FEEDING APPLES TO DEATH
CHAPTER 8: So Helenus and Nireus are reconciled at last; but there are still a few surprises in store for Helenus, not least when Hylas returns…
NOTES: A last note to thank all of you who have supported this little story. This is the last chapter, but I do have a little follow-up I will post in a while which I originally posted on my LJ but didn't post on FF. It may be a while before I post anything new, because, quite simply, I don't have anything ready and I make a point of not posting things until I am absolutely sure they're finished... and that means reading and rereading them many times. Now that I am back at work I may be slow to reply to any messages but I WILL reply, I promise.
Oh, and if anyone is confused about what Hylas' statement at the end, I refer you to Hephaestion's slip of the tongue in "The Substitute."
As soon as I saw him I threw my arms about his neck and covered his scarred, ugly face in kisses. Only then did it really seem to hit me just how lucky I had been – or how blessed by the gods, as my mother would have sternly reminded me - and how close I had come to losing so much to my own stupid doubts.
"Oh Death!" I cried, choking back my joyful tears only because I knew Nireus' horrible old uncle was watching me, "Death, I'm so happy to see you again!"
"Knock that off, you little shit," snarled Thanatos, "I won't have you turning my charger into a Persian pouf with your womanish twittering! Anymore of that and you can borrow someone else's!"
"Look what I've got here, Death," I whispered, dipping a hand into the sack I carried, "some really nice, sweet, juicy red apples… from Phrygia," I added with a sly sideways glance at the cavalryman, who grunted and threw up his hands as Nireus and Aeneas burst out laughing.
I took Death on a long ride by myself before returning to collect my lover, who swung himself up beside me but made no move to take the reins. As we trotted along at a more leisurely pace, we discussed the new mission Alexander had assigned to Hephaestion.
"It's funny," I murmured wistfully, "just a little while ago all I used to think when I'd hear something like that was that Alexander would be like a bear with a sore head, for all the time Hephaestion would be away, and how we'd all have to watch our step and Narcissus was ten times more likely to get a whipping… now all I can think about is how much I'm going to miss you."
"Miss the sex at any rate," Nireus snorted. "Who'd've thought you'd make for such a voracious little beloved?"
"Just because you can't keep up," I countered, kicking his ankle with the heel of my boot. I had got used to Nireus' teasing at least and I knew well enough when he was only trying to lighten my mood.
Then again, he did have a point. I was beginning to believe I was insatiable. I could never have enough of my lover's kisses, caresses or embraces; even of the sight, feel and scent of his body. While he sometimes just wanted to talk or go walking or hunting or play games or practice in the gymnasium or a hundred other things boys did together, what I always wanted was to make love.
He grew exasperated with me sometimes, mocking me that I was proving worse than Narcissus and he was beginning to doubt my ability to remain true to only one lover, but I thought he was secretly flattered by it. For all he made light of his purported lack of beauty, beneath the light carelessness my Nireus was far too gentle and sensitive a soul not to feel just a little uncertainty about how others saw him, and I had a sense that there was some part of him that he never showed to me which drew reassurance from my passionate desire.
For me it was reassurance of a different kind. I had never been given cause to doubt my physical attractions – it was another matter entirely to have someone as clever as him appreciating my conversation and companionship as much as the symmetry of my features or the shapeliness of my thighs. Instead of merely lecturing me as so many older boys and men had a habit of doing, he actually seemed to want my opinion – that was certainly something I was not used to!
I twisted around to smile up at him. "Hylas is back, you know! I can't wait to tell him about us! He'll be so pleased – he likes you a lot!"
"Are you sure he'll be happy…?" Nireus sounded genuinely uncertain. We had endured a more than fair amount of teasing since news of us had spread around the camp and I knew Nireus had borne the brunt of it and that it had not been easy, for all he professed to laugh it off.
"Oh don't worry about him," I assured him, squeezing one of the hands that gripped lightly at my waist. "I've told you, he's my best friend – just like a little brother! And you made a big impression on him that night… you know, the night of that drinking party when he spilled wine all over General Cleitos' woman… trust me, Nireus… he'll be overjoyed!"
For several minutes Hylas was crying too hard for me to make any sense of what he was trying to say. Bewildered and not a little distressed, I put my arm around him and rubbed his back soothingly until the sobs subsided.
