Are you awake?
Ben can feel the warm little vibration by his cheek. It startles him from his half-sleep, makes the muzzy shadows gathering in his brain sharpen up. He blinks and the world takes on bleary form: the gentle darkness on the ceiling of his bedroom has been lifted into the electric reflection of soft blue, the remnants of the fluorescent stars plastered above his head have gone pale again. He turns his head on the pillow, digs his phone out from where it’s half buried in the sheets, thumbs it open.
Today 3:56 am
Are you awake?
He yawns, rolls onto his stomach, picks out a sleepy-fingered reply.
He rubs at his eyes, clicks to settings, fiddles with the brightness until he doesn’t feel like he’s squinting, rolls onto his back with his phone settled on the top of his sternum. The house is quiet: the ceiling fan out in the upstairs hallway is humming gently, he can hear the low, tinny undercurrent of the radio from his parents’ bedroom, which means his dad is home after all, and left it on—fell asleep on top of the covers with a magazine on his chest and his reading glasses halfway down his nose.
His phone vibrates again.
It’s four in the morning. Why are you awake?
He rolls his eyes.
bc ur texting me dumbass
A little flicker of Hux’s typing, the scroll of dots, and then:
He rolls over in bed, sits up enough to push the curtains back and peer out the window, down into the front garden. The apple trees are starting to bloom; the air feels sweet and cool on his face. The rain from earlier is still damp on the windowsill, still making the dark asphalt of the street shiny and slick black, like the swell of the ocean at night. He can’t see anything at first, but down the block, just outside the warm, yellow ring of the streetlamp’s glow, he thinks he sees someone crouched against the curb.
He tosses the covers off, shoves his feet into his shoes, grabs a hoodie from the back of his desk chair on the way out. He pauses, after he’s carefully, slowly, pressed his own bedroom door open with a flat of each palm on either side (to silence the squeak), to text Hux again.
He takes the stairs with deliberate care, but still two at a time, goes out the back through the sliding door, circles around through the garden, dew and sprinkler water licking at his bare ankles. There are lilacs in the bushes, the timid buds of daffodils sneaking their faces through the black dirt. Everything smells like wet grass and magnolias. Beneath the chill of the air, the earth feels strangely warm, like it might actually be truly alive, after all.
He stands at the end of the driveway, scanning the dim street, the sky the color of a bruise, until his phone buzzes again in his palm.
By the blue Prius, down the block.
He walks down the middle of the street, right under the place where the canopy of budding trees breaks, where the clouds and the stars flicker through. When he approaches, Hux looks up from where he's sat on the curb, knees folded up to his chest, a cigarette tucked in his mouth, the pack by his hip, and his phone open on his lap. He's still dressed in what he was wearing earlier, at school: his black trousers, black oxfords, black shirt buttoned up all the way to the soft divot of his neck.
Hux looks him up and down, appraisingly. “Nice,” he says, in a way that implies the exact opposite. “Very chic.”
“What the fuck do you sleep in,” says Ben. “A silk fucking smoking jacket?”
He tugs his hoodie closed around his chest, tucks his hands under his armpits. The air is crisp, and still a little wet; his cheeks are stinging slightly, in the breeze.
“I don’t sleep,” says Hux, baring his teeth. “I’m a vampire.”
“You’re weird,” sighs Ben.
“Pot—kettle,” says Hux. “Sit down, nerd.”
Ben sits, shoves his hands into his hoodie pocket.
Hux shrugs. Takes a long inhale; exhales smoke with a delicate upwards tilt of his chin.
“You wanna come inside?” he asks.
Hux shakes his head.
“Dude,” says Ben. “Did your dad—”
Hux’s shoulders tense. “Fuck, no,” he says, finally turning to look at Ben with a vaguely exasperated expression. “Christ. I just went for a walk.”
“You know you could just take a Xanax,” says Ben. “Instead of prowling around god-fearing suburban cul-de-sacs like an albino raccoon.”
“Maybe I like warding off anxiety with physical exertion,” says Hux. “Maybe it’s good for me.”
Ben pulls his knees up, folds his elbows in along his thighs and looks back at Hux over his shoulder. Half his face is in shadow, half of it lit up with the diffuse, buttery light of the streetlamp; it makes the thin skin under his eyes look soft and violet-colored, makes his thick, short lashes go transparent. He looks tired.
“And don’t call me dude.” Hux pulls a face. With his dumb little accent, the word sounds vaguely grotesque, like a foreign syllable pulled out of someone’s resistant unintelligent tongue. “You sound like Dameron.”
“Dude,” says Ben, grinning a little. “Duuude.”
“Fuck off,” says Hux. “Do you have any weed?”
