The problem is, Enjolras had promised Combeferre two months ago that he would deal with the curtains. They've needed to be replaced for longer than that, and finally Enjolras had volunteered. Combeferre had been pleased and seemed to think that was that, and they'd have new curtains and blinds very soon, because once Enjolras is on a mission, it's reasonable to assume he'll complete it or go to jail trying.
And then Enjolras had set forth to solve this problem and came down with a bad case of decision fatigue. There are too many options; it's a problem. He's found himself opening ten, fifteen, sixty tabs with options, has gone through photos and home improvement sites, and has come away with nothing but a headache growing behind his eyes.
And so it has dragged on, and on, and on, and Combeferre has started saying polite things about it, and Enjolras really just wishes Grantaire could come and fix this problem for him. Grantaire has a great eye for colors, whereas Enjolras merely has favorite colors. Grantaire understands texture and opacity and how changing the way one thing looks can change the whole. Enjolras has no idea what he's doing and a boyfriend who could probably do this for him without thinking twice about it.
But then there's the other problem, which is that Grantaire, tired of leaving hints, has started asking outright to be allowed to serve Enjolras, and this is something that Enjolras is really tempted to use for that. Throw the problem at him, tell Grantaire to serve him by fixing it, and then sit back, put his feet up, and let Grantaire do all the work.
And Enjolras has never been quite sure where the line is between nonsexual service submission and someone doing you a favor, and right now, he's wondering where the line is between dominating someone and taking advantage of them. He has no idea where this lies, and doesn't like it.
The line is probably in the intent, which makes communication more important than it usually is. And, well, even if he weren't dating Grantaire, he'd probably still ask Grantaire for his help in all of this, so it's not like it's too much of a stretch to ask him for help now. Just because they're dating doesn't mean it changes everything. The difference is, that would be asking Grantaire for his help.
This would be ordering him.
With the same general outcome, so clearly this can't be judged on outcomes. It has to be judged on the intent. And Enjolras isn't entirely clear on what his intentions are.
On the one hand, it's a really seductive thought, not having to deal with this problem anymore, this tiny problem that's been blown entirely out of proportion and has turned a fifteen minute trip to the store and then a quick installation into this daunting task that Enjolras can't seem to get a handle on. It's seductive, that he could just not have to do it and have Grantaire do it for him instead.
But that's the easy way out, surely? Enjolras should conquer his fear and make a choice and handle this himself. It's not a big deal. He should stop making it a big deal. But every time he thinks about doing it, ten other things are all suddenly competing for his attention, and it slides to the wayside. Enjolras isn't usually a procrastinator. This is getting worrying.
And Grantaire would be so good at it.
"It's not taking advantage?" he asks Combeferre one more time. Combeferre looks pained. Enjolras feels bad. When Combeferre first started tutoring him on how to put his desires into approved terminology and turn his feelings for Grantaire into actions, this is probably not what he thought he'd signed up for.
"He wants to submit to your control," Combeferre says patiently. "You'll excuse me, Enjolras, I fail to see how this is not that. He'll enjoy it; you'd push it off until you eventually decided to get it over with, buy the first things that catch your eye, and then we'd have bright red blinds and red checkered drapes. I refuse to live in that kind of environment."
Enjolras nods. "I see your point."
"He won't mind," Combeferre says. "Does it bother you that it's a form of control that has nothing to do with an orgasm?"
Combeferre says things like that a lot, and he's always right. It's important for Grantaire to be comfortable with things, but it's equally important for Enjolras to be comfortable with them, too. It took awhile, but Combeferre finally drilled that into Enjolras's head. Combeferre wouldn't let him approach Grantaire until Enjolras understood that. But it's still hard to remember sometimes that his knee-jerk objections to things on Grantaire's behalf, when Grantaire himself would have no problem with them, are more about Enjolras than about Grantaire. Framing them in terms of Grantaire's desires won't help him. He has to think about himself.
