The tides of conversation flowed around Hephaistion as he made his way to his tent - ebbed as he passed, then swelled once he was deemed safely beyond hearing range. Those who caught his eye glanced down or aside, away from the rage stiff upon his face. It was not that he was unused to being the topic of soldiers' prattle, but always before it had been for some word or action - real or imagined - of his own. Never had it been because Alexander had shamed him publicly; chastised him as though he were some minor lordling of small loyalty and smaller import.
It was nigh on unbearable.
He had been expecting the visit. Sometimes Hephaistion knew Alexander better than Alexander did himself - but then again, hadn't today proved that at other times he knew him not at all? Alexander waited until the page had left and they were alone before speaking,
"I had to do it."
Hephaistion neither stood nor offered wine, the guest cup conspicuous by its absence. He stared into his own as if mesmerised by the torchlight reflected white in the dark liquid; a gate of ivory promising oblivion.
"There was no choice!"
Rage had quenched to sullen embers by now, furthered by cool wine.
"Yes, my lord."
"Hephaistion, don't 'yes, my lord' me! Look at me."
That entreating tone had never failed to elicit a reaction, and it didn't fail now. Alexander wore the wounds of the afternoon's conflict openly on his face. Hephaistion's own gave him too much pain to care.
"I will be there tomorrow and swear your oath for you," he said, voice dull with drink and other things. "What more do you ask?"
Alexander expression shuttered, mouth thinned. *I should have had no need to ask it of you to begin with* was left unspoken.
Hephaistion drank deeply and closed his eyes, head tilting wearily backward,
"I will be there."
Alexander sighed, although whether with exasperation or relief Hephaistion was unsure. He felt the brief caressing warmth of Alexander's hand open upon his cheek, and then he was alone.
To meet with Eumenes these days meant civil voices and facades. Few, if any, of his previous political commissions had stretched Hephaistion's diplomatic skills quite so greatly. And whilst on the one hand the enforced comradeship entrenched his loathing of the man ever more deeply, on the other he had sworn oath to reconcile. And no matter what bitter draught the Fates prepared for him, as a man of his honour, Hephaistion would swallow it.
Eumenes at least had not dared remark on his previous overtures for reconciliation. When they had shaken hands he merely said,
"I am happy, brother."
For once, Hephaistion thought bitterly as he returned the salutation, the Greek had learnt to hold his tongue. Would that he'd done so from the start.
On the way back from choosing a new colt Alexander looked to him and said,
"Shall we race to the camp gate?"
Hephaistion nodded, knowing that although owning less stamina, his horse was of better speed and more rested than Alexander's. He dug his heels into its flanks and they were off. But despite the course being neither rough nor long, Hephaistion's mount lagged. As they came to a stop Hephaistion laughed ruefully,
"It seems none can overcome you Alexander, no matter the quality of the horse."
He almost did not hear Alexander's soft reply,
"I think there are no winners in this race."
Rather like an invalid testing out bones new-healed, words and smiles between them were now tentative - as if afraid of breaking what might have only been cracked. Hephaistion longed for their former ease, and although it would have been easily accomplished and gratefully received, still he would not mouth words his heart did not yet endorse.
His standing and position had not altered, nor had the outward show of Alexander's affection, but all walked careful and soft around them, as though threading a course between Scylla and Charybdis; fearful not only that they would be crushed but that the rocks themselves would crumble into the sea.
In the spring they would set march for Arabia, and Hephaistion knew weakness would have no room there. That he could be accounted as such a thing for Alexander he once never would have believed. As never would he have believed Alexander would betray him. Or that he, in any word or deed, could have failed Alexander. In the quiet of his tent at night, thoughts of loss and hubris were his companions.
It had been but two days after the reconciliation when Alexander had turned to him and clasped his arm, saying,
"I was wrong. I should not have spoken so in public."
It was one of the many qualities that made men admire and love Alexander - that he admitted fault with such ease and sincere regret.
"No," replied Hephaistion. "No, you should not."
And though he yearned to, he could say no more.
Nysa was departed for Ekbatana, and the world was transfiguring green to gold when next Hephaistion and Alexander stole away into the hills together. They rode until they found a secluded pool, where they watered the horses then stripped off and splashed about as if youths again, playing truant from their lessons and briefly uncaring of the responsibilities that weighted them all other times.
They were sunning themselves dry on the bank, when Alexander broke the peaceful silence between them,
"Why the melancholy sigh?"
Hephaistion glanced over into Alexander's smile,
"I didn't realise I had sighed."
"You did. Were you thinking of the silver you lost yesterday on the wrestling match? I couldn't believe you backed the Thracian," Alexander said lightly.
"He was a poor choice," Hephaistion agreed, "But no, I was thinking of Opis."
"I was thinking of how you forgave the men so easily," Hephaistion replied gravely, "And thinking that. . ."
"That no matter how hard I try, I can never be the man you are."
Alexander's arms were suddenly firm around him, warm around his waist and across his back.
"I do not want you to be me, I just want you to be my Patroklos."
Hephaistion turned his face into the curve of Alexander's neck. They stayed so until Hephaistion felt dampness against his skin.
"My life has always been yours to do with as you will," he murmured. "That, I shall never regret."
Alexander's arms tightened.
"Hephaistion," he said in a choked voice.
Hephaistion looked up; into a fierce gaze, and then a fiercer kiss.