Credence is so startled he drops all of the files in his arms onto the floor of the Mailing Office in a cascade of paper and envelopes. He quickly scrambles to pick everything up and stops abruptly when a high heeled foot steps into view.
He blinks up at Mr. Graves’ secretary, who is frowning down at him with an unimpressed purse of her brightly lipsticked mouth. A flick of her wand has the papers fluttering up like a flock of birds. Paper wings covered in blockish text beat at the air as the stack reorganizes itself into a thick, neat sheaf and settles onto a nearby table. A small breeze ruffles Credence’s curls.
“Y-yes, Miss O’Donnell?” Credence asks weakly, as he scrambles back to his feet. He's a bit embarrassed at not thinking to clean it up with his own magic. Even two months with his wand and a flurry of lessons in charms and spellwork, he’s still doing things the no-maj way. “I didn’t see you there.”
“The Director wishes to have a word with you,” O’Donnell says, glancing down at her manicure, cherry red and merry green for the season.
Credence brightens with a small smile before she barely finishes speaking. If she’d said that to him even just three months ago, he might’ve bolted for the doors, thinking Mr. Graves hated him for his unknowing role in the Grindelwald fiasco but he knows better now.
“It’s a bit early for lunch,” he wonders curiously, eyes shooting to the gilded clock ticking merrily on the office wall. “Does he have a meeting later?”
“Hell if I know,” O’Donnell blusters, looking with irritation over the paperwork Credence has collected. “He refuses to tell me anything anymore. ‘Check the coffee, Irene’, ‘make sure the invitations are sent by Friday, Irene’, ‘tell my mother to stop calling, Irene’, ‘oh, the French Minister arrives in ten minutes, Irene, didn’t I tell you?’”
Credence backs away carefully. “I’m sure Mr. Graves wouldn’t mind if you went on break—”
“Even if he did, I'm still taking that break! Ooh, that man! Don’t know how you deal with him, Barebone!” And with that, she storms away, leaving a rush of floral perfume and a stunned Credence behind her.
He walks dazedly to the elevator banks, wondering what Mr. Graves might possibly want, calling for him at this unusual time of the day. He steps into the lift with a quiet hello to Red.
“Department of Magical Law Enforcement?” Red guesses, a knowing twinkle in his beady eyes, and Credence feels the bridge of his nose and the tops of his cheeks go hot.
“Yes please,” he admits, smiling a little when the elevator jerks and starts it's grinding clattering way up.
“Good luck with that one, boy,” Red grumbles as the lift stops at the correct floor and Credence moves to step off. “He’s in a right mood today.”
That certainly doesn’t help with Credence’s mounting nerves as he fusses in front of the door to Mr. Graves’ office for a moment, trying to smooth down his too-long curls and fiddling with the cuffs of the soft cream sweater Queenie had gotten him for Samhain.
“Hello? Director?” Credence finally calls, the door swinging open without a touch and revealing a wild-eyed Mr. Graves.
Credence has never really seen Mr. Graves so out of his depth before. He looks… tousled, his jacket hanging on a hook by the desk, his usually slicked hair falling out of its pomade hold, and he’s pacing back and forth across the rug in his office in his shirtsleeves.
“Mr. Graves?” Credence tries again as he steps further into the Director’s office, the door closing soundlessly behind him.
Mr. Graves’ head snaps up as though tugged by a string and the harrowed expression on his face falls away into a soft smile, a small quirk of his lips that makes Credence’s chest feel overly warm.
“How many times, Credence,” Mr. Graves says, an old joke now, “must I insist that it’s not Mr. Graves? Just Percival.”
“Just once more, Mr. Graves,” Credence repeats stubbornly, feeling the curve of his own mirroring smile. Even just a month ago, he would never have dared to talk back to Mr. Graves like this but they've come a long way from that. “You’re driving Irene up the wall, you know.”
“Hm? Oh. Well, tell me something new, Credence, why don’t you?” he sighs and sinks onto the little couch in the corner Credence just knows he’s used at least twice in the past week as a bed.
“I mean, more so than usual,” Credence laughs. He always feels a bit awkward in Mr. Graves’ office. It’s all so… professional. A fire permanently flickers and crackles in the hearth of the old colonial fireplace, mysterious wizarding trinkets Credence can't hope to understand decorating the mantel, black and white photographs of snoozing Magical Directors of the past hanging above the shelves. He thinks he should probably stand at attention or salute or something. Anything but gawping like the overwhelmed no-maj child he feels like as he is often wont to do.
“What’s going on, Mr. Graves?”
“My mother is what’s going on, Credence,” Mr. Graves says, rubbing at his temples. “It’s two weeks until Yule and she insists on me bringing my partner to meet with her and the family.”
Credence’s heart stops in his chest, frosts over like a pond in winter. It feels heavy as it plummets past his knees, a cold stone that thuds onto the floor as his mood sinks with it.
Partner. He hadn’t known Mr. Graves had a partner and the thought of it makes him feel as though someone’s slipped a knife between his ribs, his fingertips suddenly numb with the new knowledge, mouth buzzing. All of his thoughts grind to a halt and he doesn’t quite know how to reply to that. He doesn’t have much experience with parents, or with partners, so it’s not as though he can offer any advice. He doesn’t think he’d even be able to say a gritted congratulations without cracking his own heart.
“Credence, I’ve done something very stupid, because it’s my mother and she insists on bringing out the worst in me,” Mr. Graves mutters before Credence can reply.
Credence stares because Mr. Graves has never sounded so uncertain of himself before. He's certainly never heard his voice sound so shaky and filled with contrition.
“I might’ve…,” Mr. Graves begins, audibly swallowing hard, “for a split second, and immediately regretted it, of course… claimed to have a long term partner ready to meet my parents for Christmas Eve.” He leans against the back of his couch and tilts his head up to glare at the ceiling as though he's trying to bring it down with sheer force of will.
Credence hears the tick of a clock and not much else. The inexplicable relief that floods him nearly bowls him over and he quickly takes a seat at Mr. Graves’ desk before his knees buckle from under him, shifting his chair to face the couch. Mr. Graves looks very grim and stiff, like he’s waiting for his executioner to come swooping down from the ceiling.
“I… don’t understand,” Credence says, needing to clarify. “You’re… you don’t have a partner?”
“I lied, Credence,” Mr. Graves admits, and Credence quickly stifles his gasp. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. What was I supposed to do? Admit to my mother I haven’t been on a date in two years? Her heart would be broken, Credence. She’s always going on about how lonely I am, and why don’t you have a spouse yet, Percival? I'm going to die before you marry, Percival. We'll never have a Graves heir now, Percival. She wants one hundred and one grandchildren, Credence. And when she starts—crying about how I never bring anyone home—what am I supposed to say to that?”
“That…” Credence struggles faintly for words, slightly overwhelmed with everything Mr. Graves is telling him. “That does seem to be a problem?”
“Exactly!” Mr. Graves agrees emphatically. “And now I’ve dug myself into a hole. I’ve told my mother I had a partner, whom I would bring over to the family celebrations, and I have no one . Merlin knows what she’ll do if I tell her I lied.” He looks faintly horrified. “Probably cry. Why did I do that?”
“Umm…” Credence begins, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “I’m sure there are lots of people who would love to go on a date with you, Mr. Graves.” He struggles to tamp down the hollow feeling that builds in his chest at the thought of someone else holding Mr. Graves’ hand, stroking his arm, kissing his cheek. Someone who isn’t Credence.
“Well, this isn’t exactly a date, Credence,” Mr. Graves says dismissively with a frown. He taps his wand against his hip, a bad habit Credence only sees when Mr. Graves is very agitated. “This is pretending to be my lover for the week and acting as though we’ve been together for months when we haven’t and dealing with my family, which I wouldn’t wish on Grindelwald, let alone a complete stranger.”
“Who said it had to be a stranger?” Credence asks innocently, blushing when Mr. Graves swivels around and pins him with a stare. “W-wouldn’t it make more sense to take a friend?” he offers weakly. “You’ve known Tina… and Queenie for years… I’m sure they’d be very nice to your parents…”
“No, I can't,” Mr. Graves mutters. “They’re both spending the holidays with their… beaus.” He makes a face at the word.
Credence smiles a little, thinking of how Mr. Graves has never really approved of the absent minded Newt Scamander for Tina. Their Director is very protective of his friends.
“Apparently Newt spent Hanukkah with the sisters and insisted on bringing them to England to visit his family for the Yuletide,” Mr. Graves continues, looking sullen at the thought. “They're leaving next week, and taking time off of work to stay until the new year.”
“Oh, how lovely,” Credence says brightly, not reacting to Mr. Graves’ look of disapproval. “It’s good of them to get out of New York once in awhile. You know how Queenie hates the smog.”
“Hmmm. So much that she’s going to take that no-maj with her,” Mr. Graves mutters with some resentment.
“What no-maj?” Credence asks innocently, making his eyes big and blank, unable to hide a little laugh with his hand at Mr. Graves’ unhappy grumble. “Well, too bad they can’t fill in as your girlfriend, Mr. Graves. I'm sure there are lots of ladies who would jump at the chance.”
“...Who says it has to be a woman, Credence?”
“Oh,” Credence murmurs, his eyes widening as the realization of what Mr. Graves is saying sinks in. “Um… then, how about Mr. Abernathy? He seems keen to be helpful all the time.”
The twist of disgust to Mr. Graves’ mouth almost makes Credence laugh aloud.
“I cannot imagine the stress of having to spend an entire week with that simpering little man, alongside my family,” Mr. Graves says, shuddering. “I wouldn’t survive the week, Credence. Absolutely not. But…”
Mr. Graves pauses for a brief moment, looking contrite and almost regretful. “That's why I asked you to come to my office, Credence,” he begins hesitantly, and Credence can feel the dread pooling in his belly like ice water, crystallizing icicles in his veins.
“I know it's a lot to ask,” Mr. Graves says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His eyes are very dark in this light, Credence notices. “But you're the only one I trust. And I'm sorry to suddenly put this upon you, but… would you possibly… consider pretending to be my partner? There'll be nothing untoward of course!” he hastens to add. “We just have to maybe hold hands for a bit and spin yarns about how long we've been together.”
