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Locus Obscurus

Chapter Text

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 -

“Sloppy.”

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.”

“Why?”

“My back wasn’t straight enough. I was off-balance.”

“And?”

Credence opened his eyes at that, unsure for a moment of the nature of the question.

“Sir?”

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.

Chapter Text

Autumn shifted sideways into a curling, insidious chill as the weeks passed.

Credence actually enjoyed the gray skies, enjoyed the changing colors of the leaves as they fell lazily away, blanketing the campus in their dull fire.

It was the cold that he didn’t enjoy as much, with its ever-present threat of snow.

(Fortunate, then, that he had a stack of thick, huge hand-me-down sweaters that Queenie had brought for him on one of her little day-trips up from the city.)

He went to his classes diligently as ever… albeit paying far closer attention to his form, even in free practices.

He went to his work-studies in the campus research library with Newt on Thursday mornings (help desk), and in the administration offices with Tina on Friday and Saturday mornings (a never-ending sea of paperwork and filing and filing and filing), slept in as late as possible on Sundays (until those sacrosanct afternoon calls home to Modesty).

He even kept to his covert Tuesday morning practice sessions, even with the supposition that he was now, possibly, being watched.

If he was, it hadn't been in any obvious way. He hadn't seen Graves outside of classes in over a month, nor had he tried to, but the thought of being seen was plaguing Credence.

Those sessions were no longer a simple, sacred freedom, but had become a strange, needful grasp at precision… and yet Credence continued out of a kind of spite, out of the fact that that time was still his own, even if it were observed.

The only other thing that had altered in any noticeable way was the way he handled himself in Graves’ Thursday lectures - Global Dance. (The Monday training was different; it was easier to ignore that spark of fascination when it came to pinpoint focus on new choreography.)

Credence hadn't ever been a lazy student (not when he was here by dint of a scholarship and the good graces of the Goldsteins), but he did find himself paying much closer attention than usual.

Found himself watching.

Never in an overt way.
Not because he was pining.
But if Graves allegedly had an eye on him, what harm was there in looking right back?
What harm was there in a little wanting?

It was a reckless little hobby, watching the lines of his body as he moved in front of the big whiteboard, around the little podium, gesturing in smooth motions as he spoke.

Wondering what it would would feel like to slip his hands beneath those neat dress shirts, to make some kind of mess of that carefuly styled dark hair, to knock that perfect poise even slightly out of balance.

Wondering how simply Graves could do the same to him without any effort.
(Not wondering, but knowing. Credence wasn’t frail, but he knew how utterly he’d cave for that man.)

Credence was careful not to make eye contact with him, though, not to be so obvious as that.

(If nothing else, he was somehow taking much more thorough notes these days.)

That practiced avoidance even worked for a time.

Until the Thursday before Thanksgiving, during a test, when Credence very suddenly became conscious of the sensation of being looked at.

He paused with his pen against the page, carefully shifted his gaze without moving.

It was only for a moment, nothing more than a glance, but it was more than enough for comfort.
He met Graves’ eyes, saw the quirk of his eyebrows, and immediately turned his attention back to the paper.

There would be no hiding the blush that sprang up in his face, so there was no point in trying.

Was it shame, or a little thrill of pleasure, that sparked his reaction? Those concepts were still very snarled up for him, and quite possibly they always would be... He'd figure it out later.

He worked through the questions in front of him, worked to the bottom of the page, and turned it over to wait patiently.

He'd heard other papers turned over in the interim - he was not the first to finish, but there were at least a dozen others still to finish.

He resolutely did not look up again, not wanting to risk anyone seeing him do so.

Besides, there was no point.
He'd gotten the message: Graves was still game, if Credence was.

*

He and Tina weren't going home for Thanksgiving - she had a load of papers to finish before winter break that she wanted to make headway on, and Credence would have felt guilty leaving her alone on the holiday.

“It's really okay,” she insisted, smiling in that gentling tone of hers, when they were working that Saturday. “I mean, I'm not really gonna to be alone, after all.”

“It would feel rude, and you know they'd all be worrying about you the whole time if I did.”

She sighed at him, set back to work alphabetizing a stack of files.

“Yeah, point taken. You know Modesty’s gonna be heartbroken, though.”

Credence matched her little grin, shrugging as he double-checked her work.

“Well, I'll just have to get her some especially nice presents this year, won't I?”

That drew a little laugh from her, finally.

“A week and a day of apologies? Better save your pocket change up now, kiddo.”

There had been no expectation when they'd been placed with the Goldsteins that he or Modesty would convert to the family’s religion.

Credence had certainly had his fill of religion as an entire concept by then, though he was quite taken with the singing and the sound of the prayers, and loved the simple warmth that ran through the house on the high holy days.

Modesty had taken to it with a great zest, however.

Credence might have worried that it was an easy substitute for Mary Lou’s particular brand of home-brewed Belief, but mom and dad had been careful to bring her into it slowly, a piece at a time, to actually discuss their beliefs with her, to allow her time to consider things.

They were faithful, but they weren't zealous.

He didn’t mind having to spoil her a little bit at Hanukkah - she deserved a little spoiling, after everything.

*

He couldn't explain why the thought had occurred to him, but he followed the impulse unflinchingly.

Credence walked up to the studio building an hour and a half earlier than usual, 11:30 that Monday night, instead of 1 on Tuesday morning. It was a silly little game that only he was playing. A test, he supposed, to see how far Graves would take this funny little flirtation.

Would he assume that Credence had been scared off, or would he see it as a challenge?

Whatever would happen, it was the freest, easiest session he'd had all month, even if he was still unwilling to aim for anything less than precision.

Just in case.

Nonetheless, he was grinning to himself the whole way through it: it felt as if he was getting away with something, harmless and simple as it was.

That smile stayed with him for an entire hour, as he stretched, moved through Dvorak and a little Gershwin and a bit of Shostakovitch.

He kept careful track of the time, and he sauntered back out into the frigid night air at exactly 1:03, breath swirling around him in great steaming huffs.

*

Thanksgiving was an oddity. He and Tina hadn't been the only ones to stay, but the campus was certainly a great deal more empty than usual.

They ended up eating in the big cafeteria hall near the dorms with Newt and two friends whose names Credence forgot to ask. The feast itself was nothing special: microwaved pot pies from the grocery store (one for each of them) and some kind of sparkling cider, but it was still some of the best food he’d had in weeks.

The highlight, though, was the home-made pie for dessert. (How Newt’s dorm mate had managed that - the student kitchens or pulling in a favor at the cafe - nobody bothered questioning. It was delicious, and that was what mattered. Credence thought for a moment that he could probably been perfectly happy with just the crust.)

Credence was still shy when it came to contributing to conversations, and perhaps in a perfect world, he'd rather have been back home for the day. He’d have liked to have seen Modesty in person, would have liked to have coffee from that big purple mug that mom had bought for him when he’d first moved in.

But this was fun, and it was good to see Tina outside of a row of filing cabinets, see Newt doing anything but agonizing over research.

And besides, he'd have missed out on that blackberry pie.

*

Over the next two weeks, Credence switched his practice sessions again - first to Wednesday, midnight, the next at Thursday, 2 AM.

There was no sign that Graves had figured him out, or cared to, but Credence was still relishing it, and life carried on.

The third week, the last before Winter Break, as exams were wrapping up, Credence made it to the studios at 12:30, Friday morning. 

He shimmied out of his big sweater, into his dance shoes, took his time stretching, cued up his music, and made it all of sixteen minutes before he heard the click of the door to the hallway.

For the giddy jag of excitement that shot through him at the noise, he did not look up, made no motion to acknowledge it, simply kept on through his movements.

This would be his last little solo practice in a studio until the new year. If Graves wanted to watch, so be it, but Credence was making the most of it.

It was long minutes, well into the next song, before his voice rang out.

“You're tough to track down.”

“It’s been a busy month,” Credence offered. A white lie, perhaps. Just another thing to get away with, now that he knew they were both playing this game.

“I’m always surprised that you dance alone,” Graves called a few moments later, not quite a question. The little grin was obvious in the tone, and Credence was careful to keep focused on his steps, not to let this distract him.

“You’ve seen me dance with plenty of other people, sir,” he finally answered.

“Sure. Not like this, though.” Graves offered, “Not because you want to.”

Credence drew through the final steps as the music reached its last bar, finally looking over to Graves.

Want. This man, with that harsh set to his jaw and his calculating gazes, talking to him about wanting?

“What about you?”

His own recklessness shocked him even as the words left his mouth. Credence felt buoyant with it, wanted to wrap himself up in it.

He watched the surprise flicker across Graves’ expression, watched him step slowly towards the stereo.

“You think you've earned that, Credence?”

The doubt boiled up for a moment; had he overstepped? Had he misunderstood, after all?

“What does that have to do with wanting?” he ventured.

That pulled a pensive little noise from Graves, who turned to prod at the controls, swapped the disc out of the stereo for one he pulled from the cabinet.

He hesitated for a moment, fingers hovering over the button panel, turned that calculating gaze on Credence again.

“You sure?”

Credence nodded silently, meeting that look with as much confidence as he could muster up.

Was he sure? No. But did he want? Well, Credence had no words for that.

It should have been easy to move past that apprehension in the moment. Steps and movement were such a simple focal points.

But oh, not this time.

As they stepped toward each other, as the first notes of the music came up, Credence was unable to let go of his nerves.

He could have melted away into nothing as they moved around each other, at the first brush of Graves’ fingers on his elbow, the slide of that touch to Credence’s wrist, up the palm of his hand.

There was a slow exhale on that, and they were moving with each other, matching, pressing in much closer than Credence tended to get with… anyone.

It was too much, and it was not nearly enough.

How Credence kept track of his own feet, managed not to stumble, managed to keep moving and moving through this entire suite, he wasn't sure. He was trusting instinct to carry him now, turning across the floor as he was overwhelmed by the way Graves smelled (a cologne Credence couldn't name), by his warmth, by the feeling of his hands on Credence’s body.

He was overwhelmed by the force of his own desire, though for once, it came without shame - and why not, when this felt so singular and easy?

It was so simple to give in, to push his hand up from where it rested on Graves’ shoulder, to wrap around the back of his neck, to brush his fingertips through the short hair there.

Graves had a hand on Credence’s shoulder, moving the other firm and slow down his back, skating around his hip to - to the back of his thigh, just for a moment, just to grip there, before he brought both hands to Credence’s waist.

Credence brought his other arm up over Graves’ shoulder, held on, could tell what was coming -

Gave a little hop up as Graves lifted him for a moment, setting him back down easy as anything, and Credence didn't bother hiding the sigh at the feeling of Graves’ shoulders in that moment, at the control - at the feeling of their bodies sliding together.

A sweeping little twist and they broke away, just for a moment, before Graves got his hands around Credence’s hips, pressed up behind him. Credence felt that hesitant drag of lips on his neck, just for a moment, but knew better than to pause, to react, to let out anything more than another dreamy sigh at the sensation.

He moved, let himself be moved, thrilled with it as Graves led him through a series of little lifts, and finally let himself melt back against Graves as the music slowed, pressing back -

Graves spun him again, bracing Credence and dipping him back slow and easy, and…

And Credence wanted to stay like this, just like this, breathing heavy with the exertion, the need, the slow drag of Graves’ fingertips along his throat, down the center of his chest - 

Just like that he was being drawn back up, and -

Oh.

The flush across Graves’ cheeks, that single lock of hair that had been pushed out of place, the way he was looking at Credence as though he was going to drink him down

He could have had Credence then and there, right down on the floor like they were animals.

“You going home for break?” Graves asked, breaking the spell in a deep, rough tone Credence had never heard from him before, that he wanted to drown in.

“Yes,” he nodded. “But I'll be back.”

“You’d better keep in form. Hate to have to start over,” Graves teased as Credence walked over to retrieve his bag, to slip that big sweater back over his leotard, to slip back into his street shoes, to retrieve his own disc from next to the stereo, moved towards the door to the hall.

