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“Hey. Hux.”

Someone was patting him, four fingers flat and gentle on his cheek. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He was warm, and everything was soft, and pleasant, and apart from that patting his world was a perfect cloud.

“Wake up.” The patting was persistent, and eventually he opened one eye to see if that would satisfy his mysterious tormentor.

Kylo Ren was perched on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, and Hux frowned slightly at the sight. Ren wasn’t supposed to have clothes on. Hux certainly didn’t.

He took in the rest of his surroundings, opening the other eye blearily. It seemed to be very early in the morning, and he was in Ren’s cushy hotel room; that much he did remember. It had been entirely of his own volition. He’d stood up to the glad-handing rounds amongst the gala patrons for as long as he could, after the concert; he felt he owed them a good deal after the encore had gotten the second standing ovation of the night, and it wasn’t too difficult to make pleasant conversation with the people who had held his fate in their hands now that the thing had been done, and done well. But once the fizz had gone out of his glass of champagne, and his face was starting to hurt from smiling, and the crowd had thinned enough that he could guarantee he’d found every member of the board of directors, he’d floated backstage and, still in his tailcoat, gone to knock on Ren’s dressing room door.

It had opened to him; and there had been Ren, and Ren had also opened to him.

He had wanted nothing more than to be touched, by then, still humming with leftover adrenaline and the rush of a performance well dispatched. Ren had been warm, and welcoming, and had put the Vaderensky hands to good use, and they’d ended up back at the hotel, and everything after that was mostly a blur.

But he was sure, now, that Ren belonged in the other half of this giant bed - or possibly even in his half, that would probably be fine. There was really a lot of bed.

“Come here,” he said, and tugged on the hem of Ren’s t-shirt.

Ren bent, and pressed a kiss to Hux’s forehead. “I’m going for a run,” he said, pulling his shirt free from Hux’s fingers. “I just wanted you to know. You can go back to sleep.”

Hux thought about that for a moment. “No,” he said finally.

Ren grinned. “No, I’m not going for a run, or no, you’re not going back to sleep?”

“Neither,” Hux clarified. “You’re coming back to bed, it’s far too early.”

“Nah,” Ren said. “My flight’s at ten, so I have to be at the airport at eight, which means if I want to get a run in so I don’t have to sit through a transatlantic flight without being able to even take a nap, I have to do it now.” He pushed Hux’s hair back off his forehead, into a semblance of its former smoothness. “I’ll be back in, like, an hour,” he said. “It’s fine, I swear.”

Hux made a small disdainful noise.

“I will,” Ren said, and grinned at Hux over his shoulder as he let himself out the door.

The thing was, Hux reflected as he tried to sink back into the pillows, that as vast and comfortable as this bed was, as fluffy as the pillows were and as well as the loft of the duvet retained his heat, it wasn’t nearly as appealing if he was only going to lie in it by himself, staring at the ceiling.

He didn’t think he would get back to sleep. Ren might catnap his way back to New York if he liked, but once Hux was up, he was up, and that was generally all there was to it.

It seemed silly just to lie there, obstinately refusing to leave the comfort of the blankets. Hux hadn’t bothered to own a television for several years now, but remembered well enough that there was never anything good on at this time, not even on the shopping channel, so there wouldn’t even be that excuse. What he needed, if he wasn’t going to have the late lie-in that he’d been expecting - because who would have thought Ren would be an early riser, and for exercise, of all things?...

… although perhaps he should have expected that, actually, given the surprising size of Ren’s biceps and the smooth cords of muscle in his back, and that was a pleasantly distracting thought that made him burrow deeper into the bedcovers, as though the brush of the warm fabric against his skin could replicate the touch of Ren’s hands…

… no, this was all far too self-indulgent. In no way was he far gone enough to need a mattress to stand in for anyone, and most certainly not someone who would rather go for a run than stay in bed with him and all that he might have had to offer.

What he needed, he reminded himself, resuming that thought process where he had left off, was a shower: and that, he needed very badly indeed. And then perhaps a coffee.

He extracted himself from the embrace of the bedcovers with the smallest pang of regret, and went to explore the luxuriously appointed bathroom, so much larger and more marble-filled than his own. They had showered at one point the night before, together, in the glassed-in space that had almost the same footprint as Hux’s entire bathroom in his flat. He remembered now how to manipulate the complex knobs and dials, and in short order was under the warm rain of the water, rinsing out the last of yesterday’s pomade and feeling the tension go out of his shoulders and lower back, where it always collected after a performance.

He would have liked Ren to be there, to be able to dig his thumbs into the knots on either side of his spine, but this was also an unproductive train of thought, and he pushed it away as he pressed his own thumbs into his back, using his own weight and backing his fists against the wall of the shower to give it enough force to make the muscles let go.

There, he thought, and bent to touch his toes properly for the first time that day. Better.

He was glad enough that Ren was gone once he was out of the shower, and had to crawl around on his hands and knees looking for all of his shirt studs. They hadn’t taken too much care about undressing the night before, but he hadn’t exactly brought an overnight bag and knew he would have to make his way home in what he could salvage out of his concert dress.

By 6.30 he was dressed, more or less; he would have liked fresh socks, but with his bow tie tucked in his pocket and his tailcoat over his arm, he almost looked like a businessman, convincingly on his way to the office, and not slinking home on a walk of shame.

He wished it had taken longer. Ren would be half an hour yet; it seemed ridiculous to just… wait around here, for him to get back. And anyhow, what could they do when he returned? He would have to shower, and then pack, and Hux would just be in the way, and then it would be time to leave and Ren’s assistants would arrive and everything would be hopelessly rushed and awkward.

It had been fun, these last two nights, but it hadn’t been anything serious, really. It wasn’t as though they would see each other again, in all likelihood. Was it even worth waiting for him?

No. It wasn’t. It would be better this way.

He grabbed the hotel notepad and the pen from the small desk, and scribbled quickly:

Kylo - thank you. For everything. H.

Then he laid the notepad on Ren’s pillow, glanced once around the room to ensure that he had everything he had arrived with, and let himself out.

----

He walked back to his flat. It took him a while, but he was rather glad of that - the city was still waking up around him, and the sun was rising, grey and sluggish but there. He stopped to get a coffee and a bagel on the way, once the shops began to open, and ate as he walked.

He let himself back into his flat, and sat down on the sofa as he finished his coffee and considered the place.

Hux could see most of it from the sofa. It was small, and it was oldish and could do with a lick of paint here and there, but it had been home for almost a whole year, which was longer than he’d lived anywhere since he’d graduated from high school. He was still too recently nomadic to have accumulated much beyond the reasonable necessities of a home, but he’d been quite sad at the thought of putting everything into boxes again, and sending it off to wherever it was he was going next.

Ren’s coffee cup was still on the tiny kitchen table, weighing down the corner of the completed sudoku.

This would be his home a while longer, he thought. It seemed unlikely that after two standing ovations, the board would class the gala as a failure, although he certainly had no idea how much money they had raised. But perhaps he wouldn’t start packing up today.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have to pack up at all. Perhaps he would just… stay.

He couldn’t think why that thought didn’t make him happier. It was almost a guarantee, and it was all he had wanted.

He would just… tidy up a bit, and this mood, whatever it was, would pass. Most likely, it was just an effect of the comedown from the frenetic pace of the past two months, from the stress, from the uncertainty. From Kylo bloody Ren and his ability to get under Hux’s skin. This was a caesura, a pause in the normal order of things before they would continue, as though his life was just an orchestra waiting for their cue.

He scooped up the coffee cup and plunked it into the sink with his own, then ran the sink full of sudsy water and left them to soak for a minute while he pulled the sheets off his bed and bundled them into the washing machine. They had been due to be changed anyhow, but could not be borne after what he and Ren had done to them.

But as unsentimental as he was about the tiny physical remnants of Ren’s presence in his home, he could not quite bring himself to throw the finished sudoku into the recycling bin. He might do the crossword on the top of the page later, he told himself, and tucked it into the pile of opened mail and paid bills on the kitchen table.

And if his fingers lingered over the pencilled numbers in Ren’s bold, angular hand, nobody had to know.

----

On Monday, he sat around most of the day, waiting for the phone call that he knew would come at the end of the board meeting. He was often invited to them, but given that he knew that his own performance was the main topic of discussion, he wasn’t surprised to have been shut out of this one so they could speak freely.

He had debated calling Phasma, but eventually decided against it - he would call her when he had the news, which she would want to know either way. All he could do now was stew over what the decision would be, which he hardly thought would make him pleasant company.

He wasn’t sure, now that they were coworkers, whether or not they were closer or less close than before. They saw each other so often that they didn’t make many plans outside of work. She probably wanted a day off from him, just at the moment, after that last crush of pre-show rehearsals.

So if he couldn’t call her, and there wasn’t anyone else to call, all he could reasonably do was deep-clean his kitchen, and alphabetise his collection of scores, and iron the newly washed sheets before he put them away. Finally, defeated by the inconvenient lack of actual mess in his flat, he took himself out for a walk: a long stalk around the city, the loop that usually took him about an hour and would wear off enough of his energy and waste enough of his afternoon that by the time he got back to the flat he would be able to sit and wait for what little time remained.

They were prompt enough, as they usually were, and what they had to say didn’t take long; he thanked them, and hung up, and immediately dialled Phasma.

She sounded breathless when she picked up. “Tell me,” she said, instead of hello.

“Four million,” Hux said numbly. “We raised four million quid, Phasma, bloody hell.”

“If you’d kissed him onstage it would’ve been five,” she chortled. “Hux, you champion, you’ll be here for the next decade.”

“I suppose?” He made a fist in his hair, heedless of what that probably did to its style. “I can’t… I can’t quite wrap my head around it, to be perfectly honest. I was hoping for a million, maybe two, but - I’m completely gobsmacked.”

“You need wine,” she said sagely. “I find it often helps with staggeringly large numbers. Let me buy you some, tonight, along with some delicious food, and we will celebrate the fact that you’re not leaving for parts unknown again, because frankly, I didn’t at all fancy helping you pack.”

He met her at seven, in their current favourite place, and because Phasma was always a woman of her word, there was already a glass of wine poured for him. He wasted no time in getting about half of it down.

She smiled fondly at him. “Enjoy that, you’ve earned it.”

“I have earned a case of it,” Hux said, “and so have you, and - I still can’t believe it.”

“But you are staying,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

“They haven’t actually got my new contract ready.” He took another long sip, actually tasting it this time. “They will, they assure me, pay me in the interim, since my current contract is technically good until July if they exercise all their options. And it should be all sorted out - with some extra befitting my presumed new status - no later than then. But yes. I’m staying.”

“I’m so glad.” Her eyes and her smile were competing for brightest in show. “I really am. I didn’t like the thought of losing you - the rest of us would have been fine, they’d have found the money to pay us somehow, but you wandering the wastelands again just didn’t seem right. Besides,” she said, topping up both of their glasses, “I told the board very selfishly that I wanted to keep you for our own, and that they’d be grateful if they did. So it’s rather nice they listened. Have you told him yet?”

Hux paused with the glass halfway to his lips. “Who?”

She gave him a look. “Who. Kylo Ren.”

“No,” Hux said shortly. “I didn’t get his number.”

“I’m sure he’d want to know,” she said, as she leaned back in her chair, pointedly looking at the menu instead of him. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.

“I can’t imagine he’d concern himself very much,” Hux said quickly, willing the blush away. “Sleeping with me twice doesn’t automatically confer or imply a high degree of interest in my career or my well-being. He’s still awfully self-absorbed.”

Phasma tipped her head in a way that might have meant agreement, but probably did not. He chose to take it as such anyhow.

“I think I’ll have the salmon,” he continued, by way of a change of subject. “You?”

Blessedly, she let the matter drop. “The steak, I think.”

They talked about nothing important through dinner, Phasma radiating supreme contentment with everything around her as she ate. Hux envied her a little. He was still waiting for that feeling, and was beginning to wonder if it would come to him at all.

By the time they were picking at the last of their dessert, she had given up pretending not to have noticed. “I know better,” she said, “than to ask you if you’re all right. So let’s take it as read that I have asked, that you’ve told me of course you are, that I won’t believe you, and that you’ll still insist. That way we can skip straight to the part where you let me give you a hug, and I tell you that whatever it is, if you need my help with it, it’s yours.”

He laughed; even to his ears it sounded rather hollow. “I am all right. I think the last two months have just caught up with me a bit, that’s all. I don’t quite seem to be able to process that I’m staying.”

“Well.” She scooped up the last spoonful of her gelato. “You are. And that means you can start making real plans, and thinking more than one show ahead, and -” Her eyes crinkled wickedly at the corners. “Hiring soloists.”

“One time,” Hux groaned. “One time, I’ve slept with the soloist, and it will never happen again, and you’re never going to let me forget it.”

“Probably not,” she said, and grinned. “But I admit, your unorthodox methods absolutely did the trick. If you don’t make a habit of it, and you take me back here in a month or so and buy me another steak, perhaps I can manage to hold my tongue.”

“You drive a hard bargain,” he said, but smiled, and everything was very probably going to be all right.

----

They had their first rehearsal for the new show on Wednesday. Hux had been notified of the programme before anyone else, and had spent a couple of days with recordings already, trying to think what he wanted to bring out; perhaps, he let himself think, if he stayed a little longer, they might even make him Music Director and let him choose his own programmes. But that was a small gripe in the grand scheme of things.

He collected the scores from the librarians on Wednesday morning, spent a quiet hour in his dressing room with them while he listened to the noise of everyone else arriving, and started to feel more at home in his skin again. This was his place now.

But the fragile calm left him when he got as far as the wings, and realised with a horrible moment of loss that the Steinway was gone.

Of course it had been returned, it would have been picked up on Monday; they wouldn’t need it for this show, and the stage setup was back to how it had been before Ren’s arrival, back to the way it had always been.

He didn’t miss it, surely. It would be ridiculous to miss it, when he had been so upset by its presence while it was there.

He climbed the podium and set down his scores and his baton, surveying the half-full stage as the musicians wandered up from the dressing rooms. Phasma was already in her place, annotating her part with bowings that she would drill the first violins on in their sectionals later. The percussionists were clustered around the celesta that they’d dug out of the storage room - it sounded like there was an issue with one of the hammers, but they would sort it out. Bazine Netal was tuning her harp. He wondered if she had found them a second harpist yet, or indeed if anyone had asked her to. He’d have to speak to her at the break.

He let Phasma tune them all, once it seemed that everyone had arrived who was likely to, and then took the podium back.

“Speech, speech,” Mitaka called, and he shot the clarinettist a sharp look.

“Am I so predictable?”

“Yes,” Mitaka said.

“Well. You had all better get used to it, if you haven’t; I’m afraid the board has decided to inflict me upon you for the foreseeable future.”

There was a good deal of whooping at that; he allowed himself to feel pleased about it.

“I think,” he continued, “that they’ve chosen this programme entirely to make us all regret that. I am told that the point of this is meant to be, er, ‘Summer Blockbusters’, a phrase I generally try not to use if at all possible, but here we are: we’ll be doing the Planets, with which I hope you are all familiar, and the Grand Canyon Suite, which is a similar idea but a good deal more American. And also the Unfinished Symphony, because I like Schubert and so does Phasma, and as I’m sure the first violins agree, it is well worth keeping Phasma happy.”

Her grin was blinding.

“Now, the Planets requires a three-ring circus and a cast of thousands, so we will necessarily not be rehearsing it quite at full strength for the next fortnight or two. It may get a bit crowded onstage when we do manage it, but I hope you will all make our wide variety of guest performers feel welcome.” He smiled wryly. “I can promise you that none of them will be as much trouble as the last one.”

Mitaka gave a sigh of theatrical relief.

“That said - I wanted to be sure I took a moment to thank you all, each and every one of you, for what we achieved at the gala. I know that the lion’s share of the glory goes to those who do the flashy bits and wave the stick, but I sincerely appreciate how much effort every one of you put in, and how much it contributed to the absolutely stunning success of the gala. I don’t know the final fundraising total, but the board has informed me that our salaries have all been covered for the next year at least, by the donations alone, and that may help you sleep at night; it certainly helps me.” He looked over them, his assembled troops, and smiled. “Now. That is quite enough of me being nice. Can we look at Jupiter, please. And slowly.”

----

It was surprisingly hard work being the conductor of the Erste Orden Sinfonie. Their market share was strange - not the top of the heap, that people would go to see regardless of what they were playing because it was simply that much of a privilege to hear them; but not the bottom of the heap, either, where they could have at least counted on their family and friends to turn up to hear them massacre Beethoven’s 5th. No, they were in third or fourth place, if they were doing well. Hux knew first place was out of their reach at the moment, and probably forever - there was just too much competition, and the competition were just too good - but he cherished the idea of EOS becoming the solid second choice.