Credence’s mouth opens, and he thinks his heart might’ve stopped for a single moment. He doesn’t know how he can possibly survive pretending to be Mr. Graves’... anything, and he doesn’t quite know why, but before he can think, his lips are moving around words he isn’t able to consider.
“Of… of course, Mr. Graves,” he says weakly, blinking slowly. “I-I’d be honored to spend Christmas with you.” He flushes pink, but Mr. Graves’ pleased, slightly surprised expression soothes the panic fluttering in his chest.
“Well,” Mr. Graves says, crossing the room with a few strides of those sinfully long legs to a set of crystal tumblers on a table by the couch. “I suppose this means you will have to get used to calling me Percival, doesn’t it, Credence?”
Credence takes the glass of scotch absentmindedly when it’s offered, vaguely grateful that Mr. Graves has poured him so little. “I guess so,” he says numbly, coughing at the first sip. “Cheers, Mr. Gr—Percival.”
Credence shouldn’t be so surprised, but still he finds it somewhat alarming that Mr. Graves— Percival insists on treating the Christmas trip like a particularly intensive undercover operation. A week before the scheduled First Day, Credence is swooped upon like a mouse being stalked by a hawk first thing in the morning as several fat Manila folders are shoved into his skinny arms. They're identical to the ones the Aurors use to collect data on criminals, each thick with papers and documents.
“Sir?” Credence splutters, weighed down by the papers and blinking in alarm.
“My parents share a single file, they’re basically the same person,” Mr. Gr—Percival grumbles, a curl escaping from his pomade and hanging stubbornly in front of his thundercloud brow. “The rest are on my sisters. Figured their children didn’t quite necessitate any documenting, they’re much too young to sniff us out. And for Merlin’s sake, Credence, don’t call me ‘sir’ or any variation thereof in front of my family. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Percival,” Credence says with some effort, following Percival's quick purposeful strides through the halls. “Somehow… um. I don’t think random facts about your mother is going to convince your family we’re together.”
“Hmm?” A thick eyebrow lifts above the thunderclouds. “Really?”
Credence swallows. “I’m—I’m not really an expert on relationships,” he admits, “but I very much doubt you’d decide to tell me…” he flips through one file at random, “That your sister Nimüe’s favorite vacation spot is the Poconos. Or that she broke her tibia when she was thirteen.”
“I would definitely have told you about the tibia,” Percival says. “I pushed her out of a tree. She’s never let that go. Ever. I was her slave for two weeks.”
“Oh, but, well,” Credence stammers. “I… I wouldn’t know so much detail, Percival, that it fractured in three spots, and one of them was an inch long hairline fracture. I doubt I’d remember that much even if you did tell me. What… what I mean to say is, pardon me, but if you and I were in a relationship, a real one, I don’t… think I’d really care that much about Nimüe, sir. I’d care more about, well. You, sir.”
“Yes, Percival.” He chews on his bottom lip. “You.”
“What about me, Credence?” Percival sighs and crosses his arms. “I’m not exactly the most interesting of specimen, now am I? All I do is work, even my parents know that.”
“Oh, em…” Credence takes a quick breath. “But we should at least have the basics of our story straight, shouldn’t we?. When… when did we meet, sir?”
“...I’m not quite sure of the relevance,” Percival says slowly.
“Well, um… what about our first date?” Credence says, a bit more insistently. “Did we go out to dinner? Or a no-maj picture?” He shuffles his feet, a bit bashful. “How long have we been together, sir?”
“I haven’t really thought on that...”
“My point is, sir, we should be detail oriented,” Credence says with more enthusiasm. “It’s just… you’re focusing on the wrong details, I think. It doesn’t really matter if I know that your sister Morgana’s favorite food is cardinal salad, or that your mother has a collection of jello molds. It would be more important to know what your personal interests are.” He clutches the files to his chest and looks up expectantly.
“I don’t have time for personal interests, Credence,” Percival says with faint frustration.
Credence nibbles at his bottom lip thoughtfully. “You don’t care for music?” he presses. “Or paintings? Or even just taking walks, sir? Everyone has some sort of interest outside of work.” He smiles, a bit teasing. “Maybe we’re a perfectly boring couple who just relaxes on the couch and listens to the radio, hm? Maybe we just take walks in Central Park and read the newspaper together.”
“I—I suppose so,” Percival agrees, his brow still furrowed in frustration. “Though I don’t see why we would need to tell my family any of this. After all,” he says, adjusting his lapels firmly, “what we do as a couple is our own business. I don't expect my parents will interrogate us on our sleeping arrangements.”
Credence ignores the heat rising in his cheeks and suppresses his sigh. He tries again.
“Yes, Percival,” Credence begins, “but that's not what I meant. We still need to convince them that we are together and are genuinely in—in l-love.” Credence knows his face is cherry red by this point with frustration and the thought of being with Percival, both. “We have to at least act like we spend time together. Therefore, we need to decide what we would do together.” And here he looks down, a bit embarrassed.
“Honestly, Credence,” Percival says, “all I thought we had to do was have dinner with my family, avoid them for a week at the estate, Merlin knows the grounds are big enough, and hold hands when they do see us. I was rather hoping we wouldn’t sit through their interrogations.”
“Just in case,” Credence insists, feeling a bit helpless at this point. Percival is being frustratingly thick. A sudden thought comes to him, a realization as to why Percival might be so clueless about bringing a partner home. “Have you ever brought anyone home to meet your family before?”
Percival makes a vague sound in the back of his throat. “Not that I can particularly remember,” he finally admits after a few beats of silence. “Not that it’s a big deal, or anything like that. I’m only placating my mother now because she’s been especially persistent that I find someone to take care of me after the whole… Grindelwald fiasco.” He casts a severe glance at Credence before determinedly looking at the wall. “She's been very worried about me after that… whole thing. She seems to think having someone is helpful rather than a potential hinderance or exploitable weakness or something that can be used against me—”
“Well, Percival,” Credence interrupts carefully before he goes on a rant. He acutely feels the pressure of being the first “partner” Percival is bringing home to meet his family, “even if this were the thirtieth time you brought someone over, I think your family would still want to know that you’re happy with me. That we have a good relationship, that we l-love each other,” he says, still stumbling over the word love . Even if it’s just pretend, the thought of being Mr. Graves’ love... it makes Credence’s heart stutter in his chest.
“And so it makes sense,” Credence continues valiantly, “at least to me, that we’re comfortable with each other and that we… we like being with each other.” He blushes softly. “At least… that’s what I would like from a relationship.”
“Fine,” Percival sighs, looking very put upon. “We met through our mutual friend, Tina, and our first date was at a no-maj diner over coffee and apple pie,” he says. “If I’ve ever learned anything from this fucking job, it’s that it’s best to stick as close to the truth as possible in undercover cases, and this isn’t very different.”
Credence flushes even darker at the false reference to their very real first meeting. “That was very good pie,” he admits, smiling down at his shoes.
And Percival finally cracks a small, minuscule smile. “Yes… it was.”
Credence looks helplessly back at him, feeling his little flock of butterflies stirring up clouds in his belly. “I—I best get back to work,” he says, even though he finds his feet reluctant to move. “Um. We should talk about these things more over lunch, yeah?”
Percival’s smile grows wider, more relaxed and genuine. “Of course, Credence. I’ll see you at our usual place at one.”
“Yessir,” Credence breathes, watching as Percival turns on his heel with one last reminder of “none of that ‘sir’ nonsense,” and strides away. Credence is left feeling a bit dazed. “God in heaven. Help me,” he mutters faintly before scurrying back to his desk.
Credence is hunched over in his cubicle trying to coax a rather stubborn letter pigeon to please just stay still for one moment when Tina slams her hand against his desktop and the bird startles in a flurry of feathers and squawks.
“Tina!” Credence squeaks, flinching as she crosses her arms and makes that disapproving face that even Queenie dreads. “Oh, uh, did… did I miss a meeting?”
“No, Credence,” Tina says, foot tapping against the floor, her mouth a thin line, and Credence can’t find it in him to shoo the bird away when it finds shelter in the crook of his neck. Tina is terrifying when disappointed and she looks severely disappointed at the moment. “There was no meeting that you had to be at.”
“Oh,” Credence says uncomfortably. “That’s… good?”
“No, Credence, it is not good!” Tina huffs and perches on the edge of his desk, arms crossed. Her eyes flicker about suspiciously before she leans in close and hisses under her breath, “What in Mercy Lewis’s name is this gossip going around about you eloping to Paris with Director Graves?!”
Credence chokes on nothing and devolves into a fit of hacking coughs. The pigeon coos irritably and flies away, agitated, taking the bundle of checks attached to his leg with him.
“ W-what?! ”
“It’s going around the whole office!” Tina says, cheeks red with anger. “And I had to hear it from Alma Velasquez and Dizzy Hendersen at the water fountain! And not you! My friend!” Her mouth twists down into a displeased scowl. “Why didn’t you tell me?! Is it true?”
“N-no! Of course not!” Credence stammers in shock, voice high with alarm. “We’re—we’re not eloping! No one’s eloping! We haven’t even said anything about marriage!”
“But you are together?” Tina asks, eyes wide. “Morgana’s skirts, Credence. He’s nearly twice your age! What were you thinking? When did this even happen?!”
“W-well, it’s, erm—” Credence feels as though his entire face is a bright pink, even his ears feel hot, but before he can even think, words are bubbling up unbidden. He's fully indignant when he says, “Tina, how could you? Mis— Percival is a wonderful, loving man, and I’d be so lucky to have a man like him in my life, wouldn’t I? I won’t have you badmouthing my—” he stumbles, friend, pretend lover—
“His partner,” interrupts Percival, appearing around the bend of Credence's cubicle with a stern frown directed at Tina. Percival's disapproval is much more powerful than anything Credence could’ve said, he finds himself thinking dazedly.
