Author: moon71 PM
An adolescent Hephaestion returns to Macedon after 8 years away. Alexander is overjoyed but Hephaistion is not quite so sure...Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Angst - Words: 9,843 - Reviews: 15 - Favs: 37 - Follows: 3 - Published: 12-25-05 - Status: Complete - id: 2719706
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SUMMARY: Adolescent Hephaestion returns to Macedon after eight years in Athens. Settling back in isn't easy, especially when your father wants you to be the best friend of a prince you've already decided to hate…
HISTORICAL NOTE: I'm not exactly going AU but I am taking a liberty with history as I think Alexander was a bit younger than this when he was first united with a certain animal (no I don't mean Hephaestion) but it suited the plot…
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, wouldn't know what to do with them, can't even speak Greek or Macedonian.
RATING: PG-17 I suppose, really only rated for a slightly silly and very lovesick and over-affectionate little Alexander and a stroppy teenage Hephaestion…
AUTHOR'S NOTES: No honestly I'm not a sad git doing this on Christmas Day, nor have all your beautiful reviews gone to my head, it's just that we've finished the Christmas pudding, my other half's gone out and I'm waiting for Dr Who to come on… besides, I just wanted to make a quick note to Coral Dawn, Fredericka and anyone else who was discussing Alexander novels - I don't think my notes on websites came through, I suppose the site blocks them which is fair enough, but to make it clear in case it wasn't, SHOTO PRESS is the one who published "The Golden Vine" and the other book co I was banging on about was "abe" or "abebooks" (dot co dot uk or dot com, they have sites for several countries) I found a much cheaper copy of "Conspiracy of Women" there. And I will prepare a proper list of Alexander novels for anyone who wants it! (assuming my computer will let me…!) HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!
The first time I met Alexander, I thought him as sweet and golden as a honey-cake. I was seven years old; he had just turned five. My father was anxious for me to gain Alexander's favour, though of course at the time I only thought how wonderfully clever he was to have found me such a nice new friend to play with – few of our neighbours had boys my age and I was frequently lonely.
Alexander was shy at first, but I was an extroverted, cocksure little boy and I quickly enlisted him into various games of ball, chase, war and fortress building. I liked the way that he not only agreed to play the games I usually had to play on my own, but added new elements to them which made them more exciting. I liked the way he looked at me with his big grey eyes full of admiration. I liked the way he turned bright red and dissolved into infectious giggles when I tickled him, so I tickled him as often as I could. Above all, for all my thinking myself terribly grown up, very nearly a man in fact, I liked the way that when my father had taken his leave of King Philip and come to collect me, Alexander would throw his arms about my neck, warmly kiss my cheek and make me promise to come back as soon as I could. When I look back on these happy times, they seem to have lasted for years, but in fact Alexander and I only played together on three or four occasions.
The last time, my father turned up earlier than we had expected and his mood was quite different from how it had been when he had dropped me off. He usually stopped to talk with Alexander for a while, once he had even joined us for a game of hunting, with Father as the lion we tried to capture. I remember him grabbing Alexander up in his arms and tossing him high into the air which made the little blonde boy squeal delightedly. Alexander later confided in me that as his own father, being a King, hardly ever had time to play with him. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I usually had the same problem – my father was one of King Philip's Companions, frequently away on one campaign or another. At the time I knew nothing of the volatility of Macedonian politics and the various bloodlines and claimants to the throne, could not appreciate that Alexander's parents were feuding and his closest cousins would not balk at having him murdered if it gained them power. All I knew was that he didn't seem to have the reassuring network of aunts, uncles and first, second and third cousins I had in both Macedon and Athens.
This time Father only said a few brief words to Alexander before demanding I hurry up. I remember the disappointment on Alexander's face; I also remember that this time I was deprived of my parting kiss. I didn't think much of it at the time. "Father," I chirped as I clutched my father's hand and trotted along beside him, having trouble keeping up with his long, vigorous strides, "can I come and play with Ale tomorrow too? Oh, please, Father, we were playing "Trojan War" – I was Neoptolemus today, we were hiding in the Trojan horse… Alexander said his mother is his great-great-great-granddaughter or something, but anyway, tomorrow I'm going to be Patroklos and Alé is…"
"What -? Oh, no, Hephaestion, not tomorrow." My father frowned pensively.
"Why…?" I demanded, "oh, but Father, I promise I'll do my lessons first and…"
"I said no, Hephaestion, don't argue with me. Now you must be a good boy and behave yourself, and I mean no playing up Aithra when she wants to bathe you and put you to bed. We're leaving for Athens in the morning."
"Athens -?" I cried in dismay, "Oh, but Father, that's so far away, how long will we be there for?"
"I don't know yet… a few months, perhaps a year… the King has assigned me an important mission," my father said with some satisfaction; he added some other details and some complaints against the "short-sighted" anti-Macedonian parties in Athens but I wasn't listening. I had stopped listening after the word year.
"Father, I don't want to go to Athens, it's horrible there!"
"Now Hephaestion, don't be so silly, you've never been there…"
"I don't care, I know I'll hate it! Why can't I stay here? I could stay at home with Aithra…"
"That's enough, Hephaestion…"
"I could stay with Ale…"
"I said that's enough! Hephaestion, you're being very naughty, when we get home I'll tell Aithra to put you straight to bed without your supper and if I hear any more complaining I'll give you a whipping. Now be quiet!"
