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Curious

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A curious thing had happened today and it had given Hephaestion pause for thought.

Yesterday he had come off a horse, sprained his ankle and acquired a few bruises. The physician had told him to rest and not try to walk but, knowing he was a young man of seventeen and wouldn't, had also given him a crutch. So this morning Hephaestion had walked out to the horse fields to watch Alexander and their friends continue with the training of a batch of freshly broken colts, and he was now seated on a bench in the shade of an oak tree with his bandaged foot up on another bench. He surveyed the palm of his hand which was reddened and sore from the crutch, wondering if he could make it back to Pella later without it blistering.

He looked up. There was a slave about here somewhere who had carried out a basket of food, but he had disappeared, probably asleep in the shade. Hephaestion had hoped for some butter or something, but water would have to do. Alexander had carried out a couple of cushions and a flask of water for him. He poured some water onto his hand but it didn't help the soreness.

Perhaps he could put more weight on his leg on the way back. He lifted his foot down off the bench and tried putting pressure on it. A stab of pain gave him his answer.

"No," he said out loud.

"No, what?" said a friendly but unknown voice.

Startled, Hephaestion looked round and up. He had not heard anyone approaching. Parmenion, the King's general, had approached him from upslope rather than along the path. He smiled at Hephaestion, his head slightly to one side, his smile coaxing, inviting. And much too personal.

Hephaestion had been seeing that smile on men's faces since he was fourteen. He knew what it meant. He sat back and lifted his ankle back onto the cushion. "Excuse me if I don't stand up," he said.

He knew he was being insolent but just didn't care. Let Parmenion think what he liked about the younger generation; he was old enough to be his grandfather and should know better. Even if he was still hale and hearty, he was sixty, at least.

However Parmenion was not put off. He took a seat on an adjoining bench, hands on knees, just on the edge of Hephaestion's sight. Hephaestion resolutely folded his arms and stared out across the field to where Alexander and the others where training the colts to ride side by side without spooking or biting each other.

"I have been looking for a chance to speak to you," Parmenion said. Hephaestion glanced round at him quickly, startled as to why he should attract the great man's attention.

"Forgive me, my foot's paining me," he said indicating it with a wave of his hand as he returned to his scrutiny of the young horses. Alexander would want his opinion on their merits and capabilities.

Parmenion turned his attention silently to the horses too. After a few moments' observation, he said, "The bay Alexander's riding is the best of the bunch - strong and steady."

"Yes, it is beautifully configured. But the black is stronger. Give him time to outgrow his flightiness and he will be a good cavalry horse. He has heart."

"He's the one who threw you, isn't he?"

Again Hephaestion was startled into looking at Parmenion. What was going on? What had he done to deserve such attention? He didn't mind talking horses with the man, but he was not looking for a suitor.

Holding Parmenion's eyes, he said, "Were you watching?"

A small smile quirked the corner of Parmenion's lips. "Yes. You are a very handsome boy, however much you try to hide it by scowling under that sun hat. And by hiding behind Alexander."

"I do not!" Hephaestion protested instinctively. He had known for years that he was pretty. He had been teased constantly about it since he was twelve; he had seen the smiles men gave him, or each other as he went by, knowing they were talking about him; and gaggles of girls would giggle and blush as he walked by. It was all very embarrassing so he had tended to ignore it. But Alexander was another matter all together.

"What do you see in him?" Parmenion persisted.

"He's my best friend," Hephaestion answered, sounding sulky as he studied a point somewhere beyond his upraised foot.

"… and men like these, fighting at each other's side, might almost conquer all the world," quoted Parmenion.

Hephaestion stared at Parmenion. Why was he quoting Plato at him? Any why that particular passage? How had he known it meant so much to them?

He looked away, trying not to let his face reveal anything.

"Alexander is likely to be king after Philip," Parmenion said. "Is that what you dream of? Conquering the world together?"

Eyes widening, Hephaestion stared at Parmenion. He didn't know what to say without making a fool of himself.

"Don't look at me like that," Parmenion said with half a smile. "It's too beguiling." Hephaestion felt his colour rising but refused to speak.