“Sir!” Tina stands hurriedly, nearly stumbling over her own legs. “I was—” She cuts herself off with a slight pause before puffing up with righteous indignation scraped up from somewhere, and she says, “He’s your subordinate!” She even points with her finger, nearly poking Percival in his broad chest, and Credence can’t help but be touched by her protectiveness despite himself.
“That is frankly none of your business, Goldstein,” Percival says sternly, quelling her protests immediately. “We do not work in the same department, and MACUSA does not have interdepartmental fraternization rules, which you might have known if you ever paid attention during Human Resources courses, Auror.”
Tina visibly wilts a little. “Well, sir,” she says, straightening her jacket. “Despite all that, Credence is still my friend. A very precious friend. And Queenie and I will be very angry if anything or anyone hurts him. Am I being clear? Sir?” she tacks on, trying to preserve some element of respect.
Credence is quite impressed that she doesn’t quail or run away under the weight of Percival's disapproving glare. “Don’t you have work to do, Goldstein? Last I remember, the Williamsburg case paperwork still hasn’t been submitted yet.”
For some reason, this makes Tina give the smallest smile of approval. “Of course, sir. Right away sir.” She moves to walk out the door, but before she goes, she turns and winks and says, “congratulations, Credence!” And then she flees, the soles of her flats clapping against the tiled floor.
Credence blinks, stunned, and unsure of what to do about the situation now that he’s alone with Percival. “Um…,” he begins, unable to meet Percival's eyes. “I have no idea how it seems like everyone in MACUSA suddenly thinks we’re together. I promise, Mr. G—Percival, I haven’t said anything to anyone—”
“I did,” Percival cuts in smoothly, and Credence’s mouth snaps shut with an audible click. “We need to be fully invested in the situation. It’s no different from an undercover assignment. If my mother senses any hint of weakness or inconsistency, she’ll never believe us. And naturally, any relationship of mine would be known throughout the office by busybodies, not to mention she likely has people here—”
Credence must look shocked and disbelieving and just the slightest bit overwhelmed because Percival begins to backtrack immediately. “I’m sorry,” he says quickly, “I should’ve told you all of this before. I know this is a lot all at once.”
“It’s.... fine,” Credence says weakly, slumping back in his chair. “It’s just… lying to Tina is hard for me.” He looks up at Percival, feeling a bit shy as he admits, “I’m afraid she’s going to be furious when she figures out it’s a fraud.”
Percival shifts, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “You just leave her to me.” He rubs the back of his neck. “If anything I’m sure she’ll be much angrier at her boss than her friend for lying. She clearly thinks I’m taking advantage of you.”
Credence clears his throat and he doesn’t know where the sudden burst of courage springs from, but he finds himself saying wryly, “She’s not wrong. You’re taking advantage of how nice I am to coerce me into this charade,” he adds with a teasing grin.
“Credence—” Percival begins, looking stricken.
“It’s okay,” Credence quickly interrupts. “I agreed to this.” The courage warms him enough to stand up out of his seat and walk closer to Percival. He tentatively brings his hand up, curving his palm along the slope of Percival’s jaw. His heart is beating so fast and so loud, Percival probably hears it too. “We’ll make this work,” Credence says, determined, voice firm. “And if anything… it’s not exactly a hardship, spending Christmas with you.”
Percival is staring at him as though he’s never seen him in his life. “You…”
“You’re my friend, aren’t you?” Credence smiles, his shyness returning and making him feel slightly overwhelmed. He's probably overstepping his boundaries. He quickly drops his hand and takes a small step backwards. “I’d be glad to meet your family either way.” Credence hopes his voice sounds casual, and not overly invested like he feels.
Percival looks a little devastated. “You’re too nice, Credence,” he murmurs, leaning in, and Credence nearly flinches back in shock when their foreheads gently touch.
Credence’s heart is going to pound its way out of his chest. He can barely breathe with Percival so close, the edge of his cologne filling the air between them, clean and fresh and earthy. Somehow, he somehow manages to ask, “Isn’t that why you like me?” His voice sounds strangled and weak to his own ears.
“Maybe.” Percival opens his mouth, possibly to say something more, but he doesn’t get the chance as they hear the sharp slam of a door somewhere down the hall. The loud noise bursts the little bubble of silence that had filled up the room. Graves jerks away, eyes wild with something Credence doesn’t recognize, and quickly takes a step backwards. He does so just in time as Karen Philips returns to the cubicle next to Credence’s, back from her break and giving them some suspicious side eye.
Percival clears his throat. His eyes are still strangely bright as he says gruffly, “I’ll see you at lunch, yes?”
Credence swallows around his tongue and somehow manages to nod. Before his head even stops moving, Percival is sweeping away so quickly that Credence barely has time to blink in surprise. He’s not fleeing, Credence tells himself, because who in the world would Percival Graves flee from? Him? God no.
Credence isn’t sure exactly what he’d been expecting of Percival’s family home, but a sweet faced house tucked snuggly into the countryside hadn’t been it.
They’re several hours out of the city now and they've just passed a tiny no-maj town of small worn down houses and a Main Street with barely a post office and general store. Beyond that, snow-covered farms are speckled sporadically along the length of Long Island with little farm houses in the middle of bright white swatches of fields. Everything feels expansive and sparse this far out east, and Credence had never been outside of the city before. He jumps a little when a trotting horse huffs at them in their sleek Model T and then wanders away through the sprawling expanse of blindingly white powdered snow as they rumble through winding dirt roads.
Percival chuckles at him, and Credence’s cheeks burn red not from the biting cold but a sheepish embarrassment. “Have you never seen a horse before, Credence?”
“'Course I have,” Credence mutters, fiddling with his fingers, engloved in warm buttery leather; gifts from Percival, because he wants Credence looking his best and brightest for his parents, of course. Nothing more. “'S just a bit strange, is all. I always thought your family would’ve lived… well, in the neighborhoods out on Long Island. Dragon’s Nest or West Egg. The ones with wizards only communities.”
“Dragon’s Nest,” Percival snorts. “In some glorified mansion? Merlin, no. Mama would go insane. Not to mention bankrupt.” He lifts a brow. “Just how rich do you take my family for, Credence?”
Credence mumbles a bit to himself before turning away. He doesn’t quite know what to say that wouldn’t sound offensive.
Percival laughs, not unkindly and says, “We’re a family line of Aurors. Aurors don’t make that much money.”
Credence purses his lips and looks at Percival balefully. “Well, I didn’t know that,” he complains lightly, unable to stay embarrassed in the face of Percival’s amusement. Every deep rich laugh sends new sparks aflutter in Credence’s stomach, makes him feel light and just the slightest bit lightheaded. “You always dress so well! And… and you have—” He waves his hands vaguely. “Manners.”
“Well, not everyone has my good taste,” Percival teases. “And we Directors do have a nice salary. But not West Egg nice. Those are mostly politicians and trust funds and wizarding royalty,” he says with no small amount of distaste, but his mouth is still curved in a teasing smile.
“Well, now I know, don’t I?” Credence huffs as he straightens his jacket. “Eyes on the road, Percival.”
“Yessir,” says Percival, still laughing, and Credence suddenly feels like a sun’s doused in him light and warmth.
It's a stupid thing to feel, as it’s disgustingly cold out. Credence’s eyes sting and his fingers burn with numbness from the freezing winter. Even the numerous warming charms Percival had cast on him waver from time to time in the face of the sharp wind. At least it’s a little warmer in the tiny, but open cabin of the vehicle.
Even so, despite the freezing weather, Credence’s chest judders with excitement. He’s sitting in a car, a real one, not like the dinky little mechanical models in Macy’s display windows or set out in Times Square. Every bump, every jerk of the car on the dirt road makes him jump and reminds him of his excitement as well as a hint of anticipation of what's to come and Percival’s mouth quirk with amusement.
“We’re almost there,” Percival says, and his words make Credence’s heart swell up into his throat.
He had been in his own head for the entire ride out into the country that he had nearly forgotten he was about to meet Percival’s family. As his fake partner. The anxiety wells up again, nearly choking him, and God no, he’s not ready, he doesn’t know if he can do this, what if he fails, they’re going to see right through him, he’s not good enough for Percival, certainly Percival would normally never even glance at a wench like him and his family will see that all too clearly, they're going to know him for a fraud and an imposter, Percival will be so disappointed and—
Credence almost asks Percival to turn the car around to go back, but the T Model is already juddering to a stop in front of a sprawling cottage. It’s a beautiful house, dusted with snow like everything else, with wood-framed wide glass windows, stone washed walls and winterdead flower beds, surrounded by tall spruces and a low garden wall. It looks like a house straight out of the no-maj fairytale books Chastity used to hide under her bed, ripped right out of one of the dog-eared pages. It’s big, but not too big; it’s certainly no mansion, but if Credence didn’t know any better, he’d think it had grown right out of the ground, grown of the land with trellises and stubborn vines clinging to the side of the walls, impossibly green despite the freezing winter.
“It’s not much,” says Percival, and Credence turns to him agape, because not much?
“It’s perfect,” Credence says, a little too breathy for his comfort, so he firms his voice. “It’s… it’s a lovely home, Percival, don’t be silly.”
“Well, it’s not West Egg, but it’ll do.” Percival’s tense shoulders relax a little and he shuts off the car with a loud shudder. “Come on, darling. They’re waiting for us.”
Darling. The word makes Credence stumble over his own feet, and he reminds himself he needs to get used to this. It’s only a charade, but he has to play his part too. He hurries after Percival and the luggage floating behind him, trepidation quickening his heartbeat as they walk up the little stone paved path to the house.
The man who opens the door is a thin, reedy, bespeckled man who blinks at them mildly. He has Percival’s handsome jaw and straight nose. He can’t be anyone but his father, and his thin mouth quirks up in the exact same way as Percival’s in greeting.
“Well, isn’t this a surprise?” the man says, and his voice is dry but not unwelcoming. “I see your mother can stop having heart attacks every time you visit and there’s no wife, hm, Percy?”
“Dad,” says Percival, exasperated, and Credence’s suspicion is confirmed.
