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autumn dusk at central park

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When Newt had found him, he had been lost.

He is lost now, still -- but at least he has a direction to walk in, an inner compass that points toward something that feels like north.

--

New York is not like he remembers it.

The streets are wider, bigger, brighter. The buildings, taller. It is cleaner and quieter maybe, too.

It feels like a new land, unexplored and welcoming, with arms wide open.

Credence does not get lost as he wanders down expansive avenues, as he tilts his head up toward the blue sky and lets the skyscrapers guide him along. There are only a few clouds, drifting lazily between buildings, disappearing into wisps in the great blue beyond. There is so much up there -- birds and planes and magical beasts, all sharing the open expanse of sky.

Go on -- wander, Newt had told him. Setting him free like one of the beasts in his case -- not in a cruel way, of course -- only kind. Always so kind. You’re the one who wanted to come back.

And he was, wasn’t he? Credence never thought the day would come that he was ready to step outside of the comfort of Newt’s wonderful suitcase, much less the day when he was yearning to come back to New York City, practically champing at the bit. But here he is, walking the streets alone and free and light of foot.

Before --

Before, he had been weighed down by so much. Dragged under and drowning. Now, that looming, enduring darkness is gone, at least for the most part, anyway. There are still lingering pieces of it, sewn into his soul and burned into his bones -- but they are pieces of him all the same. Now, the darkness is a part of him: it strengthens him, steadies him, anchors him into the very fabric of reality itself.

You don’t have to let it define you, Newt has told him on many occasions. It’s not you.

It’s not you -- even though Credence knows that it is, it is him.

The obscurus had been a part of him for so long, growing and festering and rotting inside his chest. It had made itself a home there, grown roots and settled. Now, even though it is gone, broken apart piece by piece through controlled use of his own magic, Credence can still feel the wild shadows of it, the rippling echoes it left behind.

It will always be a part of him, a shadow over himself, even though Newt promises that it is gone.

--

Credence wanders.

Not far, not wide -- just his usual haunts. The corners he stood on and passed out pamphlets, the stoops on which he sat and begged for change, the dark and narrow alleys in which he hid. Nothing truly has changed -- and yet. And yet, it all looks different. The city is both familiar and foreign to him, the ground nearly uneven beneath his feet.

It is new and different, and the feeling is both welcome and not.

He stops outside the church he used to call home.

The space has been rebuilt upon -- renamed, repurposed.

Offices -- the sign on even brickwork says. Offices, like he hadn’t grown up in this space, surrounded by countless other children, other souls, all fighting for their lives in the oppressive place. Offices, it says, like a woman didn’t perish inside.

Tomb, more like.

His feet carry him away, before he can reach out to touch the facade, before he can feel the old bricks mixed with new underneath his fingertips. There is no longer rusted corrugated metal to drum his knuckles over, though the pigeons appear to roost in the windows all the same. When a car horn blares, five of them fly away, up into the blue and away from their roost -- and so Credence flies away too.

He drifts through the city, telling himself he is looking for nothing in particular. He lingers in front of storefronts, admires expensive pocket watches and cufflinks; he steps into a bookstore, flips through pages and pages of different texts; he even wanders through Central Park, letting the wide-open expanse fill his veins with life, with vitality.

He can feel the magic of the city the easiest in the park. It thrums through the air, vibrating at a beautiful frequency. The autumn wind blows, neither cold nor warm, caressing his face, carding fingers through his hair. Credence wonders why he never noticed the magic in the air before, the way it filters through the light in the trees, the way it skims over the ponds like dragonflies and water-striders, the way it passes through every living being in the city. He lingers in the park for a while, just soaking up the way the city feels around him. It feels like home . It feels like the place that raised him, that shaped him. That made him who he is today.

He moves aimlessly, without intent -- though he is hardly tricking himself.

Don’t be so daft , Newt would tell him if he could see him now. But he cannot. Newt is catching up with old friends. Newt trusts Credence to wander, to explore, to be safe. Newt trusts Credence to stay hidden, to stay out of trouble.

He just needs to stretch his legs, is all. To see the world. To put New York City behind him.

To put Mr. Graves behind him.

--

Unfortunately, putting Mr. Graves behind him means a great many things.

None of them are clear, none of them are easy.

His path is vague and uncharted, though Credence knows he must travel along it regardless. He must do this for himself, for his place with Newt and the beasts -- for his future as well as for his past.

He just needs to see the man.

But first, Credence must find him.

He prepares himself for hours of work and endless searching -- but it is a surprisingly easy task, in the end. He spots Mr. Graves in a coffee shop near the looming, beautiful building that houses MACUSA. Newt had pointed out the Woolworth building on a map before they had parted ways for the day, warning Credence to keep his distance. It is a terribly daft thing for Credence to do, to venture so near, so close to a place that seemed intent on killing him two years ago. But they don’t know him now; they couldn’t possibly remember his face. Newt often tells him he looks different now, tells him he is only a piece of the boy he once was.

You’ve come into your own, Credence, Newt has said, so many, many times. Credence still isn’t quite sure if he likes that, likes his newfound confidence and assurance, careful as they are, or the firmer set of his spine -- but it is what it is. It is who he is.

Newt had given him some No-Maj pocket change, so Credence buys himself a sandwich and a black coffee. He sits at the opposite end of the cafe as Mr. Graves. And watches.

Credence is very good at not being noticed. Newt had taught him a notice-me-not charm, to make himself less apparent to the people around him, but he rarely uses it. He doesn’t really need it, for all that’s worth. All Credence has to do is think about blending into the wallpaper, the furniture, and he’s barely even there at all. People’s eyes skim right over him, their bodies brush right past him. Newt always tells him that his propensity toward wandless magic is remarkable, extraordinary -- but it is just what comes easiest to Credence. He is not extraordinary. He is as uninteresting as they come.

Besides, he had probably been doing the same exact thing for years without even noticing it, always trying to fade into the shadows, to stay out of trouble. Now, it is just more of a conscious action. It helps now, letting him watch over Mr. Graves as the man eats a scone and drinks a cup of coffee, never once noticing Credence’s eyes on him.

Never once noticing, that is, until he gets up to leave.

Mr. Graves glances around the coffee shop, eyes sliding over every soul inside the small space as he shrugs on his coat. His eyes pass over Credence and Credence feels himself go cold with dread. Their eyes meet. Panic flares inside him, inky black fear welling up and boiling over in his veins -- but nothing happens. Mr. Graves’ eyes pass over him just like they passed over every other patron in the shop. The man straightens the lapels on his perfectly tailored coat, leaves a few coins on the table -- and then leaves.

And just like that, Credence feels solid again.

--

At dusk, he returns to Newt and his suitcase.

Credence tells Newt about his day, about his sandwich and his coffee and about all the places he walked. He tells Newt that New York seems different, now, nicer -- to which Newt only chuckles.

Of course it does, he says. No dark shadow looming over your shoulder, pulling and weighing you down. No burdens -- you’re seeing it with brand new eyes.

It makes sense, he guesses.

He tells Newt that he wants to go out again tomorrow, just to stretch his legs, to clear his mind of the New York he once knew. Now that he has seen Mr. Graves, he can put that all behind him.

--

The next day, Credence finds Mr. Graves on his way to work.

He really shouldn’t be lingering around MACUSA, but he cannot stop himself. Ever since Newt pointed out the building, ever since he told Credence that no one could apparate in nor out, Credence had known exactly what he was going to do, how he was going to find Mr. Graves.

He had gone to sleep thinking that this was all behind him, but the morning light had brought with it the overwhelming desire to see the man one more time.

It’s not that he’s following Mr. Graves -- it’s just that he’s curious.

He’s not asking for much at all.

He wants to see the man, wants to watch the way his shoulders shift under the hard lines of his coat. He holds himself slightly differently now -- Credence isn’t sure if that’s because Mr. Graves is a different man than he knew, or if it’s due to the trauma he likely underwent.

Newt had explained it all. Explained that Mr. Graves’ face had been used by another man, an evil man with a vile agenda. He had explained that Mr. Graves had been kept alive for the sake of the charade, the potion, but had suffered in his time imprisoned. Trauma changes people, Credence knows. It rots them from the inside, flays away their skin on the outside. It poisons you, drowns you, leaves you different than before.

Credence was once a happy child.

-- But that is the past, and there is no use in dwelling on things that cannot be changed.

Regardless, this Mr. Graves is different than the one Credence knew. His eyes look older, his back straighter, his jaw more clenched. He is constantly on guard, vigilant about the world swirling and bustling around him. But he does not look unkind, he does not look venomous like he did before.

He looks -- captivating.

It is enthralling to watch, curious to the highest degree. It’s why Credence gets a bit distracted and forgets to step out of the way, just as Mr. Graves passes by where he is standing. They bump shoulders -- Mr. Graves hadn’t noticed him at all, somehow. He spins, casting an incredulous, suspicious look Credence’s way.

“Sorry, I’m sorry!” Credence says, throwing his hands up in the air before Mr. Graves can tell him to watch where he is going, or anything like that.

It’s too easy to fall back into averting his eyes, to letting his shoulders hunch, to fall into an entirely submissive and cowering posture. It was all he knew how to do for years -- just because he lives with Newt now and doesn’t have to, doesn’t mean it isn’t ingrained. It’s his first response. And usually, it’s a good enough one to drop people’s attention from him.

It works. Immediately, most of the suspicion falls away from Mr. Graves face.

“It’s fine,” Mr. Graves says with a wave of his hand. “No harm done.”

Credence murmurs another apology and ducks away before he can say anything more.

--

“What did you do today?” Newt asks when Credence returns to the suitcase in time for dinner.

Credence tries to stop the flush that he can feel heating his cheeks. “Nothing,” he says.

Newt casts him a look, and while he may be dubious and while he may not truly believe Credence, he lets it drop. “Just try and stay out of trouble. The niffler’s already gotten out once, I don’t know how much more excitement I can handle.”

Credence chuckles. Newt seems to find and thrive on excitement wherever he goes, so it’s not really an accurate statement at all.

--

Unfortunately, Credence does not learn his lesson.

He really should leave Mr. Graves be, let him live his life in peace -- but Credence simply cannot stop looking at the man. It is too intoxicating, too addictive. He watches him on his way to work, follows him on his way out of towering MACUSA. He stands outside a restaurant that Mr. Graves steps inside for dinner on his way home. Credence stands outside for the better part of an hour before Mr. Graves finishes. Credence ducks into a nearby nook to hide himself, to make it less obvious he’s just loitering. He thinks, very hard, about not being noticed, about blending into the brickwork of the building against his back.

Mr. Graves turns and walks right past him, his eyes never once passing over Credence where he hides.

In the end, Credence isn’t sure if he is relieved or disappointed.

--

Maybe Credence gets complacent, maybe he purposefully slips up -- he truly and honestly doesn’t know which. Nor does he have time to debate. All he knows is that one moment he is lingering outside of the Woolworth in the mouth of an alleyway, waiting for Mr. Graves to finish with work for the day -- the next moment Mr. Graves is grabbing him by a the collar and pressing him up against the wall. Credence hears the startled noise that escapes his throat, but just barely understands that it was his own. The stones press sharp against his back, bringing him back to reality, back to the realization that Mr. Graves has both noticed him and caught him.

“Who are you and why are you following me?” The man hisses in Credence’s face. He is looming so close, all heat and vitriol -- just like the other Mr. Graves. A full body shiver takes Credence, the tremble unwilling to leave him afterward, settling deep underneath his skin.

“No one, I’m no one.”

It’s the wrong thing to say.

Mr. Grave shifts. Credence can’t see it, but he gets the distinct impression there is something being held at his throat -- a wand, likely. Give it to Mr. Graves to stand his ground. Credence should have been more careful, should have factored in that Mr. Graves is deadly and feels cornered, even though Credence is the one up against the wall.

Two years ago, Credence would have nearly died of fright.

Two years ago, Credence would have ripped the city apart at the seams.

“I promise, I promise I’m no one.” He can’t meet Mr. Graves’ eyes, he just can’t . But he does look at his mouth, which is twisted into a frown. It looks comfortingly natural; he never saw his Mr. Graves smile.

Mr. Graves says nothing. He is as still and as solid as a statue.

Please, ” Credence says. “I’m not going to hurt you.” he feels so silly saying it. Like he could hurt Mr. Graves, like he has any power over the man. “Please don’t hurt me.”

It seems like the right thing to say, because Mr. Graves steps back. Credence no longer feels the press of polished wood against his throat, no longer feels the warmth of Mr. Graves’ body holding him against the cold stone at his back. Finally, Credence can breathe, even though he seems to have forgotten how.

“Why are you following me?” Mr. Graves asks. He has yet to turn and walk away, still likely figuring Credence to be a threat. Maybe one of Grindelwald’s followers, maybe just a simple No-Maj thief. Maybe Credence should have tried to grab Mr. Graves’ wallet out of his coat, just so that he could have had an excuse.

Instead, the truth tumbles from his lips without his permission. “I just wanted to see you.”

Mr. Graves looks shaken, which isn’t something Credence thought possible. The man is a mountain, a great and powerful force of nature -- he is unmovable. But there is no doubt: he looks rattled. “I don’t know you,” he says.

“I know,” Credence says. “But I --” He stops. He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t want to give himself away. This is dangerous -- it is playing with fire. He can feel himself scrambling, trying to grab at words that are falling away from him too fast, ready in their escape. “We met. Before. But,” he hazards a quick glance at Mr. Graves face, which probably works to his advantage, but also throws him even more for a loop. Mr. Graves is listening, intent, looking skeptical and fierce and intrigued all at once. His face is so much, too much.

“I didn’t think you’d remember me,” Credence finishes. It’s not quite a lie, just a twisted truth, but it is still painful how easily it falls off his tongue. It is a sin to lie, a sin to deceive. But this is his personal safety and he cannot give himself away so easily. Maybe a small sin is worth it, maybe it is excusable in the long run.  

Mr. Graves hasn’t used any magic yet, so there’s a chance he still thinks Credence is a No-Maj. That is for the best, and Credence should keep it that way.

When Mr. Graves asks, with a dawning sort of understanding, if he is a pickpocket, Credence just nods. He cannot bring himself to verbally lie again so quickly. He knows he is small, still skinnier than he should be, even though he has put on some weight whilst living with Newt. A hungry pickpocket is an easy enough thing to pretend to be. His cheekbones have angles that make him look as if he is smaller, more gaunt  than he is -- he thinks they will always be like that: sharp and slight and untouchable.

Credence doesn’t know what assumption Mr. Graves makes in the safety of his own head, but he appears to come to some sort of conclusion, because he nods, decisive, and then speaks. “Come with me,” he says, and then steps to the side, releasing Credence from his hold. He waits for Credence to follow.

Credence’s chest suddenly aches and churns with the very real feeling of fear -- Mr. Graves cannot want to turn him into the police, can he? But Mr. Graves just pats down his pockets when Credence doesn’t move, clearly checking to make sure he has everything still in the same place as he left it, and seems pleased and relieved in the end. “You didn’t manage to get anything off me, and I suspect you’re hungry, are you not? Would you like a sandwich?”

Credence doesn’t need charity from a man he doesn’t know. And he certainly doesn’t need charity when he will be coming home to supper on the table, even if Newt isn’t the best cook. Credence is not wanting for much of anything -- except apparently for a look at Mr. Graves face.

“Yes,” he says, while trying very hard to say no.

--

They sit in the same coffee shop that Credence found Mr. Graves in on that first day.

Mr. Graves places himself with his back to a wall and his eyes toward the door. Like before, he lets his gaze fall over all of the patrons. Eventually, his focus settles on Credence. His stare feels heavy, like it is anchoring Credence to his chair, preventing him from fading into the bustle like he so wishes he could, but knows that he cannot.

Mr. Graves asks what he would like to eat and Credence’s words stick to his tongue like glue. This doesn’t seem to surprise Mr. Graves, who simply orders two coffees and a plate of tea sandwiches to share. He seems far kinder, far more charitable than the man that Credence knew. Not that his Mr. Graves didn’t feed him -- he did, oh he did: chocolates and cakes and pastries -- but not like this. This is a meal with company. The look on Mr. Graves’ face doesn’t necessarily feel entirely altruistic, but he is doing this anyway, performing the act of feeding Credence because knows it is right, that it is good. Like it is penance and Mr. Graves is atoning for his sins.

Credence frowns. That’s not right at all -- Mr. Graves doesn’t have any sins to atone for. And yet, here he is, sitting across from Credence like he is kneeling at a pew in church, counting beads of the rosary between calloused fingertips.

“What’s your name?” Mr. Graves asks.

“Um,” is all Credence can manage. Mr. Graves must know the name Credence Barebone, New York City’s Obscurial -- everyone knows his name now, even two years later. They cannot forget the destruction that he brought, the havoc that he wrecked. Credence doesn’t blame them -- he cannot forget either.

“My name is Percival,” Mr. Graves says, likely assuming that he isn’t going to get a name out of his younger companion. He seems to accept that, which hurts Credence in ways he doesn’t really understand.

Credence just nods, feeling tongue tied and too nervous. He hasn’t felt like this in ages, all twisted up and full of energy. Before, feeling like this would terrify him because it meant that control could slip so easily through his fingertips. Now, he just lets the feeling settle into his bones, to join the rest of the darkness that is stitched into him.

“Theseus,” Credence hears himself say. “You can call me Theseus.” It’s not really a lie, because Mr. Graves can call him whatever he likes. He didn’t say it was his name, and likely Mr. Graves knows that. It’s a good name though, the name of Newt’s brother, a fair and brave and agreeable man. Credence doesn’t know very many people, so it’s one of the first acceptable names that comes to mind.

“I know a Theseus,” Mr. Graves says, and Credence freezes, waiting to be caught in his own lie. He holds his breath, feels his face going red with the flush of embarrassment already. “He can drink me under the table,” Mr. Graves finishes with a chuckle, and Credence feels the air escape from his lungs.

