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Bedroom Voices

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Neil steps into the fresh layer of snow on the lawn and thinks of pushing a spoon into the little jar of salt on the kitchen table while his parents fight over dinner. Twisting the spoon through the salt, around and around, the creaking noise of the grains giving way, the sound when it hits the bottom of the jar, when it’s pulled up again only to start over.

How many years now since he last sat at that kitchen table? How many fights? And all that remains is the silver clarity of the spoon, the crunch of salt long dissolved.

The snow, still squeaky clean and full, makes a rubbery sound under his feet. He looks back at the trail he’s made, the holes in the pristine surface, like the silences between ugly words.

His breath fans out in front of his face, a growing thing. He ran all the way to the park and he’s so hot he feels like he should be steaming. The nettle sting of cold air on his skin is a welcome distraction from the soupy warmth of sleep and bad dreams that still clings to him.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket, tangled earphones nestling in his palm as he scrolls through the podcast recommendations. There was one about sleep that he wanted to check out but forgot to bookmark. All Neil remembers is it had a picture of a lamp—there.

The Bedroom Voice.

He clicks on the first episode that comes up, titled Do Not Disturb, and fiddles with his earphones. They’re purple, because Kevin gave them to him, and because Neil doesn’t care what colour they are as long as they stay where they belong when he runs. He shoves his phone in his pocket, pulls his gloves on. Then he steps back onto the path with a deep breath and stars running again despite the sluggish protest in his legs. The podcast’s host has a pleasant voice. Deep and calm. Indigo-like. Like the city early in the morning when no one is awake yet. Good choice for a podcast about sleep, Neil thinks. He should probably be listening to it at night, but so far the only things that reliably help him fall asleep are running and masturbating.

“…sturbating, and might even bring hay fever relief by reducing swollen nasal blood vessels through stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. So next time you find yourself with a congested nose, try a good old one-on-one therapy session with your hand of choice.”

Neil skids to a stop on an icy patch of ground, panting as he tries to extract his phone from his pocket with frozen fingers. The voice—the goddamn bedroom voice, and of course it wasn’t a podcast about sleep, fuck—keeps talking laconically about possible health benefits of masturbation while Neil tries to yank his glove off with his teeth. He hits pause, thumb already hovering over the back button ready to browse some more, then scrolls up to the description of the podcast.

Queer bedtime stories for grown-ups. Undercover poet Andrew Minyard alias The Bedroom Voice riffles through the junk drawer of human sexuality and shines a light on hidden gems.

Neil shuffles two steps forward on the path and one back. There are around twenty episodes. Some tackle more serious topics such as safe sex, consent, trauma, and boundaries, others talk about things like blowjob techniques, funny sex toy reviews on Amazon, or learning the art of dirty talk. Every once in a while there’s an assorted guest that the host invites for late-night talks where they dissect anything from dirty poetry to the best recipes for hot cocoa. Neil scrolls down the list and up again and then back down and taps on an episode called Diary In The Dark, where Andrew and his guest take turns reading out diary entries and letting the other guess if they’re made up or legitimate excerpts taken from their own old diaries.

It’s funny, and self-deprecating, and deeply sad all at once. As Neil traces his usual route around the park he finds himself dipping into the mind of both the profoundly lonely, gloriously witty sixteen-year-old boy who wrote the actual diary entries as well as the still profoundly lonely, gloriously witty twenty-nine-year old man making up the fake ones. Andrew’s guest Allison has a different brand of teenage angst to offer. She pokes and prods at the more self-destructive side of his humour, asks poignant questions, laughs a pleasant, buttery, spiced-rum kind of laugh. The two of them complement each other well, yet Neil finds himself more drawn to Andrew’s deep voice and deadpan commentary.

By the time Neil gets home he’s halfway through an episode called Deep Dark Fears. He gets in the shower and restarts it once he’s settled down on the sofa with his breakfast.

Not at the kitchen table. Never at the kitchen table.

-

Neil starts work at 4 a.m. most days.

It suits him. They usually have the radio on, or Neil has his earphones in. His job is to divide and shape the bread, a repetitive, muscle-memory task. He knows all the necessary weights and measurements by heart. The yeasty smell of the dough clings to him when he gets home after his shift, heats up some leftovers or ready meal for lunch, and spends the afternoon however he pleases.

The hours don’t bother him much. He has trouble sleeping either way. Sometimes he meets up with Kevin for dinner, or they go to the gym on his days off. Sometimes he looks up the local animal shelter online and thinks about getting a pet before closing the tab again.

“So,” Kevin says over post-work-out breakfast. “What’s new with you?”

Neil shrugs. There’s never really anything new with him.

“My shoes are starting to fall apart,” he says, twirling his fork through the remains of his hash browns. Kevin nods.

“We can go to that store,” he offers. He means the store that lets you try out all the different running shoes on a treadmill, so you can make an informed decision. Kevin likes informed decisions.

“Okay,” Neil says. He’s tired. He’s always tired these days. He feels both chilly and overheated at the same time, hunched into his oversized hoodie in the booth near the door that keeps opening and closing, still running hot from pushing himself maybe a little too hard at the gym earlier.

Kevin drives him home. He gets out of the car and goes in for a high five so Neil goes in for a high five too but then Kevin changes his mind at the last minute and hugs him.

He smells like fresh deodorant and coffee.

It’s… not bad.

Sometimes Neil worries he’s touch-starved.

He waits until Kevin’s car is out of sight. Then he walks up the stairs and unlocks his door and locks it again behind him and kicks off his shoes and unpacks his gym bag and crawls into bed with his phone.

He pulls up the podcast and listens to the episode called Why You Are So Goddamn Lonely. He already listened to it last week. Then, when the burning desperation inside him has reached its maximum and the episode is over, he follows Andrew down a string of Wikipedia rabbit holes, and doesn’t do anything to stop the next episode from queueing up, the one called Tongue-In-(Ass)-Cheek, the one he had to pause yesterday because-

He doesn’t really know.

Andrew talks around rimming more than about it, and it’s not even anything Neil particularly wants to experience with anyone. It never is. He—likes getting himself off, by himself. Andrew’s voice is just singularly suited to this purpose. And Neil likes the way he talks about it, frank and laid-back and, yes, a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

He breathes out, sinks deeper into the mattress, grabs his lube and pushes his hand into his sweatpants, Andrew’s voice snug in his ears.

-

“…really want you to meet him, because I think you two would hit it off.”

