~sixteen~

He began to see Achilles more often, almost daily. When Patroclus was done with his chores and Achilles with his lessons the two would slip from the palace grounds, onto the beach or into the forest and spend the rest of the day in blissful freedom, fighting or playing it made no difference; the lines had already been blurred for a long while. Achilles showed him things; the ingenious little traps he'd invented and built for animals, the best spots to search for wild mushrooms and hickory nuts, how to move so silently not even the sharpest deer would raise their nose. In return Patroclus taught him a little of herb lore and the names and functions of the plants that grew around the base of the trees and surprisingly, Achilles learned fast and with fervour.

In those crisp mornings or sweltering afternoons they also learned about each other. With each fight, conversation or play-wrestle they opened up a little more, giving up a part of themselves piece by piece to the other, as if their souls were labyrinths and with every passing day they gained another fragment of the route. At first Patroclus was guarded, tentative and kept glancing at Achilles while he talked as if trying to judge his reaction. But as time went on he found himself speaking more comfortably of things he had not allowed himself to think, things he had suppressed into the deepest reaches of his mind.

Achilles was open, off-hand and talkative, as though the things he spoke of were as of little consequence as the fish in the streams. But then suddenly he'd break off, frown, and stare half-accusingly at Patroclus saying "I've never told anyone that before."

And Patroclus would smile, half-teasingly, and reply, "Guess I'm not just anyone."

It was a good time, the best of Patroclus' days in Phthia and often after the two had been swimming and were laying in the sun to dry he would trace the beads of water running off Achilles' golden limbs and think he'd never been so happy. Other times he'd watch as Achilles, hidden within the green cage of a tree jumped and pounced on an unwitting forest creature, sliced its gut and showed him its skin, grinning, and he felt slightly sick, ever so slightly afraid, and more than a little desire.

Achilles was competition. He was forever trying to outdo himself, casting his ability off as a limitation, his skill chains that prevented him from always being better. So he set up courses, tracks and targets and tried to beat himself and when he did he would let out a victor's yell of triumph and strut around like a prince peacock for the rest of the day, as if he had just vanquished a long standing rival. He would always make Patroclus go against him and whether it was who could run the furthest in a minute or who could hold their breath longest underwater Achilles always won and celebrated. Sometimes Patroclus thought Achilles made him compete just so he could watch him win.

One morning, Achilles woke Patroclus up and took him to the beach. From there they climbed the pale grey rocks that littered the shore's edge higher and higher until they reached the cliffs, Patroclus moaning all the while, Achilles snapping at him to shut up and trust him.

"This is stupid," Patroclus grumbled, stubbing his toe on a loose rock. "The sun's in my eyes."

"Then fucking blink," Achilles snarled. "We're almost at the top."

Patroclus squinted past Achilles' ascending figure to where the cliff face curved into a plateau, the flattened summit spiked with clumps of dry moss, like a few sparse hairs prickling from a balding scalp. He shook his head exasperatedly and followed upwards, his feet and hands clumsy on the rock where Achilles had been nimble and lithe.

Achilles reached the level first and, having heaved himself up, reached out a hand to Patroclus. He took it and allowed himself to be pulled up, gingerly regaining his balance as a rush of the wind made him suddenly aware of how high up they really were. Looking down the sea seemed so very far away, a flat expanse of blue-green that glimmered with studded diamonds of light across the surface. He looked back at Achilles. He was grinning wildly, wickedly, and the shining sea pooled in his irises.

"Jump," he commanded.

Patroclus gawped at him. "Are you crazy?" he exclaimed. "I'll break my neck!"

Achilles shook his head. "You won't," he said. "Come on. It'll be fun. You'll enjoy it."

"I enjoy my spine," Patroclus replied. "Have you seen how high up we are? If the fall doesn't kill us the water will."

"It'll be fine," Achilles insisted, rolling his eyes. "Trust me. I've done this, like, I don't know. A hundred times."

Patroclus eyed him suspiciously. Achilles looked nonchalant and casual, as if he were asking him to take a gentle dip in the river rather than jumping off a fifty-foot cliff. For some reason this troubled Patroclus more than it reassured him. "You've done this before?" he asked cautiously.

"Yeah," Achilles nodded, brushing his wind-blown hair out of his eyes. "Used to be one of my favourite pastimes when I was a kid. My mother, she'd sit there," he pointed to an indistinct blob of brown Patroclus assumed was a rock. "And cheer me on."

