THE SUBSTITUTE by Moon71
SUMMARY: Alexander's plans to make a noble and selfless gesture to his beloved Hephaestion go badly awry.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own anything. Actually wish I could disclaim the lame attempts at humour, but I'm afraid I am responsible for them…
RATING: T for sex scenes, and for one truly unforgivable song.
DEDICATION: For T-Chan, because you're poetry is so much finer than Hephaestion's – you'll see what I mean.
"Hephaestion, are you even listening to a word I'm saying…?"
"Alexander…! Of course I am…!"
"Then would you mind taking your hand from between my thighs?"
"I'm just keeping it warm… you were saying, about Parmenion…"
"Yes, well… it turns out he's actually made a list of all the eligible women between here and Macedon! Five from Macedon, one from Athens, two from… Hephaestion…"
"Will you stop that, please."
"That… sucking, on my shoulder. It's distracting."
"I can't help it. I love the way your skin tastes after we've made love… sweet and salty at the same time…"
"And please take your hand off my… my… Hephaestion, no! By Zeus, isn't once a night enough for you yet?"
"…is that a joke…?"
"Tion, we've talked about this before. Practising moderation is healthy."
"So is sex!"
"Yes, but in moderation!"
"All right then… let's have moderate sex!"
"Yes… my Achilles?"
"Damn… I love it when you call me that…"
Alexander drew the sleeping Hephaestion closer against his chest, kissing his brow lovingly and running his fingers lazily through his lover's dark hair. He envied Hephaestion's ability to sleep so soundly - Alexander's relationship with Hypnos was strained at best. They really shouldn't have made love a second time; he still had so much he needed to discuss with Hephaestion and there seemed so few times when the two of them could talk alone and undisturbed. Supplies were needed for the winter and it would soon be necessary to send Hephaestion to arrange them - it would have to be Hephaestion; no-one else could understand and locate what was needed, negotiate a good price, handle the diplomacy, organise the transport and be trusted not to line his own pockets all at the same time. As always, the thought of parting with him gave Alexander a sharp pain in his chest, but he ignored it.
No, they shouldn't have made love again - Hephaestion would sleep for a long time now and Alexander himself felt too drowsy and comfortable to think straight. But he knew how much it meant to Hephaestion; even if making love with him hadn't given Alexander ridiculous amounts of pleasure, he secretly thought, shamefully unkingly though it sounded, that he would still invite Hephaestion to his bed just to watch his lover's joy. Even now, with his head resting upon Alexander's breast, Hephaestion looked so contented, so utterly satisfied.
Alexander gave a short, rueful laugh. The gods would have their jokes. Here he was, constantly being offered sex - boys and women, prostitutes, concubines, slave-girls, mistresses, wives - yet he could so easily manage without. Hephaestion, on the other hand, became the subject of malicious gossip and accusations whenever he so much as looked too long at a youth or a woman and was probably the only officer on Alexander's staff who had never had a mistress; yet he really loved sex and unlike Alexander he had no inhibitions. It simply wasn't right.
How could Hephaestion stand their being separated for so long at a time? It was painful enough for Alexander, but with the rigid, almost masochistic self-discipline taught him by Leonidas, the needs and longings which gnawed at him were more emotional. Even when they had been boys in Mieza Alexander had needed so much more from Hephaestion than just pleasure - there, where they had been able to spend every night sharing a bed, there were times when Alexander was simply too restless or troubled to give himself up to desire. For such occasions he had learned to satisfy Hephaestion with stroking or suckling so that in return he would get what Hephaestion alone could give - warm arms, sweet kisses, gentle, perceptive counsel and absolute, almost empathic understanding.
No, it simply wasn't right. He was being selfish. Hephaestion had never complained, but of course Hephaestion never would. It wasn't easy to complain when your lover was both your commander and your king. Something had to be done, and it was up to Alexander to do it. Immensely pleased with this new triumph over his own weakness, he bent his head and kissed Hephaestion's lips.
"Joy to you, Sire!" Hylas entered the tent as Alexander and Hephaestion were sharing breakfast. It was too late in the morning for Hephaestion to slip quietly away, so they might as well be found sitting together when the other officers reported for duty. Alexander simply hadn't the heart to wake his lover; there were so few times they were able to linger in bed while in camp.
"Joy to you, too," Alexander replied cheerfully, accepting the message his youngest page had brought and reading it with a frown. "Parmenion, again," he muttered, holding out the note for Hephaestion to read. When Hephaestion made no move to take it from him, Alexander looked up at his friend.
