He had seen.
Taking in her tipped chin, the sassy set of her shoulders, all the nuances that, at first glance, made her seem less like a top and more like a sub who was trying too hard. That had been Cameron’s first day in the department.
Sometimes it was unsettling not being able to tell immediately, everyone knew that. Years ago, he had heard his father mention it often enough, how sometimes he wanted to shake other tops until they stepped up to the plate. “Act less like a sub” was just something he’d heard, thrown around in casual conversation. None of this waffling and wavering between the two, his father would say; it made people uncomfortable and it wasn’t natural. There were the usual cases, kids experimenting in school, behind closed doors, the things no one ever really spoke of. But some of them just never grew out of it and stayed switches, and he’d found that out through rumors. Unnatural. It was what he’d heard growing up, in classrooms and living rooms made to measure with military-base precision.
And he had seen. Hungarian kids liked to play house. One of the most vivid memories from his time there: five years old, a boy named Will, playground democracy resulting in declarations of you have to be Gyöngyi’s sub. And Will had cried, and Greg had yelled, hadn’t known, and then they yelled that because Will was a sub that made Greg one too, and he’d screamed that he wasn’t—not that there was anything wrong with being a sub, lots of people were; he knew that—but he wasn’t. He hadn’t been at that school for long.
Egypt prized doms above all, giving them better jobs and opportunities; it was just fact. Subs with their veils, pyramid paintings, profiles of people, some with jeweled collars on. He learned about switches there, though he never actually met one. It was always hushed voices and pointed fingers and someone who knew someone who had a switch for a cousin or a neighbor.
In Japan, collars were banned in most schools—the administration professed not to care where students stood, but they didn’t want to see it either. There had been a trend among high-school aged kids, doms wearing their subs’ collars for a lark—because it was funny, a dom in a sub’s collar; because it was upsetting, to anyone who wasn’t in on the joke. There was an uproar when the ban was approved, and not everyone always obeyed. Greg would see classmates tugging sleeves over manacles and hoping there wouldn’t be a random check. On the streets, there would be kids, male and female alike, with collars on their necks, covered in stickers or glinting with candy-colored charms. And Greg, who took no advice from anyone and always sulked apart from the crowd, noticed there wasn’t much difference between the two. He was steadily discovering hormones by this point, noticing things like this and keeping his questions to himself when he saw how uncomfortable they made people.
And now it was adolescence all over again, thirty years in the future, as if the first time around hadn’t been tumultuous enough. Cameron, with whom he hadn’t been that far off the mark in his first impression, with hesitation on her face; Chase, with his vulnerabilities on his sleeve; Foreman, who tried to steer clear of theatrics but ended up drawn into them anyway.
When Wilson showed up on his doorstep, uncollared a third time, he’d seen it coming from the get-go. Wilson and his wives, each one with a story House had managed to pry out of him with varying permutations of alcohol, baiting, and generous quantities of diligence Wilson unfailingly mistook for nosiness. The oft-mistaken difference between being judgmental and being insightful was a heavy burden to bear. House couldn’t help it if he hit the mark more sharply and abruptly than most people preferred. The first time he’d accused Wilson of having a weird fetish for taking doms’ shit to make them feel better about their assertiveness, he’d gotten a pissed-off look and nearly a week of silent treatment.
Years ago, he had learned to play the piano. Seven and sullen, an argument for everything. His mother thought he would be good, his father thought he needed the discipline of a hobby that challenged him more than sports or school did, so he went. And hated it at first, because it seemed boring and his hands were small and he would much rather have figured things out for himself—which he eventually would, he was sure—instead of having someone else tell him how to do it all. The music teacher was a little bit like his aunt, a sub with pinned-back gray hair and the ability to calm Greg into quiet without ever raising her voice. With perfect posture and no mistakes. That’s how we do this. That’s how we do it, isn’t it, Greg? Corrected, over and over again, methodical and frustrating, until the admonitions declined and his father was transferred. When they moved, he asked for more of the lessons himself.
Wilson’s posture had been corrected early on. His first wife, House found out when Wilson showed up at his door with his face clashing under the burdens of beard burn and a sheepish expression, was a rebound from an earlier relationship. With another sub. He hadn’t expected that—everyone knew some subs gave each other manacles, but that was sort of tacky, like a glorified version of playing dress-up or subs swapping friendship bracelets at recess. It was part of why he’d found Wilson so interesting; he’d seemed so upstanding, such a good sub, perfect and upright. And to find out something like this…it drew him in, and House had never been shy about picking anyone’s brain.
That was the thing about Wilson. He gave every appearance of accepting his failures easily—everyone said it could never work and of course it didn’t, he’d told House, blandly—and then proceeded to trip over the same steps all over again. It wasn’t easy, being a sub couple—House had gone through the psych requirements along with every other med student—and Wilson freely admitted it was a bit of a scandal, but his family had gotten over it and supported him through the first ill-advised marriage because at least it was normal, and after it ended everyone agreed Bonnie was much better for him anyway. Bonnie, so creative, having him clean the bathroom once, then covering every surface with candles, laying towels over the toilet and cuffing him to it. Wilson had told him about it, perfectly straight-faced, and House had almost been a little envious before he remembered he was supposed to be critical. Having his bisexual tendencies nipped in the bud didn’t seem to bother Wilson at all.
