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Limerence

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Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

- A.E. Housman, “Because I Liked You Better”

 

Exile, it turned out, was mist-shrouded and clammy cold, even in August, when it was still supposed to be a temperate waning summer. Ben’s wear-worn blue sweater did very little to keep off the chill, but at least it had stopped raining. Runnels of rainwater had streaked along the windows of the train for the last hour of the ride from London, making the gray-green countryside into a distorted, dreamlike blur.

The exhaustion was seated deep in Ben’s bones by now; he had been traveling for twelve long hours and hauling what little he had been allowed to bring from home in a single heavy suitcase. The damp mist seemed to be settling on it and beading on the hard sides. He shivered as he stood outside the squat brick depot, the sign on its wall proclaiming “Tindon Station.” His uncle was supposed to pick him up, but there wasn’t a single car in sight. Only a few people had disembarked here and for all Ben knew they would be walking wherever they were bound. The low-lying cloud swallowed them up, anyway, and they were gone.

Ben had never met his uncle, his mother’s twin. Luke Skywalker had left his native Massachusetts to attend Cambridge in the thirties, escaping the worst of the American Depression and embracing the English one. Ben’s mother had told him the whole story, but Ben only remembered bits and pieces, having just found out he was going to be shipped off to the boarding school in Wiltshire, England where Luke was headmaster. It was her last-ditch effort to get him through graduation.

Haverhill was supposed to be a famous pile of bricks that had produced prime ministers and generals, but all Ben needed to know was that it was some old wreck in the middle of nowhere. His mother had showed him some photographs of it—featuring a younger Luke, who had only been the classical languages master then—and it looked like something that belonged in a nineteenth-century novel: a four-story central building with a tall bell tower at the center and connected wings. It had a “storied, noble past,” he had been told, but there was nothing there for Ben but a year of prison on a dreary moor. 

In the distance, he spotted an orange car sputtering up the lane toward the depot, splashing through puddles gathered on the badly paved road. As it got closer, Ben could hear the squeak of the suspension and smell the stink of an oil leak into the fuel line. The car stopped in an acrid blue cloud directly in front of him. Ben expected its driver to step out of the left side, but he appeared from the right, grunting as he stood up from the bucket seat. He was rounder at the middle and grayer in the beard than the pictures Ben had seen, but he was still undeniably Uncle Luke.

“Ben?” he asked, approaching him. His face was oval and high-browed, with a lock of light blond hair flipped over it in an uneven part, as if windswept. There wasn’t any breeze. His scruffy chin had softened with age but he had a wide, white-toothed smile when he recognized his nephew. “Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” said Ben.

For a moment Luke wavered with arms almost open for a hug, but then he settled on holding out his right hand. “Good to see you made it.”

Ben shook the proffered hand, his own almost swallowing it up. Luke stood maybe five-foot-nine, a full six inches shorter than Ben. When they released each other, Luke tugged on the hem of his cable-knit sweater and cleared his throat.

“Well, we’d better get going,” he said. There was a hint of an English accent in his voice, probably from years of living here, but it still had a Massachusetts lilt at its core. “Let me take that suitcase.”

“I’ve got it,” Ben said, picking it up from the ground and carrying it toward the little car. Luke opened the back door for him to shove it inside; it barely fit in the cramped back seat. Ben had no idea how actual people were supposed to get in there. He had problems enough folding himself into the front passenger seat. His knees were pressed into the dashboard to the point of pain.

Luke, settled more comfortably in his own seat, put the car into gear and it jerked forward a few feet. “Sorry,” Luke said. “I don’t drive much. Out of practice, and this old girl has a lot of clutch still.” When they got into second gear, things went more smoothly. “So, how was the trip? Was this your first time flying?”

“No,” Ben replied. “I’ve been out to see my dad in California a couple of times.”

“Oh, yes. Leia told me he’s moved out there. How long ago was it that they divorced?”

“Three years,” said Ben, “when I was fourteen.”

Luke hummed contemplatively. “Well, that’s for the best, I suppose. They were always an unlikely pair.”

Ben scowled down at his cramped thighs. He still remembered the anger-tinged pain when his parents had sat him down at the kitchen table to tell him they were splitting up. His father had just come home from a week on the road and his mother still had her uniform from the hospital on, smelling of antiseptic. They had been across from him, both with eyes as dry as Ben’s. They told him it wasn’t his fault, that the problem lay with them and their disparate tempers. They said they loved him and would still be a family, but he didn’t buy that garbage.

His dad had left that night, taking a bag and ruffling Ben’s hair by way of goodbye. Ben heard some six weeks later that he’d decided to live across the country. What a relief it must have been for him after all those years of pretending he didn’t regret getting married and having a kid. It wasn’t just the long hauls in his truck that kept him away while Ben was growing up, and Ben knew it.

Leia, his mother, had taken on more shifts at the hospital to cover their expenses, even with the monthly checks from Han. Neither of them had ever made much, anyway. Ben was old enough by then to come home to an empty house instead of going to stay with their neighbors, but he still saw more of the walls of his bedroom than of his mother. After the divorce, he finally gave up on bringing home good report cards in order to earn himself at least a hug or his favorite dinner. It was a waste. Classes were easy to skip and it was pretty simple to get cheap beer.

Leia didn’t seem to notice until he was suspended for getting into another fight on school grounds. Only then did she bother to find out that he was failing most of his classes and cutting out of the multiple detentions he had been assigned for absences. She had tried yelling and tried crying, but Ben didn’t care about the feelings she liked to pretend she had for him. Shipping him off to England was what she should have done right after the divorce; it would have freed her just like it freed his father.

“You didn’t have trouble getting the train from the airport, eh?” Luke said as they drove. “It’s a much better system in this country than it is back in the States. What did you think of London?”

“All I saw was the airport, the inside of a taxi, and the train,” Ben said, terse. “But I guess it was fine.”

Luke looked at him out of the corner of his eye, but kept his tone light: “We’ll have to go sometime, maybe at half-term, since you probably won’t want to stick around school.”

Ben said nothing, just staring straight ahead. He didn’t care what they did.

“Anyway,” said Luke, “it’s just five miles to the school grounds. Did Leia tell you about Haverhill’s history?”

“Yeah. I don’t need to hear it again.”

“Ah. That’s fine, then. You’ll learn more about it, too, in your classes and from your peers. Almost all of them have been there since they were thirteen.”

“Uh-huh,” Ben said absently while he watched farm fields go by, some of them with stone fences or hedges between.

Luke kept talking: “Boarding is a different experience than school in Massachusetts, I have to say. It’s regimented, but for the good of the students. We value discipline and focus. You’ll get a good education.” He paused, but then said, “Leia said you were having trouble back home. You were skipping class and getting into fights. Is that true?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ben replied. 

“Well, we won’t tolerate fighting here,” Luke said. “And skipping classes doesn’t happen. The school grounds aren’t so big that you can’t be found.” His voice grew more steely. “Respect and responsibility are important values at Haverhill.”

Ben didn’t bother to acknowledge him, but when he asked “Is that understood?” Ben forced out a “Yeah.”

“It’s ‘Yes, Headmaster,’ when we’re talking about school, Ben,” Luke told him. “There’s that matter of respect. I may be your uncle, but I’m also in charge of you and all the other pupils. No exceptions from the rules will be made for you.”

“I get it,” Ben snapped.

“It’s ‘Yes—’”

Ben said, icy, “Yes, Headmaster.”

They pulled off of the main road onto a gravel drive. A pair of wrought-iron gates flanked it, wide open on rusted hinges. The car bounced along, the plunk of stone hitting the undercarriage the journey’s accompaniment. It wasn’t long before the hulking main building came into view on the other side of a small hillock.

It occupied the center of the grounds, with a kind of castle-like body and two wings on either side enclosing a lawn and babbling fountain. Narrower offshoots with pitched slate roofs and finials shaped like budding flowers came out from the wings, making the whole thing seem exceptionally grand. The stone of the buildings was gray and damp with the rain.

Luke drove them around the far side. Sports fields lay on the outskirts, the close-cropped grass marking them out from the longer trim of the surrounding spaces. The water in a blue-tiled swimming pool beside the fieldhouse caught the scant light and winked.

The car stopped in the round driveway of a stone house with windows that had that wavering, old-fashioned glass that made you dizzy if you looked at it for too long. Luke hit the brakes hard, jerking Ben forward and making his knees connect with the glovebox. He winced.

“This is the headmaster’s lodge,” said Luke as he opened the driver’s door, letting in a gust of cool air. “You’ll be staying with me until term begins and you can move into your dormitory.”

Ben shoved his own door open and eased himself out of the car. He rolled his shoulders to stretch them, even though the trip had been a short one. His suitcase he pulled from the back seat and dropped onto the white gravel at his feet.

Luke stood with his hands on his hips facing the house, squinting up at it as if the sun was behind it. “Come on, Ben. Let’s get you settled upstairs and then something to eat.”

“Alice?” Luke called as he led the way through the heavy wooden front door and into the foyer. It wasn’t overly large, but the ceiling was high and the stairs up to the second floor—wide at the bottom and curving up to a landing with thickly carved banisters—were only a few paces across from the door. A threadbare Oriental runner lined the steps.

From a door to the left, a stout woman with curly hair barely contained by a headband appeared. She was wiping her hands on the half apron she had tied around her ample waist. Her top shone a shocking bright orange, the collar and rolled-up cuffs stark white. The smile she sported bared front teeth with a significant gap between them. She brought with her the smell of freshly baked cookies.

“Headmaster,” she said, “I see you’re back. And with your charge.” She turned to Ben, still grinning. “You must be Mr. Ben Solo, then. Welcome to Haverhill.”

Ben mustered the energy to nod, but he wasn’t about to smile back; he was too tired to say much, let alone match her cheerfulness.

“Alice is my housekeeper,” said Luke. “I wouldn’t be able to keep this place running without her.”

She waved him off. “The usual untruths, sir. The school depends on you; I just keep you fed so you can manage.” To Ben: “You look like you could use some tea, dear. I’ll just put some on for you while you run your luggage up to your room.”

Ben adjusted his hold on his suitcase, his arm already aching from the weight. “Where’s that?” he asked.

“I’ll show you,” Luke told him. “This way.”

They went up the stairs to the second floor, where Ben was shown into a guest bedroom. The fourposter, with its fluffy duvet, beckoned, but Ben needed the bathroom before he could even think about lying down. Luke pointed him in the right direction before saying he’d meet him downstairs for tea as soon as Ben was ready. The implication was clear, though: he was supposed to hurry it up.

Ben used the toilet and then stopped to splash some water on his face. The sink had those terrible double faucets, one for hot and one for cold. He either had to use freezing water or burning hot; there was no in-between. He cursed whoever had decided that was a good idea while he tried to catch some warm and some cool water in his cupped hands.

The mirror had a long crack in the upper leftmost corner and it was mounted so low on the wall that Ben’s reflection was bisected. He looked as bad as he felt: dark circles under his brown eyes, drawn cheeks, and he was pale as a corpse. He just wanted to go to bed and wake up in his room at home in Massachusetts. It was still summer vacation for a couple of days and while he had nothing to do, he could at least have wandered around a town he actually knew.

He followed the smell of food back downstairs and into a little parlor off the foyer. Luke was already sitting in a wingback chair embroidered with blue cornflowers, holding a cup and saucer. A small plate with two cookies on it lay on the table beside him.

Alice came into the room with a tiered server filled with white-bread finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She set it down on the coffee table and gestured for Ben to come. “Here, dear, have something to eat. You must be famished after such a long trip. And that airplane food just doesn’t hold one over, does it?” She shook her head. “Certainly not.”

Ben chose a chair by the sandwiches and, picking one up, shoved the whole triangle into his mouth. It was a strange combination of cream cheese and cucumber, but it wasn’t too bad, so he picked up another while he was still chewing. Alice eyed him with her pink lips compressed, but said nothing. Luke was too busy stirring a slice of lemon around his tea to notice.

“So, Mr. Solo,” said Alice, sinking down onto the very edge of a chair across from him, “you’re to start in sixth form. That’s admittedly not the easiest time to enter a new school, with only this year left before you finish. Most of the boys here have been studying together since they left prep school and came to Haverhill. Has it been decided which house you’ll be in yet?”

“House?” Ben said.

Alice raised her unshaped eyebrows. “Have you not been told how things work here?” She glanced at Luke. “Have you not told him?”

Luke took a sip of his tea, the china clinking as he put the cup back down on the saucer. “I thought maybe his mother would have, but apparently not. What did she tell you, Ben?”

He shrugged. “That the school’s been around since the eighteen-hundreds and it’s pretty fancy.”

Alice stifled a laugh with her pudgy-fingered hand. “Oh my. You have quite a bit to learn, dear. At least tell him about the houses, sir, even if you’ve not chosen one for him yet.”

“I have,” said Luke. “There was space in Arkanis House this year.”

“Ah,” Alice said, sobering. “Well, I’m sure Housemaster Snoke will do well in overseeing his progress.”

Ben, baffled and fighting with rising annoyance, cut in: “You going to keep at the Greek, or does someone want to tell me what the hell is going on?”

Alice gave a little gasp of shock and Luke glared.

“Watch your language,” he said. “We speak with dignity here.” He paused, expectant, but when Ben didn’t apologize, he pressed on: “If Leia didn’t tell you anything about the system here, I might as well.

“The school is divided into five houses, with around ten boys in each year. There are nine in upper sixth form in Arkanis House; that’s why there was space for you there. Your house is the center of your life at Haverhill. It’s where you sleep, and the boys in your year are those with whom you’ll have your lessons. Housemaster Snoke looks after Arkanis House. He oversees the daily activities there, from games to discipline.” Luke gave Ben a level look. “He has a stern hand and expects the best from his house. He certainly won’t put up with any fighting.”

Ben didn’t say anything, just picked up another sandwich. Alice poured him a cup of tea, which he ignored. He had been warned like this more times than he could count; it was nothing new and nothing interesting.

“Master Snoke also teaches maths,” Luke continued. “You’ll see him a few times a week for your lessons. Since he can’t be involved in every single thing in the house at all times, he appoints a head boy to manage things he can’t. The head boy will be in sixth form, as you are. He has prefects who also manage affairs in the house. You’ll meet them all this weekend when they arrive to move in.”

“Sounds fancy,” Ben said. “Just like Mom told me.” He drummed his fingertips on the arm of his chair. “You said games. What kind of games?”

“Oh, sport!” Alice interjected, beaming. “It’s a very important part of a boy’s education to have a healthy love of sport. There’s rugger and cricket and swimming. Which do you prefer?”

“I don’t do sports,” said Ben. “They tried to get me to try out for the track team once. I told them to fu—no.”

Luke said, “Well, you’ll have to play here. The houses compete for points. The best of the year wins a trophy.”

“Impressive,” Ben said, exactly the opposite of impressed. “But there’s no way I’m doing that.”

“I’m afraid you haven’t got a choice,” said Luke. “There’s a daily sport period in the schedule.”

The sandwiches suddenly tasted ashy, and Ben set a half-finished one down on a plate. There was no way in hell he was going to be doing that; there had to be a way out of it. But from his uncle’s steely expression and Alice’s eager one, he wasn’t sure there was. Maybe he could just stand in the back field and kick a ball occasionally to get credit for the class—if they even had credit like they did in high school back home.

“Anyway, you’ll get used to the schedule,” Luke said. “It’s very rigorous.”

Ben sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “Right,” he grumbled. “So, everybody moves in this weekend? What am I supposed to do until then?”

“Certainly your uncle will show you around the grounds tomorrow,” said Alice. “There’s a great deal to see. And you’ll need to be fitted for your uniforms. I’ve made arrangements down at Fischer’s in the village for you.”

The dress code was one of the things Ben’s mother had insisted would be good for him, and it was part of the reason he had only been allowed to bring one suitcase: he wouldn’t need the clothes. He hated the idea of stuffy uniforms, but there were worse things, he could concede.

“Sounds great,” he said flatly.

Luke turned a cool blue gaze on him. He looked so little like his twin that Ben never would have called them for it had he not been told. “You’re going to thrive here, Ben,” he said. “It will be a beneficial experience.”

Since Ben was finished eating and his tea had gone untouched, he was permitted to leave just a few minutes later. It was only a quarter past seven, but Luke told him to go up and get some sleep. He’d have to get used to being five hours ahead of Massachusetts.

He brushed his teeth using the cold water tap and then stripped down to his underwear. It was chilly in the house, but hadn’t slept in pajamas since he was ten. Curling up under the duvet, he breathed in the unfamiliar lavender laundry detergent smell of the sheets. Beneficial experience, Luke had said. Ben doubted it. He just had to suffer through this for a year and then he could go home. There wasn’t exactly a bright future waiting for him there, but England was just as bleak.

 


 

Mornings at Haverhill apparently started at half past six, because an alarm clock Ben hadn’t even noticed on his bedside table started ringing its insistent bells at that godforsaken hour. He blindly sought the mechanism to turn it off, but couldn’t manage and had to open his eyes and pick it up to flick the switch. He rolled back under the duvet, groaning and intending to go right back to sleep, but what seemed like only seconds later, his door opened and he heard Luke’s voice: “Good morning, Ben!”

Peeling back the duvet, Ben squinted at him.

“Rise and shine,” Luke continued. “Breakfast is in a half hour. Alice ran you a bath. It should still be warm if you hurry.”

“Bath?” said Ben. “Like in a tub? Isn’t there a shower?”

“Not in this old house.” Luke rapped his knuckles on the doorjamb. “Come on, then, up and at ‘em.”

He disappeared back into the hall and Ben, fuzzy headed, managed to drag himself out of bed. He had to put on yesterday’s clothes to venture down the hallway to the bathroom, where there was indeed a claw-footed bathtub full of steaming water awaiting him. He stripped down again and slipped into it. Admittedly, it felt good.

There were various floral-scented bath products arranged on a shelf by the tub, and Ben helped himself to shampoo. He scrubbed his hair, which he kept longer these days: it hung down to his shoulders and covered his ears. Wet, it was heavy, but would dry into waves in the humid English air. He soaped up the rest of his body, washing away the sweat of international travel and a night in an unfamiliar, if soft, bed. He felt his chin for any stubble, but there was none; he only had to shave every few days.

Clean and dressed in fresh corduroys and a green sweater, he went downstairs and followed the scent of sausage into the dining room. Luke was already seated with his breakfast on a plate in front of him and the newspaper folded in quarters to his left. He wore a pair of reading glasses on his wide nose, and glanced up over them at Ben as he walked into the room.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

“I guess,” Ben replied, once again noncommittal, even if he did feel better. He sat down at the place that had been set for him at Luke’s right and reached for the plate of link sausages. Next to it was a basket of white toast and an uncovered dish of softened butter. Luke also had a helping of brown beans over his slice of toast, which Ben forwent.

“What a thing,” Luke said, tapping the page of newsprint. “Unemployment at over a million. Turning into a bit of a problem, I’d say.”

Ben buttered his toast and let his uncle talk to himself. The sausage was good, greasy and flavorful. There was a pot of coffee to be had, but Ben didn’t reach for it. He spotted a pitcher of orange juice, though, and settled for that.

“Got to worry about the economy when things get to this point,” Luke muttered, shaking his head and taking his glasses off. “The boys here will be lucky to skip the workforce for now and go to university. Do you have an idea of what you want to study, Ben?”

Ben paused in eating, half-chewed toast in his mouth. He swallowed after a moment of stalling. “I’m not going to college,” he said.

Luke’s bushy gray eyebrows rose. “You’re not?”

“Mom and Dad didn’t,” said Ben, “so why would I? I’m not really good at school, anyway.”

“Not if your marks have anything to say about it,” Luke countered. “I have all of your school records, and you had stellar marks throughout all of your education...until three years ago.”

Ben kept his face turned down, concentrating on eating, and said nothing.

“If you do well here,” Luke pressed, “you could attend university in England. There are some very good ones, even if you don’t shoot for Oxford or Cambridge. Most of the boys here do, unless they’re bound for the military. We have a few of those.” He scratched his beard. “I’m sure your mother would be proud if you decided to continue your studies.”

“I won’t,” Ben told him coldly. “But I’m not joining the Army, either.”

“No? What will you do, then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll drive a truck like my dad.” He stabbed a sausage with his fork and bit it in half, functionally ending the conversation.

Luke wasn’t deterred. “That would be a waste of your talents, I think. But the choice is yours in the end.” He poured himself another half cup of coffee. “Here at Haverhill, however, you’ll be expected to try for high marks. We value academics.”

“And sports,” Ben grumbled.

He got a light laugh in reply. “Yes, and sports. Boys need to expend their energy in constructive ways. Sport is good for that. You can tackle a man in rugby instead of hitting him in the corridors. It’s cathartic.”

Ben snorted. “Sure.”

“Anyway,” said Luke, “today we’ll tour the grounds and then go for your fitting at Fischer’s. Perhaps we’ll have lunch in the village. There’s a fine pub there.”

“Can I get a beer?” Ben asked.

Luke frowned. “No.”

Ben turned back to his food.

Alice appeared a few minutes later to clear the dishes. She was dressed once again in vibrant colors—this time lime green—and her hair was a light brown puff of curls. “Good morning, Mr. Solo. You’re looking fit. I hope you got a good night’s sleep.”

“Too short one,” Ben said.

“You’ll adjust to the time change,” said Luke, rising from his place at the head of the table and coming around it toward the door. He clapped Ben on the shoulder as he passed. “Let’s be off.” In the foyer, he asked, “Have you got a jacket? It’s raining a bit.”

Ben shook his head. “I left it at home.”

“Well, you can borrow one of mine.” Luke reached for a tan raincoat, but Ben knew it wouldn’t fit him. He said as much and Luke muttered, “Oh, yes, of course. Take the umbrella, then.”

Ben did, and he actually did open it as they went out through the chilly precipitation. Luke led the way in purposeful strides across the lawn toward the main building. It took a full five minutes to walk all the way around the side to where the fountain was babbling on the main green.

“The largest structure started out as a country house for an earl in the early nineteenth century,” Luke told him, “but it was almost completely knocked down when the school was established. A few walls remain, though not many. Construction started in 1882 and was completed in 1884, when Haverhill opened for the first eighty students.” He pointed to the far left side of the building. “They all boarded there initially, but the dormitories have expanded since then. Each of the five houses has their own wing, now. These two”—a gesture at the additions to the left and right of the main building—“are Fircroft and Elmfield, the two oldest houses.

“Behind them are Oakeshott and Raglan. Arkanis is on the north side. I’ll show you later.” He took a step toward the front doors. “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

The entryway was massive and soared up at least three stories, mirrored stone staircases winding up around both sides of the space. The floors were gray flagstone, bare and worn with almost a century’s worth of boys’ feet. It was somewhat warmer in the building, but drafty, as if some hidden bellows was blowing air from the nooks under the stairs.

“The dining hall is straight through the doors here,” Luke said. “We all eat together three meals a day, as soon as term starts. Breakfast is at seven-thirty every morning, lunch at half one, and supper at six. You have a house meeting after breakfast for announcements—usually short—and then there’s chapel.”

“We have to go to church?” Ben demanded. Neither of his parents had been churchgoing and he had been in one only once, when he and his mother had been sightseeing in Boston.

“Only to sing a hymn or two, say your prayers, and hear something from the chaplain. It’s fifteen minutes at most.”

“I don’t pray.”

Luke shrugged. “Then you can contemplate something else for a few minutes. It’s tradition here to attend chapel. You’ll get used to it.”

Ben scowled at the green and gold school banner, which hung from the second story and was adorned with a sprawling tree under some other kind of elaborate heraldry. It looked like fruit was hanging from the branches, but Ben couldn’t make out what kind.

“Come along,” said Luke. “I’ll show you the classrooms.” They ascended the rightmost staircase, and he narrated as they went: “Lessons start at nine o’clock every day and last about forty minutes each. You’ll take classes in maths and classics and English literature and composition. There’s history and geography, too. Do you have a favorite subject?”

“Not really,” said Ben, stepping up onto the second floor landing. “What’s classics?”

Luke turned to him, seemingly affronted. “Latin and Greek, of course. The poets and philosophers of the ancient world.”

Ben blinked uncomprehendingly. “You mean we have to read dead languages? Like, in a class?”

Luke actually blanched. “You’ve not had either in school?”

“No,” Ben said. “I took Spanish, and I failed it. Why the hell would someone want to learn Greek?”

“Mind your language!” Luke stopped, pinching the bridge of his nose. “The classics are the foundation of a complete education. I had Latin in my schools in America when I was young. Greek I learned at Cambridge. You’ve really not had any?”

Crossing his arms, Ben said stolidly, “Nope.”

Luke worried his cheek, shifting his weight between his feet. “Well, you can’t just go into the younger boys’ classes to learn the basics. Someone will have to tutor you to get you up to speed.” He sighed. “Finding the time and the right boy…”

“Don’t you teach classics?” Ben asked. “Can’t you do it?”

“No,” Luke replied. “That wouldn’t be appropriate. It could be seen as favoritism, and word will get around quickly enough that you’re my nephew. And teachers don’t spend one-on-one time with boys. It’s...inappropriate.”

There was subtext that Ben couldn’t quite puzzle out in that, but he didn’t press the matter.

“It will have to be one of the other pupils who works with you,” his uncle concluded. “I’ll have to arrange it when the boys from your house arrive, speak to Housemaster Snoke about the keenest ones who have the time. You certainly can’t just sit in on the class without being prepared to delve into the material. What do you know of Herodotus?”

“Who?” Ben said.

Luke pinched his eyes shut, as if mourning. “Yes, well, we’ll see to it that you’re caught up. Come along, now.”

They turned down the nearest hallway, which had very little natural light filtering in through narrow horizontal windows set high in the wall. The ceilings were beamed with ornately carved dark wood, the plaster above yellowing. It cast an imposing air over the place—hallowed halls of knowledge and all that, Ben supposed. There was a mildly musty smell to the whole place: aged and damp.

“This is Housemaster Krennic’s classroom,” said Luke as they stopped outside a small room filled wall to wall with old-fashioned student desks, their wood tops the kind that lifted to allow you to put your books inside and, if Ben wasn’t imagining it, a circle at the top corner to hold an inkwell. The wood was discolored from years of lacquer and Ben could only imagine that the hinges creaked.

“What house is he ‘master’ of?” Ben asked.

“Fircroft,” said Luke. “They have a good relationship with the Arkanis boys, even if they don’t mix much. You might run into trouble with Oakeshott. They’re Arkanis’s rivals in academics and sport. Mainly sport.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Don’t talk to Oakeshott, got it.”

Luke shook his head. “It’s not that you can’t talk to them, but there’s just some animosity. And schools today are more modern in how the houses interact. There was a time when you kept only to your house and to your year. Speaking with younger boys or boys from another house was frowned upon.”

“Why?” Ben had found himself hanging around some older kids when he had skipped school, but he wouldn’t really have called them friends. He had never really had many of those in the first place; he had been either too focused on his grades—before—or just didn’t care enough to bother.

“Well, it’s a complicated history,” said Luke with the same kind of caution Ben had heard when he talked about masters and boys being alone together, “but some younger boys got an unsuitable kind of attention from the older boys and administration strove to keep them separate.” He waved a hand. “But things have changed in the last few years with more flexible governance in the schools.”

Ben had no real idea what he meant. Whatever he was trying to say was shrouded in “flexible governance” and “unsuitable attention.” It made the sentences sound important without actually saying anything understandable; people at his school in Massachusetts had done it with him, too.

“I try to foster a healthy environment here,” Luke continued, “even if sometimes the old ways are too ingrained to completely buff out.”

“Okay,” Ben muttered.

Luke took a breath. “Anyway, Master Krennic teaches English. You’ve had at least that in school, haven’t you?”

Ben nodded. “Everything else you said, we had. Just not the Latin and Greek. What about science? Biology or chemistry?”

“Ah, those things are not traditionally taught in a public school. Haverhill was meant to educate gentlemen, and for most of them science was a hobby, not a subject to study in school.” He sniffed. “That classics were considered more important.”

Ben heaved a sigh. This place made even less sense than his uncle’s makeshift history lesson. “Whatever.”

From the classroom, they continued down the hall, Luke pointing out other spaces. Mostly it was closed-off classrooms, which were mirrored on the other side of the main building. It all looked similar enough that Ben was sure he wouldn’t remember how to get anywhere when term actually started.

“The staff offices are on the third floor,” Luke explained, “but you likely won’t be called to one unless you’ve done something to merit punishment. And I can rely on you not to, correct?”

Ben guessed right in saying, “Yes, Headmaster.” The words tasted sour.

Luke gave a curt, satisfied nod. “Good. Now, why don’t we venture outside again? I’ll show you the chapel courtyard and and sports fields.”

The rest of the grounds took a good part of the morning to explore, and Luke talked all the while, outlining more of Haverhill’s background and rattling off sports records. Apparently, boys from the other schools around the country would play each other in cricket or rugby once or twice a year and the whole school made a big deal of it: sitting out on the lawn with tea and “biscuits” and cheering on your classmates. It sounded awful. At least there wasn’t a play Ben would be forced to do. He was also told if he didn’t want to sing in the chapel choir, he didn’t have to.

“Shall we head to the village, then?” Luke said as they arrived back at the headmaster’s lodge after a dewy walk around the cricket pitch and between the crumbling, tin-roofed sports equipment sheds.

With no other choice, Ben said, “Yeah, okay.”

He folded himself uncomfortably into the little orange car again, and Luke started the engine; a belt whined as it warmed up. In jerky, stuttering motions, Luke got the car rolling around the driveway and toward the central lane that led from the front lawn of the school building to the iron gates some quarter mile away. They passed very little traffic on their drive, the feeble windshield wipers struggling to slough off the rain.

They drove by the empty train depot and on down a shallow hill to where a few houses began to come into view. Tindon was a tiny place with no more than five hundred residents, Luke told him, but most public schools were out in the country like that. The village had the essentials—butcher, baker, pharmacy, tailor’s shop, pub—and little more. Luke pulled the car onto a side street and yanked on the parking brake. They had already rounded the corner onto a larger thoroughfare when Ben realized he had forgotten the umbrella.

Fischer’s was a remarkably airy shop with sharply dressed mannequins positioned in the large front windows. Ben recognized the heraldry of Haverhill on one of the hunter green blazers: a patch sewn onto the breast. Paired with it was an awful yellow tie striped with the same green and black and a white shirt, khaki trousers. Ben couldn’t imagine wearing it, but with the way things were going, he expected he was about to.

A bell tinkled on the door as he and Luke entered the shop, summoning a lanky man with leathery skin and white hair from behind a counter. He offered Luke a nicotine-stained smile and a handshake.

“Jacob Fischer,” Luke said, “this is my nephew, Ben Solo, who is matriculating at Haverhill this term.”

“A pleasure to meet you, lad,” said Fischer, also shaking Ben’s hand. Ben could feel all the bones in it, fragile and grinding like a chicken’s. “We’re to get you outfitted for school, then, are we?” He looked Ben up and down, appraising. “You’ll need a good fitting for your size. Stand over there by the mirror, lad.”

Ben went across the shop floor to where a tri-paneled mirror stood against the wall. A raised platform waited there for him to step up onto. He had seen this kind of thing in movies, but never expected to do it in real life; it was something out of history, just like the rest of Haverhill.

“How’s business?” Luke asked as Fischer returned with a tape measure around his neck and a few pairs of trousers slung over his arm.

“Fair to middling,” Fischer replied. He pushed a pair of tan trousers into Ben’s hand and said, “Off with yours and on with these. You’ll tell me if the waist is too tight.”

Ben cast a glance around to see if there was a private place to change his clothes, but when he turned up nothing, he quickly undid the button fly of his jeans and shimmied out of them. The tan trousers fit well around the waist, which Ben was sure Fischer had already known before he picked them out. He figured the old man was the kind of fairytale tailor who could gauge a size just by looking.

“You always say that,” Luke laughed, sitting in a chair nearby. “Surely all of the boys still come here to be outfitted, even up from London.”

Fischer ushered Ben onto the platform and made him turn around in a circle, lifting his sweater hem up to bare his belly. He did this all with gestures and movements alone, talking to Luke all the while. “I’d say a good number of them do; their mums and dads know the quality of the work, but sometimes a trip here is too much when they’re off on a continental holiday for the summer and all that.”

“How many haven’t you seen in the past two weeks, then?” Luke asked, wry.

Fischer grumbled, “Enough.”

Luke chuckled, resting his hands on his belly as he sat in the armchair. “Well, Ben will certainly give you some good business. He needs everything from underwear and socks to ties.”

Ben shot him a look. “I have my own underwear.”

“Not the appropriate kind, however,” said Luke. He and Fischer shared a laugh while the tailor tugged at Ben’s waistline and then stooped to measure the fall of his pant legs. They were too short.

“I’ll have to put you in the long cut, then,” he said, much to himself. “But can’t be having a looser waist. They don’t feed you well enough up there on the hill to fatten you up.”

Luke scoffed. “Our fare is more than enough for growing boys, Jacob. I don’t starve them like a Victorian headmaster, I’ll thank you to remember.”

Ben looked down his long and lean torso, thinking that breakfast had already gone through him and he was getting hungry for lunch. Fischer made another few measurements at Ben’s feet before standing upright again and clearing his throat. Close, he smelled of cigarettes.

“Fine, fine,” Fischer muttered as he manipulated Ben’s arms so that he was holding them out to be measured. He wrapped the tape measure around Ben’s neck, too, under his hair. “We’ve got shirts in stock for you. Socks and pants, too, but the jacket will have to be cut to suit. I should have it by, hm, Thursday.”

“That’s more than time enough,” said Luke. “Term doesn’t start until Monday, but Alice will need time to sew in the tags. She’s a quick hand with the needle, as you well know.”

Fischer smiled almost wistfully. “Pretty Alice, yes. She’s still up there with you, then? Thought she would have been married years ago.”

Luke shook his head. “She could never find a man good enough for her. And I would sorely hate to lose her.”

Ben watched him in the mirror’s reflection, recognizing the fond look there and wondering if maybe Luke was weighing himself against Alice’s apparently stringent requirements for marriage. The look faded as fast as it had come, however, and Luke was back to the banter with Fischer about his business.

Put through a few more rounds of trousers and then a tie fitting, Ben said nothing. Both Fischer and Luke were aghast when they learned that he couldn’t do up the tie knot himself. Han Solo had never once in his life worn a tie—not even to his wedding—and his son hadn’t had much cause to, either. Luke came up beside him and walked him through the simplest knot that would serve for school.

“I’ll teach you more later,” he said as he tightened it far too much, restricting Ben’s airflow. As soon as he had stepped away, Ben hurriedly loosened the noose.

“He’ll have everything ready in time,” said Fischer as he ambled back to the counter and began to ring numbers up on his antiquated till. “On your account, Headmaster?”

“Hm, yes,” said Luke. “I’ll have to telephone Leia about it. In fact…” He turned to Ben. “We should have rung her yesterday when you got here. She’ll likely be worried sick wondering if you got here safely.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s fine,” said Ben, flat.

On the day he left, there had been no time for more than a peck on the cheek and a crooked, half-formed hug by the time he and his mother got to the airport. She had been running late from the hospital again, and if she didn’t have a lead foot, he would have missed his flight. The sharp edge of Leia’s handbag had knocked against Ben’s knee as she had pulled him down for the obligatory kiss; she had struggled to keep it on her shoulder in their rush to get to the gate. Ben had carried his suitcase alongside her, taking one stride for every two of hers.

“Be good for your uncle,” she had said, giving his hand a last squeeze.

That had been her send-off, and Ben was positive she had slept soundly that night and then woken up for the early shift at the hospital the next morning without a second thought.

“Well, we’ll still telephone when we get back to the lodge,” Luke said, clearly resolved. To Fischer: “If everything’s in order, then we’ll be by on Thursday to pick the lot up.”

Back in his own clothes again, Ben followed Luke out of the shop and back onto the street. The rain was falling heavier now and Luke cursed, pulling up the collar of his raincoat. Ben trailed behind him, his hair already beginning to grow damp, as they made their way down the street to another crooked-roofed building in the Tudor style. Ben could only guess if it was authentic or not.

Inside, it was warm and smokey, darker than Fischer’s shop. A pair of older men were seated at the bar, one of them sucking on an unlit pipe. A bartender was behind the bar, cleaning the taps with a stained rag. “Hello,” he said gruffly when the door had shut behind Luke and Ben. “Get you something?”

“Two steak pies, I should think,” Luke replied. “And a pot of tea to share.”

“I don’t like tea,” said Ben.

Luke patted his bicep. “You’ll come to.” He went to a high-backed booth in a corner and slid inside. The unpadded wooden bench was hard on Ben’s seat bones.

Sitting down for the first time in an hour, Ben peered around the pub. It was cramped and old, but the smell of food from the kitchen was tantalizing; his stomach growled. He didn’t know what a steak pie was, but he was ready to eat almost anything at that point.

“When did you come here?” he asked Luke, who had been removing his raincoat and pushing it to the side.

“To Tindon?” Luke said. “Or Haverhill?”

“Both.”

Luke rubbed his chin, his short nails rasping in his beard. “Going on twenty-four years now, I think. I got the position right out of university.” He lowered his voice, eyeing Ben pointedly. “As classics master. But I took over the headmastership five years ago, when my predecessor, Owen Kenobi, retired. Good God, he’d had the job for over three decades.”

Ben said, “Did you always want to be a teacher?”

“I can’t say I did, but I wasn’t going to be a scholar, so I ended up in the right place. Haverhill is as much home as anywhere else, I suppose.” He smiled. “A school like this grows on you, absorbs you. It will be become part of your legacy, too, and shape you in ways you don’t expect.”

Ben wrinkled his nose. “I doubt it.”

Luke shrugged. “Just wait and see. By the end of the year, you might be a whole new person, Ben.”

The tea arrived, and then shortly after what looked like a chicken pot pie, but with mashed potatoes and a boat of gravy on the side. When Ben cut it open, the scent of cooked beef and ale rose up, filling his nose and making his mouth water. The first bite was divine.

“Like it, eh?” Luke said with a wink. “It’s my favorite, too.”

Ben nodded as he chewed, already busily cutting another chunk of flaky crust and dousing it in gravy. He covetously eyed the older men’s pint glasses of dark brown beer, but forced himself to try some of the tea. He drank it plain in three gulps, despite the temperature.

Luke settled the bill with coins unfamiliar to Ben, leaving them on the table with a colorful banknote as he gathered his coat again. They didn’t have any more errands to run, he said, so they would return to the lodge and spend the afternoon.

“I think I’ve got a rudimentary Latin grammar in the library,” he told Ben. “You can start there this week and build a foundation for your tutor.”

Ben didn’t protest, even if he didn’t relish the thought of reading anything that was called a “grammar.”

Back at the lodge, Luke called for Alice to arrange an international telephone call for Ben. He hoped his mother was actually home as the ringing tone sounded in his left ear. After seven rings, Leia picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mom.”

“Ben!” She sounded surprised. “Oh, I’m glad to hear from you. You must be at Luke’s by now.”

“Uh-huh. I got here yesterday.”

“Good.” She paused. “How is it?”

Ben replied, “Fine, I guess. Weird. Old. I just got fitted for my uniform.”

“You sound absolutely thrilled about that,” his mother said dryly. When Ben didn’t say anything, she continued: “Will you put your uncle on? I haven’t talked to him in years.”

“Okay. Hang on.” He set the handset down and went looking for Luke, whom he found in the small library with a battered book in his hand. “Mom wants to talk to you,” Ben told him. More than me.

“Oh, very good,” Luke said. As he went by, he handed Ben the book. “Have a look at this.”

Alone in the library, Ben flipped the book open to the first page: the Latin grammar. He looked at the words he had never seen and didn’t understand with a kind of hopelessness. The reality of everything was just beginning to set it; he had to be here without an escape. His mom cared more about catching up with her twin than about her son—not that Ben had much to say to her anyway. He snapped the grammar shut and stalked back out into the foyer. From the parlor, he could hear Luke chatting with Leia. He lingered in case she wanted to say goodbye to him, which she did, briefly.

“I love you, Ben,” she said.

“Yeah, you, too. Bye, Mom.” He hung up the phone.

Luke was smiling at him. “Well, I suppose it’s official now. You’re over here and term will be starting soon. You’ve got the rest of the afternoon to yourself, if you want it. I’ll call you down for tea around six.”

Ben didn’t waste time; he went upstairs to his room and closed the door firmly behind him. He fell back onto the bed, which had been made in his absence. The ceiling above him was low and ancient, compounding the feeling of being trapped. Tears pricked his eyes, but he didn’t dare let them fall. At some point, he fell asleep.

 


 

On Thursday morning after breakfast, Luke drove him back to Fischer’s to pick up his school clothes, which Luke entrusted to Alice to “get ready.” They had a light lunch before Ben was given liberty again. It was a rare sunny day, and warmer than the last few, so he ventured outside and over to the pool. It was locked, but he managed to scale the fence. He took off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and stuck his feet in the water. At least he could pretend for a few minutes that it was a real summer.

First and second and third conjugations of Latin verbs swam in his head as he sat at the poolside. Luke had spent time with him over the past days introducing the language, which was already more complicated than Spanish; Ben had struggled enough with that even when he was attending class. His uncle was sometimes inspired by a certain quirk of the grammar to do a reading from some formative ancient text, which Ben listened to without comprehending. Sometimes he got a full translation and other times Luke just launched into a lecture about the content. The words rolled over Ben in waves he barely heard; he spent more time looking out of the window at the field beyond the lodge than reading the book in his lap.

He had had free hours to walk through that field, damp, fresh-cut grass sticking to the toes of his shoes. The school grounds were lined with stands of trees into which he could disappear, even if he couldn’t climb up onto low limbs and tuck himself away. Alice had warned that the “forest” was off limits to students during the term, when they were expected to stay within bounds.

“I’ll admit,” she had said the day before when she and Luke and Ben had been having tea in the parlor, “the boys aren’t afforded much freedom, but that’s by design. Otherwise they’d be getting into all manner of trouble, wouldn’t they, Headmaster?”

Luke had given a grunt of affirmation.

Alice had leaned in toward Ben, conspiratorially whispering, “A little trouble isn’t so bad.” She had given him an expectant look, but he had just taken a bite of a cookie and kept his eyes straight ahead.

Swinging his feet through the cool water of the pool, he drummed his fingers on the cover of the grammar where it lay at his side. It had a few of Luke’s margin notes in it, some of which were in English and others in Latin. Ben had, on one occasion, opened the thick dictionary Luke kept on his desk and looked up the words, brokenly translating them and marking it down under Luke’s looping scrawl in pencil. His own handwriting was blocky and easy to read; the cursive he had been forced to learn long disused.

Luke had told him that he would have to pass the final Latin exam if he wanted to pass the course, which meant in no uncertain terms that he had to bone up fast and cleverly. The ghost of his drive to succeed began to make itself known as he cracked a composition notebook and copied vocabulary. He wasn’t about to admit that to his uncle, though.

The school building lay to the northwest of the pool, at Ben’s back, but he cast a glance over his shoulder at it, still uncertain as to what he was going to face when the other students returned. He didn’t crave friendship, seeking only to get through the academic year and, hopefully, pass his exams. Luke hadn’t mentioned what would happen if he didn’t, but Ben anticipated that it would be a longer sentence at Haverhill; he didn’t need or want that. The sense of unbelonging hung heavy over him, the look and feel of the grounds foreign and discomfiting.

“Oi!” came a voice from the other side of the pool’s fence. “How did you get in there?”

Ben turned to see a grizzled man standing there glaring at him, a ring of old brass keys jingling in his knobby hand as he fussed with the padlock on the gate.

“Boys aren’t permitted in here unsupervised,” he continued, incensed. “You’re not even supposed to be here until the weekend. Who are you?”

Ben pulled his feet from the water and onto the deck, leaving wet footprints on the concrete. “The headmaster’s nephew,” he said, loudly enough to be heard. “I, um, got here early.”

The man paused, having marked Ben’s accent. “American?” he grumbled.

“Yeah,” Ben said, reaching down to pick up his shoes and socks and the Latin grammar. “Who are you?”

“Groundskeeper,” the man replied as he swung the pool gate open. “McDougle. Come out of there. Quick now.”

Ben took his time—deliberately—but went out the gate onto the grass.

“What are you called, headmaster’s nephew?” McDougle asked.

“Ben Solo.”

“Don’t share a name with the headmaster, then.” He had brown hair fading to gray and liver spots on his sinewy forearms, bared by rolled-up sleeves. His brown trousers were stained with what looked like soil and maybe grease; his boots were worn at the toes from years of rough treatment. It was plain he worked outside.

“No,” Ben said.

McDougle made an honest-to-God harrumphing sound and locked the pool gate again. “Going to school here, then? You’re too big to be fourth form.”

Ben shoved one hand into his trouser pocket, the other cradling the grammar at his side. “Upper sixth, I guess. Arkanis House.”

The groundskeeper snorted. “Oh, that’ll be a treat. Snoke runs it with an iron fist. Administers the most canings per year, far as I know.”

“He does what?” Ben asked, taken aback. Surely he didn’t mean actual beatings.

He got a harsh, rheumy laugh. “It’s just what it sounds like. He puts boys over the block and switches them, and not lightly.”

Ben’s mouth hung open. “No way.”

“They must do things differently in America,” said McDougle with a crooked smile. “Cross the housemaster or even the head boy in this place and you can earn yourself a caning.” He wagged a finger at Ben. “You’d best watch yourself. Breaking into the pool would likely get you one, if Snoke were here. And you shouldn’t dare think of actually swimming without your gamesmaster. Ten strikes at least. Sore bum for days.”

Ben, unbelieving, shook his head. “Jesus.”

McDougle laughed again. “Get gone now, boy. I’ve work to do and I can’t be dallying around here talking to you.”

“Fine,” Ben grumbled as he stalked past the groundskeeper and toward the lodge barefoot.

He carried his shoes back inside, making sure to wipe the grass from his feet on the doormat. Strains of the Bee Gees floated into the foyer from the parlor, and he followed them in to find Alice sitting in one of the chairs with a radio next to her. One of his school shirts was in her lap and she was stitching something into the collar.

“Hi,” Ben said, approaching her.

She glanced up, beaming. “Hello, dear.” Her gaze went to his shoes and rolled up trousers. “Been outside, have you? Lovely day for it. Would you like something to eat?”

“No thanks.” He shuffled closer, eyeing his shirt. “What are you doing?”

“Sewing in your nametags,” she said, lifting the shirt to display the neatly written Benjamin Solo on the tag. “You need one for everything. They do the washing in big batches and without the tags, your clothes will never find their way back to you.” She brandished a pair of the plain white underwear Ben had been supplied with. “Even these.”

“Great,” he mumbled.

Alice’s smile softened some. “I know this is all different for you, and a bit overwhelming. It’s a big change to come to a school like this after yours in America. The headmaster told me about how it works over there. Things are more formal here.”

“I met McDougle outside,” Ben said. “He told me that people get caned if they break the rules.”

“Oh, dear,” Alice sighed. “McDougle can be upfront. It’s not as common as it used to be, but sometimes it still happens.”

“He said Housemaster Snoke does it more than others.”

Alice worried the collar of Ben’s shirt. “He’s a very severe man, I’m afraid. He was brought up in public schools like Haverhill, but in an earlier generation. He’s some ten years older than your uncle. The old ways of doing things are sewn as surely into him as your tags are into this. If you don’t cross him, though, he won’t trouble you.”

Ben chewed his cheek. “Yeah, McDougle said that, too.”

“Things might be difficult for you at the start of term, dear,” Alice said sedately. “Outsiders aren’t always welcomed warmly. The boys here can be...selective in who they get on with. I’m sure you’ll do all right, but it’s only fair to warn you. Your uncle has played it down so far.”

Ben looked down at his clothes from home and then to the neat white shirt he would have to wear at school. It would make him blend in, but his voice would stick out. He wasn’t here to make nice, though; he’d survive.

“Anyway, dear,” said Alice, “I’ve gotten your trunk upstairs for you. As soon as I’m finished with these clothes, I’ll send them up for you to pack. Best to do it yourself so you know what’s where.”

“Okay,” he said. “Um, why do I need a trunk? I have my suitcase.”

“Oh, a trunk is customary. You keep it at the foot of your bed, with all your private things in it. Everyone knows not to root through someone’s trunk.”

Ben nodded shallowly. “Okay.”

Alice got to her feet—the top of her head came only to the middle of Ben’s chest—and took his hand in her petite one. “Be brave, Mr. Solo.” A beat and then: “You’ll need it.”

Ben went upstairs to his room, where a wooden trunk was waiting for him, its lid open. A brass nameplate was screwed onto the top of it. It looked expensive. He wondered if Luke had asked his mother for money, or if he had just paid for it himself. Ben would probably never know, since he wasn’t going to ask.

The trunk smelled of varnish and leather, other old-fashioned scents that he would never have associated with school. His single-floor high school had been built a decade before and mostly reeked of linoleum cleaner and occasionally a whiff of marijuana. Haverhill was like traveling back in time, from the drafty building with its high ceilings to the custom-made trunk for his “private things.”

He didn’t have much other than his clothes from home, all of which would be packed away into some closet in the lodge, not be touched. Keepsakes and little boy’s treasures had been left in his bedroom in his mother’s house, surely to become dusty and forgotten. Everything he would be taking to the dormitory in Arkanis House was new and unworn, impersonal. It suited the situation, Ben supposed: everything was unfamiliar and orderly and stiff.

Slamming the trunk shut, he sat on it and put his face in his hands, bitterly resigned.

Chapter Text

Arkanis House was a lot bigger than Ben had expected. A hulking product of Victorian architects, it had pitched roofs with tall rectangular windows set into the broad gables on the third floor. The levels below it had similar windows, all original leaded glass and iron grilles. It was home to the fifty Arkanis boys, from third form to upper sixth. 

The house had two common rooms. That on the first floor—the ground floor, as the English called it—was given to the younger boys for the sole reason that more people had to pass through on their way out of the house annex. The uppermost common room, on the third floor, was the smaller, more private, and reserved for boys in sixth form.

Each year had their own long room to sleep in, the lower years on the floors closer to the ground and older boys on the third. Ben found himself now in the upper sixth room, where he would sleep among nine others; ten narrow metal-frame beds stood under the sloping ceilings. He was alone for the moment, but it was only half-past eight on Sunday, the last day of August. Luke had explained at breakfast that the boys would be arriving in droves a little later. Ben, however, could go over early and lay claim to a bed. He had chosen the one at the end of the row on the left side of the room, farthest from the door. His trunk—now full of shirts and trousers and the required underwear—sat at the foot of it, the only mark that the bed belonged to him.

“Enjoy the last few minutes of quiet,” Luke had said before going out of the room. “It gets boisterous when the other boys get here.” He hadn’t embraced Ben or given him a handshake; he was clear that now he was the headmaster and not the uncle. Not that Ben had really warmed to him anyway; the days he had spent in the lodge had been formal and forced, the conversations limited to innocuous topics like the news—mostly Luke speaking to himself with Ben half listening.

In Ben’s free time, he wandered the grounds and found a few books in the library to skim, but not much held his interest. The aimlessness wore on him, and despite the fact that he wasn’t keen on starting school, it sounded better than whiling away countless hours on thoughtless walks and afternoons spent in silence over tea.

From outside the window in the dormitory, Ben heard the rumble of a car’s engine and the crunch of gravel under its tires. He rose from his bed and went to look out. Below, he could see a green Maxi, its back hatch open so the porter could remove the trunk inside. The boy who stood by was maybe fourteen: short with tidy brown hair and dressed appropriately in his uniform. The man Ben assumed to be his father was smoking a cigarette by the front bumper, looking bored. All three of them—boy, father, and porter—disappeared into the building only a few moments later.

Ben stayed by the window until another car pulled up, and then another. In a steady stream, boys in blazers and khaki trousers arrived, the porters carrying their trunks into Arkanis House. Ben was still watching when finally someone else entered the room.

He was a tall but reedy boy, his light hair styled fashionably and his expression bright. He paused when he saw Ben, clearly not recognizing him. Ben kept to his place, never the first to make an overture. The boy didn’t come to him, either; he simply went to his bed of choice—one in the middle on the opposite side of the room from Ben’s—and directed the porter to leave his trunk. He didn’t unpack anything, instead just shucked his blazer, dropped it on the bed, and left.

Ben fiddled with the sleeves of his own jacket, which, true to Fischer’s word, fit him perfectly. It still felt strange, though, and the temptation to remove it like the other boy was strong. Ben didn’t. He returned to his bed and sat staring at his shiny black shoes—also unbroken-in and already chafing.

Within the next hour, the voices of the boys were echoing around the building as they greeted each other after the summer holiday. They were animated and, just as Luke had warned, loud. Ben remained sequestered in his bed, saying nothing, and no one came to him. By the time the clock on the wall above the door read ten, he had had enough. Standing, he dodged past a porter and out into the hallway. He figured he’d just go to the common room for a change of scenery, but as he turned sharply to the right, he nearly collided with a man in a severe blue suit.

“Watch where you’re going,” the man snapped. Ben was tall, but this man was even taller, able to look down at Ben. His dark eyes, set into an oval and wrinkled face, narrowed as his gaze moved over Ben’s features. “You’re not Arkanisian. I’ve never seen you before. What are you doing here?”

He spoke rapid-fire and Ben found himself fumbling for a response. “I-I’m new.”

His accent was marked right away, but the severity of the man’s expression didn’t change. “Come with me,” he ordered.

Ben hesitated for a few seconds, watching him walk away, before he broke into a jog to catch him up. At the end of the hall was a paneled door that looked much the same as any other in the house, but this one had to be unlocked with a key the blue-suited man carried on his person. As he swung the door open, he gestured for Ben to go inside.

It was a small but stately office, the double pedestal desk taking up much of the space at its center. A narrow bookcase stood next to the window to keep it away from the bright eastern morning light, the shelves sagging at the middle from the weight of the books. Two standing lamps flanked the door and one—made of dulling brass—sat at the corner of the desk, its neck hinged to allow for angling it down over pages on the desktop. There were few of those: only what looked to be a leather-bound day planner and a composition notebook with a sheet of red paper sticking up from inside. A capped fountain pen lay beside it.

The door thunked shut behind the man, leaving Ben alone in the office with him. Luke’s warning that masters were not to be on their own with boys passed through Ben’s mind, but he wasn’t afraid. He drew himself up to his full height and waited.

“What is your name?” the man asked, his voice like grinding stones.

“Ben Solo.”

A line appeared between the man’s heavy brows. “Ah, yes, you’re the headmaster’s boy. The American.”

Ben said, “Yeah, that’s right. Who are you?”

The man’s scowl was deep and dark with admonishment. “I’ll thank you to mind your tone, Solo. The headmaster should have brought you directly to me, not just turned you loose.” He sucked his square teeth. “I am Housemaster Snoke.”

Ben might have known, after what Alice had said of his authoritarian control of Arkanis House; his attitude suited him. Ben didn’t know what else to say, or even if the introduction required a response, so he remained silent.

“When did you arrive here?” Snoke asked.

“Last week,” Ben replied. “I stayed with Uncle—Headmaster Skywalker until today. I, uh, picked a bed and everything.”

Snoke’s narrow nostrils flared. “That’s acceptable, but if your dormitory captain requires you to move, you’ll do it without protest.”

“Why would he have me move?”

“Maybe he wants the bed you chose.” Ben made a face, which Snoke immediately chastised him for: “Your captain is not to be trifled with.”

“Right,” Ben muttered.

Snoke moved toward his desk, forcing Ben to step to the side to allow him to pass without touching him. Something about him was repulsive, though Ben couldn’t exactly pin down was it was.

“So,” Snoke said, “where do you come from?”

Ben gave him a curt, unembellished version of his story, ending it with his arrival at Tindon Station. 

Snoke listened with mild interest, but was clearly glad when Ben was finished. “Well,” he said slowly, “you will have some adjusting to do as you accustom yourself to life in Arkanis House. We don’t abide tomfoolery and I expect the best from all of you as students. Do not neglect your work, Solo, and you’ll manage.” His eyes, so brown they were almost black, flashed with admonition. “You’ll be disrupting the peace of upper sixth, I’ll have you know. I didn’t accept you into this house lightly. There’s a line to toe and you’ll keep to your place or there will be consequences. The head boy will deal with you if you’re a problem. Pray any behavioral abberances will not reach me. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Ben. “Sir.”

Snoke gave a shallow nod and pointed to the door. “You may go. Keep out of the way of moving in. I address the assembled house at two o’clock.”

Ben took his cue and went back into the hallway. More boys were milling around, one group gathered just outside of his dormitory laughing and making jokes. Ben had to walk past them to get to the common room, and as he did, he could feel six pairs of eyes following him. The boys quieted until he was at the threshold, but he caught snippets of their whispered questions as he passed inside. The watching made his skin crawl, but he didn’t dare let it show.

The common room was large enough to fit twenty-odd people, with arched windows along the walls and a fireplace wide and tall enough for Ben to stand in with arms spread. A fire was crackling inside it, making the room smell ever so slightly of woodsmoke. Wingback chairs, their leather cracking at the edges, stood in front of it, and an assortment of other plush but wear-worn furniture was scattered around. Three boys sat at a table in the far corner, chattering amongst themselves, and two were nestled together in an cushioned window seat, legs almost tangled for sitting so close.

Ben went to a sequestered chair that afforded him a view of most of the room, and yet was tucked away so as not to draw attention to him in it. He folded his legs under him and did his best to be inconspicuous.

The array of boys was broad: a mix of heights and features and hair colors. Their skin tones weren’t particularly varied, but Ben was used to that; his high school in Alderaan had been washed in white faces, too. The accents were clipped and fast and full of slang Ben had never heard before. It was a study in foreignness. Hidden in his chair, Ben shivered with disquiet. He tried to push it down, but it only sunk like lead into his gut and made him nauseous. 

Anger rose alongside it: bitter resentment at having been thrown to these wolves. He cursed his parents with stinging swears, even more sour in his heart for going unspoken. Shipping the kid you were supposed to love unconditionally away was the most demonstrable expression of a condition. Ben wondered if maybe some of the boys here were as cast off as he was. Maybe in that they’d have one truly pathetic thing to share.

 


 

The ground floor common room was almost twice the size of the sixth-formers’, taking up most of the area on the floor. All the boys had been summoned down and packed into it just before two. Ben got sandwiched somewhere into the middle, stuck between two boys who were head and shoulders smaller than him. Everyone had put their blazers back on and combed their hair, as if this was some formal event. Could be that it was; Ben didn’t know.

Housemaster Snoke appeared right as the bell in the clocktower rang out the hour, a few boys trailing behind him. He stepped up onto a platform by one of the two fireplaces and silence fell. Upright and thin as a rail, he began, “Good afternoon, Arkanis House.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” he got as a chorus in reply.

“I’ll extend my annual welcome to all of you, having returned for the start of another autumn term. I trust you had productive and, perhaps, leisurely holidays, but am here to remind you that that time is now over and you are to resume your studies with the utmost focus and dedication.” Snoke brought his spindly hands together at the level of his chest, almost as if in prayer. “Arkanis House has, for many years, been the exemplary house at Haverhill. We are unmatched in our scholarship and our prowess on pitch and field.” He frowned. “Though Oakeshott bested us in cricket last year, we can persevere and recover our record. I have great faith in all of you.”

There was a smattering of applause and some muted cheers.

“Structure is important here and all of you will be required to adhere to your prescribed timetables. They will be distributed by our prefects later.” He turned to the three boys standing to his left. “There are two of them this year, but I will allow our head boy to introduce them to you. Hux…”

Ben hadn’t paid much attention to the boy at the front of the line, but he was hard to miss, with bright red hair and of a considerable height. He was willowy, with long limbs and a slender neck. His face was long and soft at the jaw, but his nose was straight. The fullness of his mouth was minimized by his stern, closed-lipped coolness. He looked like he was trying to hard to be grim, which did him no favors. Aside from the hair, there was little striking about him.

The boy, Hux, stepped up next to Snoke, surveying the room with green eyes. “Good afternoon,” he said. His accent was sharp as a knife, as precise as the ones Ben heard on the radio. It was almost as if he practiced, it was so perfect. “For those of you who are new, I’m Hux, and you can address me as such.”

From next to him Ben heard a hissed: “Jesus fucking Christ, he’s going to be a tyrant. He was bad enough as a prefect, but now head boy?” The speaker scoffed.

“Shut up,” someone else scolded. “He can probably hear you, monster like him.”

Hux continued, “Fennmen had a certain way about keeping the house, but there are some rules he allowed to slip by the wayside, especially concerning decorum in the showers and wasting prep time. I will not allow that kind of nonsense, and the prefects have been told in no uncertain terms to make sure to it’s seen to.” He glanced around the room, meeting gazes—not Ben’s. “As Housemaster Snoke said, we have a reputation to preserve and I expect only the best from you. If you take issue with anything over the course of the term, my study door is open.”

“Horseshit,” someone grumbled. He was shushed insistently.

“The prefects this year should be familiar to those of you returning,” Hux said. “Mitaka and Thanisson. For those of you just joining us this term, they’ll make themselves known to you, as will I.” His focus tracked to the center of the room, where Ben was difficult to overlook. He stopped and Ben found himself stared at—appraised. As fast as the attention had come, though, it was gone, and Hux was finishing up his address: “That’s all for now. I wish you a good start of term.” He stepped down and allowed Snoke to take center stage again.

The housemaster provided them with a few logistics about laundry days and meals and shower decorum, but soon enough the lecture was over and the boys were dismissed. Ben had no desire to return to the sixth form common room to lurk, so he slipped out of the door into the main school building and made his way toward the library. He got turned around on the second floor, but managed to get himself there after five or so minutes.

The library was dark, its windows stained glass and few. The librarian’s desk, where the students checked out their books for lack of a circulation desk, was nearest the door, but it was unmanned just then. Ben went past it into the stacks, walking along the rows of books and brushing his fingertips against their spines. One by the end flaked leather onto his hand; he brushed it off on his trouser leg.

Alderaan High School had a library, but it was sparsely appointed at best and rarely used. From what Ben could tell, these books had actually been handled. When he pulled one out—Themes on Shakespeare—he found stains on the pages and a few margin notes once scrawled in pencil and shoddily erased. Whoever had written them had too heavy a hand and the letters were deeply pressed into the paper. He closed the book and slid it back into its place.

A few study desks with their green glass lamps were tucked away at the back of the library and Ben found his way to one of those. The bookshelves around them on the walls were caged, likely to preserve the more fragile volumes. Maybe they were valuable; Ben had heard that there were libraries at universities and some big public libraries like the one in Boston that kept really old books that monks wrote in the Middle Ages, or something like that. Those would actually be kind of cool to see, he thought. More interesting than Latin grammars or the likes of Huckleberry Finn, which they had been forced to read in English class back home.

Ben tested the cage to see if it was locked. It rattled loudly in the silence of the library, and he quickly let go, pulling the chair of one of the desks out and sitting heavily down onto it. He extended his legs under the desk, resting the heels of his shoes on the support beneath it. Peering up at the high ceiling, he folded his hands over his stomach. It wouldn’t be so hard to nap here, he figured. Maybe that was a way to spend some time before everyone was supposed to meet for dinner.

They hadn’t had a lunch since everyone was arriving on a different schedule, and Ben was hungry. He could ignore the worst of the pangs for a few more hours, even if he started to get irritable when he hadn’t eaten. His mother had always kept him well-fed. Though she wasn’t around a lot, the refrigerator had been full, which he appreciated. It was especially convenient for those times when he would steal back into the kitchen after cutting class to smoke pot with some of the layabouts who had dropped out of school and worked odd jobs around town—if just to keep themselves in something to get high on. He wouldn’t have minded a joint right then, actually, but there was pretty much no way anyone was sneaking grass into Haverhill.

Ben was idly thinking of a hot summer day spent at the park in Alderaan in a marijuana haze when he caught sight of someone making his way toward him. He braced, uncertain, but stayed where he was, ostensibly relaxed and uncaring in his chair.

The boy was fairly small, but clearly Ben’s age. His short dark hair was parted neatly to the right and his shoes shone. He didn’t exactly smile when he stopped next to Ben’s desk, but his expression was open, even curious.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” said Ben.

They looked each other over for a beat before the boy continued, “I know who you are. Housemaster Snoke told me.”

Ben kept his voice steady. “Yeah, who’s that?”

The boy’s brow wrinkled. “Who’s Housemaster Snoke, you mean?”

“No,” Ben said, rolling his eyes. “Who am I?”

“Oh,” said the boy. He shifted his weight toward his heels, clasping his hands in front of him. “You’re the new boy, from America. Solo.”

“It’s Ben.”

The boy shook his head. “Not here, it isn’t. Everyone is called by their surname. Christian names aren’t used.”

“Why?” Ben asked.

“That’s just how it’s always been done. Anyway, I’m Mitaka.”

Ben recognized the name and, after a time, the face: one of the prefects who had stood by Hux during the house meeting. “What do you want?” he asked.

Mitaka’s eyes widened, as if startled. “Oh, well, I was told I’m to do a tutorial for you in Latin.” He swallowed. “Orders straight from the headmaster.”

Ben suppressed a groan. “Yeah. I’ve never taken it before, so I need a tutor, I guess.”

“You’ve never had it at all?”

“Nope. So we’ll have to start from scratch.” Ben leaned back in his chair, eyeing Mitaka. He was squirrely and kept glancing around the room as if he was expecting someone else. Ben asked if he was.

“What?” he said. “No. It’s just me who was looking for you. Though I’m sure Hux’ll want to speak to you soon. He always talks to the third-formers. Since you’re new, he’ll probably have to run you through how we do things here.” He pointedly added, “Solo.”

Ben wet his lips, uninterested in being ordered around by the head boy. “Whatever,” he said.

Mitaka blinked at him, presumably trying to puzzle out what that meant.

“So,” said Ben, “what does a prefect do?”

“A variety of things,” Mitaka replied, “but in general we’re to keep order in the house when the head boy or housemaster aren’t around. It’s not easy for Snoke to manage all the boys, and he certainly doesn’t have time for petty disagreements or someone going out of bounds. Prefects handle discipline for that kind of thing. Only the worst trespasses get sent to Snoke, or even Hux.” He tipped his round chin up proudly. “We’re trusted lieutenants.”

Ben had to parse the word as Mitaka had said it: “left-tenant.” He’d never heard it pronounced that way before. “I get it,” he said. “And what’s a dormitory captain? Snoke said something about that.”

Mitaka regarded him, seemingly baffled at the questions. “It’s the boy who manages your dormitory, of course. He makes sure everyone is in bed by lights out and that nothing...untoward goes on at night.”

“‘Untoward?’”

A pink flush crept up into Mitaka’s cheeks. “Sneaking out or playing pranks or...things of that nature.”

Ben studied him, knowing there was something considerable he wasn’t saying, but he chose not to press. “Does that happen a lot? Pranks?”

“Not in Arkanis House,” said Mitaka. “Not under Hux.”

“Who’s the captain in the upper sixth room?” Ben asked.

Mitaka spoke swiftly: “That would be Hux. I’m in that dormitory, too. As is Thanisson.”

“Great,” Ben grumbled. “I’m sure it’s very orderly with all of you there.”

“Problems are few. Nobody crosses Hux.”

Ben rested his hands on his thighs. “He sounds like a real hardass.”

Mitaka’s mouth dropped open. “Don’t let him hear you say it like that. He just knows how to ensure the house runs smoothly. I’d stay out of his way, if I were you.”

“Whatever,” Ben said again, shrugging. “Did you want anything else?”

“No,” said Mitaka, shaking his head. “I suppose that’s all for now. I’ll find time during prep for us to work on Latin. We all have lessons together for the most part, but prep time is free to do your own work. We’re going to have to do a lot of that if you’d never had any Latin.” He sighed. “Anyway, see you at supper.” He turned and left Ben there, disappearing into the stacks.

Ben dropped all four legs of his chair back to the carpeted floor and leaned down onto the desktop. He had hours to kill yet before dinnertime. Exhaling, he stood and went up to the librarian’s desk. There was still no one there, but he spotted the small drawers of the card catalog and, pulling the L drawer out, sought a volume on Latin. Might as well get started now.

 


 

Two hundred and fifty boys were gathered all at once into the dining hall that evening for supper, but were segregated by house and, as Luke had warned, by year. Ben avoided the younger-looking boys at the Arkanis tables, making his way to the place where he spotted Mitaka and the other prefect, Thanisson. He hesitated before choosing a seat at the fringes of their group. He got a few glances, but none of the upper sixth boys paid him more attention than that. The red-headed Hux didn’t once look his way.

The food was brought out to them in large bowls and platters, which were passed around among the boys. Ben got last choice, finding himself scraping the bottoms of the bowls for potatoes and chicken breasts and mushy boiled vegetables. He was so hungry, though, he barely cared that most of it was flavorless. He drank plain water with the meal, still ignored, but listening to the conversation between the upper sixth boys.

It turned out that Mitaka had spent the holiday in Bath with his ailing mother while Thanisson had been in France working on the language en provence. A boy called Upcastle had been “forced” to go to his parents’ country estate, where he had been terribly bored. Rembis, a boy with curly blond hair and a nasally voice, had been to the continent with his uncle, who lived in Venice. There were other similar stories. Notably, Hux said nothing about where he had spent his weeks away from Haverhill, and nobody asked him.

When the food had been eaten and stories exchanged, everyone turned to the high table, where Luke sat at the center. As he rose, all the boys quieted.

“Gentlemen,” Luke began, “good evening and welcome back to Haverhill. It is a pleasure to see familiar faces and to bring those new ones into the fold. Here, we are a family, if I may be so bold as to call it that. We strive to better ourselves together, through study and sport and friendship. These have been or will be the formative years of your young lives. Upon leaving this school, you will be prepared to be this nation’s next leaders and thinkers. I am honored to be in such company as yours.”

The other teachers—masters—applauded. Ben saw Snoke sitting down the table looking just as cold as he had been when Ben had met him that morning. It seemed he had no particular fondness for Luke; the rest of the masters were smiling or nodding along with Luke’s address.

“I wish you all the best of luck his term,” Luke continued, “and look forward to seeing you in my classroom. You will now have time to hear about the clubs we have here, with which you will spend your evenings. We are never idle here.” He offered a smile. “Again, welcome.” As he sat, the boys clapped their hands, but soon broke out into conversation once more.

From what Ben could tell, there were certain boys who served as presidents of the various clubs, which ranged from concert ensemble and choir to model-making and debate. Ben had no intention of joining any of them. He figured he would make a kind of second home of the library.

The librarian had come in an hour after Ben had arrived and, seeing the light at Ben’s desk, had come over to speak to him. He was a squat man in an ill-fitting suit and comically outdated pince-nez, but he was cheerful and had stamped the Latin book Ben had been reading after Ben had written his name on the card pasted onto the back cover. The dates on it ranged from the early 1910s to the present, which struck him as unbelievable. But, then again, Latin no longer changed, so it wasn’t as if they needed to buy a new text. Ben had carried the book back to the dormitory and stashed it in his trunk for safekeeping.

Ben was made to sit through the introductions to the clubs as presidents from the other houses gave their talks on the merits of their activities. One boy stuck out: his name was Dameron and he was not only free with his smiles, but he spoke with an American accent. Ben expected boys to look at him crosswise, as they did Ben—when they weren’t ignoring him—but he was accepted without question, as if he was no different than any other student. Ben was tempted to approach him, but the rules of mixing with other houses and Dameron’s hasty departure to another table stayed him.

At last, the tedium was lifted and the Arkanis boys were allowed to return to their common rooms. With no other choice, Ben followed the other sixth-formers, but he diverted to the bathroom. It was large enough to fit a good number of boys, with eight sinks and toilet stalls. Strangely, the stall doors didn’t match the rest of the wooden stalls. As Ben went into one, he overheard a two boys having a conversation outside.

“They put the doors on only ten years ago,” said one of them, older by the depth of his voice.

“They didn’t have doors?” asked a younger boy. “Why?”

“So nobody could get in there and fool around,” came the reply. “And they still don’t lock. See two sets of feet in a single stall and a prefect can burst in on them.”

The younger boy sounded confused. “Why would two boys want to share a toilet?”

The older boy laughed. “Jesus, Ball, you have no idea.”

They left then, so Ben couldn’t hear more, but he was just as lost as the younger boy had been. Boys “fooling around” implied something, well, dirty. Ben knew that sometimes girls at Alderaan snuck their boyfriends into the hidden bathrooms at school, but boys? Obviously, he knew about homosexuals; it just wasn’t something anyone talked about. Surely that wasn’t happening here. Was it?

Ben left the toilets soon after, stopping to wash his hands and splash some water on his face before he went to the common room. His chair was taken, so he went up into a window seat, sitting cross-legged. He went silent and undisturbed for the whole free hour they had before the prefects rounded them up and sent them off to the bathroom to brush their teeth and change into their pajamas.

Two sets had been purchased for Ben: a button-up shirt with long sleeves and a matching pair of trousers. They were constricting and rode uncomfortably up as Ben slipped into his bed, but at least the fabric was soft. He needed the warmth, too; there was a chill in the dormitory despite the creaking and popping oil-circulating radiators.

“Lights out!” Mitaka called just before the room was pitched into darkness.

Ben lay on his back, unsure if he could actually sleep. He was used to privacy and now he was crammed into a room with nine other snuffling and snoring boys. Some of the beds screeched as they turned to and fro. Ben blinked up into the blackness. As an only child with few friends, he was used to being alone—but just then he felt lonely. Surrounded by so many and yet he was as solitary as ever. Eventually, sleep claimed him, though it was after long, unsettled minutes.

 


 

The shrill ringing of an alarm clock somewhere in the dormitory had Ben starting awake. He sat up in his bed, clutching the scratchy quilt to his chest, and saw that there was a watery, weak light filtering in through the window beside his bed: morning. The ringing was silenced, but a voice called out: “Up and going! Showers before breakfast. If you want a hot one, you’d best hurry.” Ben recognized Thanisson as he stood at the head of the dormitory wearing a stern, expectant expression. It was tempered by his wrinkled, slept-in pajamas, which matched the ones they all wore.

The boys rolled out of their beds and set to making them. Ben threw his quilt aside and landed his bare feet on the wood floor—the warmest surface in an otherwise frigid dormitory. Standing, he tossed the quilt loosely up over the pillow, its edges crooked. He spared no particular attention for it as he went to his trunk and rooted around for clean clothes. He didn’t see Mitaka arrive, but his voice snapped out a few moments later.

“That won’t do, Solo,” he said, his focus on Ben’s bed. “Sharp corners and a smooth quilt. Do it again.”

Ben stood slowly up from where he was bent over his trunk, coming up to stand significantly taller than Mitaka. “Seriously?” he asked.

Mitaka, to his credit, didn’t back down. He set his hands on his narrow hips and nodded once. “We don’t abide slovenliness.”

Ben glared at him, but seemingly without a choice, he did his best to make the bed up properly. He had to look at the others to decide how to tuck the sheet into place tight against the mattress and then lay the quilt over it so it hung evenly off of both sides. Mitaka stood solemn watch as he worked, but when Ben stood back, finished, he appeared to be satisfied.

“Very good,” he said. “Now get to the showers so you’re not late.”

Simmering with annoyance, Ben snatched up his shirt, trousers, underwear, and socks, striding purposefully out into the hallway and to the bathroom. The showers were gang-style, with no partitions for privacy. All of the ten shower heads were currently occupied and a line of boys was stationed just outside the well to keep the water from running out onto the main floor. They were chattering amongst themselves and nobody spared a glance for Ben as he joined the end of the line.

The glass covering the face of the clock on the wall was fogged from the showers, but Ben watched the time slipping away. He had only six minutes before he was due down for breakfast by the time he actually got stripped down and under the water. Hurriedly, he soaped his body and washed his hair; it would be dripping wet while he ate. Having only forty-five minutes to get twenty boys showered was bullshit. If he wanted actual time for washing up tomorrow, he’d have to get up before seven.

Attitudes were subdued when he arrived in the dining hall, the boys quieter than they had been at dinner the night before. He found a spot at the table again—in which to be overlooked—and examined the choices of food: cornflakes with milk; thick, unsweetened porridge; and tea or juice. He had hoped for the bacon and toast and soft butter he’d gotten used to at Luke’s, but was apparently not to get it.

With cornflakes in a heaping pile in his bowl, he poured milk over them and chewed idly while he looked at his timetable for the day. As he had been warned, the lesson schedule was full to bursting and much of the afternoon was set aside for sports. The window behind the high table where the staff sat revealed a gloomy day with a sun hidden far under thick, gray clouds. The threat of rain was quite real, and the last thing Ben wanted to do was to go out into it and pretend to care about kicking a soccer ball around for two hours.

Folding the timetable up and shoving it into the pocket of his trousers, he sipped at his lukewarm orange juice in silence. To his right sat the rest of upper sixth, all nine of them in a little gaggle, heads bent in conference. The only one who sat back from the others, unsmiling, was Hux. His hair was neatly parted and clipped in a severe style that would have fit better just post-war than it did now. Ben’s own hair was longer, which would have been in fashion if he had bothered to blow it dry and fluff it out like people on TV did. Instead it hung lank and wet down the back of his neck, dampening his collar and looking bedraggled.

Some of the others around the dining hall were just as careless with their appearances, with shaggy locks and rumpled shirts, but all of the Arkanis boys were smartly put together—so much so that Ben would have believed it if they were told they were about to have their class picture taken. They must have had first dibs on the showers, if they had time to do themselves up like that. Ben wasn’t stupid enough not to realize what Mitaka had been about with his bed: he wanted to make sure Ben was late and looking harried.

That point was driven firmly home when Ben caught sight of Hux glancing disapprovingly down the table at him. His sour frown deepened and he leaned over to Mitaka, saying something into his ear. Mitaka turned sharply to Ben, eyes going round, and then nodded to Hux. Seconds later, he was standing at Ben’s side, peering down at him.

“You need to go back upstairs before chapel and do something about your hair,” Mitaka said. He had the ring of authority in his voice, but he was so small compared to Ben that it seemed ridiculous coming from him. “We have expectations about appearance in Arkanis House and—”

Ben shoved back from the table. “You got a hairdryer for me, then?” he snapped.

“Well, no,” said Mitaka, “but something has to be done.”

“Easier said,” Ben grumbled, but he stood up and ran a hand over his hair to the damp ends.

“The least you can do is towel and comb it, then.”

“You think I didn’t do that already?”

“It doesn’t appear so, no.”

Ben’s temper bubbled up, searing the back of his throat. “Look, Mitaka, I’m not here to be portrait pretty. I can run up to get a towel like a good little gopher, but it’s not going to change anything.” He shot a dark look at Hux, who was pretending not to watch the exchange, but absolutely was. “You can tell him that, too.”

Mitaka said curtly, “Today I’ll let it slide, then, but tomorrow you need to be in proper form before breakfast. Is that understood?”

Ben replied with forced sweetness: “Of course, sir. Happy to, sir.”

The mocking tone was clearly understood, but Mitaka stalked back to his seat. He didn’t get a chance to take it, though, before the tower’s bells rang. With unsettling synchronicity, all the boys in the dining hall stood, stepped over the benches, and began to file toward the back entrance to the hall. The houses stayed tight together, making Ben melt into a group that was backed up at the doors like water through a tight funnel.

The chilly air outside was a relief when he finally made it through onto the gravel path that led between two patches of lawn to the chapel. That name didn’t really suit it, since it was far larger than what Ben might have thought—but seemingly not big enough to fit all the students and staff as they all filed inside, their shoe heels hitting the flagstones to echo around the vaulted ceilings.

What pews there were seemed to be reserved for the boys in their middle teens—fourth and fifth form—while the youngest third-formers had to sit on the threadbare runners at the front of the chapel. The oldest and tallest boys were made to stand around the sides of the room like so many partnerless girls at a school dance. Aside from the sigh of fabric and clattering shoes, nobody made a sound.

At the head of the chapel stood the bedecked altar, where a round-faced chaplain in all black ascended and spread his pudgy hands. “Greetings to you all and the Lord’s blessing be upon you. We start today another term and are embraced once again into the bosom of our school and our studies. I am reminded of Romans chapter fifteen, wherein the Lord says, ‘Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.’

“From these hallowed words we can divine the Almighty’s will for us to be brothers in our labors and to take strength from each other in moments of weakness or misgiving. Here we are fellows and children of the Lord, who strive to better our minds and ourselves within these halls.” He offered a smile, wide and earnest.

