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Lethe

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Hephaistion burns.

His shoulders shake like he’s nothing more than a dried leaf about to fall from a dead tree, and for a moment his unfocused eyes see no more than shadows. Maybe they’re the dead, coming to seize him, or the ghosts of the past. Maybe his father and his mother are within reach if only Hephaistion could raise his hand.

He’s been closely acquainted with death for years – every battle casts the long shadow of Hades on everyone, from the King to the youngest, greenest pezhetairoi – but he realises now how misled he was. Alexander’s attempts at mastering death, conquering it, obliterating even, deceived Hephaistion for a long, glorious time, but no more. Immortality is conquered by Kings and Gods, and he’s merely a man – even a general of the Companion Cavalry is just another man, in front of Atropos the inflexible, who choose to tear him away from life, from glory, from love, still young, still strong, still keeping his wits about him.

The low voice of Aristotle seems to whisper again against his ears, as mild and calm as it was almost twenty years ago: hubris can only lead to our downfall.

And hubris always calls for Nemesis’ punishment – Hephaistion said it to Alexander countless times, and yet he never fully grasped the truth of it until now, now that he’s almost before Hades gates.

He wonders who Minos will see – the great general of the greatest of Kings, the dutiful Chiliarch, the obedient subject, the brave soldier. The beloved friend, the lover, the loved.

He desired to die in battle, to save the kingdom – or the King, or the honour, like Patroclus, not in a bed, spitting and gasping and sweating. This is how the Gods smile upon men, reminding them of their mortality, and as much as Alexander will scream and rage - this is a reminder to him, as well.

He cannot move, cannot even toss and turn on the bed, like an invisible rope is binding him, holding him still, and his eyelids hurt, heavy with dizziness, so he can’t see the feathery thing that is brushing against his left hand.

After a while, like a thick mist suddenly rising up, he becomes aware of the presence of a man, sleeping soundly with his head resting on the bed, fair hair tickling Hephaistion’s fingers – he knows the man, he’s known him for his entire life, he knows him more than himself. Hephaistion desires to stroke Alexander’s hair one last time, but fingers are lead, bronze, marble already, unmovable as if he’s already a statue instead of a man.

Maybe this is some kind of punishment – they loved too much, they went too far, they conquered everything only to fall a moment after.

Those who love too much lose everything, a Persian once said to him.

Darkness is falling in the room, but he can’t say if it’s evening already or if the past is casting its long shadows, stretching like weightless hands which caress his face. His father. His mother. Cleitus. Parmenion. Philotas. All waiting for him.

He could be anywhere, tenuous like the light of his soul is in-between worlds – he could be in his room in Ecbatana or waiting for Charon across the Styx.

But his heart is back in Mieza, years and stadia ago, when they rambled with Aristotle on the riverbank trails, among the cool streams of water, gushed from the springs around, believing they could be Herakles, Odysseus, Patroclus.

He remembers Alexander sneaking at night in his little bare room, whispering all night, declaiming poems, discussing politics, sometimes dozing off, other times only enjoying the steady, silent comfort of friendship.

He remembers a night when Alexander was silent, but oddly so, still like the unplucked string of a kithara, ready to be coaxed into speaking, but gently, skillfully.

“What is troubling you?” he asked.

Alexander pressed his shoulder against his, their knees bumping on the narrow bed, still not answering, his silence almost sullen, tense.

“Do I have to be troubled to seek your company?” he answered at last after Hephaistion didn’t press.

“Is it your father?”

“Must it always be my father?” was Alexander’s sharp reply. “Must I think about him from dawn to dusk?”

Hephaistion smiled in the darkness. “You’re right – it is well past dusk but not yet dawn, so you are allowed not to think of him.”

He remembers what happened after even with fever burning in his head, with piercing clarity, as if is happening again, as if it will happen forever when they are both long gone.