He didn't know where his boldness was coming from tonight, but Credence let the words fall from his mouth before he could stop himself.

“I'm sure you'll find a way to keep an eye on me, sir.”

And with that he pushed back, out into the silent hallway, rushing outside before his shame had a chance to set in.

Chapter Text

The glass was cold against his cheek, and the sun was already down.

He’d fallen asleep to Louis Armstrong, found himself waking up to Porter Robinson. He pulled his earphones out with a grimace, winding the cord around his fingers in a thoughtless little gesture.

He squinted, trying to decide whether they were still in Pennsylvania, or if they’d crossed into New Jersey.

After a rub at the corners of his eyes, he sat up, glancing over to the phone screen in Tina’s hands.

It seemed to be a paper that she was writing in a document app, and he huffed a little laugh.

“Don’t you ever shut off?” he mumbled, glancing up to see the arch of her eyebrow.

“Sure. Already sent everyone a snapchat of you snoring.”

She laughed at his affectedly pained grumble and blanked the screen as she looked up at him. “Seriously, though, are you okay? You were out for quite a while.”

Credence shrugged slightly, pulled his coat a bit tighter around himself.

“I couldn’t sleep last night.” He could see the change on Tina’s face, and he tacked on, “It wasn’t the nightmares. Just exam stress catching up to me.”

It wasn’t really a lie.

He hadn’t been able to sleep after… well.

After.

After he’d snuck back into the dorms, after he’d stopped off at the room to drop his bag off, after he’d run himself through a piping hot shower (and brought himself off in a frantic rush, left hand clamped tight over his mouth to hold back the thousand needy little noises he wasn’t free to make), after he’d shuffled himself into bed and shoved his face into a pillow, burrowing into his heavy blanket, and spent five fruitless hours waiting for his body to give over to exhaustion.

He’d thankfully been packed before he even snuck out to practice, and he powered through his shift in administration through sheer force of will and a whole lot of coffee.

Tina’s phone buzzed, and she huffed as she glanced at the screen.

“Hm. Check your phone. Apparently Modesty’s been trying to get ahold of you for an hour.”

Credence started for a moment, wondered - of course. The earphones.

Twelve missed messages from Modesty. They were all photos, mostly environmental shots, the occasional glimpse of someone in the corner, at an edge, typically in motion. Credence wondered for a moment what she might do with more than a phone camera, with one of those hulking high-megapixel monstrosities that didn’t even need film anymore.

“Guess they made it downtown safe, huh?” he asked, quietly. “She’s getting really good at that.”

Tina glanced down at the screen, as he scrolled back through.

“She’s something else, that kid. Both of you are.”

“Oh, come on,” he laughed, pulling up a long shot of a light display to look at it more closely. “I didn’t even get a real start until most people have been at it for a decade.”

“Yeah, but you don’t get to see yourself. It’s amazing, what you can do. And anyway, if you can be proud of Modesty, I can be proud of both of you,” Tina insisted, knocking into him gently with her shoulder.

Credence rolled his eyes, but indulged her nonetheless - it wasn’t Tina’s fault that simple praise still felt false to him. He knew that she was being genuine, and that mattered just as much.

*

Manhattan still smelt like the armpit of humanity. Even the cold snap of winter couldn’t ever cover that up.

Credence wondered for a moment if maybe that was why he liked the smell of practice studios so much: maybe Ithaca just seemed entirely too clean in comparison. The thought made Credence grin to himself as he took his bags from the attendant and followed Tina to where the others were waiting.

Modesty about bowled him over when she saw him, clutching her arms around him as tight as she could manage. Truth be told, he was shocked she hadn’t concussed herself on his sternum - she had to be three, four inches taller than she'd been at the end of the summer.

“I missed you, butthole."

“So therapy’s been going well, then, huh?” he teased, felt her laugh against his shirt more than he heard it, before she shoved him off toward dad for a decidedly less violent hug.

“You still look like a twig,” he intoned as he stepped back, but there was a lightness in his expression as he spoke. “Queenie’ll worry.”

“Queenie always worries.”

“And don’t I know it,” dad joked, rolling his eyes. “Now, what do you say we get going, and get a head start on feeding you up before she sees you?”

“That sounds like a really good idea.”

*

It was just the two of them that came; mom was still working, and Queenie wasn’t going to be able to get away until the morning.

And yet Modesty gave up shotgun, choosing instead to plant herself between Credence and Tina in the backseat, babbling endlessly about school and about everything she’d been working on since she’d come up with Queenie in early November.

Credence looked away for a moment, taking in the way the last of the city lights streaking past as they made it out onto the highway, heading north on 87 towards home at last. He wondered, just for a second, if he’d be able to smell the difference in the air at the moment that they properly crossed out of the city limits. He wondered why it mattered so much.

*

There was no snow on the lawn just yet to drive home the idea of winter, but there’d still been something wonderful about seeing that porch light on, glass frosted over slightly in the cold.

Credence hauled his big suitcase and his stuffed-full duffel bag himself - up the garage steps and into the kitchen, along the dark front hallway, turning up the stairs. The slow creak of the eleventh stair was a comfort, a reminder that he had nothing to do for the next few weeks.

He could hear Tina and dad bickering about pizza toppings as he made his way to his room, and he grinned to himself again, wondering what monster of a compromise they’d end up coming to.

The room at the end of the hall, on the right, wasn’t really all that big, but it was Credence’s own.

The room had been Queenie’s, once upon a time. She was a few weeks from moving out when he and Modesty had moved in, and had insisted on giving it up to him and bunking in with Tina for the interim.

There were some aspects of the room he’d never changed; he’d liked the soft cornflower blue of the walls, liked the bed frame with its simple brass-tone headboard that Queenie wasn’t going to take with her.

She’d left him the old dresser, too, with the mirror above it. He set his bag and his suitcase in front of that now, figured he’d unpack in the morning, and looked up into the reflective glass.

In the dark, even as his eyes adjusted, Credence could only make out the simplest shape of himself. The broad outlines, the way he seemed to dissolve into the dark stillness of the room.

And it was quiet here - always was, no matter how loud the rest of the house became.

Almost thoughtlessly, he raised his hand, pressed his fingertips to his neck, dragged it down that same, slow path where Graves had touched him that morning, had…

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Credence pulled it out, brought up the screen.

He was confused only for a moment, only as long as it took for his breath to hitch in surprise. He’d never imagined Graves was going to take his little challenge seriously.

When do you leave?

Credence hesitated before actually opening the message, counted to thirty. Steadied his breath. He wouldn't say, I was just thinking of you. He didn’t say, This still feels like a strange joke. Wouldn't say a hundred other things that sprang to mind.

Already gone.

He watched the screen, ready to blank it and pocket it after at least a minute -

Pity. I could've seen you off properly.

Credence stared at that for a long beat, biting his lip as he considered asking what ‘proper’ involved.

He wasn’t innocent to what this was.

The manner of it, though? The careful game of a lead-in with the expectation that Credence knew how to play along… now, that was new.

Foreign.

He wished for the easy bravado from that morning, or maybe that Queenie were there to tell him how people were supposed to do these things.

Maybe there was no one way anyone was supposed to do these things.

“Credence? I think we need a tie breaker down here!” he heard Modesty shout up the stairs, and answered without looking up from the screen.

“Give me just a second!” he called back, holding his breath as he tapped out his reply.

Then you’ll just have to welcome me back properly, won’t you?

He hit ‘send’ before he could even think about it. The pause wasn’t nearly so pronounced this time.

I’ll certainly keep that in mind. Enjoy the break, Credence.

He entertained another bevy of little images at that, swallowing heavy -

You, too.

- before pocketing his phone and doing his best to forget it for now.

*

The pizza ended up half mushroom, half olive, and chicken all over, and got to the house about ten minutes before mom did.

They ate in the living room, sitting around the coffee table and eating right out of the box, catching up in person for the first time in months.

It occurred it Credence, as the conversation gradually petered out and they started tapping out one by one to head upstairs, that this was only his fifth winter since Mary Lou, only the fourth since he'd had a new last name, and he marveled at the difference of it.

This was such a warm, loving house, where nobody had ever raised a hand to another in violence, and voices only tended to be raised in good humor.

Perhaps this, too, still felt like a strange joke.

It felt like a strange joke when mom (it had been such a brief, brief window that he’d ever thought of her as Mrs. Goldstein) crinkled the corners of her eyes in a tired smile, ruffled his hair, and told him that she’d see him in the morning, and sleep well! before she took her mug of tea upstairs with her.

It still felt too good to feel like something he could possibly ever deserve.

Those thoughts didn’t bother him like they used to, but sometimes, when he’d been away too long, they were inevitable.

He wasn’t going to let them ruin his sleepy warmth, though.

He took the empty pizza box to the kitchen, leaning it against the recycling bin in the pantry, and switched the lights off behind him one by one - the strip over the sink, the living room, the hall - and crept his way upstairs in the darkness, relishing the quiet of the house.

After a quick pause in the bathroom to brush his teeth, Credence took himself directly down the hall, not even pausing to turn his light on.

He pulled off all of his clothes, not having to worry about being seen by a roommate here, but did opt for a warm pair of pajama pants from the dresser.

Retrieving his phone from his jeans, he left it on the night stand, not bothering to plug it in - 30% battery would last him through the night and well into the morning.

Crawling into bed drew a contented noise from him all on its own - the quality of the mattress, the heaviness of the double layer of quilts, the familiar smell of his pillow…

Exhaustion finally took him in a great, relaxed wave.

*

Credence woke in a bleary haze, luxuriating for a moment in the warmth - at some point in the night, he’d tugged both quilts over his head and hadn’t yet come up for air.

He heard the soft knock then, likely what had woken him in the first place. (Odd, though - dorm life had taught him to sleep through just about anything but the sound of his alarm.)

He cleared his throat as he wriggled the covers down.

What time was it? Late enough for bright gray light to be filling the room, anyhow.

“Hey, Credence? You decent?”

“Yeah, come on!” he called, scooting over slightly as the door popped open.

Queenie had never done anything in her life by halves, and her brilliant good-morning smiles were no exception.

She nudged the door shut behind her, sat the coffee she’d brought on the night stand, and flung herself down on the bed dramatically, over the covers, where Credence had made room for her.

“Finally! I’ve been wasting away without you,” she sighed, rolling over to squeeze him into a fierce hug.

“Oh, I’m sure New York is just the worst,” he smiled, pulling an arm out to return the gesture. “Missed you, Q.”

She pulled away gently, and sat up to retrieve her mug.

“So, how’s life?”

Credence couldn’t do much but pull a face, not wanting to sit up enough to shrug.

“There’s really not that much to tell. I had some tough exams, but this semester was… quiet.”

She rolled her eyes at him.

“Credence, honey? I know your classes are going just fine. I meant, how are you?”

“Quiet is still a good word. I’ve really been focused on practicing.”

“Okay, but are you happy?” she asked patiently over the edge of her mug.

Credence had to consider that. His baseline was still slightly-numb. He had trouble articulating that to anyone but his therapist, though.

“I think so. I’m… I feel good, generally. I’m really finding my flow with my technique, I think. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a nightmare. I had fun at Thanksgiving, and I’m looking forward to next semester.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I wanna take you down to the city with me just to get you into some actual trouble,” she grinned, reaching over to ruffle his hair. “Especially with the way this is growing out. You’d have guys absolutely falling over themselves for you.”

He quickly decided that now was probably not the best time to mention that he was already about three toes over the line of propriety with his studio instructor, and smiled up at her.

“You go right ahead and hash that one out with Modesty, Q. And your hair is perfect, and you know it.”

Queenie pulled an exaggerated, laughing grimace.

“Oh, this is nothing but effort. Yours is - do you even use conditioner? Do you even have to?”

Credence rolled his eyes sarcastically as he sat up, patting his hair as if to primp.

“Anyway, you should get cleaned up - Tina said something about going out shopping while Mod’s out for the day. You got any ideas, there?”

“Sure,” Credence smiled, “but I’m pretty sure it would take all three of us pooling in together.”

