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I actually don't think it went this way, but this is just me messing around with things.

Title: The Promise
Summary: At Ecbatana Hephaistion falls ill. I suppose that could be kind of a warning too, though I don't think it merits one.
Feedback: Certainly. Could be useful.

Bagoas had been waiting for the king to return. Alexandros had been gone all day, to places where no Persian eunuch would be welcome, even in Ecbatana that had been a royal Persian palace before the world had ever heard of Alexandros of Macedon. Hephaistion’s room for one, and presenting the day’s prizes at the game for another. Neither were places for Bagoas to show his face, but he could be patient. It was time now for the king’s supper, and a warm soothing bath. Bagoas, who had been trained to serve the needs of a king in more ways than any simple Macedonian could know, had made every necessary preparation. He was, therefore, less than pleased when Alexandros came into his rooms with one of his generals at his side, though he knew better than to show it. Besides, Ptolemy had always treated him well enough, with the same casual kindness he might have shown to a friend’s favoured hound. It was hard to resent Ptolemy.

They were speaking of the day’s competition, and laughing over one thing or another, but even so Bagoas could see the lines about his lord’s eyes and the weariness in the way that he moved. He had not been sleeping as he should, sitting up half the night with Hephaistion instead. He tired more quickly than he used to, these days; it had been that way since India, where he had taken that terrible wound. It had healed, but it troubled him still, making his breath catch if he pushed himself too hard. Alexandros, Bagoas had come to learn, always pushed himself. He knew no other way.

“Will you come to see the competitions tomorrow? The men like to see you there, you were missed today.” Ptolemy was helping himself to a chunk of the fresh baked bread that Bagoas had laid out for the king’s supper. The eunuch had long since given up being appalled by the Macedonians; their manners were rough things and would have meant death in any Persian court, but these were Alexandros’ people, blood and bone. All Alexandros did was gesture for Ptolemy to pass him some bread as well, and worry at the enamelled broach pinning back his cloak until it came loose and he could cast it to the floor, cloak, broach and all.
“I’ll try,” he said to Ptolemy, around a mouthful of bread. “But I’ll need to look in on Hephaistion. You might have to manage without me.”
“How is he? Any better?”
Alexandros shrugged, seeming casual but for the concern in his eyes. “No worse. A little better, perhaps. His fever seemed less, this afternoon. He knew me when he woke, that’s something. He didn’t know where he was though, he was talking as if we were back in Mieza.”
Ptolemy grimaced. Fevers were awkward things; he should know, he’d gone down with a bad dose of some local ill during the Indian campaign. He’d shivered and sweated himself halfway to a ghost before waking one morning with a ravenous hunger and a thumping headache. He had counted himself lucky, over that. He had known men who did not wake at all from fevers like that, only burned their lives away from the inside out. He made a quick sign behind his back to ward off ill omens. Hephaistion would fare better than that. He would have to. Ptolemy had known Alexandros all his life. He knew what Hephaistion was worth.
“Ah, well, he’s strong enough. He’ll shake it off. Did you find that doctor?”
“Glaukias? Yes. I’ve watched him work, he knows what he’s about. And you’re right, Hephaistion’s strong. I would have driven him mad years ago, otherwise.”
“Well, that’s true enough – if he can put up with you for all these years, he can put up with anything.” Ptolemy laughed to take the sting out of that, and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “As for you, you’d best get some rest yourself. Did you sleep last night at all? You look half out on your feet. You’ll have Glaukias having kittens if you go down sick too.”
“I’m well enough. I was going to check on Hephaistion before I turn in, then call it a night.” The king smiled; it turned into a yawn halfway. “Go enjoy Leonnatus’ victory party, he deserved the win. Tell him he’ll have to handle my share of the wine tonight, I’ll come and celebrate with him next time he flattens someone.”
“Aye, well, you’ll not have long to wait for that to come around again. Just remind me to put some money on him next time.” Ptolemy took a handful of dates from the platter Bagoas had laid out, and turned to go. His eye fell on the eunuch waiting in silence near the door and he smiled, tipping his head slightly. “Bagoas, there you are. You didn’t enter the competition for the dancers, I looked for you there. A pity – you’d have put them to shame.”
Bagoas inclined his head to the perfect degree. “My lord is kind to say so.”
Ptolemy, who found the boy’s perfect Persian manners more amusing than not, only nodded. He had wondered sometimes how Bagoas had survived among them for so long, a lapdog in a pack of wolves. He had wondered too what the eunuch thought of the strange rough creatures that now ruled his world. The boy had never let on, of course, but Ptolemy had a feeling that he was sharper than he showed. If he could survive a royal Persian court he could survive anything; he would have learned early on how not to be noticed. All he said though, was “See that the king gets some proper rest tonight, he looks like he needs it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“The king is capable of seeing to his own rest, thank you very much,” Alexandros pointed out, mildly enough all things considered. He had barely picked at the supper that had been set out for him, but that was no surprise. “You’re worse than my old nursemaid, Ptolemy. Wait, I’ll come with you as far as Hephaistion’s room. Bagoas, I’ll have my bath when I get back. I won’t be long.”

