written and illustrated by Iron Eater
The laundry machine was on the fritz.
Some people Joshua knew were hesitant to call something that ran on supernatural energies a machine, per se, but in his opinion he was all for calling a spade a spade; it didn’t matter if behind the inconspicuous chassis with the Maytag branding was a fantastic portal to the dimensional plane of soap suds—or wherever it went, as the manual warned against sticking your head into the unit to investigate and Joshua was an avowed manual-reader—because so long as he put dirty clothes in and got clean clothes out it was good enough for him. The laundry machine was a typical magical appliance in that it needed both electrical power and a connection to Realms Unknown to work, similar to how a dishwasher needed both power and water if it was meant to do its job. Like all machines built for human convenience, he only really thought about it when it wasn’t working the way it ought to, and given the malfunction he had on his hands he was now thinking about the laundry machine quite a lot.
“Can you please restate your issue, Mr. Driscoll?” said the dully chipper voice on the other side of the phone.
Joshua sighed. He’d been wading through menus for what felt like forever but they didn’t even have a skeletal profile put together by now? “My Presto! model gave me the wrong clothes back when I ran a load in it this morning,” he said. “I didn’t overfill it and I’ve used this thing for a few months now with no trouble. I checked the website and it directed me to call this number before doing anything else.”
“And you’re certain it’s not your own clothing, simply resized, correct?”
He eyed the hamper full of somebody else’s wardrobe. They dressed much more banally than he did, his signature fierce colors and deep, luxurious blacks nowhere in sight among the stacked layers of beige. It absolutely did not contain his underwear. A Presto! that worked properly was better than any dry cleaner’s, which had gotten him in the bad habit of shoving delicates in with everything else. The manual had never said he couldn’t. “Positive.”
The sound of muffled typing drifted through the speaker. “One moment, please, I’m looking up usage logs for any Presto! in your registered location.” Joshua was not yet certain how he felt about Big Brother knowing the frequency with which he did or did not clean his socks, but when you were literally sending your laundry to a magical realm of whatever-they-had he supposed it couldn’t hurt knowing whose fault it was if someone accidentally unleashed a foam-spewing hydra from trying to double up on load time.
“Ah, I see the problem, Mr. Driscoll,” said the customer service rep just as Joshua was starting to wonder if he should find a book or something. “There is another Presto! in the same row of townhomes as you, and it seems that you both were operating your respective units close enough together that the process ended up a hair confused.”
Joshua wrinkled his nose at the rep’s use of process. Companies that dealt in magical appliances loved to throw around references to magic and wonder in the ad copy, but the moment they had to talk about how things worked it was all process this and method that. Heaven forbid they ever say they just stuck a bunch of spells in a box with a hinged door on the front and hoped for the best. Joshua had long since made peace with the fact that he owned several objects that operated on strictly impossible logic, and most of them had been 25% off at the uptown Best Buy.
Also distasteful was the sort of error his manual had assured him was unlikely to happen, even with multiple units in the same home all being operated simultaneously. “Do I need to have my machine serviced?” he asked. “My job doesn’t have a set work schedule and I don’t have the luxury of knowing when everyone else around me is going to be getting grass stains out of their overalls.”
Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak. Pause. “We can have a repair specialist out first thing tomorrow morning,” said the rep. “Will that work for you?”
“So long as it’s after eight AM, sure.”
Tak-tak! “You’re all scheduled, Mr. Driscoll. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“What should I do about my missing laundry?”
“I’ll contact the other Presto! owner and inform them of the issue, and set up a ticket in our system so you can arrange a meeting to exchange your clothing. It will remain as anonymous as you’d like it to be. A mail with a link and ticket ID should be in your inbox shortly.” Joshua’s phone vibrated against his ear as soon as the rep finished their sentence. That was one less thing to worry about, at least. “Your personal information will not be shared with the other user unless you yourself provide it. We understand that our clients’ clothing is a personal matter.”
“It’s fine,” said Joshua, now trying to keep his mind from wandering to what the other person might think upon seeing something decidedly not oatmeal-colored waiting for them in their washing machine. “Thanks, that’s all I needed. You can put me through to a survey or something if you got one.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Driscoll!” chirped the rep, and then they were replaced by the familiar dulcet tones of a corporate performance-rating metric.
Joshua absentmindedly rated the rep as highly as the survey permitted as he imagined a variety of scenarios where he got his laundry back. Would it be some dull businessman type? Maybe a real earth-mother hippie witch who got all her color from bead jewelry? Perhaps some sort of artist who was making a powerful statement about…something…by dressing like a bread-flavored sandwich? If they were boring he could try to scandalize them and if they were interesting he could potentially make a friend, and either way Joshua was tentatively pleased with the outcome. As soon as he had control of his phone again he opened his email, tapped out a message into the anonymous contact whatsit the rep had set up, verified everything sent properly, and then promptly forgot about the whole thing the moment he found a clean outfit.
The repair tech arrived right on time, fixed the Presto!, and left with minimal fanfare, save for a compliment for the imp Joshua kept tethered by the kitchen wipeboard. It really was a good imp, too, one Joshua had summoned himself back when some of the first legal DIY kits had hit the market, and so long as he remembered to give it a peanut every so often it handled his schedules and simpler paperwork with only the occasional unearthly screech. Joshua’s brother had owned a cockatoo when they were growing up, so it was nothing he hadn’t heard before.
