A/N: So ch. 5 left off with Alexander on the way to recovery, and here's the final chapter at last. My apologies! Since the last post, among other things I've been on a trip, my computer crashed (annihilating a halfway decent draft of this chapter), and I've started at a new school with a crazy workload.

In this story's author's notes, I did promise 2 other fics. I haven't given up on them; I just need to polish them up, and for that I need more time. (Doesn't everyone!)

Anyway (assuming anyone's still going to read this after 4 months!) Once more: my gratitude to readers, and reviewers – your enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and sheer generosity toward this story have been simply amazing, and I couldn't thank you enough. – – –

Chapter 6: Only the Best

One moment Critodemus was soundly, blissfully asleep; the next he was tumbling out of bed in the dark, jolted awake by the pounding at his door and wondering wildly what hour it was. Thankfully, despite his disorientation he had no trouble grabbing up his surgical instruments as he lurched forth – this sort of situation was exactly why he stowed his kit within easy, certain reach every night, right next to his pillow.

Belatedly he recalled that the kit was ruined – and worse yet, it would be at least another week before a new set could be finished by any of the metalworkers he had spoken with. (Curse the never-ending requests for weapons repair – surely the men did not have to break spears and dent helmets so often during training?) So it was that the old, scratched-up kit was all Critodemus had as he flung the door open to a small group of soldiers.

If he had only been allowed a few more seconds to gather his wits, he would not have opened the door while someone was still pounding on it. As it was, a brawny fist stopped just short of his face.

Critodemus stared as the fist's equally brawny owner lowered those formidable knuckles, blinking back at him in matching surprise. He recognized the man – the patient during the last march who needed nineteen stitches in his right foot – but it was still much too early to remember actual names; and why, when the Tarsus skyline showed that dawn was still a good half-hour away, were all those people outside, running around and shouting at each other?

Sir Nineteen-Stitches cracked a grin – friendly, jovial, and completely at odds with that fist of his which had first greeted Critodemus. "Joy t'you this fine mornin', Sir!" he cried.

Critodemus squinted beyond the flare of the soldiers' torches at the tumult in the streets. "What happened?" he demanded, wondering why his callers looked so damnably cheery when obviously something urgent was going on. "If you're not injured then who is, and how, and where?"

After a long, blank moment, the soldiers burst out laughing. "No, Sir, no one's injured, by the Gods' good graces!" They clamored to explain, voices jumbling in excitement. "You see, well, it's just that – wouldn't you know it! Alexander's up!"

Suddenly Critodemus felt quite absurd standing there, hair tousled, robes askew, clutching worse-than-useless instruments, but he could barely set the kit aside before Sir Nineteen-Stitches clapped a hand on his shoulder and steered him bodily into the street. "Right now the King's talking with the commanders, but he's called for you healers, ev'ry one of you in camp, and he'll want t' speak t'you soon. Come 'long now; there'll be feastin' 'fore the day is done!"

The soldiers cheered anew at the mention of a feast, but Critodemus reacted with far less enthusiasm. He doubted that Alexander's summons was something he and his colleagues would celebrate – in the past weeks, Philip's misfortunes had reminded him all too vividly just what it meant, for anyone who was not a soldier by profession, to live among these men whose very livelihood was war. In fact, Critodemus was seriously considering finding a better prospect, far from this army. With his skills he could easily get steady work, even among the Persians against whom this army fought.

But so much for all that, at least for now. Critodemus soon found himself squeezing into the crowd burgeoning outside Alexander's chambers. Even with his escort's eager aid it was difficult to advance – not because he was trying to make headway through a mass of people; he was used to dealing with that – but because despite the clamor in the streets, once the men arrived they became peculiarly subdued, a far cry from their usual loud, boisterous selves.

Critodemus had no difficulty guessing the source of that strange spell. Light glowed warmly in the spacious royal antechambers and spilled onto the street from the open double-doors; even the inner doors leading to Alexander's chamber were flung wide. Beyond them Critodemus saw that Alexander's bed stood empty; instead, various commanders were gathered around the antechamber's largest worktable – Craterus, Ptolemy, and Leonnatus; Antigonus back from a long mission and Perdiccas back from a shorter one; so many in total that the table itself could not be seen.

