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Pocky Pandemonium

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There are approximately three items that Team wants to buy at the convenience store, and all of them are yellow and portable and their contents steeped in sodium—and with his boyfriend out of the country, there are zero obstacles in the way of Team buying them. For the past several days, Team has been submerged in a cloud of resentment over the premature removal of his boyfriend from the country, and right now, all he wants to do is sulk and gorge himself on junk.

As he makes a beeline for the back of the store, Team frowns. There’s a worrying lack of eye-piercing yellow on the shelf where it should be. Instead of his beloved Lay’s, a row of packaged seaweed snacks has invaded and taken over.

Team stares at the incorrect snack for a full five seconds, willing them to change into what he wants.

“Team…?”

He doesn’t answer.

He hears the voice just fine, and he registers the words as well, but Team is in the middle of a very serious crisis right now.

That being: boyfriend gone + Lay’s gone = purpose for living gone.

“Are…you all right?”

Team drags his attention to the person standing next to him. “Oh.” Swim club. New guy. Has a name.

Probably.

Under normal circumstances, Team would probably even remember it.

As it is, Team just settles on “guy”.

The guy seems to sense Team’s thought process and offers a bright smile. “Pocky!” he says.

Team doesn’t know what to do with that. He looks at the seaweed snacks, then back at the guy. “Um.”

“Oh, no!” The guy points to his nose. “Me! I’m Pocky! That’s seaweed.”

Team catches up and, even better, sees over the guy’s shoulder a flash of yellow on a distant shelf. “Nice to meet you,” he says.

“But we’ve already met, though?” the guy says, tilting his head.

Team says, “Right,” and forces a smile. He’s really not in the mental headspace for talking to juniors, but he has to try. Win would want him to be nice to the younger members. “Sorry, I’m kind of—” The word he wants eludes him, so he makes an elaborate hand gesture that will hopefully communicate something constituting an excuse.

The guy nods, his expression understanding. “I hear you.” Then he perks up. “Oh, hey, you like Lay’s, right?”

Team zeroes in on him. “Yes,” he says. He draws the word out, hoping it conveys the proper level of confused suspicion without being rude. “Why?”

He looks back over the guy’s shoulder, prioritizing the answer lower than the discovery of his beloved Lay’s. He can see them now. Right there. Not even an aisle away, nearly hidden behind some inferior, off-brand consommé-flavored poser chips that have no business being nearly twice the size of Lay’s. It’s probably an attempt to compensate for their bland taste.

Team starts to scoot a little to the side, pulled towards the Lay’s like a true gravitational force.

But his junior is still right there. In the way.

“I just see you eating them a lot, that’s all.” The guy smiles in a way that Team finds a bit too cheery after a long day of classes and swim practice. “Is there a particular flavor you like? What’s your recommendation?”

Team scoots a little further down the aisle. “All Lay’s are good,” he says. “But Classic is the best.”

“Yeah, they’re really salty and delicious, aren’t they? Perfect for after practice.”

Team hums, noncommittal and not really listening. He’s finally made it to the end of the aisle, and his junior is still there, right behind him, as Team contemplates the agonizing choice between two bags or three.

The guy leans a little closer and says, “You know, sometimes I like something sweet after practice, too. What about you?”

Team grabs a third bag, then a fourth for good measure. When he turns and notices the earnest smile on his junior’s face, Team can hear Win’s nagging about preservatives all the way across the ocean.

Somehow, it makes the situation easier to handle.

He takes a breath and tries to force a smile.

“I don’t like sweets as much. Lay’s are my favorite.”

The guy—Pocky, Team reminds himself—somehow manages to crank up the earnestness and even grabs a bag of Lay’s off the shelf for himself.

As they make their way to the counter, Team adds, “I always get scolded for eating them after practice, though. So you shouldn’t either, or they’ll yell at me more and say I’m a bad influence.”

Pocky laughs at that and smiles even wider when Team grabs his chips and puts them on the counter beside his own. He’s being a good senior. Like Win was to all his juniors.

Like Win is.

Even with the distance between them, Team knows Win still tries.

His eyes flick back to the seaweed snacks and cold drinks, memories briefly surfacing of when he and Win met here. Younger, more awkward, and completely unaware of all that was going to happen between them.

To the clerk, Team mumbles, “One second, sorry,” and follows his feet to the back of the store. There isn’t anyone else here, so he’s not causing anyone any inconvenience by leaving their snacks on the counter for a bit. He just wants a drink, since he doesn’t have many beverage options in his dorm right now.

At the drink case, he emerges from the cloudy space in his mind and finds himself staring, focused somewhere between the jasmine tea and the finger-smudged glass. His chest feels scraped hollow suddenly. No one smug senior is going to surprise him this time.

“Team?”

He hears sneakers squeak on the tile behind him and his heart clenches. Because when he looks back, it’s not familiar, ostentatious blond that meets his eyes, but soft pink. The height is wrong, too, and the smile is far too shy, with none of the smug teasing he’s grown so accustomed to.

Team is struck, suddenly and inextricably, with just how much he misses Win. He can’t even buy chips at the convenience store without descending below functionality.

Pocky quirks a half-smile at him. “Can I tell you something?” he asks.

Team inhales and says, “Sure,” because it’ll give him something to focus on apart from the reminder that his boyfriend is on an island in a completely separate time zone and won’t be coming back for months.

“Well,” Pocky says, and draws a breath. “Thing is, I like you.” Then, he rocks back on his heels, says, “Aaaand…”

As Pocky’s momentum brings him forward, Team realizes what’s about to happen, and then Pocky’s lips land somewhere above his eyebrow, and Team reels a full stride backward. It’s happened and left in the past within the space of seconds.

