Even though August has passed the summer heat still lingers in every room.
The air is heavy and sweet like an overripe fruit and as of now there aren’t even hints of the crisp cold that fall, like clockwork, will inevitably bring. A sedated sort of contentment has the people of New York in its lazy grip, a joie de vivre that seems almost mediterranean and that keeps the cafés and bars and streets filled with laughter and chatter.
The students and teachers of Ballet Mazurque have no time for such idleness, though: the daily lessons are hard and uncompromising as the upcoming Christmas season has already taken roots in everyone’s mind.
There might be still three months until December, but success only comes with rigorous preparation and training, and the company has an image to uphold.
Percival Graves discreetly mops the moisture off his brow.
He has already removed his suit jacket, now neatly folded and lying by his side on the bench, and rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt - but he still feels like he’s about to melt and he desperately hopes that there won’t be visible stains under his armpits and on his lower back. He doubts that he is that lucky, though.
Certainly he regrets having changed from his sportswear into his suit already and curses himself for his short-sightedness.
It’s nothing, he muses, that could fall under other people’s scrutiny, though. He only trains students on Friday mornings while going on about more administrative businesses in the company for the rest of the week - something that doesn’t require sportswear, obviously, and so seeing him dressed up as usual shouldn’t raise questions (or worse, mockery).
Even during summer he never wears anything but his tailored three pieces (he has, of course, picked suits made of lighter fabric) as the thought of wearing jeans and a shirt in public is mildly upsetting and something he hasn’t done in almost fifteen years.
A man of a certain age, his father has said, once, in a rare moment when he noticed that the boy child living in his house was his son, has to dress a certain way.
(If he cares who he is, he has added then, looking mildly disappointed.)
Golden sunlight falls on the sandy ash parquet and it’s nearing late afternoon.
Aside from the oppressive heat that torments anyone who can’t spend their time with recreational activities there are some factors that make the work at the company especially demanding.
The large, south facing windows of the Beaux-arts style building have to remain closed to not disturb their neighbors with the noise - which is nonsense to Percival, because the “noise” is nothing more than piano music, and the company has been fighting a battle for years to at least have the windows opened for a few hours every day.
(Though, admittedly, the air outside is stagnant in such a way that it hardly would bring relief).
That alone perhaps wouldn’t be all that troubling if it weren’t for the fact that most of the fans have broken down in the first weeks of August and the janitor, either preoccupied with other duties or uncaring of the heat, can’t be bothered to fix the problem.
Everyone endures, more or less quietly, by drinking copious amounts of water and unsweetened tea (that the company graciously provides) and by wearing as little clothes as possible.
The showers have become the definite highlight of the day.
Currently, sixteen students are working a la barre, neatly lined up like beads on a necklace.
Madame Seraphina Picquery, his colleague and oldest friend, walks between them, correcting them with a firm voice and firmer hands; a slender fixture of elegance against the still juvenile, long-limbed awkwardness that has not yet been rectified.
Training on Fridays is supposed to be more easy-going (except when there’s an immediate performance to prepare for) than during the rest of the week.
It’s supposed to be more about relaxation and to keep their bodies loose and flexible, but with the the conditions right now it feels like a work out program on Wednesday.
The young people - none of them older than twenty-seven, if Percival is correct, but neither younger than eighteen - ignore him. They are used to his presence, but keep a respectful, and at times almost fearful, distance to him.
That he is considered an intimidating man is, if he’s being honest, still a startling notion to Percival and something that doesn’t feel quite right - but admittedly, being closed-off and nearly frigid does that to your reputation.
It’s not that he feels disdain towards the students - and neither is he lacking interest - but he finds it difficult to interact with anyone that doesn’t belong to his close, familiar circle.
In fact, he hasn’t made a new friend since Theseus Scamander - and that was in college - and it seems that he has unlearned that particular skill ever since.
He knows he isn’t a very well-liked teacher, he is considered strict and impersonal and he honestly can’t remember ever exchanging words with a student or colleague (who isn’t Seraphina, of course) that could be described as cordial.
His only saving grace might be, says Seraphina (usually with a wink), that he isn’t unattractive.
She has told him once, with a truly indecent amount of amusement, that a French exchange student has nicknamed him ‘la panthère grise’, for his graying edges obviously, she said, and for his tendency to loudlessly skulk through the corridors.
Percival finds the comparison to a predatory animal unfortunate, but his friend has just shrugged and told him that it’s quite appealing to a whole lot of people.
The nickname has stuck, though often shortened to ‘the panther’.
