Italian, “jest;” a short composition in western classical music
Minors, though often claimed to be, were not always melancholy. There was joy to be found in them, too: delicate runs of the right hand up through the early themes and deep resonance in the bass to round out the recapitulation. Hux didn’t brood when he played in minors; he went into them with a full expression of mood, from pleasure to sorrow as the piece progressed.
His selection for his final senior recital at Juilliard required him to draw on the broadest range of feeling he had, leaving him breathless at the delicate conclusion, when he struck a last low note and drew his hands up from the keyboard. In those few moments before the vibration of the piano’s strings stilled, he was utterly centered and present—meditative. The only things that existed for him were the dying strains of the music he had made and the otherworldly stillness.
As he released the pedal and the piano went silent, he returned to the room around him, whether it was his tutor’s studio or the students’ concert hall, or even his parents’ living room in Endor Cross. He felt renewed when he opened his eyes and everything came back into brighter focus. Sometimes—the best times—the first thing he would see was Ben Solo smiling at him from the opposite side of the piano, where he had been leaning on the lid.
When Hux had come to the United States to study under master pianist Rae Sloane, the last thing he had expected was Ben. They had met upon a misunderstanding: when Hux had approached him during their lunch period at Endor Cross High School and tried to speak to him, only to discover that he was deaf. Ben had thought Hux meant to mock him and had tried to chase him off, but Hux had returned the next day with an apology in fumbling beginner’s sign language and everything in both of their worlds had shifted.
It had begun as an uncertain friendship as they did their best to communicate around a profound language barrier. Thanks to the wonder of text messaging, however, they had managed—until Hux knew enough sign language to converse with Ben on his own terms. It had been a challenge, but over the past five years and many intensive ASL classes at the Skywalker School for the Deaf and then the Deaf Center in New York, Hux was functionally fluent. Ben had stayed beside him through it all, and reminded him that he—Ben—was deeply lucky to have found a friend who was willing to learn a new language just so they could communicate better.
And it had become more than friendship rather quickly, all things considered. Hux had never had a boyfriend before Ben, and he had most assuredly never been in love before him. Both things came naturally between them; they had fallen into and for each other without doubt or fear—at least after they overcame the initial guesswork of one another’s sexuality. Hux still held dear the memory of Ben’s father Han asking with two simple signs “boyfriend?” Ben had had to interpret for him then, but Hux’s response had come easily: a nodding motion with his right fist—“Yes.”
They had dated all through the rest of their junior year of high school and into senior year. Ben had had few friends in his earlier years at Endor Cross, but as Hux grew more confident in ASL and Ben grew freer with handing out his phone number, their circle expanded. Their best friends were still Phasma and Ben’s cousin Rey, but Finn and Poe, another couple, adopted them. Other students were quicker to wave and to stop by and say hello to Ben (and Hux, who was almost always with him when they had class together) by their last year at school. Ben carried himself more confidently, which made Hux indelibly proud.
Ben was there when Hux came out from his audition for Juilliard the fall of their senior year, and he was there when Hux opened his acceptance letter. Ben himself got into every college he applied for, but it was an easy decision for him to go to New York University, which wasn’t far from Juilliard. Hux had insisted that he choose what was best and right for him, even if it meant they had to be apart, but NYU’s literature program was ideal for him; there was no question where he would go.
They had decided early that they wouldn’t move in together for college. Their schools were, for one, across Manhattan from one another and the locations made commuting for either of them annoying. The main rationale was, though, that they couldn’t predict the future. There was no question they had every reason to believe they were forever, but circumstances could always change and they were willing to acknowledge that. Of course, nobody was surprised when they stayed together through all four years of college. Things between them weren’t without their ups and downs—fights, stress, growing pains—but no matter how fiery Ben’s temper sometimes was, Hux never considered breaking up with him.
Now, in their final semester, when both of them were preparing to graduate, Hux’s points of concern were not with Ben, but with what the future would hold for him. Concert pianists were not necessarily in high demand, and it was possible that to get a job Hux would have to move somewhere across the country, or even abroad. Ben had said he would go with him, but Hux knew he loved New York, and being close to his family in Connecticut was important to him. The unpredictability of his career hung heavy around Hux’s neck, almost choking him at times.
“Stop!” Rae said sharply, calling Hux’s attention back to her studio, where he was practicing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, his recital piece. “Where is your head, Armitage?” she demanded. “It’s definitely not on the music.”
Hux lifted his hands from the keys, tucking them into his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the same old things. I had a meeting with my concertmaster this morning and he was going on about Alexa’s acceptance to the philharmonic.” She was a flautist, however, not a pianist.
Rae sighed through her nose, shaking her head. “I’ve told you before, you’re going to be fine. You’ve got to let it go and just play or you’ll make a mess of the sonata. It’s thirty minutes of uninterrupted music. There aren’t traditional movements. You have to be totally in the moment or you’re not going to work it.”
“I know,” said Hux. “Shall we start again?”
“No. You should take a break. Go have a drink, see Ben.” She raised one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “How’s it going with you two?”
“Perfectly,” Hux replied, “as always. Although he knows I’m stressed about graduation. I think it’s starting to annoy him. He doesn’t always have a lot of patience for my fretting.”
Rae rose from her chair beside him. “You really are a worrier sometimes.” She set her hands on his shoulders. “You’re a gifted musician, Armitage, and you have a boyfriend who loves you. You’ve got everything going for you. There’s no reason to panic.”
He hung his head, breathing steadily. “You’re right. I just—”
“Let it go for now,” she said. “You’ve had a wonderful time at Juilliard. Let this recital be a celebration of that.” She stepped back, checking the clock on the wall. “We’ve got ten minutes left of the lesson. Play something you enjoy and just relax.”
Hux considered for a moment, but then took up the keys again and launched into some comforting Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor.
“Minors,” Rae grumbled as he played, but she sat again and listened.
Hux caught the subway back to his apartment, a studio in an admittedly wear-worn building by Juilliard’s campus. His parents paid for it, which he appreciated; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to afford it without getting a job. His father insisted that he focus completely on his music, and taking on Hux’s living costs was unquestionable. Still, Hux made sure to find something reasonably affordable.
He dropped his messenger bag in the living room next to his electric piano and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. He’d grown to like the apartment over the years, feeling at home there. It would be strange to consider moving out after graduation. Leaning against the stove, he tried not to let the anxiety well up again. He just hated uncertainty, and that was all he had to look forward to after his recital. It wouldn’t color the performance, he promised himself, but once the last strains of the encore died, reality would descend again and he’d be lost.
A buzzing in his trouser pocket was a welcome distraction. He knew without looking at his phone that it was text from Ben.
Hey, it read. I’m bringing takeout for dinner. You want the usual?
Lemon chicken, yes, Hux wrote. Thank you.
Of course. See you in a half hour.
The kettle began to whistle, and Hux poured a generous amount of water into a large NYU mug Han had bought for him as swag to support Ben’s college. The words on its side had started to flake from frequent washings. Taking his tea to the table beside the piano, Hux let it steep while he took his headphones and put them over his ears. They were always plugged into the piano so he could practice without disturbing his neighbors.
As he began to absently pluck out a melody, he glanced at the picture frame on the table by his mug: a photograph of him and Ben in their tuxedos at their senior prom. Maratelle had bought them matching boutonnieres—red carnations—and had rented a limousine to take them, Rey and Phasma, and Finn and Poe to the venue in the city where the dance was. Hux had expected the usual bassy popular music—which Ben enjoyed because he could feel the vibrations in his chest—but halfway through the night, the DJ had announced a special song. Ben had grabbed Hux’s hand and drawn him out onto the dance floor.
