A CHOICE OF WORDS by Moon71
SUMMARY: I know it's been done before, but this is my take on those infamous words, "you are nothing without me." After Hephaestion's argument with Crateros, Alexander is faced with a dilemma - how can he maintain his authority over Hephaestion without losing his love?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I may be in a minority here, but I actually felt Hephaestion and Crateros were more at fault in this business than Alexander; it was only the choice of words, spoken, if they really were spoken, in a fit of temper by a man known for… well, saying and doing some pretty awful things in a fit of temper…
I'd like to add that this was actually the first Alexander fic I ever wrote, so if I seem to repeat myself (i.e. say the same thing I've already said in other stories) blame the author, not the story itself! I am a very strange person and have a tendency to feed off my own young.
DEDICATION: For Fredericka - hope you're feeling a bit better; drink plenty of ginger ale and keep warmbut stay away from the chicken and wine!
Alexander took a large swallow of wine and resisted the urge to rub at his aching temples. A violent loss of temper always left him feeling uneasy, drained and a little nauseous and this time the alcohol wasn't helping; nor, despite the best efforts of most of his companions, was the company. The dinner which should have lightened everyone's spirits and washed away any remaining tension had begun to feel like slow torture, and he could see his generals exchanging sly glances, each feeling awkward, none wanting to be the first to leave. And the two who were responsible for the evening's misery seemed bent on making it worse.
Whenever Alexander caught his eye, Crateros gave a fine display of dignified penitence, but the moment he thought his king's attention elsewhere, a quietly smug expression surfaced on his hard, weather-beaten features – there was no real malice in it, that was not his way, but he had seen his nemesis, the very antithesis of everything Crateros admired and believed in, receive a painful and publicly humiliating blow, and he could not help taking satisfaction in it. As soon as they had made camp that evening, Alexander had taken his best General aside and rebuked him harshly, but even as he did so Alexander knew it was too late – the first rush of anger was over and he had sounded more exasperated than enraged, a weary tutor warning the school bully for the hundredth time to leave the sensitive, bookish teacher's pet alone. Crateros had taken the reprimand like a soldier and a true Macedonian, repentance mixed with pride. Had Alexander done this at once, when anger was still boiling his blood and with the rank and file watching, would Crateros be reacting as Hephaestion was now?
A sigh escaped from Alexander as he looked reluctantly across at his beloved. No; of course he wouldn't; because, as Alexander had later discovered, what he had said to Hephaestion in a red cloud of rage had quite unwittingly managed to confirm everything Crateros had been mocking him with. Well, how could he have known? Hephaestion had been an idiot to let the old warhorse provoke him; he was still young, but then youth was no excuse when your King was even younger! Couldn't he just accept that Alexander loved him no matter what, that he valued his skills just as much as he valued those of Crateros or any of his other Generals? So he wasn't Alexander's most brilliant Commander! Nor was he incompetent or a coward; he would never have survived so many campaigns, nor taken so many wounds from the front, if he was. So what if Crateros called him – what was it – Alexander's superannuated Page? The oldest bed-boy in the army? If Alexander, the King, was not ashamed of his relationship with Hephaestion continuing well past adolescence, then Hephaestion certainly had no right to be! Of course, had Alexander known what had been said, before his arrival curbed Crateros' eloquence, he would not have said what he did or at least not said it in the way that he had, but what was done was done!