Percival finds it weird and ridiculous, but he doesn’t know how to put an end to it without making a fool out of himself.
The students might think he is surveying Seraphina’s class, as they don’t really have a clue what his exact work at the company is (he teaches too little to be considered an actual teacher), and there is no real reason to give an explanation (Percival thinks), but the truth is that every Friday he waits for Seraphina to finish her last lesson, so that they could both go to their weekly scheduled dinner date, and as he finds the confines of the small office suffocating and he doesn’t want to awkwardly stay in the hallway to wait like a well trained dog, he has begun, some seven years ago, to wait inside the hall.
Sometimes he wonders if that has been the right decision (what exactly does he look like, sitting on this bench, sweating and wordlessly observing the training?), but as the years have went on he finds that he can’t change it anymore. To stop now would be a disturbance in its own right and he rather has the students be used to his presence than be irritated by his sudden absence. (Which is a line of thought he doesn’t find satisfying either, but he tries not to get entrapped in it too much ).
So he waits inside, and quietly suffers in the heat.
“Arrêtez!” Seraphina’s voice cuts through the air and at once the students stop moving, straightening their backs and legs snapping together.
“We are done for the day”, she says, “I’ll leave you to your weekend.”
Chatter erupts in the room and the focused tension leaves the young people immediately. The students flock together in their little, respective groups -- everyone having a friend or at least an acquaintance they get along with well enough,
Everyone is pretty and content, Percival thinks, not quite bitterly, but not quite well-meaning either.
Everyone except one student.
Credence Barebone, tall and wiry, might be the odd one out in every given group.
With his still posture, hunched over shoulders, a water bottle hanging from his left hand and an abandoned, wistful expression on his face he stands out like a rotten tooth amongst rows of straight, perfect teeth. A cigarette burn on a pristine, white table cloth.
Percival doesn’t know what to think of the boy. He has never exchanged more than a few platitudes with him, but he always gets the impression that he would cower under his gaze, retreat under a scrutiny that, in Percival’s perception, isn’t even there.
Despite what people may think of him he has no desire to discomfort others - he wants to do his work as competently as he can and be undisturbed the rest of his time.
Now, perhaps feeling his eyes on him, Credence looks at him over his shoulder. Surprisingly, he maintains eye contact and his lips quirk up into a small, timid smile that then disappears as quickly as it came.
He turns his focus to his bottle, nervously fiddling with the cap for a second before twisting it off.
It’s entirely inappropriate, but he can’t help watching Credence drink, transfixed by the long line of his neck and the swallowing motion of his Adam’s apple.
He is beautiful, Percival can admit that much - his face an effortless, albeit startling blend of masculine and feminine qualities: a strong jawline, prominent cheekbones and a distinct nose softened by wide, almond shaped eyes and a rosy mouth. His sweat-damp, black hair sticks in curls to his forehead and flushed cheeks.
He’s strange, unfathomable - a talented dancer who moves as graceful as a Bolshoi ballerina, but the moment the music stops he grows shy, curling his shoulders inwards and trying to appear as small as possible, visibly uncomfortable with too much attention and physical contact. He has been worse, Percival vaguely remembers, when he first auditioned for the company, barely able to string two words together and so fragile that a too loud noise could have shattered him.
But he dances well - better than anyone they’ve had in years, so good, in fact, that nobody has ever thought or dared about asking him of his whereabouts or about the strange, silvery scars littering the backs of his hands or how exactly he manages to pay for the training.
Everyone is complacent in their ignorance - and as for Percival; the boy isn’t his student and it’s none of his business, anyway.
That he sometimes can’t do anything but helplessly watch Credence, the way he moves and the particular way his feathery hair would curl in his nape, is something that can easily be explained by a natural fascination with human beauty. It shouldn't require deeper consideration or thought.
The students scurry past him, lost in their conversations and weekend planning.
Credence is the last one and he walks directly towards Percival, who is still seated, and then stands still in front of him.
Percival gets the sense that he wants to say something, his mouth opening and closing for a second, before he thinks better of it - again, he smiles that strange little smile that seems equal parts fearful and curious.
It dumbfounds Percival, and before thinking of a proper response, he just blinks at Credence
It must have looked dismissive and cold, because that smile flickers out like a broken lightbulb and Credence looks down to his feet and then moves to walk past him, practically fleeing.
Percival can’t help feeling bad about it, internally berating himself for his clumsiness.
It’s obvious that Credence has tried to connect with him in that moment in some way, for some reason, and Percival, ever odd and ungentle, has failed to give the poor, lonely boy something as simple as a friendly smile.