“I’m sure we can talk about that. But please, go shower first.”

*

Those first few days slid by in a quiet blur.

Queenie went home on Sunday, Tina was still tied up in preemptive extra credit projects for the upcoming semester, and Modesty did still have school for a few more days, their parents had work to be done, so Credence was more or less left to his own devices.

He made a point to hoist himself out of bed at a reasonable hour (8 or 9 at the latest) and walked down to the gym, used mom’s guest membership pass, spent an hour or so taking himself through stretches and basic forms, working his way through two or three songs.

Credence was all hung up on some piano arrangements of Gershwin, and particularly on a very soft rendition of Summertime.

He’d finish up in time to wander home for lunch, eat with Tina and catch up with her (and Newt and Jacob by proxy - Newt had been invited to the Kowalskis’ over break this year), and then have the afternoon free.

He read and he watched movies, as he tended to on breaks, still trying to devour every manner of fiction that Mary Lou had deemed obscene or otherwise immoral, still trying to make up for that lost time.

That Sunday afternoon was nothing but reading - attempts at poetry, things he’d noticed in course work without getting to read in their entirety.

Ginsburg was a little bit too weird to him, full of a bit too much deliberate nonsense, though there were certain lines that he loved, and he could clearly imagine parts of Howl as a great rushing too-fast afternoon, back and forth across New York on the subway.

He liked Rumi a great deal more, though - altogether less exaggerated, frankly, reveling in its own beauty, and…

“Between the mirror and the heart
is this single difference:
the heart conceals secrets,
while the mirror does not.”

He thought of that moment alone, Friday night, thinking of how he’d seemed to blur at the edges at dissolve into the darkness of his room.

He thought back to all the times he’d felt that way over the years, thought of all the times he’d wished he’d been able to simply fade out into nothingness… of how strange it was to realize how long it had been since he’d wished for that.

Yeah. Rumi, he liked. Rumi, he could picture more completely as a slow jazz suite, all wire-brushed drums and slow, deep saxophone notes.

He read through that particular book again after dinner on Monday, after he’d helped with the dishes, and fell asleep on top of his blankets with the book open on his chest, dreamt of a soft, low voice whispering poetry in his ear.

Chapter Text

**
**

(An Interlude - 19 December 2014 - 4th night of Hanukkah)

*

The videos pinged through to Newt’s phone one after the other.

The first:
A shaky, unfocused image, nothing but raucous background laughter, until it finally steadied, focused on Queenie and Credence flinging each other through some kind of swing steps, mouthing the words to Fly Me To The Moon each other. He’d never actually seen Credence dancing, but he was surprised that Queenie was keeping up with him just fine.
In the few short years that he’d known them, he’d never seen Credence smiling quite that openly and unguarded.

“Did you know his face could even do that?” Jacob commented over Newt’s shoulder. Newt giggled at that, watched as Modesty danced formlessly through the background of the shot in tacky sunglasses, setting Tina’s laughter back off.

The second:
Modesty and Tina dancing to a very loud pop song, badly. (Newt recognized but could not name the song.) Whoever was holding the phone pulled back enough to get Queenie in frame. It was Credence who sauntered through the background this time, stepping in perfect time with the music, seemingly focused on his own phone and leisurely slipping on the sunglasses that he must have snatched from Modesty as he went.

“Who is that?” Jacob asked, pointing at the edge of the screen. “She’s gorgeous.”

“Hm? Oh, that’s Queenie. Their sister.”

The third:
Tina trying to get everyone to say hello; Credence was halfway out of frame, pulling his phone from his pocket, and only leaned back for the briefest gesture. Modesty was attempting to make strange faces into the camera as Queenie smiled wide, “Hello, Newt! I hope you and Jacob are having a nice break! And Jacob, that’s the one with the pie crust, right?” she asked, glancing off-camera at Tina for confirmation, “Jacob, I tried your recipe the other day and it was AMAZING! Life-changing. The best. I want more recipes. Make Tina give you my number.”

Newt turned enough to see Jacob going beet red, a silly grin on his face.

“Will you live?” Newt smiled, and Jacob shrugged wide.

“She likes my crust, man,” Jacob whispered back, expression suggesting that he was about to transcend the mortal plane entirely.

***
***

What night would I have found you this week?

Credence slipped Queenie’s sunglasses on as he read and re-read it the message, containing the wide grin that wanted to split across his face, twirling himself off to the corner of the room before he answered.

You wouldn’t have. he sent, leaving it hanging on its own before he amended, Nothing but morning sessions.

Cheeky.

Pretending you don’t like me that way?

He pocketed the phone and let Modesty drag him back across the room by his shirtfront, let them all pull him down onto the sofa.

Dad still had Tina’s phone, and was snapping away as they rearranged themselves. Credence felt his phone buzz but ignored it, just for a moment.

Tina finally pulled away, took her phone back, got a couple of shots of mom and dad together.

He was standing as she turned back around - “Say hi to Newt, everyone!”

Credence leaned back into frame for a moment, winking at the camera, and reached for his phone as he stepped away.

“Hello, Newt!” Queenie laughed as he rounded into the hallway. “I hope you and Jacob are having a nice break! And Jacob, that’s the one with the pie crust, right? Jacob, I tried your recipe the other day and it was AMAZING! Life-changing. The best. I want more recipes. Make Tina give you my number.”

He moved slowly toward the kitchen as he pulled his messages up.

I can think of quite a few ways I'd like you. Been quite a distraction, frankly.

Always skirting that same line. Seeing who would be the first to step over it entirely.
Credence considered doing it himself, right then and there, considered confessing just how often he thought of Graves’ hands on him, how many ways he wanted Graves to have him.

Promises, promises. he answered instead. It’s been weird to practice alone again, with no one watching.

He walked toward the pantry, pulling the door open and stepping in. He clicked on the light and reached for the top shelf, skidded some pasta boxes aside to find the wrapped box he’d left there.

“I thought we were saving that!” Tina groused as he came back into the living room and crept up behind Modesty, to which he could merely shrug.

“What is this?” Modesty squinted, as Credence set the box in her hands.

“Something from all of us. Maybe you should sit down.”

If he lived to be a hundred, Credence didn't think he'd hear a shriek quite so shattering as Modesty’s as the wrapping paper came away from the camera box.

“Are you serious? Are you serious?” she yelled, over and over, hugging anyone she could get her hands on.

She dove back for the box where she'd left it on the couch, opening it in a frenzy, and stared at the camera in a daze as she finally set hands on it, practically on the verge of tears.

“I… I only got you scarves,” she finally said, glancing around nervously.

“No, hey, don’t do that,” Credence assured her, and she flung herself at him in one of those too-tight hugs. “Don’t you dare beat yourself up like that. It’s not - it’s about you being happy, okay?”

She nodded against his shoulder, and he hugged her back just as fiercely.

*

He was on his way upstairs, almost an hour later when Graves finally responded.

You're not getting lazy, are you?

Credence glanced over his shoulder for a moment, making sure nobody was watching up the stairs. I wouldn't dare. But maybe you should put me through my paces after break, just to make sure.

He walked down to his room, closing the door softly before he fell over on his bed with a long sigh.

Now there's a temptation.

More of an offer, actually. Credence sent, and added, Have an excellent night, sir.

*

The next few days passed without much incident: morning practices, lunch, afternoons free.

The only real difference was the long walks he ended up taking with Modesty - she was unstoppable that week, wanting to go everywhere, take pictures of everything, get a feel for the camera’s settings, regardless of the snowdrifts that were finally accumulating.

He didn't hear from Graves again until Monday afternoon, and only then the simple message: What did I miss this morning?

Credence glanced over to where Modesty stood, taking long shots along the shoreline, paying him no attention.

Liszt. I danced through the Campanella a few times, and I worked on cabrioles.

Good work?

Of course, sir.

And that was all, for the entire day.

The messages were just as simple on Tuesday (Rachmaninov, jetés), and later on Wednesday (Shostakovitch again, an hour-long practice of nothing in particular). That one Graves followed with, Still going to practice on Christmas?

Credence grinned at that as he finished the tea he was making.

For me, it's just another day of the year.

Good answer. Pick something fun, though.

And that was all.

*

The invitation on Friday morning was simple: Queenie simply had to have them down to the city, and she'd pay their fares herself if she had to.

“If we go down, we’re gonna have to stay over. With our bags,” Tina sighed. They were heading back to Ithaca on Saturday, so making two trips down to the city would be pointless.

“Yeah, but you know it would make her year. What’s left of it.”

Tina’s long sigh became an indulgent laugh, and she nodded, “I just wanted one more night at home. But you two are gonna bully me about it forever if I don’t.”

“Oh, just absolutely twisting your arm about it,” Credence sighed back with a little smirk.

And so they’d ended up on the train just after 4:30 that afternoon, suitcases and bags crowded in with them awkwardly.

*

The stop-off at Queenie’s apartment lasted long enough for them to drop their bags, and to let her put some mascara on him.

Her opinion was that nobody was ever under-dressed if they at least did their eyes, and Credence was always too charmed at the notion to argue.

“How come you never force that on me?” Tina asked from where she'd flopped down on the sofa.

“Because I’m not forcing him, and I know you're not game for it. Besides, the whole… faded denim-college-t-shirt thing works for you,” Queenie teased. “Why, you want some?”

“Absolutely not,” Tina muttered back, and Queenie turned to shrug at her with raised eyebrows.

“Then let us have our fun.”

*

What are you up to?

Two days since Credence had heard from Graves, and that was it. No lead-in. No question about practice. He hung back a step, following along behind the girls.

I'm on my way to a party in the city.

The pause was long - three minutes, four, and then:

Should I bother telling you to behave?

Credence went a bit breathless at that, hoping that his blush would be mistaken for being a little wind-bitten.
They'd been playing at some version of that all along, when all was said and done, hadn't they? But it was another thing entirely to have it said.

It certainly sounds like you want to. he offered.

Among other things. How about instead we say… have fun tonight?

Now, that I can manage.

*

The party wasn't enormous - a large handful of people cobbled together of Queenie's old school friends, a few newer work acquaintances, and two or three interlopers they'd acquired over the years.

Someone pushed a glass of wine into Credence’s hands as soon as he had his coat off, and he clung to it awkwardly for the rest of the evening, only taking the barest occasional sips as he mulled around under the strand-lights, wandering his way from conversation to conversation.

At some point, he ended up trapped on the fringes of an argument about electronic musical styles for the better part of an hour and a half, and the only real input he could offer was a small shrug, and, “If I can dance to it, it's all the same to me.”

The boy with the deceptively huge beard, who'd been trying to draw him into the conversation, lit up immediately.

“Oh. You must be - Queenie, is this the ballerina, finally?”

It was the boy’s tone and the look on his face, rather than the actual words, that put Credence on some kind of immediate guard.

He glanced to Queenie for a moment as she turned before he answered for himself, “I dance multiple styles, but yes, ballet is my focus.”

“Seriously?” the boy pressed on. “Oh, this is - well, you gotta give us a twirl, or something.”

Queenie had honed in more carefully on the conversation by then, and rolled her eyes.

“Give it a rest, Lawrence.”

“No, Q. It's okay,” Credence said, and turned back to the boy, looking him over for a moment and swirling his wine before he answered. He’d had a chance to relax from that initial dread; he knew where this was going, knew how Lawrence would treat this - and after all, Have fun, Graves had said. “Go make me a latté first.”

From the corner of his eye, he could see Queenie’s slow look of shock, but he kept steady as Lawrence pulled back.

“Excuse me?”

Credence calmly elaborated, “A latté, Lawrence. Double espresso, soy, full fat whip. I like peppermint, but caramel’s okay, too.”

“I don’t - what the hell?”

“If you’re not at work, neither am I,” he muttered, and took a full swallow of his now-warm wine without breaking eye contact.

Queenie was shaking, but her laughter finally spilled over in a single, slow peal.

Credence excused himself suddenly, ducking down the hallway as he finished his wine (and it really was awful, this warm) in two more huge gulps.