I did as I was told, knowing my father meant exactly what he said. Going to bed hungry, when it was still light, was bad enough, but having to wake up the next morning and leave Macedon… leave my new friend… I managed to keep silent as tears filled up in my eyes, only allowing myself to sniff as my nose began to run. For nearly the entire journey my father ignored me except to cast a few irritable looks in my direction but finally, suddenly, he relented, scooping me up in his arms and carrying me as easily as if I was a baby. "There, there, my love," he sighed with remarkable tenderness, making me bury my face in his beard and cry the harder, "you'll be quite happy in Athens, and you'll make lots of new friends…"
"I want Ale…" I sobbed. I knew I was being a stupid baby but at that moment I didn't care. Or perhaps I thought that if I cried hard enough, my father would relent.
Of course he didn't. What influence do boys of seven have? I went to Athens with my parents. I did not return for eight years.
When I was reunited with Alexander, I thought him a spoilt, arrogant, girlish little fraud.
There were reasons for this. The first was simply that, fickle as I was, I had not wanted to return to Macedon. I had lots of friends in Athens, friends who were clever, worldly, sophisticated. Friends who looked down upon Macedon as a poor relation, who thought its customs and laws of succession barbarous, who thought King Philip a warmongering despot who had usurped the throne from his nephew Amyntas and Alexander a young pretender who would see that Amyntas never got it back. They called Philip a brute, Olympias a witch, Alexander a simpleton. Obviously people with these opinions were not the kind my father encouraged me to mix with, but I was in the process of rebelling against everything I had once held dear, including, as it happened, my little playfellow.
The second reason was simpler. I had a thundering crush on a servant girl several years older than I was; witless with desire and filled with Homeric dreams of Achilles and Briseis I had sworn to buy her, set her free and marry her. No doubt she saw me for what I was, an overheated pubescent boy good for a few gold bracelets and a new dress, too gawky and inexperienced to ask for anything more than a smile and a kiss on the cheek.
The third reason was my father. He had worked hard for King Philip in Athens and had been and would continue to be well rewarded for his efforts, but being away from Court held a high price for both him and me. While we had been away, the sons of his fellow Companions had been growing up beside Alexander and unless Philip had another healthy son or Amyntas managed to claw back some power, Alexander was the future.
"Alexander is your future, Hephaestion," Father lectured me as I stood by impatiently, having heard this so many times on the road back from Athens, "I'm not giving you this advice for myself but for you. You remember General Parmenion's sons, Philotas, Nicanor and Hector? And Lagus' son Ptolemy…? And General Anitpater's boys, Cassander and Iollas and… " On and on went the list. I sighed and fidgeted and blamed Alexander for my boredom. When at last he'd finished naming the prince's various hangers-on he continued, "what's more, Alexander has become a bright, fearless, handsome youth, by all accounts quite charming and exceptionally gifted…"
"They always say that about princes," I dared to retort. Father scowled at me.
"What is the matter with you, Hephaestion? You used to love Alexander!"
The word love made me wince, especially when I remembered how I had looked forward to Alexander's kisses. "He was just a boy to play with," I replied sullenly. "Anyway, my friend Phaedrus believes that Alexander won't ever be king, because – "
"Enough!" My father rose to his feet and thumped his fist down on the table between us. "I will hear no more about your spiteful, pretentious, strutting friends back in Athens! I first left Athens because of people just like them and we were only able to go back there because we had King Philip's protection! It's about time you were awakened from this spell that city has cast over you! I have made sacrifices to keep this family together – and look where we are now! Look at this house, work out how much land we own, how many servants! That is all down to King Philip's patronage and my hard work! When you have killed men in battle and watched your friends die in agony, when you have been wounded, marched in the blistering heat or camped out in the freezing cold, then you may lecture me! For now, Hephaestion Amyntoros, you will make yourself agreeable to Alexander and that is the end of the matter!"
And finally there was the fourth reason, the one I didn't really understand. All I knew was when I thought of how much I had cared for Alexander and how much I had missed him when I first went to Athens, and when I thought of him now, I felt extremely uneasy.
I saw Alexander surrounded by his usual group of sycophants, or at least so I dismissed them when I first saw them. Some might well have been forced on him by their fathers, even as I was. Some at least he might have picked for himself, though that didn't stop them from being carefully selected toadies. As they looked at me, I would probably have turned on my heel and gone back home if my father hadn't shoved me forward and called out a friendly greeting to Alexander.
"General Amyntor!" Alexander stepped forward, smiling. His smile was brilliant, I had to concede that; but his light, respectful manner irked me. No doubt it was thoroughly practised. "My father told me you had returned – I am so glad to see you…" Only then did his eyes fall onto me; I had a sense he had been avoiding looking at me until then, but perhaps it was some silly mind-game and he was letting me know I was beneath his attention. As he gazed at me, a deep pink flush flooded his face and neck and I was unhappily reminded of how I had once loved to tickle him. "Is this really my dear Tion?" he breathed, his eyes sparkling like silver. I remembered how much I had loved the pet-name too and I blushed almost as hard as he did. He stepped forward; I folded my arms across my chest, certain he intended to embrace me. He stopped. "It's very good to see you back too," he said softly, "you've grown so tall I hardly recognised you."
"You look well My Prince, truly the gods are with you," I said with great formality, earning some sniggers from the boys watching us. This much was true; though he only came up to my shoulder, he was perfectly proportioned, lithe and athletic of figure. His face retained some of its boyish sweetness and he would never have his father's forcefully masculine handsomeness but he was developing a unique beauty that, much as I hated to admit it, was not nearly as effeminate as his critics in Athens liked to declare.
