Alex is a podcasts person. Not as much of one as Nora, but still, a podcasts person. Nora listens to them almost constantly, and when she finds one she thinks Alex would like, she recommends it to him. After his first accidental all-nighter in high school, when he'd been kept up not by work but by the stress of upcoming work, well, she'd had a podcast for that. A podcast called Sleep With Me, were a British voice rambles its way through boring stories and quiet affirmations until Alex drifts into dreamland.
Tilney, the voice of Sleep With Me, has been there for him since high school, when he'd been figuring out his recording equipment and Alex had been trying desperately not to think of anything outside of school, lacrosse, and a resume good enough to get him into the college of his dreams. The minutes (and hours) between going to bed and falling asleep were always the hardest, when his mind would race and he'd be left stranded in a dark netherworld, alternating between terror and exhaustion. But then he found Tilney, and the rambling voice gave him just enough to focus on that his mind could stop racing. Tilney would put out an episode a week, and Alex would listen to that episode seven times without reaching the end awake.
He's not entirely sure how or when it happened, but at some point, Alex started to rely on Tilney. He didn't notice at first, just incorporated the podcast into his bedtime routine and accepted it. There would be a new episode up every Monday, and if he looked forward to them, well, it was because listening to the same thing for a week got boring. But then there was a week without an update. It came just after the end of his junior year of high school, when his mom was officially running for president and he was starting to think about college and what being half-Mexican First Children could mean for him and June. The missed episode just added wondering where Tileny went to the long list of worries buzzing around his head. When the epizode came two days later, Tilney sounded different. He sounded tired, and for the first time, Alex started to think of Tilney as a person rather than just a voice. He became a friend, even, though Alex would never have admitted that.
But he would admit to being genuinely worried, especially when the episode started out with, "Hi, everyone. So I... my family has been having a hard time recently, so I'm just going to be reading a bit today. I know this isn't... this isn't a normal thing for me, and it isn't going to become one, but for a while I don't quite have the energy to write new stories, and I always tell you all to look after yourselves and that's something I'm going to try to do, too. I'm sorry if this isn't your thing; that's alright. I won't be upset if you'd rather listen to old episodes or take a break for a bit, but I promise I'll pick rambling books and I really appreciate your patience. We'll be reading parts of The Iliad today, and maybe parts of Les Mis later; we'll see how long it is before I get back to normal, but no matter what I'm going to be here to help look out for you. I'm not going to leave you, I promise; you can trust and count on me.
"Anyway, today we'll be reading some about the Trojan War, specifically the lineages of the people involved. Like always, you don't have to listen to me. You can turn me way down so I'm just a mumble, or you can fall asleep or ignore me or anything. I just want you to be comfortable, and I want to help you relax and be here for you. If you do fall asleep, that's wonderful. You deserve a good night's sleep, but if you don't fall asleep, that's alright, too. I'll still be here for you; I'm going to look out for you, because you're important to me and you deserve someone who has your back, no matter what. No matter who you are or what you're going through, I'm here for you. I promise."
Alex has listened to the Iliad episode the most. He listened to it the night before his mom was elected, when he was so jittery that he nearly made it to the end. He listened to it that first night in the White House, when he realized the age of their new home and could feel the ghosts of ages past watching him sleep. He listened to it the night before the Royal Wedding, when he'd known he'd have to face Prince Henry and the rest of the British monarchy the next day. Somehow, Tilney made him feel like he could do it. Hearing Tilney's voice promise to be there helps.
'Sleep With Me' works for him for a few reasons. First, Tilney's voice is often exactly what Alex needs. It's soft enough to be reassuring, but confident enough that Alex trusts him. On some monkey-brain level, he believes that Tilney will protect him when he sleeps. But there's more than just the voice; the content of the podcast is what really sells him. Throughout the podcast, Tilney promises over and over that Alex is doing great, and he deserves a good night's sleep and a world that is kind to him. Tilney promises to look after and support him, and even when things feel overwhelming, Tilney stays calm and only a few taps away. Tilney is going to look after him and keep him company, no matter what he's going through or worried about. Through everything, Tilney's voice is a calming influence. His voice finds all the cracks in Alex's built up armor, and instead of asking to take that armor off, he rubs Alex's shoulders beneath it. He tries to get Alex comfortable, and if the armor comes off in that process, he lets Alex be the one to let it go. Every night, his time with Tilney feels like entering a bubble, separated from the public eye and the stress of college or family tension or whatever else may be bothering him. In his bubble with Tilney, he can be just Alex, an insomniac who trusts a voice to lead him to sleep.
