It takes Achilles a moment to move the rocking chair over next to the crib. He doesn’t understand why it keeps getting moved, when he’s mentioned on numerous occasions that he doesn’t trust himself to hold their daughter while standing—he can barely maintain his balance as is, adding a squirming infant into the mix was just asking for trouble.
Perhaps Briseis had been moving it back, just to spite him. He’d believe anything, after the bullshit he’d just heard.
Amaltheia’s little face is flushed, her dark skin streaked with tears and snot. He cleans her face with a soft, unscented baby wipe (they’d learned the hard way that Amaltheia’s skin was particularly sensitive to even the subtlest of perfumes—caring for a hive-riddled infant was a miserable experience for all involved, and one that he would like to avoid repeating, if at all possible). She doesn’t like the cold of the wipe, but she does seem to be a little bit happier once her face is clean. Achilles understands. He’d be grouchy too if his face were caked in snot and he were powerless to do anything about it. At least it hadn’t been bad enough to warrant use of the infant nasal aspirator. That had her screaming bloody murder before the device even touched her nose…
Still, she’s obviously distressed, and the knowledge that he’d played some part in it, however small, made Achilles’ chest ache. She and Pyrrhus didn’t deserve this. They hadn’t asked to be born into all of this pain and strife. Pyrrhus, at least, had had a few years with him before everything had begun to fall apart at the seams, but Amaltheia… He wishes that there were something he could do to make her sadness go away, to make all of this better. But… with a sinking feeling in his gut, he realizes that he doesn’t even know how to make himself feel better. Much as he wants to believe that these feelings of inadequacy had been born from the wound in his heel, Briseis’ words had caused him to start thinking and the truth was…
The truth was that Achilles hadn’t been happy in a very long time.
“Achilles, this is Briseis. She sits next to me in my Statistics class.” A petite young woman with olive skin and reddish-brown hair is seated at Patroclus’ side—in Achilles’ seat. “Brie, this is my best friend, Achilles.” Achilles’ hands clench down on the edges of his lunch tray, which is practically overflowing with food.
Patroclus’ father doesn’t provide his son with enough money for lunch, so Achilles buys extra so that they can share.
He’ll be damned if he’s going to let Patroclus just not eat.
“It’s nice to meet you. Pat here has told me so much about you.” She smiles. Achilles hates her already. An awkward silence follows, until she clears her throat and asks, “Um… would you like to… sit with us, maybe? Unless you’d prefer to eat your lunch hovering over the table like that. In which case… hover away.”
"You're in my seat." Achilles says. Briseis blinks, her pretty smile faltering. Achilles' lips twist down into a frown—perhaps she hadn't heard him correctly? "You're in my seat, Briseis." He repeats. Patroclus is glaring at him now, color staining his dark cheeks. "Move."
Briseis furrows her brows, "Dude, seriously? There's like... ten other perfectly good seats at this table. If you're so upset about not being able to sit next to Patroclus, you should've gotten here earlier." When he does not respond, she presses harder, “Seriously, it's a seat. Calm your tits and sit your ass down before your lunch gets cold."
After a moment, Achilles slams his tray down onto the table hard enough to knock over Patroclus' water bottle. The cap falls off, causing water to spill all over Briseis' statistics textbook. Achilles snorts, "You certainly have questionable taste in friends."
The young woman scowls, "He certainly does."
After that, Briseis had made a point of getting down to the cafeteria before Achilles to snag the seat next to Patroclus.
It was stupid. It was petty. And it got under Achilles’ skin like nothing else. The only thing that made it better was the realization that he could stare into Patroclus’ eyes while he read some book he’d checked out of the library to read for fun (Achilles would never understand the allure of libraries, until he’d managed to convince Patroclus to hide away with him deep in the dust-ridden aisles of the non-fiction section for a quick and messy blowjob during study hall one quiet April afternoon…). It turned out that it was incredibly difficult to make eyes at one’s boyfriend whilst you were sitting next to them. It was also a lot easier to play footsie underneath the table. Sure, he occasionally came into contact with Brie’s foot, earning a swift and painful kick to the shin, but…
Well, that was a sacrifice he’d been willing to make. Back then, at least. Now, the idea of her coming at him with those wickedly high heels of hers made him cringe. All it would take as a well-placed blow to the wrong part of his leg and he’d be incapacitated for hours. As evidenced by the whole situation with Deidamia…
Once the rocking chair is butting up against the side of the crib, he sits down heavily, thankful to have the chance to take some of the pressure off of his aching leg. He unhooks the safety locks on the side of the crib and slides the wall down, allowing him to scoop the squirming babe into his arms. Her blankie comes loose and tumbles down into a messy pile on the stack, leaving her in her soft, powder-pink onesie which, ironically, read: ‘My Aunt’s a Bad Influence (And I Love It)’. Briseis had bought a matching one for Pyrrhus in powder blue. Achilles wonders if he can throw both of them out without the little boy noticing and asking too many questions. Gods, he’s still having trouble wrapping his head around everything that’d happened. He doesn’t know how he’d even begin to try to explain it to Pyrrhus.