“Come on in, boys.” Percival’s father makes another tiny smile as he steps aside. “Before you catch your deaths in the cold.”
They stomp the snow off their boots in the foyer, and just as Percival’s father is gallantly taking Credence’s coat, Percival looks up and sighs. “Hello, Mama.”
Mrs. Graves is the opposite of her big-glasses, small-shouldered husband. She’s tall and devastatingly elegant where she stands on the staircase, silver curls swept up off her shoulders, long velvet blue robes and tasteful gleaming pearls at her ears and throat. Her hawklike, dark eyes she shares with her son are pinned on Credence. He can clearly see how commanding she must’ve been when she’d had Percival’s title as Director of Magical Security. She’s terrifying. Especially as she glides down the steps and approaches, a gleam in her eyes as if she’s a cat hunting a little mouse.
“M-Mrs. Graves,” Credence stammers as she towers over him, but she only gives a little hum that renders him quiet and trembling before her assessing gleam softens into a warm smile.
“Please, Credence.” She laughs faintly as she extends her hand. Credence takes it in his own automatically to shake. “Call me Elaine. We’re all family here.”
“Ah, well,” Credence’s knees feel suspiciously weak as he lets go of her hand. “You’re… very kind.”
“And you’re very sweet.” Elaine’s smile turns wry. “Though I’m guessing that my egghead of a husband didn’t introduce himself.” Her eyes flash with some displeasure, but her husband merely laughs.
“Well, I had to get them out of the frigid cold, didn’t I, Ellie?” he says cheerfully.
Elaine tsks her tongue. “This is Albert. Please do us all a favor and ignore him. Merlin knows he does the same to us. He'd much rather live in his study buried in books if he could.” Her voice is snippy, but there’s an underlying warmth of affection that makes Albert beam with glee.
“Love you too, Ellie.” Credence is unnecessarily delighted to see that Albert has to go on his toes to peck his wife’s cheek. Albert sweeps up a tall set of spiraling stairs with Credence and Percival’s trunks floating behind him as Ellie harrumphs and fixes a curl by the pink shell of her ear, the only indication of a blush.
“Your parents are so cute,” Credence whispers to Percival, who just sighs, long-suffering, and unwraps Credence’s scarf from his neck familiarly.
“Incorrigible, is what they are. Don’t encourage them.” Credence isn’t expecting the gentle press of lips to his forehead at all, and he has to stop his automatic startle reflex and instead lean into it. His lashes flutter closed of their own volition but he manages to pull away after selfishly relishing in a warm, tender moment that lasts too briefly.
“Aww,” comes a sudden coo, and Credence turns his head a little to see a very tall woman in the doorway of a side room. “Who knew Percy had a heart behind all that…” She makes a vaguely insulting gesture, and Credence guesses she’s one of Percival’s many sisters. “And here we thought you were going to be the family bachelor forever.”
“Hello to you too, Morgana,” says Percival, and Credence blinks because she’s in front of them very suddenly, holding out her hand and Credence looks up with big wide eyes.
Morgana is even taller than Percival, but she has the same strong gaze, even if her mouth is softer. She’s also dressed in loose, gauzy white linen robes despite the cold that Percival would never be caught dead in. Credence can’t help but think of the little statues of Jesus Christ he’d see in the pious churches Mary Lou would sometimes visit to badger and preach at the parishioners. He glances down and is startled to see her feet are utterly bare, a seashell pink lacquer glinting on her toes.
“Pleased to meet you,” Morgana says eagerly, her shake hard and rough, and Credence is swaying from the force of it. “What’s your name, huh, cutie?”
Credence goes a brilliant red and stammers, “C-Credence, ma’am,” barely managing to get the syllables of his name out from beneath his leaden tongue.
Morgana grins widely, her smile blade sharp when she turns it to Percival. “Oh, Percy,” she says, full of gleeful delight. “I like this one.”
Percival laughs deeply. “So do I. So hands off.” His voice is light and fond, but there’s a glint of warning in his eye that makes Credence’s cheeks flush even darker. He reaches over to squeeze Percival’s hand lightly, his chest feeling ever warmer at the sight of the mildly surprised look on Percival’s face.
“Oh, I can see that,” Morgana says, the curve of her smile turning wicked. She’s staring at the twined clasp of their fingers and Credence wills away the itch to take his hand back.
There’s a soft clearing of a throat, and Credence turns to see Mrs. Graves’ arching her brow at her children. “And just where have our manners gone? Percy, you should bring Credence upstairs. I’m sure you’re both very tired from your long drive from Manhattan. You can meet the others later once we get the dinner started.”
Percival all but drags Credence up the stairs, and Credence almost thinks Percival is fleeing from his family. He doesn’t miss the sly little wink Morgana gives him as they round the bend of the spiral staircase, and it doesn’t help the flush to his cheeks in the slightest.
“We’ve made up your old room for you both, Percy!” he hears Mrs. Graves call, and Credence stumbles a little, because even the idea of being alone with Percival in his childhood room makes his stomach flutter with nerves.
Percival grumbles something under his breath, and Credence giggles breathlessly, because this situation is so utterly ridiculous and he can’t remember how he got here.
“There’s no rush!” Credence says as he’s pulled quickly down a corridor. He stares up at the many pictures and portraits on the wall, their inhabitants looking down on him with intense and critical interest. He halts in his steps when he sees a teenage Percival in a picturesque field, squished between three other girls who Credence guesses are his sisters. They’re all dark haired and dark eyed and smiling and waving, except Percival who just glowers moodily and runs his fingers through his too-long hair.
“Oh, Percival! These are precious!” For some reason, Credence thinks he sees the tips of Teenage Percival’s ears grow darker in the picture.
“Oh, for Merlin’s sake,” Percival snaps and pulls him into a room, the door closing behind them with a distinct slam. “Mama must’ve put those up when she heard I was bringing you.”
Credence giggles again, and he’s glad to see a bit of Percival’s irritation ease away in favor of exasperation. “I’m sure they don’t mean any harm,” he says.
“I can already tell they’re suspicious,” says Percival as though he hasn’t heard any of what Credence just said. “Mama didn’t ask any questions or try and pull up your family tree. They know. Don’t be so nice, Credence, they’ll never buy it—”
“Well it’s not as you’re as much of a help either,” Credence mutters, a bit annoyed.
“What do you mean? I’m the most convincing out of all of us if anything.”
“Yes, yes, flinching away from my every touch and looking surprised when I so much as kiss your cheek is so convincing.” Credence rolls his eyes. “I don’t know how you survived all those undercover missions if you can’t even kiss your pretend partner.” He sighs and shakes his head and takes to unpacking.
Despite Percival’s attitude, Credence can’t help but be a little bit pleased about the situation. He’s out of the cold, warm from being close to Percival, and the room they’ve been given is so quaint. It does seem as though Mrs. Graves has cleaned up a bit since her son moved out several decades ago.
The walls are a wallpapered pale blue, and the enormous windows that overlook the back garden are dressed in tall velvet drapes. The huge bed in the middle of the room takes up much of the space, but there’s a floor to ceiling wall of nooks and crevices used for shelving trinkets and books upon books upon books. He can easily picture a younger Percival curled up by the fireplace, with a wavering candle lit by his side as he pours over spellbooks and scribbles letters to friends.
Still, Credence is a bit disappointed to see that the bed, the night stands on either side, and an elaborately carved dresser already fill much of the room. With the armchair by the fireplace and their trunks placed against the end of the bed, there's barely any space to walk around at all. Credence doesn’t see how they would be able to transfigure the armchair into a second bed in such a small space, which had been his plan all along to avoid any awkward sleeping situations.
They’ll burn that bridge when they get to it, he tells himself and sets out his dinner robes atop the soft comforter. He looks up to see Percival already dressed for dinner, and he nearly swallows his tongue at the sight of him. Credence is used to seeing Percival at work in sleek suits and tailored robes, but seeing him dressed down in a chunky-knit forest green cardigan and form-fitted slacks is another thing altogether.
“What?” Percival asks when he catches Credence staring.
“N-nothing,” Credence manages. “I—I like your sweater,” he says and he wants to sink into the floorboards for saying something so stupid.
Percival looks down at the aforementioned cardigan and picks at the hem, humming consideringly. “My mother sent it to me last year, and I haven’t had a chance to wear it yet. I suppose now is as good a time as any.”
“It looks great,” Credence croaks.
Percival laughs, and gestures at the austere formal robes Credence laid out on the bed. “You don’t have to be so dressed up. It’s only dinner, Credence.”
Credence flushes a little and fiddles with the hem of his dress robes, gifts from Queenie for Hanukkah. “I just wanted to make a nice impression,” he says weakly. He shuffles his feet. “Now… I’m not sure.” He looks over his trunk packed for the week and gnaws at his thumbnail nervously. “Help me pick?”
Percival clears his throat. “You… I’m sure you’ll look fine in anything you’ve brought, Credence.”
“That’s very kind of you, Percival,” says Credence, a bit flustered, “But that doesn’t really help me in this situation. Are you sure your parents won’t mind if I don’t wear formal robes?”
“Trust me. This family is the least likely to complain that you’re not in a black tie,” says Percival wryly. He walks over to Credence’s trunk and starts rummaging through the contents. “We rarely dress up for each other when it’s just immediate family, and it’s only Christmas Eve, Credence. It’s not the big dinner yet,” he adds with a roll of his eyes and voice colored with disdain when he says big dinner. “No need to be so formal.”
“Okay,” says Credence, relaxing a little as Graves drops a dark maroon sweater and some comfortable pants into his arms. “I’m just a little nervous.” He looks up with big eyes, chewing on his bottom lip. “Even… even if I’m not your real boyfriend, Percival, I really want your family to like me.”
Percival stares for a moment, and Credence is about to ask if he’s alright when Percival visibly shakes himself. “I… I understand. But if I’m honest I think they like you a little too much already.” The last part is muttered and doesn’t help much with Credence’s confusion.