It’s not to say that he has Mr. Graves fooled. No, Credence knows better than that. Mr. Graves is wary, still, but he thinks that he is dealing with a No-Maj pickpocket who is hungry, who maybe received a bit of kindness from him in the past. Maybe Mr. Graves believes that Grindelwald was kind or charitable to Credence whilst wearing his face and now he has to make up for, to duplicate an encounter he does not even remember. Whatever it is -- Mr. Graves is certainly heedful that he isn’t getting the whole story. His guard is up, but he also doesn’t believe Credence to be an outright threat to his life.

It’s silly, really. Credence could never hurt Mr. Graves -- he’s not nearly as strong as the man. But maybe he could if he was Grindelwald, if Grindelwald was wearing Credence’s face. The thought sends a shiver down Credence’s spine, and so he busies himself with drinking the recently delivered coffee. Even if it is a touch too hot, it is better than thinking of Grindelwald’s horrors,

“Where do you live, Theseus?”

“Harlem.” It’s as good an answer as any. Better than, in a suitcase.

Mr. Graves nods. “An awfully lovely autumn we are having, isn’t it?”

Credence doesn’t know. They just arrived in New York a few days previous. Before, they had been in the mountains of the Belgian Congo, surrounded by alien plant life and chasing a now new member of Newt’s menagerie. “Yes,” he says, and takes another sip of his coffee.

The sandwiches come and the stilted conversation continues. Mr. Graves asks Credence questions he either cannot answer or doesn’t know the answer to. Meanwhile, Credence comes up with mumbled answers and tries very hard to only stare at Mr. Graves while his attention is elsewhere. He isn’t very good at it. Mr. Graves catches him one time too many before he sighs, seemingly resigned.

“I don’t remember you,” Mr. Graves says. Clearly, he has made the correct assumption that they’ve met before. “I apologize. My memory isn’t what it used to be.”

“I know,” Credence answers. “That’s fine.”

--

The next day, Credence doesn’t leave the suitcase. He cannot bring himself to. Seeing Mr. Graves, speaking with Mr. Graves had been so much. Just the thought of stepping outside into the real world again is overwhelming, dizzying.

He busies himself with feeding the mooncalves and the graphorns, of cleaning up the beasts’ areas and doing all of his tasks and chores as well as most of Newt’s. He even dusts Newt’s workspace and tidies up his own small room. He does the work happily with his bare hands because he likes the way it makes his muscles ache at the end of the day.

When he finishes with all he can do, when the wild energy thrumming through his veins fades, Credence takes a break. He lays on the grassy ground and watches the glow bugs drift through the air and pretends that they are the stars.

--

In the morning, Credence breaks what had been becoming an unhealthy tradition of camping out outside the Woolworth trying to get a glimpse of Mr. Graves, and instead goes to Central Park. It is nothing like the actual great outdoors, now that he has been around the world and seen so many different climates, so many different places -- but it is certainly something. It is its own place, with none other like it in the world. When he was younger, before he was adopted by Ma, sometimes Credence would get to go to Central Park. Sometimes he was allowed to wander and play, just like all of the other kids.

Today, he lets himself aimlessly walk the paths through the park. He wonders what Newt is doing -- likely helping MACUSA with some rogue beast when he isn’t caught up in conversations with Tina Goldstein. Newt talks about her often, moreso than he does most people, so Credence assumes that they are at least partially fond of each other. He doesn’t mind in the slightest: Tina had always been kind to him and patient as well. She had a good, strong heart -- still does, as he hears often from Newt. Credence doesn’t know exactly what Newt has told her about him -- for all he knows, she might still consider him dead. That -- is maybe for the best. Especially when he has been wandering the streets of New York, following her boss.

He pauses by a pond and pulls a piece of oat bread from his pocket, breaking it into small pieces -- he had been saving it for a snack later, but it is stale and will be appreciated more by the ducks, anyway. He knows it isn’t great to feed them just bread -- Newt says everything needs variety in its diet -- but it is all that Credence has. His shoes get muddy but the ducks are pleased, gathered happily around his feet with soft noises and wiggling tails. The task is peaceful and ordinary, and it leaves him with calm contentment easing through all of his being.

Unfortunately, Credence is running out of places to wander. Dusk finds him listless, itching to do something, to go somewhere, to interact with the city in ways he doesn’t even understand. Perhaps it is why he finds himself wandering back to MACUSA, right at the tail end of rush hour. Most business men have already gone home for the night, though the streets are still bustling with plenty of people and cars. Credence, even with his muddy shoes, blends in without even trying.

“I think I am correct in assuming that you are following me,” a voice says from his right.

Credence spins, scuffing his coat against the rough wall he had been leaning against. Mr. Graves must have left the building earlier, or through another exit, because Credence had not seen him at all.

“Theseus,” Mr. Graves says, making the name sound absolutely false in the air between them. He knows, he knows. “Are you hungry?” He says, and looks perhaps more startled by his own words than Credence feels by them. Clearly, he had wanted to say more, or something else entirely -- but for whatever reason, hadn’t.

“Yes,” Credence says. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast and had given the ducks his lunch. “I really don’t need charity.”

“Yes, well,” says Mr. Graves. “But I need dinner and I find myself lacking a companion to eat with.”

--

Mr. Graves takes him to a nice restaurant. Or, Credence assumes it is nice, as anywhere seems marvelous after eating most of your meals trying to defend your plate from a hungry demiguise or your silverware from the niffler.

“Now, you must know that I’m a moderately intelligent man, Theseus.” Mr. Graves says, taking a sip of drink after finishing a smoked salmon canapé.

Credence just nods. He hasn’t touched his fancy appetizers or his drink. He cannot bring himself to, cannot bring himself to accept more of this lie, of Mr. Graves’ charity.

“So you must know that I’m aware that your name isn’t Theseus. I also know that you have been following me.” He swirls his drink in his hand. “I just can’t figure out why .”

When Credence says nothing, Mr. Graves continues with a sigh and a gesture at the food. “Also, please eat. I didn’t bring you here just to interrogate you -- I did actually intend to feed you.”

“I told you the truth,” Credence finally says. “I just wanted to see you.” He sounds like a goof, like some sap stuck on Mr. Graves.

“Theseus.” The tone is a warning. Credence knows that tone -- it is a promise, a threat filled with violence and exasperation. He has heard it so many, too many times. He cannot help the instinctive flinch, the way his eyes dart to the door and then back down to his empty appetizer plate.

When Credence hazards a quick glance at Mr. Graves’ face, he looks apologetic at least, perhaps having realized his mistake. “Please,” he says. He places his hands on the table, fingers splayed and relaxed -- a white flag.

Credence swallows. “Later,” he says, mustering all the courage he has ever had. “Later,” he confirms decisively, as much for Mr. Graves as himself, and tries one of the salmon canapés.

When the meal is over, once they have finished their decadent entrees and the dessert Mr. Graves had insisted upon that Credence fought against with tooth and nail over, Mr. Graves looks at him expectantly.

Credence swallows. The food and drink have given him a bit more presence, a bit more strength to be able to actually look at Mr. Graves without averting his eyes like he’s staring at the sun. It still hurts, a bit, looking at him from this close, but it is worth it. The man is solid and sturdy, a true pillar of rightness. Credence cannot quite put his finger on why, but he feels caught in the orbit of this man, pulled in by gravity and magic alike.

If he looks at Mr. Graves for too long, he feels like he’ll go blind.

It’s dizzying. Terrifying. Suddenly, he cannot bring himself to shatter this beautiful spell.

“I, um,” Credence starts, heart climbing into his chest, racing like a herd of stampeding erumpents. “I’ll be right back.”

He pushes his chair out and flees the restaurant before Mr. Graves can catch up to him.

--

Credence does not come right back. He has little intention of ever seeing Mr. Graves again, in fact. The whole situation had been incredibly unwise to begin with. The longer he kept it up, the more insane and suicidal it was. More dangerous for himself, but also for Newt and his beasts. Perhaps for the city, too.

No, Credence had seen Mr. Graves, seen that the man was fine, that he was a well and truly different man, and now he could put it behind him. He could move on with his life.

He could continue to grow and develop and progress in all the right directions.

Credence doesn’t need the approval of a man he does not even know, of a face that is only a memory now. He doesn’t need to choose Mr. Graves as his north, doesn’t need that sort of sadness in his life.

But he also cannot just walk away. Not after having left so rudely.

Three days later, and one day before he and Newt are headed off across the ocean, Credence finds himself standing in front of the Woolworth building again in the morning. He has a box of pastries clutched in his hands, full of delicious treats from Mr. Kowalski’s bakery.

Most of Credence’s last few days had been full of re-introductions and questions. Tina, Queenie, and Mr. Kowalski had all been sworn to secrecy about his continued existence. It had been quite a whirlwind of visiting, but it was a nice send-off before he and Newt headed off to their next destination, the French Riviera. Queenie had kindly taken Credence shopping at both a No-Maj department store and a few magic boutiques, where he knew best to keep his head down and not show much of his face.

This morning he had shared a jelly donut with the niffler while trying to calm his nerves with a steaming cup of coffee. It had left him warm and jittery, but no less nervous about the apology he knows he needs to make. The cool autumn air bites at his cheeks, wind turning up the bottom of his wool coat as he waits outside MACUSA.

Luckily, he doesn’t have to wait long.

Mr. Graves appears next to him before Credence is really ready for him -- as if he would ever be ready to stand next to Mr. Graves again, to not feel shaken by his very existence.

“Theseus. I didn’t expect to see you again,” Mr. Graves says, instead of hello.

Credence can’t meet his eyes. Instead, he just hands over the box of pastries, pressing it into Mr. Graves hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave, but I just -- I had to.”

“Alright,” Mr. Graves says. It is neither resigned, nor angry.

“They’re very good, I promise.” Credence nods at the box. “The pastries, I mean. Best in the city, I’m told.” It sounds so much like a goodbye that Credence isn’t really prepared for the way his voice cracks, the way his chest aches. He cannot see this man again, cannot keep assigning silly meaning to a person who doesn’t even know him, someone who only wears a face that Credence knows.

It is unspoken, but Mr. Graves hears it anyway. Not much escapes the man. “I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing you again.”

“No, Credence says, “probably not.”

“If I’m never to see you again,” Mr. Graves says, “then would you tell me your real name?”

“I really shouldn’t,” Credence says, with a glance to the towering building in his peripheral. He doesn’t want to end up a prisoner inside there, even if it means being close to Mr. Graves.

“Is there any harm in it?”

“Probably.”

Mr. Graves takes a step closer to him, though he maintains a respectable distance -- nothing like the Mr. Graves Credence knew, before. He was always looming close, folding himself into Credence’s space. It had made him feel so real, so tangible. It had made Credence feel special. This Mr. Graves is so different. He is untouchable in all his glory, like the shining tabernacle at the church he went to as a small child. Credence wishes he could reach out, just the once, and make contact. Maybe he would feel steadier, then.

Still, he does not.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Mr. Graves promises. Credence can’t help but remember the other man slapping his face, trying to knock the tears, the sadness and chaos, straight out of him.

Credence laughs instead of flinching at the memory. It’s funny, kind of, in a maudlin, ironic sort of way: this Mr. Graves promising not to hurt him when the other Mr. Graves was one of the instruments in Credence’s destruction. He probably looks crazy, laughing at such a promise, but he can’t help it.

Mr. Graves reaches his hand out. “I promise you. I give you my word.” He sounds so sincere -- it nearly breaks Credence’s heart in two. “I will not harm you, and I will not let any harm come to you.”

It is not a promise Mr. Graves can make, and certainly not one he can keep. Not when he has already hurt Credence with his own existence, not when he continues to shine so brightly, to be a blinding memory Credence cannot forget.

Credence finds himself reaching out anyway, wanting desperately to make contact. He takes Mr. Graves’ hand. “I believe you,” he says, when Mr. Graves warm fingers envelop his own in a firm grasp. He believes that Mr. Graves intends him no harm, but he does not believe in the purity of the world to let that happen. Mr. Graves cannot promise him safety. “But I still…” he trails off. He cannot give Mr. Graves his name, he has learned better to keep himself safe. He is worth more than that.

“I understand.”

--

For the next three months, Credence can barely catch his breath. It seems like they are always running, always chasing after something. First, the French Riviara, then Burma, then the Gold Coast. He feels energized, refreshed, even though his muscles complain at him every morning to take a break.

He practices magic every day, even if it means he gets less sleep. He knows that it is an important part of his education, an important part of himself . He’s still not the same as Newt, not so easily disciplined with a wand, with channeling the magic in steady, crisp ways -- but he makes do. He knows that his magic is wilder, more chaotic. It feels tinged with darkness, but not necessarily with malevolence -- just with emotion. It had been trapped for so long -- Credence cannot blame it. He accepts it as part of him, part of his bones and his sinew and his blood.

It always leaves him with the taste of iron and dust in his mouth.

--

When Newt tells him that it is time to return to New York, that they are needed there, Credence nearly faints.

“Do we have to?” He asks, before he can stop himself. He had been doing so well, not thinking of New York City, of not thinking about Mr. Graves except in those early hours of the morning when he can’t find sleep. Sometimes, Credence just cannot help himself.

“Yes?” Newt answers, eyebrow raised. The question is unspoken, but Credence knows it anyway.

“It’s just -- so soon.”

“We’ll be staying with the Goldsteins. You don’t ever even have to leave their apartment if you don’t want to.”

That, at least, is a relief.

--

Staying with the Goldsteins is nice. It’s safe.

It would be far better if Credence could trust himself to never leave. Tina and Newt spend most of their days out and about the city, looking for a rare and feral dragon that has escaped captivity. There are multiple bounties out on it, apparently for the exorbitant price of it’s scales. MACUSA is also looking for it, perhaps even more diligently, to keep the No-Maj population of New York in the dark about the whole thing -- thus their request that Newt help them.

Credence spends his days reading or letting Queenie teach him some household magic. She says that it’s a hard thing to get a hang of, that you either have a knack for it or you don’t. Credence is surprised by how easily he takes to it. It’s an easy thing to use his wandless magic with -- it somehow integrates well. Fighting and cleaning, apparently. He hasn’t done much fighting, but he’s gotten into a few rough patches alongside Newt, and he had been surprised by how well his magic was suited toward lashing out. Not that it should have been surprising at all, really.

But folding and cooking and cleaning are fun. The best part is that Queenie talks his ear off, even if he doesn’t reply. All he has to do is think about something and she’s on a roll. It’s a bit tough, at first, getting used to the idea of someone reading his every thought, but she always assures him that she’s heard it all, that he’s not bad at all.

The process of washing and folding clothes is cathartic and satisfying. He watches with keen interest as his favorite sweater wrings out suds, then water, and then hangs itself to dry alongside all of the other washing. His folds are a bit sloppy, a bit unpracticed, but they're about as good as he could do by hand, anyway. The socks, he lets Queenie do, watching as they dance together and roll up into perfect little balls. When she is done, they deposit themselves into baskets and dressers, each according to whom they belong to. The dishes are easiest to clean, but Credence's favorite thing is directing the feather duster around the room, watching as it twirls around like a ballerina, delicately drifting over trinkets and surfaces, above doors and over the spines of books. It shakes itself out a few feet outside the window, and the wind blows the dust miles away.

They are in the middle of making a pear strudel when Queenie gently takes his hand. He knows that he'd been letting his mind wander, but he’s not entirely sure toward what. “Aw honey.” He flushes, immediately aware. “You could take this to him, you know. I’m sure he’d be glad to see your face again. It’s quite a nice face.” She follows the words up with a gentle kiss to his cheek.

If possible, Credence flushes even darker.

--

He’s not entirely sure how Queenie manages to convince him, but later that evening he finds himself waiting outside of MACUSA, strudel tucked carefully into a package in his hands. He is looking for Mr. Graves, but also has his eyes peeled for Newt and Tina -- he doesn’t want them to catch him loitering, doesn’t want them wondering why he’s looking so suspicious.

He knows better. He truly does.

It doesn’t stop him from following Mr. Graves once he does spot the man, trailing after him while he makes his way to a nearby restaurant tucked into the ground floor of an office building. Credence hovers in wait outside, shifting on his feet, giving time for Mr. Graves to settle into his usual seat facing the door. Credence crosses his fingers, hoping that the man isn’t meeting someone here, before he slips inside the restaurant.

Mr. Graves spots him instantly. When Credence finds him in the crowd, sitting alone at a table for two, his eyebrows are raised in surprise and what looks a bit like amusement. Swallowing down his fear, Credence crosses to where his table is and puts a hand on the back of the chair opposite Mr. Graves. “May I sit?”

Mr. Graves nods. “Theseus. I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”

Credence flushes at the fact that Mr. Graves remembers his name, even if it isn’t his true name. It somehow makes it even better, knowing that Mr. Graves also knows that it isn’t his name, but he chose to remember it anyway.

“I made you this.” Credence sets the parcel down on the table. “It’s pear strudel.” It is in a box from Mr. Kowalski’s bakery, tied with one of their nice red ribbons ( only for special occasions, Queenie had said with a wink). “It’s my first try, so I’m not sure if it’s any good.” Honestly, Credence is suddenly completely unsure why he is here at all.

“I should leave,” he tells Mr. Graves in a rush, already pushing his chair out from the table.

“No, please --” Mr. Graves looks startled, stricken. He looks suddenly so serious, frozen in place. “Please stay.”

And so Credence does.

They eat and talk. It is easier this time, the conversation less stilted, the silences more comfortable -- even though Mr. Graves still does most of the talking.

Dessert is some sort of mousse and this time Credence only denies it once. Mr. Graves insists and Credence cannot tell him no. It tastes sweet and heavy on his tongue, and the cordial he washes it down with makes him feel pleasantly light.