The board and the music committee had decided some years ago that their strategy to drive up ticket sales would be to become something of a greatest hits orchestra. The musicians were of a high enough calibre, and had mostly been playing together for long enough, that it was possible for the committee to throw nearly anything at them and they would come out of it respectably. EOS wasn’t the Berlin Philharmonic, or the London Symphony Orchestra, but tickets to the LSO cost a lot more, and they weren’t guaranteed to be playing something everyone had heard of.

Unfortunately for Hux, and for the musicians, the grade level of what everyone had heard of covered a pretty wide spectrum, and this programme skewed from the fairly basic Schubert to the rather terrifying Holst - yes, if they could pull it off in the time they had to do it, it would be a showstopper, the Planets always was. And it would be the big drawcard, so it would have to be as good as he could get them to be.

Even for him, the Planets was hard. Complex polyrhythms, a myriad of cues that had to be given at every turn, and those bloody awful bits of Venus and Saturn, where everything was happening in between the beats and over the bars, and everyone else but him and the violins could just feel for their place in it but god forbid he stuff up Phasma’s cue. He already knew how much time he was going to have to spend on it.

The Grand Canyon would be fine. Grofé’s strength had been orchestration, more than imagination, and the lush paintings of sound Hux had in mind (how would one go about conducting it more sensitively, more grandly, more cinematically than Bernstein?) didn’t require any particular acrobatics on his part as long as he paid attention to the cues. All his soloists would be fine. They would have a large number of their guest musicians on for that too - EOS owned a celesta, for some reason, but not a celesta player, nor did they have a bass clarinettist or an English horn - but it wasn’t going to take the expertly-coordinated movement of troops that the Planets did.

The Schubert was a horse of an entirely different colour. He knew it like it was part of him, and sometimes he wasn’t sure it wasn’t - the way it crept in and wrapped itself around his bones, it certainly seemed to feel at home. But the problem with conducting was that one only got out of it what one put in, and what the Schubert brought out - dragged out - demanded of him was something that even the masterful Holst did not.

He didn’t like the Schubert, exactly. It wasn’t easy to like. It started out tense, and got worse; and just when one thought things might be looking up it looped back around to the beginning. If one were paying less than perfect attention, one might be caught in it forever, repeating the same patterns, making the same missteps, never finding the coda and the way out. He couldn’t help feeling as though perhaps the metaphor was just a little on the nose.

But it would be an interesting concert, at the very least. And an interesting few weeks of rehearsals, and if they didn’t all abandon him entirely by week four, perhaps it would even be a success.

The first rehearsal had been messy, and full of gaps where things should have been and were not, but that was standard and the mess wasn’t any bigger than Hux expected for seventy musicians, a good twenty or thirty of whom were likely sightreading. They’d done everything very slowly and carefully and he’d made some notes of things to email the section leaders about. All things considered, there was nothing to lose sleep over.

And yet, he thought, as he lay staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom, here he was, losing sleep.

The last time he had slept well had been in Ren’s hotel; he was tempted to blame the extreme cushiness of the mattress, and the post-show exhaustion, and all the extra fun they had had by themselves, for that. Now, just as weary and in familiar territory, he should have been able to drop off easily. But he couldn’t. There was something missing. The beginning of the Schubert was running in circles through his head, the clarinet and oboe line simmering in his blood: he wanted to get up, pace it off, do anything other than lying here. But if he got up, turned on lights, and put himself in motion he’d be awake for hours yet. Waiting it out was the only answer.

He rolled onto his side and pressed his cheek purposefully into the pillow, as if informing it that it would become comfortable and it had no choice in the matter, and determinedly thought about nice, relaxing Debussy to try to push the Schubert out. Drifting, gently drifting...

The xylophone donk of his text alert jerked him back to wakefulness.

He sighed. If he checked it, the light would disrupt what little progress he’d made towards sleep. It was past midnight. It could wait.

donk

Really?

donk

He heaved himself up on one elbow and grabbed his phone off the nightstand.

Three messages from an unknown number - an overseas prefix and a 646 area code. New York.

He thumbed open his messaging app.

+1-646: hi hux
+1-646: this is kylo
+1-646: kylo ren :)

How many Kylos do you think I know? he sent.

+1-646: hahaha good point
+1-646: how are u anyway

I was asleep, he sent. It’s very late.

+1-646: oh sry
+1-646: u alone

Of course I am, he sent, and then regretted it, but it was too late for that.

+1-646: me too
+1-646: i wish u wre here
+1-646: i still have a bruise on my hip, right where plane seatbelt sits haha

Hux wasn't sure when he’d started smiling. Sorry about that.

+1-646: dont be, makes me think abt u ;)
+1-646: i wanna give u one to match

Are you sexting me?

No, that was the wrong thing to have sent, he knew it. Ren hadn't answered, he wouldn't, he was insulted -

+1-646: lol u nerd
+1-646: i bite u gentle
+1-646: gently

Okay. Good, but also, still not something he could handle this late at night. He would have to derail this train of thought. How did you even get my number? I don't remember giving it to you.

+1-646: yeah u didnt, i got darla to call yr office. wanted to talk to u :)
+1-646: i knew u wld miss me ;)

As if he would respond to that. I can’t do this right now, I need to sleep.

+1-646: i have an idea
+1-646: will u do sth for me hux

He wiggled deeper under the covers and debated it internally. What did you have in mind?

+1-646: put yr hand on the back of yr neck

... Why?

+1-646: just do it ok

Hux adjusted his arm so that he could curl his left hand over his neck, his fingers sliding into the short hair at his nape. His hands were never particularly warm, but his palm trapped the heat radiating from the veins so close to the surface, and held it there, against the tiny tensed muscles. It felt good.

I’m doing it, now what?

+1-646: me too
+1-646: pretend its my hand

No, this had crossed back into the patently ridiculous. He most certainly didn’t need to pretend anything. He shook his head at the phone, as though Ren could see. This is too silly. Goodnight, Ren.

+1-646: leave yr hand there tho
+1-646: talk soon alrite

Okay, he sent, though he wasn't sure what he was agreeing to.

+1-646: gnite :)

He set the phone down on his nightstand and laid back on the pillow, trying to fit his cheekbone back into the depression he’d carved out earlier. It wasn’t quite right, and now he’d be awake for ages, and damn Kylo Ren, anyhow.

And then he sighed - it felt like an admission, even though he didn’t know what he was admitting and there wasn’t anyone to admit it to - and threaded his hand back into his hair.

He was asleep in five minutes flat.

----

In the morning, there was a blurry mirror selfie - sent at something like 2am his time, he was quite amazed that his text alert hadn’t woken him. Ren looked mussed and sleepy, and he was wearing a t-shirt and slouchy trackpants that would have hung off his hips even if they hadn’t been pushed as far down as decency would allow. The shirt was rucked up to show off the fading purple on his hipbone.

His hands made the phone look so very small. It was a wonder, really, that he could manage to text at all.

1-646: just to prove its still there
1-646: ;)

Hux considered the picture for a little while, and then padded out to the kitchen to start the coffee. There was a sunbeam slanting across the benchtop, making the chrome of the machine and the blue of Hux’s coffee mug pop against the sea-green tiles of the backsplash.

He knelt and took a photo, carefully angled and composed, to get the gleam and the warmth. Then he opened his messaging app and attached it in.

Good morning, he put beneath it.

Ren wouldn’t be awake yet. But that made them even.

He felt rather good, he decided. Better, anyhow. More like a man who had no bigger problems in life than Holst’s syncopation.

It was an off-day for him, no rehearsal to worry about. So, with no commitments, he set himself free. He’d loaded the Planets onto his phone, the Levine recording with the Chicago Symphony. He liked it well enough, though he quibbled with some of Levine’s decisions - and didn’t that always feel deliciously presumptuous, to say to oneself and the world that one thought one knew better than an acknowledged master, and to have the power to prove it?

Listening to it now, as the background to his day, would help him burn it into his brain to the point that he would always simply know what came next. And so Mars, Venus and Mercury saw him through a second coffee and a danish pastry; Jupiter and Saturn took him as far as the shop that sold the Persian rugs he’d always coveted. He paused Uranus long enough to stroke the deep, soft pile and haggle a little, and then, with his new purchase over his shoulder, he wended his way homeward with the drifting veils of Neptune twining through his head.

Once home, he put his shoulder against the furniture and shoved everything back towards the walls so he could unroll the carpet, over the bare floorboards that were pleasantly cool in the heat of summer but uncomfortably chilled the rest of the year.

The carpet unrolled, with the heavy soft thump he’d been hoping to hear.

Karajan on the stereo, Beethoven’s 7th - not because he needed to rehearse it, but because it was the only thing satisfying enough to play at a time like this - and he lay down on the floor, the carpet rich and fluffy under the sharp protrusions of his shoulderblades and elbows, hips and heels.

Yes, he thought, as he closed his eyes, and raised his hands, and brought in the violins. Now perhaps he could live here.

By the second movement his lumbar spine was reminding him that his twenties were over and he couldn't expect its forgiveness forever if he intended to keep lying on floors in this manner. He sat up, wrapped his arms around his knees and curled his toes into the deep pile instead.

donk

1-646: haha pour me one
1-646: whatcha doing

Hux considered the phone for a moment. Why not, he wasn't working right now.

Bought a carpet. Then he crawled off it and snapped a picture, careful to angle the shot so the depth of it was apparent.

Doesn't fly, he captioned it.

1-646: nice nice :)
1-646: but does it match the drapes

Juvenile, but Hux let himself snicker, though he knew he would have repressed it had Ren actually been there. Still, he couldn’t fully resist. He pursed his lips rather wickedly, and typed You weren't paying much attention if you have to ask me that.

1-646: oh trust me i was paying attention

I remember. He was smiling at his phone again. He could just about imagine Ren’s smirk.

Then he typed, So, by the way. I should tell you we raised 4 million.

1-646: HOLY FUCK R U SRS 4 MIL

He was halfway through typing a response when his screen shifted to show an incoming call, from Ren’s 646 number. With a feeling like leaping over the last two steps of a staircase, he swiped to answer it.

“You’re shitting me.” Ren was laughing, astonished and bright. “You are absolutely not serious with that number. There's no way.”

“I am,” Hux said, and he wanted to laugh too, even though there was no real reason to. “I swear to you.”

“Fuck,” Ren breathed. “Wow. That's just.”

Hux felt something in his chest loosen. “I couldn't believe it either,” he admitted. “It’s almost too much to imagine, isn’t it?”

“So you're staying, right?” Ren demanded. “Tell me all my hard work paid off.”

Your hard work -” Hux caught himself. It wouldn't do to be ungracious in victory. And after all, Ren had made a real effort. “Yes. It did.”

“Aww, man.” Ren's voice was so warm. “I’m really glad you told me. Like, I’m so happy right now, and it's been a long and kinda shitty week and I didn't really expect any news this great.”

The smile couldn't be kept down anymore; Hux settled for directing it at a nebulous point in front of him. “I, er. Thought you'd like to know,” he said, mentally asking Phasma's permission, knowing he already had it. “They're doing up my contract now, but it looks like I'm going to get at least a few years here.”

“Are you keeping your apartment?”

“Seems simplest,” Hux said. “It’s plenty of space for just me.”

“Hm,” Ren said. “Good. That's good.”

“I didn't know you held such fondness for my flat,” Hux said.

“No, I just…” Ren laughed. “This way I know where you are. I can, like, picture you doing stuff. I like that. You should stay there.”

“Well, if it pleases Your Majesty,” Hux said archly.

“Lots of things you do please me.” Ren's voice had dropped to a low whisper. “Maestro.”

Something deep inside Hux gave a sharp twist.

He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t. “Ren, I…” He gathered his wits as fast as he could.

But it wasn't fast enough. “You don't want to do this over the phone, huh,” Ren said quietly.

“No, it's…”

“Because you change the subject on me every time I try.” Ren huffed a little chuckle. “It’s okay. I get it. What if we just… put that on hold until we’re on the same continent again.”

Hux couldn't hide the relief making him almost dizzy. “That… would be a lot easier for me, yes.”

“You know I’m still gonna call you anyway.”

He wanted to say something snappy, something witty, but it just wasn’t there; all he had was a suddenly exposed soft belly to speak from.

“I’d like that,” he said, and curled tighter around his knees, wincing at himself.

“Okay,” Ren said, with the tiniest note of excitement. “Okay, that’s good. Look, I gotta go, but I’ll… I’ll call you later.”

“All right,” Hux said, “talk soon then.” He hung up, before it could turn into one of those weird moments where nobody knew who was meant to end the call.

Then he snagged a throw pillow off the sofa and let himself fall back onto the carpet with the cushion tucked under his neck.

Beethoven must have felt like this. This strange blend of fear and anticipation, this unsettled fizzing in his emotions that didn’t seem to have any cause or outlet; it could have been laughter or tears, and it wasn’t going to be allowed to be either of those, not for one moment - but it might have been his missing excitement, now strange out of context.

It would be fine. He would be fine, now, and he maybe had one more friend than he’d thought - that seemed safe enough to think. No matter what else Ren was or wasn't to him, he’d been genuinely glad to hear from Hux. And that was perhaps worth putting a little time into even if he was on the other side of a very large ocean.

The Beethoven swelled, pulled him back into it and out of his head. As he had done all his life, Hux closed his eyes, pushed everything away but the beat of the music, and trusted that he knew where it would take him.

----

Ren didn't text again that day, but there was a message for Hux to wake up to, a picture of a foamy drink in a mug bearing Johann Sebastian Bach's placidly smiling face, and the text WACHET AUF in big black letters. Sleepers, wake, indeed.

I don't own any novelty mugs, because I am an adult, he sent back.

1-646: u r missing out, buzzkill :D

(Three days later, in the post: a black mug emblazoned with a skull and crossbones in white, and blocky font reading TUNE IT OR DIE. Hux gave it a cursory rinse and put the kettle on.)

It became almost a game - Ren would send a selfie, and Hux would try to one-up him, or send something back that could be construed as a conversation. Every so often Hux would mention something in passing, and then to his immense embarrassment (and a tiny, tiny, glowing spot of something that wasn’t quite pride, and wasn’t quite joy, but was somehow both and more) a solution would turn up in the post. Ridiculous toe socks, when he complained that his feet were cold; a little pot of succulents for the windowsill in the kitchen, via one of the local florists; a miniature score for Beethoven 7.

And then Ren would call, usually late at night. Hux had memorised the time difference and he suspected it was a pocket of time Ren always had free, then; and the nights he didn’t call, Hux was awake anyhow, until well past when he might have rung, so the nights when he did, Hux couldn’t bring himself to mind at all. Even if they talked for hours, it was still a better use of his time than lying in bed staring at the wall.

It felt like too much of a step, but he got EOS’s office admins to look up Ren’s agent’s details for him, and through a maze of got-your-email-froms, he found out Ren’s address from Darla and swore her entirely to secrecy. Then he sat on the knowledge for several rather panicky days. What on earth did one send someone when one had slept with them twice, then started some sort of strange backward friendship and wanted to impress them, but also maybe make them laugh?

He considered a silly tie, and then, briefly, a very nice one, but Ren didn’t really wear ties. So Hux abandoned the ties and moved onto cufflinks, which felt mildly inspired: a few minutes of internet searches produced an amusing variety.

When he saw the pair in the shape of hands, one right and one left, fingers splayed wide, he only hesitated for what he felt was the appropriate amount of time when one was buying someone a gift one didn’t even know for sure they would want.

But then, Ren had bought him all sorts of silly little things, and turn about was fair play. He couldn’t imagine Ren deliberating for ten minutes over any of the things he’d sent Hux - he would have just laughed, Hux knew exactly the laugh it would have been, and clicked checkout. He didn’t feel he could quite manage the laugh, but he did make himself click checkout.

The confirmation email came through and he shut his laptop with a groan. He’d hate them. Of course he’d hate them. He’d laugh at Hux. Who even wore cufflinks in this day and age? Ren would think him impossibly naff, to even have thought of such a thing.

It didn’t matter how often he reminded himself that this was the very man who had sent him rainbow-striped toe socks, and whom he had seen with his own eyes wearing discreet silver cufflinks.

Anyway, it was done, and couldn’t be undone without more emails, and he had rehearsal to get to.

It was the Schubert today, which they’d finally begun to get up to tempo. He could feel the orchestra dragging like a weight on his wrists, and stopped them halfway through the second repeat of the first section, tapping his baton on the stand for their attention.

“I need you all to forget what you know,” he said. “I’m sure every one of you has played this before, and I know this because you are making a hopeless dirge of it. I am very well aware that the prevailing opinion on the Unfinished is that it ought to be played at a funereal pace; I am not entirely sure where that came from, but the tempo marking at the top of your page is allegro moderato. That is allegro, as in fast, and not as in wandering idly down the garden path. So you will please play it at the speed I am conducting it, with less dragging of heels, and that goes especially for you, strings.” Phasma was looking at him with the face that meant she was too well-trained to ask the question she was thinking. “I know you have a lot to do, but you needn’t dig into it - keep it nice and light and you won’t have such trouble keeping to my tempo. Section leaders, all of you, can you please make a note to rehearse it no slower than 120 from now on?”