The two men left as they had arrived, chatting casually about nothing much. Bagoas did not begrudge his lord that, even if he could wish the man had eaten more. He needed to relax, and Ptolemy was good company. Hephaistion had been ill for days now, with Alexandros more worried about that than he would admit, even to himself. Bagoas, though, knew the signs. He did what he could to soothe his king, stroking tension from muscles gone tight from too many hours sitting by Hephaistion’s bed, seeing that the king was fed and that his bed was warm and waiting, burning soft, fragrant oils that were meant to relax a man’s senses, not burdening him with too much chatter. It might have helped a little, but it did not make Alexandros’ concern for his friend any less.

Bagoas was unsure how he felt about that himself. Hephaistion had never been cruel to him – in fact, the man seldom seemed to notice that he was there at all. Certainly he had never tried to keep him from the king. Bagoas felt a small twist of bitterness at that; Hephaistion had never had to try, his hold over Alexandros was more than anything a mere Persian dancer could compete with. Hardly a wonder if the man never noticed him – would a lion notice a jackal slinking about the fringes of his feast, feeding off the scraps? There had been times when Bagoas had quite happily wished the man dead, though he knew that for the baseness that it was. He did not think that he wished Hephaistion ill now, and yet … and yet. There had been the times when the tall Macedonian had been away on some duty or other, and for Bagoas it had been like a cloud moving away from the sun simply to know that at the end of a long day his lord would return to him, and no one else. He told himself that he was being foolish, that he loved his lord too well to begrudge him anything that made him happy. Most of the time, it was true. Sometimes though, in the long cold nights when he lay in his blankets alone and knew that Alexandros was happy somewhere else, it was a lot to bear.

Alexandros was not away long. He took his bath in near silence, which was another sign of how tired he was – and how worried, if it came to that. Usually he liked to talk about one thing or another; he was only quiet when he was troubled, or too tired to care. Bagoas could not help himself; as he put his lord and king to bed, he said, “I am sorry for the lord Hephaistion’s illness. It weighs on your mind, my lord. Perhaps I can help you find comfort, tonight?”
“No.” The look Alexandros gave him was a complicated one – it always was when he spoke of Hephaistion. Bagoas thought he knew why. Alexandros would speak to him about most things, but not about that. Not about Hephaistion. What it was between them was for them only, and not to be cheapened by sharing with some Persian boy. Now, the king only said, “No, not tonight. I’m tired. It’s nothing sleep won’t mend.” He was gentle enough, but firm. Bagoas knew better than to push his luck.

Alexandros was as good as his word. He was asleep before Bagoas, setting the royal chambers to order, even managed to put out the lamps. For a long moment, the eunuch stood and watched his face in the soft glow of the flames. Sleep softened it, but nothing could hide the shadows beneath his eyes, or the lines of pain from old wounds and hard decisions. His hair shone still like old polished gold and he was young yet, not much past thirty, but the years were starting to show. A thread or two of silver in the golden hair, a worn and weary look in the way his brow furrowed, even in sleep. He would always push himself too hard. Always. Softly, Bagoas blew out the lamp and left the room.

He knew where he was going, though if anyone had asked him why he was going there, he would not have been able to say. There was a squire at Hephaistion’s door, asleep standing up. He did not notice the Persian eunuch sneak in, quiet as a cat. There were no servants, either – though whether from negligence or simple dismissal, he didn’t know. Hephaistion did not keep much state at the best of times, left to himself. He could put on a good show where it benefited Alexandros’ empire to do so, but seldom bothered otherwise. In the light of the single lamp left burning, Bagoas looked down on an entirely different face.

