BENNETT: Haven't you ever seen Fowler's -- [He just stops himself in time.]
CUNNINGHAM: [all innocence] Fowler's what?
BENNETT: Fowler's a prefect, Sir. He -- he gets excited when he's beating someone.
CUNNINGHAM: Dear me!
BENNETT: Uncontrollably, sometimes.
(Julian Mitchell, Another Country. Act two, scene two.)
Bennett witnessed the caning stoically, trying not to feel sorry for the poor boy whose hands clenched and unclenched desperately around the edge of the desk. Parker's offence had been a minor one – a midnight stroll through the corridors – and yet Fowler delivered the strokes relentlessly, as if he was trying to beat the living daylights out of the younger boy.
The cane made an ugly sound as it hit his backside, and Bennett jumped slightly, an echo of remembered pain from the punishment he'd been dealt at Delahay's hands running through his body. Of course, it wasn't the pain that was the real punishment, but the humiliation.
He wondered if Fowler knew that; it certainly didn't seem as if he cared about anything except the force of his strokes. Bennett's eyes wandered from Parker to Fowler and stayed there, trying to identify with the punisher instead of the punished. What did Fowler get out of this? Was it some self-righteous, twisted sense of justice? Revenge for a ploy Parker had pulled on him some time in the past? Actual pleasure at hurting someone? Or maybe the sense of power that came with it?
Bennett frowned and watched as Fowler brought down the cane for its final stroke; and then it was over, and Parker, sore and subdued, shook Fowler's hand while the others were clearing out.
The room was almost empty before Bennett realized that his eyes were still fixed on his nemesis. Fowler hadn't even noticed. He just stood there, staring aimlessly into space with the cane still in his hands. Bennett regarded the other boy through narrowed eyes with a weird kind of fascination, taking in the flushed cheeks, the harsh, labored breathing, the tightness of Fowler's trousers.
At last, when everyone else had left the room and it was just the two of them, Bennett spoke. "You really do enjoy this." It was half accusation, half deliberately casual observation.
Fowler stared back coolly. "There is something deeply satisfactory in seeing them meet their just punishment," he replied in an even, almost detached tone as if he was talking about the timetable. No indication that he was doing anything but his duty. Bennett didn't know if he resented him or admired him for being able to keep up the façade. Either way, he couldn't stop needling him about it.
"I'm sure. Although I find your choice of words most interesting. I daresay it does not give you quite the satisfaction you desire, judging by how quick you usually are to hurry off afterwards."
The rising flush on Fowler's face indicated that Bennett had hit a nerve. His voice cut through the air as sharply as the cane had, "What exactly are you insinuating, Bennett?"
"Oh, nothing," Bennett replied with false innocence, steadily meeting Fowler's suspicious gaze. The other boy frowned and turned away, prepared to leave, when Bennett added in a quiet voice, "Just that you might be getting more excited by the beatings than is… proper." He schooled his expression into deadly seriousness. Inwardly, he was laughing, knowing how much the suggestion – and his inability to react to it – would rile Fowler.
He was right, of course. Fowler spun around, his hands gripping the cane more tightly until his knuckles turned white. "You go too far," he hissed through clenched teeth, his anger obviously barely held in check.
"Oh, do I?" Bennett smiled. "I thought that it was you, going too far. Or maybe not far enough. It depends on the point of view, wouldn't you say?"
His gaze darkening, Fowler bristled with indignation. "Do not mock me! That alone would be worth three."
Bennett laughed softly. It was altogether too easy to play Fowler – one small implication that he was anything but the ever-present fighter for all things right and proper that he pretended to be, and he was already throwing threats. "Oh, yes, I can see you asking the gods for permission to beat me because I told you that you might be getting a bit too much pleasure out of the beatings. I'm sure that would go down really well."
For a moment, Fowler was speechless. He stared at Bennett, anger burning in his eyes. Bennett just smiled at him smugly, certain that he thought he had won this little battle of wits. Slowly, an ugly sneer manifested on Fowler's face. He broke eye contact and turned back to the door; but instead of leaving, he turned the key in the lock. "I do not see any other gods here in this room. Merely me, you and the cane."
