Chapter 1: I'm the best worst thing that hasn't happened to you yet
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
August in San Francisco ended that year with a bang. The heat wave caught everyone by surprise, bared its gleeful, sunny teeth and swallowed the city whole. All traces of fog burned to a crisp, and some clever, fearless citizen bought twenty boxes of Safeway cookies and four gallons of Ben & Jerry’s, selling ice scream sandwiches by the dozen in Dolores Park. It was almost terrifying, how utterly visible the Golden Gate Bridge was from so many places in the city— the view was Uncanny Valley-level, like three-a-dollar postcards from fucking Walgreens.
The day the heat wave hit, Achilles stripped to his running shorts and took to the streets. It was two miles to Golden Gate Park, and if he jogged the length of the park via the many winding roads within, plus the Panhandle’s stretch of green, round trip was easily fifteen miles— nothing new. This was familiar conditioning, and on a day like this, there would be many people out, sure, but hardly anyone putting out for as much mileage as Achilles. Knowing exactly where the handful of water fountains was peppered throughout the park, Achilles only strapped a small bottle to his lower back before taking off. Mediterranean climate meant humidity, even if the city never felt particularly wet when it was cold, and the second Achilles left the shady confines of his house, sweat dotted his skin. A smile tugged at Achilles’ lips. This was perfect.
It was a week before the first day of school, and each day counting down was a vortex of frustration and confusion. On one hand, hours seemed to pass in blinks and breathless heartbeats. On the other, the ice cream parlors down the block seemed to take eternities to reach for the spoiled San Franciscans. The days weren’t nice, they were incendiary, no matter what the cheerful voices in air-conditioned radio stations liked to proclaim. Buses were like microwaved sardine cans, and the romantic tragedy of The End of Summer was no match for the general feelings of brutal disgust. The school year seemed like it was going to suck.
So it was amongst these hoards of beleaguered, dull-eyed, atrophying teens that Achilles pranced, fucking god-like. People like him were made for the sun (not that there was any other person like him); he glistened and glowed and shined and shimmered in every possible obnoxious way, and people ate it up with biodegradable spoons. Worst of all, none of it was even remotely intentional. Achilles ran amongst them with his eyes straight ahead, feet constant and pounding, never sparing a drop of attention for his appreciative, sweaty audience.
Above him, the sky was blankly, disgustingly blue. Beneath him, soil was boiling. Ahead of him, the school year loomed and threatened. Achilles ran and ran with his mind on nothing but the run, and never suspected a thing.
“Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”
(To be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry)
Achilles grew up hearing words like exceptional and extraordinary. Every time he ran people exclaimed it was with exceptional speed, every time he spoke people labeled him charismatic and extraordinary. And that was fine. He accepted the praise with the easy grace that came so naturally to him, and that was that. Achilles was exceptional, Achilles was extraordinary.
Those weren’t easy honors to keep, of course, and had to stand trial again and again. But in the way so many things in the universe are heavily unfair, Achilles defeated all his challengers with ease, with the casual arrogance that had people fuming and plotting against him— mostly to no avail, but regardless, exceptional made enemies. Extraordinary made acquaintances who were as eager to bask in his limelight as they were to tear him down. And over time, with so many of these such acquaintances making themselves known to Achilles, he quickly came to distrust most, if not all of his friends to some level. Nothing belligerent, nothing personal— just sensible distance that kept Achilles on a pedestal of aloof, excellent, exciting. The awe-inspiring leader, a mantle he quickly learned to take grim pride in. He didn’t do it on purpose (but maybe he did). What he did, people copied (or tried to). Where he went, people followed (so many left far, far behind by Achilles’ superior speed).
Where he looked, people also turned to stare eagerly, so when he noticed the new kid, everybody noticed the new kid, seated all alone at the end of the bleachers, wrapped in a large bland coat and not even watching the field. The school year had begun dully and familiarly, at least for the college-obsessed senior class; August had surrendered hysterically quick to the September chill— which is to say, all climate returned to the status quo in foggy SF, and everybody was jumping up and down in place to keep warm.
“His name is Patroclus,” Polyxena told him, a fine sheen of sweat on her high forehead after her high jump drills. “Transferred from Locris this year. I have AP Stats with him, but he skips class a lot.”
“I heard he got expelled from Locris for beating up a kid,” Diomedes added, his bleached blond hair fluttering as he stretched for his 200 m.
“Heard he put the kid in a coma,” Ajax sneered.
“Huh,” Achilles only said, and they left it at that, the stars of the team, because Achilles was at the starting line of his first 1500 m of the season, and students have gathered in the bleachers to see him fly.
And he never disappointed.
The start of a school year meant everyone was testing out new territory. The classrooms, the gyms, the quad— these all were briefly fair game, until some group, usually the old one, though sometimes a new one, came through and claimed it. For big distinguishable groups, like Athletes and Cheerleaders, they needed not only home ground (gyms and locker rooms), but also socializing grounds, to flaunt and flirt and perform their Athletes and Cheerleaders’ scripts. Sure, Mean Girls spoke to a generation of territorial teens about cafeteria tables, but honestly, the cafeteria at Arcadia High often smelled too putrid for people to remain inside long. It was just something about the supposedly healthy mayor’s lunches that soaked the air in the overwhelming scent of wet meat; it clung to your clothes and hair and kept the majority of the population mostly out. This unfortunate turn of topography meant society had to form elsewhere, like lumps in curdled milk— in Arcadia, gathering grounds were the hallways. Those seemed innocuous, as far as spaces went, but so were gun barrels before they’re loaded. Hallways were bloody, were messy, were the grounds of lasting nightmares and anxiety at the hands of cruel, cruel society.
For Achilles, hallways were simple things. Nice, sure, he got to see his more likeable teammates in passing. People often gawked as he passed, but people gawked everywhere else, and pointed and giggled for and whispered about and sneered jealously at. Sometimes, hallways would be freedom, precious lulls in tedious academics, but truth was, Achilles never minded classes much. He did solidly average on some subjects, and was actually pretty great at others. How funny, that some people would even try to mock him for this— that he didn’t hate school as cool jocks were supposed to.
On some subconscious level, Achilles knew hallways were also petri dish spaces that bred high school social rot like colonies of bacteria— thanks to many district-issued posters taped in doorways and windows, he understood bullying to be an expected phenomenon. But it was one of those things he never really had to keep in mind, like the limit form of differential equations or other such things gladly forgotten after a major unit test. One of those things he forgot with easy privilege. It wasn’t until one day (a Wednesday afternoon, between fourth and fifth period, the sun was barely making it out behind a cloudbank meaning the track field was going to be damp today) that Achilles was made fully aware.
(Really, truly aware, what with the events that followed.)
It was all Ajax’s fault— fucking Ajax, Polyxena had warned Achilles about him, with the conceited smirk and casual misogyny. “Small Ajax,” “Ajax the Lesser,” the arrogant relay runner at the bottom of their senior class ranking (and it meant something, for Achilles to call someone arrogant). A shame to the name shared by one of the greatest coaches Achilles knew. Achilles learned later that Ajax had been harassing a girl in debate and Model UN for some time— when the girl refused to go out with him, Ajax pulled out all the tricks in the book, stopping short only of actual physical assault. He spread rumors about her, called her a lesbian, (tried to) talk down to her in classes, and then ended up sabotaging her World History presentation. That day, in the hallway after lunch, the girl decided she’s had enough, came storming up to the track team with her long black hair and floral skirt whipping around her.
“You fucking asshole,” she spat, angry tears running down her cheeks. “That presentation’s 40% of my final grade. How much of a shithole do you have to be to operate like this?!”
“Hey, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Ajax yelled back, immediately defensive. Achilles grabbed him by the shoulder and held him in place before he could lunge forward, but the girl shot Achilles a glare, misunderstanding it to be a gesture of support. Achilles dug his finger in tighter, expression becoming pinched. “You forgot the file yourself, okay? Don’t go blaming other people for your mistakes, bitch.”
“I lent my USB to you, you prick,” the girl shouted. People were starting to take notice, either quickly walking away, not wanting to get involved, or cocking their heads in interest— two in particular stepped forward with wary expressions, coming up to flank the angry girl. Achilles recognized Briseis, who had sophomore chem with him, and the new kid.
(Skipped class. Expelled. Put a guy in a coma. Patroclus.)
“You can’t prove anything,” Ajax sneered. Achilles was suddenly antsy to step away, make it look less like he was aligned with Ajax— beside him, Polyxena was shuffling uncomfortably with the same dilemma. Other members of their team, though, were puffing up and fanning out, never mind their only opponent would be a girl, 5’3” at most and alone.
“Yeah she can.” Or maybe not alone. Briseis laid a hand gently on the girl’s elbow and stood beside her. Instantly, Achilles pulled his own hand back, quick like static shock. Patroclus, noticing, shot him a confused frown. “I saw you take the USB. Mr. Borne saw you.”
“I had to transfer some files to another computer, the internet wasn’t working,” Ajax lied through gritted teeth.
“Look man,” Patroclus interjected, hands tucked in his pockets but body angled so he cut between Ajax and the girl. “Everyone knows you deleted Iphigenia’s file ‘cause she refuses to go out with an asshole like you. Also, I doubt you were smart enough to clean it from the trash on your computer so if we just go check, we’ll get proof—”
Without Achilles’ restraining hand, Ajax lunged forward and bodychecked Patroclus so hard that Patroclus shot backwards into the bank of lockers on the other side of the hall. Gasps and giddy shouts rose from the spectators. Achilles was instantly on Ajax, grabbing his shirt and spinning him around until he was pinned to the opposite end of the hall.
“Ajax, knock it off,” Achilles growled, Ajax struggling against his hold. In his peripheral, Achilles watched Patroclus stagger back upright, glaring bloody murder at Ajax.
“You little bitch,” Ajax yelled instead, and Achilles shoved a frustrated forearm into his windpipe, cutting him off before he could do more damage. But it was too late. From Achilles’ blind spot came Iphigenia with a snarl, elbowing Achilles out of the way to get to Ajax.
"You entitled douchebag, get the fuck away from my friends—”
Achilles wasn’t quite at the right angle to block the fist Ajax swung toward Iphigenia— but Polyxena was. Also on the women’s wrestling team, Polyxena easily deflected Ajax with a twist of her well-muscled arm, then reached forward to bodily haul Iphigenia out of the way. Then, like a shot straight out of an action film, Patroclus dashed forward from behind the flurry of Iphigenia’s long hair and skirt, and landed a solid punch into Ajax’s gut.
(That, Achilles could have stopped.)
“Son of a bitch, you were gonna hit her—”
Ajax’s foot shot out and caught Patroclus’ knee, and Patroclus crumpled to the ground with a surprised shout.
“A piece of shit like you, calling me entitled?” Ajax snarled as he kicked out again, and again. “Everybody knows you’re only here ‘cause daddy paid for the only school that would take you—”
When one of Ajax’s kicks landed inside the flap of Patroclus’s coat, Patroclus used the fabric to twist around his ankle and trip him down. Ajax landed hard on his side, but when Patroclus tried to stand, still had enough of his wits about him to swipe Patroclus’ feet from out under him. Rising to his knees, Ajax slugged Patroclus across the face. Hard. And Achilles swore, and made a decision.
Every evening, Achilles attended a mixed martial arts class in the Mission, and his coach Chiron had told him from the very first day that his greatest strength was his uncanny speed. He used that to his advantage now, diving quickly forward with precision, twisting so his back was to Patroclus, letting roll off him a punch meant for Ajax’s well-deserving face. For the second time, Achilles grabbed Ajax by his jersey and shoved as hard as he could, away from the fight, away from Patroclus. Get on your feet, Chiron’s voice told him, so Achilles did, bouncing on the balls of his feet, one hand outstretched to the side, a barricade between Ajax and Patroclus.
“Achilles,” Ajax spat, “what the fuck do you think—”
“What in the world is going on out here?”
The gathered crowd instantly parted at the commanding voice. It was Odysseus, Achilles’ AP Lit and AP Psych teacher, smart-mouthed and (mostly) beloved, but not known to be particularly merciful to rule-breakers (he was a rumored war vet, but every time someone asked him about it, he had a clever way to not answer). His dark blue eyes scanned the scene quickly and efficiently, zeroing in on Patroclus and his bloodied nose, then on Achilles standing over him. Making deliberate eye contact with them both, Odysseus asked chillingly, “Care to explain?”
“Sir it’s not what it looks like—”
“There was a fight,” Achilles quickly interrupted Polyxena, not wanting her to draw the irate teacher’s attention. Briseis, now beside her, looked just as eager to speak, but Achilles figured it was best to keep the number of people involved in the fight to a minimum. Iphigenia, thinking along the same lines, subtly tugged Briseis back with a shake of her head, standing forward with her head warily bowed. Rolling his eyes, Odysseus crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“And the sky is blue and the universe is big, yes thank you Achilles for a reminder of the obvious.” A few nervous giggles from the crowd, and a constant low thrum of whispers. Patroclus was pinching his nose shut, all his attention trained on Achilles. And Achilles, who never got nervous, who never got intimidated before racing in front of hundreds of people, suddenly felt the heat of pressure and judgment in the pit of his stomach. It was Patroclus’ eyes, he knew— they had the depth and pressure of someone accustomed to being alone, and here was Achilles, a stranger, suddenly in his corner. “What I want to know is why.”
Achilles had already made his decision when he reached down to pull apart the fight. Ajax, who didn’t know, was smirking— after all, it was Achilles’ word against Patroclus’ now, Arcadia’s Golden Boy against the delinquent pariah. Patroclus too was beginning to wilt, the bow of his neck long, succumbing to his unfair fate.
Then Achilles spoke.
“Ajax sabotaged Iphigenia’s presentation sir. Patroclus said he had proof, and Ajax shoved him. They fought, I was just pulling Ajax off him.”
A silence, shocked and weighted, ripped through the crowd. Even Odysseus’ eyes widened in surprise, but the teacher quickly pulled himself together, turning his focus onto Iphigenia.
“Is that true?”
Iphigenia, whose mouth was actually gaping open in shock, needed a little nudge from Briseis to speak— but when she did, it was easy to see the debate training in her diction, the flow of her speech.
“Yes sir, I was going to present in World History today, and had my presentation PowerPoint file on a flash drive. I double-checked that I brought it this morning. But first period Comp Sci, I lent Ajax the USB, and my file was gone when I tried to plug it in—”
“She’s lying, I didn’t touch her file—”
“And you have proof, Patroclus?” Odysseus cut Ajax off smoothly. Clearing his throat, Patroclus moved to speak, but suddenly flinched hard. Achilles was at his side in an instant, tilting his chin up to inspect the split skin at the corner of Patroclus’ mouth. Long since used to the constant buzz of gossip around him, Achilles entirely missed the flurry of whispers his action set off— but he didn’t, couldn’t have missed the way Patroclus stared at him in shock at the blatant violation of every social norm in the book. Achilles even went as far as swiping at a drop of blood with his thumb, which was when Patroclus jerked away.
“Don’t— that’s not sanitary,” he muttered awkwardly, angling away from Achilles to turn his attention back on Odysseus. “And well, yeah, you can check the trash on the computer Ajax used. If someone’s emptied that, you can still recover the file with Time Machine. It’s what we were going to do anyways since Iphigenia has to give her presentation today.”
“Alright.” Tone final, Odysseus clapped his hands once, and with a wide-sweeping reprimanding gaze, sent all bystanders scurrying away. “Class has long since started, people. Those who continue to hover will be considered guilty until proven innocent by a long and thorough cross-examination afterschool during the block of time generally called detention. Don’t worry folks, I’m sure we’ll find something you’re guilty of. And for those of you involved in this particular situation—” He pointedly stared at Iphigenia, Patroclus, Ajax, then Achilles, his eyes lingering on the last and turning thoughtful. “—I will get to the bottom of this, and I expect to see you all in my classroom after school today. Dismissed.”
The moment Odysseus turned away, Briseis was at Patroclus’ side, pressing a tissue to his lip and helping him up. Achilles’ hand instinctively shot out, trying to keep them from leaving but Briseis was quick to slap his fingers away with a warning glare. Patroclus, on the other hand, had the corners of his lips turned up, smiling as if he couldn’t believe his luck— though not so much in the colloquial, positive sort of way, mostly in the truly incredulous way. The hint of tentative appreciation in his eyes, however, was intoxicating, and had Achilles blinking self-consciously, his hands fluttering at his sides.
“I’m gonna go see the nurse,” Patroclus said, and Achilles nodded in keen agreement. “Um, see you after school then.”
As if Achilles could now just forget the whole incident, go to class like nothing happened. He watched the duo leave, Iphigenia following them after a moment of frenzied deliberation. She too, shot Achilles a hesitant smile that carried over to Polyxena, who came up behind Achilles.
“Ajax left,” she informed him. “You should’ve heard the stuff he was spewing, someone ought to feed him a bar of soap.”
“I’m suppose to have Spanish with him now,” Achilles remembered, still staring down the hallway. Polyxena hummed doubtfully as she circled around to the front of Achilles.
"Well he wasn’t headed in the direction of class. More like the gym, if you ask me.” Leaning forward, Polyxena peered at Achilles with a worried press to her lips. “Hey, you okay?”
“Of course,” was Achilles’ automatic reply, his back straightening and head snapping down to focus on his teammate. “I didn’t get hit.”
“I meant—” Cutting herself off, Polyxena made a series of faces, from uncertainty to awkwardness to frowning. Achilles watched her as she took a deep breath, steeling herself like before a big race. “Alright, you tell me if this is a false assumption now, but I get the feeling I’m kind of the closest friend you keep at this school, and we’re not even that close.”
Achilles had never made a habit of lying, and so denial died on his tongue. He didn’t remember at all the first time he met Polyxena, the way close friends often spoke of how they do. In fact, he didn’t have any particularly significant memories from the time of their friendship, only the knowledge that Polyxena was the best high jumper on their team, some rudimentary knowledge of her family from a school project, and the certain impression of positivity that Polyxena often exuded. Polyxena was— funny? Smart? What were her interests? These were all questions Achilles had never even thought to contemplate, and yet, Polyxena was right. If Achilles were hard pressed to name his closest friend from school, she would be it.
“I mean, whatever!” Polyxena quickly added, hands waving around her in embarrassed flutters. “You’re a cool guy, we run in the same circles, it’s chill! I don’t mean it in a bad way or anything. I just mean that I guess I’ve always kind of assumed you’re the stereotypical athlete with a bit of an anger issue, because of that one time with the guy and the thing, so it’s actually really cool that you’d do something like that for them, y’know? Something so… upstanding.”
“What, telling the truth?” Achilles tried to sound sarcastic, but, yeah, he understood what Polyxena meant. He knew what Ajax, what Patroclus, what everybody watching had expected him to say and do. After all, team was supposed to be first and foremost for athletes, especially the way the coaches taught. What Achilles did instead was sure to earn Coach Agamemnon’s ire, especially since it came at the expense of their relay team and could jeopardize the Achaeans’ victory this year.
At the thought of the coach, Achilles scowled. “You said Ajax is headed for the gym?”
The same thought drew a dark shadow over Polyxena’s brow. “You think he went whining to Agamemnon?”
With a frustrated sigh, Achilles nodded, raking his fingers through his hair. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Agamemnon can’t do jack shit to me.”
“You know what though?” There was something of a devious light in Polyxena’s eyes now, and Achilles consciously thought, Yeah, she’s definitely smart. “If Iphigenia’s telling the truth, Ajax could be suspended from school and kicked off the team.”
“She is telling the truth,” Achilles protested in surprise, a curious sense of sullenness bubbling in him. Iphigenia— and by relation, Briseis and Patroclus— must have been telling the truth. That it could be otherwise was unthinkable. Polyxena hurriedly nodded her agreement.
“I think so too, of course, but to be fair, we don’t know unless there’s proof.”
“What if there isn’t?” Achilles asked sharply. What would happen to them? Only shrugging, Polyxena sighed.
“I gotta head to the library,” she said regretfully. “I’ll tell Coach Ajax you can’t make practice today— the real reason, not whatever lie Douchebag Ajax tells them.”
“Alright, thanks,” Achilles said faintly. As Polyxena started walking away, he knew he kind of had to say something, and so stiffly, he called out, “thanks. You’re… great. Too.”
“…um, it’s not that I don’t appreciate that just—”
“—Yeah let’s not do this—”
“Nuh uh no, we’re good.”
And that left Achilles alone in the hallway, thoughts teeming in his brain. How strange, that in the span of twenty minutes, so many things could have changed. An outside spectator would perhaps call the incident out of character for Achilles, but that would only be true (and barely so) relative to how he’s led his three previous years at Arcadia so far. A private high school just wasn’t a good fostering ground for the righteous sort of hero, only the traditional kind, masculine and tough and patriotic— it just so happened that Achilles had fit fine within those parameters. Prior to this day, Achilles had been no different from how everybody saw Coach Agamemnon, the hero who brought the Achaeans to victory after a twenty year slump, or even Asshole Ajax, popular jock and apex predator. The thought alone left a bad taste in Achilles’ mouth, and he figured good fucking riddance to that reputation then. Achilles was better than them (in more than just the moral sense), and whatever retribution Agamemnon was sure to devise, Achilles would overcome. Ajax’s anger, the so-called “betrayal” of his team— there was blood in the water, a goddamn oil spill, and this meant war. Fine by Achilles. He’d strike the match himself, if he had to.
...and then she thought, what if she named every chapter after a Fall Out Boy song?
Chapter 2: I'm not passive but aggressive (take note it's not impressive)
Afterschool came quick— especially since Achilles skipped fifth, sixth, and seventh period to go running. Two and a half blissful hours of jogging down Ocean Beach, weaving his way through the residential neighborhoods, finally making it back to school with his muscles pleasantly burning and lungs filled with sea air. He slowed down by the water fountains to both drink heftily and douse his head in the cool water, and managed to time it so he arrived at Odysseus’ classroom door just as the last stragglers wandered out. Patroclus and Iphigenia were already there, hovering awkwardly in two seats in the front row. Achilles’ entrance drew their eyes, and Achilles felt no small amount of delight at Patroclus’ double take and subsequent flush at his appearance.
“The prodigal senior returns!” Odysseus called from where he stood in front of the smart board, straightening out a pile of papers with a dry smile. “I can’t wait for you to explain how you forgot you had seventh period Psych with me fifty minutes ago, Achilles.”
“I didn’t forget,” Achilles shot back, raking his wet hair into a ponytail. While Patroclus and Iphigenia watched on with scandalized expressions, Odysseus chuckled humorlessly.
“Now don’t get me wrong, I like a little spirit in my students, but I am nonetheless king of my humble little domain here.” With a double thumbs-up, Odysseus declared, “so stay behind after we talk, you just got an hour of detention!”
Scowling, Achilles made his way to the seat beside Patroclus, dragging the chair out with a deliberately loud scrape. The first time Achilles walked into second period AP Lit with Odysseus, he had been irked by the teacher’s constant smile. It wasn’t a kind smile by any stretch, and when coupled with Odysseus’ shrew, calculating eyes, Achilles found himself generally unnerved around Odysseus. But people like Achilles didn’t do things like become unnerved, so he became mostly aggravated instead, leading to many instances of detention-worthy behavior. School has been in session for all of three weeks and Achilles had already been made to stay afterschool four times. Once, Odysseus had laughed rather bemusedly and said, I just don’t get it. If you have such a big problem with authority, how have you fooled the entire faculty into thinking you’re an angel?
Achilles hadn’t replied— both because he was sulking a little at being made to skip track practice and because he didn’t really know. Odysseus just got on his nerves for some reason. Despite the lack of response, Odysseus hadn’t seemed put out, just shrugged.
Well, not the entire faculty— Coach Agamemnon was glaring darkly at a corner the entire time the others were fawning over you. I don’t know how I should feel about being on the same side as him though.
Not good, Achilles had said, tone snippy and his pencil never once stopping to scrawl his calculus homework. Agamemnon’s a dick.
…As an educator of young minds, I’m supposed to encourage opinions and independent thought. So that’s that then.
And then Odysseus had sat down with a self-satisfied little smirk. It was practically occult, the way the man could twist a conversation so cleverly and insinuate himself into Achilles’ defenses. With the pettiness of a teenager and the capability of scorn to rival the God of the Old Testament, Achilles resolved to simply hate Odysseus even more.
At this point, addressing Odysseus seemed too much like obeisance or defeat, so Achilles turned to Patroclus instead. “How are your wounds?” he asked, genuine worry pouring out as his hand twitched to reach forward (he refrained, however, for the sake of good graces).
Patroclus, who was slowly but surely edging back against his chair, offered Odysseus a weak smile.
“Mostly internal and mostly minute, so no worries.”
Upon closer inspection, however, Achilles could see a darkening patch of skin on Patroclus’ jawline. “That gonna bruise?”
“Not too bad,” Patroclus was quick to reassure. “Trust me I’ve had worse.”
“Yeah, sport injuries, right?”
“What— How did you—?”
Ajax chose that moment to shove through the door, cutting Patroclus’ question off. With an utterly unimpressed expression, Odysseus stared at the athlete until Ajax stalked over to where Achilles sat, though staying a pointed arm’s length away. Which was perfectly fine for Achilles; he didn’t even bother looking away from Patroclus. For his part, Patroclus’ gaze fluttered quickly between Odysseus and Achilles, mouth snapping shut and biting back his curiosity when the teacher looked to speak.
“Now that you’re all here, I can speak the verdict.” For all the lead-up, there was a distinct lack of tension in the situation— Iphigenia perched on her own desk, arms crossed and looking for all the world like she had already won the case, and was simply there to judge the fairness of the punishment. Ajax, too, looked spoiled for the ending, mouth in a mutinous twist and heel rapidly drumming the ground. Odysseus’ manner was all solemnity and ice as he continued to stare down Ajax. “Iphigenia spoke true, Ajax— Mr. Borne helped me recover the PowerPoint from the computer assigned to your use today. Here at Arcadia, we take academic sabotage very seriously. You would have knowingly stripped another student’s rightful grade from her and irreversibly damaged her future opportunities.”
“So I get detention now?” Iphigenia visibly bristled at the condescension in Ajax’s tone, but held back her censure when Odysseus took rapid and rather threatening steps forward until he towered over Ajax.
"You’re still thinking in minor leagues, Ajax, the situation is far more dire. We’re more in the ballpark of suspension, perhaps expulsion.” While Achilles was determined to hate Odysseus, he’s never once suspected that his scorn would be returned— rightly so, and a fact made more clear by this instant. The pure menace by which Odysseus poised himself and the utter disdain in his eyes now leveled at Ajax had never once been directed toward Achilles in any degree. Like this, the rumors regarding Odysseus’ prior employment seemed not just possible, but perhaps the only explanation for how dangerous the teacher could seem, how cruel. And Odysseus continued, “but we are only in the first weeks of school, a suspension from classes seem a minor inconvenience at best. Perhaps something more tailored, Ajax? A suspension from the track and field team, maybe?”
And Ajax, with the nervous bravado of a wronged chihuahua, yelped, “You can’t suspend me. Coach Agamemnon wouldn’t let you.”
The situation was positively theatrical now— even Achilles was hard pressed to turn his attention elsewhere. Ajax might as well be twining a string of dynamite around and around his body, then rudely shoving a match in Odysseus’ hand.
“Last time I checked, Agamemnon wasn’t my boss,” Odysseus spoke, sharp as knives. “He has no power over what I can or cannot do. You know who is my boss though? The principle, who also happens to be my wife, and the lovely lady has assured me suspending you from the team is completely within my rights— in fact, to decree a suitable punishment is my duty. So do not worry, Ajax, Coach Agamemnon cannot interfere with what I do. Now please.” Taking a magnanimous step back, Odysseus gestured at the door. “Go ahead and enjoy the remainder of your last track practice. Bureaucratic nonsense will all be processed by tomorrow.”
Red in the face and utterly humiliated, Ajax shot up and stormed out of the classroom, kicking over chairs and tables in his wake. Odysseus sighed tragically and shook his head.
“I thought I was teaching high school seniors, not eight-year-olds.”
Then settled a moment of stillness, filled with the ambient noise of a high school afternoon. Something distinctively strange had just happened— despite the most commonly proliferated trope of useless adults in teen media, here was a teacher that actually did something. Something heroic, at that, something for the sake of justice, and it was successful.
Iphigenia was the first to react, too abuzz with excitement to sit still. Hopping off her perch, she made a couple of jerky gestures of triumph, good manners barely keeping in place.
“So I know it’s rude to cheer,” she prompted, and Odysseus just shrugged.
“I’m not your mother.”
Permission basically granted, Iphigenia let out a loud whoop and punched the air. “It’s not the most moral thing to do, to revel in someone else’s misery,” she said giddily, “but I hate his guts. I hate him I hate him I hate him, he deserves to be unhappy after all the crap he fed others.”
“Legally, I can’t comment on that.”
Joining Iphigenia in smiles and laughter, Patroclus flashed her a thumbs up. “Congrats! You got your A+ presentation and you handed Ajax’s ass to him. A job well done.”
“Thank you,” she said, throwing her arms around Patroclus and hugging him tight. “You know, you’re not bad! Like, at all! Who would just step up like that and help a random stranger?”
“Briseis,” Patroclus answered. Then, with a self-conscious smile for Achilles, “this guy over here, too.”
“You’re all my heroes,” Iphigenia gushed. Clearing his throat, Odysseus made a distinctly uncomfortable expression and put his hands on his hip.
“Oh boy, now to make things awkward again. Regarding the instance of bullying, Ajax will receive his punishment, and Iphigenia is absolved of all charges. Achilles, you claimed you were only pulling them apart, and since no one has refuted that claim you won’t be punished, either.” When Odysseus turned his solemn expression on Patroclus, the joyous air that once occupied the room instantly dissipated; the smile faded from Patroclus’ lips. “But for you, Patroclus, the situation is different. You were directly involved in the fight, and I must say, that doesn’t look too good for you.”
Especially given your track record at your previous school. Never accuse Achilles of not being perceptive— Odysseus’ meaningful look, the way Patroclus’ fist clenched on the tabletop, it all confirmed what had only been rumor. Sure, Achilles didn’t know the details, but he didn’t have to. It didn’t change a thing.
(Or, well, it didn’t change much. An afternoon like this, everything was changing.)
“Ajax was the instigator,” Achilles snapped. Yes, the accompanying palm slamming against his table was probably on the melodramatic side, but Achilles didn’t care. Anything to take that awful, bitter look from Patroclus’ face. “Ask anyone who was there.”
“It seems the rest of the student body isn’t as eager as you to defend Patroclus’ honor,” Odysseus drawled, and Patroclus ducked his head in embarrassment. “Or earn the ire of Ajax, as the case may be.”
“It was self-defense,” Achilles bit out. “I was there, Iphigenia was there. We both say the same thing.”
Throwing his hands up, Odysseus leveled Patroclus with an incredulous look, ignoring Iphigenia’s fervent nodding. “Sorry, I wasn’t aware you had hired an attorney. Will he be parading in witnesses later?”
Patroclus ended up having to physically shove Achilles back into his seat, covering his mouth as Achilles yelled If it’ll end this sham trial I can do that— Achilles would be worried about Patroclus getting mad, had Patroclus not been fighting down a small, wonderful smile the whole time. When he straightened to talk to Odysseus again though, Patroclus was pokerfaced, his jawline tense and cut like stone.
“Your statement, defendant?” There was a very specific way Odysseus pursed his lips at his most sarcastic, and Achilles shoved down the urge to punch it off his face. Patroclus though, was no damsel in distress; he cocked his head and blinked once before answering.
“That seems like a fair defense to me, your honor: self-defense and He Started It.” The acerbic tone and the faintly accusatory posture and the self-effacing quirk of his lips— Achilles found it utterly charming. And brilliant, and amazing, because not anyone can make Odysseus take a step back in surprise; Achilles kept himself from victoriously flipping Odysseus off, but didn’t bother reigning in his smirk. And Patroclus wasn’t done yet. “And, to be honest, I don’t see why it’d be harder to let me off the hook— you’ve already absolved Iphigenia. Ajax was guilty, he antagonized and then attacked me. No one else is claiming otherwise, no one else can.”
There was one beat where every particle in the room shifted and swiveled, where all the air and all the people aligned to one side to stand behind Patroclus; imperceptible changes in postures, perhaps, made all the difference. Odysseus was really too smart to go against that. Huffing a laugh, Odysseus lifted his arms in surrender.
“Then I rest my case. Patroclus and Iphigenia are free to go— stay on your toes though. In my experience angry white boys with a grudge are the worst to have as enemies. Achilles, you know the drill.”
“I sit around and bother you for an hour, sure.” When the situation called for it, Achilles had a great villainous cackle. “Have fun trying to get work done.”
As Patroclus and Iphigenia got up to leave, Odysseus could be heard faintly muttering The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Achilles cracked his knuckles and sprawled back into his chair; he meant what he said, if Odysseus was going to punish him he wasn’t going to make it easy on the man. He did take a second to grin and wave bye to the two at the door, however, and kept Patroclus’ lingering glance all the way around the threshold.
“You know, it’s funny,” Odysseus said once the proverbial dust all settled. He had his elbows on his desk, his chin pressed against his steepled fingertips. “First you’re the golden boy, then you’ve got a problem with authority— with my authority— and now you’re the champion of the underdogs? Just when I think I’ve got you pegged, you turn around and completely defy all expectations. Why is that?”
Achilles’ smile was all teeth.
“Don’t try to tell me what to do.”
Chapter 3: Too many war wounds, not enough wars
**edited on Feb 18
Patroclus walked Iphigenia to the main gate before doubling back. He had managed to keep his focus on Iphigenia throughout their back and forth of congratulations and commiserations, but the moment Iphigenia’s bus pulled away, Patroclus’ thoughts instantly returned to Achilles. Specifically, the conversation they were having right before Ajax arrived. The library still ought to be open at this time, if only for a little while longer; he’d wait in there.
Once he was safely tucked away in the dusty rows of nonfiction, Patroclus let out a deep sigh and tried to banish the tension from his back. Approximately 89% of his entire being wanted to just go home and relax after an incredibly long day, but somehow the remaining 11% (the curiosity killed the fucking cat, Pat, why are you sticking your head in this mess bit of his brain) was winning. It kept his forehead pressed against the shelves, his finger idly tracing the spine of Freedom’s Orator. He wanted to know, he really did, how Achilles knew that he had sustained sports injuries. He wanted to know why Achilles stepped in like he had, why Achilles turned against his teammate. Why Achilles was so quick to defend him against Odysseus’ accusation, why Achilles’ eyes so frequently flitted to meet Patroclus’, gaze earnest and interested. Patroclus had not been on the receiving end of that sort of look for ages— what inspired it now, and from Achilles of all people?
Behind him, someone cleared her throat. It was the librarian, looking mistrustful, hands on her hips.
“Young man, can I help you find a book?” she asked suspiciously.
“Um, no thanks, I’m good.”
“Then what are you doing back here?”
The dark and ugly part of Patroclus wanted to sneer and say why, he was just going to start a fire and burn the whole place down. It was probably what she was expecting him to say anyways.
“The library will be closing soon, you’d better leave,” she insisted, fingers digging into the bookshelf like talons. Patroclus quietly marveled at how quickly he had gained this reputation of delinquency at Arcadia— there was very little doubt in his mind race had everything to do with it, and honestly he could handle the ignorant racism, but there seemed to be some absurdly well articulated, well circulated list of everything that could be held against him. Skipped some classes, a snide comment to a rude teacher here and there, refusal to hurl the fag ball back at some basketball player and getting branded as a result. And of course the classic— everybody knows you’re only here ‘cause daddy paid. It made Patroclus want to yell and throw something, made him want to call up his dad and say Are you happy now?
Before the librarian got even more agitated, Patroclus quickly slung his bag back over his shoulder and left, muttering a quick sorry under his breath as he passed her. It was nearly time anyways, he reasoned. His locker was right outside Odysseus’ classroom, he’d take the time to organize it a bit.
This, all this, was a depressingly accurate summation of Patroclus’ life at Arcadia. From a generally sucky public school, the transition to an absolutely horrid private school had been surprisingly difficult— Patroclus hadn’t known he could drop further down the food chain. This one simple thought— Beware the New Kid— had taken root in the school hive mind, and in true Inception style had propagated into a million consequences Patroclus had never even dreamed of expecting. Slurs, both racist and homophobic (but never at the same time— being both queer and Arab was apparently some sort of cognitive dissonance to these people), tossed at him from anonymous crowds, packs of students turning their backs, whispering, casual destruction of property (he’s had to replace his combination lock twice now, once finding it glued shut and the other time just completely smashed, his already scant belongings littering the floor). Patroclus hadn’t expected a warm welcome, considering he was a transferring senior with a criminal record or whatever, but this? This was akin to falling into a pit of spikes, where remaining immobile is an option only because it’s not as horrible as squirming and discovering new ways people can fuck you up.
…Well, it wasn’t like Patroclus was particularly good at immobility, as proven today. One of these days he’d learn his lesson, he’s sure of it (not that he was particularly eager for that day, but nonetheless).
Arriving at Odysseus’ door, he could hear faint chatter inside, and hid a smile at the thought of Achilles holding up to his words— Have fun trying to get work done. Despite sharing second period AP Lit with Achilles, Patroclus had never seen the other boy act out in class toward Odysseus the way he did earlier— so much for the Arcadia’s Golden Boy reputation. Some people just got on Achilles’ nerves, Patroclus figured, and knowing what he did of Achilles from three and a half meager weeks at school, Patroclus actually wasn’t too surprised. There has always been a startling frankness to the way Achilles moved and spoke, the way he gave his opinion like he knew it to be fact. The moment Achilles scoffed and said That guy is a joke, said guy would be condemned to eternal social purgatory. The moment Achilles answered the What does this mean? question in Lit, the class would jump quick on that wagon, agreeing and backing him up like there was no tomorrow.
(The moment Achilles soundly chucked Ajax under the bus for Patroclus— well, a war has started. Between Achilles’ Good and Golden and Patroclus’ pit of condemnation and rejection and woe. Ripples were forming under the surface, trees were falling unseen and unheard— beneath all knowledge, something was building.)
It was actually quite fortunate that Patroclus revisited his locker, because at some point during the day, he had chucked his phone in and forgotten about it (perhaps that was another reason his peers so despised him, the awful Millennial that he was). Upon discovery, the phone buzzed rather angrily, and Patroclus could see the long string of texts from Briseis. Oh crap, he had completely forgotten.
Text me as soon as you’re out, okay? Otherwise I’m just gonna be stressing at work.
Are you strung up by your thumbs? Are you waiting at the gallows?
I can be your one phone call you know. I will literally drop this steaming cup of coffee on this asshole’s head and come get you.
Patpatpatpatpatpatpatpat, c’mon man.
…You forgot your phone, didn’t you? I don’t want to consider the other option, so I’m just gonna accuse you.
PATROCLUS YOU MOTHERFUCKER, YOU FORGOT ABOUT ME DIDN’T YOU. IT’S BEEN TWO HOURS DAMMIT.
That’s it, I’m never talking to you again.
Fumbling with his phone, Patroclus quickly texted, Sorry! Yes I forgot, yes I’m a dick. Sorry sorry sorry.
A minute later: I was worried you prick. I thought Ajax dumped your body off a cliff or something.
Later, Patroclus would blame— something, anything, for his response. The adrenaline crash from a long day, some strange awful impulse, demonic possession— anything, for when he wrote:
Achilles wouldn’t let that happen.
Two seconds after the text sent, Patroclus recognized the end of the world for what it was. Choking back the honest-to-god scream that wanted to come out of his throat, Patroclus settled for flinging his phone into his locker and slamming the door quickly shut. When that wasn’t enough to stifle the hot humiliation climbing up his cheeks, he banged his forehead against his locker as well, a couple of times, to induce situational amnesia.
“Alright, alright, he’s free to go, no need to wreck the school,” Odysseus suddenly said from behind him. Patroclus whirled around, wide-eyed, and the teacher gave him a suspicious once-over. “You know if you’re on drugs you can’t be on school property, right?”
Before Patroclus could protest the slander, Achilles shoved his way out from behind Odysseus, his backpack slung over a shoulder.
“Patroclus!” His grin was blinding. “You waited for me?”
“Um, yeah.” A+ for eloquence there, Pat.
“Sweet.” Achilles was utterly unfazed, and deliberately maneuvered so he was in Odysseus’s way, offering an arm to Patroclus. Over Achilles’ head, Odysseus rolled his eyes, but settled back against his door with an amused expression. “Let’s get out of here then.”
“Yeah, let me just uh, get my phone.”
Entirely too conscious of the curious looks Achilles and Odysseus sent his way as he rummaged through his textbooks, Patroclus snatched his phone and tossed it into his bag, determinedly ignoring the flashes of text he could see on his screen. When he turned around, he was faced once more with Achilles’ sweet smile. Rather helplessly, Patroclus took Achilles’ proffered arm and let Achilles walk him away, Odysseus utterly forgotten behind them.
“It’s nice of you to wait up,” Achilles said, once they cleared the school building and the fog-strewn sunlight lit bright his hair. Handfuls of students were scattered all over the quad, and immediately, Patroclus moved to free his arm. To his surprise, Achilles tightened his hold, looking immensely satisfied when Patroclus instinctively leaned in close. Arm-in-arm like this, the two boys crossed the cement quad, Achilles guiding and Patroclus stumbling along, desperately hiding how shell-shocked he felt. “You must be busy, right? I never see you after school.”
“Ah no, I don’t really—” Patroclus hesitated to explain, but when Achilles peered back over his shoulder with that earnest, open expression, the words came pouring out. “Usually, I go help out at the senior center across the street from my house if I don’t have too much work to do. It’s nothing official though, so they won’t miss me for a day or two.”
“Whoa, a regular saint,” Achilles grinned. “That’s really cool of you. I just run and train for track, most days. Well, I also do mixed martial arts in the evenings.”
“Sounds like plenty to me. I know how demanding training can be.”
“Right, ‘cause you used to play soccer, right?”
Patroclus spun around, arm slipping out of Achilles’ grip in surprise (he didn’t know how to react to Achilles’ expression of disappointment so he just pretended he didn’t see). “How did you know I used to play soccer?”
“Are you kidding? I went to every single one of your games last season,” Achilles said cheerfully, like Patroclus’ world wasn’t doing loop-de-loops around him. “We had a track meet over by State once and I watched your game. You were incredible man, you always gave a hundred percent. The control you had was insane, and you were so fast, damn, I loved watching you on that field.”
The concrete overhang of the quad was apparently doing nothing to keep out the heat— Patroclus felt his face get humiliatingly hot, and Achilles’ continued bright smile wasn’t helping matters. Through the buzz of panicky static in Patroclus’ head, Briseis’ voice surfaced, calm and snappy: Thank him you idiot. How many times do I have to tell you to acknowledge compliments?
“Ah, thanks,” he managed awkwardly. Knee-jerk reaction: “But c’mon, you’re the incredible one. Every time you run you own that track, there’s literally no competition.”
Achilles shrugged, taking the praise as his due (which it most certainly was). Then a wicked grin broke across his face. “We should race sometimes.”
“Dude, I just said you have no competition.”
“I’ll give you like, a 50% head start.”
“…Bitch.” Patroclus couldn’t help his chuckle as Achilles tossed his head back in gleeful, cheeky laughter. “Fine, tomorrow then, since you’re so keen on crushing my ego to dust.”
“Only a little bit, I swear. But I gotta go, unfortunately. I’ll definitely see you tomorrow though.”
“Cool. See you then.”
Play it cool, Patroclus told himself, his carefully schooled features, his stiffly held shoulders, his feet aching to drum a frantic beat into the ground. Definitely, Achilles had said, as he smiled and waved and left. Patroclus didn’t have any recollection of making bosom friends as a young kid— the supposedly easy sandbox relationship that was pure resonance of kindred souls (or some other hippie-dippie shit). Friendship was, to the best of his current knowledge, the thing he shared with Briseis— which was, amongst many things, admiration, appreciation, insecurity, guilt over insecurity, and a constant thrum of disbelief at her returning to his side every single time. Even Iphigenia, who was more of a friendly acquaintance at this point than a solid friend, had been bestowed upon her the unfortunate present of Patroclus’ anxiety; tomorrow she may return with doubt on her mind of Patroclus’ intentions and that would be completely within her right. Such was the friendships of an older caliber, of maturation, Patroclus had figured. General pleasantry with a healthy dose of self-consciousness everywhere.
But with Achilles— well, it’s not like Patroclus wasn’t self-conscious. The complete opposite was true, in fact. However, it was a different species of feeling, something less mired in guilt and more in eye-brightening ego. What buzzed under Patroclus’ skin wasn’t the spiraling thoughts of Wow I fucked up she can’t possibly like me anymore and then I’m an asshole imposing these judgments on her and then I’m an asshole she can’t possibly like me anymore and so on and so forth. No, the way Achilles kept him on edge was significantly different, more along the lines of mutual sneaked glances and then accidentally dropping glassware. It inspired the same kind of recklessness in Patroclus that had led to arguments with seniors, smart-mouthing at teachers. It made him rather eager to attend school tomorrow, which was an altogether foreign feeling.
Starting home, Patroclus remembered Achilles wouldn’t let that happen and the end of the world. God, what Briseis must be thinking! But he found that he couldn’t quite bring himself to regret it— he was at once mortified and fascinated by himself right now, like the feeling when you looked at a picture someone else had taken of you (and you looked okay, solidly decent, maybe even good). How embarrassing, how fun.
(And later that night, Patroclus would finally garner the courage to look at his phone, and find that Briseis had more or less echoed his thoughts, in a series of explosions and exclamation mark emojis, alongside a long string of lowercase then capital o’s. Insecurity would be the farthest thing from Patroclus’ mind.)
Chapter 4: I need a new partner in crime (and you shrug)
Shout out to the lovely folks who commented! Y'all keep me going in my time of need.
In this chapter: my insistent characterization of Achilles as a well-intentioned fuckboi comes head to head with Patroclus' social anxiety
The next morning Patroclus found Achilles at his door. Or rather, as Patroclus closed his door behind him and started down the street, Achilles sprinted up behind and grabbed his shoulder. Unfortunately familiar with getting jumped, Patroclus immediately swung around, his fist leading, which would’ve clocked Achilles right across the temple had Achilles not blocked with his elbow.
“Fuck, you scared— Don’t do that.”
Achilles’ morning-bright smile crumpled into upset horror. “Shoot, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Coursing through Patroclus wasn’t the type of discomfort that he could actively resolve, so he settled for a hand-wave and a shrug. Whatever, an early morning shot of adrenaline was more effective than coffee anyways. Achilles, however, still frowning, slipped his hand along Patroclus’ arm, turning them both so they started down the street again. So confused was Patroclus that he didn’t realize Achilles’ goal— taking Patroclus’ school bag for him— until it happened.
“…Um, you really don’t have to do that.”
Completely ignoring Patroclus, Achilles batted his hands, still weakly grasping at his bag, away. “Aren’t you gonna ask me how I knew where you lived?”
“Oh yeah, should you even be here? Don’t you have morning track practice?”
“Not on Wednesdays.” Achilles had obviously been training by himself then; he was healthily flushed with exercise, and his hair was wetted down like he had it after running yesterday. When Patroclus made another swipe for his bag, Achilles danced out of his way, walking backwards and practically pouting. “C’mon Pat, don’t you want to know? What if I’m a creepy stalker that followed you home and watched you through your bedroom window?”
“Well, no.” Patroclus found that thought surprisingly easy to reject. For one, he had watched Achilles get on his bus yesterday. “I told you I volunteer at the senior center across the street, and this is the only senior center in the neighborhood. You probably just jogged up and down the block until you saw me come out of my house.” There was an element of delightful childishness in the blink of Achilles’ eyes and the angle of his smiles that made Patroclus want to tease and prod at him— this must be how Odysseus felt about Achilles. Patroclus would feel a spark of kinship toward the teacher, had Odysseus not been such an ass yesterday. Unable to help himself, Patroclus added, “or even better, maybe you weren’t sure I lived across from the back or front entrance of the center, so you kind of madly sprinted around the whole block, hoping you’d catch me before I leave.”
With an offended-looking pout, Achilles muttered, “did you see me or something?” Which was entirely too much. Heart still thumping a bit wildly from the earlier scare, Patroclus couldn’t stifle his laughter at this ridiculous boy’s antics.
“Why did you do it? Who even does stuff like that?” he wheezed.
“Me, I do,” Achilles answered mulishly. “I told you I’d see you today, and I wasn’t sure when you’d get to school.”
“You do realize we have second period together, right?”
“That’s too late. I wanted to see you before class started.”
“Then wait by my locker, you saw where it is yesterday.”
The lines of Achilles’ brow were hilariously tragic. “Is this no good then? Should I have not done it?”
Patroclus quickly waved away his woe. “No, no, I’m not offended or anything. Just, you had to do something entirely unnecessary.”
“And now you probably think I’m dumb and I smell.”
“No, you smell—” When Patroclus realized, it was too late, and the word stumbled out anyways. “—good.”
Cue the reign of embarrassing silence, during which Patroclus got redder and Achilles smugger. With the flare of a performer (who knew he had an audience), Achilles yanked off his hair tie and shook out his damp locks, the blond curls tumbling down the back of his neck and over his shoulders. It was a trademark Achilles thing, the river of literal gold flashing behind him as he sprinted around the track. Eager to change the subject, Patroclus blurted, “Why do you keep your hair so long?”
“Oh!” Hair tie dangling between his teeth, Achilles raked his hair back as he spoke. “Once I was sparring this guy. He got a grip on my hair and managed to hit me a couple of times, and he said my hair would only get in my way, I’m a wuss, etc. etc. So I beat his ass and swore to never cut it.”
Delightful, yet worrisome childishness. The utter pettiness of the reason aside (because really, if Patroclus knew anything about high schoolers, it was that they were all rather prone to the spitefulness of people uncomfortably growing up), who would admit to something like that so easily and shamelessly? All of a sudden, Achilles’ head snapped around, hair tumbling free again.
“Do you think I should cut it?”
Patroclus wanted to ask if it’d make a difference what he thought, but he knew, by the way Achilles gripped Patroclus’ bag closer to him, that it would absolutely make a difference. So quickly, Patroclus shook his head. Satisfied, Achilles started on his hair again, hair tie slipped around his wrist this time.
“Sometimes though, it’s a pain in my ass,” he confessed. “It tangles and sticks to everything when I’m running. Your hair is fantastic.”
“Ah— thanks, I guess.” Last night, when Patroclus’ mind was helplessly teeming with worried thoughts of meeting Achilles the next day, it had anticipated a lot (seriously a lot) of embarrassment on Patroclus’ part. It hadn’t predicted this particular source of embarrassment though, how keen Achilles seemed to be on complimenting Patroclus, because he was still going:
“Seriously, it’s so wavy and luscious like you’re a hair model or something” and:
“Like, casual and cool, like you don’t put much effort in you just woke up like this” and:
“Very Top Model. Hella Project Runway.”
“Okay you’re just making fun of me at this point,” Patroclus felt obliged to point out, once the hotness had faded from his cheeks. Achilles made a noncommittal gesture, then reached out to tousle Patroclus’ hair, which started Patroclus’ blush anew, the asshole. Weakly, he said, “I don’t even think you watch those shows.”
“Diomedes does,” Achilles said with a faint scowl, “which means I as good as watch it. He sometimes climbs through my window and recaps Project Runway at me, then eats all my food.”
The mention of Diomedes made Patroclus suddenly uneasy. It was a reminder, after all, of the utterly different social castes Patroclus and Achilles occupied. Names like Achilles and Diomedes were followed by the stars of the track team and Oh yes what nice boys; names like Patroclus were followed by hmm and better play it safe and stay away, you know what I mean? Sure, talking and walking (and flirting? yeah right, in your dreams Pat) with Achilles seemed easy now, seemed wonderful and exciting in an almost-empty quad and sunset at a bus stop, but at school? In the hallways, with the slamming lockers and rumor-hungry eyes of their two thousand-count student body? Patroclus felt claustrophobic already, and they were still a whole five blocks away.
Picking up on Patroclus’ sudden downswing mood, Achilles ducked his head in front of Patroclus, frowning in worry again. “Hey,” he said, all fretting and gentle, and Patroclus felt so bad. “I’m sorry, what did I say?”
“Nothing, nothing.” It’s not you it’s me. Achilles’ expression hardened.
“Is it Diomedes? Has he done something to you?”
Patroclus quickly decided to ignore how personal Achilles made that question, and actually thought back to when he first met Diomedes. “No, nothing like that. He’s— He’s actually a good guy.”
