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from the landscape: a sense of scale

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i.

Rain.

Another long day of rain.

--

The weather goes nowhere and neither does Hux. The rain beats against the windowpanes, steady and unsteady in turns. The days pass, grey and dismal, while the grass grows greener and greener underneath his window.

It’s easy to breathe in the humidity in the air, to let inactivity sink into his bones. Leading up to the momentary decline in weather, his days had been so busy and he had been so occupied that he’d barely had any time to breathe. For once, it comforts him to have an excuse to hole himself away in his room and spend his hours poring over books and articles and reports. He even catches up on the news, staying up to date about the world that continues to turn around him. He always has to remind himself that it is prudent to stay informed, even though his world is currently built of old granite buildings, pseudo-intellectualism and oneupmanship, and endless studying.

--

He ventures to the library. A suddenly and poorly-timed gust of wind miserably soaks him the moment he steps out of the dorm. His shoes sink into the loamy ground and the rain chills him straight down to the bone, but he perseveres. He writes a fifteen-page paper on the Tet Offensive in Saigon, works through dinner, checks out a couple of  books on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry for an upcoming project, and then heads back to his dormitory.

Hux doesn’t eat dinner because the dining hall is closed and he doesn’t snack in his room. He does, however, allow himself the indulgence of coffee. He makes himself a full pot of it, earthy and rich, and reads the prologue of In Memoriam A.H.H. . Tennyson wrote it after finishing the journey of the poem, so Hux knows that he must go back and read it again after finishing. The repetition, the waste of time should bother him -- but it doesn’t. Somehow, it seems like a disservice to not glance back at it. The words flow easily through his mind, breaking through the rain-logged fog that pervades his thoughts.

The weight of the poem strikes him slowly and insidiously, working its way between his ribs. When the words gnaw through tender muscle and fragile bones, he feels wasted, emotionally barren. He yearns for something, though he doesn’t know what it is. Companionship, maybe. Or perhaps the cold and aching bite of grief. Or the sun.

--

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

--

The rain eases. In time.

When Hux opens his curtains, his room floods with sunlight. It filters through the branches of the now-budding horse chestnut tree that towers just outside his room. He  pries open the window; the smell of the sea and the silt of water-saturated peat hits him square in the chest, the telltale current of plants flourishing after a long rain. Everything smells like growth, like Spring.

Overcome with a pressing need to stretch his legs after too many days cooped up, he heads out of his dorm, the building, and then the campus, and walks to the city center.

The roads are damp and littered with leafy detritus from days of rain. Hux is the only person venturing out this early in the morning, save for the farmers and workmen he passes on the few kilometer trek to the center of the city. It’s not quite warm and not quite cold, but when the wind kicks up, the moisture in the air sends goosebumps cascading down his spine. It’s too late -- he left his jacket back in his room.

By the time he makes it to the busier streets, full of busses and bikes and lorries, he is warm purely from the exertion of walking. He’s rolled his shirtsleeves up, ruining their crisp starch, and loosened his tie around his neck so that he can breathe a little easier. He knows his hair is windswept, but there’s no point in righting it.

He buys an overpriced coffee and holds it in his hand, letting the cup warm his wind-chilled fingers. With practiced ease, he ducks behind a building and weaves behind a poorly-maintained work truck parked in the most inopportune of places, and finds himself in a walled-off garden. Immediately, the noise of the city is muffled around him, fading to a vague and dull background hum. The garden itself is large and beautiful, tucked away between multiple city blocks, and kept up pristinely. Normally there are university students and young working professionals littering the grassy lawns, all taking a moment of solace in the peaceful alcove between busy streets, but now it’s too early and too damp. There are puddles everywhere, sparrows and cheeky robins flitting from one to another, taking their morning baths. For a blissful moment, Hux is alone with his thoughts amidst the chattering of birds.

After a few minutes of wandering, he sits by one of the fountains. The marble of the base has dried far faster than the wood of any of the benches or the ground. He drinks his coffee in pleasant sips and breathes, feeling the tension ease out of his skin. This small moment of relaxation is deserved, he tells himself, holding tightly onto the idea for fear it may be ripped from him at any moment.

Somehow, it isn’t.

Hux finishes his coffee and disposes of the cup in a nearby bin. He knows he must go back to his studies. He bids adieu to the garden with a sullen sort of resignation to lost time, squinting into the dappled sunlight filtering between the ancient oaks. On his way back to campus his brain wanders back to In Memoriam., crackling and skipping like one of his mother’s old classical records. His steps fall in time with the words, repeating and repeating and repeating.

and every winter change to spring

and every winter change to spring

and every winter change to spring

--

“Your bones are so small.” Ren wraps his fingers around Hux’s wrist. His hands are warm, overwhelmingly so. “Like a bird’s.” He doesn’t let go.

The garden at the school is small, but overflowing with flowers. Hux often wonders how they bloom so frequently. An overuse of fertilizer and an abundance of care from the groundskeeper, most likely. It smells like boxwoods, like mint, and always like the ocean. He can’t breathe without filling his lungs with the Atlantic.

Ren always seems to find him in the garden. The company is neither welcome nor unwelcome. He’s always there, like a shadow, though Hux never explicitly extends an invitation.

“I’m as tall as you,” Hux argues now. As if height and mass are at all corresponding. Ren could crush him, could probably break Hux’s wrist simply by squeezing hard enough and willing it so.

It’s thrilling.

--

Hux reads Tennyson’s poem at least seven times. It’s awful. It’s beautiful. It’s romantic in every sense of the word. It’s a huge fuck you to God, and he appreciates that sort of dedication to a cause. The paper on In Memoriam A.H.H. flows out of him effortlessly. He writes double what he should, so he prints it on both sides of crisp linen paper. It’s over before it even began.

He reads the poem again over a cup of tea. Again, before he falls asleep.

He repeats bits of it like decades of a rosary.

He dreams, vaguely and wistfully, about having something so cherished to hold on to. Something to miss when it’s gone.

--

They sit overlooking the sea.

Hux isn’t sure how he ended up here -- at the rocky beach with Ren, skipping class and skipping rocks. They sit close enough together that he can feel the heat from Ren’s thigh.

“You should return that book. You can’t keep carting it around everywhere.” Ren’s deplorably long hair blows in his face, his low voice almost lost to the wind and waves.

The book in question sits on Hux’s knee. It’s old and well-loved. Small -- it fits in his coat pocket easily. The blue cover is considerably more worn since Hux checked it out. And re-checked it out. And again. He stays quiet, making a habit of not answering inane questions. His father taught him that, with his perpetual silence.

“What if someone else has a paper to write?” Ren queries, tapping the cover of the book with a nail. “Are you going to hoard this masterpiece all to yourself and deprive anyone else of the pleasure?” He sounds disdainful. Hux doesn’t care.

“That’s what the internet is for.”

--

His parents visit on the week, in from their country home. They’re back from whatever holiday they’ve been on, tanned, but as tired and tightly coiled as always.

His father doesn’t look him in the eye. He questions him about his studies. About his plan for the summer. About university. About his academic rigor. Is he doing enough? He tells him that it’s never enough -- do more. Study more. Write more. Publish something.

His mother questions him about literature. They speak in French, then Italian, then Gaelic. She gives him names of books to read while his father scoffs. She quiets.

The three of them take a taxi to an expensive restaurant in the city center. They eat in silence, polishing off two bottles of an expensive merlot between the three of them. Hux can name his food, can translate the ingredients into at least five languages, yet it still tastes like dust on his tongue.

--

It’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all,” Ren sneaks up behind him in the courtyard, his deep voice suddenly echoing in Hux’s ear.

Hux grimaces, clenching his teeth together in an effort to keep from lashing out with his fists. “You butchered that.” He wouldn’t stand a chance against Ren. One day, that’s not going to stop him.

“I still can’t believe you like that poem.” Ren pauses, chewing on his bottom lip, and then he barks out a laugh. “Any poem, actually.”

“Go to Hell, Ren.”

“I’ve been.” He says, cryptic and egregiously dramatic as usual.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Hux murmurs, thinking of tall and sombre gates, of colorless days, of the vast nothingness of it all.

--

Hux presses his thumb to his lip.

It comes away red.

He kicks open the door to his room and slams it shut behind him. The noise is loud and jarring. It feels necessary, an echo of his pain brought into the world. Without the light on, the afternoon sun flickers in orange through his windows, too serene, too beautiful. He swallows iron and shame, and spits malice into his sink, watching it drip slowly down the drain.

He shouldn’t have squared his jaw and set his shoulders, shouldn’t have swung his fists and fought back. The fight was four-against-one and brutally unfair, but he couldn’t say no. It’d been exhilarating and painful in turns, Hux swallowing back blood and curses and cries.

His ribs are bruised. His knuckles, bloody. The blood on his lip clots and splits and clots again, bleeding every time he moves his mouth to hiss at the soreness of his body. He got a few good hits in, too, which should ease the pain, as good a narcotic as any. It will, in time.

It’s raining again.

His pride shines as bright as the bruise forming around his left eye.

--

Sleep doesn’t come easily. It’s nothing new, chasing the phantom of sleep into the early hours of morning, hoping and praying for unconsciousness to take him. Eventually he knows to give up. Hux throws on a jumper and whiles away two nights in a row at a train station, a petrol stop, and then, finally, the docks.

He brings Tennyson with him, though he never cracks open the pages. Afraid of something -- the commitment, maybe. He hasn’t laid eyes on the words since Ren got his hands all over the book, grabbing it from him and keeping it aloft.

He writes his next paper on liminal spaces and talks of communitas, of temporary states, of starting and ending points. He dwells on the act of transition and the importance of ritual. He thinks of the trains rumbling into the station in the middle of the night, of the cold wind in his hair. The smell of diesel. The rolling of the waves. The quiet murmur of passerby’s voices from nowhere, from everywhere -- never truly alone.

--

“What happened to your face?”

“What happened to yours? Or are we faulting poor genetics for that?”

“You’re bleeding.”

“I’m not.”

“Come here. Look, -- that’s blood.”

“Don’t touch me.”

“Just -- let me --?”

“Fine.”

--

The days drag on slowly, the fog of early spring never quite lifting from his bones. He feels heavy, useless. Some mornings, it hurts to drag himself from the warmth of his own bed and into the quiet stillness of his room. For a brief moment, he allows himself  to grieve to the terrible aloneness in this small space. Separate. At home, in his parents’ house, he has a cat. A ginger tabby. She likes to curl up and sleep in the crook of his neck, purring away like a little motor for hours and hours and hours. He’s never been good at sleep, but he’s never slept as well as when she’s right there, warm and rumbling away in his ear.

Here in his sterile dorm room, there’s nothing alive but him, not even a tenacious plant straining for sun on his windowsill.

He drags himself to class, his life a symphony underscored with the washed-out shades of grey that fall gently and oppressively over everything. He thinks of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas , of Vivaldi’s violin Concertos. He thinks of how they accompanied his childhood days, of how all his memories are laced with haunting and sad melodies played by the masters. He thinks of how his mother used to play too, always more maudlin than any other rendition he’d heard, of how she only dared to do so when his father was away. When he gets back to his room he sits on his bed and plays Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D on his laptop on repeat. It’s always been his favorite piece. The speakers muffle everything despicably, but still he powers through. Lets it wash over him. He closes his eyes to the too-tinny, too-metallic crying of violins.

--

His knees are bruised and bloody. His jaw, sore.

