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Second Times Are More Complicated Than Firsts

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Perdikkas pulled aside Erigyios when they returned to camp after the final boxing event for the day. “Where do you think they are?”

“Who?”

“The prince and Hephaistion.”

Erigyios shrugged. “Dunno.”

“They were gone all last night, then were acting weird when they returned this morning, and now they’re missing again, all morning and afternoon.”

Leonnatos had joined them, along with the other boys. “Hephaistion was in the stadium this morning,” Leonnatos pointed out.

“Yeah, for what, all of an hour? It’s fishy.”

“It’s none of your business,” Erigyios said.

“You know something,” Leonnatos replied.

“Not really. But those two….” He trailed off, shrugging again.

“They need to just fuck already and stop with the drama.”

Perdikkas rolled his eyes, but chuckled, along with several others. “Alekos is young.”

“Not that young! I’m a year older, and age didn’t stop me with you.”

Lysimakhos, Attalos, and Harpalos laughed harder, while Erigyios was too polite to. Instead, he said, “Alexandros has always been behind, physically. Hephaistion won’t push him.”

“It’s not like I pushed Leonnatos,” Perdikkas snapped.

Erigyios held up his hands. “I wasn’t implying that. But you’re both royal, as is Alexandros. Hephaistion isn’t.” He hesitated, then added, “He’s afraid he’d insult the throne.”

“How do you know?” Yet Harpalos sounded more curious than doubtful.

“It’s none of your business.” Erigyios seemed to have decided he’d said too much.

“Hephaistion talks to you,” Attalos observed. “You and Ptolemaios. He’s too good for the rest of us.” Attalos was still smarting from having been thrown in a river by Hephaistion and Erigyios.

“That’s not how he thinks, and you know it. Did it never occur to the rest of you that maybe he feels isolated?”

“Because he makes himself isolated,” Attalos retorted.

“Enough,” Harpalos said. “He’s just a different personality.”

Perdikkas thought Harpalos had almost said a difficult personality, which was true. Perdikkas didn’t dislike Hephaistion, but wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him. He was like Aphrodite, standing on a pedestal to be admired while nobody could possibly be worthy of his notice.

Except Alexandros.

Perdikkas wanted to be jealous, but almost from the day he’d arrived, Hephaistion had performed a weird orbit around the prince. Perdikkas might think it perverse, except the lot of them circled Alexandros the same. Yet the rest of them knew the barrier. Hephaistion was pathetic in his devotion. Maybe there was justice in it, then. He wouldn’t receive the suits of others, but his own pursuit remained impossible.

Perdikkas wasn’t sure if he felt pity or amusement or vindication. Maybe all of it.

The philosopher had arrived in camp, along with his nephew, the unctuous Kallisthenes. Their arrival broke up the boys’ debate. The sun was going down, and he bid them all clean up for the evening meal. Then, apparently just realizing the absence. “Where are Alexandros and Hephaistion?”

“We’re not sure,” Harpalos replied, cautiously. “We assume they’ll be back soon.”

“Very good. It may not be the most refined, but let’s reconvene around the campfire at the sun’s last light. I’ll have a suitable topic for after-dinner debate.”

***

Alexandros and Hephaistion had spent the afternoon riding amid the rocky flotsam cast up by waves. After a while, they dismounted to walk together, hands tangled. A time or four, they paused to stare at each other, stupid-happy. Alexandros’s heart raced and he was so giddy, he’d lost track of what was coming out of his mouth. He just babbled while Hephaistion listened, as he often did, but with a big grin.

Finally, they slipped behind an outcropping of wind-ripped cyprus and other bushes, hidden from the view of most, to engage in more serious kissing. Flopped back in the gravelly sand, it wasn’t comfortable, but Alexandros didn’t care as he crawled atop Hephaistion, thrilled by the press of Hephaistion’s erection against his hip. His own was hot, his scrotum tight. A dizzy, shaking surge rolled in his gut, his groin, but also his heart. How had he been so blind to this feeling for so long? He couldn’t get enough of Hephaistion’s mouth or skin, and his chest was melting. He felt like one of the sea creatures in Aristoteles’s collection, sliced neatly open and pinned to best display the soft interior.

