A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

TWS - Chapter Thirteen - Confess With Your Lips

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Confess With Your Lips

May 479 I.C., Odin

“A toast,” Bittenfeld called, hopping up to sit on the rickety pool table in Joseph’s and raising his tall mug of beer, “to our esteemed number one,”-- he raised his glass to Reuenthal-- “our rather less esteemed number two,”-- a nod to Yang-- “and our hardest working number three!” When he extended his arm to Wahlen, he managed to splash some of the beer out onto him, causing Wahlen to sigh and try to wipe off his shoulder with some napkins.

“Not going to go down the rest of the list, Bittenfeld?” Reuenthal asked. “Only a few more before you get to yourself.”

“Nah,” he said.

They had completed last day of classes, which had called for a celebration. Most other students at the IOA had the same idea, so Joseph’s was packed with warm bodies, and Bittenfeld had needed to shout to even have his toast heard over the din. All of Reuenthal’s friends were clustered around one pool table, resting their drinks on it since playing pool had become steadily less possible as the bar filled up to probably twice its official capacity. They were all drunk, pleasantly or unpleasantly, and some more than others. Reuenthal, being in a more jovial mood than usual, was less drunk than Yang, who was leaning on the pool table with his elbows and staring into his half-empty beer mug, cheeks red and eyes tired. Mittermeyer had his own elbow resting on Yang’s shoulder, a gesture of camaraderie, and kept looking up at Reuenthal and smiling, even as the conversation amongst them had been passing through what Mittermeyer would do alone at school once this group of students graduated. Mittermeyer didn’t seem particularly worried.

“It really astounds me, Reuenthal,” Bittenfeld was saying. “I don’t know how you managed to never budge from that number--”

Bittenfeld broke off as Reuenthal turned slightly away from him, noticing some movement across the bar. Pushing through the crowd, Ansbach, Gautier, and Dietch came over.

Mittermeyer had seen them, too, and he stood up from where he had been leaning on Yang as they arrived; Reuenthal could see the tension in his shoulders. When he relieved Yang of his burden, Yang straightened as well, maybe unconsciously.

The intruding trio presented themselves on the other side of the pool table, all with varying unpleasant expressions on their faces. Perhaps it was just the cementing of the class positions that had gotten to them; Wahlen had snatched the number three spot only barely, even if the number one and two places had been foregone conclusions.

Mittermeyer spoke first. “You here to toast your valedictorian as well?” he asked, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Gautier.

“It’s hardly a position he deserves,” Gautier said, crossing his arms.

Reuenthal resisted the urge to snap at him. “Oh?” he asked. “And what makes you say that.”

Gautier shook his head. “So many reasons. It would be impossible to list them all.”

Bittenfeld, always quick to escalate, leaned towards him, stretching out over the top of the pool table. “Go ahead, start listing.” He wagged his finger comically. “But if you say that one of them is because you think you could beat Reuenthal, I’m afraid I’ll have to punch you for that one.”

Ansbach finally spoke up. “Threatening violence right before graduation? Let’s not be hasty.”

“I want to hear the reasons,” Mittermeyer said, sounding all too cheerful. “I’m curious as to what you could possibly have to say.”

“You really want to know? I suppose I should tell you, since you seem oblivious.” Gautier’s expression was purely smug.

“Spit it out,” Mittermeyer said. “I’m getting bored already.

Gautier jerked his thumb at Reuenthal. “He only keeps his spot because von Leigh put him there and keeps him there.”

Bittenfeld snorted. “You are an idiot.”

“I’m serious,” Gautier protested. “Leigh loses to him on purpose, and tells him exactly how to win against everyone else. Maybe he even uses his position as Staden’s little minion to change class grades.”

Wahlen, who was more capable than anyone else at maintaining his composure, interjected. “You seem awfully confident about something incredibly dumb sounding. Why the hell would Leigh do that?”

“Use your eyes! Isn’t it obvious?”

Reuenthal glanced at Yang, whose eyes were wide and whose hands were tight on his beer glass, still resting on the table. It was that expression of fear, more than anything else, that steeled Reuenthal’s voice. “Isn’t what obvious?”

Reuenthal wanted to punch the smug expression off Gautier’s face. “We’ve all seen the way Leigh looks at you. It couldn’t be clearer that he has a little faggot crush on you, and you’ve been leading him on for your own benefit.”