Neil blinks. He only zoned out for a moment, and now Kevin is looking at him expectantly, with his chin jutting up a little like he’s gearing up for an argument.

Arguments with Kevin are not like fights with his parents.

Neil thinks Kevin even enjoys them. He treats them like a debate club meeting, and he takes pride in finding counter-arguments to everything, in shooting down doubts and scepticism, in quoting research articles that he reads when he can’t sleep.

He and Neil are similar in their nocturnal incompetence, at least.

“Sure,” Neil says, almost smirking when Kevin’s face falls minutely. The only way to head off a Kevin Day debate club session is to agree with whatever he says. Neil has perfected the art of infusing his agreement with the exact right amount of insubordination, so that Kevin will suspect he isn’t really agreeing but can’t do anything about it.

“Right,” Kevin says, frowning. “So, it’s settled then.”

“Yup,” Neil hums, accepting the plate Kevin hands him. The sandwich is enormous. Thick slabs of sourdough bread, layered with some sort of meat, dill pickles, mustard, onions, brie, and cranberry sauce.

Neil picks it up and tries to figure out how to take a bite without exploding it all over himself, but there’s no way around it. Maybe he can steal a hoodie from Kevin before he leaves.

“Shaturday?” Kevin asks around an inhumanly large bite of his sandwich, and Neil raises his eyebrow at him. Kevin has always been immune to the eyebrow, but Neil can’t help it.

He thinks of the episode Recipes For Disaster, where Andrew talks about blowjobs, dick sizes, his misadventures in deep-throating and the best cures for sore throats, and snorts.

“I have work, but afternoon is fine,” he says once he’s swallowed his own mouthful. Kevin’s sandwiches are good, but he’s kind of glad he’s not meeting anyone else today, because his breath is going to smell so bad after this. Maybe he should steal some of Kevin’s mouthwash, too.

“Have you heard back from Marissa?”

“Marissa,” Neil repeats, brain stalling.

“You know. The girl you went on a date with.”

“Oh. Marissa.” Neil picks at the crust of his sandwich. He’d forgotten about his brief, Kevin-facilitated foray into dating apps at the end of last year.

“I guess that’s a no then,” Kevin says wryly.

“Told you I’m not interested.” Neil shrugs.

That’s a lie.

Kind of.

He’d like to not be alone all the time. But finding someone he can tolerate to be around for extended periods of time is—hard. The dating apps didn’t work because there was always that underlying assumption of sex. Neil has only slept with two people in his life, one of whom is sitting beside him right now stuffing his face with a giant sandwich. It was fine, but also not.

He doesn’t really know.

It’s easy for Kevin. Straightforward. He knows exactly what he wants, and then he goes out and gets it. Done.

Neil envies him, sometimes.

“Let’s play?” he says, gesturing at Kevin’s TV. Escaping into games is something they’ve always done well together. Kevin grabs the controllers and Neil gets comfortable, props a cushion under his head on the back of the couch and sinks into it with his whole body.

They play.

-

There’s a new episode of The Bedroom Voice when he gets home.

It’s called Apocalypse. Neil climbs into bed fully clothed and turns the light off, puts his earphones in and hits play.

Andrew’s guest of the month is called Renee. He introduces her as the asshole who pestered him into making a podcast, she calls him her best friend, Andrew pretends to be offended. There’s a link to Renee’s Etsy shop in the episode description where Neil finds a wide range of colourful, glass-blown vulva sculptures. He looks at them while Andrew and Renee discuss the aesthetic merits of different genitals and talk about a photographer who took pictures of a hundred penises and vulvas, before moving on to their best survival tips for the apocalypse. Renee reveals that she brought a biodegradable, solar-powered vibrator designed by a friend of hers, and the episode ends with Andrew beatboxing to the different vibration modes while Renee makes up a little song about a lonely clitoris.

It makes Neil laugh.

It makes Neil feel good enough to click on the one episode he hasn’t listened to yet. It’s one of the first ones, bearing the title: Scars.

“When I was twelve, I was raped,” Andrew begins in his usual flat, no-nonsense tone. “It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. When it was over, I sat in the shower and cut the first line into my arm. I thought it was about control. But the truth is, there was nothing in my life that I had control over at that point. I was as out of control as you could get.”

Neil breathes in and squeezes his eyes shut. Thinks about that kitchen table. The little salt pot spinning, spilling its contents everywhere. Out of control.

He listens to Andrew talk about self-inflicted scars, scars that are really other-inflicted but masquerade as self-harm, self-harming behaviours that don’t leave scars, and scars that no one ever sees. As always, Andrew is brutally honest and unflinching, recounting his own struggle with accepting his sexuality in the wake of sexual trauma. Neil curls up on his side, pressing his face half into his pillow, and stuffs a hand under his shirt to trace his own scars.

“Look. I don’t know what you’re even still doing here,” Andrew says toward the end of the episode. His voice has started to unravel the slightest bit and it’s raw and real and Neil wants to keep the sound of it inside himself like a talisman. “But, if you’re still listening, let’s play a game. A game of truths. Let’s not lie to ourselves anymore, can we do that? The truth is, there is no happy ending to this episode. The truth is, I am sick and tired of it all. I am sick and tired of the laundry list. The rules. The conditions. The yes or no game. Sometimes I just want to get fucked, but I can’t, and it’s shit. Don’t let anyone tell you that trauma made you into a better person. That’s fucked up. Trauma fucks you up. And it’s not fair. But no one is gonna do the work for you. I sure as hell am not gonna do the work for you. So you wallow, and then you pick yourself up off the fucking ground, turn the shower off, and put the blade away. Don’t let them have the last word. Even if it’s just to spite them.”

The episode ends.

It’s less professional than his later ones, less polished. But as Neil lies in the dark, touching his scars to soothe the buzzing in his fingertips, he thinks he likes it even more.

-

Neil is—neutral. About his penis.

It maybe doesn’t compare to some he’s seen. Kevin’s, for example. Kevin is gifted with a singularly pretty dick, but Neil doesn’t think Kevin is what most people expect. And it’s not like anyone currently cares about the state of Neil’s junk, other than Neil. So.

It’s fine, is his point.

He still feels weirdly reassured when he looks up that photographer Renee mentioned and her one hundred penis pictures.