Pressed closely together, their mouths sparred or blended by turns. Alexandros licked Hephaistion’s upper lip and Hephaistion bit his lower, gently. Then he opened his mouth against Alexandros’s and slid his tongue inside. It was such a strangely erotic sensation, the slight rough bumps on the top against the slick smoothness of the underside, stirring prickles at the base of Alexandros’s spine. He’d been hard so long, he was starting to ache, but these sensations woke him anew, stiffening his prick almost painfully. He needed more intense touch and wiggled closer, as if he could somehow climb inside Hephaistion’s skin.

Pulling back, Hephaistion muttered, “We need to stop; we’re in public.”

Breathing heavily, he looked like Alexandros felt: frustrated and annoyed. Almost, Alexandros replied, “Screw it,” but Hephaistion was right. The last thing he wanted was for someone to spot them and spread a rumor about the prince being whacked-off behind a bush on the beach. Not very dignified.

They put a handspan between their bodies and breathed down; Alexandros’s groin still felt heavy and tender, but the throbbing was subsiding. He became conscious instead of the annoying scrape of pebbles beneath. Hephaistion brushed his cheek with a thumb, then stroked his brow, eyes tracing his features as if memorizing them the way one did a favorite poem. His expression was so open and soft, a stark contrast to his usual impassivity. Alexandros wondered what his own face showed as he ran a finger along Hephaistion’s full lips. Hephaistion spoke against the finger: “I wish you knew how much I adore you. I wish you could feel it tight in my chest.”

The words made blood surge anew in Alexandros. “I love you more.”

“It’s not a contest, you know. Not everything is.” But he was grinning.

The light was growing dim, sun going down behind Olympus. Abruptly, Hephaistion sat up, shaking his head in an attempt to get the sand out of his long hair. He’d let Alexandros braid it for him earlier, but it was a mess and Alexandros scooted closer to help. Yet it was hopeless. “You look like you went for a ride on a hippokampos instead of Brephas,” he said. “This is going to take a comb, water, and maybe oil.” In truth, they were both covered in sand. Making out on the beach hadn’t, perhaps, been the smartest idea. “We look like we’ve been wrestling in the sandpit,” Alexandros said.

“In a manner of speaking, we have.”

That pulled Alexandros up short with a surprising new thought. “How did you manage to touch me all those times in the palaistra, wrestle with me, and not give anything away?” He didn’t think he could have managed.

Not looking at Alexandros, Hephaistion shrugged with one shoulder. “I was terrified you’d find out what I felt. That’s a pretty good deterrent.”

Alexandros set a hand on his shoulder. “I wish you’d told me sooner.”

Hephaistion met his eyes. “You weren’t ready. And you’re prince. Who am I?”

“A prince’s lover.”

Time stuttered as if Kronos had commanded it; neither of them breathed. Then Hephaistion gripped his face and kissed him hard.

They returned to their horses, mounting to ride back to camp. “What should we tell the rest of them?” Hephaistion asked. “We’ve been gone all day.”

“That we were on the beach,” Alexandros replied. He’d learned obscurification young, a mix of truth and generalities.

By the time they returned their mounts to the horse lines, the sun was set and they hurried back to the campsite. Everybody else was already seated around a fire, sharing out dinner from tripods hanging above the flames. As one, fourteen sets of eyes turned to them. “Where have you been all day?” Leonnatos burst out, echoed by a few other voices.

“We were riding on the beach,” Alexandros replied as Hephaistion went to collect the remaining two bowls and dip out dinner for them both. “I don’t much like wrestling." He took an open spot on a bench near his cousin, accepting the bowl Hephaistion handed over, along with water and wine. Hephaistion settled beside him. If a far cry from symposial couches, Alexandros didn’t mind. It was easier to eat sitting up. Especially stew.

