To Witness the Act of Killing
September 476 I.C., Odin
Mittermeyer took Reuenthal up on his offer to eat dinner with the group of sophomores pretty quickly, and from there it turned into him coming around to study together, and from there they would often go to Joseph’s as a group, and at that point there was no longer any pretension that Mittermeyer and Yang were mentee and mentor: they were just friends. Although they spent most of their time as a trio, on a few days a week, Reuenthal and Mittermeyer shared a lunch hour, and so they often spent it together.
Today, it was pouring rain outside, the fat droplets splashing down the windowpanes, rendering the outside world a smeary and indistinct haze. Mittermeyer and Reuenthal were in the library, in the far back, behind the tall stacks crammed full of reference volumes that looked both ancient and untouched. This was a relatively private spot, and the library was mostly empty anyway, so both of them had felt confident sneaking their lunches in and taking up residence in this corner. Reuenthal was perched in a windowsill, one leg dangling to the ground, the other balancing his lunch on his lap, his shoulder pressed against the cold glass, leaving a steamy outline from his body heat. Mittermeyer was on the carpeted floor, leaning back against the shelves and looking up at Reuenthal to talk. They kept their voices low, but sound didn’t travel far here anyway.
“My mother called me last night,” Mittermeyer said, mouth half full of sandwich.
“Oh?” Reuenthal asked. “She harranguing you about your engineering grades?”
“No, that would be my dad,” Mittermeyer said.
“Missing her son, then, or is that too sentimental?” Reuenthal’s tone was unpleasantly harsh, but Mittermeyer didn’t seem to notice, and just laughed.
“I think that ‘sentimental’ and ‘pragmatic’ are opposites, and my mother has far more of one than the other.”
“Ah, so she’s calling to tell you that, since you’re no longer living at home, she’s going to rent your bedroom to make some extra cash.”
Mittermeyer laughed, which made him choke on his sandwich. “We’re middle class, not destitute,” he said.
“Being a small landlord is the epitome of middle class professions.”
“Well, you might be more right than you think,” Mittermeyer said. “One of my mother’s cousins died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Reuenthal said mechanically.
Mittermeyer shrugged. “I only ever met him a couple times,” he said. “Lived on the other side of Odin, you know.”
“Are you going to the funeral?”
“No,” Mittermeyer said. “I mean, there isn’t going to be a big one, anyway. He was in the fleet. And my mom’s side of the family is weird.”
“No, voluntary service,” Mittermeyer said. “He was a lieutenant.”
“Commander, now, I assume.”
Mittermeyer shrugged. “I guess.”
“What did you say I was right about?”
“Oh, he has this kid, and apparently there’s no one except for my mom who was willing to take the kid in on a permanent basis.”
“Does this child have a name?”
“Presumably. My mom didn’t mention, though.”
“Not that I ever plan on having children,” Reuenthal said, which caused Mittermeyer to make a strange expression, “but if I did, and if I was breaking the news to my child that I was adopting a second one while the first was away at school, a name would be one of the things that I would mention. Along with all of the other pertinent details.”
“She was probably worried that I would be upset about it, so she just mentioned it offhand, like I somehow wouldn’t notice.”
“Are you upset about it?”
“If my mother wants to give her attention to someone other than me, that person is welcome to it.”
“Anyway, they’re probably not actually giving this kid my room, but they’re putting them somewhere.” He paused for a second, then squished the plastic wrap that had once held his sandwich and tucked it back into his bag. “It’s just weird.”
“I don’t disagree,” Reuenthal said, then fell silent, staring out the window at the rain coming down.
“Why don’t you want to have kids?” Mittermeyer asked suddenly.
This startled Reuenthal, who frowned. “Why would I want to?”
“I don’t know.”
“I have no desire to continue my bloodline,” Reuenthal said. “And I don’t like children.”
“Oh.” Mittermeyer seemed disappointed, somehow. His tone was strange, and he was looking out the window past Reuenthal.
“Why, do you have someone back home that you’re going to marry as soon as you graduate?” Reuenthal couldn’t keep the sourness out of his voice.
“No,” Mittermeyer said, a little too forcefully. “No.”
It took a moment for Mittermeyer to respond. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I like kids. I guess I’ve always thought of myself having one, someday.” He picked at a loose thread in the carpet, pulling it until it began to run, leaving a white gash in the black floor, stretching out down the aisle between the two of them.
