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The Trainer's Iliad

Chapter Text

All the sons were expected to participate when the time came, an unspoken rite of passage. The best fathers equipped their boys with ropes, chains, rolls of leather, and blunted spears, small clubs, and whatever other weapons they saw fit. Capturing a monster was a trial of manhood, and the better the creature the more powerful the son. Older boys sparred against each other or commanded their creatures to do the same, impressive displays of power or agility or speed. There were games, too, beyond mere fighting, races and throwing and climbing, sometimes for the boys and sometimes for the monsters, but the main event was always the same. The youngest, uninitiated, without an animal on a thick lead, would enter the woods alone and find one.

Patroclus knew his father was particularly concerned with the ritual. It would determine status for years to come, amongst all the princes and the warriors and anyone else who could participate. It was a father’s first chance to demonstrate the power of his sons, and a son’s first chance to make a lasting impression. He was a disappointment otherwise, not fast or strong or particularly courageous. If he could come out of the woods with bruises and scrapes and a wild beast in chains he would finally win some approval from all the men who mattered. He pondered the creatures that were common in the woods, and the ones who preferred the fields just beyond the forest, and the rare monsters who were nearly impossible to find intentionally.

There were rufflets and spearows perched conspicuously on the tops of trees, observing the gathering boys with suspicious eyes. If he could catch either, grow it into a proud braviary or a savage fearow, he would have a grand position amongst the others. He wondered about gibbles, lurking the corners of the caves beyond the woods, aggressive and tough, a worthy prize for any prince. The waters teemed with potential beasts but no river ran through the trial fields and the ocean was miles away, so he set aside delusions of a seadra or a poliwhirl. He had strategies in mind, drilled into him by his father—who owned an impressive enough collection of beasts to be trusted—and he had been watching the older boys all day, noting how they moved their feet and used their eyes to steer the creatures under their control. Some were better handlers than others, and he was still trying to figure out why when a loud horn blast quieted the festivities.

His father shoved him roughly forward, in with other boys drifting towards the woods. A line had been marked out in the dirt and they shuffled along it like sprinters, prepping for a race of a kind. There were instructions, to return by nightfall with whatever creature they could or couldn’t capture, and to start off at the sound of the horn. All Patroclus could carry was rope—he was nowhere strong enough for anything else. He attempted to prepare, to stand at the ready like all the bigger boys, but when the angry blast sounded off he was not quick enough. Everyone else hit the trees and disappeared, while Patroclus lagged behind. He still ran, heart pounding, rope in hand, and leapt over roots and prickly thorns until he was well within the woods.

All around him echoed the footfalls of other boys and the first few angry sounds of monsters. He listened for their calls and cries, the sounds they made naturally and not the ones of agony as they fought. He was a bit fearful; the stories sounded like bold conquest, not brutality. The rope dangled out of his hand, slipping down and dragging on the ground while he walked more deliberately. In the distance he could see the field, the grass shifting around wildly, teeming with creatures still undiscovered. His father’s strategy was to run fastest, find the toughest, bravest monster, and tackle it, but the meadow at the edge of the trees was more tempting. No competition, no frantic searching, just him and the creatures of the grass.

His rope snagged on a root. He tugged once, felt the resistance, and pulled more frantically. He had to bring it, or he wouldn’t have any tools. It was jammed too tightly, trodden down by a passing runner. Panic welled up in his chest. The one thing he could carry was now stuck in the middle of the woods. Something ran behind him while he struggled with the rope, and then a boy knocked into him while pursuing. He abandoned the rope and wiped frustrated tears from his eyes, grateful for a moment he was hidden by trees. His feet carried him sluggishly out of them, into swathes of swaying grass. He could see creatures fleeing, tails and tufts of fur, but then one tail stopped. It was jagged plumes in two shades of brown, wagging softly while he watched. He sniffed, reminding himself the important sons shouldn’t cry during their first hunt, and knelt down to observe the little creature.

Its body was stocky, hidden well by the tail that swished more excitedly when he knelt. Beneath soft clumps of fur were four sturdy legs and large paws, and he could see sharp ears jutting out of a head level with the creature’s back. It was sweet and naive, waiting patiently even though its fate was to be wrangled by a desperate boy. He recognized the striped pattern then: a zigzagoon. A quick animal but rather unassuming. He tried to steel himself, preparing his nerves for the inevitable, but his heart pumped erratically anyway.

The zigzagoon glanced over its shoulder, bright oaken eyes meeting those of Patroclus. He sniffed once more and balled his fists, feeling stubborn tears prick at his eyes again. He had to. There was no way around it, not in this ritual-wrapped patch of woods and meadow. He kept the gaze of the little animal, trying to convince it of the same. At any moment he would have to make a decisive move, grab the tail or the rear leg or a fistful of fur and pin the little creature until it submitted to him. He remembered it from his father’s instruction. The zigzagoon circled all the way around, lifting its head curiously and watching his face carefully. Now it would be more complicated, but he had to make do. Something, anything, one clear action to claim status and make his father proud. A zigzagoon was better than a defeated trudge out of the woods as the sun set. He prepared, his whole body tense even as the zigzagoon’s plume of a tail flopped back and forth, and acted.

He stuck his hand out to the creature, palm up. Immediately he realized it was the wrong choice, not at all in the strategies of the other boys and especially not something his father would ever recommend. The zigzagoon, however, stepped forward to sniff. Patroclus smiled softly at it and it nosed his fingers.

“You should be running,” he mumbled. “Someone’s going to get you.”

The zigzagoon’s tail wagged dramatically at his voice, then steadied when he fell silent. Its head tilted and it blinked a few times. He wondered if it had ever met a human before.

“I don’t have anything,” he explained, while the animal pushed at his hand. “Unless you want to go look for rope.”

It leapt side to side playfully, and pushed its whole head into his hand. He chuckled and scratched, pushing back against the little creature as it leaned further and further into him.

“You really should leave,” he encouraged quietly. “I’m supposed to capture a monster.”

Two steps forward and the zigzagoon was in his lap, nuzzling his chest and pawing at his hand. It wasn’t a big animal but he wasn’t a big boy either, swayed easily by its endearing grin.

“I guess you could come, if you wanted.” He ran his hand down its back, feeling the well groomed but erratic tufts ripple under his hand like a field under a soft wind. “We could be the first ones out of the woods if we hurry.”

The zigzagoon bobbed its head in agreement.

He stood up and the zigzagoon scrambled up with him, front paws on his thighs. It hopped a bit so he scooped it up with difficulty. They would have to work on that, a better way for a small child to hold a lot of puffy fur and stumpy limbs, but the zigzagoon seemed content to throw its legs over his arms and rest its thick head comfortably on his shoulder. He smiled to himself and hefted the creature up just a bit, preparing to reenter the woods and avoid the more aggressive boys and the monsters they had no doubt angered. He scanned the field quickly, though it seemed empty, ensuring no one was following him and no one would try to steal the little animal from his arms.

Among the swaying grasses he caught sight of something potentially dangerous. It was a shock of gold, weaving through green and brown blades, a droplet of sun darting around the field. He craned his neck to see, just barely tall enough, and found the source of the gold was another boy. Patroclus froze, arms tightened around his zigzagoon, but the boy hadn’t seen him and wasn’t headed his way. Instead, he made his way gracefully through the field towards a crop of tattered rocks. They marked the field’s far boundary, the difference between fertile ground and jagged boulders at the foot of the mountains. An orange shape lounged on them, blending fairly well with their earthy pigments, though its bright eyes seemed to be trained on the boy who pursued it. Patroclus leaned forward and his zigzagoon adjusted itself to see what was happening too.

The golden boy hesitated, poised to strike, with rope in one hand and a long strip of leather in the other. His quarry sat up, wary but not fearful. Patroclus could see its bright mane, similar in color to the boy’s, and he recognized it then as a growlithe. They were rare but highly prized, and fiercely loyal if they could be tamed. His father said the way to do it was with an insurmountable will, and the iron fist of the gods. He wanted to call out, startle the boy and let the little flame escape being stamped out in such a way, but he was paralyzed. The golden boy readied himself and the growlithe’s every muscle tightened in preparation. Patroclus held his breath.

Arms outstretched, rope spread between both hands and leather at the ready, the boy was a mural honoring this first hunt. It was the decisive moment, and the boy did not disappoint; his hands opened and the tools he carried fell. Tension eased out of the growlithe, but it was still wary. The golden boy relaxed out of his athletic stance and offered his hand to the creature, first knuckles up and then palm, and then he rested it on the growlithe’s neck, just behind its ruff. Patroclus released his breath and smiled. Evidently he was not the only boy ignoring his father’s advice today. The zigzagoon’s tail wagged, pleased.

Patroclus carried his prize through the woods with extreme care, though the zigzagoon was fearless and smiled the entire trip. More than once a larger boy charged past and nearly knocked the pair over, but they had all been in pursuit of more impressive creatures. When the afternoon bled into evening things would be different, and any small boy still roaming the trees would be just as much prey as the creatures they pursued. It was the strategy of desperation, where the meager catch of the smallest boy was better than returning empty handed. He stepped carefully, purposefully, passing over his discarded rope and around the thorny bushes which he’d ignored in his quest to reach the woods initially. He saw the edge of the trees, ten steps away, then nine.

Something jostled him roughly from behind, a shove out of the way rather than an attack but it was enough. He stumbled, seven steps away from the edge, and lost his balance. Out of instinct he released the zigzagoon and focused on catching himself, but the minute his hands hit the forest floor he realized what was done. The creature was free, and if it started running he would never catch it again. So close he had almost fallen out of the treeline but now he would have to start all over.

The zigzagoon trotted a few paces away, out of range of the falling boy, and sat facing him. He met its eyes again, trying to convince himself he would find something just as suitable if he only tried harder. He sat up and it stood; he stood and its tail wagged furiously.

“Are you sure?” he asked it, and its paws batted at his knees. They were sticky with forest sap and wet leaves. This time when he scooped it up he was more intentional with balancing it against his body, much less precarious than before and affording him a free hand if he needed to catch himself again. Six, five, four more steps.

He reached the edge and emerged from the woods. By no means was he the first out but he was assuredly not the last. More athletic boys gathered together, showing off rockruffs and bulbasaurs and machops. Some kept hoothoots and pidgies on long ropes, flying overhead. He saw a boy similar to his own size proudly presenting an emolga to a few friends. Patroclus was single-minded, though. He could show his father how easily he caught his own creature, and then they would get to leave behind the louder boys. Not the first but not the last. It was the best his father could have hoped for, surely this would be an accomplishment worthy of praise.

His father’s face was easy to find in a crowd, stern and terrible as always. Patroclus hoisted the zigzagoon higher in his arms and approached his father, smiling tentatively. His father’s gaze fell on him distastefully, as if he were holding soiled linens rather than a living, breathing creature.

“That’s all?” he uttered.

Patroclus kept smiling, hoping it would sway the bitter man. “I didn’t even need the rope.”

The zigzagoon grinned lopsidedly, facing Patroclus’ father with the same earnest.

“Why did I bother sending you with it, then?” His father huffed and turned back towards the woods. “It’s too late now. You’re–”

Patroclus followed his father’s eyes, and the zigzagoon’s head flopped over so he could do the same. A shimmer of gold was emerging from the woods, tunic splattered with earthen red paw prints and arms full of a particularly eager growlithe. The golden boy’s eyes were bright and his smile pleased but not proud. A man rushed out of the crowds to greet him, clapping him on the back and praising him for the catch. Patroclus distinctly overheard him brag of how his son had caught his own creature without any tools. The golden boy beamed and the growlithe barked. It was as comfortable in the golden boy’s arms as the zigzagoon was in Patroclus’ but he was aware of the status conferred to someone who carried such a creature.

“You should have stayed out there until you found something like that,” his father growled.

Patroclus held tight to the zigzagoon and sighed. Next to golden boy he was as dull and unkempt as the scruffy creature in his arms.

During the long journey home he was inseparable from the zigzagoon, partially in fear his father would have it chased off but more importantly because it was his, undeniably his. When they camped at night it curled up beside him, and when he ate he fed it from his own plate. His father ignored him outright during the trip and once they returned home barked the barest of instructions on proper monster treatment. Of course he demanded the zigzagoon be kept in kennels alongside the other wild beasts in his arsenal, and that Patroclus be solely responsible for its care and maintenance, and that its training began no later than that afternoon. He assured his father, and brought the zigzagoon all the way to the kennels before promising to the creature he would never lock it up in chains with his father’s ill-behaved beasts.

He smuggled the zigzagoon into his room that night, and it slept at his feet until dawn. He rose early that morning to ensure they were both near the kennels when his father came to inspect them, and as soon as he made the rounds Patroclus took off with the zigzagoon at his heels. They ran along slender snaking trails, between scrub grass and collapsing boulders, under the shadows of steep cliff faces and along the teetering edges of jagged peaks. It was a daily game from then on, up early in the morning and out until late in the evening. Under olive and fig trees, over creeks and streams and through rivers, chasing clouds and fallen leaves. Every evening as they returned the zigzagoon would clamber atop a rocky outcrop that offered a decent view of the palace, and Patroclus would follow, and they would race from its meager summit back home. It was better training than his father’s other creatures ever received. When it was expected he paraded the little zigzagoon around his father’s halls, demonstrating the synchronization of their footsteps and the scrappy creature’s endurance in a proper fight against his father’s intimidating personal golems. His best efforts were often barely satisfactory, receiving weak strings of praise from guests and disappointed glances from his father, but it was fun enough in their few shining moments that Patroclus almost forgot how disappointing his little creature really was.

He came to call the zigzagoon Iolaus, as all the creatures of princes were supposed to have names. No surprise, his father criticized the name, declaring even a lowly zigzagoon should have a nobler name if it belonged to someone important, but he retreated on the idea as his time was better spent on different arguments. Patroclus continued sneaking Iolaus into his room each night, and they explored together each day as an escape from his father’s suffocating palace. On the bluffs they sometimes sat and watched flocks of chatots and murkrows, and in the woods they followed the trails of caterpies and nincadas to trees dripping with sap or ripened fruits. They made games from these trips, hiding and chasing games, and when Patroclus’ meager stamina ran dry they would lay side by side in the dirt. He listed all the creatures he hoped to meet someday, popplios and dewgongs and roselias and skiplooms, and if he was truly lucky, dragonite and gyarados and arcanine.

Arcanine, tall and striking, billowing golden mane and tail disguising jagged teeth and observant eyes. It was a perfect prince’s companion. He thought back to the day of the rite, when he watched the golden boy seek out a growlithe and emerge from the woods with it lovingly in his arms. When he and the growlithe both grew, both matured, they would strike a figure more imposing than his father and the golems, but also worlds more beautiful. He was probably training intensely with the growlithe, honing its fiery powers and awing all the visitors to his father’s halls. When the time came he would present the growlithe at an altar to Apollo and the fiery crystals gifted to these places by him would trigger a transformation. Growlithe and boy would be no more, and arcanine and man would be born. Arcanine was a prince’s companion; Patroclus’ only hope for similar recognition would be when Iolaus was granted Hestia’s blessing to transform.

Iolaus always pushed the thoughts from his mind, though, with his wagging tail and rapid jumps back and forth. Out in the wilds with just the two of them there were no princes and no statuses to uphold. Zigzagoons earned their name from how they moved, sharp lines joined by jagged, angular turns, and Patroclus was learning to chase Iolaus more effectively by copying those moves. Neither of them were fast, but the zigzagoon running pattern made Patroclus evasive. It was only ever playful, studying the placement of Iolaus’ sturdy feet and jumping along, but sometimes he convinced himself it was battle strategy. Different from his father’s idea that a fight could only ever be won by brute strength, this was the tactic of the small and quick.

It was a losing tactic after all, when one evening he was returning to the palace and a bigger boy grabbed Iolaus roughly from the rocky outcrop. Patroclus had not yet climbed it, but once he saw the intruder lay a hand on Iolaus he leaped up the rock miraculously. Iolaus growled fearfully and squirmed as best he could in the boy’s lopsided grip, uncomfortable with anyone but Patroclus lifting him and especially put off by the sudden rough treatment.

“Put him down,” Patroclus insisted, his voice wavering slightly.

“It’s mine now,” the boy retorted snobbishly.

“He’s not yours.” Patroclus lunged for Iolaus, brushing his outstretched paw but the boy yanked him back sharply. In fear and frustration he balled his fists and demanded, “Put him down or else.”

“He’s mine!” the boy enunciated.

Patroclus dove forward this time, and Iolaus wiggled free enough of the boy’s grasp to leap towards Patroclus. He grabbed the zigzagoon’s shoulders while the boy struggled to regain a grip, and Iolaus held fast as possible to Patroclus’ arm. With that same arm Patroclus gripped Iolaus, and with his free other hand he shoved the boy hard. The boy’s grip failed, as did his balance, and as Patroclus pulled Iolaus safely back towards himself the boy fell backwards off the outcrop. It was not the tallest place to have fallen but there was no soft ground immediately surrounding it, and the sound of the boy landing was sickening.

He set Iolaus down then, and though he was aware of glancing over the edge of the rock he could not bring to mind the image of what he saw. It was locked away in his mind. He ran, this he knew for sure, ran with Iolaus back to the palace and straight to his room, diving into a corner as if he could hide among chests and urns. Iolaus followed, ducking under his bed and cowering with his face between his paws. He seemed not to understand aside from knowing Patroclus was deeply unsettled, but it was customary for the zigzagoon to wedge himself under something when Patroclus was fearful—reflex, after hiding all this time from his father.

After reaching his room he truly remembered nothing, whole days vanished from his mind. One moment he was hidden with Iolaus and the next he was packed in a cart, Iolaus in his lap, cresting the final hill on the path to Phthia. The circumstances of why eluded him along with all the details of those past few days, but he knew it was tied to the boy collapsed in the bloody rocks. The benefit to riding was he could watch the world; this final path was filled with swablus, eevees, and jangmo-o, creatures he had heard about but had never seen roaming the wilds around his own home. He was cargo, dejected, cast from one port to the next, but if it were to be this way at least he would be in a place like this, with rare animals and the sounds of the sea in the distance. He loosely comprehended the idea that he had been exiled to this place. His mind was occupied by thoughts of the monsters of the sea, beasts who could overpower even an arcanine, and of the new trails for him and Iolaus to discover. Perhaps he could make something of his banishment, not an adventure per se but more than just a prison sentence in a new palace.

Optimism ebbed as the cart drew closer. He could hear the snarls of pyroars and ursarings in the distance and the squeals of sawsbucks and stantlers who fell prey. It was a necessary aspect of nature but it did not inspire confidence. He tried to focus instead on the nearby farms, mainly large herds of mareep with the odd ampharos standing by as their shepherds, roaming ponytas guarded by a granbull, even a pen of gogoats stomping their tough hooves. A tough mudsdale pulled the cart he was currently in, but this close to the sea a farm would struggle to care for such a massive creature. He almost hopped out of the cart then and there, to intermingle with the mareep and join whatever farmers tended them with the zigzagoon in tow. Iolaus had his head rested on Patroclus’ knee, a calming pose but he was radiating the same nervousness as Patroclus himself. In their time together he had never known the little zigzagoon to lose confidence.

The cart was suddenly slowing, and the slope of the hill was gone, and Patroclus lifted his gaze towards the palace. There was no grand welcoming, just a servant to unload the treasures shipped alongside Patroclus as payment for his exile. He was pointed inside, and disembarked the cart with Iolaus limp in his arms. He set the zigzagoon down in the palace entrance so they could walk in together, and their footsteps echoed uncomfortably on the cold stone. Once he heard Iolaus misstep, and the call of the farms rang out again, a better option than shutting them both up in an unfamiliar place. Unfortunately he was not enough of a runner to escape the clutches of his captors, and he didn’t trust himself enough to keep his nerve once he left. Iolaus could run away easily but Patroclus would hate to see him go alone, not when he was so easily trusting. For better or worse they were stuck together down the silent hallway, the only moving things in the forest of stone.

Suddenly he could hear soft music, a lyre trilling in a nearby room, and the murmuring of humans in discussion. He followed it, intrigued by the tune even though he knew it would lead him right to his new captors. Iolaus’ ears pricked up at the sound, and he was better at tracking sound so Patroclus followed him. They entered a larger room at the same time, one that was refreshingly full of life compared to the earlier halls, with an open roof in places and several boys running back and forth across it. The music came from one boy in particular, a drop of gold strumming the lyre with practiced fingers while a growlithe slumbered at his feet. Patroclus froze in the doorway, fixated by the golden boy. Iolaus glanced between Patroclus and the golden boy, tail wagging slowly but emphatically.

There was an older man seated against the far wall of the room, his throne simple but tastefully crafted. When he caught sight of Patroclus in the entryway he smiled warmly, beckoning him forth with a hand.

“You must be Patroclus,” he greeted. When Patroclus approached he noticed the wary eyes of a kingdra and a dragalge seated on either side of the man. Originally they had seemed part of the throne, or else sculptures set to adorn the place where the noble man was to sit, but they both breathed with the suspicious life of the sea. Even if the man was friendly the two draconic creatures at his side were not.

“I am,” Patroclus brought himself to say, trying to focus on the man. Peleus, he remembered, Peleus was to be his captor. As far as kings and princes went he was certainly one of the more famous, able to claim a sea nymph for a wife. That of course meant the boy was golden because of the ichor in his veins, and Patroclus suddenly felt like he had observed a godly secret when he had witnessed him taming a growlithe.

“And this?” Peleus reached a hand to the zigzagoon, who offered a friendly sniff but remained loyally by Patroclus’ side.

“Iolaus,” Patroclus introduced quietly, allowing his gaze to rest on the creature’s familiar fur instead of sorting out the new man and the new room.

“You are both welcome here,” Peleus soothed kindly, understanding the boy’s fear. “There is a place prepared for you. My boy, Achilles, can show you.”

At mention of the name the music subsided. Patroclus turned around to see the golden boy and his growlithe stand, running the name through his mind a few times as if testing it before trying to speak it aloud. The last he had seen Achilles was the day of the ritual hunt, but Patroclus had been tucked away in the stalks of undistinguished grass while the demigod found his prince’s creature. If Achilles even remembered him it would be like that, hidden by a tangled field.

The growlithe stretched and the boy tucked his instrument under his arm. They both approached dutifully, though Patroclus imagined it grew tiresome to keep shepherding new exiles to their quarters, especially for someone this dignified. Achilles’ face was not bored, however. Perhaps it was almost inquisitive.

“This way,” Achilles instructed, approaching Patroclus for a moment and then veering off, walking towards a narrow doorway. He nodded respectfully at his father but felt no need to stop and discuss matters further.

“Thank you,” Patroclus said quickly to Peleus. He then followed, haltingly at first as he tried to find a suitable gait. Iolaus fell in step behind Achilles with ease, tail swishing pleasantly, and the growlithe hesitated a moment to walk beside the zigzagoon rather than his own master.

Once through the doorway Achilles seemed to relax himself, away from the eyes of his father and the two sea dragons. It was not the release of nervous energy, rather a lightening of the mood. In this quiet hallway he glowed not like the glint off a bronze sculpture but like the rose-red fingertips of Dawn, the first reaches of new sunlight. Understated, soft, kinder but of a separate world. He was grounded by the quick, heavy steps of his growlithe, a creature who had not yet grown into its grace.

“His name is Argos,” Achilles said suddenly. He slowed and glanced over his shoulder. “I remember you, from that day. You beat me out of the woods.”

“Iolaus,” Patroclus blurted out in response, processing this revelation. “His name is Iolaus.”

“You didn’t use anything to catch him,” Achilles continued, speaking with the sort of clarity that comes from many hours spent on a thought. “Everyone else had a rope or a chain, but not you.”

“Or you,” Patroclus pointed out.

“But you were first.” Achilles’ eyes glimmered with intrigue. “How did you do it?”

Patroclus regarded the zigzagoon. “I didn’t, really. I just found him in the meadow, and he didn’t run away. I was supposed to keep looking until I found something like… like Argos. But I couldn’t.”

Achilles shook his head and the pace quickened once more. “They think it’s a fight, that you have to conquer the best one. I think it’s supposed to be different.”

“I saw you, too,” Patroclus admitted reluctantly, though he was soothed by Argos and Iolaus’ matching fumbling footfalls. “I was in the meadow when you found him.”

“Really?” Achilles was walking very fast now, almost an entire pace ahead of Patroclus. He had a new determination, and darted sharply down an adjacent hallway as if on a whim. Of course Patroclus followed, no knowledge of where he was or where he was supposed to be without his guide. “I have something for you. I’ve been saving him since that day, for the one who beat me.”

They were in an antechamber of sorts, but it had a gaping door leading outside. Patroclus couldn’t bring any more words to mind, but he resisted the idea somewhat. Achilles set down his lyre and stepped outside, Iolaus wiggling past him to reach the soft grass and Argos following the striped tail with glee. Achilles chuckled but even that was not enough to tempt another thought from Patroclus’ mouth.

“My father gives all the boys an eevee,” Achilles explained, leading Patroclus down a well-worn path to a cluster of boulders and small bushes, arranged almost intentionally. “This one is special, though. He belongs with someone like you.”

Patroclus could see ears and tail tufts poking out of the prickly leaves, and the pleasant trilling of the eevees attempting to hide within. As they approached the little tan specks disappeared and the calls hushed promptly, save one. It churred as bold eevees did, and popped entirely out of the bushes to sit on the highest boulder. Even from its perch it was only eye level with Achilles, but it was not deterred. This was an old game for it, always taunting the golden boy. Patroclus peered over Achilles’ shoulder, afraid to stand beside him even when he was supposedly receiving a gift.

The eevee’s tail swished humorously but then it noticed Patroclus. It was assertively curious, leaning to the side to see around Achilles, poised as if to jump right at him. Achilles stepped aside, eyes bright, facing them both. Argos circled Achilles’ feet and sat at his side, while Iolaus sniffed curiously at the bushes. Patroclus inhaled deeply and extended a hand to the eevee. When the eevee waited, he held out both hands and the creature leapt into them, surprising him even though its weight was easy to bear as he pulled it to his chest. He smiled instinctively and the eevee smiled back. Iolaus straightened up and seemed to grin as well, happily placing a paw on Patroclus’ thigh to balance while he sniffed at the new eevee.

“My father thought he should be mine,” Achilles continued. “He showed up the day we got home from the rite, acting that way. I told my father I was training him but I knew he wasn’t meant for me.”

“Are you sure?” Patroclus mumbled, peering at Achilles timidly.

“You’ll have to tell my father he already gave you an eevee,” Achilles advised insistently. “He’ll believe it. This will be our secret, okay?”

Patroclus nodded, and he thought he felt the eevee nod as well.

“He needs a name,” Achilles urged. Each time he spoke it seemed expectant, awaiting a true response.

“Kallos,” Patroclus said boldly. Beautiful. He quickly corrected himself, “Kallias.”