"It just seems too easy," Enjolras says. "That I could tell him to do it, and then my problem's over. And it seems too much like we're crossing streams." In fairness, it had taken Enjolras longer than usual to figure out the kinds of things that are best given to Grantaire. It had taken a lot of trial and error. Mostly error. Grantaire is creative; sometimes that's a bad thing. But they've made progress since that debacle at the Boardgamers & Dungeon Masters club. "Giving him nonsexual orders, it feels like it's cheating. That it's not really dominance, it's just domineering."
Combeferre sighs. "Thought experiment time. What do you each get out of being served?"
"He gets the control and I get to control him," Enjolras says promptly. "He gets to do more things because I told him to, and I get this headache gone. It's convenient. I'm really not disputing how convenient it is."
"He also gets to obey you in a place where other people not only can see it, but are, in fact, an intended audience," Combeferre says. "He gets to show off. He can display to other people that he's a good boy for his dominant, and it's a socially acceptable way of being a good boyfriend. He can tell people he's helping out his boyfriend and they'll understand. He can call himself indispensable, brag about how well he did, and he can do it to people who aren't aware of the context or the rest of what's going on. He can tell our friends that he sucked you off while hogtied, but he can tell his mother that he redecorated your apartment. He gets as much out of it as you do, if not more. It's a boost to the self-esteem to be needed, and you're leaving yourself vulnerable and letting him see the vulnerability. You'll be admitting to him that there's something that would be better if he did it, not you. We can talk later about the kind of service submission that would have him cleaning your bedroom for you, because that category of tasks have a different public perception. But in all cases, he'd be demonstrating some of the other skills he possesses and you'd be showing him that you value and appreciate them."
"I do appreciate him," Enjolras says defensively, but Combeferre has a good point. "But you're right."
Combeferre acknowledges that with a smile. "Now, about what you'll be getting out of it. You'll have the joy of a job well done. And, ah, if something happens, you can work off your guilt by working overtime on assuring him that he still did it better than you could have. But assuming it all goes well, you'll have the knowledge that Grantaire obeyed you and did something just because you asked him to. And not something simple, but something that involves him making decisions on your behalf. You're asking him to use his talents to please you, and you're going to enjoy watching him do it, I suspect. You're going to be happy, and you're going to be proud of him. And, possibly most importantly, we will no longer have those eyesores on the windows."
Enjolras laughs. "Most importantly to you."
"Who else?" Combeferre grins. "But consider reframing your initial objection. You are concerned about taking advantage of him. Would it help to consider it instead as taking advantage of his expertise?"
"Maybe, if this weren't a question of service," Enjolras says. "There are three layers to this, the way I see it, and that framing only works for the first two. It could be a favor to a friend, something nice for your boyfriend, or a service to your dominant. This could easily be all three of them at once, but with the last one, it starts being a question of, yes, taking advantage of him, using my position to create a situation where I am using our particular relationship to exert pressure in a way that goes deeper than a surface-level favor. Any other context and it's purely casual. With service, it can't be casual, not on my end. If I'm accepting service from him, that puts me in the situation of, I'm sorry, having accepted it as service. Not as a favor or something nice. Service. Something he did because I'm his dominant and he wants to serve me."
"And something you accept because he's your submissive and you value his abilities," Combeferre says. "It's essentially you giving him a compliment about his talents, Enjolras, not exploiting them for your gain. You are giving him an opportunity to give you a gift. If he does this, you'll appreciate him every time you look around. You can put a collar on him, but he'll have put his mark on the walls. His is bigger." Combeferre smirks. "Perhaps in multiple ways."
"He thinks mine is bigger, but we've yet to take out a measuring tape," Enjolras says.
"Yes, and you'd never actually notice these things, because that would be petty," Combeferre says. "Right?"
Enjolras nods solemnly. "Of course."
"I'm not interested in talking you into doing something you don't want," Combeferre shrugs. "But I think your reasons could stand to be shaken up, because they're going to fall apart. Unless he's feeling taken advantage of, you're being somewhat arrogant in assuming you know better than he does. You said he has been asking for opportunities to serve you, and here's a perfect opportunity. If he found out that you then chose not to give it to him because you were worried about 'taking advantage' of his freely given offer, he'd be perfectly justified in not reacting well."