What he hadn’t heard was anything from the owner of the other clothes. He knew the message had sent because there was an indicator built directly into the contact form (to say nothing of his own double-checking regimen), and he’d been checking it once every hour or so save for when he’d been sleeping. Reasonably, it shouldn’t be something to worry about for a good forty-eight hours or so since the original incident; unreasonably, Joshua really wanted his stuff back. As much as he’d purged it from his thoughts the day before, now it was all he could think of. Had the other person decided to sell his clothes? What if they’d tossed a load of laundry into the Presto! before heading out on a multi-week vacation? What if they were so scandalized by his wardrobe that they’d had a heart attack and died on the spot, having spent the last day saturating his favorite top with corpse stink? That one was the least likely of the bunch, so of course it was the scenario Joshua’s thoughts kept drifting back to whenever his mind wandered. It was getting old.
All through the day there was nothing. All through the night was more of the same. It wasn’t until Joshua woke up at the crack of dawn with an angry gut that he actually had something waiting in his inbox.
sorry for delay can meet Thursday after 9 AM at reading room
The reading room was an enclosed public space at the end of the townhouse row. There were a few books, some outdated magazines, and study areas for some of the local students, as though somebody had tried cultivating a lunchbox-sized library. Joshua usually didn’t bother with it much save for the time when he’d just moved in when he had to avoid renovation workers; these days he only popped in when he felt like buying a snack from the vending machines if he wasn’t in the mood to go down to an actual store. It seemed like a nicely neutral place to exchange laundry.
That works for me. 9:15 OK? I’ll be the guy with the laundry hamper.
The reply was swifter than he expected: yes thank you
Nothing else came down the line, so Joshua popped some stomach tabs and two of the mildest painkillers he had in the cabinet before returning to bed, secure in the knowledge he had the better part of a whole day to get over whatever it was that had interrupted his beauty sleep.
That was the plan, anyway. Landscaping had other ideas.
A man in Joshua’s line of work—which was, at the moment, a combination of unboxing videos, makeup tips for square-jawed faces like his own, reading short fiction, the odd bit of singing, and (advertised in places not linked to his more all-ages work) regular strip-tease streams for the discerning customer—lived and died by the state of his setup. Joshua operated out of the usual converted walk-in closet favored by those who paid their bills with their voices, and the walls’ soundproofing was excellent. It kept the din of the mowers and trimmers and whatever-elsers out of his recordings a treat; most days he never noticed that someone with a weed whacker was patrolling outside unless he emerged from his cave for a snack or bio-break. They could let each other do their jobs in peace.
Most days did not see a new security gargoyle lunge at a landscaper in the middle pruning the biggest tree on the street, causing what Joshua imagined must have been a comedy of errors all the way up until something took out several power lines.
The incident report he checked later assured him nobody had been hurt. What did end up hurt was the state of Joshua’s footage for the day, as even with battery backups and surge protectors it was hard to overcome a shot no longer having any actual light in it. Cleaning it up required time he didn’t have, reshooting just wasn’t an option given the aforementioned lighting problem, and he wasn’t about to miss an upload window unless he was laid out in a hospital somewhere. He ended up deploying one of his emergency videos to keep from breaking schedule before spending yet another very long time on the phone.
When the dust cleared and the lamps in the kitchen flickered back on Joshua forced himself off of his laptop to walk through the house to see if anything had fried itself. These days you couldn’t just rest on your laurels once you could watch TV again; modern conveniences came with modern inconveniences, which meant checking to see which clocks had to be reset and which wards needed to be bolstered. At least the kitchen imp had chosen to go to sleep when darkness fell across its perch, unlike the last time, which had resulted in needing to have a man come in to fix the drywall. It had taken days to get rid of the smell.
He was particularly frustrated by the loss of the better part of a workday. It wasn’t that Joshua lived hand-to-mouth, as he had emergency funds in the bank and was more or less on top of the various bills that came with maintaining a house, but he’d been hoping to have a real eye-catcher of a video in the pipeline to help take the sting off some recent repairs, and the emergency videos were decidedly not on that level. There were only so many hours in a day and only so much gas in his metaphorical tank, so even if he had a perfect reshoot it’d be longer than he’d like before he had the submission he really wanted. He glowered at his bookkeeping software. It was hard to tell himself he was doing fine when the metrics on the emergency video were tanking compared to the numbers he’d projected the night before.
Joshua leaned back in his desk chair and stared down the front hall. He found himself awkwardly studying the hamper piled with the other person’s laundry. Save for when he’d dug through it to see if anything had actually belonged to him Joshua hadn’t touched it save to move it from the laundry room to the table closest to the front door. Now it hunkered there like a fabric albatross. The set-upon time couldn’t arrive soon enough.
The new, more supernatural normal of the modern age meant even something as simple as a laundry mix-up was fraught with questions. The more Joshua tried to concentrate on his work, the more the questions racked up. Had this happened because one or both of them had let their loads end up contaminated with extra arcane cruft? What if there was some mystical stowaway tucked in a pocket next to washed-soft burger receipts and mints, eager to escape its soapy reality to wreak havoc on Joshua’s own? What if the person he was meeting tomorrow morning was a very beige wizard and these were actually robes that were now irrevocably tainted because Joshua had gotten his fingers all over them without performing the right rites? Given that the mystery person lived in the same row and hadn’t said anything about it when they set up their meeting, it was probably fine. Sometimes clothes were just clothes. Joshua still couldn’t help but worry.
