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The Kiss That Launched a Single Love

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Leda’s flower garden reminded Patroclus of a weed growing in the cracks of paving stones. The effort was there: days upon days of planning had gone into designing it, weeks more spent finding the right flowers, the right colours of pebbles to ground them, the right gardeners, but in the end it had never bloomed like it should have. It was always too dry, and no one paid it the attention it needed. Despite all its flaws, however, it was the perfect place for two children to hide.

Helen pulled him by the hand, rushing along petal-littered paths and gaps through bushes only the two of them knew about, the slapping of her feet on stone somehow always faster than his even though she was clasping folds of skirts at her hip. They didn’t have to look at each other or talk to know where they were going: it was always the same, every time. Gasping for breath, they hid behind a wall of laurel – perfectly placed so no one from the palace would be able to see them – and relaxed slightly.

The late afternoon sun was beating down on them like punishment for running away from yet another of their father’s guests. Their clothes stuck to them unpleasantly, the thin, expensive fabric growing translucent, but you got used to that, growing up in Sparta, so neither of them paid it any mind. Still panting, Patroclus snuck a glance at his sister. A jolt of familiar anger shot through him when he saw her expression: Helen was biting her lip, her face flushed, and honey-brown hair drooping over her face as if that would somehow hide how obviously close to tears she was. He squeezed her hand, wishing with all his heart that he could do more than just be there for her, wishing that he could ward off the grown men who told her how beautiful she was, how she was going to grow into the loveliest young woman the world had ever seen.

She looked back at him and smiled weakly. “Sorry for bringing you with me again.”

He shook his head, dark brown curls flopping over his eyes as he did so. “You don’t have to apologise for that…”

She nodded quickly, her face crumpling. “I just wish they’d leave me alone. Every time someone new comes along and just starts smiling at me like I’m there for them to eat, I…”

Patroclus squeezed her hand again. He would have liked to be strong enough to fight them, clever enough to shame them, or even just good enough with words to comfort Helen, but he wasn’t. He was eleven and all he could do was rip leaves to shreds one-handed, scowling up a storm that could only be calmed by Helen shuffling up closer and telling him it wasn’t worth it, it couldn’t be worth it, and she was okay.

She was always ‘okay’ and he would have cried in frustration if she wasn’t trying so hard not to herself.

 

 

If the situation was frustrating at eleven, it was impossible by the time they were fourteen. Every man (and the occasional woman) who came to visit Tyndareos’ palace would remark on Helen’s growing beauty, praising her incessantly and with growing familiarity and neither of the twins could do anything about it. The age when they could be forgiven for running away had long since passed, and Helen was left to learn how to smile and laugh prettily at compliments that made her skin crawl. Patroclus was left to learn how to curb his tongue.

He wasn’t an angry person at heart. Given the choice, there were so many things he would have preferred to do rather than get angry at men who harassed his sister. He would have liked to fight them, for one, but even if his immature body hadn’t put a damper on that plan, Helen asked him not to and he’d always listen to her.

Perhaps it was because she dazzled him, even though he should know her best of all. She lit up like a star when she was happy and Patroclus was content to sit in her shadow and watch her gleam in all her glory. He knew he didn’t have the potential she did, in looks or in charisma, and he knew he wasn’t anything special when it came to diplomacy or fighting or learning, but he was fine with that. He loved her, and she told him he meant the world to her, so he’d easily accepted that he wasn’t the one poets were already testing out verses for, and he’d be damned if he wouldn’t try to help and protect her in any way he could.

By the time King Peleus arrived on a political visit from Phthia, Patroclus had just about had enough of ‘suitors’ who didn’t know how to keep their hands off his sister and who didn’t seem to realise that when she smiled at them she was just keeping to the bare minimum of politeness demanded from a princess. To put it simply, he was a little on edge, especially when he heard that Peleus was bringing his son who just happened to be their age and was already talked about wherever he went. Patroclus didn’t care how lauded and godlike this kid was: if he so much as looked at Helen wrong, there was going to be trouble. Somehow. He’d figure something out.

Before the welcoming feast, Patroclus knocked on the doors that connected his and Helen’s rooms, going through when she called him in. He sat down on the bed in silence and watched her tie up her hair.

“That frown makes you look like you’re about to go to a funeral,” she said mildly.

“There’s going to be a boy our age tonight.”

“I know.”

“I’m not going to let him make you uncomfortable,” Patroclus said earnestly.

Helen turned around to smile at him and for a second all the determination and anxiety that had built up in his chest melted away at the sight. “Thank you,” she said, “but I’m used to it. You don’t have to get so angry.”

“Don’t you still cry about it sometimes?”

Her gaze flicked away. “Not really.” Which wasn’t a no, but there was no point in saying that.

“I’m not going to let anyone make you uncomfortable anymore.”

“You shouldn’t promise things you can’t possibly do!” Helen laughed, the sound like a breeze through flower bushes. “Tell you what: how about instead of that, you promise me to always be there for me when I need you? That seems easier and more likely, doesn’t it?”

“But that goes without saying!”

“Then let’s leave it at that.” She came over and ruffled his hair. “Try not to frown too much, please?”

“Not all of us can have a smile that stops people in their tracks,” Patroclus said, but he smiled anyway.

Helen squeezed his hand encouragingly as they settled down to dinner that night and he squeezed back while still keeping a firm watch on the great double doors, narrowing his eyes when the Phythian party came through. Peleus came first, greeting Tyndareos with all the formalities and sweetened words that could be expected from him; the feast was nothing lavish by Greek standards, Patroclus knew, but Peleus only had praise for it. The king of Phthia sat by Tyndareos in a seat of honour, discussing politics and foreign relations and sharing stories that had the whole room captivated, but Patroclus had eyes for none of that, as his had been captured by Peleus’ son the moment he stepped into the room.

Everything felt smaller in the prince’s presence: even though the hall was the largest in the palace, even though it was teeming with people who were already seated, none of it seemed to matter compared to this boy. He couldn’t have been much older than Patroclus himself, but his body was already well muscled – lithe and athletic, carried with inhuman grace – and with golden hair framing indisputably beautiful features and eyes that blazed with life, he looked able to take over the world.

Patroclus wanted to slap himself for thinking it. This new prince (introduced as Achilles in a lengthy speech Patroclus didn’t really pay as much attention to as he should have) also looked like he was exactly the type of man to harass Helen. Sure of himself, obviously spoiled, well-spoken, attractive…Once again, Patroclus found himself entranced watching Achilles’ movements, but he shook himself out of it. He had to keep on his guard.

The feast passed quickly, with laughter and high spirits carrying it along, but Patroclus could never quite relax. Though they were tables apart, Achilles kept glancing over at him and Helen, his eyes darting away again whenever Patroclus glared back and tried to put himself in front of his sister. Helen just gave him a long-suffering smile and put up with it.

Late into the night, when the lights had dimmed and the adults had become rowdier in their celebrations, the twins managed to slip away from the main hall. The corridors were virtually empty and they walked them hand in hand, tired enough to lean on each other a little.

“You needn’t have worried,” Helen said quietly. “Nothing happened at all.”

“He kept looking at you: if we’d stayed any longer I’m sure he would have come over and made an idiot out of himself.”

Helen blinked at him. “At me? He never once looked at me.”

“What?” Patroclus frowned, but before she could reply they heard the clear, striking sound of footsteps coming down the corridor from behind them. They turned and Achilles was there, staring at them in wonder, no less magnificent in the low candlelight than in the brightly lit main hall. If anything, he looked better with the light flickering in his wide eyes, his golden hair glowing. His mouth had been open slightly, but he quickly closed it when he saw them turn, and the muffled sounds of the feast they’d left behind were all they could hear as none of the three children said anything.

Eventually Helen stepped in, well-versed as she was in politeness. “Good evening, Prince of Phthia. I’m afraid the festivities have fatigued me and I must retire, but I’m certain my brother can help you in whatever you need.” She smiled and nodded to both of the boys (particularly warmly to Patroclus), then left before they could stop her.

Patroclus felt, quite frankly, a little hurt at his sister’s blatant betrayal, but he steeled himself and crossed his arms to hopefully make himself look more threatening than he actually was. “Can I be of any help?” he asked in a stiff voice, trying to make it quite clear that he really didn’t want to help at all (and trying to ignore how fast his heart was beating).

Achilles seemed to stutter through a few different responses before he calmed down enough to say, “I simply wished to speak with you.”

“Me?” Patroclus raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps you’re thinking of my sister?”

Achilles shook his head, all his nervousness melted into an earnest expression filled with so much pure-hearted sincerity that it stole Patroclus’ breath away. “No. I had heard of her beauty, certainly, and she lives up to the stories with ease so I mean no disrespect, but you are the one I’ve found myself unable to look away from.”

Whatever sarcastic remark Patroclus had been coming up with the second he heard Helen’s beauty mentioned died in his throat. He gaped and, though he wouldn’t admit it, made a sound not unlike a strangled mouse.

“You…you need not lie…” he said in a choked voice.

“I don’t lie,” Achilles said, and Patroclus believed him without any reason to other than the shake in his hands and the surety in his mind that he wanted to.

“So…you…”

“I meant it. I’d like to talk with you more, if that’s alright.”

“Y-yes! I’d like to too…”

At his words, Achilles smiled brightly and Patroclus felt like he’d seen the sun.

 

They went to Leda’s garden, to sit among the flowers and watch the stars, surrounded by the thick chorus of crickets chirping all around them. With all thoughts of threats and protecting his sister gone, Patroclus found himself strangely empty. It wasn’t hollowness: it was the emptiness of shock, of disbelief and misunderstandings when everything you’d imagined was pulled out from underneath you and he was suddenly living in a reality where someone admired him rather than Helen.

Even though the sun had long since set, Achilles still shone brighter than anything around him. His laughter was loud and unbridled as it soared into the night sky unapologetically; his gestures were wide and energetic, completely unlike how he’d acted at the feast; his dark skin gleamed under the moonlight almost as much as his hair did when he tossed it back; and when he looked at Patroclus his eyes crinkled up so gently, filled with genuine happiness he probably didn’t even think to hold back. And as he spoke, bursting with questions that Patroclus answered (hesitantly at first, but he slowly grew more comfortable), Patroclus didn’t feel that he was in Achilles’ shadow at all. If anything, he felt like a flower drinking in the sun’s light.

He wasn’t even surprised when Achilles told him he was part divine as well: it just made sense, and he said as much.

Achilles blinked at him, then burst out laughing. “It ‘makes sense’?” he asked, wiping tears from his eyes.

“Well, it does!” Patroclus said defensively, a little flustered but too happy to mind. “Nothing about you seems human, so…”

“Nothing?” His smile had disappeared, leaving something far more vulnerable in its place, and yet again Patroclus found himself wondering how a prince had never learned how to mask his emotions. He liked it anyway.

“I mean, not nothing…Right now, you feel human to me. But, at the same time you’re…” he trailed off, unsure of what he’d end up saying if he let himself finish.

Achilles had other plans, however, and his grin was back. “I’m…?” he prompted.

“You’re…you’re so you! I’ve never met anyone like you!” It was a poor excuse for an answer, but Achilles didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he looked very pleased with himself.

“But you’re part divine too, aren’t you? So I’m just like you.”

“You’re not! Helen’s the one who shows her blood, I’m just…”

“Beautiful.” He seemed to regret saying it the second he had, and a blush almost as fierce as Patroclus’ rose to his cheeks. All around them the crickets’ constant thrum of noise grew louder as they stared at each other, not quite understanding what was going on, but knowing better than to run from it.

“Th…thank you…” Patroclus whispered, eyes darting down to look at the grass he was sitting on as if it was as fascinating as the boy he was sitting next to. “Usually people only say that to Helen…” he mumbled.

“She’s beautiful too.” Achilles seemed to have got some semblance of a hold over himself. “But it’s obvious to anyone who looks at either of you that you’re both divine.”

Desperate to change the subject so he could concentrate on something other than the word ‘beautiful’ still rolling around his mind, Patroclus said, “But you got so much more, didn’t you? Not just beauty, I mean.” Although, as he peeked up through his curls (as if he needed any more convincing), Patroclus could confirm that beauty was definitely part of it too.

Achilles seemed on firmer footing here, and he nodded. “I’m destined for greatness,” he said happily. “They say I’m the best warrior that Greece has ever seen. They say I’m invincible.”

It was impressive, to be sure, and Patroclus was impressed, but… “But you’re just a child…” he said. “How can you be the greatest warrior?”

“I will be. Everyone says so.”

“But you’re not now?”

“Well, no, but…”

Patroclus laughed in relief. “That’s good.”

“Why?”

“If you were the greatest warrior in Greece, the distance between us would be too much. I think I’d be scared to talk to you, if you were any more…” amazing, his mind provided helpfully and he ignored it in favour of his dignity.

Achilles rounded on him, fire in his eyes. “You shouldn’t! I’m not any different from you, so you shouldn’t ever feel that way.” He said it desperately, and Patroclus got the feeling there was a lot more behind that sentiment than he knew.

“Compared to me, you’re incredible, though!” he tried to laugh it off, but Achilles wasn’t having it.

“I’ve barely known you a night,” he said levelly, taking Patroclus’ hand in his own, “and already you’ve shown me you have the courage and kindness to protect your sister when she can’t do it herself, that you’re fun to talk to, and that you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.” He looked so serious that he wasn’t even blushing like before.

“I…but…” Patroclus stammered, a little too star-struck to come up with the argument he needed.

“I don’t lie.”

In the face of such heartfelt words from a boy who shone like the sun, Patroclus could only laugh helplessly.

Achilles was still looking at him seriously. “So don’t tell me you’re not good enough or that you’re less than me, alright?”

Patroclus smiled, partly in disbelief at how things had turned out, partly because he was so dazzled that there was nothing else he could do, and partly out of fondness at the thought that Achilles seemed to believe what he was saying was true. “Alright!”

 

They became inseparable over the course of Peleus’ visit. They explored the grounds together, the countryside surrounding the palace opening up as if welcoming them, accepting their energy and laughter as it never had when Patroclus was alone. Sometimes they’d spend time with Helen (though she was kept on a much tighter rein than they were), and sometimes they were obliged to do something responsible for once,  but that was fine too: there were still lessons to attend and fighting to practise, but they were allowed to do it all together, so neither minded. Sometimes they play-fought (which always ended up with Patroclus on his back, Achilles’ rich, good-natured laughter filling his ears until he laughed too), and sometime Patroclus just watched, hypnotised by the power and agility in Achilles’ body when he pretended to kill.

Days and nights started to slip into one another easily: like water rushing through a stream, time hurtled by when it was carried by excitement and anticipation, and before they knew it their time was already up, no matter how much they tried to pretend it wasn’t. On the last night, they went to the garden again and sat together, their hips just touching.

Patroclus had done an excellent job of suppressing his nervousness, and over the past month they hadn’t had any conversations that threatened to bring it back, but he felt it rising again here. There was something quieter about Achilles: not as if his light had dimmed, but rather that he was holding it down tightly with his gritted teeth and fidgeting hands, trying not to seem magnificent and larger than life like he usually did. It was a losing battle, Patroclus thought, but he waited patiently anyway.

“I was talking to my father today,” Achilles said finally. “I think part of the reason he brought me here was that he hoped I’d fall in love with Helen. I think he hoped I’d marry her.”

“That…that wouldn’t be so bad…” Patroclus mumbled.

Achilles looked at him sharply. “Would it not?”

“You’re a good person. I trust you.” There was something tight in his throat, and no matter how he swallowed it wouldn’t go away.

“Oh.” The budding of anger in Achilles’ expression died away as he nodded in understanding. They’d talked a few times about how protective Patroclus was of his sister, after all. “I won’t marry her, though.”

Patroclus let out a breath as the tightness in his throat vanished. “Won’t your father be angry?”

“I don’t think so. I can tell him Helen isn’t willing – which isn’t exactly a lie, is it? I think it’s better she choose this anyway, rather than have her brother decide everything for her,” he smiled snidely at Patroclus’ huff of annoyance. “Besides, I don’t think it’s what my mother wants. That, if nothing else, will persuade him.”

“But I suppose that means you won’t be coming back.”

“…probably. I want to, believe me! But…”

Patroclus nodded quickly. He wasn’t so stubborn that he wouldn’t believe him, but there was still a creeping feeling going through his mind that this was how it should be: that he should find himself back in the shadows after so long flourishing in the sun. Perhaps he’d even been a fool to think it would last longer than it had. So he smiled and nodded again.

Achilles narrowed his eyes. “You’re worrying, aren’t you? Don’t you believe me?”

“No, no: I do.” It was enough of an honour that he’d spent the last month with someone so brilliant: he wasn’t going to mope about it.

“You don’t.”

“I do.”

Achilles seemed to consider this, and then his piercing eyes looked away. “Do you…” he said in a small voice that wasn’t him at all, “Do you still think you’re…less….than me?”

It wasn’t something they’d talked about again, after the first night. It was too frustrating for both of them, when both knew with absolute certainty that they were right and the other was wrong.

“No,” Patroclus lied.

Achilles, still blossoming with the sincerity and innocence of youth, looked satisfied with that. “I really don’t want to go,” he said, almost as an afterthought.

“I don’t want you to either. I’m going to miss you.” It came out before he had a chance to stop it, but it was probably just as well. Achilles perked up at the words and gave him a look he couldn’t place, somewhere between hope and fear. Patroclus was struck by it, and so surprised by the warmth of a hand taking his, so silenced by the shimmering anticipation in the air like a midday mirage, that he barely reacted at all when Achilles leaned forwards to kiss him.

It only lasted a moment before they were back to staring at the sky with burning cheeks and pounding hearts, but a moment was enough for him to understand that it felt right

Chapter Text

It was both a blessing and a curse that Achilles didn’t number among the swarms of men who descended on Sparta to ask for Helen’s hand. A blessing because it calmed Patroclus’ heart with cool relief: perhaps he hadn’t misheard, misinterpreted, mistaken the boy’s attentions for love that didn’t exist. And yet, a curse because it was years since he’d been able to see him and what had blossomed in Patroclus’ own chest in those years – sown in the days they shared and raised in the harsh Spartan sun under Helen’s glittering eyes and encouragement – most definitely was love.

It had been trying, at first. He’d waited on any news he could pick from the mouths of messengers, rare as they were, but there were no great tales of Achilles’ endeavours, no stories of him at all. And with Peleus’ vague hopes for a political marriage nipped in the bud, there were no more visits from Phthia either.

The years were by no means terrible. It was easy to let go of a dream if you convinced yourself it was just that: something to be cherished in memories rather than longed for in reality, and while Patroclus had not been wrong when he said he would miss Achilles, he had also not been wrong when he’d resolved not to let it take over him. So it was a small, nervous love he watched grow in himself, almost completely disbelieving that he’d been lucky enough for it to start at all.

Helen helped. It was a stressful enough time for her, both before and after the unwanted attentions grew to something nobody could handle, but still she helped with a soft smile here and a questioning look there, making it clear she was always ready to listen if he ever needed to talk.

When she left their childhood home with Menelaus, Patroclus went with her.

 

The party was outrageous, even by Meneleus’ standards. To be fair to him, it was the last night before the Trojans left (and if that wasn’t cause for celebration, nothing was), but as Patroclus picked his way across the litter of glasses and platters and the occasional drunken guest, he couldn’t help but think it was all a little excessive. Surely it hadn’t been necessary for the celebrations to start the morning before, for example, although he had to admit he was impressed by its efficiency; get wildly drunk by late afternoon, take a small nap and you’re ready to start again by night, only with far fewer inhibitions. And now, in the early hours of the morning, the guests could split into couples (or larger groups, and Patroclus had definitely seen one very raucous group of seven who had left no doubt as to what they were about to do) and take what privacy they could in the countless rooms of the palace.

It was impressive, really it was.

He could hardly blame them when he was brimming with excitement himself, though. In a short two weeks, he’d join a visit to Phthia for the first time in his life. It had come to him like a dream (to some extent, everything about Achilles had come to him like a dream): a chance mention of the subject during one of his strained conversations with Menelaus and after that he’d just had to ask to be a part of it and a messenger had been sent to Peleus to confirm that the king’s brother in law would be joining the party. It had all been so simple, after so many years of impossibility.

But he’d forced himself to swallow his excitement and had been holding onto it for a month and more like a caged bird that longs to stretch its wings but has resigned itself to captivity. He had more pressing things to concern himself with.

There was actually a purpose to his seemingly aimless search through rooms cluttered with the remnants of the festivities: he was trying to find his sister. He might as well have said his life’s quest was to find his sister, he went looking for her often enough (so often that anyone who stayed in the palace for more than a month would immediately show him the way to her if he was ever alone and looking mildly lost). She was comfort to him, even though he should have been the one comforting her, swept up in a new marriage and a new country as she was, but Helen had always been better at helping others than letting them help her. It came of being forced into a mould of perfection from a young age.

Patroclus slammed yet another door shut at the distracted objections from the room’s inhabitants and kept walking. Somewhere in the palace, a brave musician was still trying to hold a tune despite no one being in a dancing mood anymore. The smell of wine and food and sex was everywhere (though in different proportions), tempting Patroclus in with the promises of simple pleasures if only he’d stop to take them, but it been over an hour since he’d started looking and the lack of success had only made him more determined. It played on his strong-headedness, so he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. He moved to the next door.

A half hour later found him wandering the gardens with no idea of where he should try and search next. Helen hadn’t been in her rooms and he didn’t dare try her husband’s (brother-in-law-ly love only went so far at three in the morning) but he knew he had to see her, tonight if possible, when neither of them were quite in their right mind and she might actually speak to him of her problems rather than assuring him she was fine, perfectly happy, nothing could possibly dent her mood of sunshine and star-beams.

Which was a lie. They both knew it. The entire court would know it, if only they knew Helen enough to tell that the smiles she gave the Trojan prince – the shy looks from under her lashes, the inconspicuous brushing of their skin together when it could be excused – were nothing like what she gave her husband. Those she gave her husband were steeped in a lifetime’s experience of forced courtesy and fake affection.

It was then that he heard her laugh coming from the balcony above him. Few other people would have recognised her from that alone and the curtains were drawn, the light kept low; they were being so careful. Patroclus closed his eyes. Exhaled. Opened them again. He should have known she’d been with Paris from the start, and perhaps he had, but he’d…he’d hoped.

He went to her rooms to wait. The guards were all away from their posts, only a skeleton staff still in position, and even if they’d been there nobody would have stopped him. It would have been unnecessarily strict when he went there daily.

There was nigh on an hour of bated breath, wild thoughts, and muffled sounds from the maturing party before she burst into the room, breathless with excitement. Understandably, she stopped dead when she saw him, as if she’d been pulled back to earth from whatever cloud she’d been living on.

“Patroclus,” she said slowly. Carefully. He didn’t want her to be careful with him.

“You were with him?” He tried to make it as gentle and unassuming as such a question could be. “With Paris.”

She nodded curtly, dishevelled curls bobbing, and she caught her lip between her teeth without biting it, robbed of the habit years before. They watched each other like a deer and a man extending his hand towards it, trying to help it understand that he’s no hunter.

Love won over reason. “He wants me to go away with him,” she mumbled.

On some level, Patroclus thought he wasn’t surprised, but that was only one level and the rest of him could barely take in the information, let alone the clear signs that Helen was not only considering but accepting the offer.

“And you will?” he breathed.

Her eyes slipped away from him and she nodded. The room grew very quiet as the weight of his shock and her anticipation suffocated whatever sound tried to get in.

“Menelaus is good to you…” he said softly, trying to help her out of the dream she was living. “A short affair can be hidden, but this…”

“I know. And he is good to me, but it isn’t love.”

“And what you have with Paris is?”

“There’s potential. Patroclus, I’ve…!” instinctively, she bit back her passion. “I’ve lived with him for years and you’ve seen as well as I have that he doesn’t love me, or that if he does it’s as he loves a trophy. He keeps me well polished for display, but he doesn’t care at all for my needs or desires. He’d prefer I had none, I’m sure. It was the same with everyone: treating me as if I’m a jewel that needs locking up and worshipping. And while that can be fun,” she gave a wry smile, trying to lighten the oppressive atmosphere, “it’s not enough anymore.”

“Does Paris not treat you the same?” He was trying; he was trying so hard to get her to see what she was doing, what she was giving up, but he was helpless to her desires just as she was his.

“He doesn’t. He treats me like a woman to love instead.”

“Perhaps he thinks his own beauty rivals yours and so he shouldn’t mind?” The prince was renowned for his delicate features but his hair wasn’t golden and he didn’t shine with the brightness of a thousand suns so Patroclus had never paid him much attention.

Helen laughed, somewhat gratefully. “Perhaps. But I don’t mind even if that’s how it is. I want to live with someone who can find fault in me and love me despite it. I want someone to love me as a person. Can’t you understand?”

To his dread, Patroclus could. There were a hundred arguments lined up on his tongue against doing this, against cracking the gem of a life she had here, but he’d been blinded by the sun before and the shadow was still in his eyes, reminding him that he could not ask anything of her that he would not do himself.

And then the thought came: what would he do without her? If she was going, he had to as well: there was no choice at all. But that meant going away to Troy and not returning.

A flash of gold, a joyful smile, a boy he couldn’t forget.

And in front of him, his sister, on the cusp of taking something for herself for once.

“Let me come with you,” he asked, choking only a little on the words. She nodded without hesitation.

Chapter Text

Achilles had probably always known he was different. Different in subtle ways, ways that other people knew but he didn’t, like some huge secret everyone else was in on. Somehow it didn’t matter: he was still the golden child of Phthia and he liked it that way, but time passed and rubbed away the gilt decoration for him, showing him what he hadn’t necessarily wanted to see. Hints had slipped through the cracks like water through a ship’s hull and before he knew it he was sinking.

When no one else could, his mother kept him happy. She made it all sound desirable with glittering promises of all he was to become, promises of glory and battle and fame that Achilles sucked in to keep himself afloat. Eventually it got easier. The rewards that came with his differences were enough for him to ignore the loneliness, and when it was all you’d known, it couldn’t really be counted as loneliness anyway: just a soft sense in the clutch of your throat, the bracing of your heart that you’d lost something terribly important that you couldn’t remember. It came upon him like gusts of wind every now and then: when he watched other children smile at each other but bow to him; when Thetis laid her cool hand on his shoulder and it carried the weight of her expectations like never before; when, at twelve years old, he watched his third trainer struggle to raise himself from the dust after their fight. Each time he gulped the hollowness down and it left him as quickly as it had come upon him. He was still the golden child.

Patroclus had been different too, but he had also been marvellously, wonderfully not. It had been obvious from the first that he and his sister were nothing like the people around them, and that had caught Achilles’ eye and held it. And perhaps, at that point, there could have been a choice: perhaps he might have had to choose between the twins in any other world, but in this world there had been no choice at all and his attention had been captured firmly by the brother.

The brother who didn’t shine like his sister did but who smiled and laughed with her and looked so beautiful doing it that Achilles had to look away. The brother who looked so much more imperfect that his sister while still having all the perfections of his divine blood, leaving Achilles unsure of what to do with the net result but mesmerised by it anyway. The brother who glared at him, making him wonder if he’d done something wrong, but who had something fearful and protective in how he angled himself and after a while it didn’t take a wise man to guess that he was just trying to do what his sister couldn’t reasonably do for herself. The brother whose eyes kept meeting Achilles’ as if by mistake before they could both hurriedly look elsewhere.

The brother he couldn’t forget, years later.

 

They were late. Reasonably speaking, a few days shouldn’t mean a whole lot to Achilles after years of waiting but they oh so painfully did because he’d felt like he was living the happiest dream of his life ever since he’d heard that they were coming (that Patroclus was coming), and it only took a day of wretched nothing to shatter it all. It had been a week of subsequent wretched nothings and Achilles was finally letting doubt hook its way into his mind.

He sat against the rough roots of a tree, bored of kicking the low shrubs and dust and having nothing better to do with himself in the sweltering noon heat (there were councils and lessons but they didn’t count as better). The forest bordered the cliffs that dropped down to the sea, and if he strained his neck he could just manage to spot any ship that happened to come by. He had come here every afternoon for the past week.

Logically, he shouldn’t have been so disappointed. Realistically, there was nothing to worry about. Ordinarily, he would have shrugged and found something to occupy himself until the ship did come (even if took weeks, months), but this was such an extraordinary situation he found himself in that he’d tossed reality and logic aside in favour of a fervent wish to believe in fate and destiny. He wanted to believe that they were destined to meet again; meet forever, even, because that was how it had felt, in that wonderful month they’d spent together. And so he was left to watch the few clouds in the sky move past as he swatted away any insect earnest enough to keep moving at midday, watching the sea lazily and wondering if he’d got all the signs wrong.

There was no reason it should be fate, after all. And they’d spent years apart without contact: it was perfectly possible that Patroclus had forgotten about him (it wasn’t it wasn’t it so absolutely wasn’t possible because Achilles wouldn’t let himself believe that). As his father always patiently reminded him, he had to try and look at things as a king would look at them rather than as an idealistic youth, but it was difficult sometimes. Especially when it felt like the stars themselves had aligned to let the two of them meet again.

He was about to doze off when he saw the ship coming in. It was still far away, much too far to tell where it came from (and it wasn’t as if Phthia was some forsaken port avoided by all: merchant ships came there all the time) but hope leapt in his chest with the same force as if he’d been punched, ripping through all his attempts to calm down and remind himself it could be anyone.

It couldn’t be anyone.

It had to be him.

Achilles ran. It was something he was naturally good at, something he didn’t even have to think about because the ground just flew by under his feet, his eyes expertly picking out obstacles to avoid, even the slightest dip in the ground that could unbalance him. His breath was a steady rhythm carrying him down the hill to the road that led to the port, miles away, and beyond that on the sandy stones of the road. It was only when he was close enough to see the docks that he realised this probably wasn’t the best first impression he could make, breathless and sweat-ridden with his hair all over the place, but that was just how it was going to be, he supposed. There was no way he was going to stop or go back.

He slowed when he came to the harbour and stood at the edge of the water, waiting for the ship to come in while he caught his breath. The boat cut through the water torturously slowly as if to taunt him, but it became readily obvious that this was the one he’d been waiting for and the breath caught in his throat through the dizzying force of his impatience.

The ship docked. Men filed off the ramp like shadows, still as irritatingly slow as ever, and it was only then that Achilles realised something was wrong. The reaction was delayed: held back by a stubborn wish for everything to go right, it sunk in through the men’s grim faces and the distinct lack of brown curls among them. Achilles clenched his jaw and accepted their obeisance with only the briefest of greetings.

He didn’t ask anything on their way back to the palace, nor did he say anything out of place in the ensuing meeting. He nodded and frowned at their news, offering council when it was asked of him by Peleus’ questioning gaze, accepting their proposal and his father’s suggestion to leave such talk of war until after the welcoming feast, and when the interminable hours fizzled to an end he excused himself.

 

Once again, Achilles ran.

He wondered if this was his fault: punishment for expecting a miracle on top of the world given to him at birth, but in a sick way he knew that he hadn’t been wrong in his earlier musings. This was fate, this was destiny: he was destined to fight and now the gods had handed him a prize to fight for and everything was the way he could have imagined it. Here was the promised glory, the promised fame, the promised everything and it was all he could have wished for and it choked him more than the dust thrown up as he sprinted to the beach.

Wasn’t this the way he’d wanted it, then? How had he wanted it? Had he? At all? They were questions he could hear in his mother’s voice (perhaps mocking, but always tired and disappointed) and he simply didn’t have an answer to anything like that. Whether it was his mother asking him or anyone else, he had no answer, but he needed to speak to her. It wasn’t that he was searching desperately for orders and instruction (although she would have given them willingly had he asked), he just needed her.

He skidded to a halt at their usual cove and she came before he’d finished shouting her name in a hoarse voice broken by breathlessness.

“Do you know?” he coughed.

“I do,” she replied coolly, shaking water from her jet black hair with a brush of her hand. “You won’t fight.”

The words were, for the second time that day, a slap in his face and he found his dread and bitterness were shoved out of the way in favour of shock. Driving his heels into the wet sand under the water lapping at his feet, he looked her in the eyes. “I won’t? But why not? This is the opportunity you’ve always wanted for me, isn’t it?”

Thetis narrowed her eyes to slits of black. “I wasn’t aware you wished to join the battle.”

Fighting or not fighting made very little difference to him when he thought about it, but now the idea that he might not go had been introduced, he knew full well that that wasn’t an option he could take. “I want to go.”

“That would not be the wisest decision. There will be other battles in which to prove yourself. You are still young: there is time.”

“Father wishes me to go.”

“He is often misguided, at best.”

“Do you not think I’m good enough?”

It was a cruel thing to say to the woman who’d raised him to be the best all his life and he knew it. Both of them knew it. The water around Achilles’ ankles grew colder.

Thetis measured her words with careful enunciation, something Achilles had seen her do countless times so as not to hurt her all-too human son with her anger. But she couldn’t deny him this, not this. Not when she’d promised it to him. “I do not think this is the best path for you.”

“I want to go,” he said firmly, convincing himself as much as his mother. “Father is old now and we need to send an army, so I should be the one to lead the Myrmidons.”

“I had no idea you sympathised so with Menelaus’ plight.”

“I don’t.”

It was the plain truth and she showed her appreciation for it with a decidedly cold smile, although he knew better than to expect warmth. “In that case, why ever do you want to go? I did not imagine you so impatient.”

There was a lot she would not have imagined from him. “I want to go,” he shrugged, as if waging war was a whim for him.

For other things, she might have fought with him and reduced him to frantic apologies and promises never to be such a fool in future, but not this. He could see it in the set of her mouth, that she wanted this for him as well but couldn’t bring herself to say it and admit that she was as impatient as he was.

After an age of gentle waves coming back and forth between them, she spoke. “Then go,” she said, with more fondness than he could have expected. He nodded gratefully and she leant down to place cold hands on his shoulders, kissing him on the forehead before dissolving into the sea foam that rushed up to his calves with the force of her disappearance.

Thetis had played her part as council and an immoveable wall to bounce his decision off: Achilles was calmer now. He couldn’t taste bitterness threatening to constrict his throat anymore, so he turned to walk back to the palace. If joining this war he couldn’t care less about was the price he had to pay, if this was the way destiny would lead him, then he was in no position to argue.

Chapter Text

Troy was a fortress unlike anything Patroclus had ever seen or had ever wanted to see. The walls towered above the small returning party so high that they blocked out the sun, leaving only sandy stone and the occasional sharp glint of a sentry’s armour until the giant city gates passed over them and they were into the hold itself. The doors slammed closed behind them, creaking and groaning into place.

They were faced by a significant crowd – people filled the street, faces spilling from windows going up storeys above them – and Patroclus felt the urge to move nearer his sister (for comfort, or just to comfort her), but she was at the front with Paris. As she had been for most of the journey. Without any better options, he stayed where he was and tried to look inconspicuous, not too difficult to do when everyone’s attention was focussed on the couple leading them.

It didn’t take long before the crowd parted to let through a line of soldiers led by a formidable looking man with an even more formidable (and more than a little frightening) scowl. From the impressive figure he cut to the dusty black curls of his hair and beard, there was very little about him that wasn’t formidable, if Patroclus was honest, and he had to re-evaluate his opinion of Paris from the way the prince was staring this newcomer down without flinching. The air seemed to fizzle between them and Patroclus could see excitement pass along the crowd through whispers and nudges. Clearly this was entertainment; Patroclus just feared for his life a little.

The tension diffused into a sigh as the man put an end to his and Paris’ stand-off. “I hope you’ve got an explanation for this,” he said in a deep voice, obviously trying his best to be good-natured and not quite succeeding.

“Would I have come here had I not?” Paris’ confidence shined through obnoxiously and Patroclus could see Helen’s shoulders tense.

The man raised an eyebrow somewhat despairingly. “I wouldn’t put it past you.” But he left it at that and, with a sweep of the cloak hanging from his gold neckpiece, he turned back to the newly-parted crowd, leading the way to the main palace. There was little they could do but follow, trying to ignore the stares from the crowd and the unnerving hush that hung over the city like a cloud in the otherwise clear sky. Helen held her head high through it all and Patroclus felt his heart go out to her, so proud yet so certain that they were doing the wrong thing, but he was more powerless here than she was.

Most of the party left them when they reached the palace: soldiers moving to the barracks, servants and anyone with a sense of self-preservation making themselves scarce so that when the group finally reached the king’s reception room, there was only a handful of them left. The room seemed to swallow them up into its cavern of pillars and coves, its vast stone floor cut in two by a line of tiling leading to the throne and the king of Troy.

Priam watched them enter without any outward expression of joy upon seeing his son. If anything, he seemed tired, but not in such a way that you couldn’t tell he was usually happier, brighter, more full of life. Various men and women lined the room, sitting on benches around the throne or standing near the windows at the edges of the room, all watching the group walk forwards. Patroclus guessed they were members of the extensive royal family: they were all dressed finely and held themselves well, and more than a few of them looked just as fatigued as Priam, though with perhaps a touch more annoyance than the king could reasonably show.

The man who’d brought them to the room walked forwards, then bowed and moved to the side of the throne in one swift movement. It was only at that moment, as he saw the two men next to each other and realised the similarities in stance and face, that Patroclus understood that this was Hector, the crown prince. For some reason that made him feel better about how intimidating he found the man.

“Come forwards, my son,” Priam said in a voice that was no less commanding for its tremor. Paris stepped forward with Helen, the both of them kneeling before the throne.

“Father,” Paris said, emphasising the word in a shamelessly obvious effort to gain sympathy, “I have brought Helen, daughter of Zeus, with me. We are in love and wish to be married.”

“You bring a married woman as your beloved?” There was no disbelief in Priam’s voice.

“We are in love. Menelaus showed her none of the respect one as lovely as she deserves.”

Hector clicked his tongue. “And is that reason enough to steal a man’s wife, your host’s, no less? You were sent to incite good faith between our countries, not war.”

Paris didn’t seem flustered. “Do you doubt Troy’s strength in battle, brother?”

“Not at all, but that is no reason for us to have to show it,” Hector frowned.

“We have been at odds with Greece for too long: now is the time to show it!”

“And you expect me to believe that is the reason you brought her back with you?”

“Enough,” Priam’s voice rang through the hall. He got to his feet and gestured for Paris and Helen to stand up. “We will continue this later. For now, see our guests housed and cared for.” Taking Helen’s hands in his, he smiled gently at her. “Regardless of the circumstances, it is a pleasure, Helen, daughter of Zeus.”

She nodded and returned the greeting with barely a tremble to her voice, and then it was Patroclus’ turn. The moment he saw Priam’s eyes turn to him, he knelt in a hurried bow and looked up when bidden to do so. The king’s expression was kind, white eyebrows raised under a circlet of gold in a silent question.

“I am Patroclus, son of Zeus and brother of Helen,” he said with much less success at sounding confident than his sister. “I thank you for your hospitality.” He couldn’t manage much more (though he had so many things he wanted to say, mostly apologies for bringing problems to such a courteous king’s country).

“Well met, Patroclus, son of Zeus,” Priam smiled briefly, and then turned his head to a group of his children standing by the wall. “Polyxena, if you would.”

A young girl – maybe fourteen and visibly the youngest of all the women in the room – came forwards and bowed to her father, then gestured for Patroclus to follow her. He was more than happy to obey and get away from the strained atmosphere in the room, sparing only a last encouraging smile for his sister before rushing after the girl.

She stayed in front of him for most of the journey through winding corridors and staircases and, even though there was a whole new city peeping out at him in fleeting visions from windows, he found himself concentrating on a single strand that had slipped from the pile of hair pinned to her head. It waved back and forth rhythmically with her steps, occasionally brushing against the dark brown of her exposed nape but not making it quite far enough to hit the gold-frayed edge of her tunic. And then, as they went into a seemingly random room among a whole row of similar ones, the strand swung around fully as she turned to face him.

“This will be your room. I hope it’s to your taste?” she asked politely.

Patroclus stuttered through his answer. “A-ah…yes! Yes, it’s wonderful, thank you!”

Her brown eyes seemed to fill with warmth when she smiled. The room was meagrely furnished (but then, it didn’t seem as if anyone had been living here before, and they couldn’t have been expecting him, so that seemed fair) with just a bed towards the side, a low table with an empty pitcher and bowl, a storage trunk and a chair by the window. The girl, Polyxena, moved to the window and looked out, angling herself enough to leave space for Patroclus to join her so, after a moment of hesitation, he did.

“Did you bring any luggage with you?” she asked conversationally and he dragged his eyes away from the open roofs of Troy spreading into the distance.

“Not much,” he admitted. “It was…quite a rushed departure.”

“Yes, I can imagine,” she nodded seriously. “I hope our prince didn’t give you too much trouble, but I suppose that’s unlikely…”

She was smiling at him knowingly and he couldn’t help his own smile in return. It was odd to be comforted by someone years younger than himself, but she was doing an excellent job of making him feel welcome despite the mantra of ‘this is wrong, I shouldn’t be here’ running through his mind like background noise. “Is this not the first time he’s brought a queen back with him, then?”

“Oh, gods forbid: this is definitely the first time. But our Paris has quite the reputation,” she explained, relaxing her stance to lean on the windowsill.

“Is a skirt-chaser one of them?”

She cocked her head to the side. “Yes, but I wouldn’t worry about your sister. He’s really quite faithful when he’s chased one down, you see.” And then, as an afterthought, “That doesn’t stop him from being a pest in other areas, of course.”

“Of course,” Patroclus nodded sagely.

“And he knows Father can’t stand to reprimand him properly so he just does whatever he wants. It’s really quite trying…Well, he’s not the only one, to be completely fair to him. You should also watch out for Helenus: he’s a seer and nobody dares to say anything to him because they’re all scared, so he’s a right terror. Oh, he can be sweet sometimes too, but really. You might find he’ll be interested in you: he’s got a twin sister too, Cassandra, but she’s…” Polyxena trailed off.

Patroclus waited for her to collect her thoughts.

“…we don’t much talk about her. She’s a lovely girl, really: very calm and wise but not exactly…balanced.” It took him a moment, but then Patroclus nodded hurriedly in understanding. With such a large family, there was bound to be some black sheep.

 “Anyway,” she waved her hands as if to brush away the subject, “you should also be wary of Deiphobus: he’s cunning as anything and if you engage with him he’ll have you wrapped around his little finger. There’s also Laodice, but really she’s just very ambitious. She’s also popularly considered the most beautiful of all my sisters, so we’ll have to see if she takes to yours well or if we’ll get a nice little rivalry on top of all this.”

“And how many sisters do you have?”

“Lots. I’ve got more brothers, though. It’s going to take you months to learn them all,” she said gleefully. “The one you really have to know you’ve already met, of course. Hector’s a darling. Father’s very lenient on all his children – which is often a good thing, of course – so Hector’s the one who keeps us mostly in line. He’ll probably be along to check on you soon: he keeps a close eye on everything around here.”

Patroclus nodded, taking the information in with no small amount of gratitude. Polyxena seemed happy to chat, and he was just happy to have someone to talk to after days on a ship where everyone resented his presence except his sister, and she’d been otherwise occupied. “Is he as fearsome as everyone says?”

“Not fearsome, per se…although you were at the receiving end earlier, weren’t you? Believe me: he’s a lot nicer when Paris isn’t in front of you. He is the strongest warrior in the city, but he’s also fair and kind and Andromache – his wife – can attest to him being sweet too! He’s wonderful…”

Patroclus could sense something of a brother complex from the look of pure pride on Polyxena’s face but he decided it would be too rude to tease her about it.

He changed the subject. “And where do you stand among all your siblings?”

“I’m just the second youngest. Polydorus is younger than me, but out of fifty children, that’s still not bad.”

“Do you ever forget who’s who?”

She laughed brightly. “It’s been known to happen! I mostly get mixed up with my siblings’ wives and husbands. They all look the same after a while, you know?”

“I hope that’s not happened with my dear wife,” a voice came from behind them as Hector walked in, grinning. The smile did wonders for him: gone was the war-hardened general, replaced by a ruggedly handsome man who looked, in a word, friendly.

“Of course not!” Polyxena laughed. “Really I was thinking of Aristodeme’s new husband: doesn’t he look just like Demosthea’s? It’s all in the jaw, I think.”

“Glad to hear it.” Hector nodded approvingly and turned his piercing gaze to Patroclus who, much to his own surprise, didn’t flounder under it as much as he thought he would. “Now, I trust you’ll be comfortable here, at least for the time being? Please don’t take it as any personal offence, but you may not be staying long.”

That was news. “Has Paris backed down?” he asked, not even trying to hide his eagerness.

“Not in the slightest,” Hector grimaced, “but the sentries have spotted a Greek ship on the horizon.” Noticing the way Patroclus stiffened up, he said in a reassuring tone, “Don’t worry: they’re likely here to barter for your return diplomatically before going to the trouble of raging a war on us. So, if all goes to plan, Paris won’t get his way.” He said it as if it brought him great delight and satisfaction on a fundamental level.

“Good,” Patroclus sighed in relief.

“From that response, I take it you were opposed to coming here?” Hector asked, taking the chair and sitting on it backwards so he could lean on the back to look at them. “I won’t be offended if you say you were.”

“It…it certainly wasn’t my preferred course of action…”

Polyxena grinned. “Did you get bullied into it by your sister?”

“I wouldn’t say bullied…”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t.”

“It really wasn’t like that!”

“Patroclus, I have over forty siblings. I know what it’s like.”

“It wasn’t like that at all, though,” he shook his head emphatically. “We’re always together, so I had to come. Simple as that.”

Hector had been watching them with the amused air of a fond older brother but at that point he cut in. “I hope this isn’t a sensitive subject, but…did your sister want to come here?” The tightness of his clenched jaw was the only hint Patroclus needed.

“I’m sure she did,” he said firmly.

“She didn’t relax throughout any of the meeting with my father, nor did Paris take his hands off her.”

“I think she’s just nervous. She knows better than he does that she shouldn’t be here, but…I’m sure she wasn’t forced.” There was no way, not when she’d been so happy, lit up like a star on a moonless night. Patroclus just had to hope it was a happiness that would last. He’d been hoping for several days.

Hector nodded, expression lightening. “All the better, then, but also worse because she’s going to have to leave him.”

“She’ll be fine, I’m certain of it.”

“Because you’re here for her?”

“I’d…like to think so.”

Polyxena beamed at him for that. “Well,” she clapped her hands together, “seeing as you’re going to be here for a day or so at least, how about I show you around some more?”

 

The tour was extensive, going from the high, flat rooftops of the palace buildings that overlooked the entire city, all the way down to the servants’ quarters in the shady cool of the cellars where cooks and handmaidens bobbed respectfully in front of Polyxena and Patroclus before rushing off to continue working. They walked through the streets next, and though Patroclus was nervous at first (being in an entirely different country when you knew your arrival would likely bring war to it could do that to a person), Polyxena carried herself along so confidently that it rubbed off on him and soon he forgot to worry. There were some stalls to look at in passing, but the city was mostly relaxing into the late afternoon like a lizard warming itself in the sun. That didn’t matter: the city itself wasn’t their destination.

It was a long climb to the top of the ramparts and Patroclus began to regret it about halfway up. He insisted several times that he didn’t really need to see them, but Polyxena dragged him up anyway, insisting right back that he absolutely did need to and he’d think himself a fool when he got to the top and realised. Privately, Patroclus thought himself a fool for agreeing to it anyway, especially when he was three quarters of the way up, soaked with sweat and desperately trying not to look down at the decidedly narrow stairway he’d just climbed. Polyxena, with all the youthful energy of a child who’d been given a new distraction, continued to pull on his arm.

In her defence, the view was brilliant. It took a little while for Patroclus to fully appreciate it, what with the wheezing and cursing how his life had come to this, but when she did manage to turn him around to look over the vast lands in front of the fortress and the sea beyond it – glittering in sunset orange – he was speechless.

“Worth it?” she asked, bubbling with excitement.

“Definitely…”

“Good. I’d hate to think you’d been dragged here for the love you have for you sister and then had nothing to show for it.”

“The experience itself has been worth a lot.”

“I’m glad my brother didn’t put you through too much trouble then!”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Paris causes trouble for everyone. I’m surprised your sister could put up with him, let alone fall in love with him. Perhaps they just deserve each other,” she shrugged.

“No chance: he doesn’t deserve her at all,” Patroclus said earnestly, finally getting the opportunity to voice what he’d been thinking since he’d first heard the whole sorry scheme.

Polyxena looked at him curiously, but closed her eyes with a smile in acquiescence. “Was it really that easy, leaving everything behind? I know I’m still young, but…I can’t imagine being able to do that for any one of my siblings.”

“Even Hector?”

“Even him.”

Patroclus considered her question, considered Polyxena herself. “It wasn’t easy,” he said slowly. “But we’re twins, and we’ve always been together, and I love her, so…”

A chilling breeze rushed past them and they looked over to see the Greek ship that had been spotted earlier approach the docks, miles away.

“So you don’t have anyone you regret leaving behind?” Polyxena asked quietly.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

Chapter Text

The Greek envoys were bustled into the city to a hurried reception with the king that neither Patroclus nor Polyxena were invited to, oddly enough, but Patroclus supposed it was Helen that they were really bargaining for, not him. In the end he only got to see them at the welcoming feast: unfamiliar faces far across the packed tables, being entertained by some of Priam’s daughters and not seeming entirely upset by the idea, from the way one of the men pressed up against an exceptionally pretty woman Polyxena helpfully pointed out as Laodice.

It became rapidly clear to Patroclus that the men had little to no urgency in their mission and that calmed him down. If they were happy to waste away an evening with wine and feasting and Priam’s hospitality, the situation couldn’t be too bad. He could almost believe the negotiations would go swimmingly the next day, if he avoided looking at how protective Paris’ stance was around Helen, his pretty face crunched into a scowl at the visitors. It was so familiar that Patroclus couldn’t help but smile at the memory of when he’d done the same, but he stayed resolutely tight-lipped when Polyxena questioned it.