The malleable atmosphere between them is immediately shattered and replaced with something in sharper focus and much less comfortable. At least Pocky seems aware of it, too, and he blurts, “I’m sorry!” with his hands drawn close to his chest like he touched a hot stove.

Team breathes in and considers a few options.

“Oh,” Pocky says, guilt dawning in his eyes, “I’m so sorry. I thought—”

Team chooses the easiest way out of this and bolts.

He drives without purpose, no particular destination in mind until he realizes he’s put himself on the shortest route to his former dormitory.

When he realizes that, he turns onto a side street and slows down to assemble and organize his rapidfire thoughts.

Win isn’t here anymore.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Team parks behind a car in a dark residential area. He thinks about the people inside these houses who might look out their windows and wonder what he’s doing. He must look extremely suspicious sitting here in the dark with his hand over his face.

Suddenly, it’s urgent that he tell Win what happened.

In the two weeks since Win left, they’ve kept in touch every day through Line. Manaow says it’s sweet, but Team doesn’t see it that way. This is time he’s owed, since it’s only June and he expected Win to stay in Bangkok until August. How was he to know that Win’s parents would tell him to take two months to settle in and do some work in their London office?

As far as Team is concerned, the loss of those two months means he’s entitled to a daily update from his boyfriend at least.

Team unlocks his screen and ignores how his thumb shakes.

The last message he got from Win is time-stamped just after Team’s practice ended two hours ago. It’s an animated laughing stamp, a response to a cat meme Team sent him. It feels jarring to change the subject so drastically, but Team can’t bring himself to hide what happened.

He types, [Hia…] and sends it.

He leans his head against the steering wheel, half of him hoping Win answers right away and the other half hoping he’s busy.

Team’s hands feel sweaty, and he’s not sure why.

It was a peck on the side of his face, hardly anything at all, but somehow it’s left him feeling wrong all over. He wants to shower.

He wants Win.

A couple minutes go by and he takes some deep breaths. He should just get it all out there and let Win respond when he has time. There’s really not much else he can do, at this point.

[Something happened…]

He sends that one too, waits a beat, and when Win doesn’t immediately answer, the rest of it just comes pouring out in a rush.

[I was at the store buying chips and there was one of the new swim club juniors there and he was talking to me. Asking me about chips. And then I got distracted and I promise it wasn’t on purpose but he kissed me. On the forehead. And then I ran away and I don’t know what to do now]

A little hysterical, he adds, [I didn’t even get my chips]

It’s a jumbled mess of words that don’t really explain how he’s feeling, but he doesn’t think he can sort that out by himself regardless. If Win were here, Win would just know. Any time Team has a nightmare, or a bad day at practice, or a difficult test, it always feels like Win knows just by looking at him. Just by listening to the sound of his sigh as he flopped across their bed.

Now Team actually has to talk about his feelings, because Win can’t see him. It’s horrible. And Team is horrible at it.

He risks a glance back down at his phone and feels a small jolt at the little read that’s popped up underneath his texts.

He wishes he could see Win’s face. Is he frowning? Worried? Angry? He hits the call button and chooses video, sucking in a shallow breath through the few rings as he waits for Win to answer.

Except, Win doesn’t answer.

The call drops and an error message pops up on screen. “Unable to make call”.

Something cold settles into the pit of Team’s stomach.

Is he too angry to accept Team’s call?

Did something happen?

Did Win’s phone die?

Did Win die?

This has never happened before. Even when Team stayed up all night out of spite a few days after Win left—binge-watching videos on his phone and eating countless bags of chips and other snacks despite Win messaging him repeatedly to go to bed—Win still picked up his call the following day. While Team complained about being tired, Win listened, laughed, and teased him.

If Win is ignoring him…

Team clenches his eyes shut and tries to ignore the prickling at the corners. It’s probably nothing. Maybe it’s a connection issue.

But it’s been ten minutes since the read notifications appeared, and there’s still no word.

Team can’t muster the courage to call again.

Instead, he drives home, trudges up the stairs to his room and slumps down onto the left side of the bed even though he’s all alone. He takes his phone off of silent, tosses and turns and compulsively checks the blank screen until he finally passes out somewhere in the wee hours of the morning.

Hardly any time at all goes by before his alarm blares for his first class.

Nearly twelve hours have passed since he sent his messages, and Win never wrote back.

After thirty-eight hours, twelve doesn’t seem like very much anymore.

Team says a handful of words at lunch, mainly to Pharm about the dessert he made them, and then he tunes both of them out entirely. For two years, they sat at the bigger tables, a comfortable group of six. Now they’re back to the smaller tables, a trio again.

This makes it a lot easier for Manaow and Pharm to notice that he’s not himself.

“Team?”

He gives her his best imitation of nonchalance. “Hm?”

She frowns and feels his forehead. “You’re quiet. Are you okay?”

He bats at her arm with a sour scowl. “I’m not sick,” he says. “People can be quiet.”

“Mm,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “People can, sure.”

Pharm masks a laugh behind his hand and says, “Team, are you sure you’re all right?”

It’s a little more challenging to lie to Pharm. His hesitation costs him, too, because Manaow snaps and points at his face.

“I knew it,” she says. “You miss Win!”

Team opens his mouth, but there’s no real point in denying that. He’s already mentioned Win twice today and got teased for it both times. He can’t really hide it when he’s already exposed where his mind is. Twice.

“Something happened,” he admits. “It’s not a big deal. I just have to talk to Win about it.”

Pharm frowns. “What’s wrong? Can you tell us? Or is it private?”

Manaow leans forward like she’s only mildly concerned if it is.

Team considers keeping it a secret. Maybe twenty-four hours ago he would have, when he thought getting in touch with Win would be easy. But now…well.

“Someone kissed me,” he says, and the words leaving his mouth sound unpleasant to say the least.