Enjolras sighs. "I know. He'd be pissed at me." And betrayed and hurt and Enjolras doesn't want to think about Grantaire's face falling, about the set of his shoulders, the way he'd barely move but seem to collapse into himself.
"And do you think he'd have a point?" Combeferre gently prods.
"Yes, although I haven't actually agreed to accept any nonsexual service from him, so not giving him the opportunity wouldn't be-- it wouldn't be as bad as it might have been if I'd promised him that I'd allow it. But also, at this point, I haven't really told him I wouldn't let him, so he's been trying to convince me. And I could say no and he'd accept it, if not be all that happy about it. But he'd have a point about me safewording for myself and trying to make it seem like I'm safewording for him. And it's stupid," Enjolras rubs at his templates, "because he's right, I have no problem accepting sexual service, so why is this a big deal for me? I don't understand my reactions here. Is this because it crosses over into the domestic? Because in bed I can delude myself into thinking that it's something different from what it is? It's the same impulse on his behalf, I do understand that. I do. But it's a different impulse on mine. In bed, I can accept it because, fuck it, ignore the wording, Combeferre, please, but I can accept it as my due. If I'm dominating him sexually, and he's submitting to me sexually, and we are doing the kinds of things we've been doing, part of that is going to be me accepting sexual service from him. Sometimes that's even the entire point of the exercise. But it's fine because it is part of the point and part of the assumed, negotiated actions for both of us. And I'm giving as much to him in return for what I'm receiving."
"You see the control better," Combeferre suggests. "There's a direct cause and effect. He obeys your orders and he serves you as your submissive."
"And I know where the lines are," Enjolras agrees. He frowns, thinking about what he just said. "I should negotiate this with him first, shouldn't I?"
Combeferre sighs with infinite patience. "Yes, Enjolras, talking to your boyfriend is always a good idea."
Which is how Enjolras finds himself standing outside Grantaire's apartment less than an hour later. Enjolras fiddles with his phone and knocks on Grantaire's door. He'd texted he was on his way over, and Grantaire said he was home, but Enjolras is still nervous.
Grantaire opens the door and welcomes him inside with a smile that turns worried when he sees Enjolras's face. "Enjolras?" Grantaire asks.
"Hi," Enjolras says. He shoves his hands into his pockets. "Okay for us to talk?"
"Sure," Grantaire says. "Uh, do you want something to drink? Eat?"
Enjolras shakes his head. "I'm fine." He heads down to the couch and sits down on the edge. "I just, uh, wanted to talk to you. Negotiate something," he adds, firmer. Grantaire looks marginally less nervous as he sits down next to Enjolras.
"Okay. About what?" Grantaire asks.
"Um," Enjolras starts. "You've been talking a lot lately about service unrelated to sex. And I've been thinking about it a lot and I'm interested in trying it, but I'm also feeling very wary and cautious about it, because I feel -- and I know you don't -- that it's a big deal. I know that, for you, this is an extension of what we do in bed, and you want to do it out of it, too, but for me, it's something different, something separate. I think it would be a big step in our relationship and before I decide if it's something I want to accept from you, I think we should talk about it first."
"Um, sure," Grantaire says slowly. "Yeah, okay. What parts of it do you want to talk about?"
There. That wasn't so hard, was it? "It's been hard for me, trying to wrap my brain around this from the dominant end," Enjolras says. "There's a lot of guilt and worry, because there's a lot packed into this. It's not simple. I want it, but I'm not sure if wanting to do it is enough. I need to feel like I should do it, before I'll do it." Okay, that was somewhat worse, but keep going. "I want to be clear, though, that this is about my feelings, not yours. I know you want to do it. You don't need to justify your desires to me. But for my own comfort with this, I need us to negotiate boundaries and discuss limits before I make any final decision. Does that work for you?"
Grantaire is nodding hesitantly. "All right, um, yeah, I figured since you didn't jump all over it, you were either not interested, or needed more time to come up with a suitably evil plot. So I guess this a nice middle. Um. I don't really need boundaries and limits here, though. I want to do things for you that you'll let me do. I want to make things easier for you. You could give me your shopping list, if you want, or, um, I'm not the greatest at cleaning, but I could figure it out. I'd want to figure it out, for you. If you wanted me to do your laundry, I would learn the best damn way to do laundry, so I could do it that way for you. Or if you had a particular way you liked it done, I'd learn how to do it your way. Because I want to do things for you. It would be things for you, so it would be about how you wanted it done, not me."