He doesn’t think ‘Your aunt is a meddling bitch whose lucky that she’s also the biological mother of my children, because otherwise, I would’ve unleashed absolute hell’ is quite the right tone. The boy loves Briseis, and will undoubtedly have questions, but…
Right now, Achilles just needs to breathe. And get Amaltheia to stop crying.
Not necessarily in that order.
“I’ll never understand what you see in him.” Briseis shakes her head, as Achilles leans in to steal a quick kiss before heading off to class. Or, more accurately, to skip class to go home and raid Thetis' liquor cabinet before she came home from work.
Achilles flips her off, "Last time I checked, you didn't have to understand, seeing as my relationship with my boyfriend is none of your business." He knows that it bothers her, that he's out there 'corrupting' her precious friend—why, last week, he'd even managed to convince Patroclus to skip class to come with him to the arcade. The manager had just installed a new DDR machine, and Achilles had a score to settle.
She glares at him, "If you keep on like this, you're never going to be accepted into the University of Pennsylvania." That causes Achilles to pause.
"You applied to UPenn?" He'd known that Patroclus was planning on applying to colleges, of course. Patroclus had really been pushing for him to try and see if he could get accepted to one of the local schools—Achilles had smiled and said he'd consider it, but had never really put any actual thought into applying.
Achilles is smart, in his own way. Or, at least, that's what Thetis had always told him.
To be honest, the lessons he learned in school had stopped making sense around the ninth grade, and by the eleventh, he was in serious danger of being held back. Although he tried out for and made the track team every year, he was eventually cut from the team around mid-year, when the coach would check-in on everyone's grades and cut those that weren't up to snuff. He didn't have enough room to properly fit orchestra in his schedule, so when his grades dropped, he couldn't turn to music as an outlet, either. With no extra-curriculars, and utterly abysmal grades, his odds of getting into any school were so astronomically small, they weren't even worth considering. But he couldn't just... come out and tell Patroclus that.
Of course, he's also been operating under the assumption that Patroclus would be applying to schools that he'd have some small chance of getting into.
Not freaking UPenn.
UPenn was for students who were actually smart, not for those who couldn't manage at least a C- after spending the entire night studying the SparkNotes for a book they'd never intended to read (and then had discovered that they'd done so abysmally because they'd been reading up on the wrong book). Honestly... Now that he thinks about it, he's not surprised that Patroclus didn't tell him. There's an awful, gnawing ache inside of his chest that he can't quite name. A feeling of... unworthiness? Like, no matter how hard he tries, he'll never be on the same level as Pat.
He doesn't like feeling lesser-than. He's not used to it.
"I don't think that I'll actually get in." Patroclus waves him off. But everyone there knows that that's a lie. Of course Patroclus will get in—because he's Patroclus. He'll go off to where Achilles cannot follow, and Achilles can't even be mad about it, because he's earned it. There's no question that he's earned it.
So he forces a smile and reminds him, "You should get going if you don't want to be late for class." And Patroclus kisses him one more time and he thinks, for just a second, that everything's going to be alright. But then Patroclus disappears around the corner and the reality of the situation settles in and Achilles feels panic, like long, icy fingers, start to work its way up his chest and into his throat.
He spends the bulk of sixth period having a panic attack in the boy's bathroom.
Amaltheia takes one look at him and starts to wail harder, her chubby little limbs swinging violently as Achilles struggles to shift her into a comfortable position for the both of them. In his haste to remove himself from the earlier situation, he’d forgotten just how bad he is with small children—
They’d been lucky with Pyrrhus. He’d been a remarkably even-tempered baby, who only cried when he was hungry or wet—unlike Amaltheia, who seemed to cry whenever Achilles was in the nearby vicinity. Which did wonders for his already lacking self-esteem. He knew that he shouldn’t take it personally, seeing as she was a baby and incapable of hating him because she did not yet understand what the word ‘hate’ meant. But it certainly felt personal when he’d sit there for a half-hour trying to calm her, to no avail, only for Brie or Pat to take her and be met with instant success.
Speaking of Brie… his shoulders tensed, his jaw aching as he clenched his teeth and fought against the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. He doesn’t know why he’s so surprised that Brie did what she did. This is hardly the first time she’s said that Patroclus deserves better—or had gone so far as to try and prove it to him.
It is the first time that Patroclus had ever taken her up on the offer, though.