And it’s true. The senior was, obviously, a star of the track team in par in popularity with Achilles— which meant he got away with being openly and avidly bisexual. Of course Patroclus didn’t wish homophobia-induced bullying or exclusion for anyone, but as a resident bullied-and-excluded queer kid, it was hard not to feel a tug of jealousy and bitterness at the way people gushed over Diomedes’ bravery for being out, when they jeered at Patroclus for the same reason. But the one time Patroclus had thought of going to the GSA at their school (which ended up a bust due to, once again, the students side-eyeing him), he had met Diomedes at the door, who was so earnest and enthusiastic that it was impossible for Patroclus to harbor any negative feelings toward him. Rather like Achilles, in fact. The two, while completely opposite in outward appearance— Achilles tall but Diomedes taller, Achilles’ blond curls and Diomedes’ cropped brunet spikes, Achilles’ olive skin with decidedly European features and Diomedes’ dark brown skin with his Brazilian-Japanese mixed looks— actually bore much resemblance. Both tended toward attention-seeking behavior in classes (though from what Patroclus could tell, Achilles scored more often on the Good Student side while Diomedes tended more on the Cheeky Shit side), both effortlessly walked the line between Funny and Asshole required of jocks. Diomedes, however, was warm where Achilles was bright, and therein laid the crucial divide between the two; in a culture that adored its binaries, Arcadia students in Camp Achilles accused Diomedes of being a flighty manwhore while those in Camp Diomedes called Achilles an uppity fuckboy. As if it had to be one or the other, as if there was no in between. Achilles didn’t give two shits, obviously, since nobody called him any names to his face, and Diomedes gleefully encouraged this divide in the way of Internet trolls— so it kept. It was all a horribly transparent farce though, as Briseis explained to Patroclus with an incredible amount of eye-rolls. One of those prominent yet ultimately ridiculous and insubstantial parts of their school culture.
Patroclus, for his part, hasn’t exactly had the time or ability to participate in this weird custom of Arcadia. He only knew what he did through Briseis, and explained as much to Achilles. “I don’t really know the guy, obviously. I just met him once at GSA.”
Achilles’ eyebrows shot up. Dropping both his and Patroclus’ bags at his feet, Achilles’ hands shot out to grab a startled Patroclus by the shoulders.
“You’re gay?” he exclaimed, and Patroclous thought, oh no.
“Yes,” he said stiffly, “is that a problem—”
“Then Briseis isn’t your girlfriend,” Achilles stated more than asked, then threw his head back in laughter. “No, no, of course it’s not a problem why would it be a problem? I’m just—” Achilles’s hands thumped down on Patroclus’ shoulders a couple of times, like an overenthusiastic uncle at a family feast. “—just checking. That’s cool. That’s very cool. I mean, we live in San Francisco for fuck’s sake, how can it be a problem?”
“Oh you’d be surprised,” Patroclus muttered, and Achilles’ expression at once darkened.
“Anyone gives you shit, you should tell me, I’ll fuck them up.” At Patroclus’ bemused face, Achilles quickly added, “not that you can’t do it yourself, just—”
“You’re a finely-honed killing machine?” Patroclus joked.
“For you I can be,” Achilles replied, a bit too earnestly. “Give me your number though, I’m serious. Hit me up whenever.”
“There actually aren’t that many people in my life that needs beating up, y’know,” which may be a lie, depending on how one defines many.
“Then hit me up even when you don’t need me to punch anyone,” Achilles said stubbornly. “We can get lunch. Also tell me your schedule.”
“Achilles.” For all that Achilles looked like a wronged puppy, Patroclus steeled himself, knowing he had to be stern about this. It wasn’t that he suspected any of Achilles personally, it’s just that, well, a lifetime’s worth of cautious mistrust kept Patroclus from wanting to dive headfirst into whatever scenario Achilles was trying to play out. “Look, nothing personal, but that’s just a little too much right now, you know?” When it became obvious that Achilles didn’t, in fact, know, Patroclus sighed, scratching the back of his head. He could rip a homophobic douchebag a new one like a stone-cold bitch, but when it came to stuff like earnest discussions with people he cared for even a little, his vocabulary righted a barricade at the back of his throat and went on strike for better pay. His heart palpitations could register a 4 on the Richter scale. “You helped me out yesterday, which I am very grateful for, obviously. But, I mean, we’re not best friends, you know? Even if you’re a super friendly guy, I’m not like that. There’s not a popular bone in my body, it’s hard for me to socialize and just be friends with everyone like you. So I guess I just need some time and space, you know what I mean?”
Patroclus, who was expecting some kind of awkward, if not downright hostile rebuff from Achilles, was surprised to find Achilles scuffing his shoes along the pavement and nodding along, eyes downcast and looking chastised.
“Shit dude, I’m so sorry. I really am.” Achilles grabbed Patroclus’ bag at his feet and held it out in apology. “I know I come on strong— ah crap, I just really like you. Like a lot. But you’re right, it’s no excuse. I can leave, do you need me to leave?”
There were approximately four minutes until bell rang for the start of class, and Patroclus quickly sorted through his options. One, say yes, and let Achilles take off feeling guilty. This he dismissed for numerous reasons, the most prominent being, well, he didn’t want Achilles to leave. Chill out, sure, but not leave Patroclus alone altogether (at least not without promise of a later meeting). Plus, that might backfire on him down the road, if Achilles wasn’t in fact the lovely (if kind of pushy) boy he acted like now, and turned on Patroclus. Honestly it was tough to imagine worse treatment at school, but having witnessed Achilles’ bullheadedness with regards to Odysseus, Patroclus was rather sure Achilles could manage. He didn’t want Achilles as an enemy— not so much in the self-defense way, he really truly wanted to be friends. Careless dismissal was out of the question.
Option two, walk to school with Achilles. Which, fuck no. That was just— that was way too much in the opposite direction of option one. People would stare, people would glare, people would whisper and gossip and make shit up about him (and not Achilles, of course, Patroclus was savvy enough in school politics to know the guy had immunity to probably everything the students could throw at him). Patroclus wanted to run away just thinking about it.
(The ultimate, tragic difference between Patroclus and Achilles: Patroclus ran away while Achilles ran straight fucking forward, daring as an arrow. The same way he came running to Patroclus this morning, while Patroclus fought now against every instinct in his body just to stay standing next to Achilles.)
Option three then, was left. Forfeit this round of the social game, try again later. Risk was present, of course— he could still fall out of Achilles’ favor before later comes around, they could come to the same impasse even if they tried again. But it was the only option Patroclus’ neurotic brain would let him have at the moment; he needed to bluff this shitty hand for— two more minutes. Then he could take blissful refuge in easy CompSci.
“Um, it’s fine,” Patroclus spoke carefully. “Why don’t you go ahead of me to class, but I’ll see you second period?”
And Achilles, having stood utterly still this entire time (to give Patroclus space? maybe he really was as wonderful as Patroclus wanted him to be), dipped his head and became animated once more. Patroclus took the proffered bag, slightly embarrassed that Achilles had to hold it out for so long.
“Yes! Second period, I can do that. Well actually, you should go ahead of me— you’ve got CompSci, right? I’ve got Gov with Collins, it’s not a problem if I’m late.”
“Sure, okay.” And Achilles with his stupid dumb earnest face, apologetic smile, he even stood aside to make way for Patroclus to pass. His entire existence was apparently the playboy hero of a romcom, Patroclus could recognize that much— a harmless casual fuckboy waiting for the right girl to come along and show him the way to Bigger and Better and Two-point-five Children. No way Achilles would ever settle for an unsociable queer kid like Patroclus.
This was the thought Patroclus carried with him to first period, desperately trying to convince himself it was comforting, only to have his hopes dashed to pieces by one unamused look Briseis leveled at him.
“You’re doing that thing again,” Briseis said nonchalantly as she changed the school’s Mac background to a picture of Shrek as she did religiously every morning. “Where you speak two sentences in a conversation but actually end up climbing four mountains in your head.”
“Last time you said it was a good thing,” Patroclus grumbled, pulling up an Excel spreadsheet and beginning to mess around with numbers and formulas. Mr. Borne would be coming around to check on their “class participation” in about fifteen minutes, so everybody was getting something up on their screens to get the easy ten points.
“It is a good thing if you’re about to make three precious wishes with a genie,” Briseis answered, opening up a saved document of codes Patroclus couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Briseis’ torrid love affair with computer language translated into easy A’s in the class, but the one time Patroclus asked her to teach him, it ended with an afternoon-long fight which ultimately culminated in teary-eyed midnight phone calls, and the two of them resolved never to try to teach one another anything ever again. “It’s probably an exhausting thing when having a conversation with a boy who loves you.”
“Will you please stop saying that?” Patroclus whispered crossly, and Briseis just rolled her eyes.
“Listen, the guy—” She cut herself off when Ajax shoved through the door, two of his teammates scurrying behind. Too cool to look around, Ajax headed straight for the back of the room— as anticipated, because Briseis and Patroclus had already placed themselves at the inside corner of the front. They weren’t avoiding Ajax out of fear, of course; they just didn’t want any more confrontations that were sure to be more trouble than they’re worth. Briseis turned back to Patroclus, resuming the conversation, albeit with a lighter, more comfortable slope to her shoulders. “Let’s get the facts out real quick. Achilles came to your house this morning, which is creepy, but he knew where you lived because of one casual comment you made yesterday, which means he’s paying attention and thinking about you. And then he carried your bag, asked for your number and your schedule? Yes, kinda douchey and ridiculous, but what about that doesn’t scream I have a crush to you? He literally wrote it on a sign and stapled it to his forehead.”
“Literally,” Patroclus parroted with a sardonic look. Briseis just stuck her tongue out. “But c’mon dude, he’s so— straight. Just, so straight. He runs track, he does martial arts, he stands up for people in the hallways and gets into fights, everyone loves him and he’s so fucking well-adjusted, it’s ridiculous.”
“You just listed a handful of his characteristics and one of them is wrong.” The press of Briseis’ lips was completely, utterly unimpressed. “Guess which? Spoiler: he’s not straight.”
“Who? Achilles?” Iphigenia’s arrival was surprisingly smooth, considering she was only a passing acquaintance with Patroclus and Briseis yesterday. Today, Briseis had saved her a computer, patted the chair and easily welcomed her into their conversation. Patroclus offered a tentative smile of greeting, and Iphigenia grinned winningly as she handed over two cups of Starbucks. “These are thanks for yesterday! Dunno your orders, so I just judged by the cover, tell me if you hate it. And yeah, Achilles definitely has something going on for you, Pat. I’ve had some classes with him, chatted a couple of times, right? Yesterday? In Odysseus’? Yeah, I’ve only ever seen him stare that hard at a differential.”
Patroclus’ hands flew through the air in some desperate attempt at reigning the conversation back to manageable levels, while Briseis got her unimpressed face down to an art and Iphigenia propped her chin on her hands, eyes all bright and lashes aflutter with interest. That was when Borne decided to pass through as well, allowing Patroclus another handful of minutes to gather his thoughts.
“Alright,” he began again, slowly, after Borne had given all three of them checks (Iphigenia received a check despite her minimal screen and an apologetic look) and passed out of earshot. “Suppose, y’know, that he is interested. Well I guess that just makes me nervous because what am I supposed to expect? Does he want to hold hands with me in the hallway? Or is this gonna be this closeted thing and his friends are gonna beat me up in the locker room?”
“That is a very valid concern,” Briseis allowed, “and a useless topic of speculation because the only way you can find out is by dating him.”
“Unless you really don’t want to?” Iphigenia asked.
“Unless you really don’t want to, yeah.”
In the small amount of time Patroclus had known Briseis, he has become quite familiar with her nosy-yet-ultimately-supportive-friend face, and right now, he was getting double the dose in Iphigenia. Objectively, Patroclus knew this was the best kind of support to get: they were invested in the outcome of the situation, but not that it would come at the expense of Patroclus’ cumulative happiness. But he couldn’t help wanting someone to just tell him what to do already. To date or not to date— that wasn’t even the question. To get to know Achilles or not?
…Well, when the question was phrased like that, the answer seemed annoyingly clear. Of course he should get to know Achilles— he wanted to, so damn bad. He wanted to know the exact ratio of good to carelessness in the dumb boy’s head this morning; he wanted to know Achilles’ relationship to the world, if Achilles knew how everything bent to his will or if he was ignorant; he wanted to know why Achilles could spend all his attention and efforts onto someone like Patroclus and not consider them wasted.
“Your face tells me you’ve made a decision,” Briseis murmured with a smug smile.
“Dude,” Iphigenia marveled, “don’t ever play poker.”
“Fine, so you two win this round.” The two girls exchanged a proud high-five, and Patroclus chuckled in defeat. “But now it’s on you to help me come up with a plan.”
Chapter 5: I didn't come for a fight (but I will fight 'til the end)
For my dearest, Monika—
thanks for kicking my ass into gear and finally finishing this chapter.
Sorry y'all for the slooooow update. Have a fun chapter featuring redeeming Achilles, sensible Patroclus, chill Odysseus, and ridiculous flirt Diomedes.
And I definitely ship Iphigenia/Polyxena, I'll have you know right now.
Achilles spent all of first period texting Polyxena, then Diomedes when Polyxena proved too sensible for his tastes. The first text to both of them were the same:
Polyxena, seated in her last row of English and paying little mind to the pseudo-philosophical, mostly-pretentious class discussion of Sartre’s No Exit, had been quick to respond (like Achilles knew she would be).
In a series of seven texts, Achilles relayed exactly what went down that morning, how great it had been, how quickly it all fell apart, how he was sure to fuck up again come second period and Patroclus would hate him and the world would be over. Polyxena’s reply took several minutes and the typing bubble popping up, then disappearing, then up, then disappearing, then up again to finally arrive.
Okay first, can I just say what a delight it is for you to be a drama queen at me instead of Diomedes? Like, I know this is going to get old real soon, but wow.
Achilles, impatiently: fuck you cmon help me
Second, BOUNDARIES man, seriously. Boundaries.
Boundaries. Okay, yes. Noted and established. Achilles could do boundaries.
And third, calm down yo. So you were kind of a total dick this morning (which, next time? maybe run your decisions through me first? not Diomedes he’s just going to confuse you and end up landing you in jail), but he obviously wanted to think about it? Which is a good thing? Or not, I don’t know. Second period’s in twenty minutes, you’ll find out then I guess. Until then, don’t think you can do much else.
That was when Achilles decided Polyxena wasn’t going to help— not that he knew exactly how she could’ve helped, just that she didn’t. So he texted Diomedes next. It took the fucker an agonizingly long time to reply, and in his agitation, Achilles scrawled line after line of indecipherable scribbles into his notebook. It wasn’t like Collins cared anyways— sure, Achilles didn’t usually mind studying, but when the teacher was as deadbeat as Collins, it was hard to motivate himself to learn anything about the U.S. governing system. Finally, his phone buzzed with the long-awaited text.
Did u kill Ajax n need help hiding the body
Right, as if Achilles would ask Diomedes for help if that were to happen. Everybody knew Polyxena was the biochem wiz and had access to all the good stuff by virtue of being the chemistry TA. Polyxena wouldn’t hide the body, she’d destroy it, and in an environment-friendly way to boot. So, painstakingly, Achilles once more told the tale of the morning, though this time with his supposedly melodramatic flourishes toned down— Polyxena was ultimately decent, and would not give Achilles grief. Diomedes, on the other hand, ought to have a fig leaf covering his face everywhere he went, so Achilles figured better safe than sorry.
lmfao FRIEND, Diomedes replied, his glee apparent in every truncated word, u r one awk mofo. jfc that’s hysterical.
Great, nice to see ur enjoying this. Now HELP ME.
flowers and chocolates brother, that’s the secret. Swhat I’m giving to Penelope.
…Penelope the Principal?
the one and only
Isn’t she married to Odys? (Achilles took vindictive pleasure in abbreviating Odysseus’ name in such a stupid way.)
I mean yeah, the flowers are for Penelope, the chocolates are for Odysseus, duh. I’m nobody’s side ho u bitch
Skillfully compartmentalizing the fact that one of his good friends has apparently got his eyes on not just one, but two faculty members (who are married; at the same time), Achilles briefly entertained the thought of getting Patroclus flowers and chocolates. Patroclus would appreciate the sentiment, he thought, but only if he did it in private. It didn’t take long for Achilles to understand that Patroclus really had a thing about public exposure— which Achilles might not particularly get, but was fully willing to respect. Grand gestures were out of the question, which Achilles was determined not to let become a handicap. And besides, Achilles needed a solution that was more immediate, anyways, like in time for second period in fifteen minutes. At this point, it was clear any and all of Diomedes’ suggestions would be inappropriate and full of crap, so Achilles swiped back to his chat with Polyxena.
What do I even saaaaaaaaaaaay
“Sorry I was an ass, I’ve thought about everything I did wrong and I won’t do it again. Here’s a five-page essay with cited sources on how much I won’t do it again.”
I mean I can do that
Because the first thing Achilles did in class was, obviously, reflect on what he did wrong. The list was large, and full of regrets. He continued texting: Do u think I should address each point specifically, like I won’t ever go to your house without your explicit permission again. Because boundaries, right?
…Meet me after class?
Achilles blinked at the sudden, strangely solemn (was it?) text.
But I have to prep to talk to Patroclus.
Real quick. I’ll see you at your locker.
What was Achilles supposed to do but comply? As he ambled out of Gov ten minutes before the bell rang (the ability to do so was as much a Collins-thing as an Achilles-thing), he briefly considered getting irritated— but the inclination to do so wasn’t strong at all, seeing as he was really more curious than troubled at this point.
When he got to his locker, Polyxena was already there, with nothing but a notebook in hand and looking restless.
“I figured you’d skip out early, so I told the teacher I was going to the bathroom,” she explained with a wry, but mostly nervous smile. “Cassandra will get my stuff for me next period and give it to me before third.”
“What did you want to talk about?” Achilles asked, smacking his lock open and slinging his stuff in. The series of motions were choreographed to look as effortless as possible— this was the casual kind of thing people often forgot went into building and maintaining a reputation. Achilles was Achilles because he remembered, because he kept it up, even when his audience is only Polyxena.
“Well, tell me if I’m overstepping or anything and I’ll shut up, but, Patroclus?” Day-to-day, Polyxena spoke with the careless flippancy of a beloved daughter, but times of greater ire or gravitas betrayed her well breeding. She was the type of person that, when pressed by greater responsibility, sat up straighter and stared a bit colder, forsaking camaraderie for a rather startling goal-orientedness. First Psych project of the school year, Odysseus assigned partners to interview each other and learn about their families and childhoods, and Achilles was rather stunned when Polyxena’s interview lasted well over an hour, her line of questioning relentless and on point, not stopping until she got everything she wanted. The way Polyxena held herself and pitched her voice now reminded Achilles of that interview— it wasn’t that she looked fearless or was monotone or anything like that, just, there was an elusive, yet undeniably powerful press in her behavior. An application of constant pressure, so the subject doesn’t break, instead is moulded into exactly the shape she needed.
Needless to say, this all put Achilles a bit on edge. For all he flourished under pressure, he didn’t take too kindly to being targeted like this. He reminded himself though, that this was Polyxena, a Good Person. This wasn’t a ploy, this wasn’t a trap.
(At least, Achilles thought grimly, he really didn’t want it to be.)
“What do you want to know?” he asked guardedly, and watched as Polyxena visibly regrouped, considering her next step since Achilles wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
“Are you serious about… liking him?” Maybe that wasn’t the right word, but between the two of them, it was the best one they’ve got— Achilles didn’t do crushes, interested in is a bit of an understatement, and love was just plain creepy at this point. The most correct word would probably be court, actually, which Odysseus would no doubt get a kick out of, chuckling smugly as he waved the required Austen reading in Achilles’ face.
“Of course I am,” he answered, a little bit confused now because the way Polyxena was acting, Achilles thought she wanted to expose some deep dark secret of his (not that he really had any, but it was the principle of the thing). This, he thought, was rather obvious.
“…Are you gay?”
Ah, so this is how Patroclus felt this morning. In the way of children born into excellence and positive attention, Achilles didn’t have particularly strong feelings for the divide between the private and the public— everything was a performance, after all— but Patroclus obviously did. Boundaries. How irritated he must have felt at being asked such an invasive question, alongside the knee-jerk defensive fury at being called gay that came with socialized masculinity. Achilles’ thoughts flitted to the Principal’s special assembly on eradicating homophobia at the school, that the slurs gay and fag intended to emasculate, and were tied into greater systems of misogyny, and to be queer wasn’t any less; it wasn’t the intrinsically inferior state of being people implied when they used the slurs.
“Maybe,” he settled, and Polyxena’s eyes widened in shock. “Probably not, actually.” It’s just Patroclus.
“It’s more likely.” It’s mostly just Patroclus, Achilles wanted to clarify, but obviously, it was sappy talk like that that landed him in this uncomfortable conversation in the first place. Above and all around them, the bell rang for the end of class, and Achilles swallowed a sigh of relief.
“Hey man, thanks for telling me,” Polyxena whispered, with added urgency now as students began to mill around. She had snapped out of her interrogator mode. “Seriously, good luck with Patroclus. I’m sure he’s a great guy.”
She said great guy like the way Diomedes pulled the corners of his lips down in deliberate silence when someone says something clearly wrong. She said I’m sure like really, she wasn’t, but she was willing to act like she was if Achilles needed. There was a moment of uncharacteristic self-doubt, when Achilles wondered why he didn’t, couldn’t, see Patroclus the way Polyxena and Diomedes did. Was there something obvious that he just couldn’t see, some flaw right beneath his nose?
…No, of course not. The thought left as quickly as it came. No, Achilles wasn’t missing anything. Obviously, he was seeing more. From the very first game Achilles watched Patroclus play, he still remembered— the even cast of sun through the pall of fog and Patroclus, lit like a supermodel in center spread. He remembered other high school students milling about, headed for the mall or the branch library, and Achilles wondering why. Why were they turning away and leaving when so obviously, there was a god in their midst? Achilles watched the winning shot, the game-ending whistle. The victory in the raise of everyone’s fists but also the bubble around Patroclus, where hands may breach but never for long, where even his teammates don’t dare trespass. (Boundaries.) It was a confusing scene, like something out of an artsy movie because there was sunlight and green grass and cheering faces in the background but the subject was a lonely boy. It made Achilles curious, and sad, and wonder why. Why this, why the coldness, why the neglect, especially since Achilles himself was so completely adored. It was the same thing now as it was then, a very simple defiance against something disguised as natural— one question, why?
And so, Achilles said, “He is.”
Then again, “He absolutely is.”
And then, fuck it, “I like him a lot.”
“So you were for real! That’s wonderful!” came Diomedes’ voice from behind, lo and behold, a bouquet of flowers twice the size of his face. “Do you want these flowers man? I mean it, they cost a shit ton but anything in the name of love.”
“Aren’t you giving these to the principal?” Achilles asked, and judging by how unsurprised by the statement Polyxena looked, this wasn’t a new development. Huh. Maybe Achilles really ought to pay more attention during their conversations.
“Penelope has a strict no-allergens policy in her office,” Diomedes said mournfully, finally peaking his head out over the top of the bouquet. “Ah, the sensibility of that woman makes and breaks me. So I gave her the chocolates instead! These are for Odysseus.”
“And why, pray tell, would I accept it?” When Odysseus strolled out of the teacher’s lounge and into their circle (which, granted, was on the way to his classroom), Achilles greeted him with a scowl. All sorts of people were popping into their conversation— Achilles glanced over his shoulder to see if maybe Patroclus would appear as well, and the action did not go unnoticed. Diomedes and Polyxena exchanged a meaningful look (well, Polyxena tried for meaningful, Diomedes’ was rather more insinuating and gleeful), which, in turn, did not go unnoticed by Odysseus. So the tale weaved.
“Because it’s not just a present, it’s a challenge,” Diomedes answered, once it was made clear Achilles’ attention had already gone and there was no reeling it back. They did, however, start walking down the hall, and Achilles followed, looking cool and collected but rather blank behind the eyes. It was a look Odysseus recognized from the times he strolled by Collins’ 1˚ Gov. Smugly, he thought that he had never seen Achilles with the same look in his class; for all Achilles kind of despised Odysseus, he respected Odysseus to be a good teacher, and behaved accordingly regarding classwork.
(Class attitude was, obviously, a different story.)
“Challenge what, my sinuses?” Odysseus had a strict policy about dealing with Diomedes— consistent rejection, barely disguised as witticisms and almost cruelly dismissive looks. Not that it seemed to deter the boy one bit. Well no matter, it was only the fourth week of school after all; Odysseus had no doubt Diomedes’ affections would have flittered to something shinier and more appropriate by the end of the grading period. And besides, he was hardly Odysseus’ only suitor— probably though, his only male one. Odysseus had been really quite surprised to witness the amount of casual homophobia in the school, considering they were in San Fran-fucking-cisco. Perhaps it had to do with the nature of a private school— casual classism translated easily to prejudice of all sorts, and someone like Patroclus, tall, Arab, and openly gay (transferred from a public school, nonetheless) took the brunt of it all. Really, for all Odysseus pushed Diomedes away, he was glad Diomedes didn’t suffer the same lot, and could be as out and proud as he wanted.
(That same bleeding heart wanted so bad to help Patroclus as well, but Odysseus knew all too well the intervention of a teacher would hardly make matters better. Someone like Achilles, though— that was a different story. Odysseus would help, just not directly. Play the godparent game. He could do that much.)
So mired in his thoughts was Odysseus that he missed Diomedes’ reply, and only returned his attention to the boy when Diomedes fully stepped in front of him, stopping Odysseus full in his tracks. Polyxena and Achilles continued walking for a little bit, as if obeying inertia, before trailing too to a stop; while Achilles was utterly disinterested, Polyxena angled herself quite politely, so that she could rejoin the conversation any time, but whatever Diomedes and Odysseus have to say next could remain between just the two of them. Which was actually worrying, because what exactly had Odysseus missed for Polyxena to offer Diomedes privacy?
“Sorry, I missed that,” Odysseus said guardedly. “Say again?”
Diomedes blinked once, twice. Then, the flowers held out in front of him like a sword were retracted and slung over a shoulder, his free hand tucked into his pocket. On his lips appeared a wry little smile that— to Odysseus’ rather terrified surprise— reminded Odysseus of Penelope when she caught her husband doing something he shouldn’t. Well that was an unfortunate sign.
Then Diomedes said, “Never mind,” and his attitude was no longer Understanding Wife, but one hundred percent Uppity Teen. “I changed my mind, these aren’t for you.”
“These are for Mrs. Dalloway.” A winning grin. “We’re starting that today, aren’t we? Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself? These are a great way to spice up the opening day for a book, don’t you think? In fact, you ought to give me extra credit.”
“I’m glad to see you’ve been reading your syllabus,” Odysseus said dryly.
“Oh more than that,” Diomedes replied, wiggling his eyebrows way too much to look suave. “You got your books from the teachers’ lounge, didn’t you? Who do you think carried them all the way from the storage room?”
Odysseus, narrowing his eyes, “How did you get access to the storage room?” The vault-like room should not have been so easily breached, considering extra computers and printers were also stored in there. Even if Diomedes had asked another teacher, claiming Odysseus asked him to, it still would’ve been suspect, because Odysseus had a key himself.
“Ms. Scylla,” Diomedes answered breezily. “I love her and she loves me.”
“Ms. Scylla,” Odysseus repeated, brows furrowed and looking for any hint of sarcasm in Diomedes’ face. “Ms. Scylla, the attendance lady?” The attendance lady whose name alone invoked fear amongst students and teachers alike. Penelope often complained about her at home, because it’s gotten to the point where students would rather get an unexcused absence than deliver their doctors’ notes to Ms. Scylla, which would hurt funding in the long run. Once, Odysseus was late in turning in the attendance and got the dirtiest look from the lady, and the most brutal, personally-insulting chewing out he’s gotten since fucking boot camp. “You love her and she loves you?”
“No. More power to you. I’ll have you deliver my attendance strips from now on then. She’s utterly terrifying.”
“Sounds good to me—”
And it was the Achilles show again. The return of his attention meant the return of his audience. Achilles shouldered his way between Diomedes and Odysseus to get at Patroclus, who was approaching from the other side with Iphigenia (Diomedes scowled and Odysseus sighed long-sufferingly). Coming to a screeching halt approximately three feet from Patroclus’ face, Achilles entirely froze into a strange postmodern-composed photo, probably titled “Pining Idiot Gazes Hopefully at True Love.” Iphigenia expertly sidestepped the whole situation, and strolled toward the classroom with pointed nods at every spectator.
(Except, when she got to Polyxena, she broke out a bright grin and introduced herself, leading Polyxena forward by the elbow. With very little resistance, Polyxena followed, a small, wondrous smile crinkling her eyes.)
“Good morning,” Patroclus said bemusedly. “This is the usual time school friends greet each other, by the way.”
“I don’t really operate by ‘usual’ standards,” Achilles replied. The sheer hipster-ness of that statement coupled with Achilles’ utter ignorance of it made Patroclus cringe out a laugh.
“Okay, so here’s my proposed game plan, if you’re down to hear it. Briseis and Iphigenia helped me come up with it, so it’s really worth considering.”
By this point, class has undeniably begun; the last stragglers were dragging themselves out of the hallway, and latecomers were speed walking if not outright sprinting. Odysseus, closing his classroom door, cleared his throat loudly before ducking back in.
“I’m down,” Achilles said. “For sure. We can go somewhere else if you’d like?” Wouldn’t be the first time I skipped Odysseus’ class went unsaid, but Patroclus leveled him with a look like he knew exactly what Achilles was thinking.
“Right, skip his second period incredibly obviously, and then come back for seventh period?”
Achilles’ shrug was very eloquent in communicating exactly this: We don’t have to come back for seventh either. Patroclus groaned and slapped a hand to his forehead.
“Why is it that I get the bad reputation while you, Mister Let’s-Skip-Everything, are beloved and perfect?” He didn’t ask the question particularly sarcastically— rather, he asked with a fond, yet defeated tone. Like it wasn’t meant to be phrased like a rhetorical question, instead like an educational concept. It made Achilles inexplicably guilty, like he had landed a hit on Patroclus somehow by accident.
“You mentioned a game plan?” Achilles prompted. He thought about reaching for Patroclus’ hands as a gesture of earnestness, but remembered boundaries.
“Right. I guess I can make this quick.” Patroclus’ hands made an aborted move to cross over his stomach, like he’s hugging himself. Instead, he placed his hands at his hips, rolling his shoulders back like he’s squaring off for battle. Achilles, in turn, gathered himself in, folding at the seams until he was as compact as possible, to give Patroclus more room in the empty hall. “So you might be wondering about my little freak out this morning.”
“No.” Achilles spoke quickly to set the record straight. “You weren’t happy, I think it was completely justified.”
“…Okay, thank you.” Despite the lack of a smile, there was still a pleased little flush at Patroclus’ neck. “But I guess— Just to explain, I am not too good at this whole… exposure thing. In regards to um, relationships. Friendships, most things like that.”
Achilles waited for Patroclus’ eyes to nervously dart up before nodding intently. “That’s fine, I understand.”
“Well I—” Huffing out a breath in frustration, Patroclus’ arms dropped to his side. “It’s not that you don’t understand, but— You’re not that way. You’re not like me. You can be as out and proud about anything you’d like, you don’t have to hide.”
If Achilles was any less straightforward and any more prone to introspection, he might’ve been hurt by or denied such a blunt assumption-assessment of his personality. As it was, Achilles merely winced, his hand twitching in his hoodie pocket.
“I can, if you’d like me to,” he offered, despite being utterly incapable of even conceiving how he would do that. Would that mean he couldn’t talk with Patroclus at school? Talk about him? Did he already fuck up by telling Polyxena and Diomedes?
Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be what Patroclus had in mind. “No, I refuse to— Not at this school.” Achilles rather loved the determined press of Patroclus’ brow right now. And when Patroclus lifted his head again, Achilles could hear his own heartbeat, loud and fast in his ears. “But first I need to know what you want from me. I can’t make any decisions until I know exactly what you’re asking for, yeah?”
“And—” Patroclus hurriedly pressed on, “—you should think on it. Please. Like, seriously think on it, and then give me an answer afterschool.”
“But I have a list,” Achilles blurted out. When he was met with only a startled stare, Achilles pulled out said list from his inside jacket pocket (because of course he had an inside jacket pocket), holding it up and out as proof. “I mean, I’ll look it over, but I’m ready.”
For what? —Patroclus could hardly ask without beginning the conversation right here, right now, and with a little swallow of regret he didn’t take the list. Achilles, for his part, nodded in acceptance and tucked the list away again. His eyes though— his eyes Patroclus really rather loved— peering up through his lashes almost self-consciously, flitting gaze attentively cataloguing everything Patroclus’ face was doing. It made Patroclus feel precious. It made Patroclus rather self-conscious himself, wondering exactly what his expression gave away, where his own eyes lingered (but damn did Achilles have a great jawline) and the probably unflattering fluorescent light and oh god, was his mouth hanging open? Shit that’s embarrassing—
“Class, then?” Achilles interrupted his thoughts, and unconsciously, Patroclus reached out in an appreciative touch. When Achilles looked with unabashed delight at the hand on his elbow, Patroclus carefully withdrew it at a perfectly sane speed that definitely did not betray his ridiculous heart rate.
“Class,” Patroclus confirmed. Down the hall a security guard was eyeing them (eyeing Patroclus) suspiciously and Patroclus started for Odysseus’ door, side-stepping Achilles. “Meet you here at 3:30?”
A brief warm touch at his elbow. Achilles had stepped up beside Patroclus and mimicked Patroclus’ gesture from before, timed almost identically. Patroclus felt, strangely, a pleasant flush of accomplishment up his arm, down his spine. His lips (eternally helplessly parted, it seemed, in Achilles’ company) turned up in a quick smile.
“I’ll see you then.”
Chapter 6: Land on you (like a sucker punch)
Y'all are beautiful people— thanks for staying with my fluctuating ability to sit down and write.
**WARNING: use of the f-word (the one that's not fuck) in this chapter by Agamemnon. Twice. Oh yeah, Agamemnon arrives. What a dick.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Achilles received the summons from Agamemnon at the end of second period, he tore up the slip of paper with extreme prejudice. Never mind he had been planning on going to see Agamemnon at the exact same time himself— it was the principle of the thing. Now that Agamemnon’s sent for him, it would seem like Achilles was going out of obedience, and had he not made plans with Patroclus after class, Achilles would probably have refused the third period meeting and gone after school instead.
(Such was the nature of the relationship between Arcadia’s star track coach and its star runner— masculine posturing to the point of farce, as Polyxena often liked to describe it.)
So Achilles went, shrugging noncommittally at Diomedes’ offer to skip Marine Bio (“Seriously dude, I was gonna skip anyways, it’s not a big deal”) and barely managing to not stomp the whole way to the gym. He did achieve a calm, assuring smile for Patroclus before he left— no sense having Patroclus feel worried (or worse, guilty) for something that was so clearly not his fault.
The gym sat at the edge of the valley where the track fields were painted, the bottom of its concrete walls steeped in woolly fog. Achilles seemed to burn right through it, Diomedes right behind him, as they entered the obnoxiously loud double doors (Achilles, of course, shoving both open to accommodate his entrance).
“Achilles,” Agamemnon immediately barked, voice pitched deep and echoing in the otherwise-empty building (those who had third period gym were still changing). Diomedes had nothing against Agamemnon, not really, not like Achilles did at any rate, but he still held Agamemnon in low regard— because, well, Agamemnon was not Odysseus. As petty as the reason seemed, it was a constant source of wry humor and irritation on Diomedes’ mind— that, for example, Odysseus would never try to play this hypermasculine bullshit with Achilles, who tend to give as good as he got, not clever enough to try any approach other than the most bullheaded one.
Case in point, Achilles, his voice an insolent growl, “Agamemnon.”
Agamemnon turned his glare on Diomedes, jawline strained with tension.
“You, outside. This is a private talk.”
“I’m here for moral support, coach,” Diomedes said innocently. “Achilles asked me to be here.”
Both Agamemnon and Achilles bristled at the lie— Agamemnon because a teacher can hardly demand to meet privately with a single student, especially if the student had specially requested against a private meeting, and Achilles because pride, ego, blah blah blah. Diomedes figured Achilles could suck it up, because he was throwing himself on the grenade here, dammit, trying to prevent Achilles from getting himself into hotter water. With an angry grunt (which, seriously? caveman much?), Agamemnon turned on his heel and stalked into his office, expecting both Achilles and Diomedes to follow. And of course, Achilles waited at least three impudent beats to begin walking, which meant Diomedes had to be behind him, which meant both of them became Agamemnon’s source of ire. Great. There went Diomedes’ letter of recommendation.
The office was familiarly hot and humid, because not only was it connected to both the locker room showers and the larger gym, but it was also connected to Agamemnon’s manly pride, refusing AC and basking in man musk. At this point, Diomedes was much too accustomed with it to mind, but it had always struck him as compensation, of some sort. Someone like Odysseus hardly needed to flaunt proof of his manhood like Agamemnon did, though there was that one afternoon Diomedes caught Odysseus pulling his sleeves high up on well-muscled biceps and stripping the tie from his neck in one smooth and forceful motion and popping open the button at his collar and—
Diomedes quickly turned to the wall, fake-examining the glistening plaques and trophies and metals (speaking of compensation) to clear his mind, to hide the way he had to bite down, hard, on his bottom lip. Meanwhile, behind him, the skirmish began.
“Somewhere in your long illustrious career as a goddamn teenager you might have heard of the concept of a team, Achilles— have you? Maybe you’ve seen it in the dictionary, or a textbook, when you skip my practices to play suck-up to your teachers?”
“I know what a team is,” Achilles replied, scowling, “but clearly we’re working with different definitions. I say it’s the group of us helping each other get better, but you say it’s your pack of lapdogs doing your every bidding and earning you shiny shit.”
“Show me some goddamn respect, I’m your coach.” Agamemnon’s desk is dark wood and steel-lined, sharp and threatening as he slammed his fist onto it. “I let you onto my team, you’d better listen to my goddamn rules, you hear me? And rule number one, boy, is to never throw your team under the bus.”
“No throwing was necessary, coach, Ajax somersaulted his way into oncoming traffic all on his own, coach, I am not his fucking keeper, coach.”
The heavy desk dragged an inch across the floor as Agamemnon shoved against it once more, the resulting sound screeching and painful on Diomedes’ ears. Achilles, lips curling, matched Agamemnon’s posture, fingers curling white on the desk.
“Damn right I’m coach,” Agamemnon snarled, “and damn right you’re going to listen to me, when I tell you to shove it back in your pants, Achilles, I’m not gonna let some fa—”
Agamemnon’s head snapped toward Diomedes, glaring first at the forceful grip Diomedes had on Achilles’ arm, then Diomedes’ own chilly smile.
“We’ve had this talk, sir, that’s not a very PC word.”
Agamemnon snorted, straightening up. “You think I give a rat’s ass about political correctness? Sit the hell down, kid— or what, it’s the two of you against me? Is this your little club, Diomedes, the Fag Alliance?”
Diomedes could feel his heartbeat like a bass drum throughout every inch of his body, hear his deliberately steady breaths like a bellow at a furnace. Achilles was twisting under his palm, but Diomedes refused to let up, dug his nails deeper because he knew what Achilles would do if he were freed. Simple, bull-headed Achilles with a one-track mind, only knew one way to fight a war. What good fortune, that Diomedes was here.
(What good fortune, that Diomedes was all too familiar with this battle, this bloody navigation between athlete and queer. Good fortune, that Diomedes’ skin was already thick with callouses and scar tissue.)
“I swear to god Diomedes you let me go—”
“You’re above nobody Achilles, I’ll expel your ass—”
“Ajax fucked up.” Diomedes’ voice rang hard and flat in the office. He didn’t do disdain with as much style as Achilles, sure, but Diomedes was no slack when it came to convey scorn, not by a long shot. Seconds later, loud chatter poured into the gym behind them as students began class. Ajax (the Good One) and his whistle could be heard amongst the fray, and both Achilles and Agamemnon pulled back to regroup, scowling. Diomedes took the opportunity to shuffle even further in front of Achilles, coming directly between him and Agamemnon. “I don’t know what he told you, but he did, Odysseus, Mr. Borne, they all caught him trying to sabotage Iphigenia. The fight was him trying to save face, and—”
Diomedes blinked in annoyed surprise. Agamemnon’s tone had taken on an altogether different quality, something controlled, which Diomedes had honestly never heard coming from the coach before. It made Achilles frown, and Diomedes clear his throat.
“Um, what do you mean who?”
“You said Ajax sabotaged someone,” Agamemnon said through gritted teeth. “Who?”
“Some girl in his Computer Science, Iphigenia,” Achilles replied irritably. The why the fuck do you care? was clearly implied in his tone.
And Agamemnon’s expression suddenly shuttered, his back snapping up straight like a marionette pulled to attention. Diomedes knew his face did nothing to hide his shock, but was honestly at a complete loss of what to do.
“Get out,” Agamemnon ordered, and Achilles’ expression grew mutinous again. “Both of you, go.”
“I’m not gonna—”
“Now,” Agamemnon roared, and Diomedes has had fucking enough, okay? He was self-aware enough to know how he felt at the moment— freaked out, humiliated, antsy, ready to get the hell out— and he ran for the door. Achilles could follow or not, because as much as he liked the guy, Diomedes had his limits. If Achilles wanted to wage war against the institution for Patroclus, then really, who was Diomedes to stop him?
It was only once Diomedes had reached the class buildings again that he stopped, looked around, and found Achilles right at his heels. Following the day’s pattern of out-of-character expressions, Achilles looked right at Diomedes with some weary worry, brows furrowed and lips pursed but his chin angled away in discomfort. Diomedes had never seen that look on Achilles before, even that one time when he “fell down the stairs” (hah! As if there were true immunity against homophobic assholes in this school. Diomedes just kept quiet about it, sought revenge his own subtle ways, let them know he wasn’t someone they could callously mess with by any measure) and fractured three different bones. It rather made Diomedes agitated, and angry.
So, “what the hell is that on your face?”
Achilles, frowning and rubbing at his cheeks, “what?”
“Is that— is that your feelings man?? Eugh, dude, get that away from me, what the fuck, why would you do that.”
Blinking, Achilles scowled once he understood, and shoved Diomedes’ shoulders. “Fuck off,” he grumbled, “I just— You seemed off.”
A fission of vulnerability in Diomedes’ gut.
“Of course I’m off, my coach just called me a fag and screamed in my face.” Trying for careless and sardonic, Diomedes figured he hit uneasy and distressed. Part of being Diomedes was the constant flirting with propriety, teasing at authority— but Diomedes himself was well aware that when it came down to the wire, he did not take complete rebuke well. At all. The flirting and teasing came once he’s ingratiated himself to the figure in charge, and to be thrown away like this was terrifying in the amount of power and ability it wrested from Diomedes.
Achilles was looking uncomfortable and uncomfortably close to offering to talk again, so Diomedes quickly turned and stalked back into the school building. Not that he wasn’t grateful— hell, this was the rare instant Diomedes was absolutely going to cite years down the line as proof Achilles actually cared— but Diomedes hasn’t quite settled himself down enough to want to talk. Not without actually chancing him shaking apart, reveal still-tender wounds he wasn’t supposed to have— not Diomedes, the athlete, the mischievous, the good-humored.
So they just walked. A couple of hallways later, Achilles moved from behind to beside him, and they looked to all the world like regular Diomedes-and-Achilles, strolling down the hall. And it was strangely comforting. Trust Achilles to exacerbate wounds when he was trying to heal them and resolve them when he paid no attention. Enough time had passed that Diomedes felt comfortable speaking again.
(That, and they were about to pass Penelope’s office door, which stood ajar.)
“So how about that Art History reading, huh?”
Looking endearingly perplexed for a long moment, Achilles rolled his eyes when he spotted the Principal’s Office.
“I don’t know Diomedes, how did you feel about it?” he replied just as they stepped into view of the Office, volume obligingly loud. Unfortunately, Penelope was speaking to some suited official, and didn’t spare them a glance. But Diomedes was optimistic (and crushing hard) enough to think the amused upturn of her lips was for him.
“Oh, you know,” was all of Diomedes’ answer. Achilles rolled his eyes again. Diomedes wondered how Achilles would respond when they passed Odysseus’ room.
“I’m meeting Patroclus after school today,” Achilles suddenly announced. Impressed, Diomedes nodded.
“Go get ‘em, tiger.” Then, “skipping practice?”
Achilles’ answer was utterly expected and predictable: “Yeah— if I skip first, I don’t get there only to have Agamemnon suspend me.”
“I’m doing it ‘cause I want to not because you told me to.” Achilles shoved Diomedes again for the high-pitched imitation. Dramatically stumbling to the side, Diomedes slammed loudly into the lockers and plopped heavily onto the floor, his backpack sliding off his shoulder and thumping beside him. Achilles paused to stand above him, one hand in his pocket, the other over his breast pocket, a long elegant finger tapping a thoughtful rhythm. “Hey, so you down to identify as queer now?” Diomedes asked curiously, voice free of any expectation or judgment. Finger stilling, Achilles gave him a long, indecipherable look.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” he responded at length.
“Because, you know, imagine the kind of hell we could wreak on good ole Arcadia if two top athletes are openly gay. No pressure or anything, just saying.”
“I thought you were bi.”
“Yeah, I mean gay as like, generally queer, y’know? Not-straight.” Rolling his eyes fondly, Diomedes held out a hand, letting Achilles decide whether to join him on the ground or pull him back up. “You’re a chill guy, Achilles; us queer kids would love to have you join our ranks.”
Achilles’ hand smacked into Diomedes’ with a loud crack, and Diomedes was yanked swiftly to his feet. Achilles greeted him with a sharp, toothy grin.
“Hey, you know me,” he said. “If you’re planning to start a war, I’m all in.”
Next chapter preview (because it's too hysterically a non-spoiler for me to keep to myself):
The answer to Agamemnon’s little freak-out came at lunch, when Polyxena pulled both Achilles and Diomedes aside to tell them Agamemnon approved Ajax’s suspension from the team, and Iphigenia, standing sheepishly behind Polyxena, made the startling revelation:
“Oh yeah. Uh, Agamemnon’s my dad.”
Comments are love! Tell me what you'd like to see??? I'm so, so open to suggestions?
Chapter 7: Go boy, go boy, run for your life
the gang gathers, and a war begins
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The answer to Agamemnon’s little freak-out came at lunch, when Polyxena pulled both Achilles and Diomedes aside to tell them Agamemnon approved Ajax’s suspension from the team, and Iphigenia, standing sheepishly behind Polyxena, made the startling revelation:
“Oh yeah. Uh, Agamemnon’s my dad.”
“Oh my god,” Diomedes groaned, smacking his forehead loudly. “I knew that. I definitely knew that. I just completely forgot in the moment.”
“What the fuck,” Achilles just said.
To Patroclus, approaching with Briseis and watching the group from the outside, Iphigenia’s yellow flower blouse stood in stark contrast to the athletes’ darker, plainer affairs. Patroclus was hardly the only one to take notice— for all high schoolers could be dreadfully blind about Due Dates, Homework, and other such unnecessary things, they could also be keen as a barn owl spotting a shivering vole at midnight when it came to social matters. By matter of necessity, he supposed— which didn’t make Patroclus feel any better about joining the athletes at the center of attention. But the pull toward was stronger than the push away, after a tense morning of fearing the worst for Achilles regarding Agamemnon.
(And besides, Patroclus may be many things but he was not a coward, especially about things he knew he really had no business being afraid of. Such as Achilles’ friends. Achilles’ team, which could be an entirely different species than friends, but Patroclus figured he owed them an open mind. Polyxena had been there at the fight with Ajax, after all, and helped Iphigenia out, and Diomedes seemed no more an asshole than Achilles. Which is to say, still about 20%, but that was nothing Patroclus couldn’t handle.)
They arrived. With nods of acknowledgment Diomedes and Iphigenia part to let them in, and Patroclus experiences a moment of pathetic gratitude.
“Hey,” Briseis interjected immediately, bravely, shamelessly. “I heard Ajax’s suspension went through— what the hell happened?”
“Nepotism?” said Diomedes, pointing at Iphigenia, who groaned and flipped him the bird.
“Fuck off, I don’t even like him.”
“He’s married?” Achilles’ ever-emotive tone said: who the fuck would marry that asshole?
“I thought he had a son at Ilion?” Patroclus added, tentative and puzzled. Achilles’ eyes snapped toward him, and Patroclus waved tentatively at the bright-eyed smile.
“Wait, I heard he had a daughter at Ilion,” Polyxena, frowning.
All eyes snapped toward Iphigenia, who had thrust out her messenger bag like a physical barrier into the center of the accumulated group. Underneath the shapely curls of her hair, her lips were pressed thin and her eyes a bit frazzled.
“Let’s all grab food, we’ll reconvene on the balconies behind the choir room in ten minutes, and I’ll explain, alright?”
The only person who didn’t nod immediately was Achilles— born contrarian that he was— who just looked over the whole group at Patroclus. With its ever-hanging pall of wet meat smell, the cafeteria held a transient population at best— and it was with this fact as reassurance that Patroclus found the nerve to gesture Achilles over with a small incline of his head. And there was Achilles’ nod, as he eagerly trotted after Patroclus to the lunch line.
“Hey,” he said, “how was your morning?”
“Decent,” Patroclus answered, pleased with the attention but gaze still flitting bashfully away. Small talk— he could do small talk. “Gov was the usual drag, had a quiz in Stats. Went alright. You?” Grabbing a slightly sticky plastic tray from the top of the lunch line, Patroclus tried to keep his frown light with friendly concern instead of betraying the extent of his worry and paranoia, which had almost kept him from finishing his Stats quiz on time.
“Nah, it was weird.” Achilles’ fingers drummed a rapid beat against his tray— not a pattern of tight strung nerves, more a kinetic dictation of his thinking. Purposeful. “He’s a real bastard, said all kinds of shit first— but I guess he heard Iphigenia was the one Ajax tried to screw and flipped on Ajax. Hah, and he tells me to never throw team under the bus.”
“Family takes priority, I guess.”
“Lots of things take priority.”
Feeling the sear of Achilles’ meaningful look on the back of his neck, Patroclus deliberately kept his head forward and fought off a groan. Goddamn Achilles and his unerring ability to plunge from shallow wading right into the deep end— was he doing this on purpose? No, they agreed to have a real talk after school— Achilles could fuck right off, Patroclus could keep it together until then, no problem.
“I haven’t talked to him before,” he quickly filled the silence. Achilles snorted.
“Good. Keep it up, you’re not missing out on much.”
“He’s really that bad?”
“Really messed up Diomedes earlier, I think.”
A worried glance back— Diomedes stood by the two baskets of fruit with Briseis and Iphigenia, grinning as the usual and idly juggling two grimy-looking apples. “What happened?”
“Called us a couple of fags,” Achilles answered, shrugging.
Patroclus’ tennis shoes squeaked loudly as he abruptly pivoted, his lunch tray almost smacking Achilles in the chest. Hand pausing in selecting between identical trays of the same brown, greasy mess (the waterlogged cardboard sign said BEANS), Achilles looked owlishly at Patroclus.
“He what?” Patroclus said sharply.
“He says that kind of shit all the time.”
“That’s— That’s inappropriate on so many accounts, he’s a teacher. You should report him.”
“Oh. Um, yeah, maybe.”
Startled by this news and increasingly incensed, Patroclus watched Achilles fiddle at his lunch with angry indignation. Somewhere in the industrial kitchen behind the serving counters, someone dropped what sounded like ten thousand metal trays, the sound painfully amplified by the confined space. It was immediately met with the startled yelps and injured groans of the students. Patroclus spun back around, stepping quicker now, unease brewing at the base of his spine.
“Or, what, you don’t think gay slurs are wrong—?”
Achilles quickstepped behind him, voice a little breathless not from exertion but from attempting to convey his flustered indignation at Patroclus’ question.
“Of course I do! But— Oh c’mon Pat, you’ve been on a soccer team, you know what it’s like. Don’t get angry at me for this.”
That was enough to slow Patroclus’ steps, but not enough for eye contact. Because Patroclus knew if he looked at Achilles, all the blame— righteous or not— would be disgustingly obvious. Of course he knew what it was like, the locker rooms where “fag” was aimed and tossed around like a dart, or a ticking time bomb. Of course he knew the casual, howling laughs of damn dude, he fucked you straight up the ass! The friendly banter you wanna go against me? I’ll bend you right over man, I’ll bend you right over this bench like the little bitch you are. The supposedly inspiring fuck him! Yeah, fucking give it to him! For a little while, Patroclus had thought he could be entertained by all of it, wondering how the hypermasculine jocks would react when they realize the shit they said could be quoted line-for-line in a gay porno. But quickly enough, Patroclus realized the anger, the bitterness, the humiliation outnumbered any laughs he could possibly procure. Even while he was closeted. Or perhaps because he was closeted. The nonchalance of the homophobic abuse buffeted him even in his invisibility.
And Achilles— goddamn Achilles. He chose this issue to be logical about? Where Patroclus actually needed to see his anger the most? Patroclus felt betrayed, and his fears from this morning were flooding back. Or is this gonna be this closeted thing and his friends are gonna beat me up in the locker room?
“And besides, that’s not even what he meant.”
Later on, if asked about any moment Patroclus felt he could drop Achilles cold, it would be this. His guts went icy and the world began to buzz. Patroclus turned, met Achilles’ eyes— he wanted to witness the last nail, if there was going to be a coffin.
“Agamemnon,” Achilles felt the need to clarify, as if Patroclus wasn’t already gearing up to run far and fast away from this boy in front of him. “And saying the— the f-word. He doesn’t really mean gay.”
“What does he mean?” Patroclus, voice like tires over gravel. Achilles’ eyes flashed, his jaw tensed.
“He means insignificant. As if accusing me and Diomedes of fucking would be literally insulting. No— he always says that word with that douchebag dismissive smirk, and he means I can’t touch him. He means he’s better than me, sitting his ass comfortable at the top of the game while we sweat and work for his fame, his legacy, his name on a goddamn commemoration plaque. Well fuck that— I’m not gonna let that happen, if I win the honor’s going to be mine.”