“That’s what you imagine your future as?” Reuenthal asked. “Domestic? Wife, kids, house? Some sort of middle class fantasy?”
Mittermeyer shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really picture that, exactly. It might be nice.”
“What’s so appealing about it?”
Mittermeyer could probably feel Reuenthal’s scorn, but he kept talking, as though he was trying to dig himself out of the hole he had ended up in. “My mother used to have me volunteer at this after school program for elementary students,” Mittermeyer said. “I really liked it, I guess. Kids are great.”
“I find that hard to believe, since they turn into adults.”
“Maybe the best way to improve the world is to raise kids well, so that there will be better adults in the future.”
Reuenthal scoffed and looked out the window. “I’ll tell you this, Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said, “There are plenty of entitled assholes who were raised in the happiest homes imaginable.” He lifted his chin. “No father can change his son’s nature.”
“Yeah.” Mittermeyer sighed. “That’s true.” He hesitated. “Still…”
“I hope for your sake that you find a wife who raises children well,” Reuenthal said, voice dry and flat. “Since the fleet will have you gone eleven months of the year.”
“I guess,” Mittermeyer said. “You’re right that it is stupid. But don’t you ever think about the future?”
“And you don’t ever picture yourself with a wife and family?”
“No,” Reuenthal said.
“Because, Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said, standing, “I do not want them.”
Mittermeyer scrambled to his feet as well. When he followed Reuenthal down the aisle, his foot caught on the string he had been tugging out of the carpet, and it ripped further, a spiderweb of white travelling across the dusty black expanse until it reached the wall. He hopped to untangle his foot, and cringed at the noise and destruction he had wrought.
He followed Reuenthal out of the library, and they stood under the roof overhang for a second, the air damp and cold as the rain continued to pour down. Reuenthal didn’t know what he was waiting for. Maybe he was just deciding if it was better to suffer the indignity of running across campus, or the indignity of walking slowly and getting wetter.
“I get it,” Mittermeyer said after a moment, his voice quiet enough that Reuenthal almost didn’t hear him over the rain.
“I guess I don’t really picture having a wife,” Mittermeyer said. He stared out at the rain. “But it seems like— it will happen, so…”
Reuenthal glanced at him but said nothing.
October 476 I.C., Odin
September slipped away, fall settling over the campus with a sense of routine. By the second half of October, Reuenthal might have sworn that his life had always consisted of classes with Yang, dinners with his friends, and late night studying sessions that often ended with Yang passing out in the lounge while Reuenthal and Mittermeyer quietly worked across from each other, occasionally speaking in low tones.
It was a good life, for all that Reuenthal wanted more out of it. He had begun, at some point, to nurture his enjoyment of the feeling of wanting. There was something delicious about hunger, after all.
He burned with the energy of it, and he tried to channel that energy into the rest of his life. He still hadn’t managed to beat Yang in any of the games they played, but he tried so ferociously that he sometimes did fluster and exhaust Yang, which was something, at least. He played Mittermeyer on some Saturdays, and Mittermeyer had gotten good enough that Reuenthal only won half the time.
If he could find enjoyment in wanting, there must be equal, painful pleasure in being bested. Still, if it was only to Yang and Mittermeyer that he even had a chance of losing, then that was all right.
It was that vicious energy that filled him the morning of the horseback hunt at Neue Sanssouci. He and Mittermeyer were standing outside the gates of the IOA, waiting for the bus. The fog was so thick around them that Reuenthal’s hand passing through it felt like it carved a path through the air. The sun wasn’t up, so the only light was from the yellow lamps above their heads, and the rare car passing on the street.
“Is Leigh really going to skip this?” Mittermeyer asked, looking around at the assembled group.
“He’s probably just late,” Reuenthal said. “He’ll be here.”
“What will happen if he doesn’t come?”
“He’ll come. He’s trying to toe the line.”
Mittermeyer sighed, hands shoved deep in his pockets, and looked behind them again, trying to see through the fog into the grounds of the school.
“Worried about him, are you?” Reuenthal asked.
“I’m not his keeper. If he makes the decision that it’s safer to skip than to come— he’s better at that kind of judgement call than I am.”
“No,” Mittermeyer said. “He just favors strategic disengagement. That’s not always the best choice.”
“It works out for him.”
