Metronome

by Hana Chikai (羽名血海)
illustrated by tashigi

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/54743.html)

Benjamin Ong should be the model instead of the one behind the scenes. Clad in a pair of Levis 501s, a lavender Calvin Klein shirt and a black jacket of his own design, the twenty-four year old designer is every inch the epitome of a pretty boy, with a warm smile, glowing skin and perfectly-styled brown hair (psst – he spends 25 minutes on his crowning glory every morning! How’s that for metro?).

And as if good looks and talent (he plays the guitar and piano, and has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Media Design) weren’t enough, the self-professed caffeine junkie, who was on his third coffee of the day during this interview, co-owns a successful online clothing shop with his best friend and business partner, Ridhuan bin Ahmad.

The prettyboy designer in question pushed the makeshift plywood door open and paused as the fluorescent vibrance of the mall hit him like a giant squeaky rubber hammer. He blinked hard as he descended the escalators to the bustle of Orchard Road. Maybe he’d hop over to Starbucks for a much-needed coffee – he hadn’t had any that morning because Dhuan had manhandled him out of bed and into the dim interior of the shop at seven, and hadn’t let him leave until the whole back wall was painted.

“Why he couldn’t at least help, I don’t know,” Ben muttered, skulking within the shadows of the overhanging trees. His eyes still hadn’t adjusted from the gloom of the shop, which was encased in plywood – “New Exciting Shop Opening Soon!” emblazoned across the front along with the shop logo – to the glaring sunlight of noon in central Singapore.

As the familiar green and white logo loomed, Ben cheered up considerably. A good strong cup of coffee would cure the pounding ache at the back of his head, he decided. Maybe he’d try that weird banana stuff that they’d been promoting rec—

With a crash, he found himself staring at the cloudless sky and half a human face.

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry!” The face, or at least the half of it that Ben was aware of pulled back and revealed itself to be attached to another half, as well as a neck and a body. “I didn’t see you at all! So sorry, so sorry!” The boy – he couldn’t have been older than twenty, Ben observed rather detachedly – stood and reached a hand down from very far away. Damn, he was tall. “Here, I’ll pull you up.”

Ben grabbed the hand and was hauled to his feet. The boy was looking at him worriedly through a pair of spectacles that Ben instinctively wanted to grab and smash – the frames were sort of tarnished and in an extremely unflattering shape that had gone out of fashion ten years ago. It was a mad shame, since the kid was really very good-looking. In a geeky sort of way. “Are you ok? Did you hit your head?”

“No, I’m fine.” Ben dusted himself off. “Do watch where you’re going, next time.”

The boy nodded vigorously and opened his mouth to say something. Then he caught sight of something on Ben’s person, closed his mouth in surprise, and then asked, “Where did you get your jacket?”

“Huh?” Ben looked down. “Oh, this one? I made it myself.”

“Really? Do you take commissions?”

Now that was a strange question to be getting from someone who looked like they didn’t know the difference between DKNY and CK. “I have a shop, actually,” Ben said, tugging out his card holder and flipping a business card out to hand to the boy. “Call me and we’ll discuss something?” he suggested.

“Sounds good,” the boy agreed enthusiastically. “Benjamin Ong, huh? Hi, I’m Ming Wei.” He stuck his hand out and grinned. Benjamin shook it, feeling nonplussed. “Anyway, I’m late for something, so sorry for knocking you over, I’ll call you soon, bye!” And then he was gone.

Ben blinked. Then the sound of the espresso machine reminded his head just why it was dependent on that little cup of steaming java, and he headed into the coffee shop.

.

If you’re dying to have your boyfriend actually dress to your standard on dates for once, or just look good 24/7, check out the shop at www.metronome.com.sg! The user-friendly shopping system was designed by Ridhuan, and makes buying that perfect shirt easy even for the technophobe.

The shop offers not only off-the-shelf pieces that suit every body type (which means that there is hope for those manboobs), it also has a special tailoring service that Benjamin and Ridhuan started unofficially when in junior college.

“My parents migrated to Australia for work when I was sixteen, so I was stuck doing my own sewing,” Benjamin explained, and then launched into a story about how the pants he bought in his first year of JC turned out to be too big. “I figured out how to alter them on my own. I took a few seams in, tucked some cloth in at places, and suddenly I had the best-fitting pants on campus.

“The idea of selling this service was more Dhuan’s than mine; he’s the brains of the business. It started off with getting your uniform to flatter you without breaking any school rules, then I branched into altering, and then making street clothes. There wasn’t much looking back after that.”

With this, your guys will never have an excuse to be sloppy on your anniversary night. Look out for the brick-and-mortar version of Metronome, which is set to open at the Heeren Shops sometime next month.

The trippy beats of the Tokyo Drift theme song echoed through the small space, and Ben flung his paint roller at Dhuan and rushed to answer the phone.

“Hello?” he said breathlessly after a brief struggle to open the clamshell mobile with his paint-stained hands. He knew he should have gotten the regular design after all.

“Uh, hi, is this Benjamin Ong?” The voice was oddly familiar, even though the number on his caller ID was not in his phone book.

