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The dark behind his eyelids was warm, comforting - he was conscious only of the music he held in his hands, the way the orchestra pulsed and responded. A tiny flick of his index and there was a flute, and then the clarinet joining it, and the piano underneath, steady triplets that felt like gravity holding it all together. The strings were a warm bath around all of it and he was lifted, cradled in it, soaring -

A hand tapped his shoulder and Hux jerked upright, flailing slightly. Phasma stood in front of him, grinning. He pulled his headphones off and the music fell away, though it still echoed, ghostly and tinny, from around his neck.

“Prep time’s over, Maestro,” she said. She had her violin tucked under her arm and her sheet music folder. “I think our sectional went well, though no-one is thanking you; the violin parts are awful. I passed the brass on the way to find you and they’re sounding good - seems like Thanisson worked the kinks out of that passage the horns were botching.”

Hux nodded. “Good.”

She looked at him expectantly, as though there was more. He gave her back the look that said she was just going to have to ask. After this many years playing together, they hardly even needed to speak to communicate.

“So did the music committee tell you what the board wants for the gala concert? I mean, I assume, since you’re buried in…” She listened for a second. “Is that… Rachmaninoff?”

Hux nodded. “It is. They want a crowd-pleaser. I’m driving - Snoke will still be in Belgium, so they’ve dropped the gala in my lap and I have to make the donors cry tears of money. Which means Rachmaninoff, apparently.”

“Rach 2?” Phasma smiled reminiscently. They’d done that one before, in uni, the year when she had been principal second violin and he had been the first flute. “I like that.”

“2 and 3,” Hux said. “They’ve hired some young hotshot who’s making a career out of Rach, apparently, and we’re doing 3 for the first half, then Romeo and Juliet and 2 for the second half. And then they shower us with enough cash to make up next season’s funding.”

“Who’s the hotshot?” Phasma offered him her free hand and he pulled himself up out of the armchair he’d insisted on keeping in his tiny dressing room slash office slash bolt-hole. It was his favourite score prep armchair.

“Ah, Kylo Ren? Never heard of him, I’m afraid. Juilliard, recentish, apparently got the magic touch? He’ll be turning up in a few weeks.”

They walked out to the stage together, and the orchestra all sat up a little straighter. Phasma patted him on the shoulder, and took the podium to cue Unamo for the tuning A while he dug through his satchel of scores for his baton and the Tchaikovsky.

Phasma was methodical and the orchestra were too, and he ascended the podium as she arranged herself under his left hand.

“Thank you everyone,” he said, loud enough to carry. “I’m told everything went well with your sectionals this morning. The Tchaikovsky, as you would know by now, is for the gala in May. I don’t expect us to have any trouble with it. It’s a big showpiece, we all know the tune, and everyone gets to shine so everyone’s mum can clap at the end, that sort of thing.”

He enjoyed the flutter of chuckles from the musicians and then continued. “The repertoire committee have decided that the rest of the program won’t tax us too badly - they’ve hired a piano soloist by the name of Kylo Ren, who is apparently Juilliard and very good, and we’ll be doing Rachmaninoff 2 and 3. The librarians should have all the music ready by the break so if you would all go and collect your parts that would be much appreciated.”

He steepled his hands on the music stand in front of him and tried to look every single person in the eye. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, either, that EOS is looking at a drastic funding shortfall next season if we don’t impress the donors. So please, for the love of Mahler, swot up on this - I know you’re all professionals but we need to sound like the Berlin Philharmonic on the night.”

“Is that why you’re going for Karajan’s haircut, sir?” Mitaka called, from the clarinet riser.

Hux patted his hair down a little bit. The headphones never did him any favours, but their sound quality was unmatched.

“I can find a new first clarinettist in six weeks, Mitaka,” he said pleasantly. “Anyway, Herbert von Karajan was an extremely handsome man.”

Mitaka grinned. At his elbow, so did Phasma, who clearly remembered the long night they’d once spent lying on the floor in Hux’s dorm room, listening to the Philharmonic under Karajan making magic out of Beethoven, while Hux waved his hands along and babbled about how much of a crush he had on the iconic conductor. He’d had a poster of Karajan up next to his desk. Phasma had seen him kiss it. It was a measure of how very good a person she was that to his knowledge, no member of his current orchestra was aware of that.

“Let’s get on with it,” Hux said, and tapped his baton sharply on the edge of the stand. “The Tchaik, please, and we’ll start from B.”

----

Hux had always known he would be a conductor. His father had been the leader of his regimental band, and some of Hux’s earliest memories were of sitting in the bleachers of the gymnasium where they rehearsed and waving his hands, pretending that they were following him just as much as his father.

When he was old enough, they’d put him into music lessons, and he’d found something of a niche. He was a skinny, pale child without many friends or any particularly obvious athletic ability, so staying inside and practicing was perhaps not as much of an ordeal for him as some. He played piano well enough, and enjoyed the counterpoint of more than one note at a time, but never was it quite as satisfying as the majestic swathe of tone of an orchestra.

The next step, of course, had been a band - there was no youth orchestra in his town, but the regimental band had a junior group, and they needed a flautist, and Hux found himself in the front row, in a natty uniform, increasing his lung capacity one march at a time.

University had beckoned, and off he had gone on a scholarship, with his flute and the old baton he had stolen from his father’s office when he’d bought a new one. He’d thrown himself into his conducting classes like they were the secret to eternal life, and perhaps, in some way, they were. He lived for nothing but the day they’d finally let him up on the podium.

When it came, near the end of his second year, he’d worried for days about it - it was a one-month rehearsal, one-show gig deal with the university orchestra, most of whom knew the awkward, skinny ginger kid from their theory class or maybe as the one who always knew the answers in history. He’d felt like a fraud up there in front of them, with his hair flopping in his eyes, sweating through his shirt.

Right up until he’d given them the downbeat, and there they’d been, hanging on the end of his baton. And there they were, all afternoon, and by the end of rehearsal it was starting to sound like something.

He’d gone back to his dorm, curled up under his blanket and wept with sheer relief. It had been all right. He could do it.

Phasma had met him for dinner that night. The tall blonde violinist had been in his mandatory small-ensemble class during winter term and they had bonded over how much they both hated the Mozart quartets they’d been required to perform.

“It’s a meringue,” Hux had said, leaning on the piano. “Frilly, airy. No real substance.”

“And too many notes besides,” Phasma had agreed. “Let’s do Schubert next term if they’ll let us.”

From that moment on, they had been platonically and musically inseparable. Phasma was a performance major, working her way to what he was sure would be a solid professional orchestral career. She was the best sightreader Hux had ever met, and he bagged her for everything he could. She repaid the favour by hiring him, with actual money (something in fairly short supply at that point in Hux’s life), to accompany her for all her recitals.

But this night, she had had news too.

“I got a job offer,” she said quietly. “The Erste Orden Sinfonie. They want to let me stay, finish my degree - they know I have two years left. I’ll be backstopping in the first violins for now, with a full programme over the summer. But there’s a chance…” She swallowed. “If I do all right and they like me, I could make concertmistress in a couple of years. Their current concertmaster has let them know they’ve got two seasons and he’s retiring.”

Hux had heard of EOS. They’d been around for awhile, in some form or other. They’d been called the Imperial Light Orchestra but that name had not aged very well, and they’d gone under, then resurrected themselves with donor funding and government arts grants as EOS.

“It’s a terrific offer,” he told her sincerely. “I think you’d be mad not to take it.”

“You won’t be jealous?”

“I would be a terrible concertmistress,” he said, and smiled at her. “Far better you.”

“You know what I mean, though.” She patted his wrist. “I know how much you want to get out there and just do it.”

“I will, though,” he said. “There aren’t so many conducting jobs floating around. I’ll get there.”

Phasma had begun putting down roots, knowing where she was staying. But the day after her grad recital, which Hux had accompanied on both flute and piano, he was on a plane to Europe. He’d bounced around there, for a couple of years - done his M.Mus in Germany, thought about a PhD, interned here and there. There had been guesting jobs, one or two months at most, and a somewhat disastrous summer youth orchestra program, during which Hux had decided that teenagers were just as shitty as they had been when he was one and that was that.

He was perennially almost broke, he had one suit that was fit to go on stage, and he’d been living out of a series of suitcases for so long that he had nearly forgotten what it was like to just know where your bed was.

He was on stage, with an audience at his back and an orchestra at his feet, at least two nights a week.

He was the happiest he’d ever been.

But it wasn’t sustainable, and he was starting to put out feelers. Someone, somewhere, had to want a sabbatical.

The offer, when it came, was almost completely unexpected - and yet inevitable, somehow.

“Maestro Hux?” The voice on the other end of the phone was crackly with distance.

“Yes,” he said. “Speaking.”

“My name is Carmen Laguerta,” she said. “I’m representing the board of directors of the Erste Orden Sinfonie, under Bernard Snoke.”

“How can I help you?” He sat back in his chair.

“Maestro Snoke has been offered an opportunity to take a year in charge of the National Orchestra of Belgium, and when we were discussing possible candidates to fill his spot for the year, our concertmistress Jeanne Phasma suggested we might get in touch with you.”

He felt warm. “Oh yes. Phasma and I worked together very frequently at university, when we were doing our B.Mus.”

“So she told us. In fact, she spoke very highly of you. We realise that we are not a high-profile organisation, Maestro, but would you be interested?”

He looked at his suitcase, and the walls of the hotel room, and said, “I think I would be very interested, yes.”

----

He’d been expecting to have been sent on his way by now. The board was fairly possessive about the gala, given the amount of money they expected to raise, and they’d asked Snoke to come back for it. But he had replied, just barely in time for rehearsals to begin: he was still required in Belgium and was certain Hux was up to the task.

There had been, then, a further offer. Snoke was enjoying Belgium. If, in fact, the board was pleased, and the gala went well, he was quite content to allow Hux to remain for an indeterminate amount of time, possibly for good. If, however, it pleased the board to remove Maestro Hux from his position, Snoke would return.