You’re going to have to lead, he signed, since I can follow the beat.
You can dance? Hux had asked, caught completely off guard.
Ben had smiled. Maratelle taught me.
Hux’s jaw had dropped. When? How did you do it without me noticing?
The same way you starting learning sign language without me knowing, Ben replied. We signed up for a class together.
She said it was Zumba! Hux signed furiously.
Ben had laughed. A little white lie.
Hux had learned to dance at his school in England, but almost no one in America could waltz. Therefore, he and Ben had been the only ones on the dance floor when a classical piece came over the speakers. Hux had never felt quite so self-conscious, but as he fell into the rhythm of leading, that faded. He focused solely on Ben, who smiled at him throughout the dance, until the song ended and they stood in each other’s arms at the center of the floor. Applause exploded around them in the aftermath, and Rey and Finn came bouncing to them to give them hugs. Rey signed to Ben and interpreted what Finn was saying to Hux. It was the highlight of their prom night.
The limo took them back to Endor Cross, where they were to stay at Hux’s house. Brendol had long since gone to bed by the time they got there, but Maratelle, Hux’s stepmother, had been sitting up waiting. The usual sheets with which they made up the couch for Ben to sleep on were absent.
“You can have your room tonight,” she said when Hux asked if he should get them from the linen closet. “Just don’t tell your father.”
Hux had embraced her before he and Ben went to his bedroom and closed the door.
Their relationship hadn’t stayed chaste much past Hux’s Christmas recital in their junior year of high school, when Hux had first confessed he was in love with Ben. They didn’t always have a lot of time alone and unsupervised when they both lived with their hovering parents, but they managed to get their hands on each other when they craved it most. Hux had had a little experience and it had helped things along, but they really discovered lovemaking together.
That night after prom, they had taken each other’s tuxedos off slowly in the half-light of a single bedside lamp, Ben kissing Hux’s neck where he knew he was sensitive and Hux stroking Ben’s hair, nipping at his ears. They’d come together in ardent need, but without the usual rush of fear of being discovered. After, they’d lain entwined under the duvet and kissed lazily, until both of them drifted into sleep. It was the first time they had ever spent the whole night together.
Hux sipped his tea in his apartment now between bits of Bach he had memorized. He picked at the keys without much commitment, but didn’t let his mind wander too much; he didn’t need to radiate tension when Ben arrived—which he did some thirty-five minutes later, letting himself in with his own key.
Hux pulled his headphones off and stood, giving Ben a wave as he walked over to him. Ben set down plastic bags of fragrant food down on the counter and drew Hux into his arms. He kissed him, bumping his nose against Hux’s. In their silent language, it meant that he was very happy to see him, glad to be together after an absence.
He stepped back to sign: How was your lesson with Rae?
Good, Hux replied. We’re still working through the sonata. It’s coming together. It should be in good shape for my recital.
Ben studied him, head cocked to the right. You’re still nervous about it, he signed.
Hux should have known Ben could read him like a book. Yes. We don’t have to talk about it.
If it’s bothering you, you know we can, Ben told him. He rubbed Hux’s upper arms reassuringly.
Hux shook his head. Not right now. Tell me about your day.
They unpacked the food first, at Ben’s insistence, and took it to the bistro table Hux had somehow managed to fit into his kitchen. The chairs were metal and uncomfortable, but it was the only thing small enough for the space. Hux poured rice onto his plate and spooned lemon chicken over it. He had gotten Ben a sparkling water—something Maratelle had successfully turned him on to—but he still had his tea.
I hung out with Josh after class today, Ben signed between forkfuls of beef with broccoli. He and Alice are on the outs again.
God, Hux scoffed, rolling his eyes.
Josh and Alice were friends of theirs they had met through the Deaf Center two years ago. They put together a lot of social events for the community in Manhattan, bringing people together for nights out and dinners and the occasional improv show. The Laugh Factory had a pair of interpreters who worked for them. Any time there was standup, one of them was called in to make the show accessible. Ben loved comedy; he watched specials on Netflix all the time. Hux wasn’t quite as keen on it, but he went to shows when Ben wanted to go.
They’ll sort it out, Ben continued as he chewed.
I don’t understand why they don’t just break up, Hux signed. They fight more than enjoy each other’s company, I swear.
Ben shrugged. Love is weird.
Hux huffed a laugh and went back to his meal.
It had been strange at first to get used to eating in total silence, unable to converse with their hands while they were busy with forks and knives, but by now he had gotten so used to it that it was odd to hold a whole conversation with hearing people over dinner. Of course, Hux’s friends from school were all hearing, so he was accustomed to spending time with them, but he had also come to enjoy the quiet. Sometimes he played music from his small bluetooth speaker while they ate, but rarely these days.
I had a meeting with my thesis adviser this afternoon, Ben told him. She said the latest revisions really improved it. She gave me more notes, but it’s almost done. He made a tired face, slumping his shoulders. I’m ready to be finished.
Ben had been placed in the honors track in the Literature Department soon after he had started at NYU. His professors were all impressed with his insight and diligence. At first it had been challenging for him to get used to being in such a massive school with such large lectures, but he had found a fantastic interpreter to work with him. Kaydel Connix—just Kay—was also his roommate. She was a few years older than Ben and Hux but still needed to live with someone to manage the bills between her interpreting work and her part-time waitressing job. She loved both of them dearly and reminded them on a regular basis that they were the most perfect couple she’d ever seen.
How about your book? Hux asked.
Ben had been working on a science fiction novel since freshman year, but he still hadn’t allowed Hux to read it. It had taken a full year before he had trusted Hux enough to share any of his writing. Hux resented his secrecy a little, but he didn’t want to make a stink about it. In the end, he just wanted to share Ben’s passion with him, especially since Ben shared Hux’s for music.
It’s okay, I guess, Ben replied. I haven’t looked at it much around my schoolwork lately.
That’s unlike you, Hux signed.
Ben inclined his head, conceding. I’ve just been super busy. Graduation is going to be a sweet, sweet respite.
Hux swallowed heavily, looking down at his food and hoping his disquiet didn’t show too much.
Ben reached across the table and chucked him under the chin to get him to raise his face. I love you, he signed, and Hux gave him a watery smile. Ben continued: Netflix and chill?
Let’s clean up, Hux replied, and then yes.
They tucked the leftovers into Hux’s refrigerator and washed their plates and cups, putting them on the wooden drying rack next to the sink. Ben grabbed another water and carried it over to Hux’s bed, where he flopped down on his back, closing his eyes. Hux crept onto the mattress beside him, reaching for his laptop. They had been watching a crime series that Hux loved, even if Ben would have preferred something else. They compromised.
Ben stacked the pillows up against the headboard and guided Hux up into the crook of his arm. Hux set the laptop on his thighs, queuing up the next episode. The captions came on as the narrator started speaking over a shot of a farm field: the site of the murder.
Ben had learned not to scroll through his phone while they were watching—it annoyed Hux to no end—even if he wasn’t overly interested in the show. He lasted about twenty minutes before he started to nuzzle Hux’s neck, kissing up to his hairline and down to the collar of his shirt. Hux tipped his head to side to give him better access, desire stirring in him as Ben slid a hand under his shirt and over his belly. Hux turned to him then and kissed his mouth.