There was a murmur, mostly assent, and a little bit of pencil scribbling.

He gave them a moment, and then tapped his stand again. “All right. From C, second repeat, and onwards. And please, please watch me, I’m not up here for my health.”

At break Phasma drifted up from her dressing room to lean in his doorway and watch him silently until he gave her the impatient get-on-with-it eyebrows. “Well? Out with it, whatever it is.”

“I’m not sure what you’re worried about,” she said, “but it’s going to be all right.”

“Who says I’m worried about anything?” he said defensively.

“I do, because I am looking at you right now, and I know you. And taking it out on poor old Schubert is awfully exhausting for the rest of us. You’re not wrong about the tempo, but you sped up even from 120 and it’s starting to feel like a heart attack.”

“I want it to.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s the most anxious piece of music I know, and playing it at 90 is like taking half an Ativan when you need two. It doesn’t stop the panic attack, you just have it slowly so you can savour all the unpleasant details.”

Phasma raised an eyebrow. “Do you need half an Ativan?”

“God.” He sighed sharply. “Phasma, I appreciate your concern, but will you please let it go? I’m making an artistic decision, to do with how I feel the music, which is my right and responsibility as the conductor and doesn’t need to be questioned, and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in my life, of which I am in complete control, thank you. This is not any sort of silent cry for help.”

“All right,” she said, and unpeeled herself from the doorjamb, hands held high in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll break it to the violins. But remember, I asked.”

He rolled his eyes. “I haven’t taken Ativan since uni,” he said. “And I’m fine.”

“If you say so, Maestro,” she said over her shoulder.

They tackled the second movement after the break, and that went more smoothly, perhaps because this one actually said andante at the top and thus did need to be played at 96, which was both the usual speed people took it and how fast Hux wanted to take it. And perhaps it was also smoother because the music was much more typical Schubert - lush and lovely, stately and well-behaved, only minor detours into anything like the anxious, jittery simmer of the first movement.

Still, he felt unsatisfied and on edge at the end of the rehearsal, half-expecting another well-meaning and totally unnecessary lecture on relaxation. Luckily Phasma had more sense than to try again, and left with just a nod in his direction.

And then there was nothing to do but to go home, and stare at the email that told him the cufflinks had been shipped, and wait for the fallout of this undoubtedly stupid decision.

He bit his nails, figuratively, for several days and said nothing, in an agony of anticipation until Ren rang him.

“So you want your hands on me, huh?” Ren said, not bothering with hello. Hux could hear him smirking.

He’d been tossing and turning futilely for forty-five minutes already. “They could be helping hands,” he suggested, rather weakly he felt.

“Mm,” Ren said. “Well. I could use one of those about now.” He laughed, sharp and unexpected. “Sorry, I know I said no phone sex, I just realised what that sounded like. I mean - I booked a job, a big one.”

“Where?” Hux said, adjusting his blankets. “And who for, anyone I know?”

“Ironically, yes,” Ren said. “It’s, uh. It’s Snoke. Pretty funny, right?”

He didn’t sound like he thought it was. And Hux felt rather similarly. “That’s interesting,” he said, non-committally. “I don’t suppose he mentioned the thought process at work there, behind this decision?”

“Oh, yeah - he said he’d heard the gala was a huge success and he thought his audience, uh, how’d he put it -” Ren cleared his throat and attempted something that did capture some of Snoke’s way of speaking. “‘They deserve the same treat as my former audience has been given, do you not agree?’”

“I suppose the National Orchestra of Belgium hasn't much overlap with our audience,” Hux said thoughtfully. “Nonetheless, I can't help feeling slightly… watched.”

“It’s a little weird,” Ren agreed. “And he told me they're going to do both 2 and 3, same as you did. Which I guess, if they're hiring me - that's kind of what I do, yeah. But most people don't have me do both.” He shifted, and Hux could hear a loud creak. “Sorry. Piano bench.”

“Are you in your studio?” Hux asked. He had sort of pictured a nebulous flat around Ren, what he imagined it might look like from the unprepossessing exterior he’d found on Google Maps.

“Home,” Ren said. “They let me have a piano if I don't play after 10.”

“That's good of them. I think my neighbours would have me thrown out if I dared to practise here.”

“You don't even have a piano,” Ren said, bemused.

“Flute,” Hux clarified, then realised: “I didn't mention I'm a flautist, did I? Because I am. Albeit very intermittently these days.”

Ren still sounded surprised. “Flute, huh? I did not have you pegged as a flute player. You any good?”

“Not orchestral good, but I get by.” Hux rolled onto his side. “I haven't played for anyone in a while.”

“You should play something for me sometime,” Ren said.

The prospect was horrifying. “Maybe,” he said, thinking never. He couldn't subject a musician of Ren's calibre to his squeakings.

“Hey, um, can I ask you something?” Ren sounded uncomfortable now, and Hux tucked his knees up into his chest, bracing for the question, whatever it could possibly be - there were so few things he knew of that could possibly make Ren uncomfortable that this had to be something rather… big.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” Ren continued. “Or if you don’t know. I just… was wondering.”

“Go on,” Hux said warily.

“So… you said EOS didn’t have a lot of money. Did you know how much they offered me to play, and if it was the normal amount you would have offered, or did they cut back and hope I’d be hungry enough to take it?”

Hux frowned deeply. That was definitely not the sort of question he’d been dreading, but it was odd. “They didn’t really bring me in on the decision, but as far as I recall it seemed reasonable to me, well within what we would usually pay a featured soloist who came with some name recognition. Why do you ask?”

“It’s just something Snoke said to me,” Ren said. “He told me I needed to cut loose from groups like EOS - that I was wasting my time. That you couldn’t afford me and shouldn’t have been able to, and in a few years’ time, if I stuck with him, you wouldn’t be able to.” He paused for what seemed like a long time. “They’re paying me twice what you did. And he says that’s just the start.”

“Does he.” Hux felt cold clear through to his core.

“I mean, he wants a lot more rehearsal than you did, I’m flying into Brussels in a couple of weeks and their show’s the last Friday of July. But it still adds up to a lot more money.”

“That’s the night before our next show,” Hux said. “But we’re not his competition, not directly or indirectly - what is he playing at?”

“I don’t get it either,” Ren said. “I like the idea, don’t get me wrong - I want to look at buying a place over in Europe somewhere, so I have a base of operations that’s closer than New York, and that doesn’t come cheap. So it’d be nice if he’s right and he can double or triple my take-home by introducing me to all his friends.”

“I suppose,” Hux said distractedly. “But it’s so strange.”

“I guess I’ll find out. Obviously I did say yes, so I’ll be getting nice and cozy with the guy whose absence is responsible for me meeting you.” Ren chuckled. “I should probably cut him a little slack for that one, and not assume he’s some sort of Macchiavellian genius bent on making a fool of you without at least having a couple of coffees with the dude, you know?”

“Mm.” Hux chewed on the end of his thumb. “Yes.”

“You sound tired,” Ren said. “Are you tired? You should be. I’ll let you go.”

“All right,” Hux said. It was burning in his throat that Ren hadn’t actually said yet if he’d liked the cufflinks, but he couldn’t make himself so obvious as to ask. “Goodnight, then.”

“Sweet dreams,” Ren said, because he always did, and normally Hux found that rather charming; but tonight there would be no dreams at all, Hux could already tell. Mainly because there would be no sleep, either.

He’d barely managed more than a nap when his alarm went off. Unusually for him, he snoozed it, over and over until there wasn’t much left of the morning. He got up as tired as he’d been when he went to sleep, if not more so, and headed for rehearsal feeling groggy and out of sorts.

“I know it was meant to be Holst, on the schedule,” he told them, “but I am the conductor, and I can change the schedule, and I’d like to look at the Grofé.”

He didn’t have to tell them it was because it was mostly in 4, and he didn’t have to think as much about it. At this point everything was wobbly enough he could justify it. And he was wobbly enough himself, mentally and physically, that he didn’t like his chances of trying to think his way through the thousands of traps in the Planets.

He’d get it. He’d do more study later, at home; he’d have a third cup of coffee, or a fourth, or whatever it took; and he’d stop chewing at the problem of what exactly Snoke might or might not be doing, and why.

After all, if Hux was on his game and EOS were collectively on theirs, it wouldn't matter in the slightest what was happening in Belgium. People came to see them, not him, and not Snoke. If he just concentrated on making them the best orchestra they could be, rather than devoting so much energy to a problem that he couldn't solve, then he wouldn't have a problem.

The Grofé sounded odd and threadbare without the extra musicians he was missing - the guests wouldn’t join them for another few rehearsals yet, and it was hard not to find the result rather depressing. The National Orchestra of Belgium, he thought bitterly, probably had a celesta player. They probably had enough multi-instrumentalists that they could just pull someone off some other instrument, that one of their oboists just doubled as cor anglais, that Snoke wouldn’t have to listen to music with bald patches when all he wanted was for it to match the dream in his head.

Still, EOS had hired people, and they would be fine, and this was the orchestra that had raised him four million pounds and saved his job. He couldn’t worry about it yet.

There was a strangeness in the energy of the orchestra, though, and he was fairly sure he wasn’t just projecting, or causing it with his own tension. People were having conversations that were dropped when he went past, and looking over shoulders to see if he’d gone. He didn’t like to bring the matter up with Phasma, not after their last conversation - not when the solution was as likely as not the half an Ativan that she’d offered, and a decent night’s sleep, and admitting that was out of the question. But without her, he didn’t have a direct line to any of his players, and skulking around backstage trying to eavesdrop on them just didn’t seem right.

He drowned all of it in music. Rather ambitiously, he thought, he decided to spend all his free time for a week concentrating hard on the Holst, in the hope that he would knit together all the bits he knew and shore up the bits he didn't, and maybe get himself off-book with a month to go. There was no substitute for practice, not even for him.

“It’s you and Gustav Holst,” he told Ren, finally having given up and gone to bed after a long day of deconstructing the horrible syncopated passages that still threw him, yelling out beats as though somehow that might help him to sink back into the music with the correct understanding of how it went together. “That's all I do anymore. I am nothing. I am a Planet. I’d probably forget how to read words instead of music if you didn't keep texting.”

Ren's laugh was a low, pleased rumble. “Drama queen, ” he said. “Like you're the only one who ever practised for eight hours a day.”

Hux rubbed his own neck - it was sore where he’d strained the muscles earlier, during a particularly violent attempt at Mars. “I really thought this would come together by now,” he admitted. “I had Saturn for one run-through yesterday, I had it completely - and then I lost it and it hasn't come back again and I thought when one was tired of Holst one was tired of life - but.” He sighed, and dug his knuckles in under his skull. “I am so, so tired of Holst.”

“Life’s still all right, though?” Ren's voice was light, joking. A question that expected the answer yes, of course.

“I could use a cup of coffee,” Hux said, trying to keep things in the same tone.

“No, man, don't do that,” Ren said. “It’s like, super late over there, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is,” Hux said, “but it's not as though I'm missing out on any quality sleep, regardless. I might as well have the coffee.”

“Hang on.” Ren wasn't laughing anymore. “You can't sleep? What's going on, why didn't you tell me?”

“It’s hardly a problem,” Hux said, as brusquely as he could. “In fact it rather works out in your favour, don't you think? Most people would be asleep right now, not awake enough to hold a coherent conversation.”

“Yeah, but is something wrong?” Just give it up, Hux thought, but of course Ren didn't: “You would tell me, if there was.”

“No, no,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong.” Which was true, and so there. He wasn’t ill, he wasn’t really that much more tired than usual, and he couldn’t prove anything else wasn’t just as it should be.

“Mm,” Ren said. Four soft chords in the background, almost absently played, lingering on a jazzy dissonant Satie flat-five that felt like a dubious eyebrow: he was sitting at the piano again, then. “If I stopped calling you at ass o’clock in the morning you’d sleep more.”

“I really wouldn't,” Hux said, also quite truthfully.

He’d wished Ren would call, last night, in fact. And the night before. Not quite enough to call him; not quite. That would be needy and weird. But enough to resent the boredom of lying in bed with nothing to do but wait for rest that might never come.

It was better with Ren there. It cost him nothing to admit that. At least, to himself.

“What about you?” he said, realising they’d been quiet for long enough that it was starting to be noticeable. “I assume you're slaving over Rach 3 at all hours?”

“I’m not, actually.” The piano bench creaked and there was the tiny close-figured dischord that denoted, most likely, an elbow on the keys. “I looked at my rehearsal schedule and I don’t know if I'm going to need to practise at all. I know the part, they follow me, it's not like it's hard, you know?”

Hux considered the absurdity of someone, anyone, calling the Third Piano Concerto not hard. And of course it was Kylo fucking Ren, ladies and gentlemen, because who else would it be, who else would dare?

“Well, if you think you'll be ready,” he said. “I ought to warn you that from everything I've heard, Snoke's quite the taskmaster. I wouldn't go in with the slightest speck of rust on you if I were you.”

“You worry too much,” Ren said airily. “Snoke and me, we’re gonna be buddies, you wait and see. He told me - did I tell you? I didn’t tell you - we were talking about my grandfather, a couple of days ago, and he goes to me, ‘you are exactly what I'm looking for, my dear child’.” That wasn't a laugh, that was a giggle. “I know he's like a hundred years old and hasn't met me yet, but. Dear child. Nobody's called me that, like, ever. I was always ‘hey kid’. I’m six foot three. I didn't crack up on the phone, but fuck it was hard.”

So he was calling Ren. Hux couldn't put his finger on exactly why, but even the obvious humour in the statement didn't seem awfully funny to him. All he could feel was a small and gnawing dread.

“I probably am worrying too much,” he said out loud, hoping that speaking it would make it true - that it would banish the little voice that was warning him that this was bad, this was very bad, and just because he didn't quite understand how yet didn't make it less so. “I’m sure you'll be fine.”

“Damn straight, Maestro,” Ren said satisfiedly. “You know I’m gonna knock their socks off. It's what I do.” Ren laughed, warm and close in Hux’s ear, and despite all his misgivings, he clung to that tiny comfort. “Got your socks off, didn’t I.”

Oh, I miss you, Hux thought, but bit down on the thought before he could say it. Just the realisation hurt quite enough without compounding it.

“Don’t be jumping into bed with Snoke,” he said instead, breathing around the knot in his chest, “please, by all that is holy,” and vocalised the eurghh of a theatrical shudder.

“I don’t like promising people things,” Ren said, “but in this case I think I can.”

“You had better,” Hux said, “you had better.”

“For you, then,” Ren said, and the tight spot in Hux’s chest clenched and didn’t let go.

He slept badly, and arrived at rehearsal grumpy enough that the musicians’ conversations ebbed when they saw him coming. He ignored them. His problem wasn’t with them, it was with the pain in his chest that kept poking him directly in the feelings every time he tried to consider his life.

But whether or not they were talking to him, they were definitely talking. And as he headed out to the stage, he passed a knot of brass, and caught one word from Rodinon before he was shushed - “audition”.

Okay, he told himself. EOS hadn’t announced anything new, but he could have been talking about the filling-in of the trumpet section after the last show. Or there could be something else going - the musicians’ contracts weren’t exclusive, and he knew many of them had side gigs. The only clause specified that EOS would take precedence over all other commitments unless otherwise specifically arranged with the Music Director and the section leader, and no-one had talked to him, so whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t going to interfere with his rehearsals.

Still, he took the podium scowling, and left it scowling, having dragged his orchestra kicking and screaming through Jupiter, which was still so far from what he needed it to be. The strings were sloppy - sloppiness, from Phasma’s people; he could barely believe it and she didn’t look impressed either - and he chewed out the entire upper winds collectively and publicly for a similar lack of crispness. Conductors, he told himself, were allowed to rant. It was practically expected. And the forest of new sectionals that had magically sprung up on the rehearsal schedule didn’t make anyone very happy, but perhaps they should have practised harder and not left it up to him to tell them to buckle down.

He wasn’t going to allow disorder, not now and not ever. Twenty violins could sound like one violin - it was only a matter of how much they cared to do it. There was no harm in letting them know he knew that.

Friday’s rehearsal, no-one talked to him at all. Which was fine. They didn’t have to love him every day - they didn’t have to love him any day. But they did have to listen to him, and they did that better when they were slightly terrified of him. He’d been too nice, too human, too willing to accept their mistakes when they should have been corrected right away. Well, lesson learned. It only led to more mistakes.

He was still simmering about it on Friday night when Ren called.

