A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

TWS - Chapter Ten - Better to Be Hated Than Loved For What You're Not

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Better to Be Hated Than Loved For What You're Not

Yang did not show up to physicals the next morning, which Reuenthal thought was a very bad sign. He had been intending to corner Yang afterwards, but since he didn’t show up, Reuenthal had no choice but to try to contact him. In one of the five minute breaks they had during physicals, he pulled out his phone and texted Yang, hoping that he would respond.

 

> I would like to speak with you at some point, if possible.

 

By the time that physicals were over, and Yang had not yet responded to that message, Reuenthal grew first anxious, then annoyed. He tried to put himself in Yang’s shoes, to think about who he would report to, if he was going to report, and he decided that the most likely person would be Yang’s taciturn mentor, Eisenach.

Reuenthal texted him, too.

 

> Eisenach, has Leigh spoken to you since yesterday?

 

< no, why

 

> I need to speak with him urgently, and he’s not answering my messages.

> And he missed physicals.

 

< what do you need to talk to him about so urgently

 

> It’s personal.

 

< had a lovers’ spat, did you?

< i’m sure he’s just sleeping in

< since he misses physicals constantly anyway

 

> If he talks to you, please tell him to get in contact with me.

 

< it is too early in the morning to be mediating Leigh’s problems, you know

 

> It’s almost noon.

 

< lol

< i’ll talk to him

 

Reuenthal was too annoyed with Eisenach to say thank you, so he just put his phone away and went to find lunch. He got a sandwich from the dining hall, and then left with it, returning to his dorm, since he had no desire to run into Mittermeyer, at least right now.

Since no administrator came to his room to drag him out of it and send him packing for indecent behavior, Reuenthal figured that the world was not collapsing, and he tried to get some homework done.

His phone sat innocuously on his desk, along with Yang’s folded jacket.

His phone buzzed.

 

< just woke up

< I’m about to get lunch

< haven’t eaten since yesterday morning

< I think I can safely make the assumption that you would prefer to meet after that

< let me know where/when

 

Yang didn’t sound like he was lying, but it was impossible to tell over text. Still, Reuenthal had no option except to respond.

 

> I can meet you at Eaglehead park when you’re done with your lunch.

 

Eaglehead was a little ways off campus, and Reuenthal didn’t know how long it would take for Yang to eat, so he left right away, bringing Yang’s jacket with him, so that he could return it. When he got there, he leaned against the brick wall that marked the park’s entrance from the street, and watched the passers by. The day was bright but chilly, and a stiff wind rattled the few remaining orange leaves on the trees.

Yang appeared after quite some time, walking down the street with his hands in his pockets. When Reuenthal saw him, he straightened, and held out Yang’s jacket when he arrived.

“Thanks,” Yang said, taking it. He rifled around in the jacket pocket for a second and pulled out his charge card, holding it up. “This was what I was looking for.” His tone was neutral, but Reuenthal could tell he was working hard to keep it that way.

They were still in too public of a position to actually talk, so Reuenthal nodded and set off down the path into the park, leading them off the main trail and onto one of the smaller, more private pathways. Yang followed. Reuenthal had been worried for a second that he wouldn’t, but he just tagged along, a step or so behind Reuenthal, until they had walked for about half a kilometer, and there was no one else anywhere in sight.

“Have you spoken to Mittermeyer?” Reuenthal finally asked.

Yang seemed startled at the question. “No, why?”

“He doesn’t know that you saw.”

“Oh.” Yang was clearly confused at that, which Reuenthal could understand, but Mittermeyer had been thoroughly distracted, and Yang had been quiet when he opened the door. “Was he confused when I didn’t come back?”

“I told him you had probably sat down on your bed and fallen asleep,” Reuenthal said.

“That ended up being basically true, so your conscience can be clean in that respect.”

“In that respect.” Reuenthal couldn’t help the bitterness in his voice, even though he had come here to essentially beg Yang, he was finding it difficult. Even though he had seen Yang’s face, the disgust in his expression, he had thought, he had had half a hope, that maybe, maybe Yang wouldn’t—

After all, he hadn’t reported Reuenthal after New Year’s. But perhaps it was the involvement of Mittermeyer, whom Yang felt responsible for. That might have made it different. He could forgive Reuenthal for personal transgressions, in the same way he forgave Ansbach and his crew for trying to murder him, but it was different when it was Mittermeyer.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Yang said. He seemed put out, and he sighed. “Look, Reuenthal, you don’t have to worry. I’m not going to do anything.” He kicked at some of the leaves on the ground, the wind picking them up and sending them off down the path.