Hux knows that they would leave him alone, would pass him by for better prey, if only he would stop fighting back.

He doesn’t. He won’t.

--

Hux hasn’t been assaulted with Ren’s looming presence in nearly two weeks.

--

The weather warms, and still it rains.

The moss outside Hux’s window blooms and greens and grows. He spends ten minutes with his head poked out the window, enjoying the breeze and the rain and the tiny white flowers tucked into the soft folds of the moss. On a romantic whim, he steals a lidded jar from one of the chemistry labs and treks along the back of his dormitory building with it tucked into his pocket. He kneels in the dirt, the water from the loamy ground immediately soaking through the knees of his pants. Delicately he works his fingers under the plant and lifts a small portion of it from its surroundings. Dirt gets under his nails when he scoops a few inches of soil into the jar, but it feels good and healthy and pure. He fits the moss overtop of it, pressing it down around the edges until it looks perfect.

He toes off his shoes once he makes it back inside, shucks off his damp trousers, and places the jar on his windowsill. Finally -- he is not the only thing alive in this small space. The moss is not warm or soft or purring at him, but it is something, at least.

When the clouds break the light hits the jar perfectly, illuminating it like a trapped galaxy.

--

“Where were you?” Hux hisses, crouching down next to Ren’s table. He’d found him in the library while perusing a bookshelf in the History section. He knows full well that the answer is none of his business. They’re not friends. They’re barely even acquaintances. Ren just hangs around Hux like a parasite, sucking up all the cold air with his warmth. Up this close, he smells like pepper, like bergamot. Like old books -- then again, that might just be their surroundings.

“Around.”

Ren barely glances at him, eyes trained on whatever he’s reading. Physics, looks like. Graphs and charts and equations. It’s always fascinating, even now, to be reminded that Ren’s mind works so differently than his own. There’s a book of music theory sitting next to him, untouched. At the dismissive word, Hux bites back whatever feeling it is that attaches to his ribs and gnaws painfully. He lets the feeling hang, but refuses to acknowledge it. He shouldn’t be hurt that Ren hasn’t sought him out, hasn’t annoyed him with his presence. Another person’s company is not a right. And he doesn’t even enjoy Ren’s company anyway, so he’s better off.

“I thought perhaps you had died.”

Ren turns a page. “Clearly not.”

“What a pity.” Hux walks away, telling himself that he’s being the bigger man in this. He’s better, stronger. He tells himself it’s not that he wants to flee, that he wants to minimize the ache in his chest from spreading. He doesn’t need the impact of Ren’s words hitting him like a wrecking ball, tearing apart all the pieces Hux has painstakingly stacked back together again and again.

It feels a little bit like heartbreak and he doesn’t know why.

--

“Where’s your coat?”

“In my room.”

“It’s cold. And it’s raining. And windy.”

“Is it? Perhaps you should pursue a career in meteorology.”

“-- Here.”

“What on earth are you -- I told you, don’t touch me.”

“For the love of god, Hux, just take it.”

“I don’t need your charity.”

“It’s not --. Would you just --. Please ?”

--

Ren’s wool coat lives draped over the back of Hux’s desk chair for two weeks.

It’s not that he wants it there -- in fact, he wants nothing more than for it to be gone, for Ren’s presence to stop haunting his space. Hux isn’t sure how to get rid of it, though. He doesn’t know where Ren lives, doesn’t have his number, doesn’t know when he’ll next run into him. He even tried stopping by the gardens a few times, hoping he’d see his unpleasant shadow, but he’d been left all alone. Every time he walks into the room, the shape of it catches him off guard, like Ren has been lounging in Hux’s chair while he’s been out. He starts, always, and then glares, the whole thing souring his mood every time.

It doesn’t help that the heavy woolen thing reeks of Ren, too, that his room starts to smell less like Hux and more like Ren with every passing hour. It’s cloying. Intoxicating in the worst way. The aroma is warm and peppery and not at all like whatever it is that Hux smells like, which he assumes must be a mix of laundry detergent and mild soap. Whatever it is, it’s replacing him in his own room, edging him out and into the fringes.

As if Hux is something more transient than the spectre of a coat.

He wakes up too many times in the night, thinking Ren is sitting in his desk chair, watching him sleep.

He moves the coat, folds it, puts it under his bed. Puts it in his closet. Debates, heavily, about putting it the bin. Eventually, he drapes it back over the chair in sullen defeat.

He goes through the pockets on a whim, sleep-deprived and knowing better.

There’s not much. Nothing illicit like he might have expected and perhaps wanted to find. There’s beeswax lip balm -- it doesn’t smell like anything, but it explains how Ren’s lips are never chapped, even through the winter. Hux palms a few coins, all worn and loved and from different countries. Some, he doesn’t even recognize. He knows Ren is the son of a diplomat, that he’s moved around just as much as Hux has stayed in one place and grown roots. He finds three pens and many scraps of paper. Almost all of them have unintelligible scribbles on them. Notes, or lists, or reminders.

On the back of a receipt for a chai tea at a small cafe Hux knows of, it says, starlings and rooks [---] Moonlight, void as promise [---] 12, 17, 32 april , in Ren’s looping, messy writing. There are countless others just like it, all equally undecipherable.

One item is just a page from an old book, the paper worn and browned with time, with all of the words crossed out. At the top, Ren (he assumes this is all Ren), has written the word p l e a s e with too many spaces between each of the letters.

The one that catches Hux’s eye, however, is a piece of graph paper, edges ragged and torn. It’s folded into a little square, again and again and again. The paper looks well loved, like Ren’s been carting it around for months and worrying at the creases with his fingers. When Hux unfolds it, it looks like a poem. Or part of one, maybe. It’s been studied and dissected, as if Ren brandished a pen like a scalpel and tore it to pieces. Somehow, Hux can’t bring himself to find that surprising.

I looked at all the trees and didn’t know what to do

 

A box made out of leaves.

What else was in the woods? A heart, closing. Nevertheless.

 

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.

I kept my mind on the moon. Cold moon, long nights moon.

From the landscape: a sense of scale.

From the dead: a sense of scale.

 

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority.

Everything casts a shadow.

 

Your body told me in a dream it’s never been afraid of anything.

 

Hux swallows. And reads it again.

It hurts a little bit, in a childish way. Stings, like brushing up against a nettle. Ren, pompous and superior, insistent that Hux is wasting his time on Tennyson’s poetry when he’s carting this around with him like a totem.

While fishing in one of the deeper pockets, Hux also finds his fingers wrapping around a cold and smooth shape. Organic and uneven like a stone, but too light. It warms with his body heat. When he pulls it out and turns it over between pale digits, he finds it to be a horse chestnut. It seems strange, incongruous, that Ren would pick up a conker in the Autumn, would carry it around with him till Spring. It’s rubbish. A failed progeny. The surface of it is worn, though, just like the papers, like Ren can’t stop himself from fidgeting with his hands. Like he can never let anything go.

Hux looks out his window, sees the looming, arching horse chestnut tree, and wonders where Ren picked up the seed.

--

“Kylo Ren?” Hux had asked when they first met, his brows furrowed skeptically.

“Yes.”

“That’s ridiculous, I’m not calling you that.”

“I could call you Brendol ,” Kylo Ren mused, his large lips twitching up into a grin. He looked like a shark, bloodthirsty and full of teeth. Circling in the water around Hux. “What was it, the Third?

“Fine,” Hux acquiesced, refusing to admit that he was, in fact, the Fourth. “But I’m only ever calling you Ren .” He couldn’t bring himself to utter Kylo out loud ever again.

--

“Give me your tie.”

Ren isn’t wearing one, but he rarely ever does. He disregards the dress code like it’s his job, like decorum means nothing to him. It’s not surprising.

Hux always wears a tie. He loosens it at meals and when he leaves the grounds, but he never takes it off during the day.

“Why do you want it?” Hux asks.

“Just give it here.”

This time, they’re sitting on the back steps of one of the academic buildings as the sun sets. Everyone else has retreated for the day. The only thing Hux can hear, apart from Ren’s steady breathing and the wind, is the cooing of the woodpigeons from the roof above.

Hux finds himself plucking the perfectly crafted knot at his neck apart, loosening it until it falls into his fingers. He rests the silk fabric in Ren’s hands. It feels more like a symbol than he would like. He waits for Ren to tie it around his own neck in a loose and sloppy knot.

Ren doesn’t.

“Give me your hands.”

Hux stares. Doesn’t move. He has no idea what Ren’s up to, but Hux isn’t playing any part of it.

There is silence for a long minute before the other boy speaks again, “Hux. Your hands.” Ren keeps staring, his patience never wavering.

Eventually, Hux gives in. Out of sheer curiosity alone.

Ren begins to loop the soft silk around Hux’s wrists, binding them together. Hux’s heart races in his throat. A staccato but steady thrum. He doesn’t think about the creases folding themselves into the expensive fabric, doesn’t think about how large Ren’s fingers are against his own. He focuses on his heart beating. Focuses on the feel of the silk against sensitive, pale skin.

Before Hux is ready for the small moment of ceremony to be over, Ren is done. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t pull his hands away. He just holds Hux’s hands in one of his own in silence.

Hux feels relaxed. Free, in a baffling sort of way, like a weight has been lifted. He gives into it, for lack of anything better to do.

The sun sets.

--

On a rainy Thursday, the coat disappears.

Hux returns back to his room, soaked through and over-warm from a brief jog across campus with his bag tucked under his jumper. The rain had been sudden and torrential, and Hux had been caught completely unprepared. He’s still breathing heavy when he keys open his own door, leaning against the frame, weary with sleepless fatigue.

He notices the absence in his room immediately.

Without the dark presence of the coat, his room seems leagues larger. More open. Breathable.

Empty .

He drops his bag by the door and steps slowly inside, sparing a glance around to make sure he’s alone. Despite the evidence, he knows he is, knows the perpetrator left ages ago. The room smells only like Hux. Like linens and books and rain.

Without thought, he runs his fingers over the back of his chair, where the coat had been hanging. The room feels lacking without it, despite how much he loathed its presence.

Hux’s space should feel invaded, unsafe and tarnished like dull brass -- but it doesn’t. It feels like a fact of nature, that Ren snuck in somehow, inserted himself behind the altar rails of Hux’s sanctuary. Less of a grand gesture, more like an inevitability.

He doesn’t miss the coat, he thinks, sliding down into his desk chair with something creeping into his posture that feels like defeat. His shoulders feel heavy. The air of the room bites in around him, cold and chilly. For too long he simply sits at his desk and stares off into space, pushing his thoughts into compartments in his head.

Eventually he emerges from his cocoon of unbidden emotions, ready to face his room again. Already it feels warmer and brighter, more comforting. Like his own space again. His eyes fall on the jar of moss on the windowsill. He frowns when he realizes it’s been disturbed.

He’s not sure why he didn’t notice it earlier, the difference is so glaring in Hux’s kingdom of perfect order.

The small jar, Hux’s little homemade terrarium, sits on top of two books that were not there before.

From across the room, he can tell that one has been published recently -- soft cover, brand new. The other looks old, but has been kept in good condition. He rises from the chair, crosses the barren emptiness of his room, and inspects them.

The new one is an anthology of poetry by an author Hux has never heard of. When he opens the front cover, he finds that the book is edition ‘ 17 out of 300’ , and it’s signed by the author, in a loopy but visually pleasing signature. Underneath, there is even an inscription.

To Ben Solo

Find your darkness and give it light.