Alexander received my stiff address gravely, which only annoyed me more because I was hoping he would sneer at me in front of my father. "Please call me Alexander," he said with a small smile, "all my friends do. Come, we're practising our swordsmanship, come and join us…"
He slipped his arm through mine as we took our leave of my father and headed off to the training grounds with the other boys. They regarded me with looks varying from curiosity to indifference to open scorn. Ptolemy, the eldest of the group, stepped forward to hand me a wooden sword. "Do you know swordplay, Hephaestion?" he asked, giving me a faintly mocking smile. "Or did they only train you to defeat your opponents with clever rhetoric in Athens?"
"I was trained in all combat skills," I replied coldly, "but if you prefer to debate, I'll beat you at that too!"
"That sounds like a challenge, son of Amyntor…"
"Take it as it sounds, son of Lagus!"
"Enough, enough!" Alexander chuckled; he was still holding my arm and as he spoke I felt his fingers tentatively caress the inside of my elbow. It sent an odd shudder through my body and I drew away. "I've waited a long time for Hephaestion to return, let me pull princely rank and claim the first duel with him!"
We took our positions. As we parried, all of the cheers were for Alexander, none for me. Good. I intended to make myself as disagreeable to all of them as possible. I attacked Alexander with all the pent up frustration that forced itself to the surface of my mind as I looked upon him. His presence disturbed me. His poise provoked me. His touch unsettled me. Why did I have to be with someone who so upset my equilibrium? Why did I have to be in the company of these stupid Macedonians? Why was my father so unreasonable? Why did no-one listen to me? The fact that Alexander was so quick on his feet, so fast in his reactions that I could not get under his guard began to add to my fury. Worst of all was the radiance of his countenance as he faced me, the brightness of his eyes, as if he found my aggression stimulating, as if he thought it was for his benefit that I fought without restraint.
Finally I lost all control. I flung my full weight at him, knocking him back, rammed my knee into his diaphragm and sent him sprawling into the dust, jabbing my sword so hard against his throat that it drew blood.
"What are you doing, you stupid Athenian pig's ARSE!" One of Alexander's friends, Leonnatus, seized me by the shoulders then shoved me back so hard I fell and landed on my backside, "you could have killed him!"
"You're a bloody cheat, Hephaestion!" Philotas bawled as Leonnatus kicked me on the shin, quite wild with indignation.
"Hephaestion, that was stupid," Ptolemy snapped, "you could have cut his throat!"
"Enough, stop it!" Alexander, helped to his feet by Nearchos, pushed through the gathering mob and, to my vexation, offered me his hand. I could not refuse to take it, though I was tempted. "It was a fair fight. A real enemy in battle won't worry about what's in the rules!" He pulled me up with surprising strength. He even smiled at me. I saw the blood trickling onto his pale chest and felt an odd twisting in my stomach. "Come on, the rest of you carry on, we'll sit it out for a while. Come, Hephaestion, we've got some watered wine, share some with me…" He still hadn't let go of my hand, and for some reason I couldn't summon the energy to pull it free.
We sat down together on a bench, silently sharing the wineskin and watching the other boys duel. I could feel Alexander's eyes shift onto my face, but I refused to turn and meet them. I heard him sigh softly. "Don't worry too much about the others," he said, leaning close to speak quietly, "It's my fault, they're sick of hearing me talking about you… I'm afraid I talked of little else since I heard you were coming back…"
I couldn't help but look at him then; he smiled shyly, blushing once again. Why did he insist on saying things like that? Why did he want me to like him? I refused to be drawn. I had judged his companions to be mere flatterers and opportunists and no doubt some of them were, but the reactions of Leonnatus and Ptolemy at least had been from genuine concern. So Alexander had a way of winning hearts and minds. Well he wouldn't win mine. My father had said how charming Alexander could be; obviously this was part of his routine, those words, that way of looking at someone as if he had genuinely been waiting just for them. "I'm surprised you remember me," I said rather sourly, "you have so many friends now…"
"I can't always pick my friends…" he replied solemnly.
"You didn't pick me either. Then, as now, our fathers thrust us together!"
"Would you rather they hadn't?"
It was my opening, my way out. I didn't even have to be rude; I could simply make up some story about how my education in Athens had made me reject Court life and worldly ambition. I could beg Alexander to excuse me. It would be the end of my future in Macedon and my father might cut me off once and for all, but then I could go back to Athens, to my adored servant-girl and my real friends.
But I couldn't form the words. Alexander was sitting very close to me and gazing at me with great intensity. I could even feel the heat of his body. "We have to do what our fathers tell us," I finally answered lamely.
Alexander pressed my hand. "In this case, I'm very happy to," he said.
This time I did pull my hand away.
We passed our time in the training grounds or in the gymnasium or hunting in the nearby woods; it irritated me to have to give my time to Alexander's whims, to have to do whatever he suggested we do. The other boys didn't seem to care, they enjoyed themselves most of the time, though I caught a few of them gossiping and complaining behind Alexander's back. Oddly, I felt no urge to add my own complaints; I told myself that they would prove dangerous allies, probably repeating all I said to Alexander. And they were hypocrites too – at least I didn't pretend to be Alexander's friend, though he certainly seemed to want to be mine.
