A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

TWS - Chapter Fourteen - Never Quite Free

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Never Quite Free

June 479 I.C., Odin

As he had suspected that he would, Reuenthal did not enjoy graduation from the IOA. The day was warm, and everyone was sweating in their dress uniforms, sitting straight backed on plastic chairs on the green. It reminded him more of a funeral than it did of a celebration, but perhaps that was just his own mood getting to him.

Mittermeyer had left; the underclassmen all cleared out of campus prior to graduation, so Reuenthal had been forced to say his goodbyes earlier. Mittermeyer was good at pretending to be cheerful; Reuenthal was good at putting on a blank face.

The whole ceremony was tightly regimented, and everyone did their best to ignore the fact that a good fraction of the senior class sported ugly, fading black eyes and scabbed-over cracked lips from the bar fight in Joseph’s. With such a great number of people involved, and with the incident so embarrassingly close to graduation, no one had really been punished. Reuenthal ignored the ugly glares of Gautier and his crew; since the whole graduating class would be dispersing with the four winds as soon as everyone received their commission and diploma, there was no opportunity or reason for anyone to cause real trouble. If there had been another month left of classes, it would have been a different story.

Reuenthal’s valedictorian speech was the definition of restrained. It had been vetted by the administration before he gave it, of course, and Staden had taken him aside personally and made sure that he wasn’t taking any cues from Yang’s style of speechgiving. He wasn’t. All this was was a task to be completed, and he could stand up there on the stage in the sun and look out over the arrayed crowd: all completely indistinguishable in their uniforms, save for Yang.

His eyes settled on Yang, there in the front row of students, as he said the opening lines of his remarks, but then he had to look away from Yang’s smile, searching out other faces in the crowd.

He could see Count Mariendorf, whom he had invited on Yang’s behalf. Being nobility, he had been granted a prime seat near the front of the guest section, and he smiled beneficently up at Reuenthal. It wasn’t him that Reunthal was looking for, though.

His father had said he would come, and Reuenthal couldn’t tell if being unable to see him meant that he wasn’t there. He squinted into the glare and delivered his lines with his normal smooth tone. He, at least, hadn’t managed to get punched in the face at Joseph’s, so he could be the perfect appearance of normalcy for the senior class, one last time, performing that duty so that Yang wouldn’t have to.

When his turn in the spotlight was over, followed by a polite applause, Reuenthal rejoined Yang in the student seating, arrayed by class rank. There were several other addresses to get through, but then it was time to file up and receive their thick diplomas and thin commission letters.

As Reuenthal crossed the stage once again, shaking hands and looking out into the crowd, he saw a solitary figure standing up near the back. It was impossible to tell at this distance, but he thought he had the posture of his father. Reuenthal blinked and finished crossing the stage, and when he got to the end the man was either gone or seated again. Reuenthal temporarily put the vision out of his mind.

When he and Yang finally sat down with their diplomas and commissions, watching the rest of the thousand or so students file up to receive theirs, Reuenthal leaned towards Yang and whispered, “Congratulations, Sub-Lieutenant.”

A smile flitted across Yang’s face. “A rank befitting to my station, I’m sure,” he whispered back.

Reuenthal chuckled. “I’m sure you won’t be one for very long.”

“We’ll see.”

Yang nudged his elbow, noticing that Staden was glaring at them from the staff seating, and they fell silent and returned to their stiff postures.

After the ceremony officially concluded, the last notes of the music trailing off into nothing, there was a huge crush as all the students either tried to find their families, or their families tried to find them. Reuenthal took full advantage of this chaos to vanish.

If his father was around, he had no desire to see him encounter the Mariendorfs or any of Reuenthal’s friends. He pushed through the crowd, heading towards the back where he thought he had caught a glimpse of his father.

And there his father was, walking away, hands in his pockets and a stiff hunch in his shoulders. He moved slowly, and when Reuenthal got close enough to see his face, he could see that he was squinting in the sunlight.

“I didn’t know you were going to come, sir,” Reuenthal said.

“I said I would, didn’t I?” His father kept walking, not really even glancing at him.