“Yes, speaking. Can I help you?” Was it a reporter? No, so far all the reporters who had interviewed him were female; Dhuan insisted it was because Ben was small and pretty and therefore attracted the girls. Ben often retorted that he maintained the small and pretty to attract the guys.

“Hi! I’m Ming Wei, I knocked you down in front of Starbucks on Saturday?”

“Oh. Hello. Um, can I help you?” Ben repeated. The kid had liked his jacket, he recalled.

“Yes, I was asking about a commission for the jacket, if you remember?” There was a rustling noise as if Ming Wei was settling the phone between his face and shoulder. “Would you be interested?”

“Sure,” he said to Ming Wei. “Would you like to meet up to discuss it further? I need to sketch it out for you to see, anyway.”

He could hear the boy’s grin through the phone. “Oh, sure! Um, whenever you’re free! I have reference pictures, actually.”

“That’s even better,” Ben said agreeably. They ended up settling on the coming Friday, at the Starbucks which they had first met.

Friday evening found Ben morosely stirring his fourth coffee of the day, watching a group of schoolgirls giggle in a corner. Over him, no doubt. Why couldn’t the schoolboys giggle over him instead? He hated Friday nights; people came out in swarms and made noise and generally got on his nerves.

“Um, Benjamin, right?” Ben looked up. And up some more; the boy really was too tall.

He got to his feet and offered his hand. “Yes. Ming Wei, am I correct?”

Ming Wei shook his hand cheerfully. “Yep! You can call me Ming, actually.” They both sat, and Ben asked if Ming would like a drink. “Uh, no thanks, I’m not a big fan of coffee,” came the reply.

There was a momentary pause. Ben cleared his throat and reached into his bag for his sketchbook. “You mentioned reference pictures, right?” As good a start as any, he decided. He didn’t really feel like wasting time with idle chitchat.

Ming reached into his bag – an imitation Crumpler messenger pack, Ben observed out of habit – and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “I scanned and enlarged the pictures,” he told Ben, placing the stack on the table. “Um, have a look?”

Ben had been expecting scans of a fashion spread in a magazine, or at least photocopies of a poster ad. He found, instead, a black-and-white drawing of a guy in a black trench coat.

“This…” he began, then paused, not knowing what to say. “Uh, may I ask what this is for? I mean. I don’t often get people asking me to design something based on… is this a comic?”

Ming nodded. “It’s a Japanese comic called Air Gear,” he explained. “I’m supposed to cosplay this guy.” He pointed at the person in the coat. “Er, do you know what cosplay is?”

Ben had seen a few news stories on the hobby, and had thought it consisted mostly of gothic make up and girls in frilly dresses. He didn’t know there were normal-looking people as well. “It’s something like a costume party, isn’t it?” he ventured, shuffling the papers and looking through the drawings. It was a pretty straightforward design, and Ben could see why Ming had asked about his own jacket. The general feel of it was about the same, except that Ben’s certainly didn’t have those exaggerated coat tails.

“Well, sort of.” The three words were said in the long-suffering tone of someone used to other people messing up the pronunciation of his name. “So… would you like to do it?”

“It’s simple enough. Do you have any particular fabric in mind?”

“Uh, feel free to suggest something.”

Ben looked at the top picture again. “I think I know what to use. I could get it for you at a discounted rate, actually. What sort of lighting would you be in? And what about the rest of your outfit? … Are those rollerblades?”

Ming laughed, and Ben decided that if he had anything to do about it, those glasses were going to have to go. Ming was tall, slender, kind of pale, and had nice hair; he really was a good-looking kid, all in all, and Ben was not going to allow one of his creations to be on a body belonging to a face that was quite that… dorky-looking.

“Are you planning to change your glasses to a pair like this?” he asked, tapping the picture.

“Yep. I’ll be collecting them in a couple of days.” He grinned at Ben. “Those aren’t really rollerblades, actually,” he continued. “They’re called Air Trek, and have little motors in them that let these guys,” he picked up the top sheet and circled a group of scruffy-looking characters with his finger, “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

illustrated by tashigi

It sounded weird, Ben decided, but it wasn’t a bad kind of weird. Besides, if it made Ming change his glasses, it couldn’t be bad.

“Oh, and to answer your questions, the lighting is pretty crappy indoor lighting unless I head into the sunlit areas or outside, and the rest of my outfit is, as you can see, rather normal. I already have it all, except for the jacket.” Ming looked up at Ben, who smiled back at him.

“Well then,” Ben said. “If you really want to get me to make this for you, I’ll need your measurements.” He looked around. “I don’t think this is the most conducive place for taking them. Uh, we could go over to my shop.”

Ming agreed, so Ben drained his coffee and they strolled over to the mall. “How old are you?” he asked the taller boy out of curiosity. He had mentioned classes, after all.

“Nineteen in September,” Ming replied. “You?”

“Twenty-four next month. So you’re in… junior college? Poly?”

“I’m studying finance,” Ming said, and named one of the polytechnics. “I think I’ve seen an article on you in the papers before, actually. You have that online shop, right?”

Ben nodded, and unlocked the plywood door. “This is the offline one,” he told Ming. “Please excuse the mess, we’re still in the process of setting up.” They entered the shop, and Benjamin flipped the lights on. The lights had been installed earlier that week, and it made painting a lot easier. Plus, they tripped less.