That annoyed me more than anything. I spent sleepless nights rationalising it. He was a prince, used to people liking him or at least pretending to. My indifference must be seen as a challenge. Well he wouldn't have me in his lap, purring like a cat!
Yet he had managed to invade my mind just a little. Each night, wearied by my own anger as much as by the day's physical activities, I would lie in my bed, close my eyes and try to lose myself of dreams of my beautiful maidservant. My mortification can only be imagined when I found it harder and harder to recall her face and frequently found it replaced by Alexander's. Images of the prince flushed with exertion from running, duelling or wrestling, of his serious face as he read from the Iliad or the works of Xenephon, of his naked body in the gymnasium, his tight, compact muscles, his agility and grace, taunted me whenever I let my mind wander.
They said his mother was a witch. Maybe he was something of one himself, or had asked her to cast a spell on me! It only made me more determined to hate him.
"You don't have to go home yet, do you, Tion?" Alexander asked as I was starting for home after another tiring day, touching my arm very briefly. He had stopped trying to hold my hand; he had also stopped using the pet-name, at least in front of others, so I was surprised to hear it now. I turned to him with a frown.
"My family will be expecting me," I said.
"Why not send word that you're taking supper with me? I mean – with us, at the palace?"
"Why?" I asked without thinking.
I could almost feel his embarrassment. "Well… you and I haven't spent any time alone together since you came back…" he mumbled, "I thought we could go to my rooms before supper and maybe read together…? I know you like the Iliad…"
This much was true; I couldn't help showing off my knowledge of it when we had debated with the other boys. I itched to say no, to finally earn his wrath. That was what I wanted above all else, for Alexander to hate me back. I hesitated, chewing my lip, wondering if I dared. Wondering, in spite of myself, if I wanted to dare.
"Your father will be there too," Alexander added suddenly, "Father asked him to join us… so you won't be on your own…"
Damn. "Very well," I said, making my reluctance quite clear. In spite of my ill-natured response Alexander smiled at me.
"Come on, then," he said brightly, and could not resist taking my arm, "I'll show you where you can bathe and change, and then we'll read for a bit, and then…"
On and on he talked. And it was harder and harder not to get swept along.
I had never attended any banquets in Athens. The colour and noise of this one in Pella overwhelmed me. My father had ensured I killed my first boar before my return so I could recline at dinner, despite my protests that the custom was barbaric. All around me, servants hovered, girls danced, musicians played and wine flowed. My father seemed quite at home amongst the revelry, I saw he was on good terms with many of the veterans who I assumed were others of Philip's Companions. He wasted no time in showing me to the king, who laughed good-naturedly, told me how much I'd grown and then sent me off with a hard slap on the rump which seemed to upset Alexander and a few lewd jokes about fresh young blood which my father laughed at.
At least Alexander was at his ease amongst all of this; I stayed close to him and resented that I needed to and he was kind and attentive to me and I resented that too. I ate a great deal and kept adding more and more water to my wine, afraid of what might happen if I lost control of myself. Alexander kept shifting closer to me, sharing my couch, talking to me, lightly touching me. It made me uncomfortable, bringing back to mind that elusive fourth reason I had for hating him. Unlike me, he hardly watered his wine at alland ate little so it wasn't long before he was quite inebriated.
I watched him chattering excitedly to his friends as they drifted over, throwing an arm about one and then another, and was inexplicably vexed by his attention to them. He had dragged me into this and now he was ignoring me! Not that I cared. Perhaps I should start drinking, then do something very shameful like throw up over King Philip. Then I would be sent away from court.
I started as soft, warm arms came from behind and slipped around my waist. "Dear Hephaestion," I heard Alexander pant breathlessly into my ear, "are you happy? I want you to be happy, you must be happy!" I nearly choked on my wine as I felt his moist, hot lips on my cheek. "You're so pretty, Hephaestion, please don't be angry at me for saying that, you won't be angry will you? You're always angry with me, always, but I don't want you to be, I want you to love me, you used to love me," he added plaintively, echoing my father's words, "I think you used to love me…" He kissed me again, "pretty Hephaestion…" and again, this time on the lobe of my ear, which sent peculiar shivers through me. "I suppose you'll go home with your father," he continued presently, "I wish you'd stay with me instead…" his voice dropped so low I could hardly hear him, even with his cheek pressed to mine, "you could sleep in my room… no, don't worry, I wouldn't have you sleep on the floor like some servant, you'd sleep in my bed… you've seem its a very big bed…" Alexander met my look of consternation with a smile of absolute naiveté, then, sensing a reproach but still quite unaware of the reason, he hid his face in my shoulder and mumbled, "I suppose you think I'm a stupid baby… but… I don't always like it, being alone at night… I have bad dreams… I don't think I'd have them if you were sleeping beside me…" As if to illustrate his point, he slid round my body like a snake, settled himself into my arms and fell into a stupor, murmuring soft words I could not understand.
I looked across the room and saw my father and King Philip grinning at us. I told myself it was the wine that made my face burn.
"Hephaestion… come on, sleepy-head…!"
I moaned grumpily in protest, not wanting to be disturbed. My head was pillowed comfortably against something soft and warm and someone, presumably Aithra or my mother, was running gentle fingers through my hair.
"Come, wake up now, its time we were home…"
This time I recognised my father's voice. And remembered I had been taking dinner at the palace. Which meant it was could not be either my nurse or my mother who was stroking my hair. And my head –
Was resting upon Alexander's thighs.