Whoever owned the contents of the hamper was someone who liked sweaters. Sweaters and khakis. Sweaters, khakis, and button ups, if you wanted to get fancy about it, but aside from the usual underthings there was hardly anything else there. Were there folks out there who were professionally boring? Joshua felt his eyeliner threatening to run in protest. He checked for elementals as quickly as he could before folding everything back up. Maybe his own clothes were giving this taupe-blooded person a much-needed jolt of inspiration. He liked to think that was the case. A man who paid his taxes by being ostentatious for the Internet had to allow himself the occasional passing fancy, after all.
Joshua wanted very badly to rummage around for secrets. It took all his self-control to keep from turning everything inside out in search of hidden treasures; his practical side knew that if nothing else he would be better off with plausible deniability on his side. Besides, what if the owner turned out to be a creep? He’d never be able to get the nasty phantom feeling off his hands.
He was pretty certain the laundry was not sentient, so there was no reason he should feel like it was mocking him every time he wandered past it, and yet mock him it did. Once the dishes for dinner were washed and put away, Joshua put himself in the back of the house and stayed there the rest of the evening.
At least he slept well that night.
The reading room was exactly the same it had been the last time Joshua had stopped by, right down to the magazines in the rack by the bay window. Save for the attendant and a few kids who went up to the children’s section shortly after Joshua arrived there was nobody there. He checked his watch. There were still a few minutes to go until the agreed-upon time, which meant a compulsive early-bird like himself felt like he was already late. The hamper in the chair next to him remained as dull as ever. Given that Joshua’s shirt of the day was printed with a high-contrast pattern he’d come to think of as “mid-century memetic hazard,” he wondered if it looked like he was returning an ex’s clothes. Hopefully it wasn’t too weird that he kept imagining relationship configurations with this person he’d never met. A man had to have a hobby.
At precisely a quarter past the hour a man in a plain sweater and plainer khakis pushed through the door, carrying a laundry basket that looked like a paint store had exploded in it. Joshua relaxed; everything looked to be in order, at least from where he sat. He waved at the man holding his laundry and gestured towards one of the study rooms. There were some things that were suitable for casual public exposure; given that Joshua had been washing some of his garters at the time of the incident, this did not feel like one of them.
He pulled the door shut behind them and placed his hamper on the table before extending a hand to the stranger. “Hi there. Name’s Joshua. Sorry about the mix-up.”
The other person took his hand and shook it. It was neither strong and firm nor damp and noodly; a wholly forgettable interaction. If Joshua had a knack for seeing auras he suspected this one would have been taupe.
“Hello, Joshua. I’m Willem.”
There was something slightly off about how the man pronounced his name, so Joshua tried to clarify. “William?”
“Will for short?”
“No, just Willem,” said Willem, calmly. It was practically a single syllable: Wilm. He had yet to lose the small, absent half-smile he’d walked in wearing, which hopefully meant he was in an amiable enough mood. Maybe his mouth just did that on its own. Joshua suspected he had a lot to learn about Resting Willem Face.
“Good to meet you, Willem.” Joshua gestured to the purloined laundry. “I don’t know what you put into your machine, but I tried to keep everything mine gave me tidy. Sorry if I folded anything wrong.”
Willem’s arm twitched in a way Joshua recognized, that being the repressed fidget of someone who had grown up wearing glasses trying to fidget with a set they no longer had. Joshua’s mother had done the same for months after her laser surgery. This detail was already several times more interesting than the rest of him. Willem was the sort of person you got if you pressed a button marked typical male human on a machine. “It looks fine from here. I re-fold things when I put them away, anyway.”
They put their conversation on hold to go through their belongings. Everything seemed to be in order on Joshua’s end, right down to the frilly underthings he hadn’t wanted to show off to the reading room at large. Some people paid good money to see cam footage of those. It wouldn’t make sense to devalue his fun-money funds by wearing his lingerie in public; his patrons got off on that sense of scarcity. You could build a surprisingly loyal fanbase with the right combination of a corset and a three-piece suit.
“I see you are a, uh, a very colorful person,” continued Willem as they rummaged through their respective baskets.
Joshua resisted the urge to note that water was also wet. “I’ve been told that,” he said, instead. He ran his hand along the stylized floral design shaved into the shorter side of his haircut before letting the tips of his fingers brush against the golden drop piercings that followed the curve of his ear. It was hard not to peacock for what he already suspected was a receptive audience. “I’m glad to get these back. I have work clothes in here.”
Willem’s small smile became a small, puzzled frown, not unlike an upset porcelain baby figurine. “You work in fashion?”
“Not quite,” said Joshua, now quite enjoying himself. “My job is professionally being noticed online. My card,” he added, a rectangle of iridescent-print card stock appearing between his fingers in a fit of prestidigitation. That childhood obsession he’d had with stage magic came in handy when he needed to stick out in a stranger’s mind.
He smiled as Willem took the card with all the wariness of someone unsure if a stove burner was on. “Keep it,” he said. “I have more where that came from.”
Willem didn’t immediately reply, instead reading the card with great focus and intent. “Should I visit this URL when I get home?”
“If you like. Looking’s always free, unless you want the premium content.”