“Nice,” Ming marvelled. “I like that blue.” He hovered in the doorway until Ben told him to put his bag in a corner and stand over by the counter.

The measurements were taken and noted down, and Ben did a few quick sketches of the coat. Ming pottered around the shop, flipped briefly through the small plantation of magazines that Dhuan had been cultivating, and then asked if he could help with anything. “I mean, after all, you’re doing the tailoring for me,” he explained. “And maybe I could help you in return.” He gave Ben a sunny smile, and Ben felt himself smiling back. The boy really was endearing.

“I am charging you for it, you know,” Ben said wryly. “I’ll let you know if you can help, though. When do you need this jacket?”

Ming was engrossed in a glossy feature about cars. “Huh? Oh. I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? Sorry. The event’s in three weeks’ time.”

Ben mulled over this. He usually set a timeframe of a month, especially with the shop opening in a week (the official opening was in little over a month, but Dhuan had insisted on a trial run before the press descended). He told Ming as such, and added, “That means I need to finish this in two, giving some time allowance for alterations if necessary.” He eyed Ming, who looked back at him nervously. “But since you’re so cute, I’ll get it done for you at no extra charge,” Ben finished.

Ming started. “Um. Thanks?” he ventured warily.

Maybe he should have just gone with the other reason of this being such a unique project and thus warranting the lack of extra charge. He’d forgotten how prudish Singaporeans could be. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“Huh? Oh! Oh, no, that’s all right.” Ming laughed softly, and the tension eased. “I just feel bad about making you rush it, and then not paying for it.”

Ben finished his drawings and passed the book to Ming to look through and approve. “No worries,” he told the younger boy. “It’s a refreshing change from my usual work, anyway.” Plus, the fact that Ming hadn’t been too bothered with his flirting was worth absorbing the extra charge.

.

Most of us have caught an episode or two of anime (Japanese animation) on local television, or have tried our hand at the latest instalment of Final Fantasy with our gaming consoles. Some fans of these manga (Japanese comics), anime and games take their interests a step further, and transform themselves into their favourite characters.

The cosplay, or costume play scene in Singapore is growing beyond the imaginations of the hobby’s original participants, and, twice a year, hundreds of fans in colourful costumes congregate at various locations to enjoy a day of make-believe.

This dressing-up is definitely not just for children, though, as most cosplayers would not hesitate to tell you. Each costume, including wigs, accessories, props and replica weaponry, can take up to three months to plan out and prepare. Depending on material and detail, one costume can cost up to several hundreds of dollars.

The jacket had needed very few alterations, and in the rush of suddenly having to run a physical shop as well as an online one, Ben had forgotten about the cosplay event altogether. Ming had dropped by the shop once after the soft launch to collect the jacket, ended up buying a shirt at a huge discount at Ben’s insistence, and then hadn’t contacted Ben since.

Which is why the text message from Ming came as a surprise when Ben’s phone beeped on Thursday afternoon, a week after he had completed the jacket.

hi ben! e cosplay event’s in 2 dys, hv been rly busy w preparin, sry i disappeared wout a trace. wld u like to come tk a look?” The message then ended with the time and location of the event.

Ben stared at his phone, and spent three minutes deciphering each word. Finally, he replied, “Sure, I’ll see you there at two.

The entire area turned out to be crowded and noisy, and Ben weaved his way through countless funny-looking people, apologising non-stop as he got in the way of a lot of photographs. Half of the attendees had make up so thick that it was hard to tell if they were smiling at each other, posing for photos, or grimacing from the heat.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. Turning and expecting Ming, Ben found himself face to face with a girl – well, possibly a girl; he couldn’t tell with these people – in a short white wig and what looked like a martial arts outfit. Benjamin didn’t know martial arts outfits came with white coats over them, though. It made the person looked a bit like a crazy ninja doctor.

“Can I have a picture of you?” she, or possibly he asked, beaming in a rather creepy way. Ben noticed more and more people swarming towards him, and tried to back away.

“Uh, I’m not in a costume,” he said apologetically, holding up his hands and taking another panicked step backwards.

The person continued smiling. “It’s ok! I just want a picture of you.” He or she held up a camera, which was, unfortunately, not covered in pink rhinestones, which would have given Ben a clue as to what sex this person was.

He relented, if only out of mild fear that the person would karate chop his head off if he didn’t agree (later, when relating this story and getting laughed at for his lack of imagination, he would argue that he was a fashion designer, not a poet). “Um, ok then,” he said.

It turned out to be a really big mistake, as the one photo turned into ten million others as other people in even stranger costumes and hairdos came up to snap pictures. He wasn’t even dressed that nicely, Ben thought in despair, as people bowed and thanked him and– was that a Pikachu taking his picture?!

“Ben?”

Ben whirled around. Salvation! He moved in the general direction of Ming’s voice, his vision a peculiar shade of dark green from the camera flashes. “I’ll be right with you,” he said, stifling the urge to stick his hands out and feel his way to his friend. “Just let my eyes clear a… little…”

He stared. Green spots drained from his eyes like dirty water from a pond, and Ming was staring back at him, looking slightly startled and, Ben had to admit, extremely good. Previously, when they’d done the fitting, Ming had been in his usual T-shirt and jeans ensemble and therefore hadn’t exactly done much justice to the jacket. Ben had asked him to wear the rest of the costume to ensure a proper fit, but Ming had insisted that the T-shirt was fine.