Before he has the chance to ask about it, there’s a knock at their door and the singsong tone of Morgana’s voice, “Hurry up in there, lovebirds! I know it’s hard to keep your hands off each other, but dinner is ready. Don't keep us all waiting!” She laughs as her voice fades down the hall.
“Demon,” says Percival under his breath, and Credence daringly pokes his shoulder despite the warm heat that colors his cheeks at Morgana’s words.
“Be nice,” he giggles.
Percival makes a noise of fond irritation. “Change,” he orders gently. “I’ll wait downstairs for you and distract my sisters before they decide to swarm you.”
“So considerate,” Credence says, and his sudden courage makes his heart shudder behind his rib cage, especially when Percival smiles, eyes crinkling at him in response.
“But of course,” Percival says and slips out the door. “Five minutes and I’m coming back up here to drag you down though. I can only take so much of them on my own.”
“Cruel man,” Credence murmurs and the door shuts on Percival’s deep, rumbling laugh that Credence wants to steal and hide away in his hands. He takes several long breaths to calm himself down the way Tina taught him and he sheds his robes and pulls on the fuzzy soft sweater and the tailored pants. He fusses at his messy curls in the mirror of the dresser and pinches his cheeks for some color—he doesn’t want to look like some corpse at the table.
“You took on Grindelwald,” Credence tells his pale reflection. “You can do this. It’s for Percival.” His nerves recede just a little and he heads down the stairs, holding tight to the railing and feeling as though he’s headed for the gallows.
The sight of Percival holding a glass of wine and smiling gently and looking so utterly comfortable immediately eases the tension in Credence’s shoulders. Somehow, he finds it incredibly easy to slip his slim arm into the crook of Percival’s elbow and squeeze to get his attention.
“Hi,” Credence whispers, still feeling a bit shy. He looks to the woman Percival’s talking with—another of his sisters no doubt. “I’m Credence, Percival’s boyfriend,” he says, and he’s proud of the way his voice doesn’t waver, the nerves settling in his belly when Percival twines their hands together.
“Merlin, you’re young,” says the woman, and Credence goes red again, as he often does around the Graveses. “And beautiful. You don’t do things halfway, Percy, do you?”
“Nimue,” says Percival forbiddingly.
Nimue smirks and tosses her dark curls over one shoulder. Her pouty mouth is lipsticked a violent starlet red, a silky floral dress floating scandalously above her knees. This is the type of woman Mary Lou would’ve glared at on the street and told her children to pray for after dinner.
“Oh, sweets,” she says to Credence, “I don’t mean anything by it. If anything, you make Percy look younger.” She winks at him, the curve of her smile kind and free of malice. “And such cheekbones! I’d be jealous if I didn’t have my own.”
“Always full of humility, Nim,” says Percival.
“Humility never got anyone anywhere, Percy,” Nimue declares with an air of wisdom. “You should know. Must’ve taken some spine to ask this one on a date.”
“It’s okay,” Credence finally pipes up. “I have spine enough for both of us.”
Nimue’s laughter sounds like silver bells instead of Morgana’s witchy cackles. “I like him,” she echoes and reaches out to pinch his cheek. “If you’re ever interested in modelling, sweets, ask Percy for my card. My photographers at Wicked Witchlings would just adore you.”
Credence barely manages a weak “Thank you,” before she sweeps away to the kitchen, leaving behind her the lingering scent of jasmine and iris.
“She’s an editor for a fashion magazine,” Percival helpfully supplies, hand sliding low on Credence’s waist as he murmurs in his ear. “She lives in Paris and we don’t get to see her very often. She only ever has time to come home for the holidays,” he says, and Credence squeezes his hand when he hears the soft sadness in his tone.
Credence only knows too well how it feels to be away from his sister all of the time. He hasn’t seen Modesty for months, not since she’d been adopted by a wizarding family and rushed off to Ilvermorny to catch up on the magical education she had been denied by Mary Lou. They exchange letters by pigeon, but it’s just not the same. Seeing Modesty’s cramped, eager handwriting on a parchment roll is so very different from being able to hold her in person and see her brilliant smile that is given so easily now that they’re away from the woman who’d pretended to be their mother.
“She’s here now, and that’s what’s important, isn’t it?” Credence says quietly, and a soft brightness returns to Percival’s eyes.
“Yes, exactly.” Credence doesn’t think he’ll ever be tired of having that gentle smile turned on him, seeing the stiff righteous Magical Director gone kind and happy for a precious few moments. Percival pats his hand and adds, “And I think it’s about time we stopped stalling and head into the dining room, don’t you think?”
Credence hums as if considering it. “I don’t know. Queenie’s always going on about being fashionably late…”
“I think we’ll leave that to Guinevere for tonight,” Percival says drily, and Credence doesn’t fuss as he’s pulled into the dining room, the large table already set with gorgeous blue china and delicate crystal wine glasses and silverware so well-shined it gleams. Lit candles float lazily in the air, accompanied by bottles of champagne and apple cider and wine, and Credence will never get tired of seeing magic used so casually like this.
Percival draws out a chair for him, a gentleman to the core, and Credence sits carefully, a bit relieved to see there’s only a single fork and knife, not like some of the MACUSA galas he’s been forced to attend, where there is more cutlery than he knows what to do with.
“Aw.” Morgana is pouting across from Credence, two very handsome men in garishly colored knitted sweaters sitting on either side of her. “I wanted to sit by Credence!”
“You want a lot of things, Morgana,” says Nimue unapologetically. She snags the seat to Credence’s left and plucks a buttered roll of bread from the basket without a hint of shame. “She’s the spoiled one of the family,” she informs Credence, and Credence hides his smile to be polite.
“Not as spoiled as baby Percy,” Morgana retorts, and Credence can’t help it but snort, to think of anyone even daring to call his Percival a baby. Percival, who is currently glaring daggers at his sister as she grins across the table. “Aw, don’t be like that, Perce.”
“I am not spoiled,” Percival says stiffly, jutting out his jaw. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, I’ll have you know.”
“Well,” Credence says wryly, and that makes Morgana, Nimue, and the men devolve into loud laughter.
“I am betrayed,” Percival mocks, clutching at his heart, and Credence leans over to press a kiss to his cheek in apology.
“You just make it too easy,” Credence soothes, patting his broad chest lightly.
“Yes, Percy, stop letting your sisters tease you so,” Elaine says as she takes her seat at one end of the table, Albert trailing behind at her heels. “Gwen is late as usual, so we’ll just get started without her before all the food goes cold.” As she settles into her chair, she claps her hands lightly, and with a soft pop, dishes appear on the table, too many to count.
Credence’s eyes widen at the sight of all the food. There’s an enormous platter of roast beef, trussed and garnished with parsley, the centerpiece of the spread. Further down, Credence sees an elaborately molded gelatin ham salad, thick spiced sausages and baked crispy potatoes, stuffed tomatoes and fried trout, swirled deviled eggs and little lentil cakes, endless dinner rolls and enormous boats of gravy. There's so much food for what Percival had called their family dinner that Credence can't even imagine how much more there will be at the big dinner the next evening.
“Ugh, ham salad,” says Percival with some disgust, and Elaine points at him with her fork.
“You will eat it and you will like it, Percival Tristan Graves! It’s all the rage in my book club. It took a lot of practice, but I finally have the perfect recipe,” Elaine says, looking rather pleased with herself.
“Can’t wait to try it, dear,” Albert soothes and helps himself to a thick cut of the roast, drowning the meat in gravy.
Credence doesn’t say anything when the jelly salad helpfully scooped onto his plate by Elaine wiggles suspiciously, but he hums in delight when the flaky fried trout melts on his tongue. “You’re a very good cook, Mrs—I mean, Elaine.”
“Thank you, Credence,” Elaine says warmly. She glares at her children, who very obviously tread around her ham salad with blatant caution, but they all wilt in turn and slice into their own pieces under her expectant stare.
“Yeah, delicious,” Percival mutters around his own mouthful of ham salad, looking slightly green at the gills as he swallows his bite.
“It's actually quite good,” says one of Morgana’s poor men. The other man to her left nods quickly.
“Thank you, Jeremy,” says Elaine primly. “You and Walter are always very gracious, unlike the cretins I raised. ”
“Mama, what on earth are you eating?”
All of the family turn to see a wind-chafed lady with a babe on her hip staring at the gelatinous salad with horror. Her hair is tousled and mussed, and she’s followed closely by another woman into the dining room. A little girl runs in from behind them and tosses herself into Elaine’s arms with a joyful cry.
“Isolde!” Elaine exclaims, holding the little girl tightly. “Oh, how much you've grown! Just look at you!”
“Guinevere!” Morgana cheers and in the distraction, discretely vanishes the slice of gelatin from her plate. “Thank Merlin you're finally here. ”
Elaine is too busy peppering kisses to her granddaughter’s cheeks and reaching up to take the baby from her daughter’s arms to notice her other children’s treachery as they follow Morgana’s lead. “My sweet grandchildren!” Elaine chirps happily, pleased as a peach. “I was so sure your mothers would be stuck at home for all of the holidays!”
“Sorry, Ellie,” Guinevere’s wife says cheerily. She’s a sweet looking thing, all big eyes and skin browned from the sun. “You know we can’t side-along Apparate with the kids, and Gwen can’t read directions to save her life.”
“It’s not my fault all these no-maj roads are so confusing,” Guinevere mutters.
“It’s alright, Laurel,” says Elaine sweetly. “I know you must’ve tried. We need to get the Floo network set up at the house one of these days so you can all visit more often.” Albert shifts guiltily in his seat at her words and pointedly takes another large bite of ham salad. Isolde giggles as she takes the seat next to her grandfather.
“And risk the children getting sent down the wrong chimney?” Guinevere says indignantly. “I don’t think so.”
“Gwen, we’ve been over this,” laughs Laurel. “It’s perfectly safe! Even the British Ministry says it’s not a problem—”
The women begin what sounds like a lighthearted, longworn argument as they walk around the table to their chairs. Guinevere pauses to peck her sisters and Percival affectionately on their cheeks before she settles into her seat and everyone begins eating again, with much more enjoyment now that the jellied ham has mysteriously disappeared. Elaine still hasn’t noticed yet, distracted by the baby on her knee.
