A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

TWS - Chapter Twelve - Darkness Is Your Country, Where You Live

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Darkness Is Your Country, Where You Live

November 478 I.C., Odin

Reuenthal could not have described his time at the IOA as untroubled, but by the time he arrived at his senior year, he could admit to himself that the past three years had been the best of his life thus far. He was proud of his position at the top of the class, even if Yang should have had it. The schoolwork was interesting, and the rigors of the physicals and other practical training kept him occupied. Even though Staden now monitored their unofficial games, and Yang had finally convinced everyone to let him be the moderator instead of a player, the game remained a diverting undercurrent to the regular course of the school year.

And, of course, he had Mittermeyer. That, Reuenthal could say with some certainty, made him happy, in a way that he had never been before, and would never admit to being aloud. The times when Mittermeyer snuck to his room at night, or even just when they sat across from each other at dinner and met each other’s eyes filled Reuenthal with a kind of steely, possessive joy, one that sat underneath his breastbone and fortified him against the rest of the universe.

It disturbed him, sometimes, that feeling of happiness. Mittermeyer was afraid of it, too, Reuenthal knew. Mittermeyer worried about what other people would think, but Reuenthal didn’t care about that nearly as much. He didn’t care about abstract hatred, only material consequences, and they were both careful to keep the secret.

The discomfort he felt was something else, something that he couldn’t name exactly. If Mittermeyer had asked, he would have said that he was afraid that he had gotten soft, going into his fourth year of comfort at school. But that wasn’t exactly it. When he looked at Mittermeyer, sometimes, especially at night, with just the warm yellow light from Reuenthal’s desk lamp illuminating his sleeping face, the way he looked so relaxed and peaceful, the feeling that filled Reuenthal was one of desperate longing, for something that he already had, for someone who was right there in front of him, asleep in his own bed. It was painful, in its way.

Perhaps that feeling was closer to Mittermeyer’s misgivings than he was willing to admit.

Reuenthal’s most unpleasant feelings always came up to the surface on his birthday, which was in late November. It should have just been a date on a calendar, since he didn’t celebrate, and his father certainly wasn’t going to call him to congratulate him on turning twenty. If he himself could have forgotten the date, he would have preferred it. But he couldn’t.

So, he was in a terrible mood from the moment that he woke in the morning, going through his day with a squint in his expression and a persistent, throbbing headache that came from nowhere and remained behind his eyes all through his classes. He didn’t want to see his friends, or even Mittermeyer, because he suspected that would make him only feel worse, so he skipped going to the dining hall to avoid running into any of them. In his room after classes, he retrieved his stash of cheap whiskey and drank. His game theory textbook was open on his lap as he sat in bed, but the diagrams slid past his eyes whenever he looked down at the page.

Although he was staring vacantly at the book, swirling his drink around with one hand, Reuenthal’s mind was elsewhere. Usually, on his birthday, he and his father visited his mother’s grave, just as they did on the equinoxes and solstices, and on the anniversary of her death. All these occasions tended to blend together in his mind. He wondered if his father was there now-- if he went even without Reuenthal. If the purpose was, as Reuenthal suspected, to remind him of the crime of his own birth, then his father likely didn’t go alone. He doubted he even remembered what day it was. It seemed that over the past few years his father had been less able to keep track of time passing.

Reuenthal was thinking about this, picturing his father standing alone before the cold white headstone, when someone knocked on his door.

“Hey, Reuenthal, let me in,” Yang called. When Reuenthal didn’t answer, Yang knocked again. “Reuenthal! I know you’re in there!”

“Can a man not nap in peace?” Reuenthal asked.

“You don’t take naps. Open the door.”

“I have no desire to see or be seen by anyone at this hour.” His head throbbed.

“It’s six! Come on, don’t ruin your night by moping.”

“I’m not moping.”

“Not sure what you’d call this, then,” Yang said. “Come on.” His voice was cheerful but wheedling, and it drove a spike between Reuenthal’s eyes. He took another drink from the glass in his hand.

Mittermeyer’s voice cut in, then. “Reuenthal, open the door.”

Reuenthal remained silent, but he put his glass down, preparing to get up and let them in. He might as well not have bothered, because Mittermeyer used his key to open the door, sending himself and Yang stumbling into the room.

Yang’s face was flushed with winter cold, and he was brandishing some long and skinny package. He grinned at Reuenthal. “Happy birthday! How’s it feel to be twenty?”