Now, however, Ming was wearing a pair of black pants that made his legs look even longer, and… Ben’s train of thought derailed as he took in the fact that Ming was wearing absolutely nothing resembling a top under the jacket, save for an intricate tattoo-like design of mechanical gears.

“Are you not wearing a shirt?” he demanded, thankful that his voice didn’t squeak. He definitely didn’t remember seeing a lack of shirt in the manga printouts that Ming had given him, damned drawings and their lack of detail.

Ming grinned sheepishly. “It’s part of the costume,” he said. “Or rather, not a part. I did have to sit still for fifteen minutes to get this drawn on, though.” He tugged one lapel of the jacket aside to show off the gear design, which was, admittedly, very well done.

Ben had flirted with Ming a few times since the first line at the shop, but he certainly hadn’t meant any harm with it. Now, however, he was pretty certain he’d never be able to toss silly pick-up lines at Ming again without actually meaning most of them.

“Oh, is this the friend you were looking for?”

Someone with blindingly red-orange hair laid a slender hand on Ming’s shoulder, and smiled at Ben, who smiled uneasily back. This newcomer, who was again of indeterminate sex, was looking at him the way mad scientists look at the unconscious victim on their operating table.

“Yep,” Ming said to the person, whom Ben decided was a guy. He was wearing somewhat normal shoes, and yet was almost Ming’s height. Girls just didn’t grow that tall, did they? “This is Benjamin,” he told the redhead.

“Hi, I’m Yan.” Ben shook Yan’s hand, and felt strangely uneasy. Maybe it was the way Ming was fixing Yan’s jacket collar from behind in a really familiar way, though it was probably the way Yan was still smiling at him in that creepy scrutinising way. “Ming’s talked about you quite a bit.”

“Is that so? What has he been saying?” The atmosphere was slightly strained, and their only common ground had been accosted by several girls in frilly black dresses for photos.

Yan’s smile grew wider. “Oh, this and that. He mentioned…” He paused as someone came up to him and asked if he would join Ming in the photo taking. “Excuse me for a moment, Ben.”

Ben stood back and watched as Ming, Yan, and the rest of their group stood very still for at least five minutes on end as camera flashes popped. It looked slightly painful, especially the few in front who were doing really strange poses. He found his gaze sliding back to Ming over and over, though. The boy was normally a lanky teenager with a sunny disposition and messy hair that Ben itched to run his fingers through. Throw a coat on, cut the hair and switch the glasses, however, and Ben stared as the awkwardness slipped away and Ming was suddenly self-assured and wearing a smirk that Ben wanted to nibble at.

Then the photographers disappeared and so did the aura of cool that Ming had wrapped around himself for that duration. “So sorry,” Ming apologised, walking over to Ben, who snapped out of his reverie. “These events are hell to meet people in. I keep getting ambushed for pictures.” He looked as if he had no idea why people did that.

Ben chuckled and reached out to brush off a stray piece of fluff from Ming’s lapel – it had probably floated over from Yan’s collar. As he did so, Ming noticed the lint and reached up, and their fingers collided.

“Oh, sorry.” Ben tugged his hand back, and put the sudden blush on Ming’s face down to the fact that a member of his team, a guy with spiky black hair and dressed in a leather jacket with a really cool insignia at the back, was currently mooning a couple of photographers.

The rest of the day was spent in a similar fashion, with Ben hanging around the team unless they were asked for photos. Once or twice, Ben was asked for photos as well, much to his bewilderment and Ming’s amusement. “You’re the prettiest person here,” he explained, as half his team nodded vigorously behind him. “Plus, your outfit’s really cool.”

Ben looked at his top, which had once been two shirts; he had gotten bored one day and gone wild with his scissors, which had led to a strategically ripped and layered tunic-like top. He didn’t think his jeans were particularly special, though; they were just his regular pair. “Um, thanks,” he said anyway.

The smouldering afternoon gave way to a cloudier evening, and the event drew to a close. Ben watched in amazement as wigs were shed, makeup was removed, and outfits were changed, and everyone started to look normal again. Some of the team members didn’t change out of their costumes, however, and Ben had to stifle the urge to tell Ming to go put on a shirt.

“We’re headed for dinner,” Yan told the group at large. “Anyone coming with us?” Ben noticed that Yan had automatically included Ming in the dinner arrangements, and couldn’t help but be slightly curious. Were they…? But Ming didn’t strike him as gay, unfortunately, despite how well he took Ben’s teasing. Yan, on the other hand, was flaming, hair and character (Ming had given him a brief run-through) notwithstanding.

.

Stepping into this cosy restaurant transports you instantly to the side alleys of Japan, where your order is served piping hot and large enough to feed several people at once. The shoyu (soy sauce) ramen ($X.xx) is their speciality, and no wonder – the noodles are springy without being overly chewy, and the soup has just the right hint of salt and chashu (roast pork slices).

Ben slurped at his noodles and thought they tasted like any other noodles to him, but didn’t say so – Ming had gushed about the ramen so much on the way to dinner that Ben didn’t quite have the heart to say anything other than a non-committal “not too bad”.

