It hits you out of nowhere in your junior year of high school, when you take some joke religious comparison class for a decent place to sleep after lunch. Eventually the teacher moves into mythology, though, and then Greek mythology, and that's when you sit up and pay attention: Ceto, Echidna, Typhon, Hephaestus; names you know attached to things you've seen with your own eyes. You remember Ceto's convoluted mindgames, and Echidna's hollow dead leaf laughter, and Typhon's glib, stolen grin, but most of all you remember Hephaestus because he was so much like you it hurt.
You wonder if any of the others ever decided to do the same thing, but it doesn't really matter, because, as you find out, it's kind of personal. You don't know why it took you so long--okay, well, maybe you do, and maybe you just didn't want to revisit it, or maybe you just didn't want to know how deep it really goes. But the time is long overdue, so one miserable winter evening, you hit the internet up for research on your denizen.
The basics are obvious because everyone knows them--smith-god, artisan, volcanoes, etcetera. A god of dual elements, fire and earth, the twin virtues of creativity and persistence (twin vices of molten anger and slavish devotion); born imperfect and thrown from the mountain, he found belonging in a craft (sound familiar, beatsmith?, you think and immediately unthink), honed it like no one else before him because being the best was all he had. And as you click through the pages, as it sounds more and more like you, you remember those years ago: the red furnace glow, the rhythm of time kept with a blacksmith's hammer, walls of moving copper, and a man who could've been you in another life hunched solemn and joyless for all the beautiful things he makes.
And still you keep going. You read about Hephaestus winning back his place on Olympus, all that power and all those gods laughing at him behind his back.
(respected but never loved, tolerated but never wanted)
You read about the fall of Typhon, how Hephaestus built his workshop on top of him, how his forge was powered by the breath of a dying god.
(at your strongest when your best friend's at his weakest)
You feel a little sick to your stomach, so you x out of the browser and that's that. You start sleeping through your religion class again, and when it's time to pick a topic for your final, you go with Hinduism. Years later, when you're signing up for classes your sophomore year of college, you have the choice between religion and history. You choose history.
You're a picky eater. It was fine growing up, with your brother bringing home an endless rotation of TV dinners for the nights he wasn't going to be around (which was most nights). Everything was neatly labeled, flash frozen, and compartmentalized, and it didn't matter how many times Bro told you to man up and eat your vegetables because he was never there to bitch when you dumped them in the trash.
But then the real world came along and made you try to eat things that weren't pizza rolls and hot pockets, and that's when you got fussy. You hate the texture of pork, and you hate it when the food on your plate mixes; you hate sushi, Indian food, shellfish, anything with ketchup or bell peppers. You try to avoid situations where people might cook for you in case you have to push away your dinner and deal with the aftermath of being an offensive houseguest.
(“I was half expecting dog food,” you tell Jade in your usual deadpan, leaning awkwardly on the kitchen island; bad joke and you know it but you can't seem to tell any different kind with her. The way her shoulders hunch confirms it, but you soldier on anyway because that's just what you do, even as she scrapes a mangled chunk of salmon into the garbage and gives you a wounded, kicked-puppy look. You're kind of a jackass and a little insufferable sometimes, and you can't argue that, but no one would ever accuse you of being heartless--except for now, maybe, as she leaves the room with little more than a glance back and you stand there with parted lips, poised to say words that won't come out.)
Lalonde watches you over the weeks, notices how finicky and repetitive you get with your meals, and tells you with that unbearably smug little Harvard grin of hers that it's a control issue.
She adds: “Not the only one, I'm sure.”
You look down at your plate, organized by color and type--starch and green on one side, protein and yellow on the other, all separated like it's quarantine--and set your fork down. “Quit watching me eat,” you say, folding your arms. “Shit's weird.”
There aren't many true things about yourself that you like to show to the world, but how much you like words is one of them, and anyone who isn't comatose can see it for themselves. Freestyling is a goddamn artform and you're good at it, because if there's anything in this world you can do, it's pull all the right things together at exactly the right time. You have the vocabulary for it, and--god help you, it's the dumbest shit and it sounds too much like Rose, but something like the soul of a poet, too. There are deep, winding nuances to language that you feel comfortable in, and you guess it's the most obvious similarity between you and your sister. You can laugh all you want at her reams of poetry and fanfiction, but it doesn't stop you from understanding why she does it.
The rap, the freestyling, the hip-hop: it's a strange manifestation of your interests, strange enough that nobody asks because they think they know, and you're fine with that. You don't have to explain it to anyone. Middle class white kid from Houston--total joke if you think you can relate, pretentious hipster douchebag, an insult to the culture. And they can keep thinking that, because fuck if you're going to waste your time justifying it; that it wasn't always this way, that cinder block and particle board furniture wasn't always just a statement, that it wasn't always a decent apartment in a nice neighborhood. Before his bro hit the right niche, things were a little tighter, and those were the nights you spent in bed with a hand-me-down CD player, finding something to relate to in the music you looped: Rakim, NWA, The Fugees, Public Enemy, over and over and over until you could mouth the tracks by memory. It made things seem a little more bearable, making order out of chaos.