“Premium content?” asked Willem, and if that wasn’t a hint of thirstiness in his voice then Joshua would eat one of the smaller entries in his hat collection. The excessive blandness oozing from his pores should have been a tipoff; some seemingly boring people were dull all the way down to the bone, but you had to keep an eye out for the ones that kept a plain and unassuming lid on a teeming morass of sexual creativity. So long as this Willem fellow didn’t turn out to be a serial killer or something, Joshua decided he wouldn’t mind seeing for himself where things went.
A good salesman needed a strong pitch, and as mediocre as Joshua had been on his high school baseball team he felt he was excellent at selling an idea. “I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail with kids around, you know. Don’t want to warp any impressionable young minds,” he said with a knowing wink. “Suffice to say I dress to impress.” Having sown the seeds of curiosity, he went for a conversational pivot. “So what do you do? Here I am talking on and on about myself without so much as asking how your day is going.”
“Business elementalism and consulting,” said Willem, and of course that was what he did. More and more paper-pushers had to double as wand-wavers these days. Perhaps it had been for the best that Joshua hadn’t rifled through things. Willem, seemingly unaware of past temptations to break social contracts, gestured at his shoes, which were a pair of slip-on loafers as colorless as the rest of his outfit. “As you can see, it’s a very casual office,” he said.
“I think we define that phrase differently,” said Joshua. He had meant to ramp up from there into outright loaded flirting—Willem might not be immediate boyfriend material, but he certainly felt like future client fodder—when the chirping of his smartwatch interrupted them. He’d meant for it to be an emergency release from an awkward situation had things gone differently between himself and the previously unknown party. How vexing for it to be the opposite! “Sorry, duty calls. Poetry collections don’t read themselves! Thanks for getting my clothes back to me.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Willem. He picked up his laundry in one hand and twiddled the business card with the other. “I have some late meetings this week. Would it be rude if I didn’t look at your work until I get an actual day off?”
Joshua scoffed. “Don’t worry yourself about it. It’s the Internet, it’s not going anywhere.” He paused. “So long as the servers stay up, anyway.”
They exchanged a few final pleasantries before parting ways, and now that the mystery of the nothing-colored clothing was solved Joshua could get back to more important things. Poetry collections generally didn’t read themselves, barring enchantment or audiobook, and the carpet was probably due for some vacuuming while the finished video rendered. With laundry in hand he strode out of the reading room to greet the rest of the day.
One of Joshua’s garter belts was missing.
“Son of a bitch,” he hissed through his teeth to an empty room, upset that he hadn’t thought of a more creative curse but pleased at the mouthfeel of his oath all the same. He’d turned his whole house upside down looking for the damn thing with no results. It wasn’t like he didn’t have others—Joshua had an entire collection of frilly things for a variety of situations—but he’d been planning on a very specific color theme for the upcoming stream performance, and while the red ones would do he had hoped to work with the scarlet set. He still had a day, he told himself. He could make this work.
He tried to think back on the last time he’d seen the wayward accessory. Had it been in the laundry he’d swapped with Willem? That probably wasn’t the case, given how he hadn’t seen anything missing when he first went through the basket, which meant he latched onto the idea as the only solution. It wasn’t like Willem hadn’t been interested in Joshua’s ostentatious personal style. Maybe he’d held on to something as a keepsake. Maybe he’d assumed the jackets and slacks had belonged to a woman (or at least somebody who could fit the role better than Joshua did) and reality was too much. Maybe it had just fallen out of the basket and Joshua was overreacting and he’d find it under a sofa somewhere and he knew he was going to lose his mind if he kept thinking about boring business wizards and the crimes they may or may not have committed against his person.
Speaking of Willem, Joshua hadn’t heard from him at all in the few days since their brief meeting. He skimmed his inbox and found nothing out of the ordinary; his spam-catcher folder was similarly unhelpful. There were no new patrons, no stream RSVP payments he didn’t recognize, nothing that implied Willem hadn’t just vanished into the ether with an armload of sweaters in tow. Had Joshua mistaken awkwardness for curiosity?
A ping from the anonymous contact app demanded his attention. He was surprised it was still active; maybe it was just easier for these things to decay after a set period of time if their users didn’t manually put the kibosh on things. Joshua thumbed the app open.
hello it’s Willem sorry I am so embarrassed I think one of my imps stole something of yours
Most people didn’t have imps, plural, unless they were dedicated to summoning, mostly due to how annoying they were in groups. Joshua raised his eyebrows.
Let me guess, deep red ruffly thing with a damask pattern?
yes that’s it I’m sorry
I was wondering where that went, he texted. If an imp had gotten into things, no wonder he hadn’t noticed it missing at first. Minor spirits loved to cover their tracks by ensorcelling evidence of whatever they’d gotten up to in order to make the human mind slide right off. It usually wore off after a few days. Assuming it had stolen it reasonably early on, the timeline lined up. Joshua wasn’t sure how to feel about being simultaneously right and wrong about Willem. Why didn’t you just email me about it?
I felt weird sending that to your work mail sorry
What a sweet summer child. With very few exceptions Joshua used a single address for everything, be it business, pleasure, or anything between; it begged the question of just how uptight Willem’s own workplace was if they would frown on him asking about misbehaving summoned creatures. You seem okay. I can give you my phone number if you want to text me about it without Big Laundry watching us.
yes please thank you
Joshua had few qualms about giving out his number to people he’d performed only the most perfunctory of social interaction smell tests upon; he was quick to block over-familiar weirdos and almost as quick to swipe a ward of protection across his phone’s screen in the event people got creepy. Willem’s typing was not improved by a change of venue, it turned out, though he did eventually let up on the constant apologies. For that Joshua was infinitely grateful, as he’d been about one “sorry” away from flinging his phone out the window.
