Gansey eyes the object in his palms like it were a rat snake – non-venomous, yet discomforting. His thumb is worrying his bottom lip.
“Are you sure?”
Ronan nods. His heart is tripping and his insides contract as if to force him to cower. He sets his jaw and breathes out through his nose. His spine stays straight.
You have to know what you want.
For the longest time, Ronan was in the dark about what he wanted. He might have known what that was all along, yet never dared to shine a light on it. It’s easier when you don’t think about it too hard. Or at all.
Gansey exhales; it could have been a sigh. “Very well. But you have to help me through this.”
Ronan nods again, then lifts his chin as Gansey slips the collar around his neck. It's a simple black leather band, with a ring in the front for a leash. Gansey tugs it to the center, below the jut of his Adam’s apple. His fingers are a bridge against the blazing skin of his neck, and Ronan’s pulse is leaping towards them.
“Now you forget we’re friends,” Ronan says. His gaze wanders to Gansey’s mouth and his tongue hungers for the taste of mint. A storm breaks inside him; he’s feeling wild again. It’s what brought them here in the first place: Ronan’s anger, his inability and unwillingness to control it, his impulse to unleash it upon the world.
Once again, Declan had caught the brunt of it. Gansey was not pleased. Ronan could have lived with that. Except, for one excruciating moment, Ronan glimpsed the concern Gansey struggled with. Ronan is Gansey’s friend; of course he would worry, and Ronan is the biggest shit for not taking that into account.
Gansey wants to help, but has been drawing blanks as to how. Everything about the way he carried himself was imploring Ronan to provide him with a clue. Ronan’s glare was menacing, but it wasn’t aimed at Gansey. It was an inward glare. His body was trembling with the decision about to be made.
“Wait here,” he said, and swallowed his pride. It stuck in his craw and sliced him on the way down. He could barely push words past it to illustrate his intentions, to make Gansey understand just what it is he needs.
It’s still thrashing inside him, big and suffocating and ripping him open. He endures it for Gansey, who is genuine in his desire to work with Ronan.
“That’s quite the request,” Gansey says into the silence that has been settling among the cardboard rooftops of the Henrietta miniature.
“You wanted to help.” Ronan slips out the leash that has been hanging from his back pocket and presents it to Gansey. He’s come this far, he might as well go all out even if the storm inside is tearing him apart.
Gansey studies it, running his fingers along the length as if they could trace its origin in the texture of the leather. Sweat prickles Ronan's temples. “And this is how?”
Ronan is not thinking straight. Of course he's not thinking straight, otherwise he wouldn’t be asking this. He should be keeping it tightly locked in a box in a corner of the farthest reaches of his mind and never think about it again. Whatever possessed him to bring this up?
Worried eyes and a reaching hand, hesitant and helpless.
“I still don’t understand what exactly it is you want me to do.”
A film reel of unsettling images flickers against the screen of his mind. Leather, leashes, clothes left on the floor. He trains his eyes on Gansey so they would not flicker to the barely made bed off to their side, and measures out his exhale before he trusts himself to speak. “Think of it as training your dog.”
“Like teaching you to Sit and handing out treats when you listen?” Gansey asks, part amusement, part something else. “How is that different from what I’ve been doing so far?”
“You think of me as an equal. I don’t want that. I want—need—to be treated as less than I am, by someone I can trust. I don’t want a choice, I want an order.”
There is that partly amused smile again. “Maybe you would be better off in the military.”
Gansey tugs at the leash just below where it’s linked to the collar. The gesture is thoughtless and mundane, the same as Gansey would knot a tie. His attempts to lighten the conversation were meant to dispel the significance of the moment. If either of them acknowledged what a Big Deal it was to them, it could damage their friendship irreparably.
It would be too easy to say that Ronan hates himself for asking. It’s one aspect, sure, but he also battles with the thrill, the danger, the potential of it.
The leash adds weight to the collar, turning it into a presence he can’t ignore as readily. Gansey loops it around his hand, eyes still trained on it. He looks up when he addresses Ronan next. His cheeks are tinged with color.
“Since you want me to think of this as dog training, would you prefer to do this on the ground?”
“Don’t ask me, Gansey. Order me.”
Gansey pauses for a moment, then nods, exhales. It shouldn’t have been possible, but Gansey’s spine grows even straighter, his shoulders even squarer, and his features more guarded.
“Hands and knees,” he says with his professional voice, the one that never questions its authority.