Or not, perhaps, entirely different. There were similarities that he could see, from long familiarity; they were of the same land and the same blood, after all – no wonder if there were signs of it. Alexandros though, whatever else he was, was not beautiful. He was too striking for simple beauty, too utterly and uniquely himself. Hephaistion was not. Bagoas could see that, even when he was busy resenting every breath the man took. When he was still, he had the face of a carved god in his shrine, smooth and perfect, all strong clean features and serenity. When he laughed he came alight with a vitality that rivalled Alexandros’ own, but it was stillness that was his strength. He was still now, his eyelashes curving towards his cheeks, his lips softly parted, his hair catching bronze sparks in the dim light. His colour was higher than it should have been though, and his skin damp. Bagoas knew he had been worse; Alexandros had said his fever was lessening. He was hot still, though, or only restless with fever – he had kicked most of his covers aside, revealing one long bronzed leg and most of his chest, well muscled and hard and punctuated by the marks of one wound or another. There was a thick twist of a scar that ran down one arm, from his shoulder halfway to his elbow, and thin scars on his ribs that might have been claw marks from an old hunting injury. He was long and lean all over, more than usual with the fever melting the flesh off him. Another man might have looked half dead. Hephaistion only managed to look more beautiful.

For a long time, Bagoas only looked at him. This was the man behind the closed door of the inner room where Alexandros lived; this was what lay at the heart of that shrine that Alexandros would never let him see. He told himself that he only wanted to understand it, to know what this man was and what he meant to his king. It was even partway true. The rest of him, though – the deeper, truer part of him – knew differently. He could never understand this thing, only envy it and stand apart from it. He could not see what it was in Hephaistion that held such power over his lord, he did not know the man at all. All he knew was that this man was loved, deeply and completely, for simply being what he was. There was no competing with that.

The man in the bed stirred suddenly, muttering something in Macedonian, blurred and half sounded. His eyes flickered and he tossed his head a little, then subsided. Bagoas stood very still, watching him, barely breathing. Fever dreams, that was all it was. He was not awake, which was as well. Bagoas had no wish to be caught here – some questions could be difficult to answer. Softly, he stepped back from the bed.

There was no wine in the room – the doctor had been clear on that. No wine, and no food but a thin gruel. Alexandros had said something about that, something about this sickness leaving a weakness in the gut, that gruel was safest. There was water though, near to hand. There was no one watching. Bagoas had thought of it before, how easy it would be to slip poison into a wine cup, or a water jar. He had lived long enough in the Persian court to know a thing or two about poison, after all. He had never acted on it, though. He had always told himself he could not deny Alexandros anything that might bring him joy. Even if it would have been so very easy.

He stood for a long time, watching and thinking, before he turned and went back to his own bed.


There were, in the long dark, moments of lucidity. Moments when he knew that he was very sick, more sick than he had ever been in all his life. He knew that he was alive, and he knew too that Alexandros was there, that he came and went. The rest of the time, though, was a confused jumble of images and thoughts, voices that seemed to float into his head from a long way off, pain that seemed too distant to be his own. Everything was disjointed, even the separation of dark and light. Hephaistion decided that he preferred the dark; the light hurt horribly. Sometimes, the light seemed to sit behind his eyes even when he closed them, boring into his brain until he was ready to howl.

He had a doctor, he knew that much; the man kept asking him to do foolish things, like open his eyes or speak. The dark was easier. There were people there he knew, sometimes. Earlier, his mother had been there, singing him cradle songs he half remembered, but when he tried to speak to her she faded away. Once, Philip had appeared, riding a horse so white it seemed to glow and warning him to be wary of snakes, but the snake he had pointed too had not been of the venomous kind, only Kassandros with stones in his hands. He had thought he was back in the desert for a while, but Alexandros had woken him from that nightmare – the desert had been worse than this by far, it had nearly killed them all. He had been hot and thirsty there too, all the time – except for when he had been freezing cold. At least here they gave him water. Once, he had been sure he was in Mieza, listening to Aristotle lecture on birds, but then the man had sprouted wings and flown away and he had known he must be dreaming. The other things were worse, the shapes and eyes and voices that waited on the edges of the dark, twisted and aware. They called to him, sometimes. He was not sure exactly what they were, only that they were not dreams. As to the rest, he could not tell. Dream, memory and reality all seemed to blur together, tangled so he could not tell one from the other. Once, at night, he had even opened his eyes to see Alexandros’ pet eunuch, painted eyes and all, staring down at him and holding a water jar in his hands. That must have been a dream, he supposed. There was no reason for Bagoas to be in his room. That was as unlikely as Aristotle growing wings.