“Kallias,” Achilles agreed, grinning. “He’ll do well with you.”

The rest of that afternoon was reasonably manageable, with introductions to other boys and the creatures they kept, and the customary eevees darting back and forth between feet and down hallways, always within eyesight of their handler. He saw Peleus again at dinner, though the boys sat with one another and the old man sat with his son away from them all. The kingdra and dragalge guarded their table stoically. He understood the nature of these creatures was to be serious but he was accustomed to his father’s golems being quietly angry after years of brutal training. Peleus’ two guards were different; they respected their master and wished the best for him, suspicious of anyone who could bring him harm. The night was bright and pleasant, at first, with everyone free to their own devices and the paths to and from the palace rich with boys and beasts. It began so idyllic, with the last flickers of sunlight used for short adventures. Patroclus kept Kallias on his shoulder—or head, depending on the whims of the eevee—and Iolaus bounced giddly by his feet no matter where he walked. Admittedly he saw little of Achilles, with so many people around vying for the golden boy’s attention, but he did not feel cast aside. It was a welcome party of sorts, running and chasing and fleeing with everyone, no concern for status. They were all family to one another, illuminated by bright stars and morelulls.

The moon was high in the sky when they were summoned back, and Patroclus was forced to fall in line with the boys. He hadn’t actually found out where he was supposed to stay, between Peleus and Achilles and the new Kallias yawning on his shoulder. Iolaus paced sluggishly behind him so he took the zigzagoon in his arms, noticing with pride many of the other boys were doing the same with their creatures. They all filed into one room, a barrack of sorts with little personal space allotted to each boy. All of the beds were disheveled in some way, save one, and when no one went to claim it Patroclus determined it was his. There were spare linens spread on the floor, and when he scanned the room they were all occupied by an eevee and the boy’s other animal, if he had one. Patroclus set Iolaus down on the neatly folded piece by his bed, and the zigzagoon instinctively crawled underneath to hide. Kallias stirred so he set the eevee down on the linen too. The whole room was dark, moonlight hidden behind thick curtains, and Patroclus fumbled his way into bed.

He stared sleeplessly until the darkness turned dim and he could see the boys asleep around him, their creatures dreaming peacefully on the floor. Unable to even think of shutting his eyes he reached a hand down, searching for Iolaus. The zigzagoon’s head pushed into his fingers with ease, and Iolaus was well versed in their routine and knew this was his invitation onto the bed. Patroclus sat up as Iolaus’ paws appeared, and attempted to push his head down but Iolaus was determined. He scrambled up, taking his customary spot at Patroclus’ feet. He couldn’t help but smile, comforted by the familiar routine, until Kallias’ bright eyes and soft huff caught his attention.

“But–” he whispered urgently, as the eevee landed on the bed in one smooth hop. Kallias regarded him bravely, daring him to lay down the law. He sighed, resigned, and laid back down. Within moments Kallias was curled up tightly beside his head. Sleep came easily after that.

The morning was much harsher. Every curtain had been pulled back and the full fury of the sun glared in, and while Patroclus was accustomed to rising at dawn to hide Iolaus he was not prepared for the noise. He rubbed his eyes and sat up, trying to block out the screech of beds being shoved aside and boys roughhousing with one another while they prepared for the day. Iolaus jumped up easily and Kallias yipped, stretching out his small paws and whirl of a tail in anticipation. All around eevees bounced and called to one another, more noticeable than any other creature in the room though they too darted around and played with their boys. It was chaotic but not entirely bad yet.

At breakfast the boys continued fighting, tossing their food around to the delight of many a poochyena and sneasel. Finding a place to sit was much more treacherous, too, and Patroclus had to protect his plate with his body just to ensure Iolaus and Kallias had something to eat themselves. Rattatas scurried about the halls, cleaning whatever the owned animals missed, invading Patroclus’ space when he finally found a spot at the table. Iolaus and Kallias warded them off with tooth and claw and warning growls. When the meal seemed to be done and the pack of boys prepared to move on Patroclus scanned the room for Argos or Achilles, but neither were to be found.

It was lessons then, the spear and short sword, with animals wandering about at first and then with them actively participating. Fighting was as much about the beast as it was the boy, after all. Kallias knew all the moves and steps and performed them easily with Patroclus, evidence of his training with the oddly absent Achilles, but his eyes were dull as he did them and Patroclus began to worry he was already the wrong person to have accepted the prized eevee. Iolaus, kind and determined, performed just as well as Kallias. He moved with rigid poise, showing Patroclus he could be just as polished as the other creatures who trained daily before this, and while it inspired Patroclus to do the same he knew the both of them were out of place trying.

They were freed for the hottest hour of the afternoon, and while boys sparred with each others’ monsters Patroclus took his two and set off on a small beaten path. It took a winding route but ran parallel to the edge of the grass and the beginning of hot sand. Iolaus tested the shifty ground and began darting around gleefully, kicking up great sprays with his crooked pathways. Kallias, no stranger to sand, chased Iolaus with new joy, and Patroclus watched them fondly. He longed to run with them but his limbs ached from the morning’s drills and his throat burned with thirst. For a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of gold just beyond Kallias and Iolaus, but it wasn’t anything more than a flash of sand.

He tried to reach the trees again by following the path, where it would finally leave behind sight of the stone fortress and he could hide from the sun, but he had no such luck as stern yelling from the palace drew all the boys back. There was water and old fruit waiting for them all, which Patroclus accepted for himself and the two animals that chased his heels, but then they were whisked back to training. The afternoon was hand to hand, physical, and Patroclus was thrown into the dirt by enough larger boys to forget all about the morning of spear work. Once he landed particularly sharply and Iolaus leapt between him and his attacker, growling. Kallias joined in but the sight of an eevee trying to protect anything drove the boys to laughter while Patroclus attempted to soothe the two creatures. And of course there were similar results when the boys were made to command their animals in fights, Kallias and Iolaus rushing to defend one another no matter how tightly Patroclus held back the assigned spectator.

When dinner came he was thankful the rest of the boys were exhausted, so the evening was temporarily peaceful as boy and beast alike enjoyed a richer meal. Peleus’ kingra and dragalge were sentinels again, casting stern eyes over the sea of dust and sweat, and Patroclus managed to find Achilles at one of the boys’ tables this night. Argos sat patiently at his feet, even as boys clambered to impress the golden prince and their creatures ran wild to match their energy. It was too far to tell, but to Patroclus it seemed Achilles barely noticed the antics of those around him.

He wanted to try talking to Achilles again, but even if he was able to fight his way to the golden boy he had no idea what to say. Yesterday Achilles was so fascinated by him, pressing for conversation and praising an accomplishment no one else had ever noticed. Patroclus had nothing else interesting enough to tell the demigod. When dinner ended he scrambled with Iolaus and Kallias back to the bunk room before the other boys, and threw off his soiled tunic when there was no one around. He heard the way the boys teased one another for things that didn’t exist, and he loathed to think what they would say of things that did. When he clambered into bed Iolaus rested on his feet and Kallias sat on his chest, easing his breathing. It was hours before the others returned to the room, after another evening playing with one another. He didn’t regret missing it.

The next day was more of the same, and the next and the next. He began to improvise with Kallias during morning practices, extending his spear not in a mock thrust but as a step for the eevee to climb onto his body. They made a better team this way, Kallias springing off his weapons or swiping from his perch or changing locations to help Patroclus maintain balance as he drilled. Iolaus, too, began switching his moves rather than mimicking the others. Though Patroclus was often clumsy when it came to footwork Iolaus darted between his legs in time, and practiced his own set of attacks that complimented Patroclus’. Their midday runs alternated between beach and forest and rocky bluff, Patroclus feeling assured he was not developing any new stamina. He was determined to make the most of his new surroundings anyway, and Iolaus and Kallias were always eager to explore with him regardless. He drank deeply from the water they were provided but he started turning down the fruit, stomach always in knots from the harsh mornings and fleeting moments of free time. He tried less and less to keep Kallias and Iolaus separated when fighting in the afternoon skirmishes, ultimately letting them work as a team whenever they saw fit. His instructors were heavy-handed with their criticism, telling him he lacked a spine if he so easily surrendered to the whims of his tiny animals and that he needed to enforce better behavior. For every boy that wrestled Patroclus into the dirt, however, there were at least two creatures who fell to the synchronized partners Iolaus and Kallias.

In the evenings he still looked for Achilles, both during and after the meals when he was at his most active with the rest of the boys. Often he caught Argos’ attention, and the growlithe wagged his tail happily to see him and his two animals, but it never drew the eye of Achilles. Some nights Patroclus was up for the nighttime games, which were much more lighthearted than the day’s training but still energetic and rough. It made days bearable but he was usually too tired to stay long and he was only ever favored to be tackled or tagged like a buneary pursued by flocks of skarmories anyway. When it was a better day Kallias merely pressed against him but when it was long, brutal and exhausting the eevee laid on his chest or back and the pressure from his meager weight lulled Patroclus to sleep.

Days bled into weeks, then months, and Patroclus grew more and more detached from the daily training. He noticed there was much more variation in the lessons, some days filled with marching or sprints or long runs all across the hillside and the rules of the afternoon spars were altered frequently. Instructors paid him no mind and he preferred it that way. When they were released in the middle of the day he, Iolaus, and Kallias travelled further away from the palace on grand trips, always distracting him from the inevitable return to fighting. At night he began a similar routine of wandering the grounds rather than play prey to the bigger boys, and Kallias made an excellent guide of all the best little secrets. He knew where diglets had made tunnels between walls, and where starlies perched in the rafters around the open throne room. If the palace held no new secrets he would wander away, to the forests teeming with zubats and hoothoots or the rocks where houndours howled. Iolaus and Kallias kept him safe more than once and he repaid the favor when possible, though the three of them all seemed to recognize Patroclus was not meant to wrestle even the frailest of wild animals.

It was over a year since he initially came to Phthia, but he was losing track. Without Iolaus or Kallias, he thought, it would have been impossible to stay so long. Once Peleus caught him on his daily escape from training and asked how he fared, and he knew from the look in the old man’s eyes his lies were not convincing. The kingdra and dragalge seemed disappointed in him too. His nighttime roaming grew bolder, almost as if he entered a new world by the light of the moon, and he, Iolaus and Kallias all took turns leading down unexplored paths. Like a game itself they pushed the limits to how far they could get in a single night while still returning to bed before the rest of the boys. He was so often ignored by the others that it came as a surprise when his closest neighbor suddenly pointed out he slept with an eevee on his chest. Of course there were jokes and incessant teasing infesting every moment of training and every raucous meal after that. Every boy had an eevee, but none of them would dare crawl onto their master’s bed once the barrack was settled in for the night. It was simply the rule. Patroclus couldn’t explain to them his eevee was different, that Kallias was a gift from Achilles himself and was unaccustomed to following the strict rules of men. He was pushed further and further from the other boys and did little to improve his standing when he avoided them at all costs.

Finally he had enough. When they were released for midday break he sprinted away, Iolaus chasing worriedly and Kallias gripping his shoulder frantically to stay on. The first path his feet could find was the one running parallel to the beach, but he veered off and plunged himself right into the sand. It was impossible to keep pace but his legs worked tirelessly to propel him forward anyway. The beach was long and unfamiliar, perfect for wandering, and he raced it until he collapsed on the sea-facing side of a dune. Kallias leapt off in time to protect himself and Iolaus flopped down beside him, nuzzling his arm with concern while Kallias churred and swished his tail anxiously. He panted hard and felt his skin withering under the sun but this stretch of beach was out of view from the palace so he felt safer. Iolaus whined, and Kallias yipped with increasing worry, and Patroclus kept his eyes trained on the blue sky overhead while his chest heaved.

A shadow crossed the sun suddenly, but his vision was blurry and he didn’t recognize the silhouette. A warm muzzle shoved into his shoulder, not Iolaus or Kallias because they had both jumped up to greet the newcomers. Patroclus turned his head to identify the muzzle, which was yellow and round and attached to none other than Argos.

“What are you doing out here?” Achilles asked, his face coming into focus.

Patroclus, still a good ways away from catching his breath, stared up at the golden boy. He managed to shake his head but he wasn’t sure how that answered any questions.

“They’re looking for you,” Achilles cautioned.

Patroclus felt tears prick in his eyes. “I can’t go.”

Achilles seemed to assess him. “Do you need water first?”

“I can’t go back.”

“You can’t stay out here either.” For a moment Achilles stared back in the direction of the palace, and then he sat down. Argos crawled into his lap.

Patroclus dragged himself up, supported by Iolaus and encouraged by Kallias. He was not about to cry in front of the golden prince. Let the gods strike him down before that happened.

“They say Kallias sleeps with you,” Achilles said suddenly, regarding the eevee. “And that you can’t fight without Iolaus trying to protect you. You all three protect each other, even.”

Patroclus nodded, rubbing his eyes with gritty hands.

Achilles scratched Argos’ head and stared intently at Patroclus, his eyes a comforting green reminiscent of the woods and somehow free of the usual critical edge most people took when observing Patroclus. “Come on. Let’s get some water.”

As he stood Argos stepped out of his lap. He offered a hand to Patroclus, which of course he could not refuse. When their fingers touched Patroclus blurted, “Please don’t let them take me.”

He was surprised but then it ebbed into craftiness. “They can’t, not when you’ve been running with me and Argos all this time.”

His voice made Kallias smile and Iolaus hop side to side, and Patroclus shook subtly as he stood with the golden boy’s aid. “Really? And this afternoon?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “they can’t take you if you’re in the middle of lyre practice with me.”

Chapter Text

Patroclus’ strength returned as he walked, though as it did he started to realize just what was happening. He was walking beside the golden prince, a position sought out by every other boy in the palace, and all it took was a desperate run to the sea. It was quiet aside from shifting sand and the distant sea, and Patroclus searched his mind for something, anything to say. Finally he had an opportunity to speak to Achilles, to impress him once again or at least amuse him. Argos led the way for them both, glancing frequently over his shoulder to ensure Achilles was following and Patroclus was keeping up, and Iolaus followed just behind him. Kallias, however, stuck close to Patroclus’ side and kept a close eye on him.

“He’s fond of you,” Achilles commented humorously. “Show me how you get him to go on your shoulder.”

“Oh, we just–” Patroclus hesitated, embarrassed at showing any fighting form to Achilles, but he forced his body into position with knees bent. He imagined he was holding a weapon, though off the top of his head he couldn’t remember which one this pose should have, and he kept one arm intentionally lower than it was supposed to be regardless. Kallias recognized the cue and hopped from Patroclus’ knee onto his arm, where Patroclus raised it into normal position and Kallias leapt carefully up to his shoulder perch. Quickly Patroclus imitated the thrust motion of a spear and Kallias shifted his weight so they both balanced easily. He dropped the pose after that. Achilles’ eyes were wide when he looked back.

“How did you teach him that?” the golden boy asked, glancing at Argos as if scheming.

“He just does it,” Patroclus explained timidly. It wasn’t the grand answer princes usually gave for the feats of their creatures but he couldn’t lie.

“What about that?”

Kallias was crawling onto Patroclus’ head.

“He does that too.” Patroclus couldn’t look down with the eevee on his head, forcing him to maintain eye contact with Achilles when he spoke. “I don’t think I teach him anything, really. We figure it out together.”

“Like this?” Achilles copied the move, arm down, effortlessly more graceful than Patroclus even in the static pose. Argos returned to his side eagerly, batting his knee with his front paws but not quite understanding the intent. Achilles laughed and tried to beckon the growlithe with his lowered hand, and Argos rested his paws there but did not climb any further.

Patroclus laughed too, encouraged. “Maybe it takes a few times.”

“Maybe he prefers the ground,” Achilles agreed good-naturedly, resuming his pace towards the palace. It was in view now, its sun bleached stone rising sharply out of the swaying green grasses, a different energy from this side than when he approached it from the hill. “He has his own tricks. Watch.”

With a subtle gesture Achilles commanded the growlithe to run ahead of them, and Argos stopped at the boundary between grass and sand with his stocky body squared towards the beach. Another quick signal from Achilles and Argos inhaled deeply. When he released the breath it came as a small plume of fire, quick to dissipate but impressive nonetheless for the small creature.

Patroclus was in awe. “How did you get him to do it?”

“Same as you. He did it on his own, so I taught him the signal.” Achilles beckoned the growlithe back. Iolaus darted out to greet the returning Argos, probably just as impressed as Patroclus.

“When will you take him to Apollo’s temple?” It was a logical question; most men induced the transformation as soon as possible to show their incredible might or their close connection to the gods.

Achilles shrugged, however, unconcerned with the thought. “When he’s ready. I know the way they want us to do it, in front of as many people as possible, but Argos isn’t like that. He’s never even made fire in front of anyone else.”

“Anyone?” Patroclus echoed. Kallias shifted on his head curiously.

“He likes you,” Achilles replied simply, as if it was obvious. “I thought he would do it for you, since you’re the way you are with Kallias and Iolaus.”

They were just a few steps away from the palace now, and Patroclus fell behind Achilles. For all his exploration he was unfamiliar with the human paths through it and would have to rely on Achilles for a way through. Argos and Iolaus bounded inside together, Achilles followed, and Patroclus stumbled in last. Kallias moved down to his shoulder then.

“Is he your only one?” Patroclus ventured. Since Achilles always spoke honestly and unbridled he was growing bolder. There were no mind games, no politics and power plays, just honest conversation. It did seem to suit Achilles, this question.

“No, but my mother is ashamed for me to be seen with Korinthia.” Achilles led them to the kitchens, where an urn of cool water waited unspoiled. Patroclus submerged cupped hands into it and drank deeply, more grateful than he realized. Achilles continued, “She’s disappointed I even gave her a name.”

Patroclus gulped down the water in his hands and refilled them. “What is Korinthia?”

“I’ll show you later.” Achilles leaned against the wall. “When we run tomorrow.”

When he thought of surviving the rest of the day, Patroclus had forgotten to consider the days beyond. He startled at the sound, at the promise of avoiding more training, and spilled the water from his hands.

Achilles raised his eyebrows. “We can walk some.”

“Thank you.” He didn’t think the words were enough but they were all he had. Once more he cupped his hands, but this time he offered the water to Kallias, and Iolaus, and even Argos. They all three drank happily and wagged their tails while they did.

They left the water behind then, Achilles leading with purpose and Patroclus following almost nervously. If anyone important caught him there would be questions he was unprepared to answer, and he disliked the idea of trying to lie. Anyone in their right mind would know he was not running with Achilles and would hardly believe the boy who couldn’t stop an eevee from literally walking all over him would ever turn the head of the golden prince. The lyre master was certainly confused when they entered the lesson room, but he could not protest when Achilles stated Patroclus was there on his instruction. Kallias refused to leave his shoulder and Iolaus chittered when Patroclus’ clumsy fingers first attempted a chord, to the master’s dismay and Achilles’ amusement. Achilles had years of practice over Patroclus and flowed through a common song with ease, the room silent aside from it. Even Kallias seemed impressed, the eevee who had outright denied the prince’s companionship.

The master requested a more complicated song next, which Achilles began beautifully until Argos’ ears twitched. He slowed intentionally, watching the growlithe who had never been so intrigued by his music before, and as he strummed the next sequence of chords Argos bayed along happily. The master was aghast but Achilles was delighted, returning to the original pace while Argos changed his ill-tuned notes along with it. Patroclus restrained himself at first, still trying to prove he belonged in the room, but then Argos leapt to his feet and threw his head back while howling and Patroclus lost himself to laughter. At some point the lyre master must have left, because when the song ended Achilles launched into another with no instruction and Argos woofed along quietly. Patroclus watched, mesmerized, and one song became many. Sometimes Achilles sang and sometimes Argos did, one beautiful and the other boisterous, and they stayed in the room together until the halls filled with the warm scent of meat roasting over fires. Only then did Achilles set the instrument down, and they walked side by side to the hallway full of tables and rambunctious boys.

At first their arrival was understated, but Achilles drew a crowd naturally and tonight when he did there was added bafflement. The prince was only ever accompanied by his growlithe, and almost every night someone demanded he tell the story of taming Argos, but tonight all they asked was why feeble Patroclus would dare stand so close to their prince. While Achilles searched for a seat many boys reminded him how Patroclus let an eevee sleep on his body at night, and how Patroclus could not fight without the eevee interfering. Eevees clambered around tables and between legs at dinner anyway, yet one disrupting a wrestling session was unheard of? Achilles said as much and demanded a place for Patroclus when at last he took a spot. No one denied the prince, of course, but it certainly did not stop them from questioning him. He ate in silence, and Patroclus did the same, and not a single boy bothered him so long as he existed in Achilles’ presence.

When they were released outside for the nighttime games there were the usual rounds of insisting Achilles join in, worn out pleas and unconvincing arguments, and they rolled off Achilles as if he didn’t even notice the people around him. It was almost a public display when he asked Patroclus what he would prefer to do, which meant Patroclus had to decide whether to stay and assume his usual subservient role or admit to everyone where he actually wanted to go.

“Running,” he answered at last, and Achilles nodded.

They took a rocky path that Patroclus had learned well over the months. Boys tried to accompany them but something about Kallias’ warning growls suddenly seemed to sink in. Perhaps it was Argos joining in, or Achilles stopping to stare down all the boys that followed. Patroclus ran on at his typical pace and Achilles caught up easily. He was also accustomed to the trail but seemed confused when Patroclus began to walk.

At that point they were deep into the hill and Iolaus was hopping up on the boulders bordering the path. Argos joined him, which surprised Achilles, and Kallias finally left Patroclus’ shoulder to do the same. Patroclus followed the trail for a while, and then they reached the section of rock with the most secure handholds so he joined the animals. Achilles watched for a moment, and Patroclus could practically hear him questioning why this counted as running. He joined in anyway, though, scaling sheer cliffs while Patroclus searched for gentler slopes. Iolaus jumped around easily and Kallias could almost walk normally across rocks with his minimal weight and quick steps. Argos came from a place like this, and was practically giddy while he explored.

The end of this detour, Patroclus knew, was the entrance to a cave where noibats lived. They reached it after a bit more climbing, and Patroclus sat to watch the great migration out with his ears firmly covered. As long as they kept quiet the noibats kept their paralyzing calls to themselves but it never hurt to be cautious. Achilles watched them fly, fascinated, his green eyes glimmering with intermittent stars and creatures. When the last stragglers were out of range Patroclus dared to whisper, “I want to see the noiverns come out.”

Achilles matched both his tone and his enthusiasm. “Noiverns live in there?”

“Don’t they?”

“I–” Achilles frowned gently, “I don’t know. They should. I’ve never seen one before.”

“Me neither,” Patroclus confided.

“I saw an altaria once,” Achilles said excitedly, shifting positions to lean closer to Patroclus. “It was far away but I still saw it.”

Patroclus recalled the swablus he had seen when he first journeyed to Phthia. They lived higher up in the hills and were bound to flock around altarias somewhere. “What was it like?”

“Like a piece of sky.” Achilles beamed. “We should do it ourselves. We could catch a noibat and a swablu, and work with them every day until they become a noivern and an altaria.”

Patroclus’ heart skipped a beat. “How long would that take?”

“I don’t care. We could do it.”

The noibats were long gone; Patroclus scanned the skies for them. Nevertheless he met Achilles’ eyes eagerly. “Okay. We should.”

They began to descend the rocks with their current three creatures, half-formulating plans for when to return to the cave in search of a noibat. It was a dangerous plan but Patroclus had never seen such excitement out of Achilles and he longed to see it more. Before today his usual experiences with the golden boy were limited to watching him pass disdainfully by, occupied with his unique schedule and personal whims. All the boys were alike in that way, hoping for a moment of Achilles’ time.

“Why don’t you have an eevee?” Patroclus wondered aloud, thinking on the barracks full of them and their abundance all around the palace walls.

“Because I gave him to you.”

Patroclus flushed, grateful for the limited moonlight tonight. “Right.”

“I have my own ideas about what I want,” Achilles added, his eyes teasing but his words sincere. “I like eevees, but my father gives them to everyone like they’re all part of a matched set. I don’t want to be part of that set.”

Patroclus glanced at his own eevee, trotting ahead happily with his tail flowing like a standard. Was that how Achilles saw him?

“Kallias is different,” Achilles said as if hearing his thoughts. “He’s not like any of them.”

After saying so Achilles watched Patroclus for a time, but Patroclus convinced himself not to think too hard about it.

They parted ways for the night when they reached the palace’s main doors, the other boys still darting about with their beasts close behind. Achilles decided to stay with them a while but he allowed Patroclus to go his own way after they promised to meet first thing in the morning for more running. Kallias yawned so Patroclus carried him back to the barracks, while Iolaus skipped pleasantly to their bed. Everything about it was a typical night, Patroclus first back to the empty barracks after an adventure, but his mind whirled with plans and agreements and the pure joy in Achilles’ face. He laid down with Iolaus against his feet and Kallias by his head, and though sleep was slow to come he did not mind spending a few more moments remembering his day with the golden prince.

He was not asleep when the boys returned and started preparing for the night. They talked quickly to each other, discussing Patroclus’ sudden status and the odd enthusiasm Achilles had for their games that particular night. Then a hand grabbed Patroclus’ shoulder and pulled him up, and he opened his eyes to the flame of a small torch. It blinded him after he had spent all evening adjusting to darkness, so he could not see which boys held it.

“How did you get out of lessons?” the torch-bearer demanded. “How did you get Achilles to pay attention to you?”

“He just did it,” Patroclus fumbled, the flame too close to his eyes for him to see anything else. He could hear Kallias growling angrily but he sounded restrained.

“Why?” another nearby boy pressed aggressively. “Why would he go running with you?”

Iolaus snarled, an utterly new sound from him, and then yelped. Patroclus flinched at the sound and assumed someone had just pinned the zigzagoon.

“I didn’t do anything. I was running on my own and he found me, and he said I could stay with him.”

“That can’t be it,” the torch-bearer huffed. Irked muttering agreed.

“It’s true, I swear.” Iolaus kept snarling with increasing anger and Patroclus tried to free himself from the mysterious grip. “I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t say anything else. Let them go.”

The words resonated in his chest, reminiscent of a long buried memory. It scared him but it should scare these boys more.

Someone behind the torch-bearer yelled, “You won’t do it again, whatever it was.”

Patroclus braced himself, able to see the shadows of boys contorted to strike. It was not everyone by any means, but there were enough. He saw Kallias struggle in the arms of a stranger and Iolaus writhe under the boy pinning him, and the shadows seemed to be pushing in when the flame of the torch suddenly grew bigger and brighter. The torch-bearer held fast to it but forgot about Patroclus for a moment while he watched it burn as if enraged. Its light seemed to fade but another light sparked, engulfing the jagged shadow of Iolaus. The captor sprang up and all the boys—including the ones not involved—crowded around in time to see the glowing edges of Iolaus smooth out into crisp, intentional curves. When the glow subsided the zigzagoon was gone, and in his place was a linoone.