Ren, for a minor miracle, listened as he paced in circles on the carpet - he wasn’t even pretending he could sleep tonight - and talked with his hands making grasping claws at the empty air. It wasn’t until Hux had run himself out of steam that Ren said, fairly gently for him, “Have you actually talked to any of them? I mean, not yelled, and not stared at them until they run away or give up their secrets.”

“No,” Hux said. “I told you. If Phasma knew, she’d have talked to me already, and I don’t even know who else I’d talk to about it.”

“I think I do,” Ren said. “That clarinettist of yours. He’s friends with everybody, isn’t he?”

“Mitaka?” It was an idea. “I suppose he is, yes. But how do you know that?”

Ren chuckled. “You don’t get far in this business being as abrasive and demanding as Kylo Ren is without being very good at reading people, very quickly, so you can pick out the ones who won’t punch you when you tell them to get you a coffee. I spent two weeks with your orchestra and I bet I know more about them than you do.”

Hux made an unconvinced face, as though Ren could see it. Although it was probably a blessing he couldn’t. “That seems unlikely.”

“Nah,” Ren said smugly. “I’m telling you. He knows everyone’s secrets, and he’s got a hot-teacher crush on you, and if you get him alone and be - that thing you do where you’re just a little bit I’m not mad I’m just disappointed - and once he starts to crumble, add an edge of you’re my only hope - he will tell you everything.”

“Mitaka has - a crush on me?” Hux’s eyebrows hurt from being so tightly drawn together.

“Wow. What’s it like, living in a bubble?” Ren said. “Of course he does. I knew that from the second I first told him to go get you and he bristled at me like how dare you disrespect Maestro. And he pulls your pigtails all the time, which means it’s not just a respect thing.”

This was information Hux didn’t know what to do with, especially the image of him having pigtails for Mitaka to tug on, but he filed it away anyhow. “Well, maybe I’ll talk to him on Monday.”

“Just don’t break him,” Ren laughed. “He’ll be easy, he’s so soft and squeaky.”

Mikhail Vaderensky,” Hux said warningly. “Stop analysing the people I work with in terms of their suitability as prey.”

Ren made lip-smacking noises at the phone, then picked out a couple of bars of Peter and the Wolf on the piano, still laughing.

For all that the idea had been phrased ridiculously, though, it was sound, and on Monday, after another brutal rehearsal, he closed the see-you-on-Wednesday-fuck-up-less-next-time speech with “And Mitaka, if you could see me in my dressing room, please.”

The little clarinettist went a bit white, but nodded. Hux stalked off the stage and settled in to wait for him, leaning back in his armchair, hands steepled on his knee.

“Come in,” he said to the cautious knock, when it came.

Mitaka had his case and his jacket, ready to bolt. Hux gave him the suggestion of a smile, keeping Ren’s comments in mind. “Shut the door.”

“This isn’t disciplinary,” he said, as Mitaka did, and turned back to him. “But I am rather unhappy.”

“Oh?” Mitaka said, and Hux thought, soft and squeaky, and then no.

“Well, I’d always thought we had a good working relationship.” He leaned forward. “Don’t we?”

Mitaka swallowed visibly, and Hux reminded himself not to enjoy this too much. “I think we do, Maestro.”

“Good,” he said, “good. So why hasn’t anyone told me what’s going on in my orchestra?”

That was the pounce, and Mitaka flinched. “I’m not sure what you mean, Maestro,” he said evasively. He was looking off to the side, though, not at Hux.

“That disappoints me, Doph,” Hux said levelly. “It really does.”

Mitaka tried to hold out, tried to actually look at Hux, and then just as Ren had predicted, he broke: “Oh God,” he said, putting his hand up to his flaming cheeks. “I didn’t want to tell you. I wasn’t going to, it didn’t matter -”

What doesn’t matter?” A second longer, and he’d have him.

“I didn’t take the job,” Mitaka said desperately. “Yes, I did the audition, I think a few people did, I just wanted to know what it would be like, but - I was never going to take the job, Maestro, really.”

Hux blinked at him, hard. He felt as though he’d been slapped. “What audition,” he said through his teeth.

“You… don’t know. You don’t know. Oh my God.” Now Mitaka looked like Hux felt. “Snoke called me three weeks ago and offered me a video audition for the National Orchestra of Belgium. Said he had some vacancies and wanted to offer them to known quantities, people he trusted.” He blushed harder, and shook his head. “I think most of the section leaders got asked, but - he said he’d told the board, and I just assumed Phasma would have told you.”

“Why would she have told me, did you tell her?” He felt dizzy.

Mitaka twisted his hands on the handle of his clarinet case. “I didn’t have to. She was the first one he called.”

There was a ringing in his ears. “Who else?”

He thought Mitaka might be about to cry. “That I know of? Tarkin, Netal, Dunmilt, Datoo, Hosphel, Yaanda, Rodinon. I don’t know if Mandetat did it. Thanisson and Phasma turned him down flat. Unamo said yes but then backed out of the audition.” He gulped. “He offered me the job. I think everyone who did the auditions got the offer, although I don’t know if anyone took it. And it was a lot of money, a lot more than EOS.”

“Of course it was,” Hux said dully. “I’m surprised you didn’t take it.”

“I like it here,” Mitaka said; the naked sincerity in his voice hurt.

“Do you?” Hux propped his forehead on his hand, and looked bleakly up at Mitaka. “I’m glad.”

Mitaka took a step forward, and then back again, as though he couldn’t decide if it was safe to get any closer to Hux. “I’m sorry, Maestro. I - I’ll work on that bit in Jupiter.”

It was meant as an olive branch, he supposed. “Thank you, Mitaka. That... will be all.”

“Goodnight, Maestro,” Mitaka said, and slipped out into the corridor as though he was afraid someone would see him.

Hux sat there for a long time, curled up against the back of the armchair, feeling hollow and alone.

That night, for the first time ever, he’d let one of Ren’s calls go to voicemail. But he didn’t know what to say, or even how to phrase it. Besides, Ren had talked of nearly nothing but Snoke since the job offer had come through, and in increasingly glowing terms; he was as likely as not to be full of new stories tonight, and Hux simply couldn’t take it.

He knew he needed to talk to Phasma, first; she’d have the whole story, she’d know something that would make it all seem better that his former boss and current rival was trying to hire away all his best players. It couldn’t possibly be as personal as it felt. But he couldn’t make himself call her, either, for all that he tried to remind himself of everything they’d been through together since first year uni.

She hadn’t told him. None of them had.

It sat in his stomach like a rock, cold and painful and immovable no matter how he tried to distract himself from it. His oldest friend and half his orchestra, and the man he spent hours on the phone with instead of sleeping, were all somehow not quite on his side; and if they were all he had, and he couldn't be completely sure of any of them, did he in fact have anyone?

And so it was a bitter, waspish and underslept Hux who took the podium on Wednesday, and raked them all with a glare.

“I hope,” he said, his consonants like knives, “that all of you have been able to devote some time to working on this repertoire. Now that you no longer have auditions distracting you.” A rustle of whispers; he ignored them. “And of course I am certain that you all did very well - you're a very fine bunch when you put your minds to it - nor do I particularly think I can convince you to stay if you feel the opportunities will be better elsewhere. But for God’s sake, we have a show in one month’s time, and our guest musicians will be here in a week. At least do me the courtesy of being present while you are still here.”

Phasma was looking at him the way he rather imagined she would look at a snarling, snapping Doberman that up until very recently had been a beloved family pet.

He didn’t care, he didn’t care. “And if any of you would like to know, yes, I am quite surprised. Having just been given this orchestra, I was not particularly expecting half of it to fall away from underneath me without warning. But business, as they say, is business.” He squared up his shoulders and flipped his score open. “Neptune, please.”

At the break, he hopped straight down off the edge of the stage and put some distance between himself and the seventy musicians on the stage - most of them, anyhow. Phasma was too close behind, and she caught up with him just as he cleared the theatre doors.

“He told me,” she said, “that the board had already been notified, and that they were going to tell you. And I -” She drew level with him, and grabbed him by the shoulder. She was furious, and awe-inducing with it, and he still didn’t care. “I told the man who gave me my career, one of the most powerful men I know, that I wanted nothing to do with it. That I, and probably most of your section leaders, would follow you into hell.” She shook her head at him, with an exasperated hiss. “Now half of them are probably reconsidering that job offer. He gave us all until the first of August to decide. We were all going to stay. That’s why I didn’t tell you. Because nothing was going to happen.” She grabbed both his shoulders, yanked him forward so her face was inches from his. “You do not deserve what I am going to do for you, after that display, but I have also heard about Snoke’s next concert programme and am going to assume that your tender little feelings are hurt because you think he’s trying to buy everyone you love. So I will plead insanity on your behalf to your poor traumatised and insulted orchestra, although I cannot guarantee it will work, and then I will run the rest of rehearsal, and you are going to go and take a bloody walk and not come back here today.”

“Phasma -” He wanted to bite back, to tell her she was completely wrong, and most especially about Ren, but she looked at him and he fell silent.

“You can be as unprofessional as you like to me,” she said, “because I am your oldest friend. Because you have held my head, and I have fixed your trousers. But they deserve better.

She dropped his shoulders, and he staggered back a step. “Go think about this, and get some fucking sleep,” she said. “And call Ren. Don’t talk to me until you have. I will see you on Friday.”

He wanted to ask if he could at least retrieve his scores and his baton, but something in the set of her shoulders warned him not to, that there was nothing he could say to her, or any of them, right now that wouldn't make it worse.

She stormed back in and the theatre doors shut behind her; he stood in the lobby, alone, bereft of purpose.

He thought about sneaking silently up to the balcony, watching the discussion so he’d finally have first-hand information, and at least sort of being where he was supposed to be. But the strength of that temptation alone was enough to tell him that it was a terrible idea, even had he not known that crossing Phasma was the worst possible one.

He had been stupid. Even if asking had seemed to be the hardest thing in the world, even if knowing had left him crushed and vindictive, it was still beneath him to take it out on his people. If Phasma was telling him the truth - and she always had - they weren't at fault: it was Snoke, and whatever scheme he had up his sleeve. Hux was willing to bet he was lying about having informed the board.

It felt so wrong to let himself out the front of the theatre, to slink away with his head down, hoping none of his musicians had stepped out for a smoke.

But since nothing seemed to make the slightest dent in the hollow pit in his chest, he did what had served him well many times in the past: he followed Phasma's instructions.

Not to the letter. The walk turned into a run; once he got going it was like he couldn't move fast enough, like he was trying to outrun something that was inside of him and couldn't be left behind, and he ran until the burning edge of anxiety was buried under the simpler burn of not enough ribcage for the breath he needed.

He needed Kylo Ren's chest, he thought as he leaned against a shop wall and tried to get past the stitch. He needed Kylo Ren's legs, too, and maybe his reckless disregard for other people's negative opinions, and his effortless charisma that made him so enticing despite all his faults; he needed…

Without thinking about it, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and flicked open his messaging app, found the 1-646 number he still hadn't actually saved as a contact and typed quickly:

Can you talk?

It wasn't their usual time, and Ren was probably busy, and it would come to nothing, this sudden ability to acknowledge his problems would be gone by the time he called -

1-646: now?

He swallowed hard, tried to slow his breathing, and typed back, Yes.

His phone rang while he was still debating if this, too, had been a stupid idea. “What’s happening?” Ren said.

“I’m apparently a complete idiot,” Hux said tightly, “which I will thank you not to tell me you already knew, and I think I may have played right into a trap, but I don't even know that it is a trap, and…” He swallowed again. He’d run too far with no water, his mouth was dry. “I seem to have ruined everything. And I don't know why I wanted to talk to you - perhaps so I can ruin this too. It seems likely. Clean sweep and all that.”

“Jesus, calm down,” Ren said. “Where are you?”

He looked up at his surroundings. “About four streets from home. Phasma threw me out of my own rehearsal, I’ve been running, I didn't know what else to do.”

“Okay,” Ren said, and Hux could hear the shock in his voice, badly mastered but at least he was trying. “You can explain all of that to me in a second, but first you're going to go home. And while you do that I'm going to finish what I'm doing here, and tell you about my day, in which nothing particularly good or bad has happened.”

“All right,” Hux said, “just please, please don't mention Snoke, I shall throw myself into traffic.”

“Don't do that,” Ren said. “Instead, let me tell you how I discovered I have zero pairs of matching socks.”

It was a long, rambling, mostly pointless story, but Ren liked the sound of his own voice, and Hux clutched the phone to his ear as he jogged the four blocks back to his apartment, and tumbled into a sweaty heap at the kitchen table.

“... and so now I own three claw hammers,” Ren said. “I heard the door shut, does that mean you’ve successfully gotten home?”

“Yes,” Hux said, with his cheek pressed against the cool melamine surface.

“Good,” Ren said. “Now. Back up fifteen minutes for me, and explain about Phasma kicking you out? What on earth did you do?”

He took a deep breath, and let the whole wretched story spill out of him, as Ren made vague I’m-listening noises over the phone.

“So you see,” he concluded eventually, “all I could have done that I didn't do would have been to throw my baton at someone and insult their mother.”

“I could probably teach you how to get away with that,” Ren said, and Hux wondered why he had chosen the least helpful person on the face of the earth to talk to about standards of professional behaviour. “But it seems to me you have three problems, all of which you can solve. Most of which you can solve this week if you want to. First - you yelled at your underperforming musicians. Technically, you weren't wrong to do that, especially if they really were working on something else. Most conductors wouldn't put up with that. But you want to curry favour, because you think they'll all leave, I get that.” Ren sighed. “Even if I think you're wrong. So what you need to do is show up on Friday, and pretend like it never happened. Don't apologise, at least not until you’ve had a chance to gauge the mood in the room - a lot of people may actually take it to heart. Depends on how guilty they feel.”

“So I wait and see who says sorry first?”

“A nice game of Canadian Chicken,” Ren said, and laughed. “I think you're probably going to be fine. Don't let them boss you around. But if they're really angry, you’ll know it, and that's when you tell them at the end of the rehearsal that you had some personal shit going on, don't elaborate, and promise them it won't happen again. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has played for a grumpy conductor and been chewed on for something that wasn't really their fault. Don't underestimate their ability to compartmentalise.”

“I see,” Hux said dubiously.

“Trust me on this,” Ren said. “Come on, which of us has thrown more tantrums? Who's the expert here?”

“I suppose that's true.”

“You know it.” He could hear Ren’s smile. “Now. Problem 2: Phasma. This one you can solve on your own. She loves you, she’s just mad at you. Do something nice for her. You know what she likes.”

“I do owe her a dinner,” Hux said.

“There you go. And when you do it, you’re going to tell her about how you're solving Problem 3.”

“Which is?”

“The fact that you're barely sleeping,” Ren said calmly.

“I’m sleeping,” Hux protested.

“Not enough. I know what time it is there, you're always awake when I call, and the timestamps on your texts tell me the rest. So you're biting the heads off of people and seeing conspiracies in every corner, masterminded by the guy you still subconsciously think wants his job back - he doesn't, Hux, I promise. You just need to fucking relax.”

“Of course, why hadn't I thought of that, it's so simple,” Hux snapped.

“See?” Ren said. “Bitey. Stop it. You know exactly what I mean. Get to bed earlier, cut out coffee, cut in wine, jerk off -”

Ren,” Hux said, faintly scandalised now on top of the irritation.

“I can help,” Ren purred. “If you want.”

He gritted his teeth. “I don’t. I’m not about to lie here pretending it’s your hand and not mine, how utterly suicidally sad.”

“Well, then,” Ren said. Hux could tell he was trying not to laugh. “You can do some fucking yoga. I hear that’s great. Me, I go lift weights for a few hours until my whole body hurts, come home, take a bath, listen to some nice music, and I sleep like a sedated rock. Or… I jerk off. And sometimes I pretend. There’s actually nothing wrong with that, you might like it if you tried it.”

“I can’t.” He squeezed his eyes shut so hard he saw stars. The idea was absolutely impossible to contemplate; no matter how much he might have enjoyed it were Ren actually there, nothing could be worse than having to imagine he was, to somehow delude himself into thinking the whole proceeding was less sordid than it really was. “I’ll go running. I ought to run more.”

“Fine,” Ren said, but oh, how Hux wished he’d stop sounding like he was humouring a cranky child. “But one thing - you’re gonna go to bed early for the next while, okay?”

“That seems a counterproductive request from the man who calls me after midnight to talk about nothing,” Hux said.

“Well, I leave for Brussels on Friday,” Ren said. “And then I have to get a local SIM, and it’ll be a couple of our usual days where I can’t call you. And I’ll be on the other side of your timezone, and I’m not staying up late just to call you in the middle of the night. So you might as well sleep.”

The idea didn’t hold much appeal. “So tonight’s our last late night for a while,” he said.

“Will you still want to talk to me tonight?” Ren said, surprised.

“You know, the only good thing about the middle of the night is when my phone rings,” Hux mused.