"And you say your parents are separated," Patroclus murmured, glancing below him with a sense of mounting nausea. The cold morning blew upwards from the salt spray into his face as he imagined falling down, down, the sea rushing up to meet him as his limp arms scrabbled desperately for something to hold on to. He shook his head.

"No," he stated. "No way."

Achilles fixed him with his most challenging stare. "Patroclus," he said seriously. "Don't be a pussy."

Patroclus huffed and turned away, crossing his arms defiantly over his chest. Achilles sighed and then, softly as the breeze, took a step closer; his chin hovering just above his shoulder so that they were almost touching. "Imagine," he murmured, lips barely parted. "Taking the leap. Imagine gravity falling away from you, like a heavy cloak, as soon as your feet leave the rock. Imagine falling with no concerns, no limitations. Just falling through that cold, blue space between sky and earth. Boundless. Ceaseless." His eyes were wide, wild, and bearing with an ethereal intensity. His mouth, so close. "I swear, the second you jump, you'll wish you could fall forever."

Patroclus looked back down. The sea roared in his ears, his face stung with the morning chill. The waves curled onto the shore like a crooked finger, smiling at him, beckoning him. "You trust me?" asked Achilles. Patroclus nodded. "Then jump."

For you, then, thought Patroclus, recalling broken fragments of a reprimand given by his mother so long ago. Something about if all your friends jumped off a cliff. He shook it from his mind and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He jumped.

As soon as his feet left the rock he felt all his fears, inhibitions, anxieties leave him like a shift shaken into the wind. There was only the rush of cold, pounding like blood in his ears as he fell, his heart hammering in his chest until he thought it would break. But if it did, he thought, it would not matter. Surely there was no greater way to die than this. He fell through that cold, blue space; the wind and the sea screaming in his ears and the sound of Achilles' mad whooping sparked the realisation that never, never had he felt more alive and more a part of this world, never had the blood pumped through his veins so fast, not even in the most electrifying fights had the adrenaline zapped through him like a shock, making him scream with the pure, terrifying thrill of it all…

His legs broke the surface of the water, drops spraying in his face as if he had fallen through a plate of shattering glass and he felt himself become immersed as it pulled him under. He opened his eyes and all he saw was green, dark and foreboding and this is it, he found himself saying, this is where it ends.

Then, with an abrupt lurching movement, he was pushed up like a bobbing cork, his arms and legs thrashing frantically as he struggled to regain control. He spun round in the water until he was facing the cliff. The plateau jutted out from its side, a towering Titan of grey rock, glaring, beaten, down at him. Patroclus laughed insanely and whooped into the air just as a loud splash a few feet away announced Achilles' arrival.

"I missed your jump," said Patroclus, swimming over to him.

Achilles turned, long hair gleaming and plastered to his skin, his eyes shining bright with adrenalin. "That's okay, I saw yours," he replied. "How was it?"

Patroclus felt the grin split his face, huge and unrestrained. "Amazing," he breathed. "I felt like I was flying. Like I was a God."

Achilles beamed back at him. "I know," he said. He pointed at the cliff. "Fuck, look how high we were! Not bad for the first time."

Patroclus frowned, the words falling like heavy stones upon his numb ears. "…First time?"

Achilles was smirking. His face, combined with the understanding slowly dawning on Patroclus mixed in his gut into sudden, burning fury. He lashed out with all the restraint of a young kraken, diving at Achilles who bobbed instinctively out the way. "YOU ARSEHOLE!" he screamed. "YOU TOLD ME YOU'D DONE THIS BEFORE! WE COULD HAVE DIED! YOU COULD HAVE KILLED ME!"

Achilles just laughed, tempestuous, unrestrained, hair shining like liquid gold and Patroclus, through his anger, found that he was laughing too, laughing like a madman as he dived after Achilles into the waves.

oOo

An hour later they rolled with the tide back onto the shore. Sodden and shivering, their footsteps made silvery tracks in the sand as droplets of water slipped from the ends of their soaking hair and trailed after them in little dark spots. The buzz of the fall was only now just beginning to wear off and strangely, although goose bumps had erupted all over Patroclus' flesh it was as if someone had lit a fire inside him and it's embers now glowed with a comforting warmth, spreading rosily from his chest into his stomach.

Beside him Achilles was skipping. He had rolled his chiton down to his waist and was squeezing water out from the cloth. "Bet you're glad you got up this morning," he declared.

"You're a testicle," answered Patroclus.