He listens to Sleep With Me on the way home from the Royal Wedding, when he's trying to sleep to avoid Zahra's glares and the fact that not even Nora seems to be fully on his side. Tilney doesn't care about the bizarrely expensive cake or the possible fallout of the cake-based disaster. Tilney isn't angry with him for a stumble that wasn't his fault.The podcast lets Alex enter a bubble away from cake-gate, and Tilney is there, promising that he deserves good things, and he's important, and that someone has his back no matter what. That's always Tilney's biggest point: he'll support Alex, no matter what happens or what Alex does. Tilney offers unconditional, unwavering help and support. It's exactly what Alex needs.
The next weekend, when he's trying to sleep in Kensington and everything feels wrong and old and full of pressure, Tilney is there to calm his mind. It's been racing with worries he'd never admit to that he'll mess up their fake friendship and ruin his mother's career, not to mention the fact that he'll have to spend all day with a dickhead. And after the trip, when it goes well and Henry now has his number, Tilney is there to help his too-fast brain stop trying to puzzle out just how much of a dickhead Henry really is.
Tilney is there for him through everything. He's there when Henry kisses him, calming Alex's racing mind then and in the weeks of ghosting that follow. At some point in the midst of the ghosting, Alex takes to Twitter. He uses his unofficial account, the one where he can admit his insomnia and his fears and all of the things he doesn't want the public to know about Alex Claremont-Diaz, First Son. On his personal twitter, he's just a boy named Alex, and that boy can shamelessly send a series of long, thankful tweets at Tilney.
thank god for @SleepWithMe y'all this podcast is everything i need
i've been listening for years but now it hits different
long story short i'm in the middle of a personal crisis and @SleepWithMe is a miracle worker and the only reason i'm getting any sleep
i highly recommend @SleepWithMe for insomniacs or anyone who likes to have someone there for them whenever/whatever is happening he's been one of the most consistently encouraging voices in my life for years and he deserves the best
in conclusion yes i am a grown man who listens to bedtime stories when i can't sleep but insomnia's nothing to be ashamed of and a massive thanks to @SleepWithMe for telling those bedtime stories
Tilney likes his tweets. The next episode's introduction includes, "And I just want to say to anyone out there going through something hard, you'll be okay. If you're up late because there's a personal crisis or something you think you just can't do, I bet you can do it. I'm rooting for you, and I know you'll be alright. After all, you've gotten this far. You've done all the things you've done, and you've made it through every impossible thing up to this point. You can get through this, too."
And, like always, Alex feels a little less alone. Tilney trusts him, and he's going to do what he can to make sure Alex can get through this and the upcoming dinner and whatever comes his way next. And if Tilney's voice seems to sound like Henry's, well, that's because everything is reminding him of Henry these days. A British accent isn't an exception to that rule, even if it is a British accent that he knows belongs to someone else.
The night after the state dinner (and everything that follows it) marks the first time in years that Alex falls asleep truly alone, without anyone in the room and without Tilney's voice beside him. It's the first time in years that he hasn't had a reason to not listen to Sleep With Me, he simply doesn't turn it on because he doesn't need it. Henry has somehow slowed his brain down enough that he's able to sleep without Tilney's help. The next morning, he feels almost guilty about it. Tilney had been there, ready and waiting, and Alex had ignored him.
That night, though, Tilney is still there. He's still promising that things are going to be alright, and that Alex can get through anything. He's still promising unconditional support and help sleeping, no matter what.
It becomes a pattern. Alex doesn't listen to Sleep With Me on nights he's with Henry, mostly because it seems rude. He's not sure how to admit that he typically falls asleep to a bedtime story, and it seems strange to bring it up. Besides, he never quite seems to need Tilney's voice when Henry is around. That's something he should probably try to understand-- why he somehow relaxes more with Henry than with a person who's been comforting him for years-- but he's never been particularly good at exploring his own emotions. So he doesn't listen when he doesn't need it, and he hopes Tilney won't mind.
Tilney never minds. He's still there when Alex needs him, making a home in the podcasts app and telling rambling stories for sleepless nights. He's there when Luna betrays them, after Henry has to leave and Alex is left to wonder what went wrong. He has a new episode out early that week, and in the intro, he says, "I just want to be here for you all, because I want you to have someone who can help you out no matter what. I want to be someone you can count on, even if it feels like people are abandoning you, I never want to do that. And maybe I can't be a role model or anything like that, but I can be here to help you sleep, and if today's been hard, maybe a good night's sleep will help make tomorrow better. Of course, if you can't sleep, that's alright, too. I'm here for you no matter what."
It's an introduction that feels almost like it's made for him, and it's perfect. It provides the exact comfort he needs, and it quiets his mind, reassuring him that even if they've lost Luna and Los Bastardos and everything that his friendship meant, at least he has Tilney. Some things never change.