Look, you seem nice, so be honest with me here, said Joshua once they had sorted out how they were going to get the garter back in his possession (a method which boiled down to slipping it through the mail slot later on). Were you checking me out earlier? Or were you just uncomfortable and trying not to put your eyes somewhere that’d send the wrong message? I’m not going to be upset if it’s the answer behind door #2.
Willem was quiet a while before sending his reply. oh my god was it obvious
Joshua was grateful that they weren’t video chatting because he knew he was grinning like an anglerfish at that revelation. I’m saying this to you as a professional: if you have complicated feelings about the way I look, I’m not offended, because that’s part of my business strategy.
I didn’t want to say it while you were there but I have kind of a thing for fancy stuff
Fancy stuff as in suits, or fancy stuff as in lingerie? asked Joshua. He waited a few seconds before sending in a precision strike. Or both?
both, said Willem.
Neat. Joshua weighed his options, then went for the one that sounded most fun. He did need to make up for lost profit due to the power outage, after all. So what would you say if I told you I tend to be something of an exhibitionist for hire, and my next stream is in a few days? I think it’ll have plenty of that “both” you like, even without the piece your imp stole.
oh my god is this sexting, said Willem.
Not unless you’re paying.
He expected a flustered reaction. A long, pointed pause laden with typing notifications that resulted in a very short text would have made sense. Instead, what Joshua got from Willem was this: that’s fair do you have your rates posted anywhere I can read
Had Joshua been thinking rationally he would have tossed Willem the link to the usual place with the usual prices. Joshua, unfortunately, found he had developed some sort of crush on this unfathomably uninteresting man, and a crush laid on top of a dry spell on top of phantom memories of someone else’s cologne was a powerful thing. It had to be a side-effect of refusing to date anyone more interesting than he was. Tell you what, he said, I was thinking of practicing my routine for the next stream anyway, and if you have cash to spend and a mic that works I wouldn’t be opposed having a viewer for my dress rehearsal….
One thoroughly pleasant exchange of funds and one suit-up session later, Joshua sat in an executive chair in his other converted closet, his eyes flicking over equipment calibration readouts as he waited for a name to pop up in the private pay room he maintained for situations such as this. He studied the angle of his camera and how its white balance compared to his makeup. As with any video field there were endless checks with which to busy himself; when a previously-negotiated username appeared in the room he met the interruption with equal parts frustration and relief.
“Hello, Willem,” said Joshua, flashing the camera a coolly amused expression as he spoke. “I’m glad to have you here today.”
He was greeted with some fabric-muffled fumbling against a microphone before Willem’s slightly tinny voice came into his earpiece. “Hello, Mr. Driscoll.”
Mister Driscoll, was it? Joshua would keep that little detail in his pocket. “So, as established, this will be a private affair between the two of us,” he said. “I’m going to be preparing for a slightly more public show later on. Usually I work solo. Your generous donation means you’re my special guest co-star today, so feel free to speak up if something crosses your mind, hm?”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but since this is a dry run, I can’t promise I’ll be able to stay in character the entire time. Is that going to be a problem?”
“No sir.” Was that a hitch in Willem’s breath? Did the man get a boner from clicking cookie-use agreements or something? Still, better easily delighted than hard to please.
“Good, good.” He smoothed the front of his jacket; Joshua’s suit of the evening was a crisp black affair with a matching tie and white shirt, his colorful plumage and jewelry at intentional odds with the lot. A folded square of damask-patterned scarlet peeked out from his breast pocket. Joshua had always been fond of foreshadowing. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself, Willem? We’ve yet to have a proper chance to get to know one another.”
“Well, ah. I’m thirty-three, single, employed at Chiang-Bentley, and I like to keep to myself. I like gardening. I go to the gym three times a week. I like prestige television and Italian food. I don’t have any pets but I do have a lot of summons, so a lot of my free time goes into making sure they’re doing well.”
It was weird having someone be able to recite a back-of-the-paperback summary of themselves so swiftly. Joshua crossed his legs at the ankle and leaned back in his chair a bit. “That’s lovely, Willem,” he said. “Now how about you tell me what gets you off?”
Willem needed a moment to find words. “I, uh, if we’re talking about what I’m into then I guess you’d say I have really broad tastes, but also really narrow ones? I like women, and men, and people who don’t fit into either of those categories, but that part isn’t really as important as how they put themselves together.” He tried, and failed, to not swallow nervously into the mic. “Suits really do it for me. That’s a really big one.”
Joshua adjusted his tie. “I take it you wish your office wasn’t so casual, hm?”
“It’s complicated,” said Willem, sighing. “I don’t like wearing all that stuff, myself. It’s uncomfortable. I’d feel bad expecting other people to do the same. It’d be unreasonable.”
Fretting about kinks when a willing subject of said kink was right there on camera was a new one. Did Willem ever flirt? Had he sold his ability to unclench his anus to entities unknown? Joshua decided then and there that he was going to earn that commission money or die trying. “Yet here I am, dressed to the nines, right where you can see me,” he said. He hooded his eyes and smiled knowingly. “And I think we both know what else I’m wearing right now.”