Reuenthal scowled at him, though he had been wrong that seeing his friends would put him in a worse mood. Meeting Mittermeyer’s eyes grounded him, brought him back to the here and now, rather than a grave in the snow. “I don’t celebrate,” Reuenthal said.

Mittermeyer just grinned. “We do. We brought you some things, and then we’re going to take you out to have some fun.”

“Fun,” Reuenthal repeated, but his voice was just dry rather than truly annoyed.

Yang handed him the package he had been brandishing. Reuenthal moved to the edge of his bed to hold it on his lap. “You really shouldn’t have gotten me anything.”

“I make some money as Staden’s TA, and it’s not like I have anything better to spend it on. Open it.”

“I’m certain you could spend it on something other than me.” But he pulled at the tape sealing the cardboard box, and lifted the flaps to reveal a long silver dueling rapier nestled safely inside its scabbard. He pulled it out, dropping the box to the side of the bed, and hefted the sword in his hand. It had a nice weight to it, and the workmanship on the handle was fine.

“Just in case you ever get in a duel,” Yang was saying, sounding awkward. “You’ll just have to ask for swords rather than pistols.”

“Do you expect me to get into a duel?” Reuenthal tested the blade of the sword on his thumbnail. It was wickedly sharp, and a momentary instinct told him to test it on his flesh, but he didn’t.

“It’s better to be prepared than not,” Yang said. “And even if you don’t, you can hang it on your wall or something…” Yang trailed off as Reuenthal held the sword out, the tip of it directly underneath Yang’s chin. He held admirably steady, and Reuenthal tapped him lightly, not enough to wound.

“Thanks,” Reuenthal said. Yang’s face reddened, and as Reuenthal withdrew the sword, he looked away.

Mittermeyer didn’t seem to notice or care about the moment that passed between the two of them, and instead held out his own gift, a poorly wrapped bottle of alcohol. “My gift is less lethal to others, but probably more lethal to yourself.”

“Probably more useful on a day to day basis,” Reuenthal replied. He ripped the paper off in one clean motion and examined the label on the bottle. Mittermeyer had splurged. “Good stuff. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

He held the bottle up. “Did you want to open this now?”

“I would be a pretty poor gift-giver if I demanded to immediately drink what I gave you away. Let’s go out. My treat.”

The idea of leaving his dorm room soured him again. It was one thing to have Yang and Mittermeyer here. It was another to go out. “You’re really testing me with this.”

“If it being your birthday bothers you that much, pretend like we’re going out on any other day.”

He knew he wouldn’t be able to do that, but Mittermeyer was usually impossible to dissuade, so Reuenthal stood and stretched. “How did you find out it was my birthday, anyway?”

Yang spoke up. “I have access to student records as Staden’s TA. Can’t keep a secret like that from me now.”

Reuenthal shook his head. It didn’t take that much longer for them to get out the door and make the walk to Joseph’s bar. The weather outside was bitterly cold, though at least it wasn’t windy. A light snow was falling, gently dusting down over them as they walked. Mittermeyer was in front, and he walked backwards with a jaunty spring in his step, keeping his eyes on Reuenthal almost the whole time. He kept half-falling off the sidewalk since he wasn’t looking where he was going, but he didn’t seem to mind, smiling widely the whole time.

In Joseph’s, they took up their customary booth in the back, beneath the large mounted moose head on the wall in the far corner. The booths were very tall, offering a good amount of privacy, and the dingy yellow bulb that dangled down over the table made even the cheap drinks that they served there seem more cheerful than it really was. They ordered some beers and settled in for an evening of getting very drunk-- or, at least, that was Reuenthal’s goal.

Yang sat with his feet up on the bench, pressed against the wall, so that he could have the best vantage point of the rest of the bar while still contorting himself in the strange way he always did. He didn’t look at Reuenthal and Mittermeyer who were sitting next to each other. The heat of Mittermeyer’s thigh pressed on Reuenthal’s own, and he had his arm draped across the back of the booth, enough that his fingers could trail across Mittermeyer’s shoulders, catching in his hair. It was a dangerous thing to do, but it was the one thing that kept him in the booth, instead of getting annoyed at the sounds of the few other patrons in the bar and leaving. Maybe that wasn’t true, but Reuenthal told himself that it was, and allowed himself to continue touching Mittermeyer.