I jerked my head up. Alexander smiled down at me with drowsy tenderness. I couldn't remember his waking up or my own passing out – probably from a stomach too full of food as much as a head too full of wine. I glanced rapidly about, half expecting the entire company to be laughing at me, but those who remained were either asleep or too drunk or otherwise preoccupied to care about me; I vaguely made out King Philip, still quite alert, arguing loudly with a man I recognised as Philotas' father General Parmenion and a couple of other battle-scared old soldiers. I was shaking my head to clear it when I heard Alexander say, "Hephaestion would like to stay here tonight… isn't that so, Hephaestion…?"
My gaze snapped back round to his, but the look he gave me was so pathetically imploring that my anger simply failed to rise. "Yes… yes, I suppose so…" I avoided looking at my father.
"Do let him stay, General Amyntor… it's so late already…"
"I don't see why not, Alexander…" my father said cheerfully. He was still relatively sober; like me, he had a poor head for wine and had probably been drinking it heavily diluted. As a servant arrived to take us to bed, he drew me gently to my feet, kissed me and said, "sleep well my love… I'll ride over for you in the morning." I sensed he wanted to add a small lecture on the duties and responsibilities of being a guest in the royal palace, but then a servant arrived to take us to bed.
Alexander chattered all the way. He was certainly still drunk, but I began to sense that quick, restless energy of his rapidly burned away the lethargy the wine induced, leaving him more hyperactive than ever with only some of his inhibitions removed. I was a little disconcerted by how easily he gave orders; I would never have dared command Aithra or any of our other servants the way he did. It wasn't so much that he was rude as that he simply expected to be obeyed. If the servants thought his demands in any way unusual, they gave no sign. A loose night-tunic was found for me and I was undressed and directed into bed beside Alexander before I could gather my wits, for all the world as if it was our wedding night. Once the servants were gone and the lamps extinguished, Alexander slipped his arms about my waist and laid his head upon my shoulder. His body was so hot he might have been running a fever; I simply couldn't help returning his embrace, nor could I deny the strange little shiver that passed through me as I heard his pleased sigh as I did so. Tiredness overwhelmed me and I laid aside my utter bafflement as to quite how this had all come about by convincing myself it was all an intoxicated delusion. It was a little harder to lay aside the alarming amount of pleasure this dream was giving me.
Just as I had begun to sink into sleep, Alexander wriggled against me. I clasped him tighter to still him; for a few moments he lay passive, then he wriggled once again. Once again I tightened my grip and this time I heard a very soft moan escape him. Drowsily I loosened my hold, only to find him squirming with extra vigour. Then I realised the game he was playing; the fidgeting was my cue to cuddle him closer. He was obviously enjoying himself immensely. It was so childish it should have provoked me; instead, I found it unexpectedly endearing. Too sleepy to really know what I was about, I pressed my lips to his forehead and whispered, "sleep now, Alexander…"
Perhaps he slept; at any rate, I certainly must have.
"I'm not going back!" I shouted as loud as I could because I knew my father had a hangover. I had ridden home behind him in a deep brooding silence, tormented by a storm of conflicting emotions which gradually collected and heated up into anger. I was alone when Father awakened me in the prince's bed, telling me Alexander's tutor "that old bastard" Leonidas had taken him at dawn to swim in the freezing cold river and I hadn't known whether to be disappointed or relieved.
"Hephaestion, that's enough!" Father hissed, clutching at his head and ignoring my mother's reproachful scowl, "when will you finally get it into that mulish head of yours that there is no choice for you – for either of us? Besides, you've been making such good progress – Alexander invited you last night all by himself, no-one asked him to, he obviously likes you…"
"Oh yes, he obviously likes me!" I was glad Father had given me an opening for my new line of attack. "I think he likes me a bit too much!"
My father's eyes narrowed ominously. "Hephaestion…!"
"Well you saw him last night! He had his hands all over me! And it wasn't my idea to stay…" I felt an unexpected pang of guilt, feeling as if I had contaminated something pure. I might not have invited Alexander's caresses, but nor had they repulsed me. And they had been quite astonishingly innocent, even in bed, I was sure of that even in spite of his unintentional proposition. It was strange, but I had never thought of Alexander as being innocent before; when it came to military matters and the cutthroat nature of Macedonian politics he seemed so pragmatic, yet in more personal ways he was still only a child, far more so than I was. I might not have any real sexual experience but I was aware of what sex was, aware that I might like to try it. Did Alexander feel such things? I had my doubts. Surely, if last night was anything to go by and if he really did hang out with common soldiers the way the other boys said, he could not be completely blind to the lusts of men, he may even have been propositioned before, prince or no prince. Yet he seemed so unworldly… as if he did not connect what he saw with himself, his behaviour or his own body.
"I'm sure he didn't intend anything, Hephaestion…" my father replied, "and even if he did…"
"Even if he did…?" I cut in with genuine anger, remembering how he and the king had laughed at the two of us and suddenly had repulsive visions of the two of them betting on how far we would go. "Is there nothing you won't ask me to do to win his favour, Father? Don't you care about me at all?"
"Hephaestion, that isn't what I meant!"
"It's exactly what you meant! Well fine! If that's all I'm worth to you, I'll go right to Alexander today and offer him my arse!"
