SUMMARY: On a cold winter night, Hephaestion considers the best way to respond to his first love-letter…

RATING: K+ (basically harmless)

DISCLAIMER: I take no responsibility for the quality of the letter Hephaestion receives.

DEDICATION: Well I feel a bit like dedicating it to myself, really, for finally uploading the bulk of my stories onto my LJ and nearly driving myself nuts in the process, but instead I will dedicate it to Joyeee for saving the day and stopping me deleting the whole thing, and to Euiripides for such kind words and for returning to us with another delightful chapter. We've missed you!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well yes, I have finally launched my Live Journal. I am too dim to supply a proper link so just search for it under "Moon71". Most of the stories are old but there is at least one new one I haven't (and probably won't) post here – not sure yet, I'll see what others think. And hopefully I can eventually add all the booklists and sources and so on, Alexander and otherwise. All are welcome to peruse it! At least for now!

Abstinence… self-denial… hardship… of course it was important to practice such things – essential, in truth, when one wanted to become a great warrior. But one shouldn't take these things to extremes. Small pleasures were just as important to the soldier's life – even Alexander admitted that. Not huge, extravagant luxuries like, say, a gold-plated cuirass, or a jewel-encrusted chariot, or a stable with one-thousand thoroughbred horses or a magnificent palace with painted walls filled with beautiful women who could sing and dance and play and tell stories and recite poetry as well as knowing how to make love in a hundred different ways, or all the other fantastic things Hephaestion imagined were standard fare in Persia. Those would be nice, but were hardly essential. No, what were important were small pleasures, such as he was experiencing now.

Here he was, sitting in his bed, wrapped up in furs and warm as a roasted chestnut despite the cold winter winds outside, with nothing more luxurious than a cup of watered wine mixed with honey, a stylus, a piece of paper and a pot of ink, and he didn't think he had ever been happier. Everything was perfect – just the right conditions for writing a love-letter.

Dearest Erytos, son of Menetes.

Thank you very much for your letter, and for the love-verses you wrote for me. Not only are you a very talented poet, but you also must be an even more skilful Cavalryman than I realised. I had no idea it was possible to do it that way, let alone on horseback. It sounds quite thrilling… what an exciting life you men of the Companion Cavalry enjoy! Thank you also for your invitation to come to visit you at the barracks of an evening. I…

Hephaestion paused and put the stylus aside, unsure of how to continue. He didn't want to sound as though he would willingly fall into the arms of the first man to court him – for that matter, he didn't want Erytos to think that he was the first, because technically he wasn't. But then again, he couldn't just come out and tell Erytos all about Alexander. First of all, it might scare him off. Alexander wouldn't make a fuss, Hephaestion was sure he wouldn't, but Erytos might think he was stealing Hephaestion from the prince, or that Hephaestion was only pretending to like him to make Alexander jealous. But there was another reason too…

He and Alexander had been good friends for years, the best of friends in fact. When they had come to Mieza nobody had been surprised when Alexander chose to share his room with Hephaestion, even though as the prince he had been offered the chance to have a room to himself. By then they had already begun to awaken to the ways of Eros, and it seemed quite natural to them to explore these new feelings together. They had been doing things together at night for over a month now, and it was really the most excellent fun. Alexander was still a bit shy about trying new things and kept insisting they really shouldn't do things every night, only once in a while when they couldn't help themselves, but Hephaestion could usually draw him out and never paid much attention afterwards when Alexander heaved those mournful sighs and complained that the body should be mastered by the intellect and not vice versa. As far as Hephaestion was concerned it was all for the good, as healthy and virtuous as the other manly sports they pursued such as hunting, riding or wrestling.

The problem was that nobody else knew that they were doing it. A few of the boys might suspect by now, but no-one knew for sure. Alexander was so circumspect, even in front of their closest friends, even around older youths like Harpalos and Ptolemy who had known Alexander all his life and surely wouldn't sneer or disapprove or gossip behind his back. At times Hephaestion actually found his insistence on concealment a little hurtful – Alexander wouldn't even hold his hand anymore, or walk arm in arm, and certainly wouldn't embrace or kiss Hephaestion publicly unless he was doing what Hephaestion privately called his "prince routine" and paying Hephaestion some special honour, just as he would with any other boy. They had never actually discussed it, but Hephaestion could guess the reason and thought it was all rather silly. Surely Alexander didn't want everyone thinking he was still a complete virgin? Hephaestion certainly didn't! He was proud of the fact that he and Alexander were doing things. But if he started bragging about it before Alexander did, it might seem as though it was being with Alexander he was bragging about, that he was showing off the fact that he had been chosen by the Prince.