“You can reassure them it’s safe, Percival,” Credence leans in to murmur quietly. “Your office oversaw the final tests.”
“And get into the middle of this argument?” Percival says, shaking his head. “I don’t think so. Sometimes I think they just like their little bickerings. It gives them something to debate over.” He rolls his eyes. “It adds ‘spice’ back to their relationship now that the children are here.”
Credence blinks slowly. “Couples do that?”
“Some do,” says Percival. “Gwen does,” he adds. “She’s always ready for a fight.”
Credence makes a face. “Well, we don’t,” he says succinctly and sips at his wine. The alcohol makes him calmer and warmer and just the littlest bit braver. He’s so busy tucking back into his food that he doesn't notice Percival’s expression of shock, and then slow, warming pleasure.
Dinner is a happy affair, filled with loud laughter and warm jokes, but by the time the dishes are replaced by dessert, Credence is drooping against Percival’s shoulder, exhausted from the long day. He’s barely awake enough to pick at the cherry tarts and chocolate creams that Elaine must have spent tireless hours creating. It’s only when his head nearly slips from Percival’s shoulder that he realizes he had fallen asleep. He looks up, rubbing at his eyes drowsily.
Percival’s voice is endlessly tender when he murmurs, “Ready for bed, darling?” and Credence almost believes in that moment that they really are together, and Percival really does love him.
“Mm,” Credence hums, because he can’t trust his voice, and the warm, broad hand cupping his cheek doesn’t help, thumb gently sweeping along the line of his jaw.
“Let’s get you upstairs,” Percival says, and excuses the both of them. Credence is just a little too tired and a little too dazed to protest as Percival pulls out his chair and gently drags him up, a strong arm supporting his waist, big hand sweet and heavy on the dip of his spine.
The trek up the stairs feels like climbing a mountain and the short walk down the corridor feels like an endless stretch, and after what feels like an eternity, they finally reach their room. A fire is already crackling merrily in the fireplace, casting a warm glow against the walls and heats up the whole room. The coziness only makes Credence sleepier.
Credence is barely awake as he strips out of his nice sweater and nice slacks, unhearing of Percival’s surprised murmur of protest as he steps out of his clothes to pull on his sleeping gown. Another gift from Queenie, it’s soft and fluttery around his thighs, and he doesn’t hesitate before slipping under the warm covers, a little sigh escaping him as he melts into the fluffed pillows and feather mattress.
He only peeks open an eye when he doesn’t feel the shift of the mattress under Percival’s weight. The useless man is still standing in the center of the room, mouth open, eyes wide, still in his dinner clothes, and Credence mutters irritably, “Bed, Percival,” patting the mattress for emphasis.
“Credence,” Percival says hesitantly, and his tone wakes Credence a little. “What are you wearing?”
Credence peels back the covers and looks down at his sleeping clothes, wondering sleepily if there’s anything wrong with the guazy white gown that skims the tops of his knees.
Queenie had taken him shopping after she found out about their “relationship,” and told him he must start wearing wizarding pajamas instead of his old, worn out no-maj things. She had suggested scandalously short gowns made of ruffled lace and translucent silk with sly winks and wide smiles to Credence’s horrified embarrassment, and he had refused all of them, accepting only the most conservative plain articles from her selection.
“My sleeping gown,” Credence replies slowly, brow furrowed and feeling confused about Percival’s reaction. Should he have gone with the lace and silk instead? Is that what wizards and witches really wore to sleep?
He hears Percival’s deepthroated sigh and some mumbling that sounds a lot like “fucking Queenie,” as he changes, and there’s the dip in the mattress as Percival finally gets into bed, muttering a spell to bank the fire in the hearth. Credence is already drifting off again as Percival pulls the covers over them both.
Credence knows it's not real and it's only pretend, but he daringly snuggles in close to Percival who is laying stiffly next to him. He curls up against Percival, chasing his warmth and comforting in the closeness. In the morning, he'll blame the wine. In the cocoon of the dark, he feels like he can have this, just for now. He drifts off to sleep with a content sigh, feeling full and happy and warm.
Credence wakes slowly, like he’s floating up from the bottom of a spring pool. He can feel warm sunlight kissing the crest of his cheek and something is pinning him to the softness of the mattress, heavy and strong. Credence feels a soft puff of air against his nape and he realizes, like a sudden bolt of lightning, someone else is in bed with him. He startles to full awakeness at that stunning, impossible thought, and he turns with some difficulty.
Percival looks almost sweet when he’s asleep. The shadow at his jaw is purple blue in the morning light, his dark lashes fluttering every so often with his dreams, and his mouth opens a little on a deep sigh, dark hair crushed against his pillow. With the sun spilling from the open curtains, he’s the most handsome Credence has ever seen him.
Credence burns with quiet delight. They’re tangled together underneath the covers, legs and hips bumping up against each other innocently, and Credence feels a bit squished from how tight Percival is clutching him to his broad, warm chest. It's stiflingly warm and Credence feels very in need of both a toilet and a bath, but he wouldn’t move for anything, not when he might never have this chance again.
With a sudden swell of courage that comes from God knows where, Credence leans in and presses a chaste kiss to the corner of Percival’s mouth. He pulls away immediately, cheeks flushing red when Percival moves in his sleep and murmurs softly, feeling like a thief caught red-handed.
“Percival?” Credence whispers and those dark eyes blink open blearily.
Credence smiles because Percival is just too cute in the mornings, rumpled and sleepy . “I’m going to take a bath and get ready. I’ll be right back, okay?”
Percival makes another noise that Credence assumes is affirming, but it takes Credence a good minute to find a way to squirm out of Percival’s sleepy, needy embrace. His arm is still draped heavily across Credence’s waist, but he does not mind. Still feeling brace, he leans in and brushes his lips against Percival’s whiskery cheek, knowing Percival has already slipped back into a doze.
Credence finally slips out from beneath the covers and digs through his trunk for a fresh shirt and some nice pants for breakfast. He pads quietly into the attached bathroom, glad to see it’s very clean and neat.
A huge clawfoot porcelain tub is the centerpiece, and he fiddles with the spout until hot water is flowing, magically filling the tub quicker than any no-maj plumbing would've been able to do. He scrounges through some drawers for shampoo and manages to find soap bottles that make pink, silky suds bubble up lushly in the basin. The hot water laps gently at his shoulders when he sinks into the tub, immediately pinking his pale skin from the heat, and his sighs echo against the walls as he wets his curls. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the luxury of hot water, not when his old baths used to be a few inches of freezing water in an iron bucket and a rough old sponge. This is heavenly.
The pink suds leave Credence’s skin supple smooth and tight, and he washes his face, scrubbing at his ears. It’s when he’s dunking his head underneath the water that the door clicks open, so he doesn’t hear anything out of place as he resurfaces and pats his wet cheeks with a hand towel. He jolts up and drops his towel when he hears a soft gasp, and Credence looks up to see Percival standing in the doorway of the bathroom, frozen like a startled deer with cheeks tinged red, whether from the steam of the bath or his abject embarrassment, Credence is unsure.
They stare at each other for a long moment, Percival’s eyes flickering rapidly as though he doesn’t know where to put them, traveling from Credence’s face to his chest to the bathwater to the walls, before catching on a droplet of water trailing from Credence’s jaw down to the dip of his collarbone. Credence’s brain finally catches up with what’s happening and he’s glad for the thick suds that make the water opaque. He sinks lower into the bubbles until the foam tickles his chin and he calls quietly, cheeks bright with color, “Percival?”
The sound of his name seems to snap Percival out of whatever trance he had been in, and his eyes widen comically, and if Credence isn't feeling so embarrassed, he might’ve laughed.
“I-I—” Percival stammers, and Credence almost feels bad for him. Percival clears his throat and breathes deep, a valiant effort in gathering himself, and tries again. “I-I’m sorry, Credence, didn’t realize you were in here,” he mumbles as he all but runs back out the door, slamming it hastily shut behind him.
“It’s okay,” Credence says to the empty room. He takes a huffy breath and blinks the water from his lashes. Oh, god. Good Joseph. Sweet Mary and Jesus.
He finishes washing up, but he feels as though he’s in a fog, dressing and brushing his teeth and combing his hair more from instinct than anything else. When he finally works up the courage to open the door, he doesn’t know whether he’s more relieved or sad that he doesn’t find Percival waiting for him.
There’s a note placed on the bed, Percival’s scratchy writing on a scrap of paper curtly telling him to come down for breakfast, and Credence sighs. The nerves of the day before return as lead tipped butterfly wings fluttering in his belly, and his anxiety doubles with the thought of having to face Percival (and his family) after… whatever it was that morning.
Credence whiles away a few more minutes in front of the mirror, fiddling with his hair, and finally wills himself to leave the safety of their room when the mirror mumbles sleepily, “You look great, dearie. Stop fussing.”
He heads downstairs and stuffs his hand into one of his pockets, missing the steadying comfort of Percival’s fingers entwined with his. He can hear the chatter of Elaine and Nimue, and it’s easy to picture the whole family gathered around a kitchen table, drinking coffee and grumbling over The New York Ghost, grumpy morning expressions on them all. It’s so hard to see himself joining them without anyone by his side, but he has to. He doesn’t want to disappoint Percival.
The kitchen is cozy and warm, with bright sunlight shining through the enormous bay windows, and the hearth is crackling with warmth. Frying eggs sizzle in butter in a floating steel skillet along with crisping bacon strips, while a tower of French toast is finished off with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, falling like snow on the platter on the eating table.
Nimue looks fashionably tousled in a silk robe by the window, sipping from a teacup. Guinevere is tiredly bottle-feeding a wriggly baby in a conjured rocking chair, while Laurel is busy trying to convince their daughter to sit up straight at the table. Elaine is fixing plates for everyone as Albert peruses his paper. Percival is already slumped in his seat, staring into his coffee mug as if he’s reading tea dregs.