“Most people don’t look forward to phone calls in the middle of the night.”

“No,” Hux said. “Most people don’t.”

“Go take a nap, loser,” Ren said fondly. “Do it for me. You have to be about dead on your feet after all that. I’ll let you stay up til midnight if you go have a nap.”

“I don’t nap,” Hux protested.

“Today you do,” Ren said implacably. “Twenty minutes, minimum. Go. I’ll call you later.”

He hung up on Hux before he could argue any further, which was an infuriatingly good tactic and Hux was annoyed he hadn’t thought of it himself.

He peeled himself off the table, and contemplated the creases and pressure-blotches on his arms with distaste.

The worst part of it was, Ren was right. With the flashfire of his anger cooled, there was nothing left to power him, and it had been so long since he had slept well, or long enough. He felt as though his bones had been filled with lead, and his muscles replaced with wet string.

He was too sweaty to be permitted on his clean sheets, so he hurried himself through a shower that was more of a vague, half-hearted sluicing-off. And then he keeled over onto the mattress like someone had felled him.

It was past dinner-time when he woke, disoriented and thirsty. A glass of water sorted the latter problem, but he wasn’t quite hungry and he wasn’t quite sleepy and he wasn’t quite… all right. He pulled his phone off the charger and hesitated over Phasma’s number for a long time before he put his thumb down on it.

“Hux,” she said when she picked up. She didn’t sound like she was in any kind of mood to cheer him up. “Did you talk to Ren?”

“I did,” he said. “And I slept, and I’ve thought, and please don’t kill me.”

That got a little laugh out of her, which felt like someone had loosened off the vise around his chest.

“Phasma, I’m an idiot and a cad, and I don’t deserve you; I think you should know that Ren recommended that I do something nice for you, and if that man thinks I’ve been badly behaved, then I really need to apologise.” Hux took a deep breath. “Please come out for dinner with me tomorrow. I owe you a dinner anyhow, let me make it up to you?”

“I’m not sure I should let you get off that easily,” Phasma said. “But I will let you ransom back your baton and your scores.”

“That’s fair.” Hux dropped onto the sofa. “Dare I ask how the rest of rehearsal went?”

“You know, I don’t think you need to talk to me about that, Hux.” She sounded frustrated. “What I need to hear from you right now is that you understand that I’m on your side. Not plotting against you, not hiding things from you - I need you to acknowledge in plain English that you know I am doing my best for you. Because it really hurt, finding out you could believe otherwise.”

He pulled one foot up onto the sofa, clutched at his ankle, and said, “Of course I know that.”

“Say it, then. Tell me what you really think.”

“I know you’re doing your best for me,” Hux repeated. It did feel true. “And I know you’re on my side. And I know I’m beastly when I’m worried about something.”

“You worry too much. And yes, it does make you awful, and it always has done.” Phasma sighed. “I wish you would find some better way of dealing with it than taking it out on me. But thank you for the apology.”

“Phasma, I…” He swallowed. “I don’t know what to do. About this whole situation, with… with Snoke, and with everyone, and with -”

“Ren,” she said, when he couldn’t.

“Yes. With Ren.” It was easier to say it after she had.

“You said you talked to him. So he knows how you feel, doesn’t he?”

That was a question he didn’t know how to answer. “About Snoke? I suppose. He thinks I’m overreacting.”

“Well you are,” she said calmly. “And if even he agrees with that, you need to relax.”

“He usually thinks I’m overreacting,” Hux said.

“And you usually are.” He thought she might be smiling. “I’m glad you’re still talking to him, though.”

He frowned at the air. “And what is that supposed to mean, pray tell? I thought you didn’t approve of him.”

“I don’t. But you do.” She paused, to let that point sink in. “So for your sake, and because he did come through in the end and do his job rather brilliantly, I will tolerate him. And frankly, you could use a few more friends, no matter where you find them.”

He picked at his trouser cuff, waiting for the words to line themselves up to be spoken. It took a while. “What if… Phasma, what if… what if he came back? Would you still tolerate him?”

“Oh. Is that likely?” He was sure there was a delicate blonde eyebrow raised.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know.”

“But you want him to.”

His throat hurt. “Yes. Yes, I… I think I do.”

“Well. I’ll reserve judgement until he does.” The words were sharpish, but her tone was warmer. “Hux, do me one favour - if he does come back, tell him how you feel. And not just about Snoke.”

“All right,” he said, although it wasn’t, it wasn’t at all. That was probably the worst thing he could do. Ren didn’t want him to spill all these half-formed feelings all over him; if he couldn’t even make words out of them to his oldest friend, what on earth would convince him to try it with the object of his fixation?

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Phasma said. “Seven. And this doesn’t count as the dinner you owe me. This is a whole new reason I deserve a steak.”

The leftover fog of the nap still clung to him, wrapped his ankles and tripped him when he tried to move quickly or think deeply. Bed was what he needed, as unlike him as it was to sleep so soon, or at all before midnight - maybe all the late nights were finally catching up with him. But if he could sleep, there was no reason not to. And Ren’s phone call would certainly wake him.

----

He came awake all at once, for no reason, to the mild grey light of very early morning. His breath caught, and he lunged for his phone.

Two missed calls - Ren. Hell.

One text message - the automated service that told him he had one new voicemail.

He thumbed the phone unlocked and dialled into his voicemail, skipping the pleasant computer voice with a hiss of frustration, until:

“Hey.” Ren sounded amused. “I guess you needed that nap, huh. At least I hope that’s why you’re not picking up. Look, I have to pack, and then sleep - my flight’s early. I guess… I’ll call you when I get my phone working again, okay? Just hang in there. Imagine me waving as my plane goes over your head.” A soft chuckle, and then: “Oh yeah. Maybe you don’t need it as much as I thought, but, uh, check your email. Um. I’ll call you. Soon. Yeah. Okay. Sweet dreams. Bye.”

Hux groaned, and dropped the phone on the mattress. He’d missed Ren, how could he have missed him? And it was ridiculous to want to play the voicemail back again, it served no purpose, he knew what it said. He just… he should have had an hour of Ren’s voice in his ear, of his stupid jokes and the way he laughed at them himself, and… he would have made Hux feel better, the music of him like Hux’s beloved Beethoven.

Now there was nothing but silence for days ahead - silence and whatever silly thing Ren had emailed. It was probably some video of dogs getting stuck in things again, or a cat that sounded like it was talking. Ren was fond of that sort of thing, which Hux found incongruous given the image he tried to project, but there it was: the impetuous, imperious, arrogant Kylo Ren liked animals, and that apparently extended to the ones on YouTube.

It wasn’t as though Hux would be able to fall back asleep, realistically. He might as well see what was so important that Ren had thought to send it to him.

His email app was too much white space, too bright; it hurt his eyes, and he squinted at the little screen until the letters resolved themselves into something he could read.

I know what you’re thinking. This is dumb. But I wanted to, and I hope it helps. - K

He scrolled down, expecting a video, or a link, or something - but there was an attachment, an mp3 file with a system-generated timestamp for a title. Recorded… hm. A bit before he’d called Hux.

The file took a few seconds to download, long enough that Hux started to regret it. What was he about to subject himself to?

But then, the click of the recording device being set down on a hard surface, and Ren’s voice, warm and close and smiling.

“Hey, uh. So. I was thinking about how you don’t sleep. Maybe I know how to fix that. Because, well, it’s you, right? I know you. And it’s the middle of the night here and someone’s probably going to call in a noise complaint, but. It’s you. So fuck ‘em.”

Hux stared at his phone in increasing terror.

And then the creak of the piano bench, and a breath.

Three slow, simple pairs of notes, two close chords an octave apart and the third pair filling in the open chord - he knew immediately what he was hearing. Debussy. Clair de lune.

He pressed his palms over his eyes, as if that would shut anything out. As if there was some way he could filter the input so that he didn’t have to try to process that Ren was playing Debussy - for him, specifically because he knew Hux found Debussy calming - specifically because he wanted Hux to feel calm; and moreover, that Ren was playing with the most sensitive touch, the music ebbing and flowing, rippling in and out like moonlight on seawater, a masterful performance. For no other audience but Hux.

It’s you. So fuck ‘em. It rang in his ears, a sweet and heartfelt defiance, until he lost the music entirely.

Deep in the core of him, certainty: if Kylo Ren were ever to express love in words, that would probably be how. But could he? Would he? Was he? Or was this just dangerously wishful thinking?

It had been meant to calm him, to reassure him, and wasn’t that painfully funny when all he could do was clutch at his phone, too hard, and feel the vibrations of the notes in his chest alongside the quivering of his stomach.

Over and over he played it, without really listening, until the sun slanted expectantly through his blinds and it was truly morning.

He wasn’t ready to face the day, but it wouldn’t wait until he was. So he made himself get up, and get dressed, and make the coffee just as if it were a normal morning and he felt fine. He did feel fine; nothing was wrong with him, nothing, and it would be entirely unforgivable to loll about as though he was in some way incapable of behaving like an adult, merely because he’d gone twitterpated over some pianist. He had work to do.

----

He ate, but still felt starved; he slept, but still felt tired; he worked, but still felt unprepared.

The days went on, nonetheless. Rehearsals were ticked off the calendar, musicians spoken to and extra bits and pieces arranged. He supposed he should have felt more gratified than astonished that Ren’s advice had worked and there had been very limited fallout from his loss of temper, but neither feeling held on for very long anyway, not against the sucking apathy that came from knowing that he had no way of telling Ren about it, not until he called.

Amongst all of that, the board sent him a mild email stating that they would exercise their contract options to the fullest extent, due to “continuing negotiations”, which he knew meant that they hadn’t decided what he was worth to them yet. It didn’t feel like a surprise, to have his career in limbo along with everything else, but he couldn’t get as far as angry even for that. He’d have a job. That mattered more than what they paid him, surely. It was only a few weeks more of not knowing.

He felt almost as though he hadn’t noticed that a week had gone by. Of course he had, but every day ended with him lying on his bed, trying to strain out deeper meaning from five minutes of Debussy and thirty seconds of speech, and the next day would begin with him feeling no wiser and no better, and it was all the same and all very much too much. Best not to think about it, at any rate, and he didn’t; but he felt less and less comfortable putting his phone down, the memory of that missed call notification taunting him, and he had broken the habit of a lifetime and tucked his phone into his back pocket during Monday’s rehearsal.

It hadn’t rung, of course, and he didn’t know why he was so sure that every time he walked away from the handset, or muted it so he could sleep, he would come back to it to find that Ren had called, and Hux had missed him. But he didn’t call, not early nor late.

Wednesday night he had a section leader meeting after rehearsal, the last chance for his various deputies to bring him concerns before the guest musicians began arriving and everything got exponentially more complicated. The phone (that hadn’t rung, that wouldn’t ring) was an uncomfortable shape wedged against his hipbone, unyielding and impossible to disregard, digging into his flesh every time he shifted in his chair.

Datoo complained about the guest celesta player for a full ten minutes, taking every one of Hux’s increasingly weary mm-hmm noises as an invitation to continue. The complaints would have been pointless anyway, frankly; he already knew Datoo didn’t like Sloane, and he’d known that when he hired her. In fact, he’d called every other celesta specialist he knew or knew of in the area, but there were a lot of other concerts on the same night as theirs and the pickings had been slim if Hux didn’t want to pay top dollar to fly someone in from Europe, which he most certainly did not. Sloane was a perfectly adequate keyboardist and an excellent celesta player, and she would do just fine even if her strong personality didn’t suit Datoo. Normally he might have given Datoo’s complaints slightly more attention, but tonight he… just didn’t care. He couldn’t make himself care. Everything felt far too difficult, almost too difficult to even pretend that it wasn’t.

And then there was a sudden bolt of lightning from his hip all the way down his leg - the vibration of his phone, a static shock that sent him leaping from his chair, with a yelp he couldn’t entirely stifle.

“Sorry, sorry, got to take this.” The words tripped him up as much as the dead leg, but he fumbled his phone out of his pocket and made it out to the corridor without falling on his face.

He didn’t know the number on the screen. “Hello?” he said, rather breathlessly; there was nothing for it.

“Oh my God, Hux, you would not believe what I’ve been through,” said Ren, and Hux wrapped both hands around the phone to hold it steady against the shiver of relief that wracked his whole body.

“You bastard,” he said, trying to snap out the consonants to cover how his voice trembled. “Where were you? I was beginning to think you were dead.”

“A less resilient man would’ve been.” Ren sighed. “I should have listened to you about the rehearsals. Snoke changed the schedule and I’ve barely been out from in front of the piano all week. And it’s just too fucking hard to get a SIM card working in my phone, apparently, so I’ve got this shitty little burner phone that barely loads my emails, and even that took days to sort out. This is the first time since I landed that I’ve had two seconds to rub together and a phone that worked.”

“Is he working you very hard?” It was a stupid question, but… anything to keep him talking.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Ren said, and chuckled, and Hux gave up on his knees and slid down the wall to sit on the floor. “But it’s a far cry from your schedule. Or even the one on the original contract. But it’s weird - I feel like, for all that I’m exhausted and sore and annoyed at his nitpicking, every rehearsal he’s making me a little bit better.”

All at once the fizzy shivers left him. “Is he.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to be when he’s done with me,” Ren said thoughtfully. “Maybe something entirely new. It’s like he’s sharpening me. It’s… kind of exciting.”

“So you’re enjoying it, then.” He tried to inject some pleasantness into his tone.

“Don’t be like that,” Ren said, mild reproof and a smile; “I can tell exactly what face you’re making right now, and you should stop it. Look, you’re mad at me because I didn’t call, I know that. But I would’ve if I could’ve. And he’s just different, his style is different, you let me be me and he wants me to shape up to what he expects instead; it’s not about whether I like him as a conductor better than I like you.”

“I’m not trying to suggest anything of the sort.” Irritation was creeping past his best efforts to stop it. “It’s just…”

“I know,” Ren said gently. “Relax. Oh, hey, speaking of relaxing, did you get my email? Before I left?”

He swallowed. “I did,” he said, and didn’t entirely recognise his own voice.

“Did it work?”

The urge to lie politely was so deeply ingrained, but this was Ren, and he couldn’t stop the words. “I’m just… there’s something wrong with me.”

“Well I know that,” Ren said, and laughed. “I thought you might at least like it, though. Something to keep you company.”

I can’t sleep for missing you, I can’t think for missing you, I can’t hear music over my heartbeat when it’s you at the keys, fuck - “I did. I did like it. It was… really beautiful.”

“You know,” Ren said quietly. “If you wanted to. Only if you want to, you don’t have to or anything, but. I don’t know exactly when I can call you. I mean. I’ll try. I just don’t know. But. Would you ever think about doing one for me?”

“Oh God.” Just the thought set his cheeks aflame. “Why would you even want that? How ridiculous, I’m not - you’ve heard me, I’m a schoolchild compared to what you can do.”

“I like how you play,” Ren said, “but whatever. Don’t worry about it.”

He’d given the wrong answer. He knew it. “No, I can - I can try, but - I don’t even have a piano, I’d have to find one -”

“I said don’t worry about it.” There was a finality in Ren’s tone. “It was just a dumb idea. It’s okay. Look, I should go.”

No, he thought.

“I suppose you must be tired,” he said, instead.

“I am,” Ren said. “I’ll call you when I can, all right?”

“Of course,” Hux said. “Soon, I hope.”

And that was probably too much, but Ren sounded a little bit happier when he said, “If I can. It may be this time next week, though. Sweet dreams.”

“You too,” said Hux, “and play well.”

“I always do.” He was laughing softly as he hung up.

Hux dropped the phone into his lap and buried his hands in his hair.

----

He was completely sunk. He had guest musicians arriving left right and centre, he had a thirty-voice women’s choir and their rather unpleasant director clamouring for rehearsal space that didn’t exist and time that couldn’t be managed, and he had the board watching his every move to see exactly what he did with all this chaos. And all he could think about was who he might know who owned a nice piano that they would let him play.

It was a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Nobody in EOS had anything much better than an old upright stashed in a spare room. Of course he knew that an upright was all Ren had had, that it wasn’t fancy even if it was nicely in tune; but that didn’t matter as much when it was Kylo Ren playing it. He could have bashed something out on a toy piano or the most wretched of Roland synths; it could have been Heart and Soul and somehow it would still have sounded magnificent.

No, Hux needed something that would help him, that would compensate for his own deficiencies of technique at least a little bit, the way the Steinway had done. There just didn’t seem to be anything available.

But he had to find a solution. At last, at last Ren had asked him for something, and yes, he’d fucked things up by saying no, but he could fix it - he could. He just had to make the recording, and surprise Ren with it, which he could absolutely do. It was even… romantic. That was romantic, wasn’t it? Hux was fairly sure. And it had to be done, and done soon, or he’d miss the window wherein he could fix the way Ren had sounded when he’d said “don’t worry about it”. (He hadn’t called. But he’d said he wouldn’t be able to, hadn’t he, so that was forcibly all right, whether or not Hux liked it.)

