A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

TWS - Chapter Six - Derivatives of Desire

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Derivatives of Desire

January 476 I.C., Odin

Reuenthal spent the next morning nursing a bad headache. After he had left Yang’s room, he had finished the bottle of wine, thrown up in the bathroom, and then passed out on his bed. He didn’t sleep well at all, waking up to the bright light of the sun stabbing in through the blinds, directly into his eyes. He didn’t leave his room all morning, finally showering in the afternoon, and then wandering aimlessly through the empty, snow covered campus until dinner time.

He almost didn’t want to go to dinner because Yang was sure to be there, but he would have to face him eventually.

Reuenthal wasn’t sure how he had misread the situation so badly. It had seemed at every turn that Yang was interested in him. He had thought the attraction was mutual and well understood. After all, why else would he have talked so much about being dangerous to Reuenthal? Why else would he have allowed Reunthal to touch him so much? Why else would he have tried to brag to Count Mariendorf about Reuenthal’s position? Why did he look at Reuenthal dancing with such naked jealousy in his eyes? Why else did they spend all of their time together? Why did Yang tell him things that he would quite obviously tell no one else?

He had told him his secret name. That felt like it meant something. It gave Reuenthal power over him. It was intimate. Reuenthal couldn’t possibly have imagined the tension that had existed in the room then. The air was thick with it.

Maybe Reuenthal had misinterpreted things. He had never had a friendship like this before, and Yang obviously had no one else at school. Maybe things had just gotten intense because they were both somewhere so new, and Yang lacked allies other than Reuenthal. Maybe Reuenthal, now that he was outside of his father’s direct influence, had just been mistaken about how things could be.

He had thought that he and Yang had something in common. It was even more bitter this time to realize that was not the case.

A larger part of Reuenthal than he was comfortable acknowledging wanted to abandon Yang completely. It would be easy, Reuenthal knew, to disavow him and throw his lot in with the rest of the freshman class. Yang probably wouldn’t last too long without any allies. Either he would drop out of his own volition, or someone would manufacture some sort of scandal against him, or Ansbach and his cronies would kill him.

Reuenthal could even be the one to manufacture the scandal, if he chose. It would be easy enough.

He kicked at a pile of snow that had been shoveled off the path. It was frozen solid, and his toes bounced off of it painfully. He had circled campus several times now, wandering aimlessly, and he was in front of the statue of Rudolph von Goldenbaum that guarded the gates. Reuenthal stared up at it for a second, the imperious figure with hands on his hips, metal eyes disdainfully looking out over the snow covered buildings of the IOA.

Yang, a foreigner. Reuenthal, a homosexual. Kaiser Rudolph would have had them both killed. But he and Yang were here together anyway, somehow.

Reuenthal wanted to despise Yang. He wanted to be able to walk away from him. Or, at least, he wanted to want those things. He couldn’t though. He knew he couldn’t, at least not now.

The unfortunate desire remained.

Reuenthal had come to terms with the fact that he was a homosexual long ago, mostly after a strange and clumsy high school encounter with another boy on his swim team, who had left his school not long afterwards. It hadn’t been much of anything, really, but Reuenthal had thought the matter over and come to various conclusions about himself.

It did not surprise or shock him that he was a creature born to be reviled. This was nothing new. It was simply another aspect of something he had known since he had been old enough to know anything. If his father hated him because he was a bastard, if his mother hated him because he was evidence of her infidelity, and if the rest of the world was unsettled by Reuenthal’s strange eyes, then what did it matter if it was all tied to some deeper, loathsome thing?

It had never bothered him much. In fact, he was somewhat relieved to realize that it meant he would not have to go through life searching for a woman who would be faithful to him. He rather doubted there was such a thing. If someone were to demand, someday in the future, that he enter into a marriage, he would understand from the outset that it would be loveless, and thus he would not be disappointed when that turned out to be the case.

In any event, he had never before wanted to excise that part of himself, though he suspected that many would. Until now, anyway, when he wished that he could remove that burning sting of desire, or wished that he could wish to remove it.

He was angry. Angry at Yang for spurning him. Angry at himself for the rest. Angry at anything he could think of to be angry at.