The two of them left the feast early (once again springing a grin to Patroclus’ mouth at how familiar it seemed) and they meandered up a staircase to get to one of the rooftops of the palace, settling down against the edge. Patroclus had never paid much attention to the stars in his own home, wherever home was, but he couldn’t help but notice how faded these looked compared to the ones he’d seen on the night that seemed a lifetime away. It didn’t matter. They were still bright and bursting with promise, a million seeds in a sky an ocean wide and more, just as beautiful as they ought to be.

He lay back down, hands cushioning his head, and caught Polyxena beaming at him, her eyes so scrunched up that they just glittered softly in the moonlight. “What?” he asked.

“I was just thinking you seemed happy, and I was pleased.”

“…an odd thing to be so pleased about, isn’t it?”

“Ah, but consider this!” She raised a finger imperiously. “I’m the youngest daughter here. Do you honestly think I get given much responsibility? It makes me happy that I’ve managed to make you feel welcome, because I’ve succeeded! And besides, I like you. I can’t speak about your sister, but you’re nice. I suppose…it would be preferable if you could go back home as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t mind if you didn’t.”

Patroclus considered this. “Are you lonely here?”

“Hardly,” she snorted. “If anything, I’m not left alone enough. But I also can’t say you’re wrong…I do love my family, but they’re not the greatest company in the world. So I’m glad that my father gave you to me, even if you’re so much older.”

“Yes, it didn’t make much sense, did it? You definitely have sisters closer to my age.”

Polyxena giggled. “I told you my father was kind. He always knows.”

They turned back to look at the stars with the heady hush of escape from the crowd in their ears; muffled sounds in the background acting as their music. It had been a day of firsts, Patroclus decided, but he thought he could live with that. Troy was neither as frightening nor as unwelcoming as he’d imagined, and with Polyxena’s smile boosting him up, he didn’t feel as sun-starved as he might have.

 

The negotiations did not go swimmingly. Patroclus wasn’t even allowed the dignity of being there for them: instead, he had to settle for listening at the staircase with Polyxena and one of her younger brothers, Toilus. Regardless of the fact that he was finding himself quite at home among Priam’s younger children, it was not the best position to hear anything of interest from the council room. Indeed, there weren’t even any dramatic slamming of doors or shouted insults at the visitors’ honour, and the whole ordeal ended with barely a whisper, as far as Patroclus could hear. One moment the visitors were there, the next they were sailing home with war in their hearts and mouths.

Polyxena took Patroclus to see his sister afterwards. The rooms Helen was housed in were so far removed from Patroclus’ they were in a completely different wing of the palace, and she was alone when they made it to her door.

She didn’t look up when Patroclus knocked: she was sat on her bed looking out of the window, the tanned sandstone slope of her neck raised high to the proud jut of her jaw, curls dripping down over her shoulders from where they piled neatly on her head. It was a sight Patroclus was well used to, though Polyxena took a few moments to recover herself enough to leave them in peace, looking rather dazed.

Making sure to tread lightly, he walked to the window and looked out with her. Helen’s room was high enough that they could see the sea over the walls, and far, far in the distance, much too far to even identify it, a ship sailed away from Troy.

“Are you alright?” he asked quietly, trying with all his might to sound as un-accusing as possible.

Helen looked at him and smiled. “I wasn’t prepared.”

“What did they say to you?”

“They asked me if I had come willingly, if I wouldn’t consider going back with them to save everyone from the war Menelaus has to wage now. They told me I would be the cause of a million and more deaths.” Her shoulders hunched over, making her seem smaller against the sea of white sheets she was sitting on.

“What did you reply?”

“I wasn’t allowed to. Paris told them they were wrong.” She smiled wryly, as if she could barely believe what she was saying for how ridiculous it was. “Paris said…a great many things.”

“Oh, Helen…” There was little else to say, so he sat next to her and put an arm around her shoulders protectively. Sighing lightly, she slumped against him and it almost felt as if she was comforting him in her own way.

“I don’t…exactly regret leaving…” Helen said slowly, picking the words out. “I think I will soon. I felt as if I couldn’t stay there, but now it seems I was wrong.”

“We don’t know that.”

“No, we don’t. But I didn’t think Menelaus would care quite so much. Or perhaps he doesn’t! Perhaps my supposed kidnapping was just an excuse for a war he would have had one way or another. Either way, I can’t leave now. Before you ask, I still think I love Paris, and I still think he feels more than that for me. But I also disagree with the decisions he’s making and he won’t let me get involved in them.”

“So now you’re left to face the brunt of everyone’s resentment without any chance to put things back together,” Patroclus murmured, hugging his sister tighter.

“Yes. It’s all very annoying, isn’t it?” she said brightly, her voice just trembling enough at the edges to give away the tears welling up in her eyes. “You’ll…you’ll always be here, won’t you?” she asked in a voice choked with suppressed panic.

“I’ll always be with you,” Patroclus said sincerely, pulling her closer so she could bury her face in his shoulder, fingers twisted into his tunic, and cry properly with tight, heaving gasps and strangled sobs.

Time slowed to honey dripping through their fingers, sticking them together with thin strands even as they pulled apart at the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. It wasn’t the time to leave her – not when her eyes were still red and her jaw was still wobbling dangerously – but she pushed him away with her fingertips, the gentlest of orders to leave her so she could pretend she was alright.

Patroclus passed Paris in the doorway and met his glare fiercely before striding down the corridor. Polyxena was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, sitting and playing idly with the hem of her tunic, and she shot up when she heard his steps.

“Is she alright?” she asked hopefully.

“I imagine she’ll be fine.” It was the best answer he could come up with to protect his sister without downright lying.

“Oh, I’m glad,” Polyxena smiled warmly with genuine relief. “And…I thought you might have trouble coming back, so…”

“Thank you.” Desperate to cling onto her sunny warmth and melt away the ice tensing his muscles at the thought of what Helen was going through, he changed the subject with a sly smile. “Are you sure you’re not supposed to be in lessons and you’re just finding an excuse to skip?”

She laughed without a scrap of shame. “That may well be true, but I’m sure my esteemed almost-brother-in-law comes before philosophy! Besides, I won’t be having lessons for very much longer, what with my coming of age.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason to pay attention now?”

“Not when my masters have decided it’s not worth it to teach properly anymore,” she sniffed in response. “But come on! Let’s go and find Hector to hear exactly what happened at the meeting!”

Despite the size of the palace, it didn’t take very long to find him at all, seeing as how they all but crashed into him in the garden connecting the two main buildings. As might be expected, his face was grim, but he still smiled upon seeing them and gestured to stone benches beside a row of blossoming white flowers Patroclus didn’t recognise.

“Presumably you’ve heard the…decision we came to?” he asked wearily.

“Well, we saw them leave. Or rather, we saw them being hurried out as quickly as they could gather their belongings,” Polyxena sighed, propping her chin up in her hands.

“There is going to be a war, isn’t there?” Patroclus asked, as if clinging to the last piece of hope he could find.

“I’m afraid so. Blame Paris if you must blame anyone.”

“Oh, I will.”

Hector grinned at him. “He wouldn’t hear sense: called the whole thing a ‘mockery of our great country’, if I remember rightly. As if other princes go around stealing kings’ wives every day. I do want to believe that this is a matter of love, but my better judgement is telling me it’s all his pride, some absurd way for him to act out and prove himself a prince worthy of the name.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, it doesn’t. I’ve never seen eye to eye with him, but this is just…” he gestured wildly, apparently unable to put the ridiculousness of the whole situation into words. “And to think people are going to die because of his power play: it makes me want to force him to give your sister back, but Father won’t hear of it.”

Polyxena looked up sharply. “Father isn’t…he’s not in favour of this, is he?”

“Not at all: anyone can see it pained him to send them away, but he won’t deny Paris anything.” Hector clenched his fist and let it shake for a second before regaining control. “But there’s nothing we can do now but prepare for the Greeks to come. I’ll need to rally the army again.”

“Is Patroclus going to be fighting?” Polyxena asked, making Patroclus jump. He hadn’t considered the option, but it was impossible. There was simply no reason for them to let him fight when he had such strong ties to the enemy.

Hector knew it too and he shook his head. “No: he’ll be staying here with you. He’s too important a guest to ask him to fight.”

That was in no way the real reason and Patroclus met Hector’s eyes over Polyxena’s head, smiling in thanks for not mentioning the blunt truth: that he couldn’t be trusted. Hector smiled in return and got to his feet, stretching and blocking out the sun for the other two.

“I need to let the people know war is on the horizon now, though” he said by way of apology, turning to leave.

“Um…!” Patroclus found himself blurting out before the man could leave. “If I’m not to fight, what…is it exactly that I’m to do here?”

Hector thought about the question with a little more concentration than it probably warranted. “Join Polyxena in her lessons, perhaps? Polydorus and Toilus are both too young to fight as well – although you might spar with them and improve their technique, if you’d like – so they’ll be with you, as well as the rest of the women.” His expression softened. “I’m sorry to leave you with children so much younger than yourself, but…”

Patroclus shook his head. “No, that’s really alright. I don’t mind.” It didn’t matter to him at all, he found. If anything, he was secretly glad he wouldn’t have to fight against his own people, or fight at all.

 

The weeks that followed were as bizarre as any Patroclus had lived. Which is to say, not very bizarre, in the end. He fell into a routine easily: without many other options, he joined Polyxena in the mornings and spent most of them daydreaming or ignoring her attempts to distract herself by talking to him, except for the lectures on local history that he had never heard before, or the occasional lesson specifically for women that he’d never received. He dined with the royal family and spent the early afternoon heat with Polyxena again, and it was during these times that he got to know her siblings, or as many as stood out to him among countless similar faces.

Polydorus and Toilus, the youngest sons, took to him immediately, especially after he admitted he’d be able to help them learn to fight while the rest of the men were at war. They reminded him of puppies that never ran out of energy: once one of them had targeted you for pestering (although, in truth, it wasn’t always pestering so much as overly exuberant conversation), there was no escape. Toilus might well try and pretend he was more mature than his younger brother, but the two of them made such a pair that Patroclus could barely imagine them apart.

He had the honour of finally meeting Laodice in person, too, and she was every bit as beautiful as Polyxena had talked her up to be, but that wasn’t enough to make him miss how Polyxena grinned mischievously at him during his introduction. Later, she teased him about how he’d stammered in front of Laodice’s apparently infinite grace and elegance, but he teased her right back about how she couldn’t keep her eyes off his sister whenever Helen was in the room, and after some productive hours spent arguing the matter, they agreed to drop it more from exhaustion than anything else.

There was also Deiphobus, who came across as rather too clever for his own good and utterly aware of it, but the brother who really stole the show was Helenus. He was easily as fair as Paris with skin just a shade lighter than Polyxena’s and long black hair that fell to his shoulders freely, and he carried himself even more gracefully than Laodice, if that was possible. As Polyxena had predicted, he came over to Patroclus the first chance he got, setting himself down comfortably on the cushions next to him and raising his cup in greeting.

Patroclus felt a little out of his depth throughout the entire exchange that followed (mostly Helenus asking questions and acting as if the answers were amusing to him for some reason) but Polyxena had prepared him for that very outcome, so he just smiled and stayed as honest as he could and eventually Helenus left him with a pat on his shoulder and a whisper in his ear hoping he found Troy to his liking. Much to Patroclus’ surprise, there was no hint of resentment towards him or his sister from anyone.

The days passed easily with such colourful characters, punctuated by visits to see Helen each evening, and before Patroclus had managed to resign himself to the reality of what they were facing, the Greek army arrived.

It was a day full of confusion and shouting and clanking metal, all heard from within his bedroom as he watched the army ready itself from his window. Now the minutes felt like they were only trickling by, blocked by his worries and guilt, and by the time Polyxena came to tell him it was safe to come out without fear of getting in everyone’s way, his nerves were wound so tight that he was ready to break something.

The two of them went to the rooftop to listen to the din of battle from behind unimaginably high walls, neither of them sure what to do. It would get easier with time, when war became another part of the routine, but there was no chance of that on the first day. They linked fingers and Patroclus could feel her shaking – by nerves or fear or excitement he didn’t know – so he squeezed her hand, trying to be comforting despite his own nervousness choking him.

In the afternoon it grew too much: they snuck out of the palace and went to the walls. Patroclus berated himself internally for bringing a child with him but he couldn’t stand the waiting any longer and she wouldn’t let him go alone, so they found themselves in an alley at the edge of the city, listening to the war which must have been only a hundred metres from them. There were few people on the streets: silence had descended on the city from fear and anxiety, and they weren’t disturbed.

 But despite his efforts, it didn’t do anything: Patroclus felt no connection to the fighting or release from the worry and impatience threatening to drown him, and to make matters worse he could see Polyxena’s fear bubble up inside her with every twitch and movement she made closer to him.

Her reaction was understandable: they might well have been inside the walls, but from where they were standing they could hear screams and clashes of swords, panicked men shouting their last cries before they were killed, and Patroclus regretted bringing Polyxena with him more with every second that passed. More than that, he regretted coming altogether, and he was just taking her hand to leave when a new war cry started up from beyond the wall and his blood ran cold.

He dropped Polyxena’s hand and ran, sprinting to the wall and the stairs that led up it, deaf to her shouts of alarm. He ran with everything he had, urging himself on despite the ripping pains that cut through his thighs and lungs after a pathetically short amount of time, his breath coming out too shallow, too slow to take him as fast as he needed to go. The chant rang in his ears almost loud enough to block out the pounding of his blood and he ran on despite the sweat pouring down his back and neck, scrabbling at the dusty stairs with his hands when his legs began to give way.

Further down, he could hear Polyxena try to catch up to him, but soon even her warning shouts didn’t reach his ears: all he could hear was the commotion of archers on the ramparts and the war cry pulling him up.

By the time he launched himself at the rampart walls he could barely see for the black clouding his vision, so light-headed that breathing was all he could concentrate on, and he didn’t spare even a thought to the soldiers shouting at him to get down. His eyes scanned the battlefield desperately and within seconds they caught on a single figure in the fray with mind-numbing certainty.

Achilles looked like a god descended to earth. Everything about him shone unnaturally: the sunlight charged off his armour blindingly, smothering him in golden light, and he didn’t seem to tire no matter how many men flung themselves into his sword’s path. His name was in the mouth of every Greek, but it seemed to Patroclus that even that level of encouragement didn’t matter in the least, not to someone who turned death into an art.

When they were children Achilles had said he was invincible, a proud smile lighting up his face, but it was only here that Patroclus understood what he’d meant by the word: it wasn’t that no one could deal the finishing blow, it was simply that no one could come close to touching him. The sand that was flung up at the hit of his heels, the effortless minimalism of his movements, and yet the infinite surety with which he held himself all snagged Patroclus’ attention (as if he wouldn’t have given it freely) and refused to let him go. Even when the archers around him grew violent and tried to push him back, shouts rising into the air by his ears, he couldn’t hear them.

And then Achilles looked up and Patroclus couldn’t hear anything anymore. There was so much and so little distance between them – a wall and a war and a world – but he knew their eyes met, knew from the sudden hitch in Achilles’ rhythm that he’d been seen.

Ignoring the battle around him, Achilles walked forwards as if a few hesitant steps could climb the sheer rock in front of him, and then Patroclus was pulled back and the gap at the ramparts was filled with soldiers again.

He couldn’t answer Polyxena’s frantic questions: he could barely understand her. All he knew was the uncontrollable shaking of his limbs and the gaze that was burned into his memory.

Chapter Text

Only by the grace of Polyxena supporting him was Patroclus able to make it down the stairs to solid ground again, away from the screams and sounds that had rushed back into his ears like a flood. They stopped in a dead-end between two houses and Patroclus collapsed, covering his face with his hands, his whole body shaking in spite of the way Polyxena stroked his back softly in a perplexed attempt at comforting him.

He thought he must be blind. Everything was a blur before him and around him from the cracks of light coming through his fingers so he shut his eyes, cutting off the world to somehow contain the unstoppable force growling and rising through him. It wasn’t happiness or fear or excitement or relief or anything he was used to feeling: it was a searing sense of ‘this was meant to be’ and Patroclus surrendered himself willingly to the threads of destiny that he could practically feel wrapping and sealing his entire body.

Happiness came, and he laughed without any control over it; heavy, breathy laughter with a touch more distress than mirth. He’d thought he was a fool for so long, clinging to the last remnants of sunlight like a man locked in an underground cell, but there was only giddy freedom in him now. Years, so many years had passed, and the nervous buds of love hadn’t wilted at all, an afterimage branded into him that he could wear with pride. He hadn’t been wrong. He’d been seen, he’d been recognised.

Slowly he came back to himself. Polyxena was sitting next to him, fidgeting with her hem again and watching him warily when he pulled his hands away and blinked into the brightness of daylight.

“What was that?” she asked, not quite unkindly, but sullen and fearful.

“I’m not sure,” he replied truthfully.

“Don’t lie to me!” she turned on him, eyes blazing. “What was that?! Do you really just want to go and fight for them?! Or…or what? I can’t think, Patroclus: I can’t explain this and if I can’t, what do you think everyone else is going to say? Do you want everyone to think you a traitor who can’t control himself?!”

Her anger felt so far away from him: distressed words that couldn’t break through the castle of sunlight he was living in. “It’s not like that,” he smiled, voice breathless with almost-laughter. “He came for me. He remembered…”

Polyxena stared at him – dark eyes as wide as they could open, mouth closed tightly – and then she sighed, tipping her head back. “Alright,” she pinched the furrow between her eyebrows. “Alright, you’re not in love with Laodice.”

“Obviously.” He looked up to the sky, feeling the sun warm his already flushed cheeks.

“Who, then? Who’s the man who captured your heart so that you’d do something so foolish?”

Another ghost of laughter passed through Patroclus’ lips and he smiled helplessly at her. “It’s Achilles.”

If possible, her eyes went even wider than before for just a second, and then narrowed into something crossed between disbelief and concern. “…you have a lot of explaining to do, I hope you know.”

Patroclus nodded happily.

“Let’s go back.”

He wasn’t in much of a position to resist so he let her pull him up and they hurried through the streets of Troy back to the palace, keeping to the sides of buildings as if they were running from something more than the still-present sounds of battle behind them.

With far more patience than should have been necessary, she pried most of the story from him when they got back to her room. After he’d finished explaining the situation (barely believing it himself), she knelt in front of where he sat on the bed, took his hands in hers and looked up at him earnestly. “You can’t tell anyone else about this, you know that, don’t you?”

He’d vaguely understood that it would be better not to say anything, but fear was written deep in her face and he frowned. “Why is it so important I don’t?”

“Tell me: what do you think will happen if word gets out that someone in a position like yours is in love with one of the greatest of our enemies? More to the point, that you are apparently loved in return? I don’t know how long this war will last, but if tensions rise…” Polyxena bit her lip.

That particular facet of the jewel in Patroclus’ life that was loving Achilles wasn’t something he’d ever considered properly. He’d been so wrapped up in convincing himself that it was a beautiful dream and nothing more, then left so breathless from the exhilaration of knowing it wasn’t…he’d never thought about it, but now he did, the danger he was in was obvious enough that he could slap himself for not seeing it. But it had been so easy to turn a blind eye when Priam’s family treated him like one of theirs.

“…you’re right,” he said, slightly taken down from the clouds it felt like he was floating on.

“I am.”

“Will you keep it a secret, then?”

Polyxena flushed in anger and slapped his hand lightly. “Of course I will! I’m insulted you even have to ask!”

Patroclus had suspected as much (and knew he deserved the slap) but he still breathed a sigh of relief. “Then let’s keep it a secret.”

“I’m willing, but considering how you were smiling earlier, you’re going to have to put in some effort.”

“Don’t worry: I’ll be fine,” he smiled warmly, hoping to clear away some of her frown.

“I hope so. And…Patroclus? Are you honestly alright with how you’re now on the opposite side to him? Everyone you see here would like him dead. Many will have the chance to see that wish fulfilled by their own means.”

Patroclus shook his head, unflustered. “No, they won’t. No one will be able to touch him.”

 

The two of them stayed safely in Polyxena’s room when the men came back. They would be summoned to dinner in time, but Polyxena was still on edge and seemed to think the best way of keeping a secret was to painstakingly avoid any situations in which said secret might possibly slip out. It wasn’t the worst of methods – though it was far from sustainable, Patroclus thought – but he humoured her, knowing that she didn’t have the still-lingering pool of warmth and contentment he was filled with.

They watched the crowds through the window. People milled around, finding loved ones and crying out in relief or in pain, and though it all felt so far away, the ice cold touch of horror still gripped at Patroclus and he reached out for Polyxena’s hand. She took his gratefully, her eyes fixed on the steady stream of injured soldiers who walked or were carried into the lower floors of the palace for treatment.

From that distance, they could have been anyone. Anyone suffering, anyone hit by a war that shouldn’t have started, and Patroclus caught himself wondering how the Greek soldiers were doing, far from home and with only a makeshift camp to rest in. It wasn’t that he was torn between two sides: love for his country and his people were not the first things on his mind, and while he could, should have mourned the losses from either or both sides, he only felt sympathy numbed by residual ecstasy. And yet, when he looked down at Polyxena leaning against the windowsill, he could see the firmness of her lips pressed together in an effort to keep composure.

“I’m sure your brothers are fine,” he said, meaninglessly, for something to say.

Polyxena nodded tightly. “I…I know they will be…they’re princes, they’ll be protected, but…I don’t like feeling comforted by that.”

“It’s natural to want your loved ones to be safe above others.” He meant it to be kind, but she frowned at his words.

“I may be far from the throne, but those are still my people dying. Let me feel guilt over this.”

Patroclus had nothing to say to that, nor to the fierce scowl on her face as she looked back down to the streets.

When a servant came to find them, all was apparently forgiven: Polyxena smiled at him questioningly – asking if he was ready – and he nodded. They left for the dining hall without letting go of the other’s hand.

The royal family was as lively as ever, if not more so. Priam congratulated his sons and sons-in-law on their admirable skill on the field and it became clear that none of them had died this first day. A hearty cheer rose up from the tables as Hector came in, returning from seeing to his men, and he accepted it with tired grace before sitting next to Andromache.

Polyxena visibly relaxed during the meal, drinking the unusually strong wine freely and engaging in a happy argument with one of her sisters: Demnosia, if Patroclus remembered correctly. The rest of the room was in much the same spirits: celebration and reckless abandon were the aims for the night, rather than grieving. There would be far too many such nights to spend them all grim-faced and living in austerity, Patroclus supposed, but he still couldn’t get his head round it. It might have been the privilege of the powerful coming into play, allowing Priam’s family to live and have fun as they usually would while the lower classes mourned, but Patroclus could hear the sounds of revelry mirrored from the streets below too.

Late into the night when the children and a fair amount of the adults had retired to sleep, Hector came to sit next to Patroclus. He smiled broadly in greeting and seemed content to sit, drinking idly and watching a scuffle break out between two of his brothers across the room. Patroclus couldn’t think of anything to say, so he did the same.

“How was it?” Hector asked after the spat had faded into half-hearted insults and sleepy shoves.

Taken aback, Patroclus wasn’t sure how to respond for a second. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?”

“By all means ask me the same, but you still need to answer. It’s just polite,” Hector smiled.

“There isn’t much to say from my end. It was nerve-wracking.”

“How did Polyxena take it?”

“She was scared, but she did try and hide it.”

Hector nodded. “That sounds like her. She’s the youngest daughter by a significant margin, you know, and because she grew up around brothers she’s now finding it difficult to accept that she can’t fight for Troy like us.”

Patroclus blinked at him. “Is that how it is?”

Hector sighed and looked conflicted for a moment. “Keep in mind she’s also a child, and we haven’t had war in a great many years. I’m not sure she’s quite ready to understand that heroism isn’t all it’s talked up to be.”

“She isn’t as young as all that.”

“Perhaps not, but I still worry about her. It’ll be good for her to have some company, though, so I’m glad you’re here for her.”

Patroclus nodded, acknowledging the gratitude. “If you don’t mind me asking, do you worry this much about all of your siblings?”

Hector snorted and took a while to compose himself. “…not as such. I do try! It’s just a case of having some siblings you get along with better than others. And I’m sure you know all about that, of course. Also, she’s young and going through a difficult time in her life. It’s only natural I’ll look out for her.”

It didn’t seem the most natural course of action to Patroclus, but he kept that to himself. While Hector smiled in happy reminiscence of something, he curled his fingers around the cup in his hands, staring at the ripples the movement threw. Around the two of them, the background conversation seemed to quiet and Patroclus supposed it was as good a time as any to ask. “So, um…how was the battle?”

“Like many others. Have you ever fought?”

“Not in a real war.”

“Then I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried. It never feels like a war when you’re fighting, even with the best formation an army can offer. At the end of the day, it’s just you, alone, fighting for your life. Sometimes it’s easy to see how it’s going to go, but not with anything on this scale; it will take a long time before either of us gains an advantage in this fight.”

“How do the Greeks fight?”

“Are you looking for a technique analysis?”

“No, not at all, just…are you and they well-matched?”

“Well enough.”

“There are no heroes who stand out?” Patroclus said it before he could help himself and Hector looked at him through the corner of his eye but evidently decided to let it pass.

“There are some. There was no time for formal introductions, but I believe there was Ajax, Diomedes, Achilles…” Patroclus tried very hard not to let his neutral expression falter and Hector apparently noticed nothing. “I can’t remember them all, of course, but if it’s war stories you’re after, you’ll find as many exaggerated tales as you’d like down in the barracks.” He didn’t say it unkindly.

“I’m sure they’d be delighted to see me after today,” Patroclus said dryly.

“Wait a few months: when this war starts dragging, then they’ll be itching for a fight with whoever they think might be to blame. Now however, apart from those who lost someone dear to them, it’s a time for celebration of how we fought. I doubt anyone would be unwelcome down there.”

“A few months? This is a war over a single woman: how could it last that long?” A nasty thought came to him. “Could Troy last for months under siege?”

“Definitely: we could last years here. I certainly hope we don’t have to, but…this is about egos, not your sister.”

Patroclus nodded, mulling the information over. “I thought it might be a grab for power, but do you think this is just because Menelaus isn’t getting his way?”

“It could be anything,” Hector shrugged.

“You don’t seem overly concerned with finding the cause and putting an end to this,” Patroclus found himself frowning, but a single icy glance from Hector froze him.

“Let me make myself clear when I say that I would give anything to end the war right now,” Hector’s voice was level but cold. “Conflict is necessary, yes, but I cannot agree with the reasons behind this, nor do I want to. There are men who want this war and they will have it, no matter what, and there’s no reason to go looking for a solution when those men will just find a way to get back at us again. Ending this by winning is the only way I can see, and I won’t be the one to defile Troy’s pride by crawling to the Greeks’ camp and asking for peace when they would like nothing better than to spit in my face.”

Patroclus looked away, ashamed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

Hector breathed out slowly. “You’ll learn in time. Don’t worry yourself about it.”

“But if you’re so against it, surely there’s another way to stop this!”

“There’s always another way, but I can’t be certain it’s worth it,” Hector said matter-of-factly.

“Your brother, Helenus: he’s a seer, isn’t he? Can’t he help?”

“Helenus’ visions don’t come to him as easily as he pretends. He certainly can’t see anything he wishes to: the visions are random and entirely subject to the gods’ will. Cassandra’s come much more frequently, but none are worth listening to. Believe me, we would have used Helenus before if he were that useful. As it is, he’s…” Hector trailed off and inclined his head to where his brother was flirting outrageously with a serving girl.

A little deflated, Patroclus nodded and kept his head lowered. Hector stood up and looked at him, then put a hand on his shoulder. “At this point I wouldn’t worry. There’s every chance the war will be won within the month.”

Patroclus looked up sharply. “But that means one side’s going to be defeated.”

“That’s what war is. Have faith: either way, you’ll be fine. Rescued in one case, and in the other this life you have here continues.”

Murmuring a non-committal sound, Patroclus looked away. Hector ducked down under the guise of picking up his cup, his mouth lingering near Patroclus’ ear. “But don’t go to the ramparts again, not to see anyone.”

Patroclus froze in place, barely feeling it as Hector’s hand left his shoulder and the man walked away.

 

He didn’t tell Polyxena that Hector might know. There were too many maybes, too much uncertainty, and if there was anything about it that Patroclus was certain of, it was that Hector felt trustworthy. So he said nothing.

The second day was much the same as the first on the surface, but in the palace life stuttered back to normal. Polyxena went back to her lessons and Patroclus followed her as usual for the next few days before growing restless. There was a war outside he wasn’t allowed to fight in and it felt senseless to spend the time learning things he already knew, so after a week had passed by (proving that no matter the carnage, time continues to roll onwards heartlessly) Patroclus found himself going down to the lower levels of one of the palace buildings where wounded soldiers were treated.

He was shaking with nerves when he finally stepped in front of the door and heard the sounds from behind it, but despite all his reservations that he would only make matters worse by showing up, he knocked on the door and a young physician let him in.

It was a huge room and Patroclus could see openings in one of the walls, leading to similar rooms all lined with pallets. Thankfully, it was well-lit, though that only made the bloodstains more obvious. A surprisingly small amount of the pallets were occupied but even for that small number there were precious few staff attending them. Patroclus turned to the weary-looking man looking at him expectantly. “Could I be of any help?”

He wasn’t so naïve that he’d expected it to be easy work, but the sheer stress and emotionless practicality of it shocked him, especially when that day’s fighting was over and the soldiers came rushing back with their wounded and dying. By the grace of not knowing any of the men personally he was able to cut where he was told, apply salves without flinching at the weeping sores, and bandage all of the ripped skin and torn flesh presented to him. In a day’s work he understood why the rest of the physicians were so tight-lipped and seemingly without feeling. It took weeks before he understood how the soldiers could see every night as a cause for celebration.

He would never be as good as the trained doctors: he knew that, but he also saw how short on staff they were and despite his inexperience he grew confident in what he did and began to find satisfaction in it. It took a while for him to find a rhythm, constantly wanting to help more but knowing there was no point in removing himself totally from palace life, and after a month he had settled into his new purpose. Mornings and early afternoons he spent in the palace, then he rushed down to help with the influx of injuries as the soldiers came back from the day’s fighting. Polyxena whined about it good-naturedly but she seemed proud of him and was more than happy to make good use of what time she could spend with him. He still visited Helen daily, making sure she wasn’t crumbling under the weight of everyone’s gazes. He never went to the ramparts again.

Perhaps it was too much: even with Polyxena and her siblings’ company, even with the occasional evening spent drinking with Hector, even with bared-heart conversations with his sister, he was still floundering after two months. No matter the rhythm he set, he came to realise he couldn’t keep up with it. There were so many obstacles that could have been tripping him up – the emotional strain of his work and taking on Helen’s problems as his own, the physical strain of pushing himself out of guilt and a powerful sense of obligation – but he knew none of those were the reason.

Before, it had been sun-starvation that had thrummed inside his chest like a numb ache he could barely feel anymore. Now it was so much tighter, so much sharper after he’d seen the brilliance of hope and had it extinguished again. He was careful not to show it, though: that was part of the problem. There were so few people he could talk to and it felt so insignificant compared to the magnitude of what they were living that in the end he didn’t speak a word of it to anyone.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t feel it.

That didn’t mean he didn’t dream of him and wake up coated in sweat, left cold and shivering after the few blissful moments of confusion when he couldn’t tell dream and real life apart.

That just meant he was left to bottle it up and pretend it didn’t exist, pretend like he didn’t cling to every story of the battlefield he heard, pretend like years of dormant wishes weren’t choking him.

 

It had been a bad night, both for the horrendous, never-ending flow of injured soldiers and for Patroclus’ state of mind. He’d been told to rest after hours that had melded into each other in a patchwork of blood and groans of pain, and in an effort to calm his mind he went down to one of the streams that ran through the palace gardens.

There wasn’t anyone around, just white flowers shining in the moonlight and the gentle bubble of the water running along artificial banks. Patroclus crouched in front of it and watched the glass-like curves breaking the surface as the stream flowed along its course. He blinked once, then fell backwards in shock as a shadow fell across him. Heart in his mouth, he looked up to take in the sight of the woman properly and he felt he could barely breathe: her eyes were black with only the slightest shimmer of a star in their centres, her deathly pale skin tinted with blue and framed by long, straight hair darker than ink, and her lips were curved in an expression of distaste. For a long minute she let him look – or perhaps she was the one watching him – and then she stepped out of the stream and it seemed as if her feet had not existed before she did.

With a sharp movement she pulled Patroclus’ chin up and stared down at him. He thought he would drown in the abyss of her eyes, that she could kill him and he would do nothing to stop her as long as she kept his gaze. But she broke it, lifting her chin in apparent contempt of him. “Are you ready to leave?” she asked in a voice like waves crashing together.

He couldn’t do anything more than gape and she clicked her tongue, looking away dismissively but, like an afterthought, she put her hand on his head and everything in Patroclus’ vision burst into seafoam.

Chapter Text

Gasping for breath, Patroclus fell free of the water and dug his hands down into what felt like wet sand. Waves lapped at his calves and, once he’d regained enough of his reason to look up, he saw he really was on the beach, the sky-scraping walls of Troy far away. With a shiver, he turned his head to see the Greek camps: never-ending stretches of tents, patrolled by sentries, all lit up at regular intervals by lanterns, and far, far too close.

Without quite knowing why he flinched back. If he thought about it logically, there was no reason to fear them so much, but he also knew the sentries would be on edge for intruders and very few people in that camp would know his face or even his name. The cold beginnings of fear rose in his mouth.

Doing all he could to remain calm, he got to his feet and washed off the sand stuck to him, looking around to take in his surroundings and try and work out what his next move was. Ever helpful, his mind drew a blank: this wasn’t something he had ever thought would happen, and who could blame him? People didn’t usually go around expecting to be abducted by goddesses in the middle of the night. But that didn’t change the fact that that was, inexplicably yet undeniably, his predicament and he had no way of getting out of it because said abducting goddess was nowhere to be seen.

Some way away from where he had found himself he saw that the beach broke up from the flat sand, small pools leading to craggy rocks that would at least get him out of the open. He jogged over to them, straddling the line between the basest of urges screaming at him to get to safety and the desire to stay inconspicuous (and he knew full well that on such a cloudless night he would easily be seen if a sentry happened to look out towards the beach). In the end he ran, cursing the sand that slowed him down, making his feet sink with each step.

He relaxed somewhat when he was free to collapse against the rocks and look out towards the sea, hating how heavy his breath was because it made it impossible to hear anything. It was uncomfortable terrain but he didn’t care enough to move, just curled up against the wall of rocks and waited for his breathing to steady, watching the sea come in and out lazily. In stark contrast to the gentle waves and the soothing moonlight lighting them up, Patroclus felt he’d probably die of shock if anything so much as touched him, his nerves were wound so tightly.

The real problem was that he just couldn’t think. He’d already been a worrying mixture of exhausted and nervous before and the whole situation was so utterly bizarre and unexpected that he had no idea what he was supposed to do. He imagined he could wait by the walls until the army came out the next morning and then slip in or explain himself, but the likelihood of him surviving in that scenario was treacherously low. Certainly, he could try and find Menelaus’ tent and explain himself but if the king was so set on war, there was no telling if he’d be accommodating. Not to mention the sheer impossibility for someone as inexperienced in stealth as Patroclus was to get past the guards. In frustration, he threw his head back against the rock. He felt ready to cry. But before that, he needed to panic.

Nearly ten minutes of aimless waiting with his heart in his mouth and his nerves torn to shreds went by before he heard footsteps. They were still a long way off but they were fast: the person was obviously running and that was the last thing Patroclus needed. He had no weapons, no reasonable way in which to defend himself and there were no suitable hiding places, but he tried to calm himself down: there was every possibility that this person would choose not to kill him right away. There was no way of mistaking him for a soldier, after all, so he could always try and ask to be kept prisoner until he could see someone he knew. So he told himself, but that couldn’t stop his whole body from shivering despite the mildness of the air.

Hands against the wall behind him, he lifted himself into a crouching position just in case he did need to run, his shoulders hunched over and his heartrate skyrocketing. As always, he tried to keep calm, tried to steady himself with the sound of waves moving in and out, with the faint breeze skimming his skin that was sending him to the verge of a cold sweat, and he looked up through still-damp curls to where the person was rapidly approaching: a gap between fallen boulders and the sea such that Patroclus couldn’t even see them coming.

It was a long minute. His ears were straining for any and all sounds and soon it wasn’t just the hurried, sand-muffled footfall he could hear but panting and the gentle clinking of metal. It didn’t sound enough to be heavy weapons or a full suit of armour, but that didn’t help Patroclus in his panicked state. If he hadn’t been otherwise occupied, he would have berated himself for being so absurdly frightened over…this, but he was otherwise occupied, mostly with remembering how to breathe.

Like a countdown, the footsteps grew closer and closer, Patroclus’ head feeling lighter and lighter as he grew dizzy with nervousness, and then – far too quickly, far too soon – a figure rounded the corner and Patroclus stopped breathing altogether under the desperation in Achilles’ eyes.

There were no words that could be said between them, not even if Patroclus’ throat had been capable of more than a single choked gasp: a whirlwind of relief and shock and complete, unshakable disbelief ripping from his lungs. It was needy, weak, nothing he’d ever wanted to show to this person who was everything, but he collapsed to his knees and felt the burn of tears at the corners of his eyes.

Achilles was no more collected. He had all but collapsed against the boulder he was leaning on, gripping it with white knuckles, and his eyes were wide and frightened, shining almost gold in the moonlight. There was weakness to him as well, weakness that cut past his strength, his agility, his power, and left him open and raw for anyone to take what they liked. No, for Patroclus to take what he liked: this wasn’t the Achilles on the field, and anyone could tell he was no more used to such vulnerability than he was capable of controlling it. But Patroclus could barely look at him, he was so blindingly beautiful.

Restraining himself from the urge to run to him, Patroclus stood up. There were precious few strides left between them and they drank each other in.

“You’re here,” were the first words Achilles got out, his voice gravelly and unsure, but Patroclus’ world felt a hundred times brighter now he’d heard it after so long. Mouth tight, trying to stop it from smiling uncontrollably, he nodded.

 

They sat on the beach with hands clasped firmly together, watching the sea ripple under silver moonlight. It was a delicate process, this reunion they’d been plunged into: they both instinctively knew they couldn’t act as if years of separation had been nothing, nor could they pretend they still knew who the other was. All Patroclus could think to do was start them off with something light.

“I suppose I should apologise for not being able to make it to Phthia.”

Achilles laughed. “That was a shock. But you really don’t need to apologise for being kidnapped.”

“Oh, I…I wasn’t. I mean, I wouldn’t have chosen to go given the choice, but Helen went willingly and I went with her because…well, she’s my sister.” He shrugged helplessly.

“…really?” Achilles blinked at him. “That’s not the story Menelaus has been telling us at all.”

Patroclus smiled grimly. “Not surprising: I’m fairly certain he just wants to fight for the sake of it rather than because he wants Helen back.”

“It’s not as if it reflects very well on him if his wife left him, either,” Achilles grinned, clearly enjoying the idea. “That’s interesting. But…does that mean you’re not a prisoner?”

“Far from it, really. I’d say I was more an esteemed visitor under house arrest. Or city arrest? Either way, I’ve got a lot more freedom than I thought I would.”

Out of the blue, he felt Achilles lean against him, burying his forehead in Patroclus’ shoulder. Patroclus stiffened. He could see the shine of golden hair from the corner of his eye and it thrilled him.

“I’m so relieved…” Achilles whispered, something in his voice breaking. “All this time I thought you…When I saw you up on the wall and then you disappeared, I was so scared you’d be punished for it…”

“I wasn’t,” Patroclus managed to say in a choked voice. “I couldn’t believe you recognised me, though.”

“I would recognise you anywhere.”

“But I’m not fourteen anymore, and I was so far away and you weren’t expecting me…”

Anywhere.” His grip on Patroclus’ hand tightened.

Patroclus swallowed. As long as they were being painfully honest…“When I heard them calling your name, I couldn’t think anymore. I just had to see you…”

He heard Achilles’ smile rather than saw it. “I’m glad you did.”

Something changed between them with those truths laid out for the other to see, as if they no longer had to pretend this was anything less than a miracle for both of them.

“How is it in the camp?” Patroclus asked, shivering a little as the combination of drying sweat and a sudden wind chilled him.

“Getting better,” Achilles put an arm around him, warming him instantly. “We didn’t think it would last this long, but everything’s becoming more permanent. The tents aren’t flimsy, temporary things anymore, and I think everyone’s coming round to the idea that this will not be as short as we had hoped.”

“But how are you?”

There was a jarring pause, as if the question had thrown Achilles off course, and when Patroclus turned his head to look at him he was barely containing a wild smile, lit up and unrecognisable as the man shaken to his foundations from earlier. “I’m fine,” he said, the sound twisted gloriously by his smile. “I don’t appreciate the organisation or the leaders, but I’m fine. All of this is for a worthy cause, after all.”

“A king’s arrogance and thirst for power?”

“I’m not fighting for him. I’m fighting for you.” He said it so easily that the effect it had on Patroclus was mortifying.

“It’s been so long, though!” he protested, begging his heart to slow down. He needed to say this: if it wasn’t now it would be never, and it couldn’t be never because he had to bring the sheer absurdity of the situation to light. If he didn’t – if they didn’t acknowledge it – it would never feel real. “There’s no way this could…A month of knowing each other shouldn’t have sparked this. We were children but I’ve never once forgotten you, I’ve never been able to, and you say it’s the same for you? That’s stupid! This isn’t normal!”

“Love never was reasonable,” Achilles said loftily, waving a hand in front of him in a really quite insulting imitation of a poet.

“Oh, shush. Even love isn’t this unreasonable.”

“Fate, then?”

Patroclus tsked, shaking his head as if to clear it. “I’m just saying this doesn’t make any sense!”

“Does it have to?”

No, but…”

“Then why worry? You’re the most important person in the world to me, there’s no reason to fight that. We’re fated.”

“Is there no arguing with you?”

Achilles flashed him a challenging smile. “Is there a reason to argue? We have the rest of our lives for that, surely.”

The thought was like spring sun breaking through clouds and Patroclus couldn’t find it in himself to say anything else against such blinding optimism. No matter the years spent trying to keep his head, asking himself why he thought he was special enough to deserve something so world-shattering as the love he held, he was nothing but a slave to it in the end. He wanted it so dearly, needed to believe in it because if he didn’t it would smother him.

“But I’m so, so glad,” Achilles said, stretching out and making a satisfied hum. “You’ll be safe from now on, at least. I won’t leave the war, not while we still need to get your sister back, but I won’t let it touch you anymore. I know separating from her will be difficult, but I’ll make sure to get her back as soon as I can.”

He spoke with conviction, staring out at the sea and a future he could seize in his fists. Patroclus ripped them from him. “Huh? What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you’ll be safe with me now.”

“But I can’t go with you.” At the horrified confusion crossing Achilles’ face, he hurried to explain himself. “I want to, I want to desperately and I would, but I can’t.”

“Why not?” The first tremors of distress found their way into his voice.

Yes, why not? When love and desire were telling him to go, why did reason have to remind him of why he couldn’t?

“I have friends there, I have a life there, I can’t just leave! I want to – of course I want to! – but there are too many things holding me back.”

“You would choose them over me?” It wasn’t the lifeless statement it should have been: it was a plea.

Why would you suggest that? Patroclus didn’t say, didn’t whisper like the unforgivable accusation it was. “Never! Choosing to stay isn’t me choosing them over you!”  

“Then what is it? What else could it be? This isn’t how it should be and you know it. We’re meant to always be together.”

“Why can’t I need you and still do the right thing?”

“Because this isn’t right!” They were facing each other now and Patroclus could only marvel at the blaze of the anger finally slipping into Achilles’ countenance. He stood up with his hands curled into fists. “I don’t care what happens to anyone else: they can all die or I’ll kill them, I don’t care! All that matters is this.”

“You don’t mean that.” Patroclus barely kept the reproach from his voice.

“But what if I do? What happens then? All I’ve ever been able to trust is fate and what I’ve been destined to have: my power, my future, my glory and now you.”

“Surely there’s more you can trust in than just that.”

“There isn’t. Those are the only things that deserve my trust.” He spoke with conviction and Patroclus thought he was only now beginning to understand the true toll of separation. This wasn’t the boy he’d fallen in love with: Achilles was jaded now, war-hardened and clinging to what he could to save what remained of his humanity. Patroclus still loved him.

“Then trust me,” he said, braving the heat to reach the man who meant everything to him. “Promise that you’ll wait for me, and…promise me you’ll try to leave fate alone. What happens, happens but that doesn’t mean you need to hang onto only what you feel is destined to be.”

“But I’ve never lived any other way!” The fire was out and he was desperate, reaching for the hands Patroclus gave him readily as he stood up.

“I’ll help you,” he said, touching their foreheads together.

“It’s been so long: I don’t…I don’t want to let you leave again…”

You were the one who left last time, remember? But it’s okay: this war can’t go on forever. When it’s over we’ll be together again, so we just have to wait a few months more.”

“Promise me that,” Achilles said in a clipped voice.

“I promise.”

Achilles let out a breath, hugging Patroclus to him. “I’ll ask my mother to bring you here as often as I can. Is that alright, at least?”

“More than alright,” Patroclus hugged him back, trying not to let the feeling overwhelm him. “I’ll be waiting. Every time, I’ll be waiting.”

Smiling brilliantly once again, lighting up the night better than the stars or moon could, Achilles nodded. “Can you stay longer tonight?” It was obvious he was terrified he’d hear the wrong answer and was forcing himself to ask only because of what had just passed between them.

“I’d like nothing better,” Patroclus beamed.

Chapter Text

The gardens were empty when Patroclus returned – one minute letting his fingers slip from Achilles’ hand, the next spluttering out of the stream and grabbing onto the banks – and he was grateful for it. He felt significantly less gratitude towards Thetis for staying and watching his attempts to to get his breath back, but he rolled onto his back on the grass and breathed deeply with as much dignity as he could muster all the same.

With all the impartial hatred of a vicious seagull, Thetis glared at him and it was a testament to her confidence that she didn’t even feel the need to cross her arms to show disdain. It was always burning in her eyes, after all.

“Thank you,” Patroclus said meekly as he rose to his feet and shivered at the night air hitting his damp tunic.

There was something funny about the goddess. She had none of the social mannerisms that developed in the hopes of making conversation easier: she only acted for herself, and Patroclus could tell that if there was nothing she had to say to him then she would simply say nothing, regardless of how awkward he felt. What did she care of his awkwardness, anyway?

So she glanced down at him as if he weren’t there before she melted into the water. After she had left, Patroclus stood staring at the stream, trying to organise the night’s events in his mind as things that actually happened as opposed to the elaborate dreams of a sleep-deprived fool, and came up with a smile creeping to his lips. He’d thought he had calmed down but he still had to punch the air to release the energy boiling up inside of him at the mere thought of what had happened. He couldn’t even appreciate how beautiful the moonlight looked, dancing off yellow petals and ghostly grey-green leaves all around him: his whole body was flooded with sunlight.

It was late enough that few people were still up and he could try to sneak (failing miserably, what with how utterly, perfectly happy he was) back to his room, but when he pressed the door open gently and crept in, Polyxena was sitting on his bed.

She’d been looking out of the window but jumped up when she saw him, her eyes full of wonder. Smothering his shock, Patroclus closed the door hurriedly and took her hands in his. “What are you doing here?” he hissed.

“I saw!” she looked about to burst with excitement, hopping about in place. “I couldn’t sleep and so I went down to find you-”

“Why would you do that?!”

“Hush, that’s not important. But you just disappeared! I was so worried, but I didn’t know what was going on so eventually I found myself up here, looking for clues or something, and then I saw you reappear!” She pointed helpfully at the garden that was just visible if you looked out of the window at a certain angle.

“Oh.” Patroclus wasn’t quite sure what else to say but Polyxena certainly lost no time in prompting him. More violently than she probably meant to, she brought him to sit on the bed by her and beamed up at him.

“So what happened?”

“Um.”

Her beaming increased anticipatively.

Patroclus tried to usher her off the bed. “Look, Polyxena, I’m really tired and it’s very late and you’re definitely going to regret this in the morning, so how about…” he trailed off when he noticed her giant brown eyes going shiny with tears. “…are those pretend?”

“No,” she sniffled very convincingly.

“I’m fairly sure those are pretend.”

“They’re not.” She rubbed her eyes pitifully for good measure.

“No, they’re definitely pretend. I’m going to sleep.” Once again he tried to get her off the bed but she dug her fingers into it and fixed him with a resentful stare.

Please just tell me? We’re friends, aren’t we? I don’t see why you can’t…I’ll keep it secret, I promise! Please!” She looked ready to cry again and – even though he’d been subjected to a whole childhood of Helen using the same tactics on him – he felt his better judgement crumbling away. Besides, he reasoned there wasn’t really any point in not telling her. She already knew about Achilles anyway, and he’d gain nothing in hiding the story from everyone for however long he was to stay in Troy. Heaving an almighty sigh just to prove he wasn’t doing it because he wanted to (not that Polyxena looked ready to quibble over his reluctance as long as she got the story), he told her an abridged version of what had happened.

It would be nice to say she took it well but Patroclus didn’t really consider her raw and unfettered enthusiasm ‘taking it well’. If she’d looked about to burst before, she now seemed ready to ascend to higher plane of being, she was so dumbstruck.

After almost a minute of uncomfortable silence since Patroclus had finished talking, she finally spoke. “…really?”

“Yes, really!” Patroclus snapped, a little on edge as he was.