R. Siken

The pages are worn, rounded at the edges, but the cover is crisp and undamaged. Very much like Ren read the book over and over again, but only with the utmost of care. Hux imagines him, sitting curled up and ungainly with all his long limbs tucked into a chair too small for him, pouring over this book. Like it were a bible and Ren, a religious scholar. Obsessed and fanatic. There’s only one page dog-eared, and when Hux thumbs to it, he’s not terribly surprised. It’s that poem Ren had written on a page of graph paper and dissected like a mad scientist. Only here, it is untouched other than the folded corner of the page. “Detail of the Woods”, the title reads. When Hux makes himself re-read it, it’s not bad. It doesn’t strike a deep resonance within Hux that the lines of In Memoriam do, but he recognizes the appeal of it to Ren. He recognizes the need to read something again and again and again.

He sets the new book down and picks up the older one.

For a moment, Hux is floored. He turns it over and over in his hand, cycling through every emotion he remembers how to feel. Touched, angry, wistful, desirous, incredulous. He hasn’t been overcome by so many emotions in years and he’s astonishingly dizzy with it, clutching the book for support.

Hux has received many gifts over his years. But he has never received one quite so touching in its personal nature. It’s an ancient copy of In Memoriam , bound meticulously and exquisitely, in a painstakingly gorgeous way that isn’t commonplace nowadays. The edges of the pages are leafed in gold that still shines when Hux turns the book in his hands. The cover displays an intricate gilt mosaic over indigo dyed leather, wrapped around original watercolors of bountiful flora. A brief glance inside tells Hux that the book was printed in 1865. He doesn’t have to be well-versed in the industry to know that Ren didn’t come by this book easily nor without shelling out a pretty penny.

The book is in beautiful condition. It’s small enough that it fits perfectly in his hand. Hux swallows the knot in his throat. He doesn’t know what this present means, doesn’t know how to say thank you. He doesn’t know how to give it back . Instead, he opens it to a familiar section and reads.

Henceforth, wherever thou may’st roam,

My blessing, like a line of light,

Is on the waters day and night,

And like a beacon guards thee home.


In the morning, Hux tucks the book safely into the inner pocket of his coat, intent to give it back.

When he can find neither hide nor hair of Ren that day, he resolves to do so the next day. And then, the next.

--

“I can take care of myself,” Hux spits. He remains on the ground, stubborn and aching, glaring up at the silhouette of his savior while his heartbeat thuds away in his ears, deafening. His mouth tastes of blood.

Hux’s attackers had long since beaten a hasty retreat, fleeing the second Ren had swooped in.

If only Ren would leave, then Hux could slowly migrate to his feet and escape back to his room to lick his wounds. He’s not even sure where the other boy came from. Ren doesn’t leave, though -- he simply hovers. Unsure. He looked far more comfortable moments ago, swinging his fists with blind abandon.

A quick glance around at the destruction should tell Hux all he needs to know about Ren’s strength, but it only makes him realize just how dizzy he is. The feeling hits him all at once and has him swallowing again and again to keep himself calm.  The bloodbath around him looks like a Solimena Baroque, illuminated and distorted by his own head injury. Everything is red. There are shards of glass everywhere, little slivers of light in a galaxy of crimson. He glances at Ren again, and sees him for what he truly is: a bringer of destruction, a beacon of rage. Hux blinks and Ren has wings, many of them. Too many to count. He blinks again, and Ren’s bloody skin is covered in eyes. Hundreds of them, all blinking, all staring straight at Hux.

He feels absolved. He’s never felt more at peace.

Relaxation is a fleeting, blissful thing, and Hux greets it with arms wide open.

“I think you hit your head.” Ren says, in many voices. His words reverberate around them both, like ripples on the water.

“I think I hit my head.” Hux echoes into the sudden darkness.

--

Instantaneously Hux wakes. Strangely, he’s no longer on the ground -- instead he’s cocooned in warmth, rocking slowly with the current of long and purposeful strides. Looking at the ceiling, he can tell they’re in a different part of the campus. Trekking down a long hallway. Perhaps he was unconscious for longer than just a blink. A heartbeat.

He shifts, suddenly and acutely aware that he’s being held in Ren’s arms. They’re very firm. Unyielding. Warm. “Put me down.” His voice is a barely-there croak. He repeats it after a moment, and his words sound firmer. Ren doesn’t comply.

“You’re hurt. I’m taking you to the nurse.”

It takes Hux a beat too long to process this, for the words to make sense in any sort of coherent way. Briefly, he thinks he heard Ren spit them out backwards.

“No.” He squirms, only to feel his captor’s arms tighten. “Put me down .”

“You’re hurt.” Ren’s voice is a broken record, and just as crackly and hoarse.

Hux’s voice wavers, “Let me go -- I don’t want to.” Petulant, like a child. It hurts, twisting himself this way and that in search of freedom, but he does it anyway. What’s a bit more pain, in the grand scheme of it all? When Hux fists his hands against the lapels of Ren’s coat, he becomes very aware of how wet his hands are, slick with blood. “Oh,” he says to the air between them. Distantly, he realizes that they ache. Dull and sore and so very far away.

“You -- should go to the nurse.” Hux can already hear the defeat in Ren’s words, can feel the loosening of his arms. His resolution slipped the second the panic had crept into Hux’s voice. Hux should remember that for the future, could exploit it, if only it wasn’t at his own expense.

They end up back in Hux’s room, sitting cross-legged like children on Hux’s bed, Hux’s hands palm-up in Ren’s lap.

Ren still has too many eyes, but at least they’ve all migrated to his face.

“I don’t know why you do this to yourself.” He takes one Hux’s hands in his, gentle, and dabs a cloth over Hux’s palm. Ren turns his hand over, and runs the cloth over Hux’s knuckles. It comes away red.

The anger hurts, searing through Hux. “I don’t do this to myself.” How childish and ignorant, blaming the victim. It can’t hurt more that Ren doesn’t understand -- it can’t. He repeats that mantra in his head until it becomes true -- he doesn’t care what Ren thinks. His opinion of Hux means nothing.

Ren makes a noise and then stops, clearly thinking about his words before he speaks. He looks wary and over-careful, like he’s dealing with a wild animal, trapped and injured. That, Hux finds, is less insulting.

“It’s just -- you --.” He stops and makes another frustrated sound. A low, choked rumble in the back of his throat. Hux focuses on the way Ren bites at his own lips, how he worries at them with his teeth and then his tongue. Every part of him is so much larger than Hux. His lips, his teeth, his hands. It’s overwhelming, feeling dwarfed by someone like this. Overwhelming -- and surprisingly settling.

“You’re so fragile.” Ren finally says, as if that has any relevance at all. “And yet, you’re not.” He runs his thumb over the top of Hux’s hand, smoothing over bones and veins. “You fight back and they take that as an invitation. They shouldn’t, but they do. If you would just stop , Hux --” He sounds exasperated. Tired. Belatedly, Hux realizes he has no idea what time it is, though it must be nearing dawn at this point. He is wide awake, but Ren must be tired. Hux can see it in the slope of his shoulders, in the darkness creeping in underneath his eyes. “Maybe you would stop hurting.” For a brief second, Hux thinks that Ren sees right through him, sees that he’s the one picking these fights, that he’s the one starting all of it. Every time.

At this point, Hux has resigned himself to so much. He has control over practically nothing in his life. But he has control over this, over creating a small hurricane of schoolyard violence for himself every fortnight. He gets scrapes on his knees and blood in his mouth, and his knuckles take days to heal. But he is the one who asks for it. His words are perfectly sharpened barbs and he knows just what to say to get the other boys throwing punches. He always knows who to take a piece out of first to create the worst gales, knows how to keep the winds of the fight going with a simple bite.

Hux stays quiet. Doesn’t give himself away by saying anything dumb. He watches Ren pick a shard of glass from his palm. The other boy pockets it -- Hux imagines him keeping it forever, never even cleaning the blood off it. “I don’t like seeing you hurt.” The words are soft, like a secret. The amount of raw emotion in Ren’s voice is staggering, dizzying.

It’s a dawning realization that Ren knows Hux does this to himself, but it’s all too clear. Ren, looking at him with too many pleading eyes. Ren, watching him like a feral animal, moving slow so as to not spook him. Ren, wiping blood off Hux’s hands with too much care, never inflicting any more pain even when he knows it’s what Hux was seeking the whole time. Everything had been so delicately orchestrated and planned, before he’d shown up. Ren knows. Hux knows that Ren knows, and it’s suddenly too much. The exhaustion hits him like the tide rolling in -- slow, forceful, inescapable and all-consuming.  

“Leave,” he commands with his last ounce of energy.

Ren goes.

--

Spring settles firmly into the air. The trees flower and leaf out. Hux celebrates his birthday with a too-sweet cup of coffee and a scone bought from a local bakery -- a small indulgence, but a well-deserved one. The nights warm. The moss grows in its jar. Rabbits dance outside Hux’s window in the dim light of the dusk. He completes his assignments, studies hard, and lets the early Spring frost thaw from his bones.

His days fall slowly into casual repetition. Every hour is a practiced prayer, an easy folding to the undercurrent of time.

He wakes, he eats, he studies, he sleeps.

In the moments in between, there is often rain.

There is also often Ren.

--

Hux passes his Leaving Certs with flying colors.

With his scores, he can go to any University he wishes. The choices are daunting and overwhelming, but infinitely relieving. The weight on his shoulders feels worlds lighter -- he feels like Atlas, finally unburdened from the weight of the celestial heavens, if only for a brief respite.

He doesn’t want to tell his parents, doesn’t want to sully the news with a new form of disdain that his father will inevitably find. They should be proud, but the most Hux can ever hope for is unaffected.

He has no one to tell but Ren. So he does.

They sit on the rocky beach and drink the expensive whiskey Hux’s father bought him for his birthday. It’s nothing sentimental -- just a forgotten pretence of an out-of-touch man who is staunchly more General than Father. But it’s good, solidly rich on Hux’s tongue and warm in his throat. It heats him from the inside out, shielding him from the cool bite of the ocean air.

The waves crash against the rocks and Hux leans against Ren’s broad side, eyes closed against the saline air. For the first time in a long time, he feels like he can fill his lungs with ease, and so he does. He breathes and laughs and breathes again until they’re both laughing with their backs flat against the rocky ground until dawn.

--

When Ren leans in, catching Hux’s lips in his own, it feels like the inevitable progression of things.

--

Spring fades seamlessly into summer. Hux starts and finishes his end-of-year essays. He receives confirmation from his preferred University and makes arrangements to attend. His life plans fall into place the way they always have: slowly, quietly, and without pomp or circumstance.

His parents arrive a couple weekends before graduation and this time, when they eat, the food tastes better and the conversation is marginally more tolerable. Mostly, he ignores his father. Hux spends the evening speaking in low tones with his mother, giving in and telling her about his love for Tennyson. She smiles and places her hand on top of his and tells him that she is proud.

--

“We’re leaving so soon.”

Somehow, Ren talks his way into Hux’s room, as if he needs some sort of invitation now. Hux always pictures finding Ren there whenever he opens the door at the end of the day, but he only ever finds traces of him while Hux has been gone.

This time, Ren follows Hux into his room when the night draws too long for their campus meandering. It’s dizzying, being in the small space with Ren so close by -- intimate and strange, and somehow so absurdly new. It also feels like a foregone conclusion; Ren has spent so long orbiting around Hux that this is the only direction for them to turn in. Of course they would end up here, the night before their graduation. The only surprise to Hux is that it has taken him this long to yield, to submit to fate.

