Warnings: Use of the obviously archaic name ‘Hephaestion.’ I tried finding a modern equivalent, but failed. I refuse to name him Herman. Or Hef. (In my desperation, other possibilities were ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Hepatitis.’ I retired chagrined from the field of battle.)
A/N: Title based on Placebo's 'Twenty Years,' which I listened to while writing this.
The police cell practically felt like home now. It would, seeing as he’d had years – on and off - to get acquainted with its less than comfortable interior, the grey of the walls, the rust stains in the corner sink, the angle of the light from the barred window.
His worn leather boots scuffed against the cement floor, fingers with ring tans curled over the edge of the hard cot. It smelled, like piss and vomit and cleaning product, but he’d slept on worse.
If he were the type to sleep at night, waking here would have been no more disorientating than doing so in his own bed. They didn’t place other troublemakers in with him any more; they’d learned better long ago, and simultaneously, he had earned his reputation.
A friend had laughed once that when behind bars he looked like a lion stuck in a cage; all tawny hair and dangerous eyes, pacing impatiently up and down the space that confined him.
He was not a large man, just shy of average height, but he loomed, too big for the people around him, too big for the room, to big for the bars to contain. Too big for his own mind, at times.
“The world is too small for men like you,” Hephaestion used to say. “That was always your problem, Alexander.”
It was usually just a Drunk and Disorderly, or Assault and Battery if a rare man decided to press charges. Alchohol mixed with an unweildy temper and slightly too much pride resulted in a police file as thick as a small dictionary.
Psychologists’ reports and results from anger management groups made up at least half of those. None of them had seen much success; if there was one thing Alexander truly despised, it was being spoken down to.
Maybe it was his parents’ fault for trying to create him in their image, or his own for having an overblown sense of self-importance.
His father had been a decorated general with old-fashioned ideas about glory and women; his mother wealthy, young, and prone to jealousy. Alexander had grown up the symbolic rope in a spiteful tug-of-war.
But the world was a place of laws and commercialism, industry and order. Unrealistic dreams had no place.
It wasn’t standard procedure for most detainees in the drunk tank to be put through psychological evaluation. But as was made clear by the presence of the officer sitting across the table from him, this was something of a special case.
The folder that sat between them was Alexander’s. He caught, upside down, a snippet of writing from one of the pages. Police report, warden’s statement – God knew what it was. But he could clearly read, in large, loopy handwriting, the words, “The boy is insane.”
He couldn’t see the rest, but he could guess at it. They were all the same, after a while.
“Are you taking your medication?” The officer asked. ‘Perkins, R.,’ read his security pass.
“Yes,” Alexander replied.
He had always refused to take the pills, but only recently had he stopped refusing to lie about it. Doctors, it seemed, didn’t appreciate it when you denounced them as blubbering quacks, and that could result in consequences.
“I’ve read your files,” the man continued. He was a large man with a baleful smile and a pressed suit, jacket tugged back just far enough to show that he was armed. “Do you want to know what I see? I see oceans of wasted potential.”
“So do I. Rant to the lawmakers, not to me.” He could see, vaguely, where this was headed. There were plenty of ex-military men in the force who had idolized his father and saw sessions such as these as an opportunity to vent their… frustrations under the guise of official questioning.
The officer leaned close, eyes narrowed and angry, mustache quivering with righteous indignation. “I heard about the display you made at your father’s funeral.”
Alexander remembered that night. He remembered his mother’s odd behavior, even more clingy than usual, ringing his phone off the hook and talking with feverish good spirits about plans for the future, what this meant for her, what it meant for them both. He had only been twenty.
“He was a hero and a patriot,” the officer continued. “He spent his life serving this country with unquestionable dedication. You’re more than canny enough to follow in his footsteps, but instead you choose to waste your time drunk between someone’s thighs.”
Alexander laughed and thought about all the ways he could kill this man if his hands were loose.
His stint in the military had been brief, explosive, and vaguely terrifying to everyone around him.
His superiors had been honored to have Philip’s son in their ranks until they recognized his wild ambition and started to hate him. More than anything, they had feared his ability. The power he wanted so much was nothing he didn’t have the capacity to control – in seconds he could have commanded the same force they now did, and with more effectiveness.