“Yes, sir.”

“Let me see your commission.”

Reuenthal handed over the sealed envelope. His father tore it open with his fingernail and pulled out the letter, reading it even as they walked off the green and towards the student housing. The parking lots near the dorms were jammed with cars, and they walked in between the rows.

“Far patrol,” his father said. “What’s that?”

“It’s when a single ship sneaks into rebel territory,” Reuenthal said. “Some of them do monitoring, some do mapping.”

His father made a noise and passed the letter back. Reuenthal looked at it, and saw that he had been assigned as a security officer on board a far patrol ship. He didn’t feel anything particular about that assignment, and by the time he finished reading it over and learning the names of his superior officers, they had reached his dorm. Reuenthal had half-expected his father to leave, peel off into the parking lot and drive home, but he just kept following Reuenthal, who proceeded up into his dorm room.

He unlocked the door and held it open so that his father could come inside. The room was stripped almost bare, with just Reuenthal’s new uniforms hanging up in the closet and a few boxes packed with things. His father looked around with a cursory glance, his eyes settling on the sword hanging above the headboard of Reuenthal’s bed, the one decoration that had not been packed away.

“Where’d you get that?”

“It was a gift.”

“From?”

“A friend of mine.”

His father gave a dry laugh. “Which one?”

“Leigh.” The name was almost certainly meaningless to his father, unless he had been listening to Reuenthal’s phone calls over the summers. Perhaps he had been, but Reuenthal supposed it didn’t matter now.

“And what’d he give you a sword for?”

“In case I needed to duel.”

“Did you?”

“Not yet.”

His father was silent, then went over and took the sword off the wall. Reuenthal stiffened as he touched it, but he didn’t do anything aside from test the blade on his thumbnail and turn it over in his hands, checking over the workmanship of the decorative handle. Without looking up at Reuenthal, his father said, “If you want to kill the man, swords are the wrong choice.”

“Sir?”

“They’ll have the sense to yell to yield, most of the time, if you put them at a disadvantage,” he continued, looking at the blade. “Pistols. First shot, straight between the eyes.”

“Did you duel often, sir?”

“Twice,” his father said. “Before you were born.”

“And did you kill your opponents?”

His father didn’t respond, and just hung the sword back up on the wall, then wandered back over to the doorway. Reuenthal felt sure he was about to leave, but then he turned back around.

“When are you leaving?” his father asked.

“Two days from now,” Reuenthal said. “That’s when we’re shipping out.”

His father nodded. “And what were you going to do with all of this?” He gestured at the boxes stacked at the foot of Reuenthal’s bed.

“I was planning to bring it home, sir,” Reuenthal said.

“Home?” his father asked, and there was a warning raise in his tone.

“To your house, sir.”

“And what, exactly, gives you the right to keep things in my house?”

“I have nowhere else to put it.”

“Typical.” His father’s voice was raised. “I didn’t know you were so keen to lean on my charity, Oskar.”

“Sir, I--”

“What do you expect me to do with all of this shit?” Reuenthal couldn’t have explained why this had suddenly struck a nerve; they had been having an almost pleasant conversation until just moments before.

Reuenthal didn’t really know what to say. “Is it really that much of an imposition for them to stay in my room?”

“Your room?” His father laughed. “You will not be keeping things in my house.”

Over his father’s angry voice, Reuenthal was well-used to listening for the sounds of footsteps in the hallway, and he heard a single set of them come down the hall.

Yang Wen-li, innocent faced, smiling, hands in his pockets, stood in the doorway, squeezing in the space between his father and the doorframe. Perfect, stupid, brilliant Yang Wen-li. Reuenthal was frozen at the sight of him for a second, and his father interrupted his tirade to glance down at him. “Hey, Reuenthal, want to go to lunch?”

Reuenthal looked at Yang, silently pleading for him to leave, but Yang just stayed there, meeting his eyes, not flinching, even as his father said, “Who the fuck are you?” and bore down directly on Yang, getting close to him in a threatening display. Reuenthal tensed, wondering if Yang was about to be hit.

Reuenthal was suddenly very cognizant of the sword on the wall.

