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Sweetly Salty, Deeply Thirsty

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               Ten can’t stop the voices in his head, but God, has he tried.

               It’s shameful, isn’t it? How could you want something like that?

               It’s not natural.

               It’s twisted. It’s sick.  

               And maybe they’re right. When it’s 2 AM and he’s hunched over a final essay, and his coffee has coagulated in its cheap Styrofoam cup on the nightstand, and he hasn’t eaten since the morning before and he feels like he’ll never be good enough – Life is probably just supposed to be like that, right? It’s harsh and sharp around the edges, and he’s responsible for smoothing the corners out until they don’t cut as deep. It’s no one else’s responsibility. It’s only his.

               But the thoughts always creep back in those predawn hours, until he watches the sun rise through the blinds, and he battles the voices in his head and claws the sleep from his eyes with shaking hands. Another cup of coffee, maybe. Two, three, four. Less sugar, less cream. He’d never liked his coffee black, but maybe the bitter sting at the back of his throat will snap him out of it this time.

               It’s wrong. It’s twisted.

               “I know,” he whispers to the ceiling.

               The shadows draped in every corner stare back silently, but he’s sure they laugh when his back is turned.  

               The edge of the kitchen counter digs into his hip, sharp and demanding, but he likes the pain, likes how it keeps him grounded. He winds his hands tightly around his favorite coffee mug – the one with the Chiangmai skyline – and tries to will the cogs in his brain to start turning. He has three classes to attend, then a full shift at work, and he tries to ignore the half-painted canvas propped against the coffee table that’s probably due next week. There’s also an essay due tomorrow that’s barely past the opening line, and sixteen voicemails from his mother dating back to last month.

               A dull ache begins to build behind his eyes, and he grits his teeth. The headaches are a daily thing now, and he roots around in the nearest cupboard for the first painkillers he can find.

               He’s just pried the lid off the pill bottle when Johnny comes into the kitchen, his dark hair mussed from sleep and his oversized hoodie hanging past his fingertips. He only has on boxers underneath, and his legs are long and pale in the early winter light filtering through the blinds. Ten lowers his gaze and concentrates on shaking painkillers into his palm.

               “Why are you popping pills this early?” Johnny’s lithe fingers are warm on Ten’s wrist, pulling his hand away to inspect the medicine in his open palm. “It’s not even seven o’clock yet.”

               Ten curls his fingers around the pills. “I have a headache.”

               Johnny’s dark eyes flash up to catch his gaze, but he lets his wrist go. “Are you okay?”

               “Fine.”

               Johnny’s eyebrows lower. He watches in silence as Ten places the pills on his tongue and washes them down with black coffee. “Did you have breakfast?”

               “No.”

               “I can make you something before you leave.”

               And this is what Ten hates. He hates how his heart stutters like a schoolgirl’s, hates how his stomach twists into knots, hates how his knees go weak at the thought of Johnny doing anything for him because, sure, they’ve been best friends for years, but why the hell does he have to feel like this?

               “I—I don’t have time.” Ten’s voice comes out softer than he wants it to, uncertain cotton syllables falling from his tongue.

               “There’s an hour before your class starts.” The words come out on a sigh. Johnny runs his fingers through his hair. “Sit the fuck down, Ten.” He places a hand on Ten’s shoulder, fingers pressing hard into the skin, and forces him down into a rickety kitchen chair.

               And it’s enough to turn Ten’s legs to water, to steal his breath and leave him dizzy because he knows that Johnny is stronger than he looks – of course he knows that, they’ve known each other for ages – but god, to be pushed down as if he weighs nothing—

               “Pancakes are okay, yeah?”

               Johnny’s voice comes from underwater and Ten’s breath is stuck in his throat. He coughs and hooks his fingers around the edges of his chair. “That’s fine.” Johnny knows he likes sweets for breakfast. He likes sweets all the time, really, and of course Johnny knows that, too. He knows that Ten takes too much cream in his coffee and too little care when crossing the street. Johnny knows everything.

               Well – almost.

               Ten swallows back the shame that bubbles up on his tongue and keeps his eyes locked on the maple syrup’s nutrition label. If he lets his mind wander, if he thinks back just enough, he can feel the bite of cold leather and metal against his neck –

               “Eat all of these,” Johnny says pointedly, setting a stack of pancakes on the table.

               Ten blinks as he’s tugged back to the present, and his fingers automatically trail along his own neck, where his skin still prickles at the memory. It’s twisted and it’s sick – he knows it is – but when he’s close to tears at 3 AM, the weight of the collar is sometimes the only thing that keeps him from unraveling.

               He finishes the food and tosses his plate in the sink before Johnny is even halfway done, and he’s heading back to his room when Johnny finally speaks.

               “You know you can tell me, right? If something’s wrong?” It’s solid and sure and so quintessentially Johnny that Ten almost lets the whole truth tumble off his tongue. But instead he swallows and flashes a wan smile.

               “Yeah. Of course.”

               Ten makes it to his first lecture, but only barely, and the professor shoots him an annoyed look when he stumbles into the room and drops his books onto the nearest desk. He doesn’t have time to pull out his laptop before the professor starts talking, so he forces his caffeine-addled brain to retain any information it can while he searches through his backpack.