The slap he gave me nearly knocked me off my feet. My mother shrieked but my father held her back. "You poisonous, hubristic, foul-mouthed brat," he growled, "who are you to sneer at a gift from the gods? What so many have struggled and grovelled and offered their lives for in vain, you possess through no effort at all! Alexander loves you! You have the favour of a prince – a prince who may yet be a king! The one sensible thing you ever said was that I should leave you in Macedon when I had to go back to Athens! That city has warped your mind! What has Alexander ever done to hurt you? What have I ever done but work for your interests? One day I may be killed on campaign and then what will you do? This family's interests will depend on you and you will have no friends, no connections and a prince, a future king, who will almost certainly have learned to despise you! Go! Go to your room – go on, get out of my sight!"
I sulked all day; finally I apologised. Even I had to admit that my words were disrespectful and cruel, and I felt a stab of shame at the thought of Alexander ever hearing of them. I knew now that if I deliberately provoked Alexander my father would know it, so I accepted that I could not escape his circle. But I didn't have to like it. I was determined not to like it. I supposed he would lose interest in me soon enough when I proved dull and unresponsive; then I could retreat to the back of the crowd, just one more hanger-on.
It wasn't proving that easy. Alexander persisted in liking me almost to the point where I began to feel as though I was being courted and it was getting harder and harder to ignore the sadness in his expression when I rejected his friendly advances. In fact, it was increasingly hard to reject him at all. Strange dreams of him haunted me; I found myself watching him, the way he moved, the way he spoke, how much attention he gave to the other boys. He was demonstrative with them too, he had a clever way of making each one feel special when he wanted to, or making his disapproval cut deep. His popularity at Court and amongst his father's soldiers seemed quite genuine. And he didn't have it as easy as I thought he did; being close to the Court, I heard the gossip of the estrangement between his parents and their less than private disagreements. I was aware of the people who pursued his friendship for their own ends, of those who openly disliked him and worked against him. He could be spoilt, temperamental and vain; he took himself too seriously and thought too much of his own abilities. It was said that his mother had told him he was not the son of Philip but the son of Zeus and it was sometimes said Alexander believed it. But in the end, he was only a boy struggling into manhood, just as I was.
And sometimes all of the princely drapery, all the courtly manners and regal hauteur, would fall away and leave behind something naked and painfully vulnerable, like a snail ripped from its shell. I first saw this side to Alexander two days after I dined in the palace. My conditioning and my eagerness to discover his every flaw told me to despise him, a Macedonian prince daring to show weakness just because he had a childish little crush on a slightly older – but socially inferior – boy. But in spite of it all, I found it beguiling.
Such trust. Such trust in me.
We had been on our way to meet with his other companions in a lightly wooded grove on the edge of the palace grounds. I was beginning to find their company less irksome, though I had to admit I still gave them little reason to like me. All the same, I felt an infuriating little thrill when Alexander drew me back before his friends saw us and guided me to a stone bench between two trees. He seemed agitated; he was rubbing his hands together with such rapidity I was beginning to wonder if he would accidentally snap some of his fingers.
"Hephaestion," he began, a frown creasing the middle of his brow, "Could I… I mean… would you… do you think you might…" I watched mutely as his cheeks grew very pink and his eyes shifted, darting to my face and away again as soon as I met them. He kept sucking and wetting his lips until they began to look very tender and red. "Would… would you like to kiss me?"
"…What…?" I spoke more sharply than I intended.
"No, no, what I mean is… a sort of peace-kiss, you see, I think I owe you an apology… at least… some of the others were teasing me yesterday about… about how I was at dinner the day before… I drank too much, and behaved in a very silly way…"
"It was nothing," I said without thinking.
"No, but … anyway, I wanted to show you, do you see, to show you that – that I'm sorry… so if you'd like… like to…" With sudden resolution, he squared his shoulders, closed his eyes and tilted back his head expectantly.
I gazed stupidly at him for a moment, my father's words still stinging my ears, my mind assailed by so many conflicting desires. Then I leaned down and fleetingly touched my lips to his. He gave a soft gasp and opened his eyes. Then he gave me such a sweet smile that I wanted to kiss him again. Afraid to lay my hands upon him, finding them suddenly too big and clumsy, I inclined my head. He was just lifting his in response when we heard the echo of voices and the clatter of sandaled feet on the path. In a flash I got up and paced away from him as the other boys surrounded us. He stayed where he was, giving me a quick, secret little smile which I did not return. I could still feel the kiss tingling on my lips.
I never could get the kiss out of my mind. I could not even rid myself of the enchanting smile which had followed it. And I could not, no matter how hard my reason and my pride protested, deny that I had wanted more of both. Of course I still fought against it, day after day, night after night, until finally I simply grew tired of fighting and had to begin thinking. But just as I had begun to force myself to revaluate my hatred of Alexander, it seemed as though Alexander began to revaluate his love for me. He grew cooler and quieter in my company and no longer sought to touch me or draw me aside. I might have taken it for an attempt to arouse my jealousy if he had increased his show of affection for his other friends, but he was equally subdued with them. He seemed so sad that I actually began to feel sorry for him and found myself wondering what comfort I might offer. Any light attempts at amicability would surely fall flat now; the one time I ventured to put my arm about him without prior encouragement he did not move away, but looked so downhearted that I quickly withdrew.
Then one morning the capricious prince changed yet again, greeting us with a wide smile and bright eyes, bursting to relate his news. Alexander was beside himself as he told us about what was going to happen. He loved horses, and had heard all about this wonderful animal that his father was going to view. And so we all traipsed down to see King Philip and several of his Companions thrown by a wild, beautiful black horse with a white blaze in the shape of an ox head and hear the king declare that the animal was a monster and no-one could ride it.
