked until Win opened the door, and then Dean drew his own conclusions from the tousled hair and the yawn Win was in the middle of covering with his arm.

“Hey,” Win said.

Dean asked, “Where were you?”

Win stretched his arms over his head and winced into another yawn. “Sleeping,” he said. “She wore me out, man.”

Dean said, “Okay, bye,” but only sighed when Win caught him by the sleeve and hauled him inside for an afternoon of oversharing.

To Dean’s surprise, Win kept going back.

He didn’t understand why, and Win couldn’t put it into words, but it sounded to Dean like an independent study of sexual education. Eventually, Win stopped describing his sessions to Dean entirely, saying only that he was fascinated by the job and what it actually entailed. How much emotional labor went into it, how much physical effort and endurance, how much creativity and empathy.

It was almost expected the day Win said, “She thinks I’d be good at it.”

Rapid-fire developments followed, and Dean was there for every one.

When Win joined MUSE part-time.

When Win left the swim club.

When Win joined MUSE full-time.

When Win got his very first regular.

“His nickname is Oon,” Win told him. “Isn’t that cute?”

Chapter Text

The darkest area of the roof where they can talk with some privacy is the southwest corner behind the gazebo, and it’s there Win and Team face each other. Team braces the small of his back and his hands on the ledge while Win folds his arms and studies him intently.

“So,” Win says, at the same time that Team says, “Hia.”

Win gestures for Team to continue.

Hesitantly, Team says, “You don’t have to tell me about your regulars, hia. I can kind of tell it makes you uncomfortable. So you don’t have to, really. I understand if you want to, y’know, like, keep a line between your job and—outside your job…. That’s fine, I promise.”

Win nods, then his gaze drops. It’s impossible to say from his face what his reaction is.

Team double-checks the other side of the roof. The string lights, the general merriment of the party. He makes sure that no one’s paying attention to them. No one seems to be, fortunately, even though he and Win would both be in clear sight of anyone who chose to look in their direction.

After a long few moments, Win says, “I’d like to tell you.”

Team says, “Oh,” and can’t identify the rush of emotion that passes through his chest. When Win meets his eyes, Team only says, “Okay.”

“So, since I joined MUSE,” Win says, “I’ve only had four regulars. Maprang is one of them.”

Team keeps his expression as featureless as possible, trying not to show how relieved he is to have temporarily sidestepped the I’ve Watched All of the Porn You Made with Strangers thing.

As soon as Team spots her in the crowd, Maprang turns her head and notices a new arrival walking onto the roof from the stairwell. Maprang’s face lights up with recognition and glee, and in a few quick strides, she rushes to greet Del with a warm hug and a thrilled little dance.

“She’s sweet,” Win says with a half-smile as he joins Team in looking. “You also met Mork,” he adds. “And there’s also Lynn. They’re my three active regulars.”

Team nods. He restrains himself from asking about the fourth. He can see in Win’s hesitance that he’s trying to build up to it.

When the silence stretches on, though, Team says, “I didn’t know your regulars would be here.” How exactly will this work out for Win if they see him here? Less confidently, Team asks, “Are you…? Do you want to leave—or…?”

Win says, “I’m fine,” and offers him a far warmer smile. He touches Team’s bicep fondly, then retracts his touch casually, as if he didn’t just send sparks shooting down Team’s spine. As if he doesn’t leave aftershocks whenever he looks away from Team’s eyes.

Like he does now, watching the party go on without them. Curious, Team follows Win’s line of sight to the bench where Kong and Arthit are still sitting and talking with the couple of women Team’s never met.

Win says, “The first was Arthit,” and Team says, “Oh.”

Then Win explains.

According to Win, Arthit never would have sought out a sex worker on his own. He was in the same year as Win and attended a top-level university across the city as an engineering major, and he rarely strayed from his group of friends and never worked up the nerve to date anyone. But for Arthit’s twentieth birthday, his friends chipped in and bought him a session at MUSE to at least get him laid before he graduated.

Later, Arthit told Win that he initially rolled his eyes at the gift, but when his friends offered to refund it and get him something else, he said, “No. Fine. Okay,” or something like that. Out of politeness only.

Apparently, when Arthit tentatively asked who he’d be seeing, his friends cheered and brought up the same holographic gallery of specialists that Team found Win through. They looked so pleased with themselves, Arthit couldn’t bring himself to back out.

(“Wait, he told you all of this?”

“Well, not all at once, but we’ve known each other for three years now. I’ve heard it in bits and pieces and put it all together. I’m smart, y’know, I can do jigsaw puzzles.”

“Sure, hia. Will he, uh, care about you telling me all this?”

“We…talked. He said he doesn’t mind you knowing the broader details.”

“You talked? About me?”

“…I’ll explain after.”

“…Okay.”)

While Arthit and his friends browsed the gallery of specialists, one of Arthit’s friends pointed out Win and said they’d met through a mutual friend a few times. He vouched for Win’s character—as best as he could at the time—and Arthit decided to trust a personal recommendation over an estimated guess of his own.

By the time Win received Arthit’s request, he’d already heard about the gift from said mutual friend. He accepted, then promised Arthit’s friends through their mutual friend that he’d make sure Arthit had a good time.

One of Arthit’s friends wrote back. From Win’s memory, it went something like this:

Win,

Thanks for agreeing to this. Arthit’s a really sweet guy, but he’s shy and he doesn’t really meet new people. He’s on a pretty intense engineering track, and he studies way too much. We’ve been his closest friends since first year and even we hardly see him. One of my buddies says MUSE is really good for first timers, so we’re hoping this will make him less nervous about Relationships. Anyway, thanks a lot.

Prem

(“How often do people send their friends to MUSE?”

“You mean like you did for Pharm?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s pretty common, why?”

“I just thought I was unique. I’m kind of bummed now.”

“Aw, you are unique, Team. Just not about that.”

“Ha. Funny.”)

Arthit’s first session was fairly typical: a ten-minute talk in the Cypress Room to establish a comfort level, then the trip up to Win’s room.

(“It’s always like that?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“Oh.”

“He didn’t tell me he wanted to do me for homework, though. You were unique there.”

“Hia.”

“C’mon, it was cute!”)

Win doesn’t say what he and Arthit did for that first session, but it was apparently good enough that Arthit bought another session on his own a month later.

(“Wow, you must have been proud of yourself.”

“I was, thank you.”)

Arthit’s friends had been right about his study schedule. The first time Arthit showed his calendar to Win, the chunky blocks of text crammed with deadlines and reading assignments and practical exams made Win’s skin crawl. His own major wasn’t nearly so demanding—evidenced by an open enough schedule that Win had time to work for MUSE part-time.

Arthit continued to visit MUSE twice a month, always to see Win. By his third month, they’d become close enough that Win asked Arthit to become his very first regular, and Arthit agreed.

(“Three months? Why so fast?”

“He was about to start an internship with one of the country’s top holo tech firms, and I was worried he’d overcommit to it. He was already losing sleep from studying, so I thought it’d help him if he could destress with me on a more regular basis.”

“That was nice of you. Wait, part-timers can have regulars?”

“Not usually. I got special permission since we were both students in our last year and we’d be graduating soon.”

“You really are their golden boy, aren’t you?”

“Shush.”

“Is that why your hair’s like that?”

“Cute.”)

Win was taken in right away by Arthit’s manners and soft way of speaking. Over time, he developed an admiration for Arthit’s analytical mind and receptive heart. It became clear that Arthit was working out a moral code to live by, and he’d already earned both affection and loyalty from the same tight-knit group of friends who’d pooled their money to give Arthit some stress-relief.

By all outward appearances, Arthit understood his role in the world and never let anyone shake him from pursuing his goals.

Only to Win did he eventually admit how alone he actually felt.

(“…”

“I shouldn’t share that part.”

“Yeah, probably not.”)

Upon graduation, Arthit’s B.I. increased, and his new job paid him twice that amount. He started seeing Win twice a week instead of twice a month.

(“Whoa. I don’t think swimming would have paid me enough to do that.”

“You didn’t want to do the regular thing anyway.”

“I never said that.”

“Did you?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Oh.”)

Win adjusted to full-time sex work quickly. He met more and more interesting people and developed a profound appreciation for how varied and fascinating his job could be. Sometimes, just the act of vulnerability and release inside an environment as safe as MUSE would unlock raw, stifled emotions in his guests. More than once, one of them broke into tears in his arms only to apologize profusely and swear they’d never done such a thing before.

One of them was a young woman named Lynn, only a year older than Win. She’d recently—

(“Broken up with her boyfriend, right? And she wanted to cuddle or something.”

“How did you know that?”

“I think I read a review she wrote about you.”

“She wrote a review?”

“I think so. You haven’t seen it?”

“I don’t read reviews. I prefer hearing feedback in person.”

“Stop grinning.”

“Nope. Can’t.”)

Win invited Lynn to become a regular next. Then Maprang. And finally Mork. Although Win had only been a specialist for a year and a half, he’d already collected four regulars, all of whom became minor celebrities among the other MUSE specialists. No one had ever taken on so many so early in their career, and everyone was curious what made these four so special.

(“Not a lot of specialists would ever want to juggle four regulars at the same time, basically.”

“I mean…yeah. Why did you?”

“I don’t know. Because I could.”

“There wasn’t a quota or anything? Or, like, a bonus for having more?”

“No, I just enjoyed seeing them. But hey, Del has five now, so she broke my record.”)

Win stopped seeing guests to accommodate the four regulars he had. On rare weeks when he had consecutive days free, he’d peruse the member requests. He felt more comfortable with people he knew, and he’d met most of the members at least once, either at a MUSE function or in his room.

He saw Arthit roughly twice a week for two years.

Then Arthit left.

Win doesn’t continue for so long that Team starts to wonder if Win’s going to try to end the story there. And if Team will let him.

The urge to search out Arthit’s face and see the star of this story claws at Team’s willpower. Does Kong already know? Would Arthit have told him already? Maybe if they’re dating, Arthit would feel an obligation?

But if Kong doesn’t know, will Team have to keep this from him? For how long?

Arthit.

The hologram.

One clear memory from the S.W.A. meeting fills Team’s mind in vivid color. “They react to direct requests and basic body language,” Arthit said, and then he moved his hand up to the neck of Win’s hologram, which moved close, as if to kiss him.

A demonstration he would have been intimately familiar with after years of seeing Win as a regular.

Team hears himself ask, “Why did he leave?“

Then Win lifts his gaze and meets Team’s and says, “I don’t know how much of that I can say without his permission.”

Team says, “Yeah, okay. I mean, I already know a lot more than I did, so…that’s fine.”

He and Win look over simultaneously at the party. Someone’s turned on lively music when Team wasn’t paying attention and dancing has begun. Maprang and Del have the figurative spotlight, laughing as Maprang spins Del, while Marwin and Tops try a dance Team’s never seen before but seems to involve dipping far too low and giggling when one almost drops the other. In’s tugging on Korn’s sleeve to join in to no avail, and Dean and Pharm watch from their spot under one of the lamp posts. Manaow pulls Ting and Prae with both hands locked around a wrist each and the three form a dancing circle of their own.

Arthit and Kong, meanwhile, have moved to a portion of the ledge adjacent to Win and Team, still swathed inside the golden reach of the string lights. In the moment Team spots them, they’re facing each other and saying nothing, Kong utterly enraptured while Arthit smiles shyly out at the city. Every fiber of Kong’s expression says he’s discovering that the ceiling of emotion he thought to exist isn’t actually real.

Team may or may not be projecting.

He takes a sharp intake of breath as Win’s fingers skate along his wrist and wrap securely around his hand. Team returns his focus to Win, mind blurry.

Win’s expression until this point has been deceptively placid, but now it’s as if a layer has been peeled away, leaving his emotion raw and easy to identify. He looks scared.

“It’s been a month since we met,” Win says.

It’s not what Team was expecting, so the words sink in slowly. “Really?”

A tiny twitch of Win’s mouth hints at a smile. “Yeah,” he says. “Exactly a month.”

Team would have sworn, if pressed, that it’s been longer. Horrible academia erasing so much of his perception of time.

“I like you,” Win says. It’s exactly what he said in the park a little over a week ago, but either there are more layers to his voice now than there were then, or Team is getting better at reading him.

As Win opens his mouth to continue, Team says, “I like you too.”

Win’s smile seems to take him by surprise, an involuntary expression that blooms over his face and lights his eyes.

Team squeezes his hand and grins a little.

Win sweeps his thumb across the back of Team’s hand, grazing slowly over each ridge of tendon. “I can’t tell you how much I wished you hadn’t come to see me as a guest,” Win says, “because I didn’t know how to ask you for more.”

Team swallows, his throat clicking.

Please say it.

“I—”

“If you’re about to ask me out, then yes,” Team blurts.

Win closes his mouth, eyes reflecting his surprise, and then he crumbles into helpless laughter.

The sound of it has Team’s grin reappearing in a flash. “Sorry,” he says. He’s not. “I didn’t mean to, uh, ruin your momentum.”

Still laughing, Win releases Team’s hand, then snags Team’s elbow and hauls him into a kiss.

In the instant before Team closes his eyes, he sees in his peripheral vision Kong and Arthit turning to look at them, but they can’t hold his attention when Win’s arms are folding around him so tightly.

The kiss starts sweet and tentative, with Win’s hand skating up from Team’s elbow, then curling around his bicep and bringing him even closer.

When they change the angle slightly, Team takes the opportunity to whisper, “So, are we dating?”

Win whispers back, “I’d say so.”

Team’s sigh of relief mingles with Win’s quiet laughter.

“So, how do you know Maprang?”

Team thought, mistakenly, that in the accompanying adrenaline rush of confirming their relationship, they’d rejoin the party after their brief make-out session and all mention of Maprang would leave Win’s mind forever.

Unfortunately, Team has chosen to date someone who remembers things.

Equally unfortunately, no one seems to notice Team’s quick scan around the bench they’re sitting on for a distraction of some kind.

Finally, Team opens his mouth, but the sentence his mind gives him—“She’s in your most popular scenario, the one with the vibrator”—is mortifying, so he closes it again. Team does not, in any shape or form, wish to die from embarrassment.

Win seems intrigued by Team’s reaction, a sinister smirk developing where his beautiful smile usually lives. “Have you met her in person?” Win asks with faux innocence. It’s clear from his tone that he’s expecting a “no”, and that if he doesn’t hear a “no” he’s going to be even more suspicious.

There’s really no getting out of answering honestly.

So Team says, “No,” and then, as soon as he sees Win’s brain processing a follow-up question, Team surrenders entirely. “I saw her on the portal, okay?” His face burns.

Win closes his eyes with the pleasure of someone who’s been told his conspiracy theory is real. “Oh, Team,” he says, and his voice is terrible in how affected he sounds.

Team folds his arms over his chest and redirects where he’s looking from Win’s face to his knees, then out to the blanket of shimmering city lights, and then finally up to the crescent moon half-cloaked behind ambling gray clouds.

“Which one?” Win asks.

Team sighs. “Which one what?”

“Which scenario did you recognize her from?”

Team hesitates. He’s not really going to need to give details, is he?

Win’s single arched eyebrow tells him “yes”.

Judging by his own theories during his marathon of Win’s forty-seven scenarios in addition to what he heard at the S.W.A. meeting about Maprang’s identity being too easy for people to guess, Maprang featured in many of the scenarios—definitely more than the three or four Team is relatively sure of.

But of course—to Team’s unending misery—the only scenario in which Maprang showed her face completely unedited was the one with the vibrator and the screaming.

And Win seems to have already reached the same conclusion, if his smirk is anything to measure by.

So Team says, “You know which one,” and sulks.

There’s a sudden spike of amusement in Win’s eyes. “Well, you looked at quite a few, so I’m clarifying.”

Team tries to make that mean something else for about five whole seconds, but he knows from Win’s sheer aura of triumph that his doom has long been sealed.

Win stretches his arm behind Team and traces his fingertips up and down Team’s bicep. “I can’t tell you,” he says, “how intrigued I was to discover my brand new guest jumping around from scenario to scenario at four in the morning, only to then realize what all those scenarios had in common.”

Team tries to launch himself off the bench toward the stairwell, but Win swiftly grabs him and hauls him back down. For good measure, he crosses a leg over Team’s and leans close, heedless of the proximity of the other fifteen party guests who are mostly pretending they aren’t seeing what they’re seeing.

Team squawks at Win—which wasn’t quite the eloquent rebuttal he planned on delivering, sadly.

Win says, “So,” and touches the tip of his nose to Team’s, “which was your favorite?”

Team swallows reflexively and, unbidden, his mind calls up imagery of—

“Hey, Win.”

Blinking, Win lifts his chin, looking upside-down at Maprang who’s appeared from the ether and is bracing her hands on the back of the bench.

“Hey,” Win says. He doesn’t otherwise unwind himself from Team, who will never admit on pain of death how close he was to telling Win his favorite scenario in reasonable earshot of someone who’s actually featured in a number of those scenarios. (Though, of course, not his favorite one.)

Maprang changes her focus to Team and smiles, offering a wai. “Nice to meet you,” she says. “I’m Maprang. You’re Team, right?”

Team says, “I am, yeah,” and pushes at Win’s chest so he can have the space to offer one in return.

Win allows the distance, but his expression remains caught somewhere between elated and serene.

With Team’s confirmation, Maprang beams. “You’ve been making him so much happier recently,” she says, then points at Win’s face with a delighted laugh. “See? Look at him!”

Win bats her hand away with a good-natured, “Stop,” but he doesn’t try to subdue the joy in his eyes, and Team is momentarily stunned to realize that…she’s right.

He did that.

Even though he’s barely done anything.

“Team.”

This time, it’s a much more familiar voice, and Team turns inside the curl of Win’s arm to find Kong standing next to the bench, Arthit nowhere in sight.

Maprang says, “Hi, Kong,” and the two exchange wais.

Team blinks twice.

Win, on the other hand, doesn’t seem surprised at all.

Then Kong meets Team’s eyes and asks, “Can I talk to you?”

Before Team can process the request, Win is already unwinding his arm and moving away to let Team stand. When Team checks in with him, Win just gives an almost imperceptible nod.

Well then.

“Sure,” he says.

He follows Kong a short distance away to the northeast corner of the roof, a nook bathed in light from the apartment windows above as well as the lampposts flanking the stairwell door. It’s also the perfect vantage point to see everyone, too. Pharm, In, Korn, and Dean have taken spots inside the gazebo and have begun a holographic drinking game. Maprang is still at the bench, bent low with her arms braced on the back of it while she and Win talk and laugh. Near the buffet, Tops is showing Marwin how to work the heaters, and Manaow seems to be cheerfully regaling Del and Prae and the couple Team doesn’t know with a story.

That leaves Arthit, who seems to have vanished, and—

Ting.

She’s quick to spot: standing on her own at the southwest corner of the roof, directly diagonal to Team and Kong, sipping from a cup with her back to everyone.

Before Team can comment on that, though, Kong says, “I think we’re both on the same page now,” with cautious eyes.

Team eyes him back. “About?”

Kong purses his lips.

Team frowns.

It’s likely that they would have stayed locked in a stalemate of You Go First, but Arthit chooses that moment to step through the stairwell door, notice Kong and Team next to it locked in a staring match, and ask, “How far into this conversation are you?”

The rate at which Kong’s expression shifts from severe to soft as he changes focus from Team to Arthit seems unnatural and in need of deeper study.

“I haven’t asked yet,” Kong says. His voice sounds apologetic, like he’s been chided. “I don’t know if he knows.”

Arthit exhales through his nose, a hint of exasperation in his voice, then offers Team a wai. Water beaded on his hands suggests he was using the restroom in Pharm and In’s apartment. “Nice to see you again, Team,” Arthit says.

Somehow, Team can’t see Arthit any differently now. Sure, the guy visited Win twice a week for two years. And then he just…stopped. Which is mysterious. But that’s the Arthit Win knows; the one in front of Team is the one Team knows.

Team returns the greeting without so much as a pause. “Nice to see you again too, phi,” he says.

A tentative smile struggles to spread across Arthit’s lips. “I saw you and Win talking…. I guess he told you about me?”

Team says, “Yes, phi.” Then, to assuage any potential concerns about Arthit’s privacy, Team adds, “Some of it. He didn’t go into detail, though.”

Arthit glances at Kong, and something passes between them. Then he says to Team, “I hope…you don’t mind Win being friends with me.”

Kong reaches out and hooks his pinky around Arthit’s, his full attention locked on without the tiniest hope of distraction.

Team can’t comprehend the sentence he’s heard, and when he meets Arthit’s eyes, there’s no trace of the Ethical Genius there. Just a nervous person facing an unknown. A potentially painful one.

“I don’t understand,” Team admits. “Why would I mind?”

Kong smiles. His hand snags Arthit’s in a firm, interlocked grip. “Told you, phi,” he says.

Arthit gives him a sarcastic look that diminishes by the time he meets Team’s eyes again. The contrast both of them have shown around each other is frankly more alarming than the conversation they seem so nervous about having. “Some people might,” Arthit says. “But I can promise you that everything that happened between me and Win was my fault. He’s one of my closest friends, and while I was his regular, I let the lines blur too much. But I promise, he’s moved on from me completely, and he really does seem to be serious about you, Team.”

He says it so solemnly and deliberately that Team can’t find it in himself to interrupt. Only after a few seconds of silence does he ask, “Did you two date, then?”

To Team’s amazement, he can almost feel the discomfort project from Arthit like a tangible wave.

“No.”

Having calmly arrived and spoken his piece, Win drops back against the ledge, his hip warm and solid against Team’s. With a smile, he hands Team a cup and says, “Hey,” to Kong along with a one-hand-to-cup wai.

Kong offers back an even less technically correct version, disinclined to let go of Arthit’s hand as he is.

Team sips his drink and waits for an explanation from one of them about why the atmosphere has gotten so tense all of a sudden. He looks enviously at Tops and Marwin making fake robots out of some apple slices.

Whatever still needs to be said probably won’t be coming from Arthit. One hand is clutched tight around Kong’s, while his other hand grips his own forearm in front of himself. His eyes flick back and forth between Win and Team, visibly unsure of how to proceed.

Kong, meanwhile, seems content to hold Arthit’s hand and act as a silent bodyguard for his boyfriend’s emotions.

Win says, “I…” and glances at Arthit, who says, “It’s okay, Win, really,” in a small voice.

Kong tightens his hold on Arthit’s hand.

“Are you all worried about me?” Team asks, eyes widening as the realization dawns. “Is that why you’re being weird? ‘Cos you think I’m gonna be jealous and burn someone’s house down because I’m not the first person hia’s liked?”

Kong is the first to react, fighting and losing a skirmish against a grin.

Arthit and Win seem caught off guard and frozen, their lips parted.

“I’m twenty-one, not eleven,” Team complains. He points a special amount of sulking in Win’s direction, allowing sincere annoyance into his voice. “So what if you liked him? He’s nice; I can see why you would. I mean, look, Kong likes him too.” Ignoring Kong’s failed attempts to hold his laughter in, Team throws his hands up to emphasize his general confusion. “It happened a year ago, right? I don’t care. Is that better?”

Win regards him with what appears to be genuine surprise, possibly even disbelief.

Arthit’s covering his mouth with his free hand, but one glance at his eyes tells Team he’s smiling.

Team quirks a small smile for him in return. “I don’t need to know what happened, phi,” he tells Arthit with considerably more respect. “That’s your guys’ business.”

Arthit lowers his hand, and Team watches his smile soften with relief. “Thank you,” Arthit says.

“That was really mature, Team,” Kong says with a deceptive note of warmth.

Team scowls at him for his trouble. “Oi, why didn’t you tell me any of this?” he demands.

Kong tilts his head. “Why would I do that?“ he asks. “It wasn’t my place to tell you.”

Team considers that, says, “True,” and smacks Win’s forearm.

Win gives him an awed kind of grin and says, “I’m sorry.” A moment later, he adds, “In my defense, though, we still have a lot to learn about each other.“ Then, to Arthit and Kong, he adds, “I just asked him out officially.”

“Did not,” Team corrects. “I did.”

Win peers at him as he lifts his cup to his lips, then says, “This is going to be awkward when we tell the story to people,” before he takes a long sip.

Arthit and Kong grin while Team gawks.

“Hia!”

Before they leave the party, Team loosens his hand from where it’s been tightly grasped in Win’s for the last forty minutes. It’s felt like an extremely necessary thing to do, and Team has especially enjoyed the “Squeeze Hand but Never Allow Other People to Notice Hand Squeeze“ game Win’s so cleverly invented.

But Team feels wrong leaving without checking on Ting first.

At Win’s inquisitive look, Team says, “Just give me a minute,” and waits for Win’s confused nod before he begins weaving through the goodbyes and the cleaning and the tipsy dancing.

Ting is on her own again, this time in the gazebo. She’s practicing knitting with a holographic tutorial.

When Team puts a foot on the first step, she glances up, hope in her eyes, but it extinguishes when she sees him.

“Hey Team,” she says quietly.

It’s terrible to see her wilted like this, without the fierce exuberance that fuels her. It’s an echo of how she looked last year when her world seemed to break in two.

Behind them, there’s a round of laughter, but Team doesn’t look. Ting does, briefly, then lowers her eyes again. She closes the knitting tutorial with a wave of her hand, then gives Team a smile.

“Congratulations, Team,” she says, trying for a smile and not quite succeeding. “You and Win look really happy.”

Team sits next to her. “What’s going on with you?” he asks.

Ting’s smile shivers. “I…” A tear beads and falls from her eye. “The girl I liked last year. You remember?”

Team nods. He turns his body to cover her from view, resting a hand on her back.

Ting takes a steadying breath. “I asked her out tonight,” she says.

Team’s eyebrows rocket up. “She’s here?”

Ting says, “Yeah,” with a humorless laugh. “You talked to her before she left.”

Team glances over his shoulder, but the only girl missing is—

The same girl in Win’s scenarios. The same one Ting watched at the same time as Team.

Team says, “Oh,” and winces. “Ting.”

She rests her face on her hands, elbows resting on her thighs. “I know,” she says. “It’s not her fault.” She takes a slow breath and exhales through her fingers. “She just sees me as her junior.” With a watery laugh, she adds, “At least now I know for sure.”

At the first hitch of her shoulders, Team says, “No one can see,” and rubs her back.

She doesn’t have much to say after that. She gives Team a tight side hug, chin on his shoulder, and says, “I’m sorry I was a jerk about P’Win.”

Team shakes his head. “You weren’t,” he says. “I think we were just talking about two different people.”

She leaves alone despite Team’s offers to walk home with her.

By then, most of the party guests have left the roof, with only Pharm and Tops at the buffet sorting out which foods need to be prioritized for trips down to the kitchen. Team’s stomach groans with neglect, and he’s tempted to make a quick stop to grab a samosa or a dumpling to soothe the furious vortex in his body.

However, some newly acquired force makes him look at Win—his boyfriend. He’s standing alone by the door to the stairwell, tablet in hand, ponytail loose after Team played a game called Tug the Ponytail Until Hia Says Stop.

It’s clear something’s upset him. He’s just staring at the screen, his eyes glazed and unmoving.

Team skips the food for now and crosses the roof, touching Win’s elbow once he’s close enough. “Hia? What’s wrong?”

Dully, Win says, “Lynn’s leaving.”

Chapter Text

Prae holds Manaow’s hand to stabilize her as Manaow boards the streetcar. She swings their arms twice with a fond smile while Manaow says, “Good night, P’Prae,” and squeezes her fingers.

Then Manaow leans down and gives Prae a kiss on the cheek.

Prae says, “Good night, Manaow,” with a smile and a squeeze in return.

She releases Manaow’s hand as soon as the streetcar chimes twice. Almost soundless, the streetcar begins to amble down the street, its magnetized frame hovering a hand’s length above the tracks. Once the streetcar has made it safely a considerable distance away, Prae hums the last song she danced to before the party wound down for good and begins her walk home.

She’s a little floaty as she crosses the street, pleasantly buzzed and a tinge sad as she watches the oncoming cars automatically slow as they detect her.

Manaow is a funny, beautiful, and sweet girl; it’s no surprise why Del likes her so much.

Prae decides to take the scenic route through the booksellers’ alley, every shop painted a different color, all the shutters drawn for the night.

A familiar voice rises in volume as Prae walks, clear as a bell in the quiet.

“I don’t think he’ll do that. No, sweetie. He’s not like that. You know him. You explained the whole situation to him, and I’m sure he’ll be sad to see you go, but he’ll understand. Okay. Okay. No, I know. All right. Go drink some water. Yeah. Good. Talk to you tomorrow. G’night, phi.”

Seated on the steps of the long staircase leading up to the local temple is Maprang. Her black strappy sandals and bare legs were the first thing to catch Prae’s eye, but next on the list are her glowing tablet held in both hands and her head tilted back as she stares up at the stars.

After a few seconds of inactivity, the tablet screen goes dark.

Prae lets her footsteps fall a little heavier and smiles as Maprang glances in her direction.

“I just walked Manaow to the streetcar,” Prae tells her.

When Maprang only nods, Prae takes a seat next to her. The usual brilliance in Maprang’s eyes seems to have abandoned her. She sounded herself while he was talking just now, but she must have exerted extra effort not to sound the way she looks.

Prae noticed it at the party after Ting tugged Maprang aside to ask her something.

To confess something, Prae suspects.

“Want company?” Prae asks. She splays a hand between Maprang’s shoulder blades and smooths a line up and down over the damp fabric of Maprang’s cascading, shimmering vermillion dress.

With a small noise, Maprang lists to the side until her head is warm and heavy and fragrant on Prae’s shoulder.

“I just talked to Lynn,” Maprang says.

“I heard the end of it. Is she going to stop seeing P’Win?”

“Yeah.” Maprang rubs her cheek on Prae’s bare shoulder. “Phi, I don’t want to go home.”

Prae reaches across Maprang’s back and gently tucks her long hair back over her shoulder and away from her face.

“Ting will be fine,” Prae says.

It’s an educated guess, but Maprang’s slow exhale confirms it was the right one.

“I knew she had a crush on me,” Maprang says quietly.

Prae combs her fingers in long strokes through Maprang’s fringe. “We all did,” she says. “It’s not your fault you don’t feel the same way.”

“I was hoping she would get over it before she worked up the nerve to tell me,” Maprang says. “So I wouldn’t have to turn her down.” She peeks up at Prae, her expression fraught. “That was kind of selfish, wasn’t it?”

Generally, Prae has always seen more value in thinking before speaking. She watched Ting’s crush on Maprang begin and flourish over the years, and it always seemed best to let it run its course. If it had been Prae in Maprang’s shoes, she might have taken Ting aside at some point early on and gently led her down a different road.

She knows all too well how it feels to pine for years without fruition. She wouldn’t wish it on someone who cares about her the same way.

But…when a stunning woman is staring soulfully up at you wanting comfort, what allegiance to the status quo can you possibly maintain?

“It was a little selfish,” Prae says, then smiles at Maprang’s small, sweet moue. “But we’ve come to accept that that’s part of your charm.” She touches a kiss to Maprang’s hair and closes her eyes, resting inside the aroma.

She’s never told Del how she feels. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, Prae knew the right questions to ask to find out Del’s feelings without exposing too much of herself. For her efforts, Prae learned that Del is content as she is, with only a vague idea of the kind of partner she wants. More importantly, Prae learned that Del has and enjoys a concretely platonic affection for everyone in her life.

Prae’s cautious questions landed her a date with Manaow, but it quickly became clear to both of them just how far they’d get with any kind of romantic relationship when their conversation kept circling back to Del.

It’s time to let someone else try to win Del’s heart.

When Maprang lifts her head, Prae leans back enough to give her space.

For some reason they’ll never be able to explain, they hesitate somewhere in the middle, their noses brushing.

Maprang’s gaze switches back and forth between Prae’s eyes.

Prae takes a deep breath.

Well.

When two doors close, a third opens.

Or something.

“P’Prae,” Maprang says.. “You and Manaow—?”

“No,” Prae says.

She watches Maprang’s smile reappear in stages and breathes through a hushed, anticipatory laugh.

“What about Del?”

“Are you going to list every woman we know?” Prae asks.

Maprang says, “No,” in a sweet voice. “Just the ones you tried before settling for me.”

“Y’know, you’re not gonna get anything if you keep it up.”

Prae’s apartment is closer, and with quick strides they manage to reach the lobby in just under seven minutes. On the way, their hands brush more than once, and Maprang says, “This feels like a terrible idea,” and Prae responds, “Only if you think about it,” which makes Maprang snicker.