“But it’s the Olympics!” Lysimakhos said. “You’ve attended everything else.”

"So?" Alexandros took a big slurp from his spoon. “I asked Hephaistion to skip with me.” Then, because the best defense was a good offense, he cocked his head to ask, “Why do you care? I wasn’t alone. I had Hephaistion to guard me.” Misdirection.

And now, the rest, even the philosopher, seemed chagrined.

Yet Hephaistion’s expression had grown pinched and dark. Alexandros realized that, in subverting the question, he’d denied their new relationship, though that hadn’t been his intention. But he didn’t like being examined, as if he were on trial.

As conversation resumed on whatever topic Aristoteles had raised that night for debate—Alexandros barely cared—he tried to catch Hephaistion’s eye, but his friend remained stubbornly focused on his stew. Yet he seemed to be stirring it more than eating it, and Alexandros’s own appetite was gone, as well. Leaning close, he whispered, “I don’t want to be ambushed.”

“You knew they’d ask.”

“And you asked what we’d say. You didn’t complain earlier when I suggested telling them we were at the beach.”

Hephaistion glanced up, eyes hard. But he couldn’t argue that he’d consented to the subterfuge, or at least to a neutral explanation.

The tension between them ratcheted up for the rest of the evening. Alexandros worried what Hephaistion was thinking, and suspected Hephaistion worried what he was thinking, but they couldn’t just talk it out. They didn’t even touch, too self-conscious. Always before, when sharing couch or bench, they’d lounge against each other with easy familiarity. Now every brush of skin brought sparks, every glance was lightning.

Alexandros was better at pretending normalcy because he’d had to, growing up, which might not have been a good thing. Not far into the night, Hephaistion rose abruptly from his spot with a muttered, “I’m really tired and not feeling well. I’ll see everyone tomorrow.” He disappeared toward the tent they shared with Leonnatos and Erigyios.

Alexandros watched him go, then stood as well. “I’ll make sure he’s okay.” He hurried after. Even if the rest had noted the odd dynamics between them, it’s what he’d have done on any other occasion, so not unusual. On his way out of the circle, he felt Erigyios pat him on the hip. Was that encouragement, or a subtle hint? And if the latter, of what? That he’d keep Leonnatos busy for a while so Alexandros and Hephaistion had privacy to talk?

Alexandros wasn’t sure Hephaistion had expected him, as he jerked around, startled, when Alexandros ducked through the tent flap. Alexandros couldn’t see much beyond a shadow in the darkness. “What are you doing here?” Hephaistion snapped.

“Coming after you. What’d you expect?”

“That you are ashamed of me.”

“Don’t be an ass. Were you ready to come sauntering to the campfire all lovey-dovey?”

“You were familiar enough on the beach.”

Ouch. Alexandros felt blood in his cheeks. “I’m not ashamed of you. I just don’t want to be teased. I didn’t think you did, either.”

“I don’t. But it’s inevitable. Assuming you really want this.”

“I do!” Alexandros picked his way into the tent dark. His and Hephaistion’s mats were on one side, Erigyios and Leonnatos’s on the other. He could stand upright only in the very middle. Hephaistion had to hunch even there. They stood close, but still weren’t touching. Alexandros could feel Hephaistion’s heat, hear the sound of his breath catching, as if he might be holding off tears. Reaching out abruptly, he grabbed his friend’s hand. “I want this. I just don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Neither do I.”

“You’re older.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re the only one I ever desired.”

“But you seem to know things.” Their hands worked against each other, thumbs rubbing as if expressing the same confusion in their words. “You knew what to do in the pool.”

“No, I didn’t. Or not past what I hear. Or what’s on pottery. The same as you.” Abruptly, he took a step closer. Alexandros could smell his sweat; he was a little rank, perhaps from fear. “I don’t know, Aleko. This is all as new to me as to you.”