“Credence, don’t just stand there,” says Nimue welcomingly. “The tea’s gorgeous today. Go on and get yourself something to eat.”
Percival doesn’t even twitch and determinedly doesn’t look up and Credence takes the empty chair next to him. Credence sets his jaw.
Fine. If Percival wants to act like a child.
Credence scoops up buttered bread and eggs and bacon onto a plate, all just the way he knows Percival likes, and plops it down in front of him.
Percival blinks rapidly and looks up at him dumbly. “Cre—”
“Eat something, Percival, you can’t live on coffee alone.” Credence smiles tightly.
Percival’s brow furrows. “I can feed myself, Credence, you didn’t have to—”
“I know,” says Credence loftily and moves to serve himself. “It’ll just take you forever to get around to doing it.”
Nimue snorts, and Percival pins her with a look of betrayal. “Sorry, Perce, it’s just, your boy has a point.”
“Do you two have a little tiff?” asks Elaine with a raised brow of disapproval. “Percival, the one time you bring a partner home, and you’re already fighting?” She shakes her head slightly and walks back over to the stove to replenish the bacon, muttering something that sounds a lot like, “No wonder you’ve never had anyone last long enough to bring home. So much for any hopes of future grandchildren,” and Credence can’t help but feel slightly ashamed of himself.
He flushes red and sinks lower into his seat, picking mindlessly at the food on his plate, not wanting to look at Percival.
“Mother, don’t be dramatic.” Percival’s ears are tinged pink himself, and Credence glances sideways at Nimue, who is valiantly trying not to choke on her food. Credence feels a bit like choking himself, and he wishes more than anything that he doesn’t have to sit there for this conversation. “It’s not like we can even get pregnant,” Percival adds sullenly.
“Have I not told you about that Norwegian wizard? The one developing a procedure to allow men to carry children?” Elaine asks loudly. “Such a shame, too, it works best on young men, or that’s what The Ghost article said. I’m sure I sent you a pigeon about it, Percival, but you never read my letters!”
Percival looks like he wants to die as he glares at Guinevere surreptitiously smacking Nimue on the back, who is struggling to breathe.
“Maybe not the best breakfast conversation, dear,” Albert says mildly, adjusting his spectacles.
“Nonsense. If I don’t talk about it, they never will,” Elaine says snippily.
“We’re not ready to start talking about anything like that,” Percival retorts indignantly, and Credence has never seen him more flustered. Credence almost feels bad for him. Until he says, “Credence is much too young to think of having children anyways! He’s only twenty-three.”
“Nonsense,” Elaine insists, “I had Gwen when I was only twenty-two—”
And Credence can’t take it anymore. He stands so abruptly, his chair nearly topples over if not for the spell he quickly mutters to catch it. He can feel the anger simmering in his belly like molten lead, heavy and bitter and he cannot stand to be in the same room as Percival anymore, not while he’s having this ridiculous conversation.
“Maybe someone should ask me what I want,” Credence snaps before he can stop himself, his hands white-knuckled as he grips the edge of the table. He immediately regrets his words when the entire family turns to stare gobsmacked up at him, but he can’t take them back now. “Excuse me,” he mutters as he flees the kitchen.
Credence’s face is burning, he’s so red and he feels absolutely humiliated with the way Percival and Elaine were talking about him. He doesn’t even realize where he’s going until he’s opening a French door into a small courtyard, bright and cheery and warm, and very much not in the middle of winter. There are so many roses of so many different shades of pink, he nearly staggers back.
He remembers from the ridiculous files Percival gave him for this whole farce that Albert has a penchant for rose gardening. This family. He feels fond despite his anger, heart aching for a family he’ll never be a part of, not once they realize the enormous lie he and Percival are telling, and he can already feel they’re on the precipice of discovery after the fight. Credence sighs, tries not to think about that until the time comes.
The garden is very pretty, magically enclosed in a bubble of spring and Credence can feel a calm settling over him as he breathes in the sweet-scented air. There’s a cheerful, bubbling fountain with a marble swan in the middle of the space, its beak spouting a stream of clear gurgling water. Credence draws close and sits tentatively on one of the stone benches. If he squints, he can see the glint of golden coins in the basin of the swan. It seems Elaine isn’t the only member of the family with a love of the excessive. He’s plucking off the petals from a fallen rose when the doors bang open. He looks up, surprised.
Percival is a little wild-eyed as he strides forward. “What was that?” he whispers loudly. “Storming off like that! Mama is going crazy, yelling about how this is all my fault. It's so ridiculous, and you’re—”
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” Credence interrupts, feeling miserable all over again. He squeezes the bridge of his nose, already feeling a panging pain beginning behind his eyes.
“Yes, yes we do! Are you trying to throw the whole plan out the window—”
“The plan was for me to convince them that we’re in love, not that I let you talk badly about me in front of my face and in front of your whole family,” Credence hisses, and that stops Percival in his tracks. He looks stunned.
“Talk… talk badly about you?”
“Well, talk about me as if I weren’t even in the room,” Credence corrects. “As if I were a child. Making fake decisions for me.”
Percival’s eyes are flickering back and forth as he thinks, and Credence waits patiently. “I didn’t—we didn’t—”
“Fake relationship or not, Percival, I would never let anyone else tell people what I want or what I can or can’t handle,” Credence says, mouth pursed with repressed anger. “Do you know how humiliating it was to hear you say that I was too young to even think about having children? Like I was some baby crazy teenager? Like I'm some young floozy you're just fooling around with?”
“Credence, you must know I didn’t mean it like that,” Percival attempts. “It’s just—”
“You don’t even treat me as an equal!” Credence cries, his patience snapping clean in half. “What kind of relationship is that, fake or real?”
Credence holds up a hand, and to his surprise, Percival stops talking. “Percival,” he says tiredly, “please sit down.” He gestures to the space on the bench next to him. “If we’re going to talk about this right now, the least you can do is come down to my level.”
Percival sighs as he sits, and Credence tries not to shiver when he feels Percival’s warm presence press against his side. When he sighs heavily, Credence can feel the press of his arm against his own shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Percival says.
Credence frowns. Even when he’d been talking, he had somehow not expected Percival to apologize. He had fully steeled himself, expecting another tirade and a barrage of excuses as to why Percival thinks he should make all the decisions, or maybe avoidance and a change of subject at best.
“I’m sorry,” Percival repeats, sounding very small and sad. His brow is furrowed like a chastised pup. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about that. I just wanted Mama off my back about children.”
Credence swallows heavily, nodding curtly. Of course.
“But,” Percival continues, “that’s not an excuse for me to be a twit about it.” He shifts in his seat to face Credence and when he takes his hands between his broad palms, Credence is unable to stifle the shiver racing down his spine this time. “I know you’re not a child. I know you’re capable of defending yourself without my help. And I know I owe you much for putting up with not just my family, but me as well.” He squeezes Credence’s hands between his and Credence swallows. “Can you find it in yourself to forgive me for being such a terrible partner?”
Credence blinks, and softens. He never was able to deny anything Percival asks of him.
“Okay,” he murmurs after a long moment and then nudges Percival’s shoulder. “I guess I forgive you, for now. But if you do it again…” He trails off, because he can’t really say we’re done, now can he? He has no sway on Percival. It’s not real. None of it means anything.
It'll end after they leave this house and everything will be back to normal again. They’ll walk into work after the holidays and smile at each other and none of the easiness, none of the sweet little touches, none of the affection bubbling between them will be there again.
It might even take a while for them to go back to their original warm companionship, their easy friendship after this. Credence will need time to readjust again, to rid himself of this silly infatuation so they can move on and go back to being friends who occasionally share lunch together.
But for some reason it’s a struggle to remember that when Percival reaches up and cups his cheek with a warm hand, tucking a wayward curl behind the shell of his ear before his fingers trail down the line of his cheek. And it’s suddenly impossible to breathe when Percival leans in til they’re barely a whisper apart, and Credence can count every ridiculously long eyelash and spots the tiniest freckle beneath Percival’s eye, a secret that only he knows.
“Percival,” Credence says breathlessly, but he can’t say anymore because his lips are caught by Percival’s in a lingering kiss. He’s bowled over, swept up in it, and he’s so surprised, it’s all he can do to clutch at Percival’s broad shoulders. It’s soft and sweet and completely out of place, and he can’t help but wonder if it’s real.
This isn’t supposed to be about Credence. This is supposed to be just for Percival’s family, putting on a show, but it’s just them now, and there’s no one else around. Credence can’t help but sigh, melting into the kiss. He’s dreamed about this before, Percival holding him close, but now it’s actually happening, outside of his dream, and there’s the scratch of beard and the press of plush lips and sweep of tongue—
“Oh, isn’t that just gorgeous?” he hears a feminine voice sigh. Morgana. “See, Ma, they’ve made up, we should leave them to their privacy.”
Credence is so shocked, he’s about to pull back, but Percival catches him by the nape before he can get too far. “Shh,” he murmurs into Credence’s ear as he places a tiny kiss to his jaw. “They didn’t hear too much, don’t worry.”
Credence’s heart plummets to his feet, where it throbs and aches with the renewed affirmation that of course, this is fake. This isn’t real, and he was foolish to ever think Percival would kiss him if not to further the farce. He nearly pushes Percival away anyways, unable to stand this, because he’s so, so stupid to even think of feeling heartbroken.
This isn’t something they hadn’t talked about, discussed at length, and Credence is the only stupid, naive one for getting caught up in the moment and believing it could be real. He feels bruised and laid open, a child yet again, but of course Percival doesn’t realize it. Percival would never have done this if he’d had any knowledge of the longing that lays in Credence’s heart for him. Percival is good and kind, he’d never be so selfish.
And so the fault only lays at Credence’s feet. A silly boy who wants too much. This is the most he’ll ever get, and Credence is as greedy as he’s ever been. So he murmurs something and leans back in, and pretends.
Everyone is already gathered in the living room by the time Credence walks in with Nimue from the kitchen where they were making hot cocoa. His cheeks are still numb from the outdoor chill, and his fingers are ice cold from the snow balls he had been packing by hand for his snowball fight earlier with Isolde and Percival.