But you didn't always have the CD player either, so before that, it was books. The library became a babysitter when your brother couldn't pick you up from school, at first just for the air conditioning, but then you decided somewhere along the way--why not? You started picking through the shelves and that was it, really. The start of a secret love affair that never really stopped, with an emphasis on secret. Dickens and Burgess didn't exactly gel with your pridefully--painfully, meticulously--constructed don't-give-a-fuck attitude.
(Seven years old, thumbing through cheap thrift store books, and you pick up a dog-eared, moth-eaten copy of East of Eden; “Isn't this a little much for you, man?” your brother asks and you shake your head, because it's not about the stories, or the characters. You don't have to understand those and you don't pretend to try. It's about all those words that sit in those pages just waiting for you to collect them.)
Years and years later, you still never let your collection grow larger than what you can hide under your bed, and it rotates out every couple of months: Tolstoy, Alighieri, Camus, Orwell for now until you wrap up War and Peace, find some time off to dump them off at a used bookstore, and pick out replacements. There's a kind of enjoyment in the ritual now; you can hunch in the aisles and pretend you've got better things to do all you want, but you aren't fooling anyone, least of all yourself.
(You slide into the booth across from Jade, ten minutes late--feeling every last aching second of it between the store and the restaurant, made worse knowing she doesn't have that long in town--and you give a quick apology, explaining about lines and traffic; she's just glad to see you. Then, because she's weird and there are parts of her that the mainland can't crush, she sniffs the air and says, “You smell like books.” When you give her a noncommittal shrug, and she adds: “I like books.”
You can't help yourself and maybe you'll regret it later, but then again, maybe it could be a good thing if you let it. With a secret little half-grin hidden behind your menu, you look at her over the top of your shades and say, “Me too.”)
You find--or found, really, because it's been years since you've had it--something satisfying in your title. Not the time part, because it's hard not to be a little smugly satisfied at being placed in charge of so much power and it's so fucking undeniably cool, but the knight part--and you had trouble admitting it at first, when you were under siege by John's well-intentioned jabs and Rose's instant, unsolicited analysis. You denied, denied, denied until they finally gave it a rest and you could take a good, long look at it yourself.
You're not prim and proper, and you're not polite, and you're not really all that chivalrous, but there are still pieces of you that shine beneath the layers of stony indifference and practiced jerkass. If you can't ooze charisma and a winning personality--because even you can admit you'll never be the golden boy (respected but never loved, tolerated but never wanted), not like John--then you can at least tell the god's honest truth whenever you can, even if it hurts--maybe especially if it hurts. If you're not going to open doors for women, then you can sure as hell throw a couple punches for one when it's 2 AM and some drunken frat fuck won't leave her alone. It happens a few times, and the night ends with bruised knuckles and the taste of blood in your mouth, but you always get your point across with blistering clarity.
You're not the guy with flocks of friends, never will be, and you don't want to be, not really. For however much it aches to know you'll never belong, it narrows down the list of people you'd feel obligated to take a bullet for.
And when it comes down to that--well. It has before, where you had to make that choice, except it wasn't really a choice, not for you, and you stepped in front of that sword, that gun, that blast of fire every. single. time. For all the kinds of men you aren't, that's the kind of man you are, and that's what's so satisfying. When the game ended and everyone got on with their lives and all that's left of Time is no need to ever wear a watch again, you can still say that yeah, you're a knight in your own way. That's something that'll never change.
You're chronically, habitually, hopelessly bad at women.
It's not getting them that you're bad at; you're attractive and you know it, because you're fastidious about your appearance to the point of compulsion and you never leave your apartment without looking like you could buy the town. You're the skilled musician dripping with arrogance, indifferent to the existence of other people, and girls go fucking crazy for it. It helps, you think, that apparently there's something mysterious about you, something a little dark and intense, because, well--you've seen war and nobody comes out of that without a little bit of baggage, and they love that. You're the guy they want to take home and kiss better and stitch back together with force of personality. You're the guy they want to fix so you'll love them.
You don't, though, you don't even come close, and you suppose that's where the point of contention is. A week, two weeks, sometimes three, and it's smooth sailing--but then she'll want your apartment key, or she'll want to meet your friends, or she'll drop hints about moving in and you're fucking out of there. Sometimes you're out of there sooner, for stupid reasons: there was Jenna, the poli-sci major who couldn't shut up; there was Ashley, who accidentally ran into you everywhere and you're pretty sure she was stalking you; Madison had too many piercings, Olivia reeked of nicotine, Nicole kept asking about your parents. They're just the start of your list. It extends way, way beyond them. You tell John that they just weren't right; you know for yourself that you just weren't trying.
(Her name is Mira and she's a righteous bitch, you decide, and you wonder why you're even here, fumbling around her apartment in the dark looking for where you dropped your damn tie, when you got sick of her two weeks ago and got sick of nights like these a week after that. You know she's watching you from her bed, face contorted in that nasty little scowl of hers, but you can't see her and you don't really want to.