On Friday night, he feels antsy. He should be sleeping, because he has work in less than six hours, but he can’t. He’s already pushed it this week with running and a couple trips to the gym, and something about Andrew pointing out different forms of self-harm and how excessive exercise can fall in that category still rings uncomfortably in his head, so he doesn’t.

That only leaves one other option.

He takes his hoodie off and gets on his bed. Andrew’s voice fills his head as he chooses the episode about dirty talk and jumps to the section where Andrew delves into something called praise kink that Neil didn’t even know existed before that.

It’s not that he has one. Just. Andrew does it really well.

He starts slow, hand slick and shiny with lube, gets himself worked up. Coming is, probably, his least favourite part about masturbating. It’s ironically anticlimactic for him. It’s when he comes that he feels at his loneliest, and after that everything loses its shine and he’s just sweaty and sticky and a little messed up.

But getting there. Getting there is great.

He watches the flushed head of his cock pump in and out of his fist as Andrew murmurs nonsense and praise in his ear. For once he imagines what it would be like to have someone there with him, someone like Andrew. Not to actually do anything, just to—keep him company. To watch him and recognise his skill at pleasuring himself, to hold him through his orgasm and clean him up when he’s done. To ease the crush of loneliness that comes after.

His toes curl into the sheets and he comes with a small, cut-off sound. That’s new. He keeps pumping his hand until he’s spent, chasing after that initial spark, but it’s gone and he’s back to feeling gross and overheated and bitterly alone. The juxtaposition of the messy noise he just made and the calm, orderly tone of Andrew’s voice is grating, so he pauses the episode and throws his phone to the side.

-

He and Kevin meet at the mall after Neil finishes work to pick out new running shoes for him. The last of the snow has melted away, and the air feels sort of heavy and slouchy as a storm builds up over the city. For now the dark clouds are still stubbornly threaded with gold, and Neil pulls on one of Kevin’s old sweatshirts as he steps outside and breathes in the wet scent of oncoming rain. He jogs to the mall and lets Kevin pile box upon box for him while he runs, some pairs lasting less than three steps before Kevin tells him to get off the treadmill and try a different one.

The store is stuffy and warm. By the time they’re done Neil is sweaty and a little cranky, but they’ve settled on a pair of Skechers Razor, which Neil enjoyed testing and then was sold on when Kevin read out a review claiming they “liked to be pushed hard and go fast”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to try the Nikes again?” Kevin asks as they go up to the cashier, because he’s incapable of making decisions and sticking with them.

“The upper fit felt too sloppy,” Neil insists, pulling out his wallet, which immediately gets pulled out of his hand.

“I’ll pay for them,” Kevin says.

“No, you won’t.”

“Yes, I will. Consider them an early birthday present.”

Neil doesn’t point out that his birthday was only a month ago, and that Kevin got him a new jacket already. It’s easier to reverse-pickpocket Kevin at an unsuspecting moment and return the money than try to argue with him. And Neil’s still waiting on his last pay check, anyway.

He throws in a multipack of extra-breathable athletic boxer briefs and some running socks from the sales bin while he’s at it.

“Lunch is on me, then,” he mutters as they leave the store.

“Fine,” Kevin says, checking his phone. “We should get going, anyway.”

“Get going where,” Neil says distractedly.

“Neil,” Kevin says.

“Kevin,” Neil parrots back. Kevin sighs.

“We’re meeting Andrew at Starbucks. Did you forget?”

“Right,” Neil says. “Who’s Andrew again?”

“Sushi guy,” Kevin supplies, as if that means anything to Neil.

“Right,” he says again.

Whoever this sushi Andrew is, Neil would much rather meet podcast Andrew. Then again, Neil is currently wearing a shirt several sizes too big for him, smells like yeast and has dark sweat patches under his arms, and he’s also carrying a multipack of extra-breathable athletic boxer briefs in his hand because they didn’t fit in the bag with the shoes. So it’s probably for the best that it isn’t podcast Andrew.

Neil follows Kevin to Starbucks, where Kevin decides after ten minutes of standing in front of the display case that he doesn’t actually want any of the food, so Neil buys them two matcha lattes instead and leaves Kevin to ruminate on the other equally sad options in the food court. He’s surprised Kevin doesn’t have pros and cons list templates in his bag for these occasions. As they walk outside, Kevin suddenly stops talking and makes a beeline for a short blond guy in a leather jacket who’s leaning against the wall and playing with his phone.

It gives Neil a tiny thrill to see that the guy is even shorter than him, despite the thick soles of his boots. Ha.

“Andrew,” Kevin says. “We were just trying to decide what to have for lunch. This is Neil.”

“Sup,” Neil says, popping off his straw just long enough to shove out the smallest acknowledgment he can manage. Andrew locks and pockets his phone, sweeps one unimpressed look from Neil’s face down to his tattered sneakers, and turns to Kevin.

“Sweetie’s has the only bearable food around here,” Andrew says, and-

Oh.

Oh fuck.

Neil chokes on his matcha latte so hard that some of it dribbles out of his nose. He knows that voice, inside and out. He’s been listening to it non-stop for the past few weeks.

He even jacked off to it last night.

Somehow, podcast Andrew is here, in this crappy mall, in this crappy town, looking at Neil like he’s something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of his shoe while Neil tries to stifle his matcha mishap in his sleeve. Neil never considered that Andrew might live in the same area. Hell, Neil never even imagined him as a person with a face and a body. He was just this disembodied voice that somehow understood Neil perfectly, that spoke directly into his brain, touching the most secret and vulnerable parts of him.

He trails after Kevin and Andrew, with his pack of boxer briefs tucked tight under his arm and the bag with his running shoes thumping uncomfortably against his leg. Andrew has his hands stuffed into the pockets of his faded black skinny jeans that are ripped in all the right places and have a little chain attached to the belt loops. His leather jacket looks well-worn and has a number of patches sewn to it—a noose, a rainbow knife, a question mark, a hand with the middle finger raised, an alien, a skull with the words damaged goods threaded around it.

When they sit down at a table Andrew takes the jacket off, revealing an old band t-shirt, a geometric honeycomb tattoo peeking out under one sleeve, and several leather bracelets around his wrists that do nothing to hide the scars on his arms.

Fuck.

It really is Andrew, his Andrew—well. Not his. Just—the one in his head. A real, live, flesh and blood person. Already Andrew’s features are melding with the voice in Neil’s mind until they become inseparable.

If Neil had tried to imagine a face to the voice, it would probably have looked something like this.

“Problem?” Andrew asks, gazing at him over the top of the menu he’s not looking at.

