“Tell me something I don’t know.”
The night was humid and hot beyond description, almost suffocating. Hephaestion could feel beads of sweat rolling down his back into the Royal Bed, probably joining the already soaked through Egyptian silk.
He was on his side, staring straight ahead at a mop of reddish blonde hair that shined under the light of the brazier close at hand. It almost looked like fire dancing slowly across an oak branch.
Hephaestion could feel a pair of light grey, almost transparent eyes drilling into his own dark blue ones. His beloved always had a way to command even without moving, it had been one of the first things he had noticed when he first saw him. He had walked into the Throne room back in Aigai, trailing behind his father, and even from afar he could feel an intensity staring at him. Only when people had parted and they had made their way close to the King had he found the source of the intensity. In a corner, next to the Queen, a little boy was openly staring at him. If the Queen was striking in posture and motion, the boy was more subdued in movements but superiorly powerful. Only later had Hephaestion learned from his father that the boy, Prince Alexander, was his age but appeared younger. The hard Spartan-style training at a young age had kept him small, almost petite. His father had mentioned off-handedly that the King could still have another son and right the wrongs he had made with that one. But even back then, Hephaestion knew. That intensity and that analytical force behind those eyes could never be put away and shelved for anything else but Kingship.
It would be years later that they would cross more than looks. But that one first look had crystalled Alexander’s spirit in Hephaestion’s mind. That first intensity would show itself again and again, in every action, thought or idea. In every interaction, debate or argument. And in every reaching out for each other, every kiss, and every silent surrender to passion.
Alexander was fire in every action and air in every thought. He could light up and surge, enveloping everything in an instant. But he could also blow softly by, whispering between idea and idea, morphing itself to its surroundings.
That was why Hephaestion loved him. Alexander was everything he wasn’t.
Hephaestion was water in his reactions and earth in his plans. He could find his way through everything, opening paths in the undergrowth surreptitiously but strongly and steadily. But he could also stay put and be a source of new things, offering everything needed for growth.
Hephaestion knew that if they ever parted, they would keep looking for each other for all eternity.
He was brought back to the present by a low whisper, almost drowned out by the sound of the mighty river Nile close at hand.
“Patroclus, tell me something I don’t know.”
Hephaestion lowered his gaze and found his King’s pale eyes. Alexander was staring. Not looking but staring at him. Hephaestion smiled slowly, reaching out his left arm to envelop the rather smallish man. He would rather die than admit that he loved his King’s light body more than he could ever love a heavier build.
“I’ve always thought your eyes are too far apart, Achilles,” Hephaestion whispered back, playfully.
The eyes across his lit up. Alexander slowly raised his hand and slapped Hephaestion across the shoulder.
“I meant, like something true. Like how we used to do back in Mieza,” he whispered.
“Like all the lies I used to tell you back in Mieza, you mean?” Hephaestion answered, still too enthralled by his playful smile to be serious.
Alexander scooted over, scrunching his face in a fake enraged pout. Before Hephaestion had time to react, he was in the middle of a very efficient tickle attack. His King would apply strategy even to something as this, so the attack carried through different fronts. Neck, back, thighs, even feet were strategically attacked. Hephaestion naturally fought back, only to be repelled by a twisting Alexander and a couple of rough elbows in his ribs. Attacking from below, the center abdomen was surrounded and mercilessly assaulted, resulting in a counter-attack by Alexander centralized in his lower frontal neck.
Only after some minutes and a plea for surrender by both parties did the battle come to a close, both fronts equally exhausted and breathless.
This had been a game they had played for years, both secretly enjoying it more than they would admit. It had helped conclude and close some tense discussions and arguments, and it had precluded more than a couple of passionate nights. It was a game between boys that soon became men, schoolboys that became soldiers.
Hephaestion had been thankful ever since Alexander took the throne, that behind closed doors and under private tents, Alexander could still be Alexander. The first nights after Philip’s death, Hephaestion had been scared out of his wits. He had barely seen Alexander and he was sure everything was about to change for him. But after the first week of silence, he had been summoned one night to the King’s quarters, only to be received by Alexander in the same way he would receive him anywhere. The tickle fight that night had at first seemed out of place, but it had soon turned to something else. They were in the same arena. They would be fine.
And they had been fine since then. Hephaestion was currently lying in the Royal Bed, right in the heart of Memphis, in the center of what was now the Kingdom of Alexander III of Macedon, hegemon of the Hellenic League, King of Macedon, liberator of the Levant and soon-to-be-crowned Pharaoh of Egypt.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit crazy that, after all this time, you still can’t win a tickle fight?” Hephaestion whispered dryly, turning his head towards Alexander who was lying on his back, eyes closed, a smile on his lips.