He walked right into the bathroom and about folded in on himself the moment the door was shut. He wanted to panic, wanted to give into the hyperventilating, but steadied himself.

He ran the sink, dabbed some cold water on his temples, on his wrists, and took a minute to breathe.

What the hell had that been?

He was always annoyed by that, the assumption that people would perform on command for strangers. And maybe he still had some anxiety leftover from high school in regards to allegedly polite spectating becoming mockery, but he hadn't had any kind of outburst like that in… years, now.

“Credence? You okay?” Tina called through the door, tapping softly.

He turned off the sink taps and picked his glass back up, opening the door.

“Yeah, sorry, I shouldn’t have done-”

“No, don’t - don’t worry. But we should maybe… go now, because that guy actually lives here?”

She pulled an awkward expression as she made it to the end of the sentence, which Credence found himself mirroring in the instant before they shuffled themselves along to the room they'd left their coats in.

*

“Honey, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Queenie assured him, when she could finally talk without laughing. “I should be apologizing to you, anyway. I just… I brag about you sometimes.”

“See? I’m not the only one,” Tina pointed out, knocking into him gently.

A breeze kicked up for a moment, and Credence felt a few light, beginning snowflakes against his cheeks, saw them in the street lamps as he glanced up.

“Yeah, but… they’re your friends, Q,” he said, digging his hands more securely into his coat pockets. He was a little light-headed now - the wine must have finally been setting in.

“He was being rude, and he deserved it, and I’m buying you dinner! Come on.”

*

It was past midnight before they made it back to Queenie’s, full of some of the best falafel Credence had ever tasted.

She and Tina shoved in together on the bed, and Credence curled up somewhat awkwardly on the couch under what felt like nine throw blankets.

Against all odds, it was some of the best sleep he’d had in months.

*

The morning was slow and gradual, the three of them shuffling awake, cleaning up, getting ready to head all the way downtown on the subway.

They ate at a diner that Credence wasn’t sure he ever actually saw a sign for, never thought to ask the name of, but the coffee rivaled anything he'd ever had from presses and siphons and pour-overs.

He almost hated how much he missed this city when he was away, but for now, in such excellent company, that didn't matter.

*

Credence only stayed long enough after checking into his dorm to unpack and get himself changed into his gear.

He wrapped up carefully before he went back out, though - coat and hat and scarf and gloves, as well as layering sweatpants over his leggings for once.

Ithaca had gone frigid in his absence, the snow itself crunching underfoot as he made his way across campus, the wind still nipping at his face in spite of everything.

He didn’t pass anyone on the way to the studio building, the walk silent but for his footsteps and the sound of his own breath, the snow falling slowly in great, thick flakes.

He keyed his way into the studio building with his ID and took himself up the stairs, the building’s warmth slowly filling in around the gaps in his outdoor gear. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear there was steam coming off of his skin.

Pushing into the usual studio, he clicked on the single row of lights and peeled his way out of his outer layers, changed his shoes.

He paused as he stacked everything neatly next to the stereo, and stooped to retrieve his phone from his coat.

There’d been no message all day, perhaps not so unusual… but he was taken by the most insolent sort of whim.

Maybe you should go looking for me tonight.

He left the phone on the cabinet and took his time stretching, savoring the silence of the place; the gym back home had been anything but.

His phone screen was just blacking out as he returned, and he pulled it back up.

If I could, would I find you?

Credence pulled up the camera app, snapped a picture primarily focused on the room behind him, and sent it off with, Just got in. When are you back?

Feeling impatient?

Very. (Why make it more complicated than he had to?)

It took a moment, but Graves responded, Stay out of trouble, stay warm, and you’ll see me before New Year’s.

I'll do my best.

And with that, Credence was free for the night - or as free as he could allow himself, being back here. 

He reached back into the cabinet, searching for the Chopin again.

*

For the next four days, life was more or less as quiet as the snowy landscape outside.

Or perhaps that wasn’t true - perhaps it better to say that Credence was able to slip slowly back into staying very quiet while life got busy around him.

Credence had the dorm room to himself, had most of campus to himself, had a chance on Sunday to catch a ride into town to get some secondhand copies of the books he’d need for the semester. (Mom and dad might have been more than happy to cover him for new ones, but he could never justify that kind of expense. He hit pay dirt this time - there was only one he’d still need to grab from the campus bookstore.)

Newt and Jacob had gotten back on Monday, driven in by Jacob’s mother; they pulled Tina out of the work she was already trying to get done, and the three of them managed to tempt Credence to brave the cold to try some of the “ludicrously good tea” Newt’s parents had sent him over break.

To their credit, it was well worth it, as were the scones Jacob had brought from home.

Tina, in some sort of hangover from the holidays, was sending Queenie video evidence that the four of them had all arrived safely, culminating in Jacob’s bashful declaration that, “I haven’t forgotten about texting you, things just got very busy with my family over Christmas. I’ll send you the scone recipe tonight. Promise.”

*

By Wednesday afternoon, the library was still wrapped in a wonderful stillness. Credence had hidden himself in a far-flung corner, taking the chance to get some pre-reading done while there was still some peace and quiet to be had.

He finally pulled himself out of his books around 4:30, trying to decide if going to get food would count as a late lunch or an early dinner.

As he glanced at his phone, he let his thumb hover over the messaging icon. He and Graves had spoken the night before, primarily just about practicing… but 'before New Year' left about nine hours for him to work with, and Credence was getting restless.

I’m being very patient, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

There was no reply by the time he’d packed his books and shuffled out to the sandwich shop at the edge of campus half an hour later, keeping his head ducked against the still-harsh chill and the glare of the sun on the snow; still no reply another hour and a half past that when he got back to the dorm, dropping over onto his bed and strongly considering a nap before he got ready to go meet Tina and the gang.

He instead rolled onto his stomach and pulled his laptop open, deciding on trying to manage his way through the last of the movies he hadn't gotten to back home.

He was finished with The Third Man and was just over an hour into Solaris when his phone finally buzzed. He drew it from his pocket, only lazily taking his eyes from the screen to read the message.

What are you doing, right now?

Staying warm & expanding my horizons. Why, what are you doing? Credence sent back, biting back the urge to ask what had taken so long. Graves’ reply was almost instantaneous.

Wondering if you can meet me at the studios in half an hour, if you don't have other plans. Wear something nice.

Credence felt his eyes go wide as the realization washed over him. He practically slammed his laptop shut, snagged his bag from the foot of his bed and pulled the books out, moving to his dresser to hurriedly grab some dance gear, and an extra change of clothes.
He paused at the shirt drawer, trying to decide what counted as nice as he pulled off his t-shirt. Did he actually own anything nice?
The boatnecked black cardigan was probably the best thing he owned, so hopefully it qualified.

I’ll be there in twenty. he fired off as he slipped into his boots, shoved his dance shoes into his bag with the other gear.

He backed out of the conversation, pulled up Tina's contact, and sent, Will you hate me if I don't stop by tonight?.

He took one glance in the little mirror by the door, deciding that his hair was no more of a mess than usual before he hurried himself into his coat and out the door.

Course not - you okay? Tina asked back, and Credence pressed his mouth into a line as he made for the stairwell. He wouldn't lie, but he wasn't so naïve as to think that he could talk about this freely. He thought for a moment, tried to remember Queenie's old evasive euphemisms...

I'm absolutely stellar, if you must know.

The pause before the reply was palpable enough to make Credence grin.

Oh! Yeah, have fun, Cre. We can talk later.

*

The skies had been clear all day. There were no stars out now, though, and the moon was only visible through a thick layer of clouds.

Almost there. Where are you?

He took the steps up along the side of the studio building just as a few sparse flakes came filtering down.

Look behind you.

Pausing with his right foot one step higher than his left, he craned around, spotted someone approaching from the lower parking lot.

Credence walked back down the steps slowly, dropping his phone back into his coat pocket as he went, tugging his scarf down.

All of the anticipation, the months of wanting, did absolutely nothing to mitigate the way Credence’s breath caught as he reached the bottom of the stairs. It did nothing to stop the way his heart leapt as Graves stepped into the light from the nearby lamppost.

Credence licked his lips, trying to think of something to say, but what was the point?
What was the point, when they were looking at each other like this?

They moved into each other’s space slowly, their foggy little puffs of breath swirling away together the closer they came.

He noticed the little flecks of snow clinging to Graves’ hair, nearly reached up to brush them away.
Graves had his hands on him then, warm and heavy on Credence’s neck, skimming over his cheek, and the vague scent of his cologne followed on the air.

“You’re allowed to say no,” he whispered, and Credence nodded gently, swallowing down the last of his hesitation as he leaned in.

It was soft and easy, that first kiss, nothing but a slow, needful press of their lips in the silence of the night.

Only on the pullback did it feel hopelessly inadequate; they both drew in deep, cold breaths, and -

And they pressed back into each other with a sudden, greedy insistence, Credence clutching to Graves’ shoulders. It pulled a groan from him, wavering and muffled as they opened their mouths to it, wanting and -

Not enough, not nearly enough, but Graves was pulling back again.

It was a long moment before Credence could open his eyes, half-afraid that it would shatter the moment, that this would have been it.

“We should go,” Graves said, drawing his thumb against Credence’s jaw, his tone that same low roll as it had been the night they’d danced. "If you'd like."

Credence could think of a thousand reasons why all of this was a bad idea, and managed to ignore them just as quickly as he leaned into that touch. With more conviction than he’d thought possible, he found his voice at last.

Please.”

Chapter Text

The lot was somewhere on the west side of downtown, and the snow was falling in heavier and heavier gusts.

Credence was turned in the seat, draped sideways over the console, halfway to sliding over and into his lap when Graves killed the engine, pulling away from Credence's mouth.

“We’re going to be unfashionably late,” he murmured, pressing back in for another almost-delicate kiss, two, the third nearly spilling over into something more.

“I don’t care,” Credence whispered back, sighing at Graves’ fingers brushing up through his hair, then down along the edges of his coat.

“They’re already gonna gossip about you all night as it is.”

Credence glanced away as he smiled at that, drawing up all the bravado he could muster. He reached over, pressed a palm flat to the inside of Graves’ right thigh, thumb straying up and up -

“Then why are we even going?”

“Because I said I was taking you out, didn’t I?” 

There was a careless little flex in Graves’ hips, and Credence had to hold his breath at the victorious little thrill that twisted through him.

“I don’t care,” Credence whispered again, “and you don’t have to take me anywhere.”

The shocked little huff of a laugh Graves let out was worth it, even with his fingers wrapping around Credence’s wrist, tugging the hand away. (And if Credence bit his lip at that, the thought of his wrists held tight in that grasp… well.)

“Yeah. Alright, but not here.”

*

The apartment was still and warm, silent but for the shuffle of their damp shoes onto a mat by a heating vent, lit by nothing but the streetlight outside the windows.

“Let me?”

Credence nodded, gave up his bag and shrugged with the motion as Graves slid the coat down his arms, sighing a little as their fingers slid together at the last instant.

He wandered into the living room as Graves did away with their coats in a closet by the door.

The furniture was sparse, but was surprisingly not the kind of blocky, minimalist stuff he'd somehow expected.

He turned as he dragged a hand against the edge of the sofa, caught Graves watching him from the doorway.

Credence wondered how to say, I've done this, but never like this, and it almost doesn't feel real.

“Through there?” he asked instead, gesturing over his shoulder at a door across the room.

“Unless you’d prefer the couch,” Graves teased.

That was certainly a thought, wasn’t it? Barefoot on the smooth floor, bent over the arm of the sofa, legs spread, that rough upholstery on his cheek - no.
No, he wasn't feeling quite that brave tonight.

He grinned, took a soft two, three, four steps back toward the bedroom; it was all the cue Graves needed to follow along into the near-darkness.

The floor was carpeted here, where the living room had been hardwood; Credence only paused at the gentle knock of the bedframe against his calf, and Graves reached past him to click on the bedside lamp.

There was barely enough time for an appraising glance between the two of them in that dim-amber light, nothing but a heavy breath.

