The children liked the big downstairs rooms of the mansion—plenty of space to laugh, show off, flirt. Charles liked prowling through the basements—he’d already told Erik more than once about his plans to outfit them with the latest technology. But Erik liked the upstairs, dusty from disuse, strewn with lost objects like breadcrumbs along some forgotten trail.
It wasn’t quite right, he knew. The children were focused on the present, Charles on the future, while he, Erik, was caught by the past. No surprise there, he supposed. A queer nostalgia for a way of life that had included things like pearl-inlaid hairbrushes and ornate cufflink cases, a feeling more bitter than bittersweet, drew him to the upper floors of the mansion in his rare free moments.
And so, late one afternoon, he found himself in a room with steeply sloping walls. Almost an attic, really. Thin sunshine poured in through unwashed windows, catching dust motes and gilding the edges of the two desks that were the room’s only furniture. A few books lay haphazardly on shelves built into one of the larger walls. Erik ran a curious finger along their spines: a Latin textbook, an atlas, a translation of Epictetus from the previous century. A schoolroom, then.
It seemed absurdly quaint now, but it made a certain amount of sense that Charles’s parents had arranged for some of his schooling to be done at home. Such things had been common enough before the war.
Someone had cut the letters C. X. into the surface of the smaller desk. Erik almost laughed as he touched the crude edges of the grooves. He could picture a younger Charles doing it, penknife in hand, pink tongue caught between red determined lips. Had he willed his tutor to look the other way?
An odd assortment of objects lay strewn across the larger desk: a ruler, a shrunken eraser for a blackboard long since taken down, a penny minted in 1938. And leaning against the desk, a slim wooden stick, light-colored. Birch, Erik thought, weighing it in his hands.
He ran his fingers along its polished surface, pushed a little against the tapered end to feel its tensile spring. The wood was almost warm, despite its long abandonment. It seemed well-used.
Had the tutor—a stern, middle-aged man, perhaps, or one barely older than his charge, eager to exert his authority—caught Charles defacing his desk after all? Had he called him over, had words, told him this time he’d gone too far? Had he picked up the birch switch and tapped lightly at the waist of Charles’s trousers, signaling his intentions?
Had Charles—obedient, or perhaps simply not yet skilled enough to change the tutor’s mind—unbuttoned himself, head cast down, pulled the fabric past narrow hips—even slimmer then than now—a glimpse of pale arse showing through old-fashioned undergarments?
Had the tutor—fervent in his belief in the benefits of proper discipline—brought the switch down against tender flesh with all the strength of his good right arm while Charles braced himself against the desk, a childish whimper every now and then escaping his lips?
It would have been something, Erik thought, sliding the smooth stick through his curled hand, to see Charles chastened like that, to see all his mischief, all his cheekiness, taken to task. He pictured the red welts rising on the soft skin where thigh met arse, marring the smooth flesh that had never known more suffering than a schoolboy’s punishment. The image stirred something in him that was half desire and half something much worse.
In his mind’s eye, the boyish figure turned its head, ready to apologize, perhaps, or to beg for more. But the eyes that looked back at him were no child’s. They belonged to the adult Charles, the one he’d come to know so well.
The voice wasn’t coming from inside his head. Erik whirled, almost dropped the switch but caught it before it hit the floor. Charles, the real Charles, stood in the doorway, dressed in his familiar tweeds, looking at him quizzically.
“You do like to wander, don’t you?” he said. “What are you doing up here?”
“Nothing.” Erik cleared his throat, wondering frantically whether Charles had seen what he’d been thinking. “Exploring.”
But if Charles had picked up Erik’s wild imaginings, he gave no sign. He was busy with his own investigation. “I’d almost forgotten this place,” he said. “Old McElroy and his Latin primers. Not one of my parents’ more successful experiments in education. Too pedantic by half—no intellectual curiosity. I’d outpaced him within a year.”
Suddenly he seemed to notice what Erik was holding. He came nearer, put his left hand between Erik’s on the birch rod. Time to let go, Erik told himself. But he didn’t. And so they stayed like that, both holding it, so close Erik could feel the iron eddying in Charles’s blood. The thing that was always between them snapped and quivered like a banner in a gale.
“Old McElroy,” said Charles, with an odd half-smile, rubbing his thumb along the wood, “Never an explanation when a caning would do. Damn but he’d make my palms sting with this thing.”