“Wow, that was…” Briseis’ voice, interjecting again, bravely, shamelessly. Patroclus was too busy blinking at Achilles, trying to digest everything Achilles was throwing at him, to bother disapproving. He needed Briseis’ council in this— what the hell had just happened? “That was kind of an incredible mess of socialized masculinity and lowkey gender theory?”
“What does that mean?” Achilles asked, frowning. His expression could, from a less knowledgeable perspective, be interpreted as cold and dismissive. But from where Patroclus stood, he realized he could see the genuine question in the incline of Achilles’ head, the way Achilles’ shoulders were still loose, not tense with defensiveness. Unfortunately, it seemed Briseis couldn’t quite see the same thing, her nose wrinkling in distaste and turned most of her attention on Patroclus in her answer.
“He’s hysterically literal-minded,” she said, the twist of her lips clearly conveying: I know how I personally feel about this as a character trait but because I am a good and fair friend I won’t be explicit about my feelings and let you draw your own conclusions. Even though my feelings are objectively correct and quite, quite clear. “That was almost… progressive. Not homophobic, at least in intention, which is fortunate.”
“I’m not homophobic,” Achilles protested in a rather bewildered tone.
“I said that,” Briseis replied, voice even.
“No, you said my intention isn’t homophobic, which means you think something else is.” Patroclus could see the almost-impressed twitch on Briseis’ lips, and had a jarring moment of self-realization. I have a type, he thought, numbly amused, friends and crushes both. This don’t-give-an-inch type, the kind who sees every situation as a potential chess game, a poker match— so they keep their cards close to their chest. Even when there are no cards on the table, they turn their palms inward and tucked up their sleeves, get that look in their eyes that says, Approach. I Dare You.
“Homophobic slurs are homophobic slurs.” Turning entirely to Achilles now, she stared boldly up, sharp black eyeliner framing cinematic brown eyes. “You’re entirely correct about what he meant, but the fact that he equates inferiority with a gay slur is homophobic in and of itself. Do you see that?”
A wrinkle appeared between Achilles’ eyebrows, and Patroclus was rather startled to find a mournful look aimed his way.
“…Yes,” Achilles answered. He suddenly exhaled sharply, hand twitching once on his lunch tray and his head inclining like he wanted to rake his fingers through his hair. “I know it’s fucked up, I swear— but I can’t report him.”
There was something very specific about the way Achilles inflected that sentence, and it gave Patroclus’ anger pause. The smallest dragging emphasis on I, like Achilles’ social position did not allow him to report to authorities, not about something like this. The way he gave no cadence to can’t, muting the percussive t, as if he didn’t mean a conclusive inability, just right here, right now, in this context. The sharp spit of report, a knee-jerk aggression towards being a tattletale. And him, ending in a down tone sure, but somehow it a harmonic major key way, like his thoughts had already taken leave to figure out an alternate strategy. Briseis was frowning, but Patroclus suddenly got it. Not in the way of “I would do the same in your shoes,” but he somehow understood with bone-deep certainty that Achilles wasn’t going to let that be the end of it. No, Achilles would get back at Agamemnon somehow for this slight— Patroclus would just have to wait and see.
With an embarrassingly helpless sigh, Patroclus allowed himself a smile, and started to leave the cafeteria. Achilles trotted alongside him, clearly relieved. Patroclus knew Briseis still wasn’t happy, but he’d have to talk to her later, without Achilles around. Explain his thoughts, get her opinion— debrief on not just the homophobic shit, but also the greater Agamemnon situation they were about to learn.
“Okay,” Iphigenia began, sun in her hair and a scowl on her lips as she stood before the reconvened group. “Let me preface, this isn’t top secret or traumatic, I just don’t tell every passing stranger, alright? You can ask questions, you can talk about it normally, it’s fine.”
“So spill already,” Diomedes called, then promptly grunted and doubled over in pain as Polyxena elbowed him in the side. Smiling sweetly, she gestured for Iphigenia to continue.
“Alright, so Agamemnon’s my dad, my parents are divorced, I have a younger brother and sister, they both go to Ilion because of complicated reasons and ludicrous legal crap instigated by my cutthroat mother, whom I live with and whom I love but nevertheless realize she can be a real stone-cold bitch. My mom has legal custody of me and during the whole court battle, Agamemnon was a real asshole to me and continues to regret it to this day, but he chooses to buy me expensive stuff instead of talking to me about feelings like the macho macho man that he is. He probably felt guilty enough to suspend asshat Ajax. Questions?”
Diomedes’ hand shot up.
“How would you feel about using that power for evil?”
“Any real questions?”
Polyxena’s eyes went wide. “Oh,” she said, palms clapping loudly together in epiphany. “Your brother’s Orestes.”
Briseis, for both clarification and Patroclus, “that’s the basketball guy? The one who transferred out his freshman year? A year younger than us?”
Diomedes, expression a complex mix of giddy and embarrassed, arms folding and unfolding in front of his chest, “oh fuck, Orestes Orestes?”
Achilles, probably tired of not being the center of attention, annoyed, “who the hell is Orestes?”
With an uncomfortable look, Iphigenia sat back and yielded the floor to Polyxena. Polyxena cleared her throat before beginning, “he’s my year, yeah.” Nodding to Briseis, Polyxena confirmed, “but he transferred out at the end of freshman year.” Then she turned to Achilles, a skeptical brow raised. “I’m surprised you don’t know him— he ran for track once, but refused a place on the team. People were saying he’s almost as good as you, you know.”
“Well why would I know him then?” replied Achilles, a mutinous set to his lips. “Almost as good as me.”
“Agamemnon wanted him on the track team,” Iphigenia offered, her voice curiously soft. She fiddled with a plastic fork, spinning it between her fingers. Patroclus worried about the awkward twist to her shoulders, like she wanted to turn away from the conversation at hand— so Agamemnon wasn’t a sore spot, but Orestes was. Did they not keep in touch after the split custody? Or was the break bad between them as well? Patroclus almost didn’t want to know, in fear of a grimness their new-formed, untested, fragile little group couldn’t handle graciously. Venturing into Iphigenia’s tragic backstory was already risky territory. But Iphigenia continued anyways, tone meditative, “his relationship with Agamemnon is not as clear cut as mine. I know he left Arcadia because of frustration with dad, and last I heard he stays at Pylades’ place more often than not, but I know they’re trying to work things out. He transferred because he didn’t want Agamemnon in his life 24/7.”
“And here my self-centered ass was thinking he transferred ‘cause we made out,” Diomedes snorted. A long-suffering groan from Polyxena and an incredulous snort from Briseis, as Iphigenia shot Diomedes a narrow-eyed look.
“Oh yea, he told me you were his sexual awakening.” She continued dryly, “thanks for giving Pylades a huge complex for the longest time, by the way. He almost broke his entire body trying to get as fit as an athlete.”
“Hey, I’m all about the body positivity here. I’m especially positive about my own.” With a cheeky grin, Diomedes slipped down one shoulder of his jacket and proceeded to flex his bicep, eyelashes sultrily fluttering. In amazing synchronization, Achilles and Polyxena leaned forward and landed solid punches against his arm, and Diomedes cringed away in pain. The grin remained though, as he said to Iphigenia, “you can tell Orestes you’re welcome for me, if you’d like.”
“We don’t exactly chat much,” said Iphigenia.
Some wariness creeping up his spine, Patroclus couldn’t help but suspect that Diomedes had intentionally confirmed what Patroclus himself had wondered earlier. But, well, what if he was? That it gave Patroclus a bad feeling didn’t exactly constitute solid grounds for not liking the guy. So maybe Diomedes was a bit nosier than Patroclus was comfortable with— Patroclus could fucking deal with it.
But clearly, Patroclus didn’t hide his discomfort well enough. Beside him, Achilles’ hand struck out again, slapping Diomedes’ chest. With an intense gaze aimed across the circle at Iphigenia, he spoke over Diomedes’ pained protests, “so Agamemnon suspended Ajax from the team. You mind if Ajax knows you’re the coach’s daughter? It’d scare him off— Teucer warned me there might be shit going down.”
And all of a sudden, Achilles was on war strategy. It wasn’t that Patroclus had thought everything was over, far from it— but Patroclus wasn’t exactly used to having methods of fighting back. Deterrents and keep-your-head-down were fine— why, he could even do mutually assured destruction, as the incident with Clysonymus clearly showed— but what Achilles wanted was something altogether different. Achilles wanted target-precise entry points, mobilized friendlies, a deadlock or a victory. Which was fine, even great, if it’d keep Ajax from going after Iphigenia, but it also made Patroclus wonder… why? And how? How did Achilles get so comfortable with confrontation and winning them?
(The answer was obvious, but no more comforting: experience, that’s how. Achilles was used to people trying to unseat him, and learned to behave accordingly.)
“I don’t mind,” Iphigenia replied haltingly.
“He might already know, to be honest,” Polyxena said contritely. “Diomedes already knew, after all. I’m sure someone’s already tipped Ajax off.”
“Fine.” And suddenly, all 7000 watts of Achilles’ smoldering attention was on Patroclus. “So he’ll probably be after you.”
Despite his suddenly dry mouth at being stared down by Achilles, Patroclus still had enough of his wits about him to point out, “he probably ain’t too happy about you either.”
“Yeah, but if he comes after me he’s coming alone, no one else on the team will spot him against me. If he shows up on my door it’s gonna be ‘cause he’s pissed off as hell, and it’ll happen today.” Achilles’ tone was matter-of-fact, but Patroclus couldn’t help but nod along to the way Briseis’ eyes were widening in awful shock. Even Diomedes looked wary, knocking his knee against Achilles’ in a gesture of solidarity. Achilles took no notice, continuing on calmly, “but if he really wants revenge, it’ll be on you. And he’ll take longer to plan it too, so we won’t know when it’ll happen.”
“Hang on, when you say revenge what exactly do you mean?” Briseis snapped, wrath topping her tone.
“Shove me into a locker and take my lunch money?” Patroclus muttered.
“Do the shit he did to me, but worse?” Iphigenia offered with a frosty grimace.
“Remember when Cleobulus got hit by a car, fractured ankle, rib, bruised kidney?” Polyxena said with a morbidly pensive frown. “I’ve always thought Ajax hired someone to do that.”
“Well fuck, I’ll have my attorney on speed dial then,” Patroclus, smiling thinly.
“Okay.” Waving his hands to call conversation to a pause, Diomedes laughed incredulously, “hang on, y’all are making him out to be some mafia hitman. Remember we’re talking about asshole Ajax, who once got cheated on two hundred bucks worth of Ecstasy and tried to take it to the police, okay? It’s only his rich lawyer dad that got him off the charges.”
“Just because he’ll be stupid about it doesn’t mean he won’t be effectively violent,” Briseis argued. “We gotta watch out for all—”
“But he is an idiot,” Achilles interrupted. Briseis set her jaw in annoyance, but the fact that she didn’t call Achilles out spoke volumes about how seriously she was taking this whole Ajax situation. Which was rather terrifying— they all knew Ajax, after all, better than Patroclus, knew what Ajax was apparently capable of. Not for the first time, Patroclus wondered what the fuck it was about him that just so provoked these violent, hate-filled men. Achilles was still speaking, analyzing the situation like a commentator at a sports game, “his train of thought is simple as hell. Patroclus got him suspended, he’ll get revenge on Patroclus. He won’t stop to think about anyone else. He won’t stop to think about me.”
A sharp and chilly grin, a call to war.
“So I go to him.” Achilles’ hand closing over Patroclus’ was startlingly warm. “After class, we go to Ajax’s place and I tell him he messes with you, he messes with me. He still wants to fight, well he better be ready to go against me.”
Achilles’ devotion was a heady thing. It made Patroclus feel a bit (a lot) high with assurance, even arrogance. And it was with this adrenaline sizzling through him that he flipped his hand over, threaded their fingers together, and blurted out, “a bit intense for a first date, isn’t it?”
Achilles blinked, his eyes widening with a rush of affection.
“Or I mean, we can go to the movies.”
Patroclus laughed, ducking his head in embarrassment. He was hopelessly conscious of the eyes watching all around them, but nevertheless he gave Achilles’ hand a fond squeeze before pulling away.
“Meet you at the front gates after school then.”
*I'm very interested in how Achilles navigates the whole toxic masculinity/homophobia thing— what he says in this chapter is particularly inspired by C.J. Pascoe's study in "Dude, You're a Fag," which is a super interesting essay, y'all should read it if you've got the time and inclination.
*Also every time I write Achilles I make sure he has at least one asshole comment per chapter. Because I'm invested in accurate characterization.
**I'm way too invested in this 'verse's Diomedes and his obsession with Odysseus. I have plans, y'all, get ready.
**The guy Ajax runs over with a car is someone he canonically kills in the Iliad, Book 16, line 352, you're welcome. I wonder when I'll get to write the Good Ajax. I wonder when I'll get to write all the shit going down between Good Ajax and Odysseus. I fucking love it when teachers have drama, omg.
Leave a comment if there's anything you wanna see! Or cheer me on, that'd be much appreciated as well!
Chapter 8: Your heart beat in reverse
Special thanks to Edie for beta'ing the first two parts of this chapter (grammar mistakes in the last part are all mine, oops) and for being patiently receptive to my URGENT! SHOUTING!! ABOUT MY WRITING DECISIONS!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Briseis knew several things about Achilles:
One, he aced Chemistry class, then got a five on the AP exam. The then-sophomore Briseis had cynically believed: it wasn’t that Achilles was smart and knew everything, it was that when he knew the answer he raised his hand, and when he raised his hand the teacher inevitably called on him. Which, obviously, went a long way in a class that allocated 20% of the final grade to participation. Briseis and Achilles were not partners and sat at opposite ends of the room, but Achilles still managed to constantly make himself known to Briseis. And everybody else. And the teacher. And the counselor and the principal and the middle school tour groups. It didn’t matter, Briseis scolded herself once, when the middle schoolers and parents surrounding Achilles’ lab table laughed uproariously, and Achilles was smirking and tossing his hair back. I am a good student, this is not a competition, just because everybody thinks and says he’s good doesn’t mean I’m not.
Two, he was an athlete. He and his team parted the hallways straight down the middle, forcing everyone else to the sides. Sitting on chairs and benches he manspreaded like there was no tomorrow, arms draped over the backs of seats in ownership and large fucking feet turned carelessly outward. Picking teams for PE and partners for class he always stood up before actually being called on, and Briseis actually nurtured a fantasy about the day she would be the one choosing, how she would look a standing Achilles dead in the eyes and tell him to sit his ass back down, she didn’t want him. Except she did, everybody did. For team sports and class presentations alike, somebody was always choosing Achilles, wanting him. Briseis wasn’t bitter, not really— after all, Achilles actually did bring success in his wake each and every time. It just, it just wasn’t fair, that’s all.
Three, he lived in a bourgie modernist windows-for-walls pretentious minimalist aesthetic two-story apartment in the fancy end of Noe Valley (Briseis found out completely by accident, honest). Speaking of not fair.
Briseis was not the type to let douchey rich boys trouble her life (too much), so she did not hate Achilles (she wouldn’t give him and people like him the satisfaction). She did, however, wield a solid, righteous amount of resentment towards him, so when one of her best friends suddenly connected with Achilles (or whatever they were calling the thing they had) she… needed to investigate. For Patroclus’ sake. So that day, seventh period, when AP Psych began, Briseis sat right down beside Achilles— screw decorum and social propriety. She could already hear the gossip break out like zits after a KFC dinner. Achilles, to his credit, barely batted an eye, just gave her one of the jock-dude chin nods and leaned over with his phone.
“Hey, do you know Patroclus’ coffee order?”
For Patroclus’ sake, she reminded herself, and actually gave the question some thought.
“I’ve never seen him get anything except house coffee at Starbucks and Peet’s,” she answered. Achilles nodded readily along.
“Alright, alright, I can work with that. Philz?” At Briseis’ blank look, he patiently continued, “would he prefer nutty blends, or something smokey, or maybe something fruity—”
“I’m just wondering what to get—”
“Alright, settle down,” Odysseus called, a too-wide smile on his face and a stack of papers in his hands, which were two things that never factored well for students. Sure enough, “it’s your favorite time of the month folks, pop quiz. Put everything away.”
“But we had a pop quiz yesterday,” some idiot in the second-to-last row whined.
“And as far as I’m concerned, Alastor, I can give you a pop quiz every single day if I want,” replied Odysseus with a merry wave of his hands, earning a few nervous laughs from the students. Briseis could see Achilles’ features twist into a dubious scowl in response, and wondered what the hell their beef was about. Odysseus continued, “and this is a simple one, so as the age-old American saying goes, suck it up and deal. You need a grade, I’m providing. You’re welcome.”
“Shit, I hope this isn’t about the brain again,” an athlete in front of Achilles turned around and groaned. “I fucking suck at biology.”
“Nah man,” Achilles answered, sniggering, “I think you just straight up suck at Psychology. Quiz is probably on last night’s reading dude— that French dude and developmental stages.”
“And you get a point just for being able to spell the French dude’s name right,” Odysseus chimed in with an impish flash of teeth. Achilles’ eyes narrowed, peeved, but before he could reply his phone buzzed loudly on his table. Briseis caught a glimpse of the name: Diomedes. And Odysseus snapped, “phones away or forfeit the quiz, Achilles. Now.”
Ah, Briseis liked Odysseus. So much.
Indeed, the quiz was on Piaget’s developmental theory— basic multiple choice, short answers. The class silenced but for scratching pens, and Briseis was honestly done within two minutes. As she read over her answers, she saw Odysseus posing rather dramatically at the front door, a book in one hand (a Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann— not on their reading list this semester) and a blank quiz in the other, held up in expectant offering. And sure enough, just as Briseis put down her pen, Cassandra came breezing in, Starbucks in hand and a grin that tried to be sheepish but mostly failed. Odysseus didn’t even look up, just let Cassandra slip the quiz from his hand and kept reading.
As Cassandra approached, Briseis offered a smile. Yes, Briseis would call Cassandra a friend— for many reasons, one of which was that she would feel bad if she didn’t call her a friend. It was that breed of familiarity where everything Briseis could possibly say would make Cassandra sound like a good friend, except Briseis really didn’t feel it, inexplicably. Briseis liked Cassandra, she honestly did, but— Well. There was always a but, is all.
Cassandra whispered hello in return, but her gaze was clearly drawn toward Achilles, who had (of course) finished already, and was staring out the window with a finger tapping at his chest. There was a moment where, looking back at Briseis, Cassandra’s dark eyes warped with an awful intensity, and Briseis could see in the twist of her mouth jealousy. But as quick as it came it was gone.
“Is it easy?” Cassandra whispered, too loud. Briseis only made a noncommittal expression as Odysseus pointedly cleared his throat. People chuckled, and Cassandra looked around, pleased.
“One more minute,” Odysseus announced, and Cassandra finally sat down with a none-too-contrite Oops! She received more chuckles, and Cassandra winked at a boy behind her. And, ah, yes, that was why Briseis kept emotional distance— the brutal clarity with which Briseis could see Cassandra, which meant most everybody else could see through her too. The attention-seeking behavior that was discomfiting for someone as image-conscious as Briseis, the shameless display of Cassandra’s desire to be somebody. But of course, Briseis hated being bothered by this, and constantly reminded herself Cassandra was a product of her environment and history— Fundamental Attribution Error, as their AP Psych textbook said. Support her socialized desires, Briseis’ feminist heart said, don’t be a fuckwit.
“Aaaaand, time’s up, pass up your quizzes. And honestly don’t bother trying to cram more BS in— at this point you either know it or you’re writing like "Some, I assume, are good people" "I have so many websites" Donald "My net worth is many, many, many times Mitt Romney" Trump giving a speech, which I will seriously refuse to read on principle.”
Cue the four-to-six minute terminal time of both frenzied scribbling and lazy paper-passing. Even Odysseus, arguably the best teacher at keeping the class in pace (with perhaps the exception of Coach Ajax putting his Pre-Calc class through its paces), couldn’t entirely avoid this waste of time. The socialization began like an avalanche and by minute two the entire class was talking at regular volume ready to increase into Loud.
“Fuck, I tanked that—”
“Shit man, I only skimmed that chapter ‘cause I had so much work last night—”
“Right, as I was saying, he’s a real fucking jackass—”
“Yeah, early admission deadline is—”
Cassandra sighed woefully as she delivered her quiz to its doom, and collapsed onto her table. “I’ve had such a long morning,” she groaned, fluttering her eyelashes up at Briseis.
“Oh no,” Briseis tried, “what happened?”
“Went to a party last night, for tennis opening night, or something?” Cassandra was affecting her carefree ditzy party girl voice (it was a very distinct voice), and Briseis wished she would stop. And Cassandra’s gaze flitted to Achilles again. “Yeah, I went with my brother at some Ilion guy’s house— it was lit!”
Cassandra looked so expectant that Briseis couldn’t help but turn and look. Achilles had his phone out again, frowning drastically down at a text. When Briseis moved, however, his head snapped up.
“Diomedes got him the Tesora, it’s supposed to be butter, nut, and caramel?”
“That sounds fine…?” Briseis answered, bewildered by the intensely beseeching expression on Achilles’ face. The phone kept buzzing, and Briseis could see a series of texts in all-caps.
“Diomedes insists that it will be good because it’s FULL-BODIED,” Achilles kept on saying through gritted teeth. “Tell me the truth Briseis, will I want to strangle him when he gets here with it?”
“No?” What the fuck? “And Patroclus drinks shitty instant coffee, I honestly doubt he gives a crap.”
“Oh great,” Achilles muttered, tragically, to himself. “He won’t even give a damn anyways.”
“You’ve ever been to an Ilion party, Achilles?” Cassandra suddenly cut in. It seemed to take a moment for Achilles to factor Cassandra into his realm of existence, as his brows furrowed and his stare remained vacant.
“No,” he answered, his tone all but flicking its wrist and saying Duh. “We’re rivals.”
“But their parties are insane!” Cassandra was drawing the attention of other sports guys, and she obviously reveled in it. “The one I went to last night had two pools and a Jacuzzi, and people were mixing cocktails and drinking hella beer right out of a keg.” Then her tone grew sly. “I could bring you if you’d like.”
“Nah,” Achilles, simply, still vacantly frowning. A couple of his guys snickered. “We’re rivals.”
“But if I bring you it’d piss my brother off,” Cassandra persisted. “You know, Hector? Your nemesis?”
Achilles’ phone buzzed again, and she lost him. Hell, she never had him on the hook, just kind of tossed a pebble, missed the water altogether and imagined ripples.
“I’m not into that kind of thing,” was his short, bland remark. And, alright, Briseis could respect that, both for championing non-petty engagements and for Patroclus’ sake. Achilles was obviously freakishly invested. Which, whatever, might be the consequence of being closeted or hypermasculinity— Briseis didn’t know. She wanted to, so bad, but there was really no not-asshole way of asking Why exactly are you so in love with Patroclus?
Suddenly, thunderous claps, each one sounding like a gunshot, in a familiar rhythm— bum ba-dah dum bum. And practically the entire class, like a well-trained squadron of soldiers or a well-trained legion of performing monkeys, responding in claps— bum bum! And Odysseus at the front of the classroom with a shit-eating smile.
“Ah, don’t you love classical conditioning? We’ve been programming you kids from day one, you know— it’s why everybody wants to take Psychology, so you can be macabrely fascinated by the way you’ve been programmed. Phones away, notebooks out.” Achilles twirled a pencil in his hand, and Briseis watched him out of the corner of her eyes as he began doodling on a piece of paper. No, not doodle— Briseis felt her own jaw drop as straight lines and precise angles took shape in Achilles’ notebook, and three minutes into Odysseus’ introduction to Piaget, Achilles had drawn, in Spartan outline, the front of the classroom (sans Odysseus).
Briseis glanced down at her own notebook, the margins packed full with the same particular species of geometry, each shape given dimension by crosshatching. In a moment of weird resonance, Achilles glanced over at Briseis’ notebook too, and their eyes met in the middle. There was an air of amusement in the roguish way he quirked one eyebrow— and then, in one smooth motion, Achilles tore the page with the sketch out of his notebook and flung it over onto Briseis’ desk. The loud zip! of the perforations splitting drew the immediate attention of many (Odysseus included), but by the time they looked over, both Achilles and Briseis had their heads down, pens studiously scrawling bullet points in their notebooks. Achilles didn’t look up until the scrutiny had passed, and Briseis didn’t look up at all, just slid Achilles’ outline out from underneath her notebook and began sketching in the shadows.
He’s buttering me up to move in on Patroclus, she thought idly as she shaded in the blackboard. If it weren’t for Patroclus, he’d never give me the time of day. Well, she could see right through him, and it wasn’t going to work. She wouldn’t let down her guard, constant vigilance and all that.
…But, well, who said vigilance couldn’t also be fun?
The moment Odysseus signaled the end of class (some seconds after the bell, but nobody dared pack up until Odysseus gave them permission to) Diomedes stormed in with a coffee tray and three coffees, making a beeline for Achilles. Briseis immediately scooted her chair two inches away from Achilles in anticipation.
“My free seventh isn’t so I can play coffee boy for you,” Diomedes hissed, pulling out one steaming hot cup and slamming it on Achilles’ desk. Or, gestured at slamming it, but mostly just laid it down gently as to not spill it. Achilles looked unimpressed. “You owe me $17, by the way.”
“For a coffee?” Achilles wrinkled his nose incredulously.
“Yeah, and the Uber I called to get the coffee here hot, you’re welcome.”
“Hey Diomedes,” Cassandra chimed in. She practically flung herself over Briseis’ desk to get in Diomedes’ line of sight, and in the act accidentally shoved Briseis’ bag over the edge, the notebook balanced on top careening off in the opposite direction. There were three points of contact, the configuration of a neoclassical painting: Briseis’ hand slapping down on the desk, pinning her bag strap to the table; Achilles dipping low, catching the bag in one hand; and Diomedes standing, hands at hip-level, snatching the notebook as it made to slip by. Then Briseis stood, lifting the bag out of Achilles’ hand as Diomedes gave her the notebook back; the scene re-compacted.
“Yo,” Diomedes replied to Cassandra with a chin-nod and a twitch of a smile. “I’ll be at your party this Friday.”
“Okay!” replied Cassandra, a little bit owl-eyed as she watched the trio. Insecurity twitched in her shoulders as she instinctively made to leave. She stopped herself, but the gesture was enough to dismiss her from Achilles and Diomedes’ attention, and the two boys turned back to each other, resuming their conversation like the interlude didn’t even happen. As Cassandra shrunk away, Briseis kept her eyes averted, adjusting her bag strap in the discomfort of second-hand embarrassment.
Meanwhile: “Why’d you call an Uber?” Achilles pursed his lips in distaste, and Diomedes slapped Achilles in the face. A chorus of whoops and laughs from the peanut gallery in sports gear that congregated around them. Briseis sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Because I care, fuck you.” Diomedes caught Briseis’ eyes and mimed a long-suffering swoon. Briseis really wasn’t sure how to react, but it clearly didn’t matter because Diomedes was off again, the other coffees in hand as he shoved through the dispersing class to get to Odysseus at the front. Admittedly nosey to a fault, Briseis grabbed all her stuff and followed Diomedes to eavesdrop.
“You,” Diomedes was saying, “look like a mint mojito man.”
“Absolutely incorrect,” Odysseus replied, sounding remarkably insulted.
“I know,” Diomedes immediately acceded, “which is why I got you the Mexican chocolate mocha with an extra shot of espresso. From Common Grounds.”
“Okay, you just shot straight up to ten on the creepy scale kid.” Briseis was inclined to agree, and bit back a laugh as Odysseus kept up his Are you kidding me? face until Diomedes reluctantly lowered the proffered coffee.
“You’re not the only one who goes there you know.” Diomedes was honest-to-god pouting, but Odysseus just snorted.
“Yeah, I seem to see you there all the damn time, whether I like it or not, and I somehow doubt any of the other regulars know my order,” Odysseus shot back. Looking for a moment exactly like Achilles, Diomedes scrunched up his nose, hands bracing woundedly on his hips.
“Cruz and I are friends, we talk, I always tip,” Diomedes said snippily, though from Briseis’ vantage point she could see the agitated shuffle of his right sneaker. He set the coffee cup onto the pile of quizzes on Odysseus’ desk. “Hence, your coffee.”
“What, and none for my wife?”
“Please, you and I both know Penelope prefers tea.”
“Creepy.” Odysseus peered at the coffee with narrowed eyes, then looked up speculatively. “What if I say, you take this coffee away and I’ll give you an A on your next Lit paper?”
“I’d say I’m already getting an A on the Virginia Woolf paper, thank you very much,” was Diomedes’ collected reply. “And c’mon, Cruz will be very sad if you didn’t take his coffee.”
“Oh, so the coffee’s from Cruz now?”
“Yeah, he said it’s on the house, I tip him five bucks— to hell with neoliberalism and power to the small business, amiright?”
Briseis watched with unbridled shock and Diomedes with delight as Odysseus actually reached out and took the coffee. There was a careful balance of expressions on Odysseus’ face— cool and owning the action, but not too cold to acknowledge the favor— as he took a sip. Diomedes blinked, his smile losing its victorious edge and looking more genuinely in awe every second.
“Well, considering I have a headache, and you’re at least 30% the source of it, I’ll take the coffee,” Odysseus said. His tone and posture perfectly dissipated any weird or improper vibes that might have taken place otherwise, but— Briseis’ intuition told her there was something off. An edge of apprehension that Odysseus rarely, rarely showed. “But only this once, understood? Never again, without my express request.”
“That’s actually encouraging, you know—”
“Incorrect, do not feel encouraged. Now go, get out of here before Ajax gets on my case about stealing his team again.”
Diomedes snapped to attention and saluted, the precision of his posture offset by the sloppy grin. With that, he grabbed the last coffee and jogged off. Everyone else had already left, leaving only Briseis and Odysseus, who stared at each other in silence.
“In case you’re wondering, that was legally a bribe, and if you report it you can get Diomedes removed from all of my classes,” Odysseus proposed after a moment.
“With all due respect sir,” was Briseis’ answer, “what the actual fuck.”
So Patroclus was back to fretting again, sue him. He had good reason! The thought occurred to him in seventh period that Achilles might do more than talk to Ajax in order to keep Ajax off Patroclus’ back. And then a following thought: well, maybe Achilles really was going to just talk, this wasn’t some prime time drama after all. No punching or glass breaking needed to be involved.
(At one point, an ambulance wailed past their school and Patroclus twitched so hard he knocked his notebook from his desk. The BioTech teacher shot him a glare over the tops of curious turned heads, never stopping the lecture.)
But honestly, as Patroclus paced outside the school’s front gate (he left class five minutes early and nobody said a word), he could’ve bruised his knuckles against the wall in frustration with himself. Calm, relax, he demanded of himself. A seemingly endless ticker tape stream of REASONS TO WORRY piled in his mind, and Patroclus was really rather determined to not take a magnifying glass to them. He would not brood, would not let the details overwhelm and swallow him. Calm, relax.
Achilles sprinted right past Patroclus, his hand catching on Patroclus’ elbow as their vectors met and spiriting Patroclus away.
“Gotta lose my team,” he explained, grin and hair bright as he glanced back at Patroclus. “They’ll ask annoying questions if they see us— figured we can avoid them for now, meet them on our own terms.”
“I— Yeah, sure.” Patroclus was keeping pace, but it genuinely felt more like Achilles was taking him flying. He remembered an adrenaline-charged goal-oriented-ness that would spike on the soccer field, his attention spread like a dragnet across the green, his legs like pistons propelling him forward with his minimal effort. Achilles felt like that, but more free, the pavement barely skimming against their soles as they sprinted. The border between the air and Patroclus’ skin was dissipating; maybe this was how a paraglider felt sliced through the world.
Five blocks later they slowed, as they came up on a hill. Achilles pulled Patroclus toward a mailbox (which Patroclus, breathless, gladly braced against). He sat, in front of Patroclus, a cup of coffee, the lid stoppered shut and nothing leaking. Patroclus watched it, a bit confounded as Achilles consulted his phone.
“Polyxena texted me Ajax’s address,” he muttered. “It’s close by, just… four more blocks that way.”
“What do you plan to say?” Patroclus blurted out. As he inwardly cringed at the blunt way that came out, the complete lack of prep, he let Achilles press the coffee into his hands. In a somewhat mother hen gesture, Achilles shooed for him to take a drink.
“I’ll just tell him to leave you alone, that if he wants to get to you he’ll have to go through me,” was the answer. When Patroclus only stared in response, Achilles quickly added, “unless there’s something else you want me to say?”
“No, no, I just—” Visibly cringing, Patroclus had to ask, “will that… work?”
“No reason it won’t,” Achilles replied, tone a little too bright to be casual. He stood close enough for Patroclus to feel the warmth radiating from him, and a bit reluctantly, Patroclus pulled away, starting in the direction Achilles had gestured.
“I don’t want this to go south anymore than it already has, you know?” Patroclus huffed, mostly nervous and mostly to himself. Achilles caught up quickly, and out of the corner of his eyes, Patroclus could see his hand hovering over Patroclus’ backpack. Then, pursing his lips, Achilles pulled away, shaking his head slightly.
“It’ll be fine, don’t worry!” A touch at Patroclus’ elbow again, the same place where Achilles’ hand had gripped to pull him along. This time, the pressure of Achilles’ fingertips detached after a gentle moment, and Patroclus found himself turning to follow it. He turned right into Achilles, their faces mere inches apart as Achilles stood close (too close). As their focus turned on each other they forgot to remain in motion, their paces slowing to elephantine.
“Are you sure?” Patroclus asked for one last confirmation— Achilles wasn’t the type of hand out empty assurances, after all. The memory of his bothersome apprehensions on his mind, Patroclus had firmly decided to give Achilles the benefit of the doubt. The responsibility here was not all on Patroclus, it was not— Achilles could make his own choices and answer for them (or, in all likelihood, get away with or be applauded for them).
“Absolutely,” Achilles affirmed, the furrow of his brow solemn. Patroclus could feel himself slip into a grin at the sight, and ducked his head away to hide it.
“Well then.” There was the sound of a skateboard rolling, increasing in volume behind them, and it was Patroclus’ turn to take Achilles by the arm, stepping to the edge of the curb for the skateboarder to pass. In the same motion, Achilles pivoted around to Patroclus’ other side and plucked the stopper from the coffee cup. Steam streamed up into the chilly air.
“Have the coffee! It’s for you,” Achilles heartily insisted.
“From Philz?” The closest Philz was at least a twenty-minute bus ride away. “Isn’t this place super expensive?”
“Not really.” At Patroclus’ look, Achilles winced. “I mean, I guess, but it’s fair trade?”
“Thank you,” Patroclus hurriedly added, not wanting to seem ungrateful. He took a quick sip to prove his appreciation. but was taken aback by the truly delicious flavors spreading across his palette. “Oh shit,” his voice came out soft and surprised, “this is really good.”
“Nice,” Achilles approved. Patroclus wanted to compare the joyousness in the crinkles of Achilles’ eyes to getting an A on a final exam or being accepted to his first choice college— but honestly, that wouldn’t be quite right. Someone like Achilles, to some degree, expected the A or the acceptance letter; someone like Achilles had the sheer density of confidence that could warp reality in his favor. The way Achilles was smiling now was like winning something he truly hadn’t expected to win, and it carried the same fullness of heart as meeting a deer in the woods that doesn’t run away or picking wild blackberries and eating them right from the brambles. It made Patroclus’ mouth go dry, and he hid behind the cup of coffee.
“I can’t finish this whole thing on my own,” Patroclus mumbled against the lid. He took another sip and offered it to Achilles, gaze averted and cheeks burning. “You want some?”
Achilles didn’t say anything, just lifted the cup reverently from Patroclus’ hands. Patroclus looked back when Achilles hummed thoughtfully.
“I guess Diomedes wasn’t bullshitting me after all,” he conceded. “But I still don’t know what the fuck full-bodied means.”
“Sounds fake,” Patroclus agreed as he accepted the cup back. They passed it back and forth between them, wandering slowly down the streets, speeding up only to cross intersections and stopping altogether to let other packs of students pass. The entire neighborhood was beginning to grow noisy with children freed from the three schools close by.
Patroclus downed the last bit of coffee (at Achilles’ insistence) and tossed it in someone’s recycling bin left out on the curb. Glancing left and right, Achilles gestured for them to jaywalk, making a beeline for a large mission-style house across the street. The entrance was arched by well-groomed foliage, dark green and thick. Desert flowers and succulents dappled the rest of the front yard.
“You want to—?” Achilles vaguely offered Patroclus the lead, probably out of a sense of politeness, and Patroclus bit back a laugh.
“I’ll follow your lead.”
Nodding, Achilles made his way up the granite front steps. Patroclus trailed behind, trying to gauge the appropriate distance to keep between them. Should he stay close, to show to Ajax his solidarity with Achilles, that he wasn’t just hiding behind Achilles? But would staying close come off too much as compensation, like he needed Achilles to fight his battles but he wanted to pretend like he didn’t? Sinking into the frazzled thoughts, Patroclus almost tripped on the stairs, and, once again, frustratingly shoved the intrusive worries from his focus. And then, Patroclus took stairs by the double until he was at Achilles’s shoulder. Fuck what Ajax thought, asshole knew jack shit.
Achilles leaned slightly into Patroclus, a smile in his eyes, before he ran the doorbell.
They saw the shadow of Ajax’s feet appear a solid ten seconds before the door opened, and the moment it did Achilles was shouldering in front of Patroclus. A loud sound of impact as Achilles’ open palm hit and shoved Ajax’s fist aside. Patroclus could see little from where he had stumbled back down one step, but he heard Ajax’s shout turn breathless into a grunt, then Achilles’ right hand disappearing from view. When Achilles muscled forward through the threshold, Patroclus quickly followed, but careful to stay out of Achilles’ range.
“The fuck are you doing here?” Ajax spat. A row of windows lined the entryway, and Patroclus was startled to see a mottled bruise painting the side of Ajax’s face. Was that from the fight with Patroclus? No way— he would’ve remembered, or seen it before.
“Giving you a warning,” Achilles answered. His tone was even and his hands loose at his sides— if it weren’t for the way he obstinately fixed himself between Patroclus and Ajax, there would be no indication he was expecting a fight. “You mess with Iphigenia, Agamemnon kicks your ass to the curb. You fucked up, you pay the price, end of story. Do not come back and try to mess with anybody else.”
“You mean your little girlfriend back there?” Patroclus stared down Ajax’s sneer with a blank expression, refusing to look away. “Nah, you don’t get it. The way I see it, that piece of shit screwed me over. If it weren’t for him—”
“Iphigenia still would’ve beat your ass and you’d still be suspended,” Patroclus interrupted coolly. When Ajax jumped forward with a snarl, Achilles resoundingly shoved him back.
“You mess with Patroclus, everybody will know why.” The pitch of Achilles’ voice was divine declaration, with the even tone of reason and the gravitas of absolute rightness. Patroclus couldn’t even begin to imagine affecting that kind of momentousness. “Teachers know, the principal knows— you’ll be expelled next.”
“Oh boohoo, I get expelled I’ll just transfer to another school— he’d know all about that, wouldn’t he?”
“I’ll fight you myself,” was Achilles’ bloody warning.
“Like I give a flying fuck now,” was Ajax’s ugly slash of a grin, spittle response. “Give me time, Golden Boy, I can fuck your boyfriend right up— you can beat my ass afterwards, get me expelled, fine, but won’t change the fact that I can still get to you.”
War tore across Achilles’ shoulder, the sharp folds of his coat, the lean lines of his fingers as he snatched something from the dark maple console table. A business card. Sparing it but an indolent glance, Achilles held the card by its edges, its sharp corners caught against his fingerprint.
“You want a threat? How’s this— Aivas & Vilates, your father’s firm, correct?” And a chill shimmered down Patroclus’ spine at Achilles’ wide stance in high-end sneakers, the expensive leather bag hanging from his shoulder. Ajax’s snarl had lost its manic creases, a twist in his eyes full of disbelief, full of I can’t believe you would sink this low. The curl of his back looked almost defensive as Achilles spoke on. “I’ll take this to my mother at the Olympus Law Group— you do know what they’re famous for, right? Digging up dirt on other firms and tearing them to shreds—”
“Achilles.” His exclamation came out as rebuke, and Patroclus wasn’t sure he meant it that way. But what the actual fuck. Immorality of the threat aside, Achilles’ threat single-handedly dredged up for Patroclus years and years’ worth of— not so much class resentment as it was class terror. Yes, he grew up rich, and yes, he had never wanted for money. But there was also the matter of his upbringing, how growing up he had always been taught that it was his father’s money. The six-figure sum that sat in his bank account, ostensibly his, but his father’s cash, the throat-gnawing guilt he swallowed every time he bought groceries, afraid to spend more than $20 of it at a time. The way he has always been the frayed sleeves amidst a crowd of sleek new coats. And here was Achilles, casually trading in the lingo of the steel-and-granite business world, moneyed world. It would’ve been gratifying that Achilles immediately stopped at his call, had Patroclus not been fighting a full-body revulsion at the threat.
Ajax, looking up, attempted a sneer. “Looks like your girlfriend’s getting cold feet.”
Achilles didn’t reply, and his hand looked strangely rigid around the card. Patroclus watched Ajax watch Achilles, the strange series of expressions twisting across his bruised face before collapsing into a bared-teeth snarl. His hand flashed out and grabbed the card, crumbling it in his fist.
“Get the fuck out of here,” and there was a fundamental shift in Ajax’s tone, something that signaled defeat. At this point Patroclus had more than cold feet, he was cold all over. And Achilles wasn’t looking at him, which was as major a signifier of guilt as any. Patroclus still remembered Achilles’ sloppy grin, bright as day, his promise that it’ll be fine! Don’t worry! Well shit, how could Patroclus be so stupidly, blindly trusting? In the space of another breath, Patroclus turned to go. The door lock jammed under his thumb, which stalled him enough to hear Ajax’s angry, “don’t you fucking dare give me that look, Achilles. You don’t even give a shit.”
“Not really,” Achilles accepted, voice pitched quiet, and Patroclus got the door open. He flung it out behind him and hurried down the stairs, chased by the last of Achilles’ words. “But I don’t have to like you to do this.”
An insistent drape of clouds had covered the sky, and the wind was cold enough to feel wet against Patroclus’ heated cheeks. Squirrels chased each other through the manicured foliage of Ajax’s front yard, and the bushes of unidentified berries were bright red. Out here, everything was fine.
“It’s not what you think,” came Achilles voice from behind him, dosed with such uncharacteristic diffidence that Patroclus immediately turned around. Hand in his pocket, Achilles wore a worried frown with the same sharp definition he wore his Ralph Lauren jeans— and Patroclus was confused, frustratingly so.
“You threatened his dad’s law firm?” A weird, humiliating incredulity colored Patroclus’ tone. “That’s how you solve problems? By invoking the power of your mother to actually destroy people’s lives?”
“That’s what you think, and I’m telling you it’s not that,” Achilles insisted. Quickening his step, Achilles caught Patroclus’ elbow and led them out of the front yard, onto the street. It was a good two blocks before Achilles spoke again, his palms settling comfortably onto Patroclus’ forearm, and Patroclus entirely unmotivated to shake him off, for unclear reasons. “He hates his father.”
Whatever Patroclus was expecting, it was not that. But he didn’t even get time to try to parse this new information before Achilles continued:
“Because his father hits him.”
“The bruise,” Achilles confirmed. “His dad’s rarely home but when he comes back Ajax almost always shows up with bruises to practice.”
“And you noticed this?” For the short time Patroclus has known Achilles, he was made unerringly clear on one of Achilles’ characteristics— that Achilles didn’t really notice people. All personal knowledge of even Polyxena and Diomedes were retained only via memories of extreme ire or discomfort. Except— Achilles noticed Patroclus (his history playing soccer), and Achilles had a thing for Patroclus (undoubtedly, as much as it made Patroclus want to scream and blush and giggle and break things to admit it), so did that mean Achilles also had a thing for Ajax—?
“Nah, Polyxena did,” Achilles shrugged. Oh. Patroclus smothered a sigh that was equal parts relief and ridiculous disbelief at himself. “Last year, she asked me if I knew anything, so I told him if shit was really going down and he wanted to fuck with his dad, Olympus could do it. It’d be easy.”
“I don’t understand though.” Deep in his thoughts, Patroclus’ free hand came up to cover Achilles’ on his elbow, and Patroclus missed Achilles’ delighted grin. “If taking down his dad’s firm is a good thing why did you threaten him with it?”
“It’s—” Achilles paused, and Patroclus recognized his expression as the same from when he said of Agamemnon, I can’t report him. The intricate minefield of both Ajax and Achilles’ psyches began to sketch clear to Patroclus. “He says he won’t report his dad ‘cause it’d be messy. I told him, before, that Olympus can take his dad down after he gets into college. He never answers.”
The dissatisfied frown on Achilles’ face was replaced with frustration as he ran out of words. Patroclus tried to help him focus, “so he has complicated feelings about reporting his own dad. That’s reasonable.”
“Right.” This time, it’s a huff of air and a grimace as Achilles tightened his grip on Patroclus. “Seriously, don’t hate me for this, but it’s as effective as a threat against him can be. He doesn’t want people to know, he doesn’t want things to get messy.”
And Patroclus remembered, Ajax’s biting tone, you don’t even give a shit. Patroclus understood that it wasn’t a matter of fundamental morality to Achilles— Ajax was very correct in his accusation of Achilles’ lack of stakes in Ajax’s wellbeing. Which bothered Patroclus, but at the same time did not bother Patroclus as much as he thought it should. Plus, Achilles was doing this for Patroclus’ sake, which was— messy.
A small surge of hysterics threatened to overtake Patroclus, and he covered it by speaking the situation out loud: “so if he tries to mess with me, his abusive father gets reported, which he doesn’t want. But it might be a good thing for him. And if he doesn’t mess with me, his father doesn’t get reported, which respects his wishes. But he has to continue dealing with his father. But that’s kind of his choice. But it’s also not really a choice at all for an abuse victim—” Whatever expression Patroclus was making, Achilles was cringing at. “—Dear god. Things are already messy. Do we even have the moral high ground here?”
“Well,” Achilles said like the answer was irrelevant. Then, “you’re safe though.”
“And that’s all that matters,” Patroclus snorted, sarcastic.
“That’s mostly what matters,” Achilles insisted. “You heard him back there, and I know him, Polyxena knows him— those aren’t empty threats. We needed to stop him, that was the way.”
“But—” Exhaling sharply, Patroclus bit his lip. “Was that the only way.”
“The only one I knew.”
Achilles’ tone held a distant mourning— less that he was upset there was no other way, more that he was upset Patroclus had to be disappointed by the lack of options. Which made Patroclus want to grab him by the shoulders and shake. But also maybe hug him for caring so much.
They passed a pack of middle school students exiting a corner store— a familiar corner store. In their aimless walking, Patroclus had apparently been unconsciously steering them in the direction of his house, which they were now a block away from.
“Um,” Patroclus said, eloquently. “This is me.”
“I can head on home,” Achilles quickly replied. He pulled his hand from Patroclus’ arm, and the sudden coolness on Patroclus’ skin was disconcerting.
“No,” Patroclus found himself saying. The whole day’s lot of emotions was catching up hard and fast with him, and Patroclus was surprised to find himself earnestly desiring company. Achilles’ company. Achilles’ attention burned happy and simple and unconditional for Patroclus, and it was a lot like handing a drowning man an oxygen tank. Sure, Achilles was no beacon of righteousness like Briseis, but his particular brand of un-self-conscious absolute attention made Patroclus want to be selfish, if it meant he could keep Achilles. Taking a steady breath, Patroclus reached down for Achilles’ hand, weaving their fingers together.
“Please, come in, if you’d like.”
I call this chapter Achilles' Aglionby moment. Tell me what you think. :')
*Bourgie— this isn't just an SF thing, I don't think. But y'all know what I mean? I've never seen it spelled out, I don't think. Like bourgeoisie, but bourgie.
*"jock-dude chin nods"— you know what I'm talking about. In fact, here's a page from The Male Playbook explaining just how much of a thing it is.
*I had to get that Bay Area coffee fervor in there, I HAD TO. (Philz is godsent??? Tesora with milk and sugar is my favorite.)
*Alastor is, of course, a character Odysseus kills in the Iliad. I amuse myself with shit like this.
*You should search up the plot summary for Mann's Death in Venice. You'll wanna punch me in the face.
Comments are much beloved and treasured like gold.
Chapter 9: When we danced, we danced, (and we danced, we danced)
F I N A L L Y
Thank you Edie again for the wonderful beta-ing, and thank you dear readers for being so patient. IT'S GOING TO PAY OFF I SWEAR.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Inside Patroclus’ studio apartment, Achilles touched everything.
He could hardly help it, what with the bizarre bits and pieces, odds and ends lying around everywhere. On the bronze light fixture by the front door was built a flower-drying operation, made of clothes hangers and twine and a wire rack. On the kitchen counter was spread several stacks of half-fold booklets, a sewing kit in the corner along with a pile of cardboard and leather scraps. In and out of a basket by the couch were several piles of yarn, needles and crochet hooks emerging out of some with products taking shape along their ends.
“Don’t go onto the patio if you can help it,” Patroclus muttered abashedly as he puttered around, shifting stuff from one side of the room to the other. “I was sanding um, a table, yesterday, so it’s kind of a mess.”
“What is all this?” Achilles marveled. He had found his way to the bookshelf, which was entirely empty of books (the texts that Achilles recognized from school all sat in a dusty bag at the foot of the shelf). A million trinkets sat on display instead: a mostly-empty bottle of perfume, a set of expensive-looking fountain pens and a bottle of ink, some stamps of the ink-and-seal sort sitting as paper weight atop some stamps of the lick-and-mail sort. A handful of long, birds of prey feathers. A sturdy knife, sheathed, and blocks of wood beside it. A guitar pick.
“They’re from the senior center, mostly. Folks give me stuff sometimes, or I make stuff for them.” Patroclus was still shifting around, embarrassment coloring his words. With a fond huff of breath, Achilles tapped him once on the shoulder and grinned.
“It’s pretty fucking cool man— tell me about them.”
So Patroclus did. Achilles listened with barely disguised awe at the sheer amount of stories Patroclus kept in his head. He laid out the plots, the causes and effects with simplistic clarity, but also sprinkled in details of weird delight— “…seriously maybe chemical burns in my nose, okay? Don’t try it at home…” or “…he says it was a cockatiel but c’mon, as if…” Achilles only made encouraging sounds to keep him going, mentally keeping time and cheering for every additional ten seconds Patroclus talked (the opposite of how he usually timed himself in track, shouting with triumph with every second he could shave off).
So Achilles felt a prick of defeat in his chest when Patroclus suddenly winced and cut himself off in the middle of a story about Nestor, a retired ambulance driver, to whom the fountain pens used to belong.
“Crap, sorry— do you want anything to drink? Eat?” Without waiting for a reply, Patroclus half-jogged over to the fridge, pulling open the door. “I have… tap water. And a convenience store down the block. Why don’t I go buy something—?”
“No, it’s fine.” Achilles pitched his voice as a kind suggestion, and Patroclus groaned, knocking his head back against the fridge. “I’m good on water, I have some in my bag.” When Patroclus only looked back with a morose expression, the frown in his eyes and his parted, but silent lips clearly telegraphing I don’t know what to do here, help, Achilles made his way to the kitchen counter. He glided a fingertip over a length of cotton string and nudged the needle at the end with a nail. “So this is what you do, huh? The secret life of Patroclus, artist, inventor, mechanic, collector?”
The red on Patroclus’ face and throat and the hollow of his neck was beautiful.
“Where the hell did you get mechanic from?” he mumbled.
“That one’s a leap,” Achilles admitted, “but not that much of one— you’ve got a handful of batteries with copper coils attached to the ends over there, don’t you? What are those?”
“Oh, right.” A light of recognition in Patroclus’ eyes as he turned around, hands idly drifting to a single white mug by the sink and filling it with water. “That was for Oeneus’ granddaughter, Polly. The parents want to permanently move here from New Mexico, so Oeneus was babysitting for the day. He asked if I could help, so Polly and I built simple train sets all day— the batteries and the wire make a magnetic field so it propels down another copper coil. We rigged it all the way down the main hall— it was pretty cool!”
“See? Mechanic,” Achilles gloated, smiling warmly at Patroclus. Years of private school education and a lawyer mother had taught Achilles the mannerisms of business suit smiles and conference room power plays, nuanced to the force of his grip during a handshake, the proper durations of eye contact for hellos, goodbyes, and every moment in between. Those who were good had solid mastery over these skills, and those who were really good (Achilles) could employ these skills without seeming like he was using them at all. Achilles wasn’t actively manipulative, not really— but he was calculated in his deployment of any physical action and emotion, helplessly so. And when he smiled, he watched and waited for a reaction from Patroclus, one that he expected: endearing embarrassment. Patroclus’ gaze wanting to jump away but clinging to Achilles nonetheless, dancing over Achilles’ face and hands, tracing the breadth of his shoulders. Wordlessly, Achilles shrugged out of his jacket, folding it and placing it atop his bag at his feet— and Patroclus’ eyes stuck even more. Achilles was rather inclined to preen.
“How about you?” Patroclus deflected. “You’ve got, what, track, martial arts, that 4.0 life— any other crazy talents you got under your belt?”
As much as Achilles wanted to keep talking about Patroclus (and keep that blush high in Patroclus’ cheeks, the finger drumming on his arm like a pulse point), he could read the tempo of the conversation. That, and he had been waiting on telling Patroclus this for a while, eager to see Patroclus’ reaction.
