The villa at Mieza was grand and well-outfitted, but hardly on the same scale as the palace, which required the boys, as few as they were, to sometimes end up two or three in a room. Alexander's had been picked out for him ahead of time, of course, and it was clearly the best room in the house. There was a wide window overlooking the water, as distant as it was, and some kind of curling vine at the window-- Hephaestion could remember it curling around a pillar outside the Queen's quarters, almost like a snake making its sibilant, steady way to the sky, to crawl into some unsuspecting god's bed.
Hephaistion lingered by the door, unsure if Alexander was thinking what he, Hephaistion, was wishing for-- and who knew what ran through Alexander's mind? He was running a finger absently over a carving of a leaf on the door. Alexander braced his elbows against the window and raised a hand to shade his eyes against the sun.
"You'll be sleeping in here, of course," he said casually, and Hepaistion grinned, looking down at his hands. He let go of the door handle and made his way to the window.
"Do you think you could be happy here?" asked Hephaistion, quietly. Alexander was silent for a long while; Hephaistion was beginning to get worried until he noticed the slope of Alexander's shoulders-- normally held straight, as if his father were present and inspecting him, or tensed, as if they were hunting and a boar was close, or if he'd found out his father had taken another boy or bride or both, and was waiting for the fallout. There was a relief in them, the muscles moving smooth under skin that always seemed sun-browned and golden. Alexander exhaled, cupping his chin in a hand, elbow braced against the windowsill. Hephaistion saw that he was smiling, and he wrapped his arm companionably around Alexander's neck, kissed him soft, on the thin, sensitive skin behind his ear, where his golden hair curled away from his face like small wings.
"You will be," Hephaistion answered himself, and as Alexander relaxed enough to lean slightly into the taller boy's embrace, he knew it would be so.
Hephaistion never did well in the cold, Alexander noticed. He supposed it reminded Hephaistion too much of home, of empty halls and his father's laughter far away, in an entirely different part of the house, one he wasn't allowed to enter. Alexander knew that Hephaistion's relationship with his father had improved since his, Alexander's, friendship with Hephaistion had strengthened, to the point that it became topic of, and could withstand, the scrutiny and whispers of the palace court.
"Philotas and Kassandros made something up again," Hephaistion said, carefully keeping his voice neutral, the note of complaint barely audible. "They've probably been in front of the fire for hours now, with mulled wine." In response, Alexander shuffled closer to Hephaistion and threw his blanket around the other's shivering shoulders.
"You shouldn't," Hephaistion scolded, and Alexander rolled his eyes before burrowing into the welcome warmth of Hephaistion's side. "What if you fell ill, because you weren't warm enough?" he continued, though half-heartedly, as Alexander huffed companionably against Hephaistion's shoulder. "Your mother would kill me," Hephaistion ended plaintively, and Alexander laughed, his breath making small white clouds in the chill.
Huddled under their blankets, they stared balefully at the foxhole again.
"διαχείμαση," Alexander said, shaking his head. His ears had turned pink in the cold. "The old man has some interesting ideas, doesn't he? Still, I don't understand why we couldn't have observed the wolves. Or the bears."
"Only you," said Hephaistion, more fondly than exasperatedly. "Would be willing to tramp through this cold and damp to track down wild animals and watch them sleep."
"That's the beauty of it," Alexander said. "When else to get close to a beast than when he's defenseless? Pelts, Hephaistion. Think of the pelts."
"Think of death," added Hephaistion. He rubbed his runny nose and sniffed. "Think of being trapped in a cave with a bear. I bet you he's only half as angry as you are when you've been awakened unawares."
"What you say does have merit," Alexander said pompously, affecting Kassandros, and Hephaistion would have exploded in laughter if it weren't for the sudden rustling in the underbrush. The fox was back.
"Day six," said Alexander. "Fox returned to its den with rabbit carcass. And still no sleep for any of us."
"Perhaps they aren't creatures who sleep through the winter," Hephaistion offered, and Alexander said nothing, but leaned into the crook of Hephaistion's arm. "That's quite strange, isn't it? He has to sleep. The old man thinks it must warm-blooded, like the wolves."
"If he's basing this on appearances," Alexander growled into Hephaistion's skin. "I'm going to be very angry with him, when we get back."