Palms. Of course. Palms. Erik felt his face get hot in a way it hadn’t done since he was ten. “I had teachers like that,” he said to cover his embarrassment. “Before the war. I expect they frown on that kind of thing these days.”
“As well they should.” Charles let go of the switch, reminiscing over for the day. “Come with me, Hank has something he wants to show us.”
Charles didn’t mention the schoolroom again, caught up in the excitement of Hank’s newest breakthrough, and Erik tried to put it out of his mind as well.
But the tattered threads of his own fury whipped around him all day, reminding him how much he hated this country, with its untouched, taken-for-granted, bounty, these people who had never known hunger or real pain. Reminding him how much he would like to teach them otherwise.
And all of it laced through with the ashes of arousal.
Then he would look at them again—would look at Charles with his pure enthusiasm for their project, the affection in his eyes when he complimented Hank or Sean—and know he didn’t hate them, Charles least of all.
He finally took refuge in his own room and tried to focus on the new edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Close to midnight, Charles knocked on his door.
Disinclined to move, Erik twisted the metal doorknob from his seat on the bed, catching Charles mid-sentence. “—if I come in?” he was saying as the door swung open.
“Yes? What is it?” Erik lifted his head reluctantly from the Arendt. Charles wore striped pajamas and a navy flannel robe as prematurely donnish as the rest of his clothes. His hair was tousled as if he’d already tried to sleep, only to awaken with an idea he needed to tell Erik about immediately. That happened sometimes.
In his left hand he held the schoolroom’s birch rod. Erik had to take a deep breath to control his response to the sight—just the sight—of the thing.
“Charles?” he ventured, unsure. Had Charles plucked the fantasy from his mind after all and come to give him a lecture about how one needed to be circumspect about such desires if one wished to be accepted? Or worse, was he about to tell Erik he should forswear such sordid urges, that he needed to rise above them, to be a better man?
“No, no, neither of those things, I afraid,” Charles said with a self-conscious laugh, apparently past pretending he wasn’t reaching into Erik’s mind. “It’s just—“ He fixed his eyes on the wall six inches above Erik’s right shoulder. “Experience has taught me that in times of great stress—in times—. That is to say, when the press of other minds becomes too much—it can be beneficial—. That is—that physical distractions—well, not to put too fine a point on it—that pain—. And, well, I think we might be in a position to do each other some good.”
Erik stared at him. Aside from the hesitations, Charles might have been delivering an academic talk on some obscure psychological condition.
“What are you playing at, Charles?” Erik said, trying to diffuse the situation with disparagement. “We’re not children, to indulge in schoolroom games.”
“No, Erik, we’re not children.” Charles gave up on impersonal descriptions, looked him straight in the eyes and sent him an image of what he had in mind.
It pulled Erik off the bed. “No,” he said. He badly wanted to shake Charles, he kept his hands to himself. “I know what you think you saw this afternoon, but we can’t—I can’t. It wouldn’t be—“ his voice failed him and he finished silently instead,“—safe. I would hurt you. I would want to hurt you.” If shame had a mental frequency, he was sure he was broadcasting on it now.
And then it was Charles, after all, who came to him, who put his hands on Erik’s elbows, the wooden stick suddenly between them again. “You wouldn’t,” he said, his voice even sweeter inside Erik’s head than it was aloud. “I know you wouldn’t.”
Erik dropped his eyes miserably. “You can’t know that.”
“I could say I won’t let you hurt me—at least not in the way you mean—and you’d know it would be true. But what I mean is that I know that you won’t let yourself.” He pressed the switch into Erik’s hand.
The wood felt strange, both smooth and rough, and alien in a way that metal never could be. It would never fully do his bidding. Somehow, the thought was reassuring.
When Erik looked up again, Charles was undoing the sash of his robe. Charles held his eyes as he shrugged out of it, put his hands on the waistband of his pajamas. “If I need you to stop I’ll let you know,” he said. He pushed the pajamas past his hips, stepped out of them, turned and bent to place his hands on the foot of the bed.
The submission in the posture stopped the breath in Erik’s throat. If Charles had seen what was in his mind that afternoon, then he knew that this was not simply about the pain for Erik—as if pain could ever be simple—and yet here he was, almost spread-eagled before him. The trust in that made Erik dizzy for a moment, something whirling loose and giddy in his belly.
Charles was still almost as slim as the youth he had imagined, but, as he had said, no child. His legs were lean, muscled—he’d been training with the rest of them, after all—fine hair curling on his calves, thicker where his thighs rose towards his sex. His arse was round, smooth, concave with muscle at the sides.