Mittermeyer, for his part, didn’t stop him.

They talked about nothing for a long time: the usual discussions about classes and classmates that could be counted on to fill up any length of time, and they were soon drunk. Reuenthal, who had already been buzzed before they arrived, was more drunk than Yang and Mittermeyer, but that wasn’t saying much. The alcohol had done enough to divert his thoughts from the unpleasantness of his own life, but they came crashing back full bore when Mittermeyer, voice pleasant and not intending any harm, said, “Say, Reuenthal, why don’t you like birthdays? This is fun, isn’t it?” He was leaning against Reuenthal’s shoulder.

Reuenthal tried not to let the question get to him, so he answered with the least amount of vitriol he could muster. “Nothing good has ever happened on my birthday, and tomorrow I am going to wake up with a headache.” It was a statement of facts.

“Drink some water when you get back,” Yang mumbled, looking out across the bar.

“I think something good happened on your birthday,” Mittermeyer said.

Reuenthal looked down at him. “What?”

“You were born.” Mittermeyer smiled.

There was a moment of painful silence as the words clicked through Reuenthal’s brain, and then he made a derisive noise, unable to contain it after thinking about it. “That is objectively the worst thing that could have happened.”

Mittermeyer sat up straight. “Don’t say things like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not true.”

“Oh?”

Yang glanced back at Reuenthal, and, attempting to fix the mood, said, “Stop fishing for compliments.”

“That’s the last thing that I’m doing.”

“Then what are you doing?” Mittermeyer asked, sharp voice cutting through his own drunkenness.

“Stating the facts,” Reuenthal said. He looked out across the bar, letting silence fall on the conversation.

After a moment, Mittermeyer said, “You and I have a different idea of what a fact is.” But he leaned back on the bench, enough to allow Reuenthal to stroke his hair.

They sat in silence for about half a minute. He had ruined something of the mood, and he had concerned Mittermeyer. Neither of those had been his intention. He had just let himself get out of control.

At the same time, he wanted Mittermeyer to understand him.

He began talking, half intended as an apology, half as an explanation. “When I was a kid, on my birthday, my father would always take me out to my mother’s grave. ‘This is your fault; I wish you’d never been born,’ et cetera.”

“Did she die when you were born?” Mittermeyer asked, sounding sad.

“Not of childbirth, no,” Reuenthal said. “She killed herself.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize.” He glanced at Yang, who was silently listening. “Did Mariendorf tell you that?”

“No,” Yang said. “She didn’t tell me anything, aside from telling me that I should trust my wife, when I got one.”

Reuenthal laughed. “There’s no such thing as a woman you can trust.”

“What do you mean?” Mittermeyer asked.

Reuenthal closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the back of the booth. His head throbbed. “My mother was a young woman. My father was an older man. He had money that she wanted, so they got married. Both of my parents had blue eyes. When I was born, everyone knew that my mother had some black eyed lover.”

“I don’t think…” Yang said, but he trailed off.

“She tried to carve my eye out so that no one would see it. Someone stopped her before she could, obviously. And then she killed herself later, because she couldn’t bear to keep looking at what she’d brought into the world.”

There was a long stretch of silence. Although Reuenthal had his eyes closed, he could feel Yang’s eyes on him, and the tension of Mittermeyer next to him.

“Who told you that story?” Yang asked. His voice was quiet.

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

He wanted to ask Yang if he thought it was the Mariendorfs who had said all this, but he bit his tongue. “My father loved to tell it. In great detail.”

“And you believe him?” He heard the booth creak as Yang shifted positions.

“It’s the truth.” The physical evidence of his eye was incontrovertible.

“It is not the truth. It is not the truth.” His words were fuzzy with alcohol, but he was persistent.

Reuenthal finally opened his eyes back up and stared down at Yang. “You weren’t there.”

“And you can’t possibly remember.”

“But my father does.”

“And what reason does he have to tell you that story? What is there for him to gain?”

“He’s miserable, and wants to make me understand what I did.”

Mittermeyer interjected. “You didn’t do anything. You were a baby.”

“Listen, Reuenthal. Here’s a different story. There’s a man who’s obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating on him, he thinks about it all the time, he makes her feel guilty and hated for something that she might not even be doing, she can’t leave him because she’s his wife, and she’s pregnant. When the baby is born, he has two different colored eyes. It happens! But the man takes that as proof that she’s been unfaithful. He gets drunk, he tells her to her face, she can’t bear it, she kills herself. The man doesn’t want to believe that it’s his fault, so he blames it on her, he blames it on his son, he tells a story to make that feel true.” He took a deep breath. “That might not be true either, but it’s more right than the other story is.”