It was common knowledge that sub/sub relationships were dystopian, no order, just giggling and holding each other and being too intimidated to try life with an actual dom, or too afraid they wouldn’t be able to attract one. Julie had been a dom with more than enough codependency issues to keep Wilson interested, as had Bonnie; eager to assert herself and to have someone like Wilson who would cater to that need. House was the same way, Wilson claimed, whether he knew it or not. They’d had this argument before.
The first time he ever fastened a collar on anybody himself, it was cool around her neck. The best one he could afford, because that was just the right thing to do. It was smooth against her skin, smooth against his palm when she handed it back three weeks later. The sub he dated the longest had been the turning point. Revelations beaming onto him like a stray beam of sunlight; he had his mouth on the other, lips stretched around the base of his cock and the slim leather strap encircling it there—had a finger inside of him, one leg shoved up over his head, Greg listening to him beg as he slipped in another and drew back to watch his hands clasp and twist at the pillowcase, unchained but still knowing he wasn’t allowed to touch. It was fun, but he needed to know more. The guy would hang onto him in public, too-eagerly look up at the sound of his voice, and he knew it was supposed to feel flattering, but to him it was just irritating as all hell. He wasn’t quite callous enough to actually tell his sub the truth when he left him for a top.
Posturing, all of it, lining his life side-by-side with textbook definitions of healthy relationship and straining to put his finger on something just out of reach.
He had been there when Cameron was putting on lipstick in the locker room, changing out of scrubs at the end of the day. And he had watched askance, shouldering his backpack, when one of the other tops, a resident named Bill, proclaimed, “You’d be so hot if you were a sub.” He had seen how she’d rolled her eyes and smirked and said, “So would you,” and the other tops had laughed. No one else seemed to notice the frown crossing her face afterward. And maybe she wondered what it would be like to let him hold her down, pin her wrists and do her over one of the benches, but of course no one else in the room needed to know that. House wouldn’t have minded watching, if only to prove his theory.
In college, once, he had messed around with a dom, Kerry, who started crying partway through, whimpering I think I’m a sub in the most pitiful voice he’d ever heard. House had been surprised, annoyed, and curious, in that order. He had tried to calm her down, asking what she would normally do with a sub, what she thought would do with a dom. At the time, he had brushed off the girl as superficial and immature, soothed her as much as he could and left her to sleep it off. He never heard from her again, but the situation stuck in his mind.
His parents hadn’t approved when he had serious relationships with other tops and he had told himself he didn’t give a damn. Stacy hadn’t been interested in subs at all and had told him her story, about getting her grandmother’s antique collar for graduation and being told to use it when she was ready, being encouraged that just trying subs would convert her for good, about friends who weren’t gay but weren’t bigots either and would let her drag them along to gay bars. It was better with her, with other tops, better than the crap he’d grown up believing and mimicking out of habit and pressure. Keep unconventional opinions to himself had always seemed like a waste of time.
No mistakes. Cameron, banging Chase and not so sure of anything anymore; he’d heard the uncertainty in her voice in the locker room that afternoon and it refused to go away, echoed in her every glance and step and gesture. Foreman with anticlimactic pep talk and his sub dumping him, far more discreetly than any of Chase’s.
“The things you do impress us all,” he said, sanctimoniously lacing his fingers and nodding at Foreman, sending him off to the clinic with a nod and a jab at his less-than-helpful advice.
Observing has never let him down. Looking on, categorizing, doing his best to understand and force substance into sense—in middle school, he read somewhere that that was the mark of a great mind, not taking the obvious for granted, but trying to probe deeper and find out why. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s taboo. His teachers had never appreciated it, but he was never dissuaded.
Walking through the door, he found Wilson sitting in front of the TV, watching an episode of True Life about tops with body dysmorphic disorder who felt they had to present a certain image to be seen as truly dominant. There was one top who wanted to grow his hair long and couldn’t explain why. Wilson seemed to be steadily drinking through his stash of wine coolers again, wallowing for all he was worth. House plunked down next to him and confiscated the remote without a word.
Replaying on repeat: Wilson looking him in the eye, mentioning paddles and wanting and him. Fucking everything over with a shaky voice and eyes too wide; no.
Infarction, Wilson said to him, and he tried not to let himself wonder if he had ever had to use it, screamed it in pain and thought of him. Thought of him, period. Fallen far back into his own head and wished he were with House instead of his wife du jour.
People said it was impossible for doms and subs to be friends platonically and nothing more, and he wasn’t about to encourage the notion by being the sloppy-second after another fallen marriage. But if Wilson could carry it out, hold it up Perfect posture and no mistakes. One slip-up and you could never get it back, and they could never get this back. Wilson on his knees, waiting to be ordered, waiting to be kissed, naked and shuddering with pleasure, then boxing it all up and going to work as usual, as House’s best friend and nothing more. Safe, to just picture it inside his head. Wilson gingerly topping Chase, gingerly propositioning...
Watching, hypothesizing, but actually putting anything into practice was stretching the limits. Easier to keep things distant, look and learn and understand. Playground spats in Hungary, the Japanese girl who sat next to him in homeroom stashing her collar in her purse before the bell rang, sand and stratification of every kind permeating Egypt. All of them melding, becoming Wilson, playing his cards right, walking the line between them like a circus performer. Hooking House in as carefully and winningly as he had any of his tops, making promises and negotiations until there was no answer left but yes.