Manaow gasps so loud the students at the tables around them turn to stare.

Who?”

Team rubs his forehead with both hands, then remembers the brief touch of Pocky’s lips there and drops them into his lap with a groan. “I don’t want to say,” he says. “Just…it happened, and I didn’t expect it, and I told Win, and now he’s ignoring me. I think. He read my message, and I sent it right away, and he read it, and—”

Pharm’s hand settles on his back and Manaow says, “Okay, okay, wait, breathe.”

Team stops and inhales until his lungs are full, then exhales along with her.

“Good,” Pharm says. He rubs between Team’s shoulder blades. “Are you sure he’s ignoring you? Maybe his messages aren’t going through.”

Team thinks about that, then something worse occurs to him. “I tried calling him, though, and it failed.” He scrubs a hand through his hair and says, “I think he’s ignoring me.”

Pharm makes a low noise of sympathy. “I’m sure he isn’t,” he says. “That doesn’t sound like him.”

Team almost says, “You didn’t hear what kind of kiss it was,” but then he’d have to explain the Original Forehead Kiss and listen to Manaow shriek, and he’s not prepared to deal with that right now.

When Team doesn’t answer, Pharm pats him on the shoulder and says, “I’ll give him a call, how about that?”

Team opens his mouth to object, but the thought of spending another thirty-eight hours without hearing from Win stops him. “Okay,” he says. “If he picks up, don’t tell him I’m here.”

Whether he can hold back from grabbing the phone from Pharm himself is another story.

Pharm sets his phone on the table and puts it on speaker as it rings, which Team decides is either very kind of him or stunningly cruel, considering he’s been given a front row seat to it ringing…and ringing…before it finally cuts off.

A little message appears on screen.

“The person you are trying to call didn’t pick up”.

Didn’t pick up.

Now he’s sure of it. Win’s ignoring him.

Win’s so pissed that he’s even ignoring Pharm. That’s the equivalent of pushing over a baby bear in front of a very tall, dour-faced mama bear in a swimming cap.

As if on cue, Pharm hums, presses his lips into a line, and pulls up Dean’s contact information instead. This time, the line only rings three times before someone picks up. Dean’s voice provides a welcome rock in the current storm of Team’s life.

“Pharm?” Dean asks. “What’s wrong? I thought we were supposed to talk later tonight?”

“I need to ask you a favor,” Pharm starts. “Do you have some time?”

The immediate, “Of course,” is both predictable and relieving.

“Have you talked to Win lately?”

Dean is quiet for a moment, obviously not expecting that line of questioning.

“Maybe a few days ago. Why?”

Pharm hums again, tapping his finger on the table as his gaze flickers between Team and Manaow.

“Well, Team tried to call him a few days ago and couldn’t get through. I just called again and it says he didn’t pick up.” His finger stills. “Would you try calling him, please?”

Dean agrees, already grumbling under his breath as he hangs up. Team is very glad he’s not the one that’s going to be getting that phone call. Ignoring Pharm is a capital offense in Deanland.

It only takes a minute before Pharm’s phone is buzzing in his hand, and Dean’s voice is once again the star of the table.

“He didn’t pick up for me either,” he says.

They all take a moment to let that sink in.

“I haven’t heard about anything happening in London on the news,” Pharm says.

“I haven’t heard anything from his parents, either,” Dean adds.

But Team hears them as if through ten feet of water, muffled and far away. Because Win didn’t answer. Not for him, not for Pharm, and not for Dean. This is more than Win being mad or ignoring him.

Something has to be wrong. Something has to have happened.

He doesn’t realize his hands have started shaking until Manaow reaches over and takes one of them in her own.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” she says, darting a glance at Pharm. “Maybe his phone broke or he just got really busy with classes.”

Pharm takes the phone off speaker and presses it to his ear. He says few final words to Dean, then hangs up and walks around the table to sit on Team’s other side.

“Dean is going to make a few more calls and see if he can find out what happened,” Pharm says. “He’ll call us as soon as he knows.”

Team sets his head down on the edge of the table and stares at the ground, trying to stop the tears. Everything goes a bit fuzzy at the edges.

His thoughts are a kaleidoscope of what ifs and the horrible dawning possibility of a world without Win in it.

Not just a temporarily empty bed and phone calls that are never quite long enough or substantial enough.

No waiting.

No hoping.

Just…gone.

Permanently.

Wordlessly, Team pulls out his own phone and sets it on the table. He stares at it for just a moment, then reaches out and turns it off. Then turns it over. Pharm quietly takes it from his outstretched hand when they stand up to leave.

Left with his own impulses, he’ll check it throughout the day until he’s a nervous wreck.

He’ll have to depend on Pharm.

He follows his friends to their next class, and then walks with them to the courtyard. Pharm puts Team’s phone on the table along with some desserts he brought, and Team gives himself over to the flavors and textures. He waves to them when they leave, and then he drags himself off to his car.

It isn’t until he’s back in his dorm hours later and searching the depths of his backpack that he realizes he didn’t take his phone with him.

He inhales, rubs his forehead, then grimaces when he remembers an infuriating thing from earlier in the day.

At afternoon practice, Pocky could only hold eye contact with him a few seconds. Team tried to show the kid a smile, but it felt more like a grimace. He could tell that the poor guy didn’t intend to shatter Team’s fragile grip on his nonplussed facade, but he didn’t have any kind of dynamic with Pocky before, so there’s nothing to repair now, is there?

Win would know how to deal with it.

Exhaling in a gust, Team says, “Screw this,” and pushes off of his bed.

The thought of decaying in his dorm throughout the weekend, alone all three days, is nearly as repugnant as the absence of Lay’s from their usual shelf had been. He throws some clothes into his backpack along with his toothbrush and his swim goggles and heads out.