“I play the harp.”
After a beat, the expectant grin slipped off Patroclus’ face.
“Hundred percent. Pretty damn good at it too, won some contests here and there. Guess I’m ah—” Cue his best roguish grin, something Achilles probably learned from Diomedes. “—good with my fingers.”
Patroclus’ eyes went wide with startlement and— something else. His whole body stilled before he dipped his chin with a look of bemusement.
“That line probably works better on girls.”
Achilles kept a frown from showing on his face and leaned forward, palms patting the countertop to get Patroclus’ attention. No, he wasn’t having that— Achilles absolutely would not stand for Patroclus underestimating the amount of sheer desire Achilles had for him.
“I’m sure I can make it work for you.”
Patroclus’ mug clanged loud enough against the counter for it to sound like a shattering, and Patroclus himself tossed his head back again. “Shut the fuck up,” he groaned, honest-to-god bright red, to Achilles’ laughing delight. Fingers flexing in fits, Patroclus blabbered, “changing the subject now, please. Back to the harp. The harp? Phoenix at the senior center has a harp, but he’s too arthritic to play now. You should come over sometimes and play it for him.”
“Sure,” Achilles agreed easily, settling his cheek on his palm. A curl untangled from his ponytail and fell to his eyes before he carelessly blew it away. “Would tomorrow work? I’m planning on skipping at least three practices so I’ll be free.”
“I— Yeah, tomorrow would work.”
Catching the awkward twist of Patroclus’ lips, Achilles silently cursed and reminded himself, boundaries. An apology was on the tip of his tongue when Patroclus suddenly stepped up onto the other side of the counter, face-to-face with Achilles and an odd expression on.
“So, I keep thinking we should be playing video games or something.”
“I don’t—” Achilles tried to read Patroclus for any indication to where this conversation was headed, but he gave nothing away. “I don’t really play much video games?”
“Me neither,” Patroclus replied, sounding relieved but the edges of his voice tight with frustration. “So, pardon my utter ignorance for social moors, I guess, but what the hell do high school boys do for fun then?” With a grunt, he put his head down on his arms, bent half over onto the counter and muttering, “after threatening another student with the destruction of his parent’s livelihood, that is.”
Wincing, Achilles, “I am sorry about that.”
“…I know.” Patroclus looked up with half his face still smooshed against his arm, eyes thoughtful and the draw of his brows stoic. “I’m going to talk to Ajax, by the way, sort things out. On my own.”
The urge to protest, to protect slid liquid and hot under every inch of Achilles’ skin, but he tamped it all down with a swallow and a nod.
“Okay. I figured you would.”
Patroclus quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, did you now?”
Which, honestly, surprised Achilles. “Of course. I’d prefer if you didn’t, obviously, for your safety and all, but you wouldn’t just let that go. You’re a good person.”
Patroclus sprung up straight, and the urgency with which he did sent Achilles carefully straightening as well. As Achilles watched Patroclus over the counter, it suddenly struck him that it was Golden Hour. Warm light poured through the window at Achilles’ back and made Patroclus look molten, hair and eyes and cheeks and collarbones. He was frowning, sure, but his lashes and pupils were the same distracting, brassy shade, practically glowing, and the social computations in Achilles’ brain just— stopped. This wasn’t the Sunday functions or the dinner parties full of dolled-up people Achilles spoke to like war simulations or hostage negotiations, where there were as many species of beauty as there were firearms. This wasn’t school with the fake “open discussions” and right answers. No, this was something a lot more— brutally, petrifyingly— honest. Patroclus’ searching gaze cut quick to the core and for the first time in Achilles’ life, he feared he wouldn’t measure up.
“You say I’m— That’s not—” Patroclus’ face twisted so painfully that Achilles almost lunged out to physically stop this train of thought, stop the hurt. Then, Patroclus’ voice, harsh from anguish, “how could you possibly know that?”
Achilles’ brain went still, and brown like dirt, and at the base of his ears he could hear something like a trickling river. The kinetic buzz of the world or thinking or white noise that went unnoticed until it stopped— stopped, and Achilles could feel his jaw unclenching, his lips parting. Before him, Patroclus was still golden, still tortured, but Achilles had the answer, felt it like sediments slotting into settled grains at the bottom of clear water, had the method to soothe the pain.
“I talked to Briseis in Psych today,” he answered, voice a bit scratchy but that’s okay, he felt fittingly raw. Energy began brimming at his edges, intensity twisting up his spine. “I think we’re rather similar people.”
With a little huff, Patroclus muttered, “she’d kill you if she knew you said that.” He was blinking away his hurt at the seeming non-sequitor but Achilles wasn’t done yet.
“Yeah but she wouldn’t deny it,” Achilles replied confidently. “To a certain extent we’re both good people— we’re no Ajax— but we both know. We’re not good for no reason. And so we know when the really, truly good come along. It’s clearest to people like us.” A beat, then a shrug. “It’s why we’re so protective.”
And Patroclus, still was standing, lips red and so still like they were about to part and speak, elbows tucked tight into his sides. He found motion, but only for his lungs: a quick huff of breath that almost passed for laughter.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” he said, voice weak. Achilles looked away to take the pressure off Patroclus, tucked his palm up against the side of his neck and folded himself diagonally down. Out the corner of his eyes, he caught sight of the coffee table in front of the dusty, unplugged TV.
“Oh,” Achilles said brightly, “I know. We can do homework.”
“Half an hour, I swear. Forty-five minutes at most, ‘til the sun’s gone.”
Patroclus’ abs were still slightly sore from his laughing hysterics when Achilles suggested they do homework, of all things. As Achilles steered him toward the coffee table, Patroclus thought of a dozen dirty jokes that he might have said had he not been so sure he’d lose against Achilles in any contest of terrible pick-up lines.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Patroclus half-grunted, half-chuckled as he kicked his backpack along, Achilles behind him gently pushing him forward. “I’m not really good at this homework thing.”
“Nah man, for real. No false modesty here, I swear— last school year my GPA was barely a 3.0, and half of that was pity points ‘cause I got my ass expelled.”
Achilles’ palm splayed flat and warm against the stripe of tense muscle between Patroclus’ spine and shoulder blade, applying the slightest pressure. Patroclus already felt himself arching back into the touch.
“Well, how’s your essay for AP Lit coming along, then?” murmured Achilles’ voice, somewhere above Patroclus’ right shoulder. Patroclus didn’t dare look back, in case he was too close (or too far).
“I’ve got a thesis and outline,” he answered.
“Cool then, I got—” Achilles stepped into Patroclus’ line of sight, and Patroclus was treated to what he would later call Achilles’ academic face: gaze drifting left as he fast-forwarded through his day of classes, chin tilted up in recall, fingers loosely tangled at his center like he was giving a PowerPoint presentation. Add a pair of wire-rim glasses and he could be a graduate system talking about his thesis. “—a crappy Gov worksheet I can do tomorrow morning, Art History reading, Spanish, a problem set, and some Psych readings. Psych readings are probably top priority, Odysseus has been riding our asses about them recently. I’ll do those, you do the essay, we reconvene in half an hour— sound good?”
“You,” Patroclus said, amused, “should be a student center tutor.”
“I have it on good authority only stuffy, holier-than-thou freshmen go see those tutors,” Achilles sniffed.
“Whose the authority?”
“Diomedes, who was one of the stuffy, holier-than-thou freshmen who went to go annoy the tutors.”
“Oh, and you never went to bother any tutors? When literally just yesterday, you were ready to annoy Odysseus until he, I dunno, cried uncle, begged you to leave?”
“I only take on worthy opponents,” Achilles said, first solemnly, then cringed. “Don’t let him know I said that.”
“I’ll add a little footnote in my essay and let him know,” Patroclus teased. With an unhappy grunt, Achilles once more got behind Patroclus, this time bracing both hands on Patroclus’ back to shove him down to the table. “Alright, alright,” Patroclus surrendered, pulling his laptop over and grudgingly thumbing it open. “‘Til the sun goes down, not a minute longer.”
“I swear it,” Achilles said with a wink. Kicking off his shoes he settled down beside Patroclus, feet folding in lotus position, both knees touching the ground. From his bag at his side, he pulled out a Kindle and, with one last smile at Patroclus, began to read.
Patroclus spent maybe seven swift minutes fleshing out his outline, topic sentences and transitions for all his paragraphs, before letting his attention drift back to Achilles, who was back in academic mode. Achilles had a thumb on his chin, pressing and pulling, and in the thickening evening light the inside of his lip was bright pink and glossy from saliva. His posture was pristine, even in relative repose. Eyes dancing across the Kindle screen, there was a half-shut intensity to his gaze that made Patroclus want to study Achilles as much as Achilles was studying his reading. Like watching a master artist break down a scene into clean color palettes, when all you could see was blue sky, green grass, white clouds. Truly good, Achilles had called him. Patroclus’ reaction to that was simple: what the actual fuck. It meant nothing; Achilles didn’t know him. It meant everything; Achilles didn’t know him. Didn’t know the Patroclus that never had friends over, never learned how to properly hang out with people, didn’t know the Patroclus that got his dumb ass expelled. Achilles saw him play soccer and get into a fight, and somehow derived truly good from that hot mess of an equation— it made Patroclus either want to go to church or stab a person.
It also made Patroclus want to sigh. For what reason, he wasn’t quite sure. Frustration, sure, at the day’s events and the continued stress that could not be alleviated until he talked to Ajax (which was, obviously, another stressor on its own). Disbelief, at the most beautiful, stupid, weirdly smitten boy he’d ever seen sitting in the middle of his crappy apartment. Longing, obviously. And the more Patroclus choked back the urge to sigh, the tighter his chest felt. The whole situation was a lot, way too much, and a desperation for distraction actually sent Patroclus’ focus shooting dart-like at his essay, hitting bull’s-eye all the way. Before he knew it, he was blinking up from the screen and letting his eyes adjust to the dark room. Achilles lounged against his sofa, Spanish workbook in hand and pen idly scrawling along it. When Patroclus moved, however, Achilles’ head snapped right up, and he grinned triumphantly.
“What time is it?” Patroclus asked, dazed. Achilles consulted his (leather strap, sapphire crystal face, Burberry— Patroclus’ dad had one just like it) watch as he cracked his neck.
“Six-fifteen,” was the answer, and Achilles got to his feet. “We put in some good time— sorry, you looked like you were in the zone. I didn’t want to break your concentration.”
“I mean, as long as you don’t mind me being the worst host in the world,” replied Patroclus sarcastically, but inside he was groaning. Could he actually be more terrible at this? Not that Patroclus had truly ulterior motives for asking Achilles in (he’d deny it to his grave, probably blushing all the way there), but he hardly wanted Achilles to think of his apartment as study hall.
Achilles suddenly appeared in his line of sight, sprawled along the table. He had a chastising expression as he gently closed Patroclus’ laptop. “No, you’re not,” he said clearly, keeping deliberate eye contact with Patroclus all the while. “You’re a lovely host— thanks to you we both got a shit ton finished. Now we can chill. Call takeout or something.”
That, Patroclus could do. A quick deliberation between Indian or Thai (Thai won out), Patroclus phoned in an order as he paced the length of the apartment. They took a bathroom, water, and stretch break (Achilles folding himself backwards with a breathy, drawn-out groan, to which Patroclus responded with folding himself forwards to bang his head repeatedly against his knees). When Patroclus flicked on the light from the hallway and returned to the living room, Achilles was once more on the floor, back against the couch. This time, his eyes were half-shut with indolence, an upturned palm with half-curled fingers beckoning for Patroclus to sit beside him.
In a moment of frenetic determination, Patroclus did. Achilles immediately turned to accomodate him, and their legs pressed warm together.
“I did as you said,” Achilles jumped right in, with the tone of voice that said he was clearly eager, but he was trying to hide that eagerness. “Thought about what I wanted with you.”
“You have a list,” Patroclus reminded Achilles teasingly, even though his mouth was dry. Achilles nodded.
“Do you want to hear it?”
Witty remarks died on Patroclus’ tongue by the sheer earnestness of Achilles’ expression, and he only nodded. The corners of Achilles’ mouth flickered up into a smile that was gone as quick as it came— from nerves, Patroclus realized. Achilles was nervous.
(Well, as much as Achilles could be nervous about anything.)
“I’m going to skip the first two things for now, for a variety of reasons,” Achilles grimaced. No list was procured— the dork had memorized it. “So item number three and on I suppose. I want to hang out with you and learn about your life and what you do.” As he spoke, Achilles gestured around, oddly bashful. “This whole afternoon, I want to do more of it. Going to skip down to number fourteen real quick, I want to do homework with you.”
When Patroclus laughed, Achilles’ whole face brightened, and he continued with more confidence and intensity.
“I want to share my life with you— I want to go running with you, play soccer with you. I want you to come to my martial arts studio and watch me spar. Correction: watch me hand people’s asses to them. I want to show off for you— honest— even the harp, which I’m actually very, very good at, I swear. I also want to hold your hand, if you’ll let me.
“I also want to show you off to everybody but only so they’d be jealous. In equal amounts I also want to hide you away so I’m the only one who gets to see you. And I want whatever you want too so really, don’t take those last two points too seriously, it’s completely up to you.
“Also— okay, this was number one on my list, which I’ll return to now— I would really like to kiss you. But obviously it’s fine if you don’t want to, boundaries, that would be totally fine—”
Patroclus’ hand shot out and grabbed Achilles by the back of his neck. Achilles’ mouth opened, then shut, his eyes wide and boring into Patroclus’. Patroclus, for his part, felt like a thousand seagulls were taking to screaming flight in his chest and he managed a laugh.
“You— You’re kidding, right? How could I not want to kiss— is there a single person in the world who wouldn’t want to kiss you.”
“I can think of a few.” Achilles’ droll expression quickly disappeared into anticipation. “Now? Is now okay?”
“…Yeah, yeah, of course. Have you—” Patroclus started, then cleared his throat, his voice painfully husky. “Have you ever kissed another…?”
Hair tumbling into his eyes, Achilles shook his head. “No. You’re going to be the first.”
For some reason (nerves, anticipation, the desire to stare at Achilles’ perfect, unchapped lips for just a bit longer), Patroclus pressed, “okay, but what about girls? You must have dated girls?”
“Not seriously, never,” was the answer. With his free hand, Patroclus tucked the lock of soft blond hair behind Achilles’ ear. His fingers were ice against the heat of Achilles’ skin.
“I’ve never never had reason to.”
His hand tightened against the cords of muscle on Achilles’ neck. Achilles’ eyes went half-lidded again.
“You’ve never had reason in dating, and now you suddenly want to go all in? Why—?” Patroclus wished he sounded more incredulous, instead of— breathy. Because Achilles was leaning forward and his hand was on Patroclus’ wrist, also cold, clamping down and reeling Patroclus in. And Patroclus didn’t know whether to watch Achilles’ brilliant eyes or his mouth, so his gaze could only stumble between the two at such close distance. He watched Achilles speak like old cinema frames, the reel in slow motion.
“Because you’re the reason.”
Their lips met, and Patroclus gave up, let his eyes flutter shut.
The kiss was:
Pressing— a relay of force from person to person, lips moving to dispel and apply the force in equal parts.
Eager— but reined back, keeping politely to constant motion, parting lips here and mouthing the corners of his mouth there.
Generous— giving and taking, backwards and forwards swaying; tasting of mutual wonder with undercurrents of longing, both too impatient to savor the aftertaste of infatuation as they leaned in to drink again, and again, and again.
Complete, total bliss.
Patroclus slowed for air, and realized Achilles was sitting on his lap.
“Kind of moving fast for someone who’s never kissed another guy before, aren’t you?” Patroclus laughed breathlessly. Achilles’ palm smoothed over Patroclus’ shoulder and down his chest, flat and warm, before he grinned cheekily.
“I’m fast; it’s what I do.”
Instead of groaning and shoving Achilles away, Patroclus groaned and gathered him closer, their foreheads knocking together carelessly. Another kiss, the motions reminding Patroclus strangely of eating Starbursts or Hi-Chews, all sensual maneuverings of flesh against another soft thing. Slight saliva. A pleasant scratch of nails on his neck, against the soft skin behind his ear.
Achilles broke away, eyes fever-bright, to say, “thank you.” Thumb skimming up Patroclus’ cheekbone, pressing his mouth against Patroclus’ forehead. “You’re just so— I think you’re the most wonderful—”
Patroclus cut him off with another kiss, fingers clenching the front of Achilles’ shirt. Nobody’s fingers were cold now. There was the taste of teeth in this kiss, a little rougher, redder lips, deeper crescent imprints of nails against skin. A bit metallic.
“Don’t—” Patroclus all but gasped, before he broke off, words completely lost. He buried his face in the crook of Achilles’ neck instead, dragging the spit-slick inside of his lip against Achilles’ collarbone. It rewarded him a full-body shudder from Achilles, then Achilles folding forward, one arm wrapped like a vice around Patroclus’ shoulder and the other dragging up and down Patroclus’ back.
“This is good, right?” Achilles’ voice sounded hoarse, even with the deepened rumbling Patroclus could hear with his ear pressed against Achilles’ chest. “You’re good with this?”
There were a dozen other questions Achilles was also asking— can we continue? Is this a relationship? What about school? From experience, Patroclus expected to spiral into an anxious panic but— right now, with Achilles’ weight warm and pliant on top of him, Patroclus felt… settled.
“Yeah, I’m good with this,” he answered, so honest he smiled. They would figure everything out, later. Patroclus craned up for another kiss and tasted contentment.
(And, after the doorbell rang, after they jumped hurriedly apart, after a large tip to a sniggering delivery person, after dinner— as Achilles stood at the door about to leave— their last kiss of the evening tasted like Thai.)
(Patroclus knew no better taste.)
I had very specific cadences of poetry in my head when I wrote this?? like a total nerd and pretentious jackass?
And Patroclus, still was standing— "and the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting"
“Do you want to hear it?”— my mind was screaming "Do you permit it?" but... nah.
And, after the doorbell rang, after they jumped hurriedly apart, after a large tip to a sniggering delivery person, after dinner— Prufrock, "After the cups, the marmalade, the tea" so on and so forth.
ANYWAYS. here is a floor plan of Pat's apartment, but the kitchen's a bit wider without the table and two chairs, and the sink is against the left wall instead of embedded in the counter.
This was my reference for Achilles' watch.
*Nestor was a major hero of the Trojan War and an important figure in Telemachus' character development in the Odyssey
*That DIY train set thing really works!
*Phoenix is Achilles' tutor/babysitter in the Iliad? Miller gives Achilles a lyre tutor but not a name, so.
TELL ME WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THE KISSING.
Chapter 10: These new flocks are nothing but vultures
In honor of Edie's birthday, here's a chapter!!! With plot!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next two days, plus the weekend, Achilles kept coming over. They talked, did homework. Patroclus took him to see Phoenix and Achilles, predictably, blew everybody away— he began with a paean at Phoenix’s request (which brought honest-to-god tears to the elderly man’s eyes) and finished with a jaunty Celtic tune that had the occupants of the hallway clapping along (Patroclus was on the receiving end of several congratulatory pats on the back and lascivious winks). They talked, did more homework. Oh and made out. Made out a lot.
They made out on the balcony when Patroclus was showing Achilles his wood projects (no, not like that), and got whistled at by a pack of rainbow flag-and-spandex Castro gays walking by.
They made out a little bit in the stairway going up to Patroclus’ because when Patroclus remarked on how chilly it could get in there because of the concrete walls and steps, Achilles tried to wrap Patroclus in his jacket, and it was such an 80’s movie moment that Patroclus kinda had to crowd Achilles into a (perfectly warm; it was summer) corner of the stairwell and kiss the crap out of him.
They made out in Patroclus’ room. Everywhere. Rom-com montage style and Patroclus was proud of it, dammit. Eating breakfast meant shuffling from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom to the front door and not being able to settle down because Oh yeah, we were kissing and Achilles was sitting on the counter and he wrapped his legs around my torso or Oh yeah, we were kissing and Achilles’ hands were on my neck and the back of my head and damn his hands are big or Oh yeah, we were kissing. On the bed. It was kind of nice, and incredibly embarrassing, but really kind of nice.
Tuesday, when Achilles returned to practice, Patroclus experienced a rather sensational revelation that he should not go home. Not alone, at any rate. And the utter pathetic-ness of this revelation meant Patroclus dragged himself immediately home, mentally berating himself all the while, and paced around, incapable of settling down, until Achilles rang his doorbell. Patroclus didn’t even say hi, just dragged Achilles in by the front of his shirt, buried his fingers in Achilles’ freshly washed hair, and kissed him senseless.
(Agamemnon, apparently, was pretending like the whole Achilles-ditching-practice-for-three-days thing like it never happened. Ajax was still suspended and won’t be back for another week. Achilles was all sorts of smug when he told Patroclus this news that Patroclus had to— well, kiss the grin off his face.)
That night, nine PM, when they both startled out of their reverie to inky night and stubbed toes, Patroclus flopped back on his bed and groaned, “I am corrupting Arcadia’s best and brightest; they’ll come after me with pitchforks.”
“If they do I have a sword,” Achilles promptly replied. “Carbon steel baby; I’ll cut down every motherfucking pitchfork.”
“What if I want to fight them all?” Patroclus asked, and when Achilles turned back to look at him, wiggled his eyebrows jauntily. A grinning Achilles promptly tackled him back onto the bed.
“Then I’ll bring pompoms,” Achilles said into Patroclus’ neck. Spitting Achilles’ hair out of his mouth, Patroclus laughed and relaxed into the physical affection he had grown used to frighteningly fast. Achilles was warm and broad under his palm, and Patroclus’ hands danced down Achilles’ back, thumb dragging against gliding fabric. he time they’ve spent together felt both infinite and infinitesimal in the exact same ways; Patroclus’ thoughts were a helpless flood of Achilles and giving in to it was breathing underwater, whereas coming up was choking on polluted air, the unmatched misery of missing your bus by mere seconds. Patroclus wanted to grow gills and disappear from reality forever, and judging by the secure, yet gentle hold Achilles had on his hand, he would have Achilles’ eternal company. The confidence of a hero warmed his blood from head to toe, and Patroclus said:
“Let’s stay like this forever.”
That was how, like all tragic heroes, Patroclus spoke his own doom.
Diomedes didn’t dislike his home, per se. It was just, like a great number of teenagers with their baseline setting on mutinous, he much preferred leaving it. So, every morning, he woke up at 7AM on the dot, and left the house by 7:15. The bike ride that early in the morning was ten minutes at most, considering Diomedes’ standard speed only went up from Fast as Hell (once again, mutinous teen). So, with five minutes to spare, he would stop by the Starbucks just a block from Arcadia, grab a coffee, and enter the empty school halls by 7:30.
…Half an hour before classes actually started.
Diomedes started keeping to this schedule a couple of months into Junior Year, finding the relative solitude and silence invigorating. This half hour was usually homework time, for bullshitting a page of Calculus homework or finishing up a couple of pages of French. Or, if everything was done, start Odysseus’ homework some days in advance, because the (beloved) slave driver he was, Odysseus assigned up to a hundred pages of reading per night, easily. When Diomedes wasn’t busy mourning the fact that he wasn’t in Odysseus’ Psych class, he was grateful to not have double the number of Odysseus readings.
Wednesday morning, however, was not the relaxing, mostly silent time Diomedes sought. Instead, as he walked by Odysseus’ classroom (as he usually did; sometimes Odysseus would be there, and they could chat for a whole fifteen minutes at least before the rest of the school arrived like a locust swarm), empty this morning, Diomedes was struck with the pungent scent of bleach. Now, a faint odor of any cleaning supplies wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, but the concentration of the scent smelled more like a spill than anything else. Diomedes’ first instincts were to take the closest hallway and swing right, away from the smell, but a strange feeling in his gut led him to cover his nose with his sweatshirt sleeve and creep closer to the locker bank, where the smell was strongest.
Half a minute later, he stepped outside, took in gulps of fresh air and dialed Polyxena.
“Hey man, what’s up?” Polyxena sounded rightly confused by an early morning phone call. In her background, Diomedes could hear the bus announcement, Keep your eyes up and your phones down while riding MUNI.
“Hey! You have Iphigenia’s phone number, yeah?” When a suspicious silence answered Diomedes, he rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. I just need you to ask if she’s got Patroclus’ number. If she doesn’t, she might have Briseis’, and if either of them could pass my number along to Patroclus, I kind of need him to call me ASAP. It’s a bit of an emergency.”
“Emer— Is everything okay?”
“…Well it’s hard to say, but it’s a time-sensitive issue, so—”
“Okay yeah, got it. I’ll see you at school.”
“Oh, Xena, hold up!” With time they barely had, Diomedes preemptively cringed and got one last warning in, before Polyxena’s side went dead:
“Don’t let Achilles know.”
Diomedes slipped his phone into his pocket and let his backpack drop to the ground. And there was the silence he was looking for, except now it was the prelude to some great cymbal-crashing, timpani-banging symphonic fallout probably. To the side of the entrance he stood at was a spread of old scaffolding, un-climb-able from weathering, tucked against the back of the school from who-knows-what. At the second layer from the top was always perched a handful of mourning doves, and last April, Diomedes had spotted fresh baby doves taking flight. Now, he could hear the sorrowful coos, and feel the fog chill seeping to his skin despite his layering up. The scene was so virtually set that he almost felt cheated that there was no lone wolf’s howl (or coyote’s bark, whatever) off in the canyons below.
Suddenly, three loud knocks from the glass door behind him, and Diomedes jumped. Odysseus was on the other side, meeting Diomedes’ startled stare with a frown.
“Why does the hallway smell like a chemical spill?” he asked, voice a bit thick when Diomedes opened the door. As Odysseus took breaths of fresh air, Diomedes’ phone rang, and Diomedes held up an apologetic finger.
“Good morning Patroclus,” Diomedes greeted with his smoothest, most calming voice. Next to him, Odysseus, standing audience, cocked his head. “I hope you’re sitting down because I’m just going to tell you, someone poured bleach into your locker.”
The answering silence came from both Patroclus and Odysseus. Then, Odysseus cursed almost sub-vocally before pulling out his own phone.
“…and it wasn’t me,” Diomedes felt compelled to add when Patroclus continued to not-respond. Diomedes was rather grateful when, on the other end of the line, Patroclus sputtered back to life.
“I didn’t think it was. Look— I can be there in… fifteen minutes?” Obviously, Diomedes didn’t know Patroclus much at all, but he could still pick out the different strands of emotion in Patroclus’ voice: bewilderment, helplessness, bitterly despondent. “I don’t— Thanks for calling, but it’s too late—”
“If,” Diomedes interrupted, sympathy strumming loud in his chest like a tuning chord, “you want this obscured, I can do that. Would that be helpful?”
A large, comforting clasp of weight on his shoulder, and Diomedes turned to see Odysseus with an inscrutable expression, phone gone. He wanted to be confused but there was no time, so he leaned into the touch instead.
Over the phone, he could practically hear Patroclus thinking, before a determined expulsion of breath, and consent: “yes.” And, “please.”
The hand left his shoulder as Odysseus went back inside, but now, Diomedes understood what he meant.
“Got it. Here’s all I need from you…”
Patroclus stumbled breathlessly into school at 7:48AM, and there was a ring of orange cones around the hallway in front of his locker. A janitor stood in the middle, mopping up a large puddle of liquid with a facemask on, and there was talk all around about spilled bleach, clumsy custodians, maybe there were rats chewing through the bottles. Patroclus’ own locker looked untouched, if a bit cleaner than the ones around it— he didn’t bother trying to get to it, however, knowing it was empty.
Both Diomedes and Odysseus were waiting for him in Odysseus’ classroom. All the windows were open, inviting in frigid SF morning wind, and Diomedes was seated by the corner bookshelves, with latex gloves on and two piles of Patroclus’ notebooks and textbooks around him. Odysseus, correcting papers at his desk, only nodded at Patroclus in acknowledgement, but didn’t otherwise address him.
“This corner’s the blind-spot from the door,” Diomedes stage-whispered, and beckoned Patroclus over. “Odysseus doesn’t technically know anything because if he does, he’d have to report it.”
“If you make my own wife fire me, I swear to god,” Odysseus muttered from the front of the room. Grinning like Patroclus’ life wasn’t a fucking shit storm, Diomedes laid down the last notebook and threw a lump of paper towel into an already-full trash bag.
“Alright, I tried to salvage as much as I could, but your Gov text is pretty out of commission. I got most of the bleach off, but it’s still gotta dry, then we’ll see the extent of the damage. Your French textbook is not too much better off, but lucky for you, I have an extra you can use today, so they can’t duck you points. You might want to replace your notebooks since prolonged exposure to the pages will probably give you lung cancer, but I checked, all the newest pages are still readable, so homework should not be a problem, I don’t think.”
“…Thank you.” Snapping off his gloves, Diomedes only shrugged good-naturedly, his expression conveying No big deal. But Patroclus could figure the extent of Diomedes’ effort, knew it wasn’t nothing, far from it. So he pressed, “honestly, I don’t know what I could’ve done if you hadn’t helped. And—” He couldn’t help but huff out a laugh, hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder. “—Briseis said you told Polyxena who, um, told Iphigenia to tell her, not to let Achilles know?”
“Yeah I think that’s how that telephone game went,” Diomedes murmured, attempting to sidestep Patroclus. With unerring aim from the front of the room, Odysseus flung a crumpled ball of paper at Diomedes’ head. “Ow,” Diomedes enunciated, all big eyes and hand on his wounded heart, but stayed put as Patroclus mouthed his thank to Odysseus.
“Seriously, Diomedes, thank you. Achilles would be… setting a lot of things on fire right now, if he knew.”
“Yeah man, I know,” Diomedes scoffed. “Why do you think I did it? I would never allow Penelope’s beloved school to burn down—”
Patroclus jumped at the sudden loud smack from Odysseus’ side of the room, and grew completely baffled by the way Diomedes hissed and scrunched his face up in regret for a thwarted scheme.
“Hah,” Odysseus deadpanned, “that was the third time, game over, get out of my classroom.” Then, “kid you can pout all you want, we had an agreement. Out.”
Definitely pouting, Diomedes started toward the exit, a defeated drag to his gait. Patroclus was also grateful to Odysseus, sure, but it didn’t mean he wanted to be alone in the room with the man, so he started gathering up all his books, struggling under the weight. Behind him, he could hear the two continue to talk.
“I’ll be back by second period,” Diomedes bickered obstinately, even as he opened the door.
“That’s fifty sweet, sweet minutes of peace for me.” Odysseus’ tone was one easy step away from gleeful cackling. But it swiftly returned to teacherly, as he called over to Patroclus, “you can leave those in the bottom shelf to dry. Take what you need.”
Hesitating, Patroclus looked up, and found some softness in the fold of Odysseus’ arm across his chest. Diomedes had propped the door open with one foot, and stood waiting with a similar understanding in his posture. Patroclus swallowed, and nodded, did as Odysseus said.
Later, when they were outside, T-minus three minutes until the start of class, Diomedes stopped Patroclus with a hand on his elbow.
“You went to Ajax’s yesterday?” After Patroclus’ confirming nod, “do you think he did this?”
Patroclus could recall the defeat, the weariness in Ajax’s eyes all too well, and knew in his gut the answer was no. Diomedes readily accepted his judgment with a grimace.
“Okay then, that makes things more difficult, but whatever, we’ll find out who’s behind this. And Achilles?”
Part of Patroclus was happy— smug, even— that Diomedes deferred the decision about letting Achilles know to him, but most of him was worried, because once again, Ajax’s face in his memory. No matter how useful Achilles’ tactician’s mind would be in finding and dealing with the person behind the bleach, Patroclus more than anything didn’t want the same stomach-dropping method of terror Achilles apparently employed. With a heavy sigh, Patroclus shook his head, and felt Diomedes’ hand on his shoulder, a comforting weight.
“Hey, don’t worry. We’ll get the guy.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, seriously…”
Diomedes gave him a little shake, expression the perfect mix of earnestness and brotherly exasperation.
“Stop it with the thank-you’s already— what the hell are friends for, huh?”
At Diomedes’ theatrical wink, Patroclus couldn’t help but smile and relax, feeling unbelievably weightless in the unconditional, unbelievably successful support of a friend.
Some ways behind Patroclus, unseen by both he and Diomedes, Achilles stood, his famously fast feet stalled in one rare moment when Achilles, exceptional runner and extraordinarily brave Achilles, didn’t know how to proceed.
*Paean, a song of praise, comes from paian, which is an Ancient Greek hymn to Apollo.
*Castro's the famous SF gay neighborhood. Full of rainbow flags and men in spandex.
*“That was how Patroclus, like a child begging for a toy, begged for death.” —Iliad, Book 16, Line 49. I only matched the structure of this line; I'm no homeric poet so I couldn't match the gravitas. Nor could I, really, for this fic— no one's gonna die, I swear.
*uM DAMN RIGHT POLYXENA'S NICKNAME IS XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS.
*And if I were a better novelist, I'll let y'all figure this out, but since I'm a terribly inconsistent updater: Odysseus bets that Diomedes couldn't go the morning without saying Penelope's name more than twice.
Let me know what you think, please please please! Happy birthday Edie!
(Speaking of running boys in love, go watch Jongens, or Boys on Netflix. It's lovely.
(Also, I realized all the plot before this chapter literally took place in the span of two days?? So the time skip at the top of this chapter is um, distillation.)
Chapter 11: Silent film stars stuck in talking cinema light
Meet Penelope! Briefly. I'm scared of principals.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When the bell rang at the end of first period, Achilles was waiting in front of Diomedes’ AP Calculus class on the third floor, arms crossed in front of his chest. He greeted Diomedes with a combative flash of teeth, and Diomedes, not one to falter, greeted Achilles right back with a hearty, hard slap on the back.
“Hey man. What the hell are you doing up here?” he asked cheerily. He started down his usual trajectory down the halls, one that circumambulated a locker bank and increased the time to get to Odysseus’ class by two minutes but carried him past Penelope’s office. Win some, lose some. Plus, he had a delivery to make today. Achilles, to Diomedes’ surprise, followed with a strangely chipper disposition.
“Collins let us out early,” Achilles answered, shrugging. “How’s your morning been?”
Well if Diomedes hadn’t been suspicious before, he definitely was now. Achilles never did the “How are you?” thing unless he was in a suit and schmoozing for his mother (and even then it was a rare thing). And there was the deliberately lax slope of Achilles’ shoulders yet a stiffness in the speculating tilt of his head— Achilles was up to something. Did he know—? No way, Diomedes hasn’t even told Polyxena yet; the chances of Achilles already knowing were slim to none. Did Patroclus tell—? Nah, Patroclus stood to lose the most by telling Achilles, and Diomedes figured Patroclus would’ve told him, too, if the Don’t tell Achilles plan was completely scrapped.
Of course, even while speculations ran amuck in Diomedes’ mind, he knew better than to let it show on his face, keeping only to his friendly, benign smile. Which Achilles matched with— not a smile, the guy didn’t make a business out of smiling and being friendly and other crap like that— a composed, pleasant expression of his own.
“It was fine, I guess. The usual.” They were coming up to the principal’s office, and, running on pure habit, Diomedes slowed. The office door was closed, but the bank of windows facing the hall was open, blinds pulled to the top and the glass slid to the side. Penelope sat at the desk inside in all her glory, her tumble of brown hair clipped back in a messy bun as she read a stack of papers. Today she wore a somber navy blouse, fitting for middle-of-the-week blues, with a black and white loose-weave scarf draped across her neck and shoulders. She always wore little by way of jewelry, which only made the calm gold band on her left ring finger shine all the more in the spread of foggy morning sun. All in all, a composition that belonged on the Vermeer slides in Diomedes’ AP Art History class.
(Later, Diomedes would attribute his failure to preemptively recognize Achilles’ scheme to Penelope’s distracting beauty. It was in no way her fault, of course; Achilles was a master strategist, and knew how to use Diomedes’ weaknesses.)
“Good morning Penelope, I’ve a present for you,” Diomedes greeted, sliding smoothly to lean against the wall beside her window. (Achilles followed with nary a complaint or dissenting noise— Diomedes really should’ve seen it coming.) A little smirk danced on Penelope’s lips, but she didn’t look up until she was done reading the passage she had a pen skimming against. And when she finally did, it was with a falling leaf kind of smile— irreverent yet kind, toying without coyness.
“Give it here then,” she said. Penelope and Odysseus were slight variations on the same being— Odysseus three degrees more deadpan and Penelope more wicked— but very much in sync in terms of calculatingly-flippant mannerisms, command of attention, and the amount of breathless obedience they generated in Diomedes. When Diomedes dutifully passed the little parcel from Odysseus through the window frame, Penelope tapped the wrapping paper with a meaningful, wry expression. “Black. He wants revenge for the last book I gave him.”
“He wouldn’t tell me what that book was,” Diomedes said, shamelessly fishing. Answering with just a laugh (where Odysseus might have scoffed), Penelope first peeled open the top of the package, pulling out a halved index card. She handed that to Diomedes (Odysseus’ slim, precise cursive: go ahead, open it, which Diomedes immediately pocketed), then proceeded to reveal the entire book, something called The Black Swan. When Penelope made a face, Diomedes eagerly asked, “what’s it about?”
“You’re debating philosophy?”
“No, I just married a pretentious jerkface.” At Diomedes’ dissatisfied expression, she rolled her eyes (Diomedes could just see the couple, sitting in a boring admin meeting or something, rolling their eyes in the exact same exasperated way). “Come back next week, I’ll have a book report ready for you, okay? Now—” She turned a speculative gaze to Achilles, who had been standing innocuously by. “—Achilles, it’s rare to see you up here. Do you need something?”
(That’s when it clicked for Diomedes, but it was too late.)
Achilles, eyes fixed tight on Penelope but tone infinitely even, “yes, I wanted to see if you knew more about what happened with the bleach.”
(What Diomedes knew Achilles knew: there was a “bleach spill” right in front of Patroclus’ locker, and Achilles must have seen or overheard part of the exchange between Diomedes and Patroclus that morning, to know Diomedes had a part. Considering Patroclus’ locker was right in front of Odysseus’ classroom, and considering Diomedes’ personality and obsession with Odysseus, there was a good chance Odysseus— therefore Penelope, his wife and principal of the whole damn school— knew if anything happened.
(What Diomedes knew Achilles wanted: the principal’s reaction. If the bleach really were just an accident, Penelope would be confused, and say as much. If it weren’t an accident, however— if she knew, she would also know that Diomedes was involved, and immediately delegate attention to Diomedes. So, Achilles waited for the reaction— confusion or a turn of gaze.
(Also: Odysseus definitely told Penelope. There was like, negative seven hundred percent chance he didn’t tell Penelope. It was just that neither of them knew that Achilles shouldn’t know.
(Ergo, Diomedes had to interrupt that reaction.)
“What happened?” Diomedes parroted, fast as he could without giving away his diversion. “I thought it was just a spill.”
But, too late was too late— even Diomedes saw the quick flicker of Penelope’s eyes to him, and felt Achilles’ entire posture change from tactic to triumph. To Penelope’s credit, she caught on straightaway and immediately covered.
“That’s what I’ve been told.” Clearly an expert negotiator in her own right, Penelope gave no more away, made no obvious tells like covering her mouth or overacting or getting shifty. The warmth of her smile fell away though, much to Diomedes’ displeasure. And Achilles, the ass, having got what he wanted, and was gearing to leave. Well Diomedes wasn’t having that, not with the honor of his Love (one of them) besmirched, not with Achilles thinking he had so thoroughly won. The morning had been full of low blows— one more couldn’t hurt.
“You know,” he snapped, “I’m not the one who wants to keep this from you.”
Or, it could, if the disbelief, twisting like a punch across Achilles’ face was any indication. Diomedes bore unexpected witness to a moment of choice— Achilles’ expression flickering between a glare and a grimace, to fall back on his age-old bravado or give way to newfound Patroclus-inspired humility. That this second of indecision even existed was incredible to Diomedes, like seeing a glacier’s millenniums-worth of lavish carvings sped up— but the moment collapsed into an icy sneer, all melting icecaps and dead polar bears, which Diomedes matched tooth for tooth.
“You can’t keep anything from me,” Achilles said, “I’m the son of a lawyer.”
“And I’m the son of a diplomat, you won’t get shit from me,” Diomedes replied. Achilles just shrugged, I’ll figure it out. Diomedes scoffed, Your funeral. All around them, the bell rang for second period, screaming out the end of a boxing match.
“See you in class,” Achilles said before he disappeared with a flip of his obnoxious ponytail. Diomedes lingered so they wouldn’t awkwardly storm off in the exact same direction, and also because he had Penelope’s rare undivided attention.
“And I’m like, his second best friend,” he mourned, turning to Penelope. Though he had to quickly amend, “well, maybe third best friend, now that he’s got Patroclus.”
“Private school kids,” Penelope groused, and Diomedes learned she could dial up as high as her husband on the grouchiness scale. “You’re all psychopaths.”
Briseis [7:41am]: You go do what you need to do BUT TELL ME WHAT’S UP ASAP.
Iphigenia [7:53am]: As your legal counsel, you legally HAVE to tell me what happened. It’s the law.
Fiddling over Java logical operators (three types, eighteen exercises after a fifteen minute lecture), Patroclus gave them a distracted rundown of the morning. He glanced away from his screen only to catch their reactions: Briseis grudgingly impressed to his right and Iphigenia lightly frowning to his left.
“Ajax might have gotten someone else to do it.” Even keeping her voice down, Iphigenia managed to inject a high dose of venom into her accusation.
“Um, false,” Patroclus joked weakly as he printed an exercise, and the Eclipse window obligingly answered false. “When I went to see him yesterday he wasn’t even— Well, that’s not true, he was spiteful, but not the same snarling hyena evilness, you know? I think Achilles put the fear of god in him. Um Bree— is this right?”
“No,” Briseis answered a bit too quick, like she had been waiting for Patroclus to ask. “Order of operations— you gotta put the b-or-a in parentheses. Also, maybe it’s someone else? Not to knock on any coffins and wake any zombies but it’s not like Ajax is the only asshole piece of shit in this school.”
That got her a stink-eye from an eavesdropping girl seated to her right. Briseis turned to respond, but whatever face she made Patroclus didn’t see— only saw the look of affront on the girl’s face before she turned back to her computer with a huff, and Briseis’ eye roll afterwards. Briseis then shrugged, adding with a scowl, “could be a racist thing.”
“True,” Patroclus muttered, squinting at his screen (Briseis absently commenting that’s correct, by the way— you’re supposed to get True for number four and Iphigenia swearing before turning back to redo number four). “But I guess— it doesn’t feel that way? It’s an exact week since the Ajax thing, and, well tell me if I’m wrong, but basically everybody who cares enough to do shit like this knows what went down with Achilles, so I do feel like it’s related?”
“Hey,” Briseis suddenly interjected, voice softer. “You’re doing okay with this whole thing? You don’t need to scream, punch something, vent somewhere?”
“Cry?” Iphigenia added helpfully. “Or punch something works great, trust me. I’ve got a stress ball and a pillow in my locker you can borrow.”
“It’s a great pillow,” Briseis vouched. “Satin cover, great tensile strength.”
“No, no I—” Thumb coming up to scratch at his bottom lip and a thoughtful frown on his face, Patroclus sat back, finally entirely leaving his screen. “I mean, it’s bad, but it’s fine. Like, I’m surprised too but I’m honestly okay. I don’t feel— attacked, at least not personally? It kind of feels more like a skirmish or something, and there are— Well, there are people to back me up.”
“Of fucking course,” Briseis declared fiercely, and on Patroclus’ other side Iphigenia’s hand came down on his shoulder in a warm, supportive grip. “We got you.”
“And Polyxena and Diomedes, they have your back too.” Iphigenia added, leaning across Patroclus to wink at Briseis. “I told you they’re good people— now you got your grumpy-pants reluctant proof and we can all be BFFs five-evs.”
“Nuh-uh, they may score points but there’s still a fundamental level of distrust, okay?” Briseis complained.
“You and your allergy to— what did you call them? Apex predators of the social pyramid?”
“I don’t trust jocks. We’re oil and water, A is true and B is false and system out print A-and-B is still false, thank you, goodnight. Oh and Pat that question you gotta do the short circuit evaluation. Answer should be false. Just like Iphigenia’s hippie fantasy.”
“Are you two really good friends?” Patroclus had to ask, a bewildered grin on his face as he looked between the two. Iphigenia nodded while Briseis shrugged.
“We have like, twelve thousand classes together,” Briseis explained, screenshotting her computer screen before moving on to the homework on casting.
“Three,” Iphigenia agreed. “This, AP World and AP Bio. But back to the real problem—”
“—that Iphigenia’s gonna lose points for not finishing the class assignment,” Briseis sing-songed. With a glance at the time (having to wake her computer screen), Iphigenia cursed. “Girl, get to it. But the real real problem— Patroclus, what’s the play here?”
“Well, simple logic, right?” Patroclus grimaced. “I need to know who’s behind this, first. And if it’s probably someone involved in this Ajax-Achilles mess who hates my guts for getting Ajax expelled, maybe someone on the track team, then— I take lunch alone. Whoever did this sees the other athletes with me, they’ll balk, and the sneaking around shit continues. I go around alone, they might be angry their plan didn’t work and come confront me instead.”
“If A is the good athletes and B is the evil athlete, you gotta set up an A-and-B,” Iphigenia cackled. Briseis straight up threw a (capped) pen at her.
“Awesome,” Briseis snapped, “your plan is to dangle yourself on a hook like a bloody side of prime cut kobe beef into piranha-infested waters. That will never go wrong.”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Patroclus asked, very earnestly.
“Damn son,” Iphigenia laughed, head shaking slow and incredulous. “Don’t let Achilles know is right.”
“First grading period’s ending, which means—” Odysseus’ grimace was tortured and toothy. “—presentations time. Don’t moan and groan at me, you think you’ve got it bad, I’m the one who has to suffer through all of your presentations! Think of it this way: I’m the emperor, you are all court jesters. Entertain me and you live! If I get bored—” He mimicked a throat-slitting, and waved the stack of presentation syllabi at Achilles in the front row to distribute. “Listen well though, ‘cause I’m about to say the magic words: you can choose a partner. Each— quiet or I’m failing all of you, Cassandra especially you. Each group will be handed two scenes— no, one partner only, put your hand down. Your eight-minute presentations will be a summary of the scene and a close reading of a specific passage from each scene that has links to the rest of the play at— Cassandra. F-minus, I swear to god.”
With the class in partner-choosing cacophony, Diomedes almost didn’t hear Patroclus’ quiet call.
For the past week, Patroclus and Achilles had been keeping their relationship on the quiet, subtle side— because despite the horrifyingly obvious looks of longing and stuttered attempts to hold each other’s hand, Diomedes knew if Achilles had his way, the entire student body and their mothers would know about those two. This meant sitting with the whole group at lunch on the tucked-away balcony behind the choir room, avoiding being seen together in the hallways. Thankfully, Achilles and Patroclus only had this one class together, where measures had to be taken for both hiding and protection purposes. Translation: sitting in an L-formation where Achilles sat in front of Patroclus on the window-side row and Diomedes sacrificing his front row seat to bracket Patroclus’ side. The fellow athletes who usually flocked to Achilles and Diomedes’ sides took up the surrounding seats, and Diomedes had managed to settle it so that two of his more trusted teammates, Sthenelus and Euryalus, took the seats behind him and Patroclus. This way, Achilles’ incessant need to be beside Patroclus (and vice versa too, if the way Patroclus kept scooting his seat forward was any indication) was sated and allies surrounded Patroclus. Not that Odysseus would let anything get out of hand in his class, but Diomedes’ protective instincts (or training, whatever) still kicked in hard and fast the moment Patroclus decided to leave the last row in favor of proximity to Achilles.
And now, Patroclus was asking Achilles to be his partner to make a very public presentation with. Diomedes wanted to shoot him a look, but Achilles had turned around and there was no reeling those two back from mooning at each other. Was this because of the bleach incident? Well, that would make most sense— did Patroclus want to make his relationship with Achilles more public in order to incense the culprit out of the woodwork?
A slap to his arm startled Diomedes out of speculation. Menestheus, in Throws on the Track and Field team, was also watching Patroclus and Achilles on Diomedes’ right, albeit with more of a glare.
“What the hell man? Aren’t you Achilles’ partner?”
“Ew, god no.” Despite turning around, Diomedes could feel Patroclus’ gaze on the back of his head. Oh now he looks. “I hate Achilles. Hate his guts, can’t stand the uglyass sight of him.”
Gaze sharpening over Diomedes’ shoulder, Menestheus snapped, “what the hell are you looking at?”
“Dear god, calm down.” Diomedes kicked his seat forward until his table knocked into Menestheus’, shoving them toward the center of the room, away from Patroclus and Achilles. Waving Odysseus down with a bit-frazzled grin, he declared, “we’ll be partners.”
“Fine, you’re group eight,” Odysseus shrugged, side-stepping his way through the maze of shoved-together tables. “Act I Scene three and Act I Scene five for you. Now I expect equal distribution of workload, got it? Menestheus you short-change me on all your papers, step up your game. If Diomedes does all the work and you don’t stop him I will fail you both, capiche?”
“Yes sir,” Menestheus said, trying to affect wide-eyed earnestness. Diomedes fought the urge to roll his eyes, use Menestheus as point of comparison any time someone accused him of brownnosing Odysseus. He has known Menestheus since middle school, and the kid was classic spoiled only son of hedge fund parents, constantly running his mouth, money nowhere near it. “I’ll do my best, read the whole play and everything.”
“Oh boy, strike one already— you were already supposed to have read the entire play by today.” Odysseus turned a look of long-suffering non-surprise to Diomedes. “Alright, start working. Make your presentation worth my time.”
“Don’t I always?” So maybe the gazing-up-through-eyelashes and coyly-biting-lip thing was a bit too much, but the eye roll and almost-smile he got from Odysseus sure was worth it. Cheerily, Diomedes turned his attention back on his chastised partner, tapping the book between them. Romeo and Juliet. Diomedes would never let people like Menestheus know but he really rather liked this play. “Cool. So you wanna read the scenes before we start…?”
As Menestheus peeled open his book for what looked like the first time, Diomedes settled back for some shameless eavesdropping. Odysseus was pretty much a constant magnet for his attention, and Odysseus approaching Patroclus and Achilles was too much to resist. He could feel Odysseus position himself so his back was to the rest of the class, effectively velvet-roping their conversation, almost too quiet for even Diomedes to pick up.
“And you two are partners?” The consistent drawling indifference Odysseus almost always spoke with struck an odd contrast with an also-present skepticism. Diomedes knew Achilles had to be puffing up.
“Yes, if that’s okay,” Patroclus said, sounding rushed.
“Your decisions,” Odysseus conceded. “But I am going to have to give you two— group nine, by the way— the most obnoxious scenes: Act II Scene two and Act II Scene six.”
“Why?” Achilles, indignant.
“You tell me,” Odysseus, sounding dangerous. “My wife’s pissed off at you— care to explain?”
Rocking on the hind legs of his chair-desk unit, Diomedes couldn’t resist turning around with a triumphant glare. Achilles caught it with a huff and a scowl. The combativeness of his posture immediately melted away though, with a single worried pat on the arm from Patroclus, and Diomedes watched as Achilles… deflated.
“I’ll apologize,” Achilles practically mumbled. Leaning on his chair, Diomedes almost lost his grip and slid off— Achilles avoiding an argument with Odysseus and offering to apologize in the same breath? Patroclus was generating positive influence like a nuclear power plant.
“See that you do,” was Odysseus’ only response, before he circled back through the room to finish up group assignments. Diomedes kept himself from straight up staring at Achilles and Patroclus, but did little else about the rest of his body language; from where he sat angled, he could hear their hushed conversation loud and clear.
“You alright?” Patroclus murmured. In general or with Penelope or with Odysseus or with being partners or all of the above, Achilles didn’t ask.
“Of course,” he said. “Are you?”
“Of course,” Patroclus echoed. A loaded silence, each second that passed a lie of omission. It struck Diomedes that he was keeping two secrets now, like a suspension bridge pinned between two fog-swathed, unseen cliffs. The pit of his stomach ached with sudden fear of heights and falling. Then, with a laugh, Patroclus, “well thanks to you, we have two scenes of embarrassing love declarations to plow through, so. Let’s get to it?”
“Fuck this.” Once again, Menestheus caught Diomedes off-guard. His curse at Patroclus was low but vicious, and Diomedes suddenly remembered that Menestheus and Ajax were quite good friends. “This is ridiculous! He gets Ajax suspended and now Achilles is getting all buddy-buddy with him? What the hell?”
“You finished reading already?” Diomedes replied, tone neutral if only to keep the scowl from breaking over his face. Menestheus was barely halfway through scene five, but he kept the book pinned open with one hand and jabbed an accusing finger at Diomedes with his other.
“Hey, I take the team very seriously, you know? We’re a brotherhood, and this shit isn’t right. It’ll fuck everything up.”
With a low hum, Diomedes too leaned forward, got right in Menestheus’ face to ask, “okay, and what exactly will fuck everything up?”
“Him, man.” Diomedes shoved down Menestheus’ overenthusiastic gesturing at Patroclus. Behind them, Odysseus had circled back up to the front of the class and turned a watchful eye on the proceedings.
“Ajax got himself suspended,” Diomedes reminded, though with little spirit—
“I’m not just talking about that.”