"Come now, little one," I whispered in my gentlest tones, the kind I might have used to one of my little sisters back home when they had fallen and grazed a knee, or knocked the head off a beloved doll, but had never have thought of using to my childhood friend, even when his father Nikanor had been killed. "Come now… nothing can be that bad! Look, whatever's happened, we'll fix it! I'll talk to Alexander – or – or I'll ask Narcissus to – no, maybe not him, but I – I know, I'll talk to Nireus and he can ask Hephaestion to help… I'm sure Alexander won't really send you home…"
"H-h-home…?" Hylas choked, lifting his tear-streaked face to mine for the first time. To my surprise he actually gave me a watery smile. "Wh-whoever s-said I was going home?"
"But…" I blinked, waving a hand towards the duffel bag I had seen Hylas tearfully packing with his possessions when I had walked into the king's tent. "If you're not going home, where…?"
"I've – I've – " Hylas shook his head. "Oh, Helenus! I'm being reassigned to Hephaestion! To Hephaestion!" He turned and threw his arms about me. "This is the happiest day of my life!"
"Don't worry about Hylas," Nireus told me as we cuddled close that night. Sated with wine, food and love, I felt warm and sleepy, and yet I could not help thinking of my friend. "I'll look after him. He's very comely, that little son of Nikanor… just like a little Alexander… I'd be only too happy to keep him warm on those cold, lonely nights on the road…"
I dug my lover admonishingly in the ribs, but it was the comment about Alexander that really made me think. I had never noticed the resemblance until now – to me, the only person Hylas resembled was his gentle, handsome father. "Nireus, I… I have to tell you something. I don't know if Hylas would want me to, but I think I should. Hylas is… well… he's in love with Hephaestion."
"Oh." I felt Nireus nod. "Oh, I see. Well I wouldn't worry about it, beloved. It's almost a prerequisite for the job. It certainly won't do him any harm."
I frowned at him though the shadows, not quite sure how to take that. "Do you… do you think Hephaestion will take Hylas as his beloved?" Narcissus had made some sly comment to that effect when he had heard of Hylas being reassigned – something about Alexander wanting to give Hephaestion a suitably biddable and submissive beloved - but I had paid little mind to it at the time.
This time I felt Nireus shake his head. "I don't think so. Hephaestion… well… he's not really into boys."
"But he doesn't have a woman!" I answered with some surprise. "Does he?"
Nireus suddenly shifted over onto his side, meeting my eyes with a serious expression. "He has lovers now and then," he said softly, "but they don't matter to him. There's only one he really cares about. Come on, sweet-heart, you must have guessed," he smiled, nudging my cheek playfully with his nose as he heard my soft gasp, "or did you really think the two of them sat up all night philosophising and playing dice?"
"I knew they used to be lovers," I breathed, "everyone knows that! But when they were boys, not… not… you mean… even now?"
"Why do you think General Parmenion almost has a stroke every time he finds Hephaestion alone with him? Or why Queen Olympias dips her pen in poison when she writes Hephaestion's name?"
I couldn't argue with that – I'd heard enough of Alexander's angry reactions to his mother's letters to know Hephaestion was not one of her favourites. As I lay there in the dark, many things fell into place. I didn't yet know what I thought about it… except that if King Alexander could keep his beloved long after his beard had grown – even if he did scrape it off – then maybe I could keep my lover too? It was a fanciful notion, but it gave me a pleasant feeling.
I shook my head vigorously. "No! No, I don't believe it, you're making fun of me!"
Narcissus laughed at me. "So suspicious of your own brother! I tell you, I'm never wrong about these things."
"But Bagoas and Euxenippus? That's impossible. They hate each other!"
"Well they've obviously come to an understanding," Narcissus replied dryly, "though the gods alone know how or when…"
"I…" I frowned. There had been that night…. that strange, wonderful night when Nireus and I had been reconciled. I had had eyes only for my lover that night, but now I cast my mind back, Euxenippus had been there… yes, with Bagoas! Not at the beginning - no, it wasn't until after Niureus and I had returned to the campfire to get warm. I had fallen asleep in Nireus' arms almost at once, so I had no recollection of anything either of them might have said or done, but they had been sitting quite close together… but then Bagoas had surely been feeling nervous in the company of Hephaestion's Pages. I couldn't blame him for that! Maybe the two of them had become friends. But that didn't mean they were… bedding down together!
I shrugged and shifted closer to my brother. Inevitably I had spent less time with him of late, and he hadn't complained, but it was nice to have a moment with him before I went to welcome Nireus back to the camp and Narcissus went to whichever smitten young man he had favoured that night. He had made no pretence about being pleased to hear of my involvement with Nireus, but there was a grudging respect in his eyes when I told him of how it had come about. "Well indeed," he had said when I had finished my story, and left me to figure out exactly how he meant it.