“You said you’re not a virgin.”

“That was with a woman. And I was drunk. I don’t remember much. With you, I want to remember everything.”

Hephaistion’s words undid him, and he crashed into his friend, arms around Hephaistion’s chest. Hephaistion’s closed his own around Alexandros’s shoulders. They were still a bit sandy. “I don’t want to be the butt of their jokes,” Alexandros blurted. “I don’t want them to speculate. I don’t want them to ask questions. I just want them to leave us alone. I’m not ashamed of you, I just don’t know how to be with you yet in front of them.”

“I don’t, either,” Hephaistion confessed. Alexandros could feel him kiss the crown of his head. Leaning back, Alexandros raised his face, reaching up to find Hephaistion’s and guide it down, mouth to mouth. “How long do you think they’ll be by the fire?” Hephaistion whispered after a few moments.

“Not sure, but probably a while yet.” He didn’t mention Erigyios’s gesture as he’d left the circle.

More hot kisses followed, then Hephaistion blurted, “Can we finish what we started earlier?” Alexandros let Hephaistion tug him onto their pallets, still overlapped from the morning. They doffed clothes, and Alexandros allowed Hephaistion to fondle him, pressing his lips together to keep from either moaning or squeaking at the sensations. They had to be quiet, prepared to disengage in an instant if one of their tent-mates invaded.

As in the bath, Alexandros wasn’t sure what to do in response, so he just caressed Hephaistion’s chest and shoulders and arms, leaning in to lick Hephaistion’s nipple, which got an interesting reaction: a cry and hiss and new urgency in the hands on his cock. Hephaistion's touch was sending him around the bend, and he couldn’t quite control himself, pushing up into the strokes, panting a little. Hephaistion lifted himself on an elbow, leaning in to kiss, tongue teasing in time to his motion on Alexandros’s dick.

And just that fast, Alexandros was there, seed spitting in five consecutive bursts, then dribbling slower as Hephaistion milked him finished. Alexandros buried his face against Hephaistion’s neck, caught somewhere between bliss and embarrassment. Hephaistion kissed his temple, then used Alexandros’s spunk on his own cock to lubricate it. “Roll onto your back,” he whispered. Alexandros did so, thighs parting as Hephaistion slid home, then he clenched tight around Hephaistion’s erection.

For a while, the only sound was Hephaistion’s harsh breath as he moved above. Alexandros asked, “Is that good?” against the slick slurp of Hephaistion’s cock in and out.

“It’s amazing,” Hephaistion managed, distractedly. It took longer than in the bath, but Alexandros enjoyed watching his friend climb towards peak.

Then he reached it, eyes squeezed shut, grimacing with the effort to stay silent, but shoving hard in climax several times until collapsing on top, face buried against Alexandros’s shoulder.

After a while, Alexandros complained, “You’re kinda heavy.”

Hephaistion slid to the side. “We didn’t bring anything to clean up.”

“Bottom corner of the blanket for now.”

That worked, and there was water in the pitcher by the chamber pot. It sufficed, but sand gritted all over the pallets and they had to shake them outside the tent flap. Then Alexandros lit a single lamp and fetched Hephaistion’s wide-tooth ivory comb, patiently working through the snarls and knots in his friend’s long hair. He’d done it before, but this time felt so much more intimate. Fury of desire sated, this was about touch. Hephaistion’s head was back, eyes closed, mouth open a little with pleasure not unlike sex.

Once the knots were gone, Alexandros kept combing, using a little rosewater to clean away the grit from the waves. Then he pressed his bare chest to Hephaistion’s bare back, arms wrapped around his friend’s shoulders. Hephaistion covered them with his own, head turned a little sideways. Alexandros buried his face in the thick hair that smelled now of summer at Mieza.