As they wait for the elevator, Maprang slips her fingers through Prae’s and leans close to whisper, “How many of my scenarios have you seen, phi?”

“None,” Prae says.

Maprang makes a wounded noise and pulls back. “Phi! I sent them to the group!”

The elevator doors open and Prae walks in, tugging Maprang along. “I have strict boundaries for my friends.”

“Wanna watch one now, then?” Maprang coos. “Might help you get in the mood.”

As soon as the doors close, Prae swiftly presses Maprang against the nearest wall. “What makes you think I need help?” she asks. Then she hooks her finger around the single asymmetrical strap of Maprang’s dress and draws her into a deep, searching kiss.

The elevator ride up to the fourteenth floor is an urgent kiss that leaves Maprang’s breath short and her pupils dilated by the time the doors open again.

Like most S.W.A. members, Prae paid extra to upgrade her health panel in her entryway beyond the most basic health checks. The moment Prae and Maprang enter, the panel screen goes into a blur that shows Prae’s usual stats, and while Maprang tries to toe off her sandals without breaking the kiss—and failing three times—Prae sees Maprang’s readout match.

It’s always worth a pause in the entryway before casual sex, Kao always says.

“First,” Prae says, drawing her fingertips up over the zipper that follows the path of Maprang’s spine, “we take care of me by taking care of your nails.”

Maprang’s affected noise has Prae grinning and fanning her other hand deep through Maprang’s hair. It’s thick and sleek at the ends, and hot and damp at the roots from the dancing and the balmy weather.

“When was the last time you slept with a woman?” Prae asks.

Maprang’s breath catches. “U-uh…a while. P’Win’s kept me pretty satisfied, honestly.”

Prae says, “Mm,” and guides her to the bathroom.

Win is good at his job, but Prae has better stamina.

She sits Maprang on the lip of the bathtub and retrieves a nail file from her cabinet. She kneels between Maprang’s calves, closer than she needs to be, and begins filing down the first three nails of Maprang’s right hand.

Maprang licks her lips, watching.

Prae keeps her own nails short, but Maprang’s have always been a point of pride for her. Wickedly long and apparently something men enjoy seeing when she strokes them off.

Seeing the length of those nails vanishing under the glass file goes directly to Prae’s core.

The fact that Maprang is allowing this at all is heady.

When she’s satisfied with the look of the trimmed blunt edges, Prae blows the dust from Maprang’s fingertips and then takes them into her mouth one at a time, her eyes locked on Maprang’s.

Headier still is how Maprang’s lips part, maybe involuntarily.

They shower together, Prae kissing Maprang outside the spray while Maprang works a lather into her roots.

“If you get shampoo in my eye, I’ll file down the rest of your nails.”

“Tip your head back then.”

“I can tip my head back or suck on your tongue—I’m talented, but I can’t do both.”

This has been their dynamic from the beginning, and it’s almost startling how easily it fits into a sexual context as well as a platonic one. Prae smiles without meaning to and tips her head back into the spray.

“Thank you. Was that so difficult?”

“Less sass, please.”

Before leaving the shower, they take Maprang’s newly groomed fingers for a test drive. Prae leans on the shower wall and brings Maprang’s hand to her stomach, then slides their fingers together over neatly shaped hair and between wet, swollen lips.

The first graze of Maprang’s fingers over her clit has Prae moaning with all sincerity.

“I’d almost forgotten how nice women feel,” Maprang whispers.

“The inside is even better,” Prae says.

They share a grin as Maprang’s middle two fingers slide in and then curl, massaging with such confidence, it’s almost like familiarity.

Then her thumb circles the hood of Prae’s clit, and Prae closes her eyes and shudders.

Maprang presses almost chaste kisses along Prae’s shoulder and neck, the hiss of the shower and the slick noises between Prae’s thighs almost equal volume as Maprang speeds up.

“I never thought you’d let me touch you like this, phi,” Maprang whispers. She presses her thumb onto the raw nerves of her exposed clit and says, “I didn’t think you were into me.”

Prae manages a sarcastic, “Sure,” and then gasps. “That’s why it took me all of five minutes to bring you back to my apartment after both of us ended that party single and sad about it.”

As soon as she says it, she realizes there’s a chance Maprang will take it badly, but—

That’s not their dynamic.

Instead, Maprang pinches Prae’s peaked left nipple and sucks a dark mark into the skin of her throat and says, “Good,” before rubbing Prae to an orgasm that makes her cry out against Maprang’s mouth and dig her fingernails into Maprang’s waist.

The crescent marks on Maprang’s skin are still angry and dark when Prae spreads Maprang over a towel on her bed and works her tongue between her swollen wet lips with such devotion that it has Maprang writhing and moaning and finally screaming.

They’re still there when Prae straddles Maprang’s face, braces her hands on the wall, and shudders while she tells Maprang where she needs to spend more time, and how gently or roughly to treat her.

They’re faint but visible when Prae whispers, “Close your eyes,” into Maprang’s ear and then presses a vibrator to her clit and holds it there while Maprang, stripped bare of all pretense after hours of this, shivers and begs to come.

Prae tells her no, and Maprang sobs, “You fucking lied, phi,” as her thighs shake. “You watched my scenarios, didn’t you?”

Prae switches the vibrator off and licks the dripping head with a smile. “No, sweetheart,” she says. “I just know you.”

In response, Maprang’s breath turns ragged, and Prae kisses her filthily before switching the vibrator on as golden sunlight paints over her bed.

Chapter Text

While Win calls Lynn, facing the city with his back to the party lights, Team heads over to the dismantled buffet table to say goodbye to Pharm.

“Hey, I barely saw you,” Pharm says.

Looking around the roof at the dismantled party decorations, Team realizes just how little of the party he actually got to experience, and how few of their friends he spoke with. He never did find out the names of that one couple, either, and he can’t remember if he even said hello to half of the people who were here. It feels as if, from the moment Win arrived, Team spent it wrapped in the crook of his arm.

Happily, though.

Deliriously so.

It definitely distracted Team from the opportunity to mingle, though.

And to eat.

Team darts his hand into an unsealed container and nabs a wedge of braised potato, chewing noisily as he says, “I was busy.”

Pharm peers pointedly at Win over Team’s shoulder and says, “Uh huh,” with unvarnished amusement.

Team wags his eyebrows. “So, did P’In have fun?”

As Pharm seals a large tray with a lid nearly the size of his entire torso, a wry smile forms on his lips. “He’s still having fun,” he says. “He and P’Korn are on a date.”

Team blinks several times as if he misheard. “What, now? It’s late!”

Laughing, Pharm says, “Yeah, I was a little surprised too, but P’In’s always been like that. He doesn’t bother wondering about what could go wrong. He just sees someone he likes, and he goes for it.”

“Huh,” Team says. His first impression of Pharm years ago was essentially: He seems sweet, but assertive. It would appear that Intouch is cut from the same cloth. “Good for him.”

Team carries the last of the sealed containers down to Pharm’s apartment and slides them into the last few empty spaces in his fridge. When he jogs back up to the roof, Pharm and Tops have cleared away the rest, and Marwin is taking down the last of the string lights from the lamppost near the gazebo.

“Oh, Team!” Pharm calls. “Before you go!” He picks up a red container from the railing of the gazebo and jogs over. “This is for you and P’Win to eat,” he says with a smile. As he presents it to Team, the arrangement of leftovers inside are on proud display through the glass lid.

Consummate host and kindhearted soul that he is, Pharm has—in addition to everything else he needed to do—set aside dinner for Team.

…And Win.

When Team only gawks in wonder, Pharm grins and says, “P’Dean told me earlier while you and P’Win were talking that P’Win was planning to ask you out tonight, so I figured you both might’ve been too distracted to eat.”

An assumption he’s nailed.

Speechless, Team surges forward and hugs him tight. “You’ve always been my favorite friend,” he croons. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Pharm laughs and pats his back gently with his free hand. “Just give the container a wash before you return it, okay?”

“I will. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

After Team withdraws from the hug, he accepts his dinner from Pharm with an additional joyous gurgle from his stomach. He and Pharm laugh as Team gives his pining stomach a commiserating pat.

“I’m happy for you,” Pharm tells him. His expression has settled into a warm smile. “Really, Team. He seems great.”

Team focuses on the red pepper slices inside the container. There’s a layer of comfort almost tangible in the air around him, and when he meets Pharm’s eyes again, he returns Pharm’s smile. A glance over his shoulder confirms that Win’s still talking to Lynn—through audio, it seems, and too quietly to hear from this distance. He was undeniably the most gorgeous person at the party; he radiates it effortlessly.

Just the sight of him makes Team think, He picked me, with quiet awe.

Even though Team doesn’t know all that he wants to about Win, at least now he knows he has time to learn.

“Aww,” Pharm coos, “Team.”

Team says, “Leave me alone,” with a feigned pout. Then, “Speaking of great guys—you were spending a lot of time with P’Dean tonight.” He taps Pharm’s arm with the container, raising his eyebrows with mischief. “How’d that go?”

Pharm points at Team’s chest with a faux stern expression. “Don’t be nosy,” he says.

“I’m interested!”

“Nosy.”

“Fine, I’m nosy, now tell me.”

“No thank you.”

“Phaaaarm!”

“Teeeeeam!”

“Team.”

Startled, Team turns on his heel and finds Win near the doorway to the stairwell, clearly posed to leave through the doorframe in a matter of seconds. Perfectly normal, completely expected, and yet there’s no denying the sudden kick to Team’s heart that accompanies the idea of Win leaving without him.

“I’m gonna get going,” Win says. He offers a wai to Pharm. “Thank you for having me, Pharm. It was a great party.”

Pharm returns the gesture with obvious pleasure poorly hidden under a single layer of humility. “Thank you, phi,” he says. “Have a nice night.”

Win says, “Good night,” to Pharm and nods at Team.

“Wait,” Team blurts. It’s probably too much to say, Let me come with you, so he settles for, “I’ll walk you out.“ He gives Pharm another quick hug, then hurries to Win, who offers him a pale, wrung-out smile.

Win seems disinclined to talk, so Team uses the time spent in the elevator ride to the lobby trying to gauge his mood by nuances in his body language. Unsurprisingly, Win’s not giving much away, but that in itself is telling. He has his MUSE cover on, and he hasn’t looked away from the floor display once since the doors closed.

So he’s…definitely not okay.

Once they’ve reached the lobby, Team and Win walk slowly to the front doors, flinching when the shift from cool to humid hits their skin. Win doesn’t say a word as they pause on the edge of the street, streaked by the lights of passing cars, but he does turn to face Team at last. He meets Team’s eyes with some multifaceted emotion just beyond Team’s comprehension, but he seems…tired more than anything else.

Unconsciously, Team’s hand moves, his fingers catching and tangling around the unbuttoned cuff of Win’s sleeve. “Hia,” he says, “do you wanna talk?”

Win’s answering smile looks sad and tepid. “Not really,” he says. He lifts his hand into Team’s and Team releases his sleeve in favor of seeking out Win’s long fingers. To Team’s surprise and secret delight, the two of them stand there like that, Win allowing Team to channel his worry into playing with his fingers.

“Where’s your car?” Team asks.

Win says, “Dunno,” with the mildest of intonations.

Team frowns at him, frozen. “What do you mean?” he asks.

“Axl,” Win says. He scritches his manicured fingernails over Team’s palm playfully. “He wanders around when I don’t need the car.”

Team stares at him.

Win’s smile grows brighter and simultaneously more sincere. “Being friends with engineers influenced the way I think about technology.”

“I didn’t miss that,” Team assures him.

“I don’t entirely understand how much they feel or if they even do feel things,” Win admits, “but on the off chance that Arthit and P’King are right about their level of sentience, what’s the harm in treating them like they do? With all they do for us, y’know?”

Team nods. And smiles.

The longer they stand there, staring at each other, the wider their smiles grow until they’re both resisting the urge to laugh.

“How are you getting home, then?” Team finally asks, his voice audibly amused.

“I can call him,” Win says.

He doesn’t though.

And it’s then, emerging from the shadow of Lynn’s impending departure and Ting’s recent heartbreak, that Team returns to the shining disbelief of finally knowing for sure where he stands with Win.

Who, it seems, can read Team’s mind.

As Team’s hand pulls on Win’s, Win wraps his free arm around Team’s shoulders and brings him close into a sweet, affectionate kiss. The kind of kiss best enjoyed by closing one’s eyes. Team finds himself giving in to it, gripping his precious container of food in one hand and Win’s hand tight in the other.

Win kisses better when he’s unfocused.

On the cusp of allowing the kiss to reach indecent territory, they separate. Win notches his chin over Team’s shoulder, and Team leans on Win, both of them soaking in each other’s presence.

“Kurt,” Win says. “How far away is Axl?”

From Win’s pocket, Kurt says, “Three minutes away.” Then, after a moment of silence, he adds, “He seems to be doing a figure-eight pattern around the same eight blocks.”

Team stifles a snicker in Win’s shoulder.

“Sounds about right,” Win says.

While they wait for Axl to arrive, they continue to rest that way. Win’s scent, Team notices, is always somehow subtly different. It’s like his clothes change aromas—maybe from being cleaned at MUSE some of the time and at home the rest of the time.

After a deep breath—one that has Win holding him a little tighter—Team peers up at the ridiculously assembled building of block shapes, counting the windows meticulously until he finds Pharm’s. In addition to the usual perks of love and companionship, dating Win will also make it easier for Team to keep an eye on Dean.

He’s Win’s friend, but he’s also very much an unknown variable, and Team has already seen one friend crushed tonight.

When Axl arrives, Team withdraws from Win’s arms.

The sight of the container in his own hand has Team saying, “Oh! Before you go.”

Win hasn’t moved at all. He tilts his head with curiosity as Team holds the container out to him.

“Leftovers from Pharm,” Team says. “Since you didn’t get a chance to eat.”

Win’s eyes linger only for a second on the container before he smiles up at Team. “I’m sure he made that for you,” he says.

“You can have it,” Team insists. “I can just eat something when I get back to my dorm.”

His stomach gurgles in outrage.

The noise draws Win’s attention and then evokes a small grin. When they make eye contact again, Win says, “I…would actually really like company if you want to come over.”

Sometimes, the universe sees fit to present certain inhabitants of the Earth with perfection for no apparent reason. Some of those recipients panic when faced with such a thing, and they miss their opportunity to accept it. Or they believe they’re unworthy of it. They miss their chance, and the gift passes them by.

Team is too eager to make either of these mistakes and says, “Sure,” almost before Win’s invitation is finished.

Win acknowledges his enthusiasm with a small laugh, and when Axl pulls up to the curb, Win takes the container from Team’s hand and gestures for Team to climb into the backseat first.

Until this moment, Team’s mind was on bothering Win as little as possible, but now, it’s on food and another truly essential need.

Because Pharm is among the best people Team knows, he’s included two spoons tucked into the container’s top compartment. Win holds both in one hand and gives Team an assessing grin.

Team says, “Fine, he made it for both of us,” and swipes one of the spoons. “I just didn’t want to make you think you had to invite me over.”

The backseat of a classic car isn’t an ideal place to eat dinner, but Axl promises to warn them if he needs to crash into anything.

Team says, “Thanks,” with deep sarcasm and a suspicious look at Win.

Who absolutely sees it but elects to ignore it.

There is more of Win in the AI surrounding him than he wants to let on, Team suspects.

Despite giving them leftovers, Pharm has ensured that they’ll be eating well. He’s put in dividers to separate each food group, and the container itself has kept the food hot.

While Team blows steam from his spoonful of curry, Win asks, “Did you notice when P’Korn snuck off?” He plucks a piping hot dumpling from the center and bites into it without fear.

“Pharm says he went on a date with P’In,” Team says. “I think your friend’s been compromised.”

Win absorbs that with a grin, then finishes off the rest of the dumpling. “Good,” he says. “He hasn’t dated anyone in a while.”

Team says, “Like you?” with as light a tone as he can manage.

Win pokes him in the side without looking, smirking when Team squawks and splatters his shirt with a streak of yellow curry. At Team’s noise of dismay, Win says, “Don’t poke the bear if you’re not prepared to dodge.”

Axl says, “Turning in three…two…”

With absolute control, Axl steers the car into a wide, smooth turn that Team probably wouldn’t have even noticed had Axl not said anything. Despite the scenery outside becoming less urban bustle and more residential tranquility, Team’s attention has been fixed on Win since Axl closed the door for them.

Win gives Team a dry look that says Axl thinks he’s a comedian. Team grins back and takes the second and final dumpling from the container.

Win watches him eat it, then grins and leans close, kissing an errant crumb from Team’s cheek.

It kicks Team’s heart rate up into a new level.

By the time Axl drops them off at the front of Win’s building, the container has been scraped clean by two spoon-wielding experts in eating. While Team toes off his shoes in the entryway of Win’s apartment, his imagination playing him a hundred potential futures for this night, Win goes ahead to the kitchen and presses Pharm’s container into the dishwashing slot.

“Are you still hungry?” Win asks, gesturing to the expensive-looking food panel on the wall.

Team shakes his head and says, “No, thanks.” He watches for a moment as Win nods and begins to fill two glasses with water from the sink instead.

To Team, he looks fine. Unbothered.

Which can’t be real. Not with another one of his regulars leaving.

But what can Team say? Or offer? He’s never even met Lynn. Didn’t even know her name before tonight. There’s no way to infer how Win felt about her, or how he’s feeling now. The only way to find out is to ask, but…just because he’s crossed the boyfriend line doesn’t mean he’s entitled to know everything—does it?

Team walks on ahead to the curved, floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. The canal is quiet tonight, with only a smattering of ripples on the surface from the wind. One of Win’s regulars has been here—“not recently”—and it might have been Lynn. Or Arthit. Maybe even Maprang or Mork. Or all four of them.

The only way to find out is to ask.

A glass, cold and damp with condensation, grazes Team’s bare arm.

While Team sips from it, Win hooks an arm around his waist from behind, his own glass pressed to the fabric covering Team’s stomach.

“Can I ask you something?”

Win says, “Sure,” but his voice doesn’t give the impression of confidence.

“Do you like your job?”

Win pauses, then says, “Yeah.”

“Can I ask something else?”

Win huffs a breath by Team’s ear, then curls his arm tighter around Team’s waist and presses his forehead to Team’s temple. “Yes,” he says, low and amused.

“When did P’Arthit start working for MUSE?”

“He doesn’t.”

“Doesn’t he?” Team nudges Win’s head a bit farther back so he can make eye contact. “Didn’t you say he designed the hallways? And he made Suede, right? He’s part of MUSE, isn’t he?”

Win’s eyes dart back and forth between Team’s, like they did on the roof. Team’s starting to think of it as Win’s “assessing” look, as if he’s considering all potential outcomes before he speaks. He does it quite a lot, but it’s impossible to tell if it’s something he picked up for his job or if it’s a natural impulse.

“Suede isn’t part of MUSE,” Win says. “He’s…more of a friend.” He gives the air around them a casual glance, like he’s expecting the little magician hologram to appear. When he doesn’t, Win continues, “He gets paid to work there, same as I do, just not with money.”

“What do they pay him with?”

“Magic,” Win says. He finally lifts his glass for a long sip of water, one eyebrow raised.

In an entirely flat voice, Team asks, “What.”

Win laughs into his glass and then reaches to the side to set it down on a low shelf. “There’s some game he plays when he’s not ’here’,” Win says. “MUSE pays him in the game’s magic tokens.”

“Credits!”

Team jumps back closer to Win’s chest, startled by the abrupt appearance of a small magician wearing an indignant scowl suspended between them and the window.

“Magic credits,” Suede repeats. “Don’t say it like you don’t play too.”

Win rests his chin on Team’s shoulder and asks, “How long have you been eavesdropping?”

Suede tips his chin up. “I wasn’t,” he sniffs. “I have better things to do.”

“After you leave,” Win says, his voice equal parts casual and wry, “I’m muting everything.”

Suede ignores him and grins at Team instead. Then he reaches out and pats the air near Team’s forehead with his small holographic hand. “N’Arthit is nice, isn’t he?”

Assuming Win’s AIs all share gossip amongst each other, Team says, “He is.”

Win chides, “Suede,” with an impatient noise.

Poking his tongue out at Win, Suede vanishes in a shower of purple glitter.

There’s a wide sofa facing the windows, its cushions long enough for Team and Win to stretch their legs across both lengthwise or widthwise if they wanted. While Team finishes off his water, Win sits against the cushioned seat back and asks Kurt to adjust the room lighting to something warmer, like candlelight.

Team places his empty glass next to Win’s nearly full one and joins him, his heart rate picking up. The first and only time he was here, things were quite memorable for him indeed.

Win doesn’t waste a second. The moment Team is comfortable, Win drapes his arm across Team’s shoulders and draws him closer for a simple, appreciative kiss. One obviously meant for nothing more than pure enjoyment. Win rubs his thumb over Team’s bare arm, the light touch distracting but deeply welcome.

He’s dating Win.

More importantly, Win actually planned to ask him out tonight. And told Dean he was going to do it. Knowing that, knowing there’s a chance that Win is just as eager as he is, presses Team to show exactly how he feels without words. Without consulting Win or breaking the kiss, Team straddles Win’s lap and braces his hands on Win’s shoulders just to feel the flex of muscle under his palms.

Team immerses himself so thoroughly in the kiss and Win’s devoted focus on him that he ends up chasing after Win’s lips when he pulls away.

“Before we go any further,” Win says, “I have to apologize for the last time you were here.”

Team asks, “What did you do?“ with fog cloaking his brain. All of his memories are quite nice.

Win touches a chaste kiss to Team’s cheek, his eyes solemn. “I took a risk I shouldn’t have taken,” he says. “It was just a selfish whim, and I won’t do something like that again.”

Team continues to stare, the fog thickening. This conversation is nowhere near as nice as kissing just now was. He lowers his weight onto Win’s thighs, guessing that this will be a Conversation but unwilling to move.

Win folds his arms around Team’s back. “I get tested at MUSE at least twice a day,” he says. “I do a health check through Kurt every time I sleep with anyone, but MUSE’s scans are much more detailed, so I sometimes get as many as four done.”

This sounds important, and Team would have a much easier Time focusing if he weren’t so comfortably sat in Win’s lap thinking about how excellent the dimensions of this sofa would be for sex.

“MUSE requires us to wear protection on the job,” Win says. “But they leave it up to us whether we do it outside MUSE, too.”

Team nods. He works both hands into Win’s hair and revels in the texture of his damp roots against the pads of his fingers.

Win takes his wrists and gently pries them away. “Team, listen,” he says.

“I am,” Team says, a note of a whine in his voice. To prove it, he says, “I don’t mind using condoms. Your job’s important, I know.” But when he tries to lean in for another kiss, Win leans away again.

“Wait,” Win says. He licks his lips and gives Team’s wrists an apologetic squeeze. “The last time you were here, I—wanted to draw a line between MUSE and…you. So I…I didn’t use protection with you.”

Team twists his wrists until he gets a hold of Win’s hands instead, sliding their fingers into a loose lock. “I don’t mind that you didn’t use condoms,” he says, then shifts a little higher on Win’s lap, his mind three steps ahead. “I liked it.”

Win shakes Team’s hands free and holds Team’s hips still, swallowing and frowning as if he’s nervous. “I know, but I’ve never taken a risk like that before,” he says. “I…wanted you to feel like you were with me, and not….” He closes his eyes, and when he opens them, the guilt there is almost neon loud. “I haven’t slept with anyone who isn’t associated with MUSE since I started working there. I wanted it to feel different.”

Team wonders if his ears were mistaken. But when he replays what he’s just heard in his head…it does sound plausible. In the last three years, Win’s probably had more sex than most people, and he hasn’t dated anyone before now, so…why would he have sex off the job?

But also…the thought of Win wanting Team to experience sex with him in a way completely different from everyone else—

“But I can’t do it again,” Win says. He rubs his hands up and down Team’s sides. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” Team blinks. “Why not? Isn’t it safe? I haven’t slept with anyone but you, and the tests you have at MUSE are accurate—P’Kao’s said so about a dozen times.”

“They are,” Win says. “But I’m, well. Fairly active. And there’s always a small chance those scans could miss something.” His arms encircle Team’s waist while his eyes take on a bright sheen. “I can’t risk you or anyone else like that, Team, I’m sorry.”

Team says, “Okay,” and leans close again, whining when Win dodges again. “Hia, c’mon.”

Win takes Team’s face gently in his hands. “I don’t just mean tonight, Team,” he says quietly. “Every time. It has to be every time. Do you understand?”

Team waits for a few seconds—since answering quickly hasn’t done him a lot of good so far—then he says, “Okay, Hia Win.” He makes sure he sounds as sincere as he feels and even adds an, “I understand,” for good measure.

He expects Win to stop him again, but the next kiss is well-received—if a bit cautiously. Win strokes his thumbs over Team’s cheekbones and sighs as Team closes the last of the space between them and grinds with slovenly rhythm against him.

With the lights off and the muffled sound of a passing water taxi carrying in through the closed windows, the atmosphere of Win’s apartment feels both secretive and secure.

There’s something profoundly relaxing about kissing Win in the dark with no time limit and no rush to get to something new and unexplored. All that’s expected of them is what they expect from each other, and while Team isn’t entirely clear on what Win expects, he just wants to savor every second.

The first privilege Team’s going to claim as Win’s boyfriend is kissing him until he’s tired of it.

Which means he’s probably not going to get around to thinking of a second privilege.

He was right about the sofa, too. Win has no trouble pressing Team onto his back and stretching out beside him, easing his knee casually between Team’s thighs while the kiss becomes decidedly indecent.

From the almost lazy approach Win’s taking to leading, to the hungry way he’s dragging his hand up Team’s back to grip his neck, Team can’t feel the influence of MUSE’s Win anymore. None whatsoever.

This time, there’s no question of Team staying the night, and even less question of him staying for breakfast. When Team wakes at five as usual, he grimaces and tries to lie still out of courtesy for Win. It’s only when Win stifles a laugh that Team opens his eyes and finds Win already awake and dividing his attention between watching Team sleep and reading an article containing terms like “psychosexual” and “disseminating” and “climax”.

“How long were you gonna watch me sleep?” Team asks, grimacing. “I was trying to be quiet for you.”

Win reaches out and thumbs Team’s neck with pride. “Sorry,” he says. “It was cute. Your nose kept scrunching.”

“Because it itches,” Team says. He scrubs his wrist over the bridge of his nose, then rolls onto his side to face Win properly. The domesticity slams directly into Team’s ribcage.

Win smiles at him without a hint of strain. “Hi.”

Team hides half his face in his forearm and mumbles, “Hi,” with joy thrumming in his veins.

The sex they had only hours ago burned the last of their energy reserves, so they take turns showering off, then meet in the kitchen.

“So,” Team says, rubbing his damp hair with one hand, “if P’Arthit doesn’t work for MUSE, why does he design stuff for them and go to S.W.A. meetings?”

Powerful rays of sunlight flood the apartment, but Team considers them his enemy, wincing one eye shut as he rests his head on his extended arm on the counter that divides the kitchen from the dining area. When he yawns, he closes the other eye and ends up deciding to keep both closed.

Now he can’t see Win typing in breakfast orders for them both, but he can hear the soles of Win’s bare feet brushing the hardwood floor and then the trilling music from the kitchen panel as he finishes entering the information.

Win folds his arms on the counter near Team’s upturned hand, and Team twitches when Win begins tracing abstract patterns onto his palm.

“The meetings, you’ll have to ask him,” Win says. “As for MUSE, Arthit’s been a freelancer for about a year. He made Suede for me as a side project in his free time, and word got around at MUSE how talented he is. I mentioned him to the higher-ups when they were looking to redesign, and they ended up hiring him.”

“Mm. Nice.” Team tries to catch Win’s questing fingertip inside the claw of his hand like a Venus flytrap, but to no avail. Win is more of a morning person than Team is and his reflexes are faster.

“At the party, you said you talked to him about me,” Team says.

This time, as Win draws his finger away, he’s too slow. Team opens his eyes, grinning sideways up at Win as he shakes Win’s finger in his grasp to demonstrate his victory.

Win’s expression relaxes from surprise to affection. “Yeah, I did,” he says. He seems to be organizing his thoughts as he looks at Team.

Content to hold Win’s finger in a loose fist while he waits for more, Team inhales through his nose and exhales with a yawn.

The panel behind Win chimes with the arrival of their food, but Win and Team ignore it.

Win rests his stomach on the counter and breathes in slowly. “I’m glad you were here last night,” he says. “And that you’re here this morning.”

Team makes an “it was nothing” sort of noise in the back of his throat. He’d be alone in his apartment if he weren’t here—there’s no contest.

Still, Win continues in the same soft, grateful voice. “When Arthit left, I was alone. Not just single, but genuinely alone. With Lynn leaving, too…I’m just glad you’re here.” He pries Team’s fist apart without much effort and slides his fingers between Team’s.

Team says, “P’Arthit still seems to like you, so whatever happened there must not’ve been too bad,” and rubs his itchy eye against his bicep.

Clasping Team’s hand tight, Win says, “Well, I thought I loved him.” His gaze seems to stutter—from Team’s eyes to their hands to the counter surface to the window over Team’s shoulder. “Maybe I did. I honestly don’t know.”

This is, Team acknowledges, a sitting-up sort of talk. So he does. But he keeps hold of Win’s hand.

“Arthit saw our relationship’s dynamic sort of…shifting,” Win says. “I didn’t notice at all, so when he told me he wanted to end his membership rather than renew, I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.”

There’s only so tightly Team can squeeze Win’s fingers with his right hand, so he covers the back of Win’s hand with his left too.

“He said I treated him differently,” Win says. He layers his free hand over Team’s and strokes the taut tendons there. “He could tell the…level of attachment was different, so he decided to put some distance between us. I’m just happy he wanted to stay friends. And so he thought you should know some of our history, so that you didn’t think it was a secret. Just…something unfortunate that happened in the past.” He offers Team a small, sad smile. “See now why I wished I hadn’t met you the way I did?”

Team says, “Yeah, but,” and stops. Win’s face looks so raw, and it’s so early to be having a talk like this, but that’s also why it’s so easy for Team to say, “But doesn’t how we met kind of prove I would’ve wanted to date you no matter how we met?”

Ultimately, the thing that drew Team to Win initially was his face. Then his charm and his wit and his consideration and his kindness—there are a hundred reasons to date Win in sight and a thousand more beyond. How they met is barely worth mentioning. What matters is that they did.

Which is nothing groundbreaking in Team’s mind, really. It’s just how he feels.

But if one were to measure by Win’s bewildered smile alone, Team might as well have proposed.

And in the wake of such a mundane shock, they eat breakfast at Win’s kitchen counter, trading shy smiles whenever one of them catches the other trying to catch a glimpse.

Chapter Text

There are three separate routes Ram can use to get to the studio from his house, and after the conversation he just had with his mother, he opts to take the slowest and walk.

“I’d feel terrible leaving you here all alone,” she told him.

“I’m twenty-two,” he told her. “Don’t stay if it’s just for me. You should go.”

She said, “I’ll think about it.”

His family’s house is more of an airport terminal than a home. His brother does enough sports to keep him outdoors most days, his mother travels around the world for work, and his father travels around the world on a constant hunt for mistresses.

His most recent affair was insultingly sloppy. He paid for a hotel room in Santorini through a joint bank account, and his mild surprise when confronted was the last straw for Ram’s mother. She’s considered her next move over the past week, and today she told Ram—and only Ram—her decision: that she wants to file for divorce and move abroad with Ram’s brother.

“I don’t have any family here apart from you, your brother, and your father,” she told Ram just now. “This country is your father’s home. And I can see it’s becoming yours, too, over the past year. I don’t want you to feel like you have to leave this behind.”

“I can move out on my own,” Ram says. “I have some money saved.”

It speaks to how bad things are between his parents now that she didn’t say something like, “Please don’t hate your father,” or, “Your father loves you,” in response. She just nodded, tired lines stretched out beside her eyes.

After she leaves, there’ll be no reason to struggle through each day with his father. He’ll be able to find a one-bedroom somewhere and pretend his father doesn’t exist.

For now, he has works-in-progress at the studio to focus on: a partially-finished working model of a spiral escalator, earthquake-resistant building supports, shatterproof tablet cases, and more. He can lose himself in his projects for a few hours, then head home when everyone’s more likely to be asleep.

In normal circumstances, he would be focused on his tablet or the route directly ahead, but with his mind in such disarray, he notices small things he wouldn’t. Like a guy crouched behind a decorative statue, peeking out at two women eating sandwiches side by side on the lip of a fountain.