Reuenthal nodded. He wanted to change the topic, suddenly. If Yang wasn’t coming, they shouldn’t talk about Yang. He was restless, and excited, and Mittermeyer had mentioned the week before that he had taken both horseback riding and archery lessons at various points during his school days, so he was prepared in a way that Yang would never be. “Let’s catch a deer,” Reuenthal said. “You and I.”
Mittermeyer glanced up at him, startled. “Okay,” he said. Although he had been surprised, there was no hesitation in his voice whatsoever. Reuenthal liked that, a curl of excitement living in his stomach. He smiled at Mittermeyer, who smiled back.
The bus pulled up, and students began to file on.
"Leigh not coming?" Reuenthal heard Gautier asked as he walked past. "Shame."
But as Mittemeyer was climbing the steps of the bus and making one more backwards glance at campus, Yang appeared through the fog, running full tilt and out of breath, his dress uniform a little haphazard and his hair flying everywhere. Mittermeyer's posture sank with relief, and Reuenthal greeted Yang. "We were placing bets on how many demerits you'd earn for skipping," he said as Yang came up behind him.
Yang laughed, still out of breath. "Overslept," he explained. "But I can't turn down a free brunch."
The ride to Neue Sanssouci was uneventful, and the sun rose over the fog, making it almost sparkle over the road and through the trees. The palace itself looked pristine in the early morning light, well tended grounds rising up to the imposing white facade.
Just like they had the year before, all the students lined up, and it was unsurprising when Kaiser Friedrich IV appeared. He looked the same as he had the year before, not too much older, and there was no change in his posture or slightly bored expression. He did this every year, after all, hundreds of students coming and going in his time, without much reason for him to remember any of them. The kaiser walked down the rows of students, greeting each year in turn.
Reuenthal’s back was stiff as a board, and he stared straight ahead. Luckily, this time when the kaiser came to greet the sophomores, there was no word about Reuenthal’s maternal grandfather whatsoever. Instead, the kaiser looked past Reuenthal and at Yang, standing uncomfortably at his right shoulder.
“Hank von Leigh, isn’t it?” the kaiser asked. The kaiser’s voice was curious, and Reuenthal could feel the group of students around him shifting with surprise, that Yang was being singled out once again.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Yang said, unable to disguise the discomfort in his voice. He wanted to be the center of attention even less than anyone else, Reuenthal was sure.
“Count Mariendorf speaks highly of you.” Of course he did.
“Thank you, sir.”
“This year, you will avoid needing the services of my personal physician, I trust?”
“I will try, Your Majesty.”
“Yes. I must hope that all my most promising future officers survive their school days.” And the kaiser sent such a scathing look down the row of sophomores that Reuenthal was sure that if there was any trouble from Ansbach, Gautier, or Dietch this year, there would be consequences. The sophomores shifted uneasily, but the kaiser was already turning away to speak to the freshmen, which meant Mittermeyer, as he had handily taken the first place spot.
At breakfast, the silent glares from Ansbach and his company were the only sign that any of the sophomores had any feelings at all about the kaiser’s comments to Yang. Reuenthal met Ansbach’s eyes cooly, as Yang didn’t even seem to notice he was being glared at, and Ansbach turned away.
The morning had warmed slightly by time they headed out to begin the hunt, though the weather was hovering on the edge of fog and light rain, a somewhat unpleasant state.
Their friend group started out as a bit of a pack, but after a little while, Eisenach trotted off to join the juniors, and Bittenfeld was distracted by something, chased after by Wahlen. This suited Reuenthal fine.
It was a peaceful morning, though the desire to actually catch a deer hadn’t left Reuenthal, and he held his bow loosely in his lap in preparation. He fell slightly behind Mittermeyer and Yang, so that he could watch them as they rode.
Yang was a clumsy rider, jolting up and down with every step of the horse, holding onto the pommel with white knuckles. He always cringed and ducked when his horse wandered too close to tree branches, even though his head was far enough below them that it wasn’t necessary. There was something very endearing about it, and when he turned around in the saddle to look at Reuenthal, he was smiling, despite how out of his element he was.
Mittermeyer, on the other hand, was sure in the saddle, and Reuenthal half expected him to break into a wild gallop at any moment, his blond hair flying back around his head to match the horse’s mane. He was handsome and sturdy, and when Reuenthal nudged his own horse forward to come up to Mittermeyer’s side, Mittermeyer leaned towards him to bump him with his elbow. “Not seeing any deer, are you?” But his tone was cheerful, and his eyes were bright and happy in the grey morning light.