Ronan’s breath is burned away in a fire that incinerates his insides. Although there’s some resistance in his stubborn limbs, he can’t not obey. Holding Gansey’s sure gaze, he sinks to his knees and plants his palms on the floor.
Shit, this feels so right, one part of him thinks even as another is writhing in shame. He’s making Gansey take control when it’s the last thing he wants to do.
The leather creaks in Gansey’s grip; it hushes when his clenched fist loosens. His face remains unchanged. Turning around, he tugs Ronan along, as if taking him for a stroll. The leash swings a little from side to side and Ronan absorbs the motion through his collar. He is content to follow until he notices where they are headed. He balks.
“We’re going in there,” Gansey says, both confident and reassuring, “unless you want Noah to see this.”
Ronan reluctantly agrees. Noah might be sleeping, but he also has the uncanny ability of drifting in on you unannounced. You never know when he might pop up.
Entering his room with Gansey walking him on a leash is not what is so strange about this. Stranger still is how intimate Gansey’s presence in his room feels, leash or no leash. Ronan is intensely aware of the car keys hidden away in a drawer, like they’re pulling on his conscience – tell-tale heart style – to confess.
Gansey eyes the drape over Chainsaw’s cage as though he’d forgotten about her existence since she’s been quiet all night. He shakes his head and leads Ronan closer to the bed.
“Sit,” he says and lets the leash drop to the floor. “Don’t move from your spot until I pick that up again.”
Ronan feels the beginning of a scoff build in his throat, but it won’t come out. He sits.
Gansey takes a seat on the edge of his bed. As the mattress dips beneath his weight, Ronan’s skin draws tight. He’s close enough to rest his forehead on Gansey’s knee, close enough to tip his balance, close enough that with one move he could be watching Gansey’s head flatten the creases in his blanket.
There’s just one step between them and a wrong decision.
Pensive, Gansey reaches into his breast pocket and slips a mint leaf into his mouth. Ronan’s watchful gaze must have taken on a transfixed quality.
“Want o—,” Gansey begins, but catches himself. He reaches forward to wrap his fingers around the leash just below where it’s hooked to the collar. He pulls Ronan toward him and off his hands. Ronan feels a little like a meerkat, hovering on his knees, but he takes that awkwardness over the realization that all he has to do is lean in to have a taste of what he craves.
Gansey both defuses and enables that thought. He holds a mint leaf under Ronan’s nose, who eyes it like it were poison. Ronan feels trapped. Gansey is never more painfully attractive than when he is in command of the room.
“Take it,” he says.
And Ronan does. He lets Gansey place the leaf into his mouth and it is no accident when Ronan’s lips brush his fingertips. All of this is so surreal, like a weird, black and white Dadaist movie, that Ronan feels bold and unsettled.
Gansey’s eyes widen a fraction in surprise, and he scrubs his hand over Ronan’s scalp as though he were petting him.
Ronan stares resolutely at the top button of Gansey’s shirt.
“There’s a good boy,” Gansey says gently.
Something blocks off Ronan’s throat, something massive and full of angles, and he lowers his head against Gansey’s shoulder, so he wouldn’t be able to see his face.
They stay like this for a while, Gansey rubbing Ronan’s head, and Ronan leaning against him, rigid like an engine rod. The scent of mint and mown grass fills his nostrils and the warmth of sun-soaked skin throbs against his own. He can’t move. If he moves, there’s no coming back.
Gansey breaks the spell when he touches his shoulders with both hands, as if to signal he wants to push him away but is unwilling to go through with the motion.
Ronan sits back on his heels.
After a long moment, Gansey says, “Since we’re already in this position, I want to use the opportunity to make you listen to something I wouldn’t otherwise have the courage to say to your face.”
This doesn’t bode well. He hasn’t accounted for this. He hasn’t accounted for anything.
“This is going to be hard for you,” Gansey’s voice has taken on his commanding tone, “but I’m going to say it, and you’re going to listen. I won’t hear a word of protest until I’m done. Even then, I won’t hear you contradict me out of spite.”
With a huff, Ronan curls in on himself next to Gansey’s leg and rests his temple against Gansey’s thigh. Gansey keeps stroking his buzzcut.
“You want me to treat you as subhuman. I can’t do that. I cherish our friendship. I cherish you, and I’ll hold you back however many times you’re about to do something damaging to yourself, but I cannot demean you. It doesn’t feel right.”