Hephaestion resolutely refused to look up from the depths of his wine, though Alexander knew he could feel his eyes upon him. Hephaestion's handsome face was a blank, rigid mask, only the tightness of his jaw betraying signs of suppressed emotion. Suddenly all Alexander wanted to do was take him in his arms, to coax a smile from those finely shaped lips, to forgive and forget. He couldn't help a small sigh of relief when Ptolemy, always diplomatic, rose, stretched elaborately, joked about getting too old to hold his wine well and bid his King and his companions good-night. The others stirred and enlivened, seeing an end close in sight, and also began making their apologies as quickly as they could manage without disrespect. Alexander smiled kindly at each of them, the closest he could come to an apology of his own for failing them as a host. His show of warmth evaporated, however, as he saw Hephaestion heading out with the others with only a brief "health to you, Sire…"
"Hephaestion!" Alexander's tone was sharp with surprise and indignation. His friend stopped, turning slowly, his eyes fixed upon the floor. "Hephaestion, come here," Alexander demanded, "and for Zeus' sake look at me when I talk to you!" He was still sounding like a careworn pedagogue, but then Hephaestion was behaving like a schoolboy! Reluctantly his lover's eyes met his, and for a moment Alexander wished they hadn't. Deep, poorly suppressed rage burned in them, and Alexander found his own fury rising willingly to meet their unspoken challenge. Taking a deep breath, he mastered himself and managed an affable smile, silently thanking all the Gods that his Pages had learned enough discretion to keep out of the way when they did not see Hephaestion leave; the last thing either of them needed was another public row. "Come, my friend," he said, keeping his tone soft, "it has been a long and difficult day for both of us… let us forget about it in the way only true friends can…" he glanced playfully towards the inner confines of the tent. "A camp-bed, even one for a King, isn't spacious, but we've always made do before…" He took Hephaestion's hand, ignoring the slight tremble he felt in it, and turned to lead him deeper inside. But Hephaestion did not move.
"I am tired, Sire," he said in a voice that was low and unusually harsh.
Alexander closed his eyes briefly, counting to ten before managing to continue in his flirtatious style, "so am I, my love. But I think I can still find a little energy for you. And stop calling me Sire," he added with just a slight edge, "you've proved your point… General."
For a moment Hephaestion looked ashamed, but when Alexander smiled again and slipped his arms about Hephaestion's waist, his lover did not yield. Alexander did not give up. "Come, Hephaestion, let's not be this way with each other… not here, not now… the Gods know we have so few moments when were are alone together like this…" he leaned in to brush soft kisses over Hephaestion's cheeks and lips, pressing close so that Hephaestion could feel the quick beating of his heart. Gods, how he needed to make love to Hephaestion – he had not felt such desperation since they were boys. But this was different; uncomfortably so. What he needed, he realised uncomfortably, was for Hephaestion to make love to him, to feel all of that passion, that desire, that outpouring of love he now knew he had some time long ago begun taking for granted. Whatever happened, however bad things became or, he admitted wryly, however badly he behaved, he could rely on Hephaestion to reassure him that he was loved, that he would never be alone. A soft moan of distress broke from deep inside him as Hephaestion pulled away. "What!"
"I can't," Hephaestion sighed, "I can't. Not tonight…" he turned away. "May I go now… Alexander?"
Alexander could keep his temper down no longer. "I see," he hissed, grabbing Hephaestion's arm and pulling him around to face him, "yes, I see… I am to be punished! The General will punish his King! Beloved Hephaestion thinks himself above reproach! How dare Alexander speak to him as he might any other soldier, no matter that he draws his sword upon a fellow officer and nearly starts a brawl amongst the troops! No matter that I specifically told him to cease squabbling and he continued regardless!"
"Crateros – " Hephaestion began.
"To Hades with Crateros! I know why you are so angry, Hephaestion – you think that because I call you – call you philalexandros – " he almost choked on the word, not because he suddenly hated it, but because it meant so very much – "you deserve more than any other, be it General, Satrap or King! Well the blade cuts both ways, my friend – don't you think that you should try harder, suffer and endure that much more than any other, simply because you know you have my heart? Because you know how much harder it is for me to reprimand you, to condemn you, to… to take another's part against you?"
"And without you, after all, I would be nothing!"
The two men glared at each other in a long, smouldering silence, both breathing hard, unconsciously mirroring one another with clenched fists and heavy scowls. At that moment Alexander wanted nothing more than to strike Hephaestion across the face, for reawakening this terrible, all consuming rage, for refusing to soothe and reassure him, for throwing back in his face the one sentence which weakened his otherwise unassailable sense of justification. He had been right, more than right to rebuke his friend. If he had only chosen different words, Hephaestion would have no angle of attack. And he would know it. And would have admitted it to himself and given in. And at this moment they would be making comforting, apologetic, grateful love.
I did not mean it…I should not have said it… I was wrong… I made a mistake… He could say that right now and maybe all would be well. But should he? It was what he wanted as a man, a man who wanted only to be reconciled to his beloved, but he was not just a man, he was a King and a General in command of an army unlike any the world had yet seen, should he give in to Hephaestion, let one of his men reproach him, just because he was in love with him? Just because he was… afraid, genuinely afraid, he might lose him? If he gave in this time, what would follow? Would Hephaestion think anything he did was acceptable? Would Alexander never be able to chastise him again?