Albert had set up a beautiful grand fir in the living room off to the side of the enormous fireplace when Elaine calls them all into the house to help decorate. The tree is nearly as wide as it is tall, the top of it nearly brushing the ceiling. Nimue immediately begins fussing over the decorations.
“Mama, you can’t put the gold tinsel with the silver. Have I taught you nothing?” she says, snatching away a garland.
Elaine collapses into an ancient rocking chair dramatically. “Dear girl, I am too old for this.”
“Not too old to make that disgusting ham gelatin thing,” mutters Morgana. She’s in another of her flowy loose floral dresses, feet still bare despite Elaine’s protests. Her men are helping her go through boxes and boxes of delicate ornaments, finding glittery little baubles and crystal nutcrackers and porcelain Santa Clauses to hang.
Percival sighs. “Morgana, don’t remind her.” He’s sitting in an overstuffed armchair with a huge bowl of popcorn beside him, struggling to fit the head of the needle through the kernels without them bursting and breaking into pieces. “Remind me instead why we aren’t allowed to use magic for this again?”
Guinevere calmly says, “It’s tradition,” at the same time Morgana insists “It’s cheating!”
“It’s not a competition, darlings,” says Albert from where he’s meticulously and perfectly placing candles on the fireplace mantel.
Percival grumbles to himself, but cheers up considerably when Credence tentatively perches on the arm of his chair and hands him a cup of hot chocolate. Whatever tension they'd had earlier in the day is gone now, Credence having taken his frustration out on trouncing Percival in their snowball fight.
“You’re an absolute rose, Credence,” Percival sighs as he curls his fingers around the mug and taking a generous sip, not noticing Credence’s pleased blush. There are no marshmallows because Credence knows Percival likes his chocolate on the bitter side. Credence does his best not to judge as he sips at his own cup floating with half a dozen marshmallows and topped up with whipped cream. “But I don’t think the chocolate will help. No matter how hard I try, can’t get this no-maj thread to work.”
Credence can’t help but laugh. “It’s just sewing, Percy.”
Percival rolls his eyes. “You try then, if it’s so easy.”
“Percival, you have many talents, but the delicate art of stringing popcorn isn’t one of them,” says Credence playfully, and he leans in to relieve Percival of the thread and needle. He squawks in indignation when Percival pulls him into his lap, and Credence is sure his face is beet red.
“ Percival ,” Credence chides, scandalized.
“Sorry, I just wanted a closer look,” Percival says, looking absolutely remorseless as Nimue cackles from her spot on the rug.
“Like this,” says Credence, trying not to be shy, ignoring the general chaos from the rest of the family as he digs through the bowl for a good bit of popcorn to demonstrate. “You’re holding them too hard, you caveman. They’ll just break on you like that.” He’s as gentle as if he’s handling lace, the thread whistling through easily with the slightest bit of coaxing.
“How do you do that?” Percival mumbles, and Credence can feel the puff of his breaths gently rustling the curls at his nape. Percival is a broad expanse of warmth, his thighs strong and comfortable underneath Credence, and his chest wide and firm behind him. Credence feels bracketed and protected and it makes him shiver despite himself.
“I used to patch up Modesty’s dresses when she was little,” Credence mumbles. “It’s not so different.”
“Modesty?” Morgana asks, shamelessly curious. She shows no remorse even when one of her boyfriends nudges her with his elbow chidingly.
“My sister,” Credence says. Percival feels stiff underneath him, as if he hadn’t expected his family to ask questions about Credence’s own. Credence surreptitiously pats his forearm to comfort him.
“If our family didn’t have a thing for Arthurian names, I’d be asking questions right about now,” Guinevere says wryly, trying to gently wrestle a glass bauble away from the baby’s clutching fingers.
Credence laughs, a bit sheepish. “Yes, our names were… eclectic among no-majs too,” he says quietly.
“I doubt anyone here can talk,” Albert notes.
Elaine sniffs. “Arthurian names are perfectly lovely,” she says primly, pinning Credence with a sharp look. “I’m sure you’d agree.”
“Of course,” says Credence honestly. He shifts a bit as he speaks, hearing Percival grunting softly underneath him. He ignores the prickle of worry in his stomach that he’d caused him any pain. He must be very heavy in Percival’s lap after all. “They all sound so noble… Like true wizards.”
Elaine looks very pleased at his words. “Exactly,” she says, brushing off a bit of stray glitter fallen from the decorations from her robes. She moves to take a seat at the sofa where Albert had settled and begins sorting through a box of snow globe ornaments, handing them one by one to a delighted Isolde. The little girl hangs them haphazardly all over the bottom of the tree, trying to reach as many branches as she's able on her tiptoes.
“It’s a very old Graves tradition, you know,” Elaine continues, as she smiles indulgently at her granddaughter. “Gondulphus Graves started it centuries ago, since the Founding.”
Credence makes a curious noise, but Nimue and Guinevere are groaning. “Mama, please, we’ve heard this story so many times!”
“Awful little ingrates,” Elaine scolds, but there's no anger in her voice. This seems to be an old conversation she's had time and time again with her children. “All I am saying is that it is as much a Graves inheritance as any other heirloom. Strong names are very important to wizards, and I very much expect all the parents of my grandchildren to carry on the tradition.” She purses her mouth at Percival and Nimue and Morgana, who roll their eyes and carry on with their decorating as if this is a common threat.
Credence, blinking slowly, says innocently, “Well, I’ve always liked Elyan. It could work for a boy or a girl, couldn’t it?”
“Oh, Merlin, Mordred, and Morgana, Percival, can you please propose already?” Elaine finally bursts, ignoring Percival’s scandalized “Mother!” and Albert’s fond, but exasperated “Elaine." She adjusts the blankets laying across her lap and tuts. “I am just vocalizing what we all are wondering.”
“You’re the only one wondering that, Mama,” says Guinevere.
“And you always were a terrible liar, Guinevere Graves,” says Elaine testily. “You’ve already given me your quota of grandchildren, darling, let your mother try for more.”
“There’s a quota,” Credence breathes, feeling a bit faint. He leans further into Percival, trying to steady himself.
“It’s just a joke, dear, ignore her,” says Nimue with an expression saying very much the opposite. “You’re going to scare poor Credence away, Mama!”
“Alright, enough of that,” Percival says, voice hoarse, and Credence can feel the rumble in his chest against his back. He bites down on his lip to distract himself from the full body shiver that threatens to race down his spine. It doesn’t help that Percival’s big, warm hand cups his waist to steady him, soft heat seeping through Credence’s too-big sweater, a broad thumb sliding under the fabric to torment Credence and press into the softness of his skin. He feels too hot with Percival’s fingers pressing into the sensitive crest of his hip, and he squirms, stopping abruptly at Percival's distressed grunt.
“He’s positively red, Mama, leave the poor boy alone,” says Guinevere disapprovingly. She shakes her finger at her mother. “You tried to do the same for me and Laurel—”
“And it got me two grandbabies, didn’t it?” Elaine counters with no remorse. She waves her hand dismissively. “Credence has the hips for it, doesn’t he? And I'm sure they’re already putting in the work, as if Percival can keep his hands off—”
Percival squeezes said hip comfortingly and says lowly, “mama, please. Not this again.” He sounds very strained, and Credence feels the familiar guilt of partaking in the lie that Percival’s mother wholeheartedly believes in, and he’s already dreading the day they will have to finally reveal the truth.
Elaine huffs and purses her lips. “Fine,” she says dramatically, “if everyone is indeed so against me talking about the future of this family—”
“Elaine,” Albert says placatingly, with an edge of warning in his voice.
She sighs and with a click of her fingers, she summons another box of ornaments into her hands and begins sorting them by color. “Fine, fine,” she murmurs rapidly. “We’ll talk about this later when Percival and Credence are ready for the next logical step.”
Percival makes another pained noise and Credence gently tugs one of Percival’s big hands to his chest, cradling it tenderly in his smaller ones. “It’s okay,” he says softly, just low enough for Percival to hear, and he turns to look up at him with a smile. “Are you alright? Am I too heavy?”
“No,” Percival replies, still sounding strained, and Credence isn’t sure if he means he’s not alright, or if he isn’t too heavy. He begins to slide out of Percival’s lap when the arms wrapped around his waist tighten, and he’s pulled in close, kept still, and he nearly squeaks in surprise.
“Percival?” he whispers softly, a bit confused, but his voice dies in the back of his throat when he shifts backwards and feels something pressed against his lower back, and—oh.
If Credence could glow redder, he would, he can already feel his cheeks flaming anew. As it is, he’s more shocked than anything else, too shocked to be very pleased or happy about the fact that Percival—his Mr. Graves—is… is…
“I’m very, very sorry,” Percival is whispering quickly, breath brushing his ear, and oh Jesus on the cross, if Credence isn’t careful, he’ll be joining Percival in his predicament.
“I don’t… I didn’t,” Credence stammers, making sure to keep his voice low enough so only Percival hears him. He's stunned nearly speechless, and he’s suddenly very aware that… well. Percival is very much an exceptional wizard in all things, apparently. “We should… wait before standing up, shouldn’t we?”
“Just give me a moment,” Percival croaks, and Credence takes pity on him and summons over a soft, fluffy blanket.
“It’s alright,” he says and generously fixes it over Percival’s lap before he finally slides away to help Nimue with her string of tinsel.
“Percy had a bit of a chill,” Credence mumbles when Nimue looks at him in askance.
“Did he?” she says, amused, and Credence is thankful she doesn't make any snarky comments about how he could be keeping Percival’s lap warm instead of a blanket.
“Mm.” Credence nods firmly and stares at the tinsel until she shows him how to drape it. Together, they twine the garland around the enormous fir and the whole thing gleams sparkling silver in the afternoon glow.
Credence stretches up to fix the tinsel strands at the very top of the tree, balancing on his tiptoes to reach, The entire time, he can feel Percival’s gaze burning between his shoulder blades. He sighs softly to himself. How in hell is he to survive the week?