“Why not?”

“What do you mean, ‘why not?’” Yang’s tone was harsher than Reuenthal had ever remembered hearing before.

“It would be the reasonable thing for you to do.”

“I don’t even know why you would think that.”

“If I was sent away, you would be number one by default.”

“This isn’t about the stupid ranks!” Yang was almost yelling, and Reuenthal hastily glanced around the path to make sure there was no one in earshot. There wasn’t.

“It’s about something,” Reuenthal said harshly. As clearly as he could, he said, “I apologize for allowing you to see me behave in a way that disturbs you.”

“I’m not ‘disturbed.’” Yang’s voice was harsh, too.

“Disgusts, then.” That was the emotion, the one writ clear across Yang’s face. “And I apologize for putting your mentee in a compromising position.”

“Will you stop, Reuenthal?” Yang was loud again, and then he paused and shook his head, his hand finding his hair to tug on it wildly. He was upset, far more than Reuenthal had ever seen him. Not even when he was bleeding out on the forest floor had he been anything close to this unhappy. “I’m not—“

Reuenthal cut him off. “You are upset.”

“Just because I’m upset doesn’t mean I’m going to ruin your life!”

Unfortunately, Reuenthal could not trust that that was true. “Again, I have to ask, why not?”

“You don’t have to ask that, because it’s a stupid question!”

“It’s not.” It was reasonable, Reuenthal thought, to want to have some measure of understanding of what the rules were in the game.

“I can’t imagine why you would need to know my reasons.”

“So that, in the future, I can avoid doing things that would cause those reasons to stop being in play.”

Yang stopped short, breathing heavily. “I am not going to stand here and dictate terms of surrender to you.” He was tense, like he could have at any moment struck Reuenthal. His voice was falsely even when he said, “It is cruel of you to imply that my word is worth so little.”

Sometimes, the best thing to do was apologize, so Reuenthal did, even though it must have rang as false to Yang as it did to him. “I apologize.” He started walking again, and Yang followed him.

Reuenthal was silent, waiting for Yang to collect himself enough to respond.

“Look, Reuenthal,” Yang began, then paused and took a breath. The hand that wasn’t tangled in his hair was clenched into a fist by his side. “Even without getting into the rest of it, you could just as easily denounce me.”

That was the Yang that Reuenthal knew. He had honestly forgotten that he had compromising information on Yang: his name. “Mutually assured destruction,” he muttered.

“Will you cut it out?” Yang asked, voice annoyed again suddenly. “I only said that first in case it was the one thing your stubborn brain is willing to accept, but that’s not even the real reason, okay?”

He was kicking at the ground still, and looked like he was trying to say something else, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly for a second, so Reuenthal gave him time to compose himself.

“I told you my name because I trusted you,” Yang said, the words coming slowly, painfully. “You’re my best friend. You saved my life. I’m not going to throw that away over…”

“My immorality?”

Yang’s voice was low and angry when he said, “I’m not Rudolph von Goldenbaum.” Reuenthal looked over at Yang. His eyes were narrowed, and he was looking at the ground. “I don’t care if you’re a homosexual. Or Mittermeyer, for that matter.”

Reuenthal crossed his arms and pointed out the obvious. “You’re angry, though.”

“You don’t understand!”

“No,” Reuenthal said. “I think it’s you who doesn’t understand.” He couldn’t help but be angry, now, at the way Yang was refusing to address the issue. “I accidentally placed myself in a compromising position. You have power over me, and you’re angry. It’s a dangerous combination.”

Yang deflated a little, shoulders slumping, maybe deliberately relaxing. “I’m not angry at you. I swear.” He looked up at the sky, at the puffy white clouds skating over the dark, bare branches.

“Mittermeyer, then?”

“No.”

“Then you’re right. I don’t understand.”

Yang sighed. “I’m angry at myself more than I am at you.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

He was silent for a long second. “I’ve spent the past year being a complete idiot,” Yang said. “I should apologize to you for that, because I really have no excuse.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.” Reuenthal was sure that he sounded as confused as he suddenly felt. Once again, Yang had pulled the rug out from under him, made him lose the stable footing he had thought he had in this conversation. Reuenthal understood disgust. Reuenthal understood anger. He understood bargaining and pleading and power and mutually assured destruction, and what he had originally come to do, which was threaten Yang with the force of the anger of the sophomore class. He did not understand why Yang was suddenly apologizing to him, for… what? “You haven’t behaved in any way that’s improper.”