Hephaestion was staring at Hylas as if spellbound. Hylas was blushing violently under his scrutiny, a shy smile tugging at his lips. "Joy to you, Hephaestion, son of Amyntor…" he said in a soft voice.
"Hephaestion…?" Alexander prompted, kicking him under the table.
"What - ? Oh, yes, joy to you, ah - " Hephaestion glanced helplessly at Alexander.
"Hylas," Alexander put in as the boy's smile wavered.
"Of course… joy to you, Hylas, son of… son of…"
"Nikanor," Alexander concluded for him, frowning heavily. For a man so good at logistics, Hephaestion was terrible with names, and names - and family - meant so much to the soldiers, especially impressionable boys like Hylas, newly arrived from Macedon and frequently stricken with homesickness. "Nikanor son of Telemachus… one of my father's Companions, you'll remember, who fell at Chaeronea. He was a very brave man, my father valued him highly."
Hylas brightened at this. "Thank you, Sire!"
"Tell General Parmenion to report to my tent in an hour," Alexander said with a final glance at the note.
"At once, Sire…" Hylas was almost out of the tent when he glanced back, smiling timidly. "Health to you, Hephaestion…"
Shaking his head as if awakening from a trance, Hephaestion gave the boy one of his most breathtaking smiles. "Health to you, Hylas… son of Nikanor."
Hylas' smile evolved into a grin before he caught Alexander's eye and dashed out.
For the next two days, he simply watched. It wasn't as if Hylas understood the meaning of discretion anyway; his fumbling attempts to talk to Hephaestion, his professed interest in the founding of cities and the acquisition of supplies, the blush on his fair cheeks, the constant nervous tugging at his golden hair and the dreamy look in his blue eyes - all of it would have been obvious to the most self-absorbed man in the army.
Ordinarily Alexander would have just smiled to himself and forgotten about it. Hylas wouldn't be the first youth to fall for his handsome Hephaestion. But there was that little resolution he had made…
"Everything's ready, Alexander," Hephaestion announced as he entered Alexander's tent, looking tired but pleased. "We'll be ready to leave at dawn."
"Excellent, Hephaestion…" Alexander smiled at him, then rose from his desk, dismissing the Pages, noticing how attentively Hephaestion followed them with his eyes. "Looking for someone…?"
"Oh no… I was just wondering about that… what was his name? Hylas?"
"Any particular reason…"
"Nothing really, it doesn't matter…" Hephaestion murmured distractedly.
Alexander took a deep breath. "As a matter of fact I sent him to bed early."
"Oh…?" Hephaestion's interest seemed only polite, but Alexander still watched him closely. "Is he sick?"
"No… but he has a long journey ahead of him." Alexander met Hephaestion's gaze. Why was he making such a production of this? He was the king, the leader of the army, he could assign whoever he liked wherever he liked, he did so all the time! Why should Hephaestion think anything of it? "I'm sending him with you. From now on he's assigned to your staff."
If Alexander had been worried Hephaestion might look just a little too pleased, he was in for a surprise. Hephaestion actually groaned. "Oh, no, Alexander, not another baby to nursemaid! I don't need any new Pages, Admetus, Iason and Nireus are quite enough! It takes so long to get them trained the way I like them - and to stop them sulking because they've always fantasised about being assigned to someone exciting like Cleitus, and that Hylas looks like he was only weaned last week!"
"First of all," Alexander said irritably, "Hylas is thirteen and quite old enough to look after himself. Second, Nireus is too old now and ought to be reassigned. And third, and most important of all, neither the Pages - nor you, my friend - can pick and choose the assignments given in this army!"
Hephaestion lowered his eyes. "Whatever you command, Alexander."
Alexander relaxed. "Come, then. Take a cup of wine with me before I let you go… and I will let you go this time, my love, you'll need your sleep too…" Taking Hephaestion's hand, he led him through the partition to his sleeping quarters.
Now was the time to explain why he was assigning the boy to Hephaestion; he wanted there to be no silly misunderstandings, no unnecessary anxiety or guilt on Hephaestion's part. It was obvious Hephaestion found Hylas attractive; that was all well and good, was just exactly what Alexander had in mind. And Hylas' feelings were transparent. But when he tried to begin the words simply would not come. He busied himself with pouring wine for the two of them, handed a cup to Hephaestion, parted his lips to speak, and then halted again.
Hephaestion looked at him with growing concern. "Alé?" he questioned softly.