They drew each other in with uncareful, grasping touches, kissing deep and slow as though there'd been no interruption, as though this was right where they'd started.

Those broad, warm hands were pushed up under his sweater now, palms open against his skin, tracing around and up his back. Credence arched at the touch, groaned with it, and -

The stutter in the gesture was too obvious, the way Graves paused, slid his his fingers back over the raised lines of scar tissue. Credence edged out of the kiss reluctantly, saw the sharpness in his eyes.

“Show me.”

It wasn't the question that it should have been. It wasn’t a question at all, actually, but something about the indelicacy of it eased his spark of panic.

He stepped back and faced away, forced himself past a hesitation and tugged the sweater up over his head with a deep breath, let it drop to the floor.

The uncertain silence was almost worse than any shocked gasp.

He knew how those marks looked, even if he occasionally managed to forget they were there.

“Is that all of it?” Graves finally asked.

Credence shook his head, and didn’t have to be told this time. Jeans and socks off, standing in nothing but his underwear.
He knew that the backs of his thighs weren’t as bad, but putting all of it on such open display was mortifying.
Or it should have been, anyhow.

“Should I stop?” 

No cringing pity. No prying, sympathetic questioning. Still just that calm tone - a soft, warm breath against his neck, hands wrapping around his waist.

Sinking into the touch, he felt the drag of the shirt against his back, felt how hard Graves was, pressing against his ass.

“Absolutely not,” Credence whispered, half-lost in the shift of their bodies against each other before Graves even had him pinned down to the mattress.

He tipped his head back against the bedding as Graves kissed slowly down his neck, rutting up against Graves’ palm after he slid out of his briefs, panting out every filthy little noise he would normally have tried to stifle.

It was nothing but an elaborate tease, and it was still incredible.

He ran his fingers through Graves’ hair, just trying to coax him into - something, anything, just-a-little-more… and discovered, entirely by accident, the half-choked grunt Graves let out at a gentle, testing tug.

Oh.

Credence tried again, in sheer reckless delight, and a third time, gasping as Graves surged back up, stopping just short of a kiss.

“You want more?” he murmured, with a devious grin. Credence couldn’t help the stutter in his hips at that, at the delicious friction as Graves pressed down against him, knew he was making a smudged mess of the front of Graves’ pants.
It occurred to him just how exposing (awful) (perfect) this actually was; he knew what he wanted so suddenly that he didn’t even stop to question it.

He pulled his hands away, reaching down to carefully start working the buttons on Graves’ shirt open.

“Later... you can fuck me later if you want,” he said quietly, blushing even as the words left his mouth, keeping his gaze fixed on what he was doing, “Right now, I just - I want you to come on me.”

It wasn’t as though it wasn’t something he’d thought about. 
(Extensively.)
(Repeatedly.)

Saying it aloud was something else entirely, though.

He pushed the edges of the shirt open, let his fingertips brush a deliberate path down Graves’ skin, catching on the waistband of those fine gray slacks - the angle was awkward, to try and open the fly himself -

“Well, when you put it that way.”

Credence caught just a sliver of the strange, delighted expression before Graves was pushing him back down with a fierce kiss.

Did things like this count as voyeurism?
Credence almost laughed at that as he watched this beautiful man, with his with his perfect hair mussed out of place and expensive clothes half-undone and rucked out of the way, licking his own palm before he reached down to take himself in hand, knuckles nudging against Credence’s stomach as he worked himself.

Graves reached out with his left hand, tracing one finger along Credence’s collarbone, tracing his thumb over the point of Credence’s throat. Credence breathed with it, arched a little, eyes fluttering shut with an instinctual shiver.

Those fingers tightened in by degrees; the pulse in his neck thudded sluggishly against the pressure.

He opened his eyes, needed to see, watched the tension Graves’s jaw as he ground out a few rough curses, and Credence felt the warm spatters over his stomach.

All of this, just because Credence wanted it.

“Look at you,” Graves breathed. He didn’t ask permission this time, and Credence was well-past caring.

He had a hand around Credence’s cock, working him in rough little strokes, smearing his other hand through the mess on Credence’s skin.

It was only when those fingers were against his mouth that Credence understood, kept his eyes on Graves as he opened his lips eagerly, sucking and groaning low at the salt-bitter taste.

It was all too much, too fast (too, too good), had Credence clasping uselessly in the sheets, thrusting into that grip as he edged closer and closer.

“Please,” he pulled away from the fingers in his mouth, whimpered, “I’m- I can’t-”

“Sure you can,” Graves whispered, leaning down to drag his lips along Credence’s jaw. “Let me see it.”

He felt the harsh, drawn-out rasp of the moan in his throat as he came, pleasure cresting in an aching wave, could hear Graves whispering something to him without being able to register the words.

It took a very long moment to catch his breath, trembling at the delicious little shocks still coursing through him as Graves kissed along his collarbones.

They pulled away slowly; still on his back, Credence watched Graves push up off the bed, step around another door into what had to be the bathroom -

Good god, he was in a state. He shuffled himself up onto his elbows, cast about for his clothes.

There was a sudden awareness of the fact that he was in someone else’s space, that this was not where he belonged…

He wondered how long it would take for him to get a ride, this close to midnight… maybe he could be back to campus in time to make the party after all -

“Are you lost?”

The question was good-humored. Credence looked over in time to catch the hand towel tossed at him, nodding gratefully as he did his best to wipe himself down.

“I might be,” he allowed, trailing off slowly. Graves was dressed in nothing but his underwear now; Credence apparently still had it in him to blush at the sight, as though it was any more obscene than the rest of it.

“If this is the part where you bolt, I’ll call you a cab… But I gotta tell you, it’s really coming down out there.”

Credence shook his head and handed over the towel, his anxiety dissipating with the joke.

“I didn't want to presume. To stay, I mean.”

Graves turned back to toss the cloth away (into a hamper, it sounded like) before he walked back, leaning over to press a little biting kiss to Credence’s shoulder, smiling against his skin.

“Get under the covers.”

Maybe he didn’t mind that it wasn’t a request.

*

They missed midnight entirely.

That was the first thing that occurred to Credence as he stretched under the warmth of the comforter - the comforter he was already making half-serious plans to steal, frankly. Forget everything else, forget the sex and career goals, he was in love with the blanket.

The comforter that he also happened to be very much alone under.

This was all so new.

Well... not rushing out on someone was new. Getting off, being told to stay, getting off again before he fell asleep… new.

Waking up alone in someone else’s bed, naked, on New Year’s morning…

Credence held his hands over his eyes, just for a moment. 

What the hell was he even doing? (Here, in this situation, in general?)

His phone was still in his coat, right? Was it going to still have enough charge for him to call anyone, or -

Ridiculous. He was being ridiculous.

He took a deep, steadying breath, and another, and another. He could process this later, but now was not the time.

Folding the covers back, he leaned down to pick his clothes up off the floor, shimmying back into everything piece by piece. He didn’t even want to think about what his hair looked like.

What time was it, anyway? There didn’t seem to be any clocks, and with his phone still all the way across the apartment -

He stopped short as he stepped into the living room, breathing out carefully as he took in the sight of Graves perched on the edge of the sofa, hunched over some papers spread out on the coffee table. There was a mug in his right hand, the left tucked under his chin, and his hair - oh, that lovely hair was still ruffled out of place.

He looked so soft like this, in the bright daylight, as though Credence might actually be able to sit down and curl into him, to steal sips of that drink.

But Credence knew better, and would hardly presume. A floorboard creaked slightly underfoot as he shifted, and the spell was broken, that keen gaze turning on him suddenly.

“And here I was starting to think you’d sleep the day away,” Graves needled, voice gentle all the same. “I was almost about to crawl back in there with you.”

“Still could,” Credence grinned back, nerves settling at last as he watched Graves shuffle his papers together.

“You’re a horrible influence,” he winked. “Getting me to blow off plans, trying to get me to waste the day…”

“Oh, and you have a better idea?” Credence countered, resisting the urge to hook his fingers into his pockets or study his own socks as he crossed the floor, watching the appraising glance Graves swept down his body.

“Matter of fact, I do. I seem to remember some talk of… what was the phrase? Someone being put through their paces?”

“That does sound familiar,” Credence smiled, shifting his weight a bit, and ventured, “But if it’s all the same, I’d like to eat first.”

*

Are you still out? Call me. was the message he found waiting for him when he took his bag with him into the bathroom.

T, I love you, but I’m fine. I promise. Happy New Year. I’ll call you later.

He took a moment to answer the peppering of other New Years’ wishes, then dropped the phone into the end pouch of his bag.

He glanced up to the mirror one last time, took a deep breath, let the tension drop out of his shoulders.

Leaving the bag at the end of the bed, he turned back out into the living room.

Graves had shoved the furniture to one side of the room, leaving plenty of space for Credence to move.

“Are you sure your neighbors aren’t going to mind?”

“I’m very sure I don’t give a good goddamn,” Graves shrugged. He was fiddling with something on one of the long wall shelves - a stereo control of some kind. Credence could see the way his earlier demeanor, and all of that open easiness from the night before, was gone now. It somehow didn’t matter that he was still in his bathrobe. “How do you feel about Liszt?”

“Liszt, I can certainly work with.”

Credence lowered himself to the floor to start stretching. There was an unusual tension in the backs of his thighs which he breathed through. It was easy to ignore the why and how, in this context. Distractions were for later.

(For as much as he hated it, perhaps he had that much to thank Mary Lou for: his ability to shut off irrelevant thought trains and focus.)

They didn’t speak as he moved himself along, shared nothing but a brief nod when he stood again.

“Start freeform, and we’ll go from there.”

Credence nodded again, and the first notes filtered out of speakers he couldn’t actually see.

*

Despite - or perhaps, specifically because of - what was happening between them, there was absolutely no room for error.

Credence understood that fact by instinct, that this was a recital - an audition, for that matter - more demanding than anything he’d yet been subjected to. This was so much more personal, even if he couldn’t actually let those feelings interfere in his headspace as he moved.

And moved.

And moved almost without stopping, except for those brief moments between songs, only changing course when Graves called out for him to demonstrate various forms and movements, until he was given another go-ahead to move as he saw fit.

There was a knife-edge certainty in the back of his mind, the entire time, that Graves would call out for him to start over, and yet somehow…

And yet somehow, forty-five minutes later, the music finally came to a close, and he was left with nothing but his own numb surprise, breathing heavy for a moment in the silence.

“You could still be better,” Graves called out, and Credence turned to face him. He recognized the compliment for what it was, even if the implication chewed at him a little bit.

“Fine, then let’s keep going.” It was more strident than he’d intended, but Graves didn’t even bat an eyelash.

“Alright. What’s your poison?”

“Bring the Scherzo back up,” Credence answered, nodding toward the stereo deck.

“You got something to prove, huh?” he taunted even as he reached for the controls.

“Just… try me,” Credence offered. He saw the pleased little twist to Graves’ mouth, the clench in his jaw as he bit back a response, tapping at one of the controls.

*

He was winging it, well and truly. The footwork itself was something he’d been practicing with the Shostakovich, but it would do in a pinch, even as he left pieces out, sped others along, repurposed it to the music at hand.

This was foolish - beyond foolish, letting his emotions get the better of him this way. He was going to bungle it hopelessly, going to fall flat on his ass, all because he wanted to show Graves up.

But here, he was pouring everything into it - all the little moments of spite, all the messy wanting, every half-bitten little challenge they’d been flinging back and forth since October - and that managed to outweigh all else.

He felt the moment he found the stride, the way he seemed to fade away into the music, as though he might leave his body behind entirely.

It was six minutes of a storm in his chest and a clinging to as perfect an iteration of every form as he was capable.

The music coasted into its final bar on those deep bass notes, and Credence let his eyes slide open, watching Graves watch him.

Credence didn’t have a term for that expression. It was that same hunger as the night they’d danced, something beyond anything that had passed between them since, and Credence wanted every sweet sin it offered.

He let himself flow into his finishing pose, had just a moment to draw a deep, triumphant breath as he relaxed out of it.