               The lecture is only halfway through when his laptop flashes a low battery warning. He’s not sitting anywhere near an outlet, and the charger cord is lying on his bedroom floor under a pile of dirty laundry. His fingers curl into fists atop the keyboard. The sigh that slips past his lips is automatic, and he slams the laptop shut with enough force to make the girl sitting next to him jump in surprise.

               The next two lectures are pen-and-paper notes and trying to stay awake, and the black coffee from earlier sits heavy in his stomach like lead. He thinks of Johnny – his soft eyes and strong hands and stern words – and his insides suddenly turn to cotton.

               “You know you can tell me, right?”

               He lets his eyes slip closed, but he presses down against his notebook so hard that the pen breaks through the paper. It smudges blue – bruises on pale skin – and he wants to cry.

               His shift at work isn’t any better.

               It’s a mind-numbing thing, taking orders and serving drinks while the restaurant steadily fills, and his body moves without the help of his brain. It’s easier that way, easier to ignore every “excuse me” and “more water please.”

               He has a tray full of frothy beer glasses perched on his palm when he hears the manager calling his name. Ten looks over his shoulder for the briefest second, takes one step forward, and feels the instant spike in his veins when he collides head-on with a customer and sends them toppling to the floor. The tray ricochets back, spilling beer down Ten’s front, and he flinches as each glass shatters against the ground.

               The entire room holds its breath. Ten thinks he might pass out.

               “I-I’m so sorry,” he chokes out, reaching for the man on the ground.

               The customer glares and slaps his hand away before climbing to his feet. He brushes dust from his tailored suit, though Ten is the one covered in cheap alcohol and broken glass, and storms through the front door without a word.

                But it’s a Friday night, and Ten can’t leave, so he cleans up the mess on hands and knees and stays two hours late to make up for it because he knows he’s not enough. It’s like a gaping maw in his stomach, a hunger he can’t sate, always searching for more and never getting it—

               He keeps his head bent low on the subway ride home. He reeks of beer and frying oil, and his hands shake in his lap. He won’t let himself cry – not until he’s alone – and he bites his lip hard enough for it to hurt.

               The clock reads midnight when he finally gets home, and he sets his bag on the floor with a dejected sigh. The tears are instantly hot on his lashes, his chest is pulled taut, he draws in a shaky breath and then two and three more—

               “Why are you back so late--” It’s Johnny, voice slurred with sleep, and Ten flinches at the sound. The kitchen light flickers on and he’s standing there, dark hair tousled and hanging in his eyes, wearing nothing but flannel pajama pants.

               Ten swallows. “I had something to do.” He hears the quiver in his own voice.

               “At work?” Johnny frowns. He takes a step closer and Ten immediately moves back.

               He doesn’t trust his voice, so he nods and averts his eyes.

               Johnny clears his throat, but the silence that hangs in the room is thick enough to work its way into Ten’s lungs. “Look, I know you’re not, like, required to tell me when you’re gonna be late or anything, but I was worried--”

               “I can take care of myself.” It’s a half-whisper and a total lie, but Johnny doesn’t need to know.

               There’s a loaded pause. “Can you?”

               And oh, Ten is so close to breaking, right then and there. He’s so close to throwing himself into Johnny’s arms and admitting that no, he can’t and no, he’s not fine. He’s so close to begging, it almost slips like silky sin from his tongue: please, Johnny, please tell me I’m worth something. Please tell me I’m good enough.

               But no – he won’t, he can’t. Johnny deserves better than Ten’s utter lack of self-worth. So he draws in another breath and fixes Johnny with the strongest gaze he can. “I’m fine, and I can take care of myself. Don’t worry.” The lie sits sour on his tongue and keeps him awake all night, but it’s for the best. He’s sure it is.

               He’s on the train home from work the next afternoon when he gets a short text from Hendery. It’s a handful of words and a spattering of emojis, but Ten knows him well enough to get the meaning. Hendery invites him to a different club nearly every weekend, and tonight is no exception. Ten doesn’t reply and instead lets his head fall back onto the seat behind him. It had been a long week, and he thinks suddenly of the half-painted canvas sitting on the living room floor. It’s due soon, according to some boy named Renjun who sits near him in the studio, and he hasn’t worked on it in days. He’s barely eaten, there’s a buzzing in his ears, and he knows he’s too busy; there’s just too much—

               But he tells Hendery that he’ll be there because he could use the reprieve, if only once.

 

               The apartment is dark and empty when he gets home from the station. There’s a plate of food on the counter, wrapped in cellophane with a sticky note on top, but the thought of Johnny taking care of him like that makes his stomach hurt. He lets his bedroom door fall shut behind him with a soft click.

               He’s not sure what leads him to do it – to pull on the leather pants and silver mesh top that cling to him like a second skin. There’s glitter in his ash-gray hair and dark liner behind his lashes, and he knows how he looks like this: desperate. And maybe he is. Maybe he’ll break, this time, and lose himself under a stranger’s hands.