Yang continued to just smile at Reuenthal. He said, “It’s past lunch time, and I’m hungry, and we’ve got nothing better to do, right? Let’s go. My treat.”

“I said, who the fuck are you?”

“I have to deal with this,” Reuenthal said, trying to get Yang to understand, to leave.

“No, you don’t,” Yang said. “Come on.”

“Is this one of your friends?” His father gave up attempting to intimidate Yang and turned back to Reuenthal.

“Yes, sir.”

Reuenthal’s father snorted and pushed Yang’s shoulder, getting him out of his personal space by making him take a half step back. Reuenthal tensed, almost ready to leap on his father, but holding back for Yang’s sake; he still seemed unaffected. “Let’s go have lunch,” Yang said, and Reuenthal could see the pleading in his own eyes now.

“Clearly, all your friends are as worthless as you are. Though the fact that anyone tolerates you continues to amaze.” He turned to Yang. “You should leave. He doesn’t want you here.”

“Leigh,” Reuenthal said, which made his father’s eyes flick to the sword, “I can talk to you later.”

“I want to have lunch now. What do you need to do in order to come get lunch?”

“He’s not leaving with you.”

“I would like to put my stuff in the car, so that it can be taken home. That’s all.”

“I’m not taking your shit.”

“Just put it in the basement.”

“I’m not putting it anywhere. I don’t know what right you have to keep things on my property.”

“I’m sure we can find somewhere to put your stuff,” Yang said.

“I can’t impose,” Reuenthal said.

His father laughed. “Damn right you can’t.”

“Please just take the boxes, sir. I’ll come get them out as soon as I can.”

Yang crossed the threshold. Reuenthal wished he hadn’t. Things had been safe, of a sort, as long as he was standing in the doorway. But Yang needed to escalate. He picked up one of the boxes, the one that Reuenthal had put his sheets in, and asked, “Where do you want me to put this? I’ll take it where it needs to go.”

“Leigh, I’ll deal with it,” Reuenthal said, his voice strained, eyes flicking between Yang and his father.

“I want to help. Where do you want your stuff to go?”

He just wanted to get Yang to leave. “There’s a car in the lot out back.” That would get him out of the building, at least. Yang waited for more information. “The green one,” Reuenthal finally said.

Yang tried to leave, but Reuenthal’s father was blocking the doorway, a menacing presence when he wanted to be.

“Excuse me,” Yang muttered, finally forced to acknowledge Reuenthal’s father in any way.

“That is not going in my car.”

“I’m taking it downstairs. Please excuse me.” And Yang tried to duck beneath Reuenthal’s father’s arm. His father smacked the box out of Yang’s hands, sending it out onto the floor in the unlit hallway.

Yang followed it, and picked it up.

“That is not going in my car.” Reuenthal’s father said, and grabbed Yang’s shoulder, pulling him backwards. Reuenthal was frozen.

“Please let go of me.”

“Put the box down.”

There was steel in Yang’s tone. “It doesn’t belong to you. No.”

A flat refusal had always been one surefire way to escalate things with his father, and Yang got a taste of that now. His father grabbed Yang’s collar and shoved him to the floor. Reuenthal didn’t see what happened after that, because he turned around and pulled the sword from the wall, and was about to step in between Yang and his father, when another set of footsteps came charging down the hallway, accompanied by the yelling of a small girl. “Hank!”

“Hilde! Go downstairs!” Yang shouted.

If there was one thing that Reuenthal did not need to risk, it was injuring Count Mariendorf’s young daughter with a sword. He dropped it onto his bed as Hilde positioned herself in between Yang, who was still on the floor, and his father. She looked like a child’s impression of the angel of righteous justice, her hands on her hips and her face red.

“Oh, and the little Mariendorf is here, as well. How cute.” He glanced behind himself at Reuenthal. “It’s amazing how you’ve amassed such a following of useless hangers-on, Oskar.”

Yang got to his feet. “Do not speak to her like that.”

“Then leave,” Reuenthal’s father said. “I have no idea why you’re here.”