Having properly captured Willem’s attention, it was time for Joshua to get to work. He uncrossed his legs, stood, and tossed his hair back behind his shoulder. A little light authority-flexing seemed in order, since a proper setting of a scene could make the difference between a happy chat and a puzzled, blue-balled one. “I’m pleased you came to my office today, Willem. I like people who do as they’re told.” He lingered in view of the camera, his shoulders subtly shifting to show off different angles of the suit. “Middle management, especially those in the summoning trade, sometimes have trouble remembering their place. I don’t think that will be a problem today, do you?”
“No sir,” said Willem. He had the decency not to breathe right into his mic like an obscene phone caller of yore. Joshua could appreciate a little heavy breathing over his earpiece, but there was a time and place, and it generally wasn’t less than two minutes into a show.
Joshua slowly undid the buttons on his coat to reveal its satin lining, which he ran a hand across to make it shimmer while flashing his current set of cufflinks. People who were into fancy dress liked to see as much of it as they could before it came off; Joshua was only too happy to oblige, dry run or otherwise. He’d done this exact maneuver so many times he could’ve done it in his sleep.
“You like what you see?” he asked, smugly. It was one of the oldest lines in the book, probably originally in cuneiform, and Joshua would keep using it until the end of time since it worked.
Another nervous swallow made its way into his ear. “It’s a good suit. I like how you wear it. You’re very sexy, Mr. Driscoll.”
“Am I, now?” It was the ultimate in rhetorical questions, as Joshua had been blessed to more or less always like what he saw when he looked in the mirror, and the few times he hadn’t he’d been able to quickly form battle plans. “I can’t be having you getting distracted during our meeting, though. I suppose I’ll need to take it off. You don’t mind, do you, Willem?”
“No sir. Not at all.”
There were a lot of ways one could take off a suit jacket, and some of them worked better on camera than others. Joshua found he liked to let them slide off his shoulders before doffing one sleeve entirely, leaving the other free to be artfully tossed to the side. It had taken a lot of practice to learn how to do it without risking the damn thing landing in a way that would require a lot of ironing to unwrinkle. He stretched and cracked his knuckles. Showing off the whiteness of the dress shirt he wore was important if he was going for the dramatic.
His tie he untied with measured slowness. When to remove the tie was a detail he could never quite settle on; if he left it on later it had the appeal of being strictly out of place, though it risked muddling the canvas of his torso, and if he took it off immediately he didn’t have to worry about not strangling himself with it but lost out on the appeal for the valuable untied-tie aficionados to whom he catered. On this occasion Joshua let the loose fabric drape down the front of his shirt as he tapped his fingertips against his shirt buttons. It had taken Joshua a lot of videos, and a lot of private streams, before he’d been able to afford actual mother-of-pearl fasteners, and he was going to show them off as often as he could.
“You see, I’ve made a career out of knowing how to work with people like yourself,” he said, returning once more to his chair. He undid his topmost button to stroke the skin of his neck and collar where he’d shaved it smooth. “It involves making sure there is no question where you need to place your focus.”
“Of course, sir.”
Joshua kept his nails immaculate so they’d be nice and tidy on camera; what kept him from looking like a slob when pointing at different parts of a new gizmo he’d just shucked from its plastic also served as a key part of taking things off for money. It was a shame he hated wearing nail polish. Said manicure began to work its way down his shirt one button at a time. He smiled to himself when Willem whispered in admiration at the first reveal of lace.
“I see you’re paying attention. Good.” Joshua intentionally kept his shirt front closed as he unfastened, save for the occasional teasing glimpse, and he left its tails tucked into his trousers. He ran his hands down his sides once he was done. That move had also taken a lot of practice to not end up rumpling the fabric like a twit. “You know what I have here, don’t you?” he purred.
A pause preceded Willem making a quiet vowel noise of affirmation. Had he defaulted to nodding? How adorable.
“Glad to hear we’re on the same page,” said Joshua, and then he spun in his chair to face away from the camera. He grinned at the dismay this elicited from Willem. After a count of four he stood, still facing away, and undid his buckle before sliding his belt out of its loops. He held the now-freed belt off to the side and let fall to the floor. Belts had the decency to not need a lot of maintenance no matter which way you dropped them.
He eased down his dress pants until they hung just beneath the hem of his shirt. A hand casually traced the curve of his hip and just so happened to expose a flash of skin between shirt and trousers, paired with the distinctive band of a red damask garter. It was the twin to the still-missing one in Willem’s possession. Joshua wondered what all that truant bit of lingerie would see before it made its way back home.
Sometimes Joshua removed his pants all the way and sometimes he didn’t; given his audience he felt it appropriate to err on the side of the latter, though not before he let them sag down enough to show he was wearing stockings to go with the garters. The art of the dance was sadly not among Joshua’s talents. He had learned to make do by wiggling suggestively and taking plentiful opportunities to run his hands along his body, and if anyone objected to his layman’s attempts at burlesque his profits hadn’t suffered for it.
The tie joined the belt, and after another count of four Joshua turned back to face the camera, careful to keep his untucked shirt concealing the most important parts. He ran his fingers through his hair in a coquettish gesture that neatly covered up needing to adjust his earpiece. The time to switch from teasing to the meat of his performance had arrived. Joshua shot the screen a sultry look before he flipped his shirt open to fully reveal the soft-sided bodice he wore beneath it.
