You’re eight years old, with tanned skin and scabs on your knees and bandages scattered all over your limbs, when you first meet him, hiding in a corner of the playground. He has floppy brown hair, a wide smile, and a ball tucked under his arm, and he’s wearing a shirt with an alien design.
What an idiot, is your first thought about him.
You grow up together, despite your initial misgivings, and that ball he had tucked under his arm on that day becomes the trophy and the icon of your childhood, something you both had chosen, together, to revolve the next few years of your lives around.
You’re nine, just starting to play. And then suddenly you’re both twelve, just entering middle school, and he’s working harder than you’ve ever seen him work for anything, loving volleyball harder than you’ve ever seen him love anything else, and—
And you’re twelve, when you look at him, cheeks flushed and a ball still tucked under his arm, like always, and realize that you’re in deep waters.
So the scabs on your knees morph into bruises that scatter on your arms, and his beloved alien shirt transforms into a jersey, dark blue and white and something he wears with pride, like a general’s stars. The sandbox and the great outdoors turn into shiny hardwood floors beneath your squeaking shoes, and the gym becomes the scope of your world, his world. Something you share.
You’re fifteen and he’s fifteen and he tells you that he feels like he can take on the world as long as he has you by his side and that. That’s when it goes downhill.
You’re fifteen and the both of you don’t conquer the world.
He is not your Alexander, and you are not his Hephaestion, no matter how many hours you spend trying to turn that into your reality. No matter how many scars and bruises and almost-injuries you have as testament to your hard work. The hours you watch him toss and break himself over a ball do not translate into inevitable victory, but only into his hands and his knees touching the floor in shame and tears streaming down your faces.
You’re both fifteen, and you watch his sharp edges and sincere smiles crack under the shadow that looms in front of him, and under the shadow forming behind him. And you watch, and watch, and watch—and the only thing you can do is drag him away from the gym and take him home. Berate him for his carelessness. Tell him that there’s always a next time (and you will repeat this until, in the future, you find that there will be no next time).
You’re holding his wrist in a firm grip, and during this night the heat and humidity of summer are slowly giving way to the chill of autumn.
Since you had been a child you’ve never been the kind to linger on regrets and what-ifs, on things you can be and things you cannot be, but that’s the first time you wish that you could be stronger.
You’re still fifteen when he caves in, when the rain gives way to a storm.
You’re watching, waiting to drag him away yet again, when he does it. Immediately you rush to them, hold his arm away, tell the kid to go home.
And then you yell, because that’s the only thing you can do. You can’t grant wishes, can’t topple over the fortress he hits each time he reaches for something more, for something beyond. But what you can do is this—you can grasp his shirt, sweaty between your fingers, and hit him. Shake him and tell him, in between your insults, that a single man can never make walls crumble. And your voice begs him to believe in you, because you are his lionheart, you are his ace.
A beat, a pause, then a soft laugh.
And he tells you again, like an old and precious adage, like something that’s well-practiced and fond on his tongue, that you make him feel invincible.
You’re eighteen and he’s seventeen-turning-eighteen and your team—your family—is in front of you. Dark blue had turned into mint years ago, and he is a stone tower when he once had been a sandcastle. (And in the back of your mind, you think that now you’re steel, your loyalty a sword you had crafted for him to use, when you had once been wood.)
He’s still chasing shadows, and shadows are still chasing him, but you know that he is not the same boy he had been three years ago. He had told you, once upon a time, that you ground him, keep him looking straight ahead instead of at something he has yet to reach, instead of at the distant footsteps that echo behind him.
And he had told you, once upon a time, that you still make him feel invincible.
You’re eighteen, and the both of you cast light on the shadows in front of him and behind him and tear down the giants, one by one.
Except, there are giants that don’t like to be torn.
You get close, so close, but the emperor still stands.
You walk home that day, hands clenched into tight fists. Frustration, anger, a flood of what-ifs. Insults at the tip of your tongue and smacks to his head itching on your palm, in case he tries blaming himself again. But he only takes your hand, still closed into a fist, looks at you with something soft in his eyes, something you haven’t seen in a long while, and tells you, “You haven’t told me yet.”
“Next time, we’ll do it,” you say, and open your hand to clasp his fingers in yours.
So there you are, eighteen years old, on the brink of something new.
You think about the softer times, times during practice when he watches over everyone, with a smile on his face that’s sincere in the way you’ve never seen it during middle school. The both of you had found a home here, had forged yourselves anew and maybe, just maybe, had allowed something to grow between you, like a flower peeking through the cracks on a sidewalk.
He still has his moments—no amount of kicks to the ass can stop him from infuriating you—but on quiet days you see him as you had seen him ten years ago, on that playground. Floppy hair, wide smile, even that ridiculous affinity for aliens that, these days, he tries to hide.
You allow yourself, for once in your life, to wish for something more.
(It’s a wish that’s almost immediately granted.)
You’re eighteen, and you don’t tear down all the giants with him, but kissing him for the first time feels like finally conquering the world.
It’s enough. It’s more than enough.