“I’m sure we’ll find one,” Reuenthal said. “And then we’ll see if you’re as good of an archer as you claim to be.”
Mittermeyer just laughed at that.
After about an hour and a half of riding aimlessly through the huge estate, Reuenthal caught sight of something moving off in the underbrush. He held up his hand, and Mittermeyer and Yang came to a quiet halt behind him. They both looked where he was pointing, seeing the buck’s antlers bobbing up and down through the pines. Reuenthal and Mittermeyer exchanged a silent glance, and without speaking, nudged their horses in opposite directions, heading off to circle the deer, the same tactics they might have used against a fleet of enemy ships in SW class.
Reuenthal glanced back at Yang, who was hesitating and watching them go. Reuenthal jerked his head in the direction of the deer, knowing that Yang would understand that he would need to bring up the middle, and then Reuenthal urged his horse forward and away, silent through the woods.
He pulled an arrow out of his quiver and silently dismounted. He crouched and pulled the string of his bow taught, muscles in his arms straining, waiting to hear the crashing sounds of Yang herding the deer forward. He knew that somewhere across from him, Mittermeyer was doing the same thing.
Yang made plenty of noise, and the deer moved forward towards where Reuenthal was waiting. He held his breath, watched the deer’s pace, then loosed the arrow. It flew through the air almost noiselessly, and struck the deer in the dead center of its chest. It made a noise that Reuenthal wasn’t even aware that deer could make, and then ran, flying off through the woods, Yang chasing it on his horse so that he wouldn’t lose it.
Reuenthal stood from his hiding place in the underbrush, and saw that Mittermeyer was doing the same, a triumphant grin on his face.
“I got it,” Mittermeyer said.
“So did I,” Reuenthal replied. They looked at each other across the distance for a second. Reuenthal’s heart was pounding. Mittermeyer had his bow still in his hand, and a second arrow dangling from his fingertips. He must have kept it out of his quiver in case he missed his first shot. Reuenthal wished he could have seen Mittermyer loose his arrow. He could picture it, but imagination was less good than a memory to savor. He looked at Mittermeyer for a long moment, and could see that Mittermeyer was breathing heavily.
Mittermeyer broke their mutual contemplation when he said, “We should go find Leigh.”
“Yeah,” Reuenthal agreed, though he was reluctant to turn away from Mittermeyer. They both did, though, finding their waiting horses and remounting, then meeting up so that they could ride side by side, following the trail of blood on the ground. As they rode, they both kept glancing at each other, eyes meeting, and a kind of electric jolt went through Reuenthal each time. He kept himself steady on his horse.
Eventually, they found Yang, standing with a knife held loosely in his hands, looking at the dead deer on the ground. The knife was clean; he hadn’t used it for anything. Reuenthal wondered why he had it out.
“Good job,” Yang said. “You did it.” The lines were accompanied by a weak smile, and he seemed to realize then that he was holding a knife, so he went to slip it back into his saddlebag.
Reuenthal and Mittermeyer dismounted. As Mittermeyer went to crouch over their catch, Reuenthal walked over to Yang, who was fussing with the straps on his saddle and not looking at Mittermeyer or the deer.
“Still concerned about the hunters with bows and arrows?” Reuenthal asked, low enough that Mittermeyer probably wouldn’t hear him.
Yang jumped, not realizing that Reuenthal was so close, then shook his head. He turned, and his eyes flicked between Reuenthal and the deer, dead on the ground, like he was asking for Reuenthal to understand something. He did. Of course he did.
Reuenthal could vividly remember the winter solstice, when he had seen the deer slaughtered, its wide eyes like Yang’s. Had Yang had his knife out to do that same deed? The image seized Reuenthal, and that was all he wanted to see, suddenly. Yang, bloody knife in hand, like a priest of the ideal. The vision was too much, too strange and thrilling and impossible, but Reuenthal couldn’t get it out of his head regardless. He was only shaken out of it when Yang touched his arm.
“Not you,” Yang said. “I’m never worried about you.”
Reuenthal leaned towards him. “You could be a hunter, too.” He desperately wanted to call Yang by his name, but Mittermeyer was right there, so Reuenthal reluctantly refrained.
Yang shook his head. “Go help Mittermeyer,” he said. “I’ll find the tarp so we can bring that back.”