“Leigh,” Reuenthal said. “Please take her out of here.” He wanted his father alone.”

Yang tried to convince Hilde to go, putting his hand on her shoulder and bending down to speak directly in her ear. The blood was rushing in Reuenthal’s head so hard that he couldn’t quite hear what he said to her.

Reuenthal’s father laughed.

“Sir,” Reuenthal said. “Please let me put my things in the car. That’s all I want.”

“All you want?” And he laughed again. “That’s never all.”

He took a few steps forwards, towards Reuenthal, crossing the threshold, Yang forgotten. Reuenthal relaxed. With his father’s attention solely on him again, this would be much easier.

“Reuenthal, we can put your stuff somewhere else. Don’t worry about it. Please.”

“Leigh,” Reuenthal said, and met Yang’s eyes. “Please just go. I can deal with this myself.”

“And what are you dealing with?” Reuenthal’s father asked. He took another step closer to Reuenthal.

Reuenthal didn’t look away from Yang’s eyes, the strange and not quite pitying expression on Yang’s face. He recalled the moment after Countess Mariendorf’s funeral, when he had leaned his head into the crook of Yang’s neck and whispered to him. He wondered if Yang had been wearing that same expression then.

“I am just trying to pack up my room, sir,” Reuenthal said.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing, sir,” Reuenthal said.

“Look at me when I am speaking to you.”

“Yes, sir,” Reuenthal said. But he had no desire to meet his father’s cold blue eyes. He was staring directly at Yang’s dark ones, like they were a refuge for him.

Reuenthal’s father stepped the last step forward, and with one quick motion, punched Reuenthal hard in the stomach, so much so that Reuenthal let out a groan of breath, not quite prepared for the blow, because being prepared for the blow would make his father angrier. This was the kind of thing he did on instinct.

There was a moment when Reuenthal’s father drew his fist back, maybe readying another blow, but in that second, Hilde pulled herself of Yang’s grasp and threw her whole tiny body onto Reuenthal’s father’s back, pounding him with her skinny fists.

Yang tried to grab her, of course, and Reuenthal’s father started turning around, preparing to swing at the child. The size and violence of his father’s fist had never before shocked him when directed at himself, but when he started to raise it against the ten year old Hilde, it was all too much.

Reuenthal reacted the same way he had in Joseph’s bar, on instinct, and swung his own fist directly into his father’s face. It made Reuenthal’s knuckles ache and his stomach churn, to see his father lurch backwards into the wall, knocking over some of his boxes. He rubbed his jaw, recovering his stance quickly. He looked between Yang, Reuenthal, and Hilde. “You will pay for that,” his father said.

There was a moment of silence, then his father stormed out of the room. Yang pulled Hilde out of the way so that he could go by.

With an attempt at his usual dry tone, trying to clear the tension, Reuenthal said, “I told you to take her downstairs.” It came out more strained than anything else, though.

“I’m sorry,” Yang said, though there was now pity in his voice. Reuenthal hated that.

Hilde pulled herself out of Yang’s grasp and ran to Reuenthal, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his shirt. Like the hug he had once received from Yang, the touch startled him, but he attempted to comfort the sniffling girl. He was glad she hadn’t gotten hurt. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Fraulein.” When that didn’t calm her, he tried to pat her shoulder. “It’s okay.”

 


 

Lunch with Count Mariendorf was an awkward affair, but he was kind enough not to bring up whatever had caused Hilde to clutch Reuenthal’s sleeve on the way out of the dorm rooms and rub her red eyes with her other hand. He had asked if the three of them were alright, and when everyone had responded in the affirmative, he had nodded and given Reuenthal a look that made Reuenthal look away.

After that meal, Yang walked around campus with the Mariendorfs for a while, and Reuenthal returned to his room.

He had a deeply unpleasant task ahead of himself. He sat on his floor with his boxes of belongings in front of his crossed legs, leaning back against the edge of his bed. He texted Mittermeyer.

 

Reuenthal: Can I ask a favor of you?

 

Mittermeyer: highly unexpected

Mittermeyer: sure

Mittermeyer: what do you need

 

Reuenthal: I need someplace to store a box of my belongings.