Achilles swallows hard, beginning to rock the chair back and forth ever so slowly. “I’m sorry that all that yelling interrupted your nap, little one. And while I know that I’m probably the last person you want to see right now—”
Amaltheia lets out a distressed little yip… although her crying does quiet, even if just a little.
“I know that I’m not the world’s best father. I was pretty messed up even before you came along.” He sniffles, a few tears streaking down his flushed cheeks. “I’m not a good man. I-I know that I don’t deserve you, and Pyrrhus, and your Papa… but fuck, I’m trying. I’m trying, so hard, to be a man worthy of you…”
How dare she come at him and tell him that all he was, and all he ever would be, was a petty, narcissistic shell of a man. How dare she act like she understood what it was like to live inside of his broken body, to constantly be waging war against the little voice in the back of his head that was telling him that he shouldn’t be in this much pain just from walking up and down the stairs, that he should be able to walk down the freaking hallway without his cane without having to worry about falling and injuring himself further. He used to be the star of their high school’s track team, used to be able to sit at the piano for hours doing recitals for all of his mother’s little friends. He used to be a solider. He used to be so much more than a diagnosis he could barely pronounce and pain.
Patroclus’ dark eyes are fixed on the bright red 27 that’s circled at the top of the page. “H-How did you…?”
“I don’t understand what you’re so upset about.” Achilles says. He tucks his hands into the pockets of his jeans to avoid the urge to yank the paper out of Patroclus’ hands and tear it to shreds. “A 27% isn’t so bad.”
“Isn’t so…” Patroclus begins to flip through the pages of Achilles’ test. It’s difficult to tell whether he’s more upset over the fact that a number of the answers have been left blank, or that a seemingly equal number of them have been filled in with random words, just so that he could say he didn’t leave any answers blank. “Achilles, this is an ‘F’! It’s worse than an ‘F’!”
Achilles is fairly certain he would know by now if it were possible to earn a grade worse than an ‘F’. He rolls his eyes and tries for a smile, “Yes, we’ve already established that you’re smarter than me. There’s no need to rub it in.” Patroclus continues to read over his answers, oblivious to Achilles’ subtle hints to drop the subject.
“I let you cheat off of me!” And, okay—that was a bit too loud for Achilles’ liking. If the teachers were to catch wind of him cheating off of Patroclus, a 27% would be the least of his problems.
“Yes, well…” He tries, and fails, to think of an appropriate comeback, and ends up settling on, “Maybe you should work on making your handwriting more legible.”
He’d tried—fuck, he’d tried so hard, to get a passing grade on that exam. To prove to himself, and Briseis, and anyone else who wanted to stick their nose in his affairs, that he was smart. That he was worthy of someone like Patroclus. Patroclus, who’d already received his acceptance letter from UPenn, but was waiting to accept their offer until he knew what schools Achilles had to choose from. Patroclus, who was willing to turn down an offer from an Ivy League school just so he could be with his boyfriend, who couldn’t even score a passing grade on his Literature midterm while cheating off of the smartest kid in the class. The disappointment that laces each and every one of Patroclus’ words stabs him like a lance.
He wishes that he were smarter, that things like math and science and… fuck, even just reading came easily to him.
He wishes that he weren’t too embarrassed to tell his mother that it was more than just a lack of caring.
He wishes that he could be a partner that someone like Patroclus could be proud of…
Amaltheia is quiet.
She’s not sleeping, but she’s also not screaming her head off… this is the first time that Achilles has ever been successful at quieting her before. Tears of an entirely different sort prickle at the corners of his eyes as he looks down at her little face, still a little flushed and still wet with tears. Gods, but he loves her so much. He only wishes that he could do more for her—be more for her. He starts to rock the chair a little harder, running his fingers through her tight, wiry curls. She smacks her lips and gives him an adorable little smile.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word…” He’s not the best singer in the world. But Pyrrhus had seemed to like it when Achilles would sing to him whilst he was still in Briseis’ tummy, so he figures it’s worth a shot.
“Gah!” Amaltheia reaches up, her little hand catching on the chain around Achilles’ neck. There’s a sharp click as his dog tags rattle together underneath the collar of his shirt. He takes a deep breath, struggling to stifle a sob. If he starts crying in earnest, then Amaltheia will get upset again and…
He and Briseis had never been the best of friends, but he’d expected so much more from her after all this time. When she’d volunteered to be their surrogate, he’d mistakenly thought that all of the drama of the past was behind them. And then, after the accident… she’d even begun to be kind to him. And he’d… even at his lowest, he’d always done his best to be kind to her in return. If nothing else, she was the mother of his children. She was the reason that there were two little angels in the world that called him Daddy. Or, they would, once Amaltheia said her first words. She’d given him such a precious gift… he didn’t think he had the power to ever truly hate her, knowing that it was only through her that he had Pyrrhus and Amaltheia. And yet, at the same time…
He didn’t think he could ever truly forgive her for what she’d done, either.