“Last New Year’s,” Yang began.

Reuenthal’s breath caught in his throat. So, they were going to talk about that.

Yang plowed on, though he had glanced at Reuenthal with his inhale of breath. “You were trying to kiss me, weren’t you?”

What was Yang trying to make Reuenthal do, by saying it aloud? It wasn’t as though this hadn’t been the invisible wall standing in between them for months. Yang knew. Reuenthal had already apologized. He had thought the rejection had been the end of it, and he had tried to leave it at that. Reuenthal didn’t want to say it aloud, because that made the rejection real again. “I shouldn’t have.”

In a rush, Yang said, “I didn’t understand what was going on. I…” He sucked in a deep breath, and then said, “You should have tried it again when I was sober, is all.”

“Oh.” Reuenthal closed his eyes, months of mixed signals resolving themselves in his brain. He wanted to hit something, or he wanted to be hit. He hated himself for stupidity, for not understanding.

It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, which made it worse. It had all seemed so simple and clear a moment ago, that he had been rejected, and Yang had been enough of a friend to ignore it, to forget about it, to not destroy Reuenthal’s life over it. And Reuenthal had known, deep in his bones, that this was not the kind of thing that they would ever talk about, not openly, because the rules of silence were mutually and well understood.

He had thought they had talked about it, on the morning after it had happened. Reuenthal had apologized, and Yang had accepted his apology, and that had been it.

Yang continued. “I guess, I know you were trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t understand.” He was nearly pulling his hair out. “I was stupid, okay? And then I spent a year wondering what was going on, and neither of us could say anything, and now it’s this. That’s all. It’s not you.” He was nearly plaintive.

Reuenthal’s throat was constricted, he could barely breathe. “Wen-li,” he said.

“Don’t. Please.” Yang’s voice was choked as well, He jammed his hands back into his pockets. “Mittermeyer is a lot less stupid than I am.”

“I’m sorry,” Reunthal finally said.

“Stop apologizing. You didn’t— there’s nothing that you’ve done wrong. You can have this,” he stressed.

What could Reuenthal even say to that? “Thank you, then, if you won’t let me apologize. Though I feel that having your permission makes it worse.”

“Why?”

“Because it feels like admitting defeat.” Somehow. He was losing to Yang again. He always was.

“Not everything is a game,” Yang said, bitter. “And if it was, it isn’t one that I would want to play.”

“Why?”

Yang let out a rush of breath. “I’m not blind. I saw the way you were acting with Mittermeyer. He makes you happy; you make him happy. I’m not going to try to take that away from you just because…” And he wasn’t looking at Reuenthal, turning away from him.

Reuenthal didn’t say anything for a long second. He changed the topic slightly. This was too painful for the both of them, clearly. “I thought I had really disgusted you,” he finally said. “I thought I really had crossed a line.” With this new information, the look that had been on Yang’s face the night before could be understood differently, not disgusted, but something else.

“What, now?” Yang asked.

“Now, and on New Year’s.”

Yang shook his head. “I wish I had made it clearer that it was just confusion. I wanted to say something to you, but I couldn’t figure it out.” He paused. “You didn’t disgust me. I don’t even think you could.”

The rush of warmth in Reuenthal’s chest was painful, but he smiled, biting his tongue. “Perhaps I tried because you are the only person who would ever say such a thing to me.”

“Reuenthal…” And the pleading note in Yang’s voice was almost too much.

“Don’t worry about it, von Leigh,” he said, cutting back to Yang’s false name to distance them. He looked at Yang, who scuffed the ground again.

“I feel stupid asking, but I have to, because I clearly can’t figure things out unless they’re said to my face. We’re still friends, right?”

“If you want to be.” He didn’t know what he would do if Yang said no.

“Yeah,” Yang said. “I do.”

Relief washed over him. “Good.”

“And you trust me?” Yang asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.” He sighed. “You should probably tell Mittermeyer that I know.”

“Why would I do that?” Reuenthal asked, frowning. It would be much easier for the three of them if Mittermeyer didn’t know.

“I think it would make his life easier. And I don’t think he would appreciate living in a lie of our construction. He’s honest.”

“You should tell him.”

“What? No.”

“He’s your mentee.”

“You’re the one who—” Yang cut himself off. “You tell him. If he wants to have some kind of talk with me after the fact, that’s his prerogative.”

Reuenthal considered protesting some more, but then decided it wasn’t worth it. He would deal with Mittermeyer. He nodded, then said, “Am I allowed to ask if you’re okay?”