Achilles snickered. Beads of water trailed down the muscles of his arms and shoulders, rolling off like splaying light from his limbs. "Come on," he said. "You'd never have gone for it otherwise. And don't tell me you didn't enjoy it."

Patroclus ignored this, for there was no denying the fire in his belly, nor the way his face glowed like the sunrise. "Regardless," he began. "You could have killed us both."

Achilles shook his head. "I knew we'd be fine."

"How could you know that?"

"I just know," he stated stubbornly. "I have a knack for these things. Anyway, I'd have never asked you to if I wasn't sure."

Patroclus glanced at Achilles, squeezing his chiton dry with ease and guessed this "knack" had something to do with the way he always knew where falling fruit was going to land or exactly when to strike a hunted animal or how to move so imperceptibly you'd have sworn he was invisible. He shook his head in surrender and decided there were some things he was better off not asking about.

They walked back across the beach shoulder to shoulder to aid the sun in warming their bodies. Once they'd reached the palace, Achilles turned to Patroclus, scratching the back of his neck self-consciously.

"So tomorrow's my birthday," he stated.

Patroclus tried not to let the surprise register on his face. "Oh," he said.

"My father's having this party," Achilles continued, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "Just an excuse for a massive piss-up in diplomacy. Some People Of Great Consequence will be there so they can tell me how tall I've grown and how I look so much like my father and how last time they saw me I was only up to their bloody shins or something. And there'll be a lot of showing off of how much gold and lentils Phthia has and maybe someone will bang out the harp and it'll be hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting. Anyway, you should come."

That explains the bunting, thought Patroclus, remembering how hard Amyntor had been working the slaves recently. "I'll be there anyway, won't I?" he pointed out. "You know, pouring wine, serving wine, spitting in the wine, that kind of thing."

Achilles shook his head ardently. "I don't want you there as my slave," he said and an emphatic passion rounded his words. "I want you there as my guest."

He said it so flatly, so bluntly yet it did not present the heat rushing through Patroclus' veins to rise into his cheeks, nor did it dissuade the inevitable squirm of pleasure in his stomach knowing that Achilles wanted him there, wanted him not because it was expected or because his father told him so but because without him he knew he would once again be made a victim of his boredom. Patroclus gave a wry smile, feeling suddenly blissful. "Well," he said. "Seeing as you've sold it so well."

Achilles grinned, eyes shining as he slipped a fallen lock of hair behind his ear. "Tomorrow evening then," he stated, turning to go. "Don't forget!"

"I won't," replied Patroclus over his shoulder, heading back to his quarters.

It soon transpired however, that this would have been impossible. How Patroclus had missed the blatant and screaming symptoms of an upcoming event he had no idea, especially as for the next few hours Amyntor had upgraded from tyrant to complete sociopath, taking to standing at the top of the stairs and bellowing orders through a piece of hollowed shark bone which reverberated round the palace and struck anyone within a few paces with deafening ear ache. Unfortunately, Patroclus' invitation did not excuse him from his servant's duties and he and Leptine found themselves shooting from room to room mopping floors, polishing marble and hanging decorations, complying to Peleus' every whim and Amyntor's every command.

By the time the two were instructed to go over an enormous mosaic with a toothpick, Leptine was feeling pretty resentful of the prince. "I can't believe this," she muttered, scratching dirt from the tiles with unnecessary vigour. "You know, I bet he's sitting in his room now, pouring over his silk chitons and wondering whether to wear his hair straightened or curled."

"Mmhmm," Patroclus responded.

"Or he's parading through the grounds," continued Leptine. "Whip in hand, exercising his skill as an overseer. Strutting like a bloody peacock, 'did you know my mother's a goddess?' 'did you know I'm a prince?' 'did you know it's my birthday?' Well Happy birthday, Prince Narcissus. I hope it's bloody worth it."

"Mmmhhhmmm," answered Patroclus.

Leptine cast him a quizzical look. "You're pretty quiet," she observed. "Usually you're the one who can't criticise him enough."

Patroclus shrugged, conscious of the puzzling expression on her face. "I suppose I've just…grown up a bit since then," he replied ambiguously.

Leptine raised her eyebrows in mock-admiration. "Oh have you?" she said, the hint of a smile tugging at her lip. "And when exactly did you undergo this spurt of maturity?"

"I don't know," muttered Patroclus stubbornly. "I've just been thinking recently that maybe…possibly…we might have misjudged him. A little."