Even the tallest in the crowd were craning their necks. Yet despite their sheer numbers they hung back – a low, restless murmur rippled through the ranks, but no more. No more, that is, until Eumenes moved to spread a large map on the table. A gap opened in the ring of commanders. And there, in full view of the masses gathered so anxiously outside, was their King.

Instantly, they hushed. Alexander was pale after so many days sequestered out of the sun, noticeably leaner both from the illness and the measures taken to cure him of it. But for all that, he looked . . . all right. Well, even.

The assembly's tension gave way to tentative relief. Critodemus, however, would have remained skeptical even if he did not know Alexander's nature as a patient – so he kept observing, probing for details as he and his escort threaded their way to the front.

While Alexander held a scroll to read it, his hand trembled a bit, but he handed the scroll to Eumenes steadily enough. Despite the crush of people, Critodemus noticed a certain faint fragrance as he got close to the door, indicating that the king had already returned to his custom of daily bathing. Gone was the unkempt shadow of a beard that had started darkening his jaw. His hair glistened still as it finished drying; as usual, a thorough combing had not quite sufficed to tame every curl. Yet even this just enhanced the overall effect – reclining there among his commanders, Alexander looked uncommonly at ease, almost as if the past miserable fortnight of delirium and fever had never happened.

The surgeon's brows rose. He did not know whether to feel astonished, incredulous, amused – or all three at once.

Wondering just how early the generals had arisen (or were jarred awake, as he was), Critodemus looked toward the commanders again – just in time to see Hephaestion, near the periphery of the group, catch note of his arrival. But apparently Hephaestion also noticed Critodemus' reaction to the King's appearance, for his gaze flitted to Alexander, then back to the surgeon. Critodemus twitched, suddenly yearning more than ever for the feel of a good, solid bone drill in his hands (though it would serve no practical purpose whatsoever here) – but then Hephaestion smiled, his eyes glinting with mirth, even mischief. Critodemus' brows rose even higher as realization dawned.

A bath such as Alexander preferred – plenty of water complete with herbs, oils, and flower-petaled scents – was no trifle to prepare. Never mind managing hot, sloshing water; considering that tremor in his hand, Alexander could never have shaved himself without so much as a nick, yet the job was done, as neat as you please. And perhaps Critodemus should not be surprised, after all, to see Alexander looking so much better, so soon, for it was widely known that the young King liked to appear at his best – but the Royal Pages were scattered in the crowd like everyone else; they had not yet been required to serve Alexander today.

Almost immediately Hephaestion had returned his gaze to the other commanders, serene as if his attention had never wavered, but Critodemus was left feeling like he had just been allowed – just for a moment – to glimpse a small facet of some great, brilliant jest.

As he returned to his examination of the King, this hunch only grew stronger. Alexander did not handle any more scrolls, but no trace of weakness remained about him as the commanders' discussion proceeded. To Critodemus' eye he certainly had not recovered fully, at least not in body, but in spirit he seemed little different from his usual self, his gaze now concentrated on the various speakers, now darting across the papers, searching, comparing, considering. His questions, though few, were sharp and precise, and it was obvious that despite two weeks' deathly illness, he was quite caught up on the essence of the latest reports. Already his fever seemed a thing of the distant past.

The crowd outside was absolutely riveted on these everyday proceedings, on their King, back from the brink of the Styx as if he had endured no more than a rather taxing march. Even some of the commanders were surprised – impressed – and as Critodemus knew well, it took much more than ordinary physical valor to impress such men.

In contrast, Hephaestion's only visible reaction throughout was a small, quietly satisfied smile.

Amusement won out. A grin tugged at Critodemus' mouth – until he spotted Philip nearby, right at the threshold of the room. Alexander's recovery was to his credit, yet he had been relegated to a mere spectator, forced to watch his patient hold a war council, not even a full day after the fever had broken. Seeing Philip's weary frustration, Critodemus remembered anew his own misgivings regarding Alexander, his health, and his army entire.