Ren threads his long fingers through Hux’s hair and pulls him close. When their lips collide, a wave of electricity jolts through him and his world tips suddenly sideways. Ren, as always, catches him with strong arms. It’s easy, letting himself fall into Ren’s embrace, to let himself bend to Ren’s wandering hands and to his invasive tongue. Just like yielding to the first kiss, it feels like letting himself be bowled over by an inevitable wave.

Ren presses him against the door, then again against his bed.

The looming threat of graduation slips from his consciousness when Ren reverently strips him from his clothes and warms Hux’s skin with his own. It’s exhilarating, knowing he is at Ren’s command, subject to his mercy and all of his whims. He arches off the bed, yielding to the seeking press of Ren’s hands.

When he comes, his world goes white and he bites off a shout into the fist of his hand. Ren kisses his neck while he catches his breath, and Hux thinks of the future.

--

They graduate in the morning.

Hux has his belongings packed by noon.

--

ii.

(ten years later)

Hux’s apartment faces East.

Every morning, he is greeted by the sunrise. Even on cloudy mornings, the city glows a pastel pink and orange underneath him, stretching out in a long expanse of beautiful, man-made extravagance in all directions. Each day, the light of the sun rouses him from sleep: he never bothered investing in curtains -- this high up, with floor to ceiling windows, they seemed pointless. Besides, it would ruin the clean and stark aesthetic of the condo, and wouldn’t that be a shame.

He rises with the sun, showers, and makes himself tea. Strong -- oversteeped and tanniny. He always has coffee too, but that’s brought to him at work by an efficient but rather unfortunate-faced assistant who Hux probably should have promoted away by now. The kid is too good at his job, too competent to be an assistant forever. But, Hux either has a soft spot for keeping familiar faces around him or he isn’t willing to sacrifice his own sense of order for furthering someone’s career. The process of finding a new, competent assistant is an arduous one that he’s not looking to touch anytime soon. Instead, he pays his assistant generously, piles the benefits high around him, and expects gourmet coffee to magically appear in his hand the second he walks into his office every morning.

Hux spends most of his days in bespoke suits, tailored for him in a small family-run shop back in Dublin. The tweed doesn’t always match the climate of New York, but he gets by. When it gets blisteringly warm in the summer, he gives in and switches to chambray or linen. A perfectly tailored suit is an absolute necessity for him -- image is everything. He wears them with honor, like a suit of armor. The suits do a lot to uphold his image: important, organized, and deadly. He’s told they make him look intimidating, in a put together sort of way -- which is exactly what he wants.

He moves with vicious precision. The perfectly-cut clothing makes his edges look sharper, more threatening. He speaks with an air of confidence he perfected back in University, with a tone that leaves no room for questioning or disbelief: he’s always had total command of a room after uttering one single word into the din of a crowd. He has worked tirelessly to exude this exact air of superiority, professionalism, and expertise. And it has all worked out quite well for him, if he does say so himself. Hux is very good at his job. It helps that he enjoys doing it.

He is not famous. But, he is known in select circles. Very well known. His business cards read:

Brendol Hux IV

First Order Consulting

There’s nothing mysterious about what he does: it’s simple personnel consulting. Companies bring him in, and Hux spots both the talent and the deadweight. He spends a month scouring company records and overseeing work habits, as well as sitting in on meetings and monitoring whatever he can get his hands on. Afterward, he gives the senior staff a work plan. If companies follow his suggestions to the letter, they’re at least three hundred percent more efficient by the next quarter. Even if they only take portions of the advice given, they’re bound to increase productivity by 100% -- though it would be foolish not to implement all of First Order’s suggestions After all, their consulting fees are worth a pretty penny. Not everyone can afford the prestige, but for those who can, it’s a godsend. A ticket to the big leagues -- or to the top of the market. It’s difficult work -- it involves at least 20% layoffs and 50% restructuring, and having to deliver the news. But Hux has a mind for it; it comes easily and effortlessly.

It also doesn’t hurt that he enjoys it. He loves crafting order from disorder, loves cutting away the dead bits to facilitate new and stronger growth. It’s cathartic.

It’s also extremely lucrative.

--

Tuesday mornings are for Phasma.

Hux first made her acquaintance years ago, back when First Order Consulting was still a start-up. The company was highly sought-after -- Hux had done well, but he was starting to wear thin around the edges. Demand was too high, and Hux was only one person. And, he was still trying to make a name for himself. But Phasma had found him, introduced herself, and immediately Hux had known that she was golden.

It’s the best decision he’s ever made.

Phasma is mercilessly productive, ruthless, and understands people like no one Hux has ever met. She remembers the name and face of every single person she’s been introduced to and a personal fact about them. It’s very unfair. But she is an incredible asset to First Order Consulting.

She’s also one of Hux’s very good friends. Not that he has too many -- he’s not a generally likable person.

“Here’s your barely-coffee coffee drink.” She sets down a mug of steaming goodness in front of him, looking down at the mug with disdain. From where he’s seated, Hux can smell the sweetness wafting from it. It’s an indulgence of his only reserved for Tuesday mornings.

“There’s coffee in there.” He squints and then stirs the offending beverage with a wooden stirrer. “Somewhere,” he concedes. The hazelnut and drizzle into the coffee, and it blends to pale willow. He takes a sip, even though it’s much too hot. The flavor of it is warm and sweet when it hits his tongue.

“That’s repulsive.” Phasma muses, and takes a sip of her own triple Americano. The heat of her drink doesn’t seem to bother her at all. It never does.

Hux’s terrible indulgence in drinks is a squabble they’ve had since first meeting, but it’s all in fun. “I drink it black every other day. Let me have this, Captain.” He’d gone his whole life without real indulgence. Upon graduation from university, Hux had began to learn how to let himself have nice things. Coffee, saccharine and rich, had been his first foray into the practice. Now, it’s habit.

Phasma hums, in acceptance or at least in acquiescence and pulls out her iPad. Before her career as an expert consultant, she had been a Captain in the Marines. Hux has never asked why she switched careers, but he’s always assumed the answer had been due to some differing personal philosophies early in her career. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. First Order has her now, and Hux’s life is better off for it. As is most of Wall Street.

--

“It seems like last month’s situation is doing well already.” Phasma flips over her paper, reviewing stock numbers and options as she savors her coffee. Idly, she picks pieces off of an expensive looking scone. It’s something vegan, probably containing some sort of terribly exotic fruit.

The coffee shop is quiet today. It’s never loud -- it’s far too expensive a place to ever end up rambunctious or boisterous -- but today is remarkably quiet. Hux sinks into the leather of his chair and takes a sip of his own coffee, which is warm and sweet as per usual. It’s a little less indulgent today: just steamed cashew milk and hazelnut syrup, but it’ll still quench his need for something saccharine for the rest of the week.

“I made a few phone calls about investment opportunities in that regard. Everyone seems pleased.” They’ll be more than happy in a year’s time, when the company makes a full recovery -- and then some.

“There’s not much on for this week. A few opening interviews and consultations, but nothing fundamentally interesting.” Phasma pulls a magazine out and lays it over the table in front of her, overtop her discarded newspaper. It’s The Rolling Stone . The cover catches Hux’s eye, and he suddenly can’t look away from the face he finds staring back at him on the magazine.

His heartbeat stumbles.

“Unless anything has come up?” Suddenly, Phasma’s voice sounds garbled through what feels like an ocean between Hux’s ears, vast and empty and all-consuming.

The moment draws on forever, lingering in between the space of a few seconds.

“--Hux?” At the sound of his name, he snaps to. He shakes off the feeling, like he’s practiced many times before. The dull roar of the ocean lessens, and he immediately calms. He’s not entirely sure how long he was zoning out for -- or why, but he realizes something is amiss the second he looks back up to Phasma’s face and feels a twist in his stomach.

“Who,” Hux lets his gaze drift back on the cover of the magazine, where the familiar face of Ren is looking back at him. Kylo Ren , from all those years ago. “ -- Is that?” He feels his voice catch in his throat. Undoubtedly, Phasma notices. Charitably, she doesn’t comment on it.

Hux hasn’t seen Ren in years. Somehow he looks exactly the same as Hux remembers him from their days in school, and also nothing like that boy at all. This man, this star on the cover of The Rolling Stone , is confident, purposeful, charismatic. He looks content, maybe even happy. He seems easy-going and touchable, in his worn-thin jeans and wrinkled button-down, like he hasn’t a care in the world. Ren was none of those things. -- But the half-smile is the same. The way his eyes crinkle in around the edges. The slant of his jaw. The unruly mess of his hair.

For a brief moment, it’s all too much.

“This, my dear Brendol, is Finn’s newest acquisition.” Phasma smiles and snatches the magazine to hold into the air and admire. She is kind enough to hold it at an angle that Hux can still see it. “This heartthrob is Ben Skywalker. Isn’t he dreamy?”

Hux says nothing. He can’t. Not with Ren staring back at him from a cover of a magazine that Hux has never voluntarily picked up and read before. Now, he wants to buy stock out of sheer fondness alone. It’s ludicrous.

“He’s cute though, right?” Phasma says. “He has that brooding musical genius aesthetic going for him. Look at those eyes, that hair. He practically has ‘ I could be your tortured soul’ written on his forehead. It’s brilliant marketing. Your little pet project, Finn, got his hands on Skywalker a few months ago and he’s blown up since then. It’s all very impressive.”

Hux makes a noise in his throat. He hopes it sounds something like disdainful agreement.

“I thought it was Organa ,” Hux hears himself say.

Phasma doesn’t seem surprised at all that Hux knows him. Not that Hux is being all that subtle. Phasma is too smart for subtlety, anyway. “Too big a name, too much political pull. Besides -- according to Finn, they sound pretty estranged.” Casually, she extends the magazine to him, pretending she’s not sure he’s interested in taking it. It’s too kind. “He talks about the name change in the article, if you’re curious.”

He snatches the magazine out of her hand and doesn’t even pretend to be casual about it.

--

Q: Thank you for being here with us, Ben Skywalker. It’s an honor.

A: It’s an honor to be here.

 

Hux sits down with the interview and reads. He lets himself fall back to imagining Ren as he once did, with unkempt hair and a familiar woolen coat. He pictures Ren as he was: an overbearing, yet warm presence constantly orbiting around Hux. A constant.

 

Q: I’m just going to get right into it. Red in Tooth and Claw is just amazing. It’s an absolute journey to listen to. And, it’s why you’re here with us today -- so I hope you don’t mind talking about it for a while. It’s your first album, is it not?

A: It is. I’ve been working on it for what seems like a lifetime. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels good to finally have it done and off my chest.

Q: Off your chest? You’re talking about the heavy emotional weight of the album, correct?

A: Yeah. It -- it was a lot. It’s -- an exploration of love. An emotional odyssey, I guess.

Q: That’s some love.

A: (Ben laughs) Yeah, I guess so.

Q: It’s not really a happy album, though, is it? It’s passionate, it’s deeply resonating, and it’s heavy. Personally, I think what really makes it so beautiful is that it’s emotionally accessible to everyone. But there’s no happy ending. Right?

A: No, there’s not.

Q: Would you like to elaborate on that some?

A: Are you angling for my personal history?

Q: A bit. If you’re willing to share.

A: (Ben pauses) Sure. I mean, I’ve pretty much put it all out on this album already for the world to see. What’s one more avenue? (Ben laughs) What do you want to know?