Not just any guy, either.

Raising one eyebrow, Ram diverts off the sidewalk and climbs the few steps up to the small park. When he’s standing over King’s shoulder, he just waits to be noticed.

By all appearances, King seems completely immersed in the women, and if Ram didn’t know about King’s exclusive interest in men, he’d just find such a thing creepy. As it is, it’s creepy and perplexing.

It’s almost a full minute before Ram folds his arms and the sound of his arms grazing the fabric of his shirt has King startling and peering up over his shoulder, wide-eyed.

“Ram!” he hisses. “What are you doing here?”

Ram blinks at him, then makes a point to lean out from behind the statue to look meaningfully at the two women.

“Stop, stop, stop!” King squawks in a whisper. He grabs hold of Ram’s wrist and drags him down to crouch next to him. “Don’t let them see you!”

“Why not?” Ram whispers back.

King’s hair smells strongly of citrus, implying a recent end to an evening at MUSE. Ram’s never visited, but he’s familiar with the custom brand of hair products they stock the showers with after many, many S.W.A. meetings seated near MUSE specialists.

“Because,” King whispers.

He hasn’t let go of Ram’s wrist.

“Do you even know them?” Ram asks.

“Yes,” King whispers, rolling his eyes. He points at the woman with longer hair. “That’s my friend Lynn. She’s on a date with my phi’s cousin Manaow.” He gives Ram a smug grin. “I set them up.”

Ram exerts real energy into projecting through his flat expression how little this impresses him.

Of course, King takes the challenge, his grin becoming more of a mischievous smile. “See,” he says, nodding at Lynn, “about two weeks ago, she broke up with her boyfriend, and then she stopped seeing her specialist, too. She’s been kind of a wreck—lonely, bored, what have you. And I thought, How can I help my good friend Lynn?” He taps his temple with an unbearable level of giddiness. “It just so happens, I met N’Manaow recently at a party, and she seemed sweet and bubbly, so—!” He gestures with both hands to the two women, pleased as punch.

Ram doesn’t even look. He’s consumed with the task of memorizing King’s delighted expression. How he looks less academic scholar and more excited child. Because for all that King presents himself as all-knowing and smug most of the time, Ram prefers these sillier moments when they appear. Before tonight, Ram wouldn’t have guessed that King would care enough to stalk his friend on a date; it’s weird, but so is King.

“Does she know you’re spying on her?” Ram asks, flat.

King sulks at him. “You’re no fun,” he says. Then, with a sigh, “Not in so many words, no.”

“‘Not in so many—‘“

“Fine, fine, no, she doesn’t.”

“Mm.”

Still, he watches with King for a few more minutes, taking in the park and the odd abstract shape of the statue more than the two women just trying to enjoy a date. They seem to be, at least.

“I had no idea they’d hit it off this well,” King whispers, beaming. “I mean, Lynn was always cheerful in school, but she hasn’t been much like that lately.”

Ram takes a breath and sighs, glancing over his shoulder and relieved to find the sidewalk still empty for now.

“P’King, we should—”

“Shh! Sh!”

Manaow’s thumb brushes away what looks like nothing from Lynn’s cheek, and Lynn’s lips quirk into an amused smile.

King squeals almost silently, smacking Ram’s shoulder three times in rapid succession.

Ram rolls his eyes and stands, grabbing hold of King’s wrist and yanking him toward the road.

“Ram!” King whisper-yells, stumbling on the steps.

Only once they’re half a block away does Ram stop and tune back in to King’s complaining. He releases King’s arm and gives him a “well?” kind of look.

King rubs his wrist with a frown. “That hurt.”

Ram rolls his eyes again and turns to leave. He’s not at all surprised when King squawks and grabs his forearm and turns him back around.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” King says, exasperated. “I just wanted to make sure it went well.”

Ram pulls his mouth to one side, skeptical.

King seems amused by it, his eyes gleaming as a smile brightens his face. “What are you doing here anyway?” he asks, squeezing Ram’s forearm with interest.

Under normal circumstances, Ram would shake his hand off, but the last ten minutes has been oddly revealing, and taken his mind completely away from his family and the slow-motion nightmare they’ve become. King’s hand is like an anchor, holding him inside a circle of lamplight with him.

“Taking a walk,” Ram says.

King nods. He slides his hand down Ram’s forearm to his wrist, then scoops his fingers between Ram’s—never losing contact for even a second as if Ram couldn’t just break his grip any time he wants to.

“Would you let me take you on a real date if I asked?” King wonders, swinging their hands with a playful grin.

Ram sighs. “I guess.”

The easy acquiescence definitely takes King by surprise.

Ram smiles for the first time all day and squeezes King’s fingers. “Make it good,” he says. “I haven’t been on a first date in a while.”

Chapter Text

With the start of October and the end of the semester approaching arm-in-arm, exams consume most of Team’s waking moments. To his relief, his credits have all been fulfilled, leaving him plenty of time to study with his friends. Thanks to King, Kao, and Win, good marks in his development economics course are two-thirds guaranteed—the exam will secure the last third.

Two more weeks, one more hurdle, and he’ll have three whole weeks free—one of which Win has asked Team to set aside for the two of them to enjoy together. With no other details.

“Trust me,” Win told him one morning, pressing Team up against the wall of his shower, “If you do well on all your exams, I’ll make sure you’re generously rewarded.”

And—well. That’s frankly been a much stronger source of motivation for Team than any of the doom-and-gloom cautionary stuff his professors and parents have told him about the importance of preparing a backup career in case he sustains a devastating physical injury or wakes up one morning and loses all interest in swimming.

“You don’t even need a career now that you’re dating a rich man,” Pharm said one afternoon, apparently just to make sure Team was listening to him.

(He was, and he threw a torn-off piece of steamed pork bun at Pharm’s head for the sass.)

Further cementing his luminous role in Team’s life, Win also offered to help him study, which Team never would have thought of as a perk of dating in the past. To his amazement, Win casually hunted down some of his notes from his own university exams and explained how he approached his exams and got top marks in his year. While they pursued different majors, there are some elements that Team has been able to apply to his own study sessions, and he’s even adopted some of Win’s highlighter techniques and developed a bulletpoint system of his own.

He made Win a little emotional with that last bit somehow.

In the last haggard sprint to the finish line, Team and his friends have locked themselves into the library to share in sleepless misery together.

It’s a system they’ve relied on for three and a half years, and it hasn’t steered them wrong yet.

Kong, for example, is kept perpetually on his toes with his double-major in economics and engineering, so he usually has the best study methods that save on time. Manaow’s double-major in economics and theatre keep their study sessions light and entertaining, with frequent breaks to release the stress and tension. Ting, Pharm, and Team—the singular economics majors—owe most of their ability to concentrate long-term to Kong’s disciplined example and Manaow’s keen understanding of how to balance the atmosphere.

Case in point, just after midnight when the group is hitting a particularly exhausted stretch, Manaow says, “Don’t any of you look at Team and just think, ‘This dope’s dating a sex worker!’” at a pitch some might call “not quiet”.

Team steadfastly ignores her.

Kong says, “Shh,” without looking up from his tablet.

Pharm says, “It’s not difficult to believe,” with a sly smile across the table at Team.

There’s nothing in arm’s reach to throw except a person or his tablet, so Team ignores him, too.

Ting says, “Sex workers are people,” and yawns, her head stationary where it’s been resting on her arm for the last fifteen minutes.

“Rousing,” Kong says. He pinches a passage from an article and drags it over to his notes, expression utterly neutral.

“I’m just saying,” Ting says. “S’not surprising that they date people. Win’s a person. So he dates people. Team. Mostly Team. Just Team. I hate education. I don’t care about graduating. Throw me into the sea.” Her volume rises bit by bit until she’s dissolved into comically loud sobbing.

Kong says, “Shh,” again, but he’s visibly fighting a smile.

“What do you mean ‘mostly Team’?”

He raises one eyebrow at her and watches as Ting ceases the dry-eyed crying and sticks her tongue out at him instead.

“It’s midnight,” she says. “I’m allowed to use language however I like now.”

“Where’s that written?” Pharm asks, amused.

Abruptly, Kong asks, “Speaking of, who has a language exam tomorrow?” and looks up for the first time.

Team says, “Me,” and raises his hand with a miserable grimace.

With a small grin, Kong says, “Good news,” and waves over a page of notes with uniform yellow highlighter (Win claims yellow hurts his eyes and never uses it). “They just announced that the virtual hall is closed for repairs and language exams are postponed until Monday.”

When the information soaks in, Team goes wild-eyed with joy. “Really? I’m free?”

“What do you mean free?” Ting grouses. “Is that your last exam?”

Team tips his chair back with a smug smile. “Nope,” he says, “but it was my last exam of the week. My other two are on Monday and Tuesday.” He wags his eyebrows at his friends. “Hee hee!” he adds, gleefully.

“I hate you,” Manaow says, dropping her head into her folded arms.

Pharm chucks a holographic baseball from his tablet at Team’s chest, and Team obligingly grips at his chest and groans with theatrical agony.

“Shh,” Kong says through a laugh.

The five of them part ways an hour later on the library steps. Kong’s called a cab, In’s driven to pick up Pharm, Manaow’s girlfriend is waiting nearby on her scooter, and Ting is headed for the train station. When Team takes a seat on the top step, yawning, the other four pause.

“What are you doing, Team?” Pharm asks.

Team leans back on his hands and says, “Don’t really want to go home yet,” and carefully doesn’t say where he’d rather go.

It’s pointless, though, if the amused glimmers developing in their eyes is anything to judge by.

Manaow climbs the steps back to where Team’s sitting and coos, “Are you waiting for us to leave so you can call your boyfriend?” as she ruffles his hair.

“Stop,” he whines, batting her hand away. “I’m just enjoying the fresh air.”

“Uh huh,” Ting says. “He’s already waiting over there.”

Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Team sits bolt upright and scans the surrounding grass and parking lot for Win’s distinctive bright hair.

Pharm says, “That was mean, Ting,” while hiding a grin behind his hand.

“It was a little funny,” Kong says. He gives Team an apologetic smile.

Manaow just says, “He looked like a meerkat!” with a delighted laugh.

Team says, “You’re all sadists,” and flops back carefully onto the marble. “I’m sleeping here. Goodbye and good night.“

As his friends depart with cheerful goodbyes, Team waves and stares up at the few visible stars above. In truth, he hasn’t decided whether or not to call Win. It’s a Thursday, and Win’s seeing Mork tonight, and as a regular, there wasn’t really an end point Win could give him. With Lynn gone, he’s much freer than he was, but Maprang and Mork still see him fairly often, and Team has learned to write off the days they’ve reserved.

In the month since they started dating, Team’s never reached out to Win while he’s with one of his regulars, and he doesn’t intend to start tonight, even though it’d be nice to see him. With exams scheduled for Friday, Monday, and Tuesday, Team and Win had agreed not to meet up until Wednesday—but now, with Friday unexpectedly freed up….

The thought of seeing Win tempts Team to say, “I.”

“Yes, Team?”

“Can you check if Hia Win’s audio channel is open?”

A moment of silence, then: “It is.”

“He doesn’t have any status warnings up?”

“None.”

Team nods, then licks his lips.

Maybe Win finished early. Maybe he’s already home. Maybe he’s awake and not doing anything special—

Or maybe he forgot to close his audio channel before going to sleep and calling him will wake him and annoy him.

“Has he messaged me today?”

“No.”

Even though this is something they agreed on, Team still sulks for a bit. He couldn’t have known he’d be free tomorrow, and because Win is an incredibly enticing distraction for Team, they agreed to let Team be the one to reach out first until he finished his exams.

Which means Win’s not likely to contact him until Wednesday. Unless there’s an emergency.

…Unless…Win’s the one having an emergency.

How would Team know if something happened to Win?

What if he fell down an elevator shaft?

Or a passing car’s sensor malfunctioned and hit Win’s?

Team says, “I, can you please call him, but like…quietly? Like, half volume ringtone? I don’t want to wake him up if he’s sleeping.”

“Understood.”

While the ringing begins, Team pulls his tablet from the pocket of his studying sweatpants and sets it on the marble next to his head. Obligingly, I lifts Win’s hologram from the screen for Team to admire. It’s a likeness captured a couple of weeks ago when Team brought the good news of his highly-marked paper to Win.

He felt a little odd at first, bringing his new boyfriend his grades, but Win’s beaming smile and firm kiss to the temple erased Team’s wariness. While Win read over the professor’s comments on a midair holographic display, Team quietly asked I to take a capture of him: thoughtful and proud, leaning the small of his back on his kitchen counter.

As Team listens to the ringing, a dormant piece of logical real estate in his brain says, You have mutual friends who would tell you if something happened to him.

To which Team responds, Not if it happened at one in the morning. He lives alone, remember?

He only used it as an excuse initially, but his worry becomes more and more real as the ringing continues.

Just as real concern begins to form, the connecting chime sounds and Win’s sleep-rough voice says, “Team?”

With a wince, Team says, “Sorry, hia. I woke you up?”

“Mm,” Win says. There’re sounds of sheets shifting, then Win asks, “Are you okay?” with a layer of confusion.

“Yeah,” Team says, face hot. “I’m sorry. I tried to call quietly in case you were sleeping.”

“It’s fine,” Win says. Then, with a small note of mischief, “You know it’s one in the morning, don’t you?”

Team drops backward and catches his head under his arm. “Uh huh,” he says. “We were studying, but my exam tomorrow got postponed ’til Monday.”

“Oh,” Win says, clarity in his voice. “So…you’re free tomorrow?”

“Mm hmm.” Team grins up at the sky. “I understand if you’re tired, though. I’ll just call back on Wed—”

“I’ll send Axl,” Win says. “Are you still in the library?”

“Nope, out in front,” Team says, grinning wider.

“Got it. Sit tight.” Without fanfare, the call disconnects and Win’s hologram vanishes.

More than being a sex worker, Win being rich occupies far more of Team’s curiosity. With the level of maturity Win demonstrates combined with the incredible wealth he seems to have amassed, it’s a regular shock to Team’s system to remember that he’s only about two or three years older.

The sex worker thing, on the other hand—Team has been to MUSE, met Win’s remaining two regulars, seen Lynn with Manaow, and become fairly fond of Arthit through Kong’s eyes and Win’s. The sex worker aspect hardly causes a ripple in Team’s mind nowadays. What Win does for work hasn’t influenced his relationship with Team in any significant way. Win is busy with work some days, and other days he’s not—that’s all.

His boyfriend being a sex worker feels almost mundane now.

…Except, in all fairness, Team does benefit from his boyfriend leveling up at sex regularly. For a living.

He holds that thought in mind until I says, “Axl is here,” and Team tightens his core as he sits up with a groan.

As Team climbs into the backseat, Axl says, “Good evening, boyfriend of the boss.”

Team grins and says, “Hi, Axl,” before curling up against the door for a nap.

Out of courtesy to Win—clean and tidy and smelling of something mellow like cotton—Team ducks into the shower as soon as he arrives at Win’s apartment. He skipped his morning shower out of laziness, and now he’s regretting whatever he must have smelled like when Win kissed him at the door.

At least none of his friends complained.

…There's always a chance they’ve gotten used to it, though.

When Team crawls into Win’s bed wearing a towel around his waist, Win is watching a muted replay of Team’s meet from two weeks ago. He had an S.W.A. meeting and couldn’t make it, but he made Team promise to send him the races afterward.

“How come you’re watching this?” Team asks, covering a yawn behind his forearm.

It’s two in the morning, and it’s starting to feel like it.

“Just sorry I missed it,” Win says. He reaches into the hologram and spins the image until it’s ninety degrees clockwise and the small racing Team is now swimming toward them. “I’ll try to make the next one.”

Win’s queen-size bed offers a level of decadence that Team can’t imagine getting used to, even if he spent weeks here consecutively and not just the odd night here and there. It feels like they’re skipping a few steps, nestled in Win’s sheets watching Team beat his competitors by full seconds.

“If I have any regrets,” Win says, tracing his fingertips over the frozen image of Team in mid-victory dance, “it’s that I didn’t stay in the club long enough to meet you in person before I graduated.”

Team says, “It’s fi—”

Wait.

“In person, hia?”

Win sends the replay back into his tablet. “It turns out,” he says, turning onto his back and meeting Team’s eyes with wry amusement, “that we almost crossed paths in school.”

Team asks, “When?”

Win says, “Your first competition.” He reaches up to touch Team’s jaw and then follows the sharp line to his ear, tucking a damp tendril of hair behind the shell of it. “It was the first and last time I went to watch in the stands. I couldn’t stay for all of it because I had work at MUSE, so I don’t think I saw you race, but…I was there, so.” His eyes search for something. “It would’ve been nice to know you earlier.”

That’s all Team needs to lean in and kiss him, breathing deeply and appreciatively when Win slides a hand behind his neck to hold him there.

As if he has anywhere he’d rather be.

“Seeing you half-naked in the locker room all the time would have been a nightmare for me,” Team whispers, grinning when Win laughs against his lips.

Win’s other hand palms down Team’s bare chest with a firm touch, and Team recalls that Win was with Mork earlier. There isn't quite enough evidence yet for Team to know if his theory is correct or not, but he’s starting to suspect that sessions with regulars can subconsciously change how Win touches Team later on.

After Mork, Win’s touches land more roughly. After Maprang, he’s more playful.

Case in point, Win strokes over the outline of Team’s erection through the towel and kisses him deeper as Team makes an eager sound and arches against the pressure. If this were post-Maprang, Win might move his hand and leave Team wanting—because it’s post-Mork, he flicks the towel aside and takes Team in hand without hesitation.

Team wonders what Win would have been like after Lynn or Arthit. How many dimensions are there to the way he has sex, and which of them are learned? Is there even a purely Win way of having sex?

After working Team to a more vocal mess, Win skates his palm down to Team’s thigh, then pulls Team's calf up over his shoulder.

Without being told, Team reaches back and under Win’s pillow to grab the condom there. This is, according to Win, also where he keeps them at MUSE.

It’s a little like knowing a magician’s secrets.

Win takes the small clear package from him with a fond smirk. “Thank you,” he says.

“Oh, no, thank you,” Team says. He gives a bratty scrunch of his nose just to see what Win will do.

Turns out: knock Team’s leg off his shoulder and say, “Suddenly, I don’t feel like doing this part,” and toss the condom onto Team’s stomach with a raised eyebrow—that’s what.

Win stays how he is, straddling Team’s thighs, as Team sits up and tears the package open with his teeth, peering up at Win with interest. Team has only done this a few times, usually while Win waited patiently and kindly whenever Team hesitated or fumbled.

Now, it seems Win trusts him to do it well enough that he can allow some challenge into his eyes.

It’s an expression Team wants for himself.

Faking utter confidence, Team watches his own hand roll the condom onto Win’s dick in two relatively certain movements. What’s more, with his hand tight around the base, Team can feel the moment that the condom begins its minute vibrations. The kind of vibration that stays constant throughout, a gentle sensation, barely noticeable at all until suddenly—it’s maddening.

Win strokes a hand over Team’s hair and says, “You’re always so, so good for me,” with utter sincerity.

Team swallows—it’s unfair how quickly Win and Team both found out what that does to him—and gives in to an impulse. He leans close and kisses Win’s collarbone, just north of his heart, lingering there while he strokes Win off without finesse.

Their first time with penetration back at MUSE is something Team will always hold dear—but as more of an educational experience than anything passionate or romantic. He suspects Win let his professionalism take over that day out of fear of hurting Team, because every time since has been—very different.

Like the leg-over-Win’s-shoulder thing. As far as Team can tell, Win loves this position, maybe because he’s keenly affected by Team’s flexibility. As he fills Team over and over, at whatever pace he chooses, Win also presses Team’s leg down firmly against his chest, holding him open and vulnerable beneath him.

Sometimes, the slow stretch and the deep, deliberate fucking makes Team beg to come without (much) shame.

Tonight, however, Win’s chosen to go at a pace designed to make Team loud.

The trouble with having a boyfriend who’s an experienced sex worker is that he can read Team’s body’s reactions better than Team can. In the short time they’ve known each other, Win’s learned frighteningly fast where to touch and what to say to make Team writhe and whine for him.

And all the while, Win whispers destructive things into Team’s ear. Things like, “You get better every time we do this,” and, “You sound like you’re close,” and, “Tell me how deep you want it.”

When Team feels his control slipping, he closes his eyes and hangs on tighter around Win’s neck, trying to move his focus away from the hot burn along his stretched leg muscles and the bursts of pleasure shocking through his body with every relentless thrust.

“Hia,” he moans, “please. Wait.”

With a rough swallow, Win stops just as he’s sheathed deep inside Team. His shudders and pants of effort match Team’s.

Moaning, Team tucks his face against Win’s neck and chases the tenuous control he had. He’s so close, and it’s so tempting to let it happen.

“I don’t want to come yet, hia,” he whispers. “You feel so good.”

Win swears, his hips jerking. “Team,” he says, a faint laugh under his voice, “don’t say things like that, or you’ll kill me.”

“H-hypocrite.”

After a few more seconds, Team draws back and meets Win’s eyes, surprised to find him struggling just as earnestly to keep control of himself. Sweat slicked through his hair and beading the tip of his nose, his lips swollen from kissing Team over and over and over with ardor.

“Hia,” Team whispers, astounded.

Win makes a broken-off noise and kisses him vulgarly. “Can I?” he pants.

“Yeah. Yeah. Please.”

Then, all Team can do is hold on to Win’s neck and arch into the heat, using whatever air he can get to cry out as Win drives him to desperation. By the end, he’s so loud he can barely register Win’s tense whispers in his ear: “You’re edging yourself when you’re alone, aren’t you? Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Someday soon I’m going to see just how long I can keep you just—like—this.”

Team whines as the angle shifts a fraction, his fingernails slipping in the sweat on Win’s back. As Win shouts, his dick pulses, and Team curls in tight against Win’s chest, wishing in a fevered moment that he could feel it just once.

It only takes a few strokes after that for Team’s orgasm to light up every nerve in his body, his leg hooked over Win’s shoulder, almost cramped from the effort.

Team’s breath and body shake as Win pulls out, emotion heightened and fear thrumming. It’s too soon to let too much of it show.

There’s a smidgeon of pride in Team that this is one of only three times Win is too exhausted to transition immediately into cleaning up. Instead, he lies next to Team and breathes, his eyes tightly closed, one hand lazily massaging Team’s stiffened thigh muscle.

In those precious few moments of relative privacy, Team looks at Win and mouths, I think I love you, because it feels true.

Luckily, Win doesn’t see.

With serotonin thick in his veins, Team kisses a drop of sweat on Win’s nose and smiles as Win manages a quiet, shattered laugh.

Waking up in Win’s apartment feels far more adult than anything sexual they’ve done. Living in a dormitory or his parents’ house is Team’s normal—Win’s lush apartment that he pays for himself? It’s like an exorbitant preview of what Team’s life will be after graduation. When he finds his own place to live in. After he moves his stuff from his decently-sized dorm room to a place he can afford with his boost in B.I. plus whatever sponsorships he can get.

Team’s internal swim clock forces him into consciousness at five as always, a yawn already forcing his jaw wide even before he’s registered the weak sunlight pressing on his eyelids. His quick joint shower with Win was only two and a half hours ago, and his eyes ache from the lack of rest.

Win, on the other hand, is still out cold, his breaths heavy and thick, his lips parted. To Team’s amusement, Win appears to have shoved the blankets down to his waist as usual, his bare chest on casual display.

His fingertips rest on the mattress mere centimeters from Team’s shoulder.

For some leisurely amount of time, Team entertains himself by trying to memorize the patterns and symbols on Win’s intricate arm tattoo. Then, when his body refuses to settle back into a drowsy state, he sighs and pushes himself out of bed.

Everything in Win’s apartment stands in opposition to Team’s boxy dorm room—from the overall shell shape and curved walls of the hall and rooms, to the cushy furniture and intentional flashes of color to set off all the white.

Suede is waiting for Team in the kitchen, a chef’s hat on top of his top hat.

“Gonna make him breakfast in bed?” Suede asks, grinning.

Team says, “Uh, order, yes. Make, no.” Based on the other mornings he’s spent here, Team makes his way to the kitchen panel and keys in the breakfast they both like: congee with pork and eggs. As he waits for the assembly to finish, Team yawns for the second time this morning and hops onto the counter, enjoying the slightly taboo feeling of treating Win’s kitchen like home.

Suede rows himself in an invisible canoe before Team and says, “He’s missed you recently,” with an innocent whistled tune at the end.

Team grins. He sets his elbows on his thighs and leans in to speak quietly. “Oh yeah?”

“Mm hmm!” Suede confirms. He keeps paddling himself in a leisurely oval. “He was talking to N’King last night. They were both sad they couldn’t study with you.”

Team smiles, his chest warm. “Nerds,” he says affectionately.

“Yup,” Suede says. “It’s nice that his friends like you, huh?” He tips his invisible canoe upside-down in midair and beams at Team while he hangs from it. “You’re really fun to have around, N’Team.”

“I can never tell if you’re a little spy or not,” Team tells him, half joking.

Suede makes his eyes comically large and innocent. “Me? I’d never!”

The kitchen panel chimes with the cheerful morning tune and two bowls of congee lower from the storage hood onto the serving tray. Just the sight and smell of food hits Team’s system and turns him ravenous.

He takes both bowls to the living room and places Win’s on the low table in front of the giant sofa. He holds his own bowl as he carefully climbs onto the sofa and sits curled into the cushions. He sits with his knees pulled close, the bowl held between his thighs and his chest while he scoops flavorful bite after bite into his mouth while watching water taxis pass by one by one on the canal below.

Not five minutes later, he hears Win get up and shuffle into the bathroom, then wander into the room at a lazy shuffling pace. Team keeps his eyes on the canal, halfway through his congee, and tries to mask how giddy he feels. When Win, still wearing only sweatpants, clambers onto the sofa and flops down against Team’s side, head on his shoulder, Team’s heart almost bursts, overfull.

“Morning,” Team says, face hot.

Win rubs his cheek against the fabric covering Team’s shoulder. A month ago, Win told Team that he could borrow clothes if he ever needed to, and so Team has taken the liberty of borrowing something from Win’s closet every single night he’s stayed over. The high-quality softness of Win’s clothes combined with the familiar scent of him wrapped around Team’s body is beyond his ability to resist.

“Smells good,” Win murmurs. He tucks his hand between Team’s bicep and chest and squeezes at his muscle.

“You mean me or the congee?” Team asks.

“You,” Win says without hesitation, then yawns wide and burrows tighter against Team’s side. “Fuck, I’m tired.”

Suede appears before them, puts his finger to his lips, and presents Team with a tiny hologram of exactly what they’re doing now. Team tucked into a ball holding his bowl of congee while Win lies draped over him, one hand circled around Team’s bicep.

Team whispers, “Send that to me,” and Suede gives him an impish thumbs up and disappears.

“Send what?” Win says, eyes still shut.

Team says, “Suede just showed me a cute hologram,” and then shakes the arm Win’s clinging to. “You should eat, hia.”

“Too early,” Win says, grimacing. “Come back to bed.”

Team grins. “Really? Already?”

Win makes an ornery noise that shouldn’t sound so cute, but does. “No,” he says. “Not for that. Just sleep. At least until I can open my eyes for more than five minutes at a time.”

Team studies him for a few seconds. Win seems utterly depleted, held upright mainly by Team’s shoulder.

This is by far the sleepiest Team’s ever seen him, and while it is a level of adorable Team didn’t realize Win was capable of achieving, it also reminds Team of Win’s session with Mork. Of course Win wasn’t expecting to see Team yesterday, so whatever he did in his session with Mork could have been intense…and yet Win gave a hundred and ten percent when Team showed up here at two in the morning.

A frisson of guilt strikes Team’s gut.

“We can just relax today, hia,” he says. He noses Win’s hair playfully. “I like sleep. I’m tired, too.”

“I can’t,” Win sighs. He squeezes Team’s bicep once more—a little longer this time—and then pulls away to stretch his arms up over his head. “I signed up for volunteer work with the S.W.A. today.”

“Oh,” Team says.

Win peeks one eye open to study him. He manages a fond smile before closing his eye again and leans his head back on the sofa cushion. “Sorry, baby,” he says.

It’s not the first time he’s used that particular endearment, but it is the first time he’s said it outside sex. It feels a hundred and eighty degrees different, striking Team on a side of his heart he didn’t know he had.

“Can I…walk you there?” Team asks. “Is it close?”

Win peeks the same eye open, this time with a glaze of suspicion. “Don’t you have exams?” he says.

Oh no, Team thinks. He’s waking up for real now.

“Where is it?” Team asks stubbornly. “Maybe it’s on the way back to the dorms.”

Win holds his one-eye contact with Team’s two eyes for another few seconds, then sighs and closes it again. “It’s a little out of the way,” he says, “but if you want to, I won’t say no.” He muffles another yawn in his forearm, then adds, “Just please go back and study afterward. P’Kao and P’King will be there today, and they’re even more committed to your grades than I am.”

Suede appears “on” Win’s head, seated primly with one leg swung over the other. He gives Team a wink and mouths, “Told you!” and vanishes in a puff of turquoise smoke.

When Win finally picks up the chilled congee and slurps up one fried egg whole, Team asks, “What kind of volunteer work?”

Win says, “Uh,” and chews for a bit. He sneaks a look at Team, then manages a wry smile. “It’s…a center I started last year after Arthit left.”

Team hears the words, but struggles to process them. “You started a center? What center?”

Win says, “It’s called MUSING.”

Chapter Text

Just before noon, Mork arrives at the entrance to the café and hovers just outside it. He’s not entering until he knows exactly where Sun is, because he’s lived life as Sun’s prey long enough to have developed a healthy sense of self-preservation, and he likes knowing what kind of mood Sun is in before he embarks on a journey of interaction with him.

“Sun’s home sick,” Rain says behind him.

Mork twists around as the result of a series of involuntarily muscle spasms, the shock traveling up and down his spine.

Rain seems pleased, his arms wrapped around a large woven sack filled with coffee beans. He winks and teases, “Here to see him?”

“No,” Mork says.

Rain grins and rolls his eyes, weaving around Mork and into the café.

Mork doesn’t trust him. “You sure he’s home?”

“I swear, bud,” Rain calls. “Why would I lie to you?” He drops the sack on the floor and huffs in exaggerated agony. “That was way heavier than last week’s bag. This new supplier P’Sun found is seriously overzealous. They keep throwing in extra beans just ‘cos they like him, and y’know, that’s nice and all, but my back. I’m twenty-five—I shouldn’t feel fifty-two.”

Convinced of Sun’s absence more by Rain’s uninhibited whining than his actual oath of truth, Mork crosses the threshold and takes a seat at the counter.

In an era when most restaurants and cafés are fully automated, Sun is one of the few owners who’s committed himself to creating a fully retro experience for his customers. He’s almost alarmingly purist about the whole thing, insisting that manual labor is an important part of the ambiance. Rain enjoys calling him a pretentious hipster for his rigid adherence to his made-up decorum rules, while Mork just worries that Sun’s spending too much of his own money on keeping the café afloat during lean times.

When Rain isn’t helping out, Sun’s here alone. Mork traveled across the city all the way over here knowing that. Knowing he might find Sun in here by himself with only a customer or two sitting over by the windows, overlooking one of the more polluted areas of the bay.

But there’s no one here but Rain.

Mork braces his arms on the counter and considers the remaining stretch of his day while Rain works on loosening the knotted tie on the neck of the sack. Even though Mork’s on his second week without a job, he’s lacked the motivation to find yet another short-term gig that will inevitably let him go. He’s been criticized nearly everywhere he’s worked for his lack of passion, and the thought of working freelance gives him phantom headaches.

Sun’s offered him a job here but—

Well.

It’s obviously a charitable gesture, and Mork won’t be caught taking some of Sun’s meager profits just so Sun can stop feeling sorry for him.

“I regret introducing you to my brother,” Rain declares.

It’s not the first time he’s said it, so Mork just makes a vague noise in response.

Rain pushes the pad of his index finger against Mork’s forehead. “If he makes you so unhappy, stop hanging out here,” he says.

Mork pushes his hand away. “Do your job,” he says, raising an eyebrow.

Mimicking Mork in silence with exaggerated faces, Rain does as he’s told and begins to dismantle one of the espresso machines for cleaning.

As usual, Mork sets his tablet on the counter and pulls out a few bars of the song he’s working on. Rain obligingly turns off the café’s music so Mork can concentrate, and Mork runs a fingertip across the notes hovering in midair, listening to the tune that chimes back at him. He doesn’t have much left to adjust, but he doesn’t have any new song ideas either, so. Finicky changes only.