               He’s about to leave the room when he spots the black leather collar, half-hidden under a pile of crumpled notebook paper on the dresser. He thinks of it around his neck, tight enough to dig into the skin as pale fingers tug and pry—Fire trails down his spine and he swallows. But there’s an acidic edge of shame to it, and he hesitates with his hand outstretched.

               It’s shameful, isn’t it?

               It’s twisted. It’s sick.

               The thought of it – a lithe body pressed against his own, breath hot on his neck as they yank roughly on the collar until Ten chokes, their voice soft in his ear when they tell him that he’s been so, so good— He wonders how freeing it will feel, knowing that he’s good enough. He grabs the collar and shoves it into his bag.

               Johnny’s perched on the living room couch when Ten leaves his room. He has a bowl of take-out jjajangmyeon balanced on his lap, and the sleeves of his oversized sweater slip past his fingertips. He blinks when he sees Ten in the hallway. “Are you leaving?”

               Ten shrugs. “Hendery invited me.”

               Johnny raises a brow. “You’re going out like that?” There’s an edge to his tone, something heavy that makes Ten’s stomach twist inside out.

               “Do you have a problem with it?”

               Johnny’s eyes travel from Ten’s heavy makeup down the expanse of his chest, and his gaze is like a physical weight. There’s a drawn-out silence. Ten’s breath catches in his throat. “I don’t think people will be able to keep their hands off you,” Johnny says finally. “Is that what you want?” Their eyes lock, and the sheer intensity of Johnny’s stare is enough to make Ten unsteady on his feet.

               He swallows. “Maybe.”

               “It was a yes or no question.”

               And he wonders how Johnny can do this - turn Ten to putty so easily with a few stern words when he’s sitting cross-legged on their tattered couch, hair mussed and drowning in a pastel sweater like the posterchild of innocence. The shame is there, white-hot on Ten’s tongue, always reminding him that Johnny is his closest friend – He thinks of the collar in his bag and clears his throat.

               “What I do at the club isn’t really your business.”

               Johnny’s brows furrow before he catches himself and smooths out his expression. He gives Ten another once-over before shrugging and turning toward the TV. “Fine.”

               And Ten is out the door before he can say something he’ll regret.

               The club is dark. It reeks of alcohol and sweaty bodies, and Ten hasn’t seen Hendery in half an hour. He’s lounging against the bar with a fruity drink that tastes terrible, and he’s counted at least twelve pairs of eyes on him from across the room. The collar sits heavy on his neck. He wonders if anyone will walk over, tug on the leather, tell him how pretty he is—

               “Waiting on someone?”

               The voice comes from behind him, soft and gentle, and Ten looks over his shoulder to see a sculpted face and styled hair.

               “Not particularly.”

               The man smiles and tilts his head to one side. “Someone as pretty as you, all alone?”

               An electric shock trails down Ten’s arms at the word “pretty”, and he looks up through his lashes. He’s desperate for hands on him, desperate to forget himself, and he’ll take what he can get. “A tragedy, isn’t it?”

               The man’s hands are at his waist, painfully gentle, and they’re in the bathroom between one breath and the next. And yes, Ten thinks, maybe this will be it, finally, finally someone will dig their nails into his skin and have their way with him—

               But it’s like a slap in the face, ice water down his back, because the man is holding him like he’s glass, pressing him gently to the countertop and ghosting his fingers along Ten’s sides. His lips on Ten’s jawline are feather-soft and Ten wants to scream.

               “C-could you maybe,” Ten squirms under his hands, “be a little rougher please?”

               The man pulls back. “With a delicate little thing like you? You could get hurt.”

               He can feel tears clawing up his throat. “Wh-what if that’s what I want?”

               “That’s not really my thing.” The man leans forward and drags his lips along Ten’s neck, stopping just short of the collar. “I can still make you feel good without all that kinky shit. Trust me.”

               But that makes Ten stop short. His fingers start to shake. He knows that’s how people see it, how people think when they hear it – that kinky shit. It’s something shameful. It’s something sick and twisted, something to be kept buried in the deepest parts of his psyche. And he thinks that maybe he’s broken for wanting it, for needing it the way he needs air to breathe. There must be something inside of him that’s cracked into a thousand irreparable pieces. But, then again, he’s always known that. He’s broken and nothing can fix him.

               He’s out the door in an instant with tears hot on his lashes. He hails a taxi so he won’t have to face people on the subway, and it’s not even eleven when he pushes open the apartment door and sinks into a kitchen chair. He can hear a Thai drama playing on the TV – his chest hurts when he thinks of Johnny watching cheesy Thai television – and he buries his head in his hands.

               “Ten?” Johnny’s voice is close – too close – and Ten curls in on himself. “Ten, are you okay? What happened?”

               “I’m fine.” It comes out as a hoarse whisper.

               “Are you crying?” Johnny’s hands are on his shoulders, fingers digging into the skin, and Ten shakes his head. “Jesus Christ, tell me what’s wrong. Are you hurt? Did someone hurt you?”

               Ten shakes his head again.

               Johnny lets out a breath and sinks into the chair opposite him. “For fuck’s sake, I know there’s something wrong. You’ve been out of it for weeks. Why are you hiding from me?”