Alexander was not a man well-suited to subordinate command. He was arrogant and brilliant, ambitious and unlikely to tolerate stupidity. He was like a wild horse chomping at the bit, just waiting to be set free so he could trample them all under hoof.
But he kept his men safe and never once sent them anywhere he wouldn’t lead.
Cut off from command and awaiting orders, he grew impatient and – with the men following him gladly – was finally wounded leading the attack on a walled city, taking a bullet through the lung and collapsing all but dead as the soldiers rallied around him. They won, and he recovered and was back in the war zone in minimum time, rapidly gaining rank and recognition.
Others grew jealous. They warned that he was insubordinate and bloody-minded, a war crime trial waiting to happen. He likely battled manic depression, they said, and clearly had a violent temperament.
But no one minded much, not really. Not until he began mixing with the locals, adopting their ways of dress in his down time. He talked about settling down there, in Iraq. He started to learn their language. He wanted to explore, to travel until the land opened up to him and all its mysteries were revealed.
“I could see the world on the horizon, Hephaestion,” he would say years later. “An empty road stretching on and on, to the top of the last mountain. I hadn’t eaten, hadn’t slept, but in that moment, nothing mattered any more. I was man walking in the footsteps of God, and I had reached the end of the earth.”
He loved all of it; the towering cities and dirty village footpaths and cooking he’d never seen and languages he’d never heard. He loved the home-made altars and music and art, all from a culture far older than anything he’d ever seen. He wanted to take it all, to keep it, to make it his.
The rumor-mongers said that he was consorting with the enemy and showing a treasonous sympathy toward the opposition.
No one asked how he was supposed to simultaneously be a zealous war hawk and also sympathetic to the enemy, but in the political climate it hardly mattered.
Hephaestion was already hated by Alexander’s supporters for being first in his favor and by the opposition for being his friend. He quarreled with anyone and everyone over ridiculous and petty things, a solid commander bitter at the ungratefulness he saw around him.
They had arrived in Iraq together, fresh meat, young, impetuous, thinking themselves immortal. They had sat side by side, the whirring of helicopter blades above and the shouting of orders all around, looking down on the land below and never considering that they might not survive it together.
Within a year of Alexander’s injury they had both been spectacularly discharged and sent home.
“The men love him,” Alexander’s unit had protested.
“And he loves them,” the others had sneered.
Because in the end, all it took was one tattle-tale to get rid of Alexander and Hephaestion both.
And that’s what happened, essentially, when you and your captain were caught fucking in his bunk.
“Your ride is here.” It was a man named Simmons who came to let Alexander out of the county jail was at least as loathsome as the officer he had been stuck with beforehand, if not more so. Case in point, he then waggled an eyebrow and added, “That is, unless he rides you instead.”
Alexander reminded himself that he didn’t need to be sent back to jail before even having stepped foot outside of it, and did nothing.
He knew Simmons fairly well – knew a lot of the police and wardens at this point, so frequent were his visits – and even liked a few. Some of the old-timers made a point to sit him down for a chess game now and then. (Alexander always won.)
They didn’t approve, per say, of the man who was always there to pick Alexander up in the morning, but appreciated his existence. He calmed the lion, they would say with a laugh.
By age sixteen they had been a force to be reckoned with at boarding school.
Hephaestion was handsome, studious and prideful, whereas Alexander grew up stocky, musically inclined, hot-tempered and brilliant, heterochromatic eyes and wild hair at odds with a high-pitched, harsh voice. He was the teachers’ pride and joy. His father called him a fag for learning to play the violin, and told him to get a girlfriend.
“I hate that man,” he remarked once after some similar comment.
“You have a contempt for humanity in general that I have yet to see rivaled in another human being,” Hephaestion just replied.
It wasn’t long before one of the younger students caught them together. Hephaestion paid off the first few who found them; after that, with bright futures sure ahead of them both, the two ceased to care.
Alexander was charged with his first offense at sixteen, drunk in town and angry with it. It would only get worse with time. He was in court-ordered anger management by the time he was seventeen, for all the good they did. While Hephaestion could easily match him shot for shot, he exhibited significantly more self-control and saw the inside of a jail cell significantly less.
They kissed in front of everyone at their graduation. The student body cheered. Philip did not stay for the end of the ceremony.