"Anyone can see that Alexander thinks the sun shines out of your backside, but you," Parmenion continued relentlessly, "what about you? Are you his friend because you know he will be king? For the wealth and power that such a position beside the king will give you? Do you crave power? Or are you doing it for love?"

Hephaestion found himself growing increasingly hot and uncomfortable. He lowered his foot carefully to the floor. "Sir," he said slowly, "you have insulted me and you will forgive me, but this conversation is at an end. I am going back to Pella." He looked around to retrieve his crutch.

"No, no," Parmenion said, holding up his hand, "I do not mean to insult you. I merely mean to find out what sort of a man you are. I have served four Macedonian kings, and Alexander is likely to be the fifth, if the gods spare me.

"Philip is restless, driven by ambition. He will likely get himself killed before he dies in his bed. And Alexander is in exactly the same mould. Where that will lead him, I do not know. But perhaps you do. Persia maybe? Philip talks of it, and it is the sort of thing that fires a young man's imagination."

Again Hephaestion did not reply, holding onto his crutch, waiting to see where this would lead. Hobbling back to Pella would mean he couldn't escape this.

"So. If we are likely to end up in Persia, or Athens maybe, and you are by Alexander's side, what sort of man are you?" After a pause in which it was clear Hephaestion wasn't going to say anything, Parmenion continued, "You clearly have a good head on your shoulders, yet are you open to bribery, to persuasion? Come out from Alexander's shadow. Show men what sort of man you are if you do not wish to be dismissed as just a pretty bedfellow who can be petted and cajoled into doing what others wish."

Hephaestion, his cheeks flaming red, stood up, holding on to his crutch. "Thank you for your advice, Parmenion. I will return to Pella now."

Parmenion looked up at him, a look of dismissal passing over his face. "If you want any advice on how to be a useful king's favourite, which skills he needs to compliment his own, come to me. There are a few things an old dog like me can teach you." Suddenly he winked. "Go on, I won't follow you, boy. I'll just watch your backside as you walk away on those lovely long legs."

He grinned up at Hephaestion who, distinctly uncomfortable and confused, didn't know whether to sit back down again or not. He decided to leave.

+++

"Where did you go?" Alexander asked as he came into Hephaestion's room. He looked hot and smelt of horse sweat. He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. "Was your ankle hurting you?"

"It got too hot," Hephaestion said distantly. Truth to tell, he didn't really want to talk to Alexander right now. He had too much to think about. Did people really see him as just a pretty favourite like Pausanias, the latest of the king's boy toys?

"What's the matter, misery guts?" Alexander asked, sitting down beside Hephaestion and punching the side of his thigh playfully.

"Nothing."

Alexander decided to try a different tactic. "Are you going to buy that black colt?"

"Probably." A new horse was the last thing on Hephaestion's mind.

"Shall I go away?"

"Yes."

++++

Alexander didn't push Hephaestion for the next couple of days. He was around, but kept his distance, knowing something was eating Hephaestion. Eventually though it began to eat at him too, not knowing what was wrong. He went to Hephaestion's room, and tried talking about all different subjects but couldn't get more than a one word reply from his friend.

Alexander's patience wore thin. "Have I done something?" he asked at last.

"What?" Hephaestion said, looking at Alexander as though noticing he was in the room for the first time. He didn't realise it but he was frowning, as he had been doing continually for the last couple of days. He sat slumped in a chair with his arms crossed over his ribs. He looked tired.

"Is it my fault you're in such a bad mood?" Alexander asked. "Have I done something to upset you?"

"No. I'm not a silly girl."

Alexander stood up. "Well, if you're not going to tell me what is wrong, perhaps I should just leave you to sort it out."

He had started to walk towards the door before Hephaestion said in an odd voice, "I am not sure we should be friends anymore."

Alexander spun round. "What? Why not?"

Hephaestion appeared to be having trouble finding enough breath to speak. "If you're going to be king one day, I don't want people thinking I am your friend just for what I can get out of it."

Alexander was flabbergasted. "What? Who put that idea in your head?"

"Parmenion," Hephaestion said sulkily.

"Parmenion? What were you talking to him for? What does he know about it? He's about a hundred years old. What does he know about what I need? What sort of friend you are to me?"