A soft, warm hand lies down on his shoulder and tears him out of his musings.
“Hello, ‘Phina”, he says quietly, looking into his friend’s intelligent, brown eyes. He can see something akin to amusement in them and gets the mortifying idea that Seraphina has observed his not-quite interaction with Credence.
“Hello, Graves”, she says and can’t keep the cheek out of her voice - Seraphina isn’t a cruel woman by any means, but she likes the occasional joke at Percival’s expense. Though she has never crossed a line and none of her teasing is anything more than kind merriment.
“I’m going to refresh myself and change and then we are ready to go”, she says, as she says every week.
“I’ll wait”, he says as he always does.
When Percival and Seraphina finally step out of the company the sun hangs deep in the sky and if it weren’t for their sunglasses the light would have blinded them instantly.
Seraphina hooks her arm under his and together they walk down the street, the way known and familiar.
“I still haven’t found an Orpheus”, Seraphina says thoughtfully as they march towards their favorite restaurant.
Percival nods, indicating that he’s heard her.
“Queenie is going to be Eurydice, that much is clear. The girl is extraordinary. But Orpheus … I’m not sure …”
“What about Stephane? He’s almost too old, but he’s still good and his performances are always satisfying.”
Seraphina shrugs, “You’re right, but it doesn’t feel right, you know? I want something different …”
Credence lies on the tip of his tongue and he thinks that Seraphina follows the same trail of thought, but neither of them say it.
There’s always something unpredictable about Credence and so far he has, despite his obvious and undeniable talent and dedication, never been given the main part.
There’s a hawkishness in the way Credence dances, something simultaneously captivating and off-putting and nobody can possibly tell if that will guarantee success.
It certainly would be a bold choice to pick him and as of now Stephane seems like a safer bet.
The restaurant is just a few blocks farther. a small, exclusive place, tastefully decorated and with a limited menu.
The waiter knows them and greets them with a smile.
“Your table is ready”, he says and ushers them towards a sunlit place by the window. Their drinks of choice already waiting for them.
“Poached eggs with spinach and shrimps for Madam Picquery”, the young man says in good humor while looking at Percival with wide eyes, “And pasta with crabs and lemon gremolata for Mr Graves, right?”
Seraphina smiles at that and nods, Percival just tilts his head a little.
“You should be friendlier”, Seraphina tells him once the waiter is out of earshot, “The poor guy has been flirting with you for three years now and you’ve rebuffed him just as long.”
“I’m not interested”, Percival says brusquely, he doesn’t like the direction this conversation is taking.
“He’s cute”, Seraphina replies, “Remember when he looked at you while bringing us drinks, and almost tripped over his feet?”
“But he is not my type.”
“Oh, no, you ”, a sharp manicured finger points at him, “like making cow eyes at Credence Barebone.”
“I don’t know -”
“Hush, playing dumb doesn’t suit you.”
“Christ”, Percival says helplessly, “I’m not … into Credence, he’s just -”
“Fascinating?”, Seraphina offers, a toothy smile on her lips.
“Yes”, Percival mumbles, cheeks and neck heated with embarrassment. He doesn’t like talking about it, not at all.
“Mmh”, Seraphina hums, eyes twinkling with mischief , “And have you heard anything of Theseus lately?”
Percival blinks at her, “You are insufferable, you know that?”
Seraphina laughs at that and looks like a very content cat - Percival knows she would have added something else if it weren’t for the waiter bringing their food.
They eat in silence, but Percival can’t help looking at Seraphina once in a while.
He has known her as long as he can remember; they had started dancing at the same time, were enrolled in the same class, in fact, and had immediately felt drawn to each other.
Both of them outsiders, Seraphina with her keen wit and the ballet slippers her mother had dyed for her, and Percival with his gloomy exterior and even gloomier nature.
In a different world perhaps he would have married Seraphina. They would have moved to the suburbs, he imagines, and raised a gaggle of pretty, well-behaved children.
White picket fence life, clean cut, sedated. Spending the summers in Italy, the winters in Aspen.
It looks like he doesn’t really have a good idea about family life, he realizes, the way he envisions it seems like a static, cold and superficial nightmare, a lifestyle magazine cut out. He can neither imagine Seraphina nor himself in such a state.
“What’s on your mind, huh?” Seraphina’s voice disrupts his thoughts, her fork hanging midway in the air.
He shrugs: “Thinking about our imaginary children, ‘Phina.”
“Ah, Berenice and Violet. I love these brats.”