It took some effort to tie the deer up and hitch the tarp to their horses so that they could drag it back to the buildings of Neue Sanssouci. They were congratulated on their catch, and someone in the kitchens butchered the deer for them, and had all the spoils sent off to Mittermeyer’s family and, although Reuenthal wasn’t sure that he would want it, Count Mariendorf. It wasn’t as though Reuenthal’s father would appreciate the venison, and the three students had no reason to keep it for themselves. They were also presented with a bottle of whiskey, for being the first students of the day to catch anything.
The remainder of the time at the palace was spent wandering around, waiting for the bus to take them back to the dorms. There was a weird tension in the air, Reuenthal thought, though perhaps he was imagining it. He kept looking at Mittermeyer, who seemed to be full of energy, and Yang, who was quiet and contemplative in a way that Reuenthal hadn’t seen before.
As the trio walked back towards the dorms after their bus ride home, Reuenthal held up the bottle. “Shall we celebrate?”
“It’s your prize,” Yang said. “If you want to share, I certainly won’t refuse.”
“You helped,” Mittermeyer insisted. “You chased it down.” Yang glanced at Mittermeyer with a wry smile.
“Come on,” Reuenthal said. “It really doesn’t matter.” He led them to his dorm room, which was larger than Mittermeyer’s and far neater than Yang’s, and let them both in. Yang immediately climbed up on the desk to sit, a habit that Reuenthal could not understand why he persisted in. As Reuenthal got out some glasses from his cabinet, Mittermeyer sat on his bed, kicking his shoes off so that he could also sit cross legged without getting Reuenthal’s bedspread dirty. Reuenthal poured the three of them drinks, then sat down next to Mittermeyer, a little closer than he normally would.
Yang raised his glass. “To Oskar von Reuenthal and Wolfgang Mittermeyer,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“And to Hank von Leigh,” Mittermeyer reminded him, raising his own glass.
Yang’s eyes found Reuenthal’s for a fraction of a second, and Reuenthal’s mouth twitched in a suppressed smile. Some of the pain had gone out of the memory, and so he could see the humor in raising his glass to Yang and saying, “To Hank von Leigh,” in his dry tone.
Yang rolled his eyes. “Prosit to us all, then.”
“Prosit!” Mittermeyer and Reuenthal said at the same time, leaning forward together to knock their glasses against Yang’s.
The alcohol was good. High quality stuff. The kaiser didn’t skimp in his prizes for students.
They talked about inconsequential things for a while. The alcohol sat warm in Reuenthal’s stomach, and he kept looking at Mittermeyer, watching him tilt his glass in his hands, raising it to his lips. Yang took off his jacket; Reuenthal watched that, too.
After a few drinks, Mittermeyer was saying something about missing their usual Saturday game. He had wanted to play against Wahlen.
“You’d beat him. You’re better than he is,” Reuenthal said without hesitation.
“That’s not the point,” Mittermeyer said.
“I don’t know why you like playing so much. GMing is way more interesting,” Yang said, looking idly at some schoolwork that Reuenthal had left out on his desk.
“I think all the history you read has permanently changed the shape of your brain,” Reuenthal said. “You like the strangest things.” He was amused, rather than serious, and Yang smiled at him.
“It’s only strange compared to people here. Don’t you think that most other people in the galaxy would prefer not to make war?”
“We’re not like most other people,” Reuenthal said firmly. He looked in Yang’s eyes when he said this, and when Yang looked away, he turned to Mittermeyer for confirmation.
Mittermeyer didn’t address Reuenthal’s point directly, shying away from the implication. “You’re in the wrong school,” he said to Yang. “How did you even get here?”
“Long story,” Yang muttered, looking down into his drink.
“You must be a chronically unlucky man,” Reuenthal said, “to have talent for something that you don’t enjoy.”
“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it,” Yang said. He shook his head and drank. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Forgive me, I guess.” Though Reuenthal didn’t know what he was asking forgiveness for, when Yang looked at him, Reuenthal cocked his head in acknowledgement.
Wistfully, Mittermeyer said, “It’s better than the other way around: to love something, but have no talent.”
“The heart wants what it wants.” Reuenthal watched Mittermeyer’s hands. “It’s fortunate that, in most places, talent can be substituted for hard work and dedication.”
“Not in SW, I don’t think,” Mittermeyer said.
Yang nodded. “To an extent. There’s some intuition that I don’t think can be learned.” Yang would be the one to know that. He operated on a higher level than everyone else, in a way that Reuenthal couldn’t fully understand.
“It must be a rare thing,” Mittermeyer said.