All weekend he searched, to no avail; short of renting a hall that owned a piano, which he didn’t have the funds to do, he came up with nothing.

He could hear time passing, the tick of a cosmic clock over his shoulder: think, think, think, as he grew increasingly desperate.

There was really only one answer, in the end, and although it was one he’d been hoping with all his heart to avoid, it had to be done. His dignity would be forfeit regardless, it was only a question of how much.

Monday afternoon’s rehearsal was a dirty affair, up to his elbows in badly integrated guests and music that hadn’t jostled itself into its proper form yet. It didn’t help his state of mind at all. But that, too, would have to be fine, because there was no alternative.

The stage manager was bribed easily enough, and used to Hux’s whims. She let him linger as the hordes packed up and left, and then muttered something about paperwork she had to do in the office, and left him alone on stage, with his score satchel and a lump in his throat.

He’d walked himself through the steps of this half a dozen times, and put all the pieces of the plan together in the morning, but his hands still shook as he pulled his flute case from the bottom of his satchel.

A pale green book, slim, with the corners softened and frayed by years of being dragged around in a bookbag, hid behind his score for the Planets. It fell open easily to the two pages he wanted; he remembered many years ago gently stepping on the book for a few minutes until it laid flat without argument.

It was just him, alone in the dimly lit theatre with his phone set to record. He could almost tell himself he was alone in the world. He could be calm - nobody would hear him, nobody ever had to know he was here, perched on the edge of Phasma’s chair and staring at a piece he’d last polished to performance standard when he was eighteen.

He’d debated whether or not it was the right one, but… he didn’t have an accompanist, nor did he want to involve anyone in this. And after all, Debussy was how they talked to one another.

Eighteen-year-old Hux hadn’t understood Syrinx. Not as more than the demanding technical exercise that it undoubtedly was, anyhow. He’d aped his teacher’s sinuous articulations, the ripples and gracenotes, well enough that he’d won applause and scored well in his examinations, but he hadn’t known enough then to put them in for himself.

The piece he played now was all the same notes it had always been, all five torturous flats and not half enough places to breathe. But somehow, instead of just a complicated series of gymnastics, it was a dance: one person, barefoot in a glade full of leaves. It was hips and open hands, it was a perfectly pointed foot and that way of looking as though you longed for a partner who might never come. He knew so much more about that feeling now than he ever had then, and he cracked himself open and let it pour out and into the music.

This was Hux, alone, reaching out to Ren - with no idea if he would reach back, or if there was nothing watching him from beyond the edges of the glade.

And when he let go of the last low D-flat, let it hang in the air like an upturned palm, it was hard to remember how to breathe.

He stopped the recording, and sent it to his email app; didn’t think about it before he was filling in Ren’s email, and watched himself type:

Kylo -

This is for you.

I’ve been a ridiculous jerk, and I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me. It’s only that I don’t seem to know my own mind, not quickly, not as quickly as you do. I think… we need to talk.

But perhaps the music gives me away. Somehow it always does.

H

Was that enough? Was it too much? He hit send before he could second-guess himself.

There would be no response that night, he didn’t think; not with the timezones, and not with Ren’s schedule. So he put it resolutely out of his mind, tucked the phone into his pocket, and set to breaking down and cleaning the flute.

When there was no message in the morning, he sighed, and got on with the day.

When there was no message by Wednesday morning, the sigh was deeper, and he refreshed his inbox, just in case by some malice it had hidden itself. It had not.

But this was Wednesday, after all, and Ren had called him last Wednesday. He’d probably call that night.

He didn’t call that night; Hux drank an entire bottle of wine, alone at his kitchen table, followed it with three glasses of water because he was incapable of having fun, and put himself to bed without drunk dialling anyone.

By Thursday afternoon the headache had let him be. But there was still no message.

Perhaps there wouldn’t be one. Perhaps he’d done too little, too late; or maybe it had been too much, too late; or maybe he’d just totally misinterpreted everything Ren had said and done in the last two months.

It had only been two months. Ten weeks. Ten weeks since he’d snuck out of Ren’s hotel room; ten weeks since anyone had kissed him. Ten weeks, and he’d been ready, as ready as he’d ever be, to tell Ren that he was in love with him.

How blindingly stupid.

Ren wanted to fuck him, yes. Hux could substantiate that, and he knew he wasn’t too bad in bed. But Ren didn’t love him. Of course he didn’t. He was just being friendly, he was enjoying having someone to spoil a little; one certainly didn’t have to be in love for that.

No, this was all Hux’s own fault - he’d talked himself into this foolishness, into really feeling it when he could have simply been reasonable about it.

He wasn’t good at people. He was good at music, specifically the bit with waving the stick, and that was what he should have stuck to, not ever getting involved with anyone like Kylo Ren, no matter how tempting they were, and no matter how large and deft their hands.

Thursday night he looked at the wine and didn’t open it, but he turned his phone off. It wouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter. He tossed the phone into his score satchel and went to bed early.

At 2am he threw himself out of bed, frantic with insomnia and despair, and pawed through the satchel until the phone came to light. The two minutes it took to boot and load his email were two years.

There was no message.

He snarled like a wounded animal, turned it back off, and went to sleep with a pillow pressed over his face, hiding his bared teeth, half-hoping he’d smother.

Friday was clear and cold, and so was he; his focus became brutally sharpened as he forced it away from all of the things he couldn’t think about (because they were over, it was over, it had to be over) and onto the musicians crammed onto the stage.

The programme was, he had to admit, getting there. His own people had benefited from finally being able to hear all of the parts that had previously been missing, and he could feel the music starting to lock into itself, like a slowly tightening set of screws. Even for him, it was easier, and it should have relaxed him, to be able to gesture and have someone actually respond; but Hux was not in the mood to be relaxed.

They were taking apart On the trail, the movement of the Grand Canyon that featured the giant and heretofore absent celesta solo, and which had been inadequately rehearsed because what was the point when half the music was missing, when his phone buzzed in his back pocket. He gritted his teeth and ignored it. Whoever it was, they would have to wait. He would never have tolerated any of his musicians taking a call in the middle of rehearsal unless there was a genuine emergency, and he certainly wasn’t about to stop the first moderately successful run-through they’d had, even if it was terribly difficult to keep his conducting pattern steady with the brick in his pocket buzzing out of synch. It would stop, any minute now.

Any minute.

God, would it never -

With his left hand, he reached back across for it, pulled it free, and dropped it unceremoniously at his feet without missing or misplacing a beat. There was a scattered burst of laughter from half a dozen people, and he favoured them all with a particularly chilly glare, but said nothing.

Face up, next to his shoe, the phone fell silent.

Ten minutes later, it went off again, and he spared exactly enough time to look down and see that it was the country code for Belgium before he kicked the phone smartly with the toe of his loafer and sent it skidding off the podium, caroming rather neatly into his satchel - where it belonged.

He hadn’t called for ten days, and he picked the most inconvenient possible time when he did - how typical, how bloody typical, and did Ren really expect him to jump every time he snapped his fingers? Of course he did. Never mind that last time, Hux had done exactly that, and wasn’t it mortifying to consider what his section leaders had probably thought of that. He certainly wouldn’t do it in front of the entire orchestra.

He might have thought about returning the call at the break, but there were so many people who needed to talk to him and there simply wasn’t time to consider whether, in fact, he wanted to or not. And then there might have been time after rehearsal, but Phasma wanted to talk about the next show, and asked about his contract, and that ended up turning into a late and informal dinner. The subject of Kylo Ren was not brought up. He suspected she’d seen the number come up on his phone too, but he wasn’t going to open that door if she wasn’t.

At least she’d forgiven him. Whether or not it was because she felt sorry for him did not bear thinking about.

But either way, when he got home it was late, and he was tired on every level, and he knew Ren wouldn’t be awake. It was too dangerous to call him until Hux had decided for himself what he actually felt - whether the insult of being left in limbo was worse than not having him at all; whether it was that Ren hadn’t responded, or hadn’t wanted to; whether Hux was more afraid of knowing, or of never knowing. The phone could stay in the satchel.

It didn’t ring again until nearly noon the next day, and much as he wanted to leave Ren hanging and show him what it was like, Hux couldn’t come up with a good reason not to answer it in time.

“Hello?” he said, as though he didn’t know who was on the other end.

“I’m so tired,” Ren groaned. “I haven’t practiced this much since Juilliard. I don’t even think I practiced this much at Juilliard. He’s a fucking terror and I want to kneel at his feet.”

Hux swallowed down something that felt terribly sharp around the edges. “What’s he doing to you?”

Remaking me.” Ren sounded awestruck. “I thought he was nuts at first, but - I’m so much better, Hux, I can almost do what he says I can - I can almost play the way he says I can play. It’s like he looked at me and saw me for who I could actually be. I sound like my grandfather.”

“That must be… really something,” Hux said, rather inadequately.

“You have no idea,” Ren enthused. “All this training - I didn’t even know he knew so much about piano, did you? Because you never said anything about it. But he knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s got me running Hanon exercises and scale studies blindfolded with a metronome on 180, he’s got me doing speed-runs and slow runs and everything in between, I’ve beaten these concertos so far into my bones that I think if I died tomorrow my corpse could do the show… I don’t even know, man, it’s. It’s.” His voice went soft, vulnerable, and Hux felt ill, nauseated and cold in equal measures. “It’s more than I could ever have imagined. He’s putting so much time and effort into me, nobody’s ever cared this much about me before. I think he might actually be my hero.”

Nobody’s ever - fuck him. Fuck him. So it meant nothing if Hux had liked him - loved him, even - just the way he was. No; Snoke was his hero, Snoke was his champion, and Hux had lost the game before he’d even made a move.

He couldn’t ask now what Ren had made of the email - but if it was less important to Ren than going on about his amazing new mentor, it was quite sickeningly clear to Hux anyhow.

He’d been wrong. He’d been so very, very wrong. Deluded, even. Led into foolish assumptions justified by nothing more than wanting it to be so, as though that would magically make it happen.

“But anyway,” Ren said, “I can’t really think about it for another two weeks, but I had this idea. I was already going to hang around in Europe for a little, look at some places so when Snoke debuts me I have a home base. Because it’s happening, and I’ll need one. But what if, on my way back, I get Darla to change my flights so I’m routing through Heathrow, or Gatwick, or something, and I hop on a puddlejumper and come see you for a sleepover?”

His tone was so light, so… so mocking. Hux squeezed his eyes shut. A sodding sleepover. That was all he was worth. Because Ren could just fly in, have him over the kitchen table, and let him go. Fuck him.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, actually,” he said, as clinically as he could manage.

There was a long pause on the other end.

“Sorry, you... don’t want to?” Ren said slowly. “Did I hear you right?”

“You heard me.” That was rougher and less clinical; he was losing his steel too fast, tasting the heartbreak of nobody’s ever cared this much about me like acid in his mouth, and it burned him, corroded him away to nothing.

“I don’t understand. I don’t… I just don’t get it.” Ren’s voice rose. “Explain to me - you don’t want to have phone sex, you don’t want to sext me, you don’t want to fuck me when I can actually be there - what the fuck, Hux. I thought… you don’t even want to see me?” A sharp breath. “Hang on, this is - fuck, this is about Snoke, isn’t it? You can’t get past the fact that he’s making my dreams come true.”

“It’s not,” Hux gritted out, but Ren cut him off.

“I can’t believe this. I can’t fucking believe you. I take back everything I said to you. Fucking hell, you can’t even stand to be happy for me. You’d rather not see me than try and pretend you are - do you actually care about me at all?”

He was so close to right, but so wrong, that it choked the air out of Hux. It was like trying to breathe with a foot on his throat. He couldn’t get a sound out, it hurt so badly.

“Huh,” Ren said, a bitter little sound of astonishment. “This is not how I imagined this would go. But okay. Have it your way. Maestro.”

And then the line clicked, and Hux flinched away from the beep of the hangup tone, a soulless electronic B-flat just south of concert pitch.

He made it to the bathroom before he was sick.

----

Once the worst was over, he hurried himself through a shower, bracingly cold and stinging, until he could tell himself he was only shaking from the chill.

He spent the afternoon listening back to recordings of the last two weeks’ rehearsals, covering his practice scores with copious notes; then he went for a run, at dusk, and ran until every part of him ached and he could fall into bed without delay. Anything to keep from thinking. He couldn’t bear it. But he had to bear it, and so he would. If he broke it would eat him alive.

Sunday was more of the same, a careful dance on the edge of a cliff. He was so glad that Monday was the start of extended rehearsals that he could have wept with relief if he were capable of crying at all, or willing to, which he had not been and would not be. But tired and grim though he was, he was still the conductor and he was still in charge, and he had a show in two weeks; there was no use in dwelling on things that couldn’t be fixed at the expense of things that could.

In the morning he’d run, and then he was off to rehearsal - or rehearsal then run, whichever order it worked best in. And then when he felt ready to drop he would stagger back home, force down a tiny portion of food even though his appetite was nonexistent, and fall back into score prep.

If he ignored how his heart screamed for long enough, it would stop. That was all there was to it.

It got easier, bit by bit. Phasma was watching him, and he knew it, but she said nothing - she had always known when it was best, with him, to say nothing. She’d come to him when she felt the time was right, and not before.

On Friday night he found her in his score prep armchair, cleaning her violin with a soft cloth.

“You haven’t shaved in a week,” she said, conversationally.

“No.” He hadn’t. It didn’t seem to matter, and anyway his hands shook a lot lately.

“You haven’t smiled in a week, either.” Now her eyes were a little sharper.

He gave a very soft snort, neither the lie of denial nor the uncomfortable truth.

“You haven’t told me what happened. Nor anyone else.”

“Nothing happened.”

“I supposed as much.” She tilted her violin back and forth, looking at the finish under the light. “Well, I won’t force you, and I won’t sic Mitaka on you either, though he offered, but you should know people have noticed.”

“Tell them I’m fine,” Hux said. “It’s nothing.”

“You know they’re your people,” Phasma said. “We are your people. We do actually care about you, or we wouldn’t be here. You’re not entirely alone in the world.”

He nodded.

“And I’m certain that if you need a hit put out on someone, Tarkin’s brother knows a guy.”

“I don’t want him dead,” Hux said quietly, and sagged against the bench. Even that admission, as ridiculous as it was, felt prickly and dangerous. It skirted too close to thinking about what he did want, which would be the worst thing he could do. What he wanted didn’t matter. He wouldn’t get it.

“Ah,” Phasma said. “I see.”

“He’s an arrogant jerk,” Hux sighed.

“I know,” Phasma said, just slightly too quickly to be entirely as sympathetic as she probably meant to sound.

“But I don’t want him dead. The mistake was really... all mine.”

“Well.” She scrutinised her violin carefully, and then stood to put it back in the case. “I’m sorry, and I applaud both your mercy and your discernment. But not the beard.” She latched her case and patted him on the cheek. “Shave; you look like a castaway. Karajan would never.”

In a way she was a tonic. Though he didn’t shave that night because it was still too perilous, it was nice to know that at some point in the future, when he felt less thinly spread and more able to cope with anything outside of the requirements of his job, he would still have an orchestra who forgave his most egregious failures and didn’t make too many jokes about his hair.

He got on with it, as he was required to do. There wasn’t time to do anything else. Not with a week to go before the final show. But things had gelled, at long last; the tricky sound paintings of the Grand Canyon had coalesced, with all their moving parts finally present, and the Planets would be perfect, he knew it. If the orchestra had spotted his distress, they had responded magnificently by upping their collective game. Every nitpick was resolved, seventy people were thinking and moving as one, and all the solos were beginning to develop the burnished gleam of music played over so often that the soloist no longer had to think about what they were doing. He would be able to depend on each and every one of them to do their bit, as critical or indistinguishable as it might be; every cog in the grand machine had finally found its own place, and every face met his searching gaze with the calm assurance that they knew what was required of them, they knew what he wanted, and they would deliver it.

If the delicate equilibrium fell apart once he was offstage, it didn’t matter. He caught his toe on uneven pavement on Tuesday’s run, and scraped up his knees and his palms, and limped back to his flat. But the scrapes weren’t deep, and he was back out again on Wednesday, if a little slower. He didn’t sleep at all on Wednesday, consumed by the unfounded but unshakeable idea that something horrible was lying in wait for him. But he went to bed straight after rehearsal on Thursday, and slept through until his alarm went off on Friday. And he almost didn’t think about Ren at all, except without meaning to, in the quiet corners of moments when he let his guard down.