“You’re allowed.”

“Are you?”

Yang sighed. He was less upset than he had been, but this had not been an easy or pleasant talk for either of them. “I don’t know. I wish that— nevermind.”

“What?”

“It’s not something that I can pretend doesn’t exist, so I can’t go back to my blissful ignorance.”

Reuenthal wasn’t sure if he would have called anything about their previous state blissful. “You’re a historian. Isn’t that about wanting to know the truth of things that happen?”

“History is only made up of what gets written down. This sort of thing, you’re not going to be writing it down. People in the future can pretend that it doesn’t exist. But I’m not… I see it with my own eyes. It’s fine.” That wasn’t precisely true, Reuenthal thought. There were, after all, plenty of things that were known to be true that weren’t written down. After all, there was no history book published in the Empire that would admit to Kaiser Kaspar being a homosexual, and yet it was common knowledge, among people who cared to find out such things. That was a kind of history, too, the kind that passed in undertones, from person to person, in glances and unspoken signals, in the way things were said or not said. People could talk without ever speaking directly, as long as both parties already understood what topic was being discussed.

“I can never mention it again, if you like,” Reuenthal said. Yang could pretend this wasn’t happening, if he wanted to.

“No, that wouldn’t make it better. If Mittermeyer makes you happy, I don’t want you to feel like… you know. I’m fine.” Yang’s shoulders were awkwardly hunched, keeping himself away from Reuenthal.

“How emotionally mature of you.”

Yang laughed. “I don’t think I would call it that. You’re okay, right?”

“Of course.”

“You apparently scared Eisenach earlier.”

“I figured you would talk to him first, if you were going to report me.”

“Why? He likes you, I think. And I think he knows, anyway.”

Reuenthal had assumed Eisenach’s weird comment had been a joke, but apparently not. “I’m that obvious.” He frowned.

“I wouldn’t know. Or maybe he’s talking about something else. I don’t know. He confuses me more than you do.”

“An impressive feat, apparently.”

Yang laughed at that.

 


 

Reuenthal cornered Mittermeyer after dinner. They hadn’t eaten together, but Reuenthal had seen Mittermeyer across the dining hall eating with a group of freshmen, and had caught him when he was on his way out. It was dark and chilly as they left the dining hall together, and they didn’t head back to the dorms, but to the empty, academic part of the campus. They could have a conversation there without being listened to. Mittermeyer was smiling at him.

He had chosen this slightly more public venue out of deference to Mittermeyer’s nerves. He didn’t want him to feel cornered, as he might in a dorm room. There were wide open avenues of retreat here, though Mittermeyer, in their games, hadn’t favored that as a strategy too much.

“Had time to think your thoughts?” Reuenthal asked.

“I suppose,” Mittermeyer said. “Though I guess I shouldn’t have expected one night of drunk sleep and a hungover morning to provide that much clarity.”

Reuenthal chuckled. “Some clarity, anyway.”

“Maybe.”

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t love secrets,” Mittermeyer said, but there was an unspoken second half of that sentence.

“But you’ll live with them.”

“How do you live with it?” Mittermeyer asked. “I could use some advice, I suppose. What will I do about my family?”

“I’m not sure what your family has to do with it. And as for keeping secrets from my father?” Reuenthal laughed harshly. “My father can think what he likes about me. It doesn’t make a difference.”

“Oh.” Mittermeyer shifted uncomfortably. “Everyone here, then. You aren’t worried about being caught?”

“No. I think we’re both capable of discretion.”

“Yeah.” It was clear that Mittermeyer was uncomfortable with the idea, but he also wasn’t about to change his mind about Reuenthal. He looked handsome, in the warm yellow building lights they were passing under. The light was catching on the flyaways of his hair, and on his square jaw, the shadows giving extra depth to his features, even as the cold wind flushed his face. Reuenthal could have looked at him forever.

“If it makes you feel any better,” Reuenthal said, “you don’t have to worry about Leigh finding out.”

“What?” Mittermeyer startled, looking at Reuenthal. He had been intending to break this news gently, but Mittermeyer was already so tense that this would be impossible.

“He walked in on us, last night,” Reuenthal said. His tone was as casual and even as he could make it. “You were distracted.”

Mittermeyer swore, loudly, and turned away. “Fuck, Reuenthal, what?”

“It’s fine,” Reuenthal said. “I talked to him.”

“And you knew about this? Last night?”

Reuenthal nodded.

“Why the hell didn’t you say anything?”

“If I had, what would you have done?”