“No,” Neil mumbles, dropping his eyes. His palms are sweaty. His stomach is rebelling around the matcha latte. He wants to say something—anything—but he’s already the guy who said “Sup” and choked on his drink and then stared creepily at Andrew all the way here.

He doesn’t want to make it worse.

“What are you getting?” Kevin asks, still engaged in the complicated process of choosing the best possible combinations of food and drink from a menu that has less than ten options.

“Fish finger burger, fries, vanilla milkshake,” Andrew recites.

“Can you recommend those?” Kevin wants to know.

“Get the chicken burger,” Andrew says instead.

Kevin nods and looks pleased because that one has avocado and he was going to order it anyway. He still dithers over sweet potato fries versus broccoli apple coleslaw until Neil tells him to just get both since he’s paying anyways. He doesn’t really know what he wants himself, so if they split the two sides between them he doesn’t have to make a decision either.

Andrew and Kevin pick up a conversation about self-driving cars that they seem to have started on the way over. Neil spins a coaster in his hands and tries not to think about his mom stuffing him in the car and driving all night, the film reel slide of passing lights on her face, the deep sea silence of the endless darkness around them. The gut-punch recognition when they inevitably pulled up back in front of their house in the morning no matter how far they drove.

He watches Andrew talk with his hands more than his mouth and imagines him doing that when he records his podcast, which adds a layer he hadn’t previously considered.

Then he imagines that mouth shaping the words he got off to last night and stabs his fries so vigorously they spill over the rim of the plate.

“Don’t eat those,” Kevin says, slapping his hand away as he tries to pick them up. “Who knows what’s been on this table.”

Normally Neil would snark back, make fun of his squeamishness. Today Neil leaves the fries. The conversation moves on to Among Us, which Neil doesn’t play, and then Kevin excuses himself to the bathroom.

“So,” Andrew says, swirling the last dregs of his milkshake in its glass. “What’s your malfunction?”

“What?” Neil says.

“You keep staring at me,” Andrew says. He puts the glass down and looks at Neil like in his mind he’s taking him apart to see how he works. Neil feels goosebumps prickle along the back of his neck and quickly looks down.

He has so many things to tell Andrew.

But he doesn’t know how to say any of them.

“Give me your phone,” Andrew says, holding out a hand.

“What,” Neil says again, probably cementing Andrew’s view of him as a complete idiot.

“Give,” Andrew repeats, making a little grabby motion. Neil likes the way his fingers flex. He unlocks his phone and accidentally brushes Andrew’s palm as he hands it over, the brief skin-to-skin contact sending hot tingles up his arm.

Maybe Andrew already guessed that Neil is a fan of his podcast. Maybe he meets fans all the time. Maybe he’s going to check his listening history to confront him…

Neil closes his eyes. At least that way he won’t have to say it.

“Here,” Andrew says, and Neil opens his eyes just in time to catch the phone being tossed his way. He looks down and sees a new contact. “Text me if you want to hook up.”

Neil is about to say “What” for the third time, but manages to stifle it at the last minute. Instead he asks: “Why did Kevin call you sushi guy?”

“I work at the Kroger,” Andrew says, smoothly accepting the abrupt change of subject. “I wear a little white sushi chef outfit and roll the sushi in the sushi aisle.”

He wiggles his fingers every time he says sushi. It’s cute.

“Oh,” Neil says. “That’s where we get ours.”

“I know,” Andrew hums, quirking an eyebrow at him. “How do you think I met Kevin?”

Usually Kevin picks up their sushi on the way home from work. It’s good, for grocery store sushi. Not that Neil has had much to compare it to. He likes the little flowers carved from carrots or radishes that come with it.

“Do you also make the flowers?” he blurts out.

“Yes,” Andrew says and shrugs. “Most people throw them away.”

“I don’t really like carrots,” Neil admits. He’s never sure if the flowers are for eating or looking at. Kevin usually dips them in wasabi, because Kevin has no taste buds.

He’s almost relieved when Kevin comes back to tell Andrew some random thing he thought of in the bathroom, and then they pay for their food and walk with Andrew to his car. He offers them both a ride and Neil declines and Kevin says yes, and it isn’t until Kevin has climbed into the passenger seat of the shiny black beast and is fastening his seatbelt that it occurs to Neil that maybe Andrew and Kevin are hooking up.

-

Neil’s phone buzzes in his pocket as he’s standing in the cereal aisle, dead on his feet after a long, gruelling shift at work.

“Did you try the shoes?” Kevin asks as soon as he picks up.

“Not yet,” Neil says. The truth is, he hasn’t even taken them out of the bag yet. Normally he loves the smell of new shoes, but every time he looks at the bag he thinks of Andrew and wants to shrivel up inside his clothes.

“Keep me updated,” Kevin demands. “What did you think of Andrew?”

Neil squints at a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

“I think I need glasses,” he says.

“I’ll book you an appointment with my optician,” Kevin says, but he won’t be deterred. “What did you think of Andrew?”

“I dunno.”

Kevin huffs out a burst of irritated air. Neil puts the Cinnamon Toast Crunch back on the shelf, then grabs it again and puts it in his cart.

“He gave me his number,” Neil offers, puttering down the aisle. He’s at the Kroger. Not because he’s stalking Andrew—he genuinely needs groceries, and they have Kevin’s preferred brand of orange juice.

“I thought he might,” Kevin says, pleased. Kevin loves being proven right. “Did you call him?”

Neil balks.

“I can’t just call him. Who does that?”

“Normal people,” Kevin says.

“He said to text if I wanted to hook up.”

“Perfect,” Kevin says through a mouthful of something crunchy. “So you don’t even have to call him.”

Neil is nearing the general area of the little sushi bar now. He tucks himself and his cart into a corner and drops his voice.

“I don’t want to hook up.”

“You never do,” Kevin reminds him. “Maybe you can just talk.”

“Just talk,” Neil scoffs. “He probably thinks I’m weird enough already.”

“If he still gave you his number, you’re good,” Kevin says, rustling the bag of whatever he’s eating. “Okay, you got an appointment at 4 pm on Thursday. I can pick you up.”

“Appointment?” Neil asks blankly.

“To get your eyes tested. I just booked it for you.”

It boggles Neil’s mind that Kevin can talk to him at the same time as booking an appointment for him. He cranes his neck a little, trying to see if Andrew is working, but the sushi bar is still too far away.