               And this is what Ten can’t take: the accusatory tone, the blame hanging heavy on every word when he’s already one step away from falling to pieces. He’s the one coming apart at the seams – so can’t anyone give him what he needs, just once? “I can’t do this.” He means for it to come out forceful, but it falls from his lips in a quivering whisper. He looks up, and Johnny’s eyes go wide at the expression on his face.

               “Do what?”

               “Anything. Everything.” Ten’s fingers curl into shaking fists. “I’m in over my head, Johnny, I’m drowning and I can’t breathe--”

               “What… what are you talking about?”

               Ten rubs at his eyes, and his hands come away smeared with makeup. “I’m tired of not being enough. I’m not good enough, I’m not working hard enough, I’m not enough, and every day there’s just more and more and more and it never ends--” He reaches for his neck with trembling fingers and tugs harshly at the collar. “I just want someone to stop it, just for a second. To just” – he draws in a breath – “put the world on pause and tell me I’m good enough and tell me I’m theirs.” He pulls at the leather, harder and harder until it burns against his neck. “Some stranger at the club can’t even give that to me--”

               Johnny’s hands are warm on his, pulling his fingers down onto the table. He’s fixing Ten with a hard stare when he says, “Whoever said you weren’t good enough is a filthy liar.”

               Heat pools at the base of Ten’s spine. “What?”

               Johnny slips his own fingers underneath the collar. His touch is electric against Ten’s neck. “You are enough. You’re more than enough. No one works harder than you do.”

               “Don’t lie to me,” Ten breathes.

               Johnny gives the collar an experimental tug and Ten’s entire body jerks forward. The whine that slips past his teeth is high-pitched and embarrassing, and he feels his face flush. “I’d never lie to you,” Johnny whispers back. The air molecules between them are spiked with static. Their faces are mere inches apart, and Ten sees Johnny’s eyes flicker to his lips for half a second. Ten lets out a soft exhale.

               The sound of sudden gunfire from the TV makes them both jump, and Johnny moves backward so quickly that his chair scrapes across the floor. He clears his throat and runs a hand through his hair. He’s out of the chair and in his room before Ten can say anything, but the lingering electricity in the air fizzles in his veins for the next hour.

               The apartment is quiet the next day – awkwardly so – and when Hendery invites him out again, Ten jumps at the opportunity. It’s a different club this time, on the other side of town, and he hopes that drinking enough will help him forget about Johnny’s curious glances and pointed silence. He clears his throat and clasps his phone in both hands. “I’m going out with Hendery again.”

               Johnny hums. “Can I come, too?”

               Ten nearly chokes on his own spit. In the years that they’ve been friends, he’s never once been to a club with Johnny – never even seen Johnny dance – and the sudden interest seems wildly out of character. He glances at Johnny’s oversized hoodie and jeans; thinks about how out of place he’ll be. “Do you even like clubbing?”

               He shrugs. “You seem to like it. Maybe I should see what all the hype is about.”

               “Uh.” Ten searches for words, finds none, fumbles, stays quiet. It’s a good idea, maybe. A few drinks in his system might do Johnny good. Maybe they’d be able to let their defenses down like the night before and finally talk about that sizzling electricity— “I’ll ask Hendery.”

               An hour later, Ten’s in burgundy leather pants and a black silk button down, wondering how on Earth Johnny will manage to blend in. He’s tugging on his boots at the front door when he hears soft footfalls in the hallway. He looks up and his throat goes dry as ash.

               Maybe it’s the dark jeans with threadbare holes climbing high on the thighs, or maybe it’s the black graphic tee and silver jewelry, but Ten feels his knees go weak. Johnny’s hair is styled away from his face, and he wets his lips nervously when he sees Ten staring. “It was either this or a suit,” he says. “This is really the best I’ve got.”

               “It’s great. You’re great. I mean” – Ten clears his throat – “You look great. Yeah.”

               Johnny’s lips quirk upward in the smallest of smiles. He’s on his way to the door when his eyes land on Ten’s neck and stay there. “You’re not going to wear it?”

               “Wear what?”

               Johnny’s fingers trail along Ten’s collarbones, then up and up and up, lightly enough to leave goosebumps but hard enough to mean something. “You should wear it. It suits you.”

               Ten swallows against his hand. “What are you doing, Johnny?” He whispers.

               “Making a suggestion,” Johnny murmurs.

               “I don’t want suggestions.”

               Johnny’s fingers press down harder. “Then I’m telling you to wear it.”

               And because Ten is putty in his hands – a puppet on strings – he goes back to his room and grabs the collar in both hands. He’s still not sure what Johnny’s playing at, but his eyes are dark as pitch when he sees Ten standing in the hallway. Johnny reaches out a hand, and the unspoken give it to me sends a spark skittering down Ten’s spine. He hands over the collar without a word.

               “Turn around,” Johnny breathes.

               Ten complies, but he feels like passing out.

               Johnny’s fingers are gentle as he secures the collar around Ten’s neck, but he tugs just hard enough for Ten to stagger backwards with a surprised shout. But then Johnny’s hands are on his hips, digging hard into the skin, and his broad chest is flush against Ten’s back. His breath is hot against Ten’s ear when he says, “It really does suit you. I don’t think you should take it off.”