"No, I'm all right, Tion, honestly." Alexander took a large gulp of wine, but for once he didn't find it soothing. "You know how I hate to send you away…"
"And you know how I hate to leave you…" Hephaestion smiled. "But it won't be for long."
Laying his cup aside, Alexander nodded and held out his arms. As Hephaestion came into his embrace, Alexander held him with such crushing force that Hephaestion pulled back, studying his face warily. But Alexander merely kissed him, embraced him once more, wished him health and sent him away.
A selfless act, he reminded himself; a triumph over his own weakness. A show of faith and love and gratitude. Gulping down the rest of the wine, he undressed himself without even bothering to call either pages or servants and threw himself down on the bed.
Once again, it seemed as though he was to be last on Hypnos' visiting list.
"This is wonderful," Hephaestion sighed and stretched extravagantly. "This is just wonderful! I feel like a boy again!"
"Oh Hephaestion," Hylas gasped adoringly, throwing his arms about Hephaestion's neck and kissing him, "am I really so much better in bed than the King…?"
"The King? Oh, Hylas, darling, relax, call him Alexander! And of course you're better than him," Hephaestion assured him, running his hand appreciatively over the boy's naked thigh, "Alexander might be a great conqueror but he's completely hopeless in when it comes to sex – he has absolutely no imagination and he always wants to waste time talking or cuddling instead of getting down to it! Does he really think I want to listen to him whining about how his father never loved him or how his old witch of a mother is fighting with General Antipater and how Parmenion keeps pestering him to marry – sometimes I feel giving him a slap and saying "in the name of Zeus, Alé, just grab some whore and get a baby on her and then the old goat will leave you in peace!" Besides, he's not as young as he was; he used to be beautiful, of course, young and sweet and lithe just like you… but now – well – he's getting old and he's covered in scars and… between you and me… he's getting a bit fat! No, no, youth and beauty, that's what I need! See, I've even composed a song for you! Would you like to hear it?"
"A song! Oh yes, please!"
Hephaestion cleared his throat. "O my precious Hylas, more beautiful than the day… as clear skies are finer than cloudy ones, blue is so much finer than grey..."
"Oh Hephaestion, how wonderfully witty you are!" Hylas cried adoringly.
"Yes, I am, aren't I? A pity Alexander never notices – and nor does anyone else while I'm stuck in his great fat shadow!"
"And you sing so wonderfully – as well as Orpheus or Achilles, I'm sure, and not at all like a girl!" Hylas kissed him again. "Hephaestion…"
"Call me Tion. If it's good enough for Alexander, it's good enough for you!"
"Tion then," Hylas smiled coyly, "let's make love again!"
Hephaestion's eyes widened. "Again…? But we've already done it five times tonight!"
"Oh, I know," Hylas sighed, "but I'm so young and hot and fresh and insatiable – I can never get enough!"
"That's true," Hephaestion nodded, "come on, then…"
"Hephaestion!" Admetus burst in. "Hephaestion, Alexander sends for you!"
Hephaestion groaned. "Oh gods, what a bore… tell him I've got a fever! No, no, don't – he'll only want to come and nurse me! Maybe if I pick something really disgusting…"
"Dysentery!" Admetus cried.
"Lice!" Hylas put in.
"Actually, Hephaestion," Admetus added awkwardly, "as you've started having sex with Hylas, I think I should tell you that I'm in love with you too!"
Hephaestion laughed delightedly. "You never said so before!"
"Well, no, but that was when we thought you only had eyes for Alexander!"
"Oh yes, half the army's in love with you…! Even General Crateros!"
"Well I'll be damned!" Hephaestion shook his head sadly as Admetus shed his clothes and climbed into bed with them, leaning across Hephaestion to accept Hylas' welcoming kiss, "all this time wasted! I've now got so many people to have sex with I don't know when I'll ever get to Alexander again…!"
"Hephaestion!" Alexander sat up with a cry, trembling violently, his skin drenched in perspiration. With a deep groan, he buried his head in his hands. "Morpheus you bastard!" A dream, only a dream. An utterly absurd one, too. Really, he should be laughing about it. Hephaestion would certainly laugh if Alexander told him about it.
But Alexander did not feel like laughing. Swallowing hard, he put an unsteady hand to his throat. Old and long banished demons seemed to have returned to tighten their fingers around it. All at once he was not the king of a great army but a young boy plagued by insecurities – a young boy in love, desperate for constant reassurance, besieged by irrational jealousy, aching with desires he did not know how to accept, let alone control.