Those moments were very bad, very bad indeed. But he had used Wednesday night’s insomnia to tear through the flat and relegate everything that reminded him of Ren to the bottom kitchen drawer. There was far too much of it. After some consideration he allowed the little pot of succulents to escape banishment - he wasn’t petty enough to doom the plants to a slow and sunless death just because of their provenance - but the rest of Ren’s little gifts made a tidy heap and it felt good to slam the drawer shut, even if all the bending and crouching to retrieve everything had left him quite dizzy.

It probably should have worried him more how overstretched he felt. There had been far too much coffee to keep him sharp, enough to kill his appetite almost completely, and he didn’t like the way his vision went sparkly if he stood up too fast. He still hadn’t shaved either, Karajan’s (and Phasma’s) disapproval notwithstanding. But he would do, just so long as the coffee continued. He wasn’t at his best, but there was enough left of him. And once the concert was over, he would, he told himself, concentrate very hard on getting his life back on track. Whatever that meant. He would find a track, and he would get his life on it.

And yet in all of this there was a bright spot: Friday’s rehearsal, the last one before the dress rehearsal, was so smooth that had it been the dress rehearsal, he would have assumed the show was cursed. Every entrance was flawless, the music like an unstoppable wave that lifted him up and carried him into a wholly different place; it was as fully transcendent as anything he had ever conducted, and he didn’t feel like he touched the ground at all on his way home. They could cave in at the dress rehearsal, as was traditional, but now he knew they could do it, and if they could summon even half of that for the show, then… then everything would be all right.

----

Saturday morning Hux woke up at 7, just as he liked to do. It was warm, but not too warm, and sunny, and the bed was comfy and the radio was playing Chopin.

Their dress rehearsal wasn’t until 2, which gave him all the time he could ever want to have a leisurely and relaxing morning. His suit was ready, pressed and perfect in its garment bag hanging off the back of the door; he wanted a coffee, but the headache was not so urgent that he was inclined to get up just yet.

This was, he thought, possibly the best he’d felt in months. Months. It was a brittle, fragile peace of mind, like the thinnest crust of ice over a lake, but if he didn’t disturb it it would thicken, until at last it might bear his weight.

He stretched out over the small mattress, and contemplated his wrists against the clean white sheets. He’d lost weight. Unsurprising. Perhaps after the show he’d get his appetite back.

Soon, he thought, he would get out of bed, and start the coffee, and then… a piece of toast, and the news, and -

His phone rang.

“Hello?” he said, drowsily.

“Hux, it’s Datoo.” The timpanist sounded even grumpier than normal, and Hux braced himself. “Look, I’m sorry to start the day off with this, but it won’t wait - I bloody told you you should never have hired Sloane, didn’t I.”

He frowned at the air. “What’s she done?”

“She’s only come off her bicycle on the way home last night, hasn’t she - went into a flowerbed, off over the handlebars. Broke her collarbone.”

Everything seemed to slow, dangerously and dramatically, as the bottom dropped out of Hux’s stomach.

“She what,” he managed.

“What I said. Left collarbone, she’s up in a sling. Took most of the skin off her other hand too. Can’t play a note.” Datoo was grimly triumphant. “She didn’t think to call me until this morning, either - her bloody section leader, and I wouldn’t have known.”

“Ohh,” Hux breathed, “oh, fuck - sorry -”

“Nah,” Datoo said. “Oh fuck is about the size of it, Maestro, and no mistake.”

Hux rolled himself halfway out of bed, the better to put his head in his hands. “That’s the Grofé and the Holst kneecapped, hell. We’re absolutely buggered. What are we going to do?

“Call everyone you know,” Datoo said.

“I already did that,” Hux groaned, “or we wouldn’t have had her.”

“Well, then,” Datoo said. “Find a half-decent pianist who can sightread. And pray.”

----

The next two hours were pretty well a blur. He’d gone through his contacts from beginning to end; out of town, unavailable, booked, sorry old chap, terribly sorry, south of France, wedding tonight, home with the children, best of luck.

He’d made a coffee when the headache became unavoidable, black and sugary in the hopes it would mitigate the shock of the adrenaline wearing off. It hadn’t. Now he just felt sick on top of everything else.

Best of fucking luck. He wanted to cry. This close, this close to everything being okay for once in his godforsaken life, and he couldn’t have it.

Phasma had rung too, sounding as gutted as he felt and with as little to report. She’d tried, he knew she had. She’d said she’d keep trying, but he knew she was already scraping the bottom of the barrel. They weren’t easy parts, especially on one rehearsal. Or none. It was unthinkable to both of them that they even had to consider an untried soloist on a major, critical part, with no rehearsal. But they simply didn’t have anyone left to call, and it was past 9.30 and getting on for 10, with the rehearsal in four hours.

Hux sat on the floor, staring blindly at the ceiling. More than anything, he thought. More than anything, I just want someone to make any of my life all right. Any one thing. Can’t I have just one thing?

He cupped his hand over the back of his neck and tried to breathe. This should feel steadying - calming -

And then he remembered who had last suggested that.

He curled up around his knees and gritted his teeth until his eyes stopped stinging. He didn’t have time for that. He had a half-decent pianist to find, he was not going to let himself get even more overwrought, not over Kylo fucking Ren of all people; he’d wasted enough of his life already being sad about that.

There had to be someone he knew who would know more pianists.

… Oh no. No. No, he couldn’t.

He couldn’t.

Nobody could expect him to call Kylo Ren and -

- they couldn’t, but if it was that or the concert failing -

Ren’s concert with Snoke had been last night. He’d be free now.

It took him almost a full two minutes, even at that, to press the call button.

He was shaking as he brought the phone up to his ear, but Ren didn’t have to know that.

He counted to nine rings before Ren picked up.

“Hux,” Ren said warily.

He dug his fingernails into his palm so as not to think about how cold Ren sounded.

“I was never going to call you again, you know,” he said viciously. “I was going to be strong, and I was going to forget you, and I certainly wasn’t going to come running to you in an emergency. But you’ll be delighted to hear my life is an absolute bloody shambles, after just two weeks. Isn’t that terrific. So if you were thinking of gloating, I need you to answer me one simple question, and then I will stay on the line and you may say every cruel thing you have in mind.”

The pain wasn’t enough to counter the shame; his eyes were welling up faster than he could blink it back.

“What the actual fuck - no, no, okay, I need to know what this question is.”

“Do you know anyone who knows how to play the celesta, who’s in the area or even in the country, and who is free tonight? Money is no object, I’ll pay them out of my own pocket if I have to, flights, accommodation, I don’t care -” A tear slipped down his cheek. “You can tell them I am officially begging on my knees.”

“Uh.” Ren’s voice was unreadably flat. “That was not the question I was expecting you to ask me.”

“Well it’s the only one I have right now,” Hux snapped, and the tear was joined by a second and a third. “If you can’t help me, just fucking say so, will you?”

“Hang on, hang on,” Ren said. “Are you crying?

“Does it matter?” Hux snarled. But there was no point in denying it anymore. “Fine. Yes. My humiliation is complete. Enjoy. Now answer me, and I swear you’ll never have to speak to me again.”

“Calm the fuck down,” Ren said evenly. “First of all, I’m not getting off on this. I’m genuinely trying to understand why you’re on the phone to me when you’re this upset already.”

“I told you,” Hux said through his teeth. “I. Need. A celesta player.” He swallowed, and forced his voice into something like its normal tone. “I have called everyone else that I could possibly think of in an effort not to have to bother you. But dress rehearsal is in four hours, the show is tonight, and I am fucking begging you to help me because I have no-one else.

That was enough. He shoved his index finger between his teeth and bit down on it, trying not to choke on the sob at the back of his throat.

Ren was silent for a very long moment, and it was only the fact that Hux couldn’t speak either that kept him from ending the call.

“Do you have a PDF of the parts?” Ren said finally.

Astonishment gave Hux back a fraction of his voice. “I can get them.”

“Fine. I know a guy. Send them to me and I’ll try and get him to your dress rehearsal.”

The relief was so dizzying that Hux was momentarily certain he would pass out.

“Okay,” he said, and a sob got away from him entirely; “okay. Thank you.”

“It’s fine,” Ren said.

I hate you for being able to save me even now, Hux wanted to say, but didn’t.

I miss you.

I wish things had been different.

“I’m sorry,” he said, so quietly he wasn’t sure if Ren would hear.

On the other end of the line, Ren gave a soft huff. “It’s okay,” he said, and for a moment he was Hux’s Ren again.

Even if that person had never really existed.

Hux bit his lip until he tasted blood.

“I have to go now,” Ren said. “I’ll… I’ll see you later.”

“Okay,” Hux choked. “Goodbye.”

He couldn’t return the polite fiction of see you later. He knew he’d never see Ren again.

And that was it. He set the phone down on the cushion of the sofa, and put his head on his knees, and let himself shatter; for the first time in years he broke down completely, sobbing in great messy heaves that felt like they might tear him in half.

Behind him, the phone beeped softly, and was silent again.

----

He was wrung out and wobbly when the tears finally let up, but he called Phasma as soon as he thought he could talk.

“Don’t ask me what I had to do,” he warned. “But we have a celesta soloist. I think.”

“Oh thank God,” Phasma sighed. “I don’t care what you had to do, I’m glad you did it.”

“I’m not.” He pinched the bridge of his nose; his sinuses ached abominably.

“Oh no. You didn’t call Snoke.”

“Worse.”

“Oh, Hux.” The sympathy was real, and vast, and more than he deserved considering he’d never actually told her about the details of the fight. “Are you all right?”

He had to laugh, a sharp bark that had more in common with tears than humour. “What do you think? It was horrid. And I feel like a salted slug. But none of that matters at all, because he says he knows someone who can not only play the parts, but make the dress rehearsal. I just have to get him some hasty illegal PDFs and all our problems are solved. So I’m going to the theatre soon, to brave the wrath of the librarians.”

“I wish you strength,” Phasma said. “I’ll call off the hounds, then, and let Datoo know he’ll have someone new to grumble about. Do we know who we’re expecting?”

“I didn’t ask,” Hux said. “You might imagine I didn’t want to linger on the call. It was quite bad enough already.”

“I don’t suppose it really matters, it’s not as though you would have turned anyone down,” Phasma said philosophically. “Your sacrifices will nonetheless be remembered in Valhalla.”

“I bloody well hope,” Hux said. “I’ll see you in a few hours, all right?”

“Good luck,” she said.

The room yawed and spun when he stood, but he waited it out with a hand clutching the back of the sofa. He’d be fine. He’d be fine now. He just had to hold onto whatever anchor points he could find, the way he was doing right now, until everything was over.

He showered, thought about shaving and decided not to risk his throat just yet, and headed out. He was keenly aware of how long it had taken already to get him to this point, and how soon Ren needed those scores; there was no time to waste now.

The universe had at least given him one break. Sloane’s wife had dropped off the folder of parts that EOS had lent her, and they were waiting for Hux in the theatre office. He scanned them as quickly as he could, stitched the files together on one of the office computers, and sent them off to Ren, all before 11; there was no response, but Hux didn’t really expect one.

Three hours. Three hours and someone would put him out of this misery. What would he do with the time?

He knew it should be study, but he was so terribly tired, and his face hurt; he left his score satchel and baton locked away safely in his dressing room, and went out.

He was more queasy than hungry, but he bought himself another coffee, one with milk and syrup and completely unnecessary whipped cream on it, and made himself drink it. Then he stopped in at the chemist for decongestants to help with the headache. He was aware of the figure he cut, dark-shadowed and unshaven, leaning against a park balustrade sipping the bitter liquid directly from the bottle; but his dignity had taken quite a beating already, and it was too weak to stand up against the thought of the pressure around his eye sockets maybe easing off before he was subjected to stage lights.

The park was shady and cool, and that seemed better than mooning about the theatre like the Phantom of the Opera, so he stayed there, ambling slowly down the paths, watching the birds hunting bugs in the lawn and running through the Planets in his head while the medication softened everything at the edges. Before he knew it, his watch was telling him it was time to wander back.

As soon as he set foot backstage, there was a small cloud of people around him: Datoo, grim of mien and unconvinced of attitude, tried to talk over Phasma to explain his many reservations regarding Hux’s plan, as though the implosion of Sloane had suddenly made them relevant. Phasma, meanwhile, had plenty of running commentary to offer on the difficulty of fitting thirty singers into anywhere backstage, and the annoyance of being the only authority figure apart from Hux that the choir director seemed to remember the face of, thus making her the errand girl - a task she did not at all relish, or need. Nobody had seen any mysterious and confused celesta players turn up, but the stage manager was officially on alert, and was put out about it given that she had better things to do.

It all bounced off him, mostly, though the headache was creeping back in around the edges and he wished they’d complain a little more quietly. But he clung to the tiny measure of hope he’d managed to salvage. As long as they could have this rehearsal, everything would be all right.

He didn’t feel terrific by 2 - the decongestants were definitely wearing off, and although the headache was better than it had been, he couldn’t look directly at any of the brass or the flutes without wincing. They were just too shiny. Still, he managed something like a smile as he came out to the podium and surveyed the assembled musicians.

“Good afternoon,” he told them. “So there’s been a minor emergency, as some of you know - Ms. Sloane has been injured and won’t be joining us tonight. Fortunately we were able to secure a replacement -”

He looked to the percussion section. There was nobody behind the celesta, nor behind the keyboard - in fact there were no faces in the section that he didn’t recognise.

At the timpani, Datoo shook his head.

“- who is on their way and will join us when they can,” Hux continued, as smoothly as he could. “I was hoping they’d be able to make the start of the rehearsal, but never mind. So what we will do is begin with the Schubert, which doesn’t require them anyway, and with any luck they should be here in time for the Grofé. Then we’ll break, and come back for the Holst.”

He swallowed, and felt the throb in his head. He was trusting the secondhand assurance of someone who hated him, who had no reason to help him. On this, he’d pinned everything.

He picked up his baton. “All right. No time to lose.”

----

By two-thirty, they’d finished the Schubert. He’d called a three-minute micro-break, long enough to swig covertly at the decongestant and hope that the extra difficulty of the dizziness would be offset by how much less his head would ache.

There was still no celesta player.

He didn’t know what to do.

They had to go on. They simply had to.

He took a deep breath, forced his stomach to settle - it didn’t like the medication, and he couldn’t blame it, but now was most definitely not the time - and got back up on the podium.

He couldn’t smile. “Well. On we go. And if anyone has celesta or keyboard cues in your parts, can you play them, please. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

Datoo was ready, behind his timpani; Hux raised his baton, and they began the bloom of Sunrise - first the soft roll of the drums, like the first wave of desert heat; then the shimmer and chirp of violins, then clarinets in a slow rising pattern, ever higher, as the sky lightened and the piccolo sang out the birds’ greeting.

He tried to focus. The orchestra sounded wonderful, really. Hayar, who ran between the vibraphone and glockenspiel, doubled the first keyboard cues anyway, and Hux almost couldn’t hear what was missing. Almost. Netal picked up the next set on the harp, articulating them with extra attack so they sang out the way they should have. It wasn’t right, but… at least it wasn’t bad.

The painted desert was much more complicated. The orchestration was sparser, and the keyboard part was prominent, and Hayar could only do so much with four mallets and still be in place for his own vibraphone cues. When the orchestra all joined in it was still quite something. Just not the right thing.

He closed his eyes, in the pause between the second and third movements, and thought a desperate and wordless wish.

They simply couldn’t do On the trail with no celesta. And the solo, in full flight, was beyond doubling, beyond any unskilled pianist. He would have to conduct it all in silence, with all of them watching him.

He couldn’t do it.

But when he opened his eyes, there was still no celesta player, and he shook his head in visible pain and brought his hands up to count them in.

It was such a silly piece, a joke score if he’d ever heard one. Phasma led off with a terribly melodramatic solo, somewhere between a csardas and a cartoon. Then Unamo took the donkey’s theme on the oboe, a bouncy thing mostly in octaves over the gently cantering lower winds and strings and the hoofbeats of woodblocks. The clarinets hee-hawed for all they were worth; Tarkin doubled Unamo on the piccolo, and Thanisson floated over the top of all of it with a cowboy theme straight out of a Morricone score, doing exactly what horns did best. Their guest bass clarinet shone. And then the the damn thing went suddenly majestic, as the donkey came round the corner and was confronted with the full glory of the canyon.

The silliness made a grand, lolloping return, replete and shining with brass. But Hux had shut his eyes halfway through the sweeping vistas, and couldn’t bear to open them again. The next thing - the next thing was the celesta solo - he couldn’t look.

The last hanging unresolved chord; he cut it off, and raised the baton as though he had a soloist to bring in, and damn it all, he was a conductor, he would bring in this non-existent soloist the absolute best that he could.

A ripple of bells rang out into the silence, right on his cue, and he dropped the baton with an audible gasp as his eyes flew open.

Sitting at the celesta, all perfect concentration, with his hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail and a soft green polo shirt on, playing the gracefully looping and lilting solo as though he’d been rehearsing it all his life, was Kylo Ren.