It was better to be angry than anything else, but as he walked, picturing himself refusing to speak to Yang out of that anger was too difficult. He somehow couldn’t stomach the thought of going the rest of his four years at the IOA without speaking to Yang. There had never been anyone before who Reuenthal had felt had understood him.

He was annoyed at himself for not wanting to give that up, because it had always seemed like he should be able to give up whatever he needed to.

His hands were clenched in his pockets so hard that it took effort to uncurl his fingers to open the door to the dining hall, when he finally headed in for dinner, the sun setting behind him.

Yang was in his usual place, a book open in front of him. Reuenthal watched him for a second, then went to go get food. He settled his internal debate and went up to Yang.

“May I sit here?” Reuenthal asked.

Yang jumped, dropping his fork, which he had been absentmindedly using to stir around the rice on his plate. “You don’t have to ask,” he said, and closed his book.

Reuenthal didn’t look at Yang directly for a minute, and ate in silence, wondering if Yang would say anything. He didn’t, and he couldn’t understand the expression with which Yang was looking at him. Annoyed, now, Reuenthal said, “Last night—“

It was then that Yang decided to inhale as though he was going to start talking, but Reuenthal shook his head.

“Last night, I did something unbecoming of myself while under the influence. I apologize. It will not happen again.”

Yang’s voice was almost strangled when he spoke. “Reuenthal—“

“Von Leigh,” Reuenthal said, trying to make it clear that he could be cool and professional.

Yang didn’t say anything for a second, then looked down at his plate. “I accept your apology,” he mumbled.

“Thank you,” Reuenthal said. And that was the end of it.

 


 

January-May 476 I.C., Odin

It was difficult to be friends with Yang, and nothing but friends, but Reuenthal tried. He removed temptations from himself, trying not to allow himself to desire anything. He stopped partnering with Yang during hand-to-hand practice, and he never again let Yang into his room to stay up all night and talk. He regretted the absence of these things, but it was for the best.

A tension remained between them, but perhaps Reuenthal was the only one to notice that, and thus perhaps he was imagining it. The way Yang looked at him, sometimes— before, Reuenthal would have described the look as charged with something, but he had to try to understand that this was apparently just the way that Yang looked at him. It drove Reuenthal half insane, that longing look, and he could never get it out of his head at night.

He told himself none of it meant anything, and he pretended like he believed it.

The year passed almost quickly, and somehow the winter melted off into spring, April’s warm, wet winds drifting over campus. The landscaping crews didn’t care much for flowers around the IOA, but the fresh green buds were beautiful in their way, and when it wasn’t raining, everyone took every chance they could to be outside.

One day, after dinner, Reuenthal and Yang were walking very slowly from the dining hall back to the dorm. There was a familiar tendency to linger in Yang’s posture, and Reuenthal didn’t care to rush him along, as it meant that they would probably go their separate ways for the night, so they took the long way back. The air was cool and clear, and the first stars were beginning to pepper the cloudless sky.

They had been walking in silence, but after some time, Yang said, “Hey, Reuenthal.”

Reuenthal turned to look at him. Yang had his hands in his pockets, and he wasn’t looking at Reuenthal directly, instead looking up at the tree branches over Reuenthal’s head, his chin lifted a little.

“About your summer…” Yang said.

Reuenthal tensed. “What about it?”

Yang rubbed the back of his head. “You don’t, ah, are there any places near where you live that I might be able to, you know, get a summer job? And sublet somewhere?” He trailed off a little, and Reuenthal thought that he might have mumbled something else about not being allowed to stay in the dorms over the summer, but it was too low to hear.

“I’ll find you something,” Reuenthal said.

Yang raised his hands, suddenly more anxious. “Don’t go out of your way. I was just— if you knew off hand— you know.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Reuenthal said. He managed a smile. “I wouldn’t leave you homeless.”

Yang let out a relieved rush of breath. “Thank you.”

The question of what to actually do with Yang was a relatively trivial one. He debated trying to find a position for him somewhere in his hometown, but then decided that having Yang and his father be anywhere within a hundred kilometers of each other was asking for trouble. He instinctively understood that the two spheres of his life needed to remain separate.