Despite the formality of the benediction, Ben wasn’t put off by it or by the chaplain’s somber clothing. It hid good humor, Ben thought, and the blessing wasn’t delivered with the same coolness as Snoke’s speech, or even Luke’s. The distance the English seemed to rely so heavily upon—so much so that Ben had never had seen one boy touch another—didn’t come through with this man. In that he was like the housekeeper, Alice; Ben expected only honesty, and maybe a welcome, from him.

He continued, offering more insight into the Romans passage he had chosen. Ben’s attention drifted in and out; he instead watched the faces and discomfited shifting of the boys both in the pews and on the floor. Someone coughed, but it was stifled so quickly that Ben couldn’t pick out who it was. He wasn’t sure what to do when the boy at the piano began to play and the students and staff rose to sing a hymn. Ben didn’t know the words. He stood unmoving, tense until the music faded away and the chaplain offered a last prayer of parting.

Once the boys were free of the chapel, they scattered chaotically around the courtyard, some finding the doors to their houses to gather their books before their first lesson at nine o’clock. Ben let them run, keeping a steady pace himself as he walked toward Arkanis House and the notebooks and pencils Alice had bought from him at the stationery shop in the village.

The day began, unfortunately, with double math—or maths, in the plural, as Snoke said it as soon as he swept into the classroom in a charcoal-gray suit with an honest-to-God pocket watch tucked into his waistcoat. Waistcoat. He looked as old-fashioned as Ben’s grandfather; his trouser legs weren’t even flared, like Luke’s were.

“Sit down and let’s to work,” Snoke said without preamble as he picked up a stick of white chalk and went to the blackboard. “We’re starting with geometry, so I hope you remember your angles.”

Ben cracked his notebook. Math he could do.

 


 

Following eighty unbroken minutes of geometry was Master Akbar’s geography lesson. He was a toad-faced man with glasses and a bald head, who spoke in a slow monotone while pointing to various countries on a map that rolled down in front of the blackboard. It was tedious to say the least, and he took every minute of the lesson time. Ben barely had a moment to run down the corridor to the bathroom to piss before his eleven o’clock history lesson began. He was no more than thirty seconds late, but he got a scornful look from the master and a brisk telling-off about time management. English followed, where a book of John Donne was shoved into his hands and he was told to read in silence before they discussed the first two poems.

By the time lunch finally came around, Ben was tired and hungry, and his hand was cramped from taking furious notes to keep up with the lectures. Some of the boys just nodded along, but he couldn’t fathom remembering everything that was said when exam time came. His neat block letters covered the pages both back and front, along with some illustrations to take note of later on. He wasn’t much of an artist, but he had a good memory for shapes, and scribbling some little characters or faces between the lines helped him keep the notes straight.

Lunch was hot and only slightly more flavorful than breakfast, but Ben put it down without tasting much anyway. He was done long before the other boys; however, he had no choice but to sit and stare at his empty plate until the allotted meal time had passed. He had wanted to sneak away for just a few minutes to be by himself, but Mitaka’s hard look from down the table as soon as he went to get up put an end to that notion.

After, they were sent off to lessons again. Ben found Luke in their classroom when he and the others arrived there. He acknowledged his nephew with only a nod before he looked away. Ben took his seat and folded his hands on the the desktop, waiting for whatever he was now doomed to in his classics lessons.

Luke opened the class in a flurry of what Ben could only guess was Latin, and he received several sentences in reply. One by one, Luke picked on the boys and asked them to speak to him. Sweat broke out at the back of Ben’s neck, under his hair, as he waited for his turn. When Luke’s gaze finally alighted on him, he braced.

Quod nomen tibi est?” Luke asked, far slower than he had spoken to the others.

Ben thankfully knew that one; they had gone over it before the term started: Luke was asking his name. He said, “Ben nomen meum est.

A few snickers went around the room, and Ben, too late, realized his mistake.

“Solo nomen meum est,” he corrected.

Luke raised his chin and then lowered it, acknowledging. “I asked the others what they did over their summer holidays. As you are not well-acquainted with the language, you cannot participate in the discussion. We’ll be looking at a text today, but you may study your grammar while we do that.”

The students around Ben were gaping at him, stunned. Ben could only assume that Luke never spoke English unless he had to. Ben stood out in yet another way, and not a good one. He lowered his eyes as he lifted the top of his desk to retrieve the grammar from inside it. The others watched him open it and bend his head to read. Only then did Luke transition back into Latin and whatever their lesson was going to contain.

Ben sat through it, copying verbs he didn’t know how to pronounce until the bell rang. Nobody got up and Luke didn’t leave. Papers were shuffled and books were replaced, but then Luke broke into another language, likely Greek. Ben kept his head from dropping onto the desktop, but barely. Something more he wouldn't understand. But at least Luke didn’t single him out and speak to him in English. Ben passed the lesson without being looked at once.

He was deeply relieved when the forty minutes ended, but the feeling faded as soon as he remembered that the next two hours were set aside for sports. The boys had twenty minutes to return to their dormitories and change into their sports kits before they were expected at the fields.

Ben’s kit was white shorts and socks he could pull almost up to his knees, a pair of trainers, and a loose shirt with long sleeves in the green and yellow Haverhill colors. Everyone else looked exactly the same, leaving him to wonder and hope that he was following the right group out beyond the chapel and to the green. He ended up in the proper place, he realized, when he spotted the very orange-topped Hux waiting by an equipment shed. Mitaka and Thanisson weren’t far away from him, hovering like goslings. Ben scoffed aloud as he approached them. Hux’s attention turned to him, as if he had heard. There was no way he had; Ben was at least two yards away from him.

From out of the shed came a fair-skinned man with thinning flaxen hair; he held a soccer ball under his arm. When he spoke, it was sharply and with intention: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. You’re looking fresh after the holidays. I hope you’re ready to put the other houses in their places this year.” He grinned broadly, with a touch of derision—for the other houses, not for the Arkanis boys. “We’re starting with football, but we’ll be playing rugger, too, in time.” He scanned the faces, stopping on Ben’s. “Well, who are you, then?”

“Solo,” Ben said. “I’m new.”

The man chewed thoughtfully. “And I’m Gamesmaster Veers. Are you keen on sport?”

Ben lied, “Sure, sir.”

He got another smile. “Excellent! Then you’ll make for a good striker on the Arkanis team.”

“Um, no,” Ben was quick to say. “I’d rather do something with...defense? In the back?”

Veers rubbed his round, dimpled chin. “Well, if that’s what you want, you can be our sweeper.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the field. “Off you go. The rest of you…” He doled out positions, none of which Ben knew. He managed to find a place for himself by the goal (but not too close) and hoped nobody would kick the ball his way. He wasn’t so lucky.

The offensive players on the Raglan team were relentless with their drives onto the Arkanis side of the field, forcing Ben to get into the game and do what he could to fend them off. He had thought that soccer wasn’t supposed to be a touch sport, but more than once he had someone come right up next to him and shove a pointed elbow into his ribs to get him to back off the ball. One boy, despite his small size, knocked the wind right out of him and made him curse aloud. Nobody called a foul, not even his own teammates.

It started to rain about halfway through the game, pissing down and making Ben’s eyelashes stick together. He blinked rapid-fire to keep his vision clear as the drops stung his skin with each burst of running to intercept the ball. The grass grew slick and, to his humiliation, he slipped on it as a winger stole the ball from him and went down hard on his back. There was no hand offered to get him back onto his feet, and his own hands came up muddy and grass-stained. Wiping them on his shirt left green and brown streaks all down the front. He was uncomfortable and sore—abjectly miserable by the time the game ended with Raglan the victors.

“If we had a decent sweeper,” said one of the boys from Arkanis as he hit Ben’s shoulder with his own, “maybe we would have won.”

The bedraggled ten of them trudged back to the house to shower and dry off. Thankfully, they had the run of the showers and Ben was able to get under one to wash away the grime he felt had worked it way into his pores. He got his share of dark, warning looks, but there were no outright warnings to do better or else. Careful to towel and comb his hair, he shrugged his blazer back on and went with the rest of the house to the dining hall for dinner.

“You think Headmaster Skywalker will make us read Plato again this term?” asked one of the boys about halfway through the meal. Ben hadn’t been listening much to their conversation before, but his ears pricked at the mention of Luke.

“Probably,” said another gruffly. “You know he favors him.” A disgruntled grumble. “He’s the worst master, I swear. Never lets up a bit. He’s even worse than Krennic with his Donne and Shakespeare.”

The first boy grunted. “Nobody’s worse than Krennic. He’ll start making us memorize that shite soon and then we’ll have to recite it.”

Ben pushed his cold peas around his plate. His English classes at home had always been a waste of time, and he had never read the books. Even when he had been devoted to grades, he had always struggled with literature. The whole interpretation of little metaphors and symbolism all seemed made up to him; his teachers were reading way too much into the books. There was no way the authors had really meant for every little thing to be something profound. Having to commit whole passages to memory sounded even worse than that.

“Mind your tone, Dashel,” came a stern correction. Ben recognized Hux’s precise and blade-sharp accent. “Masters will be respected in this house.”

“Sorry,” the boys muttered, turning back to their food.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben studied Hux. He sat bolt upright with his narrow shoulders back and sliced his pork cutlet into dainty pieces to eat with deliberate primness. It was almost girlish, Ben thought, but Hux’s looks weren’t feminine. He was just proper to a fault. Maybe it was to set an example for the rest of the boys, but it didn’t seem like it was working. The younger ones, and even the sixth-formers, were more relaxed, with rounded posture and quicker to smile and laugh. Ben was sure he had never seen or heard Hux laugh. When someone make a joke, all he got from Hux was a closed-lipped smile that faded just as fast as it appeared.

Ben didn’t smile much, either—especially not now, at Haverhill—but Hux’s reserve was different, even calculated. Ben was made to be apart by circumstance; Hux, it seemed, held himself away from the others—above them—because he wanted to. Ben couldn’t see why, but Hux probably had his reasons; everyone did.

Dishes were cleared and Ben was hoping to get away to the library for a few cherished minutes of solitude before having to go back to the packed bathroom and the dormitory, with its rows of snoring boys in squeaky beds. Club time was after dinner, but Ben had no intention of joining the debate team or the cadets. In the library he could at least keep working on his Latin in blessed silence.

“Where are you supposed to be going?” little blond Thanisson demanded as Ben tried to make his escape.

Ben scowled at him. “Library.”

Thanisson shook his head, his elfin features twisted in a disapproving frown. “Not while clubs are on. Have you picked one?”

“I don’t want—”

“You can’t not choose a club, Solo.” He glanced around the dining hall to where groups were forming either to leave the hall to do their activities or to stay and lay claim to a table. Thanisson said, “Looks like models has some spaces. You should go over there.”

Ben sucked his teeth. Models sounded boring, but so did everything else. “Fine,” he spat.

“Off you go, then,” said Thanisson. He watched with hands on skinny hips until Ben got across the hall to where the models group had gathered.

The president of the club was a boy named Finn Starr, from Oakeshott. He had a coarser accent than many of the other boys and some at the back of the group whispered that he was here on scholarship—something that was, like Ben’s transfer, substandard. Still, when he spoke, the gathered boys listened.

“Hello, everyone,” he began. “Welcome to models club. I figure you know by now that we build miniatures, but I suppose it bears repeating. If you’re in the wrong place, you can leave now.” Nobody moved. “Good! I picked a theme for this term, but you’ll be able to vote on the next theme.” He reached down to a large canvas bag on the floor at his feet and produced a small box with an airplane on the side. “We’re going to start with aircraft from the war.”

Boxes were passed around, some bigger than others. When one got to Ben, he read the label: Hawker Hurricane Mk IIb. He didn’t know a thing about planes, but it didn’t really matter what he made in the club; it was just something to fill the time—if he had to.

All the boys took their seats around the table and opened their boxes. The tiny, delicate pieces seemed too fragile in Ben’s large hands. He pulled out the instruction sheet for assembling the model and, with a sigh, began to organize the parts.

Chapter Text

There weren’t curses enough in Ben’s vocabulary to suit how much he hated being made to read aloud in class. It wasn’t something he had done back home in Alderaan, but turned out to be required by Master Krennic in his English lessons. They had started with Donne on Monday, studying verse after verse until Ben was thinking in rhyme. Today, Thursday, had started with “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning,” and Ben had been called on to stand up at his little desk and read the first three stanzas.

With so many eyes on him, his voice was stitled and wavering; he stumbled over words that should have come easily, and he failed to capture the cadence of the verses. Krennic stood by the blackboard with a deep frown on his narrow, hawkish face, disappointed in Ben’s showing. The other boys were worse: they were stifling laughter as Ben fumbled with the poem.

“‘Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,’” he read, the book trembling in his hands. “‘Men r-reckon what it did, and meant; But trep-trepidation of the spheres, um, through—no—though greater far, is innocent.’”

Krennic’s voice came low and drawling: “That will do, Mr. Solo. Please sit and spare us the rest.”

The boys snickered, noses wrinkled in disdain.

Ben sat shakily, his knees wavering until he gratefully sank back onto his chair. The book of poems he laid flat on the desktop, and he moved his hands away from it, as if it was something diseased, or at least offensive.

“Mr. Hux,” said Krennic, “if you please.”

Hux sat across the room from Ben, and one row closer to the blackboard. He stood with the utmost confidence and, holding his book out like an actor reading his lines, began: 

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

His accent slipped silkily over the words, every syllable clear and the ebb and flow of the poem’s structure perfectly delivered. It sounded correct when Hux read it, effortless on a silver tongue. He continued:

But we by a love so much refined
that our selves know not what it is
inter-assured of the mind, careless, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.  

There was an intimacy to the way Hux spoke, as if the poem was, as its title implied, something forbidden. He looked rarely up from his book, but once, pointedly, he shot a glance at Ben and smiled.

Bastard, Ben thought, grinding his teeth. Smug asshole.

Hux went through the next two stanzas before Krennic stopped him and named another boy to finish the poem. Ben watched Hux out of the corner of his eye: he sat with catlike care, his back straight as rod but without uncomfortable stiffness. He moved gracefully, even if with reserve—never hurried. Goings-on in Arkanis House seemed in the abstract to turn around his schedule, which was consistent from rising to lights out.

Ben was slowly getting used to prying himself out of bed by a quarter to seven—training his body to wake him up before Thanisson’s alarm sounded and roused the dormitory. He laid out clean clothes at night and took them silently into the bathroom for a shower before the others were awake.

Hux came in only a few minutes after him, stripping naked without a fuss and getting under one of the showerheads. Ben made a point not to look at him, but he got enough of an eyeful that first Tuesday to see that he was all bones and pale skin, his stomach flat and backside equally minimal. Most of his height came from long, slender legs, but his top half was lanky, too, his arms skinny. Ben would have said he seemed weak; however, from their afternoon sessions of soccer, Ben knew he was unexpectedly lethal. Just the day before, he had come up from behind Ben (who had had the misfortune to possess the ball just then) and slammed into his shoulder, making Ben’s whole left side ache for an hour after.

They showered, unspeaking, every morning. Hux was gone from the bathroom before Ben was; he didn’t need as much time to set his hair to rights (meaning to the prefects’ satisfaction) and after a quick combing was finished. Ben sauntered out after him, returned to his trunk to tuck his pajamas away, and then went quickly to breakfast to get it before the orange juice turned warm. The tea he still ignored, but he had tried the porridge and found it wasn’t so bad; at least it was different than the same cornflakes every day.

“So,” Krennic began, picking up his stick of white chalk, “what can we deduce from this poem? What is the temper of the narrator? What is his sentiment?”

Mitaka raised his hand and was called on. “It’s a love poem, sir. Or one about leaving someone you love.”

“Just ‘someone?’ A parent or brother, perhaps?”

“No, sir, a lover.”

Krennic nodded, but before he could continue, Thanisson cut in: “Sir? It starts with ‘As virtuous men pass mildly away.’ It’s...men. Is he implying that his lover is also a man?”

“For God’s sake,” Krennic grumbled. “Only in this day and age would anyone suggest such a thing. Certainly not, Mr. Thanisson.”

“But, sir,” said Hux, easily and coolly as ever, “there is no allusion to a woman, or to any particular sex of lover. He could be writing of a dog, for all we know.”

The boys laughed outright, and Hux smiled a thin, self-satisfied smile.

“Hardly,” Krennic said. “But Mr. Hux does have a point in saying that the object of the narration is mysterious: unnamed, as are many of the other objects in Donne’s works. This is one of his more spiritually affectionate poems, which the ambiguity suits. He can be more physical, such as in ‘The Flea:’ 

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
how little that which thou deniest me is; 
it sucked me first, and now sucks thee, 
and in this flea our two bloods mingled be

 

“But ‘A Valediction’ is purer of love. Upcastle, an example?”

The blond-haired boy perked up from his slouch and hurried to look at the page in his half-closed book. “Ah, well...um, here!” He cleared his throat with a shrill kind of boyishness rather than the depth of a man’s voice. “‘Dull sublunary lovers' love.’ Sublunary means something that belongs to this physical world, and he’s calling that kind of love ‘dull.’ He means the kind he shares in the poem is of a higher plane.”

A side of Krennic’s pinched mouth turned up. “Well done, Upcastle. I thought I had caught you half asleep.”

Upcastle flushed. “No, sir. I was paying attention.”

“I’m sure,” said Krennic, already turning to other things.

He delved into a deeper discussion of the stanzas, invoking some of the other poems they had studied for comparison. Ben sat through it without anything to offer, but his eyes kept tracking to the lines Hux had read, his rendition still sharp in Ben’s memory. He might be able to memorize the words if Hux were to read them over and over. Despite the haughtiness of his usual demeanor, new emotion came into his voice when he recited. It tempered his cutting edges and made him seem his age.

They were released from class at half past noon and while most days they cleared out fast to get to the dining hall, three boys—Rembis, Poole, and Blakely—moved conspicuously toward Ben’s desk. They closed in around him as Master Krennic left the room with his books under his arm, leaving Ben at their mercy.

It hadn’t taken long for the indifference of the first few days at Haverhill to transition into mocking jibes and outright nastiness. Ben’s continued underperformance on the sports field won him no regard and his fumbling reading in English and pathetically basic understanding of Latin made him a very easy target; his weaknesses were on display for all of upper sixth to ridicule.

“Well, So-lo,” said Poole in a flat imitation of Ben’s American accent, “looks like you really cocked it up this time. I’ve never heard a worse Donne in my life, have you, Rem?”

Rembis shook his too-large head. “Can’t say I have. Terrible show, really. Sad.”

“Fuck off,” Ben snapped, hardly looking up from his desk and giving them the satisfaction of a real confrontation.

Poole repeated him in a stereotypical cowboy drawl. “Do people really talk like that where you come from? It sounds like you’re thick. Got nothing in your head but cotton, and you’re chewing on caramels all the time.” He made a sucking, masticating sound, stuttering around it, “T-T-Trepidation of the s-s-spheres.”

Ben forced himself to keep a rein on his temper, but the indignation bubbled like molten magma in his gut, threatening to erupt. Rage got him nowhere; it only made the torment worse when they parodied and derided it. The only thing that kept them from pushing him physically, he was sure, was his size. He used it then, rising up to his full height and glaring down at the three of them, all smaller by at least four inches.

Fuck off,” he said again, emphasizing each word around gritted teeth.

“Can’t take a little ribbing, Solo?” Blakely asked, cruel dark blue eyes flashing with malice. “You don’t belong here. Housemaster Snoke would toss you out on your ear if you weren’t the headmaster’s blood.” He scoffed. “He’s the only reason you could even walk in here, let alone study.”

Ben wanted to yell that he had no desire to be here, either—that he wanted to go home—but that was giving them another avenue by which to attack him: poor baby Solo is homesick and needs his mum to tuck him in at night and sing him to sleep. Ben would rather they make fun of his accent and his substandard education than give any hint that he was unhappy.

He wasn’t sure he knew what happiness actually felt like, at least not anymore. As a kid he had enjoyed playing games and learning and solving math problems, but after the divorce what little shine he’d enjoyed in his days faded into dismal and featureless gray. That wasn’t much different from the English skies most days, and he figured it suited this place just fine: bleak, cold, and friendless.

“Get out of my way,” Ben snarled, making to push past them. They held firm in a tight semicircle.

“I don’t think you’re very hungry today, Solo,” said Rembis. “What do you think, lads?”

Blakely shook his head. “No, he doesn’t look it. He should stay in the classroom and get ahead on his Latin, shouldn’t he?” The boy gave him a cruel grin. “You just do that, eh, Solo? Get your little beginner’s grammar out and pretend like you know something.”

“Doubt you ever will,” Poole said. “You’re a lost cause. Dumber than a rock. Say that, Solo. Say you’re dumber than a rock.”

Ben never would. “Go to hell,” he said, balling his fists.

Poole’s gaze flicked down to them, and Ben could see him doing the figures in his head: there may have been three of them, but if Ben hit him in the face, it was going to hurt. He didn’t press again, changing tack: “Have a seat, then, Solo, and study up. You’d better be here when we get back. If I see your face in the dining hall, there’s going to be something to reckon with.”

“You can’t make me stay,” Ben said. “You’re not the head boy, or even a prefect.”

Rembis barked a laugh. “As if Hux would trouble himself with you. You’re dumb as a rock and as ignorable as one, too.” He leveled a stubby finger at Ben. “You’ll do as we say.”

“Not a chance.” Ben threw out his arms and shoved Rembis and Poole aside. They cried out, Rembis bumping into Blakely, who teetered. Ben charged past them, out of the classroom and into the corridor. He didn’t give a backward glance as he went in hasty, half-running strides toward the library.

There, the librarian greeted him with a smile, but Ben went by and into the stacks. He stopped only when he was at the back of the room, hidden by the science books. Letting himself catch his breath, he leaned against the shelf and closed his eyes.

He didn’t want to admit that he was actually being bullied, but there was no other appropriate term for it. Rembis, Blakely, and Poole weren’t the only ones, either. Thanisson was hard on him, critiquing his appearance almost every day and hovering during prep time when Ben was supposed to be doing his work undisturbed. Mitaka wasn’t so bad, especially since he had to do Ben’s Latin tutorial three days a week, and then on Saturdays, too.

Yesterday, Mitaka had pulled his and Ben’s desks together in the classroom and cracked a beginner’s Latin textbook. He read over the verbs Ben had written out and went through the pronunciations as he drilled their conjugations. They worked on noun declensions as well, until Ben’s brain was filled with them. He wasn’t apt at it, and Mitaka’s frustration showed by the end of the prep period, but if he listened closely enough in Luke’s class now he could pick out some words he had learned.

Mitaka also had the time and, apparently, the willingness to explain how some things worked around Haverhill: tacit regulations that Ben constantly broke in his ignorance. Crying, for one, wasn’t permitted. Mitaka said that third-formers could earn themselves a switching if they were heard weeping for their mums at night. Teddies were allowed but were expected to be relinquished by fourth form. Nobody spoke of home with any wistfulness, and nobody even let on when they were having a particularly good day. A Haverhillian was stoic and reserved, never letting temper or joy show overmuch. If you didn't behave at all times like you were having polite conversation over tea, you were chided. And there were weirder things, too, like why the older boys didn’t mix with the younger, even in their own houses.

“People will think you’ve got designs on them,” Mitaka had explained on Wednesday night.

Ben’s brows had knit. “What do you mean?”

Mitaka’s eyes had moved suspiciously to the left and right, checking that no one was listening. “The pretty ones get fancied over the course of the year. If they look a little bit like girls.” He chewed his cheek. “There’s a girls’ school about ten miles away and we see them in the village sometimes when we can get there at the weekends, but there’s little chance of us getting any time alone with them. The younger, girlish boys can be a substitute.”

What?” Ben had said, too loud. Mitaka gestured for him to keep his voice down. He continued, quieter: “You mean they, uh…”

“Most times it’s just admiring from a distance, or making one of them do chores to have them around, but sometimes it’s more.” He swallowed audibly. “Some of them are willing, mind you, but some are forced. It doesn’t happen in Arkanis House—Hux makes sure of that. Rumors of dalliances in other houses have gotten around before, though.”

Ben blinked at him, stunned. “Where could they even do that? We all sleep in the same room.”

“There’s a few hidden places: sport sheds, toilet stalls, back of the library.”

Ben tried not to imagine two boys with their hands down each other’s pants while he was reading in his favorite place to escape. It wasn’t really that he was disgusted by it; homosexuality wasn’t some kind of moral aberration like olden-days preachers claimed. It was just off-putting to think of a boy his age “admiring” a thirteen-year-old. Maybe there weren’t any girls, but Ben had his right hand to keep him busy—not that he had much of a place to masturbate in peace. He’d considered the toilet stalls, but he was so closely watched that he didn’t think he could slip away for ten minutes without getting an interrogation. That was going to grind him down after a while, he was sure.

Mitaka had continued: “It’s just so you know. Don’t go talking to the younger boys. Keep to our year, or maybe lower sixth.”

“Nobody thinks anyone in the same year would mess around like that?” Ben asked.

“No,” Mitaka replied. “That’s what the fairies would do, and we’re not...that. Things with the younger boys aren’t that way; it’s just because we don’t have another choice. But even that’s not right, okay? Don’t get into it.”

“I won’t,” Ben had said firmly. “I’m not gay.”

Mitaka had shaken his head. “You don’t have to be to— Never mind. Just don’t, all right?”

“No problem.”

In the library now, Ben took a steadying breath. Not much made sense in this place; it was harder to navigate than any American high school. He thought that maybe he should have craved fitting in—being accepted by the others like the American boy Dameron had been. And yet he didn’t. He didn’t need their approval or their friendship; he was more than fine on his own. He’d have to be, at least until the end of the school year.

He rubbed his palms on his khaki trousers, taut over his thighs. He peered at the shadowed places between the stacks and wondered just how many liaisons had taken place here among the musty books.

To be honest, Ben had never thought much about sex. He had hung out mostly with boys and had never been to the kinds of parties where he could make out with a girl, maybe feel her up. He’d been part of conversations about them—the heavy give of breasts or the slickness between a girl’s legs—but it hadn’t stirred much interest. He didn’t even masturbate that often, if other guys his age were being honest about their own habits. It had never bothered him, but if some people turned to other boys, he guessed their need had to be pretty powerful.

“Screw this place,” Ben muttered to himself, his voice a low vibration in the quiet of the library.

 


 

Ben’s mattress was thin and he could feel the springs under it digging into his back as he lay on it that night. Despite another tiring day, he couldn’t manage to fall asleep, staring up into the blackness of the room and casting the occasional glance out the window, where the moon was hanging low in the sky, full and bright. It was getting colder by the day, but Ben wanted more than anything at that moment to get out into the open air; the dormitory walls seemed to be closing in, his pajama top choking him.

Boys weren’t allowed out of the dormitory at night, but Ben had learned in his early morning journeys to the bathroom that both Mitaka and Thanisson slept soundly. They were unlikely to wake as he passed by on his way to the door. Slipping out from under the quilt, he tugged on his socks and padded as silently as possible across the room. The hinges thankfully didn’t screech as he pulled the door open just enough to get through and into the hallway. He only dared breathe then, exhaling with relief at a scant taste of freedom.

The terrace was on the other side of the common room, and Ben was bound there, creeping through the deserted corridor and hoping the floor didn’t creak. He got there some three minutes later, finding the door to the terrace already propped open. Ben hesitated, but then shoved it open to get outside. He drew cold air into his lungs, feeling already lighter.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” came a sharp voice to Ben’s right.

He turned, shocked, to find the head boy, an overcoat hanging from his shoulders and a half-smoked cigarette in his left hand, leaning against the wall.

Ben’s hackles rose at his tone, and he snapped back, “What the hell are you doing here? We’re both supposed to be in bed.”

Hux took a drag from his cigarette, then blew the smoke out of his nostrils. He picked a piece of errant tobacco from his lower lip. “Yes, well, there’s nobody to tell me that. You, however, should get the cane for this.”

“That doesn’t really happen,” Ben said. “It’s just a threat. It’s 1975, not 1875.”

“Do you want to bet your tuck money on that?” Hux asked dryly.

Ben sucked his teeth, anger rising. “I could take you down if you tried. You’re tall, but you’re not very big.”

Hux glowered at him, half of his face illuminated while the other was cast in moon shadow. “You wouldn’t dare. If Snoke got wind of a physical fight with me, he’d have you expelled. If I wanted you switched, you’d bend right over for me or get tossed out of Haverhill.”

The image flashed across Ben’s mind: him on his knees and bent bare-assed over his bed while Hux stalked behind him with a looped belt in his hand. The stripes of each blow would burn a furious red on Ben’s white skin. The very idea should have incensed him, but Ben let it pass without giving in to the rage it might have conjured.

“I could just tell Snoke that you were out here, too,” he said to Hux. “And smoking, too. Bet that’s not allowed.”

Hux sniffed, flicking the cigarette to ash it. “If you were to try that, it would be Snoke with the cane instead of me. Ratting out the head boy just isn’t done, Solo.” He smiled icily. “There’s not much you can do to me, I promise you that.”

Ben crossed his arms, figuring it was true. Mitaka had said enough times by now that nobody crossed Hux without a reckoning. “A switching probably isn’t so bad,” he said, a play at nonchalance. “Can’t be worse than getting punched in the gut a few times.”

“And you would know that how?” Hux said.

“I’ve fought,” Ben replied. “Back home. Sometimes a guy said something that I really didn’t like and I had to set him straight.”

Hux gave a dismissive snort. “Brutish, aren’t you? How am I not surprised?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’re a shining example of unrefined American barbarism. You speak like a ranch hand and lurk around in sullen silence, as if the only thing you can do is grunt when someone addresses you.”

Ben’s temper skyrocketed. “Fuck you, asshole.”

Hux laughed. “You’re only proving my point.”

“Like the English don’t swear,” Ben said. “Although maybe you don’t. You’re so prim and proper that you probably think anything other than ‘brute’ is unrefined.” He made a disgusted noise. “It’s like you have no personality. Nobody here does. Everything is manners and ‘comportment.’ It’s all horseshit. This whole place should be painted with it.”

“Being civilized is what we do,” said Hux, though there was a note of scorn in his voice. “Haverhill produces gentlemen, even if not the hereditary kind.”

Ben pushed his hand into his hair and pulled. “What does that even mean? What makes someone a gentleman? Being an enormous prick with a nice tie and polished shoes?”

Hux took a last puff of his cigarette before snuffing it out on the stone railing and throwing the butt over the side. “In part, perhaps. There are nuances you’ve certainly never been apprised of.”

“Enlighten me,” said Ben curtly.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin. You’re a mess, and I’m not sure even Snoke and this school can make something of you. I’m certainly not going to take it upon myself. I have my own education and future to consider.”

Ben pushed on: “Oxford or Cambridge?”

Hux shook his head minutely. “Sandhurst.”

“Where’s that?”

“Berkshire.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “You know I have no idea where that actually is. What are you going to study?”

“It’s not a university,” Hux said. “It’s the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, to be precise. I’m to be an officer.”

That suited him, from what Ben could see of his behavior and iron-fisted rule over Arkanis House. No wonder Snoke liked Hux being in charge, if he ran the place like a barracks.

“Is that a family thing?” Ben asked. “Like your great-grandfather was a general and your cousin’s in the Navy?”

Hux’s face grew shuttered, a tightness at his mouth betraying caution. “My family is none of your concern.”

Ben raised his hands defensively. “Okay, settle down. Do you want to do it, though? Or do you have to?”

The reply came whip-crack fast: “Personal queries are not going to be answered. You would know better if you weren’t from the Colonies.”

“Do people here seriously call the States that?” Ben said, distasteful, if legitimately curious.

“Derisively,” said Hux. “Which we aren’t always.” He let out a breath that fogged like his exhales of smoke. “Public school isn’t exactly the right place to learn about the wider British public. Other people are more reasonable that this lot. You walked into a snake pit, Solo. It was never going to be easy for you here.”

Ben leaned back against the wall on the opposite side of the door from Hux. “That’s what my uncle’s housekeeper said before the term started. And Snoke told me I was screwing up the dynamic in upper sixth. I didn’t expect this to be a cakewalk, trust me, but…” He trailed off, picking at one of his cuticles.

“If you’re looking for pity,” Hux said, “you’ll not get it from me. If I haven’t made it clear enough, you don’t belong here.”

“No, really,” Ben grumbled, “fuck you.”

He got another laugh, the timbre deeper and warmer than he might have expected. “At least you don’t have a fragile spirit. I think you’d take a beating from me and come back up with the same vitriol, if not more.” Hux ran a hand over his hair; it was still perfectly styled despite him ostensibly having been in bed before. “We’ll have to break you of that.”

Ben turned his head only slightly to look at him, sucking his lower lip under his front teeth. Good sense said to bend, but he wasn’t the kind to do that. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Be careful, Solo,” Hux said. “You’re inviting your own misery.”

“I’m not afraid of you like everyone else is,” Ben told him. “Even the prefects are shaking in their boots. If anyone’s fragile, it’s them.”

Hux inclined his head, conceding. “Mitaka and Thanisson have their uses. And I wouldn’t talk down about the one person in the house who deigns to talk to you at any length.” He smiled again, sharp. “But it doesn’t really count, does it? The headmaster ordered him to do it.”

Ben couldn’t deny that, but it stung all the same. He threw a barb of his own: “Do you have any friends?”

Hux gave nothing away in his posture or expression, and he said, “I rely on myself and look out for my own interests. The boys are in my charge; they are my peers in name only.”

Huffing, Ben crossed his arms. Hux really was an asshole.

“Go back to bed, Solo,” he ordered. “If you’re not sound asleep in ten minutes, I’ll think about that switching.”

Ben didn’t immediately stand up from the wall. He surveyed Hux to decide if he was serious; he probably was. “You coming, too?”

“Not at the same time as you, no,” Hux replied. “It would certainly send the wrong message.”

“What message?”

Hux’s eyes flashed. “They’d think we were fucking.”

Ben balked at the bluntness. After a moment, he managed to say, “Mitaka told me boys in the same year don’t do that.”

“Generally, they don’t,” said Hux, “but your circumstances are unusual, and that sometimes leads to other aberrations of conduct.”

“And the last thing you’d want anyone to think is that you’d let the ‘brutish’ American lay a hand on you, right?” Ben said frigidly.

Hux came around to face him properly, his long arms hidden underneath his overcoat. “Exactly so. Now get back to the dormitory. You have eight minutes.”

Ben peeled himself away from the wall and, with deliberately slow steps, went back through the door into the common room. His feet and hands had grown cold as he stood outside, the tingling of returning blood making itself known as he made his way back to his bed, but he hadn’t noticed while he was talking to Hux; his temper had kept him warm.

What a piece of work. Ben was tempted to push him just because he could, but knew better—at least that. He’d just keep on his own course and ignore him, just as he had before.

Under his quilt again, Ben waited to see if he would hear Hux returning. There was a brief shuffling of feet, a cough as someone woke and then groaned as he fell back asleep, but nothing more.

 


 

Ben didn’t get so much as a glance from Hux the next day, even when they were in the showers in the morning—alone and unobserved. Ben didn’t have any reason to expect him to, especially since he himself had resolved to pretend as if they had never met on the terrace. Still, it felt as if something had shifted and Hux had revealed part of himself, despite the fact that he hadn’t told Ben a single personal detail. But they had still talked, and Ben understood more about him than he had the day before; that was revealing in itself.

Thankfully, Ben avoided another reading in their English lesson and with that managed to fly under the radar of Rembis, Poole, and Blakely. He had returned to the classroom after skipping lunch yesterday afternoon, but once the others had already come in. The looks he got had been venomous, even if nobody made a fuss over it after Greek. Ben had been abused on the soccer field, but no more than usual. He was then pointedly and scornfully overlooked for the rest of the evening. That was preferred; he got his prep done without interruption.

Now he was at dinner, chewing on tough pork loin and boiled potatoes and trying to review Latin before his tutorial with Mitaka after their club time. Models wasn’t unbearable, but Ben didn’t talk to the others any more than he did the Arkanis sixth-formers. He assembled his Hurricane on his own, afraid he was using too much glue and making a mess of it.

His plate was just cleared and his water drunk when Thanisson appeared with a slip of paper in his narrow hand.

“Solo,” he said.

“What?” Ben asked tersely.

Thanisson pursed his lips, holding out the paper. “The head boy needs these books from the library and you’re to get them.”

Ben took the paper, scanning over the six titles with cursory disinterest before shoving it back at Thanisson. “Tell him to get them himself.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Thanisson told him, firm. “If he expects you to do something, you do it. No questions.”

“No thanks,” said Ben. “He’s got two good legs and I assume he knows the Dewey decimal system. He can do his own dirty work.”

Thanisson’s baffled disapproval was plain. “You’re going to regret it if you don’t do this, Solo. Hux doesn’t take that kind of insubordination lightly.”

Ben shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever.”

It was clear enough that he wasn’t going to bend on the issue, leaving Thanisson to either stare at him helplessly or walk away; he chose the latter. He’d probably be running off to tell Hux Ben wasn’t playing along with his little plan. Ben didn’t care a whit. He had told Hux to get fucked last night, and his attitude hadn’t changed.

Once the dishes were cleared, Ben made his way over to where the models club had set up. The president, Finn, handed out their in-progress projects from a rickety rolling cart. Ben took his to the end of the table and set to work. He was, with tremulous, unsteady fingers, trying to fasten the rudder of the plane onto the tail when Finn—and he was called that, too, not by his surname; Ben didn’t know why—sat down next to him. Ben started and smeared the glue.

“Shit,” he grumbled.

“Sorry, mate,” said Finn. “Just wipe it off and start again.” He handed Ben a cotton swab, which he took to clean up the mess. “So, how’s it going?”

Ben set the model down. “Okay, I guess. I’ve never done this before.”

Finn shook his head, sporting a half smile. “Not quite what I meant. I was thinking more broadly. You know, how school is. It’s just the first week, I know, but you’re not from here, so I figured I’d check in.”

Ben studied him suspiciously, unsure whether to believe he was sincere or not. “What’s it to you?” he said.

“No offense meant,” said Finn, raising his hands. “You don’t have to say anything. I can just go.” He made to rise, but Ben stopped him.

“No, wait,” Ben told him. “It’s all right. Weird. The classes are hard. I’m shit at English and classics. Don’t get me started on soccer—football.”

Finn chuckled. “You’re not the only one. A few of the lads in Oakeshott aren’t so keen on it, either. But the masters always say it’s a healthy way to work out our energy and give us focus in class. I like sport, but it doesn’t mean you have to.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “It’d be easier if I was good at it, though.” It was a difficult admission: an acknowledgement that he did wish he blended in a little better. Finn seemed like a decent person, though, if he went to the trouble to actually ask if Ben was okay.

“Have you talked to Dameron at all?” Finn asked, laying his hands on the table. They were thick-fingered with nicely trimmed nails, lighter on the inside than the outside. “He’s an American, too. Been here since third form—his parents work in the consulate in London—but he might be able to give you some, ah, pointers.”

Ben kept his gaze on his model, dubious. “I don’t really need to team up with the only other American kid in the school. Especially since Arkanis and Oakeshott are supposed to be rivals...or whatever.”

Finn inclined his head. “That’s smart, but if you’re really in a bind, I’m sure he’d help you out.” He frowned slightly. “He doesn’t get on well with your head boy, though. They’ve hated each other since we all started here. Can’t exactly tell you why, but they’ve always just butted heads.”

“Does anyone actually ‘get on’ with Hux?” Ben said.

He got another airy laugh. “Fair enough. He’s a real tit, but you didn’t hear me say that.”

Ben huffed. “As if everybody doesn’t know that.”

“Again, quite fair. Even the headmaster doesn’t like him. Master Snoke’s the only one who seems to, and he’s not even good at maths. Snoke tends to favor the clever ones in his lessons.”

“He hasn’t gotten on my case,” Ben admitted. “But math is my strongest subject.”

Finn sighed. “Jealous on that, mate. I’m staying afloat, but I don’t care for it. You think you’ll focus on that at university?”

Ben ran his tongue along his inner cheek, for the first time embarrassed that he wasn’t really thinking of college. “I don’t know,” he said, dodging. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Better get on it. We’ve got to make our applications in a few months. I’m hoping to read history, but my dad says it’s useless unless I want to be a professor; I’ll starve without a job.” He rubbed his hands together. “But my dad works in a factory. What does he know, eh?”

“How did you get into Haverhill?” Ben asked. “Everybody else’s dad is in Parliament or a barrister or works in the foreign service.” At least that was what he’d heard so far.

“I’m clever,” Finn replied without an ounce of shame. “Stood out in my school before, so the headmaster managed to get me a scholarship. Some old alumnus donated a chunk of cash to the school to bring up poor kids like me.”

Ben gave him a small smile; Finn wasn’t bad at all if he was willing to be that forthright. “Do you like it here?”

“Sure. I caught my share of shite when I first started, but when you’re keen on rugger and make good marks, people can deal with you.”

“Great,” Ben said, deadpan. “I’m never going to manage that.”

Finn commiserated: “Give it time, mate. And stay on the right side of your housemaster and your head boy.” Ben’s scowl had his brows rising. “You already causing trouble for them?”

“Not directly, but Hux hates me, I’m pretty sure. He said I ‘don’t belong here.’ And he tried to get me to go to the library and pick up some books for him, like he couldn’t do it himself.”

Finn perked up, clearly surprised. “He’s fagging you?”

Ben made a face. “He’s what?”

“Fagging you,” Finn said. “It’s when someone, usually an older boy, makes a younger boy do all kinds of shite work for him: getting things, making tea, cleaning the fireplace in his study at five in the morning. It’s just to make someone’s life hell. Used to be really common, but these days housemasters don’t like it. They tend to put a stop to things before a fag gets really put to work.” He rubbed his chin. “But...Snoke would be the kind to let it happen, and Hux would be the kind to do it. But you’re in sixth form, same as him. It’s always a boy in a lower year.”

“Well, there’s no way in hell I’m doing any of that,” said Ben. “I’m not his errand boy.”

Finn worried his lower lip, baring clean white teeth. “Well, I’d say that’s a good choice, but if he wants to make you suffer, he’s going to do it. It’s just strange that he’d pick you.” He gave Ben a sorrowful look. “You must really have pissed him off.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Ben insisted. “Well, I was out of bed last night, but—” So was he. Ben didn’t share that part. “I’m not doing that stuff.”

“All right,” Finn said, “but be careful. If you really run afoul of him, he can rain shite down on you to his heart’s content. Nobody can stop him. Unless the headmaster steps in for you. Would he?”

Ben shook his head. “He said I wouldn’t get any special treatment. Probably because he’s my uncle. Doesn’t want to pick favorites.”

“That’s good, really. Going crying to the headmaster won’t make you any friends. And everyone should have some friends.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “I guess.”

Finn smiled again. “Anyway, I’d best leave you to the Hurricane, but if you ever want to talk, or if you want me to get Dameron, you just have to say.”

Ben told him, in earnest, “Thanks.”

Finn left him there, checking in with the other boys as they worked on their models. Ben did his absently until the end of the hour, before tucking it back onto the cart, which Finn pushed away to wherever it was stored.

Ben met Mitaka in the back corner of the common room for his tutorial ten minutes later, after a trip to the bathroom and a tie for his hair. It looked too messy with half of it up in a tail and half of it down his neck, but he really didn’t care at that point. Unless Mitaka pitched a fit, he would leave it.

They were working on a basic story in the textbook about a country estate where the owner kept a few slaves, Ben translating quietly while Mitaka looked on and corrected any mistakes. About halfway through, Ben paused and turned, asking, “Is it true that older boys take a ‘fag’ to do chores for them?”

Mitaka’s round eyes widened. “Who told you that?”

“Someone else,” Ben replied. “Does it really matter? I’m asking you if it’s true because Hux told Thanisson to tell me to get him a bunch of books from the library today.”

“He did?” Mitaka said, his voice a squeak. “That’s...unusual.”

Ben spun his pencil between his fingers. “That’s what my ‘someone else’ said, too. Picking somebody your age is weird. And he’s an idiot if he thinks I’m doing it.”

Mitaka swallowed, the muscles in his neck working visibly. “Well, it may be out of the ordinary, but if Hux wants something done, he can demand anyone do it. There’s no reason he can’t. Did you do something to make him angry?”

“No,” Ben lied. “At least I don’t think he was. He seemed fine.”

“It’s hard to read him,” said Mitaka. “But even the smallest misstep can earn you a punishment. But he’d usually hand it down through either me or Thanisson. There’s no reason to trouble himself with small matters. I’m sure we would have heard if you did something truly awful.”

Annoyed, Ben fussed with his ponytail. “I didn’t. I think he’s just being an asshole because he can.”

Mitaka didn’t deny that that was something that could be true. “Look, Solo, it’s best to just play along if he’s got errands for you to run. If you cross him, it will only get worse.”

“I’m not doing it,” Ben said resolutely. “Tell him to get his own fucking books.”

“You’re not making this easy on yourself,” Mitaka said. “But it’s your own choice in the end.” He tapped Ben’s book. “Let’s get back to work. It’s almost time for bed and you’ve got to finish this.”

Ben went back to his translating sullenly, but by the time he was lying in bed in the dormitory that night, his thoughts turned back to Hux. Screw him, he thought. And yet he couldn’t help but wonder why he was going against the ever-hallowed conventions just to make Ben’s life difficult. He was sure Hux wouldn’t explain himself. Ben wouldn’t be his slave, though, that much was for certain—no matter what he tried to pull to break him.

 


 

In his room in Massachusetts, Ben had a twin bed that he had grown too big for by the time he was thirteen. His mother had told his father over and over that it was time he had a proper one, but Han had kept pushing the matter to the side. The divorce ended the whole conversation, and Ben remained in a cramped bed made up with sheets with trains on them, like he was eight.

The sheets at Haverhill were coarse and starched to the point that they had felt like paper the first time he had lain in them. They had softened up some in the days since he had arrived—he was told he would have to change them weekly—but they were still a far sight from the worn-in train sheets from home. And they smelled like the bleach used to clean them. Ben’s own comforting scent didn’t seem to stick to them, and he always woke up feeling like he was in a bed that didn’t belong to him.

He supposed it didn’t, really. All the beds belonged to the school; he was just borrowing it for the year. It looked the same as all the others, too, from frame to assembly line-identical green quilt. And he didn’t sleep well in it, though he hadn’t snuck out since that night on the terrace. He figured that if he did and Hux caught him, he actually would get out the oft-threatened switch. Ben wasn’t scared, but he was sure Luke would hear about it and then word would get to his mother. Ben hadn’t cared at home that she knew he was failing out of school. Here, however, it seemed different. He wanted to get through it all, if only to prove that he could. It was strange to feel that drive to succeed again, even if in the warped way it had manifested this time.

What dreams he had were disjointed and often interrupted by the sounds of the other boys shifting and snoring in the night. And he was brought rudely out of them that Saturday morning by a firm shake to his shoulder. It was still dark, but in the scant moonlight, Mitaka’s face came into view.

“What the hell?” Ben demanded, voice breaking with disuse after the night.

“Keep your voice down, will you?” Mitaka admonished. When Ben didn’t apologize, he went on: “You’re to go down to the dining hall and fetch tea to the head boy’s study. You know where it is, right?”

He’d been told it was at the end of the hall opposite Snoke’s, just beyond the door to the common room, but he’d never been there or even thought of it after the first time he had been told. “What time is it?” he asked.

“Half six,” Mitaka replied. “You should hurry, too. It’s a bit of a trip back from the dining hall with a tea tray.”

Ben rubbed a hand over his face, willing himself to process any of this. “Hux wants me to get him a cup of tea at five-thirty in the morning?”

“And to light the fire in his study before he gets there,” Mitaka told him.

“He’s delusional,” said Ben. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going back to sleep.” He made to pull the quilt up over his head, but Mitaka tugged it back down.

“Solo,” he said, a note of pleading in his tone, “you can’t not do it. It’s Hux. You just...can’t.

“I can,” Ben snarled, “and I will. Go away, Mitaka. I’m going the hell back to sleep.” He yanked the quilt up and turned away, burying his face in his pillow. He could sense Mitaka hovering by his bedside for another few seconds, but then he went away and Ben was able to drift back off.

He woke again at his usual quarter to seven and went to shower. He had mostly forgotten about Mitaka’s predawn request, but noticed that Hux didn’t come into the bathroom while he was cleaning up. In passing, he assumed that Hux had gotten up at six—or whatever other God-forsaken hour he had tried to drag Ben out of bed—and gone to make his own damn tea. Somehow Ben couldn’t imagine him doing it, but in a pinch he’d probably just sent Mitaka. He would have done it, especially if he was already up to wake Ben. The whole concept was crazy: make Mitaka get up to get Ben out of bed just to run a stupid errand. Hux could have just ordered Ben the night before—and then Ben could have told him to piss off to his face.

Clean and dressed, save for his blazer, Ben return to the dormitory to put his pajamas away. The tension that suffused the room was palpable as soon as he entered. He nearly paused at the door as he felt numerous gazes fall on him, but continued down toward his bed. Standing at the foot by his trunk was Hux. He was perfectly turned out in his uniform, his hair combed neatly and expression stern and judgmental. His hands were tucked behind his back as he looked Ben over from head to toes.

Ben felt a twinge of nerves. He played it cool, however, saying, “Is there something you wanted?”

“Your shirt is buttoned wrong, Solo,” Hux snapped.

Ben glanced down and noted that indeed his buttons were mismatched; he must be more tired than he had thought. “Oops,” he said, unfazed.

“And where is your tie?” Hux demanded. He stalked closer, his slender fingers slipping under Ben’s collar and tugging it against the back of his neck. “You look ridiculous. Such sloppiness is unacceptable.”

“I was getting to it,” Ben said. “I just got out of the shower.”

“Hardly,” said Hux, curt. “You spend more time in the bathroom than a girl.” He flicked the damp ends of Ben’s hair. “And this. You should have it shorn off.”

Ben jerked away, scowling. “Piss off.”

Gasps of shock made the rounds of the boys; Ben had clearly overstepped. Too bad he didn’t care in the least.

Hux drew his hand back slowly, putting it behind him again. His words were as pointed as a knife: “Be very careful, Solo. I will not be able to overlook this kind of behavior forever. You’re unaccustomed to the way things work here, but you’ll have to learn quickly or suffer the consequences.”

Ben reached petulantly for his belt, loosening it. “You want to beat me right here? I need to learn my lesson, right?”

The look he got was wintry. “You are pushing the boundaries of my patience with exceptional abandon.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “What are you going to do about it?”

Around him, the other sixth-formers were gaping, clearly stunned that Ben would dare stand up to Hux in such a way. It was gratifying in the extreme. The only thing that would have made it better was to make Hux’s cool exterior crack. Ben wondered if he would flush red if he actually turned to give Ben a beating.

“You are confined to grounds for the entirety of September,” Hux said. “Generally, we are allowed to go down to Tindon at the weekends. You’ll be staying here.”

Ben wasn’t impressed. “That’s it? Fine by me.”

Hux gave short nod. “Continue to make a nuisance of yourself and you’ll find I’m much less forgiving.”

“Sure,” Ben said, dismissive. “Whatever you say.”

He was left there, standing by his trunk as Hux turned and went away. The boys stared after him, though some of them looked back at Ben after Hux had disappeared into the corridor. Ben nonchalantly unbuttoned his shirt and did it back up correctly, tucking it back into his trousers. He put his tie on and did a shoddy knot. It was too loose for regulation, but he figured it didn’t matter; Hux wasn’t going to push him further today. If he wasn’t mistaken, he had come out the winner of the morning’s duel: he hadn’t run Hux’s little errand and he’d taken a stand in front of the whole year. Nobody else would pull what he had done, and it felt damn good.

Most of the boys were quick to don their blazers and make their way out toward the dining hall in the aftermath. Ben took his time, until eventually Mitaka appeared at his side.

“You’re playing with fire, Solo,” he said. “Hux isn’t to be trifled with like that. Being confined to grounds is bad enough, but if you try something like that again, he’ll be forced to do worse.”

Ben blinked at him, unaffected. “So let him. He’s just a kid pretending to be a drill sergeant. I don’t have to take his shit.”

Mitaka shook his head in despair. “For the sake of the rest of us, then. If he’s put in a bad mood, he’ll take it out on the whole house.”

“Not my business,” Ben said, shrugging his blazer over his shoulders. “I’m not really a team player, if you haven’t noticed. Everyone else can take care of themselves, I’m sure.”

“Solo,” said Mitaka with some measure of desperation, “please.”

“No.”

The little prefect flashed him a resigned look, his back rounded and head hanging. From his pocket he drew a folded piece of paper. Holding it out to Ben, he said, “Reconsider.”

Ben took the paper and saw the same list of books he had been told to get yesterday. He wanted to push it back to Mitaka, but instead tucked it into his own breast pocket. He’d be damned before he actually got the books. “Let’s go to breakfast,” he said to Mitaka.

They didn’t walk together, but it wasn’t far enough apart to indicate Ben was being flouted. Mitaka had at least a modicum of respect for him. Ben grinned to himself, tucking his hands into his trouser pockets. Things were looking up after all.

Chapter Text

The students had a respite from chapel on Saturday mornings, allowing Ben his own time after breakfast. He had been watched warily as he ate, the mood at the Arkanis table subdued. Hux kept his focus on his food.

Once the dishes were cleared, Ben ventured to the library. The piece of paper with Hux’s requested books on it was still in his pocket, but he had no intention of even looking at it. Instead, he decided to wander the stacks a little, looking for something other than textbooks and grammars to read. He had never been keen on literature. Confined to grounds, however, he would have to find something to do to pass the time.

The librarian, who went by the name of Mr. Pierson, was at his desk squinting at a large volume through his pince-nez. He glanced up when Ben came through the doors and smiled. “Mr. Solo. Welcome.”

“Hi,” Ben said. He hadn’t said much to Pierson, but he was a good-natured person who was always ready to help a student find a book. Ben figured he might as well hear his recommendation of something to read. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” said Pierson. “What can I do for you?”

“Well,” Ben started, “I guess I’m looking for a book. I don’t really know what I want to read about, but I’m kind of bored.” He rubbed his hands together in front of him. “Do you have any recommendations?”

Pierson smiled broadly, removing his glasses. “I do. There are certainly novels we could start with, or are you looking for something more in the nonfiction category? History? Biography? Science?”

Ben wasn’t very fanciful, so he replied, “Nonfiction, I think. Something with science, maybe? Or history.”

“Perhaps the history of science,” said Pierson with a waggle of high eyebrows. He rose from his desk and came around it to Ben’s side. He wasn’t a short man, but he wasn’t Ben’s height, either. He took a shallow, preparatory breath. “Come along, then, and let’s have a look at the selection.”

He took Ben into the stacks, weaving through them with the utmost familiarity. He stopped at one shelf in the middle of the library and tapped some of the spines. “Are you a military historian?”

The first thing Ben thought of was Hux and his Sandhurst military school. “No,” he answered flatly.

“Very well. What about structures, or architecture? We have a great deal of impressive structures here in England, and perhaps you’d like to learn about them, or at least their construction.” Pierson pulled a volume from the shelf and handed it to Ben. The first page read Across the Water: A History of Tower Bridge. “Did you know that people used to live on some of the bridges in London?” he asked. “Not Tower Bridge, but London Bridge.”

Ben shook his head. “I didn’t know London had a bridge.”

Pierson laughed. “Well, this would be a good introduction, then. If you haven’t been there, I certainly would suggest seeing it.”

“My uncle said we might go at half-term,” said Ben. “To London, I mean.”

“You mean Headmaster Skywalker?”

“Yes. I should have called him that, I guess.”

“That would be the correct way, yes,” Pierson said, “but family can be forgiven a slip in decorum.” He rubbed his chin, gesturing to the book with his other hand. “Well, you can read up before you go and then visit the bridge. It’s something that really shouldn’t be missed. And there is a great deal of other history to be explored in London. I can find you a tour book, if you’re interested.”

“Maybe later,” Ben said. “I don’t know if we’re actually going. But thanks.”

“Certainly. Let’s go and check this out to you then, shall we?” As they walked, he continued: “Do you like England so far?”

Ben hesitated, weighing how honest to be. “It’s rainy. And school is pretty hard.”

Pierson said, “But you’re very diligent. You’re often here studying. Not every boy in this school would do that. Many don’t take things seriously despite the rigor of the courses. Public school is, if anything, a means to an end. Some boys just need the connections it will provide, a name on their diploma to pave the way for future careers in banking or the law or government.”

“That matters?”

“Most assuredly,” Pierson told him as they approached the desk. “A Haverhill education is much desired, perhaps as much as Eton or Harrow or Charterhouse.” He raised a brow. “Those are other public schools in the country.”

“Right,” Ben said. He hadn’t known that. “Do any of them actually teach science? It’s pretty weird that there’s nothing like that here.”

Pierson produced a pencil for Ben to write his name on the book’s borrowing card. “Are you interested in a career in science, then?”

“I’m not really sure, but it’s an option. Or at least it should be. I used to like it back in America.” He qualified: “As much as I went to class.”

He got a knowing smile. “Well, you can certainly study biology or chemistry at university, even if your lessons here don’t involve it. We have some books on those topics, if you’re interested.”

“Maybe another time,” Ben said. He tapped the cover of the book. “Do you have books on math? Calculus or advanced geometry?”

“Indeed we do,” Pierson replied. “You can check out five books at a time, if you’d like to look at those, too.”

Ben nodded.

They went into the stacks again, Pierson producing a text on geometry in engineering as well as a calculus manual. Ben stacked them both up in his arms once he had checked them out, said goodbye to the librarian, and carried them back up to Arkanis House. He set them down on his trunk, catching sight of a rumpled bag lying beside it. He studied it without touching.

“Your task for the rest of the morning,” came a voice from behind him: Thanisson.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“The head boy’s sports kit. You’re to clean everything in it before lunch.”

Ben glared. “You’re kidding me, right? That’s bullshit. Hux can take care of his own equipment.”

“It is a very unwise idea to fight this request, Solo,” said Thanisson.

“Yeah, maybe, but I’m not Hux’s servant.” He shook his head, kicking the bag. “I told him where he can stick it earlier.”

Thanisson wet his lips, though his expression remained hard. “It’s your funeral, then.” With that, he walked away.

Ben stared down at the bag for a few moments, incensed that once again Hux would try to con him into doing his scut work for him. Picking the bag up, he carried it from the dormitory, through the common room, and onto the terrace. He heaved it over the railing and into the courtyard below. Pleased as ever, he went to lie down and take a Saturday nap.

 


 

He expected a lazy awakening some hour or so later, but he was shocked into consciousness as his quilt and top sheet were yanked off of him and thrown with ferocity over his trunk and the floor. Ben sat up, squinting down at Hux, who stood at the foot of his bed looking murderous.

“Get up,” he snarled.

With intentional, unhurried lethargy, Ben rolled to the side of the bed, rubbed his face, and only then rose to his feet. Hux’s hand snapped out fast as a viper, his chilly fingers curling around Ben’s wrist and yanking him toward the front of the dormitory.

“Hey!” Ben cried. “Can I at least put my shoes on?”

Hux said nothing, only hauling him further on. Ben could have overpowered him, certainly, but he was still muzzy-headed from sleep and his limbs flopped clumsily. Hux led him down the main staircase in Arkanis House, shoving the courtyard door open with his free hand before setting it at Ben’s shoulder and pushing him out onto the sharp gravel. It pricked and stuck into the arches of Ben’s feet. Rain was falling—not heavily, but consistently.

“You were told to do a job, Solo,” Hux said, “and you chose to disobey me again. I warned you that I would not be as tolerant a second time.” He pushed Ben toward the place where Hux’s sports bag lay on the ground. “I expect all of that to be spotless in an hour.”

Ben rounded on him to glare, prepared to tell him no again, but the blow across his cheek came first, stunning him.

Hux rubbed his hand, presumably sore from the slap. “Do not defy me in this. You will remain out here until it’s done. Thanisson will keep watch to make sure you don’t shirk your duty.”

Touching his tender cheek, Ben felt the rain already soaking through his thin uniform shirt and his socks. Hux left him there, going back through the door, which Thanisson had propped open. He was standing just inside, where it was dry, but clearly would not be moving. Ben came around to face the bag, its leather sides slick with wet. He approached it as if it would come alive and snap at him, reluctantly bending down to open it. A whiff of stale sweat and mud wafted up as he unzipped it, and he recoiled.

Hux’s trainers were tucked into the side, dirt crusted nearly up to the tops, and there were a few other items inside; thankfully there was no filthy clothing. A rag and spray bottle of some kind of leather cleaner were at hand. Ben took the bottle out to hold between thumb and forefinger in disgust. Unable to stand and clean all of it, he knelt on the gravel and grit his teeth against the pain. Taking out one shoe, he sprayed it with the cleaner and started to scrub the filth away.

Bitter loathing churned in him as he worked, knowing he couldn’t half-ass this job without repercussions he didn’t want to face. He hated that, too; it was giving in to Hux’s bullying. His style was different than the boys who mocked Ben after English lessons: an abuse of the power he held over all the Arkanis pupils. Ben was sure he wouldn’t do this to anyone else. Given, none of the others had provided him reason to. Ben swallowed the regret, denying even to himself that he even felt it in the first place. He’d find a way to get Hux back for this.

Doubtful, he corrected in the back of his mind. As much as he didn’t want to acknowledge it, he knew Hux could continue to pull this kind of thing until the end of the year. Ben could talk back all he wanted, but it wouldn’t change the reality: he was at Hux’s mercy with no recourse. Snoke wouldn’t help him; Luke wouldn’t help him; and the other boys thought he was crazy to even try to stand up to the head boy. More the fool him, in the end.

Cleaning everything to what Ben figured would be Hux’s satisfaction took more than the allotted hour. His shirt and trousers were soaked through by the time he was finished and his hair was dripping frigid water down the back of his neck. His hands were shaking and teeth chattering as he tucked everything back into the bag. He shouldered it, carrying it back toward the door. Thanisson, who looked immensely relieved that his tedious watch was finally done, stepped aside to let him pass.

There were a number of boys coming and going up the stairs as Ben trudged back to the upper sixth dormitory and all of them gave him wide-eyed looks of either horror or confusion—Ben couldn’t tell which. He could guess that they had heard about his punishment, though; there were only fifty boys in the house and Hux likely ordered the prefects to spread the word just to make sure Ben was made a sufficient example of.

At the end of Hux’s bed, Ben unpacked the bag to make sure that everything inside of it could dry in the open air. “I’ll pack it all back up in a couple of hours,” he assured Thanisson.

“Very good.”

“I am done now?” Ben asked.

Thanisson nodded. “But Housemaster Snoke wants to see you in his office. You missed lunch, and he noticed.”

“So did you,” Ben groused.

“Hux made apologies for me. Not you.”

Ben hunched his shoulders, breathing through the mix of anger and chagrin. “Can I at least change first? I’m going to get pneumonia like this.”

“It would serve you right,” said Thanisson, “but yes. I would assume the housemaster would be displeased to see you so bedraggled.”

Ben had no reply, so he turned away. His bed linens were still a disaster, forcing him to set them to rights before he could get to his trunk and some dry clothes. He made quick work of it, thankful for the warmer air in the dormitory but still shivering. With fresh trousers and shirt, underwear and socks, he ducked into the bathroom to put them on. He had to peel the cold and soaked clothes from his body, but he toweled off quickly—paying special attention to his “bedraggled” hair. He had nowhere to put his soiled uniform to allow it to dry, so he balled it up and threw it into a laundry bag. Let them deal with it, even if it was a little musty by the time they did.

The door to Snoke’s office was propped open when Ben got there, but he paused to knock before he dared push it open.

“Enter,” Snoke said from inside.

He was seated at his desk with a piece of notebook paper in his hand, all of its limited space covered in cramped, scrawled equations: one of the younger boys’ math assignments.

“Solo,” Snoke continued. “I didn’t see you during the lunch period today. You skipped it?”

Ben’s empty stomach growled as if happy to admit the transgression. He wavered on whether to say outright that he had been ordered to clean up for Hux or to lie and just claim he had been doing something else. Knowing Snoke’s preference for Hux, Ben decided on: “I wasn’t hungry. And I, um, forgot.”

Snoke set the paper down on the desktop, folding his hands over it. “Whether or not you’re keen on the meal, you are required to appear for it. You don’t have to eat, but your presence is compulsory. I generally would not trouble myself with a matter like this, but Hux brought it to my attention. You were in bed and he was concerned you were unwell.”

Ben couldn’t hold back his snort of derision.

“Watch yourself, Solo. You step onto thin ice if you go around flouting the rules of this school. I certainly wouldn’t want to mention this to the headmaster.”

“This is something pretty inconsequential,” Ben said. “I don’t think he’d want to trouble himself with it.” Snoke scowled, but Ben pressed on: “I understand, though, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“I imagine not,” said Snoke. He cocked a thin, gray eyebrow. “I would imagine you’re quite hungry now.”

“I am, sir.”

“Too bad. You’ll have to wait until dinner.”

Ben’s face fell, but he nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Snoke’s smile was razor sharp. “Then you are excused. But, Solo, make sure to find Hux and tell him that you’re quite well. Thank him for his concern.”

“Yes, sir,” Ben said, intending to do no such thing.

Snoke waved him off, picking up the paper and a red pencil.

Ben went back into the corridor, uncertain what to do with the rest of his afternoon. An opportunity he could not pass up presented itself when he found Mitaka waiting by his bed with an armful of Latin texts. He had forgotten about his three-hour Saturday tutorial.

“Hey,” he said as he stopped in front of Mitaka. “Am I late?”

“By ten minutes,” Mitaka replied. “Heard you had a prior engagement courtesy of Hux.”

Ben sniffed. “I guess you could call it that. Anyway, we setting up in the common room?”

“That suits me.” Mitaka pushed one of the textbooks into Ben’s hands and charged out of the dormitory.

They sat at their usual table—thankfully empty at two o’clock—and cracked the books. Ben was working on yet another translation of a beginner’s story about a Roman senator. He had gotten halfway through on Friday night and was not looking forward to continuing.

“We’ll go through action verb infinitives when you’re done with this,” Mitaka told him tersely. “Get started.” He pulled out some of his own classics prep work—far more advanced than Ben’s—to do while Ben did his assignment.

Ben picked up his pencil and began to translate the Latin into English. Mitaka said after they got through this book, they’d have to start on Greek. Ben wasn’t looking forward to learning the new characters of the alphabet; it all looked like chicken scratch. But if he wanted to pass the final exam and graduate, he’d have to do as best he could.

“Hey, Mitaka,” he said, twirling the pencil between his fingers, “thanks for doing this. I know the headmaster said you had to, but you’ve been really, uh, nice to me about it. I don’t think anybody else would have done that.”

Mitaka glanced over at him, pressing his lips together.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Ben said, “but I just wanted you to know I appreciate it.”

“It’s not bad,” said Mitaka after a moment. “I like classics, and this is a review of some of the fundamentals. And…” He hesitated. “You’re not bad, either.”

Ben gave him a small, timid smile. “Better get to work,” he said.

“Yes,” Mitaka said. “Better do that.”

 


 

The three boys cornered Ben the next day as he was stopping by the classroom to get one of his notebooks. He had been about to look into his desk when Poole had pushed the top down to keep him from opening it. Rembis and Blakely were hovering behind him, grim expressions on their faces.

“Look here, lads,” Poole said in that smarmy tone that sounded like stepping into too-hot water felt: slick and uncomfortable, almost slimy and like to make you sweat if you weren’t already in the water. “Solo’s got a maths book. Need a remedial course in that, too?”

Ben held the book tight to his side. “It’s calculus,” he said. “More advanced than what Snoke is teaching us.”

Remis scoffed. “Yeah, right. As if we are going to believe that. Give it here.” He snatched at the book; Ben moved it out of the way just in time. Rembis’s face grew pinched and frustrated. “I won’t say it again.”

Blakely lunged, grabbing the side of the book before Ben could dodge him. Ben cursed and tried to take it back, but Blakely stepped out of his reach, opening the book and flipping through the pages.

“Looks like maths,” he said, “but I don’t think you need to be getting ahead and showing off, eh?” With a beastly flash of white teeth, he took hold of five or six pages from the center of the book and ripped them from it.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ben cried. “That’s from the library!”

Poole sneered. “Well, we’ll just go ahead and take it back and tell the librarian you ruined it, won’t we?”

Fury, and a distinct vein of hurt, flowed through Ben’s chest as he watched Blakely tear out another bunch of pages and let them flutter severed to the floor. They were printed with complex equations that Ben hadn’t gotten a chance to study yet. He wanted to kneel and gather them up tenderly, but he couldn’t when the others were standing around him with fangs out and ready to snap at him.

“Give me the book,” he snarled, holding out his hand in expectation. “You already fucking ruined it. Let me take it back to the library.”

“And let you say we did this?” said Rembis. “Piss off. Pierson will hear it from us, not you. Then you won’t be able to go running to him every time someone looks down his nose at you.” He tapped the side of his.

“You mean up,” Ben said, squaring his shoulders. He reached out as fast as he could and yanked on Rembis’s tie. To his satisfaction, Rembis squeaked in surprise. To Blakely, who had frozen at the attack, he said, “Give me the book.” He gave another firm tug on Rembis’s tie for emphasis.

“Just do it,” said Rembis, voice strained. “What does it matter anyway?”

He didn’t look pleased about it, but Blakely offered the tattered book. Ben released Rembis, who coughed, and took it, shutting it firmly.

“Get out of here,” Ben told them. “You’ve done enough for one day.”

As they went out of the classroom, Poole made sure to step on the fallen pages; Blakely even spat on them. Ben waited until their footsteps disappeared before he crouched to gather the pages. He wouldn’t try to tuck them back into the book; instead he just tapped them into some semblance of order and carried them and the book against his chest toward the library.

Mr. Pierson was nowhere to be found, and Ben’s spirits sank even further. He had wanted to explain in person, but he couldn’t fathom taking the destroyed book back to his trunk to languish there until the librarian returned. Reluctantly, he rooted through the desk until he came up with a sheet of paper and a pencil. He bent over to write a note:

 

Mr. Pierson — I got into an accident and this book got caught in it, too. I’m very sorry to return it to you like this. I’ll pay for you to replace it, if you’ll tell me what it costs. I’ll stop in tomorrow when you’re here to talk about it. Again, I’m sorry. — B. Solo

 

The only money Ben actually had on hand was in his meager tuck shop funds, but he’d find a way to buy a new book, even if he had to call home and ask for it. That was, if Uncle Luke would even let him use the phone. There wasn’t one for pupils’ use in the school; it was against everything Haverhill stood for to cry down the line to Mum and Dad about hard things were. And the last thing Ben was going to do was that; even going so far as to admit how the book had been ruined to Luke would be a breach of conduct. Ben couldn’t say a word about it, or anything of the other miserable shit he had to put up with.

And yet, he thought back to what Finn, the president of the models club, had offered: to talk to Dameron, the other American boy—the one in Oakeshott. He had made it sound like Dameron would listen to him if he needed it. Ben was suspicious, but he didn’t think Finn would trick him into showing the kind of weakness that would leave him worse off than he was before he mentioned it—mainly by opening himself up to ridicule from the Oakeshott boys, too. Ben couldn’t say he really trusted anyone, but if it was going to be someone, he figured it might as well be Finn.

Leaving the tattered book and note on Mr. Pierson’s desk, Ben went through the main building to the north wing, where the Oakeshott House annex stood beside Arkanis. He kept a sharp eye out for boys in his own house—spies, snitches—as he ventured close to the Oakeshott main door. He wasn’t allowed to go inside, but he hovered for a few minutes, hoping someone he could ask about Finn or Dameron would come out.

That was a younger boy, maybe in fifth form, some five or six minutes later. Ben stopped him with a hurried “Hey!” before he could get far from the door.

The boy—round-featured and blond—looked at Ben as if he was going to attack him. “W-What?” he stammered.

Ben kept his voice low: “I’m looking for Finn or Dameron. Are they here?”

“Most of them went to Tindon for the day,” said the boy. “I think I saw the head boy, though.” The pulse point in his neck was visibly fluttering with rabbit-like speed. “Do you want me to get him?”

“Yes,” Ben said. “I’ll just, um, wait here.”

The boy backed away a step, and then slipped back through the door.

Ben, his own heart beating too fast, leaned against the wall beside it, his head and hands pressed against the cold stone. Maybe he should have told the other boy his name so that Dameron would know who was asking for him. But Ben didn’t know if Dameron even knew his name. He assumed he did because word got around the school about anything out of the ordinary, and Ben was most definitely out of the ordinary. Still, he couldn’t help but think that it seemed weird to just send a boy scurrying to find someone who’d never met him. This could absolutely backfire and blow up in Ben’s face, but there was no going back now.

The anxiety was still roiling in him when the door opened again and the blond boy appeared. Ben thought for a moment he hadn’t been able to find Dameron, but he came down after the fifth-former, his brown gaze landing on Ben’s face.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, sounding surprised, but thankfully not upset. Dameron wasn’t particularly tall, and he had a head of fashionably wavy dark hair. His jaw had a hint of shadow that suggested he actually had to shave every morning. There was some Latin heritage in him, Ben figured, and it gave him a more exotic look than most of the porcelain English faces around the school.

“Uh, yeah,” Ben said, fumbling. He rubbed the back of his neck, under his hair.

Neither of them said more for a couple of seconds, Dameron just studying him with open curiosity. When Dameron did look away eventually, he addressed the blond boy: “Thanks, Wesley, you can go.”

The boy fled immediately.

“Don’t mind him,” Dameron said to Ben. “He’s just shy. Barely talks to anyone, let alone a boy from another house and in sixth form.” He smiled, sticking out his hand. “Anyway, it’s nice to finally meet you, fellow patriot.”

Ben shook with him, offering a hesitant “You, too.”

“So, what brings you to my door, Solo?” he asked.

“Um, Finn said you might be…up to talking?” Ben managed.

Dameron tipped his head slightly to the side, clearly not having expected either Ben’s vagueness or the suggestion of a conversation, or both. His smile widened, though, and he nodded. “Sure. Probably better not hang around in the hall, though. It wasn’t raining last time I checked, so you want to go for a walk?”

“Okay, yeah.”

“Cool,” Dameron said. “Come on.”

They walked down to the ground floor, saying little until they reached the front courtyard, out beyond the west-facing clock tower. The skies were dry, if overcast, and the fountain was babbling a few hundred feet in front of them.

“So, how’s it going?” Dameron’s tone was still light, but he seemed less outwardly cheerful, as if he could sense Ben’s melancholy.

Ben had a hundred things to say, but he started small: “It’s really weird here.”

Dameron laughed, though not derisively. “Yeah, it is. Far cry from school across the pond, that’s for sure.”

“Where are you from?” Ben asked, suddenly aching for even the name of someplace familiar.

“California,” Dameron replied. “I mean, I was born there, but my parents moved around a lot with my dad’s job. He used to be in the Air Force, but started working for the government when he married my mom and came back to the States from Guatemala. I don’t think he ever expected to be working at a consulate in London, England.”

Ben could commiserate. “When did you move here?”

Dameron sauntered at his side toward the fountain, saying, “When I was about thirteen. My mom wanted me to go to state school nearer to London, but my dad thought it would ‘an experience’ to go to boarding school.”

“How is it different?” said Ben.

“Well,” Dameron told him, “you don’t board at state school.”

Ben tried not to long for that. “Would you have liked that better?”

Dameron shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. Wherever they put me, I would have been the only American kid and stuck out, so it really didn’t make a difference whether I went to state or public school.”

“You don’t stick out anymore,” Ben said. “Everybody treats you like...them here. And you’re head boy of Oakeshott.”

Their footsteps crunched on the white gravel, adding accompaniment of their steady walk. Ben shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers.

Dameron said, “I didn’t fit in when I first got here, but I came at a better time than you did. I was in third form, when all the boys were new and didn’t know each other. We were all terrified of the older boys and missed our moms, so we banded together over it. You coming in during upper sixth is more difficult.”

“Yeah, I’ve figured that out,” Ben grumbled.

“I didn’t really have an easy time of it at the beginning,” Dameron continued, “but I made a couple of friends and things improved. I learned how to play cricket and won us our first big match of the year when I was in third form.”

Ben groaned. “Is everyone good at sports? Finn said people liked him because he’s good at rugby.”

Dameron rubbed his chin. “Well, it definitely helps, but it’s not the only thing. Finn was actually one of my first friends. He was a little bit of an outcast, too, being on scholarship. We had something to bond over.” A look of fondness crossed his face: a small, tender smile paired with soft eyes. “And he helped me with my prep. He’s really clever.”

“He said that, too,” Ben told him.

“He’ll probably graduate with the highest honors and get right into Oxford,” said Dameron. “Going to read history. Be a professor someday.” There was no small note of pride in his voice.

“He seems like a good person,” Ben said. “I’m glad I met him in models.”

Dameron wrinkled his nose. “I can’t figure out why he likes models so much, but he does. He’s got a whole bunch in his bedroom at his family’s house.”

Ben’s eyebrows rose. From what he understood, almost none of the boys saw each other outside of school. “You’ve been to his house?”

“Oh,” Dameron said, realizing his mistake. “Um, yeah. I went to visit him over the summer holidays.” If Ben wasn’t mistaken, his cheeks were reddening.

Part of him wanted to keep pressing, but Ben relented: “That’s cool. He’s one of the only people who’s actually sort-of nice to me.”

Stopping next to the fountain, Dameron turned to him. “How hard are they riding you?” he asked.

Ben hunched his shoulders against the light mid-afternoon breeze. “Who do you mean? The others in upper sixth? The head boy? The masters?”

Dameron’s mouth tightened, and he sighed through his nose. “Damn. I was hoping somebody would be on your side by now. Probably not Hux, though; he’s a real piece of work.”

“He’s such an asshole,” Ben said before he could think to stop himself. “The others aren’t much better. They ripped up my library book today just...because. Everything I say gives them something else to make fun of. I’m shit at sports and Latin and English and they won’t go a day without reminding me of that. And Hux—” He paused, squeezing his eyes shut and rubbing a hand over his face. “I really shouldn’t be telling you any of this.”

A hand came down on Ben’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s Stranger in a Strange Land here for you. You read science fiction?”

Ben shook his head.

“Then what library book did you have out? The one that got ripped up?”

Fundamentals of Calculus,” Ben said. “I like math.”

Dameron gave him another smile. “Well, at least you can stay on Snoke’s good side that way.” He sank down onto the stone bowl of the fountain. “Look, Solo, I don’t have much to say that’s going to make all that go away, but you can always be honest with me about it. And we can talk about burgers and American music whenever you’re feeling homesick.”

“I’m not,” Ben was quick to say. At Dameron’s disbelieving look, he amended: “It’s not that I want to go home, really; there wasn’t much there for me. But there’s nothing here for me, either.” He looked down at his shoes, the toes not quite as shiny as when he had gotten them.

“I think it’ll get better,” Dameron said slowly. “It took me some time, too, but something’s got to give, you know? And, like I said, you can always talk to me.”

Ben said, “I’m not supposed to. House rules and all that, right?”

Rubbing his hands together, Dameron countered: “Those are Hux’s rules. He doesn’t want his precious Arkanis boys mixing with the rest of us because he wants to pretend he’s the highest and mightiest. You’re allowed to have a friend in another house, Solo.”

It was tempting to give in and believe it, but Ben was already pushing at Hux’s limits. He didn’t need another reason to piss him off. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’ll probably only come around sometimes. I appreciate you listening, though, for a couple of minutes.”

“No problem. If things get rougher, let me know. I can’t really do much inside of your house—”

“I know,” Ben said.

“So,” said Dameron, perking up, “where are you from?”

Ben told him some about Alderaan, though he skipped most of the stuff about his parents’ divorce. He just said they lived apart; he figured Dameron could put the pieces together. They talked for almost forty-five minutes, the time having slipped away without Ben noticing. It was the most he had spoken in weeks, he was sure, and he had to admit that it felt damn good.

As they returned to the building and then to the Oakeshott door, Ben said, “Nice talking to you, Dameron.”

He got a grin. “Likewise, Solo. Don’t be a stranger.”

As was the case with the Oakeshott boys, most of Arkanis were gone in the village as well, leaving the sixth form common room deserted. Ben went first to his trunk to retrieve one of the other books he had checked out from the library—the one about Tower Bridge—and then sat down in a plush chair by the hearth to read.

