A/N: I don't know if anyone would still be interested in reading this story but here it is, a new chapter after nearly a whole year of a pause. I've had one crazy ride during it and well. Mass Effect series and other things got in the way as well. Hope there is somebody still left after all of this waiting. Cheers, everyone; have fun reading! :)
It had been over a week since Hephaestion was able to stand up again and do things round himself on his own. He was grateful to gods the embarrassment came to a halt finally and he escaped the king's quarters as soon as the physicians said it was possible. Maybe not the best way to show one's gratitude for constant care and companionship but that was the the last thing Hephaestion had in his mind whenever he thought about Alexander's strange behavior. Or rotting away underneath some silken covers.
Walking round the palace once again was refreshing, in every meaning of the word. His head had to be still bandaged but the rest of the linen had been taken away. Hephaestion tried asking what had happened, why in the name of Zeus he had been treated like a child, pampered, fed and clutched at as if he would have vanished from sight the next blink of an eye. Generals, servants, you name them, they knew nothing. He thought even about asking Bagoas, alas the boy kept on fleeing from his grasp whenever he caught a glimpse of him in the halls those days. Alexander on the other hand was just helpless to talk to; it seemed his paranoia had doubled during the previous week, just like the belief for anything spiritual. There were people ready to lay the deadliest of blows, ready to strike precisely then or the following moment; his eyes kept on darting sideways whenever Hephaestion brought the topic of his sudden and mysterious illness. It was tiresome, the whispering, questioning looks entwined with new topics to gossip about following his every footstep in the main buildings, during lonesome walks. Well, they were never as lonesome as one would have hoped for, there were guards walking in the shadows, silently watching every move, escorting him everywhere he went; something he had never noticed before.
It felt as if there was a great secret nobody wanted him to be a part of, something children liked to do to each other during a play. It was no playground though! They were in the middle of a war with the greatest empire in the known world, why hide anything from one of the few in the highest command? How could they do anything as foolish, anything as childish and grown from spite alone?
Hephaestion kept fighting with his thoughts, having excused himself from a meal with others because of a headache. It had been no slick lie that time; those days his head felt ready to burst whenever the atmosphere grew too shaky, or the sounds kept being as loud as they usually were. He would have wanted to go rest in the greatest park but it had been closed for no apparent reason as the guards told him the other day. His authority failed to achieve him anything; it was the king's own prohibition and thus could be abolished only by him alone. Good, Hephaestion thought, firstly the respect of others and his own, now the only thing that could bring him peace in this hell of a place. What else did Alexander want to take from him, he could very well begin taking that very minute! It was a thought of a petulant child, bitter and laced with sadness . But well, still just a childish thought of a whimsical pipsqueak that could do nothing but stomp their foot in passive anger.
'Good evening, general. I am glad to have ventured into you, sir.'
Suddenly a deep voice rang in the corridor, startling Hephaestion out of his thoughts. It was a girl, a blonde that seemed to have come out of nowhere; she looked at him expectantly as if toying with the idea of him knowing her name. Her column like silhouette was clad in a turquoise chition, with sandy hair clasped into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She had a face he had seen somewhere before; her lips pomegranate red and eyes a shade or two darker than grass in Greece.
'What are doing here so late in the evening, servant?'
They were standing at an arm distance in the middle of the hall leading either to the sleeping chambers on the first floor or the kitchen rooms in the eastern wing. She had no working clothes with her though and was too young looking to be anyone's personal maid; anyways, he knew most of them by their looks. She had Greek features, an accent that wasn't blemished much by the Persian way of speaking and fair skin.
Interesting, really interesting.
The girl licked her lips as if hearing the stray trail of thoughts, slowly adjusting the jug of wine she had rested on her hip and which Hephaestion hadn't noticed before. She smiled softly, letting the fluid slosh from one clay wall to the other.
'The king asked for someone to bring the supper for him. He has said to tell you he wanted to talk to you, sir Amyntoros, if any of the servants succeeded in finding you. I am glad to have accomplished both tasks at the same time.'
'Really, now?' He crossed his arms, looking her straight into the eye with a smile of his own. She was only half a head smaller than him. 'You must be quite proud of yourself then, girl. Not many know the paths I choose to walk on my own. Good job, I presume.'
Her lips only widened in a yet sweeter smile. 'Thank you, my lord. I have spent my younger years in this palace. I know its secrets better than many that ventured inside but did not want to learn anything.'