“Upstairs,” says Ben, shaking his head. “You didn’t say you wanted any. Sorry.”
Hux stares at him.
“In your room?”
“Christ,” says Hux. “You’re really that fucking stupid.”
“What the fuck,” says Ben, straightening up.
“You just —” Hux says, his voice rising, his accent pitched. He seems to catch himself, takes a breath, his mouth pursing tightly. “You know, you could at least once in your life try not to do the exact opposite of what’s been asked of you.”
“It’s just weed.” Ben rolls his eyes. “Fuck.”
“Yes, and,” Hux grimaces, takes a long pull on his cigarette. “They’re going to find it, and that fucking probation or whatever they’ve put you on— ppfft.” He makes a noise like a firework fizzling out, the lit end of the cigarette circling when he waves his hand.
“Great,” says Ben. “Cool. Thanks so much, mom.”
He makes a move to stand and leave, feeling sort of prickly under his nerves, something nasty and defensive curling like heat up his spine.
It’s the pressure of Hux’s hand on the inside of his elbow that does it. (Hux hardly ever touches anyone.) Or maybe it's the tightness in his voice. (It sounds raw, a little desperate, like it’s been forced out of him without his consent.) He pauses.
“I—” Hux clears his throat. He takes his hand back. His shoulders tighten; Ben can feel it, the slight shift and inward-pulling of Hux’s body, next to his own. “Look. Today—earlier. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Ben swallows. He thought maybe they wouldn’t talk about it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to. When he’d gotten home, he’d gone for a run over the bridge and down into the ravine, where he’d stood at the edge of the marsh and poked a stick around in the mud until the end of it broke off, and then he threw it as hard as he could into the reeds, because his head had been buzzing with it: this horribly distinct, visceral, real memory of the stupid fucking face he must have made when Hux had pulled back, taken a breath, and looked—quietly shattered. Ben had probably looked grossed out, or something.
He hadn’t been. He’d just been surprised.
He hadn’t expected it. Hux had been acting weird all day since they’d driven to school and Ben had told him what had happened at dinner the previous night with his parents, and at the end of last period he’d physically dragged Ben out to the back parking lot so Ben could crouch on the stairwell and watch Hux chain-smoke four cigarettes in a row while ranting about something he’d just read on Reddit, and when Ben had said something stupid about dank memes, Hux had laughed—a bit hysterical—and then leaned in and kissed Ben full on the mouth, with all five of his fingers fisted in the front of Ben’s shirt like maybe he’d been thinking about punching him, instead, and gotten confused on the way in.
“It’s okay,” says Ben.
“It’s not,” says Hux, tightly. His voice is pitched really high now, the way it always gets when he’s stressed; when he’s not sure what the next thing out of his mouth might be, when he doesn’t have a plan, like the time two years ago when they pulled Hux out of class and told him about his mom, and Ben had found him in the hallway with his jacket half-on and most of the contents of his bag strewn over the ground, like maybe they’d fallen out by accident, and his hair had been a mess, and Hux had said, I have to go to the hospital, like there was something hot and sour clawing its way up the inside of his throat.
“It’s not. I—I panicked. This shite with your parents, you telling me they’re sending you to a new school.”
“They might not,” says Ben, quietly. He thinks they will, though.
“When you were suspended,” Hux continues, as if he hasn’t heard him. “—it. It sucked, okay.”
“I know,” says Ben. “You texted me like, every hour. About how it sucked.”
“And that was just thirty days, asshole,” says Hux, exhaling. He frowns down at his cigarette, and then flicks it out into the street. Ben watches the arc of it, the little cherry spark rising, dipping, disappearing with a hiss when it hits the damp concrete. “How do you think I’m going to manage a fucking year. Or—like. Forever. I’ll break your phone, probably. You’ll have to murder me, or something. I’m going to be insufferable.”
“You are insufferable,” says Ben. “You’ve been sitting outside my house like a creep for hours, probably, waiting until I fell asleep so you could wake me up.”
“There isn’t,” Hux says, a bit staccato, like the manic rush is suddenly sticking in his throat. “I mean. There wasn’t anyone else to hang out with. Not that that’s important. I just. I thought we were supposed to stick together. Against the phonies.”
When Ben was a freshman, he made Hux read Catcher in the Rye, because he loved it. Hux made fun of him when he’d finished it, called it a ‘overwrought piece of lame, depressive, juvenile whinging,’ which means he hadn’t really hated it. Hux only ever eloquently criticized things that he thought were actually worth his time to insult: American politics, pre-ripped jeans, Ben’s haircuts, their Theory of Knowledge teacher and his apparent obsession with Kant, Snapchat, Radiohead, Harry Potter, Star Wars (at the last count, Ben had made him watch the original trilogy seven times, and Hux had only fallen asleep twice), pizza-flavored things that weren’t pizza, weak coffee, bad weed, Ben’s guitar “playing,” Ben’s inability to do a kickflip, the way Ben ate spaghetti, juice made out of green vegetables, and, for some reason, the entire state of Florida.