Narcissus sighed. "Good luck to the poor little buggers, if you ask me," he grunted. "Maybe they've finally learned Alexander isn't worth their sighs and tears after all!"
"Narcissus!" I hissed warningly. When he only shrugged, I frowned thoughtfully at him. "Why do you dislike Alexander so much, brother? What is it that you really don't like…?" Even as I asked, the answer flashed into my mind so brightly I had to blink. "It's… about Hephaestion, isn't it?" I didn't think I was giving much away by using what Nireus had confided in me – if Nireus knew it, there was no question that Narcissus did. And it made sense – in his own way, my rebellious brother was a real conservative. "You don't like the fact that Alexander's kept him as his beloved…"
"So your Thessalian boy told you, did he?" Narcissus snorted. "You can't blame me, Helenus – it's hardly dignified for a Macedonian king, is it? Or for any men their age, for that matter."
"But it's different, you know," I responded awkwardly, "if… if you love someone…"
I didn't know what Narcissus would make of that. I could be fairly sure he had never been in love with any of his many lovers and I wondered for the first time if he would ever allow himself to fall in love… to surrender control of his heart, or even to let someone besides me inside it. He might, I reasoned… if he thought that it would prove amusing…
He shook his head dismissively. "Anyway, it's not just that…" He turned to me with an arched, enigmatic expression. "Alexander… he… look, little brother, it takes one to know one, and I know…"
He did not get to finish. At that moment a cheer went up as Hephaestion and his men rode into camp and Alexander shouted for Narcissus to attend him. A short while later, Hylas came jogging over, his face bright with happiness. He jumped ecstatically into my arms and kissed my cheeks in that childish way of his. Excited though I was at the thought of my reunion with my lover, I was also happy – and not a little relieved – to see my best friend back safe and sound and in such good spirits.
For a few minutes Hylas talked breathlessly of his time with Hephaestion and all the things they had "got done." As most of the dialogue involved how wonderfully clever Hephaestion was at absolutely everything, I listened patiently and just a little sadly. It seemed as though poor Hylas was more stricken with love than ever before and it was looking more and more likely that that love would remain forever unrequited.
"Hylas," I began softly, taking his hand, "I think… well, about Hephaestion. Nireus told me and I… the fact is, he and King Alexander…" I put deliberate emphasis on the title, something we Macedonians rarely did, just to make it a little more clear what I was getting at. "You see, they…"
"Oh yes, I know!" Hylas cried, his eyes glowing. "Hephaestion told me!"
I stared at him in disbelief. "Hephaestion…told you?!"
"Well, I don't think he exactly planned to, but…" Hylas suddenly put a hand to his mouth. "Oh, I'm so stupid, I wasn't supposed to… but after all, you knew already, and… but anyway, isn't it wonderful?"
"Wonderful…?" I echoed, now feeling quite dizzy with confusion. "You mean you're not jealous or anything…?"
"Oh… no…." Hylas shrugged a little ruefully. "I mean… I might have been if it was another boy, like Narcissus or someone… but after all, if anyone deserves Hephaestion then it should be Alexander, don't you think?"
With that, he hugged me once more and hurried off, shouting over his shoulder that he was heading to the baths to join Nireus and Hephaestion's other two Pages and I should join them as soon as I was relieved from duty. Struck dumb, I watched him go with only a small wave of acknowledgement.
"Brother," I said quietly when Narcissus reappeared at my side, muttering disapprovingly about how Alexander was acting like a giddy girl at the prospect of Hephaestion's arrival and informing me I was free to go, "do you think Hylas son of Nikanor is just a little… you know…" I tapped the side of my forehead meaningfully. "Just a little bit?"
Narcissus shrugged. "He might well be… but I don't think it'll damage his prospects around here, do you?"
I frowned quizzically at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Narcissus rolled his eyes. "Look at it this way," he said with a sigh of weary resignation. "My beautiful little brother who could have had his pick of the Royal Bodyguard is the beloved of a Cy - " he caught my warning glance and hesitated. "Of the son of some Thessalian horse-breaker. That Persian boy Bagoas is now the beloved of his arch enemy. And our king is the beloved of the son of some Athenian exile..."
"…So tell me, little brother… is there anyone in this army who's sane?"
I had no answer for that. But I didn't care. If love was madness, then madness was sweet. Giving Narcissus a quick kiss, I headed off in the direction of the baths where I knew Nireus was awaiting me.