Hephaistion laughed at that, but quietly-- Alexander felt it like a hum through where his skin met Hephaistion's, and it made something grow warm in his throat. There was no longer any movement in the bushes.
Some time later, when Alexander could hardly feel his fingers, even when he curled them around Hephaistion's bicep and held on (though Hephaistion had made a strange, squeaking sound at the touch of Alexander's cold fingers to his almost-warmed skin), Hephaistion said, blearily, as if from a long way away-- "Do you think we can go closer now?"
"We might as well," said Alexander, though he was reluctant to be moved from the warmth, however meagre it was. He waited for Hephaistion to get to his feet, then realized belatedly that he usually led the questing.
"I guess we could leave it for later," Hephaistion said.
"We can't fall asleep here," Alexander reminded him.
Hephaistion moved away suddenly, sending Alexander crashing into the iced ground. Hephaistion got to his feet and surveyed Alexander's comically prone form, nose and face red, extremities almost blue.
"A quick peek then," Hephaistion said grumpily, drawing the blankets around him like a cloak. "Then we run back. No matter how many interesting herbs you spot for the old man."
"Done," Alexander said, clambering to his feet with his characteristic grace. He used the blankets to tug Hephaistion over to the hole in the underbrush. He parted it gingerly first with a foot, and when there was no noise or movement, bent down and used the tips of his fingers. What he saw in the underbrush stopped him short.
"Oh," said Hephaistion, when Alexander moved aside to let him see. There were two foxes curled in the hole-- one the familiar red, so much like Hephaistion's hair when he was a boy, and the other a pale, almost silver white. The white one turned on its side suddenly, and the red one instinctively filled in the gaps with his paws and tail, which flicked over to hide the other fox's exposed belly, protecting it from predators.
"So, no pelts," Hephaistion said, as Alexander got to his feet. Alexander gave him a look, raising his eyebrows. He glanced back down at the hole at their feet, now hidden again by the underbrush.
"No pelts," Alexander agreed, his voice loud in the silent clearing. "Race you back?"
He could have left off saying it-- Hephaistion had hoisted the blankets around his shoulders, before sprinting towards the foot of the mountain, without any form of warning.
Alexander debated on tackling him into a snowbank, but realized that he could no longer feel his fingertips, and raced after Hephaistion.
It took longer for Alexander to get his sea legs, instead of Hephaistion, but he made sure no one noticed. If anyone did, they didn't mention it, and Hephaistion closed an easy hand over Alexander's whitening knuckles clutching the side of the ship, as he made quiet conversation with Niarchos.
Alexander cast an approving eye over the ship's prow, her swabbed decks, her busy, businesslike crew.
"She's a good ship," he said, and Niarchos preened, clearing his throat proudly.
"I'm glad you think so," he replied, placing his hands on his hips. "For she's in your service."
The last part he said quietly-- Niarchos had only made captain of his own ship, and the navy was still very much Philip's. If there was any wind of Niarchos' loyalty to anyone other than his King, it would be his head on a pike as a warning.
But Niarchos had gone with them to Epiros. He had been there in Mieza, and although there was no way of knowing for sure, when Alexander entered Asia, Hephaistion knew Niarchos would be there as well.
Alexander nodded his head gravely, in thanks. His grip on the ship's wood relaxed-- Hephaistion could feel the fine bones of Alexander's hand loosen and settle under his fingers, and he lifted his own hand gingerly.
"Tell us," Alexander said. "Where shall we sleep?"
"You can take my cabin," Niarchos replied. "Though we've not set up the second bed, yet--" His voice rose at the end interrogatively, his head tilted to the side. If it had been anyone but Niarchos asking, Hephaistion would have drawn his sword already.
But Niarchos had gone with them to Epiros. He had nudged Hephaistion towards the stables as they had watched Alexander dismount from Bucephalus and fall straight into his father's arms. Hephaistion's sword stayed sheathed.
"Thank you," Alexander said. "You're very kind." Hephaistion hid his smile behind his hand, leaned back slightly so his shoulder hit Alexander's companionably. The sun shone warmly on them, its light reflecting off the waters below. Alexander raised a hand against the glare. "You're very kind," he repeated, and Niarchos' mouth twisted knowingly. He clapped Hephaistion on the shoulder and was gone, bellowing orders at his crew. The sail rose above their heads, a silky blue light enough to be the same color as the sky. It billowed as it caught the wind, and Alexander took a deep breath, shoulder knocking back against Hephaistion's as the ship set sail.