Maybe he does need glasses.

He sighs.

“Thanks,” he says. “I’d better go.”

“Text Andrew,” Kevin slips in quickly before Neil hangs up.

The box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch sits sadly next to the bottle of orange juice in his cart. He wiggles it, making the juice slosh around a bit, then he turns back to at least get something for dinner.

He doesn’t look at the sushi bar again.

-

Neil has Thursday off.

He sleeps in and goes for a run, finally breaking in his new shoes, and then he puts on fresh pyjamas after the shower and gets back into bed. It’s raining again. He curls up on his side and listens to the sizzle and pop of the water against his window, and when his stomach starts growling he orders sushi from the Kroger even though he still doesn’t know what days Andrew is working.

When it comes, there’s a cucumber slice carved into a rose in the corner of the box, and Neil feels kind of silly and kind of happy and kind of mortified.

He sits in bed with his comforter wrapped around his shoulders and eats his sushi slowly, picks the petals off the cucumber rose and eats those even more slowly, debates listening to an episode of The Bedroom Voice but ultimately decides against it. Instead he takes his phone and pulls up Andrew’s contact.

“Yes,” Andrew says as he picks up, like he already knows it’s him.

“Hi,” Neil says, a little breathless. “It’s Neil.”

“Yes,” Andrew repeats.

“I just—thank you,” Neil stutters. “For the cucumber.”

There’s a little pause, then the click of a door, a more noticeable silence in the background.

“Kevin says you’re not usually this shy.”

Neil pulls a face, dropping a blob of wasabi in the leftover soy sauce.

“I’m not,” he says. “I just…”

“I don’t care,” Andrew says.

“Are you and Kevin…?” Neil asks, making his empty chopsticks chatter against each other.

“Once,” Andrew says.

“Oh,” Neil says. “Yeah. Me too.”

“He talks too much,” Andrew adds after a moment. The urge to laugh hits Neil out of the blue, and he cups a hand over his mouth as some of it breaks free.

“Do you want to do something,” Neil says through his hand. “With me. After work.”

“What kind of something,” Andrew asks.

“I don’t know. Anything. I have an eye appointment at 4.”

There’s another pause, then Andrew says, “Text me the address,” and hangs up, and Neil has apparently just turned his eye appointment into a date because he’s that useless.

Kevin is going to be so pleased.

Ugh.

-

Andrew tries on different frames for glasses while Neil sits in the chair in the little testing area and reads out letters and numbers and blobs. It drags on seemingly forever. Neil can see Andrew moving around in his periphery and fidgets, doesn’t pay much attention when the woman walks him through his prescription. When she’s done filling out the form, Andrew comes to stand next to him and hands over three different frames that all look the same to Neil.

“These,” he says when Neil has tried them all on, tapping the second pair.

“Good choice,” the woman says, smiling. She probably tells everyone that. Neil shrugs and hands them over to her so she can copy down the model number. “They should be done in a few days. Would you like us to text you when you can pick them up?”

“Uh, that’s fine,” Neil says. “I’ll just come by next week.”

His phone buzzes as they walk out of the store.

“Kevin,” he says to no one in particular and sends a quick thumbs-up emoji in reply so Kevin will leave him alone. “What now?”

He doesn’t trust himself to come up with a good, normal idea. Thankfully, Andrew doesn’t seem to expect him to.

“I know a gallery,” he says.

“Great,” Neil says quickly. “Let’s go there.”

-

Neil immediately recognises the sculptures.

It’s getting dark outside, and the last kitten licks of sunlight make the colourful glass glow like candle flames. A woman wearing oversized dungarees and a soft blue cardigan with cotton clouds tufted on the fabric comes to meet Andrew with a cheeky elbow nudge and an amused glance at Neil. She introduces herself as Renee, but doesn’t offer a handshake. Her arms look strong, and she has her hair pinned up with a paintbrush. It echoes the colours of her sculptures.

Neil wanders among the vulvas and feels both a strange sense of coming home and of being a spectator on the sidelines of someone else’s life. There are other things, too—joyful photographs of older queer couples, an installation of organs and body parts crocheted from sharp wire. A room in the back is filled with paintings that draw Neil in with their monochrome palettes and the recurring motif of empty hands.

He stops in front of a smaller frame that looks down at those hands lying open in someone’s lap. The black sleeves are pushed back, revealing scarred arms, the only blur of colour a faded rainbow-striped bracelet on one wrist.

“What a load of crap, huh,” Andrew’s voice says, startling him. “Who’d ever buy this?”

“I would,” Neil says truthfully. “If I had the money.”

Andrew snorts and turns away. He’s shed his jacket and is down to a black Jack Daniels t-shirt and a single, faded, rainbow-striped bracelet.

“You painted these?” Neil asks.

“Oh, no,” Andrew says, tapping his temple. “The demon that lives rent-free in my brain did. I had nothing to do with it.”

“Why are you showing me this?” Neil calls after him, but all he gets is a dismissive wave of fingers as Andrew walks back into the front room.

The gallery closes soon after that. Renee herds them out gently but firmly, and the cuffs of Neil’s jeans haven’t even dried yet as they step outside into the rain once again.

Andrew side-eyes him and turns up the collar of his jacket.

“So,” he says. “You’re still here.”

“Think so,” Neil jokes, pinching his arms. “Why, were you worried I was just a hallucination?”

“Maybe,” Andrew says, and he sounds so much like in the podcast that it sends a shiver down Neil’s spine. “Cold?”

“No,” Neil lies.

“Come back to mine?”

He says it so casually, so easily. Neil is silent as he tries to find the right answer in the tired jukebox of his mind that doesn’t want to take his coins today. He wants—he wants not. He needs—he needs not. He could say no and go home and struggle to fall asleep and try to find a different podcast to take his mind off the heaviness of it all. He could say yes and go home with Andrew and have sex with him and take the shine off with an unsatisfactory orgasm. He could explain-

“Don’t overthink it. We don’t have to do anything. Just come back to mine. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil says, hunching his shoulders. “Okay. Yeah.”

He gets into the passenger seat of Andrew’s car.

As they drive, snowflakes start mixing into the rain. The road is wet and slippery and Andrew drives—not slowly, or cautiously, but—competently.

“Why?” Neil asks eventually, catching street lights in his eyes like snowflakes, letting them melt.

“Why what?”

“Me,” Neil forces himself to say. “This.”

Andrew is quiet. He flicks on the indicator, checks over his shoulder, turns down a side street.