Right. That makes sense. "Would it matter to you what my motive would be for asking you to do it?" Enjolras asks.
Grantaire shrugs. "No? It's not like it's selfless for either of us. You get stuff done without having to do it, and I get to be useful and make you happy. You're not the kind of person who would invent tasks just to give them to me; you'd be delegating things that are on your to-do list already. If I don't do them, you have to do them. So I'm serving you by doing them instead and also giving you more free time, which I can reap the benefits of, either directly or just you being more relaxed and less stressed. But I'm now really curious what kind of motive you could have for it that would worry you and that I'm supposed to be objecting to?"
"Convenience," Enjolras confesses. "It-- there's something that would be really convenient if you were to do for me. You would be much better at it and you'd do a better job. And if you hadn't asked if we could start doing nonsexual service, I probably wouldn't have thought twice before asking your help with it. But since you have, and since I was considering it for that, it's hard for me to backtrack from service to asking you for a favor. It seemed dishonest. I thought, if I asked you to do it, it would be in the context of ordering you to do it, or otherwise I should just do it myself."
Grantaire grins. "Oooh. So I'm really awesome. What should I be talking you into letting me do for you?"
Enjolras isn't sure he should say, but honesty is important, right? "We need new curtains," he says.
"Fucking finally," Grantaire says. "Those things are disgusting. So where do I come in? Do you want me to pick them? Install them? Take it over completely so you never have to think about it and one day just come home to much prettier windows? Um, I should warn you it'll take me a few days. I can pick colors, but I'm going to have to look into what materials are best. I'm not actually an interior designer. And I can't make them from scratch, but I know someone who could, if you want custom. Do you want something custom?"
And Grantaire just seems so happy and it's not taking advantage if Grantaire seems to come alive at the idea of doing it. It can't be. "I, um, nothing custom, we just want curtains. Maybe new blinds, too. Colors and materials are up to you. I'll give you my credit card."
"If you let me do it," Grantaire says, and seems to settle. "Right, I still need to convince you to let me."
Enjolras shakes his head. "No, you don't have to convince me. But we need to define boundaries first, before I'm comfortable starting. This is really seductive, and I want to do it, but I'm suspicious of my motives, and I want to make sure this doesn't go too far or go wrong. In any kind of power dynamic, there's the possibility of misuse and abuse, and I feel that this, this would expand my power in our relationship beyond its current limits. Right now we more or less keep things in the metaphorical bedroom; the limits of it are the limits of sex. This crosses that boundary into things outside of sex, and opens up more potentials for abuses on that power. I respect your time, Grantaire, and I don't want it to ever seem like I value my desires over yours."
"Are we really talking about consent again?" Grantaire asks suddenly. Huh? But before Enjolras can interrupt him, Grantaire continues, "I mean, really? Enjolras, seriously. If I start thinking you're domineering in a bad way, or that what you're asking me to do is not something I'm willing to do, or it pushes my limits, I will tell you. Honest. I don't lose my ability to say 'not now, dear, I've already made plans to get drunk and dance on tables' just because you're offering me chores instead of orgasms."
Enjolras blinks. "Well, yes," he says. "I know."
"No, you don't. There's no difference between serving you in bed and serving you out of it. Really, there isn't. It's all about being submissive to your desires, and you paying attention to mine and our kinks meshing in mutually-beneficial ways. It's about control and obedience and submission and goddamn intimacy, Enjolras. It's about thinking about you more and how I fit into your life and how we can be, you know, simultaneously independent and interdependent and it's about relationships and bonds between people and about trust and honesty and communication, and all of that applies to sex and also you letting me wash your back in the shower and also me going to the store and buying stuff for me but also coffee for you because you ran out. It's just part of being in a relationship, but also more. It's taking care of each other, in bed and out, and it's being there and it's being conscious of the other person and their desires and needs and letting yourself being vulnerable and be needed, and just even also experiencing your existence by making a human connection with someone else, with being needed and helpful to someone else, with making an impact on someone else's life, someone you love. You just get so much warm fuzzies from helping someone, anyone, and can't you understand that I really want to be helpful for you? Because I love you and I want to make you smile and make you happy and--"
Enjolras puts his hands on top of Grantaire's wildly gesturing ones. "Hey," he says softly. "Grantaire?"
