August in San Francisco ended that year with a bang. The heat wave caught everyone by surprise, bared its gleeful, sunny teeth and swallowed the city whole. All traces of fog burned to a crisp, and some clever, fearless citizen bought twenty boxes of Safeway cookies and four gallons of Ben & Jerry’s, selling ice scream sandwiches by the dozen in Dolores Park. It was almost terrifying, how utterly visible the Golden Gate Bridge was from so many places in the city— the view was Uncanny Valley-level, like three-a-dollar postcards from fucking Walgreens.
The day the heat wave hit, Achilles stripped to his running shorts and took to the streets. It was two miles to Golden Gate Park, and if he jogged the length of the park via the many winding roads within, plus the Panhandle’s stretch of green, round trip was easily fifteen miles— nothing new. This was familiar conditioning, and on a day like this, there would be many people out, sure, but hardly anyone putting out for as much mileage as Achilles. Knowing exactly where the handful of water fountains was peppered throughout the park, Achilles only strapped a small bottle to his lower back before taking off. Mediterranean climate meant humidity, even if the city never felt particularly wet when it was cold, and the second Achilles left the shady confines of his house, sweat dotted his skin. A smile tugged at Achilles’ lips. This was perfect.
It was a week before the first day of school, and each day counting down was a vortex of frustration and confusion. On one hand, hours seemed to pass in blinks and breathless heartbeats. On the other, the ice cream parlors down the block seemed to take eternities to reach for the spoiled San Franciscans. The days weren’t nice, they were incendiary, no matter what the cheerful voices in air-conditioned radio stations liked to proclaim. Buses were like microwaved sardine cans, and the romantic tragedy of The End of Summer was no match for the general feelings of brutal disgust. The school year seemed like it was going to suck.
So it was amongst these hoards of beleaguered, dull-eyed, atrophying teens that Achilles pranced, fucking god-like. People like him were made for the sun (not that there was any other person like him); he glistened and glowed and shined and shimmered in every possible obnoxious way, and people ate it up with biodegradable spoons. Worst of all, none of it was even remotely intentional. Achilles ran amongst them with his eyes straight ahead, feet constant and pounding, never sparing a drop of attention for his appreciative, sweaty audience.
Above him, the sky was blankly, disgustingly blue. Beneath him, soil was boiling. Ahead of him, the school year loomed and threatened. Achilles ran and ran with his mind on nothing but the run, and never suspected a thing.
“Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”
(To be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry)
Achilles grew up hearing words like exceptional and extraordinary. Every time he ran people exclaimed it was with exceptional speed, every time he spoke people labeled him charismatic and extraordinary. And that was fine. He accepted the praise with the easy grace that came so naturally to him, and that was that. Achilles was exceptional, Achilles was extraordinary.
Those weren’t easy honors to keep, of course, and had to stand trial again and again. But in the way so many things in the universe are heavily unfair, Achilles defeated all his challengers with ease, with the casual arrogance that had people fuming and plotting against him— mostly to no avail, but regardless, exceptional made enemies. Extraordinary made acquaintances who were as eager to bask in his limelight as they were to tear him down. And over time, with so many of these such acquaintances making themselves known to Achilles, he quickly came to distrust most, if not all of his friends to some level. Nothing belligerent, nothing personal— just sensible distance that kept Achilles on a pedestal of aloof, excellent, exciting. The awe-inspiring leader, a mantle he quickly learned to take grim pride in. He didn’t do it on purpose (but maybe he did). What he did, people copied (or tried to). Where he went, people followed (so many left far, far behind by Achilles’ superior speed).
Where he looked, people also turned to stare eagerly, so when he noticed the new kid, everybody noticed the new kid, seated all alone at the end of the bleachers, wrapped in a large bland coat and not even watching the field. The school year had begun dully and familiarly, at least for the college-obsessed senior class; August had surrendered hysterically quick to the September chill— which is to say, all climate returned to the status quo in foggy SF, and everybody was jumping up and down in place to keep warm.
“His name is Patroclus,” Polyxena told him, a fine sheen of sweat on her high forehead after her high jump drills. “Transferred from Locris this year. I have AP Stats with him, but he skips class a lot.”
“I heard he got expelled from Locris for beating up a kid,” Diomedes added, his bleached blond hair fluttering as he stretched for his 200 m.
“Heard he put the kid in a coma,” Ajax sneered.