“Because Kevin said you’d get it.”

And this, finally, makes something in Neil slot into place.

He doesn’t ask what Andrew means by it. He can guess. Maybe he wasn’t the only one overthinking. I’m tired of the yes or no game, Andrew had said.

And Neil gets that. Because it’s never just yes or no. It’s: no, but. Yes, but.

Andrew’s apartment is a safe space. Neil can’t describe it any other way. Andrew locks the door behind him and it’s as if the world narrows down and resettles around them, snug and warm and protective. It’s snowing for real now, thick flakes piling up on the windowsills, and Neil sits on the couch and rubs his damp feet together like a cricket. Andrew opens the fridge and pulls out several containers of leftover sushi and two beers.

“Help me eat this,” he says, popping the lids on the containers and lining them up on the breakfast bar. “It won’t keep.”

“They let you take it?” Neil asks, coming closer. In passing, he glimpses a small office across the hall, the door slightly ajar, a desk with recording equipment. This must be where the magic happens. So to speak.

Andrew shrugs and spears a piece of sushi on a fork.

“You’re a sushi chef but you don’t own chopsticks?” Neil teases. Andrew points his fork at him in warning and Neil laughs, picks a spoon from the jar of loose cutlery on the counter and tries to scoop up a cucumber roll with mixed success.

Halfway through massacring the sushi, there’s a wispy little mew from the hall. Andrew drops his fork and gets out a can of tuna from a cupboard, scooping a little bit onto a saucer. The cat—it’s either that or a very fluffy alien—shrinks away from the light, but seems to decide braving it is worth the reward. It’s a tiny thing, skinny and skittish, with wide round eyes, its black fur greying around the edges.

“Don’t let her fool you,” Andrew says. “She is a demon from hell.”

“Really?” Neil asks, standing on his tiptoes to peer over the counter at the little black creature hoovering up the tuna.

“She’s not supposed to have sushi, but she seems to think she is entitled to it when it is in her kitchen. So we compromised on tuna every once in a while. It’s a special treat,” Andrew stresses, glaring down at the cat. “Not for every day.”

“What’s her name?” Neil asks.

“Roomba. She picks up a lot of dust.”

Finished with her tuna, Roomba licks her mouth and peers up at her human with those big, eerie eyes and makes another gauzy mew that somehow manages to sound demanding.

“No,” Andrew tells her.

She emits a series of disgruntled noises like she’s cussing him out, then stretches and skitters off, back into the shadows.

“Does she understand you?” Neil asks, curious.

Andrew shrugs.

“Simple words and phrases, or tone of voice, mostly, but only when she wants.”

Not for the first time, Neil imagines sharing his space with a cat. Andrew seems to live by himself too, but somehow his home doesn’t feel so empty and lifeless. Neil doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong. Maybe it is the cat.

Or maybe it’s just Andrew.

They move to the sofa with their beers and Andrew turns off most of the lamps, dipping them in a winey half-dark.

“Do you mind if I take my socks off,” Neil says, because he can’t stand the damp fabric clinging to his feet anymore.

“Suit yourself,” Andrew says, amused, watching as Neil peels his socks off and then doesn’t really know where to put them until Andrew points him to the radiator.

Neil sits back down and wiggles his toes, picks at the label on his bottle more than he drinks the beer. Andrew watches him more than he drinks his beer.

“Do you believe in aliens?” Andrew asks eventually. He likes to spring non-sequiturs like this on his guests sometimes, and Neil feels warm and a little tingly and blames it on the beer.

“I’m not sure I’d say I believe in aliens,” Neil says carefully. “But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they existed.”

Kind of like his sex drive, he wants to joke but doesn’t.

“How about you?” he asks instead.

“Yes,” Andrew says. Then: “Do you want to make out?”

Like it’s that easy. And maybe it could be, if Neil let it.

“Okay,” Neil says, “yeah.”

They shuffle around a bit. Andrew takes the bottle from Neil’s hand and puts it on the table and it’s somehow hot, the way he does that. Gets him ready. Neil keeps his hands in his lap, then puts one on the back of the couch, then back in his lap. Andrew floods him with a look and Neil feels frozen, a deer caught in headlights, until Andrew takes his face in both of his hands, sending a shiver down his back and jolting him into action, and they meet in the middle.

Andrew still tastes a bit like soy sauce and beer. Neil probably does, too. Andrew’s tongue opens him up, confident and sure, licks into him like he knows exactly where the soft, juicy parts are hidden. Like Neil’s some kind of treat. Neil feels both cared for and precarious at the same time. He chases the feeling, trying to map out where it begins and where it ends, but the headlights have gone, leaving him safe and vulnerable in the dark.

When Neil tries to catch a breath Andrew hums, smug and snug and pleased, and kisses him with even more of that single-minded devotion. It makes Neil deliciously weak at the knees. He doesn’t think he’s ever enjoyed kissing so much, and he’s half afraid to stop and find out he was just imagining it. Just wanting it so much he fooled himself.

He’s pleasantly buzzed and wonderfully stupid when Andrew finally draws back, breaking the kiss in increments, letting it peter off into smaller and smaller kisses along Neil’s lips.

“There’s—something you should know,” Neil blurts out, still distracted by Andrew’s mouth.

“I know,” Andrew sighs, retreating. “Kevin told me.”

“Uh,” Neil says. “What?”

“He said you were on the ace spectrum,” Andrew says. “I believe his exact words were ‘but fuck knows where’.”

Neil doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s-

Confused.

Angry.

At Kevin, for reducing something Neil has been trying to grasp and pin down to a simple, dismissive sentence like that, and speaking for him when Neil has been fighting for words his whole life.

At Kevin and Andrew, for talking about him behind his back.

At himself.

“I listened to your podcast,” he says instead. “Not because I was stalking you or anything. I found it way before I knew you existed. I mean. I didn’t know it was you until we met.”

He runs his hand through his hair, frustrated. Andrew doesn’t look angry, or embarrassed, or put off.

He looks curious.

“Is that why you were so weird at the mall?”

“Uh,” Neil says, face heating up again. “I recognised your voice.”

Andrew smirks a little, and fuck if that isn’t hot.

There. Neil can find people hot.

It just doesn’t happen very often.

Like with the aliens.

“Does it bother you?” Andrew asks, still with that smooth, curious expression in his eyes, one finger tapping against his upper lip in thought.

“What?”