However, the commanders were facing even bigger troubles. "True, the Aegean navy has disbanded," Ptolemy was saying, "but those mercenaries are joining up with the main Persian army marching from Babylon."

"That would make a total of . . ." Eumenes shuffled through some papers, then looked as if he had swallowed very sour wine. "Five to six hundred thousand under Darius' command."

Leonnatus, looking only somewhat concerned, folded his arms. "Very well. We'll have to crush them in a single battle, that's all."

Others blanched at Leonnatus' offhand talk of "crushing" an army about ten times the size of their own, but Craterus only looked toward the King. "I daresay that's what you wanted in the first place, Alexander?"

Alexander nodded; the crowd behind Critodemus stirred like a creature awakening. Several officers surreptitiously exchanged looks of outright distress over Alexander's head.

Craterus, however, just sucked in a breath. "Well. Let's find a place to hold them off."

"Usual strategy, then," Ptolemy sighed. "Any narrow passes we can use in the mountains ahead?"

"A few, but we'd have to fight for them," answered Perdiccas. "The tribes there are already harassing our scouting parties."

"How about there, by the Orontes River," Antigonus suggested, pointing to the map. "It's the narrowest place on the main road from Babylon to here."

Ptolemy whistled through his teeth. "Whoever goes, he'll have his work cut out for him."

The other commanders muttered their assent. Craterus grimaced, peering closely at the map. "I agree with Ptolemy. But . . ." Slowly Craterus straightened to his full height. "It . . . could work. Perhaps, with the right commander there . . ."

Alexander suddenly chimed in. "You all speak as if we were on the defensive."

The generals stared as if Alexander had suddenly grown wings.

"Well, Alexander," Leonnatus said, uncharacteristically careful with his words, "you're much better than you were yesterday. But – look, we've established a good base here . . ."

"A good base, certainly – for defense. But we are not on the defensive, are we? It is Darius whose lands are about to be conquered." Alexander smiled. "I have never commanded the army merely to defend, and I do not intend to start doing so now."

Critodemus heard the King's words being repeated outside for the benefit of those too far to hear, spreading through the crowd – followed closely by a growing wave of chuckles. The commanders, naturally, were harder to persuade. "Alexander," Craterus sighed heavily. "This is . . . Are you sure it would be – wise, for you to march . . . so soon . . . ?"

Critodemus saw Philip nodding in silent but vigorous agreement.

Alexander paused. "No, I don't mean to march out before I'm fully recovered – ready," he finally said, shooting a glance at Hephaestion who, far from tensing under that pointed glance, seemed both pleased and amused by it. Ignoring the general bemusement of the others, Alexander announced, "However, I do intend this campaign to go on while I recover. We will begin with your suggestion, good Antigonus, to block that pass by the Orontes. As for whom to send . . . Parmenion is nearest that pass, is he not? Send him a missive."

A startled silence followed. Already out on mission, with a lifelong history of successful independent commands, Parmenion was indeed the best choice – if Alexander could trust him. But Alexander had chosen to trust his physician, Philip, whom Parmenion's report had named as a possible traitor. Yet now it would seem he had not lost faith in this oldest and most experienced of his generals, either.

Craterus and several others raised their brows, but any misgivings were quickly concealed as Eumenes started drafting the note. After all, Parmenion's letter had contained a mild warning, no more, and outside the mood was already lifting, for to the ordinary soldiers Parmenion's appointment was just another sign that no matter how serious Alexander's illness had been, things were returning to normal. The campaign was on again – if indeed it had ever stopped.

"Perdiccas," Alexander continued, "you and Hephaestion arrange something about those mountain tribes – if talks can't resolve it within, say, a fortnight, just send in troops; we can't have them hounding our heels as we set off again. Craterus, Antigonus, find out if there's some way we can intercept the mercenaries. And now," Alexander said, turning toward the waiting crowd, "for some lighter business –"

"Pardon me, Sire," Philip broke in, startling even Critodemus with his intensity. The King, the commanders, the men outside – all turned toward Philip, who shifted, clearly uncomfortable with so much attention. Nevertheless, he fixed his gaze on Alexander and spoke. "In these last weeks I have treated you to the best of my abilities. But . . . Alexander, if you insist on campaigning right away, with your fever broken just yesterday, and your body still trying to sort itself out, sooner or later I shall stand accused, by every man here, of incompetence." A resigned grimace crossed his features. "Or worse yet, treachery – again."