Mr. Graves leaves Credence with a smile after brushing a hand over his shoulder, and goes home with the strudel tucked under one arm.

--

Credence sees him again the next day. It is winter in New York City, light flakey snow falling all around while the wind whips through the valleys the skyscrapers make. Like this, there are fewer cars and more foot traffic, and Credence can already feel the dampness encroaching on his toes because of the ensuing slush.

Mr. Graves finds him outside MACUSA in the evening. Credence has his face tucked into a large woolen scarf, a hand-me-down from Newt. The colors are more garish than he might choose for himself, tartan and lively, but it is warm and smells like home.

“Waiting for me, I presume?” Mr. Graves says while the beginnings of a smile prick at the corners of his mouth. He looks warm in his thick coat, unflustered by the snow around them. Small flakes of it settle in Mr. Graves hair, sprinkling the top with bits of white to match his greying temples. Around them the world passes, featureless, while all Credence can focus on is Mr. Graves. Suddenly, he feels all too warm, even with the bite of the wind at his cheeks, his ears.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be around,” Credence says.

Mr. Graves pauses. He looks considering, as if having an inner debate with himself. Credence doesn’t know what about. Then, he shakes his head, resigned. “Would you like to have dinner with me again, Theseus?”

Credence nods, a smile warming the dimples of his cheeks into a flush. Mr. Graves nods once, and then looks away. “Come along, then.”

They walk in companionable silence to Mr. Graves’ intended dinner destination. By the time they get there, Credence’s shoes are soaked through and his feet, cold. His shoes are old, the charms wearing thin. He hadn’t noticed while walking, too preoccupied by being by Mr. Graves’ side, but now, in the warmth of the restaurant, he feels chilled to the bone.

He shivers and sits opposite Mr. Graves, but Mr. Graves is up in a flash, draping his heavy coat over Credence’s shoulders. “Until you get warm,” he says, before Credence can refuse.

--

That night, Credence sleeps easy. Soundly. He can still smell Mr. Graves on his scarf, spiced and warm, where the collar of his coat had rested for a couple of hours.

--

The next morning, Newt catches the dragon.  

It is small and scared, and Credence lets the creature curl up on his lap as they make their way to Bermuda on a small fishing boat.

He is ready to face the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, but not at all ready to leave New York City.

Especially not without a chance to say goodbye.

--

They aren’t back in New York until late February, when the city is blanketed in snow. Credence has saved up enough money to invest in some true snow boots for himself, which is good, because it is about ankle deep and there are drifts of it everywhere. Newt has loaned him a winter coat with better warming charms, but he cannot help the way that the sheer knowledge of the cold bites at his bones and burrows under his skin. When he lived with Ma, he had always been cold. Now, he is comfortable and warm most of the time, not nearly as accustomed to discomfort as before. Newt had offered to buy him a warmer scarf, but Credence had refused, not wanting to part with the one that reminds him of Mr. Graves coat draped loosely over his shoulders.

As far as Credence can tell, they’re not in New York for any reason in particular, other than the fact that Newt has finished a manuscript that he wants Tina to read. The Goldsteins seem happy to accommodate them and their suitcase, and Queenie seems doubly glad to have some company around the house during the day.

“Jacob works all day, you know how it is.” Queenie says, after sitting Credence down on the lid of the toilet. She pulls up a chair in front of him and takes out her wand, enchanting a pair of scissors to cut Credence’s hair. She’d asked him earlier if he’d wanted a haircut or if he was growing it out and he’d just thought about how he didn’t want to inconvenience Newt by asking him for a trim. Queenie had laughed and told him she would be thrilled to do it for him.

“It gets lonely, you know? But you’re good company, honey. I hope you know that.”

Credence thinks she’s a bit delusional, that he’s shy and awkward and stilted and most people would be lucky to not be stuck in a conversation with him. Queenie slaps at his knee for that thought, which Credence has to admit he deserves for thinking something so dumb in front of a legilimens.

“I know Newt likes having you around. He’s glad you’re doing so well, but he does get worried when you wander off when you’re visiting us.” She pauses, paying close attention to cutting the hair around his ears. She leaves it a bit shaggy, just shorter and more tidied. “Don’t worry, he doesn’t suspect that you’re out meeting anyone, though. Especially not someone so handsome.” She winks.

Credence flushes.

She finishes with his hair, waving her wand to blow a gentle summer breeze over Credence’s head and neck to get rid of all the stray hairs. Everything collects itself nicely in the trash can, so he can’t even offer to sweep up.

“No need to thank me, honey. Just make sure you see your fella, alright? I did a swell job and I think he’d appreciate it.”

Credence doesn’t get a chance to argue, to assure Queenie that Mr. Graves is not his fella. The door opens and Newt comes tumbling in with arms full of scrolls and books, Tina following right behind him.

“We found the most amazing bookstore,” Newt says, derailing Credence’s thoughts entirely with stories of towering shelves, flying manuscripts, and the friendliest of shopkeepers.

--

The next morning, Credence is set free and left alone to his own devices. Queenie simply must go into work, apparently, and Mr. Kowalski refuses his help at the bakery. It leaves Credence with too much time and legs that itch to walk.

So he wanders.

The snow prevents him from going too far, but the subway is decent enough transit, even if it is soured by not-so-fond memories. He feels connected to the walls here -- perhaps because he was once part of them, perhaps because he has pulled them apart, brick by brick.

He decides to explore the bookstore Newt had spoken so fondly of the night before. It’s close to Harlem, which Credence feels both warm and wary about, in turns. It’s like coming back home: sometimes pleasant, sometimes unsteadying. Stepping off the train and climbing the stairs up to the familiar buildings leaves his body thrumming with familiar energy.

He trudges through the snow quickly, the slush and ice the only things preventing him from breaking out into a run. His veins course with the need to move, the need to be alive. He finds himself climbing a familiar fire escape, burning off some of his energy, until he is sitting on the roof of a shorter building, looking out over the city and the streets. He used to do this as a kid, when Ma’s leash was longer and when he wasn’t so scared. His feet hang loose over the edge, and for the first time he realizes that this is truly his life: free and magic and beautiful.

Eventually, the energy fades into a quiet thrum. Credence climbs down and continues on his way to the bookstore.

The store is stuck in what used to be an alleyway between two city blocks, shrouded in a veil of magic. The No-Maj’s look right over it, pass it by like a normal bricked-up-alley. If Credence crosses his eyes, if he lets himself lose focus, he can’t see it at all either. He stands outside for a moment, letting the wonder wash over him. Even after two years, he still finds it dizzying. Fantastic. Wonderful. It's sometimes tough to remember that this is his life.

When he steps into the shop, he loses himself in a sea of books. The small building is dimly lit, but cozy. Sun filters in through small windows and lanterns light each row of books. The stacks are towering and packed absolutely full -- every inch of space is crammed impossibly full of books, novels, and manuals. Credence wanders for a while, running his fingertips over the spines browsing the selection, before the shopkeeper engages him in some friendly conversation. The conversation leads to recommendations, which leads to Credence letting the little old woman stack books into his open arms -- he can easily see how Newt wandered out of here with books and scrolls coming out of his ears.

Eventually the shopkeeper abandons him for the ringing of the door, signaling another customer entering the store. Credence shifts amongst the shelves, happy to browse on his own for a while. He has a bit of money saved up, so he knows he wants to treat himself to something -- though he cannot possibly afford all of the books in his arms. He’ll have to narrow it down some.

He sets up shop in a small corner on an old, comfortable chair. He spreads out the books around himself, content to go through and winnow down his selection.

Winnowing turns to skimming, which turns rather quickly into flat out reading. Before Credence knows it, he is absolutely absorbed in a book about the history of magic in Coastal Louisiana. It is fascinating; Newt has many books about creatures, as well as some of his old schoolbooks, but they focus mostly on the history of magic in Britain, not in the United States.

He’s never been to the South, never explored much of the States at all -- but reading this makes Credence wish he could go. He wants to see more of the world, but also more of the country he is from. The diversity of magic here is astounding, exhilarating. The itch to explore, to know more, is so strong.

Credence loses himself in the book, settling into the chair more comfortably, until he totally loses track of time.

He also loses track of his surroundings.

It’s not until he hears a cough in front of him that he realizes he was completely absorbed. He looks up, ready to apologize to the shopkeeper for loitering for so long -- but instead of facing a kindly old woman, he is looking up at Mr. Graves.

Credence nearly chokes.

“Theseus,” Mr. Graves says. “I really did not expect to see you here.”

Credence’s heart stops dead in his chest. His entire body freezes, blood going cold in his veins. “Oh,” he says. Because that’s right: Mr. Graves thinks he’s a No-Maj pickpocket. Mr. Graves thinks he’s not a threat at all. Mr. Graves had not at all expected to see him in a magical bookstore, surrounded by spell and history books, not at all phased by their moving pictures and sounds -- not anymore, anyway.

“Mr. Graves,” he says.

Mr. Graves frowns. “I don’t believe I ever told you my surname.”

Oh god. Credence slams the book closed, filling his nose with dust and the smell of coastal air and sunshine.

“I should go.” Credence says, standing up. The books can wait. He can come back for them. Or he can leave them forever -- he doesn’t need them at all.

Mr. Graves does not move back to let him flee. Instead, he steps forward to block Credence’s way and puts his hand in his pocket, palming for a wand that Credence knows is there. A wand that he has had held to Credence’s throat before. Oh god, oh god -- what has he gotten himself into? All this because he couldn’t go without checking on Mr. Graves, couldn’t go without seeing this man’s face. It’s so dumb, so idiotic -- Credence cannot believe he set himself up for this.

He feels the energy swell inside him -- panic and fear. Once upon a time, it would have come with a cloud of smoke, of void and of anger. The bookstore would have come tearing down around them. Now, the feeling just settles into his bones, seeping darkness and energy into his lungs. He is ready to fight, but he does not reach for a wand -- he cannot bring himself to hold something so dangerous in Mr. Graves’ direction. Not even with knowing that Mr. Graves does not feel so charitably toward him.

“I’m not a threat to you.” Credence says, his hands raised in the air. He wants his books. He wants the comfort of Newt’s suitcase. He wants the niffler by his side, or the newest dragon to curl around his neck. He wants to not be here. Unfortunately, he cannot simply apparate away in cowardice -- there are wards on the shop preventing just that.

“I’m not sure that’s the truth,” Mr. Graves says.

“I promise. I promise you that I’m not going to hurt you.” Credence swallows. He has no idea how to show that he isn’t a threat, no idea how to convince Mr. Graves that he is a friend. Credence needs Mr. Graves to believe him. They’ve both been through so much. This man, this man who is ready to attack Credence, to hurt him, is the only one who truly understands. “Please believe me. Please don’t hurt me.”

“Tell me why you were following me.”

The bookshop is quiet around them, deafeningly so. Credence has half a mind to think that Mr. Graves put up some sort of silencing charm, making their conversation private. Given the ringing nothingness in his ears, Credence thinks it’s likely.

“I told you. I had to see you.” That had never been a lie.

“Why?” It’s barely even a question. Mr. Graves voice is gruff and charged with anger and annoyance. But even now, fueled by strong emotions, he sounds so unlike the man Credence knew.

“I knew him,” Credence says carefully, softly. “I knew him, and he knew me.” He looks down, unable to meet Mr. Graves’ eyes. “I know what he took from you. And I just -- you -- you’re the only one who understands. I had to see you again.” And again, and again.

Mr. Graves says nothing. When Credence looks back up at his face, he looks stricken. He probably knew, had to have known that Grindelwald had met Credence while wearing his face -- but Credence knows that it’s one thing to assume, and an entirely different animal to know something for certain. It must hurt, having a constant reminder of such a traumatic experience, to know that a man walked around in your skin for months. Life was taken from Mr. Graves -- and here Credence is, just another reminder of that.  

It takes a long time for Mr. Graves to speak. When he does, Credence isn’t at all expecting the words. “You got a haircut.” Mr. Graves’ tone is gentle, lacking any of the harshness from before. Perhaps he is resigned, perhaps he is just tired . Credence should leave, should stop exhausting the man. He should leave Mr. Graves alone, should stop digging fingers into a salted wound.

Credence nods, a sharp and quick motion.

The silence stretches for a long moment before Mr. Graves breaks it. “Will you tell me your name?” He doesn’t look hopeful, but he sounds more pleading than he ever should. It sounds wrong coming from his lips. The sound of it breaks Credence’s heart. “Please?”

Credence shouldn’t tell him.

He shouldn’t.

The words tumble from his lips anyway: “Credence Barebone.”

It’s clearly not at all what Mr. Graves was expecting. He does not take a step back, nor forward, but he does straighten his back. so that he is taller, more predatory. He is only shaken for a moment -- Mr. Graves has built a reputation and a career on being strong, on being resolute and detached. It’s not surprising that he gathers himself up so quickly. So effortlessly.

Credence prepares for an attack, but it never comes. He is left feeling off-balance, dizzy.

Instead, Mr. Graves takes in a steady breath and then lets it out. Slow and steady, readying himself.

“Well. That certainly explains a lot.”

Chapter Text

Credence waits for the world to come crumbling down around him.

He knows the feel of brick and mortar and dust under his fingertips, knows the way it tastes in his mouth, the way it feels in his lungs. He keeps bracing himself for it, for the inevitable destruction -- but it never comes.

--

He stares at Mr. Graves over a steaming cup of coffee.

They are in a coffee shop again, but this time Mr. Graves had guided him toward a magical street, tucked right between two towering city blocks. The street itself is narrow, but packed with small shops and a bustle of people.

Mr. Graves’ spoon stirs itself in the coffee. He takes his with a bit of sugar, which is a surprise. Neither he nor the man who wore his face have never struck Credence as particularly saccharine. Credence drinks his black.

Mr. Graves hasn’t said much. He seems to be taking in the situation. Processing. Accounting for all of the pieces of data that he never had before, piecing them into the right slots, the right timeframe. Also probably kicking himself for not making the right inferences. Credence doesn’t know him, but he seems like the type.

“I should have known,” he says, finally. Definitely kicking himself, then.

“Why would you have?”

Mr. Graves snorts. “A number of reasons, honestly.” He finally takes a sip of his coffee, studying Credence with what looks like curiosity. “First off, you were only ever around when Mr. Scamander was in town. That really should have been the first clue. Leave it to him to find you.”

Credence sets his cup down, a little sad to part with the comforting warmth of it. Also, the way he can hide behind it. But it allows him to cross his arms on the table, to lean forward -- the posture feels more sincere. “I’m sorry for not telling you.” He can’t get rid of the feeling that he knows this man, that he owes him truth and confidence and sincerity. “I wanted to -- but I also,” Credence swallows. “I knew better.” It’s the truth. Two years ago, that wouldn’t have stopped him from telling Mr. Graves anything . Self-worth is something he has now, even if that cup isn’t necessarily running over.

He can’t help but be surprised when Mr. Graves smiles. He smiles. Credence’s heart thuds heavy in his chest, the sound of it ringing in his ears. “Self-preservation is a good thing.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

Credence doesn’t need praise from Mr. Graves. He knows that. But it hits him anyway, spreading warmth and contentment over his entire body.

When Mr. Graves asks what he would like for dessert, Credence chooses the strawberry cake instead of refusing the offer even once.

Mr. Graves smiles. Again .

The paper menu flies back to the kitchen in the shape of a crane.

--

Credence returns to the bookstore the next day to pick up some of the books from the stack. He manages to re-find all of them with the help of the clerk, all except for the book on Coastal Louisiana. It’s a pity -- he had enjoyed the smell of the ocean that came along with it, the sounds of the crashing waves, the idea that there is so much more left to explore. Of both magic and the world.

He returns back to the Goldsteins’ apartment with arms full of books. Tina and Newt laugh and Queenie helps him find places for them all in his small room in the suitcase.

“We have a guestroom, you know,” Queenie tells him, floating the books up to a shelf that Credence can barely reach without magic to help. They stack themselves neatly up there, happy to oblige Queenie with her extraordinary talents in household magic. It’s like they respect her. Maybe they do. Credence isn’t quite used to the strange sort of sentience everything has now, but he’s getting there.

“I like this space.” It’s mine , he thinks, knowing she can hear.

“I’m glad you told him,” Queenie says. For a moment, Credence is a bit blindsided -- before he realizes that he’s been idly thinking about Mr. Graves all day. Obviously Queenie could pick up on it.

“You don’t think it’s dangerous?” Credence asks.

Queenie smiles in that disarming, beautiful way she has. She is like a star, like a warm hug, a day spent out in the sun. “Love is dangerous, honey. But it’s worth it.”

“What,” Credence says, feeling like his heart has come to a complete stop in his chest. His ears ring. His breath catches. He throws his hands up in front of him, absolutely incredulous. “I’m not in love . This has nothing do with love.” The thought is absurd . First, he barely even knows Mr. Graves. Secondly, they are both men -- even he knows that’s a sin.

“No,” Credence reiterates with a shake of his head, just to make sure he is absolutely clear.

“Of course, honey,” she smiles. “My mistake.”

--

Queenie’s words leave Credence feeling a little hollow the next day, like a bee hive drained of all its honey. It doesn’t prevent him from waiting outside the Woolworth in the darkness of February afternoon, but it does leave him antsy. Instead of standing, he paces, hands clenched white-knuckled in his pockets.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” Mr. Graves says, walking toward Credence. Other businessmen part ways around him, like Mr. Graves is an unmovable force. It’s not inaccurate.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Because he did the daft thing of telling the head of the Aurors his name? Because Queenie thinks he’s in love ? Either are good enough reasons to hide in the suitcase for days. To pop off to another country, another part of the world, the moment the opportunity arises.