The laptop was moved onto the side table from there, the narrator still talking as Hux straddled Ben’s legs, his arms around his neck. Ben set to unbuttoning Hux’s shirt with deliberate, practiced fingers, watching him all the while. Hux shifted so Ben could feel his erection through his trousers. Once Hux’s shirt was cast unceremoniously onto the floor, Hux pulled Ben’s over his head and tossed it aside as well. Ben had taken to going to the gym with their friend Hunter, and the results were quite apparent. Hux was slim and bony compared to him, but Ben didn’t seem to mind.
Hux had to get off of him to get his trousers and underwear off. Ben stripped out of his as well, leaving them bare beside each other over the duvet. Hux kissed across Ben’s chest and then down his stomach. Ben gave a little gasp that Hux never tired of when Hux got between his legs. This was something they both enjoyed, and Ben would give as good as he got as soon as Hux was finished with him.
When they were both coming down from the high of good sex, they peeled back the covers on the bed and slid under them. Hux resumed the crime show, but Ben was soon sleeping beside him. Hux succumbed not long after, warm and comfortable in Ben’s arms.
Hux set an alarm for the morning so he could wake Ben. When he wasn’t at home, he didn’t have his vibrating clock, and his phone wasn’t strong enough to startle him out of sleep. He had a ten o’clock seminar, so Hux’s phone alarm went off at eight. He grumpily silenced it and turned to shake Ben’s shoulder. Ben, never a morning person, tried to push his hand away, but Hux dodged him and tugged at his hair. Eyes screwed shut, Ben frowned at him. Hux set to kissing his cheek, the skin marked from the creases of his pillow. Ben allowed that, slowly coming into wakefulness and putting his arms around Hux. When Hux pulled back, he mouthed, “Good morning.” Ben smiled lazily.
Hux was the first to rise, sitting at the edge of the bed and stretching his neck and shoulders. Ben lay behind him, tracing the knobs of his spine from nape to sacrum. Hux shifted so Ben could see him and signed: Coffee?
Ben signed a lethargic Yes, please around a yawn.
The coffeemaker was a four-cup affair perched on the edge of the kitchen counter. Hux filled it with grounds and water, allowing it to brew while he put on some clothes. Ben went straight to the shower, a sputtering low-set head that took a good five full minutes to warm up enough to get in. The tub was old-fashioned porcelain stained with rust from decades of use. Hux had put one of those cheap suction cup mats on the floor of it to keep from slipping.
He was pouring a large mug of coffee for Ben—liberally mixed with Girl Scout cookie flavored creamer—when Ben appeared, hair wet and dressed in a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt emblazoned with “Juilliard;” it had been a gift from Hux, more as a joke than anything, but he had fallen in love with it—said it was comfortable.
What’s your seminar this morning? Hux asked before handing him the mug.
Ben took a sip and then set it down on the counter to sign in reply: Eighteenth century European literature. It’s boring as hell.
Hux nodded, pouring his own cup of coffee: black with two spoonfuls of sugar. My condolences. Do you have something after?
A recitation, but nothing major. What have you got today?
Hux’s schedule on Thursdays was fairly relaxed, with music theory at eleven and then a composition class at two. He hesitated before mentioning the composition session to Ben. It wasn’t his strongest subject—he struggled with inspiration for original pieces—but Ben got particularly excited about it, and always asked how Hux’s compositions were coming. Hux tried not to remind him that just because Ben loved original fiction Hux had to love writing his own music.
Theory and comp, Hux told him in brisk, dismissive signs.
Ben gave a thoughtful nod, drinking his coffee as he leaned against the counter.
They stood just sipping for a few minutes, Hux fussing with a breakfast bar in the cabinet and throwing it to Ben. He caught it deftly and peeled the wrapper back to take a large bite out of it. Hux didn’t eat much in the morning, but he packed fruit and made a sandwich for himself to eat after his theory class.
Finished with his coffee, Ben picked up his backpack and pulled Hux in for a kiss. See you on Saturday for the play, right?
The Deaf Center Players, a theater troupe who did productions all in ASL, was putting on a version of Romeo and Juliet. It having been the play Ben and Hux read in high school during their tentative courtship, they couldn’t miss it.
Of course, Hux signed. Have a good day. I love you.
I love you, too, Ben signed, and then he went out the door, shutting it behind him.
Hux went to the window to look out as he finished his coffee. He allowed his mind to wander, but it inevitably came back to music—specifically the piece he was working on in his composition class. The requirement for their final assignment was to compose something about ten minutes long to be performed for his peers over the last two days of class. He was procrastinating working on it, and not only because he had chosen a particularly difficult piece for his recital. He had a basic melody, but needed to flesh out the rest of the accompaniment in the left hand. The block remained, however, keeping him from finding something that suited it. Letting his forehead rest against the thin window, he sighed.
Some hour later, he was showered and shaved and on his way to campus. It was a lovely April morning, and thankfully not garbage day. He dodged other pedestrians on his route—two miles—before arriving at his building. Students were bustling between their classes, and Hux, recognizing some of them, waved. They raised their hands back.
There were only twenty students in music theory, and they were all expected to sit at the front of the room for the lecture. The professor was a sonorous man in his sixties, but he knew his theory and brought out the best in his students. Hux took out his staff notebook, ready to make notes on whatever piece they were going to study today.
At one-fifteen, he made his way back out into the hallway, stopping in a nook to have his lunch. He was chewing on his sandwich and scrolling through his phone when it started to ring. Phasma’s picture appeared over the icon of the shaking phone receiver. Hux beamed.
“Well, this is certainly unexpected,” he said after he had picked up.
“You know I don’t plan my telephone calls,” Phasma said on the other end of the line. “I was just thinking about you because I had to change my seat for the flight across the damned country. And to hear you play for thirty minutes.”
“Forty with an encore,” Hux corrected. He could practically hear her rolling her eyes.
“Whatever. But I guess it’s worth it since I haven’t seen you since last summer.”
Phasma was at Berkeley in California, indeed across the country from New York. She didn’t always come home at Christmas—generally only for the summer holidays. Hux had been out to visit her once, and he had been very impressed by her wide circle of friends and three roommates in a small townhouse. Rent in California wasn’t cheap, either. She seemed to be very happy there and was considering staying after graduation.
“How are you, anyway?” she continued. “Excited about the big recital?”
“More anxious,” Hux replied. He didn’t lie to her. “It’s the end of an era, and I still have no earthly idea what I’m going to do after I finish school. New York is not always kind to concert pianists.”
“You could come out here,” said Phasma. “Or go anywhere, really. There’s nothing to tie you down. Oh, well, there’s Ben. But he said he’d travel with you.”
Hux sat on the heating vent tucked into his nook. “You know I don’t want to make him move, Phas. It’s not fair to uproot him. He’s happy here, and I can’t take that away from him.” He added, “I’m happy, too.”
“Aside from anxious, you mean.”
“Yes, aside from that.”
There was a moment of silence before Phasma asked, “You seen Rey recently?”
The two of them had dated through high school, but after Phasma decided to go away to college, they decided they didn’t want to do long-distance. There had been a fair bit of crying, but in the end it had been right. Rey hadn’t enrolled in university, choosing instead to stay on at the Skywalker School in Endor Cross and become a teacher. Her adoptive father and Ben’s uncle, Luke, was headmaster and from what Hux could tell, when he retired some of the school’s management would fall to Rey. He would in all likelihood find a new headmaster who was also deaf, but Rey would always have a role to play.
“I saw her over spring break,” Hux said. “She’s very busy, but she was at the regular dinner at the Solos’.”
“They still doing good?”
“Yes, of course. Leia still works at the consulate and Ben stops by once a week to have lunch with her. Han’s business is thriving. We visit every few weeks.”
Phasma hummed. “And your parents?”