Control… he had to gain control. Alexander lay back on his sweat-dampened sheets and closed his eyes, but when he did all he found himself thinking of was Hephaestion and how warm and welcoming his body was; the strength, the feel, the scent of it; the tightness and heat when he allowed Alexander inside of him. Certainly he let Alexander take him, but he was no submissive eromenos – that look he would give Alexander even as he let him claim his body, half playful, half predatory, so that Alexander hardly knew who was claiming who… even now, the thought of it drove Alexander mad. But the thought of Hephaestion bestowing that look upon someone else…
"Halt! Identify yourself!"
Hephaestion snapped awake.
"Oh – j-joy to you, Sire!"
That was Nireus' voice.
"Oh shut up and go back to sleep!"
And that was Alexander's.
Hephaestion struggled up as Alexander appeared through the partition and stood before him. "Alexander…?" Hephaestion mumbled, rubbing his eyes and fumbling to light the lamp, "Alexander, what are you…" he trailed off, squinting at his lover through the dim glow. "Alé, you look awful…" he held out his arms and Alexander came to him.
"I couldn't sleep…" Alexander murmured as if from the depths of a dream, resting his head against Hephaestion's broad shoulder.
"But why did you come here?"
"Have I disturbed you…?"
"What…? No, no, I mean why didn't you send a servant to fetch me?"
"I wasn't sure you'd come…"
"Nothing… it doesn't matter…" There was a long silence, during which the only movement was that of Hephaestion's hand slowly stroking Alexander's hair. "Tion…?"
"Can I make love to you…?"
At that Hephaestion drew back so that he could look into Alexander's clouded grey eyes. "Why are you even asking…?"
Alexander's tone remained remote, his gaze unfocused. It had been years since Hephaestion had seen him like this but all at once it seemed like yesterday; usually it was in the aftermath of some jealous tantrum, when the passionate young prince had been driven either by the malicious gossip of others or by demons of his own to doubt Hephaestion's love. "I haven't asked… I haven't even thought about in years. I just thought it was time that I did. You don't have to accept me, you know."
"Accept my advances, I mean. If you don't want to. If you're tired of me. If you'd rather have someone else…"
Hephaestion sighed, "Alé…"
Another long pause. "Yes…?"
"Will you stop talking crap and just take me?"
"Oh gods… oh gods, Tion… I love you… you're beautiful… I love you…" Alexander moaned out the words like a prayer as he slid himself into Hephaestion's body, not thrusting hard, taking his time, savouring every moment, not wanting it to end, not wanting reason or reality to return. Yet even as desire consumed his body a part of his mind remained detached, reminding him again and again of what he had promised to do for Hephaestion. Each time the reminder came he clasped Hephaestion tighter, kissed him harder, pushed in deeper.
Hephaestion threw back his head and laughed – he always laughed with such joy when they made love, whoever took, whoever received. And Alexander treasured that laughter, memorised it, coveted it. Why couldn't he be like Hephaestion – ready to love no matter what, ready to accept that there might be others? Was it really just because Hephaestion had resigned himself to loving a king? Or was it because Hephaestion had some strength, some understanding that Alexander simply didn't possess, in spite of all his harsh training and exacting self discipline?
Alexander kissed Hephaestion's lips hungrily, gripping his hair with one hand, the other tightening around his lover's manhood. When Hephaestion climaxed it would be into Alexander's fist; when he cried out it would be into Alexander's mouth. Nothing that was Hephaestion would escape Alexander tonight. Nothing.
"Hephaestion…!" Alexander nearly screamed as his body began to shake.
"What is it, Alexander?" Hephaestion spoke quietly, but there was no compromise in his tone. "Don't you think you should tell me, now?"
Grey light was filtering into the tent; it was well past time Alexander returned to his own bed, but he did not move. He had to concentrate. He had made a resolution and he had to see it through. It was not enough to simply give Hylas to Hephaestion; he had to let his beloved know the freedom he was granting him.
"I know things are said to you, Tion," he said at last, propping himself up on an elbow to look down at the other man, "I know what's said when people think I won't hear. It's not fair on you. Other men have boys, they have wives or mistresses, at the very least they visit the prostitutes… it's not fair for me to keep hold of you the way I do…"
Hephaestion frowned. "Alexander, what in the name of Zeus are you talking about? Who told you I wanted a woman?"