"You wouldn't dare!" Bennett's smile had vanished at once, but Fowler wasn't even looking at him, gaze fixed measuringly at the cane.
Involuntarily, Bennett's eyes were drawn by the movement of Fowler's fingers, which were dancing over the length of the wood with an air of worship. He swallowed, suddenly feeling cornered and demanded thickly, "You have no right to make me."
Fowler was unimpressed. "Bend over."
"You are out of your mind. Why should I do that?"
"Because I don't have to tolerate Judd's nightly habit to sneak into the library and read his manifesto. In fact, I am certain that I could call on enough witnesses to have him get six strokes." Fowler's face was stone, but his eyes held a dark, unpleasant glint.
"That's blackmail," Bennett protested hotly, not without noticing the irony of Fowler resorting to the same measure to force this beating on him that he himself had used the previous year to escape one.
"Call it what you will." Fowler shrugged, and continued caressing the cane. "It's a reason as good as any. So, what will it be? Will this meet your backside, or Judd's?"
Bennett continued to stare at Fowler, trying to fight down the helpless anger rising in him. He was aware that he could do nothing to stop Fowler from getting to Judd if he walked away now. Aware that he didn't deserve this punishment, but that he'd receive it nonetheless, because there was no way he would let Judd suffer just because he had upset Fowler. Willfully. He silently cursed his habit to test his limits; but his mind was made up. Holding Fowler's gaze in challenge, he shrugged off his jacket. He clenched it together into a small ball, uncaring if it got all wrinkly in the process, and hurled it on the floor at Fowler's feet in a final display of disobedience.
The other boy didn't even blink.
"I can take anything you dish out," Bennett muttered, before turning to the long table and bending down to the usual position, with his head tucked beneath the desk's edge.
He stood like that, silently, growing more and more rigid as the time passed. It felt like it lasted an eternity before Fowler moved at last, walking over to him slowly as if he was deliberately drawing out the moment.
Bennett saw everything upside down, and somehow, that made it infinitely more terrifying. When the first blow finally came, it hit him by surprise. There had been no indication that Fowler intended to begin. He hadn't even raised his arm above midriff. What the blow lacked in force, though, it made up in unexpectedness. Bennett jumped and released a startled yelp when the cane hit.
"Don't move," Fowler commanded briskly and brought the cane down once again.
This time, Bennett had expected the blow. He had not, however, expected the sheer force with which it hit him. Not after the one before, anyway, which now seemed hardly more than a light tap in comparison. He closed his eyes and steeled himself for the pain, trying to focus on something else, anything at all. The soft warmth of James' skin under his fingers. The way the moon reflected on the gentle surface of the river. Tommy's serious eyes when he talked of Marx' theories.
Bennett's thoughts were a million miles away, but his body was right there, under Fowler's cane; and he could only block out the pain so far.
The fourth stroke, a particularly vicious one, made his eyes water. 'You will not cry,' he told himself, unwilling to give his nemesis the satisfaction. Just two more strokes to go; he was not going to cry. Repeating the wordless mantra over and over again, he held onto the desk as if his life depended on it, but he didn't make a sound. He all but held his breath, ever so conscious of Fowler's fast, harsh breathing and the cruel sound of the cane cutting through the air.
It was only after the sixth stroke that Bennett dared to open his eyes. He took a deep breath and made a move to rise, grimacing when that chafed the sore skin of his backside against the rough material of his trousers.
Suddenly, there was a hand on the nape of his neck forcing him back down, this time with his upper body flat on the desk.
"Stay put," Fowler ordered in a voice that would have been sharp, if it hadn't been for the fact that he sounded utterly out of breath.
Bennett struggled in the unfamiliar position; but Fowler's fingers tightened in a silent warning until he stilled. "That was the sixth!" he protested faintly. "How many more?"
"Until I say it's over." There was no time for argument. As soon as the words had left Fowler's lips, the cane crashed down again, and Bennett screamed.