Whatever microphone Willem was using was more sensitive than Joshua had given it credit for since he heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper through it. Joshua smirked. He pushed his pants down his hips to reveal what he felt was the crown jewel of his adult streams: the half-hard bulge already distending the be-ribboned thong underwear he wore, its fabric a perfect match for his bodice. A well-dressed man never missed a chance to tastefully coordinate his outfit for the day.
He took his time touching his stomach and thighs before he tugged down the front of his thong and pulled himself out. In most of his streams this would be his cue to shimmy around before jerking off for an enraptured audience, most of which were surely doing similar to whatever genitals they brought to the party, but that felt anticlimactic to what he’d already built up so far. Instead, Joshua slipped his hand beneath his balls, his fingers gently cradling them as his thumb stroked against the base of his shaft. In the space of a few seconds he was fully erect and fabulously photogenic.
“You see this, Willem?” he asked as he aimed his silk-framed tackle at the camera and gave it a purposeful heft.
“What we have here is a problem. Since you’ve decided to come see me in my office today I assume it’s because you’re a problem-solver. Is that correct?”
“That’s what I like to hear. I assume you have a proposal you’re ready to present?”
Willem faltered. “A proposal?”
“Explain to me how you plan to address the situation we’re dealing with,” said Joshua. He hoped he didn’t come off sharp in an unintended way; given how smoothly Willem had glided into the situation Joshua had expected he’d have no trouble with this part of the scenario. Perhaps Willem was more used to passive roles. Given how experienced he seemed to be with paying for cam services it made sense. “Consider it part of your performance evaluation.”
“Oh…” panted Willem. It seemed entirely in character for a man who wore so much colorless clothing to be sexually aroused by someone studying his job efficiency. “I, Mr. Driscoll, I’d really like to suck your cock for you, if you’d be amenable to that.”
Joshua put his foot up on the table—he was very glad he’d decided against wearing heels that day—and flexed his fingers again. “Get to it. Be detailed, please.”
Willem whined. “I’ve done it plenty of times before, I promise I’d be good for you,” he said. “I can take a pretty big cock down my throat so long as I can warm up to it. I know how to keep my lips soft. I can do everything for you, or I can be good and sit still and let you fuck my mouth as long as you want.” His words started coming faster and shakier. “I want to push my nose against your stomach and feel you come in my mouth. I’ll swallow whatever you give me. Or you can come on my face, if that’s better for you. I don’t even wear glasses anymore so it’s quick to clean up once you’re done looking at me. Please, Mr. Driscoll, I need you to use me….”
So Willem had been a spectacles-wearer in the past. Joshua mentally patted himself on the back for catching that little detail. Satisfied, he started to stroke himself off, accompanied by the eagerly desperate sounds of his private audience. “Then you’re going to get on your knees and solve some problems, Willem,” he said in his best boardroom-villain voice.
Not having anyone on the mic was Joshua’s preferred way to host his streams, since it freed him to work at his own pace; this time, though, a rather significant amount of money had changed hands, and he’d taken a shining to his not-quite-next-door neighbor, so he chose to go for the finish line instead of drawing things out. “That’s a good tongue you’ve got on you,” he said, ever the showman even when mid-masturbation. “Keep it up and you’ll earn yourself a bonus.”
His audio feed was now nothing but rustling cloth and ragged breaths. These had the hiss of someone inhaling through their nose; there could be a dozen explanations for this, but Joshua liked to think Willem kept a toy on hand to suck on during particularly intense moments of self-gratification. It was quite a nice thought. Joshua dwelled on that until he came; he had a lot of practice at this part, as well.
“You better not spill a drop of that,” he said to the camera’s unblinking eye. The sound through his earpiece implied Willem was well on his way to finishing himself as a result. One muffled cry later and Joshua was convinced the transaction had been satisfactory for all parties.
Fantasy completed, Joshua went about his business of cleaning up, checking on the state of his suit, and testing how a few short routines looked in the mirrored image of his rig. He left Willem to himself until a soft, happy voice met his ears again.
“Sorry for going quiet. I needed to take care of some stuff.”
“Not a problem,” said Joshua. He checked his nails before steepling them meaningfully. “I can see this is far from your first time in this situation,” he added, oozing smugness. “You knew just what questions to ask and already had all the little programs and accounts you needed. I have to say, Willem, I’m flattered that a seasoned pro like yourself wanted to spend time with little old me.”
“I meant it when I said you’re hot,” said Willem. He didn’t sound self-conscious about saying so at all. Joshua had a sudden burning need to learn more about what Willem was prone to clamming up about and what information he gave freely. “When you told me you’re, um, in this business, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to see so much of you. I’d been curious ever since the beginning.”
Joshua chuckled. “Ever since that little meetup in the reading room?”
“Since our clothes got mixed up. You wear great stuff. I wanted to know what you were like.”
“So, did I live up to the hype?”
Willem laughed wearily. “Whew. Yes, yes, you did.”
“Another satisfied customer!” Joshua said, and blew a kiss at the camera. He rested his cheek in his hand, one elbow propped up on his little table. “So, tell me. It sounded to me like you were having yourself a time with a little more than just Miss Rosy Palm and her five daughters. What sort of fun do you keep in your toybox for making home movies a little more exciting?”
“Portals,” said Willem.