Alexander’s smile widened, his whole body going taunt as he raised his arms above his head in a lazy stretch. His level of comfort made Hephaestion sigh lightly, raising a prayer of thanks to the whole pantheon of Greek and Egyptian gods.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit crazy that, after all this time, I still let you win?” the King said nonchalantly, arms still above his head. Just as the last word rolled from his tongue, he turned his head and looked straight at his companion.
Hephaestion was struck speechless. Alexander wasn’t joking. But he wasn’t talking about the tickle fights, either. In his eyes, there was a vulnerability he remembered seeing once or twice in his life, something akin to open surrender. He was looking at Hephaestion but truly looking straight into his soul.
Hephaestion had to look away as he felt color rising up his chest. He rarely blushed, but Alexander had the power to make it happen with one look. Hephaestion wasn’t that good with vulnerability, that was something Alexander had taught him through the endless outbursts of emotions he was capable of throwing upon him. The look he was receiving at the moment was an example of those explosions.
Alexander had a way to make him feel. It was like being pushed into the open sea, being caught up by a massive wave and being thrashed around. It always caught Hephaestion by surprise and scared him senseless. It was like losing control but somehow enjoying it.
Hephaestion felt a warm hand in his chin, lightly tugging to make him look back at the source of the intensity beside him. He resisted a minute or two, only to give in after a quiet, and never to be forgotten, “Please look at me, my soul”.
The moment their eyes met, Hephaestion felt all resistance melt away. Alexander was here next to him, open, naked, and raw. His face was an open book to Hephaestion, after all, he had perfected the art of reading him. But still what he found at that moment was too brilliant to look at for too long. It was a pure innocence he had forgotten about between battles and bloodbaths. It was a transparent adoration he had dreamed about but never dared think about in daylight.
It was the old Alexander. The stripped-down Alexander.
Alexander in the middle of a sunny grove in Mieza, the sunlight illuminating him from the back. Alexander in the pebbled floor of their room, playing the lyre softly. Alexander on a quiet morning, throwing himself across him, laying his head on his lap to be caressed with closed eyes.
This was his lover, his beloved, and his life all in one.
Hephaestion was still speechless as Alexander pulled his chin in, meeting his lips halfway and sliding his body closer so they met skin-against-skin. It was a chaste kiss, but slow and passionate. It had no wildness behind it, it had a steady glow, like a candle in the middle of a dark familiar corridor.
As Hephaestion encircled his King with his arms and pushed him on his back, taking the upper hand, he could feel the skin underneath him shiver, goosebumps all over, hairs standing on end. That was exactly how Hephaestion felt on the inside. If Alexander could be quick to react physically, Hephaestion could snap emotionally in an instant. His King made him powerfully weak.
He would do anything for him. He had almost done everything for him already.
Leave behind his home, decline his claim to his father’s state, only to kill in his name and conquer in his stead. Glory and fame had Alexander’s name but Hephaestion knew he wouldn’t want it as much if he had no one to share it with. For what it was worth, the pliant body under his was mortal and had mortal weaknesses. And those well-kept weaknesses were not well-kept from Hephaestion. They were there from day one, open for inspection any time.
Right now, one of his bigger weaknesses was close at hand. That weakness being no other than Hephaestion.
“Stop thinking, I can hear the little mouse running inside that scalp,” Alexander said playfully, breaking the kiss but making sure to make up for it by circling Hephaestion’s waist with his legs.
“I think too much?” Hephaestion answered, smirking as he placed a light kiss on top of Alexander’s temple.
“You think too much for someone who is on top of his King,” Alexander answered, closing the distance and capturing his general’s lips in a heated kiss.
Words were not needed after that.
A slight rain began to fall outside the tent, rattling the outside shell and exalting the pleasant smell of reeds and, from somewhere, the smell of cinnamon. Outside the Royal tent, the mighty river Nile kept flowing, frogs croaking softly in tune with its flow. Humidity increased every moment and in between Egyptian silks, it made conqueror and conquered sweat. Neither minded much, they had other things to take care of.
Days came and went and the coronation ceremony had arrived. Good omens had fallen from the sky, the Egyptians said, being blessed with rain on such an important day. The humidity reminded both Alexander and Hephaestion of the mortality of it all, and of some other things.