"No-one, no-one, it's just… I wanted you to know that you can, if you want to…"
"Alexander…" A faint smile twitched on Hephaestion's lips. "This isn't about Parmenion again is it? About him pestering you to marry? My friend, I've told you, I think he's right! I don't like the way he pesters you, but it really is time you produced an heir…"
"It isn't about Parmenion!" Alexander snapped impatiently, "you're not listening to me, Tion! It's you I'm talking about! Listen to me… I know I'm not a very imaginative lover, I know I don't give you everything you need…"
"Have I ever complained?" Hephaestion demanded, growing indignant. "Has someone been saying something to you? Who is it? Tell me and by the gods I'll have Nireus and Iason break his fingers one by one – no, I'll do it myself, whoever it is! Damnation, I'm sick and tired of people trying to drive a wedge between – "
"Hephaestion, will you shut up and listen?" Frustration rose sharply in Alexander. "I'm telling you it's all right for you to take another lover! It won't change anything between us! Do you understand?"
"But I haven't got another lover – "
"I know! I'm telling you that if you did, if you wanted one…"
"When did I say I wanted one?" Hephaestion glared at Alexander, then turned away. "If you're trying to tell me you don't want me anymore…"
Alexander groaned. "No…! Godsthis is all going wrong…!"
"Just tell me, Alexander, and I'll step aside!"
"I don't want you to step aside!" Alexander shouted loud enough to wake the pages sleeping just beyond the partition. "Hephaestion, listen to me…"
"Just a moment…" the hurt look faded from Hephaestion's face and he suddenly grinned broadly. "I know what this is about! You've got another crush on someone, haven't you? This is poor little Hector all over again! Hades protect his shade; remember the love-verses he used to write you?"
"He used to write them to you as well, and nothing came of it for either of us as you well know and besides, I haven't got a crush on anyone!"
"It's that Hylas, isn't it!" To Alexander's fury, Hephaestion began chuckling softly.
"That's why you assigned him to me – so you couldn't be tempted!"
"No, you stupid idiot!" Alexander cried furiously, "I did it for you!"
"Me?" Hephaestion mercifully stopped laughing, staring stupidly at his lover. "What do I want with him?"
Alexander took a deep breath and counted to ten before he replied. "Hephaestion, I saw the way you were looking at him. You obviously find him attractive. And it doesn't matter to me," he added, forcing through his own resolution, "you shouldn't be denied pleasures like that just because… because you're my beloved."
Hephaestion gazed doubtfully at him. "Just what makes you think I'm denying myself?"
"You must be!" Alexander cried helplessly, "Tion, I know how much you love… well… how much you enjoy sex…"
"Of course I do." Alexander was infuriated to find his cheeks growing warm and was grateful for the protection of the shadows. "I really do, Hephaestion. Though I don't know if I ever would have done if you hadn't been my lover…" He sighed as Hephaestion reached out and caressed his cheek, but refused to be distracted. "But you know how difficult it can be for us to find time alone together, and when we do sometimes I need other things from you beside sex… sometimes I just need to talk… and I'm sure it's frustrating for you… it is for me too, Tion, no matter how it must sometimes seem to you… but I've been trained to go without pleasures and comforts… and then I have to keep sending you away…" He let his fingers stray up the muscular curves of Hephaestion's arm. "Hylas is a nice boy, he's sweet natured and handsome and I have a feeling he'd be only too happy to please you… I just thought… while you're away… to make it easier…"
"Alexander…" Hephaestion shook his head, shifting awkwardly.
"It's all right, Tion. Really it is… I won't say I'm completely comfortable with it, you'd never believe me if I did, but…"
"Alexander," Hephaestion repeated, finally raising his eyes to meet his friend's, "this might come as a shock to you, but I don't happen to want to sleep with Hylas. I don't particularly want to sleep with anyone but you. It's true I love sex – but with you. For me, love and sex have always been bound together… surely you've known that since we were boys? Could you ever have seen me settling for some Socratic lovemaking of the souls? Besides, if I wanted to take a lover I would take one – and I'd tell you so to your face."
Alexander stared at him. "But if you don't want Hylas, why were you staring at him like that?"
"What…? Oh, that!" Hephaestion laughed out loud. "Haven't you noticed? Alé, the boy's your walking reflection! How can I help staring when he reminds me of my first love, just at the age when he became my love? But that's all it is… a reflection. He's not you, my love – he could never be you!"