               Ten feels his body go slack.

               It’s only a fifteen-minute subway ride to the club, and Ten’s skin prickles from head to toe. He can feel Johnny’s eyes on him, can feel the bite of leather and metal against his neck –

               Hendery greets them at the door with high-fives and finger guns, and ushers them straight to the bar. Ten recognizes Xiaojun and Sicheng talking animatedly and sloshing alcohol onto the floor. He gives them a polite wave before leaning against the counter and ordering the strongest drink he can find. “Is the alcohol here any good?” He calls.

               “The best, bro!” Xiaojun yells back, downing the rest of his glass for emphasis. “Do you wanna come dance after you’ve had a few?”

               Ten grins. He’s always liked Xiaojun, and he’s eager to drown himself in bitter liquor and pounding bass. “Sure.”

               Four shots later and he’s tipsy enough for it to be fun. He knows how he looks on the dance floor – fluid limbs and dangerous eyes and glossy parted lips – and it’s heightened when he drinks. He lets strangers trail their hands along his chest and hook their fingers through his belt loops. He lets girls and boys alike press against his hips and breathe into his neck. He isn’t afraid to wink and giggle his way into someone’s arms just to roll his body sinfully against theirs until they’re breathless.

               But tonight is different.

               Ten can feel Johnny’s eyes on him – burning, so hot, heavy – and it’s like a hole is being bored straight through his core. His gaze doesn’t leave Ten once, tracking his movements across the dance floor like a predator hunting prey. Ten grabs a boy at random, pulling him in by the wrist and grinding against him with his arms looped around his neck. The boy hums appreciatively and buries his fingers in Ten’s hair. Ten tilts his head back – but only just – making sure to keep his eyes locked on Johnny’s at all times. He watches as Johnny gets to his feet and sets his glass on the counter.

               Johnny strides over to Ten and the other boy instantly retreats. “I think you’ve danced with everyone here,” Johnny murmurs, raising an eyebrow and scanning the room. “I wonder why you’re excluding me, your closest friend and roommate--”

               Ten takes a step closer and the room tilts. “All you have to do is ask.”

               Johnny’s hands are suddenly on his hips, hard enough to bruise, and their chests are pressed flush on the edge of the dance floor. “Does it look like I’m asking?”

               There’s a flush on Ten’s face, and he’s not sure if it’s from the alcohol in his veins or the way Johnny stares at him like he’s the only person to ever exist. He grabs fistfuls of Johnny’s t-shirt and rolls his hips forward once, twice, three times, tilting his head back and letting his eyes slip closed. But he knows he can do better, so he lets his hands trail to Johnny’s waist before fixing him with a half-lidded gaze. “Is this good enough for you?”

               He watches as Johnny’s tongue darts across dry lips. “Fuck, Ten.”

               “If you insist,” Ten breathes, hooking his fingers through the belt loops of Johnny’s jeans. He feels the shudder wrack through Johnny’s body from head to foot. He drops to the floor only to shimmy his way back up, letting his hands trail along Johnny’s thighs in the process, and he slides his fingers through one of the threadbare patches on his jeans. Johnny sucks in a breath at the feeling of Ten’s skin on his, and his grip on Ten’s hips becomes painful.

               “Two can play that game, beautiful,” he whispers, and his hands find their way into Ten’s hair. He tugs Ten’s head back roughly, mouth ghosting along his ear, and he smells like cologne and sweat and alcohol. Ten can’t fight it – he doesn’t want to – so he lets his body sway to the music as Johnny breathes hot against his ear. “You know you’re filthy like this,” Johnny gasps, and Ten’s eyes screw shut at the words. “Moving like this in front of everyone. Letting them see you this way.” He moves down to mouth along Ten’s jawline, and Ten is sure his knees have turned to water. “I should just take you right here.” His teeth find the collar and tug on it until Ten is coughing. “Bend you over this counter and fuck you until you cry for me.”

               Ten can barely breathe, and tears prick the corners of his eyes. He’s never seen Johnny like this, never heard Johnny talk like this, and he feels like he’s being burned from the inside. “Wh-what the fuck are you saying?”

               “You’d let me,” Johnny murmurs. His fingers slide from Ten’s hair and slip underneath the collar again. “You’d take it like a good boy, wouldn’t you?”

               And that’s all it takes – the words good boy falling from Johnny’s lips – for Ten to lose himself. He whimpers pathetically against Johnny’s chest. “I’d be good for you,” he breathes. And it’s a wildfire from there.

               They’re out the door and in a taxi before Ten can take another breath. Here it’s a spark catching kindling – Johnny’s fingers digging into his thigh and his dark, dark eyes trailing over every inch of him, and Ten’s head spins knowing that he’s wanted.

               Then they’re at their front door and Johnny can’t find the keys, so Ten slips his hands into Johnny’s pockets and earns himself a sharp hiss in return. And he finds them, buried in Johnny’s back pocket, but Johnny is gasping at Ten’s hands on his ass so Ten stays there, pressing him hard against the door. And just as Johnny starts to moan low in the back of his throat, Ten grabs the keys and slips them into the lock. Johnny stumbles back with a shout when the door opens, and his eyes go wide as he catches himself on the edge of the kitchen table.