This left Reuenthal with only one reasonable option, so he wrote a letter to the Mariendorfs. Specifically, he addressed it to the countess. Although Reuenthal was sure that Count Mariendorf would say yes, and it was his house, he knew it was the countess who would need to be won over. And, additionally, the countess was Reuenthal’s personal benefactor.

It was somehow easier to ask the Mariendorfs for something when it was not for himself. Asking on behalf of Yang was simple, and he was grateful for the patronage of the Mariendorfs when he received a positive letter in response. There was no hint that the countess thought Reuenthal was improper for asking, though she may have just decided not to express it.

Reuenthal had gotten the letter from the Mariendorfs on Tuesday night, and he was planning to give it to Yang on Wednesday when he saw him, but he was slightly derailed by Wahlen before he made it to the SW practicum.

Wahlen caught up with him on the green, getting Reuenthal’s attention and gesturing for him to move away from the door so that they could have a bit more of a private conversation behind a tree.

“Figured I’d give you some advance warning,” Wahlen said, glancing behind himself at the brick building where the SW class was being held.

“What exactly do I need advance warning for?” Reuenthal asked.

“Remember how we were talking a while ago about getting a rematch between you and Leigh?” Wahlen asked.

Reuenthal raised an eyebrow. “I suppose. It comes up often enough.” He hadn’t played an SW game against Yang since the winter. It was well known that Staden didn’t want to match the two of them up, just in case Yang won. Even Staden subscribed to the idea that the last line of defense between the freshman class and complete lack of respectability was Reuenthal in the first place position.

“Yeah,” Wahlen said. “Well, Bittenfeld decided to take matters into his own hands.”

“Oh?” Reuenthal asked. “What did he do?”

“I really— I wish I knew what exactly he said to Staden. But you and Leigh will be against each other in class today.”

“I look forward to it.”

“Sure,” Wahlen said. “I’m sure you’ll have a great time playing him.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You think Staden’s going to let Leigh have even a chance of winning?”

Reuenthal frowned. “You are aware that I am annoyed by the implication that I should need protecting from Leigh. We are both undefeated.”

“You know it’s not about your personal pride.”

“I am not some symbol for the freshman class. And neither is Leigh, for that matter. Bittenfeld shouldn’t have messed with things that aren’t his business.”

“Yeah, I don’t disagree. I just wanted to warn you.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do with this information.”

“I don’t know,” Wahlen said. “Play the game Staden wants you to play, I guess. And don’t let Leigh win to prove a point.”

Reuenthal glared at Wahlen. “I would not let Leigh win.”

“Just making sure.”

“You aren’t ashamed of the idea of Leigh taking first, are you?”

“No,” Wahlen said. “But if he did—“ Wahlen paused. “He’s my friend, too, you know. And if he takes first, people will be out for blood.”

“So you want me to beat Leigh to protect him.”

Wahlen was getting annoyed with Reuenthal’s tone. “Look, you do what you want. I’m just warning you because I think you should know.”

“Thanks,” Reuenthal said. They headed into class together.

Despite the strange circumstances, Reuenthal was looking forward to a rematch with Yang. He wanted to see if his own skills had improved any, and he also just enjoyed playing against his friend.

Reuenthal was a little early, which meant that when Yang came in to class, Reuenthal was already seated. Yang slid into the chair next to him. Reuenthal leaned over, speaking directly into Yang’s ear, their shoulders brushing. “I heard an interesting rumor,” Reunthal said, his voice low.

“I did, as well,” Yang said. “Do you think there’s any truth to it?”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”

“Nervous?” Yang asked.

Reuenthal looked at him, and their eyes met for a second. There was that same strange look on Yang’s face, the one that Reuenthal could never interpret. “About you?” Reuenthal asked. “Never.”

Staden walked into the classroom, then, so Reuenthal had to straighten up and focus on the lecture, which went by quickly. Yang was fidgeting in the seat next to him, and Reuenthal pretended to be calm.

They glanced at each other one last time as they left the lecture hall and went off to find their individual cubicles for playing the game. Yang had a grin on his face, clearly as eager to face Reuenthal as Reuenthal was to face him.