Ronan wonders if that is Gansey or his upbringing talking. Gansey’s hand moves lower, rubbing his shoulders, as if to chase that thought away.
“You’re a good person, Ronan. Worthy of love and kindness. Even now. Maybe especially now. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss the old you, because I do. But if he’s no longer there and you’re what I get, then I’ll accept that too. You’re good the way you are.”
Ronan is taut and trembling, and his fist balls into the fabric of Gansey’s shirt.
“It’s okay,” Gansey whispers, stroking his head and down his back. But it’s not. Every muscle tenses under his hand.
When he shifts on his feet, the tiniest bit of pressure grazes the forearm that’s lying across Gansey’s lap. Ronan’s grip slackens in surprise.
He lifts his head from Gansey’s thigh, but not his gaze from the wrinkles in his trousers. When he does glance up, an anguished and apologetic look flits over Gansey’s features.
“I’m sorry, this is awkward,” Gansey says. “You shouldn’t have to see this.”
Ronan’s eyes lower again. The bump again his forearm and the shadow he just saw really is the raised outline of— He swallows, but his mouth is dry. Possibilities cram his head, large and loud, but also consequences.
The need to make a decision is a time bomb waiting to go off and his hand is on the detonator.
“I could take care of that for you,” Ronan says hoarsely, “if you want.”
Gansey’s grip on his shoulder tightens. “No, that’s not— I don’t think I—”
“It’s no big deal, Gansey. I forced this on you. This is the least I can do.” Now that the topic has been breached, Ronan feels the same way when he’s racing in the streets: reckless and alive. The blood pounding in his ears nearly drowns out the words he says.
“You didn’t force anything on me. I wanted to help you. I didn’t expect... this.”
Ronan’s fingers clench into the blanket on either side of Gansey. He shouldn’t want this, shouldn’t suggest—shouldn’t be pushing for it and frame it as a favor. “None of that says I can’t help you in turn.”
Gansey’s burnished skin is tinged dark red. “I can’t ask this of you.”
“I’m offering, just like you did before.”
Drawing a shaky breath, Gansey directs his gaze to the ceiling. It kills Ronan not to know what exactly he is chewing over. Does he want this or not? Is he too polite to accept this? Is he afraid of hurting Ronan’s feelings if he declines? Is he disgusted by Ronan, but doesn’t want to show it?
When he looks at Ronan again, a strained kind of composure has smoothed over his face. “Thank you for the offer. I appreciate you wanting to do this for me, but I can’t. I can’t risk it. Can’t use you like this.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t take it all on yourself. Where’s my say in this?”
“This is exactly what I didn’t want, to take advantage of you.”
“You’re not, man.” Ronan feels irritation froth under his skin, battling the very real desire he’s been trying to suppress. He fears it’s all coming to the surface. Gansey is so close and it might take nothing more than a kiss to convince him; it might also take nothing more than a kiss to ruin it all. Fuck. He’d been so calm before, when his world had spanned no more than the length of his leash. Where is that calm now? “I asked you to do this for me, and now I’m asking you if you want me to return the favor.”
“Fuck, Ronan, this is different. It doesn’t matter what I want. I can seek my own release. You don’t have that luxury, not in any way that is safe for you. If I allowed myself to accept this, I’d be jeopardizing our friendship.”
Of all the points Gansey has raised, Ronan’s mind jumps to only one: “But you do want this?”
The moment it’s out of his mouth he’s shocked at his own ferocity. Yes, he wants to know. Yes, he wants, but if he can’t say it, it’s not fair of him to put Gansey on the spot either.
Gansey’s expression is raw like an open wound. He struggles to cover it up, and when he speaks next, he sounds defeated.
“Look, it doesn’t matter anymore, so let’s leave it.” He brushes Ronan aside and stands. His voice is professional Mr. Gansey again. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I was trying to offer you an alternative to your current coping mechanisms, but clearly I’m out of my depth. I think I just made it worse and for that I apologize.”
“Fuck you for going high and mighty on me now.” Ronan unhooks the leash and throws it to the floor. The clatter wakes Chainsaw, who rattles at her cage.
“I better go now,” Gansey says, distant and out of reach.
He closes the door behind him more quietly than a whisper in a dream. Ronan wants to throw shit, to demolish his room, but instead, he rips the drape from Chainsaw’s cage and takes her out.
She hops up to his shoulder, digging her claws in to secure her perch, and pecks the collar he’s still wearing.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “it was a stupid idea.”