“Huh,” Achilles only said, and they left it at that, the stars of the team, because Achilles was at the starting line of his first 1500 m of the season, and students have gathered in the bleachers to see him fly.
And he never disappointed.
The start of a school year meant everyone was testing out new territory. The classrooms, the gyms, the quad— these all were briefly fair game, until some group, usually the old one, though sometimes a new one, came through and claimed it. For big distinguishable groups, like Athletes and Cheerleaders, they needed not only home ground (gyms and locker rooms), but also socializing grounds, to flaunt and flirt and perform their Athletes and Cheerleaders’ scripts. Sure, Mean Girls spoke to a generation of territorial teens about cafeteria tables, but honestly, the cafeteria at Arcadia High often smelled too putrid for people to remain inside long. It was just something about the supposedly healthy mayor’s lunches that soaked the air in the overwhelming scent of wet meat; it clung to your clothes and hair and kept the majority of the population mostly out. This unfortunate turn of topography meant society had to form elsewhere, like lumps in curdled milk— in Arcadia, gathering grounds were the hallways. Those seemed innocuous, as far as spaces went, but so were gun barrels before they’re loaded. Hallways were bloody, were messy, were the grounds of lasting nightmares and anxiety at the hands of cruel, cruel society.
For Achilles, hallways were simple things. Nice, sure, he got to see his more likeable teammates in passing. People often gawked as he passed, but people gawked everywhere else, and pointed and giggled for and whispered about and sneered jealously at. Sometimes, hallways would be freedom, precious lulls in tedious academics, but truth was, Achilles never minded classes much. He did solidly average on some subjects, and was actually pretty great at others. How funny, that some people would even try to mock him for this— that he didn’t hate school as cool jocks were supposed to.
On some subconscious level, Achilles knew hallways were also petri dish spaces that bred high school social rot like colonies of bacteria— thanks to many district-issued posters taped in doorways and windows, he understood bullying to be an expected phenomenon. But it was one of those things he never really had to keep in mind, like the limit form of differential equations or other such things gladly forgotten after a major unit test. One of those things he forgot with easy privilege. It wasn’t until one day (a Wednesday afternoon, between fourth and fifth period, the sun was barely making it out behind a cloudbank meaning the track field was going to be damp today) that Achilles was made fully aware.
(Really, truly aware, what with the events that followed.)
It was all Ajax’s fault— fucking Ajax, Polyxena had warned Achilles about him, with the conceited smirk and casual misogyny. “Small Ajax,” “Ajax the Lesser,” the arrogant relay runner at the bottom of their senior class ranking (and it meant something, for Achilles to call someone arrogant). A shame to the name shared by one of the greatest coaches Achilles knew. Achilles learned later that Ajax had been harassing a girl in debate and Model UN for some time— when the girl refused to go out with him, Ajax pulled out all the tricks in the book, stopping short only of actual physical assault. He spread rumors about her, called her a lesbian, (tried to) talk down to her in classes, and then ended up sabotaging her World History presentation. That day, in the hallway after lunch, the girl decided she’s had enough, came storming up to the track team with her long black hair and floral skirt whipping around her.
“You fucking asshole,” she spat, angry tears running down her cheeks. “That presentation’s 40% of my final grade. How much of a shithole do you have to be to operate like this?!”
“Hey, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Ajax yelled back, immediately defensive. Achilles grabbed him by the shoulder and held him in place before he could lunge forward, but the girl shot Achilles a glare, misunderstanding it to be a gesture of support. Achilles dug his finger in tighter, expression becoming pinched. “You forgot the file yourself, okay? Don’t go blaming other people for your mistakes, bitch.”
“I lent my USB to you, you prick,” the girl shouted. People were starting to take notice, either quickly walking away, not wanting to get involved, or cocking their heads in interest— two in particular stepped forward with wary expressions, coming up to flank the angry girl. Achilles recognized Briseis, who had sophomore chem with him, and the new kid.
(Skipped class. Expelled. Put a guy in a coma. Patroclus.)
“You can’t prove anything,” Ajax sneered. Achilles was suddenly antsy to step away, make it look less like he was aligned with Ajax— beside him, Polyxena was shuffling uncomfortably with the same dilemma. Other members of their team, though, were puffing up and fanning out, never mind their only opponent would be a girl, 5’3” at most and alone.