The first priority when sitting down to one of these simulations was always to look over the goal, and the resources he had at his disposal.

The goal was fairly simple: Reuenthal’s forces were in orbit around a planet, and he needed to capture the capital city of the planet and occupy it. It became clear when reading the situation further that he was not expected to fight a space battle, as all of his opponent’s forces were ground troops. He had only been given ships in this situation so that he would face the obstacle of landing troops in hostile territory. That was good, because it meant that it didn’t really matter that his ships were horrible, ancient things. He was playing out a situation from the Earth-Sirius war, which meant that the ships were so outdated technologically that they would have been difficult and unpleasant to work with if it had been a space battle.

He figured that there would be a great deal of organized resistance on the ground. It would have been too easy, of course, for him to have knowledge of that, or of where the enemy’s strongholds were. He would have liked to have begun the game with an aerial assault, but part of his win condition was to preserve as much of the city’s infrastructure as possible.

So, Reuenthal had to win quickly. He was about to give orders to split his forces to begin landing, but the GMs sent him a message.

 

> You are receiving a radio transmission from the city.

 

And then the transcript of the message. Reuenthal shook his head when he read it.

“This is a message to the people of this city,” Yang began. “It’s 7:15 local time. It’s a beautiful night out. Warm. If you can, please stop what you are doing and go outside. Just for a second. Go out onto the streets.

“Look. The stars are out.

“In just a moment, coming around from the west, you’ll see the ships of the Earth Space Force. They’re crossing the horizon now. You might not be able to see them clearly, but look how they block out the stars. Sometimes, it’s absence which is most revealing.

“Some of you have made up your minds to leave. Some of you have made up your minds to stay. Some of you may have thought one thing, but now, looking up into the sky at these ships that are crossing the stars, you are wondering if you have been thinking about this all wrong.

“Listen to me,” Yang said. “Listen to me for a second.

“Every one of you has made a list in your heart about what is worth fighting for in this city, should you need to make the choice to take up a gun. Many of you, I am sure, would say that you would only do so to protect your family and the people you love. I commend you for that.

“Others may say that they would take up arms to defend themselves from tyranny. They would fight to live in peace, with self determination for all people. These people are my brothers.

“And some of you here may say that you wish to defend this city, because it is your home. This planet, because it is your fatherland.

“But what is a fatherland? It is just a piece of ground. What is a home? Without people in it, it is just a building.

“I said that absence is most revealing. Even now, I know that people are taking all they can carry on their backs and running as far as they can from this place.

“Soon, this city will be empty. All the people who have made it vibrant and a place worth protecting will have gone. Their absence will reveal that a home is nothing more than brick, and the fatherland is nothing more than a word.

“You would not make the choice to fight for empty buildings, empty streets, and an empty fatherland. You should go. Leave, be safe, and take the fatherland with you.

“I am a man without a family, and soon I will be a man without a fatherland. What remains is my spirit, and the things that I believe to be true. I believe that no power from across the galaxy should have the right to dictate the ways we live. No invading army should have the right to kill and plunder. And no man should have such authority without being resisted.

“These beliefs cannot be taken from me so long as I am living, and I can do nothing now but fight to show that this spirit remains alive in myself, and in the people of the fatherland, however dispersed they may become in the days ahead.

“To those of you who are leaving: go in peace. Go well. Go safely.

“To those of you who are staying to take up arms with me: we must not desire to be martyrs here. There is a contradiction, that we must fight because to not do so would be to sacrifice something greater than our own lives, but our lives are the most precious things that we have. We will not throw them away, and we will not allow them to be taken easily.

“We are not an army of martyrs, because we will not embrace defeat and death before we have even begun. We are not an army of martyrs, because we are fighting for things worth living for.

“I wish that we were all living a different life, one where we could live peaceful lives with the people we love. But wishing will do us no good. We have work to do.”

That was the end of Yang’s little broadcast. Reuenthal couldn’t help but picture him as he might have looked in this universe that they were pretending to inhabit. Did he have a uniform, or was he dressed only in civilian garb? Was he a former leader, or was he someone who had been thrust into a position of power through cruel twists of fate? He was standing in the streets of a city that would soon be destroyed, and looking up at the stars, where Reuenthal’s ships in orbit blotted them out as they passed silent across the sky.