—because Diomedes knew, really, what this was about. He had clocked it two seconds into the conversation, by the malicious flare of Menestheus’ nostrils, the barely-concealed disgust. Diomedes’ hands curled into fists on the table.
“What are you talking about then?” Even Odysseus’ steady approach didn’t turn Diomedes’ dead-eyed stare, and even Diomedes’ stare didn’t dissuade Menestheus from one nasty answer, bitter like rat poison.
“He’s a fucking homo, man! And shit, I don’t care whose dick he sucks anywhere else, but he’s gotta bring that into my team—”
“Is there a problem here?”
Odysseus standing tall and strong like an Olympian god above them, and yet Diomedes still couldn’t quite bring himself to tear his gaze away from Menestheus. He stared through Menestheus’ cringe, his hasty No sir, we’re just working sir, his awkward shuffling of the book in front of him. The feeling in Diomedes' chest wasn’t as important as betrayal, and yet Diomedes stared like something was cracking apart in front of him. There was a steady conflagration of anger in him as well, because Menestheus was bringing this crap in front of Diomedes—?
Odysseus’ quiet voice worked like a puncture, and Diomedes settled back a bit, loosened. The classroom was loud with discussion and conversation, but he could not hear Patroclus and Achilles’ voices in the mix. So they were listening, behind him, one on each side of Diomedes, shoulder-angel shoulder-demon. And Diomedes had honestly thought he would struggle between their secrets for longer, when here was Menestheus, throwing himself onto the guillotine. It had to be him.
“We’re good,” Diomedes finally answered, and Odysseus didn’t look a single bit convinced. It had never taken more than a millisecond for Diomedes to respond to anything Odysseus said. “We were just debating a line.”
Menestheus had fixed on Patroclus over Diomedes’ shoulder again, disgust scoring his face.
“Oh?” Odysseus snorted. “And what line in scene five merits this level of heated debate?”
This earned him an honest-to-god laugh from Diomedes, because Diomedes was ready, surging forward and grabbing the entirety of Menestheus’ startled attention with a vicious glare of his own. He pointed to the line in Menestheus’ book, and threw down his gauntlet:
“He shall be endured.”
Or Diomedes would go after Menestheus with all that he’s got.
*The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is subtitled The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Odysseus and Penelope flirt in a strange and dangerous way.
*Briseis is the queen of weird figures of speech; English isn't her first language.
*Shoutout to Krohn – Education on YouTube for the AP CS crash course. Any real CS majors out there, tell me if anything's wrong.
*Menestheus, king of Athens during the Trojan War, is introduced in Book 2, Line 617. In Book 4 though, Agamemnon calls him out for being a coward.
*Sthenelus and Euryalus are men under Diomedes' command.
*Because I haven't yet convinced y'all that I'm a ridiculous dork, Odysseus assigned Act I Scene 3 and Act I Scene 5 together to compare Juliet's lines, when she speaks to her nurse and mother compared to how she speaks to Romeo. Act II Scene two and Act II Scene six are the balcony scene and the wedding scene, both amazing (and obnoxious, maybe) love scenes between R&J.
SHOUT OUT to Private Romeo, an amazing film that adapts the original lines to tell the love story between Romeo and Juliet, two boys in military academy. They gave the "He shall be endured" line to Mercutio, who shuts down Tybalt's homophobia. :D
Drop a comment~! Or find me on tumblr.
Chapter 12: A loaded god complex (cock it and pull it)—
I just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and The Penelopiad, so stylistically, I gotta credit this chapter to her. Both are awesome books, 500% would recommend!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It wasn’t that Polyxena didn’t care— she was just more… casual with the world than perhaps the average seventeen-year-old was. She was the type of person who got her hair cut because her mother’s hairdresser was taking a smoke break, saw her on the street, and beckoned her in. She was the type of person who changed her way of getting to school every couple of months, from bike to bus routes to even roller skates once.
So it was with this casualness that Polyxena said to Diomedes, over a smelly squid, “okay, you judge and tell me if I need to know. Because Achilles will come after me.”
“Can’t keep a secret?” Diomedes asked with a distracted frown as he took a scalpel to the squid like one would a steak knife to sirloin. Her own grade wasn’t technically riding on this, so Polyxena was more than content with letting Diomedes mess around.
“You know I can’t, not from Achilles.” Something Polyxena found out sophomore year: Achilles’ capability to ceaselessly hound someone and her own lax nature meant that basically whatever Achilles wanted to know, Polyxena told. This principle held true for her sister Cassandra as well, and after she had given away a surprise birthday party one year, Hector had fondly called her the most well-intentioned blabbermouth he knew.
“If I tell you, you could help me,” Diomedes reasoned, dicing up one tentacle. “But I already have a suspect, who’s like, 98% guilty.”
“Seriously,” Polyxena assured, marveling over the sunlight (well, the pale, dewy sunlight SF got in the mornings) the third floor lab apparently got. Like all schools, grade hierarchy determined classroom quality, and apparently her junior year Biology only warranted the windowless basement lab when their senior year Marine Bio counterpart got the prime real estate. Thanks to the collaboration between the two classes today (squid delivery mess-up; only enough squids arrived for one class), Polyxena felt infinitely blessed she was dissecting squids in a room with effective ventilation. “Your choice dude.”
“But, on the other hand, Achilles basically already knows.” Looking up in surprise, Polyxena caught the tail end of Diomedes’ apologetic grimace. “No one’s fault, he’s just a cunning SOB. So there’s little harm in telling you.”
By this point in their friendship, Polyxena could read the arch of Diomedes’ eyebrows and tell that he had more to say. So she settled, chin in palm, and waited. Sure enough:
“But on the third hand—” Diomedes gestured abstractly to a space above his left shoulder blade, fingers glistening with brine. “—Achilles doesn’t know the details, and until he knows the full story he’s not going to tell Patroclus that he knows, because he doesn’t really. And Patroclus obviously doesn’t know that Achilles is on his way to knowing, and I don’t know if I should tell him or not ‘cause Bro Code with Achilles, y’feel? Which then makes me think that I should tell Patroclus because Bro Code with Achilles means I gotta do right by Pat, whether or not Achilles’ dumb ass likes it. I would one hundred percent be justified in telling you what happened this morning given that I called you, and telling you would essentially mean telling Achilles the full story, and once Achilles knows the whole story he’ll run off and do his thing, which means Patroclus would find out, which means that me telling you would take the decision of whether or not to tell Patroclus about Achilles almost knowing out of my hands. Which would be nice.”
“…So telling me would really just be you telling Patroclus though,” added Polyxena, because she did not become friends with the likes of Achilles and Diomedes without liking to start shit. Sure enough, Diomedes tossed his head back in a dramatic groan and threw his scalpel down.
“Screw it, I’m tossing a coin.”
“I’ll toss the coin, you’re not supposed to touch anything that will contaminate the field,” Polyxena absently scolded. As she fished around her pockets and her bag for a spare quarter, she teased, “c’mon senior, you’re supposed to be setting an example for me here.”
“I am!” Diomedes replied breezily. “I’m setting the perfect examples of what not to do. Ever. Don’t start dissecting before you read the instructions, don’t penetrate the ink sac, don’t smell your hands during a dissection…”
“Don’t hit on two members of faculty at once,” Polyxena added. Diomedes blinked before making an offended face.
“Hey, hit on is an inaccurately flippant descriptor, okay? Why would you insinuate that I’m only after sex when you know I’m ready to lay my life down at their feet? Huh? Why?”
“I’m sorry to make light of your devotion, truly. My bad.”
“Your apology is noted, acceptance is pending.” When Polyxena came up empty, Diomedes nodded at his own bag, hands held up like surgeons’. Polyxena rooted past notebooks, a day planner, and an iPad Mini before finding a coin pouch and digging out a quarter. “Alright, you wanna call it?”
In a split second, as the coin spun in the air, Polyxena decided she was actually invested in this outcome. Flipped like a switch (or, well, like a coin). Diomedes indulged in this kind of drama in a way Polyxena herself never could, but having been told the incident with Achilles at the principal’s office that morning, she could sense some deeper saltwater. Characteristic casualness aside, Polyxena gave creed to any of her own gut instinct bad feeling that habitually arose— and this situation felt like the prelude to awful, debilitating cramps. When the coin came back down, she was changed, slouched posture coming up straight and hand covering the coin with gravitas, as if the longer she kept it hidden the more likely she could change an unfavorable answer to a favorable one.
“Well?” Diomedes prompted, voice full of pending. Polyxena tore her hand off like Velcro.
She nodded in determination, and Diomedes let out a breath.
“Good. So whatever happens after this point is not on me, it’s on you,” he declared, jabbing a finger at the sky outside.
“Great,” said Polyxena as she leaned forward in anticipation. “Now tell me.”
Also 3rd period—
Fifteen minutes before the bell rang, Patroclus received a text, and slipped out of Gov. The hallways were entirely empty on the basement floor, where his classroom was at; security guards have been unobtrusively shifted to the first and second floor school entrances. Patroclus made his way down the hall, and was suddenly jerked into a corner.
“Why aren’t you in class you delinquent,” he murmured with a grin, as he ducked away from Achilles’ too-close face. Sometimes Patroclus felt that every ounce of marrow in his bones are bred for embarrassment, and no matter how hard he tried he could never get his body to kick the habit of running gasoline-hot, nerves churning and jerking to go. But, some nights ago, when Patroclus twisted away (again) without meaning to, Achilles called him endearing into the kind, open air between them, shoulders lax and easy, and Patroclus felt an altogether different sort of heat running amok. Pleasure. Comfort. Under the covers on a chilly morning instead of flinching from a heat coil. So now— tension still came ever first, but Patroclus felt himself give immediately second, like clay in a skilled potter’s hands.
“Free period,” Achilles answered. He had backed the two of them up into a tight corner behind the arch of the threshold, hidden from the hallway and the upward stairs to their side. A bank of frosted, iron-barred windows lit the first U-bend on the stairs, and the entire sheet was glowing like bioluminescence. If snow could be light. And the cement-enclosed space echoed sound up and down two stories, every whisper skimming surfaces like fingertip against wineglass lips, every throaty murmur dripping back in multitude. Sun in cirrus wisps curled along Achilles’ hair, spun into the corners of his eyes.
“Hi.” Longing to kiss Achilles, Patroclus touched his fingers to Achilles’ lips instead, the precise topography of their edges. Felt them flatten into a wider smile. “What did you want to ask me?”
Achilles was wearing blue today, a shade altogether inadequate in intensity for the sheer sharpness of Achilles’ whole being, like a ribcage in a river.
“The day we got together—” Achilles said that in the same tone a PBS documentary would declare 1776. “—you said you didn’t want to hide. You said not at this school. What did you mean?”
Patroclus blinked, and registered a toughness at the corners of Achilles’ eyes, a patch of leather where Achilles’ smile was all linen. He opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but decoded a pleading in Achilles’ stiff hands, the un-casual fold of Achilles’ shoulder against the wall at his side. So Patroclus answered:
“I mean exactly that. I don’t want to hide, I’m tired of hiding. Maybe I’ll regret it, maybe I end up unable to take the punishment, I don’t know. But right now, I don’t give a crap.” Then, registering the toes of Achilles’ shoes pressed against his toes, Patroclus quirked a little smile. “Is this your way of asking if we can make out at school?”
Achilles didn’t blush, but the uneven spread of a grin and the quick downward dart of pupils was the closest he came to embarrassment. “Of course,” he laughed, and the stairwell sang his joy right back to him and Patroclus both. Patroclus felt cocooned, a happiness like spring water expanding above the glass except expanding over every cell of his skin. Breathless in a moment of precise tension, perfect grip; breathless in the moment before the alignment slipped.
Because— here was the decision, a coin resting in Patroclus’ palm. A penny, paradoxical two-cents worth. The question: lucky or not. If he got lucky, Patroclus could take Achilles’ hand in the middle of the hall, lean into the crook of Achilles’ neck in the middle of the hall, catch Achilles’ mouth in his in the middle of the hall. If not, Patroclus could burn, a carcass zapped by fluorescence and left in dust to hollow itself out. Or maybe there was a third option, defying the odds by cutting chance right out of the picture— set the penny down face-up, make it lucky. Load the die, cheat the house. Say yes like it’s political, flaunt their relationship like bait and be the barbed hook, the razor blade inside the sweet apple for whoever’s jeering jaw that takes the bite. When in Rome, do like the private school kids. Use Achilles.
In other words, lie. By omission, sure, but still lie, tongue tacky and tire-rubber tough against the backs of his teeth. Patroclus tasted desert and hesitated.
Achilles saw, and his touch was understanding as it left Patroclus’ arms. Patroclus caught his hand, but without conviction.
“Listen—” The words swelled in his throat like an allergy, and Patroclus just couldn’t say yes. Couldn’t not-tell Achilles because he didn’t want Achilles to handle it with spear and blood, then turn right back and dole out the same violence. He really, really wasn’t made for this game of deceptive velvets and shiny silk nooses, wasn’t cut out of the same cloth as Achilles. Honesty was already threatening to overflow, cracks slithering across the dam. “I… can’t, right now. Not too much. Making out would be too much.”
“But, I’m also not going to hide that we’re— affiliated.”
That earned him an amused side-eye.
“Hush,” Patroclus smiled, happy despite the trickle of unease behind his tacit permission. He really did want a more open affection with Achilles, with or without the bleach incident, ready to be rid of the paranoia in an entirely secret relationship. The timing of it all, however, could’ve been better.
“Well, I’m afraid I’m still not clear on the details,” Achilles said, voice deliberately sultry. Patroclus hated that it worked. “Will you please clarify? What can we do?”
Achilles hands were limp in Patroclus’ grip; that bastard was going to make Patroclus work for it. But in their week of intimacy, Patroclus had learned Achilles like a musician learned his instrument— which strings ran taut but gave up such sweet notes when strummed right, which combination of fingerings and hot breath rendered sighs like songs. Patroclus turned Achilles’ wrists up and pressed his thumbs to their pulse points, gradually adding pressure, trailing up and down, up and down. Reeled Achilles steadily in.
“Whatever you’re comfortable with,” Patroclus said, mostly as a joke because both of them knew Achilles didn’t really deal in the vocabulary of comfortability. His was a matter of physical do-ability or beating challenges. Nodding contemplatively, Achilles shifted his feet so his shoes bracketed Patroclus’, a gesture of— more. Mouth going dry, Patroclus let Achilles even closer, pulling Achilles’ hands to his waist.
“Touching like this is fine?” Achilles asked, slipping under Patroclus’ shirt and flattening his palm against the sharp of Patroclus’ pelvis. Patroclus drummed his fingers against Achilles’ knuckles, felt the beats in his own bones.
“Privately?” Echo, baritone and alto strumming through his throat. Achilles’ gaze dipped down to his Adam’s apple, darkened a shade. “Yes. But nothing so intimate where people can see; I don’t want to share you.”
The last bit was an added whisper, earned Patroclus a gentle brush of cheek against cheek. Achilles’ cool breath against his neck.
“Can I hug you? Hold your hand?” Patroclus couldn’t see Achilles’ face, so he looked down the curve of Achilles’ spine when Achilles ducked his head. There was an uncomfortable shift of vertebrae, a stuttered expansion of lungs that Patroclus gently rested his fingers on in apology.
“…No.” Achilles’ shoulders hunched up like eyes squeezing shut, but when Achilles pulled back his expression gave nothing away. Only gentleness, and understanding. And Patroclus realized, this might be something Achilles needed. Hugging, hand-holding, skin-to-skin and gaze-to-gaze, two raindrops on a car window twining into one. Forthrightness that Achilles desired, yet was so ready to give away should Patroclus even think shush. Tightening his hold on Achilles, Patroclus willed enough courage through his tongue to say, “but I’ll come pick you up from practice today?”
It’d be moving a chess piece, but Patroclus would do it. For Achilles and himself. This time, Achilles was the one to go soft, give way, golden like butter and sweet like bread, helplessly dipping forward for that kiss— finally— against Patroclus’ lips. They didn’t hear the bell go off, but pulled apart when the seismic action of twelve hundred students moving all at once called for reluctant secrecy. Patroclus’ hand trailed and fell between them, a promise, and with one last shared smile they parted ways.
“I can’t tell you,” Polyxena said primly. Achilles arched an eyebrow.
“Yes you can, you tell me everything,” he reasoned.
“I can’t tell you because I don’t know, nobody’s told me anything.”
“…You’re lying,” Achilles, staring her down. Polyxena didn’t have tells because she always caved before she could be read for tells; Polyxena had little practice at outright deception. Misdirection though, she could do. Especially goal-oriented, time-designated misdirection— of their crew, she was inarguably the best at this. “Why can’t you tell me what happened with the bleach?”
“Everybody told me not to.”
“So you do know.”
“Of course I do,” Polyxena scowled. “But Patroclus told me not to tell, doesn’t that make a difference?”
She watched as Achilles’ expression grew pinched, and was counting on Achilles riding out this guilt until the bell rang. But he recovered remarkably quick, fixing Polyxena with a serious expression.
“Did he say why he doesn’t want me to know?”
Cue the regret as Polyxena wished she had phrased things differently. Patroclus had, of course, not directly told her anything— she had just thought citing Patroclus as a direct source would lend her more credence in guilt-tripping Achilles. Polyxena did, however, know about Patroclus’ reason for not telling Achilles from Iphigenia over text, and knew better than saying it out loud.
“Your silence means yes.”
Well, crap. And she knew, even if Achilles said that as a bluff, her reactive cringe had given the affirmation away. In this moment Polyxena wondered if she never bothered keeping secrets from Achilles because it would require nuclear amounts of energy and preparation just to have a conversation with Achilles when he was turned all the way on like this. Diomedes was clearly capable and willing, but Polyxena had nowhere near the propensity for drama as her two friends.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened with the bleach,” Achilles suddenly, alarmingly allowed. “But I do want to know why I’m not supposed to know. Why me, specifically.”
And wasn’t that just great? Polyxena had been ready to lead Achilles on a merry chase with falsehood all about the bleach thing, but Achilles— warrior Achilles— was sidestepping it all to cut straight for the artery. Xena shut her eyes and steeled herself for battle. Two minutes until the bell.
“I know you’re trying for misdirection: if you know why you can’t know, you can basically figure out what happened.”
Across her desk, Achilles raised an eyebrow in challenge.
“You won’t tell me why because it’s bad,” he declared.
“Or, you know, because it’s a secret,” Polyxena snapped.
“No, it doesn’t work like that.” Achilles drew back, folding his arms across his chest in lofty confidence. “You’re keeping what happened with the bleach a secret, not why he’s keeping it from me. If it’s something reasonable you can use to shut me down without qualms, you’d have done it already. But you can’t, because you’d feel bad telling me.”
“I can’t tell whether you’re giving me too much or too little credit,” Polyxena said, squinting.
“Now you’re misdirecting me,” Achilles accused.
“Don’t you have class to get to, 4.0?”
“Diomedes will cover for me.”
“You pissed off the principal though, will he really cover for you today?”
Achilles’ response was cut off by a buzz from his pocket, and he instantly checked the text. Polyxena was all ready to relax, until Achilles suddenly went still all over. When he looked up, it was with the air of a bloodhound on a trail.
“Is it someone I know?”
Frowning in confusion, Polyxena, “what?”
“Who did the bleach thing, is it someone I know?”
“I don’t know—” Her bewildered tone and expression snapped immediately shut when she realized what Achilles was after. They don’t know who’s behind the bleach, so the issue is finding who did it. And sure enough, having gotten the information he was looking for, Achilles stood up to leave. Polyxena stood as well, chair scraping out behind her, ire and damage control on her mind.
“You still don’t know why Patroclus doesn’t want you to know.” Despite speaking in an undertone, she wielded Patroclus’ name like a javelin, her aim cold and true. She stared down Achilles, as his eyes grew more guarded; a humorless smile twitched at the corner of Achilles’ lips.
“You’re gonna tell me now?” Whatever condescension Polyxena heard in his tone, she matched three-fold, the cock of her head sharp as a paper cut.
“Oh I think you already know why.” If she were crueler, she might have laughed at the way Achilles folded all evidence of his emotionality away, as he did when he grew uncertain. Called it quid pro quo. She didn’t want to prolong these theatrics, however, and had one goal in mind as she delivered her lines: make Achilles settle down. “Diomedes thinks that you haven’t told Patroclus what you’re doing because you don’t have the full story yet, but I don’t think that’s it.”
The bell was seconds away from ringing, and Polyxena contemplated leaving Achilles hanging at that. Let him stew, let him draw his own conclusions. And the longer she held the pause, the more obvious this threat grew to Achilles as well— his face only grew stonier. Polyxena also entertained the thought of telling him he was using his poker face wrong; his perpetual state of being was success and victory, so his poker face was only ever an indicator of stress and loss.
The bell rang, an extended trill, and Achilles almost flinched. Using the loud noise and students’ scurrying as cover, Polyxena delivered:
“I think you feel guilty because you know you’re doing exactly what Patroclus doesn’t want you to do.” Finding out who did it and taking action against them. Taking Achilles style action against them. They both remembered last Friday lunchtime, when Diomedes and Polyxena were all ready to gloat with Achilles about taking down Ajax, but were promptly shut down by Patroclus’ obvious discomfort with the topic. They both remembered Patroclus’ quiet, guilt-ridden declaration on Tuesday that he was going to talk to Ajax, alone. Polyxena wanted to stay calm, she really did— but in the last moment, frustration got the better of her, and her last words were half plea, half command. “Stop it. You hurt everyone around you you’re gonna end up hurting him too.”
The bell stopped with the silence of settling dust. One last sound, though: Odysseus entering the classroom and frowning at Achilles.
“I have three more periods before I have to deal with you— go on, get out of here.”
And Achilles went, the glare at Odysseus more habit than real menace, but not before whispering something in an undertone that had Polyxena blinking wide and dropping unsteadily into her seat.
Polyxena was right— Diomedes didn’t cover for him. Achilles still got away with being late to AP Art History by sheer force of charm but it wasn’t the same. Diomedes wasn’t truly angry with him, Achilles could tell— nonetheless he felt the same stirrings of guilt that had prompted him to (in a surprise to everybody, himself included) apologize to Polyxena. Throughout the lecture, Achilles watched Diomedes’ back, contemplated saying sorry to him as well, and wondered if that would be enough to alleviate the discomfort in his gut.
…No, it wouldn’t be. Because he had also promised, earlier, to apologize to the principal. Achilles remembered the bright bravado that coursed through his arms like punches and through his back like wings just that morning— where had it all gone? Maybe it fell under the observer effect like in physics: seeking it out meant displacing it. That morning with Diomedes and the principal was… sheer reaction, on Achilles’ part. There was something he didn’t know, so he went to seek it out; a simple trajectory of action that left a surprisingly amount of casualties in his wake.
Actually, not surprising. Of the million things Thetis taught him, paying attention to his actions and their consequences was one crucial lesson. The surprise was in the fact that, for the first time he could remember, Achilles cared about where he messed up— Thetis had only ever emphasized that paying attention was in anticipation of retribution. His actions this day— manipulating Diomedes and Polyxena both— left Achilles feeling rather… bad. And the way Diomedes and Polyxena didn’t seem to take it personally only made it worse, because it spoke to a certain degree of accustomedness on their part.
And not to mention Patroclus. God, what the hell was Achilles doing? During his free third, Achilles had decided to seek Patroclus out— and if he were being honest, for ulterior motives. He had thought— but Christ he was a manipulative bastard— being more public with Patroclus would lend Patroclus a certain mantle of protection. The very first incident in the hallway with Ajax was not enough; whoever was messing with Patroclus needed to know they were also messing with Achilles, and nobody wanted to mess with Achilles. So he had thought, and asked Patroclus out of class brimming with confidence, which all summarily disappeared when he actually got to talking with Patroclus. Open, trusting Patroclus, who stood to have far, far more to lose in going public than Achilles. Patroclus who listened anyways, before gently refusing— in that moment, Achilles remembered feeling scared. Scared that whatever Patroclus was dealing with, Achilles would be cut out of. Scared that he wouldn’t be able to do anything, should shit go down. Scared that things were redacted from his knowledge, and so he could only wait to react, not anticipate and set the stage to his advantage. And in classic Achilles fashion, fear was not indulged in, was consummately funneled away to fuel rage and action.
Patroclus’ text hardly helped matters. Something came up for lunch. I’ll see you after practice? Achilles needed to know— was Patroclus planning confrontation? Was it with someone dangerous, someone Achilles could keep from being dangerous? He saw the shot with Polyxena and he took it, the same way he saw how he could get the answer he needed from the principal and Diomedes. To find out that the culprit was anonymous had been no relief, and Achilles had already started constructing a list of potential perpetrators when Polyxena— well, for lack of a better phrase, shot him down. It was only fair; quid pro quo.
So now… Now what could he do? Achilles had basically pieced the situation together: the bleach was no accident, and whoever did it was still at large. Patroclus didn’t want him to know because he didn’t want a repeat of what Achilles did to Ajax. Diomedes was involved, on Patroclus’ side, and Polyxena knew, and Patroclus had first period with Briseis and Iphigenia that morning which meant they probably also knew— everybody except Achilles knew, and would ostensibly help Patroclus should he need help. With a detached General’s perspective, Achilles could logically determine that the situation was in good hands and he didn’t really need to get involved. And Patroclus didn’t want him involved. As much as it stung, as much as it made Achilles want to apologize, over and over again until Patroclus forgave him, let him in, at this point Achilles was ready to take a step back and let it go. Text Patroclus back, say hey, everything’s fine, if you’d like I can still meet you at your apartment after practice.
Except, when Achilles pulled out his phone to do just that, a text was already blinking up on the screen, from a name he had not heard from in a while, but which immediately set him on edge. It was one of those moments when all practice, preparation, preconceived contingencies fell to dust, when all Achilles’ fledgling thoughts toward inaction muted into obsolete— as if there were actually some grand, cosmic force dictating Achilles’ involvement.
Two minutes later, Achilles texted Patroclus: cool. See you at the tracks.
*“Your apology is noted, acceptance is pending.”— Diomedes would be a Scott Caan fan.
*lead Achilles on a merry chase— shout out to Inception, also LadyVader's Pet, an Arthur/Eames high school!AU that was constantly on my mind through my writing of the Odysseus/Penelope/Diomedes relationship. 500% would recommend, it's an astounding work of literature.
*I wrote this with the pacing of "Battle of Yorktown" from Hamilton in mind? Fast, slow, fast, slow, fast. Consider quid pro quo a reference to Hamilton too.
Bless all you lovely readers. I'm so excited plot is picking up, and I'll declare right now I plan on having this fic finished by the end of summer at the latest. Drop a comment, tell me what you think!!
Chapter 13: Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds
wOW this chapter happened with so many false starts. I straight up wrote four different drafts of this, each one completely different to get this done. Sorry for the wait!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The school had an open campus policy, meaning all students can leave school grounds of their own volition, given that they are not skipping class. That meant student body migration patterns during lunch went something like this:
11:35, bell rings to cue the first pack of students rushing for Corinth St., the block of shops (CVS, Starbucks, a local diner, a taqueria, a sandwich shop just to name a few) right outside the school. This pack consists of overzealous freshmen eager to indulge in their newfound freedom from chain-link middle schools as well as harried upperclassman, fetching the fastest sustenance available so they can return to campus and finish homework due the next hour.
11:45-11:55, the second wave of students, the vast majority, having set away their books and bags, congregated with friends in other classes, slowly amble up to Corinth. This will be the population to block up all the lines and choke the deli’s corridors; this will be the population the neighbors complain about. Members of this group will likely remain in the shops until fifteen to ten minutes before the bell rings to signal fifth period.
11:50, the athletes and cheerleaders, who seem to, as a rule, never spend more than thirty seconds deciding what they want to eat, arrive back on campus as a squad, each with their own sandwich or salad or sushi box or burrito. They gather in the square of benches right in the center of the quad, next to a bank of vending machines, and remain there until the bell rings. People filter in and out of this mass, for a fist bump or a hug, a promise to hang out after school here and there. Everybody walking in and out of the school building, even those heading for the unfortunate cafeteria must see this group. The athletes and cheerleaders set the stage for the most high school theatrics forty-five minutes of the day.
That day. Wednesday. Surprising amounts of sun, yellow like a warning sign. Patroclus left campus with the 11:35 crowd, parked himself at the intersection every student headed for the stores must pass. His goal was visibility, for the first time in his studenthood in Arcadia, and it sent waves of nervous nausea wracking through his stomach. But he rolled back his shoulders and locked in his stance, an arrogant slouch against the traffic light choreographed to bate. His eyes determinedly raked through the packs and packs of students, searching for what he wasn’t sure. Yet.
Achilles, idly munching on an apple from the cafeteria, looked to be busy in the locker room, messing about with the contents of his locker. He was pacing himself, before he wandered out into the quad around 11:45, when the population was most transient. He’d get there before the 11:50 Return, because the act was due to begin at 11:50— he, the guest actor, ought to arrive early.
11:42, the staging was placed. A picnic blanket in eye-catching red sat in the center of the quad, sentried by four benches. A paper bag from the grocery store on Corinth St., filled to the brim. A girl, bright-haired and bright-eyed, pale as the spread of fog in the valley their school overlooked, kneeling by the bag with a delighted smile.
11:44, Achilles arrived, in character. Greeted with a wry smile, “Deidameia.”
11:49, Patroclus’ gaze caught, and the second it did he understood what he was looking for. “It was you.”
11:51, they began their battles. One ended in victory, the other in defeat.
“You never hang out with the team anymore, it feels like I haven’t seen you in a million years. How’s my favorite hero?”
Deidameia’s smile was sweet. Her voice too was sweet. Like cold butter— smooth and slippery, opaque and inscrutable. She was Polyxena’s height, but any resemblance stopped there— Deidameia was all melodic laugh and cloying “Oh you,” while Polyxena was ridiculously wide smile that bared her gums and endearing confusion post-spacing out during a joke. Like Diomedes, she always had some sort of goal— but whereas Diomedes’ very nature telegraphed the existence of his ulterior motives, Deidameia’s were expertly concealed, requiring little to no attention to pull off.
Like Achilles, she was: charismatic, confident, goal-oriented, methodical in plan execution, ruthless where it counted. Hell, even the superficial resemblance was there— tall, blonde, classically beautiful. Last year, the team’s victory feast featured superlatives, and Diomedes straight up spat out a whole glass of water when Deidameia and Achilles won Best Couple (that never was). Him muttering something unsavory about Eurocentric breeding practices made Polyxena dissolve into helpless snickering as well, which successfully redirected the hoots and hollers from the rest of the team. Deidameia, then sitting just across the booth, laughed good-naturedly as well, but Achilles caught the edge of upset from a botched plan in her posture. It was really no surprise— Deidameia had made no secret of her wish to date Achilles for the whole past year. Cheer captain, libero, invited to six different proms her junior year, the favorite for homecoming queen and adored by teachers— Achilles on her arms would be the last trophy she needed to call her high school career a roaring success. Too bad Achilles had never been interested.
And today, her skin and smile as milky as fog, Deidameia was continuing the play. The same day, Achilles might add, that somebody tried to take down Patroclus.
“I saw you at practice just yesterday.” Growing up, Achilles came easily to scorn, and Thetis had subsequently taught him, for diplomatic purposes, the value of pitching his voice to a teasing edge instead of a cutting blade. He employed this skill now, but knew Deidameia understood his tone for what it was: a declaration of continued disinterest. She kept smiling, though, extended a hand for Achilles to sit.
“I was only there for a bit though— I had to leave early for a family dinner. Oh! Speaking of, my father asks me to pass his gratitude to you for your mother. He says we could never have won the lawsuit without her.”
“Of course.” Achilles hadn’t sat down yet. Keeping to his most genial expression, he waited until Deidameia dropped her hand, which fell like a crumpled lily. She pouted, lips matte pink, and patted the seat at her side, insistently.
“C’mon ‘Chilles, you owe me a date.”
So she had said in her text. Hey boo! U owe me a date from last year! Miss u. Meet me for lunch in the quad, k? xoxo At the illegal victory bonfire beach party last year, as four bottles of vodka and another bottle of gin passed around, Achilles had been weathered down to misspeak, make a casual promise. Deidameia had snatched that promise up like a magpie hoarding a gold ring. There was little room for regret though— Achilles was here for her to spend this promise, and make clear there would be nothing left in the remains.
“Cheese and crackers?” Achilles said with a slight scoff when he finally sat down. Deidameia had, in fact, bought four boxes of cheese and crackers, the fancy kind with French and Italian names usually served on platters at political functions.
She fixed up a cracker and cheese combo, held it out. “Here, say ah.”
“I can feed myself.”
“This is supposed to be a date— let me have my romcom fantasies.”
Achilles didn’t eat the food, but turned around, because Deidameia had pitched her voice just a bit too loud, so that it would travel. Sure enough, the first trickles of athletes were returning: Automedon, Aegea, Meriones. They were making a beeline for Achilles and Deidameia, each juggling identical white-wrapped sandwiches.
“What’s this? A date?” Aegea teased, speaking loudly so she could be heard ten feet away. Almost as tall as Achilles with the legs to match, she was on the track team, but did not run in Achilles’ relay quartet, unlike Automedon and Meriones.
“Actually, yes!” Deidameia called back, grinning as the approaching group’s steps stalled in surprise. Achilles quickly, but subtly twisted his body away from her, arranging his expression into careless inattention. “A romantic picnic— not bad for a first date, right?”
“I thought you said this was a cocktail party.” With a jerk of his head, Achilles indicated for his teammates to join them. When still they hesitated, he stood up for a handshake (as in, a smack of palms and a shoulder bump), which Meriones and Automedon could hardly refuse. Reluctantly, they sat, keeping a careful distance from Deidameia and Achilles occupying the center. Aegea circled around to give Deidameia an affectionate pat on the head before sitting down, slightly apart as well. Everyone present had been part of a series of dating sprees between the track team and the cheerleaders, with the exception of Achilles— no one really knew what to do with the information Deidameia was insisting on presenting them.
“So what, is this a date or not?” Meriones asked, gamefully knocking his shoulder against Achilles’. Deidameia took the opportunity to, swift as a swallow, dart forward and put the cheese and cracker to Achilles’ mouth. To jerk away or to deny the food would just be bad form at that point, so calmly, Achilles let his lips part. With a loud cheer, Meriones slapped Achilles again on the shoulder, while the more subdued Automedon gave a sly nod of his own.
While Achilles’ mouth was occupied (with what must’ve been a deliberately large thing of cheese), Deidameia chattered on, “I figured it’s about time, right? Voted Best Couple for two years running and yet we’ve never been on a date?”
“For shame,” Aegea said. Deidameia nodded approvingly.
“But he’s shy, I know—” Achilles managed a snort and eye roll in response, and Deidameia’s answer was suitably glib, lies and jokes and irony and perhaps-truths all purposefully mixed up. “—I don’t think he’s come out this far into the pool before, even if we’re still on the shallow end.”
“Ay, so what’s the deep end going to be, huh?” Meriones leered. Mocking affront, Deidameia slapped him on the shoulder.
“Fuck off, not everything’s about sex.”
“Oh but this is,” Aegea said, gesturing between Deidameia and Achilles, eyebrows playfully wiggling. Achilles wondered if she was in on it, if Deidameia had primed her or even coached her in what to say to hook Achilles. “Girl, you’ve been trying to get into his pants since like, sophomore year.”
Deidameia shrugged, unrepentant. Then, she leaned forward with a sultry look at Achilles, “don’t worry doll, I’ll treat you well.”
As Aegea pulled her back, their heads tossed back in gleeful laughter, Achilles hid a frown. What was Deidameia doing? In all the times before she had played up the fluttering eyelashes, the demure nods, the longing glances. Today, the vibe was assuredly different, designed to discomfort rather than seduce. Even Meriones and Automedon beside him, loyal men, were shifting about as if looking for a change in conversation. Expecting some kind of mating dance, Achilles had instead stumbled into a hunting scene— and he had the aggravating feeling that he was the mark. Careless as he could, Achilles pulled out his phone and, after a moment’s consideration, sent a text. Across the blanket, Deidameia smirked like she knew exactly what he was doing.
“Hey!” Aegea yelled, in the direction she, Meriones, and Automedon had come from. “Guess what? Achilles and Deidameia are on a date!”
Cue the stampede, the majority of the athletes and cheerleaders arriving all at once, in surprisingly neat columns of three or four like a descending army. Idomeneus, the last of Achilles’ relay quartet, peeled away from two cheerleaders to drop sprawling onto Meriones. Megara, Hippolyta, Eurybates. The word date buzzed electricity-quick through the whole group, and for the next fifteen minutes, people would keep stumbling forward in congratulations, before Achilles could send them back with a dismissive, “it’s not a date date.” He did, however, let Deidameia feed him another cracker and cheese, then balanced that out by biting a square of cheese straight from Idomeneus’ thieving fingers.
“You two are so cute together,” Cassandra gushed when she arrived, sticking her head through the mass of runners that flanked Achilles. Her sleek, long hair almost tumbled into the food, before Idomeneus quickly rescued the cheese with a well-timed dive. “Best of the Achaeans and Homecoming Queen, Arcadia’s very own power couple. You blondies would be the perfect antithesis to Hector and Andromache.”
At the hated name, a chorus of boos rippled through the crowd— none particularly mean-spirited, seeing as Cassandra was, after all, Hector’s sister. Deidameia preened at the compliment, though, having found her way to Achilles’ side and taking the chance to grip onto Achilles’ arm. Hiding a grimace, Achilles twisted subtly away from Deidameia’s fingers, gliding a little too intimately along his side.
“Alright, alright—” Achilles’ voice was loud in broadcast. The hubbub didn’t die down, per say, but everyone quieted enough to hear. “While we’re all here, let’s get this straight. I’m not dating Deidameia.”
Deidameia’s nails dug into the soft skin under Achilles’ forearms as reactions exploded all around them. Some in protest, some laughing, some dirty jokes all lobbed into the air. Simple and predictable. Deidameia too was laughing as she pulled slightly away.
“Of course not!” The dig was embedded in her cheerfulness, conveying her agreement with the absurdity of actually dating Achilles. That in itself wasn’t enough to bother Achilles, but then Deidameia took the opportunity, the captive audience to loudly ask, “because you’re already taken, aren’t you?”
To such a question, the team could’ve reacted in two ways. First way— yet another round of chaotic reactions, everybody eager for drama or the set-up of a good joke, nobody taking it especially seriously. Second— anticipatory, relative silence, with only a couple of voices audibly reacting and being quickly shushed, people eager to hear the answer. Reacting the second way meant that the team was expecting an actual answer, meant that the team had been primed in expecting a serious answer to a serious question.
Achilles found a resounding quiet, waiting for him to speak. And Deidameia, still sweetly smiling, with cool victory in her eyes like a falling stalactite.
“No,” Achilles had to answer, before the silence drew on for too long. After practices, the team liked to hang out en masse some more, grab boba or frozen yogurt— Achilles had been entirely absent from these events since he met Patroclus. Deidameia must have sunk her claws into everybody then, because Achilles had noticed nothing wrong during practice itself. Brows lightly furrowing, Deidameia inclined her head disbelievingly.
“C’mon Achilles, you can tell your team the truth.”
“What truth?” Achilles tried to scoff.
“You’re always on your phone, you don’t eat lunch with us, you run off on us right after practice—” Ticking off fingers, Deidameia hit three just as everyone leaned forward, breathes bated. “—so out with it, Achilles. Who are you dating?”
To have ever played a game of strategy is to know the feeling of recognizing exactly where you made the mistake. Like a large stone plopping into a river, sinking straight to the bottom. In this moment Achilles realized that Deidameia never wanted to date him, exactly— she wanted to date the aristos Achaean, whomever it might be. And— she must’ve known the truth between Achilles and Patroclus— to reveal Achilles’ relationship with a guy would foundationally upset Achilles’ position as the best. Some people from the team would be all too willing to disavow Achilles, leaving Deidameia free to snatch up the next best runner for herself. Deidameia cashed in her coveted single date with Achilles as a smokescreen, to hide her true intentions from Achilles until her audience had gathered. Achilles was no guest star, he was the sacrifice.
Automedon, third in their relay quartet and loyal to the last, gave Achilles a friendly shove of the shoulder and said, loud enough to hear, “hey man don’t worry, if it’s the coach’s daughter we can keep a secret.”
The thought of that was scandalous enough to garner a reaction— and it was the most believable story to tell as well. Achilles kept his reaction carefully noncommittal, with just an air of smugness that people might take as confirmation. But before that could really take off, Deidameia made another move, heavy-handed and full of venom.
“What’s that new kid’s name again? We saw you leaving campus together the other day.”
Someone helpfully supplied, “Patroclus?” And Achilles gritted his teeth as the name spread like a virus. The mood very abruptly changed, and suddenly the team felt less like a pack of nosy noisy pigeons and more like a squadron of sharks, scenting blood.
“Yeah, Patroclus.” Stifling the protectiveness from his voice was one of the hardest things Achilles has ever done. Then, having had enough of being attacked, Achilles took up the offensive. “He’s my friend.”
“Your friend,” Aegea said, skeptically. Achilles bared his teeth.
“He runs fast.”
In this game of reputation, Achilles scored Patroclus major points as the veritable best vouching for Patroclus’ speed. Even if the initial reaction from the crowd was incredulity, everybody knew Achilles wouldn’t say those words lightly. Bringing down Achilles via Patroclus meant relying on Patroclus’ bad rep— so Achilles would work against that, build Patroclus back up. He refused to make this easy for Deidameia.
Somewhat less assured (but only to the most observant eyes), Deidameia contemplated for a long moment before launching her next attack.
“But isn’t he gay?”
This step was a bit more ill advised, because as much as the team’s dynamics were heteronormative to a fault, there were still folks with clear consciences. Several people shot Deidameia disapproving frowns, and withdrew participation. Unfortunately, this was not enough, for the rest of the team burst into frenetic yelps and chatter.
“Dude, what if he wants to fuck you?!” Meriones yelled, too close to Achilles’ ear. The part of Achilles that wasn’t busy trying to figure out how to weather this turn of events wanted to answer Meriones, then I would say yes please and bend over you piece of shit.
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Menestheus hotly joined in. “He’s been all up on you since that thing with Ajax.”
“Oh shit,” Idomeneus, less vicious and more lascivious, “he wants your D dude. Deidameia’s got competition.”
“I heard the bleach spill this morning was in front of his locker, and it wasn’t an accident.” Achilles turned sharply toward Penthesilea, a thrower and a runner on the team. Did she know something? She spoke coolly though, not even looking at Achilles, but at Deidameia. “Is that why?”
“Dude,” Eurybates said to Achilles, vehement worry in his tone, “he’s bad news. He’s a total psychopath man— my friend’s friend knows Clysonymus, from Locris right? He said that Clysonymus was super close with Patroclus, they were probably dating or some shit like that, and Patroclus put him in the hospital after refusing to break up with him!”
In every logical part of his brain, Achilles knew Eurybates spoke nothing but lies, and that the best move is to ignore Eurybates, or shoot him down with some clever line. However, the illogical part, which easily threatened to govern Achilles’ entire body wanted to lay waste to Eurybates, because this was the exact thing that got Patroclus onto everybody’s shit list in Arcadia, when Patroclus has done nothing at all to deserve it. Lies and careless rumor, spread at people’s whimsy, because the consequences didn’t fall on them. Achilles felt his fist clenching, his whole stance shifting into aggression.
Then, “that’s bullshit.” Penthesilea, again, a dismissive frown on her face. Cassandra was next to her, a hand on her arm. Achilles fought every instinct in his body, and stayed completely still. “I know Clysonymus, that’s not what happened at all.”
Jerking back, Eurybates muttered something inaudible, face growing a humiliated mauve. The rest of the team eased immediately away from the lie Eurybates had set down as bait, the shark teeth’s serrated bite turned to nibbles. Such was Penthesilea’s power, the Amazon Queen of Arcadia. Known for her no-bullshit attitude and winning javelin throw, Penthesilea was widely respected, if not quite as invited-to-everything as Deidameia.
Speaking of whom, Achilles dragged his attention back. Sitting all too close, Achilles had a good view of Deidameia thinking through her strategy. Her rose gold veneer was cracking, Achilles thought— something fundamentally ugly was coming. Something that would make her stumble down a couple of rungs herself, but something that would force Achilles’ hand. Something like Are you gay, Achilles? Grimly, Achilles psyched himself up for getting down and dirty, determined to keep faithful to Patroclus’ desire to remain secret.
But luckily, that’s when the cavalry arrived.
Before the mess had really started, Achilles had texted the only person whose presence would allow him to leave the circle. Someone whose very arrival would serve as a kind of answer, an antidote to the speculative drama that Deidameia had wanted to play out in front of a crowd.
By some stroke of divine will, or perhaps just a visible tribute to how differing in character they were, Deidameia and Iphigenia were dressed in diametric opposition. Where Deidameia was in white cashmere, Iphigenia was sporting a color-splotched belted long shirt; Deidameia in washed out distressed denim, Iphigenia in dark blue leggings; neatly matte velvet boots, scuffed and unlaced Doc Martens; blonde hair pinned in neat geometry, brown hair loose with a handful clipped messily up. Cheer captain, the coach’s daughter. Achilles between them in red and brown, ready to up and leave.
“I thought you said you’d make it quick,” Iphigenia spoke. A quiet, almost subsonic round of ooooh went off in the team, as Deidameia stiffened beside Achilles.
“Sorry,” Achilles answered, “everybody started showing up.”
Deidameia’s hands came back up around Achilles’ arms, but this time Achilles happily brushed her off. Turning on a dime, Deidameia extended an invitation to Iphigenia, “you can sit with us if you want.”
Genial, queenly. But Iphigenia was no cheerleader, wasn’t on the track team— and she was the coach’s daughter, whom Agamemnon had suspended Ajax for. Deidameia had nothing on her. Flippantly, Iphigenia replied, “no, I don’t. Achilles was just leaving though. I’ve been waiting for you, you know.”
And game, set, match. Deidameia drew back in defeat as Achilles stood. Bless Iphigenia, Achilles hadn’t asked her to do more than show up, but she had understood why. And, more importantly, she played along. Her extraction was clean and neat, so when they got out of hearing distance from the team, Achilles leaned in and declared, “I owe you one.”
Iphigenia gave him a steady, measuring look, before nodding and taking his arm.
“Achilles, my friend,” she said cheerily. “Let’s you and I talk.”
Sunbeams settled pellets of warmth on Patroclus’ skin, and he wanted to swat them like flies. The uneven distribution of cold and heat set his already-aggravated nerves on edge, and he shut his eyes, letting his head fall back against the stoplight pole. In his pocket sat a text message— a series of three, actually, from Briseis.
My compromise: if u see nothing before 12:15 u reign it in. I’ll wait for you at the taqueria.
This text, Briseis had sent as she waited for the red light coming towards Patroclus. She hadn’t said a word as she passed, but glared pointedly until Patroclus sighed and nodded his consent. The second text he had received seven minutes after:
Change of plans, Diomedes is for some reason waiting with me. I swear to god if ur not here by noon I’ll kill him.
Third text: and by kill him I mean I’ll come hang out with u to escape him which will ruin your bait plan anyways so. Noon. Sharp.
So the countdown began. Part of Patroclus was angry Briseis deigned to put a time limit on his decision, but most of him was 100% in agreement with Briseis. This was a rough sketch of a plan, at best, not even a full plan like Achilles might have made. He knew what he hoped for— that whoever poured the bleach would be angry that their plan didn’t come to fruition, and would be aggressive enough to confront Patroclus about it when they saw him. All through fourth period, Patroclus had brainstormed things to say, ways to get the bully to back off. Be righteous and bank on their good conscience, something like I don’t know what’s going on in your own life that makes you want to take it out on me or you’re better than this? Yeah right, Patroclus could barely think the words without wanting to shake them out of his brain. Something badass and Achilles-esque, like you don’t want to mess with me or I got friends in high places— those made Patroclus straight up dizzy with pretention. In the end, he left fourth period realizing that the best option left to him was goading the other into inducing more serious bodily injury, in order to get the grown-ups and their real punishments involved. He alone had little leverage over anybody.
But perhaps that didn’t matter, Patroclus was coming to think, as time passed and his plan was executed. For a past moment, Patroclus had feared his plan wouldn’t work— but it was becoming obvious that his plan was working a little too well. By the first five, depressing minutes, Patroclus had counted twelve people who glared at him or gave him an otherwise wary look as they crossed. What’s worse, being new and generally asocial, Patroclus didn’t actually know any of them. Quickly, he reworked his plan, deciding to be more judicious about the people he marked as hostile— uncomfortable looks wouldn’t be counted.
The first person he marked after that point was an athlete, coming up with his pack. Patroclus recognized him as Diomedes’ English presentation partner, but didn’t know his name. The guy’s expression upon seeing Patroclus turned sour, and he actually made a point to shoulder-check Patroclus on the way forward. Diomedes, popping up behind him, made a face that was as much triumph at finding the perpetrator as disappointment that the search had been so easy. With a shrug, Patroclus let them walk away, deciding he had more time, he would wait and see a bit longer.
(And besides, Patroclus had sensed nothing from the guy from English in the previous days. It didn’t exonerate him, but it did give Patroclus pause before immediately believing it was him.)
Sure enough, right before his twelve o’clock deadline was up, that decision paid off. At lunch high tide, the crowd had been too big for Patroclus to entirely scan. People were returning in smaller groups, however, so Patroclus turned his attention to those, making deliberate eye contact in his search. What felt like several hundred awkward cringes and offended glowers later, Patroclus caught on a stone cold hazel gaze. Meeting those eyes, he was reminded of Ajax’s spitting rage, but condensed and compacted, stiff as a mirror. What's more, he recognized them, belonging to a girl he caught glimpse of multiple times in the halls, watching him just like this.
“It was you,” he found himself saying as the girl came forward. No, stalked forward, shoulders rounding like an angry leopard, hair billowing back and fanning out wide, the hood of a cobra ready to strike. Unconsciously, Patroclus stepped back, again, and again, until his heel was back against the stoplight pole and there was nowhere else to go.
“Hey—” Patroclus jumped at the sudden grip on his arm, free hand flying up in protective guard. Appearing next to him was— god, what was her name? They shared Odysseus’ class, and Patroclus was certain Briseis had introduced him to her once as a friend from Debate. Quickly recovering from the scattering of attention, Patroclus turned back to the first advancing threat, only to find that she had stopped in her tracks, eyes on the other girl. “—you’re that new kid, right? The one who got Ajax suspended?”
And— damn, this crap again? Patroclus had heard more than enough of it in the past week, the story with Ajax in the hall having mutated largely against Patroclus’ favor. Snide remarks and whispered conversation kept Patroclus in the loop of what his newest reputation in the school was: team breaker.
So he replied, with no small amount of exasperation and rancor, “you know, you and your team keep insisting that’s what happened, even though we keep trying to tell you it’s not. What’s it going to take to get through to you?”
“Who’s we?” the smaller girl said, an eyebrow quirked and her tone irritable. Somehow, that’s what it took to place her in Patroclus’ memory, Odysseus’ voice ripe with annoyance condemning Cassandra, something to share with the class? Then, Patroclus too remembered Polyxena with an awkward, hapless shrug, Cassandra, my sister.
“Polyxena, for one,” Patroclus answered, deliberately removing Cassandra’s grip on his arm and taking a step back. Cassandra’s expression was inscrutable before she scoffed.
“She doesn’t count,” Cassandra dismissed, “she’s loyal. She’ll say whatever Achilles tells her to say.”
“Okay, and you don’t believe Achilles?” That hit got in, Patroclus could tell, so he pressed, “your own teammate? I thought that meant a lot to you athletes.”
Patroclus had not forgotten about the taller girl, keeping her in his periphery; but he was nonetheless surprised into jumping as the girl dove in between him and Cassandra, her palm slapping loudly against the stone pole.
“It does,” she replied viciously, “so when you put one of us out of commission you’re gonna get all of us on your ass.”
With the tall girl looming right in front of him, Patroclus quickly regrouped, reminding himself of his mission here.
“You’re the one who did it? For Ajax?” he asked, whole body held tight as he kept himself from stepping back again. Traffic zipped by all around them, sharp winds whipping like a warning at Patroclus’ shirt. The girl cocked her head, hands coming to her hips.
“It was an accident,” she called out over the wind. “At least, that’s what the school knows. Should they be told something else?”
That was as good a confirmation as any. All at once, the anger and shame weathered by Diomedes’ quick actions that morning flooded back into Patroclus, and he felt the resentment like a hot stone in his throat. Who the hell was this girl, to destroy Patroclus’ things without a care in the world? To behave with such malice, when she didn’t know the first ounce of truth about the situation, about Patroclus? That Patroclus didn’t recognize her at all was salt on the wound— a perfect stranger had set out that morning keen to hurt Patroclus, and for a split second Patroclus wanted to do the same. Then, the thought cleared, and more than anything he wanted her to stop.
“You athletes are all the same,” he spat. “When Iphigenia won’t date his slimy ass, Ajax sabotages her project. Now Ajax gets himself suspended, you just want someone to pin the blame on, you don’t give a crap who. All you do is break and wreck things like spoiled fucking royalty.”
“You’re one to talk,” the girl said indifferently. “You’re some deranged, woman-hitting ass who put a guy in the hospital. You talk, all I hear is shit coming out of your fucking mouth. C’mon Cassandra, let’s go.”