“Daddy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…”
“When are you planning on telling Patroclus that you enlisted?” Briseis asks. She’s over at his house, working to put together the last few parts of their book report that is due on Monday.
Achilles is about seventy-five percent certain that the teacher hates him, because when he’d reminded her that he didn’t work with student’s other than Patroclus, citing the incident in gym class the week before—
(As a token of goodwill, after Patroclus had chosen to team with Briseis for tennis that class, he’d asked Hector if the older teen would be willing to team with him against Patroclus and Briseis in a doubles match. It’d been a nice, thoughtful gesture, that’d all gone to hell the moment Hector had stuck his big, fat face where it didn’t belong and had broken his nose on Achilles’ racket. And before you even ask—no, despite the nonsense that Hector had fed to the teacher, Achilles had not hit him on purpose.)
The old bat had smiled thinly and reminded him that life was unfair and that we didn’t always get what we wanted.
Achilles chews on his eraser, “Sometime between now and never.” It’s the same answer he’d been giving her, ever since she’d accidentally found out that he’d decided to enlist instead of placing his bets on which rejection letter would come through first.
“He deserves to know.” Achilles rolls his eyes. It’s always the same old song-and-dance with her. “His entire future is on the line here! He’s literally postponing accepting a full-ride to an Ivy League school for an acceptance letter that’s never going to come.”
“I know that.” He says, willing her to drop it.
“If you really loved him, you wouldn’t be putting him through this.” Achilles knows that, too. He knows that he’s being selfish in postponing the inevitable. But what if… what if Patroclus decides that’s it, then? That Achilles isn’t worth the trouble, and that it would be better for him to find someone smart and empathetic and… and…
Achilles says none of this. Instead, he gives her the finger. “Damn, Brie. You sound half in love with him yourself. It’s a shame you didn’t have the balls to make a move before he put a ring on it.” He flashes his engagement ring. Briseis’ disgust intensifies.
“I can’t believe you!” She tugs at her hair, her cheeks flushed with exasperation. “You know what? Forget it. If you won’t tell him then I will—”
Amaltheia is sleeping.
He waits for a couple of minutes, just to make sure that it isn’t a false alarm. When he is certain that the six-month-old won’t wake when he moves her, he transfers her back to her crib and tucks her back in underneath her blanket. She looks so peaceful lying there that he cannot help but sit a moment longer and take her in. He cannot remember the last time that he himself slept so soundly… but it was likely long before the accident, before even Pyrrhus was a twinkle in their eyes. When he feels calm enough to leave, he rises on unsteady legs and bears down heavily on his cane, shuffling off in the direction of the bathroom. There’s a stop that he intends to make before he climbs back into bed and tries to pretend that none of this ever happened…
Patroclus sees him emerge from the nursery and begins to trail behind him like a lost puppy, trying to initiate a conversation about a half-dozen times before finally giving up in favor of trying to deduce what it is that Achilles is planning to do.
“Achilles,” he knows that Patroclus is calling his name, but the words do not register. “Achilles!”
Achilles stands in the middle of their study, tears streaking down his softly flushed cheeks. There are hundreds of photos in this room—some hang on the walls in ornate picture frames, a thin layer of dust on the smooth glass pane that covers the photos; some are taped up alongside the computer and along the shelf above the desk; and some are filed away in old albums, tucked onto the bottom shelves of bookcases, to be brought out when someone feels the urge to take a walk down memory lane. Except this time, Achilles is not here to bury himself amidst the pleasant memories of the not-so-distant past. No, this time, Achilles is on the lookout for a very specific picture—and he finds it sitting on the shelf, directly above Patroclus’ desk.
Achilles tries not to dwell on their time in high school—not just because he’d almost flunked out during their senior year (although, he must admit, that did play a major part in it—it was difficult, even now, for him to admit that there were some things he simply was not good at, and that academics had been one of them), but because of how close Brie and Pat had become in the months leading up to graduation. Both had been accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, with merit scholarships contingent on maintaining a 3.0 GPA or higher…
The offending picture features Briseis planting a big, fat, wet kiss on his then-fiancé’s cheek, while the new graduates tossed their caps into the sky in the background. Achilles had never been particularly fond of the picture, but hadn’t complained because, as Pat liked to point out, it was one of the few they had of him and Brie together.
“Achilles, what are you…?!” Achilles squares his shoulders, before raising his cane and swinging it violently, sending that picture, and about half a dozen others, crashing to the ground in a sea of broken glass.