Reuenthal didn’t let the anger show on his face, but his stomach twisted, and he tensed. Mittermeyer scowled, and Wahlen grabbed Bittenfeld to stop him from lunging across the table.

“You aren’t going to defend yourself, Leigh?” Gautier asked. “I see that I’m right, then.”

Idly, Ansbach added, “It was a shame that Reuenthal was around to rescue you, freshman year.”

Reuenthal snapped, and reached across the pool table, grabbing Ansbach’s collar in his fist and pulling him forward. The loose pool balls clacked into each other and scattered, some of them pinging off the mugs resting there. Ansbach’s face, eyes wide with something approaching fear now, was close to Reuenthal’s, and they were breathing heavily, the alcohol thick on both their breaths. Reuenthal enjoyed, briefly, this sensation of control. “If I had seen you do it, you would be dead.”

“Do what?” Ansbach asked, voice half choked, bent over the table with Reuenthal’s hand on his collar.

“He fell on his own quiver, isn’t that right?” Gautier asked.

Reuenthal released Ansbach with a shove, and he stumbled backwards a few steps, caught by Gautier. “Still don’t have anything to say, Leigh?”

“He’s not going to dignify it with a response,” Mittermeyer said.

“Maybe Leigh didn’t mind getting shot,” Gautier said, a smirk on his face once more. “After all, he might want to be penetrated by Reuenthal’s arrow.”

That, that was more than enough. This was one of the last opportunities Reuenthal would get to punish this unpleasant trio, and they were clearly looking for a fight, so he didn’t hesitate to escalate it to what they wanted.

Reuenthal leaped over the pool table, hopping over it with his hands for support, and knocking over half their glasses as he did. He landed and punched Gauter before Gautier had even recognized what was happening. His fist connected with Gautier’s pale and fleshy cheek with a satisfying knock; Reuenthal could feel his jaw twist.

Ansbach had more time to react, and he came to Gautier’s defense, swinging at Reuenthal with a punch that he threw his whole body into. It was sloppy form, and Reuenthal ducked faster than Ansbach could move, and then kicked at his legs.

Bittenfeld lunged at Gautier, which let Reuenthal focus on Ansbach, who had stumbled back. Reuenthal pressed his advantage, and elbowed him in the gut, knocking him backwards into another student who whirled around.

By this point, the commotion in the crowded bar had become obvious to the rest of the patrons, and with so many people crowded and drunk and itching to release steam from the end of the school year, it was all too easy for anyone who got bumped by anyone else to start throwing punches.

The student whom Reuenthal had knocked Ansbach into threw his glass at Reuenthal’s head, and he got out of the way enough that the handle just brushed his ear before shattering behind him on the ground somewhere. He was focused on Ansbach, though, and ignored this new student, even as he lunged for Reuenthal’s shoulders. Wahlen came to Reuenthal’s rescue, although he hardly needed it, and dragged him away by his collar, punching him in the chin and sending him sprawling on the ground.

Ansbach had retreated further into the bar. Reuenthal started to go after him, but Mittermeyer called out, “Reuenthal!” and he turned to see a group of people descending towards him and Yang. Swiftly, Reuenthal dodged through the crowd and positioned himself between Yang and the new wave of students, mostly seniors excited to finally get a chance to take out their frustrations on the most hated member of the senior class.

Mittermeyer managed to flash him a wild and grateful smile, even as he clutched the eight ball from the pool table in his fist and smashed it into someone’s nose. Reuenthal smiled right back, their eyes meeting through the fray, Yang standing helpless and protected behind them.

It was a whirlwind of limbs and glass and shouts and the sick sound of fists on flesh, music still playing on the jukebox underneath the noise. The whole bar had been swept up into it now, most people involved having no idea how the fight started, and not particularly caring. There was a particular swell of joy in being able to hit someone that they had long wanted to hit, and the participation of the whole crowd relieved every member of personal responsibility.

Reuenthal was capable of riding the whirlwind, and so was Mittermeyer. Swinging his fists and dodging every blow that descended upon him, Reuenthal felt more natural than he had in a long time, and he was sure Mittermeyer felt the same.