He supposed the axe had been over his head all along, but it was somehow so much worse to feel it now, hanging a hair’s-breadth off his neck as he revised the scores. The idea that perhaps it wasn’t inevitable that he would leave, after all; the orchestra a dangling prize, held up on the thinnest thread, his for the taking. And the abyss waiting under it if he misjudged.

He spent hours with as many recordings of the concertos as he could find, headphones on and baton in hand, hoping to get a sense of how this mysterious Kylo Ren might play. All the places where he would have to be elastic, all the things he had to prepare the orchestra for - it was so difficult to rehearse a concerto without having ever heard the soloist. He did his best. There was a generally accepted middle ground for tempos, and his piano skills, though perhaps not soloist-calibre, were plenty good enough for him to be able to look at the murderously complicated piano score and imagine where Ren might need more, or less, room.

He’d done most of the shouting he felt he would need to do in the first two weeks of rehearsals. There had been tension, just shy of outright rebellion, in the upper brass for a while; Finn, his first trumpet, was incredibly talented, but unhappy in the straight-laced atmosphere of EOS and vocally displeased with his contract. Things had come to a head, and Finn had told Hux exactly what he thought of him and stormed out before Thanisson the first horn could throw him out. Hux had heard he’d joined up with Poe Dameron’s big band and seemed much happier, but it had been a headache he had not needed and he had worked the rest of his musicians perhaps harder than he had had cause to, until he felt better. There had been extra sectionals every week, with Thanisson leading the trumpets too in the absence of anyone else Hux trusted. On Thanisson’s advice, Rodinon had received a hasty field promotion from 3TP to 1TP and they’d hired a session player for the occasion to fill out the section until they could get a permanent replacement. It would be all right. They were starting to gel.

He’d kept the extra sectionals on the schedule, though. Having established discipline, Hux was not one to let it slide. Even though he had heard Mitaka last week, in the woodwinds’ dressing room, bellowing in his best English accent, “The sectionals will continue until morale improves!”

It was all right. They didn’t have to like him, just so long as they respected his authority.

(The tiny, sneaking suspicion that most of them actually did like him was something he kept to himself, like a delicate filigree piece that might tarnish on too much exposure to air.)

He thought, quietly, when no-one was around to catch him out, that EOS might genuinely have improved under his guidance. Snoke was a fine conductor, but old, and set in his ways, and too fond of them to change. Hux had shaken things up just enough to break up the sediments, bring flavours out that the audiences had not experienced in a while.

If this was to be his last hurrah, it would be a fine one. But perhaps… it was possible that he’d put enough into this to get them all over the line.

Soon he would know.

The orchestra had rented a Steinway, as per Kylo Ren’s rider, and it had been sitting lonely at the back corner of the stage for a couple of days, acclimatizing to the theatre and settling. They’d had it tuned and would have it tuned again before Ren arrived, but in the meantime, it was mostly just something for Datoo the timpanist to duck around. But Hux had been eyeing it for several days, and once it had been tuned, after rehearsal, he bribed the stage manager with a nice bottle of wine to leave him to lock up.

It was a gorgeous piano. He stroked it almost reverently as he slid its padded cover off, put the lid up, pulled the bench out and slid in. He’d been bashing through the Rach 2, on his own, just for fun and because he’d always liked it. Now, in front of this magnificent instrument, it was all he could think of to play that was worthy of it. He started in on the slow, graceful arpeggios of the second movement - the Adagio sostenuto.

The chords rang through the empty theatre, achingly crystallinely beautiful, and he closed his eyes and let the end of a phrase hang in the air.

Perhaps he could have been a concert pianist, he thought, rolling the next chord under his hand, letting it, too, breathe. Could have been the one in the immaculate tails, in front of this Steinway, with someone else watching from the podium -

But that was where it fell apart, and his laugh echoed as the piano did. He took his foot off the sustain pedal and smiled. He knew where he belonged. He’d always known that. There was more to life than one piano.

He put the Steinway to bed, tucking it in like a child. “Never mind,” he said to it. “Ren will be here soon.”

----

He was backstage, in the warren of corridors that led to the dressing rooms in one direction and the smaller rehearsal rooms in the other, when Mitaka came running.

The little clarinettist was very red in the face. “Maestro, there’s an arsehole at the door who says he’s important and needs to see you. I told him to wait for the stage manager but…” He shrugged tightly. “Apparently I looked like a good enough messenger.”

“Never mind,” Hux said. “Thank you. I’ll go deal with it.” He drew himself up to his full height, which he knew very well was not inconsiderable, and adjusted his jacket. He would look every inch the conductor.

He stalked towards the stage door, where some sort of ruckus was indeed occurring. “There you are,” said a voice - brash, American, deep.

It seemed to belong to some sort of overgrown adolescent with his hair in his face and a half-dozen agitated hangers-on trailing behind him with cases.

“I am Maestro Hux, if that is who you think I am,” Hux said, letting ice form on every syllable.

“Yeah,” said the American. “I saw your picture on the webpage, you’re hard to miss with that hair. I’m Kylo Ren. Where’s my dressing room?”

“You’re early,” Hux said, still icy. “We weren’t expecting you until this afternoon.”

“Whatever.” Ren shrugged, smiled insolently. “I’m here. And we have all our stuff.”

“Who is ‘we’?” Hux asked.

Ren ticked them off on his extraordinarily long fingers - that explained the Rachmaninoff fixation, Hux supposed, though he was almost surprised that with those hands Ren hadn’t gone for Liszt. “This is Jerry, my driver; Lauren, my hairstylist; Jordan, my valet; Simon, my music assistant; Darla, my personal assistant; and Harry, my piano tuner.”

Six of them. “We have piano tuners in this city, you know,” Hux felt compelled to point out.

“Can’t be too careful.” Ren looked down the hallway, past Hux. “Ah. Dressing rooms.” He walked right past Hux as though he wasn’t actually standing there.

Hux had to take one or two very quick steps to catch up with Ren, whose legs were as improbably long as his fingers. “We allocated you a single dressing room,” he said quickly, “there’s not an enormous amount of space back here, and -”

Ren had seen the door which, thankfully, because the stage manager was on top of her job, already had his name on it. He opened the door. “Oh no,” he said, “this won’t work at all.”

Phasma was coming up the hall. “Maestro, hello,” she said; an avenging angel could not have looked more beautiful. “And you must be Kylo Ren. I’m Phasma, the concertmistress.”

Ren grabbed her hand and shook it, hard. “It’s Jeanne, isn’t it? I read your bio, and -”

“It’s Phasma,” she corrected, and she did the ice almost as well as Hux. “I see Maestro has shown you to your dressing room.”

“Well, he’s shown me this closet, which is not going to be big enough for my team to work in, as I’m sure you can see.” Ren tried, God help him, to look winsome. “I don’t suppose there’s a larger one anywhere we could use?”

Phasma and Hux shared a long look. “I suppose,” she said eventually, “that you might have mine, if that would work.”

“That would be really nice,” Ren said, and that face simply wasn’t built for the smile he was trying to put on it. “Where is it?”

“It’s down here,” Phasma said, and led them back the way she had come.

In the end, Hux had to have a very quiet conversation with Thanisson and the rest of the upper brass, out in the hall. A dressing room for eight people was large enough for Ren and his six. The brass would take Phasma’s room, which was admittedly spacious enough, but she needed space to warm up and she had a lot of reach with a bow in her hand.

“You can room with me,” Hux told Phasma, who looked fairly steamed. “It’ll be like old times.”

“It won’t bother you when I’m playing?” She shook her head. “I don’t want to throw you off your game.”

“Phasma, you couldn’t bother me if you tried.” Hux attempted to smile for her, though he didn’t feel much like smiling. “It’s only for six rehearsals. We’ll be fine.”

Not content with talking down to his first clarinet and inconveniencing his concertmistress, Ren then proceeded to alienate Hux’s stage manager and all of the stagehands by insisting that the piano be moved at once so that Harry could tune it, which meant striking half the chairs and stands so there was space. Which, of course, meant that rehearsal was not likely to start on time, and of all of the things that Hux disliked, one of the worst was when rehearsal couldn’t start on time. People had places to be, and there were schedules, and there were reasons for those schedules. But Kylo Ren was above schedules.

When they finally got most of the orchestra on stage, they were already running twenty minutes behind. Hux took the podium and tapped for silence. “This was meant to be a full run-through of the Tchaik, but as you can see, our soloist has arrived this morning instead of this afternoon, so we’ll be running the Rach 2 instead. Would everyone please welcome Kylo Ren to the stage.”

At the piano, Ren stood, and bowed. Up on the clarinet riser, Mitaka was still very red, and the applause from the violins was distinctly lukewarm, but it was enough that Hux didn’t feel he needed to extract more enthusiasm from his people.

“I think, given that there hasn’t been time for any sort of warm-up,” Hux said, “it might be wise to start with the second movement. For everyone’s sake.”

“Do you not think I can do this?” Ren said, from behind the piano. “... Maestro.” He must have looked at Phasma.

“I think,” Hux said, very very carefully, “that we will start with the second movement, Mr. Ren. If you don’t mind.”

His first flautist, Nastia Tarkin, a woman both terrifying and terrifyingly good, smiled her sharp-edged smile. No-one, not even him, had ever managed to intimidate her, and in this moment he was fiercely glad of it. “I’m ready, Maestro.”

Mitaka nodded too, though he had his reed in his mouth and didn’t speak. The two of them, Mitaka especially, had the high-payoff solos in this movement, so if they were up to it then it should be fine. He’d heard Mitaka working on the solo earlier and it had been excellent, buttery smooth and roundly rich.

“From the top, then.” He watched Mitaka slip his reed into place and tighten the ligature before he brought his hands up and felt everyone snap to attention.

Phasma was watching him, and her loyal army of violinists was watching her. He breathed in with the upbeat, a gentle curve, and down.

Lush. Perfect. Everyone precisely where he wanted them. He could feel Ren’s eyes on him, and it didn’t matter, because there were all of the layers of strings like a sweet cushion, and then Ren hit his first chord.

Ren’s eyes slipped closed for a moment, as he leaned into his arpeggios, and Hux let himself, just for a moment, enjoy it. Ren put the perfect amount of weight on each note, let the music carry itself along, and Hux guided the river gently with his right hand, half an eye on Tarkin, who knew her cue.