It was odd, being trapped here. It was a little like being in a heavy fog, or looking up at the world from under a sheet of water. Nothing was clear, nothing was as it seemed. Some things seemed important, only to keep sliding away from his mind’s grasp. He kept seeing fire, a great tower all aflame, and not knowing what it was, only that it mattered. Alexandros, drinking from a cup glittering with coloured gems, and then the fires in his eyes going out. That left him feeling hollow, like a reed in the wind. There was the god in the sands, the ram god in his temple at Siwah, and a voice like doom saying something he could not make out. Alexandros lying on a wide Persian bed, looking worn and alone and so still it made his heart hurt. A rider, pushing his horse hard over a dark plain, with a great wide shadow eating the sky behind him. That cup again with all its gems, and the water being poured in to mix with the dark sweet wine. The water had shadows in it too. Important things, but they came and went, slipping in and out of what he knew.

Which was why, when he woke one morning into sudden clarity, he could not have named the nagging unease in the back of his head. Perhaps there were things he was supposed to have remembered, but right now he thought he was doing well enough just to know where he was and to be able to tell the doctor to stop fussing like an old hen. The man gave him a narrow look at that, and made him choke down a bowl of miserable, thin gruel while he stood and watched, but after that he left him alone. Alexandros, who had come as soon as he had had word that Hephaistion was awake, smiled at him and sat down on the edge of the bed. Hephaistion tried to move over to give him space, but it didn’t come to much. He was ridiculously weak; even sitting up to eat had left him feeling light headed and worn out. Besides, Alexandros’ weight against him was a good, comfortable thing; he did not especially want to move away from that.

“How are you feeling?” Alexandros asked, briefly resting a hand on his forehead. Hephaistion let him; if he wanted to play doctor too, that was all to the good. Besides, moving was too much effort. “Back with us for good?”
“For a while, anyway.” His voice came out somewhere between a rasp and a whisper, but he supposed it would do for now. As to how he was feeling … he thought about that. His head ached, and his whole body hurt, especially in the joints. He felt as limp as a rag, and horribly thirsty; his mouth tasted as if it had been full of wool for a week. The gruel was sitting uneasily in his stomach, making him feel as if he had swallowed a rock. He said, “Fine. I’m fine.”
Alexandros gave him a look as if he didn’t believe that for a moment, but he let him get away with it. “You’ve been quite bad, do you remember any of it? I even had to wrestle you back into bed one time and sit on you until you passed out, you were raving about snakes and shadows and the gods know what. Do you remember?”
Hephaistion, who remembered the shadows only vaguely, said, “Not that. No. I dreamed of Mieza once, and Aristotle turned into a bird … and water …”
“Not a wonder if you dreamed of water. You were asking for it constantly.”
A small part of Hephaistion raised its hackles at that, a very distant warning sounding very far off. Water, something to do with the water … It was gone as soon as it had come though, and the rest of him was too wrung out to notice. Later. He could deal with those things later. When he felt less as if he had been tied in a sack and beaten with sticks and roasted over a slow fire.

He looked up at Alexandros, seeing the signs of too much care and too little sleep on his friend’s face. “You’ve been here …”
“Of course I have.” Alexandros made a wry sound that might have been a laugh. “I’m glad you could tell.”
“Your work …”
“It can wait. There’s the games on at the moment, that’s keeping the men busy. Besides, I can hardly go about organising another campaign without you, can I? You’re the one with the gift for logistics, I don’t have the patience for it.”
Hephaistion, who had never considered his peculiar talent for putting things in their places to be any sort of gift at all, only grunted. “You want anything organised, you’re going to have to wait for it. Right now, I don’t think I could organise my way out of bed to take a piss.”
“That’s what the pot’s for.” Alexandros was nothing perturbed. He touched the dark bronze hair, pushing it back from his friend’s face. “You should try and sleep, you know. Let yourself mend properly. You’ve had us worried.”
“I’ve been sleeping for days,” Hephaistion said, more peevishly than he would have liked. Ah well, he was sick; he was allowed to be peevish if he wanted. He could feel himself beginning to fade again, and the darkness waiting for him. He’d had enough of dreams and memories he could not tell apart, he was in no hurry to go back to them. Besides, there was that feeling he had, that dull persistent itch at the back of his mind that there was something he had forgotten. Whatever it was, if Alexandros stayed, he might remember. Alexandros only raised an eyebrow at him and tipped his head to one side in that way that he had.
“You’ve been as sick as a dog for days,” he corrected mildly. “It’s a different thing.”
Hephaistion supposed that he was right. It would explain why he was so ungodly tired, after all. His eyes wanted to shut; the light still hurt, though not as before. He could feel himself dimming at the edges. He was reluctant to let go, though. Alexandros’ hand on his face was cool and soothing; he liked the feel of it. He didn’t want to drift away from that. Still, it would not hurt to close his eyes, just for a moment.