“So, Ben,” Yan said casually, after everyone had eaten their fill. Ben wondered just how long the group had gone without food, because he had joined them at around two in the afternoon and didn’t remember seeing any of them consume anything at all. Ming, his spiky-haired friend, and a girl in a blonde wig and white beanie had certainly eaten enough for five people, and were currently discussing dessert.

Yan was still talking to him, and Ben snapped back to attention. “Are you currently studying now or something?”

Ben shook his head. “I have my own shop in Heeren,” he told the redhead. “We started for business a week or so ago, though the official opening’s not till next month. It’s been quite a rush.”

“Ah, yes, Ming mentioned that. I suppose he got that nice shirt from you,” Yan added cheerfully. Then his smile sharpened. “Do you need extra help? Part-time workers, maybe?”

Was Yan offering himself or volunteering Ming? Ben nodded anyway. “Yeah, I think the past week showed us how short-handed we are. Are you looking for a part-time gig?”

“Not really. I have a full-time job. Ming, on the other hand, could do with some proper extra-curricular activities that don’t involve figurines with disproportionate breasts.” Yan grinned. “Plus, a job would help him finance more of such figurines.”

Ming looked over from where he had been debating the merits of the various methods of serving cart ice cream (bread versus wafers) with the blonde. Ben vaguely remembered the two of them taking some very dubious ‘couple’ pictures earlier in the afternoon. Yan had tried to explain the concept of yaoi to Ben, who had decided that, despite being gay, he really didn’t want to know. “What have you been saying to him, sis?” he asked, hand wrapped around his glass of water and the other in the midst of making a point with his chopsticks.

Yan’s grin hadn’t faded. “Simply getting you a job so I can collect my debt from you,” he said happily. “You still haven’t paid me for your last two figurines.”

“I paid for that weird dating game of yours! That should cancel out at least half of it,” Ming protested.

Ben wasn’t listening to the conversation; he was still processing what Ming had first said. Then, as it clicked into place, he burst out, “Wait, what? You’re his sister?!”

Ming blinked, chopsticks still dangling from his fingers. “Um. Yeah. What did you think?”

Ben made a distressed noise. “I don’t know! I thought you were a guy!” he said to Yan, who cracked up. Beside her, Ming looked like he was trying not to smile. The rest of the group, who had been listening in, didn’t quite bother and were outright laughing.

“Don’t worry,” Yan told him amiably. “I get that a lot.” She winked at Ben, and turned the general conversation to Ming’s apparently massive figurine collection, most of which had equally sizeable assets. Ben drank his now-cold tea as he listened to Ming defend his collection, and tried to make his blush subside.

illustrated by tashigi

What’s new this month:

Attracting not just its intended target audience of young independent males who want to dress well, but a whole range of fascinated walk-ins is Metronome, the newest addition to the current line-up at the Heeren Shops.

Benjamin Ong, co-owner of Metronome, credits the shop’s popularity to the fact that it’s new and therefore interesting, but several customers we interviewed seemed to have more than just the merchandise on their minds.

One excited schoolgirl had the staff schedules memorised: “On Mondays there’s that cute kid with the glasses, and Ben’s there almost every day. He’s really friendly and ridiculously pretty.

“The Malay football fan comes in on alternate days – he told me he has one of each version of the Chelsea jersey, and one of each number. And on weekends, that really exotic-looking man comes in. These guys really know how to attract a crowd.”

Dhuan had wholeheartedly approved of Ming joining the team, as the addition allowed him to take a few more days off to do the vast amounts of paperwork involved in a new business. “And he’s a finance student,” Dhuan said to Ben after the obligatory interview. “I’ll finally have someone to help me with the number crunching.”

Ben hadn’t bothered defending himself; he knew where his strengths were, and mathematics was definitely not one of them.

They soon settled into a schedule that accommodated Ming’s classes, Dhuan’s obligations at home, and Ben’s meetings with suppliers. Sometimes, a guy named Pierre came in to help as well – he was an acquaintance of Dhuan’s from weekday evening football games, and had the nicest ass Ben had seen since the rugby captain’s in junior college. When he mentioned this to Ming on a slow Monday afternoon, Ming had not spoken to him for the rest of the day. Ben took this as a good sign.

Before any of them knew it, the grand opening of the shop was upon them, and Ben found himself pacing the shop as they packed up for the night. Behind the counter, Ming was calmly folding a T-shirt and watching Ben chew on his thumbnail. Finally, he said, “Stop pacing and help me fold these shirts instead of biting your thumb off.”

Ben shot him a look of distress. “How did I end up with an entire press conference?” he exclaimed. “I was expecting a nice quiet opening, with a bunch of flowers and maybe a couple of friends, ok, maybe a reporter or two, but I’ve gotten six emails from the press about attending the opening! Six! And that’s not including the regular customers and random walk-ins!” He threw his hands up in the air. “What am I supposed to wear?”

Ming burst out laughing. “I knew that would come up sooner or later,” he said. “Just relax, Ben. It’ll be fine. You look good all the time.” Ben eyed him, but the boy seemed genuine enough. “Anyway,” Ming continued, “all four of us will be there, so there’s not going to be a manpower shortage.”