I had watched the scene with some interest (and some guilty amusement when the horse reared and the king fell back on his backside) but nothing more, until I caught sight of Alexander. His face was glowing, his eyes were sparkling, his cheeks were quite rosy. He must have felt me staring at him, for he glanced at me and whispered "what a beautiful animal, Hephaestion… and what a waste, they'll pass him up just because they don't know how to master him!" I stared harder, uneasiness knotting my gut. I had never seen Alexander quite like this; he seemed utterly in his own world, spellbound with adoration. He was in love. In love with that deadly horse! "Alexander…" I murmured, not sure what I wanted to say, but he wasn't listening.
"Buy him for me, Father!" he cried, making me jump. In a moment he had deserted me, running to the king's side, "buy him for me, I want him!"
So there it was, Alexander was finally showing his true nature. Alexander the spoilt brat, demanding something quite useless just because it was there and he decided he wanted it. I felt my frown deepen. Why was I disappointed? Hadn't I known this all along?
King Philip at first dismissed Alexander, insisting no-one could ride the horse and besides it was too expensive. I turned away, not relishing watching the prince make a fool of himself. But then Alexander's words froze me to the spot.
I played them back in my mind to make sure I had heard them correctly. He was offering to wager the price of the horse on the boast that he would be able to ride it. If he failed, he would pay the horse's price. If he succeeded, Philip would buy it for him. I relaxed. Stupid little show-off, his father would never let him take such a risk. I was annoyed with myself – I had actually been feeling nervous for him, what was the matter with me?
I felt my heart skip as I quite clearly heard Philip accepting the bet.
"No…!" I heard myself gasp. It was all I could do to stop myself running forward and intervening. What was wrong with him? What was wrong with his father, with all of those gawping Macedonians? Had everyone gone quite mad?
I saw Alexander approaching the horse slowly, whispering softly to it. "No…" I whispered again, "no, Alexander, no…" Just as my legs wobbled beneath me I felt a strong arm clasp my shoulders and I was drawn against the familiar muscular body of my father.
"It's all right, Hephaestion," he said, stroking my hair.
"No," I gasped, "stop him, Father, he'll be killed…"
He could have taken the opportunity to mock me, to demand to know from where this sudden concern for the hated Alexander had materialised, but he didn't. He simply kissed my brow and said, "he's a prince, Hephaestion, he has to learn to take risks that no ordinary men will take."
"But not over some silly horse," I gulped.
"It's not just any horse," Father said softly, "and Alexander knows it. By Zeus – look, Hephaestion, look!"
Reluctantly I looked up. Alexander had managed to mount the black horse. One moment he was grinning at his stunned observers, the next he and the horse were riding into the distance. I buried my face against my father once more, shaking with horror, certain I was going to be sick. It would throw him and trample him, any minute now. What was wrong with all these idiots, why were they cheering? Suddenly I could stand it no longer; I tore away from Father's arms and ran blindly away, heading instinctively for home. I heard my father calling after me but I ignored him. That was enough, he could beat me, starve me, banish me, I was never going back to Court, I hated my father, I hated Philip and I hated Alexander!
I do not know how long I had been sitting in my mother's carefully tended ornamental garden when I heard the fall of hooves and the gentle snort of a horse. I refused to turn around, ignored the blissful loosening of tightness in my chest as I knew, somehow, who it was. "Tion," he called softly but clearly and I half turned on instinct, making it impossible to pretend I had not heard him approach.
At last I shifted to look up at him. As I did so, Alexander slid gracefully down from the black horse, stroking its mane and smiling at me with both triumph and joy. "Do you like him?" he asked me eagerly, "I'm going to call him Bucephalus, do you think it will suit him?"
I did not answer. I had begun to tremble and my mouth was dry. A faint frown creased his brow as he went on, "I'm sorry you didn't stay… your father said you weren't feeling well, he said I could come and see if you were all right…" Still I didn't answer. My skin was hot; my vision was slightly blurred. "Would you like to pet him?" Alexander offered helplessly. "Tion, I'm sorry if scared you…"
"Scared me," I echoed slowly, "scared me? Why should I be scared over a stupid, spoilt, crazy little barbarian like you? I suppose you thought you were really clever, risking your neck trying to ride that black monster, you just couldn't resist the chance to show off, could you? "Buy him for me Father!'" I mimicked viciously, "oh yes, perfect Prince Alexander gets whatever he wants, never mind if he gets his neck broken at the same time! What's the matter with you, don't you care if you die? Don't you think I – I – oh to Hades with you, I know why you did it, it's because you're stupid! You're so stupid! You're stupid and I HATE YOU!"
A hot, sickening shudder passed through my body as I spat out the words as if they were poisoned, shocked, almost overwhelmed by the onslaught of my own rage, hardly able to understand just where it had boiled up from or why it was mixed with an intoxicating light-headedness, as if within my anger there was also relief, also some strange sort of pleasure. Alexander was safe. Alexander had won. Alexander had not made a fool of himself. And Alexander had deliberately sought me out, wanting to share his victory with me. Alexander had noticed I was missing.
Well, it was too late to think about things like that. Finally, and quite unintentionally, I had succeeded in my original plan. As I glared at him, I saw the rapid rise and fall of his chest, I saw his hands shake before he clenched them into fists, I saw his eyes flash. Now he would either ride away and complain to his father of me, or he would hit me first. Either way, I had burned my bridges at last. Alexander was lost to me, even if I wanted him. Even if...
