Over and over and over and over and--
Megara grew up the oldest of three daughters. Her father was king. He loved her the way that all kings love their daughters: delightedly and carelessly, rough around the edges. Her mother braided her hair in long plaits down her back and her father wasted no time in ruining them with playful tugs and easy tousles. She was raised the way all princesses are raised. To be be looked at. To be Queen.
The first time she saw Hercules, he was not wearing any armor. He had a sword in his hand. He killed with it. Megara still wore her hair in plaits but when he looked up at her over the body of the enemies he had slain, she ran her fingers through it until it hung around her shoulders, wavy and wind-swept.
"It is tradition," her father began, looking at her with the sad eyes of a king who has never had to work for what he has been given, "to give you away."
"I know," Megara answered. She smiled.
When they married, he held her small hand in his broad one and made a million promises she knew he couldn't keep. Hercules was a child of the gods, and they are never rewarded for their heritage.
Later, when he was using the same hands to bury arrows deep in their children's flesh--in her own--Megara smiled again. Her hair had gotten longer. She had blood on the corners of her mouth. As Hercules came back into himself, he cradled her like a child and whispered her name, over and over.
She patted his cheek. She loved the way her father had: carelessly. "Now then," she whispered as Hades' skeletal fingers wrapped an O around her ankles and began to drag her downwards. "Come. It is tradition."
He kissed her bloody mouth, but she was already gone.
Megara grew up hiding behind her mother's skirts. When she was eleven, her mother ripped the curtain away, knelt in front of her daughter, and said, "Lookit. We ain't the most respectable family around here, but we ain't cowards, you hear?"
She shoved the family rifle into Megara's careful hands. "A man come in lookin' fer a lady, he pays up front. He tries any funny business and you put one between his eyes."
Megara nodded, slow. "Yes'm," she agreed. She had spent every morning for a year shooting at tin cans in the back yard. At night the heavy breathing and soft wails of men taking their pleasure from women who let them lulled her to sleep. Megara knows what it sounds like when knuckles collide with teeth in the room next door. She knows the cadence softly whispered apologies and even softer promises. Men have always taken what they want. It is tradition.
But now she stands in the front room with the rifle in her hands and smiles at men as they come in. They have never tried to touch her. Her smile is too sharp.
"That'll be a fiver if you want it French style," she demanded, holding out her hand, and no one ever refused.
Sometimes one raised his eyebrows and said, "Well, ain't you enterprisin'."
"Yeah," said Meg, bland like her mama taught her. "Fiver for an hour, fifteen for the night."
When she turned fifteen she knew what was coming, so she staked out her own room and hid the rifle under the mattress. Her first john was a little taller than her, with broad hands and blue eyes that made her skin feel like someone had tickled it.
"What's your name?" he asked softly from the door, a kind of soft Megara had never heard before.
"D'you pay already?" she answered, instead of giving him the only thing she had that was hers.
He nodded. "Thirty. For the night. If that's--if you'll have me. Ma'am."
Megara stared at him. "Who the hell raised you?" she asked. "This your first time at a whorehouse or something?"
From his blush, Megara had her answer. She held her stomach as she laughed, doubling over and kicking away the butt of the rifle, knowing she wouldn't need it. "Oh, boy," she giggled, approaching carefully, pushing his jacket off his shoulders, "oh, boy, you gotta work on your attitude. This ain't no place for shyness, you hear? It's--you gotta be brave, okay? It's tradition 'round here."
"Tradition," he repeated, his eyes following her hands. He reached out and touched her shoulder, fingertips so soft it made her heart hurt a little. "Yeah, I. Okay."
He gathered her up and she let him. She kept letting him. Every time he came she left him gather her up and fall asleep like that, his face buried in her neck, his shoes by the door.
"Marry me," he murmured one night just as she was falling asleep. "I can take you away from here."
Megara let out a braying laugh and pressed her mouth to his precious forehead. "Oh, honey," she told him gently, soothing her lipstick away. "There ain't no here. There's only me. I gotta stay."
Megara shrugged. "My mama stayed," she said. "And my grandmama. We always stay. It's--"
"Tradition," he interrupted, sounding bitter, and Megara smiled and sung him to sleep.
He didn't come again.
"Tradition," the man said, his blue eyes wide and cheeks flushed with excitement.
Megara rolled her eyes. God. Who was giving out the password to wealthy mama's boys like this? She knew his kind. He wouldn't keep his mouth shut. He'd come in and get drunk and get arrested and get the whole place ransacked.
Still. He had the password.
She sighed and opened the door, cocking her hip to block his entrance. "Listen up," she told him flatly. "You come in, you drink, you stay 'till you sober up. If we get caught 'cause of you, no amount of your daddy's money is gonna keep you safe. You got that, buddy?"
He blinked at her, hand floating unconsciously up to his fedora to tug it down over his forehead. "Uh, yeah," he agreed. "I mean. Yes. Yes ma'am. Yes."
Megara pursed her lips as she stepped aside. She had better things to do than look out for a young idiot with more money than sense. For one thing, her father still hadn't figured out how to work the tap and the perfectly legitimate restaurant out front was down three waiters thanks to a particularly bad pneumonia.