Q: From what I gathered, this is about your first love. Can you tell us about her?

A: Him, actually. We met in boarding school. It was a small school in Ireland, right outside Dublin. I moved around a lot as a kid, but I think I was there for about the longest stretch of time. I met him a year before I graduated. Fell for him instantly. And god, I fell hard.

 

Hux stops reading. He closes his eyes and lets the colors swirl around in his vision, mostly reds -- some blues and indigos in the shadows. Red has always reminded him of Ren: vibrant and passionate and so, so bright. A brilliant beacon of light in the fog of a grey existence. Hux doesn’t close the magazine, but he has to stop himself, step back for a second -- he feels flushed and warm and a bit like he can’t breathe.

 

He gets up, gets himself a glass of water with ice. He drinks it in one go. Lets out a long breath.

There’s a picture of Ren opposite the first page of the article in the magazine -- Hux stares at it for a long moment, looking at the man Ren has become. Tall and muscular. Confident. Luminous.

Hux keeps reading.

 

Q: I take it, from the tone of the album, that the feeling wasn’t reciprocated?

A: That’s not entirely it. It’s -- complicated. (Ben pauses) Sorry -- it’s just that I don’t really talk about this much. You know, outside of thinly veiled metaphors put to music. He -- jeez -- I don’t even really know what to say. He was amazing. Brilliant. Sharp -- and so cold. He was probably the most driven person I’ve ever met, but he was also just -- so passive. It’s hard to explain, even now, with years to reflect back on it. I don’t think I ever really understood him. I thought I did, back then. I thought I could help him, that I could be something to him. Some sort of -- light in the darkness, maybe.

Q: And you weren’t?

A: I don’t think so. I wanted him to be passionate about something , even if it wasn’t me. I mean, you know, obviously I wanted it to be me -- but I would’ve taken anything. I just wanted him to be happy, to smile. Even just once. But he just sort of -- rolled with the punches. He maybe -- (Ben pauses) -- yeah. Anyway. He accomplished a lot academically and I think that came easily to him, but he just always seemed like he was going through the motions with everything he did.

Q: And you didn’t notice, or…?

A: You know, I think I noticed. At least a part of me did, anyway. But I was too much of a lovesick oaf to actually want to see it. So, I think I ignored it in favor of pretending it was all fine. That it was normal, instead of anything but.

Q: We know there’s no happy ending in the album -- but it had to have ended somehow. What happened?

A: We graduated. We didn’t keep in touch. I just -- never saw him again.

Q: Well, the whole experience certainly gave you quite an arsenal of emotions at your disposal for this album. Can we talk about your instant hit single, Overworn ?

A: Sure.

Q: I think everyone will agree that [ Overworn ] just guts you. It’s been a long time since a song had such an immediate effect on me. It’s like an entire symphony to grief. It’s applicable in so many different scenarios that it’s intensely relatable.

A: That’s -- yeah, a symphony to grief is pretty accurate. (Ben laughs) And also maybe a little overdramatic. Honestly, I wrote in the height of my -- depression, I guess. I was still working through the loss, trying to muddle through my own sadness and grief. It’s -- ah, jeeze. It’s all stupidly sentimental, really. ‘ Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn.’ (Ben puts his hands over his face. He looks embarrassed.) That’s Tennyson, by the way. (Ben sighs) I was just lost without him. For a while, I tried to reconcile it with myself, tell myself that I was more lost without a purpose than lost without him. It was easier that way. I felt stronger. But honestly, I was just lost without him. And I think that kind of devotion is -- okay. I mean, it’s not always the healthiest, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Q: But the word, overworn -- that factors in, doesn’t it?

A: Yeah, sorry, sorry. I got a little derailed there. Overworn -- yeah. I became a shell of myself, when I was really at my worst. Looking back, it’s probably very similar to how he felt. Everything felt thin and used, and god, my whole world was just bleak and grey. I guess it didn’t help much that I was living in Seattle at the time, does it? (Ben laughs) No, sorry, that’s a bad joke. Seattle’s great and I also love the rain. It rained so much in Ireland in the Spring. There’s a lot about rain in Yew -- which I think is my favorite song on the album, actually. Finn, my producer, didn’t think it’d make much of a single, so that’s why we went with Overworn , but -- yeah. Yew is really...it’s the most uplifting song on the album. Not that it’s all that uplifting. More -- hopeful, really. Opposed to relentlessly depressing , anyway.

Q: So, it’s hopeful. Do you have hope that you’ll find someone you feel that strongly about in the future?

A: I -- you know, I’m not sure. I’ve been with other people since, and it’s just -- it’s never the same. I’ve never felt that way again, that strongly and that deeply. I’m not sure I ever want that with someone else. It was special.

Q: Alright. Well, that definitely got a bit heavy -- sorry to drag up old ghosts, Ben. How about we move on and talk about your influences. Obviously you’ve got a lot of talent in your blood. Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker -- and I hear you’ve got a cousin, Rey, who’s starting to step out onto the scene.

A: Yeah, I guess so. I’d have to say that Darth Vader, my grandfather, was really my biggest inspiration. I mean, jeeze. He’s up there with Ziggy Stardust and Prince. He was really just -- amazing. Following anywhere near to his footsteps is just...it’s mind-blowing. You know, I walked in here and saw the framed cover of his first interview with you guys hanging in the lobby and it’s -- it’s terrifying and exhilarating to think that my face is going to be on a cover, too. That’s -- it’s just an absolute honor. It really is.

 

Hux continues reading. He switches from ice water to whiskey, even though it’s far too early in the day -- by god, he deserves it. He reads about Ben Skywalker and how he distanced himself from his family, how he changed his name from Organa to Skywalker, because he identified with his grandfather more than with his mother. How he hated being a political pawn. He reads about Ben’s passions, his love for food and coffee and general culinary indulgence -- and how he too, lives in New York. It’s a stifling realization, that Ren lives in the same city as Hux, for however long, that Hux had never even known. It’s dizzying. Hux’s heart pounds in his chest, echoing in his ears in a way that it hasn’t for years.

Before Hux necessarily realizes it, his computer is open and he’s downloading a copy of Ren’s album, Red in Tooth and Claw. The name doesn’t escape him. It’s like someone pulling directly at his heartstrings with the hands of both a master musician and a reckless three year old at the same time. Skilled and masterful, without shame or restraint -- so very much like the Ren that Hux knew.

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against the creed--

Tennyson. The lines repeat in his head instantaneously -- he knows them too well. Those words in particular had always reminded him of Ren. Ren, in all his viciousness, his careless overabundance of emotion. He had always been so opposite of Hux that Hux had found him foreign. But, in the end, as he looks back now -- he just finds him moderately enticing. It’s strange, how Ren had read those words, too, and thought of Hux. Perhaps stranger still, is that Ren picked up In Memoriam after school and read it again, enjoyed it well enough to reference bountifully in his album. Like Hux had a lasting effect on him.

No -- No, perhaps that’s too selfish. The knot in his throat, sitting warm and acidic and unmoving, tells him that Hux is who Ren was talking about. But -- he doesn’t know . It could all just be a ploy. Twisted memories into something more important than it had been. It feels conceited to think he had that much of a lasting impact, like he’s grabbing too firmly and reaching too far. For a while, he didn’t think that Ren had any lasting effect on him, either. Now, when he looks back, Ren is all he sees.

What if this isn’t Ren anymore, not the Ren Hux knew, anyway. This is Ben Skywalker: Upcoming Alternative Star -- charmingly awkward but fundamentally well-spoken and charismatic. Ben Skywalker might say anything for the viewers, might twist his history into something it’s not, just to appear more heart-wrenching and appealing.

Lost love and heartbreak. It’s all very over dramatic. It’s all very Ren.

It’s not that Hux wants the story to be true. That’s far too egotistical. And -- reaching, perhaps. In the end, he doesn’t know what he wants the answer to be. Any answer is complicated and the solution would require him to have a concrete opinion on his desires, which he doesn’t yet have. But he’s Hux: always after the pursuit of furthering his own knowledge and dissecting the world around him.

He has to know .  

--

The album plays out countless times. Hux lets it repeat. Like drifting off to rain, he falls asleep to the sound of Ren’s voice, crooning and lulling away in the other room, muffled by walls and by distance.

He dreams of school, of soft hands and fumbled touches. He dreams of rain, of grass, of climbing the arching branches of an ancient chestnut tree until he touches the crisp and dewy sky. It melts against his fingertips, warm and grey and sparkling as it seeps into his veins. He dreams of Ren, whispering softly in his ear, startling him out of his hold on the gnarled branches -- and he    falls

falls --

f a l l s

--

The magazine sits on his kitchen table for two weeks. Hux alternates between flipping it cover-up and cover-down. He feels silly, leaving it upside down, but feels even more ridiculous when it is face up, with Ren’s familiar face looking aloof and intellectual on the cover while Hux has his breakfast.

Momentarily and foolishly, Hux thinks it’s lightly like having company for breakfast -- something he’s rarely had in all his years as an adult. No relationship of his has ever lasted long enough to make it to sticking around for breakfast . Even the ones that were longer lived weren’t the type to be so intimate. Or, alternatively, perhaps Hux is just not the type to give anyone the softer part of himself that exists just upon waking.

Realistically, it doesn’t matter and it’s a silly thought anyway. It’s just Ren’s face on the cover of an issue of The Rolling Stone that Hux is still trying furtively to pretend he hasn’t read fifty times over.

He thinks, briefly, that he’s read the article more times than he has Genesis. Or even Revelation -- and that’s always been his favorite.

Carefully, Hux tears the article out of the magazine, even though he doesn’t need to keep it. But he could. He very much could. He could fold it up, stick it inside the copy of In Memoriam that he carries around in his breast pocket. The idea haunts him. It’s sickeningly sentimental. Worryingly obsessive.

He folds it to the right size.

No -- he’s not that soft hearted, not that zealous. He’s better than that. Besides, it’s something Ren would have done in his boarding school days -- hoarded haphazard papers for any which reason until his pockets were overflowing with meaningless artifacts.

Hux turns the square of paper over and over in his hands.

--

Hux gives in and calls Finn.

--

“For the love of -- please don’t call it ‘ not real music ’ on air. Promise me.”

Finn is on the phone when Hux lets himself into the office. The young producer has a distinctly unimpressed look on his face, but it’s probably from his conversation rather than from Hux’s casual entrance. He shouldn’t care that Hux let himself in with only the briefest courtesy of a single knock -- after all, it was Hux who got Finn this luxurious office with sweeping views of Manhattan, who gave him this job and this title, who spotted Finn’s talent from miles away and snatched it up for himself. It wasn’t as if Finn wouldn’t have made it there himself in a few years, obviously; Hux simply made it happen faster . The music industry isn’t Hux’s calling, but he enjoys having a diversified portfolio. Finn had been a side project of his, taken up pro bono because Hux felt it might benefit him one day in the future. And it has. Hux just hadn’t assumed this would be how he was calling in his favor.

Finn shoots him an apologetic look and makes a resigned hand gesture. Hux waves him on and sits in one of the chairs in front of Finn’s desk. He has all day. Honestly -- he cleared his schedule for this. Out of courtesy and perhaps a smidge of self indulgence.