In the elevator, he thinks about swinging by campus to look for his phone. In the dark.

Fuck it.

He’s going to do three things this weekend: swim, eat, and sleep. And when he comes back on Tuesday, he’s going to be fine. Maybe he was meant to leave his phone in the courtyard. No technology, no distractions. No chance of seeing upsetting messages from or about Win. Just relaxing. If he can.

It’s a little novel to drive home on a whim like this without telling his parents in advance. The longer he drives and the closer he gets to his parents’ house, the more Team wonders about people who lived before cell phones were so ubiquitous. They’d have to do it this way too. Unannounced, unplanned.

As he exits the highway, Team wonders what would have happened if he and Win lived in a time before cell phones. He wouldn’t have been able to send Win those messages, and Win would’ve heard about it from him directly over the phone. Maybe that would have been better. Team could have calmed down, maybe consulted Pharm and Manaow or Mew or even Pruk or Dean.

Technology has ruined his life.

After he rings the doorbell, shifting his backpack higher onto his shoulder, Team glances back at the yard and the tree branches hanging low and thick with leaves. They hide the road from view, and having that small protective shield against the outside world unknots some of the tension in Team’s shoulders.

His mother opens the door and says, “Teerayu!” with flagrant confusion.

He gives her his most tired and sad expression and whines, “Mooom.”

She’s holding the door open with her bare foot, her pale yellow sundress unrecognizable and probably new. He has to duck a little when she hugs him, and when she asks, “What happened?” in a gently teasing coo, he just grunts with some admitted petulance.

The building pressure in his head eases as she leads the way to his favorite room: the kitchen.

She puts him in a chair and tells him to drink a full glass of water. “Swimming isn’t hydration,” she says. “You don’t drink enough water.”

“You don’t know that,” he says under his breath, but he drinks anyway.

She gives him a narrowed look as she opens the fridge door. “I know my son,” she says. “It was a battle making you drink water when you were a child and a teenager, and I don’t believe for a second that you’ve gotten any better now that you’re twenty.”

Team rolls his eyes. He drinks plenty of water. Win annoys him into doing it all the time.

And of course, thinking about Win is the wrong move.

His mother stacks vegetables on the counter, and ten minutes later there’s peanut oil and shrimp crackling in the wok. As the savory aroma fills the room, his mother asks him, “So what happened?” She gives his empty hands a pointed look and adds, “Where’s your phone?”

Team says, “Oh. Uh. I don’t know. I lost it.”

She continues to stare at him, deftly stirring the contents of the pan without a glance. “You lost it? Where?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ll check when I go back.” A small voice tells him, It won’t be there. You’re going to be carrying your computer around campus to talk to people until you can afford a new one.

He expects her to push, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t ask anything else until she’s put a plate in front of him, sitting down opposite him with one for herself.

“Where’s Dad?” Team asks.

She scoops rice onto her spoon and says, “In Chiang Mai on business. He’ll be back next week. Probably after you go back.”

Team nods, and the remaining tension in his shoulders melts away. The rich, familiar aromas of his mother’s cooking crack something normally unyielding inside him, and as dismal as his mood is, he devours everything she made for him.

At some point, his mother smiles and puts her hand on his head, and he sneaks a smile up at her.

He was right to come home.

That feeling persists all through the evening and into the following morning, granting him an actual decent night’s sleep despite the anxiety still churning in his gut. There were no nightmares, no waking up and reaching for a body that wasn’t there, and for the moment that’s all Team can really ask for.

His mom is already up when he heads downstairs. She stares at him knowingly from the couch as he shoulders his swim bag and grabs a random bag of snack food from the kitchen. He tells her he’s going to the pool and she waves as he lets himself out through the front door.

He might not usually be an early riser—or an early anything, really—but today he aches for the kind of tired clarity that comes from an hour or two spent doing laps and staring into the waving shadows on the pool floor. So he goes, and he swims, and he tries to forget about everything going on in the world around him.

There are no absent boyfriends or forward juniors, no well-meaning friends or missed phone calls. Unwelcome thoughts still bubble to the surface, because of course they do, but the rhythmic motions and cool water help shove them down where it’s easier to ignore them.

He pretends his life is simple and calm, and by the time he emerges from the pool with a pleasant soreness in his muscles that even Win would be proud of, Team feels ready to go back home and face the rest of the day. The familiar locker room reminds him of his childhood, but it’s different enough from the one at his university that his muddled thoughts stay at bay.

When he opens the front door at home, he smells lunch. Garlic and ginger and—his mother looks over her shoulder at the stove and tuts at his damp hair. “Get a towel from the cupboard and finish drying your hair,” she says. “Food will be ready soon.”

Team sighs, long-suffering, and does as he’s told, sitting and scrubbing halfheartedly at his hair as he watches his mother move about the kitchen. She’s another firm connection to his youth. Things were simpler then, and for one brief moment, wistfulness overtakes him.

But nothing could ever replace all that’s happened in the past few years.

No matter what happens, he wouldn’t change any of it.

A plate appears in front of him and he jolts, looking up at his mother with caught-out eyes.

“Now, you’re going to eat your food,” she says, handing him his silverware. “And you’re going to tell me what exactly is bothering you. Is it your grades? Because I can talk to your father. We’ll find a way to tell him. Or did something happen at school?”

Team bites his lip and pokes at the food on his plate in a way he knows is suspicious. He can’t help it. “It’s not my grades,” he says.

His mother waits.

“I guess it’s something at school.”

He glances up at her and finds her watching him with encouragement.

“What happened?” she asks. “I won’t get angry. I just want to understand. No parent likes seeing their child upset.”

“You know how Win’s gone, right?”