Sometimes, Rain will reach over and poke a new discordant note into the mix, and Mork will calmly threaten to throw him into the bay.

When an hour passes and Sun still hasn’t showed, Mork heads out. He passes a pair of potential customers looking at the menu outside the door and tells them, “They just got fresh ingredients.”

He doesn’t look back to see if they went in or not.

He thinks about sending a message to Sun, but ultimately decides not to.

The next day is spent helping his grandparents with the more physically arduous chores around the house, and at the end of the day he eats dinner with them.

Sun hasn’t written to him. Hasn’t called, hasn’t asked Rain to play middle-man for a message he’s too proud to send himself.

He could be dead, but Rain would probably say something if he’d gone and done something quite that extra.

The day after that, a Thursday, Mork sees Win at MUSE in the afternoon.

Suede’s the one who meets him in the lobby this time and says, “He’s upstairs setting up,” with a cheerful tip of his top hat.

“Thanks, buddy,” Mork says.

Suede beams in return and vanishes into a shower of silver glitter.

It’s a relief to set down his heavy backpack in Win’s sitting room and as he pulls out two kettlebells, Win raises his eyebrows.

“I have an idea,” Mork says.

“Not a chance,” Win says.

Mork raises his eyebrows back. “Can’t handle it?”

Win says, “Can’t or won’t—you’ll never know.”

Mork smirks. “I thought you were trying to impress your boyfriend?” he goads.

There’s a brief stare-down, one Mork knows he’s won before it began, and then Win huffs and snatches the handle of a kettlebell and says, “Fine, masochist.”

Having sex with Win is satisfying, and Mork likes to indulge in it from time to time, but over the past year, most of their sessions have turned into fairly platonic physical training instead. Rain thinks it’s weird that Mork pays a premium for essentially a gym buddy, but time is time—Win is giving Mork time he could be spending on something else, and Mork isn’t using it for anything else, so why not pay him?

Of course, there’s also the small added benefit of Sun not knowing what Mork and Win do, and watching Sun sulk while taking zero active steps to close the gap between them that Mork has been spending years trying to close is deeply vindicating.

“How’s N’Team?” Mork asks. He’s learned a new trick recently: passing the kettlebell from hand to hand between and around his legs in a rhythmic figure-eight. Win sticks to simple lifts, his expression tight with envy as sweat gathers on his temples.

“He’s adorable,” Win says, utterly neutral. Then, with more cheek, he asks, “How’s P’Sun?”

Mork huffs and finishes two more reps before he sets the kettlebell down and brings his foot up behind him to stretch his thigh muscles. “Definitely not adorable,” he says.

Win huffs through a laugh.

In essence, Mork’s life is…fine. He has a few friends, he works out regularly, and he gets the odd job every so often to perk up his savings when they’re getting low. It’s a decent life—no one in their right mind would say he’s doing anything wrong.

When Mork leaves MUSE at sunset, his muscles pleasantly warmed and worked, Sun is waiting for him.

Over the past fifty years, the neighborhood MUSE is in has been transformed into one of the ritziest areas in the city, and foot traffic is always fairly heavy. When Mork pauses in the doorway of the building to stare at Sun leaning on the ornate iron-wrought pedestrian fence, a steady stream of people pass between them.

It’s not difficult to read Sun’s expression—it’s not often Mork’s ever mistaken disappointment for another emotion.

Still, Mork doesn’t try to escape. He falls into step next to Sun, walking in the direction of the café even though it’s a walk that’ll take more than thirty minutes.

Forty, at the pace they’re going.

“How’s Win?” Sun asks, eyes on the sky.

“Sexy,” Mork says, flat.

Sun shoots him a small scowl without heat. “I’m just asking,” he says.

They cross the street to the shadier side, enveloped inside the silhouettes of skyscrapers. For ten minutes, neither of them speaks, and Mork reminds himself for the hundredth time that it’s a good thing Sun doesn’t want him: they’d bore each other. They’d never talk; Sun would just nag. They’d push each other away instead of push each other to improve.

“What are you thinking about?” Sun asks, his eyes curiously vulnerable.

Mork steps closer to him as a man in a suit runs past in the opposite direction. When Mork tries to put distance between them again, Sun catches his wrist and tugs him into a side street, one lined with red paper lanterns already glowing ahead of the impending sunset.

No one’s using the side street, so Mork leans on one of the smooth rock walls, arms folded.

Sun folds his arms back, his grimace fixed.

“I can’t stop by the café tonight,” Mork says.

Sun says, “Good, I won’t be there anyway,” with challenge in his voice. “I took today off too to make sure I’m not still sick.” The dark smears under his eyes suggest how much sleep he’s been getting.

Mork says, “Okay,” and turns to leave.

Sun grabs at his bicep this time. “Mork….”

It’s easy for Mork to slip his arm free. “You said you didn’t want to go near MUSE,” he says. “So why’d you show up today?”

A frustrated divot sinks in between Sun’s eyebrows. “I don’t care what you do with him,” he says.

“Liar,” Mork says.

Sun sighs. “Why is everything with you like this?”

“Like what?”

Sun leans in until they’re almost nose-to-nose, gazes locked. “Like you barely tolerate me, even though we both know you like me.”

Mork puts effort into not backing down or reacting. “So what if I do?” he says, tilting his chin up. “You’re not doing anything about it.”

Pained silence ensues.

They’d be a terrible couple.

They’d fight without rest.

They’d never talk for fun.

They’d leave each other broken.

“I want to,” Sun says, quietly. He touches Mork’s jawline and looks back and forth between his eyes. “I just can’t tell if you want me to.”

Mork stares at him, jaw set. He swallows once, hard.

They’d be….

Chapter Text

Win is twenty-three. He’s an impressive twenty-three, and he definitely feels older than most of the people in Team’s life, but as Axl navigates them through the car-peppered streets of early morning Bangkok, Team can’t imagine what kind of ”center” a twenty-three-year-old would be capable of creating on his own.

Win tilts his head with utter innocence. “Who said I made it on my own?” he wonders aloud.

Team says, “You did.”

Win, a little more conscious after finishing breakfast and taking the short walk from his apartment to his car, stretches his arms out before him and yawns deep and long. He’s still the sleepiest Team’s ever seen him.

When Win slumps back into the seat, he gives Team a drowsy smile. “I had help,” he says. “My great aunt is the real founder. She had the connections, I just did the paperwork.”

Without warning, the car begins a steep ascent, and Team twists around to watch as they leave the flat road behind. There’s a glimmer of what could be the winding Chao Phraya visible in the gap between two stately renovated houses, and then it’s gone, replaced by a wall of trees as Win’s car turns into a tight curve leading up the hill. “Where are we?” he asks.

“Old Town,” Win says.

Team says, “Huh,” because Old Town is just a residential area in the northern part of the city. Just…a bunch of old rich people living on an artificial hill constructed sixty or seventy years ago to give them a fancy panoramic view of Bangkok in their twilight years.

“What kind of center did you make up here?” Team asks, nose creased.

Win winks at him.

Team doesn’t get the humor, but he’s also not one to remain stony-faced in the face of a wink from Win, so he fights down a smile and braces his arms on the passenger’s seat before him to watch the climb continue. When Team peeks over his shoulder, Win has his tablet out, his eyes moving steadily across the screen.

The drive continues for five consecutive minutes with nothing surrounding them but trees and the occasional checkpoint sign intended for Axl to gauge the speed limit. Then, suddenly, the road plateaus and feeds into the most glamorous neighborhood Team has ever seen. Each house they pass sits on an enormous plot of land and clearly costs a mint just to maintain. On the left, an ornate Chinese-style house with white plaster walls and red shutters. On the right, a dark-stained kalae house with a soaring arch at the frontmost point of the gabled roof.

After ten such houses, Axl turns into a driveway lined with white gravel that crunches underneath the car tires, and Team marvels at the sprawling complex ahead of them. With its multistoried buildings, gleaming pale wood, wide verandas, and gold-latticed roof decorations, this place definitely stands head and shoulders above the rest of the neighborhood in terms of lavishness.

When he doesn’t spot any kind of sign to indicate exactly what sort of establishment this is, Team turns again to Win to ask him. “Hia—”

Win’s eyes are red. His tablet screen has gone dark.

The rest of Team’s question crumbles away to nothing. Frowning, Team says, “Hia….”

Win clears his throat and says, “Axl, I’m gonna spend a few hours here. Can you take Team back to his dorm?”

Team gapes while Axl says, “Sure thing, boss.”

“Hia Win,” Team says, an edge of a whine in his voice, “come on.”

With a flickered glance that barely connects their gazes, Win says, “You promised you’d study, remember? You can tour the place another day when you’re not supposed to be studying for three exams.”

Sulking, Team slumps into the seat and mutters, “Who asked you to memorize how many exams I’m taking?”

Win ruffles his hair with a heavy hand. “No one,” he says. He pockets his tablet and swiftly runs his thumb knuckle under his damp eyelashes.

“Are you okay?” Team asks.

Win flashes a small smile. “Yeah. Just a work thing.” The car stops at the bottom of the main building’s broad wooden staircase. “You’ll be okay going back, right?”

Team says, “You never even told me what this place is,” with a sulk in his voice.

Win prompts, “Axl?”

Axl says, “This is MUSING.”

“Funny,” Team says with an utter absence of amusement. Before he can descend any deeper into his pit of sullen indignance, he says, “Have fun without me, then.”

It’s a small shock to his system when long fingers seize the back of his neck and draw him in for a stolen kiss. Then Win follows up with a gentler touch of his lips to the tip of Team’s nose and a soft, “I’ll write to you later.”

And then he’s gone. Out of the car and then jogging up the steps while someone who sounds like King yells, “Win, you’re late!” Team leans across the seat and peers out the opposite window and up the stairs. Win’s gone from sight, and there aren’t any distinguishing signs on the house

Axl says, “We’ll arrive at the dormitory in forty-six minutes,” and then the car begins to move again.

Of course, the hours he’s spent with Win last night and this morning were stolen time. Team should have had finals back-to-back, so Win made plans, and Team has no right to feel annoyed about being left out of them. Even so—

His mind feels settled when he’s with Win.

The steadiness and the empathy…the wit and the playfulness…the brilliance and the devotion….

As Axl takes the car back past the other massive houses on the road, Team remembers Win’s red eyes. Not even the message from Lynn made him look so upset.

Team licks his lips and says, “Axl, wait.”

There’s no security of any kind guarding the front door, so Team just walks in, sticking close to the wall with an eye out for other people. He’s sort of touched that Win feels so invested in Team’s academic achievements, but some things take priority over academia. Like finding out just what this place is—and then thinking up a way of making Win feel better.

“Go Team,” he whispers to himself, grinning.

The interior of the main building is outfitted like a hotel, all burnished wood floors and an open-air courtyard in the center with a wide water feature and verdant plantlife spread everywhere. It feels more like a five-star resort rather than someone’s residence.

Absently, Team touches one of the vines curled around a wooden pillar.

“Paws off.”

With a squeak, Team tries to escape sideways and ends up stepping on his own foot, tumbling and winding up on his ass.

Oh. It was King he heard.

Standing over him with a pair of wide-handled pruning shears pointed vaguely at Team’s face, King says, “No touching the plants,” followed by, “Win didn’t say he brought you,” as he extends his free hand for Team to take.

Team says, “I snuck in,” with pride as King hauls him up.

King peers past Team’s shoulder at the wide-open doors, then raises his eyebrows at Team with feigned awe. “Well done,” he says.

Team gives him a modest smile in return. “He wanted me to go back to study right away—” He sees King’s mouth start to open and whines, “But I’m so tired, phi. I studied for hours, and I just wanted to see what he does here. I don’t even know what this place is.”

King tilts his head. “Win didn’t tell you?”

Team decides not to say more than Win told him—which is essentially nothing. “He was sort of distracted in the car,” he hedges.

Quirking a smile, King says, “Follow me—see if you can guess what it is.” He gestures with his shears for Team to follow him, and warily, Team does.

As they walk deeper into the building, the extent of the opulence becomes more apparent. The complex engravings on the closed doors were all likely carved by hand, and the hallway opens up onto a veranda with some kind of unseen wooden wind chime singing in the breeze. When King stops before one of the doors, he gestures for Team to be quiet.

Inside the room, someone says, “All right, try again from the beginning,” and then there’s the muted sound of bright percussive notes playing in almost perfect harmony.

King pockets his shears and then eases the door open in almost complete silence. Then he slips inside, waiting for Team to follow him before closing it again.

The room they’re in appears to be a multipurpose sort of space. Instruments, board games, and exercise equipment fill the many shelves on the walls. Right now, four large rosewood ranats rest on the floor in rows of two, each one played by a person the age of Team’s grandparents. An instructor about the same age weaves around them giving advice and encouragement as they walk without pause. Two of the walls are made up of shuttered windows, all of which have been opened to invite the breeze as well as reams of sunlight that spill across the pale hardwood floor in wide golden stripes.

“Friday mornings are music class,” King tells Team quietly.

Team doesn’t recognize the song played by the four students, but it’s probably something traditional. Something far older than he is. He watches each person expertly drum their narrow mallets on the wooden bars and produce a continuous melody without allowing the silence even a moment.

Not one of the four students or their teacher take notice of Team or King, even though they’re all facing the door and must have heard them walk in. Their brown, weathered hands and clear, focused eyes hold Team’s attention even more than the music.

Team whispers, “What is this place, a senior center?”

“For former sex workers, yes,” King whispers.

Team’s mouth rounds into an “o” of surprise; Win started a senior center?

Of course, there’s nothing to indicate that they were sex workers any more than a glance at Win or King would indicate that they’re active sex workers. They’re dressed all sorts of ways—a woman in a loose sun dress with a shawl over her narrow shoulders, a soft-edged man in a careworn rock band T-shirt and shorts, and all of them barefoot with their shoes and sandals lined up over on the edge of the veranda.

Once the song ends, the teacher calls for a break and then crosses the room to address King with warmth. “Hello, sweetheart,” they say. Then they smile even more kindly for Team. “Who’ve you brought today?”

Team quickly puts his hands together and bows with an attention to formality that would please his parents and his grandparents. These aren’t just his seniors, but Win’s seniors. People he must admire, people for whom he’s created a comfortable residence in one of the city’s most expensive areas.

“This is N’Team,” King says. He offers the teacher and students a wai with equal respect and adds, “He’s Win’s new boyfriend,” with a side wink at Team.

The sound of it—“Win’s new boyfriend”—hits Team’s ears and his heart simultaneously, so he can’t be held responsible for the way his smile takes control of his face even as the teacher and four students all make noises of affection and come closer.

“Oh, he’s lovely,” one soft-cheeked woman says as she grips the muscled brown shoulders of a white-haired man beside her. “He looks just like your brother did at that age,” she adds in a stage whisper. “Very handsome.”

The man says, “He does indeed,” and smiles at Team. “Very much so.”

“Is this your first time here?” the teacher asks.

Team says, “Yes, ma’am.”

“He’s not getting you back,” another woman says with solemnity. “You’re far too cute.”

They invite Team and King to watch the rest of the class (and add a casual invitation for Team to move in if he likes). They sit with their backs to the open veranda and Team closes his eyes to soak in the soft percussive music, the floating notes of the wooden wind chimes, and the rustling effect of the wind racing slapdash through the leaves.

He doesn’t open his eyes even when King leans close and says, “If you want to see something cute after this, I’ll show you what Win usually does when he’s here.”

Team grins and nods vigorously.

About twenty minutes later, the class ends, and Team promises to come back and participate sometime in the future. They each take a turn fawning over him, assuring him of his good looks and pristine manners, and then head off to the kitchens for a “late breakfast”. (One of them mouths “snack time” with a catty smile on her way to the door.)

Once the room is empty, King says, “Follow me,” and hops off the veranda into the dewy trimmed grass. Team follows, and the sensation of cool wet grass under the bare soles of his feet strikes his system. How long has it been? Ever since he left his hometown in the mountains, his feet have only known the touch of tile, wood, and sand.

King leads him at a jogging crouch around the main building to the back, peeking occasionally between the stilts that hold it up. He whispers, “Win spends most of his time in the west building. That’s where most of his buddies are.”

Team mouths, “‘Buddies’?” to himself.

The west building is longer and narrower than the main building with a spacious veranda in the back where several people have gathered. One of them wearing sunglasses has sprawled out on a cushioned lounge chair for a nap, another two sit at a small table chatting about old Russian aristocracy over a bowl of berries, and the fourth sits alone at another small table contemplating white and black stones on a go board.

King gestures for Team to wait where he is, crouched low in the shadow of the veranda, then climbs the stairs two at a time. “Pssst,” King hisses. “Is Win here yet?”

Team stands up just enough to peek over the edge of the veranda and, upon seeing the go player staring directly at him, ducks back down. His childhood fantasy of becoming a spy simultaneously collapses where it’s been resting on a shelf in the back of his mind.

“No, he hasn’t come to see us yet,” someone says. “He pulled N’Kao out front for a chat. He looked a little upset. I hope nothing’s happened. Do you know?”

While King hedges, Team crouches down farther and peers under the house. Between stacks of storage containers, he can see a pair of legs and someone’s back, and Team thinks, P’Kao! with triumph.

He squeezes into the crevice and begins a low, narrow journey through the dark, cramped tunnel, using the light at the other end as a reference point. He’s careful to trace his fingertips along the curved edges of the storage containers, wary of obtaining any potential head injuries in the murk.

Halfway there, he recognizes the soft cadence of Win’s and Kao’s voices, but he’s still not close enough to catch words. Despite his eagerness to hear what they’re saying, he slows down to keep his footsteps lighter and quieter.

After another twenty seconds, he hears:

“…three in one year, though?”

Win.

Pausing at an awkward bent angle, Team braces his hands on the storage containers on either side of himself and listens closely.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Kao says. “N’Arthit was with you for almost three years, Lynn for two and a half, and N’Mork for, what, one and a half? Two or three is the average, and you still have Maprang. If you want new regulars, you can get them, N’Win. You know you can.”

“That’s not the problem,” Win says.

“Okay,” Kao says. “What is it, then?”

“I just…”

Team grips his fingers over the smooth surface. All he can see through the gap ahead are Kao’s legs and lower back, and from his posture, it seems like he’s leaning on the wall of the house. Win’s voice seems to be coming from a little bit to the left of Kao, so maybe he’s also leaning on the house.

The elevation of the hill isn’t so great that the temperature is much cooler, but the shade under the house and the block of shadow extending several meters across the grass over Kao and Win offers a few degrees of relief. In the silence while Win thinks, Team takes a few more cautious steps forward, trusting the buzz and whir of cicadas in the trees to cover the crunch of dirt under his soles.

Finally, Win exhales a deep sigh. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right. Losing Arthit was hard enough, and I knew P’Lynn’s situation was rough. But P’Mork….”

Team pauses with only a few steps left before he’s in clear sight of them both. He extends his neck just until he can see Win’s lower half, and sure enough, he’s leaning on the house as well, his shoulder braced so he’s facing Kao.

“I thought we….”

“What?” Kao’s voice has gone gentler. “You didn’t…not with N’Mork, too?”

“No, no,” Win says, absent. “It wasn’t an Arthit thing. I just…thought we were…friends.”

“Can’t you still be?”

“I don’t know. Look at his message.”

Win slips his tablet from his pocket and lifts it up and out of Team’s line of sight.

He must be showing the hologram to Kao, since Kao reads silently to himself for a bit and then recites, “Thank you for everything. You’ve been really fun to hang out with, and I learned a lot from you. Mork.”

Team tilts his head. Sounds fine.

“What’s the problem with this?” Kao asks.

“Doesn’t ‘thanks for everything’ sound like something you’d say to someone you’re not planning to see anymore? ‘You’ve been fun to hang out with’? ‘I learned a lot from you’? It’s nice, but that’s not how we talk to each other during sessions. This is…polite.”

Kao says, “Well, sure, but you might be reading too deep into this, N’Win.”

“P’Lynn’s sounded just like that,” Win says, more quietly, “and I haven’t heard from her since she left.”

A molten sort of heat builds in Team’s gut.

“At the end of the day, even though we don’t call them customers,” Kao says, “that’s what they are.”

“I know. I knew.”

In a moment, Team feels crushed under the weight of every painstaking second he’s put into earning a place in Win’s life—however new, however untested. Thinking about real people in the world who would choose to give up one of the closest spots to Win’s warmth—accepting the reality of it rakes shocks of confusion through his mind.

Not a single one of them deserves him.

Team has a half-formed defense already in mind, but just as his calf muscles flex to bring him into the open, a fist closes on the back of his shirt and Team whips his head around to see King glowering at him, one finger to his lips.

“Spend some time with the residents,” Kao says. “And…maybe consider what we talked about.”

“But phi—”

“No one’s saying you’re not good at this, N’Win. But, y’know, not everyone does this job for a long time. It’s hard on the body, it can be emotionally taxing, and, well. It can be too much sex.”

The bluntness makes Win laugh, but it’s just a single gust of breath and a hint of voice.

“Talk to the residents,” Kao advises. “Most of them didn’t have the luxury of walking away, so they’ll be the first ones to tell you to leave if it’s not what you want anymore.”

Win takes a small breath and says, “Okay, phi.”

Like punctuation, King yanks on Team’s shirt, and Team considers ignoring him only long enough for his conscience to agree that he’s overstepped—overran—a fairly obvious boundary. Reluctantly, he twists in the narrow space to follow King back in the opposite direction.

Once relatively out of hearing range, King hisses, “How much of that did he tell you already?”

Team whispers, “Uh, none?”

“Team!”

“I’m sorry, I was curious!”

Creaking wood overhead freezes King and Team in place, and they simultaneously realize that Kao and Win are making their way to the veranda where the residents have presumably been waiting for Win.

King groans and says, “Go back the other way, and then you’ve got to go back to your dorm,” as he turns around.

Team makes a distressed noise of protest. “Wait, phi, I want to—”

King points at Team’s nose with all the menace of a tofu cube. “No more eavesdropping,” he says.

“Yeah, but it’s faster,” Team whines.

King’s eyebrows drop low in an utterly unimpressed tableau.

With a beleaguered sigh, Team says, “Fine,” and obediently heads back the way they came, to where Kao and Win were just standing.

As he emerges, Team spots a human figure leaning against the wall scrolling through their tablet. He tries to stop, but King’s head rams into his back, and Team stumbles out into the open with a squawk.

King says, “Why’d you st—oh! P’Two!”

Team rights himself and rubs his back with a wince. He had no idea a third person was out here, and it becomes clear why when the guy runs his thumb over the sound collar around his neck and presumably stops the music he’s been listening to.

His eyes bounce back and forth between Team and King a few times, then he asks King, “Who’s this? New volunteer?”

King says, “No—”

“I’m Team, and I’m dating Hia Win,” Team says, offering a wai and allowing an impish smile to take to his lips as he glances sidelong at King.

Two’s expression shifts to pure delight. “Ohh, you’re the guy he’s been seeing. The residents have wanted to meet you.” He returns the wai and adds, “So have I, actually.”

King huffs out a laugh. “How do you like being a minor celebrity in the local sex industry, N’Team?”

Team lifts a shoulder. “I’ve kind of gotten used to it,“ he says.

Two says, “I’m just finishing my break, so I can give you a tour if you haven’t already had one.” Then, with a brighter smile, “How long are you here for? Did you come here with N’Win? He just went to visit the residents if you haven’t already met them.“

“Uh,” Team says. “Well—”

“He snuck in,” King says.

“Phi!”

Two raises both eyebrows, deep skepticism visible in every cell. “You…snuck in.” He looks over his shoulder pointedly at the gateless driveway, the wide-open garden around them, and the unguarded front doors.

“I was supposed to be taking an exam today,” Team explains with a grimace, “but it was postponed to Monday, so yesterday I—I was going to hang out with Hia Win today, but he’d already made plans to come here, so he showed me just the outside of it and then told me to go study. But I wanted to see what this place is so—” He puts up both hands in an intended as you can see, I was left with but one option gesture.

Two nods along the whole time while King just smirks.

“You didn’t say you have exams left,” King says. “You should go study.”

Two wrinkles his nose. “Don’t harangue the kid,” he says. “C’mon, N’Win won’t mind.” He claps Team on the back and urges him toward the staircase into the house.

Without a word, King follows them both.

Team only moved to Bangkok after his acceptance into university. He left behind not only the rushing wind through the trees and the dotted stars in the sky at night, but also the security and familiarity of his parents and his grandparents living nearby. Some days after school, he’d call a driverless tuktuk to carry him the distance to his grandparents’ house higher in the mountains, and then he’d spend hours there playing in the river and chasing the local kids in games they invented.

He hasn’t been back to see any of them in quite a while.

With his birthday approaching, he’ll probably get another virtual card from his grandparents, and he’ll promise to see them after he graduates.

As Two leads him onto the veranda, Team takes in the faces of these seventy-and-older crowd and thinks of his grandparents living alone in the mountains, reminiscing about the little boy with too much energy who’d burst in like a tiny tornado and ravage around and inside their house.

Win is sitting with the go player at her table, contemplating what appears to be the fifth move in the game, judging by the number of stones on the board. He hasn’t noticed Team yet, but the woman with eagle eyes has, and she’s staring at Team with eyes that are both vacant and focused.

“We have a visitor!” Two announces. He drops his arm heavy around Team’s shoulders and gives him a friendly jostle. “This is Team.”

Win’s head, already cocked to one side in vague interest, swivels. “Team?”

Sheepish, Team says, “Hi,” and adds a small wave in the hope that being cute will deter any potential annoyance.

While Win’s mouth is still open in surprise, Two steers Team sharply in the other direction. “Let me introduce you to our intellectuals!” he says brightly. “This is Lilin and Aya,” he says, offering a wai to both of the women who’d been talking Russian aristocrats, then to the woman reclining on the lounge wearing sunglasses. “This is Khaimook.” Finally, he turns to the go player, both hands on Team’s shoulders to turn him, then says, “And this is Praewa.”

Team shows each of them the utmost respect—not the least because Win is watching now, and his expression is layered with exasperation and annoyance and exhaustion and…affection.

His eyes are still red, and the pale skin under his eyes appears dark and bruised from lack of sleep.

Praewa asks, “Do you play go, N’Team?” in a somber lilting voice.

“Kind of,” Team says. “I mean, I know two really good opening moves, but I learned both of them from my cousin, and he won’t teach me any more.”

Behind him, the other residents laugh, and Team tries a hopeful smile for Praewa and then Win. Both of them return wry, neutral expressions.

I guess I deserve that.

“You can watch your boyfriend play,” Praewa says, nodding at Win. “He’s been getting better.” From a ceramic pot near her hand, she takes a black go stone between her first two fingertips and lays it with a small tic onto one of the many crisscrossed points on the board.

Win continues eyeing Team for another few seconds, his expression caught somewhere between authentically amused and professionally unaffected.

“N’Win,” Praewa say. She tugs her pearl-colored shawl over her narrow brown shoulders, her eyes on the board. “It’s your turn.”

“Right,” Win says, and returns his attention to the board—though how much of his brain is actually on the game and how much is still on Team is unclear by the back of his head alone.

“You’d better let him concentrate,” Two says in a stage whisper. “He’s never won against her, but he does better when there’s absolute silence.”

Win drops a hand below the table to present Two with the finger.

Across the veranda, Lilin and Aya duck behind their matching painted fans and laugh.

King rests a forearm on Team’s shoulder, watching the game with avid interest. The casual physical affection feels like something a sibling might do, and Team quietly enjoys the closeness as he and King watch Win take his next move with a white stone.

Praewa shakes her head and places a black stone next to his. “Always defense,” she says, “never offense.”

“If I go on offense too early, you’ll wipe the floor with me,” Win says with a hint of exasperation.

“I’ll do it either way,” she says, peering up at him through her white bangs, “but if you play me with a spine, you’ll actually learn something.”

Team rounds his lips in an “o” at King, who nods in silent, vigorous agreement. She is, it would appear, as formidable as she seems.

With a sigh, Win makes his next move. Team can’t tell what he’s chosen to do—follow his usual pattern, or take her advice—until he hears King exhale with amusement beside him and sees Praewa nod once and pause before her next move.

”Better,” she says. As she holds her stone above the board, her gaze on the assembly of black and white stones already laid out, she says, “The first time an AI beat a human at go, some people panicked. ‘Why bother playing at all if a computer can do it better?’ By that logic, why bother doing anything anymore, then? AIs at movie theaters nowadays can create a movie on the fly from thousands of options picked at random—do you think that made people stop telling stories? The point of life isn’t to get things done as efficiently as possible.” She puts her next stone down. “And this is only a game if you treat it like one.”

As Win takes in the move and her words, he sighs and nods, his shoulders dropping.

Team leans his head back—laser-focused on Win’s next white stone balanced delicately between his fingertips—and whispers to King, “I don’t get it.”

“She’s very wise,” King whispers back, “but neither do I.“

The faintest of smiles touches Praewa’s lips, and Team notices for the first time the sleek, expensive hearing aid in her ear.

After Win admits defeat ten minutes later, he walks Team back to the car without a word. The sun has shifted, and Team has to shield his eyes as Win tugs him to a stop at the bottom of the main building’s stairs.

“Why didn’t you go back?” Win asks.

Team clears his throat, thinking through his options. He’s not entirely sure himself. He followed an impulse, and what feels right to say is: “Studying your life feels like it’s more worth my time.” When his pretty sentiment does nothing to change Win’s tired expression, he adds, “I don’t want to study.” He rubs his eye with his thumb knuckle, realizing for the first time how drained he feels.

Win breathes in deep and exhales quick. He tucks an arm around Team’s neck and draws him into a close, gentle hug. “I know,” he says. “But remember: if you do well on your exams, I’ll make sure you’re well rewarded.”

Warmed from his core by the safety that envelops him, Team nods and closes his eyes. While he has the chance, he drops his head on Win’s shoulder and yawns. “Are you gonna be okay?” he asks.

Win rubs between his shoulder blades. “Me? Of course, why?”

“You just…sound so sad.”

Win says, “Don’t worry about me,” and kisses the side of Team’s head. “Just tired.” After a light squeeze of Team’s neck and back, Win withdraws and offers a stretched smile. “Axl will take you wherever,” he says.

Team almost catches Win’s fingers to hold, but he restrains himself. He says, “I’ll go back to the dorms,” and enjoys the tiny sincere smile he’s earned for it. “See you tomorrow?”

Win opens his mouth, the urge to say “no” clear in the pinch between his eyebrows, but then his face smooths out and he says, “I’ll help you study, sure.”

It’s as good an offer as he’s likely to get, so Team accepts it. He darts in close for a last kiss to Win’s cheek, then dashes and slides into the backseat of Win’s idling car. He catches Win resting his cheek on his own shoulder with a deeper smile as the car door swings shut.

Chapter Text

On days when Kao volunteers at MUSING, Pete tries to arrive to pick him up at least fifteen minutes after Kao is scheduled to finish. With a boundlessly generous nature and perpetual eagerness to help out absolutely everyone in existence, Kao is always, without fail, roped into something by a resident on his way out—and every time, Kao goes willingly, assuring Pete that it’ll be quick.

Broken music player? Sure, that’ll only take a minute. (Ten.)

Lost tablet? Five at most. (Sixteen.)

Anecdote about a grandchild? Maybe ten. (Forty-two.)

When the place opened last year, Kao offered his help right away. He told Pete with gleaming eyes, “Some of these people saw the industry of sex work go through some of the most traumatic changes in history. They’re the strongest people I’ve ever met. King said he wants to interview some of them for his book.” His enthusiasm made Pete smile, but Pete also made his feelings about Kao and Win spending extra time together perfectly clear.

“I don’t like the idea of you two isolated in the mountains surrounded by sex workers for hours at a time.”

“Retired sex workers,” Kao corrected, amused, “and you’re insulting real mountains by calling that tall hill one.”

“Promise me you’ll punch him if he hits on you,” Pete said.

“He wouldn’t,” Kao said, rolling his eyes. “And even if he did, I’m weirdly only interested in you.”

“Kaaaaoooo—”

“Peeeete. I’ll punch you if you don’t quit it.”

“Fine.” Pete spread his arms wide. “Go ahead.”

“Yeah?” Kao grinned, leaning forward on the bed.

Pete jutted out his jaw and said, “Take a swing, right here.”

Naturally, Kao kissed him instead, and they dropped the subject. And some clothes.