"We should go below-decks," he said. "Check the conditions there. Then up at the prow-- I should like to see where Niarchos plans to take us."
"I, as well," Hephaistion said, watching as the steward entered the captain's quarters with yards of linen bundled in his arms. It looked like a hammock.
"Are you coming?" said Alexander impatiently. His feet were braced a hip's width apart-- except for the tightness in his jaw, no one would be able to tell that he was uncomfortable. "We can straighten out the sleeping arrangements later. I should very much like to try the hammock," he said, following Hephaistion's gaze as the steward nudged the door closed. "To see if it feels any different than one on land." Hephaistion nodded, and pushed away from where he was leaning, walking where he always did, at Alexander's side.
But the hammock set up in the captain's quarters remained untouched for the days of Alexander's visit on the boat. The bed was big enough, Alexander had insisted, and though Hephaistion had expected him to toss and turn in discomfort as the ship rolled through the surf, he had never seen Alexander quite as at ease as he was for those few days at sea, the sea rocking the ship as a mother's hand rocks the cradle of a cranky child.
The summer after their visit to Niarchos' first ship was the summer following Philip's death. Hephaistion would remember the funeral games, and the endless skins of wine, but most of all he would remember Alexander turning away from all of it, looking towards the direction of his father's tomb, hastily erected but no less finer than what a king deserved.
By then Pausanias' cross had been picked clean by carrion birds, and sometimes Hephaistion would catch Alexander looking in that direction as well, regret coloring his features.
They were back at the palace now, Alexander in his boyhood room and Hephaistion ostensibly in one a little ways away, but every servant who had ever looked upon Alexander with love and loyalty alight in their eyes averted their gazes as Hephaistion navigated the halls at night to push open Alexander's door, and always locking it tightly behind him. If this was the small comfort their boy-king demanded, then the people would pay with their silence, reverence for his greatness sealing their lips against the malice that found it so easy to thrive in the halls of the palace.
There was a pond not far from the palace, and when Alexander was not needed in the throne room, or with his advisors, or with his generals, or with his mother, he would retreat to its cooler embrace, floating on his back as he thought about what lay east. Hephaistion often followed him there, never comfortable with not knowing where Alexander was, and the two of them would spend a quiet hour or two in the hidden reaches of the pond's vegetation, greenery turning yellow in the heat, the trees surrounding it sometimes shedding its leaves as the summer sun began to ebb and weaken in anticipation of the coming seasons.
It was there that Alexander first spoke seriously of Asia, his head pillowed on Hephaistion's lap as Hephaistion ran his fingers through Alexander's hair, pulling at the knots.
"You've always wanted to go," Hephaistion said practically. "Well, now we can." There was no question of whether or not he would not go with Alexander, or if it would push through at all. Alexander was King now, his word was absolute, and all of Macedon would echo it.
"Asia," Alexander said again, rapturously, thinking of the battles and the distant Encircling Ocean, and he was about to say all that he thought of, recite his litany of conquest in the same dreamy, drunken voice, but then Hephaistion's fingers snagged on a stubborn knot, and he cried out in surprise. Hephaistion would have laughed, only Alexander chose that moment to propel the two of them head-first, into the sun-warmed waters of the pond.
The queen's letters often came at a constant pace, when they were in Mieza, with only a few days separating them, but on campaign it was harder to find them, so the letters piled up until a month and a half of palace intrigue and conspiracy theory lay in Alexander's lap.
They still read the letters the same way they always had, wherever they were-- Hephaistion curled up behind Alexander, pointy, shaven chin rested in the crook of his neck or on the slope of his muscled shoulder. Their eyes moved at the same pace, they breathed in sync. It was observed that when Alexander read the letters alone he had the habit of checking himself in laughter, then glancing quickly to the left as if to meet a pair of eyes as amused as he was. And when there was none there, he would look back at the letter, mouth freezing into a discontent shape that not even the Persian boy could shake easily. The reading of the letters had always been an activity for the two of them, Alexander and Hephaistion, Achilles and Patroklos, a habit as constant and familiar as the warmth of a newly-lit fire, the cold chill of water from a mountain stream, and as private and impenetrable as the walls and goings-on of a fortress.