“In London.”

Team nods. “Well, the other day a junior from the club kissed me. Just on the forehead, nothing serious, but…” He puts his spoon down and starts picking at a knot in the wood instead. “I told Win about it, and he hasn’t responded. Not to me, or Pharm, or even Dean.” His voice lowers even further. “I don’t know if he’s mad at me, or if something happened to him.”

To his horror, the last words come out uneven and tight, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. He looks away and forces them back through sheer stubbornness, listening as his mother hums thoughtfully across the table.

“You miss him, and you’re frustrated, and you’re scared. And that’s all completely normal,” she says. She taps his knuckles, drawing his attention back to her. “Relationships always take work, and even more so when there’s distance involved.” She stands up and walks around the table, pulling him against her side and petting his hair. He puts an arm around her waist and leans against her.

“It’s only been a couple of days, right? Give it some more time. And if he’s really going to ignore all of you over something small like that—I’ll fly over there and talk to him myself. Your mother’s intimidating when she wants to be.”

Team scoffs, rolling his eyes and burying his face into the soft fabric of her dress to hide his smile. With school starting, Win leaving, Pharm and Dean madly in love, Manaow giddy in her relationship with Pruk—everything he has is dull, and everything he wants is out of reach.

This “something small” has forced him to take a step back and realize that maybe he really isn’t as okay as he thought.

He misses Win, but he didn’t fully register what that meant. How much of his life it’s poisoned.

When he can stand to, he pulls away from his mother and she strokes his hair back from his forehead. As she returns to her seat, he eats, wolfing down every morsel with relish as soon as the first taste hits his tongue.

They’re cleaning up when Team hears a car pull up into the drive, followed by the slam of multiple doors, and footsteps coming up the walk.

Team glances at his mom, but she looks just as puzzled.

“I’m not expecting company,” she says.

She leaves Team standing at the sink to answer the door.

Team’s thinking it’s a wrong address, a request from a neighbor, or maybe one of the local grannies curious about Team’s car in the drive and oh, is he back? Well, look how much you’ve grown!

His cheeks ache with foreboding.

Instead, he hears a low murmur, his mother’s soft exclamation of, “Of course, come in!” and then Manaow’s unmistakable shriek of, “Team! Where are you, you heartbroken puppy!”

Team leaves the kitchen with his mouth open in an unasked question, fully unprepared to see Manaow standing in his living room, her hands on her hips, wearing the ominous scowl of someone who’s about to stomp over and hug him or smack him. Or both.

He puts the couch between them.

Then he sees Pharm and Dean in the doorway, behaving like actual, civilized people. They politely greet his mom and glance at Team over her shoulder.

Team and Dean lock eyes for one, brief moment, and Team flushes, feeling like a chastised child.

Once ushered into the living room, Dean takes out his phone, hits a few buttons, then puts it to his ear. “Yeah,” he says, eyes locked on Team. “He’s here.” A pause. “Hold on.”

He offers Team the phone.

When Team makes no move to take it, Manaow says, “It’s Win! He finally called Dean back, but then nobody could get a hold of you. He’s been up all night while we tried to find you!”

“You left your phone in the courtyard,” Pharm adds. “Mew found it this morning.”

As Pharm sets down Team’s phone on the back of the sofa, Team takes Dean’s phone and holds it to his ear. Team’s screen shows multiple missed calls and messages, and Team winces as he says, “Hia?” with caution.

Team, I—we’re not on speaker phone, are we?”

Team shakes his head, halfway convinced he’s hallucinating all of this. His eyes flicker from Pharm to Manaow, to his mom and Dean.

“No, we’re not,” he says.

Win sighs. “Fuck. Team, baby, don’t ever do that again, please. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

Team blinks, rooted to the spot as he watches his mother herd everyone into the kitchen (Pharm dragging Manaow along with him).

“Okay,” Team says. He stares at the front door, marveling at the shift his day has taken in the last five minutes. The sound of Win’s voice—not angry, not angry, not angry—has relieved at least some of his fears, but plenty more still linger, rising from where he buried them.

“‘Okay’? Team, are you—where are you? What’s going on?”

“I’m at home,” Team says. “I just finished lunch.”

“All right, well. I’m glad you’re safe. Did you want to talk about what happened now, or wait until later when we usually talk? You have your phone now, right? Pharm gave it to you?”

Team’s fingers tighten on the phone. “I—yeah. But I don’t—you’re not mad?”

“No, of course I’m not mad. No one knows how susceptible you are in convenience stores better than I do.”

The teasing doesn’t have quite the same feeling as usual, but Team clings to it, allows it to tug him back to the surface as Win likely intended.

“Hia,” he whines.

Win laughs, soft and a little sad through the phone. “I know, I know. I wish I was the only one who knew that about you, but it’s all right. I’ll just have to kiss you extra when I get back. Take you back to the store and scandalize the clerks.”

Team feels his face heat. “Hiaaa,” he whines again, a little louder.

It feels almost like Win is here. Like he never left. It’s so easy for Win to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, and launch immediately into fixing it.

A beat of silence falls between them, one that Win would usually fill with more teasing or smug laughter. This time he just exhales.

“I’m sorry you were worried,” Win says. “I didn’t see your messages when you first sent them. I opened the app under the table while I was in a meeting, and my dad caught me before I could see what you wrote. After the meeting I dropped it from the second floor into the lobby fountain, and the rest of the day became chaos.” He breathes in, longer this time, and then says, “Team, baby, I didn’t know you were upset, or I would have emailed you. By the time my parents told me Dean was looking for me, you weren’t answering your phone.”

Team says, “I left all my electronics at school.”

Win laughs. “Yeah, Pharm told me,” he says. “Well… At least we’ve finally got everything figured out. Even if it took eight other people to do it.”