Alexander was almost ashamed of the relief he felt. For a moment he laughed along with Hephaestion, but then a horrible thought sobered him. "He really does look like me… Hephaestion, you don't think… oh no, not another one! I can't remember what his mother's called, but my father…"
"Calm yourself, Alexander," Hephaestion said firmly, "you might have an excellent memory for names, but I'm good with faces! And I remember Nikanor son of Telemachus – it just took a while to put the name and face together. He was very big, very blonde, and very blue-eyed. The boy's his son, no doubt about it." With a heavy sigh, he disentangled his legs from Alexander's, sat up and stretched. "The dawn has no mercy," he observed, a scowl distorting his handsome face, "she appears no matter how hard I pray to her to let the night linger…"
As he began to pull himself up, Alexander caught at his arm with sudden desperation. "I only wanted to give you a gift, Hephaestion," he whispered urgently, "something… someone to compensate you for all you have to put up with… and do without…"
Hephaestion gazed at him expressionlessly for what seemed to Alexander a very long time. Then he smiled gently, leaning close to kiss Alexander's lips. "I know, my love. But surely you must know there's no substitute for you, here in my bed, or anywhere else."
Unable to help himself, Alexander wrapped his arms about Hephaestion's middle, pressing his face close against his breast. "I should go before they come to get you ready," he murmured, but he did not move.
"You know my lads, Alexander," Hephaestion soothed, "when it comes to you and me they're blind, deaf and dumb. Which is why," he added, gently pulling away, "I don't need the trouble of breaking in a new one…"
"You're keeping him, Tion," Alexander replied, resuming the authority of a king in a flash, getting to his feet and giving his friend a warning look. "I'm sorry, but once I give an order I won't be seen to take it back. Of all we know Hylas has already told half the army I've assigned him to you and the last thing you need is more gossip and rumours of friction between us. Besides," he added in a milder tone, "the boy is obviously very taken with you…"
"Oh, Alexander, no…!"
"…And if I change my orders it will seem to Hylas that you've deliberately rejected him…"
"Alexander," Hephaestion sighed, "for such ruthless general you really are a soft hearted old fool!"
"A cup of wine – when I'm alone I always drink it mixed with water, half and half," Hephaestion ordered as Hylas removed the last of his armour. "Is the water ready?"
"Oh, yes, Hephaestion," Hylas answered eagerly, trying not to stare at Hephaestion's superb physique as his commander shed his chiton and handed it to Hylas, "would you like me to help you bathe?"
"No, no, my body-servant can take care of that, just get the wine."
Slightly disappointed, Hylas hurried to pour it, measuring the amounts with care, humiliated to find his hands unsteady as he passed the cup to Hephaestion. How wonderfully handsome the King's best friend was! And how different from all the other Companions! Hylas was certain Hephaestion was different – intelligent, sensitive, good at other things besides soldiering. No wonder Alexander kept him so close; Hylas couldn't understand how Alexander could bear to send him away at all, but it must be because Hephaestion was special, that he could be relied upon.
If only Hephaestion would come to rely on Hylas like that – to trust him with his secrets the way Alexander trusted Hephaestion! The others had told him about how Alexander let Hephaestion read his private letters, how he had acknowledged him before the Persian Royal Family as "Alexander too" and let him pick the new king of Sidon. He never tired of hearing the eldest boys telling the story of the tribute to Achilles and Patroklos at Troy. There was nothing Hylas didn't know about Hephaestion. Even the gossip about the exact nature of his relationship with Alexander.
That they had been childhood lovers was often said; that they remained lovers was widely hinted, though never openly acknowledged. The older pages had taught Hylas to keep out of the way when Hephaestion was alone with Alexander and that was all he knew for certain. Sometimes he watched them when they were together more publicly and fancied he saw loving glances pass between them; told himself he could read signs of continuing devotion in the wordless language of their bodies. Occasionally, though it embarrassed him, he imagined the two of them intimately together, kissing and touching and admiring one another's beauty, Achilles and Patroklos reborn and reunited.
Hylas felt no jealousy; how could one be jealous of the great Alexander? Who else but Alexander deserved Hephaestion? Hylas was not even sure what he himself wanted from his idol. Boys his age were already being courted by potential lovers; even he had received advances from young soldiers telling him he looked just like the king. He knew what they wanted. What he didn't know was what he wanted – least of all what he wanted from Hephaestion. Except that he wanted to be close to him.
"Hephaestion, can I say… I'm so very pleased to be assigned to you, sir, I've heard all about your diplomatic missions and the bridges and everything and I'm really looking forward to this mission, I know I'll learn so much from you and I promise I'll do my very best to – "
"Yes, yes, that's enough, thank you, Hylas. I'm too tired to listen to witless flattery, tonight of all nights, and flattery won't help you if you fail in your duties," Hephaestion snapped irritably, thrusting the empty cup back into Hylas' hand, "fill that up again, will you? Then change watch with Admetus and get to bed. And I mean bed, no staying up playing dice and gossiping!"