Her flute soared above Ren’s careful, considered arpeggios, and Hux almost smiled, almost, and gave Mitaka the nod to take the pass and carry it on.

And there he was, and -

His third note, the downbeat of the main theme, cracked into a squeak. Mitaka gulped for breath and hit it on the second try, but Ren was already frowning.

Never mind. Hux nodded reassuringly at Mitaka; they wouldn’t stop.

The motif repeated again, but lower, and this time he was flawless, every note dripping honey, and Hux wanted to grin. This, this was his orchestra, a collection of talented professionals, every bit a match for this giant-handed child.

Back to the original motif, and he nailed it, and Tarkin’s flute section slid smoothly in for the descant, and that was it for the exposed bits now. Some lovely rippling-water arpeggios, Mitaka’s speciality, and Ren looked up at him again -

- squeak.

Ren growled, and mashed several keys, and Hux whirled to stare at him, cutting the orchestra off without thinking.

“Mr. Ren?” Hux asked, in the tone of voice he had used on his summer-camp teenagers. “Would you mind not staring at my clarinettist?”

“I’m sorry, Maestro,” Ren drawled, lazy and dangerous. “I thought this was a professional orchestra.”

Hux saw Mitaka duck his head behind the cover of his stand, furiously undoing his ligature and ripping out the treacherous reed.

“And I thought you were a professional soloist,” Hux snapped back, because he would not have his people insulted and stand by and do nothing. “But from everything I’ve seen from you so far today, that would appear not to be the case, so perhaps you should not be so quick to judge someone on what I’m sure is merely a faulty reed.” Mitaka had not re-emerged from behind his stand, and Mandetat the bassoonist was now whispering something inaudible to him. “Mitaka,” Hux said, much more gently, “if you didn’t bring a spare reed out with you, go get one from the dressing room. We’ll move on and come back to this later.”

“Yes, Maestro,” Mitaka said, his voice muffled, and he made a very hasty dash into the wings, clutching his clarinet like a club, without turning his face back to Kylo Ren.

Hux knew Mitaka had a film canister full of reeds with him nearly all the time. Including now. He was just glad Mitaka was smart enough to take a hint.

“Well.” Hux tapped his baton for order and glared at Ren. “Since you were so certain you wanted to start from the top, let’s do that instead.”

“Fine by me,” Ren said, readjusted himself on the bench and without even waiting for Hux, he started the ponderous, menacing block chords of the first movement, attacking each harder and harder, every one a musical middle finger.

On the podium, Hux seethed, and made very damn sure that as the tumbling boulders of the arpeggiated runs started, he was on the beat and ready with the cue to the strings. Phasma and her violins were always to be relied upon.

The first movement of the Rachmaninoff 2 in anyone’s hands stretched and pulled like taffy. It was meant to; Hux was fairly sure that there was no way that anyone could push that many notes into some of those bars without allowing a little give. But Ren seemed to be waiting for any moment when Hux felt like he had at last seized the tempo, and bucking him off with a sudden rubato. It was like trying to stand on the deck of a small sailboat in a large storm.

Everything sounded sloppy, squishy-edged, and not at all how it had just the day before when they’d run it without Ren. He gritted his teeth and just imagined Ren was a recording that he would understand soon, whose tricks he would catalogue until he knew them all, and hung on.

And then the orchestra fell away from under the piano, and it was just Ren, rocking back and forth on the bench like a man possessed, playing one of the most beautiful pieces of music Hux had ever heard as though it was pouring directly from his soul.

All right. Fine. The overgrown child was good.

Very good.

Even if he did keep losing the beat.

They careened through it, into the fiery brass and military finery of the middle section, and through that into more glistening arpeggios that slowed, and slowed, and Thanisson was ready for the horn solo, perfect, beautiful, was there anything like a French horn at its lofty best?

And then it was a downhill tumble, faster, now, louder, harder, and everyone was with him as he whipped the baton through the air, and a triumphant tumble into the sudden end.

He caught his breath, along with Kylo Ren and everyone else.

Mitaka was back on the edge of the wings, looking freshly washed. Hux gestured him back in, and he scurried to his seat.

“That… will get better,” Hux said. “Thank you, everyone. Ren, you and I are going to have to work on your rubato until I understand where you intend to put the downbeats.”

“Don’t worry,” Ren said, smirking from behind the lid of the piano. “You’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

Hux narrowed his eyes.

“Maestro,” Ren added, and somehow that was worse, somehow it carried all the weight of you are the guest conductor, you’re not even the real conductor, my name’s the one on the front of the programme and who the fuck do you think you are anyway?

Hux would ignore him. He would ignore this impertinent teenager, and he would get on with doing his job, like an adult, and he would absolutely not throw his entire score squarely at Kylo Ren’s head.

----

“Do you need me to punch him for you?” Phasma’s hand rested at the base of Hux’s neck. He was slumped in his score prep armchair, with his head in his hands. It was now two days before the concert, and they only had two more runs at Rach 2, including the dress rehearsal, before he would have to give up and admit it all sounded like spaghetti bolognese. This evening would be their last crack at the Tchaikovsky before dress. At least that was shaping up fine, with no interference.

He was frankly surprised she hadn’t already made good on her offer. Ren had lost his temper that morning upon being asked to repeat the same passage a third time, because Hux could not seem to find any rhyme or reason in where he was putting the phrasing in relation to where the winds had to come in, and they always seemed to end on the wrong foot.

The shouting that had followed would have been bad enough, but when he’d decided to punctuate the tantrum by seizing Phasma’s music stand and dumping its contents squarely into her lap and the lap of her stand partner, then flinging the heavy black Manhasset stand out over the front three rows of seats to land with a clang, wedged into the fourth row… well. It was an awfully good thing Ren had then disappeared into the wings in a huff, and Hux had watched Phasma swallow her anger like too large a chunk of bread, and help her stand partner collect the drift of sheet music as one of the other first violins laid down her instrument and went to retrieve the music stand.

“Save your hands,” Hux said, and looked up at her. “Phasma, what have we done to be so punished?”

“These Rens are sent to try us,” she said, surprisingly philosophically. “He’s an arsehole kid, you do know that. He’s all mouth and no trousers. Juilliard or no, you’re worth fifteen of him.”

“But if this concert doesn’t come off, I’m the one who’s going to lose my job,” Hux said, into his hands again.

“That is unfortunately true, yes.” Phasma perched on the arm of his chair. “The way I see it, Maestro Hux: you will have to work with him, for another four rehearsals, and one concert. And you can do that, because I have seen you go all semester without punching someone who really deserved it. And I, also, can do that, although I reserve the right to break both his legs if he puts a scratch on my violin.” She began loosening off her bow. “And then, once that curtain falls, we can get on every message board we know and have him blacklisted.”

Hux gazed up at her admiringly. “You never fail to astonish me.”

“I am quite amazing,” she said, with a grin, as she stood up to slide her bow into her case, secured it and locked the case shut. “I’ll see you at seven - and it’s Tchaik tonight, he won’t be there. Do make sure you get something to eat, though. Difficult people, like antibiotics, will make you sick if taken on an empty stomach.”

She was, of course, right. He should go out. There was a shop not too far away that did very decent sandwiches.

He could get one, and then come back and eat it here, and look at the scores for the Rach 3 one more time, because that one was much harder than the Rach 2 which everyone knew anyhow, and -

His dressing room door burst open.

“Hux,” said Kylo Ren. He looked agitated, and he was waving the draft programme they’d put into his information packet. “There’s been a mistake, with the programme. Do you know if they’ve gone to print yet?”

“I don’t know, Ren.” Hux fought the urge to sigh. At least he didn’t have a music stand with him this time. “Why, what’s wrong with it?”

“Well, everything. They’ve put the music in the wrong fucking order.”

“Give me that,” Hux said, panic spiking sharp in his belly, and he snatched the draft programme from Ren’s hands.

He scanned the programme quickly, and felt the spike settle into annoyance. “No, they haven’t,” he said. “That’s perfectly right. See, Third Piano Concerto, intermission, Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, Second Piano Concerto.”

“But it’s not right,” Ren insisted. “What kind of idiot would put 3 before the intermission and 2 after? 3’s the real money shot.”

“For your information, I signed off on that,” Hux said tightly. “Did no-one mention to you that the point of this gala is that it is for the donors to the foundation that sustains us?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ren said. “The better piece should go last.”

“No, it shouldn’t, and I’ll tell you why.” Hux tapped the programme with his index finger. “You are a very talented pianist, and you see this the way a pianist would. Of course you think 3 is better, it’s positively impossible and it shows you off to great effect. But here is what real, ordinary, and I reiterate very wealthy people who are not concert pianists want: the tune they can sing. The piano concerto so bloody popular it’s actually made the top 40. We play 3 last, and they’ll leave impressed, but bewildered. We play 2 last, and they’ll leave singing it, and on their way out they’ll leave us big fat juicy cheques because they love us so much, and then I have a job next year.”

Ren snorted in disgust. “Anyone who panders to their audience deserves to lose their fucking job. Maestro.”

“You will speak to me with respect, Kylo Ren,” Hux said through gritted teeth.

“All you deserve,” Ren sneered. “And I won’t do it. I have some artistic integrity, and unlike you, I also have a reputation to maintain amongst people who matter. I’ll play 3, and I’ll fucking walk at halftime.”

“You will do no such thing,” Hux roared, but Ren had already shut the door behind him.

Hux stood there, in the middle of his dressing room, breathing through his nose, for ten entire minutes until he felt that he could face the world without screaming.

----

The evening’s rehearsal had been much better for Ren’s scheduled absence, and Hux had slept well enough after a sneaky glass of vodka to settle himself down. There was one more entire day, and then the dress rehearsal, and Hux was not one to pray, but he hoped very fervently at the universe as he walked into the theatre that maybe by some miracle the stars would align and everything would be all right.

Everyone was cheerful backstage - Mitaka had recovered fully from his attack of first-day nerves, and had turned in a perfect solo, every solo, every time since that first disaster. He was leaning back in his chair, telling horrible viola jokes, as Hux walked past the dressing rooms.