               “You’re the worst,” he gasps, shaking his head in disbelief.

               Ten grins and tosses the keys onto the counter. “You weren’t complaining a minute ago.” But his heart is hammering in his throat and his palms are slick with sweat. He’s not sure where this leaves them and their years of steady, comfortable friendship – and he’s too afraid to ask.

               “Chittaphon.” It’s soft and careful, and Ten’s head jerks up at the name. He can count on one hand the times Johnny has used it over the years, and his stomach turns to knots.

               “Yeah?”

               There’s a suffocating beat of silence. “Can I kiss you?” His eyes are soft – warm and understanding like the Johnny he’s always known – and he takes a small step forward.

               And honestly, Ten suddenly thinks, who else would it be? Who else would tell him he’s worthy and press him into the bedsheets and hold him the way he needs to be held? Who else would understand him inside and out? There are tears on his lashes again, and his voice breaks when he says, “Of course you can.”

               But when their lips meet, Johnny doesn’t treat him like glass. Here it’s the spark morphing into a blaze as Johnny gasps against his mouth and trails his fingers underneath his clothes. It’s heady and desperate as Johnny licks into his mouth and backs him against the refrigerator, ripping the buttons from his silk shirt and letting it fall in tatters to the floor. It’s the smallest bite of pain as Johnny catches Ten’s lip between his teeth.

               And Ten is whimpering into every kiss, hands scrambling under Johnny’s t-shirt, nails dragging against the skin. Johnny fumbles with the button of his pants and slides them to the floor, and Ten gasps as the refrigerator’s stainless steel presses against his back and calves.

               “Want to see you in that collar and nothing else,” Johnny murmurs, hooking his fingers into the waistband of Ten’s boxers. Ten rolls his hips forward, letting Johnny slide the clothing to the tile, and Johnny lets out a breath against Ten’s neck. “Knew you’d be a good boy for me.”

               Ten whines, breathy and high, and lets his head fall back against the refrigerator. “A-Again.”

               “Again what, gorgeous?” Johnny smiles softly and rocks forward, his still-clothed erection almost painful against Ten’s bare skin. He nips at Ten’s earlobe, rolling the piercing between his teeth, and Ten cries out.

               “Say it again,” he whimpers. “Tell me I’m good.”

               “Oh no, you have to earn that,” Johnny purrs. He pulls back and grabs Ten by the wrists, pushing him toward the hallway and through his open bedroom door. “On the bed, hands above your head.”

               Ten swallows and does as he’s told, scrambling onto Johnny’s bed faceup with his arms stretched across the pillows. He feels exposed like this – open and vulnerable – and a spark of anxiety suddenly courses through his veins. But Johnny looks down at him with the warmest eyes, lips parted like he’s the most beautiful being he’s ever seen, and everything else dissolves. “Johnny,” he whispers.

               “Yes?”

               “Please fuck me.”

               He hears Johnny suck in a breath and watches as his eyes go dark. Johnny’s fingers curl and uncurl at his sides. “You’ll have to beg better than that, love.” There’s a strain in it, and Ten sees how Johnny’s gaze rakes over his entire body. He wonders how long it’ll last, this push-and-pull game of theirs.

               “Johnny,” he whispers again, tilting his head back into the pillows.

               Johnny looks away, and it’s several seconds before he responds. “Hmm?”

               “Fuck me and call me a good boy.”

               And Johnny is there in the time it takes him to blink, climbing onto the bed, straddling Ten’s hips, and pinning his wrists down with one hand. It makes Ten’s arms ache, but he bites his lip against the pain. With his free hand, Johnny hooks a finger through the metal ring at the collar’s front and yanks Ten’s head forward roughly. “Show me how good boys beg, Chittaphon.”

               Ten coughs and shakes his head, though he wants it so bad his entire body aches. He won’t give in, not that easily, not when there’s a storm in Johnny’s eyes and control evident in his every muscle. Because he’s drunk on this, drunk on knowing that Johnny wants him so bad, and that Johnny will break him to get what he wants. And he’ll let himself be broken into a hundred thousand pieces if that’s what Johnny needs.

               Johnny’s brows lower and he lets Ten’s head fall back to the pillows. “Do it yourself then.” He lifts himself from Ten’s hips and rests his back against the footboard, legs crossed and arms folded. Ten glances down at him in surprise.

               “What?”

               “Make yourself come. I don’t need to touch you.”

               Ten blinks. “A-Are you serious?”

               Johnny raises a brow. “You either do as I ask, or you do it yourself.”

               A white-hot flush washes across Ten’s entire body, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t love every second of this. He drops his aching arms to his sides and keeps his eyes locked on Johnny as he strokes himself long and slow. He lets every whimper and whine fall from his mouth, and he doesn’t miss the way Johnny’s breath hitches. Ten picks up speed, letting his eyes slip closed and his back arch off the bed. “Johnny,” he gasps. “J-Johnny--”

               “Stop.” Johnny’s voice is hoarse. He grabs Ten’s wrist in a bruising grip. “Stop it.” His chest is heaving, and he’s staring down at Ten with pupils blown wide. “H-Hands above your head.”