Hephaestion sighed and looked down at the letter. Perhaps the simplest thing would be just to say nothing. It really wasn't Erytos' business if Hephaestion was doing things with someone else, at least not unless Hephaestion agreed to become Erytos' exclusive beloved, which at the moment he had no intention of doing. Apart from the fact he did not want to give up doing things with Alexander, Erytos was not the only handsome young man in Macedon – he wasn't even the only handsome young man in the Companion Cavalry. It wouldn't do for Hephaestion to give up his favours too easily…

He had first seen Erytos when he and Alexander had gone to watch the Cavalry performing their drill – an awesome sight; all that shining armour, all those fine, well trained horses, such concentration and discipline mixed with a sort of easy complacence in the manner of men and mounts alike, as if both knew they were utterly splendid and worthy of the admiration of all who watched them. Alexander had done his "prince routine" quite perfectly – he seemed to know the name of every cavalryman and every horse, and had intelligent observations to make and flattering things to say; he was just a little regal, just a little shy, just a little flirtatious, just a little bit more knowledgeable than another son of the Macedonian nobility was be expected to be. And of course the Cavalry loved him.

So, at that moment, did Hephaestion, though in a rather new and confused way that was mixed with a small portion of resentment, partly because Alexander was behaving as though he hardly noticed Hephaestion was there, despite some of the gentle teasing from the men who suspected that Hephaestion might be his beloved; partly because all the attention was upon Alexander and not him. Hephaestion wasn't particularly vain, but he thought himself acceptably personable; he was tall for his age and his muscles were developing in a nice, even, symmetrical way, and his fellow Mieza student Leonatus, who hardly ever paid compliments to anybody, had said that Hephaestion's eyes were almost as big and beautiful as a Persian's, and even though that was a rather backhanded compliment the other boys had honestly agreed about them being beautiful (all except Alexander, who had frowned and changed the subject.)

Erytos was tall and handsome had looked very dashing in his Cavalry regalia, even covered in dust from the parade ground. But there was something more to him than that – his brown eyes were playful and he had a merry laugh; he had also had a bold, appreciative gaze when he had looked at Hephaestion, which had made Hephaestion feel both embarrassed and rather excited. Though Erytos was young, he was a veteran – he had served on King Philip's last two campaigns with some distinction and already had the scars of war, the most distinctive being a deep slash across the bridge of the nose which Hephaestion found captivating. Hephaestion hadn't really had much of a chance to talk to him until he had gone back later with Hector, son of Parmenion, whose elder brother Philotas was a Cavalry Officer. Despite Hephaestion's elaborate attempts at nonchalance, Erytos had guessed why he had come but had not mocked him; he had taken Hephaestion for a ride on the back of his charger and not tried anything, only talked cheerfully to him of war and horses and what Hephaestion was studying. But a week later he had sent Hephaestion a letter with a lengthy poem attached which, while it was written in a teasingly romantic style, left little doubt of what he wanted.

It did indeed sound quite thrilling. It was thrilling to be courted by a young man like Erytos – to be courted, properly, by anyone. Alexander had never really courted him – nor, in fairness, had he courted Alexander, even if one could court a prince without being a prince oneself. They had just… found each other one night, without giving it much thought. It was nice, but Hephaestion couldn't help but feel they had missed out on something. And besides, neither of them really knew anything – it could do them both good if Hephaestion had some experience with an older man, and if Alexander really didn't want people to know he was doing things with Hephaestion then it was a perfectly good way to fool them into thinking he wasn't.

Hephaestion read the last sentence he had written. Then he thought of Erytos. Then he thought of Alexander. Then he dipped his stylus into the ink pot.