Mr. Graves doesn’t answer the question. “Your secret is safe with me. Besides,” he says. “You’ve yet to tear apart this city, so I would hazard a guess to say that you’ve taken care of your problem.” He doesn’t mention the obscurus by name. It’s kind. Unnecessary, but kind.

Credence nods. He doesn’t know how to say that it is both gone and also a part of him. That he is tainted now. He doesn’t want to admit that to Mr. Graves, doesn’t want to be different than all of the other witches and wizards this great man has met in his lifetime. Credence is green, inexperienced -- and also black and blue. He is rotten from the inside, he thinks, even if he has grown to care for himself as he is.

He doesn’t know how to explain it -- so he doesn’t.

“Well then, I don’t see that there is any reason to worry,” Mr. Graves informs him. “Now: dinner?”

--

Credence cannot keep accepting charity from Mr. Graves.

He meets Mr. Graves every day after the man gets out of work simply because it is routine. Because it feels like the right way to end a day in New York. Credence doesn’t need dinner and especially doesn’t need dessert -- but Mr. Graves insists every time. Credence isn’t good at refusing him -- nor does he particularly want to, but eventually he feels the guilt start to eat away at him.

Without anything better to do, he bakes Mr. Graves pastries. He has help from both Queenie and Mr. Kowalski, who are happy to help, even though Mr. Kowalski doesn’t understand why . Credence knows that eventually he will have to tell them -- Newt and Tina and Mr. Kowalski -- but he doesn’t know how. Not yet, anyway.

--

Mr. Graves hands him a parcel. They are sitting on a bench in Central Park, overlooking a frozen pond. There are no ducks to feed today -- likely they have left for somewhere warmer, somewhere less snow-trodden.

A few days ago it had felt so cold, but now and here, with Mr. Graves, he wonders how exactly that was. He is so warm now, tucked less than a foot away from the man. Mr. Graves had cast some sort of warming spell, which did a better job at keeping the cold away than anything Credence could do. Maybe one day he could be that good with his magic.

Credence accepts the parcel with a curious look. “What’s this?”

“Open it,” Mr. Graves says. “Please think of it as an apology.”

Immediately, Credence pushes the parcel back toward Mr. Graves, but the man won’t take it. “You don’t owe me an apology.”

“I would like to apologize anyway.” He doesn’t say for what. Likely, he thinks the list is long and uncomfortable to say out loud. It’s also, from what Credence can guess, filled with things Grindelwald did whilst wearing his face. Nothing he needs to apologize for, but perhaps feels like he should, regardless. “Least of all, for cornering you in the bookstore.”

When Credence opens the parcel, carefully tearing away thick, brown paper from it, he is pleasantly surprised to find the book he had been reading when Mr. Graves had found him in the magical world. The one about magic in Coastal Louisiana. “Oh,” he says, running his fingers over the worn cover. It is used, well-loved. Old. “Thank you.”

“Actually, I--” Mr. Graves pauses for a moment, and pulls two more books from his breast pocket inside his coat. “Actually there are two more.”

When he passes them over to Credence, who finally and hesitantly takes them, Credence sees that they are strikingly similar to the first. In fact, it looks like they are part of a set.

“These were a set of schoolbooks,” Mr. Graves explains. “These were my two favorites, so I kept them.” One is a book about the magical variations found in the Shenandoah region, the other is about magic in the Southwestern United States.

When he thumbs open the first of the new books, he finds Mr. Graves’ name written in precise capital letters at the top: Percival Graves: Year 5. Credence shuts the book quickly and passes both back to Mr. Graves. “I can’t accept these. These are yours .”

“They were. And now I am giving them to you.” His tone is kind, but it also leaves space for no argument. Credence stacks them carefully with the other book, the three of them making a nice little set. Their spines are not too thick and they are all the same edition, though Mr. Graves’ books are a bit less worn than the one found in the shop.

“There are more of them out there somewhere,” Mr. Graves says. “Nearly everyone had to read these growing up. I know you are working on your studies, so please consider this me investing in your education. It’s the least I can do.”

“For what, me tearing up the city?”

“Credence,” Mr. Graves says, voice full of warmth, of sincerity. “You are a miracle. You should never have survived, and yet you did. No -- more than that -- you are thriving. ” It’s similar to the way Newt says that he is extraordinary .

Credence doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to make the blush on his cheeks fade, so he just lets himself nod.

When he goes home that evening, he reads all of the books Mr. Graves has given him, cover to cover, staying up until the early hours of the morning with the niffler curled by his side.

--

“Where are you heading off to this time?” Mr. Graves asks him over a cup of coffee. He idly picks at a cake -- some sort of fruity sweet thing that Credence thinks is a bit too fancy. This whole establishment is a bit too fancy, honestly. He’d even had to dress up nicely -- Mr. Graves had requested it specifically after hearing that Credence was heading out for a month or so. Credence hadn’t had too much to wear -- traveling with Newt and chasing beasts does not a fancy wardrobe make. But Mr. Graves had given him a tie and had watched patiently whilst Credence had tried to smooth out his unruly hair.

“Utah,” Credence says. Truthfully, he both wants to go and doesn’t. He has been itching to see more of the United States -- but part of him knows that he will miss his time in New York, seeing all of the people he knows. He cherishes his time with Newt and with the creatures, but he knows that he will miss cooking with Queenie, talking with Tina, baking with Mr. Kowalski, and seeing -- Mr. Graves. Truthfully, he doesn’t know exactly why Mr. Graves spends time with him. The man doesn’t press to teach him anything, doesn’t make Credence tell him about the Obscurus, doesn’t make Credence do anything -- he just insists on enjoying Credence’s company.

Credence doesn’t really understand what Mr. Graves gets out of it, other than another mouth to feed (he steadfastly refuses Credence’s money), but Credence doesn’t complain. He genuinely likes Mr. Graves’s company, likes spending time with him. He makes Credence feel special , even though there is nothing that he brings to the table. So, Credence doesn’t question him -- mostly because he doesn’t want Mr. Graves to suddenly reconsider.

Finding out that Mr. Graves feels obligated to spend time with him isn’t something that Credence wants to hear out loud, even though he knows that is the most probable reason that Mr. Graves sees him. Right now, without knowing, he can enjoy their time together in blissful ignorance.

“A lovely part of the world. Very different than New York City,” Mr. Graves says.

Credence nods. “We’re going to Bryce Canyon. Newt showed me some pictures -- it’s very interesting.” Giant rock structures plunging from the ground, very alien, very strange. Hoodoos, Newt had called them. They are looking for the shed feathers of a magical bird that roosts amongst them. Apparently their quills are useful in many medicinal potions.

Mr. Graves nods. “I’ve never been. I hope you enjoy it.” He smiles -- something Credence is still getting used to. This Mr. Graves is so different than Grindelwald’s portrayal of him that it shouldn’t be strange -- but it always seems to knock Credence off his feet whenever Mr. Graves smiles. “Will you bring me something back?”

It’s such a strange request that, for a moment, Credence doesn’t think he heard correctly. “What?”

Mr. Graves doesn’t look flustered, per se, but he does seem to take a moment to carefully choose his words. More so than normal, anyway. He is always so well-spoken. “Obviously please don’t if it’s too much trouble -- but if you found something that strikes you as interesting, if you brought it back, I would like to keep it in my office.”

Credence squints. “Alright.” He tries to keep the question out of his voice. He doesn’t understand why , but Mr. Graves must have his reasoning. He has mentioned attempting to clean out his office recently, so perhaps he is redecorating -- filling it with all new items, all new memories. Credence would be more than happy to help with that endeavor. “Of course.”

Eventually, when they finish dinner, Mr. Graves apparates them both to the alley outside the Goldsteins’ apartment.

“Thank you for dinner, Mr. Graves.” Credence says. It’s still hard to meet his eyes -- not because Credence feels like he is a stranger, but because whenever he does, he feels a little lost. When he looks too long at Mr. Graves, Credence remembers how much gravity the man truly has, how easily Credence is pulled into his orbit. It’s sometimes just dizzying.

For a moment, Mr. Graves is quiet. Then, he reaches out toward Credence’s face. The action is so familiar, from the other Mr. Graves, that Credence cannot help but lean into it, seeking the contact. Mr. Graves fingers brush against his jawline for a hair of a second before the other man pulls away, using his hands to straighten the lapels on Credence’s coat. Like that’s what he was doing all along, but just got lost along the way.

Credence’s heart thuds in his chest -- loud, unruly.

His skin is aflame where Mr. Graves touched him. Just that small point of contact -- completely alight. Searing.

“Safe travels, Credence,” Mr. Graves says. Before Credence can say more, he has already apparated away.

--

Credence doesn’t know what to pick up for Mr. Graves in Utah. Bryce Canyon is a beautiful place, but it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to trinkets. Credence gives up and picks up a No-Maj postcard. It’s still nice, but it lacks the intrigue of the moving pictures that the magical world has.

He writes Thinking of you, on the back -- then thinks better of it. He can’t erase the ink-written words, but he can accidentally spill the whole vial of ink all over the back of the postcard. It erases any evidence of -- whatever it is. Foolishness, most likely. Underneath the splotch, he writes ‘sorry’ and doesn’t let himself think any more about it.

They find the feathers.

Credence finds them first, actually -- given that the birds seem to have a fondness for him. The hike down into the canyon itself is a long one, but soon they are at the base of it. The hoodoos -- giant, alien pillars of burnt orange stone -- tower over them, giving the pleasant relief of shade. It is a landscape that Credence is wholly unfamiliar with, but he cannot help but be partially reminded of the towering beauty of the skyscrapers he grew up with.

Newt and Credence barely have to start looking before Credence hears a gentle whoosh next to his ear and feels the pain of sharp pin-pricks of something clutching his shoulder tight with talons.

“Credence,” Newt says. “Don’t move.”

For a long moment, Credence doesn’t move. He is aware of how easy it is to spook some magical beasts; he knows that sometimes a fright can come with terrible consequences. He knows the feeling first hand from his time as an obscurial. Sometimes he still finds himself afraid of being afraid, scared of consequences that are no longer there. Eventually, he takes a deep breath and turns his head. He comes face to face with the exact bird they are looking for. It puffs up its rust-colored feathers and offers him a gentle peet when he makes eye contact with it, but doesn’t fly away.

It’s a pretty bird, as far as birds go. It’s not too huge, with plumage to match the reddish-orange desert around them. Its tail is what makes it magnificent, though -- it is turquoise and long, tumbling down Credence’s back.

“Oh,” Newt says softly from behind him. “That’s lovely. I think she likes you, Credence.”

The bird makes a trilling noise as if it understands -- it might, Credence thinks -- and hops down to the ground to rummage in the sagebrush.

Newt and Credence spend the next few hours searching the underbrush for their turquoise-tinged tail-feathers -- those are the ones with medicinal properties, Newt says -- but are only lucky enough to find a few. The bird hops along after them for a while, watching curiously as they search through the dirt and plants, before it flies off back to one of its hoodoo roosts.

A while later it returns, a bunch of feathers clutched in its beak. They are all turquoise and long, curling beautifully at the ends like those from a quetzal. They are leagues nicer than any of the ones Newt and Credence had previously found. These have all been lovingly preserved, opposed to weathered in the elements. The bird hovers in mid-air in front of Credence before Newt prompts him to put his hands out. Once he does, the bird deposits the feathers into his waiting hands and then perches back on Credence’s shoulder looking proud.

Thank you ,” Credence says.

Soon, more birds arrive, all depositing their discarded feathers in Credence’s open hands.

“They must store them in their nests,” Newt posits, looking baffled and awed and dazed, all at the same time. Credence can’t blame him -- he wasn’t expecting this and is floored by the reverence with which the birds are bestowing them these gifts.

“They’re being awfully generous,” Credence says, after thanking another one of the birds. The original one has flown away -- out of all of them it is the most friendly, though they all seem to appreciate Credence for whatever reason. They swoop near him and chirp their goodbyes before they dart back to towering pillars in which they live.

Eventually the offerings stop. Credence helps Newt bundle them up for their journey back. When the heat of the day peaks, they have tea inside Newt’s suitcase and feed the beasts. When Credence sticks his head out of the suitcase again, he comes face to face with the original bird. It is sitting on a stone near the suitcase, seemingly just waiting for them.

Peet , it chirps. It bends down to pick up a small rust-colored feather in its beak and hops forward as Credence climbs out of the suitcase.

“Oh,” he says, when the bird lands in his hands. It deposits the feather onto his palm. “Is that for me?” Peet , it chirps, fluffing itself until it is nearly twice its usual size. The feather is beautiful in its simplicity -- only a couple inches long and roughly the color of the red-earth around them. When he picks it up, it shines a bit golden in the sunlight.

“It’s very pretty, thank you.” He bows his head. The bird bows its head in return, and then flies away.

“Looks like you made a friend,” Newt says, clambering out of the suitcase. “You ready for our hike back up?”

--

The first thing Mr. Graves says when he spots Credence waiting for him outside the Woolworth building is: “You’re looking sunkissed.”

The second thing Mr. Graves says, which very rapidly follows the first, after a cough, is: “How was your trip?”

Credence feels heat rise to his cheeks at the first comment, even though he knows it was just an idle observation. The fact that Mr. Graves sees him and doesn’t look past him like most people is still baffling. Shocking. Disarming. That fact that Mr. Graves looks at him always makes Credence feel warm. He doesn’t know what to do with that feeling, so mostly he ignores it.

“It was good,” Credence says, letting his eyes study the hollow of Graves’ throat. His five o’clock shadow. The way his collar fits perfectly against the pressed lapels of his coat. “Productive,” he says. Mr. Graves swallows and Credence studies the sidewalk. “The birds liked me. I don’t know why.”

He feels the press of a hand on his lower back -- Mr. Graves guiding him toward the bustle of the sidewalk. “You can tell me about it over dinner,” Mr. Graves says. When Credence swallows, his throat feels tight, constricted. He can still feel the kiss of the sun on his cheeks, warm and lingering.

--

Dinners are different now that Mr. Graves knows who he is.

They more often go to magical establishments, where the menus fly across the dimly-lit spaces, where Mr. Graves uses magic freely, where alcohol is permitted. Where Mr. Graves encourages Credence to partake.

“Live a little,” Mr. Graves always says. Credence wonders if it isn’t a new personal philosophy -- it might be, given the amount of time Mr. Graves spent imprisoned. Likely, he has a new joie de vivre . He always encourages Credence to try the dessert, to have his coffee with sugar and cream, to try the inordinately expensive No-Maj whiskey. It’s not like he encourages Credence to drink much -- he has simply and accurately noticed that Credence tends to veer away from anything he deems as decadent.

It’s a hard habit to break himself of, but he finds that when Mr. Graves suggests he do something, he has a very hard time saying no.

It’s nice, having an excuse to treat himself. A reason to not feel guilty for indulging.

Credence thinks that Mr. Graves probably just wants company in his little pleasures -- and Credence is happy to be the one to help. The man always gets this heavenly expression when he orders a particularly decadent dessert -- it’s an expression Credence enjoys seeing on him. Mr. Graves is often so serious, it’s nice to see him relax.

So, after Credence has had a coffee with some rich liqueur in it to heat his cheeks and warm his stomach, and is now working on his second serving, he passes the postcard across the table to Mr. Graves. Everything is a little easier with alcohol -- the noises of the world fade into a dull murmur around him, his thoughts quiet, and his nervousness around Mr. Graves abates, at least slightly. So, instead of remembering his embarrassment at what he’d written on the card, he just feels proud to hand it over, even with the giant ink-spill on the back.

“Oh,” Mr. Graves says, taking the card in hand. He looks genuinely surprised. “I wasn’t sure --” he stops himself, then continues, looking from the card and then up to meet Credence’s eyes. “Thank you, Credence.” He sounds so earnest, so thankful, that Credence cannot help but blush.

“Actually, I --” Credence lets his hand slip into his pocket, thumbing for the rust-colored feather given to him by the bird. He pulls it out and reaches across the table with it in his fingertips. “Actually, I wanted you to have this, as well.”

Mr. Graves’ fingers brush against Credence’s as he takes the feather from him. His hands are warm, radiating heat even when he pulls away.

“One of the birds gave it to me,” Credence explains.

“I couldn’t possibly take this.”

But it feels right, giving it to Mr. Graves. Credence doesn’t have many things. He has a room in a suitcase full of books and a few clothes, but he doesn’t have a good place for the feather. Or for any sort of decorative items, really. He doesn’t have a way to give the feather the prominence it deserves.

But it’s not really that. It’s more that he has this one special thing, and he wants to give it to Mr. Graves. The idea of it makes him light up.

“I want you to have it,” Credence says, resolute.

Mr. Graves studies him for a moment, then looks to the feather, then looks back at Credence. He finally smiles wide, and Credence feels his chest go tight when the light takes over Mr. Graves’ face. His heart thuds loudly in his chest and the room quiets around them. Suddenly, he can focus on nothing except for Mr. Graves, no matter how hard he tries to concentrate on literally anything else .

“Thank you, Credence. I will give it a place of prominence in my office.”

Credence gulps. There’s so much there, so many words right underneath his tongue, all fighting and clamoring to escape. Instead, he manages to say: “And what if anyone asks what it is? Or where you got it?” He knows that MACUSA will eventually need to know of his existence, but he is not quite ready for that yet. He is not ready to share his time with anyone other than Mr. Graves. And Newt and his other friends, of course.

“I will simply say that it was a present from someone very special to me. That’s all anyone needs to know.” Credence knows that it doesn’t matter, not really -- no one is stupid enough to question Mr. Graves about the items in his office, especially not one as innocuous as a feather. It’s lucky, that.

Hearing Mr. Graves saying he’s special still brings heat to his cheeks, though.

“You really did get some sun,” Mr. Graves remarks. “It brings out your freckles.”