The next day dawned disgustingly sunny, and Ben had barely changed out of his pyjamas when Dhuan arrived at his house with Ming in the passenger seat. “Good morning, sunshine,” he yelled happily as Ben slumped against the front door and tried not to spill any of his coffee. Dhuan was a morning person; Ben was not, and Dhuan found it infinitely amusing to chirp at a dishevelled Ben at ungodly hours of the morning.

Ming followed Dhuan into the house and winced at the shouting. “Isn’t that going to wake his family up?” he asked.

“Nah, he lives alone.” Dhuan padded into the kitchen and began unloading packets of rice onto the table. “Which is why I have to feed him every morning. Well, partly because my ma said I have to.” He slid a packet over to Ben, who opened it blearily and began eating with a mumbled thank you.

Within six hours, they were swamped with people, and Ben found himself having to talk to three writers for teenage magazines and one tall pretty lady from a local women’s magazine, all at the same time. As he was answering questions about his inspiration, Ming tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a huge cup of steaming Americano.

“And this guy here is my saviour,” Ben finished happily, briefly grasping Ming’s arm in thanks and sipping at the coffee. He promptly scalded his tongue.

The day went by in a blur of cameras, notebooks, flowers, girls with protesting boyfriends and boys with money to spend as long as Ben told them personally which pair of trousers made them look good. Ben caught his best friend rolling his eyes at the third guy in two hours to ask Ben the exact same question about whether khaki looked better with a button-down shirt or a T-shirt-and-jacket combination, and grinned back.

Yan popped by in the evening and bought a few accessories, and Ben thought he saw her eyeing Pierre in the mirror as she tried on a leather choker. Several old classmates came into the shop to say hi, and Dhuan all but threatened them into buying things as well. By eleven, Ben decided that he hated events, and that he would make Dhuan go to any future shop openings in his stead.

“Need a shoulder rub?” Ben heard someone ask from behind him. He was slumped behind the counter with his face against the cool plastic, and lifted his head slightly to see a pair of glasses and a smile.

“If you don’t mind giving me one, I don’t mind needing one,” Ben replied, and let his head drop back onto the counter as Ming’s hands did something rather amazing with that knot just under his neck. “Mm, just a bit lower, please.”

There was a muffled thud from outside, a few choice Malay swear words, and then, “Stop slacking off and help me pack some of these flowers, you losers!”

“We’ll be right out!” The warmth of Ming’s hands slipped from Ben’s shoulders, and he whimpered slightly from the loss. “We’re done here,” Ming murmured, and Ben felt him move a step back.

“Tha-a-anks,” Ben tried to say, a huge yawn dragging his word out. “You’re really good.” He stretched and turned, and found himself barely three inches from Ming. “Um.”

Ming was gazing at him with a slight smile playing about his lips. “Sorry, but I have to do this before I chicken out,” he told Ben, who tried to open his mouth to reply but couldn’t because Ming’s lips were pressed against his own.

It was by no means a good kiss; their lips were dry from the air conditioning and Ming was bending at a slightly awkward angle because Ben hadn’t quite tilted his head back enough. So he did. And, just like that, it turned into something else, and Ben found himself clinging to Ming and kissing back quite enthusiastically.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” came a voice very close by, and they tugged apart, startled. Dhuan was standing two feet away with an armful of sunflowers, a lopsided grin on his face. “There are better places to do that sort of thing, and this is not one of them.”

Ming turned crimson. “I’m sorry!” he squeaked. “I’ll go, uh, help!” He all but ran to where a rather amused-looking Pierre was arranging the window display.

“You just chased away the closest to a lay I’ve had in years,” Ben muttered. Dhuan’s grin widened and he gestured with his head for Ben to take a few of the flowers. “I didn’t know he was actually… enjoying the flirting.”

Dhuan raised an eyebrow at Ben, who attempted to imitate the expression but only managed to waggle both eyebrows in a decidedly unmanly way. “He likes you a lot more than he lets on,” Dhuan said, walking into the back room. Ben followed him. “If you don’t plan on anything other than a quick fuck, don’t do it. You’ll just break his heart.”

Ben stared at Dhuan incredulously. “Have you been talking to him about it?” he demanded, but Dhuan just smiled and didn’t reply.

.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22): You know how volcanoes work, don’t you? Lots of pressure and then a spectacular explosion, that’s how. Things finally come to a head this month, and some rather startling revelations will be made.

Health: Your appetite will be unusually large this month; try to avoid expensive restaurants and make use of your kitchen instead.

Money: Nothing interesting is going to happen in terms of finance. Again, avoid spending too much on food.

Romance: This month, Saturn and Mars align to provide Cancerians with some extremely good luck in the romantic sector. Keep an eye out for that Mr or Ms Right!

Business continued in the same ridiculously good vein, leaving Ben very little time to talk to Ming, let alone ask him about that night. Pierre and Dhuan seemed to be avoiding each other, and Ming continued bringing coffee for Ben unexpectedly and when most needed. It soon branched into bringing Ben lunch as well, as the designer often forgot to eat when doing work.

One Friday afternoon, Ben emerged from a long meeting regarding stocking his designs in a department store in Kuala Lumpur, and found himself staring at a dark grey downpour.