“Some of my best friends are violists,” Hux called in at him.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Maestro,” Mitaka caroled after him, and he almost felt like smiling too. These were his people, at least for two more days, and nobody could take them from him just yet.

This morning they would run the Rach 2. Exhaustively, until Hux was satisfied. Then, in the evening, the Rach 3, the same way. They were going to sort it out once and for all.

He hit the stage, determined and energised, at 9.59 precisely. He’d heard Phasma tuning them from backstage so apparently everyone felt the same way, and that was encouraging.

He was halfway through the first violins when he realised who was missing.

“Where’s Ren?”

“No-one’s seen him,” Phasma said. “I sent a scout a few minutes ago to make sure he’d be ready to start on time. He’s not in his dressing room and his things aren’t either, and I haven’t seen even one of his ridiculous entourage. Did you know he calls them the Knights? As though he were some sort of King Arthur figure.”

Normally this news would have cheered Hux greatly, but not with rehearsal about to start.

He replayed their argument from the previous afternoon in his head.

I’ll play 3, and I’ll fucking walk at halftime.

His legs suddenly felt rubbery, and he sat down on the piano bench.

Ren wasn’t coming. He wasn’t. Hux knew it.

No. He couldn’t be defeatist. Not yet. Maybe Ren was just caught in traffic, or he’d overslept, like the teenager that he was.

“All right,” Hux said, and swung himself around on the bench. “We have absolutely no time to waste, and as such, I think I’m allowed to get a bit creative. I’m going to do my best imitation of our absent friend, and anyone who laughs at my piano skills will be fired without severance pay, and if you think I don’t mean that I would encourage you not to try me and find out.”

He set his score on the piano, stretched out his fingers, took a very deep breath, and began the first movement.

All things considered, it wasn’t the worst rehearsal. He had simplified the piano score quite considerably, especially during the cadenzas, which given that nobody but Ren needed to know what Ren was playing there until the cues, didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

He had never played the Rach 2 all the way through without stopping, never mind several times over, and at the end of rehearsal he was hideously sweaty and rumpled, his hair falling over his face. But the orchestra had done well, even with his cues being somewhat hidden by the piano, and if he considered what they’d done on its own merits, he was quite proud of them all.

He held onto that just long enough to get himself back to his dressing room.

Then he dropped to his hands and knees, crawled under the bench of the makeup mirror, curled into a ball with his head on his knees, and in the most silent and efficient way he could manage, went entirely to pieces.

Some minutes later, he became aware of Phasma next to him.

“Hey,” she said gently, and reached out to lay her hand on his bicep. “You should have let me punch him.”

It shocked a watery chuckle out of him, and he dragged his forearm across his eyes, which seemed to have become quite damp without any sort of consent from him. “Hindsight,” he said. “Oh, Phasma, what in hell am I going to tell the bloody board? ‘I’m sorry, we’ve lost our soloist, it’s possible our first clarinet shanked him, he probably had it coming.’” He sniffled. “Damn it, I loved this job. I’m not ready to be homeless again. And specifically not because of Kylo fucking Ren.”

“Maestro,” she said, so sad, so kind.

“Don’t,” he choked, and had to put his head back down on his knees.

When he looked up again, she was tucking her violin away in its case, securing the satin and velvet drape over it and smoothing it down.

“Don’t let him get into your head like this,” she said. “You’re not beaten yet. And he’ll probably turn up with some preposterous excuse in time for tonight.”

“I’m sure you’re right about the preposterousness of the excuse,” Hux said. “Everything he bloody does is preposterous.”

“You were terrific this morning.” She leaned on the bench and smiled down at him. “I suppose if he doesn’t turn up for the concert, we’ll just feature you and your case to the board can be all about the added value of having an in-house piano soloist.”

“I would rather die,” he said, with feeling.

He crawled out from under the bench and tried to set himself back in some kind of order. It seemed to be futile.

“Have a shower,” Phasma said. “I’ll see you tonight, all right?”

“All right.”

He surveyed himself bleakly in the mirror. He hated crying, not just because it was antithetical to his image as a ruthless leader, but because even so few tears showed so badly on his face. Nobody would call anyone with magenta splotches all round their eyes Maestro.

One of the few perks of being the conductor was that his dressing room had its own bathroom, with the world’s tiniest shower cubicle. He set it running, colder than he usually liked it, and stood under it for far too long, trying to wash away all of the emotions with the sweat.

He felt better, and more settled, when he got out. He found one of the spare shirts he kept in his cupboard, pushed his wet hair off his face with his fingers, and decided that that would do.

Everyone had packed up, in the break between rehearsals, only a scattering of instrument cases testifying to their owners’ intent to return. He wandered slowly through the backstage, alone in the quiet.

He would miss this. The familiar flicker of the fluorescent bulb at the stage door that management kept saying they would change, and didn’t; the smell of valve oil and rosin and wood and tarnish; the silly cartoon Unamo had clipped out of the local news, saying how the symphony’s main pride was that they played better, and more consistently, than any of the local sports teams. The cartoonist had drawn him into it, all wild hair and tailcoat, with a clipboard saying COACH. He pretended to hate it, but looked at it every time he went past the notice board and felt a tiny flush of pride.

Soon he’d have to leave them all behind, go to another city where they weren’t yet used to him, where he didn’t just know all of his section leaders, where he hadn’t picked out his strongest advocates. And there wouldn’t be Phasma to make the musicians trust him.

Without noticing, his feet on automatic pilot, he’d found his way up to the stage.

The house lights were up and he ambled out, through the empty chairs of the violins, seeing their faces anyway.

That bloody Steinway was looming, a hulking black shape like an elephant at centre stage. It set Hux’s teeth on edge. It was the visual representation of everything that had gone wrong with his orchestra - the way it sat insolently as though it belonged, not caring how it displaced everything around it.

Anxiety fluttered tightly in his chest as he walked up to the piano. He wanted to kick it, punch it, smash it with the fire axe in the wings. Throw it off his stage in shattered pieces and reclaim what was his, damn it, this place was his -

He took a deep breath and forced it all back down.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the piano. “You can’t help it if you’re being played by an arsehole. And neither can I.”

It sat, silent, willing to absorb both his abuse and his contrition.

“Come on, then,” he told it. There was still a knot, under his sternum, a spot like a bruise, and he slid onto the bench and petted the slick white surfaces of the keys with his fingertips.

He didn’t know what he was playing until several bars in, his hands moving more or less of their own accord. It wasn’t the Rach 2. He wasn’t sure he could ever play that again. No, this was the Debussy he’d learned for his own grad recital, Reflets dans l’eau.

It was deep, cool, limpid - the sound of an essentially percussive instrument, this black solidity in front of him, becoming liquid, transparent, notes running off his fingers like rills of spring meltwater down a green hillside. He closed his eyes and let himself disappear into the shimmering pool of the music, let the gentle patter of raindrops collect in the hollow places inside of him; they could pull him and all his worries under the waves, set him free of gravity and keep him safe in the calm, quiet turquoise depths.

The last wide, open chord came too soon, and he eased his foot off the sustain pedal and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

From behind him, someone clapped.

He whirled, and there was Kylo Ren, leaning on the wall between backstage and the stairs down to the front row of seats.

“Bravo,” Ren said, and it was impossible to tell if that was sarcasm or simply the way he spoke. “I thought your experience of music was strictly theoretical, but I see it was not.”

“Fuck you, Kylo Ren.” The words were out before he could stop them, that fluttering knot back and threatening to choke him at any moment. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Ren looked wounded. “Excuse me, I don’t think I like your tone, Maestro. I had a press call, this was planned days in advance.”

“Well, my rehearsal was planned months in advance.” Hux stood, scraping the bench back across the floor with an awful noise. “And you were required to be at it.”

“Well, I’m sorry nobody told you I wouldn’t be,” Ren said defensively.

“Not good enough.” He stalked towards Ren. “What makes you so much better than every other musician in this organisation, that you can blithely decide not to attend rehearsal the day before the fucking show?”

“You wouldn’t speak to my grandfather that way,” Ren spat.

“Why should I care who your precious grandfather is? He’s not playing my show tomorrow.”

“Okay, no, fuck you,” Ren said, and that was real anger on his face now. “My grandfather was Anatol Vaderensky, you uncultured hack. You wish he would have played for you.”

That shot found its mark. Hux did know that name. Everyone, in fact, knew that name.

Ani Vaderensky had been a stunningly talented concert pianist, in his youth, and had fought back despite burn injuries from a terrible car accident in his thirties that had been expected to end his career, if not his life. Had he never been in that accident he would have been amongst the best of his generation. Even so, he had still been something spectacular.

Rachmaninoff had been Vaderensky’s specialty too.

“Well, I wish you would bloody play for me,” Hux said, slightly deflated but still certain he was in the right. “I can’t be expected to turn out a quality performance when you’re fighting me at every step!”

“What’s it to you, anyway,” Ren said scornfully. “It’s not even like this audience will know if it’s bad. You said it yourself. They’re ordinary people who just happen to have a lot of money.”

“And for that we should somehow not do our best?” Hux felt his sanity fraying. “I can’t even believe I’m hearing you speak these words. I’m going to stand up in front of the people who quite literally pay my salary, and turn in a high-school level performance, and expect them to fall all over themselves to allow me to continue talking down to them. Yes, of course, why on Earth didn’t I think of that one before! Good God.” He crumpled into the nearest chair. “I’m going to lose my fucking job, Ren, the single best thing that has ever happened to me apart from Phasma somehow being willing to be friends with me still, and I’ll be disgraced and sullied by it, and all because you think this is beneath you.” He shook his head, desperately pressing his lips together, willing them not to tremble, not now, not in front of him.

“I couldn’t give the slightest of fucks for your professional cohort, or whoever you’re so hell-bent on impressing. Your grandfather would never have disrespected his audience that way.” His voice was so hoarse. “And if you would, you’re nothing like him and you never will be.”

Ren went white.

Hux stood up, and turned his back on Ren, heading back to the piano. “Get off my stage,” he said, and he couldn’t help how the last word broke.