“Fine,” said Hux. “Maratelle is still writing for the magazine, and Father is...Father.”
“I’m sure he is,” Phasma muttered. She hadn’t always got on with Brendol Hux, but not a lot of people got on with Brendol Hux. “So,” she continued, brighter, “how’s Ben?”
“Good,” Hux replied. “Busy with his thesis.”
“You haven’t had a fight lately, have you?”
The answer was easy enough: “No. You know we don’t fight often.”
“There were a few real doozies in the past.”
Hux couldn’t deny that. Ben, when he got into it, had a hot temper, and Hux was as stubborn as a bull. They clashed at times, leaving them both simmering with anger—sometimes for days. Once, they had argued so fiercely that Ben had gone running home to Endor Cross and stayed there for the weekend, refusing to answer Hux’s texts. Eventually, Hux had had to go up there and show up on his doorstep. He had cooled down enough that they could talk, though Han did a little mediating. It had taken a week or so for them to really make up, but when they finally made their full apologies, they swore to never get to that point again. They hadn’t.
In general, they weren’t often apart. Hux had gone on a European concert tour with his program in their sophomore year and he had only been able to text Ben when he had a wifi connection. By the time he got back, Ben wouldn’t let him out of his sight. And Hux had to admit that their welcome-home sex had been stellar. They loved the closeness, though they didn’t see each other every single day of the week.
“We’ve been fine,” Hux told Phasma. “I’ll tell him you said hello.”
“Do that,” she said, “and I’ll see you guys a week from Saturday! Talk to you soon, Hux.”
He tucked his phone back into his pocket, finished his sandwich, and then went to get a coffee from the café before his next class. His stomach tightened as he saw his professor already in the room, waiting. She smiled at him, but kept at straightening the pages of music she had. Hux realized he had this weekend to finish his composition and write it down for submission. Nerves roiling, he sat down and took out a fresh sheet of staff paper. With caution, he began to mark down the melody.
The Raven’s Roost was the small theater where the Deaf Center Players were performing Romeo and Juliet. Hux met Ben for dinner out at their favorite Thai dive at five-thirty, and they had an overwhelming amount of curry and rice before heading to the theater an hour later. Several of their friends were already there, packing into the reserved seating at the front of the theater. They needed to be close enough to the stage to see the signing clearly. Hux had planned on getting a seat in the upper rows, since he was hearing and could follow along with the spoken narration during the production, but Ben had insisted they sit together. Nobody seemed to begrudge him a place in the second row, which he appreciated.
They caught up with Alice, who seemed to have made up with Josh. He was playing Mercutio in the play and she had brought him a large bouquet of flowers, which she tucked under her seat as the house lights went down. The stage was illuminated as a single person in modern dress stepped out into the center. His hands came up and he began to sign. Over the speakers, the narration began.
The production was beautiful, taking over three hours with two intermissions. As the players reached the balcony scene, which Hux had once upon a time read aloud in his and Ben’s junior English class, Ben took Hux’s hand and squeezed it tightly. That had been, perhaps, the first time Hux had seen Ben regarding him with more affection than was appropriate for a friend. It had taken them longer still to admit their feelings, but Hux still vividly remembered that day, and the way Ben was watching him speak, reading his lips with a tender expression on his face.
Ben was good at it, but he had finally gotten an interpreter for his classes in their senior year—at Hux’s insistence. His grades had improved and they had made a friend of Maz, an older hearing woman who had been interpreting for two decades. Luke had admonished his nephew for not requesting one from the school far earlier, but Ben had shrugged him off. He was determined to be self-sufficient almost to a fault. Of course, there was nothing at all wrong with an accommodation in school, if it meant it made his studies easier. Maz had actually introduced Ben to Kay, his college “terp.” He was grateful for that, even if he wasn’t quick to admit it.
After the play was done—earning a standing ovation, which was mostly silent, the audience using the sign for applause rather than clapping—everyone went out into the foyer for a reception. There were cocktails and beer and wine, a few finger sandwiches and mini quiches. Hux wasn’t at all hungry, but he got a vodka tonic to sip as he made the rounds of congratulating the actors—many of which he and Ben knew from the Deaf Center events.
When they had first started going, Hux was still only two years deep into learning ASL. He was good at it and got a lot of practice with Ben, but other deaf people signed almost too quickly for him to follow. And when some of them learned he was hearing, they were less willing to converse with him. Ben stepped in, though, and made a point of telling everyone their story: how Hux had taken up sign language at sixteen because he fell in love with Ben. That won him a great deal of admiration, and with it a warmer welcome into the community. Like any other group of people, sometimes they were uncertain about outsiders; Hux couldn’t fault them—too much.
Josh came up to him halfway through the reception, his long face still caked with stage makeup. Hey, he signed. What did you think of the play?
It was stunning, Hux replied. You did a wonderful job. Are you sorry it’s over?
Yeah, but there will be a new production to audition for during the summer season.
Hux smiled, inclining his head. He tried not to think of the nebulousness of his summer plans. When did you get into acting?
When I was about eighteen, Josh replied. At Gallaudet.
Gallaudet University was a school in Washington, D.C. founded primarily for the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. There were several people in the community in New York who had studied there. Ben had applied, but decided not to go. He was, as Hux knew, determined to function in a hearing world. He also just preferred NYU’s literature program.
I couldn’t make a living doing it, Josh continued, but it’s a fun hobby. He winked. Not all of us can support ourselves with our art.
Hux pressed his lips together, tensing up.
Josh read his expression and said, Touched a nerve?
A small one, yes, Hux signed. Anyway, I just wanted to say congratulations. It was a fantastic night.
He and Ben said their goodbyes just after eleven o’clock, catching the subway back to Ben’s apartment. Kay was still awake, watching something or other on Netflix. She bounced up when they came inside, coming to give Hux a hug. She was head and shoulders shorter than him, with wheat field blond hair and a pert nose, delicate features. She was wearing a pair of pajama pants with pastel ice cream cones on them and a too-large pink t-shirt.
How was the play? she asked.
Really good, Ben replied. Kinda long, though.
She laughed. That’s Shakespeare for you. You guys want a midnight snack?
Sure, Ben signed. Something sweet?
I’ve got caramel corn. She went into the kitchen and pulled out a large bag of caramel-covered popcorn, which she shoved into Hux’s hands.
“Thanks,” he said, even though he wasn’t hungry.
“No problem,” she spoke aloud, signing along, too. “I’m going to bed, but I’ll see you guys in the morning. Pancakes!” She gave both of them another hug before disappearing into her bedroom.
Hux gave the caramel corn to Ben. Holding the bag in his left hand, Ben took Hux’s backpack with his right and bore it into his room. He had the master bedroom, with a bed much larger than his twin back in his parents’ house in Endor Cross. Hux’s pack he deposited at the foot of it, patting the mattress to invite Hux up.
Popcorn in bed? Hux signed, making a face. Consider the mess.
I’m not a slob, Ben signed in reply. Come lie down, Hux, and snuggle with me.
Unable to resist, Hux crawled up beside him, though they made space enough to sign. He asked while Ben munched on the popcorn, Does Kay still hate your early American literature professor?
Ben scowled. Yes, and so do I. He’s an asshole. He never looks me in the eye when I talk to him; he talks to Kay instead. She’s told him to look at me a hundred times, but he never listens. And he assigned me to a group for our final project.