He could hear Willem blanch. “It’s part of my job,” said Willem after a bit too long of a pause. “Someone in my position needs to know how to handle summoning logistics, and that means knowing how to work with portals. It’s…this is so embarrassing…it’s possible to have part of the human body line up with a small portal and have it emerge from a paired exit point somewhere else. I’ve got a knack for making little temporary ones. I might not go on a lot of dates but I’ve still got a lot of experience with sucking cock, if you know what I mean.”
Joshua laughed with delight. “Well look at you, that’s downright creative! Easier on your neck than the old-fashioned way, I’ll bet.”
“I nearly gave myself a nasty sprain when I was sixteen. Never again.” He rustled around a bit, perhaps cleaning up. “Would it be weird if I asked if you wanted to meet up again? Just to talk? I’d love to pay for more stuff like this, like a lot more. You’re really hot, Joshua. But I’d really like more local friends, too, and you live close by, and you seem like you’d be fun to know. I hope that’s not overstepping any lines. Just tell me if it is. It’s fine.”
That was the most touching thing Joshua had ever heard from a client he was pretty sure didn’t want to harvest his skin to make into a bonnet. “How about a lunch date? There’s this cafe on Beechtree Street I keep meaning to try, and I’d rather have some company in case the food sucks.”
“Should I pay?”
“Only if you want to. I’m fine going Dutch.”
“Do you usually go out afterwards with people who pay extra?” asked Willem. “It’s fine if you do, you know your business better than I do,” he added, quickly, “but—”
Joshua chuckled and cut him off. “Just the cute ones who accidentally steal my laundry.”
“Why me, though?”
“Why not? You’re nice, you seem like you have your act together, and you’re probably not going to murder me in the night. You’d be surprised how much that Venn diagram doesn’t intersect.” He didn’t feel like sharing how often a bland exterior could conceal the white-eyed heart of a pervert, as that risked being taken the wrong way. Not everyone liked the P-word for themselves, after all, even ones who made a habit of defying the laws of time and space in the name of autofellatio. One of these days he’d need to ask to see that in action. “Let me finish up here and I can call you off-cam. I don’t want some creep bugging me about having the room active but not open.”
“Of course, Mr. Driscoll.”
“Oh, you,” said Joshua with a smile, and if he hadn’t had a free day on his calendar before, he certainly did now.
They kept meeting up for lunch dates, which then expanded to include other dates, and Willem kept paying for cam sessions, and they kept finding the flimsiest excuses to spend time around each other with or without their pants on, so one day Joshua felt it appropriate to ask an important question over pizza. “Would you say we’re a thing?”
“A thing?” asked Willem.
Joshua shrugged. “Boyfriends. Partners. Ess ohs. Whatever you want to call it.” He took another bite of extra-cheesy pineapple and bacon. “I like you, and you’re not weird about what I do for a living, and I’d be fine putting a name on whatever it is we’re doing. You don’t have to move in or anything. Might ask you to sleep over now and then, though.”
Willem’s usual small smile bloomed into the beginnings of a grin before it shrank down to a puzzled little frown. “You’re not viewing me as some sort of fixer-upper, are you?”
It took everything Joshua had not to crack up. He sipped desperately at his drink to keep from inhaling an entire mouthful of food down the wrong tube. “Willem, hon, some days, if I know I’m only doing audio then? I don’t even put pants on in the morning. You might have noticed I’m more the type of guy who opens up boxed toys on camera or wheedles strangers into watching him strip instead of setting up a 401(k). I’m not going to take responsibility for anybody else’s well-being while I’m busy hosting my own personal Disasterpiece Theater.”
“I don’t know if I’d be that good of a boyfriend…,” said Willem into his iced tea.
“You’re pretty good at being a client, and for me that’s pretty important. Keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe swing by now and again if I’m not working and you’re feeling a little skin-hungry. Just because I perform solo doesn’t mean I don’t like getting my cock sucked in person, you know. And it’d probably be a nice change from always going down on yourself.”
Willem flushed. His default slightly-smiley expression had returned, making him look like a bemused tomato. “Would you ever dress up for that? If I asked nicely? Like for a special occasion?”
“Depends on how good you are with your mouth,” said Joshua with a smirk. He dabbed away some spare crumbs with a napkin. “But if you’re so inclined, I am currently wearing a fantastic little number with lacy ribbons at the hips that looks great when I’ve got a hard-on, and you’re welcome to make your case however you want so long as I get to come once you’re done. That is, assuming your schedule’s free.”
The crimson hue of Willem’s cheeks shifted towards purple. “Do boyfriends still get to be special guests on stream? Maybe with their eyes covered up so people don’t recognize them when they help out? Especially if they’re still happy to pay for the privilege?”
A paired show was not the sort of thing Joshua had seen himself doing, but he could already see how to bill it as a deluxe performance package for clients of distinction, and if Willem’s deep pockets were seeding the fields then that was already going to be worth his time. The occasional bonus stream outside his usual wheelhouse wasn’t likely to hurt his adult-oriented brand. And with a potential new portal-packing boyfriend showing up for said stream in a heavy blindfold? Well, Willem wasn’t the only one learning things about himself lately. Joshua suddenly had some online catalogs in mind to peruse later. “Absolutely.”
“I guess I can see how I do,” said Willem, and he smiled, this time broad and genuinely.
There had to be better ways to start a relationship than unexpected appliance failures, mused Joshua soon afterward, his fingers twined in Willem’s hair and his cock exploring the topography of Willem’s eager mouth, but damned if this way wasn’t fun.