Thank you also for your invitation to come to visit you at the barracks of an evening. I'm sure it would be nice and I would like very much to see you again but I think perhaps I am not ready for…

Hephaestion scowled, put the stylus down again and took a sip of wine. Why was he hesitating? There was nothing shameful in being the beloved of an officer of good rank, who was also of a similar social background. From what he had heard, Royal Pages, the ranks of whom he and Alexander would soon join, were always carrying on with young officers and nobody thought the worse of them. Was he really, truthfully more worried about what Alexander might think? That was stupid. If Alexander liked him that much, in that way, he wouldn't be too ashamed to show it in public. Why shouldn't he accept Erytos' invitation? He would accept it! As to whether he should tell Alexander about it, before or after he had spent an evening with Erytos… well, he could hardly sneak out without Alexander noticing, but he didn't have to tell him where he was going… but… he'd never really lied to Alexander before, and…

The door was opened slowly and quietly, but Hephaestion still jumped so violently that he sloshed wine all over the bedcovers. Rescuing the letter just in time, he quickly covered it with a blank paper and pretended to be scribbling down some notes. "Joy to you, Alexander…!" he called rather too sharply, "you're back very early! Have you…"

Hephaestion's words trailed off as his friend moved sheepishly towards the fire, bending down to throw on some more logs, but not quickly enough to stop Hephaestion seeing his face. "Joy to you, Hephaestion," he said in a faint, weary voice.

Hephaestion slid from the bed and went over to him. "By Zeus, Alexander," he gasped, forcing the prince's head up so he could more closely inspect the enormous bruise forming on his right cheekbone, "who gave you that?!"

Alexander irritably pushed Hephaestion's hand away. "I… got into a fight with Nikanor," he admitted sullenly.

Hephaestion gaped at him. "Nikanor? But – he's about four years younger than you, and he's not even as tall as you are, what…?"

"No, no, not Antipater's Nikanor," Alexander interrupted indignantly, "Nikanor son of Parmenion!"

Hephaestion stared even harder. "That Nikanor - ?! But – Alé, he's twice the size of you! And he's always so gentle and calm – why in the name of all the gods would you get into a fight with him?"

"I…" Alexander's shoulders slumped as he sank down onto his bed, still not meeting his friend's gaze. Hephaestion saw a distinct red flush rising to his pale cheeks. "I… I couldn't help it. I shouldn't have, but I just couldn't help it. You know I was attending a party at the palace… well… I was sitting with my father and I was having quite a nice time, really, he's had a stomach upset since he got back from campaign and he was told not to drink too much, so he was quite sober and I think perhaps he'd missed not seeing me when he'd got back and we were talking all about his campaign and…" Hephaestion listened patiently as Alexander continued in this strain for some moments before getting to the point. There was simply no point in cutting Alexander short and he so loved to talk that it seemed almost cruel to try. "…anyway," he said at last, "then Philotas and Nikanor came over, and they were already pretty drunk, and they were talking about what a big impression I'd made on the Cavalry that day you and I went to see them…"

Hephaestion felt his throat constrict very slightly. "And…"

Alexander groaned softly and put a hand over his rapidly swelling eye. "Well, then they started talking about you…"

Hephaestion's stomach twisted. "What did they say…?"

"Well…" Alexander shook his head. "It seems as though I'm not the only one who made a big impression. Apparently some of the officers were talking about you… I mean… about how big you'd grown, and… and how handsome… and… and if… if you had a lover yet…" Reluctantly Alexander looked up into Hephaestion's eyes, and then looked away again, his face twisting in anxiety. "That was all it was, but then Nikanor and Philotas began… began… uh… talking about you… about your looks, and your figure… and your…your… thighs… and what they would have liked to… to… and anyway, I couldn't stand it, so I pushed Nikanor off his couch and jumped on him and then he punched me, and then Father pulled me off him and scolded me for being a bad host, so I… oh gods…" He buried his face in his hands. "I'm so sorry, Tion… I didn't mean to… but I couldn't stand it, I really couldn't! The thought of them even thinking of you like that, I…"

Now genuinely perplexed, Hephaestion sat down next to him. What could Alexander possibly have said that was so awful? A whole world of possibilities opened up, but none made any real sense. "Just tell me, Alexander," he said quietly, "I… I promise I won't get mad."

Alexander slowly lifted his head and looked at Hephaestion in despair. "I told them I'd kill them both if they so much as tried for you!"

"You… what…?"

"Father said I was being an idiot, and would more likely get myself killed going around making threats like that, but I said I would rather get killed fighting for you then let another man have you! I – I know I shouldn't have said it; I mean it's not as if we… but I was just so angry! But then… then Father said, "so Hephaestion is your beloved then?" And I didn't know what to say, I mean, if I said no, I would have looked really stupid, so I said… yes, and Father said that it was excellent news and told everybody to drink a toast to… to Hephaestion, beloved of Alexander…" Alexander positively cringed at the memory of it; Hephaestion thought of the story reaching Mieza by the morning and cringed with him.