He sat at the piano, motionless, for a long moment before he chanced a glance over his shoulder.

Ren was gone.

He slumped forward, crossed his forearms on the top edge of the piano, leaned his forehead on them, and allowed himself exactly one sob, clamping down on the rest before they got any ideas that this was the way he behaved.

He wouldn’t cry. The tears dripping down his nose and onto the gleaming keys of the Steinway were anomalies - and fuck, he was crying on a Steinway, his life was completely ridiculous.

He would just… stay here, for a little while, with his face hidden in the safe cage of his arms.

It was some time later when he heard heavy steps coming up behind him. The tears had dried, but he’d stayed where he was, trying not to think about anything for long enough that it might stop hurting to think about anything.

“Shove over,” Kylo Ren said, from his left.

“Fuck off,” Hux countered, not raising his head.

“Fine.” Ren squeezed himself onto the bench anyway, sideways, with his back pressed against Hux’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about rehearsal,” he said eventually. He didn’t sound angry anymore. “I did ask Darla to tell you.”

“She didn’t,” Hux said, rather unnecessarily.

Ren made a small noise, neither agreement nor disagreement. Then, after another long pause, “You’re not really going to lose your job, are you?”

“Yes, I am.” Hux tried to keep the anger out of it, leave it safely banked, but all there was to fill its place was hopelessness and resignation. “If the gala fails, our board is at liberty to terminate my contract immediately. They want the former conductor back, anyhow, and I know it. They don’t think I’m prestigious enough, I was just a stopgap. They’ll jump at the excuse to give me the sack. But it’s not just me.” He swallowed. “The whole orchestra could lose their jobs. We have so little money without our donors. I don’t know how they can even afford to pay you.”

“Oh,” Ren said, the sound of an uncomfortable revelation.

“I’m sorry about what I said about your grandfather,” Hux said, because changing the subject seemed safer. “That was very unprofessional of me and I should never have stooped to it.”

Ren huffed out a tiny laugh. “You just told me to fuck off, and that’s what you’re calling unprofessional.”

“Ah, but I’m not sorry for telling you to fuck off,” Hux said.

Ren sounded like he was smiling. “No. You aren’t.”

It was strange, sitting there, with him. Hux found that he didn’t, particularly, want to move. Part of that was inertia, and another part was that he had been here first; but then there was the part that noted that Ren was warm, and he could feel Ren’s voice in his own ribs, when he spoke.

“You play Debussy to calm down?” Ren said.

“Sometimes.” Hux stared at the keys.

“Hm.” Ren shifted on the bench, and Hux felt Ren’s absurdly long arm reach around his back, his right foot nudge Hux’s away from the pedals.

He picked out the first few notes, a simple melody in the right hand with a swell of an arpeggio under it in the left hand.

Hux frowned at the keyboard. He knew it, and after a few moments he’d placed it - En bateau, the first part of Debussy’s Petite Suite.

“This is for four hands,” he said eventually, when Ren kept playing. “You bloody showoff.”

Ren chuckled, navigating the bass figures that should have properly required two hands without any apparent effort.

“So help me,” he said.

Hux bit gently at the insides of his cheeks, and wondered how big a mistake this was.

Then he sat up, put his hands on the keyboard, and came in at the risoluto.

Ren retracted his right arm and settled into the seconda part, their shoulders bumping, the sides of their hands brushing against each other every so often. He reached under Hux’s hands for the top notes of his runs.

Hux wondered if that was intentional - that he was letting Hux stay ascendant, letting him lead this once. But he raised his palms higher, letting Ren have the space he needed.

They played off each other, into the last graceful section.

Without any discussion, they started the Cortège. Ren’s powerful, delicate touch made easy work of the bouncy counterpoint runs while Hux took the triumphant processional of the treble, in close thirds, then mirrored Ren in octaves, each of them anticipating exactly where the other would be.

Hux hated how much he was enjoying this, how nice it was to just play, and to play alongside someone. Piano was not usually a team sport. But Ren was a good duet partner, shockingly so given how much he’d dictated the flow of the concertos in rehearsal.

Halfway through the Cortège, he noticed they were breathing in unison.

Stop this, said a little voice in the back of his head. Stop this now.

But he didn’t.

The end of the Cortège was clashing church bells, ringing out joy in the morning, and there they were, two men on a bench not nearly big enough for both of them, and Hux looked Ren in the eyes and said, very quietly, “What are we doing?”

“Understanding each other,” Ren said, and there was a softness in his gaze that Hux had never seen there, and suddenly wanted to see again. “We’re obviously no good at doing it with words. But this… this is okay, right?”

Hux bit his lower lip.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s okay.”

Ren smiled, and somehow Hux didn’t hate it.

“Come on,” he said, “there’s still two more movements.”

The prima led off the Menuet, and Hux felt as though he had Ren by the hand, guiding him through the intricate steps of the dance.

“I don’t know who you are,” he said, as they dived into the Ballet, “or what you’ve done with Ren, but please, keep him.”

Ren laughed. This was good, Hux thought, so good, where had it all come from?

“I’m trying something new,” Ren said, and leaned into Hux as they hit the waltz section.

It felt like they were racing each other through to the end, the last two big chords, and before Hux quite knew it it was over.

Ren's shoulder was still pressed against his, the feeling of his arm next to Hux's present, warm, companionable. Not a challenge, just… there.

“I like this new thing,” Hux said. “Much better than the old thing.”

Ren looked at his hands. “I was being a dick. You were right about Grandfather.”

Hux ducked his head too. “Well… you were, yes. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have said it more nicely.”

“Eh.” Ren waved the statement away. “At a certain point someone needs to tell it like it is. I sometimes get… tunnel vision. I get used to being surrounded with, and judged by, people who operate on my level.”

“I don’t have the luxury of not caring what the common folk want,” Hux said. “Or even thinking myself too far above them. Not when they're buying the tickets.”

“I probably don’t either, but I try not to think about it.” Ren looked rueful. “To be honest, I generally just intimidate most people into seeing things my way. Saves on discussion.”

“Except you will have noticed that doesn't work well on me.”

“I should have had a better back-up plan.” Ren smiled. “I don’t know what I would have done if you didn't play piano.”

“So you don't make a habit of defusing tense situations with Debussy?” Hux looked sideways at him, and let the ghost of a smile show.

“No. That…” Ren looked off to the side, away from Hux. “That was for you.”

Hux was glad Ren wasn’t looking. He was fairly sure his ears had just gone red.

“But I think you should know,” Ren continued, “I also don’t normally put sixty people's jobs at risk just by having an attitude. Even for me, that’s a little high-stakes. I was assuming that the only risk was that I might get myself fired, which is fine, practically standard, almost never happens. I wish I’d known.”

“I could probably have dealt with the attitude, to be honest,” Hux admitted. “It’s awful, but it’s not the worst thing about you.”

Ren looked back at him again, the smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. “Do tell.”

“Your rubato,” said Hux. “It is just appallingly difficult to work around.”

“Oh, yeah.” Ren blushed a little. “I don’t like working with a metronome.”

Hux rolled his eyes. “No-one does. That doesn’t mean you get to play at every single tempo from andante to presto all at once.”

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” Ren was still blushing. “I do, believe it or not, actually feel bad about missing the rehearsal this morning.”

Hux looked at his watch. “We have two hours before rehearsal tonight, and it’s going to be the Rach 3. Would it kill your hands to run through 2 now?”

“Like, right now?” Ren said. “With just me?”

“Yes,” Hux said. “I know what my orchestra is going to do, and I can make them do something different, if need be. That’s what the magic wand is for. But I need to get a better handle on how you want to play it.”

“Okay,” Ren said. “Well, let’s do it. I’m ready if you are.”

His score was still on his stand from the morning’s rehearsal; he retrieved it. His diligent score prep had ensured he was mostly off-book by now, but it couldn't hurt to have it. His baton was in his dressing room, but that didn’t matter if he didn’t have to be seen across the stage.

He sat down in Phasma’s seat, next to Ren’s bench, opened his score across his knees, and gave Ren the nod to start.

It was like a movie score, the Rach 2. Even by himself Ren was a whole orchestra. But Hux sang the major missing parts along with him, filling in enough of the blanks with his clear tenor that it felt all right, and Ren’s hands flew over the keyboard, and Hux counted the beats out loud, and he felt strangely connected to the wildness of Ren at full tilt.

By the second movement, Hux knew he had made a terrible mistake. Possibly a fatal one.

It was just him, and Ren, and the velvet richness of that perfect quiet start to the Adagio sostenuto, which even after the trauma of that morning was still up there on the list of Hux’s favourite pieces of music in the whole world. It had always had an unfortunate tendency to make him fall madly, if temporarily, in love with whatever marvelous human happened to be playing it. Marvelous, by default, because they were playing it.

He sang his way through Mitaka’s solos, and Ren watched his breaths and his hands for cues, and he watched Ren play in a way he couldn't from up on the podium, his eyes far more on Ren than on his score. And all that tendency was bubbling up within him, and it found all the raw places from earlier, and laid him open, in a way Hux did not entirely want to be open to Ren right now.

(But at the same time, wanted so very badly to be; that was what this music did.)

The bouncy, dance-y chase of the beginning of the third movement was a welcome relief, Hux following Ren through the convolutions like a musical game of tag. He loved conducting this part. It was a challenge, dropping everyone in at the right times to take their place in the tableau.

And then the piano, all by itself, led into the big romantic theme, the one that had actually become a pop song at one point in its existence because it was so beloved. Because it made so many people feel the way Hux felt at this moment - like an overfull cup, needing someone’s lips on him to drink off just enough that he could safely move without spilling messily all over them.

The first iteration of that famous theme was all orchestral, and Hux almost couldn’t sing it, so unsure was he of whether he could even push his voice past his feelings. The only saving grace was that Ren took up the horn and bassoon counterpoint underneath him, his own voice propping Hux’s up just enough that he could camouflage the tremors as vibrato.

Then he picked it back up on the piano, and Hux dropped back to the counterpoint as Ren spun out the theme and embroidered it.