“Take your pick,” Andrew says. “Does it bother you that I’m the guy with the podcast. Does it bother you that I’m not that same guy, because I’m a real person. Does it bother you that I like sex, that I like talking about sex. Does it bother you that I asked you to come home with me despite knowing that we probably wouldn’t have sex.”

“No,” Neil says, frustrated all over. “Yes.”

“Well, which one?”

Neil slides down a little, pulls his knees to his chest and hugs them.

“I jacked off to you,” he admits. “To your voice. Does that bother you?”

“Not at all.”

Neil is quiet for a moment, working his jaw.

“I don’t know if I want to have sex with you,” he finally says. “It’s… maybe I am ace, I don’t know. It’s hit and miss. I can’t… I can’t give you a straight answer. A yes or a no. Is that a problem?”

“No,” Andrew says. “We can take our time. Figure it out.”

“What if it’s no?” Neil wants to know. “What if it’s always no? Or what if it’s yes one time and then never again?”

Andrew shrugs.

“Then it’s no.”

“But you like sex.”

“I like the idea of sex,” Andrew says slowly. “I like that it lets me reclaim something that was taken from me without my consent. But it might be no for me, too. It might always be no. It might be yes one time and then never again. Who’s to say? We only just met.”

Neil pulls on his sleeves and chews on his lower lip.

“Don’t overthink it,” Andrew says again. “What do you want right now?”

“I want to kiss you,” Neil admits quietly. “And maybe try more.”

“We can work with that,” Andrew says, mouth quirking up at one corner.

-

Andrew is right. They can work with that.

Andrew takes his hand and pulls him through the dark hallway. He leaves the lights off, just the blueish brightness of the snow outside outlining the bare bones of the room. It’s colder in Andrew’s bedroom, so they get under the covers and kiss some more, and Neil is relieved to find the magic of the first time wasn’t a fluke.

They kiss and kiss and kiss.

Then Andrew starts talking, rubbing his thumb over Neil’s hand. He sounds like late nights and the good parts of aloneness. Like a warm kind of black. Neil sinks into it, easing up slowly, and Andrew laces their hands and kisses the soft dips between his knuckles until Neil can’t control his shivering anymore.

“You said you got off to my voice,” Andrew murmurs, low but melodic, almost humming, and Neil nuzzles further into their cocooned space and suddenly doesn’t have it in him to be embarrassed anymore.

“Yeah,” he says.

“How,” Andrew wants to know.

Neil hesitates.

“Do you… want me to show you?”

“Yes,” Andrew says, “show me.”

He looks curious again, or maybe—keen. Another shiver races down Neil’s spine. He pops open the buttons on his jeans and Andrew lifts the blankets a little so he can watch.

“I liked the dirty talk episode,” drops out of Neil’s mouth unbidden. “With the praise thing. Not that I…”

“No?” Andrew asks, amused.

“I just thought it was really well done,” Neil huffs. He pushes his pants down and his erection catches on the waistband of his underwear for a moment. Andrew’s eyes follow the movement with interest, so Neil leaves it like that, rubs his hand over the fabric which is soft and already damp with precome.

“Don’t try to reverse-praise kink me,” Andrew murmurs absently, licking his lips.

“So you don’t have one either?” Neil teases, thumbing at the wet spot where the head of his cock is straining against his underwear, creating little sparks of arousal that fizzle out quickly but still feel nice.

“No,” Andrew says. A little too decisively.

“Do you have any lube,” Neil asks, dipping his fingertips under his waistband and enjoying the way Andrew’s eyes follow the movement, how it takes him a moment to process the question. Then Andrew leans over him, pressing him a little bit into the mattress, pressing his hand a little bit against his dick, and Neil inhales his scent and closes his eyes. He never thought he’d like to feel covered, weighed down, but his body almost misses the contact when Andrew leans back and hands him a bottle of expensive-looking lube.

Neil just buys the generic store brand. He’s kind of excited to try this one.

He finally wriggles his underwear down around his thighs, and Andrew makes a nice, low humming sound in the back of his throat.

“Here,” he says, taking the lube from him again and squeezing some into Neil’s palm before cupping his own over it, warming the cool liquid between them. It’s such a weirdly intimate thing to do that it makes Neil’s stomach clench.

When he wraps his hand around himself, it feels slick and tight and good, and he sucks a breath in through his teeth. Andrew pushes the blanket down around their hips, exposing him, and Neil scoots a little closer and catches Andrew’s hand, holding it to his mouth like a question mark.

In reply, Andrew traces the shape of his lips with his thumb, dips just the tip of it between them.

Neil starts stroking himself. He looks down and takes a shuddery breath, twists a hand in the fabric of his shirt to reveal another sliver of skin. He looks up and finds Andrew watching him, looking curious and keen and pleased again, and maybe that should make him feel cheap or dirty, but it does more of the opposite.

“Still okay?” he checks, breathless, and Andrew nods.

Neil’s toes curl, and he slows down to make it last a little longer. He’s used to playing cat-and-mouse with his orgasm, and he doesn’t want to skip to the part where he’s just jacked off in front of a guy he likes just yet.

Then he has an idea, and says: “Can I watch you, too?”

Andrew looks surprised for a moment, caught up in the lazy flick of Neil’s wrist. He meets his eyes, licks his lips. Thinks about it.

“Is that what you want,” he asks eventually, and Neil stills his hand and squeezes, teasing absently at the tip with his thumb.

“Yes,” he says, echoing Andrew’s earlier words: “Show me. If you want.”

Andrew huffs a little, then leans in to kiss him. His lips have cooled since the last time they were on Neil’s and Neil does his best to infuse them with warmth again, nipping and chasing and licking, and there’s the sound of a zipper coming undone and the cap of the lube clicking open and then Andrew’s breath staggering and releasing in a rough sigh.

Neil looks down again and his stomach jolts pleasantly at the sight of Andrew stroking himself to full hardness. He doesn’t usually get much out of porn, other than a generic sort of physical arousal that feels oddly detached from him. Watching Andrew’s hand tighten around his cock—his flushed knuckles, the shine of the lube, how thick he is compared to Neil, the messy smear of precome at the tip and the scars dotting the back of his hand…

It’s hot, and interesting, and nice all at once.