“You don’t know anything,” Reuenthal hissed.

“Neither do you.”

“I know my father.” His father may have been many things, but he was not a liar. He was too proud for that. Lying about having a bastard child was more shameful than accepting the truth of raising one.

“And I know you shouldn’t listen to people who hate you.”

“And who else am I supposed to listen to?” Reuenthal asked, voice louder than it should have been. He was out of control, now.

Yang slumped back in the booth. “Listen to Mittermeyer, if you won’t listen to me.”

That line worked, or at least it stopped Reuenthal from lashing out right then and there. He turned to Mittermeyer, trying to calm down. “And do you want to tell me a fantastical story about my birth?”

Mittermeyer shook his head. “I think it’s a good thing that you were born. That’s all that matters.”

He couldn’t just accept Mittermeyer saying that, could he? He made a sound, low in his throat, and said, “That is a fantastical story.”

“It’s not,” Yang said.

That, though, was a step too far. Mittermeyer may have the right to say that, but Yang did not. “Oh, I have a good one,” Reuenthal said, a sickly tone in his voice. “Since we’re all making up fake stories about our births, here’s one about our good friend, Hank von Leigh.”

Mittermeyer shifted. “Reuenthal--”

“No,” Yang said, waving his hand, “Go ahead. I’d love to hear the truth.”

“I combed through Phezzani newspapers, you know,” Reuenthal said. “For our game. I was mostly looking at economic data. When you invaded through the Phezzan corridor, Eisenach had me compile a list of merchant vessels operating off the planet.”

“What are you talking about?” Mittermeyer asked.

Reuenthal continued, ignoring the interruption. He stared straight into Yang’s eyes. “I had to go back a few years, to get a good idea of the ships. It’s not like every one’s manifest shows up in every paper. And I saw something that caught my eye. A very familiar name.”

Mittermeyer slapped the table, hard enough that the glasses jumped. “Stop it, Reuenthal. That’s enough.”

“Oh? You don’t want to know?”

“No. I don’t.”

Reuenthal leaned back in his seat. “Fine.”

There was a hard silence that fell around the table. “Should we go?” Mittermeyer asked. “It’s getting late.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Yang said.

Mittermeyer paid their tab, and they all headed outside. The snow was coming down hard and fast, now, the wind driving the flakes into their eyes. Reuenthal found that his legs didn’t want to work right, and he stumbled and swayed on the road as they walked.

Perhaps it was just to stop him from falling flat on his face, drunk on the ice; or perhaps it was a silent gesture of something else, but Mittermeyer and Yang pressed themselves on either side of him, holding him up under his shoulders, and they walked down the road together. He could have pushed them away, but he didn’t.

 


 

Mittermeyer came to see him the next night. They hadn’t seen each other since Reuenthal had shut his dorm door in Yang and Mittermeyer’s faces after getting back from Joseph’s, though this was mostly due to the differences in their schedules, rather than any animosity. Reuenthal hoped that his outburst from the night before had been forgotten, rather than forgiven.

It was about one in the morning when Mittermeyer made it into Reuenthal’s dorm. He used his key to get in. Reuenthal was awake, sitting at his desk, putting the finishing touches on a report for his senior leadership class. He looked up when he heard the key turn in the lock.

Mittermeyer was silent as he stepped inside, until he had closed the door behind him. While the walls of the dorms were fairly thick, it was still vital that they remain as quiet as possible.

“I have half a mind to take that away from you,” Reuenthal said, voice as quiet as he could make it, nodding at the key that glinted in Mittermeyer’s hand in the dim light from his desk lamp.

Mittermeyer silently opened the carabiner, removed the key, and held it out to Reuenthal, who looked at it with a frown. “Here.”

“I’m kidding, Wolf,” he said.

“Oh.” Mittermeyer smiled and put the key back in his pocket. Reuenthal waved one hand at his bed, and Mittermeyer took a seat, kicking off his shoes and tucking them underneath the bed next to Reuenthal’s.

“I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

“Couldn’t fall asleep,” Mittermeyer said. “I had an exam at six and I think it kept me too wired.”