What a good thing it was that Hux knew this concerto inside out and backwards, like it was part of him, because otherwise he would have been lost by now; he would have looked up from his score at Ren swaying over the keyboard with his eyes closed, the black of his eyelashes stark and startling against his pale cheekbones, his lips slightly parted, and Hux would have forgotten his place, the key, the time signature, and possibly even his own name.

A slow, spiral shape rose then from the piano, with the woodwinds dotting notes through it, and a hum of building tension in the low strings; and then Ren galloped back up the keyboard, suddenly a wild thing, all crashing octaves and too many notes for one man’s hands to possibly be able to play, but he was doing it.

The fugue section that Hux remembered Phasma jokingly calling “Bachmaninoff” was next, and it was delicate for Ren but an absolute bugger to sing. Then Ren had another solo before the strings came back to the big romantic theme, which was easier this time because at least it wasn’t the fugue and he’d almost given himself the giggles trying to keep up with that. He knew what he looked like, singing it with a smile on his face, but he didn’t care. Ren was laughing too, at the piano, as he took the theme back again and turned it into something much more beautiful.

There were not too many pages left in Hux’s score now, and he was sweating, his throat starting to ache, and he couldn’t recall ever feeling more thoroughly alive than here, on this stage, at this moment, with Ren gleefully pounding at the Steinway.

They both shared the last iteration of the big romantic theme - and how spectacular it would have been had there been anyone else out there but them, the whole orchestra they could both hear in their heads - but it was enough.

The wild musical leaps that led into the ending, then, and yes, yes, yes, Ren, yes, he thought as Ren took off for the stratosphere, and he was right there with him as Ren hit the final four-chord figure and nailed it shut.

Hux was bent over his score, chest heaving along with Ren’s, leaning as close to him as he could get without actually coming out of his seat, close enough to reach out and touch him.

“Hux,” Ren whispered, and there was something in that one syllable that hurt inside Hux’s chest, and Ren lunged, then, caught Hux’s face in both hands and kissed him hard.

Hux shivered, through his whole body, and Ren caught his breath in a little gasp and let go of Hux all at once.

“I’m sorry,” Ren said, pressing his own fingers over his lips as if to put a barrier between them. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No,” Hux said slowly, “no, you shouldn’t have. Because now someone is going to walk in on us, onstage, doing this.” And he swept his score off his lap onto the floor, leaned a knee on the piano bench, grabbed a handful of Ren’s ridiculous mane of hair and kissed him back as though his life depended on it.

“Bloody fucking Rachmaninoff,” he said against Ren’s mouth, some minutes later. They had wound up squeezed onto the bench again, Hux balanced on one leg and Ren twisted awkwardly to try to hold him, and it was awkward and difficult and absolutely perfect.

Ren chuckled. “Bloody Rachmaninoff,” he echoed. “Thank you, Sergei, without whom I would never get laid. Hold on, let me -” He tried to twist further, but it was too far, and he had to throw a hand out to steady himself on the piano and caught the keyboard with an awful discordant splank -

- and then they were both laughing, clutching at each other’s shoulders, still inches from toppling to one side or the other but somehow feeling completely secure.

“We shouldn’t do this in front of the piano,” Ren stage-whispered into Hux’s hair. “It might get jealous.”

“Mmm,” Hux agreed. “If only one or both of us had a dressing room backstage with a door that locks.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Ren said, and he sounded hungry, and Hux offered up a brief thanks to the universe for the emotional character of concert pianists -

- and then his watch alarm went off.

“Shit,” he hissed, disentangling himself from Ren for long enough to silence the alarm. “An hour to rehearsal.” He held Ren’s face in his hands, at arm’s length. “We are going to have to bookmark this.”

“No,” Ren whined. “But I don’t want to.”

“Channel it into the music,” Hux said firmly, and made himself stand up and collect his score from the floor. “I have prep to do. You probably do too.”

Ren collapsed over the Steinway, a dramatic drape. “Ughhh,” he said, with deep feeling. “I guess.”

“I’ll make it up to you after rehearsal,” Hux said, and beat a hasty retreat before the slice of pale hip exposed by Ren’s boneless flop onto the piano could solidify any other ideas.

But their relative lack of solidity did not stop the ideas from being there all the same, and if Rachmaninoff had not intended his Third Piano Concerto to be played in quite such a state as Ren did it that night, well, at least they started and ended at the same time, and most of the things in between were all right as well. Hux suspected Ren had never watched a conductor so much in his life as he was doing now.

He also suspected few conductors had been watched in quite that way. (Perhaps Karajan. He really had been terrifically handsome.)

He called time precisely at 9pm, perversely satisfied by the knowledge that he had been able to stand up to Ren’s eyes on him for the entirety of their scheduled rehearsal.

He took a few minutes to have a little chat with the stage manager, just to make sure that the crew was all fine for the show - and to dawdle inconspicuously so as to allow things to clear out backstage, just a bit, before he made an appearance.

He didn't dawdle quite long enough to miss Phasma, though: she caught him at the stage door, on her way out.

“I hope you know what you're doing,” she said, very quietly.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said delicately.

Phasma raised both eyebrows. “He didn't take his eyes off you all night,” she said, “and he was looking at you like a Labrador looks at a steak. And you weren't looking at him any more than you absolutely had to. I don’t know what you did - but I can guess what you're going to do.” She shook her head. “Just… be careful.”

“Don't worry,” Hux said. “I am more than a match for Kylo Ren.”

“Okay,” she said, though she didn't sound convinced. “Sleep well, I guess. Do sleep. And I'll see you at the dress.”

He waited a little longer, saw a few more people off at the door, until he could no longer make excuses as to why he was still standing there.

He was fumbling with his key in the lock of his dressing room door when an unreasonably large hand splayed itself out next to his head, and a deep voice said very softly, the word tickling the soft hairs at the back of his neck, “Maestro.”

Every one of the soft hairs stood on end.

“Ren,” he said. “That was a fine performance tonight.”

“Which one?” Ren purred. “The Rachmaninoff, or the way I did absolutely everything you said?

With an effort of will, Hux stopped his hands from shaking; the key engaged, and the knob turned smoothly.

“Both,” he said, with a calm he did not feel. “I’d like an encore.”

The unreasonably large hand closed on his shoulder, and he was spun around and pinned to the door.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ren said, inches from his face.

Hux turned the knob the last fraction and pulled Ren through the doorway after him. “We are not doing this in the corridor,” he said, as he relocked the door behind them.

“Fine by me,” Ren said, and crowded him back against the door again. He tipped Hux's chin up and kissed him, hard enough to bounce the back of Hux's head off the wood of the door.

Ow,” Hux said, into Ren's mouth, and bit Ren’s lower lip sharply by way of retaliation.

Ren growled at him and pulled free, then wrapped his hand around the back of Hux's head and kissed him again. His free hand found the bottom of Hux's shirt and untucked it, slid inside to spread over the small of Hux's back.

Hux put his arms around Ren’s waist and pulled him tight against his chest, the whole bulk of him pressing Hux back against the door. Hux’s hands roved lower, squeezed Ren’s arse gently - it was a nice arse, he decided, and went along with the rest of Ren, well-muscled and sleek.

He broke the kiss. “Get on your knees.”

Ren licked his lips. “Yes, Maestro,” he said, and that did something to Hux’s knees too, something very nearly ruinous.

“No,” he said, and pushed off the door, pulled Ren with him to the armchair, and tried to convince himself he looked graceful sinking into it.

“We don’t have much time,” he said, and Ren nodded. “They’ll lock us in if we’re not out by 9.45. So you’re going to show me how much you deserve to come back to my flat.”

Ren raised an eyebrow at him. “You know I have a king-size bed at my hotel I could go back to, and a tub big enough to float a freighter.”

Hux smirked. “Ah, but I won’t be in either of those. So… if you’d rather be alone, then by all means. Go now. Spend the night thinking about what you could have been doing instead.”

“You’re mean,” Ren said, grinning, and knelt between Hux’s knees.

“I am effective,” Hux corrected as he undid his belt. “Results-oriented.”

Ren helped him pull his trousers and boxers down, just far enough to spring him free. “That’ll do,” Ren said, “time’s a-wasting -”

And then that smart mouth was on his cock, and Hux liked him so much better like this, so much better with his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks as he sucked. So much better when Hux could reach out for a handful of his hair and guide him, gently, keep him right there, and stop thinking.

There was nothing for it. It was the Rachmaninoff, in his veins like a drug, and Hux couldn’t let go of Ren, not tonight, not now.

----

Thought crept back along with consciousness. It was morning, he was in his bed, the clock radio was playing a Bach cantata and the very large, very warm weight of Kylo Ren was pressed up against his back, a heavy arm over his waist.

If the radio had started, he reasoned muzzily, then it was 7am.

Normally, he would get up.

But the Bach, the sweet and soothing aria from BWV 208, had not seeped through to the gently snoring Ren, and Hux was pleasantly sore and happily tired and deeply disinclined to leave the cocoon of the blankets just yet.

He settled deeper into his pillows and let the countertenor sing to him about safety, peace and harmony, and pressed his back into the shelter of Ren's chest, and went back to sleep.

When he woke again, it was somewhat later, by the angle of the sun. The radio had shut itself off, and his back was cold. Ren was gone, and had left the blankets rucked up enough to let the air in under them.

He sighed, and pushed the rest of them off to swing his legs out of bed. There was a trail of clothes across the floor, attesting to how little attention either of them had been devoting to anything other than bed, now when they’d gotten back to Hux’s flat. He noted Ren’s t-shirt amongst them - so wherever he’d gotten to, he wasn’t far, then. (He wasn’t sure why that thought felt reassuring, or exactly when he’d started actually wanting Ren’s continued presence.)

His robe was hung up on the back of the door, where it belonged. It seemed too much work to find any other clothes, especially before coffee, which…

There was coffee in this flat, he was sure of it. Fresh, hot coffee.

He followed the scent out to the flat’s tiny kitchen, where there were two cardboard cups, a paper bag emitting an exciting bacony smell, and Ren, wearing only his jeans, with bird’s-nest hair and a hickey on his collarbone that Hux vaguely remembered giving him. He was working on the sudoku puzzle Hux had started the day before and abandoned.