“You’d make a wonderful mother.”
Seraphina shoots him a grin, “You know how it is, I’m a darling.”
Percival shakes his head and refocuses on his meal.
He manages to take a few bites before Seraphina talks again.
“Have you heard about Grindelwald?”
Percival swallows, he tightens the grip on his knife, but remains impassive otherwise.
“What about him?”
“He’s coming back to New York.”
“Oh, oh, no, I haven’t ... heard about it”, he lies, “I didn’t really keep tabs on him ever since I came back.”
“Thought he’d send you a message”, Seraphina says with a frown, “He doted on you.”
Percival looks out of the window, to call Grindelwald’s treatment doting is a particular choice of words - sometimes he wonders if Seraphina knows more that she lets on, that she’s made her guesses and has come to the right conclusions, to some extent at least.
Percival thinks that the actual truth is far too sordid for anyone to figure it out.
“I got a mail yesterday on my private account of all things, not from the man himself, obviously, and without a specific date or anything ; just that he’s coming for a visit. I’m a bit annoyed to be honest.”
He can understand that, Grindelwald is a legend and a man like him, of his station and reputation, always requires a whole lot of fuss and pomp. But the thing is, if they flatter him enough perhaps he will donate a bit of his vast wealth to the company. Money is always needed, after all.
“I never liked him,” Seraphina pulls a face: “He always looked past me as if I wasn’t worth his consideration.”
“He is -”, Percival doesn’t know how to continue, so instead he makes a vague, sheepish gesture.
“Yeah”, she says, “And I don’t want him at the company, don’t want him near the students. He is a creep, isn’t he?”
Seraphina’s eyes bore into his, her gaze clear and though there isn’t anything particular calculating about it Percival knows that she wants some type of answer from him. A reason to keep Grindelwald out of Ballet Mazurque.
“He has his own … approach to teaching”, Percival says carefully, feeling cowardly and unable to say anything else. To give Seraphina something of substance.
The disappointment that radiates off of Seraphina now is palpable and Percival can’t help looking down, ashamed of himself.
His friend sighs: “Seems like i have to kiss his ass then.”
Percival finds he can’t eat another bite and puts down the cutlery, his throat is tight and constricted and the noises around him, the happy talking and the clinking of crockery, is near unbearable.
In the past twenty years he has built himself a sort of peace - everything bad and uncomfortable neatly tucked away into the farthest depths of his mind. He couldn’t call that happiness or even contentment, but it has worked the last two decades to the point that he has thought he is over it.
The things that have happened all these years ago are part of a past that can’t touch him anymore, so he has told himself again and again.
But he sees now that he has just deluded himself, and how brittle this whole construction has been, how easily smashed to pieces. Just a few words, just the mere mention of his name …
Damn him, he thinks and feels as though a noose is tightening around his neck.
“Hey, Percival”, Seraphina’s soft voice pierces the panicked haze that has settled over him, “I’m not mad at you, I shouldn’t have ambushed you like that. I’m sorry.”
Slowly, Percival looks up, feeling small and miserable, but there’s nothing but warmth in Seraphina’s eyes and that steadies him somewhat. He gives her a shaky smile, showing her that he isn’t angry with her either.
“I’ll deal with him myself. Maybe you can take some time off while he’s here, I doubt he’ll stay forever.”
“No, it’s fine”, Percival says, his words braver than he actually feels, “I doubt he’ll look twice at me.”
They don’t talk much anymore after that, being lost in thought and feeling somewhat stiff and uncomfortable.
While Seraphina finishes her meal Percival stares down at his own plate, unable to touch it.
“We should pay”, Seraphina says, daintily wiping her mouth, “Don’t you have to feed your cat soon?”
Percival nods and Seraphina reaches for her purse while Percival goes for his own pockets.
“Oh”, Percival grunts.
“I think I forgot my wallet at the office.”
Seraphina looks at him with incredulity, before rolling her eyes, a smile tugging at her mouth, “That must be … the third time in three months, you're getting old?”
“I’m sorry”, Percival says with a disgruntled frown.
“Oh, it’s fine”, it’s obvious that Seraphina thinks that this is more funny than irksome, “I’ll pay for you, and the next time is on you. Unless you forget your wallet again.”
“No, I promise”, Percival says.
“Ah, careful with that.”
Percival’s little mishap has mellowed the mood somewhat and him and Seraphina part with a smile and friendly words.
He feels calmer now and though a trip back to the company, instead of going home immediately, is a little annoying it’s not like some more walking can do any harm.