The first few paragraphs swam in his vision without coming into focus. Despite the respite of Dameron’s hope that things would get better, Ben couldn’t see an end to Rembis, Blakely, and Poole’s torment, or to Hux’s tyrannical rule. Even considering Mitaka an ally was pushing his luck. Maybe it wouldn’t be completely impossible to keep Dameron and Finn as friends, but Ben also feared the repercussions if he tried.

Those are Hux’s rules, Dameron had said, implying that not everyone had to abide by them. Unfortunately, Ben did, which meant the same gloomy isolation that he was becoming used to.

He stuck his finger in the book and closed it, willing back the stinging in his eyes. He wasn’t going to break down, though; he wouldn’t allow it.

 


 

The games period on Monday afternoon was markedly dreary, with a chilly wind coming up from the east and cutting through Ben’s thin shirt. All of Arkanis’s upper sixth had gone to change after their Greek lesson, and Ben had been hanging near the back on the way to the dormitory, as he usually did, when Thanisson approached him with his seemingly unchanging dour expression.

“What?” Ben asked tersely, getting right to the point. He knew Thanisson had some kind of orders for him.

Thanisson set his hands on his hips, a feeble attempt to make himself look bigger. “I heard that yesterday you were hanging about Oakeshott and talking to their head boy, Dameron. Is that true?”

Ben could lie, but saw no reason to. “Yeah. What of it?”

“Mixing between houses isn’t generally done,” Thanisson said. “I’ve been told to remind you of that.”

Of course this is Hux’s problem,” Ben scoffed. Dameron had warned him. “I wasn’t out to sell house secrets or something. We were just talking.”

Thanisson replied crisply, “I understand that Dameron is also an American and perhaps you feel some kinship to him because of that, but there are no exceptions to the rules or expectations of Arkanis House to be made for you. Keeping to our company is one of those expectations.”

Ben scowled at him. “And who here actually wants to ‘keep company’ with me, huh? It isn’t you, and it sure isn’t Hux. So who’s he to tell me who I can talk to?”

“Your choices are your own, Solo,” Thanisson said, icy, “but remember that they have consequences.” He paused, and Ben found himself fisting his hands, waiting. “It’s been decided that there will be no activities for you after dinner tonight. You’ll have to come straight up and do your prep.”

“Are you serious?” Ben snarled. It wasn’t that he was overly attached to models club; it was the principle of the thing. And he wouldn’t have minded seeing Finn. He figured that Dameron would have told him that they had talked.

“Quite serious,” said Thanisson. “As should you be when considering your conduct in the future.”

“What am I supposed to tell the president of the club?” Ben said. “He’s expecting me.”

“He’ll be apprised,” Thanisson replied. “If no one else sees to it, I will.”

Ben, who had his shirt off and only his sports trousers on, felt reduced—not just by his half-nakedness and the punishment, but receiving it secondhand. If Hux wanted to tell him off, he should do it himself. To that end, Ben said to Thanisson, “Screw that. Either Hux does it or I show up anyway.”

Thanisson looked perfectly piqued. “You cannot just ‘show up anyway.’ If you disobey Hux, surely it’ll be worse than the sports kit on Saturday. There are uncounted ways to make you sorry, Solo.” He all but stamped his foot. “Why are you so consistently obstinate?”

Ben’s self-satisfied smile said it all, but he replied, “Because it makes you all crazy. And”—he rubbed his palms together—“I’m not one of Hux’s little soldiers, falling in line and saluting. He doesn’t scare me.”

Mouth hanging open in blatant incomprehension, Thanisson stared at him.

“Look,” said Ben, “tell Hux that next time he feels like doling out punishment to someone who doesn’t like him for talking to someone else who doesn’t like him, he needs to come do it to my face.”

The bravado was half-feigned, since Ben really did regret the ordeal with Hux’s sports kit, but he still wasn’t going to bend if Hux was going to just send his lackeys to order Ben around. He’d either show up and (probably) be obeyed or be completely ignored.

“I’ll relay the message,” Thanisson had said, voice tight. “Don’t expect a warm reception.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dare,” Ben had muttered.

Thanisson had given Ben a last disdainful look before turning on his heel and walking away, leaving Ben half-dressed and annoyed.

The boys left not long after, making their way through the chapel courtyard and onto the sport fields. The gamesmaster was already there, holding a rugby ball and grinning with sadistic pleasure as he ran through the rules. There was far more contact in “rugger” than in football, Ben was dismayed to learn. Players were free and encouraged to tackle each other to the ground.

The usual fifteen men per team would be knocked down to ten to suit the boys in Arkanis and Fircroft, their opponents for the day. The positions all had outlandish names, from hooker to fly half. Ben couldn’t make heads or tails of it, despite the fact that he was assigned the position of outside center. He took up his place, hoping that he would be able to avoid the worst of the chaos. As usual, he was wrong.

It was as if he had a target painted on his back. Boys three-quarters his size came flying across the pitch to take his legs out from under him, or to hit him so solidly in the chest that the air rushed out of his lungs. He struggled with not only the fundamental rules of the game, but with the mechanics, too. He slipped on the grass and fumbled the ball and made a general fool of himself.

By far the most lethal player on the Arkanis team was Hux. He had been given the position of winger, and he was a force of nature. A flash of red hair was the last thing a Fircroft player saw before he was ruthlessly tackled. Ben never would have guessed from his slim physique, and yet he took down the competition with unrestrained brutality.

Ben shouldn’t have been on the receiving end of it—they were on the same team, for God’s sake—but after Ben had finally managed to catch the ball and attempt to run it forward, Hux had come out of his periphery and struck him in the side, making him drop the ball. He hit the ground a few seconds later, a Hux-shaped weight landing solidly on top of him. Ben grunted as his chin met the grass, teeth clacking.

Hux remained prone over him for a moment, but then rolled back up onto his feet—lithe and catlike in his recovery. Ben flopped onto his back, trying to catch his breath. He blinked up at Hux, who regarded him with utter contempt.

“You should watch your back, Solo,” he said in that BBC-precise accent.

Ben absolutely knew better, but he spat, “Or what?”

Hux sneered, but stalked off without another word.

When the eighty minutes of gameplay were finally up, Ben was battered, exhausted, and filthy. He trudged back to Arkanis House and the showers, where he washed away the worst of the muck. The bruises wouldn’t be fading anytime soon, however. For all the English properness, they were animals when it came to sport.

Hux stood at the front of the dormitory after they had changed, to take roll before they proceeded down to the dining hall. Ben watched as the others devoured their meals, talking animatedly around mouthfuls of potatoes and boiled vegetables. They were served something called semolina, which had the texture of badly made Jell-O pudding and was filled with little balls that looked like fish eggs. Ben thought it looked revolting, but when he tried some found it wasn’t so bad.

The clubs began to gather after the dishes were cleared. Ben glanced toward models, but caught Thanisson’s admonishing eye and left the dining hall. He should have been bound directly for the common room and his prep, but he detoured to the library. There, he found Mr. Pierson at the desk, his glasses on his nose.

“Good evening, sir,” Ben said, with no small measure of hesitation. He hadn’t faced the librarian since he had left the tattered calculus book and the poor explanation in his note, and he was far more afraid of losing his regard than Hux’s.

Pierson looked up, his round eyes focusing on Ben. “Ah, Mr. Solo.”

Ben could hear the disappointment in his tone already, and his heart sank. “I guess you got my note, sir?”

“I did.” He reached into his desk drawer and drew out the paper Ben had written on. “It must have been a very serious accident indeed to cause so much damage to the book.” He clicked his tongue. “I might have expected someone else to be so careless, but not you.”

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Ben said, blushing all the way up to his ears and unable to meet Pierson’s gaze. “It all happened so fast, and I couldn’t stop them—I mean, I couldn’t stop myself from, um...falling.” The raised intonation at the end made it a question.

“A fall, was it?” Pierson said. “Well, you should learn to be more careful.”

Ben hung his head. “Yes, sir. Do you know how much the book will cost to replace? I can get money—”

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Solo.”

Looking up, Ben asked, “Really?”

The corners of Pierson’s small mouth quirked up. “I have another way for you to make amends.” He set the note down on his desk, standing from his chair. “Have you heard of the concept of shelf reading?”

“No, sir,” said Ben.

“Well, it’s a fairly simple concept, but it’s a critical part of making a library work.” He picked up a book, tapping its spine and the numbers at the bottom. “Each book has a call number, which helps us find it on the shelf. The numbers go in order, but no matter how much I try to impress that upon the boys in this school, it never seems to set in. They constantly pick a book off the shelf and then return it to the wrong place. A shelf reader goes along and checks to see that each book is in its appointed place.”

It sounded pretty boring, if Ben was being honest, but he had a feeling he was about to be getting very well-acquainted with the call numbers. “And you want me to do that here, sir?” he said.

“Yes,” Pierson replied. “I do it in my spare time, but I have other tasks to attend to. It would be a benefit to the library to have the shelves read regularly. And of course there will be books for you to reshelve, which you will do correctly, I’m sure.”

Ben nodded. “How often should I come read, sir? Every day after dinner?”

“No, no,” the librarian said. “You have your prep to do. You’ll come for three hours on Saturdays. I’ll speak to your housemaster about it directly.”

“You’re going to tell Snoke what happened to the book?” Ben asked tentatively.

Pierson regraded him steadily. “There’s no need for great detail. After all, I do need this assistance, whether or not it’s restitution.”

Ben hoped the depth of his gratitude showed on his face, even as he said, “Thank you, sir. I’ll do a good job for you.”

“I have no doubt, Mr. Solo.” Pierson cleared his throat with a shaky dislodging of phlegm. “Well, you had best go along for now. Are you not supposed to be going to your activities?”

“I’ve got prep,” Ben was quick to say. “I’ll come here on Saturday after breakfast, then?”

“That will do, yes.”

Dismissed, Ben left the library. It may have been a kind of punishment, but having something to do on the weekends that wasn’t staring at the wall was a blessing. He was still confined to grounds, but he might as well do something productive with his time. And it meant he could keep away from Hux and the prefects, too.

In the common room, he took out his assignments and started to work on what was due the next day. He was just finishing up his geometry problems when the other boys began to file in after activities. Spirits were high, it seemed, and their voices carried through the building. Ben kept his focus on his work until Mitaka appeared with his Latin texts.

He sat beside Ben, saying quietly, “Thanisson was furious with you before games, you know. He went on a whole tirade to Hux about it.”

“I’d have liked to have seen that,” Ben said. “Did he spit and get red in the face?”

Mitaka gave him a hopeless, lost look. “You really don’t understand how serious this is, do you? You’re challenging the peace of the entire house. Hux is a…” He grew hushed. “He’s a holy terror if he gets a bee in his bonnet. And right now, that’s you.”

Ben quite enjoyed the image of Hux thrashing around trying to avoid a stinging insect, but he kept that thought to himself. “It’s not my fault if he’s got a stick up his ass,” he said.

Quiet!” Mitaka hissed. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Solo, he told me to let you know that he requires a fire and tea in his study by six o’clock tomorrow morning. If it’s not done, there will be hell to pay.”

“Didn’t he learn his lesson the first time he asked me to do that?” Ben said.

Mitaka shook his head minutely. “Do it. He’ll go to Snoke next and that won’t end well for you.”

“You know,” Ben mused, “I don’t know if he would. It would be proof that he doesn’t have authority over everyone. I don’t think he wants Snoke to know that.” He sat back in his chair, pleased at the notion.

“Solo,” Mitaka implored, “do this for the good of us all. Hux was lecturing third-formers on comportment and fifth-formers on deference just today. He’s on the prowl, and soon enough it’ll be others confined to grounds or made to skip activities. What you do affects everyone.”

Ben sobered some. Despite the fact that pissing Hux off was delightful, he really didn’t want the rest of Arkanis to hate him any more than they already did because he was driving Hux to hassle them. For their sakes, he supposed, he could get up and get some damn tea.

“I don’t know how to start a fire,” he said.

Mitaka deflated, visibly relieved. “I’ll write out some instructions for you.” He went to pick up his pen.

“Did he do this to you?” Ben asked. “Before you were a prefect, I mean.”

A slight wavering, but then Mitaka replied, “Yes. He was prefect before and dormitory captain earlier. He always had a fag, maybe even two.”

“I figured that,” said Ben. “Finn said the housemasters don’t really like it anymore. Well, everyone except Snoke.”

“The housemaster comes from an older generation,” Mitaka explained, words carefully selected. “He came up through Haverhill when things were more...severe. He’s held onto that. He says there’s valuable lessons to be learned from the old traditions.”

Ben snorted. “You mean he’s a bully and wants everyone else to be one too so he can make himself feel better.”

Mitaka didn’t deny it. He went on: “Defiance isn’t going to change how things work around here. Just toe the line and you’ll get through it.” Pen in hand, he began to make a list on a piece of paper.

Ben watched him write out words like “kindling” and “matches” and “fan the flames,” Ben’s instructions for lighting Hux’s fire. If Ben had to do it, he would, but he’d made sure that Hux knew he was giving in for the sake of the rest of the house and not because he was intimidated.

“Here,” said Mitaka when he was done. “It’s easy. Just go step by step. And remember: six o’clock sharp.”

“Okay,” Ben said, tucking the paper into his pocket.

 


 

With no alarm clock and his body yet unused to waking by five-thirty in the morning, Ben barely slept that night. Day hadn’t broken as he saw the time on his wristwatch and crept as silently as possible out of bed and to the bathroom to change into his uniform and blazer. He had every reason to believe that Hux would want him turned out in full kit, even just to light his stupid fire and bring him his stupid tea.

The kitchen was deserted when Ben got there—he hadn’t been sure he was even allowed inside when the staff was gone—and he had to put a kettle on and wait for it to boil. He considered pilfering something to eat, but no doubt the cooks would notice and there would be hell to pay. So, he stood by the stove and listened to the creaking of the steel kettle as it warmed up. Fortunately the teapots weren’t hard to find. The tea leaves themselves were stored in huge tins on a nearby shelf. He wasn’t sure how much to put in, leaving him to guess. He hoped Hux liked his tea strong.

When the water was boiling, Ben poured it into the teapot, which he had wrapped in a knitted cozy. It was thin and faded, but would probably do the job well enough. He got a cup and managed to find something to put the whole affair on to carry halfway across the school to Arkanis House. 

The tray was precarious to balance, with the utilitarian china cup clinking in its saucer and the tea sloshing in the pot. Ben walked carefully and slowly, though he knew his time was already running short.

Because the boys weren’t allowed to have locks on their doors, the study was open when Ben arrived. He braced the tea tray on his lifted knee while he fumbled with the handle, pushing the door open enough to go through with his toe. To his dismay, it closed with a bang behind him. Too late to fix that now.

The room was smaller than Snoke’s office, but perfectly square, with the fireplace on the far left wall and a simple writing desk opposite. The top of it was neatly kept, Hux’s pens and papers presumably tucked for safekeeping into the various drawers. Ben was tempted to snoop in them, but restrained himself, instead just putting to the tea tray down at the center of the desktop.

There were a few logs stacked in an iron rack beside the fireplace, a wooden box of kindling and crumpled newspaper to the right. Ben had no matches, but there was a container of the long kind sitting on the mantle. He picked them up and lay them on the floor as he knelt at the edge of the thinning Oriental rug. From his pocket, he produced Mitaka’s instructions for fire-lighting.

He began with three of the logs, packing paper and smaller sticks around them with some manner of space for air to get in but with enough density for all of it to catch and burn. The whole thing looked a mess when he was finished, but as he struck a match after three aborted tries, he touched the flame to a corner of the newspaper and it ignited immediately in a blaze, with the smell of burning ink. He sat back on his haunches and watched the kindling catch and sizzle, slowly setting the bark on the logs aflame. It gave off a pleasant warmth, which helped to banish the morning cold from the poorly heated study.

Ben was still crouched in front of the hearth when the door opened and closed again—quieter this time. He hadn’t known whether he was supposed to stay until Hux appeared, but he supposed he had his answer at this point. His knees popped as he rose and turned to face the door.

Hux stood there in his usual uniform, though he had on an atrocious yellow sweater vest beneath the blazer. At least he looked warm, which Ben couldn’t fault him for. He waited in silence, seemingly appraising Ben’s open blazer and the knees of his trousers, ever-so-slightly marked with soot from the fireside.

It was Ben who spoke first: “The tea is on your desk. Should still be warm. There’s a cozy and everything.”

Hux made no move to turn, keeping his gaze trained on Ben. “I see you did well with the fire,” he said sedately. “Though you’re hogging the heat.”

Ben’s temper rose, but he stepped to the side, offering the place where he had just been for Hux to take. He went into it in no particular rush, clasping his hands behind his back and focusing on the flames. Ben didn’t step away from him; he stayed maybe a foot to his left, face toward the door but eyes tracking to Hux’s profile.

He was softly lit by the fire, turning his pale skin yellow-gold and casting the shadows of his eyelashes onto his cheekbones. His chin wasn’t weak, but it was round, his jaw not overly defined. The bones of his face were more distinct, making his cheeks seem hollow. He wasn’t classically handsome—no chiseled features and movie star pouting lips—but if he ever let his expression relax out of its habitual severity, he might have been more appealing. Not that Ben was any particular judge of men’s good looks—or girls’. He had actually never looked very closely at anyone in the way he was studying Hux right now.

“I have to admit, Solo,” Hux said, “I didn’t think you’d actually capitulate today. I expected more resistance.” He glanced at Ben. “What made you decide to do as you were told?”

Ben wondered momentarily how much of his actual motivations to reveal. After a beat, he decided on a very petulant “I was feeling generous.”

Hux’s mouth pinched sourly and Ben felt a rush of triumph.

Hux said, “What kind of fulfillment is there is insubordination? You’re making yourself no friends. Unless you count your little foray into Oakeshott House to fraternize with the likes of Poe Dameron.”

“I’m not going to be your little errand boy,” Ben replied, “running all around the school doing your bidding like a servant. If you want a fag, find a third-former to harass.”

“I don’t want much to do with the small boys,” Hux told him, “save for teaching them how things work in Arkanis House and intervening when Mitaka and Thanisson can’t handle them.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “They don’t really inspire much fear, if that’s what you were going for. Mitaka’s too nice and too rabbity, and Thanisson looks like a strong wind could blow him over.”

Hux turned to face him in earnest. “You think I want to make the boys in our house fear me?” he asked.

“Obviously,” said Ben. “And it works most of the time. The little ones look at you like you’re seconds away from condemning them to a whipping. And Mitaka and Thanisson use you as more of a threat than they do themselves. You get off on that, it’s pretty clear.”

He got a derisive snort, but no counterargument. “It makes for efficient management of the house,” Hux said. “We’re the best-behaved and best-performing one in the school. I make sure of that.” He sucked his teeth, looking Ben up and down. “Your problems with classics are a sore point that I won’t tolerate in the long term.”

“Piss off,” Ben snapped. “What difference does it make to you whether or not I pass the exam? It’s not like it would stop you from going to your precious Sandhurst. You’d just leave me behind here.”

Hux conceded, “Yes, but I have a certain responsibility for ensuring that everyone finishes their year. The headmaster would think I’d neglected that if you failed.”

It annoyed Ben that Hux wanted to extend his nosy influence into his studies. He already had his fingers in everyday life in their house; he could leave well enough alone with the rest.

“I’ll deal with Luke,” Ben said. “You can mind your own damn business.”

Hux’s green eyes were made lighter and almost clear by the firelight, but they never lost their intensity. “Puzzling,” he murmured. “You’re determined to make things more difficult for yourself. I could, you know, assign you a tutorial every night.”

“Mitaka wouldn’t stand for it,” said Ben. “And it’s not fair to him anyway. He’s not my teacher.”

“No,” Hux said. “You would study with me.”

Ben faltered, not having expected that. Rallying, though, and keeping up his front of disinterest, he said, “Seems beneath you, head boy.”

Hux tilted his chin up—maybe an acknowledgement that it was true—but replied with steeliness: “I’m excellent at classics, Solo. Better than Mitaka, and I certainly wouldn’t be as forgiving.” He took a half-step closer, bringing him only inches away. He was only slightly shorter than Ben was, and something about the warning in his gaze made Ben’s stomach drop. “You haven’t started Greek yet, have you? Perhaps you should start working on it with me in the evenings.” He said something else, Ben unfamiliar with the words.

“What was that?” Ben said, curt.

“Just a little nugget of wisdom,” Hux replied. “‘The learner shapes his own knowledge.’”

Ben huffed, unimpressed. He shot a glance at the tea tray. “Are you going to drink that or what?”

Hux shrugged. “Perhaps.”

“Then why did you ask me to get it?” Ben demanded.

“Because I could,” came the flippant reply.

Glaring, Ben said, “I should have figured as much. You’re making me do this stuff just because you can.” The usual refrain: “You’re such an asshole.”

Hux’s smile made Ben’s anger flare even brighter. “Yes. And you can’t do a thing about it, unless you feel like cleaning my sports kit again or kindling my fire every morning until Christmas. In addition to Greek.” He sniffed. “We’ll start on Thursday. Do you have a grammar?”

“I hadn’t gotten one yet,” said Ben.

“Well,” Hux said, “I’m sure you’ll find one in the library. Along with those books I requested last week. I expect them to be up here by this evening.”

Ben ground his teeth. “Fine.”

Hux gave a short nod. “Then you’re dismissed. Don’t be late for breakfast.”

Cutting past him, Ben stormed out the door and back into the hall. He made sure to let the door bang behind him. He didn’t want to add Greek to the mess he already had with Latin, and he really didn’t want any reason to see Hux more than he had to. But of course Hux would force him to. Stopping to lean against the wall, Ben stewed in his foul mood. He thought Hux was supposed to let up if Ben did what he told him to do, but it was just getting worse.

Ben uttered a black curse and made for the library, where he could find the books and an ancient Greek grammar.

Chapter Text

Ben didn’t end up getting to the library until later in the day, and the librarian gave him a curious look when he came up to the desk with a stack of books and said he needed to check them out in Hux’s name rather than his own.

“We don’t do that, Mr. Solo,” the librarian said. “You can only check books out for yourself. It’s a matter of privacy, you see. You’re not to be judged for the books you read, so you can keep your transactions to yourself.” He adjusted his pince-nez, clearing his throat. “Apparently Mr. Hux does not worry about that particular issue.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?” Ben asked. “He wants these and I can’t make him come down here to get them.”

Pierson rubbed under his nose, considering. “Well, I suppose I could set you up as a proxy for him. I’ve never had reason to do it for another student before, only for masters.” A shrug. “But I suppose it could work. Bring him down with you next time and we’ll get it sorted.”

Ben adjusted the heavy books in his arms. “But I need to take these out now. Should I just check them out in my name?” He supposed there was no other way. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

“Very well,” said Pierson. “Set them down here.”

The books thumped down onto the desk, and Pierson began to open them up and remove the cards from the back. Ben dutifully wrote his name in pencil on each card before Pierson stamped them with their due dates.

“Take good care of these, Mr. Solo.”

Ben nodded, saying, “Of course, sir. I promise.”

The trip to Arkanis House was an arduous one, Ben precariously carrying the books up the stairs while unable to see his own feet. He only stumbled once or twice. It was after activities and Hux was sitting at his writing desk when Ben arrived.

“Are you unfamiliar with the procedure of knocking, Solo?” he spat, turning his eyes up to him at the threshold.

Ben didn’t bother to apologize, and Hux surely knew he wasn’t sorry. “Here are the books,” Ben said, shoving them toward him.

To his immense irritation, Hux picked up only the top one, flipping the cover open to look at the first few pages and leaving Ben with the rest. He took almost a full minute to decide that he didn’t even want that book. He put it back on the pile and took another from under it. He did that for five of the six; he chose only one to actually keep.

“You can take the rest back tomorrow after activities,” he said, arch. Ben gave him a fearsome glare, but he was unmoved. “You may go now. I’m sure you have prep to do.”

“I have to get you to come with me to the library,” Ben said before Hux could totally dismiss him. “I need to be a proxy for you, so I can check out books in your name.” He lifted the stack in his arms slightly. “These are checked out to me.” A nod at the book Hux had kept. “And that one.”

Hux gave both him and the books a contemptuous look, but said, “I’ll get it sorted with the librarian. And”—he paused for emphasis—“I’ll make sure to return this one on time so you don’t earn yourself any fees.”

“It wouldn’t be me earning them,” Ben countered.

“I know, Solo,” said Hux, rolling his eyes quite theatrically. “That was my meaning. Are you actually this thick, or are you putting me on?”

Ben’s scowl, he was sure, conveyed enough.

Hux sniffed, turning to his desk. “Go now. I have things to take care of and I don’t need you lingering about.”

With no other choice, Ben went back to the dormitory and dropped the books. He then clomped off to the common room with his math work. He hunched over it at a table, writing furiously until his hand cramped, and went mostly ignored. It was nearing nine o’clock before a shadow fell over his notebook. He found Mitaka standing beside him.

“Is there something else he wants me to do?” Ben asked sharply. “The night is still young, I guess.”

Uncertainty passed over Mitaka’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. He shook his head.

“Then what is it?” said Ben.

“Hux told me he’s going to do your Greek tutorial,” Mitaka said. “Instead of me.”

Ben shifted in his seat so he could look up to see his face. “And?”

Mitaka fidgeted with the hem of his open blazer. “He’s never taken this kind of interest in someone. I thought if you just did what he asked of you, he’d ignore you like everyone else. He doesn’t even like Greek.”

“He said he’s really good at it,” Ben muttered. “Is he bullshitting me?”

“He’s good at it. He’s good at everything. But he doesn’t really care for it.” Mitaka chewed his lip, clearly agitated. “Why would he teach you?”

Ben raised his eyebrows. Wryly, he asked, “Jealous?”

“No!” came the quick and strident response. “I don’t want any more of Hux’s bloody attention.”

It was the first time Ben had heard him use a curse, and his voice almost broke on it. Ben watched him with cautious interest. He thought the rest of Arkanis House was afraid of Hux, but Mitaka, too?

“Neither do I, okay?” Ben said, letting out a breath. “But I just can’t tell him no. I really need to learn Greek and if he’s going to teach me and spare you a night a week, then it’ll have to work.”

Mitaka sighed audibly. “I don’t understand. He keeps to himself. He doesn’t see anyone more than he needs to. He could easily foist Greek off on someone else.” His eyes narrowed, dark brows drawing together in consternation. “There’s something about you he likes.”

Ben barked a too-loud laugh. “You’re kidding, right? He hates me. Why else would he do any of this? He said it’ll blow back on him if I fail classics.”

“But it wouldn’t,” Mitaka mumbled. His narrow shoulders dropped and he once again gave his head a shake. “Just watch yourself, Solo.”

“I can hold my own. You know he doesn’t scare me. What’s one stuck-up ginger, right?”

He got a watery smile for his trouble. “Don’t let him hear you say that,” Mitaka warned.

“Yeah, I know,” said Ben. “Did you need anything else? I’ve got three problems to finish.”

It seemed as though Mitaka was going to move away, but then he paused, leaning over Ben’s shoulder. “Is that the last solution?”

Ben moved his hand so Mitaka could clearly see the page. “Yeah. Did you get a different answer?”

“I haven’t done it yet.”

Despite the good sense Ben had not to invite trouble (or Hux’s wrath), he asked, “Do you want to get yours and do it together?”

Mitaka raised his eyes from the page, his lips pressed tight together.

Ben backpedaled, “Never mind. You’ve probably got other things to do. Forget I said anything.”

“No,” said Mitaka, mouse-quiet. “No, I’d like that. I’ll just be right back with my books.” 

He went out of the common room, turning a few heads with the speed of it. Boys rounded on Ben, inquiring gazes fixing on him. He went back to his prep without acknowledgement. When Mitaka returned, he unabashedly pulled out the chair beside Ben’s and dropped down onto it. He opened his well-used math notebook, brandishing a pencil.

“Can we start from the beginning?” he asked.

Ben couldn’t help the flare of amusement; math wasn’t Mitaka’s best subject, it appeared. “Sure,” he replied, and they went to it.

 


 

Ben’s model Hurricane was coming together. On Thursday night after supper, he was working on gluing the less delicate port-side wing on when Finn sat down next to him. Ben didn’t immediately look at him, busy carefully wiping the excess glue away from the fuselage, and Finn didn’t say anything until he was done. Ben set the model down in a cradle he had built from the packaging to hold the new wing up while the glue dried.

“Hello, mate,” said Finn, leaning his bare forearms on the table. Like Ben, he had rolled his sleeves up to work. “Good job with the Hurry there. You’ve got a knack for this, I’d say.”

“I like it more than I expected to,” Ben said. “No offense, but I ended up in this club because nothing else seemed any better.” 

Finn smiled. “None taken. It’s not the most popular club, but at least you have something to show for it at the end of term. I was thinking we could do little building models next term. The ones of 10 Downing Street and the like. Even bridges and such.”

“Yeah?” said Ben, a little more curious about those than about the airplanes. “Is there one of Tower Bridge?”

“I should think so,” Finn said. “I’ll look in the catalog when I order the new supplies.” He smiled. “Glad to have you in the club, mate.” He glanced down the table at the others; they were busily talking and building their own models without paying him and Ben any attention. “So, you met Dameron. He’s a good sort, isn’t he?”

Ben gave a small nod. “He is. But you know I got barred from the club for a day because of it, right?”

“Good God,” Finn grumbled. “Some boy called Thanisson told me you’d be missing it, but he didn’t say why. Bloody Hux. He’s eighteen and he’s already a curmudgeon. Didn’t know it would get you in trouble, mate. My apologies.”

“Not your fault,” Ben said.

“Maybe not, but I didn’t mean to steer you into something you’d get punished for.” He shook his head. “Wouldn’t want you to run afoul of Hux...more than you already have.”

Ben sucked his teeth, considering if he should let on just what was happening. He decided to keep mum for now. “I’ll remember that.”

He didn’t much feel like continuing with his Hurricane, and a glance at his wristwatch showed that it was nearly half past seven, which meant the activities period was coming quickly to a close.

Finn caught him looking and said, “Have somewhere to be?”

“Greek tutorial,” Ben replied.

Hux hadn’t ordered him to kindle a fire since Tuesday morning. In fact, he hadn’t spoken to Ben at all. They had seen each other in lessons and the showers and at meals, but Hux had not once looked his way. At lunch, though, Thanisson had appeared to reminded Ben that he was expected in Hux’s study promptly during the prep period with his grammar in hand. Ben wasn’t surprised that Hux didn’t deliver the command himself; from what Ben could tell, he didn’t like speaking to anyone directly if he could send one of the prefects to do it for him.

“Bad luck, that,” said Finn. “I’m not keen on classics myself.”

“Neither am I,” Ben told him, “but that’s why I’ve got the tutorial.”

Finn chuckled. “Makes sense, mate. Anyway, off you go. Put your model on the cart and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Once the Hurricane was set safely in its place for storage, Ben beat the rush of boys headed back to their houses to retrieve his classics books from his trunk. He went past the common room, where some were congregating, straight to Hux’s study door. He contemplated just walking in again, but decided it was best to stay on Hux’s good side if he had to spend an hour with him. He knocked.

“Come in,” called Hux, his voice muffled through the door.

Ben turned the handle and entered, finding Hux with his back to him, facing a crackling fire in the hearth. He had a cup of tea in his hand, steam wavering above it. Uncertain what to do, Ben stood at the edge of the rug, unspeaking.

“There’s a chair for you,” Hux said, still turned away. “Set up at the desk and recite the Greek alphabet.”

Ben’s chest felt hollow. “I don’t know it,” he said. “Mitaka and I hadn’t started yet.”

Hux came around slowly, his cup still poised at the level of his sternum. “You’ve been in lessons for nearly a fortnight and you can’t even remember the letters?”

“It’s not like we go over them,” Ben said. “The headmaster just reads texts. And what’s a ‘fortnight?’”

Hux stared at him in wonder-tinged incomprehension. “It’s two weeks. A fortnight is two weeks. You didn’t know that?” He shook his head. “No matter. A fortnight is more than enough time to get a foundation built.” He exhaled, put-upon. “We have even further to go than I’d feared. How you’re going to pass the exam, I certainly don’t know.”

Ben bristled and opened his mouth to spit something hateful, but Hux silenced him with a gesture.

“Do as you’re told and sit,” Hux said sternly. “We’ll begin with the basics.”

He set his tea down while Ben dragged a second chair out from the corner of the room and up to the writing desk next to Hux’s. Ben sank onto it, his knees pressed uncomfortably against the desk’s drawers; there was only space for one pair of legs under the desk, and they were Hux’s. He had the comfort and the upper hand and Ben hated it.

Hux flipped his grammar open to the first pages, where the ancient Greek alphabet was laid out side-by-side with the English one. He pointed to the first letter and spoke it aloud. One raised, ruddy eyebrow was order enough for Ben to repeat it.

They worked through the whole alphabet that way, until Ben was saying all of it. Then he had to write the unfamiliar characters, starting with his name: Βεγγαμην Σόλο. Hux told him the pronunciation, with its Greek flourish.

“It’s ill-suited to Greek,” Hux said. “But so is my name.”

Ben asked, “Which is?”

Hux eyed him. “None of your concern.”

Ben scoffed, but held out his pen. “Write it down in Greek and I’ll try to guess it.”

Hux seemed to consider—disdainfully—but took the ballpoint and wrote in neat characters: Αρμίταγε Οχι.

Studying them, Ben tried to translate it into English characters in his mind. He wanted to write it out, but he figured that wasn’t allowed, so he squinted and struggled without his pen.

“Armitage,” he said after a few painful minutes. He wrinkled his nose. “Really?”

Hux scowled at him, but didn’t sound offended as he replied, “A family name. Some distant grandfather, I believe. Is Benjamin really any better?”

Ben shrugged. “It’s more normal. I’ve never heard of anyone named Armitage before. Have you got a weird middle name, too?”

“That is patently none of your business,” Hux said. “Now, let’s begin with some words. Pronouns will be good.”

Greek grammar was as complicated as Latin and harder to get his mouth around, Ben was sorry to say. Hux’s diction was good—as far as Ben could tell—making his own seem pathetically amateurish. He was an amateur, of course, but he hated the helpless feeling of floundering that came with trying to learn a new language—particularly from someone who clucked impatiently at Ben’s mistakes, as if Ben was supposed to know all of this already.

“Thankfully, it’s more important that you learn to read Greek than to speak it,” Hux told him as their hour was coming to a close. “It’s translation you’ll have to do in the exam. If you can get through that, you might just manage to pass.” He pulled out a sheet of paper, picking up his pen. “I’ll write out some verses for you to practice on. Nothing too complicated, but you should have a dictionary at hand. You’ll have memorized all the definitions by this time next week. You’ll be quizzed.”

Ben made a face; Hux might actually be worse than Luke. Ben probably shouldn’t have been surprised. He snatched up his notebook and tucked it against his chest. “Fine,” he said. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” said Hux. “I want a fire and tea tomorrow morning at six. And you’re to do a proper job with the tea this time. Whatever you did on Tuesday was nigh undrinkable and there was no milk or sugar to be had. No spoon to stir it with, either, and certainly nothing to strain the leaves out. Am I supposed to drink with leaves in my cup, Solo?”

“I’ve never made tea before, okay?” Ben growled. “You could have told me you wanted all that stuff on Monday night, but you made Thanisson tell me.”

“I didn’t assume you were a simpleton,” said Hux, “who didn’t know how to put a tea service together. But, seeing as you haven’t had any classics, I might not have been so caught off guard. They must really cultivate barbarism in America.”

Ben curled his fingers so hard around his notebook that the pages crinkled. “Tell me how to make it, then.”

Hux pointed at the tray beside him on the desk. There was a teapot and cup, which Ben had managed to bring, but also a metal strainer in a dish, with limp, wet tea leaves puddled at the bottom of it; a miniature pitcher of milk (half-empty); and a teaspoon resting on the saucer.

“You can ponder this while you take it back down to the kitchen,” he said. “The staff is surely gone by now, so you’ll have to clean it yourself, but at least you’ll know where to get all of it tomorrow morning.”

Ire churned in Ben’s gut. Hux looked perfectly unruffled, as if it was totally normal to expect Ben to be his servant. Unfortunately, Ben realized, it was, and he had no recourse. Rising, he gathered the tray.

“When do I get my verses to translate?” he asked, jaw tight.

“I’ll send Mitaka with them tomorrow,” Hux replied. He raised a hand to his mouth, feigning a yawn. “I can’t be bothered tonight.”

It took a feat of will to keep Ben from upending the tray and its contents into his lap. “Is that it?”

“Yes,” said Hux. “You may go, but don’t be late tomorrow.”

Ben had no civil response, so he turned and got awkwardly out the door while juggling the tray and his books. Boys he went past gave him queer glances, but he ignored them, determined to get down to the kitchen and put all of this bullshit tea stuff away so he could get a spare half hour to himself before bed.

As Hux had said, the kitchen staff was gone. Ben went to the large porcelain sink and poured out the remnants of the tea before rinsing and washing the dishes. He set them out to dry by a few other miscellaneous utensils, but before he left, he poked around to find where all of them were stored. He also read from the tin the amount of tea he was supposed to put in to make a small pot. He really had put way too much in that first time. He’d do better tomorrow—just like Hux ordered.

He didn’t go back into the common room when he returned to Arkanis House; instead he picked up his book about Tower Bridge and fell back into his bed. He dropped his shoes beside it and enjoyed what few minutes of quiet he could get before the rest of the upper sixth boys came pouring back into the dormitory for another restless night of poor sleep.

 


 

Shelf reading was a tedious job, but it filled Ben’s time after breakfast on Saturday, which he didn’t mind. He’d have his Latin tutorial in the afternoon, but for now he was contentedly making his way through the six hundreds, checking call numbers for any book that was out of place. The library wasn’t actually much used, and many of its books had been collecting dust for years, their pages untouched. Still, Mr. Pierson continued to buy a few new volumes each term. Sometimes they were fiction—most of which Ben guessed he read himself before he cataloged them and put them out on the shelves—but others were nonfiction, which was of more interest to Ben.

The six hundreds, he had learned after Mr. Pierson had given him a guide to the Dewey decimal system, was the category of applied sciences: anything from manufacturing to chemical engineering. Ben found himself shelf reading slowly, occasionally stopping to pull a book from its place and flip through it. Despite the fact that there were no applied or foundational science courses at Haverhill, the book selection on them was fairly extensive—perhaps Mr. Pierson had an interest in that too. Ben paused in his reading for a moment to pick out a volume on civil engineering.

The book on Tower Bridge he’d been reading had actually turned out to be quite fascinating, and described the various stages of engineering that had brought the bridge to its current iteration. There were passages about the men who were considered civil engineers before there was a name for the profession, and they had caught Ben’s eye.

In the volume he held now, there were chapters on all kinds of infrastructure design: roads, bridges, water transport. On a middle page was an illustrated plate of the angles and geometry that went into the design of a covered bridge. He recognized the math and, tapping the page with his fingertip, pictured the equations in his head. It wasn’t all that difficult; he figured he could do it himself. He hoped Finn would follow through and find him a model bridge for next term. Ben put the book back in its place for now, but he was sure he’d be back for it later.

He continued on down the shelf, focusing on the numbers and yet letting his thoughts turn idly to other things. Yesterday morning, he’d brought Hux his tea, as requested, and lit his fire. Hux had looked over the tea service with a critical eye, but had been satisfied with it. However, he surely wouldn’t have deigned to offer Ben a compliment on a job well done. Ben had convinced himself that he didn’t need praise, but he was aware that he wouldn’t have minded at least a passing acknowledgement. As a young student, he’d thrived on the feedback he’d gotten from his teachers, if not from his parents, as he had tried so hard to win.

Hux had sat down at his desk, pouring himself a cup of the steaming tea and mixing in milk while Ben stood by with his mouth shut and his arms hanging at his sides. He thought Hux might say something to him about Greek or about the taste of the tea, but instead he just flicked his fingers toward the door and said, “You may go.”

Ben had left in some confusion, wondering how to spend the hour and forty minutes before breakfast. His stomach had already been rumbling, but he had suppressed the hunger and gone outside into the chilly air of the barely broken day for a short walk around the chapel courtyard. He had been strangely drawn to the building and, finding it unlocked, had gone inside. 

It had been warm, and a few votive candles were burning on an altar topped with the cross. Ben went to it and picked up a candle. He wasn’t one to pray, and he had no one in particular to direct a thought toward, so he just lit the candle with a blank mind, watching the flame ignite and blackened drops of wax fall onto the wood below.

A voice came from behind him: “What brings you here so early, young man?”

Ben turned to the see the chaplain standing there in his plain black clothes, his face open and inquisitive.

“Oh,” Ben mumbled. “I was just going for a walk.”

The chaplain’s brows rose as he marked Ben’s accent. Ben assumed he hadn’t heard about him from Luke. “Indeed. And have you come here to pray, or for guidance?”

Ben asked, “Guidance for what?”

“Anything,” said the chaplain. He was smiling and there was the same warmth in his tone with which he delivered his sermons during chapel in the mornings and on Sundays. “Most boys who come here alone are, if I might say, a little lost.”

Ben fidgeted with his hands in front of him. “I’m not,” he said, without conviction.

The chaplain nodded. “Well, you need not say anything to me, but I hope you can find some solace in this place. You’re always welcome to find sanctuary here.”

“Even if I’m not religious?” Ben said.

“Yes. Not all worship needs be that in the traditional sense. We can honor God just in our hard work, and with caring for others, and with honesty.”

Ben didn’t know if he necessarily fit that bill, but he had also never sought to “honor” any higher power. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll do that, I guess.”

The chaplain smiled again, a benevolence in his bearing. “Where do you come from?”

“Massachusetts,” Ben replied.

“And what brings you here?”

“Extenuating circumstances.” He didn’t feel like elaborating.

Humming, the chaplain said, “Well, this is clearly part of God’s plan for you, to bring you here. It is, perhaps, a trial, but also a blessing in disguise.”

Ben couldn’t keep from giving a skeptical snort. “If it is, it’s a good disguise.”

“Give it time,” the chaplain told him. “And if things become difficult, you can always confide in me.”

“Thanks,” said Ben, nodding. “I, uh, think I’ll go now.”

“Go with God’s blessing.”

Ben left with more lightness than he had come in with—likely the chaplain’s good humor rubbing off. But he liked to think that he could have a place to go and a ready ear if he needed it. He didn’t want to complain that he hated England, but he figured the chaplain wouldn’t want him to mince words, either. Honoring God with honesty, right?

He was the first one in the dining hall an hour later, after wandering the edge of the lawn and collecting dew on the tops of his shoes. Boys from other houses trickled in steadily as the kitchen staff began to lay out porridge and cornflakes and orange juice. The cook Ben had met on Tuesday night had grinned at him, and he had waved back. There was the lightness again, and he enjoyed it, even if it was fleeting.

The rest of the day had passed in the usual fashion, ending with Latin tutorial with Mitaka and then a scant hour of free time before tooth-brushing and bed. Ben had slept almost soundly and woken on Saturday refreshed. 

He was content to do his shelf reading now, though he realized as he reached the end of the shelf, that it was nearing lunchtime and the end of his work hours. He didn’t think it was appropriate for him to start on the seven hundreds just to leave ten minutes later, so he plucked the civil engineering book from its place again and made his way to the librarian’s desk.

Pierson grinned at him. “Find something you like, Mr. Solo?”

“I think so,” said Ben, pulling the card from the back of the book and scrawling his name on it.

The librarian stamped it with a thump. “I’m glad to hear it.”

With a quick “Thanks, sir,” Ben left the library and made his way along the corridors of the main building. He was passing by the front doors when he heard a loud series of commands from the courtyard. The door was propped slightly open to allow the voice to float through into the atrium. He went to the window and peered out.

On the drive just beyond the building was a neat formation of boys in khaki, standing with military precision as a tall, narrow boy spoke to them. It wasn’t hard to recognize Hux, even if he was wearing a cap over his hair. Their uniforms were all identical save for the patches of what Ben assumed to be rank. Hux’s patch was different from the rest, and Ben wasn’t surprised to see that he actually was leading some kind of army. Ben didn’t know what this little unit was supposed to be, but when Hux ordered them to march, they did so with precision.

Ben left them to whatever it was they were doing, and went to lunch. Most of the boys still avoided talking to him during meals, so he ate at his own pace, usually finishing long before the others. He didn’t often take seconds—not because it wasn’t there for the taking, but because the food was decidedly bland and the vegetables always mushy. Still, as expected, he stayed at the table until the dishes were cleared and the bell rang to release them back to their work.

He picked his way through the crowd returning to their houses, deciding to take his engineering book out into the small, often empty courtyard between the Arkanis and Oakeshott buildings. There was a small picnic table, its green paint flaking, where he could sit under a wide-branched ash tree. He lay the book out on it, opening to the first page. He wasn’t yet past the introduction when Finn and Dameron found him. He considered briefly making his escape—for fear that he’d lose another models session to Hux if he was caught talking to them—but chose to stay. When they waved, he raised a hand.

“Hello, Solo,” said Finn, stopping beside the table and setting his hands on his hips like a hero in a comic book. All he was missing was the cape. “How goes it?”

“Okay,” Ben replied. "Not much going on." He kept the book open, but didn’t say anything in particular about it. And what he said was true: not much was happening, and the weather was unremarkable: overcast with a light wind that was, for once, not too chilly. The half-light of the afternoon made Dameron look wan, but Finn’s outline was as defined as ever. They were an unusual pair, the two of them, and they stood very close together. As Ben watched, Dameron put an arm around Finn’s shoulders.

It was a strange intimacy. The boys never touched, though Ben hadn’t decided if it was just English standoffishness, or if it went part and parcel with the tacit regulations to protect against “close comradery.” Snoke had delivered a brief lecture on the appropriate conduct of friendship on Wednesday morning. Bonding was expected, but some closeness comprised a “forbidden friendship,” the definition was which was never explicitly given. The wording was vague and obtuse, featuring such choice sentences as, “The comportment of true friends is indirect. If a shared connection is felt, let it be intellectual and not sentimental.”

From what Ben could extrapolate of the meaning, it seemed Snoke was condemning actual trust between the boys, placing some emphasis on keeping “space in one’s regard.” No mention was made of anything along the lines of feelings, but there was an implication of the concept in the lecture: the ever-present warning against getting too caught up in emotions and letting them rule your good judgment.

Ben would have no particular problem maintaining a “healthy distance,” as he had no friends at all, but he saw some looks exchanged between other Arkanisians that suggested a certain guilt at being warned. Some of them were younger boys, who Ben could see were already uncertain about Haverhill, still not having acclimated. He could relate, but the third-formers clearly banded together to survive. Here they were being scolded for it, which seemed wrong. Snoke wanted to drive all of the students apart for reasons that made no sense to Ben; but then, not much at Haverhill made sense to him.

Finn and Dameron, though, didn’t seem afraid to be close—either physically or in friendship. They presented an unusually unified front as they stood in front of Ben in the courtyard, both of them smiling and close in height. 

Ben himself stood head and shoulders above them.

“Quiet day, then,” said Dameron good-naturedly. “Sounds like a fairly good one. Not a great deal of prep to do?”

“I’ve got some Greek,” Ben said. True to his word, Hux had sent Mitaka along with simple translations for Ben to do before next Thursday. Ben hadn’t started them, but he had, once or twice, looked over the Greek alphabet, even going so far as to write it out in his notebook, ignoring Luke’s incomprehensible lesson during class.

Finn wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Ugh, terrible. Sorry for you, mate.”

Shrugging, Ben said, “It’s all right, I guess.”

There wasn’t immediately anything else to say, and quiet descended between them for the space of a few moments. 

Then Dameron spoke: “We’re going to play a round of cards in a half-hour. Want to join us?”

Ben had never learned to play cards, though his father had been keen on Texas Hold ‘Em. Still, he didn’t dare spend more time with Finn and Dameron than was allowed—at least not for a while, until he knew Hux would get off of his back. Admittedly, he didn’t know if or when that would happen, but he didn’t want to take his chances at this point.

“I’m actually headed up to my Latin tutorial,” he told them, even if it was almost a half hour before he had to be there. “Maybe another time.”

Dameron grinned and landed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Sure thing, buddy. See you around.”

They went away, still too close for propriety.

Ben found he couldn’t concentrate much on reading after that. He went upstairs to get his Latin books and discovered Mitaka already in the common room. He dropped into the chair next to him. He expected Mitaka to jump directly into the work, but the round-faced young man leaned close to him and, in a low voice, said, “Word’s gotten around, you know.”

Right away Ben’s thoughts went to the Oakeshott boys, but he assumed that there was no way Mitaka could have known about that already. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“About Hux running you ragged.”

That made more sense, Ben supposed, but he hadn’t figured there was much to notice. Usually he was up before anyone else to get Hux’s fire going and only ran errands for him after dinner. There had been the sports kit incident, though, and that had definitely been worth gossiping about.

Despite the fact that Ben did feel that he was being put unfairly to work, he said to Mitaka, “Just fires and tea and books sometimes. He hasn’t made me spit-shine his shoes or anything.” He folded his arms on the table, frowning. “Not that I like it.”

“Nobody likes being fagged,” said Mitaka, “unless you’re someone’s bum boy.”

Ben gave him a questioning look. “Do I even want to know what that means?”

Mitaka’s eyes darted, scanning the room for eavesdroppers. “Means just what you’d think it would mean: you’re giving it up to the older boy.”

“Giving what up?”

God, Solo, are you dim?” he hissed. “It’s shag and fag.” When Ben continued to show his puzzlement, anguish crossed Mitaka’s face. He whispered, almost too quiet to the heard: “The fag is letting the other boy touch him and...violate him.”

“Oh,” Ben said, realization dawning.

Mitaka fiddled with the ragged corner of his notebook. “Some older boys take fags just to make use of them in that way, but Hux…”

Ben drummed his fingers on the tabletop in slight discontent. He didn’t necessarily know why Hux forced him to do his scut work, but he didn’t think it was for that. “Look,” he said to Mitaka, “I do what I have to to make it here, but I’m not going to be anyone’s...bum boy.”

“I know,” said Mitaka. “And you’re too old besides. That’s not customary, and people don’t like to do things differently around here, especially Hux.” He swallowed. “At least until now.”

Ben had no response. He picked up his pencil and tapped the half-used eraser end against the tabletop. Hux made no sense to him and apparently no sense to anyone else. That probably wasn’t going to change anytime soon, so there wasn’t much use thinking about it.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m fine. People’ll stop talking eventually.”

Mitaka opened his book, but muttered, “Will they?”

The matter was dropped there, and they studied for their requisite three hours, Ben’s mind wholly consumed by declensions and conjugations.

 


 

It had been made clear to Ben early that the older boys didn’t mix with the younger, but it was impossible to avoid them altogether; they often got quite literally underfoot, as Ben stood nearly a twelve inches taller than the majority of them and they flitted unobservantly around the corridors of Arkanis House. He had nearly tripped over several of them on his way to class or chapel or the library, as they tried without success to avoid his long strides. After colliding firmly with their heads at the level of his stomach, they had goggled at him and babbled apologies. Ben didn’t say much to them, just going his way as if it had never happened.

If they were nervous around him, though, they were blatantly terrified of Hux and the prefects. Small infractions like sharpening pencils onto the floor instead of the bin or leaving books out in the common room were swiftly punished. Boys as young as thirteen and wide-eyed with uncertainty were sentenced to washing chalkboards and having formal dressings-down in the common room during morning gatherings. Once, Thanisson had made a fourth-former cry, which had only earned him more admonishment.

Sometimes Housemaster Snoke addressed the gathered house during morning roll call, but most times it was Hux who got up in front of everyone and delivered a stern lecture on keeping the volume down in the common room during prep time, or the evils of leaving sweets wrappers on the tables. Apparently some boys had gotten care packages from home filled with treats. In general, indulgences were frowned upon, but leaving the evidence of them out to make the other boys jealous was intolerable.

“If the culprit will not make himself known,” Hux had said on Monday before breakfast, “I will have you all turn out your trunks until the guilty party is exposed. Sweets will be confiscated, so you might as well come forward and own up to it.” He had scowled out over the assembled boys. “You may come to my study and we’ll discuss the appropriate adjustments in conduct.”

That, of course, was a polite way of putting “what punishment will be doled out.” Ben hadn’t heard of anyone actually being switched, as Hux had once upon a time threatened to do to him, but the prospect still lingered over the boys’ heads and scared them into obedience. Ben wasn’t so soft-hearted that he pitied the smaller boys, but Hux didn’t necessarily have to keep such a tyrannical grasp on the goings-on in the house.

Affairs in the other houses had their own quirks, but none of the other head boys were as strict as Hux was. Dameron, for example, was known to spend some prep periods in the lower years’ common room in Oakeshott just to get to know them better. Ledbetter in Elmfield rewarded good marks with extra free time or some forbidden sweets. Fircroft’s Mitchell was stern but fair in his dealings with his boys, and he was also a star footballer who garnered admiration from all over the school. It gave him a good reputation, rather than Hux’s sour one. Nobody seemed to like him, but neither did they question or complain about his methods.

On Tuesday, Thanisson was taking roll, boys raising their hands and answering one-by-one. Ben was paying more attention to a gaggle of fifth-formers, who were whispering amongst themselves as names were called. He was close enough to hear them, and zeroed in when he heard his own name spoken.

“I can’t imagine how Solo does it,” said a mousey boy with a snub nose made red by frequent rubbing. “He has to go up there a couple of nights a week and probably talk to Hux. It’s got to be frightful.”

Another boy continued: “Hux stopped me in the hall two days ago and told me to tighten up my tie. It was already choking me, I swear, but I couldn’t not do it. He stood there and watched until I was done. I hate him.”

“Shut up!” hissed the first boy. “You never know what’s going to get back to him. He’ll give you the belt if you don’t watch yourself.”

“I heard,” a third, blond boy said, low, “that he actually likes it. Smiles the whole time he’s thrashing someone.”

“Bollocks. But getting a telling-off is bad enough.” The snub-nosed boy shuddered. “Shit, here he comes.”

Thanisson stepped away from the dais, leaving space enough for Hux to take his place there. He stood at parade rest, expression stony and appraising. After a moment, he said, “Word has gotten to me that there was an incident in the first-floor toilets yesterday evening after hours. As I understand it, toilet rolls were wastefully used to make a mess of the showers. First off, no boy is permitted to be out of bed after lights-out and anyone caught sneaking around will be reprimanded most severely.” A pause for effect.

“Second of all, resources in this school—even the ones that don’t seem hard to find, such as bog roll—are to be treated with respect. A mess of soppy, badly disintegrated paper had to be slopped out of the drains by the maintenance staff. Such things will not be suffered in this house.

“If no one owns up to the deed by this evening’s free hour, I will have no choice but to have the entire floor get out the cleaning supplies and do the staff’s work for them for the rest of the month.” Groans made their way through the room, along with accusing glances. Hux really did know how to play the boys off of each other.

He pressed on: “The choice is yours, third and fourth forms, so I’d suggest getting on with it or facing the consequences.” His gaze moved across the room, and landed on Ben. He had had no part in the toilet shenanigans, of course, but being under Hux’s scrutiny after so clear a threat rankled him. He glared back at Hux until he looked away, gesturing to Mitaka to come closer. Hux said something into his ear before dismissing the boys to go to breakfast.

Mitaka caught Ben at the door. “Hux would like a fire and tea this evening,” he told him. “Promptly after dinner.”

Ben’s annoyance roiled, but he forced himself to nod. Hux was already in a bad enough mood; Ben didn’t need to cross him just then. He shouldn’t cross him at all, but it wasn’t always avoidable when Hux really got under his skin. Following Mitaka out of the common room, Ben headed toward the dining hall. Hux’s bright head was easy to pick out at the front of the group. Ben chided himself when his attention lingered too long on him.

 


 

Ben got clever with fire-starting quite quickly. Gone were the fumbling first attempts by the next Thursday, when he was once again crouched in front of Hux’s fireplace putting a match to paper and kindling. He blew lightly on the struggling flame until it burned brightly. Stray ends of the kindling curled up into black spirals that eventually sloughed off and disappeared in a puff of ash. Within five minutes, the large logs had caught and were burning merrily.

In the extra time he had before Hux arrived at six—which he had done each of the three days that week Ben had lit his fire—he cautiously explored the little study. Most of the books on the shelf seemed to be many times read but untouched in while. The few that he pulled out didn’t appear to belong to Hux; it was more as if they had been passed down from resident to resident for many decades. Only the head boy had a study, Ben had learned. It was a privilege that came with his station—and a much coveted one at that.

“Hux could wank to his heart’s content up there and nobody’d be the wiser,” Ben had overheard one boy in lower sixth saying in the common room on Monday. “I haven’t had so much as five free minutes to open my pants since term started. It’s torture.”

“Who are you kidding?” another boy had scoffed. “Hux doesn’t wank; he’s a robot.”

They had gone out not long after, preventing Ben from hearing more, but he had to admit that he would have appreciated a place to be alone to get his hand on his cock. He’d heard a few things at night in the dormitory—the most desperate souls sank to the level of taking care of themselves where everyone else could bear witness—but he didn’t dare do it himself. The bathrooms were too often occupied, save for at night, when it was possible for the smart and silent to sneak out. Ben hadn’t since that time he had found Hux on the terrace. And to a point, it became a point of pride. It was certainly the longest he’d ever gone before. In the solitude of his bedroom in Alderaan, he had all the time he wanted for quality self-abuse.

In any case, Hux hadn’t done much to make the study his own, it seemed. There were no personal effects—trinkets or books or anything of the sort—that he could find, save for some very nice fountain pens (monogrammed, of course). He didn’t touch them, although he was tempted. There was stationery, too, but the packet was full, the envelopes untouched. Apparently Hux didn’t have many people to write to.

Ben had never written a proper letter; he hadn’t thought about sending one home before, either. But there was something about that ivory stationery that made him unfasten the string that held the packet closed and slide one sheet of paper and one envelope out of it. He was sorry to fold them, but it was the only way he could smuggle them out. He might have been more afraid to steal, but he didn’t think Hux would notice their absence. Both envelope and page were now safely tucked into Ben’s trunk, maybe to be used at some later date. He would have to know what to write first.

Moving back from the fireplace, Ben got to his feet. He put the matches back on the mantel where they belonged, then turned to face Hux’s desk. The tea service was flawless, though Ben left off the sugar; Hux never took any. He still didn’t drink much tea himself, but in a moment of daring just then, he splashed a little into the china cup he had brought for Hux and sampled it. It burned his mouth, but he swallowed it down and returned the cup to its place. If Hux noticed it was already wet, Ben would just say he had washed it fresh.

Since he had talked to Mitaka on Saturday, he had been, out of the corner of his eye, watching the other Arkanis boys watch him. The attention hadn’t increased by much, but when he was spotted walking the church courtyard in the morning before breakfast, or leaving Hux’s study, he got odd looks—almost fearful. Boys in both lower and upper sixth avoided him, sometimes even ducking out of the way to let him pass. There were whispers, too, just as Mitaka had suggested. Some seemed to think that Ben had done something truly awful to merit such punishment from Hux, but others suggested more lascivious things, including that Ben was being used.

However, those who implied those things immediately shut up as soon as Ben appeared, for fear that he would carry their murmurs back to Hux. Ben didn’t like to think that boys assumed he was in with Hux as an ally, or, heaven forbid, a friend. Despite the mornings Ben had spent in Hux’s study in the past few days, Hux still barely spoke to him other than to send him out with a wave of his narrow-fingered hand. Ben actually was being used, but not in the sense that gossips guessed. He wanted to say something to them, to tell them that there was nothing going on between them, but he wondered if a denial would just make it worse.

Ben was standing by the bookshelf when the door opened and Hux came into the room. He was, as usual, pristine in appearance, down to clipped (and maybe even filed) fingernails and unscuffed shoes. His blazer was open, making him look thinner inside of it, but the tailoring was so exact about his waist that it flattered. Ben was far boxier than Hux, his blazer—which was waiting by his bed rather than on him at present—making him look like a long-torsoed, broad-shouldered rectangle with a head. Hux was...delicate.

“Solo,” Hux said as he went to the tea service. He didn’t inspect the teacup too closely, filling it without compunction. He stirred in some milk without the spoon knocking against the china while Ben stood by, not yet sent away. His gaze moved to him as he lifted the cup and took a careful sip. “How have your Greek exercises been coming? I assume you’re prepared for tonight?”

“It’s going,” Ben replied. “The vocabulary is pretty easy, but the construction of the sentences isn’t as simple.”

Hux tipped his head to the side, conceding. “That much is true. Do you have any questions?”

Ben considered, but then shook his head. “I think I can handle it.”

“Excellent,” said Hux. “We’ll do your quiz first.”

“Fine.” Ben worked his jaw, annoyed. Hux didn’t inspire much more than annoyance most days. “Can I go, then?”

Hux blinked owlishly at him for a moment, setting down his teacup and saucer. “You should be in your full uniform at all times,” he said. “And your tie is too loose.”

To Ben’s utter shock, he came to him and took hold of the tie. He put the knot in order and brought it up to the center of Ben’s collar. It was the closest Hux had ever come to him, and Ben could smell some kind of spicy cologne wafting from his skin. It wasn’t overwhelming, but made a deep impression—a thing that was singularly him, an indulgence that wasn’t regulation. Giving Ben’s tie a last admonishing tug, he moved back.

Now you may go,” he said sternly. “Be properly turned out when you come tomorrow. Is that understood?”

Ben gave a shallow nod.

Hux flicked his fingers at the door, and Ben took his cue. He lingered in the corridor, still smelling Hux’s cologne before going to the dormitory to retrieve his blazer.

 


 

On Saturday, Ben had a lie-in, since Hux hadn’t summoned him and he had no particular obligations until he went to shelf read in the library at ten. He was just coming in from the showers when he found a folded sheet of paper lying on his pillow. With trepidation, he opened it, unsure what to expect. Inside was a note written in cursive telling him to appear at the headmaster’s lodge promptly at seven-thirty for breakfast. His anxiety rose; the headmaster didn’t single out boys, even if they were his nephew. He had done something wrong. But what?

He caught Thanisson at the door to the dining hall and showed him the note. The prefect raised his thin eyebrows, but handed the note back and told him he was excused. Ben ducked out of the main building and out onto the lawn, legging it around to Luke’s little house before he was late. The door was oddly imposing as he stepped up to it, hesitantly raising his fist to knock. His knuckles made a light rapping sound against the dark wood. Ben shifted his weight between his feet, waiting in discomfort until the lock clicked and the door swung open.

“Mr. Solo!” said Alice the housekeeper, beaming. She wore green slacks and a bright pink shirt under her apron. Gesturing him in animatedly, she asked, “How have you been, dear? It’s so good to see you. You look very fine in your uniform, as I knew you would. The headmaster’s waiting for you in the dining room. Come along with me.”

She went in short, purposeful steps across the foyer and to the threshold of the dining room, Ben trailing behind. As she had said, Luke was seated at the head of the table, his reading glasses perched on his nose and the newspaper in hand. He glanced up at the sound of their footfalls.

“Ah, Ben,” he said. “Right on time. Well done. Come sit and have something to eat.”

The smell of bacon—which Ben hadn’t enjoyed in weeks—enticed him in and he took his place at Luke’s right. Alice scooped a helping of scrambled eggs onto his plate, along with three slices of bacon, and two pieces of buttered toast. It was better than anything he would have gotten in the dining hall; the manners he’d picked up in Arkanis House were the only thing that kept him from delving directly into the food.

Luke clearly recognized the hunger in his eyes, though, and smiled. “Go on then.”

Ben did, shoving half a slice of bacon into his mouth, the fatty, salty flavor exploding on his tongue. He almost sighed with pleasure.

Luke gave him a few minutes to put some of his breakfast down before he said, “So, I’ve heard that you’re confined to grounds for the month.”

Ben paused in chewing, but nodded. He forced himself to swallow so he could say, “Yeah.”

“And why is that?”

“Uh, well,” Ben started. It had been so trivial and he had almost forgotten in the things he had done since. “My appearance wasn’t up to standard. Something about my hair being a mess.”

Luke leaned ever-so-slightly forward, an expression of incredulity on his face. “Snoke confined you to grounds for your hair?”

Ben sucked his teeth, stalling. He didn’t really want to explain the situation with Hux, or own up to the fact that he had talked back to him spectacularly in those first few days of the term. “It was the head boy,” he said. “We had a...disagreement.”

“Clearly one he took very seriously,” said Luke. He plucked his glasses from his nose and set them down. “Hux is a particular boy.” His tone was chilly at best. “Rigid and demanding. It’s not often I see that kind of temperament in such a young person. Snoke only encourages it, too, which can be a point of contention at times.”

“That’s him,” said Ben, echoing the coolness. “We don’t get along much.”

“Apparently not.” The lines around Luke’s eyes deepened as he adopted a look of concern. “Despite his faults, it’s not wise to antagonize your head boy.”

Ben frowned. “Why would you automatically think it’s my fault? Hux is a hardass. I seriously think he’s done everything he can to find ways to make my life hard. I was just reminding him of that when he confined me to grounds.”

Luke squared his shoulders, playing the stern headmaster and not the concerned uncle—not that he often did that anyway. “Even if you don’t get along, he’s in charge. It’s not sensible to cross him.”

“I’ve heard that a hundred times from Mitaka,” Ben said, resigned. “I’ve stopped. I’m letting Hux boss me around. Letting him teach me Greek so I don’t give Arkanis a bad reputation.”

“He’s tutoring you?” Luke asked. His brow creased. “He’s not especially stand-out in our lessons.”

Ben felt a distinct rush of euphoric triumph. Hux wasn’t as special as he played at being. “I guess not, but he’s still getting me caught up—as much as I can be.”

Luke tipped his head to the side, acknowledging. “Well, I can’t say I’m displeased. We have high expectations for our pupils and I’ve been fairly lax with you so far. It’s time you started participating more in class.”

“How?” Ben said sharply. “I still barely know anything.”

“I’ll find a way to include you.” Folding the newspaper over, he continued: “Now, about the confinement: I expect you to behave yourself better in October. If I hear more about you being penalized, I’ll have to speak to Snoke.”

Ben sat back in his chair, sullenly asking, “Would you even care if I wasn’t your nephew? This is house business—small potatoes for the headmaster.”

Luke seemed surprised. “Well, I suppose that’s true, but as your only family in the country, it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re getting through school. Considering your history of behavioral problems, you have earned some scrutiny. I have to tell your mother how you’re doing.”

“Have you talked to her since I got here?” said Ben.

“No,” Luke replied, “but you can call around half-term and catch her up.” He folded his weathered, thick-fingered hands on the table, over the white cloth. “You’re to succeed here.”

Ben relented. He knew it was required, but he wanted it too—a little. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll do better.”

Luke tipped his chin down, eyeing him. “I’ll hold you to that.”

They finished the rest of the meal in relative silence, Ben fuller than he had been in weeks. He drank two glasses of orange juice and had seconds of everything. Luke didn’t appear perturbed by his gluttony.

When Ben got up to leave, Luke saw him to the door and gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder. Ben offered only a terse nod before he fled back onto the white gravel drive and then back to the school building. It was only half past eight, but he decided he might as well go to the library and start in on his shelf reading. He was too restless from breakfast to do anything else.

Mr. Pierson was nowhere to be found, but Ben signed in that he was present and went to the mid-seven hundreds, which were near the back of the library. As he came around toward the rear stacks, he stopped, seeing a familiar face: Hux was sitting at a study desk, its little green lamp pouring sallow light onto the pages of the book open on the desktop. Those pages were brittle and thin, the corners missing from years of wear. Hux didn’t even have to hold it open to read, its spine was so broken-in.

Ben had work to do and Hux had probably come here to be alone, but he found himself walking to him, stopping just in front of the desk. Hux looked up with measured disinterest.

“What are you doing here?” Ben asked.

“What does it look like?” said Hux. “Reading.”

“I thought you always sent your lackeys to get your books for you. Mostly me.”

Hux replied coolly, “There are times when I take care of things myself.” He cocked one eyebrow, the picture of haughty suggestiveness. “And you certainly like to remind me that I’m more than capable of that.”

Ben snorted. “Yeah, well, you are.” He gestured to the book, hand hanging in the air maybe a moment longer than necessary. “Anything good?”

“Costain’s The Black Rose,” Hux said, turning his attention back down to the book and inching it ever-so-slightly up toward the top of the desk: an unconscious dismissal, which he then voiced: “A historical trifle, really, but it was one of the most famous novels of 1945.”

“Sounds boring,” Ben said, though he really had no opinion on the matter. He hadn’t said a thing about the actual story or setting; Ben was just being difficult for the sake of it.

Hux ran a finger along one of the yellowing edges of the page, making Ben shudder for fear of a papercut. “You seem the type to say that. I can’t see you reading novels.”

“Is there a novel-reading type?” Ben prompted, the corners of his mouth turning down to take preemptive offense.

“It takes a sort of fancifulness,” said Hux. “You, Solo, are the pinnacle of practicality.”

Ben wasn’t sure he knew what that meant, but it didn’t seem to be derisive—just a statement of fact. Hux was a keen observer, Ben was learning, though he severely judged every aspect of the world he saw. It was as if he had a silver set of scales in his mind, weighing each thing against his heavy, rigid principles and finding many of them wanting. Ben had every reason to believe he was wanting—but of what, he wasn’t sure.

“What’s that make you?” he asked.

One side of Hux’s lips tugged up in an impish little half-smile. “You’re forward today. Feeling your oats?”

“Just not in the mood to play your pissy English politeness games,” Ben said, flat. “My uncle plays right into them, even though he’s not English.”

Hux lay one hand very deliberately on the desktop, fingers spread wide and pinky just touching the corner of the book. He asked slowly and with suspicion, “You’ve been to see the headmaster?”

Ben could tell he suspected him of snitching or some equally dangerous tattling, but he played calm and nodded, pushing his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. “He had me ‘round for tea’ and a telling-off.”

Hux actually seemed taken aback. “For what?”

“Being confined to grounds mostly,” Ben said. “The usual ‘we have high expectations of our pupils’ talk about getting my schoolwork done. He didn’t know you were tutoring me in Greek.”

“There was no reason to tell him,” Hux said simply. “If he sought out the reason why your performance in class improved, I would have, but the mundanity of it all doesn’t require reporting.”

“Yeah, well, he’s still my uncle, so he wants to make sure I’m doing well in school.” Ben shifted his weight between his feet, debating how much to actually say. If he let on that Luke had too much of a hand in his day-to-day, he’d be ostracized—more so than he already was—as word got around that he had more scrutiny on him, and maybe a direct line to the headmaster. Despite his caution, Ben admitted, “He cares more about it than my parents did back home.”

Hux kept his gaze fixed on Ben’s face, expression unreadable. “Is that so? Why didn’t they care?”

Ben shrugged his hunched shoulders. “Too busy with work. And when they were home they just fought. I didn’t matter much compared to that.”

There, at last, was some understanding in Hux’s green eyes. “I can relate to that, in a way. I was a nuisance to my father, and it was a great relief to him when I was old enough to be sent away to board. I see that was also a solution for your parents.”

“Guess so,” Ben said. “You have any brothers or sisters?”

Hux shook his head.

“Me neither. One was already too many.”

“Yes,” said Hux. “That’s certainly true of my family as well.” He softly closed the book on the desk, folding his hands over it. “Don’t go making a habit of teas with the headmaster, however. Being his favorite won’t win you any regard amongst the boys.”

“I don’t plan on it,” Ben told him. “And I don’t think Luke does, either. I’m not some kind of favorite.”

Hux inclined his head. “Good.” He pushed his chair back, a hiss on the carpet, and rose, his knees just out from under the desk. “Now,” he said, “I think I would like some tea. Bring it to my study in ten minutes.”

The unexpected good humor Ben had started to feel as they talked drained away as swiftly as if someone had pulled the plug. He said tersely, “I have work to do for Mr. Pierson.”

“I’ll let him know you’re needed for a few minutes,” said Hux. “You can come finish your tasks when I’m done with you.” His voice grew lower as he spoke, the last words rumbling ominously.

“Are you ever?” Ben asked.

“Ever what?”

“Done with me.” Ben frowned deeply. “It doesn’t seem like it.”

Hux blinked, unfazed. “I will be, when it suits me.”

Ben wet his lips, temper souring. “Right. I’ll just get that tea.”

He turned and left the library, his footsteps muffled on the industrial carpet. The kitchen staff was preparing for supper, and one of the cooks paused in her stirring when she saw him.

“Help you, love?” she asked.

“I just need a tea service,” he replied. “The head boy’s calling for one.”

The cook rolled her eyes in a flash of huffy blue. “I swear, you give some of those lads a little bit of clout and they turn into monsters. Which house you in, then?”

“Arkanis.”

“Hm, Housemaster Snoke likes his tea as well,” she said, “though it’s usually a young boy who comes to collect it. You’re sixth form, if a day.”

“I am,” Ben said.

The cook shook her white-capped head. “Well, if you need tea, you’ll have it. Just get a tray, will you, and I’ll put the water on.”

A few minutes later, Ben had a full service. The cook put two tea biscuits on the tray, too, but she made sure to slip Ben three more for his trouble. He crunched on them while he made his way back up to Arkanis House and Hux’s study. He navigated the door more easily than he had at first, knocking and then going in without being invited. Hux hadn’t chastised him, so he just kept doing it. As usual, Ben set the tray on top of Hux’s writing desk. Hux himself was at the bookshelf, seemingly perusing.

“Do you want anything else?” Ben said. “Or can I go back to the library?”

He expected a curt dismissal, but instead he nearly toppled as Hux came striding across to him, landed two hands firmly on his shoulders, and shoved him back against the wall—all without word or warning. Ben struck the wall with a grunt, laying his palms flat to steady himself. He was about to demand what the hell Hux thought he was doing, but words failed as Hux dropped down to his knees and began to undo the belt at Ben’s waist. Ben, disbelieving, just stared down at the top of his head, his red hair burning as his fingers worked deftly to release the belt buckle and then the button and zipper of Ben’s trousers.

A confused kind of groan escaped Ben’s throat in place of speech, but he couldn’t reason out if it was meant to be a question, a protest, or encouragement. Because there was no mistaking what Hux was about when he took hold of the sides of Ben’s trousers and shoved them ungently down his thighs. Seconds later, his hand was against Ben’s underwear, right over his cock. He wasn’t hard; he was too stunned to even think about that right now, even though that seemed to be the direction Hux wanted to take it.

Hux asked for no permission before sliding Ben’s white briefs down, too, leaving him totally bare. Nobody had ever had their face this close to his cock before, and despite Ben’s bewilderment, when Hux mouthed at it, the blood rushed down to help it fill. His breath was hot on the sensitive skin and Ben nearly yelped when his tongue darted out to lick him. Hux brought his hand up then, wrapping his long fingers around Ben and starting to stroke.

It felt almost alien to have someone else touching a part of him only Ben had ever touched, but it didn’t take long for him to accept it. Hux’s palm was soft as he eased it up and down over Ben’s cock, now half-hard and growing. When he started using his mouth again, Ben couldn’t contain the groan—this one decidedly an encouragement. It became an astonished gasp as Hux took him far into his throat, closing his mouth around him and swirling his tongue.

“O-Oh, my God,” Ben stuttered. His hands he pressed into the wall now for support; his knees were going weak.

Hux pulled back up the length of his cock, sucking attentively at the tip before swallowing him back down. Ben was slick with his saliva, and now fully hard. The feeling of Hux’s lips, his tongue, the heat of his mouth was overwhelming, whiting out any other thoughts than those of the pleasure.

Ben hadn’t masturbated since he’d gotten to Haverhill—no privacy—and he’d definitely never had anyone go down on him before, so he was quick to rise to the passion. It didn’t escape his notice, of course, that it was Hux currently sucking his cock, putting his sharp tongue to a far better use than sniping at Ben or the other Arkanis boys. Ben shook off the thought of the rest of the house, hoping that this wasn’t a position any of the rest of them had been in: half-naked in Hux’s study with their cock down the head boy’s throat.

Hux had his eyes closed as he worked, lips spread wide to take Ben in, while he made a circle of thumb and forefingers and moved them up and down the length of Ben’s cock he couldn’t reach with his mouth. Ben’s basest instincts were satisfied to think that he was too big for someone to take all the way. But Hux? Moreover, any boy at all. This wasn’t the best moment to second-guess it, though, since Ben had already succumbed.

And that was true: Ben wasn’t appalled. He was too caught up in the moment and the feelings and the sounds Hux’s attention to him made to be repelled. He’d have to figure out later why that was, but at this very second Hux was lapping at the tip of his erection and his left hand had come up to cup Ben’s testicles, rolling them in the way Ben sometimes liked to do himself, and Ben was lost.

Tingling sensation was forming at the base of his spine, making his testicles draw up in Hux’s hand and his toes curl in his shoes. He had heard that it was good practice to warn the person when you were close to coming so they could pull off, and Ben was trying to form the right words. There was nothing he could fathom that he actually wanted to say aloud, from “I’m going to come” to even a simple “Stop. I’m close.” It all sounded crude and impossible for him to say, so he just worked his jaw without uttering a thing. He was still struggling when the climax hit him.

He cried out, head thrown back and body taut. Hux made a choked sound, his hand tightening on Ben’s cock as he stilled, but he sucked him through it. Ben spooled down by weightless increments, gradually returning to himself and the study—and to Hux, who was just pulling off of him, leaving his spent cock hanging between his legs. The skin around Hux’s mouth and his hand glistened with wet, but Ben only got a glimpse before Hux was back on his feet and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe himself clean.

“Get out,” he said.

Ben was still against the wall, at a loss. “W-What?” he asked.

Hux continued to face away, his hands hanging as his sides, one with the balled-up handkerchief in it. “Get out. Now.

Ben was gaping at him, head still muzzy and hands shaking, but he managed to get his underwear and trousers up. He fastened the fly as fast as he could and, leaving the belt for now, slipped out of the study and into the hall. The bathroom wasn’t far away, and he all but ran there, ducking into one of the stalls and slamming the door behind him. He dropped down onto the seat of the toilet, burying his face in his hands.

What the hell had just happened? He had the basics down, of course, but why? Mitaka had been pretty clear about the fact that boys sometimes fooled around, but that it wasn’t widely done or even really accepted. It definitely wasn’t supposed to happen in Arkanis House, and yet Hux, who was supposed to be the enforcer of all the most draconian rules, had been the one on his knees. And for a boy in his year, too. Mitaka had said something about it always being younger boys, just like the fagging. Apparently Hux got off on flouting his own regulations.

Well, Ben didn’t know if he actually got off on it—he hadn’t laid a hand on himself—but he couldn’t have done it if he didn’t like it in some way. Ben moved his hands down, studying them. He thought Hux hated him; what in the world would make him want to suck him off? The whole situation was crazy, and Ben was dazed.

There was the pressing matter of Ben having allowed it, too, which couldn’t be pushed from his mind for much longer. He’d fantasized about getting oral sex before, but it had always been from a kind of shadowy, featureless person, neither man nor woman. He’d never chased skirts and never been dying to feel a girl up, but he’d never wanted another boy to touch him either. Did it actually matter to him, then, he wondered. If he was getting his cock sucked, who really cared who was doing it. It felt good—better than good—and he figured a girl’s mouth would have been much the same.

Ben pinched his eyes shut, putting a hand into his hair and tugging on it to ground himself. This was honestly pretty messed up. And he was supposed to be in the library right now.

Shit.

Rising from the toilet, he ventured out of the stall and to the nearest sink. He splashed water on his face, expecting to look into the mirror and see a completely different person. But he was just the same as always: long nose, off-center chin, high brow. Nothing had changed about him, but at the same time, nothing was the same.

Chapter Text

For Ben, being ignored was nothing new. Before being actively overlooked by the majority of Arkanis House, he had gone unnoticed by his peers at home and, perhaps especially, by his parents. He was used to gazes skating away from him and attention being pulled easily elsewhere—so much so that he operated beneath the notice of just about everyone in his life. The lack of interest in him had never been so palpable, however, than it was over the next two days, when Hux wouldn’t so much as be in the same room as him, save for when he was forced to—namely at meals.

After Ben had left the bathroom on Saturday morning, he had sought refuge in the library. His racing mind had calmed some as he read the shelves, but when he had run out of distractions—at night, in bed—it had turned again to what had happened in Hux’s study. Ben had lain on his back with his hands held resolutely at his sides to keep from touching himself. To his shock and some measure of shame, as the memories played in his head, he found himself getting hard. There was Hux’s bright hair, his hot mouth, the softness of his palm and fingers. Ben tried to keep his body from responding, but it was out of his control. He had liked what Hux had done to him, even if he actively attempted to convince himself that it was wrong.