Alexander's eyes widened. "Nonsense, Philip!" he admonished. "Haven't I declared that we won't set out until I'm ready? I will rest as long as you want me to, my dear doctor."

Philip stared. Critodemus felt his own jaw drop, and he was quite sure everyone else felt the same – such a concession from Alexander was wholly unprecedented.

"You heard me correctly," Alexander asserted. "I will stay in Tarsus until you say I'm well. It will take . . . two months, I believe you estimated?" Philip started, but Critodemus noticed – as Alexander did – that this time, the physician's surprise was directed toward Hephaestion rather than the King. Hephaestion returned Philip's glance with a small smile.

Alexander grinned. "Still, I have a condition: that we treat this as any endeavor constrained by the demands of a campaign. I know that recovery time depends on the patient's cooperation, so I shall abide by your judgment in all matters of my recovery. But in return, you shall do your best to help me recover fully, in as little time as possible. And if takes less than two months, so much the better."

Philip's shock had given way to wariness. Still, he did not speak.

Alexander sighed, then glanced deeper into the crowd and waved a hand. Critodemus felt his escort nudge him forward as other healers, too, were pushed into the antechamber. There was a shuffle, as the generals fanned out so the healers could pack into the room, and Alexander beckoned Philip forth. "Philip, I know what you've endured for my sake," he murmured, low, with a significant glance toward the assembly outside. "But they are the same men you've treated all these years. And here, today, I will prove the measure of my esteem – and theirs as well – for you and all your colleagues."

Philip finally gave a skeptical nod. Patting his shoulder, Alexander raised his voice to address all the healers.

"Well, gentlemen, between the lot of you, you've dealt me more aches and pains than any foe has ever managed! Still, I realize that I hardly make it easy for you to carry out your work. But I do want you to know, your service is very much appreciated!"

He paused. Picking up a goblet of watered wine on a nearby stand, he took a drink, but after that he did not set it back down immediately. Instead he made a slight forward motion with his other hand.

Now at Alexander's side after the healers had come in, Hephaestion stepped forward smoothly enough, but as he took up the thread of Alexander's words, he seemed somewhat reluctant, like a schoolboy with lessons – reciting well, but reciting nevertheless. "You follow this army, though you can work in safer conditions, and earn steadier pay, elsewhere."

Leonnatus snorted. "Must cost several thousand talents a day for all that fancy face-paint alone in their army!" The crowd welcomed the joke heartily; they all knew about Persian extravagances.

Lightening a little, Hephaestion continued, "However, Alexander wishes you to know – and for the whole army to know – that your services are valued, because with your skills, you've . . ."

His voice trailed off just as his gaze alighted to Critodemus' left and grew hard, even harder than before Leonnatus' jest. Critodemus glanced over – it was Glaucias.

In the confused, awkward pause, Critodemus saw that the King was just as perplexed as anyone – until Hephaestion took up where he left off, animated by a new intensity and definitely no longer reciting.

"With your skills, you've saved the army, life and limb, many times over. Just take Glaucias here, as an example." Hephaestion smiled – a smile Critodemus was quite glad not to receive himself. Abruptly he realized that he was actually worried about Glaucias' fate in this whole business, but he quickly rationalized it; after all, punishment for Glaucias boded ill for every healer, and the cold smile on Hephaestion's face was no encouragement as he continued, "Glaucias is considered an expert on fevers. Coughs often persist after fevers, right? But a soldier's voice is vital; to give orders, to call out warnings – even, simply, to command authority over men who have come to expect spirit, strength, in those who would direct them."

The sea of men outside bobbed in agreement; Critodemus rolled his eyes. He could do without rhetoric, no matter how pretty, but of course the soldiers were eating it up, it fed into their own ideals of themselves so well.