It wasn’t that Ben couldn’t do group work, but it was usually awkward for him. All too often, his group members tended to assume he had an intellectual disability and walked on eggshells around him. It irritated Kay, too, who had explained time and time again to different groups that Ben was deaf and not otherwise disabled. People didn’t seem to grasp that he was on the same level as them—they’d all gotten into the same college—and it drove Ben crazy. A couple of times, it had made him angry enough to storm away from a group meeting. That endeared him to no one and the rest of the project had been supremely uncomfortable. Despite his determination, it still wasn’t easy for a deaf person to make their way through a hearing four-year university. Hux admired Ben tremendously for getting into the honors college and not letting ableism affect him negatively.
Will it be all right? Hux asked.
Ben nodded, half-shrugging. I’ll be glad when it’s over.
Hux laid a hand on Ben’s thigh, rubbing gently. They sat in silence—save for Ben’s crunching—for a few minutes. Hux peered around the room, alighting on a pile of writing-filled journals on Ben’s desk. They contained all the notes for his novel. Although he knew better than to press, Hux signed: How’s the book coming?
Ben paused in his chewing. Fine. The sign was fast and his expression hard. He didn’t want to talk about it.
I’d like to read some, Hux told him.
No, was the firm reply.
Why? I’m not going to judge it.
Ben lay the popcorn bag aside. It’s not ready. Parts of it are still a mess. He pushed a hand agitatedly through his hair. Why are you even asking?
Hux touched his cheek, then drew back to sign: Because I love you and everything you create. I wish you would share it with me. It’s like this big hovering secret—a part of you you keep hidden away. I share everything I am with you.
I know, Ben signed sharply. But I just can’t, okay? Please don’t ask me again.
Turning his face down to stare at his legs, Hux couldn’t help the rising anger. It wasn’t rational—not really. But Ben did know all of Hux: his passion for music; his slow, plodding reading of the books Ben suggested; his fears and his aspirations. He hated secrets, and Ben’s chafed him.
Fine, Hux snapped back. Do whatever you want. He shoved off of the bed, tugging on his shoes. I’m going for a walk.
“Hux,” Ben said aloud. “Don’t.” He didn’t often use is voice these days—only when he really wanted to get Hux’s attention. Usually it worked, but Hux wasn’t having it tonight.
I’ll be back later, Hux signed. He charged out of the apartment, weighing whether to go out onto the street or up to the rooftop garden. Seeing as it was late, he decided the garden was a better choice.
There were a few urban gardeners in Ben’s building, and they had cultivated vegetables and flowers in beds on the roof. It had been fenced in for safety in the 1950s, and Hux went to the railing, looking out over the street below. No matter the hour, there were always cars traveling along it.
It really wasn’t fair of Hux to bring up Ben’s book after a really wonderful night. He was picking a fight, really, to distract from his own anxiety. If it had been about anything else—Ben’s lack of tidiness, for example—Ben would have seen right through it and called him out. But his book was a very sore spot; it had been a low blow to attack him on that front. Hux leaned on the railing, regretful. He’d have to go apologize in a few minutes, or the night would be ruined.
The sound of the door opening caught his attention and he turned to find Ben coming out from the stairwell. He had changed into something more comfortable, and had brought Hux’s jacket for him. It was chilly still in April, and Ben knew Hux too well. He draped the jacket over Hux’s shoulders, coming up beside him.
Hux wasted no time: I’m sorry. I’m an asshole.
You’re not, Ben signed. What’s wrong?
Everything? Hux replied. In a month I’ll be without anything to do. I’ll either have to get a day job, which I’ll hate, or try to teach lessons full time—which I’ll hate.
You don’t mind teaching that much, Ben reminded him. Maybe not full time, though. You might hate that. But Rae would help you get some clients, wouldn’t she?
Hux shrugged. Maybe if I asked, but I don’t want to. That’s not the life I want at all. I want to play professionally.
You will. It might not happen right away, but start auditioning and you’ll find something. You’re a brilliant pianist, Hux.
Bumping his shoulder against Ben’s, Hux signed: You’re my safe harbor. You always know how to calm me when I’m at my most unreasonable.
Ben brushed a hand over his hair. You can be sometimes, but if I can talk you down, I’m glad. Whatever happens, you know I’m with you.
Hux nodded. I know. I just can’t expect my father to support me forever. My apartment isn’t cheap.
We’ll figure it out , Ben signed. I promise it’ll work out, even if it’s hard.
Leaning into him, Hux wrapped his arms around his waist. He rested his head on Ben’s shoulder while Ben stroked his back.
“I love you,” Ben said, the words rounded.
Hux took Ben’s right hand and put it against his throat so he could feel the vibrations of his voice as he said, “I love you, too.”
They went back inside a few minutes later, Hux shedding his jacket and stripping out of his clothes. He stalked up to Ben and peeled his shirt away, too, fingers going to the waistband of his trousers. Ben smiled at him and drew him up for a kiss and they didn’t move apart until they were naked and in bed together.
Phasma flew into JFK on Tuesday evening, and Hux and Ben took the train from the city to Endor Cross to meet her on Wednesday afternoon. It was Hux’s stepmother Maratelle who picked them up at the small station in town, bustling them into her SUV after hugs and kisses on cheeks. She had learned the rudimentary signs to say hello to Ben, but mostly she talked to Hux and allowed him to interpret when it was needed.
She caught Hux up on the goings on in Endor Cross, from the spring gardening rules in the homeowners’ association in their neighborhood to how the track team was doing. That Hux related to Ben. Brendol was at work during the day, of course, but he would be back for dinner that evening. It was just to be Hux and his parents; they wanted him to themselves from time to time. Ben would be spending the night at his own family’s house, and Hux would join them for Han’s famous waffles in the morning.
“Six o’clock tonight, all right, dear?” Maratelle said as she pulled into the parking lot of the Daily Grind, where Hux could already see Phasma at their old favorite table by the front window.
“I won’t be late,” Hux said. “Thank you for the ride.”
He and Ben got out of the car, Hux going straight for the door to get to Phasma. She beamed when they arrived and yanked Hux into a crushing hug.
“Good to see you, asshole,” she said.
“And you,” he replied, looking her over. She was wearing a plum-colored track suit, her hair a white-blond bob. “I’m just going to run and get us coffee.” He signed to Ben: Hot chocolate, right?
Ben signed: Yes.
Hux left Phasma and Ben at the table. As he was walking away, he saw both of them take out their phones. Since Phasma didn’t sign, they still texted each other when they were together. It placed a bit of a delay in their conversation, but they had all gotten used to it when they were in high school. It was almost comforting to come back to their old ways. Hux was at the counter placing their order when he heard Ben’s distinct laugh, and he smiled.
“So,” Hux asked Phasma once he had returned with his cappuccino and Ben’s hot chocolate, “how was the flight?”
“Smooth enough,” she replied. “My mom had to pick me up at eleven-thirty, which she bitched about, but I said it was the cheapest flight and she couldn’t complain about that.” She glanced out the window at the half-full parking lot. “It’s weird to be back here sometimes. There’s a big world outside of Endor Cross.”
Ben signed, with Hux interpreting: I know. You forget that when you’re here all the time, but when you leave and then come back, it’s like walking into Gilmore Girls: so picturesque it makes you want to throw up.
Phasma laughed. “So, I take it you guys aren’t planning to move back here after you graduate.”
Hux shook his head vehemently. “Under no circumstances. Not to say I didn’t enjoy my time here, but…”
“Understood,” said Phasma. “I feel the same way.” She turned to Ben. “You don’t want to do anything with Luke’s school in the future?”
No, Ben replied. Can you seriously see me as a teacher?
“Okay, you have a point.” She took a sip of her coffee. “What do you want to do?”