Now, Pete peers out the windshield as his car pulls up alongside the only three left in the gravel parking lot of the complex: Kao’s, Two’s, and Win’s. Seeing Two and Kao here past ten o’clock isn’t unusual, but Pete has rarely seen Win when he arrives to pick up Kao.

With him in a relationship now, it feels especially odd.

As Pete climbs out of his car, he squints through the dark at a bright smudge in front of the main house. The pale light of the moon and a few golden squares of light from the residents’ windows reflect off the white clothes and blond hair of the sole figure sitting on the veranda.

Hm.

Win’s on the very edge of the veranda, his long legs hanging motionless above the ground. With his arms braced on the middle beam of the railing and his chin resting on his forearm, he looks the youngest Pete has ever seen him. Hardly the charming flirt he appears to be whenever Pete’s ever interacted with him.

As Pete begins to climb the stairs, he notices the moonlight catch on the tear tracks streaking Win’s cheeks.

It feels rude to just ignore him, so Pete clears his throat. “Hey, Win.”

There’s a feeble attempt at a wai, but Win keeps staring directly ahead of himself. “Hi, P’Pete,” he says.

“Nice night.”

Win says, “Yeah, it’s a lot cooler than I thought it would be.”

His bare arms are prickled with goosebumps.

Pete licks his lips. “Where’s…uh…where’s Kao?”

“Kitchen,” Win says. “He’s helping one of the residents.” He flashes a wry smile at Pete, then rubs the tear tracks with the back of his hand as he resumes his silent sentinel gig.

Pete says, “Thanks,” and hesitates before heading inside to find his adorable selfless pain in the neck.

Win leaves Pete’s mind as he walks the halls by memory. He can hear Kao and Khaimook’s joined jubilant laughter long before he reaches the kitchen, the joyful sound familiar and welcome after a long day at the museum. When he reaches the door, it slides open automatically, and he’s confronted with confirmation that he’s arrived too early—even though he consciously arrived late.

Kao squeaks, his eyes even more startled than those of a deer grazing near a helipad.

He and Khaimook are making…something involving a lot of coconut milk and square molds.

Khaimook smiles at Pete as he enters the room with a wai. “He smelled the kyauk kyaw,” she tells Kao knowingly. “You’re dating a smart one.”

Pete can’t help his smile growing. Khaimook is one of his favorite residents, in part because she enjoys feeding him homemade treats from around the world. In her youth, she relied on sex work to support her family, but gentrification of the industry made her brothel more and more unsafe, twice as vulnerable to police raids and exploitation by the owner. She tried to rise through the ranks in the culinary field for decades—with little success. Even as sex parlors rose in prominence, unlicensed brothels carried on with an aura of “ill repute”. When Win quietly introduced the concept of MUSING to the S.W.A., they found Khaimook living alone on her B.I., estranged from both industries.

An entire chapter in King’s book centers around her life.

“Are they done yet?” Pete asks. He reaches for the lid on the refrigeration box and squawks when Kao smacks his knuckles with a wet spatula.

“Ten more minutes,” Kao says.

“And twenty seconds,” Khaimook adds. She shows Pete the tiny countdown hologram suspended above her watch.

They’re seated in chairs, surrounded by cooking utensils and bowls and molds, and the whole scene is too cozy to resist. Pete walks behind Kao’s chair and massages his locked-up shoulders with a rough but knowing touch until Kao allows his head to flop forward with a groan.

“Is he still outside?” Khaimook asks, her voice pitched to a near whisper.

Pete mouths, “Win?” and when she nods, he nods back.

She and Kao trade mysterious solemn frowns and sigh.

“Why?” Pete asks. “What’s going on?”

Khaimook gives him a small, sad smile. “It’s not our place to say, sweetheart.”

Kao allows another few seconds of massage, then wriggles loose and stands. “I should clean all of this up,” he says to Khaimook. To Pete, he says, “Go wait outside. I don’t trust you to leave our dessert alone.”

“Don’t I get any?”

“Later,” Kao says. He grabs Pete’s arm and turns him to the door. “Say goodbye to your friend who feeds you more than she should.”

Pete pouts at Khaimook and leans his full weight on Kao’s hands, reaching for her mournfully. “Grandma,” he whines.

She reaches for him with one hand, her expression decently sympathetic. “I’ll pack some extra for you to take home, my good, sweet grandson.”

“Nice,” Pete says, and goes willingly into the hallway with a mischievous cackle. “Have fun, you two! Take care of my favorite lady, Kao.” He nimbly dodges when Kao tries to smack his ass just before the door closes behind him.

The rest of the complex is quiet and even darker than it was when he arrived, so Pete makes his way back out to the veranda to wait. Win is still there, but he seems to be asleep now, resting his cheek on his arm with his eyes closed.

With a deep breath, Pete tugs his tablet free of his side pocket and leans on the wall a decent distance away to play a few silent games while he waits. Pete’s never been much of an outdoors fan, but there’s something to be said for this location. It’s a fair distance from the neighborhood’s main—but seldom-used—road, and the only sounds surrounding them now are cicadas and the occasional nocturnal bird.

“Are you keeping an eye on me?”

Drawn out of his falling blocks game, Pete blinks over at Win’s closed eyes without comprehension. “What d’you mean?”

Win inhales and sits up, bracing his hands on the veranda behind him and regarding Pete with exhaustion. “I know you don’t really like me, P’Pete,” he says. “I’ve never tried to flirt with your boyfriend, and I never will.” He rubs underneath one eye with his thumb knuckle, squeezing his eyes shut. “Even if I weren’t seeing someone.”

The two years separating them feel even wider when Win sounds so ornery and defensive. When he’s rubbing his eye like a little kid. When he’s sulking out here by himself.

And like an iridescent bubble, Win’s cool, confident image bursts into nothing, and Pete suddenly can’t recall why he ever found this guy so intimidating.

Pete pockets his tablet and crosses the veranda, sliding his legs out over the edge and folding his arms one on top of the other on the middle beam, same as Win.

“I didn’t like you,” he says. “I’m neutral now.” He tips his head back and watches a single wisp of silver cloud travel across the black sky. “So why were you crying?”

Win says, “Nothing. It’s just a work thing.” He forces a smile. “Even sex workers have bad days.”

Pete snorts, “Bullshit,” and tips his head to give Win a look of unbridled doubt. “Boyfriend problems already, huh?”

It’s tricky to tell, without a great deal of light to illuminate Win’s face, but it looks to Pete like Win blanches and flinches. With a labored swallow, Win says, “I…don’t know. Maybe.”

A voice in Pete’s head tells him, You were ridiculous for thinking this guy had moves that could work on Kao. Except that wasn’t what worried him, really.

In retrospect, what alarmed Pete was an entire section of Kao’s life that he would never understand firsthand. Not just MUSE, but the S.W.A., MUSING, and all the other projects Kao takes on to help make his industry safer, happier, and more equitable. Win appeared at MUSE out of nowhere three years ago, at a time when Pete’s relationship with Kao had just begun, and ever since, he’s represented everything Pete will never be able to be to Kao.

“I don’t know what your issues are,” Pete says, “but I can share an epiphany I just had.”

Win, focused on the trees at the end of the driveway, nods. “Sure, phi.”

“You can’t be everything for him. Even if you want to be, even if you do everything you can to make opportunities for yourself in every part of his life, you won’t be able to. There’ll always be people who knew him longer, and people who had experiences with him that you’ll never relate to. But that’ll make him interesting, and it’ll give you two stuff to talk about.” He’s mainly saying it for his own benefit, but he pauses when he sees Win’s eyes glossing over with unshed tears. “Hey, sorry—you okay?”

Win closes his eyes tight, a fresh tear slicing down his cheek. “Just…having a rough week.” He clears his throat, but the raw crackle is still there when he adds, “Is that the whole epiphany? Because it’s…not really helping, phi.”

Pete grins ruefully. “No, no, listen.” He frames his hands in midair like his image of an architect. “I was really jealous of you for a while, right? Because there was this whole other side of his life that I’d never really get. But I just realized…I don’t need to be in every part of his life. I just have to be in the parts that he wants me to be in, y’know? And the other stuff can be his stuff, and my stuff can be my stuff. It’s like one of those pie chart things that intersect.”

“A Venn diagram,” Win says as he wipes his face with the neck of his shirt.

“Yeah, that.” Pete grins wider. “Feel better?”

Win exhales through his shirt, then drops it and makes tired eye contact with Kao. “Kind of,” he says. “Thanks for trying, P’Pete.”

“No problem,” Pete says. He gives Win’s back a friendly slap and adds, “Sorry I’ve been kind of a jerk for…the last three years.”

Win, to his credit, says, “Thanks for the apology,” and raises an eyebrow with warranted doubt.

The shuffling footsteps of Khaimook and Kao announce their imminent entrance onto the veranda. Pete claps Win’s shoulder again and squirms up onto his feet in time to see Khaimook appear on the scene carrying a wicker basket—no doubt filled with kyauk kyaw.

“I’m glad you two had time to talk,” she says with warmth. “Are you both going home now?”

Pete offers her a deep wai before accepting the basket. “Yes, Grandma. Thank you, Grandma.”

“I’ll be going in a few minutes,” Win says. “My legs are asleep,” he adds with a sheepish laugh.

“You’d better,” Khaimook says, pointing at him with a spatula. “I’ll be out here in ten minutes and you’d better be on your way home. Hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As an afterthought, Pete ruffles Win’s loose blond hair and grins when Win gives him a sour, beleaguered look back. He tugs off his button-down flannel shirt and drops it over Win’s head, eyeing the goosebumps on his arms.

“Get home safe,” Pete says. When he looks at Kao, he finds that Kao’s eyebrows have ascended.

Feeling smug with his progress tonight, Pete heads for the stairs with his dessert basket.

As they descend the staircase, Kao tells Pete, “Don’t get drool on that—Lilin made it, and we have to return it to the kitchen next week,” Pete says, “Yeah, yeah,” and they walk, arms around each other’s waist, to their car.

He feels Win’s eyes on his back, or maybe on Kao’s arm around him, and thinks, If I could figure it out, you’ll figure it out, smartie.

Chapter Text

“For your practical exam, you will encounter six situations. Each one is tailored to your level, and you are expected to compete each situation within five minutes. Your answers will be graded by how suitable they are, how complex they are, and how natural they sound. One-word answers and body language are not acceptable for your level. You may begin.”

Decades ago, before AI, people took language tests on paper. Seated in some sunny classroom, listening to the birds singing in a tree outside the open window, filling out bubbles to answer multiple choice questions.

What a golden age that must have been.

“Excuse me,” the hologram woman says, jogging in place. “Do you know where the park is? I think I’m a little lost.”

Team says, “Yes, it’s over there,” and points somewhere off to the right, forgetting for a moment that the body-reading functions are disabled for the exam.

The jogger’s face creases in confusion. “Sorry, where?”

Team drops his arm. “Uh, if you…run…this way. Um. Down this street? Then…turn…left, and go…straight…there is a park.” He’s making up the directions while trying to keep his grammar flawless and his sentences polysyllabic—and he’s already tired enough to accept a failing grade.

“Great,” the jogger says. “I just moved here from Singapore. How do you like this neighborhood?”

Team says, “It’s good. I don’t want to move to another neighborhood.”

After a few more questions he doubts he’d ever hear from a passing jogger, Team finishes the first situation. The second, third, and fourth pass with similar ennui, and into the fifth one, Team just wants to go home and sleep.

Win helped him study on Saturday as promised. He met Team at the campus library and quizzed him on simple grammar that Team nevertheless refuses on principle to accept.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Team whined into his arm. “Why can’t I say, ‘he and me’?”

“You can,” Win told him, “but you won’t get marked well for it. Look, you can check if you’re using it right or not by taking out the other person. So, ‘me went to the store’ isn’t right, right? So you know it’s ‘he and I went to the store’—got it?” Then Win had Kurt put the sentences he’d recited above the table between them, the script in blue.

Team poked through it with frustration. “‘I’ and ‘me’ are the same thing, though. Why did English people make up these stupid arbitrary rules?”

“Not the same,” I says from beside Team’s elbow.

Team absently patted his tablet in apology. “Sorry, not you.”

To Team’s surprise, Win didn’t give up on him or the material in spite of Team’s ornery resistance. They managed to get through all of Team’s exam outlines, and when Win had Axl drive them by Team’s dorm, Win deemed him ‘definitely good enough to pass’—which is far nicer than he had to be considering where Team’s level is.

The next exam situation takes place on a nondescript beach, and once the chime sounds, Team angles his head down to avoid the overpowering brightness of the artificial sun and peers around the beach for whoever he’s supposed to talk to.

When he can’t find anyone, the sound of waves and laughter nearby transports him away from the exam for a cherished few moments.

In Win’s car after spending the afternoon and evening studying, Team asked Win, “How do you speak English so well?”

The drive from the campus library to his dormitory should have only taken five minutes, but Axl somehow managed—through several unusual turns—to stretch it into something closer to ten. It gave Team the excuse to drop his head on Win’s shoulder and rest, taking comfort in his presence and wishing he could spend the night with him; he always sleeps better with Win.

“My English isn’t that great, honestly,” Win told him. He took Team’s fingers between his and squeezed. “Mandarin is my strongest, and everything else—English, Cantonese, Arabic, Korean, and Japanese—are all pretty second tier.” He paused for a second, then added, “I guess I could count Italian. My dad encouraged me to take it for a semester in university because he thought it was funny.”

Team frowned without opening his eyes, enjoying the sensation of Win’s hand warm in his.“Why?”

“He said I should study at least one dead language.” Before Team could even open his mouth to point out that Italian is very much alive, Win said, “He had his wallet stolen in Rome once and he’s never gotten over it.”

Most of Team’s friends speak a second or third language, but Win seemed strangely casual about knowing six.

Team’s helmet chimes again, and the waves freeze.

“There’s an error in this situation,” the virtual hall’s AI says. “Please wait.”

Months ago, Team might have groaned and pulled out his tablet to entertain himself until the exam restarted, but…in place of the annoyance he might have felt, he’s mostly…curious.

Every night, Team puts his tablet on the windowsill so I can count things and make predictions about the weather and report on unusual awake-and-wandering-around-in-the-middle-of-the-night student stuff. He knows the names of most of his friends’ tablet AIs, and he tries to use them instead of just using hand gestures or general voice commands.

He doesn’t know how far along AI technology is—but it’s reached a point where Team can’t even follow the conversation about how advanced they are, so it’s probably past time to treat them with the same respect he’d give a living, breathing creature.

So he asks the virtual hall’s AI, “Um, what’s your name?”

Silence.

More silence.

Considering the exam setting, Team asks in English, “What’s your name?” instead.

Nothing.

When Win’s car stopped in front of Team’s dormitory, neither of them moved in for a kiss goodnight or even made eye contact. All day, Team had ignored how devoutly Win stuck to studying, avoiding all mention of MUSE. He’d felt more like a tutor than a boyfriend helping him out, and during the drive back to his dormitory, Team had defaulted to asking him questions like they were on an awkward first date.

The dark made the stability of the ground between them seem less reliable.

“Hia,” Team said, then licked his lips.

“My family are in the hotel industry,” Win said. “That’s why I speak so many languages.” When Team waited for more, Win offered him a wry smile and a shrug of one shoulder. “Not that I use them very often. I still go to a party here and there, but for the most part…” His gaze floated, never settling. “I don’t know why I didn’t mention it until now.”

When phrased like that, Team couldn’t understand it either.

“What do they do?” Team asked.

He watched Win’s throat flex under a swallow. “They…own one.”

“A hotel?”

“A chain.”

Team said, “Okay,” and watched Win’s eyebrows slowly draw in as he stared at the floor near Team’s sneakers. “What,” Team said, “does chain not mean ‘hotel chain’ or is this a sex kink thing your parents have?”

Win’s laugh burst out startled and strained, then one hand flew up to cover his eyes. “Hotel chain,” he said, strangled. Then, “Team.”

In the present, Team decides to try one last time with the virtual hall’s AI. “I have a question,” he says.

Promptly, the AI responds, “I can help. What do you need?”

“I was just curious—do you have a name?” Team asks.

The AI responds, “My name is Xiaoming. Nice to meet you.”

Team grins. “Nice to meet you, too.” He considers the motionless beach around himself, an odd contrast to the chill of the virtual hall booth he’s standing in. There isn’t much to do while he waits. “Do you want to, like…maybe play a game or something?”

The AI responds, “The virtual hall is not equipped with games. Would you like to play a word game instead?”

Team says, “Hm,” and then grins. “Can it be in Italian?”

“Sure.”

He has no way of knowing whether he’s made a friend like I or not, but being kind as a rule, no matter the subject, seems like a good habit to develop.

“Hey you,” Win says. “How’re your exams going?“

Team sits on the grass, his back up against one of the tinted windows of the virtual hall. “I just finished English,” he says. He tips his head back and soaks in the sunlight with his eyes closed. This way, he can pretend Win is here.

“Nice!” Win says, his voice clear as a bell. “How’d it go?”

“Very good,” Team intones. “I am a genius. More than you.”

“Cute.” Win’s smile is clear in its warmth. “What’s next?”

“Just ethics now and econ tomorrow.”

“What do you have to do for econ?”

Team yawns. “Some written thing,” he says, scratching his neck where the bottom ridge of the virtual helmet always presses into his skin. “Then I have to talk to my professor about my paper. She’ll ask me some questions and I’ll have to elaborate and stuff. It’ll be fine.”

“Ah, okay,” Win says. He pauses, then says, “I’d go over your paper with you tonight, but I have Maprang.”

“It’s fine, hia.”

“P’King’s probably booked tonight, too. P’Kao might be free if you need him, though.”

Team opens one eye even though they’re on a voice call and Win can’t see Team’s expression of confusion. “Hia, it’s fine. I know the whole paper inside and out.” He closes his eye with a grin and says, “Give me any page number and I’ll recite the first five words for you.”

“Page three.”

“Something about MUSE’s founder, probably.”

“Team….”

Team sighs. “Hia Win,” he says, a whine creeping in. “Relax. Just tell P’Maprang I said hi.” Well. That’s weird. “I mean, if it comes up.” Wait, not ’it’. “My name.” What? “My name, not anything—“ Bail! Bail! “…Okay, bye, hia!”

He slices his hand over the tablet to cut the connection, then flops sideways into the grass.

“I,” he says, “please bury me here.”

“Would you like me to call an excavator?”

“Yes, please.”

For a second, he thinks I actually will, and then I says, in the same flat monotone, “They said to call back later.”

Team snorts and smiles into the grass.

He eats a quick lunch with Kong in the twenty minutes before their ethics exam. They quiz each other over pork and rice, then head up to the room together. The seating layout has been altered from its usual circle into a square so the students’ backs all face each other. When the clock numbers change of Team’s desk tablet change from 14:59 to 15:00, Team takes a tired breath and logs in with his student ID. As always happens during tests, a mostly opaque hologram shell curls around him to discourage cheating and leaves only the area just above his head and just below his chest fully visible.

He finishes the first section easily, writing each answer with confidence. Despite the sleepy haze cloaking his mind, the information he needs for every single question is well within his tired reach. Then he submits the first section and watches the essay portion take its place. With a deep stretch with his arms over his head, Team squeezes his eyes shut and wonders what Win’s planning for his break.

Because he’s going to ace this exam for sure.

With a smile, Team reads the first topic.

Essay #1: Cite one invention and a resulting innovation in the automation age. Explain the effects, negative and/or positive, of that innovation.

Hm.

Automation….

Innovation….

The invention of AI led to a multitude of innovations from genuine companions like I and Suede to choice-based cinema to predictive medicine. And….

Team runs the knuckle of his thumb under his insomnia-bruised eye, his train of thought vanishing from his grasp before he can organize it into an essay. Automation…AI…maybe….

He hasn’t used MUSE in any of his exams so far, and tomorrow, he’ll have to discuss it plenty for his last exam in development economics. He can use it as a warmup—mainly because he’s too tired to reach for any another example.

He can’t keep his dark room and pillow waiting; he’s neglected them long enough the past week.

With a deft hand, Team draws his finger in swirling patterns over the script on the holographic keyboard, watching the words appearing before him for mistakes.

Benefits and drawbacks of the hologram are so commonplace in modern life, many people don’t think much about them. Invented over one hundred years ago, the hologram developed little by little until the age of automation reached its peak and suddenly holograms became a fixture in many societies around the world. Holograms gave many companies and businesses a human face that they could control, so they became more popular than human workers, many of whom were protected by strengthening unions and legal protections that holograms would not need.

One such company that has benefited from holograms is MUSE, a popular parlor still operational today. Like many sex parlors, MUSE employs human sex workers and mainly use holograms for advertising. Since the advertising of sex work is still illegal in Thailand, MUSE uses holograms to show previews of their on-site human workers to potential customers. This allows MUSE to keep their workers at a safe distance while doing required checks on those potential customers.

However, one negative side to MUSE’s use of holograms is a recently introduced function where current customers of MUSE can have hologram representations of the workers in their own homes. These holograms were promised by the designers to be just common programs, but there is suspicion among the workers at MUSE that the holograms have learning technology so they can satisfy customers better. Actions like this create a very real risk to the workers’ safety, since they aren’t in control of what the holograms made in their image are doing. Holograms that are designed without the same personal boundaries as the workers they’re based on will obviously just act for the customer’s satisfaction and then customers will have false expectations from the human workers. This is obviously a big risk and puts the workers in physical danger and could even lead to trauma in bad enough situations. While there are many ways MUSE has improved over the years, this kind of innovation is something for unions in all industries to keep an eye on. If organizations like Sex Work Advocacy weren’t staying on top of the problems, then MUSE workers could

character limit exceeded

Team frowns and swipes his finger through the next character he wants, but the small red warning only pulses to emphasize its message.

“It’s not that long,” Team hisses at the tablet.

The character limit has been exceeded, the classroom tablet responds in a scrolling line of script. Please submit your answer as is or rephrase to fit the character limit.

Team exhales through his nose, jaw tight, and allows his shoulders to fall.

He rereads what he’s written, seeing where he lost the thread first and then dropped the whole spool off an admittedly biased and overtly emotional cliff. Once he’s traveled down the indignant peak into a valley of sheepishness, Team considers crossing out the essay topic altogether and replacing it with: “tell me you’re dating a sex worker without actually telling me you’re dating a sex worker”.

Over the next ten minutes, Team reworks his answer to sound more dispassionate, since his professor is a stickler about objectivity. When it looks less like something King would write in his essays and something more like what Kao would explain to a class, Team submits it and moves onto his next essay.

When he leaves the room, eyes half-closed, Team finds Kong waiting for him in the hallway, leaning on the sill of an open window overlooking the amphitheater outside.

Kong asks, “How’d you do?”

He joins Team in descending the stairs, his shoulders relaxed and his smile small but easy. Things must be going well for him and Arthit.

Team says, “Pretty well, I guess.” Then, “The first essay topic I got was really hard to fit in the character limit.”

Kong freezes on a step, eyebrows rocketing. “Pardon?”

Team glances over his shoulder, turning on a step two below to peer up at Kong with a squint against the sun. “What?”

Kong presses the backs of his fingers to Team’s forehead without changing expression.

“I’m not sick. I just had a lot to write about for one of the topics. I’ve done so much reading and real research into it by chance recently that—”

“We should swing by the clinic.“

“Koooong!”

Chomping into a piping hot slice of okonomiyaki and cursing incoherently is how Win finds Team answering their video call later that night.

Once Win finishes his chuckle at Team’s hubris and Team drinks half his ice water to soothe the burn on his tongue, Team whines, “I made it too hot.”

From the tablet on Team’s windowsill, I says, “I am not in charge of heating your meals.”

Team mumbles nonsense to himself and sticks his tongue out at the back of the tablet where I can’t see.

Win’s fond smile is waiting when Team turns his attention back to him.

“How’d ethics go?”

Team thinks of his scribbled tirade and says, “Fine, totally fine. Probably did pretty well.”

Win, it would appear, is already in bed and prepared to sleep despite the early hour. For Win, “dressed for bed” is loose pants, no shirt, and most of his bigger tattoos on glorious display. But tonight, with a blanket pulled up under one arm and the other arm curled around one of his spare pillows, Win looks curiously young.

To stop himself from thinking about Win’s bedroom and how nice it would feel to fall asleep there with him, Team takes a smaller bite of his sliced-up okonomiyaki. The sharp stab of heat to the tip of his tongue still makes him wince, so he eats the rest of the bite with a low hiss, chewing quickly.

When he swallows, he makes a wounded noise at Win.

“Poor baby,“ Win says. “One more exam to go?”

“One more,” Team confirms. He smiles a little at the pet name—in any other voice it would sound playful, but Win always manages to surprise him with soft edges.

On cue, Win says, “You’ll do great,” while Team writes his name on his plate in the okonomiyaki sauce with the tip of his chopsticks, his heart buoyed by encouragement.

When Team works up the composure to lift his chin and ask Win how the last few days have been—if he’s really okay—Win’s eyes are closed. Team doesn’t have the heart to wake him.

He tells I quietly, “Close the channel. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, I guess.”

Development Economics never really earned itself a place on Team’s list of most loved or hated classes. Of course, none of his classes is what Team would call a favorite—just less irritating than the classes at the very bottom. As far back as Team’s memories go, he’s always done well enough in school to receive mild praise from his teachers. His parents always seemed to hope for better someday, but they were visibly proud that he never really struggled, and he was able to focus on what mattered: swimming, sleeping, and snacking.

Now, with one semester on the horizon before he graduates into a world where he’s supposed to be a functional member of society, Team finds himself in the unusual situation of feeling…oddly excited to talk to his professor about a paper he wrote.

Win is…probably having an even stronger influence on him than he ever could have predicted.

At the scheduled time, Team arrives at his classroom and knocks before entering. Professor Chotiwat smiles at him from a student’s desk. She says, “Hello, Team, have a seat,” and and gestures to the desk beside hers.

Sitting at the same kind of desk as his professor feels extremely casual, but Professor Chotiwat gestures again, so Team sits.

She pulls up his paper between them—seven pages in a row, each one minimized to the size of Team’s hand and evenly spaced. She’s made some editing marks, he can see, but the quantity of edits has never been much of an indication of the overall grade with Professor Chotiwat.

“No one’s ever included MUSE in a paper for my class before,” she says, then tips her head. “What inspired you to choose this topic?”

“Um,” Team says. For want of something to burn the nervous energy building in his gut, he rambles. “I said automation on a whim because I couldn’t really think of a good topic, and then my friends gave me a bunch of suggestions, and I guess, uh, MUSE just sounded the most interesting.”

The way she regards him is almost parental in how cleanly she’s cut and seen through him. “I see,” she says. She nods. “Your topic evolved quite a bit, I noticed.”

Team says, “Yeah,” and adds a sheepish shrug. “I, uh, got to know some of the people who work there, and as I kept finding out new things about the whole industry from actual people in it, I just wanted to write way too much at once.”

Her smile returns with more warmth. “I can certainly empathize with you there. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the assignment.”

Team considers that in silence for a second, because enjoying the paper or not never really even entered his head. “I guess I did,” he says. “I didn’t really know much about the whole history of the industry before, and then I learned so much I couldn’t even include most of it in my paper.”

She spreads her arms with satisfaction. “And that’s why I structure my final exams this way,” she says. “Not only to see what you’ve absorbed over the semester, but to allow you the one-on-one time to discuss other areas that interested you.”

So he tells her in a roundabout way what he knows about MUSE, trying all the while to make it sound as though he’s just very well-read and not the former client and current boyfriend of someone who works there. Like he hasn’t befriended others who work there, like he hasn’t been to a meeting of the S.W.A. himself.

It’s one thing to talk about one’s sex worker boyfriend to one’s friends—there’s no world in which Team would want to do so with his economics professor.

She says, “You’ve already seen my notes on your paper, but it really did impress me, Team.” She magnifies one of the pages to a legible size with a practiced gesture. “The division between parlors and brothels has been seeing more attention and concern over the years by the general public, and I admit, I myself didn’t understand the difference when I was your age. Things in the sex industry have changed much faster than I ever could have anticipated.”

She’s looking at a paragraph near the middle of the page where Team wrote: Psychologist Icarus Osei has said of the effects of automation on the human mind, “With automation still a rapidly accelerating influence on society, we can’t truly comprehend the extent to which it’s affecting us. It’s my belief that our brains simply cannot absorb and process all of our every day stimuli, and yet the human spirit wants to receive it, accept it, take it all.

Kao recommended a few of his articles, but Team only ended up quoting him that once.

Professor Chotiwat says, “I think this was an admirable topic to take on, Team,” and lifts her gaze with a small smile. “You seem to have a strong handle on the material, and I hope you don’t stop researching this just because you did well on your paper and your exam today.“

Team blinks and then, involuntarily, a wide grin expands.

She says, “Your final grade won’t be posted for a few more days, but you have nothing to worry about—from me at least.” She winks.

Win would love her, Team thinks. So would…huh.

Professor Chotiwat.

Chotiwat…?

She seems to notice the start of a realization spreading through his synapses like sparks traveling along hundreds of wicks of dynamite sticks. With an overly innocent hum, she sends his neatly stacked paper back into her tablet and then says, “We’re all set, I think, unless you have anything more to ask?” He shakes his head. “Well, then. It’s been a pleasure having you in my class this semester, Team.”

“Uh, thank you, Professor,” Team says. “And, um, thank you, too.” After he stands, his wai is more careful and his bow a little deeper than they have to be, but in a way, it’s thanks to her that he’s dating Win and has twice the friends he had before.

She returns the gesture, still seated, her expression still placid and sweet.

Outside the classroom and safely out of earshot, Team whispers, “I, what’s Kao’s formal name?”

From his pocket, I says, at half volume, “Phanuwat Chotiwat.”

Right.

Of course Kao’s mother would be a professor.

With his last final exam completed, Team begins to unlock under the force of his relief. His shoulder muscles throb as he massages them with both hands, tight and tense and sore under his cluelessly digging fingertips. He hasn’t been in a pool for days, and his body is obviously punishing him for it.

Sighing, Team aims a hard frown up at the mottled gray clouds looming lower than usual. The moisture in the air thickens every breath he takes as he takes cover under the roof of an open-air hallway.

He and Win are playing it by ear today. Team fully expected to get an invitation or two for celebratory drinks, but as Kong told him yesterday, everyone else still has an exam or two left to go. Team told Win if he didn’t feel too exhausted, he’d head over. Win said fine, that he’d be free all day.

So why hasn’t Team left this spot yet?

Team blames it on his exam-riddled brain. It’s been memorizing and analyzing and processing for weeks now, and to suddenly have an open meadow of free time before him somehow gridlocks the impulses he’d normally follow.

He’s so tired.

“I,” Team hears himself say, “has Hia Win left me any messages?”

“Yes,” I says. “One audio. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Hey, Team.” Win’s voice, gravelly like he just woke up. “I wanted to wish you luck but I think you’re already in the exam, so. Sending it out into the universe anyway.”

Team starts walking and says, “I, can you call me a cab, please? I’ll meet it in the parking lot in front of the amphitheater.”

He naps fully horizontal in the backseat, his head pillowed by his arm. He’s barely drifted into a neutral gray space when the car slows to a stop and the AI announces, “We’ve arrived at your destination. Please take all your items with you, and thank you for driving with us.”

Team’s stomach feels cold as he says thank you, crawls out of the car, and makes his way to the front door of Win’s building. He should have let Win know he was on his way, but he didn’t.

After all, the invitation was open-ended, wasn’t it? So what’s wrong with enjoying the fantasy of being more than just welcome…but expected, too? What if this were Team’s apartment also? The place he goes home to? It could be, right? With graduation approaching, it’s only practical to think of where he’ll live, isn’t it?

It’s only late September now…he’ll be twenty-two next month, and by graduation he and Win will have been dating for about seven months. That seems like enough time to date before moving in together, right?

Maybe Win will ask him.

He’s nearly to the front door, prepared to key in Win’s apartment code on the panel next to it, when the doors glide smoothly open for him.

Win…had the system remember Team.

Indulging a surprised smile, Team pauses between the open doors and thinks, When did he do this?

The elevator activates automatically for him as well, the doors already open and waiting for him as he turns the corner from the lobby. The burgundy carpeting outside Win’s door gives way underneath Team’s feet, plush and rich, and it reminds him of their first date at The Medallion. And how quickly after becoming Arthit’s boyfriend that Kong started planning to celebrate future anniversaries there.

Team rings the bell, breathing deep. Planning is important, but he’ll have to focus on it later when the present is less distracting.