Reuenthal would be wearing the stiff uniform of an Earth Space Force admiral, and he would be staring down out the window of one of his ships, looking at the ground below. Was he cruel and unyielding, this Reuenthal?

Yang had succeeded in sweeping Reuenthal up into this game, and Reuenthal was happy to play his part. It was obvious to the both of them that Yang had been set up by Staden to fail, otherwise he would have been given actual tools and soldiers, rather than a ragtag army of volunteers. Yang knew he was not going to win, so he might as well have fun with Reuenthal beating him. Reuenthal looked forward to it, even if it wasn’t the even match he had been hoping for.

The GMs reported to him again that he was seeing a long line of civilians leaving the city.

Reuenthal drummed his fingers on his desk, then sent a message to the GMs.

 

>I order a small detached force (40 units) equipped w/ secure radio to land outside detection range of the civilians and the city. They should go on foot in disguise and infiltrate the civilian column. If there is any sign that the column is actually insurgents who will attempt to return to the city after I have landed, I want that to be reported to me. Otherwise, allow civilians to proceed away from city limits.

 

He knew by letting the civilians walk away, he was giving Yang a lot of time to prepare himself, bunker down, probably block streets and improvise weapons, but he would have been upset at Reuenthal if Reuenthal had decided to play unfairly. Not as though the real Earth Space Force commanders hadn’t wholesale slaughtered civilians during the Earth-Sirius war. Still, Reuenthal would let Yang have this little advantage. It probably wouldn’t matter.

After the column of civilians had marched away, Reuenthal began his attack. The majority of his forces would have to land outside the city limits and fight their way in, since his units included tanks and heavy artillery that would need to reach the ground in huge ships, but making an obvious approach like that was sure to get him bogged down in fighting at the edges of the city, while Yang had even more time to prepare. What Reuenthal needed to do was approach from an unexpected direction.

He sent the majority of his forces down to approach the city from the easiest possible path, avoiding the river and its bridges that Yang was sure to have already destroyed. When he was sure he had caught Yang’s attention with that obvious approach, he very carefully selected a few buildings as targets within the city, and bombed them from the air, creating a wide open space into which he could land fast troops on foot. He used these mobile troops behind whatever lines Yang had set up, taking down snipers and trying to clear a path for his main forces to come into the city.

It had been a valid opening salvo, and Reuenthal was happy that Yang seemed a little startled by it, and was forced to give up a significant amount of ground, but after that, things became a lot less clear and easy. It was very difficult to fight a guerrilla army in this unfamiliar territory. Yang could destroy buildings, wear down Reuenthal’s men, attack from any direction and vanish without a trace, and generally make it very hard for Reuenthal to take and safely keep territory within the city. He used construction vehicles as makeshift tanks. He used the rubble from buildings as barricades. He salvaged things from the refineries on the outside of the city that somehow kept fires burning unnaturally hot and long.

It was a brutal fight, and it dragged on for several weeks of in game time. Reuenthal was grinding Yang down slowly, seizing territory inch by inch as his forces worked their way through the city. Yang made it as hard as possible, and Reuenthal was paying in both blood and stone, as Yang collapsed the city around himself, making it less and less liveable.

Reuenthal kept getting impatient and trying to take things faster than he should, and each time, Yang made him pay for it. It didn’t really matter, because Reuenthal was going to take the city, but it was funny to see these smaller engagements, where they were on slightly more equal footing, and Yang was micromanaging his troops. Reuenthal would make his familiar mistakes of getting greedy, and Yang would swat him back. It wasn’t as though Reuenthal didn’t know this would keep happening, but he was getting tired of the game dragging on so long, so he kept trying to force it to end at his pace, rather than Yang’s. But Yang dictated the pace.

As class ticked towards its conclusion, Yang finally also decided that he was done with this. The GMs forwarded Reuenthal a message: Yang was making another radio broadcast.