The torch-bearer gasped and stuttered, eyes darting between Patroclus and Iolaus. The linoone gathered himself for a moment, just as awed as the boys, but then reared and snarled again at the assembled boys. Patroclus noted the torch-bearer’s face and recalled his name, and did the same for the boy rudely clutching Kallias. The torch-bearer muttered something frustratedly but ran off across the room before Iolaus could test the strength of his new claws. The other assailants dispersed, releasing Kallias, but many boys lingered, whispering with surprise and excitement at what they had just witnessed. Hestia had bestowed her blessing on Iolaus, and Patroclus was the first in the barrack to have his creature transform in such a way.

When they all finally returned to their beds Iolaus hopped up with Patroclus as if nothing had transpired. He was bigger now but still managed to fit just fine. Kallias leapt gratefully up too, sniffing Iolaus eagerly for a moment before settling in on Patroclus’ chest, tempering the rapid beating of the heart within.

The next morning he rose earlier than usual, beating dawn by a few moments in his excitement to meet Achilles for running. Seeing Iolaus was a bit of a surprise, the sleek head and blue eyes so strange when he was accustomed to a zigzagoon, but Iolaus wagged his tail nonetheless and jumped out of bed the same as always. Kallias refused to move off Patroclus’ shoulder, understandably, so he had to dress around the eevee. By the time he left the barrack other boys were just beginning to rise, regarding him with a bit more deference when he passed by. He couldn’t find the assailants from the night, but he didn’t look very hard.

He navigated through the palace and outside, the morning bright and the grass still dewy. They decided to meet in the back where the doorway faced open beach but Patroclus didn’t know how to find it from inside, and in any case the day was nice enough to enjoy the walk. Wingulls soared far overhead, and he thought he could see splashes of pink from corsolas playing in the low tide sands. Iolaus ran ahead of him after realizing this was the morning’s lesson, his path now flowing and curved and his feet light on the ground. His overwhelmingly tan coat blended well with the tawny grass and speckles of beach sand, a more efficient hunter than the sweet zigzagoon he had stumbled upon in that meadow. Patroclus rounded the final corner of the palace where its stone faded to white first, and the linoone returned from the field soon after.

“Iolaus!” Achilles, just emerging from the doorway, ran straight for the linoone with Argos on his heels. “Look at you!”

Patroclus waved haltingly, deciding it was the most appropriate greeting. Achilles had his hands on Iolaus’ head but his attention turned to Patroclus.

“I was going to surprise you,” Achilles said excitedly, “but you beat me again. How did it happen?”

“Last night he was protecting me.” Patroclus hesitated, then fully processed Achilles’ words. “What surprise?”

“It can wait,” Achilles insisted quickly, leaving Iolaus to assess Patroclus. “What do you mean, he was protecting you?”

Patroclus shuffled his feet. “It was nothing. Some of the others were, um…”

Achilles frowned. “Did they hurt you?”

“They didn’t get the chance.”

“Kallias and Iolaus?”

“I don’t think so.”

Achilles pondered for a moment. “They’re going to regret it. I chose you as my companion.”

“You,” the full weight of the situation was still settling on Patroclus, “chose me?”

“I already spoke to my father. You’ll never have to do anything you don’t want again.” Though he tried to seem serious Achilles broke into a smile anyway. “If those boys threaten you again they’ll have to take it up with me.”

“But, why?” Patroclus reached nervously for Kallias, who nuzzled his hand. “Why me?”

Achilles raised an eyebrow. “Why not you? Who else beat me finding Argos by finding Iolaus? Who else could tame Kallias? Who else is going to find noiverns with me?”

Patroclus smiled softly and looked to his feet. “Are we still running?”

“And meeting Korinthia.” The golden boy beamed and began to run, beckoning Patroclus to follow as Argos and Iolaus slipped off into the sand together.

Naturally Achilles was faster, which suited him as perfectly as Patroclus’ admittedly slow pace suited him. He was almost sprinting to keep up but he had nothing left to prove. He was companion to the golden demigod, and he was the first to have a creature transform. Keeping up was merely a formality now. They raced along the beach to the hard packed sand near the sea, where Achilles extended his stride and the gap between them widened. Patroclus slowed, awestruck, and stopped entirely while Achilles threw his arms into each step and outpaced even Iolaus. It was no wonder Achilles ran barefoot; no mortal invention could improve him.

Achilles slowed to a light jog and looked over his shoulder, laughing over the whispering of the sea. He stopped and waited while Patroclus closed the gap at his own easygoing pace. Kallias leapt off his shoulder midstep and bounded alongside him, trilling happily when they reached Achilles. They jogged for a time after that, side by side, Achilles a bit too slow and Patroclus a bit too fast, Kallias and Argos on their heels and Iolaus darting in winding loops around them. Then they walked, as Achilles promised, and detailed their plans for heading into the hills that afternoon in search of swablus. Catching one was the easy part, so they then discussed ways to make it worthy of a transformation, all the places in the woods to run and climb and dodge without ever raising a weapon. They both disliked the idea of lessons with it, after all the days spent trying to drill with Kallias in the same manner as all the boys, but agreed transformations were not granted by sitting inside a palace. While they debated what to do and picked apart the advice of every man who had ever told them how to train their animals Achilles directed them into a small cove, where the water was shockingly deep but calm. He pointed at its center where a round shape bobbed just underneath the surface and changed subjects seamlessly.

“This is Korinthia,” he introduced proudly.

The shape appeared suddenly, gracelessly, two big sunken eyes and dull beige scales. It was a feebas.

“She’s,” Patroclus cleared his throat, “small.”

“For now,” Achilles allowed, tapping the surface of the water with a toe to summon Korinthia to him. “I’ve had her since I was little.”

“But why can’t you take her out of the sea?” Patroclus wondered. “Peleus has the kingdra, and the dragalge.”

“My mother won’t allow it,” Achilles explained grimly, as the feebas splashed her ragged fins and seemed to smile at him. “I would like to have her with me, but you know how they are about the creatures a prince can have.”

“But everyone knows what she’ll become,” Patroclus reasoned, trying to justify taking Korinthia away from this distant cove.

“I don’t care about what she’ll become, I like her how she is.” Achilles shook his head. “It wouldn’t matter. My mother.”

Patroclus thought hard on everything he had heard about Achilles’ mother, the elusive sea nymph, and he supposed it was only natural a goddess would demand the best creatures for her son. He was surprised Achilles was not constantly accompanied by his own kingdra.

“Maybe we’ll bring our swablu here,” Patroclus offered. “If Korinthia can’t come with us we can come to her.”

Achilles brightened subtly. “We can. I think she’ll like that.”

Patroclus made eye contact with Korinthia, and after a moment he smiled to her. She blew bubbles in the water and floated clumsily in a circle, which made Achilles laugh.

“She does that when she’s happy,” he explained as if translating from another language.

They stayed with Korinthia a little longer, walking to separate sides of the cove and calling the feebas between them with ripples on the water. Argos and Iolaus entertained themselves and Kallias watched Korinthia with wide eyes, chittering to her in the shared tongue of the beasts. By the time the sun had fully risen they were running back to the palace with sand clinging to their wet toes, laughing and breathless as they stumbled into the hall with the other boys for the end of breakfast. Word had already spread of Patroclus’ new station, and when Achilles found a seat Patroclus was beckoned to his side by everyone. The usual chaos was quelled around them, even when Kallias spent the meal on Patroclus’ head. Iolaus received new attention as well, the illustrious first to transform.

The other boys were pulled along for lessons but they stayed, enjoying the rest of their meal in each others’ company and joking quietly about the ill-behaved eevees that darted around the hall when Kallias remained in one place. The moment Patroclus swallowed his last bite Achilles leapt to his feet, and then they were out on the steep path up the hill with Argos and Iolaus clambering ahead of them. The sky was blindingly blue and the wind was brisk, poor weather for finding an animal that resembled tufts of cloud, but half the excitement was the search. Patroclus knew swablus were friendly, that they enjoyed the company of humans. Once they found a flock they would have no trouble.

When they reached a place where the path levelled off and the surrounding ground felt more secure they stopped. There were white downy feathers in the grass and imprints of tiny clawed feet in the dust, sure signs that a swablu had at least roosted here once. Kallias jumped off Patroclus and sniffed around, sneezing when a feather brushed his nose, but as soon as the eevee was gone a chance visitor took up the place on his head.

“Achilles,” he whispered, and despite the more pressing circumstances he realized this was the first time he had ever said the name aloud.

Achilles turned from his investigation and laughed immediately. “There really isn’t a thing in the world that doesn’t love you.”

A swablu had alighted on his head. Patroclus grinned sheepishly and shrugged, and the swablu puffed its feathers comfortably. “What do we do now?”

“We take her home,” Achilles determined. “See if you can touch her.”

Patroclus slowly reached a hand up to the swablu. She chirped but remained in place, and his fingertips brushed her cloudlike feathers gently. He didn’t dare lift her. She cooed softly so he removed his hand. “I think she’ll come with us.”

“She’ll come with you,” Achilles corrected, offering his hand to the swablu. She made a soft noise to him, not hostile but much less friendly than she had been to her perch. “You have to name her.”

“I will if she stays with us all the way home,” Patroclus agreed cautiously, trying to look up at the swablu without disturbing her. Kallias stood at his feet, tail swishing in jealousy, but he was worried the swablu would leave if Kallias was too close. Iolaus was further up the rocks, unaware of the boys, while Argos watched the swablu with intense focus. Nothing swayed her, though. Patroclus could feel her tiny warmth, settled in against him, dedicated to staying. But he still thought it best to wait until they were back to truly commit to a name. Back home. It was the first time he admitted the palace was anything beyond his prison.

They started back down the path, carefully picking footholds but even so the swablu flapped off his head as he stumbled down a sharp decline. She didn’t leave, however. When he found his balance again she was hovering next to him, wings beating eagerly, tiny eyes bright and engaged. Apparently she really was dedicated. He kept walking down the hill, better now that he had found the actual trail, and she followed cheerfully. Achilles trailed behind, quietly observant. It was strange, Patroclus thought, to lead the golden boy back to his own palace and on the road from his old life, no less. Iolaus darted out ahead of them both, sturdy on the slope like he had never been before. Kallias was jumping off his calf while he walked so he assumed one of the adapted fighter stances to let him up. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Achilles mimic it once more, and Argos hopped almost correctly but the growlithe still did not grasp what he was supposed to do. By the time they returned to the palace the swablu had taken to Achilles too, nesting in his golden hair when she realized no jealous eevees rode there. She received both their hands fondly already, and wiped the dust from their nails with her wings.

“She still needs a name,” Achilles reminded him as they entered the palace through the intimidating front gates. The swablu flew in after them, and the grounded animals trotted in after her.

“She should be yours,” Patroclus insisted, recalling Korinthia stuck in her cove and Kallias so insistently gifted to him. “I already have two.”

“She chose you first.” Achilles thought for a moment, then smiled. “We’ll both train her. She’ll be both of ours until we catch a noibat.”

“Deal.” Patroclus offered his hand to the swablu, who perched on his fingers and seemed to smile. “What about a name?”

“Kassandra?” Achilles suggested.

The swablu tilted her head towards him, perhaps nodding.

“Kassandra, Kallias, and Korinthia,” Patroclus said without thinking. The sounds rolled together beautifully, like a poem.

“Things wouldn’t be any different if you asked for another name,” Achilles justified. “I would have said Cleopatra.”

There was afternoon lyre practice, shorter than the previous session because the master insisted all beasts wait outside. Achilles played just as beautifully and Patroclus struggled through a single song before resigning himself to merely watching. They then rejoined the creatures and went off to more structured lessons on poetry and history, subjects Patroclus had never been allowed to study before, and in the latest part of the afternoon they wandered past the training grounds where boys wrestled and sparred. Special effort was made to turn their heads, but only Patroclus looked.

During the evening meal Kassandra was the main attraction, drawing praise for Achilles and Patroclus alike, and Peleus himself lauded them for committing to the ambitious goal of transforming a swablu. She played her part well, flitting about eagerly as if performing tricks while eevees sprang playfully after her. The evening games that followed the meal seemed particularly exciting that night but Achilles shrugged off invitations to play by stating he and Patroclus were going running. Just like before they started with a real jog, Patroclus in the lead and Kallias on his shoulder, Argos and Iolaus following by the sides of their masters, Kassandra soaring overhead, and Achilles watching them all while he worked to keep his pace slow.

They waited at the noibat cave but could not determine how to catch one. Kassandra rested on Patroclus’ head while Kallias sat on his shoulder and all five of them watched stars flicker. If the noibats eluded them they would at least enjoy the view from that cave. Eventually they began discussing how best to capture a noibat, when the swablu had chosen them so easily and they had tamed everything else with outstretched hands and sincerity. From there the conversation drifted, to the dreams Patroclus had when he was incredibly young about the creatures he would befriend and the story of Achilles encountering Korinthia in the seafoam where he played. Then it was the place Patroclus had left behind, the estate of his father with the kennels and the running paths and the rocky outcrop and the boy.

Achilles was no stranger to Patroclus’ circumstances, at least in the sense that he knew Patroclus had been sent to Phthia in exile. If he was only now learning the story behind why he didn’t show it, listening intently while stroking Argos. Patroclus told him of how Iolaus had been snatched from where he stood, how they struggled over the zigzagoon and Patroclus had sealed the boy’s fate with one push. The sound, and the blood, and the fastest sprint of his life. He shook by the time the story finished tumbling out, and Kallias pushed his nose into Patroclus’ cheek while he struggled to shove all the memories of that day back into the dark vault where they belonged. Achilles was quiet for a long time, but his face was untroubled and his eyes sincere.

“Patroclus,” he said at last. It was only his name but it was electrifying to hear from the demigod’s mouth. “I’m happy you’re here.”

By the time they left the noibat cave and returned home the nighttime games were long over and all the palace inhabitants were asleep. They walked in together but when Patroclus turned for the barrack Achilles caught him by the arm, ushering him wordlessly down a different hall. It led them to a room that faced the sea, larger than the one Patroclus had in his father’s home, with two beds set on separate walls. Achilles went to the one underneath the large window and settled into it—Patroclus noted with a twinge of validation how Argos hopped up beside him. Patroclus waited a moment, staring at the sea through the window, before he approached the unoccupied bed. It was pristine and tidy, never used, brought in especially for him sometime in the day. He sank into it. Iolaus positioned himself at his feet, and Kallias on his chest, and Kassandra cooed sweetly to him but perched elsewhere to sleep. He was awake for an indeterminate amount of time after that, listening to the distant hushing of the sea and the rhythmic breathing of Achilles, and watching the golden boy’s chest rise and fall under the bleaching light of the moon. When he slept it was dreamless, but when he awoke the next morning he had the odd sensation of a lingering emotion.

Chapter Text

Achilles always rose first, though Patroclus was almost certain he was awake first. He was slow to stir, and sat petting Argos for a while before actually leaving his bed. Patroclus followed this lead, taking extra time to greet each of his animals and stepping slowly when he left his bed. They both dressed in tunics that did not bear the dust and sand of a day’s adventure. Achilles waited patiently while Patroclus fixed his old sandals on his feet. The demigod, of course, did not wear them. Weeks passed this way and Patroclus was settling in to the routine with more enthusiasm than he ever had for drilling, though he was still hesitant to the idea of sharing a room with Achilles.

That day they took to the beach for a morning run, following a similar pattern of Achilles pushing himself to divine speed while Patroclus walked and watched in awe. Kassandra enjoyed gliding through strong ocean winds that tested her cloudy wings and Argos raced Iolaus. Kallias was content with his place on Patroclus’ shoulder until they reached Korinthia’s cove, when the eevee dove straight into the water to swim with her. Patroclus amused himself with the feebas but Achilles seemed distracted, listening to the throaty whisper of the waves. Eventually he urged Patroclus to wait and walked out of the cove alone, even Argos remaining within the sanctuary of the narrow bluffs. He was unsettled, but Korinthia bumped his submerged knees reassuringly. Her cove was protected from whatever Achilles had gone to face alone.

He returned after only a little time, serious and stoic but less troubled than before. They parted with Korinthia and walked the beach while Achilles explained he had gone to see his mother, the sea nymph Thetis. She was still upset with how he tended the feebas, but her more urgent questions surrounded his new companion. Patroclus hoped for approval but the way Achilles struggled to describe the meeting did not inspire confidence. Achilles promised she could not dictate what he did, nor have any say in who he chose for a companion. Patroclus forced aside thoughts of a sea nymph crawling out of a palace of binacles and shellders just to speak ill of him; he still walked the beach with his ankles in the waves, and no nefarious creatures pulled him underwater.

Their return walk continued, and Achilles’ mood lightened as he told Patroclus of a dream he had that night. It was a simple premise but like all dreams made no sense to Patroclus. He listened anyway, thinking of his own dreamless nights and the growlithe curled up beside the golden boy. They jogged some for the last stretch to the palace, in case anyone should look out for them.

When they ate that morning Peleus announced to all the boys they would be allowed to travel starting that day, but only to face a specific list of revered kings in challenges to test their worth as men and beast handlers. Peleus himself was one such king, and he would receive all who wished to face his trial starting that afternoon. In another lifetime Patroclus would have dreaded such an announcement, as his own father would have shipped him off immediately to the nearest king and refused Patroclus’ return until every single one had been beaten. He would have made the challenges sound like brutal fights. But when Patroclus looked at Peleus and the two beasts at his sides he was encouraged; this was not the kind of king to force animals and children to battle.

Achilles brought him on a forest path after the morning meal, suggesting eagerly that they participate in the trials. He laid out a plan, half-formed and ambitious, limited by how well he knew the geography of the world. It wasn’t a set of trials to prove status to him—how could it be, when he was already a demigod—but the latest grand adventure. There would be days and nights on narrow pathways through mountains and valleys, between ancient trees, amid tended farms. How many creatures would they encounter as they went? Achilles tried to count. When Kassandra landed on his head he laughed and kept explaining how they would be much more worthy of her transforming if they had some bigger adventures. Maybe along the way they would even learn how to tame noibats.

It was tempting. Patroclus could taste more freedom now than ever in his life, the ability to leave on a quest no matter how long it took or where it took him. Achilles would be beside him at every step, assurance he would be safe from any potential harm. But at the same time it would almost certainly mean fighting and battles and all the things he hated most about kings. What if his own father were one of them? He could never return there, exile or not.

When they returned in the afternoon for lyre practice Patroclus spent the lesson considering. Achilles sang songs of journeys and heroes today, and though their creatures were still banished to wait outside Kassandra fluttered in anyway and roosted on Patroclus to listen. She liked the songs, their energy and perhaps their lyrics too. She was destined to be the companion of a real hero, a bold altaria with storm clouds for wings and the draconic power of Zeus himself, not the meager swablu of a timid boy. If he could he would insist Achilles take her on the journey himself but Achilles would never allow it. Either Patroclus transformed Kassandra or no one would. He realized only experience would tell him what these challenges entailed, so the only course forward would be to participate. He would go to Peleus that afternoon; however this first trial went would determine if he would go to the rest.

He told Achilles as much when the lyre master gave up and left, and the other three creatures came bounding in eagerly. It scared him so much to say aloud, to admit he was ready to start the trials in this very place, but Achilles’ grin was bright as he had ever seen it. They practically sprinted down the halls together to find Peleus in the main hall seated on his throne, the kingdra and dragalge nowhere to be seen. A few other boys stood around, preparing for their turn to face the trial with eevees and other various creatures by their sides. No one seemed to have the nerve to actually face the challenge, though. Perhaps they were here because it was an excuse to skip gruelling lessons.

Achilles walked right up to his father but waited expectantly for Patroclus to speak.

“We’ve come to take your challenge,” Patroclus announced, voice wavering, but he kept his eyes on Peleus.

The old man smiled warmly, gaze shifting from Patroclus to Achilles and back. “You must each go alone, and you may only bring one beast with you. Do you still wish to proceed?”

Patroclus nodded before fear could stop him. Achilles also nodded, enthusiastically.

“Patroclus,” Peleus addressed him, “go to the sea with your chosen beast. Retrieve the token and return it to me by sunrise tomorrow.”

“I will,” he vowed quietly. It seemed fitting to face his first trial with his first companion, so he prepared to announce Iolaus as his choice.

“Achilles,” Peleus continued, shifting to face his son, “go to the foothills. You must also retrieve the token and return by sunrise.”

His eyes were full of fire when Achilles declared, “I will be back before the sun sets today.”

“Go, then.” Peleus waved his hand to dismiss them. “I will know if you break my rules.”

Patroclus and Achilles and all four of their creatures left the hall together, and then the palace altogether. The sea and the foothills were in opposite directions, and it was no mistake Achilles was being sent well away from his mother’s domain. Patroclus felt there was no harm in making the journey to the beach alongside Kallias and Kassandra as well, but before he could set off Achilles caught him by the forearm.

“Do you have a plan?” the golden boy asked urgently.

“Am I supposed to?” Patroclus rubbed Iolaus’ head, the linoone weaving around his legs.

“The token will be held by one of my father’s dragons,” Achilles explained. “You need to find a way out to sea, and trap them against the beach where they will be too slow to evade you.”

“Isn’t this breaking the rules?” Patroclus worried.

“We can’t accompany one another, but he never said we couldn’t plan together.”

“How are you going to find yours?” Patroclus wondered aloud, regarding the rocky foothills and scanning for any signs of the mysterious token.

“It will be hidden somewhere my father thinks I’ll never look,” Achilles determined. “So I will look where he won’t expect.”

Patroclus looked down at their feet, his own concealed with fraying sandals and Achilles’ bare against the earth. “I hope you really do find it before sunset.”

“Of course I will. And I will wait for you to find yours so we can greet my father together.”

Then they parted, Achilles up the path into the hills and Patroclus around the palace towards the beach. The walk down through the sand was oddly silent, preparing for the boy’s first challenge. He scanned the horizon for signs of this token, hoping it would be obvious once he found it, but no colors stood out against the sand and nothing gleamed with special luster. As he approached the waves, however, he noticed the dragalge and kingdra bobbing out in deeper waters. He stood at the barrier where grass subsided to sand, and instructed Kassandra and Kallias to wait together in his sternest possible voice. They had to listen to him now or Peleus would know, and he would fail his first trial.

When he walked away with Iolaus by his side Kallias waited a few moments before hopping up, following with the self-assurance that made him infamous. Kassandra tweeted curiously but remained in her place in the sand. He scooped up the eevee and set him beside Kassandra, repeating the command to wait. Kallias tilted his head so Patroclus turned to Kassandra instead.

“Can you make sure he stays here?”

She fluffed her wings and trilled happily. When he tried to leave this time and Kallias attempted to follow Kassandra hopped forward and held him back by the tail.

Patroclus and Iolaus set off together towards the kingdra and the dragalge. The two glared at him suspiciously, apparently not anticipating Patroclus of all the boys to be their first challenger. He could see the token then, a ribbon of bright red with disperse bronze beads tied around the kingdra’s horns. Achilles was right; he had to find a way out to sea.

His first thought was Korinthia. She was small and not a particularly strong swimmer but she was the only creature he knew personally that had any sort of seafaring experience. It was certainly possibly Achilles intended for him to use her, but without him there to explain Patroclus was reluctant to make such a decision. Trying to use the dragalge was another potential plan—if he were at all strong and respectable enough to bend a dragon to his will—as it would be fast enough to catch the kingdra and herd it towards land as Achilles had suggested. One look at the dragalge and he knew there must be a different way. The sea around the two dragons was barren but beyond them he saw numerous creatures, wailmers and mantykes and the shadows of krabbies. He could try one of them, use his apparent luck with meeting creatures to befriend one just for the duration of the challenge.

As he tried to decide which creature to try he thought he noticed a pair of human-like eyes watching him from deeper waters. They were more stern than beasts or men, judgemental and disapproving, but as quick as he saw them they were gone. He remembered the morning, Achilles’ meeting with the sea nymph. She did not like him and now Achilles was not around to protect him. Entering the sea was as good as suicide.

Iolaus paced anxiously around him, unsettled by his mood. Patroclus was unsure if the linoone could swim, but even if he could he would never be able to fight off the unforgiving attacks of a sea nymph. The other creatures disappeared along with the eyes, but the dragons did not seem too concerned. They watched him closely, daring him to give chase.

Something new surfaced, further down the beach from the dragons and the site of the terrifying eyes, a large blue head and slate gray shell. It was larger than the dragons but calmer, gliding effortlessly through the water. He recalled the name suddenly: lapras. They were said to be friendly, a good ferryman to fellow animals and even people if warranted. He had no time to decide if this was a trick, so he ran past the dragons and towards the lapras while Iolaus sprinted ahead. She seemed unaware of his presence, for now.

“Please,” he called out to her, throwing out his arms in desperation. “Please help me. I can’t go in the sea but I need to.”

She turned her head in surprise, wide eyes examining him. Then she swam closer and sat expectantly in the shallow ripples.

“Thank you,” he said quickly. From there he wasted no time hauling himself onto the gentle creature’s shell. Iolaus paced in the wet sand, whining, but Patroclus imitated part of a fighting pose and Iolaus straightened out as he had been trained to do. Patroclus pointed to the kingdra and the lapras followed, gaining speed as she seemed to recognize what she was facing. Iolaus ran parallel to them through the sturdiest sand. The kingdra need only swim away from them and it could escape with ease, but the one thing faster than the dragon in the sea was the linoone on the land. Patroclus attempted another piece of a stance and Iolaus understood, sprinting out ahead and darting into the water at full speed. He blocked that stretch of beach and the kingdra recognized it quickly. It oriented for open water but the lapras beat it just in time for Patroclus to reach out and catch the token as the kingdra darted away. It was not tied tightly, and came loose easily. Its beads dug into his palm when he closed his fist around it, sure to hold it securely.

The lapras glanced back at him, crooning inquisitively.

“This is what I needed,” he explained, showing her the strands of ribbon that poked through either side of his fist. “Thank you.”

She made a low sound of glee and swam back to the shore, where Iolaus jumped as he impatiently waited. Patroclus murmured a farewell to her as he slid off her back, and she hummed in response while swimming off. He turned to Iolaus and showed him the token, unable to contain the grin that spread suddenly over his face. He had the token and it was barely sunset. Achilles would not be forced to wait all night for him and they could walk up to Peleus together.

Before heading back to the palace he pulled Iolaus into a hug. The linoone churred warmly and reciprocated as best he could with his paws. They had finished their first trial together, and were just as praiseworthy as Achilles and Argos. The lapras, he decided, would not disqualify him because he technically had not brought her to the beach with him. When he released Iolaus they sprinted up the sand together, even when it became loose and tricky to keep balance. Kallias and Kassandra darted from their posts to greet them, and Kallias assumed his customary position as soon as Patroclus allowed.