“I don't know what your damage is, Strider.” You hear the rustle of bedsheets and her soft footsteps on the hardwood and you don't dignify her nagging with any sort of response. “Do I look too much like her? Not enough?”
Mira--beautiful, horrible Mira, with her tan skin and her long black hair and her serpentine calculation--has a way with words that reminds you of Rose, if Rose were even more of a frigid cunt. You feel a sort of cold fury rising up in your gut, old and familiar because that's just always how it starts with you, ice first and fire later. “Finish that thought,” you say, and you know she will, because she doesn't back from a challenge. She's dating you, after all. “Go ahead.”
“Wait, I'm sorry. She has her hair cut short now, doesn't she? I think I saw her in Forbes last month. Cute. Like a pixie. Shame you won't let me meet her.” She follows you as you stalk down the dark hallway, into the living room, where you swipe your keys from the coffee table. “Or maybe she just hasn't come back into town yet. Is that it? I wouldn't know, you never talk about her.”
She's on your heels even as you grab your jacket, and you still don't have your tie but fuck it, better to buy a new one than put up with this bullshit. “Poor you, all lonely because your rich little heiress girlfriend left you behind. Do you miss her? Is that why you said her name?”
You'd never hit a woman, not in a thousand goddamn years no matter how much she might deserve it, but as she blocks the doorway, sheet pulled around her and that fucking scowl on her face as poisonous as the rest of her, you come so, so close. “Get the fuck out of my way,” you say, and it's all you have to say, because--
Well. She liked you because you were a little dark and intense and broken, but actually seeing you like that isn't something she can handle.)
“Dude,” John says and he doesn't even try to hide his amusement as he chews on his straw, the smug bastard; you regret calling him even though it's what you always do when you have a problem. “You're trying way too hard to compensate.”
“Bullshit. I'm not compensating for anything,” you say, but you aren't so good at lying anymore, because John only laughs at you, at your half-eaten plate of sorted, organized food.
Okay, so you have some fucking control issues. You get it. People can just get off your dick about it already because you know, they don't need to keep reminding you. You're enough of a reminder to yourself. Yeah, so you had kind of a crappy childhood and a brother who was never home, and when he was, he was putting you through shit a kid shouldn't have to go through, all 'it's for your own good's and 'you'll thank me when you're older's and 'pay attention, you're gonna need to know this someday's. And yeah, maybe it affected you more than you'd like to admit, and yeah, maybe you didn't have any control at all and you reacted with trying to force everything around you into making sense.
And there's that other part of your title that still rides along with you, the one that was so fucking cool until you learned what happens when you have to become the get out of jail free card for your friends. (It's almost hilarious, you think, striving all your life to be the best and then finding out that only the best are ever offered up for sacrifice.) You were the one who made it through the game, but you can't help but think of other timelines, all the other pockets of failure that another you had to fix at his own expense. If you were another man, it might make you bitter, but you're not. You're more bitter at yourself and how you're dealing with the leftovers.
You still feel time a little too intimately than you'd prefer, but it's not under your control anymore, so you force it in other ways; you went after music with a kind of terrifying fervor as soon as you realized your personal timeline was static again, learning instruments, collecting vinyls and samples by the thousands. It's that rhythm, you know, and they call it keeping time but it means something entirely different to you; it's the way you can sit with your mixing equipment for hours, making tiny, exacting changes for perfectionism's sake, finding what's wrong and fixing it, making sense out of the chaos. And when you're on that stage with that guitar and that microphone, you've got a crowd's attention locked onto you, a show of force through skill and determination. You're not the golden boy and you never will be, not like John, but you can make people listen.
And you'd say it's fine but it's not, not really, when every night you get all dressed up with nowhere to go but around, around, around, the dance that went out of style years ago with partners who don't know what's going on until you're gone. You don't enjoy it, and maybe that's what scares you--that you faced an image of yourself when you were thirteen that you swore up and down you'd never become, only to become it anyway. Metronome for a hammer and here you are, hunched over joyless and solemn for all the beautiful things you make.
(respected but never loved, tolerated but never wanted)
You're not a drinker--control issues, the voice of Rose echoes in your head, and you've been drinking just enough to laugh at that, just enough to flick through your phone's address book, looking for a name and a number and a reason. Around the middle of the list you realize you've only come up with two out of three, and that'll have to be enough.
As you listen to it ring, and ring, and ring, and ring, you become dimly aware that it's 3 AM and you're kind of an asshole when a groggy, girlish voice picks up.
You lick your cracked lips, close your eyes, and your voice curls her name into a question: “Jade?”
Your shoulders shake in a chuckle made out of pure fuck it, and from the silence on the other end of the phone, you can't help but wonder if she thinks you've gone crazy, and--well. Shit, maybe you have, and maybe that could be a good thing if you let it.
“Everything,” you say, and it's not the whole truth, but it's a start.