"Y-yes, sir," mumbled Hylas, his cheeks burning as he hastily refilled the cup and passed it back to his commander. "Health to you, sir," he added miserably. Hephaestion grunted a reply and Hylas shuffled out.
Once out of sight, he wiped roughly at his eyes and took a deep breath but was unable to keep the tears brimming over. Before he could recover himself, Admetus appeared. The other boy was certainly no beauty with his thin, foxy face, lanky figure and perpetually messy red hair, but he had a quick, vital way of moving and his green eyes glimmered with both intelligence and irony. "You're relieved, Hylas, I'll take over. Get to… what's the matter…?"
"Nothing," Hylas sniffed, glancing reluctantly towards him. Back with the main army Hylas had been slightly intimidated by Hephaestion's personal staff – they stayed together in their own clique, exchanging their private smiles and keeping their own counsel, immune to the teasing and the gossip of those on the outside. He had feared, admired, envied and resented them all at once. But now he was on the inside. And he fancied he saw an acknowledgement of that in Admetus' gaze – it wasn't sympathetic, not yet. But at least now it seemed personal, as if Admetus had finally noticed Hylas was alive. "Hephaestion's angry with me, that's all…"
"Well that's nothing to start snivelling over, is it?" Admetus snorted, "surely you've been scolded before? And beaten too, knowing the King's temper!" He eyed Hylas shrewdly. "Is that what it is? Got a thing for Alexander, have you? Or were you hoping to get assigned to someone more heroic, like Cleitus or Seleucus? The pretty ones always want that," he noted without rancour.
"It's nothing like that!" Hylas protested, "it's far worse!" Why did he want to confide in this strange, bluntly spoken boy? The king's pages were far friendlier, far more attractive; yet he had never quite trusted any of them. "If I tell you, you have to promise not to tell!"
"I swear by Athene," Admetus replied casually.
"No – swear by mighty Zeus himself!"
"I swear by Zeus, then."
Hylas swallowed hard. "I'm in love with Hephaestion!" he blurted out, and promptly burst into tears.
"Oh…" Admetus actually chuckled. "Is that all?" Far from being scandalised, the elder boy seemed to relax at this news; he even threw an arm loosely about Hylas' trembling shoulders. "We're all a little in love with Hephaestion, though the rest of us put up more of a fight than you did. Most of us start off resenting him because of all the camp gossip – you know, about him only having his rank because Alexander loves him – but it doesn't take long to figure out the real truth…"
"But – but he hates me!" Hylas gulped, leaning miserably against Admetus' shoulder.
"Don't be stupid. He's always in a bad mood for a few days when he has to leave Alexander; you'll get used to his ways soon enough…" He released Hylas with a small, purposeful sigh. "Come on, you need to get some sleep and I need to get on watch, or soon we'll both be crying from the beating we'll get! Health to you, Hylas," he added with a wry smile, "and… welcome to Hephaestion's staff!"
The first night away from Alexander was always the longest. It wasn't so much that he couldn't sleep as that he didn't want to. On the first night, strange anxieties always plagued him when he closed his eyes; worries about Alexander's safety and about his health - mental as well as physical - when Hephaestion was not there to care for him. And perhaps just a few sneaking worries about what was being whispered in Alexander's ear when Hephaestion was away…
He never doubted the quality of Alexander's love; sometimes he even felt a little guilty over the hold he had over his king, though more often he took a silent pride in it. There was no-one Alexander loved more than him - no-one. All the same, it could be deeply unsettling to receive carefully worded letters from Alexander, suggesting that things were being said, that Alexander's insecurities were being scratched at by the claws of jealous rivals, and to know that he couldn't simply mount his horse and ride straight back to set Alexander's mind at ease.
Poor Alexander! He hadn't exactly lied to him; it was quite true he had no fancy for boys like Hylas, perhaps because his own father had always treated such boys as children, not objects of desire. He had never once seen Amyntor look at Alexander or any of Hephaestion's other young friends with anything but that mixture of paternal affection and quiet calculation - no doubt rating their fondness, usefulness and potential nuisance value for his son. Rather the way Hephaestion himself now watched everyone who came within feet of Alexander, he mused idly as he lay down at last.