Yet it seemed Hephaestion had another point in mind – and Alexander looked like he knew exactly what it was, for his curious gaze had transformed into a small but delighted grin, which only grew as Hephaestion spoke on.

"So when Glaucias – or any healer – treats a soldier, he has only to say, 'Take such-and-such a tonic, and stay abed for so many days, and you'll get better – even if the medicine makes you cough out half a lung first." Laughter rippled throughout the assembly at this observation; Hephaestion waited calmly for it to subside before closing in on his target. "Any physician has only to give his directions – firmly, as sure of himself as any commander giving soldiers a marching order – and even Alexander, first among soldiers, will heed his advice. So long as that healer knows what he is doing," Hephaestion said with particular emphasis, his gaze pinning Glaucias once more, "and acts like it."

By now, Perdiccas and Leonnatus were smirking, and Ptolemy and Antigonus looked highly amused also; Eumenes had stopped taking notes after just a few words from Hephaestion, while Craterus had reverted to his usual gruff self.

And Alexander was beaming.

Critodemus let out a breath. Glaucias was not a man he was proud to call a colleague, but right now he was just glad that his colleague wasn't being dragged outside for a beating – or worse. Glaucias, apparently, was just as aware of his brush with disaster. Wringing his hands, he sputtered a few indecipherable syllables.

Hephaestion raised a brow. Critodemus saw rather than heard his reply. "Don't thank me," he muttered, displeasure flashing across his features. "Thank Alexander."

For his part, Alexander was still grinning as he set his cup aside. "To all of you, we are thankful for the service you have rendered. By the end of the day you will each receive a bonus, as a gift and a sign of our appreciation."

The healers' thanks – many of them abashed – mingled with the cheers that arose outside. Amid the increasing noise, Alexander declared, "May you all continue your good service for this army, for many years to come."

"To your good service!" Hephaestion echoed, smiling with a brilliance that was both rare – brilliant smiles were Alexander's trademark – and, to Critodemus's mind at least, chillingly sardonic.

Alexander shot him a knowing glance and chuckled. Then he sobered. "Yet, there is one among you who has rendered such excellent service, that I could ask for none better." Holding his hands out to quiet the crowd, he said simply, "Philip."

As Philip hesitated, Critodemus searched Alexander and Hephaestion's expressions, still unable to relax; Glaucias had practically shrunk into a ball, and rightly so. But now Alexander was intent, earnest, and furthermore, there was something qualitatively different – warmer – in Hephaestion's expression.

"Philip of Arcanania," Alexander began, "You have endured much these past weeks, yet served faithfully through it all. But the accusation that caused your troubles was a false alarm, as I believed from the start."

"We receive dozens of such reports every day throughout the army," Hephaestion said solemnly, "and to tell the truth, men have been killed for less." Then, gentler, "Men have also left Alexander's service for less than that which you have suffered."

"You've proven your loyalty to me, many times over," Alexander declared. "Let me now prove my friendship to you. Today will be a day of feasting – to give thanks to the gods, and to ask their continuing favor. And to honor you. Later, at the feast, there will be gifts for you as well, the finest and richest to be given this day. But for now –"

As Alexander spoke, Hephaestion stepped forward. And what he then held out in offering to Philip roused the gathered host to a murmur of unanimous awe: a square of folded cloth, elegant in its simplicity, its weave superb, its color – vivid purple. The cloak of Alexander's Companions.

Philip stared.

Alexander's smile was warm and bright. "For now, please accept this small token of my gratitude."

When Philip still made no answer, Hephaestion grinned encouragingly. "Fear not, Philip, we're not asking you to take up a Companion's arms. It's just the cloak, no spear or shield." His eyes flashed merrily. "Though, Gods know, you can ride."

Philip blinked. He still walked stiffly at times, thanks to that whirlwind ride back to Tarsus and the harrowing weeks that followed, but after all, he had only done his duty – hastening back to his patient and royal patron. But from Hephaestion – the officer under whose direct command he was serving at the time, who had been responsible for bringing him back with all speed possible – this was gratitude; more than duty merited, and certainly more than he had ever expected.