“As I said, we are not like most other people,” Reuenthal said again.
“Can I propose a stupid idea?” Yang asked.
Reuenthal leaned back on the bed a little. “Propose whatever you like.”
“Remember the first time you two played each other?” he asked, nodding at Reuenthal and Mittermeyer. Mittermeyer looked at Reuenthal, who nodded.
“We talked about how the practicum doesn’t actually reflect reality. Maybe we should… try to play it as though it did. At least in our games. No arbitrary starting conditions or win conditions. Make it less false.” He was speaking slowly, as though piecing the idea together word by word, but Mittermeyer was nodding along.
“How would you judge it?” he asked.
“It would have to be an ongoing campaign,” Reuenthal pointed out. “Each engagement would just have to be a piece of the whole, so that the consequences of wins and losses would mean something.” He was intrigued by the idea. Yang had always been better at individual encounters, tactics, but Reuenthal wondered if that might be covering up an equivalent weakness in overall strategic thinking. After all, Yang relied so heavily on the tactical retreat, the choosing not to engage, that Reuenthal might have a chance at winning a war, even if the individual battles tended towards inconclusive.
“I just think we should, if we’re going to, you know— if we’re not playing for status, we should try to actually learn something.” Yang was tripping over his words, cheeks flushed, eyes shining.
“This kind of thing is the reason you should be number one, but you’re not,” Reuenthal said. “In a fairer world.”
Yang looked up at him. “I don’t think we’ve ever claimed to live in a fair world.”
“No, we certainly don’t.”
Mittermeyer was turning the idea over in his mind. “I like the idea,” he said. “But it would be a tricky thing to get going.”
“It’s just an idle thought,” Yang said with a shrug.
“Your idle thoughts often have more value than most people’s deliberate efforts,” Reuenthal said. Yang lowered his eyes. “We can talk to everyone else about it when we see them.”
Yang finished his drink. He put his glass down on Reuenthal’s desk with a heavy hand. “I just realized that I’m starving,” Yang said. If his stomach hadn’t chosen just that moment to grumble, Reuenthal might have thought that he was trying to escape. Yang’s expression had returned to its usual, guileless open one. “Before I get too drunk to move, I’m going to change into a less gross outfit, then run down to the commissary. You want anything?”
“Thanks for looking out for our health,” Reuenthal said. “You know what I like.”
Yang nodded. “Of course.”
“Can you get me a soft pretzel?” Mittermeyer asked. “And the, uh, cherry soda.”
“Healthy dinner,” Reuenthal commented dryly as Yang headed out.
Mittermeyer laughed shifting on the bed. “And what’s he getting you?”
“I have no idea,” Reuenthal said. “I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.”
“He does know you well, doesn’t he?” Mittermeyer said. There was something in his voice, in the way he looked at the door where Yang had just vanished. It made Reuenthal’s heart beat faster.
“Perhaps,” he said.
“He left his jacket,” Mittermeyer pointed out.
A slightly strained silence fell between them. Reuenthal looked at Mittermeyer, who had put his glass down on the windowsill and was twisting the bedspread with two fingers, looking at the knicknacks on Reuenthal’s bookshelf across the room.
“I wish I could have seen you kill the deer,” Reuenthal said, breaking the silence.
Mittermeyer twitched, surprised. “What?”
“I would have liked to see it,” he said again.
“So you could critique my form?” Mittermeyer asked.
“No,” Reuenthal said. He paused for a second. “I imagine that your form was perfect. But imagination is inferior to memory.”
“Oh.” Mittermeyer didn’t seem to know how to respond. “I’m glad you had your shot, too, though. I might have missed.”
“Still,” he said. “It was good to do it together.” He looked away.
Reuenthal made a noise low in his throat. “Perhaps. But there is occasionally a greater pleasure in watching someone talented.”
“That’s why you like Leigh so much.” Mittermeyer’s hands were still fiddling with the bedspread. Reuenthal leaned slightly forward.
“Leigh has no interest in me watching him perform,” Reuenthal said. If Mittermeyer had gotten a wrong impression about the nature of his relationship with Yang, Reuenthal wanted to nip that in the bud. “Least of all at archery.”
“And you think I do?”
“Do you?” Reuenthal asked, his voice low.
“I could ask you the same question.”
“What do you want to see me do, Wolf?” Reuenthal asked. Mittermeyer’s breath caught at the sudden first name address.