Grantaire swallows hard and stills. "Yes?"
"I agree with you," Enjolras says slowly, clearly. "You're right. You're completely right. But I'm not talking about consent. I'm talking about negotiation. Because, if we do this, we're crossing a previously-negotiated boundary. It may not have been explicitly stated, but I assumed, and I think you did too, that the our kinky life starts and ends with sex, that if something isn't directly related to sex, then it's out of bounds. And so I'm not going to break the only-about-sex boundary without us first coming to an agreement to revise those boundaries. We have to decide when and where it's appropriate for me to give you orders, orders that you will be expected to obey because of my role as your dominant and your role as my submissive. It's always appropriate for you to do things for me because you want to, because we're friends, or we're in a romantic relationship, but it's absolutely necessary for me to not start doing kinky things with you without negotiated boundaries first."
Not only because it's right but because he's not going to disappoint Combeferre again.
"If you say that I can give you tasks and orders at any time," Enjolras continues, "that blurs the lines around when we're acting like friends, like boyfriends, or like dominant and submissive. And I know that trying to enforce a strict division probably won't work, that roles can be fluid, but, for example, if I tell you to get me a pen, and I mean it as a request and you take it as an order, or I mean it as an order and you take it as a request, then we've just put ourselves in a terrible and untenable situation. It's setting ourselves up for failure and it's just bad communication. We need to do better than that. And I don't have any authority or control over a part of your life that you have not specifically and explicitly invited me to have control over, so we definitely need to know where the limit is on nonsexual service, and probably have some kind of signal, so I know where the lines are and I can try not to cross them. Because if I start giving you orders and you disobey or ignore them because you don't think they're orders, this is going to come to a crashing halt very quickly, believe me."
"I believe you," Grantaire says.
"Okay. That's good. And I understand, I do, that this isn't a big deal for you, that you think it's a natural extension, but it is a big deal for me. So no matter how we end up doing it, we're going to take it a little slow, because your feedback is going to be absolutely vital. I want to get a good feel for how often you're interested in receiving orders, if you want this to be a weekly thing, or every couple weeks, or a couple of times a week, or whatever. How much warning and lead time you want for it, and if you just want me to give you orders for you to do things I would otherwise be doing, or if you'd like me to try to come up with things to do that would complement what I'm doing, or that are more suited to your skillset, because give me two hours and I could give you a list of twenty places I'd be happy to order you to volunteer at. If that's the kind of thing you'd like. And you can always text me and say you're going to the store and do I need anything, but that's being considerate, and I'm not talking about that. These would be orders. It would be the same kind of dominance you've gotten before, but in a new context. And it's going to start slow. Is that acceptable or would you like to negotiate that part of it?"
"I-- no, that's okay," Grantaire says. "So, um, boundaries now?"
Enjolras nods. "Yes. What kind would you like?" Because Grantaire saying he has no boundaries or limits just means he hasn't thought of any yet. Enjolras has given him time to think about it.
"Uh, all right. Boundaries. Nothing in public, because this is a sex thing for me and a dominance thing for you, so that's not something you do in company, it's rude. So no orders in public, not in a way that would draw attention. And nothing with too quick a due date. You've gotta give me at least a day."
"Okay," Enjolras says. "Is two days enough or should it be longer?"
Grantaire thinks for a moment and shrugs. "Yeah, two days should be okay, unless it's something big or time consuming. I guess whatever is most reasonable. If you want me to paint your apartment, that's not two days start to finish."