"He knows that a king's favourite will be the subject of gossip, will be pressured to accept bribes and push other people's causes."

"Who says we will still be friends by the time I'm king?"

Hephaestion's eyes flew to Alexander's face. "Then perhaps we should stop being friends now before the gossip starts and I am never allowed to be my own man."

"Well, if that is what you want, let me know when you come to your senses," Alexander said angrily. He turned and stormed out of Hephaestion's room, banging the door after him, leaving a slightly startled and breathless Hephaestion behind him.

+++

A few days later, Hephaestion was sitting quietly in his room re-reading some letters from home. He wasn't exactly feeling lonely but he felt a bit alone. He and Alexander had seen each other over the last few days but had not really talked as friends.

They had fallen out before, but after a few days things had gradually just gone back to normal and they had forgotten about it. They had known each other since they were small children and you didn't just abandon your brother, your friend, your lover, just because you'd disagreed. But this time he wasn't quite so sure. Maybe they were outgrowing each other. Maybe it was time they let go of that security they had grown up with, that certainty, and discovered other friendships.

"You fucking idiot!" Alexander said, bursting into Hephaestion's room and slamming the door behind him. Knowing Alexander's temper, Hephaestion wasn't unduly perturbed by Alexander's greeting, but he stood up anyway.

"You fell into Parmenion's trap! You let him manipulate you to separate us, you idiot!" Alexander continued. "I've just had to endure an afternoon of Philotas and Nicanor trying to seduce me! They suddenly want to become my best friends because you're not around! And I had to put up with it because my father and Parmenion were watching! I couldn't risk offending them!"

Hephaestion burst out laughing. He couldn't help himself, although he clapped his hand over his mouth. The thought of Alexander trying to be polite to Parmenion's sons all afternoon was just too funny, and relief made his heart bubble.

"It isn't funny!" Alexander protested.

"Yes, it is. You can have Philotas, and I'll take Nicanor," Hephaestion laughed. "Philotas thinks too much of himself."

"He put his hand on my thigh!"

"No! What did you do?" Hephaestion asked, still grinning.

"Stared at him until he let go. If he'd moved it a finger higher, I'd have punched his face in. Here." Alexander grabbed Hephaestion's cloak off the back of the door and threw it at him. "Get your boots on. I need to go and ride this off. It's all your fault, you know. You shouldn't have listened to Parmenion."

"But," Hephaestion said, looking down at his cloak, "Parmenion said he'd teach me things. He said he'd show me how to be to you when you're king what he is to Philip now."

"Well, go kiss his arse if that's what you want," Alexander said irritably. "Hold him to it. Think up some good questions about supplies and go ask him for the answers. Ask him for an assignment he can give you and show him what you're worth. Now get your boots on."

Hephaestion put his boots on and, as they went out of the door, Alexander caught hold of him and kissed him full on the mouth, heedless of who witnessed it. "I've missed you," he said.

Hephaestion grinned at him, and put his hand on Alexander's shoulder as they walked away.

"Get off," Alexander muttered, shaking his shoulder. "I need a friend at my back, not a bloody girlfriend."

Not particularly insulted but stung nonetheless, Hephaestion pulled out ahead of Alexander and began to trot away. "I'll race you to the paddocks," he called. "Last one there has to buy that black stallion. He's too good to let him go."

"That's not fair," Alexander called, beginning to run after him as Hephaestion sped up. "You've got longer legs than me."

"Yes, but you're the better runner, great Achilles! And my ankle is still weak!"

Alexander ran after him. He beat him by a country mile, and Hephaestion was limping by the time he got to the paddocks. Alexander grinned delightedly at him. Hephaestion panting slightly, stood with his hands on hips, favouring his ankle.

"Meet your new horse," Alexander said as the grooms led out the black stallion. "I knew how much you liked him so I bought him for you two days ago."

"Alexander…" Hephaestion said, not sure he should accept such an expensive gift.

"A man who would be king must be generous," Alexander said, grinning broadly. "How else are you to know that I value your friendship and loyalty? Now don't give me a headache by arguing. Just get on his back and come for a ride with me. That's what friends do."

Hephaestion decided he would be stupid to look a gift horse in the mouth. And he was too happy to argue.