The conflicting forces of mind and body only continued to struggle the next day as he stepped into the showers. Hux usually came in at the same time, and suddenly being naked around him elicited excitement and alarm rather than the usual indifference. Ben was sure he could maintain his cool, but at the same time, his thoughts overnight had kept turning to Hux, and when they did, his body utterly betrayed him. The last thing he needed was to get an erection in the showers when only Hux was around. Although, his traitorous mind suggested, maybe Hux wouldn’t mind that.

Whether fortunately or not, however, Hux didn’t make an appearance before Ben had dressed, combed his hair, and left the bathroom. Hux had been at breakfast, but he never once acknowledged that Ben was there. Even as they all got up to go to Sunday chapel, he kept his eyes away, always focusing on other things or speaking to other boys. Those he talked to were clearly not used to it, since they stared up at him in terror-tinged awe until he was done speaking.

The bog roll affair from the week before hadn’t been resolved to Hux’s satisfaction, and now groups of five boys at a time from third and fourth form were being forced to clean the bathrooms all over the house, right down to the grout, every weekend until the end of the month. Hux himself never supervised them—it was surely beneath him—but either Thanisson or Mitaka was forced to oversee the scrubbing, disinfecting, and mopping. It put Mitaka in a less-than-sunny mood during their Saturday Latin tutorial, making him more likely to snap at Ben for badly translated phrases. Ben blamed Hux, as was due.

On Sunday, the older boys were released to go into Tindon Village after chapel, and most of them took full advantage and disappeared as soon as they were able. Ben, with no choice but to stay, decided to take a walk. He ended up at the edge of the grounds and, making sure no one was around, ducked into the solitude of a stand of trees. He leaned against a thick elm, looking up into the green-leafed branches above.

He recalled the vitriol with which Hux had ordered him out the day before, one aspect of the event that he hadn’t yet given much consideration. Hux’s voice had been ragged, almost to the point of breaking, and his posture had been painfully rigid. He’d turned immediately from Ben after he’d finished and thrown him out as if he was disgusted with him—or, Ben thought in passing, with himself. It wasn’t impossible to fathom that Hux regretted what he’d done; after all, he’d broken uncounted rules, both tacit and explicit. But that forced Ben to think about why he’d even done it in the first place: a question he was by no means able to answer. Hux’s motivations were as inscrutable as he was.

Up until the day before, Ben hadn’t thought Hux was all that complicated. He was a fairly straightforward controlling asshole who liked to be in charge and make his underlings do his bidding. From what Ben could tell, he took his studies and Haverhill’s many traditions seriously, respecting masters and maintaining order in Arkanis House. It would have made sense—some sense—if he had been the one to shove Ben to his knees and demand he suck his cock, but it had been the exact opposite. It went against every aspect of his outward persona; he was putting himself at Ben’s service without so much as a tug of his own cock. The inconsistency was baffling, leaving Ben still floundering to understand anything about it.

Part of him wanted to ask, but he couldn’t come up with a remotely reasonable way to do that—at least not one that didn’t entail him trying to find some acceptably banal euphemism for getting your dick sucked. Someone as prim and proper as Hux was—or pretended to be—wouldn’t tolerate “Why the knob-job, mate?”

Sighing, Ben had dropped down to sit at the base of the elm’s trunk and rubbed his face while turning every possible scenario around in his head to no resolution. He left the stand of trees some twenty minutes later with no less clarity than when he entered it.

Ben had expected to get an order from Hux that evening for a fire and tea the next day, but it conspicuously didn’t come. Hux continued to look past him, striding out of any room he entered. When Ben came into the common room after supper, Hux actually abandoned Thanisson mid-sentence, leaving him flabbergasted. Hux ducked smartly around Ben without coming within a yard of his person. Thanisson had narrowed his eyes at Ben, suspicious. With nothing to say to explain Hux’s brusqueness, Ben just avoided the prefect completely and went to read in a sequestered armchair.

To his immense displeasure, he woke around five-thirty on Monday morning. He didn’t want to lie around thinking about what he could be doing to get Hux’s tea ready, so he slipped out of the dormitory with his change of clothes and went for a shower. His wet hair chilled him as he went to the chapel after he was clean, but it was warm inside. He stopped at the little candlelit altar again, striking a match. He was still lingering there when the chaplain appeared.

“What are you called, then?” he asked with his usual warmth.

“Solo,” Ben replied.

The chaplain nodded, folding his hands over a stomach that was just going to ponch under his black button-up shirt. “Come to talk this time?”

Ben said, sedately, “Um, I think so.”

“Come sit, Mr. Solo, and tell me what’s on your mind.”

They went together to a nearby pew and sat side by side, the chaplain turned just slightly toward Ben, who faced the front of the chapel, very conscious of how carefully he’d have to choose his words for this. The chaplain waited, giving him his own time.

“There’s someone in my house,” Ben started with caution. “He makes me do his chores and stuff like that, and I hated it at first—hated him—but I guess it isn’t so bad. Everyone said if I went along with it, he would eventually get bored and leave me alone. But he hasn’t. He actually, um, helps me with my Greek. As a tutor. The prefects say he’s never studied with anyone before. So, I guess I’m kind of confused. He makes me work for him, but he then he helps me out, too. It doesn’t make sense.”

The chaplain gave a contemplative hum. “I see how you can be a bit lost in that. This boy’s behavior isn’t consistent.”

Ben shook his head. He didn’t know the half of it, after Saturday.

“And,” the chaplain continued, “you don’t want to go on as you have been.”

“Not really.”

“Well, in cases of miscommunication, it’s often the wisest course to be direct.” He sat up straighter, laying his palms on his knees. “Start, maybe, with asking why he choose to help you with your Greek.”

“He said it’s so my grades don’t reflect badly on the house,” Ben told him.

The chaplain sniffed. “Somehow I don’t think he’s being truthful with you. It’s your housemaster’s task to make sure your marks aren’t suffering, not another boy’s. There’s another reason. Seek it out.”

Ben chewed his cheek. Hux had clammed up at the mention of personal matters on the terrace that night they had first talked. Somehow it seemed unlikely that he’d be more forthcoming now. “I don’t think he’d tell me.”

“Why not?” asked the chaplain, his thick brown eyebrows raised.

“He probably thinks I don’t need to know,” Ben replied. “I can’t really explain it, but...he keeps most things to himself, even if they have to do directly with you. I mean, he barely speaks to anyone but the prefects.”

“Ah, this is the head boy of your house.”

“Yeah. So, I can’t really go against his orders unless I want to scrub his sports kit again.”

The chaplain rubbed his round, cleanly shaven chin. “Yes, I can see that. But you say it’s out of character for him to tutor someone? Have you considered that it’s not that he dislikes you, but that he favors you?”

Ben shot him a sidelong glance. “I really doubt it. He acts like it’s this huge sacrifice he’s making to help me with Greek.” He sighed, leaning his elbows on his thighs. “He was...friendly on Saturday, though. Did something, uh, nice for me. It’s part of why I can’t figure him out.”

“Perhaps you can start your questions there, then,” said the chaplain. “Ask him why he went out of his way to do that.”

Ben’s stomach roiled at the thought of being that up-front—something he had outright dismissed just the day before in the little stand of trees. And yet he couldn’t let Hux just get away with it without some kind of explanation. Sure, he didn’t have to explain himself to anyone but Snoke, but Ben couldn’t bear to let the whole incident go as if nothing had ever happened.

“I guess I could,” he said quietly. “He might just tell me to get lost, though.”

“It would be very unfair of him if he did that,” the chaplain said. “Do you think that’s more likely than him telling you the truth?”

“Honestly?” Ben muttered. “Yes.”

The chaplain’s features grew somber as he presumably considered. After a time, he said, “I suspect that this boy is mistrustful. If he’s so unwilling to offer his reasons for either giving you tasks to do or for helping you with your schoolwork, it might be that he’s afraid to explain, for fear that you won’t like the reasons.”

Ben curled his hands into fists. Hux didn’t seem afraid of anything, especially of Ben or any of the other boys in Arkanis House. To assume that fear of disapproval kept him silent was a stretch at best. He wielded the most power in the house; what did he have to be scared of?

“You don’t like that theory,” said the chaplain, a small smile touching his pert mouth. “All right. What do you think?”

“I came to ask you,” Ben grumbled, “because I don’t know.”

The chaplain chuckled. “Fair enough. I’ve given you my opinion; it’s yours to take or leave.”

Trying not to be disappointed, Ben said, “Okay. Thanks, I guess.”

“Ask God if you don’t believe I’m much help, Mr. Solo.” The chaplain got to his feet. “May He bless and keep you.” He left Ben on the pew, wending his steadily paced way toward the front of the chapel, where Ben would see him deliver his morning homily in a couple of hours.

Ben stayed sitting for a little longer, staring at the flagstones under his shoes. He’d have to do something about this, and sooner rather than later. If Hux didn’t give him a single look today, despite being in all the same lessons and playing the same rugby match during games, he’d have to say something. What that was, unfortunately, he had no idea.

 


 

Whereas most of Arkanis’s upper sixth dragged themselves reluctantly to double maths lessons every morning after breakfast, Ben went gladly. They were working on Euclidean geometry still, though always with a mix of algebra and trigonometry as well. The swift changes in material often tripped many of the boys up, but never Ben. Even if he was still a mess in English and classics, he was at least one of the sharpest students in maths. 

Housemaster Snoke was an exacting teacher, and while he had been curt and direct and seemingly displeased that Ben had joined Arkanis House at the beginning of term, he was now more tolerant of him. He was never favoring or any less demanding of Ben than of the others, but he no longer glared as openly. And he hadn’t taken Ben aside to scold him since he had missed lunch while cleaning Hux’s sports kit. Ben’s giving in to Hux’s less unreasonable demands had allowed him to avoid Snoke’s disciplinary notice. His excellence in maths won him some points too, he was sure.

At that particular moment, Ben was standing at the blackboard with a piece of worn-down chalk in his hand, showing the work he had done on a proof from yesterday’s prep assignment. Snoke assigned advanced problems from their textbook each night to be done during prep and expected a few boys to demonstrate their work on the board the next morning. Answers were often shared and compared in the evenings to make sure they could face the interrogation the next day, but if processes were too similar, it would have given them away; they were careful not to copy one another.

Ben finished outlining his work and, setting the chalk in its tray, turned to look at Snoke. The housemaster had been watching him closely, unfazed and critical, but as he surveyed Ben’s solution, he nodded. “Very good, Mr. Solo. You may sit.”

Ben took his place while Snoke broke down the process he had shown for the others, some of whom were openly dismayed; that was par for the course in these lessons. Mitaka was less panicky than he normally was since he had been bringing the trickier problems to Ben after their Latin tutorial more regularly. Ben didn’t mind at all; it made their arrangement more of an equal exchange, and he could appreciate that.

A few days ago, the librarian had surprised him with a brand new calculus textbook—one to replace the book that had been destroyed. He had entrusted it to Ben with no small measure of care, and Ben had tucked it safely away in his trunk, taking it out only when he was sure nobody would molest it. That gave him more limited time to spend with it, but there was no particular rush to master differential equations when they weren’t yet covering them in class. He paid attention to the volume on mathematics for basic engineering he had checked out, too. It addressed the geometry of construction and he found himself doodling angles for the truss bridges he’d been reading about, while Snoke lectured about proofs Ben already knew by heart. His notebook was fairly well illustrated, even if off-topic.

When Snoke was finished with Ben’s work, he erased it and began to write in very neat lettering the material for the day. Ben wrote down what he needed, sometimes setting to solving the problems while Snoke was still explaining them to the rest of the class. If Snoke ever caught him at it, he didn’t object, and Ben didn’t stop. It had been years since he had felt any kind of fulfillment from academics. Its return had been gradual since the start of the term, but it was nearly ever-present in the classes he didn’t feel completely lost in. He didn’t crave praise so strongly that he would stoop to actual sucking up—the other boys would have hated him for trying to curry favor with the masters—but the rush of answering a question correctly or solving a problem faster than anyone else was addictive. Being good at something certainly made the days easier.

At the end of their allotted eighty minutes of class, Ben put his notebook away and rose to go use the bathroom in the few minutes before their geography lesson began. However, Snoke caught him as he passed the front of the classroom, calling him over. Ben tensed, uncertain what to expect, but went to him and said, “Yes, sir?”

Snoke was dressed in a severe gray suit, the jacket open to reveal a matching waistcoat around his narrow chest. He was still one of the few people at school Ben had to tip his head up to look in the eye. His expression set with its usual sternness, Snoke said, “Your problem today was very well done, as your other assignments usually are.”

Warm, tingling pride spread through Ben’s chest. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t interrupt me, Solo.”

Ben’s pleasure dimmed some, but he nodded, knowing better than to interrupt again, even if to apologize.

“When you began here,” Snoke continued, “I was under the impression that you had left your schooling in America because you weren’t performing well.” His upper lip twitched at Ben’s blush. “Perhaps you’re not keen on all of your subjects—or so I’ve heard—but your work in maths has been exemplary.” He pressed his palms together at the level of his navel, as if in questioning prayer. “Tell me, have you considered continuing your studies at university?”

Ben hesitated to reply, expecting that his wavering, uncertain answer was not at all what Snoke would want. Eventually, he said, “Not very seriously, sir. I, um, didn’t think it was an option for me, before.”

Snoke raised his sharp chin, palms still together. “I suppose not, if you were struggling. But your circumstances have changed here. Was that not the purpose of your coming to Haverhill?”

“I guess so,” said Ben.

“In that case,” Snoke said, “I would like you to take under advisement furthering your education upon finishing the year. You are on track to do impressively well on your maths examinations, which could earn you a place at university.” He turned his cool gaze on Ben, sedate and seemingly sincere. “I was concerned you were going to be a problem here when first you came. But you could succeed, if you set your mind to it.”

Ben blinked up at him, earnestly surprised to get that kind of compliment. “I… Thank you, sir.”

Snoke’s acerbity reappeared: “Don’t thank me; do as I say and think about applying to university. If you need advice on where to apply, you may see me during my office hours.” He gathered his things and left the room.

Ben stared after him, shellshocked. Snoke was rarely so openly approving of anyone, let alone Ben. He might have stayed frozen there, just trying to wrap his head around what had happened until the next lesson started, had his bladder not been calling for relief. Shaking himself back to awareness, he hurried down the hall to the bathroom and into one of the stalls. As he pissed, he let Snoke’s suggestion percolate in his mind.

Uncle Luke had talked about university, and it was always being discussed in the Arkanis common room, where some boys were already making applications. Ben had written off college back in Alderaan. Neither of his parents had graduated from a prestigious school, even if his mother had had to go through a nursing course. His dad was about as far from college material as Ben could fathom. He figured he’d end up just like him: mostly aimless, save for a job he did because he had to. Han Solo would never have stayed in one place for the time required for a degree, either.

It was difficult to imagine what he or Leia would say if Ben called home and told them he was going to apply to university. There would probably be a good thirty seconds of stunned silence on the other end of the line, and then the confused questions would start. He caught himself on that. He wasn’t sure he was ready to field any questions, and that was as fair an indicator as anything that he hadn’t thought at all seriously about attending university. It was not, as it was for some of the other boys in Arkanis House, his lifelong dream—or expectation.

Ben had never even been to a university campus, whether in England or back home. He had no idea what kinds of things you had to learn there, or where you lived, or any of it. The not knowing was undeniably frightening, but if Ben could survive Haverhill without having been at all prepared for its foreignness, he could probably make it at university.

You haven’t survived yet, he reminded himself icily as he zipped his trousers back up and flushed the toilet.

He looked at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands, trying to puzzle out what Haverhill was making him. Coming here was supposed to have gotten him through school, and it was going to, but he was, perhaps, on the cusp of finding out that it was steering him away from indifference to how he might shape his life. He had been uncertain of what to do with himself after graduation, and while applying for university was an option, it brought a new kind of uncertainty he wasn’t sure he was prepared to face.

He dried his hands on the towel by the door and tried to recenter his thoughts on geography, which he wasn’t bad at—comparatively. Looking at his feet while he walked, he didn’t immediately notice the three boys loitering by the bathroom door. When Blakely stepped into his path, though, he was forced to turn his eyes up, surprised.

“Ho, ho, Solo,” Blakely said in a mocking tone. “What’s all this talking to Snoke about uni, eh?” He sneered. “You’ll never hack it at Oxbridge if you can barely keep up with most of the lessons.”

Ben glared at him. “You got half the problems wrong on your last assignment, so you can piss off with that.”

“Watch your tone, Solo,” Poole warned, his pudgy face dark with threat. “You might be all right at maths, but you’re still worthless at everything else. Can’t even manage bloody football without falling on your face.” He barked a cruel laugh. “And you’re at the head boy’s mercy, too. He’s got you running every little errand for him. And you just do it. Fag’s the right word for you, eh?”

Anger bubbled up in Ben, the temptation to hit Poole rising. He hadn’t been in a fight in months, not since April, when he’d last been sentenced to six weeks’ detention—which he’d skipped to drink warm beer in the park. If he tried it now, he’d screw up everything. Snoke had told him he was actually doing okay and one punch would go to show that he was exactly the fuck-up everyone at home thought he was.

“I don’t give a shit what you think of me,” he snarled, “or what I do.”

Rembis curled his lip disdainfully. “Well, whatever you did to piss Hux off, you’d best fix it. He’s been in a snit since the weekend, and none of us need that bollocks.”

Ben’s stomach dropped. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. It was true enough; Hux had done it to him.

“As if we’re going to believe that,” said Blakely. He flicked the end of Ben’s tie by his belly. “Just fix it, Solo, or there’ll be hell to pay.” He gave Ben a last dirty look before shouldering past him and into the bathroom. The other two trailed behind him like so many hounds.

Ben’s university prospects dropped from his mind as he re-entered the classroom. Hux was sitting at his desk with his geography text already out, and as soon as Ben crossed the threshold, he looked pointedly away. Ben wasn’t sure he had heard what had been said in the corridor, but he wouldn’t put it past him. Whether or not he did it to spare the rest of the house Hux’s “snit,” he needed to say something to him to get the air cleared. College could wait; he had to get through the day-to-day right now, and that meant dealing with Hux.

Passing him by, Ben took his seat and pulled out his own books. The first free time they would have was at lunch. He’d have to do it then.

 


 

The rest of the morning’s lessons passed uneventfully, but there was tension among the boys as they tried to sort out what Hux’s problem was. From what Ben could hear of his conversation during breaks, he was short and sharp. His mood was nigh on black, and everyone noticed and tread carefully around him. Even the masters seemed to pick up on the uneasiness and spent most of their time lecturing instead of calling on boys to interrogate.

The discomfort of it all had Ben shifting restlessly in his seat and spinning around in his head options for what to say to Hux. By the time lunch actually came, he was so keyed-up that he kept turning his gaze to him and keeping it there as if willing Hux to look back at him. He got nothing at all, but he could see that his attention wasn’t escaping Hux’s notice. Hux was keeping his eyes on his plate with too much fixity, to the point that it was blatantly artificial.

Ben ate by rote, but in the end just pushed his plate away and, unable to stall any longer, got up and went to where Hux sat. Immediately, a hush fell over the table and gazes turned to Ben. Hux was the last to look at him, his face deliberately blank.

“I need to talk to you,” Ben said. He held his back straight and arms at his sides, making himself as big as he could be without being openly intimidating. He wasn’t here to start a fight; he just needed to get Hux alone to find out what Saturday had meant. He added, unsteadily, “We need to talk.”

“Do we?” asked Hux flatly. “I don’t think so.”

Ben barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping. He could not be serious. Ben pressed: “We do.”

For a moment, he thought Hux might just turn back to his food without another word, but then he said, “As you well know, if you or anyone in this house has a concern, you can bring it to me. You may come to my study this evening at nine o’clock, after you’ve done your prep.”

Nodding stiffly, Ben said, “Yeah, okay.”

There was a long pause during which all of upper sixth’s attention was focused on the two of them. Ben hated the scrutiny and he was sure Hux did too, because Hux shoved his plate away and got up. He brushed past Ben silently and left the dining hall. Nobody was supposed to do that, but none of the Arkanis boys were about stop him. Ben watched as he disappeared, feeling no less apprehensive than he had minutes before. Reluctantly, he returned to his place on the bench to finish out the lunch period.

Thanisson caught him on the way out at one o’clock. “Tread very carefully, Solo,” he said.

Ben just inclined his head and hoped he had it in him to do so.

 


 

“You haven’t got the declension quite right here,” Mitaka was saying that evening during Latin tutorial. He pointed to an error in Ben’s translation. Ben hadn’t been particularly attentive during the hour, for reasons that were obvious to everyone in the house, and Mitaka was losing patience. He rapped his pencil on the page. “Solo.”

Ben’s eyes focused again, taking in the sentence. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

Mitaka sighed in frustration. “That’s all you have to say? Where is your head?”

“Sorry,” Ben offered again. “I’m just not really in the mood to do this.” The clock on the wall read ten-to-nine and he was jittery with nerves. The unavoidable conversation with Hux had been hanging over his head all afternoon, distracting him from classics and games and everything in between. Mitaka suspected, of course, but always played as if what went on between Ben and Hux wasn’t affecting him or anyone else as strongly as it (unfortunately) probably was.

“It’s not going to matter on exam day what mood you’re in,” Mitaka admonished curtly. With a disgusted noise, he flipped their textbook closed. “But if you can be in a mood, so can I. We’re finished. Go be mindless somewhere else.” Snatching up his supplies, he walked away.

Ben was too distracted to make his apologies, even if he’d have to do it eventually. Eight minutes, now, to nine: just enough time to run his things back to his trunk and then make a stop by the bathroom. He wasn’t willing to examine closely why he did it, but he went straight to the first open mirror and pulled the comb from the pocket inside his blazer. It ran smoothly through his hair, which, to his satisfaction, had come up in glossy waves on that dry day. He examined his teeth and straightened his tie. His chest tight with unaccustomed anticipation, he went to Hux’s study door and knocked promptly as the bell in the tower struck nine.

“Enter,” came Hux’s voice from inside.

When Ben opened the door, he didn’t immediately see him. He paused at the entrance, still with the door handle in his grip.

“Close the bloody thing already,” Hux snapped, appearing from the other side of the door, between it and his desk, as if from thin air.

Ben scurried inside and shut the door too hard behind him. He was barely a step beyond it when Hux latched onto his wrist and yanked him toward the desk chair. Hux pushed him by the shoulders down onto it. He kicked Ben’s legs apart before kneeling between them without a word. In seconds, his clever fingers were at Ben’s fly.

All Ben’s plans for what to say—badly formed as they had been—flew from his mind. He watched in awe as Hux went about the work of undoing Ben’s trousers, and he let himself gasp as Hux reached without hesitation into his underwear and drew out his cock. Hux used his mouth right away, taking Ben, even soft, between his lips and sucking at him. Ben responded right away; seemingly all the blood in his body raced to his groin, bringing him swiftly up hard. Hux used his hand and his tongue again, and Ben was sure it was even better than the last time.

Ben didn’t dare touch him, but he was still tempted to slide a hand into his vibrant hair and push him down harder. It was an unexpected thought—almost aggressive. Ben didn’t have any right to demand he do more than he already was. As if he was listening, however, Hux corkscrewed his way down Ben’s length, until his long nose reached the fabric of Ben’s briefs. He couldn’t get all the way to the base, both for Ben’s size and for the fact that he was still totally dressed. Before, his trousers had been around his ankles; now, they were still on, constricting him in a way he didn’t necessarily like. It wasn’t foremost in his brain, though; that was just the sensation of Hux’s attention.

It didn’t take long again, but this time Ben had it together enough—and had courage enough—to say, “I-I’m close,” as he approached the precipice. He expected Hux to pull off, but he didn’t. “I said—” he ground out. “I’m going to—” Hux dug the fingers of his free hand into Ben’s thigh and that was it; Ben climaxed with a barely stifled shout, his hand slapped over his mouth.

Hux pulled away a little later, once again getting quickly to his feet and dabbing at his mouth with a handkerchief. He had a glass of water, too, on his desk, which he drank in a few long gulps. Ben was dizzy and unable to move, his breath coming in shallow inhales as his heart slowed.

“For God’s sake,” Hux snapped, “put yourself back in order.”

Ben’s jaw dropped as he stared in incomprehension.

Hux’s face was red, but he was scowling as if repulsed. “Don’t make me do it for you.” He gave Ben’s still-bare cock a disdainful look.

Flushing, Ben hurriedly tucked himself away, snagging his zipper on his underwear. He had to jerk the tab back down to free the cotton before he could fasten it all back up again. Mostly composed, he blinked wordlessly at Hux, who stood haughtily with his hands hanging at his sides.

“This will be a simple arrangement,” Hux said, terse. “I’ll call you here from time to time. There will be no tomfoolery or outward indication that you come here for anything other than Greek tutorial or to perform tasks for me. Any objections?”

It all came so rapid-fire that Ben struggled to follow. He managed to say, “You want me to come here so we can— You can—”

“Yes. Is that a problem for you?”

Dumbly, Ben shook his head.

Hux clasped his hands behind his back. “Good. Then you won’t be making any more scenes at lunchtime.”

“It wasn’t a scene,” Ben said. “I just asked—”

“You drew undue attention to us,” said Hux sharply. “You’re never to do that again. If you wish to speak to me, you can find me here.” He flicked his fingers at the door. “You’re free to go.”

Ben, lost but without much choice but to obey, got to his feet. “But...why?” he asked.

“Is it necessary for you to know that for this arrangement to continue?” said Hux.

“Um, I guess not,” Ben said. 

“Then I’ve no more need of you this evening.”

Ben had nothing else to say, so he slunk back out into the corridor and heard the door close behind him. Glancing around to make sure there was no one else there, he flattened himself against the nearest wall and let out a long breath. What, he thought, the fuck?

 


 

The rigidity of Haverhill’s daily schedule was meant to give the boys structure and keep them attentive to their studies, but Ben found that he went through it robotically for the next week and a half. The only points during which he actually came out of his day-to-day sleepwalking were when he was expected to bring Hux tea and light his fire, or when he gathered up his books to report to the study for Greek tutorial. It wasn’t every morning and it wasn’t every night, but Ben was more conscious in those select times than he was during plodding geography lessons and while struggling to kick the soccer ball around the field.

The arrangement did turn out to be a simple one, just as Hux had told him: he appeared when he was summoned and did his chores or read his grammar, but then a good ten minutes before their allotted time was up, Hux would wordlessly guide him to wherever he wanted him to be—usually in his chair—and kneel between his legs. Ben learned to just sit back and let him work, but he never closed his eyes. He was spellbound by watching himself disappear into Hux’s ready mouth, how diligent Hux was about it.

Ben’s initial concern that Hux had done or was currently doing it for anyone else quickly dissipated as he watched the traffic—or lack thereof—through the study door. Hux barely permitted anyone into his private space, save for sometimes Mitaka and Thanisson and, of course, Ben. And unless he had a truly impressive appetite for sucking cock, he had to have gotten his fill with Ben’s in the following nine days.

Outside of these meetings, however, they didn’t speak to each other. Hux paid Ben no special mind and still sent the prefects with his messages rather than talking to him directly—but even those were sparse. Despite the sage advice of the chaplain on that first Monday, Ben didn’t ask questions. It wasn’t to say that he didn’t wonder daily why Hux had chosen him, but he said nothing about it. Admittedly, he didn’t really want to press and risk ruining the whole arrangement. Even if the reasons were unclear, he was getting something very pleasurable out of it.

Still, he couldn’t help but wonder about why Hux never so much as touched himself. He took care of Ben, drank his water, and then sent him out. Hux didn’t seem that self-sacrificing, and who would really want to be, anyway? And yet, he never even seemed to be affected. The more Ben tried to put it out of his thoughts, the more it cropped up. He found himself casting glances at Hux in the showers. As far as he could tell, there was nothing physically wrong with him that he’d want to hide; he wasn’t shy as he washed up.

It didn’t escape Ben’s notice that he was suddenly spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about Hux’s cock, and that stirred another slew of concerns, mainly surrounding Ben’s simmering interest in seeing another boy with his trousers down. He’d never been physically drawn to a boy, or really even a girl, but this stood out. In his shower surveillance, he had studied more of Hux’s features, his lanky body and his backside, the muscles concave on the sides. He concluded that he wasn’t necessarily bad-looking, but nothing about him stirred any particular desire. Ben didn’t want to just stare at him for the joy of looking, and yet he couldn’t stop imagining him finishing with Ben in the study and then undoing his own fly. Surely he had to touch himself sometime; why, then, couldn’t it be when Ben was there? Or, Ben had considered, why shouldn’t Ben be the one to touch him?

Ben was ruminating on that particular notion on Wednesday night, the first of October, while he waited for Mitaka to arrive for Latin tutorial. He hadn’t been to Hux’s study since Monday morning, and wasn’t necessarily expecting another summons before they studied Greek on Thursday evening. Ben was spinning his pencil idly between his fingers, trying to figure out how somebody asked someone else to get their cock out. He was coming up with very few options.

“Hello,” said Mitaka as he dropped down into the seat next to Ben’s at their usual table.

“Hi,” Ben replied.

Mitaka eyed him, noting the flatness of his tone. He was a keen one, Ben had discovered, and could read his moods well. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked outright.

Ben put his pencil down, prepared to lie, but stopped himself before he did. With careful consideration, he chose a different, somewhat dangerous falsehood: “I’ve heard a rumor about a couple of boys in, um, Raglan. They’re...together.”

“And what of it?” Mitaka said quietly.

“What does someone...expect when they get together like that?”

Wild fright crossed Mitaka’s face. He hissed, “Solo, that is not talked about.”

Ben raised a hand to calm him. “Okay, okay, sorry. It’s just...there’s got to be rules. There are rules for everything here.”

Mitaka shifted in his seat, chewing his lower lip as he clearly weighed how much to say. After a few moments, he whispered, “It’s nothing too heavy, I should think. There’s touching and maybe a stroke off, but nobody in their right mind goes further than that.”

“So,” Ben said, “nothing with mouths?”

“Christ, no,” Mitaka said, affronted. “That’s something a poof would do. That’s not...what would happen here.”

Ben kept his expression impassive, but inside his mind was churning. “Oh, okay,” he said, picking up his grammar, but then Mitaka spoke again.

“There have been real deviants in the past,” he murmured. “Boys who truly transgress upon another’s person.” His face was stark white, but he wanted to continue, even if he was pretending he didn’t. “Proper buggery.”

Ben clenched at the very mention. “You’re serious?” he asked.

Mitaka nodded shallowly. “There are stories, you know, of boys who were forced into it. But some went willingly, maybe even started it by agreement. Most of them go on to be MPs and barristers with wives and children, but you have to wonder about them, don’t you?”

“I guess so,” said Ben. “I mean, if they’ve got no girls here and they really want to, um…”

Mitaka’s shoulders trembled. “It’s one thing to stroke someone else off, but that? There’s no coming back from it.”

Ben spread his fingers wide on the table, looking down at them. “So, you think anyone who does that, or, uh, uses their mouth, is actually gay?”

“Is there any question?” Mitaka said, resolute. “Who would want to, unless you were?”

“Right,” Ben mumbled, still with his gaze trained on his hand. In his mind’s eye, he compared it to Hux’s: the fingers longer and thicker, the palm broader. Ben might have enclosed Hux’s entire fist in his own. He wondered then what his hand would look like wrapped about Hux’s cock—which he still had only to conjure up in his imagination. It wasn’t something he immediately rejected, which begged the question of whether he was, at least somewhat, homosexual.

And what did that make Hux, then?

Ben exhaled. This really wasn’t the time to think about it—not when he had Latin to study. He opened his notebook and Mitaka took his cue.

 


 

When Saturday arrived and the boys were given leave to go into the village, Ben realized his period of captivity was over. It was October and he was allowed to join them. He reminded Thanisson of this as he jogged up to the group as they were setting off along the lane, and, though huffy, Thanisson didn’t argue.

Hux led the pack of them, and Ben trailed near the back. It was a long walk, but it passed quickly enough as he listened to the others chatting about what kinds of sweets they would buy and whether they could sneak in a pack of cigarettes. Hux notably said nothing about that, which had Ben chuckling to himself. He was curious if Hux still snuck out at night for an illicit smoke. Maybe one of these nights he’d go back out the terrace and find out. Somehow he thought that he wouldn’t be punished for it—that Hux might like the surprise.

Ben spun a fantasy around that: of how he would slink into the moonlight and crowd Hux back against the wall to slip a hand under his overcoat. He would smell like smoke as Ben got close to him and grasped between his skinny thighs. Ben would make him stand there just like that, neither of them saying a word as he stroked him off. He liked to think that Hux would make a few small sounds, like Ben himself did when he climaxed. Maybe Ben would feel the warm spend on his hand and have to find Hux’s prim little handkerchief to wipe himself clean. He had to adjust himself surreptitiously as he walked down the road, catching sight of Hux’s bright head at the front of the group.

Tindon was remarkably busy as they entered the high street, with locals flitting between the shops and stopping to exchange pleasantries along the sidewalk. What caught Ben’s attention most was a gaggle of girls coming out of a corner store down the lane. They were all in uniform: blue and black plaid skirts with crisp white button-ups and navy blazers. Their hair styles ranged from long and feathered to straight and shaped to frame their faces. They were giggling and talking.

“Oh, Christ yes,” said one of the Arkanis boys with audible longing in his voice. “It’s the girls from St. Catherine’s. I was bloody praying we’d see them.”

The other agreed, and even Hux brightened. He made his way swiftly over to the gaggle of girls, who did turn to notice them. A tall blonde—she must have been Ben’s height at least—came to the fore, grinning like a hungry predator at Hux.

“Armitage bloody Hux,” she said, hands on her hips. “Fancy meeting you here.”

He replied crisply, “Phasma. What brings you and your ladies to the village today?”

“A scant taste of sweet freedom, same as you.” She cast a glance at the rest of the boys, seemingly unimpressed. “The rest of the school coming, too, or just you lot?” She landed a firm clap on the shoulder of a smaller girl to her left. “Asking for a friend.”

Hux sucked his teeth distastefully as he regarded the slender, brown-haired girl, who glared right back at him. “I don’t know that Oakeshott is coming,” he said to her. “You’ll just have to look out for your precious Dameron and Finn.”

Even if Hux’s tone was venomous, the girl’s face lit up at the mention of them. “I’ll keep a sharp eye out,” she said. “Good day.” Storming past him, a few girls followed in her wake.

Phasma stayed standing just in front of Hux. She was broader than him, with stunning waves of hair and cold blue eyes. “Don’t mind Rey,” she said. “Still can’t figure out why she hates you so much.”

Hux said, “She fancies those two knobs from Oakeshott; they turned her against me. You’re my only ally.”

“And you’ll do to remember it,” she laughed. “Come for a walk, then?” She produced a crumpled, mostly empty pack of cigarettes from her blazer, which she flashed sneakily before tucking it away again.

Hux grinned. “After you.”

Together, they strode off toward the pub, paces matched. The rest of the Arkanis boys stood by, eyeing the girls cautiously, before a couple of them stepped forward to say hello.

As they were getting acquainted, Ben leaned over to Mitaka, who was beside him. “Who was that with Hux?”

“Phasma,” Mitaka replied. “They hit it right off when we all first met in third form. She’s the head girl of her house.”

“Are they always here when we are?” Ben asked.

“No. It’s actually very rare they are. They’re kept under stricter lock and key than we are.”

Ben shook his head. “Jesus. What do they think they’re going to do if they let them out?”

Mitaka gave him a sidelong glance. “Smoke cigarettes with us, or get otherwise mixed up.”

“Do I want to know what that means?”

“It really shouldn’t be hard to guess, Solo.”

Ben took the opportunity to look the girls over and see if someone caught his attention. Most of them were fair enough looking, but definitely the most striking was Phasma. The girl Rey had been pretty, too, in a delicate way; Ben didn’t care for that, really. He wasn’t stirred into a frenzy by simply setting eyes on them, but that didn’t mean that some of the other boys weren’t. And the girls were quick to notice. A round-faced one with black hair came straight for Mitaka.

“Hello, Alice,” he said.

She winked. “Come on then, Doph, I’ve been wanting to see you.”

Ben, agog, watched her lead him away by the hand. Many of the others paired off, too, with some candies or illicit cigarettes exchanged between them. Soon enough, Ben was all but alone on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and not a clue what to do. A woman in a drab skirt and fading blouse pushed past him, two children on her heels. Ben stepped to the side, near a storefront, and collected himself. It shouldn’t have been any shock that he was left on his own, but it still stung. Idle, he meandered up the street, peeking into windows and gazing into the pub wishing for a beer.

Despite the fact that this was supposed to be liberty, he still felt confined and stifled. The little village was just an extension of the Haverhill prison, and he was marked by his uniform as though by jailbird stripes. At least in Massachusetts he would have been able to sneak off to the creek or swing at the park until he was sick. His footsteps were trudging as he went along, but after he had gotten a few too many scrutinizing looks—for what, he didn’t know—he ducked into a narrow alley and went to its end, where it turned a corner into a hidden niche by a metal waste bin. He froze there as he saw Hux and Phasma standing by, both of them puffing away at cigarettes.

“Hullo, what’s this?” said Phasma, spotting him, just as Hux said, “Fuck off, Solo.”

“Sorry,” Ben was quick to say. He backed away a pace.

“No, no,” Phasma called, raising her free hand. “Come here, Solo.” She glanced at Hux and, seeing him shaking his head and frowning, she gestured to Ben again.

Ben knew it was a bad idea and sure to antagonize Hux, but he was curious about her; he approached.

“Well, aren’t you a strapping specimen,” she said. “And you sound foreign.”

“It’s hardly exotic,” said Hux snappishly. “He’s from the Colonies.”

Phasma affected dramatic interest, laying a hand at her breast. “My, my, that is exciting. What brings you to England?”

“Just school,” said Ben.

She hummed. “A man of few words. I can admire that.” She pulled the pack of cigarettes from her pocket again. “Join us for a smoke?”

Ben had never tried cigarettes before, though he had smoked hash—but it had been a while. He considered turning her down, but the expectant look on her face spurred him on. He took a stick from the pack and, uncertainly, put it between his lips. Phasma struck a match and held it to the tip. Ben pulled on it, far too heavily. The smoke rushed into the back of his throat and down into his lungs. He nearly spat the cigarette out as he exploded into coughs. Laughter echoed around the alleyway.

“Give that to us, then,” Phasma said. She plucked the smoke from him and, stubbing out the butt of her other one, took a drag herself. Artfully, she blew smoke through her nose. “First time?” she asked.

Ben couldn’t do anything but nod.

“You’d get used to it, but somehow I don’t see you as the type.” To Hux: “Do you, Armitage?”

Hux was sullenly pulling at his own cigarette, clearly discontented with Ben’s presence. “No,” he said, curt.

Ben bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Phasma laughed again. “Oh, this one’s got teeth. Fantastic!” This time both Ben and Hux turned glowering looks on her. She only seemed more pleased than before. “Someone needs to give Hux lip occasionally, otherwise he gets right full of himself—marching around and drilling his cadets and ordering boys to wash his briefs.”

“Cadets?” Ben asked before Hux could blow up at Phasma for her insinuations. “Is that what you do on Saturday mornings?”

Hux exhaled a cloud of smoke. “The Combined Cadet Force, yes.”

“What is it?”

It was Phasma who replied: “A bunch of stuffy military types practicing for when they go to Sandhurst or some other officer’s stamping plant. Armitage is following in Daddy Hux’s footsteps and—”

“Phasma, do shut up,” Hux interjected.

She shoved his shoulder. “Oh, yes, I forgot you don’t tell anyone a thing about you. Code of silence and all that.” She drew on her cigarette again. “It’s a waste of time if you ask me. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, even if you do come from Ire—”

Phasma.”

She sighed. “Oh, very well.”

Ben studied Hux for a few seconds. His discomfort had grown visible. He was tapping his foot and curling his fist at his side. Ben had never seen him so edgy. He had also never wanted to hear more about him than he did just then.

“So, Solo,” Phasma said, changing the subject, “how do you find our beloved country? Feeling at home?”

“Not really.”

She bared her teeth in a macabre grin. “I’d imagine Haverhill isn’t the most welcoming place. And under Hux here, things are rather...stern.”

Hux didn’t chide her, but he was scowling so deeply his mouth was pursed.

“It’s fine,” Ben said.

Phasma shook her white-blond head. “You’re not a very good liar, are you?”

“He’s not,” said Hux.

Ben snarled, “I’ve never lied to you.”

There was a beat, heavy and anticipatory.

“I actually believe that,” Hux told him. He dropped his cigarette butt to the ground; it hit a puddle and hissed. “You’re not canny enough to fool me.”

Anger Ben hadn’t felt toward him in a week lit in his belly. “I’m not trying to. I’m not a liar. You’re the one hiding things.”

Hux raised his chin defensively. “Choosing to keep my personal life to myself is not lying.”

Ben scoffed. “Call it what you want.”

Phasma was looking between them attentively, studying.

Ben turned to her, letting his temper get the better of him. “What? ” he demanded.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” she said, waving him off, her cigarette making wavering trails of smoke in the air. “You two just have your little tiff. It’s rather refreshing to see someone who’s not afraid of Armitage’s wrath. And”—she elbowed Hux—“to see him permit it.”

Hux’s expression darkened. To Ben: “You’re on the cusp of getting yourself into trouble, Solo. I’d mind your behavior.”

“I’m not scared of you,” Ben said. He took a confrontational step toward him, emphasizing his height and breadth. Hux stood his ground.

“All right, all right,” said Phasma. “Down, boys. You’re spoiling a nice day out. Sorry I got your dander up, Solo.”

Ben backed down, if only slightly. “It’s not you,” he grumbled.

Hux rolled his eyes, which only sparked Ben’s enmity more. “Why don’t you just leave?” he said. “Go bother someone else.”

“I dare you to say that next time you call me to your study,” said Ben.

Hux actually blanched. “Shut your mouth and leave. I won’t tell you again.”

“Whatever,” Ben snapped. “Screw this.” He almost turned away, but then added: “Nice to meet you, Phasma.”

She grinned. “I like you, Solo. You have a good day.”

Ben left them there, rounding the corner impatiently and striding back out onto the street. He was supposed to wait for the rest of the group before going back, so he couldn’t leave, but he went unabashed into the pub. The few patrons inside glanced up at his sudden appearance at the threshold. He stormed up to the bar and produced what pocket change he had been allowed to bring. “Beer,” he said, sliding the coins toward the barman.

“Can’t be serving schoolboys,” the man said. “Unless you’re one of them ‘at’s eighteen.”

“I am,” Ben said.

The barman looked him up and down, but then picked up a pint glass. “I’ll buy it today, lad. You look like you could use the drink.” He presented Ben with a dark brown beer that had a thick, yeasty taste. Ben drank it greedily.

Taking a seat at the bar, he stopped with half the glass left and nearly let his head hit the varnished wood. Hux was infuriating and incomprehensible. One day he was sucking Ben’s cock like he was dying for it and the next he was being a complete bastard to him. It made Ben’s teeth itch to think about him right now, and yet the way the cigarette had rested so easily and practiced between his lips had Ben imagining the same lips around him.

How was it possible to be furious at someone, and at the same time want to get him alone and touch his hidden places until he was incoherent? Ben wondered if he could ever do that to him. It would be just like Hux to stay perfectly composed even as he climaxed. It would be the last straw, Ben was sure; he couldn’t tolerate him if he was totally unaffected. The only way was to try, and Ben resolved that the next time Hux summoned him, he’d make his move.

 


 

Dinner was tough chicken and boiled potatoes, both barely worth eating. Ben gave up when he had to stop to pull a hunk of gristle from his mouth with a grimace. Pushing his plate away, he drank down the rest of the water in his glass and leaned his arms on the table to wait until he could leave at the end of the mealtime. The other boys seemed equally uninterested in their food, some skipping it entirely.

Ben had watched a few of the younger, fuller-cheeked pupils’ faces narrow over the course of the term so far. Their color was less vibrant to match. The older boys seemed more accustomed to the annual weight loss, but the smaller ones were almost tearful as they picked at their less-than-appetizing fare. It had to be some kind of abuse, Ben thought. The administrators had to see that ribs were becoming more prominent and knees knobbier. But no one mentioned it, and the food didn’t improve. Ben longed for the crispy bacon and toast at Luke’s lodge, and sometimes went to bed with his stomach grumbling for it even in his dreams.

The sour mood the encounter with Hux and Phasma had put him in faded some over the course of the evening, but as he glanced down the table to see Hux dutifully chewing his chicken, he felt the pique flaring up. He kept his gaze turned down to avoid it—at least until Mitaka appeared beside him after they were excused from the table.

“Hux wants you,” Mitaka said flatly.

Ben’s mind jumped to the most lurid interpretation of the words, but he replied, “Does he? Great.”

“Straight away,” Mitaka insisted.

From where Ben was sitting, Hux was nowhere to be found. How he had slipped away unnoticed was actually impressive. “Does he want tea?” At Mitaka’s nod, he sighed. “Of course he does. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

The kitchen staff was busy tidying up, but the familiar cook—Ben had learned her name was Elise—saw him and grinned. “Help yourself to what you need. Just keep out from underfoot.”

Ben sullenly stood by as water boiled, having put together the tea service without having to think. When the kettle was finally whistling, he filled the teapot, put the top on, and picked the whole affair up to carry it to Arkanis House.

He gave only a cursory rap to Hux’s study door before he entered, going straight to the desk to set the tea service down. Hux was at the fireside, apparently having kindled it himself. For once, he was in his shirtsleeves, his blazer folded over the back of his desk chair. Against the firelight, his white shirt was translucent, rendering the long lines of his arms dark shadows under it. It was tucked neatly into his trousers, cut to suit his narrow torso. Ben knew what he looked like without it, but was curious to actually look rather than sneak glances in the showers. However, before he thought too much on it, he had something to ask.

“Why were you such a prick to me today?” he demanded.

Hux came slowly around to face him, now backlit by the fire; his hair was so bright that the tips seemed like they were burning.

Ben pressed on: “You’ve been okay for almost two weeks, since we...you know...and now all of a sudden I’m your whipping boy again?”

“Do you even know what the concept of a whipping boy was?” Hux asked.

“It’s someone you take your anger out on,” Ben replied.

Hux shook his head. “No. A whipping boy is a stand-in for a noble child: the one who takes the beating instead of the little prince or duke. By that definition, you’re not my whipping boy in the least.”

Ben, exasperated by his know-it-all tone, said, “You know what I mean. You wanted Phasma to think I was...nothing. Just the stupid American kid who you aren’t on your knees for every other day.”

“Watch your tone, Solo,” Hux warned. “Our arrangement is not something I would share with Phasma or anyone else. You came altogether too close to revealing it. I had to check you.”

“By being a complete asshole?” Ben snarled.

Hux raised one shoulder and let it fall again. “Certain things are expected of me.”

Ben made a disgusted noise. “And acting like a real dick is one of them, I guess.” He took a step forward, narrowing his eyes. “I’m not just going to let you boss me around and do whatever you want with me.”

“Are you saying you want our arrangement to end?” asked Hux.

“No,” Ben said, “but—”

Hux came to him directly, hands going to his shoulders to steer him toward the desk chair, his intent clear enough. Ben brought his own hands up and grasped Hux by the wrists. “Wait,” he said.

Hux froze, expression turning immediately wary. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Ben said again, “but…” He searched for the words. Under his fingers, Hux’s wrists were narrow and bony, his skin soft. Ben could only imagine how the rest of him would feel. He continued: “Can we...touch each other this time?”

There was a stagnant pause, over which they just watched each other.

Ben tried to push on: “It’s just that you never, uh, touch yourself, and I thought maybe I could...you know, for you. If you’d want that.”

Hux’s pink tongue darted out to wet his lower lip. “That wasn’t part of the arrangement.”

“I know,” Ben said, “but we could figure out a new one.” Even if apprehensive, he released one of Hux’s wrists and lowered his hand to Hux’s groin. He cupped him there. Hux stood still, but didn’t object, either. “You make me feel really good,” Ben said quietly. “I thought I could do that for you, too.”

The cords in Hux’s neck stood out as he swallowed, but then: “Yes, all right.”

Cool relief and a rush of excitement swept through Ben simultaneously, and under his hand he felt Hux’s cock twitch. Taking that for approval, he began to rub him gently.

Hux let out a slow breath through his nose and, with his hands still by Ben’s shoulders, he moved them to the edges of his blazer. “Take this off,” he said.

Ben had to let go of him to shuck the jacket, which he tossed onto the nearest chair, on top of Hux’s discarded one. Hux began to pull his shirt out from the waistband of his trousers. Ben followed suit in a hurry, but when he started to unbutton his shirt, Hux held up a hand. Ben cocked his head to the side, questioning, but got no explanation. Hux just moved to untie his shoes.

Despite having dressed and undressed in the same room for over a month, they were both tentative as they set their shoes to the side and began to undo their belts. Ben hadn’t known what to expect, but Hux wasn’t as domineering now as he usually was—or had been just a few minutes before. In fact, he was almost bashful in lowering his underwear and stepping out of them, his socks still on. However, if Ben had thought that he wasn’t interested in this, those anxieties were put to bed as he saw Hux’s upright cock standing out from a thin patch of red hair. He wasn’t as big as Ben was, but was clean and neat and perfectly straight. Ben found he very much wanted to touch him. Hux followed his gaze, and Ben asked, “Can I?”

Hux took a step closer to him, invitation enough. Ben curled his fingers around him, and found him warm and silken. His foreskin moved over the hardness beneath, even if Ben just shifted his grip slightly. Hux’s breath stuttered.

“Okay?” Ben said.

“Yes, go on.”

He did, gently stroking the full length from base to tip, where a small bead of moisture broke under his thumb. It was strange to hold someone else’s cock after only ever holding his own, but he figured it wasn’t that much different, and he moved up and down as he would on himself. Hux pushed his hips forward and Ben almost grinned; he liked it.

“Do we do this standing up?” Ben asked.

Hux’s eyes were glassy, but he perked up some at that. “We don’t have to. We’ve the rug. Come on.” He guided Ben’s fingers from him and sank down onto the floor in front of the fireplace.

The rug was threadbare and abraded Ben’s skin, but Ben didn’t mind too much. He followed Hux’s lead to lie reclined on his side, facing each other with only five or six inches between them. Ben nearly jumped when his cock brushed Hux’s. It clearly affected Hux, too, whose lips parted. Ben wasted no time in taking hold of him again, resuming his steady strokes. Hux slipped his arm under Ben’s to take Ben’s cock. It was maybe a little awkward, but they managed to find a rhythm to share.

Unlike Ben, Hux closed his eyes, but his breathing sped up, and when he first gave a soft groan, Ben answered it, deeper. Hux lifted his gaze, saying, “That’s good?”

Ben nodded fervently. “You?”

“Yes.”

The chill of the little room faded as they continued to stroke each other. Ben was craving more, faster, so he sped his pace on Hux’s cock. Hux got the message and matched him. They gradually moved closer, until their foreheads were nearly touching. Ben watched their hands flying over each other, and his blood burned. Having Hux suck him was good, but feeling Hux’s thighs tremble and hearing his hushed noises of pleasure eclipsed it tenfold.

“Don’t stop,” Hux murmured a few minutes in. “I’m close.”

Ben wasn’t there yet, but Hux had presumably been taking better, more regular care of him than of himself—it was fine that he was getting off sooner. And Ben couldn’t deny that he really wanted to see it, and to be the one who made him do that. The imperious, collected Hux was reduced to breathy whispers by Ben’s hands alone; it was satisfying in ways Ben hadn’t even fathomed.

Hux extended his legs long, drawing in great, shuddering lungfuls of air. “Oh, God,” he groaned as his body jerked and hot spend spilled over Ben’s fingers.

Ben was rapt and uncaring that Hux’s hand on him had stilled. He gave Hux’s cock a last few tender strokes before stopping to let him recover. Hux lay there with eyes closed and chest heaving under his shirt. His hair was mussed from the friction against the rug; he looked nothing like his usual self. Ben could have stayed there just appreciating that, but Hux cracked his eyes after a time and his hand on Ben moved again.

Unaffected by the mess, Ben let go of him and dropped his fingers to the rug, training his thoughts solely on Hux’s touch. He jerked Ben quickly and unrelentingly. Ben watched, but he also remembered seeing Hux spill himself, and that put him over the edge. He shot over Hux’s arm and onto the rug.

As he came down from the high of it, he realized that Hux wasn’t making his usual escape; he was still on his side, both of them panting. Ben blinked at him and Hux looked back, the color in his cheeks high. After the passing space of a heartbeat, a smile touched his lips. Ben returned it.

“Let’s get cleaned up,” Hux said. “Who knows who might walk in.”

Ben had never been quite so aware that the door didn’t have a lock, nor quite so uncaring about it. He was sated and pleasure-drunk, preferring to keep lying down. Unfortunately, though, he had to drag himself up and wipe the spend from himself and from the rug—as best he could, anyway. He dressed in no particular hurry, stooping to tie his shoes while Hux went to the desk and poured himself a cup a tea. It was, somehow, still steaming.

“Have a cup of this?” he asked.

Ben rose, brows high. “You only have one cup.”

Hux shrugged and held it out to him. “We can share.”

The offer was so unexpected that Ben couldn’t refuse. He took the cup and drank, careful not to burn his tongue. “It’s not that bad with milk in it,” he said. “Not as bitter.”

“A good tea would be fine plain,” said Hux, “but this is swill. Matches the rest of the food at this place: bland, colorless, generally unpalatable.”

“Then why do you drink it?” Ben asked.

“Custom. Comfort. Either or both.” He took a sip. “You don’t generally take it at meals.”

“No. It’s not American custom or comfort. I’d rather have hot chocolate.”

“Best of luck finding that here,” Hux scoffed. “Might be you could get some in the village, but even then it’s unlikely.”

Ben sighed and opened his hand for the teacup again. “I’ll survive.”

Hux gave a snort. “Don’t we all.” He leaned back against the desk, unusually nonchalant. “Is this something you’re going to want to do more often?”

“I guess so,” Ben replied. “I mean, it looked like you liked it.”

A ruddy eyebrow rose. “And did you?”

Ben asked, “Isn’t it pretty obvious?”

“Sometimes it’s best to have verbal confirmation,” Hux said.

“Then, yeah. I liked it.”

“Good. Then we’ll do it again.” Hux refreshed the tea, adding a splash of milk.

Ben let a silence grow between them, inwardly enjoying the fact that he had won this round of whatever backwards game they were playing. He’d gotten to touch Hux, and he’d thoroughly enjoyed it; he wanted to do it more. What that meant about his preferences, he didn’t really wanted to contemplate right now and spoil the moment.

“Phasma was impressed by you,” Hux said, drawing Ben’s attention again. “As she said, it’s rare anyone talks back to me. She said you have gumption.”

Ben huffed. “Yeah, well, you’ve pretty much figured out how to get me to go along with you by this point.”

Hux actually chuckled. “It’s not a very difficult conclusion to come to. What boy of eighteen can’t be led about by his prick?”

“You saying that’s you, too?” Ben asked.

Hux raised his teacup. “I’ve cultivated control over the years, but I’m not impervious...as was just made evident.” Ben ventured a self-satisfied smile, and Hux wrinkled his nose. “Don’t look so pleased with yourself. It’s not as if stroking someone off takes some tremendous skill.”

“You weren’t complaining,” said Ben.

Hux drew in a breath. “No, I wasn’t.” He finished his cup of tea and set it down on the tray. “Had you done it before?”

Ben tensed, but didn’t lie: “No.”

“Not even with a girl?”

Another shake of Ben’s head.

“Interesting.” He gave Ben a deliberate once-over.

Ben wet his lips, hesitating just slightly. But then: “Why me?”

Hux regarded him impassively. “Why not?” he asked.

Ben’s brow knit. That was far from the clear answer he had been hoping for. Made sense that Hux wouldn’t be straight with him, though. He said, “Fine. Whatever. Am I supposed to go now?”

“You can,” said Hux, “if you want to. I won’t keep you here if you don’t want to stay.”

That gave Ben pause. “Are you inviting me to stay?”

“I suppose I am.”

Ben was tempted; he wouldn’t have minded trying to talk to him more, maybe try to pick his brain and actually understand him—if that was even possible. But he also had the upper hand after what they’d done, and he didn’t want to lose it.

“Not tonight,” he said. Grabbing his blazer from the chair, he shrugged it on. “I figure you can take care of your own tray. See you tomorrow, Hux.”

A surprisingly meek, “Goodnight, Solo,” followed him out.

Chapter Text

Arkanis House still proudly held the school record for wins in games, and rugby on Tuesday was looking to be yet another victory. Upper and lower sixth were playing Oakeshott and they were up by ten points. Unfortunately, Ben wasn’t much help in either scoring or blocking the advance of the opposing team up the field. He was playing defense, but usually ended at the bottom of a dog pile or ignored at the side. He was watching the best of the action play out when the ball moved toward him, pushing him into motion. Before he could get even ten steps, though, Finn came flying from his left and took him mercilessly to the ground. Ben’s back and head slammed against the grass, making him dizzy.

“Sorry, mate,” said Finn as he got to his feet and held out a hand to help Ben up.

“It’s fine,” Ben grumbled, dusting bits of grass off his games uniform.

Finn clapped him on the back and jogged back to his position to start the next play—or whatever it was called; Ben wasn’t very good at keeping the terminology straight. He dragged himself back into his place, steeling for another hard and no doubt humiliating tackle.

Across the field, Hux was leaning his hands on his thighs, bent over and ready to jump into play. He was as lethal as ever, cleverly avoiding getting hit while brutally taking other players out as a winger. Skinny though he may have been, he was an impressive athlete—far more so than Ben, who was nigh on useless despite his size.

They had met in Hux’s study on Monday in the short free hour Ben had after Latin tutorial. Hux had wasted no time in getting Ben’s trousers down and his hand around him, barely leaving Ben the space to touch him as well. Since their agreement on Saturday that they would be more attentive to each other than Hux just sucking Ben’s cock, tugging one other off seemed to be on its way to becoming the norm. Ben didn’t mind at all, even if he really enjoyed Hux’s mouth. He’d thought a little about turning about and trying his hand—so to speak—at it, but hadn’t mentioned it. Hux liked routine and they were just getting used to this new one.

Outside of the little oasis the study provided, Hux remained cool and detached—nothing out of the ordinary. It didn’t escape the other boys’ notice that Ben was often at Hux’s beck and call, but Ben only caught snippets of their gossip; they were quick to still their wagging tongues as soon as he came into the common room or dormitory. Eyes followed him when he made his way to the study some nights or mornings, however; he didn’t miss that.

When Hux wasn’t in his study during prep periods, however, he had taken to supervising the younger boys in their studies. Silence was enforced and any whisperers were hastily chastised. Hux wasn’t a master by any means, and as far as anyone knew, he had no aspirations to be one, but he played at it during those periods, frightening the boys into studiousness. A few dared raise their hands to ask him questions, which he did, admittedly, answer with some measure of understanding. Still, it took courage to speak to him directly when one was a lowly third-former.

On the field, the next play started and Ben had to focus on the game, but at least they were almost finished. He had to suffer through another ten or so minutes and then they’d be free to shower and go to dinner. Ben managed to dodge an oncoming Oakeshott boy from his right, but then there was Finn again and Ben was on the ground before he could dance out of the way. He cursed and Finn apologized.

Sweet relief came at half past five, when the whistle was blown and Arkanis were declared the winners. The Oakeshott boys were clearly disappointed, but when they were all made to shake hands and thank each other for a good game, Ben got a smile from Dameron.

“Not a bad effort there, Solo,” he said. “At least we went down fighting.”

“Uh-huh,” said Ben, lost for anything else to say.

“Hey,” Dameron continued, “Finn and I and a few others lads from Raglan have a regular game of gin rummy at the weekends. We need another man, if you’re interested.”

Ben still knew nothing about cards, but it couldn’t be that hard. And it was something to fill a quiet weekend day when they weren’t allowed to go to Tindon and he was done with his work in the library and his prep. “Um, sure,” he said. “That’d be good.”

Dameron beamed. “Great! Saturday around four is the time. We play in the dining hall. See you then!”

He trotted off to join the rest of his house, Ben watching him go. From the corner of his eye, he caught Hux glaring at him. He wouldn’t like Ben spending time with the boys from other houses, but to hell with him. It wasn’t expressly against the rules and Ben didn’t want to be trapped in Arkanis at all times. It wasn’t as if Hux was spectacular company outside of his study. Ben turned away, disregarding him and looking forward to a shower and clean clothes.

Steady misting rains over the past few days had made the path back to the house slippery and the ground soft. Ben’s feet sank into the grass, leaving his steps heavy in already wet shoes. He kept to the center of the group of sixth-formers, listening only in passing to their clipped conversations. Despite the good outcome of the game, most of them weren’t keen on the unfortunate weather. It was getting colder, too, which had them all wishing they were inside—at least that’s what Ben heard. He felt it himself, as well.

In the haven of the bathroom, he stripped out of his games uniform and tossed it into the laundry bound for washing. He had more than enough spare shirts and trousers to suit him for the rest of the week; Luke had made sure of that when they had purchased all of Ben’s clothes and supplies for the beginning of term. And the set he had just worn were so grungy with grass stains and errant streaks of mud that he had no desire to wear them again before they were clean.

Bare, he went straight for the showers, shying away when the first sputter of water was icy cold. It took a minute or two before the temperature became bearable, even if not as hot as he would have liked. Comfort wasn’t something anyone at Haverhill enjoyed.

The others came in to wash up, too, and Ben’s gaze was drawn, albeit against his better judgment, to where Hux stood under a shower head. His hair lay flat and drenched, nearly hanging into his eyes, which were closed against the harsh spray of water. All of the boys saw little enough sunshine to be stark white, but Hux’s skin had a pink tint to it—not a flush, but just a healthy coloring that underlay the paleness. He looked “fit,” as the English said, from exercise, and Ben had to appreciate it.

He wasn’t sure when he had started to find Hux attractive, but quite suddenly he realized that he did—far more than when he had initially laid eyes on him. Ben liked the leanness of his body, and his soft jaw. The cheekbones that were starting to stand out as his face lost its childhood fullness gave him distinguishment that suited his haughty temper. His lower lip was fuller than the upper, which curved into a delicate Cupid’s bow. Ben paused to imagine what it might be like to kiss him. He reckoned that Hux wouldn’t allow it—it was too familiar for their matter-of-fact arrangement—but the passing thought caught his interest more than he would have expected.

When Ben had seen him in the common room that first day of term, he’d been nothing special at all—just another boy. Now, however, after Ben had looked at all of him and touched his hidden places, he had a decided appeal. Ben bit down on his own lower lip, concerned. It made sense enough for him to be drawn to the person he was regularly fooling around with, but something fundamental shifted when it became clear that Hux wasn’t just a convenient body: he was one Ben actually admired.

Ben couldn’t deny that it gave Hux a certain power over him, which he wasn’t overly happy to cede. Hux already had the most influence in Arkanis House and was leading them in whatever they had, but Ben didn’t want to be beholden to him in any other way. Genuine attraction was dangerous; they needed to keep up the illusion that there was nothing between them but Hux’s fagging, and that was unusual enough to draw undue attention. They didn’t need Ben’s lingering, admiring looks—not unlike the one he was giving Hux now. Abashed, Ben averted his eyes.

The boys were quick to dress after their showers, Ben combing his hair, which he didn’t wash after games, and shrugging his blazer on. He made sure to do up his tie properly, even if it choked him while he tried to eat. A tingling awareness raised the hairs at the back of his neck as he stood in front of the mirror. He turned his gaze up to see Hux standing a few paces behind him, blatantly watching.

Ben’s fingers stilled at his collar and he met Hux’s gaze in the reflection. They stayed just so for a few tense seconds, Hux’s expression unreadable, until Hux looked away to hurry the boys along to the dining hall. Ben lingered at the mirror for a moment longer, his eyes still on the space Hux had vacated, before he joined the others on their way out.

 


 

Master Krennic’s English lessons had gotten no more pleasant over the course of the past few weeks, and Ben still suffered through them, reading poetry brokenly and attempting to offer thoughtful comments about the symbolism or themes or whatever other bullshit he could make up to pretend he understood what they were studying. They had moved from Donne to Petrarch, an Italian whose sonnets, even in translation, were painfully archaic. Hux, of course, made the lines sound smooth with his steady cadence, but even some of the other equally well-schooled boys butchered them.

As one of them brought his reading to a close, Krennic gave him a drooping, disappointed look and told him to sit down. “Well,” said Krennic, “that was less than stirring, Rembis. And the rest of you. It’s as if you don’t appreciate any of this. Petrarch is masterful.” He shook his head, snapping his book of verse closed and walking the length of the blackboard. “I think what you need is a more nuanced appreciation of him. Perhaps it’s time you were all assigned a poem to deliver aloud in a lesson.”

The groans of dismay weren’t audible, but Ben could sense them being suppressed. He, too, felt a crush of apprehension. They would have to memorize a whole poem and recite it at the front of the room, if rumors were to be believed. Reading from the book at his desk was painful enough; being at the center of everything would be torture.

“I’ll allow you five minutes to look through the book and choose a poem,” Krennic continued, “but if you don’t pick one, I’ll give you one. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” was the chorused reply, followed by the fluttering of pages as the boys began to thumb through their texts.

Ben, uncertain, flipped to the table of contents. Most of the poems didn’t have titles—only Sonnet No. 101 or the like. That was the first one he saw, anyway, and for lack of a better option, he opened to the appropriate page and began to read:

 

Ways apt and new to sing of love I'd find,
Forcing from her hard heart full many a sigh,
And re-enkindle in her frozen mind,
Desires a thousand, passionate and high

 

Ben found little of the beauty and sophistication Krennic was always telling them to see in the poems, but those four lines were simple and clear: it was plea to make a cold, unaffected lover burn for you. The language wasn’t as complicated as some of the other verses they’d had to read, and Ben counted himself lucky in that. He would use this poem, as long as nobody laid claim to it before him. Tapping the page, he decided he might as well ensure that didn’t happen.

“Master Krennic, sir,” he said, raising his hand.

Krennic turned from where he had been standing with his fingers tented on the desktop and measured Ben with his cool gaze. “What is it, Solo?”

Ben lifted his book up, pointing to the poem’s page. “I’d like to choose Sonnet No. 101, sir.”

Krennic’s graying brows rose in some measure of surprise. “That was expeditious. Have one you already favored?”

Ben bit his tongue on the “No” that came immediately to it and fed him a falsehood instead: “Yes, I like it, sir.”

Krennic began with his verbal tic: “Well, I didn’t expect that from you, Solo, but if you’d prefer to have that sonnet, you’re welcome to it.” Going to the blackboard, he drew a line from top to bottom, making a neat box with the outside edge. In it he wrote Ben’s surname and S. 101. “There you have it. And you’ll also have the pleasure of going first on Monday when we’ll do our recitations.”

“We only have until Monday?” Ben asked, his throat tightening with a resurgent anxiety. “It’s Thursday, sir.”

“And Sonnet No. 101 is fourteen lines long,” Krennic replied. “You should be able to manage that in four days.” A sniff. “Even you.”

Ben forced himself to swallow the sour taste of anger at the dismissiveness and said, “Yes, sir.”

Krennic tapped his stick of chalk against the blackboard. “All right, the rest of you have had enough time. Give me your choices. Rembis, if you will…”

They gave their poems either by title or number, and Krennic recorded them all in the box under Ben’s. He came last to Hux, who, instead of offering his poem’s title aloud, rose from his seat and went to Krennic to show him the book in his hands. They exchanged a percipient smile and Krennic placed a question mark after Hux’s name on the blackboard. It earned Hux a number of morose glances from the other boys, who were always suspicious of secrets, but he was unflappable and sat up perfectly straight in his seat as if the looks meant nothing to him at all.

No doubt his recitation would be flawless, no matter the poem he picked. For all Ben knew, he’d memorize the whole thing in the original Italian just to show off. He didn’t think Hux spoke Italian, but neither did he and he wouldn’t have been able to tell if Hux was doing it correctly. It was their English lesson, however, so it was certain he would have to use the translation in the book. Still, he’d probably give the best reading and earn the highest marks, as usual. Ben would pass—since he could read and speak, even if not as well as Hux—but it wouldn’t be with colors flying.

“Well,” said Krennic again, “if we’ve all made our selections, then you have your assignments. Tomorrow we’ll be discussing Canterbury Tales, so have your texts and notebooks at the ready.” He lay his chalk down and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the dust from his hands. A glance at his watch. “You’re dismissed seven minutes early.”

Directly, the ten of them were on their feet, shoving detested volumes of poems and notebooks full of scribbles into their desks; they were the only things keeping them from their lunch. Ben moved more slowly, keeping close watch on the three boys—Blakely, Rembis, and Poole—who went out of their way to push him around. Lately, they’d been more absent, brushing past Ben with only a warning bump of the shoulder to knock his books out of his hands rather than outright cornering him. He couldn’t explain their sudden withdrawal, but noticed that they weren’t jumping to bully him any longer.

Now, they eyed him with deep frowns creasing their foreheads, but they said nothing at all to him as they filed one after another out of the classroom. Ben stood by his desk, watching them go. He was left in the room with Mitaka, who had gone up to Krennic to ask him a question about their reading. Ben heard their quiet exchange as he lingered, heading toward the door only when Mitaka excused himself and went in the same direction. Ben caught him just beyond the threshold.

“Hey,” he said, shouldering Mitaka toward the wall. The little prefect appeared startled even as he went along with it. When they were backed into a corner by the pier of an arch above them, Ben asked, “Why have Poole and Blakely and that asshole Rembis been leaving off of me for the past couple of weeks? They use to mess with me every day, but not anymore. I didn’t do anything to them.”

“You didn’t have to,” said Mitaka meekly, and somewhat resigned, as if he regretted saying it.

“What do you mean?” Ben pressed.

Mitaka let out a long sigh, fidgeting with his hands at his sides. “You didn’t have to do anything to them because Hux did. He told them to stop bothering you.”

Ben’s mouth did, in fact, drop open. Mitaka registered his shock and actually gave a huffed, disparaging laugh.

“You can’t really be that stunned, Solo,” he said. “He’s been plain in singling you out as his fag, even if you’re too old, and now he’s the only one who can make your life miserable.” Mitaka stopped, peering up into Ben’s face. “Are you?”

“Am I what?” Ben said.

“Miserable,” Mitaka replied.

Three weeks ago the answer would have been easy to give: yes; he hated it at Haverhill. But things had shifted since mid-September; Hux had shifted them, and not necessarily, as Ben had expected, for the worse. The classes were still difficult—save for maths—the beds uncomfortable, the food terrible, the games periods worse, and yet he hadn’t thought wistfully of Alderaan at all recently. If he was there, he would be skipping school and drinking lukewarm beer behind the school building, or working some menial job, if his mother had allowed him to drop out like he had wanted to.

Haverhill wasn’t the ideal counterpoint to that outlook; Ben was still isolated here, mostly friendless save for forced Latin tutorials and perfunctory oral sex and a card game with Dameron and Finn on the weekend, but he wasn’t as alone as he had been in Massachusetts. He was busy, too, rather than listless and wasting his days with other boys who’d dropped out and hadn’t yet gone to work. A boarding school was supposed to give him structure and purpose, and he supposed it actually did, in a way he was coming to resent less and less. What he told Mitaka then was the truth:

“No.”

Mitaka’s astonishment seemed sincere, but as Ben watched his expression, a kind of dubious awareness kept into the downturn of his mouth, the wrinkling of his forehead. He looked like some errant threads of knowledge had just knit themselves together in his mind, giving him a better understanding. “You don’t hate him,” Mitaka said.

Ben didn’t have to ask who. “Hux and his chores are a pain,” he said, “and sometimes he makes me so mad I could hit him. Like in Tindon…” He trailed off, waving his hand. “Never mind. But I guess he’s not completely insufferable.”

The reply was hissed: “You’re joking.”

It was Ben’s turn to reel back. “You don’t like him? But you’re a prefect and he’s—”

“Head boy, yes,” said Mitaka. “That means I have to keep Arkanis House in order and defer to him, not like him. He’s not the kind of person you like, Solo.”

Ben blinked down at Mitaka, almost uncomprehending. He had assumed that they got along because Hux had appointed him and Thanisson as prefects. Apparently he had been wrong.

Mitaka raised a hand to his face, rubbing across his cheeks. “Look, I have a great deal of respect for Hux because he’s good at what he does. He’s fairly clever, too, and will make a frightening army officer one day, but I don’t enjoy being around him any more than I have to. One misstep and you’ll lose standing with him, and thereby with Snoke. You can’t just be around him; you always have to behave appropriately.” He lowered his hand, nearly brushing the back against Ben’s open blazer, so close were they standing in their secret conference. “Everyone except you toes the line, and I cannot fathom why in God’s name you don’t.”

He paused only for a second before continuing stridently: “Do you enjoy getting out of bed before it’s even bloody light outside to kindle a fire? Is there some kind of American satisfaction in bringing a boy your own age a cup of tea like you’re his manservant?” He was red in the face and speaking quick and too loud. Ben wanted to calm him, but couldn’t get a word in to tell him to be quiet. “I shouldn’t fault you because you’re doing it instead of me or any of the younger boys, but you shouldn’t have to do it. It’s unusual and everyone in the school knows.” He paused to take a breath through his mouth, sucking in much-needed air.

Ben was gaping at him; he had never heard him say anything that wasn’t in a perfectly calm and collected tone. The novelty of it all was tempered significantly, though, by the fact that apparently not only the Arkanis boys knew Hux was keeping Ben as a fag, but everyone at Haverhill. The expected shame arrived, Ben embarrassed to be so openly used, and yet the usual indignation that came with Hux’s demands wasn’t as heated. Ben was, after all, getting something in exchange.

That was an aspect of his life here he could not explain—not to Mitaka or to anyone else. Instead, he said, “It’s weird, I know, and I don’t actually like doing that stuff for him, but you said before that if I do it, it’s good for everyone in the house. Keeps Hux happy, right?”

Mitaka made a face. “You’re not a bad sort, Solo, but you’re not that altruistic.”

Ben felt the flush rising up his neck. “He’s helping me with Greek,” he said, fumbling. “I’d fail without him.”

“He’s not doing that out of the goodness of his heart,” said Mitaka. “There’s a motive behind it; there always is with him. Everything he does he does for himself.”

“So do I,” Ben countered.

Mitaka regarded him steadily, under control again. “What does Armitage Hux have to offer you?”

Ben swallowed heavily and said nothing.

Mitaka continued to study him, his dark eyes flicking over his face. Eventually, he deflated, saying, “Everything was in good order before you came here, Solo.”

Snoke’s words from their first meeting rang through Ben’s head: You’ll be disrupting the peace of upper sixth, I’ll have you know. But if he was supposed to be sorry, he wasn’t. His arriving in Arkanis House wasn’t in his control, and how the other boys reacted to him wasn’t, either.

“Yeah, and I’m staying,” he said, “so I guess you’re going to have to deal with me.”

Mitaka nodded forlornly. “We’re going to be late for lunch if we don’t get going.” He warned: “Don’t sit next to me.”

Ben managed not to flinch. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “Okay,” he said, and began the walk from their classroom to the dining hall.

 


 

Despite Hux’s tutoring, Ben’s Greek was still poor at best. He was bent over a page in his notebook at Hux’s desk struggling to translate the simple sentences Hux had copied out for him from The Iliad. Hux himself was seated beside him to oversee the process, and Ben could feel his dissatisfaction like radio waves humming in his head, even if he wasn’t voicing it. To cover for his floundering, Ben reached for the cup of tea he had poured earlier; it was cold and bitter. Hux clicked his tongue reprovingly and picked up the cozy-clad pot to refill it. Ben still only placed one cup on the trays he carried up to the study—appearances—but by the informal agreement they had made last week, they shared it. Ben took another drink before handing it off to Hux.

“You’re stalling,” Hux said as he cradled the cup in his narrow-fingered hands. “You’re caught on the verbs again.”

“I forget the conjugations,” Ben told him. “How do you keep track of this and Latin?”

Hux shot him a sidelong glance. “They’re extremely different languages, Solo. It’s fairly difficult to mix them up.”

Ben made a frustrated sound. “Give me a break; I haven’t been doing this since I was ten or something.” 

“Six,” Hux said, setting down the teacup with a clink of china.

“Six?” Ben asked dumbly. “Years old?”

Hux nodded in grave acknowledgement. “That’s round the proper age a boy is dropped off at prep school, maybe eight if they’re lucky.”

Ben blinked at him, shocked. “You’re serious?”

“Completely,” said Hux. “There were four other boys who started with me that year. One of them—Lindsay, I think he was called—had to be pulled bodily from the back seat of his parents’ Vauxhall Victor. He was bawling so hard that he was sick on the grass, after they finally got him out of the car.”

“They make kids come to places like this when they’re that little?” Ben said. He had been in half-day kindergarten at that age, going home to his mother by one o’clock.

“Oh, even younger in the past,” Hux replied. “Colonials used to ship their children off to board at four or five. Then Mummy and Daddy would be off to India again. No half-term visits for that sorry lot.”

Ben had been told that most of the boys went home for the two-week half-term break, which was coming up at the end of October. As for himself, he had nowhere to go, and was prepared to stay at Haverhill, but to be a little boy alone in the dormitories while everyone else was with their parents seemed unconscionable.

“Did you cry?” Ben asked.

Hux sniffed, raising his chin, which caught the light of the desk lamp on his red-blond eyelashes and cast their shadow on the tired circles under his eyes. “Most assuredly not. Had I done, my father would have slapped me for it. Discipline in school wasn’t so different from his. Some of the other boys caught out weeping took a few licks from the dormitory captain’s belt, but he was never as frightful as my father was. Hux men keep a stiff upper lip.”

Ben had never once heard Hux speak of his family and while he wanted to press to hear more, he was caught up imagining Hux as a small boy in the green short pants the young ones wore—white shirt, yellow and green striped tie, the awful little hat the housemasters called “smart.” The Hux he had come to know would never cry, and it was simple enough to envision a miniature version of him with the same imperious expression, even as his father—was he red-haired like Hux?—drove away, leaving him in the hands of teachers he didn’t know and boys who might have been friends but were more likely tormentors, if the stories some of the others in Arkanis told were true. And Ben knew firsthand what bullies could do; it could easily have been worse for a boy of six.

“I was shuffled off with the others to our dormitory,” Hux continued, so strangely forthright that Ben was enraptured. “If you think the beds here are bad, you should have seen the iron frames we used to have to sleep in back then. Holdovers from the thirties. You could have believed the mattresses came from that era, too: thin enough to feel the individual springs of the bed and almost soggy when it was raining in the autumn. It was just leaded glass on the windows, of course, and they leaked. The whole affair was cold and wet from late September to early December, when it got bitter under the eaves.”

Ben was already familiar with the nip of English autumn and could only imagine how much worse it would get in the winter. It was frigid at home, too, but the houses were new. There was definitely nothing in Alderaan that was half as old as Haverhill. The wind cut easily enough through their corner of Arkanis House that Ben could see it being even worse for a little boy who should have been at home with his mother.

“Why did your dad send you there?” said Ben. It was a dangerously personal question and he figured he wouldn’t get a reply, but Hux said, “It’s just how things are done for people in our class. My father went to this school and my grandfather, too. If I hadn’t come here, it would have been another one with the same story. And, in the end, it makes little difference.”

“But,” Ben said, “it’s got to be terrible. I couldn’t even imagine being away from my mom when I was six. It would have—I don’t know, really fucked me up.”

Hux’s laugh was icy and loud. “That’s to say the least,” he said, “but this is ‘how it’s done.’ ‘It’ll be the making of you,’ my father told me. I suppose he wasn’t wrong. It has made me into something.”

Disdain colored his tone, and Ben thought it might be a note of self-awareness for his attitude. Ben wanted to say something to counter it, but he couldn’t; Hux was terrible most of the time, and both of them knew it.

Hux added another splash of milk to his tea. “Lindsay, that boy who was sick, had it much harder than I did, really. He once wet the bed and was made to wear the piss-soaked pajama trousers for three more nights as punishment. They didn’t change his mattress, either, until half-term. He always had a certain reek about him until January.”

“Jesus Christ,” Ben said.