Reuenthal leaned back in his chair. “I can’t believe you insisted on going out on the night before an exam.”

“It was fine,” Mittermeyer said. “You alright?”

“Fine,” Reuenthal said curtly.

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know what you’re apologizing for.”

“I brought up things--”

“If you could forget everything I said, I’d appreciate it,” Reuenthal said. He frowned. In a restless gesture, he closed his computer, leaving the room even dimmer without its harsh glow. “I should apologize to Leigh.”

“I don’t think Yang wants you to,” Mittermeyer said. Reuenthal froze at the name, and when he said nothing, Mittermeyer continued. “He told me.”

Despite the fact that he had been half a second away from telling Mittermeyer about Yang’s past himself, a sudden surge of jealousy, stupid as it may be, rose up inside of him. “I don’t know why he would,” Reuenthal said.

“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said. “Maybe he’d tell anyone he trusts.”

Reuenthal’s scowl deepened. “Stupid of him.”

“He’s keeping our secret. Maybe it’s only fair that we keep his.” He looked out the window behind Reuenthal’s bed.

But that was it, wasn’t it? Yang’s name hadn’t been Mittermeyer’s secret. It had been Reuenthal’s-- a gift that Yang had given to him, once, in a moment that Reuenthal held as a bitter but treasured memory. He could recall hearing Yang’s name on his own lips for the first time, how sweet it had felt, to own something of him.

Rationally, he couldn’t blame Yang for giving it away to other people. After all, Reuenthal had done an uncountable number of things to violate whatever secret trust that Yang had in him over the years, starting immediately after he had first tasted Yang’s name on his tongue.

“Perhaps,” Reuenthal said. He tried to keep the anger out of his voice. After all, it was his own fault he had lost so much of Yang’s trust that he felt he had to give it to Mittermeyer.

“When did he tell you?” Mittermeyer asked. He seemed genuinely curious.

“Our freshman year,” Reuenthal said. “He was very drunk.”

Mittermeyer laughed, then shook his head. “I don’t know how he does it.”

“Does what?”

“Live with that secret.”

“Not much of a secret if the both of us know.”

Mittermeyer leaned sideways on the bed and looked at Reuenthal. “Do you think he’s going to want to go back home someday?”

Reuenthal frowned. “Home?”

“You know, to Phezzan. Or, I guess he’s actually from Heinessen.” When Reuenthal said nothing in response, Mittermeyer rolled over onto his back. “Like I said, I don’t know if I’d be able to go my whole life under a fake name… Being hated here.” He stared up at the ceiling, melancholy in every inch of his posture.

“And what do you think would be waiting for him if he did go back?” Reuenthal asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Nothing,” Reuenthal said. He let out a dry laugh. “You think there would be any respect or warm welcome for a man who returns to a homeland he abandoned?”

“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said. It was clear to Reuenthal that Mittermeyer was thinking about himself more than he was about Yang.

“Listen, Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said. “A man like that, who’s turned away from whatever light the rebels think is there on the other side of the galaxy, who’s come down into the darkness, there’s no promises that he can make to make anyone there trust him again.”

“There have been redefectors come back here before,” Mittermeyer said. “I think it happens a lot.”

“And everyone hates them for it,” Reuenthal said.

“Yeah.” Mittermeyer still didn’t seem convinced.

“And this is his life now,” Reuenthal said, picking at the subject like a scab, poking at it like a bruise. “Here in the darkness.” Crucially, he added, “With us.”

“What kind of life…” Mittermeyer ran his fingers through his hair.

“You don’t think this is a good life, Mittermeyer?” Reuenthal asked, bitterness on his tongue. “Should Leigh not be content with it?” And he waved his hand to encompass the room.

“No, I--”

“Should I not be?”

Mittermeyer sat up straight. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

Reuenthal leaned back. “It’s a good life, Mittermeyer.”

“I know,” he said. He let out a rush of breath, and tried to smile, breaking the tension a little. “I invited Yang to come stay with me over break, by the way.”’

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” Mittermeyer said. “I guess I’ll admit to taking advantage of him.” He laughed a little. “If my parents are too worried about the foreigner staying in their guest bedroom, they won’t worry so much about trying to make Evangeline attach herself to me like some kind of barnacle.”

Reuenthal chuckled. “And what does Leigh think about this?”

“He’s annoyed that he can’t go stay with that count like he usually does.”