Achilles was seated in the doorway of the palace but he jumped up when he saw Patroclus. Argos sprang out of the door too, and then another slightly smaller creature crept out after him. This newcomer was stony gray but with a large golden scale on his head and slivers of gold growing across his body, a timid but beautiful jangmo-o. Patroclus pointed at the creature but Achilles shook his head, reaching for the token as he approached.

“How did you get it?” Achilles asked eagerly, glancing at the muddy paws of Iolaus. “Did you both swim?”

“No,” Patroclus began, deciding to omit for now his fears of drowning at the hands of the sea nymph, “I met a lapras who carried me in the water. Iolaus trapped the kingdra from the beach.”

“Where is the lapras?” Achilles wondered, glancing behind Patroclus.

“She only helped.” Patroclus scuffed one foot against the ground nervously. “It’s not against the rules. I only brought one, just like Peleus said.”

“I would have liked to meet her.”

Patroclus chuckled. He glanced at Achilles’ jangmo-o and then at the golden boy’s hands, but there was no telltale red ribbon. “Where’s your token?”

“There wasn’t one,” Achilles declared, taking an end of the ribbon in Patroclus’ hand and holding it up. “My father only has this one.”

Patroclus’ heart pounded suddenly with the proximity of their hands. “He told us each to retrieve the token.”

“Yes, the token. There was only ever one.” Their knuckles brushed against each other. “We’ll complete the challenge together and it’s thanks to you.”

His face flushed but Patroclus could only hold tight to the token. After a moment too long he remembered the jangmo-o. “Who is that?”

“Pedasos,” Achilles introduced, lowering his hand without releasing the token. “He chased me down the hill for a while but when he got tired we became friends.”

“How long have you been here?” Patroclus wondered, hoping he hadn’t kept Achilles waiting even if he had shattered his own expectations on finishing.

“Not long.” Achilles tugged on the ribbon, urging Patroclus inside. “What did you think? Are we going to the rest of the trials?”

“We haven’t finished this one yet.” Patroclus smiled anyway. Now that he had faced the sea the rest of the trials were less imposing. After they returned to Peleus he would tell Achilles he was ready. Since they were about to complete the trial together Patroclus adjusted his grip on the token so the beads separated his hand from that of Achilles, but the demigod’s hand still brushed his frequently as they walked.

They entered Peleus’ hall where a larger amount of boys had gathered. Word spread fast that Achilles and his companion were facing the Phthian trial, the first of the year to do so, and even though Peleus designed his challenge to be free of spectators the boys still waited eagerly. Peleus himself, somehow smaller without the dragons at his side, summoned Patroclus and Achilles away from the prying eyes so that the secret of his challenge would not be revealed.

“Patroclus found it,” Achilles announced eagerly the moment they were all in a quiet chamber.

“And Achilles realized there was only one,” Patroclus added. He held up his hand and Achilles joined him, displaying the ribbon and its clanking beads.

“Well done,” Peleus praised. He was pleased but in no way surprised. “You must promise not to share what you know of this trial, but you may keep the token as proof of your success.”

They both promised, and thanked him, and then Peleus returned to the hall to send the next group of boys on the trial. Achilles turned to Patroclus, the token still firmly in both their hands.

“You should take it,” Achilles said, pushing their hands towards Patroclus. “You did all the work getting it.”

“It’s for both of us.” He wanted to push back but held himself, though he was unsure why. “You figured it all out.”

Achilles frowned, thinking, and gently took the token in both his hands. He strung it around Patroclus’ wrist before he could object, and tied it securely. “You should wear it because you actually got it. But as long as we stay together it’s for both of us.”

The rest of the day was uneventful, the evening meal and the nightly run to the noibat cave, but when they returned to Achilles’ room that night Patroclus kept the token tightly against his chest while he slept. Even when he woke the next morning it was there, loosened off his wrist but draped above his heart nonetheless.

He left the token in their room—it was still difficult to admit to himself the space was shared between them, but their token prominently displayed helped. He fell back into a comfortable routine with Achilles, sleeping peacefully through the nights and awaking slowly in the mornings. Kallias had not slept on his chest since that first night, but the only one of their creatures that opted not to sleep on a bed was Kassandra. Pedasos, timid as he was, warmed to Patroclus easily even when he still bristled at the louder boys of the palace. In the mornings they ran and visited Korinthia and occasionally Achilles slipped away to speak with his mother, and then they returned for the meal. Patroclus found himself talking more at all the meals, more to Achilles and more to the other boys and finding with delight they were all willing to listen. During the hottest part of the days they explored the forests and chased each other with shellos or spinaraks. In the afternoons it was lyre, and all creatures attended because Pedasos and Kallias refused to be left alone. Patroclus learned one song well enough to justify his continued presence but Achilles was the demigod, and never was it as clear as when he sang. Sometimes afterward they had history and tactics lessons but usually they were set free to the world again, and they memorized each road and twisting path from the sea to the hills. They returned for evening meals but then went straight back to their adventures, sometimes the noibat cave but they grew bolder in their nighttime explorations to include lonely foothills where absols howled like ghosts and the fields creeping up to the ocean that were bombarded by salty winds.

All the while they talked together. Where once Patroclus struggled for a single word to offer the golden prince he now struggled to find a limit. He described his time in the house of his father, the golems that epitomized strength and the onix everyone feared but his father commanded anyway, and especially the late nights and early mornings that became natural to him in his attempts to keep Iolaus close. He tried to recall every animal he ever hoped to meet, the roselias and skiplooms, popplios and dewgongs, dragonite and gyarados and arcanine. Achilles assured him they would both be present when Argos was gifted the fiery stone of Apollo, and made bold vows to show Patroclus every other creature on that list. It would all start when they finally sought out their next challenge. Of course they discussed that too, in great detail, and Achilles brought their plans to his father to make actual arrangements. It was tradition for boys to travel accompanied by others on the same quest, and of course the beasts they had tamed along the way, but Achilles argued it should be him and Patroclus and absolutely no other boy from Phthia. Peleus took some convincing, but two weeks after they completed his trial he finally acquiesced.

That morning when they rose Achilles tied the token to Patroclus’ wrist again and his hands lingered a bit longer.

Like always they went to the beach, but today they carried packs and sought the docks. It was a longer hike than usual but they were able to visit Korinthia on the way and Achilles bade her a fond farewell. Kallias rode on Patroclus’ shoulder and Iolaus roamed around them, while Kassandra soared overhead with ease on the ocean winds. Argos thought he was the leader as he marched just in front of them, while Pedasos stuck to Achilles’ side. They were a disorganized parade down the wet sand but it was comfortable. This was the start of an important trip but it did not fill Patroclus with dread. It was not duty stringing him along, it was desire. He was going on an adventure instead of a mission, and accompanied by every friend he had.

The docks were coming up, identifiable first by the shouts and clamor and then by sight. Several boats bobbed idly while others rowed in and out, carrying goods and men and anything else with them. Patroclus had never sailed before and was even more untrusting of the sea in the wake of Peleus’ trial, but Achilles was eager. It seemed a foolish question to ask if Achilles, son of the sea nymph and beloved prince, had ever sailed before. No boat carrying such an esteemed demigod would ever be allowed to sink so Patroclus had little reason to worry.

Iolaus returned to them the closer they came to the docks. When at last they were climbing up the wooden scaffolding all their creatures fell in line, Iolaus and Argos and Pedasos right at their sides, Kallias on Patroclus’ shoulder and Kassandra on that of Achilles. Most at the docks knew it was the season for boys to begin their travels and face the kings’ challenges, but they still drew a few curious stares. Perhaps it was the presence of the most famous prince of all.

Though Achilles had quite the reputation within the palace, it was obvious he had one beyond it as well. When he asked sailors for the next boat bound for Salamis he was treated respectfully, given clear answers and directions to other captains and ships when available. Patroclus tried once to speak on his own behalf when Achilles was occupied, but the sailor taunted him until Achilles returned to his side. There was no deference granted to the ordinary boys on their challenges, only to the princes whose status was already boastful. Eventually they did find a captain who intended to depart for Salamis on the next high tide, but he refused them passage until Achilles showed him the token on Patroclus’ wrist.

As the next high tide was still on its way, they had time to wait. They sat on the gently rocking deck of the boat and hung their feet over the edge, with creatures on all sides warily watching the waves. Argos, a beast of fire, was not meant for the open ocean and whimpered to Achilles as if expressing the thought. Kallias sensed Patroclus’ uneasiness while Iolaus remembered the leering eyes from the trial. Pedasos was suspicious in any circumstance with too many strangers, and sat firmly between Achilles and Patroclus with his tail scratching back and forth across the wood. Kassandra was the only creature unconcerned, aloft in the winds and diving towards the surface of the water excitedly.

“Telamon isn’t like my father,” Achilles said suddenly, disturbing Patroclus’ concentration on a particular trail of ripples. “He knows what I’m supposed to be and he will test us both on it.”

“Supposed to be?”

He nodded. “He will have a fight for us.”

Patroclus felt the color drain from his face but he maintained his gaze on the water.

“Once we do this we won’t have to fight again,” Achilles assured him. He was never desperate in anything but his tone was laced with a desire to reassure, stronger than usual. “We can go anywhere and solve all their riddles together. But we had to do one fight, and it was either Telamon or Menoitius.”

The name was a ghost, more shocking than the idea of a fight. It was inevitable they would face someone in combat, tested as warriors because that was what all boys aspired to be. It would be the honor of any man to fall to the young demigod. But some fights were hopeless before they began, and Patroclus knew if they had to face his father he would never be rid of him. His disapproval would follow him to every challenge, across the rest of the world, and spoil the best things of his exiled life. Patroclus could feel his father’s crushing fist on his neck.

“I’m sorry I said it.” Achilles leaned back into his palms. “We can go to Ithaca next. It’s far. It will take us days to get to Salamis and days more to get there.”

“What are you supposed to be?” Patroclus said quietly. The answer scared him but the uncertainty was worse.

Achilles never lied to him and certainly never gave any less than the full truth. “A hero.”

It was a weight lifted off his chest. Not a soldier, not a king, not a god.

“Patroclus,” Achilles said, the tension ebbing from his shoulders in relief, “when we get to Salamis, do you want to run with me? Your way, not mine.”

Though Patroclus hadn’t distinguished the two before he immediately understood what Achilles meant. “Yes.”

His eyes glimmered slyly. “Although, the way you run probably won’t be so different from sitting on this boat.”

Patroclus laughed as the boat heaved forward, propelled by rowers while it sought the open seas and enough wind to propel it onward. Argos and Iolaus skittered back from the edge and Kassandra came soaring back to perch on Achilles. The rowers worked to the pace of a steady song, not as beautiful as the ones Achilles sang to accompany his lyre but fun and invigorating. When the sails caught strong winds the rowers drifted to the upper deck, mighty men accustomed to battling the seas. They had stories to share the rest of that day, of their wives and children back home and of their own trials in the days of their youth. Boys of their status generally formed their own trials for one another but it was no less important and they all remembered fondly the creatures they had in those days. When the ship tossed in a particularly jarring wave the crew taught them songs to appease the wailords. That night the sailors took shifts managing the sails and the rudder, and the others slept below or above deck. Achilles fell asleep with his head on Argos and his arm around Pedasos, both resting just as easily. Patroclus was less keen on sleep, even with Iolaus pressed against him and Kallias on his chest and Kassandra nestled nearby. He watched the stars instead, naming them if he could, and counting the brightest among them.

The next morning was heralded by the brightest dawn Patroclus had ever seen, the unsteady surface of the water aflame with the rising sun. Achilles roused himself quickly so he could watch it, and Patroclus found himself mesmerized by the golden glow it cast over the whole boat. The captain told them a jolting story about the sun and the wind to help wake them as the rest of the crew assembled. Patroclus hadn’t heard it before, a conflict between Apollo and Zephyrus. Achilles was even more intrigued than he was, from the thinly veiled excitement in his face despite keeping his mouth in a tight line. They were in his mother’s domain, after all, and he could not show too much enthusiasm for a story he wasn’t supposed to hear.

They ate light meals from what they had packed but the sailors shared their heartier fare. When they told stories anymore they were bawdier and bolder now that the docks were far behind, and Achilles joined in their shanties with the few words he could remember from the day before. It took a while but Patroclus soon realized the only witnesses to their boat were the tentacruels and qwilfish that swam behind them, so he joined Achilles as loud as he could in singing the rhythmic songs of the sea.

Around midday most men were down rowing, so Achilles and Patroclus sat where they could dangle legs into the spray. They had been quiet for a while, resting their voices to rejoin the songs, when Patroclus noticed streaks of pure white amid the bubbling blue waves. He pointed and Achilles leaned precariously forward to investigate.

“Patroclus,” he said suddenly. He grinned but could not voice why.

One of the white streaks surfaced, round head and bright eyes and slick marble fur.

“They’re dewgongs!” Patroclus realized.

“From your list.” Achilles was poised to dive for a moment, probably imagining that he could catch one. The dewgongs kept pace with the boat easily and Patroclus longed to reach for them, to hold fast to one as it swam in and out of waves. They were easygoing creatures better suited to cold waters, though when they came south it was in pleasant groups chasing the abundant schools of the Aegean. They were on statues and friezes and painted on pottery, dynamic shapes but foreign to him until now.

“Good fortune!” the captain announced at the sight of the dewgongs. He launched into a song about them and the other men above deck joined him. It soon followed through to the rowers. Achilles joined in for the second chorus and Patroclus for the third. The dewgongs even bayed, their tempo off but their pitch clearly the inspiration for the shanty. Argos was never one to pass up a song and Kassandra soon joined in with soft chirping.

For a time Achilles played the lyre and sang his own songs, keeping the rhythm for the rowers with the palace music he had been taught. Patroclus was accustomed to them, could imagine every note as Achilles would play it. If he had any measure of musical ability he would be singing along too. When the winds picked up again and the sails took on the work the rowers came up to play games this time, dice and coins and small carved statues. Iolaus was finally finding his sea legs, which he used to investigate the soft clanking of the pieces. He couldn’t possibly understand but he liked to watch the dice and he jumped up excitedly whenever a winner cheered. Kassandra took flight again, playing with the dewgongs that kept pace with their boat. Patroclus sat by Achilles but was learning one of the statue games while the golden boy strummed and sang to himself. Pedasos and Argos each laid their heads in Achilles’ lap, and Kallias watched the men move statues around with a fascinated gaze.

All was as it should be. Patroclus realized how light his chest was when his first complete round ended in a loss, how he was completely unbothered. Yesterday had been confusing and surprising and exciting, but today was blissful. No wonder these men kept sailing even with families waiting for them. The winds were strong but gentle, the arms of a god carrying them to their destination. He remembered the morning’s story; Zephyrus was angry, the wrath of his winds filling their sails, and beside Patroclus sat Apollo. He was Hyacinth.

The thought prickled in his chest but he dared not voice it.

Reaching Salamis took eight days after that. They were all much of the same, games and songs and stories, beautiful nights spent under a myriad of stars. Sailors had many legends and superstitions to share and they were eager for an audience outside themselves to entertain. When the west winds worked against them the captain commanded they all cease telling stories of Zephyrus and the power of their rowing and their songs was put to the test. Kallias found a new hobby of perching on the bow, breathing in the salty spray and churring in response to it. Patroclus sometimes stood with him. For a few days of hard rowing Achilles joined the men below deck and rowed himself, insisting on learning and practicing the rhythm of the oars, and he always emerged slick and salty as if crawling out of the sea itself. Patroclus took to drilling while Achilles was occupied, the old moves still clumsy and unpolished but Iolaus and Kallias relearned their parts easily. Practice was important so he would not be totally blindsided in their upcoming fight.

Their first steps on the docks of Salamis were solemn despite their relief to be gone from the constant movement of the boat. It was just after dawn on the eleventh day. They bid the captain and the crew farewell, thanking them with promises of favors if they ever sought out Achilles in Phthia, but it was losing close companions to leave them behind. If Patroclus had been bolder he may have suggested he and Achilles stay on the sea forever, traveling and rowing and singing and spending all their nights under a sky choked with stars. But he didn’t, and they began on the path to the palace of Telamon in silence with five beasts eager to be free of the seas.

At the palace they were received with mild suspicion, two boys reeking of the sea and an unusual gang of creatures surrounding them, but the token on Patroclus’ wrist was enough for them to be beckoned in. They were given time to bathe and change, to present themselves in a manner that befit Achilles’ status. Achilles took care to wipe the sand from between Pedasos’ scales and Patroclus smoothed Kallias’ wind-tossed ruff before they were truly ready. They had to impress Telamon to have any chance at mercy. When they were brought before him Achilles was the one to declare he and his companion had come to take the trial, fresh from that of Peleus and eager to be challenged better than the old man could do. Patroclus again showed the token, proof of their shared victory, and offered his own desire to be challenged by the mighty Telamon. It felt like a lie, both because Telamon was older than Peleus and because Patroclus hoped for the trial to be finished painlessly. Nothing else could be done then; Telamon pondered, curious as to why meager Patroclus followed the golden prince into these halls, but ultimately granted them permission to face the trial prepared by his son.

Patroclus did not know this son, so he was relieved until he saw the rigidity of Achilles’ spine. From the people assembled in the audience hall one approached them, several years their senior but not quite old enough to seem a full man. He was massive, however, easily one of the largest in the room. Patroclus wondered if he had been at the first rite, and what beast could possibly match a man as imposing as this.

Achilles whispered his name to Patroclus: Ajax. There was no reading his face, no guessing what his trial may entail. He led them gruffly from the room, outside the palace entirely and directly to a pen filled with angry tauroses. Patroclus wanted to back out suddenly, go running with Achilles like they planned when they first started their journey out to this place and try to find the rest of the animals on his list. It would not be too late to find another boat and become sailors again. Tauroses were known for their danger and Patroclus was not equipped to handle one, no less fight it.

Ajax placed a large hand on the gate. His smile was crooked when he addressed them. “Pick one.”

Patroclus looked to Achilles for some kind of plan. He mastered Peleus’ trial and surely he had something in mind for this one too. When he met Achilles’ eyes he had the sinking suspicion Achilles hoped the same from him. Ajax huffed impatiently and his hand twitched, anxious to open the gate and allow the whole herd to trample these boys. Patroclus forced himself forward to get a better look at them all, hoping to find some sign of a less intimidating individual. Achilles followed him and they examined the herd together. Nothing stood out as being easier than the others. He eventually settled on one tauros near the middle of the herd, and pointed. Achilles agreed.

Forcefully Ajax entered the pen, his presence clearing a path between the tauroses even as they tossed their heads and stamped aggressively. The beast of a man grabbed their tauros by the horn and led it out of the pen, closing the gate behind them. Achilles and Patroclus followed while Ajax pulled the tauros along to an open space just beyond the pen, far enough from any construction that a rogue beast would not damage anything important. While they walked Patroclus noticed red ribbons with bronze beads strung tightly around both horns of the tauros. He wondered if Ajax had prepared each head in the herd on his own, or if the most unfortunate boys were stuck with such a task.

“Get your token before sundown,” Ajax instructed. Patroclus steadied his breathing in preparation. “One creature each.”

Kallias hopped as if in response so Patroclus signalled for Iolaus and Kassandra to stay put, and Achilles asked Pedasos to do the same. Argos placed his feet, stocky body in an ideal stance to survive a charging tauros.

Ajax released the tauros and it tore off across the clearing, circling back to dig its hooves into the dirt and bellow a warning. They both assumed fighting stances and Kallias took up his usual position. Before the tauros could charge, however, Ajax stripped the tokens off another two in the pen and released them to the clearing as well. They all three ran together, forming a small but lethal herd that bellowed with fury and tore into the earth with each powerful stride. Patroclus struggled to find the red ribbons when three sets of horns tossed haphazardly. Ajax disappeared, probably returning to the hall, but Patroclus had more immediate concerns than him.

With an urgent gesture Achilles signalled Argos, and the growlithe spat a line of fire into the field in front of them. The tauros herd turned in response to it, temporarily diverted from attacking them. Achilles inhaled deeply and used the breath to settle into a warrior stance, the first Patroclus had ever seen him take seriously. Patroclus tried to adopt a stance of his own and Kallias positioned himself accordingly.

“Do you have a plan?” Patroclus asked hopefully, focused on the herd.

“We need to separate them and find ours,” Achilles said quickly. “We can’t take all three at once.”

“And then?”

Achilles signalled Argos again and another firm line of flame protected them from the stampede. “And then I’ll hold it while you grab the tokens.”

It seemed so simple the way he said it. Three steps and they would be standing in Telamon’s hall to receive praise. Plenty of daylight remained, and the herd seemed smaller when they reached the other side of the clearing. He almost believed it was a real plan. The herd began to charge for them again, and Achilles adjusted his feet.

“I have the one on the left.” Achilles signalled Argos into place. “Take the one on the right however you can.”

Patroclus exchanged a look with Kallias on his shoulder. From the eevee’s determination he decided on a plan of his own, hoping it would be enough to match Argos’ fire. He waited as the herd approached, following Achilles’ patience, and when the flames came as a divider to separate the herd Patroclus imitated a spear thrust and Kallias leapt off his arm. The eevee landed in the grass and surprised the two tauroses remaining enough to split them apart. Patroclus examined the horns of each individual tauros and pointed immediately when he spotted the red ribbons on the leftmost tauros.

The two boys traded places seamlessly, and Achilles directed Argos to maintain the separation between the other two tauros and their desired one. Kallias darted over to the lone tauros, quicker than it even if he was not inherently faster. Patroclus signalled him as best he could, but they had never drilled for a shepherding scenario like this and their scope of gestures and actions was limited. Even so, Kallias seemed to understand as he flanked the tauros and drove it back towards the boys by carefully nipping its heels. It drew closer and closer, and Achilles abandoned Argos to face the charging tauros. Patroclus jumped away well before but Achilles hesitated until the last possible moment to step back, grabbing the tauros’ nearest horn as he did so. The beast turned, hind legs bucking as it searched for a foothold. When it swung all the way around Achilles grabbed its other horn, one now in each hand, planting his own feet. He had maybe two breaths’ time of holding the beast back so Patroclus dove towards it and scrambled with the token. It was tied tight but slipped off after a little persuasion. The boys abandoned the tauros at the same time, casting themselves to either side of its single-minded line.

It charged back to its herd, which Argos released on Achilles’ command. The three rallied, bellowing to one another and regaining their formation, but Achilles and Patroclus and all five of their creatures fled to the opposite side of the large tauros pen and the herd of three seemed not to care. Once certain of their safety Patroclus opened his hand, and the bronze beads winked back at them in the afternoon light.

Achilles exhaled loudly, as if he had been holding his breath. “Next time you hold the tauros.”

Even with his own gaze fixed on the token Patroclus knew the glimmer of Achilles’ green eyes, and he laughed breathlessly. “It would have killed me.”

“Not if I was there.”

Patroclus undid the knot of the token and strung it around Achilles’ wrist, well-earned after his feat of godlike strength. When they entered Telamon’s hall once more they were met with rousing cheers and all the accolades expected for a prince, and even the old man offered gruff praise. Ajax was astonished at first, but after a brief disappearance to pen all the tauroses he confirmed their success. He clapped them both on the shoulder and spoke of how impressed he was, and had them share exactly how they had bested his trial. When they told the story Telamon thundered it was only what was expected from Achilles, Aristos Achaion, and that evening there was a celebration in his honor. Only a few boys had completed the trial before them, but their strategies included waiting or fighting against the herd with a bigger monster. They adored Achilles, the boy who faced down a tauros. Patroclus was comfortable spending the evening in his shadow; he deserved the attention after such a feat, and even while swarmed with revelers Achilles was sure to keep Patroclus at his side.

When the sun drifted below the horizon Achilles excused himself from the party. Together with Patroclus and their five creatures he snuck out of the palace entirely, and took the first footpath into the hills.

Eleven days ago they planned to do this. A seabound voyage and a trial separated then and now but Achilles had not forgotten. They were silent for a while, spending their remaining energy on picking sturdy paths through tough grasses and hidden boulders, but Patroclus’ thoughts were loud. Aristos Achaion repeated over and over, a chant, a war cry. Perhaps he heard it before, whispered in the halls of Peleus when it was thought nobody was around to hear. It was a prophecy of what Achilles was supposed to be, more than hero or king and reaching up to the tier of god. It changed nothing, though. They still ran together under the cover of night and they both wore a token as proof of their prowess.

They crested a tall hill overlooking the whole island. On all sides they were surrounded by sea, but to the north and west and even some of the south they could see land engulfing the little bay. Achilles pointed west and brought up Ithaca again, how it would take a few days on land and then many more by sea to get there. Patroclus oriented south and sought out Argos, Mycenae, even Sparta and Pylos well beyond the mountains. They both turned east, to open ocean and somewhere beyond it the city of Troy. Ithaca seemed the best idea for now. They could complete it and return directly to Phthia for a rest. Boys were not expected to complete the trials all at once, after all. It was an ongoing journey.

Side by side, bronze beads clicking in the breeze, and invigorated by the promise of more adventures, Patroclus faced Achilles. He had to say something, felt it pulling at his heart and his stomach and threatening to burn him up if he could not put it into words. Achilles watched him expectantly, hopefully.

He leaned forward. Their lips met. The fire roared up inside him and then extinguished rapidly.

Far below the sea churned and raged, angrier than he had seen it in the entire journey. Even from this peak it was loud. But Achilles was silent, eyes wide. Iolaus nudged Patroclus’ hand but he could only watch Achilles. His heart pounded but he was paralyzed. What had he done? Two trials down and he was rashly emboldened by their success. Achilles took a single step back, mouth parted, eyes filling with an emotion he couldn’t place. Unwitting Apollo, and Patroclus the doomed Hyacinth. A sea nymph far below not jealous, but a vengeful Zephyrus nonetheless.

Achilles turned away and ran. It was a stinging blow to watch but Patroclus reluctantly admitted it was appropriate. Pedasos and Argos followed, confused but loyal to a fault, but Kassandra landed on a shrub nearby and chirped comfortingly. Iolaus nudged his hand again so he scratched the linoone’s ears. Kallias, meanwhile, jumped onto a rock and watched Achilles run. The eevee’s expression almost indicated he wished to have words with the running boy. Only Kallias could summon the nerve to confront Achilles. Whatever this had been, whatever regret he now harbored, he could hear the west winds picking up mournfully and he yearned only for Achilles’ forgiveness.

He waited atop the hill until Kallias jumped off the rock. The eevee tore off down the hill, following the trail of subtle footprints left by Achilles. Patroclus had never seen him chase something so fervently, and he was afraid of losing Kallias to a zangoose so he pursued. It was a terrifying plunge through thick weeds and crumbling stones, only instinct guiding him at times when the plume of Kallias’ tail was obscured by grass and night. He was halfway down the hill when he saw Kallias perched on a collapsed boulder. A drop of gold was tucked below it, hidden from the sea and wind. Kallias yapped insistently and Patroclus went to retrieve him, but the boulder was too unsteady for his weight. The wind cast seawater into his eyes and he was forced to duck behind the boulder to protect himself. Achilles focused on the ground but shifted slightly to allow Patroclus into the space. They sat across from each other pensively, wind howling around them.