“Seriously? Seriously? No -- You’re being the child. No -- Would you just --” Finn sighs, and Hux diverts his eyes, giving him at least some semblance of privacy. He’s always liked Finn: the kid is no nonsense, but kind. Quick-witted and engaging. He’s a people person, which is why he does so well where he is in this people business. Like Hux, Finn can spot talent and charisma a mile away, knows the tweaks and pushes said talent needs to make it big, and knows how to do it all with a smile.

“Ben -- Ben , you’re hosting the Alt Nation Countdown in two days. You at least have to pick a playlist. I don’t care if you don’t have any talking points. You at least have to have music.” Hux’s heart skips at the name. Ben. There’s a chance Finn isn’t talking to the only ‘Ben’ Hux can think of, but given his recent luck, he’s most certainly talking to Ben Skywalker -- angrily, at that.

“Also please, please don’t talk about how much you hate your extended family’s music. Maybe even think about playing one of Rey’s songs? That could be good -- Ben? -- Ben , -- ” Finn sighs and gracefully puts the phone back on its receiver. “And he hung up on me. I’m sorry, Hux, I didn’t realize the time.” He probably did, Hux figures, but he thought it more pressing to try and school a stubbornly childish client about interview etiquette. Rightfully so -- Hux doesn’t blame him in the slightest.

“It’s fine,” Hux says, calm and steady. He might be feeling a hint of anxiety about all this, about the faint voice on the other end of Finn’s phone call, but he is a professional. He hasn’t had to deal with an overabundance of emotion since his rainy boarding school days. “How have you been?”

“Jesus -- always with the smalltalk, Hux. I’m doing damn well this quarter, so I know you’re not here to check up on me. So -- what’s the favor you came here for?” Finn smiles, extra big. And, because Finn actually can’t pass up the opportunity for smalltalk, which Hux very well knows: “Also, I’ve been well. Great, actually -- no complaints.” He looks faintly like a schoolboy in love, wearing an expression of pure joy -- and Hux is not going to ask about it. He doesn’t want to know any more about Finn than he has to. He respects the man, appreciates his professional company, but they aren’t friends.

“You were just on the phone with --?” Hux leaves a space, a pause, and lets Finn fill in the blanks.

“Ben Skywalker. God, what a pain.”

“I’ve heard.” He hasn’t heard. But he does remember Ren, and he can’t imagine Ben and Ren are too dissimilar: stubborn, impulsive, and also passionate.

“I’d like to meet him.”

--

The seasons in New York are not dissimilar to those in Ireland, but like everything in New York, they’re more pronounced. Bigger. Brighter. Bolder. Winters are cold and biting, with snowdrifts like nothing Hux had witnessed before coming to the States. Summers are drenched in heat and humidity -- it took him far too long to get used to dodging between puddles of shade, trying to find sanctuary from the sun. Spring and autumn are his favorites, and when he has the time he finds himself strolling the winding paths of Central Park.

He walks through the park aimlessly today, but it doesn’t please him as it usually does. His feet carry him onwards, spurred by a trickle of anxiety that he can’t shake. He’s not used to the nervous energy boiling inside him, the electricity coursing through his veins that feels too akin to excitement. Nervousness, perhaps. He’s spent so long striving for equanimity that the slightest tipping of the scales feels momentous.

Finn had agreed. Of course he had. He has no right to deny Hux much of anything at all. But somehow, meticulous planner that he is, Hux had never taken the time to truly consider what Finn’s easy, “ Sure thing, Hux. Name a time and he’s yours, ” would actually mean to him.

When it all comes down to it, Hux is a man of routine -- boring routine, at that. He hasn’t thrown a wrench in the gears since university; he’s never done something so immediately ill-thought out, reckless, and spontaneous. Never mind that he’d waited weeks before actually caving and calling Finn -- it was still absolutely unheard of in Hux’s carefully scripted life.

He walks until his thoughts quiet and his anxiety recedes. He can deal with it then, deal with the way the thoughts of Ren lap at his ribs like the waves of a steady tide. Unyielding and ever present -- like Ren, back in the day.

He walks until the light dims, until the sky gives in to a gentle rain.

--

Hux makes himself wait two weeks.

He calls Finn the day after their meeting and sets the appointment for a Friday afternoon two weeks away. He figures: it’s better to wait, he’s not in a rush. He clears his schedule again for that day. It’s unfortunate timing. The anxiety grows in a frustrating sort of way -- it refuses to leave, but it is perfectly fine with being placed on the backburner of Hux’s thoughts. It hangs like dust in the crisp autumn air. He can’t think of much else other than the slowly encroaching meeting. The time ticks by, too slowly. Too quickly, too.

The worst part is that he shouldn’t be nervous. He shouldn’t feel a fluttering in his chest when one of Ben Skywalker’s songs comes on the radio when he’s at a coffeeshop, shouldn’t grip his coffee with shaking, nervous hands. He shouldn’t look away and bite down on some sort of emotion when he sees Ben’s familiar face on the cover of yet another magazine. He shouldn’t, at all, worry about how their meeting will go. It’s nothing -- just two friends from boarding school catching up with each other after a rather long expanse of years. It’s crushingly normal , for Christ’s sake; people do this sort of thing all the time. There are probably self-help books on it, or articles, though Hux refuses to even google anything coming close to it. He can only imagine the attempts:

     >> catching up with friend after years

     >>meeting school acquaintance after long time

     >>seeing old fling after too long

Nothing really seems to fit. It all seems either too trite or too reaching. Did Ren consider Hux a friend or an acquaintance? Were they a fling , as the word is defined? Or are the years twisting Hux’s perception of events? Back then, he hadn’t thought much of it. He hadn’t thought much of anything at all, if he’s being honest. His boarding school days are all a grey blur in his memories -- faded and too far out of reach. But looking back, he remembers Ren. Remembers how solid he was against Hux, how both gentle and rough his hands were. He remembers it all too fondly , too intimately.

Ren has never attempted to get in touch.

Not once.

If Hux expects nothing from the meeting other than a quiet reunion, a closing of a book that has been left open for far too long, then he cannot be disappointed. It’s the best way to approach the situation.

--

Hux’s building has a luxurious little rooftop garden. It had been one of the selling points of the condo, even though Hux doesn’t venture up to it too often any more. The garden is not his favorite style, but it is a green haven of nature he appreciates having nonetheless.

It resembles an English country garden: perfectly trimmed, planted, and maintained. The ivy is kept on a short leash and the rose bushes are immaculately pruned and shaped. The grass, always a bright spring green, is obsessively cut. Nothing is overgrown or left to flourish on its own accord, unlike his favorite gardens back in school. But there are tables at which he can read the paper in the mornings, or upon which he can place a laptop and work into the evening.

Tonight, he sits on the faintly illuminated roof, browsing articles on his tablet. Recently, the building scattered a few fairy lights about in strategic locations, akin to ones he’s seen popping up in coffee shops and cafes around the city. The ambiance has become too whimsical for his tastes, but he still appreciates the dedication to the aesthetic trends of the times.

He’s alone on the roof tonight, so without thinking twice about it he lets Red in Tooth and Claw play at a low volume. Ren’s voice sings along with the sounds of the city, and Hux reads late into the night.

--

Eleven Madison Park might be excessive for a regular meeting, but it’s one of Hux’s favorite locations for celebratory meals with high profile clients. He has a reputation to maintain, after all. The food is local, the menu ever-changing, and the service is never anything but impeccable.

A day before they are scheduled to meet, Hux reconsiders the strategy. He had booked the reservation at Eleven Madison Park on autopilot, falling prey to something easy and familiar. It’s home territory for him -- exclusive, upscale, and cultured. It’s pristine and polished -- and the second that Hux imagines Ren sitting there, glaring down at a perfectly plated, artistic dish of Peekytoe crab, daikon radish, and violas with an expression of utter disdain -- he has to cancel the reservation. It just wouldn’t be fair to any party involved.

Instead, he shops around -- or rather, gets his assistant to shop around -- and ends up with a reservation at Blanca , in Bushwick. The ambiance seems nice, if slightly close-knit and exclusive, but Hux gives in and resigns himself to trying something new. It seems like the sort of thing Ren would appreciate, if he’s as pretentious as his interviews make him seem -- if he’s as pretentious as he always was.

--

“I can’t believe this. You look fine , Brendol.”

“I didn’t come here to get your approval.”

“And you stopped by the office -- why then, exactly?”

“I had contracts to be mailed before the weekend.”

“Mm. -- The floral tie, really?”

“What’s wrong with the tie?”
“I’m kidding, it looks fine. But don’t tell me you don’t value my opinion.”

“I value your opinion greatly, Phasma. But I’m aware I look fine. Even if I didn’t, this meeting is hardly the end of the world.”

“Don’t call your dinner date with Ben Skywalker a meeting.”

“Well, it’s certainly not a date .”

“Of course it isn’t.”

--

Hux arrives at Blanca early because he is meticulously early to anything. It’s a personal point of pride, that he’s never late -- or even on time.

He sits. He orders a cocktail -- whatever the chef recommends. And he waits.

Other parties file into the restaurant. They place themselves where directed at the long bar, which is the one table in the small restaurant, and they chatter amongst themselves. A couple people offer casual remarks to Hux, but largely he is ignored where he sits at the end of the table.

The reservation is for five p.m. At two after five, Finn opens the door the the restaurant and ushers Ren -- or Ben, Hux supposes -- inside. He’s truly Ben now: tall, broad-shouldered, and so relentlessly attractive in a sullen, brooding musician sort of way. Hux meets his eye, and the reaction is instantaneous. Hux watches as Ben spins around to glare at Finn, mouthing, What the fuck? with a little gesture toward where Hux is sitting. Hux offers a curt smile in return, at them both. Ben says something else, as well, but Hux isn’t that skilled at lip reading. Likely, it has to do with the fact that Finn scheduled this time as an important business meeting with a high profile client in Ben’s personal calendar, and Ben never thought to question it.

Hux’s heart beats faster when Finn and Ben finish their quiet argument and begin walking toward him, but for once his anxiety quells. He has the upper hand in this situation, which is perhaps unfair -- but then, when they were younger, Ren always seemed to have the upper hand.

“Hux.” Finn smiles and puts a hand on Hux’s back in the sort of greeting Finn is well known for -- the sort that makes Hux bristle. “It seems like you two already know each other.” He looks at Ren, who is looking about the restaurant with narrowed eyes, refusing to look at either of them.

“Old friends, we went to boarding school together.” He clasps Finn’s hand in a proper sort of greeting. “Thank you for making this happen, Finn. I really appreciate it.”

“Alright, I’ll leave you two to -- get reacquainted.” Finn looks at Ben, sighs, and tugs him by the sleeve of his leather jacket so that he’s standing closer to Hux. “Sit. Talk. Have a nice meal. I hear the food here is fantastic.”

“I don’t appreciate being deceived,” Ben frowns. His voice is lower than Hux remembers, but just as gravelly and melodic. It feels warm, colorful.

“To be fair, that was mostly my fault. I apologize. Thank you again, Finn.” Hux nods goodbye as Finn beats quick retreat, puts a hand on Ben’s chair and inches it out for him. “Thank you for meeting me.”

Ben hovers, and then finally gives in and sits. He’s quiet for a minute, futzing with his place setting and then his sleeves. He looks petulant, like Hux did truly deceive him, and for a moment it’s difficult to bite past the guilt. He orders a drink, takes a sip of his water, and finally turns -- like he’s allowed himself to sulk for long enough and has now pushed past it.

“I would have met you, you know. If you had just called me.”

“That was rather the point. I made an appointment through Finn, as I didn’t have your number.”