Over the din of the crowd, sirens wailed. Reuenthal envied Bittenfeld for a moment, who was lost in the fray and oblivious to that, wanting to keep fighting, but a backwards glance at Yang’s wide eyes brought him back to reality. He grabbed Yang’s arm and shouted directly into his ear, “That’s our signal to exit!”

He dragged the relenting Yang arm-in-arm with Mittermeyer through the bar, clearing a space until they could push through the swinging doors into the kitchen, run past the waitstaff who didn’t try to stop them, and escape out the back door into the cool night air. They didn’t let up running until they were far from the bar, immediately ducking into the woods in order to avoid getting caught on the road.

Yang was panting heavily when they finally came to a stop, hands on his knees. “We lost Wahlen and Bittenfeld.”

“They’ll either get out or they won’t,” Reuenthal said.

“They can’t arrest the entire senior class. I’m surprised you ran,” Mittermeyer said.

“They might not arrest everybody, but they would probably have to pick someone.” He jerked his head at Yang. “There’s an obvious scapegoat.”

“Gautier won’t keep his mouth shut.”

“He will if he knows what’s good for him. I’ll kill that man.” He was one misguided instinct away from returning to the bar and trying to find Gautier and Ansbach and do something imprudent, like challenge them to a real duel, but Yang stopped him.

“Don’t,” he wheezed. “It’s fine.” He ran a hand through his hair, visibly upset enough that even Mittermeyer picked up on it in the dim light.

“They’re idiots. They obviously don’t know anything. Don’t let them bother you.”

Yang slid back against a tree, tilting his head so that his face caught the filtered light of the moon. Softly, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“What are you apologizing for?” Mittermeyer asked. “They started it.”

“I’ve been nothing but trouble for you since the day you met me.” He looked at Reuenthal, and Reuenthal’s blood ran cold, but he didn’t look away until Yang did, staring down at the ground. “Punching him on my behalf makes it look like… Don’t let me drag you down.”

“Please,” Reuenthal said, “tell me what else I was supposed to do.”

“They weren’t suspicious of you! Now they might use that against you.” Yang’s voice had a desperate quality to it, begging, almost.

Mittermeyer put his hand on Yang’s shoulder. Reuenthal was jealous of the touch, but restrained himself. Mittermeyer’s touch was an innocent one, having no weight to it except that of his heavy and sturdy hand. “You don’t have to worry about us. They aren’t suspicious of anything; they were just saying shit to get a rise out of people. I’m sure they just picked you because you’re the least likely to start a fight.”

“They could have said anything else.”

“Yes, exactly. They were just--”

“But they didn’t,” Yang cut in, plaintive. “They know.”

Reuenthal could see the way Mittermeyer’s thumb stroked Yang’s shoulder. Reuenthal said. “They don’t know shit. It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Yang repeated.

Reuenthal’s voice was serious. “There’s nothing you have to apologize for, so stop.” Yang looked up at him, an incomprehensible expression in his eyes. Reuenthal opened his mouth, trying to say something to calm him down, but what came out was something else entirely, brought on by looking into Yang’s eyes. “I’m serious, Wen-li.”

Yang took a hard breath in, and Mittermeyer looked at Reuenthal with a strange expression. There was a moment of silence, and then Yang let out a strangled sound, followed by, “I just didn’t think that anyone-- that I was-- I tried not to.”

“What are you talking about? Calm down, Leigh,” Mittermeyer said, shaking Yang’s shoulder gently.

Reuenthal just kept looking at Yang.

Slowly. “I didn’t realize I was looking, and I didn’t realize that anyone else could see. I’ve been an idiot. I always have been.”

“Looking at Reuenthal?” Mittermeyer’s voice was light, but then he saw Reuenthal’s expression, and his tone changed. “Oh.”

“I didn’t mean to. I would never--”

“You haven’t done anything wrong,” Reuenthal said.

“Is there something going on that I should know about?” Mittermeyer’s voice wasn’t hostile, exactly, but it was cautious, feeling out the edges, looking at Reuenthal for signs of a lie.

“No,” Reuenthal said.

“I don’t know,” Yang said, the words coming out of him in a rush. “No, there’s nothing going on. Not really.” He looked down at the ground.

“I feel like I’m missing some part of this.”

“Before you got here, Reuenthal-- we almost-- but I was stupid about it and nothing happened. I would never do anything to get between you, and I thought I wasn’t, but I guess I’ve never been able to act normal.”