“But that’s…that’s incredible!” The ascension began and she jumped to her feet, waving her hands emphatically in front of her as if that would somehow make her more understandable as she slipped between squealing and laughing. “This is so incredible!” she said again, twirling in place.

“It is a bit,” Patroclus allowed, settling back on his arms and relaxing.

“I’m so happy for you!” Polyxena sung.

Patroclus hummed a response, watching her fondly.

“So did you kiss?”

“…I’m sorry, what?”

Polyxena rounded on him with a mischievous smile not unlike a lizard’s: full of smugness and knowing and glee. “Well, you’re in love, aren’t you? And it must have been a very emotional reunion for you, so you did, didn’t you?”

It dawned on Patroclus that if he let her have this she’d probably take it and string it on for as long as she possibly could, teasing him all the way. Preventative actions were evidently necessary. “That’s private.”

“That means you did, doesn’t it?”

“That means you’ve got to calm down and stop being a pest or I’ll throw you out,” he said, smiling just enough to let her know he wasn’t truly angry.

Polyxena sighed dramatically. “You’ll feel better if you talk to someone about it, you know…”

“I’m feeling really quite alright now, thank you.”

With just a small pout, Polyxena dropped the subject and moved onto the next with renewed excitement. “So what was he like?”

“I just said I wouldn’t-”

“Yes, yes, but I’m not asking how he holds up as a person. Not especially, at least. I mean….what do I mean? I mean, he’s a hero, isn’t he?” she said the word reverently.

“Yes, he is.”

“So what’s he like? I’ve always wanted to meet a hero…”

“Don’t you have Hector for that?”

Polyxena paused, visibly caught between wanting to protest and not wanting to say her brother wasn’t heroic. Eventually she settled for, “It’s not the same when you’re related.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t be.” Patroclus thought about it. “I think…I think I would say that there are layers to perceiving him. On the outside, he shines brighter than the sun.”

“Literally?”

“No, not literally, why would it be literally? Anyway-”

“Anything’s possible with a hero.”

“Possibly, but wouldn’t that be impractical?”

“It could be another reason he’s invincible: no one can get close to him because of the brightness.”

She looked ready to put serious thought to the idea and Patroclus shut it down as quickly as he could. “Anyway, once you get past that, he’s really just like any other person. Flaws, qualities, he doesn’t put on airs…And then, if you begin to understand him further-”

“Which you do,” Polyxena interrupted cheerfully.

“Yes, which I do, he’s…I think at that point you begin to see what being thought of as a hero does to a person. The pressure and the reputation are both immense burdens, so much so that I don’t even think he knows he’s carrying them.”

“Oh.” She looked a little crestfallen, as if the ideals she held close to her heart had been tarnished.

“But believe me, it isn’t necessarily bad!” Patroclus struggled to rectify the situation. “In battle, he really is glorious. I don’t think you got to see him that day on the ramparts, but…he fights like it’s a dance he already knows the steps to.”

Polyxena’s expression went dreamy again. “I’d love to see it one day…”

“Usually that would mean you’d be in the thick of battle and I can name ten people off the top of my head who would rather die than let that happen to you, so I’d abandon that dream if I were you.”

“That’s fair,” she nodded, and Patroclus caught the yawn she tried to suppress.

“And now we go to sleep,” he said, finally managing to push her gently to the door.

“But I’d like to talk more!”

“You might, but I’m already exhausted and I have a lot of work tomorrow.”

Hearing that, Polyxena allowed herself to be guided out to the dark, echoing corridor that led to her room without any more fuss. As a final word, she tilted her head up and asked quietly, “You will see him again, won’t you? Only…I can’t understand why you would leave him just to come back here. I’m happy, but…”

“That’s silly: Helen and you are here, aren’t you? I couldn’t leave you.”

“Still…” She swayed on her feet a touch, fatigue taking her quickly.

“Don’t worry: I’ll definitely see him again.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her and she went to her room with just a squeeze of his hand before she left.

 

Though admittedly he did sleep in and miss out on most of the morning, the next afternoon Patroclus went to the infirmary as usual despite only getting to sleep in early hours. His lingering happiness carried him easily through a particularly gruelling shift in the infirmary, keeping him capable (if not enthusiastic) well into the evening. Even so, it was late when he slipped into the main dining hall. He stifled a yawn and was about to head over to Polyxena as usual when Hector gestured to him. There was no refusing that.

“So I suppose you’ve heard the news already?” Hector asked as Patroclus sat next to him self-consciously. Patroclus did know: it would have been nigh on impossible to be surrounded by soldiers and not hear of the land the Greeks had taken, settling their camp roots further and farther into Trojan soil. No one was happy about it, and the mood in the infirmary had been stifling.

“I’ve heard.” It was strange being up at the head of the room: there was actually some degree of privacy there, such that if you kept your voice down it was perfectly possible to have a conversation without any of the more important members of the royal family overhearing. The closest – Hecuba sitting by Priam – certainly wasn’t paying attention, and on Patroclus’ other side, Andromache was tactfully making conversation with one of her sisters-in-law.

“What do you think of it?”

Patroclus tore his eyes away from his sister (as if staring at her long enough would show him some happiness in her expression that wasn’t clearly put-on) and looked at Hector, puzzled. “Think of the losses today? I confess I’m not sure what to think of them.”

“Conflicted?”

Patroclus realised he was being tested. “Yes,” he answered truthfully. “But I also don’t think it matters much at this stage, does it?”

“A gain for the Greeks of that size? Certainly it matters.”

Patroclus tilted his head in confusion. “Only because it means they can stretch their camp out more comfortably. They are hardly any closer to breaching the wall, and still many miles away from here. Is it really that big of a victory?”

The way Hector looked at him then, Patroclus felt very much like a student waiting to find out if their answer was right or not. Evidently it was, and Hector smiled softly. “No, but that just makes this situation worse.”

“Because it means neither side is winning.”

“Exactly. I worry that this war is going to last much longer than we thought.”

Patroclus frowned. “But…it can’t go on longer than a year, can it? Not over something so stupid.”

“You’d call your own sister stupid?”

“That’s not what I meant. How much longer can Paris honestly expect to hold out at this rate?”

“As long as he likes,” Hector scowled, tearing a hunk of bread into smaller parts. “Father won’t stop him and nobody else can. Although…have you tried asking your sister to reject him?”

“I can try, but I don’t think she has that power anymore.”

The furrow in Hector’s brow grew deeper. “Brilliant. Then there really is no one else. Paris gets to stay away from the battle shooting arrows like the coward he is and everyone pays for his selfishness.”

“It does seem that way, doesn’t it?” Patroclus leaned on his elbows, straining to look past Paris to see his sister.

He was so scared that she was closing up on him again. It had happened a few times in their past, when they’d been separated for one meaningless reason or another and – provided Helen was upset enough by the daily unwelcome attentions or people treating her as if she was responsible for them – he would come back to find her shut in on herself. He knew it was a self-defence technique that protected her while keeping her outer behaviour ‘appropriate’ for a princess or a queen, but it drove both of them crazy. And yet she couldn’t help it.

“Is she alright?” Hector asked gently, keeping his eyes on some of his siblings and their spouses who were leaving the hall.

“No.”

“Is there anything you can do?”

“No,” Patroclus repeated through gritted teeth.

Hector took a mouthful of wine, savouring it before swallowing. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, no, you really don’t have to be,” Patroclus said, flustered. “Out of everyone, you’ve been one of the most understanding here.”

“He’s my family and this is my house: I have a responsibility towards our guests and I’m truly sorry I can’t help you.” He said it in such a straightforward manner that Patroclus could say nothing against it. “And I know what it’s like to want to help your siblings and being unable to.”

“Because you have so many?”

“Mostly. And sometimes arranged marriages don’t bring happiness. Sometimes even chosen marriages don’t bring happiness.”

It was hard to believe with how lively the hall was even after the most part of the family had gone to spend their evening elsewhere, but Patroclus took Hector’s word for it. He was far too new to know what went on in the palace inhabitants’ private affairs.

“I take it yours has brought you happiness, though?” he said, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Without a doubt!” Hector looked past Patroclus to flash a smile at his wife (which she returned bemusedly before going back to her conversation). “Nothing but happiness, and even that will increase when our child is born.”

Patroclus nodded and, as he watched the meltingly soft expression gracing Hector’s rugged features, his mind wandered to places he wouldn’t normally have let it go. He couldn’t ever remember wishing for marriage himself, but…he couldn’t deny the temptation of something permanent. Perhaps it would never happen – indeed, that was the most likely outcome he could hope for – but he let the idea roll about his mind, enjoying it. There was no harm in daydreams, he told himself.

“And what about you?” The question caught Patroclus off guard and he started.

“What about me?”

“Do you have anyone you’re looking to marry? I understand that long-term arrangements here might seem…unreasonable, but don’t let that stop you.”

“Oh, I…no, I don’t have anyone,” Patroclus smiled as if he was embarrassed to admit it.

“If marriage is too much, is there anyone you love?” Hector’s voice was easy and calm but Patroclus couldn’t miss the narrowing of his eyes; he looked like a tyrant letting a guilty man talk himself into his own sentence.

It was stupid. There was no logical reason Patroclus shouldn’t just say no and be done with it. Polyxena was the only person who knew, he was sure, and she couldn’t hear him, so there was absolutely no reason the word had to stick in his throat and rot there.

“What’s wrong?” Hector asked amiably. “Did you eat something too quickly?”

Grabbing onto the excuse, Patroclus nodded – so why was that lie so much easier? – and took the time to pretend to swallow properly. Hector’s eyes didn’t leave him; he barely even blinked.

“I don’t have anyone I love,” Patroclus said with barely a falter when he’d ‘recovered’.

“Alright.” The rustle of danger between them faded instantly with that word and Patroclus relaxed until Hector got up. “Would you come with me for a moment?”

Patroclus could only hope Hector didn’t hear his racing heartbeat as they left together, nodding respectfully at Priam and his wife before walking through the large double doors that led to the staircases up to the roof. They climbed them in silence, Patroclus a step or two behind Hector’s impressive stride.

“I do know.”

The words sunk in and Patroclus had already known them, he thought, so it wasn’t so much shock as disappointment that took hold of him. “Ah.” They kept walking and Patroclus watched the shadows grow and shorten over his feet as they passed candles mounted on the walls.

“I won’t tell anyone, nor will I use it against you. I just want to know your loyalties.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t already guessed.”

“Just spell them out for me.” He reached the top floor.

“Why? It doesn’t matter. I’m still prisoner here.” Quite understandably, he thought, Patroclus wasn’t feeling cooperative, but Hector apparently wouldn’t stand for that and as he reached the top stair, Patroclus found himself shoved against the wall, Hector’s arms caging him in. They were completely alone here.

“It matters,” Hector growled, far too low, far too chilling, “because you have divine blood in you and while you clearly aren’t protected by your father, I can’t be sure that you haven’t got any minor gods helping you. If you’re in love with the most powerful enemy warrior we have to face, you are a threat. No matter how close you are with Polyxena, no matter how hard you work in the infirmary, no matter how much you tell me you came for your sister’s sake, you are a threat. Get that into your head and realise that I need to protect my family and my kingdom and if you’re smuggling information to the other side – or even letting them in – that is something I need to put a stop to right away. Polyxena can trust you all she likes but she’s a child. I need something stronger to convince me and you will give it to me or I will make sure you cannot endanger us.”

There was a single second’s inferno in Hector’s eyes, so close to Patroclus’ face that he couldn’t hope to escape the fury, and then the man stepped back enough to allow light between them.

Patroclus’ mind raced. He had no proof and nothing to show to the world that he wasn’t a rat in the impenetrable fortress. Certainly, he still entertained the thought that Hector wasn’t fully serious, but he couldn’t and wouldn’t bet his life on that. “All I can give you is my word…” he stuttered, foolishly.

“That’s not good enough.”

Hector’s merciless brashness rubbed him the wrong way. “What else can I do?! Do you think that if I had a choice at all I would have come here? Do you not think that if I had gods helping me and I knew Helen was dissatisfied with her husband I would have helped her away from him? Do you think that if I could leave and had absolutely no attachment to this place then I wouldn’t?!”

“None of those are valid arguments!” Hector roared, the sound echoing through the small landing they stood on.

“Then what are you expecting?!” His voice was weak and reedy in comparison but he felt there was nothing to lose and he shouted with the force of all his desperation, all his frustration at still being suspected.

Hector seemed about to shout again, his mouth contorting under his beard, but with seemingly tremendous self-control he stopped himself and closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he admitted in a shaking but quiet voice. “I don’t know what could convince me but I need something. I can’t go on constantly worrying you’ll betray us.”

“I won’t.”

“What if he asked you to?”

“I have faith that he would never do that. He has no interest in this war.” Patroclus knew he was treading a dangerous path and that he couldn’t let on that he had contact with Achilles, but he thought he might say anything to get the softness to return to Hector’s expression. Too many people around him were hardening.

“If…” once again, Hector took a deep breath and let it out, steeling himself. “If I ever find you have done anything to put the lives of those I love and those I am responsible for in danger, I will not hesitate in having you killed regardless of who your family is.”

“I won’t do that, I swear it. I don’t have any reason to want the Greeks to win except for him, and I have far more reason to want Troy’s victory.” It was a lie, or just an extension of the truth that he hoped Hector would grab onto and extend further in his own mind. “I have a life here I wouldn’t ever destroy.”

Another moment longer, another heartbeat ringing his ears, and Hector sighed, dropping his arms to give Patroclus more freedom. “I suppose there’s no real way you could find out important information anyway.”

“No way at all.” Patroclus shook his head perhaps a little too enthusiastically. “What information could they possibly use? It’s brute force they need.”

“And nothing’s happened in the time I’ve let you do as you wished.”

Patroclus still nodded.

“And anyway,” Hector laughed dryly, “if word got out I’d killed you, I can’t imagine what the great Achilles’ reaction would be, if your bond is what I assume it is from the way he looked at you.”

He stopped nodding. “Pardon?”

Hector had the air of a man dissatisfied with a compromise he couldn’t improve. “I saw you on the ramparts that day, and saw him too. That’s how it was so easy to guess. And don’t blame her in any way, but I’m decent at reading my younger sister: she let on more than she’d like, I’m sure. Well,” he walked out onto the flat roof, looking around at the city as if surveying the land, “that settles that, then.”

“You’re satisfied?” Patroclus stood next him, feeling dwarfed in every way but not minding it much. He was too relieved.

“I doubt anything would satisfy me, but you don’t really strike me as the type to be hiding his true motivations anyway. Not after all this time.”

“Thank you for your faith in me.”

Hector grunted a reply and looked away, not a difficult feat when Patroclus’ head was well below his line of sight anyway. And that should have been it: Patroclus should have left it like that but he couldn’t stop himself from blurting out in a timid voice, “Um…could you…this is probably a request you can’t fulfil, but could you…try and not fight with him?”

Hector looked down at him in surprise. In the ensuing silence Patroclus became painfully aware of how empty it was, how the roof was taller than most of the city and how the space spread for miles around in gloomy darkness broken only by pale highlights on buildings lit by the moon.

“Did you ask him the same? Not to fight with me?”

Patroclus was about to apologise truthfully before he caught himself. “How could I?” he asked, praying that his hesitation hadn’t shown on his face. “I haven’t spoken with him since I met you.”

There was another stretch of silence filled with Hector’s thoughts and Patroclus’ nerves and Patroclus was just reflecting on how unfair it was to have quite so many such silences in one night when Hector laughed. It was short-lived and didn’t seem to have much joy to it, but it was a laugh all the same.

“You’re far too idealistic,” he said. “Do you think that everything will work out perfectly as long as I don’t attack him?”

“You’re the strongest of the Trojans.”

“Yes, but tell me: why would you ask that of me? Isn’t it because somewhere inside you, you think that everything will be fine if I comply?”

“Not everything. But I don’t want you to die either, and not just for Polyxena’s sake, before you ask me that too.”

“This being a war, many people are going to die, of course.” He seemed to be enjoying the conversation now. Small comforts: at least he wasn’t furious.

“Yes, but can’t I try and protect those closest to me?”

“You need to start fearing the worst and preparing for it: you’ll never make it otherwise,” Hector said in such an infuriatingly patronising way that Patroclus couldn’t stop his retort.

“Is this just your way of telling me not to be so optimistic? Or even optimistic at all? Or are you just looking down on me for my inexperience and finding some way to express your contempt of me?”

That seemed to take Hector aback, if not by very much. “Not contempt,” he shook his head. “But you have to admit that you’re being idealistic, as if there won’t be tragedies every day until the end of this godforsaken war.”

Patroclus frowned. “I know that, but why can’t I still believe that everything will work out with a minimum of bloodshed? Why can’t I at least hope that? I won’t choose one side or another, mark my words on that, and I’ll keep my ideals of an outcome that won’t leave either side razed to the ground.”

Hector shrugged. “There’s no skin off my nose if you’re so intent on wishing for the impossible. You’re powerless here anyway, so hope what you like. I’m just looking out for you: are you sure you’ll be able to keep those ideals of yours in a year, in two or three when the war still doesn’t seem ready to end and there isn’t a single person around you who hasn’t lost someone they love?”

The bleak image of the future sent shivers down Patroclus’ spine; the idea that the war might continue for years when he’d had more than enough of it at only a few months felt like thick honey choking him, but he didn’t let it show. “I’m sure.”

Hector smiled at him and the usual softness was finally back in the man’s smile. “Then best of luck to you. Gods know we’ll need something to help us through this.”

With that, the conversation seemed put to rest and all Patroclus could do was shiver in the night air, looking into the darkness as if into the future he couldn’t see. He only remembered later that Hector hadn’t promised.

Chapter Text

A decade was a treacherously long time to live clinging to empty wishes but Patroclus had found that so long as he kept himself busy, he didn’t notice so much. Weeks of ‘it can’t be much longer than this’ turned to months and years of the same, leaping from each imagined deadline to the next like stepping stones on a rising river. And, just as time still flowed on by, so too did the never-ending war, and Patroclus went with them.

It would be wrong to say that nigh on ten years went by in a blur because they most certainly didn’t, but in the end the war, his job, time with Polyxena, time with his sister, all too brief time with Achilles, and the general workings of the palace and the royal family all just became life to him.

So life went on.

 

“Pin.”

Polyxena dutifully handed Patroclus one of the many decorated pins lying on her dressing table, her shoulders set low, her neck and jaw high as she stayed very still and waited for Patroclus to finish with her hair. It had started as a dare, as most of their habits had between them: one afternoon Polyxena had complained about how difficult it was to do her hair in the mornings (now she was old enough that a simple style wasn’t appropriate) and how much she envied Patroclus’, so he’d offered to do hers to show her how it wasn’t so difficult. In the end it really was, but Patroclus was nothing if not determined and within a month he’d been roped into styling her hair whenever she asked. It was something to do.

“Do you think these should be down or not?” he asked, holding two strands of hair that fell just in front of her ears.

“Down, definitely.”

“Alright.” In the rooms around them belonging to Polyxena’s sisters, they could hear the sounds of people making themselves busy in preparation for the party that night.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Polyxena asked hopefully.

“I told you: we’re meeting tonight.”

“But you could re-schedule.” Prompted, she held a bunch of curls in place for him.

“Yes, because I really want to re-schedule on the first meeting we’ve had for weeks to go to a party I will have no fun at. But if you’d like to suggest the idea to Thetis, be my guest.”

Polyxena shivered at the idea. She’d only met with the goddess once or twice (and only after she’d insisted for weeks that ‘I need to see her, I’ve never seen a god before, Patroclus, you can’t deny me this!’) but Thetis’ company was not something you forgot easily, no matter how much you’d have preferred to.

With her hair styled, she slumped onto the table, chin on her crossed arms, and she pouted at the mirror while Patroclus went to find the fresh flowers that a servant had brought in earlier.

“I don’t want to go.”

“Yes, you’ve said.” He brought some crocuses over to the dressing table and lifted them to her hair. “Purple or yellow? We’ve got blue and pink as well, but these go better with darker skin.”

“Purple, I think. But this is so unfair.”

He smiled fondly at her and began to lace the flowers together like she’d shown him. “How about you just consider yourself lucky you escaped an arranged marriage for this long? Most princesses are married off much younger than you. I suppose that’s one thing to thank the war for.”

Polyxena made a disgruntled moue. “The worst part is that I’ve known for so long, I’ve known ever since I knew who I was that one day I’d be married off politically, but now that I actually have to choose a husband, I…how am I supposed to do this?”

A muffled flurry of laughter burst into the corridor outside as a group of women went down to the party. As the guest of honour, Polyxena still had time before she had to make her entrance.

“It can’t be that bad, surely?”

“Oh, don’t be facile, please,” Polyxena moaned. “I can’t possibly be happy with any of them.”

Patroclus nodded, fixing the flowers to her hair. “Have you tried telling your father?”

“I can’t, you know that.” She looked on the verge of tears but she knew she didn’t have the time to paint her face again if she ruined the work a servant had already done. “I know it’s destined to never work out, I know I can’t expect anything, but…I just wanted to be left alone.”

There was no escape Patroclus could offer her so he tried comfort instead. “It’s admirable that you’ve loved my sister for this long without receiving anything back, you know. That shows tremendous strength of character.”

“More like never knowing how to give up,” Polyxena laughed mirthlessly. “I’m just…it’s comfortable, for me. Always loving her and expecting nothing to happen.”

Patroclus nodded encouragingly, squeezing her bare shoulders and looking at her in the mirror. “You can still love her, of course.”

“It’s not the same. Even though I’m so used to this unrequited love, it’s been difficult lately. It was so much easier when I was younger.”

“Then you just have to concentrate on finding a man who’ll treat you properly and give you anything you ask for. You might even be friends with him, you never know.” Patroclus helped her up and pretended not to notice how strained her smile was.

“You’re right. I might: it’s possible. But you,” she sucked in a breath, composing herself, and smiled fully as she poked him in the chest, “need to get going. I’d avoid the garden if I were you, but no one’s going to be at the underground stream as long as you get past the kitchen staff.”

“Then that’s what I’ll do.” They joined hands and left the room, separating at the staircase so Polyxena could head into the main palace and Patroclus could go further down into the servants’ quarters.

“I’ll see you later tonight?” he asked.

“As long as you don’t spend all night there like last time, I imagine so,” she grinned. “But don’t let thoughts of me ruin the mood.”

“I won’t. Then…good luck. Things won’t be as bad as they seem now.”

“I know.” She waved at him and left, turning away a little too hastily.

 

Travelling through water had become easier over the years, as had Patroclus and Thetis’ interactions. He’d simply decided that there was no point in treating her as he would a human because that could only bring him grief, so after perhaps a year of one-sided awkwardness he settled on treating her like a vehicle that had to be given the utmost respect to work.

She rose from the stream a minute or so after he touched it. Patroclus had never understood how she knew, but as long as he let running water flow over his skin on a day they’d pre-arranged, she would come to him. They didn’t speak. Patroclus simply bowed before her and took her outstretched hand, holding his breath. It had also turned out that so long as he kept his poise before the water engulfed him, he would end up standing on the beach rather than spluttering on his knees in the water. He was thankful for the small things.

Thetis left him as soon as she could while he regained his balance. Glancing around the shore, he caught sight of Achilles a way away and jogged over to him – about to call his name and brimming with the ‘I’ve missed you’ of a lonely month that reminded him how much he needed this – when Achilles stepped back and Patroclus saw they weren’t alone.

His first thoughts weren’t of panic (as they might have been if this wasn’t the man he trusted most in the world) but of curiosity. It was unthinkable that Achilles could have brought anyone dangerous with him (or, at least, someone who posed a direct threat), and as he got closer Patroclus saw he’d been right.

The woman was about their age, perhaps a few years younger. Her skin was darker than Polyxena’s, and though she was undoubtedly beautiful – with wide, dark eyes and striking features – her black hair was unkempt and she looked absolutely terrified of him, not helped by the almost possessive hand Achilles had on her shoulder as if to keep her from running anyway.

Patroclus frowned. “Not that I’m not glad to see you, but what’s going on here?”

As if nothing was different between them, Achilles smiled briefly and drew him into a hug Patroclus couldn’t deny. They broke apart, Achilles’ arms still wrapped around his waist, the woman standing awkwardly (still visibly scared) beside them.

“I understand that this looks bad,” Achilles said quite seriously.

“Well yes, it does, rather. An explanation would be nice. An introduction would as well.”

“Oh,” Achilles looked taken aback, as if he hadn’t thought of that. He moved back, gestured for the woman to come closer – which she did, eyes wide and fearful, body hunched up – and put a hand on her back, apparently unaware of how it seemed to burn her.

“This is Briseis.” He said the word as if it inconvenienced his mouth.

As gently as he could, Patroclus walked forwards to her and inclined his head in greeting. “My name is Patroclus, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Briseis bowed, letting her hair fall in front of her face. Patroclus frowned again. “Can she understand us?” he asked Achilles.

“She should be able to. She doesn’t speak much Greek, but she does understand it.”

And yet Briseis stayed silent, eyes firmly angled at her feet.

“Could I have that explanation now?” Patroclus asked, growing more unnerved by the situation as the seconds of silence piled up.

Achilles immediately took on the expression of a man who knows he’s guilty and can’t see a way out of his sentence. It was usually entertaining to see someone as dazzling as Achilles look like a disgraced dog, but something felt different here. He looked away sheepishly. “Um…I…well, this is Briseis, as you know, and I…I suppose I came into possession of her a few months ago.”

“…excuse me?”

“Well, seven months, to be exact. Or eight, maybe. Definitely not more than a year.” He began to take great interest in a nondescript stretch of sand a few metres from them. “She’s…she’s a slave.”

“Oh.”

“I have no more, I promise! She’s the only one! And I wouldn’t even have asked for her, but she was a spoil of war and I just…” he shrugged helplessly, finally meeting Patroclus’ eyes.

On his part, Patroclus was a little speechless. He wasn’t still so love-struck that he couldn’t accept flaws in the person he loved, nor would he become an apologist for him, but even knowing all of that he was taken by surprise. It wasn’t insurmountable.

“Do you treat her well?”

“Of course I do!” Achilles said angrily, and rightfully so.

“But she’s been with you for months, almost a year, and you haven’t told me?!” If Patroclus was honest, that was what he was the most upset about. He wasn’t proud of it, but apparently he could forgive even Achilles’ keeping a ‘spoil of war’, but not his keeping it from Patroclus.

“Of course I didn’t! I didn’t want you to hate me!” Achilles pursed his lips and calmed himself down, fists shaking at his sides as he hung his head. “I know how you feel about this, especially considering where she comes from, but…that’s why I couldn’t tell you. What was I supposed to do?”

Patroclus sighed, sparing another regretful look at Briseis who was seemingly ignoring them both. “Look, I hate to break this to you, but of all the people I know, you are the one I will probably give the most leeway to. I couldn’t hate you: you know that.”

“But you think I’m cruel for this, don’t you?”

“I’ve told you before I think you’re cruel for other reasons, and yes, this is now one of them too. But I also know you aren’t a cruel person at heart, so stop thinking I’ll leave you because of the slightest transgression.”

“So…you aren’t upset?” Achilles’ voice was full of glittering hope, young and relieved and impossible for Patroclus to resist.

“I’m not.”

Achilles’ usual sunny smile returned, lighting up his whole face and the night besides.

“But why now?” With the tension relieved, Patroclus sat down on a stretch of rock nearby with barely any sand on it and Achilles joined him. Briseis continued to stand, looking as if she was pretending to be anywhere but where they were, and Patroclus felt another pang of guilt as he watched her.

“We,” Achilles gestured to himself and Briseis, “have never exactly seen eye to eye, and lately it’s gotten intolerable. I want to, but I don’t have the time to understand her, not after each day of fighting, and she won’t speak to me unless I speak first. I was just…hoping you could try and help her, I think. You’re so calming, I suppose I thought you could help anyone, given the chance.”

“Just so you know, flattering me isn’t going to change the fact that you are not handling having a slave well at all.”

“I know, but I do like to flatter you just for the sake of it.”

Not that he would ever be rude enough to say it, but Patroclus sometimes thought their relationship was all too like trying to train a wolf. Achilles would do or say things in all innocence that shocked Patroclus, as if they meant nothing to him because they probably didn’t; everything would be normal and wonderful and then he would break it by revealing he thought nothing of killing a hundred Trojan soldiers, or he would let slip that he simply did not care about the welfare of others if they weren’t of use to him.

There were a million and one excuses Patroclus could come up with to make light of it if he wanted – Achilles’ childhood, the crushing expectations loaded onto him at every turn, the constant reinforcement that he was special and above everyone else – but he didn’t want to. He wanted to help Achilles change, and so he was left fighting the urge to give into the man’s charms and staying stern, showing him that if he was going to uproot a woman from her home and kill her family (albeit not personally, Patroclus hoped) he had to treat her kindly.

So he shrugged off the comment with just a smile and got up to approach Briseis. Working in the infirmary had given him the chance to treat soldiers from many of the lands around Troy and he had a basic understanding of at least a few of their languages, so he tried speaking to her in them, one at a time. Thankfully, ‘how are you?’ was a common phrase in an infirmary.

When he tried Anatolian, she lifted her head and finally looked him in the eye.

“Are you well?” he said again.

“Are you like me?”

It took him a second to realise she was asking if he was a slave as well. He shook his head and saw mistrust flood into her face again, swamping the brief hope that had lit up there.

“I want to help,” he said, cringing at how unnatural his accent sounded compared to her flawless pronunciation.

“You’re with him, and yet you want to help? Give me my family back, give me my freedom and maybe I’ll believe you then.” Her words were viciously spoken.

“I…I’m sorry,” Patroclus shook his head, pouring all his guilt and apologies into his expression because he couldn’t remember how to say ‘can’t do that’ rather than ‘won’t do that’ and couldn’t risk the misunderstanding.

Briseis glared at him but held her tongue. Her submissive body language gave away how much she feared them, how much she feared Achilles’ eyes as they bored into her back. Patroclus looked over at him.

“Do you mind if we go somewhere else for a bit?”

Achilles cocked his head to the side. “Me and you or you and her?”

“Me and her.”

“You will come back afterwards?” The worry in his voice would have been laughable considering their history, but Patroclus was a little too preoccupied to remind him that he was worrying over nothing.

So he just said “Of course I will” and gestured for Briseis to walk with him further along the beach. As usual, it was a beautiful night, as bright and mild as any other like it that Patroclus had lived in the past ten years, and with so many night meetings he had become well acquainted. He had long since stopped worrying that anyone from the Greek camps would spot him and didn’t bother with stealth any longer. Briseis was not so relaxed.

“I’m sorry,” he said again to her.

“That means nothing unless you do something about it.”

“I want to,” he protested, battling against his pitiful Anatolian vocabulary. “There is nothing…”

“There is everything: you have power over him, I can see that much.”

“He is…Letting you go is not…others will not like it. Bad things will happen to him.” Patroclus struggled to get his point across, moving his hands as if to express what he couldn’t say.

“So he fears the disapproval of others?”

“The…? I’m sorry, I don’t…”

Frustrated, Briseis stopped walking and dug her heels into the sand. “I understand that bad things will happen to him, but bad things will happen to me just as much and more!”

Patroclus could tell she was simplifying her words for him and he was grateful. “He is definitely a good man,” he said. “You will not be hurt. Have you been hurt?”

She bit her lip and looked away. “No. I know he is kinder than other masters in his actions, but he is a master all the same. I’m not happy. I want to be free. I know that’s impossible, but I hate it with him, even though he ignores me.”

“Why?”

She threw a glare at him that was far too sad to carry any real anger. “Everyone I know and love is dead or enslaved like me and I’m completely alone. I can’t even grieve properly when I’m always scared I’ll be punished for it.”

Patroclus had been struggling to keep up with her fast-paced words, but he understood the gist of it and could still say, “That won’t happen! That definitely won’t happen!”

“Don’t promise me things you can’t.”

“I can! I can promise it. He will not hurt you or let you be hurt because he is good, I promise. You are here and I am here because he wanted that: he is…” Patroclus’ limited vocabulary had exhausted itself and he couldn’t remember how to say ‘worried’ so he changed the phrasing. “He wants you to be happy. He knows you do not like him, so I am here to talk to you and…and know how to help you.” He grimaced at the awkwardness of his words, but Briseis seemed to understand and her glittering black eyes widened a fraction.

“But why you? Why can’t he tell me that? Why can’t he treat me like a human if he wants to help me?”

Patroclus shrugged helplessly. “He knows you do not like him,” he repeated.

Briseis scrunched up her face as if she were about to cry, but just huffed a sigh instead. “But why did he take me if he’s as good as you say and really doesn’t want to hurt me?”

“To save you.” Truthfully, Patroclus had no idea, but he supposed it probably wasn’t a bad guess. Not that that helped the jolt of guilt he felt at the relief passing over Briseis’ face.

“He should have just told me,” she mumbled.

“He is bad at speaking,” Patroclus excused hurriedly.

“I want to be clear,” Briseis faced him squarely. “I’m not happy here, but I also know he isn’t at fault, not completely. Or, I can’t blame everyone because if I do I’ll never, ever be happy. If you say he’s trying to be kind, I’ll…I’ll try to believe you. But I don’t think I can ever really like him. Can you tell him that?”

“Of course.”

“And…” she hesitated. “I don’t have anyone to talk to here. It gets lonely, being kept in his camp and having no one who knows my language.”

Patroclus could hear the silent request. “I will come more. I do not live there, but…I will come and talk to you more. I want to.”

For the first time, Briseis smiled at him. She had a purely human type of beauty he rarely saw – surrounded by stunning half-bloods as he was – and with a shy smile emphasising her cheekbones, white teeth shining against dark, dark skin, she finally looked happy. She followed Patroclus as he walked back to where Achilles was waiting impatiently, and she stood close enough to him that he felt a flush of pride.

Achilles didn’t seem to share the sentiment. He had a marvellous scowl on his face (though he was clearly trying to hide it) and when he noticed they were coming back he leapt to his feet and stalked over to meet them, crossing his arms. Patroclus appreciated how hard he seemed to be trying to be decent.

“Do you get along?” he asked.

“I think so. Not being her captor helped.”

The scowl melted abruptly and Achilles nodded decisively. “Right! Do you mind if I leave for a bit to take her back to camp? I’ll return as soon as I can, I swear.”

“I know you will.” Patroclus made sure not to give his permission in words, hating the cold reality that Achilles didn’t consider Briseis trustworthy enough to go back on her own (and indeed, that she probably wasn’t and nobody could expect her to be). He settled on the beach to wait.

True to his word, Achilles came back running only ten minutes later and, true to his athleticism, wasn’t even out of breath when he sat down next to Patroclus, a wide smile on his face. That at least hadn’t changed in a decade.

“So,” Patroclus said, watching the waves wash in and out, leaning into Achilles’ side as an arm wrapped around his back. “Why did you get her? I still can’t understand that: I didn’t think you had any interest in slaves.”

“And I don’t, so fear not: you still know me better than anyone.”

“I wasn’t worrying about that,” Patroclus snorted. “But you’re not answering me.”

“She reminded me of you.” There was no shame in his voice, only a frightening amount of surety.

Patroclus laughed it off. “You know we look nothing alike, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know that!” He tilted his head back, letting tawny hair fall away from his face. “But there’s more to it than just appearance. She…she made me think of you when I saw her. I don’t know why. And really, anything that reminds me of you is something I need more of: I miss you!”

“You were the one who said you couldn’t make it for a whole month!” Patroclus protested, not at all upset. “Do you think I didn’t miss you too?”

“I couldn’t help that! Things got difficult in the camp. Ugh, it’s all unfair!” Achilles exclaimed, and before Patroclus had a chance to agree, Achilles’ arms were around him and they fell back into the sand, laughing breathless laughs at the ridiculousness of it; both their less than dignified positions and the separation they’d had to grow used to out of necessity.

The two of them sprinkled liberally with sand, they eventually settled for Patroclus lying on his back and Achilles lying curled up to his side, an arm slung over his chest to satisfy his apparently insatiable need for contact. Patroclus didn’t really understand that level of protectiveness, but he didn’t have to understand it to feel warmed by it.

“Are you really so lonely?” he asked in a soft voice, fingers curled in Achilles’ hair.

“I wouldn’t call it lonely,” he said thoughtfully. “But being lonely and missing you are different things. Loneliness sounds like anyone would do to fill it, but you mean more to me than everyone else.”

“Thetis wouldn’t be pleased to hear that.”

“Parents don’t count. Neither do twins in your case.”

“That’s a relief. Reassure me that you really aren’t lonely, though.”

As if it were the greatest burden imaginable, Achilles sighed dramatically. “I have many people to talk to, should I be that way inclined after fighting all day.”

“It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

“Not at all, just tiring,” Achilles said matter-of-factly, as if there couldn’t possibly be anything else to make it terrible. He raised a finger like a thought had just come to him. “Automedon. He talks to me.”

“Your charioteer? One friend in ten years isn’t a good track record.”

“I’ll have you know I am on excellent terms with all my men as well. Let it not be forgotten I do also talk to the other generals and men on the council.”

“Apart from Agamemnon?”

Patroclus could hear the sneer in Achilles’ voice. “I try not to sully my reputation by talking to scum, thank you.”

“Well, that’s fine then,” Patroclus laughed. “So long as you’re not lonely.”

“I still miss you.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Their voices were lowered, whispers just for each other when they could have shouted and still no one else would have heard.

“Is it worth it?” Patroclus searched but he couldn’t find any reproach or resentment in Achilles’ voice, even though it should have been dripping in them.

“If I hadn’t been able to see you at all then I don’t think it would have been, but…they mean a lot to me.”

“Your sisters?” Achilles had taken to using the plural and it was so close to the truth that there was no point in asking him not to.

“Definitely, but also my life there. I’m not sorry I stayed, so…I think it was worth it, in the end.”

“Past tense.”

“Things feel different now,” Patroclus sighed. “Helen’s…I can’t understand her anymore. And Polyxena’s doing so well on her own. Did I tell you she has to choose a fiancé tonight?”

“No,” Achilles shook his head. “I thought she loved your sister, or does that not have any sway on the situation?”

“None at all, sadly.”

Achilles hummed in sympathy.

“So what I’m saying is…I want to see her happy, and I want to clean up a few things, but…I think my reasons for staying are losing their hold. Give it a few months.”

The waves didn’t stop but everything else went utterly still between them. Patroclus hadn’t meant for that, and he waited with bated breath for what Achilles would say to the subject he’d been prying about for years. For his part, Achilles had stopped breathing and Patroclus regretted that he couldn’t see his face from the position they were in. Much as he loved Achilles’ smile, there was something unforgettably and addictively beautiful about those piercing eyes widened in shock.

“…truly? Really?” Achilles asked in a choked voice.

“Really.” Patroclus nodded, his smile slipping into his voice.

In a the space of a heartbeat, Achilles was on his side and staring at Patroclus with wide eyes, an all-too vulnerable look of wonder lighting up his face. “It’s taken you this long, and now…?!”

“Now I think I’d be ready to leave, theoretically,” Patroclus specified. “Many things might come up that would keep me back, you know! And the war might not even last that long,” he said with dry amusement: why on earth should the eternal war ever end? “Don’t raise your hopes too far, please.”

“Too late!” Achilles said with a wild grin, supporting himself on his elbows above Patroclus. “You’ve done it now!”

Before Patroclus could even laugh, he was being kissed and he could only give in and give up to the warmth pounding through him. Fingers weaved through his hair and brushed over his cheeks, his jaw, cupping his face like something precious, and his own hands found their place at Achilles’ collarbone, running down his chest to his hips. There was something needy to their actions – there always was – but there was trust too: trust grown early and bred strong to hold them together until they could enjoy each other without slipping into the perpetual fear of separation. They were here, together, in a sea of sound and sensation for them alone, and that was enough.

With a last suck on Patroclus’ bottom lip, Achilles moved to pepper his face with light, fleeting kisses, going down his jaw and lingering at his neck like he always loved to do.

“You really shouldn’t leave marks,” Patroclus laughed, too exhilarated to put even the slightest touch of threat in his words.

“And why’s that?” Achilles didn’t bother to look up.

“Because you wouldn’t believe the rumours I heard last time you did,” Patroclus flicked the side of Achilles’ head lightly. “Do you want everyone to start theorising who I’m sleeping with?”

“They’ll never guess,” Achilles said happily but he moved back upwards anyway, going in for a longer kiss, the type that left Patroclus light-headed and reeling with feverish thoughts of AchillesAchillesAchillesAchilles.

“You…you know I can’t stay tonight?” he asked breathlessly as they broke apart for a second.

“I was hoping to change your mind.” Achilles’ breathing was no less laboured.

“No, no, that really can’t happen,” Patroclus shook his head.

“Then just an hour more?”

Patroclus thought about it and Achilles set about distracting him again.

“I can probably get away with an hour,” he smiled, wrapping his arms around Achilles’ neck.

Chapter Text

In the end, after a long series of distractions and temptations he thoroughly enjoyed giving into, Patroclus made it back to the palace far later than he’d planned. There was still life in the palace, sound from upstairs filtering into even the caverns of the underground stream as the party went on – or was cleaned up, he couldn’t tell – so after thanking Thetis profusely and watching her leave without a word, he made his way upstairs cautiously.

As usual, Polyxena was waiting for him in his room, sitting tensely on the edge of a chair by the window and wheeling round to look at him when he slid the door open.

“I have a problem,” she said in a voice heavy with suppressed emotion.

It was nothing he hadn’t expected. “That’s what I’m here for.” Patroclus closed the door quietly and sat opposite her on the bed, stroking some of her now messy hair behind her ear. As always after meeting with Achilles, he was filled with happiness and ready to share it all.

Polyxena gulped, fidgeting with the fabric of her skirt. “I chose someone,” she said in a small voice, barely audible if Patroclus hadn’t been listening out for it. He nodded, waiting for her.

“His name is Kyrillos; his father has a lot of influence in the city, and…I think I like him.” She said it as if the words burned her throat.

Patroclus hesitated. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“No, it is most certainly not!” she turned distraught eyes on him, her bottom lip quivering, but somehow her voice stayed steady. “I have loved your sister since the first time I saw her and I’ve only grown to love her more over the years! It’s a constant for me, it’s something I can believe in when I’m not sure of anything else that’s happening to me because I’ve always, always loved her. How am I supposed to understand this? How am I supposed to accept this?!”

For a brief second Patroclus considered being harsh and telling her to take the happiness she’d been given with open arms, but that wasn’t what their relationship was. Polyxena knew that already, he was sure, and there was no point in repeating it to her just to prove himself right. So he smiled sadly and opened his arms to let her fall into them, burying her face in his chest. She didn’t cry.

“It’s possible to love more than one person at a time,” he said soothingly, rubbing his hand down her back.

“Is it, though?” her voice came out muffled. “I don’t believe that. I don’t think you can love two people in the same way, and if that’s true then one must be loved more than the other. I don’t love Kyrillos – I’ve only just met him – but what happens if I do?”

“Then you rejoice in the fact that you’ll be a happy bride.”

Polyxena said nothing.

“Everything will seem better in the morning, you know.”

Patroclus could practically hear her biting her lip. “I do know,” she mumbled, “but I’m not asking for that, I’m asking for some reassurance that I’m not heartless.”

Patroclus arms tightened around her. “Who said you were heartless?”

Laughing weakly, she moved her head onto his shoulder so she could breathe easier. “I did. Don’t worry: no one’s been slighting me, as far as I know.”

“Then don’t slight yourself: you’re perfectly within your rights as an empathetic, caring human being to fall out of a decade-long unrequited love.”

“Mm.”

“And I know,” he sighed. “I know that you probably feel it’s part of your very personality now, but you don’t have to let it go. You can keep loving her and you aren’t selfish or heartless for that: she doesn’t even know.”

“Maybe it would have been better if she did.”

“Maybe it would have.”

“I haven’t even been able to talk to her.”

“I know.” Patroclus didn’t say what he was thinking: that Polyxena’s love had drifted into idolisation years before, irretrievable as the shy first love it had once been. It didn’t matter, nor did it bear mentioning: as far as he was concerned she could idolise Helen all she liked if it brought her comfort. Helen wasn’t losing from it, not when absolutely everyone seemed to idolise her.

“He gave me a rose bush as a gift.”

The change in subject confused Patroclus for a second and in the pause Polyxena moved off his lap to lie back on the bed, yawning and putting on a perfectly faked expression of nonchalance. She stretched as if pulling the distress out of her bones forcefully.

“Kyrillos?” Patroclus clarified.

“Yes. It was such a stupid move!” she smiled. “Tell me: what sane person imports a rare breed of rose in the middle of a siege?”

“Is it pretty, at least?”

She nodded vigorously. “Very. It’s been planted out in the northern garden, near the tulip beds. I’ll take you to see it.”

“I’d like that.” He could almost see the things she wanted to say waiting on the edge of her tongue, so he laid back with her. “What sort of person is he?”

Polyxena took the bait with a grateful, bashful smile and began to tell him about her night, clearly trying to brush away her earlier misgivings and come around to a happiness she could believe in. It was refreshing watching her and the way she would try to hide certain details as if they didn’t mean anything but were obviously everything to her. It was calming too: closing his eyes and being nestled in her voice and the sun’s warmth within him, even as he felt the minutes fade away and the fatigue he’d no doubt labour under the next day increase. It didn’t really matter, after all. It was enough to know Polyxena was happy – or was growing into happiness.

 

Helen was different. Helen always had been but now, especially, Helen was different. Patroclus could admit that he was frustratingly optimistic because optimism was the only weapon he had left when he had long since discarded the idea of ever letting himself grow desensitised, but he couldn’t be optimistic about his sister anymore.

It was almost insulting how used to her situation everyone was, when he thought about it. No one questioned nights and days when she wouldn’t appear but Paris would still be there, smiling and laughing and staying on the ramparts where he was safe. The royal family was vast, and it was easy for people to slip through the gaps, Patroclus knew that, but Helen wasn’t part of it: Helen was Helen and the way everyone was politely ignoring her and averting their eyes to what she’d become tormented him whenever he allowed himself to think about it. So, for the most part, he just didn’t.

Her name had even faded away from the lips of the soldiers in the infirmary despite having been stuck there for the early months and years, tied to curses and blame. There, Patroclus wasn’t her brother, he wasn’t even Greek: he was just another physician to bandage and cut and treat the pains brought to him. He was never demonised for his sister’s supposed crimes, he was barely even associated with her, and to some extent he craved the escape. It made him feel accepted, as if he’d grown seamlessly into the twisting branches of palace life, and that in turn filled him with guilt because Helen couldn’t hide in the same way.

But it was his job, so after a late morning and a sweltering afternoon training with Troilus (who had long since surpassed Patroclus’ passable fighting skills) and Polydorus (who had not), Patroclus went down to the infirmary again. The indoor passageways were blissfully cool and dark, echoing with indistinguishable sounds from private rooms and kitchens and stairwells and anything else connected to them. As he walked into the lower levels, there was a breeze blowing from strategically opened doors to hit his skin – still wet from the water he’d splashed on hastily to wash away his sweat and dust – and he took his time enjoying it before walking out into the courtyard that led to the infirmary.

There were a few women talking at the fountain: Medesicaste and Andromache he was well acquainted with and he exchanged some words with them, asking after Andromache’s young son before going to greet the other physicians. It felt domestic and comforting and all-too fragile, and yet it hadn’t once been broken in the long years he’d lived the same routine.

In the lull and the following rush of wounds and injuries, Patroclus tried to put his mind to imagining what it would be like to not have that routine he’d grown so used to, but he was easily distracted and whisked back into the present rather than far-off fantasies. He had to keep his head here: it just wasn’t safe to daydream. The work needed concentration and precision but most of all speed. He knew the huge rooms and the stores and stocks in them by heart, running from them to a soldier and back, keeping up conversation if the soldier was so inclined but mostly not bothering, and easily ignoring the sounds of pain and suffering after years of practice. It wasn’t desensitisation, he told himself: it was just pragmatic.

There was nothing particularly difficult that evening: no irreparable breaks, no major amputations, and nobody seemed in worse spirits than could be expected in their situation. There had been nights where the grieving never ended, where the screaming went on for hours from countless different throats, but there had seemingly been no great losses that day and Patroclus was glad for it. He left his shift earlier than usual, relieved by the next physician with just a smile and an understanding nod.

The fatigue weighing him down was minimal as he walked to the dining hall: perhaps things weren’t necessarily good but they certainly weren’t bad either (and he’d seen far worse), so that was all he could ask for. Nevertheless, he still felt all of his good mood congeal into ice at the pit of his stomach when he saw that Helen wasn’t anywhere to be found among the family settled around low tables in the hall. That was too much. It was far too much for him to take and he felt her absence like a punch to the gut because Paris was right there, laughing with his brothers. Determined, Patroclus turned on his heel and walked up to Helen’s rooms.

It wasn’t something he did often. Perhaps that was cowardice, but mostly it was the far more shameful exasperation: he just didn’t know what to do with her anymore. For years he’d tried, and for years he would continue to try, but that didn’t change the fact that he wasn’t getting anywhere with it. His sister was an enigma to him and, had the situation been different – had he not been spurred on by the thought that he might be leaving – he had to admit to himself that he might not have gone. But the situation wasn’t different and he found himself outside her door with his heartbeat thrumming in his ears, drowning out the sound of his hesitant knock.

There was no answer, so after a minute of waiting he called out “It’s me” and opened the door slowly. Helen was lying on her bed, the sheets rumpled and cushions thrown over the floor indiscriminately, but she looked up when he came in and managed a weak smile. Patroclus smiled back and pulled up a seat to sit by her.

“Have you just finished?” she asked, her expression soft and gentle and entirely wrong.