Leptine's eyebrows disappeared into her hair. "Those are words I thought you'd never say," she declared wonderingly. "What changed your mind?"

Patroclus shrugged again, uncomfortably aware indecision was becoming a habit. "He's just…different," he explained feebly, trying to find words for the teasing warmth of his smile or the way his hand had clasped around his with such easy reassurance as he'd pulled him to the top of the cliff. "Something's changed in him. I don't know. Maybe he's grown up to."

He looked away, blushing, and refocused on scratching the dirt from a particularly interesting looking tile, Leptine's searching gaze burning into the back of his neck. At long last she yawned and stretched and he felt the relief of her lifted scrutiny. "Well I'm glad you two seem to have sorted out your differences," she told him. "Surprised, confused, but glad. I just wish I could see the same evidence of his 'change' as you do."

"You don't see it?" asked Patroclus, taken aback.

Leptine shook her head. "No," she said bluntly. "I don't. If anything he seems worse, what with the party and his officially becoming 'a man' and all. He's as selfish, conceited and full of himself as ever. In fact, the only thing that seems to have 'grown' about him is his head."

Patroclus forced a laugh and quickly changed the subject. There was no way he could explain to Leptine that it was all his imperfections; his pride, his arrogance, his vanity that made him so…well…perfect. How could he make her understand the pure, innocent joy in Achilles when he discovered some child's thing; an ant hill or a bee's nest? Or his sense of honour, and dignity and the passionate fury in his voice when he talked about prejudice and intolerance and tyranny? Or the way he could spin whole tales from words with an airy coolness, as if he did not even realise the beauty of what he had just said?

"Patroclus?" spoke Leptine softly, snapping him out of his daze. "Are you alright?"

Patroclus blinked. The world was suddenly all at once very bright and very hazy. "Yeah," he murmured. "I'm fine."

Just fine.

oOo

Tomorrow evening came much sooner than Patroclus would have liked. Before he knew it the whole palace was bustling with the anticipation of Achilles' party, five minutes later it was dark and Patroclus was tearing through his chest of possessions trying to find something to wear.

He had no idea why he was so nervous. This was Achilles, not a complete stranger from a far off land or some heroic legend who had once laced Hercules' shoe. He pulled out a green chiton, the colour of spring grass and yanked it on over his head. It had been a favourite of his in Opus and he supposed it would do well enough at himself in Leptine's hand mirror he quickly attempted to flatten the hair that stuck up round the back of his ears; it sprung back up resiliently and he abandoned it, heading over to the Great Hall with a sense of mounting dread.

He heard the sound of music playing a long way down the corridor and as soon as he stepped in he felt repelled by the sheer force of it; lutes and lyres, harps and drums playing with enough volume to wake up half the Underworld. But as loud as the music was, it did little to drown out the suffocating sounds of conversation that swelled through the room so that the very walls seemed to pound.

Patroclus' eyes scanned through the room, past Cleitus who was already lying in a paraplegic muddle on the floor, being plied with wine by a servant girl to where Achilles sat, brooding in the corner. His eyes lit up as Patroclus approached but his scowl did not shift, even as he sat down next to him.

"Steady my lord," Patroclus jested. "Calm yourself. You don't want to go too hard too quickly."

Achilles tossed him a dark look. Up ahead Phoinix was dancing, stark naked but for a string of grapes around his neck, a doting female on each arm. "This is the worst evening of my life."

"The worst evening of your life so far," Patroclus corrected him. "Besides, what are you complaining about? Look at all the presents!"

He pointed in the direction of a coffee table, groaning beneath the strain of gold and silver; dishes, plates, tripods and amphoras glittering with pearls and precious gems. Achilles looked dismissive. "Blood money," he answered disdainfully. "You should have seen them all. Each one came up with their father's, went down on one knee and offered me a gift, like I was the king of fucking Olympus. They each had a speech prepared. Like, an actual speech for Gods' sake."

Patroclus smirked, picturing the guests dropping their gift and running with Achilles' insults ringing in their ears. "So you won't be upset if I told you I didn't get you anything?" he asked.

Achilles shook his head. "Your being here is enough," he replied simply. "Otherwise I swear I would go mad. I may still go mad. Oh fuck, there's Tyrus. And he's got a tapestry."

Patroclus followed his gaze to where one of Achilles' friends stood on a table, a tapestry hung around his neck like a feather boa. Achilles groaned and reached for his goblet. "Drink up," he said grimly, raising the wine to his lips. "It's going to be a long night."