“Stupid building without any stupid underpasses for stupid people without stupid umbrellas,” Ben muttered as he stalked the edges of the foyer, hunting for a hidden walkway or even a convenient tree-lined path that led to a building with an underpass to the train station. Nothing. Huffily, he went back to the front of the building and was heading for the snaking taxi queue when someone barrelled into him. Only a lucky grab at the wall saved him from an undignified splash onto the tiled flooring.

“Oh, shit, I’m so sorry! I totally didn’t… Ben?”

Ben glared out from under his fringe – oh god his hair was damp; it would frizz within ten minutes – and then laughed. “Ming? What are you doing here?”

Ming peered at him from behind rain-splattered glasses. “Class got cancelled. My school’s over that way,” he told Ben, pointing into the rain. “Need me to walk you anywhere?” He held out his umbrella, which looked barely large enough to shelter Ming, let alone both of them.

“I was headed home, actually. Want a lift?” They slipped into the metal barricades that indicated the taxi queue. “You could come help me do paperwork if you don’t have much else to do,” he offered, keeping his tone light and friendly.

Ming thought this over, shaking his umbrella out and folding it up. “If you don’t mind having me over,” he said eventually.

“It’s not like there’s anyone at home to care,” Ben said with a shrug. “I can’t offer you dinner, though. Except maybe instant noodles.”

He was rewarded with a flat look. “There’s a supermarket near your place, right? Drop by there first. I’ll cook you dinner.”

They ended up buying practically enough to cook for Ben’s entire neighbourhood, despite his protests. “Welcome to my humble abode,” Ben announced with a flourish as he pushed open the front door. “Would you like a tour? I was a little out of it the last time you were here.”

Ming simply grinned in agreement.

They had deposited the groceries in the kitchen, finished with the first floor, and were heading up the stairs when Ben paused, and threw all remaining caution out into the storm.

“Ming, why did you kiss me?”

The younger boy froze, one step below Ben, bringing them to eye level. Ben wrapped his hand around the banister so that he wouldn’t reach out to touch Ming’s cheek.

“I thought it was fairly obvious why,” Ming replied softly, and leaned forward. Their mouths slid together, and Ben let go of the railing to twine his fingers through Ming’s soft thick hair, which really needed another trim.

They only broke apart for air, lips and hands clinging. Ming’s hands were hot on Ben’s back, and Ben shook his head slightly. “This is a really bad idea. You don’t even know what you’re doing.”

And there was that smile again, bright and silver even though it was barely a curve of those kiss-swollen lips. “I can practise,” Ming murmured into Ben’s ear, breath tickling the curve and lips making Ben’s multiple earrings shift and settle. Ben shuddered, just a little, at the thought of that promise.

“Are you sure about this,” Ben asked, and it wasn’t quite a question.

“Yes,” Ming breathed, and it was all they could do to get up the stairs and into Ben’s room. For all his initiation, Ming really was quite clueless once they had gotten their damp shirts off, so Ben took matters into his own hands, and subsequently his mouth.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have things finish so quickly. With a smile, he took his mouth from Ming’s now-throbbing erection and pushed him lightly down onto the bed. “I’ll be right back,” he promised with a lick of Ming’s collarbone, and moved as quickly as his erection would let him into the bathroom. He knew there had been a reason he kept condoms in the cabinet.

When he emerged with the box in one hand and a jar of Vaseline in the other, he found Ming still spread-eagled on the bed, his long fingers wrapped around his cock. Ben swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, and watched as Ming tugged slowly at himself, eyes closed and lips moving on silent words.

“Hey,” Ben said, surprised at how rough his voice sounded. “Impatient?”

Ming’s eyes flew open and he pulled his hands back. Ben grinned and walked back towards the bed. “Keep going,” he encouraged, dropping the items onto the mattress and climbing across to straddle Ming’s waist. “I was enjoying that.” He leaned down to nibble at the hesitant smile that made its way across Ming’s mouth, now flushed and glistening.

“Sorry, I just…” Ming paused. “Never mind. What are we supposed to do now?”

Ben almost laughed. “Have you even kissed anyone before?”

“Of course I have.” Ming looked almost insulted. “Um. But that’s about all I’ve done.”

“What, you’ve never even made a grab for some girl’s boobs before?”

“No. It wouldn’t be very nice.”

Ben did laugh this time. “And having a guy press his ass up against your hard cock is?” He watched as Ming turned scarlet, and felt said cock twitch against the back of his thigh. He rocked back against it and was gratified to see Ming’s head fall back as a low moan slipped past his lips. Dirty talk turned him on, then. Excellent.

“School is back in session. Welcome to Gay Sex One Oh One,” Ben whispered against Ming’s throat, right hand sliding up Ming’s side to play with a nipple. “Lessons one through three have been well and truly mastered. Congratulations, young master.”

Ming somehow found his voice through his whimpering to ask what those steps were. Ben grinned. “Get turned on. Turn other man on. Take clothes off,” he listed in between licks at Ming’s neck, shoulder, chest. “I’ve also given you some extra-curricular learning of blowjobs, so now we’re moving on to the next part.” He bit lightly at Ming’s left nipple, and felt rather than heard the moan that the action produced.