“She could see us,” Achilles mumbled, words hanging in the still air of their shelter. “It can’t be that way.”

“I’m sorry.” Patroclus rubbed his eyes, clearing salt from them. There was more to say but he was not sure if he could form the words.

Achilles looked up at him, his gaze a point of light amid the gathering storm. “For what?”

It could have been accusatory, rude, but it wasn’t. Achilles regarded him with gentle curiosity, perhaps even confusion. For what, as if the storm around them was not answer enough.

“For-” Patroclus gestured to the sky thick with inky clouds, “for this.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you could make storms?” Achilles teased softly, humor tentatively returning to his face.

Patroclus smiled in spite of himself. “For this, then.” He nodded towards the ground between them, their respite from the wind.

“We had to go somewhere she could not see.” Achilles reached a hand for Iolaus, whose long body curled haphazardly between the boys as he tried to find a spot behind the boulder. “And I think we have to wait out the storm too.”

“I’m still sorry.”

His eyes were excited now, excited and something more. “You shouldn’t be.”

Kallias climbed down the boulder just as the rain started, droplets thrown so roughly by the wind they did not even reach the sheltered boys. The eevee settled in Patroclus’ lap and Kassandra flew to Achilles’ hair with a lighthearted song. Pedasos and Argos were seated on either side of Achilles already, heads rested on each of his thighs. A calm settled over them and brought with it fatigue. The day had been long enough before their decision to run, the end of a voyage and the terrifying trial and the celebration of destinies not yet manifest. Between the seven of them the little shelter was plenty warm, and Patroclus was tired of fighting his own mind for the day. His eyes closed sluggishly, but once they did he was asleep.

The cool light of dawn was the first thing he saw when he awoke, mild wisps of clouds crossing the gray sky. A gentle breeze whispered through the stout grasses and shrubs beyond their shelter, cool with the last twinges of Artemis’ icy night. Kallias and Kassandra both slept on top of Iolaus, who was pressed against Patroclus on one side. On the other lay Achilles, head nestled in the crook of his neck and body flush with his. He was still deeply asleep.

Patroclus stared up at the sky, deciding between panic and paralysis. He could move, disturb them all and explain away the circumstances as necessity from the storm or pure accident during the depths of slumber. He could stay put, allow Achilles to rise first and follow his lead from there. Then he noticed Pedasos and Argos, curled up where they had sat during the night, positioned to save a place for their master between them. All of them, five creatures and two boys, were dry as if no rain had fallen. Though the air was cool it was easily tolerable. Achilles had not sought him out accidentally, nor because it was the only way to survive the temperature. As far as Patroclus could tell—even as much as he tried to deny it—Achilles had done this deliberately.

He did not have long to wait past then. As the sky grew brighter Achilles stirred and sat up, his pleasant smile putting Patroclus at ease even if their proximity still worried him. The creatures stirred soon after, making the rounds of greeting both boys and each other with snuffling and quiet calls. They trod out all the imprints left in the dirt and crushed grass, wiping away remnants from their night spent in the rocks, and when Patroclus and Achilles stood as well, eager paws kicked over the imprints their bodies had left. It was as if nothing in the night had happened.

Achilles said nothing to him but took his hand to lead him down the hill, running in front and pulling him along. The beads on their wrists jangled and their footsteps were interspaced with the rhythm of a sea shanty. To look at them everything seemed appropriate, a faster boy trying to encourage a slower companion, but Patroclus noticed a flush in Achilles’ cheeks that was never there when he ran at this speed. His hand was warm and his grip was sure, in contrast to Patroclus’ trembling fingers holding tight as he could. They stayed this way until they returned to the palace, when the beads of their tokens clicked against each other for a brief moment and then Achilles promptly pulled his hand back to himself.

They were greeted by Ajax, who was tending his tauroses and did not seem at all surprised to see them. He explained that their presence had been missed in the night but it was assumed the boys had moved on in search of their next trial. Most were too drunk to remember why they were celebrating in the first place. Ajax had seen them go, though, and he knew they would be back sooner or later because the best way to leave Salamis was through the port downhill from the palace. Or swim, he joked, referring to the wild but narrow stretches of sea that kept the island isolated. It was certainly possible for Aristos Achaion to make the trip but Ajax was less sure of the scrawny companion.

While they sat on the fence and watched tauroses mill about Ajax sought out breakfast for them, returning with figs and heels of bread. Patroclus came to learn that while Ajax was no great thinker he was not a brute either. He enjoyed telling them about his herd, how he was training a gurdurr too and they would often spar against one another in vicious stalemate scrimmages. He asked about Pedasos, and Kallias, and especially Kassandra. He had been there when Achilles caught Argos so he checked on the growlithe too until Achilles began telling the story of Patroclus, first among them to catch a creature the day of the rite. Patroclus clearly remembered the day differently but Achilles sang his praises shamelessly. Ajax was impressed too, and admitted he had been confused by how Patroclus had passed his trial so easily until now. Then Achilles spoke of Kallias the untameable, an eevee who cared to listen only to Patroclus. When it came time to speak of Kassandra, Patroclus took over the storytelling. He told Ajax of their plans to raise her into an altaria, and then shared their plans to tame a noibat. Though he had never seen one Ajax suggested they try setting out food as bait, reasoning that whenever he tried not to be caught all they had to do was set out a meal.

The sun climbed higher and Ajax helped them assemble new packs for their continued journey. His gurdurr proved quite helpful in this, holding anything handed to him while they packed and repacked salted meats and spare sandals and strips of cloth. Ajax then snuck them out to the docks, and they joined a new pack of sailors on their way back towards Phthia. When the island began to fade from view Achilles explained how Ajax was his cousin, how their previous meetings had always been harsh competitions. Their fathers were allies but their rivalry bitter as that of any siblings; there was bound to be pressure on both of them to live it out through their sons as well. Achilles had feared a much more public fight against Ajax because of it, but he was just as surprised as Patroclus to find the hulking prince so reasonable.

Once their discussion of Ajax subsided they returned to planning their journey. They agreed without question to return to Phthia rather than trying to travel on to Ithaca, but after resting for a while they would set out on a much longer trip. Down to Argos, then Mycenae, then deep into the mainland for Sparta. Three trials by three warrior kings, potentially fights but more likely to be tests of intelligence and quick thinking. It would be a longer trip by sea and then perhaps weeks by land. After another rest in Phthia they would set out again, to the distant Pylos and then up to Ithaca on their way home. Then the longest journey of all, to Troy, finally completing all of the necessary trials.

When the sailors began to sing, Achilles and Patroclus both joined in right away. Their new crew was delighted; at the docks they had reluctantly agreed to stop out of their way in Phthia because Achilles and Ajax asked but they did not have to be pleased with it. They were relieved to have two boys versed in their songs and happy to have Achilles row when necessary. It was an easy journey for the first few days, sails bolstered by the winds of the recent storm and rowing kept to a minimum. Then the winds changed, and the rains moved in, and days and nights bled into one another. The sailors rationed their food and taught their systems to the boys, and the songs they sang were forced louder to hide the din of crashing waves and thunder. They sang to please the gods and beg for pleasant seas but their spirits were high anyway. Obviously they knew they were safe in the open ocean as long as they carried Achilles, but their traditions and superstitions lingered. Patroclus enjoyed life on the boat, even knowing he was surrounded by the domain of the sea nymph and even with the weather so treacherous. He learned the knots and the ropes alongside the captain and lieutenants, how to change the sails and steer with rudders and command the oarsmen. Achilles rowed, but when he was not needed below deck he followed Patroclus as loyally as the beasts.

Iolaus learned to help, carrying supplies in his mouth or on his back, but he preferred racing across the boat chasing the foam from particularly high swells. He was less afraid of the sea on this trip, and he taught Pedasos a similar love for this game of chase. Argos still hid himself from the waves but grew more comfortable with the rocking of the boat. Kassandra was carefree even in the stormy weather. Most impressive, however, was Kallias. The eevee balanced Patroclus when he fought the sails, and retrieved tools and supplies specifically by name, and studied the knots as brightly as the boy himself. Together they were the perfect sailor and even the captain took notice.

One night when the weather was calmer and Achilles strummed his lyre thoughtfully, the captain asked Patroclus how he felt about an apprenticeship. He knew Patroclus was no prince—not anymore—and to any other boy the offer would have been life-changing. The lyre cut short, listening. He could be a sailor and leave behind the palaces and statuses, learning to navigate so he could take himself all over the world without repercussions. Dewgongs and popplios would be his best companions. Iolaus and Kallias and Kassandra would never be forced to fight. But he already missed the lyre. He declined the offer as graciously as possible, and the music returned with glee.

They returned to Phthia quietly in the night, walking the moonlit beach. The waves were calm but they walked with distance between them and the sea, and seemingly more distance between Patroclus and Achilles. Things had to be this way, at least in view of the ocean. He almost felt guilty, stirrings of that night on Salamis rising the longer they walked, but Achilles had been so insistent. Nothing needed forgiveness, it just needed different circumstances.

He could not remember reaching the palace, nor finding their room, but he remembered Achilles’ hand brushing against his before they went to separate beds. Pedasos and Argos on one bed, Iolaus and Kallias on the other, Kassandra finding her usual perch elsewhere. The room was quiet after weeks on the sea but it was familiar and comfortable, a peace detached from trials and other boys and ill-behaved eevees. Only soft sounds disturbed the air, the snoring of five creatures and the rhythmic breath of the golden boy.

Chapter Text

Routine came to them easily the next morning, the old habit of rising slowly and preparing for the day at a sluggish pace. They went to the meal first, all the boys gathering wildly to hear stories of their voyage and the trial. All of them wanted to know what they could do to prepare, and how they should find passage. It was expected, this attention, but Achilles was his usual quiet self and Patroclus answered simply as possible. Most of the trip he wanted to keep for himself even though the exploits of the golden prince were generally everyone’s business. It belonged to him and Achilles and no one else.

Other boys displayed Peleus’ token now, but usually on their creatures or tied around their belts. In the month or so they had been away many of the eevees had transformed as well. Flareons were most common, perhaps as an attempt to mirror Argos, but jolteons and vaporeons and even an espeon milled about the halls following their boys. Kallias took note of them as if planning but Patroclus was not eager to induce any transformations. He and Achilles still stood out even as the boys around them were improving, with animals devoted to them and tokens strung around their wrists. They ran to see Korinthia while the rest drilled, and they spent the middle of the day returning to their familiar footpaths. It was running the Patroclus way, with jogging and chasing after bolder creatures and taking frequent breaks to admire something new.

Today while they ventured deeper into the woods they came across a small cluster of roselias gathered at a creek. Enchanted by the aroma they joined them. They were on Patroclus’ list, and he was awed at the chance to meet them and admire the colors of their flowers. They seemed to like him and were pleased by his presence, as most creatures were. Growing up he had been forbidden from the beasts his father considered useless, the small and pretty creatures such as these that migrated calmly through forests. Kallias was particularly fond of them, wagging his tail in long, dramatic swishes as the roselias twirled around in front of him. They were dancers, deliberate and delicate, beautiful for the sake of it. Patroclus sat to watch them closely as if they would become forbidden again at any moment, and after a bit Achilles sat with him. They were so deep in the woods not even the angriest sea could be heard.

Achilles took his hand again while they sat. Patroclus had heard once the gods would stretch the length of days when it suited their favorite mortals, and despite knowing he was not special to any gods the day did seem to lengthen as they sat together. His own hand did not shake this time, not when they were hidden in the safety of the world they knew so well. Iolaus and Argos laid beside them and dozed, while Pedasos and Kallias joined parades of roselias and drank from the creek as if to nourish flowers of their own. Kassandra roosted nearby and chirped soft songs not unlike Achilles. They were in the woods for the larger part of the afternoon, too, neglecting whatever lessons were expected of them. Perhaps they spoke for a bit, softly and aimlessly, but Patroclus could not remember what they would have said.

When the roselias moved on the spell over the woods was broken peacefully. Achilles stood first after releasing Patroclus’ hand, and they raced each other back to the palace even though the winner was obvious and unchanging. They both stretched their legs into powerful strides, throwing themselves into the competition, creatures darting alongside them and Kassandra soaring overhead cheerfully, and Patroclus felt the surge of energy that surely drove Achilles to a mad sprint every morning on the beach. He had never experienced it before but just as they were approaching the palace his body was charged to run forever and he managed to close the gap between him and Achilles for just a moment. They stumbled into the palace together, breathless but laughing. When they went to the evening meal that day they talked rapidly, with each other and with the boys and anyone else who would listen. Patroclus told the tale of Achilles and the tauros, while Achilles described brave Kallias and Argos facing down beasts many times their size. It was practice for bigger exploits, completing four trials and then the full eight, plunging into adulthood so Achilles could rightfully be called Aristos Achaion, a term with which the other boys seemed vaguely aware.

But tonight was nothing so grand. They stayed with the boys after the meal for a while, participating in a few games of chase, but then they climbed alone to the noibat cave. They watched the nightly migration and completely neglected to try baiting a noibat into coming near them. So familiar, so comfortable, this was the way their nights were meant to be. Stirrings of the night on Salamis rose nonetheless as he sat beside Achilles in the growing cold. For a while silence reigned, protecting them from alerting the noibats, but then they spoke like they always did. No thoughts were too small; Achilles was refreshingly personal, revealing with quiet submission how scared he had been for Ajax’s trial. He had no plan, no preparation, and knew it was the most important trial he would have if he were to prove himself. In the moment, however, all that mattered was him and the tauros and Patroclus.

Patroclus talked of the roselias and the pretty things he had been forbidden from enjoying. To him the lyre was confusing, and Achilles’ abilities to sing and play and create songs out of nothing was divine. Whenever he expressed a wish to see popplios he really meant primarinas, the glorious sirens. The ways of war so crucial to his father were lost on him, not when these beautiful things existed in a wide world and Patroclus was now free to seek them out. When they finished speaking at one another the conversation between them was uplifting, all the things they were finally able to do and all the places they could go. There were dreams and stories and jokes, the moon rising high over them as the night slipped by.

They talked still as they raced back home, even when their voices dropped to whispers. It was well past curfew for ordinary boys so they crept about the halls like rattatas. Their room was a sanctuary to wrap up their final thoughts, the last stories that passed through their minds as sleep settled in around them. Patroclus drifted off to Achilles’ gentle humming and the song made its way into his dreams.

For two weeks they idled the days away in Phthia, reaching the height of summer while making definitive plans to visit Argos and Mycenae and Sparta. It would be their next three trials and the furthest south either of them had ever been. They ran together, spending equal time in each other’s styles, and wandered the woods hand in hand since it was the most hidden place they knew. They sang and played lyre and eavesdropped and snuck figs out to the noibat cave day or night. When the wind picked up and clouds darkened the sky they darted outside to chase one another in the rain. Every morning they played with Korinthia and every evening they attended ceremonies to watch more eevees transform. The rest of their time was their own.

Achilles visited his mother on occasion, leaving Patroclus with all their beasts to wonder what the sea nymph could possibly want to say. He always returned somewhat dour, but it was nothing a climb to the warm rocks where charmanders lived could not fix. Sometimes they even drilled, but lightheartedly and for the purpose of deepening their bonds with their creatures. Pedasos was eager to fight and Argos preferred defending, and he even learned to jump onto Achilles’ shoulder in a perfect imitation of Kallias. The eevee, for his part, was growing more receptive to commands and signals from Patroclus but he greatly preferred fetching tools to cutting an imitation tauros herd. Iolaus was much more suited to the latter such tasks even though he was hardly the fighting sort.

One morning, though, the routine changed dramatically. Patroclus rose as always and greeted Kallias and Iolaus and Kassandra, but Argos and Pedasos did not make their way over to his bed to greet him. Their master was also absent, Patroclus realized. He assumed Achilles had left early to see his mother, which would be unusual but not entirely unnatural. It was only as the day wore on and he still had not returned that Patroclus considered something might be amiss. He ate breakfast and ran to see Korinthia and meandered about the palace until late into the afternoon. Achilles was utterly absent, and no other boy had seen where he’d gone. Patroclus even tried to brave asking Peleus but the old man had made himself scarce as well. Kallias of all the three was particularly anxious as Patroclus searched, leaping into rooms and scurrying around him. Perhaps he did not behave for Achilles but he certainly missed his presence. By late afternoon he was determined to find the boy and Patroclus had to follow. They ran circles in and out and around the palace, Kallias appearing to track a scent, and Patroclus chased him with all the stamina he had built in those weeks. When they began to run into the hills Kassandra took flight high overhead, periodically soaring down to check with the boy and the eevee, while Iolaus searched the path for footprints and raced alongside Kallias. Only Kallias, however, seemed to be tracking anything substantial.

They were deep into the hills then. Patroclus slowed, fearful, considering he should return to the palace before dark encompassed him fully. Kassandra flew lower now with waning enthusiasm and even Iolaus stuck to his side. The sun had long ago disappeared behind the mountains but he was chasing it, climbing foothills with urgency and running whenever his shaking legs could bear it. The sky was darkening, ink seeping across the clouds, omens of a particularly cold night. He needed to turn back soon or else be stranded. But Kallias forged on, settled on an unseen trail, and the eevee hadn’t led him astray before. Maybe Achilles was in danger if he was out here so far from the sea. Argos and Pedasos would protect him as long as they could but Patroclus’ quick companions could be the turning point.

His token jangled loudly as he ran. It was a cheap imitation of the clanging created by jangmo-o when they pounded scales against rocks. He thought of Pedasos; if there was a way to communicate with him Patroclus could find his way through the hills much easier. Kassandra, with her vantage point in the sky, had potential to show them all right to Achilles but she hovered near him instead. Iolaus could be sent to scout ahead if they had ever practiced such a move. With night approaching so rapidly Patroclus struggled to create a plan. He knew nothing about surviving the woods. Even if he wished to turn back now he would struggle navigating in the dark on the unfamiliar paths Kallias was choosing. Noctowls and golbats screeched in the trees, uncomfortably near, and he was filled suddenly with terror when the dotted shadow of a liepard slipped through nearby grasses. None of his creatures made fire like Argos so he was left, blind, to the mercy of the wild world.

Kassandra perched on his shoulder. She cooed softly in his ear and Iolaus nuzzled his hand, both assuring him of the safety in their team. But the relentless eevee forged on with no regard for them. Patroclus thought of home, of his bed and Kallias on his chest to soothe away the anxiety of this trip and the missing Achilles. Surely in the morning the prince would return. He was shivering and woefully lost, now continuing at a dejected walk as Kallias darted around confusedly. The trail was waning and they were stranded deep in the foothills of Mount Pelion.

Something snarled and his blood went cold. He saw dark shapes surrounding him, slender forms weaving through rock and grass in tight formation, closing in on Patroclus and the three animals. He caught a glimpse of their eyes, hungry and determined and gleaming gold. He knew this sensation and exactly what he had become: prey.

The hunters were unable to strike, however, when a wall of flames sprouted out of the ground in front of him. Argos followed it, growling fiercely though the shadows were significantly larger than him. Then the clamor of scales, and he whipped around to see Pedasos swiping at the shadows. By the light of the flames he realized they were luxrays. In another setting he would have been awed by the presence of such beasts, Zeus’ own creations with omniscient eyes to spy on the affairs of mortals. Now, he only cared about survival.

He signaled to Kallias, who reacted with quick nips at the hocks of the nearest luxray. Iolaus darted forward as well, through the dwindling wall of flames, to swipe at the same beast. Kassandra left his shoulder and dove at another luxray to draw its attention. There were five of the hunters in total but one was left unopposed by a familiar creature. Patroclus faced it, raising his hands, knowing one good cut from the beast would bring him to submission. It regarded him with something like humor but he lowered into one of the fighting stances ingrained in his memory. If it attacked he would be ready. Behind him Kassandra taunted and Iolaus battered, Argos spat flames and Pedasos rattled scales. The luxray facing Patroclus lunged forward with claws outstretched, and while he jumped back he felt a familiar pressure climb his body and appear on his shoulder. Kallias leaned forward and opened his mouth, and the luxray was pelted with a burst of crystalline forms. They glimmered like the stars and disappeared shortly after connecting with their target, but they were shot powerfully. The luxray shrunk back.

Patroclus had no time to admire the beautiful technique when a shock of gold rammed into the luxray. The beast stumbled and gave him one last glare before darting away. Its hunting party soon followed, chased off by bursts of flame and Kassandra’s last few dives. Achilles, the gold, watched them all slink away before running immediately to Patroclus. He threw his arms around Patroclus’ shaking frame and held fast. Overwhelmed with relief, Patroclus reciprocated. Kallias churred affectionately and Kassandra alighted on Achilles’ head.

Achilles released him. “I knew you would come.”

“Kallias led us,” Patroclus mumbled, his mind beginning to drift and his body numbing.

“I was sent to find Cobalion,” Achilles explained. His face was troubled, guilt-stricken if such a thing was possible. “My mother forced me or I would have brought you from the start.”

“Cobalion,” Patroclus echoed.

Kassandra hopped down to Achilles’ arm, which he lifted in response. He smiled weakly for her. “I haven’t found him yet. We can do it together.”

Patroclus tried to form a response, a new plan. Words evaded him, though. He was vaguely aware of something prickling on his arm, an itch perhaps. He reached for it and was met with blood. Achilles jumped forward to grab his arm, twisting it gently to bring two angry gouges into the light of the moon. A defense wound but deep enough to weaken its bearer. Licks of pain radiated up his arm now that he was aware of the wound, the scratches themselves dribbling steady streams of blood. He transferred his gaze from his arm to Achilles, yearning to tell him it was perfectly fine and not to worry.

“It will be fine,” Achilles said for him. His fingers were soft and whispered across the gouges but they smeared blood in unceremonious jagged stripes. Patroclus was painted with the evidence of Achilles’ worry. Achilles tested pressure on the smaller of the cuts and its sudden rage seized Patroclus’ body.

“What should we do?” he managed finally. The scrapes and bruises from his training days were always left exposed and he had never seen what kind of wound warranted a real bandage. Neither of them had any supplies regardless.

“We can take care of it,” Achilles insisted. “I’ve seen the soldiers bandage their wounds. We just need to do that.”

His hands pressed into the gouges, aggravating them, but Patroclus bit his tongue to quell the pain. When he adjusted to it he mumbled something about using a scrap from their tunics as a bandage for the time being. If they sought out Cobalion tonight or returned to the palace he was not sure, but either was bound to have more appropriate cloth.

Achilles tore into his own tunic, prying a long stretch of fabric from it. He tied it with confidence over the scratches, which blossomed red against the white instantly. The pressure was steady but the cuts throbbed under it and Patroclus wondered why men sought to inflict this on the beasts of one another. The luxrays were only hunting, but fighting was so common between kings and princes just to prove status.

After tucking the ends of the makeshift bandage into its firm wrappings Achilles cradled his arm. “How does it feel?”

“Better,” Patroclus lied. Kallias nosed his cheek concernedly and Achilles raised an eyebrow. He looked to the ground. “Hurts.”

“Imagine the stories they’ll tell of you,” Achilles said, running his fingertips across the bloody stains as if he possessed any measure of healing ability. “Fighting off a luxray with the scars to prove it.”

Patroclus summoned all his energy to reply with humor. “You fought it off. They’ll think these are from Iolaus.”

The linoone in question stretched his head up as far as possible, examining the scratches which his two claws would struggle to produce. Not that he would ever raise a paw against Patroclus.

“We’ll tell them it was during a thunderstorm,” Achilles added. His eyes glowed hopefully, and he held firmly to Patroclus’ arm. “And Kallias, summoning the very stars.”

“You make me sound…” The word wouldn’t come to him, not with fog settling back in his mind.

“Like a hero.” Achilles tugged him, urging him to start walking. “We’ll both be heroes.”

An unfamiliar voice rumbled in his head, clear as if the speaker were directly in front of him but not emanating from any single point, “We shall see.”

Patroclus remembered golden eyes appearing from the darkness, but then his mind was black as the night around them.

Morning roused him gently, its light barely reaching him. He was tucked beneath blankets on an unfamiliar bed, the roof above him stone dotted with grooves and markings in some sort of pattern. Deeper into this apparent cave he heard water trickling into a pool, and in the direction of the sun he could hear a breeze carried through grasses and trees. His scratches were bandaged, he could sense without looking. Kallias was on his chest and Iolaus was pressed against his hip. In the hand of his bandaged arm rested a familiar warmth. Slowly, he woke Kallias with his free hand and smiled at the eevee’s soft mumbles. Then he sat up.

He was facing the mouth of the cave and saw dew still melting in the light of the sun. There was a silhouette there too, four legs and a tall neck and a head crowned with horns like lightning bolts. He could see the blue of its fur and the metallic gray of its hooves. It easily stood the height of a man if not taller. He recalled the voice in his head the night before, its nobility and disdain. It was definitely the voice of the silhouette but he feared to hear it speak any more. Its head turned, golden eye regarding him coolly, and the voice was softer this time.

“He has been there all night,” it informed him. “He is clouded with prophecies yet he chose you.”

Patroclus wondered if the new monster was reading his thoughts, and would therefore know he felt honored and guilty about Achilles’ choice. He tightened his hand around that of Achilles.

The voice continued, “My compatriots and I have trained your kind for generations. I knew Peleus, and knew I would someday be given his son, but I was surprised to see that son idling in the hills for you. Surely you have come to ask for my training as well? Allow me to guess the list of triumphs that make you worthy.”

He shook his head and said aloud, “I don’t have a list. I came with Achilles.”

“Following him does not make you worthy.”

“We wanted to find you together. It’s an adventure.”

The silhouette turned to face him entirely. “If I could only take on one of you, who should it be?”

“Him,” Patroclus said immediately. All other boys would envy him if they knew he was a student of Cobalion, but the beast already said Achilles was the one wreathed in prophecy. Achilles was the one under constant scrutiny, compared to every prince and king and all the soldiers that served them, and godly blood only carried a hero so far. Over and over Achilles had saved him, first from endless training and most recently from certain death. There was no question, no competition. He would choose Achilles every time.

Cobalion’s face was difficult to read, sternness a focal feature of his expression and likely permanent. In any case he seemed to have arrived at a conclusion, given the lack of judgement in his eyes. He began to walk out of the cave mouth, facing the sun now, but his words sounded within Patroclus’ mind: “When he wakes, join me.”

His first impulse once the silhouette was gone was to check his arm. The bandage was clean and snugly bound, and when he ran his fingers across where the scratches should be he could feel small, evenly spaced bumps lining the length of the cuts. Achilles’ fingers tightened around his suddenly.