“I have.” Patroclus knew she found speaking difficult and silences worse so he filled up the space himself. “It was alright today. I saw a few of my ‘regulars’ again: I set the leg of one of them not a week ago and now he’s back with the other one fractured, can you imagine? But it wasn’t too taxing today. Nobody died in our care, for a start.”

“My,” Helen said, her voice breathy and quiet but she was trying so hard.

“And I saw Achilles again last night. He brought a slave girl he apparently ‘came into possession of’ without telling me. She’s called Briseis and she seems to be Anatolian so I’m going to have to brush up on that soon, if we’re to talk properly at all. She seems to be treated well – and of course she is, if she’s in his camp – but she’s very lonely so I’m going to try and make her feel more welcome.”

“That’s good,” Helen nodded, the same rosebud smile on her lips hiding the thorns stuck in her throat.

Patroclus searched for other mundane topics. “Polyxena’s well too – although I suppose you were there last night, so you’d know more about that than I do. You weren’t? Ah, then…she’s apparently chosen a husband. I have yet to meet him but she’s a clever girl: I’m sure she’s chosen well. She tells me she’s most definitely not in love, but that sort of thing will come in time. Or it won’t, but he sounds like he’ll treat her well whatever the outcome.”

Helen nodded along, head propped up on a pillow covered in her unbrushed hair, and Patroclus realised his mistake when he saw her eyes were shining with tears. Her smile grew more strained. “That’s…that’s wonderful,” she said.

He shouldn’t have said it, he shouldn’t have brought up marriage and happiness and love. “Oh Helen, don’t…”

“Don’t what?” Her voice was too high, too fragile.

“Please don’t close up from me.”

“Then what should I do?” She turned over to look away from him. “I know you’re different from the others, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to talk.”

“Please…” his fingers clenched in the sheets. He’d made a mess of it all and he couldn’t see how he could make things better. “Please, I want to help you.”

“Nothing can help. I’ve told you that. You can’t stop him, I can’t stop him, nobody can because we’re married and that’s a bond that separates us from everyone else,” she said it as if she’d rehearsed the words a hundred times before. Unsure if he was overstepping his bounds, Patroclus leaned forwards to touch her shoulder and she immediately curled up from him, leaving his fingers hovering uselessly over her. Wind streamed through the windows in a sudden gust over his back.

Patroclus swallowed heavily. “I can…I can talk to Hector…”

“You’ve tried.”

“I can take you away…I can persuade Thetis to take you, I know I can, and then…”

“What would that solve?”

“You wouldn’t be here with him, for a start!”

“But I’m still responsible. For all of this.” The dead smile in her voice was infuriating.

“No, I’ve told you: Menelaus and Agamemnon would have their war either way!”

“I started it.”

“You-”

“Don’t. Don’t try. I thought his love would last and I wanted to believe it would. It didn’t, so I’m left at his whim and the whim of his protector goddess, but it still isn’t enough to atone for any of this.”

“There has to be some way of letting you be happy again.” He believed that, he truly did, and yet…

“There shouldn’t be.”

“‘Shouldn’t’?”

“I deserve it,” she said decisively. “I’m clearly unlovable, so-”

That, he wouldn’t stand for. “I love you! It isn’t your fault that nobody cares to look past your appearance, and if they did, so many more people would love you too! You can be happy too, you can be loved too, it’s just that that bastard is treating you like…!” He couldn’t say it: if he said what he’d suspected for so long was happening between them – what he couldn’t do anything to stop – then it would become real and he couldn’t take that.

“Please stop.” Helen’s voice cracked into a whisper, a sob. “Just…just go, please. I love you, I love you so much, but I don’t want you here, not now.”

Patroclus bit back what he wanted to say, standing up slowly enough that the scratches of chair legs on stone were barely more than a shiver. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Helen nodded, deep, choked breaths wracking her body. All he could see was her back, hunched up as she held her hands to her chest.

“I’m so sorry.” But there were no excuses for this. He closed the door behind him gently and walked away, fists trembling at his sides.

Chapter Text

“If that’s how it is, she really should come here and leave Troy altogether,” Briseis nodded sympathetically. The wind gusted along the beach viciously, far stronger than usual but just as mild as ever.

Patroclus watched his feet glumly. “She says that cannot happen. She thinks she must…” he trailed off, looking down at his hands as if they would tell him what the Anatolian word for ‘repent’ was, “…make things right. Because she thinks it is her fault.”

“It is.”

“It is not.” He said it firmly but not harshly. “I will not hear you say that.”

“‘Listen to’,” Briseis provided, “or you just won’t let me? It’s a difficult sentence structure you’ve made there.”

“Sorry.” It had taken him weeks to introduce this subject to Briseis and his Anatolian had only improved marginally in such a small space of time. “But still…please do not say that.”

“It’s true though,” Briseis shrugged, but she said it gently. She didn’t treat him as if he was about to order her imprisonment (or worse) anymore, and he didn’t treat her as if she was made of glass, but theirs was still a cautious friendship.

Because of that, Patroclus didn’t want to argue about it, not this subject. It was far too close to home, far too mired in bias, so he just shrugged back at her and tried to act maturely and level-headedly even though he wanted to make it painfully clear that he would never accept people blaming his sister for this. “If you think it is her fault, why do you suggest she comes here?”

“She’s a victim as well, clearly. She couldn’t have known this would happen, and I’m not willing to condemn her for a mistake she made ten years ago. That’s just being unfair.”

Relieved, Patroclus nodded earnestly enough to make Briseis smile, and she walked a little closer to the sea, letting the water wash over her feet and ankles and smiling at that, too. He’d found that she was as much of a smiler as Polyxena was, though in a more reserved and mature way. Sometimes it felt like she was only smiling to put him more at ease.

“Have things been better for you?” he asked, moving his weight from side to side to avoid sinking too far into wet sand.

“There have been improvements,” she nodded, playing at stepping over waves as they came to meet her feet. “He treats me less brashly now, thanks to you, surely.” She never said Achilles’ name if she could help it; Patroclus still didn’t know why.

“And are you still alone?”

“He told me you asked the same of him,” she smirked, but not unkindly.

“You speak together, then?” he asked hopefully.

“We have spoken. It isn’t a regular thing. But I’m allowed out of the camp now, so I can speak with people from my village and other slaves. I enjoy that. People have settled down by now, building a life here, some even coming round to their captors. There’s not much else we can do. No, no: don’t look so apologetic. That’s not going to help anything except your own guilt, now, is it?”

“At least it helps that?”

She smirked and inclined her head, as if allowing that. “Well, feel sorry, if you like. I have enough people to blame without adding you to the list, so don’t expect me to enable you.” She smiled again, taking his hand and they continued walking up the beach they knew far too well now.

“‘Enable’?”

She translated the word into Greek. “Help you feel sorry for yourself. In this context. Ah, but you’ll be pleased to know I’ve become less hostile to the others in the camp so I’m less hated there now too.”

“Good!” Patroclus laughed. “I am glad to hear it.”

“Have you ever been to the camp?” Briseis looked back at the dim lights in the distance demonstratively, her eyes lingering a touch too long on the tents that stretched for as far as they could see.

“Never, but I know some names.” Patroclus drew his eyes back to the walls of Troy in front of them.

“You should come sometime: it’s a very nice place to be, relatively speaking. Do you know of Automedon?”

“I do: Achilles says he is close with him as well,” Patroclus nodded. “The…”

“Charioteer. He’s the kindest to me out of everyone, I’d say. Probably because he knows well what it’s like to be surrounded by people who could kill you and not be punished for it.”

“How dramatic.”

“It is, isn’t it? But because of that he’s very accommodating and he takes care of me.”

“Was he a slave also, then?”

Briseis stopped walking and looked at him quizzically. “Do you not know?”

Patroclus tried to sum up a sarcastic ‘evidently not’ in his expression because he didn’t trust his Anatolian vocabulary to do it for him.

“I take it that’s a no?” Briseis grinned. “Well, it’s not my place to tell you, but if you ever meet him, you’ll know.”

“Then I hope to meet him one day and have this secret made clear,” Patroclus said dryly.

“Someday, maybe,” she nodded. “I think you’d like it, you know. Especially during the day, there’s a wonderful sense of companionship among us who are left behind in the camp, like a village. Or would you be fighting?”

“I…think I would not…” Patroclus grimaced and looked away. “Fighting is not something I like at all.”

Briseis beamed at him, entirely approving. “I thought you mightn’t. But doesn’t it get difficult being a pacifist and living like this? And loving him, knowing what he’s like?”

“A pacifist is someone who does not like fighting, is it?” Briseis nodded. “Then…I would not say I am one, not properly. I do not like to fight, but others fighting is not something I hate. It is also not something I like, but…”

Briseis considered his answer. “I think I see what you mean. And I suppose it would be a little distressing if you hated fighting outright. Not that you can exactly choose what to hate or like based on what’s practical, of course.”

“Exactly. And it is his way: I will not be the one to stop that. And…I think his fighting is beautiful.” It wasn’t the same for anyone else: no one else fought like Achilles, no one made it a dance, a joy to watch, an entrancing display of strength and grace tied together inseparably. No one else was born to fight like he was, nor born for glory like him. Patroclus shouldn’t – he knew he shouldn’t – but he couldn’t help but feel pride when he remembered what he’d seen from the ramparts, the few glimpses he’d caught over the years and the demonstrations Achilles had given him of the drills he repeated over and over (confused as to why Patroclus would want to watch, but far from unwilling).

“Such strange tastes you have,” Briseis said teasingly. “But I suppose I would agree. He doesn’t fight like the others. Though…I don’t have good memories of watching him fight.” Her smile slipped and Patroclus searched for a subject to restore it but Briseis got there first, turning to him. “Tell me: what do you know about the plants of this region?”

“Not a lot,” he admitted sheepishly. “Troy does not have the selection of plants that outside does and I have never been taught.”

Her smile grew wider. “Well, then…”

Their conversations were always like that: buffeted from one subject to the next in an accelerated attempt to know each other. Achilles always – always – took priority, but since they’d met, at least twice a week Patroclus would spend an hour or two speaking with Briseis on the beach. He practised his Anatolian fiercely back in Troy, but in the end it didn’t matter: Briseis carried him along, gently correcting him and simplifying her words, and they reached a safe and comfortable rhythm together.

There wasn’t really any reason they had to have each other, but it was more that they recognised themselves in each other and couldn’t bear to release that, couldn’t bear to let a relationship go when they could so clearly understand each other. In Patroclus, Briseis sought an anchor to a world where she was free. In Briseis, Patroclus sought someone he could confide in without tripping up over the chains he’d locked around himself in Troy.

Polyxena was so precious to him, but she was a younger sister, not a friend. There were measurements to be made and lines to draw out between them, reminding him that she was so much younger and he needed to protect her, even if she didn’t need him to. His sister was different too, especially now, and Hector was…With him, there were more lines and pitfalls than anyone else. Lines to remind Patroclus what he could and couldn’t say, what was acceptable or not in Hector’s eyes, what would endanger his life or not.

And Briseis didn’t need any such lines. Even Achilles couldn’t be what she was to Patroclus: there was a difference between friends and lovers that he had been feeling sorely – especially with the ache of separation – and she filled it with the quirk of a smile and a challenging raise of her eyebrows.

In time, she let him in as well.

“I cried last night, thinking about my parents,” she said one day, completely coolly.

Patroclus whipped his head round to look at her – kicking waves in the sea with her skirt tied up at her hips – and tried to fathom what she had said it for: whether he should express sympathy or understanding or pry for more. Coming up with nothing, he settled on sympathy.

“I’m sorry.”

She waved it away, as he’d known she would. Briseis was just that type of person. “I don’t cry a lot, but I started remembering them and the memories wouldn’t stop coming. All the things I miss, all the times I turn around expecting them to be there, all the times I catch myself making plans as if they’re still alive: they wouldn’t stop coming. I just…” she waved her hands helplessly at the moonless sky. “It isn’t something I can forget, apparently. I thought I could. It feels like everyone else has, and sometimes I feel left behind by all the others making new lives here in the camps. Sometimes I resent them for forgiving their captors so easily. Most times I don’t know what to think.”

Patroclus watched her hopelessly. “That is unlike you.”

“It is, isn’t it?” She nodded thoughtfully. “I should make up my mind soon.”

“You should not have to. I think that staying as you are is enough.”

“Do you? I don’t think so. I need to forget: if I don’t, I won’t be able to go on.” She said it simply and matter-of-factly as ever, but Patroclus couldn’t take that. It hurt him, burning him with memories of forgetting and desensitising and hardening as defence against anything anyone could throw; memories of his sister telling him to leave. Memories of his ever-present terror that Achilles was going the same way, that he was losing his humanity (or hadn’t had it in years). Patroclus reached out to take Briseis’ hand.

“It is your choice, I will not stop you, but…I cannot see more people around me losing themselves.”

Perhaps he had said it too desperately, but Briseis’ expression became one of utter sympathy and apology, even though she never allowed him to apologise to her for anything he hadn’t directly been responsible for. It was almost unfair.

“Is this something that happens a lot?”

Patroclus nodded, unafraid of letting her know. It was her: she couldn’t be hurt by the information or use it to hurt him. He had faith in that.

“I won’t lose myself, Patroclus. It isn’t that at all: I’m just protecting myself.”

“Even so, I can’t…I worry. What should I do when everyone I love has changed?”

“You’ll love them still: this is you we’re talking about. You’ll understand them and help them and show them how to help themselves. You’ll save them, and that’s fine.” She stroked a hand down his cheek. “Do you feel that everyone’s going to leave you? No one could, Patroclus. Not you. There’s something about you: you know, don’t you? Your divine blood hasn’t only left you with stunning beauty,” they both breathed a laugh, and yet she seemed to truly believe it when she said, “You’re impossible to let go.”

Her words hit him like a gale, and he struggled to keep his head. “So you say…”

“I do say,” she smiled.

“I can tell you that many people have let me go, of course,” he said in good humour, trying to calm himself down from the weakness he felt at what she’d said, the fluttering desire to believe her.

Briseis waved her hand dismissively. “Some people will fall through the gaps but they just don’t know a good thing when they see it. Shame on them for abandoning the best thing that could have ever happened to them.”

“Stop…” he laughed, walking back to shore.

“Not until you admit it! Admit that once someone’s grown close to you they can never let you go because you’re just too good!”

“I will not admit that! That is enabling!”

“Encouraging, I think you mean.” She looked so pleased with herself, so pleased with him.

Anyway, were we not talking about you?”

“This makes me happier. I don’t want to think you’re going to go away feeling like everyone will leave you because this war has changed them so much.”

His heart sank: that wasn’t how he felt. It wasn’t something with foundations steeped in self-centredness: it was about the people he loved changing and feeling they had to stop being who they were just to protect themselves. He tried to make it clearer; he had to make it clearer. He couldn’t let her think that of him and coddle him because of it: she was never like that usually, always so quick to put him in his place when she thought he needed it (and he did, from someone as grounded as she). “I do not think that, really!”

She raised an eyebrow at him, padding back on damp sand to join him on the shore.

“It is not really a thing I worry about much,” he continued, truthfully, “but more that it…it burns up sometimes. When I see them close up from me, or when I see the distance between us.”

“But they haven’t left you yet, have they? I think that’s a clue there.”

Patroclus looked away. “I do not think you could say Helen has stayed with me.”

“But that isn’t because of you personally, and if you think it is then you’re being selfish again.” And there was the Briseis he knew so well. He grinned at her.

“I know it is not my fault. That does not make it easy, though.”

“No, I’m not expecting it to, but you shouldn’t stunt people’s personal decisions because you’re afraid of being left behind, especially because I truly don’t think anyone you love would leave you.”

“Sorry,” he blurted out, because he had to when she was looking at him so earnestly. “For turning this to me when you are the one suffering. That was selfish.”

Briseis cocked her head thoughtfully. “Perhaps, but…I feel better not talking about my own problems, so I don’t mind. And I feel better knowing you might feel better too. So don’t worry about it!”

Briseis was always like that, too. She was strong – far stronger than anyone Patroclus had ever met – and she knew exactly what she wanted and where to get it. Sometimes he felt jealous of her but mostly it was never a case of jealousy or admiration: it was simply that she understood how to live best by her standards and he knew best how to live by his. If her way was quicker, more driven and more rigid than his, then that was just how things were. They still saw eye to eye even if they were on different levels. They still had to see each other, even if Achilles would always come first with idyllic evenings and nights that satisfied something deeper in Patroclus than a need for companionship. They still had to talk even if it wasn’t always in words.

She just wasn’t someone he could let go of.

Chapter Text

 It was another one of those nights, the type in which Patroclus would promise Polyxena he’d absolutely be back early to talk with her and then he’d go to see Achilles and that would throw all plans of actually leaving out of the water. They happened more often than he’d like to admit.

“No…” he murmured wearily, though more at the situation than at Achilles making an excellent effort at helping him forget reason entirely. “I said I need to get back…”

“You always say that,” Achilles pointed out, settling himself in Patroclus’ lap and pulling him close enough to kiss with a guiding hand on the back of Patroclus’ head.

“That’s-” Patroclus let himself be distracted for a short kiss, hands moving treacherously to the small of Achilles’ back as if they weren’t even obeying him. “That’s not true: I stayed all night yesterday.”

“True,” Achilles smiled. “But let’s pretend I have a bad memory.”

“Who’s pretending?”

“That’s just rude.” But he leaned back slightly all the same – letting his lips linger on Patroclus’ long enough to be regretful – and looked up with eyes too beautiful to be anything but divine, glittering in the low light between them. “Do you really have to go?” he asked in a pitiful voice.

Patroclus nodded, well used to this game. “It’s a trial being in such high demand but I do my best.”

Laughing, Achilles clapped him lightly on the shoulder and got off his legs to sit against the same rock wall Patroclus was. “That mouth of yours will get you in trouble one day, you know. Not that I’m opposed to it at all, of course.”

“Of course,” Patroclus nodded knowingly. “It’s just because Polyxena’s having trouble with her betrothed again.”

“What, has she fallen in love with him now? A terrible fate.”

“Don’t be like that: it’s difficult for her. And things are going to be difficult for me if I don’t leave soon.” He got to his feet. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with her, so don’t use that as an excuse to keep me here.”

Achilles smiled up at him innocently, arms crossed behind his head like a headrest. “I would never do such a thing.”

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t.” Patroclus smiled indulgently. “Could you call your mother for me?”

How the two of them did it, Patroclus had no idea and no business guessing, but Thetis always knew when her son was calling for her, wherever she might be. To some extent it worried Patroclus: he had no direct control over how he came and went, and since the days of treating the experience as wondrous and mysterious had passed he was left feeling stranded. And then Achilles would take his hand and it would pass, but that couldn’t change the fact that it had existed, nor that Thetis still looked upon him as if he were nothing she should ever have to concern herself with and never would have if it weren’t for her son’s request. She didn’t look at them as they kissed goodbye and when she’d brought Patroclus back, she left without another glance at him.

It was probably for the better: Polyxena was waiting in the garden for him when he arrived. Excitedly, she leapt up from the stone bench she’d been waiting on and went to him with a mock frown on her face.

“You certainly took your time.”

“I didn’t, really,” Patroclus shrugged, smiling at her while he brushed his tunic down of any sand.

“I trust you had fun?”

“When do I ever not?” He matched her playful tone and they started to amble down a garden path: it was far too peaceful a night to spend it talking in his room, especially when it was still so early. Everything looked faintly ethereal under the night sky and it calmed him, be it the still air, the stones crunching under his sandals or the gentle bobbing of Polyxena’s hair as she walked beside him.

“I’ve got a problem,” she said eventually.

“Yes, I assumed you would.”

Maybe he had said it too quickly, but Polyxena looked up at him with wide eyes as dark as the sky above them for a just a second before turning her head quickly and looking down. “S-sorry. I know it has to be annoying, listening to me like this all the time, especially when I should be so happy. I don’t want to annoy you more, so…”

“No, no, it’s alright!”

“Is it, though? I know I’m taking you away from something you’d rather be doing, and I know I’m just a child in your eyes, so…” She was biting her lip again. Patroclus couldn’t fathom where she was getting this sudden lack of confidence from– unless it wasn’t sudden?

“Tell me.” He tried to be uncharacteristically forceful.

“But…it’s unimportant, isn’t it? I know I’m just complaining about things I should be rejoicing over…”

“But you’re not rejoicing over them, and for that reason I want you to tell me,” Patroclus said in the most reasonable tone of voice he could manage. “I can’t say I understand why you’re so set against what you think is ‘betraying your first love’, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s trivial. So tell me about it: you always feel better when you do, anyway.”

Polyxena looked at him dubiously. “Don’t you think you could stand to lose your patience a bit more?”

“Excuse me?” Her question took him completely by surprise.

“Well, I just mean…” she searched for the words, gesturing meaninglessly. “I’m used to people who get angry and impatient easier than you do. It isn’t that I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop – and you’d think it normally would have dropped by now anyway, wouldn’t you? – but it’s just that it strikes me as odd. It always has. But anyway,” she waved a hand, dispersing the subject into the night air, “that’s not important.”

“If you say so.”

Polyxena steered them down a path that curved round the outside of the garden, passing by rows of trees that had just lost their blossoms. “I kissed Kyrillos.”

Patroclus almost managed to stumble over flat ground. “You did?”

“Well, yes,” she said sheepishly. “That’s rather my problem. He was stuttering and blushing and making a fool of himself trying to tell me what he felt for me, and I suddenly got the thought that he was being really endearing, so I kissed him.”

“How did he react?”

“More stuttering and blushing, unsurprisingly. So I kissed him again.”

It was too much and Patroclus started laughing, leaning on a tree for support while Polyxena waited indignantly for him to finish. Wiping tears from his eyes at the image, he said, “That’s so like you.”

“What a relief I’m predictable, then,” Polyxena sighed. “He did get a hold of himself after the second time, and told me he loved me and was devoted to me and would gladly die for me.”

“How nice!”

“I suppose…” She sat down on the thin grass at the roots of the tree next to her and Patroclus joined her, putting an arm around her shoulders.

“What’s wrong this time?” he asked gently.

“It’s the same. I liked it…I like him, and even if I accept that I’ll never be able to stay true to my first love, it just feels…useless. And I’ve tried to think about where I’d be left if – or I suppose it’s ‘when’ now, isn’t it? – I marry him. He’ll keep fighting outside the walls every day, and I’ll be tied down as a wife and have completely lost my chance.”

“‘Chance’? At what?”

“It’s difficult to sum up…I suppose just…doing something, something big and noble and glorious, rather than sitting around mundanely every day. It’s been alright until now because I’ve been in these special circumstances and I kept thinking that something might actually happen, you see? Being in love with someone like her, and being friends with someone like you, was I so wrong to think I might get to do something special as well? And now I’ve lost my chance, or it feels like that.”

Patroclus thought about it. He could easily have brushed off her concerns with pointless encouragement but that didn’t seem fair, or like something she’d appreciate. So instead he adopted a jovial tone and pointed at her accusingly. “I can’t say I like you implying that once you get to a certain point in your life your chance to do something special is over.”

“I didn’t mean age…”

“And I didn’t think you did, but think about it: most people dream of that sort of thing, and certainly, not everyone can have glory but that doesn’t mean that the majority of people are doomed to live boring lives. You’ll find something suitably ‘big’ to do too, you just need to wait and find out what it is. And I don’t mean raising a family, before you ask, because I know you and I know that doesn’t count.”

Polyxena pursed her lips. “I appreciate your words, but…somehow that doesn’t help.”

“Does it not? I can’t say I really expected you to completely change your mind based on just that, so I’m not surprised.”

“Thanks for trying.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Did talking about it help, at least?”

Polyxena nodded, but she didn’t seem in the mood for talking anymore, too lost in thought. That suited Patroclus well: he had his own share of things to think about and he was just glad she was talking it over with him rather than bottling her problems up, no matter how small they seemed. Polyxena wasn’t the type who worked well with keeping quiet. And Patroclus wasn’t worried about Kyrillos either: the one time they’d met, he had seemed a quiet and polite man with very little attention for anything or anyone but Polyxena.

So Patroclus rested his head against the trunk and looked up at the sky until his eyes closed and he fell into a light doze Polyxena had to drag him awake from half an hour later.

 

“Is there anything the matter with Polyxena?”

Patroclus looked up in surprise from where he was bandaging a minor injury on Hector’s arm. The man didn’t seem particularly flustered or overly worried: just curious.

Patroclus turned back to his job. “Why do you ask?”

“Because she hasn’t been as cheery as usual lately and you two tell each other everything, that’s why. So what’s going on?” He clearly wasn’t in the mood for games, which took away all of Patroclus’ fun.

“She’s just having some reservations about her betrothal,” Patroclus said in a low voice (practically pointless: the infirmary was bursting with noise and no one would have heard him unless they were specifically listening out for whatever he was saying). He tied off the bandage swiftly.

“Is she planning to call it off?” A deep furrow appeared in Hector’s brow as he tested his arm.

“No.”

“Because if she is, I’d prefer you tell me rather than keep it a secret at her request.”

“She’s not, I promise.” Patroclus disliked the implication that Hector expected him to betray Polyxena’s trust, so he cleared up his tools and, bowing slightly, made for the next soldier but Hector caught his wrist before he could leave.

“Come with me for a minute.”

“I am somewhat on duty…”

“Call it an order from your prince, then.”

There was no refusing that; Patroclus followed him. He didn’t really mind as such anyway, he was just a little on edge for what Hector might say. It was a baseless fear after so long but it had never left him. They stopped in the courtyard outside the infirmary and the sudden comparative silence felt like being plunged into water.

“So what are her reservations?” Hector asked, arms crossed, frown set, and looking entirely formidable and unapproachable. He’d only grown more so in the years Patroclus had known him.

“Nothing in particular: just the normal worry that she isn’t ready,” he shrugged.

Hector frowned deeper but if he thought Patroclus was lying he didn’t say it. “Can I do anything?”

“Not to cause offence, but I think having you try and comfort her over worries for her marriage would probably only bring her embarrassment. It’s more the night she’s worried about, you see, rather than the ceremony,” he smiled, pushing the subject into an area he hoped Hector wouldn’t follow it.

“Oh, that’s what you meant.”

“That’s what I meant.”

“She has sisters to talk to about that, doesn’t she?”

“Undoubtedly. Best not to worry about it.”

Hector nodded, the frown loosening slightly. “Thank you for listening to her.”

“It’s not really the sort of thing I’m looking to be thanked for, especially by you…” Patroclus mumbled, caught off guard. He hated it when Hector said those things because they always inevitably led to-

“Even so, I’m glad you’re here for her. I wouldn’t trust anyone with her except you.” His smile was too warm, too friendly for the unspoken threat Hector probably didn’t even realise was wound into his words.

But Patroclus nodded, used to this. “You have many sisters and many brothers, of course.”

“Polyxena’s different.”

“I certainly think so, but it probably wouldn’t be good to have your siblings know you said that,” he sighed.

Hector laughed at the idea, clapping Patroclus on the shoulder with far more strength than he probably meant to. “You’re trustworthy: I’m sure it’ll be fine. Also, I caught wind that you’ve been studying Anatolian recently: is there any special reason?”

It was so unfair how innocently he asked that: Patroclus could almost believe it was a coincidence, that Hector wasn’t checking his suspicions at every turn. But he knew Hector and he knew what a magnificent strategist he was, and there was simply no conceivable way that this or any of the myriad innocent little comments like it over the years weren’t on purpose.

So he smiled bashfully. “I’ve picked up a lot of the basics, working here with so many soldiers, and thought I might as well try to learn at least one more language fully.”

“And how is it going?”

“Really quite well!” he replied cheerily. “I get a lot of practise, after all.”

“I’m glad to hear it: it’s good you’ve taken another interest on top of your work and being a personal advisor for my sister. Now, it’s almost time for you to finish here, isn’t it?” He moved the conversation on confidently, as if he had no qualms that he’d be refused. He wouldn’t be, after all.

“I…I suppose it might be about time, but I really shouldn’t…”

“Loath as I am to deny my men your skill, the bulk of the work seems to have been done already, so I’m sure you can take off early, can’t you?”

And there was another thing that couldn’t be refused. Patroclus nodded, smiling still, and went to clear up inside the infirmary quickly and let the other physicians know.

Hector wasn’t the type of person to speak if he didn’t have to and they walked in silence: another reason Patroclus was wary of any seemingly throwaway comments. It used to be intimidating, walking next to someone so much larger than himself, but Hector was simply bigger than everyone so Patroclus didn’t worry about that too much anymore. He just had to walk a little faster than usual to keep up.

They were just making their way to the dining hall – unusually empty for Patroclus as he was used to getting there later than everyone else – when a posse of soldiers came up to them, paying the correct respects to their prince in bows and salutes.

“There is urgent news, sir.”

“Speak, then.” Hector had reverted to his commander voice and it boomed in the small landing. Patroclus felt awkwardly out of place and he only just managed to stop himself from fidgeting nervously.

“As per your orders, scouts were sent out and they have returned from the Greek camps.”

“Were my suspicions confirmed?”

“They were, sir. To the letter.”

Hector smiled widely. “Thank you. You may leave: I’ll relay the good news.”

The soldiers saluted again and left in formation. Patroclus watched them go before turning to Hector with a puzzled expression, not liking the way his gut felt like stones had been dropped into it.

“What was that?”

Unnervingly, Hector’s smile grew more satisfied, as if he was relishing the chance to tell his news. “Something seemed wrong today in the fighting so I ordered scouts sent out and it turns out I was right to. The Greek camps have been struck by a plague.”

Almost laughing to himself, he walked into the dining hall to much cheer and greeting, leaving Patroclus frozen in place in the dark of the corridor.

Chapter Text

‘Everything’s going to be fine’

Patroclus repeated that to himself over and over in the crowded dining hall, even though if he thought about it for longer than a second, he knew it wasn’t fine and couldn’t be fine. Even if he forgot about everyone but Achilles and Briseis – and he didn’t want to: how could he so easily ignore thousands of others? – there was nothing either could do against a plague. Yes, Briseis knew about medicine and healing but could that really be enough? He couldn’t put all his faith in that, and for the first time he was struck with true fear over Achilles’ wellbeing.

He carried on conversation hollowly, laughing and nodding as if someone else was moving him into place and forcing air from his lungs. Polyxena noticed (of course she noticed) but at his assurance that everything was absolutely, perfectly fine and she shouldn’t worry herself about it she just frowned and said “Later, then” and left him to it.

Was he wrong for worrying? He knew he had to trust in Achilles’ strength, he knew that and he did, but a plague was so different and so unstoppable that everything felt hopeless. He could fool himself by reasoning that divine blood would be enough to ward sickness away, and to some extent he thought he was correct in that argument, but he wasn’t sure. Uncertainty and fear clogged his throat until the food he was repeatedly offered by cheerful sisters-in-law tasted like ashes.

He tried to ignore how everyone was celebrating the news: thinking about it fairly, they’d been waiting for something like this for so long he couldn’t begrudge them it, so after only an hour of noise and joy he couldn’t stand, he tried to slink away from the hall. Polyxena caught his hand before he could leave.

“Yes?” he asked, noting how disappointed Kyrillos looked at the way Polyxena was clearly interrupting their conversation to stop Patroclus. The poor man brightened up when she kissed him lightly on the forehead.

“I’ll be back later,” she said to him before getting up and joining Patroclus as they walked from the hall. The silence between them felt awkward but Patroclus didn’t even think about it: he was too wrapped up in wondering how he was going to make it until the next night, when Thetis would be waiting to take him to the beach.

“I’m sorry you had to hear all that,” Polyxena said simply.

“It’s not really something to apologise for…It’s their right to celebrate this.”

“Maybe, but it still hurts, doesn’t it? Would you like to talk about it?”

He shook his head vigorously. “No, no, that’s alright. I don’t really…”

She frowned at him, hands on her hips as they stood at the top of the stairs, both of them unsure where to go. “Could you give me an idea of just how worried you are, at least?”

“I’d say…very…”

“That’s not helpful!” But Polyxena laughed and took his hand. “Come on: we might as well try, shouldn’t we?” Before Patroclus could ask what she meant, she was dragging him down the stairs, running down level after level until their footsteps had ceased to sound like steps anymore and were more like the rhythm of a dance.

When they reached the underground stream, against all of Patroclus’ expectations (and yet, just according to all of his hopes), Thetis was waiting. Polyxena hesitated a little, out of breath, and she practically shoved Patroclus forwards.

“I’ll make excuses for you if anyone asks,” she blurted out before bowing and running back out, leaving Patroclus alone with the forever emotionless goddess.

Thetis didn’t even express impatience: she merely waited for him to catch his breath and stretched out a hand to him when she deemed him ready. Patroclus took it.

When they arrived at the beach, she stayed next to him and from that and the careful distance Achilles was keeping from him, Patroclus guessed with a sinking heart that this was going to be a short visit.

“Are you alright?” he asked, keeping himself calm, honouring Achilles’ decision and stopping himself from going to him.

“You know, then. I’m fine,” Achilles said dully. He looked uncomfortable in his own skin and it wasn’t a sight Patroclus had ever expected – or wanted – to see. “Only one Myrmidon has caught it yet, but I can’t…I’m sorry, I can’t risk it.” He gestured lamely to the distance between them, his face torn with regret.

“I know. Is Briseis alright too?”

Achilles nodded, shifting his weight, his eyes flitting around nervously.

Patroclus sighed. He was relieved, but this wasn’t what he wanted. “When I heard, I thought I was going to stop breathing,” he said casually. “I was so worried and you’ve never really given me cause to worry like this before, so it’s not something I’m used to. I can’t stop fretting about it because this isn’t something you can escape from, but…”

Achilles looked up suddenly, shaking his head. “No, I…I can escape from it. I’m sure of that much: I’m not going to be taken down by some plague, come on, who do you think I am?” he grinned weakly.

“You’re not?” Patroclus asked flatly.

“I’m almost certain.”

“Almost isn’t enough!”

In a bored, chilling voice, Thetis spoke. “If you truly think I would let him be bested by a plague, I can only pity your judgement of others.”

Patroclus bowed his head instinctively at her tone of voice, shuffling his feet in the wet sand. “But if you can’t be affected, why…?”

Achilles pouted angrily. “I can’t risk it,” he grumbled.

“But I have divine blood too…?”

“I still can’t!”

Patroclus smiled indulgently. “I suppose it would be a problem if I managed to introduce the plague to Troy as well…”

He wasn’t sure why he’d said something so likely to rile Achilles up, but his expectations weren’t betrayed: Achilles was before him in a second, hands stopping just short of Patroclus’ arms so he could feel their warmth, feel the other man breathe so close to him.

“I don’t care about any of that.” Achilles said the words with precision, sounding them out so nobody could doubt how much he meant them. “They can all die and I wouldn’t care: you know that.”

“I try and forget.”

“Don’t. Don’t turn away from this, please.” There was a glimmer of fear in his voice and Patroclus found himself nodding to it, agreeing whole-heartedly even though it pained him.

“Alright,” he said with a smile he hoped would drown out any misgivings either of them had. “I swear I won’t.”

Achilles looked relieved and he moved backwards a step. “Thank you.” And then, suddenly looking distraught, “But you need to go now, you’ve been here too long: you need to get back to where it’s safe.”

That time, Patroclus didn’t refuse.

 

It gave him a lot to think about, something he wasn’t altogether too happy with. Sleeping it away was hardly a viable or practical option but he was trying so hard not to think about what Achilles had said that he might as well have done. Two days went by like that: pegged along by routine, Patroclus did his level best to keep his head above water and very carefully Not Think about the unnerving worry that the person he loved most in the world was actually that selfish.

At the end of two days, he realised that that wasn’t exactly a viable option either. Polyxena was beginning to get irritated with how casually he brushed away her attempts at getting him to talk, and he certainly wasn’t feeling any better for not thinking about it, so in the end he decided to try and reason it with himself.

It was disappointment more than anything else, and especially more than surprise, he decided. Rather than a slow change, it felt like being kept behind a wall whose stones were being ripped out one by one to let in the light, even if he would have preferred darkness. It was easier to be optimistic when you didn’t know.

But there was nothing he could do more than what he was already doing: Patroclus knew that too well to pretend he didn’t or to feign ignorance just because it was easier. He could say he disapproved a hundred times, a thousand times over – although he had never actually said it, not in such clear words – but it was up to Achilles to change and begin to understand the worth of others.

It occurred to Patroclus that maybe he was the one who was being selfish for asking empathy of a man who was born to kill and yet who felt so deeply about those he allowed himself to care for.

 

Adept at it as he was, Hector came to crash through all of Patroclus’ thoughts with a proposition one night. He seemed embarrassed about it, unusually, but managed to avoid letting his eyes wander nervously around the dining hall. Frankly, Patroclus would have preferred he had let them wander freely, but he supposed that fierce eye contact was just Hector’s way.

“You’ve done an excellent job training Troilus and Polydorus all these years while their masters have been out fighting,” Hector started off awkwardly.

Patroclus stared at him with what he hoped was a politely blank expression. “Um…far be it from me to refuse praise, but I confess I rather think they would have got there by themselves anyway: they do both have a lot of talent,” one more than the other, he did not say, “and my skills are really nothing special. If anything, they taught me.”

“You’re too modest. You are a wonderful teacher: they’ve told me many times.”

“Oh, but I’m not, I’m really not.” Alarming ideas of what Hector could be getting at rose in his mind like sticks thrown into water, refusing to be pushed back down. He couldn’t possibly be asking Patroclus to fight, or at least Patroclus decided he wouldn’t even entertain the idea that Hector might be suggesting that. It seemed completely unlikely, and the man looked too uncomfortable to be asking something like that, so Patroclus was sure it couldn’t be. He hoped it wasn’t. Just in case, if worst came to worst, he quickly tried to think up sickeningly polite declinations, but Hector spoke before he could.

“Would you consider teaching my son the basics of medicine and healing? I know it isn’t typically what a prince is taught, but given the situation I feel he would benefit from it and I would prefer he learn from you rather than one of the palace physicians.”

Patroclus forgave himself his subsequent speechlessness because he really hadn’t been expecting that. Somehow he collected himself enough to nod. “I…I would be happy to. He’s nine now, isn’t he? That’s more than old enough to learn the basics.”

“I must specify: nothing in the infirmary. At all. Only…bandaging and setting bones and…plants, maybe…” he seemed at a loss for more ideas.

“Yes, I understand completely.” Patroclus mulled the idea over. He didn’t object to spending an hour or two a day teaching Scamandrius – or Astyanax as he had become known early on and the name had stuck – because he was a pleasant enough boy, built utterly in his father’s image with all his mother’s curiosity and wit. There were worse members of the family to be stuck with. Helenus came to mind.

“Good,” Hector looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he sat back, stretching just enough to show off his physical dominance, though that seemed more like a happy coincidence than a deliberate display of strength. “Thank you: I don’t think I would have been able to ask anyone else in such busy times. And this is just my pride as a parent speaking, but there are few people worthy of teaching my son so the choice was limited anyway.”

“I’m honoured, then.” Patroclus nodded in a small bow for formality’s sake, taking a gulp of wine.

“Well, you earned my trust a long time ago.” Hector said it simply, giving every indication that it was the truth. He was called away by one of his brothers and Patroclus couldn’t draw his eyes from the man’s back.

It was all too confusing. Half the time it felt like Hector was testing him, scouring every move Patroclus made to find any signs of treachery, and then he said things like that with the most honest of smiles and Patroclus didn’t know what to think. He wasn’t a warrior: he was no good at sniffing out danger or threats, all he had to go on was his intuition and here it just wasn’t enough. He went back to his drink to distract himself.

As might be expected from Hector’s son, Astyanax came to Patroclus’ rooms on time and without any fuss, and the lesson was just about as uneventful as Patroclus could have hoped for. The lessons that followed were just as simple: he knew well what he was teaching and Astyanax retained a surprising amount of it for someone who complained most of the way through. The boy was calming: listening to him chatter on took Patroclus’ mind off other things (other, plague-like, worrisome things) and though he’d ceased to be good with children after he’d ceased to be one, he thought Astyanax might be enjoying his company as well. The lessons, he had less hope for.

“I don’t see why my father wants me to learn this stuff,” Astyanax groused, staring down at his most recent failure of a particular salve.

“Yes, I can’t imagine why he’d think basic healing skills might come in useful,” Patroclus said mildly as he replaced the ingredients on the table in front of them.

Astyanax pouted harder, his thick, caterpillar-like eyebrows furrowing comically. “I’m a better fighter than anyone my age, you know.”

“I do know. You’ve regaled me with the knowledge many times.”

“And my masters are always saying how advanced I am.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Are you looking down on me?” He appeared to be going slightly red in the face.

“Not more than our height difference forces me to,” Patroclus smiled warmly at the boy, hoping it worked to calm his mood.

Astyanax, being a mature boy with reasonable parents who had raised him well, took a deep breath and looked back at his work. “Where did I go wrong?”

It was clear he didn’t have any talent for precision work or even patience, but he tried his best and that was enough distraction for Patroclus to make it through a week and more that would have otherwise have been packed to the teeth with justified fretting. He only wished Hector wouldn’t congratulate him so often for doing such a simple job, but he did – almost every day, as if he was rubbing it in – until one night when Patroclus came back from the infirmary to find the atmosphere in the dining hall gloomy and pensive.

He sat next to Polyxena, who seemed completely at ease with the sour mood. “What’s going on?” he asked, pulling food towards him.

“You don’t know?” Her face lit up. “Oh good: I was hoping I’d get to tell you. The plague’s died down to the point of non-existence in just a day: we’ve lost our advantage.” Beside her, Kyrillos looked even gloomier at the way she put it but her expression was far from one of mourning. For his part, Patroclus was having a very hard time not smiling uncontrollably.

“What a shame,” he said, shovelling food down so he’d be able to go to the stream quicker.

“Yes, terrible really.” Polyxena nodded in commiseration. “I’m mostly interested in how it happened so quickly: usually plagues don’t spark up and die down in under two weeks. Most curious: do you have any ideas?”

“None at all.”

“Well,” she shrugged, shuffling closer to Kyrillos to take the slice of meat he held out for her, “I’m sure something will come to you eventually. Do tell me, won’t you?”

“I’ll give it some thought.”

“Do, and try not to give yourself indigestion as well,” she looked pointedly at him. “A few minutes won’t make much difference.”

“I beg to differ,” he said in between mouthfuls.

“You’re terrible,” Polyxena laughed, but she evidently gave up on trying to school him into public decency and only waved with a sweet, innocent smile as he rushed out of the hall again.

Yes, it was conspicuous, yes, it was foolish, but he just couldn’t wait. He had no confirmation that Thetis would even be waiting for him, but he believed she was and he would take that chance because either way he couldn’t stop himself running down the stairs as if they were barely there.

Breath like a gale, he ran into the underground passage and for a split second his heart felt like it had skipped a beat as he saw a figure on the stone banks, but the woman straightened up only to look at him with a confused expression. The kitchen servant bowed to him, clearly still wondering why he was there, and before he could react properly to explain himself, she had rushed out with a pail of water. Patroclus mourned his reputation, such as it was.

 “Are you ready?” Thetis’ rasping, chilling voice came from behind him and he spun around in relief. She expressed no such emotion, simply waiting for him to take her hand as usual.

“Thank you,” he said, meaning it with all his heart.

Unusually, she replied. “He says you are the reason in him. I think this will be your chance to prove that.” With that warning given, Thetis pulled him into the water and he had just enough time to see pinpricks of light erupt in her black, black eyes before water rose in front of them and he squeezed his own shut.

After the flurry of excitement, everything felt disarmingly silent on the beach. Once again, there was distance between him and Achilles, but it was nothing like before. Nervousness and restraint were replaced by anger and rage crackling through the air and Patroclus almost felt scared to walk to where Achilles had just stopped pacing in circles. He had never looked so angry, but it was an anger like the current of a river, curving around Patroclus so he could walk forwards without being washed away.

“Not that I’m not delighted to see you, but what’s wrong?” he asked, trying to clear the scowl carved into Achilles’ face by brushing his hair back soothingly. “The plague’s over: isn’t that something to be celebrated?”

“There was something I didn’t tell you.” He sounded a cross between a man going to his execution and a man about to order one.

“That doesn’t sound good, but will you tell me now?” Patroclus continued in his efforts at being reasonable.

“The plague wasn’t natural. Agamemnon was being his usual infantile self and he took a priest’s daughter as a slave, wouldn’t give her back, and the priest called the wrath of the gods onto us.”

Patroclus wasn’t surprised, somehow.

“But it’s over now, isn’t it? So he saw sense and gave the girl back?” He couldn’t understand why Achilles still wouldn’t meet his eyes or why he was glaring at the ground as if he wanted to burn the very sand he was standing on.

“He wanted Briseis. He’s always wanted her, ever since I asked for her, so he took her as ‘recompense’ for giving back the girl.”

Patroclus stopped breathing for a second: Agamemnon was by no means as indifferent a master as Achilles was, not from what stories he’d heard. Briseis was brave and clever and so sure of herself but none of that could hope to save her from a king with a self-entitled streak an army wide.

“It’s unthinkable!” Achilles roared, his clenched fists opening into tensed claws.

“But we can do something, can’t we? He can be reasoned with, can’t he?” Patroclus knew he was grasping at straws, but to his surprise and relief Achilles nodded, a dry smile on his face.

“I’ve already made it very clear that neither I nor the Myrmidons will fight again until my honour’s restored. I won’t even talk to him until he apologises for this.”

The relief went cold in Patroclus’ chest; just the slightest bit, a wind rushing through his heart. “Do you think he’ll give Briseis back?”

“Who knows?” Achilles shrugged, not quite shaking off Patroclus’ hand on his shoulder but Patroclus drew back anyway, his mind racing with thoughts he didn’t want to think.

“So…let me make sure I understand this: you have no intention of getting her back?”

His question seemed to irritate Achilles. “If she comes back, she comes back: what’s more important is that he stops acting as if he can walk all over me. I’ve lost face here and I’m not backing down until I get it restored.”

“And presumably you don’t care one way or another what happens to Briseis?”

It finally seemed to occur to Achilles that he was saying the wrong thing and the smallest wave of regret passed over his expression. “I know you’re close with her, but this-”

“-is more important?” Patroclus asked flatly. “Your honour being ‘this’? Alright. Alright, I understand. Just…” he walked away, brushing off the hand Achilles reached out after him, and covered his face in his hands, sighing. He needed to think. Achilles was clearly going to be no help at all so he needed to think but he couldn’t, not when the same insistent worries were creaking back into life with whispers of ‘he’s heartless’, ‘he feels for no human but you’, ‘he doesn’t even have human empathy anymore, if he had it at all’.

Patroclus couldn’t let himself think like that.

“I don’t need you doing this now,” Achilles said through gritted teeth, and Patroclus could feel the first flicker of anger against rather than around him. He didn’t take the warning.

“Do you not? Thanks for telling me. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do you understand the position I’m in?” Achilles snarled, clearly grappling with his self-control and losing. “I can’t do anything else! If I give up now, Agamemnon and everyone else will think they can do whatever they like to me! I’m sorry about Briseis, but I can’t put her first here and I don’t want to.” He paused, breathing heavily, but Patroclus didn’t turn around. To his credit, Achilles tried again, softer this time. “I won’t lie to you, and I know you hate it but I just can’t care about her. Not like you can.”

Pausing for a second, Patroclus took that in. “I’m sorry for not being on your side.”

“So you’re not?”

Patroclus laughed drily. “I’m always on your side: give me up for this one.”

“I don’t want to give you up for anything.”

“And yes, that makes me happy, but please: I need to think.”

“About what?” He said it too quickly.

“How to help Briseis when I’m not even supposed to be out of Troy: what else do I need to think about?”

A sticky silence crept up on them, sticking all of Patroclus’ thoughts to how this wasn’t how he’d wanted it at all, how unhappy he was with how this was going, with how he was behaving, and how much he loathed arguing. It wasn’t the same as years before when Patroclus had first realised there was something conspicuously different about how the man he loved thought: he should know better now and to some extent he did, but obviously it hadn’t been enough. Or maybe the stakes were suddenly too high for him to accept it.

“I asked my mother for help,” Achilles said. It sounded like a confession.

“For what?”

“Getting revenge on Agamemnon. She agreed to ask the gods to rain misfortune on him and everyone who fights with him.” He sounded bashful about it, at least.

“Why would you do that…” Patroclus groaned.

Something snapped in the air between them.

“Because he disrespected me!” Achilles shouted. “When are you going to understand that?! I know that you don’t value honour as much as I do and that’s fine, but why can’t you try and understand my situation rather than act like I do nothing but cause trouble for you?! I asked for you to come here because I wanted to see you and thought that even if you would have done it differently you might see things my way. Evidently I was a fool for thinking you’d care enough about me to do that.”

Patroclus’ hands dropped and he turned around, eyes wide. A cloud passed over the moon, letting glaring moonlight hit both of them. He could see Achilles’ eyes were glistening with tears.

“I’m…sorry…” Patroclus felt the words slip from his mouth slowly, croaking them mindlessly.

“Don’t bother. You’ve got a right to be angry,” Achilles said bitterly, avoiding Patroclus’ eyes as if that would hide how he was losing control again. “I know you hate me doing this, but I’m sending you back now.”

“You’re going to let us leave it like this?”

That time Achilles met his eyes calmly, imperfectly hiding the storm raging inside him. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

To Patroclus, it felt vaguely as if the gods were testing him. He didn’t appreciate it, but he did appreciate how close Polyxena stayed next to him while everyone in the hall cheerfully discussed how much weaker the Greeks were without the Myrmidon faction. Apparently the Greek camp was divided, thrown into disarray, and everyone was lapping it up just as they had lapped up the news of the plague.