There had to be another way around this! He almost allowed himself a bitter laugh. Logistics were Hephaestion's art, he could find a way around any problem of supply, manpower, route or crossing; how would he solve the riddle of how to let someone know you were sorry for your choice of words but not for the loss of temper which provoked them, without losing face or setting any dangerous precedents?
Alexander unclenched his fists, relaxed his shoulders, put a weary hand against Hephaestion's cheek. "Hephaestion, we are both tired and have had an… unpleasant day. If you still want to discuss it in the morning, then we will do so, but for tonight, come to bed and forget about it. I need you, my friend," Alexander told him with feeling, "I, Alexander, need you."
The apology, all there might ever be of it, was there, if Hephaestion chose to see it. Apparently he did not. "We will forget about it, if you wish," he answered slowly, "but tonight, I would prefer to be alone."
This was too much, at last. A second attempt at reconciliation thrown back in his face! Just who did this man, this mere boy from Macedon, no better or more noble than any of his fellow generals, think he was? "Hephaestion," Alexander said in a low growl, "if you so disdain to share my bed tonight, do not think you will be welcomed back to it the next time it suits you! Few other men of your age and rank would ever have been blessed with such a privilege as long as you have, perhaps after all you take my favours so for granted now you think you can take or leave them as you will, but you will soon find out that is not so! You may go," he snapped, turning away, then added, quite against his own will, "if that is what you choose!"
Keeping his back resolutely to his lover, he was ashamed, even in the throes of his fury, to find himself hoping to feel Hephaestion's strong arms slip contritely about his waist, to feel his warm mouth against his ear, whispering a wordless apology. But the moments passed and when Alexander reluctantly looked back, he found himself alone.
Resisting the urge to scream out his rage and disappointment, hating Hephaestion as he had never hated anyone before, for ruining everything, for refusing to give him peace, for condemning his King to a miserable, sleepless night alone, Alexander barked, "Bagoas!"
The young Persian eunuch appeared a moment later, looking startled and rather disordered. Evidently, with his usual perception and tact, he had assumed, as the Pages had, that Hephaestion would be staying and he would not be required. Sensing Alexander's mood, instinct evidently took over and he quickly prostrated himself before rising equally fast at Alexander's command. "Prepare me for bed," Alexander said sharply. "Wait – bring me more wine, first."
Bagoas hurried to obey. Alexander studied him as he returned with the wine and began to remove his master's clothes. A beautiful young creature, certainly, but that was not the main reason Alexander had taken him on, not if he was truly honest. Bagoas had many other qualities; he was gracious, sensitive and above all, discreet. He seemed to personify all the elegance and style, the luxury and opulence, the exotic mystery and allure of the East. Sometimes Alexander wondered if it was because rather than in spite of the fact that he had once belonged to Darius that he had first wanted Bagoas and he had a sense that the boy knew it. With him, he could truly imagine himself the King of Kings, at home in the finery and the elaborate customs of the Persian Court, not just a boorish Macedonian, a barbarian invader who used the King's table as a footstool and whose troops could not show enough respect to bow down in his presence. With Bagoas he could explore his attraction to this voluptuous alien world.
It was one of the few things he could never completely do with Hephaestion, even if his beloved was far more sympathetic to Persia than most of his Macedonians. How could he posture as the King of Kings with the boy who had thrown apples at his head, who had twisted his arms behind his back and pushed his face into the dirt; who had dried his tears and overcome a boyish embarrassment to rub soothing balm on to his smarting buttocks after his tutor had beaten him? A youth with whom he had shared his first, clumsy kiss – who had taken his virginity in every sense, who was the only one who could ever have claimed the great King Alexander as his eromenos? A young man who had stood by him at risk of his own life when he had made such a fool of himself over the Carian Princess and held him in his arms as he was convulsed in a tide of fear, grief and guilt over his murdered father?
Damn! Why was he thinking of Hephaestion still? Irritably, Alexander gulped at his wine, beckoning to Bagoas to follow him. Reluctantly he looked in to the boy's exquisite dark eyes, hoping in vain to lose himself within them as he might were they –
Enough! He was not some lovesick adolescent!
