There was a certain inescapable tang of sweat that seeped its way into any and all practice studios.
It didn’t matter how thorough of a job a janitor could do, didn’t matter how well the rooms were aired out in the late evenings and over holiday breaks.
The reek of dozens on dozens of over-exerted bodies would become permanent in any space, given time.
Oddly enough, Credence always found it easier to ignore during classes and group practices - it was easy to shut everything else out when you were keeping track not only of yourself but of everyone moving around you.
These late nights, though, it was the first thing he noticed - the way the smell hit him in the back of his throat the moment he pushed through the door, took that first big, relaxed breath.
It was a little greeting from the grimy underbelly of the universe, a reminder that even here, even where he could move unencumbered, there was no such thing as a truly clean slate, no such thing as a pure experience.
Maybe that was part of the charm - that perhaps there was no perfection to be found anywhere, in anything but the feeling of your body flowing from form to form.
His instructors liked to harp about the importance of sleep, of strict regimens, but finding the time to practice without any eyes on him, to move freely and without scrutiny, was a kind of liberty that would have been unthinkable to him even two years prior.
The very walls of Mary Lou’s house had eyes, he was sure, and how he’d managed to practice in the basement for so many years without being found out… the beatings he’d risked in even considering it…
Credence drew in a sharp breath as he flicked on a single row of lights, made his way over to the stereo against the far wall.
This space was his, and the past was nil here. Had to be.
He pulled the slim square case from his duffel, thumbing it open for the disc within, setting it into the rotating tray and watching as the machine whirred itself shut.
He stowed the case in his bag, left it under the cabinet, and stepped to the center of the room, waiting for the first strands of the music to swirl out.
They did, and he moved.
It wasn’t traditional ballet choreography, nor any version of it he’d ever had the chance to watch - he was simply moving with the notes, finding his motion with the melody.
He moved with his eyes closed, moved with only a thought to the shape of the room, let himself stumble in big, sweeping movements during the phrases and bars where the music took its wide, sweeping time, let it be messy and inelegant during the little frantic crescendos.
By the time he'd worked through to the bombast, to the great, rollicking climax, the soaring punctuations that begged for elegant little leaps, he let himself get a little lost to everything but -
Those two short, cutting syllables were all it took to pull him from that head-space and back into his own lanky frame, though he had enough presence of mind to draw his movements in slowly, to not stumble with the shock of it.
There was a moment's annoyance at having been interrupted, but only a moment. Credence knew better than to back-talk or to call out an excuse - less a product of his upbringing and more the simple, certain knowledge that it would achieve nothing with this man.
Credence turned with a curt nod of his head, felt his cheeks burning, embarrassed to make eye contact - not at having been seen, but having been seen as less than satisfactory.
The music paused, and Credence gathered his words against the sudden silence.
“I didn’t hear you come in, Mr. Graves. Was it my posture, or my footwork?”
The question was in earnest, meant to welcome criticism rather than to be mistaken for copping an attitude.
Graves didn’t move from where he stood, leaned back against the wall next to the stereo.
“If you’ve made it this far, I don’t think I should have to answer that for you.”
He wasn’t wrong. Two years into this program, there was no reason for not recognizing one’s own mistakes, no reason to lean on one’s instructors for anything more than guidance through new forms.
Credence let his eyes slide shut, let himself consider the movements that had led up to Graves interrupting him.
“My third landing wasn’t as smooth as it could have been.”
“My back wasn’t straight enough. I was off-balance.”
Credence opened his eyes at that, unsure for a moment of the nature of the question.
Graves merely raised his eyebrows, as if that reiterated the question.
There were no truly correct answers here, in the presence of an already-admitted blunder. Perhaps none of the wrong answers would be taken out of his skin, as any number of imagined infractions had been in his childhood, but the prospect of failure, after having come so far -
After a slow, deep breath, Credence nodded his answer.
“I know better. You don’t come this far,” he said, echoing Graves’ own words, “just to blunder a basic landing, risk a real fall.”