So that was wonderful for them. As for him, Patroclus stayed very focussed on his food and tried not to make eye contact. It always did, but the hall felt even more suffocating than usual: laughter and raised voices filled it like steam off a cooking pot and the only reason Patroclus was even staying was because he’d been watching Hector and Helenus talking for nigh on half an hour and they kept giving the impression they were about to do something important without ever actually getting around to it. So Patroclus sat and watched, unable to hear even a word from across the table. In the brief moments she wasn’t politely avoiding planning her own marriage, Polyxena in turn watched Patroclus despairingly, though he couldn’t always tell whether the despair was at her situation or him. Probably both, he eventually decided.

After almost an hour and countless stop and starts, Hector finally got up and went to whisper something in his father’s ear, obviously expecting it to be a short exchange. Priam didn’t share the same opinion, and Patroclus was subject to another twenty minutes of impatient watching. He wondered why he was even bothering: yes, the atmosphere around Hector felt like something was winding up, ready to explode, but was it really worth it? It might be completely inconsequential, for all he knew, and he’d do better to leave rather than stay and watch nothing for hours.

On the other hand, he was acutely aware that he had nothing better to do, least of all meet up with a specific someone. So he stayed, watching the two of them and listening idly to Polyxena’s siblings trying (and failing) to get her engaged in their discussion on when the marriage should be.

Finally – after far too much angry whispering between him and Priam – Hector stood up and cleared his throat. That was enough to quiet the whole room, and everybody looked at him; he wore the attention like a cloak into battle.

“Friends, while I must congratulate you all on your skill and bravery today, I have a proposition for you. This war has gone on too long. Glory and honour are fine things indeed, but are they worth this? Do you wish for your children – your families – to know nothing but war and captivity within their own blessed city? I have no such wish. And yes, you may well ask why I bring this up, why I should accuse you all of not wanting the war to end when the truth is that we have no way of ending it. That we would have brought it to an end if there was only a way of doing that. But I think there could be a way.”

If he’d been bored before, Patroclus now couldn’t take his eyes off the head of the table where Hector stood, magnificent even off the battlefield. The whole speech sounded beautiful, but it was the beauty of a dream, with about as much credibility. And yet everyone in the room was hooked on Hector’s words, wanting to believe.

“I suggest,” Hector went on, flinging his arm out to gesture to Paris, “that our prince here challenges Menelaus to a duel. One-on-one: that was how this started, and that is how this should end. A duel to finish this ten-year war so we can live again.”

Everyone but Paris burst into rejoicing and excited sounds of agreement. Paris looked rather like there were a million and more things he would have preferred to do, including – but not limited to – pulling his fingernails out one by one before dipping each finger in lemon juice, but there was nothing he could say. The timing was so convenient that Patroclus had to admire it: no one wanted this to go on much longer, and now that they had had a taste of the Greeks’ weakness and still hadn’t won, it would be easier for them to back down. Even without the Myrmidons, it might take months before the Greeks were fully defeated, and either way it would be a bloodbath on both sides. This was the solution everyone had been hoping for.

It still felt like a dream, but from the way Hector was smiling triumphantly at Paris, Patroclus thought he’d like to believe in this one. Polyxena turned to talk to him, but before she could open her mouth they both spotted Helen leaving the room under cover of all the commotion going on around Paris. Polyxena nodded at him and Patroclus left, jogging after his sister.

She said nothing when he fell into step with her, only moving over so they could walk up the stairs together more comfortably. Her face was still everything Paris had started a war for – and more besides – and somehow she looked all the more stunning now her expression was clouded with what looked like undeniable murderous intent. Patroclus moved closer to her and took her hand.

They were free to talk when they got to her rooms. Her carefully patched-together illusion of poise and grace didn’t look about to unravel if he so much as alluded to her situation, so Patroclus looked out of the window at the still-lively city and spoke.

“What do you think of it?”

Helen sighed faintly, just enough that anyone could have politely ignored it. “I think it’s an excellent idea. I just don’t understand why it took so long to get here.”

“Are you frustrated?”

“I’m not sure how I couldn’t be!” In the only show of anger she’d been trained to allow, she tossed her hair. “It’s the most obvious solution! Why did we wait so long?”

“I’ve no idea, to be honest,” Patroclus admitted, settling back against the wall of pillows at the head of the bed. “Perhaps Hector thought everyone was fed up with the situation enough by now?”

“Oh, how convenient for him, then,” Helen said bitterly, lying back and leaning on her side so she could look at him properly. “But I suppose it doesn’t matter: as long as he dies or the war ends, it’s all fine.” For the first time in far too long, Patroclus saw his sister smile. He mirrored it.

“Exactly. One way or another, as long as he goes through with it…” There was a nagging doubt in Patroclus’ mind over whether anything that perfect could actually happen but he ignored it. There was no point in being needlessly pessimistic, not when everything else around him felt like it was pushing him towards pessimism anyway.

“I hope so,” Helen said airily, “because I don’t think I’ll be able to take it if this doesn’t work. If something doesn’t change – if I’m stuck here with him for much longer – I’m not going to be able to take it. I just can’t.”

Without hesitating, Patroclus bent down and kissed her on the forehead, brushing back her hair. “You don’t have to,” he breathed. “You’ve already put up with far more than you should ever have had to live with.”

Helen closed her eyes slowly and, after a moment’s pause, opened them again to smile up at him and it was almost like before. “Thank you. I think so too. But you: how are you doing? You seemed on edge this evening.”

“I’m fine.”

Helen considered his answer, staring at him with dubious eyes. “No, I don’t think you are. Let’s try again: what’s wrong? You don’t have to hide your problems just because you think mine are worse, you know. I’ve never asked that of you.”

“That’s because you never ask anything of me,” Patroclus laughed, sitting back again. “It doesn’t matter, believe me.”

“Does it not?” Her voice was always deceptively soft and Patroclus would have been annoyed at how effortlessly she seemed to read him if he wasn’t so relieved to see her doing it again after years of lethargy. He’d missed how well she knew him.

“You don’t believe me.”

“I’m not going to believe obvious lies,” she smiled, “but if you won’t tell me, that’s fine too.”

She turned her eyes away from him, staring at the ceiling idly with a faint smile on her lips, and Patroclus watched her, trying to imprint the picture in his mind, and also…trying to weigh up the consequences of being honest with her. It should have been easy, but being honest with her meant being honest with himself.

“What are you supposed to do when you think you’ve lost faith in the person you love?”

Helen looked at him sharply. “This isn’t indirectly about me, is it? Tell me it’s not.”

“It’s not, it’s not.”

Reassured, Helen seemed to give the question some thought. “Then…I think you should go back to the beginning. Why did you start to love them? What’s changed since then? Do they really cancel out? And if they do, think about how you might be able to change the person. That isn’t to say that you should try and change people just so they suit you, but…” she shrugged helplessly. “Do you see?”

It wasn’t anything Patroclus hadn’t thought of on his own but it sounded so different coming from Helen’s mouth rather than from his own mind. He nodded without thinking about it, too busy concentrating on what she’d said.

It would be an insult to both of them to say his love was so weak he couldn’t even get over this, but he also wouldn’t insult himself by denying it bothered him, sometimes more than he could handle. And he wasn’t set on trying to change Achilles anymore, either. Perhaps he had at some point, but that was long past and now he was just…unsurprised. Disappointed. Unsure. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore.

All he did know was that he’d been treating it too lightly and he was the one in the wrong.

“I’m surprised I managed to give you that much to think about,” Helen said gently, and something in her voice pulled him back to reality enough to see how weary she looked. It was her way of letting him know she needed to be alone again.

“You did. Thank you.” He spoke quieter now, shuffling to the edge of the bed so he could get up. “Will you watch tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so. I certainly don’t think I’ll be allowed to.” She had turned away from him and he couldn’t tell whether she was actually tired or just reaching the brink of how cheerful she could be, so he made a thoughtful sound and walked to the door.

“Things will change,” he said, believing it.

 

Whether things would actually change or not became a little irrelevant the next day when Patroclus realised he probably wasn’t going to be allowed to see any of it. He managed to rouse himself out of bed hours earlier than he usually would have – but then, he had no private meetings taking up his nights anymore, did he? Except he wasn’t going to think about that, he definitely wasn’t going to think about that – to go and confront Hector before the army left the gates.

“I take it you’re not here out of some bizarre whim to protest against this?” Hector asked as a servant did up his armour. He looked vaguely amused, which was something of a good sign, and Patroclus forced himself to relax.

“Not at all! Rather, I was thinking it was such a good idea that I’d like to see it happen.”

Hector didn’t seem surprised, but nor did he seem immediately accepting of the proposal.

“Not up close, of course,” Patroclus went on hurriedly, edging out of the way of some soldiers who only glared at him for his trouble. “Just…up on the ramparts would be nice. I’ve been taught archery,” almost fifteen years earlier and he’d never picked up a bow since, but details were details, “so I could help, if you need me to. But I’d really, really like to watch.”

Hector raised an eyebrow and lifted his chin imperiously – as if he needed to do anything to make their height difference more obvious. The servant rushed away to get his helmet and weapons, and without the slight scraping and clatter of metal, the room felt very empty. Patroclus became hyper-aware of all the shouting and movement outside as the army readied itself.

“Alright.”

He thought he’d heard wrong, at first, but Hector was smiling. Patroclus hesitated. “Really?”

“I don’t see why not, but you won’t be shooting unless you absolutely need to. Forgive the insult, but we don’t need anyone up there who can barely hold a bow properly. Troilus did mention it, you know.”

“Ah…”

“But you’ll be given a shield, and you can supply the archers with arrows if you somehow get overcome with patriotism and insist on staying. Not that we’re expecting much of a fight, if this goes to plan.”

“O-oh, certainly…” Patroclus was still reeling from how easily it had gone down: he’d expected and prepared for at least ten minutes of arguing, but Hector seemed in an understandably good mood that day and that was how Patroclus found himself equipped with basic armour and a shield and practically shoved up the stairs to the ramparts to wait with the archers.

Nobody raised their bows: everyone simply watched as the two armies met far down below. The sun had barely risen and the light felt milky and weak, and Patroclus couldn’t stop getting distracted by how it hit and glinted off the thousands of helmets and shields and weapons. It didn’t help that he couldn’t hear a thing from the deal going on below them.

It played out like a scene from a story: a select number of leaders from each side meeting in the middle of the field, speaking, shouting, whispers rolling among the men like a wave, and slowly, so slowly Patroclus didn’t even notice until it was finished, everyone had dropped out of their fighting stances to watch. It was really happening.

All the archers – and anyone else who’d snuck up with them – jostled for position on the ramparts, every eye glued to the two men walking towards each other on the field. They eyed each other up and exchanged some words no one else could hear and which only served to anger both of them and confuse everyone else. They moved apart and, at a signal Patroclus couldn’t see or hear, the duel began.

It was obvious from a glance that Paris was at a disadvantage: he was too used to fighting from the side-lines and he had no idea how to handle repeated attacks effectively, least of all attacks that aimed to kill him. Certainly, his movements were graceful and swift, but no amount of dodging could hold Menelaus off forever. He tried to go on the offensive and Menelaus deflected his lunges easily, gaining step upon step of ground before even a quarter of an hour was up. Everyone could see the outcome: they needn’t even have bothered fighting.

And yet it went on. Paris gained confidence in time – or became more reckless, it was difficult to tell – and began to attack more, hurling shouts and abuse that Patroclus could barely make out. The spectating soldiers were quiet in comparison: this wasn’t the type of fight to warrant bellows of encouragement. Too much was resting on this, and it was going on longer than anyone would have expected.

Something was wrong. Patroclus guessed it later than most, and hushed, puzzled voices were already spreading amongst the men near him before he realised that Paris’ moves were too brash, too reckless and he was leaving himself wide open with every one, and yet none of Menelaus’ counter attacks hit their target. Menelaus realised it too and he began to lose what calm he’d had.

It felt like the duel became a farce: every time Menelaus struck out with what should have been a decent attack, Paris miraculously managed to dodge it, and soon enough the Greek soldiers’ disgruntled comments became shouts of anger, calling foul play. No one could deny it: if anyone had thought Paris wasn’t under divine protection, this was more than enough to show him up for what he was. His weak, thoughtless attacks made him look like a dog that could only yap when safely behind its owner.

By chance, Paris stepped back to avoid the swing of Menelaus’ sword and he landed wrong, falling backwards and instinctively raising his shield in front of him. Menelaus kicked it out of the way, ripping it from Paris’ arms violently enough to make him cry out in pain, and set his sword at Paris’ throat. The shouts and protests stopped and there was only silence, like the slightest lull in between a wave going in and crashing back to the shore.

Menelaus’ mouth moved and the soldiers nearest him nodded, and everyone else was left to watch and wait as he raised his sword high in the air, bringing it down to slam into the dust where Paris had been only a moment before. Like everyone else, Patroclus couldn’t believe his eyes: the prince had disappeared completely.

There was a single second of shock, and then words couldn’t describe the cacophony of outrage that exploded among the ranks of Greek and Trojan soldiers alike. Hector and Agamemnon were shouting at each other with murder on their faces but Menelaus was too occupied with slamming his sword into the ground repeatedly and cursing. Patroclus could relate: this didn’t make sense, or rather it did and it was so horrifically unfair. So Paris – the very last person to deserve it – was protected by a god, and this was the outcome. Hundreds of men would die as a result of this, when it could all have ended at just one. It was so unfair, so unjust that Patroclus found himself stepping out of the fray, barely containing his rage. He had to calm down, he had to find his head or he’d join the ranks of men baying for blood, he had to-

Something caught his eye and his blood went cold in his veins. An archer was raising his bow while everyone around him argued, aiming down into the field. Patroclus didn’t open his mouth to tell him to stop: his voice would never carry, and there was something wrong with the man’s expression. It looked pinned up, drawn and artificial like an amateurish sculpture, as if he were barely conscious. Patroclus could only watch as everyone else realised what was going just too late to stop the man aiming and releasing the arrow down, far down, and then Menelaus roared in pain.

Patroclus didn’t stay to hear or see any more as the battle broke out in full: he ran down the long stairs back to the city and rested his sweat-soaked back against the shady inside of the wall. His laboured breaths may have been enough to obscure the sounds of war, but they were nowhere near loud enough to keep disappointment and anger at the futility of everything going on around him from swelling up in his throat like nausea.

Chapter Text

The palace rang with excitement when Hector returned. It didn’t make any sense to Patroclus but he gravitated towards it, running from his room down to the streets in time to see the crown prince (shining under the sun with sweat and blood) welcomed back into the palace. It was too good to be true, and any hope that Patroclus had briefly entertained of an early end to the battle was crushed by the obvious lack of an army behind Hector. It was still going on. There was no escaping it and nothing had changed.

Hector caught his eye and motioned for Patroclus to join him and the servants hurrying around him, bringing him new weapons as if he needed them. There was a storm brewing in the man’s expression and Patroclus did everything he could do to seem docile and unthreatening.

“I’m going to kill him,” Hector said in a voice brought low by unbridled fury. The servants had left them (a wise decision, Patroclus thought), and they – followed by those brave and interested enough – walked up the stairs to Paris’ rooms.

“Do you think he’ll be here?” It seemed an entirely stupid place for Paris to go.

“There’s no doubt: where else would a wretched coward run and hide?” Hector was breathing heavily from more than exertion, his muscles tensed and a vein twitching in his neck. “Actually, I’ve changed my mind: I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to drag him out there and force him to fight the entire Greek army alone.”

“An inspired plan.” Patroclus kept his eyes firmly on the stairs beneath him and, when they reached the right floor, hung back in the stairwell so he didn’t have to see. He wasn’t sure, but he thought his sister might be in there too, and he couldn’t see that. She’d rather die than have him know, because if he knew he’d try to talk to her about it. So Patroclus bit his lip and stared at the stones under his feet, grinding a toe into the dust.

True to his word, Hector was dragging Paris roughly by the arm when they came out, and they went straight for the council room where Priam was already waiting for them. Again, Patroclus waited outside. Some things weren’t worth it. There was shouting, threats, more than one call for guards to restrain one or both of the princes, and more and more people joined Patroclus outside, politely pretending to not pay the council room any mind.

In time, Hector stormed out of the room. He was alone and Patroclus immediately fell into step with him, not wanting to ask how it had gone but also dreadfully curious.

Hector didn’t keep him waiting. “Father gave him permission to stay.” He said it as if the words offended him personally. They probably did.

“That’s…” ridiculous, he wanted to say, but there were limits to what he could say against the king of Troy.

“So I told him one of his sons was fighting to the death today, whether it was Paris or not.”

Patroclus looked up sharply. He realised they were walking to the temple near the palace, and a nasty thought sunk into his mind. “Are you…?”

“Helenus thought this might happen: he’s advised me to ask for one-on-one combat again.” Hector’s face was still clouded by rage, but he seemed to have more control over himself now. He was trying, at least.

“They won’t accept.”

“They’re at a disadvantage: they’ll accept, if it’s me. But I need to know how to proceed. I…I need guidance.”

For a fleeting moment, Patroclus wondered if Hector was afraid of death. Whether he was or not didn’t matter, though: Hector was not the type of man who would back down simply because he was scared. He would see this to the end, and everyone knew it.

Andromache came to meet them at the temple and vulnerability flooded into Hector’s body; he ran to her, holding her and shaking as she stroked his back, whispering words only meant for him. They went inside together and, once again, Patroclus stayed outside but through no fear this time: it just wasn’t something he could intrude on.

Now the excitement was calming down, he could hear the battle outside the walls again, just faintly. He didn’t pay it any attention: it was sickening how used to screams of agony he’d become. The sun was beating down on him harshly and he moved to a different part of the temple walls where there was shade, sitting on the steps and staring out at the palace. Nothing had changed there either: servants were still bustling around, Priam’s daughters were still going about their business, there was still laughter and conversation, and it was all the same. It felt stale now. Patroclus lowered his head into his hands. He didn’t know how he’d ever be able to face his sister after promising- no, swearing to her that things would change and she’d be able to live again. There was more than one person he didn’t know how he’d be able to face again.

When – after an age of guessing and regrets – Hector and Andromache came out of the temple, he stood up as if he’d been shocked, looking to them for anything to take his mind off it; any good news they could give him. They shared a look that made Patroclus feel even more like an intruder, and Andromache kissed her husband a last time before leaving.

“H-how was it?” Patroclus asked, the words catching in his throat as they walked back to the palace. Hector’s stride was confident and fearless, but that meant nothing when he always held himself like that.

“Useless,” Hector smiled wryly. “Even after asking the gods for guidance, the priest couldn’t give me any hints on how the duel will go. I suppose that’s for the better,” he shrugged.

“So he didn’t say anything at all?” They’d reached the courtyard and a handful of Hector’s men were waiting for him so they could re-join the fight together.

“Nothing of much relevance. He said I’d fight the greatest of the Greeks and that it would end in blood, but I knew that already.”

Patroclus stared at him, frozen in place, and Hector didn’t seem to notice. As a last gesture, he clapped Patroclus on the shoulder and looked at him earnestly. Patroclus struggled to breathe, struggled to think in straight lines that didn’t spark and peak into terror and clenching, shooting worry.

“You might not be the best fighter here, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” Hector said, smiling softly, as if Patroclus’ head wasn’t at that very moment overwhelmed with arresting horror. “If anything happens, I trust you to keep them safe.”

Patroclus didn’t have to ask who he meant – convenient, as he still couldn’t speak. Too impatient to notice anything wrong, Hector left the courtyard to get back to the thick of battle and Patroclus watched him until he’d disappeared from sight. It felt like the final verse: everything would end here, somehow or another. Wasn’t this what Patroclus had wanted?

Not like this.

That was selfish. He forced himself to think clearly but it wasn’t working, so he walked away on unsteady legs. He didn’t know where he was going, but he was so shaken that he knew he had to get out. In some part of his brain he also knew he was overreacting: did ‘the greatest of the Greeks’ have to mean him?

There were so many other ways this could go: it didn’t necessarily mean that the only conclusion to this story was a fight to the death between Hector and Achilles. There were so many other possibilities and he had to concentrate on them instead, he had to think clearly and realise that he was only like this because he was already frazzled and anxious and-

It wasn’t working. Fate and destiny entwined through the lives of those two men like threads tying them together and it made all the sense in the world that everything would burn down until they – the greatest of either side, the greatest of any side – were the only two left. Tied together until one of them suffocated. It made sense to him, and he ran.

As he’d expected, the underground stream was empty. He closed the heavy stone doors, leaving only him and flickering torchlight lighting up the chamber with swirling, dancing blue reflected from the water. Patroclus got to his knees beside the stream, and then he was lost. He had no idea what to do.

The air grew colder around him and he sunk his hands into the water, trying to…do something, anything, anything at all but without the familiar guiding hand of ‘this is meant to be’ pushing him along, he had no certainty that he was doing the right thing. But he needed to be there. He couldn’t hold himself back and he needed to apologise, heal his bitter regrets, and help himself see that there was a future beyond the fight he dreaded. A future beyond him and Achilles never being able to see eye to eye, always being separated when it mattered most. A future where they couldn’t see each other at all, not when one or both were dead.

“Thetis, please!” he shouted, the echoes making him shudder in embarrassment at how futile it felt. “I’m begging you: I’ll do things right this time, so please, please take me to him!”

No answer, and he’d expected none either. He called again.

“I need to know, I need to make up for what I said, so please give me another chance!”

The echoes mocked him, shouting his words back to him.

He remembered all the times he’d shoved away the concern that this would happen. It would be a lie to pretend he’d ever truly felt as if he had divine blood running through him, but never had he felt so mortal in his life, with stones digging into his bare calves, the tips of his fingers freezing in the water, and no guiding inevitability to assure him he was doing the right thing.

It was cold, realising he couldn’t do anything by himself. He felt chilled. Hollow. Hanging his head until curls almost touched the water, he took quick, shallow breaths, gripping the stone banks with tensed fingers. Thinking positively, thinking hopefully: nothing like that would work, he knew that. He needed to leave, or nothing would drain away the dread that gripped his lungs in freezing, iron clutches. It felt like everything was ending and he wouldn’t be there for any of it.

He was powerless. He understood that now.

Miraculously, no one came to the underground stream. Many footsteps passed by the doors but nobody came in; Patroclus didn’t think he would have moved much even if they had. He stayed quite still because that was all he could do. He stayed because he still had hope and he let himself drown in memories while trying to convince himself he wasn’t just an emotional fool for it.

Time passed and his legs grew numb. He’d grown so used to the biting smell of cold water on stone that he’d come to not notice it at all, and finally, he’d managed to calm down. Time hadn’t filtered away the dread or the lingering rot of guilt, but he was calm.

Just when he thought he was ready to go back and face the real world – the outcome he didn’t want to know – an ice cold hand rested on the top of his head. The breath stilled in his mouth and, as if waiting for permission, he didn’t move.

“You need to choose,” Thetis said, her voice like ice cracking and breaking. “Perhaps not now, but soon. Choose a side. Choose well. My son is lenient towards you, but even he will not forgive everything.”

Patroclus remembered all the worries, all the loneliness, all the anxiety of ten years. He remembered family and duty, responsibility and ‘I trust you’.

“I’ve chosen,” he said.

Chapter Text

The beach looked so different during the day that Patroclus had to take a step back into the sea, blinking. It wasn’t what he was used to, but that made sense, really. None of this was what he was used to. That was the point.

Achilles wasn’t waiting for him (and there was another thing he wasn’t used to) but that just meant he needed to hurry all the more: hurry and find him and make sure he wouldn’t be swept away and extinguished in a flood of glory. For the first time, Patroclus ran towards the tents in the distance. Running on sand was frustrating but it gave him something to do (curse his agonisingly slow pace, his heavy breathing, the unhelpful sinking under his feet) to take his mind off how scared he was. Yes, he knew where the Myrmidons camped, and yes, the vast majority of excitable guards raring to do some damage to an unsuspecting intruder were probably out fighting, but the camp was still a place he’d always avoided and habits were hard to kick. He kept running.

Because he was nothing like a warrior, he didn’t think to hide his silhouette or take any sort of precautions at all until he could practically see every sweat drop on the guards’ faces as they patrolled lazily. The Myrmidons were still stuck in their camp, he could see, and that calmed his racing heartbeat a touch: if they were here, there was no reason to think that Achilles would have dropped his iron resolve and gone to fight Hector for some bizarre reason. Patroclus swallowed his nervousness and edged towards the tent he’d already singled out as Achilles’, trying not to look more suspicious than he already did.

In his favour, there were more than a few people milling through the lines of tents and the areas cleared out for resting and talking around fires that were unlit so early in the day. They were men and women both, wearing much the same clothes he was (and they walked with just as little obvious aim – if anything, they all looked supremely bored) so he thought he might be alright.

No one questioned him as he stopped sneaking around ineffectively and began to walk with a fully faked air of confidence past the people who lived in the camp. It was difficult acting as if you belonged when your heart felt ready to leap out of your mouth, but Patroclus persevered and nobody paid him any attention, miraculously. This is meant to be, he found himself thinking, and he squashed the thought.

He hesitated at the tent itself. The cloth felt supple under his fingers and he kept them there for a second, trying not to catch anyone’s attention but also unwilling to just walk in. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman stop and watch him, or perhaps she just had her head turned in his direction, but it sent a shiver down his spine and without wasting another second, Patroclus slipped into the tent, letting the flap fall down behind him.

The inside was about the size of a small room, with a chest, pallet, furs, and various weapons and other belongings thrown over them indiscriminately. To Patroclus’ utter relief, Achilles was sitting at a table with his back to the entrance. When he heard him come in, he let out a magnificently exasperated sigh and turned the top of his torso around.

“I believe I made myself clear when I…” He trailed off, all the self-assured fire gone as his eyes widened and his mouth started to tremble.

Patroclus wasn’t sure what to do at this point: should he apologise? Explain himself? Make light of it and pretend this wasn’t everything? Before he was forced to decide, the chair clattered to the ground and Achilles was holding him, lifting him up and probably would have swung him around if Patroclus hadn’t protested, laughing. Achilles was laughing too, uncontrollably: the sound was a song in Patroclus’ ears.

“You’re here!” was all he seemed able to say, over and over again, with more wonder each time.

“I am!” Patroclus laughed back, too caught up in the excitement to feel self-conscious at stating the obvious.

“But you’re here, you’re really here! I’ve imagined this so many times and you’re really here, and…!”

With rough breathing still tinged with laughter, they calmed down. Just enough time for Patroclus to start wondering if anyone outside had heard (definitely) and that he probably didn’t care either way. It felt as if everything was allowed, as if he was permitted anything in this single glittering moment of time. In the back of his mind he knew things were still uneven between them; he knew things were still wrong, but things could just be wrong the next day instead. There was no time to think of it here.

“Please,” Achilles breathed against his collarbone, interspersing the words with kisses, “don’t tell me you need to leave again.”

Patroclus tapped his shoulder, asking to be let down (even though Achilles didn’t even seem to be straining from his weight yet) and tightened his arms around Achilles’ neck, pulling them close enough that their noses touched.

“I don’t think I could,” he said truthfully.

There was a gasp – low and hissed through his teeth as if it strangled him – and then Achilles broke away, his head hanging so all Patroclus could see was his tawny hair.

“I’m sorry,” Achilles said in a stilted voice. “For what I said to you. I still think it, and I’m sorry for that too, but right now…” he exhaled a small laugh. “…now, all I can think is that I can’t believe I’m allowed to be this happy.”

Something gripped Patroclus’ heart and he rushed to once more fill the space Achilles had left between them, his hands gripping the back of Achilles’ tunic. “No! No, I’m sorry too. You’ve never been just a problem to me, not once.”

“But I have caused you problems.”

“You’re not perfect,” Patroclus smirked, more out of relief than anything else. “That’s not enough to change this.” He didn’t say what ‘this’ was: they both knew, as if it were a part of them.

“And you’re here to stay?”

“I told you: I don’t think I can leave now. Not now I’m here.”

“Even though you’re leaving everyone you wanted to stay with?”

Patroclus cringed. “No option was going to be ideal.”

Still holding each other, they moved back enough to at least see the other’s face. Achilles cupped Patroclus’ jaw, smiling at him so fondly that it was all Patroclus could do not to melt into him. They had more to say to each other before things could truly be right, but Patroclus was sure they both knew that already. ‘No option was going to be ideal’ and he knew how toxic unspoken problems could be (they’d caused this, after all), but he wanted to enjoy this time. He wanted so much and he felt greedy enough to take it all.

“So does that mean I’m more important than anyone else to you?” Achilles grinned cockily and Patroclus punched him lightly on the arm.

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?” he asked, not at all upset.

“Not until I get an answer,” Achilles answered happily, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for one as he leant in to kiss the sides of Patroclus’ smile, his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, nuzzling into him like an over-affectionate kitten.

“Only the answer you want,” Patroclus retorted without a scrap of venom.

“Ah, but haven’t you heard?” Achilles smiled at him with a glint in his eye that looked determined enough to break through anything. “I always get what I want.”

Patroclus couldn’t argue with that.

 

In the end, Ajax was the one chosen to duel Hector, Patroclus heard the next day. That raised some questions – was Ajax truly the prophesised greatest of the Greeks? Really? Patroclus didn’t want to insult a man he’d never met and had nothing against personally, but…really? He ignored his doubts and decided to accept it, though, listening attentively to Achilles while he relayed the information excitedly.

“…so after an apparently legendary battle,” Achilles sneered the word good-naturedly, “they drew and that’s why we’ve got a day of rest today.”

“Because you were fighting so hard before,” Patroclus smiled, fastening his belt.

“Fair point, but the others seem happy about it. They’re even building a giant barrier and trench in preparation for tomorrow.”

“How terrible it must be to actually have to prepare for battle,” Patroclus shrugged sadly, holding his hands up.

“You’re happy about me not fighting so I’m sure I don’t know why you’re being difficult,” Achilles retorted. But he was smiling too, the edges of his hair lit up like gold by the morning light that stretched fuzzily through the tent.

It was too infectious not to, so Patroclus smiled back. “Oh, I just like being difficult. Speaking of which,” he stood up from the pallet bed and stretched, humming in satisfaction, “do I get to see the camp today or are you going to insist I stay in here today as well?”

“Tempting though that is, I want to show you around. The other camps are probably all too busy with that wall of theirs to notice so it should be fine.”

“No one’s going to recognise me, of course. You’re being too cautious.”

“Menelaus would recognise you,” Achilles pointed out.

“I lived with him for years and I can say with absolute certainty that he would not recognise me if his life depended on it. I don’t think he looked me in the eyes once.”

“His loss,” Achilles grinned, holding back the tent flap. “Shall we?”

Patroclus hadn’t even left the tent before a young man was standing in front of Achilles expectantly, as if he’d been waiting for him to come out. He blinked a little at Patroclus’ appearance but seemed to take it in his stride, all things considered.

“My prince, the main council requests your presence. Urgently.”

Achilles looked far less annoyed than Patroclus would have assumed from that news.

“Alright, but see, I haven’t had my apology yet. As such, I’m not a part of the main council at this point in time,” he replied, looking completely unconcerned as he admired the weather.

The young man pursed his lips together, adopting a pained expression, and Patroclus recognised in him a kindred spirit. “Urgently,” the man repeated.

Achilles sighed, but looked down at him with the air of a fond older brother deciding to endure his brother’s capricious requests. Patroclus thought he might have got it back to front, but if thinking he was doing this man a favour would get Achilles to the council, then that was fine, he supposed.

“Well,” Achilles said, “if you absolutely insist.”

“I do.”

“Then I have no choice but to entrust Patroclus to you.” He took a step back, allowing the two of them to face each other. “Patroclus, this is Automedon and I have utter faith that he’ll be able to show you around the camp almost as well as I could. So it pains me, but-”

“I completely understand,” Patroclus cut him off before he could waste any more time on dramatic monologues. “I’ll see you later.”

With an adoring smile in lieu of a goodbye kiss, Achilles left him. Patroclus looked at Automedon, who seemed completely unfazed by any of this. He looked to be in his late teens at most, even younger than Polyxena, but even for his age he was scrawny. Fine features and large, dark eyes with darker hair cropped close to his skull all made him look even younger, but he held himself well and seemed to have a fair amount of muscle under his loose clothes, so Patroclus didn’t think anything of it. He wondered what Briseis had meant by telling him he’d ‘understand’ when he saw Automedon: there didn’t seem to be anything immediately unusual about him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said eventually, and Automedon nodded with a small smile.

“Shall I show you around, then?”

Patroclus appreciated the lack of questions (namely, where he’d come from to need showing around in the first place) and followed as Automedon led him away.

Early morning it might well have been, but the entire camp felt lazy and relaxed. Groups of soldiers and women sat around talking and doing mundane maintenance on their armour and weapons. Every so often the rows of tents would open onto communal areas where people congregated, and to the other end of the camp Patroclus could see medical tents and people busying themselves about food stocks. There was the sea to one side and scraggly trees on the other, leading to a thin forest. They could hear the sounds of the wall being built far, far behind them, near the battlefield, but it felt too distant to mean anything. There was no danger here.

Automedon didn’t waste words: he briefly introduced different parts of the camp, mostly leaving Patroclus to work things out for himself. Occasionally someone would greet Automedon and he’d nod in return, but for the most part the two of them were ignored. A blessing, in Patroclus’ opinion, and they eventually ended up at the edge of the camp near the stables.

Automedon leant on the fence and looked out at the sea, the fluffy hair of his fringe ruffling in the breeze. He clearly wasn’t the type of person to talk if it wasn’t necessary, and ordinarily Patroclus would have been all too happy to respect that, but he was feeling too full of life to stand there quietly. It was like words were battling in his chest to get out, just so he could release some of the happiness he was feeling. He wanted to share it – he wanted to share something.

“I heard about you from Briseis, before,” he decided upon.

Automedon looked up at him, cocking his head to the side. “She never mentioned you.”

“No, we asked her not to.”

Automedon shrugged in a satisfied way, nodding as if that made sense.

“She said she liked you, though. You were one of the reasons she wanted to get better at Greek so quickly.” Slowly, slowly the excitement fizzing up inside him calmed, hushed into submission as he started worrying again. He looked down at the sandy soil at his feet. “I’m scared for her.”

“Mm.” Automedon shifted his weight. “She’ll be fine for now, I think. But something needs to be done quickly. As it is, I don’t like to think about it.”

Patroclus nodded in agreement, unsurprised to find himself relieved that someone else was worrying about her. “You’re close too, then?”

Automedon sighed softly. “She’s a good person: she doesn’t deserve to be left in the balance like this. I like her. She doesn’t treat me badly, or as if I need careful handling. Only she and Achilles do that for me. She said she knew someone like me from her village, so…” he shrugged, looking away.

“Someone like you? That…that reminds me of something she said: that there was a reason she got along better with you than others here. She said it was your business, though, and she wouldn’t tell me because it wasn’t her place.” Patroclus didn’t like saying it – didn’t like bringing it up if it was difficult to talk about, didn’t like admitting he didn’t understand – but his curiosity got the better of him.

Automedon looked at him for a moment, his expression giving nothing away. Then, again, he shrugged. “It’s because I trust them and they seem to trust you that I’ll tell you this. I ran away from home to join this army: that’s why I’m younger than most here,” he said indifferently. “It wasn’t my choice: I had to run away.”

Unflustered, he slipped off his himation and held the fabric of his chiton tight at the back, making the shape of his body obvious. He was still looking at Patroclus expectantly with those unusually large eyes.

“Oh.”

“Oh indeed.”

“So you’re a…?”

“I’m a man,” Automedon said with a smile, and Patroclus could hear it now: the slight forced gruffness to his voice, as if it was uncomfortable for him to speak. “But like I said: Achilles doesn’t care, and he’ll deal with those who do. But he doesn’t care about a lot of things,” he stopped there, testing the waters to see what he could say, and Patroclus didn’t say anything to stop him so he continued. “And Briseis cares about too much. So I miss her. I want her back, but I want her to be safe more.”

Patroclus nodded absent-mindedly, still caught in the dismay of not having realised earlier. But then, Automedon was doing everything he could so no one would realise.

“Do you think there’s a chance she could be given back peacefully?” he asked, almost entirely without hope.

For a tired few seconds, Automedon stayed silent. Then – very carefully – he said, “My prince is a determined man. He’ll get what he wants, but I don’t think he wants her back most of all.”

And Patroclus nodded again, understanding everything Automedon didn’t say. That was what Patroclus was looking for: the things he couldn’t see, the things he could only guess at. Curiosity caught him again.

“Can you tell me what he’s like here?” he asked. “Truthfully. He thinks highly of you, so I trust your judgment.”

For another long, tense silence, Patroclus was looked at.

“Alright,” Automedon decided, and he straightened his himation on again, turning around to rest his elbows back against the fence. “If that’s what you want.”

Patroclus wasn’t surprised by what Automedon said, at least. In simple, unadorned words, the boy spoke of his experiences, his perspective and the judgment Patroclus had asked for.

 “He does everything at his own pace, and won’t wait for others to catch up. He doesn’t need them to.”

“Everyone respects him, for his skill and distance from what he does. He’s never overcome by sensitivity or empathy.”

“Everyone fears him, at least in part. They’ve all seen what he can do.”

“He’s fair, because he doesn’t care one way or another. If something is in his way, he’ll get rid of it, but otherwise he won’t bother himself about it.”

“He doesn’t concern himself with others.”

It all made sense, as if Patroclus was finally averting his eyes from the sun’s glare and seeing everything beneath it. He didn’t mind: he’d expected this, but it still sunk – bitter and heavy – in his stomach. It shouldn’t have, and he knew that: shouldn’t he be happy that he was so blessed in comparison, to be the only one to see the man behind the leader? But he listened to Automedon speak of injuries and death counts, hasty funerals and the sickening corpses left by the plague, men left mutilated and plans run into the ground, everything the Myrmidons and every other soldier faced, and he couldn’t be happy.

He didn’t say anything to fill up the silence Automedon left for him, afterwards. Automedon looked at him questioningly.

“Too much detail?” he asked.

“N-no, that’s fine…I’m just thinking.”

“Mm,” he shrugged and looked away. “Let me know when you’re done.”

It took half an hour until Automedon gently touched Patroclus’ arm and nodded to the heart of the camp. Patroclus followed him back, still thinking until Achilles returned and changed everything like a fire suddenly raging in the hearth and sending all the shadows cowering into corners and crannies.

 

The next morning was lethargic and restless. Patroclus was woken by the sounds of the other soldiers readying themselves to fight; it was nothing like the noise of the building the day before, and a world apart from the Trojan palace waking up. He couldn’t get back to sleep after that, even though it was so pleasant and warm next to the rhythm of Achilles’ breathing. He left the tent. Just like the day before, the Myrmidon camp was next to lifeless. Why bother waking up early if you weren’t to fight? Patroclus headed for the woods, trying to get away from where troops of soldiers were starting to march towards the battlefield.

Everything around him was straggly and dried up in the heat, even so close to the sea. It wasn’t until he’d reached almost the thick of the woods that there was decent shade, the shrubs around thick, gnarled roots taking on some colour. He let his hands brush over the coarse bark of the hazel trees, barely thinking about it. There was too much on his mind as it was.

‘This is meant to be’, he’d said and stuck to, clung to because it gave him structure he could have faith in. But there was more to it than that, more than he’d wanted to admit to himself. It was protection.

There were thousands, tens of thousands of soldiers marching behind him, and he was like none of them, with his ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’ and everything he couldn’t let go of. They had no divine blessing (no matter how forced), no assurance that they would live simply because they couldn’t die. They were nothing like him, and he was nothing like them.

Patroclus felt sick.

 

The camp was livelier when he made it back, Achilles the liveliest of them all on account of the fuss he was making. When he saw Patroclus slinking back in, he jogged over happily. The soldiers he’d been complaining to seemed just as happy to leave.

“Where did you get to? Completely reasonably, I think you’ll agree, I was worried.” He said it with a smile as he brushed hair back from his face and looked absolutely dazzling.

“I woke up early so I was in the woods,” Patroclus said placidly.

“Thinking too hard again?”

“Huh?”

Achilles raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Automedon said you were doing it yesterday too. He reports back to me, you know. So what’s bothering you?”

Patroclus briefly considered lying, and hated himself for the weakness. This was something he needed to talk about, he thought. Achilles had to feel the same; he had to be overwhelmed by this just the same.

So Patroclus said, “Can we go somewhere else?”

Achilles narrowed his eyes but nodded and led him to the other side of camp where there were few people around, and those that were there cleared the area just as soon as they saw Achilles’ expression.

“So?” he prompted again, leaning back against a post, arms crossed but not so tightly as to seem hostile.

“It’s…” Patroclus felt nervous now, and he held his hands firmly at his sides to keep from fidgeting. Perhaps it wasn’t the nicest subject to bring up, but he couldn’t be this cowardly about it. “It’s something I’ve noticed since coming here. At the palace, I didn’t really realise. I don’t know how I didn’t,” he laughed. “Working in the infirmary, you’d think I would, but I barely saw the fighting, I suppose. And now…after what Automedon told me…after seeing what it’s like here, and the soldiers leaving this morning, it…it didn’t really hit me until right now. I know that’s just strange: I should have noticed before, but I didn’t, so-”

“Patroclus,” Achilles cut him off, frowning in confusion. “What are you trying to say?”

An excellent question.

“I…I didn’t realise how little life means out here. In the infirmary we were always focussing on protecting it, and here, it’s just…” He didn’t shudder. He could feel his smile hardening, but he didn’t show it, he was sure.

“Was that it?” Achilles’ voice was gentle and he stretched a hand out, stroking down Patroclus’ arm comfortingly. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll never let anything like that happen to you.”

“But that’s the problem,” Patroclus said, smiling helplessly because he had to. He put his own hand over Achilles’ and looked him in the eyes. “Isn’t this unnatural? I feel like this is…everything, all at once, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m the same as other people anymore. Not when I’m around you.”

“I feel the same. I love it.”

“I don’t. I’m sorry: I can’t. I love…this, but I can’t love that. Do you see? I don’t want to have these shields around me, protecting me from everything because of destiny or whatever it is, not when everyone else is dying.”

Achilles frowned. His grip grew a little tighter. “Do you want to die like them?”

“No, of course I don’t: I…I want to be equal to them.”

“Do you? Or do you want to feel as if you’re equal to them, without suffering the consequences?”

Patroclus paused, his mouth open, gaping for words that wouldn’t come. He had nothing to say to that, not when he couldn’t even answer it for himself.

Biting his lip, Achilles looked away. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. But don’t say things like that either: don’t say you’d prefer to be equal to them when you know I can’t let you!” It seemed to annoy him to say it.

“Can’t let me?”

Achilles groaned, scraping a hand down his face. “Not ‘let’ you, but…This is how it is. There’s nothing we can do to change it, and I wouldn’t want to anyway.”

“But it’s unfair.”

“And us being princes isn’t? Being born half-divine isn’t? This is just…how it is.”

“And I’m saying it makes me uncomfortable,” Patroclus said desperately. He couldn’t see why they couldn’t understand each other.

“Then what do you propose to do about it?”

Put on the spot like that, he could barely think of anything, but a single thought leapt to mind. “I want to see the battle. I want to at least see what everyone else goes through and how easy it is to die here, even if you won’t let me get close.”

The idea obviously angered him, but Achilles seemed to be doing an excellent job of keeping himself in check and he straightened up, his jaw tight. “You won’t like it.”

“That’s why I want it.”

The sounds of fighting were too loud when neither of them was saying anything. Constantly in the background; clashes of metal turned to white noise.

“Then fine, we’ll do it your way,” Achilles said eventually, giving every possible indication that he wasn’t happy with the decision. “But we’re not staying long, you’re going nowhere past the barrier, and you stay behind me at all times.”

Patroclus may have been foolhardy but he wasn’t suicidal. He nodded, and Achilles went to collect his weapons.

Together, they jogged through the woods towards the battle: it had advanced upon the camp steadily, pushing the Greek soldiers back against the barrier they’d so hastily built the day before. It was a mess, and as they got closer it was louder than anything Patroclus could have imagined from the echoes that had rung through Troy and the distant, muffled shouts he’d heard on occasion from the battlements. As Achilles pulled him by the hand, he could make out flashes of action through the trees, and then it all spread out before him when they got to an open ridge, leaving them maybe a ship’s length from the line of action.

Immediately, Achilles pulled him back out of sight. Crouching, they watched the battle: Patroclus transfixed, Achilles just watching him. But Patroclus could barely feel himself breathing anymore, much less the slow cramping in his legs, the rough pebbles biting into his skin as he leant on them. There was an almost tangible difference between the fighters on the field, between those who would survive and those who wouldn’t. With his unblinking eyes tied to them, he could practically tell who would be felled by the sword of a hero next, who would fall victim to another man’s kill count, but he watched as a spectator only. He felt empathy, horror, nausea as a spectator only. Unthinkingly, his hand clenched at his chest.

“We should go,” Achilles said, long after Patroclus’ legs had gone numb, but he still didn’t want to move. He tore his eyes from the scene below them to argue, but what protests he had died in his throat when he saw Achilles’ expression. Nodding, he got to his feet unsteadily.

By that time, the Greeks had been pushed even further back, closer to the barrier and the ridge the two of them were on. It shouldn’t have been a problem: they should have been able to slip back into the woods without being noticed. The sun wasn’t in the right position to flash off Achilles’ shield distractingly, and there were only a few paces between them and the safety of trees, but just as Patroclus turned for a last look back – Achilles already pulling him away impatiently – he stopped dead in his tracks.

Hector had seen him – was standing there below, watching him – and Patroclus’ mouth went dry. Neither man moved for what must have only been a few seconds, and then Hector’s face contorted into fury unlike anything that had been directed at Patroclus before. Shouting an order Patroclus couldn’t hear, Hector pointed to him with a trembling sword, and then Achilles was pulling him away forcefully, out of the range of arrows and the curses he could see twisting on Hector’s mouth.

All he had managed to do was confirm that he was wracked with guilt at how lucky he was, and now there was no coming back from this.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to kill him,” Achilles said, for perhaps the fifth time. He was pacing around the tent, hackles raised and eyes practically ablaze with fury.

“You really shouldn’t,” Patroclus said wearily. Again.

“I’m going to rip him apart.”

“That sounds like a terrible idea.”

“I’m going to tear his head from his shoulders.”

“Please don’t.”

“I’m going to make him pay.”

“Believe me,” Patroclus said, sighing as he lay back on the pallet bed and threw an arm over his face, “I think he already is.”

Achilles continued raging and Patroclus didn’t listen, too busy wallowing in self-pity and hatred to do anything else. The distance made it easier: time and space between them so he could almost pretend it hadn’t happened, but it felt like Hector’s expression was seared into the backs of his eyelids. He flung his arm back out lazily and opened his eyes to escape the image.

With boundless energy and fury, Achilles was still at it. “Did you see the way he looked at you?! He was going to have you killed!”

“Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: this is a war. I’m assuming he was simply in a state of mind where he’d have anyone killed, and I just happened to be in his line of sight.” That was a lie, of course, but anything that calmed Achilles down was for the good.

“I swear I’ll kill him,” he reverted to the default.

“Please, please don’t. I feel terrible enough already.”

Finally, Achilles snapped out of it and stopped pacing. “Terrible? Why would you feel bad?”

“The man’s given me all his trust for nigh on a decade and now he thinks I’ve betrayed him.” Saying it aloud helped Patroclus decide he didn’t want to be exposed to the world quite yet, so he put his arm back over his eyes.

Beside him, he felt the bed dip down as Achilles sat next to him and started kicking his feet idly. “I didn’t realise you were so close,” he said, his fire temporarily extinguished.

“I think I did mention it a few times.”

“I might have selectively forgotten that.”

Patroclus snorted. “Regardless, that’s how it is. He kept telling me he trusted me so much, and now this has happened and I’m never going to be able to look him in the face again.”

“Good thing you don’t have to.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so. That doesn’t make me feel much better, though.”

“Really? The way I see it, he’s an enemy to you now, whether you want it that way or not,” Achilles explained simply. “There’s nothing wrong with being hated by an enemy. And you didn’t betray him: you’re not telling me any of their plans. Not that I want to know them.” He ran his fingers gently through Patroclus’ hair.

“I know, but let me wallow in misery.”

Achilles made a judgmental sound and Patroclus could hear cloth moving as if he was shrugging his shoulders. “Alright, but only for a little while.”

“So generous of you.”

“Of course!” His fingers still moved softly, lightly brushing back Patroclus’ hair as they both composed themselves. Patroclus didn’t want to know what was going through Achilles’ mind: it was too likely to worry him more, so he let himself imagine that the fire really had gone out completely.

Now that they weren’t talking, he could hear the distant sounds of fighting again, and fancied he could even pick out Hector’s cries from the dull cacophony. In reality he knew he couldn’t, but it helped. Sharpen it all down to a point and concentrate: understand where the guilt stemmed from and pull it up with the roots. Make things better, except that he wasn’t in any position to do that, not anymore. But that was alright too. It was the shock that had disarmed him more than anything else, and that was fading. And perhaps – though he would never admit it to Achilles – it was also the fear of what Hector would do if they met again.

“Were you really trusted by him?” Achilles asked quietly.

Patroclus rolled onto his side, uncovering his eyes and straightening his chiton out with one hand. “Maybe. He said so, at least.”

“Ah. Then, don’t take this too personally, but-”

“I’m afraid I’m liable to if you start off like that.”

Achilles laughed. “Alright. But consider this: you’re blessed in so many ways. You’re a prince surrounded by princes, apparently also in the confidence of the crown prince of Troy, and the one thing you object to is the protection you get from being close to me. Do you see why I might be hurt by that?”

Looking up in surprise, Patroclus blinked. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that at all.”

“Don’t worry about it: it doesn’t matter much.” Achilles cocked his head to the side to meet his eyes. “I still don’t think I know how you meant it in the first place anyway. No, don’t bother to explain: we probably see the situation differently and I don’t want to argue about this.”