When Alex was a kid, his dad would take him and June camping. Every now and then, they'd go too early in the year, when the nights were still chilly. When it got too cold, Alex would lie on one end of a blanket and roll himself up into a burrito, and his dad would laugh and pick him up, holding him in one arm and a bundled-up June in the other. He'd show them the stars, pointing out the dippers and Hydra and occasionally bits of the Summer Triangle. Sometimes, he'd show them a planet. And when they were too cold or too sleepy to appreciate the stars anymore, he'd take them into the tent and zip them into mummy sleeping bags until only two tired, smiling faces were visible.
Tilney's voice, and the stories he tells, are made up of all the best parts of Young Alex's blanket burrito/sleeping bag bundle. It's the comfort of his dad's arms and the warmth and coziness of the blankets around him without the sweaty mornings. His voice is the cocoon that wraps Alex up in his own little world, a world of stars and planets and good, safe things. There is no room in that cocoon for anxiety or stress or family friends who've turned against him; those are kept safely outside the tent.
The first time Alex finishes an episode awake is the night after Henry leaves him at the lake house in Texas. His head is just too full, and not even the Iliad episode is enough to quiet him down. By the end, Tilney's voice hasn't changed much. He signs off with, "Well, that's all I have right now. If you didn't fall asleep, if you're still here with me, that's alright. I'm still rooting for you no matter what, and I'll be here in other episodes. I still want a good night's sleep for you, so don't give up, alright? Just keep trying, and let yourself rest while the next episode auto-plays, and I know you can make it happen. Thanks for listening, and goodnight."
If Tilney's voice sounds like Henry's, that's because every single thing in Alex's life right now is a vivid reminder of the fact that Henry's abandoned him. If Alex cries at the end, that's because he's lying on his side and his eye is leaking. It's certainly not because, with Tilney's 'goodnight', it feels like the only other person he's ever truly slept with is abandoning him, too. He doesn't feel alone in the world, adrift in the darkness with only his bed as a raft, that simple 'goodnight' severing his last tie to humanity and casting him into a sea of aloneness. He hasn't been abandoned by every person he's ever been close with or looked up to, one after the other. He has June and Nora and his parents and congress by thirty. He has what he needs.
He falls asleep near the end of the next episode, and he certainly doesn't cry through it.
He nearly finishes every episode that week. But on the plane ride home from London, he's asleep before the intro ends, finally relaxed enough that Tilney can work his magic.
That's not the only time he's awake for the end of the episode, though. He needs Tilney more when the DNC tapes get leaked, when he has to watch the world ship his sister and his boyfriend and there is nothing he can do. The day he goes on his fake date with Nora, when he's trying to be steady for Henry despite the feeling that the world is collapsing around him, Tilney tweets that he's having a bit of trouble that week but will have an episode out as soon as he can. Alex talks to Henry that night, and when he falls into bed, expecting to go back to the Iliad episode, he's greeted by an episode that's been up for mere minutes. Tilney's voice is as strong and comforting and magical as ever. He's there, in his booth and in Alex's podcast app, and he's going to keep Alex company. He promises to, his voice steady and self-assured, and Alex trusts him.
Despite everything, despite the knot of fear consuming his gut and the overwhelming surety that something else will go wrong, Tilney is able to put him to sleep. The last thing Alex processes is, "No matter who you are, I'm here for you. If there are parts of yourself that you've got to hide away right now, I'm here for those parts especially. I'm here for your weird thoughts and your smelly toes and the crush you can't admit. I'm here for every single part of you, and I'm going to do whatever I can to help you look after yourself, because you are undeniably someone worth looking after."
If he cries at that, at the knowledge that someone out there is going to actually support him, well, it's been a long day and he's infuriatingly close to his inaccessible boyfriend. He deserves a few tears.
Things go from bad to catastrophically worse. After weeks of teetering on the edge of a cliff, hanging onto their last threads of sanity, everything shatters to the ground around them. Their emails are leaked, their souls bared to anyone insensitive enough to read the personal letters of a pair of young lovers. Alex feels his whole world caving in.
On the plane to London, when he's talked to Henry but can't relax, when Prisoner of Azkaban can't distract him and pacing is out of the question because Zahra's stare pins him to his seat like a beetle, he turns on Sleep With Me and lets Tilney's voice read him some truly boring classics and calm him down. He doesn't expect to fall asleep, and he doesn't really, but for at least a few hours of the flight, he's able to stop panicking. Tilney pulls him into their little bubble, into the tent and the blanket cocoon of his unending support, and Alex tries to leave all of his baggage outside until they land.
He doesn't notice until he's flying home, but Tilney misses an upload that week. When he gets home, when he's talked to June and let the dust settle a bit and can finally take a moment for himself, he checks Tilney's twitter. Nothing, other than a few messages from past weeks promising he was doing his best in hard circumstances.