Green light and settled winds, the two began to walk away. Swallowing down all the instinctive rage, hurt, total bewilderment, Patroclus cast out one last line.
“I know that whatever I say about myself won’t get through to you, so one last question. Between Ajax and Achilles, between Ajax and Polyxena, you choose to believe Ajax? You’re the deranged one, then, not me.”
The two girls walked away, no worse for the wear, leaving Patroclus two minutes past his noon deadline, fuming. Having found his culprit he gladly left his post, storming to the taqueria and bumping into Briseis and Diomedes about to leave. Catching his dark mood, Briseis quickly guided them back in, set down a box of nachos and directed Patroclus to eat. Even Diomedes postponed the questions, casually strolling a slow lap around the grocery store back portion of the shop.
With some food to settle his stomach, Patroclus breathed, forcing the tension from his shoulders and back. Briseis, idly munching on her own chip, waited for Diomedes to circle back to ask, “so you found them.”
Two chips later, Diomedes, watchfully, “not Menestheus?”
“No. A girl.” Brushing the crumbs from his fingers, Patroclus sat back with a deep frown. “Tall, Asian, wearing a throwing sweatshirt like Polyxena’s. Cassandra was with her, I don’t know if she’s also in on it.”
Both Patroclus and Briseis deferred to Diomedes as his eyes widened in recognition, then in somewhat troubled confusion.
Achilles was the defeat, Patroclus the victory. Though they have yet to understand that.
*I don't have very specific face claims for anybody (except Diomedes, kind of), but characteristics-wise, I borrowed Polyxena's smile from BTS's Taehyung. God I love his smile.
*There are plenty of dudes to choose from in the Iliad, but ladies not so much. Of the handful mentioned, most are Amazon queens— Aegea, Hippolyta, and Penthesilea. Megara is the name of a city. :'D
*Penthesilea deserves her own footnote. During the Trojan War, as the battle continued for a bit after Patroclus' death (and after Achilles' subsequent indoctrination into proper adult and warrior status), the Greeks face against the ladies from the Amazon. Penthesilea was their queen, and fought Achilles with a helm. He obviously won, but as she's dying, Achilles takes off her helmet and for a second, falls in love with her. But then yeah, she died. Exekias made a pot about it.
*Achilles' relay quartet! Automedon is Achilles' charioteer (who drove Patroclus out to his death), and Meriones is Idomeneus' charioteer. Idomeneus was king of Crete, son of Deucalion, grandson of the famous Minos.
*IPHIGENIA. Euripides expands on her sacrifice in Iphigenia at Aulis, which I much prefer to the version of what happened in TSoA. Agamemnon lies and Clytemnestra brings Iphigenia. Upon discovering the scheme to sacrifice Iphigenia, Achilles vows to protect Iphigenia (he was almost stoned, and the implication was he would be killed if he continues to protect Iphigenia, which he was ready to do). Seeing the hopelessness of the situation and understanding the stakes, Iphigenia actually gives herself up for sacrifice, wanting to heroically help the Greek cause. Here we can play out a fun inverse— Achilles tricked into being the sacrifice and Iphigenia saving his ass.
Sorry to leave y'all with a cliffhanger the last chapter, lmao— but did y'all guess it was Deidameia??
Chapter 14: Don't take love off the table yet
I'M GOING TO BE A RESEARCH ASSISTANT! So that's lowkey my third job this summer, but I'm also going to try to update at least every single week! In my mind the story only gets longer and longer...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Iphigenia thought Achilles was super cute.
Freshman year, Achilles was one of those fortunate children born the attractive blueprint of what they will end up attractively looking like post-puberty with zero hormone-induced side effects. Iphigenia had thought he was nice-looking then— well Achilles was straight up devastating now. Despite her personal ironclad rule of never dating anybody on Agamemnon’s precious team, Iphigenia has indulged in multiple fantasies where she broke that rule for Achilles and his gorgeous frickin’ face.
She thought Patroclus was super cute as well.
Not privy to Patroclus’ growing up, awkward years, Iphigenia got the full blast of Patroclus in maturity when he arrived at Arcadia, the physical embodiment of Tall Dark and Handsome. He was a curious and enthralling balance between insecure and core of steel, all flashing eyes and bitten-red lips. Iphigenia had a soft spot for scruffy dressers, so check that. She also had a soft spot for social pariahs, so also check that. When Patroclus turned out to be pariah with a heart of gold? Well damn, consider Iphigenia hook line and sinker. The whole melodramatic romance between Achilles and Patroclus made Iphigenia’s heart go pitter-patter as well, made her want to coo and punch something simultaneously.
You know who else was cute? Polyxena, who had picked up Iphigenia like she weighed nothing that day in the hallway, whisking her into safety. Who was such a dork, the baby of her family that made Iphigenia wanted to slightly bully her, but also made Iphigenia want to watch her bench press things. Also Diomedes, who was funny in an extremely irritating way, who also apparently made out with Iphigenia’s baby brother (which was weird, but it also meant Orestes, with his very particular tastes, had liked Diomedes). Who was avidly bisexual like Iphigenia herself. Briseis, Iphigenia had known prior, but that of course didn’t make her any less cute, in a feline, I-hate-everybody-except-you-so-count-yourself-lucky-asshole kind of way. Briseis who was a total bully that Iphigenia loved to get riled up and righteous with. Point was, Iphigenia really, really loved her new pack of friends, and wanted them all to live their happy lives to the fullest potential.
But, sufficed to say, there was shit getting in the way of that.
So, after a careful assessment of the situation, Iphigenia knew what she had to do. Cornering Achilles after saving him from Deidameia’s planned public stoning, she explained:
“I’ll do the dirty work, so you need to very publically reject me. I’m thinking I kiss you, you push me away low-key dramatically.”
Well, actually, first she had to get some things clear:
“Polyxena told me you were prying answers out of her and Diomedes despite knowing Patroclus didn’t want you to— is that still happening?”
Achilles’ face went all scrunched up, guilt in his eyes yet indignation in the set of his mouth. Iphigenia kept her scrutiny steady, despite having to look up several inches at him.
“…No. But let me explain.”
“After I talked with Polyxena I was going to back off, I swear. But when Deidameia texted, it was too suspicious, I couldn’t not go.”
“But then it turned out she had set up this whole trap— Hold on, you agree?”
“Sure.” When Iphigenia first received the mayday text from Achilles, she had shown Polyxena, who expressed frustration over the fact that Achilles was still getting himself involved. I thought he understood, Polyxena had groaned. He apologized and everything. Not one to blow off gut instincts, Iphigenia had decided to give Achilles the benefit of the doubt. “So you walked right into Deidameia’s trap, called me to get you out— it must’ve been bad. Tell me what happened.”
And Achilles filled her in, voice becoming clipped and short as he reiterated all the insults tagged to Patroclus’ name, as if he were reciting the offenses to memory for the sake of later retribution. Iphigenia listened as well, engraving the words to her mind like a war memorial— never forget. High school years were prime time for cultivating grudges, the bitterness seeping so black into the marrow that even adulthood wouldn’t wash it out; so Iphigenia and Achilles memorized.
“I should text him again,” Achilles said, stricken. There was shame in the way he couldn’t say Patroclus’ name, his frame all rigid and drawn. “He said he can meet me at practice today, and I thought it’d be okay, before. But it’s a bad idea now—”
“Well, hang on, let’s think this through,” Iphigenia interrupted. From around the corner, she could hear an approaching group of students, so she shuffled them into a corner behind a large fern planter before speaking again. “Pat offered to meet you at practice himself? His words? You didn’t suggest it or anything?”
“No.” Already, Iphigenia could see Achilles’ brain whirring— thinking that maybe Patroclus had some sort of plan in mind as well when he suggested meeting. If Patroclus was willing to take this step out into visibility, then he it made sense that he’d be aiming for—
Achilles’ expression instantly darkened into a frown. “No,” he repeated, “then that’s even more reason to change the plans. He wants to play bait? Deidameia’s got the whole team riled up and ready to tar and feather him, that’ll smokescreen whoever actually poured the bleach.”
“So we get someone on the other side of that smokescreen.”
If this conversation had been over text, Iphigenia would’ve filled the screen with the sunglasses and one hundred emojis, maybe some OK hand emojis as the cherry on top. As the conversation was verbal and tragically lacking in visual symbols, she settled for eyebrow wagging and enthusiastic thumb points at herself. Achilles, for some reason, looked dubious.
“What do you mean?”
So Iphigenia explained about her doing the dirty work.
“And Deidameia’s just supposed to… confide in you?”
That was the moment Iphigenia realized, for all she believed that Achilles was an evil genius, he seemed to be an evil genius with a very specific sphere of influence; he didn’t get Deidameia. Or perhaps he was still thrown from losing to Deidameia’s little scene earlier— regardless, Achilles was obviously working with a blind spot. Actually, it was more like Achilles was all-terrain truck driving and right now, Deidameia was the splatter of mud all over one side of the windshield, obscuring the oak tree overhang Achilles was about to crash into. Iphigenia, on the other hand, wasn’t one to dabble in all the risk and mess of all-terrain truck driving; she kept to her bike on the road, maybe ventured into a bumpy dirt path if she’s got the sunlight. This was the bumpy dirt path:
“You think Deidameia is behind the bleach incident, correct?” At Achilles’ nod, Iphigenia continued, “well, I wouldn’t be entrapping her, that’d be a little too immoral. I can, however, lead her and her squad to believe that I have a crush on you, which is the same game she’s been playing. If she’s the one messing with Patroclus, her motive has got to be connected to you— once you’ve ‘rejected’ me, I can try to use that as an in with her, get the deets from their side.”
Achilles’ expression hadn’t moved from the frown. “That doesn’t sound…” Iphigenia could see him shifting through words, trying to find the least offensive one. He came up with, “…foolproof.”
“True,” Iphigenia answered with a shrug. “It’s the general idea that’s important, less the details. So what do you think?”
In CompSci that morning, Iphigenia— all joking aside— had wanted to ask Patroclus to reconsider letting Achilles know. Sure, Achilles was kind of a loose cannon with a four-year-old’s sense of morality, but that gave him the ability to plan victories. That ruthlessness discomforted Patroclus, but rather charmed Iphigenia. She would make use of Achilles before she entered the fray.
“What do I think,” Achilles repeated flatly, before pressing an aggravated palm to his temple. “Have you asked Polyxena? She might know Deidameia better.”
“Well yeah, she told me Deidameia’s conquest history for the past two years— kinda miffs me that she cared so much, but you know, whatever.” The eye-narrowing jealousy had only reared its head after Iphigenia went off to save Achilles though, because Polyxena telling Deidameia’s story, Regina George intro montage style, had been riveting to watch. I heard her hair is actually insured for a million dollars because her family owns Scyros hair products and her oldest sister has been testing a top secret line of hair care stuff on her, wanting to see the long-term results before they put it on the market. Her sophomore year, two senior cheerleaders made fun of her collarbones, and she turned the entire school against them, even the teachers— one of them couldn’t even get a recommendation letter and ended up going to community college. Oh and then one weekend, Deidameia comes back and boom, her collarbones were all normal, no more pointy protrusions, like she got them surgically fixed. Also, I heard she never buys anything off-the-rack, bespoke only. And, also, one weekend, she took two cheerleaders and Eurybates— her arm candy at the time— to England to watch Adele’s comeback concert, front row seats, VIP backstage pass, and they flew right back the next day, first-class. Her Instagram profile picture is a selfie of her with Riley Curry. Oh but Diomedes really hates her, so we don’t really talk about her in front of him. Just by the way.
“So you know that Deidameia’s smart,” Achilles almost snapped. Iphigenia let him have his frustration though, schooling her expression neutral and ready to divert her gaze from any unintentional expression of emotion Achilles may give into. “She’s not going to divulge her secrets to anybody if she can help it, much less someone who is potentially on my side.”
“Makes sense,” Iphigenia agreed, “so I shouldn’t push for a signed confession or anything from her. Fine, we don’t need to make a scene. I’ll show up to practice today and watch you forlornly from the sidelines, and when your teammates inevitably ask, I’ll subtly suggest that I like you but you don’t like me back. Then I’ll keep showing up to practice, worm my way into their confidences.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” It was a genuine question this time, not a polite rephrasing of that sounds stupid and will never work.
“Oh please, I’m the coach’s daughter,” Iphigenia scoffed, “they’ve been all over me for the past three years, they’ll be all over me now.”
Achilles’ eyebrows did a complicated jump-furrow-tick combo at the mention of coach. “Right,” he said, because of course he just remembered, “what about Agamemnon?”
Years of frustrated journal writing and counseling sessions have prepared Iphigenia for this— she hadn’t avoided Agamemnon since freshman year, merely kept out of his way for the sake of comfort and ease. And now she was ready to deal with him, pulse steady and adrenaline stored away.
“I can handle Agamemnon,” she said, even smiling a little. Forget trepidation, a sizable part of her was excited to actually deal with Dad as a grown person, as someone with good sense and opinions, as someone who no longer wanted to please Dad just for the sake of it. Achilles must’ve seen that confidence, and nodded readily. There was still one last thing on his mind though.
“You’ll be eyes and ears on the inside, fine, but that’s still no reason for Patroclus to come. It’s kicking the hornet’s nest.”
“Please, Achilles,” Iphigenia sounded just a bit exasperated for the sake of dramatics, but she was mostly giddy. “Have some faith in Patroclus. If he’s going to kick the hornet’s nest there’s going to be a reason. Plus, I’ll let you in on a secret— he’s bringing bug spray.”
If some jaded Baby Boomer looked at the table where Patroclus, Briseis, and Diomedes sat during lunch, they would’ve sneered and complained about today’s youth, too engrossed in their phones to engage in real conversation with each other, this was the death of culture, what has the world become, back in my day, blah blah blah.
If someone capable of seeing youths as real people were to look, they would’ve seen: Patroclus steadily avoiding looking up as he typed angrily neat lines of his game plan to a group chat with Briseis and Iphigenia; Briseis alternating between reading the game plan and shooting accusing glares at Diomedes; Diomedes texting Polyxena with a slightly miserable expression, peeking up guiltily at Patroclus and Briseis both once in a while. Finally, ten minutes before the bell rang for fifth period, Diomedes put his phone down with a resolute clack.
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t thinking and I reacted poorly.”
“Damn right,” Briseis was quick to reply, and Diomedes cringed. “You better make a full apology.”
When his pleading look toward Patroclus evoked no response (except the slightest raising of eyebrows and pursing of lips that could ostensibly be translated into what Briseis said), Diomedes groaned and nodded acquiescence. Never one to let an opportunity for drama go, he swept his phone into his lap, flattened his palms against the table, and all but slammed his forehead down in kowtow. Patroclus jumped and Briseis pressed the laugh that threatened to get out into a deeper, more severe frown.
“I’m sorry I tried to defend Penthesilea for all of two seconds as I tried to process the shock from you naming her. I see why you would be upset with me, and I beg humbly for your forgiveness.”
“Not good enough—”
“No, no it’s good, whatever. People are staring, oh my god, get up.”
“Men’s eyes were made to look; let them gaze—”
“I will literally pour this Kombucha down the back of your shirt—”
“—okay, okay I’m up.” Diomedes’ grin coming up faded, however, almost immediately. “But seriously, hear me out. I’ve known Penthesilea since freshman year, and I’d never have thought she could be the kind of person who sneaks around doing shit like this. So obviously I don’t know her as well as I thought, but— Well, I guess I’m trying to say, I’ve always thought she’s the more reasonable type, so you might not have a hard time convincing her to stop.” When he was only answered with silence, Diomedes grunted, “okay, should I start groveling again?”
“No— It’s fine, I believe you,” Patroclus reluctantly admitted. “I was just angry that you, that they keep saying team like it’s something to be defended at all costs, even when it’s illogical or unjust. Penthesilea said it, Cassandra said it, and then you went ahead and said Penthesilea’s your teammate, you knew her, she would never do something like that— It’s just tough to compete with that kind of loyalty sometimes.”
Silently, Patroclus thought a grim shout out to Achilles for being irrationally on Patroclus’ side twenty four-seven about everything. That was a different sort of struggle, but at least it didn’t hurt Patroclus’ ego (rather the opposite). Across the way, Diomedes was back to looking miserable, chewing his bottom lip and hands tucked nervously between his thighs. He seemed to have given up on apologizing, looking ready to take whatever punishment Patroclus might see fit to mete out— even Briseis was kind of averting her gaze, no longer needing to hype Patroclus’ upset like she had been doing. With a sigh, Patroclus reached across and patted the top of Diomedes’ head, flattening some of his gelled hair.
“It’s fine. Thanks for being here, by the way. You’ll be glad to know you inspired my new plan of action.”
“It’s pretty badass,” Briseis said, cheerily slapping Patroclus on the back. “Of course, only if you can pull it off.”
“Thanks, for the vote of confidence.”
Diomedes, still in guilt mode, said nothing, only glanced hopefully up between the two of them, puppy-like, waiting to be included in the conversation. And Briseis, being Briseis, scowled and started yanking on a lock of his hair that Patroclus had loosened. When Patroclus looked at her, conveying with his expression a single Why, she only pulled harder. Patroclus rolled his eyes (but didn’t bother to stop her— he was nobody’s mother, and Diomedes could ride this guilt train for as far as he wanted, for god’s sake), and hoisted his backpack.
“I’ll tell you if you want to know,” he told Diomedes. “Let’s get to class though. Into the fire? Back into the frying pan?”
“I think we’re more like a eucalyptus forest struck by lightning,” Briseis mused, on the verge of vicious, pointed laughter. “Now we’re all exploding.”
Leaving school at 3:25, Patroclus was, to his surprise, confronted by Penthesilea. He turned a corner in the school and suddenly she was beside him, keeping stride and walking in the same direction. He tried heading out the nearest door and she followed. He stalked clean past the track field, the gym, the locker rooms and she followed. A feeling of dread pouring like sludge down his esophagus, Patroclus wondered, for a hysterical second, if his plan to use himself as bait was actually working, and if so, could he take it back. Penthesilea was on the throwing team, she had a good two inches on Patroclus in height and probably matched Patroclus in girth, shoulder width, definitely had Patroclus beat on arm muscle bulk and definition. It was fifty something degrees and she was wearing a muscle tank— more than half of Patroclus’ internal organs felt cold with terror. And, the whole school was leaving. In his thoughtless panic, Patroclus had followed his usual routes designed to avoid as many people as possible, and ended up in a barren corridor. Dear god, Patroclus was going to die. Alone. Murdered by someone who could probably get away with it.
And then Penthesilea said, “tell me what happened with Clysonymus.”
Forget death— this was worse. Stopping in his tracks, Patroclus instinctively snarled, “no,” all his hackles raised. The chill in his stomach had instantaneously expanded into his spine, the tips of his toes. Penthesilea stopped too, looking inscrutable.
“Fine,” she said, voice steady as an advancing army, “then tell me what happened with Helicon.”
“God, why would I tell you anything—?”
Penthesilea advanced, again, like a shot, and Patroclus jerked backwards, elbow slamming into a bank of lockers. He didn’t hear it, attention tunneling onto Penthesilea and nothing else, pupils dilated wide. Instinctively cataloguing every detail, Patroclus noticed that Penthesilea looked mirror to him— lips curled defensively back, elbows tucked tight into the side and fists clenched, eyes a shock of black.
“Then how about,” she said, voice like raking gravel, “I tell you what Clysonymus told me happened? He said you started the fight. He said you ambushed him and Helicon in the lot off the Great Highway. He said you almost broke his head open with a cement block, and when Helicon tried to stop you you hit her, knocked her into the fence and off the hill. And then when he tried to stop you you shoved him into oncoming traffic.”
His hearing gone first, Patroclus felt like all his bodily functions were deserting him, one by one. His lungs left him next, whole chest tight, ribs closing from the bottom like a zipper. He struggled to speak, words like barnacles being pried one by one off the wall of his throat.
“And you believe him? Just like that? You know what kind of person he is and you believe him?”
Penthesilea was staring at Patroclus’ hands, clenched white and shaking by his thighs, and Patroclus hid them behind him. “I know him from church,” she answered absently, brows furrowed.
Torn between laughing and crying and screaming, Patroclus felt his voice threatening to crack and he swallowed, and swallowed. “No,” he finally gritted out, no longer able to feel what expression his face was making, “I didn’t hit Helicon— he did. I confronted him, fine, but when he started throwing things, Helicon tried to stop him and he’s the one that pushed her, not me.”
Penthesilea stepped back, and the fluorescent light behind her flooded Patroclus’ sight, like a boulder being rolled away from the entrance of a cave. The breathing got a little easier— a steady, slim stream instead of erratic pumps. Before Patroclus, Penthesilea’s anger had become more shuttered, more modest.
“Clysonymus told me you were the one who hit her,” she said, and behind the irritated growl she sounded numb.
“Does Clysonymus also know you hate guys who beat on girls?” Patroclus replied bitterly. His hands were still shaking, and he too wanted to talk. He wanted to look Achilles in the eyes and spit out a one-sided story that made him nothing but the wronged victim, wanted to feel victorious as Achilles bought every single word and grew offended on his behalf. He wanted to know what that kind of power felt like, if it was sweet or bitter, if it was intoxicating or would scare him off after one taste; he wanted to stop feeling this weak, this helpless against words he had nothing to refute. He breathed, short and noisy like a sob. “Speaking of guys who beat on girls, I thought you hated me because of Ajax— so who was the bleach for, Clysonymus or Ajax? I’d like to get the motives straight.”
Penthesilea went rigid again, and she locked her feet before she could step forward or back. “What the hell are you talking about?” she asked dangerously. “Ajax hit someone?”
Her shoulders were hunching, knees bending like a predator about to strike— but strangely, it was also this moment Patroclus could best see her vulnerability. A surprised flare of nostrils, a hint of dread in the gouge of her brows, her voice a flat denial of an ugly truth she didn’t want to comprehend. Patroclus took no pleasure in telling her, “yeah, or he was about to. Iphigenia. That’s how the fight started.”
The close-range battle let Patroclus see the genuine, awful hurt in Penthesilea’s eyes. Hurt argumentativeness, hurt hurt, then hurt I should’ve known. She stepped back, and back, and back again, before wheeling around and slamming her fist into a locker. Hard. That, Patroclus heard.
And so did the ninth grade English teacher, who came storming out of her classroom, demanding to know what’s going on. Without acknowledging the teacher at all, Penthesilea stormed away, fist clenched at her side and— shaking.
Patroclus followed. At a distance.
They made it all the way outside the building, Penthesilea hitting the fencing at the edge of the building and Patroclus hovering by the door. Along the way, Penthesilea had texted someone, and by the time they were outside she had gotten a text back. When she read it her whole posture drooped, phone clutched tight between both hands like a prayer.
“If you know Clysonymus from church, you must also know Helicon,” Patroclus called out wearily. “Are you two friends?”
“Not really,” was Penthesilea’s terse reply. “We’re very different people.”
That was a bit of an understatement. In Patroclus’ memory, Helicon was pink bows and satin sundresses, a frilled and lacy creature tagging along with Clysonymus everywhere in click-clacking kitten heels and a cross on her neck. Penthesilea looked tall and tough, difficult to bruise. But somehow, Patroclus had pressed on a sore spot. He tried to remind himself that this was a good thing.
“Look, I don’t know you,” he said to her back, “but whatever beef you have with me? It sounds like a bunch of misunderstandings. I’m happy to clear things up, but otherwise— leave me alone. This doesn’t have to get uglier, I won’t tell anybody if you stop.”
Penthesilea turned, slow and stiff like a doll on a music box. “And you won’t retaliate?” she said, mockery a scalding note in her voice. “You don’t want any payback? I’m tough, you know— I can take a punch.”
Recoiling, Patroclus hurriedly stepped back over the threshold, eager to be gone from her presence. And Penthesilea kept watching, eyes reptilian in their refusal to stray. “I’m not really one for violence,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m getting that,” she replied, startling Patroclus. Then, turning back to grumpy coal, “I’m late to practice.”
As Patroclus stepped aside to let her pass, something possessed him to say, “I’ll see you on the field then, later.”
Turning a speculative look on him, Penthesilea replied, “fine. Practice ends at 5:30.”
So I recently binged all of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I think the Iphigenia section and the Pat-Brie-Di section were written very much under the influence of that. Iphigenia especially is becoming more and more like Gina in my mind's eye. The moment I wrote that last line for that first section, I slapped myself.
*Scyros is, of course, the name of the island Deidameia and her family lived on, where Achilles stayed in disguise.
*God I DESPISE the elitism people have about colleges, and being shitty to people who attend community college??? Opinions reflected by bigoted private school teenagers do not reflect the opinions of the author.
*GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS. When they lost it broke my fucking heart.
*Diomedes was quoting Mercutio, "Men's eyes were made to look."
*Apparently, this dude named Frank Havens planted THREE MILLION eucalyptus trees on the Berkeley Hills for lumber, but didn't realize eucalyptus needed to be HELLA old in order to be viable wood. So thanks for the thousands of acres of flame-prone invasive species, FRANK.
*The Montane Longwing, a species of butterfly, has the scientific name Heliconius Clysonymus. The person who named these longwings clearly had a thing for Greek mythology because the golden helicon, Heliconius Hecale, is named after a woman who meets Theseus as he was on the way to kill the bull of Marathon.
*Clysonymus is a fucking piece of shit.
I'm really stoked to write Patroclus with the proverbial bug spray. He's gonna kick ass y'all. Next chapter's titled "I wanna see your animal side," also from "Death Valley."
Chapter 15: I wanna see your animal side
WE'RE FINALLY HERE. LOOK AT WHERE WE ARE LOOK AT WHERE WE STARTED.
Gracias Edie for beta-ing pt. 1~!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The great track and field rivalry between Arcadia and Ilion was known all through the lands. It all started nine years ago, when Agamemnon— Olympics bronze medalist back in the 80’s, taking a break from his college coaching career— assumed the mantle of Coach, and Arcadia stole the regional championship title from the then-reigning Ilion. This first victory was a spark of interest, a mildly interesting local story that quickly faded because the very next year, Ilion took the crown right back. Like a smirking older sibling patting you on the head, saying Nice try, punk. “Arcadia’s season-long daydream,” the Chronicle reported, “has come to its expected end. Agamemnon has clearly decided that lazing back in his ergonomic office chair is the right way to ride out his early retirement.”
Except, the third year, Arcadia took the championship again. This time, the resident interest was far more energized— it wasn’t so much a David and Goliath story as a Sodom and Gomorrah, both schools rather largely disliked for their perceived elitism, turning their spears and arrows on each other. And then the fourth year, Ilion championed, and then fifth year, Arcadia championed— by then it was everybody’s favorite local anecdote. Open-air Big Bus tours driving by, on their way to Coit Tower have been heard commenting, “known track and field rivals, both schools boast quite prestigious graduates who still run! Did you know Atalanta, of the US women’s national soccer team, is a proud Ilion alum? And Theseus, an Arcadia graduate, will be competing in the Olympic Pentathlon this year!”
So the eye-for-an-eye exchange of victories went on, and last year, Arcadia took home the trophy. Local radio mused if the close of the decade would end this seesawing once and for all. And then Agamemnon, in a press conference with surprisingly large turnout, announced his decision to return to coaching for UCLA— the tenth year would be the last at Arcadia. And then and then, Agamemnon announced his intention to keep the championship this year, bringing home Achaean victory once and for all to close his high school coaching career. In the media interest that ensued, Coach Priam of the Ilion Trojans was reported to have said that should Arcadia take championship this year, he would retire (actually, he merely announced his retirement, regardless of track team victory, but the embellished story got traction and took speedily off). Thus flamed the great rivalry on its tenth and perceptively conclusive year: if Arcadia kept its crown, they would be proven best, and if Ilion stole it back— well, Agamemnon would be gone, and Ilion should return to reigning champs by the eleventh year.
The rivalry wasn’t all about the coaches; the teams themselves had gotten quite a shocking amount of rep and press. On Ilion’s side there was Sarpedon, who boasted almost a million followers on Vine, the sprinting sensation and often a walking talking meme. There was Aeneas, who was rumored to have scored perfect SAT scores and was on the fast track for MIT, running cross-country for an afternoon of fun. There was Andromache, Instagram-famous with her own Etsy store (all proceeds to go to a local theater and theater tech camp for Asian Pacific Islanders), on jumps and sprints and dashes alike. And of course there was Hector, widely known as The Perfect Guy™ that all moms adored, with the perfect teeth and honest smile and hoping to enter the medical field to help the sick and injured worldwide. Oh and he ran fast too, averaging the fastest 200 and 400 m on the team. Andromache, who held the crown for fastest 100, was happily dating Hector, and the two were known to be that insufferably pleasant, lovely, happy couple.
But the Arcadia team was no slack in comparison. Penthesilea, stoic and buff, was widely adored for her three-year victory streak in javelin throwing, and had a loyal pack of female fans that went to her every meet. Diomedes was actually more famous for being the star of Arcadia’s basketball team, but he had also logged many “#team” vines that made him the preferred social media master to follow for anybody interested in Arcadia’s track and field (Penelope was actually working on a proposal to hire him as the student voice blogger for the official school website). Polyxena was alternatively idolized as Polly the ditzy manic pixie girl, flying like the cutest smiling fairy through the air when she did jumps, and venerated as Xena warrior princess when she bared all her teeth and flexed all of her sizeable arm muscles throwing discus. Last but certainly, certainly not least— Achilles. Front page of the student paper, the day after his freshman year track victory: The Best of the Achaeans. The picture was printed in full color, Achilles in their gold and Mediterranean blue uniform, the red finish line ribbon across his chest and wrapping around his biceps, the sun in obvious worship of him. Red lips and victorious teeth. The moniker went undisputed and he had been the beloved of the school and city ever since, that super good-looking runner from Arcadia, did you hear seven different colleges were scouting him, did you hear he beat an Olympic record once at a meet.
All these hotshots were lined up against each other— and if that weren’t enough, both teams this upcoming year would be primarily composed of seniors. Seniors who have histories with each other, a legacy to upkeep— losing simply wasn’t an option for either side. This year’s track season was sure to be explosive, to say the least.
So. The top of this school year Agamemnon listed out the technically-unofficial-but-practically-official track team lineup, and personally made each and every member commit to at least five hours of training per week for the first three months of school. The trainings, though entirely populated by the track team, legally had to be listed as “open practices” before track season actually began, which theoretically meant any Arcadia student could attend.
Patroclus approached the field with war drums in his ears. The late afternoon heat wave was slowly dissipating in swarthy tangerines, the entire sky open but for a lofty bank of mackerel cirrus in the south, flooding in with the fog; it would rain later that evening. Right now though, the cement was still warm, and Patroclus walked in worn-down running shoes, variations of gray where they had been black and white. He wore a black shirt, black pants— something of a funeral garb. His expression was carefully steady.
Attention on him fell like inverse ripples in a pond, and Patroclus was floating, maybe, not sinking. Achilles by the tracks, his gaze searing. Polyxena’s lips parted in worry. Iphigenia standing in the bleachers amongst a group of cheerleaders in athletic wear, her hands clutched tight at the rails. Every square inch of Patroclus’ body felt heated, loose and tense all at once, a drawn-back arrow resting in precise balance.
Menestheus came up first, all wide shoulders and posturing strut. Patroclus didn’t flinch, met his glower with an indolent stare.
“Practice is for runners only,” Menestheus growled. With a sweeping, dismissive look, Patroclus made himself smirk at Menestheus’ thick sweatshirt, untied sneakers.
“Then you better start running.”
“I’ll let you choose the distance,” Menestheus drawled, a patronizing curve to his lips as he warmed up with leg lifts. “I’m a gracious host.”
“You compete in the 200m right?” Patroclus went through the motions of warming up again, carefully hiding any tension from being surrounded by piranhas. “Let’s do that.”
Menestheus’ expression turned ugly again, and Achilles didn’t hide his proud smirk. His teammates were glancing between Achilles and Patroclus, expressions anywhere from excitement to bemusement— but Achilles, having learned his lesson that day, kept silent.
“Fine, 200, since you want your ass kicked so bad.”
With the runners mostly gathered by the southern side of the tracks, closer to the bleachers and the locker rooms, Patroclus and Menestheus headed down to the opposite end. They would finish the half lap where the crowd was, eager to judge the victor. As the two jogged down the grass, the jumpers and throwers were turning their attention over— even Agamemnon, schooling Aegea about high jumps, paused in his motion-heavy coaching to see what was happening. Eurybates had followed them over, and now put a whistle to his mouth as Patroclus and Menestheus readied along the starting lines at the curve. From this distance, Achilles could see Menestheus’ face turned slightly toward Patroclus, lips moving in what was probably a steady stream of dispiriting smack talk. Patroclus, on the other hand, was still and steady, gaze intensely focused on his distant goal. Achilles was quite familiar with that look— on the soccer field, right before Patroclus played best, physics and other such ways of the world tidaling over to his will. Achilles could feel his pulse picking up, a giddy grin slashing across his face.
(Deidameia stepped beside him with an expression like losing. She asked him if he had seen Patroclus run before— an inane question that Achilles didn’t hear. Cheeks reddening, Deidameia stood her ground, eyes furiously telegraphing her desire for Patroclus to lose.)
A bated second of breath— and Eurybates blew the whistle. Both Patroclus and Menestheus launched themselves forward at top speed, eager to catch the lead for the first segment. Menestheus pulled ahead, but not by much. He was also swerving close to the inside lane, which Agamemnon, by the jump pit, scowled at. Patroclus, on the other hand, kept an easy form and steady tempo as the lanes straightened out, slicing rapidly forward. Around Achilles, people were scoffing at what seemed to be an amateur mistake on Patroclus’ part— trying to keep top speed from the get go. But they couldn’t read Patroclus like Achilles could. They couldn’t see the confidence that promised Patroclus could run even faster. Patroclus would take the race by a negative-split, Achilles knew, and started stretching himself, sidling up to the tracks.
The race was as much mentality as skill, so when Menestheus saw Patroclus’ ease at keeping up with him, he started to speed up, losing in both mind and body. It was far too early to be accelerating, the curve still a good forty meters ahead. This sent a wave of discontented mumbles through the team, and some guys even tried to wave at Menestheus, telling him to slow down. But it was no use. Menestheus had a solid distance as they hit the curve, and in the dick move of the day, started converging in on Patroclus’ lane. His eyes on the prize, Menestheus outright cackled as he started crossing the line— oblivious to the shouts of warning from the audience. His smirk froze when Patroclus accelerated (at the correct segment), easily taking him over before he was even fully situated in the new lane. The race was won. Even if Menestheus tried for a dead sprint his legs wouldn’t obey, not at this point— he could only watch in increasing panic as Patroclus pulled further and further away, the athletes in the stand growing more and more silent in shock. Eyes flitting left and right like prey, Menestheus turned his attention to Agamemnon on the field— but like salt to wound, Agamemnon wasn’t even bothering with Menestheus. Instead, he was speculating over Patroclus, fingers drumming on his clipboard.
Patroclus, despite the clear victory, wasn’t stopping. It took the audience in the stands several seconds between grudgingly accepting his skills and confused looking around to figure out why Patroclus kept running: Achilles waiting at the 400 m starting line in four point stance. As Patroclus passed him, Achilles kicked off, keeping comfortable pace at his side, despite being on the outer lane.
“I’ve never run the 400 before,” Patroclus confessed, voice low and full of effort.
Achilles, long hair flapping behind him, “we’ll keep a light pace for 300 meters then. Slower than the 200, don’t try for a negative-split again. Then for the last dash, we go all out. Sound good?”
Patroclus, finally relaxing enough into a grin, “think I can beat you?”
Achilles wasn’t enough of a sap to hide his skeptical snort. Patroclus threw his head back in a full-belly laugh, and so the two ran. Having caught on to the running strategy they had set, people were migrating off the stands and field to line the final 100m stretch. Achilles’ words from lunch were whispered from ear to ear, jostled from elbow to elbow: he runs fast. Agamemnon stood at the finish line, arms crossed, waiting to see the results.
Patroclus and Achilles advanced, and the entire crowd leaned forward in anticipation, phones out and angled from the side, bottom, above to record this final moment. There wasn’t exactly a coherent possibility that anybody could outrun Achilles, but for Achilles to willingly race anybody— that hadn’t happened for three years, at least. What was palpable, though, was a strong maybe at camaraderie; being on the track team meant having been torpedoed by Achilles, like a butterfly being outrun by a cheetah, and maybe people were ready to welcome yet another Achilles-defeated into their ranks.
(Deidameia backed up against the stands, the things that she thought she knew crumpling under grand seismic activity. Patroclus wasn’t a pawn and Achilles wasn’t the king; sometimes a master strategist played six steps ahead and bared her arrogant back to a knight’s drawn sword. Unknowingly, she stood watched by Iphigenia.)
Achilles sped up first, clean and smooth like an engine— he wasn’t holding back because he was showing off, wanting Patroclus to see his best. And his best was no joke, having once cleared a 10.59 second 100m dash. But Patroclus wasn’t going to just sit back and applaud Achilles’ win— he threw himself forward too, in a dead sprint and copying Achilles’ pace from his vantage point slightly behind Achilles. Their acceleration happened at nearly the same rate, and the audience tore out an excited, almost offended roar. Achilles, sensing Patroclus right beside him, slipped into a savage smile— his graceful gesture to the boy he loved was to wait until the last five seconds to lengthen his stride, pulling clean ahead in time to leap across the finish line. Agamemnon, clicking his stopwatch, clocked them at 1.37 seconds apart.
(Last year, Achilles had beaten Hector in the dash by 1.18 seconds.)
The crowd went off in cheers, and Achilles and Patroclus slowed to jog a cool down lap. Both were breathless, and neither could keep their eyes off the other.
“I practiced, you know,” Patroclus complained, though with a fond slap to Achilles’ back. “Every morning since we met. Pulled out all the stops and still I lost to you.”
“You’re the only one who’s ever come close to pulling even with me,” Achilles said cheerily. They’ve reached the far side of the field, where it was significantly quieter, and Achilles windmilling an arm sent a flock of pecking pigeons into dappled flight.
“Liar,” Patroclus scoffed. “I know you gave me the extra seconds you big softie.”
“Let’s run again.” In several springing steps Achilles was jogging backwards in front of Patroclus, smile big and almost goofy. “You and me. Hurdles next time. Or relay— we should run relay together.”
“Or we can play soccer, give me the edge,” said Patroclus. “Iphigenia and Briseis bet that you would suck at soccer, while I, of course, know that the world is not a fair place and you’re probably as ungodly awesome at soccer as you are at everything else. So what do you say, want to win $20 from them?”
“But Pat, I really do suck at soccer.”
“Why do you insist on lying to me? The foundation of a happy marriage is honesty, Achilles.”
“You’re talkative on an endorphin high,” Achilles commented, sounding delighted. “Alright, yes, let’s definitely play soccer, and run, and train and work out together. How about swimming, do you swim?”
“You’re just trying to get my clothes off.” When Achilles just shrugged, unrepentant, Patroclus said, without thinking, “yet another thing we can do together for an endorphin high.”
So maybe Achilles tripped a little, and Patroclus’ eyes went owlishly round before he flushed violently red. They recovered quickly though, because they were coming up onto the stands, and people were waiting to greet them. Patroclus gestured for Achilles to go ahead (avoiding, perhaps, direct eye contact), but Achilles shook his head, staying right beside Patroclus as they waded into the crowd.
“Damn Achilles!” Meriones crowed, immediately pulling Achilles into a chest bump. “If you were recruiting him you should’ve just said so!”
Idomeneus, to Patroclus with a cautious, but not unfriendly expression, “you should come back next week when we do hurdles man. You’ve got the coordination for that.”
“Shit dude,” Polyxena approached, clasping Patroclus’ shoulder. “Not gonna lie, I actually didn’t know you could run!”
Patroclus turned immediately at the call, and Achilles watched cautiously out of the corner of his eyes. It was Penthesilea, coming out of the locker rooms with a blue and gold lanyard in hand. When Patroclus started toward her, Achilles made to follow, but stayed back at the slightest gesture from Patroclus.
“Anyone who wants to join the track team can register for morning and after hour access to the gym and weight room,” Penthesilea explained. When Patroclus frowned in confusion, she held the lanyard out, displaying the keycard at the end. “Coach said you should take it.”
“…Okay.” When Patroclus took the keycard though, Penthesilea kept her grip, her expression stiff but resolute.
“The keycard will log your name into the system,” she said. “You’re free to use the rooms any time, but there is weight room conditioning and cheerleading practice Friday, Monday, and Wednesday mornings.”
With that, she let the lanyard drop, spun on her heel and left. Patroclus stood in her wake, looking at the keycard in his hand with a peculiar expression. Before Achilles could open his mouth though, a pair of hands closed over his elbow.
“‘Chilles!” Deidameia exclaimed, all bright smiles and a touch of apology in her eyes. The only thing that betrayed her anxiety was her slightly imperfect ponytail, loosening at the bottom. “Oh my god, I can’t believe you made a new friend! We should go get boba together—”
Pulling firmly away, Achilles said brusquely, “no thanks.” Then, to Patroclus, “we can leave now.”
“Okay,” was all Patroclus said, before letting Achilles lead them away. He did, however, offer a small, puzzled smile at Deidameia— the universal communiqué for who are you again? A bubble had formed around Deidameia, one of shame, as nobody wanted to approach someone so publically shunned by Achilles. And they knew why, too, Deidameia’s words from lunch becoming bigoted echoes retold amongst the crowd: she called him gay, she was trying to talk shit about Achilles and his friend, is she jealous or something? Guess she’s finally showing her ugly side, huh? Gathering her dignity, Deidameia lifted her chin and headed by herself into the locker room.
After a moment, another student with the acrid taste of defeat on his tongue, followed.
Patroclus fell back onto his bed with a long, deep sigh. And then he took a large gulp of breath, and then sighed again, forceful, like he was trying to expel every molecule of oxygen from his system. The reason was, in part, the exciting events of that afternoon, the first step to social non-denigration, and the keycard like a set of exam answers sitting on his kitchen counter. Another part of the reason was the shower he just took, hot steam still under his skin and settling every overwrought muscle in his body.
But the most part of the reason, the source of all the breathless suspense coursing through his system like mercury, was currently in his shower. Achilles. Goddamn Achilles.
Leaving the tracks, Achilles had said he should take a shower in the locker room before they left. And Patroclus, who apparently had a god-given special on mindlessly blurting things out that day, said, “just come shower at my place.” Achilles had given a wicked grin with friendliness and little actual heat— but it still got Patroclus’ mind churning. It wasn’t like Patroclus didn’t have eyes— hell, it wasn’t like Patroclus hadn’t spend a solid portion of the past week heavily petting all the planes and surfaces of Achilles’ body that he could politely reach (all the while eyeing, not-so-discreetly, all the impolite bits). Patroclus had long since made his peace with the desire that ambled all about his muscles, curling into his joints, when it came to anything about Achilles. It was just that the thing between them was one of exploring, not charging toward any finish line— so the other things that Patroclus may want had not exactly come up yet.
In the temperate acoustics of the apartment, he heard the shower faucet squeak shut, the stall door sliding open, then the whump and rustling of a towel. He heard two steps, then the muffled snap of spandex against skin, the sweatpants he had lent Achilles being slipped on. He heard the rustle of his old, worn t-shirt, slipping over Achilles’ head and shoulders, the frayed bottom probably a little too long and resting on the curve of Achilles’ buttocks. He heard the towel, again, as Achilles dried his hair as best he could.
Then Achilles finally stepped out, heat-flushed and bathed in steam, and Patroclus’ mouth was already dry. “Thanks for lending me your clothes…” Achilles started to say, before he caught Patroclus’ gaze and trailed to a stop. Patroclus wondered what Achilles saw, the rumpled clothes or his awkward splay across the bed, wondered what Achilles forgot to say with his mouth going slack, lashes fanning dark.
“I want you to be comfortable,” Patroclus replied, voice gone slightly hoarse. He kept watching Achilles watch him, watched the micro-expressions— a press of lips, a half-blink, a frown— and kept wondering, or perhaps kept fretting, mind lighting up with paranoia. But— before Patroclus could grow too tense, Achilles suddenly propelled himself into the air, landing beside Patroclus with an epic bounce. Patroclus scrambled for purchase, and ended up with both hands deep in his mattress and a leg wrapped around Achilles’. A little vindictively, he also dug his elbow into Achilles’ side with excessive force, which Achilles winced at, but promptly set aside in favor of a huge grin.
“You,” Achilles said, “were fucking awesome today.”
Untangling himself, Patroclus couldn’t help a burst of startled giggles, and quickly buried his pinked face in Achilles’ neck. “Oh yeah?” he said, “say more, please, about how awesome I was.”
“Menestheus didn’t stand a chance,” Achilles cackled, punching the air. Yeah, Patroclus thought pettily, Diomedes and Penthesilea on his mind, fuck the “team.”
“If he took it seriously,” Patroclus still felt compelled to say, “he probably could’ve beaten me.”
Clicking his tongue, Achilles shook his head, the wet strands of his hair rubbing over Patroclus’ forehead. “Nah,” Achilles replied confidently, “you would’ve wiped the floor with him still.”
“When will I wipe the floor with you?” Patroclus asked in jest, pressing his teeth slowly into Achilles’ skin. Achilles suddenly spun around, pushing up on his elbows so he was a plank above Patroclus.
“A hundred years from now,” Achilles answered in a tone like a promise. “But only if you run with me every day until then. Every. Single. Day.”
He peppered the words with kisses, on Patroclus’ forehead, his nose, his lips. In return, Patroclus slid his hands up the hem of Achilles’ shirt, fingertips skidding over his engaged, well-defined abs— the incorrigible showoff. Winking, Achilles flexed his biceps too, on either side of Patroclus’ face, and Patroclus laughed before obligingly kissing one arm. Then, smoothing his palms along Achilles’ waist, Patroclus pulled Achilles down with insistent weight, so they lied pressed together, front-to-front. He curled his face back into Achilles’ neck, enjoying the warmth he found there.
“Did you know,” Achilles began, tone tender as he murmured into Patroclus’ ear, “that I’m taller than you?”
It took a moment for Patroclus to parse the intimate context from the utterly unromantic words, cognitive dissonance like static in his mind. Then he bit Achilles’ collarbone.
“Zero point zero five inches doesn’t count, asshole,” Patroclus grumbled, Achilles shaking with laughter above him.
“No, but the two inches on these sweatpants do.”
“They’re short on me too!” When all that got was more disrespectful laughter, Patroclus grew bold. His thumbs skidding under the waistline of the sweatpants in question, he proclaimed, “well if you’ve got such a problem with them, take them off.”
Achilles stilled and lifted his head, letting his knees fall on either side of Patroclus to prevent becoming a dead weight. His lips were parted in something like a smile, but there was a stillness in his cheeks.
“What if I were saving myself for marriage?” Achilles said, and Patroclus immediately moved his hands, brushing back up to safer swathes of skin in apology, in comfort.
“Then I would respect that,” he answered, as earnestly as he could. They had yet to have any serious conversations about this, only the opportune sex jokes that were part of any intimate relationship, really— Patroclus didn’t want to overstep. Achilles’ gaze did not waver, though fluttered slight around the edges.
“And what if,” he spoke again, in an altogether different tone, “I want you to rip my clothes off and take your way with me?”
“Then,” Patroclus answered, hands stalling completely and swallowing around a dry throat, “I would respect that too.”
Achilles, with his brows furrowed in concentration, grew so intense and so large in Patroclus’ vision that, for a second, Patroclus wondered if he were actually toppling over. But it was Patroclus who was leaning up, Achilles’ fingers anchored into the collar of his shirt, pulling him along as Achilles sat back. Achilles settled gently on Patroclus’ thighs, perched on his haunches like a cat about to leap away.
“Decisions, decisions,” Achilles hummed, the deceptively light tone of his voice belied by the troubled twist of his mouth. As Patroclus soothed the edge of Achilles’ lips with a thumb, he was reminded, you’re going to be the first. The cockiness that was Achilles’ usual M.O. flapped powerlessly like an injured bird in a corner of the room, and Patroclus couldn’t help an endeared smile.
“Do you,” Patroclus said lightly, “want to touch me?”
He wrapped a loose grip around Achilles’ wrist, and at Achilles’ hesitant nod, lifted Achilles’ hand to settle against his throat. He pressed the back of Achilles’ hand in encouragement, arching like a cat into the warm cover of Achilles’ palm fanning over his skin. At this familiar motion, Achilles relaxed, nails scratching gratefully up into Patroclus’ hair, then down to his spine. Patroclus sighed, let his eyes flutter shut. He loved Achilles’ hands on him, the way they moved at first with purpose, point A aiming for point B, but slowed down en route with a reverent drag, like trailing to a stop on the highway because of a faith-making view. They kissed, a little messy, the clack of teeth and unsteady breaths between them. Patroclus’ torso waxed and waned with Achilles’ hand, like a puppet maybe, or a grain of sand carried back and forth on a shoreline wave.
“Can I take your shirt off?” Achilles murmured in time. In his haste to nod, Patroclus almost knocked their heads together, and he managed a rueful smile before scrunching the t-shirt over his head. Instinctively, he wanted reciprocity, but felt in the air a touch of fragility, sugar pouring into a stirring drink, a steady fall of granules that told him go slow. His heart hammered in his chest but Patroclus lied back down again, unwinding one vertebra at a time. And Achilles followed, chin tucked down as he stared, and stared, and stared. And then slowly, Achilles lifted a hand to rest on Patroclus’ diaphragm, index finger brushing the bottom of Patroclus’ sternum and pressing down like a stamp. Watching Achilles’ face, Patroclus bore witness to a series of strange expressions, before Achilles seemed to toss his head back in defeat, collapsing down to wrap his arms around Patroclus’ waist, his face against Patroclus’ stomach. Just the slightest bit ticklish, Patroclus squirmed.
“What are you thinking?” he asked, amused, weaving his fingers through the mess of Achilles’ hair.
“You’re so fucking hot,” Achilles mumbled, breath hot on Patroclus’ skin. If his cheeks weren’t already so warm, Patroclus would blush more. A response in the negative threatened on his tongue, but he very deliberately swallowed it down, wanting to keep Achilles in this state of intoxicating vulnerability for as long as possible.
So he said, “that’s gratifying to hear,” doing his best to keep the strain of embarrassment from his voice. Reaching down, he let his thumbs hook into the label at the back of Achilles’ shirt. Then, with all the irony he could muster, Patroclus said, “now, I know you’ve never purposely taken your shirt off in front of me before to flaunt your sculpted body or anything, so if you’re shy I totally understand—”
In a blink of an eye, Achilles had whipped his shirt across the room, eyes brazen like a puppy dog wagging its tail and Patroclus couldn’t stand it anymore. Achilles looked surprise for all of half a second when Patroclus flipped him over, before he matched Patroclus grin for grin and flipped Patroclus right back. And Patroclus twisted them again, slamming loudly but harmlessly into drywall, Achilles arching beneath him. Their eyes met, Patroclus keeping the gaze, and felt immensely gratified when Achilles ceded beneath him. He sat back in triumph, catching his breath.
“In case you didn’t know—” Just as he gained higher ground, Patroclus felt himself growing bashful again, eyes dipping down to stare at Achilles’ torso. “—you are also fucking hot. So there’s that. Now let’s talk.”
“Uh, talk talk?” Achilles asked, worried, “or talk about this—?”
In a combination of movements he definitely did not mean to do, Achilles gestured at their general shirtlessness and ended up pressing his palm low (really, really low) on Patroclus’ stomach— at the same time canted his hip up in a slight roll. This resulted in Patroclus slipping down Achilles’ torso and pressing back on clear evidence of Achilles’ desire to participate in this situation. It was the first time Patroclus had ever seen Achilles turn so visibly red, and he had to steady Achilles beneath him to keep Achilles from jerking up and running off.
“Talk about this,” he tried to assure. And when Achilles still telegraphed flight risk, Patroclus blurted, “do you want to? Right now? It’s fine if you don’t, we can keep making out, put our clothes back on, whatever. Or we can go as far as you’d like. Or not, or we can wait, we can really do whatever you want—”
“I did research,” Achilles blurted right back. The flush wasn’t going away, but the near-panic was giving way to more familiar determination, focus, drive. This time, when Achilles squirmed, Patroclus let him go. They pulled unsteadily apart, Achilles keeping close but with one hand flung out against the wall in support. “I know— I want. I know what I want to do to you, but I don’t know if, in return, I can, that is, I might not be able to let you…”
His breath gentling in face of Achilles’ frustration, Patroclus reached out again to hold Achilles’ hand. He repeated his question from earlier, “do you want to touch me?” When Achilles nodded a little eagerly, a little desperately, Patroclus understood like a wick catching aflame. “But you might not want me to touch you back?”
“That’s bad, isn’t—”
“It sounds fine by me,” Patroclus interrupted firmly. With a steadying breath, he planted his hands squarely on his knees, opened himself up and smiled. “Go ahead.”
Achilles dove forward before he could second-guess himself anymore. Patroclus’ lips were warm and pliant beneath his, and Achilles kissed for something to hold onto, his hands gliding airily over Patroclus’ shoulders and arms and chest. And because Patroclus, somehow, had always had a keen eye for Achilles’ vulnerabilities, he leaned into Achilles’ fingers, encouraging Achilles to touch harder, grip tighter. So Achilles did, let his nails score dark red streaks along the column of Patroclus’ neck, mouth chasing after the shivers.