“I can say with a fair amount of certainty that we wouldn’t be arguing about it, though. Bewildered and increasingly exasperated explanations would be more likely.”

Achilles grinned. “You’re probably not wrong, but still. Let’s not.”

“Alright. Should we go back to ‘arguing’ about your murderous intentions towards Hector?”

“Enthralling though I’m sure that would be,” Achilles said with a smile that was perhaps a touch too tight, “let’s also not do that. I need to go and discuss with my generals soon, but…Don’t worry yourself about it too much.”

“You might have to be more specific: I worry about a lot.”

Ruffling Patroclus’ hair decisively – if such a thing were possible – Achilles nodded. He almost looked sad. “The guilt, I meant. Don’t worry about it: it doesn’t do you any good, and you can’t go on just feeling sorry for yourself over everything. Have more faith in yourself and your actions, then do something about it instead.”

Surprisingly unbiased advice, and Patroclus nodded along to it, agreeing completely. The problem wasn’t that he was at a loss for what to do: he knew exactly what he should be doing, he just wasn’t doing it. It was easier to worry and wait for things to fall into place by themselves.

 “I will.” He heaved himself up into a sitting position again. “But promise me you won’t keep threatening to kill anyone who so much as looks at me wrong.”

“That look from before was a little more than just ‘wrong’,” Achilles retorted, but he was smiling fully now, standing and stretching himself out in the stuffiness of the tent. “But if that’s what you want, I suppose I’ll have to.”

“Truly your generosity knows no bounds!” But Patroclus could still see the anger bristling just behind Achilles’ smile.

“I am admittedly quite great. I’ll have to leave you for a bit now, but Automedon should be around if you’d like company.”

Patroclus nodded, following him out of the tent.

 

They had visitors that evening: Ajax, Phoenix and Odysseus, sent from the main council. Patroclus had decided he would do the polite thing and stay out of the way to avoid any unfortunate questions, but Achilles had radically different ideas and so Patroclus found himself staring desperately at the ground as they welcomed their guests. He was being watched, he just knew it, but he stoutly refused to watch back in return.

The atmosphere was friendly, at least. Servants had laid out a good meal and retreated, leaving the five of them alone. Elsewhere in the camp fires burned and the soldiers dined, and there was no sense that this meal was any less companionable. Ajax helped with that, of course: he had made himself thoroughly at home, spreading out and drinking wine heartily. Beside him, Phoenix was composed and ever so slightly on edge, as if not able to relax completely. Patroclus supposed that was to be expected, given the nature of the visit: behind the three guests, piles of gifts were stacked carefully and Achilles was pointedly ignoring them all.

And then there was Odysseus, of course. He seemed as comfortable as Ajax, if not for the way his eyes were boring into Patroclus’ head. But overall, Patroclus had to admit that the ambiance wasn’t bad. The conversation came easily, the night was mild, and the flickering torches around them were comforting. But, once dinner was finished, it was time to move onto the far less savoury business of bargaining.

Achilles stretched out on his side, ever the image of unruffled confidence. He had asked for all talk of deals to be postponed until after the meal and the visitors seemed to be debating when to bring it up. Or at least two of them did: Odysseus evidently had no intention of bothering himself about that unless absolutely necessary and he was still looking at Patroclus curiously. Patroclus smiled at him weakly, finally meeting the man’s gaze, and was met with a warm smile in return. Odysseus’ tanned skin crinkled up at his eyes.

“Agamemnon implores you to reconsider, to join this fight again,” Phoenix started off on strong footing. He looked too much like a stern grandfather for Patroclus to be entirely comfortable with him, even when he was at this disadvantage.

Achilles apparently had no such problems. “I am flattered he would consider me worth the trouble, especially after how clearly he showed everyone what esteem he holds me in. That is to say, none.”

“He was misguided and in a rage: can you not forgive a man his temporary loss of control?”

“Ah, but we are not simply men, are we? A lone man, I would forgive, but a king with an army’s power at his hands? Agamemnon’s words – even those spoken hastily – are not simply his own.” Achilles looked pleased with himself (and rightly so, Patroclus couldn’t help but think).

“Will you refuse him his right to repent?”

“If it pleases me.”

Phoenix took this calmly, unflustered. He had no doubt dealt with many more troublesome deals than this, and the other two men appeared more than happy to leave him to it. Odysseus looked amused, and he caught Patroclus’ eye, raising an eyebrow.

“Regardless of Agamemnon’s mistakes, will you punish us all with your continued absence?”

“If that too pleases me.”

Phoenix nodded slowly, the wrinkles of his face looking drawn and pronounced in the firelight. “The Trojan army has camped just beyond our barrier, ready to attack us at first light. I fear we do not have the power to overcome them without your help, and I can do nothing more than beg you to lend us your aid.”

The old man bowed his forehead to the ground before Achilles and everyone stared. He had bared himself so easily, placing his honour in Achilles’ hands with barely a backwards glance, but it didn’t look like he was finished. Lifting himself up, he motioned back to the gifts.

“Agamemnon sends these with wishes that you will accept them, to in some way make up for the grave insult he dealt you. He understands well his mistake, and for that reason,” Phoenix made a gesture and one of the heralds that had come with them left, “he restores your slave to you as well.”

That caught Patroclus’ attention, and he sat up straighter, eyes fixed on the spot where the herald had left. Sure enough, in a matter of moments he returned with an apparently unharmed Briseis. She looked up and stopped dead when she saw Patroclus, but recovered quickly enough for the herald leading her to not notice.

Achilles watched all of this, his expression the one he wore on the rare occasions he was calculating what to do next. He looked over to Patroclus. “Take her to Automedon, check she has not been hurt.”

Phoenix narrowed his eyes. “We will be only too happy to restore her to you, but after the deal, please.”

“You deny me the right to ascertain she has not been ruined? I believe we all know how hard a master Agamemnon is.”

No one said anything to that, and Patroclus took his chance, smiling gratefully so only Achilles could see it before practically leaping to his feet and taking Briseis’ hand. They started running the second they were out of view.

“What are you doing here?” she asked breathlessly in Anatolian, squeezing his hand as they jogged through the camp.

“It is a…a large story,” Patroclus said, his Anatolian failing him as usual.

“Oh, I doubt it. I’ll have you tell me later, just so you’re aware.”

Patroclus smiled in response, moving close enough to her that their shoulders rubbed together. Everything about her brought him hope, as if her very presence was enough to make it all alright again. His heart was pounding – from excitement and exertion – but he felt calm.

They rushed into the clearing nearest the stables, searching among the fire-lit figures for Automedon. He was far in the back, sitting with a similarly quiet soldier, and despite the whispers around them he didn’t look up until Patroclus and Briseis were standing right before him, breathing heavily and beaming.

Predictably, he barely even widened his eyes when he saw them. He just smiled slightly and got to his feet, taking Briseis’ other hand as they left for somewhere quieter, less filled with chattering people who’d be only too happy to listen in on them if it sounded like fun.

They settled at the edge of the woods and Briseis sat down comfortably on a grassy ridge. She patted the earth in front of her and Automedon obediently sat between her legs, leaning his head back for her to play with his hair, short as it was. Only slightly unsure of himself, Patroclus sat next to them, crossing his legs and staring up at the sky. The grass was dry, the earth not too uncomfortable, and the view was excellent, stretching over the rest of the camp and out onto the sea.

“I take it you two have made friends, then?” Briseis asked pleasantly, her accent practically perfect. The two men nodded and her smile turned satisfied (and perhaps a little smug). She poked Automedon’s forehead. “Good. You need more friends, you know, small one. Acting aloof all the time won’t help you for the long run.”

“It isn’t acting,” he said. “I’m just like this: I’ve told you.”

“Yes, and it vexes your big sister,” she mock-pouted sadly, resting her chin on his head. “Be friendly, please. Make friends who’ll save your life if it comes to that situation.”

Automedon made some half-serious sounds of protest and gave up easily, holding onto her hands and playing with her fingers. He looked like a completely different person with her.

“How long do you think I have before they take me back?”

Patroclus looked at Briseis, mildly shocked. “It’s not a given that you’ll have to.”

“Oh, it is. Our prince is many things and stubborn is one of them: he won’t back down now he has the council in his teeth. You know that, don’t you?”

Patroclus did, but he wasn’t going to just admit it. Briseis could read his answer from his face instead.

“The situation really isn’t good,” she continued. “He should help, or I don’t like to think of what will happen. We would need a miracle, I think. Your Hector is an admirable man. He won’t be beaten so easily.”

Patroclus leaned backwards and looked up at the sky. Thin wisps of cloud swum across the moon as aimlessly as flies in the heat of summer. “I know.”

Automedon raised an eyebrow at them but didn’t question it, choosing instead to ask Patroclus, “Can you change his mind? Our prince’s, I mean.”

The idea made Patroclus laugh. “No. No, probably not. I would have to work very hard to do that.”

“And I’m sure it would be such a sacrifice, using your wiles to convince him,” Automedon replied seriously. Briseis poked him again.

“Even his wiles wouldn’t work, not with him the way he is.”

“Stubborn and entitled?” Automedon asked, managing to say the words with a surprising degree of fondness.

 “Well, yes. I expect we shall probably have to just pray for a miracle,” she said. “That or embrace death.”

“Tempting choices,” Patroclus nodded.

“Have we ever had different?”

Patroclus grunted a non-committal sound and Briseis looked at him curiously. She gently pulled a hand away from Automedon’s fidgeting, resting it comfortingly on Patroclus’. Around them, a wind began to pick up.

“This is likely too much to ask, but…you can’t convince Hector to hold back for perhaps another week, could you? Just the time it takes for the council to take action,” she said after some minutes.

Patroclus really did burst out laughing that time. It was easier to laugh about it than he’d thought, and he shook his head vigorously as he recovered. No: asking Hector anything was out of the question now.

“Ah. That’s a shame.” But Briseis didn’t seem too upset about it, and they settled into silence. There was too much to talk about to even start, so why not relax together instead? Automedon looked as if he was ready to fall asleep against her, and Patroclus felt the same.

The heralds would try and find them soon, he knew, and they were welcome to. He wasn’t going to be the one to end this so early, not when he could almost believe she’d be able to stay.

Chapter Text

As they’d all known she would, Briseis left the camp just as soon as the heralds had finally managed to track her down. She didn’t struggle or protest: she just hugged Automedon a last time and told Patroclus in Anatolian that he needed to hurry up and do something because he couldn’t expect her to fix everything herself. He smiled and walked with her to the edge of the camp, watching more out of a lack of something to do than because he thought it would accomplish anything. He’d known Achilles wouldn’t back down. He’d known. There would be more chances.

Quite unexpectedly, he was ambushed by Odysseus on his way back. With years of Polyxena taking great delight in trying to scare him, he had the presence of mind to not jump or show his shock at all, and it might have been his imagination but Odysseus almost looked disappointed. Perhaps he’d expected more of a reward after hiding in the shadows for goodness knew how long, but he didn’t seem to let it get to him. Undeterred, he eyed Patroclus thoughtfully and put a guiding hand on his back, leading him away.

“I was wondering if you and I might talk.”

Warning bells went off in Patroclus’ mind. “Is it not quite late? I’m sure you would prefer to rest for the coming battle than speak with someone like me…”

“The night is young yet.”

It wasn’t, but Patroclus resigned himself to the insistent hand at his back and the determination on Odysseus’ face. “As you say, my lord…” he said, trying not to make it sound like a sigh.

They walked past the camp boundary towards the beach and only then did Odysseus let his hand drop, his gaze fixed on the blue glimmer of the horizon. The walk became more of an amble and Patroclus supposed he should feel grateful; he was feeling drained enough as it was. A night walk had not been in the schedule for a day like the one he’d struggled through, especially not a night walk with supposedly the sharpest and most cunning man in the entire extended camp.

“I haven’t seen you before,” Odysseus said innocuously.

“I try not to make myself stand out, my lord. Call it a habit.”

“An incredibly ineffectual habit if so, given your closeness to the prince of Phthia.”

“It’s a constant trial.”

“Clearly.” For a moment, he dragged his gaze from the horizon to catch how Patroclus was staring at him. His light eyes seemed black in the low light. “I’m not going to ask you where you came from, but since you do seem to have that closeness with our proud prince, let me make something clear to you. We have very little hope of actually beating the Trojan army without the Myrmidons’ strength, and that doesn’t suit me at all. I, just like everyone else, have spent far too long here and I want to go home.” There wasn’t a trace of self-pity in his words: only candid determination.

Patroclus found himself faltering, almost falling out of pace as if his feet were sticking in the sand. “A-and what would you have me do? If I could convince him, I already would have.”

“So you say.”

“I’m not lying! If for no other reason, can you believe that I wanted Bri- the slave girl back?” It felt cowardly, laying all the blame on Achilles’ stubbornness when Patroclus preferred this, preferred anything that kept him from fighting. But he wouldn’t be able to convince Achilles, whether he wanted to or not. So it wasn’t really lying. He could justify this to himself.

Odysseus looked at him for some time, seemingly thinking, and Patroclus wished he’d stop, or at least tone down the intensity.

“Then there’s nothing you can do for me now,” Odysseus raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness, as if his expression wasn’t as determined as it had been all night.

“That’s right. I’m sorry.”

“No matter: I’m sure you’ll be an important contact at some point. Eventually.” Somehow, it sounded patronising. “I’ll just have to do this myself.”

“That would probably be best.” Patroclus was nodding his head rhythmically, praying that the conversation would be over soon, so much so that he barely noticed what Odysseus was saying.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to join the raid on the Trojan camp as well?”

“No, thank you, I’d- …I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

There was knowing in Odysseus’ eyes and Patroclus hated how trapped it made him feel. “Diomedes and I are going to raid the camp. Do some damage by ourselves, bring down morale before the big fight tomorrow. Technically it’s supposed to be a secret, but I’m sure you wouldn’t tell anyone. After all, this is in your interest too, isn’t it?”

That was a problem. To raid the camp at night, betraying any sense of honour…Patroclus couldn’t see it as anything but a mistake, and all the more so when he knew betrayal was already burning at the forefront of Hector’s mind. Worry gripped him again.

“Are you sure that would be for the best?” he hazarded, trying not to let his nerves get to him.

“Yes. Are you not?”

“Not…um, not exactly, which is to say I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea of any kind, just that it might, perhaps, be a touch misguided at this point in time, maybe…and that, um…maybe it would be better to wait and see how the situation pans out on its own…”

Odysseus watched him dig himself into a hole without giving anything away, and Patroclus began to despair for his life expectancy.

“And why, exactly, would it be misguided?”

“I was…um, I was watching the battle earlier today, and I couldn’t help but notice that Hector seemed rather more…murderous than usual. It might not be the best of ideas to provoke that. Perhaps. Maybe. Of course, I’m not a strategist, so I have no confidence in that ju-”

“And yet you tell me anyway. So: for whose sake are you telling me?”

This was worse than any of the similarly awkward and possibly lethal conversations Patroclus had found himself in with Hector over the past years. Odysseus had no reason to want to trust him – no history to make him want Patroclus alive – and that disinterest was tangible in the way he stared at Patroclus mercilessly. He had no proof, but he didn’t need any. When he was stretched so thin that even a stranger could see it, all he needed were suspicions.

He saved Patroclus the agony of having to come up with an answer. “Let me make this clear: if I find you’ve done anything to hinder us, I’ll have you cut down personally. I don’t care whose favourite you are. Of course, I don’t know and don’t want to know why you’re here, but if you’re so stupid you don’t think people would notice you just appearing in a community this close-knit, I doubt you’ll be able to come up with any great plans of sabotage. But my warning stays.”

Patroclus stood very still, painfully aware of the knife point that was now pressing into his abdomen, though he couldn’t muster the confidence to so much as look at it. All he could do was meet Odysseus’ calm fury and hope it wouldn’t burn him.

“If you’re a deserter, I can work with that,” Odysseus continued to say, so close that even the sudden crash of waves on the beach couldn’t drown him out. “I don’t know how you gained his trust – and given the way he was looking at you, I really doubt I want to – but take comfort in the fact that that means something here. If you have information on Hector or any weaknesses of the Trojan force, I’d be happy to hear them and take credit for them at the council.”

Become my ally and no one has to know about any of this’. The offer hung in the air between them and for a second Patroclus found himself wishing with all his might that he could take it. But he was no good at lying.

“I don’t know anything. Not anything of use,” he whispered hoarsely. It wasn’t fear that held him tight in its fists, even with the constant pressure of Odysseus’ dagger in his side. It was disappointment: disappointment that, after everything, it might end here. He doubted it really would, running through simulations of how Odysseus would report his murder and not seeing any way the king would really gain from this, but the disappointment was there still. And then the pressure at his side was gone, the knife sheathed.

“So you’re unobservant as well as stupid.”

Patroclus felt inclined to agree, but he thought that would probably just make the situation worse. He waited instead.

“But you still felt the need to warn me against raiding them.”

He was on firmer footing here, though that wasn’t saying much. “Yes, sir.”

Odysseus started to laugh. “You really are stupid, aren’t you?”

Patroclus didn’t really have any answer to that, but Odysseus was already walking away anyway. He turned his head just to call back, “Come and see me if you ever have any information that could actually be of use to me.”

Watching Odysseus walk away, his feet slowly sinking into the wet sand, Patroclus felt exhausted. He pulled his feet up wearily and started to walk back too, keeping as much distance between himself and the king as he could.

 

Against all expectations, the Trojan army didn’t manage to break through the barrier the next day. Somehow the Greek forces were rallied into a strong enough defence line to set them back and to push them back towards the wall, setting the two armies on more equal footing. Patroclus, of course, wasn’t there to see it, instead choosing to spend a nerve-wracking day patrolling the camp with Achilles and trying not to think about imminent attacks.

Achilles helped, truly helped, by filling up Patroclus’ time with introductions to various generals and discussions about things Patroclus knew very little about and had to concentrate on. It felt like he was constantly tensed for the inevitable breaching of the barrier and all the panic it would bring, but it was better with the warmth of Achilles’ shoulder on his, the reassuring smiles and glances to make sure he wasn’t too distracted. Patroclus appreciated it all more than he could say (relief from overthinking and stress, even just a few hours of it, was a blessing) and the breach never came.  

Instead, in the late afternoon, Odysseus did Patroclus the favour of coming back and telling him all about how his and Diomedes’ raid had managed to put the Trojans at just the disadvantage they’d needed.

“I’ll give you one thing, though, despite the fact that you were completely wrong,” Odysseus said, looking pleased with himself. He had a right to, Patroclus knew, but that didn’t stop it from being irritating. Even if the king was beaming despite his exhaustion, his eyes bright and his laughter rich, it was still irritating.

“Will you,” Patroclus said flatly, looking away and out to the post-battle bustle in the camp next to theirs. They were walking the line between the two camps, stretching muscles only one of them needed to stretch. “And what might that be?”

“Hector was especially murderous.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“You’re being curt: did you not think you’d be wrong?” Odysseus said, almost playfully. “Or perhaps you were counting on being right, and on our defeat. What a shame.”

That snapped Patroclus out of his irritation – and it most certainly wasn’t a sulk: he had every right to be a little on edge with so much stress weighing him down. “That’s not how it is,” he said hurriedly. “I’ve just…been thinking.”

“An excellent diversion for a young man of your age: I highly recommend doing it more often.”

Patroclus stopped walking and Odysseus followed his lead, crossing his arms and smiling comfortably.

“Um,” Patroclus started awkwardly, testing the water for what he was allowed to say in front of this man of undeniably higher social standing. Odysseus raised an eyebrow but no objection, so he continued. “Is it absolutely necessary for you to allude to me being stupid all the time?”

“Is that your way of saying you’re not stupid?” He was enjoying this, Patroclus could tell.

“I wouldn’t say it isn’t…”

“Double negatives won’t get you any credit, and seeing as you’re the man who seemed to think it would be possible to appear out of the blue and not get questioned for it – let alone suspected for it – I think my original judgement stands.” He was really enjoying this. It was all over his face.

“In my defence, I have met someone who didn’t question it.”

“Then they’re clearly stupid too, or over-confident. Although, looking at you,” Odysseus exaggerated said looking at him, “I’m not sure there’s much to be afraid of.”

“Just so we’re on the same page, do you actually like insulting me or are you forcing yourself to show dominance? Because if it’s the latter, allow me to be the first to tell you that you don’t need to. Really.”

Odysseus grinned, settling himself back against a fence post. “Oh, I enjoy it enormously. Especially when you manage to repeatedly confirm my suspicions of what you are every time you rise to the bait.”

“That’s unfair! I assumed your suspicions were already confirmed, or I’d have done better at hiding it!” Not that Odysseus could possibly know the truth. He hadn’t even asked Patroclus’ name: there was no way he could know, or guess.

“No, I’m not sure you would have.”

Patroclus knew he was being baited again so he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t even particularly angry: just irritated and tired and thoroughly fed up with being used as cheap entertainment. He had more important things to concern himself with than defending himself against this.

Odysseus seemed to sense it, and changed the subject. “You said you were thinking, earlier.”

“Yes, I recall.”

“About what?” Odysseus tolerated the disrespect just as well as he’d tolerated the rest.

It was a good question, and not one Patroclus was sure he could answer. Too many things had been battling for space in his already over-stressed mind, so many that he wanted to ignore them all. He knew he couldn’t. There were old, familiar worries: worrying about the war, his loved ones getting hurt, his sister and Polyxena and how they were doing. There were newer worries, of his place in this war and what he could do when he was in the perfect position to do something, but felt like he couldn’t. Of being too privileged above others, so much so that they would die like cattle and he wouldn’t ever be touched.

He didn’t want to die, he’d said. He’d meant it. But it wasn’t something he could get off his mind, and Achilles’ words (all of them, all the time) rang in his ears, reminding him that introversion and self-pity were useless. They would only make a spiral patterned in guilt and missed opportunities. Oh, but he knew that perfectly well, just like he knew it had cost Achilles dearly to say it, to even hint that Patroclus should start putting himself in the path of danger. But he’d said it anyway, which meant it was important to him. Patroclus couldn’t ignore that.  

“Was it that complicated?” Odysseus asked, amused.

“Something like that.” He was still thinking, furiously, knowing the answer to everything plaguing him and trying to ignore it.

“But so inspired you couldn’t possibly enlighten me?”

He didn’t want to go to those lengths – the ones that stood a chance of putting everything right – but it was something only he could do, and he knew he had a duty to do it. Everything had been handed to him: the opportunities, the position, the allies…everything, and all he had to do was use them. Stop running away and use them so that he didn’t just have to lament over how terrible it all was without lifting a finger himself. He had the responsibility to do that.

“I can’t say I appreciate being ignored like this, you know.”

Odysseus had invited him to speak up if Patroclus thought he could do anything, and that gave him hope. There was a plan there.

“How much longer can we defend against the Trojan army?” he asked, taking Odysseus by surprise (and there was a victory if ever there was one).

Odysseus narrowed his eyes, shifting his weight. “Not an ideal amount of time. Why?”

“I was just wondering. And, if I can ask an unrelated question, what do you seek to gain from this?”

The king’s eyes narrowed further, but he answered just the same. “I want to go back to Ithaca. Nothing more than that. I stopped wanting more than that years ago.”

Patroclus nodded, running through decisions in his head. It was likely that Odysseus was lying, but Patroclus knew he wasn’t intelligent enough to see past the lie if it was there. Either way, if he was going to do what he was planning, he needed an ally who wouldn’t be constantly trying to protect him. Odysseus was all but offering himself up, and Patroclus knew he needed to do the right thing and stop running away under the cover of his worries and excuses.

He cleared his throat, far too aware of how quiet it had become around the two of them. “What would you do if I told you I could bring Paris in front of the council?”

Chapter Text

To his credit, Odysseus didn’t gape or blink or even seem shocked. He took a moment, and then replied coolly. “I’d call you mad, but I suppose I’m desperate enough to believe madmen now.”

Patroclus plastered on a cheerful smile. He couldn’t stop wringing his hands, so he hid them behind his back. “That’s convenient! Because I’d really quite like your support and that might be a little difficult if you don’t believe me.”

“I can imagine.” The disbelief was still there, clear as the flickers of fire-posts all around them. Patroclus dropped the smile.

“I’m not lying. I’m not mad, either. I think I could do it, but it would be…” he searched for the right word, “preferable with you backing me.”

“Ah.” The suspicion left Odysseus’ face, replaced by a raised eyebrow and contempt. “And how much money would I be backing you with, pray tell?”

“What? That’s…oh, wait, no! That’s not what I meant!” Patroclus held his hands out in front of him defensively. “I meant emotional support!”

“Emotional support.”

“Yes!”

“I hope you know I’m only still here because I’m waiting to see how much further you can dig yourself into this hole.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to retort before thinking better of it. “That’s…that’s fair. But would you give me a chance to explain it? Preferably somewhere without too many people?”

“Is this the part where you lead me into the forest for a ‘private chat’ before ambushing me with several well-muscled cronies of yours? If that’s the case, just know that I’ve been through that one before.”

The forest had, in fact, been Patroclus’ first suggestion, so he settled for the back-up. “How about your tent? In your camp, surrounded by your men, with just an unimpressive idiot to fear?”

Odysseus considered this.

“Alright. But only because you’re quite so unimpressive and quite such an idiot.”

Patroclus refused to rise to it because at this point Odysseus’ tiny expressions of disappointment had become deeply satisfying to him. But Odysseus stayed still for a few moments longer than could be called natural: with his resting face of gentle amusement that gave absolutely nothing away, he seemed to be thinking and made no move to leave. Patroclus was just about to prompt him to say something when he did so of his own accord.

“If you’d like me to back you, I think I have the right to know your name.”

That stopped Patroclus in the eager step he’d been about to take. “Had…had I not told you?”

“Clearly not.”

“I’m Patroclus.”

Odysseus nodded. “And I presume you have a last name?”

He did, of course, but he also had more than a small suspicion that letting Odysseus know his heritage would be less than desirable so early in the game. So he shrugged.

“You really will have to pay me to get that.”

For one blissful second it looked as if he’d taken Odysseus aback, but then the cocksure grin was back.

“This is brilliant,” Odysseus laughed. “It’s like you’re actively trying to confirm my every suspicion about you. Oh, don’t look so offended: let’s go.”

 

The inside of Odysseus’ tent shouldn’t have felt as suffocating as it did, what with how spacious it was. It was tidy, organised and homely, but Patroclus couldn’t take comfort in that. He sat nervously on a stool in front of Odysseus’ throne-like chair, fidgeting, waiting for some kind of reaction.

Odysseus continued to look mercilessly disbelieving, the same expression he’d been wearing the whole time Patroclus had been giving his explanation. “The fact that you expect me to believe all of this is getting steadily more insulting. I’m willing to swallow that you were part of Helen’s retinue, but…” he looked at a loss for words, surprisingly.

Patroclus cringed. “I’m fairly desperate, you’ll notice. I don’t have a choice but to hope you’ll believe me.”

“Desperation isn’t really an excuse for bare-faced lies.”

“No, but I’m not lying.”

“Ah, and there you go again.”

“Please, just…” His grip on the stool grew tight enough for his knuckles to turn white. He should have known this would happen; that he couldn’t expect it all to run as smoothly as the rest of his life seemed to. But this was also his chance to do something for once, and he wasn’t going to let it slip away just because the whole situation was unbelievable. So he could have turned on Odysseus, mocked him for not believing in the power of a god’s blessing, called him impious and cynical, but that would solve nothing but the attacks on Patroclus’ own dignity.

“I know this is absurd,” he said carefully, not looking up from the ground. “You’re being prudent, and I completely understand that. I’m not asking you to believe everything anymore. I’m not asking you to do anything but act as support, because believe me, Achilles is not going to like this and I could use all the support I can get. But you won’t lose anything! All I want is for you to wait, and then if I do come back with Paris, for you to take control of the situation. Nothing more than that. There don’t have to be any risks.”

Irritatingly, Odysseus seemed to decide at that moment that he was going to be a man of few words and Patroclus was left hanging in the balance again. He chewed the inside of his lip to pass the time.

“Run your plan by me once more,” Odysseus eventually said lazily. “I’d like to know exactly what I’m backing.”

“Certainly!” Patroclus sat up straighter, shaking his hair out of his eyes. “To start with, I’d be extremely grateful if you could come with me to discuss this with Achilles-”

“Because you need someone there to hold your hand, I understand.”

“…um, if that’s how you want to put it, I suppose. Anyway, we explain it to him too, he’ll likely want to come with me, which is fine and probably a much safer bet than me going on my own-”

“Because you have next to no combat skills and would end up bleeding your life out on a corridor in the Trojan palace,” Odysseus nodded sagely.

“…yes, but the point is that he then persuades his mother to transport us there. We find Paris, bring him back by force, and hand him over to you. You then explain to the council how your spies somehow managed to infiltrate the fortress that has never been breached before, and you all go into negotiations with the Trojans.”

“It’s an incredibly heavy-handed plan, you know.” Odysseus sat back, spreading his hands out palm-up. “I mean, this is the equivalent of you marching into Troy, roughing Paris up and dragging him out like a drunk in the early hours of the morning.”

“….Yes.”

Odysseus uncrossed his legs, bending forwards a few inches so he could look even more judgmental. “Not to mention that you have no guarantee that our little prince’s mother is going to like doing this one bit.”

“Well, I don’t think she will – at all – but she likes him, so with any luck that will cancel it out.”

“And while I’m sure you’ll be fine in the palace itself with that fighting machine on your side, there are a lot of variables you have no control over. Do you know where Paris is going to be? Do you know for sure that he’s not going to be surrounded by guards who’ll sound the alarm, no matter how quickly they’re killed? Do you know that you’ll be able to knock him out without killing him? Do you know that you’ll be able to resist the temptation to go and say goodbye to everyone you knew there? Do you know that you’ll be able to leave them, most likely to die? Do you-”

Recoiling, Patroclus nodded earnestly in an attempt to get him to stop talking. “T-that’s enough, thank you. I don’t know any of that, but…I feel like it could work anyway. And either way, you won’t lose anything from this, remember? If we fail, two men are dead and the Myrmidons are up for the taking. Nothing more than that.” He smiled.

Odysseus considered this. “A fair enough point, but that’s not quite how this is going to work, is it? You don’t think for a second that you could fail.”

“I think it’s possible.”

“But not likely? It’s fine to admit that. I won’t reproach you for admitting to being confident about this, especially when you have every reason to be. Luck’s been on your side so far, hasn’t it?”

Patroclus hummed in agreement. It sounded like Odysseus was trying to comfort him, but that wasn’t something he’d wanted to hear. You could call it luck or fortune all you liked: it didn’t change the fact that it was something Patroclus felt more smothered than blessed by. Even if he was doing his best to finally use it for others.

“So…” he hazarded, “does that mean you’ll agree to help me?”

“Well, I won’t lose anything by saying yes to you, will I? But let’s try tomorrow night, because it really is late now.”

Patroclus was caught completely off guard, and he spluttered, “B-but shouldn’t we do this as soon as possible?”

“Not when neither you nor Achilles have had any time to mull this over beyond hot-headedness. So that’s enough.” He rose to his feet and Patroclus practically jumped up to meet him.

“But what about the people we could save from dying tomorrow?!”

Odysseus fixed him with a stern look. “What about the people you could have saved from dying today, or the day before? It’s useless to concern yourself too much with that. We’re in the midst of a war: they know what they signed up for, and I know just as well as they do. I’m not going to argue about this with someone who’s never fought once in his life.” And then, less harshly, “Just get some rest. Tomorrow night is going to be very long and very tiring for you.”

Shamed into silence, Patroclus let himself be pushed outside and led to the camp border so he could walk back himself.

 

Achilles scowled. “Absolutely no way, no chance, never in a million years.”

“That’s…that’s rather hasty, don’t you think?”

Patroclus felt more in his element here in Achilles’ tent, but that didn’t necessarily make it any easier. The sun was setting outside, throwing shadows even within the walls of the tent, and there were the usual late-afternoon sounds of soldiers coming back from fighting. As promised, Odysseus was standing like an extremely discomfiting moral support in the back of the tent, very near the exit, leaving Patroclus to do it by himself. He supposed that was fair.

“No, I don’t think it’s hasty at all,” Achilles folded his arms and glared.

“There isn’t that much risk involved, though: as long as you have faith in your own fighting abilities – which you do, I know you do – and in your mother’s desire to protect you, there’s nothing to fear!”

“Which is a perfectly good reason to go storming into the enemy fortress on a pointless chase, I’m sure.” His eyes looked impossibly bright in the sunset flushing through the tent walls.

“It’s not pointless: there’s no way they could be expecting us, so we’ll have the best possible chance of taking Paris hostage, I told you!”

“This sounds stupid.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if there wasn’t a small chance I could get hurt. This is the sort of solution you usually jump at!” Patroclus huffed.

“Well, I’m not jumping and I have no intention of ever jumping.” As if to make this clear, Achilles made his stance stronger, spreading his legs out and digging his heels into the ground unnecessarily.

“You know,” Odysseus said nonchalantly from behind them, “I don’t think this is the worst plan that’s ever existed. It’s not that bad. I’d go for it, if I were you.” He sounded incredibly unconvincing and Patroclus felt betrayed.

“Yes, I’m sure you would, seeing as you get to stay here and reap the rewards,” Achilles threw back at him.

Odysseus shrugged helplessly at Patroclus. “Well, I tried. Do your best.”

Without waiting for a response, he slipped out of the tent. The disappointment didn’t even have a chance to sting before Achilles relaxed and let out a breath, sitting down heavily on the pallet bed. “So what was that about?” he asked in a much calmer voice. “Why was he with you?”

Patroclus went to sit by him on the bed as he was beckoned. “…support, I suppose…”

“Because you thought you needed it against me?” His expression was unreadable.

“Yes, but in my defence, I was right and you did in fact shoot my plan down as soon as I said it.”

“But you know why I did, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Patroclus might have let some sullenness slip into his voice.

“So why did you ask me?” he laughed breathily, more from distress than mirth.

“I was hoping you might have got over that protective streak of yours.”

“Well, I haven’t.” He took a deep breath. “You think I’m being difficult again, don’t you?”

“That’s not it!” Their hands clasped together between their hips, pressed into the soft material of the blankets, but they didn’t look at each other. “I just want to do something, for once. I’m not like you: I don’t have the certainty that I could do something if it came to it, so I have to take what opportunities I can get. And this is an excellent one, don’t you think?”

“Not really.”

“I do. If this works, it will save a lot of people. Hundreds, thousands from a war that the leaders don’t want to end. This could force them to finally end it.”

“It’s putting you at risk, though.” Achilles said it like he knew how ridiculous it sounded. “And I don’t suppose you’d agree to stay here and let me do it.”

“You don’t know the palace at all,” Patroclus shrugged. “It would make more sense for me to go alone than you.”

“Never.” Their fingers wound tighter together and Patroclus couldn’t stop a smile rising to his lips.

“I thought you’d say that.”

The sun was fully set and men were going around lighting lamps outside. It didn’t feel as chilly as it might have, cast in shadow though they were: if anything, it just felt comfortable as a dulled hum of chatter started some distance from their tent and Patroclus strained to make out any words.

Achilles breathed out deeply. “I’ve tried to care, but I don’t. You know that, don’t you?”

“About other people?”

“About most other people. I just don’t understand why I should care whether they live or die: naturally I think it’s good if they live, but if they die then that’s just their lot, isn’t it? I can’t make it matter to me.”

Patroclus nodded. Hearing it didn’t affect him like it had before, and he decided not to wonder why. “I understand. But try and understand that it does matter to me, could you? I need your help with this, both to enlist your mother’s help and to protect me.”

Finally he turned his head, smiling fondly as their eyes met under the low light. “I’m not asking you to change who you are: I’d just like you to help me be who I am.”

“That’s fair.” Achilles grinned, strands of hair falling into his eyes as he ducked his head in mock humility.

“So you’ll do it?”

“I was always going to do it.”

“Ah, forgive me for misinterpreting your ‘never’s and ‘absolutely not’s.”

“I had to try and dissuade you, didn’t I?” Achilles laughed softly, pushing his head into Patroclus’ shoulder like a head-butt and then leaving it there. “I can’t promise my mother will agree, though.”

“I know, I know,” Patroclus said soothingly, nodding.

“And you have to promise to do exactly what I say.”

“Don’t I always? Okay, don’t give me that look: I promise.”

“Right.” Achilles closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened up and got to his feet, dragging Patroclus up with him because he wouldn’t unclasp their hands. “Time’s wasting away, so we should probably go, shouldn’t we?”

Patroclus nodded happily. He felt too safe to even think about the danger that could be waiting for him: he was going to see his sister – no matter how Odysseus warned against getting distracted; he was going to see Polyxena, hopefully; he was going to put his luck to good use, and Achilles would be there for him. So there was nothing to fear. Not even memories of Hector’s rage could dent this: with any luck – with his luck – they wouldn’t even meet each other again.

So he followed Achilles out of the tent in high spirits, walking over to where Odysseus (and Automedon, for some reason) was waiting for them.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Patroclus thought he might have done well to bring along some dice or something to pass the time, but in his own defence, he hadn’t exactly known that Thetis would need twenty minutes of convincing. He looked over to the seashore again but Achilles was, indeed, still talking to his mother, occasionally stepping out of the wet sand that sucked at his feet but otherwise unchanged. Patroclus didn’t even think they were talking about the plan anymore.

He turned to Automedon. “Are you sure you don’t want to know what’s going on?”

“I don’t really care either way,” Automedon shrugged, turning a shell over between his fingers and watching it with mild interest. “If you want to tell me, feel free, but I might not listen.”

“I won’t, then. But, I mean, are you sure? You’re just accepting all of this? You’re not concerned that I’m telling you I can just go inside Troy and come back with the one prince everyone’s been trying to kill for a decade?”

“Not really.” He dropped the shell and crouched down, rootling about in the sand for another. Patroclus waited for him to find a suitably pretty one. “I’ll help if you need me to, and I’ll wait here all night if that’s how long it takes you to come back, but the reasons behind it all would probably just confuse me, so I’m not bothered.” With that said, he sat back down on the dune and began admiring his new shell.

“I have to say,” Odysseus started from Patroclus’ other side, watching the two of them with the interest of someone who has nothing better to entertain themselves with, “if he’s the one person you mentioned as not questioning why you’re here, that’s even more unimpressive than I first thought.”

Patroclus sighed. “Yes, I’m an unimpressive idiot, I understand, you’ve told me many times in the short space of time we’ve known each other,” he groaned back.

“An unimpressive idiot with good connections, remember.”

“Well…yes, I suppose. I’m a little insulted you feel the need to correct my self-deprecation, though.”

“Whatever makes the time pass quicker.” With a sigh, Odysseus propped his elbow up on a knee and looked out towards the horizon. “It’s a bit anti-climactic, isn’t it? What’s your back-up plan for if your goddess doesn’t want to take you?”

“Wait for one side or the other to win the war.”

“Oh, that’s just uninspired.”

“As you say: I can’t do anything without my connections,” Patroclus raised his hands in mock-helplessness. “Completely useless.”

“You’re bound to survive no matter what, though, aren’t you?” The question sounded less bored than before, and Patroclus took the hint.

“Probably,” he said, with not a small amount of bitterness. Automedon changed shells again, and as he rustled in the dune, sand was sent into the breeze, hitting their ankles like tiny mosquito bites.

Across the way, Achilles and Thetis’ conversation grew even quieter and they moved together, their hands clasped at their sides.

“Are they always like this?” Odysseus asked, though not snidely by any means.

Patroclus reflected that perhaps Odysseus was the type of person who couldn’t stand silence. It was tiring. “No. Are you always like this?”

“No,” he laughed. “It looks like the stress of leaving my best chance at getting home soon in your hands really is affecting me.”

Although Patroclus would gladly have believed otherwise, the comment didn’t sound as purely insulting as it might have. He briefly – very briefly – considered offering some sort of comfort, but the tightness of Odysseus’ jaw made it plain that that wouldn’t be appreciated. So he shrugged and went back to watching Automedon pick out shells.

In all, it took half an hour before Achilles came to stand in front of where the three of them were sitting.

“She’s agreed to take us.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” Patroclus put down the pieces of dune grass he’d been twisting together and stood up. For all the waiting, there wasn’t much ceremony to it: they joined hands, Automedon waved them goodbye absent-mindedly, and within a swallow of breath, water covered them and they were gone.

Conveniently enough, nobody else was in the underground stream chamber. Patroclus stepped onto the stone banks and stretched. Unusually, he was completely dry, but he put that up to Thetis’ special treatment when she was transporting her son as well.

“You know, I am sure,” she said, as emotional as a brick wall, “that this will not be appreciated. Aphrodite will not take kindly to it. The least you can do is make a special sacrifice to her, preferably something of great value. I hope you will keep that in mind.” With her warning given, her body shattered into droplets of water and fell into the stream as if she’d never existed.

Patroclus turned to Achilles. “Had she told you that before?”

Achilles nodded, distracted by the task of tying his hair up tighter. “I think she was saying it for your sake, this time.”

“That was thoughtful.”

“She is, sometimes. Well,” he tied off the knot and let his arms fall to his sides, “should we go? She said that she’d keep alert for me calling her back here in the next hour or so.”

“We probably should.” He kept one hand on the sword at his hip and the other in Achilles’. “You don’t mind if we take a few detours, do you?”

Achilles laughed. “I was wondering if you’d even ask my opinion. Of course I don’t!”

To minimise the noise they made, they’d decided to not wear armour. Provided nothing incredibly unlucky happened, the silence outweighed the lack of defence and so, with only the dull sounds of their sheathed swords and feet against stone, they went up the stairs to Polyxena’s room.

 

There was really nothing he could do to make the meeting any less unexpected than it was going to be anyway, so in the end (heart in his mouth, Achilles squeezing his hand supportively and calmly checking down the corridor for signs of life), Patroclus knocked on Polyxena’s door.

She called out a wordless and somewhat peeved answer, which he took as permission enough, and went inside, pulling Achilles in with him.

Polyxena was, indeed, there, sitting on the windowsill with a man at her feet. Patroclus didn’t even recognise Kyrillos for a moment, but seeing as both he and Polyxena were stunned into silence, Patroclus took the initiative and smiled.

“You’re looking well!” he nodded to both of them, just before Polyxena practically bowled him over with a hug. Tactfully, Achilles went to stand by the wall.

“Give me some warning,” Polyxena hissed, her arms still wrapped tightly around his waist, clinging to him so tightly he couldn’t see her face from the way it was buried in his neck.

“About leaving, or coming back?” He stroked her hair. Unusually, she didn’t have it pinned up and the kinks and curls tumbled down her back.

“Well, if you’re offering.” He could almost hear her rolling her eyes. “Both, idiot! It’s been a week!”

“Has it?”

“It’s been close enough! One minute you’re here, the next nobody has any idea where you’ve gone, and then my brother comes back baying for your blood and demanding I tell him where you are. He’s livid, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

“Excellent. Anyway, would it have killed you to let us know before you left? Or me, at least.” There was hurt biting into the edges of her voice. “I was worried. I was so worried.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” he murmured into her hair.

“Well,” she sniffed, pulling away from him so she could clap his face between her hands and glare, “you’re back now.” Looking across at Achilles not-at-all-subtly, she nodded. “I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“I’m not back forever.” He tried to say it apologetically, but it sounded too weak for that when the words actually left his mouth.

“I assumed. But, Patroclus,” she chewed the edge of her lip, “you know I can’t help you. I won’t betray you, but I won’t betray my country either. If you’ve gone back to that side, I can’t help you.”

“I was rather hoping you would, actually,” he said, taking her hands off his face gently and doing his best to smile. “I just want Paris. I just want to take him back, and with any luck that will mean an end to this war, without his constant presence driving in the insult. The Greek leaders won’t have their excuse after that. I just want him, and this all has a chance at ending peacefully.”

He hated lying to her. He hated the thick, cloying taste of it on his tongue because he knew full well that while this was a more peaceful route than most available alternatives, there was no end to the war that would be free of death. She had to know that just as well as he did. It was poor comfort, but he’d take it.

Polyxena’s wrists went limp in his hands. Everything felt quiet in the room again: without her livening it up, there were only the flickering candles, Kyrillos standing, nervous, and Achilles watching the whole scene with his hand only inches from his sword. Patroclus felt put out about that: he’d hoped that his trust in Polyxena would inspire some of the same in Achilles, but apparently that had been hoping for too much.

Polyxena smiled up at him, her teeth showing and her eyes squeezed shut unnaturally. “Alright! I can’t do much, but I wouldn’t let you run around the palace like that without me.”

She knew: she definitely knew, and Patroclus couldn’t for the life of him get his head around the reasons behind her choice. They couldn’t matter to him, anyway.

“I suppose time is of the essence?” she asked.

“Absolutely. Just get Paris, knock him out or something, and take him back. We have people waiting at our end for us.”

“A simple plan,” Polyxena nodded approvingly. And then, as if getting down to business, she turned to the other two. “Kyrillos, you don’t have to come with us.”

He laughed nervously, mirroring her smile. “Of course I do. You know I do, as much as you have to.”

“Well, there’s some truth there,” she allowed. Turning to Achilles, she inclined her head slightly in greeting and Patroclus would have wondered at how she’d taken control of the situation if he hadn’t lived with her for so long. “And it’s nice to finally meet you.”

Achilles inclined his head in return. “And you. You’re just as he described.”

“Oh, I should hope so.” Confidence oozed off her in thick waves that Patroclus could only admire. She turned back to him, hands on her hips, hair swinging. “Where should we help you sneak into next, then?”

According to Odysseus’ plan, straight to Paris’ chambers, but Patroclus didn’t feel like it. Through the window, he could see the full bloom of the moon, and he knew where he had to go next. He caught Achilles’ eye and knew he’d be forgiven another detour, if Achilles hadn’t actively been anticipating it.

“Let’s go to my sister.”

 

With Polyxena and Kyrillos to walk ahead of them and ward away bystanders, they made their way up to Helen’s rooms far easier than they might have otherwise. Kyrillos agreed to stay outside and, after an unanswered knock, the other three slipped inside and shut the door behind them quickly. The room was dark, unlit, and a chilled breeze ran through it, but Helen was there, sitting on a chair near the window. She was looking at the floor when they came in, and barely reacted to them when she looked up. Patroclus felt bile rise in his throat, but he went to her anyway, sitting cross-legged in front of her and taking her hands in his.

“I’m sorry I left without you,” he said softly, meaning it more than he’d thought. He hadn’t thought at all, really.

“I don’t blame you.” Her voice was quiet and deep: not quite listless, but as if she wished he could just read her mind and be done with it so she didn’t have to speak.

“Has…has it gotten worse?”

“Yes. He’s angry, and no one cares to correct him anymore.”

Patroclus’ knuckles went white. “I’m going to take him to the Greek council and try to end this.”

That got her attention and she raised an eyebrow, sitting up and looking exhausted. There were bruise-like circles under her eyes. “You’re delusional.”

“I’m not.”

She took the explanation exactly as well as he had expected, which simply meant that she didn’t seem to have the energy to doubt him. She greeted Achilles as well as she could, as if she hadn’t even seen him enter the room, and he and Polyxena came to sit on the bed next to them.

“You’ll…” Helen laughed softly, hoarsely, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I can’t quite believe you.”

“Do you think this isn’t real?” Achilles asked.

“No, but…it isn’t easy to believe all the same. It’s been a decade. Nothing happened once in all those years. Why should anything happen now?”

Patroclus could only hear resentment in her words, even though he knew full well that she would never direct it towards him. As if in an attempt to make up for it, he blurted out, “Come with us. When we leave. No one has ties to you here, and it would make everything even easier. I know it might be difficult for you, I know you don’t want to go back to Menelaus, but…please.”

Helen shook her head slowly. It felt like everything she did was slow, her movements economic and sluggish. “There isn’t any point,” she smiled weakly, staring with blank eyes at the edge of her chair. “I would only cause complications. They want to forget about me. I want to forget about me. It would be easier if I weren’t here at all.”

“I want you with me!” Patroclus protested, holding her hands tighter. He sent a silent apology to Odysseus because he couldn’t tell anymore if he’d be able to go through with the plan without her. If she’d at least been happy, then maybe, but leaving his sister with death as her only option was too much for him.

“That’s not enough.” Stringy curls fell in front of her face. “I love you, but it’s not enough to only…to only be valued by my brother. I’m sorry, I’m so…s-so sorry, but this isn’t…I can’t, Patroclus…how can you ask me to keep living when I’ve made such a mess of what I’ve been given? You’re the only person who’s ever loved me, but I…I can’t…”

“That’s not true!” Just as Patroclus was about to say the same, Polyxena sat forwards, her hands in tight little fists. “I know that just one more person doesn’t help much, but I’ve loved you ever since I first saw you! And perhaps that’s not enough, and that’s okay, I don’t mind, but please know that I love you! And if I’ve loved you this long…it’s not superficial. It’s not just because you’re beautiful, it’s not infatuation, it’s because you’re you and you make me want to love you.”

She looked more earnest than Patroclus had ever seen her. Polyxena was always self-assured and genuine, but to see her leaning towards Helen almost enough to fall off the bed, with her jaw trembling and her eyes burning, she looked like someone else. The chill in the air had gone, and tension hung in its place, ripe and ready to pluck.

Helen held Polyxena’s gaze steadily, her mouth not so much gaping as gently opening and closing as if she were searching for something to say. Patroclus felt the same: he had never once imagined that Polyxena still loved his sister, let alone with such ferocity. There were so many questions he wanted to ask her, but the two women seemed in a world of their own and he didn’t dare trespass.

“Why?” Helen asked in a voice creaking with emotion. “There’s nothing…there’s nothing about me that’s worthy of your love: I never even gave you the time of day…”

“But that wasn’t your fault: I was too shy to ask you to!”

“I still…Don’t lie to me, please.”

