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This is nothing, just an isolated scribble as much for myself as anything else. Doesn't relate to anything much, but here it is anyway.

Title: A Man's Best Friend
Summary: Sometimes friends need help.
Feedback: If you like.

It was the smell more than anything that told him it was too late. The wound gave off a dark, sour smell, like green things rotting in still water, and the flesh around it was raised and livid. Aristoteles had seen it before, knew exactly what he was looking at. He hardly needed the other signs – the shallow panting, the hot and hectic skin, the glazed and dull eyes – to tell him what was in front of him. Neither, he thought, did the boy sitting across from him; Hephaistion could be as bull-headed as any of the young Macedonian hellions he had been given to tutor, but the lad was not stupid. He was, in fact, observant and practical and given to thinking things through, when his temper did not get the better of him. He would know what he was looking at too.

“I’m sorry lad, there’s no more I can do.”
“I’ve been cleaning the wound like you told me to. I’ve been using the salve.” There was a stubborn, resentful sound to that, like a man resisting a thing he did not want to know. Aristoteles could understand that. No man liked to admit that everything he could do was not enough. He got to his feet, reaching down to pat the boy on the shoulder.
“I know you did. We got to it too late, perhaps, and the poisons got in. The wound’s gone bad. You know what that means. Don’t you?”
For a moment Hephaistion did not answer. He only stared down at the ground. Aristoteles could feel him gathering, bracing himself to answer like a man. The boy had his pride; he would not disgrace himself. When his voice came, it was low but steady. Aristoteles could tell he had fought for it. There would be a reason why he would not look up. He did not want his eyes to betray him.
“Yes sir. I know what has to be done. I’ll take care of it.”

Aristoteles considered, briefly. “If you don’t want to do it yourself, I won’t think any the less of you.” He’d meant it for a kindness, but he could tell as soon as he spoke that the words were wrong. Hephaistion gave him a single hard, hot-eyed glance and shook his head.
“He’s my dog. I’ll do it.”
Prickly about their pride, lads at this age – and Macedonian lads more than most, the philosopher thought. Still, responsibility was no bad thing, whatever form it took. He had made a habit of observing these boys, seeing what sort of creatures they were and what they might be shaped into. This one, Aristoteles thought, would never be inclined to back down from hard decisions. Aristoteles had seen that, in the way that he held his ground when he knew he was right, even against the prince and, more importantly, in the way that he did not make excuses when he was wrong. All the philosopher said, though, was: “As you wish, lad.” He brushed away the dry straw that clung to his chiton, and left the stable.

Hephaistion did nothing for a while, only sat in the straw in the empty loosebox with his hound beside him, running his fingers through the thick ruff of the animal’s neck. Under its coat, the animal’s skin was hot and sickly dry. The shine had gone from eyes and fur, but the hound still knew his master’s voice. The dog made a low whining noise, and thumped his tail twice as the youth spoke his name low and singsong. “Ah, Argo. You’re a good dog, eh? Good dog.”

They’d been out hunting only a week since, a group of them from Mieza with their hounds, looking for boar. A dangerous beast for raw boys to hunt, or for grown men even, but these boys were not so raw as that. They had all hunted boar before, it was one of the ways in which a boy in Macedon showed that he was ready to become a man. This boar had been a big one – Hephaistion had known that from the trail sign well before he saw the beast. Alexandros had been pleased; he always valued a worthy opponent. The dogs had soon picked up a fresh scent and gone off baying and belling through the woods, with the hunters in close pursuit. The dogs would find the boar and bring it to bay, holding it until the young men arrived with their boar spears and someone stepped forward for the kill. It was a bloody, messy and harsh affair – the hounds baying and circling the trapped boar, snapping at heels and snout and flank; the wild pig squealing and snorting, tearing at the ground and the underbrush and the dogs with equal savagery, more than capable of taking a man down and goring him wide open should a spear give way, or a strike go astray, or a foot slip in the mud. Men had died, hunting boar. Dogs had, too.

Argo would. He had not yet, but Hephaistion knew that Aristoteles was right. He had known it before the man had come out to the stables to check on the wound; he knew when a wound had turned that there was seldom any going back. He had only wanted to be sure. The dog had been harrying at the boar brought to bay, lunging in on its shoulder to turn it back to the pack, when the pig had swung with sudden speed and a hard flick of its tusks that had left the hound torn and bleeding. It was not the first time Hephaistion had seen a hound caught by a boar, or even the first time that it had been done to this dog – old Argo was a hunter born and bred, scarred from tangling with wolves and boar and once even a bear. The dog was a little like his master in that; he had never been one for backing down either.