The comment, unfortunately, does little to quell the blush on Credence’s cheeks. It’s one thing to know that Mr. Graves sees him, another to know that he is so acutely looking at Credence that he notices his freckles. His stomach flutters. At this point, his entire body feels warm. He blames the alcohol, even though he knows the attention is a large part of it.

Credence takes a large sip of his liquored coffee, finishing off the cup. The liquid warms his throat on the way down, but it is at least a distraction. The cup rattles in its saucer when he puts it down.

“Or perhaps it’s just the alcohol,” Mr. Graves smiles, seeing that Credence has finished his after-dinner drink. “Perhaps a glass of water.” Mr. Graves waves his wand, and the pitcher of ice-water on the table replenishes Credence’s glass.

Credence swallows, throat still feeling tight. Face still feeling warm. “Yes, probably,” he says, and takes a large sip. It is refreshing on his tongue. The icy liquid slides pleasantly down his throat, cooling him from the inside, out. Mr. Graves’ eyes are on his throat as he swallows.

Credence takes another drink of the water, slower this time, and Mr. Graves looks away.

“The check, I think,” Mr. Graves says.

The check flies over to their table in the shape of a hummingbird. It unfolds itself in front of Mr. Graves and the man begins to fish the correct currency from his pocketbook. Unhurried, but clearly with the intent to leave. Credence isn’t quite ready for the dinner and therefore the night to be over, but he knows that Mr. Graves is an important man with a busy schedule and work in the morning. Credence knows this. And still, he isn’t quite ready to say goodbye. Perhaps he should have savored his drink for far longer.

While Mr. Graves is otherwise occupied, Credence watches him without his usual reserve. It’s always easier to look at Mr. Graves when he has the heat of alcohol in his gut, when he feels less shy, less wary. The man has pleasant angles, especially when they are dusted with the speckle of his five o’clock shadow. Even more so, in the dim light of a candle-lit restaurant. There’s something about his face that makes Credence’s eyes linger, something that makes him want to study this man hard enough that when he closes his eyes, he can see a perfect after image.

When Mr. Graves finishes, he looks up, catching Credence’s eyes on him. For once, Credence doesn’t look away.

It is exhilarating, looking into Mr. Graves’ rich amber-colored eyes. For a moment, they both simply sit, caught in each other’s eye contact. It is Mr. Graves who breaks it first, taking in a breath and then a sip of water before he stands. “It’s time to head home,” he says.

Credence nods and stands. It’s then that he truly feels the alcohol in his system -- he cannot help the giggle that escapes his lips when the dizziness hits him. Before Credence realizes it, Mr. Graves is right there , helping him into his coat. Credence shrugs into the coat and leans into the press of Mr. Graves hands on his shoulders, taking the contact when he can. Mr. Graves is always careful to not touch him too much, to not let his contact linger. It is one of the stark differences between this man and the other Mr. Graves, who was so free with his contact, especially knowing that Credence craved it so deeply. Credence knows now that it was pure manipulation -- but he does shamefully miss it anyway, the heat of another body, the touch of another.

Touch is still something he doesn’t have much of in his life, but he isn’t necessarily deprived . Newt has enveloped him in hugs before, when Credence has done something particularly impressive -- but Newt himself is not a particularly physically affectionate man. Even around Tina, whose company he so seems to enjoy, he is reserved. Queenie is the only one who lets her touch linger with Credence, perhaps because she knows how much he desires it. But it is not the same as the sturdy press of warm hands on his face, the weight of heavy arms around him.

Mr. Graves is careful, though. It’s sometimes quite infuriating how conscientious he is.

Maybe it’s why Credence lets himself wobble on his feet a bit. He shouldn’t -- he knows better -- but he does anyway.

Mr. Graves’ hands are there to steady him. He laughs and the sound is close to Credence’s ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize just how quickly you drank those. I should have insisted on more water.” Mr. Graves brushes his hands over Credence’s shoulders. “I forget sometimes that you don’t drink too often.”

“Sorry,” Credence says. His face is flushed -- from the alcohol, yes -- but mostly from Mr. Graves’ hands on him, from the mis-truth in his actions that is hedging very close to a lie. It should feel bad, should leave a bitter taste in his mouth, but right now Credence cannot bring himself to care. Especially not when Mr. Graves wraps an arm around his shoulders and ushers him outside.

Credence stops the moment they get outside the restaurant, his feet stuck fast against the pavement. “Can we walk,” he asks quickly, before Mr. Graves can do anything. “It’s not very far.” Credence doesn’t want the night to end, doesn’t want Mr. Graves to apparate them back to the Goldsteins’, doesn’t want to say goodnight.

It’s not very cold outside, at least it doesn’t feel that way. But Credence shivers anyway when Mr. Graves tightens his grip on Credence’s shoulder. “Alright,” Mr. Graves says, but too soon he pulls his arm away and steps in front of Credence. His face is entirely unreadable as he looks down at Credence, which is frustrating, but unsurprising. Credence wishes he knew if Mr. Graves was annoyed or tired or pleased -- but he doesn’t.

All he knows is that Mr. Graves carefully unwinds the scarf from his own neck and begins wrapping it around Credence’s. Gentle hands tuck the decadently soft scarf into his jacket. He leans close enough that Credence can feel Mr. Graves’ breath against his cheek, that he can smell the cake and coffee Mr. Graves had for dessert. Credence wants to move closer, wants to do something other than share breaths, but he cannot. He can’t move. He feels like he is frozen solid -- except he’s burning up.

“I can’t just let you walk home without a scarf,” Mr. Graves says. “I noticed that you’d forgotten yours. I hope this helps.” He puts the finishing touches on the scarf and offers Credence his arm, like a gentleman would to a lady. “Shall we?” Mr. Graves asks. The gesture makes Credence flush even more, makes his heart climb into his chest.

His breath hitches at the thought of talking and he doesn’t trust his voice, so Credence just nods.

Mr. Graves guides him home, a steady and sturdy warmth against Credence’s side. He stays close, perhaps because he thinks Credence might wobble, might dizzily stray due to the alcohol he’s consumed. Truthfully, while his head is a bit lighter than normal, Credence doesn’t feel too corked. Sure, he finds it easier to lean on Mr. Graves, to let his head occasionally fall against Mr. Graves’ shoulder -- but he’s fine. He’s not without his senses.

Truth be told, he wishes it were always this easy to interact with Mr. Graves.

He also wishes that Mr. Graves was always this close, this physically affectionate and demonstrative.

But he is not, so Credence lets himself indulge. He savors it.

When Credence shifts, when he ducks his head down into the warmth of the scarf to beat the wind, his senses are overcome with the scent of Mr. Graves. It’s so much more than the time he wore Mr. Graves’ coat -- now, it is everywhere. It feels very much like he is burying his face in Mr. Graves’ neck and is breathing him in. The scent is comforting, warming, invigorating. Perhaps even more dizzying than the alcohol.

When the wind picks up, howling through the valleys of the skyscrapers, Mr. Graves moves and loops his arm around Credence’s shoulder. His hand is solid and warm, holding Credence tight. Keeping him from blowing away.

Occasionally Mr. Graves’ fingers brush over his shoulder, but the movement always stops before it can really start -- like Mr. Graves is only flexing his fingers to keep them from freezing.

Despite the cold, neither of them mention apparating.

--

The walk ends too quickly. When Credence sees the structure of the Goldsteins’ apartment building approaching, he takes in a steadying breath. He isn’t ready for the night to be over, even though he can see Mr. Graves tomorrow if he so chooses. And the next day. And the next.

It all suddenly feels like not enough .

So, when Mr. Graves stops them near to the door, Credence knows that he must act fast. He swivels and throws his arms around the other man, burying his face in the warm crevice of his neck before he can think better of it. Lips against skin, Mr. Graves’ smoky scent enveloping him in comfort. It feels so good, so right, that Credence cannot believe he waited so long to reach out, to be the one to initiate the contact.

He missed this.

“Thank you,” Credence murmurs against the hot skin of Mr. Graves’ neck. “Thank you for everything.” He knows his voice is muffled, but he doesn’t care -- it’s too perfect to move. He just needs to say the words aloud to the universe as much as Mr. Graves. Credence is so thankful, so appreciative to even be alive, much less to actually be afforded the opportunity to know Mr. Graves.  

The only problem, though -- is that Mr. Graves has not really moved, other than an aborted brush of a hand down Credence’s spine when Credence first wrapped his arms around him. Mr. Graves is as still as a statue under Credence now, frozen in place.

Credence feels the immediate shards of panic stab against his ribcage. Oh no , he thinks. Suddenly, the hug is no longer comforting and is instead a stark reminder of his place. This is not the Mr. Graves who cupped Credence’s cheeks in his accepting palms, nor is he the Mr. Graves who so carefully wrapped Credence in his arms. The manipulation that drove those actions doesn’t matter in the end. The only thing that matters is this: this is not the Mr. Graves who touched Credence so easily, so freely. This is not something Credence is allowed anymore.

Immediately, Credence stumbles backward, pushing himself away and out of contact with the other man. Darkness and panic claw at his ribcage, but the feeling doesn’t manifest into anything -- it can’t, not anymore -- even if he wishes it could. Instead, it just eats away at him, churning in his gut.

If he could just let it out, he would feel better, wouldn’t he?

“Credence,” Mr. Graves begins, looking very unreadable. The only thing Credence can tell is that Mr. Graves looks wind-bitten and like he doesn’t really want to say anything at all. Credence knows the feeling -- he doesn’t think he can find words either.

Credence takes one stumbling step backward and Mr. Graves does not follow. His feet are planted firmly in the pavement, growing roots. It’s no use, Credence thinks, words would only hurt, now. He doesn’t want a reminder that this Mr. Graves is not the same, that Credence’s touch was unwelcome and unfamiliar.

Mr. Graves reaches out, trying Credence’s name again. He looks pained, he looks like he’s holding something back.

Credence doesn’t want cruel kindness. He cannot take that, on top of everything else. Not now, when he feels so brittle and like his insides are crumbling.

Guilt. Disappointment. Frustration -- it all hits him at once in a crushing wave, bogging him down and pulling him under.

“I’m sorry,” Credence says quickly. The burning words have barely just tumbled from his mouth before he’s turning and fleeing for the bright lobby of the Goldsteins’ building, leaving Mr. Graves and his outstretched hand behind him.

Before he knows it, he’s inside the overpowering heat of the building, legs taking him immediately up the stairs as fast as he can go. As fast as he can run away from his own feelings. For a moment, he wishes he had taken off down the street instead of climbing toward the sky. He wants to move farther away, even though there is less chance of Mr. Graves following him this way.

It’s only when he gets to their door and leans against it, panting and nearly choking back tears, that Credence realizes his serious mistake: he’s still wearing Mr. Graves’ scarf.

--

“Oh honey,” Queenie says, when she catches him in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, cup of tea clutched tight in his hand.

Credence has a small candle floating next to him as he leans against the window, looking out over the twinkling skyline of the city. It’s easy enough to make things float near him, though right now the candle moves a bit lethargically, bobbing about with a melancholy sway through the air -- as if his magic is tainted by his mood. It probably is.

His tea has grown luke-warm by now. He hasn’t taken more than one sip of it, but he’ll still drink all of it, never one to waste.

Queenie perches next to him. She’s in her nightclothes, silk robe draping elegantly over her slender shoulders. For a moment, Credence envies her poise, her class. She slight, but endlessly beautiful. He is just slender, scrawny. She could wear a rucksack and still look glamorous, and here he is in day-old clothes feeling ugly and undeserving.

Queenie could have anyone she wanted wrapped around her little fingertip, man and woman alike.

She laughs and Credence blushes. “That’s not true at all, honey. You flatterer!” She keeps her voice low -- even though there are wards up, silencing the bedrooms from noise in the kitchen and living room, the illusion of privacy is something in and of itself. Credence appreciates it.

Queenie doesn’t say anything for a while, just stands with him, keeping him company. She pours herself a cup of tea and floats it over. She also floats over some heavy cream and sugar for Credence’s tea. She shooshes Credence before he can object.

He is about halfway through his tea when she reaches over and adjusts the scarf around his neck. “You’re going to have to do something about this,” she says. He nods. God, he knows.

“You can’t leave a man without his scarf in winter, even if spring is right around the corner,” she says. “Also, honey, you really should talk with him. I know you don’t want to, but some things can’t just be left unsaid.”

Credence sighs. “I know. He just --” Credence stops, feeling the lump in his throat threatening to disrupt his voice. He doesn’t want to get choked up, to let Queenie see just how distraught he is over this. He doesn’t want to let on how much it hurt that Mr. Graves didn’t want the embrace, that he was stunned into stillness. He also doesn’t say that, deep down, it’s all Credence truly expected of the encounter. He knew it was all too good to be true, that he didn’t deserve all of the happiness he had found.

He doesn’t want to say it, but he can’t help but share the burden on his shoulders, so he thinks it all, in a jumbled mess, in her direction.

When her arms wrap around him, tight and secure and loving, it is a surprise. “You deserve happiness,” Queenie says, pressing a gentle kiss to his temple. “Everyone does, Credence, but you especially.”

“I really don’t,” he says, believing every word. There is no way that he deserves the spark he feels in his chest every time Mr. Graves’ hand brushes his own -- for so many reasons, especially that he shouldn’t find a spark there in the first place.

Not even to mention his past, the destruction he wrought, the people he killed.

Oh, God.

Credence hiccups, choking back something that burns his throat like a sob. He doesn’t want to cry, but the gentle circles Queenie is rubbing on his back seem to be pulling it all to the surface. Everything feels so raw, so real.

“Love is love,” Queenie says. “Doesn’t matter who it’s for or how it manifests. You can’t fight it, not when it’s true.” She brushes a finger over his cheek, wiping away a tear he hadn’t even felt.

“I’m not --” Credence argues, feeling the bite of the lie in his throat. It catches.

Queenie smiles, fond and sympathetic. “I know, honey. But I’m just sayin’, if you were , it’s something you deserve. You deserve every bit of happiness this world has for you. So, stop depriving yourself, huh?” And with that, she kisses his cheek and takes his half-empty teacup from him. “Now, it’s high time, I think, for a proper nightcap. What do you say?”

Credence cannot help but mirror her smile, even if it’s not a full one. He feels the corners of his lips quirk upward, just because her happiness is so contagious. She’s a good friend. Credence doesn’t know what he would do without her.

“Oh, you’d make do,” she says, waving over two glasses of something strong, maybe cognac, mixed with a generous pour of crème de cacao . When Credence takes a sip, it tastes like relief. Smooth and cold and rich.

“Thank you,” Credence says. He feels like he’s always thanking people, always reliant upon other’s kindness for benediction. But he is so thankful to have these wonderful people in his life. He’s lucky. Even if Queenie says that he deserves all of it, it still feels like he’s working his way out of a tar pit, cavernous and deep.

“You’re a miracle, Credence. You’re a good person. Don’t you ever forget that,” she says, squeezing him into a hug one last time. “Now, you’re going to give that scarf back tomorrow or I’m telling Newt you’ve been sneaking the niffler Jacob’s danishes.” Credence laughs -- he can’t help it. She’s so earnest, but he knows that they’ve both been sneaking the creature bits and pieces of pastries, so it’s a moot point.

“Alright,” he says, even though he both wants to avoid the encounter and also to keep the scarf.

--

In the morning, Credence quietly has his breakfast of coffee and a scone with Tina. Queenie sings softly from the other room while puttering around, making the laundry dance in the air with her usual flair. Newt is likely making his morning rounds with the animals and Mr. Kowalski must already be baking.

Mr. Graves’ scarf is folded next to Credence. His eyes keep falling on it with nervousness and unkind anticipation. Unfortunately, that only draws Tina’s eyes to it as well.

Credence can watch her recognition, her thought process. “Is that --” she pauses, looking from the scarf to Credence and back again. Eventually, she takes a sip of coffee and nods. “Of course it is.”

“He’s giving it back today,” Queenie sings from the other room.

Tina turns quickly, but there is no malice in her movement, no agitation -- not that Credence can see, anyway. “Oh, so you knew about this?”

“I’m right here,” Credence says.

“Tina’s just sad she’s the last to know about it,” Queenie says. Before Tina can get through saying that’s not true , Queenie plows ahead: “If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Scamander doesn’t know either.”

“Please don’t tell him,” Credence says, getting the distinct impression he’s now no longer a part of this conversation. Perhaps that he never was to begin with.

That would be preferable to what happens next:

Tina turns to him, face serious.  “How did this even happen? Does Graves know who you really are? Did you run into him, or were you following him?” It’s so much, so fast, that Credence doesn’t know how to respond. Doesn’t even know where to start.

“Relax, Teeny. Credence can take care of himself,” Queenie says, leaning in on the doorway to the kitchen.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Tina,” Queenie says firmly, interrupting her interrogation. Then, to Credence: “She’s not really upset, she’s just worried about you, honey.”

Tina just sighs and begins again, tone a hair kinder this time. “So, how long has this been going on then?”

“Um,” Credence says. Too long . He goes to take a drink of his coffee and finds that he has already finished it. “Not long?” He says. He doesn’t mean for it to be a question, but it comes out that way anyway.

“Does he know who you are?” Tina asks. “I’m not asking to be nosy,” that, clearly directed at Queenie, “but because we need to know who knows about you.”

“Yes. I told him.” It feels like confessing a sin.

Tina sighs again. “And you’re seeing him again,” she said, gesturing to the scarf.

“I have to give him his scarf back.”

“Just -- be careful?”

Credence nods.

He doesn’t like the idea of Tina being mad at him, but he trusts Queenie when she says that Tina is only worried, not angry. But, even though he nods, he knows he doesn’t need to promise to be careful -- he has no way of truly being hurt. It’s not like Mr. Graves is Grindelwald, not like Credence is being manipulated like before.

If anything, he’s the one getting too close to Mr. Graves. He is the one forcing himself into the other man’s life. Taking up space that isn’t his.