“That’s not the worst of it,” said Hux. “That was only what was done to him by the dormitory captain. The other boys were another matter altogether.”

Ben looked away. “I don’t think I want to know.”

Hux kicked his shin, making him yelp. “Public school isn’t for the faint of heart, Solo. It’s where this country’s next leaders are shaped. How do you think we could sadistically subdue and colonize so many peoples and places if we didn’t take our share of whippings in the back corridors and then turn on the ones who were below us when we were old enough to abuse them? That makes us men, doesn’t it?” It was said like one of Housemaster Snoke’s lectures: straightforward and stolidly proud. Ben, though, could hear the derision.

“Why do you buy into it, then?” Ben asked sharply as he pulled away to be out of reach of Hux’s feet. “You’re an asshole by choice, not because you have to be.”

“Did I say I wasn’t one of those public school sadists?” Hux said, one burnished eyebrow raised archly. “There’s satisfaction in power over others, Solo. If you had any, you would know.”

Ben scowled at him. “You make sure I don’t.”

Hux chuckled. “To be sure. But you need someone to keep you in line.”

“Fuck you,” Ben snapped. He went to get up, but Hux snatched him by the wrist, his skinny fingertips digging into the narrow space between the bones where they joined his hand.

“You will not speak to me that way,” Hux said with his knife’s edge warning. Softer: “You know better, now. Temper doesn’t get you anything nice.” He leaned across the space between their chairs, his free hand sliding across Ben’s thigh to grope between his legs. Even though he was angry, Ben shamefully let him.

Hux’s voice came lowly: “I think perhaps you’ve done enough Greek for tonight. Don’t you agree?”

The interest was there, but Ben’s annoyance with him was still running high. He grabbed Hux’s hand and shoved it away. “I need to finish this.” He picked up his pencil and did his best to focus on the characters on the page. His attention he kept almost too intently there, but he could sense Hux’s eyes on him. If he was offended, all the better.

Hux slipped out of his chair, abandoning his tea and picking up their Petrarch text. Ben’s attention was drawn. “What poem did you pick?” he asked.

“One I will keep to myself,” Hux replied, turning to a page he had dogeared. He held the book primly in front of him, but didn’t read a word aloud.

Ben turned back to his Greek for a moment, trying his best. However, Hux’s slow pacing behind him was a distraction that had him tensing up and considering his own recitation on Monday. He hadn’t picked up Sonnet No. 101 yet, and he should have. He had to take every spare minute to practice if he didn’t want to utterly humiliate himself on Monday morning. What he really needed, he thought, was some help.

“Hux,” he said, turning in the chair to lean his left arm over the backrest.

Hux stopped where he was, in front of the empty fireplace. “What?”

Ben hesitated, unsure how to phrase the request. He settled for: “Would you help me practice my sonnet for English? You know I’m pretty hopeless at it, and...you’re so good. Maybe you could give me some pointers?”

The look he received was neither scathingly contemptuous or amused at Ben’s expense; Hux seemed thoughtful, as if genuinely considering. Ben hoped he was; he could be his saving grace, as much as he hated to admit it.

“I suppose I could,” Hux said at last. “You are unfortunate at verse. I might be quite proud of myself if I managed to get you to speak like a gentleman.”

Ben grumbled, “I’m not a gentleman.”

Hux laughed. “Yes, I’m aware of that, but if you can fake it for this one lesson, you could have a shot at decent marks. And I wouldn’t have to suffer through one of your usual readings.”

“Go to hell,” Ben said sharply. “Forget I even said anything.”

“Wait,” said Hux. “I’ll do it.”

Ben, incredulous, asked, “Really?”

Hux nodded. “But not tonight. Saturday.” He closed the Petrarch and slipped it onto the desktop again. His eyes flashed with now-familiar desire. “You really have done enough Greek.”

Ben worked his jaw. He didn’t want to give in and let Hux get his way, but it had been since early in the week that they’d done anything together, and he wanted to. Slowly, he pushed his chair back so he could get to his feet. Thinking of Hux’s skinny naked chest as he had seen it in the showers, he said, “Take off your shirt this time.”

Hux regarded him coolly. “You’re not in a place to negotiate. I’m doing you the favor.”

Irked, Ben went for his own tie, tugging the knot loose and pulling it out from under his collar. He threw it onto the chair before starting to unbutton his shirt. “I’m taking mine off,” he said. “Are you really going to not?”

Hux waffled, but then, seemingly irritated, began to undo his tie. He was efficient about it and was only a few seconds behind Ben in getting it and then his shirt off over his shoulders. They stood two paces apart, bare-chested and lit only by the small lamp. Ben was the first to move, since he had started this. He went to Hux and laid his hands on his flat pectorals. He was very warm under Ben’s palms. In timid exploration, Ben moved them down to Hux’s belly and then back up to his collarbone. His neck was slender and long. Hux stood stock still and allowed him to touch at his leisure, his arms still hanging at this sides.

Ben encircled his wrists with his fingers, drawing his hands up and putting them against his chest. “You can touch me, too,” he said.

A small shudder passed through Hux, but then he was moving his fingers over Ben’s skin in much the same way. His fingertips came to a stop at the waistband of Ben’s trousers. Hux looked him in the eye, his own eyes a very vibrant green, and flicked the button open. Ben let him push his trousers down his legs. Neither of them had taken off their shoes, and it seemed wrong to stop to remove them now, so Ben sank down onto his knees on the rug, drawing Hux with him.

They knelt across from each other while Ben took Hux out of his trousers and underwear. It was unwieldy and not particularly comfortable, but they fell into their usual rhythm, hands wrapped around each other. The only difference was that when they leaned together, their heated skin touched. Hux’s breath moved over Ben’s shoulder as he exhaled, making the small sounds of pleasure Ben liked so much. Ben slid his free arm around Hux’s back and pressed him against his chest. Hux didn’t resist, his own left arm coming to rest over Ben’s shoulders.

Ben hit his peak first, some minutes later, but Hux was quick to follow. They were so close that a stripe of his spend hit Ben’s stomach. Ben wasn’t prepared to be as receptive to that as he was.

They supported each other until they were recovered. Ben managed to get up without tripping over the trousers around his ankles and shuffled to where Hux had taken to keeping a hand towel. He wiped what Hux had left on him away before tossing the towel at Hux.

“So I’ll meet you here on Saturday night to work on the poem?” Ben said when he had pulled his trousers back up and shrugged his shirt on.

Hux was dressing too, but paused to say, “Yes, that will do.”

Ben made sure his clothes were in order and then said, “‘Night,” and left the study.

In the hallway, he kept his steps steady and unaffected, but as the fabric of his shirt rubbed against his chest, he could think only of how soft Hux’s skin was and how he wanted to feel him pressed close again. Genuine attraction was dangerous, Ben had thought before, but he was afraid he was running swiftly toward a precipice. If he tumbled over, he wouldn’t be able to stop the freefall into something that was more than a convenient arrangement. He needed to get ahold of himself, and right away.

 


 

When Ben walked into the dining hall on Saturday afternoon at the appointed time, Dameron, Finn, and a blond-haired boy in his shirtsleeves with a heart-shaped face were seated at the Oakeshott table already. They had two decks of cards, Finn shuffling one of them deftly. Dameron saw Ben first and waved him over with one of his white-toothed smiles.

“Hi,” Ben said as he took a seat next to the blond boy. “I’m Solo.”

The boy stuck out his hand. “Cooper. I heard you were supposed to come, but I didn’t actually believe it. Arkanis boys never come to anything.”

Ben had come straight from the library so as not to draw any undue attention to himself leaving the house common room. He knew one of the prefects, or maybe even Hux, would have wanted to know where he was sneaking off to. He didn’t need to tell any of the three of them what he was doing; it wasn’t their business, even if they tried to make it that.

“I do what I want,” said Ben, playing at being more cavalier than he actually was.

Cooper raised his brows, but didn’t challenge him. He grabbed the second deck of cards and tapped them out of the box. The edges were worn. “You know the rules?” he asked.

“No,” Ben replied.

“It’s not hard,” Finn said from across the table. “We can play open-handed to start, though. It’s for two players.” He smiled sheepishly. “We needed a fourth man so one of us didn’t always have to sit out.”

Ben wasn’t put out by just being the one to round off the numbers. “Do I play you to start?”

Finn began to deal the cards. “Yeah, mate.” He dealt ten to each of them face down, but said, “Flip them up for now so I can teach you how to play.” Setting the rest of the cards face down between them, he flipped one face up next to it. “This is the discard pile. On your first turn, you can either pick up the card or, if it’s not helpful for you, take one from the stock pile.”

Turning his hand over, Ben looked over the cards he had. He compared them to Finn’s.

“Now you want to sort them into melds,” Finn continued. “That’s a set, which is three cards or more of the same suit, or a run, which is three or more cards in consecutive order, like the ten, jack, and queen of spades. Make sense?”

Ben nodded, going about putting his cards in order. He didn’t have any sets or runs, but Finn told him that was all right in the beginning. Per the rules, Ben drew the first card from the stock pile and discarded a four of clubs. Finn took his turn next, picking up the four Ben had just discarded. They kept up play, Finn giving occasional hints, until Ben, to his beginner's luck, had a full hand of ten with two runs and a set.

“Well done, mate,” said Finn. He added, “For a first go.” Then he told Ben it was his turn to deal”

Ben gathered the cards and did his best to shuffle them before dealing out the requisite ten once again. As he caught on to the rules, they played close-handed and began to talk casually while they did.

“East London isn’t the best part of town,” Finn was telling him, “but it’s home. My sisters are in school there still, one older and one younger. They’re clever, but not as clever as me.” He laughed. “Have you got any brothers or sisters, Solo?”

“No,” Ben said. “It’s just me.”

Finn discarded a ten of diamonds, which Ben picked up to form a run in his hand. Finn said, “I think I might have gotten lonely growing up with Alice and Cecilia, but I wouldn’t have minded having a room of my own. We all had to share.”

“I guess it wasn’t so bad coming here, then,” said Ben. “Already used to sleeping in the same room as other people.”

“Yeah, but my sisters don’t snore like Dameron does.” He elbowed Dameron in the side, and Dameron chuckled.

“We don’t all sleep like pretty angels,” he said to Finn. To Ben: “He’s got the bed next to mine and he sleeps as quiet as a baby.”

Ben wasn’t overly surprised to hear that they stayed near each other even in the dormitory. Their closeness was obvious and well-known, but nobody seemed to object to it; it was just accepted—unlike Ben spending his time with Hux. But he supposed it made sense since Finn and Dameron were friends; he and Hux weren’t that. He wasn’t sure at all what they were to each other.

“I couldn’t sleep the first couple of nights,” Ben told them. “I was used to having my own room.”

“Rude awakening,” said Cooper. “Literally. But I understand; it was the same for me when I was in prep school. And there was more sniffling back then when we all missed our mums. I remember writing in my letters home how terrible it was. My father told me to toughen up, though, and I did.”

After Hux’s story on Thursday night, Ben couldn’t help but wonder how young he’d been when he’d been shipped off the board. Eight if they’re lucky, Hux had said. It was cruel.

Ben pick up another card from the stock pile. “It’s okay now, I guess. I got used to it.”

“We all do,” Finn said. He knocked on the table, calling an end to the game. He laid down his cards and they tallied up their points. He had won. “You talked to your mum or dad since you got here, Solo?” he asked.

Ben shook his head. He wasn’t sure he would have known what to say to them. But, he had taken the stationery from Hux’s study a while ago, and he could use it to write home. It was still tucked into his trunk. There were stamps he could buy in the tuck shop.

“Think about doing that, eh?” Finn continued. “Don’t want them to think you’ve left for good.”

Ben wet his lips. Going home sounded strange, now; he didn’t want it as desperately as he had when term had started. Luke had mentioned once that he might even go to university in England, as he had. Ben hadn’t thought seriously about it, but Finn had asked him what he wanted to study not so long ago. He’d said they’d have to make their applications sooner or later. Ben thought of his good math marks and considered that he might ask Mr. Pierson about the universities in England—just to look, of course.

“I’ll think about it,” he said. Picking up the cards, he shuffled and dealt another hand to both of them.

 


 

In order to get both the tea tray and his Petrarch up to Hux’s study that evening, he had to stuff the book into the waistband of his trousers at the small of his back. It made the walking ungainly, but he managed to arrive there on time and rap brusquely on the door before he entered.

Hux was waiting, having kindled the fire himself. He watched Ben set the tray down on his desk, saying when it was safely there, “I heard you were with Dameron this afternoon.”

Ben, still facing away from him, closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah, what about it?”

“There is far better company you can be keeping.”

Turning, Ben frowned at him. “Do you mean you?”

“I was training with the cadets today, so no,” said Hux. “But the boys in the house—”

“Don’t even want to look at me,” Ben snapped, “let alone talk. Dameron and Finn are good...nice.” He gave Hux a very pointed look. “They aren’t assholes to me when they’re in a bad mood.”

“I’m not in a bad mood,” Hux said.

Ben shrugged. “Fine, you’re not, but lay off me about Finn and Dameron. They’re all right and I’m going to play cards with them on the weekends because I want to.”

Hux’s imperiousness didn’t fade, but he didn’t forbid it, either. He said instead, “Is there a book in your trousers?”

“Uh, yes.” Ben pulled the Petrarch volume out. “Should we get started, or do you want tea?”

“Pour,” said Hux, “and we can do both.”

Ben filled the cup and handed it to him first. Hux blew on it, making the steam waver and disappear in front of his nose.

“You chose an interesting sonnet,” he said after a sip of the tea. “Do you have a habit of reading love poetry?”

“No,” Ben grumbled. “It was just short and…it was the first one I saw.”

Hux gave a derisive snort. “Of course it was. You wouldn’t actually have picked it for the subject matter.”

Ben glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” said Hux. “Don’t get into a snit over it; I don’t want to argue with you right now.” He gestured to the book. “Why don’t you read it aloud and I’ll judge from there how much work we have to do.”

Reluctant but resigned, Ben opened to the sonnet and, clearing his throat, began to read. The first four lines went well enough, since he had read them in class, but he stumbled through the next few:

 

O’er her fair face would see each swift change pass,
See her fond eyes at length where pity reigns,
As one who sorrows when to late, alas!

 

“Stop, stop, stop,” Hux said, cutting him off. “Do you have no sense of rhythm at all?” He sounded earnestly affronted—even more so than Krennic did in their lessons. “You’ve been doing this regularly since the start of term and yet you’ve not improved one bit.”

Ben’s face burned, resentment simmering in his gut. “I know I’m not good at it. I’m here for you to help me. Can you do that instead of telling me off, or should I just leave?”

Hux halted with his cup halfway to his mouth, then set it back down on the saucer. “You’re right. Let’s start with the basics. There are ten syllables per line in a sonnet. You can keep the cadence consistent throughout if you make an effort. The intonation and lilt we’ll deal with later. Read me the first two lines again, but emphasize each syllable. Count them on your fingers if you have to.”

Ben held the book in his left hand and counted on his right: “Ways apt and new to sing of love I'd find.” His tone was flat and choppy, but that was what Hux intended—or at least he thought so.

“Good,” Hux said. “Do the next line.”

Ben worked his way through the entire poem like that, counting the syllables in every line.

“Do you have a better grasp of the rhythm now?” Hux asked. He had finished his cup of tea and poured another one, which he pushed into Ben’s hand. “Spare your throat.”

“I think so,” Ben replied, taking a drink. “You said intonation is next? What’s that mean?”

Hux sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “My God, what do they teach in American schools?” Ben was about to growl at him again, but he recognized it and said, “Never mind. Let’s just focus on getting the lilt right, shall we?”

He picked up his own book and read the first line in his smooth, elegant accent. Each word was clear and the rhythm was spot-on. Ben envied his ability.

“Repeat the line after me,” he said, “but don’t look at your book. You won’t have it when you actually recite this.”

Ben set the book face down on the desktop. He put his hands into his pockets, which immediately earned him a scolding: “Stand up straight when you deliver a poem,” Hux ordered. “Don’t slouch.”

Ben drew himself up to his full height, rolling his shoulders back. “Better?”

“Very. Now repeat after me.” He launched into the poem, guiding Ben through the flow of each line. Ben still wasn’t as delicate with the cadence, but he was significantly better than he had been when they had started. He allowed himself a hidden smile as he finished the last lines: 

 

Myself I weary not but rather pride,
That Heaven for later times has kept me here.

 

There was a heavy silence, but then Hux said, “Well done.”

Ben’s chest filled. “Thanks,” he murmured.

The corners of Hux’s mouth lifted. “We might make something of you yet, Solo. Now, let’s focus on memorizing it. You’ll have to practice on your own, but we can do our best.”

They made their way through the poem five more times, Ben peeking at the book as infrequently as he could. He stopped to take sips to tea, which Hux hadn’t touched since they had begun. He was focused as he worked, and a remarkably good teacher—when he was actually patient about it. By the time ten o’clock rolled around and the last bells of the night rang from the tower, Ben was reasonably confident he wouldn’t make a complete mess of the recitation.

He closed the book and was about to tuck it back into his trousers, but Hux stopped him. “I’ll take the tray,” Hux said. “Go along.”

Ben took a moment to look him over. A piece of his hair had fallen out of the style and was hanging over his brow, and his lips looked a bit chapped from being outside all day. The whole picture was less severe than usual, and Ben liked it better. He thought about putting his fingers into Hux’s hair and making a real mess of it, but he imagined he’d get the telling-off of his life he dared to even try it.

“Is there something else you need?” Hux asked. It was quietly said, however, rather than sharp and biting.

“No,” said Ben. “Thanks again, Hux.”

He got a silent nod and was dismissed.

Hux didn’t appear in the bathroom while Ben and the others were brushing their teeth, which was odd. Ben didn’t make too much of it; Hux did whatever he pleased, and if he wanted to use the bathroom after everyone else was in bed, he had the right.

In his pajamas, Ben put his folded clothes into his trunk. Quickly, he peeked in to make sure the stationery was still there. It was. He wasn’t sure he was ready to write home yet, but at least he had the paper when he needed it. Slipping into bed, he heard Thanisson call lights out and the dormitory was plunged into darkness.

 


 

Ben was the first to walk into the classroom on Monday morning, holding his book of Petrarch but knowing he wouldn’t need or be able to use it. He sat shakily at his desk, his sweaty hands resting on his thighs for a moment before he fidgeted, putting them onto the desktop over the varnished wood. He had spent long hours on Sunday working to memorize the sonnet and had used Hux’s tricks to make his recitation reasonably smooth. He couldn’t be more prepared than he was, and he wanted to get it over and done with.

The other boys trickled in steadily, until they were all in their seats and Krennic was at the front of the room. Ben glanced at Hux, who kept his gaze forward without acknowledging him. Ben didn’t think he would want to admit that he had helped Ben; that was between them—a secret achievement for them to share.

“Well,” Krennic began, “shall we get underway?” He turned to Ben. “Solo, that’s your cue.”

Ben extricated himself from his desk—always a trial with his long legs—and came to stand in front of the blackboard. Per Hux’s instructions, he stood upright, chin held high and legs slightly apart, knees bent just so to keep him from getting lightheaded. He looked out over the gathered sixth-formers, several of them already smiling cruelly. Mustering his courage, Ben began with practiced confidence: “Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find…

The fourteen lines came pouring from his mouth, but were neither stuttering nor rushed. He kept his cadence natural, pausing where the commas lay in the text and lilting where it was necessary. By the time he finished, a number of the boys had plain surprise on their faces. Ben turned his gaze only then to Hux, who inclined his head slightly: approval. Ben resisted smiling, but barely.

“Mr. Solo,” said Krennic, “I’m not sure what’s come over you, but I’m very impressed.” He clapped his hands and slowly the others joined him.

Ben didn’t stay at the front. Despite the applause, he hurried back to his desk, so relieved his heart was beating in his ears. Krennic called the next boy up, and Ben half heard him, still humming with adrenaline. Only by the fourth boy had he calmed down enough to focus on their recitations.

At last, they came to the last boy: Hux. He rose from his desk and took his place at the front of the classroom. Unsurprisingly, he was perfectly turned out. Ben pictured him as he had been on Saturday night—hair looser and posture more relaxed—and wished he looked more like that right now. It wouldn’t have suited, however; he was so conscious of his appearance during the days. He paused for what Ben thought was dramatic effect before saying in Italian, “Mille fiate, o dolce mia guerrera. ‘A thousand breaths, oh my sweet warrior.’” Another pregnant pause and then:

 

I have offered you my heart a thousand times
O my sweet warrior, only to make peace
with your lovely eyes: but it does not please you
with your noble mind, to stoop so low.

 

His voice was butter-soft, but he enunciated each word so it was perfectly comprehensible. Ben found himself falling under a kind of spell, watching his full mouth move as he spoke:

 

And if some other lady has hope of it,
she lives in powerless, deceiving hope:
and it can never be what it was to me,
since I too disdain what does not please you.

 

Hux had no place to have mocked Ben for choosing a love poem; his own was that, too. It was melancholy, though, the poet mourning how his beloved would not lower herself to love him. The last stanzas were particularly sorrowful:

 

Now if I banish it, and it does not find in you
any aid in its unhappy exile, nor knows
how to be alone, nor to go where others call to it,

 it might stray from its natural course:
which would be a grave crime for both of us,
and more for you, since it loves you more.

 

He ended decidedly, with a wistful note in his tone. He had stared into the middle distance throughout the recitation, making eye contact with no one in particular. It seemed he was making sure to keep concrete feeling from his performance, even if the content of the poem had been romantic. Only when Krennic began to applaud did Hux turn to nod at him. Ben clapped too, earnestly impressed. He’d never be as good as Hux was, but at least he had done his best and won Hux’s endorsement.

When Hux had returned to his seat, Krennic addressed them all: “I admit, gentlemen, that you did very well with this assignment. Perhaps I should have been more optimistic, but at least it was a pleasant surprise. We still have a bit of time left in the lesson, so I’d like to finish with Canterbury Tales. If you’ll open your books…”

Ben took notes through the rest of the class, riding high on his success. As the tower bells rang and they were released, he stood quickly and crossed the room to where Hux was just getting to his feet. He asked, “Why’d you pick that poem?”

Hux eyed him with some measure of disapproval, since they had tacitly agreed they wouldn’t speak to each other outside of their private meetings. Still, he replied, “It moved me. There’s a great deal of feeling in it.”

Ben said, wryly, “I didn’t know you had feelings.”

To his surprise, Hux laughed, albeit lightly. “Yes, well, I do.” The forefingers of his right hand moved ever so slightly toward Ben, as if he was going to reach for him, and Ben’s breath stuck in his lungs. Hux stilled there, however, and tipped his head toward the door. “Best go.”

Ben remained in place, studying him and his temperate expression. The words were maybe overwrought, but he had been regal and lovely as he had recited the poem. That allure remained even now and Ben’s stomach grew tight with something he couldn’t quite put a name to. Whatever else he might say deserted him, leaving him silent, taking Hux in. It wasn’t uncomfortable quiet; Hux didn’t appear perturbed or in any real rush to leave.

The boys flowed around them and out the door, until they were alone. Ben said, hushed, “The poem moved me too.”

Hux’s lips parted minutely, but all he said was, “Yes.”

Ben closed his hands to keep from touching him; it was too much here. “Best go,” he murmured, echoing what Hux had said before.

Hux nodded and slipped past him toward the door. Ben followed at a distance, their prescribed separation put between them again. He wouldn’t sit near Hux at lunch, and he wouldn’t spare him too many glances, but when they were together again, he’d think of that poem, and know that Hux did indeed feel.

Chapter Text

When half term arrived, the Arkanis House dormitories emptied in record time as boys packed their things to return home for two weeks. That Monday, the twentieth of October, their parents’ cars were pulling into the back drive to collect them. Ben himself had nowhere to go and was watching the boys in the courtyard below from the window by his bed. He wasn’t sure how he was going to fill his days for the whole of the break, which he wasn’t used to from school in Massachusetts. Their classes went solidly from September to December with little interruption save for a couple of days off. He was ready for a respite from the long days of lessons and games and chapel, but total listlessness had very little appeal.

He sat cross-legged on his mattress in his stocking feet, tapping his fingers against his knees. He thought he spotted a sixth-former returning for a last-minute something he had forgotten, but the dark-haired boy who had come in was clearly younger and uncomfortable in the upperclassmen’s dormitory. He hurried over to Ben’s side and, unspeaking, stuck out his hand. He held a folded piece of thick linen paper.

“For me?” Ben asked.

The boy nodded, pushing it even closer for him to take. As soon as it was in Ben’s hand, the boy scampered out, nearly running in his effort to escape. Ben opened the note. It turned out to be a cursory summons from Luke for Ben come to the headmaster’s lodge for luncheon at noon. He found himself looking forward to it, if just for something to do. However, he had a good hour before that. He tucked the note into his pocket.

In the chaos of leavetaking, he hadn’t missed that Hux had been absent. His trunk was undisturbed, his sports kit still shoved under the bed. Though Ben suspected he wouldn’t tolerate a long-winded goodbye, he still wanted to catch him before he left. Unfolding his legs, he dropped his feet to the floor and grabbed for his shoes. After slipping them on, he went into the hall, making his way down the familiar path to Hux’s study.

He wasn’t sure that he’d find him there, but when he knocked on the door, he heard, “Enter” from inside. The knob turned with the resistance of age and Ben slipped into the study. 

Hux was seated at his desk with a few books in front of him; he glanced up at Ben inquiringly.

“Hi,” Ben said. “Um, I just wanted to wish you a good break. Are you leaving soon?”

Hux pressed his lips together. He dodged replying by asking, “Are you?”

Ben shook his head, putting his hands into his trouser pockets. It rounded his shoulders, making him seem smaller and more timid. He wasn’t, per se, but sometimes under Hux’s intent gaze, he was still self-conscious. “I don’t think so,” Ben said. “It’s not like I could go home.”

“Couldn’t you?” said Hux. “It’s not a terribly long flight away.”

“Yeah, but it’s an expensive one.” His mom had mentioned when he had left that it had set them back significantly to get him to England in the first place. With her nursing job and his dad’s trucking, it wasn’t as if they had a lot of money to throw around. That didn’t seem to be a problem for the others at Haverhill. Ben had learned from Luke that tuition wasn’t exactly cheap, and the other boys’ parents had means beyond Ben’s. Except Finn, of course, who was on scholarship. Ben wondered if he went home during half term, concluding he likely did.

“Ah, I see,” Hux said. An uncertain expression passed over his face. There was something he didn’t want to say, that much was clear. Ben didn’t press.

“I guess I’ll just be hanging around here,” Ben told him. “No idea what I’m going to do.”

Hux rubbed his palms along his thighs. “Yes, I’d imagine it might be tedious.” The corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. “Perhaps you can work on your Greek.”

Ben frowned at him. “You would say that.” He got a chuckle in response.

“Only a prudent suggestion. It would be a good use of your time.”

“Isn’t this supposed to be a break from school?” Ben grumbled. “Where I don’t think about classics or poetry or geography?” He shifted his weight back onto his heels and then into his toes. “Don’t you want a rest from it all?”

Hux shrugged. “I’d rather keep busy than be idle. There’s nothing to be gained in whiling away days on end.”

Ben’s brow knit. “You have to relax sometime.”

“I do,” said Hux. He gave Ben a blatant once-over. “I think you know how by this point.”

Blood dropped to Ben’s cock at the mere suggestion. Hux, unfortunately, knew exactly the tone to use to get him up. His reaction was plain enough that Hux grinned, getting to his feet and stepping into Ben’s space. Ben had left his blazer off, allowing Hux to set his hands on his chest unhindered.

“What we do takes the pressure off the days,” Hux said, low. “That kind of release is hard to come by most times.” He tipped his head, indicating the rest of the room. “I was very keen to get this study when I became head boy.”

Ben wet his lips, drawing his hands from his pockets to put them at Hux’s waist, underneath his blazer where he was significantly warmer. “It’s nice,” he said dumbly.

Hux laughed, airy. “That’s all you can say? ‘Nice?’”

“What do you want me to say?” Ben asked. His nerves were running high being this close to Hux, but they had never fooled around in the daylight before: too risky. If he was leaning in that direction, though, Ben wasn’t sure he’d be able—or want—to resist.

Hux rubbed the collar of Ben’s shirt between his thumb and forefinger, sobering some. “Nothing. Never mind.” Releasing Ben, he moved back to his desk. “You can go now. Have a good break, Solo.”

Ben was half-hard in his trousers and bereft at being led on and then dropped so suddenly. “Oh,” he mumbled. “Okay. See you around.”

With nothing else to say, he left the study, shutting the door behind him. He paused in the hall to calm down, thankful that nobody was around to see him adjust himself to ease the pressure on his erection. He really didn’t know what Hux was going to do, ever. He made as little sense now as he had when they’d first started this; and it was starting to get under Ben’s skin. He wasn’t about to stop what they were doing, but maybe after half term, he’d try harder to figure Hux out.

 


 

Just before noon, Ben went to gather his blazer and comb his hair. It was getting long enough to reach his shoulders, and he’d have to have it cut soon if he wanted to look neat enough to suit the prefects. Looking as good as he was going to, Ben went down the main staircase and outside.

Alice, the housekeeper, was the one to answer the door when Ben got to the lodge. She beamed at him, ushering him inside. “You’re looking very well, Mr. Solo. It’s lovely to see you. Happy half term!” She put a sure hand at his back to guide him toward the dining room. “I’ve made some sandwiches I think you’ll like. And a chocolate tart for dessert.”

“That sounds amazing,” Ben said, in earnest. He hadn’t eaten anything nearly that good in ages.

They went together to the table, and shortly after Luke came through. He wore a blue suit with a wide collar. The jacket was stretched taut over his soft belly and his shoes were shined.

“Good afternoon, Ben,” he said.

Ben almost corrected him, so used to hearing his surname in school. “Hi,” he replied, taking the seat to Luke’s right. The chair was plush compared to the benches in the dining hall, a welcome relief for his seat bones. He shifted to lean against the back of it, too, instead of rounding his spine almost painfully.

“So,” Luke began as he took a finger sandwich from the plate at the center of the table, “are you looking forward to your break? It’s been a long first half of the term, hasn’t it?”

“I guess so,” said Ben, picking three of his own small sandwiches.

Luke eyed him. “You really are a man of few words, aren’t you? I can respect that.”

Ben shrugged one shoulder. “If I don’t have anything to talk about, I don’t say anything.”

“You certainly don’t get that from your mother or father,” Luke said. “I’ve never known two people who talked more than they did, especially when they were together. I’m a fair conversationalist and I couldn’t always keep up.”

“They were worse when they were fighting,” said Ben around a bite of sandwich.

Luke hummed, but didn’t take them down that path. “I’ve actually a bit of a surprise for you,” he told him. “I thought we might go to London for half term and explore a little. You didn’t get to see it when you arrived, so what better time than this? Does that sound good to you?”

It actually did, Ben had to admit, and he was quick to say it.

“Great!” said Luke. “We can catch the morning train tomorrow. I’ve already arranged for tickets and a hotel in town. And you can stay here in the lodge tonight rather than in the dormitory.”

Ben found himself smiling. “Oh, good.” He added, conscientious: “Thanks.”

From there, Luke changed the subject to current news, which Ben had no concept of. They didn’t get newspapers at school—even in the library. He stopped Luke to ask why.

“There’s a focus on your studies as the center of your attention,” Luke replied. “In order to succeed, all the pupils need to give their utmost attention to academics.”

“You mean to get into university,” Ben said. He hadn’t forgotten what Snoke had said a few weeks ago about him applying to continue his education, and as he’d read more in his engineering and math books, he couldn’t deny that he had an interest in learning more about them—formally.

Luke nodded. “Well, yes. That’s generally the goal here. Or the Forces, if not university.”

“Hux is going to Sandhurst.” It left Ben’s mouth before he thought too much about it, but after, he felt his face heating up. He didn’t make a habit of mentioning Hux to anyone, if just for the sake of playing it off like they didn’t spend as much time together as they presently did.

“Is that so?” Luke asked, his voice icing over as it had before when Ben had brought Hux up. “I haven’t had a conversation with him about it. It’s likely something Housemaster Snoke would do. Seems a sound choice for him, though, if his attitude is anything to go by.”

Ben said, perhaps a little too sharply, “What do you know about his attitude if you’ve never talked to him?”

Luke’s eyebrows shot up, wrinkling his forehead. “Word gets around. And I do speak to the housemasters regularly. Are you well acquainted with him?”

“I told you before,” Ben replied, “he’s tutoring me in Greek. And we…talk sometimes.” He fiddled with the remaining sandwiches on his plate, cheeks still hot. He was acting like an idiot and he knew it, but he wasn’t sure how to stop. He shouldn’t have brought Hux up at all.

“I see,”  said Luke evenly. “And he’s spoken to you of his desire to enter the Forces.” He sucked his teeth. “Has he suggested you do the same?”

Ben looked up. “No. And I couldn’t even do that, could I? I’m not from here.”

“I suppose you couldn’t,” Luke said, “but you could attend university here. I think your mother would like that a great deal.”

“I don’t think she cares,” Ben scoffed.

Luke let out a long breath. “She cares about your future, Ben, or she wouldn’t have sent you here. Your marks are good so far. If you write good exams, you could—”

“I just want to get through this year,” Ben snapped. He regretted the petulant tone some, especially since he had been thinking about the future, but he couldn’t take it back now.

Straightening up, Luke picked up his glass of water and drank. “Very well, but if you were to study something, what would it be?”

Ben just said the first thing that came to his mind: “Math, or, uh, engineering.”

“Interesting,” said Luke. “You know, Imperial College London has a very good course in engineering. We’ll have to visit while we’re in town. I’ll arrange it.”

“Whatever,” Ben said, sourly looking down at his now-empty plate. Somehow he didn’t take as well to Luke’s pressure as he did Snoke’s. Why, he didn’t know.

They finished the meal not long after and Alice came back into the dining room with another of her smiles. “I’ve had all of your clothes washed, Mr. Solo.”

“My clothes?” Ben asked.

“Of course. You won’t want to wear your uniforms on holiday.” She winked. “Sometimes it’s nice to get back into your old things.”

Ben smiled back at her. “Okay, thanks.”

She tipped her head toward the foyer. “You can go up and get packed now, then run to the dormitory and get anything else you need for the trip. Chocolate tart when you get back.”

Feeling lighter than he had in weeks, Ben went past her and dashed upstairs to get into a pair of jeans and his own underwear. In the guest room he’d stayed in when he arrived, he found his own clothes hanging in the closet. His underthings were lying out on the bed, oddly comforting. He shed his uniform gladly and slipped back into the familiarity of a t-shirt and boxer shorts. The broken-in jeans went on over them, and Ben fell back against the bed.

He might not have been leaving England, but at least there was this comfort. It would be strange to go back into Arkanis House so dressed; he didn’t care if someone saw him looking different. Relaxed, he stared up at the ceiling and grinned. Half term wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

 


 

Ben’s memories of Paddington Station were vague at best, so blurred by his exhaustion from a transatlantic flight that he barely recognized it as the same place he had seen the day he arrived. As he stepped off the second-class carriage he and Luke had ridden in from Tindon Station that morning, he took in the space around him in a small measure of awe. 

The ceilings above the platform were glazed glass, supported by strangely delicate steel arches that made for a long tunnel-like enclosure for the trains. Luke had told him that the station was built in the mid-nineteenth century, and Ben could imagine the way coal-fired steam engines would have filled the place with foul-smelling smoke, lingering in the air long after the trains had left. It was clear now, the sky visible at the terminus of the ceilings many yards away from where they stood on the platform.

People from their carriage bustled out after them, carrying plaid overnight bags and leather briefcases—both women and men. There were a few schoolchildren, too. Ben recognized the uniforms of St. Catherine’s and gave a passing thought to how Hux’s friend Phasma might spend her holidays. They hadn’t met again since that first weekend in October, but the girls were the subject of frequent common room conversations, some cruder than others. Ben didn’t find it distasteful, but if the prefects or, God forbid, Hux caught them at it, they got a thorough telling off. “Impropriety,” they all said, but the talk resumed as soon as the coast was clear.

The girls from the train melted into the milling crowd, their ponytails the last bouncing traces of them. Ben kept close to Luke, who had sat across from him in the carriage and read a book for the majority of the journey—once he realized that Ben had no intention of talking with him at length. Ben had looked out the window at the passing countryside. Remarkably, the sun was high and blue sky cloud-dotted and inviting. It would have been a decent day for games—if games were at any time tolerable. Ben might even have pinkened in the sunlight, his paleness susceptible to burns.

“Ben, come along,” Luke called, gesturing for him to follow.

Ben hefted his suitcase and went after him, cutting as efficiently as possible through the people pouring out into the main station building.

They didn’t have to go far to get to their accommodations; the Great Western Hotel was adjacent to the station on Praed Street. It was also a product of the nineteenth century: a five-story white edifice with Louis XIV-style towers on each corner, built and furnished by the Great Western Railway, which had established Paddington. The lobby was lavish, the carpet soft under Ben’s shoes. They went immediately to the front desk, where Luke confirmed his reservation and was given the key to their third-floor room.

It was street-facing, with windows that looked out onto the passing traffic—cabs going to and from the station. Ben dropped his suitcase at the foot of the bed closest to the windows. Luke set his own luggage down and ducked into the bathroom for a minute or two, coming out to the sound of flushing and with his face freshly washed.

“It’s only just past eleven,” he said cheerfully, “so we have more than half the day to go out and see some of the sights. I’ve got no particular itinerary for today, but Hyde Park is just a few streets over and it’s an ideal day for a walk. We could even make it all the way over to Buckingham Palace if we’re feeling up to it.”

Ben turned back to him, arms hanging at his sides. “Sure, I guess,” he said. He’d been cooped up in the train long enough to want to walk around, anyway, so they might as well. He had on his thickest blue sweater, but there was still a nip in the air that would only grow more significant as it wore on toward nighttime. “Uh, Uncle Luke,” he began, uncertain, “could we maybe go somewhere and get a coat? I don’t have one and—”

“Of course,” said Luke without hesitation. “It had slipped my mind, but Alice reminded me that you don’t have anything suitable for the autumn rains.” He shrugged on his own hunter-green jacket. “Let’s stop by a shop around the corner and find something for you.” Holding the door open, he allowed Ben to go through before he locked it. Together, they went down the stairs and out into London proper.

The jacket they found for him was dark khaki with two large pockets and tortoiseshell buttons up the front. It would keep off the rain and wind, both of which were forecast to pick up the next day. The rest of that first one in town, though, was nice. They wandered through Hyde Park, the history of which Luke lectured him on, and then through past Wellington Arch to the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Ben didn’t have any opinions on landscape design, but he could admire the well-kept hedges and babbling fountains outside the royal household.

Ben’s feet were sore by the time they returned to the hotel and went into the restaurant for dinner. A waiter in a double-breasted red coat took their drink orders—Coca-Cola and beer, respectively—while they looked over the menu. Even the names of the various choices had Ben’s mouth watering. At Luke’s suggestion, he ended up with something called beef Wellington, which turned out to be a delicate filet of steak baked in pastry. Ben had never tasted anything better, and Luke laughed at the look of pure ecstasy on his face when he took his first bite.

“Not quite like the casseroles your mother makes, is it?” Luke asked.

Ben couldn’t reply for chewing, but he shook his head.

“And far better than the fare in the dining hall.” Luke took a sip of beer, sighing through his nose. “There are downsides to being the headmaster of a school, I’ll say that, but the less-than-ideal food is a small price to pay for love of one’s work.”

Ben said nothing to that, simply setting fork and knife back into his steak.

Luke surveyed him over his own dinner. “You know, I would have loved to have gone away to school as a boy of your age. Friends and hard studies, long afternoons and weekends spent playing games. Away from my mother and father, and Leia, if I’m being honest. I can’t imagine a better place for shaping intelligent young men with dignity.”

“If you have friends, maybe,” Ben mumbled. He hadn’t meant to be heard, but Luke did and he set down his fork.

“I know the boys haven’t taken fast to you,” he said sedately, “but it’s been less than two months since term began. Give them time.”

Ben didn’t see many of the Arkanis sixth-formers suddenly opening their arms to him, but at least he had Finn and Dameron, who weren’t totally indifferent to him. They still played gin rummy at the weekends, and Ben was getting good enough to compete with them. A lot of it was luck, but it took some skill too. And there was Hux—even if Ben didn’t know what he was, it wasn’t a friend.

“You would have been at school in the thirties, right?” Ben asked. Luke, as his mother’s twin, was fifty-five years old.

Luke nodded. “Indeed. I would have been in upper sixth in 1938. It was not the most comfortable of times here in England any more than it was in America, but creature comforts aren’t to be expected in a public school.”

Ben remembered Hux’s description of the terrible beds from the Depression he had still had to sleep in at prep school, some thirty years later. “Was it different then?” Ben said.

“Yes and no,” said Luke. “I can’t say I lived it, but I’ve heard stories from the other masters and former students. It was, if anything, a little harsher than it is now. Fagging—perhaps you’ve heard the term—”

Ben snorted. “Yeah.”

“Ah, well, it was more commonplace and more acceptable. Some masters and prefects and dormitory captains were keener on caning.” Luke’s nostrils flared in a silent laugh. “The food was worse, if you can believe it.”

“What about”—Ben chose his words deliberately—“untoward relationships between boys?”

Luke’s usually pink cheeks drained of color, his half-full glass of beer raised halfway to his mouth. He swallowed visibly, and said, “I don’t think I know to what you’re referring.”

He wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all Ben.

Ben countered: “I think you do. Everyone does; they just don’t talk about it.”

That was maybe too bold, since Ben hadn’t really heard much more than what Mitaka had told him and what Hux had said in passing, but he knew if Hux could get away with shagging in his study, it had to be more widespread than just them.

Luke was still pale, but he set down his glass to pick up his napkin and dab at his mouth. “Ben, I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but anything of that nature is deeply frowned upon at Haverhill, and every other public school in the country. Two boys caught—ahem—fraternizing would be immediately expelled.”

Ben snapped to attention, looking him dead in the face. “Expelled?”

“Certainly,” Luke said. “It’s happened at other schools, even if the headmasters do their best to keep such things under wraps. There was a certain scandal at Eton I heard about from the alumni I met at Cambridge. A pair of boys had a very intimate friendship and were caught out in an embrace. They were expelled on sight and their parents told to collect them posthaste.”

“An embrace?” said Ben. “Like...a hug?”

Now the color returned in full force to Luke’s cheeks. “Ah, no. Something more. I was told certain clothing was removed.”

Ben could fill in the gaps from there. He and Hux may never have taken all of theirs off, but the most critical layers had definitely been put aside in the past couple of weeks. And Ben couldn’t deny wanting to get it all off and feel Hux’s naked skin from toes to slightly chapped lips. He willed his own blush away, wrapping his head around the fact that every time they were alone together with their trousers down, they risked expulsion. Hux had to know that, even if Ben hadn’t, which made the risk he took in touching Ben that first time even greater. Had Ben rejected him and gone squealing to Snoke, who knew what could have happened.

“Have you ever had to expel anyone?” Ben asked after a moment.

“Thankfully, no. I believe we’ve made it clear to all the boys that no such behavior will be tolerated. Haverhill is an institution of learning, not a den of homosexuality.” Luke’s blue eyes grew worried. “Is there something you need to tell me, Ben?”

No,” Ben said stridently. “I’ve just heard rumors, stuff the other boys said.”

“Well, you would tell me if you actually knew of anything untoward happening, wouldn’t you?”

“Um, yeah,” Ben muttered. “Yeah, of course. But there’s nothing like that going on. Uh...Hux wouldn’t let it.”

Luke sat back into his chair, back straight and belly just shy of touching the table. “Yes, a head boy would be responsible for keeping that sort of thing under control.” He scratched at his beard, seemingly considering. “But homosexuals are not unheard-of in schools.”

Ben raised his eyebrows, hoping it would prompt him to elaborate.

He did: “There will always be those sorts of aberrations in our society. An environment like Haverhill’s could force those kinds of people to...realize their predilections. When I was in school, that would have been unconscionable—it was not something anyone dared acknowledge—but today it’s no longer a crime to engage in a homosexual relationship. I approve of that and understand if it’s the lifestyle a man chooses, but I cannot permit any young one to act on it under Haverhill’s roof. We have a reputation to uphold.”

Ben hadn’t expected quite so candid a reply, and it caught him off guard. Most everyone he’d ever met had talked about gays as if they were dirty and wrong—more than just ‘aberrant.’ He’d expected condemnation from Luke, too, especially if he had to throw anyone who got caught with another boy out of school, no questions asked.

Ben had never actually known a homosexual. Everyone in his neighborhood in Alderaan had been married—or, more rarely, divorced; gays lived in cities with special boroughs where that kind of thing was acceptable, or so he’d been told. He’d have been an idiot to assume that that was totally true, of course, but nobody in his life had ever been overt about preferring men. He wasn’t sure he would have known how to act around someone like that.

He’d been skirting neatly around his own preferences these past few weeks, since he’d taken up with Hux, but he couldn’t neglect them forever. Sooner or later he’d actually have to sit down and have a serious think about if he touched and thought about and even fantasized about Hux when they were apart because he had no girls around, or because he wanted to do that kind of thing with boys by preference.

He thought he might benefit from asking Hux which it was for him, but he wasn’t sure he’d get a real answer. Mitaka had always warned that the boys here weren’t gay, no matter what they go up to; they just wanted for girls. Hux had crossed the lines from the start, which put Ben in a poor position to discern his motives or preferences—unless he automatically assumed, as some boys might, that Hux was homosexual because he liked putting his mouth on Ben’s cock. It was more complicated than that, Ben was certain.

“Do you know of anyone who went to Haverhill who, uh, chose that kind of lifestyle?” he asked.

Luke worked his jaw. “A few. They weren’t problems at school, though.” He lowered his voice. “If anything, some of the boys who went on to marry were more difficult to rein in.” Ben looked hard at him, and he sighed once again. “There are passing crushes and some hero-worship of golden boys. It’s plain enough to see, and some bask in it and let it proliferate. Those are usually the ones who crave any kind of attention. They love being put up on a pedestal, even if that means having other boys vie for their affection.”

Ben’s appetite was gone; he was too focused on the conversation. “Do you mean they actually...did things?”

“Not many,” said Luke. “Most of it was just admiration from afar. But I’m not a complete fool; I’m aware that some things do slip past us. Put enough boys under one roof and, well…” He shrugged.

“Yeah,” Ben murmured. He took a sip of his cola, finding it too sweet after nothing but water and tea at Haverhill.

They finished their dinner with more innocuous conversation, but Ben’s mind kept tracking back to the consequences for what he and Hux were doing together. Expulsion could end Hux’s aspirations to enter Sandhurst, no doubt. Ben figured they wouldn’t accept a known homosexual into the ranks of their officers. It wouldn’t be so dire for Ben since he didn’t necessarily have to go to university, and it wouldn’t have surprised his mother to find he was tossed out of school. She might have been shocked at the reason, but he suspected anyone would have been. He’d never given any indication that he was gay; he didn’t even know at this point that he was. He tried to focus back on Luke, who was talking about visiting Tower Bridge.

“Can we go there?” Ben asked as he finished the last of his beef Wellington. “I read some about it, and...it’s interesting.”

Luke gave him a small smile. “We’ll go tomorrow first thing.”

In their room, Ben brushed his teeth and changed into his pajamas, which he had brought from his trunk. They had become strangely comfortable despite how suffocating they had been on those first nights in the dormitory. He slipped into the large, soft bed and grinned to himself. For the first time in ages, he’d sleep in near solitude. Luke was only one person and he was across the room—far more distant than the boy whose bed was next to Ben’s in Arkanis House. It was a luxury he planned on enjoying for the allotted two weeks.

Closing his eyes, he drifted off.

 


 

They took one of the famous red double-decker buses from the hotel the next morning, riding along the Thames to the bridge. The bus was full of commuters, most of whom didn’t bother to look up from their newspapers or away from the windows. Ben stood near the back, holding onto a plastic strap and swaying slightly as the bus turned. There was a great deal of city to see, and it was jarring to drive on the opposite side of the road.

Luke pointed out London Bridge, which turned out to be a flat slab of concrete for the most part, traffic rolling over it sedately. It was nothing compared to the Victorian bascule and suspension Tower Bridge. It was an iconic part of the London landscape, Ben had discovered in his reading, and had operated on steam-powered hydraulics up until the year before, when it was replaced by electro-hydraulics. Ben had read eagerly about the complicated construction process and design of the two towers that flanked each side of the roadway and upper and lower pedestrian walks. As the bus approached it from a few miles away, he was struck by its grandeur.

They alighted on the north side, Luke leading Ben toward the bridge. “Shall we take the upper walkway or the lower?” Luke asked.

“The lower first,” Ben replied, “and then the upper on the way back?”

“Certainly.” Luke had been eyeing him with interest since Ben had begun relating facts about the length of the bridge and how the suspension sections worked at breakfast. He had commented on how it was unusual to see Ben so animated about a subject. “You certainly don’t have that kind of passion for classics,” he had observed dispassionately.

“Well, we could talk about the Roman roads, I guess,” Ben had said. “Or the aqueducts.” He’d only see passing references to each in his Latin textbook, but both were significant feats of civil engineering—more intriguing than verb conjugations.

Luke had chuckled. “I suppose I could work that into the curriculum.”

Together they walked up onto the lower walkway of the bridge, which was protected from the passing cars and buses by a fence. A few other pedestrians were making their way along it, but Ben paid little attention to them, instead looking out over the side of the bridge onto the river below.

“The bridge is eight hundred feet long,” he said as they paused dead center. “And this part is made up of two counterbalanced bascules that can be raised in five minutes to let the boats go through.” To Luke: “Have you ever seen it raised?”

“I have,” his uncle replied. “And I’m sure we can do so today as well. It’s certainly something you wouldn’t want to miss.”

Ben smiled.

The Thames was a brown and dirty-looking river, matching the general grayness of the city. The bridge’s towers were somewhat dreary, too, but Ben could imagine that they would have been whiter when it was built. Supposedly lights lined it during the night, making it bright like a carnival ride. He’d have liked to have seen that, too.

“Are the rooms where the hydraulics are open?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not,” said Luke. “But surely you’ve seen diagrams in your books.”

Ben tried not to be disappointed. “It’s not the same.” A beat. “I bet they’re loud, but maybe not as loud as when they were steam-powered.” He pointed at a tall structure that looked like a lamp post. “That’s one of the smokestacks.”

“Interesting,” Luke said, though he didn’t sound particularly fascinated. His overcoat was open and the ends flapped around his calves in the breeze that had come up. Ben buttoned his own jacket against the bite. Luke continued: “Shall we go along and see the other tower? We can climb to the upper walkway.”

They meandered along in no particular rush, Ben taking in all the intricacies of the bridge’s design and considering what it might be like to lay out something like it. Such a monumental structure was unlikely to be put onto the plate of a junior engineer, but Ben could see himself drafting something simpler on one of the large, tilted tables, protractor and pencil in hand. The notion had cropped up so unexpectedly that he wasn’t completely sure what to make of it. He’d had no real hobbies or passions back at home and supposed that he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps and turn to trucking—maybe even construction. He wouldn’t mind that, he didn’t think, but he’d rather be on the design end of building things than the labor side.

What this required was university, and more than just a course in math. There were surely colleges back in the States that he could go to—good ones—but there were options in England, too. The rain and the cold and the gray didn’t recommend it, and Haverhill wasn’t the most ideal introduction to the country, as Hux had once said. Yet Ben might be able to see staying on. After all, there was nothing for him in Massachusetts.

The upper walkway offered an incredible view of the city, from the river to the old buildings. London was old—ancient by American standards. Ben wasn’t necessarily one for history, but Luke had mentioned visiting the Tower of London after the bridge, since it was the bridge’s namesake. Apparently there were all kinds of implements of torture on display from more brutal times. He thought Hux might like that more than he would, despite the fact that Hux didn’t seem overly interested in history either. Maybe he just seemed like the kind of person who would have tortured someone; he had certainly made Ben’s life a nightmare for several weeks. But cleaning a sports kit and lighting fires was a far cry from the rack or the iron maiden.

Luke was uncomfortable with the height of the walkway, so they kept moving to spare him, but Ben was sorry when they went down the stairs back to street level.

“So,” Luke said, hands in the pockets of his overcoat, “would you like a cup of tea? We can find a café while we wait for the bridge to rise.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Wouldn’t want you to miss it.”

Ben was never in the mood for tea, but he nodded and followed Luke to a nearby restaurant with large windows that looked out over the river and bridge. He ate more scones with clotted cream than drank tea, but as he had told Hux once before, it wasn’t so bad with milk in it. And it certainly tasted better than the stuff they had at Haverhill.

A fairly tall barge came down the Thames around eleven o’clock, capturing Ben’s complete attention. He waited with excitement humming until the traffic on the bridge was stopped and the two sides began to lift to allow the boat to pass. It went slowly through until the highest point was clear and the bridge could be lowered again. It really was an impressive sight.

“It’s nice to see you so energized, Ben,” Luke said once he had settled the bill. “It suits you.”

“Thanks,” Ben said, and he meant it.

From the restaurant, they went to the Tower and paid the fee for the tour. A chipper guide—too chipper for the content—led them into the museum. Ben was actually looking forward to it, in a better mood than he had been in a long time.

 


 

The following days were filled with more exploration of the city, including some tedious museums that Luke was far more thrilled about than Ben was. He had to look at numerous oil paintings, their surfaces cracking after centuries. There was sculpture and also displays of stuffed animals in the history museum. He forced himself through it for Luke’s sake, but was relieved when they were finished and he got to see more of the city’s monuments, and places like Trafalgar Square. They rode the Underground between sights, which Ben liked if just for the fact that it took a lot of clever design and building to make it work.

A highlight was definitely the good food, which Ben was going to miss when they returned to school. He felt as if his cheeks were filling out, the meat pies with brown gravy and fish and chips sticking to his ribs.

On Friday afternoon, they stopped by a department store to pick out a suit for him. They were going to be attending a play that night and Ben needed to look presentable. It was a hassle, taking far too long, but they found something in green polyester that worked. They took it back to the hotel and hung it in the closet next to Luke’s suit, taking a nap afterwards. Ben had picked up a book at the Tower of London about its past and was working his way through that in their free time. Luke seemed to strongly approve of his nephew’s sudden studiousness—even if it wasn’t in Latin or Greek.

After dinner and before the play, Luke arranged for a picture of them to be taken in the hotel lobby. Ben hated posing—it always felt fake—but he forced a smile as he stood next to his uncle. The staff would send the film for developing and they would have the pictures by next week, before they left.

The play was something modern, which Ben was glad for. He wasn’t keen on sitting through three hours of Shakespeare’s histories. They stopped for a drink at intermission, Luke vouching for Ben so he could get a pint of beer. Luke gave him a conspiratorial wink as he passed it over. Ben wanted to roll his eyes, but he was genuinely appreciative, so he offered his thanks.

Saturday morning brought them to the grounds of Imperial College London, where Luke had a friend who could show them around. He was a reedy man in his middle forties wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. He sported a pair of large-lensed glasses, which he constantly pushed up his sloping nose as he talked. His name was Albert Fairchild, a professor of mathematics.

“Legally,” Fairchild said by way of introduction, “the university is called the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine. It was established in 1907 here in South Kensington.” He turned to Ben. “Have you prepared your application yet, young man?”

“Um, no,” Ben replied.

“Well, you’d best get on it. Competition is stiff to get into a program here. But if you’re attending Haverhill with old Skywalker here, no doubt you’ve top marks.”

Ben didn’t counter him with the truth, instead just listening as they continued their walking tour of the grounds. They stopped in front of a striking building, Fairchild gesturing toward the main doors.

“Here is the main home of the Faculty of Engineering. It was mentioned that you might seek entrance into that program.”

Ben took in the elegant structure. “Yeah, I think so,” he said—aloud for the first time. “There’s a civil engineering course, right?”

Fairchild steepled his long fingers. “Indeed there is. Civil and environmental. That’s a very noble calling.” He raised his brows. “Are you interested in maths as well?”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “It’s my best subject in school.”

“Oh, splendid!” Fairchild said, beaming. To Luke: “You didn’t tell me he was a maths boy.” To Ben: “Perhaps you can take one of my courses, then.”

Ben put his hands into his pockets, but said, “Sure. That’d be cool.”

Fairchild huffed. “‘Cool,’ yes, that’s one way to describe it. It’s challenging, but if you’re up for it, you’ll learn a great deal.”

With earnest certainty, Ben told him, “I’m up for it.”

They proceeded to explore the rest of the grounds, Fairchild stopping them to bring them to his office and into one of the grand lecture halls. Ben was admittedly impressed. The whole place had a hallowed feel, not unlike Haverhill, but less stuffy. The buildings were newer and sleeker, and, if he wasn’t imagining it, held a kind of promise he hadn’t expected. He could imagine himself here, carrying a backpack of books and notebooks to fill with diagrams and equations.

Fairchild was passionate about his teaching, Ben discovered, though he warned that not all of the faculty were so keen on it. Many of them had been hired to do research and write academic papers and only taught to keep their tenure. Ben hadn’t even known what professors really did, other than teach, and he got a crash course in what academia was like. He definitely couldn’t see himself doing research in a cramped office like Fairchild’s. If he was to do anything with engineering, it would be at a firm like some of those he’d read about. He wondered if there was one he could visit at some point. For now, however, he didn’t ask.

When the tour was finished, Luke stopped by the admissions office and picked up an envelope from the secretary: a pretty young woman with windswept curly hair. He pushed it into Ben’s hands, saying, “Your application.”

Ben held it out in front of him, studying the thick paper. There was the promise again, of something wholly new and different and intriguing. Upon their return to the hotel, he tucked it into his suitcase without opening it to look at the paperwork that was involved in completing it. He figured it was some kind of bad luck, until he decided if he was really doing to do it. He was leaning stronger that way, which stunned him. Though the envelope was tucked away, it and all that it implied was never far from his thoughts for the rest of the day and into the night.

 


 

 

On Thursday the thirtieth, they were standing outside of Buckingham Palace with a crowd of other tourists, watching the formal changing of the guard. It was chilly and rain was misting down, wetting Ben’s jacket. Luke had said they weren’t to miss this, though, so there they were in the less-than-desirable weather to see a bunch of men in red jackets and truly ridiculous hats go through the ceremonial motions.

Their time in London was nearly up, but they hadn’t wasted any of the days. They had started this one with a boat ride up the Thames and then a visit to St. Paul’s. More transit on the Underground and buses, the schedules of which Ben was already learning. It would be exciting to live in a city, he had decided, far more so than Alderaan or Haverhill. There were pubs to go to live music and some street vendors who were selling fresh vegetables and flowers. It was alive and bustling—compelling in ways Ben had never encountered before. Four years of university would give him ample time to learn the hidden best places in the city.

As the guards walked stiff-legged through the courtyard, he couldn’t help but think of Hux’s cadets and their formal marching around the Haverhill grounds in uniform. He would look absurd in one like the guards’, and Ben didn’t think he’d have enjoyed it. Officers, he reasoned, had better things to do than volunteer to walk around in front of the palace and have tourists takes pictures of them all day. Armitage Hux was disciplined, but he didn’t have the patience for that kind of tedium.

At the conclusion of the guard change, there was polite applause and then the crowd began to disperse. Ben fell into step with Luke, who asked, “Well, what did you think?”

“Seems kind of unnecessary,” Ben replied. “I mean, they don’t really even actually protect the royal family like that, do they?”

“No, they don’t. There are bodyguards and other soldiers who do that. But, if anything, it was a nice tradition. Like the royal family, indeed, the English like their traditions.” He cleared his throat as they waited to cross the street while the light was green. “There’s a ceremonial guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. Did you know that?”

“I’ve never been to Washington,” said Ben. “What do they do?”

“It’s similar to the guard here, but only one man walks the path for a few hours at a time. There’s a whole to-do about changing that guard, too.”

They went through the crosswalk to the sidewalk—pavement, Ben corrected himself—on the opposite side and began a slow journey along the nearby buildings.

“How long has it been since you’ve been back to America?” Ben asked.

Luke replied, “Not since I left in ‘38.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes, but I’ve lived in England longer now than I ever did in America.” He gestured around them. “This is more my home than anywhere else.”

Ben made his way beside him, taking in the older, more stately buildings. Boston had some building like that—distinguished—but there was something more imperial about London’s structures. Ben might have visited Harvard when he and his mother had last been in Boston, but they’d skipped it; they hadn’t even driven by. It hadn’t mattered to him then, but he figured now that he would have liked to have seen it.

“Are you longing for your old stomping grounds?” Luke asked after a moment.

“Not really,” said Ben.

Luke stepped around a woman pushing a baby carriage, continuing when he was at Ben’s side again: “It’s difficult to acclimate to a new country. I’m aware of that. For what it’s worth, you’ve done quite a good job. Very few complaints.”

Ben laughed lightly. “Oh, I have them. I just don’t tell you about it.”

“Fair enough,” Luke said. “But I do hope you’re not wholly unhappy. England has a great deal to offer a young person.”

“I’m okay,” Ben told him.

Luke raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Ben nodded. “Yeah.”

Together, they ducked into a resturant for afternoon tea and scones, the latter of which Ben always looked forward to. The ones with raisins weren’t that good, but the cranberry ones had just the right mix of sweet and tart to suit the clotted cream. He was definitely going to miss this when he got back to school.

The hostess showed them to a prim table decked with white linens and a set of floral china. Luke ordered Earl Grey; Ben took plain black.

“Can I ask you something?” said Ben as they drank their first sips.

“Of course,” Luke said. “Whatever’s on your mind.”

“What’s Sandhurst like?”

If Luke was overly surprised at the question, he didn’t show it. Ben hadn’t mentioned Hux much more after the time in the lodge’s dining room, but he came up fairly often, despite Ben’s best intentions of putting him out of his thoughts for the duration of the holiday. Talking about Sandhurst wasn’t directly talking about Hux, but it was likely that Luke could extrapolate where the curiosity came from. Ben didn’t bother to be embarrassed about it.

“Well,” Luke said, “I’m not an expert, but as far as I know, it’s the required training course for any army officer intending on earning a commission and serving actively. I believe the course lasts, ah, forty-four weeks. Most of the instructors are other officers, many noncommissioned but with leadership expertise, but there are also civilians who teach defense and military history and behavioral science.”

Ben gave him a wry look. “‘As far as you know?’ As far as I know, that’s a lot.”

Luke chuckled. “Yes, well, I’ve had to advise certain boys bound there over the years. But it’s not actually a university in itself. West Point back in the States is one, but Sandhurst isn’t accredited in that manner. It’s just meant to produce competent officers and send them into service.”

“Is it really hard training?” said Ben.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the details, but I’d imagine the work is rigorous.” He took a solemn drink of his tea. “Mr. Hux hasn’t told you about any of this?”

Ben shook his head. “I didn’t ask.”

“But you said you talk with him ‘sometimes.’”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

Their conversations were still limited, even if Hux didn’t order Ben out of his study as soon as they both had climaxed and cleaned up. It was part of the reason Ben still didn’t get him at all. He wanted to change that, though, he realized. He want to know him.

Luke was thoughtful for a few moments. “There are better friends you could make, I have to admit. Mr. Hux is very severe and...not always the most tolerant boy in sixth form. He’s a good head boy, I suppose—very much Snoke’s style—but he’s cold, maybe even to the point of being cruel.”

There was no lie in that, and Ben couldn’t counter it. “He’s all right,” he said. “Not as unbearable as he comes off, when you get to know him.”

“Well,” said Luke, “consider getting to know others too.”

“I do,” Ben said. “Finn and Dameron. And, uh, I guess Mitaka. He still helps me with Latin.”

Luke perked up at the mention of his favored subject. “I’m glad that arrangement is working out. He’s a clever boy. I could see him studying classics at university. Have you asked him what he’s going to study?”

“No,” Ben told him. “But I will.” He would, too.

Their scones arrived a few minutes later, and Ben savored one of his last tastes of them before they went back.

“Hey, Uncle Luke,” he said. Luke looked up at him, still chewing. “Thanks for bringing me here. It’s been a good break.”

Luke swallowed his scone and smiled. “It’s been nice getting to know you better, Ben. I’m glad you came to Haverhill.”

Ben, for the first time, and with candidness said, “Yeah, me too.”

 


 

Returning to the Arkanis House dormitory didn’t put the kind of damper on Ben’s good mood that he might have expected. He was still in his own clothes: battered Converse basketball shoes, blue jeans with the hems fraying, and a plain sweater—even his “civilian” underwear. No one else was in the room yet, and all the beds were done up with military precision. That invariably brought Hux to mind, and he stopped next to the head boy’s bed, laying his fingers on the metal at the foot. He wondered when Hux would be back from his half term visit home.

Ben had done a lot of reading of his Tower of London book, and wasn’t in the mood for any more, so he took the pack of playing cards from his jacket pocket and headed to the common room to play some solitaire. Luke had taught him how on the train ride home. Ben didn’t miss the bit of annoyance at him once again not wanting to talk, but it faded as they played on the table between them, somehow falling into a kind of competition to complete the game faster than the other.

Ben expected to find the common room as empty as the dormitory, but he stopped short at the threshold as he spotted a head of red hair and Hux’s narrow frame tucked into one of the armchairs by the fireplace. He had a uniform jumper—new by the look of it—in his lap, and he was stitching something into the collar with a needle and thread. He didn’t look up until Ben’s footfalls sounded closer to him. His clear green eyes went wide.

“What are you doing here?” Hux demanded, snatching the small sewing kit from the table beside him and shoving it between his legs, as if to hide it. That didn’t make a difference; Ben had already seen what he was up to.

Ben bristled by habit alone. “I should ask you the same thing. It’s still half term until everyone gets back tomorrow.”

“I’m fully aware of that,” Hux said, sharp. “Why are you back early?”

“Luke—the headmaster—had to be here to get ready for term to start again,” Ben replied. “Why are you here?” He looked at Hux’s hands, which still held the jumper and needle. Inside the collar was a standard embroidered name tag, half sewn in. Ben’s brow knit. “Doesn’t your mom sew those?”

Hux frowned deeply. “Does yours?”

Ben glared back at him, holding the pack of cards tightly in his right hand. “No. Alice does.”

“Who’s that?”

“Luke’s housekeeper.”

Hux didn’t seem impressed, but lowered his gaze to the name tag and thread. “Well, I don’t have a housekeeper to do that kind of work for me, so I must do it myself.”

Ben regarded him steadily, frustration transitioning into curiosity. “What about your mom?”

Hux returned to stabbing the needle through the fabric in efficient, tidy stitches. He replied flatly, “She’s dead.”

Ben flinched. “Oh. Sorry.”

“I don’t need your pity, Solo,” Hux said. “It was a long time ago that she died. I barely remember her.”

Shifting his weight uncomfortably, Ben ventured to ask, “So, who do you stay with when you go away for half term? Your dad?”

Hux didn’t pause in his sewing, and he didn’t look up. “My father made it very clear when I first went away to prep school that his new wife wasn’t very fond of me.”

It took a moment for Ben to understand. “You stayed here.”

More stitching. “Yes, Solo, I did.”

Ben hesitated for a few seconds, but then took three steps closer, until he could make out the words on Hux’s name tag: Armitage Evelyn Hux.

“Where were you off to, then?” Hux asked crisply. “You disappeared after I saw you in my study. You didn’t go home to America.”

“London,” Ben said. “With Luke.”

“What did you think of our dear capital city?” There was something akin to disdain in his expression; Ben couldn’t fathom why.

“It’s big,” Ben replied. “And gray. It rained a lot.”

Hux snorted. “Yes, I should imagine so.”

“We saw Tower Bridge and the changing of the guard and”—he paused—“Imperial College London.”

This time when Hux stopped his work, he peered up at Ben with genuine interest. “Are you thinking of applying there?”

Ben chewed his cheek. “Maybe.”

“Interesting,” said Hux. “You’ll not have to do quite so well on your classics exam if you don’t plan on Oxbridge.”

“I don’t really know what that means,” Ben said.

Hux offered a half-smile. “I don’t think you know how refreshing it is to hear that perspective. You’re like light, untainted air at times.”

Ben wasn’t sure it was a real compliment, but his chest filled all the same. Realizing it was awkward to still be standing, he went to the chair beside Hux’s and sat heavily down into it. Hux was still wearing his uniform, Ben saw, though he was in his shirtsleeves and his shoes were on the floor under his seat.

“Do you not have anyone else you could visit over the break?” Ben asked. “Like an aunt or something? Cousins?”

“No,” Hux replied. “My father is an only child and my mother’s family… I don’t have a relationship with them.”

Ben blinked at him uncomprehendingly. “Why not?”

“Because they didn’t like my mother taking up with my father, and seeing as I came out of that, they don’t like me.” There was no emotion in his voice, nothing to betray that this meant anything to him.

“What did you do all this time, then?” said Ben.

Hux shrugged one shoulder. “Read, walked, had a good lie-in every morning. What difference does it make to you?”

Ben’s annoyance rose again. “Seriously?” he said. “I can’t even ask you that? It’s just a question.”

“It’s fair to inquire as to why you care,” Hux said, ever-unaffected. “Does how I spend my time affect you at all?”

Ben threw up one arm. “It does sometimes, when I spend it with you.”

Hux hissed, “Be quiet. Just because no one is here doesn’t mean you can speak so freely of our arrangement.”

“I didn’t mean just that, Hux,” said Ben. “It’s not all we do when we’re together.” He hesitated before adding, “Well, we could talk more.”

“We are not together,” Hux insisted coldly.

Ben said, “You think I don’t know that? God, Hux, you drive me nuts. I was just trying to make conversation, but you had a make a big deal of it.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I was thinking I actually kind of missed having you around, but then you had to remind me of what a pain in the ass you are.”

Hux dropped his jumper, giving Ben a hard look. “And you think that you’re just a ray of sunshine?”

“You know what?” Ben said, getting to his feet. “Screw this. You don’t want to talk to me, I’ll just leave you alone, like you have been.” He made to storm out, but Hux called to him: “Solo.” Ben ventured a glance back at him, brows raised in question.

“I’m sorry,” Hux said with a sigh. “Talking about my family never puts me in a good mood. Come back and sit. We can talk.”

Ben set his hands at his hips. “You’re not going to be a dick?”

Hux shook his head once. “I can’t change my nature, but I’ll do my best.”

That, Ben had to admit, was all he could ask. He went back to the chair.

“Tell me about London,” said Hux. “I haven’t been in quite some time.” He looked over Ben’s clothing. “I see you were comfortable.”

Despite the lingering threads of anger, Ben laughed. “It’s so much better than school clothes.”

That half-smile again. “It suits you better than the uniform.”

“Do you even have other clothes?” Ben asked.

“At my father’s townhouse for summer holidays. They’re nothing special, but a little more refined than your blue jeans. How quintessentially American.” Ben rolled his eyes in suitable dismissal and Hux took the hint, reeling himself in. “But you are, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. You know, I had never met an American before you.”

“Really?”

“Really. I haven’t been much out of England, ever.” He fiddled with the needle, wincing as he pricked his fingertip.

“A lot of the other boys travel during the summer,” Ben said. “Not you?”

Hux said, “Despite the means to send me away to school, my father is not as well off as many of the others’ fathers here. You said you can’t fly home. I can’t travel to the Continent for six weeks.”

“What he’s like?” Ben said. “Your father.”

“If you think I’m an arsehole,” Hux replied, “you should meet Brendol Hux. He’s an Army man, and it shows. He isn’t a particularly affectionate father—more of a drill sergeant. He was glad to be rid of me as soon as he could.”

Ben studied Hux’s profile. He was so matter-of-fact about it all. When Ben talked about his parents shipping him away, it made him furious, and that came out in his voice. Hux couldn’t have been more different.

“Do you miss him?” Ben asked.

Hux scoffed. “Not in the least. Though staying at school during holidays is quite humiliating, I’d rather be here than with him and Maratelle. She’s an insufferable socialite with nothing but pink mush between her ears. I have no idea why my father finds her tolerable, save for that she’s nice to look at.” He tipped his head toward Ben. “Do you miss your parents?”

Ben considered. “Maybe sometimes, I guess, but they weren’t really around much when I was at home anyway.” He bit down on his lower lip. “I was thinking I should probably write a letter to my mom, though.”

“Perhaps,” said Hux, “if you think she would like that. I don’t write to my father; he doesn’t give a damn if I’m well at school. As long as I finish my studies and head off to Sandhurst in the autumn, that’s all that matters.”

“Are you looking forward to it?” Ben said. “You really want to go into the army?”

Hux picked up the sewing kit from between his legs and set it back on the table. He bit off the thread he had been working with after making a knot at the corner of the name tag. “It’s what I’m good at, so why should I not?”

Ben rubbed his palms on his thighs. “What do you do in the army if there’s not a war going on?”

“There is,” Hux told him. “Don’t you know anything about Northern Ireland?”

“No,” Ben replied. “There’s a war there?”

Hux wet his lips. “Not a traditional one, but it’s been occupied by the English army for decades. They wanted independence and the right to practice their faith—they’re Catholics—without English meddling, but Mother England would not allow that. It’s territory, of course, as well. Wouldn’t want to give up valuable land.” His mouth twisted into a sour scowl. “There aren’t any front lines or formal battlefields, but the Irish Republican Army doesn’t muck about. There are bombings and skirmishes in the streets. It’s not a good place to live.”

“So, it’s like a civil war?” Ben asked.

“A very disorganized and messy one,” said Hux. “There’s no end in sight. For all I know, I’ll be sent there to keep the peace—as best one can.”

Ben expected that there was far more to it than the simple description Hux gave, but he didn’t ask about more. He instead pointed at Hux’s jumper. “Your middle name is Evelyn.” He pronounced it the way a girl’s name would be said: Ev-eh-lin.

Hux corrected him straight off: “ Eve-lin. I hate it, so don’t go spreading that around.”

“Mine’s Bail,” Ben said. “After a family friend who was like a father to my mom. It’s pretty terrible, too, to be honest.” He got a light laugh.

“What a pair we make, Benjamin Bail Solo,” Hux said.

Ben chuckled too. “Yeah.” He fiddled with the deck of playing cards. “Do you know gin rummy?” he asked. Hux nodded. “You want to play?”

“Not really,” Hux replied.

“Oh.”

A sly smile spread across Hux’s full lips. “I rather thought we might retire to my study.”

Ben’s hands stilled, fingers tightening around the cards.

Hux added: “I’ll say I’ve missed having you around.”

His throat was tight, but Ben managed to swallow. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Hux grabbed his jumper and sewing kit, leading them hurriedly out of the common room. He threw all of it down on his desk when they got to his study, and he yanked Ben to him by the belt. Ben went happily.

Chapter Text

As the autumn waned, the rains came harder, and term resumed, both the buildings at Haverhill and its students took on a distinct rheuminess, from dripping eaves to the chest-wracking cough that had cropped up after half term and was making its loud and wheezing way through the boys. The infirmary nurses couldn’t do much for it other than offering the disgusting licorice lozenges that grandfathers sucked in their easy chairs while they watched grainy television. Ben didn’t want to get too close to anyone who had been given a handful of them; he thought it might have been worse than the cough itself.

So far, he had avoided the illness, and the good mood his trip to London had put him in had stayed on, buoying him through lessons that usually dragged. Math was still the best of them, but the concepts of trigonometry they’d been focusing on were lost on at least half the class, forcing Snoke to go over problem after problem to drill the basics into their heads. It was boring enough for Ben that he had a book—Advanced Mathematics for Engineers—open in his lap and was surreptitiously reading while Snoke lectured. Unfortunately, it meant he wasn’t paying attention when Snoke called on him toward the end of the lesson time.

A long-fingered hand landed solidly on the top of his desk, and he snapped his head up in guilty surprise to find Snoke standing there, clearly displeased. There was a streak of chalk dust along the side of his suit jacket, the offending dusty eraser held tight in his opposite hand. “Mr. Solo,” he said, “I asked you a question.”

Ben raised his heels and thereby his thighs to hide the book in his lap under the desk as he hurriedly looked over the problem on the board in an attempt to puzzle out what that question might have been. “Uh, thirty-nine,” he said. It was the solution.

Snoke glared down his straight nose at him. “So, you posit that the theorem we’re covering is thirty-nine?”

Ben flushed, knowing he had no way to cover for his inattention. “No, sir. I, um… I don’t know what the theorem is.”

Rapping on the desktop with a weathered knuckle, Snoke asked, “And, pray, why is that?”

Resigned, Ben pulled the book out and lay it open for Snoke to see. “I was reading, sir.”

Snoke took a chunk of pages and flipped them between his thumb and forefinger. “I’m boring you?”

“No, sir,” was the answer that came first, but Snoke and every other boy in the room knew it for the lie it was. Ben amended, “Well, maybe a little. Sir. I know all of this already.”

Murmurs of discontent, maybe even scorn, made the rounds of the classroom. Snoke lifted one of his almost-bare eyebrow ridges: a challenge.

“If that’s the case,” he said, “then why don’t you teach the rest of the lesson on cosine?” He backed up two paces, offering a stick of chalk and the eraser. Snoke knew perfectly well how much Ben hated being at the front of the classroom, making it a more-than-suitable punishment. However, if Ben had to do one thing in front of the rest of the upper sixth boys, it might as well have been this: his best subject.

Ben slid his legs out from under the short desk, a process of unfurling most of the smaller boys didn’t have to do, and took five strides up to where Snoke was standing. He took the chalk and eraser and slowly began to wipe the previous problem from the blackboard. There were surely problems he could take from their textbook, but the gauntlet had been thrown down; he wanted to prove himself to Snoke and to everyone else. Wetting his lips, he began to sketch a six-panel Pratt truss at the center of the board.

“This is the bridge over a river,” he said. “Each of the six panels has a vertical and diagonal member to support the structure. Below is a member parallel to the river. Together, all three members form a right triangle.” He highlighted one of the panels, labeling each line as a steel member. “The diagonal member’s length is sixteen feet and angle of the bottom member to the diagonal is thirty-nine degrees. We’re going to solve for the length of the adjacent: the bottom member.”

In his neatest handwriting, Ben wrote the formula: cosine thirty-nine equals the adjacent—x—over the length of the hypotenuse—sixteen. In quick, sure calculations, he moved the x onto the appropriate side and multiplied sixteen by the cosine of thirty-nine, and got a very neat answer of 4.3 feet. As he set his chalk down and turned to face the class, some of the stares he got were openly awed.

“Does that make sense?” he asked. “Or should I break it down step by step?”

There was a silence, and then Hux replied, “Break it down, if you please. We still have five minutes left in the lesson...Master Solo.”

Despite his nerves at being on the spot, Ben’s face split into a grin. Hux being glib was so rare that he had to go so far as to stifle a laugh. From behind him, Snoke openly chuckled. “Yes, Master Solo,” he said. “Do continue.”

Ben picked up the chalk again.

When the period ended, the boys shut their notebooks in visible relief, many of them fleeing into the corridor for as fresh of air as could be had. Ben erased the board and set the chalk down, intending to go out himself, but Snoke intercepted him.

“Solo,” he said, voice low, though not with disapproval. “Have you thought more about what we discussed?”

Ben knew immediately what he meant. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “And...the headmaster took me to Imperial College London over half term. I have an application for their course in civil engineering.”

Snoke’s mouth twitched. “I had hoped it would be pure mathematics, but if that suits you, then I’m not here to discourage it. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a clever one, Solo, but you are.” Another twitch, this one upward. “Cleverness earns one respect in such a school as Haverhill.”

“Maybe,” said Ben. Finn had told him as much, but Finn was uniformly clever, and good at games. Ben only excelled at one subject. He couldn’t see things shifting monumentally because of it, but the admiration in the faces of the other boys just minutes before was unmistakable. If Finn could win people over with his smarts, maybe Ben had a chance. And there had been Hux’s reaction, too. He pressed his lips together to keep from smiling again. To Snoke: “Is that all, sir?”

“Not quite,” he said. “Have you looked at other universities as well? You have good marks and Imperial College London is likely not outside your reach, but it always pays to be prepared if you aren’t accepted to your first choice of university.” He drummed his fingertips on the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. “There are several other—admittedly less selective—universities you could seek admission to.”

Ben hesitated, not having thought much about other colleges. If he didn’t get into the course he wanted, he figured maybe he wouldn’t go and would just return home. But Snoke had a point: he could still attend university, just elsewhere. It wasn’t the worst prospect, if he was being sensible.