“We sewed them shut,” he said, eager but still fighting off sleep. “Do you feel better now?”

“Yes.” Patroclus couldn’t help smiling.

Achilles stretched his free arm and Argos leapt up from a place beside the bed to nuzzle it. “We found Cobalion, too. This is his cave. He told me how to do the stitching.”

“When-” Patroclus rubbed his eyes, “when did he do that?”

 

“Last night.” Achilles released his hand then and pulled himself onto the bed next to him. “He appeared in the woods to talk to us but you were saying nonsense and could barely stand. He said it happens when people are badly hurt.”

“Badly?”

He nodded. “He says luxrays hunt with lightning even if there isn’t a storm and it can make things like scratches even worse. I don’t really remember but I know he said you’re lucky.”

“Am I a hero yet?” Patroclus joked quietly. He thought it would put Achilles at ease but he was afraid of what Cobalion would think.

“Absolutely.” Achilles laughed, reaching to pet Kallias. But as he focused on the eevee his humor faded. “I was scared.”

“Really?” Patroclus twisted his bandaged arm in search of bloodstains or some other overt sign of danger. If the wound was so bad surely there would be something more tangible.

“I thought I couldn’t protect you,” he admitted, “that I wasn’t enough and you were going to die because of me.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Patroclus tried to assure him, though his chunk of missing memory gave him little comfort. “I was lucky.”

“We have to stay together from now on,” Achilles said. Patroclus had never seen him so solemn about anything. “So I can protect you and you can protect me.”

“Deal.”

“You have to swear it,” Achilles insisted, leaning towards him.

Despite the weight of the promise Patroclus smiled. Only a day spent apart but this reunion was sweeter than he could have imagined. “I swear it.”

“I swear it, too.” Achilles grabbed Patroclus’ shoulder and pulled him close, kissing him quickly.

Kallias squirmed, squished between them, but Patroclus could only feel his heart pounding. He wanted to smile, laugh, try to say something, but the first thing he remembered was the eyes from the sea. “What about your mother?”

Thankfully, Achilles grinned. “She can’t see us here.”

It was safe. Patroclus beamed back at him. He felt light again, as if they were back on the boats tossed up by a swell. Kallias yipped cheerfully and was rewarded by two hands ruffling each of his ears. They sat for a bit longer, occasionally meeting eyes and laughing as Kallias begged for their attention. When they finally left the cave the sun was high and the dew was long gone. Cobalion waited for them at the edge of the woods, which sloped sharply downward and were filled with the rhythms of kricketots.

“The expectations and demands of men have never meant anything to me,” Cobalion’s voice echoed in their heads, “and I will make no exceptions for Aristos Achaion. Do you think you are truly worthy?”

Achilles nodded immediately, and Patroclus was obligated to agree. They had promised just moments ago not to part; if Achilles stayed to train he would as well. He had no heroic destiny to boast about, and an exile staining his past regardless of his current station, but he tamed three animals with kindness and completed two prince’s trials without fighting. He was not the perfect candidate but he prayed Cobalion would accept him regardless.

“I would speak with your companions, then.” Cobalion indicated towards the eevee and growlithe by their feet, and the linoone and jangmo-o and the swablu that were still assembling from within the cave. “Their judgement will be all I require.”

Kallias hopped forward immediately, churring. To Patroclus it was a familiar sound, the happiest noise that ever came from any eevee in Peleus’ halls. Kallias knew and liked them both and he was not quiet about his opinions. Achilles watched the conversation, fascinated as he tried to discern words from nothing, but Patroclus watched a small pachirisu climbing high up in the forest. Its tail was a banner as it scaled tree trunks with ease and leapt from branch to branch and its eyes were glittery and attentive. It regarded him for a moment and then went back to its work. The spots on its cheeks crackled with the smallest lightning Patroclus had ever seen, another creature of Zeus. He was almost entranced by it but he was still aware of his own creatures. All three of his—and Argos and Pedasos as well—were sounding off to Cobalion chaotically but eagerly. The great blue beast almost seemed startled, his attention shifting rapidly between the five until he surely gave them some sort of command to speak one at a time. He was a king in conference with five envoys but he had not expected them to have so much to say. When Patroclus lost the pachirisu in the woods he realized Kallias was inching towards Cobalion as the rest of the creatures’ statements were drawing to an end. The eevee always had more to say.

Ultimately Cobalion had to tell him to stop. Patroclus noticed how the great blue beast spoke to the other creatures with a rumble deep in his throat, even though his words to Patroclus and Achilles were never uttered by his actual mouth. Speaking to men was different, it seemed. Cobalion looked to both of them, his expression softened but still carefully guarded. “You may stay. Our first lesson will start now.”

Into the woods they went, two boys and five animals following the trainer of heroes. He was nearly silent despite his size while the rest of them were clumsy and obvious. They were accustomed to paths free of underbrush and stones, and to making as much noise as they desired, but Cobalion did not need to speak for them to realize he expected quietness. Surrounded by the leaves and the stillness of forest air, Patroclus had to consider his steps. He watched where Cobalion placed his hooves and tried to follow, searching for the gaps between plants and feeling for secure footholds. Kallias darted out ahead of them with no regard for the noise he made, hopping to keep his head above the growth, but Iolaus disappeared into a streak of beige and he slipped effortlessly through the forest.

Cobalion led them further and they almost felt accustomed to the quiet by the time his voice infiltrated their heads again. His words did not disturb the forest around them but were important nonetheless, directing their attention to a slew of bright red berries hidden carefully within larger shrubs. Their stems were twisting and protected them from accidental discovery. He explained they were one of the ingredients of a salve applied to Patroclus’ wounds, one that was said to encourage healing and treat the effects of lightning. Though men hurt one another so frequently, he said, they were so primitive in the ways they dealt with the aftermath. There were some fruits in the woods that he pointed out as edible, which they ate in lieu of a proper meal while they wandered deeper and deeper. Cobalion showed them a slew of medicinal plants, giving names and uses and expecting them to remember while they moved to the next bunch. Patroclus recited them in his head and when Cobalion next tested their knowledge he was prepared. Achilles was less prepared in that regard, but he was easily developing a lighter step than Patroclus.

By midday they were following a river back towards the cave, proving to Cobalion they knew at least something about the creatures which swam through it. If he was impressed it did not show, but his steps slowed the more animals they identified as if he was curious to hear their knowledge. He asked what they knew about their own companions, growlithes and eevees and all the rest. The exceptionally loyal growlithes were so prized by princes because of their devotion and obedience, making even a horrible handler seem skilled, but neither of them knew that much. Cobalion noted with a hint of reluctance how Argos respected Achilles’ leadership and viewed him as a partner rather than a master. They tried to press him for what the rest of their companions had to say about them but Cobalion was impossible to sway, telling them if they still needed to ask an interpreter they were not worthy of hearing the testimonies.

They all reached the cave as the sun began its afternoon decline and the boys were given clear instructions on the care of Patroclus’ wound. They stripped off the bandages and examined the cuts, Patroclus particularly fascinated by the uneven stitches which held them closed. Cobalion observed over their shoulders and explained in great detail what they should and shouldn’t see, the color of the skin and the fluids and the integrity of every loop. When Patroclus asked about the sewing process he was almost happy about providing an answer—a topic of his that most students cared little about. Cobalion had no hands but it did not prevent him from acquiring an intimate knowledge of medicine. He mentioned how treatments varied between creatures, how it took an especially skilled medic to work on all the beasts and men of a battle when most learned only how to care for the human soldiers. When he concluded the day’s discussion of wounds he instructed Patroclus to leave his arm unbandaged, and they went searching for dinner.

At first it was tedious, trekking all around the woods behind Cobalion in search of whatever he deemed they could eat while he filled their head with his voice and as much knowledge of the woods as he possibly could. Every step was a lesson and every leaf held meaning. Patroclus wondered if they were only to be trained for a few days and Cobalion therefore had to teach them everything important before they left. As a teacher he had no shortage of examinations, forcing them both to apply all they had learned in a way no lesson ever had, and when they proved they could recite the uses of common herbs he gave them scenarios. They both faltered trying to answer those, utterly incompetent as real medics and not allowed to forget it based on Cobalion’s piercing gaze. But he was not merely a strict master; when they ate that night he told them ancient stories for the sake of storytelling. He was truly pleased then, especially to have such an attentive audience of both animals and boys. Achilles asked if there was a lyre he could play and Cobalion directed him to a set of the instruments which he claimed were all gifts from Apollo himself. The music was soft and soothing when the sky darkened, and Cobalion described to them the important stars. Later, he promised, they would learn to connect them and find their way following the map laid out in the sky above them. Patroclus dared to ask what else they might learn, to which Cobalion simply replied, “Anything.”

They slept together in the one bed Cobalion’s cave held, no room for shyness as their limbs tangled in the night and the four creatures who were accustomed to sharing their beds struggled to sort out their own spots in the arrangement. Cobalion spent his night deeper in the cave, closer to the spring which babbled quietly at all times. Morning came so quickly but Patroclus did not feel starved of rest.

For over a month they rose early and spent every hour of daylight studying intensely alongside the great blue beast. He mixed archery and hunting into identifying plants and creatures, teaching them that understanding the entire forest was critical for mastering any skill that took place within it. Their first major test of surgery came when Achilles had to remove the sutures from Patroclus’ arm, meant as something of a punishment to the golden boy who could learn every skill but medicine. Patroclus whispered instructions to him anyway. They could be sent into the woods to collect plants, and trusted not to disturb every fomantis and ferroseed along the way. In this month Cobalion gave them no spare time, every moment filled with a lesson or a test, but their trips to retrieve berries or check snares became their respites; every unsupervised errand was an excuse for Achilles to grab his hand or for them to run in either of their usual styles. For the sake of quiet they took to leaving their challenge tokens in the cave but their significance was not lowered. On days spent closer to the cave—when medicine and music were the focus—they still tied tokens around the other’s wrist in a quick morning ritual. It was a rigorous schedule, much tougher than the drills Patroclus had faced during his first year in Phthia, but it was easily better. The mountain was another world entirely, seeming to exist outside the flow of time, so the long hours had little effect on Patroclus.

Towards the end of the month Cobalion asked of the trials they were set on completing next. So they told him of the plan, the cities of Argos and Mycenae and Sparta, to the fiercest three kings possible. Cobalion scoffed at their knowledge of geography, and used it as a lesson on just how long this trip would be. Eleven, maybe twelve days to Argos and Mycenae, cities an easy day apart, but then the grueling trek out to Sparta. Two weeks at the absolute best to sail from Mycenae to Sparta but likely several days longer, or a twisted trek through the mountains or along the sprawling coast. Allegedly shorter by land but the kind of hard march that made Spartans what they were. Cobalion reluctantly agreed to prepare them, but gave them a strict timeline to complete the three trials. They had to return to the mountain before winter no matter what, which meant they would have to leave within the next five days and adhere to Cobalion’s schedule exactly.

At dawn on the fourth day, Cobalion set them on a path up to the summit. He gave no other instructions, no lessons or anecdotes, merely showed them the way and loosed them like an arrow. And, like an arrow, Achilles flew boundlessly, up and up the twisting trail with the wind tossing his hair. Patroclus would never be able to keep pace when Achilles truly ran but he was gaining the stamina necessary to keep up in a race like this. Kallias sat on his shoulder, the first time he had felt free to be there since they arrived on the mountain. Far below them the world awoke, tides surging up on distant beaches and buds spreading open to the golden sun. From up here the changes were minute but Patroclus liked to imagine he still saw them. When Patroclus made the final push to reach the summit Achilles was there to hold him steady against the mighty winds. It was treacherous but they crowned the world together.

Then he realized why they had been sent. At their feet rested a stone, glowing and flickering like crystalized flame, placed intentionally so it would catch their eye right away. Kallias wilted at the sight, but the rest of their companions were still scouting about on the path.

“I promised you would be here to see,” Achilles said eventually, reaching for the stone.

“Is he ready?” Patroclus wondered, searching for Argos between scrubby grass and chalky boulders.

Achilles shrugged, a casual gesture but Patroclus knew him well enough to see the uncertainty in his face.

Patroclus dared to press, “Are you?”

“I must be,” he answered. They would not have been sent if their teacher did not think the timing appropriate, and Cobalion would never inflict a transformation on a creature who did not wish it. Achilles called for Argos, and the growlithe bounded up the path with glee. His demeanor, unlike Kallias, did not sour at the sight of the stone. He barked at Achilles, ears pricking up excitedly, and though there was plenty of room on the summit for the boys and all the beasts to stand Achilles and Patroclus both stepped back. The stone grew brighter when Achilles reaches it towards Argos; they had seen enough transformations with eevees to know the mechanics of the ritual but this was a solemn event. No jostling boys in haphazard ranks, no stuffy nobility, and certainly not in the throne chambers under the light of the dusk sun. They stood, alone but together, in the full light of Apollo at the freshest part of the day. Argos stretched to reach the stone in Achilles’ hesitant grip, and at last the golden boy offered it to the growlithe.

A burning light engulfed the summit, warm as it reflected off Patroclus’ skin and utterly blinding the longer he tried to watch. He faltered and felt himself pushed back by the heat but Achilles remained steadfast. The glow dispersed from the stone itself but Argos was surrounded by it, and when this aura flickered out too the creature that stood before them was almost the height of Cobalion. Thick, endurant legs supported by large paws, a mane and ruff of brilliant gold, tail carried like a king’s banner by the persistent wind. The creature blinked rapidly for a moment, adjusting to his height, and then met Achilles’ eyes. It was Argos but he had to look down to see them, and suddenly the placement of his great body mattered very much. Patroclus almost wanted to bow, and if this had been any creature but Argos he may have. But Argos woofed at them and a smile spread across Achilles’ face. He wrapped his arms around as much of Argos’ neck as he could, and Argos sniffed appreciatively. An arcanine, another creature crossed off Patroclus’ list. After a moment Patroclus hugged Argos too, and Kallias wagged his tail.

Iolaus tore up the path suddenly, and regarded Argos with almost terrified curiosity. He stretched up and Argos bent down, eyes locked and noses twitching, and finally he recognized his old friend. The linoone chittered and the arcanine hummed, comfort returning to Iolaus’ posture while they discussed this grand new change. They were two of a kind now, mature and versed in kings’ trials.

They picked their way back down the path, very deliberate after seeing how far they had to fall, and Argos followed with a new sense of regality. He made prince and companion into kings. To Patroclus this confidence was almost unsettling, new to him even though his formative years were spent as a prince. He thought it necessary to walk differently now, a posture more worthy of an arcanine’s presence. Cobalion too regarded them differently despite being unaffected by Argos’ transformation. Perhaps it was respect. Cobalion had yet to demonstrate any sort of positive sentiment towards his human pupils but this transformation was significant.

Instead of plunging into the forest, Cobalion encouraged them to sit near the mouth of the cave, where the ground was softest. When they obeyed his voice filled their minds. “You are now accompanied by a being who could run you to Pylos and back in a matter of days, if you so wished. I will not stop you if you decided to use this power to finish all your trials in one journey.”

They looked curiously back to Argos, who stared upward towards his own head as Kassandra nestled herself into his mane. He easily looked large enough to carry them and run but at such a speed? A rapidash would struggle.

“These trials are strange to me,” Cobalion continued, “but I recognize their importance to you and your kind. It would be my advice to travel the long way and practice what I have taught.”

Achilles regarded Argos, then Patroclus, and his words were almost hesitant. “We can still return, even if the trip is long?”

“You would not have been able to climb this mountain in the winter, until now. When first you arrived I had low expectations, but you each have made me reconsider.” It was not the answer to his question, which Cobalion seemed reluctant to give for a moment. “I would be glad to welcome you back, regardless of how long the trip.”

Achilles grinned, pleased, and Patroclus felt the expression grow on his own face. Cobalion turned his chin up and stared intently into the woods, and finally Patroclus could see masked kindness behind his standard stern expression. For the rest of this last day they stayed near the cave for music and history and answering Cobalion’s rigorous scenarios. They were still daunting but Patroclus had a newfound trust in his own mind—and an impressive knowledge of healing herbs. Achilles played lyre and Argos howled in his newly regal voice. Kassandra and Kallias chased each other playfully while Iolaus and Pedasos carried on a conversation. Patroclus, for a time, listened to Achilles’ music and Cobalion’s stories and rubbed the raised scars across his arm. He recalled the red berry with curling stem that could ease the effects of lightning, and the plump blue berry to accelerate healing. That fateful night over a month ago Achilles had called him a hero but Patroclus hoped it was not true. Heroes lost everything, and risked their lives for the glory of the gods who never deserved it. They fought and killed and died in pain. It was Achilles’ fate, Patroclus recalled, but that night in the foothills when the demigod’s shaky fingers pressed into those bloody wounds he was anything but. If Achilles had to be a hero, Patroclus would follow with all the plants they learned from Cobalion and keep his wounds stitched closed. If Patroclus could repay the favors of that night he would be happy, and he knew it would make Achilles happy too.

Later in the day Cobalion introduced them to surgery. It was the briefest lesson possible in what was evidently a complicated subject, something to lure them back to the mountain after their trials. He showed them a collection of tools, stored carefully within the cave to protect them from rust, small and delicate like flower stems made of metal. They could turn and manipulate the tools with gentle hands but Cobalion controlled them seemingly with nothing. He instructed them to retrieve fruit and the tools danced deftly across their surfaces, peeling colorful skin and carving out seeds to show them just what surgery really entailed. It was a delicate process and only the best medics even stood a chance at performing it successfully. When the tools were stored away once more Cobalion described to them basic ailments to be treated through surgery, arrowhead wounds and poisoned flesh and sometimes even setting bones. His knowledge came from memory, graphic and vivid and almost sickening just to hear about. Patroclus wondered if the images in his head were projected there, just like Cobalion’s voice, or if he were picturing things on his own. In any case, Cobalion described wounds and ailments not to scare them but to inspire them, show them the ways sharp metal tools could be wielded in the name of Apollo rather than Ares.

As the sun set Cobalion told them of his own divine allegiance. When humankind was still young there were frequent quarrels between them and the animals of the world, and a tetrad of greater beasts presided over their wars. They were infused with the fighting spirit of Ares so that they would face men on the battlefield, but each of them hailed from a different source. Cobalion was metal, and was equally connected to swords and scalpels. In his earliest years he fought in protection of the beasts against men and scoffed at their brutish ways but as the ages passed he came to respect a handful of humans. Though the medicine of the beasts was often far superior they could never hope to match humans’ invention of tools. He was brought into the world to fight, but Cobalion explained to them—while staring pointedly at Achilles—how one could overcome the nature of their birth. Prophecies were fluid and nondescript, often tricky in their presentation, so even one destined for war could rise above it.

They talked about heroes for a time, as Cobalion and his kin were the trainers of heroes. The mighty Heracles was a student of the strong and steadfast Terrakion, while Jason belonged to youthful Keldeo. To Virizion went strong but cunning Theseus, and to Cobalion himself was resourceful Perseus. His memories of all four were bittersweet, proud of the students they were but ashamed of the men they became. He had been training boys for generations but the outcome for which he hoped had not yet come to pass. In a display of typical bravado Achilles promised to be different, but Cobalion scoffed.

Late into the night they finally retired to bed. Patroclus slept fitfully but Achilles beside him was peaceful. He realized while staring at the cave ceiling that it mapped the night sky, its previously strange pattern now falling into place as Patroclus recognized the heroes and beasts. Swanna, and Ursaring with Teddiursa, Lycanroc and Murkrow. Perseus and Orion and the Argo. Cobalion’s test on the stars had been easy for him, and now he knew he could practice whenever sleep would not come. Kallias eventually stirred and assumed position on his chest, which eased him a bit but could not distract him fully from his racing thoughts. Stars and heroes and the born nature of man collided in his mind, split apart under the dangerously sharp surgical knives and sutured back together by inexperienced hands. Tomorrow they would trek out to the sea and begin for Argos, then Mycenae, then Sparta. Patroclus wondered what was so important about the first city that Achilles would name an arcanine after it. It could be the heroic origins rather than the place itself, the boat which carried brave adventurers. Maybe it would make sense once they arrived.

At some point he fell asleep, because he was roused the next morning by Achilles. It was hands and soft talking at first, but when his eyes opened Achilles kissed his nose. His face stayed close, earnest and cheerful. “Are you ready?”

Patroclus grinned and pushed him half-heartedly. “No. Do we still have time?”

“We should hurry,” he said while sitting up, Patroclus following in parallel. “I want to be at the docks by nightfall so we can camp.”

“There’s no way we can make it that far in one day.” Patroclus rubbed his eyes and tried to forget his sleepless night. There was more important work to be done than lamenting his own restlessness.

“There is.” Achilles glanced outside, to Argos stretching in the light of dawn. “It will be like our own trial.”

Patroclus slid past Achilles to leave the bed behind. He washed quickly from the pool deeper in the cave and brushed weeks’ worth of dust from his tunic. “So we get as far as we can without Argos, and ride him the rest of the way?”

“Yes. Hopefully we can ride right past the palace.”

“You don’t want to see your father?”

Achilles shook his head.

He didn’t press. It made sense to Patroclus, though their reasons for wishing to avoid a father were very different. And in any case this trip was for them, their own journey and their own skills put to the test. Patroclus was keenly aware that leaving Pelion meant leaving being their refuge from the prying eyes of the sea. However else they could preserve the journey for themselves, they would do it. Not to mention, the boys would be impossible to handle now more than ever, with all their incessant questions about Cobalion and trials and the journey ahead. Better to stick to themselves, circumventing the palace.

They tied tokens to each others’ wrists and met Cobalion outside for the final preparations. He tested their knowledge quickly, a final assurance that they could survive a long journey accompanied only by each other. When he gave his approval they began the long hike down Pelion, bidding him farewell and promising to return before winter. They had almost exactly two months to return, more time spent away than they had actually spent under the tutelage of the great blue beast.

Cobalion had equipped them well with basic medical supplies and a decent amount of food. For tonight, at least, there would be no reason to worry about restocking or living off the land itself. Patroclus was eager to put Cobalion’s teachings to the test, though. They were no master mountaineers but he imagined they had learned enough to make the trek to Sparta over the land. He imagined it while he and Achilles continued their descent, placing their practiced feet along narrow pathways while the winds sang around them. Climbing and running, camping in the woods where ancient trees blotted out the familiar stars. Pelion existed at the edge of their familiar world but Sparta was a new realm entirely. Tucked so tightly in the mountains, the journey there would be a haven away from the sea and the people who knew them.

They did not speak much to one another. Enough had been said that morning, and the silence was not unnatural or even uncomfortable. Patroclus had learned to tune himself to Achilles’ footfalls whenever he felt uncertain, and it substituted the need to say anything aloud. Cobalion alone possessed the power to speak directly into their minds but Patroclus was beginning to think perhaps he could do it with Achilles. When the trees grew rich around them he paid more attention to the creatures nearby rather than the human who ran with him. In the woods there were minccinos and chatots and pikipeks, melodies and rhythms that trickled down through the leaves like raindrops. He was keen to the deerlings and sawsbucks trekking in small herds, with their coats firmly rooted in autumn orange now. This stretch of trees was narrow, though, and when they emerged from it he watched helioptiles and scraggies skittering about boulders. They were not the monsters of rock his father coveted. Out here was the domain of Cobalion, not the war-torn world of men.

By the time the sun reached its height they were still deep in the foothills and Patroclus was ready for a break. He loved the bright sun and the breeze and the sight of Kassandra soaring overhead, but Achilles hiked very fast and now Argos was so large his every stride required the boys to speed up. He thought of water and fruit and a moment or two seated on a riverbank while he recovered. But he did not want to disappoint Achilles and fail their personal trial of reaching the docks by nightfall. Determined, he soldiered onward.

Around them the heat of the afternoon rose and the air grew heavy with coming rain. It could signal a storm, the thundering and terrifying kind, which would delay their travel. Cobalion hadn’t yet taught them to read the weather, though it was likely part of his curriculum. A storm would mean stopping to shelter wherever they were now, still tucked in the foothills of Mount Pelion where the tossing seas could not find them. Of course Patroclus thought of Salamis, the storm and the waves and the night spent hidden away together. Even though they went hand in hand so frequently he thought of their kisses like a secret so significant even recalling them would be exposure. The images were pushed into the dark, veiled, but as clouds began to cover the sky his heart felt aloft with memory. He reached for Achilles’ hand despite the sweat of his own palms. Achilles took it readily, almost without noticing, but Patroclus caught the flash of his green eyes. The contact was loose and gentle, but secure. Achilles’ pace slowed, and Argos took less dramatic steps so they would not be left behind.

Kallias walked on his own until the first few drops of rain fell unceremoniously. Then he leapt up on Patroclus’ legs, searching for his usual steps until Patroclus lifted him onto his shoulder. Rain fell sporadically at first, small flickers that were easy to ignore, but then all at once the storm was unleashed. Water streamed down the rocks around them—not enough to carry an eevee away just yet—and the fiery Argos pinned back his ears in discomfort. Achilles, however, was in no great hurry. In the last storm he ran but this time he was carefree, lifting his face skyward to be drenched by the tempest. Patroclus mimicked him, rain falling directly into his eyes an unappealing thought until he was actually facing the clouds. Gray as ash, like a swarm of jangmo-o all clashing their scales at the same time in the peals of thunder. The distinctive scars on Patroclus’ arm almost seemed to prickle at the presence of the same electrifying energy as their creators. Achilles’ fingers tightened around his.

The best thing about storms, he discovered, was how it isolated them completely from anyone else in the world.

They diverted off the path to find cover in the forests. Even though the rain tore through the leaves and soaked them no matter where they stood, its effects were lessened under sturdy, twisting branches. Their hands were slick and his grip almost faltered but not that of Achilles, never Achilles. The golden boy shone amidst gray skies and soaked bark, a pinpoint of sunlight. He pulled Patroclus closer by his hand, and the eevee on Patroclus’ shoulder trilled in a playful threat. How could he be made to stand on the other shoulder?

Achilles was not deterred, even with Kallias’ paw pressed firmly against his temple. When they tried to see past the trees only silver streaks came into focus, no sign of the hills, or the valley, or the sea. Surrounded by mist and water. A jagged scratch of lightning and a deafening crackle of thunder tore apart the sky. Patroclus felt it in his core, a primitive bolt of sheer terror that reminded him of staring into the eyes of a luxray. Sensing this, Achilles squeezed his hand.

For as long as they could they hiked through forest. At times Patroclus followed Iolaus’ careful steps, reminiscent of their first year together when they explored for countless hours and thoughts of a golden prince rarely entered his head. The linoone was sure-footed amidst roots and underbrush and always found a secure path. Argos walked behind them, but Patroclus imagined he was unhappy. The calls of wild creatures had ceased, but the raucous storm was more than enough noise. Eventually, though, the trees thinned and the path was boulders and mud all the way to the palace. They had no guard against the torrent save each other, because whenever Argos moved to shield them the winds shifted and ripped at them from a new angle. More thunder shattered them but they had not seen the lightning to go with it. Patroclus was uneasy and drew so close to Achilles their shoulders brushed nearly constantly.