"Who's… everybody…?" he heard himself ask.

"Well… all of my father's bodyguard… and most of the Companions… Cavalry and Foot… I'm so sorry, Hephaestion… I really wanted to keep it between the two of us, I know its silly but everyone is always watching me to see that I'm "normal" and not one of those girly-boys who just lie down and take it and my parents are always arguing about it and shoving hetaerae at me and asking me embarrassing questions about whether I'm taking this boy or that boy to my bed and not letting one of the foot soldiers get their hands on me…" Alexander gave another soft moan and tugged at his blonde curls. "Gods, but it was so embarrassing – I could almost hear the Court breathing a collective sigh of relief! Prince Alexander has finally started doing it with somebody!" Alexander's head snapped up sharply. "Wait – no, I don't mean that I was embarrassed because it was you, HephaestionI like you so very much, I know we've always been friends, but I think I like you more than that… I just didn't want everyone knowing it and talking about it, and I know you don't either…"

Hephaestion blinked. "Actually, Alexander, I…"

"Oh, well, it's too late now," Alexander carried on miserably, "by the time I walked out on the party I doubt anyone was talking about anything else… and do you know what the worst thing of all is…?"

Mutely Hephaestion shook his head.

Alexander managed a feeble grin. "I didn't even get time to eat any supper! I'm ravenous!"

"Well, you're always saying abstinence is good," Hephaestion answered before he could stop himself, and the two of them broke into slightly giddy laughter, which gave them both a little relief and made it possible for Hephaestion to relax long enough to think. "Seriously, though, Alexander… it doesn't matter at all to me. I – I'm happy, really happy, to be known as your beloved…"

To be known as your beloved… a pleasurable warmth spread through Hephaestion's body as he said it; there was a special solidity about it, a certainty that felt good.

Alexander sat up straight. "Do you really mean that? Oh, Hephaestion, I…" Lost for words, he leaned forward and kissed him. Hephaestion was a little startled. They had kissed as part of their love-play, but never quite as seriously, or as passionately, as this… it felt nice, though. It felt very nice… When they parted for breath, Hephaestion smiled warmly at the prince. "Why don't I slip off to the kitchen and find you something to eat?"

Alexander shook his head. "I can do without food… but there is something I would like…" As he spoke, his gaze fixed upon Hephaestion's with a startling intensity. Hephaestion could not suppress a small gasp as Alexander's calloused hand slid slowly up his thigh. Such forwardness in Alexander was also something new. It wasn't that Alexander absolutely never made the first move, but when he did he was usually subtle, almost coy; he might give him a shy smile, or come and nuzzle up against him, or even climb into his bed, but he always left Hephaestion to really begin things. Hephaestion was a little taken aback, but he was not about to let a good opportunity go to waste. "I've been keeping the bed warm for you…" he grinned, and was gratified to see both a blush on Alexander's cheeks and a hungry gleam in his eyes.

"Alé…" he said nonchalantly as he gathered up his papers while Alexander undressed, carefully folding up the unfinished letter to Erytos, "about what you said to Nikanor and Philotas… about killing anyone who wanted me… you didn't really mean that did you? I mean really…"

"Of course I meant it," Alexander replied in a tone that was suddenly as cold and hard as a dagger's blade.

Hephaestion glanced up at him briefly to make absolutely sure he wasn't joking. Apparently embarrassed by his own vehemence, Alexander looked away, clambering into Hephaestion's bed and busying himself with the furs. No, he wasn't joking. Hephaestion hesitated, absorbing all that this meant and might just mean for the future, weighing up the positives and negatives. Erytos really was so handsome, and so charming, and it felt so good to be admired, to be coveted and pursued. But he had a sense that he and Alexander were on the verge of something new, something special, something deeper than they had shared so far… that Alexander was offering something he had never offered anyone before, and might indeed never offer again…

To protect this, at least long enough to see what it might become, would the required sacrifice really be so hard to make?

With firm resolution, but not without a small pang of regret, Hephaestion crumpled the unfinished letter to Erytos and threw it into the hottest part of the fire. Then he turned on his heel and went back to his bed, where Alexander was waiting for him.