Graves was on him in an instant, and Credence gave over completely to the fingers on his jaw, at his waist.

“That. That is all I’ve fucking wanted to see.”

There was nothing measured or polite in their kiss, the scrape of their teeth on each other’s lips, in the way Graves’ fingers gripped at the back of his neck as they moved together in an unsteady pace across the floor, across the threshold, and Credence was being turned, spilling forward onto the unmade bed.

“Stay there,” Graves breathed against his shoulder, fingers pressing in for just a moment to drive the point home.

Credence caught his breath, fingers splaying out on the sheets for a moment, as he heard the noise of Graves searching for something (he could take an educated guess) in a bedside drawer, and he grinned to himself.

This was what he’d wanted to see, and it was only a half-gutted version of the choreography at best.

No time to dwell, though. Not when those hands were back on him, tugging at the shoulders of his leotard.

Credence pushed up, helped scramble himself out of the fabric, shift out of the dance belt, shove his shoes off, and -

And he was chest-flat to the mattress again, toes digging into the carpet, spreading his legs as he pressed back into the solid weight of Graves’ body.

“Yes, alright? Yes, yes, please,” he goaded, nothing short of gratified at the answering laugh, at the biting little kiss Graves laid on the small of his back, tongue sliding against the scars on his sweat-rimed skin for just a moment before those hands were spreading him and -

He heard the little plastic snap of a lid, sighed high and unsteady at the sudden, cold daub of lube, and there were two fingers just barely breaching him then, slick and careful.

It wasn’t enough, and slow wasn’t an option. Not right now.

“No. No, come on,” he groaned, hands gripping in the sheets as he rocked back to take those fingers deeper, bit his lip at the sharp little noise Graves let out.

“Needy thing.”

“You’ve got no idea,” he muttered, focusing on the motion, on the sweet, harsh stretch of it. The whine bubbled up from his throat then, as Graves twisted a third finger in, pressing in just-so -

For a moment, for a long moment, for many, many long moments, he couldn’t do anything but gasp out the word please, thrusting back into the touch with abandon.

“Please, what?” Graves finally asked, leaning in to press his lips to Credence’s shoulder. He didn’t even care that he could hear the smug grin in Graves’ tone.

“You know what,” Credence whispered.

He felt the gust of the laugh against his skin. There was a breathless little pause, some vague movements behind him, another snap and the noises that came with it -

He bit his lip, hard, at that first too-easy press. He’d been ready for this, wanted it, but it still took a long moment to blink away the shock of it - it was thick enough that it hurt, even with the lube, but only for a moment, only as long as it took him to remember to breathe.

“Good?” Graves finally asked. Credence nodded through the deep breath he took, canted forward a bit before he ground back, testing. Graves clutched his fingers in at Credence’s waist, tight, answering the movements with a shallow roll of his hips.

“Yeah,” Credence nodded again, the pain fizzling out to a steady, hot pleasure. “Yeah, come on, however you want. Just - come on, damn it.”

It wasn’t - easy, steady, gentle. It wasn’t careful.

It was Graves moving him just-so, driving in deep and almost harsh, knocking all manner of low noises from Credence’s throat; it was both of them shifting and shifting and trying to find that just-right angle.

It was Graves whispering to him, calling him pretty when Credence threw his head back on a particularly rough thrust. Static burst on his vision at the sensation, and he finally reached down to get a hand around his dripping-hard cock.

“Say it again,” he managed, jacking himself in earnest.

Graves paused for just an instant, shifting again, his breath very obviously heavy now.

“Say wh - pretty? Fuck. Yeah, you are,” he said, and reached a hand up to tangle his fingers in the back of Credence’s hair as he picked his pace up again. “Tight, and sweet, and so fucking pretty.”

The words felt like warm sunlight, tipping him over the edge like a slow, twisting fall. His bracing arm buckled with the strain, and he came over his hand, against the sheets, shuddering with the force of it.

Credence was almost giggling as Graves fucked him through the aftershocks, fucked him hard enough that the edge of the mattress was going to chafe rough little marks on the tops of his thighs. It was just on the brink of too much, but he took it all, savored it, eyes sliding shut at the raw groan as Graves finally came.

They stayed like that, pressed together, for a very long moment as Graves caught his breath. It wasn't... tender, this thing, but it was grounding, and he focused on the hand Graves pressed to the side of his neck as he finally pulled away. With a shaky breath, Credence moved up onto the mattress, curling up on his side out of the way of the damp spot.

“What was the joke?” Graves asked over his shoulder, stepping off into the bathroom to toss the condom. (That had been awfully reckless, he realized - he hadn’t even thought to make sure Graves had one on.)

“Who said there was any joke?” Credence called out. “Sometimes, I - sometimes that just happens. ...You really think I’m pretty?”

The answer came with only the barest pause.

“Don’t let it go to your pretty little head. But I also think you should come get a shower, so we can get some lunch.”

Well, now. Happy New Year, indeed, Credence grinned to himself, rallying himself to try and stand up.

Chapter Text

“So are you gonna tell me, or am I going to have to worm it out of you?”

Credence sighed fondly up at Tina, leaning back slightly in the chair as he flipped his book shut. He’d texted her very late Sunday night to let her know he was back at the dorms, finally, and had gotten nothing but a thanks. At the time, he wasn’t willing to risk an argument by pushing further.

“There’s really nothing to tell that I think you want to hear, trust me.”

She sighed back, rolling her eyes.

“Well, does he have a name? Is he nice? Are you seeing him again?”

“Who said it’s a he?” Credence scoffed, raising an eyebrow smugly.

Tina rolled her eyes. “Because it generally is, Cre. But you gotta give me something to tell Queenie. She won’t leave me alone about it.”

Credence threw up his hands at that, casting about incredulously as though some far-flung corner of the cafeteria might hold some adequate response to that.

“Why? Why would you tell Q?”

“Because I assumed she already knew! You always go to her about this stuff, so I figured...” she said, gesturing aimlessly. “I was worried, okay? I barely heard from you all weekend, and that’s not like you.”

This wasn’t a guilt trip, and he knew it. Tina wouldn’t pull something like that.

“Hey, come on, you know I - Tina. It’s -” Credence searched his mind for the first thing he could muster up, pinching the bridge of his nose as a grounding gesture. There were so many ways he could try and deflect, and all of them were lies that he couldn’t bring himself to speak. Tina didn’t deserve that. “It’s just… it’s new, okay? It was stupid, and selfish, but I was trying to figure it out first.”

She nodded slowly at that.

“No. No, you’re right. We’re grownups, and you deserve… yeah. But I’m still gonna worry about you when you just up and vanish.”

After a moment to process that, he reached across the table, patting her forearm.

“How screwed am I for the next time I talk to her?”

Tina lit up at that, patting his outstretched hand with an apologetic smile.

“Well, she’s the one who told me to lay off. But having to hear the news secondhand? She might not ever recover.”

“Oh, I hate you so much,” he whispered, pulling his hand back.

“Oh, I know.”

*

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let both of you worry.

The responding call came less than forty seconds later.

Credence had to press his fingers to his forehead before he tapped the icon to answer, steeling himself for the incoming tirade. (No, not - tirade, that was unfair. Steeling himself for his own guilt, maybe.)

“Hey, Q.”

“Now… I need you to know that I’m not mad,” she said, the slight crackle of outdoor noise hovering around her voice. She was probably walking between her jobs, as he was walking between the cafeteria and the practice studios.

“You’re just disappointed?” he offered, grimacing through Queenie’s sigh.

“Honey, you can do anything you want. But you can’t just disappear on her for four days, okay?”

“I’m not…” Credence took a deep breath, steadied himself before he answered. Queenie was the last person in the world he needed to argue with or feel defensive towards… and Tina had just been worried. The guilt he’d been waiting for flopped heavy in his stomach. “I know. I know, and I wasn’t… I didn’t plan it, it just kind of happened.”

“You were talking to him all break long but it just kind of happened?”

There was no need to cringe in on himself. He could hear the mirth in her voice, knew how completely genuine it was.

“You can’t prove anything. And I don’t know why you’re both so sure it was a guy.”

“Sure, antsy as you were whenever a text came in?” she teased. “So, does this lucky girl have a name?

“...No, you’re right. And sure, he does.”

“Hardy-har. So. All weekend, huh?” she finally ventured. With the gossipy edge to the question, Credence could practically hear her eyebrows waggling.

“For crying out loud, Queenie,” he sighed, slowly fading into a quiet laugh. “Anyway, don’t you have pastry recipes to worry about?”

“You little scamp!” she giggled back, huffing before she answered. “I mean, that’s just so... I don’t mind a little distance, but I just have so much going on right now, and we really only… I mean. He asks me about work, and he remembers all the stuff I gabble on about. Melts me a little, ya know? Is he that nice in person?”

“Yeah, I think Jacob’s a good guy,” Credence nodded.

“Then we’ll just see, I guess,” she sighed, and he could picture the little roll of her shoulders. “So, what about yours? When do I get to meet him?”

“Oh, I don’t… uhm. It’s not really like that, honestly.”

“What is it like, then?”

“It’s…” Credence cast about in the dimming light. This part, he hated. Dodging felt enough like a lie for him to feel actual shame over it. “I really don’t know. I’m still... figuring this out.”

That much, at least, was true.

“Okay. But you’re happy, right? Because that’s always gonna be what matters.”

Credence didn’t know how he felt about having to hesitate there. ‘Happy’ didn’t feel like the right word, did it?

“Is it okay to just say that I’m enjoying myself?”

The pause was filled with another crackle of street noises, and Queenie finally said, “One of those, huh? Well, as long as he treats you right, maybe that’s okay. Listen, I gotta go, honey. Keep your head up, alright?”

“I will. Promise.”

“Alright. Bye, Cre.”

“Bye, Q.”

He paused as the line went dead, taking a long moment to breathe before he pulled the phone away from his ear.

**

Really, what was it like?

It wasn’t a relationship, after all.
They weren’t dating.
They were not, thank you very much, in love.

Not that Credence had a great deal of personal experience to run on, but he knew those things tacitly.

There were certain other things he knew, as time went on.

For one thing, they were never going to exchange... tokens, he supposed, the way that other people seemed to.

(Aside from the spare key Graves handed him near the beginning of the semester. Credence hadn’t asked for it, hadn’t even thought to ask for it, and had simply stared at it on his open palm for a solid half-minute.
“I’m not moving in with you,” he finally blurted out, too stunned to say anything else, Graves actually crumpled forward in a burst of laughter.

“Good, 'cause I wasn’t asking you to.”

And so the key had joined the few others on his lanyard. He’d had no reason to use it, but did find himself fidgeting at it, now and then, in idle moments.)

He knew that it was actually very simple to ignore Graves in public - they’d managed it all autumn long, after all. The situation demanded it of them both once the semester started, and they had too much to focus on outside of each other to slip up.

(Aside from the day, three weeks into the semester, that Credence had chanced a glance at him during a guest lecture. It was only long enough to see if Graves was watching, before Credence snapped his focus back to the woman at the podium. His right hand never paused on the page, looping out notes as he tipped his head to the side - while with his with his left, he dragged a slow finger along his jaw, and down, gently, to the neckline of his shirt.

When they finally got each other alone two days later, Graves had him pressed to the wall the moment they were inside the apartment, biting his way slowly down that precise same path as Credence rode his thigh.)

He knew that while Graves’ office did not count as ‘public’, they tended to avoid meeting there - it wasn’t just obvious, it was a horrible cliché.

(Aside from a particular Wednesday evening in early February, well after-hours. Credence had too much coursework to focus on that week, Graves had too much on his plate between classes and certain departmental adjustments, and that weekend, they might not have been able to get away…

With the door locked and the blinds closed tight, Graves spread him out over the desk, fucked him slow with a hand pressed tight over his mouth, whispering the sweetest filth in his ear.

There were tears welling in the corners of Credence’s eyes by the time he finally came - half from the frustration of having to keep so perfectly silent, half from the release of feeling centered in his own body for the first time in days.)