“You almost what?”

Instead of letting Yang flounder, Reuenthal finally gave Mittermeyer a narrative, keeping his voice as calm and unaffected as possible. He didn’t look at Yang now. Couldn’t. “I tried to kiss him while we were both very drunk, during our freshman year. He fell off his desk backwards to avoid me. That was the extent of it.”

“Do you still have… feelings… for each other?” Mittermeyer asked.

“No,” Reuenthal said. He looked into Mittermeyer’s eyes when he said it, and Mittermeyer nodded.

“I thought I didn’t,” Yang said, pain in his voice. “But if it’s that obvious to Gautier-- maybe I’m just stupid.”

Mittermeyer patted Yang’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. “I think Gautier was just talking out his ass and landed on the one thing that would actually upset you. Don’t worry about it.”

Yang, miserable, shrugged. “Sorry for all of this.”

“It’s fine,” Mittermeyer reiterated. “Seriously, Leigh, I would be a pretty terrible friend if I was bothered. You’ve never been anything less than absolutely trustworthy and honest.”

“I just don’t want to cause you any trouble.” Yang looked down at his feet.

“Getting to punch Gautier is not what I’d call trouble,” Reuenthal said. “I’ve wanted an excuse to do that for a long time.”

Mittermeyer finally smiled. “He had it coming to him. We probably shouldn’t just stand here all night.”

Reuenthal nodded, and they started walking out of the woods, heading towards the distant lights of the street. Mittermeyer threw one of his arms around Yang’s shoulders, and when Reuenthal came to stand beside him, he put his other around Reuenthal’s back. None of them spoke, Reuenthal just enjoying the closeness and touch, until they were back on the street and Mittermeyer had to let them both go.

“I can’t believe you’re graduating,” Mittermeyer said, scuffing the ground as they walked towards campus. “This sucks.”

“We’d all have different assignments, even if we were in the same year,” Reuenthal said.

“You’re going to stay in touch, right?” His voice was suddenly, uncomfortably, hesitant. Reuenthal gave a quick look around to ensure that there was no one who could observe them, then took Mittermeyer’s hand for a moment. Mittermeyer squeezed his fingers.

“Of course,” Reuenthal said.

Mittermeyer smiled and looked at Yang. “And you’ll write, too?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I will.”

“Then I suppose I’ll survive my senior year alone somehow.”

When they made it back to campus, Yang pulled away from Mittermeyer. “I’m gonna, uh, go,” he said. There was still a lingering awkwardness in his voice, but Mittermeyer smiled beneficently at him.

“Yeah. See you at breakfast?” Mittermeyer said.

“Sure.” And a relieved smile appeared on Yang’s face. “Good thing there aren’t physicals tomorrow.”

Mittermeyer laughed at that, and Yang turned away and jogged off towards the senior dorms, leaving Mittermeyer and Reuenthal standing at the edge of campus, Mittermeyer leaning against the brick wall near the gates. They were silent for a second, the chirping of crickets and the rustling of the wind in the trees the only sounds between them, and then Mittermeyer let out sigh. Reuenthal looked at him, and saw that Mittermeyer was staring up at the moon through its shifting veil of clouds.

“You could have told me, you know,” Mittermeyer said.

“Would it have done you any good?”

“No, probably not,” Mittermeyer admitted. “But I can’t help but feel a little lied to.”

“Leigh would tell you it’s not a lie.”

Mittermeyer let out a dry chuckle. “Oh, for sure. Something about the truth not existing until someone says something about it.” He shook his head. “He’s tried to convince me of that kind of thing before.”

“We never did talk about it,” Reuenthal said. “Except for the day after the hunt, our sophomore year.”

Mittermeyer nodded. “And what did he say?”

“That he wasn’t going to interfere with us.”

“Kind of him.”

“Maybe.”

“And I’m sure he didn’t say anything because that would have felt like interfering.” Mittermeyer looked down the road. “I had wondered…”

“I know you did,” Reuenthal said. “But there never was anything.”

“Could there have been?”

Reuenthal looked at Mittermeyer, the way the moonlight touched his honey-hair white. “No, I doubt it,” Reuenthal said. Then, by way of explanation, “Despite all his claims about the truth that nobody’s willing to speak, he’s oblivious to things unless they’re said to him in plain language. It wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

“You could stand to speak more clearly, you know.”