“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said. He looked at Reuenthal, finally. His eyes were wide, and he was very stiff, unsure, perhaps. “What would you do?”
“Anything,” Reuenthal said.
“Oskar…” Mittermeyer said, which was enough for Reuenthal. He reached across the distance between them and put his hand on Mittermeyer’s. Mittermeyer shivered, but he didn’t move. Reuenthal looked into Mittermeyer’s light eyes as he lifted Mittermeyer’s hand, almost excruciatingly slowly, and brought it to his lips.
Mittermeyer’s hand was heavy and hot, and he inhaled sharply when Reuenthal kissed his knuckles. Mittermeyer moved, and Reuenthal thought he was going to pull away, but instead his hand moved to Reuenthal’s cheek, his thumb ghosting over his lips.
They locked eyes for a single, silent moment, and then they were both leaning forward towards each other, nearly knocking noses in their haste. Mittermeyer’s lips were chapped, and the taste of whiskey was still heavy in both their mouths. The experience of kissing Mittermeyer was incomparable. A dam had burst inside of Reuenthal: a lifetime’s worth of tension free at once, at least for now.
He never wanted to stop kissing Mittermeyer, not like he would have been able to anyway, as Mittermeyer’s other hand had joined the first to clutch both sides of Reuenthal’s face, holding him in place. His hands were so hot and solid. Reuenthal braced himself, his hands on Mittermeyer’s hips as he nipped at Mittermeyer’s lower lip. Mittermeyer made a muffled sound that Reuenthal could feel in his own chest.
The sensations were almost overwhelming enough that Reuenthal was blinded to the outside world, but a lifetime of paranoia meant that he was attuned to the sound of the door handle jiggling, and his eyes flew open wide as the door opened. Mittermeyer hadn’t noticed, and was still kissing him, holding Reuenthal’s face. But Reuenthal could see Yang standing in the doorway, not crossing the threshold, a horrified expression on his face. They were both frozen there for a second, and then Yang turned on his heel and shut the door, leaving Mittermeyer and Reuenthal alone once more.
Mittermeyer had remained completely oblivious, somehow, and Reuenthal, in his usual secretive way, decided that telling him that they had been walked in on could wait. He was used to compartmentalizing these small moments of fear, so he pushed it out of his own mind. His fingers dug into Mittermeyer’s thighs, though, and he grew more intense and forceful, scraping his teeth across Mittermeyer’s jaw towards his ear, until Mittermeyer, breathing heavily, pushed him away after some time.
Reuenthal leaned back on his hands, smug satisfaction on his face. Mittermeyer was flushed, and ran his hands over his face. “We should stop,” Mittermeyer said, clearly trying to get himself under control. “Leigh will be back soon.”
“Doubt it,” Reuenthal said. He poured them both new drinks. Mittermeyer took the offered glass and drank, far more quickly than Reuenthal did.
“Why do you say that?”
“I bet he sat down on his bed and fell asleep,” Reuenthal lied.
Mittermeyer managed a chuckle. “Yeah. Maybe.” Still, when Reuenthal went to put his hand on Mittermeyer’s thigh, Mittermeyer shivered and gently pushed his hand off, shaking his head. “Not right now,” he said.
Reuenthal shrugged and sat back again, just looking. “As you like.”
“Have you ever…?” Mittermeyer asked.
“Yes,” Reunthal said shortly.
“No, never,” Mittermeyer said.
Reuenthal felt somewhat triumphant at that, and his curl of a smile made Mittermeyer look away. The silence that fell between them was not really awkward, but the enthusiasm that Mittermeyer had clearly had while kissing him had fallen away, and he was staring in his empty glass. Reuenthal refilled it. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Mittermeyer said, hasty to reassure Reuenthal, even though Reuenthal needed no reassurance. He shook his head. “I just…” He ran his hand through his hair. “What am I going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s nothing to do,” Reuenthal said.
“You’re not worried?”
“I’m not sure what you’re worried about.”
“If anyone finds out, they’ll throw us out.”
Reuenthal shrugged. It was too late to worry about that now, considering that Yang had already seen them. Any consequences were already barreling down the line, too fast to stop, so there was no point in Mittermeyer worrying. “Stop thinking about it,” Reuenthal said.
“How can I not?”
“You weren’t a moment ago.”
Mittermeyer chuckled again at that. “True, I guess.” He finished his drink. “But it’s easy to not think when I’m, uh, distracted.”