               It’s victory enough, and Ten does as he’s told. He watches as Johnny climbs off the bed and discards his shirt and jeans onto the floor. He roots around on his bedside table and comes back with a bottle and a silk necktie. Ten stares, nerve endings burning with want, as Johnny climbs back into bed and fixes Ten with a hard stare.

               “You know,” he says softly, reaching for Ten’s hands, “this would be easier if you begged like I asked you to.” The necktie is smooth against Ten’s skin, but Johnny ties it hard enough to hurt, and Ten gasps as it’s tied into knots again and again. Johnny leans down and nips at the skin under Ten’s ear. “No more touching, darling. Only good boys get to touch.” He leans back to admire his handiwork, and Ten feels a whimper building in his throat. His arms ache and his wrists burn and every miniscule brush of Johnny’s skin against his is torture—

               But he isn’t expecting Johnny to press a lube-slick finger inside of him, and he shouts in surprise as his entire body goes rigid. Johnny drags his tongue along each piercing on Ten’s right ear and presses his finger in deeper. “If you don’t relax, this isn’t going to work.”

               Ten’s breath comes in hitching gasps, and he closes his eyes in an effort to relax each and every muscle. He can feel the tears at the back of his throat, but he swallows them down and focuses on Johnny’s skin against his, Johnny’s breath on his neck.

               “That’s a good boy,” Johnny whispers, and Ten keens at the praise, fingers curling above his head and back arching against Johnny’s chest.

               Johnny slips in a second finger and the stretch is enough to sting. Ten hisses and his eyes snap open, and he can see that Johnny is watching him with concern bright in his eyes. And he trusts Johnny – would trust him with his life – so he lets out a shaky breath and wills himself to relax again. The seconds seem to morph into hours as Johnny presses two fingers into him shallowly – just enough, just barely not enough – and Ten’s whimpers turn to moans in the back of his throat. He rocks his hips down, desperate for more, and feels a full-body shudder race down Johnny’s spine. Johnny presses forward, grazes his teeth along Ten’s neck, and oh—

               “Oh God,” Ten gasps. His back arches higher, his fingernails dig crescents into his palms, his breath catches on his tongue as pleasure races electric through his veins. “God, Johnny, there, please--”

               “Good,” Johnny purrs. He catches the collar’s metal ring between his teeth and tugs, using the fingernails of his free hand to rake down Ten’s back. “Good boy.”

               It only intensifies when Johnny adds a third finger, and Ten thrashes against the sheets as pleasure blooms in his stomach only to dissipate a second later. It’s absolute torture, and he rolls his hips desperately against Johnny’s fingers again and again. His entire body is alight with electricity, screaming for release, and his untouched cock aches so much that his fingers have formed permanent fists above his head. Tears spring to his eyes, and a sob tears through his clenched teeth.

               “Is there something you want to say?” Johnny breathes against his neck.

               Ten shakes his head, but the quivering sob that echoes through the room betrays him.

               Johnny hums and presses in deeper, just enough for a filthy moan to fall from Ten’s mouth, before pulling back again. “Are you going to come like this? Untouched on my fingers? That’s not something a good boy would do.”

               And he wants to be good, he wants it so bad, wants to hear the praise slip like velvet from Johnny’s tongue as he fucks him hard and fast – so he breaks. “Please,” Ten gasps. He can feel the tears hot on his cheeks, smudging his eyeliner and mascara into smoky clouds. “Johnny, please, please fuck me, please, I want to be good for you, God, please--” It’s nonsense now, he can hear himself begging in Thai and knows that Johnny won’t understand, but he’s broken into a million pieces and he can’t—

               And suddenly Johnny’s hands are in Ten’s hair, tugging so hard his head snaps back, and he presses into him so swiftly that all Ten can do at first is choke on his own breath. But Johnny’s fingers did nothing to prepare him for this, and the cry that claws through him leaves his throat raw and aching. Tears trail down his neck and underneath his collar and he hears Johnny let out a choked gasp.

               “Jesus Christ, Ten.” It’s broken and breathy on Johnny’s tongue. “Oh my God. Jesus--”

               Ten’s arms are burning above his head and the pain is so good he has to blink stars from his eyes. “Please, please, Johnny, please--”

               Johnny’s fingers dig into Ten’s scalp. “You’re so good for me,” he gasps. “God, Ten, you’re so good for me, so pretty, so perfect.” He rolls his hips forward and Ten whines, each thrust hitting better than the last, until salty tears run into his mouth and he’s choking on his own spit.

               And Ten remembers the collar around his neck, remembers how it tugs against his skin and makes him cough, makes him feel so small—

               “J-Johnny,” he whimpers. “Johnny, c-could you please--” It breaks off into a high, keening whine when Johnny bites at his collarbones.

               “Tell me,” Johnny moans, moving his lips to mouth along Ten’s jawline. “God, Ten, tell me.”

               “Choke me,” Ten whispers. His voice breaks and he feels Johnny freeze. Ten blinks the tears out of his eyes to see Johnny staring down at him, worry and want flashing across his face in turns.

               “A-Are you sure?”