This wound was different. It was deep, and it would not heal. Hephaistion had done what he could – cleaned it, dressed it, tended the dog as best he could. He had even slept in the stables the past two nights, sharing his blankets with the beast. It was not the first time he’d slept in a loosebox – Alexandros teased him for it sometimes, that he’d rather share a stall with a horse he hardly knew than a bed with the friend he loved. Not quite true, if it came down to it, but Hephaistion let him get away with it. There was more to good horsemanship than fancy riding – Hephaistion’s father had been uncompromising about that. A good horseman cared for his animals, anything else was doing the job halfway. And if a horse could be a friend and be cared for, then so could a hound. There were worse places to sleep than in a loosebox, in any case. The straw was clean and there were hardly any rats, for one thing. Also, horses tended not to snore.

The dog gave a huff, then started up the quick shallow panting that gave away its distress. Hephaistion’s lips tightened. There was a dull ache in his chest; he swallowed, hard. His eyes felt hot and tired. He blinked to clear them and pressed his face briefly into the dog’s ruff. He knew what needed to be done, knew how to do it too, quick and clean. Another thing he could thank his father for, that. If it were best done, then it were best done quickly. Hephaistion knew that too. There was nothing to be gained from putting off. He had been prepared for this; he had a knife, and it was very sharp. He knew just where to strike it home. The philosopher had probably meant well enough with what he had said about letting someone else do it, but there were some things that were a man’s own to take care of. Hephaistion had never been in the habit of letting his friends down. He was hardly going to start now. His voice was soothing, his hand very steady, and the blade as sharp and true as it needed to be.


When Hephaistion had not appeared for supper, Alexandros had gone looking for him. He did not have far to look; he knew well enough where his friend was likely to be. The prince of Macedon had grabbed up a cloak before he’d ventured out after his friend – it was cold enough still in the evenings to warrant one and besides, there was a certain comfort to the old wolfskin. Outside in the grey light, rain was beginning to fall in a fine mist. Alexandros ducked through it and into the stables.

“Hephaistion?” There was no answer, no sound save for the shifting of horses and a low whicker or two. Here and there an animal lifted its head, watching him pass with big dark eyes. He moved past the stalls, down to the looseboxes near the big doors. “Hephaistion?”

He found his friend sitting in the straw, his back to the wall and his knees drawn up, with his hands dangling between them. At his feet, there was a bundle wrapped in Hephaistion’s dark cloak; Alexandros could see the dog’s muzzle peeking from beneath the covering. Ah, so, it had come to that. He’d thought it would, had even tried to encourage Hephaistion to end it earlier and finish the hound’s suffering. Hephaistion could be stubborn sometimes, though. He would come to a decision in his own time, or not at all. Alexandros had lost track of the number of arguments they’d had because of that. Hephaistion hated to be pushed, the prince hated to lose a fight. It made things volatile, sometimes. For a short time it did, at any rate – they always sorted it out in the end.

This was not a time for arguments or saying I told you so. Alexandros could see that without even looking. Hephaistion had not answered him when he’d called, and not because he did not want to be found. He had not answered for the same reason that he had not come in to supper; he did not trust his own voice not to break, or his eyes not to give him away. He had been weeping; the prince could tell that even in the gloom from the redness of his eyes. Alexandros hesitated a moment outside the loosebox, unsure what to do next, but then Hephaistion glanced up at him and drew a quick, shuddering breath, swiping angrily at his eyes. He gestured to the cloak-wrapped bundle on the floor, half defiant, half despairing.
“You were right.”

Silence answered that. Alexandros came in to the box, hunkered down briefly beside the dead hound. He lifted the corner of his friend’s cloak, gently stroked the soft ears, let the cloak fall. “Poor old Argo, eh? Always did want to take on more than was good for him. You’ve done right by him, you know that.”
“Of course I know that.” It sounded angry, but Alexandros was not fooled. When Hephaistion was really angry, he didn’t sound anything much at all. That was one thing that he found fascinating about his friend; he’d never met anyone who could lose their temper in a fury of pure cold before. This … this was not temper. He moved to sit next to Hephaistion, leaning back against the wall and kicking his feet in the straw. His friend picked absently at a cut on his leg, and said, “I shouldn’t have asked him to take that boar.”
“He was a hunting hound, Phai. That’s what he did. Besides, you know what he was like, once he got his wind up. You couldn’t have stopped him.” That won a brief smile. Hephaistion said affectionately, “Mad dog.”
“Like his master.”
“I suppose.”

Another silence fell. Alexandros, who had never been comfortable with being either silent or still, found he could bear this. Hephaistion only sat quietly, looking down at his hands. There was no blood on them; he had wiped it off on the straw, perhaps. His face had a closed, inward look. Memory, that was – and a young man hiding his grief. That was another thing Alexandros found strange; in his family, no one hid what they felt. Before he’d met Hephaistion, he’d thought that he was the only one who had the trick of it. He let his hand go quietly to rest on his friend’s shoulder. Hephaistion sighed again, then let his head fall back to lean against the rough wall, staring up at the rafters.
“Stupid,” he said. “To get all maudlin about a dog.”
“Not stupid.” Alexandros had seen grown men brought to tears by less. By women, even, if a man could believe that. “He was your friend. You’re allowed to cry for a friend.”