“How did you manage this?” Hux asked, sliding into the other chair. “Tell me you didn’t go out like that.”

“Good morning to you too,” Ren said, grinned, and pushed one of the cups towards him. “You wake up charming, I must say.”

Hux gulped coffee before he spoke. “That’s… really good, actually. I’m sorry, I’m not used to having… guests. Especially first thing in the morning. Let me try again.” He took another sip of coffee. “Good morning, Kylo. I trust you slept well?”

“I did, thank you,” Ren said. “And then, in answer to your earlier question, I got up, and told Darla where I was so she wouldn’t worry that I hadn’t come back to the hotel, and asked her to bring breakfast. For you, too, because I’m nice like that.”

“You made your assistant bring us breakfast.” Hux leaned his elbow on the table, and drank more coffee. “That’s either really arrogant or really sweet, and I honestly don’t know which.”

Ren considered him for a long moment.

“Do you actually even like me?” he said.

Hux felt suddenly exhausted. “We’ve spent a week at each other’s throats, Ren, an hour or two being very careful friends, and a night setting the sheets on fire. I have been awake for less than twenty minutes and I don’t know how the hell I feel about you. Is that the answer you wanted?”

“I… think I probably should have expected that answer,” Ren said slowly. “I can leave, now, if you want. I can call Jerry, he can be here in ten minutes.”

“No,” Hux said, perhaps too quickly. How was it that he felt like a heel, after all that? “No, don’t. Just. Stay. Eat your breakfast. It’s going to be a big day.”

Ren smiled lopsidedly. “Okay.” He reached into the bag, pulled out a wrapped bacon and egg sandwich, and started in on it, pushing the other one across the table to Hux.

Hux took it; it was still warm, and the roll was crisply toasted, and it tasted the way the blankets had felt that morning. Purely comforting.

Ren was poking at the sudoku puzzle again, tapping the end of the pencil against that plush bottom lip of his in between numbers. He wasn’t looking at Hux, so it probably wasn’t deliberate, but it was dangerously entrancing, and Hux made himself look away.

The roll was gone before Hux was entirely ready to try making conversation again. Instead of distracting Ren from his numbers, which he was murmuring softly over (or much worse, thinking about that soft murmuring, and whether or not he quite liked it), he got up and started the coffee machine. He was going to need at least one more cup, and it was something to do.

He glanced over Ren’s shoulder - he’d taken the lid off his coffee, and there was milk in the inch or so that was left. Excellent.

Carefully, he took two mugs out of his cupboard, filled both, added milk - he was nearly a hundred percent certain that Ren would take sugar, so he pulled out the sugar bowl, and slid one filled mug and the sugar bowl around the side of Ren’s elbow.

Ren looked up in mild surprise, the pencil poised over a square.

“I’m going to have a shower,” Hux said. “That’s a seven, by the way.”

Ren blinked at him, and then at the puzzle, and nodded. “Thanks.”

Hux took his coffee cup into the shower with him. There was a spot on the shelf where he could keep it out of the spray, and he tucked it in there while he got his hair wet. The Bach he had woken up to was percolating gently through his brain, and he sang the middle section of it to himself, as he lathered up his hair: “Wo Regenten wohl regieren,/ Kann man Ruh und Friede spüren/ Und was Länder glücklich macht.” Where rulers govern well, one can experience peace and quiet, and all that makes countries happy. It was a sentiment he had always agreed with, especially with Bach’s delicate modulations underneath it.

He was halfway through both the coffee and the washing, and most of the way through the cantata, when Ren wandered in, his coffee cup clutched loosely in his hand, and leaned up against the sink.

“Can I help you?” Hux said, slightly unsettled by the frank up-and-down assessment Ren was giving him.

“So I have this theory,” Ren said. He tipped his mug up, drained it; Hux stared at the long, pale throat he bared and watched him swallow. Then he set the mug down. “Give me an order.”

Hux narrowed his eyes at Ren, but thought fast. “Take off your jeans.”

“Okay,” Ren said, no hesitation, no baulking. He skinned out of his jeans in an easy, practiced three or four moves and stood naked in front of the shower. “Next.”

“Get in here,” Hux said. “Where I can see you without all this glass in the way.”

Ren nodded, and stepped in. The space was large enough for two, just a tub enclosed most of the way up to the ceiling.

Ren spread his hands out. “Next.”

Hux reached for the conditioner, worked a dollop between his palms and rubbed it into his own hair. “Get yourself wet.”

Ren stepped under the water, ducking his head to let it soak his hair.

Hux put another dollop of conditioner in his hands. “Now get down in front of me so I can see what I’m doing, while you tell me what your theory is.”

Ren knelt obediently, and Hux smoothed the conditioner into the tangled mess of Ren’s hair.

“My theory, which by the way you have just confirmed,” Ren said softly, “is that this is how we work.”

Hux’s fingers caught in a tangle; he teased it out, slowly, watching the tiny flickers of pain on Ren’s face.

“What do you mean?” he said.

Ren reached up and braced himself on Hux’s hip with one big hand.

“As long as I do everything you say,” he murmured, “you’ll do anything I want.”

Hux shivered, involuntary and surprising.

“I can see it, you know,” Ren said. He petted Hux’s hipbone with his thumb. “You don’t have to like me. I think you do, but it doesn’t matter.” That little smile crept across his face. “But I know you want me. And I can work with that.”

Hux pushed Ren back under the water, watched it stream over his face as he rinsed the conditioner out, carding through Ren’s hair with his fingers. Face upturned, eyes closed, mouth very slightly open, Ren looked totally serene, as though he were awaiting some sort of benediction.

Wo Regenten wohl regieren, Hux thought, and leaned down to kiss him.

----

They regretfully had to admit that they both had things that needed doing, before the dress rehearsal. Hux had to collect his suit, despite Ren’s offer to send Darla for it, and he was accustomed to a bit of meditative silence before everything became very much louder for the rest of the day.

Instead he found his silence somewhat disturbed. Not by any outside forces, just by the persistent notion that he would have been better, somehow, without it.

He pushed the notion aside, got on with things that needed to be gotten on with, and was at the theatre on time for the dress rehearsal.

Everyone had a different energy, on the day of the show. It was still the dress, and they all played their ceremonial wrong notes to get them out of their system, but there was a certain sense of being over the cliff now. There was no time left to fix it, it just had to run as it was.

Ren played lightly, skipping over some of the less important bits and saving himself for that night. It was sensible, of course - even Hux didn’t necessarily give the dress rehearsal his all, having heard spine-chilling tales of conductors leaning into a downbeat too hard, tweaking their back, and winding up nearly in traction when they should have been on stage. But he missed the passion.

Still, when he glanced over the top of the piano, Ren was watching him with that half-smile that Hux had learned meant he’d forgotten what his face was doing, but he was happy.

They found each other backstage, afterwards - Ren fell into step beside him as though it meant nothing, and pulled Hux quickly into his dressing room, blessedly empty of assistants.

“Hi,” Ren said, and leaned in to steal a quick kiss.

“Don’t start what we don’t have time to finish,” Hux said warningly. “Those stunning hands won’t get you out of every kind of trouble they get you into.”

Ren’s smile was a little odd, a little surprised. “You like my hands,” he said.

Hux shrugged. “They are the Vaderensky hands. And I’m not made of stone.” He pulled away, just slightly out of reach. “Why don’t you go by Vaderensky, incidentally? I keep thinking about it, and I just don’t understand. I would have thought, if you were so fired up about finishing what your grandfather started, you would want to make sure everyone knew who you were in relation to him.”

“Well, first of all,” Ren said wryly, “you try going through public school with a name like Mikhail Vaderensky. When you’re already a foot taller than everyone else, and also have ears and a nose that nobody will ever let you forget, and are a huge nerd who plays piano instead of trying to hit on cheerleaders. I minimised what I could. First I was Kylo. Then I was Ren, too, and I guess it stuck.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly defensive. “Then I hit Juilliard, and I got that question a lot. Like it was somehow better to be my grandfather than to be me, because I wasn’t anyone on my own. Well, fuck them, right? I’m going to be the greatest, right?” He tipped his chin up at the ceiling, the parody hero staring into the distance. “And I was going to do it all by myself. But…” He deflated, shoulders slumping, and gave Hux a sideways smile. “By the time I got that chip off my shoulder I’d introduced myself to a lot of people.”

“So it was easier.”

“Yeah,” Ren said. “Looked damn good on posters, too.” His smile was thinning now. “I do wonder if Grandfather would be disappointed in me, though.”

“Do you really?” Hux said softly. “Then you haven’t been paying attention.”

Ren looked at him, and his eyes were huge, real disbelief warring with a vulnerability Hux had never expected.

It was too much, all at once - too many things Hux didn’t quite feel ready to admit, and Ren was too large next to him and the room was too small and he needed to be out of it, and before Ren had time to say more than “Wait,” he was out in the corridor and heading at a too-brisk walk for the stage.

He didn't stop there. They had three hours before call, four before curtain, and if he didn't get away from the situation and give himself some breathing room he felt he might actually explode. So he headed out, through the lobby and onto the street, head down and hands in his pockets, and just walked.

It took him about an hour of concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other and not walking into traffic before he felt less like a shaken soda bottle and more like a respected conductor who had a reasonable grip on his emotions. There was nothing to be gained, he told himself sternly, by panicking at this juncture. Either Ren would play well, or he wouldn't; either the donors would love it, or they wouldn't; either the board would sack him, or they wouldn't; none of these things were under his control, no matter how much he wanted them to be.

What was under his control was his orchestra, and he found that he had perfect faith in all of them. They had yet to let him down when it counted, and tonight, of all nights, he knew every one of them knew how much it counted. He could only hope he would prove to have been worthy of all of their trust.

And Ren, he reminded himself, was not staying; was not really more than a variable in the equation. So whatever he and Hux were dancing around, all it really had to do was get them through tonight. It didn't matter what Hux's heart, or any other part of him, had to say about it. The only thing that mattered at all until that curtain fell again was whether or not they could play two concertos and one Fantasy-Overture and not disgrace themselves.