Hephaestion gazed at her, not really understanding the point she was trying to make. Her words seemed to have some sinister undertone to them, whose source he was not able to detect straight away. Unease settled in the pit of his stomach. She was still smiling though, with eyes glistening merrily underneath bangs of golden locks and a delicate flush of red on the cheeks. He banished the thought with great effort; no matter what wicked thoughts people may have on their minds, not everyone ended up fulfilling them. Perhaps the girl was not really a servant, rather a heater and it was rich food and wine speaking. Or anything like that, he was growing just as superstitious as Alexander himself, curse the already blasted trail of thought for Zeus' thunderbolts!
'May I go now, sir? The king will have been waiting far too long for his own liking and I still have to-'
'Yes, yes-' Hephaestion said absent-mindedly, already marching towards his own room, thinking of a cool pool of water to rinse his face and get all of those silly reminiscences out of his head. It was starting to pulse with the faintest shadow of pain. 'Get the food, anything, just- You're dismissed, just go. Yes, go. Go.'
'Understood, sir. The king said he would be waiting in the grand garden for you.' And so the girl had gone before Hephaestion was able to spun around and gape at her. He had closed the garden but wanted to see him in it? Alexander at his finest, Olympias and her antics be damned.
With that in mind, he soon drenched a towel in a bowl of icy cold water and finally relaxed. One more thing left, one more step left to make tonight and then, just Hypnos and his lullabies. Just a slosh of wine and peaceful sleep. He changed into some fresh clothing, used a few droplets of an orange oil that curiously ended up in his quarters out of nowhere but was welcomed there all the same. With hair hidden sideways by the bandaged, he looked like a girl ready for marriage, he noticed in the mirror with slight smirk. Well, Alexander wouldn't have wanted anything lesser to toy with though, would he?
He came to the garden a couple of minutes later, with a few stray guards sneaking up on him as if they had thought they were invisible. A pair at the door saluted him, uncrossing their swords to let him in. The sun was setting in, its stray rays dancing gracefully on the water of the many ponds and some longer blades of grass. There were jugs of wine scattered round the place here and there as well as plates filled with every Persian fruit the kitchen could get its hands onto. Some roasted meat in golden bowls, nuts mixed with sea salt, juice in all shades of red, orange and yellow.
Since he had felt better, Hephaestion got a few similar invitations before but did not trust himself enough not to lose his temper had he accepted any of them straight away. There were unspoken things between him and Alexander, some things that seemed far too important to be missed out like that. Forget Bagoas and that farce of a relationship, why in the name of Hades had the king decided to play a mother hen for him during that illness? Had he been worthy enough to renew the contact neither of them needed then? Or maybe he had only wanted to humiliate him further, showing the generals how little he needed to do to make his whores be all smiles once again? So much food must have gone to waste those previous times he had told the page to tell the king that he was tired, that another headache was blooming or to think of something more creative next time. On the other hand, it was all theirs now, all things alive or cold as a jade. Everything, much more than that pitiful treasure-chamber in Pella, half-empty the day they were leaving for the great conquest.
Alexander had his back turned to the entrance; he seemed to be deeply engrossed in his thoughts. Wind smoothed his light clothes along his brawny silhouette, tousling his locks at the same time. He stood at the terrace overlooking the city, his body slumped heavily onto the whitish stone of the banister. He seemed to have regained some of his usual vigor by then but there were still times when Hephaestion saw him cringe and smile nervously at him. He tried not to observe him too intently after the prolonging stay in their once shared bed; the same thing could not be said about Alexander himself. He tried to be more discreet than usually but Hephaestion literally felt the king's eyes try to penetrate his skull each time they saw each other, be it meals, talks or just a brief good morning in the halls. Studying his face, maybe looking for weak points or yet another reason to have him transported back to his chambers and be able to pamper him like an over-sized child once again.
'You finally decided to grace me with your presence, I am grateful.'
His voice was quiet but Hephaestion could still hear him perfectly clear despite the distance that remained between them. A couple of wide steps and he would be at a mere elbow from him. He did not see it fit, though. Not now, not so soon.
Alexander glanced at him over his shoulder, smiling welcomingly. 'I am truly grateful to see you in a good shape, beloved.'
'Can't say the same about you, my king. You look horrible, just as bad as always these days.' Hephaestion answered lightly, crossing his arms defensively. It was so easy to see what made him tick, to provoke the already known situations and see new or older reactions come to life once again.
He felt sweat gather at the base of his neck and throat. Athena, give him strength to talk to this foolish man! He swallowed thickly, before staring the man hard in the eyes, forgetting altogether about playing anything of the talk cool and steady.
'Alexander, cut the formalities and tell me why you wanted to see me. What is it, another plan of capturing further cities? Moving East or rather South? You want me here as one of your generals, not an acquaintance I presume, and thus present my service instantly.'