Now, with no end in sight, the pain was even worse. It felt like every nerve ending in his body was on fire. Again and again, Fowler brought the cane down. At least now, Bennett could hide his face in his arms. This was both better and worse: while it was a less humiliating stance, it also shielded him from sight and sound, eliminating all distractions and thus making it impossible not to focus on the pain. By the eighth stroke, he couldn't contain the sobs any longer. By the tenth, he had bit his lip bloody. And then, just when the pain was so much he thought he couldn't stand it any longer and wouldn't ever be able to sit again, it changed. It was as if a switch had been pushed, an invisible line crossed. The pain was still there, somewhere, but it wasn't as sharp as before. It had become a dull ache. Something almost… akin to pleasure.
It was an unbidden sensation – but anything was better than the white-hot agony he had felt a moment ago, so Bennett embraced it without questioning. Almost without realizing it, he spread his legs a little more; and his hands closed into fists, longing for something to hold onto.
If Fowler noticed any change in the other boy's demeanor, or recognized the moans as being no longer only of pain, he didn't let on. Eventually, the blows softened somewhat; it was, however, most likely not mercy that held the force of the cane, but the mere fact that Fowler's arm was tiring. Bennett didn't care much for the reason, though. It was the effect that counted. The way the pain gradually faded away until it was but a distant echo while the pleasure stayed on, rocking through him with each blow, like a tidal wave threatening to overwhelm him.
Each blow pushed his body forward just a tiny bit, automatically trying to get away from the source of the pain even when he tried to steady himself. A stroke that was slightly harder than the previous ones – if still nothing compared to the first blows – made him jerk sharply. His crotch, cushioned by layers of cloth, rocked against the desk. Only then did he consciously realized how unbearably hard he was. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow him. Then his brain stopped forming rational thoughts and let his instincts take over, pain and discomfort and pleasure mingling into an adrenaline-charged delirium where nothing mattered except for his need. The edge of the table was hard and uncomfortable, but it provided friction, and somehow, that alone – and the sharp not-quite pleasure of the cane on his backside – was enough.
He came, hard, and bit down on his lip to forestall the cry that was out to leave his throat.
Another blow fell on his backside, and now it merely hurt again, more than it ever had before. He was too weak to protest, though, so he let it happen. And again. And once more. And then, nothing.
He waited until the trembles running through this body had subsided before he dared to move, cautiously standing up. Even the tiniest movement hurt, and the brush of harsh cotton against his skin was close to unbearable. He longed to get out of his trousers – both to free his backside from the rough embrace of the cloth, and to get rid off the sticky wetness that clung to the front of his trousers.
When he finally turned, uncomfortably aware that there would be no way to hide the effect the caning had had from Fowler, he defiantly met the other boy's gaze.
Fowler's eyes dropped down to Bennett's groin and widened. He released a startled gasp. "Bennett."
And yet, when Bennett's eyes mirrored the motion and travelled over the length of Fowler's body, he found a similar stain. The hint of a smile tucked the corners of Bennett's lips at the realization of what had transpired, embarrassment giving way to an odd sense of pride that it had been he who'd made Fowler come undone like that.
"Look, Fowler, I --" he began and made a step towards the other boy, but Fowler backed away, looking positively panicked.
He stared at Bennett with wide, horrified eyes. "We will never speak of this again," he demanded. "This," he made a hectic, clumsy gesture, "has never happened."
Bennett smiled and pointedly fixed Fowler's crotch with his gaze. He couldn't contain a teasing comment. "I don't know. It seems like something has happened, doesn't it?"
"Bennett, don't --" Fowler started sharply, but suddenly stopped himself. Whatever he was going to say, he didn't finish it. It was the first time Bennett had seen Fowler at a loss for words, or without a sharp comeback on his lips. Instead, he turned on his heel and rushed to the door, fumbling awkwardly with the key for a moment before it finally turned. The door swung open, and he hurried out of the room without as much as a backward glance.
Staring after the other boy, Bennett crossed his arms and leaned back against the desk – and abruptly jumped in pain when his backside touched the hard wood of the tabletop. He probably wouldn't be able to sit properly for weeks.
Still, he thought smiling, it felt as if he'd won this round. He suddenly found himself looking forward to the next one.