“Phas’s cool,” he says, feeling like it comes out a bit lamely.
“Phasma,” says Hux, exasperated. “That’s not the—you’re—ugh. You don’t— Ben.”
“What,” he says.
Hux scrapes the sole of his oxfords along the street; his shoulders are hunched up again, tense and unwieldy and prickling. “Never mind,” he says, finally. “She’s going to college anyway.”
“We’re all going to college,” says Ben. “Eventually.”
“I might not,” says Hux. He sounds sulky.
“That’s retarded.” Ben turns his head a little and watches Hux dig another cigarette out of his pack, but he doesn’t light it, just turns it around between his fingers, tapping it against his palm. “You got like a perfect PSAT. Guidance basically comes all over themselves every time they look at your record.”
“Whatever,” Hux frowns. “What’s the point?”
“You sound like me,” says Ben, pointedly. “You hate it when I talk like that.”
“I do,” says Hux. “Yes. Because you sound fucking stupid.”
Ben watches him finally pinch the cigarette between two fingers and his thumb, slot it between his teeth, light it, with the very particular kind of practiced ritual of derision and deflection that Ben has seen him do a thousand times. Maybe even a million. The inhale make the air between them crackle; the smoke spirals heavily in the damp air, curling a fuzzy halo around Hux’s head.
“I just meant. Nobody else likes me very much,” says Hux, finally, soft and vicious, like the words are raw meat in his mouth. “You don’t even like me that much.”
“I like you,” says Ben. He thinks of the wet pinkness of Hux’s bottom lip, how it had felt when he had grazed his teeth against it accidentally, in his shock.
“You clearly didn’t like it when I—” Hux starts, then stops. He makes a disgusted, frustrated noise in the back of his throat. Tosses his barely smoked cigarette to the asphalt, rubs it out with a grinding stamp of his heel.“You don’t like me. Not like that.”
Like what, thinks Ben. What is ‘like that.’ He thinks it might be like the part where he thought he could taste Hux’s pulse in his own mouth, for a moment, thrumming like a fetal heart.
“You always assume the worst,” he says, instead.
“I’ve seen your depressive creepy diary from eighth grade,” says Hux, accusingly. “It’s horrendously unfair of you to call me pessimistic.”
“Hux,” he says.
“—You literally drew the global nuclear apocalypse on every page in red ink describing how it gave you a raging existential pubescent erection. If you weren’t already in like, six different kinds of therapy I probably would’ve dragged you there myse—”
“Hux," he says. “You didn’t ask me.”
Hux stops short, frowns, his thin little brows drawn together. “What,” he says.
“You just,” Ben shrugs. “You just took off. After. You didn’t ask me.”
“Ask you what,” says Hux.
He sounds tense, like he’s priming for a fight. His pink little mouth is a thin, straight line. Ben thinks absently about smoothing it out with the pad of his thumb, about catching it between his teeth again, maybe this time on purpose.
He thinks about what it would be like to drag Hux inside, upstairs to his bedroom, his childhood bedroom with the posters of shitty bands he can't be bothered to take down, with the model of a TIE fighter hanging from the ceiling in the corner by a piece of string, with the dumb floral curtains and Ben’s stupid twin bed, and he thinks about what it would be like to take Hux there and let him jerk himself off while Ben kissed him. He thinks about what it might be like to put his mouth on the soft, vulnerable, freckled underside of Hux’s throat while he came, to feel his breath in sharp little gasps against his lips.
Hux, who is his best friend. His only—he feels tight somewhere in his ribs—his only friend, ever. His strange, mean, neurotic, anxiety-ridden, sharp-tongued, red-haired asshole friend, who has been there since Ben first needed him, like the universe was giving him something he didn't know how to ask for, and didn’t know why it was important until much, much later. Hux, who has been called faggot since the shitty eighth grade preps learned what it meant. Hux, who wore it like a badge of pride, who for three weeks once only referred to himself by that nasty little slur, just to ward off the sting. Hux, for whom Ben has secretly beat up at least three people for calling him that behind his back and not to his face, when Hux could be there to fend for himself. Hux, who dislikes everything, except, for some reason, Ben. Hux, who stood and watched once in silence while Ben punched his knuckles bloody on the boys' bathroom mirror on the third floor in ninth grade, and then stood there and picked the shards of glass out with his fingers until Ben stopped pretending that he wasn’t crying. Hux, who once stayed on the phone with Ben all night when Ben had taken too many of his mom’s Vicodin, maybe on purpose, and thought maybe he was dying, and was scared, and was scared to tell anyone, even Hux, what was really happening. Hux, who despite being fully capable of destroying the universe himself, with his own weird brain and his own sharp mouth and his own brand of wild rage—somehow needs Ben, to help him do it.