Alexander pushed him by the shoulders, his left arm and leg flailing off the bed, his back pinned on the cushions – they surely weren’t new to this kind of roughhousing, since they frequently wrestled during training, and Alexander was unpredictable – but waking up the other boys, or worse, someone else, wasn’t wise. Not that Alexander was wise, but Hephaistion tried. Sometimes.

“Shouldn’t we wait until tomorrow to spar?” he suggested.

Alexander kept him pinned with his elbows on Hephaistion’s arms. “Why, because for once I am winning?”

“I can let you win tomorrow...” Hephaistion hooked his ankles on the back of Alexander’s knees and flipped them off until they were but a mere heap of limbs and feet and elbows and knees and sharp bones, trying not to fall off the bed, managing only because their bodies knew each other’s so well already – hands on shoulders, hips, thighs.

“You never let me win,” Alexander huffed, his breath hot against Hephaistion’s ear. “But has it ever occurred you that maybe I am letting you win all the time?”

Hephaistion chuckled. No, it never occurred him, because Alexander was always, always vicious and competitive and fast and most of all, he loved to win. But maybe from time to time, he needed to lose, too.

“That is a kindness that suits you, my prince, letting me win so my spirits aren’t crushed, and taking defeat so well,” he joked, because even then, he knew he could tease Alexander in the secluded darkness of his bedroom, at night.

Alexander just groaned loudly, somewhere between his neck and shoulder. “If people hear you speaking to me like that, they will talk.”

“They will not hear if you could just lower your voice...” Hephaistion whispered back.

“Aren’t you always right.” Alexander raised up his face, his beautiful, fine features half swallowed up by the shadows, his eyes hard and focused, a hand still pressed against Hephaistion’s shoulder but not forcefully, this time. “I wonder if you ever did something reckless in your life, something that isn’t expected by the Gods, or the King, or Aristotle, or your father.”

This wasn’t a simple question, there was a purpose, an intent that Hephaistion couldn’t decipher yet.

“I wouldn’t know…” Hephaistion answered, truthfully. Surely, maybe sometimes he eavesdropped a conversation, or he laughed at their friends when they did something clumsy during training, or ate too many sweets even if he knew he would’ve been sick after, but they seemed such silly things. “I feel like I must say that I hope I didn’t.”

“This is such a faultless answer,” Alexander said, and he placed his warm fingers on Hephaistion’s neck, just where his blood was pulsing, quick and sudden, like after a fight.

Roughhousing and close quarters they were familiar with – this, not much, but before he could even think, Alexander leaned in, his sweet, sweet lips on Hephaistion’s cheek, under his eye, with a tenderness he didn’t think him capable of.

He stayed very still, feeling like one who’s dreaming and knows it, waiting for the illusion to shatter, except he wasn’t sleeping, and there weren’t many ways to read this – it dawned on him suddenly, that they weren’t just close, they were one on top of the other, that their legs were entwined, that they were embracing like lovers. But he was only Hephaistion, and Alexander could be trying to prove a point – unknowable, for sure…

“This should be-” Alexander murmured, his mouth so close that talking seemed an impossible task. “The moment you act like the reasonable man you’d like to become.”

The truth was, he knew he should be careful – Alexander was not only the prince, he was Alexander: you can’t stare at the sun too long without being burned. But he couldn’t be careful; he had never been so aware of Alexander’s beauty, the careless way his curls fell on his forehead, the straight nose, the lips curved in a smile that seemed to hold the most tender promises.

The warm stream of desire was already flowing through his veins, his heart in his mouth, ready to be kissed away – he never kissed anyone before.

Alexander leaned in, their lips brushing shyly until Hephaistion clutched him in his arms and let himself be held in return, mouths open and eager to learn how to speak the secret language of lovers. His fingers slid on Alexander’s hot, bare skin.

This is real, he believes it is, more real than the ache in his lungs or the shivers or the shadows falling on his clouded eyes – even the darkness hurts, even looking at Alexander, sleeping, unaware, fair head beside his arm, still looking like the boy he loved. He closes his eyes, and before his soul leaves this world to join the other one, misty and gloomy and still, he remembers sparkly eyes and honey-sweet kisses.