Moved beyond words, Philip looked toward Alexander. "Well?" asked Alexander, "How about it, old friend?" and slowly, as if in a dream, Philip nodded.

"That's the spirit, my dear doctor!" Alexander declared, then turned to his men. "And what about all of you? Didn't I declare today a day of feasting? Let's get on with the festivities, then, and give Philip of Arcanania his due!"

The crowd surged forward with a roar; Hephaestion, laughing, unfurled the cloak with a single shake and swept it smartly over Philip's shoulders. And then Critodemus found himself engulfed in a sea of men, men who clapped his back in friendship, men who vied with each other to lift Philip on their shoulders. Alexander's name sounded like a chant amid the cheers, but soon, Critodemus heard Philip's name as well, and in amazement he watched as the men who had treated Philip as a spy for the last two weeks, now bore him forth into the streets like any battlefield hero.

The commanders gathered into little groups, now occupied not with troop movements but with plans for serious revelry. Shouts of "Philip!" and "Alexander!" jumbled together outside; the cheers echoed and spread, until the whole city rang with celebration.

In the hubbub that followed, Critodemus heard someone calling him. With a start, he realized it was the King. After some effort, he managed to make his way through the press of people.

Dispensing with preliminaries, Alexander said, "You treated me at the beginning of this illness, before Philip could arrive. For that I'm doubling your bonus. But you've had your share of grief from the men as well, and now you're short a surgical kit, are you not?"

Having told no one but Philip and the metalworkers about this matter, Critodemus was quite taken aback. "Soldiers will be soldiers, Sire; I –"

"I hope this will suffice to obtain you a new set?" With that, Alexander dropped a small leather pouch in Critodemus' hands; it fell with a heavy clink, opening just enough to reveal the gleam of gold.

Critodemus started. "It's enough for two or three sets –!"

Alexander shrugged blithely. "Of course, I expect you to get the best smith possible for the job." His smile broadened; following his gaze, Critodemus saw that Perdiccas and Hephaestion were making their way back from across the room. "Did you have any particular smiths in mind?" Alexander asked absently.

Critodemus' face fell as he remembered wrangling with all the metalworkers, to so little effect. "To be honest," he said hesitantly, "I don't know who that would be, and even if I did I doubt I could persuade him to leave off the other work orders . . ."

Alexander looked somewhat surprised, and then, strangely pleased. Hephaestion and Perdiccas had arrived, and Critodemus now saw that they had brought someone with them, a middle-aged, well-muscled man with leathern skin and somewhat bloodshot eyes.

"I was going to have you choose whichever smith you wanted, but . . ." Alexander turned to his friends. "Hephaestion, it seems we were not wrong to think of a recommendation!"

"Excellent." Hephaestion grinned. "Critodemus, this is Cleon of Pella. When Diades needs metal worked fast and strong, and precise, this is the man he goes to."

"My thanks for that kind recommendation, Sir," Cleon spoke up in a gravelly voice, roughened, no doubt, from hours every day in the forge, "but you speak perhaps too highly. I do know a thing or two about surgical sets, and I'll need at least a day, perhaps two, to turn out one of proper quality."

Critodemus was stunned. A week at the least, the other smiths had said. And now here was Diades' smith of choice, able to make a set in a couple of days, practically mandated by the King to craft his new instruments! "That's – that's not a problem, not at all," he replied, his voice faint from astonishment.

"If I could get a look at your old set, just for guidance?" Cleon suggested. "To tailor them to your preferences, of course; we can even make improvements if you have any in mind."

Speechless, Critodemus just nodded.

Alexander looked thoroughly satisfied. "Why so surprised, Critodemus?"

"Well, it wasn't – it wasn't a huge problem," Critodemus stammered. "I mean, for me it was, naturally; the instruments are the tools of my trade – but for you – the King – it's such a small matter –"

"Small matter!" Perdiccas cried in mock horror. "I think not!"

"You could be stitching up any one of us next," Hephaestion observed wryly, "so of course you must have proper instruments!"

"But –" Critodemus stared at the King as a new question arose in his mind. "How did you know –?"