“Whatever you were gonna ask me,” he says. “Whatever. Like: ‘Ben, do you want to make out in my car,’ or, ‘Ben, do you want to punch me in the face for kissing me without any fucking warning,’ or, ‘Ben, do you want to be my boyfriend.’”
He means for it to be teasing, but the moment he says it, it sounds so fucking strange and earnest and real, like it all sort of makes sense, like maybe that's what he’d been mad about all afternoon and evening, that he hadn't heard Hux ask any of those things, that he'd really wanted to hear them, that he'd wanted to say: Yes, and no, and yes.
Hux is staring at him. His lips are slightly parted; between them a wet, dark, little space of fear.
“That’s really fucking cruel,” he says, finally. (His voice breaks, on the edges.)
“No it’s not,” says Ben. “Not if I mean it.”
“You don’t mean it,” rasps Hux.
Ben slides his right hand out of his pocket, reaches up and curls his fingers into the fabric of Hux’s collar. His knuckles dig into the pale skin of Hux’s throat; he can feel it when Hux swallows, thickly.
He tugs. Hux resists. He tugs again. His elbow is digging into Hux’s hip, the outside of his right thigh is pressed tight against Hux’s left. His shoes scrape on the pebbles of asphalt when he leans in.
“C’mon,” says Ben. “Do it.”
Hux looks like he wants to run.
“Do it,” says Ben, firmer this time. His fist tightens in Hux’s collar.
“Do what,” Hux whispers. His tongue darts out to wet his lower lip.
“Don’t be fucking stupid on purpose,” says Ben. “I want you to kiss me. Again.”
Hux does. He fists one hand in the tense little space between them, like he is still afraid that he’ll have to fight for a way out of this, and leans in and kisses Ben. His mouth is bitter with smoke and the skin of his throat is pale and warm and shivering with goosebumps, and the scent of magnolia petals crushed beneath car tires and bike wheels and human feet is hanging like a curtain of fog around them, and Ben wants to fucking crawl inside him.
“You have to stop fucking up so much,” says Hux, against his mouth, when Ben can breathe again. “Just for a little while.”
“Because—” Hux’s jaw tightens. Ben can feel the jump of nerve and delicate bone against his palm. “—you can’t leave now.”
You can’t leave me now, is what he means. Ben can still taste the particular difference of that, on his tongue.
“I can see the future,” he says, very solemnly. He takes his other hand from his hoodie pocket, and very carefully, gently, lines it up against Hux’s other cheek. Their noses are almost touching; their foreheads are very close. “I’m like a fucking Jedi. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“You’re so weird,” says Hux. His eyes look suspiciously wet. “You’re so fucking weird.”
Ben squeezes Hux’s face between his hands, and laughs, a little, at the vaguely cross-eyed, half-pissed-off expression Hux makes. His heart feels, suddenly, very, very warm and overly-large in his chest. Something in the region of his ribs hurts, like the first shaking, gasping breath you take after getting the wind knocked out of you—your body telling you you’re still alive, but maybe you should still be panicking.
“Ben,” says Hux.
Ben kisses him. Hux makes a noise in the back of his throat that makes something in Ben’s stomach feel very tight and unsteady.
“Come on,” he says; he feels giddy. He scrapes to his feet, pulls Hux up by the shoulder of his shirt. He can’t stop smiling. “Let’s go down to the ravine and we’ll see if the beaver dam is still there, and we can watch the sun come up, and you can tell me again about all the ways you like, desperately need me in your life, or whatever.”
“Asshole,” says Hux. He stumbles when Ben tugs at his shirt, and instead of pulling away, he leaves himself there, where he is, his side pressed up against Ben’s, his shoulder just a little lower than Ben’s, tucked against the soft underarm seam of his hoodie. “Jedi can’t see the future. That's not how it works.”
Ben touches the back of one of Hux’s hands with his own, experimentally. “You've slept through literally every movie I've ever shown you, you don't know what you're talking about.”
“I was awake,” says Hux. His thumb touches Ben’s thumb. It shouldn't, but it sends a funny little thrill up the ridges of Ben’s spine. “I was paying attention.”
Good fucking thing one of us was, thinks Ben.
And down in the ravine—in the marshes, in the reeds, in the blastocyst nests of tadpoles and the long-abandoned dams of dead wood and bone-white twigs, in the dark and in the wet and black and roiling earth—something blooms.