They stayed that way a while, then put out the lamp and lay down on their pallets, face to face. Hephaistion had an arm under Alexandros’s head, the other pulling him close, leg hooked over Alexandros’s hip, covering him like a hoplite shield. Alexandros had things to say, but instead, overwhelmed, he just breathed, staring into his lover’s eyes in the dark. A little glint of light through the tent flap caught the whites. “I’m not ashamed of you,” he reiterated, as it seemed the most important point. “I’ll hold your hand tomorrow, if you want. In front of everybody.”

Leaning forward, Hephaistion kissed him. “In front of everybody,” he replied.

They didn’t talk after that, but remained wrapped around each other, dozing. They were still fused so when Erigyios and Leonnatos came to bed finally, though how much the other two could see in the black dark, Alexandros didn’t know. By the next morning, they’d untangled themselves to sprawl in more usual sleeping positions.

Yet after they’d risen and dressed and were headed to the stadium for that day’s events, they held hands.

***

“Well, that answers that,” Marsyas muttered into Perdikkas’s ear, bending down from the row of seats just above. “What’s been going on for the past day and a half.” The boys had a block marked off. Marsyas pointed to Alexandros arriving with Hephaistion.

Hands locked together.

They pretended not to notice everyone else staring. Hephaistion behaved proprietarily, setting their seat cushions together, then he threw his arm over the prince’s shoulders, as if to declare: “This is mine. Back off.”

“Well fuck everything,” Harpalos added, leaning in to join the conversation. “I didn’t think he’d ever make a move on Alekos.”

“I wonder who made the move.” Lysimakhos eyed them.

“It’s not like we didn’t see it coming, though” Leonnatos said.

“We all knew what Hephaistion felt, but Alexandros?” Perdikkas added.

“Alekos has had a crush on him since he got here,” Leonnatos replied, an unusually insightful observation, for him. “I think it took Hephaistion longer. He just didn’t do anything about it.”

“Eri would know,” Perdikkas said, and all heads swiveled to Erigyios, who was first to talk to Hephaistion and the prince, seeking to normalize their new relationship. Ptolemaios followed. Alexandros was his usual exuberant self, but Perdikkas thought Hephaistion appeared grateful nobody was asking a bunch of questions or making a scene. He looked torn between being utterly besotted and as anxious as if the Furies were after him.

Perdikkas sympathized. What would it feel like to court the prince? At least Perdikkas was a prince himself, if not heir to the whole region, so he would have had status to court Alexandros, even if they weren’t that far apart in age. But Hephaistion? He wasn’t royal. By ancestry, he wasn’t even Makedonian. He had nothing to offer.

Yet Perdikkas understood why that might be everything.

He’d picked Leonnatos originally, yes, for attraction, but also because the other boy was Lynkestian royal. They were equals. Alexandros had no equal, and couldn’t pick anyone too close. Maybe he hadn’t thought much about that going into his friendship with Hephaistion, but it made sense to Perdikkas. Hephaistion wasn’t Alexandros’s rival. He wasn’t even in the same stadium. That made him as close to an equal as anyone else could be.

Hephaistion had no conflicting alliances. That meant Alexandros could count on him in a way none of the rest of them could offer. Perdikkas genuinely admired Alexandros, but if, for some reason, his father were to make other alliances, Perdikkas would have to follow, no matter how much he might hate it. If one of his royal cousins did something treasonous, Perdikkas might have to answer for it with his own blood.

But Hephaistion? He was nothing without Alexandros, and therefore, could be everything to him. Perdikkas didn’t doubt Alexandros loved him, and the reverse, but Alexandros was a prince and it was the curse of princes to never indulge in blind emotion.

The rest of them recognized the barrier. But Hephaistion, the outsider, had ignored it. Then again, the rest of them recognized the barrier for their own protection as much as to honor Alexandros’s royal person. To become lover to the prince meant throwing away everything else, any other attachment. From here on out, Hephaistion belonged to Alexandros.

Perdikkas hoped Hephaistion understood what he’d got himself into.