“Yeah she can.” Or maybe not alone. Briseis laid a hand gently on the girl’s elbow and stood beside her. Instantly, Achilles pulled his own hand back, quick like static shock. Patroclus, noticing, shot him a confused frown. “I saw you take the USB. Mr. Borne saw you.”
“I had to transfer some files to another computer, the internet wasn’t working,” Ajax lied through gritted teeth.
“Look man,” Patroclus interjected, hands tucked in his pockets but body angled so he cut between Ajax and the girl. “Everyone knows you deleted Iphigenia’s file ‘cause she refuses to go out with an asshole like you. Also, I doubt you were smart enough to clean it from the trash on your computer so if we just go check, we’ll get proof—”
Without Achilles’ restraining hand, Ajax lunged forward and bodychecked Patroclus so hard that Patroclus shot backwards into the bank of lockers on the other side of the hall. Gasps and giddy shouts rose from the spectators. Achilles was instantly on Ajax, grabbing his shirt and spinning him around until he was pinned to the opposite end of the hall.
“Ajax, knock it off,” Achilles growled, Ajax struggling against his hold. In his peripheral, Achilles watched Patroclus stagger back upright, glaring bloody murder at Ajax.
“You little bitch,” Ajax yelled instead, and Achilles shoved a frustrated forearm into his windpipe, cutting him off before he could do more damage. But it was too late. From Achilles’ blind spot came Iphigenia with a snarl, elbowing Achilles out of the way to get to Ajax.
"You entitled douchebag, get the fuck away from my friends—”
Achilles wasn’t quite at the right angle to block the fist Ajax swung toward Iphigenia— but Polyxena was. Also on the women’s wrestling team, Polyxena easily deflected Ajax with a twist of her well-muscled arm, then reached forward to bodily haul Iphigenia out of the way. Then, like a shot straight out of an action film, Patroclus dashed forward from behind the flurry of Iphigenia’s long hair and skirt, and landed a solid punch into Ajax’s gut.
(That, Achilles could have stopped.)
“Son of a bitch, you were gonna hit her—”
Ajax’s foot shot out and caught Patroclus’ knee, and Patroclus crumpled to the ground with a surprised shout.
“A piece of shit like you, calling me entitled?” Ajax snarled as he kicked out again, and again. “Everybody knows you’re only here ‘cause daddy paid for the only school that would take you—”
When one of Ajax’s kicks landed inside the flap of Patroclus’s coat, Patroclus used the fabric to twist around his ankle and trip him down. Ajax landed hard on his side, but when Patroclus tried to stand, still had enough of his wits about him to swipe Patroclus’ feet from out under him. Rising to his knees, Ajax slugged Patroclus across the face. Hard. And Achilles swore, and made a decision.
Every evening, Achilles attended a mixed martial arts class in the Mission, and his coach Chiron had told him from the very first day that his greatest strength was his uncanny speed. He used that to his advantage now, diving quickly forward with precision, twisting so his back was to Patroclus, letting roll off him a punch meant for Ajax’s well-deserving face. For the second time, Achilles grabbed Ajax by his jersey and shoved as hard as he could, away from the fight, away from Patroclus. Get on your feet, Chiron’s voice told him, so Achilles did, bouncing on the balls of his feet, one hand outstretched to the side, a barricade between Ajax and Patroclus.
“Achilles,” Ajax spat, “what the fuck do you think—”
“What in the world is going on out here?”
The gathered crowd instantly parted at the commanding voice. It was Odysseus, Achilles’ AP Lit and AP Psych teacher, smart-mouthed and (mostly) beloved, but not known to be particularly merciful to rule-breakers (he was a rumored war vet, but every time someone asked him about it, he had a clever way to not answer). His dark blue eyes scanned the scene quickly and efficiently, zeroing in on Patroclus and his bloodied nose, then on Achilles standing over him. Making deliberate eye contact with them both, Odysseus asked chillingly, “Care to explain?”
“Sir it’s not what it looks like—”
“There was a fight,” Achilles quickly interrupted Polyxena, not wanting her to draw the irate teacher’s attention. Briseis, now beside her, looked just as eager to speak, but Achilles figured it was best to keep the number of people involved in the fight to a minimum. Iphigenia, thinking along the same lines, subtly tugged Briseis back with a shake of her head, standing forward with her head warily bowed. Rolling his eyes, Odysseus crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“And the sky is blue and the universe is big, yes thank you Achilles for a reminder of the obvious.” A few nervous giggles from the crowd, and a constant low thrum of whispers. Patroclus was pinching his nose shut, all his attention trained on Achilles. And Achilles, who never got nervous, who never got intimidated before racing in front of hundreds of people, suddenly felt the heat of pressure and judgment in the pit of his stomach. It was Patroclus’ eyes, he knew— they had the depth and pressure of someone accustomed to being alone, and here was Achilles, a stranger, suddenly in his corner. “What I want to know is why.”