Bagoas returned his gaze with a small, gentle smile. Would Alexander ever really understand what went on in that pretty head? It seemed as though it was when they were most intimate that Bagoas gave the least away; for him, for all Persian pleasure-slaves, as for Greek Hetaerae, sex was an art form, and its practitioners artists, with their own sense of pride and seemliness. There was no art in love with Hephaestion; not much seemliness either, only passion, only intense, unquenchable love… they had tried to end the physical side of their love when Alexander had become King, they were now men, not boys, and people had begun to gossip. Hephaestion was always going about with raw knuckles and black eyes from the fights he had gotten into when some badly timed remark had reached his ears; Hephaestion-baiting had almost become a sport among the seasoned officers contemptuous of Alexander's "boy." Alexander had resolved to turn him away for his own good. Of course it had failed – Hephaestion, the more sexually vigorous of the pair, had discovered with some embarrassment that his supposedly insatiable lust could only be provoked by Alexander, and Alexander, though his powerful self discipline allowed him to deal with the physical longings, found himself craving Hephaestion's loving touches and the affirmation of love they conveyed so badly that he became humiliatingly possessive and could barely keep his hands off his friend even when they were not alone. Troy had been the answer, for both them and their critics. The world could sneer – if it dared.
Hephaestion again! Would the man not stay out of his thoughts! Alexander gave a soft moan as Bagoas began to massage his shoulders with skilled and gentle fingers. The boy was a treasure, and not for the first time Alexander found himself hoping Bagoas was happy here with him. Did love give him any real pleasure? He could never ask; he had a sense to do so would destroy the fragile dignity of the eunuch, for what else did he have to cling to? Certainly he had not asked to be cut; in his heart of hearts, had it changed him? Was he really, after all, just another young man like Alexander, with or without the parts which labelled him a man? It was only when their couplings were over, when Alexander felt at his most uninhibited and would never fail to give Bagoas at least one or two warm, loving kisses, that the Persian seemed the most unguarded; he would smile up at Alexander, his smile innocent and bright and shy, and it would seem to the King that after all what he wanted was what everyone else wanted too – to be cared for, to be loved. Alexander never let him sleep the night, could not had he wanted to – too many years of being on the alert for assassins had made it impossible, not to mention dangerous for Bagoas - what if he should be awoken by a sudden, sleepy touch and reach for his dagger…? How could he sleep at all with the body, even the scent, of another, so close by? If Bagoas expected anything different he never said so; should Alexander fall into a doze after love, he would awaken to find the covers tucked about him and the boy gone as if he had been a dream, not even the scent of him lingering… Only Hephaestion had overcome that, as he had so many obstacles thrown in the path of their love – Alexander could even fall asleep with his back to Hephaestion, awaken imprisoned in his arms or breathing in his musky, strongly masculine scent without the slightest panic.
And what did Hephaestion make of Bagoas? Not much, it would seem. He might prowl and snarl like a territorial lion when another Commander tried to undermine his special right to counsel Alexander, overtly conscious of his own supposed shortcomings and the mockery of his rivals; but he regarded his lover's affairs with Bagoas, among others, even his marriage to Roxanne, with a sort of good-natured indulgence. At first Alexander had been just a little upset by this, hoping for just the slightest spark of jealousy, but then he would remember how jealousy of his father's infidelities had tormented his mother and tainted his own childhood and he would feel ashamed of himself. Later he came to understand that this apparently passive acceptance was actually a demonstration of Hephaestion's faith in his unchallenged possession of Alexander's heart. Bagoas, his other temporary infatuations, even his marriage, belonged to Alexander the King. When it came to Alexander his beloved, Hephaestion knew where he belonged. Or so it had seemed, until….
Hephaestion, Hephaestion, Hephaestion! It was too much. Abruptly Alexander drew Bagoas down to the bed, used him roughly, scorning his arts, and sent him away without a good-night kiss. Then he shouted for more wine.
The next few days could not have been more painful had they been planned out in Tartarus. Bagoas and the pages stepped gingerly around Alexander, their eyes quick and wary. The Generals watched him furtively. News of an estrangement between the King and his lover had spread like wildfire. Groups of conversing soldiers fell silent when Alexander passed. No doubt people were watching to see how far the favourite would fall, and what it would mean for the future of Alexander's controversial policies of integration. To his credit, Crateros kept out of it, even ceased goading Hephaestion and not, Alexander sensed, merely from threat of execution. Crateros might not like or respect Hephaestion, but in the last few days it had become quite apparent to all that Alexander needed him in a way he needed no other.