“Do you have some recommendations, sir?” he asked.

Snoke inclined his head. “I do. I’ll make a list and you can write for the applications.” His expression remained grave, but he replied with less severity, “I’m pleased you’re pursuing this, Solo. It’s the mission of this school to produce bright minds with brighter futures. I’d like you to be among them.”

There, again, was the pride and drive Ben had thought he had forgotten. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”

“I’ll have the list for you by tomorrow,” Snoke told him. “You are dismissed.”

Ben slipped out into the corridor to head to the toilets, but as he came out of the classroom, he caught sight of Mitaka across the way, talking to Hux, of all people. At Ben’s appearance, they both turned their heads toward him, falling silent. Ben stopped dead under their scrutiny, uncertain if they meant to speak to him.

They did not, it seemed, because Mitaka went back to talking. Hux, however, kept Ben in the corner of his eye. Ben took him in, from shoes to neatly combed hair. Since term had started again, Hux hadn’t called Ben to his study to light his fire or to bring him tea. They had only met there for Greek tutorial yesterday evening. It had ended as it usually did: with fevered touches and a very satisfying climax for both of them, but after the conversation they had shared in the common room on Saturday, Hux had mostly steered clear of him.

Not speaking to each other outside of their private meetings was nothing new, but Ben wondered why he suddenly wasn’t being fagged so demonstrably. Hux usually sent for him at least three times a week aside from tutorial. He thought maybe that he had done something wrong, even if Hux had given no indication that he had misstepped. In fact, he was behaving just as he always did: imperiously stalking around Arkanis House and delivering stern comments on boys’ appearances and decorum.

On Monday night, he had snapped at a pair of lower sixth boys who had been laughing too raucously at dinner. “Despite still feeling your oats from half term,” he had said primly, “you are back at school now and are expected to act accordingly. Have a care for your manners, lest you embarrass yourselves and our house.” He’d gone directly back to eating, and the boys had tempered their voices, becoming subdued and openly less happy.

It wasn’t to say that Hux’s reign made life in Arkanis House actively miserable, but it definitely was not a fun environment. Nobody had ever said Haverhill was supposed to be a joyride, though, and Ben hadn’t ever thought any school was meant to be. At least Haverhill looked like a storied place of higher learning rather than the one-story concrete and brick blockhouse that had served as his high school in Alderaan. He didn’t miss that at all, preferring by now the hallowed, if drafty corridors of the old buildings.

Hux’s avoidance of him put Ben on edge. So much of his day-to-day was governed by Hux’s moods, and he still—to a point—begrudged it. They swung the tenor of Arkanis House, but it affected Ben more directly than most—even if he couldn’t admit that. He sought the routine they had slipped into before half term: some chores done and then Hux’s cool hands on him. However, he served at Hux’s whim, with little recourse; his own desires weren’t as important. His dislike of that simmered in him on their days apart, but almost always receded during their meetings—to the point that he was able to forgive Hux his worst transgressions.

Looking at him now in the corridor gave Ben the tingling suspicion that he was the topic of Hux and Mitaka’s discussion. What they could be dissecting about him, he wasn’t sure. Hux never confided in anyone, least of all his prefects, and definitely not Ben. But they could have been saying anything—from some critique of Ben’s still too-long haircut to his know-it-all math lesson. There was nothing he could do about it just then, leaving him with no choice but to turn down the corridor toward the bathroom, leaving Hux and Mitaka and whatever they were saying about him behind.

 


 

Among the run-down sports sheds near the rugby field was one reserved for the cadets. It stood away from the others and apparently had a changing room and a place to store their uniforms. Ben had, after all, never seen Hux in his fatigues inside Arkanis House, but he wore them every Saturday during their drills.

It turned out to be much more than just marching around the courtyards, too. Ben had been out for a much-needed walk several weeks before when he heard the distinct report of gunfire. At first, he had jumped—startled—but then made his way toward the source of the sounds. He found the gaggle of fifteen or so cadets lined up at a makeshift firing range near the grounds boundary. He hung back so they couldn’t see him, but watched in fascination as Hux—identifiable by his hair—stepped up to the firing line, braced a long rifle against his shoulder, and shot at one of the targets.

Since they’d talked about the conflict in Northern Ireland, Ben had been poking around to find out more about it. Hux had played many of the worst things down. The sheer number of bombings was staggering, and apparently civilians were often caught in the crossfire. It hardly seemed possible in the purportedly upright and enlightened United Kingdom: a street war fought every day by occupying English soldiers against men and women they considered to be part of a ruthless insurgency. Ben realized with horror that if Hux went there, he could actually be killed. And riflery practice was something that would be needed.

Ben hadn’t lingered long at the firing range, continuing along on his walk. But the percussive snap of shooting followed him into the stand of trees where he sometimes hid for peace. It was disquieting, and he couldn’t stay for long outside. He had returned to the main school building and gone early for his shelf reading in the library. When he had seen Hux later that day, just passing by in the halls, cold dread and even a measure of fear had tingled at the back of his neck. He wondered if Hux could kill someone without compunction. The thought disturbed him deeply.

On Saturday the eighth of November, Ben went out onto the Arkanis House terrace after lunch and looked out over Hux’s drills with the cadets. He was, if anything, a brusque commander, and all the other boys obeyed him without question. That was what soldiers were trained to do, of course, but Hux had a domineering presence, just as he did as head boy. It still sometimes rubbed Ben the wrong way to see him snapping orders at fourth form boys who were just fooling around in the common room, but there was something striking about that Ben had to admire. He had always railed against authority, but Hux had broken him to his will—both with repetitive chores and with his hungry mouth. Ben should have been ashamed, but he wasn’t, anymore.

Leaving the cadets and closing the terrace’s glass door, he went to the table where he had left his Latin books. He sat and opened to the most recent translations, but only had to wait a few minutes before Mitaka appeared with his own notebook and grammar. He took his seat next to Ben and said, “Hello.”

“Hi,” said Ben.

Mitaka ventured a close-lipped smile. “Doing all right today?”

Ben nodded. “Same old. You?”

“Well enough.”

They had caught up about half term during Monday’s tutorial, and Ben had learned that Mitaka’s family was from Cambridge, his father a doctor at the local hospital. Mitaka had said that he saw only a little of his dad during holidays, spending more time with his four sisters and their mother, who had doted upon her only son since he was very small.

“She didn’t want to send me away to school,” Mitaka had said, “but Dad insisted that they had the means, so it was only right that I get a leg-up in my future.” He had shrugged. “Guess that’s sensible, but he’s dead wrong if he thinks I’m going to be an MP or a diplomat or whatever he wants.”

“What do you want to do then?” Ben had asked.

Mitaka had chewed his cheek. “I honestly don’t know. I’m going to go to university and read something probably useless. At least it’ll delay me having to get a job for another three years.” He eyed Ben. “You want to study engineering?”

Ben nodded.

“I think that’ll suit you.” A wry smile. “Better than classics anyway.”

Ben had laughed, and they had resumed their studies.

Now, Mitaka cracked his grammar and tapped Ben’s to get him to follow along. Ben, though, wasn’t in the mood. He’d been pondering what Luke had told him in London about Haverhill being home to some boys who went on to be openly gay. He had been curious as to whether there was anyone recently who had gone through the school.

“Can I ask you something?” he said to Mitaka.

“Usually that means something I don’t want to talk about, but all right.”

Ben said, “Have you ever known a homosexual?”

If Mitaka was offended, he didn’t show it. He answered flatly, “No.”

“There wasn’t ever anybody in school?” Ben prompted. “Luke—the headmaster—said he’d seen a few come through over the years.”

Mitaka considered for a moment. “Well, there have been some suspicions in the past. When I started in third form, there was a boy in upper sixth who had done some questionable things over the course of his career, and it earned him some whispers, but he was never blatant about it. If he had been, he would have been a pariah. Nobody would have talked to him for fear it would rub off. Or something like that.”

“Seriously?” said Ben. “I know it’s different, but people would have totally written him off?”

“Most likely. I’ve told you before: we don’t allow gayness here. Boys can”—he lowered his voice—“mess about sometimes, but it’s not like that.”

Ben’s brows knit. “You can’t really think that’s true. There have to be some people who do it because they want to.”

Mitaka looked annoyed. “Why do you always have to make a fuss about this?” He narrowed his eyes. “Do you have a reason to be concerned about it?” The implication was audible.

To Ben’s relief, he didn’t blush. “No, but it’s just…weird that people get so freaked out about it if they’re touching each other’s cocks in the sports sheds at the weekends.”

“Christ, Solo,” Mitaka grumbled. “You think too bloody much about this. Let it go and stop worrying. If you asked anyone else but me about it, they’d have more questions about your nature. I trust that you’re strangely interested, but others…” He shook his head. “Just leave it be.”

“Okay,” Ben said. “Sorry I asked.”

Mitaka’s shoulders dropped. “I suppose it’s better we clear things up than let them fester in your mind. You didn’t have four years behind you to figure these kinds of things out. Was it not like this in America?”

Ben replied, “I didn’t go to boarding school there with all boys. Coed school.”

“Lucky sod,” said Mitaka. “What I wouldn’t give for a girl or two here. I’ve seen enough cocks for a lifetime. I’d rather...other bits.”

Ben found himself stifling a laugh. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for the horny type. You seem pretty buttoned-down.”

Mitaka gave a dismissive snort. “I’m human, aren’t I? Don’t you want someone to snog?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” Ben muttered. For all that they did together, Hux had never once kissed him. He didn’t think much over why, since it was nice enough to just get their hands on each other.

“Well,” Mitaka said, “at least we’ll have what we need at university. You shouldn’t really have a problem. You’ve got better looks than me.”

Ben, disbelieving, shot him a confused glance. “You’re kidding, right?”

Mitaka raised a questioning eyebrow. “No. You have looked in a mirror, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, but...I’m nothing special.”

“You’re an arse, is what you are,” said Mitaka. He shoved Ben’s notebook at him. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”

They turned to their work, but Ben couldn’t help but wonder idly about his appearance. He’d never had anyone say anything about his looks, he was fairly sure. And nobody had given him a second glance. Well, except… Hux. Hux was the exception to everything in Ben’s life at that point. He had never said a word about Ben being attractive, and he didn’t go out of his way to give him any kind of favoring touches—other than what they needed to get each other off—but he had seen him differently than anyone else ever had. Still, there was nothing at all tender about him. As far as Ben knew, he was a convenient body: useful in doing work and handy when Hux was feeling tense. He didn’t even think they were friends, and that stung more than he expected it to.

He didn’t believe he had control enough of whatever they had to push Hux on the issue, but if he decided to do something intimate, it might tip him off that Ben wanted something more. Did Ben want more? That was the question. Even if he wasn’t sure, maybe it was time he got on his knees and tried it.

 


 

Finally, on Sunday evening, Hux sent Thanisson with an order for Ben to bring him tea in his study. Ben gathered the necessary elements for the tray from the kitchen—he did it by rote by now—and carried it with practiced efficiency up to the third floor of Arkanis House. A knock, permission to enter, and he was setting the tray down on Hux’s desk.

“Good evening,” said Hux from his place by the bookshelf, where he was seemingly examining the titles on the shelves. Ben got the impression that the careful consideration was feigned; Hux had been waiting and doing his best to look unruffled. There was rigidity in his shoulders and back beneath his white shirt, his arms held tight to his sides. He had already removed his tie; it lay over the back of his desk chair, on top of his discarded blazer. He was prepared for Ben’s visit: partially unclothed. Ben’s stomach dropped with involuntary arousal.

“Hi,” Ben said. Tea delivered, he removed his own blazer and set it aside. It was bold, but he approached Hux from behind and set a hand at the small of his back. From where he stood—close, chest nearly in contact with Hux’s shirt—he could smell the cologne Hux wore. It might have been aftershave, but as far as Ben knew, Hux only shaved every couple of days, like him. Ben was tempted to put his chin on the top of Hux’s shoulder; it was just the right height.

He half expected Hux to shoo him away, but he didn’t, shifting infinitesimally toward him with palpable relief. Ben felt the muscles under his hand soften and give, and he smiled to himself, knowing Hux couldn’t see it.

“You haven’t been drinking much tea lately,” Ben said.

“No,” Hux said. “I’ve been preoccupied with other things.”

Ben spread his fingers against Hux’s back, almost a massage, and more daring yet. “Like what?”

Hux turned his head slightly, so that his cheek was close to Ben’s nose. “Management of the house. There was a kerfuffle in fifth form over sleeping arrangements that needed sorting. And there’s school work, of course. As you might have been able to tell on Friday, I’m not the keenest maths student.”

“I can help you, if you want,” Ben told him. “I do the problems with Mitaka sometimes.”

“We have a great deal of Greek to do on Thursday evenings,” said Hux. “I’m not sure we’d have the time.”

Ben’s counter came easily: “I could come a different night. Maybe Tuesdays.”

Hux’s throat clicked as he swallowed. “We shouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time together. It draws attention that we don’t need.”

“I don’t think anybody cares,” Ben said. He knew it wasn’t true, but it was an attempt to put Hux at ease.

Sniffing disdainfully, Hux said, “You’re a fool if you believe that.”

Ben slid his hand to Hux’s side, a hint of an embrace. “You’ve called me that before.”

“And it’s true...at times.” Hux inched his fingers up to cover Ben’s where they rested.

A flare of excitement lit in Ben’s belly. There, for once, was the unfamiliar, even gentle, type of touch that he had been craving. Hux was so standoffish with everyone that to feel him give even the slightest indication that he could be tactile came with a thrill. Ben wanted to turn his hand under Hux’s and thread their fingers together, but he held back for fear that it would only chase Hux away.

“I heard some boys talking a few days ago,” Hux said softly. “They don’t quite know what to make of you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ben.

“You were so rebellious at the start of term, and then, quite suddenly, you came to heel.” His thumb brushed along the side of Ben’s hand. “They think I did something quite awful to make you obey me.”

Ben remained still, unsure what to say.

“It wasn’t unthinkable, what I demanded of you,” Hux continued, musing to himself as much as speaking to Ben. “Some head boys ask for more.”

“That’s saying something,” Ben muttered.

Hux laughed lightly. “I’m not about to ask you to spit-shine my shoes, though there were times in September when I quite vividly imagined making you lick them clean.”

Ben bristled. “Not a chance.”

“Relax, Solo,” said Hux. “I’m not serious. It was a passing fancy, nothing more. I may be a bit of a sadist, but I wouldn’t go quite to those lengths to humiliate you—or anyone. You rarely give me reason to be cross with you these days, anyway.”

“I don’t pick fights just for the fun of it,” Ben told him. “It’s easier not to argue with you, even if you’re damn prickly sometimes.” He squeezed Hux’s side. “Someone looks at you the wrong way and you’re all spines.”

“I’ve good reason. Unlike you and your egregious proportions, I am much easier to push around and bruise. I had to learn to defend myself. My temper proved to be the most effective way to do that.”

Ben couldn’t see him cowering from bigger, stronger bullies, but it was physically possible; Hux’s size wasn’t imposing, despite his height. Ben had always been able to fend off the worst of people because he was usually bigger than them. He hadn’t really taken into consideration how different things would have been for him had he been built more slightly.

Hux’s size had an appeal, he had to admit. Ben’s hand covered a good portion of his side, and both of them could hold his skinny waist tight. Ben could definitely overpower him without much trouble, but it was true that Hux’s attitude kept him from trying it. His moods, his sharp tongue, his influence: all of it put anyone in their place. But, as his poetry reading in Krennic’s class a few weeks ago had proved, he had forgiving aspects, well-hidden as they were.

“Come,” Hux said. “Have some tea with me.” He shifted under Ben’s arm, but Ben held him fast.

“I don’t really want to,” Ben said, low. “I’ve been thinking…” He reached around to Hux’s front with his left hand, slipping it down between his legs and cupping him there. “I want to suck you.”

Instantly, all the tension came back into Hux’s body. He slapped both of Ben’s hands away and, turning, shoved him back. Ben stumbled over his own feet, fumbling to keep himself upright.

What did you say?” Hux demanded, face dark with anger.

Ben stared at him in shock. Of all the reactions, he hadn’t seen this one coming. He managed to say, “I want to use my mouth, you know, like you do.”

Hux’s fury was plain, but there was something like panic in his eyes. “No,” he snapped. “That would not be— No.”

Ben’s surprise began to burn into frustration. He demanded: “Why not? It’s not like you don’t do it every week. I’ve never done it, I know, but—”

“I told you no already,” Hux said. Storming toward Ben, he raised his hands and herded him back toward the door. “Get out.”

“What?” said Ben. “But I haven’t been here since Thursday. Don’t you want to—”

Hux cut him off again: “Not anymore. I don’t want you here. Get out. Out!”

“Hux,” Ben implored, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was wrong. I— Don’t do this. Let me stay.”

No,” Hux said, even more strident than before. His tone was bordering on dismay. Something was terribly wrong, and Ben was at a loss how his suggestion had triggered such a terrible reaction. Hux ordered: “Leave, Solo. Right now.”

Ben fumbled behind him for the door handle, latching onto it and giving it a hard turn. Hux was standing across the room, his chest rising and falling with hurried breaths, cheeks burning red.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said a last time.

Hux snarled, “Leave,” and Ben did, yanking the door open and all but falling back out into the hallway. Hux charged ahead and slammed the door in his face.

Ben stood, bewildered and panting, just beyond the threshold. A pair of lower sixth boys were coming out of the common room and they gave him looks of fright before scurrying off toward their dormitory. Their reaction—more than proof that people did care about him being often with Hux—angered Ben further, and he bent over at the waist, resting his palms on his knees to keep himself from hitting something.

What the hell was Hux’s problem? It wasn’t as if Ben’s offer had been totally unfathomable; Hux had been doing it to him for two months. And he hadn’t put up this kind of fight when Ben had asked to touch him in return. But reciprocating with his mouth was a step too far? He had to be kidding.

Ben rubbed his face, more lost than ever. Hux was a nightmare. Nothing Ben ever did was right; he had no idea what Hux wanted or expected or would even tolerate. It wasn’t fair. The whole thing wasn’t even close to fair. One minute things were fine—good—and the next Ben was turned out on his ear like he had done something terrible. He hated it, he really did, and this should be the end, but that idea made his chest feel empty and cold.

Ben’s eyes prickled, but he blinked until the tingling stopped. Rising, he decided to seek the only haven away from Hux he could think of: the library. At least there he’d be able to calm down and get what bearings he could.

Just when Haverhill seemed to be all right, Hux turned everything on its head again. Ben cursed him as he walked away from his study; he cursed everything he could think of.

 


 

Come Monday, Hux went abruptly back to ignoring Ben, as he had after their first time in his study—so long ago now. The turn in his behavior was so plain that everyone in upper sixth noticed it, and within hours the rumor mill in Arkanis House was churning. Sidelong glances came in droves starting at breakfast, when Hux went past Ben and focused so severely on his food that everyone around him was on their guard.

“What did you do?” Mitaka demanded as they walked across the lawn to the fields for games that afternoon.

“Nothing,” Ben said.

Mitaka didn’t fall for the lie. “We’re not stupid, Solo. You and Hux are on the outs. What the bloody hell happened?”

Ben frowned down at the grass. “He’s an asshole, that’s what.”

The more Ben had let Hux’s rejection percolate in his thoughts, the angrier it made him. Hux had no right to abuse him like he did. He was taking advantage and keeping the power dynamic solidly on his side of the arrangement. At this point, Ben didn’t want anything to do with that, unless they evened the playing field.

Mitaka scoffed. “We all know that, but that’s beside the point. He still runs the house as he always has, but there’s been something more relaxed about him in the past few weeks. It’s as if he’s got a soul under the drill sergeant’s exterior.” He stopped dead, grabbing Ben by the arm. “I don’t know what it is between you, but you have some kind of calming effect on him. You have to right things again for all our sakes.”

Ben’s nerves jangled. “There’s nothing between us,” he said. “We’re not friends.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Mitaka said. “But if you expect me to believe that nothing is going on, you’re an idiot.”

“Do the others know, too?” Ben asked shakily.

Mitaka set his hands on his hips, petulant. “I don’t think they see as much as I do. They don’t speak to Hux as often. He doesn’t talk about you or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking, but since you started Greek tutorial, he’s been different: more mellow. He’s still a bastard, but he’s somewhat less so since you arrived.”

Ben was aware only to the changes in Hux’s behavior in private since the start of their arrangement; as head boy, not much of Hux’s demeanor had shifted. Maybe he had been more mellow with Ben, but not after yesterday. There was his true nature again, Ben was sure: sharp, selfish, even cruel. Ben couldn’t fault him for the selfishness; he himself was much the same way. His interests were in his own affairs—they just happened to intersect with Hux’s from time to time.

“I can’t control him,” Ben told Mitaka. “He does what he wants, and to hell with everyone else.”

Mitaka deflated. “This is going to be difficult, if you won’t help us.”

Ben said honestly, “I don’t think I can, even if I wanted to. I don’t get him.”

“I don’t think anyone does,” Mitaka said, sorrowful. He trudged off again toward the rugby field, leaving Ben to trail forlornly behind him.

Tuesday was no better, and Ben caught some of the lower sixth boys whispering about Hux’s slave-driving in the common room. They fell silent as he approached, as if he had a direct line to Hux and would go crying to him at the first opportunity. Ben stalked past, furious that they thought he had some kind of in. Even if they had been civil before, this regression definitely put a stop to that; Hux wouldn’t even look at him.

Wednesday went by in the same manner, Ben’s ill temper bleeding unchecked into Thursday. He realized with apprehension that he was expected in Hux’s study that night for Greek tutorial, but he didn’t know if he should bother going. Hux might just turn him out again, and he didn’t want to deal with that.

He turned the notion around in his mind restlessly throughout the day, not sparing a single glance for Hux. He got nothing in return, either. Mitaka hadn’t mentioned mending their relationship again, but he still regarded Ben with disapproval. Ben hated that the blame was placed on him when Hux was the one who had caused all of this. Well, Ben supposed his suggestion had set Hux off, but Ben had figured it wasn’t unthinkable. More the fool him. He caught himself on that; Hux had called him a fool, and he didn’t want to acknowledge the truth of it.

Ben’s indecision and anxiety were running high during models club after dinner, and Finn, who came to check in with him on his progress with the Hurricane, saw it clearly.

“You’ve been in a black mood all week, Solo,” he said, folding his arms on the table and rounding his back to lean on them. “What’s the trouble?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Ben grumbled.

Finn pursed his lips, knowing. “Can’t fool me, mate. Something’s the matter. What is it?”

Ben set his paintbrush down. He had finished building the airplane and was working on painting it wartime colors. “Can we take a walk?” he asked. “I, um, don’t want to talk about this where we can...be heard.”

“Sure. All right,” said Finn. He stood, and Ben followed him out into the foyer outside the dining hall. “This is about Hux, isn’t it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Ben said with a sigh.

Finn lifted one shoulder and let it fall again. “Word gets around. People know he favors you.”

Ben made a disgusted noise. “Does he? That’s news to me. He wouldn’t dare be friends with his fag, would he?”

“I think your circumstances are a little different,” Finn said, slipping his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “It’s been odd he fagged you in the first place, but then you said he’s helping you with your classics. That’s out of the ordinary, too. Weren’t you kind of...friends?”

“No,” said Ben. “Well, I don’t know. Things were okay for a long time, but then he just flips. It’s like a light switch: one minute fine and then the next horrible. I don’t think a friend would be like that.” He hesitated before adding, “I don’t really have any idea, though. I’ve never had a lot of friends.”

Finn didn’t bother to hide his pitying expression. “I can’t say I know the feeling, mate, but I don’t think I’d know how to judge Hux, either. I don’t know him like you do.”

Ben hung his head. “That’s the thing: I don’t know him at all. He barely ever talks about himself. He doesn’t ask about me much, either, but it’s like it’s all a big secret.” Ben didn’t want to tell him about what Hux had said about his poor relationship with his father, or that he stayed at school during breaks. Despite Hux being an asshole, he didn’t think it was his place to go spreading that around.

“I’m not sure what to suggest,” said Finn. “It’s a rough spot you’re in. Maybe it’s best to just sever ties. Not that you can totally avoid the head boy of your house.”

Ben couldn’t deny the sense in that, even if the hollowness he’d felt right after Hux had thrown him out persisted. It unfortunately implied that Hux meant something to him, and realizing that it was very likely he meant almost nothing to Hux was like a kick to the gut. He was sure they couldn’t go on like this: uncertain, uncomfortable, and disrupting the peace in Arkanis House. He hadn’t forgotten what the chaplain had told him to do: ask Hux what they were. It just barely seemed possible.

“I’ll talk to him,” Ben said to Finn. “What other choice do I have?”

Finn set a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good man, Solo. If Hux doesn’t realize that, he’s blind as a bat. You don’t deserve to be fagged and then cast off.”

Ben nodded his thanks, but asked, “Are we friends?”

“Of course, mate,” Finn said, grinning his white-toothed smile. “You’re a good addition to cards at the weekend, and we all like you. It’s too bad there wasn’t a place for you in Oakeshott. You’ve have fit in.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. He couldn’t imagine it, however; Arkanis was a strange home, but it had become that since September. He needed to get things straight with Hux for the sake of its balance. He’d go to him during the prep period and tell Hux he either wanted to go back to what they had before, or end it completely. Resolved, he said to Finn, “We should go back in.”

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

They returned to the dining hall to a few curious glances, but the other boys were quick to go back to their work. Ben finished his painting of the fuselage before the end of the period and set the model onto the club’s cart. As Finn wheeled it away, Ben rolled the sleeves of his shirt back down and slid his blazer on. Hux demanded proper outfitting, so he’d appear in his best.

Ben brought no tea and he didn’t bother to bring his Greek books, either. He came to Hux’s study door with nothing but himself and the most courage he could work up. He knocked curtly and waited.

Whereas Hux usually bid anyone enter and allowed them to come in themselves, at that moment, he came to the door and swung it open. He was in his shirtsleeves, his tie removed, as it had been on Sunday evening.

Ben didn’t waste time: “May I come in?”

Hux blinked at him once before moving back to permit him entrance. Ben came inside, and Hux closed the door behind him.

They stood across from each other, unmoving, until Ben spoke: “Hux, look. I don’t know what was so wrong about what I said before, but I’m sorry, and I won’t ever bring it up again.” He chewed his cheek before forcing out: “If it’s going to be weird like this from now on, we had probably better just end the arrangement. I’ll still bring you tea or whatever you want, but I can’t handle being turned on like you did. It’s not worth it.”

Hux stood two paces away, upright with his chin raised haughtily. Ben faced him, nearly trembling with apprehension for his reply. At last, Hux’s shoulders rounded and he let out a long sigh.

“What I did to you,” he began, “wasn’t appropriate. It’s fair of you to suggest we end our arrangement. If that’s what you want, you may go.”

Ben’s reply was earnest: “I don’t want it to end. But I need you to be, I don’t know, reasonable. It wasn’t really that bad what I asked you, was it? I figured it would  be an equal exchange.”

Disapproval crossed Hux’s face. “You wanted only to make things equal?”

“Not just that,” Ben said quickly. “I wanted to try it. I still do. It feels good when you use your mouth on me. You seem to like it, too. Maybe I would.”

Hux wet his lips, not saying anything right away. Then: “You caught me by surprise. I’m unaccustomed to anyone making that offer.”

Ben’s forehead wrinkled in incomprehension. “You mean nobody’s ever done that for you? You just do it for them?”

“That’s about the size of it,” said Hux, short. He didn’t explain further.

“And you don’t want me to?” Ben asked.

Hux curled his hands into fists, looking down. “It changes things. It wasn’t part of our agreement. You don’t need to do that. You didn’t need to touch me at all.”

He seemed diminished in that confession. Unexpectedly sorry for him, Ben stepped closer and extended his hand. “I wanted to.”

“Equal exchange,” Hux murmured.

“No,” said Ben. “I like the way you feel under my hands. I like feeling you, uh, climax.” He drew in a shallow breath, battling the embarrassment at being so frank. “I don’t want this to only be about me. I want you to like it, too.” He could feel heat in his face, but he added, “I want to give you pleasure.” To his relief, Hux favored him with a narrow smile.

“How very formal, Ben Solo,” he said.

A rush of lightness suffused Ben. “You almost never use my first name,” he said.

Hux tipped his head to the side. “Christian names are generally too intimate.”

“It’s kind of nice to hear it once in a while,” Ben told him, smiling too.

“Don’t expect it,” said Hux. He glanced at Ben’s hand, which was still held out toward him. Taking a step closer, he took it in his own. His skin was soft and very warm. “If you really wish to do it—use your mouth, I mean—you can. I won’t turn you away this time.”

With an insistent tug, Ben pulled him in. Hux lay his free hand on Ben’s chest, under his blazer. Ben said, “You sure?”

Hux nodded.

Ben’s gaze went to Hux’s mouth, the temptation to lean in coming on strong. Hux noted his interest and carefully pushed him back.

“On your knees then, Solo,” he said, “and let’s see what you can do.”

Ben shucked his blazer without a pause, loosening and tugging his tie over his head. He watched hungrily as Hux unbuckled his black leather belt and began to unfasten his trousers. He was cautious about it, slowly pushing them down his legs when they were undone. His bare thighs were so skinny compared to Ben’s, but what was between them was nothing to scoff at. Hux kept his eyes on Ben as he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his briefs and pulled them down as well. He wrapped his narrow hand around his cock and gave himself a stroke. Ben’s mouth began to water in anticipation.

Hux sank down onto his desk chair, crooking his finger in invitation. Ben was drawn, but paused to hurriedly unbutton and remove his shirt before he went to him. As he approached Hux and went to kneel, Hux stopped him, running his hot palms over Ben’s stomach and up to his chest. Ben could see the admiration in his face, and he preened under the attention. He said, “Do you think I’m good-looking?”

Hux peered up at him. “I should have thought that was obvious by this point.”

“Nobody’s ever told me that before,” said Ben.

“Then let me be the first,” Hux said softly. He spread his fingers over Ben’s belly. “You’re very good-looking, Solo.”

Tingling with pleasure, Ben dared to brush a hand over Hux’s vibrant hair. “You are, too.”

Hux smiled. “Thank you.” He tugged at the waist of Ben’s trousers. “Now, you have work to do.”

Ben sank to the floor, taking in the sight of Hux’s cock upright between his legs. Familiar enough, he took it in hand and slid the foreskin down, baring him. He got a small groan for his trouble. Ben worked his tongue in his mouth, preparing, and then bent his head and parted his lips.

If he expected any sort of offensive taste, he didn’t get it. Maybe it was a bit salty, but nothing he minded. Hux was hard and filling; Ben wasn’t sure he would be able to get him much deeper without gagging. Hux was far better at it than he was, but he reckoned that since it was his first time, Hux would forgive him his poor technique.

He tried to emulate what Hux did for him, using both hand and mouth, bobbing up and down. It felt awkward, and he hoped that didn’t show. After a moment, Hux’s hand came into his hair, as Ben had more than once imagined doing to Hux when he did this; but he had never had the gumption to actually do it. As Hux’s fingers tightened to take a firm grip, Ben groaned; he really liked that.

“Very good,” Hux said, his voice deeper than it usually was. “You can go a bit faster, but don’t choke yourself.”

Despite the warning, Ben took him too deep and gagged messily.

“Easy,” Hux muttered, landing his left fingertips at Ben’s shoulder, a strangely tender caress. “Don’t push too hard. Shallowly is enough for now. Just use your tongue on the underside. Bring it up to— Yes, that’s right.”

Ben rubbed the flat of his tongue against the ridges of Hux’s cock, careful not to catch the crown on his teeth. His chin was damp with his own saliva, but Hux made a fair mess of himself when he was sucking Ben; it seemed par for the course in this. Hux made a deep, satisfied sound as Ben worked over him, even if he had to use his hand on the most of his length.

Ben’s left hand was braced on Hux’s thigh, but, remembering what Hux often did, he moved it up to cup his testicles, rolling them gently. His heart thudded as he heard Hux say, “God, yes, Ben.” His name sounded good in Hux’s crisp accent, even if it was rounded as Ben pleasured him. Encouraged, Ben swallowed him down as deep as he could, using his tongue as he sank down toward the sparse red hair at the base of Hux’s cock and then sucking as he drew up again.

Hux’s hold on Ben’s hair remained as he began to breathe more heavily, his sounds growing more broken and desperate. “I won’t finish in your mouth,” Hux managed to say. “Not this time. I’m close, so, let me just…” He inserted his hand under Ben’s to take over, and Ben pulled away.

Ben kept his gaze on him as he swiftly jerked himself to completion, catching his spend in his opposite hand as his body tensed and spasmed. His eyes were pinched tightly shut, his mouth hanging open. Ben was sure he had never seen him look more stunning.

When, at last, Hux returned to himself, he turned his eyes down to Ben and gave him a true smile. “You have great potential,” he said, sex-drunk.

Ben found himself chuckling. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It was one,” Hux told him. “Get my handkerchief from my pocket, will you? I’ve made an utter mess of myself.”

Ben did, and Hux wiped his hand and cock clean. He tossed the handkerchief away, uncaring of where it landed. Since Ben was still on his knees in front of him, Hux took his face between his hands. “Thank you,” he said, uncharacteristically mild.

Ben rubbed Hux’s thighs, feeling only a few springy hairs under his palms. “I’ll get better if we practice.”

Hux laughed. “Yes, I have no doubt. But for now we should likely get to Greek.”

Ben scowled. “Oh, come on. After that you expect me to study?”

“I absolutely do,” Hux said. “Let me up.”

Reluctantly, Ben got to his feet, standing idly by while Hux did up his trousers and tucked his shirt back into them. He even reached for his tie. Ben grabbed him by the wrist. “Not that.”

Hux raised an eyebrow. “And why not?”

“You look better without it,” said Ben. He thumbed Hux’s collar. “You look better without any of it, really.” To his shock, Hux’s cheeks reddened.

“We can’t be caught out like that,” he said. “It will be the end of us.”

Ben sobered. “We could be expelled. Luke told me.”

“We could, yes.”

Fingers moving to the back of Hux’s neck to hold him there, Ben asked, “Why take the risk?”

Hux seemed unsure, but then replied, “The reward is worth it, don’t you think?”

Ben could feel the softness of his hair at the tips of his fingers. “It is,” he said. “It really is.”

“Come,” said Hux, extricating himself from Ben’s hold. “Put your shirt back on and let’s to work.”

It was frustrating, but Ben did as he was told and sat next to Hux at the desk, allowing him to provide a piece of notebook paper for Ben to use for exercises. They sat close enough for their legs to touch, and, immensely relieved, Ben pressed his against Hux’s and got a steady pressure in return.

 


 

Luke was reading from a fraying copy of Medea in their Greek lesson the next afternoon. He made slow progress from one side of the room to the other as he did, his voice rising and falling with the poetic lilt of the words. Some of the boys were taking notes, but most were simply listening with glazed disinterest. Ben was doodling what he could remember of Tower Bridge in his notebook, but occasionally he could pick out a word or two in Luke’s recitation that he understood.

Ben and Hux had spent the rest of prep period the night before going through translations, Hux diligently correcting any of Ben’s mistakes. The exacting attitude was familiar and didn’t irritate him just then; it implied that things were going to be all right between them after all. Still, he had been conscious of the fact that while he had had Hux’s cock in his mouth, Hux hadn’t touched his. He didn’t want to ask for it and seem desperate, but was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t supposed to be all about him, and yet.

He had been prepared to get up and leave unsatisfied, but ten minutes before free time was over, Hux had closed his grammar and reached without preamble for Ben’s fly. Ben had left very much satisfied, in the end.

The disquiet among the Arkanis boys had disappeared by breakfast, when Hux had made natural, even pleasant conversation with the rest of upper sixth. Mitaka gave Ben a grateful look as they left the dining hall, and Ben had nodded at him: the silent acknowledgement that Mitaka had been right about his influence with Hux. He wasn’t sure he wanted to consider too deeply what Mitaka could take from that.

As Luke finished the stanza he was reading, he turned to the class and posed a question about the content. Ben nearly faltered when he realized that he knew it was about that; he understood the query. There were no immediate replies, and, glancing around the classroom, he did his best to formulate the answer in his head. It was likely a broken attempt at a full response, but it was worth a shot. He raised his hand.

Luke turned to him. In English: “Mr. Solo?”

Steeled for the backlash, Ben gave his answer in awkward Greek. There was a moment’s dead quiet, and then Luke was smiling. He rattled off a rapid-fire response, which Ben struggled to parse. Luke recognized that and amended, slowing down. He said, in the ancient tongue, “Well done, Solo. I see your tutorials are paying off. You are most diligent.”

Ben replied, “Thank you, sir. I have a good teacher.”

Across the room, Hux was watching him in astonishment. It slid seconds later into unmasked pride. He gave Ben a nod, lighting Ben up from the inside out. He went back to his notes then, but Ben rode the high for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

Five miles was a significant distance to walk by most people’s standards, but none of the boys at Haverhill complained about it when they were permitted to make the trek to and from Tindon Village on the weekends. On Saturday the twenty-second of November, Housemaster Snoke had told them that all of upper sixth was allowed to spend the afternoon there after lunch, and the ten of them had scrambled to get their jackets straight away. Ben was glad for the one Luke had bought for him in London; it kept off the worst of the bitter late autumn wind as it came up across the moor.

The boys in their year from the other four houses has also been turned loose, and they formed five distinct groups as they all made the journey to the village. Ben hung at the back of Arkanis’s section, which brought him within conversational distance of the Oakeshott boys. Dameron and Finn were at the head of the group, marching purposefully down the lane as they tossed smiles and jokes back and forth. Ben ventured a glance ahead of him, to where Hux was leading Arkanis House in silence, Mitaka and Thanisson as his wingmen. The mood between the houses was startlingly disparate.

As the village’s high street came into sight, the boys doubled their speed, itching to be the first to get to the shops and what little freedom they offered. When the first of them caught sight of a St. Catherine’s uniform, Ben thought they might break into a flat-out run. The girls Ben saw first were wearing one of the most ridiculous pieces of clothing he’d ever seen: not a proper jacket, but a black cape trimmed with blue from which their arms stuck out. Some had on gloves and others were bare-handed. Almost all of them wore blue berets over their hair.

“Rey!” called Dameron from behind Ben. He jogged ahead, waving to the very slight girl Ben recognized from their first trip here. When she saw him, a radiant smile spread across her face, and she broke away from the group of girls she had been standing with and sprinted to him. Laughing brightly, he swept her up in his arms and swung her around. Finn wasn’t far behind, joining the two of them and embracing Rey as well.

The Arkanis boys left Ben behind as he watched the trio. They were lively and sunshine-bright, and Ben had to envy that kind of visible friendship. While he barely remembered the names or faces of the guys he had drunk beer with after cutting class in Alderaan, Rey and Finn and Dameron were the picture of camaraderie. His observation didn’t go unnoticed for long; Finn turned to see him standing alone in the middle of the road, the rest of upper sixth long gone.

“Solo,” he said, gesturing to Ben. “Come over here!”

Ben hesitated, the skepticism in Rey’s expression putting him off, but he crossed to the sidewalk where they were waiting. “Um, hi,” he said.

Rey looked him over from nose to knees, her pert mouth pursed. “Who are you?” she asked. Her accent was clean and proper, the timbre very much feminine, unusual to Ben’s ears after only hearing boys for weeks.

“Ben Solo,” he replied.

“Solo here has the misfortune of being in Arkanis House,” said Dameron, “but he’s a good sort.” He clapped Ben on the shoulder, even if he had to reach up to do it. “Plays cards with us, and wins. Say, Solo, you want to come to the shop with us? They’ve got candy if you have the same sweet tooth I do.”

“Or Finn does,” said Rey, nudging him with her elbow. “Both of you are terribly sweet.”

Dameron took her hand and kissed the knuckles like a hero from a black and white movie, and Finn hugged her around the shoulders. She laughed happily, cheeks pink and merry. To Ben, she said, “Come on, then. What kind of candies do you like?”

“What kind do they have?” said Ben.

Rey smiled at him. “All kinds.” She might have been standoffish just a minute before, but now she took Ben’s arm and crooked it so she could slip her own through it. She tugged him insistently along the sidewalk; he had no choice but to follow. Finn and Dameron came behind them, listing the types of sweets they would be getting at the shop. Ben hadn’t brought much of his meager allowance with him, and he didn’t care that much for candy, but he figured he should probably buy something, if only to satisfy Rey.

The shop—Peddler’s Market—was warm inside and smelled of floor polish. Rey made a beeline for the shelves that housed the sweets. The shop did indeed have a large selection, and Rey let go of Ben to pick up a small paper bag to fill with different candy. She took some licorice and hard candies, which looked to be fruit-flavored. Foil-wrapped chocolates went into the bag, too.

“Oh, I love Flakes,” said Dameron, picking up a three long, wrapped chocolates. “Ever had these?” he asked Ben. When Ben shook his head, he grabbed three more and pushed them into Ben’s hand. “Have to try them. I promise they’re good.”

While the three of them picked out the sweets they liked, Ben stood by holding his Flakes and avoiding shifting his weight uncomfortably. They had so much lightness and energy that he wasn’t used to that he wasn’t sure how to behave around them. The brightness should have been infectious, but Ben’s joy wasn’t easily won. He went with them as they stepped up to the counter and paid the proprietor for the candy. The man grinned with tobacco-stained teeth, wishing them a good day.

Back out in the chilly air, they went around the corner to where there was a wooden bench alongside the quiet street. It was a tight fit for all four of them, but they managed it. Finn was the first to take out some toffee and crunch into it. He made a happy little mm sound as he chewed. Ben untwisted the wrapper of one of his Flakes and found it to be a lightweight piece of milk chocolate. He bit into it, and it fell apart in his mouth.

“What do you think, mate?” asked Finn.

Ben swallowed and replied, “Pretty good. Chocolate’s okay.”

Rey wrinkled her nose. “Just ‘okay?’ It’s heaven after weeks and weeks of semolina and dry oranges in the dining hall. They fend off scurvy, but they taste like citrus-flavored paper.”

“At least you get oranges,” said Dameron. “We’re lucky if they manage to give us wrinkly apples. You know, the kind that have been sitting in the pantry for six weeks and getting grainy.” He made a face. “I wouldn’t eat them if I wasn’t desperate.”

“Why is the food at school so terrible?” Ben asked around another bite of Flake. “People pay hundreds of pounds in tuition and yet they can’t feed us anything reasonable. The masters have to eat it, too, so why don’t they demand something better?”

“Probably because they ate the same bland mash and boiled green beans as students that we do now,” said Rey. “It’s comfortable for them. I mean, who in their right mind would actually want to come back and teach at public school after being a student there?” She looked aghast. “Some of the mistresses at St. Catherine’s were pupils there themselves. God, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that. I want out of that place as soon as I can get free.”

“Solo’s only got one year of it,” Finn said. “Lucky sod.”

Ben said nothing, looking down at his feet.

“Lucky indeed,” Rey told him, peering from her place at the opposite end of the bench. “But he’s in the worst house, isn’t he?” A deep scoff. “With Hux.”

“How do you know him?” said Ben.

She replied, “He and Phasma are conspirators in making everyone’s lives hell. She’s head girl of Chester House and gets up to the same sort of shite he does: bossing people around and patrolling after lights out to make sure you’re tucked in all the way up to your neck. Nobody crosses her for fear of getting a stern telling-off, or worse.”

“Worse?” Ben asked.

Rey popped a piece of black and white licorice into her mouth, smacking on it thoughtfully. “Chores, errands, work instead of dinner. That kind of thing. I’ve heard Hux does the same.”

“Yeah, he does,” Ben said, “but he’s not all bad.”

Both Dameron and Finn turned to Ben with shock in their faces. He flushed under their attention.

“Okay, yeah, he’s a hardass,” Ben continued, “and most people don’t like him, but”—he fiddled with the two pieces of wrapped Flake still in his hand—“he can be all right, when he wants to be.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, mate,” Finn grumbled. Dameron agreed with a nod. 

Rey was still focused on Ben, studying him. She said, with undisguised suspicion, “He’s got to have some kind of special treatment for you, if you think he’s ‘all right.’ That’s like saying Phasma’s all right, and she’s the furthest from that you can think of. A whirlwind of mean orders and easy to anger.”

“You’ve just heard about him from other people,” Ben said, sharper than he might have intended. “You don’t know him—not really.” Coming to Hux’s defense wasn’t something he was used to doing. He knew, after all, what Hux was, and even if he sometimes softened and made sweet noises of pleasure under Ben’s hands and mouth, it didn’t change how he acted around everyone else. He gave nobody any reason to think he was at all decent. He would probably chide Ben for standing up for him, too, because it suggested Ben’s favor, which was always to be hidden.

Rey’s delicate brows rose, but moments later, her eyes narrowed. “He’s done something to win you over, and whatever it is, it’s a lie. There’s nothing good in him, and he’ll drop you the minute you don’t serve a purpose.”

“That might be a little harsh,” said Dameron, setting a hand on her knee. “Maybe he’s really Solo’s friend.”

Ben countered: “He’s not, but he’s not all bad either.” He unwrapped another Flake and ate half of it in one go. “Anyway, where are you from, Rey?”

Rey gave him an incredulous look, but then perked up. “London. The other side from Finn’s family.”

“The posh side,” Finn said. He bumped her shoulder with his, playful despite the disparaging tone. She stuck her tongue out at him, and he added: “She had a nanny and all the dolls and nice dresses she could want.”

“I hate dolls and dresses,” she said. “Give me a good pair of trousers and a trowel for the garden.”

Dameron grinned. “Rey runs the garden club at St. Catherine’s. She’s got the greenest thumb of anyone I know. The flowers in the spring are beautiful.”

“As if you’ve ever seen them,” said Rey. “No boys allowed even close to the grounds.”

“More’s the pity,” Finn lamented. He took Rey’s hand. “I wish we could see you more.”

Ben could see the affection he had for her so clearly—the gentle way he touched her. Dameron was lovesick, too, though if Ben wasn’t wrong, he sometimes turned that same adoration on Finn. Ben wasn’t sure what to make of them in their triumvirate, but they were happy with whatever they shared. The open tenderness lit a flame of envy in his belly. Maybe whatever he had with Hux wasn’t tender, but he could never display even a small measure of friendship for him without inspiring conjecture among the other Arkanis boys. They would always hold each other at arm’s length.

Suddenly melancholy, Ben didn’t want to stay any longer. He would rather be on his own, walking the streets and maybe taking what pocket money he had left and trying his luck at the pub again. Tucking the last Flake into his pocket, he extricated himself from the tight squeeze on the bench. “I, um, should go,” he said. “It was good to meet you, Rey.”

She popped up to her feet and held out her small hand. “Good to meet you too, Solo. See you again sometime, eh?”

They shook, and Ben said, “Yeah, okay. See you later.” He stepped back and turned his back to them. He went slowly enough to keep it from looking like he was running, but he didn’t tarry, either. He rounded the corner back onto the high street and relief washed over him.

There were a few groups of boys―some of them mixed with girls—loitering around street corners and at the front of shops. He didn’t pass close enough to hear conversations, but he could see from how closely the boys and girls stood that they were both more than glad to see each other. Ben hoped Mitaka had found his girl to snog—the one he had gone off with on Ben’s first time in Tindon. He couldn’t remember her name. But Mitaka wasn’t anywhere to be seen, so Ben figured he had gotten what he wanted.

Ben wandered up past the tailor and the pharmacy to the door of the pub. He hoped to get another pint to mull over, but as he entered, the barman—someone he didn’t recognize from the last time—called, “No schoolboys. Off with you.” Ben hesitated, but at the accusatory looks of the other patrons, gave up and went back outside. Hands deep in the pockets of his coat, he wandered further up the lane toward a stand of trees. Gravel-lined paths twined amongst their well-manicured trunks, on which Ben’s footsteps crunched.

Some of the trees gave off a piney smell, but when the wind came up, Ben caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. It bought voices, too: a girl’s and a boy’s. Ben knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but he followed the sounds until he came to a small clearing lined with ivy patches. At the far side was a similar wooden bench to the one Ben had sat on with Finn, Rey, and Dameron, but on this one was someone he recognized easily.

Hux was lying on his back with his knees bent, feet resting at the edge of the bench. He was wearing a black double-breasted peacoat, the silver buttons catching the afternoon light. One arm was draped over the back rest of the bench and the other was hanging down close to the ground, a half-smoked cigarette balanced between his forefingers. The gray smoke was drifting up in a wavering line, lingering in the stillness between breezes. As Ben approached, he ashed the cigarette and took a drag.

“Well, well, look at what we have here.” On the other side of the clearing stood Phasma in her cape, hands planted at her hips and a sly smile on her lips. She said, “Hullo, Solo.”

From his place on the bench, Hux lifted his head to see Ben, flicking his cigarette away. He didn’t challenge Ben’s presence.

“Hi,” said Ben.

Phasma took three sauntering steps toward him, appraising him as she did. “I saw you run off with Rey and her fan club earlier. Looks like you got on well with them.”

“Okay, I guess,” Ben said. “I hadn’t met Rey, but Finn and Dameron play cards with me on the weekends sometimes. At the weekends.” He got a sharp laugh.

“We’re making an Englishman of you, are we?” Phasma said. “Try hard enough, maybe you can lose that American drawl.”

“Spare us from Solo attempting to do an English accent,” said Hux dryly. “Most Americans are rubbish at it, no matter how hard they try.”

Phasma shot him a pointed glance. “It’s not impossible to learn to fake one. Don’t you think?”

Hux kept his gaze trained on the trees above them. “Perhaps.”

“I don’t think I’ll try,” said Ben.

“Wise,” Hux told him.

Phasma huffed. “Very well then. But you’ll stick right out at uni.”

Ben looked first to Hux and then back at her. “How do you know about that?”

“Armitage told me, of course,” she replied. “Said you’re quite the maths whiz. Going off to be an engineer. Big stuff. Big stuff indeed.”

He was genuinely curious, but made sure to slip some acidity into his tone as he asked, “Hux talks about me?”

A dismissive snort from the bench. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist; it’s just idle chatter.”

Phasma didn’t seem convinced, and Ben didn’t miss it. “Yes, well,” she said, “he mentioned it. I’m not planning on uni myself, not right away at least. I want to spend a year traveling around the Continent before I settle down to more bloody studying and the kind of academic knobs who fuss around Oxbridge. I’d avoid the place completely if I could, but I think my mother would keel over if I didn’t find something productive to do.” She laughed again. “She’d melt down if I told her I was going into the Forces like Armitage. She says it’s a noble calling and all that, but oh, if her children ever deigned to enlist? Utter heart attack.”

“You don’t have the discipline,” said Hux. “You crave too much comfort.”

“Admittedly,” she said. “I think you could get used to it, too, but you’re too proud to admit it. Cots in the dormitories and cross-country runs in the icy mud don’t get you up like you pretend they do.”

“Fuck off.”

Ben said, “How do you afford traveling? Will your parents pay for it?”

Phasma tapped a cigarette from her pack. “They won’t want to, but they will. Nothing more shameful than having to let me get a job at a sandwich shop or in retail. Heaven forbid.”

“You’d be shit at both,” Hux observed.

Phasma shoved two fingers toward him, though he didn’t see it. “I’ll get by,” she told Ben, sticking the cigarette between her lips and pulling a silver lighter from the depths of her cape. “Won’t be staying in five-star hotels, that’s for sure.” She lit the tip of the cigarette.

“I know some people who hitchhiked across the country during the Summer of Love,” Ben told her. “They didn’t shower much and smoked a lot of hash.”

She put on a look of wistful pleasure. “What I wouldn’t give. I’d like to visit America someday. You think I could stay with your mum and dad if I flew over?”

Ben shook his head. “Not a chance.”

“Pity.”

They stood still for a time, unsure how to continue. At last, Ben asked, “How did you and Hux meet?”

Phasma took a long puff of her cigarette. “That’s a funny story, actually. Armitage, do you mind if I tell it?”

“Go on, then.”

She crossed to where Ben was standing and put a long arm over his shoulders. She was tall enough that she didn’t have to reach. “It was in third form, right? Ages ago now. Sometime in September, I think, when we had just been released to the village for the first time. I wasn’t very keen on the other girls in our year, so I was off on my own, poking around the alleys and the back lanes, kicking stones or whatever else thirteen-year-olds do before they know better.

“So, walking I was, when I heard voices from a little street by some bins. Raised voices. I went down out of pure curiosity and lo and behold, I see three Haverhill boys standing in a semicircle around a slip of a redhead. They were saying something about that very hair, if I remember right, and I expected them to jump in and tear him apart within seconds. Oh, was I surprised when that little boy opened his big mouth.” She guided Ben toward the bench, where Hux was now sitting up, paying attention to her tale.

“The string of curses was astounding,” she continued. “Things that would put a sailor to shame, insults about their upbringing and their marks in school and the very weaknesses they tried so hard to hide behind a mask of anger and cutting down smaller boys. The usual things: big noses, inferiority complexes, dead parents. He knew exactly the barbs to throw, and each one of them landed like he had plunged a knife right into their most sensitive places. It was stunning to watch.”

Hux was smiling one-sidedly from his place on the bench. “It was one of my better dressings-down, if I do say so myself. Though I don’t need to curse as much anymore.”

“It did the trick then,” said Phasma. “Those boys scurried off with their tails between their legs, leaving one panting ginger so red in the face I thought he was going to pop. I had to know who he was.”

“She was very matter-of-fact about it,” said Hux. “Just walked right up and held out her hand. I thought she was mocking me, too, but she made sure I understood she wasn’t. She was actually impressed.”

“We spent the rest of the afternoon together,” Phasma said. “Got some chocolate from the shop and sat side-by-side eating it like it was a victory feast. We’ve gotten on well since then.”

Hux sat at the edge of the bench and eyed her. “Indeed we have. She appropriated a few of my curses after that, I believe, and put them to good use. Not that anyone dared push her around for her stature.” He gestured to Ben. “I believe you can relate.”

“No one crossed you again after that day, far as I know,” said Phasma to him. “Word got around fast that Armitage Hux wouldn’t stand for anyone’s flak. Established your reputation right away.”

“Rey said you have one, too,” Ben said to Phasma. “For being a taskmaster in Chester House.”

She clapped her hands together with one resounding slap. “Oh, yes, I run the house efficiently and don’t tolerate any foolishness. Hux and I trade notes sometimes.”

Hux chuckled, and Ben frowned at both of them. It figured they liked each other, if they were hated by everyone else.

“Not surprising to hear little Rey complaining about me,” Phasma said. “She’s the leader of the resistance. Hugs the girls who cry for their mums and brings hot water bottles to the ones with monthly cramps. She was up for head girl, too, but the housemistress prefers a no-nonsense approach.”

“Like Snoke,” Ben grumbled.

“Exactly like him,” she said. “Or so I’ve heard. They should have been married when they were young.”

Hux rose, saying, “So few masters are married. So many of them have had reputations as lecherous bachelors. Some were too fond of certain boys.”

Ben’s mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Certainly not. There’s a long and storied history of masters having ‘salons’ with certain boys, plying them with drink, and drawing them or posing them for photographs. Far worse, too, but that’s not for your delicate ears, Solo.”

“But that’s—” Ben stuttered. “That’s horrible. It’s abuse.”

Hux nodded gravely. “Public school is a hive of sadism, Solo. It always has been. Beating boys, starving them, making them stand vigil in wet clothes all night; unwanted touches, dark whispers, merciless bullying. You’ve seen the softer side of Haverhill. Things were different when it was founded.”

Ben didn’t want to believe it—or at least he hoped it was an exaggeration—but Hux rarely kidded about anything. If he said it was true, and Phasma didn’t argue, it likely was. Ben asked, “How did they get away with it? Didn’t the boys tell their parents?”

“Sure,” said Phasma. “The girls do, too, but their parents probably went through it, or something similar. Builds character, they say. A load of shite, that, but English parents have been excusing the appalling conditions in public schools for centuries.” She wet her lips with a pink tongue. “Nobody comes out of it without some scars.”

“What’s the point?” said Ben. “Why do that to your kids?”

Hux came to stand beside him. “Children aren’t meant to be coddled, or so the parents of our class say. Affection is weakness and should always be restrained.” His mouth twisted. “My father is the very pinnacle of that. And, if I might be so bold, Solo, I don’t think your parents were too far off, either.”

The cold anger that Ben had brought with him to England lanced through him again. His parents had cast him off: a problem to be rid of. He had never not been in the way. Hux had told him his father hadn’t wanted to deal with him and had packed him off to board at six. If Leia and Han had had that choice, Ben was almost certain they would have taken it.

“You agree,” Hux said as he looked at him. “It’s a cruel reality, isn’t it? Children in this country—and maybe yours—are born to parents who won’t really love them, for the sake of propriety.”

“Not everyone is like that,” said Phasma, “but the kind who send their children to board usually are.”

Ben’s heart dropped low in his chest, sorry for the kids who were like them and furious with their parents. “Why ever have kids at all, if you’re just going to throw them away?” he asked.

“Social expectation,” Hux said. “Carrying on the family name. Take your pick.” He sneered. “But the bloody Hux line ends with me.”

“Hear, hear,” Phasma said brightly. “My brothers will produce the heirs my parents want, but I don’t want any part of children.” She winked at Hux. “Neither of us even plan on getting married to avoid even the notion that we’re going to reproduce.” To Ben: “You thought about that?”

“Not really,” he replied. “But I didn’t have a great example of a tight family to go by.”

Hux reached out and squeezed Ben’s bicep. “None of us do.” He held on longer than was exactly appropriate, and it didn’t escape Phasma’s notice, but she said nothing about it.

“What terrible conversation,” she offered, steering them clear of more of that. “This just won’t do. Tell me about something pleasant.”

Hux cocked an eyebrow. “Did we not just establish that there’s nothing pleasant at Haverhill?”

She gave an over-the-top sigh. “Make something up then. I don’t plan on being maudlin all day after this. It’s Saturday, and I want to have a good time.”

Ben reached into his pocket and pulled out the Flake. He tossed it to her. “Have this,” he said.

She caught it deftly. “Oh, very good, Solo. This is my favorite.” She took the chocolate out and took a bite. “Delicious.”

“That’s very generous of you,” said Hux.

“Sorry, I don’t have any more.”

“I wasn’t asking you for it.” Hux plucked at his jacket. “This is very fine. Better than the threadbare jumpers you were wearing at half term. Something new, perhaps?”

Ben snatched his arm away. “What do you care what I wear?”

Hux didn’t venture to touch him again. “It was just an observation. Nothing awful was meant.”

“I think,” said Phasma, “what he means to say is that you look nice in your pretty new jacket, Solo.”

Hux glared at her. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Daphne.”

“And you don’t use that name,” she snapped.

The prickliness was all an act, Ben was sure, but some tension vibrated in the air between them. If Phasma was touchy about her first name, she wasn’t the only one in the world. And it suited her, Ben thought.

“Thanks,” he said to draw their attention. They did both turn, but the corner of Hux’s mouth only curved slightly while Phasma gave him a full smile.

“You’re all right, Solo,” she said. “Next time we meet here, I hope you’ll come see me again.”

Ben asked, “Are you telling me I have to leave right now?”

She chuckled. “No, of course not. But why don’t we go get something to warm us up? It’s bloody cold out here.”

“They threw me out of the pub,” said Ben as they began to walk along the path the way he had entered the park.

“They’ll do that until you’re eighteen,” Phasma told him.

“I am eighteen,” said Ben. “It was the uniform.”

Phasma chuckled. “When do you turn nineteen, then?”

“May fourth.”

She slapped him on the back. “I’ll take you to have a pint then. In the meantime, we go to the shop and get tea in paper cups to sip outside like vagrants. Sound like a good time to you?”

He said, “Not really.”

“It doesn’t to us, either,” said Hux, “but we don’t have much choice.” He took the lead, calling, “Come along, Solo. Keep up.”

Ben, his earlier low spirits banished, caught him up and walked at his side.

 


 

The applications for the second- and third-choice universities Ben had sent away for at Snoke’s suggestion came within a few days, and by Tuesday he was nearly finished with each of the essays and had collected the record of his marks to mail with them for consideration. He wasn’t the best writer, but he thought he had a decent case for why he wanted to study engineering, even without going into the details of how recently the interest had manifested. He hoped, as he’d heard since he’d arrived, that Haverhill would be a weighty name on the application and sway admissions in his favor. The goal was still Imperial College London, but the other choices wouldn’t be overly disappointing if he didn’t get his first.

Collating all the paperwork for the last application, Ben tapped the pages until they were aligned and slid them into the manila envelope addressed in neat typeface to the admissions office. His own return address was handwritten in his neatest block letters. He sealed the envelope with paste, smoothing it down until there were no bubbles or imperfections. Flipping it over, he rubbed his thumb against the place were the stamp would go. He needed to buy some, and thankfully the tuck shop was open until the end of their evening free time.

Three envelopes in hand, he left the Arkanis House common room and ventured into the main building. The tuck shop was little more than a closet in a back wing, but it was stuffed full of little trifles and comforts that boys could buy when they were desperate for something to alleviate the austerity of their day-to-day. As Ben walked in, the attendant looked up from his pulp novel.

“Evenin’,” he said flatly.

Ben went to the counter and pointed to the books of domestic stamps. “I need three of those,” he told the attendant. “It’s for Benjamin Solo, Arkanis House.”

The man took his time about tearing three stamps from the books and sliding them across the pockmarked formica counter. “Anything else?”

There were fewer of them available—they weren’t usually needed—but a roll of international stamps hung beside the domestic ones. Ben still had the stationery he had lifted from Hux’s study weeks ago in his trunk, and he reckoned that maybe it was time to write to his mom at home. He stuck a finger out at the stamps. “One international, please.”

He paid for them out of the tuck money he already had, which was still a good deal; he didn’t spend much. Outside the shop, he licked and stuck the stamps to his applications. The red mailbox was adjacent to the door; he dropped them into it with a quiet wish for luck. In his right hand, he carried the international stamp back up to the dormitory.

Letters home weren’t the kind of thing you wrote in the open air of the common room. Instead, Ben took a book from his trunk, along with the stationery, and sat cross-legged on his bed with the book resting on his thighs as a makeshift writing desk. He pulled a pen from the pocket of his blazer and, tapping the butt end on the paper, considered what to write. He began:

 

Dear Mom,

In two days there in Alderaan, it’ll be Thanksgiving. That’s not something they do here in England, so I won’t be having turkey and stuffing and pecan pie. It’ll probably just be the regular Thursday dinner in the dining hall. The food’s not really great, but it’s not the end of the world. I sit at a long table with the rest of Arkanis House—that’s my house—but I stick around the boys in upper sixth. There are ten of us, and we have all of our classes together and do sports together every afternoon. I’m no good at that, but I do what I can not to get the stuffing kicked out of me in rugby. It took some getting used to to live here at Haverhill; I’m doing okay, though.

I see Uncle Luke every day for our classics lessons, but we don’t talk much. The headmaster is supposed to keep his distance from the boys. We deal more directly with our housemaster. Ours is Housemaster Snoke, who teaches math. You probably won’t believe me if I say it, but I like his class. They spell it with an S here: maths. It sounded really weird when I first got to school. All the accents did. Even if people don’t look much different, they really sound it. And everybody’s pretty proper and fancy here. They talk about being “gentlemen,” even Uncle Luke. I don’t think there are gentlemen in America—not like they think of it here, anyway.

The boys in Arkanis House are all right, I guess, but I really only talk to two of them. One is my Latin tutor. He’s a good guy, even if he’s got this nervousness to him all the time. He’s a prefect, which means he’s in charge of a lot of the stuff that happens in the house. Not the biggest stuff, though; that’s the head boy’s job. He’s the other boy I actually talk to. He’s kind of weird and cold, and we didn’t get along at first, but he helps me with Greek.

 

Ben didn’t know what else to say about Hux. He wanted to reassure his mom that he had some people she could assume were his friends, even if it wasn’t exactly true. He figured a short account of Hux and Mitaka would serve that purpose. He moved on:

 

At half term in October, Uncle Luke took me to London.

 

The account of their trip was brief but comprehensive, hitting all the highlights without waxing poetic about the wonders of a bascule bridge. He couldn’t remember much about the museums other than their names, however, and mostly skipped over that. There wasn’t much to write about Luke, but Ben said he appreciated the break in town. He continued:

 

I guess I should tell you that I’m applying to university over here. Don’t lose it; I’m serious. You wanted me to do better in school here, and I am. The masters think I can do pretty well in college, so I’m going to try to get in. I won’t hear until the spring if I’ve been accepted, but I’ll write again if I do. If I don’t, maybe I can come home and apply there. I have something I’m interested in doing, and I don’t want to waste it.

It’s probably not what you figured you’d hear, but it’s maybe what you’d hoped: I don’t hate it here, and I don’t hate school. I was mad when I got off the plane and saw this big, old, imposing castle of a school, there’s no lying about that. I was lost at home; I’m willing to admit that now. Haverhill is rigid in its schedules and its rules, so there’s no way to cut class and screw around without getting in a lot of trouble. I think that’s what you wanted when you sent me here. Congratulations; it worked. I think I actually have to say thank you for it. I’ve learned a lot here, and I have something I’m looking forward to (university).

 

Ben paused, twirling the pen between his fingers, but then added:

 

I hope you’ll be proud of me. That’s all for now. Say hi to Dad for me.

Love,
Ben

 

The paper gave some resistance as he folded it in thirds and put it into the matching envelope. Being frank and honest—more so than he’d ever been with his mother—was a relief; it released the anger-tinged stranglehold placed around his heart by the divorce. It helped to be away from Leia and from his father, removed from the immediacy of their arguments. He and Hux and Phasma had talked about their parents casting them off like the burdens they were, and perhaps that was true, but Ben didn’t resent it as much as he had in August. It had brought him to Haverhill, to some measure of purpose, and to Hux.

He and Phasma and Ben had spent the rest of the afternoon together on Saturday, Ben listening to Phasma’s stories about life at St. Catherine’s—some funny and others off-putting. Even public school for girls wasn’t a cakewalk. They drank weak tea outside Peddler’s Market and walked along the high street, only ducking into an alley by some bins for Phasma and Hux to smoke.

“Why do you do it?” Ben had asked, scuffing his toe on the pavement where Phasma had ground a butt out with her foot.

Hux had shrugged. “It’s something to pass the time. Not an awful taste.”

“I heard it can be pretty bad for you,” Ben had said. “Don’t soldiers have to be in really good shape and run five miles a day?”

“Tell that to hundreds of thousands of men during the war,” Phasma had laughed. “Cigarettes were part of their rations.” She took a drag of her smoke. “Maybe it’ll kill us, maybe it won’t. I don’t much care at this point.”

They had parted ways at four o’clock, when the Haverhill pupils were expected to reassemble. Hux took the lead of the group again, walking past Ben at the back and paying him no particular mind. Ben had gone sullenly back to the grounds, but Hux’s good humor in the village wasn’t something he quickly forgot. He had been free with his smiles and even laughed at some of the things Phasma had said. It was a side of him Ben would like to see more often.

Letter finished and envelope sealed, Ben rolled off of his bed and pulled his shoes back on. The trip back to the mailbox wasn’t a long one, but he got a few warning looks from boys who were still about the building so near to the end of free time. He quickly deposited the letter, but took a few moments to breathe. He couldn’t imagine how his mother was going to react to his sudden change in tack. It was a complete one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from the person she had put on a plane in Boston.

Ben leaned against the cool stone wall next to the mailbox and grinned. Let her be shocked; he was doing something that felt right, for the first time in a very long while.

 


 

December arrived with sunshine and unseasonable warmth, making the Monday games period less miserable. Arkanis’s upper sixth had been pitted in soccer against the Fircroft boys and while they had spent most of the game up by a point, Fircroft had just scored, putting them at a tie. Ben hadn’t known before that a game of soccer could actually end in a tie, when most sports had a period of overtime to decide a winner. It seemed like it would be a pretty big disappointment to anyone watching and cheering on one team or the other to leave it tied, but he didn’t really care either way. Some of the boys were out for the house sport trophy, and Ben wasn’t much help in getting it. He’d resigned himself to being an even greater disappointment than a tied game.

He was hovering near the middle of the field, having had the misfortune of drawing offense this match. Nobody bothered to pass him the ball most days, which allowed him to avoid the worst humiliation. However, as he watched Arkanis’s defense send the ball spiraling up the field, he realized with dismay that it was coming straight for him. He could dodge and hope someone else intercepted it, but the rest of the offense was across the field, unable to get to the proper place before the ball careened out of bounds. Unable to avoid it, Ben sprang into action.

He stopped the ball with the inside of his foot and did his best to guide it toward the Fircroft goal. Awkwardly and with no small measure of uncertainty, he started to jog across the field. Fircroft’s defense came hurriedly at him, but somehow—somehow—he managed to avoid them. In fact, two of them nearly collided in his wake.

“Run, Solo!” came a voice from behind him. He didn’t know whose it was. “Go for it!”

The encouragement spurred him on and he charged ahead. The goalkeeper was bent at the waist, feet planted wide and ready to block Ben’s kick. This would all likely end badly, but if this was Ben’s one shot, he was going to take it. As he approached the marks on the grass near the goal, he steeled his nerves and kicked the ball with all his might.

Time seemed to slow like dripping treacle. Ben watched as the ball bypassed the goalkeeper’s outstretched hands and flew into the net. There was a stagnant silence—everyone shocked—but then the Arkanis boys began to cheer. The first of them caught up with Ben a few seconds later, throwing an arm around his shoulders and yanking him down.

“Bloody well done, Solo!” he said. “They never saw you coming. Came at them like a secret weapon. You been keeping that from us all this time?”

“Dumb luck, I think,” Ben said.

The boy ruffled Ben’s hair. “Damn good luck, then. We won!”

The rest of the year gathered around him to offer their congratulations, many of them patting him on the back and smiling. Ben was winded from it all when Hux stepped up in front of him and stuck out his hand. “Well played, Solo,” he said.

Ben took the hand and shook. “Thanks. But, uh, don’t count on that happening again anytime soon.”

Hux let out an atypically bright laugh. “Well, you made a difference today, and that’s what matters.” He gestured to Ben. “Come on, let’s get cleaned up.”

Ben was pushed at the head of the group toward the Arkanis house showers, where everyone was happily chattering. He let the euphoric rush stay with him throughout the rest of the day.

 


 

It wasn’t often that he struggled to sleep in the dormitory, but that night Ben couldn’t settle under his quilt. The soft snores and creaks of springs as boys moved in their sleep served as accompaniment to his restlessness, bringing into sharp relief his own inability to drift off. 

The rest of the day had been easy, his goal in games having earned him Arkanis’s favor. Word had even gotten around to the younger boys, who looked at him as they did the other sports stars: with shiny awe. He hardly deserved it, but understood how some of the “golden boys” Luke had told him about in London at half term could come to enjoy the worshipful gazes. If he had the choice, Ben preferred to be overlooked.

Tossing from his back to his right side, he let his left arm hang down, the fingers some five inches from the wood floor. Wasn’t there some adage that dictated that if you couldn’t sleep, you should just get up and do something until you were tired again? Were he in his room in Alderaan, he could have easily gotten and turned on a light to read by, but the only lights in the dormitory were overhead and washed the entire space in yellow fluorescent. Ben didn’t even have a flashlight to hide under his blankets. He wondered if he might get one in Tindon next visit. It did him no good now.

The moon outside the window beside his bed was shrouded in cloud, barely more than a silver halo around fluffy cumulus. It would be chilly outside, as it always was at night, but he wanted to get out into the softly blowing wind that sometimes whistled around the terrace when you listened closely enough. Ben hadn’t snuck out since September, and quite suddenly he needed to.

With care, he slipped out from under his blankets and picked up his shoes. It was too risky to stop and get his jacket; he crept toward the door without it. The hinges were still silent enough to allow him to exit into the corridor and melt into the vaulted shadows. Only ashes of the evening’s fire remained in the common room fireplace, but a comforting scent of woodsmoke remained. Ben passed through it and out onto the terrace. Only then did he stop to put his shoes on, sparing him the cold stone outside.

He rested his arms against the railing, peering out over the empty courtyard below. The chapel spire was a dark peak against the sky, its cross barely visible in the scant moonlight. Ben’s eyes were already adjusted to the dark, and in it Haverhill appeared a hulking castle, with only a few reflective windows and gutters: mysterious and forbidding. Only the daylight would reveal its green-tinged brass and roof patchy in places; doors worn at the bottom from the kicks of many feet over the decades; dusty house banners in the dining hall, their once-vibrant colors long ago faded. It wasn’t all it was talked it up to be: only a school after all, taking small boys and putting them through the wringer until the rounded edges of their youthful good humor had been filed to points by bullies and exacting masters and imperious head boys.

There was Hux again, cropping up in Ben’s thoughts more than he should have. He occupied far too much space there. Ben didn’t need to spend inordinate amounts of time dwelling on what he was to Hux, or what Hux thought of his recitation in English, his broken Greek. They had their arrangement and beyond that there were few interactions. Tindon with Phasma had been a welcome fluke, but he didn’t expect a reprise. He didn’t expect anything, and that left an emptiness in the pit of his stomach that was, despite his efforts to stop it, steadily growing.

“It’s against the rules to be out of bed at night, you know.”

Ben didn’t have to turn to know it was Hux. He had manifested as if by Ben’s thinking of him. Ben stayed where he was, hands on the railing. “Come to punish me for it, head boy?”

Light footfalls sounded and then Hux was at his right, resting his own arms on the metal of the rail. “I’m feeling generous tonight,” he said, “so no.”

“Thanks, I guess,” said Ben.

A silent beat—not necessarily discomfiting.

“What are you doing out here?” Hux asked. “It’s freezing.” He was wearing the same coat Ben had seen him in the first time they had talked; Ben hadn’t seen him wear it otherwise.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“So you decided to come outside in nothing but cotton pajamas and shoes with no socks to gaze at the stars for some indeterminate time?”

Ben gestured to the sky. “No stars tonight.” They were brilliant when it was clear, but not with so much cloud to conceal them.

“No, I suppose not,” Hux said.

Turning his head toward him, Ben said, “Why are you out here?”

Hux’s cool expression gave nothing away. “Couldn’t sleep.” Ben snorted, earning him a cocked eyebrow. “Don’t believe me?”

“It’s not that,” Ben told him. “I mean, I pretty much always believe you. I don’t lie, and I don’t think you do, either.”

“Not unless it serves a purpose,” said Hux. “And it rarely does. Generally, a lie comes back to bite you in the arse; I don’t need that kind of trouble.”

Ben could relate. “I didn’t bother to lie to my mom about skipping school and failing out back at home. I didn’t tell her, but I didn’t try to hide it, either. I wondered if she would notice me at all.”

Hux blinked at him. “She didn’t.”

“Not until it got really bad,” Ben said. “She had her own shit to deal with. Being a nurse isn’t easy.”

“Perhaps not, but you’re her son. You would think that would earn you some interest.” Hux scoffed. “But I—we—know better. Our parents are as selfish as we are, though they try to pretend that they grew out of it when they were our age.”

Ben shifted his weight between his feet. His ankles were cold where his socks should have been. His fingers were tingling, too; he wouldn’t last long out here without a jacket. Hux looked perfectly comfortable in his layer of wool.

“You’re right,” Ben said. “Everybody’s selfish. Always looking out for ourselves first.”

“Can you really blame us?” Hux asked. “Is it not our fundamental drive to keep ourselves alive and sheltered and happy? I suppose maybe there are some truly selfless people, but I’d be willing to bet that most of them expect some kind of payment in return, if only just others showering them with praise for their utter giving. I can’t stomach someone who craves constant validation. Have a little self-worth, at the very least.”

Ben shot him a wry glance. “What, you don’t want people to tell you how great you are?”

Hux sucked his teeth with eyes narrowed. “Compliments are fine, but do I need a pat on the head every time I do something I’m expected or supposed to? No. I’d never survive in the army if I required that. Officers aren’t coddled, and they don’t coddle their soldiers.”

“I don’t see you doing that,” said Ben.

He was caught off guard by what Hux said next: “Do you think I’m cruel? Unfeeling?”

Ben flexed his chilly fingers, folding them into the warmth of his palms. “You can be mean,” he said. “Cut boys down to size and make them cower. But you’re not unfeeling.”

It was too dark to see the green of Hux’s eyes, but he regarded Ben seriously, almost puzzled. “How do you know? Sometimes I doubt it myself.” His hand was lying limp against the railing, and Ben put his own over it.

“The way you read your Petrarch,” Ben replied softly. “You didn’t look at anybody when you did it, but I could tell it meant something to you. Why’d you pick that one?”

Hux’s voice came low: “It’s a deeply sorrowful poem for feelings unrequited. I’ve experienced that in my time.”

Ben didn’t dare ask who he was; he wouldn’t get an answer. Instead, he allowed himself something that he’d been holding back some time: “Hux, are you gay?” He got a long, doleful look, answer enough. He pressed on: “When did you know?”

“A few years ago,” Hux replied. “You catch on quick when you’re not just looking at the other boys but daydreaming about them. It starts quite innocently: a craving to be closer, to know them. And there’s enough romantic poetry to study in English lessons that we can grasp the concept early.”

“You’ve been in love?” Ben said.

Hux shook his head. “Not in so many words, but certain affections…”

Ben’s hand was still resting on his, their shared heat, even from just that single touch, warding off the worst of the night’s nip. The weight of the admission hung heavily between them, Ben tacitly understanding that this was a tremendous leap of trust. Hux was owning something truly damning. If Ben chose to spread it around school, it would damage maybe more than just his reputation.

“I don’t know if I am or not,” Ben told him quietly. “Boys, girls...they were abstract and distant, not a thing I gave much thought.” He amended: “Before.”

Hux huffed.

“I probably wouldn’t have done anything if you hadn’t started it,” Ben continued. “Why did you, anyway?”

Hux was chewing his lower lip, hesitating, but Ben could wait. He needed to know this.

“I liked the look of you,” Hux said, tentative. “There aren’t many others here your size, and I’ve always been drawn to someone bigger than me.”

“But you hated me,” Ben said. “I did nothing but talk back to you for weeks. Undermined your authority. I should have been the last person you took into your study for...you know.”

Hux’s mouth bent into a smile. “You can never say it. Under most circumstances, it would annoy me, but I find it strangely charming from you. Does it embarrass you to say aloud that we have sex? Would you prefer I called it ‘shagging?’ Much less clinical.”

Ben’s brow knit. “Does what we do count as sex? I thought that was…” He let go of Hux’s hand to make a circle with his finger and thumb and then put the left forefinger through it.

Hux chuckled. “Maybe by some definitions sex requires penetration, but I don’t think so. Touching someone else’s cock, having it in your mouth...it’s sex, too.”

Having not conceptualized it that way, the things they’d shared now took on deeper meaning. They hadn’t been “fooling around,” as Mitaka called it; it was as serious as sex. Not that sex was always serious. The guys Ben had used to skip class with had girls they met up with for it without calling them their girlfriends. Some of them were paid, Ben was fairly sure. That didn’t mean a thing. But putting that name to it gave it gravity he couldn’t deny.

“Nothing to say to that?” Hux asked.

“Sorry,” Ben said. “I was thinking.”

“About what?”

Reaching out, Ben opened one side of Hux’s coat and slid his arm inside and around Hux’s waist. Hux, seemingly pleased, drew Ben against him, wrapping the coat around him as best he could.

“It’s all right that I don’t know if I’m gay, right?” Ben said. “We can still do this. I’m new to the whole thing, so it’s a lot, but I like what we do together.”

Hux, holding the coat around Ben’s shoulders, replied, “It’s fine if you don’t know. And...I like what we do together, too.” He tugged at the lobe of Ben’s ear. “I still like the look of you.”

Ben laughed lightly. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

“I assume you’re kidding.”

“No.” Ben stroked the small of his back. “Why wouldn’t you think so?”

Hux sighed through his nose. “Skinny and ginger and pale as a ghost.”

Ben took a handful of his pajama shirt and yanked admonishingly. “Yeah, well, I like that about you. And you’re not ghostly; you’re kind of pink underneath it all.”

“I beg your pardon!” said Hux, affronted. “Pink?”

Ben was laughing again. “It’s not an insult. Makes you look fresh and...alive.” He glanced away. “That sounds stupid.”

Hux curled his palm around the side of Ben’s neck. “You’re no Petrarch, Solo, but you get your point across.”

For the space of a few seconds, they stood there in each other’s arms, smiling as they rarely did. The empty place in Ben’s gut stopped expanding—at least for now.