If Hephaistion had been waiting for permission, he didn’t show it. A tear ran down his cheek, that was all; he dashed at it impatiently with the back of his hand. Alexandros said nothing, only rubbed his shoulder in the same way he might have tried to soothe a skittish horse. The sound of the animals around them was calming – the shuffle of hooves on straw, the low grind and chomp of horses at their feed, the snorts and soft rumbles as they murmured among themselves. Ah, that was one of Hephaistion’s thoughts, creeping in. He’d always maintained that horses spoke to each other. Alexandros saw no reason to suppose it untrue. Outside, the rain had grown steadier; it fell with a soft, cool patter that was both easy and refreshing. Wordlessly, Alexandros slung his old wolfskin cloak about so that it covered them both. It was not precisely cold in here, but the wolfskin had its own magic. It had always been a comfort. Hephaistion sank his fingers into the thick fur, then scrubbed at his face with his hand and gave his friend a look. His voice was oddly husky, when it came. His throat felt sore and tight – he had to speak past it. “Thanks.”

Alexandros had the good grace not to make light of it. “It’s all right. You had him from a pup, didn’t you? You brought him with you when you came to Pella, I remember.”
Hephaistion nodded. “I was eight, and he’d got into the goat pen and been trampled by a she-goat with kids. His leg was broken, my father said it would be kindest to kill him. He looked like a bundle of rags with eyes, he was so little. I made such a bloody noise over it, my father finally relented and told me to take the pup to my mother.”
Alexandros thought he could imagine that; Hephaistion had some odd ideas sometimes but he was a long way from being soft. When he dug his toes in about a thing, he’d stick to it. Even about such a thing as an errant hound pup with a broken leg.
“Your mother knows medicine?”
“A little. What any woman would know, when she has a family to look after and a son who was falling off horses before he could walk.” A soft, wry laugh punctuated that; it made Alexandros’ lips quirk. He tried to think of Hephaistion actually falling off a horse and came up short. Even Bukephalos in a tantrum had not been able to shift Hephaistion. He’d simply ridden the black horse out, and then said, “Are you finished?”

Hephaistion caught the grin, glanced at him. “What?”
“Nothing. I was just trying to imagine you falling off a horse.”
“It happens.”
“Oh, I know. I just didn’t think it happened to you.”
Hephaistion snorted. Well, that was stupid. He’d had bruises enough to prove that, over the years. “Idiot.”
“Tell me about the dog. Your mother mended his leg?”
“She showed me how to wrap his leg so the bone might have a chance to set, and one of the grooms helped me change the splints and bandages.” Hephaistion shrugged. “My father thought it would be a good lesson for me, I suppose – but he never expected the leg to mend. When it did, he told me the dog was mine now, that I’d saved him so I was responsible for him. I remember him following me about the yards with his leg all swaddled and splinted, stumping about. That’s why he always ran a little lame on that hind leg, it set a little shorter than the other.”
“Didn’t slow him down any though.”
“No,” Hephaistion agreed. “But he never went near another goat in his life. I could take him after boar or stags and he’d never flinch. He even took on a pair of wolves once, when we had mares out with foals at foot and they came too near to the pasture. But show him a goat and he’d slink off like a wet cat.”

They were sitting closer together now, drawn in by the cloak and each other’s warmth. Hephaistion could feel Alexandros’ hand on his leg now, the touch purely of comfort and support. He let his own hand go to it, squeeze it briefly in thanks. Alexandros said again, “It’s all right.”
“The others will be wondering where you are. They’ll talk.”
“Let them. I don’t care. We can go back when you’re ready.”
Hephaistion nodded. The hot prickling behind his eyes had faded, but there was still the catch in his throat and the low dull ache in his chest. It was better with Alexandros here, somehow. If anyone else had seen him like this, he would have been horrified. With Alexandros, though, it did not seem so much to matter. They were used to sharing things, after all. What point, to hide from that?
“I don’t want to leave him here,” he heard himself say. “I don’t want the rats to get at him.”
“We can stay. And we’ll give him a good send off, tomorrow.”
“No,” Hephaistion said at once. “No, I need to do it myself.”
“Yes,” Alexandros told him, “But I’ll do it with you.” He did not sound as if he expected any argument. Hephaistion thought about it, but did not give him one. Instead he said, “Yes. I’d like that.”

Outside, the rain eased. It was full dark now, but Alexandros was comfortable enough. He did not need light to see what his friend needed of him. The others would talk, seeing that both he and Hephaistion were missing, but what he’d told Hephaistion was true. Let them talk, he hardly cared what they said. He wondered what they would think if they knew that barely half of what they said was true, that he and Hephaistion had only barely done more than kiss and let their hands explore a little. It didn’t matter. Hephaistion was his friend, that was what was important to him – to them both, if it came to that.

Alexandros had never been in the habit of letting his friends down. He was not about to start now.
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August 2006

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