----

He came back to the theatre in plenty of time to get dressed. Phasma was there already, a calming presence as she did her tai chi warmups, her floor-length gown black and flawless.

They had dressed in front of each other many times before, and she wasn't really even watching him as he laid out the various bits of his suit - his best, the nicest he had ever owned. Many conductors in this day and age no longer wore a tailcoat, but Hux clung to the glamour of it. It made him feel like Bernstein and Karajan and Stokowski and Toscanini all rolled into one. And on days like this, the tight embrace of the buttoned coat against his belly and the white bowtie around his neck was itself steadying, comforting: at least no-one could tell him he didn't look the part. The fabric would hold him together until he could do it for himself.

“You look good,” Phasma said, from the bottom of a deep knee-bend. “Apart from the face, which suggests you're expecting a firing squad instead of an audience.”

He gave her a rather helpless look as he transferred essential things from his pockets - a packet of tissues, the key to his dressing room, a couple of small wrapped mints. His hands were shaking. “I can't stop worrying, Phasma, you know that. Has there ever been a performance in our whole lives where you have known me to be perfectly calm beforehand?”

She chuckled. “Point. Go pace the halls, Maestro. You know I can't stand to watch your whole unquiet spirit routine, it keys me up just looking at you, but you always seem better for it.”

He smiled rather anaemically at her and did as she suggested, leaving her to warm up in peace. It was, after all, his standard practice.

Backstage was humming with energy, burbles of music wafting out of the dressing rooms and the laughter of many people about to embark together on something major. Ren's dressing room was a hive of furious activity, not even the top of his head visible amongst the bustle of assistants. No chance of a look-in there, then. That was faintly disappointing but Hux pushed it from his thoughts and kept moving.

Onstage, the curtains were down; it wouldn't be long before the gala patrons were allowed into the theatre and it was always best to make sure they didn't feel they could stray too far. He found the join at centre stage and peeked carefully out.

It was calm, empty still. But there were the reserved seats for the board of directors, in the absolute best spots, and he remembered their faces as they had informed him of Snoke's decision not to return for the gala; and imagining them there, looking at his back the way they had looked at him then, their sly triumph, made him drop the curtains and turn away with a sudden sourness in his mouth.

His scores were on his stand, his baton laid across them and a bottle of water tucked carefully against the foot of the stand. He snagged it now - he could get the stage manager to put out another - and drank, trying to wash the sour taste away.

There was nothing productive he could do here, either. He kept wandering. Everyone was warming up now: Ren was still buried in assistants, Mitaka grinned at him and shook his container of soaked reeds meaningfully, and he could hear Phasma playing scales from behind his door.

He knew what time it was, but the chimes for twenty minutes to places still took him by surprise, the sixteen-note Westminster figure making his breath catch and his stomach turn over. The sourness welled, a horrible trickle he knew all too well. This, too, was part of the routine, and he scanned the exits hastily and made it all the way out to the alley behind the theatre before his stomach gave up the fight.

At least it was over with quickly. The fresh air helped, and he hadn't managed to vomit on his own shoes, this time, and he was concentrating on breathing and digging out the packet of tissues from his pocket when the fire door banged open. It was Ren, in shirtsleeves and no tie, looking slightly wild-eyed and as green as Hux had felt.

“Are you all right?” Hux asked, rather shakily.

Ren held up a hand for silence, and then turned away, doubled over with a hand against the wall, and made unfortunate noises for a minute or two.

Hux considered his options as he rinsed his mouth with a swig of water, then went over to him and held out the rest of the bottle and the tissues.

“Sorry,” Ren said, still gasping a little. “I’m not - even that nervous, would you believe.”

“I would,” Hux said. “It seems to have very little to do with it.” Though he was that nervous, tonight.

Ren took the bottle and the tissues and straightened up slowly. “I was not expecting to run into you out here,” he said. “But I guess it was too crowded backstage for you, too, huh.”

Hux felt his cheeks go hot. “They probably all know by now,” he admitted, “but I like to think they don't.”

“Plausible deniability.” Ren swished and spat. “We’re totally fine.” He tried a smile; it wasn't terribly convincing, but Hux thought he meant it.

Hux found the mints he’d stashed in his pocket earlier and held one out to Ren. Ren closed his whole hand over Hux's instead of just taking it.

“We will be fine, though,” he said. “Tonight. I promise. It's gonna be fine.”

“You promise,” Hux said drily. “Well, that makes all the difference.”

And yet, he thought, as Ren hugged him, muttering “Asshole,” against his hair, it rather did.

He held onto that promise, as he waited in the wings ten minutes later, with Phasma. Everyone else was onstage, noodling vaguely as was their custom.

Phasma bumped him with her shoulder, and gestured with her chin - are they ready?

Not quite, Hux signalled. Look at the audience.

They were almost all in their seats now. It seemed to be an extremely full house. So they would let the stragglers settle, the better to appreciate what was about to happen.

The last few people wiggled into their rows, and Phasma grinned: Now.

Hux nodded his assent, and Phasma strode onto the stage, stately and totally in control. The orchestra rose to their feet as one, and then she took the podium, bowed deeply to the audience, and turned back to the orchestra as they all sat again.

Phasma gave Unamo her cue to play the tuning A, the strong and carrying oboe note that started every rehearsal and every performance and made some deep subconscious part of Hux sit up straight. That A-440, he knew in his bones, meant showtime.

The rest of the woodwinds tuned to it first, and then the brass; while the strings were adjusting, Hux felt a presence behind his left shoulder.

Ren stared calmly out past him to the stage, with his hair perfectly fluffed, his collar still undone, still without a tie. He was wearing a tailcoat, though, and it fit him beautifully.

He looked suddenly aloof, aristocratic, every inch a Vaderensky.

And then he gave Hux a big, goofy grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes, and mouthed the words It’s gonna be fine, and Hux couldn’t help smiling back.

Phasma had sat down, now, and that was his cue.

He knew, as he walked out into the blinding light of the stage, that Ren was just behind him.

----

The first half of the concert was a blur, from the moment he’d given the downbeat on the Rach 3 to the waves and waves of applause; there had been nothing but the music, the ebb and the flow of it, and Ren rocking back and forth on his piano bench, weaving the spell that held them all.

It seemed that he had barely started and then the curtains were down again for intermission. Hux gulped water, backstage, and Ren disappeared into his nest of assistants, sweat-drenched and in need of all of their arts. It would be fine, for him; he had all the intermission, as well as the twenty or so minutes of the Tchaikovsky, to reset. But Hux had barely gotten his own shirt swapped out for a fresh one and his tie re-tied before it was time to head back out for the Tchaikovsky.

Romeo and Juliet did, as always, what it was meant to. One of the stagehands had put the lid of the Steinway down, the smallest concession to being able to see the orchestra behind it, and Hux could feel the weight of the audience’s eyes on his back and the orchestra’s eyes on his hands. But he was all right, now. He was where he belonged, and he was doing what he had always been meant to do, and everyone breathed with the rise and fall of his baton.

About three-quarters of the way through, he caught a glimpse of movement in the wings. It was Ren, stunning again in his tailcoat, his brilliantly white shirt gleaming blueish in the wash of the stage lights.

He waved at Hux, with just the tips of his fingers, as the orchestra soared.

Hux smiled, and guided his people home.

More applause, then, and he had made the soloists stand and get their share, and then the audience hushed briefly before Ren reawakened them, striding out of the wings like a conquering hero to the cheers of the people. Ren soaked it all up, as his due, and then gave Hux that smile that meant nothing but trouble, and sat, his fingers ready on the keyboard, waiting.

Hux nodded.

And everything around him fell away, anything that was not that perfect piano, the intricate dance of conducting, and the glory of the orchestra, and he let himself be completely transported as Kylo Ren began to play.

----

He didn’t really come back to earth at all until Ren hit those final chords with the orchestra behind him, sliding into home.

There was a moment of absolute pin-drop silence.

And then a roar as the audience was suddenly and entirely on their feet, whistling, whooping.

Hux bowed and bowed, called each section of the orchestra to their feet in turn, pulled Phasma up on the podium and kissed her on the cheek and made her take another bow. Ren came around the piano and took his hand, dragged him out to the front of the stage and they bowed together, hand in hand, as the orchestra clapped and stomped and cheered.

Encore, the audience was yelling, encore, and it seemed that the stage manager knew something Hux didn’t, because the stage lights dimmed, then, all apart from a spotlight trained on the piano.

Hux tried to step back to the podium, but Ren wouldn’t let go of his hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he shouted, his voice pitched to carry to the back of the balcony. He stepped forward to the footlights, and pulled Hux with him.

The audience fell obligingly silent, sitting back down.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ren repeated, still loud but not quite so booming. “I wanted to thank you all, patrons and members of the board, for inviting me here.” A patter of applause, which he acknowledged with a nod. “But most of all - most of all, I believe I need to thank Maestro Hux, without whose tireless work and surpassing dedication the concert we have just played for you could never have happened. Maestro Hux!”

The orchestra led the applause, this time, their stomping feet making the stage shake. There was a clarinet in the mix, playing a few bars of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, and Hux had to blink hard; something seemed to be happening to his eyes.

Ren was still holding his hand.

“It is in this spirit,” Ren said, as the chaos died down, “that I’ve chosen tonight’s encore.”

He squeezed Hux’s hand, and glanced at him, his eyes merry.

Oh no. Oh no, this wasn’t the plan, this wasn’t happening.

“Maestro Hux, you see, has hidden talents,” Ren told the audience. “And I believe tonight is the night for us to show you this one.”

Ren pulled him towards the piano bench and made him sit.

“What are we doing,” Hux hissed, around his frozen smile.

“Understanding each other,” Ren said, in his ear, and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek while no-one could see. “Petite Suite, okay? Relax. It’s going to be fine.”

Phasma was smiling at him, shocked and delighted - in fact, the entire orchestra seemed to be grinning.

There was nothing for it, nothing at all.

Hux sighed, and shook his tailcoat out behind the bench, and pressed his shoulder against Ren’s, and counted them in.