Achilles had already made his decision when he reached down to pull apart the fight. Ajax, who didn’t know, was smirking— after all, it was Achilles’ word against Patroclus’ now, Arcadia’s Golden Boy against the delinquent pariah. Patroclus too was beginning to wilt, the bow of his neck long, succumbing to his unfair fate.
Then Achilles spoke.
“Ajax sabotaged Iphigenia’s presentation sir. Patroclus said he had proof, and Ajax shoved him. They fought, I was just pulling Ajax off him.”
A silence, shocked and weighted, ripped through the crowd. Even Odysseus’ eyes widened in surprise, but the teacher quickly pulled himself together, turning his focus onto Iphigenia.
“Is that true?”
Iphigenia, whose mouth was actually gaping open in shock, needed a little nudge from Briseis to speak— but when she did, it was easy to see the debate training in her diction, the flow of her speech.
“Yes sir, I was going to present in World History today, and had my presentation PowerPoint file on a flash drive. I double-checked that I brought it this morning. But first period Comp Sci, I lent Ajax the USB, and my file was gone when I tried to plug it in—”
“She’s lying, I didn’t touch her file—”
“And you have proof, Patroclus?” Odysseus cut Ajax off smoothly. Clearing his throat, Patroclus moved to speak, but suddenly flinched hard. Achilles was at his side in an instant, tilting his chin up to inspect the split skin at the corner of Patroclus’ mouth. Long since used to the constant buzz of gossip around him, Achilles entirely missed the flurry of whispers his action set off— but he didn’t, couldn’t have missed the way Patroclus stared at him in shock at the blatant violation of every social norm in the book. Achilles even went as far as swiping at a drop of blood with his thumb, which was when Patroclus jerked away.
“Don’t— that’s not sanitary,” he muttered awkwardly, angling away from Achilles to turn his attention back on Odysseus. “And well, yeah, you can check the trash on the computer Ajax used. If someone’s emptied that, you can still recover the file with Time Machine. It’s what we were going to do anyways since Iphigenia has to give her presentation today.”
“Alright.” Tone final, Odysseus clapped his hands once, and with a wide-sweeping reprimanding gaze, sent all bystanders scurrying away. “Class has long since started, people. Those who continue to hover will be considered guilty until proven innocent by a long and thorough cross-examination afterschool during the block of time generally called detention. Don’t worry folks, I’m sure we’ll find something you’re guilty of. And for those of you involved in this particular situation—” He pointedly stared at Iphigenia, Patroclus, Ajax, then Achilles, his eyes lingering on the last and turning thoughtful. “—I will get to the bottom of this, and I expect to see you all in my classroom after school today. Dismissed.”
The moment Odysseus turned away, Briseis was at Patroclus’ side, pressing a tissue to his lip and helping him up. Achilles’ hand instinctively shot out, trying to keep them from leaving but Briseis was quick to slap his fingers away with a warning glare. Patroclus, on the other hand, had the corners of his lips turned up, smiling as if he couldn’t believe his luck— though not so much in the colloquial, positive sort of way, mostly in the truly incredulous way. The hint of tentative appreciation in his eyes, however, was intoxicating, and had Achilles blinking self-consciously, his hands fluttering at his sides.
“I’m gonna go see the nurse,” Patroclus said, and Achilles nodded in keen agreement. “Um, see you after school then.”
As if Achilles could now just forget the whole incident, go to class like nothing happened. He watched the duo leave, Iphigenia following them after a moment of frenzied deliberation. She too, shot Achilles a hesitant smile that carried over to Polyxena, who came up behind Achilles.
“Ajax left,” she informed him. “You should’ve heard the stuff he was spewing, someone ought to feed him a bar of soap.”
“I’m suppose to have Spanish with him now,” Achilles remembered, still staring down the hallway. Polyxena hummed doubtfully as she circled around to the front of Achilles.
"Well he wasn’t headed in the direction of class. More like the gym, if you ask me.” Leaning forward, Polyxena peered at Achilles with a worried press to her lips. “Hey, you okay?”