Ben had several ready answers for this question, which he’d rehearsed over the past few months. Writing. There’s all kinds of stuff out there for a writer, if you’re willing to sacrifice your art. Technical writing, copy, communications for a business. There’s a lot of choices.
“Look at you, Captain Forward-Looking,” Phasma said, raising her eyebrows. To Hux: “You’re lucky your partner knows his way around the job market so you two can support yourselves.”
Hux said sharply, “I will contribute.”
Of course, Ben told him. With a look he conveyed that what he signed next was for Hux alone. Don’t think about that right now. Let it roll off your back.
Hux offered a shallow nod in thanks. “Anyway, Phas,” he said. “What do you plan to do when you graduate?”
“Well,” she said, “I think I’ve got a position lined up. Nothing solid yet, but maybe an HR thing that would pay the bills. Not so glamorous, I know, but it’s a first job. Whose first job is exactly what they want?”
“Very few people,” Hux conceded. “Good for you. Staying out west, then?”
She said, “Yeah. I really love it out there. You two should come and visit one of these days.”
We will, Ben signed. Once we’re settled.
Hux wasn’t sure what that would mean, but he didn’t press or let the anxiety well in him; he was here to see his old friend.
They talked for another two hours, getting refills on their drinks and going over all the things they had missed in the past few months. It put Hux in a bright mood, and he was reluctant to leave by the time Han Solo appeared to pick Ben up.
“Hey, Hux,” Han said as he stopped by the car. “See you tomorrow morning, right?”
Hux waved. “Nine o’clock.” He leaned in to give Ben a quick kiss before they pulled away.
Phasma’s father gave Hux a ride back to his house, where they parted, Phasma saying she would see Hux at his recital on Saturday night. He found the front door of his parents’ house unlocked—only in a small town—and went straight inside. It was too early for his father to be home, but Maratelle was sitting on the living room sofa with the TV on for ambient noise while she presumably worked on an article for the magazine she wrote for.
“Hello, dear,” she said when Hux came into the room. “Do you want something to drink?”
He shook his head. “I’ve just had enough coffee to keep me up into the wee hours.” He considered joining her on the couch, but then went to the piano bench and sat, touching the cover on the keys.
“Want to give me a sneak peek of your recital piece?” Maratelle asked.
“That would be bad luck,” Hux replied. However, he opened the cover and plucked out a few notes, a delicate melody.
“That’s nice,” said Maratelle. “I haven’t heard it before.”
Hux chewed his cheek. “No one has. It’s my original piece for composition class.”
Maratelle’s pretty blue eyes shone with interest. “You’ve written something of your own? That’s wonderful, Armitage!”
“I don’t really know if it’s any good,” he countered. “I kept putting it off, but last weekend I had to work on it. It’s due tomorrow.”
“Have you played it for anyone yet?”
“No.” He eyed her. “Would you like to be my test audience?”
She set her computer aside, smiling radiantly. “You know I would. What’s the theme?”
That had been slow in coming. Even on the weekend, when he was supposed to be working hard on the left hand accompaniment, he had been struggling and blocked. Frustrated, he had worn down the carpet pacing through his apartment. At one point, he let had himself fall back against the wall, rattling the picture frames that hung on it. As he reached up to straighten one, he had paused, struck.
It was a picture of Ben at the track and field state championships their senior year of high school. He had won all of his races, though the last one had been close. He had seemed to waver in the penultimate lap, but had then come back full force and crossed the finish line first. Quite suddenly, the leaping melody of Hux’s composition rose in his mind, notes flowing through it as he imagined Ben running. The beginning of the piece would be fast, thrilling, and then there would be a lull: a thoughtful section where the bass was light and the treble more dominant. To end, though, it would be powerful runs up and down the keyboard—a finishing burst of speed.
Pulling the picture from the wall, Hux had set it down on the table beside his piano and started to play. The piece came to life only then, with that photograph as his inspiration. He had stayed up all night working on it, until it had been fully realized.
“It’s a scherzo,” Hux told Maratelle. “In E major. On the theme of a footrace.”
Maratelle’s smile was perfectly knowing. “It’s for Ben.”
“Play it for me, then, dear,” she said, sitting back.
Hux turned to the keys and, imagining that photograph, leapt into the music.
When he was finished, Maratelle came to him and hugged him against her side. “Are you sorry that Ben won’t ever be able to hear it?” she asked.
Maybe part of him would have been, once, but he said, “He’ll feel it, and that’s enough.”
Maratelle sighed. “You two are something really special in this world, dear. Now, play me something else while I make dinner.”
As she went into the kitchen, Hux started in on some Brahms that he knew she liked. He felt lighter for having played his piece and for being at home. Whatever was to come for him in the next few months, at least he could enjoy little islands of peace like this.
Hux’s father’s graduation gift to him was a bespoke tuxedo—tails and all—for him to play in for his recital. It hadn’t been a surprise, of course, since Hux had go to the shop and be fitted for it, but it was still a thoughtful present, and one which would be useful for him in the future—given that he played in concert.
Standing now in front of the mirror backstage in the small concert hall on campus, he looked himself over with no small measure of pride. He was still thin and willowy, but he no longer seemed childish. His features had become more defined: his cheeks hollowing and nose straight and prominent. There would be photographs of him tonight that he would have for the rest of his life; he needed to look the part.
“One minute, Hux,” called his adviser. She went out onto the stage and announced him, saying that he would be playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor as his exhibition piece. She gave a short history of the composer and the music before calling Hux out from backstage.
A spotlight illuminated the piano, where Hux came to stand by the bench. He bowed, arms held at his sides. It wasn’t appropriate to speak before the music began, so he simply took a seat and breathed.
He hadn’t seen any of them as they had arrived, but his family—his stepmother and father as well as Ben’s parents and Phasma and Rey—were all in the front row. Ben was there too, in the seat closest the center of the hall. Hux couldn’t see them around the spotlight, but knew they were there, and that was what mattered. Lifting his hands above the keys, he closed his eyes and reached for the left side of the keyboard. As he struck the first note, he forgot everything but the music.
Liszt’s work was often unforgiving, and Hux had to put all of himself into the playing of it from the very beginning of the piece to the more playful middle section and then the rolling conclusion. The notes poured from his hands with the fluidity of practice and training—but so too from the sheer joy of making them. By the time the last note rang out, Hux’s heart was thundering and his face was damp with sweat.
He rose from the bench as applause broke out from the audience. Starting at the front, they rose, until they were giving him a standing ovation. Elated, he smiled and bowed to both sides of the hall.
“Encore!” cried Han Solo; Hux would know his deep voice anywhere. A few other calls came after it.
Hux looked to his adviser, who gestured to the piano: Go ahead.
He had any number of pieces of he could play, but as his gaze fell on Ben—looking fit in blue suit and tie—he knew there was only the one. Raising his hands, he called for silence. The audience quieted and took their seats again.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” said Hux, loudly enough to heard. “I will play another piece, but before I do, I’d like to make sure that one person in particular can appreciate it. If you’ll give me just a moment…” He went down the stage steps to Ben’s seat and held out his hand. Ben looked at him confusedly, but took it and followed him back up onto the stage.
Half-facing Ben and half-facing the audience, Hux signed as he spoke: “I’d like to introduce you all to my boyfriend, Ben Solo. He has been a constant source of inspiration for me since we met five years ago, and I hope that he’ll continue to be that for many years into the future.”
Ben was smiling, his brown eyes alight.
“What’d I’d like to play now,” Hux continued, signing along, “is an original composition. It’s important that Ben be able to touch the piano while I play because he can’t hear the music—he feels it—and this piece is for him: Scherzo for Ben Solo, in E Major.”