Perhaps Achilles said something. It would have been bold and reassuring, and it would have referenced his vow to never leave Patroclus’ side. His voice could barely carry, even when Kallias resigned to riding on the other shoulder so Patroclus could be closer to him. It was soothing nonetheless. The next thunder was softer, a beast routed and growling during its retreat. If Patroclus had possessed even a shred of poetic ability he would have composed the song of Achilles driving off the storm. The rain itself began to weaken and the winds calmed, and the last echo of thunder was far behind them. The day, however, was also slipping away. It was not dark just because of a storm, the light of the sky really was dimming. Their feet stuck in the mud and sturdy ground was trickier to find, dashing their chances of quickening the pace. All that aside, they were drenched and the night did not promise to be warm. It was a unanimous decision to climb onto Argos; he bore their weight easily even when they dragged Iolaus and Pedasos up to ride with them. Kassandra dove cheerfully down at Patroclus’ call, nestling herself into Argos’ mane. Iolaus was draped horizontally across Argos’ back, wedged firmly between the arcanine’s neck and Patroclus, who buried his hands into the golden fur and clutched it tightly. Kallias remained on his shoulder, and no amount of speed or jostling would dislodge him when he was so determined. Achilles held Pedasos in one arm, but the other he slipped firmly around Patroclus.

Argos did not run. His effortless strides and powerful paws carried them through the foothills at a speed which seemed to come naturally, but the wind streaking across their faces was more powerful than the storm. Patroclus’ fingers were locked, steadfast, anchoring them to the arcanine. It was not running; it was practically flying. The clouds drifted away and the dramatic reds of the setting sun put on a show for the few moments they were on display, before stars blinked awake in the inky sky. Achilles leaned into Patroclus, murmured the names of a few scattered constellations. He thought of the cave, the map on its ceiling, tangled with Achilles. He knew the stars almost as well as Patroclus.

The next sound Patroclus heard was the crashing of the sea, drowning out Achilles’ soft voice as Argos slowed. He could feel Pedasos’ scales digging into his back and his shoulder was stiff from supporting Kallias, but it had been no time at all to ride compared to hiking out to the docks themselves. Argos had bypassed the palace as discussed, and stopped altogether when his paws were splashed by the incoming tide. They dismounted the arcanine ungracefully, falling over each other and struggling not to drop Pedasos and Iolaus and the pack from Cobalion in the damp sand. As regal as it had felt to ride him, Argos was still unpoised as ever and they were still two clumsy humans. At least, Patroclus was.

Close by he could see the docks, with boats bumping against each other. It was already asleep for the night. They hiked up a beach a bit, to a place where the sand was nearly dry despite the storm, and used their feet to dig hasty beds for themselves. When they were seated Argos curled around them, protecting them from the wind off the waves. The arcanine provided some warmth but Patroclus pulled himself close to Achilles anyway. They were accustomed to starlit nights entwined with one another. Patroclus slept soundly in his arms, and Achilles hummed drowsily for him when dawn finally woke them.

Chapter Text

By the time the last stars were blotted out by dawn they were dining on the fruit packed for them by Cobalion. They would find more nourishing feed at the docks while they searched for a southbound boat. Patroclus eyed the waves warily over Argos’ back while they discussed their plans, hoping the sea nymph was not watching them today. He had yet to meet her but he was content to leave it that way. Achilles was at ease, though, assuring him they were perfectly safe for the time being to discuss their plans one last time. The cities of Argos, Mycenae, and Sparta. Patroclus had the names engrained firmly in his mind, could recite them almost as well as the stars or the healing herbs Cobalion had taught them. They speculated together on what kinds of trials they could expect from these kings. Diomedes was a proud warrior but also an intelligent one, and would have no mere fight for his champions. Agamemnon was a conqueror but liked to imagine himself something more refined, and would never lower himself to contests of brute strength. Of the three, Menelaus was most likely to pit them against a tauros herd, but Achilles was confident that even he would concoct an elaborate trial.

When they stood and brushed away sand Achilles brought up the last three kings they would face, those of Pylos and Ithaca and Troy. Nestor was a storyteller, not a fighter, and Odysseus was renowned for wit and tactical knowledge. Priam, like Telamon, was very old and would probably task the organization of his trials to a son. Neither Achilles nor Patroclus knew any of those sons but imagined their trials would be no more challenging than any other, even if the journey to reach them was the longest. Of course, there would be time for discussing these later trials after they found themselves a boat for the current journey.

This time, when seeking passage, Patroclus found many of the captains and sailors more receptive to him without Achilles’ presence. Between the scars on his arm and the posture he had developed in the woods he looked the part of a boy working to complete the kings’ trials. Their setback in finding passage this time was Argos; many captains were willing to receive two boys and a host of creatures until they saw the imposing arcanine, who would take up valuable room. Achilles offered to pay—though with what money Patroclus greatly wondered. They both advertised their own labor, powerful Achilles on an oar and bright Patroclus on the sails, which pleased many a captain until the arcanine was brought up.

It was midday by the time they were approached by a sailor willing to ferry an arcanine. Her crew consisted entirely of women who were not given the opportunity to work on other boats, and though she was not keen on the lost profits incurred from carrying an arcanine rather than cargo, she understood the feeling of rejection on the basis of one lesser detail. Through either coincidence or fate her boat was headed for Argos anyway. They eagerly accepted her offer, and while the rowers pushed the boat away from the shore she boasted of her Amazon lineage. Her family’s story was detailed and intricate, an oral history of tales almost too fantastic to believe if Patroclus was not constantly accompanied by a demigod. She had a piplup, too, that perched near the mast and tweeted stubbornly at her. She told them it was the third generation, grandchild of her very first partner, and she had trained every one before it to be a sailor.

For that first day she tested their skills like she would the piplup. Kallias and Iolaus impressed her after all Patroclus’ careful training, and the boy himself proved his worth with knots and sails. Despite his arcanine, Achilles was a valued rower and Pedasos was quiet and loyal and took easily to manual work like Patroclus’ creatures. Argos tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, resting up on the deck in a tight ball while the sailors worked around him. Their captain gave orders and treated them no differently from other sailors while they worked. And when the crew naturally broke into their songs they joined in. That night the boat drifted with the current, guided only by the vigilant captain while the rest of them slept. Achilles and Patroclus assumed a similar position to the beach, nestled against Argos and each other while the rest of their creatures piled around them.

The next morning saw the return of the storms, throwing frothing waves over the deck and tearing at the sails with vicious winds. Lightning and thunder crackled sporadically but when they subsided the clouds dumped cascades of rain that mixed with the spray of the sea. Their captain shouted at them over the gales, explaining this was typical of the season but still a very dangerous event. Many boats hunkered in ports when the weather raged like this, but not hers. She feared no storms, not from Zeus or Poseidon. She had been battling them longer than Achilles had been alive, she assured them. She tied her hair back and Achilles did the same, awaiting her instructions eagerly. Patroclus, less motivated by the challenge and more by the idea of surviving, worked with a few members of the crew to tighten the knots securing the mast and sails. It was something he knew to do without direction. The rowers below the deck struggled valiantly to steer the ship according to the captain’s orders, relaying the information through a short chain of deliberate shouting. When the ropes were secure Patroclus took up a place in this line, not the most honorable of tasks but critical nonetheless as he freed up a rower to head below.

The oars may as well have been combing through calm waters as they cut through wake and wave. They remained as synchronized as possible; Patroclus noticed after a time how the rowers sung together in a fitting rhythm. Achilles had disappeared down there some time ago, in the belly of the ship where the ocean was loudest. Navigation depended entirely on the coastline to the west, and it was a delicate balance of keeping the land in sight and staying well enough away that the sea could not throw the boat upon it. The captain was steadfast, rooted to the soaked planks of the deck when the swells tossed the rest of them like dice. She gave orders calmly and emphatically, resting the rowers when possible and letting the ship toss and churn at the mercy of the winds when they were far enough away from the coast. Her piplup clung to her side, likely facing the true power of the seas for the first time, while all the other animals but Argos sheltered below with the rowers.

Something snapped. The crew reacted simultaneously, flinching and ducking aside from a rope gone rogue. A lash from it would be debilitating at best. Patroclus stepped safely out of its path but as he did so Argos sprinted up to him and knocked him over, pushing him further from danger than necessary. Patroclus was powerless against the arcanine and the storm, and for a brief moment he met Argos’ concerned gaze. Then he laughed. It was sudden and unexpected even for him, but the mood of the crew around him lightened as they too found humor in the sight of an overprotective beast.

He leapt to his feet, more dextrous after his time with Cobalion. The broken rope still whipped like lightning through the air but it had moments of enough calm that he darted forward, dodging side to side with light feet like a zigzagoon, and when the winds hesitated he grabbed the rope. It slipped and tore at his hands but he simply held tighter. A sailor ran up beside him and added her strength to the pull. They could see now how it was still tied tightly around the sail, and had come free of the mast itself. It was too short to be tied back around the mast, but too important in holding down the sail to be cut loose entirely. He thought of climbing up, securing the sail to the gaff and hoping it would stay in place long enough for the storm to pass. It was certainly the heroic thing to do. Another sailer joined them and he released the rope, no time to think through anything as he raced for the mast.

Distantly he heard shouting, perhaps directed at him as more voices joined in. Warnings, scolding, even the captain forbidding him from taking another step as he laid hands on the thick ropes around the mast. The wood itself was drenched and offered no traction, so he would rely on the very thing the crew now fought against. Something stuck out even amidst the din of howling winds and roaring seas: the furious yips of an eevee. Just as Patroclus stepped his feet onto ropes and heaved himself entirely on the mast Kallias sprung up on the deck. Patroclus pulled himself up another few ropes and Argos bayed at him. The arcanine was blocked from him by the assembly of sailors prepared to catch him or climb after him, but Kallias weaved between their feet and scratched angrily at the mast. Patroclus was too far up it to be reached then, not by an eevee. His heart pounded and his fingers trembled. He was not secure against the mast and the twisting of the waves could easily throw him off and to his death. The eyes were surely watching now, perhaps after conjuring the storm even, awaiting his plunge into black water.

The boat pitched and he clung desperately. The captain’s shouting changed suddenly, not directed at him but rather at the oarswomen. He was vaguely aware of the ship changing directions in response to the waves around them, cutting the steadiest path. She was not attempting to stop him anymore. He climbed up further, the burning in his fingers spreading up into his arms and down into his legs, his entire body taut by the time he reached his arms onto the gaff. He hauled himself onto it but it was only a moment’s respite. He still had to balance and reach the rope, and tie it the rest of the way around securely. The work seemed simple when he considered it like that. Sailors did this routinely by the light of the sun; if the captain sailed despite the storm he could do this basic task. He crawled out to the rope and heard Kallias almost screeching. It was a sound of sheer terror the likes of which he had never heard. But this was more important.

Below him the sailors released their hold on the rope and he wound it up as fast as possible, each coil stealing potency off its sharp lashing. He balanced with his legs and worked with his hands, winding the rope snugly against the sail and finishing it off with a rough approximation of one of the knots he had learned on a previous boat. Cheers erupted from the crew but he could not celebrate until he was safely back on the deck. He crept back to the mast and began to lower himself down. For a brief moment he cast his gaze out to the sea and thought he saw a massive silhouette, dark but highlighted with streaks and circles of glowing light, and set with two opalescent eyes. It mesmerized him but only for an instant before he remembered the task at hand. He sought footholds of rope on the mast and dug his fingers deeply into their course braids. When he was about halfway down Argos broke through the crowd and reared up. Patroclus allowed himself to release the ropes then, and he fell roughly into Argos’ mane. The next he knew, he was seated on the deck and Kallias was butting his stomach while churring nervously. He hugged Kallias fiercely, real fear surging into him now.

The captain’s hand appeared on his shoulder, and she knelt beside him while the crew attended to the urgent business of navigation. He breathed deeply but he knew he was shaking. She spoke as soothingly as possible while still shouting over crashing waves, “Go below. Come back up when you’re ready.”

He nodded and rose with her help. Kallias remained in his arms.

“You did very well,” the captain praised while he walked. “I’m proud.”

The full impact of her words had not yet settled in, but he remembered them. Before disappearing entirely below deck he cast his gaze to the sea and sought out the streaks of luminescence from the great monster. Kyogre, he thought. It was the sworn companion of Poseidon. It summoned storms and sent the Aegean into rages like this for seemingly no reason at all, though it was likely acting under the directions of the sea god to slight some unfortunate sailor. Not them, though. Achilles would never be targeted by the sea, and if his mother really wanted Patroclus dead she would have done so already.

Below decks was loud in a different way. The rowers worked together, breathing loudly together as if the ship was one respiring creature. Waves crashed against its hull but hollowly, feeling much further away despite the crew throwing all their effort into fighting them. The air itself was damp and salty and difficult to breath. But he could see why the captain had sent him here, where there was some room between crates rowers for him to sit and be sheltered from the elements outside. There was no risk of being cast into the sea from in here, and even the orders relayed through shouts and the almost tuneless shanties meant to keep rhythm were comforting in an odd way. He saw Iolaus’ head poke out from between two baskets midway through the boat, so he made his way to the little nook. A little rearranging fit him nicely with Iolaus, Kallias, Pedasos, and Kassandra.

It only took a few moments for him to feel all the fear that he pushed aside on the mast, and then it receded from him. Was this bravery? It was one small but decisive action and if it hadn’t been him it would have been one of the other sailors. But it was dangerous nonetheless and only a short while ago he would sooner have cowered behind Argos. He was proud. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be, but he was. After admitting it to himself he scanned the rowers for signs of Achilles. The demigod didn’t stand out down here, not when the movement of rowing disguised height differences and the dim lighting obscured the more distinguished green of his eyes and gold of his hair. But then Patroclus noticed a rower pulling their oar back into the boat, and the rower was Achilles. It was hard to mistake him anymore, the youth around his eyes and smoothness of his hands even from this distance. Patroclus straightened his back a bit, feeling like bragging when Achilles picked his way through cargo and crew to sit atop a crate next to him.

“How bad is it?” Achilles asked, leaning close to Patroclus so their mumbled words could duck underneath the louder din.

“We have to get out of it,” Patroclus replied. He thought of the captain, how determined she was to battle something obviously sent by Poseidon and Kyogre, but then he remembered how dangerous it was to approach the coast. Even if they wanted to dock they were stuck at sea until there was less chance of being dashed against the shore.

Achilles considered the sky. “I think the worst is past us.”

Patroclus nodded in agreement.

“Why are you here?” Achilles wondered suddenly, turning back to him. His body was unusually tense, pulled tight from strain and dulled by sweat and salt.

“Orders.” He thought the answer was enough but Achilles stared daggers at him until he mentioned a rope and the climb. Achilles leaned closer, pressing him to tell the full story and eventually admit the whole crew tried to stop him at first. He also explained Kallias and Argos and why the eevee refused to leave his arms after that.

Achilles was quick to realize Kallias did not react this way to just anything. He grabbed Patroclus’ arms first, twisting them to make sure the only marks there were the luxray scars, and then he stood Patroclus up entirely to search for the kinds of lashes a wild rope would leave. Only Patroclus’ hands bore any sign of damage, his palms and fingertips raw and traced with droplets of blood. It was no worse than a rough climb or a bad fall, things that happened to them both during their time with Cobalion.

“You should row with me,” he said at last, conceding at least that nothing too damaging had transpired.

“I wouldn’t be good at it.” Patroclus eased a persistent sting in his hands by running them through Kallias’ ruff. “I’m useful out there.”

“But you’re safe here,” Achilles insisted. “You swore to stay with me.”

“So did you. We’re still together.”

“It feels like we aren’t.”

Patroclus chuckled. It surprised Achilles but the lapse in his solemnity was enough to bring a smile back to his face, which encouraged Patroclus. “We will never be good at the same things.”

“We don’t have to be,” Achilles agreed after a pause.

“We don’t have to be.” It was Patroclus’ turn to lean in, not pressing for answers but rather to build suspense. “Want to know what I saw?”

Achilles grinned, some of the tautness in his shoulders ebbing. “What?”

“Kyogre.”

“No.” Achilles shoved his arm teasingly. “What did you really see?”

“I really saw Kyogre!” With Kallias as a model he traced the pattern of the godly beast. “It was glowing.”

“We should get closer. You could calm it down.”

“Why me?”

Achilles reached for Iolaus, rubbing the linoone’s ears gently. “There isn’t a creature in the world that doesn’t love you. Kyogre would listen to you.”

“Try convincing anyone of that,” Patroclus scoffed, though he smiled to himself.

Despite Achilles’ lack of confidence in that plan and their subsequent decision not to propose it to the captain, they returned to the deck together. Winds blew more gently now, an ordinary breeze instead of the angry gale. Rain still fell and the waves still bubbled against the sides of the boat threateningly, but when Patroclus scanned the horizon he could now see how far from the worst of the storm they had sailed. Surreally it thundered on behind them, something too tumultuous to appear so static now. It was a sure sign of divine interference. The captain, seeing them, called them to her side while leaving orders for the oarswomen to rest. The ship’s steady motion slowed, though it still bobbed peacefully south with the coastline a comfortable distance away.

“You’re working on your trials?” she asked once they joined her.

They nodded, not quite in unison but together nonetheless.

“And you’re starting in Argos?” she continued.

“We started in Phthia,” Achilles answered. He seemed to deliberately withhold his connection to the kingdom. “Then Salamis.”

She gestured to the tokens on their wrists. “But you have only succeeded at one?”

“We beat them together,” Patroclus explained. “We share.”

The captain smiled amusedly, and then regarded the soaked piplup still clutching at her leg. “I remember the trials I went through with this one’s grandmother. We sailed alone when no one else would take us.”

“How many trials did you finish?” Achilles, competitive at heart, almost seemed to be calculating.

“I am no prince.” She crossed her arms. “I did not have to bring eight tokens to Olympus and be granted the right to rule a piece of land. I completed the trials I wished and then I took the tokens and traded them for this boat. The world is wider than the rituals of kings.”

Patroclus agreed.

“But I remember those trips so fondly,” she allowed with a smirk at the golden boy. “If you need passage to another city after Argos, we will wait in port for you.”

“We’re traveling by land after Argos,” Achilles said quickly, glancing at Patroclus for permission as the words fell from his mouth. “But we’ll end in Sparta.”

She snorted. “Sparta has no port. But once your trials there are over, head south. There is a port there. Wait for Lyta.”

“Who is Lyta?” Patroclus asked, the name familiar but its bearer evading him.

“Only the captain of the finest vessel in the Aegean.” She pointed then at the southernmost horizon, where the clouds were finally dissipating and the sun fought valiantly against them. They had not wasted the whole day battling the storm, much as it seemed that way.

When the sunlight finally reached their salt-drenched deck they lowered the sail and rode the residual tempest. Kallias finally left Patroclus’ arms to stand on the bow but Patroclus sat with him for a while, letting the wind dry his hair and the sun warm his shoulders. Achilles helped replace the damaged rope before joining them. He shone again, the gentle glow of a promising dawn, light glinting off his eyes and highlighting their green against the blue of the sea. Much as he tried not to Patroclus found himself staring. Over a month spent tucked away at the summit of Pelion but this was the first chance he had in as much time to truly look at Achilles the way he wished. He imagined the shade of trees and the chirping of pikipeks and the promise of a shared bed in Cobalion’s cave. He was lost in that fantasy when he realized Achilles was looking back at him. There was fondness in his eyes but something hungrier too. Sea nymphs be damned, Patroclus kissed him. When a wave failed to wash him away they kissed again.

Nightfall took the whole crew by surprise, but after the storm they were leery to sleep on the open ocean. They beached in unoccupied soft sand, working together to haul the whole boat out of the water. Pure wilderness stretched out beyond them, first jagged rocks and hardy shrubs and then knotted trees twisting into forests dappled by moonlight. As a crew they shared food with each other and passed skins of water between them. Achilles had not brought a lyre with him but when Pedasos became emboldened to play with Kallias and the clamor of his scales set a rhythm Achilles hummed softly in time. The piplup joined them, blowing bubbles for them to chase. Some of the crew dispersed, choosing to sleep on the deck of the boat or the grass further ashore, but many of them stayed to watch the antics of young animals. While they darted around with one another Iolaus tore off down the beach, chasing up flocks of wingulls which were then herded in the air by Kassandra. The songs Achilles hummed were lively but he was quiet, intending the melodies for him and Patroclus alone. When the rest of the crew splintered off to actually sleep Argos curled around them again, putting his body between them and the whispering waves. Then Achilles truly sang, the words trapped between them. It evoked the mountain, the world sprawled out far beneath them and the stars so close they could jump up and reach them. The cave, unassuming and quiet and completely protected from the prying eyes of men.

He didn’t know where the rest of their companions slept. Stars shimmered far above and he watched them, burning their names into his mind and etching out the lines of every constellation Cobalion had taught them. The Argo and Lycanroc. They were strung up tautly like the strings of a lyre and since his mind was already straining to remember everything he had ever memorized it dredged up lyre chords. At first he thought of them with his own hands, his own fumbling fingers on the sweet instrument, his reflexes too slow to ever do justice to music. But then his hands were overtaken by those of Achilles, deft and practiced and divine in every note. Patroclus knew the lyre strings by sight—barely—but Achilles knew them by touch alone and had once copied the melodies of every singing creature in the forest just by listening. By the sound of Achilles’ lyre Patroclus could recall every note with a name and imagine every one that did not. He broke the thought abruptly with knots, how to identify them by sight and how to tie them and in what nautical context. Sailing was something they did together but they were kept busy when doing it. It left no time for anything beyond stolen glances. He couldn’t sleep so long as his thoughts raced with Achilles but when sailing it was so urgent to focus on the work ahead of him he could not think of much else; perhaps the same principles could be applied here. He forced himself back to the storm, the rope snapping and the lightning rippling across the sky. The deck of the ship was laden with saltwater, he could practically still taste it and feel it burning against the back of his throat. But Achilles was there, always there.

Even after spending nearly six weeks sharing a bed with the golden boy he lay awake thinking of him. For the most part he kept to himself, their limbs inevitably tangling in the night but they always started as two distinct entities. That night on the beach had been unique in how he drew close to Achilles. But tonight, more significant than arms pressed against each other, he reached for him. Some time ago Achilles had stopped singing, and about the same time his whole body had grown still and peaceful. Patroclus thought he slept, the only reason he felt emboldened enough to lay a hand on Achilles’ chest. Fingertips at first, sensing only the fibers of his tunic, then light pressure and the rest of his palm. He felt the rising and falling of the demigod’s breath and the strength of his muscle and perhaps even the steady beat of his heart. His own pulse pounded, fast as masquerain wings, but then stopped cold. Achilles’ hand covered his.

His green eyes were practically glowing. Patroclus had been so concerned with how he breathed he neglected to check his face for signs of slumber. They had been open this entire time, watching the same stars. Achilles glanced to him for a moment but turned back to the sky, unconcerned, and pulled Patroclus’ hand so he was brought closer. He whispered names and Patroclus scanned the stars for them. Drowsiness took him so suddenly, his mind a fight between the rest he had originally sought and the celestial hunt. He lingered on Tauros, missing the next name but Achilles knew somehow and repeated it. The new star evaded him and he searched wildly. Achilles waited expectantly, but he was not facing the sky.

“Patroclus,” he said, more than a breath but less than a whisper.

Patroclus tore his eyes away from the sky and faced him.

Achilles smiled, joyful but on the verge of nodding off. “Tomorrow, will you run with me?”

“Yes.”

There was sunlight in the sky but dawn had not yet broken when they rose. Kallias was tucked into Argos’ mane, close to Patroclus, while Kassandra nestled on the arcanine’s head. Pedasos and Iolaus slept together further down the beach. Only the swablu stirred, but Patroclus quietly asked her to make sure everyone stayed put. She chirped in agreement and they followed the beach away.

Since they could be anywhere right now it was safer to run parallel to the coast, staying away from the woods where they would get turned around and never find their way back. They sought the hard packed sand left behind by the ebbing tide, leaving imperfect footprints. It was running the Achilles way, racing the wind and each other even though the winner was always obvious. Patroclus lengthened his stride and drove himself forward, pushing against the earth. He felt the sand slipping under his toes but he had learned from Cobalion how to seek footholds in unsteady terrain, and he did not lose speed anymore. Achilles still raced ahead of him but his lead was minimal. He could catch up. It would take every last ounce of effort he had to do so, but he could do it. Somewhere within the forest he heard the screech of a braviary, emboldening and perhaps a sign. He pushed harder and for a few glorious moments they were side by side.

Naturally he never counted on Achilles also finding the strength to speed up, because as soon as he realized Patroclus had caught up he threw himself forward with renewed vigor. He laughed when he did, though. Patroclus slowed to a jog, chest heaving, and then he stopped entirely. He reached his own limit, and watching Achilles run was divine. Here was a demigod unbridled, with no competition but himself. When Patroclus thought of the mysterious blues of the ocean it was hard to believe Achilles carried some of it in his blood, but here on the beach where winds raced and sands shone like gold in the sunlight the resemblance was uncanny. Achilles was a milotic that had never been a feebas. When he exhausted himself sprinting he jogged back to Patroclus, eyes shining and face flushed. He recovered much quicker than Patroclus and they jogged back together, the sun fully risen now and the crew working lazily to prepare the boat for sailing.

Argos jumped to his feet when he saw them return, unnecessarily pleased and clearly unaware they had ever left in the first place. Kassandra chirped proudly and flew to greet them, taking a low path so she and Kallias were also side by side. As was the typical morning routine all five animals made the rounds of greeting the boys and each other, and Kallias was welcomed to his place on Patroclus’ shoulder. Their run officially ended after that, and they were dragged back into the realm of humans when the captain directed all members of the crew to haul the boat back into the water. They greeted the now rising tide eagerly, even when they had to haul the arcanine onto the deck and row against currentless water to find their course once more. The winds took over eventually, freeing them for the games and songs and stories that made sailing overwhelmingly fun. Waves crashed as they typically did but they could not scare Patroclus anymore. He watched the fins of alomomola that chased the boat playfully, sometimes leaping from the water in almost synchronized patterns. When the crew took up oars again they left the peaceful pink fish in their wake but they had a city to reach.