“He’ll be leeching off of middle class generosity instead of noble,” Reuenthal said. “I’m sure he’ll find it an exciting change of pace.”

Mittermeyer laughed. “My mother’s a good cook, at least, so he’ll be the beneficiary of that.”

“Indeed.”

“You’re not mad I didn’t ask you, are you?”

“Wolf, I didn’t think you wanted to take me home to meet your parents.” He smiled, but Mittermeyer rolled his eyes.

“Exactly,” he said. “And Yang I can at least trust to behave.”

“Oh?”

“Yang isn’t going to cause a scene at dinner.”

“I am capable of holding court nicely.”

“And Yang isn’t going to sneak into my room at night.”

“It seems that you’re the one who has snuck into mine.”

Mittermeyer chuckled. “Guilty as charged.”

“But what if Herr Leigh sneaks into the room of Fraulein Evangeline?”

Mittermeyer laughed at that. “Gods, I hope he does take a liking to her. That would solve all my problems.”

“Would it really?”

“Well, it would make my mother insane, I think.”

“And do you want that?”

“No,” Mittermeyer said. “Not really.”

“And what do you want, Wolfgang Mittermeyer?” Reuenthal asked. His tone was light, now.

“Well, I came to see how you were doing,” Mittermeyer said with a smile.

“That could have been accomplished some time earlier in the day.”

“Perhaps.”

“No one ever has good intentions when sneaking out of their dorm room at witching hour.”

“Bad intentions, yes, I think I might have those,” Mittermeyer said. “For better or for worse.”

“For better, I think.”

Mittermeyer hooked his leg around Reuenthal’s. “I meant what I said, yesterday.”

“Which part?”

“That it’s a good thing that you were born.”

The feeling of Mittermeyer’s leg on his was distracting him. “Even if I was born into the darkness, Mittermeyer?”

He hesitated. “Yes,” Mittermeyer finally said. “Even then.”

 


 

December 478 I.C./January 479 I.C., Odin

With Yang at the Mittermeyers’ house over winter break, there was no point in antagonizing his father by going out to the Mariendorf house for New Year. This meant that for the duration of the break, Reuenthal had nothing much to look forward to except his inevitable return to school.

He spent a good deal of his time going through his possessions that remained in his room, things that after nearly four years away at school seemed unfamiliar. He wasn’t sure what would become of them when he graduated. His father, when he deigned to speak to Reuenthal, kept making vague statements about cleaning out everything from the room, but considering that there were places in the house where his mother’s belongings remained untouched since the day of her death, Reuenthal didn’t think that his father would bother to get rid of any of his possessions when he graduated. He just wanted to figure out if there was anything worth bringing with him into the future. Not much, Reuenthal decided, and the things that he most wanted to keep were already in his room at the IOA. Unless he received a posting on Odin, which he rather doubted he would, he would actually have to return his things here.

On New Year’s Eve, Reuenthal was reading in his room, when he heard his father’s footsteps in the hallway outside. Reuenthal stiffened, waiting for his father to go past. The footsteps halted directly outside his door and did not move for a long time. Then the doorhandle rattled, broken and needing to be moved just right to pop the door open.

His father stood in the doorway, haggard but with his eyes glinting in the light. “You going to the Mariendorf party?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Reuenthal said.

“Not invited?”

“I didn’t want to go,” he said.

His father nodded. “You going back to school?”

“The term starts on the third.”

“When are you going back?”

“Tomorrow, or the day after.”

“Hunh.” It was unclear what his father wanted. He just stood in the doorway for a moment. “Well, it’s the New Year. I’ll be downstairs.”

And then he walked away, leaving the door open behind him. His footsteps creaked down the heavy staircase at the center of the house.

Reuenthal tried to return to his reading, but he was sure that if he didn’t parse whatever enigmatic thing his father had been attempting to communicate, he would have a bad time come the morning. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, since he was leaving, but he couldn’t help but think these things did matter. It was a holdover from his childhood, trying to maneuver his way through his father’s whims.

After about fifteen minutes, Reuenthal put his book down, then walked downstairs. He found his father seated in one of the plush chairs in the drawing room, close to the fire. He had a bottle of wine open before him, one glass in his hand, and another empty one on the table. His father gestured at Reuenthal to come in and sit, and he did. His father poured him a glass of wine.

“You’re a senior, aren’t you?” his father asked, when Reuenthal took it and sat.