There’s some rustling, followed by a frustrated groan. “We really need to find another backup plan, because if I have to endure another hour of scolding by Dean and my parents, I’m not sure I’ll survive it.”

Team does some quick mental tallying, then frowns. “Eight?”

“Yeah,” Win says. “My parents, your mom, Pharm, Dean, Manaow, and a couple of other kids from school Manaow had to talk to to get your address. Which, again, maybe me already knowing your address or your mom’s phone number could prevent these kinds of problems in the future.”

Team grimaces. “How often do you expect me to disappear?” he asks.

“Well, I didn’t expect any, so we’re already ahead of my original estimation.”

Team has four sour responses to that, but he elects to choose maturity and settles on, “Fine.”

He sits on the back of the sofa, his own phone cradled in his free hand.

Win’s most recent message says, [Please write back.]

The Siriyothin house is tucked into a quiet nook of the neighborhood, away from people and close to nature. Just beyond the window, the insects have lifted a curtain of whirring sounds, and the serenity of that coupled with the familiar voices of his friends and mother in the kitchen bolster his courage.

“Hia,” he says. “Are you worried?”

“About what?”

Team often wishes that Win could read his mind from England. Win’s regular failure to instantly comprehend the full meaning of Team’s vague questions over the phone is extremely inconvenient.

“This whole long-distance thing,” Team says. He studies his knees, running his thumb over the scratched-up side of his phone case. “People break up all the time because they can’t see each other. I think I wouldn’t have freaked out about that kid if you were here. Knowing you’re over there and you’re not coming back soon is…hard.”

Win doesn’t say anything right away, and Team simultaneously hates the silence and appreciates the consideration motivating it to exist in the first place.

When Win answers, he just says, “It’s hard for me, too.”

Team can’t think of anything to say back, and he realizes it’s because he was expecting a solution.

But Win doesn’t have one.

They’re just kind of…stuck.

“Do you want to talk again later after everyone leaves?” Win offers.

Team licks his lips. Win has a life over there now, and obligations that have nothing to do with his boyfriend still in university. Win can’t live in constant service to his overseas boyfriend, no matter how much Team secretly wishes he could.

He should say no, shouldn’t he?

“I’d like it,” Win says. “If we could. If you want.”

Something cool like relief and enveloping like warmth overtake him, and Team smiles.

“Yeah. I do. Okay.”

They hang up soon after, and Team walks back into the kitchen in a contented haze. When Manaow yanks Pharm’s phone out of Pharm’s hand and photographs Team’s face, Team startles.

“What was that? Why’d you do that?” he asks, scowling.

Manaow ignores him, focused on the screen.

Pharm, nonplussed at the theft, gives Team a wry smile. “I think she wants to show Win something.”

Sure enough, when Team glances down at his own screen, a message from Win is waiting.

[I didn’t realize you made that face outside the bedroom.]

Team hates his friends and his boyfriend.

Practice continues to be awkward.

Pocky has friends, but they’re all younger than Team and seem to be slightly intimidated by him. They keep their collective distance socially, but Team still tries to help them with the kind of technical advice and encouragement Dean and Pruk once gave him. (He spares them all Win’s style of coaching, because Win was a demon on purpose and Team is still suspicious of how much of that was Win’s way of flirting through torture.)

On the few occasions Team has to talk to Pocky directly, he tries to keep it short and kind, if not particularly friendly. It’s not so different from how he was before, and certainly not so much that anyone mentions it to him as an issue.

... It’s just that Pocky jumps when Team calls his name, and nods a little too eagerly when Team gives him suggestions.

It’s making Team feel kind of old in addition to guilty, like he has a kid he scolded too harshly.

When he tells Win, “I think I traumatized him,” Win only laughs and says, “Not all of us are brave enough to face you at your grumpiest.”

So, again. Unhelpful, torturous boyfriend.

“How do I fix it?” Team whines.

“It’s not up to you to fix,” Win says. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Yeah, but he’s... awkward.”

“Is he being rude?”

“No.”

“Is it affecting his swimming?”

“No.”

“Is it something you can control?”

 

“N—” Sneaky jerk. “Okay, fine, I get it.”

“Good. Get some sleep. Oh, hey, have you checked your mail yet?”

Team frowns. “What did you send me?”

“Who said I sent you something? Spoiled brat.”

Without dignifying that with words, Team grunts and pushes himself out of bed. Sighing the whole way to the door, he kicks his sandals on and makes as much noise as possible as he opens and shuts his door, shuffles into the hallway, and jabs the elevator button door.

“I didn’t mean you had to check now,” Win says, laughing.

“Well, too late,” Team grumps. “It’s hot out here. What did you send me? I don’t know if I want to go all the way down there for it.”

“The mailbox is four steps from the elevator, you lazy lump.”

“I’m not lazy! I swam more than you did today.”

“Are you in the elevator yet?”

“Yeah. Jerk.”

“Ungrateful little jerk. I’m going to tell the postman to take it back.”

“Nooo,” Team groans. “I want the stupid thing.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“Well, now I’m in the elevator, so I want it.”

He’s fairly sure that ten years from now, this sort of exchange won’t have evolved all that much.

When the doors open, Team drags his sweat-dampened self over to the mailbox and punches in his combination while grumbling. Win laughs at him the entire time, and Team keeps grumbling even though he’s actively fighting a smile now.

There is, indeed, something stuffed into his mailbox: a soft white package folded in half to fit in the compartment. When Team pulls it out, the crinkling noise must travel through the phone.

“Ahh, good,” Win says. “I got the email saying it’d been delivered.”

“Why didn’t you lead with that?” Team demands. Then, because he’s intrigued, “What is it?”

“Why would I tell you that when you’re holding it in your hands? Open it.”