He knew that Sundays were no longer his own, even if they were just as deliberately slothful.

(Aside from stolen moments here and there, the small hours as Saturday night bled into the next morning were just about the only time during the week that they both had free.

It wasn’t lost on Credence that there’d been a time when it was the worst part of his week, meant for nothing but prayer and fasting and piety.
Now, it meant nothing but those gradually-brightening gray hours, twisted up in those lovely, soft sheets with this lovely, wicked man. It meant nothing but a greedy lust tangling its way into all that laziness.

There was something about it, about the way they’d stretch against each other, half-exhausted, that left Credence absolutely needful.)

This wasn’t a relationship.

They weren’t dating.

They were certainly not in love.

But Credence had rarely been so completely content in his life.

**

The key went unused entirely until the third Saturday in February. Point of fact, he hadn’t needed to use it up to then - their late weekend nights had been on like clockwork since New Year’s.

But Graves had been out of town since Thursday evening - some little jump flight to Toronto, rubbing elbows with some old friends, something to do with actual business, though Credence hadn’t really asked what for.

(It didn’t really matter, at the end of the day.)

Winter was dragging on, frigid and gray, and the thought of going back to his dorm after dinner (late though it already was), waiting on a call from Graves that might not come until well past dawn… something about all of it grated at him, and he found himself fiddling at that still-shiny, brass-toned key as he finished his sandwich.

Tina was out with a study group, and though Credence considered seeing what Newt and Jacob were up to, he felt awkward about tagging along with them on his own.

And so he’d stopped back at the dorm just long enough to scoop a bag together and send a text off to Graves -

I’m just going to head over to yours now. That alright?

Go get yourself comfortable. Won’t be long now. was the only response, flashing up a full five minutes later as he was already halfway to the bus stop.

Credence stared at that message for a very long beat. He’d been sure, somehow, that the key had never been an actual invitation. He’d been sure that he was never actually meant to use it.

*

It was almost unsettling to be in the apartment alone. It felt like intruding, no matter how ongoing and blatant an invitation he’d had to do so (and never minding just how much of the furniture he’d been naked on in the past few weeks).

It felt… too big, too empty somehow.

There was a temptation to turn on all of the lights, to finally have a careful look at those long book shelves, to turn on that stereo system and blast something loud enough to rattle the glasses in the kitchen cupboards.

Maybe he’d see if there was a bottle of wine in the fridge.

But… it had been a very long week, and he really just wanted to get off his feet.

There’d been the last of two group projects he’d been grinding through, a very long paper he’d worked on for the nearly the whole week, his work-studies, and he’d still been slotting practice in around it all (the year-end solos already hovering in the distance, after all)… with still more to be done.

Maybe he really did just want to get comfortable, after all.

Passing into the bedroom, he made a beeline for the closet. He dropped his bag just inside the sliding door and pulled off his clothes, folding everything in a more-or-less neat stack to lay on top of it, keeping his phone back to set on the night stand.

The bedding was flat and tucked and perfectly crisp, but as he wriggled his way under the sheets, he could smell that they’d at least been slept in at some point - the faint cologne scent was unmistakable.

The tension was leeching from him already (that comforter would get the better of him every single time, heavy and perfect), and he was most certainly not pressing his face into the pillow that he knew Graves favored.

When he awoke an uncertain time later, it was a groggy, easy thing. There was no sharp panic over the little dip of the mattress behind him as the covers shifted.

There was a hand slipping gently under him, another running across his stomach, and he twisted, pressing back into the contact, all without opening his eyes.

Credence let a muddled little sigh spill out, and another, pitching higher as those fingers slipped along his hips, down along the tops of his thighs.

“God, I love that noise,” Graves rumbled against his neck. “Think I could get used to this.”
Something (bright, brilliant, awful) caught in Credence’s chest at - at that word that they did not use.
It was the first thing they’d said to each other, directly, in person, in nearly a week. Graves hadn’t even dropped in on his practices (not enough time, never enough time).

But it wasn’t important. That word wasn’t important, not at that moment.

What was important, at that particular moment, was the heavy, sudden pleasure coursing through him as Graves gripped at his thighs, spreading them, pulling him back and back and back.

“‘Time is it?” he muttered, rolling his hips back to meet those beckoning little thrusts. There was nothing between them, he realized, but the thin, soft underwear Graves still had on.

“Late… really early. Flight got delayed.”

“Sun up yet?”

Credence still hadn’t opened his eyes, felt Graves’ laugh on his skin.

“No, not yet. Have someplace to be?”

“Big - hmn - big essay to finish for World Dance,” Credence breathed. He kept his movements slow, careful, trying to draw out - whatever the hell this was. “Professor’s a real hard-ass. Doesn't like excuses.”

“Sweet smile like yours? I bet he'd let it slide.”

Credence gave over to Graves’ fingernails biting into the skin at his waist, considered letting the subject drop.

“No, you would not,” he whispered, tugging his way out of that grasp, rolling away slightly, turning back to face Graves at last, opening his eyes to the dim lamplight.

He took in Graves’ expression just for the space of a breath - that challenging, calculating glance he knew so well - before he moved to press Graves back to the mattress by his shoulders, gentle and deliberate.

“If I even tried that, you'd never look at me again,” Credence elaborated, leaning in to press a kiss to Graves’ chest, to the dip where his collarbones met, before he leaned up to meet that gaze. “You know it. I know it.”

It was strangely reassuring that Graves offered no argument to the point, merely kept his head tipped back against the pillow.

But only for a moment, before he wrapped his arms up around Credence’s waist, tugging him down for a deep, messy kiss as he shifted them, and Credence felt his back hit the mattress.

“Clever as you are pretty,” Graves smiled, and Credence shoved at him, playfully this time. But Graves did pull away, and down, down, trailing kisses down Credence’s ribcage, spreading a palm flat against Credence’s lower stomach.

Maybe Graves had been planning this since he knew Credence would be here, waiting. Maybe it was a reward of some kind for finally showing up without really asking permission.

But that wasn’t really important, either.

He was too focused on the way he caught his bottom lip in his own teeth as Graves licked up the underside of his cock, and on the little, half-panted moans he couldn’t hold in as Graves took him down, slowly.

Was that odd to focus on, he wondered? His own fascination with his reactions to pleasure, now that they’d done this a few dozen times. Now that this was Ongoing. Now that -

That particular train of thought cut off abruptly as Graves wrapped a hand around Credence’s right wrist, tugged gently, guiding.

Well, that was enough, wasn’t it? Losing himself to clutching his fingers in Graves’ hair, keeping himself from thrusting up as Graves swallowed around him, swallowed him down completely as he came.

**

As March wore on, winter finally, gradually ambled its way into the first whispers of spring. The only real relief that it brought was that Credence could finally put away his heavy sweaters and endless layers of hats and scarves, and let himself enjoy the breeze.

It was about all he had time for.

He was constantly slotting more and more practice time in around classes and coursework and studying and work shifts, and might have considered giving up sleep entirely if it were possible.
Even now, even with all of the progress he’d made over the past months, he was starting to truly obsess about the end-of-year solos.

If nothing else, it had led to Tina lightening up on him about wherever-it-was-he-disappeared-to on Saturday nights, instead of openly worrying after him.

“At least I know you’re not running yourself completely ragged,” she’d shrugged over lunch one day.

The irony of that coming from her, of all people, didn’t escape him. They barely saw each other outside of shifts in administration, communicating mostly through the group chat with Queenie and Modesty.

(Credence was trying to do his best to make his peace with that. This being Tina’s senior year, it was unlikely that he was going to get to see her very often after the summer, unless she decided to stick around for post-grad. Better that he get used to it now, right?)

*

It was the last Thursday of the month, coming up on 2 o’clock in the morning. Credence heard the door to the practice studio click open. He was working through a run of Rachmaninov’s Sonata 2 as a break from his routine, a little experiment in mashing a couple of different pieces of choreography together.

“I’ll just be a few more minutes, sorry-” he called out, and heard a low, familiar laugh in response.

His eyes flew open at that, and he only just caught himself from stumbling.

Graves hadn’t dropped in on him in weeks, now, and even if this wasn’t new anymore… well, maybe some things were possibly always going to stop him dead in his tracks.

“I thought we were supposed to start being careful about this,” Credence offered up, stepping across the distance between them, holding back his grin but widening his eyes in emphasis.

It was still there, that gut instinct to shrink back on himself rather than get a little mouthy. Graves seemed to enjoy the spark of challenge, though, so it kept feeling easier as time went on.

Graves shrugged, pulled his hands from his pockets, held them out to draw Credence in.

“I’m gross,” Credence protested, half-serious even as he stepped into the embrace. He’d been at it for over an hour and was a sweating mess, and probably stunk to high heaven.

“Yeah, I know,” Graves agreed, with the slightest nod, and Credence let himself be led through a dozen easy little steps. They really shouldn’t have been doing this, but apparently Graves had missed him. Missed him beyond a few idle mid-week messages, the odd stolen glance.

(Was it strange, he wondered suddenly, that he didn’t think he’d ever be able to think of this man by his first name? Was that normal? Didn’t most couples - couples? Was that what they were now? Was he going to have to try and explain all this to his family someday-)

“Hey.”

Credence pulled himself back to the present, blinking slowly.

“Sorry. Yes.”

“Do you have plans over break?”

Credence shrugged gently, let Graves guide the steps, still easy, just gliding with the music.

“No, I was just… uhm. Just me on my own, actually, but I was thinking about going down to the city.”

It wasn’t a lie, but a truth he’d been deliberately avoiding. Tina and Newt were going hiking somewhere upstate, and Mom and Dad were taking Modesty down to Charleston a few days before classes were over (navigating around her school schedule and their work). And Queenie was working, always working, but she’d invited him to stay the week at her place regardless.

He was aware of the barre at his back, suddenly, of Graves crowding even closer against him.

“Then you should meet me down there.”

That caught him off-guard - there was always somewhere for Graves to go, someone to see, something to be done, and it seemed to have gone without saying that those little jaunts did not include Credence. But more than that -

“Is that really a good idea?” he whispered. Graves shook his head before leaning that barest inch up to press his mouth to Credence’s.

When they pulled away, reluctantly, hands only just starting to grasp at each other, Graves shook his head again.

“No. But I wanna take you out without us having to keep glancing over our shoulders the whole time.”

Credence opened his mouth, but the protest died on his tongue. After all, the past few months had already been a collective bad idea, hadn’t they? And now this beautiful man with his careful, exacting nature was telling him that they should break their own rules for a few days… and hell if Credence didn’t want to play along.

“Alright,” he nodded, pressing in for another short, soft kiss. “Now get out of here, before someone sees you.”

**

There really was something magical about life on afternoons like these - about walking down to the bodega with Queenie, dressed in light, breezy clothes as the temperatures kept climbing and climbing.
He’d borrowed one of Queenie’s shirts, an enormous, wide-open tanktop. It was too warm out for him to worry about what it looked like. It was too warm for him to care if it meant that someone might see his scars.

He carried the bags for her, nodded along with the conversation she was having with the shopkeeper (apparently yet another in the long line of acquaintances that Queenie liked to brag about her siblings to).
It was nice just to exist.

He wondered what it would be like to live in New York on his own, to have some tiny scrap of an apartment, to decorate it as he saw fit. To have a job, to have friends that didn’t immediately know what a mess his life had always been. To go to bodegas, know the shopkeepers’ names, ask after their families and spend twenty minutes talking about life without having to hurry himself home or hurry along to something-else-something-else...

He wondered, suddenly, if he’d even want to live in New York. There was a whole wide world out there, wasn’t there?
Maybe he didn’t have to stay in one particular slice of the country for the rest of his life.

Maybe he would -

The phone buzzed in his pocket, and he shifted to get at it.

Are you free tonight?

Credence stared at the screen. In almost four days, that was the first word he’d had from Graves after he’d confirmed that he’d arrived safely. All the things he could have answered, that he wanted to answer, and he settled on -

What if I’m not?