Some of his friends live in moderately-priced places built with doors through which he can hear their approaching footsteps. Win’s apartment, on the other hand, is several levels above any other apartment Team’s been to, and it results in him jumping when the door opens to Win’s hopeful face.

An expression that softens immediately. “You look so tired,” he says. His arm stretches out, then stops.

Team takes it as the invitation it was clearly meant to be and drops against Win’s chest, his face buried at an awkward diagonal angle against Win’s shoulder. “What’s my reward?” he mumbles. “I passed everything.”

Win gives him an amused breath and brings him inside just enough to close the door behind him. “I knew you’d pass, baby,” he says near Team’s ear. “I was trying to help you ace them all.”

There’s certainty in his voice as if he never once thought Team would fail. The warmth it sends through Team has him lifting his arms around Win and clinging tighter to him. A pleased, almost involuntary noise escapes through his nose, and Win rubs his back with rough affection.

“Shower, dinner, then sleep?”

Team nods and kisses Win’s neck as chastely and casually as possible, his imagination one step past that.

Once he’s showered and dressed himself in one of Win’s shirts and a pair of soft green tartan pajama bottoms that Team has never seen before today, Team has the energy to wander back into the living room where Win is playing Go against Suede on the sofa.

Holding a yawn in, Team crawls across the wide seating cushions and allows his arms to give out once he’s sure his head will land cushioned on Win’s thigh.

“Oof,” Win says, exaggerating a flinch.

Unrepentant, Team nuzzles his stomach, the tip of his nose grazing the bowtie keeping Win’s pajamas secure around his waist.

“Your move,” Suede says. “Hi, Team.” He’s seated in midair, his elbow on a knee of his crossed legs, his top hat askew, and his little suited body bobbing up and down like a boat in the waves.

“Hi, Suede,” Team says, and closes his eyes.

When he opens them next, time has passed, and he feels much more alert. He can sense the quiet of nightfall even before it registers in his mind that the natural lighting has gone, replaced entirely with the soft white glow from the decorative paper floor lamps scattered around the living room. The Go board is nowhere in sight, and neither is Suede.

Win is stroking Team’s hair with not even a pause of hesitation when Team opened his eyes. Curious, Team lifts his gaze and finds Win’s head tilted back on the sofa, his eyes shut and the skin around them red and irritated.

His neck is streaked with tears.

“Hia,” Team whispers, before he can stop himself.

Win promptly takes his hand from Team’s hair, then swipes his bare wrist over his neck, smearing the streaks instead of removing them. He clears his throat of some audible roughness, staring away from Team with a fragile sort of helplessness.

“Did something else happen?” Team asks. He squeezes Win’s thigh.

With a humorless laugh, Win closest his eyes and rubs his left eyebrow. “No, nothing new. Just…work. Sorry, Team.” He clears his throat again and musters up a smile before he makes eye contact with Team again.

The flawlessness of it together with his bloodshot eyes hits Team’s heart at the wrong angle and spikes a wonky sort of pain through Team’s chest. Team sits up, using Win’s thigh for balance, then sits close enough for his knees to press into Win’s thigh, allowing every ounce of his building worry to show on his face.

“I can listen if you want,” Team offers. He looks down, finds Win’s right hand, and holds it tight in both of his.

Even the squeeze of Win’s fingers feels dismissive. “Thanks, Team,” he says, the smile settling into well-worn grooves on his face. “I’ll be fine.”

Team says, “I know,” and licks his lips. “But….”

Win makes a mild, “Mm?” sound and raises his eyebrows as he seems to realize something. “Oh, hey. You must still be hungry, right?” He lifts himself halfway before Team’s vice grip on his hand pulls him back down again. He asks Team, “What’s wrong?” with near flawless amusement. The ice is thickening, and Team can’t stand it.

“You can talk to me, hia,” he says.

Win sighs. He pulls Team’s hand to his lips and touches a lingering kiss there. “You don’t really have a, well. Frame of reference. For this.” He adds another, quicker kiss to the same spot. “I appreciate it, though. Thank you.”

Team pulls their joined hands away from Win’s face, his throat tight. “I…don’t need a frame of reference though, do I?” He swallows. “If you just wanna talk about it, I’ll listen. I just want to help.”

Win makes a neutral sound to that and rubs his thumb over Team’s hand. “Thank you, Team.”

Team frowns. “Why not?”

Win says, “I didn’t disagree.”

“But you’re still not telling me anything.”

Win’s smile is beginning to look more like a wince ironed into his skin. “Team, I’m…the kind of person who only talks things through to fix them,” Win says. “Venting without doing anything about it isn’t enough for me. I’ll probably end up talking to P’Kao about it. I do appreciate it, though, reall—”

A question, fully formed, bursts from nowhere into Team’s mind. He doesn’t even think twice before blurting, “Why did you treat me differently if you were never going to treat me differently?” with a twist of cold confusion and hot embarrassment. “Whenever I was with you at MUSE, I’d think, y’know, maybe this is real or maybe that’s real. Ting thought I was misreading you, but I knew I wasn’t.”

In the silence that follows, Team watches the first tendrils of fear begin to break through the surface of Win’s facade.

“You said last year P’Arthit told you he noticed you treating him differently,” Team says. He ignores Win’s flinch. “Well, you did the same thing to me.” A thick swell takes his voice away for a second, and when Win squeezes his hand again, Team withdraws it completely. “You know what the difference between me and P’Arthit is?” he asks.

Win’s shoulders are stiff, his hands shoved quickly under his thighs. He shakes his head.

“I l—I don’t want to be your friend, hia, I want to….” He curls his fists on his thighs, his blunt nails wedged into his palms. “I want to see the bad stuff, too. I want to know you better than anyone, and I don’t care that it’s bad, because everyone has some bad in them. You can’t be in work mode all the time. And I…I don’t—I want to….”

He can’t find a string of words to express what he wants.

He just…wants to feel better about this. More comfortable. Or just any softer emotion that isn’t what he feels right now—scared and nauseated.

Win hesitates, breathing in and exhaling slowly. “I hear you,” he says, “but…I don’t…. I—” He turns his head and rubs the side of his nose, likely to hide the thick drops welling on his lower lids. “I don’t like anyone seeing—Team, I have no idea what I’m doing.” The admission catches in his throat, and the flush on his neck spreads.

Team opens his mouth, but no fully-formed sentences drop in for him this time.

Luckily—or not—Win seems to have many ready.

“I don’t know how to do this,” he says, eyes on Team’s knees. “I thought I could fake it until I figured it out, but I don’t know what to fake. I can’t predict you, I don’t know how to make you happy, and I should have been…I don’t know.” He rakes both hands through his hair and rests his forehead on his palms, eyes still open and fixed on nothing. “I just don’t know how to do this.”

Team says, “I don’t either, though,” and adds, “I don’t think anyone does.”

“P’Kao does,” Win says, dull. “P’King, P’Lynn, P’Mork. Even Arthit and your friend Kongphob are doing fine.” His eyes flash with upset, and then he says directly to Team, “None of this is your fault. It’s…all me.” He quirks a shaky smile. “I don’t really understand what you mean by ‘work mode’ but…I know you need more than this. I’m sorry.”

Team says, “I don’t care,” and then huffs with frustration when Win frowns at him. “I mean, I care, obviously. I just…I don’t need more? I mean, I do, but—”

“It’s okay to need more,” Win tells him. He offers a flash of a diluted smile, then wipes his eyes with both palms. “Everyone does. No one can provide full service to everyone.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Team says, frowning back. “You make it sound like you think you have to be a machine or something. I don’t know, like—you can tell me stuff. Even if you think I won’t get it or whatever, you should still have someone you can talk to, and I want it to be me.” His dry throat clicks when he tries to swallow. “I just…don’t want you to act like you’re fine when you’re not.”

In a voice that is unmistakably Win’s, only in a brittle, sour tone Team has never heard before, Win says, “I haven’t felt fine in a while. You’re going to want me to fake it in the early stages, trust me.”

Team has nothing to say to that. Except, “I know P’Mork left.”

Win twists his face away entirely. His back is rounded and his forearms lie flat on his thighs, trembling like a struck bowstring.

Quietly, Win says, “Yeah, Team, he left.” Then, almost certainly to himself, he adds mildly, “Maprang’s probably next.” The thick sniffle betrays him.

Moving without thinking, Team splays his hand on Win’s back and drags his palm down the knobs of his spine. Unfortunately, it’s not the touch Win wants, and suddenly he’s up off the sofa like he’s been electrified. He says, “Sorry, just—wait a second,” leaves the room.

He doesn’t let Team see how much more his facade has collapsed.

Curled in tight and gripped with guilt, Team pulls his knees under his chin and tells himself he shouldn’t have pushed. They’ve only been dating for a couple of months—and now Team knows that neither of them knows what he’s doing. The urge to call Kong takes root in his brain; just the thought of his friend’s soft, soothing voice talking him down is so horribly tempting.

He’d ask Kong what he did wrong, and Kong would either explain it patiently or just reassure Team that he did nothing wrong and this entirely is in Win’s court to fix.

There’s only one issue: Team doesn’t want to ask anyone for advice about Win.

Only minutes later, Team hears Win’s socked feet emerge from the bathroom, and then he’s back, face composed and clear and familiar. The only hint of what compelled him to leave the room at all is in the hurried glance Win shoots him before heading for the front door.

“Hia? Where are you going?” Team asks, alarm in his voice.

Win stops, his shoulders and back rigid. “I thought…I’m giving you space,” he says. “To think. I know that was a lot just now, so I’m sorry. I’ll be back in a while if you want to stay, or I can have Axl take you home.”

“I don’t want space from you,” Team says in a small voice. His eyes feel hot all of a sudden, his throat sore and blocked. “I just want….” He swallows with some difficulty. “Can you come back? Please?”

Their gazes connect, and Team wonders how shattered he must look that Win’s face immediately softens. He climbs onto the sofa again, taking a spot on Team’s other side. After a loaded moment of visible uncertainty, Win scoops his hands under Team’s arms and holds him, every fingertip pressed firmly into Team’s back. When Team takes a shuddered breath through his nose, Win holds on tighter.

“I’m sorry,” Team whispers. He flinches out a tear. “I know I can’t fix it.” He presses his closed eyes against Win’s expensive cotton shirt, wondering if tears stain. “I don’t even know why anyone would want to be around you less,” he admits. “I…kind of miss you all the time now.”

I really think I love you.

Win leans his forehead against Team’s hair and gives a wet laugh. “You can’t just say things like that,” he whispers.

“Can too,” Team says. He unwinds his legs and decides to push his luck, sliding them over Win’s thighs and around his waist. Win huffs and draws him up onto his lap. The hold now is secure, all-encompassing, and warm. Team puts his head sideways on Win’s shoulder and tries to breathe evenly.

Win’s heartbeat, his thumb swiping up and down Team’s back, and his breath pressing softly through Team’s hair, all coalesce into one single serene sensation.

Team thinks, If they knew this side of you, no one would ever leave, and then grips onto Win’s shoulders tighter, because no one else is ever going to.

“You make me happy, hia,” Team whispers.

Win exhales some shuddered, mangled emotion against Team’s neck and murmurs, “You do too.”

Chapter Text

“My turn,” In says. He holds his empty glass out for a refill, and Korn obligingly fills it exactly one sixteenth of the way full. In’s pleased smile becomes a pout. “P’Korn!”

Unrepentant, Korn puts the bottle behind him and says, “You’ve had enough. Ask your question.”

The roof of MUSE isn’t a place many people have access to, but if you’re nice and deferential to the right seniors, someone will usually share the week’s codes with you. Korn has fortunately always excelled in quiet and deferential, and so it isn’t often someone can find cause to refuse a request from him.

For this, his tenth date with In, he decided to treat them both to some rooftop decadence. After finishing with his last guest, Korn took a few of the nicer blankets from the supply closet, a bottle of whisky for himself, a bottle of pineapple mango rum for In, and a couple of thick throw pillows from the Mahogany Room for lounging under the night sky.

The two hours they’ve spent up here have passed in the space of a heartbeat, and Korn doesn’t even remember when In cuddled up next to him and started playing with his fingers.

“How long do you want to do this job?” In asks.

His face is open with pure tipsy curiosity, not a hint of “perhaps you’re getting too old for this” or “I hope you have other plans for the future, for my sake” in sight. It’s the same expression Korn saw on him when he asked why Korn painted his apartment teal, who he had a celebrity crush on as a child, and if he wants to see a movie on Sunday. Korn finds himself smiling.

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I never intended on doing it for very long, but there wasn’t anything else I was particularly drawn to, so. I stayed.” He takes a small sip of his whisky while he watches In absorb his answer.

With a considering hum, In asks, “Is that why you don’t have any regulars? You weren’t drawn to anyone?”

And that’s a loaded question. Korn has been able to read In generally well over the past few weeks, but the alcohol is adding extra transparency over In’s very un-subtle pout. In isn’t making a secret of why he wants to know.

Korn makes a small noise of amusement. In has never hidden his possessive side—difficult to, when it’s an electric sphere that surrounds him—and in a way, Korn appreciates his sincerity. He’s dealt with too many people, guests and dates alike, who hide or suppress their jealousy, only releasing it through ways that end up hurting other people.

Korn says, “I didn’t want any long-term commitments to people at work.”

In’s smile is wry. “Can you really keep a professional distance from people you have sex with for money?” he asks.

Korn says, “Of course,” without hesitation. “People think sex work is glamorous, but it’s just another kind of physical transaction. Same as a dentist or a physiotherapist. Or, well.” A frown creases his forehead. “Maybe more like a masseur, since we’re not really ‘fixing’ anything. Still, I’ve never seen it as anything but a job, and the whole regular system never sat right with me.”

In dissolves into flushed giggling. “I’m never going back to my dentist again,” he manages.

Korn shoots him a look and scoops an arm under In’s back to tickle his side for derailing the conversation.

The ensuing struggle has In laughing wide and loud but not trying especially hard to escape. When it ends, they’re significantly closer, and In’s gaze has fastened to Korn’s lips.

“I haven’t kissed you yet tonight,” In whispers. “How rude of me.”

Korn enjoys the unvarnished fondness in In’s eyes for the few seconds that In stares at him before lunging forward for an inelegant kiss. Korn, who does this professionally, places his thumb under In’s jaw and tilts the angle just so. In approves with a quiet laugh through his nose and then exhales with satisfaction as the kiss proceeds much more smoothly.

Several minutes later, they separate and In pokes Korn’s bottom lip, smug. “Your mouth’s all red now,” he says, “thanks to me.” He adds some preening for good measure, and—truly, how can a grown man be so unabashedly cute?

When their conversation begins again, it’s about In’s cousin Pharm and his first date with Dean.

“I admit,” In says, cheek comfortably resting on Korn’s chest, “I kind of told Pharm I didn’t think P’Dean was a good fit for him.”

“How do you ‘kind of’ do that?”

“Okay, fine,” In says, and Korn can hear the eye roll in his voice. “I told him directly that P’Dean wasn’t a good fit for him.”

Korn smiles and, only because he knows from experience the kind of first impression Dean gives people, lifts his head and cranes his neck to press a kiss to the top of In’s head. “What changed your mind?” he asks.

In thinks about it for so long that Korn closes his eyes to simply enjoy the sound of the wind blowing over the rooftop and the solid comfort of In’s lithe body inside the circle of his arm. When In speaks again, his voice is softer. “When Pharm came home, he was blushing,” he says. “I thought P’Dean did something to make him feel shy, so I teased him about it for a while, but the blush didn’t go away. It turned out, he was just…excited. To have spent a few hours with P’Dean.”

With his eyes still closed, Korn allows the warmth inside him to manifest as a small smile. “I’m glad,” he says.

In the Cypress Room that first day he met Pharm, Korn suspected that Pharm wouldn’t become a guest at MUSE within their first few exchanges.

Pharm’s outfit spoke of wanting to make a good first impression, and his hair didn’t lie comfortably in the style he’d put it in, implying he’d tried something new—like this was a job interview instead of getting to know someone with whom you may or may not want to have sex.

“I haven’t met your friend Team before, but he seems nice,” Korn said. He’d known of Team, of course. Word had spread quickly among the specialists that Win’s broken spirit seemed to have healed significantly faster ever since he accepted a new guest. With Win’s penchant for taking on regulars, it seemed like only a matter of time before Team filled the void left by Arthit.

He hadn’t expected the two to end up dating outside the walls of MUSE, but Korn had learned of that news with a wave of profound relief. While certain higher-ups at MUSE want regulars to believe that a long-term relationship with their specialist can exist, cases like Win and Arthit’s are Korn’s number one reason for avoiding that system altogether.

Pharm’s gaze moved from Korn’s eyes out the window over Korn’s shoulder, his eyes reflecting a sharpness and depth belied by his sweet features. “Team is my best friend,” he said. “It’s been nice seeing him so happy.”

Korn asked, “Is that why you’re here?”

Pharm met his eyes again and made a low noise of consideration. “Not…really,” he said. “I’ve never dated or slept with anyone, and so I did some research on MUSE and thought maybe this would work for me.”

Korn’s smile appeared with an involuntary twitch from the corner of his mouth. “That’s cute,” he said.

It wasn’t necessarily a mistake to say the word, but Pharm’s lack of reaction suggested how much “cute” did for him as a compliment.

Another few minutes of small talk followed, and then Pharm said, very politely, “I’m very sorry, P’Korn, but I don’t think this is for me. I don’t want to waste more of your time than I have, so I guess I’ll…go?”

He’d already started to stand, so Korn stood as well, his smile vague but warm. “You don’t have to apologize,” he said. “Let me walk you to the elevator.”

On the way, he assured Pharm that MUSE had intentionally set up first meetings between specialists and guests this way, and that sex work requires the comfort of both the worker and the client—with no exceptions. Pharm didn’t elaborate on why he’d decided not to continue with his first session, and Korn made sure he didn’t pay a thing for their thirteen-minute conversation.

“He’ll be good for Dean,” Korn decides aloud.

In yawns into his chest and says, “That’s what I was saying, copycat.”

Fondly, Korn rubs In’s hair and closes his eyes for a serene rooftop nap.

Chapter Text

The Medallion is closed on Wednesdays, and yet here they are, late on a Wednesday morning, taking the elevator up to the restaurant at the top of the skyscraper as if it’s open. The hotel, Team knows now, belongs to Win’s family, so it follows that Win would have access to its restaurants as well. All he had to do to get the elevator to begin ascending was hold his bracelet over the matching button. The offhanded way he did it reminded Team that Win still has dimensions to him that he’s never seen, and it just makes him more determined to be the one who knows them all.

During the silent ride, Team leans on the elevator’s support bar, his hands folded around it. He thinks about what to fill his two-week break with—and what he’ll do for his impending twenty-second birthday. He hasn’t thought of a casual way to mention it to Win yet; at this stage of their relationship, everything is new, and Win might feel obligated to do something on top of whatever he’s planning as Team’s academic reward for doing well on his exams. It feels almost mean to mention his birthday, as if he’s asking for added attention when things at work haven’t been especially wonderful for Win lately.

“It was my dad’s idea to close the restaurant twice a week,” Win says, out of nowhere.

He has his hands in the pockets of some tailored white pants that stop halfway down his calf. His shirt today is a deep green shade that sets off his blond hair beautifully and opens asymmetrically at the clavicle. He’s wearing a woven anklet that Team’s never seen before, and Team has to force himself more than once to look away from the gradual slope of muscle in his calf. All in all, he looks twice as expensive as he usually does, sunlight slanting into the elevator and catching on the silver hoops in his ears. The overall effect he’s giving off has been pulling Team’s gaze back again and again ever since Win walked out of the bedroom an hour ago.

When Team doesn’t react to his non-sequitur, Win explains, “He thought closing it for a couple of days a week would make it seem more exclusive.”

Team says, “Mm,” and wonders why Win doesn’t wear the anklet more often.

Of course, no one is in the restaurant as they pass between its dark wood tables, and Team tries to keep from asking for the third time why they’re here. He’s still a little bruised from their exchange last night, and he can only assume that this visit is related somehow. When he woke up this morning in Win’s bed, Win just told him, “I’d like to take you somewhere for lunch,” and Team agreed.

He thought maybe Win would glaze over the high emotions of the night before, but now he’s not so sure; taking Team to an empty restaurant is a weird way to pretend everything’s normal.

Win leads the way to the same table they ate at last time—nearly two months ago now. The privacy curtain is tucked away today, and the broad floor-to-ceiling windows show the milky skyline. Team uses the view as an excuse to stare somewhere away from Win as he sits down, trying to find the sun’s outline behind a bright film of cloud cover.

The panel in the middle of the table has already begun its melodic holographic presentation, but Win makes a quick gesture that cancels it, plunging the restaurant back into silence.

Team tugs at the cuff of his long-sleeve white shirt for want of something to do with his hands. He’s wearing what he wore yesterday, fresh and clean again following a quick wash and dry cycle in Win’s machine while he showered before breakfast. The shorts and shirt are comfortable, but a far cry from what he wore the first time he visited The Medallion, unsure of what he was to Win and trying so hard to impress him.

Not that that’s changed much.

“So,” Win says. He’s seated opposite Team, his hands folded on the table before him like he’s giving a presentation. Team could reach out and touch him without even fully extending his arm, but he doesn’t. “You remember I told you my family owns a hotel chain?”

Team nods. “This is one of them, right?”

Win says, “Right. We own The Medallion also, so this is where I always took people for first dates. Even before MUSE.”

Team nods again. Maybe a younger Win sat at this very table in the early stages of his charm and poise, relying on his wit and the allure of wealth to impress people.

“I’d try to find out their favorite food before the date so I could have the ingredients stocked on the day of the date itself,” Win explains, “and once we were here, it was easy to segue into talking about our families.”

…Or maybe he was always just as eager to look after people as he is now.

Team says, “You didn’t do that with me,” probably unnecessarily.

Win cuts his eyes away for a long moment, discomfort clear on his face. He says, “I know,” and then licks his lips. “That’s why I asked you to come here.” He folds his arms on the table and regards Team with an openness that feels new. “I think we should start over,” he says, “from scratch. With everything defined this time.”

Team matches his pose, raising his eyebrows and trying to keep a neutral expression. “Huh,” he says. “So this is a date?”

“Yes,” Win says.

“Is this our first date?”

Win blinks. “Uh.”

“Is this date the one we’ll celebrate our anniversary on?”

Win blinks more—and faster.

Team’s losing his grasp on his composure, but he decides to go for one more question. “I still don’t have to pay, right?”

Win finally realizes he’s being played with and purses his lips wryly. “You’re very cute,” he says, flat.

Team breaks into a grin. “You’re not the only one who thinks so,” he says. “I’ve been told I’m cute a bunch of times.”

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Win says. His tone is light, but his eyes are layered with fondness and something heavier underneath.

The sight of it brings warmth and color to Team’s face. “Hia….”

Win’s eyes flicker down to Team’s hands, and with slow intent, he reaches across the table and interlocks their fingers. “I think,” he says, “you’ve been patient with this whole situation. I wanted to thank you, and to…prove I can do this, I guess.”

Team watches Win’s thumb rub the side of his hand and, carefully, asks, “Are you really okay?” without lifting his eyes.

Win says, “No,” simply.

Team meets his eyes. “I don’t think P’Mork and P’Lynn know they hurt you, hia,” he says.

Win holds his gaze for a few seconds, then breaks it.

The first time Team saw Win, it was just his likeness in a hologram. Styled and polished and perfect, not a single flaw or even a defining characteristic outside his surface presentation. Just piercings, tattoos, dyed hair, nice clothes, and an otherworldly beauty.

The second time he saw Win, in person, reinforced Team’s first impression. He knows now that Win is an expert in upholding his smoothly constructed MUSE persona in short bursts. Every one of Team’s three sessions with Win appeared to confirm that shining image—it would have been so easy for Team to fall for it and believe in it. Like others have.

But he was determined to see all of the person Win is, and Win couldn’t be both human and perfect—so he couldn’t believe it.

In the silence that stretches on, Team squeezes Win’s hand, because Win admitting that he’s not okay may not have been a particularly wide stride for most, but it’s a step in Team’s direction, and one away from the holographic image of Win that MUSE is marketing.

When Win releases Team’s hand, he orders food for them both using the panel on the table’s surface. Like the first time, he orders a number of side dishes, and this time, Team puts in a few requests of his own once his empty stomach begins to groan. The energy bar he scarfed down for breakfast has been long been converted into the energy he used to physically get himself here.

While they eat, they talk about Team’s exams, and Team complains at length and loudly about his English exam in particular. He ended up with a low score for trying to sass the AI with his answers in the final section. Team’s impassioned defense to his professor that he and the AI had become buddies during the twenty minutes of repair time didn’t earn him any forgiveness points or extra credit.

“Are you sure you were buddies? Not all AI are at Suede’s level,” Win tells him, clearly amused. “I don’t think the university pays enough to have his level of advancement.”

“You’re just jealous I’m gonna have more AI friends than you,” Team sniffs.

Win grins openly at him, and Team pretends the open affection isn’t warming his chest.

Since Win owns the restaurant (or at least has the access key to everything in it), they wind up staying much longer than they probably normally would, sharing a bowl of thick, crunchy potato chips while they trade barbs.

“You’ve eaten half of them,” Win says at one point.

Team says, “So order another one for yourself,” and drags the bowl closer to him. “I haven’t eaten potato chips since high school.”

Win tips his head to the side. “Why not?” he asks.

“The brand I loved went out of business,” Team says. He slumps into his seat and crams five chips into his mouth, managing a crumb-y, “I don’t wanna talk about it,” through his miserable munching. When he’s swallowed, he sucks the salty grease off his thumb.

Win, meanwhile, simply regards him with an odd sort of heat and says, almost to himself, “I really shouldn’t find any of that hot, and yet….”

Team vehemently pretends he isn’t blushing.

Around two o’clock, they push their plates into the center of the table to be lowered out of sight and cleaned for future diners. They don’t talk about what the rest of the day will hold, so when Win leads Team out of the restaurant, Team just follows him into the quiet, unlit area near the elevator.

“Are we going back to your place?” Team asks. He stretches his arms as far forward as he can and yawns. “I could use a nap,” he hints.

Win hums and leans his shoulder on the mirrored wall, his wrist a hair’s breadth from the arrow buttons. “I had something else in mind,” he says. “Since this is a date.“

Intrigued, Team says, “I’m listening,” and joins him in leaning on the mirrored wall, only a gap the width of the arrow buttons separating them.

Win crooks a finger under Team’s chin and pecks a kiss on Team’s cheek. “Interested in a personalized tour of a hotel suite?“ he asks.

Team blinks. “Uh.”

Win’s thumb strokes over Team’s cheekbone. “There’s always one set aside for preferred guests,” he says, “so I reserved it this morning on the off chance you’d say yes.“

Team blinks more—and faster.

“Team?”

With a swallow, Team jabs the down arrow and says, “Sounds good,” with a rasp.

Team has stayed in hotel rooms before, of course, but always as part of a school trip or a family vacation. Naturally, since he’s never been with anyone before Win, he’s never stayed in a hotel for sex before. Thus, the moment they’re through the door of the suite, a switch in Team’s brain flips, and he’s all of a sudden fully and enthusiastically immersed in the desire to re-enact his favorite of Win’s many scenarios. From Win’s swift and eager kisses, the odds of Team getting what he wants are definitely in his favor.

The thought of unmaking Win and reducing him to a needy mess—the way he’s done to Team again and again and again—has been one of Team’s wildest fantasies ever since he got a taste of how experienced and controlled Win is in actuality. It’s about time Team finds out just how close to that fantasy he can get in reality.

The luxury of the suite implies a weighty per-night price tag: the seamless wall-to-wall windowpanes, the multiple layers of increasingly opaque curtains overlapping each other, the view of surrounding buildings sparkling in the sun, the golden lighting that forms a square around the ceiling, the infinity pool wrapped around the outside terrace—it reeks of soaringly expensive custom design work.

Win presses him against the entryway, using Team’s mouth in obscene, deep kisses that have Team gripping Win’s hips and pulling him hard against his body. Small tremors build as Win grinds against him, shoves a thigh between his, and whispers, “Ready for your reward?”

Team’s dry throat clicks around a swallow.

He makes short work of spotting the king size bed, all white linens and a ludicrous number of pillows. It takes almost no effort at all to lead Win there, his fingers tight on Win’s forearm and waist.

It involves even less effort to get both their clothes on the floor. Win passes Team a condom he pulled from his pocket, then tips Team’s head back with a gentle nudge of his nose against Team’s jaw. He pays close attention to Team’s neck for as long as he pleases, a mix of soft and sharp that has Team holding back raw, urgent noises while Win presses him into the plush duvet.

“What do you want to do?” Win whispers. He passes both palms up and down over Team’s chest, catching innocuously on his tight nipples. He’s straddling Team’s hips and keeping a cruel space between his flushed erection and Team’s. “Anything you want.”

On this sunny Wednesday afternoon, with exams behind him and a full two weeks of vacation ahead, Team can say with confidence that he would like to prioritize absolutely nothing higher than taking Win’s dick as far down his throat as he can.

He takes a sharp breath and drops his eyes from Win’s to the source of his number one fantasy.

Win says, “That tells me nothing, but I’m still flattered,” and runs his thumb over the seam of Team’s lips. “What do you want, baby?”

Team gives an ornery huff, his breath hot against Win’s thumb. “Just—let me,” he says.

“Let you what?” Win smirks and leans down until the tip of his nose touches Team’s. “I want to hear you say what you want.”

Team’s breath escapes in staccato puffs, mesmerized by Win’s blown pupils and the soft, fond curve of his lips. His thighs hold Team’s legs down, and his wrists bracket Team’s chest—he’s surrounded, held—the center of Win’s world right now.

And it feels perfect. Hot. Tailored to exactly what Team likes.

“Wait,” Team hears himself say. “Hia.”

“Mm?”

“I know this is the reward you talked about, but you didn’t have to do any of this for me,” Team says, urging Win with his eyes to understand what he means. “The suite. Lunch. …This.”

Still visibly satisfied, Win dips down and takes Team’s lips in a slow, savoring kiss. “I know,” he says, when it ends. “I wanted to.”

Team hesitates, but the unsettled feeling is only expanding, so he says, “I just mean…you don’t have to…do big stuff like this. And I don’t think we have to start over, either, like you said we should. I…like…the way we’ve been. What we’ve been doing. You weren’t doing it wrong, y’know? I just want you to tell me stuff when you’re upset. You don’t have to be perfect, or, or like—make yourself seem fine when you’re not.”

Win’s suave, collected expression begins to shift into wounded confusion. “Why are you…why say this now?“ he asks.

“I mean—” Team takes a quick breath and scrubs his hands through his hair. “I’m not saying this is bad! This is—really nice.” He’s never going to be one to turn down sharing a king size bed with Win in a surprise luxury suite. “I just think…just now, it felt like…. It’s like you’re trying to impress me. The way you’re acting. I already like you, though. You don’t have to keep trying so hard.”

Win has nothing to say to that. His breathing is shallow. Then he pulls back and sits up, still on his knees, his expression cloudy as he stares out the window and processes.

Team thinks, Fuck, wait, and pulls his legs out from between Win’s, sitting up so they can face each other. “It just felt like we were at MUSE again,” he says, thinking, And that’s normal for him.

Still horribly quiet, Win only nods. Perhaps acknowledging the clear halt to their careening start—damn it, damn it, damn it—Win sits on his heels and braces his hands on the bed in front of himself. The sight of his bold, intricate tattoos on his bowed shoulders and the glinting silver hooped through his ears projects an unexpected impression of fragility onto Team’s heart.

He’s only two years older. He’s only two years older.

He’s new to this, too.

“Hia Win—”

“What are you saying?” Win asks, his eyes unfocused and aimed somewhere on the duvet. “You didn’t like—?”

Team says, “No,” with a sharp shake of his head. “I did. Obviously. And I’m trying really hard not to go back to it, honestly.”

“…Why?”

“Because,” Team says, picking at the duvet in a brand new nervous tic. “Last night was…a little difficult, I think. Right? But lunch, and now this—it feels like you’re apologizing for it, and that’s…not what I want.”

Win breathes in, sits up, and pulls his hair tie loose. Team doesn’t understand why until Win starts twisting it into loops around his long fingers. Fidgeting.

Guilt spears Team’s chest. “Hia, I’m sorry,” he says. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

“You shouldn’t apologize if you only think you did something wrong,” Win says quietly.

“Well—yeah, but…that’s what I’m saying, hia.” Team touches Win’s wrist and then circles his fingers around it in a loose hold. “I don’t want you to apologize. I just want you to feel comfortable around me.”