“It’s not a lie, I promise! I love my betrothed, I do, but I love you as well and I’ve never once been able to forget about you. There are others too: fewer now that you’re less present, yes, but there are so many people who felt for you and admired you, and still do, I’m sure. I’m not trying to tell you that you’ve had allies all along, had you only looked for them, or that you’ve been in a better situation than what you’ve suffered, or that you should have reciprocated my feelings, or…or…” she faltered, hands flapping in front of her as she lost her train of thought, but then Helen took her hand and she calmed. “I just want you to know that you’re clearly worthy of love,” she finished quietly.

Helen seemed speechless, and Patroclus knew she would already be searching for anything she could use to convince herself that it was all a lie, so he pressed on.

“She’s right, and you might not believe it now but that’s fine: we’re not asking you to! But this might be your only chance.” Beside him, Polyxena looked away sharply and he regretted the insinuation. “There’s hope, so if you come with us, then…Helen, please. Things can still change, but you need to take the opportunity yourself. I can’t force this on you.”

Letting her hands drop to her sides, Helen looked at the three of them briefly in turn, and her gaze fell to her knees. It felt like the only movement in the room was the quivering of her lips in unsteady breathing.

As if blind, she reached for Patroclus’ hand again.

“After this, I never want to see him again,” she said, and it was as much an agreement as it was a threat.

Chapter Text

Candles flickered as the five of them walked through the hallways. Polyxena and Kyrillos took the front, holding hands and looking every part the embarrassed lovers (who just so happened to be in completely the wrong part of the palace, but Polyxena could talk her way out of anything if they did get caught). Achilles followed, keeping as cautious of every shadow as he reasonably could, and Patroclus and Helen stayed at the back.

Conveniently, none of them had to speak to understand what they were going to do. They moved quickly, Polyxena and Kyrillos clearing the way to Paris’ chambers without meeting a single person on the way. They climbed floor after floor, slipping into shadows and behind walls completely unnecessarily, as it turned out. There was no sound from the bedrooms, the servants’ quarters, the dining halls, the council rooms: there were only a few lone guards dotted around the perimeters to show there was even any life in the palace. Just in the interest of self-preservation, they steered well clear of the armoury and the guards’ quarters, even though it meant taking the long route through the gardens.

The last stretch was along a corridor dotted with windows; Patroclus couldn’t help but feel twitchy about how bright the moonlight beamed through, easily giving them away to any lookouts. But why would anyone be expecting intruders? And with how deserted the entire palace seemed to be, who would care? He’d expected some late-night drinking, at the very least, but still they heard nothing as they climbed up to the prince’s rooms.

When they did get there, Polyxena caught Achilles’ eye and the two of them went to the door, the other three standing back out of the way. Without thinking about it, Patroclus took his sister’s hand and leant his head back against the wall. Concentrating on how she squeezed back and the graininess of the stone as it scraped against the skin of his arms, he tried not to pay attention to how loud the commotion in the room was. Kyrillos was wincing and peering in every few seconds with each new crash and muffled cry.

In the end, it only lasted a minute, maybe two. Then Achilles shoved a bound and (very tightly) gagged Paris from the room onto his knees on the paving stones of the corridor. Helen looked away and started to walk back the way they’d come, as if for something to distract her. Letting her go, Patroclus frowned down at his brother-in-law: at the newly blossoming bruises, the scattering of shallow cuts and the way he strained against the lengths of cloth tying his hands and mouth. Watching his fury, for once there was no doubt he was Hector’s brother.

“You couldn’t have knocked him out?” he asked as Polyxena came out of the room and shut the door behind her.

Achilles shrugged. “I didn’t want to carry him the whole way. This seemed easier.”

“I would have helped, you know.”

“I know,” he smiled. “I still didn’t want to.”

Polyxena looked at her brother with a critical eye. There was raw betrayal in his expression, but she let her gaze leave him coldly, pushing her hair back behind an ear and folding her arms. “Do you think we’ve made enough noise yet or should I start screaming to really get the guards running?”

“Mm, that might be a problem…” Patroclus shifted uncomfortably. “There should have been guards on the way here, so now I can’t help but wonder where they all are.” It was something they’d prepared for (if Achilles’ presence could be considered preparation, which it most certainly could), and to have everything run smoothly was unnerving, to say the least.

“Best not to worry about it,” Polyxena suggested.

“That’s not really an option…”

“Then worry about it quietly. But you’re right, we should probably hurry.” She pulled Paris to his feet by his hair and pushed him forwards. He turned to look at her, jaw working against the gag but failing to make anything more than muffled noise. She pushed him forwards again. After their talk with Helen, Patroclus could utterly understand her rough-handedness.

Paris wobbled on his feet and seemed about to turn to confront them once more, but Achilles took matters into his own hands, literally, and grabbed the man by the neck.

“Keep walking, don’t struggle, and do exactly what I tell you,” he said, quite calmly, with his fingers pressing into Paris’ jugular.

There was a pause for Paris’ sharp intake of breath, then a curt nod, and that was sign enough that they should start moving again. Patroclus and Polyxena jogged ahead to walk with Helen, each taking one of her hands. They walked carefully, now with a lot less room for excuses to get them out unscathed if they were caught. There was a sense of unreality, though, because of how easy it had been.

But why shouldn’t it have been easy, Patroclus reasoned, considering the ‘connections’ he had? If there hadn’t been any guards so far, there was surely no reason there would be any to catch them on the way back. In a perfect world.

And the world seemed determined to continue being perfect as they hurried to the main building – cringing at each tap of their feet on stone stairs, the crunch of sand as they crossed the gardens – and no one showed up. It was the middle of the night, but even so, the closest call they had was an old lookout who was quickly persuaded to be on his way when Polyxena reminded him what a bad mood her oldest brother was in.

In the end, it all went without a hitch until they got to the lowest floor.

“Ah,” Patroclus said and stopped in his tracks, in that way anxious people do when they want to alert others to something alarming without actually wanting to alarm them.

Polyxena and Helen, both very used to this, turned to look at him warily.

“The sacrifice.”

“The sacrifice?” Polyxena repeated dully. Her foot was just inside the door to the underground stream, and Patroclus could see how she was itching to go inside.

“Thetis warned us we needed a valuable sacrifice for Aphrodite, since we’re carrying off her favourite.”

“And…we absolutely have to get that now?” She was tapping her foot.

“Not necessarily,” Achilles said from behind them, his grip still steady and firm on Paris’ neck. “But I can’t think of what we’d sacrifice from the camp. It has to be special, you see.”

“Don’t you have treasure at the camps? Slaves?” Helen sighed, leaning against the frame of the heavy doors, as if resigned to the idea that they wouldn’t be going in for some time.

“We have both,” Achilles nodded, “but how is some flimsy piece of gold I could easily give away going to appease a goddess? It isn’t.”

“And I don’t suppose you have any precious heirlooms you could offer?” Polyxena pitched in. “Priceless presents from your mother, maybe?”

“Not really. I have my armour, but I’m not convinced she’d be satisfied with armour, no matter how expensive it is.”

“No, that’s fair,” Polyxena admitted. In the gloom of the corridor, they all began to think (apart from Paris, presumably, but he was still held tight enough to ensure he wouldn’t be going anywhere).

“And, ideally, it should be something love-related, shouldn’t it?” Patroclus said after a time.

Polyxena nodded. “Definitely. I don’t suppose you two have given each other anything you could use? Rings, or something?”

“Nothing material…”

“Pity. You might want to look into doing that, when all of this is over. Just a thought.”

“Still leaves us in a bind now, though.”

Quite unexpectedly, Kyrillos spoke up from the edge of the group. “I doubt it’s enough, but…could you use the betrothal gift I gave Polyxena?”

After a pause for thought, Polyxena practically sprung across the room to hug him, which Patroclus thought was a bit of an overreaction, all things considered, but he said, “That could work! It being a whole rose bush, I’m not sure how much we should take, but…” He looked at Achilles questioningly.

“It’s a fair bet,” Achilles said thoughtfully. “I can’t promise it’ll survive the travel, though. How well do rose bushes usually hold up after being thrust through a whirlpool?”

“It’s not something I have any experience in, but I would hazard a guess at ‘not well’.”

“Well, we’ll just have to hope, then.”

Everyone seemed to like the plan, and while at least half of that was surely down to the desire to get it over with, Patroclus would take it.

“I propose we deliver Paris and Helen through first, though, to streamline things.”

Helen stiffened visibly but waved away his apology, crossing her arms defensively over her chest. “You…you do have allies waiting at the other end, don’t you?”

“We do, don’t worry: they’ll take care of everything.”

“Then it’s fine.” Her expression warned him against saying anything else.

Achilles pushed Paris forwards impatiently. “Excellent. I’ve called my mother, so let’s go.”

They finally walked into the cavern and Thetis was waiting, expression impassive, presentation impeccable. The whole cavern was lit up in turquoise streams of light, flickering this way and that. Achilles went to her and explained the situation, which she seemed to find more than a little distasteful, but she deigned to place a hand on Paris’ shoulder all the same. He seemed either frozen with fear or resigned to his fate. Given the look of intense hatred he was still directing at Polyxena, it was probably the latter.

Helen stepped forwards of her own accord, bowing at just the right angle, taking Thetis’ hand with just the right amount of grace as she’d been taught. She shared a look with Polyxena, then her gaze fell to the ground.

“We’ll be half an hour at the longest,” Achilles reassured his mother, though it didn’t seem to be working. “We’ll meet you down here again, so don’t worry: it’s an unusually quiet night here, no one’s even around.”

“Quiet nights are the ones you should fear,” she retorted, more reluctant than angry.

“Perhaps,” he smiled gently, “but I’d prefer not to fear either.”

Thetis nodded, her wavelike hair dripping in front of her face. “Half of an hour, then. I will wait.”

“Thank you.”

And then she was gone with both of them, eaten up into foam and spray.

 

They first heard the sounds of footsteps when they left the building on their way to the roses. The four of them stayed very still for a moment, on the edge of the gardens.

“I…I don’t suppose there’s any chance that that isn’t a mass of guards coming to apprehend us?” Polyxena said lightly.

“Very unlikely,” Patroclus said but they were already running, hurtling through flower-lined paths as softly as they could. It barely took three minutes of running to find the rose beds, and that was far too little time if they were going to stave off capture. For a moment, they all looked down at the bush, chests heaving for air.

“How…are we going to…get this back?” Patroclus asked, realising that even if there had been handy gardening tools left around, they didn’t have the time to properly uproot the plant.

With characteristic straight-forwardness, Achilles unsheathed his sword and was about to swing down but Patroclus caught his arm.

“No, no, no, you can’t just cut it!”

“Why not? What, you think she’d prefer it with the roots attached?”

“Well, I mean, it’s the look of the thing, isn’t it?”

Looking over her shoulder nervously at the approaching sound of marching and shouting, Polyxena raised her hand. “I’m in favour of just cutting it.”

Kyrillos followed suit and Patroclus looked at them despairingly before giving in.

“Okay, I admit we don’t have much choice.”

Achilles nodded approvingly and, his arm now free, sliced of the majority of the stems in a single blow. The guards were too close to worry about thorns, and Patroclus grabbed as many blooms as he could, hugging them to his chest. Achilles was surveying their options calmly.

“It looks like we’ll have to split up,” he said as they all moved behind a wall of well-established yellow roses. “If you two could lead the majority of the guards off in that direction,” he indicated away from the palace, “then we’ll get back to the stream. I can take a few stragglers easily.”

Polyxena nodded, biting her lip, and she barely took the time to hug Patroclus quickly before taking Kyrillos’ hand and running in the opposite direction to the palace. It seemed an anti-climactic goodbye, but Patroclus didn’t have the time to worry about that. They waited a second, nothing more, and then ran from shadow to shadow, moving closer to the entrance.

The guards seemed to have fallen for the trick: perhaps they hadn’t expected there to be four intruders (and Patroclus didn’t want to know how they’d expected anything at all), but either way they were running away from him and Achilles, and that was all he needed to know. The balmy night air felt heavy on his skin, and everything itched with nervousness. The thorns didn’t help.

They were only paces away from the main doors when they heard footsteps behind them. At that point they could – and should – have made a break for it, but Patroclus wasn’t practised in these things. He turned around, resisting Achilles’ pull on his hand, and froze in place.

Hector met his eyes coldly.

By that time, the sound of reinforcements thundered from within the palace – and, in some corner of his mind, Patroclus couldn’t reason why they’d need reinforcements to begin with – and that escape route was cut off. Beside him, he heard Achilles swear loudly, and then he was being pulled away down a different path. His eyes were still stuck to the man behind them.

It didn’t matter whether it was shock or fury that grounded Hector in place: in the space of a heartbeat he was running after them again, shouting at the guards to stay back – but why would he order them to do that? – and it was only by the grace of Achilles calling for him that Patroclus could tear his eyes away. He could still feel the anger, the betrayal, just as sharply as the thorns biting into his arms.

“He’s…he’s….” he panted, unable to put it into words. Uncertain of what he was even trying to say.

“He’s never going to get to you,” Achilles said firmly, steering the two of them along grassy paths he couldn’t possibly know.

“Can’t…can’t we reason with him? This is in his favour too!” Arguably. Possibly.

“In that state? He’d kill you before you said your first word.”

It was everything Patroclus could do just to keep up, but with hurried directions, they made it to the stream running through the middle of the gardens after as many detours as Patroclus could think of to throw Hector off. None of them worked.

They skidded to a stop at the sight of the water – still flowing, as if nothing was wrong.

“I’ve called her,” Achilles said with gritted teeth. “But this isn’t where she was planning to come, I don’t know…”

Patroclus nodded, clutching the roses closer to his chest as they turned to meet Hector.

“Stay back.”

Patroclus didn’t know whether it was an order for Hector or himself, but he kept back anyway, his heels on the edge of the grassy banks of the stream, so close he could feel the light spray of water.

There was something deeply unnerving about seeing raw, starving bloodlust from a man he’d only seen kindness from before.

“I trusted you,” was all Hector snarled before he attacked.

With speed Patroclus could only have dreamt of, Achilles leapt to counter him. For minutes, all Patroclus could do was watch, heart in his mouth. His feet felt as if they’d been tied to the ground, as if the very earth had reached up to lock him in place so this was all he could see, all he could do. They were inhumanly fast, so skilled Patroclus couldn’t even hope to judge them, and there was no ground lost between either of them, no matter how each tried to push the other back. Unbridled rage was up against divine talent, and it was impossible to know who would win.

It took a few moments more before Patroclus realised that rage drove both men.

“Is this how you face me?!” Hector roared, and though the prince couldn’t spare a second to look at him, Patroclus knew who he was talking to.

“It was never my intention to face you at all!” he protested, adrenaline and fear forcing the words out before he could think them over.

“Then you’re the coward I always thought you were!”

In the space of a heartbeat, Achilles forced him back a step, then two, ferocity gleaming in his eyes, and Hector couldn’t waste time speaking. The air brushed coldly over Patroclus’ face as he watched them, completely unable to help or to even know how to start. There was nothing he could do but watch and wait for Thetis to come. His entire body was trembling with nerves, with tension, with uncertainty.

He wasn’t experienced enough to know who would win, and the idea scared him more than he wanted to admit; shattering the image of Achilles as unmatched, unrivalled, shook him to his core.

But there was something else as well, something he took far too long to notice in their dance of grunts, glinting metal, and gouged out turf: Achilles was taking sick pleasure in it. Every blow seemed to energise him, send him racing for more. He belonged here, and he was radiant for it: a sun so bright that he put the languid moonlight to shame.

But he had none of the motivation Hector had. That much was clear, even to a non-combatant.

It hadn’t taken Hector long to realise that Achilles was trying to push him away from the stream, though the fight had barely been going on for minutes. It was the work of a few feinted attacks, a side-step and a blow to get between Achilles and the water, and then Achilles’ escape route was cut off.

The fight turned dirty, with new stakes and fresh anger to push them against the other. Through it all, a sickening feeling of uselessness draped over Patroclus, his eyes still tied to the fight. There was nothing he could do at this point: he knew that like it was written into his bones, like his own weakness and inability to hold his own were all he had, but that knowledge couldn’t stop the restlessness. He wanted to fight, he wanted to do something, but he hadn’t even thought to bring any weapons (because he wasn’t the one who should have been fighting: they shouldn’t have been fighting at all), and he knew it was too risky to try and join the fight without one, even though Hector was baring his back fearlessly to him. There was still nothing he could do but watch.

Hector scored the first real hit. A clean cut along Achilles’ left arm, one that should have been easily deflected by a shield if only he’d had one. Patroclus couldn’t stop the hiss from escaping his mouth, but Achilles barely even seemed to notice he’d been hit.

“She’s coming,” he called instead. “Go, she’ll come back for me!”

Patroclus couldn’t believe what he was hearing, not when both warriors managed to hit each other at the same time, blood splattering against the grass. It almost looked black in the low light.

“I’m not doing that!” he shouted back. “We’ll go together or not at all!”

“Don’t be an – nnh! – idiot! Get to the water!”

“And I’m telling you no!”

Achilles couldn’t spare the concentration to say anything more as Hector aimed for his head. He’d left himself wide open and though he managed to block Hector’s sword, his arms were shaking with the effort. Patroclus was about to run to them, to do anything he could, no matter the cost, but he felt water hit his back and the shock of Thetis’ arrival stopped him.

Everything happened very quickly then.

In a desperate lunge, Achilles managed to break away from Hector’s hold, and he sprinted towards the water. Hector whirled his sword around, and Patroclus couldn’t see properly, could barely process what was happening right in front of his eyes, but he saw Achilles falter, he saw the look of triumph on Hector’s face, and then Achilles screamed something at Thetis as he stumbled, turning back to meet the enemy he couldn’t escape.

Patroclus felt Thetis pull him back into the water – but that didn’t make any sense: why would she leave her son? Why would she only take him? It didn’t make any sense: it couldn’t be happening, it just couldn’t – and the last thing he saw before water flooded his vision was a bright explosion of blood as it stained and sullied the gold just out of his hand’s reach. And then the sun went out.

Chapter Text

“This is your fault.”

Thetis’ words were sleet and sea spray against Patroclus’ already soaked back. He didn’t turn around to see her leave, go back to her son as she surely would. He sunk to his knees instead, and felt the damp sand rising up and encasing his legs, the soft tide washing over his feet. There was the dim sound of water rushing and of people’s voices, he knew that. He could tell that much. But his attention was fastened to the splatters of blood melting into the sand below him. One, two drops, not more, and it was ridiculous that even that much had survived the journey.

But no, that wasn’t it: that was his blood, not Achilles’, dripping in thin, watered-down threads down his arms. The roses had made it through with barely a misplaced petal, it seemed. He could see them in the corner of his eye, scattered around him.

A steady hand began to pick them up.

“What’s wrong?” Helen asked, in her softest voice.

Patroclus couldn’t answer her even if he’d had the words to. His mouth felt set in stone, teeth clamped together, breathing steady and slow and careful.

Helen handed the armful of flowers to someone beside her and moved to his side. It took him a moment to feel the warmth of her hand stroking his back repetitively.

“If you can, I’d like you to tell me what happened,” she said. “Take your time if you need it, but nothing can be done if you don’t tell us.”

Nothing could be done even if he did. There was the strangest mix of buoyant hope and lead-heavy despair inside him and he didn’t know what to believe. He wanted to panic, to cry, to blame someone (and who was there but himself?), but most of all he wanted to be back there.

He thought that maybe that was why Thetis had agreed to take him away first.

“Get up, come on,” a gruff voice ordered him and he let arms lift him to his feet and push him over to where it was drier. Without thinking about it, he sat down heavily on a dune and stared out to the sea. He didn’t want to think at all.

Automedon sat next to him after some worried glances exchanged with Odysseus and Helen. The man didn’t do anything much: just sat and played with strands of grass, sneaking looks at Patroclus every few minutes. Further along the beach, Odysseus and Helen were talking in low voices. Paris was even further away, tied up tighter and unmoving.

They waited, as there was nothing else to do.

Numbers – regular and impersonal – were comforting when Patroclus felt steeped in fear and anticipation, so he began to count the waves washing in and out. They weren’t fast enough for his liking (they left too much time for his mind to wander), but he counted them anyway, under his breath at first and then only in his mind, feeling the scant blood dry up on his arms like a film of red.

It took two hundred and thirty nine waves before Thetis came back.

She was clutching Achilles’ body to her with strength her frail arms shouldn’t have had, and for a moment there was only confusion, split-second thoughts of the worst, and her eyes burning with icy fury. Automedon ran to her first, holding out his arms to take his prince, but she shirked away from him, holding her son tighter.

With feet like the rocks embedded deep all over the beach, Patroclus walked over to her. “He’s alive?”

There was so much blood.

“Just,” was her stiff reply. Weak relief flooded Patroclus – at that point, that was enough, and he didn’t deserve to ask for more. The other three stood back, uncertain or unwilling to get involved. Patroclus envied them.

“This is all your fault,” Thetis said once again. “You had no right to put him the position you did.”

“He agreed to come, of his own free will.” Which was true, but it wasn’t something Patroclus was particularly convinced of. If anything, it sounded like something Achilles should be reminding him of, with him in Thetis’ position.

“Regardless, you let him endanger his life for you. And yet you profess to love him. Or is that manipulation, pure and simple?”

“It’s not!” The idea made his whole body cold. “I…I asked him to come because I needed him, because I believed in his abilities, and because I respect his autonomy as his own person! There’s nothing wrong with that!” So he said, with guilt coursing through him like seaweed wrapping round his lungs.

“A fine display!” Thetis scoffed, or seemed to scoff. Her emotions were too subtle for Patroclus to catch. “And perhaps you would like to continue persuading yourself of that over his grave? But I will do right by him, I will not let him die as you would. I am taking him with me and I will never give him back.”

Her words were final, thudding into the air between them, and beyond all the guilt, the fear, the anxiety, Patroclus knew he had to try and stop her.

He didn’t think he’d ever felt so undeservedly greedy in his life.

“You can’t do that!”

Thetis didn’t look at him. “I can, easily. With all the laws of this world behind me.”

Water was already bubbling at the hem of her robes, ready to swallow the two of them.

“But you can’t possibly think he’d want you to, can you?” Patroclus’ voice came out more broken than he would have liked, but it seemed to stop Thetis so he didn’t waste any time feeling shame over it. “You know too, don’t you? He’ll hate you for it. Even if you heal him, and no matter what kind of life you offer him back where you live, he’ll hate you. And…and if you didn’t know that, did you really just come back here to punish me, or to let me know what you’re planning to do? I wasn’t under the impression you cared about me that much. But you did know, and that’s why you came here. Are you waiting for me to give you a reason to let him stay?”

The water had calmed, and her expression was less encaged fury and more sheer annoyance.

“I’m waiting to see what he sees in you. I am not holding my breath.”

“Have you tried asking him?”

Time was running out, he knew: Thetis was holding her son too close to her to get any idea of how deep his wounds were, but there was blood dripping down both of them, spreading into the water below like ink.

“Many times. He never could give me a straight answer.”

“But did he seem happy?” Something about his tone made Helen’s breath hitch behind him, but that was lost into the wind just as soon as she’d made the sound.

“I could make him just as happy.”

“Undoubtedly,” he hurried to say, “but it’s not the same! If we’d never found happiness together, then you might have easily taken him back with you, but how do you expect him to not hate you if you rip him away from all this? I know you don’t want to, I know you don’t trust me, but…please, do it for him.”

Thetis stared at him, without a trace of shock on her face. There was only sadness.

Her knuckles were white. “He is dying. You know that. I cannot heal him here, and if you wish so badly for him to stay, then you will have to take responsibility. If he dies anyway, there will be no repentance.”

“If he dies, I’ll end my life as well,” he replied simply.

“Then save him.”

Before Patroclus could even process that she had accepted his terms – for what they were – Automedon was beside them, taking Achilles’ body impatiently, eyes glued to his prince’s face. Patroclus leapt to help, the same hazy relief as before growing in him as he saw Achilles was still breathing, albeit with difficulty. Thetis left before he could turn to thank her.

 

There were still a few hours left before dawn, Patroclus guessed. He wasn’t sure anymore. After making their way back to camp, finding places for Helen and Paris to go (with Automedon and Odysseus, respectively), there had been hours of the most rushed medical care Patroclus had ever had to perform. To call himself drained would be an understatement: dry as bone and lifeless enough to sink into the chair he sat on would be more like it.

He’d come to the conclusion that he could never become a doctor, not when he couldn’t even try to separate his emotions from his work.

But it was done, anyway. Achilles was still asleep, but calmer now, after the distress and pain he’d been forced through to bandage his wounds and set his arm properly. Perhaps a broken arm and a cut through his lower abdomen weren’t so much to pay. As far as Patroclus could tell, no major organs had been hit, and he seemed in a deep enough sleep now, although the poppy juice had undoubtedly helped with that.

So there was only silence, now.

In Patroclus’ experience, with silence and waiting came guilt and all the thoughts he wanted to avoid, but none of them did. It was just quiet, and empty, and numb. It felt like even thinking of anything would be too much effort, but the fear was still too ripe in his heart to fall asleep. He wanted to, though. Sleep would have been so much easier.

Throughout it all, he didn’t think once of Paris or Odysseus’ part to play.

 

At some point he must have dropped off because he woke up to sunlight through the tent walls. After the few moments of memory rushing back to him, he stood up and stretched, frowning at how stiff his back was, how his mouth tasted like something had died in it. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“So you’re finally up?”

Patroclus spun round to see that Achilles’ eyes were, in fact, open. He swallowed down the bizarre mess of relief, happiness and the remnants of hysteria. There would be time for that later. He had to try and control himself.

He nodded, smiling. “But you really shouldn’t be.”

“As if I’d be downed by something like that,” Achilles said mock-haughtily, moving to get up and visibly regretting it before Patroclus could warn him.

He slid back down sheepishly. “Alright, I take your point. How bad is it?”

“Your left arm’s broken,” Patroclus sat down again, shuffling his chair to angle the bed better, “and you’ve got a nasty gash down your stomach and right leg. There are some other minor things, including a lot of deceptively shallow cuts that bled far too much for their size. You’re healing up well already, though. That’s the divine blood for you.”

Achilles nodded, taking it in. “I thought it was something like that. But if you think I look bad, you should see him.”

“That’s just bravado, isn’t it?”

“Well, a bit, but you don’t have to cut me down like that. I did get some good hits on him too.” He was frowning and looking away. Patroclus supposed that being beaten – to all extents and purposes – must have taken a psychological toll on him as well.

“So how did he hurt you so much?” Patroclus asked diplomatically, trying to keep things light for his own sake as much as Achilles’. “Because I’ve seen you both fight and you shouldn’t have lost to him.”

The frown lessened. “I appreciate the support, but he wasn’t that bad. Really rather good, actually. Almost on my level.”

“Very good of you to say so,” Patroclus said indulgently, leaving his previous question hanging in the air.

Achilles acknowledged it. “He kept baiting me, though. I don’t like being baited. Throws me off.”

“What was he baiting you with?”

“Insults.”

If he wanted to avoid the question, that was his business, Patroclus thought. He wasn’t exactly hurting for other things to discuss, anyway.

“Your mother wanted to take you back with her, for good.” He pushed the subject out in between them and waited to see what it would do.

Achilles groaned. “Not again. She’s done that before, but I’ve always been conscious for the conversation. You told her how little I’d appreciate it?”

“Mm.”

“Good.”

“I thought she might have a point, though.”

Apparently ignoring the pain, Achilles looked at him sharply.

“Why?” he asked in a guarded voice.

“Well, look at yourself,” Patroclus gestured to him. “I know it’s silly to think it, but this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided on this plan. Or if you hadn’t tried so hard to protect me. If your mother hadn’t been there, you probably would have died.”

“If my mother hadn’t been there then the plan never would have happened, so that’s not something you should worry about. We always had that exit: that was the point.”

“It’s also my fault Hector’s so furious.”

“I’ll give you that one, but I think he would be furious enough to find intruders in his own gardens regardless of your presence.”

Patroclus smiled hollowly. “See, you say that, and it makes sense to me. It all makes sense to me, but I still can’t shake off the feeling that it’s all my fault. That I keep taking things I have no right to, that I’m just using you for status and power even though I know full well I’m not. It’s like I’m buying into a world that isn’t mine, full of people who are far more important than I could ever imagine, and I don’t deserve any of it. But I just want more.”

Uncharacteristically, Achilles didn’t leap to protest or say anything. He stayed very quiet, fingers curling in the sheets.

“And,” Patroclus laughed dryly, “while I’m confessing, I might as well say. All night, I couldn’t stop thinking…that I’d rather it were anyone but you. Even if it were ten lives stacked against yours, or a hundred. That I’d write them all off if it saved you.”

He kept his eyes firmly on his hands (fidgeting, rubbing together) until he heard Achilles smirk. Then he looked over, more surprised than annoyed.

“And…you’re laughing because…?”

“You’re just…” His grin might as well have been brighter than the sun, because Patroclus had only been expecting rejection or pity. “You’re so innocent!”

“I’m what.”

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Patroclus. I’m just saying, that’s how I feel all the time. It’s not some irreparable sin you’re owning up to here: that’s just normal when you’re in love.”

“I’m fairly sure it’s not…”

“And, while I don’t have the broadest experience imaginable, I’m fairly sure it is. I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel guilty – although I’d prefer you didn’t – but it’s making me happy to know you feel the same, at least.”

“But you’ve…you’ve always known I feel the same, haven’t you? If in a different way,” Patroclus added after a second of thought.

“Of course. But it’s nice to hear these things.”

There were a number of things Patroclus wanted to say about enabling unhealthy protectiveness and nurturing dependence, but it didn’t seem like the right time, not when he was still so uncertain of everything. Everything else could fall out later: the remainder of the plan, his sister’s situation, all the moral repercussions pestering him like gnats…He wanted comfort; to feel things with his own hands, to know that they wouldn’t be ripped away from him.

“I’ll say them more, then,” he said, taking Achilles’ hand in his own and leaning down to kiss him.

Chapter Text

It wasn't how Patroclus would have chosen to spend his morning, but since nobody had cared to ask for his opinion, he was attending the council anyway.

The tent was predictably enormous, with all the kings and leaders sitting in a semi-circle at one end, their right-hand men and partners standing behind their seats. There were surprisingly few guards, save for those holding Paris down, but that was mostly because one wall of the tent had been completely tied back so that the crowd outside was visible. And it really was a crowd. Nobody wanted to miss this – not with the rumours that had spread like a plague through the ranks that morning – even if it meant standing behind thousands of others. Once the council had reached a decision, the men would be told officially, of course, but for now the vast majority of them had only the barest scraps of description, passed by word of mouth.

The Trojans were staying quiet too, since messengers had been to tell them of the situation. Patroclus didn’t want to think about that. It was surprising enough that the messengers had come back without any conspicuously gaping wounds: he didn’t want the details. He just stood some way behind Odysseus’ empty chair, shifting his weight every so often.

As per their agreement, Odysseus was taking full credit for everything and was currently making an excellent display of his skills as both an orator and a manipulative bastard, waving his hand at the bound Paris every few minutes. That was puzzling, though. The prince had to have been drugged somehow: considering how much bite he’d had in him the night before, Patroclus couldn’t imagine him taking this sitting down. And yet he was there, kneeling in the council’s tent, completely docile. He wouldn’t even look up.

That wasn’t something Patroclus particularly cared about or wanted to dwell on, though. And Odysseus didn’t look as if he needed moral support as he put up a marvellous argument for why he had supposedly spent months secretly planning the kidnapping and had not let the council into one second of it, so Patroclus let his attention drift.

After a pleasant and extremely careful morning in bed with Achilles, Automedon had come to fetch him for the council (‘Don’t look at me like that: they’re his orders, not mine’). Apparently Patroclus had managed to ‘sleep’ through his sister’s return to Menelaus, and while he would ordinarily have wallowed in guilt for roughly a week after making a mistake that bad, she had made it abundantly clear that she hadn’t wanted him there. Even now, she wouldn’t look at him: they’d only shared a small smile when he came in. She had her back straight as a razor, sitting at Menelaus’ side. He didn’t seem overly thrilled to have her by him again, but there was satisfaction in the way he held himself, Patroclus thought.

There was the sacrifice to do after the trial, too, he remembered. More things he had no wish to take any part in, but from the way everyone was looking, he made a mental note to pray even harder for forgiveness. He couldn’t see Paris getting out of this alive. The only question was whether that would be enough: whether Agamemnon would give up his conquest on Troy (and it was hardly as if the other leaders would object to a success that grand, if they managed it) just because the original catalyst had been removed.

That was what Odysseus was there for, of course.

He had just reached his final suggestion, backed up by arguments so watertight and aggravatingly convincing that he really must have spent all night coming up with them, and Agamemnon did not look at all pleased. ‘Obscenely frustrated’ might have been a better phrase, Patroclus thought, and it was mixed with that dangerous superiority the king always wore around him.

“You wish to bring an end to the campaign?” he said, dry as the sand beneath him.

“Yes. I do not believe any of us could wish for more bloodshed, not with so many long years behind us,” Odysseus said with far more emotion than he probably felt, appealing to the soldiers. ‘Probably’, because Patroclus was finding it difficult to tell what was truth and what was lie, with him.

“But why give in so close to success?” Menelaus raised an eyebrow. “Surely it would be beneficial to you as well, to continue until the end and reap the full rewards.” He emphasised the word, openly criticising how Odysseus had suggested a bloodless victory, a slaveless victory.

“I would never suggest that we should not reap rewards, of course,” Odysseus put back meekly. “Simply that there is no need to massacre the city, not when our own men would be put at risk in the endeavour. I also have reason to believe I am not alone in thinking this way.”

There were murmurs of agreement from Diomedes and Ajax and some others. They didn’t seem overtly supportive – playing a cautious game, surely – but still, Odysseus had been busy in his plans. Patroclus was legitimately impressed that he’d managed to enlist allies in the short time they’d had.

Agamemnon spread his hands. “Be that as it may, it would all be to the glory of Greece: there can be no denying that, I am sure. And what would bring more glory than to finish what we started, rather than give up so close to the end? You cannot possibly expect us to let cowardice go to our heads.”

“Perhaps compassion might be a more accurate word.”

“It might be more attractive, but I could not call it more accurate.”

“It pains me to hear that.”

“Yes, I’m sure it does.”

Odysseus acknowledged the bite with a nod. “It also pains me to hear you spurred on by your anger – perfectly understandable and reasonable though it might be – towards an end that would mean the sacrifice of many of our soldiers. Friend, think clearly about this: do you believe us to have the power to truly break the Trojans?”

Agamemnon settled back into his seat. “What difference could it make? If we have the power to bring them to the half-victory you propose, we have the power to raze the city to the ground.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Yes, I thought you might,” he said, with the air of a teacher wearily indulging a precocious student. “By all means, then.”

“I have been discussing with Achilles,” at this point, a muscle twitched in Agamemnon’s neck, “and we have come to an agreement. He will lend his forces for a battle on the terms I have described, and on the condition that the slave is returned, as an act of goodwill. Should we proceed with the decimation of the city in mind, however, he will remove his army completely and offer us no aid.”

Patroclus was barely holding down a bitter laugh: he would bet almost anything that Odysseus was making it all up as he went along, because that did not sound like something Achilles would say. The look on Agamemnon’s face was worth it, though. In the worst case, Patroclus was fairly certain he could convince Achilles anyway, or at least let Odysseus convince him.

“Will he.” Agamemnon said coolly.

“Yes.”

More than a few heads were turning at this news: the return of the Myrmidons was something no one would refuse. Agamemnon knew it, too. Everyone knew it.

“And I have his word?”

That was unexpected. Patroclus cast a sharp look in Agamemnon’s direction, and then at Odysseus, who now had to give the word of a man he probably hadn’t even consulted.

“You can ask him yourself, my friend, to make things right between you.” Odysseus bowed very low.

Oh, that was smoothly done. And daring. And extremely foolhardy, and Patroclus could only see things going wrong with this plan. How on earth could Odysseus possibly expect Achilles to play along? Everything was going to crash down, he just knew it.

Except that, when he sent a look accurately summing up ‘what do you think you’re doing’ in Odysseus’ way, Odysseus was looking at him extremely pointedly. Patroclus understood what was being asked of him. He understood, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

Sighing, he politely slipped to the side of the tent and ducked between rows of onlookers to get outside. Odysseus had picked up the conversation again, swiftly moving it to what should be done to Paris, and no one could care less about one man leaving.

Patroclus felt a little sore at being used as the scapegoat, but there wasn’t really time to worry about that, and he hurried back to the Myrmidons’ camp, feverishly trying to come up with some way of explaining the situation.

 

In the end, he barely had to explain it at all.

“Is that it?” Achilles lounged on the bed, completely insouciant. “I don’t mind.”

“You don’t…you don’t mind.” Patroclus repeated dully, reaching out to pull a much-needed chest over to sit on it.

“Mm.”

“You don’t mind?! We had an argument about this not a week ago: how do you suddenly not mind?!”

“Well, you see, my dear,” he said loftily, “I have decided to start picking my battles carefully rather than rushing into every one that presents itself to me.”

Patroclus pursed his lips and looked at Achilles in a concerned manner. “Are you feeling alright? You haven’t hit your head recently?”

Achilles glared at him. “I’m taking that as an insult.”

“Good.”

“If you must know,” he stretched out lazily (the effect somewhat lessened by his cringe of pain), “I’ve decided to concentrate all my focus on getting revenge on Hector.”

“Oh, that’s not good.”

“Perhaps not, but at least it’s characteristic. Small victories.” He didn’t look apologetic.

“Out of interest,” Patroclus said with the air of a man who knew he wouldn’t like the answer, “when and why did you decide this?”

“Well, I have to admit I was getting bored with you and everyone out at the council, so I did some thinking-”

“Which never leads to good things, of course.”

“Now you’re just being petty.” He looked as if he would have rolled onto his side if it weren’t for the broken arm. In lieu of that, he waved the other arm dramatically. “I’m agreeing to terms which will make virtually everyone happy – and no one cares about Agamemnon’s feelings anyway – and I’m dropping the grudge that was causing you so much grief, and yes, I noticed that, so why are you upset? What have I done wrong now?”

There was a little too much rawness in his voice for Patroclus to feel comfortable.

“It’s not like that.”

“Then what it is it like? Because, from where I stand, I’m apparently incapable of doing anything to please you. If I act on my own, I either worry you or I annoy you, so tell me: what should I be doing?” It sounded like a plea.

Patroclus considered that. More than anything, he wanted to protest and say that that wasn’t how it was either, but then they wouldn’t get anywhere.

That said, he wasn’t sure he knew how to explain why it was a bad thing to run solely on vengeance and anger to someone who didn’t understand that sort of thing naturally.

“Let’s look at this clearly,” he said carefully, “I worry about everything. Given half a chance, I’ll worry about anything. And either way, I think we can all agree that I was perfectly justified in getting worried last night. So, hypocritical as it is to say it, don’t worry about that part. On the other hand…I don’t like you being so overcome by the need for revenge. If it was just one thing, maybe that would be alright, but it’s everything.”

“That’s not fair,” Achilles scowled. “Having a hot temper and being out for serious revenge are two totally different things.”

“But you seem to switch from one to the next, and in between you…you don’t exactly cultivate any, I don’t know, healthy friendships or relationships that might take your mind off it all.” Might help develop empathy, he didn’t say, because that wasn’t something they needed to get into.

“Automedon,” Achilles pointed out.

Patroclus made a face. “I’m going to be honest: while I like him, I don’t think he’s the greatest choice you could have made. He seems to care even less about people who aren’t Briseis than you do. For people who aren’t me, I mean. On second thought, maybe that’s why you get along.”

“I’m not going to go out of my way to make friends.”

“No, I didn’t really expect you to.”

With a sigh, Achilles levered himself up with his good arm and slung his legs over the side of the bed. “Look, just come out and say it: I know you still want me to care more about other people, people in general. I can’t change how I am. Just tell me if that’s not enough anymore.”

“It is enough,” Patroclus said sincerely. “Of course you’re enough! You’re more than enough, more than I could dream of asking for! I just worry about you.”

“Well, as long as we’re complaining about each other, you should know I think you worry too much and that you should probably stop before you collapse into a puddle of anxiety.” He still looked pleased by what Patroclus had said, though.

“That’s fair,” Patroclus nodded.

“And listen, I…” he ran fingers through his hair, looking away, “I’m doing this for you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Does it still count as being for me when I don’t want it?”

They looked at each other, and Achilles shrugged. “I think so.”

“Alright. I don’t, but…I just want you to be happy, and I don’t see how this is going to do anything but hurt you.”

“It does make me happy, though,” Achilles countered. “I’m not like you: this is what makes me happy. I like the chase, I like the anger, I like the glory, I like it all, and I can’t change that. I’m not going to.”

“So how is that for me?”

Achilles opened his mouth and closed it again, thinking.

Hurriedly, Patroclus said, “It’s fine if it isn’t after all: I don’t mind, I just…want to know. You know…if I’m guilty for everything you’re putting yourself through. I want to know that.” He gestured to the broken arm, the bandaged wounds.

Achilles pushed himself forwards and took Patroclus’ hands firmly. “Don’t say that! I chose this and I’d choose it again! Gods, don’t just blame yourself for everything!”

Patroclus shot him a look. “Well, I can’t help it, can I?! If you tell me it’s ‘all for me’, then what else am I supposed to think?”

“I meant that the revenge on Hector is for you: the rest is totally on my head.”

“That doesn’t make me feel much better!” he laughed briefly, a little desperately.

They could hear the beginnings of a commotion outside, of a lot of people or at least some very important people coming their way. Achilles glared out in the vague direction of the sound, then turned his attention back to the conversation, still rubbing his thumbs in circles on Patroclus’ hands.

“Let’s be clear here: I’m not going to change, you’re not going to change, and that’s something we’re both going to have to live with. I know I cause you a probably inordinate amount of distress-”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Patroclus smiled ruefully.

“-but while I’m not exactly happy about that, it’s still not going to change. Are you okay with that?”

Patroclus had no idea what Achilles was planning on doing if he said no, so it was likely for the best that he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that.

“Of course I am. You might worry me into an early grave, but that’s not reason enough to stop being with you. I doubt anything is, at this point.”

Achilles grinned, clearly relieved and trying to hide it. “I have been something of an investment, haven’t I? It’d be a shame to give up after this long.”

Patroclus nodded wistfully. “Just when the sex is finally getting good, too.”

“That’s just rude.” Achilles punched him very, very lightly.

“Consider it payback, then.” He looked behind him where the sounds of the approaching visitors were getting louder. “They’ll be here any second, you know.”

“I know,” he pressed a light kiss to Patroclus’ lips and got up. “I’ll strive to be as aggravating as I can.”

“That shouldn’t be difficult, you shining sun of charisma, you.”

“It’s a talent,” Achilles shrugged, and then he strode out of the tent with all the confidence of a king.

 

To his great relief, Patroclus wasn’t expected to take part in the discussion, but to his much lesser relief Automedon came to fetch him for the duel.

“The duel?” he asked as they half-jogged back to Agamemnon’s camp. “You’re not telling me they’re settling this with another duel. They tried that last time, and look what happened then.”

Automedon gave him a sympathetic look. “Apparently idiots don’t learn. Why they don’t just execute him, I have no idea.”

“Probably something about honour.”

Automedon nodded, as if that explained everything.

To say the field was crowded would be like comparing the walls of Troy to a garden wall between neighbours, built to keep up good relations by forced separation. For a moment, Patroclus thought they’d have to stand behind hundreds of other men and see absolutely nothing, but Automedon gave him a Look and tugged him in the direction of the leaders’ seats. Of course.

They shuffled in behind Odysseus’ place in the pavilion, nodding to him in greeting.

Keeping his neck straight and his eyes facing forward to the cleared circle of sand, he said, “He took it well?”

“Surprisingly. That was a dreadful risk you took there.”

Odysseus shrugged gracefully, in full king mode. “I had faith in your abilities to, ah, bring him around.”

Patroclus ignored the implication. “I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Well, hopefully I won’t have to for much longer. One can only pray.”

Patroclus nodded, making another mental note to do the sacrifice as soon as he had time. Which, watching the ferocity of the crowd, he supposed might not be too long after all.

As they waited for Agamemnon and his party to come back from negotiations, Patroclus sidled over to Menelaus’ section of the pavilion, nodding to the guards as if he were expected. Helen didn’t turn around. In another situation he might have sat by her – say, for example, a situation in which the only available chair wasn’t Menelaus’, even empty – but he settled for standing close enough behind her that she knew he was there, close enough that they could talk privately without those nearby overhearing.

“How was it?” he asked.

“You might have to be more specific: there have been far too many trying and unpleasant things since we last talked.”

“Going back to him.”

“Ah,” she smirked. “That particular trying and unpleasant thing.”

There was a tent off to the side – surrounded by waiting soldiers at this point, what with how crowded the place was – and Helen kept her eyes on it. Paris was probably in there, guarded as much for Menelaus’ honour as for his own safety.

“I’m not sure he’s entirely glad to have me back,” Helen said softly, tossing her hair just a fraction. “But I don’t think he’s entirely displeased either. It’s been a long time. We’ve both changed. I suppose I’m curious to see how it goes now.”

“He’s a good man,” Patroclus put in, ignoring how the talk of people changing made his mind wander again.

“A better man than his brother.”

Patroclus glanced around quickly to make sure nobody had heard her. If the guards had, they gave no sign of it. He shot a pained look at the side of her head, and from the small smile on her mouth, he was sure she knew it.

“How about you?” she asked. “How is my future brother-in-law doing?”

“Don’t call him that!”

“Oh?” She feigned surprise. “I trust he’s going to make an honest man out of you, though? I’m not sure even a man as good as Menelaus would be willing to take you in if you’d been-”

“Helen!” he said in what might have been considered a scandalised whine, not that he’d admit to it.

But Helen smiled fully, something he hadn’t seen in far, far too long. “Don’t get so flustered. Goodness, but you haven’t changed a bit.”

“You have.”

“I know.” She inclined her head, letting a tumble of curls fall across her shoulder. “But he’s doing well?”

“Just. If it hadn’t been for his mother...”

“You were scared, weren’t you?”

“Of course I was.”

“I’m glad you were able to save him, then.”

He thought about protesting or letting some bitterness out – because she was his sister: who could he be bitter in front of if not her? – but there was a shift in the crowd before he could.

Squeezing her hand a last time, he went back to Odysseus’ side in time to see Agamemnon come back. He didn’t look entirely enraged, which Patroclus took as a good sign. Better than one might hope from most conversations with Achilles, anyway.

As Agamemnon settled down in his seat in the middle of the row of kings, the crowd began to whisper, then talk, then shout in anticipation. The trickery of the last duel between Paris and Menelaus had hardly been forgotten, and as Menelaus made his way through to the field, soldiers hurriedly moved to make a path for him, cheering him on.

He was in full armour, resplendent in even the weak sunlight, and the sand blossomed up in clouds of dust around his feet. His usual spear left behind, he carried only a heavy shield strapped to one arm and a sword. As he stopped in the middle of the cleared circle, heads turned to the tent some way from the field.

No insults were held back when Paris was escorted out, similarly armed and armoured. The man had to know he would never get out of this alive, and he probably did, Patroclus imagined. That made it all the better.

When the duel began – after the customary words and positions – he watched it with as little emotion as he could manage. True, he’d spent years of his life hating the man, wishing him dead, wishing to kill him, but this wasn’t how he’d wanted it. Not that he’d ever had any particular ideas in mind: just flashes of bloodthirsty inspiration. But he wouldn’t let himself take pleasure in the fight, not like that. Instead, he took pleasure in how this could only mean Helen’s freedom, no matter which way the wind turned.

The fight went on, gaining speed. In time, to the cacophony of jeering and cheering from the crowd, Paris began to lose ground. It was pitiful to watch. He tired too easily, his muscles struggling under every one of the blows Menelaus threw at him, no matter how quickly he managed to block and counter. It wasn’t enough, and everyone knew it. But there was a susurration of uncertainty, of concern that the same thing would only happen again: Patroclus could only hope it wouldn’t, because that wasn’t a mess he wanted to have to clean up.

The pavilion grew thick with dust, and maybe if everyone hadn’t been so intent on the fight then someone would have cared.

It was only a matter of time now, Patroclus thought, and not very much time at that. He counted it out in the clashes of metal, the thuds of shields, the paces Paris took back on shaking legs, and tried to distract himself from the crisp, rich smell of blood in the air that reminded him all too freely of the previous night.

A shriek brought him back to the fight, to the swell of blood and roars of approval as Menelaus scored his first real hit. Paris struck back just as soon as he could, but it only served as entertainment to the crowd and Menelaus easily side-stepped it, kicking Paris’ legs out from underneath him.

He took his time in laughing over the prince: too much, in fact, and Paris managed to get his sword up despite the gash ripping through his shoulder. Before Menelaus had a chance to move, he swung it into the back of the man’s knee.

Screaming in rage and pain, Menelaus struggled to regain his balance, but he managed it, and without wasting any more time – just as Paris was readying to swing again – he drove his sword through the prince’s neck.

The resounding cheer was deafening, but Patroclus turned away from the rest; from the men rushing to support Menelaus and bring him to the infirmary tent, from the celebration and joy, from Helen’s own quiet victory. He’d seen what he’d come for.

 

As if marking off daily chores, he walked from the execution to go and rouse Achilles from his tent to finally make the sacrifice for Aphrodite (praying especially hard, imploring her to understand how the treatment of his sister alone warranted such a quick death). The others could deal with negotiations and explanations with Troy: that was none of his business, and he wanted none of it anyway.

“How was it?” Achilles asked as they walked back through a camp readying itself for battle once again – just in case. He seemed to be healing better than should have been physically possible, as if wounds were just an inconvenience for people with fewer things to do. Or he was pretending he was: both options seemed equally likely.