Halfway through the journey Achilles and Patroclus were introduced to their first wailord. It began as a dark shadow in the ocean, growing larger and larger as the current suddenly grew unpredictable and the oarswomen fought to maintain their course. When it first broke the surface of the sea—blue and white skin a stark contrast to the water—the captain ordered loudly for everyone to brace. Patroclus obeyed but wondered why until the entire beast breached, suspended in the sky for a heartbeat before crashing back down. Fighting a storm had been mere preparation for this, a cascade so grand it washed over the boat and shook it at the risk of capsizing. The boat tossed frantically and everyone clung to ropes or railings. Patroclus held fast to Kallias and Achilles gripped Pedasos, but Iolaus and Argos fended for themselves. When the biggest wave had passed Kassandra fluttered down between them, unaffected and chirping curiously while they wiped saltwater from their eyes and struggled to stand back up.

When Patroclus managed to stand he threw himself at the rail, partially for stability and partially to scour the water for the wailord. Its silhouette ran parallel to their boat, long this time rather than circular, and when it surfaced again it was peacefully. Its eyes were small, pleased when it regarded them, and its buoyant body kept pace with their boat. It was roughly the size of a seafaring ship if not larger, but it meant them no ill will as it bumped against them and rolled to flash its two right flippers. The oars were pulled in so they would not be snapped off but Patroclus did not have such a fear. He leaned precariously over the rail, reaching to brush his fingertips against the slick blue skin. Achilles held onto him so he wouldn’t fall, probably repeating how all things in this world loved Patroclus. He definitely suggested Patroclus try to tame the massive beast, and imagined aloud the sight of them conquering Diomedes’ trial from the back of the wailord. They realized with a wailord they would be able to sail wherever they wished without convincing boat captains to take their arcanine. The captain encouraged them to try. When they were stranded at sea by the deep-diving creature, however, they would miss her deck.

For the last few days they fell back into the rhythms of sailing. The captain was much more approachable when she insisted they call her Lyta, and they realized how fondly her crew regarded her. When they stopped briefly in a small port and Lyta disappeared to haggle with vendors the crew told stories of her. Some of them had been with her since the beginning, seated on the docks when an ambitious youth traded all her trial tokens for a ship and thought they might like to see what kind of captain she would be. Others joined later, inexperienced sailors but determined to find work in the profession. They ferried many children to and from trials across the years, a job rewarding not because of the money but because of the people those children became. Many of them joined the crew too.

While they sailed the piplup followed Iolaus closely, learning the tasks and duties she could perform to help the human sailors. She was a shy animal but determined to learn her role. There was a legacy attached to it, of which she seemed gravely aware. But Lyta assured them there was no grand destiny involved, and she wanted only for the piplup to enjoy herself at sea like the empoleons before her. If Patroclus were to ever accept an apprenticeship it would be on this boat, where he and his partners were useful. He told Achilles as much and they agreed together this would be their place if they ever decided to leave behind their own destinies.

The voyage ended unceremoniously one afternoon, when the vibrant ports of Argos welcomed them. A few crew members tried to give them directions to the palace where they would find Diomedes—Lyta herself had no idea where that would be—and then they promised to meet again in Sparta. Kallias took his spot on Patroclus’ shoulder but they put Iolaus and Pedasos on the arcanine’s back so they would not be lost in the crowd. Argos as a city was larger and busier than they had ever seen, choked with people leading mudbrays and miltanks. Some vendors cooked over clay ovens and sold the roasted meat fresh; Patroclus wondered whether the pignites accompanying them were a source of food or fire. Other vendors pushed brightly dyed fabrics while skitties sat atop their wares to demonstrate the luxurious quality. These stalls were all poles draped with stretches of canvas, and the smells of oils and linen and fish and drying fruits wafted between them and bombarded passers-by. The deeper into the city they walked, the more the scent changed. It carried the mud and plaster and stone of the buildings, and the tang of bronze being forged, and the dirt and filth of too many living things packed into a tight space. Joltiks and murkrows scampered about, one in alleyways and up the walls while the other scoured rooftops and bombarded abandoned carts of produce. Patroclus worried his face would betray him when they finally found the king of the city, betray how little he cared for it. If Achilles was similarly affected he hid it well, his composure placid like usual when he was made to interact with other princes and kings. He carried himself tall and stepped deliberately through the muddy streets. For once he wore sandals; Patroclus recalled him adjusting the straps that morning but at the time it was unimportant. This was not the kind of place where one should sink their toes into the earth.

Buildings grew larger and clothing more elaborate, and the shining armor of guards became much more apparent. Swamperts were common alongside soldiers, decorated with bits of armor and ornamentation to declare their status. The creatures were disinterested by the boys but the guards often turned to watch an arcanine pass by. Achilles, single-minded, led them deeper into the city as if following some unseen guide. He had no more knowledge of the city than Patroclus, he admitted after some time, but he was driven by an instinct and not even crowds of people shouting over one another could intimidate him. At times Patroclus lost sight of him, but he clung to Argos the arcanine and eventually they would reunite. The arcanine, after all, could see above most everyone. He was quickly becoming a guardian, at least over Patroclus.

Achilles stopped promptly when they reached a more inland agora. He retrieved coins from the pack Cobalion had given them, and Patroclus stared confusedly at the currency while Achilles exchanged it for sizzling meat and several figs. Had Achilles brought money on their last trip, or had this been a new gift from their tutor? Achilles laughed when he saw Patroclus’ face, and handed him his share of the meal while explaining the coins had come from Cobalion. He was very eager to be rid of men’s money, and if it benefitted the mighty Cobalion they surely were powerless to reject such an offer. They found a calmer place towards the center of the agora, where they fed the five creatures and themselves. Patroclus scoured the buildings they could see for signs of a palace but found nothing, until Achilles approached a soldier and was pointed towards a rise of homes leading up to the castle. It was well hidden, admittedly. Patroclus tossed the rest of his fig to a ducklett—to the dismay of Achilles—and set off, one hand gripping Argos’ mane. The prince took Argos’ other side, holding less worriedly to the arcanine’s mane.

When they reached the palace at long last they were escorted in by guards wearing dark helmets to conceal their faces. There was an event in place, not a celebration of any god or any kind of significant ritual, but Patroclus felt out of place amongst perfumed and oiled partygoers. This was a world he gave up in his exile, and even Achilles, who was born into this realm, was uncomfortable in it. They were brought directly to the loudest man in the room, and the guards said something to him that drew the attention of both the man and everyone immediately around him.

“So,” he boomed, attracting even more attention, “Peleus has finally sent his boy to face my trial?”

“No one sent me,” Achilles replied calmly. He spoke like a diplomat but it was unnecessary to have said anything. Reluctantly Patroclus put his faith in Achilles’ tactical skills.

“Here of your own free will, then?” The king smirked and beckoned them forward. “Come on. Tonight I will show you the trial grounds, and tomorrow we will all assemble to watch you face it.”

They followed him while festivities resumed, and Patroclus searched his mind for anything he could remember about Diomedes. A rumor once claimed Diomedes’ chariot was pulled by two feraligatrs but so far Patroclus hadn’t seen any signs of such conspicuous monsters. Truth and lies aside, he was famously brutal and capable when it came to war. But he was not a man who would outright fight them. Patroclus hoped as much as they exited onto a terrace made from a lower roof in the palace. It overlooked a small field and several short levels of cliff, uneven terrain reminiscent of stairs but made for something much larger than a human. At its heart was a dollop of yellow, a carefree mareep dozing, but curled around it was a collection of sharp plates with an axe-like head. Even from up here Patroclus felt the red eyes of the haxorus boring into him, daring him to approach.

“You will have to bring me the Golden Fleece,” Diomedes instructed, pointing at the mareep with a great deal of pride. “Only one creature of your own is allowed.”

“Will we face it at the same time?” Achilles asked, focused in on the small blot of yellow.

Diomedes regarded them, just realizing there was a second boy. He sized Patroclus up with a stern gaze, and laughed when his assessment was complete. “It is only fair the son of a goddess should have to carry another boy in his trials. By all means, he and his eevee can go with you.”

Patroclus was stung but kept quiet, knowing the proper time to prove himself would be during the trial. Achilles had no such restraint, whipping back to face Diomedes with fire in his eyes. He opened his mouth but Patroclus subtly tugged the back of his tunic. Begrudgingly he held his tongue.

They were led then to neighboring chambers befitting princes. Diomedes may have a low opinion of Patroclus but he was not about to treat a follower of Achilles like any common boy. He left with a promise to have heartier meals sent to them, and they waited patiently in the separate rooms until he was well out of sight. All the creatures except Kallias had followed Achilles without a choice since they still rode on Argos, so Patroclus and the eevee snuck into his room. While they had not been expressly forbidden from interacting he was wary of Diomedes and his court full of people who would all watch their trials the next morning. Rumors would fly fast in this place; he was unwilling to be the source of any more gossip than he already was.

Achilles was just setting Pedasos on the ground. Iolaus had already been unloaded so he darted happily up to Patroclus, nudging him into the room and mumbling as if regaling him with the story of how he rode an arcanine named Argos through a city named Argos. Patroclus ruffled his ears and when Iolaus rested his feet on Patroclus’ stomach he ran his hands down the linoone’s long neck. While he was distracted Achilles pushed the bed from a wall to the small window and kneeled on it, leaning outside carefully. Patroclus joined him, following his gaze to a sliver of the trial grounds where the mareep’s tail glowed softly. They sat quietly together for a while, strategizing alone, whispering to themselves while they thought. It was Achilles to speak first, but only after he seated himself on the bed with his back pressed against the wall.

“I can’t hold it by the horns,” he said, but quietly. He didn’t like to admit shortcomings and inabilities, but there were no secrets between them.

“You shouldn’t have to,” Patroclus agreed, still watching the haxorus’ blood red talons dig grooves in the dirt. From this distance he really couldn’t see anything but he imagined that was what the terrifying dragon was doing. It was a plated monster, sharp and metallic and cold, starkly contrasted to the mareep it guarded. He knew it was not an inherently violent or aggressive beast but it could definitely gut him without trying. “If we’re doing this together we can make a plan. He showed us what we were facing so we could.”

Achilles nodded thoughtfully. “If he knew you he would have made us go separately.”

“We have to do the same thing as the tauroses anyway,” Patroclus insisted. For the time being he chose to ignore what Achilles was implying. “We have to split them up.”

“And then?” Achilles glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the window, though from his seat he could see nothing. “You can’t touch the mareep.”

“We don’t need to touch it. It’s too big to lift or push. It has to want to go with us.”

“It will go with you.”

“It will go with either of us.” Patroclus crossed his arms and leaned into his elbows, still staring out the window at the trial grounds far below. “I can distract the haxorus long enough.”

“It is much sharper than a luxray,” Achilles said gravely. Patroclus could almost feel the lightning crackle through the scars on his arm. They were still puffy and pink and obvious, on display so the whole world could see what he faced.

“I don’t want you to get hurt either.” The thought left his tongue quickly, absentmindedly. He should have been more tactful, less overt. It made his heart beat faster to have said such a thing aloud, to Achilles of all people.

Eyes wide with surprise, Achilles joined Patroclus leaning in the windowsill. “I won’t.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think this is a battle,” Achilles said. “It isn’t meant to be how strong we are against a haxorus. If it was we would be fighting Diomedes too. It won’t want to hurt me.”

“But it would hurt me?”

Achilles fell silent. He studied the grounds and then cast his gaze out further, beyond the palace walls and out to the wilderness. His fingers worked at nothing; at first Patroclus thought he was recalling lyre chords but realized soon enough it was a nervous movement, not a practiced one. He looked straight down before he dared to talk again. “It could.”

“It could hurt you, too. I know it won’t but it could.”

“I trust you,” he conceded. “You won’t get hurt. Do you trust me to do the same?”

Patroclus considered it, glancing at Achilles’ carefully guarded face. “Yes.”

Maybe he would then have to swear it, and wait for Achilles to do the same. Preemptively he retreated from the window, situating himself as close to the center of the bed as possible while he watched Achilles. There was no such vow made tonight, but Achilles soon mirrored him and they sat quietly facing each other. Around them the room was growing dark, and some time ago food had been delivered to their door. The five creatures stood there now, unceremoniously eating from plates left on the ground. Patroclus smiled instinctively at their antics.

“I’m sorry.”

Patroclus turned back to Achilles, bewildered.

“I’m sorry for how he spoke of you,” Achilles clarified. “That he said you were part of my trial.”

“I don’t want you to think of me that way,” Patroclus mumbled.

Achilles reached for his hand unsuccessfully. “I don’t. I need you.”

“I’m not useless.”

He tried again for Patroclus’ hand. “I made you feel like a challenge instead of a partner.”

“You did.”

“Then I’m sorry for that, too.” Finally Patroclus allowed him to take his hand. Achilles held fast to it. “I chose you as my companion and I meant it.”

“We need each other.”

“We do.” Achilles grinned hopefully. “He is going to regret letting us work together.”

They pushed past Argos to retrieve the meal from Patroclus’ room then, and they dined together under the window where their light came entirely from the moon. While they ate they strategized genuinely, digging into the supplies from Cobalion in case he had included some useful tool. Beyond money he had sent nothing made by men, but Patroclus noticed some berries scattered in the pack, not enough to make a meal but plenty for medicinal purposes. Or something of that nature. After setting aside the pack they decided Achilles should bring Pedasos, the most suited of any of their creatures to endure a blow from the haxorus’ bladed appendages, while Patroclus brought Kallias as instructed by Diomedes. It was not worth the fight to convince him Patroclus had any more companions, and Kallias was versed in herding animals much more dangerous than mareeps.

Patroclus did not remember falling asleep, but sometime after dawn Achilles shook him awake. They were being summoned, not by Diomedes but by a servant. The king had only spoken briefly to them but Patroclus would not soon forget his voice or his assertive presence. This servant merely beckoned them along with orders from the king, but when they appeared from the same room followed by five eager animals the servant was quite surprised. Down stairs and through musty corridors they were led, almost a labyrinth except for the people they passed along the way. Kallias shrunk into the crook of Patroclus’ neck, suspicious of this twisting path.

When they finally reached a door leading out of the palace entirely they were greeted with the trial grounds rising before them. It was almost like an amphitheater and they had come too early for the show. They hadn’t seen it last night from the rooftop or the window but here on the ground they were sheltered by a canvas not unlike a market stall, complete with a table of food and an array of weaponry and armor. It was a command post fit for proper battle; powerful leaders would shade their eyes and scour the field from here and direct futile troop movements with exasperated shouting. As exciting as it was initially to be treated with such respect, Patroclus quickly felt patronized. In Phthia the trial was sworn to secrecy and in Salamis it was private, but here it was an entire spectacle. He heard the murmurs of a bored crowd in the distance and Achilles confirmed to him there were more than just Diomedes assembled on the rooftop terrace.

Diomedes himself was in no great hurry, weaving through his court languidly and sharing words with whoever caught his eye. The boys awaiting the trial saw no need to stand stoically like arena fighters, not when their host was distracted and this great collection had been left for them. They ate lightly, and tested the weight of various shields, and toyed with spears, and tightened their previous trial tokens around their wrists all while Diomedes made his way to the edge of the terrace. This was not a small event, Patroclus determined, but a full day of festivities. They were meant to enjoy it just as much as the audience, but also provide a show worthy of watching.

Achilles was prodding him in the chest with the butt of a spear when the king finally addressed them in an impossibly loud voice, “It is an excellent day for a trial!”

Patroclus brushed the spear aside and Achilles lowered it, but Achilles was not keen on being obedient after idling for so long. He stared up at Diomedes across his shoulder without bothering to turn and face him. “It is.”

“We in Argos have long awaited the demigod son of Peleus,” Diomedes continued proudly, gesturing to the arrangement he had left beneath their tent. “Your task is simple. You must retrieve the Golden Fleece, and in doing so prove you are a hero.”

Achilles set aside the spear but watched it thoughtfully. “What is this for?”

“You may use anything you see there to help you,” the king explained. “A straightforward task is not always an easy one.”

Something in his tone pushed Patroclus to examine the rocky steps more carefully. The mareep was awake now, grazing peacefully on stubbly grass, and the haxorus stood menacingly beside it, but he saw pebbles and sand falling down the short cliffs. He followed it to the source: a second haxorus prowling at the top of the grounds. He was not close enough to alert Achilles without also showing Diomedes he had seen the trap.

Achilles nodded to the king, ignorant to Patroclus and the grounds for the moment.

“You may begin!”

It was meant to be more grand, but Achilles could not be made to perform. He started by stepping up beside Patroclus, who nodded subtly towards the second haxorus. Achilles narrowed his eyes, eager rather than suspicious, and without averting his gaze from the grounds he reached down the front of his tunic and retrieved a handful of assorted berries. He passed them carefully to Patroclus, who knew the red ones treated the effects of lightning and the blue ones encouraged healing.

“You don’t want any?” Patroclus whispered to him, closing his fist gently around the berries.

“I have more.” Achilles selected a thick shield for himself. “What should we do about the second one?”

“You can’t fight them both.” Patroclus scanned the collection of shields, the largest ones wrapped several times with leather to make them durable against scratching claws, but he was drawn to a thinner piece. It was polished magnificently, shining seemingly with its own light. When he lifted it, it was light and easily managed by his one free hand. “Distract the one by the mareep. I have an idea for the second one.”

“If it comes near you I will fight them both.”

Patroclus sighed while Achilles marched off, but he smiled once the golden boy could no longer see him. Pedasos followed him slowly at first, and then sped up when he was called. Patroclus instructed Argos and Iolaus and Kassandra to stay—they were distracted by unattended food already and barely heard him. For a moment he thought of Phthia, of Peleus’ halls full of half-trained boys and ill-behaved eevees. Then he heard scales clanging and he remembered where he was. Achilles pounded a fist against his shield and Pedasos slammed his tail against rocks while they hiked towards the nearest haxorus. It waited patiently, poised over the mareep, until the demigod reached its stony tier. Then it leapt towards him, quick and angry, lashing its head at Achilles in an attempt to slice him open. It was such an obvious move Achilles dodged easily.

Fascinated as he was by the thought of Achilles and Pedasos battling the dragon, Patroclus had his own task. He took a wider path towards the mareep as to not attract attention from the first haxorus. The second one still perched high above, thinking itself so cleverly hidden. As expected, Patroclus was able to approach the mareep for a time but just before he got close enough to pose a significant threat the second haxorus scrambled down the cliffs. Gasps and cheers rang out from the crowd, mixed between those who knew of the second haxorus and those who had just learned of it. It was much faster than he anticipated but Kallias leapt off his shoulder, standing between him and the beast. It had closed half the distance between them when Patroclus raised his gleaming shield. He caught the sunlight and angled it carefully, right into the haxorus’ eyes. It stopped cold, screeching angrily and dodging side to side. He kept pointing the light towards it, following its eyes while he sidestepped towards the mareep.

Achilles and Pedasos had drawn the first haxorus well away. The small Pedasos weaved between its legs and bit at its tail while Achilles shouted and threw pebbles and aggravated it even further. They were in no danger together, but Achilles glanced furtively over to Patroclus every so often and Patroclus feared he would abandon the plan. He could not fight both beasts, not this young. The sunlight delayed the second haxorus but it began to press forward, squirming away from the glare cast by the shield while descending the tiered grounds. Patroclus was unable to signal Kallias without losing his one safeguard against imminent danger, so he too soldiered on carefully towards the mareep.

It was a sweet animal but totally oblivious to the dangerous dragons clambering around in its defense. Patroclus opened his hand towards it, revealing the berries. The mareep lifted its head, sniffing inquisitively, but still it waited. The second haxorus was only two tiers away and Kallias was preparing to climb up and face it head on. Patroclus could not afford to take his focus off the haxorus but he had to tempt the mareep to follow; he tossed a berry towards it, hoping it was enticing enough. The clamor from Achilles and Pedasos was growing as they locked into true combat with their haxorus but Patroclus could not look away. He allowed himself one quick glance down at the mareep, and to his shock it nosed his hand in search of more berries. He felt his way to a lower tier, backing up while struggling to keep light pointed right in the haxorus’ eyes. Kallias waited where he was, the only protection Patroclus had.

He imagined the brilliant shield crumpling like dry leaves under the haxorus’ claws as it sprung down to the tier just above Kallias. It towered over the eevee, growling while light caught the scarlet edges of its scythe-like protrusions. The crowd bristled with anticipation but they felt leagues away. Kallias summoned the stars, which pelted the haxorus with surprising force and caused it to stumble back. There was another bout, and another, while Patroclus eased back and lured the mareep with a single berry for each tier it followed. His light trick was almost useless now so he tossed the shield aside, and with his newly free hand he reached for the mareep.

Naturally its fleece shocked him. He was prepared, though, with the juice of a bright red berry smeared across his hand. It dulled the sensation but did not stop it entirely. This was acceptable anyway; he found a secure grip and pulled the mareep down a few levels of cliff while Kallias sprang at the haxorus and drew its attention. It may be a surprisingly lithe creature but the eevee was quick and small and practically floated away from its deadly attacks. Patroclus reached level ground at last and wondered exactly how they were supposed to end the trial while he fed the mareep the rest of the berries from his hand and crept towards their command tent. Kallias retreated then too, and the haxorus pursued until it reached the last tier. It snarled viciously but refused to move from there.

Patroclus sat in the dust beside the mareep and Kallias bounded up to sit with him. To keep the Golden Fleece with him he stroked the mareep’s nose, the one place on its body he could touch with the absolute certainty he would not be shot with lightning. It bleated happily. The three of them together watched as the second haxorus twisted towards Achilles. Two dragons with blades sticking off their jaws now circled the demigod. His shield was weakened by deep gouges and the haxoruses blocked his escape routes by closing in. They snaked around him, their plated bodies rattling in a hollow imitation of Pedasos’ metallic scales. You can’t fight them both. Patroclus almost stood but he feared leaving the mareep. It was the entire purpose of the challenge and if he jumped in to rescue Achilles they would lose all their progress.

Achilles’ eyes were aflame and he turned rhythmically with the haxoruses so his back was never turned to one for long. Pedasos stayed beneath him, awaiting instruction, biding his time while rattling his scales. The haxoruses struck at once, darting inward towards their quarry. Achilles deflected one with the shield and dodged the other, and Pedasos bolted forward to clamp his jaws around a haxorus’ leg. It yelped, pained but also surprised, and Achilles pushed back the other with the shield. He had carved an opening so he leapt down the tiers, pursued madly by both dragons after the one had shaken Pedasos loose. Achilles and the jangmo-o sprinted for the level ground, and reached it just as the haxoruses swung killing blows towards them. They were all safely out, Achilles and Pedasos and Patroclus and Kallias.

The crowd roared behind them, all of Diomedes’ assembled guests cheering for Aristos Achaion who tamed dragons and flowed like the tides across a battlefield. Patroclus ignored them and waited patiently by the mareep, though it took Achilles no time at all to reach them. He was beaming, not a stray cut to be found, and Pedasos jumped enthusiastically up to Patroclus. It was the happiest he had ever seen Pedasos, and he imaged the young dragon proudly bragging of his first trial to Cobalion when they returned.

“I was wrong,” Patroclus admitted good-naturedly. “You can fight them both.”

Achilles offered a hand and pulled Patroclus up. “Not for very long. How did you know to do that with the shield?”

Patroclus glanced over his shoulder at their audience. From the railing at the edge of the terrace Diomedes nodded approvingly at them, but was otherwise unaffected by their great victory. It felt like high praise, even though they were probably supposed to stretch this fight out. Patroclus returned his attention to Achilles. “Perseus.”

“Did he teach you this too?” Achilles held Patroclus’ wrist delicately, watching the berry juice congeal on his fingers.

“Cobalion did.” Patroclus pulled his hand away and grabbed at the mareep’s fleece, demonstrating. “That’s why you brought them, isn’t it?”

Achilles released Patroclus’ wrist, laughing. “I thought you would lure the mareep with them. I had no idea what they did.”

“We learned them our first day.” The mareep licked at his hand calmly. Patroclus sighed but he was hardly surprised, and regardless of specifics Achilles had snuck something strategic into their trial and it had proved invaluable. They were unstoppable as a team and now had proof of it.

As the crowd settled the servant approached them both, summoning them back towards the palace to address Diomedes more personally. They led six creatures this time, the mareep blending nicely with their band as they climbed narrow stairs up to the terrace. It was a more direct route than their wandering path from that morning, and when they at last stepped onto the terrace they were lauded by guests on all sides. Diomedes parted the crowd effortlessly, but once he was through the mareep trotted eagerly up to him. Her tail wagged gently when he addressed them, “I knew I would be impressed by Peleus’ son, but I was not expecting his follower to be so clever.”

“He is my companion,” Achilles said firmly. “And he has a name.”

“Does he.” Diomedes faced Patroclus expectantly.

“Patroclus.” He briefly considered epithets, but his father had no ownership over him anymore.

Diomedes nodded thoughtfully. “Many have labored at this trial for days on end. I will not soon forget your triumph here.”

He held out a palm which displayed two tokens, red ribbon and bronze beads polished to a glow, and raised a curious brow when Patroclus accepted one and tied it securely around Achilles’ wrist. Diomedes opened his mouth but was interrupted by Achilles, who ignored him entirely. “Are you sure?”

“Without you I would have been useless.” Patroclus checked the knot, his fingers fumbling the longer they remained on Achilles in the presence of so many other men. “There will be more trials.”

“You both succeeded here,” Diomedes said, offering the second token again. “You both earned proof.”

Achilles had no intention of handling Diomedes tactfully. “We shared the work of the trial and we will share the token to prove it.”

Though he had nothing to say, Patroclus was emboldened. He was a known companion of Achilles, instrumental to their success over the most public trial yet. He cared little for fame but affirmation was different; the demigod son of Peleus was known to respect and trust an otherwise unremarkable boy. Speeches did not suit Diomedes, but he presented them a final time to the crowd and they received all the praise and adoration befitting a demigod. They basked in the attention for a time but Patroclus tugged at Achilles to remind him of their quest. He was enamored by the recognition but quick to recognize the signal, asking Diomedes for advice on finding Mycenae. They were directed to a well-traveled path between the two cities but warned it was not the quick journey many assumed it to be. Of course they had been among that number, believing it to be an afternoon stroll, but they were conquerors of three trials now and could not be daunted by distance.

They left together without ceremony—Diomedes almost seemed an ally as he distracted the crowd for them. The city was less difficult to navigate today, as they needed only to find its outermost reaches and follow them until they came to the path. It was wide enough for several chariots and pressed flat by thousands of feet, bordered by tall grass. Eyes from nidorans and sunkerns followed them curiously while the more suspicious growls of poochyenas kept them determinedly to the beaten path. This was a land ruled by pyroars, not the luxrays or liepards Patroclus now knew roamed Phthia. The blazing beasts prowled grasslands and used combinations of fire and claws to corral their prey, Cobalion had explained. He described it more like a dance than a battle—at the time Patroclus was confused by the comparison but now, after seeing Achilles in combat, he understood. Nevertheless he prayed they would not have to fight off another hungry pack in their lifetime, no matter how beautiful the dance of death could be.