 

Mittermeyer: contraband?

 

Reuenthal: No. Just my things.

 

Mittermeyer: you should’ve had me take it when i left. I had plenty of room in the car w/ my dad

 

Reuenthal: The situation changed.

Reuenthal: Can I mail it to you?

 

Mittermeyer: of course

Mittermeyer: you have my address?

 

Reuenthal: Of course.

Reuenthal: Thank you.

 

Mittermeyer: no problem at all.

Mittermeyer: i’ve been waiting all day to hear what you and leigh have gotten for assignments

 

Reuenthal: I’ve been assigned to a far patrol ship. Security officer.

Reuenthal: Leigh is an adjutant to Commodore Merkatz, doing Iserlohn corridor patrol.

 

Mittermeyer: damn

 

Reuenthal: I should ask what you mean by that.

Reuenthal: These are both fine assignments.

 

Mittermeyer: you won’t be on Odin

 

Reuenthal: Very few recent IOA graduates are assigned to the Ministry of War.

 

Mittermeyer: not true

 

Reuenthal: Any with a name to speak of, anyway.

 

Mittermeyer: hah yeah.

Mittermeyer: far patrol means you won’t even be able to write

 

Reuenthal: I will when I can.

 

Mittermeyer: I know.

 

Reuenthal: It’s an assignment. I probably won’t stay in it for very long.

 

Mittermeyer: i don’t think there’s any use in trying to predict the future

Mittermeyer: give me a call before you ship out, ok?

 

Reuenthal: I will.

 

He tucked his phone away, then stared at the boxes in front of himself. It would cost far too much to ship all of this to Mittermeyer, so it was time to do a rather ruthless pruning. Maybe it was for the best, since he didn’t need much in the way of possessions regardless.

He thought he would be efficient at this task, but he wasn’t. There seemed to be constant snares along the way: this book that he wanted to flip through, this keychain that held three years of Mittermeyer’s keys that he turned over and over in his fingers, this handful of old documents going over some of his matches against Yang. He had never thought of himself as sentimental, but it became difficult to throw things away.

He was still working on it late into the night, piling things into a keep and discard pile, restlessly shuffling things from one to the other without committing.

His phone buzzed on the floor next to him.

 

Yang: are you up?

 

Reuenthal: yes.

 

Yang: can we talk?

 

Reuenthal didn’t respond to that. Yang was perfectly capable of coming here if he wanted to have a conversation, and, indeed just a minute later, he heard Yang’s footsteps on the floor and the handle of his room twitch open.

Yang was in his pyjamas, and his hair was mussed, probably from laying down. He sank to the floor, sitting cross legged in front of Reuenthal.

“What are you doing?”

“Determining what I can mail to Mittermeyer. I’m not going to spend hundreds of marks that I don’t have on postage.”

“You should have asked the Mariendorfs--”

“I am not going to ask the Mariendorfs to loan me their pity.”

Yang didn’t have a response to that, so he just silently watched as Reuenthal continued to sort. He decided that he shouldn’t appear so indecisive in front of Yang, so he began neatly packing all his kept objects into one box. Once he had made that snap judgement, everything else went much easier, and he started tossing the junk into the rest of the empty boxes to be thrown out.

“I’m sorry for causing you trouble,” Yang said softly.

“It’s fine.”

“You are upset at me, though.”

“You don’t have to stick your nose into things. There’s a reason why I didn’t want you to see any of that. It’s not your problem.”

“If I held that same stance, I’d have bled out on the ground of Neue Sanssouci several years ago.” Reuenthal glanced up at Yang when he heard a touch of humor in his tone.

“The two situations are quite different.”

“I’m not sure how you expect me to walk away from a situation when I see that you’re--” He cut himself off. “I think that doing that would make me a pretty poor friend.”

“But a less stupid man.”

“You threw a punch at Gautier for me. I could say that that was equally stupid.”

“Gautier is an inconsequential person.” That felt much truer than it had just days before. Something about having actually graduated made schoolday spats seem so hollow.

“At the risk of making you angrier at me, I will say that your father is as well.