The pause drew out, and he bit his lip as he realized he couldn’t take that back. He watched Queenie glance over her shoulder, cast a meaningful look at his phone, and roll her eyes.

Disappointing, but I’ll live.

Credence almost wanted to ask what disappointment would look like, but he felt the grin spread on his lips.

You’d hate it. Where should I meet you?

That depends. When are you free?

He glanced up just for a moment, and tapped back, Give me 20 minutes, and we can talk.

Queenie was saying her goodbyes, and Credence nodded to the shopkeeper as they made their way to the door.

“Alright, spit it out,” she sighed, when they were out on the sidewalk and moving.

“Would… you hate me… if I ducked out on you tonight?”

She was quiet, raising her eyebrow before she jammed her shoulder into his.

“I don’t even get you all the way through to the weekend, huh?”

Credence nudged back.

“I can always say no, you know.”

Her second sigh was louder, affected.

“No. No, you should go out! It’s spring break, and you’re… blushing over a boy... I just. Tina has Newt, and maybe she’s going away in the fall, and now you have this mystery guy, and I’m… Are you at least going someplace fancy?”

He wasn't about to try and defuse her mood. She had every right to be upset in the way she was.

“I… you know, I actually don’t know. Probably.”

Her glance turned critical, and she raised both eyebrows, pretending to remove herself from the little sting of it all.

“Fine. But you’re asking this guy where you’re going, and then I’m making you up, because you are not meeting anyone looking like you’ve been out running errands.”

“Even though he’s seen me after dance practice, like, constantly?” Credence laughed.

“Just humor me,” she groused, rolling her eyes.

**

Credence didn’t think he’d ever been this many stories above the pavement in this city, as he watched the elevator’s buttons light up one by one, carrying him up and up and up…

He actually hadn’t been in too many hotels throughout his life, for that matter. Once or twice on vacations in the past few years, but nothing he’d consider habitual.

They reminded him, in a strange way, of churches. Always so quiet, everything muffled, smelling too sharply clean and too strangely musty at the same time.

He shifted his bag on his shoulder, took a deep breath as the carriage slowed to a halt, a little electronic chime sounding as the doors slid open and he stepped out into the carpeted corridor.

There was no need for him to pull the phone from his pocket to double-check the room number. The digits had planted themselves squarely in the forefront of his mind for the entire ride on the subway, for the three blocks between the station and the hotel, for his entire awkward walk across the lobby (flushed with embarrassment that he felt too underdressed to even be in this building, Queenie’s efforts with his hair and mascara and a slightly better shirt aside).

There was a moment’s hesitation when he came to the correct door, a pause, faltering twice before he raised his fist to knock.

He heard a bit of lock-shuffling before the handle turned and the door swung open, heavy and silent.

Credence had to wonder for a moment just how aware Graves was of himself, or if these things were actual serendipity.
If somehow, the universe was conspiring to frame him at all times in the most impeccable lighting - the soft glow of the just-setting sun backlighting him from the distant windows, the top two buttons of his shirt still undone and his hair slightly out of place in some kind of almost-deliberate dishevelment.

“You look…” Graves all but breathed, casting a slow glance down Credence’s body that did nothing to quell the blushing.
Maybe there was something to be said for Queenie’s particular brand of magic after all.
Credence raised a hand to his hair, resting it gently against the low braid he’d let her work the back into, not quite meeting Graves’ eyes.

“Yeah, I uh. Little effort never hurt anyone, right?” he laughed, and Graves shook his head.

“Come on. I’m not ready yet,” he said, standing aside to let him through.

Credence was on him a split second before the door clicked shut, mouth pressed to that exposed patch of chest that he’d been fixated on.

“Am I ever going to be able to take you anywhere?” Graves rumbled out, letting himself be pushed back to the wall.

“No,” Credence answered, a little shake of his head as he leaned back up to Graves’ mouth. “Not when you always look like this after I haven’t seen you.”

Graves indulged him, leaned into the kiss, only finally pushing him away with firm hands against his shoulders just as Credence was going for the buttons on his shirt.

“I can’t make excuses tonight like I did in January.”

It came with the easiest smile that Credence could remember having seen on his face.

“And here I thought you’d actually missed me,” he sighed.

His earlier trepidation was being painted over with the desire to tease more of that easiness out, but he took a step back to let Graves move further into the room.

“If you don’t want to go, that’s fine,” Graves said, pulling something from the suitcase that was open on the bed. It was a scarf, dark gray and spread between both of his hands. He turned, looping it over Credence’s neck with something like approval in his expression, fingers running lightly over Credence’s skin as he adjusted it.
“But if you can behave yourself,” he whispered, pushing Credence away with nothing but a finger to the center of his chest, “you might just be in for a treat.”

“And if I don’t?” Credence grinned.

Graves leaned back in suddenly, hand clasped to Credence’s neck, thumb skimming the edge of his jaw just long enough to make Credence shiver with it.

“You really wanna test me tonight, sweetheart?”

Maybe. Yes.
Credence opened his mouth, trying to form the words, just as Graves stepped away, shaking his head.

“There’s plenty of time to mess your hair up later.”

Credence watched him go, not daring to move to drop his own bag until Graves was out of sight, letting out a shaky breath.

Okay. The view from that wide window really was incredible. He stepped forward and raised a hand to the glass, leaning forward to glance down at the streets below. After a long moment, he turned, pulling his phone out finally, snapping a picture of himself to send to Queenie.

So you were right about the braid. You happy?

Very. was her reply.

*

Graves was different here, somehow.

Maybe it was just being away from school, or maybe it was the weather...
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe Credence didn’t actually care, because the open, easy way that Graves spoke to him, took his hand, seemed strangely relaxed… he wanted to simply enjoy it while it lasted, let himself get swept along with it.

They talked as they walked, spoke about music that they didn’t tend to dance to, talked about how art and music seemed to chase each other stylistically without ever really catching up… and maybe it was a little bit awful and pretentious, but it was easy.

It was easy, and he was almost able to forget that they would have to go back to their normal life after this weekend.

The bar that Graves led him into was not exactly jam-packed, but was fairly well crowded, and Credence once again had the feeling that he wasn’t even vaguely well-dressed enough to even step inside the building.

It someone’s birthday, a friend of a friend who Graves knew from one of the old touring companies. He said that didn’t really matter who, because after all: open bar, good place to rub shoulders, and they didn’t have to stay long -

Graves pulled him through the milling crowd, leaned over the bar to order drinks, pushed something fizzy and slightly-purple in a highball glass into Credence’s hands, and leaned in close to Credence’s ear to speak over the din.

“So, what are you going to tell them, if they ask?”

If they asked who he was, Credence understood.

“Might just smile and tell them I was paid for,” he shrugged, bringing the glass up to sniff at the liquid.

That wide smile Credence had been admiring was gone, replaced by Graves’ usual knowing grin.

“You sure as hell look worth it, if that were true. And taste it - you’ll like it.”

Credence let himself be guided away from the bar by an almost-possessive hand at the small of his back. He took careful sips at the drink - bitter and floral all at the same time, with a strange sweetness chasing its way down the back of his tongue.

He wondered what it was like, nodding his way through little hellos and enduring strange, appraising glances from all of these strangers, to be on a first-name basis with so many people.

He wondered what it was like to be that kind of person who was comfortable with that.

He wondered, very suddenly, about a great many of the differences between himself and Graves. Maybe he liked Credence for the quietude he offered. For the fact that at the end of the day, he was easy and uncomplicated.

Maybe Credence could choose to believe that.

He chose instead to focus on their single point of contact and on savoring his drink. Nobody actually paid him much mind, preferring to catch Graves in little snippets of conversation and greetings as they passed through.

This went on for a good fifteen minutes, until Graves was forcefully tugged a few feet to the left, pulled into enthusiastic side-hugs and close chatter, and Credence was left alone with a half-finished drink.

One of the women in that group took notice of him after a long moment, stepping over with a quiet smile.

“Now that is one fancy-looking drink. What's it called?”

“I, uh… you know, I actually didn't ask when he handed it to me,” Credence admitted.

“Well, that's a dangerous habit. May I?”

He blinked slowly, transfixed for a moment as he suddenly realized who was speaking to him. Seraphina Picquery. Nine seasons with the Royal London, six of them as a principal, before she'd left to see what else the world had to offer. Starstruck didn't begin to cover it.

“Oh! Uhm, sure,” he babbled, offering the glass. She took it from him, heavy silver rings clinking gently as she raised it for a sip. The little grimace followed only as she swallowed.

“Looked like it was going to be straight sugar. Wow. So, what do they call you?”

It took a moment for his brain to reconnect with his mouth. Here, she was just a person at a party. She was a human just like the rest of them.

“Sorry. Credence - my name is Credence Goldstein. And I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I’m a fan.”

“You know, I think it’ll be time to retire when I have to start actually introducing myself again,” she smiled, and Credence mirrored her. He accepted the glass back, and she seemed to study him for a moment. “You’ve got a reputation yourself, though. Ballet, right?”

Had Graves been discussing him?

“Primarily, yes. Though I’ve branched out here and there.”

She cocked her head with the raise of an eyebrow.

“What drew you to it?”

Credence thought about that for a moment, thought about how to condense the awful expanse of that first part of his life into something simple.

“My - the woman who raised me was very strict. Everything was a sin, but I guess Tchaikovsky was okay.”

“Ironic,” she grinned, and Credence almost laughed.

“Very. The dancing followed, eventually. First it was just a thing to get away with, and then…” he shrugged, equally unsure how best to condense his life after Mary Lou. “And then one day I didn’t have to hide it.”

That shifted something in her expression, and her gaze flickered to the scarf around his neck for a moment.

“So what is it for you now, if it isn’t an escape anymore?”

The words came out without a thought - without the need to think.

“It’s always going to be an escape. I mean, it’s emotional, it’s always an expression of something, and sometimes that isn’t… easy. But it's such a huge piece of me. Kind of like pouring everything I've ever felt right back into myself.”

She nodded slowly as she shifted her clutch from where it had been dangling on her wrist, pulling open the clasp.

“Have you ever been to Rome, Credence?”

“...Should I assume you don't mean upstate?” he asked carefully.

“You should. Because if you think you're up to it, I think I'd like to audition you.”

“That - I'm sorry, you want me to...”

It was meant as a question, but this was too overwhelming.
The crowd felt choking, suddenly, and he was slowly overcome with the urge to bolt. This wasn't real.

Was this why Graves had brought him along?

Credence swallowed as he felt an arm slide around his waist. It was solid, grounding, and did absolutely nothing to damp down his sudden flare of anxiety.

“I leave you alone for five minutes, and you’re trying to kidnap him away,” Graves sighed, and she scoffed right back.

“If he's as good as you say, what does he have to lose, Percy?”

“Now that’s just dirty, Sera.” He turned to Credence, leaning in to mumble, “She's trying to get me to say that you're not good enough.”

“No. I'm saying that he's greedy and that you deserve an objective opinion.”

He knew what kind of an opportunity this was, but he wasn't sure how much he appreciated being caught in the middle of their playful scuffling. Credence kept his eyes on the motion of her hands as she drew out a little card, offering it over. He couldn't bring himself to look over at Graves as he accepted.

Is that all you're willing to give yourself?

He remembered that expression, remembered what it had sparked in him.

It made him wonder that Graves hadn't mentioned this to him before now, and that he seemed… resistant, somehow.

Something caught Piquery’s attention across the room, and her grin widened for just a moment before she cut back to Credence.

“Think about it, call me, and we can see what you've got.”

With a wink and a wave she was gone, and it took Credence a long beat to pull his attention away from the card in his fingers, slipping it into his pocket.

“She means well, underneath it,” Graves shrugged, voice lower as he leaned in closer. “As though she’s never had a wild fling or three.”

Credence turned, finally, all of that tension melting away as that sank in, and he felt the teasing smile pull at the corners of his mouth.

“Is that what this is?” he asked, just as low. The drink must have been getting to him finally - talking about this, in the middle of all of these people.

Graves pulled away just far enough to press a finger to Credence’s lips with a grin.

*