Alexandros watched his friend struggling to stay awake, like an over-tired child trying to stay up past his bedtime. There was a very great sense of relief in it, in knowing that the sleep he was sinking into now was only that, a clean and healing thing after what had gone before. There was relief too in having him back now in the world of the living instead of hovering in that place where he might have gone either way. He could admit that to himself now; he had, at the worst of it, been afraid. Men had died from this, and less than this. He was not ready to lose Hephaistion to anything. He would never be ready for that.

He need not fear that now, though. Hephaistion would be a while recovering yet, but he was out of danger now. Or he would be, as long as he was properly treated. That was what the doctor was for – Glaukias was the best Alexandros could find. He let his hand rest against his friend’s cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin as only what it should be. The fever had left him looking worn and pale, and taken weight off his bones – not that Hephaistion had ever been inclined to carry much spare weight anyway, even at the best of times. It made Alexandros feel strangely protective, to see him like this. Hephaistion did not look frail precisely, and even in this state he would have snarled at anyone who said that he did, but Alexandros had always believed in looking after his men – and this man especially, if it came to that. There was nothing odd in it. Did not Achilles always tend to Patroklos’ wounds?

Hephaistion had his eyes closed, but Alexandros could tell that he was still awake, if only halfway. Something to do with the way he breathed, that was, and the clear sense of him even through his stillness. Hephaistion had always been good at being still and quiet, at just being there. Alexandros had grown used to depending on it; he had come to even know the nuances of it, after so many years. Hephaistion could say as much with only his stillness as another man could with a whole book of rhetoric. Right now though, he was simply hanging on the edge of sleep, content in knowing Alexandros was there.

He could not stay. He might have liked to – would have, even, if it would have mattered – but there were other things he needed to tend to, today. He was meant to be at the games even now, judging the athletes; there was to be a race for the boys, his young Successors, and they would be devastated if he did not appear. He did not think that Hephaistion would hold it against him. He was right too; when he told him, Hephaistion only gave one hand a small, dismissive flick and said that he should not keep the lads waiting. “Go,” he mumbled in a blurry voice. “I’ll sleep. I don’t need a nursemaid for that.”

All the same, Alexandros did not go at once. For some reason, he felt reluctant to leave, as if he would lose something by it. Foolishness, that was, and the after effects of too much anxiety, probably. Hephaistion was not going anywhere. He shook it off, pushing himself up off the bed. Hephaistion, lying back on the pillows with his hair tousled and his blanket all awry, looked young and coltish. It made Alexandros smile, thinking that. He cast his eyes about the room, at the servant who had scuttled in to straighten the rugs and the doctor who was waiting patiently by the door, and lastly back to his friend in the bed.
“Is there anything you need?”

Hephaistion did not open his eyes at once; it seemed like too much effort. His mouth was dry though, and he could still taste that foul gruel. “Water? I’m thirsty.”
He felt Alexandros move, heard the water being poured into a cup. Water. Something in him wanted to stir at that, but he was too tired to make it out. The cup was plain at least. Not a gem in sight. He opened his eyes as Alexandros put it into his hand. He tried to lift it, but his hand trembled from the effort and the water spilled. Alexandros took it from him neatly, held it to his lips.
“Here, let me.” Firm, competent hands supported him as he drank, the water hitting the back of his throat like a blessing, cool and sweet and dark. If, of course, water could taste dark. Another stirring at that, and for some reason Hephaistion remembered the glitter of painted eyes beside his bed, but it meant nothing. The water was a relief, and the shadows were closing in on him now, too strong to fight. He held them off all the same, just a moment longer. It seemed important that he did, somehow. As if something was happening in this moment, and if he did not pay attention it would pass without him even seeing what it was. Alexandros might have felt it too; he seemed to linger longer than he needed too. That was not like him – he always wanted to do everything fast.

“I’ll come back and see you as soon as the prizes are given out,” the king said. “It won’t be late.”
“Good,” Hephaistion murmured. His head felt heavy suddenly, and the shadows closer and stronger, calling. There was a place they wanted him to go; he would follow them soon, once Alexandros was gone. “Don’t keep me waiting too long.”
“I won’t,” Alexandros said, and to Hephaistion it had the far off sound of both sorrow and pride. He heard the last of it as he fell down into the waiting dark, slipping into sleep; it wrote itself on his heart and echoed through the rest of him, like a chant in a temple. Sometimes the gods spoke through men, lent them words and voices to say the things that were true. It was Alexandros’ own voice that sealed it though as he spiralled down into the shadows – and, god touched or not, Alexandros’ heart.
“I won’t keep you waiting for long, love. I promise.”

Alexandros was always a man who kept his word.
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August 2006

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