               Ten blinks up at him, eyes wide and glistening. “Yes, yes, please--”

               Johnny’s hands leave Ten’s hair and trail along his face before coming to rest on either side of his neck, just below the collar. “What if I hurt you?” He whispers.

               Ten shakes his head. “You won’t,” he breathes. “I trust you.”

               And that’s all it takes.

               Johnny’s fingers slowly tighten around Ten’s neck, and his eyes go wide when Ten’s breath catches. Ten arches his back and bares his throat to give Johnny more to work with, and his entire body starts to shake when he feels the pads of Johnny’s fingers press into the skin. “More,” he gasps, voice thick with want and tears. “Harder.” And it’s almost as if he can feel Johnny snap like a matchstick.

               A strangled gasp tears through Johnny’s chest as his fingers dig harder into Ten’s neck, and he snaps his hips forward so hard Ten’s toes curl into the sheets. “Jesus,” Johnny moans, and he’s so far gone that he’s slipped into English without realizing. And Ten loves how he sounds like this, rough and hoarse and desperate. “Fuck, you’re so good for me, so pretty with my hands around your neck.” Ten’s vision is starting to blur at the edges, but he can still see Johnny’s hair damp with sweat and his irises consumed by lust-blown pupils. “I’ve wanted my hands on your throat since the second I saw you,” Johnny breathes. His thrusts turn faster, more erratic, and Ten vaguely registers the sound of the headboard slamming into the wall. The world is going fuzzy, his limbs are turning to cotton, the pleasure in his veins is tuning down to a gentle buzz—

               And Johnny releases his grip, air claws its way back into Ten’s lungs, pleasure crashes through his system like an overloaded circuit board and it’s too much, it’s so much, and he has just enough time to cough out a breathless “Oh my God” in Thai before his fingers and toes curl and he’s losing himself, begging and crying as Johnny fucks him through it. His entire body burns and aches, his throat is scraped raw and he can hear Johnny praising him, and it’s so good all he can do is sob and writhe and chant Johnny’s name over and over again.

               And Ten is sure he’s done, is sure he can’t possibly take any more, but Johnny pulls out and hovers over him, one hand still wrapped loosely around his neck. “So good for me,” he breathes. He has his other hand around his own cock, stroking himself hard and fast as he stares down at Ten’s tear-streaked face. “You’ll swallow for me, won’t you? Like a good boy?”

               Ten can’t find his voice, so he nods weakly, opens his mouth, and keeps his eyes locked on Johnny’s. Johnny slips his fingers under the collar, and it’s not long before he’s coming on Ten’s lips and tongue with a gasp. He watches, eyes dark and breaths heavy, as Ten closes his mouth and swallows what he can. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispers, letting out a long, shuddery breath.

               Ten’s sure Johnny is the beautiful one, with his sweat-soaked dark hair and wide eyes, and he tries to tell him so, but all that comes out of his mouth is a soft cough.

               “Oh, darling,” Johnny murmurs, reaching for Ten’s wrists and untying the necktie. Ten’s arms scream in protest as they fall to his sides, and he winces at the pain. Johnny frowns and places a hand under Ten’s chin. “Are you okay?”

               Ten nods and flashes him a tired smile. “Of course,” he whispers. His voice comes out raspy, but his body feels lighter than air.

               Johnny smiles down at him, and it’s full of such an undeniable fondness that Ten feels his chest constrict. “You’re so good,” Johnny whispers. He reaches up to brush the tears from Ten’s face with his thumb. “I’ve always thought so.”

               “Stop it.” Ten can feel a flush creeping up his neck.

               Johnny shakes his head and pulls Ten up gently by the shoulders. They’re sitting now, facing each other, and Johnny’s hands are gentle enough to give Ten goosebumps. “You’re perfect, love. Please don’t forget that.”

               And Ten is about to cry again because the word “love” on Johnny’s tongue is too sweet and too heavy. He flinches and ducks his head as a tear falls hot on his thigh. “That’s the second time tonight.” It’s a choked whisper in the dark. “The second time you’ve called me ‘love.’ H-How can you say that?”

               “That I love you?”

               Ten’s head jerks up at the words, and Johnny is staring at him with gentle eyes. Ten nods once, hesitant, and there’s something delicate stealing through his chest.

               Johnny smiles. “Just like this.” He leans forward until his lips are a hair’s breadth from Ten’s. Their breaths tangle, hot and stuttering, and Ten thinks the planet’s rotation might have stopped, if only for a second. “I love you.”

               This kiss is the softest yet, and Ten whimpers at the way Johnny cradles his face. There’s still an edge to it, though – it’s there in the way Johnny slips his tongue into Ten’s mouth, in the way he tugs on Ten’s hair just enough to sting and lowers him onto the sheets with just enough pressure. It’s there in the way he gasps “I love you, Chittaphon” while tugging on Ten’s collar, and in the way Ten can only arch helplessly underneath him.

               “I love you, too,” Ten whispers back, and it rings with more truth than anything he’s said in years. It isn’t a half-lie, hiding behind shaking hands and bitter shame – it’s whole and complete, standing on its own, free.

               And, for once, it’s enough.