Ren wasn’t watching him. He didn’t need to be, this was a cadenza, and he could do what he liked with it. So his eyes were shut, his eyelashes coal-black on his cheeks, his face still and serene.

He looked so different with his hair back.

Hux couldn’t feel his legs. He grabbed hold of his music stand, hard, until the dizziness passed a little.

But he had to bring the orchestra back in, and he scooped up his baton and did it, almost entirely on autopilot.

On the trail galloped crashingly through to its Looney Tunes ending, and Hux had never been so grateful to have a piece off by heart as he was now. Had it required the slightest bit of thought, he would have fumbled it completely.

Sunset’s hunting horns echoed through the hills, and Ren doubled the rich romantic swathes of the flutes and violins, crystal sparkles accentuating every motif like dewdrops. It was tremendously beautiful, and Hux didn’t hear a note of it. Not when Ren met Hux’s eyes, and the million questions in them, with one clear answer, stone-faced and unmovable: Later.

Cloudburst started with a gentle pastorale restatement of themes, before the cellos swept everything up and lifted it into the sky, majestic and graceful. And then the clouds edged in, and the sweet music became hovering fog and a tense solo cello.

The violins howled; Ren was right on his cue with the sharp-edged and dissonant keyboard runs, gusts of notes running up and down a totally different scale as the fury of the storm scaled up into lightning from the cymbals and brass and the thunder of the bass drum.

And then the storm blew into the distance, and the brilliant setting sun splashed over the wet rocks of the canyon, washed with the flash flood, and turned it all to gold.

Before Hux quite knew it, the piece was over, they were all looking at him, and he could feel his knees and his jaw beginning to tremble.

The baton slipped from his fingers again, clattering on the metal of the stand and rolling to the floor. He didn’t pick it up. If he tried, he knew he’d fall, and if he fell, it was all over. He had to get out of there.

“Break time,” he said hoarsely, “back in 20,” and he walked straight off the stage into the wings, without looking back.

He knew people were trying to get his attention, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Phasma deftly head off one bunch, and Mitaka throw himself in front of another, herding them all away.

There was only one person he cared to talk to. And that person had caught up with him, his long strides athletic and effortless.

“Hux. Hux. Stop.

Ren’s hand closed over his shoulder, and spun him around.

“Stop,” Ren repeated. His expression was somewhere between affronted and uncomprehending, but the longer he stared at Hux, the more it shaded into shock. “Dear God, Hux, what’s wrong with you? You look like hell.”

“Thank you,” Hux said, as acidly as he could. “It’s nothing. I’m only having the worst month of my entire life, it does absolute wonders for the skin. Excuse me.”

Ren shook his head. “No. No, you’re not going anywhere. I flew here to bail you out because I’ve never heard you like that - that upset. And I thought, just this once, maybe I’d be the bigger man. Maybe that would make us even for the shit I pulled last time.” He scrutinised Hux closely, and the furrow between his brows got deeper. “But mostly, you know what? I just don’t understand you. At all. You said we needed to talk, and you sent me this beautiful music that was like you ripped your heart out and bled at me. And then I told you I loved you too, and we’d work it out, and then you flipped out at me about Snoke, like some jealous -”

Hux blinked so hard it hurt. “Wait. You - you did get my email.”

“Of course I got your email,” Ren snapped, “and I -” All at once his face went white. “Hux. You… didn’t get mine, did you.”

Hux’s vision swam.

“Shit,” Ren said sharply, from what sounded like a long way away, “Hux -

----

It was dark, where he was, and it smelled like clean cotton and fruity shampoo and just a little bit like sweat.

Someone strong and very warm was holding him.

They were petting his hair.

“I hope you know,” came Phasma’s voice, faintly, “that I am only suffering you to live because I am extraordinarily forgiving and merciful, and also you look terrified. I’m not sure whether that’s to do with me or him, but I like it.”

The arms tightened around him. “I understand.”

“Don’t kill him,” Hux said weakly. “I need him.” He felt the deep breath in the chest he was pressed against, and added, “Or I have to find another celesta player.”

“Stay, stay,” Ren said quickly, as though he were some sort of very large dog, “don’t try and move. Nobody’s killing anyone.”

“For now,” Phasma said, and he heard her footsteps get closer. “Here. Drink this.” His hands were lifted, and wrapped around a cold paper cup; he sipped obediently. Sugar water.

“You fainted, if you’re wondering,” Ren said. “Right into my arms. Very dramatic. Scared the shit out of me. Well done. Don’t do it again.”

“I hadn’t planned on doing it at all,” Hux said. He pried his eyes open; they were in his dressing room, sitting on the floor, and he appeared to be mostly in Ren’s lap. “Oh God, tell me you didn’t carry me in here in full view of the entire orchestra -”

“Not the entire orchestra.” Ren was smiling. “You may or may not be interested to know that Mitaka is unexpectedly a genius at crowd control. He probably also wants me dead, and we’ll deal with that later, but - Phasma and I got you in here pretty quick, and you were only out for a couple of minutes.”

Phasma crouched next to him and took the cup back, inspecting his cold, dry palm and his bony wrist carefully. “Not to be your nursemaid, but when was the last time you ate anything that stayed down? Coffee doesn’t count.”

“I reject the question,” Hux said, “on the grounds that it’s based on a fallacy. Coffee is a food group.”

“Yes, all right, but it’s not the only one.” Phasma got up and rummaged through Hux’s tiny desk until she came up with a granola bar, which she brandished triumphantly before tossing it into Hux’s lap. “This has almonds in it, which means it’s officially healthy. Eat it.”

His stomach gave an uneasy flip. “I don’t think I want it.”

“That’s not the point,” Ren said. “The point is that for my sake, you need to get through the rest of rehearsal, and you won’t if you’re running on air and adrenaline.” He hugged Hux a little tighter. “Do it for me.”

“That’s unfair,” Hux complained. “You can’t blackmail me like that.”

“I can,” Ren said comfortably, “and I will. You passed out, and I caught you, so I think it’s actually law that I get to demand that you deal with it. You’ve got fifteen minutes to eat at least half of that. Time starts now.”

“I’m going to go and see if we can scrounge up a barstool for the podium,” Phasma said. “Seeing as if you fall off it’s at least a 25% chance you end up in my lap, and I love you, but I’d rather not.”

She let herself out, and Hux unwrapped the granola bar and took a small and unenthusiastic bite.

Ren was watching him, still with the hint of a crease between his eyebrows.

“So,” he said eventually. “Now is maybe not really the time, but - you didn’t know I was in love with you? Because I thought I was pretty obvious.”

Hux swallowed. “You may need to revise your expectations of what I understand about love,” he said. “As low as possible.” The admission hurt - more than it should have. “I thought, maybe. At first. When you sent the recording. But I didn’t dare to believe it. And then when you didn't respond to mine, I was sure I’d got everything wrong. All you could talk about was -” He shuddered. “Snoke. And I thought… well, never mind what I thought. You know what I thought. I gave up.”

“We said some shit, both of us.” Ren’s hand toyed with the edge of fringe behind Hux’s ear. “Me not understanding why you didn’t want me, and you not understanding why I didn’t want you. It’s like you saw me with my leg in a bear trap, and waltzed right in and stuck your own leg in there too.”

“I think I may have been in the trap longer than you,” Hux said sheepishly. “Probably from when I sent the cufflinks and was so afraid you’d hate them that I couldn’t even ask you what you thought of them, just in case you did.”

Ren laughed, his mouth twisting wryly. “Oh, jeez. Now it sounds really desperate when I admit you had me from the night of the gala. I’ve been trying to impress you pretty much constantly ever since.”

“Really?” Hux raised an eyebrow at him. “You barely even knew me.” He made a face. “Though perhaps that might have helped. I don’t really improve upon acquaintance. It’s just more neuroses and Debussy the deeper you go.”

“Maybe I like neuroses and Debussy.” Ren pointed at the granola bar. “Eat.”

Hux took another bite, though it grated to be so meek even if he knew Ren was right.

“Anyway,” Ren said, “it’s not like I’m a real prize. Apart from being one of the world’s best young pianists, I should mention. But that doesn’t mean quite as much when Datoo is glaring at me like he’s going to set me on fire if I miss a cue. Besides which.” A grin was creeping onto his face. “I get up early and stay up late. I make a lot of noise. I demand things my way and pout if I don’t get them. I psychologically manipulate everyone who’ll let me get away with it. And I never do the dishes.”

Hux looked up at him. From this angle, Ren was all nose and chin, but he could see the warmth in Ren’s eyes.

“But the thing is, you see, I wash dishes pathologically, and I won’t let you manipulate me, and you know I never sleep.” Hux took a very deep breath. “And there’s the tiny matter of my being inconveniently mad about you.”

“Very inconvenient,” Ren agreed. “You should stop.”

“Do you think,” Hux said, “it would help at all if I did this?”

It was a very awkward angle to kiss someone at, but he sat up a little bit more, and shifted until it was better.

“I don’t know,” Ren said, after a few minutes. “Did that help?”

“Hmm,” Hux said, against his cheek, dizzy for reasons that had nothing to do with his blood sugar levels. “Not enough, I’m afraid, no. Still mad about you. Going to have to do it some more to get rid of it properly.”

“Oh, darn,” Ren said, and pouted, and Hux bit that lower lip very gently, and when Phasma walked in five minutes later she just snorted and walked right back out again.

----

Between the barstool for him to perch on, the slight positive uptick in his energy levels, and the way the headache and shakes seemed to have gone, he had much less trouble with the second half of the rehearsal than he’d had with the first. And if his resolve flagged, all he had to do was glance back to the percussion section, where Ren smiled at him from behind the celesta, making so little noise and fuss that Hux doubted half of the orchestra had even recognised the flamboyant soloist in the calm professional.

He looked a little more like Hux’s Ren now that Hux had freed a few of his curls from the ponytail. Still, most of what made him Hux’s Ren was the smile, and that stayed, even in the difficult bits full of complicated timing. Hux wondered if Ren had spent the flights from Brussels rehearsing, a tablet full of scores propped in front of him and his fingers dancing silently over a tray table.

By the end of it, though, he could no longer pretend he wasn’t worn out. He managed enough of a speech to thank the orchestra and all of the guests, and then dragged himself to his dressing room and toppled into his armchair. Perhaps he could have a quick nap, he thought vaguely. It was clear that if he sat here long enough, he would be having one, regardless.

“Hey,” came Ren’s voice. “So. Two things. First of all, I called a taxi, and I’m taking you home to have a real nap in an actual bed before the show tonight.”

“Acceptable,” Hux said, into the cushions of the armchair.

“Second, I didn’t really have time to book any place to stay just yet. I left Brussels in a big hurry, with basically what I needed for tonight, and dumped everything else on Darla to take care of. I figured I’d get you settled, then go sort out a hotel.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Hux made himself sit up, and held out a hand to Ren. “If you’re coming home with me, you’re staying.”

Ren took the hand and pulled Hux up into a hug. He put his chin on Hux’s shoulder. “You don’t have to. I can afford it if it’d be easier on you to have your bed to yourself.”

Hux pulled back. “Mikhail Vaderensky. Do you really - truly - think I want my bed to myself?”

“I wasn’t going to assume,” Ren said. “But.”

Hux didn’t break eye contact. “Please don’t put my ego through anything else today - especially being polite at me until I start to believe you’d rather not sleep with me after all. I can’t take it. It’s very simple: just say thank you, and come home with me, and don’t leave.”

Ren’s smile had an edge of disbelief to it, but it felt real enough, and he hadn’t let go of Hux yet, which had to count for something. “Okay,” he said. “Thank you.”

The taxi ride was very short, and he dozed on Ren’s shoulder, letting the haze of drowsiness hang around his head; when they arrived, it was a matter of a few minutes to sort out the fare and get up to the flat, and then without any argument from anyone, Hux put himself straight to bed and slept like the dead for an hour and a half.

He woke alone, just as he’d gone to bed. The flat was quiet.

Perhaps Ren had gone out. He’d said he’d have a shower, but Hux couldn’t hear water running, so he’d likely already done that.

He pushed himself out of bed, marveling at how much better he felt already. He’d make himself a cup of tea, he thought, and wait for Ren to come back.

But when he pulled open the door to the bedroom, he had to pause, and lean in the doorway and just watch.

Ren was sitting at the kitchen table with his eyes closed and his earbuds in, and hadn’t noticed him yet; his fingertips pattered gently over the plastic of the tabletop. At a guess, Hux thought, he was working on the Holst - probably Venus.

His hair had been washed and still curled soft around his face, not yet pulled back. He’d changed into his white tux shirt, done up just to his collarbones, but he’d set his cuffs, and on each wrist, twinkling as he moved, gleamed a little silver hand.

For a moment, Hux couldn’t breathe.

I love him, he thought; somehow, even after everything, it still came as a shock. I love him.

I have to do something, or he’ll fly away in the morning and this will all start over again, and I’ll lose it, and - I can’t.

Quickly, decisively, he crossed the room, and leaned in over the table to set his hands down in between Ren’s, with a sharp enough tap that Ren felt it and opened his eyes, and tugged out an earbud. Holst spilled out, tinny and distorted.

“I’m sorry,” Hux said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. But there’s something I need to say, and it won’t wait, or I’ll lose my nerve and I’ll never say it at all.”

Ren nodded, and paused the music. “Okay,” he said, wide-eyed. “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“So: you want a European base of operations, and I’m here, and I’m going to be here for at least the next five years if the board will ever give me my new contract. I know you have to go back to New York, I know that - and of course you must.” His lips made a very thin line. “But frankly, I don’t want you to, and I know I’m being terribly unreasonable but there it is. I want you to stay. Tonight, tomorrow - for good. As long as you want.” Hux spread his hands on the table. “I love you. And I can’t help feeling that right here is where you belong, pretending your way through your scores at my kitchen table while I watch you and think how fucking lucky I am.”

Ren looked at him, his eyes dark and unreadable.

“You want me to move in with you,” he said.

“Yes,” Hux said simply. “I do.”

Ren looked past Hux, at the tiny flat, and all of Hux’s shabby and sparse belongings.

“You know I can’t live here,” Ren said flatly.

A hundred tonnes of shock and sadness crashed down on Hux’s shoulders at once.

“Oh,” he said, almost inaudibly.

And then Ren took his hands, cold and shaking now, and squeezed them.

“Where on earth,” he said, his eyes crinkling at the corners, “would we put the piano?”

It was an eternity of painful seconds before the words sank in, and Hux gaped like a fish; and then Ren started laughing, and got up and came around the table to wrap his arms around Hux’s trembling frame and pull him in tight.

“You bastard,” Hux said into his shoulder. “You absolute and utter fuckwit.”

“I mean it, though,” Ren said, rocking him from foot to foot. “We’ll buy someplace nice, okay?”

Hux buried a sudden sob in the accommodating largeness of Ren’s shoulders, and then leaned back, shaking his head hard, trying to dispel the tears. “I can't cry on your concert dress,” he choked.

“Eh,” Ren said with a shrug. “You can if you want. I won't tell the conductor if you don't.”

----

In the end he mopped his face on his own shirt, while Ren held him; and he showered and shaved his too-hollow cheeks and too-sharp chin, listening to Ren singing bits of the Grofé as he whisked up packet soup in a saucepan with water and milk; and then joined him at the kitchen table to stare at each other across the top of their mugs.

Ren had given Hux his soup in the TUNE IT OR DIE mug, which meant he’d found the drawer full of his gifts while hunting out the whisk, but Hux didn't even mind. Ren would understand. They’d laugh about it someday - maybe even tomorrow.

Tomorrow they’d be together.

Tonight they’d play their show, and they’d play it well, and they’d soak up the applause, waves upon waves of love. And when it was over, they would find each other, and they would come back home, and Ren would be gentle and kind and hungry, and Hux would give him everything he asked for.

And in the morning, the sun would rise on them still in one bed.

The first thing he’d do, he thought, as he reached out and hooked his pinky finger over Ren’s, would be to kiss him. He’d kiss him on the tip of that splendid nose, and then on the soft arch of each eyebrow and the clear space between them. Then each temple, where the hair was softest and the skin sank in just slightly. The cheekbones and the chin, the forehead and the jaw. And then, and only then, that sweet, clever mouth.

Perhaps after that he’d try Ren’s hands, bless every knuckle and all the lines of his palms. Or perhaps by then Ren would have suggested some ideas of his own. Yes. That would be very good.

“What are you thinking about, smiling like that?” Ren asked.

Hux turned the smile on him. “Just a little… mental rehearsal. You know. Visualise your performance and it goes better.”

Ren nodded knowledgeably. “I gotcha. And do you think it's going to go well, Maestro?”

He closed his eyes, and imagined sunlight on Ren's skin, warm and golden.

“I think,” he said, “it may just be my finest performance ever.”