Olympias often sent letters without waiting for Alexander's reply, and depending on the path of the campaign, some messengers found Alexander more easily than others, so there were times that Alexander got his letters out of order, and would know the outcome of a particular clash between Antipatros and Olympias even before he knew the reason. It was one such case the winter before Alexander went after Darius, when Hephaistion found him in his tent, opening a bundle from Olympias.
"Oh good," said Alexander, looking up briefly as Hephaistion pushed open the flap of his tent. "You're here. Look what Mother has sent."
There was the usual assortment of tasteful, brilliant bibelots, wrought from gold and silver, inlaid with jewels that offset Alexander's coloring, from his eyes to the burnished gold of his hair, to the bright blue of his eyes. There were yards of silk and linen, orange and red and green, fanning from the center of Alexander's bed like the leaves and petals of an exotic plant. He pointed to a bolt of linen, dyed indigo, the purplish blue of the hue turning almost reddish in the dim lamplight. "I think that's yours," Alexander said, laying down scroll after scroll of expensive parchment, sealed with the insignia of his mother's royal ring, on the bed.
"Is it?" Hephaistion said, crossing his arms over his chest. "She said so?"
"Well," Alexander said, biting his lip. He grinned up at Hephaistion through the gilded fringe of his hair. "Not in so many words, no. But it's far too dark for me. It would flatter you, see," he continued, getting to his feet and snatching up the bolt of fabric, holding the cloth up to Hephaistion's chest like a shopkeeper flattering a buyer. At closer glance, it was far thicker than Hephaistion had supposed, and there was enough fabric to make a cloak if he wanted, perhaps with a cowl, warm against the chill of the unfamiliar wind of the Persian plains.
"Feel it," Alexander commanded, and Hephaistion did obediently, taking a pinch of the cloth between his fingers. "It is meant for you," Alexander crooned, and Hephaistion laughed.
"You would have made an excellent vendor in a market, I always thought," he said, and Alexander paused in folding the fabric back into its original shape, to glare at Hephaistion, his brows almost meeting as he frowned, though the incorrigible curve of his mouth gave away his amusement.
"It's an honorable profession," Alexander said seriously, leaning the bolt against the side of the tent and clambering back into the bed. "If one could leave off cheating."
Hephaistion made an agreeable noise and followed him, brushing aside the fabric laid out on the bed so he could sit with his legs curled up, his front flush against Alexander's back. There was sweat beading delicately on the nape of Alexander's neck-- strange, since it was already quite cold where they were, though nothing like the winters at Mieza. He raised a hand and brushed his thumb against the back of Alexander's throat, pushing aside the fall of hair that hid it.
Alexander sighed, and relaxed against Hephaistion's chest.
Hephaistion knew Alexander would never say it himself, so he began delicately, his thumb kneading lightly at the bone at the base of Alexander's neck. "The letters have accumulated," he said, in the tone of mere observation. "There must be a month's worth of news in them."
"Two months," Alexander corrected, pushing himself back a little more. He was almost in Hephaistion's lap, and half a foot away from where the letters lay, piled up on top of one another, like vipers in a basket. "I've yet to find out if Antipatros ever scheduled that meeting with Alexandros about the uprising in Illyria, for it would be a shame for us to turn back now, as we've already begun our march."
"It is a bit late for that," Hephaistion agreed. "Perhaps it would be better if you looked upon your mother's letters with new eyes in the morning, rather than force yourself to finish them tonight, for you will, once you start." Olympias had a gift for description, and often her letters, though they sent a pang through Alexander, could turn out quite humorous and witty, as good as one of those humorous texts, a comedy, from Athens.
Alexander tensed at that, but Hephaistion was ready for it, and he cupped the back of Alexander's neck with one hand, and shook it lightly from side to side. "And you're tired, aren't you." It lacked the uncertainty of a question, and Hephaistion turned his head so he could press his lips lightly against the sweaty skin of Alexander's neck. "Her letters will be there in the morning, you know."