Hephaestion was waiting by the chain link fence in customary sunglasses and expensive coat. “I suppose I know where you were last night now,” he began as soon as the gate closed. His eyes were unreadable from behind the shades, but his mouth was pressed into a thin line. “I hope you had fun. What was it this time?”
“None of your concern,” Alexander said, leading the way to the parking lot. They stopped next to a small silver car, tucked under the shade of the nearest tree and significantly more expensive than the vehicles surrounding it. “You drove my car?”
“After I picked it up from the impound? Yes. You’re drunk, I’ll drive.” Hephaestion unlocked the door and slipped behind the wheel, jamming the key into the ignition with slightly more force than perhaps was necessary.
Alexander leaned down to look him in the face. “I would still be able to function if I had drank horse tranquilizers, you know that as well as I.”
“You practically have,” Hephaestion said peevishly. They stared at each other for a moment before he looked away, giving in and hating himself for it. He had never been able to tell Alexander no, not for twenty-odd years and counting.
They first met in math class.
Alexander was small and angry, pale skin flushed a ruddy color. Hephaestion was tall, spoiled, and tanned.
They fell first into a spiteful conversation – an argument over some inconsequential thing such as children do, neither of them remembers what any more – then a physical altercation, and finally a fast, close, lasting friendship.
They were nine years old.
“Your mother,” said Hephaestion after some minutes on the road, “thinks I am ruining you.”
“Has she said so?”
“She messaged me, yes. She called me ‘fundamentally stupid’ again.” Here Hephaestion withdrew his cell phone from his pocket and showed Alexander the offending correspondence. “And several other creative things.”
“I would think,” said Alexander, signaling to turn and not even glancing at the phone, “that she had learned by now I do not tend to tolerate stupidity in those around me. Did you reply?”
“I told her that neither of us gave a shit what she said, and to fuck off.”
Alexander glanced at him.
“Politely,” Hephaestion said with some sullenness. “Good thing she doesn’t know who you’ve really been spending your time around lately.”
If he hated anything about Alexander, it was what everyone else loved; that unnamable magnetism that drew so many people to him and made him such a force of nature.
It made Hephaestion squabble jealously over something that no longer belonged to him, and kept him coming back even after Alexander snarled at him in public for it afterward.
Time passed in silence before Alexander said, “He left town five months ago. Finally saved enough money to go.”
Hephaestion glanced at him. Whether because of pride or something else, lying was not something Alexander made a habit of doing. “He left town five months ago?” He repeated slowly, staring at the window. He was a whore and I am your unnamed nothing. Any time I don’t spend on business trips, you spend in prison. It’s been years since we – ten years since Iraq, ten years since ‘us’ ended, and I’m not sure what, if anything, you are trying to imply here.
“I’ve decided that I spent enough of my life hating the world for making me give up everything I liked,” Alexander continued. “I’m sick of having to pretend to give up everything I love as well.”
It was quiet again for a moment.
“….This is like an abusive relationship. Dr Phil would be fucking horrified,” Hephaestion told his reflection while Alexander laughed.
“Shall I apologize?” It was a rhetorical question.
“You never do.”
Hephaestion kept his gaze locked on the trees going by outside and didn’t say, “You should have a long time ago.” Instead, he simply muttered, “If you are speaking like this just because you are bored, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look you in the face again.”
The car slowed to a stop. They weren’t near either of their homes yet, just a dusty stretch of abandoned road. Alexander turned off the engine, and looked at him. “You cannot possibly think,” he said, “for one second, that a single thing on this earth would be sufficient to keep me happy if you were not in it.”
Hephaestion got out of the car.
There was a dry wind blowing, and it reminded him, somehow, of the desert. The brown fields all around were almost reminiscent of the windswept desert that had seemed so much more Alexander’s natural territory than anything normal, anything tamed.
He turned around. Alexander was leaning against the car, his hair long and blowing in his eyes. His clothes were western, normal, new. If Hephaestion squinted he could almost see him as he had been – as they had been, dirty and shorn, dehydrated, sleepless. That was the man he knew. Not this one, set adrift, angry at the world and capable of so much more than he would ever be able to achieve.
It had been a long time.
More than twenty years, now.
More than ten since the last time they were together.
The captain and his most loyal officer. The lion and his bodyguard.
Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t hurt to give it twenty more.