“Ugh, but I only have one hand free.”

“So go upstairs, put me on speaker, and open it. Better yet, video call me.”

“This is getting really involved and complicated, hia.”

You’re involved and complicated. Go open the gift I sent you, you nuisance.”

Team smirks and heads back to the elevator. “Fine.” He may have to suffer the heat alone, but he can at least share some of his annoyance.

It takes six minutes to return to his room, hang up, open the video call app, and set up his phone in a way that’ll make it easy for Win to watch the whole unwrapping process. It’s afternoon in London, and Win’s sprawled in bed with his phone held above him.

Team tries very hard (and fails) not to think about how many times he’s seen Win from that angle in person, and more importantly, how comfortable Win is to nap with in the afternoon.

Team retrieves a knife from the kitchen (“Please don’t cut yourself”) and jabs the package (“Hey! Careful! You don’t know what’s in there!”) until he can tear it open with both hands (“I’m never sending you anything again”) and see what’s inside.

The sweatshirt in Team’s hands feels more expensive than anything Team owns, and Team assumes it’s also more expensive than any combination of two things he owns. It’s black with white script and he vaguely recognizes the brand name as something Manaow will gasp at when she sees him wearing it.

Which he plans to do immediately.

Win’s grinning when Team pulls the sweatshirt over his head.

“Thought you were hot,” Win says softly.

“It’s air conditioned in here,” Team mutters.

Win says nothing to that, but he seems inordinately pleased with Team’s reaction.

“How’s it look?” Team asks. He pushes his chair back and stands, pulling on the hem and tugging the sleeves over his hands.

Win gives him a fond smile. “It’s fine. You make it look better,” he says.

Team says, “Shut up,” and rubs his mouth.

“Lemme see your smile.”

“I’m not smiling.”

“Team, c’mon.”

“No. Don’t you have class?”

“It’s astounding how shy you can be after all I’ve seen—”

Hia!

Time passes and things get incrementally less awkward at practice. Pocky still skirts around him at times, grimacing wherever Win comes up in conversation, but he’s also been glued to his phone more, looking at it and smiling instead of escaping Team’s sight like a startled minnow escaping a shark’s jaws.

It’s nice.

It means Team has one less thing to worry about. It means he can focus more on his own training, on his own classes and, of course, on whatever long-distance harassment Win is inflicting on him that day.

Even with thousands of miles between them, Win’s methods of encouragement still manage to be draconian at best. He wants Team to be healthy and do well, but that translates to nagging. Fewer chips, more sleep, and more studying and training instead of playing games on his phone.

It’s torture, truly, and Team makes sure to remind Win of his human rights violations every chance he gets.

It’s gotten easier to deal with the distance, but Team still finds himself regularly wishing that Win were closer. On a weekly—if not daily—basis. He misses walking around shops together, going out to eat together, hanging out with their friends together... and he really misses being able to touch him. Or, more accurately, for Win being able to touch him.

He didn’t appreciate or even realize just how much he’d come to crave all the ways Win picks and pokes at him until he left.

And now Team wants Win’s arm slinging around his neck and Win’s fingers pinching his cheek nearly as much as he wants Win’s warmth beside him in bed at night. It’s a problem. And Team’s not about to admit it, even if Win’s knowing eyes on the other side of the phone say he already has a pretty good idea.

The sweatshirt Win sent has become a staple piece—even though Manaow coos and shrieks every time she sees him wear it. It makes Team feel just that little bit closer to Win, and it’s why he’s wearing it now, nearly half a year later and on his way to the airport to pick up Win for his visit home.

Team’s only allowed the privilege because Win’s parents saw him more recently when they visited him in London back in November. Team had been jealous at the time, but now he’s just glad he gets to do this. The whole drive feels a little surreal, as part of him is convinced something terrible has happened. Maybe Win’s flight was cancelled. Maybe he decided to stay in London after all.

Team tugs the sweatshirt sleeves a little more firmly over his fingers as he walks through the automatic doors and into the arrivals area of the airport. He checks the board and confirms that, yes, Win’s flight is still on schedule and should be arriving within the hour.

Team’s heart beats a little faster.

He checks his phone and confirms that, yes, Win’s message from nearly twelve hours ago still says: [Boarding now, see you soon!]

Fidgeting with his sleeves, Team finds a chair and slouches down in it. He plays an RPG game on his phone but he can’t concentrate, getting swiftly murdered again and again until he has to concede defeat and switch to a mindless puzzle game. His eyes dart between the arrivals board and Win’s Line chat, his mind sluggish with a perplexing low-grade panic.

Win’s flight lands.

Team stabs at the moving pieces on his screen a little harder. Why does he feel so nervous? It’s Win.

When people start pouring out of the arrival gate, Team closes his phone and shoves it into his pocket as he stands. He’s in the seating area and about fifty people mill around in the wide space between him and the gate, but he still sees Win as soon as he steps out. Even with his blond hair dyed back to its natural color, Win’s beauty still draws attention.

He’s wearing a sweatshirt that matches Team’s—because of course he is. Win’s is white with black script and it looks cruelly good on him. It also looks cruelly good in his profile picture—which matches the one he bullied Team into making. (Manaow screamed, had her mouth covered by Team, and then ran across the courtyard so she could keep screaming while Team chased after her.)

While Team’s been staring at his boyfriend, dazed, Win has been scanning the crowd. When his eyes find Team, he grins.

It’s smug and playful and intolerable—but tears still sting the corners of Team’s eyes at the sight of it.

There’s a brief temptation to run and hide in his car, but it’s a temptation Team’s outgrown, and besides: Win is already walking over. He stops his suitcase next to him and ducks his head to catch Team’s downturned eyes.