Alexander smiled enigmatically. "There is not much that escapes my attention, Critodemus, whether it pertains to soldiers or support crew." Leaving Critodemus with no more of an answer than that, he moved on. "The men who damaged your old kit, I forgive, because they acted from concern for me. But you were wronged nonetheless, and I hope their actions will not cost us your service."

"I second that," groaned Perdiccas. "Zeus save me from Alexander when he's told to rest up because of an injury! At least Alexander listens to you sometimes." He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. "Alexander only lets the best of the best work on him, you see."

"And that's on a good day." Hephaestion chuckled. "Really, Critodemus, as long ply your trade with us, you'll be saving everyone a lot of headaches, too."

Alexander shot his friends a look of mock exasperation, but did not deny their words. And before Critodemus could muster a reply, Leonnatus burst through the crowd. "Right, only the best of the best for Alexander; anything less is intolerable – so how about we break open those barrels of Sardis wine, delivered just last week?"

Amid the laughter and even more spirited suggestions that followed, Cleon tapped Critodemus' shoulder. "Shall we start off, then?" he shouted over the racket, and Critodemus cracked a grin.

"Of course! Let me get my old set to show you . . ."

And so smith and surgeon set off, talking animatedly over their project while others debated roasts and wine, dances and divine sacrifices.

A score of paces out the door, Critodemus turned for a final glance at the King. If possible, he looked even better for all the uproar. Even now people still clustered around him, eager to offer congratulations on his returning health, and everyone was in high spirits as they poured out the doors and set off speedily, after long days of bleak suspense, to prepare for the sacrifices and the feast.

At that moment, Hephaestion and Leonnatus came out, followed by the Royal Pages. Most of the boys dashed off to enjoy the holiday, while a few of the older ones lingered, clamoring for plum assignments during the feast. But Hephaestion only stayed there briefly, exchanging another jest with Leonnatus as Alexander pressed hands with a final group of soldiers. As these last visitors trickled out of the royal chambers, Leonnatus rallied the pages, then plunged lustily into the crowd, happily shouting for help to unpack Sardis wine and getting a most enthusiastic response.

For a long moment, Hephaestion stood at the threshold. To Critodemus, he seemed an oddly singular figure – a little detached, but by no means isolated, silhouetted there in the ruddy gold light of the rising sun.

With a small smile, he turned away, and headed back inside, where only Alexander yet remained.

So he returned, though no signal that Critodemus could see had passed between them. Critodemus watched him go, noting – as he always did, in observing patients – the movement, the language of the body: the light, long stride, the confident, easy set of the shoulders.

With the general excitement over Alexander's astonishing, sudden recovery, it was only now that the surgeon realized that Hephaestion, too, had undergone an overnight transformation of sorts. Gone the stern, withdrawn commander, seeming all the more grim and unyielding for his youth and striking good looks; here again was the easygoing, good-humored young man who was a competent officer, yes, but also one of the intimate circle of Alexander's closest companions. And the only one who was even more to Alexander than a reliable deputy and a dear friend, if Critodemus' hunch was right.

Laughter rang heartily from Alexander's chambers.

Cleon spoke, rousing Critodemus from his musings. "You're only realizing just now?"

Critodemus blinked.

"I forget; you're not from Pella." Cleon grinned amiably. "If you'd seen them growing up, you'd know. But they do keep marvelous quiet about it. Still," he sighed, "I warrant someday Alexander's going to declare it to the world, somehow – something unbelievably grand. . . . The two of them –"

With a fond chuckle, he left off there, as if no more needed to be said.

Only the best for Alexander, Critodemus mused, then chuckled. Even without Cleon's confirmation, he would have wondered no longer. Indeed, no more needed to be said.

Only the best.

Yes, he would stay. Apollo willing, he would follow Alexander's army, for a good many years to come.

This story takes place in August/September 333 BC. In November of that year, despite commanding a mere fraction of his opponent's troops, Alexander defeated Darius at the Battle of Issus, won the royal treasury and control of the royal family, and put the Great King of Persia on the run.

- end -

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