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stealing like the tide across a map

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It's happening more frequently, Ronan going off on his own, going off like a bomb, and you're caught in the wreckage he leaves behind. You're worried that one day, the wreckage will be all that's left of him.

You know you would never be able to live with yourself if something happened to him and you hadn't tried everything in your power to help him.

The suicide attempt that wasn't one still haunts you. How sick with guilt you've been. How you've racked your brains to come up with something, anything, you could have done to prevent it. How you were convinced you should have seen it coming. For half a year you viewed Ronan as the boy who tried to kill himself, because he didn't give you any choice, because you being terrified for his safety was still better than you knowing the truth about him. His father told him never to tell, so he didn't.

Even now that he's told you what it was and what it wasn't, the danger to himself hasn't faded. Not in your mind. He still has self-destructive urges, even if they're not spelled out as clearly as a knife to the wrist.

In a strange roundabout way it makes sense then, what he asks of you. Your environment has been planting the idea in your heads for some time (He's your dog, Gansey. You leash him.) and it's not like you've been impervious to it. You've used it yourself, because the image of Ronan as a feral dog is apt, if anything.

Ronan never challenged it. He seemed to welcome it even. It's his pride on the line, not yours, and if he does nothing to shatter the suggestion of him as your dog, why should you?

But you ask yourself: do you want this?

The collar is heavy in your hands, heavy with the weight of what's being asked. You're aware that this could very well cost you your friendship, no matter what decision you make.

The topic has been breached. He told you what he needs; now it's your turn to show him that you're there for him. That you're not disgusted, that you'll at least try. So you might as well go through with it. It doesn't matter what you want. If this is something Ronan needs, you'll do it.

Some of the tension he's been carrying in his shoulders drains from him the moment you loop the collar around his neck. His skin is burning beneath your fingertips, his pulse rapid, his breathing shallow and controlled. You need to reassure him that you don't mind doing this.

But the leash takes you by surprise. You should have seen it coming, and yet you didn't. You didn't want to go there, because this tips the balance in your favor. It establishes Ronan in a lower position. The leash marks ownership. You've never thought about it in these terms as long as the idea was handled on a purely metaphorical plane.

You don't own Ronan. You can't. He's his own person.

He, however, does not want to be.

"Treat me as less than I am," he says, but how can you? How can you undermine everything you're striving for? Uncovering his humanity is your goal, to make it as bold and obvious as possible so that even Ronan himself will be able to see it. You can't deny him his humanity.

But what if...

What if by denying him his humanity for a time, he'll come to realize just how much of it he still has?

Stands to reason.

It surprises you how readily you slip into the role of master, even when you have no idea what you're supposed to do. This position is your birthright, handed down through a generation of Ganseys, and you're both comfortable and uncomfortable about assuming it. You don't want to elevate yourself above other people, least of all your friends, but sometimes it seems others are more than willing to do your bidding.

The leash feels better in your hand than you'd like to admit. You imagine how much easier it would be to hold Ronan back if it were there all the time. You find you want to exert that control if it's for his benefit, but at the same time it's distressing that you do. Ronan ought not to need anything to hold him back. Even as his friend, what right do you have to make decisions for him?

He assures you this is what he wants.

You order him to his hands and knees. The command sounds like it didn't come from your mouth at all, or else that you're just a visitor in your own body. Nothing belongs to you.

You're glad that Ronan doesn't listen easily, that he fixes you with a challenging glare, that he still has some backbone in him. That is familiar, that makes this less strange. But you can't help the flutter in your stomach when he does as he is told.

It's a nauseating feeling between soaring and plummeting and it intensifies with every command.

He listens so beautifully and for some reason you're proud even though you have done nothing to deserve this. He lets you into his room although it's off-limits, he lets you pull him along, direct him where you like, even lets you feed him mint leaves although he doesn't care for them on normal days.

You have nothing but praise for him. The need to tell him what a good boy he is, how glad you are to be his friend, that he's worthy of kindness and love is growing inside you, and you're amazed he lets you do this, lets you call him good boy, lets you stroke his hair. It's like fur beneath your fingertips. You feel such pride and warmth for him. It floods your body and washes away a part of that worry you've been harboring, the one that makes you question whether this is such a good idea after all.

You have no clue if this is something that normal friends do for each other, but you were dead once and came back to life, and Ronan creates things out of his dreams, so neither of you qualify as normal anyway, not by yourselves and certainly not together.

It doesn't matter if this is normal or not, as long as this is good for Ronan.

He's grown so calm since you started this, such a change from the barrel of explosives he's been just hours before. He's resting his chin against your shoulder, breathing deeply. His heartbeat is echoing your own.