The image that Reuenthal had in his head of Yang was different, now. Why was he interested in this construction of Yang: dirty and bruised, but proud, strong despite the months of hard fighting, where he probably hadn’t had a real meal or night’s sleep in that time. It was a fantasy that Reuenthal created, but it was a powerful one, and he suspected that he would be imagining it for a while.

“Long ago,” Yang’s broadcast began, “I said that we were not an army of martyrs. Perhaps that was a misstatement: we were not an army at all. We started out with no uniforms, and we end with no bullets left. Hardly a standing army. But there are still enough of us alive who I would like to see avoid becoming martyrs.

“We were fighting for our city. Well, there’s hardly a city left to fight for.

“We were fighting for our friends and brothers. Well, it would be better to live to continue to be friends and brothers.

“We were fighting for our pride. And, in the end, what’s that worth? Not a life.

“To the enemy commander: I know that you have spent a lot to take and hold this patch of ground, far from your own home. For every one of us, we have killed five of you. We could draw this out until you have paid in blood for every last inch of street, every last brick. But what would be the point of that?

“I would like to meet, to discuss the terms of our surrender. You choose the place.”

The familiar excitement sat heavily in Reuenthal’s stomach. This was unusual, and he wondered what Yang’s win condition was, what he was going to try to extract from Reuenthal in the form of promises. Despite himself, Reuenthal wanted to give Yang what he wanted.

He picked a spot on his map, near his own headquarters, a building that his forces had kept well under his control for most of the battle. Reuenthal sent his little commander token there, and watched on the map as Yang’s commander token became visible and proceeded to the same place.

Reuenthal pictured them standing there together. Maybe they were looking out the window of the top floor at the wreckage at the city, standing shoulder to shoulder. “Look at what we’ve made between us,” Reuenthal might say.

Instead, he typed out, “What are your terms of surrender?”

He got a message from Yang.

“I do not personally expect to be treated with mercy,” Yang wrote.

Reuenthal started to type out a reply: “You think I’m not honorable enough to treat the enemy commander well?” but then deleted it. Yang was playing a role. Reuenthal could play a role too. “That’s not a term,” he said.

“May I have a cup of tea?”

“You’re surrendering your city for a cup of tea?” Reuenthal asked aloud, amused. Of course Yang would say something like that. “Of course you can have a cup of tea,” Reuenthal typed.

The GMs sent Reuenthal a message then: “Your opponent says ‘something profound about not being a martyr.’”

Reuenthal was suddenly reminded of the moment in the forest. It wasn’t the arrows that had killed Saint Sebastian. Reuenthal only had a second to think about this, and wonder if Yang was trying to say something to him about that, when the GMs advanced the clock, and Reuenthal received one final message.

“The explosives in the water mains beneath 27 Katchoi St. have exploded. The building has collapsed. You have died.”

It was a cheap trick, one that Reuenthal probably should have expected, but he hadn’t. He was suddenly angry, at himself for not suspecting something like this would happen, and at Yang, for stealing the win from him at the last second. It was just like Reuenthal was any other student in the class: Yang must have prepared this plan long in advance and purposefully avoided using that part of the city’s infrastructure, so that Reuenthal would never suspect—

It wasn’t as though the rug had been pulled out from under him. The rug, the illusion that Reuenthal controlled the parts of the city he had, had never existed in the first place.

He grit his teeth and stood. At the front of the room, Staden was watching him stand up, anger also written plainly on his face. “Cadet Reuenthal, a moment of your time.”

“Of course, sir.” The classroom was empty, since Reuenthal and Yang had gone about a half hour over the allotted time.

“What, exactly, was that about?”

“Which part, sir?”

“Leigh’s speeches, if you can call them that.”

“I think he was just having fun, sir.”

“I’m not sure what is so funny about it.”

“It’s an inside joke, sir. He knew he was playing against me.”

“Cadet von Reuenthal,” Staden said after a loaded moment of silence. “I am going to say this to you exactly once, and I hope that I never have to say it to you again: inside jokes that could potentially look like treason are dangerous to you. It is in your best interest to keep yourself where you belong.”

“And where do I belong, sir?”

“First in the class. Above Leigh, and above all of his ‘jokes.’”

“He’s a better player than I am.”