Tina tops up his coffee. “He’s a good man, Mr. Graves,” she says.

“I know.”

“I trust him,” Tina says slowly. “And I trust you. And I just --” She pauses again, thinking for a moment before continuing. “He is a friend and he has been through a lot. Please also be careful with yourself, but also with him. He won’t admit to it, but he’s healing.” She sighs, “And I worry about him, just like I worry about you.”

Credence feels the knot in his throat grow larger. She is so sincere, so candid. Like she knows that Credence is encroaching too much, like she knows that he made Mr. Graves uncomfortable. It’s the last thing he wanted to do, but it happened anyway -- because Credence wasn’t careful.

He catches her eyes, needing the eye contact to feel like he’s truly making her an oath. “I promise,” he says. “I’ll be careful.” With himself, yes, but mostly with Mr. Graves.

--

The evenings are getting brighter. Light creeps in around the edges of the skyscrapers, creating stark shadows on the ground, orange light punctuating the gaps in buildings like a work of art.

Credence takes his time, winding his way through Central Park before he finds his way to the Woolworth, to towering MACUSA. His stomach twists every time he thinks of Mr. Graves, every time he thinks of his dire need to apologize. It’s the guilt that he can’t stand -- though there’s also disappointment there, too. He tries hard not to think about that part, though -- it’s too vague and nebulous to wrap his hands around, too real, too stark.

He feeds the ducks some stale bread from Mr. Kowalski’s, wipes the mud off his shoes on nearby grass, and makes his way to MACUSA.

--

Mr. Graves is late.

The bright orange lines of daylight have receded, giving way to street lamps and the pleasantly warm glow of lights from inside buildings.

It’s cold, but bearable. Credence has his own scarf wrapped around his neck and his coat’s warming charm was renewed by Queenie in the morning, after breakfast. Mr. Graves’ scarf is tucked inside his breast pocket, warm and safe and free of Credence’s desire to cling to it, to use it now as he waits.

And waits.

Eventually, the sky turns from pink to grey to black, and Credence’s legs begin to hurt. He leans against the opposite building until he finds himself sliding down until he is crouching, then sitting on the cold hard ground.

It takes two people stopping and asking if he’s alright and one more with an unnerving glint in his eye for Credence to fold in on himself. To blend in with his surroundings. To become unnoticeable. After that, no one sees him at all.

Afternoon folds into evening, which gives way peacefully to night.

Credence drifts.

The streets empty.

When he checks his watch, it’s half ten. At this point, people have stopped filtering out of the Woolworth. In fact, Credence hasn’t seen a single person leave for at least ten minutes, even though there had been a decently steady stream of late-working MACUSA employees up until ten. He sighs. Maybe Mr. Graves left early, or maybe he never came in. Credence would have no way of knowing, no way of contacting the man.

He should probably just go home. Back to the Goldsteins’ and the comfort of the suitcase.

It’s as he’s standing, though, that he sees one last figure push their way out of the door to MACUSA: Mr. Graves.

The man’s eyes fall on Credence immediately, as if he was looking for him the moment he crossed the threshold into the cold air. As if Mr. Graves checks the spot that Credence stands in wait every time he goes out the door. Credence wonders if he does, if it’s out of fondness or apprehension. Appreciation, or annoyance.

Credence crosses the street, not wanting to delay this encounter any longer than he has to. By now, the nervousness in his gut has calmed into what he can only consider a small storm, as opposed to a raging hurricane.

“I’m sorry,” Credence starts with, when he gets close enough to be able to truly look Mr. Graves in the eye. When he stands tall, even with his current false-bravado, Credence has an inch or so on the other man -- it’s always surprising. He feels so much smaller. Credence reaches toward his coat to pull out Mr. Graves’ scarf, talking at his chest as he does, “I didn’t mean to--”

Credence doesn’t see it coming. He nearly startles when strong arms encircle him in a tight embrace, and then he nearly balks when he realizes what exactly is happening. Mr. Graves is hugging him , pressing him tight against his chest. Mr. Graves’ body heat seeps into him, still warmed from the indoors. After a moment, when he realizes that this is not a dream, Credence relaxes into it, ducking his head into the nook of Mr. Graves’ neck. The embrace is warm, it is comforting -- it is everything .

It is by far the best thing Credence has ever experienced.

Please ,’ Mr. Graves murmurs into Credence’s hair. Like a benediction. His breath tickles. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Please forgive me, Credence. You caught me off guard last night. I wasn’t expecting…” He trails off.

“I’m sorry,” Credence says, unwilling to deny his own fault in the action. Mr. Graves may think that it’s his own fault, but Credence knows he is wrong. Mr. Graves doesn’t need to apologize.

Too soon, Mr. Graves is pulling away, grasping Credence against the shoulders, pulling him away to look into his face. Mr. Graves seems tall, which means that Credence has returned to slouching, to folding in on himself. It’s a hard habit to break. “No,” he says firmly, and Credence tries to soothe the birds fluttering about in his chest. “You have nothing to apologize for.” He sounds so serious, so certain, that Credence almost believes him.

“I assumed,” Credence starts, but he gets lost in the words. He doesn’t know where to go, where he’s trying to end up. There are a great many words weighing on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn’t understand them all quite yet. They’re all jumbled.

It’s all too much. He swallows and ducks his head, instead.

Mr. Graves hugs him again. This time it is less frenetic, more calculated. His hand cups the back of Credence’s head, the sweet, tender spot between his neck and his scalp. The tips of his fingers thread through Credence’s hair. It’s so distracting, so overwhelming that it takes Credence a moment to realize Mr. Graves hand is smoothing over his spine at the base of his lower back. “You assumed that it would be fine, and it was,” Mr. Graves says. “But you just surprised me. Do you know how long it has been since anyone has touched me?” He says the words quickly, with a lick of shame, like he has been thinking about them all day.

Credence shakes his head against the crook of Mr. Graves’ neck. The man hasn’t pulled away yet, and so neither has Credence.

“A very long time. Most people -- avoid it. It’s understandable, really. I went through something that not everyone understands, something that not everyone can relate to. They don’t know whether to coddle me, or to avoid me.” He huffs out a private laugh against Credence’s hair. “I make the first option generally inadvisable. So they are only left with the second.”

“Oh,” Credence says.

“I would prefer if everyone forgot about it, truthfully. I’m -- I’m sure you relate.” He sounds careful, which is something Credence is used to. But it’s different coming from Mr. Graves than from someone else -- Mr. Graves understands . “But I have to say that sometimes a good hug can truly cure everything.”

Credence nods. He thinks of the occasional hugs Newt gives him, congratulatory and full of pride, he thinks of Queenie’s hugs, full of love and comfort. He also cannot help but think of Grindelwald’s embraces -- full of something burning, something new -- the kind that always left Credence wanting more . Hugging Mr. Graves feels like all three, combined.

Mr. Graves is quiet, so Credence realizes that it is his turn to fill the silence. It’s the least he can do. “And no one hugs you because you don’t let them,” he supplies.

Credence realizes he’s doing a pretty poor job of hugging Mr. Graves back, so he shifts to better wrap his arms around the other man. First, Mr. Graves’ muscles are tense under his fingers -- then, like exhaling, he suddenly relaxes. He leans into Credence, giving over to the embrace. It’s so shocking, such a departure from the reserved, poised version of Mr. Graves that Credence knows that he isn’t sure what to do.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Credence,” Mr. Graves says quietly, somberly. Like this is a secret he never thought he would share. “But I have been wanting to do this for a very long time.”

Credence’s breath halts somewhere between his lungs and his throat.

“But,” Mr. Graves continues, “I didn’t think that it was my place. I wasn’t sure that it would be welcome.”

Of course it is welcome. Mr. Graves is like the sun, and Credence just a weed, reaching for his warmth. He doesn’t know how to articulate that, though. How to tell Mr. Graves that he is everything, somehow.

“I didn’t think that, after everything, I would be allowed something like this.” Mr. Graves’ words brush against his hair, his ear, as the other man pulls back while speaking, so that he can look Credence in the face. It is nearly blinding, trying to look Mr. Graves in the eye, but he makes himself try anyway. “I wasn’t sure that I would be able to stop, once I let myself start.” It seems like such a strange fear, given that Mr. Graves is already extricating himself from the embrace, but Credence understands. He does.

The gravitational pull is so much, so strong. Both of them need it, he realizes, with a rather startling hit of reality. Here he was, thinking he was taking so much from Mr. Graves, but here is Mr. Graves admitting, in his own way, that he was taking, too.

“It’s alright,” Credence says. “Anything you want.” He means it. There’s nothing Mr. Graves could ask for, he thinks, that Credence would deny him. Credence imagines eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with him. He imagines folding himself into a hug that lasts for hours, even a whole day. He imagines falling asleep like that, cradled in Mr. Graves’ arms like he’s something special.

He feels, worryingly, the burn of a blush creep onto his face. His ears ring. That’s -- neither something that Mr. Graves would ask of him, nor something that he should want. His stomach sinks.

Mr. Graves coughs. His cheeks are beginning to turn red from the bite of the cold wind. Unfortunately, Credence can barely feel it now, he is so warm. He tries to banish his embarrassing, damning thoughts. “I’m sorry,” he says, just to say something . “It’s so late. I should let you go home.”

“No,” Mr. Graves says. “No, I don’t -- I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I didn’t realize you would be here. It would be a shame to not compensate you in some way.” Credence tries to interrupt, to say he doesn’t need compensation , that Mr. Graves’ company is enough, even for a moment -- but Mr. Graves plows ahead. “If you wouldn’t be averse, we could have tea at my house.”

Tea. At Mr. Graves’ house . For a moment, Credence thinks he hallucinated the words. He can’t help but stare, wide eyed at the other man, unspeaking.

“Of course, sorry. That’s not -- I understand why you wouldn’t want that.” He looks, strangely, like he asked Credence to walk off a cliff.

“No, I -- I would very much like that,” Credence says, before Mr. Graves can jump to any more dire conclusions.

--

Mr. Graves’ house is -- interesting.

It is not at all what Credence was expecting.

It’s very sparse. Immaculately clean. Large rooms are punctuated with antique furniture and very few personal effects. There are some works of art on the walls, but no photographs, nothing that screams Percival Graves . The walls themselves are all white, as if someone came through and whitewashed everything, cleaned it up before a sale. That image becomes more clear when Credence walks past a room where he sees trunks and boxes, stacked on top of each other -- like Mr. Graves recently purchased the place.

Credence gets the courage to ask, while Mr. Graves is turned away from him in the kitchen. “Did you just move in?”

Mr. Graves’ shoulders shake, as if a laugh has taken him by surprise. Maybe it has. He turns and slides a steaming mug of tea toward Credence -- earl grey, it smells like, doctored with milk and honey. “I moved, yes. About two years ago, now.” He looks a little sheepish.

“Oh.”

“Sad, isn’t it?” Mr. Graves says, though he doesn’t sound too upset. There’s humor in his words -- perhaps he is laughing at himself. “A grown man, still living out of boxes, like a youth who refuses to settle.”

Credence doesn’t think it’s sad. He doesn’t think it’s funny, really, either. “I think that you can live however you want,” Credence says. “As long as you are happy.”

Mr. Graves laughs. It’s a sharp sound that rings in Credence’s ears. He doesn’t know what it means.

“Thank you for the tea,” he says, instead of asking.

“I’m always happy for your company, Credence.”

Suddenly, the hour feels heavy. Even in this house full of unpacked items, full of nothing that truly fits, Credence feels like an outsider. Like he has broken in, unwelcome, to sneak around Mr. Graves’ house in the middle of the night. He feels disorientingly out of place. “It’s late. I don’t want to impose.”

“Does it look,” Mr. Graves gestures at his near-empty kitchen, at the boxes in the corners of the room, “like you are imposing? There’s nothing more I would rather be doing at eleven in the evening than entertaining you in my kitchen.” Mr. Graves picks up the kettle, the immaculate thing that he just boiled water in for tea. “This the first time I’ve used this, did you know?”

It’s both shocking and not. Credence -- well, Credence thought that Mr. Graves had simply continued on living, after everything. He didn’t think that the man spent inordinate amounts of time at home, but he also didn’t think that he had been avoiding it entirely.

Maybe Tina was right. Maybe Mr. Graves needs someone to be careful with him.

“This is the most at home I’ve felt since I moved in,” Mr. Graves says. It feels like a secret when it falls on Credence’s ears, but Mr. Graves says it so easily. “And I haven’t even made it into the living room. I’m not sure what that says about me.”

“I’m happy to help,” Credence says. He doesn’t think he’s ever spoken words more true.

“It’s the kind of house that deserves life in it,” Mr. Graves says. He doesn’t elaborate, but Credence understands. It’s an old house, full of history and ghosts of the past. The walls and floors look like there are hundreds of stories woven into them, all ready to come alight with each footstep, each passing breath. It’s the kind of place that comes alive, becomes brighter, with people in it. With life lived in it. But -- without it, it feels a bit like it’s dying. like it’s a pressed flower, falling apart in your fingertips.

Credence very much wishes he could help make this place come alive, make it become something beautiful. It’s a lofty wish. He knows it’s not his place to want to help, not his place to encroach on Mr. Graves life like this. But he can dream, he can fantasize. One day, Mr. Graves might have a wife reading in the sitting room, might have children running up and down the halls. But Credence dares to imagine himself in bare feet, leaning against the kitchen counter, laughing as Mr. Graves cooks breakfast. Just the thought of it settles firm in his gut, the fire of it licking deep into his bones.

“Would you like the tour?” Mr. Graves asks. He knows nothing of the thing settling into Credence’s chest, knows nothing of the way it’s trying to grow roots.

Credence can only nod.

--

It’s midnight before Mr. Graves finishes the tour. The house isn’t huge, but is large for New York City standards. Credence thinks that perhaps the extra space has something to do with magic, like Newt’s suitcase, but he doesn’t ask. Mr. Graves takes his time showing Credence each room. He explains some of the history behind each painting -- all family heirlooms, he says. Some of them move, some of them don’t -- he explains that, too.

Credence stifles his yawns behind his teeth, not wanting Mr. Graves to think that he is in any way bored -- he’s not. He’s just tired . He hadn’t slept well the previous night, too worried about giving Mr. Graves back his scarf.

Oh no. His scarf .

Credence stops dead on his heels as Mr. Graves leads him back toward the sitting room. He notices his lack of shadow, and turns, facing Credence in the dim hallway. “Credence? Are you alright?”

Credence nods once, already digging in his jacket for the scarf. He hadn’t even thought to take his coat off, yet. By now, the scarf is wrinkled, folded and crammed into such a small space. Pulling it away from his heart leaves his chest cold, uncovered. He hands it over, guiltily. “I forgot. To give you this.”

A laugh startles out of Mr. Graves. It makes the whole hallway seem brighter. “It looked good on you,” Mr. Graves says carefully. He reaches out and gently pushes Credence’s hand back toward his chest. “Would you like to keep it?”

Credence has never wanted anything more in his life.

But he can’t possibly.

But -- Mr. Graves offered.

Credence wants , but he keeps vacillating back and forth. He can’t. He wants. He shouldn’t. What he keeps getting stuck on, though, is the way that Mr. Graves asked. So straightforward, so kind. Credence has such a hard time refusing Mr. Graves.

He nods, quick and insistent. Agreeing before Mr. Graves can change his mind. “Please.”

When another yawn hits Credence, he is taken by surprise. He doesn’t have a second’s warning to stifle it, so it interrupts his pleased smile as he holds the scarf to his chest, cutting his face in two.

Mr. Graves looks at his watch and frowns. “Oh no, it’s quite late, isn’t it.” He looks out a window, as if it would be anything other than dark outside. Or as dark as it gets in the city, anyway. “I apologize, Credence. I was a bit selfish in wanting to keep you around.” Credence blinks. How on earth could Mr. Graves be selfish when he’s only indulging Credence?

“It’s alright. I don’t mind.” Credence is glad he stayed, glad he saw more of Mr. Graves than just the man who takes him to dinner. “I enjoyed this,” Credence says.

Mr. Graves swallows. His adam’s apple dips as he does. His throat is a long muscular line down to his coat. “I could apparate you back to the Goldsteins’. They must be worried about you.” Mr. Graves does not seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea. Credence is about to answer, when Mr. Graves continues -- almost shyly. “I have a guest room, if you would like to stay.”

It’s selfish, the desire to stay. He shouldn’t. But Credence has already done something selfish tonight. His entire stay here has been selfish -- so what harm can one more bit of selfishness do? Especially when Mr. Graves is looking at him like that, like Credence’s words could make or break his night. His happiness. Credence would do anything , just to help Mr. Graves be happy -- even if it’s selfish.

“Would you like to stay, Credence?”

Credence was wrong, earlier. No, now he truly knows: he has never wanted anything more in his entire life.

“Please.”

Chapter Text

Credence wakes to dawn sunlight warming his face.

It is a new and foreign way to wake up, given that Credence wakes most mornings in a windowless room in Newt’s suitcase. There is no familiar heat of a niffler curled against his neck, nor the smell of dew-wet dirt to greet him as he takes his first breath. But there is, above the comfortable sheets and the softness of the bed beneath him, the overwhelming smell of Mr. Graves. It hits him instantaneously, pulling Credence fully out of sleep in a mere flash.

He looks around, squinting into the bright light of the room. He is confused, before he remembers -- he spent the night at Mr. Graves’, taking up space in his guest room.

There are still boxes in the corner, likely not to be truly unpacked for a long while, given what Credence has learned from seeing the rest of the house. There is even a thin layer of dust covering the tops of the boxes, signifying that they have probably not been touched since the moment they were moved into the room. Perhaps they won't even be opened for months to come. Even with that, the room seems homey and welcoming, with plush blankets draped over the bed, antique furniture placed strategically throughout the room, and a few paintings adorning the walls. It feels like the kind of place it would be pleasant to spend time -- even more than just a night. As sparse as it is, it reminds Credence wholly of Mr. Graves.