Reuenthal tilted his head. “And what do you want me to say, Mittermeyer?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed his forehead, hair still damp with sweat from the bar fight sticking to it. “I guess I just hoped that-- if everything else has to be so-- I thought we at least didn’t have to be like that.”

Reuenthal nodded.

“I get that you like to keep things close to the chest. And maybe it would have been betraying Yang’s trust to tell me-- because, yeah, I didn’t know he was like us--”

“You suspected.”

“I like to believe the best of people.” Mittermeyer looked away.

“Hah.”

“But maybe he wouldn’t have cared if you had told me. He told me his secret about Phezzan, anyway. So I guess it’s more about you than it is about him.”

“Suppose it’s better for it to come out this way than most others.”

“What, like how you tried to tell me his name?”

Reuenthal nodded, silently.

“Which one of us would you have had to have been pissed at to bring out that weapon?”

Involuntarily, he smiled a little. “I think he’s far more likely to say things that make me angry than you are.”

Mittermeyer just shook his head. “Still, helluva way to find out. You don’t think Gautier and his crew actually know anything, do you?”

“No,” Reuenthal said. “If they had, they would have gone to the administration about it. Even though Staden likes Leigh, there’s only so many things he can actually be protected from.” Reuenthal shook his head. “They were just swinging in the dark.”

“You know, you don’t have to call him Leigh when it’s the two of us.” It was a strange tone in Mittermeyer’s voice.

Calling Yang by his true name had always been something intimate; it was odd to share that with Mittermeyer, no matter how close the three of them were, no matter how long Mittermeyer had actually known the secret. Perhaps Mittermeyer understood that, and was offering an olive branch acknowledging that the intimacy existed. “Is this you telling me to speak plainly?”

“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said.

“Are you upset with me, Mittermeyer?”

He kicked at the grass. “Not really.” He gazed away, voice quiet. “I don’t want to leave for the summer on a bad note, since I don’t know when I’ll see you again. I don’t want to leave feeling like… there’s something left unsaid. I just want it to be on the level between us.”

“What is there that needs to be said?”

“Anything,” Mittermeyer said. “You never say anything-- I just…” He shook his head.

Reuenthal was silent for a long second. “I’m not sure what you want to hear,” he said finally, staring out across the grass, feeling the bricks of the wall on his back. “I’ve never particularly liked hearing things.” His mouth twitched in a frown. “The core of myself, and the things that I find joy in, are usually described in the least pleasant of terms.”

“That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t express them better.”

“Could you?”

Mittermeyer looked over at him. “I recall that when I try, you tend to not appreciate it.”

“Perhaps.” Reuenthal leaned his head on the brick wall. “You understood everything I was saying, even if I wasn’t saying it. You pick up the movements of the dance. You always have.” From the first moment they had met, in the bar, fighting side by side; to playing all their war games against each other where they were so evenly matched it was almost surreal; to every time their eyes had met, and had carried in it a hundred thousand meanings; to the way they moved and fit together so naturally, the way nothing else in the world ever had before. All of this was more beautiful and powerful than words could ever express.

“I do, I think.”

“Then why does anything need to be said?”

“Maybe I’m stupid,” Mittermeyer said. “Maybe I--”

“No.”

They fell silent. The crickets chirped in the grass; the frogs sang in the trees.

Didn’t Mittermeyer already know and understand everything that Reuenthal would have to say? Hadn’t it already been made clear, a hundred thousand times, in closeness, in touch, in shared glances, in the feeling of being two against the world, in the quiet moments before dawn when Reuenthal would look at him sleeping, in the way this parting was going to be so painful for the both of them, though neither wanted to admit it?

Still. Perhaps, once, he could give Mittermeyer what he wanted, even if putting it in words broke apart the fragile beauty of it.

Mittermeyer was looking at the moon, a tightness in his breath and on his face.

“I love you,” Reuenthal finally said, his voice very low and quiet. “If you need me to say it.”

Mittermeyer looked at him and smiled, that wide, open, tender expression, that expression that Reuenthal would have killed and died to see and possess. “Yeah,” he said. “I did.”

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A note from javert

Although I knew what I wanted to say in that last conversation, it was still a little difficult to write lol.

ok one more chapter and then this book can stop haunting me haha

let me know what you think <3


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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