But he didn't ride away and he didn't hit me. Instead, the anger in his expression suddenly softened to bewilderment, he looked away from me, then he burst into tears. Turning away, he buried his face in the black horse's neck, sobbing quietly and bitterly.
At once, my anger was gone. I was quite cold. Suddenly, standing next to him, I felt not only cruel, but ugly, stupid, mean and sadistic. This was Alexander's day of glory, he had come to share it with me, with me, and I had ruined it. I was on the same level as a boy who liked to drown kittens or pull the wings off insects. A destroyer of innocence, a despoiler of beauty. "Alexander…" I began weakly, taking a step towards him. He ignored me, clinging harder to Bucephalus. "Alé…"
He looked up then, his face ruddy and tearstained. Without knowing what I was doing, I reached out and clasped him in my arms. I fully expected him to push away, to shout at me not to touch him. Instead he stunned me by readily throwing his arms about my waist, pressing his cheek against my breast as he wept harder. "W-Why don't you like me anymore, T-T-Tion…?" he stammered, "w-what's w-wrong - ? I was s-so happy when I heard you were coming back, I n-never had a friend like you…!"
"I – I don't hate you, Alé," I sighed as I found myself stroking his hair, even as my father had earlier stroked mine, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry… I'm so sorry…" I heard myself saying it over and over again. My head was spinning as I held him, for I had realised something the moment I had heard him ride up and felt that rush of relief; it had only become clear to me when he had started to cry. I had realised what that elusive forth reason was and why I could never make sense of it. It was because I didn't really hate Alexander at all. My longing for Athens, my infatuation with that servant-girl, even my resistance to my father's pressure, all seemed to be part of a smokescreen to prevent me from seeing the truth – that from the moment Father had told me we were going back to Macedon I had been afraid to see Alexander again. Not because I hated him, but because I cared for him far more deeply than I ever wanted to admit and had been afraid both of his rejecting me and of the caring itself.
As a child I had thought of him only as my best friend, but I was now nearly a man and the nature of my affection was rather different.
I awoke as I felt him shift in my arms; he had leaned back to look up at me and suddenly his lips seemed so full and red and his eyes, swollen from crying, nevertheless seemed quite beautiful. "Do you really not hate me?" he gulped.
"I'm so sorry, Ale," I said once again, daring to reach and caress his cheek, "no, I don't hate you, I just didn't understand… perhaps I'm not as clever as you after all…"
"I still don't understand…!"
I drew in a deep breath. "I… think… I think I love you – really love you," I said, and before I could stop myself, I had bent and pressed my lips over his. He didn't fight me off; I felt his arms tighten about me and I took a deep breath, letting my fingers stray into his blonde curls, down his neck, over his shoulders, not knowing until that moment how I had ached to touch him or why his naïve caresses had disturbed me so. I kissed his cheek; it was soft and still boyishly plump and it felt nice. I kissed the other one. I sought his mouth again and I pressed harder, venturing at last to brush his lips with my tongue. They parted slightly and I slipped in, but then I felt him tense so I drew back, ending the kiss. Alexander blinked uncertainly at me, managing a shy smile but obviously disconcerted. "I'm sorry," I said gently, stunned and a little frightened by my own ardour, but he shook his head.
"It's what I've wanted," he said very quietly, "I love you too, Tion, the truth is I always have, but…"
But he was still young, younger than me, and, as I had guessed, still only at the beginning of real sexual self-awareness. "You mustn't worry," I told him and I smiled at him, smiled from my heart probably for the first time since I had returned from Athens. The sight of it made his face light up. "We can get to know each other first, we don't need to do anything we're not ready for…" I hesitated, still trying to make sense of what was happening between us. "Alexander, I'm sorry I ruined your great day, I didn't mean all those horrid things I said, I was – I was only – "
"You were frightened for me," he replied kindly, then added with a dreamy look in his eyes, "you didn't ruin my day, Tion, you made it perfect. Now I'll remember it not only as the day I won Bucephalus… but the day I won you too…" Seeming to gather his courage, he reached up and kissed me. We embraced deeply for a long moment, two boys caught between fear and excitement, reassured by one another's embrace even as we were alarmed by one another's desire. Where did we go from here? Where should we go? How far? How quickly? I had no idea, but for once I didn't care. Alexander and I would find out together. Together. I opened my eyes, looked up and saw the distinctive figure of my father striding towards us. I didn't want him to have his own triumph just yet; I didn't want anything to taint this moment of sacred unity with the boy I loved.
"Would Bucephalus let me ride him? With you, I mean?"
"He'll do what I tell him," Alexander said with enormous pride; for a moment it irritated me, but then I gave in to amusement as he added, "we love each other!"
"More than you and I?" I demanded playfully as he helped me mount behind him.
"I don't know yet," Alexander replied airily, guiding the horse, on my prompting, in the opposite direction from my father, "you're so similar… dark, temperamental and difficult… but very beautiful too."
"Hephaestion…!" I heard my father's indignant shout, "wait…!"
"Shouldn't we wait?" Alexander asked, puzzled by my behaviour.
"No, keep going," I insisted, slipping my arms about his waist and holding him tight, "please… just keep going…"
As Alexander coaxed his new horse to a gallop, my father's increasingly angry calls faded into the distance.