He swayed slightly on the heels of his sandals. It was true, well, mostly. He would still follow Alexander to death and back, be it Persia, barbarian territories or the end of the world as they knew it; he was a soldier after all. A fit, trained to kill soldier ready to break enemies' bones and lives but it was work, a part of his person that would always be there. A lover that still saw the dream, that still wanted some happiness for the man, his own be damned if that was what the Moires saw fit for him. There would have been not as much of his heart left in that before some answers had not come into the view, before the situation had not made itself more clear or the cause had not seemed bright and promising once again, though. Forget the treasures, forget the glory! He already had had some of that before Phillip died, before they all had to grow up some more to become generals of their own battles and a new full-fledged-on war.
He wanted to come clean with him, to see how things had changed since the gold begun rotting them alive, before the incenses' smell grew nauseatingly strong. Was there anything worth fighting for left in there, left in Alexander and himself?
Alexander did not look much shaken by his outburst. He chuckled quietly, coming back to observing the city and its slowly lightning up lights. 'Now I see you were really ready to strangle me in my sleep, had you had the chance. Good thing I'm better with my thighs now than when we were still whelps, isn't it?'
His smile faded and soon a sad grimace twisted his lips. He murmured, half to himself, half to no one in particular: 'What is it, dear Eros? What have I done to deserve such treatment from the only one I love?'
Eros, God of love, please get your arrow and just stab him in the heart, plain and simple. Now would be the best time if you don't mind, so Hephaestion here did not have to do all the bloody work himself.
'You don't know what you have-' Hephaestion heard himself mumbling, not really knowing what was happening any longer. He felt as if a Fury herself had come over his body. Blood rage, that was it. That was it, in Hades' name. He didn't know what he had done? Then who would have known better than that bastard? He had not changed at all, no matter the fake tears spilled over his bed sheets, over those oils he kept on rubbing onto Hephaestion's temples. He knew that treachery would prove itself over time, how could it be any different with Alexander, the only son of the great mistress of evil deeds herself? 'YOU don't know what-'
'Hephaestion, what is it?' Alexander groaned suddenly with exasperation, hiding his face in his hands for a long moment. Then, he spun round, staring hard at the other man. His eyes flashed with anger Hephaestion had not seen him really express in the last few weeks. He stalked closer to him, trying in vain not to bark in frustration: 'WHAT is it, for Hera's sake?! What makes you act like this, what have I done wrong this time to deserve such, such-, anything like that, to-'
Hephaestion pursed his lips when the folds of their respective clothes brushed lightly round each other. Alexander was breathing hard onto his neck, some Persian smell mixing with the one of his own sweat. 'I guess you would have been happy if I had been the one that nearly ended up dead in here, huh? Would you now?'
'What are you blabbering about, you drunkard pig?' Hephaestion hissed, trying to take a step back but Alexander was quicker. He grasped both of his wrists vice-hard, strong enough to hurt if he had pressed some more. 'Who do you think you are to say such things to me, you-'
Hephaestion wanted so much to spit in that mad face then, in those two-coloured eyes but his curiosity won over the simmering fury. He stopped trashing and regarded the man coldly with his eyes.
'Now I've got your attention back? Good.' Alexander said simply, loosing his hold at his wrists at once. He sighed before bringing his hands onto Hephaestion's shoulders tentatively, as if afraid to have them bitten off the next second. He shook him gently, underlining every word he said with the gentle move. 'I love you. No matter what you think you're doing while trying to distance yourself. I love you, no one else, no matter if you like that or not.'
'And Bagoas, what about him? What about all of the others, Alexander? If they are not your companions, then who exactly they are?' Hephaestion laughed humorlessly. He shook the hands off of his shoulders instantly. He sat heavily onto the grass, adding with annoyance: 'Don't tell me your sad old lies, my king. I don't have enough time to listen to them all over again.'
'Hephaestion, you don't understand, why are you being so, so-'
'Troublesome? Foolish? Not blind enough to still view everything being in an excellent condition?' He provided the answers with ease, looking disinterestedly at Alexander's hurt face. It was not the first time they were having such a talk, perhaps the last one though. Or maybe not, who could know? 'Alexander, I am tired of this situation. I am tired of being looked down upon because of your actions, ridiculed at every step, I want to- '
'To leave me here? To come back to Macedon?' Alexander whispered desperately, crouching in front of him. 'Is that what you want? Would that make you truly happy?'
'I don't know what I want anymore.' Hephaestion answered quietly, laying his chin onto his brought up the chest knees. He glanced back at Alexander, at his darkening eyes. 'Is that what you'd like for me to do? To free yourself of the guilt and be able to do anything you'd want to? Would you like to free yourself of me, Alexander?'