Ben’s smile had faded into an expression of utter surprise as Hux had spoken. He stood stock still for a moment, but when Hux tipped his head toward the piano, he took his cue and went to stand on the far side of it. As he had done for the first time in Hux’s parents’ house in their junior year of high school, he pillowed his head on his arms and leaned onto the lid of the piano, closing his eyes.
Hux went to the bench, flipping the tails of his tuxedo out of the way, and, unafraid, began to play.
The air in the concert hall seemed to grow lighter after the more somber end of the sonata. Ben’s scherzo was meant to be merry, even exciting. It was supposed to capture the thrill of his running. All while he played, Hux watched Ben lying on the piano and wondered what he was feeling. He hoped he sensed the outpouring of love in these ten minutes. Hux loved his music, and he had tried to capture in it his love for Ben.
At the conclusion of the piece, Hux lifted his hands but held down the sustain pedal to keep the strings vibrating for a last few seconds. When he did finally release them, he looked to Ben, whose gaze was on him. As Hux stood, Ben rose up from his place on the piano’s lid and came to him. He caught Hux around the waist and pressed a kiss to his lips. All around them, the audience applauded. Together, they went to the front of the stage and Hux took his final bows.
“Armitage,” said his adviser, “that was stunning. Congratulations.” She shook his hand. “Now, I believe everyone is out there for your reception.”
Hux went out into the foyer outside the concert hall to another round of applause. Maratelle brought him a flute of bubbling champagne, which he raised to toast them all. He was able to keep it in his hand as people came up to wish him well because Kay Connix, Ben’s roommate, had come to interpret so that Hux wouldn’t have to to do it actively when all the attention was meant to be on him. Ben and Kay stayed nearby, but didn’t hover over Hux at all times.
“Well done,” said Brendol Hux as he came up with Maratelle on his arm. “You’ve come into your own. All the work we did paid off.”
“It did, Da,” Hux said. “Thank you for making this possible for me.”
Maratelle laid a hand on his forearm. “There was never any question about it. You were meant for this, and nothing was going to hold you back.”
“Even that boyfriend of yours,” Brendol said. Hux knew it wasn’t meant to be derisive, but he bristled.
“Ben has been much of what kept me going, Da,” he said coolly. “I’ll thank you to remember that.”
Brendol pursed his lips, but nodded. His frown deepened even further as he saw Han Solo and Leia and Rey cutting through the crowd to get to Hux. Maratelle was very fond of the Solos, but Brendol was less so. Maratelle knew it and, politely, excused them before Han arrived.
“Oh, my God, Hux,” Rey exclaimed when she got to him, throwing her skinny arms around his chest. “That was so beautiful! The song you wrote for Ben… I cried, okay?”
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house after you brought him up on stage,” said Leia. She wiped under hers. “You mean the world to him, Hux, and you definitely just showed everyone in this building that he means the same to you.” She sniffed. “As a mother, I can’t tell you how important that is to know.”
“As if we didn’t know already,” said Rey. She punched Hux’s shoulder. “I figured it out after homecoming our junior year.”
Hux chuckled. “You could have told me. You gave us a hard time for weeks.”
She shrugged. “It’s my job as overbearing cousin.”
Han patted her shoulder. “Not anymore, kid. Hux and Benny were meant to be.” He grinned at Hux. “Great job tonight, kid. We’re all so proud of you.”
“Thank you,” said Hux. “I’m glad that you could all come. It means a great deal to me.”
“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world, kid.”
They went off to speak to some others, and Hux was taking a moment to catch his breath when a woman in her middle fifties perhaps, came up to him. She offered her hand.
“Eleanor Thomas,” she said. “It was an excellent performance tonight.”
He thanked her. “I’m very happy you enjoyed it. Are you an an alumna?”
She laughed airily. “Heavens no. I’m not a musician, but I do appreciate them and their craft. I’m on the board of a local ensemble. Maybe you’ve heard of us? Hudson Sinfonia?”
The name was familiar: a smaller classical orchestra that had been established by private endowment in the 1960s. Hux didn’t know a great deal about them, but they had a good reputation.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing them perform, however.”
“Well,” said Eleanor, “I would suggest you come, but right now we’re down a pianist and the ensemble just isn’t complete without one.”
“Oh? I’m sorry to hear that.”
She lifted a penciled-in brow. “I hope we won’t be much longer...if you’re willing to come down to our rehearsal space and audition.”
Hux’s heart stuttered in his chest, his voice failing him.
“Yes,” came a voice from behind him. “He’ll come.”
Hux turned to see Ben and Kay standing a pace away. They had clearly been eavesdropping, Kay interpreting what Eleanor was saying.
The older woman came to face him. “Is that so? I would assume you know him best.”
Ben began to sign instead of speaking again. Kay voiced for him: “I know him pretty well, and while I can’t speak for him all the time, I know he wouldn’t miss this chance. Will you tell us more about Hudson Sinfonia?”
“Of course, I will,” she said, smiling again.
Hux listened in stunned silence as she gave him a history of the ensemble and how they had been scouting talent for several months after their pianist prepared to retire. She told him a starting salary, which wasn’t overly impressive, but ensured he wouldn’t be out on the street in a month.
“When would you like to see me?” he asked when she was finished.
“On Wednesday, if you’re free,” she replied. From her handbag, she drew a business card. “The contact information of our concertmaster. He’ll arrange it all for you. I very much look forward to hearing from you, Mr. Hux.”
“Holy shit!” Kay hissed as soon as she was out of earshot. “Hux, this is amazing!”
“I know,” he murmured, still holding the card. When he looked up at Ben, though, he tucked it into his jacket pocket so he could sign: Can you believe it?
Of course I can, Ben replied. People at this school have connections and somebody knew you were perfect for this job.
Hux ran a hand, still shellshocked, over his hair. I have to tell Maratelle and Da. Come with me?
I’ll leave you guys to it, Kay signed. See you in a little while.
Before Hux left to find his parents, he took Ben’s face between his hands before signing: Did you like the piece?
I loved it, Ben replied. I love you.
Hux gave him a kiss. And I you.
Hux, having told everyone his good news, left the concert hall walking on air. He changed back into his street clothes before catching the subway back toward his apartment. Ben, however, insisted that they get off at a different stop than usual.
It’s a surprise, he told Hux when he asked. Just come on.
He led Hux to a building a block and a half away, stopping at the narrow doorway that led inside and producing a key. Just inside was an elevator large enough to haul freight, which they took up to the sixth floor. From what Hux could tell, the building had been converted to residential from something with a more open floor plan, with some six apartment doors along the hall. Ben stood at number 606 and unlocked it.
There wasn’t much by way of lamps, so they stepped into the darkness. Ben seemed to know the way, and Hux followed him. It was a loft apartment, airy and with very few walls. There was a partition for the bathroom and for the kitchen, but otherwise things were mostly wide open. Hux could imagine a space for a bed and a sofa and TV, but the one thing he didn’t have to envision in his mind’s eye was a piano. By the windows on the far side of the space was his parents’ baby grand. Ben jogged over to it and pulled the cord of the single lamp in the place.
What’s this doing here? Hux asked.
It’s for us, Ben replied. Well, the piano is for you, but this apartment is for us.
Hux’s mouth fell open. Surely we can’t afford this.
You’d be surprised, Ben signed. And you just got a job. My parents made the first month’s rent on it, but we’re going to be fine, Hux. That is… He came to Hux again, regarding him with a soft gaze. That is if you’ll move in with me.