“Yes, sir.”

“They make you an officer when you graduate?”

“Sub-lieutenant.”

“Hunh.” He shook his head. “They made me a sergeant, when I did my compulsory service. Because I was educated.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not quite noble enough to be a commissioned officer, though.” He let out a bit of a laugh that turned into a cough. He jerked his head at Reuenthal. “It’s not the ‘von’ in the name that’s important, it’s what comes after it.”

“I’m glad to succeed under my merits, rather than my name, then,” Reuenthal said, which made his father shake his head.

“Your real father is likely proper nobility,” he said. “You should make an effort to find him, then claim his title, whatever it is.”

Reuenthal remained silent.

“Nothing to say to that?”

“Not particularly, sir,” Reuenthal said. He was skirting the line of backtalk. The wine was bitter in his mouth.

“Too good to go begging for an inheritance, I suppose.” He finished his glass of wine, then poured himself another. “Doesn’t really matter.”

“No, sir.”

His father fell silent. He was in a better mood than usual, or at least a different one. These moments, when they could stand to speak to each other civilly, were rare.

“They have a graduation ceremony, there at the IOA?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Families come?”

“I assume so. Those on Odin, anyway.”

His father nodded. “I should come, shouldn’t I? My last duty as the man who raised you.”

Reuenthal’s mind was someplace distant, the place where his mouth could say the things his father wanted to hear. “As you like, sir.”

“Suppose I must have done something right, if you could make it that far.”

Reuenthal didn’t say anything to that, and the silence stretched on and on, punctuated by the popping of the fire in the hearth. Reuenthal finished the wine bottle. His father started on hard liquor.

Reuenthal stopped drinking after he felt himself grow too warm, not wanting to let his guard down like he did at the IOA. His father was drunk enough for the both of them, by the time that the clock edged towards midnight.

Reuenthal watched the hands of the grandfather clock in the corner, watched his father’s hands tip his drink around in his glass.

The clock didn’t chime at midnight, but Reuenthal announced it. “Happy New Year,” he said.

“Hm?” his father said. “Oh. Happy New Year.” He raised his glass and tipped it towards Reuenthal. “To the health of Sub-Lieutenant von Reuenthal.”

“And to yours,” Reuenthal said, though he had no drink in his hand.

His father just laughed bitterly.

Reuenthal stood. “I’m going to bed, sir.”

His father nodded, and Reuenthal slipped silently back upstairs. He lay on his bed for a long time, staring up at the dark ceiling above him. He was listening for his father’s footsteps, unable to go to sleep until his father did. He wondered how Mittermeyer was faring, if his New Year was better than his.

He finally heard his father’s footsteps puttering around downstairs. Uneven. Slow. In the kitchen, the sink ran for a long, long time. The fridge opened. His father must be getting a beer.

The footsteps returned to the drawing room, and then there was a great crashing sound, glass tinkling on the floor and something heavy hitting the ground. Reuenthal jerked upright in bed. The silence that followed was deafening.

The debate to go downstairs and see what happened took place entirely in his unconscious brain. Reuenthal crept out of his room.

He stood in the doorway of the drawing room, looking at his father, passed out on the floor. The empty wine bottle had rolled away under the couch, and the remnants of a shattered wineglass surrounded his father’s face. He was passed out with drool or vomit leaking from his mouth, his arms not even up to protect his head. An upturned edge of the carpet was a clear culprit for the cause of the accident.

His father was breathing, but still.

Reuenthal stood in the doorway. It was a pathetic sight, his father. What emotion was stirred up in his chest from witnessing this, Reuenthal couldn’t say.

He could have left him there. He seemed uninjured, just black out drunk, and Reuenthal was sure that his father had found himself waking in similar positions before. But Reuenthal had never seen it. He hated to see his father like this, for some reason. Any happiness he should have had from seeing his tormenter brought low was somehow empty. It was almost worse to have been tormented by a man who was so pathetic on the face of things.

He should have left him there.

But, instead, Reuenthal crossed the threshold, pulled the broken glass away from his father’s face, wiped the vomit from his chin, and carried him to bed.

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A note from javert

I know I say this basically every chapter but. I do not know if you will like this chapter lol.

Sometimes I feel like I say the same things over and over. You have to tell me if I'm being boring

Title is from "A Left-Handed Commencement Address" by Ursula K. Le Guin


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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