Reuenthal didn’t say anything as he wrote Mittermeyer’s address on the side of his keep box. He wasn’t exactly angry at Yang, but he couldn’t pinpoint what he was. Anger was an easy emotion, the kind of thing that he could keep inside his chest and nurse to keep himself moving. This, this was the feeling that made him want to lie down, very still. But since he had no words for it, he couldn’t admit it.

“It’s hard for me to get angry at that, because it’s almost hilariously untrue,” Reuenthal said.

“Why do you say that?”

“He’s my father.” That should have explained everything, but Yang’s father had been dead for years, hadn’t he, and had been a nice man besides that, to hear Yang tell it.

“He doesn’t own you.”

“He thinks he does.”

“What he thinks is his problem.”

“And yet, somehow, also mine.” He dropped the marker down on the ground.

“You’re leaving. You’re going to have a career and surpass him in every way. You’ll never have to speak to him again.”

Reuenthal looked away. “And the what will I be left with, Leigh?”

Yang picked up the marker and fiddled with it, weaving it through his fingers. “People who actually care about you.”

“Small comforts.”

Yang’s voice was unexpectedly sharp. “You don’t have to insult me, and you certainly don’t have to insult Mittermeyer.”

“It was not intended as any kind of insult.”

“I’m not sure what it was intended as, then.”

There was a moment of silence, and in it, they just looked at each other. Yang’s expression softened, and he said, “It might not be enough for you, but it has to be enough for me. That’s all I’m saying.”

He understood, then, the tenuous quality of their friendship. His father might hate him, but the relationship he had to his father, even just by being his mother’s son, was not something that could be removed. It was indelible. Yang had nothing like that. He didn’t even carry his own name.

Reuenthal’s own voice softened. “Will it be enough in five years? In ten?” He looked away. “You’re about to leave me, Wen-li.”

Yang closed his eyes. “What do you want me to tell you?”

“The truth.”

“There’s no such thing, especially not about the future.”

“I know.” That was always what Yang would say.

There was new hesitation in Yang’s voice when he said, “You know who I am. I would do anything for you, but…”

“But.”

“I told you, a long time ago, that I am a man with the wrong kind of ambitions. Do you want to tie yourself to my sinking ship? If you do…”

“You’re telling me that there is no other,” Reuenthal said. Aside from his father, it was only these invisible bonds of friendship that kept Reuenthal in place.

“There’s your own.”

Yang trying to reassure him that he could go his own way was funny. “And you think that alone would be enough?”

“I believe that you could make it enough, if you needed to. But you have Mittermeyer, and he isn’t nearly so likely to sink.”

“I do have Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said. “That’s true.” He hesitated himself, and Yang opened his eyes. “But I also said then that I was a man with the wrong kind of ambitions.”

“A different kind,” Yang said, his lips turning up in a ghost of a smile.

“Not necessarily.”

Yang’s breath caught. “What are you saying?”

“You would do anything for me?” Reuenthal asked, staring at him.

“Yes,” Yang said. He was so open, his dark eyes so wide, Reuenthal had no reason to doubt his sincerity.

“Then I would do the same for you.”

“It wouldn’t be against your nature?”

“No.”

“What are you saying?” Yang asked, his voice was so quiet.

“Aren’t some things better left unsaid, around here?” He hoped that Yang would nod and agree, but Reuenthal knew he wouldn’t. Yang shook his head. Reuenthal held out his hand, and Yang took it, his soft palm squeezing Reuenthal’s like a vice. “You have my loyalty,” Reuenthal said. “In whatever you do. If that’s enough for you.”

“Yes,” Yang whispered. “It is.”

 


 

June 479 I.C., Iserlohn Corridor

Reuenthal had one luxury as the most junior officer on board his assigned ship, and that was a tiny cabin of his own. He shared the head with three other officers, but his bed and desk were surrounded by four walls and not a stack of other beds. He didn’t have much, but he did have a photograph of all his friends from the IOA taped above his desk, and hanging on the wall above his bed was his sword. If the ship was ever struck while he was sleeping, it would fall down onto him, but Reuenthal decided that would be the least of all his problems.