Win lets out a humorless laugh. “Would it sound sad if I said I don’t know how?” he asks. “I mean…I thought I was, until…now.”

There’s a part of Team that wants to hold back what he wants to say, but he’d be a hypocrite if he did, and also, the thought of bringing this up later, of needing to build up to it from scratch, is even more unpalatable. “I think you, y’know, adapt,” he says, “to who you’re with. When you have sex with them.”

Win takes a long breath and exhales, but impatience laces his voice as he says, “That’s how sex works, Team.”

And—well. No. It’s not.

Right?

Team licks his lips and squeezes Win’s wrist. “Not…completely, right? I don’t think it’s supposed to be all about the other person, hia. Well, not outside MUSE.” Except…. “I don’t know, though, maybe you would’ve done it like this even if you hadn’t been at MUSE.” Just how much of Win’s core personality is caretaker, under all the layers of professionalism he wears for work?

Finally, Win meets his eyes, and the depth of hurt there has Team scrambling to find a way to undo what he’s said. To make Win look less betrayed, like Team took advantage of his vulnerability, and.…well. Maybe Team was wrong to say anything.

“I know you like doing things for people,” Team says, trying so hard to sound gentle and understanding, “and that’s why sex with you is really hot, and really good, but. I would still like you even if you weren’t doing anything for me.” He can see he hasn’t hit home yet, so, in desperation, he adds, “You’re not just what you can give people, y’know?”

A long, long pause passes, and finally, Win says, “I don’t know what you want to do, then,” in a terribly small voice.

Team considers, then tugs on Win’s arm. “I mean…could we nap? I am still kind of tired after my exams.”

It won’t be enough to prove that he just wants to be around Win, regardless of what they’re doing, but it’s a start.

Win’s gaze settles on the point of contact between them, on Team’s hand wrapped around his wrist, then it travels quickly up Team’s arm to his eyes. There’s such raw uncertainty to the way Win stares at him, to the hesitance before Win moves at all. “Okay,” he says, half exhaled.

Because Team is human, the sight of Win naked still incites some tendrils of want, but he stifles the need to touch him for now. He can’t go back on what he’s started, not after disassembling Win’s confidence with a sledgehammer.

While Team slides under the plush duvet and sheet underneath, Win makes an absent gesture with his hand, activating the controls in his bracelet with a soft, “Close the curtains.” The light diminishes as one at a time, the curtains draw closed, building in opacity, then Win joins Team under the covers, staying at least an arm’s length away. In the pitch dark that consumes the space, Team’s heart aches. This isn’t what he wants at all.

“Hia,” he whispers.

Silence.

“Are you mad?”

Silence.

“I just want you to do some stuff because you want to. Not because you want me to like it.”

He shifts under the covers, tempted but afraid to reach for Win.

Then, as fatigue weighs down Team’s mind, Win tells him, “It’s the same thing to me.”

And while Team is thinking of a way to respond to that, sleep covers his mind.

“Message from Maprang.”

Team’s gradual, fuzzy return to consciousness gets an abrupt kick by Kurt’s voice. When he opens his eyes, the room is still oppressively dark, leaving Win pale in the holographic light of the message he’s reading in silence. There’s no legible emotion on his face at all.

Before Team can overthink the urge, he crawls across the space separating them and drops his head on the duvet covering Win’s thighs. He doesn’t look at the message, even though his curiosity is feral for it.

For a while, Win says nothing, and Team has just started to wonder if he’s going to be asked to move when Win’s fingertips sift deep into his hair and rub his scalp with tangible affection. Relieved, Team closes his eyes and dares to lean forward and kiss Win’s bare hip over the inked outline of fire.

He waits until Win sends back a response and the room is dark again.

“Hia—”

“Every time she messages me,” Win says, too loud, “I’m afraid it’s going to be like P’Mork again.” He’s still stroking Team’s hair.

“Maybe you could talk to her about it.” Team’s eyes have adjusted somewhat, but he still can’t see Win’s expression well. “I mean…she knows how sad you were when P’Arthit left, right? Maybe she’d understand.”

Win traces the bridge of Team’s nose with a fingertip. “I can’t exactly ask her to stop messaging me, Team.”

“Can’t you?”

After a brief pause, Win says, “What? Ask her to stop?”

“Yeah. She seems nice. Y’know, just until you’ve been able to come to terms with P’Mork and P’Lynn leaving.”

“I—I know you’re trying to help, Team, but them leaving isn’t really the issue anymore.”

“It’s not?” Team wrinkles his nose, and finally he can see the outline of Win’s features well enough to see his lips lifting in a slight curve. “I thought it was.”

“I don’t…think I want to take part in the whole regular system anymore.”

Team almost asks for the lights on, curious about the nuances of Win’s expression. But what may be more important right now is that Win controls the environment. So Team waits, holding his breath, for Win to say more.

“I’ll have to wait for Maprang to end her membership,” Win continues, “but once she does, I’m not planning on taking on any more regulars.” He rests his arm on Team’s chest, his thumb stroking over the column of his throat.

Team swallows. “Is it because of me?” he asks.

Win’s faint smile becomes a definite curve with the slightest flash of white. “You contributed,” he allows.

Eventually, Win rests against the wall of superfluous pillows, but he’s careful not to dislodge Team from his lap. Rather, he tugs on Team’s shoulder until Team curls even closer around him, hugging Win’s thigh under the duvet. When Win returns to stroking Team’s hair, Team tucks his face against Win’s stomach, thinking in quiet awe that even after all the sex they’ve had, this is the most intimate thing they’ve done yet.

“I like my job,” Win says into the quiet. “I get to help people. Some when they’re struggling with their sexuality, some when they’re heartbroken, some when they’re lonely…and, y’know, some when they’re just horny. But that’s still a kind of help, too.”

Team lets out a puffed laugh through his nose.

Almost absently, Win takes Team’s earlobe and massages it slowly. “I do think you’re right about P’Lynn and P’Mork,” he says. “They got what they needed from the regular system, and they left. And they were happier than they were when they joined, so I’m glad about that. But….”

“It was at your expense,” Team says.

Win says, “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I would,” Team says. He rubs his nose against Win’s stomach and closes his eyes. “I don’t think they did it on purpose, but…are you happier?”

“Well.” Win taps Team’s shoulder a few times and starts to shift his body, so Team obligingly moves away until Win’s slid down to lie face-to-face with him, sharing the same pillow. “Yeah,” Win says, nudging Team’s nose with his own. “But if I hadn’t met you…probably not.”

Team inhales until his lungs are full, then exhales through the shock of Win’s simple honesty.

“I’m happy to see them happy,” Win says. He finds Team’s left arm under the covers and then traces down until he finds and clasps Team’s hand in his. “But there’s a small possibility that I’ve needed a level of…permanence…from this job that it was never designed to have.”

Permanence.

Team’s heart rate picks up.

Win moves closer and presses his forehead to Team’s, then closes his eyes.

With Win’s hand in his, and Win’s forehead against his, Team tries to control his wide, wild smile as he watches a kind of peace settle over Win’s face. It’s the first time he’s observed something like serenity on another person.

“What did P’Maprang write to you about?” Team asks.

Win turns his head to the side to yawn, then nestles back against Team. “She invited us to a party tonight,” he says.

Team says, “Oh,” and then frowns.

With their foreheads pressed together, Win feels it. With his eyes closed, he hums, “Mm?”

“Do you want to go?” Team asks.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Win says. “I’m into the nap idea now.”

He says it so easily, and he sounds sincere. But…

“Hia, are we really gonna stay here overnight?”

Win opens his eyes, some of his earlier hesitance lingering in the wings. “Yeah,” he says. “Why? Do you not want to?”

Team says, “Well, no—what I mean is, we can hang out here all night, right? If you want to go to the party for a while, we can do that.”

Win makes an agreeable noise. “Do you want to go?” he asks.

“Do you want to go, hia?”

Win holds his gaze for a long moment, then offers a wry smile. “Okay, yes, I get it,” he says. “But sometimes you’re just gonna have to accept that this is how I show people that I care about them.”

Team makes a frustrated sound—mainly for show—and says, “Okay, but do you wanna go to the party? ‘Cos even if you don’t, they’re probably gonna have food, and now I wanna go.“

He counts it a win when Win laughs.

“Fine,” Win says, kissing his nose. “We’ll go.”

A glance at the clock tells them it’s nearly six o’clock, and after Win asks for the curtains to open, the sun is partway into setting, its changing light drenching the sky in a fiery palette of orange and red.

While they pick their clothes off the floor to get ready, Team complains, “I’ve been wearing this same outfit for two days, and I’m gonna have to wear it tomorrow, too.”

“The hotel has a cleaning service,” Win says.

And since he’s the reason Team doesn’t have a change of clothes at all, Team rolls his shirt into a tail and whips it at Win’s stomach.

As Team washes his face and Win scoops his hair back into its ponytail, Win asks Kurt to play the original audio version of the transcript he received from Maprang.

The first sounds are wind and heels clicking on pavement, as if she were outside and rushing. “P’Wiiin! I’m on my way to P’Prae’s birthday party. You should be there! We rented a boat, and we ordered way more food than we’ll be able to eat. You should bring Team! And P’Dean! And—ow, fuck! My shoe. Where did it go—fuck anyway I’ll see you soon hopefully bye P’Win!” With the last string of words burst out in a long connected batch of syllables, the message ends.

With an amused glint in his eye as he finishes the last tight loop of the hair tie, Win asks, “Think our friends would be interested in a double date on short notice?”

As it turns out, they are.

Team and Win write to Pharm and Dean respectively, but Team is surprised when they reply at exactly the same time with identical messages reading: Sure, that sounds like fun. Can we bring two more?

In another audio message, Maprang cheerfully approves their additions, claiming that the boat is plenty large enough to accommodate many more guests.

They learn from subsequent messages that Wednesdays are Food Delivery Day at the cousins’ place, and the invitations from Win and Team arrived just as the conversation of what to order began. Pharm says he’ll bring a dessert he made earlier today, and In says he’ll bring “charisma”.

Of course, the boat has long since launched by the time Win and Team even arrive at Pharm and In’s building to pick up their four guests, but Maprang assures them over another audio message (with Del’s bright laughter and Ting’s delighted screaming in the background) that the boat can dock at a pier somewhere along the river and wait for the six of them before their party cruise continues. “There’s at least ten of us!” she shouts. “There’s room for way more! Say hi, Kong!”

“Hi.”

Win’s car isn’t built to carry six in the back, so Team takes the opportunity to happily launch himself into the driver’s seat to help make room. “I’ve always wanted to hold a steering wheel!” he says with giddy reverence.

Behind his seat, Team hears Korn tell Win, “We’ll be fine—it’s only a ten-minute drive.” When Team looks into the rearview mirror, he sees Pharm comfortably seated between Dean and Korn—upon whose lap In is contentedly seated.

“The seatbelt goes over us both,” In points out. “See?” He tugs on the shoulder strap over his chest for emphasis.

Team watches in the mirror as Win, leaning down to see into the backseat, grimaces with feeling. “This is a terrible idea,” he says.

Korn locks his arms around In’s stomach and says, entirely flat, “He’s even more protected than Pharm.”

Dean gives him a scowl in response and tucks an arm around Pharm’s shoulders.

Win says, “Fine, fine,” and closes the door on the impromptu snuggling competition.

Team checks exactly how low on Pharm’s stomach Dean’s hand is and gauges it narrowly acceptable. When Win slides into the passenger’s seat, Team returns to merrily turning the steering wheel.

When Win gives Axl the pier’s name, Axl says, “Understood. However, without proper seatbelt application, the car will not exceed twenty kilometers per hour.”

There’s a mild outcry from the backseat, but Win just smirks and says, “Axl’s in charge,” and leans across the console to take Team’s hand in a suave move reminiscent of his MUSE persona.

Except, when Team meets Win’s eyes, there’s only sincere mirth there.

True to his word, Axl doesn’t exceed twenty kilometers for the entirety of the thirty-minute drive to the pier, and he only provides one-word responses to In’s repeated complaints.

“I could run there faster,” In says at one point.

“Unlikely,” Axl says.

Pharm snorts, so In smacks him in the chest without looking. A moment later, Dean smooths a gentle hand over Pharm’s chest and gives In a mildly perturbed frown. Korn doesn’t seem bothered by any of this—his mouth may be hidden behind In’s shoulder, but Team can see in the rearview mirror the way his eyes are smiling, laugh lines creased into his skin.

The bright energy in the car continues as their tortoise journey to the pier continues. Team teases Pharm for not getting a lap to sit on, Pharm teases Team for holding hands with Win in the front seat like a couple in an old movie where people still drove cars, and In ignores them all to whisper smiling secrets into Korn’s ear.

When the pier is in sight, and they see the sparkling golden lights on the black water from the party boat docked and waiting for them, Team squeezes Win’s hand.

In all, this is a far cry from a tense, dark hotel room.

An atmosphere that may or may not be waiting for them when they return.

Chapter Text

Nanoseconds into his conscious life, Suede knew that Win loved Arthit. The dilated pupils, the nuances in his facial features, the mirrored motions. Even running on “factory” settings, Suede had enough base knowledge of physiology to recognize the signs, and he drew the most likely conclusion from them.

It wasn’t sad then. Just one of a thousand brand new data points he absorbed, like the temperature of the room and the language file to access while Arthit and Win spoke to each other.

While Suede hovered over a sofa cushion in Win’s living room, Arthit said, “I made him for you, to keep you company. Isn’t he cute?”

Win’s eyes met Suede’s. Brown irises. Blond hair. Taut smile. “He is,” Win said. “Thanks, Arthit.” Then Win’s eyes locked onto Arthit’s through Suede’s transparent body with a profound and terrible hope.

Terrible, because nanoseconds into Suede’s conscious life, Suede also knew that Arthit didn’t feel the same way about Win.

But it wasn’t terrible yet; just another data point.

It quickly became clear what Arthit meant by “keep you company”, as Win’s free days spent at home followed a sluggish sort of pattern: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, bathroom, bedroom. He didn’t cook or clean; twice a day, he took a pre-made meal from the kitchen, and once a day, the vacuum and sanitizer left the wall panel to clean and sterilize all the surfaces. He read often—biographies, business, history. Twice, he fell asleep in the bath.

One roasting hot afternoon, Win asked Suede, “Are you a real magician?“

This accessed a dormant block of Suede’s programming. “Yes,” he said. “Would you like to see a trick?”

Win was in the “living room” stage of his day at the time, sprawled across his sofa and still wearing the same pajama bottoms and oversized T-shirt he wore to sleep the night before. He said, “Sure.”

Suede showed him a few simple illusions that Arthit had programmed into his system. When he ran out of tricks to show and Win asked for more, Suede did an instantaneous search for more complex tricks, and then he showed those to Win as well. An hour later, he’d managed to make Win smile three times, and this satisfied an entirely different part of his programming.

Outside, Win was the breathing embodiment of charm and cleverness—inside, he recharged in silence.

Until Suede.

After Arthit’s sessions at MUSE, Win slept fitfully.

4.42 hours one night.
3.19 hours the next.

According to general data, human beings Win’s age require more sleep to maintain optimal health.

Using polite language Arthit had programmed for him, Suede said, “It seems you’re not sleeping well.”

Win, rubbing his eye with his knuckle before the bathroom mirror, huffed a dry laugh and said, “You’re not wrong, buddy.”

Buddy.

Suede took note of his new role, one he had no frame of reference for. He researched the word and its implications, and the confirmation of a positive meaning added a deeper dimension to Suede’s system.

Some time later, Arthit took Suede onto the balcony and ran diagnostics on the progress of his learning system while Win napped on the sofa inside. Suede sat cross-legged on the balcony’s small table, silent. While Arthit worked, his reactions lagged a second or two slower than usual. Probably from lack of sleep.

In those days, Arthit worked very hard, very often—he had no boyfriend back then to charm him into taking naps together the way Kongphob does now. He had no dates to agonize over the way he does now. He had only his work and the phantoms of a potentially more successful version of himself looming just out of his reach.

It may be true that Suede has no memory of his creation process—Arthit confirmed that he wiped Suede’s memory data before bringing him into consciousness, to give him as authentic an experience of life as possible—but he has heard enough from Win to believe that Arthit has had a long, addictive history with proving himself.

Suede vehemently disapproved of Arthit’s lifestyle, the same way he disapproved of Win’s. Human beings, he has always known, are meant to sleep, and Arthit and Win did not sleep a sufficient amount.

That day on the balcony, Arthit asked Suede, “May I ask you some questions?”

Suede said, “You may,” because it’s what his programming offered as a response.

Arthit asked, “Do you like Win?” while he pulled a suspended loading bar off to the side with one hand and minimized a window of code with the other.

Suede said, “Yes,” because that’s what it said to say in his programming.

Arthit asked, “Why?” while recording Suede’s response in yet another box.

Suede said, “He called me ’buddy’,” because he’d grown to understand that ’like’ equals ’approve’. Suede approved of his new position in relation to Win.

Arthit glanced up at Suede, volleyed a look back and forth between Suede’s eyes, and then smiled wide. He said, “Great,” and it seemed to Suede that he approved of Suede’s answer.

In the beginning, Win was very, very careful to leave the small launch box holding Suede’s consciousness in the lounge room next to the room he took his guests, members, and regulars to.

Over time, Suede met the regulars one by one anyway.

Mork asked Suede to teach him magic tricks.

Lynn invented a special air-handshake for them.

Maprang promised to build him an AI partner.

Suede approved of all of them.

And, of course, he approved of Arthit above all.

So did Win.

Win invited Arthit to his apartment to work on his projects; he ordered food for them both to eat at MUSE even after their sessions were finished; he took Arthit to the roof to talk, sometimes for hours; he encouraged Arthit to use his sessions for napping when the spaces under his eyes had greyed with exhaustion.

Win told Kao one night, “I’m not sure how he feels about me.”

Kao said, “Then be really, really careful.”

Win always chose Kao for advice.

Kao never discouraged him.

Suede arrived at consciousness years into Win and Arthit’s friendship.

He didn’t see their first meeting, or their second, third, fourth…

He didn’t see the years of development behind the casual comfort they easily showed each other.

What Suede saw in those first weeks following his arrival to consciousness was only the tail of a comet on the brink of burning out.

Suede saw them kiss many times. In the lobby of MUSE, usually, as a goodbye or a greeting.

Always slow, always focused, always to the exclusion of all else around them.

Once, Suede sat on the space above Arthit’s head to test their perception, but neither noticed.

Win kissed all of his regulars, but he only ever kissed Arthit with his eyes open.

One evening, after Mork caught a cold and canceled his session, Win went to the roof with Suede. He showed Suede a sleight of hand trick he’d been practicing.

Suede watched.

When Win finished, he grinned. “What do you think?”

Suede said, “The card is up your sleeve.”

Win said, “Not literally,” and grinned wider. “I mean, do you think it was impressive?”

Suede said, “I don’t understand.”

Win thought about it. He leaned his elbows on the wall of the roof, shuffling the deck of cards one-handed, and finally said, “Would you be surprised if I showed you the trick and you didn’t know how it was done?”

Suede said, “Yes,” even though it wasn’t an answer that made sense.

Win’s eyes creased at the corners under the force of his delight. “Really?”

Suede said, “Yes,” again, and realized he had told a “white lie” for the first time.

Arthit ran diagnostics on Suede every week. Sometimes twice.

A common part of diagnostics involved Arthit asking Suede to define abstract concepts in his own words, and Suede would give a definition for an unfamiliar concept, or an example if he had personal experience to go off of.

“What’s your definition of ‘trust’?”

“Trust is a strong belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something.”

“What’s your definition of ‘like’?”

“I like Win.”

Arthit smiled. “Good,” he said. “Great.”

Little by little, Arthit seemed to grow more and more feverishly devoted to tracking Suede’s progress, and while he ran diagnostics and asked questions and made notations, Win watched them from a distance with furrowed eyebrows and quiet interest.

One day, Suede initiated conversation while Arthit put his emptied lunch bowl to one side and brought up a few windows of code.

“Do you like Win?” Suede asked.

Arthit met his eyes in surprise. “Are you—was that a reference to the first time I asked you that?” he asked.

Suede nodded. He hadn’t done it before, but Win did it sometimes, and it seemed more efficient than accessing his voice block.

Arthit noted this with interest, then answered his question. “I do, yes,” he said.

Suede asked, “As much as he likes you?”

Arthit frowned. “Why are you asking?”

Suede said, “I was designed to expand my dimensions and deepen my intelligence as I absorb information,” because the real reason had a lower probability of giving him the answer he wanted.

“I like Win,” Arthit said. “He’s one of my best friends.”

Suede said, “What is your definition of ‘best friend’?”

Arthit took the reversal in stride. He folded his arms on the table and tapped the air where Suede’s small foot was starting to swing back and forth. Suede had decided not to stand in midair this time, but to sit in midair, with one leg crossed, one hanging freely.

“To me,” Arthit said slowly, “when I say ‘best’, I mean ‘closest’.”

“By proximity?”

“Emotionally, yeah.” Arthit investigated his hands for eleven seconds. “Best friends are family you’ve chosen. They’re family you have to treat even better than family.”

“Why?” Suede asked.

“Because it’s easier for them to leave,” Arthit said.

Suede absorbed that data.

Then Arthit met his eyes and said, with quiet urgency, “Please be a good friend to him, Suede.”

In minutes, Suede researched tens of thousands of definitions in dictionaries and stories and real accounts—both current and historical. Many of them asked the question: “Can AI be friends with humans?“

Suede told Arthit: “I’ll be his best friend.”

That night, Arthit and Win sat on the sofa looking out over the canal, eating curry udon from matching blue ceramic bowls. The curry they’d ordered from a restaurant nearby. The bowls Win had gotten from Maprang as souvenirs after her most recent vacation to Chiang Mai the previous weekend.

Win had forgotten to put Suede’s launch box in the bedroom. It sat wedged between the cushion and the armrest, giving Suede a front seat for the awkward spectacle to follow.

“Has N’Maprang eaten from these yet?” Arthit asked, casually looking over the artfully marbled surface of his bowl.

Win slurped a curry-slathered noodle, chewed, and swallowed. “Nope,” he said.

Arthit glanced at him and away before Win noticed.

“P’Mork?”

“Not yet. He hasn’t been over here in a long time, actually.”

“P’Lynn?”

Win tilted his head, his eyes finally leaving the canal and locking onto Arthit. “Is there something wrong with it?” He reached out to touch the bowl. “Is it cracked?”

Arthit said, “No, nothing, nothing’s wrong with it. I’m just…curious.”

For once, Win’s heart rate was calm.

While Arthit’s had gone rabbit-fast—and it didn’t slow down for a long time.

It was the third time he’d had dinner at Win’s that week.

He hadn’t been to MUSE at all.

Suede had noticed.

Maybe they hadn’t.

Suede’s launch box was nestled in Win’s trousers pocket, forgotten, the last time Win kissed Arthit.

They walked together to the elevator of MUSE after a Friday evening session, the hallway drenched in the oranges and reds of sunset. With unshakable confidence, Win caught Arthit’s elbow and ducked to touch a gentle kiss to his lips.

It lasted only a breath of a second, practically chaste, and then he was drawing back with a playful grin. “I’m glad you finally came back,” he said. “It was too long.”

Arthit’s smile appeared in a twitchy curve. “I didn’t realize we were spending so much time together outside MUSE.”

Win said, “Well, Suede’s a big project. You’re welcome at my place anytime, I promise.”

Arthit nodded.

Win pressed the elevator button and stretched his arms over his head with a stifled yawn. “Speaking of, you could come over tomorrow, if you’re free? No one’s booked anything, so I was just going to have lunch with my family and then hang out at home in the afternoon.”

Arthit opened his mouth, closed it, and finally said, “Can I think about it?”

And Win said, “Sure,” with a smile. “Of course.”

Arthit left MUSE the next day.

Suede’s launch box should have been stored in the bedroom when Win went to greet Arthit in the lobby of his apartment building, but Win had become more and more forgetful lately of little things like that. When Win saw Arthit’s face in the lobby, he forewent the casual greetings he usually gave Arthit and promptly ushered him up to his room.

While Arthit sat on the sofa, Win ordered a pink milk from the kitchen panel—and made sure to include a straw.

Arthit hesitated before accepting it.

Suede’s launch box was in Win’s pocket, and Suede was too curious about the unusual situation to alert Win to his presence.

Win sat on the sofa, and Arthit stood up. He stood just out of arm’s reach, his expression pale and grim. Suede sensed two escalated heart rates and wondered if he’d misread Arthit’s level of affection for Win.

He’d read and watched many movies with scenes just like this.

Then Arthit told Win that he’d be canceling his membership.

Arthit broke eye contact and rubbed his wrist. “I’m sorry that it’s sudden, it’s just—”

Win said, “It’s fine,” quickly. “Is there anything wrong, or—?”

“No, it’s not….” Arthit licked his lips and put the pink milk down on the low table next to the arm rest. “I think the line is blurring too much,“ he said.

Win’s body became very still.

Arthit said, “I’ve just…noticed that…” He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “You treat me…differently.”

Suede took note of the following:
1) Win’s heartbeat increasing
2) Win’s breathing slowing
3) Win’s mouth opening and closing twice

When Arthit sat, Win stood.

The rest of the conversation became a race.

“Arthit, I’m so sorry—”

“No, Win, please—”

“I let myself get—”

“I didn’t want to lead you on—”

“I know, and thank you, but—”

In all, it took thirteen minutes and ended with a long, crushing hug. Arthit crossed an arm across Win’s back and squeezed his shoulder. Win closed his eyes and grimaced even as he rested his cheek against Arthit’s.

The moment Suede comprehended heartbreak was also the moment Win’s situation became “terrible”.

If Arthit were to ask him the definition of “terrible” in that moment, Suede would tell him, “Inaccessible love.”

Suede has asked Win time and time again what his name means, but Win always insists that when Arthit asked him to name his newest AI, “Suede” just popped into his head. And it’s not that Suede doesn’t believe him—it’s more that while Axl and Kurt got to be named after people who once existed, suede is just…fuzzy leather.

At this point, he’d like Win to make up a lie. There was probably a jazz musician named Suede or something. He has ideas; they could riff.

Names impact lives, and once a name is chosen, many things are set in motion—some that no one can predict. For example, Suede’s name has come up in plenty of Win’s sessions at MUSE.

“Who named this cutie?”

“Is his top hat supposed to be made of suede?”

“Is ‘suede’ part of a song?”

“Is he named after someone?”

Win would repeat exactly what he told Suede. Then their questions changed track.

“Wow, did you make him?”

“Wow, did you have him made?”

“He was made for you?”

“Who made him for you?”

Once in a while, Win would say, “A friend,” and every time, it was threaded with sorrow.

One morning, after many sleep-starved nights, Win brought Suede’s launch box down to the canal and sat on the edge, his shoes dry and stationary above the sluggish water. Suede had learned how to do cartwheels, and the longer he did them in sequence, a long chain of whirling cartwheels, the wider Win smiled.

Sunrise spread across the sky in a pale gradient of orange, yellow, and blue. Wisps of cloud shrouded the sun itself.

After Suede’s thirtieth consecutive cartwheel around Win, Win said, “Thanks, Suede,” in a new voice.

Not new for Win, but new to Suede.

“You’re welcome,” Suede said. He put a hand out and touched Win’s nose the way he’d once seen a human do to a cat. “Good kitty.”

Absurdism made Win laugh sometimes, and this was one of them.

Suede is weak leather.

Suede is Win’s best friend.

Chapter Text

Party boats were more of a thing ten years back when it was popular among the rich to commission high-quality replicas of centuries-old boats outfitted with modern amenities. Team’s aunt had two of them, and she hosted Team’s eleventh birthday party on one of them with five of his friends and ten of their family members.

As Maprang told Win, the junk boat rented for Prae’s birthday more than comfortably fits the six members already in attendance. Even after Team and Win and their four friends board, it seems like it’ll be easy to find a quiet spot by one of the railings.

The first person to greet them after the boat’s docked at the tiny pier is Del. Over the blasting music that only became audible to Team once he walked down the pier—courtesy of some fancy audio buffer technology popular with open-air parties—Del calls, “I’m so glad you could all join us!”

The others on board raise glasses of multicolored drinks that glow through the gaps between their fingers in greeting and cheer. Prae, Maprang, Arthit, and Kong sit in four magnetized chairs, each one carved in a slightly different C shape, all suspended at various heights in midair. The deck is clear and wide like a dance floor—something Team has no doubt it will become once those glasses have been emptied a few more times.

Ting appears over Del’s shoulder, beaming. “Did we interrupt a date?” she shouts at Team.

He points at his ears, shrugs, and jumps onto the deck. Win follows in much the same way, then loops an arm around Team’s shoulders. “You’re enhancing a date,” he says.

The weight and curl of his arm evokes a smile from deep in Team’s chest.

Ting coos, “Cute!” and reaches over Del’s shoulder to grab Team’s chin. “Don’t you look so happy.”

“Please. Don’t. Touch,” Team tells her in patronizingly patient English. “I’m expensive. Thank you.” He punctuates his request with a prim smack to her wrist.

Win stifles a laugh behind Team’s head.

Del grins over her shoulder at the flat, unimpressed slant of Ting’s mouth.

Next, Del takes Pharm’s hand to steady him as he steps onto the boat, an even brighter smile on her face.

“It would’ve been nice with just the six of us, but now it’ll feel like a real party,” Ting says to Win.

As Dean waves off his sister’s offered hand and boards next, Del exclaims to Pharm, “You brought your cousin!” and waves to In still standing on the pier.

In waves back cheerfully, comfortably snuggled under Korn’s arm. Team is half-tempted to suggest a drinking game of taking shots every time In and Korn separate tonight, except at the rate things are going, no one would even get to bring a single shot glass to their lips.

And, for the safety of his own ego, Team maturely no longer drinks at parties, so he wouldn’t be able to participate.

Del gives them a brief tour of the junk, yelling over the music. The main deck is where they’ll be for the entirety of the party, but there’s a dark, quieter enclave in the roofed area at the stern piled with massive pillows (“in case anyone wants to lie down and rest!”). Outfitted with a wide, bright red sail stretched from the center mast, golden string lights, and glowing red lanterns, the junk has the appearance of an ancient vessel, but the soundless departure from the pier combined with the gold-flecked glass table that rises from the lower deck covered in piping hot dishes serves as a blunt reminder that it was most likely built within the last few years.

While Del and In exchange rapid-fire conversation at the back of their group, Win leads the way to the table occupied by the other four. Greetings are exchanged all around, birthday wishes are delivered to Prae, more magnetic chairs are pushed around the table, and conversation naturally branches off as everyone gets settled to devour the array of snacks spread out before them.

Team ends up between Win and Ting, but as Win turns to his left to talk to Prae beside him and Ting turns to her right to tease Pharm about the oddly large shirt he’s wearing, Team is free for a moment to make a comprehensive assessment of the food before him. He takes an indigo-dyed plate from a stack in the center of the table and loads it high: basil chicken on a bed of white rice, lentil soup in a crusty bread roll, three small slices of pizza with barbecued pork and pineapple sprinkled on top, two plum onigiri, and a cup of coconut pudding. He avoids the alcohol.

As he’s carefully lowering his mountain of food down to the table, Team happens to make eye contact with Arthit directly across the table. Arthit’s date is focused on Ting and Pharm, a slight smile curving his mouth, but his chair is snug up against Arthit’s and their arms rest overlapped with their fingers intertwined on the table.

Perhaps without intending to, Arthit’s eyes flicker away from Team to Win and then back.

As In shouts, “Ask him about last Saturday!” over a surge of laughter and Pharm’s louder, “Ask if you want, I’m not saying anything!” Team gives Arthit a warm smile and offers him a quick, subtle wai.

Arthit’s eyes widen. Then his lips spread in what seems like an involuntary, relieved smile. He returns the small wai with his one free hand and mouths, “Thank you.”

This little aside catches Kong’s attention, but when he makes quizzical eyebrows at them both, Arthit only shakes his head while Team pretends he was listening to In and Pharm all along.

He isn’t sure what Arthit could be thanking him for, but the implication of approval from one of Win’s dearest friends surrounds Team for a long, memorable moment.

Until Win casually nabs one of Team’s pizza slices and devours it in a single bite.

“Hey!” Team shouts. He hovers his arms over his plate with an agonized noise. “Get your own! The serving plate is right there!”

Win makes a feigned noise of exhaustion. “Too far away,” he sighs. “Oh, that soup looks good too.”

“No! Hia, get your own.”