With a rather uncalculated grope in the direction of the items from the bathroom, Ben managed to grab the box and tear one of the condoms out of its packet. Then he paused. “Um, Ming, you’ve really never had sex before, right?”

“No,” came the breathless answer. “Why?”

“It’s the mechanics of the next… lesson.” Ben held up the condom. “You do know where these things go, don’t you?”

He was rewarded with a light slap on the thigh. “I’m a virgin but I’m not twelve,” Ming retorted. “Shouldn’t we need two, though?”

Ben smiled at him. “Undoubtedly, that would be the safest way to play it, but you’re clean and I don’t think I’m quite that much of a whore, so just the top’ll need it today.” He considered. “And you’re it.”

“Huh?” Ming made to prop himself up to stare at Ben but fell back again when Ben grasped his cock to unroll the condom onto it.

Ben opened the jar of Vaseline and scooped a generous amount out onto his fingers. He hadn’t done this in ages, he mused, and leaned over to position his hand. “You see,” he bit out as he slipped a finger into himself. “Girls have a way of lubing themselves up, which is actually quite messy if you think about it.” Another finger; oh god that stung. “They also have a great many number of orifices for a guy to stick his shlong into. It’s how babies are made.” He paused to catch his breath; he hadn’t bottomed to his last boyfriend very often, so this whole practice was rather new to him as well.

“Guys, on the other hand, are much simpler.” He inhaled and held the breath as he made to slide a third finger in, but another hand beat him to it.

Ming had wrapped his hand around Ben’s wrist and was blushing furiously even as he traced Ben’s palm up to where his fingers disappeared into himself. “Let me,” he offered hoarsely, sitting up, and Ben let out all the air in his lungs with a shuddering sigh as he took his hand away.

Following Ben’s earlier example, Ming coated his fingers with the Vaseline and pressed one against and then into Ben, who shivered at the slowness and rasped, “I’m fine, give me two.”

Ming was up to three when he curled his fingers accidentally as he tried to get better purchase. Ben gasped and bucked up into empty air, sparks flying behind his eyes. “Oh, oh god, I’d forgotten about that,” he squeaked.

“Did I hurt you?” Ming asked hurriedly, looking terrified.

Ben shook his head and kissed Ming hard. “Take your fingers out,” he ordered when they broke apart. Ming pulled out slowly and continued looking like he was torn between being afraid, curious and aroused.

With a smile and another deep breath, Ben shifted his weight onto his knees, and sank down onto Ming’s cock. It took him a few long, intense moments to get used to the long-forgotten sensation and the inevitable dull burn. When he finally opened his eyes again, he found Ming gazing at him with wide eyes, one hand lifted and not quite touching Ben.

“How’s it feel?” Ben asked, voice cracking on the last word. He cleared his throat and put his arms around Ming’s shoulders in order to shift into a slightly less awkward position, and the movement made them both shudder to a halt again.

“Can I…” Ming was trembling from holding back, and Ben felt oddly warm inside from that knowledge.

“Yes. Yes,” Ben repeated, drawing himself up and then sliding back down. “It’ll come to you naturally. Just move.”

And Ming did. They rocked in tandem, and soon Ming pushed them both down from their sitting position so that Ben was flat on his back with his legs wrapped around Ming’s waist. There were no more words exchanged, just the harsh sound of their breaths as Ming thrust into Ben hard enough that there was going to be a mark on the wall from the bed moving, hard enough that they were gripping each other tightly enough to leave bruises, hard enough that Ben felt his mind shatter as Ming’s cock stroked up against the same spot that his fingers had, again and again.

“I think,” Ming murmured to the beat, his pace increasing and the movements of his fingers around Ben’s cock turning erratic, “I’m going to—” He was cut off by a single sparkling moment of nothing, and then he was coming in Ben, hand gripping so tight that Ben’s vision went white and he came as well, with a low moan that might have been a name.

Later, as they lay side-by-side, feeling terribly sticky, “You know what?”

“What?”

“I ran into you on purpose that day.”

Ben rolled over and propped himself on an elbow to peer down at Ming, who grinned sleepily back. Politely, Ben asked for clarification, “What the hell?”

“The first time we met. Outside Starbucks. I didn’t even notice your jacket until after we both got up.”

“What the hell?” Ben repeated incredulously. The lanky boy under him laughed and wrapped his arms around Ben’s neck.

“I thought you were hot,” Ming said simply. “And it seemed like the best way to get your attention.”

Ben, who had been tugged down to lie against Ming’s bare chest, pushed himself back up again. “What.” He stared down into earnest brown eyes. “Pick-up lines aren’t quite as passé as you seem to think they are, you know. Next time you want to get to know someone, do it a less physical way. Throwing your overgrown self against a complete stranger in broad daylight is a little… caveman-like.”

Ming was laughing, his body shaking delightfully against Ben’s. “Well, it worked, didn’t it?” he pointed out, and rolled them both back over so that he was a gorgeous unbroken line of pale bare skin poised just above Ben.

Ben had to admit defeat. Partially because Ming had proceeded to slide his hand down between them and demonstrate just what worked for him. “I think it did,” Ben managed, and yanked Ming down for another kiss.

By the time they ventured downstairs again, it was just a bit too late for dinner.

 

illustrated by tashigi

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