Sometimes the boy came to the front restaurant and ordered a six-course menu for two. He was always alone. He tipped big, so the girls liked him, but he always asked to speak with the manager and Megara always had to fill in for her father, who was tied up with the goddamn tap downstairs.
"Again?" she asked, sighing as Daisy told her that the Big Tipper wanted to see her father.
She threw her dishtowel onto the counter in the kitchen and marched out front. "What?" she demanded, glaring down at him.
He smiled. She hated when he smiled, because it made her feel dizzy. Maybe she had the pneumonia, too.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. "I have--there's extra. If you're hungry."
Megara stared at him.
"I"m working," she said.
"Okay," he agreed. "After?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Why?"
And he beamed, looking pleased for the first time all night. He stretched a hand out to take hers and said, "Because I think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, Miss Meg."
"Is this because of--" she lowered her voice, "Tradition?"
He shook his head. "No," he promised. "No, no. Just--will you come? Tomorrow night? Ten o'clock?"
Megara took her hand away. "All right," she said. "I'll meet you in town, just settle down, will you."
"Ten o'clock," he repeated, urgent.
"Ten o'clock," Meg agreed.
He smiled and she sighed and went back to the kitchen. You could hear her father swearing downstairs. Megara gave plates of food to the girls to serve and went home to sleep it off.
She woke a little past eleven and swore, leaping out of bed. She was late. She was halfway down the stairs when she saw the policemen outside, her father's hands bound behind his back.
"Oh, shit," she gasped, and their eyes all snapped to look at her. One of the policemen smiled.
"There you are, Miss Megara," he greeted, handcuffs dangling from his pointer finger. "We were afraid our Herc had given you a heads up so you could get away."
She felt her mouth twist into something resembling a frown. "Even if he had," she said, holding her wrists out, "I'm not a runner. Never have been."
"Sorry," Meg says without looking up from her nails as she finished painting them, "we can't insure you for that kind of journey."
The man on the other end of the phone line makes a small whining sound. "Why not? It's two days."
Meg snorts. "A two-day road trip with a bunch of college frat boys? Yeah, we're not gonna touch that one, buddy."
A puff of breath. "What if we make it a one-day thing?"
"So you can chuck all the beer you had intended to last you for two days in the span of one long drive? Are you kidding me?"
"Damnit," the voice swore, and hung up.
Meg went back to painting her nails. She had no strong feelings about her job except that she fucking hated it. Working in car rentals was the worst way to pay her rent, seriously. She'd rather be a hooker. She'd rather run drugs.
But here she was. Turning down frat boys who want to spend the weekend getting drunk on the way to Bonnaroo.
Meg lives with her cat. There's a hole in her window that she fixed with ductape, for God's sake. She clocks out at the end of the day and drinks a bottle of wine while watching Mob Wives, and when did this become her job? She majored in engineering. She majored in engineering expressly to avoid this kind of post-college ennui.
Man. Meg's life sucks so much, seriously.
The next day at work, Frat Boy calls again.
"What about this," he says. "Three days. We're not going to drink or smoke or do anything untoward in the car. I promise. I promise."
Meg sighs. "Where are you going to park?" she asks.
"Where. Are you going. To park." When he doesn't immediately answer, she adds, "at the festival."
Meg can hear the wince in his voice. "Uh."
"That's what I thought," she tells him, and hangs up.
"We got a permit. A parking permit. We can park now."
"At the festival grounds."
"So a bunch of strung-out hippies can hallucinate that the cars are asking them to spray paint flowers over all the windows? Come on."
Meg makes a face. "Meg," she corrects, not thinking it through. Oops.
There's a pause on the other end. "Uh, right. So, um. Meg."
Her name sounds nice in his voice and Meg thinks, shit. "I have to go," she says, and hangs up.
He calls back every day. He stops trying to change the terms of the rental, just opens with the same proposal and lets her shoot him down. He says her name a lot. He says everyone calls him Herc because he plays wrestling. He laughs when she says that and explains that you don't "play wrestling," but whatever. It's is stupid. Everything about him is stupid.
"You're not going to Bonnaroo in one of our cars," Meg snaps at him finally, when she can't stand the sound of his voice anymore because it makes her want to cry or something. "Stop calling."
"Do you--okay. But, um. Can I take you out?"
Meg holds the phone away from her face. She takes deep breaths. "Fine," she snaps after a minute. "Whatever. Be here at five. If you're not here at five then the deal's off and you can go bother some other car place that still won't let you take any of their vehicles to a deathtrap of hash brownies."
She slacks off for the rest of the day and then waits out front until 5:05. She's gathering her things up to leave when a car peals into the parking lot and a blonde man with broad hands and blue eyes gets out.
She stares. "You have a car," she says, pointing at it for emphasis.
He looks sheepish, hand floating to the back of his neck. "Yeah," he admits. "My buddy got one from his dad. So."
"So you didn't need a car in the first place?"
He flushes darker, if that's even possible. "Um. I did the first time. After that I just--"
"Oh my god," Meg whines, because her life is so stupid, "come here," and she kisses him. When she pulls away, he's beaming like an idiot and Meg sighs. "This is some rom-com bullshit."
"I like rom-coms," he tells her, opening the door for her like some kind of gentleman. "They're nice. Traditional."
"Get in the car, Romeo," she orders. "Don't give me bullshit about tradition. I need a drink and we have a festival to go to."