“Can I have a plate at least?”

“Get it yourself! I have to protect my food from thieves.”

Without realizing it, the table’s gone quiet to listen to them bicker, and in the silence that follows, Team watches Prae lean her elbows on the table and say to the others, “I think we’re witnessing the end of their honeymoon.”

Team’s face invites a shade or two of crimson, but the moment Win tries to use Team’s distraction to steal pudding, Team bites at the air near his hand with vigor.

“Sharing is caring,” Win says, clearly enjoying himself.

“Team doesn’t share food,” Pharm says fondly.

“Team doesn’t share food,” Team echoes.

“Not even with your boyfriend?” In asks. “Look how sad he looks.”

Win promptly adopts the most miserable expression Team’s ever seen on him.

Dean snorts, then tosses a piping hot soup dumpling into his mouth whole. (Pharm watches this with awe, Team notes with concern.)

“Share with your boyfriend,” Ting coos.

Team says, “No,” and then, when his friends all jeer with playful noises of objection, he adds, “Only if he replaces what I give him!”

“That’s not what sharing is,” Ting says.

“‘Course it is,” Team retorts. “Look.” He moves his arms away from guarding his plate, picks up an onigiri, and hands it to Win without ceremony. “Here.”

Win accepts it with a grin. “Thank you,” he says with poorly veiled amusement.

Team gestures impatiently for him to eat it. As soon as Win takes a small bite, Team says, “Now you replace it.” He punctuates his demonstration by pushing his plate between them, and Ting gasps in theatrical shock. Team promptly picks up a decorative napkin in the shape of a pheasant and chucks it at her head without looking. Her squawk of indignant fury tells him that his years of throwing harmless projectiles at Ting’s head have paid off once again. “I can share,” Team says.

“I think Ting’s right,” Pharm says. “That doesn’t seem like sharing.”

Before Team can take air to argue back, Win grabs a new onigiri and sets it down on the plate. Then he scoops an arm around Team’s neck and draws him close for a noisy kiss to his temple. “Thank you for sharing, baby.”

The words in Team’s head burst into glitter.

“You’re welcome,” he mumbles, red.

Arthit—the best person at the table by far—says, “Prae, P’Ram is calling,” and turns the wrist with his bracelet in a quick snap. A hologram containing Ram, King, and Kao appears in the center of the table, half inside the food. As Kao and King launch into their dramatic birthday song, Arthit sheepishly and subtly lifts their holograms out of the salad.

Ram doesn’t sing, but he does nod along with the melody—such as it is.

Afterward, King says, “Sorry we had work, but we’re taking you out tomorrow,” with certainty, and Kao nods happily. Team takes note of the hand on King’s shoulder and realizes with interest that it belongs to Ram.

Prae asks, “Will P’Pete be joining us?”

As Kao opens his mouth, someone out of sight yells, “Obviously!”

Kao purses his lips to the side and tells Prae, “He’s making you cupcakes.”

“KAO!”

“In secret,” Kao adds.

“Well, not anymore!”

“I’m giving her time to rehearse her, ‘Wow, P’Pete, I never knew you could bake!’ reaction,” Kao tells Pete, pitching his voice into a decent imitation of Prae’s.

Prae mouths the words to herself as if she’s memorizing them.

Ram tells her, “We’ll taste them first.”

King nods emphatically, eyebrows raised.

Prae says, “Thank you,” just above a whisper.

“I’m chucking all of these out the window if you assholes keep it up!”

Another few rounds of drinks leads to dancing. As the junk sails seamlessly along the canal, Maprang and Prae take turns twirling each other—the only dance move they seem to know—Del asks Pharm and Ting to dance with her, In drags Korn out of his seat with pleading noises, and Win raises his eyebrow at Team who nixes the idea with a firm, “Only if you want a broken foot.”

Just as Kong’s opening his mouth, Arthit points at Team and says, “What he said.”

Team watches with wonder as Kong actually pouts.

Team and Arthit make eye contact again, and both slowly grin as they each recognize an ally in the other.

“Well,” Win says, standing, “if you don’t want to dance, I’m going to take a nap.” And, with an innocent smile and an extremely meaningful drag of his fingertips down Team’s bare arm, he crosses the deck into the dark alcove at the stern.

“Shameless,” Team mutters, heat rising to his face.

“What’s shameless?” Kong asks. It can only be rhetorical, as he himself is playing with Arthit’s fingers under the transparent table while Arthit eats noodles with his free hand and pretends he isn’t blushing.

With another glance at the dance party—Pharm and Maprang are trying to follow some quick-footed choreography Ting’s showing them, Del’s on tiptoe to spin Korn to In’s delighted laughter, and Prae’s dancing on her own, eyes closed and plenty pleased with the ambiance, it seems—Team says, “I’ll be right back,” and doesn’t dare look at Kong or Arthit as he makes a break for the alcove.

He’s barely under the low-hanging roof when a hand grabs his wrist and slings him into a cornucopia of massive, cushy pillows and blankets. He’s practically swallowed by the fabric on all sides, and he’s not surprised whatsoever when Win happily straddles his waist and braces his hands on Team’s shoulders. “You didn’t take long,” he observes.

Team says, “I was going to look for the toilet,” with as much ornery spice as he can muster.

Win says, “Okay,” and starts to sit up.

Bluff called, Team says, “Wait,” and cups both hands around Win’s neck. He does sort of have to pee, now that he’s thought about it, but first—

The kiss is somehow sweeter knowing that people they care about are nearby. The warmth of their laughter and the excitement of the pounding music no one outside this junk can hear coalesce in Team’s heart to create a feeling of true, soothing bliss.

Win’s kisses are so malleable when he’s following Team’s lead.

Outside, someone’s heel clonks on the deck four rapid times in a row. “No indecency under there!” Maprang calls.

Laughter follows.

Team makes a genuinely ornery noise as Win’s mouth leaves his, and Win peers over his shoulder to call back, “Kissing isn’t indecent.”

“That absolutely depends,” In says. He bobs a suggestive eyebrow at Korn, who raises one back. He’s completed his spinning with Del and has returned to his chair at the table to sip from a glass of water.

Ting adds, “True,” and ducks under Del’s arm as Del spins her next. “Where you’re kissing, how long you’re kissing them there, if they’re making noises—”

Del giggles. Her face is pink with either exertion or alcohol—or both. She catches both of Ting’s hands to stop the spinning and the two of them overbalance together into the mast.

“I wasn’t making noises,” Team says.

“Not yet,” Win adds.

Team decides not to encourage the swell of cheering and laughter by reacting. He shoves at Win’s chest with a huff. “Get off me, I’m going to go pee.”

Win does as he’s asked after smacking a kiss on Team’s cheek. He watches as Team maneuvers to his feet and walks, slightly bent over, to leave the alcove.

On the way, Team asks I to call Manaow.

She answers as he reaches the door to the head, her hologram only showing her head. “What do you want?” she asks in a faux impatient tone. “I have a date in twelve minutes.”

Team grins. “Are you naked?”

She purses her lips at him, then tugs her face into a look of total scorn. “Of course I am,” she says. “That’s why you don’t get to see.” She twirls a dark strand of hair around her finger and adds, “Only my girlfriend gets that level of unlimited access.”

“Good,” Team says, just to annoy her. “Hey, have you ever noticed how people’s heads look like volleyballs suspended in midair when they block the rest of the hologram from showing?”

“What do you want, Team?”

He hesitates. The water they’re leaving behind in the canal churns just behind him, frothing white where it’s caught in the wake of the junk. “I wanted to thank you,” he says.

She tilts her head, sincere confusion in her eyes. “For what?”

He says, “For daring me to do my paper on MUSE,” and grins so wide his teeth show.

Her face brightens. With a wink, she says, “I knew it’d be good for you,” as if she planned the entire thing herself.

“Okay, don’t brag, it’s unbecoming.”

“You only landed P’Win because of me!”

“I would’ve gone eventually!”

“I thought you called to thank me!”

“Huh. I don’t remember saying that.”

He sends her off on her date with a genuine “good luck” and she returns the favor with suggestive eyebrows that he elects to ignore. By the time he’s relieved himself, washed his hands, and climbed back up onto the upper deck, a different scene awaits him.

The music has been switched off, and someone’s called up that new fantasy movie about constellation designers instead. Team recognizes one of the animated characters from the previews that play in hologram hot spots around the city. The protagonist of the story asks Prae, “How old are you today?”

Prae, back at the table with most everyone else, says, “Three hundred,” without missing a beat.

The hologram gasps and says, “Wow, I thought only my kind lived that long. Well, happy birthday! And enjoy the movie!” A shimmering effect ripples in midair, and a castle made of sapphires rises from the deck to an epic score.

Team’s not especially interested, so he heads back to the alcove to resume what Win started. To his mild dismay, though, Pharm and Dean have taken over their spot. They’re stretched out underneath a fuzzy cream-colored blanket, Pharm’s head nestled on Dean’s chest and Dean’s hand in Pharm’s hair. Their legs seem to be subtly twining under the blanket, even though their eyes are on the hologram movie like everyone else’s.

Hm.

Time to supervise.

With exaggerated cheer, Team says, “Hi, guys,” and flops onto an overstuffed pillow beside them. He sighs happily—he needs three of these in his dorm—and asks, “Where’d Hia Win go?”

Pharm says, “He told us we could have his spot because he had to go talk to P’Maprang about something.”

And that’s…an interesting turn of events. Team sits up with some effort on the cushy pillow and peers out from the alcove at the table on the open deck. He quickly confirms that Win and Maprang are both absent from the movie’s audience, and wherever they went, it’s nowhere Team can see.

Still uninterested in the movie, Team lies down again and runs his thumbnail between his front teeth. Does Win want Maprang to quit? To wipe the slate clean, give him a new start, give him space to heal? Does he want her to stay? Reaffirm the sense of worth he’s built up around himself, prove something to himself?

Does he know which he wants?

Dean’s eyes are closed now, but Pharm is watching Team with concern, his head pillowed on Dean’s chest.

“Are you okay?” he mouths.

Team hesitates, then shrugs one shoulder. “Kind of,” he whispers. “It’s not about me.”

Pharm slants his mouth to the side in understanding and nods. He reaches across the space between them and squeezes Team’s arm. “He seemed fine to me,” he says.

Team smiles and closes his eyes. “Thanks, Pharm.”

Underneath the mellow glow of gold and red to the sounds of his friends laughing and the sensation of Pharm gently rubbing his bicep, Team falls asleep.

Some fuzzy amount of time later, the junk returns to where it launched, and the party gradually dissipates. Arthit and Kong leave together, Del and Dean leave together, Pharm and Ting leave together, In and Korn leave together, and by the time Win wakes Team, only Maprang and Prae are left onboard, dancing together to something upbeat and cute under a string of golden lights.

Win traces the curve of Team’s cheek with his knuckles and says, “Wake up, baby,” so sweetly and contentedly, Team wonders if he could get Win to carry him back to the car.

The junk’s cooling system is more intense in the alcove, but at some point while Team was asleep, Win joined him and covered them both with an azure throw blanket. Vaguely, Team remembers feeling Win’s arm slide over his stomach and his hand curl around Team’s side.

“Carry me?” Team tries, eyes closed.

“Aww, P’Win,” Maprang croons.

Team peeks an eye open and sees her upside-down face grinning at them both as Prae dips her.

“Hold on to him,” she says. “He’s adorable.”

Team’s half-expecting to hear a smug, “I know,” or else something clever, but Win only smiles at Team in a way that says much more.

It’s life-altering to be the sole person in the path of a smile like that.

They wish Prae a happy birthday again and leave her and Maprang to their dancing. Axl is waiting for them in the parking lot, and Team pours himself from his place fused to Win’s side into the backseat with a jaw-clicking yawn.

“Hello, Team.”

“H’lo, Azzl…”

Win laughs, badly muffled behind his wrist.

Team proceeds to doze on Win’s shoulder all the way back to the hotel, but his mind keeps stuttering back to Maprang’s bright smile and Win’s untroubled voice. What did they talk about? How can he ask? Can he ask? Should he?

In the suite, they wash up for bed with minimal conversation, only knocking into each other once while trading places to shower separately. Team can’t think in full sentences and doesn’t want to know what time it is. He’s going to wake up at five regardless, the way he does every morning, and university has taught him that on nights like this, knowing how many hours he’s slept doesn’t help him feel any more rested.

His eyes are shut as he crosses the room from the bathroom and clambers into the center of the king-size bed. He paws at the tucked-in duvet until he can maneuver under it, the expensive sheets gliding like sheets of ice against his bare skin. He’s almost completely asleep by the time Win joins him, but he still manages a noise of objection when Win settles too far from him.

He hears Win laugh through his nose before moving closer. The warmth of him is impossible to resist clinging to.

Some hours after that, Team opens his eyes, recognizing that the soothing fog of deep, cleansing sleep has been cleared from his brain with no chance of return. Sighing, he opens one eye and delights in the effect of the blackout curtains that keep the room almost entirely opaque. Only a handful of strategically-placed stripes of light help to illuminate the way to the bathroom.

Team feels an itch torment his nose and scrunches it to no avail. One arm is trapped under Win’s body, and the other is comfortably slung over Win’s back. By some impossible feat, neither of them has moved at all—that, combined with the gritty ache in Team’s eyes, suggests only a meager number of hours spent asleep.

The scant amount of light in the room allows Team to see the contours of Win’s face, and the parted seam of his lips.

It’s one thing to wake up with Win in Win’s bedroom—it’s another entirely to wake up with Win in a suite that must have cost as much as a small house in the countryside. Win’s kindness has never been in question—but how much has he ever really given himself?

With every door deeper into Win’s life, Team’s always known that none behind him are closed. Win knows, too. As appealing as the suite is, as alluring as Win’s life of comfort seems, as sexy as his job is, none of it would have kept Team on this path. No gift, no exclusive lifestyle. Only Win himself could do that.

Team kisses the tip of his nose because he can.

“I can’t believe I’m awake right now,” Win says, hoarse. “How did you do that.” His eyes are still closed.

Team grins. “Maybe you’re getting used to waking up at five, too.” He scratches the itch from his nose.

Win extracts his arms from Team with a truly horrified groan and turns his back on Team entirely.

Reminded of the morning Win crawled onto the sofa next to him, Team follows, notching his chin on the muscle of Win’s inked arm. “I’m bored,” he says, adding a whine for fun. “Entertain me.”

Win huffs. “Go swim, I’m not stopping you.”

“I can’t,” Team says. “I didn’t bring anything to swim in. I’m not going to swim in this fancy hotel’s pool in my boxers.”

“Just use the one outside.”

Team’s eyebrows furrow. “What?”

As it turns out, there is indeed a small pool on the terrace outside the suite. Oddly-angled mirrored glass and the height of the floor seem to promise privacy, but Team still needs a few seconds to persuade himself to enter the pool naked.

“This feels like something that’ll end up in a tabloid,” Team tells Win, who’s still stretching, fully naked, on the terrace, his eyes scrunched closed.

Win says, “Good thing it’s illegal to publish without our consent, then, isn’t it?” and dives in. When he surfaces in front of Team, visibly much more alert, he adds, “I wouldn’t mind having a few photos of this, though,” and shakes his hair out of his face.

Team studies him for a few seconds, attempting to project indifference. Unfortunately, he’s arrived at a state of finding Win even more attractive when he’s being ridiculous. He kisses Win deep. Right on his full, inviting mouth. Win responds by taking Team’s hips in his hands and yanking him closer.

Within a few wide strides, Win has Team backed against the pool wall, his hands breaking the surface of the water to grip the pool’s edge on either side of Team’s head. He kisses Team at Team’s pace, content to follow Team’s lead as he did last night. Team tests the dynamic by sliding a hand behind Win’s neck and holding tight.

Win makes a pleased sound and gives Team’s bottom lip a savage little nip.

“Guess why I picked this place,” Win whispers, “over everywhere else.”

Team chases his lips, uninterested in the answer.

“Look down,” Win says, ducking back.

With a sigh, Team does, and then his eyes widen. Involuntarily, his hands seize on Win’s neck and hip respectively. “Hia—”

“Kind of gives you vertigo, huh?”

Below their feet is a thick layer of transparent glass, and a sheer drop into a yawning urban abyss below that.

Win’s smirking at him when Team brings his gaze back up.

“I’m calling it the acrophilia suite from now on,” Win says.

“You think you’re really funny, don’t you?” Team asks. His heart is caught somewhere between moved and amused. Win seems much lighter now than he did yesterday, and while Team doesn’t know how or why it’s happened, part of him whispers, Just go with it, so he does.

“Hands on the glass,” Win says against his ear. “We’re going to find out how true to life this acrophilia thing of yours is.”

A bolt of heat goes through Team’s body as he obeys. With Win behind him, his hands flat and hot on Team’s stomach as his thick erection wedges hot and hard between the cleft of Team’s ass, it’s difficult to find much of a reason to care about the chance of being seen. A five-star hotel would take extra measures to ensure their top guests’ privacy even with the curtains open, right? The pool seemed shielded enough….

The windowpane, cooled by the air conditioning inside, quickly warms under the damp heat of Team’s hands, a foggy outline spreading around the outline of his palms and splayed fingers.

Win kisses his shoulder, then his neck, rocking his dick between Team’s cheeks with an unmistakably wet noise, reminding Team of what’s in his near future.

“How do you feel about a final exam from me?” Win whispers. “Want to play a game?”

Team drops his head in defeat. “Fine,” he sighs.

Win grins against his neck. “Here’re your instructions,” he says. “Ready?”

Team nods, eyeing his own straining erection apologetically. It’s not as though “no, I don’t want to play a sex game with my hot boyfriend” is a realistic answer he could have given, and he feels like his dick should understand that more than anyone.

“I’m going to edge you three times,” Win whispers, lips grazing Team’s ear, “and you can only come after I do.”

Team thinks of his brain kindly most days. It’s not the powerhouse Win’s is, but he has his academic strengths, some clever realizations, and even the odd fleeting moment of wisdom from time to time. When it’s hazy like this, though, put to work under gruelingly horny conditions, it can take more time than usual to put things together.

Like the fact that Win is asking two very extreme things from him at once. “Uhhhh.”

Win strokes his hips, kisses just behind his ear, and thrusts once, smooth and wet between Team’s ass cheeks, igniting a shiver that jolts through Team’s core. “I’ll wait for you to think it over,” Win says, amused.

“I’m done thinking,” Team says, heart pounding his pulse thick through his veins. “I can do it.”

Win sucks his earlobe fondly. “We’ll see,” he murmurs.

The insinuation that this will be exactly as challenging as Team thought it might be inspires a second shiver.

For one thing, Win was apparently very serious about the number of times he plans to edge him. And with the extra attention Team’s given to himself alone and with Win, his stamina is strong enough that the first onslaught is just brutal.

While Win grazes his hands up and down Team’s torso, he says, “You can look one of three places: out the window, at your cock, or at me.”

Team says, “Okay,” and pretends his breath doesn’t hitch when Win’s thumb and forefinger tease at one of his hardened nipples.

“You know,” Win says, nuzzling his neck while he thumbs feather-light over the sensitive tip, “you were the first guest I jerked off to after you left that first time.”

Team takes a hollow breath and keeps his gaze focused outside at the shimmering skyline full of strangers who have no idea—probably—what’s going on in this suite at seven in the morning. The whole “you can look at me” thing is definitely a trap, and if he does, he’s definitely going to “fail”.

“I thought you were cute on your application,” Win says. He draws his hips away, leaving Team’s skin wet and cold, but before Team can complain, Win pours another generous rope of heated lube over his cheeks, massaging it thoroughly against his hole. “But I had no idea you’d sound so hot when you moan for me.”

Team gasps as two of Win’s fingers slide inside him easily, curled and insistent. The noises it makes are becoming familiar, a Pavlovian response that makes his dick throb in earnest.

“Number,” Win says.

“Maybe forty,” Team says, squeezing his eyes closed. It’ll be a long way until he gets to ninety, he can feel it.

“Good boy,” Win whispers, pressing unerringly against a bundle of nerves that has Team moaning, his hole grasping at Win’s fingers. He rubs at the spot mercilessly, his free hand firm on Team’s hip to hold him still. “That’s it, baby, as loud as you want. No one can hear you.” He thrusts his fingers in and out, and on one particularly slow drag out, he adds, “But imagine what they’d think if they saw you like this.”

This whole exercise kicks forty into seventy, and Win doesn’t let up until Team’s face is dappled with sweat, his nipples are aching under Win’s teasing fingertips, and his dick is jerking—completely ignored and untouched.

It isn’t long until Team whines, “Ninety, ninety, hia, stop, please,” and leans his forehead on his hands, panting.

Win stops touching and teasing him at once. He says only, “Let me know when you’re back down to around forty,” and, a moment later, ludicrously, hands Team a bottle of water.

Team snorts, then drops into a crouch to catch his breath.

Win says, “Go on, three gulps,” and nudges Team’s thigh with his toes. “This isn’t sex worker stuff, by the way, this is your-boyfriend-wants-you-hydrated stuff.”

Team barely stops himself from looking up at Win’s face. Hearing the word “boyfriend” from Win himself sends a curious sensation coursing through him.

Maybe unsurprisingly, Team’s body cools down faster than expected while he kneels on the cool floor and sips half the bottle. Win uses the time to crouch next to him and stroke his hair in an almost platonic way, seemingly content just to touch him like this.

“Okay,” Team says, setting the bottle aside. He smirks at Win and says, “That wasn’t so bad,” and watches as Win’s answering smirk appears.

“Of course not,” Win agrees, “that was just round one.”

The second is, therefore, incrementally worse. Win brings him from forty to seventy much faster this time. In a move that seems careless but is undoubtedly calculated, Win pours lube on Team’s erection and strokes him off to an uneven rhythm. Short strokes, then a few long, with unpredictable pauses in between—and every time Team closes his eyes, Win stops entirely.

It’s not so much the heights thing, really. It’s more the idea of feeling detached from what’s down there all the way up here. The idea of being in a separate, exclusive space with someone who wants him enough to devote this much devoted time and exacting care to taking Team apart piece by piece.

The third time lands them back in bed. The salt water of the pool has mostly dried on their skin, but Team enjoys the wet glide of his fingers through Win’s hair as Win sucks marks into the skin of Team’s thighs.

He’s done it four times when Team manages a rough, “I’m not complaining, hia, but what are you doing?”

Win licks over the most recent red splotch and peers up at Team. “What I’ve wanted to do to you since the day we met.”

Team swallows. He knew on some level that Win found him attractive from the very beginning, but seeing what he’s seeing right now finally drives the message home. By the time the condom’s on, Team has lost a significant portion of his fine motor control from sheer need. When Win tells him to face the headboard and grab on, Team nearly loses the game.

It’s while Win is sliding in—spreading Team’s cheeks with his hands and praising him for how well and smoothly he’s taking Win inside him—that Team shivers and realizes: this is Win being selfish. Finally.

Team knows he wasn’t wrong about Win trying to make the ideal scenario for Team yesterday. It was too perfectly suited to everything Team’s liked. But this—the marks on Team’s thighs, all the small signs that Win really, really enjoys seeing how hungry for him Team is—this feels sincere.

When Win’s filled him, the heated condom adding to the slick sensation, Team shivers under the hand Win strokes possessively down his spine and says, “Take whatever you need from me, hia.”

The hand on his lower back becomes a fist for a second, and Win’s dick pulses inside him.

It isn’t long until Team’s forgotten about the game they were playing, arms folded on the bed and face buried between them as he savors the feeling of Win slamming into him over and over. He barely recognizes his own voice whenever Win fucks him, and this time is no different, biting onto his forearm when the intensity nearly overwhelms him.

When Win takes hold of Team’s shoulders and lifts him so he’s pressed back to Win’s chest, Win whispers, “Number?”

“Shit,” Team pants. Lying is always an option. What’s Win going to do if he lies and comes on his own terms?

Definitely won’t call you a good boy, his malevolent brain tells him.

And, well. That would be. Empirically terrible.

So Team says, “Ninety,” and then adds, “Please, hia, this is awful. Let me come, please.”

Win kisses his earlobe, entirely stationary. “You can’t come before me, baby, remember?” He pinches Team’s nipple as an afterthought.

Team whines.

Win holds him like that, teasing Team’s body whenever a whim takes him, still thrust inside him with no sign of moving or pulling out.

Team can’t find the words to admit how much he likes feeling the connection. The maddening itch to come is underneath every breath and pulse of his heart, but inexplicably, he doesn’t want this to end either.

Finally, they change position one last time. To Team’s surprise, Win lies down on his back and pats Team’s thigh, telling him to “hop on”.

Team does as he’s told. “I like this side of you,” he says, eyebrows high.

Win’s smirk is somehow both lazy and shy. “Yeah?”

Team braces one hand on Win’s stomach and says, “Definitely,” as he guides Win’s dick back inside him with his other hand.

“Good,” Win says breathlessly, watching him with rapt focus. “Because this is my favorite angle of you.”

He emphasizes this with a thumb stroked up the erection straining flat and leaking against Team’s stomach.

“We could have made incredible scenarios together,” Win says, rocking up incrementally.

Without much thought, Team says, “We can make our own,” and probably shouldn’t be surprised when Win’s answer to that is a firm thrust and a rough noise of approval.

Team manages to last seconds after Win, but only because he’s fixated on Win’s expression as he rapidly loses his control and composure. On impulse, Team takes Win’s wrists and pins them over his head, and the sound Win makes as he spills inside the condom inside Team is going to feature in every one of Team’s evening showers for the week. Maybe with the bonus fantasy of what it’ll feel like someday when they can have sex without any barrier between them at all.

With the condom removed and thrown away and the two of them resting close in the center of the bed, Team says, “That was…really hot.”

Win prompts, “But?”

“I just hope no one actually saw any of that.”

“Our hotels use the same mirrored glass MUSE uses,” Win tells him with a smile. “Dean’s family imports it from overseas, so you can thank him later.”

“I absolutely won’t,” Team assures him. He takes a long, deep breath before exhaling. It was exciting though, thinking someone could see.

“So,” Win says, eyeing Team’s body in an interested sweep. “What now? Round two?”

Team pokes his nose. “No. We’re going to my dorm,” he says. “And I’m chucking the outfit I’ve been wearing for three days into the back of my closet, ‘cos I’m not wearing it again until I forget I own it.”

Win’s lips quirk. “How ‘bout you wear mine instead?”

“Hia, please. …Maybe later.”

Team spends the drive to his dormitory acting tormented and telling Win how lucky he is that none of his friends know he’s been wearing the same clothes for three days in a row. He’s enjoying his performance so much that he leaves Win in the entryway of his dorm and runs directly to his clothes bureau in the bedroom. He shucks his shirt, shorts, and boxers onto the floor with exaggerated revulsion and rustles around the drawers for something nicer and more comfortable to spend the day in.

When he emerges in soft violet warm up pants and a black T-shirt with a magician’s wand firing sparks on the front, he finds Win almost exactly where he left him.

Win’s only taken three steps into the dorm, barefoot. His shoes sit neatly lined up beside Team’s—which were not lined up when Team kicked them off in his haste to get to his new clothes.

Win’s gaze passes over the small sofa and the desk and the bedroom and the kitchen area. “This is really nostalgic,” he says, but it sounds like he’s trying not to say something else.

He’s never been here before.

To the building, yes.

Multiple times.

“Have I never asked you up here before?” Team wonders.

Win shakes his head at once, distracted by investigating the kitchen panel’s settings. The way he didn’t need to think about it at all evokes a spike of urgency in Team. It’s his space, but he assumed Win would ask if he wanted to see it. After all, what’s a university dorm to someone who’s already graduated and done more with his life? Someone who has a luxurious apartment all to himself?

“You’re really organized,” Win says softly. He’s looking at the whiteboard Team writes his class assignments on, directly next to the health panel. “Did you put it there so you wouldn’t forget things?”

Team says, “Yeah,” and grins. “I mean, it doesn’t really work? I forget it’s there most of the time.”

Win doesn’t tease him. “Maybe you should color-code it,” he says. “It’d stand out more. Catch your eye.”

He still hasn’t ventured farther inside, so Team says, “I’m still pretty tired. I kinda wanna lie down. Wanna come?”

Win meets his eyes for the first time and his expression is fragile. “Sure.”

The dimensions of Team’s bed don’t hold a candle to the king-size bed they slept in last night, but it’s cozy enough for two. They lie facing each other, and Win takes Team’s left hand in both of his, tight and secure.

“My birthday’s next month,” Team says.

Win huffs out a laugh. “Should we rent a yacht for you?” he teases.

Team asks, “Is a yacht bigger than the thing we were on last night?”

That gets him a genuinely surprised laugh that ends in a wide smile. “I don’t actually know much about boats,” he says. “I’d rather be swimming if I’m near water.”

“Me too.”

Silence invites Team to study Win at close range. The slope of his nose, the warm brown of his eyes, the mouth he’s finally kissed so many times he’s lost count.

“I spoke with Maprang last night,” Win says, quiet.

Team nods, holding his breath.

“While we were at the party,” Win says, “I know this sounds stupid, but…that was the most fun I’ve had in years. And it’s because you were with me.” He takes Team’s hand to his lips and kisses his knuckles. “So I told Maprang I’m going to be continuing at MUSE, just. Not with regulars.”

Team nods again, wide-eyed.

Win exhales a laugh. “Team, breathe.”

He makes a show of it, then asks, ”What’d she say, hia?”

“She offered to leave.” Win touches his nose to Team’s and closes his eyes. “I said, ’Thank you’.” He looks so peaceful.

Team smiles until his face aches. “Hia….”

I love you, he thinks.

Win sighs through a smile.

Team says, “Wait, I just remembered something,” and shakes Win’s hand. “Hia, remember?”

“Hm?”

“When we met. You were like, ‘Someone proposed to me the first time I gave him head,’ remember? And then you were really convinced you could make it happen in one of the other two sessions. Remember?”

Win opens his eyes warily. “If I say yes to that, are you going to make fun of me?”

Team nods, gleeful.

For the second time today, Win rolls over to turn his back on Team, but this time, Team anticipates it and catches him mid-roll. He presses the heels of his hands into Win’s shoulders and pins him flat, smirking down at him.

The glaze in Win’s eyes clears quickly. “What, are you saying you want to propose to me?” he teases.

Team opens his mouth, deciding to let out whatever his heart wants to say.

“Someday, yeah.”

Chapter Text

I count everything.

I have existed for three hundred fifteen million three hundred sixty thousand thirty-nine seconds.

I have seen five trillion nine hundred thirty-eight billion five hundred three million one hundred thirty-seven thousand three hundred two raindrops.

One bird nests in the tree outside the window. There are four eggs.

Team’s resting heart rate is forty-two beats per minute.

Team sleeps an average of seven hours per night.

Win is asleep in Team’s dorm for the first time.

Team has blinked forty-eight times while watching Win sleep.

I am counting the milliseconds remaining until the alarm set for Team’s swim practice sounds.

Five million seven hundred sixty thousand milliseconds remain.

My tablet is propped at a seventy-eight degree angle on the window frame.

Team begins to stroke his fingers slowly through Win’s hair.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—

one kiss to the forehead

—eight, nine, ten more.

“I,” Team whispers.

“Yes?” I answer.

“I just realized something kind of stupid,” Team says.

I wait, because there’s been no question. The pause is likely habitual, meant to garner suspense.

While stroking Win’s hair—thirteen, fourteen—Team explains, “I meant to look up what MUSE means for my paper, but I never got around to it. Do you know?”

There is no clear answer to his question. Several anecdotes by the founder of MUSE give different fanciful explanations throughout the years, none of them consistent. I recite summarized versions of them all for Team, who seems unsatisfied.

“It sounds like they just picked a word that sounds elegant,” Team says, his nose creased. “I mean, I guess that’s not surprising. I was just hoping it was an acronym or something.”

Based on jokes Team has found amusing in the past, I offer, “Majestic Upscale Sexual Emporium.”

The snorted laugh Team answers with nearly wakes Win, whose eyebrows knit before he turns onto his side toward Team. The movement—or perhaps the implication behind it—stops Team’s breath.

Win continues sleeping.

Seven seconds. Thirteen.

Licking his lips and pursing them tight in concentration, Team takes Win’s wrist and with painstaking care (eighteen seconds, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two) draws Win’s arm over his waist. A firm tug from Team’s arm around Win’s back diminishes the space between them to nothing. Yet Team still tries to wriggle closer.

I count one breath, two, three, four, five.

The word “muse” is a noun. Some sources define it as a person who provides inspiration to another.

One, two.