Risk hurting yourself more than anyone else ever could.
“Do it again.”
“The jump, sir?”
“No. Start over.”
Watching Graves reach for the stereo controls, Credence paused. How much had Graves actually seen? He hadn’t been keeping particularly careful track of the whole dance, but he wasn’t going to stand here, 1:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, and argue that kind of a request - that kind of a demand - from Percival Graves.
You didn't accomplish what that man had accomplished before he was thirty - before he was twenty-five, for that matter - without earning some right to an exacting teaching style.
Not that the urge to push back didn’t occur to Credence. He simply swallowed that spark down, relaxed his body, and moved back to the center of the room, waited for those opening strains of the Kalendar Prince to thread their way back into the air.
It felt so much less organic this time around, less free. He kept his eyes open, knowing better than to blindly trust that Graves would stay against the wall.
He could feel the man’s gaze on him, that singular sensation of being judged on the barest movements, on every movement.
There was no room for error now - he was sure that Graves would make him start over, and over, just to prove a point… or worse, that he’d kill the stereo, cut Credence off for the night, tell him to try again tomorrow.
He moved, and moved, and moved toward the jumps he’d been executing when Graves had first interrupted him, intent on his form, intent on keeping the motion fluid and steady. This was nearly nine and a half minutes into the twelve minute song - after this, it would be nothing but the calm, fading outro that he could sweep his way through.
But he had to get through it.
One, and a twisting sweep, and two, and a twisting sweep, and three, turning in the air, back straight as a board as his feet touched the floor, moving down into a plié, and continuing.
Graves was circling the studio, keeping to the walls but ever in motion, watching, calculating.
Credence did not really look to him even now, though. There was no room to pause; this was about the dance as a whole, about perfection for the entirety.
As the song wafted through its final notes, as Credence swung through those final slow turns, folding down into a pose, he was aware of nothing so much as his own breathing, of the sweat on his skin in the relative chill of the room.
It was only then, through heavy breaths, that he truly looked up, found Graves stepping over to him.
There was nothing soft in that expression, but perhaps the set of his jaw was less intense now, perhaps there was a kind of playfulness in that gait.
“Why do you practice alone? What's the point of a performance nobody sees?”
Credence considered that, considered his way out of the pose, kneeling on the floor.
“It's the only thing I've ever… the only thing that's my own. Just feeling.”
Graves didn't respond immediately, simply pinned Credence in place with that critical glance.
“I see… is that all you’re willing to give yourself? Come on, Credence. Think.”
“No excuse for sloppy technique, even if nobody’s watching?” Credence ventured, watched as Graves shook his head, tutting.
“Not quite, and I think you know that.”
Graves leaned down, held two fingers under Credence’s chin - a gentle enough touch serving as a strong suggestion that he ought not avert his gaze.
“I don’t care where you are, or how it feels - assume you are alwaysbeing watched. Judged. And not just you, but anyone who’s ever taught you. No excuse for anything less than your best, ever, or those feelings mean nothing. You understand?”
Credence nodded, swallowed heavy against the urge to cave under the edge that had crept into Graves’ tone. Words were just that: words.
“Imagine what you could accomplish if that feeling had room to shine around good form, instead of a frantic mess,” Graves practically whispered. That the insult was wrapped in the calm, silken slide of his voice, disguised as something tender, made it sting all the worse.
And yet, it was difficult not to lean into that warm touch, not to sigh and chase it as Graves pulled away, fingertips dragging against his jaw, thumb resting for the briefest instant at the corner of Credence’s mouth.
Would it count as lust or as simple greed, he wondered fleetingly, to turn his head the barest degree and open his lips around that finger?
Or perhaps some kind of foolish pride, the idea that this was anything more than a teaching moment for Graves, a momentary breach of decorum?
Whatever sin it was that Credence desired, whether or not it was evident, he had no time to truly consider it.
He watched as Graves turned and stalked off toward the door to the hallway.
“Go get some sleep, Credence. Next time you fuck up, I'm busting you for breaking curfew,” he called over his shoulder.