“Hux, that’s not --” Ben covers his face with his hands and makes a noise into them -- it sounds frustrated, and for a second, Hux has to fight off a wave of annoyance. It really had been the only solution, if only Ben could look past feeling deceived, they might actually have a chance to have a pleasant night. With the way Ben had been glowering before, and with the way he’s reacting now, Hux figures the chances are rather slim. But when Ben eventually pulls his hands away from his face, he’s laughing. It’s a soft noise, gentle and rumbling, and instantly Hux wants to hear more of it.

“God, you haven’t changed one bit.”

--

The night progresses. The food is delicious and Ben doesn’t seem to hate the restaurant. It’s easier to watch him here, illuminated by warm, glowing lights and surrounded by pleasant and intimate conversation, than it would have been to watch him across the too-expensive table of Eleven Madison Park. Ben relaxes, somewhat. The slope of his shoulders lessen, the hard line of his jaw softens. They talk about pleasantries, the weather, and the food.

It’s not bad .

But it’s also not right either. Hux can’t quite put his finger on it, until he realizes he’s counting Ben’s freckles along the incline of his neck and nodding along to something Ben is saying about his favorite coffee shop in Harlem, the one that has the best cold brew in the city. Before that, Hux had been talking about how much he enjoys Central Park in the autumn, how he watches the leaves turn. It’s nothing. All of it -- it all comes down to nothing of substance at all.

It’s not bad, but it is bullshit.

All too quickly, they both slipped into professional personas -- easily talking and agreeing and being perfectly pleasant. They had their brief how have you been’ s, but those were dispensed quickly and they proceeded toward polite conversation while enjoying their meals. Each entree brought something new to talk about, and they easily sat there for far too long before Hux even noticed.

Hux can’t speak for Ben, but he knows that it’s an easy facade to put up for himself, an easy role to play. He does this every day -- it’s fundamentally a part of who he is. He talks to people, never particularly listening, and never saying anything of note. Instead of facing any sort of fumbling awkwardness with with Ben, he’d subconsciously decided to make it more pleasant -- but far less memorable. He’d practically thrown the entire thing in the trash after the first bump in the road.

Ben is saying something about roasting his own coffee beans. There is a small scoop of pineapple-cilantro sorbet palate cleanser sitting in an oyster shell in front of both of them. “I bought your album,” Hux says, interrupting whatever Ben was saying.

“Oh.” He stills. Hux watches Ben’s Adam’s apple bob when he swallows. “Did you --”

“I listened to it.”

Ben eats the entire oyster shell of sorbet in front of him in one spoonful. He then makes a face, takes a sip of his water -- and then a long gulp of his cocktail. “Sour.”

“Yes, well.”

“Oh. Did -- you enjoy it? The album?”

“It was rather good.” There’s a hundred questions Hux wants to ask Ben. There’s a thousand different words he’d like to say, but all of them feel lodged in his throat. The room is too small, the other people are sitting too close. It’s too quiet, and somehow also too loud. The moment just -- isn’t right.

Ren was always so close to Hux. So warm and solid and there , when the whole world seemed so faded and far away. And now that he’s here again, sitting close enough to Hux that he could simply reach out and touch, he feels so remarkably distant. Untouchable.

Like that one time, in the library. When Hux had tried so desperately to reach out and Ren had shut him out.

It’s not at all how Hux imagined.

Hux wonders if it’s the fame or the years between them -- if Ben is too vastly different a person to mesh into Hux’s space now. He forced himself into Hux’s life before, but now there is no pressure, no need. There are probably other people that fill Ben’s voids and gaps, and they are probably far less bristly and hollow than Hux. He wonders also if it’s his own success, his own lifestyle -- the way he cuts away anything unnecessary and deems it disposable. There is nothing here, at this table, that he theoretically needs -- he’s doing just fine on his own, so maybe it’s just a lost cause.

They are two adults, both fundamentally doing well and prospering in their own rights. There is no need for force, to attempt to mold their relationship into something that it isn’t.

It’s a stark and startling realization that now, between the bustling streets of New York, in the primes of their lives, they have no need for each other.

Their plates are taken away and replaced by another course: rice noodles, clam, and uni -- topped with a leaf of anise. Hux studies the pocked texture of the sea urchin, because it is easier than watching the slope of Ren’s throat shift when he speaks. “That’s cool,” Ben says, most likely in reference to Hux’s reaction to the album. Good had been an understatement, really: the album was superb. Hux hasn’t been interested in contemporary music in quite a while. But when Ben talks again, it isn’t about his music: “You know, this,” he gestures at the uni with his newly received chopsticks, “reminds me of that new sushi place on the Waterfront. They have an uni sampler where you get five different types from all over the world. It’s really great.”

And just like that, the conversation takes a turn back toward impersonal.

It’s not boring; talking to Ben Skywalker is easy. He’s surprisingly personable for all of his attempts at a dour and brooding exterior. He’s well spoken, very knowledgeable, and exceedingly charming in an awkward sort of way. Hux sees the appeal for all of the teenagers reading interviews with him and putting his poster up on their walls -- if that’s even something kids still do these days.

But it’s obvious Ben is deflecting.

It becomes more and more obvious with each of Hux’s attempts at having an actual conversation. He could be conciliatory and go along with the impersonal note of the evening -- but he can’t stop himself. It’s both frustrating and a challenge. So each time Ben deflects him, Hux comes up with something else. He asks Ben about his University days, his career, his past trips, and about the neighborhood in which he lives. Ben looks more and more uncomfortable with each passing question, and yet Hux cannot stop himself. He digs and digs, all the while keeping a calm and even exterior. Ben looks more and more uncomfortable in the set of his shoulders with each passing minute.

He asks about how long it took for Ben to settle on Red in Tooth and Claw as the name of the album and Ben talks about his favorite restaurant in Seattle. Hux tries again, asking Ben how he found himself in Seattle itself -- if he enjoyed it, if he met anyone interesting there. Why he ended up sticking around. Ben answers with how he learned to grow mushrooms on a log he kept on the balcony of the place he rented there. How they were good, but not great. How frustrating the experience was, and how dull the flavor.

Hux eyes the artfully sliced braised lamb in front of him, topped with mint and pomegranate seeds, and decides that it, too, probably has little flavor right now.

He asks about Ben’s parents. He asks about Ben’s cousin, who’s just getting into music, or so Hux heard somewhere. He asks about why Ben’s kept his hair long, and if he’s ever cut it short between their boarding school days and now. He asks if Ben still reads poetry. All questions artfully deflected with more talk of food, the gentrification of the neighborhood, and Ben’s manager’s new boyfriend, Poe, whom Ben tolerates but finds annoyingly upbeat.

They make it to the cucumber buttermilk gelato and Hux finally feels his determination crumbling into the night.

He has no desire to keep hacking away at a wall of unmoving resolve. Now, it’s purely his own ego that is at stake, and he refuses to bruise it. “I apologize, Ben.” The name sounds unfamiliar on his lips. Foreign and combative. He hasn’t said it aloud all night. “Could you remind me of the name of the place that roasts their coffee beans with absinthe? I would be interested in trying it sometime.”

--

In the end, Hux walks away with the names of two coffee roasteries, a sushi restaurant in Midtown, and a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint in Bed-Stuy that he knows he’ll never set foot in.

He doesn’t end up with Ben’s number.

--

The weather cools, and the autumn rains sweep upward from the South.

The rain is different in New York City. Colder. More invasive. It encompasses Hux’s entire day, leaving him trapped inside and unwilling to leave until it stops. He doesn’t walk anywhere without a coat or an umbrella, not like he used to. It’s not the same -- he’s not the same.

It’s the rain, he tells himself, and not a ludicrous desire to sit his own carefully constructed space and lick his wounds. He doesn’t have a bruised ego to nurse, nor does he have any unfulfilled desires to patch up. He exists, solid and unshaken -- but tired of the rain.

He thumbs through his book of In Memoriam , fingertips brushing fondly against the gold-leafed edges. They are worn with time, and also with love.

He reads about someone else’s loss while nursing a small glass of whiskey.

--

Hux doesn’t read gossip rags. He doesn’t read many magazines at all, save for The New Yorker and The Economist when he has time for either. But Phasma does, and she enjoys keeping him apprised of her favorite unnecessary celebrity scoop. He indulges it, because it can be moderately useful, just as it’s useful to keep up to date with the actions of popular sports teams -- for the ease of interactions with some of his clients.

Sometimes, it’s more annoying than useful.

“Look who made it to the red carpet.” Phasma slides her phone across a conference table so that Hux can see the picture she’s referring to. Unsurprisingly, an image of Ben Skywalker stares back at him from the mirrored screen of Phasma’s phone. Ben looks stunning, in his perfectly fitted black designer suit. He’s wearing it as comfortably as he’s wearing the scowl on his face and an expression that very clearly says, I disapprove of this. It looks natural on him -- and it reminds Hux fiercely of Ren. There is a girl standing next to him, her bare and slender arm easily intertwined with his. Hux can’t bite back the jealousy that snarls in his throat when he looks at her, immaculate in her pure white dress. Her slender hand gracefully grips a black clutch. It’s only when he looks at the caption that he feels immediate relief -- and also embarrassment.

Cousins Ben and Rey Skywalker, alternative up-and-comers, grace the red carpet together for the first time, both looking chic and smart in classic monochrome.

“That’s his cousin?”

Phasma hums and pulls her phone back, looking at the image again herself. “Yes. Stunning, isn’t she?”

“She looks -- much nicer than him.” She looks, as far as any picture can show, both kind and friendly. Like she actually wants to be there, no matter the height of her shoes or the fact that she’s probably stitched into her gown. She looks engaged -- not aloof and grimacing like Ben.

Phasma swipes through a few more pictures and shows Hux a couple of them. Most feature Rey. The whole thing is a nice distraction from the embarrassing jealousy he was feeling earlier. It’s entirely irrational -- he has no reason to feel jealous. He has absolutely no claim to Ben, and he certainly isn’t harboring any feelings for a man he barely knows anymore. After all: he knows it wouldn’t work. Their dinner had been a very clear sign that they no longer fit together the way they used to.

For a moment, Hux considers what a pity it is that he will not be able to sit on the roof of his building with Ben, and watch the sunset in silence.

Then, he pushes it from his head and continues on with his day.

--

First Order Consulting facilitates a large merger of two well-known technology conglomerates. It takes up most of Hux’s Autumn, pushing idle walks in the haven of Central Park to the backburner.

He takes a delegation of senior officials in the deal to the sushi restaurant Ben recommended to him. He only realizes it’s the same place when he catches a glimpse of messy, black hair. His eyes track the person across the room until they turn; it’s not Ben. Of course it isn’t. In a city of eight million, Hux isn’t going to run into anyone, much less the only person he’d like to.

--

On a cold December morning, Hux wakes to the sound of his phone vibrating on the nightstand next to his bed. Most people have the common sense to call him at a reasonable hour, but emergencies can always happen, so he never silences his phone. When he grabs the phone with a sleep-weak hand, he finds that the time is four in the morning, and the number calling him is an unfamiliar one.

He lets it go to voicemail and goes back to sleep.

In the morning, he has no voicemail, nor any more missed calls.

--

A week after the early-morning call from the unknown number, Hux receives a text from the same number.

     hey do u want to go get coffee or sushi or tacos? its on me

Hux stares at the words on his screen in annoyance. This isn’t anyone he knows -- it can’t be. He hasn’t given his number out to anyone recently, and no one he knows would offer to go get tacos .