But to say he desired sex with no-one but Alexander… it was a measure of Alexander's continuing sexual naivete that he accepted that unquestioningly. Part of the problem was simply that the ones Hephaestion might fancy were strong, fully grown young men, confident, independent and hardened to war - rather like himself. Sometimes he was tempted by pure lust; a quick, rough coupling, no kissing or coaxing or tender words. But it simply wasn't worth the trouble it would bring - the risk of the young men in question thinking their status had changed, hoping for patronage or for deeper intimacy; the gossip and the jealousy that would naturally follow. And of course there was Alexander himself, never totally reconciled to his own sexual needs or abilities, still haunted by the shade of his vigorously sensual father - could he really appreciate Hephaestion's urge to indulge in utterly mindless sexual gratification once in a while? Could he accept that that was all it was and not begin to wonder if Hephaestion loved or desired him just a little less? The simple thought of the logistics involved in beginning such an operation made Hephaestion shudder. He closed his eyes and irritably ordered himself to go to sleep.
Without quite knowing whether he had ever made the transition from waking to sleeping, he was suddenly aware there was someone standing beside his bed. In one quick motion he was sitting up, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The shadowy figure drew back into a shaft of moonlight which illuminated pale hair and equally pale skin. For a bewildering second he actually thought it was Alexander. Then he gave a heavy sigh. "Hylas…"
"F-forgive me, sir, I – I just came to check that – that you were safe…"
"You're supposed to be asleep," Hephaestion muttered, rubbing his eyes.
"I – I know, sir, but I – I'm sorry if I've displeased you," Hylas cried suddenly, "really, I didn't mean to, I want so much to prove to you that I'm worthy of…"
Hephaestion shook his head. "It's all right, Hylas. Now get to bed."
"Yes, sir…" But Hylas still lingered, fidgeting awkwardly. "I've never been this far away from the main army before," he added at last, "it… feels a bit scary… I suppose I'll get used to it…"
"Hylas…" Hephaestion frowned heavily at the boy through the shadows.
"It's very cold out here too," the boy continued in a yearning whisper, drawing so close to Hephaestion that he could see the glimmer of his blue eyes, "do you think I'll get used to the cold? And those wolves, howling out there… they seem so close by…"
"Hylas, for the last time you're wasting both my time and yours! There'll only ever been room for one golden-haired boy in my bed!"
Hylas gasped. Hephaestion gave a soft groan. Surely the boy couldn't be so innocent he hadn't at least suspected that Hephaestion was his king's lover? No, it was the word "boy" that had really done it. "I've shocked you," Hephaestion grunted. "Actually I've shocked myself… I'm usually a lot more discreet, but I'm not usually woken like this in the night! But after all, if you're going to serve me you'll have to get used to hearing and seeing things which you'll need to keep silent about." He reached out and placed his hands on Hylas' shoulders. "I'll be depending on your loyalty and your discretion, Hylas… not just for my sake, but for Alexander's too."
"I swear it by all the gods of Olympus, Hephaestion!"
"Good. Now get yourself to bed." Suddenly intensely tired, Hephaestion lay back down and was adjusting the furs around himself when he realised Hylas was still there, blinking at him with lonely, anxious eyes. He took a deep breath and thought once again of his own father, of the constant humour in his dark eyes, of the endless patience he had practised with his own Pages and of how they had worshipped him so ardently Hephaestion had wanted to box their ears and remind them who Amyntor really belonged to… "Oh gods… all right, then. Get in." He drew back the covers. "The gods know you might help to keep me warm…"
Tentatively Hylas slipped into Hephaestion's bed and lay very still, watching him expectantly. When Hephaestion touched his shoulder he found that the boy was trembling. "It's all right, child," he said wearily, "I just want you to go to sleep."
He heard a small sigh, though whether of disappointment or relief he didn't know. All at once Hylas moved, curling up catlike into the curve of Hephaestion's body and burying his face in his shoulder.
Now it was Hephaestion who kept still. Briefly the heat and slenderness of Hylas' young body evoked memories of old desire, but the feeling quickly faded. The last time he had shared his bed with a boy he had been a boy himself. And the boy he had shared it with had been very, very special. Hephaestion sighed. He was still a young man. Far too young to waste time trying to recapture his lost youth by taking meaningless tumbles with babies like Hylas.
Soon enough Hylas' breathing became gentle and regular. Hephaestion ran absent fingers through his silky curls and noted with irony how similar they felt to Alexander's. Well, his lover had certainly succeeded in giving him a substitute for himself after all – another sensitive, impressionable, needy soul to worry about and protect. Thank you, Alexander… he thought sourly as he closed his aching eyes, thank you very, very much…