“Fuck, I don’t know.”

“I didn’t think that you running after Leigh and scaring him would have been good for any of us.” Reuenthal could just picture it, Mittermeyer going to plead with Yang, swearing until he was out of breath that it would never happen again, and he would keep his word, of course, and then that would be it. He would probably never speak to Reuenthal again.

Mittermeyer’s shoulders hunched up. “Maybe not. But you didn’t have to lie to me.”

Reuenthal made a noise that someone could generously interpret as agreement. Mittermeyer slumped further.

“So Leigh knows?” Mittermeyer confirmed.

“Yes.”

“And what did he say?”

“He’s not going to report us,” Reuenthal said.

“How do you know?”

“I trust him.”

“Yeah, okay, Leigh is great, but that doesn’t—“ Mittermeyer broke off and scowled. “He could ruin our lives.”

“And then where would he be?” Reuenthal asked. “He has more to lose than we do.”

“That’s not true,” Mittermeyer said. “Fuck, if my family finds out…”

“They’re not going to find out.”

“What will happen if we get kicked out of school?”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“It might!”

“Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said, which was enough to get him to stop.

“Yeah,” Mittermeyer said. He sighed. “I’ll talk to Leigh.”

“What will you tell him?”

Mittermeyer hesitated. “Does he need me to tell him that it won’t happen again?”

“No,” Reuenthal said. “He doesn’t care.”

There must have been something off in Reuenthal’s voice, because Mittermeyer said, “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Okay.” Mittermeyer ran his hand through his hair. “Okay.” He paused. “Why is he so fine with it?”

“He’s Phezzani,” Reuenthal said. “It’s not illegal there.” Although this was true, it had nothing to do with Yang’s actual reasoning.

“Oh. Right. I forgot.”

Idly, Reuenthal said, “If things don’t work out here, I suppose we could always go there.”

Mittermeyer looked at him. “You know that’s not possible.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t have money,” Mittermeyer said. “And I couldn’t just leave my family.”

The fact that Mittermeyer had given the ridiculous proposal at least a moment of serious thought gratified Reuenthal. “I know,” he said. “Besides, Leigh left Phezzan for a reason, I’d assume.”

Mittermeyer shook his head. “I could never do that.”

“What, leave the Empire?”

“No, come here looking like he does. Foreign. I don’t understand how he can bear it.”

“No one chooses the face they’re born with,” Reuenthal said, half-bitterly, thinking of his own eyes. “None of us can change who we are.”

“Sure,” Mittermeyer said. “But it’s not something that he can even attempt to hide.”

“True.”

“Fuck, Oskar,” Mittermeyer said. “I don’t know if I can bear it. Leigh can just… let everyone hate him.” He shook his head.

“No one will hate you,” Reuenthal said. “They won’t find out.”

“That’s almost worse, isn’t it?” He was frowning at the ground, at the sky, at anything other than Reuenthal. “To have this secret that you should be hated for.”

“Have you ever been hated for anything in your life?” Reuenthal asked.

Mittermeyer let out a half-laugh. “Not that I know of.”

“You get used to it.”

“Yeah.” Mittermeyer looked over at Reuenthal with an expression which verged on pity, which Reuenthal hated. Reuenthal decided that what Mittermeyer needed was a distraction, and so he jerked his head towards an alley between two of the buildings. Mittermeyer followed Reuenthal, hesitantly, and looked around the shadowed space, his eyes glinting in the dim light, reflecting in from a few puddles on the ground. The little route between the buildings was completely deserted, and when Reuenthal pulled Mittermeyer behind the fire escape stairway, they were completely invisible in the darkness. The few building lights didn’t reach that far down the alley, and a cloud had passed across the moon. Their eyes would adjust soon enough, but for the moment, it was hard to see. “What are you doing?” Mittermeyer asked, barely above a whisper.

Reuenthal leaned against the brick wall underneath the metal stairs. “I could ask you the same question.” He had a tiny smirk on his face.

“Oskar…” Mittermeyer said. He took a half step forward, a barely visible silhouette. “I can’t see you at all.”

“Oh? I’m right here.” Reuenthal’s voice was low and flirtatious. His hand brushed Mittermeyer’s arm in the darkness, and Mittermeyer grabbed at it fumblingly, entwining their fingers.

“We shouldn’t.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Reuenthal said. But even as he said so, Mittermeyer’s other hand was finding his neck, pulling their faces together. Reuenthal didn’t resist at all, and then they were kissing, wrapped in the darkness and safe there.

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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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