Reuenthal’s smile was a hungry one, and when Mittermeyer met his eyes, he smiled too.
“I do have to think about it, though,” Mittermeyer said, with a finality incongruous with his expression. “I’m too drunk.”
Reuenthal picked up the bottle of whiskey. “We’ve barely gone through that much of it.” This was not true, but he wanted to say anything to get Mittermeyer to stop shifting on the bed, making to get up.
Mittermeyer shook his head, finally standing. “I can’t think straight, and I need to.” He looked at Reuenthal, shook his head again with a weird smile. “You make it difficult, though.”
“Oh?” Reuenthal asked. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yeah. See you tomorrow?”
“Probably,” Reuenthal agreed. “I’ll text you.”
“Yeah. If Leigh comes back, tell him I went to bed, okay?” He went to the door, twisted the handle but didn’t open the door. “Goodnight,” he said, meeting Reuenthal’s eyes.
Reuenthal nodded, and Mittermeyer left. His footsteps were loud and hurried, cut off as soon as the door finished swinging shut.
Alone in his room now, and sure that Yang was not coming back, Reuenthal laid back on his bed. Now that Mittermeyer wasn’t there to give him something else to focus on, the fear sat heavily in Reuenthal’s gut. He didn’t think that Yang was likely to do anything drastic, at least not right away, but he was sure he would find out in the morning.
He had been right not to tell Mittermeyer, Reuenthal decided. From the anxious way Mittermeyer was already thinking over potential consequences, knowing that they had been seen probably would have caused him to become unreasonably upset. Tainting the experience of the evening probably would have broken something fragile. He didn’t need to know, especially not if Reuenthal could talk to Yang, convince him not to do anything about what he had seen.
The expression on Yang’s face had been so horrified and disgusted, Reuenthal thought. Mouth open, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. Considering that Yang was usually so placid, it was shocking to witness. He was probably disturbed that Reuenthal was taking advantage of his mentee.
It burned, to know that this had probably cost Reuenthal his closest friend, but it was worth it, or would be, if he could convince Yang to not do anything. Even if their friendship was gone, Reuenthal did think that he could probably offer Yang enough to keep quiet. Continued protection from the rest of the sophomore class, maybe. If Yang turned Reuenthal in, Yang would be an easy target, and he might not even survive the rest of their school years. Reuenthal would just have to find some way of expressing that to Yang such that it didn’t sound like he was making threats, and was instead making offers. Reuenthal was in no position to make threats.
There was, of course, a possibility that Yang would report Reuenthal to the administration, and he would simply not be believed. After all, in a contest of Yang’s word against Reuenthal’s, it was likely that Reuenthal would come out on top. But Reuenthal didn’t want even that kind of taint associated with him, and it was too risky to rely on the hatred that the administration had for Yang.
Reuenthal eventually stripped off his dirty clothes and went to sleep. His dreams were confusing, though, a mishmash of imagery.
They were in his house, Yang and Reuenthal, in Reuenthal’s bedroom. The door was open. Reuenthal hated that the door was open. Yang stood in the doorway. Reuenthal hated that Yang was standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his dress uniform, the one he had been wearing earlier, his jacket open on his chest, and he was holding his hunting knife, like he had earlier in the day. Reuenthal liked that he was holding the knife. Even in the dream, it sent a thrill through him.
“Are you coming in?” Reuenthal asked.
Yang took a step forward, and the dream clicked forward a step in time. The threshold was crossed, moving from dream to nightmare. But in some ways, that meant that Reuenthal could relax and let it happen to him, as it always did.
It was dark in the room, and Reuenthal could barely see Yang’s face. He kept coming closer to Reuenthal, who was sitting on the bed with his hands grasping the sheets. It seemed to take forever for Yang to reach him. When he finally did, Yang leaned over him.
Reuenthal’s heart was pounding, and his whole body was on fire as Yang pressed one hand to his chest and shoved him backwards, falling endlessly, the ground dropping out from underneath him, it felt like. They were no longer in his room, just some void, and Reuenthal felt outside of himself as Yang raised the knife to Reuenthal’s face.
“Which one?” Yang asked, speaking for the first time. He held the tip of the knife underneath Reuenthal’s black eye, then underneath his blue one. “This one?”
The knife gleamed in Reuenthal’s vision, and Yang’s hand burned on his chest. Reuenthal opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out. They were both frozen there, the knife pressed to the corner of Reuenthal’s blue eye.