They jack off together, trading kisses and looks, speeding up and slowing down in sync. Neil leans his forehead against Andrew’s, their skin tacky with sweat, and their mouths don’t quite match up anymore but they’re panting the same air, and everything smells like Andrew and clean-but-slept-in sheets and arousal, and then Andrew starts murmuring tiny encouragements like fuck and yeah and come on and that’s hot, Neil and everything pulls taut in him, safe and precarious and secret and vulnerable, and he releases a breath like a bowstring and it rushes out of him as he comes, a sound like an arrow.

Andrew follows a few moments later, spilling over his hand and onto the sheets.

Neil closes his eyes. He waits, heartbeat buzzing in his ears, for reality to sink in again, like it always does. Waits to feel small and spent.

Instead there’s just a comfortable silence, and the sound of their joint breathing, Andrew’s scent in the pillow under Neil’s head.

“Hey,” Andrew says after a while.

Neil opens his eyes.

He feels—okay. A bit messy.

“Um,” he says. “Yeah.”

Andrew smothers a short burst of laughter in his pillow.

“Sex brain,” he says knowingly.

“What?”

“Makes you a bit stupid,” Andrew smirks. “Don’t worry, it’s temporary.”

“Hey,” Neil says. “I’m not some blushing virgin, okay.”

“How often do you masturbate?” Andrew asks, putting on his interview voice.

Neil narrows his eyes.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” he says. “Are you interviewing me?”

“What if I am?”

“As long as you’re not recording.”

Andrew taps his temple.

“Just with my mind.”

“Oh?” Neil says. They’re both still lying there with their cocks out, softening, breathing, the sticky sheets between them, but somehow it’s fine. Kind of funny, even. “Do you have a photographic memory?”

“Are you reverse-interviewing me?”

“Maybe I am.”

Andrew looks at him, considering, an amused dimple hiding out in his cheek. Then he sits up, stretches, and kicks the blanket down the rest of the way.

“Clean up first,” he says, “then coffee, then interview.”

“You me or I you?” Neil grins.

“Both,” Andrew says, before awkwardly climbing over Neil and out of bed with his pants around his knees, bare ass swaying in Neil’s vision for a moment.

“Nice,” Neil hums, and gets a pillow in his face for his trouble.

-

“So, Neil,” Andrew says over the rim of his coffee mug. “Can you remember the first orgasm you ever had?

They’re sitting in the dark of his office, with only the desk lamp on, laptop and recording equipment turned off and silent. The coffee is strong, with oat milk and a pinch of cinnamon, and Neil inhales deeply.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “It kind of all blurs together over the years.”

“Strange, isn’t it? Something so new, so different. You’d think it would stick out more.”

“Can you remember the first time you became aware of death?” Neil retorts.

“Yes,” Andrew says, but doesn’t elaborate.

Neil mulls this over as he sips his coffee, turns Andrew’s desk chair from side to side. It squeaks, which is surprising, given that he went to great lengths to make this room as soundproof as possible.

It’s also comfortable.

Neil feels drowsy in it, safe. Like he can tell Andrew anything. Which, he supposes, is kind of the point.

“Earlier, you said blushing virgin,” Andrew continues. “What meaning does the concept of virginity have to you?”

“A personal reference, I guess,” Neil replies, rolling his head against the back of the chair. “A way to distinguish a time before and after I experienced something.”

“Experienced what?” Andrew prompts.

“Sexual intimacy with another person,” Neil suggests and frowns. “Or… not intimacy, I guess.”

“Explain.”

“I don’t know,” Neil says, frustrated. “Stop making me question things.”

Andrew laughs a little into his coffee, then puts his mug to the side.

“Virginity was one of the things I grappled with, growing up,” he says, hiking his foot up on his seat and resting his hand on his knee. His fingers drum a mindless, soundless rhythm as he speaks. “If virginity was real, did that mean I had already lost it? Would my sex life forever be determined by this one, irretrievable loss? Could I still have it? Could I still have first times? How many until they ran out?”

“None of my first times were ever magic,” Neil admits when Andrew pauses.

“Right,” Andrew says, leaning slightly forward. “Then why define yourself by them?”

“Everyone else does,” Neil shrugs.

“Maybe everyone else is doing themselves a disservice, too,” Andrew suggests. “If you stop cherishing the first times, and start looking at the best times, you suddenly get to have a lot more. There’s no singular before and after. There’s just continuous potential.”

“Once or twice a week,” Neil says. “You asked how often I masturbate. Give or take.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Yeah. Sometimes more, sometimes less.”

“So once or twice a week, give or take, you give yourself pleasure,” Andrew says. “Shouldn’t that count for more than that one time you got off with another person and it was okay but not magic?”

He wiggles his fingers over the word magic, like it’s a made-up word or a joke.

“Yeah. I guess.”

Neil swivels idly in his chair, one foot next to Andrew’s to push off his seat.

“What do you do when you can’t sleep?” he asks.

“Lavender face mask,” Andrew says, deadpan.

“You’re joking.”

“Not at all. What do you do when you can’t sleep?”

“Er,” Neil says, feeling a little hot. “Masturbate. Or go for a run. Or, recently, listen to your podcast.”

“Does it help?”

Neil makes a see-saw motion with his hand.

“Yes,” he decides. “Though it doesn’t really make me sleep. But it is… soothing.”

He closes his eyes, feeling heavy and warm. Andrew puts one hand on his foot, a calming weight, anchoring him.

“Shit,” he mutters, sitting up. “I have work.”

“Now?” Andrew frowns.

“In,” Neil checks his watch, “four hours.”

“Do you want to sleep here?” Andrew offers. “Or stay up.”

“Tempting,” Neil hums.

“Which one?”

“Both.”

Andrew pokes the arch of his foot and Neil shoots up, ticklish and oversensitive from how tired he is.

“Go to bed,” Andrew says, “I’ll wake you up and drive you.”

“What about you?” Neil says around a yawn.

Andrew waggles his fingers at his laptop.

“I may have a new episode to record. Won’t know until I try.”

Neil stretches and grins.

“Will you talk about me?”

“No.”

“You can, if you want.”

“Go to bed,” Andrew tells him again, poking him between the ribs this time. Neil leaves him to his episode, gargles a little mouthwash in the bathroom, and finds Andrew’s cat tucked into a tidy loaf on top of the clean sheets Andrew put on earlier.

“Hey,” Neil says to her. “Can I sleep here?”

Roomba looks at him with her wide, round eyes and doesn’t move. Neil takes it as a yes and crawls in, shaping his body carefully around her, and closes his eyes.

Sleep comes easy, for once.