Mr. Graves.

It seems completely and utterly implausible that Credence is in his house right now, that he woke up to the comforting presence of the man, that he was even allowed this indulgence, after everything.

Mr. Graves is too kind.

Credence stretches and crawls out of bed, enjoying the way the cold floor feels against his warm feet. He dresses in yesterday’s clothes because he has nothing other than the sleep-shirt Mr. Graves had provided him the night before. He doesn’t mind wearing day-old clothes -- Newt does so all the time, everything always seems to get dirty when the beasts are involved -- but he feels strange doing so in front of Mr. Graves, who always seems so immaculate, so perfectly pressed. But needs must, and Credence has no other options.

Credence is still smoothing wrinkles out of his shirt when he walks into the kitchen to find Mr. Graves already there.

He isn’t sure what he was expecting, as this is Mr. Graves house and the man could potentially be in any room, but it certainly wasn’t this. This, Credence thinks, could be a dream. Mr. Graves is at the stove, making what looks like pancakes, shirtsleeves rolled up and un-pressed. He is without a vest or a jacket, and his trousers are not at all what he typically wears to work -- they are far too casual. He looks real. He looks comfortable. He looks touchable. Credence nearly chokes.

He tries very hard not to stare.

“Good morning, Credence,” Mr. Graves says, turning from the stove. He has a wand in his hand and the pancakes flip themselves through artful aerobatics behind his back. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you,” Credence says, after a brief moment where he can find no words at all. “Did you?” He asks, because it seems like the polite thing to do. Does Mr. Graves always look like this outside of work, like gentle mornings and rich coffee personified?

Mr. Graves hums, and coffee pours itself into a cup in front of Credence. It is already laced with cream and sugar, he can tell -- Mr. Graves’ favorite, which Credence is rapidly coming to enjoy as well. “I did. Very much so.” Mr. Graves says.

Credence nods. He tries not to assume that he has anything to do with that, but the hope blooms unbidden in his chest anyway, like a snowdrop creeping out of early-spring frost, carefully showing its petals to the morning sun.

Breakfast is sweet and delicious. Credence has had pancakes before, only in the last couple of years, but he has never enjoyed them like this. There’s something so invigorating about sitting at the kitchen table with Mr. Graves, eating pancakes and syrup with fresh fruit, coffee steaming off to the side. It tastes like home , even though Credence tries his best to not acknowledge that fact. If he thinks too hard about that, the sugar starts to taste bitter on his tongue -- filled with a promise of something he cannot have.

This is not his to keep -- this is just a morning along with many others. It is a gift, but not a pattern.

Credence savors it while he can.

--

“Did you have a good night, honey?”

Did he have a good night? Queenie, we were worried sick until Graves sent an midnight owl. Credence, you can’t just disappear like that.”

“I didn’t think --.” Honestly, there are a lot of things he didn’t think. He didn’t think he would be allowed to stay. He didn’t think they would notice he was gone. He didn’t think it was real . He didn’t think at all, really.

Queenie tsks and ushers him onto a chair. “Of course we would miss you, honey. But I knew you were fine. You were in good hands.” She touches the scarf at his neck, arranges it for a moment, and then smiles. “Of course he let you keep it. You’re precious.”

Tina sighs, resigned. “A bit more advance warning next time, please, Credence.” There is a particular brand to Tina's stubborn protectiveness that Credence appreciates; it makes for a good balance to Queenie's attitude of throwing caution to the wind.

Credence just nods at the request, having enough pride to not mention that he spent most of the evening sitting on cold pavement, waiting for Mr. Graves outside work. Queenie knows, no doubt, but Tina and Newt don’t need to think he’s that pathetic.

Lunch is an easy affair, all of them sitting about the table like a big family. It is unlike anything that Credence had in Ma’s -- Mary Lou's house, even with so many kids at the table. This family is much better, found and pieced together as it is. With these people, he is comfortable. At peace. He feels wanted. They even worry when he isn’t there. It warms him through to the bone, up his spine and into his chest, even though he hadn’t been feeling particularly cold at all.

After lunch, they all retire to the sitting room. Because there aren’t enough chairs, Queenie transfigures a couple from decorative pillows. Credence curls up in one of the ornate and velvety ones, letting himself sink into the too-soft cushions with a book about aurors. It isn't one of his schoolbooks, but he appreciates the history nonetheless. He is a voracious reader, consuming just about anything he can get his hands on, just to acquire more and more information about his new world. He doesn't want to be left in the dark, doesn't want to be without the knowledge that so many of his now-peers take for granted. He didn't get the opportunity to go to school, but he isn't about to let that stop him.

Queenie and Mr. Kowalski eventually move from the loveseat to the kitchen, evidently wishing to spend the afternoon baking and laughing in the brightly lit room. The sounds of their chatter and kitchen implements clinking together echo pleasantly into the sitting room -- nice, but not distracting. Newt and Tina pull two chairs close to each other and have a quiet conversation composed mostly of whispers and smiles, as well as the occasional touch. Together, those two are perfect, Credence thinks -- comfortable and happy and complete.

It’s nice.

Really, truly it is. Credence delights in watching his friends find love and happiness in each other -- but he cannot deny that it magnifies the loneliness he feels in his own heart. He tries his best to ignore that traitorous feeling most of the time, except for in the dead of night when he feels it most keenly -- biting and bitter and hollow in his chest.

He doesn’t resent them, no -- but he wishes he could have something similar.

Seeing Newt fold his larger hand around Tina’s -- it makes him ache for something he doesn’t have.

Credence wants -- well -- when he imagines someone’s hand closing over his, warm and calloused and large -- it’s not something he can have at all. It’s, in fact, explicitly something he knows he can’t have, for reasons too numerous to count.

--

When Credence next sees Mr. Graves, more time has passed than Credence would particularly have liked. He and Newt had been called away to the Appalachian Mountains, and Mr. Graves had been distracted by work. The mountains had been interesting, to say the least, with a small magical community tucked into one of the more hidden valleys. The town had been practically on top of a small No-Maj town, each with their own distinct cultures and sensibilities -- neither particularly taking notice of the other, just simply keeping on. The magic there was wilder than what Credence found in the cities, smelling of pine and moss and coal. The people had been friendly, but not too appreciative of two outsiders who wished to humanely capture the magical creature who was digging tunnels under and into their houses, opposed to simply killing it. Nonetheless, Newt and Credence had caught it and made the decision to relocate it, and had waved away any sort of payment from the community. The whole ordeal had been rewarding, but ultimately exhausting.

When they meet at Mr. Graves’ favorite coffee shop for an afternoon coffee, Mr. Graves looks as worn-thin as Credence feels.  

“Have you been well?” Credence asks, before he can stop himself. At least he manages to keep it mostly formal, instead of the Are you alright that had been on the tip of his tongue, threatening to fall off unless he beat it to the chase.

“I’m fine,” Mr. Graves tells him, answering the question Credence had wanted to ask, anyway. He’s a bit magic like that, always knowing what to say and what to do. Sometimes Credence wonders if Mr. Graves is a legilimens like Queenie, but then he remembers that the man is just special. A whole other breed of competent. He doesn’t need to be able to read minds to know what someone is thinking. Mr. Graves is so resolute, so intelligent. He is always so poised. Sometimes, it makes Credence go a little red in the ears.

“Have you also been well, Credence?”

Credence finds himself nodding, despite his fatigue. Around Mr. Graves, he is always better. His loneliness has been weighing down on him, stretching him too thin and darkening the world around him, but it’s always better around Mr. Graves. The shape of that realization has become clearer now, after far too long of it sitting vague and obscure in the back of his head. Credence knows what it means. He just doesn’t really know what to do about it.

Mr. Graves clearly enjoys Credence’s company, that much is for certain. But, despite the night spent at his house and the subsequent breakfast, Mr. Graves has never pushed for more of Credence’s time. Nor has he pushed for more of Credence himself. And that is -- fine. Both of those things are fine.

Even if Credence wants more.

Even if he knows that it is wrong.

It seems like there’s always something wrong with him, no matter which way he runs.

--

Queenie frowns at him when he comes home -- back to the apartment. Home is his room in Newt’s suitcase, home is having coffee with Mr. Graves.

Unfortunately, Queenie coos at that thought, which makes Credence’s guts twist in an uncomfortable way.

“Credence,” she tells him, ushering him to sit down on the loveseat. Already, there are two cups of tea floating in their direction. He takes one. “Oh honey, it’s not wrong.”

Credence makes a dubious noise, somewhere between a huff and a laugh.

“I’m serious, Credence. I don’t mean to listen in, you know that. I try to give you your privacy, but this is important. I can’t just let you continue on thinking that it’s wrong, that there is something wrong with you .”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Credence says, mumbling into his cup of tea.

“Love,” Queenie says, shushing him as she knows he is going to argue. “ Love ,” she continues, with more emphasis on the word than strictly necessary, “is not wrong. The love you have for him is not wrong or unnatural or -- anything that woman told you. She told you a great many things, and I would believe that they are all horrendous lies.”

Credence opens his mouth to argue, to tell Queenie that no, some things that Mary Lou said were right -- but he can’t actually think of any. A lot of things that woman told him were simply untrue, and even more of them were outright fabrications. Lies . Designed to trick Credence, as well as the other children, into thinking that there was something unfit about them, something that would keep them complacent and quiet. And it had worked.

Mary Lou had been the sinful one, not them.

The woman had had many prejudices -- witchcraft being only the beginning. Now, Credence was finding that the world was a far more beautiful place than Mary Lou had ever seen.

“I know that the world is sometimes unfair, that people say things are wrong simply because they are scared of them or don’t like them, but that doesn’t make those things inherently evil.” Queenie rests a comforting hand on Credence’s shoulder -- it warms him, even though her hands are a little bit chilly. “For example, there are laws in place saying that I can’t be with Jacob. You know that, right?”

Credence nods.

“But I’m still with him. I wouldn’t consider anything else. But those laws are in place because people are scared, because they think that’s what’s best for everyone. Sometimes there’s a good reason for it, sometimes there isn’t. Just prejudices, pure and simple. Mary Lou had many of those. Sometimes, Credence,” Queenie smiles, and kisses him on the cheek, “you just have to follow your heart and not listen to what anyone else says.”

“Except for what you say, right?” Credence asks, feeling a hesitant smile on his own lips. Years before, he never would have considered joking with anyone. Now, it comes a little easier every day.

Queenie grins. “Yes, except for me. And ‘Teenie and Newt and Jacob. And perhaps even Mr. Graves, if he’s not being tremendously stupid.”

“I don’t think Mr. Graves is ever stupid.” The idea sounds absolutely ridiculous.

Queenie just laughs. “Oh, he can be. Believe me.” Credence feels a bit like he isn’t getting the joke she’s privately laughing about. That’s alright, though, because Queenie’s laughter sounds like bells and angels, and he can’t think of a better way to spend a chilly afternoon.

--

The next time Credence sees Mr. Graves, he does something perhaps a little stupid.

He’s still humming with restless energy from a trip he and Newt just got back from, buzzing from a good night’s rest and maybe a bit too much coffee. He has a bag full of chocolate-covered pastries, all for Mr. Graves and him to share, and they smell heavenly. So good, so sugary, that he feels like he can already taste them on his lips. It’s a surprisingly nice day -- spring is breaking through the clutches of winter, and Credence can perhaps feel the shift in seasons under his skin, coursing through his veins like electricity. Like magic.

Queenie’s words had also left him feeling lighter, less burdened than before. At least now, when he thinks of Mr. Graves with a burning fondness, he doesn’t feel so sinful, so wrong. Even if it still fills him with a wash of embarrassment, timidness.

Not that feeling shy keeps him from acting a bit like a fool.

When he spots Mr. Graves walking towards him, smiling and practically glowing in the mid-morning sunlight, Credence just can’t help himself. When he gets close enough, Credence throws his arms around the man and buries his smile in Mr. Graves’ neck.

Since Credence’s talk with Queenie, he’s only seen Mr. Graves a handful of times, all encounters too brief. Now, they have an entire weekend day planned together, provided that Mr. Graves doesn’t get called into work. Or, provided there are no beast-related emergencies. Credence is crossing his fingers for some good luck on both their parts. As of yet, no one has explicitly told him that crossing his fingers doesn’t work, so he continues to do it.

“Hello,” Credence says against the heat of Mr. Graves’ neck. It’s only now, after Mr. Graves’ arms have wrapped around him in a firm embrace, that Credence’s brain decides to feel shy. Now that he can’t escape. Not that he really wants to.

“Hello, Credence.” Mr. Graves’ voice is low and fond, a tone Credence hasn’t heard him use with anyone else. It makes him feel special. His breath tickles over Credence’s hair. Credence thinks perhaps he should pull back. He gives himself to the count of three, savoring their closeness, before he eventually steps back from the hug. Mr. Graves lets him go, not at all ruffled by the surprise embrace like he had been before. In fact, there’s a very small part of Credence that thinks he saw Mr. Graves lean forward ever so slightly, trying to chase the embrace. But that would be preposterous, right?

Credence balances on his toes, full of nervous energy. “Would you like to take a walk in the park?” Credence asks.

Mr. Graves pauses for a moment, thinking. For a brief second, Credence thinks he might say no, but he doesn’t. Instead, he suggests, “How would you feel about going a little farther afield than Central Park?”

“How much farther?”

“Not too far. There is a beautiful botanical garden just outside of the city that I’d like to take you to. It’s quiet, and they have an entire section devoted to magical flora and fauna,” Mr. Graves says. “There are ducks,” he adds, because he also knows how much Credence enjoys feeding them.

“That sounds nice,” Credence replies.

Mr. Graves offers his arm. When Credence takes it, they dip into the nearest alley and apparate away.

With a pop and a still unfamiliar twisting in his gut, Credence steadies himself against Mr. Graves when they reappear in a beautifully maintained garden. His legs are a bit wobbly, but Mr. Graves is very solid against him. He even puts a hand on Credence’s shoulder. Friendly -- friendlier than before. It makes Credence’s chest heat up with a desire for more.

The gardens are lovely. Very English, Credence thinks, as Mr. Graves leads him down a carefully maintained path toward a large lake. Credence has been in a few English gardens with Newt, chasing after various magical creatures. This is nearly indistinguishable, other than a vague difference in the heights of the trees. If Mr. Graves hadn’t mentioned them being so close to New York, Credence might’ve thought they might actually be in England. Even if it was entirely too far to apparate to reliably.

Next to the lake, there are benches. They take up residence on one, overlooking a small inlet covered in blooming lily pads. Ducks paddle between the plants. Credence takes out the bag of pastries, momentarily put out that he didn’t bring anything to feed the ducks with. The pastries he and Mr. Kowalski made simply wouldn’t do.

“How’s this?” Mr. Graves asks, pulling some full-grain bread from a pocket of his. It’s stale, but perfect for the ducks, who will dip it in the lake water before gulping it down.

They spend the next few hours feeding the birds, eating pastries, and just talking. A pair of swans joins them, as well as a few crows. The afternoon is pleasant and quiet, and they don’t spot a single other soul in the gardens. Credence isn’t sure if that’s magic or not, and he doesn’t care enough to ask. As it is, it’s perfect.

Mr. Graves is relaxed next to him, loose and touchable. Many times, Credence finds himself leaning in, just to brush his shoulder against the other man’s. Every time, Mr. Graves leans back with a nice reciprocal pressure. Every time, Credence’s chest fills with a delightful, nameless warmth. Maybe that’s magic, too. Or maybe it’s just love, he thinks, Queenie’s voice a playful echo in his head. The thought doesn’t rattle him as much as it used to, doesn’t make him flinch away from Mr. Graves. So what if it is love? So what if Credence has hollowed out a spot between his ribs, just for Mr. Graves? He has -- there’s no fighting it at this point. It’s been there for so long, he realizes, that it’s just a part of him now.

“Have you ever been in love?” Credence finds himself asking, when the scent of gardenia is carried past them by on a gentle breeze.

Mr. Graves turns. He looks somewhat startled, Credence thinks. Eyes wider than usual, looking a bit -- guilty? He shouldn’t feel guilty, Credence thinks. Credence is the one in love, the one with inappropriate and unreciprocated feelings. Mr. Graves shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed or guilty for him.

When Mr. Graves doesn’t say anything, Credence pushes onward, trying to ride the wave of confidence he’s seem to have found before it disappears. He always gets bursts of it now, each a little longer than the last, before he feels the need to retreat back into his shell again. “I imagine you have. How could you not? You’re a very --” Credence pauses, choosing his next words carefully. “Well, you’re a very worthy man. I can only imagine you’ve had your fair share of -- admirers.”

Mr. Graves is handsome, intelligent, brave, and loyal. He is also kind, and sweet, and enjoyable to be around. It’s a dizzying laundry-list of positive, attractive characteristics. Credence cannot possibly be the only one to have noticed this.

“Credence,” Mr. Graves says, then he stops. He looks puzzled, at a loss for words. So, Credence pushes onward.

“I imagine that it gets easier, over time. Trying to sort out your feelings, I mean. The first time you fall in love, well, it must be overwhelming. It’s so new, so magical. There’s nothing in the world to compare it to.” He knows this is true, because he feels it. He feels it now, bubbling through him -- giddy and warm and like champagne. “But the more it happens, the less confusing it gets. I imagine it would be easier to spot, easier to identify.” Easier to avoid, if one wanted to.

“It does get easier to spot,” Mr. Graves finally concedes.

Credence meets his eyes and finds something there that he cannot name.

“It’s never the same, though,” Mr. Graves says. “Every time you fall in love, it’s a little different.” Mr. Graves reaches out and brushes his fingers through Credence’s hair. It makes him feel a little closer, a little more tangible. A small, but important connection. “Sometimes it is an elusive, mysterious thing. Twisting and turning, always just out of reach. Sometimes, it is right there in front of you, touchable.”