Of course Henry calls right as Alex is processing that, and of course he can tell that something is wrong, and because he's a good boyfriend, of course he asks about it. Which forces Alex to admit, "It's stupid. But there's this podcast I listen to, and the guy who makes it... this is honestly so dumb, and it's the tiniest thing I could possibly worry about, but I've been listening since high school and the guy who makes it has sort of just disappeared. There was supposed to be a new episode a day or two ago, and usually if it's late he'll tweet, but he hasn't. I don't know, it's dumb. I've never met the guy, but I fall asleep to him every night, and I know this is stupid, but it feels like... I don't know, like he's a friend or something. And I'm worried about him, since apparently I don't have enough in my regular life to worry about."
"I don't think it's stupid," Henry says, "he's someone you've started to depend on, and you trust him. Podcasts are a sort of intimate form of communication, and falling asleep with someone is intimate, too. If you've been listening for so long, it makes sense that it feels like he's a friend you have sleepovers with rather than a celebrity or something. I'm sure it's hard to feel like you've lost him, especially if he hasn't given any reason for it or any sign that he's alright."
"I mean, yeah, it's not like this is normal for him. I can't remember the last time he missed an episode and didn't tweet about it, and all his recent tweets are about how things are tough for him, so... I guess I just hope he's okay. Like even if he's not going to keep making Sleep With Me, that's fine, I just want-- what?"
When he'd mentioned the name of the podcast, Henry had made a sound he couldn't quite identify. It's something like surprise, but he's not entirely sure how to classify it.
"You listen to Sleep With Me."
"I have since high school. Do you listen to it? I guess he is from your country; that could make sense."
"Alex, you bloody thick... I make Sleep With Me. It's a stupid thing Pez and I started in Eton's sound lab, but then it helped people, so we kept it up. Do I listen... bloody hell."
"No. What? But you... you're Henry, and he's Tilney, and your... your voice. It's different, I swear. I compared it to an interview and everything." That had been a low point. He'd been five days into a week of ghosting and desperately wanted proof that they were different, and Tilney only sounded like Henry because they were both posh Brits. He can see now that confirmation bias may have played a roll in his final decision.
"Of course my voice sounds different when I'm in an interview. Prince Henry of Wales, playing the part of a perfect little straight heir to the throne, is going to sound different from Tilney, who's hiding behind a mic and just wants you to sleep. What, did you think... I mean, 'Tilney' is a reference to my actual name. Do they not teach Austen in your American schools? Have you really never experienced the masterpiece that is Northanger Abbey? Has June never even seen the movie?"
"Well I don't exactly admit to my sister that I listen to bedtime stories to fall asleep! That's not going to get her to worry less about me. But hang on. That night after I went on a date with Nora, you had an episode out. You said you supported my weird crushes, I remember, because that felt so good to hear that someone wasn't upset about us."
"I edited on the plane and uploaded from the hotel, and that's... that's exactly what I needed to hear, so that's what I said, and I hoped it would help someone else, too."
"Wait. Damn. I'm still just processing this, I mean, I knew you were good at words. You've got an Oxford degree in fancy words, but dude. Sleep With Me is like... next level good at words. And it's so smart. Seriously. I've got a whole separate twitter that's like half just a fan account for Sleep With Me because I love it so much."
"No. You're not... JustAlex?"
"Back in January, when you said you were having a personal crisis--"
"That was you, you obtuse fucking asshole! I was having a personal crisis because you kissed me and I couldn't stop thinking about it no matter what I did."
"That would explain why we always seemed to have trouble at the same time." Henry's started to laugh just a bit, and Alex grins.
"Well, um, I guess it's nice to know I don't have to worry about Tilney. How are things there? I guess the Queen Mother hasn't had you assassinated yet?"
Henry laughs, and things start to feel like they're going to be alright again. They can still talk and laugh, they have each other, and they're putting the rest of the pieces back together one by one. When Alex starts yawning, Henry offers to hang up and let him sleep, but Alex stops him.
"You... you don't have to, but do you happen to have a copy of The Iliad handy?"
"I could certainly find it."
"Would... if you don't want to that's alright, but would you mind reading to me? Just for a bit. I... I really liked it when you read, on the podcast, I mean; it... those ones felt special." In the reading episodes, Tilney-- Henry-- wasn't a parent or a storyteller anymore. He was just like Alex, trying to make things work as best he could.
"Of course I'll read to you, Alex. I will read to you every night if that will help you sleep. Get ready for bed, and I'll go find the book and a particularly boring section."
When they come back together, Alex puts his phone on speaker and Henry starts to read, occasionally slipping in an 'I love you so much' or a 'you deserve a good night's sleep, and I'm glad I can help you get one'. Alex is snoring before long, and Henry closes the book. He picks up his phone and says softly, "I love you, Alex. You are the best, most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me, and I hope that someday, I get to watch you fall asleep to my voice. Until then, I will always be here for you, in impersonal bedrooms, in your podcast app, and someday soon, in your arms."