The man did not say anything for a long moment and Hephaestion thought that that was it, that that was the final answer. He was not needed any more, not that he had ever truly been. He would go back to Pella, to his aged father. He would be the one to have doubted the king, the one not fit for the role nobody really wanted him to play. He could live somehow, not in luxuries anymore because who would like to see a companion of Alexander deserting the king? Maybe he was just a whore of his in the end? Nothing without the king, nothing beside him as well. Just an ornament, just something to remind him he was mortal or maybe quite the contrary, who could really guess the true meaning of such things?
He began to get up when he felt a tug at one of his sleeves. Then, he was brought onto the ground once again with his rear hitting the heated grass with a thud.
'Let go.' Hephaestion mumbled, trying to pry the fingers away with his own. 'Alexander, stop being stubborn like a child.'
Alexander was staring at him with unblinking eyes, his hands shaking when he brought his face close to his own. 'You don't understand, Hephaestion, you don't know. I can't let you go, no, Hephaestion- Hephaestion, listen to me, I-'
'I've been listening to you for more than half of my life, Alexander. Look where that has gotten us so far! Let go and be free if that is what you've always longed for-'
'You foolish man, you-' Alexander suddenly growled, pushing Hephaestion onto his back. The man felt air being knocked out of his lungs when the king pressed him into the ground, immobilizing him by sitting astride on his thighs. He blocked his shoulders with his hands settled heavily on their joints. He huffed angrily, his face growing red: 'For who am I even trying here, for Zeus' sake! For someone who hates me more than those blasted Persians?'
Hephaestion did not know whether to cry or to laugh. That must have been quite the view. A general trashing on the grass with the king himself pressed on top of him like an over-sized cat, hissing and mumbling incoherent words. They wrestled for control for no more than ten minutes when Alexander barked once again, his legs nearly giving up on their hold on Hephaestion's own:
'I can't lose you and will not as long as I have any say in that, you childish brat!' With some difficulty he twisted Hephaestion's hands high above his head. 'Do you hear me? Do you hear me, Hephaestion?!'
'Am I supposed to care much for those words? Are they supposed to mean anything?!' Hephaestion only growled back, still huffing and trying to break Alexander's hold on his limbs. His legs kept on kicking at empty air. 'Listen to yourself for once! Listen to those lies you keep on saying! Let go, let me go for Hades' sake, you twisted-'
Suddenly a flicker of gold loomed at the door. Somebody's hair or maybe a plate?
Hephaestion stared at the place where it appeared for a good moment and it was then that Alexander suddenly fell onto him, forgetting altogether about the struggle. Their muscles trembled alongside each other's.
'I thought I had died myself when I found you that night. Your skin was as blue as the sky.' He brought him close to himself, his quickening breathing once again hovering over Hephaestion's neck. 'Hephaestion, I can't take this anymore, I can't bear the thought of seeing that sight once again.'
'What?' Hephaestion swallowed thickly, seeming to have frozen in place, his eyes returning to gaze at Alexander. The dull ache in the back of his head was returning when he struggled to remember anything that could resemble the thing the man was mumbling about. 'It's the wine talking now, isn't it?'
Alexander's voice grew annoyed once again for a moment: 'It's not the wine, the physician said you might not remember anything afterwards. Maybe because of the fever or the concussion, I do not know.' His hands came to ghost over Hephaestion cheeks and lips. The man propped himself on his elbows and stared into Hephaestion's eyes hard and serious. 'But that had been an assassin and he's still there, Hephaestion, please. I can't lose you. Hephaestion, I can't.'
'So it hasn't been just another of my nightmares?' He whispered astonished and his muscles went limp under Alexander's gentle touch. 'That's why you were there all the time? You really were looking after me? You were… Oh. I- '
So all of those days and nights with Alexander by his side hadn't been just a fantasy? He really had been there. In fever, in better times. And there had been him, complaining all the time, cursing his name every other moment. Pushing him as far as possible so that he could feel alone for a change. Unwanted.
'I'm sorry, oh Zeus, I'm-, I'm so sorry-' Hephaestion heard himself say, finally letting his own arms embrace Alexander back. He choked on the words, hiding his own face in shame. In the end it was him who apologized first, no matter how big each of their respective sins were.
Then, Alexander took his face in his hands and kissed him. Slowly and patiently, with a just a hint of passion.
'I understand now, I'm sorry for all I've done wrong so far. I'm so sorry, Hephaestion. Maybe, just maybe all of this wouldn't have happened if, you know-' He smiled through tears that kept streaming down his face. 'Is this what will bring us both peace? Understatement?'
Hephaestion only nodded in return, smiling a shaky smile of his own.