“No, he is not,” Staden said. “The point of the game is to teach you to be an officer in His Majesty’s fleet. You seem capable of learning that lesson, while Leigh does not. Thus, you are the better player.”

“He was playing a role, sir. He wasn’t saying anything about himself.”

“If the games said nothing about you, we would not play them,” Staden said.

“Yes, sir,” Reuenthal said.

Staden pinched the bridge of his nose for a second. “Be more careful, Cadet. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I assume Leigh is waiting in the hallway for you.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Reuenthal said, though he did know that Yang almost always waited for him after class. “Clearly, I cannot predict what Leigh is going to do.”

Staden shook his head. “Send him in here. I need to talk to him.”

“Yes, sir,” Reuenthal said.

He headed out into the hallway. As he expected, Yang was waiting for him. Yang was smiling, but Reuenthal was still bitterly angry.

“Congratulations on your win,” Reuenthal said.

“I didn’t win,” Yang replied. “At best, I didn’t lose.” It annoyed Reuenthal that Yang was nonchalant about this. Maybe Bittenfeld was right, and losing to someone who didn’t care if they won was the worst feeling.

Reuenthal jerked his head at the classroom he had just left. “Staden wants to see you.” Yang nodded and started to head in, but Reuenthal remembered the envelope in his pocket. “Oh, and this is yours.” He held it out to Yang, who smiled as he took it.

“What is it?” he asked, but Reuenthal was already walking away.

 


 

Reuenthal knew he really should get over his annoyance at losing to Yang. There was part of him that said he had lost more than fairly, in a game where Yang had had every disadvantage. If Reuenthal had been paying closer attention, if he had had just a bit better intuition, he could have crushed Yang completely. But he hadn’t.

Some part of him said that if he let his anger fester, he could take Staden’s advice and divorce himself from Yang.

He couldn’t do that, though, and he was really just annoyed for the sake of being annoyed, and so all through finals week, he barely spoke to Yang in anything more than monosyllables, though they still sat together at dinner. Yang tolerated this, though it was unclear if he was tolerating it because he had no one other than Reuenthal, or because he was just indulgent with Reuenthal’s moods.

Finally, final grades came out, and Reuenthal checked the rankings while packing his few possessions to go home for the summer. He was surprised at what he saw. There, at the top of the list, was his own name. It didn’t make sense. Yang had beaten him.

He clicked his name to see his individual scores in classes, and then on the SW practicum class to see the win/loss record. His last game against Yang was marked as a win for Reuenthal.

He scowled. It was one thing to fall to second place against Yang. He had expected that, and while it burned to lose to Yang (who didn’t care), it would have at least been what Reuenthal deserved. He hated the sensation that he was getting undue credit, like some noble who had not worked for anything that they had.

Everything Reuenthal had in life, he had tried to earn himself. It was why the pity of the Mariendorfs grated so heavily. It was why he couldn’t stand Ansbach, who thought that Yang didn’t “deserve” his place at the top of the class by virtue of being a foreigner.

Reuenthal was still scowling as he walked to Yang’s dorm room and rapped on the door. Yang opened the door, and was surprised to see him there, though he quickly smiled, eyes lighting up. When Yang held the door open for Reuenthal to come inside, Reuenthal just shook his head and leaned on the doorframe.

“I’ll talk to Staden about fixing your rank,” Reuenthal said.

“Don’t bother.” Yang went back to picking up some of the garbage that littered his floor, stuffing old papers into a black garbage bag that had clearly been stolen from the maintenance closet down the hall.

“You deserve the number one spot.”

“I really don’t think our last matchup could be called a win on my end. And I probably should apologize for not playing fair.”

Reuenthal would take that. “I should have listened when you told me that you didn’t expect to be treated with mercy.”

Yang chuckled. “I should have taken my own words to heart.”

Reuenthal was glad that they were talking again. “Still, your rank should be commensurate with your abilities. Even if it wasn’t whatever Staden considered a technical win, you had better tactics through the whole match. Staden should give you more credit for doing so well in an unwinnable situation.”

Yang tilted his head. “Did you read the game transcript when you were writing your postmortem?”

“No, I remembered it well enough.”