They were about to depart from Empire space, heading deep, deep into rebel territory. Reuenthal wasn’t on duty, but he left his room and marched through the halls of the ship, going up to the observation deck. It wasn’t a place where many people frequented, so he was alone there, hands clasped on the railing as he stood in the pitch dark and stared out at the glittering field of stars before the ship.

The huge engine at the center of the ship throbbed, a pulse that could be felt throughout the vessel in the slight changes of gravity as it warmed up, preparing to take them to faster than light speeds. Yang had once told him that one of two things happened to people who had been on ships for a long time: they either learned to completely ignore the shifting of gravity beneath them, compensating for it without thinking; or they became so sensitive to it that they could tell at every moment what the engine of the ship was doing, and could detect trouble with it long before any warning lights ever flashed. Yang said he had been the former, his father the latter. This had been delivered with that peculiar twitch of a bittersweet smile that always occurred when Yang talked about his father.

He had never been to space before. When he had asked Yang if he was happy to be returning to space for his own assignment, Yang had shrugged and said that it didn’t really make any difference, and that he would probably be better as an officer in a space battle than a ground engagement. Reuenthal had not wanted to agree too readily, but Yang was probably correct.

Reuenthal and his ship were going into rebel territory. A position on a far patrol ship would have never been given to someone like Yang, or anyone whose loyalties were in doubt. It would be far, far too easy for someone to secretly signal to the rebel fleet, to defect. As security officer, Reuenthal would probably have to be on the lookout for that kind of thing. He wondered if Yang, if he had been given this position, would be tempted by that.

He rejected the idea. Yang’s ambitions seemed somewhat loftier than simply returning to his homeland.

He had written one last letter to Mittermeyer before they left Iserlohn fortress. He couldn’t put anything too personal in it, since all letters were read, and he had no idea when he would be able to write him again. This made writing feel almost pointless, but he had done it anyway. He supposed this was why people wrote postcards, as simple assurances to the recipient that they were remembered, even if there was no room to communicate anything real.

On his last phone call with Mittermeyer, right before he had shipped out, Mittermeyer’s crackling voice over the phone had sounded pained, even as he tried to be funny.

Don’t get lost out there in rebel territory, alright? Mittermeyer had said. It’s not like you can ask for a map to just get home.

Is that likely to happen?

I don’t know. But I feel like I should tell you that anyway.

Reuenthal had laughed at the time, excited to get underway, but Mittermeyer’s concern had been sincere, if misplaced. Reuenthal had said, And you don’t lose your mind stuck at school.

Mittermeyer had sounded downright melancholy. I really will try. I’ll miss you.

Yeah.

He tried to put all thoughts of Mittemeyer out of his head. They wouldn’t see each other again until Reuenthal had leave, and he did not know when that would be. Probably at least six months, longer even. He wasn’t going to get killed; far patrol was a relatively safe posting, since the ships were designed to stalk unseen, and they usually succeeded. Mittermeyer would be fine alone.

Gravity lessened a hair.

Outside the observation window, the stars seemed to smear out as the ship began to cross the dividing lines of light. Reuenthal couldn’t yet identify which star system was their first destination, but he resolved to memorize the starmaps soon.

The stars felt like steel swords, frozen and rushing all at once, the ship crashing through the fabric of space to meet them. He decided he wouldn’t mind if something cold and distant and beautiful like that was what killed him eventually. There were worse things to be pierced by than a sword made of stars.

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A note from javert

i don't think i'm completely satisfied with the way this ends so tbh i might just cut the last scene. but i wanted to make this not quite a copy/paste from SiT so... i suppose this is the danger of "rewrite the story from the other perspective" lol. you can be the judge on if i succeeded or failed in making this engaging.

at least it's done lol

never quite free is a song by the mountain goats, which i almost sang at my high school senior choir recital... thing... but i settled on a different song (us by regina spektor, for the curious). never quite free is just... well i simply have many thoughts about it!

anyway i hope you have enjoyed this silly story, even if it is just the same story twice lol. it was still fun to write so that's something, i guess


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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