"Got it, a minimum of two days, with the time frame dependent on the nature of the order," Enjolras agrees. "Now, the method. To avoid any confusion or ambiguity, it has to be consistent and also slightly unusual, so that the orders are the only things you're getting from me this way. This is never going to work if we allow any confusion over if I'm giving you an order or asking you for a favor. I'm thinking that I could either add them to your calendar or we could create a new shared calendar for this. That way, all of the orders will be in one place and easily accessible. You'll get an e-mail when I give you an order and you'll be able to see all of the details and the date you will have it done by. This will avoid you having to take notes during a lengthy order; I'll make sure everything is written out in advance so you can reference it as needed. It'll also give us a way of going back and forth if you need clarification or if something comes up and you want to appeal the due date. And you can block off time on your calendar for when you don't want to be receiving orders, and you'll never have to justify your reasons to me. It could be exams, it could be you don't feel like it, it could be absolutely anything. You can block as much time as you want, whenever you want, you don't have to tell me in advance. I'll check the calendar before giving you any orders, and if you forgot to block some time and then I gave you an order that overlaps it, just let me know and we'll work around it."
"Can I kiss you?" Grantaire asks. Enjolras, startled, takes a second to nod, but then Grantaire kisses him lightly. "Thanks," Grantaire says quickly, blushing. "It's just, that was really sexy? Okay. Um. That sounds good. I like the sound of it. I'll make a shared calendar and give you all the rights to it, and I'll think about time blocks, if I want to do that. I was gonna say, I should be a good boy and mark off exam time, but actually, I'd love to be ordered to give you massages before all of your finals, so, I don't know, you figure it out. I trust you. You'll get e-mails when I block things, right?"
"We can probably set it to do that," Enjolras agrees. It's a good idea, making sure he's aware that Grantaire's set limits around his time.
"Oh, good, so I could be like, 'time block: two weeks since my last spanking, here's a half hour put aside for you to remedy this oversight!' and you'll be reminded," Grantaire grins. "I like this idea."
Enjolras hadn't even thought of that. "I hadn't even thought of that," he admits. "But that's a good idea. You could put things on there for me as well, although I won't treat those as orders."
"Well, no," Grantaire says. "But, you know, gentle suggestions. Here, give me a minute." He pulls out his phone and starts to fiddle with it. "Anyway," he continues distractedly, staring at the screen, "let me just summarize the rest of what you want to say about service, which is that you're suspicious of power and want to analyze your place in power structures, and then I tell you that this is a kink and it's sexy as fuck when the power goes to your head, and then you roll your eyes, yes, like that exactly," he says, looking up briefly at Enjolras, admittedly, rolling his eyes, "and then I ask you if you want to read Home Decorating For Dominants or if you want me to magically solve your interior design problems for you, and that you should consider my very excellent points and agree that I am correct, I am always correct, and I always shall be correct, so I get to suck you off. And then you tell me not to get ahead of myself, but I can, if I so choose, ask for it nicely, and, ah, here." Enjolras's phone pings. "Check your e-mail."
Enjolras pulls out his phone and opens his e-mail. And, sure enough, there's a new shared calendar from Grantaire, called 'stupid relationship stuff, very boring'. Enjolras opens the calendar.
"But anyway, you're an ingrate, Enjolras," Grantaire says cheerfully, "and I do deserve to get spanked and suck you off. That's on the schedule for five minutes from now. As of... right now."
"It's like you're hinting at something and I can't quite make out what it is," Enjolras says and refreshes the calendar. Sure enough, there's a new appointment, appropriate titled 'please?'. "I'm not exactly clear on what you want. Maybe you should get on your knees. I might hear you better."
"Yes, it's amazing how acoustics work," Grantaire says, putting his phone away and kneeling down between Enjolras's legs. "Is this angle better? Can you magically hear me better when I ask to get spanked and then suck you off? Because that's what I'm asking for. So, can I?"
Enjolras isn't really in the mood to have an orgasm. Usually negotiation gets him hard and interested, but this was more of an emotional ordeal, and he's not really in the mood to get off. "No," he says. "But you can entertain me by getting yourself off. Make it theatrical. I'll go make popcorn."
Grantaire nods. "You always have the best ideas, sir. I'll get the lube."
"Go," Enjolras orders him, then pulls out his phone to put the first order in. The curtains really need some attention.