“I like you a lot,” Achilles panted when he came up for air. Patroclus’ gaze was dark and half closed, lips parted and slick, begging a kiss. So Achilles complied. With a shaky exhale Patroclus’ arms jolted forward, kept back by the fabric-distending grip he kept on his knees. A sudden feverish gratefulness overcame Achilles, and Achilles folded down, placing a kiss of allegiance to Patroclus’ knuckles. Then, curving down, placing a kiss to the inside of Patroclus’ knee. Then up to his thigh, the top of his head skimming Patroclus’ stomach.
“Are you—?” Patroclus breathed.
“If you’re okay with it,” Achilles answered, letting some of the hunger he felt become audible through his voice. Above him, Patroclus gulped.
“Yup.” His voice jumping a register, Patroclus sounded dazed, on the edge of delight. Achilles would push him over that edge.
With a push of his arms, Achilles stretched onto his stomach, Patroclus’ legs to either side of his head in rapturous tension. Lift up, Achilles said, maybe inaudibly, but Patroclus obeyed anyways, let Achilles slide his waistband down to his knees, then tangling it back to his ankles. Achilles delighted in the sight before him, the pads of his thumbs nudging into the junction between hip and thigh and counting the increased velocity of pulse, as if Patroclus had only just realized what was about to happen. With Patroclus’ sight boring down on him, Achilles, quite happily, began.
(He’d always performed best with an audience.)
“Shit— what the fuck—” Then, sounding all sorts of betrayed, Patroclus gasped, “I thought you were shy.”
Not about this. Achilles hummed and eagerly weathered the sudden weight of Patroclus bucking into his mouth. Dedicated student like Achilles, what he lacked in experience he had made up for in hours of Google searches (and like, four computer viruses from sketchy websites that Polyxena would have a field day helping him purge), and he thought about those now. The ring he made with his hands, alternating between swallowing and lapping, drawing up to the head and laving into the ridges and grooves. In the periphery of his vision, Achilles could see Patroclus’ hands lifting, flexing in the air, before clamping helplessly back down onto his legs. Sympathetic, Achilles took a moment to guide one of Patroclus’ hands onto his head, felt the fingers weave tentatively into his hair.
And then he dove back in, not one to leave a project unfinished, a goal unattained. He teased with kisses and dull drags of teeth until Patroclus keened, grip tightening on Achilles’ hair.
“Okay, okay I’m—” Patroclus sounded like he was trying to calm them down, like he didn’t want Achilles to dive straight into the deep end with amateur enthusiasm— when in fact that was exactly what Achilles wanted to do. So he kept on, loving Patroclus’ hand in his hair, going from a stinging pull to dazedly approving pats. “If you keep going I’m gonna—”
Achilles came to a decision. Taking a breath in preparation he pressed forward and swallowed Patroclus down to the root. His nails dug into the small of Patroclus’ back scratched deep as Patroclus bucked up. Patroclus’ hand matched his along the back of his neck, and Achilles could feel the crescent-shaped grooves ache as he loosened his throat, kept swallowing.
Patroclus came in rolling pulses, and Achilles rode with him all the way, mesmerized by the peculiar sensations and taste of Patroclus spilling on his tongue. When Patroclus finally shuddered to a stop, Achilles sat up, satisfaction and profound dissatisfaction both present in him. His own need sat hard and aching, but he firmly set that aside to revel in Patroclus, having fallen back onto the rest of the bed, fully naked and boneless from orgasm.
“I thought you were inexperienced.” Patroclus was probably trying to sound just a bit grumpy, but all that came out was euphoria, a blissed-out high.
“I am,” Achilles answered, shamelessly snickering. “At least, with another guy.”
“I thought you were nervous.” Eyeing Achilles (more specifically, Achilles’ pants), Patroclus offered, “let me return the favor.”
“Um, that’s okay.”
That got Patroclus to lift his head, creases of confusion lining his forehead. “That’s fine,” he began, “but can I ask why?”
“Yeah,” Achilles answered out of instinct, before he’s actually thought of a good way to answer. With a wince, he let himself fall forward to lie parallel with Patroclus. “So I really want to give you a ton of blowjobs and handjobs, right? Like, that’s the dream right there.”
Patroclus shoved at his shoulder, and Achilles laughed, drawing Patroclus closer. Patroclus’ hand laid between them, hair’s breadth from Achilles’ stomach like a warning, or a promise, and Achilles felt his own breath go unsteady at the feeling.
“But you don’t want me to ‘give you a ton of blowjobs and handjobs’ right back?” Patroclus questioned, his voice steady and nonjudgmental. Frustrated, Achilles scratched at his scalp.
“Well, it’s not that, exactly.”
“Okay, I guess you can say I have particular tastes…?”
Patroclus, squinting, “…you mean like in a kinky way?”
“No, no, I mean—” Puffing a lock of hair from his eyes, Achilles decided just to say it. “Look, last time someone tried to get me off, I couldn’t come because she wasn’t doing exactly what I liked.”
Being mere inches from Patroclus’ face, Achilles had the up close and personal privilege of seeing Patroclus’ expression go from confused to unamused and slightly offended.
“So you don’t want me to touch you because you don’t think I’ll be good enough.”
With an indignant squawk Achilles bolted up. Patroclus followed, challenge in his expression. “That’s not— I didn’t mean it like—”
“Achilles,” Patroclus said squarely, “my man of discerning tastes. Do you want me to get you off tonight?”
Faced with such a blunt question, Achilles had to nod his truth. A slight smile played at the corner of Patroclus’ lips before Patroclus ruthlessly tamped it down.
“Then let me, and tell me what you need.” You idiot, added the fondness in Patroclus’ eyes. And Achilles was falling all over again. Patroclus’ hand was sliding underneath his waistband and Achilles shut his eyes, told himself to let go. This was Patroclus— he could, would trust Patroclus with himself, and all he was.
“Okay,” he breathed, and let his legs fall apart.
Patroclus’ hand moved with consistency and generosity, fingers spreading and pressing across Achilles’ skin and all those nerve endings. Achilles felt bad for wanting to tell Patroclus to do something else, but when Patroclus just shot him a look, Achilles licked his lips and nodded. “Faster,” he said, and Patroclus complied. “Twist,” and “grip harder,” and “there— press a nail in.”
“See?” Patroclus murmured, pressing their foreheads together with a raucous smirk. “I can deliver.”
“I’m never underestimating you again,” Achilles promised.
“See that you don’t,” Patroclus replied, before scratching, and he must’ve figured out a pattern to Achilles’ desires that even Achilles himself didn’t know, because Achilles surged forward choking on air, his body feeling scorched anew. Patroclus was all sorts of smug now, and Achilles had to kiss that grin, biting into the soft bottom lip.
“You can tighten your grip more,” Achilles requested again, and the look in Patroclus’ eyes was either concern or lust. Regardless, Patroclus complied, and a coarse heat began building in Achilles’ core. Achilles gritted his teeth, managed to say, “keep going. Just like that.”
But Patroclus, an adventurous soul, didn’t stop there. He began gliding his free hand along Achilles’ hair, slipping down into the soft, vulnerable back of Achilles’ ear, following down the jawline and onto Achilles’ throat. At the same time Patroclus let his nail scratch into skin on both hands, and a helpless mewl escaped Achilles. Digging four fingers into Achilles’ chest, Patroclus raked down, one nail catching on a nipple— and that was it. Achilles came almost violently, hand slapping loudly onto Patroclus’ bicep for a grip. And Patroclus somehow knew, keeping his hand still wide and warm and harsh on Achilles and every ounce of breath pulsed out of Achilles. When Achilles finally managed to pry his eyes open, re-inflate his lungs, there were warm stripes all over his stomach and Patroclus was handing him a tissue.
“So.” Triumph all over his expression, Patroclus manhandled Achilles to lie back on the bed, Achilles happily complying. “How’s that for your particular tastes?”
“You win everything,” Achilles readily agreed. He hugged Patroclus tight around the middle. “Any time you want the same— you telling me what to do— just say the word.”
“But I’m not as picky as you,” Patroclus sniffed, cheekily rolling his eyes. “I have low standards, and you have high and fancy tastes.”
“You’re right.” Leaning over Patroclus, Achilles softly pressed their lips together. “Truly, I have impeccable taste.”
This chapter is informally dubbed, "GEDDIT PAT, GEDDIT." Continuous shoutout to Edie for chatting with me about how Achilles is the pushiest, neediest bottom in the whole wide world.
*Atalanta was one of Artemis' huntresses who drew first blood in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Fun fact, she's popularly depicted on vase paintings to have defeated Peleus, Achilles' father, in wrestling.
*Theseus was, of course, Athenians' insistence on having their own famous hero, so they said he did all the tasks that Heracles did, made him an asshole, and called it a day. Just kidding, kind of. I have little love for him.
*Trojan War lasted ten years. Priam was the king of Troy, ofc. Sarpedon is a son of Zeus, slain by Patroclus. Aeneas escapes the fall of Troy and goes on to found Rome (Virgil's Aeneid). Andromache is the wife of Hector.
Alright my loves— sorry for taking so long to get to the porn. BUT WE'RE FINALLY HERE.
Chapter 16: You were my Versailles at night
have some more sex before the plot proceeds; you deserve it
*thank you Edie, as always. I finally know the deal with "lie" as a noun now in different tenses.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Patroclus blinked awake at two AM, the moment an evening drizzle, half-rain half-fog, gave out. The streetlight directly outside his window lit a fiery yellow against his eyelids; he had neglected to draw the blinds before he drifted off to sleep.
Speaking of fiery yellow— Achilles lay a toasty length beside him under the covers. Like any good San Franciscan, they had both pulled their crumpled clothes back on before succumbing to sleep, and the t-shirt wrapped large around Achilles’ frame. The light threw sharp dark shadows into the hollow of Achilles’ throat, and Patroclus molded his lips into the groove of silky skin and bone.
“Good morning?” Achilles rumbled above him. Then, “wait, no it’s not. Why.”
“I was just going to draw the blinds,” Patroclus whispered, the midnight silence feeling sacred and dewy around them. “You can keep sleeping.”
“No, wait—” Blinking more awake, Achilles wrapped Patroclus up in the blanket before he could leave the bed. “We gotta finish that English presentation.”
“At two in the morning?” Patroclus complained, letting Achilles spoon in behind him. “That’s ungodly.”
“You’re right,” said Achilles, breath teasing the back of Patroclus’ neck. “Two AM is a dumb time to start homework. Three would be much more logical.”
“Okay.” Reaching behind, Patroclus pulled Achilles closer, arched his back to grind into the heat. “You uh, got an idea about how to kill an hour?”
“It came to me in a dream,” Achilles said, dropping his voice comically deep. Laughing, Patroclus wove their hands together and pressed them tight against his lower stomach. Felt Achilles’ nails scratch calmingly against the skin. Then, Achilles declared:
“I want you to fuck me.”
Patroclus wheeled around, shoving down an upwelling of lust at the prospect. “Only hours ago you didn’t want to be touched,” he reminded, “and now you want me to—?”
“Yes,” was Achilles’ answer, eyes big and earnest. Patroclus groaned and clunked his head back, aiming for the headboard but getting only pillow. Then, “will you?”
“Sure,” Patroclus had to reply. “But I’ve never done that before.”
“We can Google it?” He even helpfully held out his phone.
“Right, we can Google ‘how to have gay penetrative anal s’—” Patroclus had to duck his head away, embarrassment stumbling his tongue. Softly, Achilles’ fingers tangled back into his, lying between their stomachs, and looking down Patroclus could see that they were both very excited about this idea. “I think—” He tried to clear the roughness from his throat, almost succeeded. “—I think I know enough to go on. We’ll take it easy.”
Achilles’ expression, when Patroclus looked, was definitely translatable to what if I don’t want it easy? But he still nodded gamely, rolling onto his back and shimmying off his pants. Just like that.
“Alright. What’s first?”
Readying himself with a loud exhale, Patroclus reached for his nightstand. “First, lube. Lots and lots of lube. And stretching.”
To Patroclus surprise, Achilles held his hand out, said, “great. Let me try.” His skin felt numb and hot when he let Achilles have the lube, watched Achilles coat a finger and reach beneath himself. “So do I just—?”
“—Yeah.” To his own ears, Patroclus sounded embarrassingly worked up. But thankfully, Achilles was far more concentrated on his task at hand (so to speak) and didn’t seem to notice. Patroclus felt his mouth go dry as he watched Achilles’ finger circle, tap tentatively around, then slowly, slowly disappear inside Achilles’ body, up to the second knuckle. He made himself ask, “how is it?”
“Honestly, I’m liking your reaction a lot more than I’m liking the feeling of this.” Achilles’ laugh was one of bravado, and Patroclus gave his free hand a reassuring squeeze. “Okay, maybe you should take over—”
“Wait, hang on.” Patroclus drew himself down to lie warm against Achilles’ side. With parted lips he licked his way into Achilles’ mouth, long and filthy draws of tongue, every trick Patroclus knew. Achilles’ chest swelled under his palm, and Patroclus brushed against his pectorals, the sensitive sides of his ribs. When Achilles finally sprawled, helplessly panting beneath him, Patroclus requested, “try again. Relax into it.”
He didn’t get up, kept watch on Achilles’ face instead. Watched the slight tremble of lips as Achilles obeyed, before his teeth clamped down and blood rushed. Watched the way Achilles’ eyes couldn’t seem to stay open or shut, lashes batting and squeezing and snapping oh so still. Watched Achilles work his jaw, a hypnotic twisting beneath skin drawn taut. Finally, Achilles let out a stream of air through pursed lips, and his eyes found Patroclus again.
“Okay, it’s better now.” There was still a note of dubiousness in his tone though, and after a moment he explained why. “It’s just feeling though. Like, I guess it’s nice, but I thought it’d be more than this?”
Oh, Patroclus would fix that. “That’s because,” he said, voice full of promise, “you don’t have the best angle.” He flashed Achilles a wicked grin as he sat up, gestured for the bottle. “My turn?”
Patroclus moved down between Achilles’ legs just as Achilles shoved up to his forearms, eager to watch the proceedings. Letting the lube warm in his palm, Patroclus kissed the inside of Achilles’ thigh, smiling against the skin. Swift-footed Achilles, he whispered, caressing the powerful muscles coiled beneath his touch, some version of tamed. When he pushed a finger in, Achilles barely squirmed, just realigned his spine. But Patroclus knew— he curved his finger in thorough, heated exploration and kept another touch on the pulse behind Achilles’ knee. Felt it speed up, felt the seismic shifts in Achilles’ whole body, but that wasn’t it, not yet. He was looking for—
A yelp escaped Achilles as his whole body shuddered, tipping over back onto one shoulder. He twisted at the waist and Patroclus’ touch slipped from the spot but Patroclus let it, drawing down into a warm wrap of arms around Achilles’ body.
“Oh shit,” Achilles breathed, “do that again.”
“Whatever you want,” Patroclus replied, tone infinitely more gleeful than servile. Oh he was going to make Achilles squirm. This time, when Patroclus went searching for that spot again, Achilles eagerly grinded back against him, hips bucking at contact and a long hiss of breath escaping between his teeth. Patroclus curled his finger, pressed harder, and shoved a knee beneath Achilles’ tailbone when Achilles lifted his hip, to keep Achilles’ bottom tilted up and fully visible. As Achilles caught his breath, Patroclus idly lapped at Achilles’ thigh, mouthing the pinked flesh.
“That is,” Achilles panted, a laugh escaping. “More. Definitely more.”
“Needy, needy,” Patroclus chastised, eyeing Achilles’ hard length, precome beading at the tip. He traced the seam between thigh and hip, digging his thumb into dusky flesh until Achilles keened, neck extending into a taut arch. “Hey,” he said softly, “want to see if you can come from this alone?”
Achilles’ breath stuttered. Patroclus brushed the flat of his thumb against Achilles’ entrance, the pressure gentle— then not so gentle. Licking his lips, Achilles nodded.
So Patroclus returned to his ministrations, two fingers in this time and plenty of lube. At this angle he had a clear view of Achilles’ face, heaving chest, the enticing stretch of Achilles’ pale inner thighs splayed wide on either side of his torso (sports and martial arts had ensured Achilles was very flexible, as Patroclus was quickly finding out). Patroclus delighted in the display, unconsciously rolling his own hips up against Achilles’. His fingers took up a slow pace, dragging in and out. He could only imagine what Achilles’ felt, as Achilles strived away, then frustratedly closer on his hand. Tendons bunched and abs rippled, Achilles knocking his head back with a groan.
“Up— bring your hand up more,” Achilles said, voice chesty and a little ruined. “Yeah that’s per— Harder. Right there.”
“Say please,” Patroclus asked delicately.
Patroclus obeyed. Four, five brutal shoves against his prostate had Achilles writhing, a whine coming from deep in his throat. He kicked flexed feet around Patroclus and yanked closer but Patroclus didn’t let up the onslaught. Didn’t let up until Achilles jerked all the way up, fingers dug bruisingly into Patroclus’ shoulders and pulling Patroclus close— but it was too late. Achilles came in pulses, clenching tight around Patroclus’ fingers, his face buried in Patroclus’ neck. Grinning, Patroclus kissed behind Achilles’ ear, tasted the shivers.
“How was that?” he asked, succeeding in a flippant, conversational tone. Achilles chuckled, keeping his hold on Patroclus.
“What, no gloating?”
“I was just being polite,” Patroclus said, like a teacher reading aloud a new vocabulary word. “Of course I’m going to gloat. That was awesome. You’re welcome.”
“Ten out of ten,” Achilles agreed. With a sigh of satisfaction, he straightened up, patting around them for the little plastic square Patroclus had tossed onto the bed earlier, alongside the lube. “You know, I really am fortunate.”
“Aside from the obvious reason?” Patroclus asked, amused. Achilles nodded in reply, his cheery grin a mystery until Patroclus felt the tug on his pants, Achilles’ hand wrapping around his erection.
“Yup,” Achilles said. His fingers were surprisingly deft in blindly rolling the condom onto Patroclus, and Patroclus gulped, diverting his gaze as he realized what Achilles was about to do. Stretching his fingers, still in Achilles, one last time, Patroclus let Achilles pull himself up, position himself above Patroclus. His smile was cheeky, but his eyes were all heat, wide and hungry. “I’m the lucky bastard that gets to come again.”
They both hissed when Achilles sank down onto Patroclus, managing only halfway before stilling, tremors running down his thighs. The heat was impossible, thick enough to choke on. Patroclus sealed his mouth over Achilles’ collarbone so he wouldn’t make any more embarrassing sounds, but Achilles had no such compunctions— swearwords escaped in a long stream from him, and Patroclus was momentarily worried. Until, when Patroclus tried to pull back, Achilles growled a negative and plunged lower.
“You are,” Patroclus declared hoarsely, “impossible.”
“Thank you,” Achilles replied with a toss of his now-sweaty hair, before baring all his teeth and seating all the way down, snug in Patroclus’ lap. As promised, he was hard again, a fluttering muscle straining in his abdomen. “Shit, I could get used to this.”
“I really have some bad news for you if you want this to last,” Patroclus admitted. Achilles seemed to take this as a compliment, and rolled his hip experimentally. “Seriously,” Patroclus said through clenched teeth. He was holding on by sheer force of will, and by the rake of nails in the small of Achilles’ back. “Give me a second.”
“I want to give you an orgasm,” Achilles corrected. Then, he kissed Patroclus on the lips, surprisingly chaste. “You’re so good to me.”
“For purely selfish reasons, I assure you. I just want you to tell everybody I’m the most phenomenal lover in the world.”
“I will,” Achilles promised, and the breathy earnestness in his voice was, strangely, what does it for Patroclus. That and the wicked pumps of Achilles’ hips. “Let me return the favor.”
So, his own pleasure cresting behind his stomach, Patroclus took the last handful of seconds push Achilles down, returning to their previous position and pushing Achilles’ knee all the way up to his shoulders. Achilles yielded so easy, and Patroclus’ hands were shaking as he drove into the rapturous heat beneath him. The ache was fierce, almost painful, and Achilles was rapidly melting into a squirming mess as Patroclus hit once more oversensitized nerves. Patroclus felt Achilles’ hand claw into his hair, yanking their foreheads together and all of a sudden Patroclus’ vision was entirely, entirely filled with Achilles’ eyes, fever-bright.
“Come,” Achilles ordered. So Patroclus did.
“I,” Patroclus declared, “hate this.”
“Odysseus is Satan, I told you,” Achilles replied in triumph.
“Can’t we go back to sleep?” Patroclus whined. “Or go back to having sex? That was nice.”
“Of course,” Achilles said magnanimously. “Just let me finish up this analysis real quick.”
“You’re almost done? Fuck you.” Ignoring Achilles’ cackle of you already have, Patroclus went to get a drink. Ever since Achilles started coming over, he had been filling his fridge and pantries with more sensible nourishment and foodstuffs, and now poured himself a mug of apple cider. It had started drizzling again when he first rolled out of bed (an omen if there ever was one, the universe told them doing homework was a bad idea), and Patroclus slid the mug into the microwave.
“Ooh, hot apple cider? Can I have a cup?” Achilles asked as he came up on the other side of the kitchen counter. Obligingly, Patroclus prepared him a cup as well, and sliding the steaming drink over, he was strangely reminded of the first time Achilles came over. How tense he had been then, compared to the comfort now sliding like a warm jacket over his whole body. Patroclus could not remember feeling this relaxed his entire life.
His gaze slid onto the lanyard and keycard Penthesilea had given him, sitting innocuously at the end of the counter. Sipping at his cider, Patroclus made a decision.
“I want to tell you something.” Maybe it was the sex, maybe it was the three AM magic of being untouchable by time— between them bubbled something honest and clear, gold like cider. Patroclus saw the truth because it was un-invisible. “How much do you know about what happened today?”
“Some,” Achilles admitted, frowning into his drink. “I shouldn’t have poked around— but I did.”
“So… the bleach?” Achilles nodded, and Patroclus wasn’t mad, not really. “What happened at lunch?”
Achilles lifted his head in confusion, and a plume of steam kissed his chin. “You know what happened at lunch? With Deidameia?”
“Who—? No. We’re talking about different things.” How could we be talking about different things? “Wait, so what happened with you at lunch?”
In his usual clothes, Achilles affected a much more severe silhouette, all crisp shoulder angles and geometric collars. Now however, in Patroclus’ clothes, there was a measure of softness, of pliability in his posture, not made ramrod straight by brand name stitching. The way he cupped the mug between both hands, pulling it close to his chest was even more endearing, and Patroclus was well on the way to forgiveness before Achilles even confessed.
“What Deidameia did— you should know, you running the tracks today changed everything, okay? She’s the blonde cheerleader who came up to us at the very end, right before we left.” When Patroclus nodded in recognition, Achilles swallowed and continued. “Well at lunch she was… trying to talk shit about you, I guess. I don’t know how you got on her radar but she was relentless, got the team pretty riled up.”
“About what?” Patroclus couldn’t quite banish the tension from his voice, and saw Achilles’ worried stare.
“You being gay,” Achilles answered quietly. “And our relationship. I said you’re my friend.”
“Is that what we are?” Patroclus asked dryly, but Achilles answered seriously anyways.
“You’re so much more than that.” That specter of truth like an entity between them, it wrote in the stream of Achilles’ breath Most Beloved. Patroclus gulped. Slowly, bravely, Patroclus wove their fingers together across the counter.
“So what does that have to do with—” Oh Achilles, always had to be involved. “You thought she was the one behind the bleach?”
“Deidameia’s ambitious,” Achilles warned, “and relentless, and sneaky when she wants to be.”
Sounds familiar, but Patroclus couldn’t say that without sounding just a little bit cruel. He tapped Achilles’ palm instead, quirked a smile.
“Thank you for keeping an eye out for me,” he allowed. “But that’s it, okay? I want to handle this on my own.”
A part of Patroclus wanted to apologize for keeping it from Achilles, but he also knew doing that was as good as saying I couldn’t trust that you wouldn’t get involved. Which Achilles did anyways, but Patroclus believed (honestly, truly believed) that Achilles meant well. He always did, when it came to Patroclus.
And so Achilles nodded, solemn though looking a little tortured. “What else happened at lunch?” he asked. “Will you tell me?”
“Yes, but you’ve got to promise.”
“I promise I won’t do anything you didn’t ask me to about this case.” Despite sounding morose, Achilles still looked up hopefully, as if asking was that good? Patroclus patted him assuringly on the head.
“Okay well, I thought I knew who did it, she as good as confessed and everything.”
Expecting a reaction like Diomedes’, Patroclus readied himself for some instinctive rebuff. But good ole Achilles and his hardwired faith in Patroclus— he immediately frowned in outrage and turned to glare at the keycard.
“What the hell,” he snapped. “Was it revenge for Ajax? I think I see them buddying around sometimes.”
“Are you using that as a euphemism for sex?” Patroclus asked incredulously. But of course Achilles wasn’t— his confused expression relayed that much— he was physically incapable of retaining more than two personal facts about anyone he didn’t particularly care for. “But I don’t know, I guess. I confronted her about it and she did seem to have… stuff going on with Ajax—”
“Hang on, you confronted her?” Achilles’ voice had somehow simultaneously gone shrill in distress and taken on a key of impressed. His eyes raked up and down Patroclus’ body but not in a fun way, and Patroclus had to poke his cheek to get Achilles to stop the motherhenning. “Did you fight? Are you alright? I didn’t see any bruises earlier—”
“No we didn’t fight— she kind of punched a locker but that was it. It wasn’t even aimed in my direction.”
“…Regardless.” Achilles was back to outrage again, hand clenched in a righteous fist on the countertop. “We’ll stop her.”
“Well you see, that’s the thing.” When he came home to change before returning to the track earlier that day, Patroclus had some time to think about his confrontation with Penthesilea. How strange the whole thing was. “She talked like she was the one that did it but something was… off.” He slanted a look up at Achilles. “Diomedes said Penthesilea’s one of the good ones.”
“Diomedes knows shit,” was Achilles’ immediate response. Patroclus bit back a smile.
“But honestly, I wanted to ask you.” Achilles was competitive and critical, could see the worst in everybody— but Achilles was also a good man, would never sling undue denunciation at those who didn’t deserve it. “Before I told you this, do you think Penthesilea could’ve done this? That she’s someone who would sneak around for her revenge? Take action on a complete misunderstanding?”
“I don’t know her that well,” Achilles said warily. Patroclus clasped his hand tighter, asking for honesty.
“Neither do I, but from two conversations I know she’s tough, she’s upfront, she’s protective, and she hates violence. She also cares a lot about her team.”
“She’s really good at what she does,” Achilles conceded. “Does extra training, always shows to practice. She’s got a loud voice, so she leads the school chants at meets sometimes— she does care about the team a lot.”
“Cares enough to cover for a teammate who did it?”
Achilles blinked, then nodded in growing comprehension. And Patroclus nodded too, in determination.
“Alright then. Guess I’ll go to practice again tomorrow.”
In memory of LMM, Pippa, Leslie, Ari, and Nick leaving Hamilton tonight. I didn't know I was going to get emotional but god did I get emotional about that.
Thank you for all the congratulations on making research assistant, by the way! My next week is frighteningly loaded, but I'll be writing as much as possible as fast as possible I promise. I got the end of this arc planned, a weird little interlude arc (FOR DIOMEDES) and the next arc in my head. Dear god, will I really finish this by the end of summer??? (And check out the tags I added lmao.)
Drop a comment, share some love.
Chapter 17: In the details with the devil
oops, the chapter in which everyone is upset
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The presentation actually went without a hitch. Patroclus’ and Achilles’, at any rate. Patroclus’ performance on the field yesterday turned out to be the invincibility power-up that kept them gliding through the morning, and Achilles’ teammates were good enough sports to grant Patroclus the same audience loyalty they gave Achilles— laughing and good-natured heckling abounded, to the point where even Odysseus, sitting at the back of the room, didn’t hide his incredulous expression. Patroclus had a rather deadpan presentation style, statements and analysis clipped clean and neat, woven with the occasional joke that startled the audience into laughter even after he’d moved on. Achilles was full of hyperbole and facetious equivocations that he delivered with sly smirks and pointed eye contact; he took the wedding scene and had the class in stitches by the time they finished. Odysseus waved them off with a decidedly amused touch to his expression, and Patroclus gave Achilles a smile well done when they sat down.
The trouble came with Diomedes’ presentation. Had Achilles been paying a little more attention, he might’ve heard the terseness in Diomedes’ introduction, seen the streak of cruelty in Diomedes’ eyes. However, having just chatted with a relatively cheery Diomedes that morning, Achilles was not expecting anything… messy.
By messy he meant the presentation starting with Menestheus floundering his way through the first scene, Diomedes offering nothing by way of lifeline. By messy he meant Diomedes not stopping there, taking his half of the presentation to not only glide through his own scene but also refer back to Menestheus’ scene with evidence disproving Menestheus’ claims. By messy he meant the show Diomedes made of distancing himself from Menestheus, clearly showing who did what work deserving what grade. Theirs was the last presentation for the period and thankfully, the bell rang the moment Diomedes finished, saving the class from any overt reactions. Menestheus stormed off in a humiliated flurry, pursued by some other frowning athletes, and Odysseus, looking none-too-happy himself, waved Diomedes over.
Behind Achilles, Patroclus was making a show of slowly gathering his things. Achilles had no such compunctions, blatantly staring from his side of the room.
“Rough morning?” Odysseus asked, the sarcasm heavy in his voice. It was nevertheless a genuine question though, somehow, because Diomedes’ hair was still damp from showering after that morning’s basketball practice. Diomedes didn’t let his body language obviously telegraph any discomfort, but the way he slightly shifted his bag was an aborted tell.
“No, I’m good.” Diomedes’ smile was disingenuous at best, and Achilles could tell he was trying to shake something off.
Beside Achilles, Patroclus leaned in and whispered, “he thought Menestheus did the bleach thing.”
“But he knows about Penthesilea?” Achilles whispered back, and apprehensively, Patroclus nodded.
Odysseus wasn’t someone Achilles could read or predict very well— so it was a genuine shock to hear him say, “well good job, you really showed me that you understood the play.” And it was even more of a rude surprise to register the flatness and even irritation in his tone. Achilles had no idea what to do with that sudden left hook, and Patroclus dropped all pretense, mouth falling open and head snapping around.
Diomedes, for his part, looked like someone sucker punched him and he was left gasping for air. He stared at Odysseus for a long while, processing the blow, and Achilles could pinpoint the moment he understood the abrupt, total censure— Diomedes ducked his head and stumbled a step back, his ears a dark and violent red.
“Sorry,” he muttered before taking off. Patroclus went after him, and Achilles lingered only long enough to shoot Odysseus a dirty look. Achilles found them outside on the balcony where they usually ate lunch, Diomedes’ bag tossed to the floor and his expression aggressively blank. Patroclus stood by, a hand on the back of his neck, and the moment Achilles arrived he looked over, S.O.S. written clear on his face.
So Achilles asked, “what’s the deal with Menestheus?”
Anger bled back into Diomedes’ eyes, and Diomedes told them the whole story:
“After I left basketball practice yesterday, I texted him to meet up so we can finish this presentation. I mean, I already knew I’d be doing all the work, but I figured I should know whatever pretension he makes at so nothing catches me really off-guard, y’know? So he says he’s still on campus, that I should wait for him out by the gym, he’s just grabbing his stuff from the locker room. I bump into Deidameia, who tells me Patroclus here kicked ass on the tracks— congrats man, by the way. She said you were awesome.”
Achilles exchanged glances with Patroclus, before waving for Diomedes to go on. (Which Diomedes didn’t do until Patroclus noticed the fist he was holding out, and bumped it.)
“So Menestheus comes out, and I wasn’t going to say anything, seriously. But some guys from the team came through, all angry and pissed on his behalf so I called out their shit, y’know? And so Menestheus flips out— now Pat, you don’t know this guy, so understand that I use ‘flip out’ very loosely, ‘cause he’s rather the pathetic type. When he gets angry, his voice goes all high and breathy and he just sort of gasps these ridiculous arguments at you. You try to talk reason to him and he won’t hear it, he just keeps wheezing out shitty, predictable responses that makes you want to punch him in the face—”
“Oh my god—”
“I did not punch him in the face, c’mon man, have some faith in me. But he is spewing all this homophobic crap, so I straight up tell him, calm down and let it go, or you’re on your own for this project. You asshole. So he sneers and says, I bet you’re sucking his cock, and so I bounced. Didn’t see him or talk to him until that presentation.”
At the mention of the presentation, gloom floated back over Diomedes like a cloud. Achilles felt compelled to say something.
“Odysseus doesn’t know shit man,” he said, scowling.
“But he’s right to be pissed,” said Diomedes morosely, “that was childish of me. And I did the one thing he expressly told me not to do, so. He hates me.” With a loud, angry groan, he scrubbed harshly at his face and turned back to Patroclus. “Well anyways, how are you? I’ve been meaning to say since this morning but you’ve got a glow, like a pregnant person. So does Achilles. Now gee, I wonder if your respective glows have anything to do with each other’s? And the fact that you two arrived at school pointedly separate from each other this morning? And the fact that Achilles is wearing your shirt, which he thinks is cleverly hidden underneath yesterday’s jacket and the scarf I left in his locker on like, the second day of school?”
“Well,” Patroclus drawled, though there was a telling flush on his neck, “sounds like you got us all figured out.”
After a moment of looking back and forth between them, Diomedes held out both hands for high-fives, cheering rather ardently, “nice.” Achilles slapped his hand with gusto, and Patroclus did the same beside him, albeit with a little more incredulity.
“And oh, I told Achilles what’s up, kind of,” Patroclus said, scratching at his head. When Diomedes looked over, Achilles nodded confirmation. There came down a warm, but stern grip on Achilles' arm, and Patroclus’ expression matched. “But he’s promised to let me handle this.”
“Did he?” Diomedes asked, sounding delighted. “Must be true love.”
When all Achilles did was raise an eyebrow, Patroclus cleared his throat and pulled out the lanyard and keycard. Diomedes fixed it with an interested stare.
“Hey, you got one too. Agamemnon likes you— you really must’ve kicked ass. I’m sorry to have missed it.”
“Penthesilea gave it to me.” Diomedes’ eyes widened at the name, and Patroclus continued meaningfully, “she also told me there was conditioning on Wednesday mornings.”
“Oh. Oh. Yeah, of course.” Achilles understood the same time Diomedes did, and they mutually slapped each other’s forearms in half-realization, half-exasperation that they didn’t realize this from the get-go. Patroclus looked strangely between them, until Diomedes explained. “When I don’t have to make practice at 7, I always get here at 7:30, no earlier. You know why? ‘Cause all the doors are locked until then. I should’ve known— for someone to get into the school any earlier, it’s gotta be through the gym.”
“And there’s a record of everyone who carded in on Wednesday morning,” Achilles finished with an approving nod.
“Great.” Patroclus looked on the brink of relief, an answer within reach. Achilles didn’t have the heart to tell him that all of their current suspects could be on that list— Penthesilea and Menestheus on weights, Deidameia leading cheer practice. “How do I get access to that record?”
“Coach Ajax, or his computer at any rate,” Diomedes answered. “I helped digitize his files for a bit, so I know his login and everything. I’ll just pop over during lunch and print out—”
“No, tell me, I can go get it.”
Diomedes’ mouth snapped shut, and he blinked at Patroclus.
“Well, don’t you think it’s less suspicious if I do it—?”
“I’ll be fine.” Patroclus’ expression was mulishly set. “Diomedes, you’ve already done enough for me, I can take it from here.”
Diomedes glanced over at Achilles, and Patroclus followed suit. His frown said, you promised. Achilles only vaguely understood Patroclus’ aversion to Diomedes helping him, and the thought that Patroclus might do everything by himself now, refusing even their friends’ assistance, sent a chill through Achilles’ bones. He seriously considered the merits of arguing sensibility with Patroclus (because didn’t Patroclus see, whatever concerns or pride that was making him deny Diomedes would only result in higher stakes and more danger), but ultimately swallowed down his protests, nodding warily at Diomedes.
(It was also that moment that Achilles, consciously or not, decided against telling Patroclus about Iphigenia’s involvement.)
So Diomedes shrugged. “Okay then. If you’re gonna do it, actually, don’t sneak in. The keycard system is not shared or anything, it’s only on his computer, so just tell him the principal sent you to fetch it for reference.”
“Reference for what?” Patroclus asked, confused.
“Uh, the security company’s check-up and troubleshooting.”
“So I lie?” At Diomedes’ confirming nod, Patroclus pursed his lips. “Won’t he find out?”
At this, both Diomedes and Achilles snorted, shaking their heads.
“Don’t worry,” Achilles assured. “Coach Ajax hates all things bureaucratic. You mention the principal or the board of regents and he’ll do anything to shut you up, and he very strictly avoids everybody who wears suits.”
“Are you sure?” Patroclus said dubiously. “If I’m going to lie, shouldn’t I at least say Odysseus? He’ll probably cover for me.”
“Do not,” Diomedes said grimly, “mention Odysseus to Coach Ajax under any circumstances. Or vice versa. There’s a lot of salt between them. A lot of salt.”
Coach Ajax wasn’t in his office at lunch, so Patroclus didn’t actually get his hands on the list until after school. The day passed in a weird form of bliss, the joking around (Patroclus got many, many congratulations on his stunt on the tracks yesterday) and having fun (Briseis had somehow induced Patroclus had sex as well, and that lunch, Patroclus learned just how dirty a mind and mouth his best friend had) feeling rather novelesque, in the sense of suspended disbelief. Like there was an elephant’s corpse everyone was collectively ignoring— or like everyone had almost successfully forgotten about it, and were laughing just a bit too loudly to keep from remembering. Or Patroclus was sort of projecting. He fought the anxiety all day, doing his best to avoid the athletes in the hall (all of them, even the well-wishing ones looking at him with new approval), rehearsing what he was going to say to Coach Ajax over and over in his head.
The result was rather anticlimactic. Coach Ajax was incredibly tall and incredibly broad when Patroclus met him at the door, but the moment Patroclus worked through his dry mouth to tell him the principal needed the list, Ajax folded himself down with a grimace in front of his computer.
“Say no more,” Ajax said, voice strangely melodic in its deadpan. The office descended into silence as he booted up his computer, slowly but surely typing in his login. Refraining from clearing his throat, Patroclus looked around, taking in the certifications and trophies around him. Aikido, Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu, Krav Maga. The martial arts were listed neatly on a portion of a single wall, while the trophies were— upon closer inspection— victories of the various sports teams he had a hand in coaching. Pictures of teams and team members (Patroclus could pick out Diomedes in a couple, dressed in basketball jerseys) were plastered over the walls. It wasn’t the overt and oppressive glittering display of athletic ego Patroclus had been expecting. He scratched the back of his head, unsure what to do with this information.
“So.” Patroclus spun around at Ajax’s voice, and found the man calmly regarding him. “You’re the runner everyone’s talking about? My basketball team showed me a video of you running against Achilles. You almost matched him.”
“He went easy against me,” Patroclus said weakly. Ajax inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“But Coach Agamemnon still decided to let you on the team.”
The printer in the dustiest corner of the room (which is saying a lot; a fine sheen of dust covered almost everything, like Ajax really didn’t have much use for this office) whirred to life and sputtered out two pieces of paper, both of which Ajax handed to Patroclus.
“First sheet’s for the principal, second sheet’s for you,” Ajax explained. “It’s a liability form for keycard possession. Sign it, turn it in upstairs. Students usually have to put in request forms for the keycards, there’s still a line to process those— count yourself lucky.”
Lucky. He said it like he meant talented, or maybe worth it. That recognition alone startled Patroclus into flat out disbelief; he must be misreading something, or had missed some cue. He cringed away from the weirdly familiar, weirdly warm look in Ajax’s eyes, took the sheets of paper and started toward the door. “Thank you,” he only just remembered to mumble, before escaping the office altogether.
The list was actually of little help. Patroclus should’ve seen this coming, but a familiar set of names jumped out at him: Menestheus, Deidameia, Cassandra, Penthesilea. There were six other names, but Patroclus recognized none of them. He wondered if he should ask Penthesilea.
Penthesilea. She was an odd situation on her own. Despite having said to Achilles what he did about her, Patroclus was actually still on the fence. He had no idea what to make of her supposed motives, her overture to help (giving him potential evidence against herself, nonetheless)— there’s an overall air of forthrightness in her conduct, but any actual facts about her were completely opaque, as far as Patroclus was concerned. A frown prickled at his brow at the thought of Penthesilea’s glare or her sheer height, but he still wanted to speak to her again.
Patroclus bumped into Diomedes and Polyxena as he exited the office and into the gym. School had barely ended but Diomedes and his jersey were already covered in sweat— it took Patroclus a moment to remember Diomedes had a free seventh. Polyxena was dressed in exercise clothes as well, looking far fresher as she idly stretched her arms back and forth.
“You got the list?” Diomedes greeted, bouncing a basketball. The distinctive sound of basketball-on-gym-floor echoed throughout the room, giving cover and making the words sound soft in comparison. “Let’s see it.”
As Diomedes and Polyxena bent over the list, it occurred to Patroclus to mention, “Cassandra was also there that morning.”
“Yeah, she’s working on a new cheer routine—” Polyxena answered casually before the implication sunk in. She lifted her head, blinked at Patroclus with no offense or defensiveness. “Cassandra wouldn’t do something like that.”
“You know I love you, babe, but your sister’s a weirdo,” Diomedes chimed in, offering an apologetic grimace. “And, be real, don’t you think someone could’ve persuaded her to do it?”
“No,” Polyxena replied, sounding unconvinced herself. Patroclus had a moment of déjà vu, the sisters’ opinions of each other remarkably similar. But Polyxena shook her head, mouth set in a more serious line. “She really isn’t the type to do something like that— at least, not without being more transparent.”
“She was the one to confront me yesterday at lunch,” Patroclus reluctantly reminded. Polyxena was looking more and more frustrated, though it was not directed at Patroclus— she ended up tossing her head back, as if to physically cast off her troubles with a loud grunt.
“Okay, I’ll talk to her,” Polyxena decided, which was absolutely not the conclusion Patroclus wanted from her. But before he could say anything, she had slapped his arm and began to jog away. “Come to practice, we’re waiting for you.”
Patroclus turned to Diomedes, struggling. “Tell her not to talk to Cassandra.”
Diomedes snorted, rolling his eyes. “You tell her not to talk to Cassandra. Now get going. You have to log five hours a week with Agamemnon if you want to join the track team.”
There were many things Patroclus wanted to say, like but you’re her friend or I don’t want to join the track team. But what ultimately came out was a question: “How about you? Aren’t you on the track team?”
Dropping into a crouch, Diomedes flashily dribbled the ball between his squeaking sneakers, making fighting faces at Patroclus. “Basketball season’s up first, dude. Coach Ajax got Agamemnon to cut me slack on track training, so you haven’t seen me on the field yet.”
“How many hours do you need?” Patroclus asked, impressed.
“Four and a half.” At Patroclus’ expression, Diomedes guffawed, holding the ball out between them in a conspiratorial gesture. “You didn’t hear it from me, but Coach Ajax does not have a way with words.”
Maybe it was Diomedes’ suddenly susceptible tone, or maybe it was the way Diomedes’ gaze goes unfocused in thought— but it clued Patroclus in on a silent addition at the end: unlike Odysseus. Patroclus wondered when he got to know Diomedes well enough to hear things in the silence. He also wondered if he had completely misunderstood, so he offered a tentatively sympathetic pat on the arm. Diomedes started dribbling again, returning Patroclus’ gesture with a relaxed grin.
“I’ll join you at four thirty, so save the grand shows for me.”
Agamemnon entirely ignored Patroclus all throughout practice. Instead, he put Achilles through countless drills and form exercises, blowing his whistle sharply every time Achilles made to approach Patroclus to start him on something new. Achilles was looking more and more murderous with every refrain of this, the harsh exercise putting color in his cheeks but not diminishing his speediness at all. In fact, Patroclus actually thought Achilles was pushing himself to go even faster, in hopes that he’d finish the drill before Agamemnon’s attention returned, so he could finally talk to Patroclus.
In the mean time, Patroclus tried to clock all the suspects on his list. Penthesilea was leading a series of push-ups and mountain climbers on the grass, the cheerleaders were stretching off to one side. When the day’s training began, it was Idomeneus, who had been friendly in his approach to Patroclus yesterday, who guided Patroclus through the exercises. The drills before taking on hurdles were tough, left Patroclus breathless and aching, but he completed them all without falling a single step behind. Menestheus and a couple of others glared at him from the back, but nothing came of it— it surprised Patroclus to recognize two athletes from his Lit class, bracketing him in protection again as the team stood in neat rows for stretches.
He tried to make conversation with one of them— Sthenelus, on his left, the chattier of the two. However, he delivered only perfunctory responses, nothing that could be mistaken for friendly , before going silent to ostensibly focus on his form. When Patroclus turned to Euryalus, he looked away as well. A rude discomfort sat at the base of Patroclus’ chest, and he wanted to snap at Achilles or Diomedes— whoever was responsible— that he didn’t need nursemaids. In fact, if Menestheus or whoever flat out jumped him, it would actually make the entire situation simpler.
At around four-fifteen, the runners called a break as everyone started setting up the hurdles. They left one lane clear for Achilles, jogging round and round at dizzying constancy. Patroclus took to the bleachers, watching Achilles’ hair tumble through the air, ponytail whipping back and forth across his neck and shoulders. The exercise and humidity ensured that his shirt was plastered tight against his form, and Patroclus suddenly remembered digging his fingers into Achilles’ back, the sensuous give of skin and muscle.
“You’re Patroclus, right?”
Patroclus quickly swung around, clearing his throat. A pretty blonde stood in front of him, in color-coordinated tights, sports bra, a thin shirt covering the rest of her toned body. She had a pretty smile.
“I’m Deidameia,” she said, and Patroclus had already known.
“I remember you from yesterday,” Patroclus said, for lack of anything else to say. Deidameia cocked her head like a bird.
“Has Achilles told you about me?”
“Other people have told me about you,” Patroclus carefully diverted. Tucking an artfully loosened strand of hair behind her ear, Deidameia sighed sorrowfully.
“What have you heard?” Her weak smile, the drape of her wrist that was intent on playing the victim— it rather had the opposite effect, and made Patroclus annoyed. So he parroted the words he had heard from Briseis earlier that day:
“That you’re a brat.”
Deidameia’s effeminate façade dropped, and for a moment their eyes held each other’s in tense assessment. Patroclus hadn’t spoken with malice, let the accusation do the prodding for him; see what snakes he could beat from the bush. There was a part of him that was infinitely tired of the intricate, political, twisted plotting that came from minds like Achilles and Deidameia, so he struck first to stop the chance of subtle ensnarement. Deidameia gave up her illusion of genteelness and Patroclus noticed she had very sharp canines under her red lips.
She struck like a viper.
“I don’t want you on my team,” she said, voice even and gliding like a storm cloud. “You don’t know us, you’ll never be one of us. Look at you— your hair’s disgusting, your skin’s awful, your legs are too short for your body. You get into fights, you got expelled from your last school. Tell the truth, you’re only here because you want to get into Achilles’ pants, and for some wild reason he’s giving you the time of day. Newsflash, he’s straight. I’ve known him for three years and he’s as straight as they come. I’ve never even seen him look sideways at a guy.”
Patroclus couldn’t get any words past his throat, in fear of his hopeless laughter escaping as well. Deidameia seemed to take his speechlessness as a wound, and crossed her arms triumphantly.
“And also,” she said, “he’s mine. Everyone knows it, so back off.”
“He’s yours?” Patroclus asked. “How so?”
“We’re practically dating,” she answered. “Our parents are good friends; if Achilles and I got married it would be very beneficial for his mother’s lawfirm.”
Patroclus had no idea whether or not that was true, and he had done a double take at Deidameia’s jump in logic. “Married?” He was perplexed, and thoughtlessly blurted, “he doesn’t even like you.”
A dark flush of shame came violently to Deidameia’s cheeks, and her French manicure disappeared into a fist. “He likes me fine,” she spat. “And running aside, he’s just like all the other boys anyways. After we win the championship we’ll celebrate, and then we’ll sleep together, and then I’ll say he knocked me up and he has to marry me.”
…Talk about twisted. Though actually, as Patroclus recovered from this particular revelation, he thought it was rather a simple plan. One that spat on other cases of real, accidental teenage pregnancies, sure, but a simple one nonetheless.
There was, however, one thing Patroclus didn’t understand. “So why did you try to convince everybody he and I were already fucking?” The blunt words escaped him like a defensive shield, and he saw Deidameia’s lip curl in disgust. But he hardly cared if she thought him uncouth— he wanted to know why she hadn’t stopped at attacking Patroclus, but also went after Achilles.
“Well nobody knew you could run, did they?” she replied tartly. “Listen, Achilles is the love of my life. Yesterday, I grew jealous, because despite a flawless exterior, deep down I’m an insecure teenage girl, worried the boy she loves is going to run off on her. So I lashed out, I didn’t mean it— that’s what everybody will be saying by the end of today.”
Patroclus deciphered the story behind her confident delivery and read the truth: she had miscalculated. She had probably thought waiting for Achilles was just a bit too risky an end game, and wanted to take the chance to score an earlier finale— but Patroclus’ appearance on the field had shoved a wrench, an entire tow truck into that plan. The prevalent story now was that Achilles had recruited the new kid for track, because the new kid was fast— the gay and expulsion things were, for once, largely forgotten, in face of Patroclus proving his skill. Now Deidameia was rapidly backtracking onto her old story, where she was the darling, pining cheerleader with a pure and steady heart, waiting for Achilles to finally settle his ambition, turn around, and see that she’s been there all along. Patroclus was horrified.
“You really can back off now,” Deidameia continued softly. “Honestly, you and I both know Achilles only paid you attention because you run fast; that boy’s so competitive sometimes, honestly. He’ll never, ever sleep with you— and, what, have you got plans past that? Maybe fantasized about dating him, going to prom with him, post an inspirational facebook status about all your trials and tribulations, but you got the boy in the end, it gets better? Do yourself a favor and forget about it already. When it really comes down to it, who do you think he’ll pick? I’m an heiress of an international company, I have a trust, his mother loves me— and who are you again? The disgraced son of some oil tycoon?”
Patroclus prayed and prayed that his expression didn’t let up any of the shaken turmoil in his gut. He gritted his teeth, let himself look back out at Achilles again, drink in Achilles’ form and hair and face full of sweat, his expression dark and mutinous— it lent Patroclus a kind of strength, the confidence of heedless teens on whom time had only the slipperiest hold. So he breathed, remembered Achilles spine, in both a pliant arch and in steely strength, and turned to Deidameia.
“You are a brat,” he said, nodding in agreement with Briseis. “You’re petty, and sly— and a bully. You want me out of your way? Is that why you poured bleach in my locker?”
There was no skipped beat, no time for even anticipation— steady as a metronome a benign smile flooded Deidameia’s face.
“Someone poured bleach in your locker?”
It was Polyxena, urgently waving him down from the bleachers. Deidameia hummed perfunctorily.
“My, what’s got her all riled up?”
Achilles, with ears like a bat, had heard the call as well, and was making a beeline off the tracks. He met Patroclus halfway, and Polyxena was about two yards ahead of them, hurriedly gesturing toward the locker room.
“Diomedes went down to the pool,” she was blathering, elbows at nervous angles at her side. “He says he’ll grab all he can but you should tell him all the important stuff you’re missing—”
Polyxena’s words buzzed into static approximately three seconds after Patroclus entered the locker room. Ripped up paper littered the floor, the trampled cover of a notebook and the spine of a textbook in a puddle. Only an hour ago, Patroclus had slid his bag, all his stuff into an empty locker. Foolishly left it without a lock, like so many others had. That locker had been in a corner, he remembered, the third bank on the left, and when he made his way there— sure enough, the door ajar, inside a mess of paper and cloth. The clothes Patroclus had changed out of for exercise wear, he recognized, shredded beyond salvation. His notebooks, homework, folders— drawn and quartered, the debris everywhere.
Behind him, breaths, angry words, the sound of water dripping. It took a surprisingly amount of effort to turn his head, see Achilles with a hand twisted in Diomedes’ shirt, Diomedes sopping wet from head to toe, Diomedes holding out a familiar bag. Patroclus’ bag. And in Diomedes’ hand was Patroclus’ phone. Both were wet, both dripping water, the sound loud and echoing in the room.
“Everybody was out on the field today,” he heard Achilles say. “She knew the locker rooms would be empty.”
“Deidameia was talking to me,” he heard himself reply, the voice removed like a recording. “Did she have the time?”
“We’ll find out,” Achilles swore, and no, that was the last thing Patroclus wanted. Achilles had promised he wouldn’t get involved. He told Achilles as much, stared down the refusal in Achilles’ face until Achilles looked away, lips bit white. But Achilles recovered quickly, gathering the larger chunks of Patroclus’ papers from the floor. He said in that earnest, storm-weathering way he had, “it’ll be fine. We’ll fix it. We can tape the pages together, recopy the notes, I’ll come over and help—”
And that was too much. It was all. Too. Much. Patroclus neatly sidestepped Achilles and made for the door, avoiding every pair of pitying eyes, a burning mix of humiliation and frustration high in his throat. He just wanted this to be over, wanted Achilles to stop helping him because that wasn’t a good relationship, unequal in power and disparate in footing. He wanted to prove to Achilles that he was just as capable of handling his own messes, but here was the universe laughing in his face, holding a cold bucket of water overhead.
“I’m going home,” he said quietly to Achilles’ chest.