“Hey,” Win says, one hand reaching out to tug at Team’s elbow. “I like your sweatshirt. Where’d you get it?”

Team says, “Someone gave it to me,” with an admirably steady voice. He shoots Win a glare and wipes at his cheeks with the back of his other hand.

Win hums, looking smugger by the second. “Oh really? Must be someone really nice.”

“No.” Team sniffles, loud and gross. But he doesn’t move away when Win steps closer. “They’re an asshole. I don’t even like it.”

He scowls into Win’s shoulder as arms wrap around him and bring him in. Giving up entirely, Team hides his face in the soft fabric there and figures any snot and tears he stains it with are just his own fair retribution.

“Well, now I know you’re a liar and a brat.”

Team grunts and squeezes his side with both hands. He makes a lukewarm show of trying to get away, but he nestles in closer at once when Win tightens his arms. It feels so easy. Like Win never really left.

Win kisses the top of his head. “I missed you.”

Team lets out another noise, this one shakier.

“I said I missed you,” Win repeats, poking at Team’s side. “You’re supposed to say it back.”

Team whines, buries his face deeper against Win’s neck. “Hia.”

“Hm?” Win asks. “What was that? Missed me so much you’re beyond words?”

At that, Team really does push him away, wipes the last tears from his face and grabs Win’s suitcase, dragging it toward the parking garage.

It only takes Win a moment to come striding after him.

“Team?” he asks, trying to see his face.

But Team is determined. He ignores Win at his side until they make it all the way to a more secluded area of the parking garage before he swings around and marches right into Win’s space. The fabric of Win’s sweatshirt is just as soft as his own when he grabs it and uses it to haul Win down so he can press their lips together in a kiss that sends sparks fizzling all the way down to his toes.

He only lets it last a moment, knows that’s all he can do without risking it devolving into something unsuitable for a parking lot. As soon as he feels the first brush of Win’s tongue against his lips, he pulls away.

He says, “Hia,” and enjoys Win’s startled eyes. He gets up on his toes and kisses Win’s forehead, rocking back down with a small smile of his own. “I missed you.”

And then Team turns away, towing Win’s bag to his car filled with contentment and bridled excitement. The sooner they get on the road the better.

Win recovers and catches up, sliding into the passenger’s seat and staring out the windshield while Team maneuvers them out onto the road.

“Team,” he finally says. “Can we stop by the convenience store?”

Team glances over at him, amused. “Why?”

Not that he’s complaining. Win sounds a little weird, is all. He’s acting a little weird, too, staring at Team with a look that would be slightly unnerving if Team didn’t know him so well.

…No, it’s still unnerving.

“We need to go back to that convenience store so I can kiss you in front of a row of Lay’s,” Win says solemnly. “Right now.”

“R-right now? You don’t want to go back to the apartment or—”

“No. I’ll buy you as many Lay’s as you want. Right now.”

An event that happened months ago shouldn’t encroach upon their alone time in bed, but Team isn’t going to refuse an offer like that—and Win knows it. Knows exactly what treat to dangle to make Team a willing participant.

Thirty-six minutes later, Team walks into the fluorescently lit store. The chips are back where they should be, and the yellow packaging sets a perfect contrast to the soft, black strands of Win’s hair.

It’s different, and it’s better, because it’s a sign of time passing, but they’re still together.

Team already has two bags in each hand when Win kisses his forehead, exactly the way he did the first time.

But his mouth lingers a little longer than Team remembers, his lips turning up into a smirk that has Team peering up at him in confusion. And that’s when Win drops down to kiss him full on the mouth, one hand steady on the back of Team’s neck as he makes a scene in front of the entire refrigerated section.

Team’s world slants into discordant perfection.

He doesn’t even complain when Win goes back in for an extra peck on the cheek before pulling away and reaching for Team’s chips.

“C’mon,” he says. “I’m paying. Go get a few more.”

And that, Team thinks, is love.

 

Coda

Pocky comes from a proud line of fanboy siblings. His older brother is obsessed with a kpop star, his younger brother is devoted to a Thai actor, and he, Pocky, has—until recently—believed himself to be Team Teerayu Siriyothin’s number one fan.

Until the universe saw fit to correct him on that.

What number one fan would mistake the relationship status of their idol?

Even now, months after his glaring overstep in the convenience store, Pocky can’t understand what he was thinking. He’d kept such diligent mental notes—the seniors said Win was going abroad and probably wouldn’t be coming back, and he assumed they had better intel than he did.

He’s kicking himself for that now.

“Well, university’s supposed to teach you how to do proper research,” Kale tells him.

Pocky sulks for a few seconds—a record—and then sighs. “I guess I just wanted him to be single, so I let myself believe gossip.”

Kale pats his shoulder, then his head.

The night they met was probably the lowest point of Pocky’s life: hearing from Manaow that Team had gone missing, and immediately calling upon the members of Team’s fan page to assist in finding him. It’s possible that Pocky jumped to the most logical conclusion—that Team was lying in a ditch on fire—and it’s also possible that his post’s dire wording reflected his urgency. A few members commented encouragement and concern, but no helpful information, and then Kale commented, “I know his mother’s address. Send me a private message.”

Pocky has been a member of Team’s fan page for over a year, and he’d never seen Kale comment on anything before that day.

Turns out, Kale went to high school with Team, and after Team posted a meme to Twitter as if he hadn’t gone missing and created a trauma tornado for his fans, the relief allowed Pocky to message Kale and ask, [Want to hang out and talk about Team? lol]

Kale agreed, and they ended up spending the entire next day together.

They didn’t talk about Team at all.

(“To be honest, I only joined his fan page because I thought you were cute,” Kale admits.

Pocky absorbs that, mulls on it, and says, “We’re definitely meant for each other.”)