Patroclus still had to slow his pace to make the going easier, though. “The duel? Exactly what you’d expect.”

“Did he grovel?”

“Well, alright, not exactly what you’d expect, but close enough. He died easily enough. Menelaus is going to have an awful time with that leg wound, though.”

Achilles nodded. “What a shame.”

“Sympathy doesn’t work in a monotone, in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” he grinned.

“Yes, that sounds more like you,” Patroclus sighed, not as exasperated as he might be. It had been a long day, and it was barely mid-afternoon. He leaned closer to Achilles, until their shoulders were touching.

Whatever his complaints, he couldn’t deny that this was comfort itself for him. Achilles’ smile, looking as if he could eat the world raw just because their hands were joined, was doing nothing to dissuade him.

“I have a surprise for you, back at the tent,” Achilles said, looking like he was ready to burst with excitement, fidgeting with the splint on his arm.

Patroclus sighed. “If this is anything like the last ‘surprise’-”

“That was months ago! It was a mistake and we agreed not to talk about that again!” He was flushing, but of course – of course – it just looked unfairly charming through his tanned skin.

“Believe me: I don’t want to either. So what’s this one?”

“Just go inside, you’ll see.”

And with a gentle hand he pushed Patroclus in through the tent, pointedly staying outside. Patroclus was just about to ask what was going on when he blinked and realised.

“Briseis!”

She smiled at him, standing up from the chair she’d been lounging on (clearly avoiding the unmade bed, which was probably a wise choice considering what it had gone through that morning).

They hugged until it was painful and he twisted his fingers into the back of her chiton, breathing her in and loving the feel of her coarse curls against his skin. Somewhere along the line, he heard Achilles check in through the flap and walk away, but that was likely what he’d been expecting. It was fine, everything was….Patroclus was sure it could all be fine. Briseis was back, anyway, and that was a huge step in the right direction, no matter how drained he felt.

Still with their hands together, grinning helplessly at one another, they broke apart enough to at least breathe.

As usual, worry rushed to take pride of place in Patroclus’ mind and his grip grew a touch tighter on her hands. “Are you alright? Did he do anything to you?”

“I’m fine: I don’t think he dared,” she smiled back.

“And you are not just lying to be strong?” he frowned, still more than a little underwhelmed by his Anatolian vocabulary.

“Have I ever lied to keep you comfortable? Of course I’m fine.”

“Then tell me everything, tell me how you are.”

She paused. “I’ll wait, I think: he told me he’d fetch Automedon, so I’ll keep it until then. Before that, how are you? Why are you here? You promised me that story, I remember, and I’ll hold you to it.”

“In my memory, you were the one to tell me I would tell you.”

“It’s as good as the same,” she shrugged. “We have long enough anyway, for both of us to speak.”

His mouth in a permanent smile, Patroclus nodded and turned at the sound of footsteps coming from outside, just in time to see Automedon rush into the tent, spot Briseis, and leap at her.

Laughing, she swung him around with surprising ease, even considering he only just came up to her collarbone. Automedon was babbling words of happiness and relief, telling her how much he’d missed her, how horrible everyone else was, how dare she leave him with them, and Briseis’ laugh was as full and bubbling as a waterfall.

It became clear to Patroclus at that point, like seeing the tide wash away all the creases of a beach. He had to prioritise: he knew that. Prioritise what mattered most to him, stop wishing for an impossibly happy ending for everyone, stop dreaming of flawlessness, of a guiltless life, and he thought he might be able to stop now.

There was nothing like seeing the person you loved most almost ripped away from you to shock you into a decision, he supposed. More than the empty wishes for death he’d tried to convince himself he hadn’t seen, for years, in Helen’s expression, it was that explosion of blood, that terror of not knowing that had driven him to this. Because he knew now.

He couldn’t be loyal to everyone, so he had to try and hold those that mattered most to him even closer than before.

When Hector came – and he would, Patroclus knew that without a doubt – things would fall out as they would. It wasn’t up to him to save a city, to protect an army with the same bonds of fate that protected him, or seemed to. And it made him feel guilty (of course it did, of course it made him itch and squirm with how selfish he was being) but he didn’t want that responsibility anymore, not even the semblance of it.

He just wanted to show the people he loved how much he loved them, and with that thought in mind he let Briseis pull him closer to her while Automedon calmed down.

Chapter Text

The sunlight felt thick and hot on Patroclus’ back, so much so that he was two or three more heavy blinks away from falling asleep. Achilles was practically propping him up as they walked through the sparse woods. Not that he seemed to mind. He minded very little, these days, especially since his wounds had healed up (absurdly fast, but Patroclus wasn’t about to complain about that).

He was smirking, of course. “Didn’t get enough sleep?”

“You know I didn’t.”

“Well, if you will insist on going to see your sister at some unholy hour of the morning then there’s not much I can do, is there?” he said, still pleasantly.

“She’s got a busy schedule: there’s not much anyone can do.” Patroclus yawned heavily, a shudder going down his back with it.

“Any news on the truce?”

“Only bad things.”

“Oh, that’s to be expected by now. Have they finished their stupid funeral rites yet?”

“Apparently not.” Patroclus shook his head, mostly to try and clear it (a useless attempt, but no harm in trying). “One more day of mourning, and then the war’s back on. Or something. She doesn’t really know.”

They stepped over a dried-up stream, reduced to muddy leaves and twigs, and climbed up the bank that was more like sand than soil.

“He didn’t deserve the rites,” Achilles said mildly, as if he were just commenting on the weather. “We shouldn’t have given them the body.”

“Maybe not.”

“I still don’t understand how you’re this calm. I don’t understand why you’re not livid that you didn’t get a chance to rip him apart yourself.”

Patroclus shrugged, feeling himself wake up slightly. “I wanted to a few times. But when I saw him in the duel, I…I didn’t want to anymore. It was gone.”

“That’s just odd.”

He couldn’t hold back a snort of laughter. “Well, to you, I suppose it would be. Don’t think about it too much.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“I’m sorry?” Patroclus frowned. “I’m too tired for this – what do you mean?”

“Are you trying not to think about things too much?” It sounded evasive, somehow. “Because it’s been a good few days without you having a crisis of guilt and worry: you can imagine my pleased surprise.”

“Oh, that’s harsh.”

“Accurate, though,” he grinned.

“Possibly but I’m still taking offence.” He squeezed Achilles’ hand lightly to demonstrate said offence.

“But is that what you’re doing?”

Patroclus thought about it. “That might be one way of putting it.”

“Ah, that’s good enough then. Just so long as you’re not bottling everything up, ready to completely lose your head in a week or something.”

“Okay, that’s never happened even once.”

“And yet everyone around you is constantly holding their breath. Oh, don’t look like that: I’m pleased! We all are: even Automedon’s calmed down recently.”

“I think you mean livened up, don’t you?” Patroclus corrected, and Achilles acquiesced that one. “Besides, that’s mostly due to Briseis.”

“She still won’t talk to me, you know.” He didn’t sound particularly affected.

Patroclus opened his mouth to protest or apologise on her behalf but shut it just as quickly. It was obvious why she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, and Achilles had to know. So he shrugged lightly and leaned on Achilles’ shoulder in lieu of an answer.

The walk back was unpleasantly warm, even at a slow pace, and things only began to get exciting as the camp came into view. Odysseus was there, apparently having a fruitless and one-sided conversation with Automedon (one of the boy’s specialities), and Patroclus could not for the life of him work out why.

“Do you think he’s been sent here as a messenger or just come to bother us for the thrill of it?” Achilles asked, with a touch more glee than the question probably warranted.

“I’d say both, personally.”

It did, in fact, turn out to be both. There was definite relief on Odysseus’ face when they walked up to him, although Patroclus did catch the hesitation at seeing them walking so close together, holding hands. Nor did he miss Automedon slipping away as quickly as he physically could.

“I have excellent news!” Odysseus said, clearly not even trying to sell it as excellent. “Hector’s requested a fight to the death with you,” he motioned towards Achilles.

Neither of them said anything, although Patroclus was positive that their reasons for that were completely different.

“Well,” Odysseus went on in the silence, “I say ‘requested’. ‘Ordered’ might be more accurate. Something that sums up the image of him in full armour, roaring from the battlefield. That sort of thing.”

“Oh…” Patroclus sighed deeply. “Oh, that’s not good…”

“Isn’t it?” Achilles looked decidedly blasé. “I think it’s a great idea.”

For just a second, Odysseus and Patroclus wore the same expression of raw shock. Odysseus recovered first.

“Brilliant!” he clapped his hands together, smiling surprisingly genuinely. “I’ll tell the council and have someone negotiate when it should be.”

“This afternoon’s fine, isn’t it? Just tell him to be ready then.” In an insult to reason and logic at large, Achilles looked almost bored.

The air felt like a furnace – that had to be why Patroclus was finding it so hard to breathe all of a sudden. He tried to calm himself down, tried to stamp down the anger at Achilles’ recklessness, and ended up taking heavy gulps of air while he tried to find something to say that wasn’t a string of expletives.

“What’s wrong?” Achilles asked innocently. “I’m healed now, he probably can’t beat me, and it’s an easy end to the war. Isn’t this what you wanted?”

There was sense in what he was saying, but it barely registered to Patroclus.

“Y-yes!” he spluttered, hands gesturing wildly. “But not like this!”

“How, then?”

“A way that doesn’t put you in danger!”

The fond calmness on Achilles’ face melted into surprise – and that was insulting in and of itself – and a helplessly happy grin rose to his mouth. “But I’m not in danger,” he tried to reason. “I could beat him a hundred times over!”

“You could not.”

“Maybe not, but I only need to do it once.” Still smiling uncontrollably, he took a step back to the tent and spread his arms, as if letting the sun wash over him better. “I can do that much: I can do anything.”

Patroclus was going to say something but he found he couldn’t. The sight in front of him was too dazzling: he couldn’t help but believe Achilles when he said it like that. And there was nothing he could say to stop him anyway, not without blackmail or unfair manipulation.

He wouldn’t do that.

Pinching his forehead and trying to hide how star-struck he suddenly felt (as if he’d been blinded by the sun itself), he said, “Then go and warm up. You haven’t sparred in too long: you’re out of practice.” He straightened up and smiled fully. “You have to do me proud, don’t you?”

Achilles’ happiness – his stupid, reckless confidence – looked as if it threatened to take over him.

Once he’d gone, Patroclus ran after Odysseus.

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” he said, out of breath and desperate on the border of the camp. None of the soldiers passing by seemed to find the sight of him stopping a king by the arm odd, so thankfully no one stopped to watch them. On a day of rest this hot, they all had too much to not be doing anyway.

Odysseus didn’t shake his hand off. “Why are you asking me? Should I be honoured you think my advice is worth that much?”

“Well, I mean…” Patroclus straightened up and let his hand drop.

“You know both men better than I do. Really, you should be the one telling me: do you think he can win?”

“Yes,” Patroclus blurted without thinking about it. “Probably. Definitely. I’m…sure. But you-”

“If you say he can win, then I think it’s best to let him do it. I can’t imagine that the war will last much longer if the crown prince dies.”

“But-”

“I just want to go home, Patroclus. Stop asking me to give you a reason to oppose this.” He was frowning, disapproval twisting his features.

“I wanted reassurance, not that…” Patroclus said hastily, shaking his head.

“Oh, well then.” His smile came back. “Consider yourself reassured.”

“Reassurance doesn’t really work like that.” He found himself biting his lip. Odysseus looked about to turn away, his feet already moving even if he was still watching Patroclus, so he said quickly, “Is it that hard? Staying here, I mean.”

Odysseus stared at him. “Did you think it wasn’t? Not all of us are fortunate enough to have our loved ones here with us.” For just a second, there was years’ worth of bitterness in his voice.

Patroclus looked down bashfully, embarrassment like a vice on his lungs. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just concentrate on keeping him alive.” In a disarming show of affection, Odysseus ruffled his hair. “You can’t let him die.”

“I’m not sure I’m the one to decide that.”

“Maybe not, but do your best anyway.”

Patroclus nodded, taking Odysseus’ smile as the goodbye it was – just in case. They both remembered the promise Patroclus had made to Thetis back on the beach, after all: if Achilles failed, he would die too. It rang in his ears, but he didn’t even feel it as a burden, just a truth.

He ran back.

 

It should have been public, watched by thousands upon thousands of eyes, punctuated by just as many shouts of victory as screams of grief, but it wasn’t. Somehow one of the contenders had managed to request it be private, with just enough witnesses from either side to make it legitimate.

Patroclus couldn’t believe it when he saw Polyxena waiting beside her brother, holding his shield for him, holding her jaw high. She didn’t look fragile to him: only poised and resigned. Just looking at her sent a rush of pride and guilt through him. On Hector’s other side, Helenus stood looking equally grim-faced, utterly unsurprised to see Patroclus there, on the Greeks’ side.

And then…Patroclus could practically feel Hector watching him, but he wasn’t saying anything, even with his helmet off and waiting in Helenus’ hands. Nobody said anything, not even as the two groups walked from the battlefield to the pre-arranged clearing where they could have privacy.

What they needed privacy for, Patroclus didn’t want to know.

He kept pace with Automedon – who shouldn’t have been here, who shouldn’t have been volunteered into watching this, but Achilles’ wishes were final and Automedon himself hadn’t seemed to care either way. Eventually Polyxena moved towards them.

“Are you alright?”

She nodded, smiling well enough. “He doesn’t seem to hold it against me. He’s not angry about Paris either, I think, but I suppose you might have guessed that.”

“Well, I didn’t think he’d done something this outrageous out of love for Paris, no.”

She laughed weakly, her hands tightening on the shield. “How’s…how’s your sister? Is she well?”

“She was accepted back easily enough. I think they talked it over, they’ve come to something of an understanding of each other.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”

“It’s never going to be the love she wanted, but it might become affection in time. She hopes.”

“I hope so too,” her smile grew a touch stronger, even as she had to duck her head to shade her eyes from the sun.

 They passed the tree line, the wiry branches and waxy leaves sending light over them in uneven streams. Patroclus swallowed heavily, feeling the sting of sand and gravel on his ankles and latching onto it. “Polyxena, I-”

“I know. Whoever wins, we…” Rather than finish, she held out a hand and he took it, trying to say everything he couldn’t.

They didn’t let go until they reached the clearing.

The two trios stepped apart, waiting for either champion to speak. Achilles had lost his cocksure ease of spirit and was now quite still. Composed would be the word, Patroclus thought. It was a comfort: he wanted to reach out and take his hand, to say something encouraging, to help in some way (even though he’d done it before they came, over and over), but just seeing how well Achilles held himself was enough.

“I trusted you.” The words sliced through the air with such force that Patroclus almost jumped. Obediently, even though he’d have given anything to keep looking at Achilles, he met Hector’s eyes. It was the best he could do.

“I never thought you’d betray us like this.” His voice was cold and all the harsher for it. There wasn’t a trace of anger anywhere.

“I didn’t betray you,” Patroclus said, feeling like a scolded child. “Not until Paris: before that, I didn’t betray you once.”

Hector didn’t seem as though he was listening. “I don’t know how you did it, I don’t care how, but tell me: was it difficult to lie through your teeth to us all those years, or did you prefer it that way? If so, I can only offer my heartfelt congratulations. I’ve never met a better liar in my life: I used to think you were a good man.”

Patroclus felt himself blanch, but he couldn’t get a word of defence in (for the best, he thought) before Achilles did it for him.

“He’s not lying. He really never betrayed you: he never told me any of your plans, any of your strategies, anything at all. Not that I’d have wanted them,” he smirked. “As if I couldn’t beat you without underhand help.”

“And yet you haven’t.”

Achilles shrugged coolly, looking more energised than ever but keeping it locked away, ready to burst. “You can thank his attachment to you for that.”

To his credit, Hector didn’t even hesitate at the implication. “I’m to thank him for sleeping his way into power? I’m sure bending over and reaping the rewards was tasking indeed, but forgive me if I feel it’s overshadowed by his blatant betrayal of all the trust that was put in him.”

“It’s your fault if you were too stupid to see what was going on, isn’t it?” Achilles said, a little more viciously. The burst of anger seemed close, and Patroclus needed to stop him before it came, just as much as he needed to fight his own battles for himself.

“I had to!” he protested as loudly as he could, bringing Hector’s attention back to him. “I really never did anything to hurt your chances before a few nights ago, and I had to do that! The war seemed nowhere close to ending, and we had the power of a god, we had the chance to end this easily: why can’t you see that? You didn’t care about Paris either: you wanted him dead just the same as everyone else did!”

“He was my brother!” Hector shouted, his mask of composure shattering so violently that even Helenus and Polyxena winced beside him. “I had no love for him as a person, but he was my brother and he didn’t deserve that! He didn’t deserve to die surrounded by enemies, with no hope for survival or dignity!”

“His body was given back for burial…”

“Mutilated, yes! Or should I be thanking you for that as well?” His voice was gruff and heavy, growling at the edges as a mad rage slipped into the cracks of whatever act he had been holding onto. “Should we all extend our gratitude for your graciousness in lifting a single finger to ‘help’, after doing whatever you liked for fucking years while everyone died around you?!”

“I…I couldn’t…”

Why not?! What made now so special, that you could only pull your little stunt – putting us at a severe disadvantage – after thousands had already lost their lives?! Or was that the point?”

“Of course it wasn’t!” Patroclus ground his heels into the dirt, sending clouds of dust into the air. There was nothing he could say in his defence, but there was no way he could say nothing. Achilles grabbed his hand – so easily, as if it didn’t even matter where they were – in an attempt to calm him, but it wasn’t working. He squeezed back so tightly, but it wasn’t working.

There just wasn’t anything he could say to defend himself against the truth.

“Don’t try and tell me you’re in the right,” Hector spat, his face twisting. “With your supposed connections, you could have done anything, anytime!”

“And you couldn’t have?! You’re the crown prince!”

“What could I have done but surrender and ruin my own city? I tried, Patroclus! You know I tried: you know my father has his pride to protect!”

Helenus closed his eyes, arms tightening on the helmet he held to his chest.

“And how do you think that I could have orchestrated some grand truce all alone?” He felt broken, like everything he said was a blow to both of them. Like the others weren’t even there anymore. “It never would have worked if everyone wasn’t so desperate, and I…I had no idea what I was doing anyway!”

His voice cracked and he swallowed, trying to get it back. “I don’t know about military strategy, I was never good at political scheming: I can’t do anything but try, and I didn’t think it would do any good! I didn’t want to betray either side, and I thought I didn’t have any choice.”

“You should have come to me!”

“What good would that have done? The goddess was dissatisfied enough taking me alone: what good could possibly have come out of telling you, when you could just as easily have gone to the Greek council yourself and negotiated?”

Hector’s face hardened. “And so your better solution was to live as you pleased for ten years and then leave when you got bored of us, when you thought you might be ready to play the hero?”

“That’s not what happened!” Patroclus said, physically recoiling at the accusation. “I had to make a choice-”

“Oh, I see that. I see that very well. Because it wasn’t enough for you to finally move the war in their favour: you had to leave without saying a word after making us care about you, didn’t you?”

The injustice of it stung Patroclus’ eyes hotly, but he could hear the raw pain in Hector’s voice as well – could see it in the hard set of his mouth, in Polyxena’s eyes, even in Helenus’ shock at what his brother was admitting so freely.

“Well, it’s a good thing you made your choice, isn’t it?” Hector said unkindly, holding himself higher as he put a hand on his sword’s hilt.

Patroclus’ voice was smaller than he would have liked. “This isn’t what I wante-”

“I hope you can stick to it. I hope you know you drove me to this, that you left me no choice with my people losing heart and my father distraught. I hope you know that if it hadn’t been for what you did, for what you chose, there was a good chance Troy could have come out victorious. I hope you know the weight of the lives on your shoulders – yours alone – and I hope you burn for eternity when you die.”

The bestial shudder in his voice was cut off as Achilles drew his sword and pointed the tip to Hector’s throat in one swift movement, fast as a ray of sun cutting open shadow.

Hector drew his own weapon without fear, his mask of cold anger stitched back into place. He took his helmet, his shield, and the non-combatants stood back.

“They said I would fight the greatest of the Greeks and that it would end in blood,” Hector said. “I hope you’re ready to face the consequences of your actions, Patroclus, but in all honesty, I don’t fucking care either way.”

Chapter Text

Sword fighting was a rough, brutal thing. It was so far from the magnificent spears of battle where aim was everything. It felt like their every movement was clunky – heavy under shields and armour blinding in the sun – but it only took a single look more to understand that that wasn’t what was happening. If they seemed slow, it was because of the raw power in every blow they thrust at each other.

They were shuddering under each other’s strength with every attack.

While Patroclus would never have pretended to be a good fighter, he knew he could hold his own if he had to. Even so, as the men began to change tactics, he could barely understand what was happening right before his eyes. It was as though they were synchronised: Hector’s strength and technical brilliance, Achilles’ energy and barely concealed excitement.

The four spectators were so silent that outside sounds soon began to pour in through the clash of metal and grunts of exertion: the faint bubble of the great river, the grating cries of insects, the far-off calls of birds. The woods were alive around them, sleepy in the summer heat.

Patroclus felt so lost.

It was bad enough that Hector’s words had thrown him off as much as they had (and they had, they’d filled his gut with the sourest guilt, weighing him down). He didn’t know why he’d agreed to come other than because there was nothing else he could do, because he was sure he didn’t want to watch this.

But he wanted to; he wanted to know.

It was a terrible type of torture, watching them fight and knowing he couldn’t do anything to stop it. He could barely understand how they moved so smoothly – as if they’d known the other’s move before he’d made it – and there was no way he could hope to intervene, not that that was an option for him anyway. But the worst of it, beyond the guilt and helplessness at seeing a fight that should have been his, was that he wasn’t even conflicted. He felt he should be, somehow: wouldn’t that have been more reasonable? More humane? But there wasn’t any confusion at all. If anything, he thought he would have volunteered to slit Hector’s throat himself – slit anyone’s, take anyone’s life – if it meant Achilles won.

Dragging his eyes from the fight for a moment, he saw Automedon had the same quiet determination on his face. They all did. No smiles, no easy confidence, no early hope, no fear. Desperate concentration: that was all. He felt sick.

The fighters clashed into each other, their arms trembling with the need to push the other back, to take the lead, but neither could. They fell apart again, just as quickly falling back into the rhythm that they had to be able to feel, had to be able to hear, they were following it so well. The sand and sand-dry soil blew up in great clouds around their feet but nobody covered their face to escape it. That would mean missing a second, maybe two, of the fight, and that was something nobody could afford.

Hope was a flighty thing, Patroclus thought. His eyes were smarting and he had to force himself to blink, to breathe, as he tried to justify why he was scared. Wasn’t he supposed to believe in Achilles’ strength? Wasn’t he supposed to believe in him? Wasn’t it supposed to be the one thing he could always rely on, that Achilles would win?

But it wasn’t like that. A hundred and more different outcomes to the fight poured through his mind, as many as his self-control would allow, and they certainly didn’t all end the same way. They didn’t all end in relief: of course they couldn’t. Hope was flighty, hope was fickle, and he was scared it would leave him. Even with odds stacked on their side (odds he had to force himself to believe in), there were always other outcomes. There was always chance, and the idea of chance falling to the other side was so horrible to him that he could feel his heartrate speed up at the very idea.

‘It will end in blood’: it meant nothing solid, but it meant enough. No one had come to this clearing with the fanciful idea of peace, but it still meant too much; too many whispers creeping through the words, reminding him that Achilles had been at the disadvantage before, that he was still recovering from wounds now.

He was so easily reminded of the myriad things that could go wrong. He could only comfort himself with the knowledge that at least Polyxena would be happier that way. He wasn’t self-deprecating enough to tell himself she wouldn’t grieve him, but she’d be happier, in the long run.

Perhaps he should have felt guiltier that that was such small comfort.

Only Automedon’s hand on his made him realise that he was trembling all over. It was like feverish energy was trying to pour its way out of every part of him: he wanted to move, to run, to scratch it all away and do something, but Automedon looked at him in a silent warning. So, as useless as he’d ever been, he stayed still.

With time trickling by and still no major blows, it was obvious that the two men were growing impatient. Their styles were splitting apart – weight and desperation smashing at full force into energy and speed – and while nothing they did could be called sloppy, they weren’t at their best. There was too much riding on this. So they swung at each other, neither entirely comfortable with swords as they would be with spears, each attack and parry just quick enough to come to nothing. Every so often, one would gain ground on the other, but it would quickly be regained and the four spectators didn’t have to move back from them at all.

And then Achilles fell. It must have been a fluke, an attack that overpowered him until the only way to avoid the blade was to fall, but the fact remained that he was the one on his back in the dirt with Hector regaining balance over him. There was a chilling second as Patroclus’ stomach found its way to his boots, and then he opened his mouth to scream, the sound dying in his throat as Automedon squeezed his hand again.

Trust.

Achilles rolled out of the way almost casually as Hector tried to land a blow on him, but there was no time for him to get up properly: anyone could see that. With his sword lying a few hands’ breadths from him and no clear escape, he ducked under Hector’s attack, grabbed a handful of soil and flung it into the man’s eyes.

Hector swore, backing away and rubbing his eyes with his sword out, just in time to defend against Achilles’ leap as he got back to his feet.

Back to their dance of equal strength, Hector spit on the ground. “I see you fight with coward’s tricks,” he growled.

“Using your environment to your advantage is a coward’s trick?” Achilles grinned, laughter tingeing his voice. “Where I come from, we call that intelligence.”

“You would,” Hector spat again. “I should have expected nothing less from someone who saw fit to hide away in his tent over his own hurt pride.”

Achilles laughed. “And how does it feel to lock yourself up in your pretty little cage of a fortress every night?”

“About as good as it must feel to have a traitor even more cowardly than you get his leg over you every night, I’d imagine.”

Patroclus winced at the snarl that wrenched from Achilles’ throat as he leapt to attack Hector’s neck. Their armour crashed together and screeched as they moved away again, only then Achilles broke the rhythm and launched himself back into an attack that Hector had to strain himself to counter.

“Say it again,” he laughed harshly. “Say he’s a coward, a traitor one more time and I’ll have your heart for it.”

“I pity you,” Hector grunted back, his voice made gruff from exertion. “All this time I was promised the greatest warrior alive, and you’re just a badly trained dog?”

“One more word and I’ll rip your head from your body.”

“Really?” Hector batted his sword away as if it were a stick, taking advantage of Achilles’ distraction. “One wonders why you haven’t managed to yet.”

The fiery, desperate energy was back in Patroclus’ bones. He began to understand what Achilles had meant when he’d admitted he’d been baited before. This was bait if he’d ever seen it: dirty and easy and too much for Achilles’ pride to take. Or not – it wasn’t his pride that was suffering. Patroclus ground his teeth on his lower lip, ignoring the unpleasant trickle of sweat down the side of his neck as it slowly reached his collarbone. This was his fault. It all was, he knew that, but this was more than he thought he could take. If he could just remind Achilles that it was only bait, nothing more, nothing to lose his head over, then it might go smoother, but somehow he didn’t think that saying anything would help.

His feet felt like they were becoming part of the ground beneath him, for the all good he could do.

The fight had turned rough, uneven. Taunting all the while, Hector drove Achilles back and it seemed so unreal, so impossible that Patroclus couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t how Achilles usually fought: he should have been dancing, but his anger was making him fumble over the easiest of moves. Watching them felt painful, and Patroclus couldn’t stop his eyes flitting away, trying to concentrate on Automedon’s stiff jaw, his stony glare, but his eyes were dragged back just as easily.

There was something inexplicably wrong with every attack Achilles tried. Hector ploughed through each one with apparent ease, driving the other prince back and back, further and further.

“Rendered so useless without your master?” he asked roughly. “How many hundreds of men have died at your hands, hands that can barely hold a sword properly in the face of a few insults?”

“Shut up!”

“How can you stand to see yourself reduced to this: a mindless boy again, brought to his knees with infatuation for scum?”

“I’ll kill you!” Achilles shouted in a voice that seemed almost strangled.

“Only if I can’t put you out of your misery first.” There was the faintest touch of smugness to his words.

It was all so wrong, the world felt tipped on its head. Patroclus could only watch with heavy breath as Achilles was driven back to the edge of the clearing, barely holding his own and it didn’t make sense. Anger fuelled him, rage spurred him on, so how could he be losing himself so easily?

The sounds around Patroclus filtered to blank noise, his own pulse louder in his ears, and horror made his skin feel cold even in the heat of day. There was blood now: spattered across the ground, soaking into the dust and dirt, and Hector barely had a scratch on him.

Automedon’s fingers dug so hard into Patroclus’ wrist that he could feel the pressure on his veins, the clicks of his bones, and none of it mattered. The scene in front of him couldn’t be real but he couldn’t tear himself away either. Every time he blinked, there was the vain hope that it might change, that he might be seeing it wrong, as if that were possible. But it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be happening. He was trying so hard to have faith, but every part of his flesh was screaming at him to go and help, to at least distract Hector for a moment if that was what it took to bring Achilles’ temper back to normal. It would take months, not a moment, but he could try. He could try and do anything but stand uselessly like the others were – pained satisfaction on Polyxena and Helenus’ faces, as if the outcome was already decided.

He had to do something, but he was rooted to the ground and his mouth was choked with air, and Achilles had reached the treeline.

Time seemed to grow even stiller as Achilles raised his sword in the worst possible attack he could have tried, one so easily blocked by Hector’s shield that he might not even have bothered. The crown prince – apparently drunk on confidence and certainty – lifted his shield with a grin and shifted his weight so he could lunge for the gap in Achilles’ armour at the side of his waist once he’d deflected the attack. His intentions were so obvious that he might have been calling his attacks out loud, but Achilles still swung down, against all the silent screams Patroclus could send him.

And then he sprung to the side. In a feint faster than Patroclus could have thought possible, he side-stepped Hector and, unbalancing him, sliced across his sword arm.

There was absolute silence as blood welled and ran down bronze skin already slick with sweat, and then a clatter as Hector’s sword fell to the ground. His arm was shaking, his expression a shock of teeth and grimace as he stared at his ruined arm. Just for a second.

And then Achilles was laughing.

I’m the dog? I’m the mindless boy?” He smiled widely, pushing Hector back to the centre with insultingly relaxed attacks. “And here you couldn’t even see the simplest of bluffs this boy had to show you: what does that make you, o great prince?”

Hector didn’t or couldn’t reply: it looked like the most he could do was block with his shield, glaring and breathing heavily through clenched teeth like a cornered animal.

The relief was like nothing Patroclus had ever felt. It burnt at the edges, a fierce reminder that he shouldn’t be so overjoyed when Polyxena was in the same position he’d just been in, but he couldn’t stop himself. Even the sight of a great man brought down to scrambling for his life didn’t seem to matter.

And now the dance was back: gracefully, with utter certainty in his movements, Achilles drove Hector backwards and, with a sudden burst of energy, cut across his shins as a distraction to force the shield from his hands.

With one arm useless and his defence gone, wounds scattered over his skin like needles, Hector lunged and was beaten back again and again, until Achilles lost patience and held his sword point to the opening in the crown prince’s helmet. There was enough time for a single intake of breath, enough for Hector to lash out with all his remaining fire, but Achilles was faster as he cut through the gap between helmet and breastplate, straight through Hector’s neck.

All the energy left Achilles’ body as he watched Hector gasp for bloody air, standing tall until his legs couldn’t carry him anymore. His knees hit the ground, and his chilling gulps and choked gasps had ended long before his body followed.

Utter silence fell on the five of them. Blood pooled around Hector’s body and still nobody spoke, not even after long minutes had passed by and Achilles finally straightened up. Behind him, Helenus’ face was like carved stone. There were tears running down his and Polyxena’s faces alike, her lip bleeding from where she bit into it.

And then Achilles turned to Patroclus and he couldn’t see anything else. Entirely fearless, Achilles pulled off his helmet and raised a hand to Patroclus’ jaw. There were bloodstains on it, he could see, and he covered it with his own, trying to pretend he wasn’t shaking. Laughter, grief, congratulations and so many other things rose in his throat like the hardness before tears. Gratitude, too – he knew that Achilles had held himself back, was still holding himself back from his victory out of respect for Polyxena, if no one else. All that and a thousand things more were waiting for him to let them out.

Instead, he said, “I love you.”

Achilles’ light shone through his exhaustion and he smiled – tightly, barely controlled, but with enough relief to wash all of Patroclus’ tension away.

“I love you more than my own life,” he replied, complete surety in his voice, and leant forwards to kiss him.

It was wrong, perhaps, to feel so much joy when they weren’t even a stride away from a man’s corpse – a man he’d respected, a man he’d liked, a man he’d wanted to know better. But some sacrifices were necessary, and not all sacrifices were physical.

Sometimes, Patroclus thought, you had to learn to stop caring.

He couldn’t imagine what his past self would think of him now.

Regretfully, Achilles pulled away from him and smiled before turning away. It wasn’t his place to be anymore, and Automedon followed him as they walked back into the trees, back to spread the news and face the cheers of thousands of people released from purgatory. Patroclus could almost hear them now, but maybe that was just a pleasant distraction from what he knew he had to hear instead.

Only when there was no sign of either man through the woods did Polyxena fall to her knees and began to sob.

Chapter Text

The heat was oppressive after the tension had drained away into grief. The stench of blood cut into the air and Patroclus thought distantly that they would have to move the body soon. It – he – would have to be taken somewhere cooler; anywhere that wasn’t bathed in the sun.

None of them moved.

Polyxena wasn’t crying anymore: her fingers dug into the sand mottled with fast-drying tears, her shoulders hunched up and her thick hair a curtain around her. Patroclus watched her because it was easier than watching the body in front of him. His pulse, his breaths were waves in his ears, tugging him down into depths where he couldn’t even think. Perhaps thinking wasn’t appropriate, anyway. He had nothing to think but ‘I’m sorry’.

“Go,” Helenus said roughly. “Go before I kill you in his memory.”

Looking up slowly, Patroclus saw that the prince was still crying: his whole body shook as he brought a hand to rub away his tears. Patroclus wanted so badly to say something to comfort him.

“Go!”

“Helenus, stop.” Polyxena got to her feet, brushing down her knees and breathing in heavily as she shook her hair out. “Go and tell them, please. We’ll bring…we’ll bring him home.”

“You can’t be serious,” Helenus laughed weakly. “You’re going to let a traitor like that touch him?”

“Please.”

“You can’t-!”

“You’re not in a fit state to carry anything right now,” she said softly. “Please. Tell them.”

His fists clenching, Helenus looked at her bowed head. “Polyxena, you know what they’ll do to me.”

“They’ll do it regardless of when you come back.”

“Polyxena, please: it’s going to be worse than Cassandra’s imprisonment, they’re going to…” He was shaking still, his face twisted by tears, his voice laced with fear.

She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Maybe you shouldn’t have prophesised his success, then.”

Helenus reeled back like he’d been slapped and, betrayal raw and rotting in his expression, he ran into the forest in the opposite direction to the way they’d come. Polyxena breathed in steadily – once, twice, thrice – and looked up to where Patroclus was waiting for her.

“Help me.”

So he did.

Hector was heavier than Patroclus could have imagined (but then, he’d never carried a corpse before), but he and Polyxena managed to set an even pace as they walked back. They walked through the parched woods, leaving his weapons and shield lying in the blood-streaked soil for someone else to collect afterwards. Light filtered through the trees in dappled patches, leaving just enough shade for Patroclus to feel some relief as sweat ran down his back, his neck and temple.

Rather than guilty or anxious, he felt tired. Guilt would have been worthless (not that that had ever stopped him before): he wouldn’t have changed the winner even if he could have. Anxiety felt out of place: it wasn’t the time for selfish worrying. But he wasn’t quite grieving.

That, he’d allow himself to feel guilty for.

As they came closer to the edge of the woods that opened onto the vast plains before Troy’s walls, he knew that he had to try and say something. Some words, at least, if for no other reason than because he didn’t even know if he’d see Polyxena again.

“I’m sorry.” It sounded right in his mouth: round and well-formed, familiar to the tongue.

She kept her eyes firmly on the road in front of her. “You don’t have to be.”

“I still am.”

She nodded, shifting Hector’s weight slightly so it was less of a strain on her already-shaking arms. “We couldn’t both be happy.”

Patroclus murmured an answer, hoping that she would say more, open up to him more, one last time. She was his sister, after all: he wanted to do this for her, at the very least. Almost as if she were uncertain, she looked at him and back to the path, and he waited.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said like the words were pulled from between her teeth.

“His death?”

“He was golden. A hero. Our hero. He was everything: our hopes and dreams, our pride and honour. It doesn’t make any sense. Heroes aren’t supposed to die.” Her voice broke and she took a few more deep breaths. “He was – is – my big brother, and I don’t…I don’t understand. It’s not like he was the only person I loved. I don’t even think I loved him the most, especially after you left and he started blaming me for it, telling me I was an idiot for believing you and trusting you and all the rest of it. He did a lot of horrible things towards the end. And…I suppose he did a lot of horrible things all his life, too. But everyone does them. Everyone kills. But even after I grew up, even after I saw what a cruel person he could be, even after everything, now…I…”

Her face was crumpling, much as she tried to hide it by sniffing heavily and letting her wild black curls fall to hide her face. “It’s…it’s like I’m a girl again, like I’m a child and he’s my hero and everything I want to be, the only thing I can dream of being,” she babbled in a voice that was much too high and flighty. “I can’t stop remembering all the time I spent idolising him – and I know it’s idolisation, I know that, but it doesn’t change anything because I…I love him so much,” she sobbed, head hanging over the top of Hector’s breastplate, her arms growing so unsteady that Patroclus had to shift most of the man’s weight his way.

That was all that kept him from hugging her, and he hoped she knew it.

After a few steps, she lifted her head and sighed in a way that sounded more like a gasp than anything else. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just need to…I need to get him back, and then…”

“We can stop, if you need to,” Patroclus said hurriedly.

“No, we need to get him back. They’ll have…they’ll have seen the celebrations. They’ll know. They’ll be wondering where we are. So we need to…” The careful order she was laying out to protect herself seemed to crumble. In a sharp intake of breath, she said again, “I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t to Patroclus, so he said nothing.

“I know it’s stupid – I know there was nothing anyone could do – but I feel so guilty: I feel like I should have died instead, or something, or anything else! Anything, as long as it wasn’t him. What are we going to do now? We can’t do anything! You’ve won! We’re damned to slavery, to pillaging, to being stripped of everything we have even if we aren’t all killed. There will be treaties and agreements and the war will end, but what power do we have to negotiate with now? He was everything.”

Patroclus nodded, understanding far more than he wanted to. Her defeatism was cloying, difficult to see past, and while he knew he should have stopped her and told her there was still a fighting chance for both sides, somehow he didn’t think she’d believe him. Instead, he watched the path and kept as quiet as she needed him to be. They were almost to the plains and he kept his eyes on the edge of the forest ahead of them. Polyxena brought herself under control again, the sound of her swallowing loud enough to hear even over the growing sounds of the crowds waiting for them in the distance.

“I can’t help but resent you.”

He’d expected that, and knew he would be the same. “I still love you.”

She nodded a touch too quickly. “We might not see each other again. And I…whatever I feel now, Patroclus, you’ve always been my brother. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” he smiled, trying to make it the best goodbye he could. “You’ve always been my little sister.”

They didn’t speak after that.

At the very least, they were spared the dawning comprehension that Patroclus had feared. The crowd just inside the gates – headed by Priam and Andromache, of course, of course – already knew. But it didn’t make it much easier. There was still an interminable stretch of sandy ground to cross under the glaring sun, still never-ending minutes of being watched and the soft sounds of grief breaking out from a distance.

Guards took the body from them when they drew close to the gates, and Patroclus moved just fast enough to catch Polyxena as she collapsed again, her face screwed up as she cried. He didn’t look at any of the hatred and loathing aimed his way, spearing him because he was the only target they could find. He just helped Polyxena to her feet-

(Ignored Andromache’s wails as she cried over her husband’s body)

Hugged her for the few seconds he hoped he was allowed-

(Ignored the curses hurled his way from those who had known him)

Kissed her forehead, and felt her squeeze his hand before they both turned away.

 

Patroclus stayed to the forest side of the camp, avoiding the celebrations. He snuck into their tent for a change of clothes and went down to the river, washing soberly and unhurriedly, the noise of revelry drifting through his ears like water. A quick trip back to get rid of his sweat and blood-soaked clothes, and he was left without anything to do.

That suited him perfectly.

Without any doubt in his mind, he went down to the seashore. He scrambled over dunes and sat on the beach, a few measured paces from the lap of the waves, and looked out to the sea. The sun was low in the sky, ripping it into pink and orange shreds of cloud, and soon the wind picked up enough that he brought his knees up to his chest, hugging them. The sound of the waves filtered everything else out: something to concentrate on as he waited for time to pass. There was a lot he felt he should be thinking about, working through in his mind, but he didn’t want to. Not particularly. Instead, he kept his mind quiet as if out of respect.

And so the sun set.

Just as stars started to bud into view, he heard soft splashing some distance from him and looked over. Thetis walked to him, the hem of her robes joining seamlessly with the sea foam until she stepped out of it and – with a grace that was nowhere near human – sat down next to him.

Patroclus barely breathed. He certainly didn’t turn his head to look at her: keeping his eyes straight ahead, he waited for her to speak and for his pulse to calm down.

“The gods will not be happy with this end,” she said finally, leaning her weight on one arm.

“I’m sorry.”

She waved a hand dismissively, droplets cast of her fingernails like stardust. “I chose this too. I could have revoked his freedom easily. I did not.”

Feeling entirely and unpleasantly lost, Patroclus just nodded.

“Troy will never be the same. I would not give Priam another year of life, if I am any judge. Anything it has of worth will be stripped from it.”

Patroclus buried his head in the space between his knees and chest. “Then what was the point of the duel? What was the point of any of this, if it’s going to be a massacre anyway?”

“It will not be a massacre. Not unless they fight back, which they might well do, though I wonder who will choose to lead them without their jewel alive to guide them. But this could never have ended with a simple handshake and well-wishing: you must have known that.”

He made a non-committal sound, squeezing his eyes shut.

“And perhaps I am wrong. There is every possibility the war will continue. There is every possibility that your actions, while by no means meaningless, were not enough.”

“So it didn’t mean anything.”

“It meant everything,” she said, reprimanding him with barely a hint of effort. “An advantage has been gained. That, if nothing else, will mean something. The war may go on for years more, but there is still that advantage.”

He’d known, of course. He’d known that it wasn’t possible to best an entire city by killing one man. If it was going to be anyone, it would have been Hector, but he hadn’t been enough in the end. Patroclus had the sudden irrational urge to scream at the injustice of it all, but he quenched it. Somehow he didn’t think Thetis would appreciate it.

“You should be satisfied that you are on the winning side,” she said without losing steam. “You should be satisfied that you did not let my son die while under your care. There is much to be satisfied with.”

“Not enough.” He dug his toes into the cool, wet sand.

“You still choose to be childish? Naïveté is not an appealing feature.”

“I rather think there might be some disagreement on that front here, but I know.”

“Then do not insist on being difficult,” she said calmly, the chill of her words just slightly less than what it was usually. A thought struck Patroclus.

“Are you…Forgive me, but are you trying to comfort me?”

Four waves went in and out in the time it took her to reply. “You were close with him. You were close with her, too: your sister. You know what will happen to her, of course, if they do give in.”

Words of ice, sinking to the pit of his stomach. “You said it wouldn’t be a massacre.”

“Perhaps, but her future is uncertain. The future is, in general. Should you wish it, you may be able to persuade my fool son to buy her for you. There is no question that he would do it for you.”

“It won’t turn to slavery. If…when the war does end, whenever it does, there will be negotiations and it won’t turn to slavery: I know it won’t. Maybe they’ll take the riches and the goods and everything they can, but it won’t turn to slavery.”

“Will it not.”

Her statement hung in the air for a moment but he didn’t rise to it. He didn’t want to think about it: if he thought about it anymore, he’d just be trapped. Wanting to save what he couldn’t. Wanting to save everything even though he was too powerless to do it.

Peeling the thoughts away, he lifted his head and breathed fresh air. “There wasn’t anything more I could have done.”

Thetis murmured something that almost sounded approving, so he must have imagined it. “One of them was always going to die.”

“That’s how mortality works.”

“Do not be facile.” Her voice was shards of ice and he took the warning. “Humans such as that must die young. Humans such as that, pushed together, must die at the hands of one another.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

“One of them was always going to die,” she repeated as if he hadn’t said a thing. “Heroes are simply like that.”

At a loss for what to reply, he finally braved a look across at her. Her eyes were still unnerving – sheer black with a single star of light – and when she turned them on him he looked away again.

“You understand what I mean,” she said.

He did. Heroes were just like that. It wasn’t something he could ever hope to be: it was only by Achilles constantly reaching out for him that he’d even been able to touch it. That was blessing enough for him: even half-divine, he was nowhere close to being in the ranks of heroes.

“I do.”

“Then you will understand, too, that heroes must die young.”

She had indeed said that, but Patroclus had been hoping it was a throwaway statement. He still hoped.

“Hector lived a decently long life,” he protested weakly.

“And you think him on the level of my son?”

“No.”

She nodded, her hair rippling like ink. “I have had new visions, new dreams. The future is not certain, true, but some things are. There are no warnings I can give.”

Patroclus’ knuckles grew white as he dug his fingers into his legs. “Why are you saying it with so much finality?”

“I was not aware I was. There is nothing final about this: it is just the truth. I have seen his death in the near future: in a new battle with new enemies and new goals. A much smaller affair than this,” she said with something that was almost a smile, “but by no means private. That is good. There will be glory, if nothing else. I know that much.”

“Is that all you know?”

“For now.”

He breathed out heavily, trying not to grit his teeth. Instead, his voice cracked as he asked, “Why can’t you do anything?”

“He asked me not to. A long, long time ago, he asked me not to keep him safe.”

“That sounds like him,” Patroclus smiled bitterly.

“I have already protected him on numerous occasions. I would not like to betray his trust any further. Even if it means his death.”

He shrugged off the urge to look at her again to see if the hint of thaw in her voice was visible.

“Heroes must die young,” she repeated. “Young for humans, barely the beginnings of life for us. But he will be remembered: that is a comfort.”

He wondered if she was still talking to him. She sounded unsteady, and as he did glance over to her, he saw that she looked it too. Gentle around the edges: the hem of her robes and the soles of her feet softly seeping into the sand like a mirage. Almost an admission of weakness. Even so, her expression stayed firm as she stared into the sea, and it was that that kept him from offering her a hand – warmth, something to show that he felt it too.

Because, once again, he didn’t. He couldn’t. It was presumptuous to think that he was feeling the same thing she was. He drew his hands in close to him.

He wished she hadn’t come. Maybe she’d had good intentions, maybe she’d wanted to reassure him or let him into what she knew, but he wished she hadn’t. He’d been doing a perfectly good job of feeling ineffectual before she had come to him and he really hadn’t needed any more help. Not that her warning was any more welcome. Now he had to decide whether he’d tell anyone else (‘no’, his heart immediately insisted with unsurprising persuasiveness), whether he’d try and find out more (‘also no’), whether he’d do the practical thing and try to accept fate rather than escape it (‘definitely no’), and a whole host of other things that he really could have done without.

Maybe that was why she’d told him, he realised dryly. Maybe she needed someone to share the stress with. It seemed frighteningly out of character for her, but so was sitting down and talking to him, so he supposed it wasn’t the time to judge.

“I saw nothing of you,” she said finally. “Perhaps because you will not be there, perhaps because you simply did not feature. I cannot tell.”

He wished she’d stop telling him things he didn’t want to know. It was cowardly and he knew that, but he wanted the time to set things in order before he was attacked by a hoard of new worries.

“So what?” he asked with the smallest amount of cheek he could. He was tired: he just wanted time for things to settle, but she was unrelenting.

“Your fate is your own. You do not have to be present for his. You know that, and you must recognise that what is expected from him is a world and more apart from what is expected of you. You have freedom.”

“You say that as if he’d ever let anyone shackle him down,” Patroclus laughed without much mirth.

“You know exactly what I mean. So tell me, what will you do?”

The light in her eyes was wider than before. He wondered idly if it was a sign of anger or hope. It could just have been simple dilation for all he knew, but there was a quiver to her lips that made him think otherwise. It didn’t feel like she was playing with him.

He appreciated that, and he appreciated that she was clearly asking him because she wanted to know rather than because she wanted to torment or mock him. So he answered honestly.

“I know I’m not the same as him. There aren’t going to be any prophecies or songs sung about me, and that’s fine. I don’t care about that: wouldn’t it be stranger to care about it, when only a handful of people ever reach that level? I’m already set apart enough.

“But, just like everyone else, even though I’m nothing special, there are things I can do and I’ve decided to do them. There are people I care about and I’m going to make sure they know it. I’m going to do everything I can to protect those close to me. I have duties and responsibilities towards people, and I’ve already failed so many that I need to work even harder. And maybe these are all just pretty words without much to back them up, but I think resolve counts for something, at least. So that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to stretch myself out so far that I can’t help and protect the people who matter to me the most. I know better now than I did, I hope, and I’ll continue to learn, but right now, with what I have now, I know exactly what I want to do.”

Smiling, Patroclus dared to meet Thetis’ eyes. “I may not be as important as he is, and I may not share the same fate, but I can choose to follow him. No matter what, I’ll be there.”

Thetis didn’t give any impression she’d even heard him, so he was easily distracted when he heard Achilles’ voice calling for him further up the beach. He waved, and when he turned back, she was gone.

That seemed more like her. Deciding not to worry about it, Patroclus got to his feet, brushed himself down of sand, and went to meet Achilles.