“Of course,” was Achilles’ automatic reply, his back straightening and head snapping down to focus on his teammate. “I didn’t get hit.”
“I meant—” Cutting herself off, Polyxena made a series of faces, from uncertainty to awkwardness to frowning. Achilles watched her as she took a deep breath, steeling herself like before a big race. “Alright, you tell me if this is a false assumption now, but I get the feeling I’m kind of the closest friend you keep at this school, and we’re not even that close.”
Achilles had never made a habit of lying, and so denial died on his tongue. He didn’t remember at all the first time he met Polyxena, the way close friends often spoke of how they do. In fact, he didn’t have any particularly significant memories from the time of their friendship, only the knowledge that Polyxena was the best high jumper on their team, some rudimentary knowledge of her family from a school project, and the certain impression of positivity that Polyxena often exuded. Polyxena was— funny? Smart? What were her interests? These were all questions Achilles had never even thought to contemplate, and yet, Polyxena was right. If Achilles were hard pressed to name his closest friend from school, she would be it.
“I mean, whatever!” Polyxena quickly added, hands waving around her in embarrassed flutters. “You’re a cool guy, we run in the same circles, it’s chill! I don’t mean it in a bad way or anything. I just mean that I guess I’ve always kind of assumed you’re the stereotypical athlete with a bit of an anger issue, because of that one time with the guy and the thing, so it’s actually really cool that you’d do something like that for them, y’know? Something so… upstanding.”
“What, telling the truth?” Achilles tried to sound sarcastic, but, yeah, he understood what Polyxena meant. He knew what Ajax, what Patroclus, what everybody watching had expected him to say and do. After all, team was supposed to be first and foremost for athletes, especially the way the coaches taught. What Achilles did instead was sure to earn Coach Agamemnon’s ire, especially since it came at the expense of their relay team and could jeopardize the Achaeans’ victory this year.
At the thought of the coach, Achilles scowled. “You said Ajax is headed for the gym?”
The same thought drew a dark shadow over Polyxena’s brow. “You think he went whining to Agamemnon?”
With a frustrated sigh, Achilles nodded, raking his fingers through his hair. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Agamemnon can’t do jack shit to me.”
“You know what though?” There was something of a devious light in Polyxena’s eyes now, and Achilles consciously thought, Yeah, she’s definitely smart. “If Iphigenia’s telling the truth, Ajax could be suspended from school and kicked off the team.”
“She is telling the truth,” Achilles protested in surprise, a curious sense of sullenness bubbling in him. Iphigenia— and by relation, Briseis and Patroclus— must have been telling the truth. That it could be otherwise was unthinkable. Polyxena hurriedly nodded her agreement.
“I think so too, of course, but to be fair, we don’t know unless there’s proof.”
“What if there isn’t?” Achilles asked sharply. What would happen to them? Only shrugging, Polyxena sighed.
“I gotta head to the library,” she said regretfully. “I’ll tell Coach Ajax you can’t make practice today— the real reason, not whatever lie Douchebag Ajax tells them.”
“Alright, thanks,” Achilles said faintly. As Polyxena started walking away, he knew he kind of had to say something, and so stiffly, he called out, “thanks. You’re… great. Too.”
“…um, it’s not that I don’t appreciate that just—”
“—Yeah let’s not do this—”
“Nuh uh no, we’re good.”
And that left Achilles alone in the hallway, thoughts teeming in his brain. How strange, that in the span of twenty minutes, so many things could have changed. An outside spectator would perhaps call the incident out of character for Achilles, but that would only be true (and barely so) relative to how he’s led his three previous years at Arcadia so far. A private high school just wasn’t a good fostering ground for the righteous sort of hero, only the traditional kind, masculine and tough and patriotic— it just so happened that Achilles had fit fine within those parameters. Prior to this day, Achilles had been no different from how everybody saw Coach Agamemnon, the hero who brought the Achaeans to victory after a twenty year slump, or even Asshole Ajax, popular jock and apex predator. The thought alone left a bad taste in Achilles’ mouth, and he figured good fucking riddance to that reputation then. Achilles was better than them (in more than just the moral sense), and whatever retribution Agamemnon was sure to devise, Achilles would overcome. Ajax’s anger, the so-called “betrayal” of his team— there was blood in the water, a goddamn oil spill, and this meant war. Fine by Achilles. He’d strike the match himself, if he had to.