Hephaestion himself seemed to have lost much of his own anger, but it had been replaced by a remote, doleful resignation which was so much more painful to behold. Alexander had told him where he stood – had offered him a choice, and he had made it; now there was no going back. Once or twice Alexander, gripped by anxiety, had been tempted to ask him to remain behind after dinner, but Hephaestion never gave him the chance, making sure he left at the same time as one of the others, knowing that Alexander would not humble himself by calling him back. He did his duty as well as always, but without the spirit to excel and impress that had always made his work exemplary and he avoided being alone with Alexander, even if he had to keep one of his own Pages conspicuously at his side to do so. People gossiped about that too, but Alexander was too depressed to be jealous; he knew Hephaestion too well. What could Alexander say? How could he reproach him? He had told him he would no longer be welcome in his bed – wasn't that all the argument Hephaestion needed to avoid intimacy of any kind? Wasn't he doing what his King wanted?
It was yet another sleepless night which made him act. All day he had been pestered by the thought that he had to do something – force Hephaestion to speak to him, send him away, even just resolve to do nothing, but stick to that resolution and move on – and by nightfall he knew he could not leave it any longer. He was still a King; he could not indulge his grief, his anger or his guilt any longer. And with that decision made, suddenly he could think dispassionately. It was not the reprimand, public or otherwise, which had caused this rift. He had been right to scold Hephaestion, whose conduct had been unacceptable. He was not a favoured boy in the court of Pella any more; he could not go about punching noses and kicking groins whenever someone mocked his work, his abilities or his relationship with Alexander. Hephaestion knew that, Alexander was certain he did. The poison festering in the wound, keeping it from healing, was that damnable choice of words. You are nothing without me.
Well, he could not take it back, even now. But he could still make amends.
Slipping into the main space of the tent, Alexander bent over Bagoas' cot. The boy had been asleep, but with the sensitivity of a cat he sat up as soon as Alexander drew close, ready to be of service. "What… what do you require, my Lord?" he whispered, his usually exceptional Greek slightly halting with drowsiness.
"I am going out, Bagoas," Alexander said softly, gently pushing him back down when he tried to stand, "I don't need anything, I just didn't want you to get a fright if you found me gone. Health to you, my dear." Gently, he kissed Bagoas's brow. "Go back to sleep now." Flinging a cloak about his shoulders, he left the tent, waving the guards outside to silence and slipping away. Perhaps they were watching to see where he went; perhaps it would be the breakfast gossip of the camp. One way or other, he really didn't care.
Hephaestion lay sleeping, a dully flickering lamp illuminating his naked body, the covers kicked away in restless slumber. To Alexander, seeing him as if through new eyes, he seemed a young god, midway between the boyish Apollo and the man-like Zeus. Yet at the same time how vulnerable he seemed, laid bare before his King. Better at this moment for them to be vulnerable together. Alexander shed his own clothes and crouched down beside the camp-bed. He wanted to kiss Hephaestion's lips but he held back, daring only to brush a strand of dark hair from his face. "Hephaestion," he whispered, keeping his features expressionless as the other began to stir, then, "Philalexandros…"
"…Alexander…?" Hephaestion blinked and propped himself up on his elbows.
"Joy to you, beloved," Alexander breathed, trying to keep his tone light, "I know I said you would not be welcome in my bed anymore, but you did not say I would not be welcome in yours…"
"Alexander…" Hephaestion began and then fell into confusion, the barest remnants of anger flashing in his eyes, mixed with undeniable remorse. Alexander sighed, leaning forward to press his lips to Hephaestion's in a brief but tender kiss.
"It would seem that without you I am nothing," the King said with a wry smile, "nothing that matters, anyway."
Hephaestion pulled Alexander roughly down into his arms, crushing him against his chest. "Don't say it," he panted, "don't say that… you mustn't…you mustn't…!" Before Alexander could protest, Hephaestion covered his mouth with his own and kissed him fervently, and suddenly there seemed no more need for words.