“You might want to. Just for your own edification.” His voice held a strange note.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Staden is also playing the game on a different level.”

Reuenthal pulled out his phone and navigated to the class webpage to read the game transcript. His brow furrowed as he looked it over. The game had been heavily edited. Most of Yang’s accomplishments had been changed or deleted, and all of his personal messages to Reunthal were gone. That burned, for some reason. Whatever had passed between them had been erased, like it no longer existed. It was one thing for messages to be left in a code, but it was another for things to be deleted entirely.

“Why are you letting them do this to you?” Reuenthal asked, his voice bitter.

Yang, who was by now casually pulling all the sheets off his bed and stuffing them into his laundry basket carelessly, said, “I don’t care about rank.”

“I’m not just talking about rank.”

“Ages ago, you told me to be more ambitious.”

“I still think that’s the case.”

“And I told you that I had the wrong kind of ambitions.”

Reuenthal nodded, though he was tense, thinking back on those conversations they had had. He had misunderstood Yang so completely.

“When one has the wrong kind of ambitions,” Yang said, “it’s sometimes better to let things like this go. It doesn’t matter. The future is a big place, and the fewer enemies I make now to hide in it, the better.”

“I think I misunderstood you when we originally had that conversation. And for that, I apologize.”

Yang laughed, clearly surprised. “What did you think I meant?”

It was clear that Yang had been talking at the time about treason, about the real danger he represented as a foreign influence. They had both been trying to talk about something that couldn’t be said directly, and Reuenthal had been blind to the fact that they were talking about two different things. “Something even less proper than what you’re currently implying.”

Yang was startled. Maybe he hadn’t realized they were talking about different things, either. “Oh? And what would that be.”

“You would take offense at the implication,” Reuenthal said, trying to keep the scowl off his face and out of his voice.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t,” Yang said. Reuenthal wasn’t so sure that was true, so he changed the subject.

“You told the countess that you would be staying with her over the summer?” he asked.

Yang scratched his head. “Yes. I didn’t want to impose—“

Reuenthal cut him off. “She has plenty of both space in her house and money. You’ll hardly be an imposition.”

“I don’t know why she would make an offer like that.”

“She’s a generous woman,” Reuenthal said. He considered something, something that maybe Yang would like to hear. “And I’m sure that she and the count are already trying to find an appropriate match for their daughter.”

Yang couldn’t contain his disbelief. “Number one, I’m hardly an appropriate match for the daughter of a count. Number two, she’s six.”

“Seven. Her birthday was in February.”

“So much better.” Yang shook his head, as if deciding that Reuenthal had been joking. He hadn’t been, not exactly. If Yang allied himself to the Mariendorfs in that way, it might provide him some measure of protection. And the countess probably was taking an interest in making an honest man of Reuenthal’s friends, however little Yang actually needed it. “Are you going to come visit over the summer?” Yang asked.

Reuenthal frowned and crossed his arms. “We’ll see.”

“I get the feeling that the Mariendorfs consider your visiting a payment for having me stay there. I’ll do you some favor when the school year starts to make up for it.”

It wasn’t as though Reuenthal didn’t want to see Yang over the summer. The situation was just complicated. Difficult. “I should start charging for my time by the hour.”

“And I would like to see you, as well, you know,” Yang said, smiling. Reuenthal hated the look on his face. He really didn’t understand, did he? But he couldn’t help but feel the usual unfortunate tenderness he always felt when looking at Yang.

“We’ll see,” Reuenthal said.

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A note from javert

explosives in the water main / a blown fuse / college graduation photographs / splashed all over the six oclock news / I won’t be cashing in your policy / until I find out what it is you’re trying to do to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

derivatives of desire:
x = a state of being, ie, being good at math class
x’ = desiring a state of being, ie “I wish I was good at math class.”
x’’ = wanting to desire a state of being, ie “I wish I was the type of person who cared about being good at math class.”
x’’’ = being a jerk (thanks for that great addition to the joke, jade)

reuenthal gayngst edition

this chapter involved a minor retcon of the same section in speaking in tongues, b/c lydia didn’t like my speech there lol

thanks to lydia for the beta read!


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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