“We should go in,” Hux said. “It’s bloody cold out here.”

“Okay,” said Ben. He extricated himself from Hux’s embrace and took a step back. “I guess we shouldn’t go back together, right? Like you said that first time, people will think we’re fu—”

“To hell with them,” Hux told him. “They won’t question me.”

“I did,” said Ben.

“You seem to be the exception to many things in my life, Solo.” He flicked his fingers toward the door. “Go in before you get frostbite.”

Ben did as he was told, and together they walked back to the dormitory. Hux was right; if anyone noticed their arrival, they probably wouldn’t say a thing—not to the head boy. Ben went back to his bed and, taking off his shoes, delved back into the warmth of the quilt. When he finally did sleep, it was contently and without dreams.

Chapter Text

Festivities before the start of the Christmas holiday caught the whole school up in a state of excitement. The boys were dismissed early from their afternoon lessons on Thursday the eighteenth and promptly charged upstairs to retrieve their jackets and hats and gloves for the annual masters’ football match. The full staff of Haverhill—headmaster included—was pitted one against the other in a most unceremonious game, come rain or shine. The pupils were expected to watch and to cheer on the team for which their housemaster played, and apparently it was a December highlight.

Ben was wrapped up warmly in his jacket and green and yellow scarf as the Arkanis boys made their way from the chapel courtyard to the games fields. Their energy was as high as ever, voices raised and laughs frequent. Some of the younger boys sprinted ahead to get the best places on the grass. Picnic blankets had been provided for them to sit on during the game, and one heavy-set fourth-former tripped over his own feet and threw the blanket he had been carrying into the legs of the boy in front of him, sending him sprawling. There was some cursing, but no one seemed to be hurt, and they were soon back on the path to the field.

Fresh lines of paint had been lain on the grass, marking the boundaries of the field, its center, and the goal-lines. Already most of the masters were there, all of them in sports clothes, their shirts either yellow or green. Housemaster Snoke wore the yellow and Luke the green. His belly was round under the cotton; he looked out of place opposite the svelter Snoke. Krennic and Gamesmaster Veers were stretching their legs on the yellow side of the field.

“Isn’t it an unfair advantage for Veers to play?” asked Blakely from nearby where Ben was standing. “He’s in far better shape than the rest of them.”

“Maybe,” Rembis replied, his upper lip curling cruelly, “but half the fun is watching them struggle to run. You’d think with all the sport they make us do, they’d make the masters run laps, too.”

Master Peavey, who taught history, trotted up to Luke. His legs were thick where they protruded from his shorts and densely furred. They stood by in conference for a few seconds before Master Akbar, serving as referee, blew the whistle and called everyone to order. Even the two hundred and fifty boys surrounding the field fell silent.

“Welcome, welcome,” Akbar called, “to the faculty football match of the year. We play for half the standard time but with traditional rules. Gentlemen, I expect you to exhibit sportsmanlike behavior at all times. Let’s not have a reprise of ‘71.”

“What happened in ‘71?” said a boy behind Ben.

“Some kind of fight broke out, I think,” replied another. “I think Master Peavey might have hit someone.”

Ben could only imagine the fallout from that kind of breach of conduct. Part of him hoped to see it happen, but the likelihood was low enough that he didn’t expect it.

Luke and Snoke appeared together at the center of the field with Veers to drop the ball and start the game. They were comically dissimilar: Luke almost a full foot shorter than Snoke, and bearded where Snoke was always pristinely clean-shaven. They eyed each other suspiciously before the whistle blew and the ball hit the grass. To Ben’s surprise, it was Luke who got to it first, deftly kicking it around Snoke and toward the green team’s offence. For a full-bodied man in his middle-fifties, he was very light on his feet.

The boys erupted into encouraging hoots and cheers as the ball was kicked up and down the field. It was a rare unity for them, when usually they were confined to their houses and viciously compared in sports and academics. The distinctions of year weren’t as defined, either. There was a group of Raglan third-formers standing nearby Arkanis’s sixth form without protest from the older boys. All their attention was on the game anyway, leaving little time for the routine petty squabbles.

About halfway through the match, the leaden sky began to spit rain. It deterred no one, the masters charging along on the slippery grass. Moisture beaded on Ben’s jacket, and once, having lost some of his interest in the play happening on the field, he watched a fat drop roll down the sleeve and drip onto the back of his hand. It made him shiver.

Most of Arkanis seemed to be cheering for Housemaster Snoke’s yellow team, and, to their disappointment, the team was down by three points as the last minutes of the play time slipped away. Luke had turned out to be an asset to the green team, having scored two of its five goals. Ben had to admit that he was a little bit proud of his typically unassuming uncle.

When, at last, Master Akbar blew the whistle to end the game, the green team gathered around and clapped each other on the back, sharing genuinely happy smiles rather than those of collegial politeness. They shook hands with the yellow team’s players before Luke stood at the center of the field and called for the boys’ attention.

“Gentlemen,” he said brightly, “I now invite you to join us in the dining hall for mid-afternoon mince pies and punch, as per tradition. Put your outwear away and come promptly at three o’clock. You are dismissed.”

Everyone—masters included—flowed as one mass back to the school building and to their houses to dry off and warm up. Ben shed his jacket, hanging it on the wall above his bed, and pulled his offensively orange sweater from over his head. It had been bought for him at the start of term, but he hated wearing it because of the color. Hux had a sweater vest in the same awful shade, which he wore far more often, and which made it difficult for Ben to get under his clothes when they were alone.

A glance down the row of beds toward the door found Hux tucking his button-up shirt back into his trousers, his belt hanging undone at his waist. Ben had taken it off of him so many times now that even that stirred something in him. He looked away to keep his body in check.

Down in the dining hall, the walls were decked with holly sprigs and pine branches and strings of cranberries, giving the large room a pleasant fragrance. Platters of little pies dusted with sugar made for centerpieces at the tables, along with cups and bowls of red punch. Ben’s stomach growled, though he didn’t know what a mince pie actually was. Still, it looked sweet, and they so rarely got anything more than their bland food that he was looking forward to trying one.

He sat in his usual place and expected the boys to dive right into the pies, but they sat patiently until the masters—now back in their regular attire—had taken their own chairs and Luke was standing at the center of their “high table.” As was apparently due, he was to give a Christmas speech.

“And so, Haverhillians,” he began with solemnity, “another calendar year is coming to a close. It is only halfway through our year’s journey here, but another turn around the sun is always a good time for deep reflection.

“Many of you have made significant strides in your education over the course of this term, whether that be by improving your marks or simply developing a better understanding of human history and creativity. As I look out upon you now, I see this country’s next leaders, its inventors, and its thinkers. The years you will spend or have spent here are formative. What you learn will carry you forward into your productive lives, and I will be honored to see you going forward.”

Luke smiled, casting his gaze out over the assembled pupils. “I hope that all of you, upon returning to your homes and families, enjoy their company and their good cheer so that you can carry it into the first months of 1976. A new year brings new challenges and new opportunities. I expect you to approach both with a Haverhillian determination and practicality. You are bright and fresh and gifted; make use of that.

“Best wishes to all of you for your holidays, and enjoy today’s treat!”

There was some polite applause, but then boys were reaching for one, two, even three pies and setting them on their plates. Ben took only one, finding it heavy and still a little warm. He took his fork and knife and cut it open at the center, as the others were doing. Inside was a brownish filling that smelled of cinnamon and cloves—maybe with a hint of nutmeg. It was a bit like a pumpkin pie, but the filling was definitely something else. Ben stuck his fork through the crust and got some of the filling as well. Tentatively, he put it into his mouth.

The spices were strong but not overwhelming, and the rest tasted of fruit. There might have been some kind of meat in the mix, but it wasn’t like one of the pies they made in pubs. The sweetness was muted, the flavor unusual, and yet Ben gladly went back for a second bite.

A few of the boys in each section of the Arkanis table stood to ladle punch into everyone’s frosted plastic cups. Ben sipped his with caution. It was much sweeter than the pie and had a citrus bite.

“There’s supposed to be gin in it,” said one of the boys from down the table, “but they wouldn’t let us have that, now would they?”

“Hardly,” another snorted.

Ben had never tried gin, but he would have given it a shot just then. He was feeling duly merry, his stomach full and mind free of the day-to-day school worries. There was nowhere he and Luke had to go over the Christmas holiday, so he would be staying at Haverhill. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his free time, but he knew that part of it would be spent with Hux. He was staying for the break, too, with no father to welcome him home with presents and Luke’s aforementioned good cheer. Maybe Ben could have gone to stay at the headmaster’s lodge and enjoy its comforts, but if Hux was going to be sleeping in the empty dormitory, Ben might as well join him.

Three mince pies each and forty-five minutes later, the boys were given leave to return to their houses for “games.” Ben feared sport, but there was no chance of that indoors. As he made his way with the rest of sixth form, they were joined by lower sixth in their common room. Hux, Thanisson, and Mitaka gathered them up to address them.

“All right,” said Hux, voice sharp as ever. “Tradition dictates that the twenty of us play charades for the first while during this time. Two teams, mixed between the years for fairness, with one person performing at a time. There are slips of paper on the tables. Write down two people, objects, films—you know the game—and give them to the prefects within five minutes. We start after that.”

Ben’s stomach knotted. He hated these kinds of parlor games. His parents had never had the kinds of friends who came over for cocktails and charades, and he was no good at acting. The whole silently-making-a-fool-of-yourself aspect wasn’t overly appealing, either. By Hux’s tone, though, there was no way out of it. Sullenly, he went to the nearest table and wrote down “Jaws” and “Burt Reynolds,” dropping both in the bowl Thanisson was carrying.

The boys formed a circle by the fireplace, which was, for once, empty. Some sat in chairs and others on the floor—but never too close. No one, it seemed, was immune from playing—even Hux, who might have made his excuses and been some kind of referee. Mitaka and Thanisson manned the bowls of topics, but when their turn came, they would go into the center of the circle.

A boy from lower sixth had the misfortune of being chosen to go first. He was mousy-haired and pale, so skinny his blazer barely fit. Upon drawing from one of the bowls, he read his paper, and then slipped in to his pocket. A moment passed and then he began: movie, six syllables. He acted out something like getting on a horse and shooting a gun, followed by miming pulling out a wallet and holding what one would assume were banknotes in his hand.

Amazingly, someone in the circle called out: “A Fistful of Dollars!”

“Yes!” the boy cried, the word breaking in his changing voice. He cleared his throat and said, deeper, “That’s right.”

Some applause. Ben was impressed; he had seen that movie years ago, and barely remembered it; he’d never been a big fan of Westerns anyway.

The boy who had guessed correctly was the next to go, and then the next after him. Ben saw the system and knew that he could avoid—or at least delay—his turn by not guessing. Unfortunately, if the time in the small hourglass Hux was using ran out before anyone guessed, he just picked someone to go. That was how it happened to Ben about halfway through the game.

“Solo,” he said, “you’re up.”

Ben got to his feet from where he had been sitting cross-legged on the rug and went to pull a slip of paper from Mitaka’s bowl. He got a commiserating look. Mitaka clearly didn’t enjoy this, either. On the slip was “Count Dracula.” It was something he knew, at least.

“Start,” said Hux, “now!”

Ben used the hand signals for person and for four syllables, and was then forced to start his pantomime. Doing his best, he pretended to be wearing a long cape, which he swept around over his face dramatically, stalking forward a few steps. Some boys hazarded guesses, but they were off by a mile. Ben changed tack and raised two fingers to his mouth in mock-fangs. Again, no correct guesses. He was getting fed up—more so than he already had been—and tried to come up with something better. Maybe he could just fake his way through until the time ran out.

However, as he lifted the underside of his wrist and feigned using his finger-fangs to bite into it, a very tight voice called: “Dracula. Count Dracula.” Ben looked up, relieved, and saw Hux watching him with a half-smile on his face.

“That’s it,” Ben said. He ventured his own smile. “Your turn.”

“Man this, will you?” Hux said as he pushed the hourglass into Ben’s palm. “Won’t be a minute.” 

Ben leaned against the table where Hux had been stationed before, watching as Hux picked a slip from Thanisson’s bowl. He nodded to Ben to start the time.

Person. Four syllables.

Hux drew himself up to his full height and mimed slicking back his hair. He pretended to pull out a book, which he began to silently read from. His eyes turned up every so often, and then he snapped the “book” closed and pointed to something out in front of him. When no one guessed, he drew out something from his midsection, looking disdainfully down at it while tapping his foot.

“Pocket watch!” someone offered.

“It’s a person, you twit,” said another.

But Hux pointed to the boy and nodded. He motioned to fuss with his hair again, tugging on what Ben thought was an imaginary waistcoat. With the book again, he mouthed, “Well.” Oh, that was it.

“Master Krennic,” Ben said without any doubt.

Hux stopped and said, “That’s correct. Well done, Solo.”

Ben asked, “Do I have to go again now?”

“Do you want to?” Hux asked in reply.

“No,” Ben told him.

Hux pressed his lips together, clearly amused but hiding it. “Very well, then. Choose someone else.”

Ben rounded on Rembis and pointed. His former bully scowled, but got to his feet and trudged to the center of the circle. Ben handed the hourglass back to Hux, returning to his place on the floor.

The game proceeded for another three-quarters of an hour, until the slips of paper were exhausted and so were all the boys. It was pushing five o’clock, when they would be summoned for dinner. Ben wasn’t overly hungry after the mince pies, but he would dutifully sit and pick at his boiled peas.

Hux dismissed the boys as formally as Luke had after the football game, and most of them scattered to see to whatever last-minute business they had before the dinner hour. Mitaka and Thanisson gave their bowls to Hux, who took them and the hourglass back toward a storage cabinet in the back corner of the common room. Ben had actually never noticed it before.

He watched Hux put the supplies away and then lock the closet with a key he kept in his pocket. He approached Ben with uncharacteristic ease, stopping just in front of him.

“What do you think of our holiday celebrations, Solo?” he asked. “Are they different than yours in America?”

“We don’t really do anything like this in school,” Ben replied. “Maybe somebody brings candy canes or cookies, but nothing like this. And we don’t have to play charades.”

Hux gave him that non-smile again. “I could tell you were enjoying it just so much. But you did well.”

“I had an easy person,” said Ben. “Everybody knows Dracula. Krennic was harder.”

A shrug. “But you guessed that.”

Ben gave a shrug as well.

For a few seconds they stood facing each other, not necessarily in discomfort. Eventually, Hux said, “Best get going. Our delicious dinner fare awaits.”

Ben chuckled. “Something like that.”

They went out of the common room together, but then Hux left him behind to join Mitaka, who was herding lower sixth boys toward the stairs. Ben came after them, content.

 


 

Ben didn’t bother to watch as the other boys’ parents collected them and rolled off down the white stone drive in their cars—from practical domestic models to imported American Fords. Instead, he left Arkanis House for a walk along the boundary of the grounds, beyond the sports fields and sheds. He dragged his feet in the freshly cut grass, collecting bits of it to cling damply to his shoes. They were well worn-in by now, and far more comfortable than the tight, unyielding leather had been in September.

There was still a bit of a rub at the heel that wore quickly through his socks; he’d asked Uncle Luke for another few pairs as both a necessity and a Christmas present. Luke had laughed and told him that he would have at least one proper gift: one far better than simple white trouser socks. Ben had to think of something to get him in return, which would require Luke’s permission for a trip to Tindon. Surely he’d guess Ben’s purpose. But there was no secret in it, Ben supposed.

Rounding the corner at the edge of the grounds, Ben took in the sprawling Haverhill buildings, from the rectangular houses—almost all the same, even if some of them were new additions—to the sweeping main building with its imposing clock tower. It was just after eleven-thirty, soon approaching the lunch hour. He’d been told that meals were still served in the dining hall, even if only a few masters and he and Hux would be present. The relief for the kitchen staff was probably appreciated—for those who remained, anyway; most of them had been released to spend the break with their families where they lived nearby.

Ben struggled to think that anyone could be happy in such a rural and featureless place as the school’s environs. Alderaan wasn’t a big town, but at least it had a movie theater and more than one street of stores. There was nothing to do in Tindon, and it was hours away from a city of any reasonable size. Ben would be glad to get out to (hopefully) London in the coming year. But it would still be several months before he heard back from the universities he had applied to.

His stomach beginning to rumble, he began the slow trek back toward the buildings, intending to go and hang up his jacket and wipe the grass from his shoes before he appeared in the dining hall. He never figured he would have cared as much about his appearance as he did now—an unintended result of Arkanis House’s strict rules. His hair was still too long to be acceptable, but Thanisson had long ago stopped giving him grief about it. That was probably Hux’s doing; most of the affordances that had been made for Ben were his direct work. It wasn’t hard to see that Hux favored him, and that, somehow, Ben favored him in return.

Twenty minutes later, Ben was spiffed up and in his blazer for lunch. The faculty table was only half-full and all the students’ benches were vacant, save for the one where Hux sat waiting for the meal service. Ben waffled over where to sit—his usual seat was several feet away from Hux’s—but decided he might as well take the place next to him. He stepped over the bench and dropped down at Hux’s left.

“Hi,” he said, a lame start.

“Hello,” said Hux, eyeing him sidelong. “Where have you been all morning? I didn’t see you lurking in the dormitory looking put-out.”

Ben frowned at him. “Put-out over what? That I don’t have parents to pick me up? I don’t care about that. I went for a walk.”

“You take a great deal of walks at the weekends,” Hux said. “What do you do on them? Ponder life’s greater mysteries?”

“Just walk,” Ben replied. “I’m not really out there philosophizing, which you probably already guessed. It helps clear my head.”

“Do you have a lot that fills it most days?” He sounded arch.

Ben shot him another annoyed glance. “Are you saying my head is empty?”

Hux pursed his lips, but said, “No, I don’t think that.”

The kitchen staff appeared with plate-filled trays: individual servings rather than large platters with enough to feed two hundred and fifty ravenous teenagers. A man who looked to be in his mid-twenties set out plates for Ben and Hux, and then went away. They were given a pitcher of water, too. Hux poured cups for both of them—unusually considerate—before taking up his fork and knife and setting into his food. Ben took a sip of water, and then went to eat as well.

“Does anything happen over the holiday?” he asked. “Like, a party or something?”

“I’ve heard the masters have a luncheon,” Hux replied, “but there’s nothing in particular for us. Unless, of course, you’re invited to the headmaster’s lodge for an event.”

“Maybe,” said Ben, “but I don’t think there’s anything special planned. You know I’m not supposed to get special treatment because I’m his nephew.”

Hux cut a slice of chicken and put it into his mouth. He swallowed before speaking again. “Yes, but there’s no one here to see it. He doesn’t have to pretend you’re not related when it won’t draw undue attention from the other boys.”

Ben was chewing his bread. “You’re here. Maybe appearances still have to be kept up. I wouldn’t really be that surprised if they were. That’s ‘how it’s done,’ right?”

“I don’t think the headmaster will make any particular exceptions for me,” said Hux flatly. “It’s no secret he doesn’t care for me.”

Luke’s reactions to Ben’s questions about Sandhurst had been less than enthused, especially since they tied directly to Hux. He hadn’t said anything directly about disapproving of Ben spending time with him, but he hadn’t been overly pleased about it, either.

“Do you know why?” Ben said.

Hux replied, “I believe he thinks I’m too harsh on the Arkanis boys. Maybe he judges my heritage or the fact that I’m always required to stay here over the holidays. Perhaps he simply dislikes the look of me.”

“I don’t think it’s that,” Ben told him. He hesitated, but pressed on: “What about your heritage could he judge?”

Hux paused in his eating, the cords in his neck standing out as he tensed. “I think that’s a conversation for another day. Or at least not here.”

Ben’s brow knit. “Okay. Will you tell me, though?”

“Eventually,” said Hux, quietly. “But tell me instead, what is Christmas like in America? Do you also have a flaming pudding?”

“A what?”

Hux laughed. “Oh, I think there’s a great deal about it I need to explain to you, if you don’t set desserts on fire.”

Ben shook his head in disbelief. “Yeah, you’re definitely going to have to explain that.”

In the next forty-five minutes, Ben got a lecture on the various traditions of a proper English Christmas, including a pudding doused in alcohol and set aflame. He had to admit that he wouldn’t have minded seeing that, if just for the spectacle. In return, he described what the holidays were like in the States, the origins of which Hux asked a few probing questions about. Ben didn’t have good answers for him, but told him he’d try to look it up later.

“Somehow I don’t think we have books on that in the library,” Hux said. “American culture isn’t a speciality at this school.”

Ben shrugged. “Then it’ll have to be one of life’s greater mysteries, won’t it?”

Hux laughed, unexpectedly loud. “Yes, I suppose it will.”

When the meal was finished and the dishes cleared, they lingered by the table for want of something to do. Ben was uncertain as to whether Hux might have any interest in passing some time together, or whether he’d rather be left alone. Ben hoped they didn’t have to spend most of the break avoiding each other, as they did when they weren’t in Hux’s study. As Hux had said, there was no one around to see them together and to make judgments about it. It was a freedom they had never enjoyed before, and Ben wanted to take advantage of that.

“Uh, do you want to go to the common room and play gin rummy?” he asked. “I have a couple of packs of cards from the village. They’re better ones than I had before.”

Hux raised an eyebrow. “Afraid I’m going to look down on the quality of your playing cards, Solo?”

“No,” Ben grumbled. He should have figured Hux would be a prick about it. He went to stand up. “Forget it. I’ll see you later.”

“Wait,” said Hux. “No. I mean, yes. I would like to play. You’ll have to refresh me on the rules.”

“It’s really easy. Let’s go.”

They got up together and left the dining hall behind, making their way back up to Arkanis House. It was very strange to find it in total silence after the usual raucousness of all the boys. Ben detoured to his trunk to retrieve his cards before he joined Hux in the common room. It was chilly from the large windows, and Hux was crouched down in front of the fireplace with a few logs, some kindling, and a match.

“You can do that yourself after all, huh?” said Ben, standing behind him.

Hux kept his attention on the fire, but replied, “Who do you think does it when you’re not around? I’m not totally inept.”

Ben left him there and dragged two of the armchairs together, setting a small side table in front of them for the game. He flopped down unceremoniously in the rightmost chair, yanking off his shoes and dropping them to the floor. His legs he folded under him.

Hux joined him shortly, when the fire was cracking and the bark on the outside of the logs beginning to catch. Ben had already shuffled the cards and began to deal them, explaining the simple rules he now knew well.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at this,” he warned as he picked up his hand.

“It seems that a great deal of it is luck rather than skill,” said Hux. He plucked a card up and slid it back into a different part of his hand, organizing the cards as Ben had told him to.

Ben said, “Maybe, but you’ve got to watch out for which cards match.”

Hux nodded. “Indeed. You’re going first?”

“Sure.” Ben picked up a card and the game was underway.

He won the first two rounds, but Hux was keen and caught on fast, trouncing him resoundingly in the third. Ben sardonically applauded as Hux shuffled the cards. He got a self-satisfied smile in return. It warmed him from belly to chest, and he grinned.

“What?” Hux asked at his expression.

“I like it when you smile,” Ben replied.

Hux sat up straighter, clearly not having expected that.

Ben continued, “You don’t do it much, but it looks good on you.” He added, wryly, “For a minute it’s like you aren’t a real asshole.”

Narrowing his eyes, Hux said, “Despite that, you still keep company with me. Is it for the benefits alone?” Even if his tone was light, there was something deeper beneath; he genuinely wanted to know.

Ben’s reply was earnest: “No. I...I like spending time with you.”

There was a pause, but then Hux said, “As I do with you.” He gestured with the cards. “Another round?”

“Sure,” Ben said. He kept the smile to himself this time.

 


 

The morning brought the kind of silence Ben was not accustomed to in the dormitory. Thanisson was not there to set his shrilling alarm, and none of the earliest risers had been stirring and interrupting his much-cherished sleep. When he did wake, it was half-past seven, far later than he normally got up—especially if he was expected in Hux’s study.

They had been there together the night before, after dinner when they could enjoy free time before they were expected to be in bed (though there was no one but Hux to turn off the dormitory lights, and Ben assumed he could have left them on for as long as he wanted to). None of that time was wasted in getting each other down to just their shirts and socks. They’d still never taken every stitch of clothing off, as if having an undershirt on when someone one walked in would spare them from expulsion. Ben didn’t complain; it didn’t bother him too much, in the end.

After, they’d dressed again and sat together on the rug in front of the fire. Hux had picked up a book of poems, which Ben had sheepishly asked him to read aloud. Hux had, at first, eyed him skeptically, but seemed to decide that Ben was sincere and chose the first verse to recite. Ben was lulled into comfort by his smooth cadence and lilt, and for a moment, in the midst of a more lovelorn poem, he was certain Hux’s accent took on a softer, almost foreign quality. Ben closed his eyes and just listened, leaning back on his hands with his long legs extended next to Hux’s opposite him.

When ten o’clock came around, Hux closed the book and got to his feet. Ben wordlessly followed him; they gathered their toiletry kits from the dormitory before brushing their teeth in the bathroom. They kept one empty sink between them, though if someone had asked why, Ben wasn’t sure he could have answered. Shortly, he was in his bed and the lights were off, and he was struggling to fall asleep in the quiet. He wondered, as he drifted onto the cusp of dreams, what Hux thought of before he slept.

Putting his covers aside that next morning, Ben dropped his bare feet onto the cool wood floor beneath him. He looked across the row of empty beds to the one at the very head of the dormitory: Hux’s. It was empty and perfectly made. It figured that Hux would already be awake and up, but Ben had partly hoped to catch him while he was still resting, nestled under his quilt. He was usually still abed when Ben went to light his fire, but it was always too dark in those unbroken mornings to see more than a lump in the low moonlight.

Ben made his own bed up neatly before taking his clothes into the bathroom for a quick shower before breakfast. Hux was seated in his usual place, and Ben joined him to take some cornflakes. Hux gave him a curious glance when he poured a cup of tea for himself and put in a generous splash of milk.

“What?” Ben asked as he picked up the cup and blew the swirling steam from it.

“You’ve come to take your tea as I do,” Hux replied.

They sometimes shared a cup in his study still, and Ben wasn’t afraid to admit that he was getting a taste for it. Maybe it just reminded him of private hours with Hux, but he didn’t think too much about it just then.

“So?” he said. “It’s all right.”

Hux turned back to his porridge without further comment. Ben ate his cereal before it could get soggy, the crunching loud in an otherwise eerily hushed dining hall. Haverhill was like a haunted house when so few people were around: shadowy back corners and drafty passages. The boys gave the old wreck life, and without them it was discomfiting.

Luke, Snoke, Veers, and Housemaster Erso of Oakeshott were the only faculty at the high table, and they had clustered together rather than keeping to their usual seats. There was some kind of unspoken rank system to where they all sat, but Ben couldn’t reason it out. Snoke kept to the edge of even this small group; he was always on the outskirts of any gathering. As Ben was looking up at him, he caught his stolid gaze. It was as if Snoke disapproved of seeing Ben still at school, though Ben couldn’t guess at why. Snoke’s eyes went to Hux, who didn’t flinch under the attention, and Ben’s followed them there.

“Something you need, Solo?” Hux asked, cocking his head to see Ben.

Ben asked, “What are you going to do today?”

Hux seemed to consider for a moment. “I have some things to read. And you?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. He wasn’t inclined to sit in the common room with a book all day. He’d gotten used to a daily sport period, and while he wasn’t always the keenest player, there was something to the administration’s belief that games helped the boys to expend energy that would otherwise be spent getting themselves into trouble. Ben was restless.

“Well,” said Hux, “I’m sure you can find something to pass the time.” He pushed his breakfast dishes away, going to rise. “Until later.” Leaving Ben there, he abandoned the dining hall.

Ben remained seated for a time, hands flat on the varnished tabletop. He could always study Latin, he supposed. He gave a dismissive snort. Not bloody likely. Annoyed, he stood up from the table and, tugging the hem of his blazer, decided to go to the library for some shelf reading.

 


 

Once, Hux had complained about the misfortune of tedium. Ben hadn’t understood just then, but now it came into sharp relief. It was Sunday, and he was listlessly wandering the third floor of the main building, poking around hidden cupboards and disused classrooms in his shirtsleeves. It was chilly up in the less-often-occupied parts of Haverhill, and on the master’s desk in one of the classrooms, Ben could draw a line in the dust. He sneezed as disturbing it only stirred up more. A voice followed: “What on earth are you doing up here, Solo?”

Hux was standing in the doorway, looking displeased to find Ben creeping about the corridors. Ben hadn’t seen him since breakfast, and he was surprised to find him as casually dressed as Ben himself was: plain shirt unbuttoned at the collar, no blazer or tie.

“Killing time,” Ben replied, flat.

“This area is generally off limits,” Hux said, even as he took a step into the classroom. Ben stayed where he was, hands in his pockets. “Well, I don’t think there’s any statute about it, but only the masters come up here to their studies—those who don’t have them in their respective houses.” He went to the desk Ben stood by and traced his own line in the dust. “There were never enough boys to fill these rooms, you know. Never more than two hundred and fifty at a time. I can’t imagine why the third floor was even built.”

Ben watched as Hux laid his palm flat on the desk, leaving a handprint there and gray dust between his fingers.

“Maybe there were supposed to be more,” said Ben. “At one time or another. Or maybe they just built it to make the place look fancy, even if they never planned to use it.”

Hux chuckled. “Yes, I wouldn’t put that past them. Everything in public school is about appearances.” He lifted his hand and blew the dust away. “Haverhill is meant to be a grand and imposing edifice. They succeeded, don’t you think?”

Ben shifted his weight between his feet. “Yeah. I was pretty impressed when I first got here. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. But you get used to it.” He flicked his fingers at the room around them. “It’s not all perfect and proper.”

“Far from it,” Hux said. He approached Ben, stopping just in front of him and extending a hand to touch the open collar of Ben’s shirt. “There’s a great deal Haverhill hides.”

Ben wrapped his fingers around Hux’s wrist and held his arm close. Hux’s fingertips moved up to touch the skin of Ben’s neck, and Ben shuddered. “Take a walk with me,” he said.

Hux’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Where?”

“There’s a place I want to show you,” said Ben. It had been a while since he had been to the small stand of trees where he sometimes hid. It was a private place, but he could permit Hux there.

“All right,” Hux said softly. “I’ll get my coat.”

Ben went with him to the Arkanis House dormitory to bundle up. Ben had his jacket and a pair of gloves, even a knit hat to keep his ears warm. When he met Hux again at the doorway, he saw his peacoat was more weathered than he had noticed before. The buttons were still bright, but the wool was pilling in places and the color fading at the wrists.

“You ready?” Ben asked. When Hux nodded, they went together out the back door of the house into the chapel courtyard—where months ago Ben had scrubbed Hux’s sports kit. Ben led them away from the white gravel and onto the grass.

It had been raining earlier, and the ground was dewy and soft under their feet. They narrowly avoided a puddle in a spot of low land. Hux clicked his tongue disapprovingly, earning him a roll of Ben’s eyes.

“Aren’t you usually outside with the cadets at the weekends?” Ben said, wry. “You have to get muddy there. And you aren’t shy about getting dirty during games. Last week you were head-to-toe grass stains.”

Hux pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets, hunching his shoulders to ward off the cold. “Yes, well, those are the right times for it. This is not.”

“Can’t win with you,” Ben muttered.

Hux changed the subject: “Where is this place you want to show me, then?”

Ben pointed to the other side of the field to where the trees were clumped. Their branches were now bare and cast spider-like shadows on the leaf-littered ground below.

“A wood?” said Hux, unimpressed.

“Just shut up and walk, Hux,” Ben told him. Amazingly, he did.

They crossed into the stand of trees a few minutes later, Ben going immediately to his favorite trunk and leaning against it.

“It’s quiet here,” he said. “I come when it gets to be too much.”

“What gets to be too much?” asked Hux as he peered up into the skeletal trees above them.

“Everything,” Ben replied.

Hux came around to face him, his posture still closed, as if he was attempting not to shiver. Ben took pity on him and pulled his hat from his head and tugged it down over Hux’s.

“You want the gloves, too?” Ben said.

Hux shook his head. “No. I’ll be fine. But...thank you.” The start of a smile appeared on his face. “You’re bold to seek your solitude outdoors in December,” he said. “Is it also this cold and damp in Massachusetts?”

Ben was caught by surprise; he didn’t think Hux even knew from which state he hailed. “Colder,” Ben replied, “and snowy. Big drifts that build up along the roads all winter and have to be plowed away. The snow gets dirty after a while, from all the cars. It’s nice for Christmas, and then I want it to be over.”

“I quite like the snow,” said Hux. “We might get some in February, but never before. More than likely it’ll rain on Christmas Day. Far from the baby Jesus’s snug manger.”

Ben wrinkled his nose. “We’re going to have to go to chapel that morning, aren’t we?”

“Yes. But be thankful it’s not a Catholic mass. The Church of England is a bit more succinct.”

“There are a lot of Catholics in Boston,” Ben said. “Irish immigrants.”

Hux’s expression went still and icy as December’s bite.

“What?” Ben asked. “What’s wrong?”

Hux looked down at his feet, chewing his lower lip. After a few moments, he began: “I told you about the conflict in Northern Ireland.”

“I read some more about it after,” Ben said.

“Yes, of course you did. But I said, too, that my mother’s family doesn’t want anything to do with me. Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

Hux fell back against the trunk of the tree beside Ben. “They’re all there, in Northern Ireland. That’s where I was born.”

Ben blinked, but said nothing, hoping Hux would continue without prompting.

“My father was stationed there to ‘keep the peace.’” An ugly snort. “He was fresh out of Sandhurst then, and full of himself. Thought he could enforce the Queen’s rule against the Irish Republican Army. More the fool him.

“He met Ealasaid after a demonstration in Derry. She had been there with her brothers to march in protest. She had a firm and loud voice, did my mother, or so I’ve been told. Part of what caught my father’s eye.” Hux pulled his hands from his pockets and rubbed them along his thighs. “He pursued her carefully at first, inserting himself into their lives by patrolling by their house and asking questions. Her brothers spat at and cursed him and any other English soldier, but gradually, she began to step out and speak to him.

“It wasn’t a courtship, but an illicit affair under the notice of his superiors and her family.” There was harshness in his voice that gave Ben a terrible pause. Hux hated this history. “Took about three months for her to fall pregnant. She was terrified and went running to my father for help. When her family found out, they disowned her for an Englishman’s whore.”

“Jesus,” Ben murmured.

“That’s the least of it,” said Hux. “Had her father been a worse man, he might have wanted to beat the child out of her.”

Ben’s stomach heaved. “The child,” he said. “You.”

“Me.” Hux hung his head low. “My father was able to set her up in a flat away from her family for the duration of her pregnancy. He visited when he could, but most often he was away, leaving my mother to fend for herself. Imagine: a girl of barely nineteen abandoned in a little boarding house with a baby in her belly while gunshots rang out every night while she tried to sleep alone.” He growled: “Only my fucking father would have done that.”

“He was trying, though,” Ben offered. “He did take some responsibility—”

“Not enough,” Hux said. “It was a hard delivery when it came time, and she had to go to the hospital. Her parents tracked her down there, and when they found out the truth, they were furious. They tried to insist she put me up for adoption, so they could pretend none of it had ever happened. But she took a stand and said she’d raise me herself.

‘With what money?’ they asked. ‘The father’s,’ she replied. ‘He’ll take care of us.’ More the fool her.”

Ben could see the pain and anger in Hux’s face, and it stung him. “Did he not take care of you?” Ben asked carefully.

“For four years he did,” Hux replied, “but when his time in Derry was over, he insisted on taking me to England. My mother was beside herself; she wouldn’t allow it.” He clenched his fists. “But my father didn’t care what she would allow. I was his son, and he would do as he saw fit with me.

“We almost ran away. She had laid all the plans: bus tickets, a job, a flat in Belfast, but she was out at the market when the car bomb went off.”

“Oh, my God,” Ben said. “She didn’t…”

Hux, forlorn, nodded once. “She was killed instantly. My father heard about it only when the landlady called him to say I’d been wailing all night with no one to put a stop to it. He paid her for the rest of the month, got leave, and took me away. I don’t remember much of her, my mother. I was given to nannies for the rest of my nursery days, but when I was old enough to be sent to board, I was.”

“Hux, I’m—” Ben started.

Don’t,” Hux snapped. “Don’t pity me, Ben Solo.” He focused hard on Ben’s face, his jaw tight. “I still had the accent when he sent me away. If you think yours marks you out, you should have seen how I was received.” A scoff. “I took more beatings than anyone else for the first year, until I learned to mimic BBC Two. The torment didn’t end there; they knew what I was, but it made it easier.”

“The story Phasma told about you when you first came to Haverhill,” Ben said. “Where you cussed out the older boys…”

“I was able to start anew here,” Hux told him. “Not everyone was aware of my origins. I was still small, but I knew what I needed to do to survive, and I did it without question. I’ve never looked back, and I’d never change anything.”

Ben studied him. He didn’t allow any pity to show, but the story wasn’t an easy one to digest. Hux had suffered more than Ben might ever have known.

Hux lifted a hand to his mouth and wiped his fingers across it, like there was a bad taste there. “I’ve never told anyone that whole story. God knows why I just told you.”

Ben moved from the tree trunk, planting his feet firmly on either side of Hux’s and setting one hand on Hux’s shoulder and the other at the side of his neck. “I won’t tell anyone. You can trust me.”

“Can I?” Hux asked, hushed.

“Yes,” Ben insisted. He leaned in close to touch his forehead to where the hat rested on Hux’s brow. “Trust me. Armitage.”

Hux exhaled in a rush, and his arms came around Ben’s waist to embrace him. His head dropped to Ben’s shoulder. They stood there silently, holding each other, Hux’s hands holding tight the fabric of Ben’s jacket. Ben pulled his gloves away and, dropping them, cupped the back of Hux’s head; it was warm under his palm.

After a time, Hux stirred and pulled back, Ben releasing him slowly. “You can’t use that name in front of anyone,” he said.

“I won’t,” said Ben. He tugged on the edge of Hux’s hat. “Only when I’m with you. I like it when you call me Ben.”

Hux’s smile was watery at best. He ran two fingers and his thumb through the hair at the side of Ben’s face. “We should go back inside. It’s bloody freezing.”

Ben laughed lightly. “Okay.”

Stooping down, Hux picked up Ben’s gloves. Instead of handing them back, he pulled them over his own hands and headed purposefully back toward Arkanis House. Ben followed him, accepting that his fingers would be cold.

 


 

Ben arrived on time to the dining hall the next morning for breakfast, but of course Hux was already there. They’d come back in the day before to warm up in the common room, but the conversation had turned to things more innocuous for the rest of the afternoon. Still, there was a subtle shift in the way Hux moved around him in the bathroom that night: he reached for Ben’s toothpaste—having forgotten his own—and the sink that had been between them before no longer was. When they were in their pajamas, they had walked side by side to the dormitory, and Hux had left the lights on until Ben was in bed with his eyes closed. It seemed as if both of them lay awake then, conscious of being the only two people in a room built for ten. But neither of them had stirred, and when Ben saw Hux at the Arkanis table, he acted as if nothing at all had changed.

Ben turned his focus to Uncle Luke, who sat at the head table in a casual red sweater and flared-leg corduroys. Uninterested in dawdling around the grounds that day, Ben was going to ask him for permission to go to Tindon to do his Christmas shopping.

Ben’s cereal was long gone by the time Luke pushed his plate away and made to stand. Ben nearly vaulted the bench, Hux gaping at him, and trotted to where Luke was at the table. His uncle raised his bushy eyebrows as he saw Ben approach.

“Morning,” Luke said.

“Headmaster,” Ben offered. Quieter: “Uncle Luke. I was hoping I could go into the village today. I have, um, some errands to run.”

“Errands?” asked Luke. “What kind of errands could you have, Ben?”

Ben hesitated, trying not to tell him outright he wanted to get a gift for him. “Well, it’s Christmas, and I’m not dumb enough to believe in Santa anymore, and it’s part of the holiday to, you know, get something for people…”

Luke favored him with an understanding, if somewhat condescending smile. “Oh, I understand. That’s very thoughtful of you.” He rubbed his bearded chin. “Well, I can’t send you alone, and”—he shot a dark glance at Hux, who was patting at his lips with a napkin at the Arkanis table—“there are no other suitable pupils to send with you… Ah! I nearly forgot. Alice is running into Tindon for me today to fetch a few things. I don’t see why you can’t go with her.”

“Great,” said Ben. “When should I meet her?”

Luke pushed his sweater sleeve back to see his watch. “A half hour, perhaps. It gives you time to change into something other than your uniform, if you’d like.” He winked. “Your clothes are in your room in the lodge.”

Ben huffed a small laugh. “Thanks. I’ll run up there, I guess?”

Luke nodded. “I’m headed to my study, but I trust you can find your way on your own.”

“Yes, sir,” said Ben. Turning on his heel, he headed toward the main dining hall doors. He skidded to a halt only when Hux stepped into his path and landed a firm hand in the middle of his chest.

“And where are you hurrying off to?” Hux asked sternly. Gone was the boy who had fallen into Ben’s arms the day before, which struck Ben like a blow to the face. Matching Hux’s icy tone, he said, “Does it matter?”

Hux reeled back, his nostrils flaring in annoyance. “I suppose not. It’s not my place to keep tabs on you when term isn’t in session.”

Ben could sense his curiosity and saw no reason to lie to him—especially after pledging his trust. “Tindon,” he said. “The headmaster’s housekeeper is going, and I need a couple of things there.”

“Ah,” said Hux, drawing his hand away. “Well, have a good time.”

Ben snorted. “‘Have a good time?’”

A bit of pink rose in Hux’s cheeks. “What else do you want me to say, Solo? Isn’t that the polite thing?”

“Sure, yeah,” Ben muttered. “Whatever. See you later.” As Hux moved out of his way, he jogged from the dining hall and up to the dormitory to collect his jacket before going to the headmaster’s lodge.

Unsurprisingly, it was Alice who opened the door when he knocked. She beamed at him, saying, “Oh, Mr. Solo, what a lovely surprise! What brings you here?” Ben explained, and she smiled even wider, clasping her hands to her breast. “How splendid! It will be lovely to have company on a trip into the village. The headmaster comes along sometimes, but he’s usually dour. Prefers to be here. Seems that you might benefit from some time away.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Ben. “He said I could change before we went.”

Alice nodded, gesturing to the stairs. “Let me just get my handbag and take off this apron, and I’ll be ready to go.”

In the room he’d claimed, Ben shed his khaki trousers and blazer and pulled on jeans and the same blue sweater he’d worn on the day he arrived in England. It had since been cleaned, and smelled of Alice’s lavender laundry detergent rather than his mother’s lemon. Still, it fit him comfortably, and it would be warm under his jacket.

Alice met him in the foyer with a purse over her shoulder and a warm woolen coat on. Together, they went out to where Luke’s little orange car was waiting.

It turned out that Alice was a far better driver than Luke was, shifting smoothly through the gears. She handled the car deftly as they went down the main drive toward the road.

“So, Mr. Solo,” she began over the sound of gravel popping against the undercarriage, “are you glad to be on a break from your lessons? Have a little time to yourself?”

“It’s okay,” Ben replied. “A little boring, but not bad.”

She gave him a look out of the corner of her eye. “It’s plain enough that you’ve settled in. I was worried, I admit, when you started the term, that things would be difficult for you.” A pause. “They were for a bit, weren’t they?”

Ben wrapped his fingers around his knees, bumping them against the glovebox. “It wasn’t great at the beginning. But you said it wouldn’t be. I was ready for that.”

Alice hummed. “I’m sorry for it, if you weren’t happy. I wanted for you to be. Surely you know that.”

“I know,” said Ben, giving her a small smile. “And thanks. It got better. I mean, Hux made it terrible for a while, but then...he got better.”

“Hux,” Alice said. “He’s the boy who’s here during the holidays. The redheaded one.”

“That’s him.”

She flicked on the blinker to make the turn onto the road, though no one was there to see it. Ben barely remembered other passing cars on this road to the school, even when he and the other boys were walking to the village.

“He was hard on you, then,” said Alice, “but not now?”

“Not now,” Ben said, low.

“Well, that’s a good thing.” Alice took her hand from the gear shift and patted his shoulder. “Boys just aren’t always kind to each other, and it’s difficult to see. You don’t want everyone to be at odds or putting on airs or the like. I was afraid you’d be...hard to accept, knowing your origins and all.”

Ben didn’t miss the congruency in her phrasing and Hux’s from the day before. Both of them had been foreigners, once. He said, “I was. I still think half of the house doesn’t like me, but it’s not the end of the world.”

“But your Hux likes you, surely,” she said.

Ben balked; Hux was far from his. But the day before, he had clung so tightly, and he had allowed Ben to use his given name. Ben brushed the memories aside. “I guess so,” he said. “We can be in the same room without fighting these days.” He cautiously admitted the second motive for this trip to Tindon, which he’d decided upon after Hux had given him back his gloves on Sunday: “I have to find a Christmas present for him today.”

Alice’s dimples appeared as she smiled. “How sweet of you. I’m sure he’ll like that. It’s a shame to have to stay at school during the holidays. I wonder why he does. I know why you do, of course.”

“I don’t really know,” Ben lied, for the sake of Hux’s privacy, “but I hope I can get something he’ll like.”

“Well,” said Alice, “there are all manner of shops on the high street, and surely it doesn’t have to be much. But”—she pointed at her purse—“take a tenner out of there for a little extra spending money.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Ben said. “It’s yours.”

She threw him a wink. “It’s the headmaster’s, and I’m certain he won’t mind.”

With shy reluctance, Ben went into her wallet and pulled out a ten-pound note, which he tucked into his pocket. “Thanks, Alice. For everything.”

“It’s no trouble, dear,” she told him. “I’ve no children of my own, so it’s nice to have someone to look out for, even if it’s only a time or two a month that I see you. Perhaps you might come around more, should the headmaster permit it.”

“Why don’t you?” asked Ben. “Have any children, or a husband, I mean.”

She made a turn down the larger road toward Tindon, her petite hands on the steering wheel. “I never found the right one, I suppose,” she replied. “And the headmaster would be nigh on helpless without me, bless his soul. He’s a good man, but he’s got his head in Greek and Latin so much that he would forget to eat and sleep if I didn’t see that he did.”

Ben could imagine that was true. “What about him, then?”

Alice laughed airily. “Certainly not! I’m fond of the man, but he’d drive me up the wall. And he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body—far too practical. And I need someone who will bring me flowers from time to time. Bit of a fanciful one, am I. Do you fancy some romance, Mr. Solo?”

“I don’t think so,” Ben said. “Hux says I’m too down-to-earth to even read novels. I guess I take after Uncle Luke. And my mom. She’s like that, too: totally wrapped up in her job. Must run in the family.”

“Well, I should think that will come in handy if you’re to take a course in engineering in the fall,” said Alice. At Ben’s questioning look, she added, “The headmaster told me you were making applications. I think that’s grand. It would be just lovely for you to stay in England. Though maybe you miss your home in America?”

Ben glanced out over the green countryside beyond the car’s windshield. “Not really,” he said. “Not at all.”

When they arrived in the village, Alice found a spot in a carpark and pulled on the parking brake. She collected her purse and bustled out of the car, reminding Ben to lock the door behind him. “Not that I expect anyone here to get into trouble, but better safe, hm?” She turned him loose from there, saying she’d meet him again in an hour.

Ben passed by several of the shops without much interest in going inside, but as he approached the tailor, he paused and peered through the window to see a mannequin dressed in outerwear: a black, soft-looking scarf around its neck and matching leather gloves. They’d suit Hux well, he thought, and he went inside. Jacob Fischer was standing behind the counter holding a newspaper in his blue-veined hands.

“Well, hello,” he said when he set eyes on Ben. “I remember you. Headmaster Skywalker’s boy.”

“Nephew,” said Ben.

“Do something for you?”

Ben gestured to the mannequin. “Could I see that scarf and gloves, please? Er, do you have another pair, or is that the only one?”

Fischer replied, “Got a set in the back. Hang on a moment.” He ducked behind a curtain, leaving Ben to wait idly in the center of the shop. It had a smell of leather and fabric—maybe vanilla? That was pleasant, Ben found, and comfortable. 

Fischer returned with a pair of slender boxes in dark matte blue. “Here you go, lad. Come up here.”

Going to the counter, Ben watched as he unpacked a folded scarf from the box, unveiling it from tissue paper. It was tightly knitted and amazingly soft when he got it into his hands.

“It’s cashmere,” said Fischer. “Fine stuff.” He pulled the gloves from their own box. “These are kidskin. Hand-stitched.”

Ben swallowed. “And, uh, expensive. Right?”

Fischer chuckled. “Somewhat, but if you’re looking to buy both, we can come to an agreement. For yourself, are they?”

“A friend.” It slipped out before Ben realized what he was saying. He really didn’t have any other way to describe Hux to a stranger, however; it was as close to the truth as was acceptable for someone he didn’t know well.

“A generous gift,” said Fischer. “Must be a particular friend.”

“Yeah,” Ben mumbled. “How much?”

He was told the price, and it was still steep, but he had Alice’s money and his own; it was within the realm of possibility. He’d have to get something small for Luke—and for Alice. He handed over his cash, and Fischer made his change. The tailor wrapped up the scarf and gloves and put them into a bag for Ben to carry.

“Happy Christmas, headmaster’s nephew,” he said.

“Same to you,” Ben told him as he left the shop.

He made his way to Peddler’s Market, thinking he might put together a bag of candy for Luke. The bored girl at the cash register said nothing to him as he entered, smacking on her bubble gum. Ben took one of the paper sacks and made his way along the rows of sweets, adding a few choice things every couple of containers. He didn’t think Alice would want the same, but when he caught sight of a bucket of flowers, he knew exactly what he was going to do.

Ten minutes later, he left the market with a colorful bouquet, his candy, and a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. He had some twenty minutes to while away before he had to meet Alice, so he went to the small park where he had met Hux and Phasma in November. Sitting on the bench Hux had lain on, he tried to envision what Hux would say when he was presented with fairly fancy gifts for Christmas. Maybe he’d he upset with the extravagance, but Ben wouldn’t mind that. Maybe he’d try to refuse them. Ben wouldn’t let him. He’d accept the gifts, no matter how he objected.

“Oh, my dear, you are too kind,” Alice said when he handed her the flowers as he returned to the carpark. She held them up to her nose and drew in a breath. “They’re charming. You sweet thing.”

Ben grinned. “Least I could do.”

Alice had a few boxes and bags in her arms, which Ben helped her to tuck into the trunk—boot, she said—of the little car. She saw the things he carried, and said, “Found something for your Hux, did you?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I hope he likes it.”

“I’m positive he will, dear, if it comes from you.”

They squeezed themselves back into the car, and then they were off back to Haverhill. The ride passed mostly in silence, but it was a pleasant one. Ben carried Alice’s parcels into the lodge, where she directed him to set them in the dining room.

“Have a few biscuits and some tea before you go?” she said to him.

Ben accepted, waiting in the parlor for her to bring a tray. They sat together and chatted some more, but eventually Ben made his excuses and returned to Arkanis House. He was thankfully uninterrupted as he hid the gifts under his bed. It wasn’t the safest hiding place, but he figured Hux wouldn’t go poking around his limited space.

With little else to do, he picked up a book and headed for the common room. He wasn’t altogether surprised to find Hux tucked into a chair in front of the fire with a book of his own. He glanced up as Ben sat beside him in an armchair.

“Enjoy your trip?” he asked, somewhat sourly.

“It was okay,” Ben replied. “I got what I needed.”

“No doubt.”

Ben took him in: soft and relaxed with his shoes off and his legs crossed in front of him. His blazer and tie were absent, and his hair was combed but not styled so closely against his head. He took some liberties with his appearance when there was no one to see him do it. Ben preferred the look to his usual one.

“What are you reading?” said Ben.

“A novel you probably wouldn’t like,” Hux told him. “And you?” Ben held up the calculus book, and Hux scoffed. “Typical.”

Ben frowned. “You don’t like that I read about math?”

Hux sighed gently, putting a finger into his novel to hold his place. “No. I mean, no, I don’t mind it. It’s actually...endearing.”

“Endearing?” Ben said, not sure if he was supposed to be offended or not. “Is that an insult?”

“No,” Hux murmured. “Read your maths, Solo, and be quiet.”

Ben tried to come up with a suitable retort, but nothing came to mind. He opened the text, picking up where he had left off, and did just as Hux told him to do: read silently, but at least not alone.

 


 

The dawning of Christmas morning found Ben awake by six. He slid out of bed and snuck past Hux’s sleeping form to the bathroom to dress and wash up. In his pocket, he had the small packet of candy he’d bought for Luke. His plan was to take it early to the headmaster’s lodge in hopes of sneaking one of Alice’s breakfasts before he returned to Arkanis House. He might have been pressing his luck, but he reckoned it was worth a try, anyway. Ducking out into the cold and half-light of the early day, he made his way around the main building to the lodge.

Alice was wearing a red and green sweater embroidered with ivy and cranberries when she opened the door at his knock. “Oh, Mr. Solo! Hello and happy Christmas!”

Ben offered a smile. “Merry Christmas to you, too, Alice.”

“Oh, you dear thing,” she said, bustling him into the lodge and calling for Luke.

He stuck his head out from the dining room, peering over his reading glasses. “What’s this now? Ben?”

“Hi, Uncle Luke,” Ben said as he approached. He took the candy from his pocket. “I, uh, have something for you. For Christmas.”

Luke brightened and gestured for Ben to come into the dining room. “Well, it’s a surprise to see you so early, but I have something for you as well. Are you hungry?”

Ben did his best not to grin in triumph. “Yes, sir.”

“No need for that formality today,” said Luke. “There’s bacon and”—he glanced at Alice—“more eggs and toast?”

She said, “In short order,” and disappeared into the kitchen.

Ben sat in his usual place at the table, though he handed Luke the candy first. Luke made the necessary noises of thanks before producing a wrapped box with a yellow bow at the corner.

“Merry Christmas, Ben,” he said.

Ben took the box and carefully unwrapped it—unlike the abandon with which he used to open his gifts back at home with his parents, if they happened to be there together that year. Inside was a neatly folded Haverhill green sweater. Ben touched it and found the wool soft under his fingertips.

“I know it’s part of the uniform,” said Luke, “but winter gets bitter and this is, well, practical.”

“Thanks,” Ben said. He wasn’t disappointed; a sweater was as good a gift as any.

Alice appeared with a plate of food, and Ben set the box aside to make room for it. He didn’t hesitate to dig in.

“There’s a tradition,” Luke told him, holding his mug of coffee, “for the masters to enjoy a Christmas luncheon at the inn in Tindon every year. It’s generally not permitted for pupils to join us, but there would be no objection to you, should you like to come along.” He smiled. “The food is quite good. There’s pudding.”

“Is it on fire?” Ben asked.

Luke chuckled. “It certainly is.”

It would be strange to sit at table with the masters, Ben thought, but there were worse things, and if the food was good… However, if all of the faculty were gone, it would leave only one person in the dining hall that afternoon.

Ben said, “Could Hux come, too?”

Luke’s expression tightened, his mouth pinching at the corners.

Ben pressed on: “If the masters don’t mind me, they can’t mind him. It’s just two of us. And if he can’t come, I’ll stay here.”

Seemingly chewing it over, Luke didn’t immediately reply. Then: “You’ve been spending more time with him over the holiday.”

“Some,” said Ben. A pause, but he added, “It’s hard to avoid each other when you’re the only two people in the house for two weeks.”

Luke rubbed his chin, conceding, “Yes, I suppose that’s true. And it’s good of you to want to include him. It is a bit of a shame to see him always here at the holidays. At first, I tried to contact his father about it, but he was away and unreachable.” His brow knit. “It doesn’t seem fair to the boy.”

Anger simmered in Ben’s chest, directed at the distant figure of Hux’s father. He’d brushed Hux off as easily as Ben’s parents had him, though far earlier in Hux’s life. Why even have a kid, if that’s how you were going to treat him?

“I suppose he can come along,” Luke continued when Ben didn’t speak. “We’re assembling by the fountain at half-past eleven. You’ll see him before then, I hope.”

Ben nodded, remaining silent. He turned back to his breakfast.

When they were finished, Ben gathered up his sweater, said he’d see Luke at the appointed time, and headed back to Arkanis House. He expected to find Hux in the dormitory, but it was empty when he got there. That actually worked to his advantage. It allowed him to slip the box with Hux’s Christmas presents in it from under his bed. It wasn’t wrapped as nicely as Ben’s gift had been, which bothered him a little, but there was nothing he could do about it now. With the box in hand, he ventured toward Hux’s study.

A rap on the door brought a soft “Enter” from within, and Ben turned the handle. Hux was sitting at his desk in his shirtsleeves, a book in his hands. He turned to Ben, looking first at him and then at the box. Ben’s stomach turned in a rush of nerves, and, unsure what else to do, he set the box down on Hux’s desk.

Hux’s confusion was, for once, plain in his face. He peered up at Ben. “What is this?”

Ben fought the urge to wring his hands in front of him, instead keeping them stolidly down by his sides. “It’s for you.”

“Yes, I understood as much,” said Hux, “but...why?”

“It’s Christmas,” Ben replied. “And it’s a present.”

Hux glanced at the box, lips pressed tightly together. Tentatively, he set his hands at its edges.

Ben said, “You can open it. You’re supposed to.”

“I—” Hux started. Quietly: “I don’t have anything for you.” His eyes turned back up to Ben, and Ben saw the pink of an embarrassed blush in his cheeks.

“It’s okay,” Ben told him. “You don’t have to. I just saw this, and I…” He bit back uncomfortable frustration. “Just open it, will you?”

Hux took hold of the box’s lid and began to pull it up and away. The tissue paper inside rustled. He folded it back slowly to reveal the scarf and gloves nestled beneath. Careful, he picked up one glove, the leather shining just slightly in the light from his desk lamp.

“You wore mine before,” Ben said by way of explanation. “You should have your own.”

“I can’t accept this,” said Hux in a rush, dropping the glove back into the box.

Ben flinched, but he managed to say, “Why not?”

Hux stood from his chair, putting the box back in order with jerky, almost panicked motions. “It’s… I just can’t, Solo.” He picked the box up and pushed it back at Ben.

Baffled, Ben didn’t move to take it. He studied Hux, seeing his distress; he didn’t understand it, and that brought unexpected exasperation. Ben said, not without force, “Yes, you can.”

“No.” 

Hux pressed the box closer, but Ben shoved it back at him. “Take it.”

“I can’t,” Hux said, stridance almost cracking his voice. “It’s too much, and I’ve nothing to give you in return.”

Ben snapped, “I don’t care about that. I didn’t expect anything.” He grabbed the box at last, and Hux looked relieved, but when Ben dropped it on the desk and pulled it open again, his eyes widened. Ben drew the scarf from inside and, even as Hux tried to protest, wrapped it loosely around his neck. “There,” Ben said. “It’s yours.”

Hux stood frozen for a moment, but then raised a hand to the edge of the scarf, fingering it hesitantly. His face was still red, but he ventured to meet Ben’s eyes, and finally gave in. “Thank you.”

Relieved, Ben sighed. He took the gloves. “Try these on.”

Obediently, Hux held out his hands for Ben to slide the gloves onto. It took some tugging, but they fit. Hux flexed his fingers, and the kidskin creaked.

“Now you won’t have to steal mine again,” Ben said. “Next time we go for a walk.”

Hux blinked once at him. “Next time?”

Ben said, “Yeah.”

“Oh. Well.” Hux seemed oddly reduced, the scarf pulled up to his chin. Ben wouldn’t have recognized him like this a few months ago.

“You’re going to need it today,” said Ben. “We’re walking to Tindon with the masters. Christmas luncheon.”

Hux raised his eyebrows. “Boys aren’t permitted.”

“Luke said we could.” Ben didn’t feel the need to elaborate on just how he had managed to get permission for Hux to come along.

“I see,” said Hux.

Ben took his gloved right hand, plucking at the fingers of the gloves until he could pull it free. He dropped it back into the box, fitting his fingers between Hux’s. “Merry Christmas.”

Hux’s smile wavered, but he said, “Happy Christmas, Solo.”

Pleased, Ben looked down at the book Hux had been reading. It was in Greek. He made a face, and Hux laughed.

“I would say you’d be able to read it too before long,” Hux said, “but you won’t. You’ll barely pass the exam.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ben grumbled.

Hux lifted their still-joined hands and lay his left over them, rubbing Ben’s knuckles. “I’m a realist. But you’ll get out of here all the same.”

Ben watched him caress his hand, held at the level of their chests. “Are you looking forward to it? Leaving Haverhill.”

“Of course. This place is its own brand of hell.”

“Sandhurst will be easier?”

Hux shook his head. “I doubt it, but it’s different than here, and I’m ready for a change.”

“Makes sense,” said Ben. The thought of the end of the year brought considerations of leaving not only the school, but of leaving Hux. True, they had only known each other for four months, and nearly two of those had been spent at odds, but parting wasn’t something Ben wanted just yet. They were on the cusp of something new, and he wanted to explore it.

Hux read him, as he often did, and squeezed his hand. “We’ve a long time yet, Ben.”

Ben grinned at his name. Hux returned the smile.

“What shall we do until we meet the masters?” Hux asked.

Taking a step closer, so that their hands were caught between them, Ben said, “I can think of a couple of things.”

“Oh, yes,” said Hux. “So can I.”

 


 

They hung back as they joined the masters for their walk to Tindon at half-past eleven. Luke had, apparently, let the assembled faculty know that Hux and Ben would be in attendance, but they still received a few sidelong looks, mostly from Krennic. There wasn’t a great deal to say as they walked, and Ben didn’t feel as if he could speak freely under the scrutiny of the masters. 

They’d put on their blazers and ties, shined their shoes. Hux wore his new scarf and gloves. He’d made a bit of a show of donning them before he and Ben had gone outside, and Ben had held back his smile. Hux hadn’t missed his pleasure, of course.

The Swan Inn was on the outskirts of the village and was decked with mistletoe and holly when they arrived. The masters were greeted with handshakes by a short, round innkeeper. The man said hello to Ben and Hux with a kind of condescending childishness. Ben exchanged a glance with Hux, who shrugged.

Their table was long and already set with flatware and filled with food, a roasted goose at the center. Ben eyed it with interest, having never tried it before. Luke set to carving. He served the masters first, then Ben and Hux. The chaplain, who was also in with them, gave a short blessing, and they were free to eat.

Conversation was lively among the faculty, leaving Ben and Hux mostly unnoticed. Ben said to him, not too loudly, “This is kind of weird. Maybe we should have stayed at school.”

“And miss this food?” said Hux. “Not bloody likely.”

Ben chuckled. “I thought you didn’t mind the rations.”

“I have to set an example for the house and eat it without complaint, but it’s barely tolerable. I haven’t had much else since the summer holiday.”

“You said your stepmother doesn’t really like you,” Ben said carefully. “What’s the holiday like with her?”

“Like the food at school,” Hux replied.

“Barely tolerable,” Ben muttered. “That’s bullshit.”

Hux snorted. “Of the highest order, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Maratelle never has to see me again once I go to Sandhurst. After that I’ll have my commission and somewhere else to go.”

“Where do you think they’ll send you?” Ben asked.

Hux’s fork and knife stilled on his plate. He turned his eyes down to them. “Probably Northern Ireland.”

Ben balked. “Seriously? But...that’s where you’re from. They can’t really send you there.”

“They can, and they likely will.” His tone was cool. “After all, I’m as good as an Englishman this point.”

“Would you hate it?” said Ben.

Hux slowly resumed cutting his goose, stacking roasted potatoes and brown gravy over it. “I don’t have the luxury of feeling any particular way about it. I go where they tell me to and don’t offer any complaint.”

Ben turned to his own food, falling silent for a time.

“Are you looking forward to living in London?” Hux asked.

“I don’t know that I’ll get into the course yet,” Ben replied.

“You will.”

“I hope so. Do you, uh, ever have a break in your training? Could you”—Ben hesitated—“come see me there?”

Hux turned to face him properly, one eyebrow cocked. “You’d want that?”

“Yeah,” said Ben, though he could feel the heat in his face. “You know, if you wanted to.”

“We’ll have leave sometime,” Hux told him. “I’d rather not go home, so…”

Ben’s apprehension lifted. “Luke said I’ll have to get a job to pay for my apartment—flat. I’ve never had a job before.”

“Nor have I,” Hux said. “And I suppose I never will, outside of the army. What would you like to do?”

“I have no idea.” Ben chewed his cheek. “Do people bag groceries here? Or deliver newspapers?”

Hux seemed thoughtful, but then shook his head. “Not quite.” A gesture toward the inn’s bar. “You could pull taps. Find work in a restaurant.”

Ben lifted one shoulder and let it fall again. “Guess so. I’ll figure it out when I get there.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage whatever you decide to do,” said Hux. “If you can survive at Haverhill, the rest of your life shouldn’t be so difficult.”

Am I surviving?” Ben said, wry.

Hux replied, “You are. Quite admirably, now.”

Ben huffed. “Yeah, now that I’m not fighting you.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Why’d you do it?” Ben asked frankly. “You could have just caned me and had done with it, but you didn’t.”

“You said yourself you weren’t afraid of a beating,” Hux said. “It wouldn’t have cowed you.”

Ben lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. “So you got me into your study instead and...well.”

Hux eyed him. “It worked, didn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “Was that the only reason you did it? To make me behave?”

Hux wet his lips, stalling. Ben thought he might not answer. But then, he said, “No. I wanted to do it. You were...captivating. From the very beginning.”

Ben imagined his shock was visible, and he caught Hux blushing. “You liked me right away?”

“I wouldn’t say I liked you,” Hux replied. “You were so difficult. But it was, unfortunately, part of the appeal.”

Ben actually found himself laughing lightly. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You could have just talked to me.”

Hux gave a soft sigh. “I’m not very good with people. I don’t make friends easily.”

“Is that what we are?” Ben asked, suddenly and deeply hopeful. “Friends?”

“I—” He took another breath. “I’d like to think so.”

Ben smiled and bumped Hux’s ankle with the toe of his shoe. “Me, too.”

Hux put his hand under the table, and Ben thought he was just picking up his napkin, but then he felt that hand on his thigh. Hux rubbed him lightly there, a very hidden intimacy. Ben swallowed, feeling the blood in his stomach dropping to his groin. Hux took his hand away before the effect could embarrass them both.

Shortly after, the innkeeper brought the famous flaming pudding, and Ben watched in awe as it was served. As strange it had turned out to be, he was feeling lighter, better, gladder than he had in months. He never would have guessed that would have been because of Hux, but that was the truth of it, and his chest was full with unforeseen joy.

 


 

When the group returned to Haverhill in the late afternoon, Ben and Hux went to the common room to idly play gin rummy. They’d branched out to poker, too, and Spit, but they always seemed to come back to rummy. It was quiet and undisturbed, no real competition. Ben enjoyed the simplicity of it; after all, it would be disrupted once the rest of the boys returned to school.

They went to the dining hall for dinner for the sake of taking roll, but neither of them ate. Tea was sipped before they went back to Arkanis House. In Hux’s study, Ben lay on the worn carpet while Hux sat in his chair and read St. John of the Cross.

 

Once a young shepherd went off to despond:
how could he dance again? how could he sing?
All of his thoughts to his shepherdess cling,
with love in his heart like a ruinous wound.

 

The poem, “Madrigal,” ended with the poor lovelorn shepherd dying beneath a tall tree with his still-wounded heart rendered destitute.

Ben rolled onto his side, looking up at Hux with his head propped up on his hand and elbow. “You think someone can really die of a broken heart?” he asked.

“If he’s weak enough, perhaps,” Hux replied. “Love is supposed to be all-consuming, but in reality there are too many practicalities to make it so intense. Dying of a broken heart is something for the fairy tales.”

“Yeah,” said Ben, “and people don’t seem to fall in love like they do in stories. They get married, and then they just fight until they can’t take it anymore.”

Hux let the book of poems rest on his thighs, its pages fanning up. “Maybe not all of them, but many. My father and Maratelle surely aren’t a shining example. And his affair with my mother…” Scornfully: “So stupid of them.”

Ben came up onto his knees. “Maybe it was, but it got them you. And that’s a good thing.”

“Is it?” Hux said, quiet.

“I promise it is,” Ben told him.

It was after ten o’clock when they retired to the dormitory to sleep. Ben got under his quilt, nestled for warmth against the cold of the nighttime. He closed his eyes, but rest eluded him. With some uneasiness, he turned back and forth in his bed, making the springs creak. He had just come to face the window again when he heard the soft padding of footsteps approaching from behind him. He was about to turn to see, but he wasn’t given the chance. The quilt was lifted up and the mattress sank with a new weight. A slender body slipped in next to him.

“Hux?” he said, though he knew it could be no one else.

There was no reply, only a long arm coming around his middle, hand moving down between his legs. Ben nearly jumped in surprise. Hux rubbed him first over the fabric of his sleep trousers, but as his cock came to attention, Hux went to the elastic waistband and pushed his fingers under it. Ben let him touch for a time, his pulse speeding in response. Fumbling, Ben tried to reach for Hux, but could only manage to get a handful of his buttock.

“Will you let me…” he murmured. “I can turn around.”

Unspeaking, Hux withdrew his hand, and though they barely fit together in the narrow bed, Ben managed to come to face him. Hux’s eyes were open, reflecting the moonlight from outside. There was a hungry flash to them that was almost more arousing than his touches. Ben pressed close against him, feeling his hardness against his hip. There was nothing to be said, really; they both knew what this was about.

Ben tugged at the front of Hux’s pajama trousers, and Hux obligingly lifted himself up just enough to get them down to bare his cock. Ben shimmied in the same way, until their erections could brush. Ben shivered. Hux breathed through his mouth, wrapping his fingers around them both and beginning to stroke. Ben took him by the hip, clutching to ground himself.

Hux’s palm was dry and, to a point, it was not overly comfortable for either of them, but they were too caught up to worry about making it perfect. There was nothing at all perfect or ideal about anything between them—from the beginning until now. But Hux had told Ben that he’d wanted him nearly since his arrival at Haverhill; that was an affecting confession. Ben hadn’t experienced the same, but he would have been fooling himself if he pretended he hadn’t noticed Hux right away. It wasn’t just his poor attitude, either. He’d seen his face, his hair, his body. The desire had caught Ben by surprise, but it seemed natural, now.

Hux was panting, his forehead pressed against Ben’s. Ben clutched at him, desperate for closeness. Hux’s hand moved steadily over them, Ben rising to it in steady increments.

Ben,” Hux whispered, breaking the rare silence of the dormitory.

From his side, Ben pulled his arm up to cup Hux’s cheek with his hand. It was trapped between his face and the pillow, but Hux turned into it, his breath hot on Ben’s skin. Hux gave a short gasp and spent himself over his hand and Ben’s cock, warm and sticky. Ben made a deep sound of satisfaction in his chest, his climax following shortly after. They lay still for a time, recovering, before Hux began to draw away. Rudely, he wiped his hand on Ben’s top sheet, but Ben couldn’t be bothered to care. He’d change the linens in the morning.

Hux got out of bed and set his trousers to rights. Ben thought he might just walk away then, but extended a hand and brushed his fingers over Ben’s hair by way of parting. He turned to return to his own bed, leaving Ben to lie in his with his trousers still down and a mess he, too, was forced to wipe away with his sheet.

It was the first time, he realized, they’d been able to share a bed, awkward as it may have been to fit. That meant something, but what, Ben didn’t quite know. With a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and finally drifted into sleep.

Chapter Text

Ben appreciated the last quiet days of the holiday. They were spent in long walks on the school grounds—both he and Hux bundled up in their scarves and gloves—and in afternoons in Hux’s study, warmed by the crackling fire Ben had set. He was better at it than Hux was, he’d learned, and was quick to note that, earning him sour looks that made him laugh. Hux didn’t chide him for it, but shook his head and picked up his book or went to busy himself in some other way. But Ben wasn’t fooled by the dismissiveness. Hux liked his fires; he liked Ben.

The time they passed was sometimes silent, as they both read, Hux seated in his chair while Ben lay on the rug on his stomach, his knees bent and feet swinging absently from side to side. Sometimes Ben worked on calculus problems in his notebook, which Hux considered with little interest, save for a bit of what Ben thought was respect for the effort. Occasionally, Hux read Ben more poetry, or even some prose. There were hours when his voice lulled Ben to sleep. He would wake a while later, finding Hux working at his desk with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up to protect them from the ink of his pen.

Ben would watch him, not yet ready to reveal that he was awake. His studiousness was admirable, and Ben liked to take in the slope of his narrow shoulders, the way he rounded his back when he was concentrating particularly hard. He was captivating.

The noise and chaos of fifty Arkanis boys began again as they returned on the Sunday before the first day of term. Ben rose early on Monday morning, the fifth of January, to shower before the rest of upper sixth could crowd the bathroom. Hux didn’t come to join him. Disappointed, Ben toweled himself off and combed his hair in front of the mirror until it was dry enough to be presentable. It was too early for breakfast to be served, leaving him to take a short walk around the back courtyard while he waited. He stopped in the chapel to light one candle and warm his chilly hands, but the chaplain was nowhere to be found. It suited Ben fine; he didn’t have the same complaints he had months before.

Most of the boys were already gathered at the table when he arrived, but Hux was conspicuously absent. Ben took his usual seat, earning him no particular attention from anyone else. He was just pouring himself a cup of orange juice when Hux came into the dining hall. Heads turned to follow his walk up to the table. His place was empty, but he didn’t go to it. Instead, he detoured to Ben’s side and stepped over the bench to sit next to him. Nobody bothered to hide their shock, Ben included.

“Good morning,” Hux said, as if nothing was amiss.

“Uh, hi,” said Ben. He wanted to ask what Hux was doing, but he thought he knew the answer: he was sitting by his friend—perhaps the only one he had. Ben warmed, relieved that Hux wasn’t going to pretend that they didn’t get on after Christmas. He asked, hesitantly, “You want some tea?”

“I can get it,” Hux told him, reaching for the pot at the center of the table.

Ben almost laughed. The pretense of all the months before fell away in an instant. He wasn’t Hux’s fag any longer, and Hux was making that abundantly clear.

The boys around them were still gaping. Ben caught Mitaka looking utterly gobsmacked: wide-eyed and slack-jawed, abjectly lost at this change. Thanisson was scowling, his porridge congealing in the bowl in front of him. Utensils were still, confusion apparent. Hux poured his tea and added the habitual dash of milk. He lifted the cup to his lips and drank, at last glancing at the rest of the boys around him.

“Is there a hunger strike I wasn’t aware of?” he said.

Immediately, the others dove back into their food, eyes turned down. Hux took another sip of his tea, unperturbed. He spoke to Ben: “Master Snoke alluded to us working on your beloved calculus today. Looking forward to it?”

“I guess so,” Ben replied. “I don’t understand it all yet, but at least it should be interesting.”

Hux’s smile was thin. “No doubt.”

“If you have a problem with it, I can help you,” Ben told him around a bite of cornflakes.

“Who says I will?”

Ben shot him a sidelong look. “Nobody, but I owe you for Greek.”

Hux put honey into his porridge, saying quietly, “You don’t owe me anything.”

For a time, they didn’t speak, eating under the furtive glances of the other boys. Ben wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to say. They had only ever talked about anything of substance when they were alone—when they didn’t have to censor themselves. He didn’t want to make inane small talk, but he didn’t want to sit in silence, either. It was dawning on him that this new ground Hux had put them on was not going to be easy to navigate.

The bells rang to summon them to chapel, and Hux was the first to rise. He waited for Ben to fumble over the bench and join him before heading toward the doors. Even as they took their places standing at the back of the chapel, Hux remained next to him. They were packed close enough that Ben could touch the back of his hand. Hux didn’t move away, but neither did he give any indication that he could feel Ben’s fingers near his. Ben wouldn’t have expected it, and yet he was tempted to brush them against Hux’s knuckles, a sign that he was all right with the change in their behavior. He doubted Hux needed reassurance, though; he did what he wanted, regardless of what Ben thought about it.

“Good morning and welcome,” said the chaplain from his pulpit. “Today we read from Ecclesiastes, verses 4:9 and 4:10: ‘Two are better than one, because they have good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.’

“What can we glean from this passage? The most obvious reading is that of relying on someone else to support you. We can, of course, turn to God in our times of need, but He instructs us here to have someone else—a brother, a friend—to lend us a shoulder or a hand when it’s most needed.”

The chaplain looked out over the gathered boys, spreading his arms wide. “You can find here that kind of friend, should you seek it. You are all brothers in your labors and should be able to find strength in each other. Friendships forged here are the kind that last long into your lives. There are men who still return to us and tell us of how they’ve remained in contact with their housemates. They bring their families together and send their sons here to have the same education they did themselves.” He smiled. “Do not neglect the camaraderie of your fellows. You may need them to help you up when you fall.”

Even just two weeks ago, before Christmas, Ben might have been too wary to put any real trust in Hux, who could brush him off as easily as he had taken him on. But now there was a stronger foundation to what they had. Ben believed Hux would offer a hand if he stumbled. In reality, he already had: protecting Ben from Rembis, Blakely, and Poole, Ben’s former tormentors. And Ben had given him the same in the wood, when Hux had told him so much more than Ben had ever expected him to reveal, and Ben had held him in his arms. It was trust, but far from brotherhood when they were alone in Hux’s study.

When the sermon was over, Arkanis upper sixth went, as prescribed, to their classroom for Snoke’s maths lesson. Ben went at Hux’s side, which didn’t escape Snoke’s notice when they entered. He raised a single eyebrow. It nearly had Ben blushing, but when Hux didn’t flinch, he held his head high and went to his desk, pulling his notebook from under the lid. Snoke picked up his chalk and bid the boys settle down for the lecture. It was indeed calculus, and Ben smiled.

 


 

Mitaka’s expression was nigh on murderous that evening when Ben appeared in the common room for Latin tutorial. He was standing with his hands white-knuckled on the back of his wooden chair, his books lying haphazardly on the table. Ben approached with caution, setting his own things down.

“Sit,” Mitaka spat, yanking his chair out.

Ben did. He made to open his notebook, but Mitaka slapped it closed as he took his own place.

“What in the hell are you playing at, Solo?” he asked sharply.

“Me?” said Ben. “I didn’t do anything. He’s the one who sat next to me at breakfast.”

“And lunch, and dinner,” said Mitaka. “Three weeks ago he would barely look at you in the dining hall. Something happened over the holidays, and you’re bloody well going to tell me what it was.”

Ben bit down hard on his lower lip, unsure what he could say and what he couldn’t. He decided on vagueness: “We were both here, and...we talked. Found out we don’t have as much to fight about as we thought.”

Mitaka rubbed both hands over his face. “Christ. Nobody just ‘talks’ to Hux.”

“Well, I did,” Ben said, curt.

“I don’t understand,” Mitaka said with an edge of despair. “Why would you ever want to be his friend? He’s a nightmare.”

“I won’t pretend he’s a great person,” Ben said. “I know him well enough not to be that stupid. But he’s okay if you give him a chance.”

Mitaka hung his head. “‘A chance.’ You say that as if he’d be willing to accept that. Good God, Solo, you’ve made a mess of everything since the day you arrived. You’ve changed him.”

Ben didn’t deny it. “So what? Is it for the worse? Has he been slave-driving the house again?” He scoffed. “We haven’t been back long enough for you to tell.”

“Hux has only ever looked out for himself,” said Mitaka. “Why stop now? And why you?”

Ben bristled. “You saying I’m not worth being friends with?”

“No, I don’t mean that.” Mitaka sighed. “You’re not so bad, even if you upset everything in the house—even the unflappable head boy.” Turning his eyes up, he said, quietly, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he fancies you.”

Ben’s stomach went icy. He said, with forced levity, “But you do know better.”

Mitaka kept a steady gaze on him. “He’s made every possible exception for you. It’s clear as day you’ve got his favor. Where does that end and fancying begin?”

Ben lied outright: “It’s not like that. We called a truce.”

“‘Truce,’” Mitaka grumbled. “You really couldn’t have picked anyone else in this school to be your friend? Dameron’s not so bad. And I suppose you and I get on.”

“Us?” Ben asked, surprised. “You actually want to be my friend?”

“You don’t have to make a big deal of it, but now that you’re in Hux’s pocket, I don’t know what to do with you.”