Erik swallowed, the switch slippery in his clammy hand. It was too short to be a true cane—it was meant for palms, not backsides—and so he had to move quite close to get the proper angle.
“If you’re sure,” he whispered hoarsely, addressing the vulnerable curve of Charles’s neck above his striped pajama shirt.
“Erik,” Charles answered, dry, ironic, as if he were chiding him for a particularly cowardly chess move.
Erik brought down the switch. The sharp thwack it made as it hit flesh, the delicious give of skin, tightened everything that had been loose in his belly, sent blood rushing there so quickly he almost staggered. Control fraying at the edges, he brought it down again, and thrilled at the soft gasp Charles made as the impact rocked him forward on his hands.
Thin red lines striped Charles’s white skin. My marks, thought Erik, mine. Untouched no longer. He aimed lower, at the tender crease at the top of the thigh. Charles moaned, arched his back a little, as if yearning for the blow.
And then he opened his mind to Erik.
It was like being thrown into a maelstrom. Charles’s sensations layered over his own pushed at the limits of his capacity. But as he got his bearings, he began to see what Charles was trying to show him: the cacophony of the day, voices, smells, other people’s fears, all going quiet under clear, bright, laths of pain. It was a kind of revelation to feel the pain as Charles felt it, as respite, as release, as the welcome obliteration of everything that was not his body.
And it was Erik’s to control. He hesitated—this was too close to what he truly wanted, too tempting an opportunity to show Charles the difference between playing and real hurt—but he succumbed, of course he did, and felt, as if it belonged to somebody else, his arm come down harder, sensed Charles starting to collapse forward under its force.
Some still sane part of him expected Charles to stop him then, to let him know that it had been enough. But instead, under the beautiful, flaring sheets of pain, he sensed the rising tide of Charles’s arousal. It startled him, and goaded him onward, until his own erection strained at the fabric of his trousers, pulsing with the rhythm of the birch rod’s strokes.
It was intoxicating and Erik almost believed that they might have gone on like that, disappearing eventually into some self-immolating ecstasy of pain and desire if a thread of red hadn’t caught his eye. He followed it. In his zeal he’d broken the skin at the top of Charles’s thigh; a thin trickle of blood snaked down Charles’s leg.
The sight threw Erik out of their shared experience. The birch rod clattered to the floor. Charles made a confused little whimper of loss. But Erik was already on his knees, mouth against the wound.
He suckled gently at the damaged flesh, tasting copper and remorse. No—not this—how could he have ever thought he wanted this? There were other marks around the cut, so red they were almost purple, wicked indentations in the skin, and he kissed those too, murmuring endearments in languages he thought he’d forgotten. Wondering at his own abandon, he worked his tongue further along Charles’s arse, licking into the sweat-salt sweetness of the cleft.
When his mouth reached Charles’s opening, he paused. He’d lost track of Charles’s mind in the rush of his own emotions, and this had been no part of whatever compact they had made. But as soon as he looked for it, Charles’s desire flew up around him like a hurricane.
Emboldened, Erik thrust into the tight ring of muscle with his tongue, wondering how he could ever have been content with the surface when there were these depths to plumb. Charles’s legs were shaking now, and Erik put an arm around him for support, bracing them both against the bed. And so he could feel it in both his body and his mind when Charles came, the gut-punch force of it, like a rockslide, the spatter of hot spunk against the bedclothes and his own hand.
When he could stand it no longer, he drew back, pushed a hand down the front of his own trousers, and followed.
In the aftermath, they slid together, sticky and panting, to the foot of the bed. Erik had never felt so naked, for all that he was still fully clothed.
“See,” Charles murmured, tilting his face towards Erik. “See.”
But either Charles had withdrawn his mind from Erik’s, or it was so tranquil there was nothing there to read, and Erik couldn’t tell exactly what it was Charles meant him to see. He tried to glean clues from Charles’s face instead, but that too was almost blank, its usual expression of restless inquiry, of barely restrained passion, smoothed away. Charles was beautiful like this, too, lips red as if he’d bitten them in his passion, delicate eyelids half-closed in satiety, but what struck Erik was how rarely he had seen Charles truly at peace. He laughed, to think that Charles would surely say the same of him.
“Yes, my dear” he said, brushing a damp strand of hair off Charles’s brow. “I see.”