Awakened by Hadrian's coughing, Antinous sat up in bed. He felt stifled in the dark, surrounded by hot unmoving air. He slid his legs out from under the blankets, pulling them up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. He felt very young all of a sudden, although he had of late felt rather old. Nineteen. Twenty in a month, almost to the day. His hair was shorn, and he had shaved once or twice, although his beard grew slowly. He had finally reached the height of the man Antinous. He felt very adult, even though he was still Hadrian's boy.
He pet Hadrian's sweat-dampened hair. He would be sick again if he didn't slow down, which he wouldn't. Antinous knew Hadrian too well to expect him to show himself such mercy. Hadrian was too old for the care of doctors to be more than grousing over his age and how little care Hadrian took with his own body, and soon he would be too old for other things, too.
But Antinous did not like to think of that.
He rose, stepping carefully on the shifting floor of the barge, and told himself that he was going to take a walk and then return to bed. He walked out of the little pitched tent and emerged into the half-darkness of the dawning morning. He yawned into his hand. He thought he heard Hadrian murmur his name and looked back. The emperor was talking in his sleep, one arm flung off the side of the bed, restless. Antinous smiled, turned, and walked out of Hadrian's life.
The water was October-cold and solid around him, holding him up. He breathed it in slowly, remembering the last moments, not letting them fly away. It stroked him gently, its embrace chilly. His eyes saw at first the sunlight whispering through the water, green and clear, and then, as he sank, a deep, profound blue and finally nothing at all. He moved with the eddies of the water, not fighting against it. His pulse was a flutter against the body of the river. He felt a warmth flow through him and gasped.
He was not afraid.
They brought him to the place, a little village that no Roman emperor had set foot in before or would again. He was laid out on a table. The river silt had mostly been wiped away. The body, distorted from three days in the Nile, was still beautiful. The thin strands of his hair were very dark against his skin, pale and swollen. His features were composed and still. Someone had shut his eyes. Hadrian wanted them to open. He clutched at the boy. His fingers bruised the flesh, leaving dark blotchy marks. He touched the lips, an uneven pink, and pressed a kiss him to them. Antinous' mouth tasted like river stink and decomposing flesh.
Antinous was dead. He would not be the boy who drowned, not for Hadrian. He would always be the boy who had disappeared on a dark morning, never to return. Hadrian held the body close to him, cradling its head, so small, so delicate. He could not let go.
His guards exchanged looks of embarrassment, trying not to see him cry.
He left Lucius Aelius in the big bed, snoring gently, disheveled and distasteful. Stumbling, the fever clouding his mind, his hands trembling with old age and illness and misery, he found his way through the dark to the little room, icy cold in the middle of winter. He knelt, half falling, wincing at the pain in his knees. Kissing the statue's feet, he begged Antinous' forgiveness. He still loved him. Pardon him in his folly. He was only mortal and knew not what he did.
He stared up at the cold marble face of the boy he had loved so desperately. In the barren light of the early morning, Antinous' kind face was impassive and empty, so unlike it had been in life. It offered him no pity or kindness or respite. There would be no pardon, no quarter, no release. He cried bitter tears, snuffling and sobbing, snot running down his face, graceless and old and alone.
They found him there in the morning when he was missed. They carried him back to the bedroom that he had left that morning. They dosed him and drugged him, but the cold had got into his bones by then. The end had come.
He lay in bed, his successor chosen, his mind going, a bother to nobody. The fever was consuming him slowly, his breath coming in ragged wet gasps. He would live! He would live forever. Had he not conquered death so many times? He blinked slowly and stickily. He peered at his bedside companion, coming slowly into focus through his watery weak eyes. "Lucius?" He reached out a hand. "Come here, damn you. I can't see you at that distance." His companion stood and sat on the edge of the bed. He smiled down at Hadrian who felt something cold settle in his belly. The fever delirium evaporated. "Have you come to heal me?" he rasped softly.
"Oh, love. You know I'm not a very good healing god," the boy said softly. "I've come for the other thing."
Hadrian shook his head. Oughtn't to have had the boy deified. Oughtn't to have given him power over him. Someone had dressed a boy up as his Antinous. He was imagining this. Couldn't be real. He shut his eyes and opened them again. He had to swallow painfully before he could manage to speak again. "My soul?"
The boy nodded. He offered Hadrian his hand. Hadrian took it. It was very warm. He sat up and then let Antinous pull him up to standing. He felt younger than he had in years. "Come here, you." He pulled Antinous into his arms, kissing him firmly, feeling the remembered warmth of his body, the forgotten softness of his lips. Still holding hands, they walked off together into a brilliant dawn.
He had never taken the covers off.