Hux smiled. There’s no question. I think we both knew this was coming someday.
It was definitely what I was hoping, Ben told him. I know we played it safe in college, but I’m not going anywhere. I want to be with you for the rest of my life.
Hux’s eyes prickled, but he blinked against it. Don’t tell me you’re going to ask me to—
Ben grabbed his hands, stopping him. One step at a time. Live with me first, and then we’ll talk about that in a couple of years.
All right, Hux signed. When do we move in?
Whenever you want.
Hux drew Ben over to the window and looked down onto the street below. For all his fear of the future, it was becoming more secure and stable by the moment. He couldn’t say that he shouldn’t have worried, but he was immensely grateful that things were working out. And everything in his life was far better because Ben Solo was in it.
Three Months Later
Hux’s dreams roused him early, bringing him blearily out of sleep and into the pale light of the morning. His and Ben’s bed was situated on the far right side of the apartment, curtained off by sheer lengths of fabric Hux had cut and hung himself. It didn’t offer any real privacy, but they rarely had anyone over who would have been offended by seeing where they slept just a few yards away from where the sofa and TV stood.
Slipping out from under the thin sheet, Hux stretched his arms above his head. It was high summer—mid-July—and the air conditioning in the apartment was limited. He and Ben slept naked and under only the sheet to stay cool. Without a stitch on, Hux made his way to the piano, where it stood by the window. There was no risk of waking Ben with the noise, so he sat down on the bench and began to play Bach.
They had moved into the apartment the week after Hux’s recital—the first week of May. They had no real furniture—Hux having lived in a studio with nothing more than his bed and a bistro table and Ben unwilling to take any of the things he had shared with Kay—so they had gotten on Craigslist and a few used furniture apps to buy a sofa, coffee table, bed frame, and dining table for four that they could afford. Hux and Maratelle spent the next two weeks decorating the place on their limited budget. The curtains by the bed had been her idea.
Everything came together remarkably quickly, and Rey and Luke had been some of their first dinner guests. Phasma, unfortunately, had gone back to California before it was finished enough to host anyone. Hux, though, sent pictures. That inaugural dinner had gone well, if Hux could say so himself. He had done most of the cooking, but Ben had made a chocolate pie for dessert. Rey had brought them a housewarming gift: a custom-framed picture of them together at Hux’s recital. Wall space was at a premium in the loft, but they found a place for it by the bed.
It’s kind of weird to have us watching us have sex, Ben had noted one Saturday afternoon when they had made brunch and then gone back to bed to do just that.
Hux had snorted. Only you would think of that. But if you want to move the thing, we can.
No, Ben had signed. It’s fine. I just wanted to make you laugh.
Hux’s audition with the Hudson Sinfonia had gone spectacularly, though he knew it had just been a formality; they had already selected him to play for them. They had rehearsals five days a week, six hours at a session. It was a demanding schedule, and Hux had not played so much before, but he loved it. He made friends among his fellow musicians, some of whom he brought to meet Ben. Their story got around fast, and moved many.
Despite saying he hated to teach, Hux took on a few pupils in his spare time. Rae did indeed help him establish himself as an instructor, sending a few of her less promising clients his way. He tried not to begrudge her that; they supplemented his and Ben’s income quite well.
Ben had gotten a full time position as a copywriter at a company that did writing work for a good deal of other business around the country. He could work at home—on the very nice desktop computer his parents had bought him for his graduation—and communicated with his colleagues exclusively through email and instant messaging. It was the ideal job for him, and Hux was glad to be home a few hours a day so he wouldn’t be totally alone during working hours. And Hux’s lessons never bothered him.
It also gave him time to write fiction on the side. Hux hadn’t mentioned his book again since the tiff they had had in his apartment back in April, but Ben had brought it up of his own volition, telling Hux that it was going better upon the second revision. It was a small concession that Hux appreciated. If he didn’t want to share the full text just yet, the updates were to ensure that he wasn’t keeping the whole process a secret.
After Hux had played his scherzo for him at the recital, he had asked for it several more times, joining Hux at the piano to feel it as he played. When they were alone, he would actually crawl on top of the baby grand’s lid and lie on it to feel. He would shimmy forward after Hux was finished to lean over the keyboard and give him a kiss. Hux cherished those private concerts, and he was sure he never played better than he did for Ben.
Now, sitting naked at the piano, he let his fingers move without much thought, wandering between pieces and playing things that he had been thinking about but hadn’t put to paper yet. Ben encouraged him to keep composing, even if he never played the pieces for anyone but him, and maybe Maratelle and Brendol. Hux listened, and though he still would rather have played something by the great masters, he dabbled and grew to enjoy it.
His gaze was unfocused somewhere on the inside of the piano—its lid up just then—when he heard footsteps behind him. He wasn’t surprised when Ben touched his shoulder, bending down to kiss his cheek. Hux leaned into it, but didn’t stop playing. Ben stood behind him for a minute or two before coming around to the bench and sitting down. He watched Hux play, one hand resting on Hux’s thigh.
Hux faltered slightly in his arpeggio when Ben slid down to the floor, inching himself under the body of the piano—which seemed impossible for a man his size—and easing Hux’s legs apart so he could kneel between them. Hux readily abandoned the pedals, but kept at the fantasia he had started to play.
Ben’s hands were warm and his mouth was warmer, bringing Hux to hardness and taking him as deeply as he could. He couldn’t hear the sounds Hux made, or how difficult it became for him to keep his hands on the keys, but it didn’t matter to either of them. The notes of the piece grew erratic, Hux completely losing the beat as his body trembled under Ben’s attention. He was just reaching a crescendo in the piece when he went over the edge, slamming his hands down in an accordant mess of notes. Ben looked very pleased with himself when he turned his eyes back up to Hux’s. Hux stroked a hand over his hair.
“Breakfast?” Hux said, knowing Ben would understand that.
Ben grinned and nodded.
Hux slid the bench back to make it easier for both of them to stand, Hux offering a hand to help Ben to his feet. He entwined their fingers and drew him into the kitchen, where he filled a glass with water and pushed it into his hands. Ben dutifully drank.
Hux made scrambled eggs while Ben took care of the toast and put coffee on.
Usual rehearsal today? Ben asked as he waited for it to brew.
Yes. I’ll be back around four. He stopped signing to scrape the eggs onto two plates. I don’t have any lessons today. Would you like to go out for dinner when you’re done with work?
Ben picked up his phone, scrolling through to something. We’ve only got one hundred and fifty dollars for food for the rest of the month. We probably shouldn’t.
Hux nodded. Just because they worked didn’t mean they had a great deal of extra money for fripperies. Then I’ll treat us when I get paid on the first.
Okay, Ben signed.
They stood at the counter to eat, hips touching and both of them still completely nude. Hux got a playful slap on the buttock as he made his way toward the bathroom for a shower. Ben grabbed some sweatpants and a t-shirt from the steel pipe racks that held their clothes and went to his computer to start his workday.
As Hux shampooed his hair he tried to imagine how different everything in his life would have been had he not come to study with Rae at sixteen. He could very well be back in England, having gone to conservatory there or elsewhere in Europe. Maybe he’d speak German or Italian rather than be able to sign. He didn’t want to give it much thought, though. This was the life he was meant to have: one shared with Ben.
Cleaned and dressed, he came out to say goodbye to him for the day. Ben accepted a kiss and signed his love. It was such a simple gesture, but it filled Hux with the kind of joy that outstripped any other he’d ever known. This was a new and unexplored phase of their lives, but it would be spent together—and that mattered more to Hux than anything else.