“No.” Water was still dripping, and Diomedes and Polyxena were still listening. Patroclus wondered if he cared. “Just leave me alone.”
*Ajax the Greater is mostly a defensive fighter? So I googled more defensive forms of martial arts and gave it to him. He's this ridiculously tall and broad Thai man in my mind, with incongruous doe eyes, a soft spot for his kids, and a never dying hatred for Odysseus.
*I reread Deidameia's scene in TSoA to get a feel, but I'll admit I think I wrote her more like Jokaste from the Captive Prince trilogy? Or lowkey Nicaise. The exchange where Patroclus goes "you ARE a brat" was straight up Damen!Pat. OOP.
Ah, Diomedes. Ah, Patroclus. My children, I keep hurting them. The resolution is coming speedily, I promise.
Chapter 18: The ringing in my ears gets violent
Here we go folks, the last chapter of this arc. (Excuses at the end.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was a call from Arcadia’s principal’s office around five-thirty. It was a number all the students entered into their phones during top of the year orientation, and for about four rings, Patroclus wondered if he had to pick up. Could he be in trouble? Principal Penelope… Patroclus had little memory of what the woman looked like, but had a strangely strong impression of her voice, low and a little hoarse, but not in an unpleasant way. A voice like it operated on a different radio station than everybody else’s, distinct and demanding in its presence.
The ringing stopped, and his phone beeped into voicemail. Patroclus dragged himself off the couch and made his way to the kitchen, gaze sifting listlessly through boxes of cereal, a couple of apples that are reddening into overripe territory, two mugs in the dish drying rack. The little reminders of Achilles, at this moment, grated— they offered him no escape or solace from the situation at school. He didn’t want to go over to the senior center in this state either, his guts roiling at the thought of the well intentioned, yet humiliating coddling he’d be subject to.
Mind abuzz, Patroclus picked up his phone for a distraction, and ended up listening to the voicemail anyways. The principal’s voice, slightly tinny but otherwise exactly how Patroclus remembered, came through.
“Hello Patroclus, this is Penelope calling from the Arcadia principal’s office. I just heard about the situation in the gym locker room today and called to assure you our school does not tolerate any kind of bullying, and we would like to work with you to ensure a speedy and efficient stop to these incidents. I will be in my office until 6:30 tonight, please give me a call back at your earliest convenience to schedule a meeting. I will also be in the office tomorrow morning at 7:00, feel free to drop in then as well.”
The message offered very little by way of actual assurance for Patroclus. He was essentially being called to the principal’s office— he could only be glad that this didn’t happen during school hours, where the call might’ve come over the PA system or been delivered by a scowling teacher in front of a whole class. And really, what was the principal to do anyways? Nobody knew who was behind the incidents, and Patroclus hardly needed yet another horrible, embarrassing reputation as that kid who couldn’t deal with his own problems, who went sniffling to the principal. He wouldn’t call back, he wouldn’t go to the office at all if he could help it.
His phone buzzed in his palm, and when Patroclus saw it was a text from Achilles he almost threw the phone across the room. A sour, unfair resentment bubbled in his chest toward Achilles, and as much as Patroclus hated it he couldn’t exactly turn it off— he needed time to work through it, process his emotions and return to his senses. So he answered Achilles’ text (practice is done; can I come over?) as fairly but coolly as he could (probably not the best idea. I’ll see you tomorrow at school). And then he threw his phone across the room, watched it bounce unsatisfyingly onto the bed.
So the thing was: this itch of tears in his throat, the threat of fright that he refused to recognize by name, the boneless agitation in his knees down to his pinky toes, it was all familiar. It was all déjà vu, the unpleasant slap of a visceral memory from a past self. Clysonymus. Locris. Wire fences and dusty red shrubs, Clysonymus’ bedroom with all the NFL collectibles and his proud smile and his prouder father who liked his sons straight. Clysonymus who liked to be straight too, in the worst ways. A girl in yellow ribbons at the bottom of the hill and a boy tumbling onto the strip of black highway. Patroclus had seen this particular movie far too many times, had the reel ironed onto his retinas— but clearly life couldn’t resist a shitty sequel. Rewind. Play.
Patroclus wanted to cry, wanted to hit something. Wanted to hit himself, smack some sense into his brain and find a solution. An unpleasant voice in his head (his own voice, grating and distorted) reminded him he didn’t find a solution back in Locris either. Perhaps it was better that this time, he didn’t know who was behind it, because look at what happened when he did know the culprit. Clysonymus had been comatose for thirty hours, and Patroclus was the one responsible. But, even driven to exile, Patroclus had somehow found his way back into hot waters. Good god, he caused trouble everywhere he went. A self-deprecating sneer on his lips (and another sneer, an eye roll for the truly disgusting amounts of self-pitying he was stooping to, fuck but he hated himself just now), Patroclus sunk back onto his couch, pulled a cushion over his face.
No sleep deigned to relieve his mind, of course, and Patroclus listened to the clock tick half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half away. His phone buzzed several times, but he could make no effort to reach it, didn’t want to. Night settled like a pall, and when seven-thirty rolled around he still couldn’t get up, until a loud knock came at his door.
Patroclus’ first thought was panic. Sheer panic at having to see anybody in his current numb, dark state. Second thought was anger, because who else could that be but Achilles? He had already told Achilles not to come, but of course his wishes went ignored. Such was the way of rich, talented, handsome blond men, he supposed. Powered by this sudden sweep of rage, Patroclus made for the door, and was angrily twisting open the lock when he heard:
“Pat, let me and all this takeout in before my arms fall off. Shit I had a bad day at work, let me eat my feelings and bitch, please.”
That was definitely not Achilles. Anger stymied, Patroclus (more hesitantly) opened the door for Briseis, who stormed in with three plastic bags angrily billowing about her. She brought with her the delicious scent of— Patroclus smelled both pasta and sweet and sour sauce. Italian and Chinese, Briseis’ two favorite cuisines. Today must’ve been really bad for her to indulge like this.
Setting the bags down, Briseis turned to Patroclus, wrinkling her nose at him. “You smell like gym socks,” she declared bluntly. “Please go shower.”
“Sure,” Patroclus found himself replying, “want me to leave the door open so you can yell about things while I wash?”
“Actually,” Briseis said, brightening, “yes. Do.”
So with a slightly amused huff, Patroclus obeyed, Briseis starting in on her rant as he went around gathering clothes. It really was a terrible story, some asshole old man ordering the wrong thing for himself and taking it out on the waitress who could do nothing— but it strangely brought a smile to Patroclus’ lips. Briseis’ voice, lilting in its narration, was a sudden injection of life into the dark haze that had crept into the corners of Patroclus’ vision without him noticing. The bathroom was a buzzing fluorescent white, the shampoo bottle aqua green, his pack of toothbrushes bought in a bulk of plastic rainbow. Briseis, slurping a small hot and sour soup, was two red jackets of mismatching hues and yellow sunflower socks, noisy containers clicking and rustling all around her. She had moved onto her boss’s girlfriend’s strange customer service adventures as an airplane stewardess, telling truly bewildering tales to a small square of lasagna. Patroclus’ chest suddenly felt tight, a filled-up ache that was all gratitude and love. He gently nudged a box of steamed buns and a bag of garlic bread aside to sit down next to Briseis, head bowed. Briseis continued to talk (“So he shows her, he waves the credit card in front of the screen and says look, your system’s not working and she just doesn’t know what to say to him? Like, the card swipe is right there?”), but gently rests her head onto his shoulder. Ah, she knew. Of course she did.
“I guess it’s nice that he thinks her airline is so technologically advanced?” Patroclus murmured.
“What an idiot,” Briseis marveled. “She also told me some crazy stuff about their open bar— wanna hear?”
Quick as he could, Patroclus turned his head and pressed a kiss to the top of Briseis’ head. Briseis’ hand stilled for a second around her chopsticks, but she quickly recovered, clicking the chopsticks together in cheer.
“Great! So here’s the thing about Hong Kong businessmen, she said, is that they all like to pretend they can tolerate more alcohol than they actually can…”
Odysseus wasn’t having a great morning.
…Scratch that, he wasn’t having a great week. He was hardly green to this teaching game but even with a solid decade’s of experience under his belt, he still struggled with parent-teacher conferences. Righteous parents in a polo shirt or blouse and pearls were a special kind of hell, and one of them had been hounding Odysseus all week like a fury. Emails, incessant calls, her secretary putting Odysseus on hold for forty-eight whole minutes, finally culminating in a demand for a face-to-face— it was to be an hour of bomb defusing, talking down the parent upset about their child’s poor grades, didn’t Odysseus know how this would negatively affect their child’s chances at the Ivy Leagues, they didn’t spend tens of thousands a year to send their child to a private school just to see them fail Odysseus clearly had it out for their child what are his credentials anyways blah blah blah, so on and so forth. Odysseus had defused actual bombs and felt less exhausted by the end. And the first grading period wasn’t even over yet, Odysseus knew, with dread like a harpoon in his gut, that it would only get worse from here on out.
So, seven-thirty, he put on his game face (choking down a blueberry muffin Penelope had tossed at him that morning despite his lack of appetite, because he hadn’t been able to waste any food or drink for a very long time) and headed for his room to face the music. It was really only by chance that he forgot the book he needed for class (Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays), and in a suddenly childish fit decided to double back to the teacher’s lounge upstairs and fetch it, making the parent wait an extra couple of minutes. Chance that Odysseus was in the upstairs hallway, which was full of a terribly familiar stench, just as Diomedes got to school indecently early like he always did and arrived at his locker. Chance that Odysseus saw the very moment Diomedes came to a full-body standstill in front of his locker— his locker that the stench of bleach was emanating from— and his expression shuttered close. A sense of dread trickled down Odysseus’ shoulders and spine, as his brain pieced the situation together.
Then, just as Odysseus was about to call out, Diomedes turned away, and ran.
Odysseus had the time it took to walk into his room, talk down the parent, and phone the principal’s office to make a decision, and really, it wasn’t much of a decision. One finger held up in a gesture of silence at the incensed parent (and mentally apologizing to Penelope already), Odysseus made the call.
“Arcadia principal’s office,” answered Penelope’s familiar voice.
“It’s me.” Odysseus could practically hear the way Penelope sat up straighter at his pared-down tone, and briefly flashed a grateful smile, wondering what the hell he did to deserve this woman. (Well actually, he knew exactly what he did, bless the day he accepted that consultation for Tyndareus.) “I’ve got an emergency with a student I have to attend to, Mrs. Archambault is here to speak about her son— if you could please come to my classroom?”
The hint of mutinous, beleaguered solidarity in Penelope’s voice was for Odysseus’ ears only: “Be right there.” They both knew that when Penelope arrived in her sleek heels and trousers, everything configured to the best balance of career and intimidating, there would be no slip of professionalism.
“Thank you.” With that, Odysseus hung up, rather longing to give his wife a kiss on the jawline, right beneath her ear, or just press his palm against the small of her back— feel the hum of strength in the way she held her body. But there would time for that later. Diomedes was a different story. Shedding his jacket for an anticipated run, Odysseus spared Mrs. Archambault little attention— intentionally. He wouldn’t be apologetic, because that would only make her even more righteous, and give her something over Penelope (“Your teacher had already apologized, so you should too”). However Penelope would handle Mrs. Archambault, this course of action offered her the most versatility.
“Please forgive the inconvenience,” was the least he could say, and even then Odysseus made sure Mrs. Archambault knew he wasn’t anywhere close to actually being sorry. “The principal should be here to handle your situation shortly. Rescheduling is an option as well.”
And then Odysseus took off. The hallway was empty for his dead sprint, as he figured Diomedes had enough of a head start on him already. Fortunately, Diomedes had taken the one hallway that led down to one exit door at the top of the school canyon, where a row of shops populated the block past the stoplight. Taking the stairs two at a time (and feeling SF humidity, regardless of temperature, clinging onto his shirt and skin), Odysseus ignored the red light since there was little traffic in this part of town yet. Diomedes was nowhere in sight, and Odysseus slowed down a little to peer into every small shop. None were open, except the CVS at the far corner, and Odysseus was gearing up to run again, one more block then a two-block perimeter search, when the CVS doors buzzed open.
Odysseus spun around, and found Diomedes exiting the pharmacy, a bottle of bleach and a receipt in hand. A weary, wide-eyed look plagued Diomedes’ expression, which transformed altogether into a frown as he took in Odysseus’ appearance.
“What are you doing here? Didn’t you have a parent meeting?”
Then Diomedes seemed startled by the familiarity in his own cadence, the line of his mouth stiffening as he dipped his head— the memory of yesterday’s class evidently vivid on his mind. But Odysseus made the executive decision to momentarily forget about all that, taking the opportunity to look Diomedes over, eyes darting from phantom injury to phantom injury. Of course, Diomedes was perfectly fine, stance easy, the characteristic slouch of a wannabe-bad boy in his back. Sweat, though, dotted his brows. A clean, sunny species of fog was folding over the gentle hills behind them, and this was San Francisco, not a warzone. Odysseus closed his eyes and took a deep breath, filling his lungs in, steady five-count out— a familiar, meditative action. Really, he didn’t know what he was expecting, but his soldier mind had kicked in, pinging on some sort of FUBAR. It was relieving, yet all sorts of discombobulating, to see Diomedes calmly exiting a store, having made a simple purchase. Odysseus opened his eyes, and found Diomedes shifting toward the school, something urgent yet reluctantly worried on his face.
“Hey, so I gotta— There’s something I have to—” Odysseus wasn’t a nice person, had never claimed to be— so he waited out Diomedes’ words, not filling in the blanks. “Is there— Do you need anything?”
Honestly, he was also buying a little time to reboot. Now that the instinctive part of his brain had processed the fact that Diomedes wasn’t in danger or pain, Odysseus’ thoughts could return to the SOP, priorities rearranged. He shuffled through what he knew: the bleach in Diomedes’ locker (honestly, did the culprit have zero sense of creativity?), the bleach in Diomedes’ hand, the uncharacteristic impatience in Diomedes’ shuffling steps. The answer took form like an Etch-a-Sketch, and Odysseus sighed, holding out a hand.
“I need you to hand over that bottle and think things through before you do anything stupid.”
So Odysseus should’ve known better than to say that last part— but weeks of Diomedes-orchestrated intimacy meant an unconscious lowering of filters, plus all the parent-induced agitation equaled the dip in professionalism and general tolerance for bullshit. Odysseus knew it was a misstep the moment he said it; Diomedes jerked back, looking equal parts mutinous and hurt, the bleach swinging behind his back.
“I’m not gonna do anything stupid,” the boy snapped. Odysseus bit back a scoff of disbelief, loosely crossing his arms instead. In the face of external agitation or anger, Odysseus had long ago developed the skills to turn glacial in manner and composure. He knew that it was almost always the strategic reaction, keep the calm upper hand.
“Yeah? So tell me, what are you going to do with that bleach?” Odysseus also knew that, when things weren’t moving fast enough, baiting was also a viable strategy. To Diomedes’ credit, he also knew, socialite training obviously paying off as he stepped back before he could be led off the precipice.
“Laundry,” Diomedes replied brightly, zero sarcasm detectable. “My gym clothes are filthy.”
Yet another pro-tip: games like this, you had to be willing to bluff.
“Oh, so you weren’t planning on pouring bleach onto other people’s lockers to mask your own?” Then again, was it really bluffing if he was entirely correct? Sharp gaze cataloguing every micro-expression on Diomedes’ face, Odysseus continued, “but more specifically, you’re going to pour bleach on your teammates’ lockers, the people you suspect are behind this. So you spread the rumors that kids from Ilion was behind it, but piss off your suspects at the same time, want to force their hand.”
Ever since Diomedes started sitting front and center in his class, Odysseus had noted the kid’s habit of sticking his tongue between his teeth when he was thinking; Odysseus could see the dart of pink now. He was biting down on his tongue almost harshly, the jut of his chin angry; Diomedes wasn’t going down without a fight. It struck Odysseus that this was the most negativity he had ever experienced directed at him from Diomedes— it was an odd sensation, simultaneously relieving and displeasing to wreck Diomedes’ hero-worship of him with his own hands.
“And you still don’t think I thought things through?” Diomedes gave no sign of relinquishing the bleach, and Odysseus had the sudden vision of Diomedes making a run for it. Pull off his plan before Odysseus could stop him, make a mess. Would Odysseus still clean up after him? Of course— he knew Diomedes meant well, was doing what he knew how to do. He just wished he could get it through Diomedes’ head right now that there was a better way.
So Odysseus breathed, switching gears as he locked eyes with Diomedes.
“Think harder,” he instructed. “I know you kids are practically allergic to adult involvement but seriously? Harassment and bullying go on record. They’re punishable offenses.”
“Not when you don’t know who did it,” Diomedes argued. Odysseus threw up his hands in incredulous exasperation.
“This isn’t Law and Order kid, I don’t need you to build me an airtight case. Even if you didn’t have any suspects I would need to follow up. You and Patroclus are minors placed under the school’s care, Arcadia’s going to deliver on that care, I swear it.”
There was one last surge of defiance left in Diomedes. “I don’t need self-righteous adults to interfere with my problems— don’t treat me like some stupid kid!”
Calm upper hand. Odysseus allowed nothing but perfect neutrality through as he pulled away from Diomedes. “Okay,” he said, shrugging. “Then, from one self-righteous adult to another, you make your decision.”
Despite all his previous claims to maturity, Diomedes held an incredibly childish streak of contrariness. The moment Odysseus removed the obstacle for him to butt against, he became momentarily lost for direction. Odysseus watched Diomedes’ gaze lower, confusion twisting along his brow as he stared at his shoes, both pointed toward the school in his previous hurry. His hands flexed, nail scratching against the gravelly surface of the bleach bottle.
To move things along, bait. Baiting came in different sorts, and if the negative challenge didn’t work for Diomedes, a sweeter affirmation might. Now, Odysseus respected, revered even professional physical boundaries between teacher and student— but somewhere along the line he had registered Diomedes to be a very tactile learner, hands scanning the air as he recalled textbook passages and in constant gesturing motion as he thought. So Odysseus pressed one (careful) finger to Diomedes’ brow and gently, but firmly tipped his head up. And he kept his finger there, let an understanding, almost conspiratorial smile grace his lips as he met Diomedes’ wide-eyed stare.
“If I really thought you were just a stupid kid, and that I knew better,” Odysseus said, “would I have played along with you when this happened to Patroclus? I can see that reputation means a lot to you.”
A half-hearted shrug, words that almost made it to Diomedes’ lips before they dissipated into a fraught expulsion of breath. Odysseus continued, words deliberate:
“So think for a moment, Diomedes, where your reputation is at right now. Star athlete, honor roll, on good terms with almost everyone— not that I’ve been paying attention or anything.” (That got him an amused huff of laughter, a shy flicker of gaze and Odysseus finally drew his finger away, leaving behind a slight pale mark that quickly flushed red.) “You’ve worked on this reputation for three years now; why don’t you let it do its work for you this time? You’re Arcadia’s darling, you honestly don’t think, if someone comes after you, the school will take your side?”
Many, many people in the past have called Odysseus manipulative, or wily, or cunning. And he was— but there was a connotation of dishonesty or malevolence that Odysseus, at his most self-righteous, didn’t necessarily agree with. He wasn’t lying to Diomedes, he wasn’t even particularly altering the truth in any way— bottom line was, words have power, and knowing some abstract facts in the back of your mind was vitally different than having those facts iterated to you by an outside, trusted source. And so Diomedes, presented with a whole new dimension of the situation, changed. Loosened his shoulders, blinked away the fog of frustration from his eyes. Found his humor again, holding the bleach bottle out dangling from two fingers with a self-conscious smile.
“Okay,” he agreed wryly, “but let’s just get this out there: I know that you know that all this I’m not a child! crap was, obviously, very childish of me. So. You win.”
“I always do,” Odysseus lied as he took the bottle. With a slight nod of his head, they began heading back down to the school. A sizable fleet of cars has begun to show, so it must be around 7:45. When Diomedes grimaced and stuck his hands in his pockets, Odysseus cleared his throat. “There’s nothing wrong with still being a kid, you know.”
“Easy for you to say, I bet you were never a kid. I bet you’ve got that grouchy old man thing going on since birth.”
Odysseus snorted, “you’re right, I was never a youth. I sprung fully grown from my mother’s head.”
“And I’m about to be legal very, very soon,” Diomedes chirped, before batting his eyes expectantly at Odysseus. And with that, they were back to their usual song and dance. Odysseus only smiled pleasantly back, but, undaunted, Diomedes continued unprompted. “I’m eighteen at the end of October. Halloween, baby.”
Odysseus let the moment dangle for just a second too long, before deadpanning, “oh. Of course you’re a Scorpio.”
He half-jogged through a flashing yellow light, Diomedes scrambling behind him. “What did you just say to me?” Diomedes’ yelp was almost covered by the rush of cars behind them and Odysseus just chuckled, neglecting to answer. They made their way into the school now, Diomedes going quiet but keeping determined pace. The smell again, and both Diomedes and Odysseus put a sleeve to their noses as they came to Diomedes’ locker.
“Whom did you suspect?” Odysseus muttered. Behind them students were strolling by and gawking, and Odysseus couldn’t help a trickle of protectiveness, shifting to a wider stance behind Diomedes in some effort to shield of hide him. Diomedes, one hand on his combination lock, tipped his head back with a meaningful blink.
Ah. Well then.
“Before or after your presentation?” The answer made a difference— Odysseus didn’t come this far as a teacher by letting personal messes encroach on his students’ learning space. Obviously there were necessary accommodations to be made, but for the most part, Odysseus made it clear to his students that his classroom was for one thing and one thing only, anything external to that education could be left at the door and resolved after the bell. Diomedes was no exception (Odysseus could let him be no exception); but if Diomedes’ diva act had been a reaction to bullying (that Odysseus had been made privy to, prior to the situation, and could have presumably stopped), then Odysseus would apologize.
“Um, it’s complicated.” Diomedes yanked the lock open, inspecting the damage with a baleful gaze. “God, this is the worst.” Odysseus caught Diomedes side eyeing the bleach bottle, and tossed it into Diomedes’ locker. Slamming the door shut, Diomedes sighed, “are you sure I can’t take petty revenge, eye for an eye, locker for a locker? It would make me feel so much better.”
“The Catharsis Theory is a myth,” Odysseus replied. “Which you’d know if you took AP Psych.”
“I did take AP Psych,” Diomedes said mournfully. “On my own last year. Got a 5 on the test and everything— if I’d known I could’ve taken it with you though, I wouldn’t have been such an overachieving dick.”
“You got a 5 on the AP test?” And Penelope didn’t tell him? “You’ve got a free seventh, right? You should TA for my class.”
“Wait, really?” The delight in Diomedes eyes quickly flickered down. “Ah, but that’s when I do training for Coach— for basketball.”
“Hm, so what you’re saying is—” Odysseus honestly couldn’t help himself, “—you choose Coach Ajax over me?”
Saying it was fun, but Odysseus didn’t actually want to hear the answer to that, so he turned and started down the hall, Diomedes sputtering behind him. Odysseus was rarely up on the second floor, but he still knew the layout of the building well enough to navigate it blind (a weird challenge posed by Penelope one late night at the school, five years ago). Without an official homeroom system, students were allocated lockers closest to their first period class, and attendance rosters listed the first period classes of each student for reference. Odysseus, without meaning to, had memorized the first period classes of all his students— including Menestheus, so he knew which direction to head in.
“Top locker, second one from Chang’s door,” Diomedes murmured, catching up.
“You have other suspects?”
“Patroclus did.” Odysseus was taller, but Diomedes was all athletic strides in bright patterned sneakers, keeping pace easily. “But none of his would try to mess with me, I’m fairly sure. Menestheus is the only one that makes sense. He kept on giving Patroclus shit earlier too.”
Odysseus grimaced. “Sorry to have paired you with him then.”
“Well I thought I’d keep a closer eye on him too, but.” Diomedes shrugged, all what can you do. They were nearing the end of the hall, nearing the locker when— perfect timing— Menestheus appeared through a side door. The smug smirk on his face when he saw Diomedes was, in Odysseus’ opinion (and years of experience with privileged kids who didn’t ever seem to believe they could get into real trouble until way after the fact), enough evidence of guilt. However.
“Hello,” Menestheus greeted, all greasy smile for Odysseus. “It’s such a beautiful morning, isn’t it? No practice, getting to sleep in— don’t you think so, Diomedes?”
“Cut the crap,” Diomedes snapped. “I know it was you.”
When Odysseus didn’t interrupt, the self-satisfaction on Menestheus’ face slipped slightly. When he spoke next his voice had gone airy and shrill, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The bleach in my locker, asshole.” There had been students scattered up and down the opposing bank of lockers since Odysseus and Diomedes made their way through the hall, and now, Diomedes’ voice travelling (but not gratuitously, which Odysseus could appreciate), a number were turning to look. “Admit it— it was revenge for the presentation.”
Turning toward Odysseus, Menestheus, “he’s lying to you. I didn’t do anything. I literally got to school ten seconds ago. You can call my house and ask, sir, I’ve been home all morning.”
“Very keen on that alibi, aren’t you?” Odysseus mused.
“But I’ve got one.” The kid was clinging onto that story like a life raft, and Odysseus was marveling at how easy Menestheus apparently cracked when Menestheus, in a motion that was clearly meant to look casual and prove his innocence or whatever, opened his locker. Odysseus had just enough time to register that the lock had already been hanging loose (had Menestheus unlocked it? when?) before the door swung open, and a loud, echoing clatter silenced the hallway.
An empty bottle of bleach had tumbled out of Menestheus’ locker and fallen to the ground.
Patroclus got to school twenty minutes early that morning, skulked around at Starbucks and bought a white mocha with whipped cream and an extra shot for Briseis until a minute after the bell. It wasn’t like he needed anything for CompSci anyways, had nothing to bring with him, no bag or notebooks or even pen. As he shuffled into the basement computer lab though, Briseis and Iphigenia were already standing at the door with urgent looks. Mr. Borne was right behind them, a tough expression on his face.
“You’ve been called to the principal’s office,” he said, and Patroclus hoped his eye bags from a relatively restless night (Briseis had helped him breathe again, but sleep had still been elusive) conveyed exactly how dead he felt on the inside at those words. He handed the coffee to Briseis, an apologetic look to Iphigenia.
“Sorry I didn’t get you one.”
“No worries dude.” Iphigenia was gnawing at her bottom lip like she wanted to say something else, but ultimately gave up. Briseis took hold of Patroclus’ elbow.
“It’s nothing bad for you,” Briseis said urgently under her breath. When Mr. Borne cleared his throat to begin class, she started to pull away but not before letting Patroclus know, “something else happened. To Diomedes.”
“What?” The news didn’t actually register immediately, seeping through in pin-thin rivulets— because like Achilles, Diomedes had an air of untouchability about him. All of these kids did, really, at least in Patroclus’ eyes, and it was unintuitive to worry something really bad had happened to them. But Patroclus was well-socialized enough to know the right thing to do was head out immediately (not stay around and play out his confusion in front of a nosy class of juniors and seniors), feet carrying him mechanically up two flights of stairs to the almost incongruously austere polished wood doors of the principal’s office. It was shut, ornate brass knob looking heavy and historical (speaking of untouchability); there was even a lionhead knocker at the center eye-level, and for a panic-filled second Patroclus thought he’d rather run away and be arrested for truancy or whatever than actually knock that thing. Then, the door swung open, revealing the principal.
“I know,” she grimaced, voice precisely as smoky as Patroclus remembered. “I hate this door. I swear if I don’t find the budget to replace it, I’m hacking it down myself by the end of this school year. Come on in, Patroclus.”
So Patroclus shuffled into a scene of terse standoff. The bank of windows that were famously always open (when she was at her desk, Penelope made sure every student knew they could access her, and that they were her priority no matter what) was ominously shut, the blinds drawn for privacy. At the side of the principal’s desk farthest away from Patroclus stood Menestheus looking crazy-eyed; folded primly in an upholstered armchair right in front was Deidameia, looking close to tears; and between them, perched on the arm of a severe stiff-backed chair, was Diomedes, looking all manners of done, a sneer of disgust barely concealed on his face. Patroclus got a nod and a slightly mellower grimace from Diomedes when he entered, and apprehensively drifted over to stand behind Diomedes’ chair.
Penelope, while not lax, was also the least tense person in the room. She even managed to look grimly pleased at the gathering once she’s settled at the desk again, folding her fingers together and looking out at the students.
“We’re here to talk about a series of harassment and property destruction committed against multiple students that occurred within the past three days,” she began. Still taking stock of the situation, Patroclus was taken aback by her frankness, the way it was juxtaposed against her almost friendly demeanor. But she wasn’t being friendly, not at all— when Menestheus’ hand spasmed in obvious anxiety, Patroclus wondered if there was a Mona Lisa situation happening somehow. That he saw a relaxed, non-accusatory principal in the same space and time as Menestheus saw his reckoning.
(Then he remembered, this was Odysseus’ beloved wife. Odysseus, who was clearly unimpressed by practically everything in the world, was so in love with this woman that he— according to Iphigenia and Diomedes— had never gone a class without casually mentioning her name. If anyone could amplify Menestheus’ telltale heart to beat itself out of his chest it was her.)
“Patroclus,” Penelope said, startling Patroclus. He held onto the chair for dear life as he met the principal’s gaze, but what he saw was faithful and forgiving. “Sorry to pull you out of class, but this really ought to be resolved as soon as possible. Now, on Wednesday morning, your locker and your belongings were contaminated by bleach poured in through the vents in the door, and yesterday after school, your bag and all your items in the bag were physically destroyed and even thrown into the school pool— is this correct?”
Throat suddenly tight, Patroclus could only nod, grateful that Penelope was only looking to him for confirmation. She nodded, and turned the same soft-eyed look to Diomedes.
“Diomedes— can you run us through what you know, starting from Wednesday morning please?”
Patroclus watched Diomedes nod, one hand coming up to tug nervously at his earring. When Diomedes spoke though, his voice was steady.
“Wednesday mornings, I get to school at 7:30, when the janitor unlocks all the main doors. I pass the hallway where Patroclus’ locker is, and see the bleach. I call him up and offer to clean up all the evidence.”
Here he paused, shooting Penelope a hesitant look. Obligingly, she asked, “and why did you offer to do that?”
Patroclus was surprised that he himself had never asked that question, and looked to Diomedes for an answer.
“Because doing something in secret like that isn’t, you know, chasing him down and shoving him into a locker after school. Which is messed up too, don’t get me wrong, but this anonymous public bullying crap is a whole other brand of evil. If it gets out, it’s all anyone will talk about, and it’s whispers and rumors for days. It’s meant to get everybody talking shit about you, so I wanted to keep that from happening.”
In a posture of nervous bravado, Diomedes rested his left elbow on the back of the chair. Patroclus allowed his pinky to press against Diomedes’ arm in thanks and solidarity.
“And Patroclus, you accepted.” Once again, Patroclus nodded in confirmation at Penelope. She gestured for Diomedes to continue.
“At that point, we started looking around for who did it. I said Menestheus.” He delivered the accusation with a frank stare at Menestheus, who recoiled as red flooded his face.
“You’ve always hated me,” Menestheus suddenly barked. “You told Coach Ajax not to let me on the basketball team, you didn’t want me in track—”
“Please,” Penelope interrupted, lifting one hand to stop both boys. “Calmly, both of you, tell me why Menestheus was a suspect in this situation.”
“Because he’s homophobic and jealous of Patroclus,” Diomedes sneered. And Patroclus, as he did whenever confronted about his sexuality like that, felt a steady current of fight instinct heat his chest and belly. Penelope must’ve seen something change in his demeanor, holding a finger up to silence Menestheus’ immediate protests and nodding at Patroclus.
“Patroclus, would you like to explain?”
“I didn’t hear everything he said to Diomedes during second period that day,” Patroclus heard himself say, sounding confident but in a way that’s divorced from his actual feelings. “But the stuff I did hear was yeah, homophobic. And Wednesday after school he challenged me to a race at track practice, and I beat him. Thursday afternoon, I find my stuff trashed.”
“And that’s not all,” Diomedes continued. “After Patroclus beat him, he was pissed off and talking hella smack, real disgusting crap Penelope I can’t even repeat them to you. And we have a Lit presentation assigned, yeah? So, fed up, I left him on his own for that presentation, which is ostensibly what he’s getting back at me for by pouring bleach into my locker this morning.”
Startled by the news, Patroclus nudged Diomedes’ arm, trying to comfort. The off-handed glance and wave Diomedes sent back was easy acknowledgement.
“Okay, any more to add?” Penelope asked. Suddenly, Patroclus remembered Deidameia in the room like an uncomfortable chill sliding down his arm. She had barely moved since Patroclus arrived, presence reduced to practically zero except for her big wide eyes in an empathic frown. Patroclus looked away from her, grimacing, wondering how exactly to bring up that whole situation. But for the time being, Penelope had turned to Menestheus. “Thank you for patiently waiting Menestheus— now you can tell us your side of the story.”
“I didn’t do it!” he immediately began, voice at the brink of uncomfortably shrill. “I was at home all this morning, ask my mom! Seriously, call home and ask my mom, I beg you, really—”
“We will call home if absolutely necessary,” Penelope interrupted, sounding like this wasn’t the first time she had to say that. “But first, clarify what you mean when you say you didn’t do it—”
“She did it!” Menestheus was almost hopping up and down as he stabbed a finger in Deidameia’s direction. “The bleach! This morning! She said she could call an extra cheer practice this morning and come in early to do it—!”
The end of his accusation was suddenly cut off by a loud sob. Deidameia too had jolted up, eyes screwing up in upset as tears fell down her cheeks. Both startled by this turn of events, Patroclus and Diomedes exchanged wide-eyed looks.
“You’re lying! He’s lying,” Deidameia wept at Penelope. Penelope looked bland and unimpressed, hand already flexed to sit Deidameia down when Deidameia cried, “he just wants to blame me because I refused to date him!”
Menestheus’ incredulous shout was permission, because Penelope didn’t stop Deidameia from continuing, crying at Menestheus, “you’ve had it out for me since I turned you down at that party over the summer. You’re the one who told me yesterday that the cheer line looked off, so I called practice this morning. You’re trying to frame me!”
“No— I’m not—” Patroclus was confused by the flood of extra information, and Menestheus was taking it even less well. “I didn’t— Just because you turned me down I didn’t—” When nobody came to his rescue, Menestheus collapsed back to his original defense, sounding a whole new level of desperate when he wailed, “I wasn’t here this morning!”
“Your locker was open dude,” Diomedes said, brows furrowed. “The bleach you used literally fell out of it.”
But the thing was, even though Diomedes phrased the statement like damning evidence, there was a questioning lilt to his tone. One that clearly stated, either he’s honestly stupid, or it’s too easy. Now, Patroclus didn’t know Penelope at all, but her appraising look at Diomedes’ statement made obvious she thought the same thing. They were all considering Menestheus, who had thrown himself into pacing with a disbelieving, manic smile, a hand on his forehead. He muttered a steady stream of I can’t believe this is happening under his breath, and every few steps he would startle into a wide-eyed stare at Deidameia, who remained coolly sitting.
At a complete loss for what to do, Patroclus turned his attention back to the principal. Penelope looked speculative, but not overtly so— a look Patroclus was familiar with finding on Odysseus’ face in AP Lit. They must be such a secretive couple, Patroclus thought, wondering if they opened up around each other or if they were both so good at handling secrets that they didn’t even need to say anything, could just read the unspoken words from one another’s silent looks and breathing.
This train of thought kept him watching Penelope, allowing him to witness the moment she filled in the last blank in the puzzle— her dark brown eyes and fan of mascara zooming in on what seemed like the bookshelf behind Menestheus, before lighting with intent.
“Menestheus,” she said, “you said you didn’t do it, pour bleach into Diomedes’ locker this morning.”
“Yeah, I keep telling you—”
“So what about Patroclus’ bag yesterday after school? Did you do that?”
“No,” Menestheus squeaked, and it was the worst lie Patroclus has ever heard. And everybody knew, including Menestheus, and Patroclus watched him crumple, one last frantic glare shot at Deidameia. “Fine, yeah I did that, but you have to listen to me, you gotta know everything Deidameia said—”
Penelope was ready this time to quiet Deidameia before Deidameia could interrupt again; she kept her gaze firmly on Menestheus.
“Please, tell us.”
“I found her crying in the gym after practice! ‘Cause Achilles is all buddy-buddy with him, she told me they had a fight and Achilles was mad at her for his sake. So I told her I get it, he screwed with me too though! We can do something about it together! So she’s crying still and she says Coach Ajax gave him a keycard, he’s gonna keep coming to practice and beat me out, so I said no effin’ way though, he’s not welcome on our team! I didn’t know what to do, but the next day when we were all putting our stuff down she nodded at the locker room, and I got her, you know? So I messed up his bag, destroyed all his stuff— yeah, I admit I did this, but I didn’t touch Diomedes’ locker! I was pissed off from that morning though, so I told Deidameia, but she winks at me and says she’ll help me out, just don’t come to school early this morning. She told me to do it, I swear!”
Turning back to Deidameia, Patroclus was— almost revolted to find Deidameia’s face screwed up in tears, cheeks splotchy red. It reminded him of Deidameia’s tone of voice and expression when she told him how she loved Achilles and she just lashed out and didn’t mean it, like her entire world was a permissive, forgiving parent keen on letting her off every hook. In the corner of his vision, Patroclus could see Diomedes’ thin-lipped glare, burning a hole in the carpet by Deidameia’s feet.
“Deidameia?” Penelope prompted, and Deidameia took a couple of tries to get her words out.
“He’s taking that conversation out of context,” she said through angry tears. “After I called cheer practice, we were also joking around about him joining the squad, so that’s why I told him not to come this morning. I didn’t nod at the locker room— I was crying on Wednesday, it’s true. I was upset because I had a fight with Achilles. And yes, I was mad at Patroclus because he’s the reason Achilles and I fought. But I didn’t do the things he said, I promise, all my girls will vouch for me.”
Ah, yes, Patroclus had almost forgotten the theme of this week— what would Arcadia athletes be if they didn’t go a day without mentioning, putting to the test their team’s loyalty? It started a low thrumming ache in the base of Patroclus’ brain, because if the case came down to Deidameia’s girls vouching for her, she was as good as free. Patroclus could feel Penelope’s expectant gaze on him, but what would he say? That Thursday afternoon, Deidameia said a lot of mean words to him? That Deidameia was some sort of evil genius for whom everything was working out, because the universe deigned fit to set her up with plausible stories, alibis, and a fall guy?
“I didn’t leave cheer practice this morning, ask any of my fellow cheerleaders,” Deidameia said confidently. The room descended into silence, Patroclus absolutely believing at this point that Deidameia had done it— both bleach-in-locker incidents. The same method copied in order to make it seem like a single person was responsible for this string of harassments. And Menestheus was the sucker, hook line and sinker— Patroclus still hated the guy, easily, but he knew blaming Menestheus for everything wasn’t right, and Menestheus’ mouth and eyes gaping like a fish were decidedly pathetic. But, the one big question: what could Patroclus even do? They’ve been told two stories, Deidameia’s definitely the more defensible; if Patroclus were the principal he knew which version he’d buy. And Penelope was looking more and more solemn, an executioner approaching the stand, pressed to come to a decision.
But just then, there came knocking at the door.
It was a rapid beat, but light-knuckled—Penelope gestured for Patroclus, closest, to open the door. Just one more chain in the series of surprises that morning, Patroclus came face to face with Cassandra and Penthesilea, a familiar couple to his eyes. Stepping aside to let them in, he watched as Cassandra, eyes a bit hounded and shoulders hunched, led the way. Penthesilea, almost a whole head taller, kept close at her side, sparing Patroclus only the slightest unreadable glance.
“Hello,” Penelope greeted cordially, a faint crease in her brow. “I’m in the middle of a meeting right now— can you come back during second period?”
“It’s about this situation,” Cassandra said, voice tremulous. Unlike Deidameia, however, she was clearly trying to hold back any sign of upset, eyes held glassy and unblinking by sheer force of will. She was also refusing to look down at Deidameia. “I know— I know what happened this morning, and I know Deidameia got called in to see you.”
“Menestheus is trying to blame me,” Deidameia said, turning around in her seat and clutching at the chair’s arm imploringly. “Tell the principal the truth.”
“I’m trying.” Hands wrapped tight around each other, Cassandra was visibly shaking. Penthesilea had a grip on her elbow, like she was trying to keep Cassandra from shaking apart. Cassandra’s words spilled out like a lightning bolt, a flood of sharp ozone: “I wanted to tell you the truth before anybody else said anything, Deidameia didn’t practice with us for half an hour this morning. She got there early, but I didn’t see her until almost 7:25.”
Deidameia, in Patroclus’ line of sight, completely froze. Diomedes’ jaw actually dropped. Penthesilea, drawing Cassandra back, stepped forward and calmly spoke to the principal, “And I saw her on Wednesday morning during practice, going inside the building with a bag.”
“Ahah! I told you, I told you—”
“Thank you ladies,” Penelope interrupted Menestheus’ rant smoothly. “I’d like to speak with Deidameia alone now, if everyone else will please head back to class. I’ll be seeing each of you individually throughout the course of the day, don’t leave campus until after school hours.”
And with that prompt dismissal, everybody (except Deidameia, sitting glacial in her seat, newly pale and eyes a wide-staring blue) shuffled out of the room. Menestheus immediately made a break for it, dodging out of Penthesilea’s way before scurrying off. This left Patroclus and Diomedes standing together in bewilderment as Cassandra buried her face in Penthesilea’s shoulder, their arms wrapping around each other.
“Yo,” Diomedes finally said. “What’s going on?”
With a sigh, Penthesilea gestured for them to move. Her hand remained on Cassandra’s shoulder as they walked, and finally peeled off when she’s led them down several hallways. When she turned though, Penthesilea’s eyes were fixed on Patroclus, her dark turtleneck and black-framed glasses cutting an imposing figure.
“Helicon told me the truth,” she declared, and Patroclus immediately stiffened. But she didn’t elaborate, just nodded like that was the final statement. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“…So you were covering for Deidameia?” Patroclus asked as he began to understand. When Penthesilea nodded grimly, he snuck a glance at Cassandra. “But then, why—?”
“I texted them this morning,” came a familiar voice, around the corner. Iphigenia, looking sheepish. She held the cup of mocha Patroclus gave to Briseis this morning, Pat’s name still written on the side. “Told them if they were looking for the right time to come clean about Deidameia, it was now.”
“I’m so confused,” Diomedes stated.
“It doesn’t matter, everything’s done now,” Penthesilea grunted, because Cassandra was still looking a flight risk. “C’mon, we’re leaving.”
With that, she whisked Cassandra away, headed straight out the building despite the fact that the bell was going to ring in just five minutes. Even though the people count had gone down, Patroclus was feeling more ambushed than ever, glancing suspiciously between Diomedes and Iphigenia. They seemed to be having some kind of conversation composed of frowns alone, Iphigenia popping the cap off and back on the coffee cup. Finally, Diomedes sighed, clasping a hand onto Patroclus’ shoulder.
“I’m being kicked out,” he said mournfully. “Be a pal and fill me in later, will you?”
“Only if I actually get the full story this time,” Patroclus replied, revealing a lot more bitterness than he had planned. That prompted one last look from Diomedes to Iphigenia, before Diomedes too disappeared, this time going around the bend back to classes (it was going to be second period, after all).
“Don’t be mad,” Iphigenia immediately started. “Everything’s done now, it’s not a big deal.”
Cringing at the sarcasm, Iphigenia changed tracks. “Listen, I just wanted to keep an eye out for you. We knew it was someone on that track team, I had an in with them so I used it. I love you lots, you know, I’m not gonna let people mess with you if I can help it.”
“Great, thanks,” and Patroclus knew his tone was a lot more waspish than he intended, but at this point his frustration was getting the better of him. “You all want to help poor Patroclus out, everybody’s a saint.”
“Okay,” Iphigenia placated, but with a warning look in her eyes that let Patroclus know she wouldn’t be pushed much further. “You know, you’re the one who got Penthesilea on your side, so that’s got nothing to do with me. And Penthesilea did most of the work in convincing Cassandra anyways, I just happened to be there for that conversation. They also don’t care much for Deidameia’s way of doing things— it’s not all about you, you know.”
The last bit was spoken as a joke, but it nevertheless served to get Patroclus more riled up. Because it simply wasn’t true— all of this was happening because of him. Deidameia, Menestheus, even Cassandra’s initial biting words, Penthesilea prying up old wounds— all Patroclus. As someone who recoiled from too much attention by nature, being at the center of this hurricane made Patroclus want to shrivel up. Or lash out. He gritted his teeth, felt all his muscles creaking.
“I didn’t want any of you to get involved,” he said. Diomedes too had come under the sniper’s scope. Because of him. “I’m not so helpless, I’ve dealt with this shit before. I don’t want any of your pity.”
“The only person pitying you right now,” Iphigenia said, “is you. Pat listen, we don’t pity you, god why would we? You’re the one who stepped in for me against Ajax, I’m just repaying the favor. Getting the truth out there. Because this school honestly sucks a lot sometimes, and you’re new here, it’s only fair you get help. Plus I also wanna be a good person, you can’t just snag that role to yourself and not spread it around you know. And c’mon, when Deidameia came in the picture, we knew we had to bring out the big guns.”
Patroclus wished the openhearted talk had whittled his anger down. He wished he didn’t dip into his emotions so intensely that time was the only thing that brought him fully back to normalcy. He wished he had focused on Iphigenia’s well-intentioned smile instead of her words, or the rapid flashback of the past three days— Iphigenia already at track practice before Patroclus even knew what a Deidameia was.
But wishes were smoke, scurrying between his fingers and setting his lungs aflame. Patroclus said numbly, “Achilles was the one who suspected Deidameia.”
The bell rang.
“Go to class,” Patroclus mumbled. Lips pursing unhappily, Iphigenia didn’t move. Patroclus did. “I’m going.”
“Patroclus,” Iphigenia pleaded.
“Give me time.”
Iphigenia listened. But Patroclus didn’t. When he made it down to Odysseus’ room he found Diomedes and Achilles by his locker, heads together as they talked. Achilles peeled off immediately at the sight of Patroclus— but there must’ve been something in his expression that tipped Achilles off against a bounding, excited approach.
“Patroclus,” he greeted, still coming closer. “Diomedes told me what happened.”
“I asked you not to get involved.”
Diomedes stopped immediately in his step, and turned around. Achilles and Patroclus stood like rocks in a stream, students rushing by all around them.
“I didn’t,” Achilles said guardedly.
“No, you got Iphigenia to do it instead.”
Achilles wasn’t the type to lie or make excuses, but a furrow of frustration appeared in his brow as he pulled Patroclus out the nearest door. White noise chatter faded as the door shut, replaced by the whip of wind and car engine rumbling.
“I didn’t get her to do anything,” Achilles spoke quietly. “She told me what she wanted to do, asked me for advice. That’s all.”
Wherever thoughts came from in a brain, Patroclus’ was shut off. There were only words being manufactured on an assembly line, pouring off a conveyor belt and onto his tongue:
“I can’t be with you like this.”
A backup generator of thoughts, but one that couldn’t seem to command any action: Patroclus wondered if he was being honest in this moment. And he wondered if he was just scared, or bitter, or petulant— wondered if any of those emotions made him any more or less honest.
Achilles had gone entirely still. His chiseled lips didn’t seem flesh when he asked, “what do you mean?”
“What you did to Ajax,” Patroclus said, “scared the crap out of me.” But a sputtering connection managed to spark in his brain, because he could realize that wasn’t true, could act on it. “But that’s not even it. I said to Iphigenia just now that I don’t want your pity.”
“I don’t pity you—”
“Not yet.” Strangely enough, Patroclus felt confidence bubbling warm through his system. If there was anything he could be sure about it was this, an irrefutable truth about his life. This was the crux of all his anger and frustration, what he was up all night unraveling. “I don’t want a relationship that’s based on you saving me. You have the power and ability to do so much, I get it. But it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel helpless, all the time, when I’m around you. If it keeps going down like this, every time I think about you it won’t be how much I like you or the things you do, it’ll be how much I owe you. And Iphigenia, and Briseis and everyone else. How much you have things in control when I have nothing. Do you get that?”
“I do.” Patroclus thought Achilles must be lying, but Achilles sounded strangely panicked, his fingers flexed at his sides and tendons lining his hands. “I get it, and I’m sorry. I won’t do it again—”
“But you’ve done it, over and over again when you know I didn’t want you to.” Those were fighting words, and Patroclus didn’t quite know how he felt letting them out.
“What was I supposed to have done?” Achilles was growing frustrated too. “Nothing?”
“Yeah, you could have.”
“Right, I could’ve ignored it all and done nothing like the heartless sociopath you seem to think I am.”
That was the most spiteful thing Achilles had ever said to Patroclus. His golden hair fell apart to strands under a vicious rake of his hand, and Patroclus couldn’t catch his eye.
“Look,” Achilles said, voice stuffed full of emotion, lid barely staying on. “I didn’t do any of it to— control you, or be more powerful than you or anything like that—”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Patroclus interrupted, cutting Achilles off because he didn’t want to hear more. When Achilles looked up, the harsh twist of his eyes asked then what are you saying? though his mouth remained silent. Patroclus could ask himself the same thing— angry with himself, Patroclus shoved through the smog and burnt plastic fumes populating his brain, really, really forced himself to look.
“Maybe this is all just bad timing,” he choked out. He and Achilles are maybe three inches apart but every bit of air between them felt like pulverized cement and grease fire. “All this shit is not your fault, I know—”
“Neither is it yours,” Achilles interjected, sounding defeated. Patroclus swallowed, didn’t comment.
“But maybe we’re just moving too fast.” Achilles’ lashes are long and dark with his head bowed, and Patroclus found himself wanting to memorize the angles of it, the precise points of meeting between each lash and Achilles’ skin. Like maybe this was the last time he could get this close. “You’re super protective and I’m expecting you to be someone you’re not for me. And I feel defensive when I can’t handle my own shit, and it’s not fair of me to feel resentful toward you, but…”
Achilles remained mute, and Patroclus knew that Achilles knew where he was going, so Achilles was playing ostrich. Head in the sand. With an ache in his chest Patroclus realized he found it endearing, wanted to stop right there and not finish his words, not finish this dooming train of thought. But he also knew, with a brilliant but heartbreaking certainty, that finishing it would bring him so much relief. Wound-up gears finally allowed to rest and breathe.
So he said, “let’s take a break. We’re friends, we’ll be friends— but let’s take some time to ourselves. Get some perspective.”
“For how long?” Achilles asked, voice clipped.
“I can’t answer that,” Patroclus replied, hands trembling. And even then, at the very end, Patroclus felt a bit like a spectator in his own life. Reading a novel where each turn of the page is a distinct possibility, an opening in a universe where, maybe, Achilles didn’t feel just as wounded as Patroclus. Where Achilles argued with that steady fire in his eyes, and Patroclus was speedier about letting things go. Where Achilles declared his love maybe, and Patroclus could hear Achilles say I did it all for you with nothing but romance in his ears, no fear and pressure. Patroclus wanted Achilles to refuse at the exact same time he wanted Achilles to agree, and knew only time and being alone could clear up that heady mess for him.
And so, when Achilles nodded, Patroclus drew him into a hug, one that was gratitude in the first count but terror in the second. Terrified that he was screwing this up, that the second he let Achilles go Achilles would have no reason to come back. Achilles hugged him in the exact same way. Their breathes in each other’s ears like silenced, steady sobs and Patroclus had a hard time letting go. But he did, he did.
This weekend is the Outsidelands Music Festival; I live right by Golden Gate Park where it's held, and I have a very distinct memory of listening to Outsidelands this exact time last year as I was writing this fic. I only had the first... four chapters written by then? I only had the vaguest idea of what this first arc was supposed to be... ~*look at where we are, look at where we started*~
(Exactly one year ago, I wrote this marginalia: Patroclus had a memory from the summer, one idly stuck like a stray strand of hair to the crook of your elbow, one that absently tickled the consciousness. He laid on the bed in his empty apartment, bass line from Outside Lands thrumming through the uncharacteristically warm air. Golden hour dipped through the apartment’s lace curtains and scattered across his neat couch, his neat floors, his neatly shut closet doors. Patroclus had a memory of messy San Francisco invading his tedious home, and that it had felt wonderful. Like shaking up a snow globe.)
This isn't goodbye. I'm still writing. But you may have also noticed my stagnation between last chapter and this one. I have so much more in my mind, thanks to all your lovely, thoughtful, extensive reviews— y'all make me feel like a star, oh my god. I'm working super hard and trying my best. (This is all making me sound really pitiful so I'll just come clean— I got really into a kpop band oh my god, that's where the hell I've been for the past two weeks.)
I'm happy all the plot is finally out there. I wanna be a better writer though, 'cause Donna Tartt conveyed urgency and stakes through Henry just telling Richard what happened in The Secret History and I wanna pull that off too. Here's the end of Arcadia's non-murder mystery; I'm very attached to Penthesilea still and one day, I might be able to find a good place to tell y'all her deal. I have a whole .doc on it, with links to Vietnamese-U.S. immigration policies.
I really want to get to the next arc because that's gonna be the Iliad plot. Enter Hector.
I'm feeling very pensive right now for some reason, lmao. Let me know your thoughts. Achilles and Patroclus are okay, I swear. They just need a spa day, some days of breathing before they start pining after each other again.