     I believe you have the wrong number.

His phone is silent for two hours before it buzzes again. Thrice, in rapid succession:

     finn gave me ur #

     this is ben skywalker

     kylo ren

--

It’s how Hux ends up in the freezing cold on some dingy street corner in Brooklyn, waiting for Ben -- because he is early and Ben is late. He adjusts his tartan scarf and breathes into it, heating up the air around his face. Snowflakes started to fall from the dreary sky about five minutes ago, lazily, like unenthusiastic drizzle. They’re still falling now, getting stuck in his eyelashes. Hux thinks, perhaps, that drizzle might have been better. At least then he might have an excuse to flee from what promises to be another awkward encounter.

Before Hux can become properly annoyed, Ben rounds the corner, all long strides and dramatic flair. He looks cut straight out of a magazine, draped with an expensive looking wool coat with the collar turned up to the wind. Hux feels the breath knocked out of him. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, that; he isn’t quite sure what to do with the sudden warmth on his skin under all his layers.

“Hey,” Ben greets him. His cheeks are rosy with the cold. He must have walked the entire way here, from wherever he lives. Close by, maybe.

“Hello.”

They stand there for a long moment, breath visible in the cold air around them, both shifting on their feet. Hux doesn’t know how to break the silence, so instead he stares at Ben’s uneven jaw. A freckle on his cheek. His eyes, and the way the snowflakes catch on his eyelashes, too. There’s something about this that feels less strained than the artificial lighting of Blanca. It feels right to be outside with Ben, even standing in silence. Maybe because of the silence.

Eventually, Ben takes a step toward him. “I’m sorry,” he says. His eyes dart over Hux’s hair, his collar, and then his lips, before he looks back to Hux’s eyes.

“It’s fine,” Hux answers, even though he has the faint inkling that he should be apologizing too. They are on even footing now, neither one of them ambushed into an encounter. There is an entire city bustling around them, and all Hux can focus on is Ben.

Ben breathes out and Hux watches as his sigh drifts away in the cold wind. Never hesitant, Ben reaches out a hand. Presumably, for Hux to shake. “I’d like to know you again,” he says. He looks hopeful.

Hux doesn’t know what he wants. He thinks that he never really has, especially when it comes to Ren. And now, when it comes to Ben, he is left similarly lost. But he takes Ben’s hand and finds it a warm anchor for his own. Ben’s calloused fingers wrap around his hand, so large, so steady. “Agreed,” Hux says. “It would be a pleasure, Ben.”

“Please call me Ren.”

--

Ren takes him to a place called Los Hermanos which is less of a known establishment and more a dive Hux would never in a hundred years consider worth dining in. He saw its facade on his Uber ride over and assumed it had been closed for years, that it was decrepit and run down. It turns out that they make the best tacos Hux has ever eaten. Not that his repertoire is large -- but they’re still delicious. And the company is decent.

They end up outside with their food, leaning against a nearby building. Hux’s coat keeps catching on the brick behind him, and he keeps dropping bits of avocado near his shoes, but it’s pleasant. His hands are freezing, but in between the food and the conversation, he barely notices.

They talk in between bites and gusts of cold wind. This time, there are no awkward pleasantries and no deflections.

Ren talks about his University days, about his current musical collaborations, and about the loft he’s renting on the Waterfront. Hux takes each detail Ren reveals about himself and hoards it greedily, unsure when he ever cared so much about another person’s life before this moment. It feels like Hux is being gifted with something precious, even if Ren talks so freely. Even if this is just how he is with everyone, Hux cherishes it as something new. For him, it is.

They finish eating, but the words keep coming. It’s easy to simply exist with Ren near him again. To relax into his presence.

Ren’s dark gaze searches his face when they fall into a quiet patch. “Jeez, Hux. You look cold.” He steps closer to Hux, blocking the wind with his body. He has always been big and broad. Even now, in his layers, Hux feels small in comparison. Ren makes a questioning noise when Hux doesn’t answer. Cold? He had been cold -- it had been seeping slowly into his bones ever since he finished eating -- but now, with Ren so close to him, Hux can’t quite remember how to feel cold at all.

“We could go somewhere,” Ren suggests. “Where it’s not so cold.” He reaches over and adjusts Hux’s scarf for him, casually inserting himself into Hux’s space just like he used to. “We could go to mine? I have tea, I think. And coffee.”

The allure of warmth sounds good. The promise of warm beverages, even better. But it feels wrong, somehow. Unbalanced.

“No,” Hux swallows. This has to be right. He cannot keep taking from Ren the way he used to, and give nothing in return. They are adults. Life is stable and sturdy and pleasant. And while Hux has never felt the need before, he has so much to give and also the ability to do so now. Even if the future holds little for them other than the fate of casual acquaintances, which is perhaps the most likely scenario, Hux can at least make it an equal exchange. “I’d appreciate it if I could show you where I live.” He pauses. He’s never particularly felt at a loss for words before. “I’d like to. I have some art I think you might like.” Art that reminds him of Ren, art that he’d only bought because he couldn’t see anything else when he looked at it other than a memory from his earlier years.

Ren smiles, and it’s a crooked, beautiful thing. “I’d like that.”

--

They take the subway and walk the rest of the way, because Ren scoffs at the idea of taking an Uber to somewhere as close as Lower Manhattan, Hux . Somehow, Hux isn’t surprised. He doesn’t complain, though, as it seems more right to meander there on foot with Ren. It’s comfortable, and Hux can feel himself enjoying it -- hoping that it’ll happen again. He’d like to be friends with Ren, acquaintances even; asking for anything else other than the baseline seems farfetched. It’s impossible even now, that Ren is here and next to him again, so Hux doesn’t want anything more.

He doesn’t know how to want something more.

Bringing someone who isn’t Phasma into his condo during the light of day is a trip, though. Hux hasn’t brought anyone here who wasn’t fumbling at him in the dark, distracted, and then kicked out again in the middle of the night, for as long as he can remember. Perhaps it was the decorators that he last had as sober company in his space.

“God, Hux, these views. You have the whole floor?”

It’s difficult, to not let his chest swell with pride, but Hux manages. “I do.” He worked very hard to make it to this point in his life. Looking back, the teenager who sat on the rocky beach with Ren never would have thought he’d end up here, with a view to rival the gods. “The storms are magnificent.”

“Are they? You’ll have to call me next time one rolls in.” The sky is an even grey with early winter snow, now. There’s not a patch of the usual brilliant blue of his vistas in sight. The dull expanse of it hardly bothers Hux anymore, with the dark figure of Ren standing silhouetted by his windows.

--

“I didn’t think you’d listen to it, you know.”

“Did you think the technology was beyond me, Ren? Or that I’d only deign to listen to classical music?”

“Bit of both.”

“-- I enjoyed it. Tremendously. You’re actually very talented.”

“Now it just sounds like you’re lying through your teeth.”

“I’m not. I truly enjoyed it.”

“-- Thank you. I’m glad you did.”

--

“Do you still keep excessively nice whiskey around?” Ren asks. Somehow, he’s stayed for a few hours now, settling into one of Hux’s favorite chairs. He had roamed around the condo for a while, like an animal patrolling its territory, rifled through some of the books on Hux’s shelf, and then eventually relaxed enough to sit still.

They had talked, some. They also had sat in long stretches of companionable silence.

It’s easy, settling back into their subtle friendship. The new and tender bloom of it is enough. Ren, with his warmth and his gravity, is a presence Hux wants to greedily keep around in whatever way possible. It’s a strange feeling, new and foreign, but it’s also remarkably pleasant.

“I always do.”

He could want more, if he allowed himself to, but Hux is not a man who sets himself up for disappointment. He is not a man who forces his hand. This is not a situation in which he is willing to risk anything.

When Hux looks, Ren’s dark eyes are on him. “You should pour us some. In celebration of this not being horrendous like last time.” He smirks, and Hux feels terribly fond.

“I’m sorry, you know,” Ren says when Hux stands and makes his way over to the bar on the opposite side of his living room. “You just surprised me, is all. I hadn’t seen you in ten years, and there you were. Right in front of me.” Hux pulls the glasses out and selects a whiskey while he listens with his back to Ren, though he doesn’t feel like Ren owes him any apology. “You were right there, and I had no idea what to do.”

“Yes, well.” Hux has spent a while thinking about this whole thing. He pours the whiskey while he talks. “I shouldn’t have approached it the way I did. I should have been up front with Finn, and I should have asked for your contact information myself.” He caps the bottle and puts it down. “I should have just called.” When he turns, both of the glasses in his hands, Ren is right there behind him, looming. Hux’s breath catches in his throat.

“Maybe.” Ren takes the glasses out of Hux’s hands and sets them down on the bar behind him. He’s so close Hux can smell him, can feel the heat from his body. It’s intoxicating, and he hasn’t even had a sip of whiskey.

He remembers feeling so small next to Ren, so much like a sapling growing under the dappled light under a solid oak. Ren has grown; he is bigger, broader, stronger. But so has Hux. When warm fingers wrap around his wrist, Hux feels secure -- less fragile. He doesn’t fear Ren snapping his bones, but he still wants him to. He wants selfishly for Ren to grip him tighter, to pull him closer. Mercifully, Ren provides just what Hux wants, as he always has. “Your bones are still so small,” Ren breathes out, his fingertips reverently glancing over Hux’s carpels like his bones are a rosary. Hux shivers.

“Like a bird’s?” He says, repeating words he’s heard in his memories thousands upon thousands of times before.

“Always,” Ren pushes him against the bar and fits their lips together, easy and inevitable. Warmth floods into Hux, sliding down his chest and filling him, blossoming out into all the places Ren has touched him. They kiss, and something slots into place between Hux’s ribs. It feels right, a conclusion to a story long neglected.

Immediately, Hux needs more. He finds himself kissing back with passion he didn’t know he possessed, finds himself tugging Ren toward his bedroom. “Please,” he begs. He must have more of Ren, needs to work a space open inside himself for this.

Ren follows him, eyes dark and hungry, his hand clasped tightly in Hux’s own.

“Please,” Hux pleads into Ren’s neck, into his mouth, and into the sheets bunching underneath them. It becomes a mantra, a prayer; it feels like salvation, and Ren, his savior. Ren listens, and gives, and Hux feels his foundation shake apart underneath steady hands. When the world stabilizes, he feels everything slot together just right.

Later, Ren lies next to him, spent and sated and solid. His eyes never leave Hux, drinking him in like he can’t get enough. The city breathes on underneath them, an expanse of lights outside the windows, bathing them both in the faintest of lights.

“I missed you.”

“I know,” Hux says, remembering the interview, remembering skipping rocks and skipping class. Remembering the careful press of their first kiss that lingered on his lips for a decade. He missed Ren too. It’s so clear, now.

Ren shifts, and for a moment Hux thinks he may leave, but he moves back against the pillows, settling in. He reaches out and pulls Hux close against him, holding him firm. One of his hands settles around Hux’s wrist. His fingers slowly run over the bones underneath his freckled skin.

Ren’s lips ghost over Hux’s hair. When he speaks, his words are a near-whisper, “I’ll always be here, Hux. Wherever thou may’st roam, like a beacon guards thee home.”

Hux sighs, turning so his breath glances across Ren’s collarbone. He slots his teeth along the bone before he kisses him there, tasting sweat and memories.

“Don’t butcher the poem, Ren.”