Hephaestion, one more General between Generals, met Alexander’s kohl-rimmed eyes as he stood above them and flashed him a smirk. The slight upwards tug at the corner of the now Pharaoh of Egypt indicated he understood and remembered that humid night, too.
Hours later, Hephaestion would approach his King and to lean in to whisper some words in his ear. Only after he had turned and walked away did he wonder if Alexander had understood or simply failed to react.
An eruption of mirthful laughter behind him told him he had understood. Hephaestion had been sure then that another private ceremony had been added to their list. It stood as this: sending disgusting food to each other to see who would decline first, celebrating their dates of birth by ceasing fighting for the day, engaging in tickle fights when possible, and now, the newest addition, telling each other “something they did not know before”.
As Hephaestion took his seat in his low couch, accepting a cup of wine from Perdiccas and engaging in superficial conversation, he could feel Alexander looking intently at him. For now, they would play coy and not interact further, dragging the evening to impossible lengths to pull each other taut and weak. Another tactic they used when they felt playful.
“What made Alexander laugh like a young boy, Hephaestion?” Perdiccas asked playfully, interrupting their vapid conversation with a smile.
Hephaestion had expected this, and had planned ahead.
“Not much, I just told him he looked like his mother with those kohl-rimmed eyes,” Hephaestion answered, eliciting a giggle from Perdiccas.
Not another word about Alexander was shared between them and the night dragged on.
It had to be almost dawn when finally Hephaestion made his way to the Royal chambers, provided by the kindly, submissive Egyptians. Thankfully, only the regular Macedonian guards were close at hand, and they simply stood at attention as he crossed the threshold and closed the heavy door behind him.
Instantly, he was assaulted by a tiny tornado, part-Titan it seemed in its wildness.
“Tell me something you don’t know, tell me something you don’t know. I could kill you with kisses right now,” Alexander was clinging to him, arms and legs around him, face close to his.
Hephaestion had to laugh as he held his King, pleasantly surprised to find Alexander soberer than he was when he left the Hall. He had hoped they would meet with the words he had whispered to Alexander still fresh in their minds.
“You liked my little present in the form of a whisper?” asked Hephaestion quietly, looking intently into Alexander’s eyes.
“Take me to bed and find out,” he answered plainly, gaze softening.
After intent explorations, comprehensive attacks, and strategically executed sieges, they lay side-by-side, quick breaths coming back and forth between them. All sighs, moans, and quick whispers had been shared, only looks remained.
Lying on their sides, they were motionless next to each other, face-to-face. Time went by in perfect silence, their preferred mode of sharing nights if they ever had to choose one. There was something sacred to their stillness, a complete comfort in just sharing time.
As a slight breeze flew from outside, curtains billowing softly into their bed, Hephaestion heard the words. Alexander was half asleep, head resting on Hephaestion’s outstretched arm, mouth partly open.
“I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Even the gods are envious of us.”
It was barely a whisper, but it sent a shiver down Hephaestion’s spine. His King was repeating the words Hephaestion had whispered in his ears earlier in the night, but the softness of the voice and the place they were at now made them sound different.
Hephaestion closed his eyes and raised a long prayer to father Zeus. Too close to hubris. May the Furies never catch up with them. He would sacrifice tomorrow in the largest temple in Memphis. May the Apis bull and Ptah keep them safe too, if they must.
He scooted over, enveloping Alexander in a tight embrace, drawing slow circles down his back as he always did when his King was feeling too much at once. He inhaled the scent of the reddish blonde hair and exhaled softly, relaxing every muscle.
The Fates may allow them to go far, or they may take them in their sleep. “For what it’s worth,” Hephaestion thought, “may they keep us together as long as possible.”
Morpheus came and Hephaestion succumbed to sleep, not without sending one last prayer to fickle Aphrodite.
High above in the Egyptian sky, Osiris traveled down the Nile in the stars, presiding over all. Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Macedonians alike. They would all one day join him, in his seat in the underworld. The Lord of Silence would prevail in the end. For Kings and soldiers, civilians and slaves. Lovers and Beloveds.
And whilst the rain poured down on Memphis, curtains billowing and soft bodies reaching out for each other looking for warmth, Osiris waited under the crocodiles and reeds.
For a King and Pharaoh one day would come too, chasing down one soldier with desperate cries. And that soldier would be waiting.
And in their human ignorance, their love would shine upon the underworld and into the upper spheres, lightning up across time. All the way to Olympus and down into Hades. Piercing the abode of Marduk and Tiamat, trespassing upon Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.
Joining the gods.