"Yes," Alexander said, and for all that it was whispered, it did not lack the conviction that accompanied all of Alexander's gestures. His muscles were almost entirely relaxed; he was pliant in Hephaistion's arms.
Before Hephaistion could ask if he was to return to his own tent, a steady rhythm of rain began to drum on the surface of the tent-- Hephaistion could hear men cry out in surprise outside as fires were extinguished and bedding was dragged into tents. The men had found the Persian winters kinder than Macedonian ones, and had laid down their bedding outside, unaware that rainstorms featured prominently in what stood for winter in Persia, before snow could ever fall, and then only in its distant, mountainous areas.
Alexander rose and gathered the contents of his mother's package, placing them onto the floor. He met Hephaistion's eyes and nodded, once, as Hephaistion raised himself up and extinguished the lamp that hung over the bed.
Alexander claimed that his earliest memory was his mother: her voice, the low and beautiful cadence of her native tongue, the way she waved her fingers in front of his face to amuse his infant eyes. No one would disbelieve him, of course, knowing that he was much more attached to her in his childhood, than to his father. But no one would ever guess that there was another who would take precedence over her, who would catch Alexander with a knowing hand on his arm instead of with the ghost of a cord around his belly.
Their lives were built up of so many moments that no one ever saw, though many guessed at. Many would preoccupy themselves with what they thought happened behind the doors of bedrooms or the flaps of tents, when the most important instances of love between the two of them occurred out in the open, where anyone could come upon them and witness it.
One such moment took place during an early spring in Mieza, which was rare enough in itself.
Alexander had been running down the steps of the house, Hephaistion behind him as always. As he had rounded the bend in the flight of stairs he had called behind him, "Hurry up, for we shall miss it." He could no longer remember what it is he desperately wanted to see-- perhaps it had been the month his father had allowed Bucephalus to be brought to him, after a long winter which the horse spent in the cosseted shelter of the palace stables, or the time where a white deer had found itself entrapped in the gardens, and had disdainfully accepted a handful of fruit from Ptolemy, who had first noticed it against the white of the snow, and then Alexander, who had petted its pale speckled fur as it nosed affectionately at his fine, light hair.
He had turned around again before he reached the doors, looking up at Hephaistion on the steps. "Are you with me?" he had called, and Hephaistion had met his eyes in surprise, his mouth falling open even as his eyes had warmed in a smile.
The look on his face had arrested Alexander, pinned him to his place at the foot of his stairs as one of Aristotle's specimens in their containers. There had been tenderness alight in Hephaistion's eyes, loyalty shaping the curve of his mouth, and that certain, frightening, urgent assurance of his love flickering in the muscles of his jaw. It had been enough for even the constant voice of the god inside Alexander to quieten, even for a moment, to merely watch as Hephaistion descended the stairs.
"I am with you," Hephaistion had called out in reply, in his high boy's voice, but with a man's self-possession coloring his every word. He had reached Alexander where he had paused, at the foot of the steps, and Hephaistion had reached out to touch Alexander's cheek with cool fingers. He had bent and kissed Alexander on the mouth, lip spreading in a smile so Alexander could feel it.
Hephaistion's eyes were dancing when he leaned back, and he squeezed Alexander's arm companionably. "I am with you always," he assured Alexander confidently, his voice quiet and sure, so far from the first early days of their friendship, with Hephaistion looking to Alexander for approval in reply to his every word, his every gesture.
Alexander had closed his eyes with joy, and he had felt Hephaistion's grip around his wrist tighten, and a breeze had blown through the thrown open doors of the house, ruffling his hair, the smell of new greenery suddenly sharp in the air. He had felt breathless, taken unaware, as if his ribcage and the delicate organs contained within had suddenly been seized by a hand far more mightier than his, but in a grip as gentle as a fox seizing its kit by the neck.
He would dream about this moment for years, Hephaistion's surety, the warmth of the new spring sunlight casting a glow through the clouds, and he would carry it with him through marches in thigh-deep snow, through treks in endless, arid deserts, and encampments in rocky, perilous ground, with Hephaistion miles and miles from where he lay. This small golden moment, precious as gold, as all the spices and incense in the kingdom, and bright as the stars where he could read his future, glorious and true, as far as the eye could see.