“It’s not like I’m going to tattle to him,” said Ben. “I’m not trying to get in good. He’s my friend because he wants to be, and I’m his because I want to be.” He picked up his pencil and spun it between his fingers. “You and I get along, though, huh? You just said I ruined everything in the house.”

“Yes, well,” Mitaka said, “you’re difficult, but you’re all right, all things considered. I really don’t understand why or how you’d want to spend time with Hux, but who am I to stop you?”

Ben said, “He always takes the lead. You have to know that by now.”

Mitaka chewed his cheek. “Yes, I’m aware, but where’s he leading you, I wonder.”

Ben paused to consider, but had to admit: “I’m not sure I know.”

“You’d best find out,” said Mitaka, “because it could all go tits up if you don’t watch yourself. One wrong step and—”

“He wouldn’t turn on me,” Ben said. “Not with what I know about him.” He nearly winced. He had no intention of abusing the trust he had told Hux he could put in him, especially not to Mitaka, who was as skittish as a rabbit and tended to gossip. Or at least he had always answered Ben’s questions, which was close enough to gossip.

“Leverage,” Mitaka muttered. “Not a bad move.”

“I won’t turn on him, either,” said Ben decisively. “I don’t really give a shit what anyone thinks about us being friends.”

“Not surprising,” was the subdued reply. “You’ve never cared about your reputation. What’s another trespass in the grand scheme of things?”

Ben frowned. “What am I trespassing on? There’s no rule in hallowed Haverhill that says you can’t have a friend in your house. What was the chaplain saying today, huh? You need someone to lean on. Who do you have, Dopheld?”

He expected fury, but what he got was resignation. “No one,” Mitaka replied. “Thanisson is a real ass, and who else wants to befriend a prefect, when he can run to the head boy at any time?”

Ben sobered considerably. “Look, that was a shitty thing to say. I’m sorry.”

Mitaka shrugged one shoulder. “It’s reality. I can’t wait to get out of this school. They say university is so much better.”

“I get it,” said Ben. “But if you want to talk to somebody sometime, you can talk to me. We get on, don’t we?”

“I suppose we do,” Mitaka said, offering a tentative smile. He tapped the cover of their Latin textbook. “We should get to work.”

Ben laid a hand over his notebook, pushing it away. “Why don’t we take a night off? I won’t tell if you won’t.”

Mitaka chuckled. “I won’t. What do you want to do, then?”

“Why don’t you tell me about where you grew up?” asked Ben. “I know you have sisters. Did you, uh, go away to prep school really young?”

“Is this how you got your leverage with Hux?” Mitaka said.

Ben gave him a look. “We can do Latin if you really want to.”

“No.” Mitaka pushed his own books up toward the center of the table to be forgotten. “Cambridge is all right. I know a lot about the university, and that’s why I’ve heard it’s so much better. It’s fairly close-knit place, if you were raised there...”

Ben sat forward to listen and let him speak until the bells rang for them to go to bed.

 


 

The bare branches of the trees above Ben’s head knocked together in irregular percussion when a breeze came up. He was bouncing on his toes, clapping his gloved hands together to keep them warm. Hux looked less perturbed as he sat on a low limb, putting him several feet higher than where Ben stood.

“‘Fame’ is the highlight from last year,” Hux was saying, his breath fogging around him. “But I’m partial to Bowie in the first place.”

“What about James Taylor?” Ben asked.

Hux pulled a face. “Completely different style. You can’t compare them. But I don’t mind ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),’ if you must know.”

Ben grinned. “That’s a sappy song. Never would have put it past you.”

“I’m full of surprises, Ben Solo,” Hux countered, haughty.

Ben couldn’t argue with that. It should maybe have frustrated him, but he was so used to it now that he took whatever came at him, adjusting as he needed to in the moment.

“I can’t believe we’re not allowed to have radios,” he said. “I haven’t heard a new song in months.”

“And you won’t,” said Hux, “until summer. A few boys have sneaked radios in before, but if I were to catch someone with one, I’d have to confiscate it.”

Ben wrinkled his nose. “You spoil everything fun, don’t you?”

Hux raised an eyebrow, looking Ben up and down. “Not for everyone.”

“Point taken,” Ben mumbled.

“Did you have a radio of your own at home in America?” Hux asked. His gloved hands were resting on the branch on either side of his legs, and he was leaning slightly forward, inquisitive. He looked like a red-crested owl, his green eyes observant and wide.

“Of course,” Ben replied. “It was in my room. Pretty small, and I had to mess with the antenna all the time to get a good signal, but it worked. Sometimes I’d listen to it all night, or at least fall asleep listening.”

“That didn’t bother you?”

Ben shook his head. “It’s better than listening to nine boys snore.”

“Indeed,” Hux huffed. “What was your bedroom like?”

“Pretty small. Our house wasn’t big in the first place. It was built after World War II. You know, like Levittown.”

“I don’t know,” Hux told him. “Is that a place?”

“Yeah, in Pennsylvania. It was the first really big neighborhood built in the suburbs. Well, I guess it was the suburbs. The first one.” How Ben remembered this from his history class back home, he wasn’t exactly sure. “They made it really cheap for returning soldiers to buy houses instead of renting in the city. But all the houses looked the same. Ours did, too. Three bedrooms, but only one bathroom.”

“But you didn’t have any siblings to fight with over it,” Hux said. “And your parents were often gone, weren’t they?”

The familiar anger and loneliness of those days rose in Ben’s chest, but he pushed it away; it was long over. “They were. I guess it wasn’t so bad. The bathroom, I mean.”

Hux looked hard at him. “Not your parents’ absence.”

Ben sighed. “It used to piss me off, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. They had to work.” He took a step closer to Hux, wrapping his fingers around his ankle. “At least they actually liked me.”

“Only my stepmother truly dislikes me,” said Hux. “My father is just...particular. Tell me more about your home.”

“Well,” Ben began, “I used to walk to school. Some people rode bikes or took the bus, but we lived close enough that I could walk. And we probably couldn’t have afforded a decent bike. I didn’t mind that much. It made it easy to just avoid school altogether when I wanted to. There was a park where I used to just sit and watch the sky. Especially if I had smoked grass and was a little woozy. You ever tried that?”

Hux scoffed. “As if I could have, between years of prep school and Haverhill and my father during the summer. I would have been beaten bloody.”

Ben’s brows knit with concern. “Do you really mean that?”

“Perhaps not bloody,” said Hux, “but enough to bruise. I was caught with a flask of gin once, and I was given the belt and locked up without dinner for three days.”

“If I ever met your dad,” Ben said, “I’d have to try really hard not to hit him.”

Hux’s expression was unreadable, but he said, “You’re taller than him. Bigger. You might be able to get one punch in before he had you on the ground.”

“I’d like to see him try,” Ben snarled.

“I wouldn’t allow it,” Hux said. “You’d be a fool to cross him.” He paused, and then asked, “Did you father beat you?”

Ben was quick to reply, “Hell no. My mom would probably have beaten him right back. She didn’t take any of Dad’s shit. I wasn’t afraid of him.”

“What of her?”

“No,” said Ben. “She barely noticed me enough to give me hell for skipping school.”

Hux moved his leg slightly in Ben’s grip, but he didn’t pull away. “It’s strange to think of you bunking off, when you’re quite keen on your studies here.”

Ben wouldn’t have exactly described it as “keen,” but he was more serious about things at Haverhill than he had been in Alderaan. He said to Hux, “It was different there. I was different.”

“Still stubborn and bullheaded, I’d imagine,” Hux said.

“Fuck off,” Ben said, though there wasn’t any bite to it.

Hux laughed. “Once you get used to that, it’s not unbearable.”

“Great,” Ben grumbled. “I’m not ‘unbearable.’ High praise, coming from you.”

Sobering, Hux did kick his leg away from Ben. “Move, will you?” he said. Ben went a pace back, and Hux jumped down to the ground. He asked, “Do you want my praise?”

Ben wet his lips, the saliva cooling immediately in the chilly air.

Hux continued, “Do you want me to tell you’re good? A nice boy?” His tone was low, suggestive. He took the lapel of Ben’s jacket between his thumb and forefingers. “A handsome boy?”

“Do you think I am?” Ben said, quietly.

Hux smiled slyly. “I don’t mind looking at you, but you’re not terribly nice.”

Ben exhaled, sharp. “‘Stubborn and bullheaded,’ right?”

“Yes,” Hux told him, “but also good, when it suits you. And when it suits me, sometimes. Most times, these days.”

The rebellious streak in Ben demanded he deny it; he didn’t. “You don’t want me to be nice,” he said instead. “You wouldn’t have even noticed me if I had been back in September.” Hux frowned, but Ben pressed: “Don’t pretend like it’s not true. If I’d played along, you would have ignored me.”

Hux opened his mouth slightly, touching the tip of his tongue to his upper teeth. “I don’t think I could ever have ignored you, try as I might.”

Ben curled his fingers around Hux’s right wrist. “That is praise.”

“Yes,” said Hux, “I suppose it is.” He drew in a breath and let it out a rush of fog. “It’s bloody freezing. Let’s go inside.”

They left the stand of trees and walked together across the lawn back to Arkanis House. Very few boys were outside the building, most of them holed up in the common room to keep warm by the fireplace. However, Ben saw two faces he knew at the picnic table in the courtyard between Arkanis and Oakeshott: Finn and Dameron. They were sitting side-by-side on the tabletop, their feet planted on the bench. Ben and Hux would have to go past them to get back inside, and from the corner of his eye, Ben caught Hux scowling.

“Hello there,” said Finn, waving a bare hand. His jacket was a vibrant green and he had a red scarf wrapped around his neck “Hi, Ben. Hux.”

They stopped just in front of the table. “Hi. How’s it going?” asked Ben.

“Well enough for a nippy Saturday,” Dameron replied. “You two been for a walk?” He glanced between them, seemingly recognizing something that Ben couldn’t quite figure out.

“Yeah,” said Ben. “Had cabin fever earlier.”

Dameron nodded. “Much like us. Need to just get out every now and then.” He gestured to the place beside him. “Care to sit?”

“No, thank you,” Hux said before Ben could take him up on the offer. Not that Ben had exactly been thinking of doing so. It was just an option that Hux had hastily turned down. “We’ve work to do.”

Today?” Finn asked. “It’s Saturday. Have a rest, eh?”

Hux’s mouth was pinched. “We just did. Wasting the rest of the day would be a missed opportunity.”

Dameron rubbed his thighs, making a disbelieving face. “You’ve got to relax a little, Hux. It would do you some good.”

“You don’t know anything about what would ‘do me some good,’” Hux snapped. “Mind your own.”

Dameron lifted his hands. “No offense meant.”

“Hux,” Ben said softly, trying to soothe his temper. He got a hard look in return, a warning to mind his own.

A few moments of tense silence passed before Hux broke it: “Solo, let’s go.”

Ben hesitated, but as Hux began to charge off in long, determined strides, he made his apologies to Finn and Dameron and went after him. Hux threw open the door to Arkanis House and set off up the stairs.

“Hey,” Ben called from behind him. “Wait a damn minute.” Hux didn’t stop, so Ben sprang up to the landing and grabbed his sleeve. “What’s your problem? Why do you hate them so much?”

Hux rounded on him, snatching his arm away. “Dameron is a prick. Thinks he knows the perfect way to run his house.” He sneered. “He wants everyone to like him rather than respect him. It’s a pathetic compulsion.”

Ben said, “Wanting people to like you isn’t a bad thing. And it doesn’t mean Oakeshott boys don’t respect him. From what I can tell, they really do. A lot of them admire him for being...kind.”

“Is that what you would want in a head boy?” Hux demanded. “Patronizing faux friendship?”

“How is it patronizing?” Ben asked. “It’s genuine. He really means it.”

“You can’t uniformly like everyone,” said Hux. “Only fools are that trusting.”

“He’s not a fool,” Ben said. “He’s a good person.”

Hux bristled. “Are you saying I’m not?”

“No.”

“No, I’m not a good person,” Hux growled, “or no, you think I am a good person?”

Ben was tense, sure either reply was the wrong one. He settled on: “Being friendly or being stern doesn’t make you or him better. But if you gave him a chance, you’d see he’s not what you think.”

Hux’s pique faded ever so slightly. “I don’t think he would give me the time of day, even if I attempted that.”

“Why not?” Ben said.

“I’ve given him no reason to. He dislikes me, too.”

Ben reached out for him, taking his hands in his. “I doubt that. Try to talk to him one of these days. Mend fences, or whatever people say.”

Hux turned his eyes down to where Ben held him. “Maybe,” was his simple reply. He didn’t immediately release Ben as he started up the stairs again, though it required him to let go of one of his hands. The leather of their gloves squeaked as their fingers moved against each other, the sound amplified in the echoing stairwell.

They bypassed the common room when they got back into the main part of the house, going straight for Hux’s study. Safely inside with the door closed behind them, Hux pulled off his gloves and went for the buttons of Ben’s jacket. It wasn’t long before it and several other pieces of his clothing were abandoned on the floor.

 


 

January marched on: bland meals, maths lessons, chapel, bumbling through classics, and Hux—always Hux, who remained at the periphery of Ben’s awareness even when he was not at the center of it. In the weeks since term had resumed, the Arkanis boys had come to accept the new status quo between him and Ben. They always sat together in the dining hall and their walks on the grounds or disappearances into Hux’s study were not looked at askance. At least not too much.

Games were no less miserable as winter grew more relentless. The boys were permitted to bundle up in thicker uniforms, but the wind still cut through them on the fields, unbroken by trees. That Wednesday’s weather was particularly cruel, stinging Ben’s face and making his fingers tingle with cold. If he managed to catch the ball in rugger, his hands would ache with the impact of it, like they were frosty and breakable.

They were playing Raglan and getting resoundingly trounced, which put none of them in any better of a mood. Hux looked particularly irritated, his nose pink and lips parted as he panted from running. Mitaka and Thanisson flanked him as they played, but neither had half his intensity. Ben was honestly a little scared of him and glad he wasn’t on the receiving end of his fury.

When the whistle finally blew to end the match, Ben was at the head of the line to shake the Raglan boys’ hands so he could get himself back to Arkanis House and into the warm showers. He jogged there, stripping out of a grass-stained jumper and trousers and depositing them into the laundry. He nearly threw himself under the water. He tied his hair up to keep it dry, but the rest of his body he soaked. The water brought feeling back into his limbs, even if painfully.

The other boys trickled in, subdued after a hard bout. Ben kept his eyes to himself most times, but as he soaped his chest, he ventured a look at Hux. He was facing away, his pert backside and long legs on display. He, too, was keeping his hair from the spray, but he was scrubbing his face. Ben studied him for a moment, until he caught Mitaka glaring at him from across the showers. Immediately, Ben turned away and made himself busy washing up.

Dinner was nothing remarkable: boiled chicken and vegetables with some potatoes that purported to be roasted. Ben sat beside Hux, who still kept his posture perfectly upright and prim as he sliced the meat, pausing to drink water every now and then. Their conversation was measured when they were at the table, and occasionally Hux brought other boys into it. They never seemed overly comfortable with that, but never failed to reply; they were too afraid of Hux not to talk with him when he expected it of them.

Conspicuously, he never spoke with Rembis, Blakely, and Poole. They were taciturn when it came to him, always watched closely for their behavior. They hadn’t bothered Ben in a long time, and from the dark glances he often got, they were not pleased about it. No doubt Hux’s claim on him put them on even thinner ice if they decided to cross either of them. The tension wasn’t overwhelming enough, though, to make the rest of the house uneasy. In fact, most of them seemed to be content with the new arrangement.

Hux wasn’t any softer with his discipline and expectations of their comportment, and yet Ben could see that some of his sharper edges had dulled since Christmas. It warmed him to know that he’d done that.

“You have your Latin tutorial this evening,” Hux said as he got up after the meal was done. “After models club. I’ll see you in the morning then.”

Ben rose as well, nodding. “Sounds good.”

He went to where Finn was gathering the club, feeling Hux’s attention follow him until Hux went out to wherever he was bound during activities. Maybe Hux didn’t look at him in the showers, but he definitely let his eyes linger at other times. In good spirits, Ben smiled as he approached Finn. He got a broader, brighter smile in return.

“Hello,” Finn said to him. “Doing all right tonight, Solo?”

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You?”

“Fine as ever.” He offered Ben the cart where their models were kept. Ben’s, of Tower Bridge, was almost finished. Finn asked, “What do you think you’ll do after this one?”

Ben shrugged. “Whatever’s in the catalog, I guess.”

Chuckling, Finn said, “Smart choice. I’ll get something interesting for you.”

He left Ben to sit and start work on the final pieces of his model. Ben fell into the process easily and out of habit, clearing his mind as he focused on the delicate sections of the model. It had come to soothe him. The calm wouldn’t be as upset during Latin tutorial later then it would have been months before. He actually looked forward to catching up with Mitaka.

Friends weren’t underrated, Ben had come to understand.

 


 

Ben barely looked up when the prefects came with the post in the evenings; he had never once gotten a letter. But, Tuesday next, he was lying back in his bed with a book when Thanisson appeared with a weather-beaten white envelope with a U.S. postage stamp at the corner. He recognized his mother’s scrawled cursive in the address.

As Thanisson went on to pass the next boy his mail, Ben sat up, legs crossed, and held the letter cautiously in his hands. He had written home just before Thanksgiving and hadn’t expected a reply after two months. Leia hadn’t called over Christmas, either, but Ben hadn’t thought much of it. A letter was a compete surprise.

Flipping it over, he picked at the sealed edge until the paper gave way and tore, revealing unremarkable notebook paper. The heaviness of his mother’s hand, though, had pressed the letters deep into the page and it crinkled more than less-abused paper would have as Ben drew it out of the envelope. He unfolded the pages and began to read:

 

Dear Ben,

I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write back to you, but you know how the holiday season is at the hospital: men falling from ladders trying to hang Christmas lights, mothers burning themselves on cookie trays, you know the types of things.

 

Ben didn’t. He didn’t have any recollection of his mother telling him about her work being particularly difficult or busy at the end of the year. She never talked much about work; she never talked much about anything to him save for those last few weeks of his junior year, when she’d finally found out just how much school he had been skipping and how far his grades had fallen. She’d tried punishment and then pleading, but it hadn’t changed anything for him. Even when she did talk, he had long ago stopped listening.

He continued to read:

 

Anyway, it was nice to hear from you. You said I’d be a little shocked to hear that you’re applying to college in England, and I am, but I couldn’t think of a better thing to have happened. I guess that your uncle’s love of school rubbed off on you a bit. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Luke that I can’t imagine what he’s like these days, but I doubt he’s changed much. England, I’ve heard, isn’t a place where a lot of things, or people, change. Except you, it seems. I was hoping that boarding school would do you good, and it clearly has. I always knew you had a lot between your ears. I’m glad you’re putting it to use.

That was the first Ben was hearing of her certainty that he was smart. It figured she would put it into a letter rather than saying anything about it back when it would have mattered. But, then again, he’d told her a lot more in his own letter than he had in years in Alderaan. Maybe it was better they stuck to this—or maybe things would be different if Ben went home now. He didn’t plan on going back, though; not if he got into Imperial College London.

His mother’s letter went on:

 

It’s been so quiet around the house since you left, and strange to just be making dinners for me rather than both of us. Work keeps me busy, so I don’t miss you all the time, but it’s hard to think that you’re an ocean away and planning on staying even longer than the year. You’ve grown so much and so fast, Ben. I really am proud of you, even if I haven’t always told you that. I think you being gone has shown me that we could have done more together when we had the chance. So much happened between your father and me that it took its toll on you. We should have worked harder to protect you from that.

 

Ben snorted. Even if she did regret the effect the divorce had had on him, it was too little too late. He hadn’t been on the fast track to forgive them for it, but since he’d come to Haverhill, everything in the past had come to look smaller and less consequential. He wanted to look forward, not hang onto the rage of a thirteen-year-old kid who had known at his core that he was more of a burden to his disparate parents than a beloved child. He didn’t need to win his mother’s attention anymore; Luke and Master Snoke’s faith in his taking on a course in engineering were more than enough. And there was Hux’s attention, too: far more fulfilling than the slipshod acknowledgements his parents had made of his work in school when he was small.

He turned back to what his mother had written:

 

I’d like to see a picture of you in your nice school uniform, if someone can take one. I bet you look very handsome. You’ve always been a good-looking boy, though, so nobody would be surprised by that. If I didn’t know you to be as shy as you are, I’d say you’d be out there breaking hearts across the country as soon as you graduate. You’re too reserved for that, I think. I do hope you can find someone special someday. I really did love your father when we got married, and I still do, but we weren’t bound to be forever. Don’t get into a rush to find that. Enjoy your youth, or the start of your adulthood, as it were. You’re almost all grown up.

I’ve got to head to work now, so I’ll finish here and drop this in the mailbox at the hospital. Take care of yourself. Lots of love from Mom.

 

She had drawn a heart with an arrow through it under her name, which seemed oddly childish, like something Ben would have gotten on a love letter from a girl in school. In fact, he was sure he had seen more than one of his classmates doodling the very same thing in their notebooks rather than paying attention in a lesson. Instead of working as an expression of love, the little drawing made Ben’s temper surge. Leia wasn’t like a parent to him even in this. She signed a letter to her only child with something so trivial. It wasn’t love; it was just a symbol of it that little girls drew.

Ben didn’t think she really understood the love it took to raise a child, let alone make a marriage last. Maybe she had loved Ben’s father for a while before they got married, but she couldn’t keep it up in the face of her job and her own concerns. She was selfish in the way no parent could be and expect their children not to resent them for it. And, Ben was sure, there was enough resentment among the boys at Haverhill to go around.

Hux’s parents didn’t know love, either, and they were maybe the epitome of selfishness: his father in getting a poor Irish girl pregnant and then marrying another woman who hated his son and choosing her over the boy. Leia Organa-Solo wasn’t much better, even if she tried to keep Ben tied to her with scribbled hearts on flimsy paper. Forgiveness was, apparently, still far away. Ben could look ahead, as long as he wasn’t often reminded of what lay in his past. Luckily, Haverhill spared him that, and London would, too.

He folded the letter back up and stuck it into the bowels of his trunk to be forgotten. As he was shutting the lid, he glanced toward the door of the dormitory and caught Hux peering at him. He rose to stand straight again, and Hux didn’t look away. In his stocking feet, Ben went to his bed and stood beside him.

“Whose letter was it?” Hux asked without preamble.

“My mom,” Ben replied.

Hux wet his lips, his face tipped up to look Ben in the eye. “You’re angry.”

“She’s just pretending to care,” said Ben, forceful and tinged with bitterness. “She says she misses me, but I don’t think she does.”

“She wouldn’t have written at all if she didn’t care,” Hux told him. “My father hasn’t written to me during the term in years—unless it’s to tell me that someone has died or that he’s going away for months at a time. Appreciate your mother for trying.”

Ben put his hands into the pockets of his trousers to keep from clenching them into fists. “I’m better off without her.”

Hux cocked his head to the side, considering. “Yes, I think you are.”

“She says I take after Uncle Luke with wanting to live in England,” said Ben. “And to study here.”

“I don’t think you’re anything like him,” Hux said. “He’s happy in his academic cloister. You never would be. There’s a larger world out there for your taking.”

Ben blinked down at him. “And yours?”

Hux shrugged. “There’s not a lot of taking you can do in the Army, unless you’re high-ranking. I don’t know that I’ll ever get to that point. My father retried when he could.”

“You’d be bored if you had nothing to do,” Ben said. “Would you get another job?”

“Most certainly,” Hux replied, “though I don’t know what that would be.” He waved a hand as if to brush the thought away. “It’s a long time from now, anyway. Too long to bother worrying about. Will you write back to your mother?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. “I probably should, but…”

Hux leaned back on his hands, keeping his eyes on Ben. “Do it when you’re less upset. You look like your pen would rip right through the paper right now.”

Ben chewed his cheek. “I don’t have any stationery. I, uh, took some from you to write to her before.”

“Did you?” Hux asked. He didn’t appear offended. “I hadn’t noticed. You’re welcome to more; I don’t use it.”

“I’ll think about,” Ben said. “Thanks.”

Hux inclined his head. “You’re welcome.” Getting up, he reached for his toiletry kit. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”

Ben wrinkled his nose. “I wouldn’t. Your mouth tastes terrible in the morning.”

“Indeed it does,” said Hux. Without another word, he left the dormitory and Ben.

Ben watched him go, bemused, and went to get his own kit.

 


 

Despite Hux’s best efforts, Ben’s Greek was not improving very quickly. He could translate the basics, but anything beyond that stumped him. Sitting in Hux’s study on Thursday evening, he could sense how frustrated Hux was becoming with his lack of improvement. He pushed his hands through his hair and snappishly corrected even Ben’s most nitpicky mistakes. His fidgeting grated on Ben’s nerves, and it was out of character for him.

By eight-thirty, Ben’s patience finally broke and he said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Hux turned a dark look on him, but Ben persisted: “You’re in a mood, and it’s driving me nuts. What’s your problem?”

Hux shifted in his chair, placing his hands flat on the desktop next to Ben’s books. He didn’t immediately reply.

Ben turned to face him—a difficult task in their cramped space. “Hux.”

The words came out in a rush: “I want you to fuck me.”

Ben’s mouth dropped open. Of all the things he might have heard, that was not one he saw coming. He managed to say, “What?”

Hux, still clearly agitated, fussed with his tie, tugging it without meeting Ben’s eyes. “I want you to fuck me proper,” he said, slower and more measured. He ventured a glance up. “You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Uh, yes,” said Ben. “I think so.”

Hux frowned. “You either do or you don’t.”

Ben swallowed heavily. “I do.”

He remembered the conversations he’d had with Mitaka about boys taking their relations as far as that, but he’d never considered doing it himself. And he definitely hadn’t assumed Hux would want to. It might not have wholly surprised him considering Hux’s insistence that they start their “arrangement,” but it was crossing a considerable line into something that was no longer casual or easy to dismiss as boyish experimentation. They were long past thinking it was that, but more was very serious stuff.

“Would you do it?” Hux asked, his voice tight and expression wary.

“I—” Ben started. “I don’t know.”

Hux pressed his lips together, turning his face away to busy himself with the Greek texts again. “I see,” was all he said.

“I’m not saying no,” Ben was quick to say, “but it’s a lot. Can I have some time to think about it?”

Hux’s face was red, his manner unsettled. “There’s no need. It was a passing thought.”

Ben caught his wrist. “I don’t think it was. It’s been on your mind for a while. Hasn’t it?”

Hux made no attempt to look at him. He was, Ben realized, embarrassed. “For a little while, I suppose,” he said. “Forget it. It’s nothing.”

“That’s not true at all,” said Ben. “It’s something. You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t really want it.” He rubbed the strong bones in Hux’s wrist. “Just give me a little time. I…I need time.”

“Very well,” Hux said, curt. “But do that elsewhere. We’re finished here for the night.”

Ben recoiled at the brusque dismissal. But he’d upset Hux and it was best to let him be—stew in his discontent, perhaps. Scooting his chair back along the rug, Ben got to his feet. “I’ll see you later.”

Hux didn’t speak, simply tucking his books away and keeping his focus on them instead of on Ben. Ben stole quietly out of the study and into the hall. There was some muted conversation from the common room—a smattering of laughter—but Ben didn’t want to be surrounded by anyone. He cut hurriedly through the other boys and out onto the terrace. It was cold without a jacket, but he wrapped his arms around himself to keep in some of his body heat. And he paced.

It was difficult not to recall the first night he had gone out there, sneaking from his bed outside to find he wasn’t alone. Hux in his overcoat with a cigarette in his hand had stood by, scowling at him. Ben had disliked him so vehemently then. He was arrogant and terse and bossy, none of which Ben reacted well to. But he’d been striking in the moonlight, even if not as beautiful as Ben would come to find him.

He caught himself on that. He’d never found anyone particularly beautiful before, especially not another boy. But Hux was the exception to a great deal of things, and he’d opened Ben’s eyes to sex and all its possibilities. There were a lot of those they’d explored, but not the true and final step that marked them out for what they were: homosexual. Ben had pushed the question of his preferences down since September; there was no escaping it now. If he did what Hux wanted him to, he couldn’t pretend he didn’t like being with men.

He stifled a mocking laugh. He was fooling himself if he didn’t already know he liked that. His thoughts had, in fact, never turned to any of the St. Catherine’s girls, or any other women. All the desire he’d ever known was for Hux alone. There was no brushing it off as curiosity that would pass; he was fairly certain that this was what he wanted, and would always want. Imagining himself being with anyone but Hux, though, put a bad taste in his mouth. He wouldn’t take that into consideration right now, not when he had more pressing matters to deal with.

It was unusual for Hux to be uncertain in any circumstance, but he’d made his request tentatively, as if he was afraid of Ben’s reaction. It seemed, in truth, that he was—at least from how abashed he’d become when Ben hadn’t directly agreed. He had no reason to be shy; fucking—Ben trembled—was the next logical move. Ben didn’t like refusing him, even if he had been disinclined to obey in their early weeks together. These days, he wanted to give Hux what he desired. That was easy, since Ben generally desired it, too. But this?

Ben went to the railing and leaned against it, looking down into the courtyard below. Above all of his other apprehensions was the fact that every time they held each other, they risked expulsion. If Ben was caught inside of Hux, the repercussions would be terrifically bad. Ben couldn’t imagine looking Uncle Luke in the face after that. He didn’t even want to think about what his parents would say.

To hell with them, came the voice at the back of his mind, considering the letter his mother had written. What do they care if you fuck men? It’s none of their business. Of course, men had been disowned for less, he was sure. He wasn’t certain he was prepared to sever all the ties he had. He didn’t even know if Hux would stand by if they were outed; he might very well leave Ben behind and move on with his life. That lanced through Ben’s chest with unaccustomed pain. He wouldn’t dwell on that, either.

Instead, he focused on Hux’s willingness to take such a risk. It couldn’t be something he did lightly, if it could end his budding career in the Army. Ben liked to think that implied he had an earnest investment in what they had together. But did Ben? He huffed, unable to deny that he absolutely did. He liked Hux, no matter what Mitaka said about him being insufferable. At times, he was, but that was part of his, well, charm. Ben snorted. Armitage Hux was not charming.

The cold was beginning to seep into Ben’s bones; he couldn’t stay out much longer. He peered out into the frosty darkness beyond the chapel and thought of Hux alone in his study, unhappy. He didn’t want that. The decision, then, was easy.

Heat from the common room fire washed over him as he went back inside, but he didn’t linger. He went straight to Hux’s study, not bothering to knock—simply entering. Hux, who was seated at his desk, looked sharply up. His eyes were deep green, his hair alight. He was, Ben thought, stunning.

“Yes,” Ben said.

Hux blinked. “Yes what?” It was a hushed question, with none of his usual bite.

Ben held his shoulders back, his posture square. “I’ll do what you want.”

There was a moment of quiet, and then: “You have to want it, too,” said Hux. “This isn’t like the first time. I won’t push you.”

“That’s a first,” Ben said, lightly. Hux balked, and Ben hurried to reassure him: “I want it. At least I want to try it. Have you, um, done it before?”

Hux gave a solemn nod.

Ben exhaled. “Okay.” He unbuttoned his jacket and shrugged it over his shoulders, abandoning it on Hux’s desk. Going to Hux, he guided him to stand up. Hux watched in silence, but when Ben took his face between his hands, he sighed, deflating. Ben stoked his cheekbones with this thumbs. “How long have you really been thinking about this?” he asked.

“Would you hate me if I told you it was since I saw you?” said Hux.

Ben shook his head. “You thought a lot of things about me right when you saw me.”

Hux chuckled, laying his hands against Ben’s chest. “You’re quite impressive.”

“I am?” Ben said, his face heating.

“Very,” Hux replied. He met Ben’s gaze. “When do you want to…”

Ben considered. “What about next Saturday? After I’m done in the library. We’ll have time then. And everyone is going to the village. Fewer eyes, fewer ears.”

“It might look suspicious if we stay,” Hux said.

“Will it really make that much of a difference at this point?” Ben asked. “Everybody knows we’re friends.”

Hux covered Ben’s right hand at his cheek with his. “Next Saturday, then.”

“Do you want me to stay right now?” said Ben.

A little coy, Hux replied, “Let’s wait.”

Ben laughed and stepped back. “See you tomorrow, Hux.”

  


 

Early February in Alderaan had been nothing to scoff at when it came to bitter cold and snow banked up high on the sides of the slushy roads, but the drafts that blew through Arkanis House in the early days of the month seeped into the body and kept Ben on the edge of shivering even when upper sixth were tucked in their beds. It soured the days somewhat, but there was no choice but to suffer through it and look longingly forward to spring.

In the midst of the general discontent, Ben began to notice that the glowers he was receiving from Rembis, Blakely, and Poole were growing more menacing. And they weren’t limited only to him; three pairs of eyes burned indignant holes into Hux’s back as he made his rounds of the common room or read Greek aloud during their classics lessons. Blakely and his cronies didn’t dare challenge the head boy openly, but Ben could sense their animosity mounting. Why, though, he couldn’t tell—at least not until it was made crystal clear to him in an empty corridor by the library the first Tuesday of the month.

Ben had been collecting two volumes for Hux—by choice, not by command—from the stacks that evening when he rounded a corner and was stopped dead by a makeshift wall the three boys formed across the corridor. He stood three paces away, the books held at his side, and asked, “Is there a problem here?” It sounded more like Hux than him: arch and haughty. That, it seemed, was very much the wrong tone to have used.

Rembis’s square face purpled with rage. “You’re the problem, Solo,” he said, hands planted firmly on his hips. “We figured for a while that you were just brown-nosing, but now you’ve got your whole head up Hux’s arse. It’s disgusting.”

While he hadn’t heard it directly, Ben was used to that brand of thinking; it didn’t rile him as it would have in the fall. “What difference does it make to you?” he said.

“Sucking up to him is pathetic,” Blakely said, snide. “He’s a fucking prick, and you’re licking his boots and making him think even better of himself.”

Ben’s temper did flare at the slight against Hux. Insults directed at Ben himself didn’t inspire anything more than indifference, but talking down about Hux was something altogether different. “I’d watch your mouth if I were you,” he warned.

Blakely sneered. “Don’t like being called out for the snitch you are?”

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” said Ben. “I don’t care what anybody in the house does, and I don’t tell Hux about it.” He adjusted his grip on the books. “I wouldn’t even say anything to him about this, as long as you get out of my way.”

Poole leveled a finger at him. “You’ve not got any clout with us. Can’t make us do anything. We don’t have to listen to you.”

Ben rolled his eyes, annoyed now. “No, you don’t, but I’m not in the mood for this. Unless you have something important to say, leave me alone.”

Taking a step forward, Rembis scowled at him. “You’re a sycophantic weasel. I bet you’d suck Hux’s cock if he asked you to. And I bet it’s small, like him.”

“Fuck you,” Ben snarled.

“Oh, that’s rich,” Rembis said. “Jumping to defend his honor, are you, cocksucker?”

Ben seethed, and his knuckles whitening for how hard he held the books. “I’m going to give you one more chance to walk away,” he said, low and threatening.

“Or what?” said Blakely. “There’s three of us and one of you.”

“I’ve had worse odds,” Ben said.

He got a cruel laugh in return. “You’re nothing, Solo. Nancy Hux isn’t going to come skipping to your rescue this time. He told us off once, but we’re not afraid of him.”

“If you cross him, there’ll be hell to pay,” Ben told them. “Try to scare me if you want to, but if you take this to him, he’ll come down hard.”

“The worst he can do is squeal to the housemaster,” said Poole, “and he wouldn’t dare. But if we teach you a lesson, he’ll know he’s on thin ice.”

It stung Ben to say it, but he needed to: “You think he cares enough about me to start something over this?”

Rembis hesitated for a moment, and Ben relished the victory. But Rembis stood his ground. “I think he does. And he’s going to get the message when his Yankee bum boy gets put in his place.”

It took only a few seconds for Ben to drop the books with a thump on the stone floor, cross to where Rembis stood, and hit him hard in the face with his right fist. The pain from the blow radiated up Ben’s arm, but satisfaction filled him as Rembis went stumbling back, blood running down from what Ben could only assume was his broken nose. Blakely and Poole were aghast, glancing between Ben and Rembis.

“Bloody get him!” Rembis said, his voice cracking.

The two of them jumped into action, reaching for Ben. He ducked easily out of their way, knowing he couldn’t stand up against them both. With the kind of deftness he wished he had on the rugger field, he snatched up the books from the ground, spun away from the trio, and went sprinting down the corridor toward safety.

He was out of breath when he reached the Arkanis House dormitory. He tossed the books on his bed and sat down on the mattress to recover. His hand still ached, and he was afraid he might have broken something. The fights he’d been in in Alderaan had mostly been grappling and throwing a few blows to someone’s ribs, not a full-on punch to the face. Those bones hurt to strike.

Ben considered going to the infirmary, but he figured Rembis would be there and had no intention of admitting his guilt by following on his heels to the nurse. He assumed Rembis would come up with some kind of story about being hit with a ball in games or walking into a door. Ben had seen a few other boys with bruises and scrapes give similar excuses to Hux. Everyone knew better, but that was how things were done at Haverhill: nobody offered up that they had been fighting, unless they were caught at it outright.

It didn’t bode well that boys—even those as stupid as Rembis, Blakely, and Poole—felt the need and had the confidence to challenge Ben—and apparently Hux through him. There was something Ben liked about them being seen as a kind of team, but it wasn’t going to help either of their reputations. Hux couldn’t and wouldn’t be seen as soft, and Ben didn’t want to think that he was seen as a sycophant. And the very last thing they needed was for anyone to assume they were fucking.

They hadn’t mentioned what they had planned for that coming Saturday since last Thursday in Hux’s study, but it hung between them when they were alone. Ben couldn’t deny being nervous, and yet when he stole glances at Hux when he wasn’t paying attention, heat spread at the notion of having him “proper.”

Ben’s thoughts were focused on that as he stared at his feet, but he turned his face up as he heard the fall of footsteps. He found Mitaka standing in front of him. “What?” he asked, terse.

“The housemaster wants to see you,” Mitaka replied.

The question of why was on the tip of Ben’s tongue, but he knew the reason. Giving a weak laugh, he muttered, “And they called me a snitch.” Mitaka cocked his head to the side, uncomprehending; he apparently hadn’t been told the reason he was summoning Ben to Snoke. Ben got to his feet, standing inches taller than Mitaka. “Is he in his study?”

Mitaka nodded.

Ben left him there, going down the hall to Snoke’s door. He knocked with his good hand.

The study wasn’t overly large, and it looked far smaller with five people—six, counting Ben—packed into it. Rembis, his nose swollen and taped, Blakely, and Poole were gathered behind Snoke’s desk, by the window. Snoke himself was standing at the desk’s side, and, to Ben’s surprise, Hux stood next to him. His expression was stern, but he gave Ben a cursory once-over, some relief coming into his eyes when he saw Ben was unharmed.

“You asked to see me, sir,” Ben said.

“Yes,” said Snoke. “I was told by these boys that you accosted Mr. Rembis in the corridor earlier this evening. Is that true?”

Ben shot an acid look at the three of them. “They came straight to you, sir?”

Snoke inclined his head. “Such a severe accusation merits it.” He gestured to Hux. “Mr. Hux is here as an impartial party. And seeing as he is head boy, this concerns him as well. Now, Solo, give me your answer: did you hit Mr. Rembis?”

“Yes,” said Ben, flat.

“Why?”

“He said things about me.” He spared the details. “It made me angry.”

“And you let your anger affect you so much that you had to strike someone?” Snoke said. “We don’t tolerate that kind of behavior at Haverhill. Especially not in Arkanis House. I believe you were warned about that at the start of the year.”

“I was,” Ben said.

Snoke frowned down at him. “Is that all you have to say for yourself?”

Ben let the question hang in the air for a short time. It had to be, but there was no mistaking the vein of shame in disappointing Snoke, who had been good to him since he started to excel in math. Eventually, he replied, “Yes, sir.”

“He’s not going to get away with that, is he?” Rembis demanded. “Sir, he’s got to get his comeuppance.”

“That is not your decision to make, Mr. Rembis,” said Snoke. “However, Mr. Solo has committed a major transgression. He will he punished.” He moved past Hux to a coat closet, from which he drew a thin length of wood. From one of the boys—Ben couldn’t tell whom—came an indrawn breath. 

Ben dredged up the memories of what had been said about Snoke’s severity: he was old-fashioned; he still doled out switchings. Ben hadn’t believed it at the start of the year, and he couldn’t imagine the truth of it now. Boys were beaten as a punishment. He was about to become the prime example, and it sent indignation running through him.

“Oh, hell no,” Ben said, taking in the narrow but sturdy cane in Snoke’s hands. “There’s no way that’s legal.”

Everyone turned sharply to him, apparently shocked at his curse, and at the brashness. Ben didn’t care about that; he wouldn’t stand for corporal punishment like it was the nineteenth century.

“It can’t—” he said. “You can’t...do that.”

Snoke looked down his hawkish nose at Ben. “I don’t enjoy doing it, Mr. Solo, but when it’s called for, appropriate punishment must be meted out.”

Ben wanted to back away in some measure of fear, and at the same time flexed his aching hand as if to prepared to strike someone again. He couldn’t even imagine what kind of hell he’d catch if he dared attack Snoke. He’d be expelled for sure.

At that, he thought of Luke, who would surely step in to prevent this. However, Ben’s certainty faltered. No, he wasn’t sure that Luke would; Snoke was master of Arkanis House, and Ben was to get no special treatment. He’d not been so furious about that since he was thrown into the house with no life preserver in September. But he’d survived, and if this was totally unavoidable, he’d make it through it as well.

“Fine,” Ben growled.

Snoke’s long fingers still cradled the cane. “Mr. Rembis, you and Mr. Poole and Mr. Blakely are dismissed.”

“We don’t get to watch?” Rembis asked with a bloodthirsty lilt to his voice.

“I’ll serve as a witness,” said Hux, sharp. “Do as you’re told and get out.” If Snoke was displeased by Hux’s tone, he didn’t show it.

The three boys shuffled out the door, and Snoke closed it behind them. He remained there, with his back to it and the cane in his hands. Ben watched him. He was the master who had found universities for Ben to apply to, the teacher who had encouraged him to study, but so too was he the kind of disciplinarian who would beat a boy over a single punch. Ben wondered icily what smaller infractions had earned others beatings in the past. There was some vindication in imagining that Snoke himself had faced a housemaster’s cane, but Ben wouldn’t know for sure. Snoke certainly wasn’t going to volunteer that information, especially not now. There was no mercy in his face or posture.

“Bend over the desk, Solo,” Snoke ordered. “Trousers down, pants on.”

Ben pressed his lips together, tamping down the fury at this betrayal. He’d trusted Snoke—foolishly, maybe. He first shed his blazer, laying it fastidiously over one side of the desk. A few papers shifted under it and Ben vindictively enjoyed mussing something of Snoke’s perfect order. That reminded him of how he’d once been keen on ruffling Hux. Now someone speaking ill of him had landed Ben in this place, his hands at his belt, which he released.

He hated the thought of exposing so much of himself, but he forced his trousers down to his ankles and planted his hands on the desktop. He didn’t dare look at Hux, who was standing by, seemingly impassive.

“Ten strokes,” Snoke said, “for fighting.” He gave no warning before the cane landed hard across Ben’s buttocks.

Ben nearly yelped, but the determination not to allow this abuse to affect him kept him silent. The next blow followed swiftly after, landing in a different place than the first. Snoke was practiced at this; he knew exactly where to hit Ben to cause the most damage. Ben clenched his jaw through it all, his tongue pressed hard to his soft palate to stem any cries. His eyes watered, but he blinked away the moisture, refusing to let even one tear fall.

When it was over, Ben’s entire backside was burning and stinging. He was sure there would be angry red welts beneath his underwear, but he didn’t want to look.

“You may get dressed,” said Snoke as he lay the cane down in front of Ben’s hands, “and you may go.”

Ben’s fingers shook—half from lingering anger and half from the crash of adrenaline—as he fumbled his trousers back up, fastening the fly and his belt after it. Even the small brush of fabric over his hind end made him wince. He still kept his eyes away from Hux. Reluctantly cowed, in pain, and saying nothing, he gathered up his blazer and went out of the study.

Boys were passing by, unaffected. Ben tried not to limp as he made his way back to the dormitory. He couldn’t sit, that much he knew, but he would lie on his stomach in bed, maybe. Thinking about undressing that night in the bathroom sent shudders through him. Everyone would see the welts; everyone would know. He’d have to play at indifference to save whatever face he still could.

In the dormitory, he stopped beside his bed, staring almost unseeing at it. The quilt was a blur of green and the iron head- and footboards were wavering. He didn’t notice his approach, but from behind him, he heard Hux say, “Come with me. Right now.” Ben only then met his eyes, turning to face him. Hux was white as a sheet, breathing hard. His arm twitched forward, as if to reach for Ben, but he stayed it. “Come,” he said, more forcefully. “Now.” With no other choice, Ben followed him.

When the door to Hux’s study was shut firmly behind them, Hux rounded on him. “You bloody idiot! What in the world were you thinking, getting into a fight? Did you expect that to end well? You deserved the whipping you got.”

Ben was too tired to disagree, or to do anything but let Hux fume.

“Your temper never fails to get you into trouble, does it?” he continued. “I thought by now you would have more control over yourself. It’s base, is what it is. You’re above this kind of thing.” He paced away but then returned, grabbing Ben by the shoulders. “What did they say to you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben replied.

“You’ll answer me, Ben Solo,” said Hux. “What did they say?

Ben exhaled, but didn’t lie: “Things about you. About us.”

Hux’s eyes narrowed. “Suggestive things?”

“Mm.”

Hux closed his eyes for a second or two. When he opened them again, he slid his palms down Ben’s arms and took his hands. “Come,” he said again, and Ben allowed himself to be drawn. Hux sank onto the rug, pulling Ben down one knee at the time. He sat with his legs crossed and gestured to them. “Lie down. Head here.” Ben was confused, but Hux, clearly frustrated, added, “On your stomach to spare your sore arse.”

Ben lowered himself and dutifully put his head in Hux’s lap, turning his face to the left. His legs he extended behind him, his arms tucked under his chest. Hux’s soft hands brushed over and into his hair.

“You can’t let them get to you,” Hux said. “The more you fight, the more it will feed the rumor mill.”

“They said I was defending your honor,” Ben told him. “They called you a nancy.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Why do they even care?” Ben asked. “Even if they knew about all of it—everything we do—why does it matter?”

Hux stroked his head. “Because it’s ammunition to ostracize us. There’s nothing better than a scandal, especially when it involves a head boy.”

Ben inched his hand forward until he could wrap it around Hux’s socked ankle. “Is it really worth it, then? Seriously. Am I worth it?”

Hux’s voice was strident, his fingers tight in Ben’s hair: “Yes. You’re worth a great deal more, too.”

“What does that mean?” said Ben, truly unsure. It felt as if Hux was on the cusp of admitting something he had been keeping to himself, and normally Ben might not have pushed so blatantly, but he was exhausted and hurting.

“I didn’t take you on lightly,” Hux said. “And I didn’t expect you to do more than go along with it for a little while, until you got bored. Most of these arrangements pass. But you stayed with me—and not because I forced you to. You did it by choice.” A pause. “You’re the first person ever to choose me.”

Ben’s chest tightened, his eyes stinging again. He didn’t try to hold himself back, knowing Hux couldn’t see him if he cried. “You’re the first person to choose me, too.”

Hux continued to pet him. “Ben,” he said gently.

“Armitage,” said Ben, squeezing his ankle. He didn’t raise his head, content despite the pain in his backside.

“You’ll have bruises tomorrow,” Hux told him. “Sitting will hurt, and nobody will give you a cushion. Did you really do this for me?”

Ben replied, “I did it for us both.”

Hux let out a long breath. “Despite what you might think, this won’t put you on bad terms with Snoke.”

“How can’t it?” Ben asked. “He caned me. I thought he was okay, but he’s not. And I pissed him off.”

“You didn’t. Perhaps he disapproves of what you did, but he wasn’t angry about it. It would take a great deal more to truly upset him and put him off you.”

“I don’t get this place,” said Ben. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hux cupped the back of his neck, under his hair. “No one would deny that. It’s always been backwards, a milieu removed from the rest of society, where boys are put through the gauntlet and expected to sink or swim without any help. It may be an ordeal, but you’ve proved with taking a beating that you’re swimming.”

Bitterly, Ben said, “And you say Americans are barbaric.”

“I think there’s a little barbarism in all of us,” Hux said. “But you’d do best to contain yours. Fighting for me won’t do you any favors.” He sounded forlorn.

“I know,” Ben admitted, “but I don’t like hearing them say shitty things about you.”

“I can hold my own, Solo.”

Ben sighed. “Yeah. I won’t do it again.”

“Good,” said Hux as he ran his fingers through Ben’s hair, against his scalp. “Rest now. That’s all you can do. It won’t be pleasant tomorrow.”

“It was worth it,” Ben told him.

Hux was quiet, then said, “Thank you.”

Ben lay there with him, neither of them speaking, until it was time to go to sleep.

 


 

Upon Ben’s arrival in the dining hall the next morning, attention beyond just the Arkanis table fell on him. It made his stomach roil. Self-conscious but unwilling to show it, he strode from the threshold to his place at the table, head held high. Whispers followed, all of which he ignored. Hux was already seated, and Ben lowered himself carefully onto the bench to spare his tender backside. He’d showered before everyone else, but had seen the damage in the mirror: long, dark bruises across his buttocks—and they hurt, just as Hux had said they would. He winced as he sat, garnering more interest from the boys around him.

“Why are they staring?” Ben whispered to Hux, who was pouring him a glass of orange juice.

“Word gets around when a boy takes a beating,” Hux replied. “Especially when someone takes it as well as you did. Not a sound, not a tear.”

“How do they know that?”

One side of Hux’s pert mouth turned up. “I might have helped that word get around.”

“Seriously?” Ben asked, uncertain whether to be angry or grateful.

“You did something they can all admire,” Hux replied. “There’s no harm in making it clear that you can hold your own against Snoke.” He glanced at Rembis, whose nose was still a wreck. “And anyone else who runs afoul of you.”

Ben suppressed a smile. “I don’t think they’ll pull that kind of thing again.”

“Oh,” said Hux, “I guarantee they won’t. I could, in one way, put them in their place, but you certainly sealed that deal. You’ve won respect, there’s no mistaking that.”

“At what cost?” Ben grumbled.

Hux laughed lightly. “You’ll recover in a few days. Just don’t get hit hard in games today.”

“Oh, God,” Ben moaned, face in his hands. Hux said nothing else, but his hand came to the small of Ben’s back to rub ever so slightly. Touches like that were mostly forbidden—at least tacitly—but Hux didn’t much care about it, as far as Ben could tell.

From the masters’ table, Ben could see Luke frowning at him. If Snoke hadn’t told him directly that Ben had been caned, Luke would have heard through the grapevine. Ben shrank somewhat under his uncle’s angry gaze, but refused to be outwardly ashamed—not when the boys looked at him with awe. That would ease things for him for a while, which he always appreciated. Hopefully, though, Luke wouldn’t be calling his mother to relay the news of Ben’s misconduct. He didn’t need her to know about it, not when things had been going well for him at school.

Chapel was as tedious as ever when breakfast was done, but Ben appreciated the chance to fade from everyone’s notice for a half hour. The attention returned full force when upper sixth entered their classroom; they watched how Snoke would react to Ben. The housemaster took the time to eye Ben’s tentative seat, but made no overt acknowledgement of the punishment, Ben’s newly earned respect, or anything out of the ordinary. Ben didn’t fuss, either, and the day resumed as prescribed.

 


 

Hux had some issues in the fifth form dormitory to attend to that evening, so Ben ventured out for a dusk walk by himself to keep from sitting. However, he wasn’t alone for long; just outside Arkanis House, he found Poe Dameron standing in the courtyard.

“I was hoping to run into you,” he said as Ben approached.

“You were?” asked Ben.

Dameron nodded. “I see you out here sometimes. You and Hux. But it’s just you tonight.”

“Yeah.” Ben shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat. “What did you want with me?”

“Heard about your caning,” Dameron said, grave. “Bad news, that.”

Ben shrugged. “It wasn’t so bad. Rembis has it worse, broken nose and all.” He got a barely believing look in return.

“You really shouldn’t be getting yourself into those kinds of scrapes, Solo,” Dameron said. “People might think you’re tough for a while, but it doesn’t get you any good will later on. Could be scared you would turn on them.”

Ben was quick to remember what Hux had said about Dameron wanting to be everyone’s friend. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “I don’t need fifty best friends.” Dameron seemed wounded, and Ben amended: “I’m glad you’re one of them, though.”

Dameron brightened immediately. “Me, too, buddy. But I wouldn’t be a good friend if I didn’t tell you to be careful. If you’re not, you might turn out like Hux.”

“Don’t,” said Ben sharply. “Rembis talked down about him, and look where that landed him.”

“And where it landed you,” Dameron told him, unruffled. “Look, Solo, I think you’re a good man, and I’m just looking out for you. Not to be your dad or something.”

Ben said, “My dad didn’t look out for me much.” Gentler: “But thanks. You were nice to me before Hux was. I haven’t forgotten that.”

As Dameron grinned, Ben heard the creak and snap of a shutting door. Dameron looked toward Arkanis House, his brow knit. “Speak of the devil,” he said.

Ben turned to see Hux coming toward them, his face set in a disapproving frown. “Dameron,” he said coldly as he arrived.

“Hux,” came Dameron’s reply.

Turning to Ben, Hux said, “I thought you might like some company. But I see you already have it.” Ben shot him a look and his expression softened. “May I join you?”

“I was just leaving,” said Dameron. He reached out and clapped Ben on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Solo.” And then he was off and into Oakeshott House.

Ben faced Hux. “Work it out with fifth form?”

Hux nodded. “They’ll clean up their acts. What did Dameron have to say?”

“He pretty much told me off—nicely—for getting into a fight and then getting caned for it.” Ben huffed. “Not sure which one he approved of less.”

Hux gave him a thin smile. “He doesn’t appreciate what you did.”

“And you do?” Ben raised his eyebrows.

“Decidedly,” Hux replied, stepping close enough to touch. He cupped Ben’s elbow in his gloved hand. “You’re fierce.”

“I don’t like to fight.”

“I know.” Hux gave Ben’s elbow a squeeze and then stepped back. “Do you know what day it is?”

“Wednesday,” said Ben.

“The date, Solo,” Hux said, dry.

“Uh, the fourth.”

Hux wet his lips. “The fourth of February is my birthday.”

Ben reeled back in surprise. “It’s your birthday and you didn’t tell me?”

“I don’t tell anyone,” Hux said. “I don’t like to draw that kind of attention to myself.”

“But,” said Ben, “it’s your birthday. It’s supposed to be special. Even my parents used to get me a cake on my birthday, even if my mom’d been working the night shift. She didn’t make it herself, but she bought one. You parents never did that?”

Hux said, “I was always away at school; they never had reason to.”

“The other boys get care packages for theirs,” Ben said. “They don’t even send you that?”

“No.”

Ben hurt for him, and in that moment was determined to give him some kind of party—even if it was just the two of them. He grabbed Hux’s hand and tugged him toward Arkanis House. “Come on.”

They didn’t go directly to Hux’s study, Ben instead drawing Hux along toward the kitchen. Most of the staff were gone already, and they didn’t get any dark looks as they stole into the larder and Ben started rifling through the dry goods. Hux stood by and watched him.

Ben grabbed a tin of chocolate-covered biscuits and, to his satisfaction, found a tray of cooling scones. He snatched up four of them and wrapped them in a tea towel. He bid Hux put together a tea tray for lack of soda or anything else special, and they waited together while the water boiled. Ben went into a drawer and found a squat, half-burned candle. That would do well enough.

So prepared, they returned to Arkanis House and Hux’s study. It was too late to bother lighting a fire, but Ben took one of the long matches from their place on the mantel and struck it to light the candle. Hux went to put the tea tray on his desk, but Ben stopped him, saying, “Let’s sit on the floor.” Hux was clearly skeptical, but he laid the tray down and sank onto his haunches. Ben arranged the scones in a little circle and put the candle at the center of it.

“You had better not sing,” Hux warned.

Ben crossed his heart. “Promise I won’t. You’re nineteen, right?”

“Yes.”

“Happy nineteenth birthday, Hux,” Ben said. “Make a wish and blow out your candle.”

Hux did so with the utmost concentration, pausing to close his eyes for a beat and only then opening them again to blow out the candle with primly pursed lips. Ben felt the slight rush of air over his folded hands.

“What’d you wish for?” Ben asked.

Hux scolded him: “I can’t tell you that or it won’t come true.”

Ben chuckled. “Keep your secrets, then.”

There hadn’t been any clotted cream at hand, so they buttered their scones and ate them with greedy haste. Hux had been thoughtful enough to take two teacups, but one of them still went untouched as they passed a single one between them.

It was a subdued celebration on the whole, but Hux seemed relaxed as they sat together. He leaned back on his hands, one leg extended and the other crossed over it in a figure four. Ben watched him eat and favored him with smiles as they talked. He took him in fondly. So few people got to see this side of Hux that Ben couldn’t help but appreciate how different he was. He’d never had a friend like Hux, and even if there was Dameron and Finn—and Mitaka as well—none of them knew him like Hux did.

“Hux,” Ben said after a time, “what happens when we go away? Leave Haverhill, I mean.”

“You go to university, I would assume,” Hux said.

Ben sucked his teeth. “If I get in. But you go to Sandhurst no matter what.” He thought of the stationery he'd admitted to stealing from Hux’s desk. “Would you, um, write to me?”

Hux was unreadable. “Do you want me to do that?”

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “But only if you want to.” He turned his eyes down to his lap.

“Only if you’ll write to me in return,” Hux said. There was warmth in his voice, and Ben ventured to look up. Hux was smiling.

“Of course,” said Ben in a rush. “I thought that was kind of implied.”

“Yes, but sometimes I like to tease you. You’re so serious all the time.”

“You’re one to talk,” Ben grumbled.

“I’m aware,” said Hux. “But you don’t have to have your guard up when you’re with me.”

Ben peered curiously at him. “I don’t. I say things to you I’d never say to anyone else. I trust you. You trust me.”

“I do,” said Hux.

For a few moments they were quiet, but then, with some hesitation, Ben said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think I’m gay?” Ben had been weighing this in his mind for some time, never certain when the right time to ask was—if ever.

Hux raised one red eyebrow. “Does my opinion affect the matter?”

Ben said, “I don’t know. I think so?”

“Well,” Hux began, “it’s something you really have to decide for yourself. Do you think you like men?”

“I like you, don’t I?”

Hux tipped his head to the side, considering or dismissive; Ben couldn’t be sure. “I’m only one boy.”

Ben said, “All it takes is one.”

Hux’s flippantness faded some, and he looked at Ben with genuine interest. “You’ve been thinking about this.”

“How could I not? We’ve done almost everything that we could to prove I’m gay, haven’t we?”

“It could be a phase,” said Hux. “If you had access to girls—”

“It’s not,” Ben insisted. “I don’t think about girls. I don’t think about other men. I think about you.”

A hint of pink came into Hux’s face. “I didn’t set out to turn you,” he said. “Some people would surely accuse me to that. Probably your uncle as the first of them.”

“How would he find out?” asked Ben. “I’m not going to tell him.”

“No,” Hux said, low. “Of course you wouldn’t.”

Ben could see that somehow he had gone wrong; Hux was upset. He laid a hand on Hux’s shin. “We’d be expelled if I did.”

“I know that.”

“But you want me to,” said Ben tentatively. “Just a little bit.”

Hux ran his tongue along the inside of his upper lip. “It would be the end of both us.”

“But…” Ben prompted.

“But nothing,” Hux snapped suddenly, pulling his leg away from Ben’s grip. “I don’t want you to tell him. I don’t want to tell anyone.”

Ben didn’t believe him, but he didn’t push him to say more than he was willing to. He put his hand back into his lap. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know what Luke would say if I told him I was gay. I don’t know what anyone would say. Not even you.” Hux blinked once at him, and Ben went on: “What would you say?”

“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove of your sexuality,” said Hux, his tone far gentler than it had been. “But”—he put emphasis on the word—“it wouldn’t be bad if you were. It’s not as terrible as straight people say it is.”

Ben managed a snorting laugh. “I’m pretty sure it’s just the same as them: you like who you like, fuck who you want.”

Hux grinned. “Such vulgarity. I wouldn’t have guessed it coming from you.”

“Fuck off,” Ben said.

“Well,” said Hux, “this is my study, so it would be you who would fuck off, wouldn’t it?”

Ben rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes,” Hux said, chuckling. He seemed perfectly pleased with himself, but gradually that faded into sobriety. He glanced around the room, alighting on the tea tray. “I’d not have imagined this scenario.”

“A birthday party?” Ben asked.

“Among other things,” Hux replied. He ventured a smile. “Thank you for the party, though. It’s been the most memorable one I’ve had in a long time.”

Ben let out a long breath through his nose. “Next year we’re doing better.”

Hux’s brows came together. “I might be away.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Ben told him.

They gathered up the dishes, but Ben said he would take them back down to the kitchen alone.

“Thank you again for this,” Hux said at the doorway.

“You’re welcome,” said Ben, holding the tray in front of him. “Happy birthday.”

Hux’s eyes moved down to Ben’s mouth, and for a split second Ben thought he might lean in to kiss him—but he didn’t. He folded his hands behind his back, propriety back in place, and said, “I think it’s best that we go the village on Saturday afternoon with the rest of upper sixth.”

Ben started, “But what about—”

“That evening,” said Hux. “Come here in the evening, and we’ll do it then.”

“Okay,” Ben said. “Goodnight.”

Ben’s trip back to the kitchen was quick and easy. Hux’s “party” had put him in a good mood, which lingered as he brushed his teeth and got into his bed. When Thanisson turned off the lights, he looked up into the shadowy arches of the dormitory ceiling. He thought he didn’t belong at Haverhill. Maybe Hux didn’t belong, either. But they had found each other there.

 


 

“Well, look who we have here,” said Phasma, when Ben, Hux, and the rest of upper sixth arrived in Tindon in the midafternoon. Her cape was flapping around her thighs in the breeze, but her hair was sprayed into sturdy place. She grinned ferally at the two of them. “Fancy a walk down the lane with a pretty girl?”

“As long as you’re not ashamed to be seen with us,” said Hux wryly. He offered his arm, and she took it. Extending the other, she gestured to Ben. He slid his hand over her crooked elbow and the three of them started off down the sidewalk.

“Been a while, boys,” Phasma said as she tugged them along. “What’s new over at Haverhill Correctional?”

Ben stifled a laugh, but Hux let his out. “Very little new, I must say. But I would assume the same goes for St. Catherine’s Institute for Wayward Females.”

Phasma gave a put-upon sigh. “Unfortunately. It’s tedious beyond measure. I was hoping you had some kind of gossip for me, but you once again disappoint.”

“Rude,” Hux said to her, though there wasn’t much sting to it. “As if you can do any better.”

“I got caned,” Ben said.

Phasma came to a jolting stop, making Ben stumble to arrest his own stride. She turned to him, affecting shock. “You didn’t.” He nodded, and she continued: “Ben Solo, you naughty thing.”

“I deserved it, I guess. I broke a boy’s nose.”

“Oh, golden!” Phasma exclaimed. “I’m surprised you weren’t confined to grounds in addition.”

“I’d have had to do that,” said Hux, “and I wasn’t inclined.”

Phasma snorted. “Hux, I barely know you anymore.”

He waved her off. “Yes, well, Ben got punishment enough.”

Ben?” Phasma asked, eyebrows raised. “His Christian name?”

Hux didn’t seem perturbed. “We’ve let go of some formalities of late.”

“He still hates his first name,” Ben said. At Hux’s glare, he grinned and added, “Not to mention his middle name.”

“Don’t you dare,” said Hux.

Ben laughed outright, and Phasma followed him.

“You’re bloody right and proper friends,” she said. “I never thought I’d see the day. But I should have guessed after that first time in the alley.” She nudged Hux in the ribs with her elbow. “You looked a tad moonstruck.”

“I did not,” Hux countered. Ben glanced at him, and Hux’s face colored.

Phasma smiled, wiggling her eyebrows. “Can’t fool me, lads. Can’t fool me.” She tugged them onward, toward the shop where they could get hot cocoa or tea.

Paper cups in hand, they went to the small park they seemed to have claimed for their own. Phasma parked herself on the bench, stretching out to hog it all. Hux went to a large rock and sat down. Ben was left to stand, uncomfortably sticking out like the trees that surrounded them. He held his cup in his hands, glad for the warmth of it.

Since he’d asked the question of just about everyone else he knew well enough, Ben said, “What are you going to do after you finish school, Phasma? Do you go to university?”

“You mean the collective ‘you?’” she asked. “As in, do women go to university? This isn’t the 1800s. Of course we do.”

“Sorry,” Ben muttered.

She shrugged, though he could barely see it as she lay on the bench with her black ankle boots propped up on one arm of it. “Eh, seems you don’t know any better, Yankee. Most of us will be off to uni, I think, but some only to catch a husband and drop their course to punch out babies. Not me. After that year I’m taking off to ‘see the world,’ I’m going to do the full thing.”

“In what?” said Ben.

“Psychiatry. I’m going to be a headshrink.” She tipped her cocoa cup toward him. “You want me to poke around in your head?”

“Don’t answer that,” Hux warned. “She’s already sneaky enough without getting you onto a sofa in her office and doing her Freud act.”

Ben scratched his chin. “Would you help mentally unstable people?”

“Dunno. Could be. Probably just depressed housewives. That’s where the money is. Don’t come from that myself, so I have to make my own fortune.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Your parents rich, Ben?”

“I’m pretty sure I’m at Haverhill for free because my uncle is the headmaster,” Ben said. “There’s no way my parents could afford it.”

Phasma set her cup down on the ground and pulled a pack of cigarettes from inside her cape. She tapped one out, lighting it with a match. Without him asking, she tossed the pack to Hux. It fell far short of his rock, so he had to get up to retrieve it from the grass.

“You ready to go home?” Phasma asked Ben.

He paused, exchanging a glance with Hux, who had stopped with an unlit cigarette between his lips. He replied, “I’ve applied to courses here.”

“Well, well, well,” Phasma said. “That’s a surprise. Thought you might want to get out of England as soon as you can. But”—she smiled again—“I suppose there are enticements to stay.”

Hux cleared his throat, lighting his cigarette.

Phasma’s grin only grew bigger. “It’s good for you both,” she said, low despite her amusement.

Ben swallowed. “What is?”

Phasma snorted but didn’t reply. Hux said nothing, either, and Ben kept quiet.

“You know,” Phasma began after a few minutes, “a couple of girls got caught with their faces between each other’s legs two weeks ago.”

“Oh, shit,” said Ben. “Did they get expelled?”

Phasma took a puff of her cigarette. “They don’t throw us out for that kind of thing.”

Ben frowned. “They don’t?”

“Something about it isn’t as criminal as it is for boys,” Phasma replied. “It’s always been that way. Lesbians are ‘good friends,’ not deviants. There’s no law forbidding them from having sex until they’re twenty-one, like with men.”

“How’s that fair?” Ben asked.

“It isn’t,” said Hux before Phasma could speak. “But scissoring isn’t buggery, so the girls get overlooked.”

Ben tensed, but from what he could tell, Hux had betrayed nothing of what they were planning to do that night. Still, Phasma clearly heard something in his voice that piqued her interest. She eyed Hux sidelong.

“Always bothered you, that has,” she said.

Months ago, Hux likely would have told her off, diverting the conversation from any open acknowledgement of his preferences, but, to Ben’s surprise, he didn’t. “It’s bollocks,” he said. “People think gay men are just out there to stick their cocks in each other without compunction, like there’s nothing between them but a quick fuck. Maybe there are men who do that, but it’s not everyone.”

Phasma gave him a curious look. “First time I’ve heard you say that, boyo.” Her eyes turned briefly to Ben, but then back to Hux. “I think I see.”

Ben said, “See what?”

Smiling knowingly, Phasma replied, “That Armitage Hux might have feelings after all. You got feelings, Ben Solo?”

“I guess,” Ben said, uncertain what she was even playing at.

Phasma laughed. “Something tells me you know.”

Before Ben could press further, voices—laughter—came from nearby, pricking his ears. He turned to see another threesome coming toward the park: Finn, Dameron, and the girl Rey. She was holding both of their hands, in the middle, as Phasma had been between Ben and Hux. They came into the clearing where Phasma, Hux, and Ben were, pausing only when they saw that the clearing was occupied.

“Oh, hello,” said Finn, bright.

Phasma sat up on the bench to give him a proper once-over. She was suspicious, but not overly critical. “Hello there.”

Rey’s expression was pinched as she took Phasma in, and only darkened further as she set eyes on Hux. To Ben, she said, “Interesting company you keep.”

Hux scoffed, but Dameron lay a hand on Rey’s shoulder, saying, “Easy now. We’re not here to pick a fight.”

Ben was prepared for Hux’s confrontational retort, but it didn’t come. Instead, Hux dropped his cigarette to the ground, blowing out a last stream of smoke, and said, “And neither are we. It’s been a tranquil afternoon so far, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“That’s”—Finn hesitated—“quite nice of you, Hux.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

Ben watched him in surprise, but it was tinged with relief. It was the first time he’d been on the formal end of civil with anyone from Oakeshott.

Rey, still sour, pointed to Ben’s cup. “That cocoa?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Almost gone, though. It’s pretty cold by now.”

“You want another?” she asked. “We thought we might go that direction.”

“I don’t think I have the money for it,” Ben said.

Dameron grinned. “It’s on me.”

Phasma rose from the bench. “Make that three, and we’re in.”

He wrinkled his nose for a moment, but then nodded. “Sure thing. Let’s go.”

An odd group, the six of them left the park and crossed the street back to where the shop was. The proprietor kept a close watch on them as they entered, but was more than happy to take Poe’s apparently ample pocket money in exchange for fresh cups of cocoa. With it in hand, they went back out.

There was only space for two to walk abreast on the sidewalk, and Ben found himself next to Rey. She was so small next to him: slight and short. “Finn said you’re good at maths,” she said as they went along the street. “I like it, too.”

“Yeah?” Ben asked. “What’s your favorite part?”

“Algebra. Solving for x is always nice. The more complicated the equations, the better.”

Ben nodded. “I don’t mind that, but I’m more a geometry person.”

Rey hummed. “Angles and circumferences, eh? Not totally boring. If you ever want to compare proofs, I wouldn’t mind.”

“Sure,” said Ben, amused. “But I don’t think Phasma would like it.”

“I don’t answer to her,” Rey said sharply. “Well, I do, since she’s head girl, but I can still make my own friends.”

Ben took a sip of his cocoa. “Bring some problems next time you’re in town, and we’ll see if we can have a race. Last one to finish buys drinks.”

Rey laughed. “They won’t serve us in the pub, but I’ll take your bet.” She glanced back over her shoulder, where Phasma and Hux were walking side-by-side. “You seem all right, you know. Why do you like them?”

“Why don’t you?” Ben countered.

“They’re haughty and difficult,” Rey replied. “Phasma’s a taskmaster, and I’ve heard Hux is, too. Poe said you used to hate him.”

“I did,” said Ben, “but things change. I mean, he’s here with us now, isn’t he? And he’s not being an asshole.”

“Rare occurrence,” Rey said. “But I guess it doesn’t make a difference. We’re all leaving school in a few months anyway.”

“Phasma’s going to university. You, too?”

Rey gave a nod. “Yeah. Going to read philosophy.”

Ben made a face. “God, why?”

“It’s interesting,” she said. “And I like thinking big. Don’t know that I’ll be able to use it when I’m done with uni, but who knows. What about you?”

“Engineering,” said Ben. “If I get into a course.”

“In America?”

“Here.”

Rey hadn’t been expecting that, Ben could tell. “Most Americans don’t like it here,” she said.

“Do you know a lot of Americans?” Ben asked.

Rey flushed. “Well, no, but I’ve heard they’d rather be in America.”

“It’s okay there,” said Ben, “but I actually have friends here. I didn’t know anybody I wanted to spend any time with back home.” At her skeptical look, he continued: “I’m serious. Nobody liked me. I was kind of a loner.”

“Doesn’t seem that way now,” Rey said. “You’re all right.”

Ben laughed lightly. “Thanks, I guess.”

She grinned. “Let’s just see what you can do with those proofs and I’ll know for sure if I can spend time with you.”

They found their way back to the park, where Rey scampered off to sit next to Finn on the bench. She took his hand again. Phasma took Hux’s former rock, surveying the group. Hux, amazingly, went to Dameron’s side and they began to converse quietly. Ben couldn’t help but be pleased about their makeshift truce. As Ben stood idly, Phasma gestured to him.

“So,” she said as he stopped beside her, “you and Hux.”

Worry curled around Ben’s heart. He wasn’t sure how much he was supposed to say. “Yeah?”

“He plays at being unflappable, but he’s just as vulnerable as anyone else when it comes down to it.” She sipped at her cocoa. “Don’t hurt him.”

Ben didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know what she meant. “I won’t. Or at least I’ll try not to. I’ve never…” He trailed off.

Phasma nodded. “Neither has he. I’ve known him a long time, but I haven’t seen him like this.”

“Like what?” Ben asked.

She said, carefully, “Happy.”

Across the park, Dameron called, “Hey, it’s almost half four. We need to get going.”

“Shame,” Phasma said to Ben. “We were just getting somewhere.”

Ben blinked at her. “Another time.”

“Yes,” she said, getting up.

The boys parted ways with Phasma and Rey at the top of lane into the village. Rey planted kisses on both Dameron and Finn’s cheeks, at which they grinned. She passed by Ben, saying, “Proofs, Solo. Next time,” and then she and Phasma were walking away.

Dameron, Finn, Hux, and Ben eyed each other suspiciously for a moment—the buffer of the girls gone—but then Ben said, “So, Oakeshott’s playing Arkanis in rugger on Monday, right?”

Finn pushed lightly at Ben’s shoulder. “Yeah. And we’re going to crush you.”

Tension releasing, the four of them began their walk back to Haverhill.

 


 

Dinner that night was suffused with tension. Ben didn’t know exactly what to expect when he went to Hux’s study; there had been no explanation of the proceedings. He knew a bit, but not enough to be wholly comfortable with what was about to happen. Still, he trusted Hux to guide him.

They maintained some pretense after the meal was over, Ben going to the dormitory to kill some time before he went to Hux. He was jittery, but managed to pass a half hour. If anyone noticed his agitation, they said nothing about it. At seven on the dot, he went into the corridor, knocking on the door to Hux’s study.

To his surprise, Hux opened the door himself rather than bidding Ben enter and waiting for him to come in. He was in his shirtsleeves, his tie absent, and he favored Ben with a wavering smile as he set eyes on him. Pushing the door wider open, he invited Ben inside.

“Tea?” Hux asked when the door was closed again.

Ben didn’t care for the formality. “No thanks,” he replied.

Hux hesitated, but then, as was their habit, took his desk chair and forced it under the doorknob—their only barrier against unwanted visitors. With that done, he stood across from Ben, wringing his hands. Ben felt the humming of nerves, too, but he went to Hux and took his hands.

“We don’t have to,” Ben said, “if you’ve changed your mind.”

“I haven’t,” Hux told him. He glanced at the desk. “I have what we need.”

Ben followed his gaze, finding nothing out of the ordinary on its surface. “What is it?”

“Slick,” said Hux. “Vaseline lifted from the infirmary.”

“How’d you manage that?” Ben asked.

A shrug. “The nurse likes me.” He corrected: “At least she’s willing to give me what I need, which usually isn’t much. I told her I have dry skin on my elbows. She capitulated.”

Ben cocked an eyebrow. “That worked?”

“Are you complaining?”

“No.”

“Come on, then,” Hux said, drawing Ben with him toward the desk. From a drawer he pulled a little jar of Vaseline, setting it out in plain view. And then he began to unbutton Ben’s shirt. Ben shuddered slightly at the brush of his chilly fingers against his neck.

They were used to undressing each other, at least down to a few scant bits of clothing—never fully bare. Ben let Hux push his shirt over his shoulders and then shucked his own, followed by their undershirts. Ben ran his palms over Hux’s skinny chest, the skin soft and hot under his touch. Hux stood for it, his fingers wrapped around Ben’s wrists.

“Tell me what I need to do,” Ben said gently.

“It’s straightforward,” said Hux. “I’ve already gotten myself ready.” He let go of Ben to unbuckle his belt and lower his trousers, leaving him in white briefs. They were only on for another short time before he dropped them to his ankles. He wasn’t hard, Ben saw, but he stopped Ben as he tried to touch him and encourage him to it.

“Is that wrong?” Ben asked.

“It’s not necessary,” Hux replied. “For now.”

With insistent fingers, he undid Ben’s fly and put his hand into his underwear. Ben was nervously soft, too, but responded well when Hux stroked him. He came closer, until he could rest his forehead on Hux’s shoulder. Hux touched him until he was fully erect, and only then did he push Ben’s trousers down. Taking the jar of Vaseline, he took a good portion on his forefingers and smeared it over Ben. It was strange and cool, but Ben let him do it without protest. As it warmed, it felt better.

“I’ve got to turn around,” Hux said, “but I’ll talk you through it, if needs be.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Ben.

Hux put his back to him, bracing his hands on his desk and putting his hindquarters on display. There was a distinct shine of slickness down the cleft of his buttocks, and Ben swallowed his apprehension.

“What now?” Ben asked.

“Give me your hand,” said Hux.

Ben did, and Hux moved it to himself. With gentle pressure, he pushed Ben’s first two fingers inside. Ben drew in a breath, finding him silken and hot. “Doesn’t it feel weird?” he murmured.

“It feels good,” Hux assured him. “The rest of you will, too. Follow your hand. You won’t hurt me.”

Ben was uncertain, but he took hold of himself and brought his cock to where Hux wanted it. He tensed, but at Hux’s quiet bidding to go on, began to slip inside. The curses, the exaltation, came unbidden as the feeling overwhelmed him. “Oh, my God,” he said.

Hux was breathing heavily, his head hanging down between his arms. “That’s good,” he said. “You can move.”

“How?” Ben asked.

“In and out,” Hux replied. “It’s fairly instinctual.”

Ben wasn’t so sure about that, but he took a firm grip on Hux’s hips and withdrew slightly before driving back in. Their skin slapped together, and Ben froze, but Hux gave a low groan and said, “Keep going. Just like that.”

The rhythm did indeed come naturally, and once Ben was satisfied that he wasn’t causing Hux any pain, he dared to go faster, feeling the building pleasure in his own lower body. Hux welcomed the intrusion, imploring Ben to give him more. They kept their voices low, and Ben was careful not to make too much noise with each thrust.

He didn’t last very long. The tightness and slick slide brought him off almost as fast as Hux had the very first time he’d taken Ben in his mouth. Ben figured that was a disappointment, but he couldn’t do much to control himself. In the end, Hux didn’t seem to mind. Ben climaxed with a grunt, then dropped down to cover Hux’s naked back and catch his breath.

“Are you okay?” he asked after a few silent moments.

Hux’s voice was languid, sated. “Oh, yes. But can you...pull out?”

Ben withdrew with caution, and Hux rose back up to stand. He was pink in the face and his lips were plush from biting. Ben glanced down at his groin, but Hux shook his head. “Another time.”

Ben wasn’t one to argue at this juncture. “Should I clean you up?” he said.

“I need to take a shower,” Hux told him. “But here, have this.” He took a hand towel from his desk and handed it to Ben to wipe himself clean.

Ben did, feeling loose-limbed and pleased. There hadn’t been some kind of utter shift in his attitude, a realization that he had trespassed where he thought he never would. There was nothing out of the ordinary with this. Hux was still Hux and Ben himself. It was new and it was good, but it didn’t change either of them fundamentally.

They gathered up their clothes and set themselves to rights. Hux moved with some stiffness, but told Ben he was perfectly all right.

“Do you want me to wait here until you get out of the shower?” Ben said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Hux gave him a curious look. “Do you want to?”

With a touch of Hux’s upper arm, Ben replied, “Yeah, I really do.”

Hux’s smile was wider, more genuine. “I won’t be more than ten minutes. The tea should still be warm.”

When he went out, Ben did pour himself a cup, sipping it idly. What he and Hux were going to talk about when he got back, Ben didn’t know, but he was content with that. He was content with Hux altogether, and he let himself settle into that comfort without fear.