You notice how close you are, how you're almost cradling him in your arms, and he seems to become aware of this too. He's pressing his forehead against your neck, runs his nose against your jaw like he's kissing you with his skin, like he's parched and you're the spring he's been journeying toward for days.

This is dangerous, you tell yourself. Surely this is something friends don't do, normal or otherwise, but you find that you're parched for it as well, or at least that your better judgment has been impaired.

You cup his head and hold his gaze. He looks longingly at your lips and that's all you need to know.

You could order him to kiss you, to make this easier on you, but no words are forming, so there's nothing to it but to lean in, slowly, carefully, giving him enough space to change his mind.

He doesn't. He surges forward, meeting your lips with his own. They're pliable and eager, but he still follows your lead, as if you had any idea of what you're doing. You don't feel so in control anymore.

His hands smooth over your thighs, your sides, your back, and your whole body comes alight under his touch. Something tells you to put an end to this before it's too late, but it's an insubstantial thought, gone as quickly as a pricked soap bubble.

"Gansey," he puffs against your lips, unable to let go for more than a breath. "Gansey please, order me. I want... so many things and I'm sure I'll choose the wrong one if you don't tell me what to do."

That's a request you weren't prepared for. How can you know which isn't the wrong one? "Tell me one thing you want."

His eyes are yearning and miserable when he looks at you, the tendons in his neck are standing out, and his hands are curling into your trouser legs. He drops his gaze and swallows, nudges your chin with his head. Only when his hands shift the fabric of your trousers again do you notice that you're hard. Blazing heat suffuses your cheeks; you're sure Ronan has noticed, too.

"It's okay," you encourage him. "You can tell me anything."

"Fuck, how do I say this without making it sound coarse? I want to use my mouth on you, Gansey."

You didn't think you could feel any hotter, but there it is, a mere suggestion is enough to make you sweat. You take his hand into your own and guide it to your clothed erection. "You mean this?"

"Fuck," Ronan breathes, but he's nodding and his entire body seems to be quaking with anticipation and maybe shame, for wanting this at all.

"Go on, then." You can't go back now, even if you wanted to. You're not really thinking about backing out, but it's a faint possibility that exists somewhere in your mind, because you're too used to entertaining each and every one of them to stop now, even in a situation like this.

But it does serve to reinforce that you want this, that you want to give him this if he'll have it.

You can hardly watch, because watching him do this would make it real, undeniable fact, and you're not sure you're prepared for that yet. Still, you can't ignore the hissing of your zipper, the way your trousers are uncomfortably tight, or the warm, warm hands that free you from your confines.

Ronan's breath is quick and hot against you, and he looks you in the eyes as he begins stroking. Your head falls back and your fingers scratch over his scalp again to tell him it's all right, he's allowed to do this, and there will be no repercussions.

You've never thought about this before, certainly not with any of your friends. Your life revolves around your quest for Glendower and you never allowed your body to get in the way of it. If you had any needs, you took care of them yourself, perfunctorily, to flush it out of your system and move on. You certainly never imagined it could be like this.

A stifled moan wrests itself from your throat as Ronan's mouth engulfs you slowly. It's hot and wet and incredible, and you barely last a minute, but that was never your objective. Ronan swallows your release and it should be mortifying, but strangely it isn't. You can't remember the last time you've been this relaxed.

Breathing hard, Ronan presses his head into your still twitching stomach and it takes you a moment or two to realize he's taking care of himself. You lean forward, wrap your arms around him loosely, run your thumb over the back of his head.

"Good boy," you whisper into his ear. It seems to be enough.

You stroke over his back until his trembling subsides. You're tired, but not in your usual raw, insomnia-induced way. It's a pleasant sort of tired, like you could lie down now and drift right off to sleep. That thought pleases you.

"Do you need anything more?" you ask, brushing the shell of Ronan's ear.

"Stay here, just for tonight?"

You smile softly. "There's nothing I'd like better."

You were prepared to walk over to your own bed, but this one is right here and has everything you need.

Ronan cleans his hand with a tissue before he disconnects the leash from his collar and slips out of his tank top. He lets his jeans drop to the floor and then helps you out of your polo shirt and trousers. It makes you feel like a child with a broken arm, but his movements are slow and reverent and he doesn't jostle you out of the quiet buzz that's settling over you.

He slips into bed behind you and you sink into his arms. His warmth helps you unwind even further. He snakes his arms around you and kisses the top of your shoulder, the side of your neck, and when he does, something cold presses against your skin.

"Don't you want to take that off?" you ask and hook your finger between the collar and his neck.

"Forget it. Even if I have a rash tomorrow, it'll be worth it."