Credence thinks that’s an apt way to put it. It feels like his love for Mr. Graves is both. It’s impossible to hold onto, but it is so opaque, so steadfast in its refusal to budge from where it has cemented itself inside of him.

“Many people believe love is magical,” Mr. Graves says.

“And you?” Credence asks, “what do you believe?”

“I believe it is something intrinsic to humans, inescapable and crushing and beautiful.”

“Oh.”

Mr. Graves reaches inside his shirt and tugs out something on a shiny necklace. He unclasps the chain and then folds it into his hand for a brief moment, then holds it out to Credence. It takes Credence a moment to recognize the shining charm on the end it for what it is: a feather. Specifically, the feather that Credence gave Mr. Graves.

“Oh,” Credence says again. He turns it over in his palm, admiring the shine and the shape and the weight of it. Mr. Graves waves his hand and the silver feather loses mass, turning back to its original, colorful form. The burnt orange of it stands out against the pale skin of his hand.

“I wanted to keep it close to me,” Mr. Graves says. “I couldn't bear to part with it.” He laughs, and Credence’s chest warms with the sound of it. “That sounds tragically Romantic, doesn't it?”

Credence spent more time as a child reading the bible under Mary Lou Barebone’s care than he did reading the classics. But still, he knows. “A little?”

He twists the feather in his fingers and remembers the bird that gave it to him, remembers the nervousness before he gifted it to Mr. Graves, remembers feeling so pleased that Mr. Graves had said Credence was special to him.

With another wave of Mr. Graves hand, the feather shifts back into silver and attaches itself once more to the thin chain.

“Thank you again for this, Credence,” Mr. Graves says. “This must be my favorite gift I have ever received.”

Credence smiles, and thinks that perhaps he should hand it back, now that the metal has been warmed by his hand. No , he thinks, wait. This beautifully selfish opportunity has been gifted to him; he cannot waste it.

So, he does not. Credence folds his legs underneath himself and leans forward, kneeling so that he is close to Mr. Graves. He leans past Mr. Graves slightly, brushing up against his shoulder. He brings the two sides of the necklace around Mr. Graves’ neck so that he can clasp them in the back. He does so carefully, slowly. When he is finished, he leans back. It is then a simple moment, gathering the feather in his fingers to delicately tuck it under the folds of Mr. Graves’s shirt. Credence’s hand brushes against warm skin.

Credence is so close to Mr. Graves now, it's impossible to miss the warmth that surrounds him or the comforting way he smells. Or, Credence thinks suddenly, the simple way Mr. Graves lips turn up into a pleased smile. He suddenly looks so happy. Credence is so momentarily shocked by it that he misses the moment Mr. Graves moves, once more pushing Credence’s bangs from his forehead.

“Dinner?” Mr. Graves suggests.

“Please.”

--

They could apparate from anywhere on the grounds, yet still they find themselves taking a winding path toward the entrance. It seems right, wandering through the spring green wilds. Largely, they are quiet, but it is a pleasant sort of silence.

It is perfect, until it suddenly isn't.

Credence feels the desire churning inside of him, swirling away and nipping at his rib cage like the obscurus used to. But this is different -- it feels new, it feels fiery. It feels un-ignorable.

He wants. By god, he wants.

Credence stops in his tracks.

Mr. Graves stops a few steps ahead of him and turns, concern spreading across his face. “Credence? Are you alright?”

He is. He isn't.

He feels like he is going to burst from this sudden inertia.

Credence cannot look away from Mr. Graves face, from his lips. From those too-kind eyes. Mr. Graves looks worried -- Credence doesn't want that. He wants him to smile, to laugh, to always look at Credence fondly.

More than that, though, Credence wants to kiss him. The realization of it is sudden and striking, but unmistakable.

Mr. Graves may not look so fondly on him after that, but Credence cannot stop the way he feels any more than he can ignore his own magic. He cannot let it fester inside him, unacknowledged, unchecked.

Credence takes a step forward, then another. “I am going to kiss you,” he hears himself say. It's only right to give Mr. Graves warning, a reasonable out. It won't be a surprise like hugging him was. “I would very much like to,” he says. Tell me to stop, Credence means.

Mr. Graves does not tell him to stop.

Credence reaches out and grasps Mr. Graves’ shirt in a shaky, nervous hand, and closes the distance between them with a kiss. It is neither well-rehearsed nor skilled, and yet it is perfect. It is everything.

It lasts for only a moment, the kiss, but it feels like an eternity. Credence pulls back, eyes hesitantly seeking out Mr. Graves’ gaze. He looks for admonishment, disgust, fatigue, but he finds none of those. Instead, he is met with surprise and something darker, something hungrier. It is a remarkably appealing expression on Mr. Graves’ face, Credence thinks.

“Credence,” Mr. Graves says. It must mean so many things, so many questions in just one word, but all Credence hears is kiss me again, and so he does.

This time, Mr. Graves is less restrained. He envelops Credence in his arms, wraps a hot palm against the back of Credence’s head, and kisses him back deeply. It is warm and intimate, and lacking any of the stilted awkwardness of before. It is better than Credence could ever have imagined it.

It is -- magical.

When Mr. Graves pulls back again, Credence cannot help but notice his smile. It is wide and optimistic -- it is an incredibly handsome look on Mr. Graves.

“I wasn't sure,” Mr. Graves says. “I wasn't sure if this was something you would want.”

“It is,” Credence says, too quickly. He wants, so badly. “It is.”

If it is even possible, Mr. Graves smiles wider.

“Me too.”

Before they apparate, Credence steals another kiss, feeling like the perfect sort of thief.

--

“Mary Lou was wrong about many things,” Credence tells Mr. Graves over their dessert and coffee. Queenie had been so informative -- Credence owes her greatly.

“She was, but it is often difficult to accept new realities and ideals,” Mr. Graves says. “I should have known, with how quick you are to adapt. You've been impressive with all your advancements so far. But even so,” Mr. Graves swallows. “Even so, I wasn't sure you would be interested in me.”

Anyone who wouldn’t be interested in Mr. Graves, Credence thinks, would have to be absolutely daft. Though, as it is, Credence is glad that he doesn’t have to share Mr. Graves affections with anyone else. Jealousy is something strange and twisted and dark, and he has had enough of that sort of malicious emotion for years to come. The way the obscurus writhed around in him -- he doesn’t need any facsimile of that again.

“I am,” Credence says, because Mr. Graves deserves to know just how interested he is. “I’ve felt this way for -- a very long time.” His voice is soft. The secret feels slightly embarrassing to admit, but it is important nonetheless. Credence isn’t sure when it started, when the coils of affection decided to solidify and petrify in the most beautiful way into love.

“I love you,” Credence says, words tumbling from his lips before he can stop them. Before Mr. Graves says something to make him lose his nerve.

Mr. Graves sets his fork down on his dessert plate with a gentle clink . The cake had been good -- both light and fluffy and also decadent. The frosting still tastes sweet on Credence’s lips -- he wonders, faintly, if Mr. Graves lips taste the same. It is a dizzying realization, knowing that he could now find out just by leaning over and catching Mr. Graves in a kiss.

“Credence,” Mr. Graves says, in the way he always does, when Credence comes out with something that knocks him off balance. It’s kind of nice, knowing he has this sort of power over Mr. Graves.

“You don’t have to feel the same way,” Credence says quickly. “I don’t expect you to.” Mr. Graves is just so good , so powerful, so important. He is far too impressive of a person to love Credence the way Credence loves him -- and that is okay.

“Why do you not?” Mr. Graves asks.

This time, it is Credence who is knocked for a loop. He wasn’t expecting to have to explain himself.

Mr. Graves saves him from himself by continuing: “You are the most impressive person I have ever met,” he says. “You are still so young, and yet you already surpass all of your contemporaries. All of my contemporaries. The potential that stretches out in front of you is endless. You are strong and determined. You are powerful, yet kind. You are patient and loyal and good . And,” Mr. Graves looks away for a moment before smiling. He looks slightly shy. “And you are also the most beautiful person I have ever laid eyes on.”

“Oh,” Credence says.

“I loved you before I even truly knew you. And then I loved you even more.”

“Oh,” Credence says again.

He feels truly dizzy now. Mr. Graves dining room spins around him in a swirl of lavish, saturated colors. The floor under him feels leagues away. He feels, just slightly, like his limbs are weightless -- like he might drift toward the ceiling at any moment.

Suddenly, Mr. Graves is right there, crouched down next to Credence’s chair, eye level with him. Mr. Graves reaches out and cups the side of Credence’s face in a warm palm. “You are a treasure, Credence. I am lucky to know you, and even luckier still to love you.”

“Please kiss me,” Credence says.

Mr. Graves does.

--

It is truly easy, allowing himself to fold to his own desire.

At first, Credence thought it might be too reminiscent of yielding to the pull of the obscurus. He had been concerned that it would feel dark and dangerous, twisted and all-consuming. Instead, it is simply electric, enchanting. It is slightly tortuous, feeling like he cannot possibly get close enough to Mr. Graves, but even that is perfect.

“Mr. Graves,” he begs, finding himself straddling the other man. Mr. Graves is stretched out long and handsome on his own bed, sheets folding and wrinkling underneath him like a painting. He is tousled and rumpled and beautiful.

“Percival,” Mr. Graves says, “please call me Percival.”

That, Credence can do. As long as Percival keeps his hands on Credence’s skin. “Percival, please,” Credence says, enjoying the way the name rolls off his tongue.

Evidently, Percival enjoys that too. He kisses the name out of Credence’s mouth, only pausing to ease Credence’s undershirt over his head. The action exposes more skin for Percival to reach, which is everything Credence wants. It helps ease the biting need inside him -- helps, and fuels at the same time.

“Gorgeous. You are gorgeous,” Percival says, changing the trajectory of his kisses so that they fall over Credence’s neck, and then down his chest. Slowly, Percival shifts them, with strong and impressive hands, until he is pressing Credence down against the bed instead.

Credence pulls at Percival’s clothes until they are on the floor. Soon, his own join them in a haphazard pile.

“More,” Credence begs. No matter how much Percival touches him, it’s not enough.

That is, until Percival wraps a hand around his length, firm and steady. Credence jerks, moans, and whines -- all in rapid succession. Even when he’d touched himself, as sinful as he might have thought it, it had never felt quite like this . It’s so much, so overwhelming and stimulating, that Percival has him absolutely useless in no time.

It should be embarrassing, the way Credence can feel himself writhing around in soft sheets, the way he can hear himself begging and pleading -- but it isn’t. Credence meets Percival’s eyes, and all he finds in them is desire, admiration, and love. Percival looks overwhelmed with it, just about as overwhelmed as Credence feels. Credence kisses him because of it, trying to convey just how he feels with his tongue, with his lips. Not that he needs to, he thinks, with the way his body is reacting to Percival’s attentions.

Credence snags a bit of strength, despite the fact that Percival has made him weak with desire. He pushes his way back on top of the other man, straddling him once again, over his thighs. He wraps a hand around Percival’s erect length, both tentative and firm at the same time. If Percival wasn’t now lying down, he looks as if he might have fallen over at the contact: Percival closes his eyes, shudders, and then groans, low and deep.

It’s perhaps the most attractive thing Credence has ever witnessed.

For a while, he simply savors the opportunity.

Eventually, though, Percival looks like he might fall to pieces. And Credence feels quite like he might burst apart at the seams if he doesn’t get more . More of what , he isn’t sure -- but he knows that he needs more of something. He doesn’t get to dwell on that for too long, though, because before he realizes it, Percival is cupping both of his ass cheeks, fingers dipping between them into the crevice between. One of his fingers brushes up against the pucker of sensitive nerves hidden there and Credence gasps and starts. Oh , he thinks . Oh, I hadn’t even considered --

“Is this alright,” Percival asks Credence, fingers suddenly sliding against him whilst coated in something slick and warm. Where Percival’s gotten it this substance, how he obtained it, Credence has no idea. He’s lost track of time and place, a little bit. It really doesn’t matter.

It’s more than alright. Credence isn’t sure why he didn’t ask for this before. He knew, abstractly, that it was a thing, a possibility -- but never something he truly considered for himself. That stops him not at all, though. Credence nods, fervently, and Percival slowly pushes a digit inside.

It is a great deal of things at once: it is pressure, it is good , it is a lot, it is perhaps too much while also being not enough. It makes Credence feel inexplicably closer to Percival. It makes him want more, so much more. It hurts, just a bit, just the perfect amount.

Percival is patient and slow, perhaps too much of both of those things. But soon, after Credence’s body adjusts, Percival begins moving that finger inside him, dragging it slowly out only to push it back in again. It is unlike anything Credence has ever felt, so wholly different than fingers stroking over his cock. It is far more intimate, far more debased, and far more blissfully overwhelming.

Credence folds over at the waist, burying his face in Percival’s neck, but only after catching him in a messy kiss.

One finger becomes two, slick and wet inside him. Soon he can hear it, the obscene sound of Percival fucking him open with his digits. He should feel embarrassed, he knows, but it only fuels the heat inside of him, only makes his length drip needily onto Percival’s bare chest.

Credence knows, on his knees like this, splayed over Percival’s body with his ass in the air, he must be a sight. For a moment, he wishes he could see himself, see the freedom he has found. He wishes Percival could see, too -- that they could both take a step back and watch the base and beautiful work of art they have become.

Soon, two fingers is not enough. Credence begs into Percival’s neck, his ear, and then his mouth. He pleads with kisses and moans, until Percival is pushing another finger inside him, stretching him open with those thick, warm fingers.

It feels like a year passes, dragging on like molasses, before Percival slowly slides his fingers out and lines up his length. The head presses against Credence, gentle and more torturous than anything he’s ever felt.

Percival’s hands are on Credence’s hips, holding him steady as he straddles Percival. It’s a good thing, too, because Credence thinks his legs might give at any second.

“Please,” Credence begs. “God, please.”

“Are you sure?” At this point, it feels absurd to ask, but Percival levels him with a look all the same. Credence nods, adamant. “Please, please I want you inside me.”

And, with that, Credence feels the slow press of Percival’s length sliding inside him.

If he thought Percival’s fingers were too much, Credence doesn’t even know how to begin to describe the slow press of his cock. It’s hot and slick, and so very thick. It stretches him wide and taught, and before he knows it, he is gasping and panting against Percival’s neck, fingers clutching at sweaty skin for purchase. It’s so much, it’s not enough -- suddenly Credence can barely feel the room around him.

Percival eases the rise of his hips, stilling his movement entirely. “Go at your own pace,” Percival tells him. “As slow as you want.”

Credence groans. He doesn’t want slow. But it’s so much , and he wants it all at once. He knows, however, that he can’t just take it. Instead, Credence kisses Percival, long and easy, and takes his time to adjust to the press of a cock inside him. Gradually, as Credence licks into Percival’s mouth, he feels his muscles relax, feels his body yield to this sudden, unrelenting intrusion.

After long enough, it is blissful.

He eases himself down slowly, until he feels the entirety of Percival’s length filling him, until he is rocking himself back, fully seated. “God,” Credence says, and the lamps flicker around them. It’s perfect, it’s amazing, it’s everything he’s ever wanted.

Percival laughs and it is a beautiful sound. “I love you, dear Credence. Thank you, thank you for this,” he says, voice rough and low. Like he is truly wrecked, like Credence has brought him down to the earth.

Slowly, Credence begins moving. He is careful, hesitant. The slow slide of Percival in and out of him is both torturous and amazing, and it affords him the opportunity to kiss the other man with all his might.

It is easy to lose himself in the sensation, of the feeling of being filled to perfection. Percival’s hands are hot and solid on his hips, his ass, his ribs, and finally his neck. Percival always touches him so gently, so passionately -- it’s enough to drive Credence mad with desire.

Credence never wants this sensation to end.

And yet -- and yet, he wants more.

He cannot help the way his body moves faster, the quick and fervent jerk of his hips. He cannot help the way he moves from Percival’s lips to his neck, biting and sucking there like he is hungry for blood. He cannot help the way he keens when Percival wraps a hand around him and strokes.

“More,” Credence pleads, “more, more -- please.”

Percival obliges.

Now that Credence has been worked loose and needy, Percival flips them, laying Credence down on the soft sheets of bed. For a moment, Percival simply admires him, then lavishes him with kisses, and then fills Credence up once more.

It is everything . Percival thrusts into him, hard and ferocious and desirous. His hand keeps time on Credence’s cock with the rhythm of his own movements, giving Credence everything he needs. Credence pants and begs, and feels the need building inside him, coiling up in his belly like the obscurus. For a moment, he is terrified, and then --

“You’re perfect,” he hears. Percival is looking down at him, face beading with sweat and red with exertion. He is gorgeous. “Love you, love you,” Percival says, and catches Credence in a kiss.

Before he can truly help it, Credence is falling apart, spilling his release into Percival’s hand with a cut off groan. The pleasure washes over him, nearly knocking him out. Percival fucks him through it, murmuring encouragements and endearments in his ear. Soon, Percival is panting over him, nose nuzzling at Credence’s neck. When Credence blinks up at him, vision coming back to him from white, Percival looks wrecked and handsome.

Credence catches him in a slow kiss, lazy and intimate. “I love you,” Credence says, when he pulls back, realizing how lucky he has truly found himself. Like this, wrapped up in Percival’s arms and his bed, he feels like the world is finally his, that the tragedy of his past is no longer haunting him. Years ago, he never could have imagined this. Now, he doesn’t want to imagine anything else -- why would he, when this is perfection?

Percival kisses his ear while he pulls back. He runs a warm, wet towel over Credence’s stomach, his thighs, his ass. He likely summoned it from the bathroom with a wave of his hand, but Credence doesn’t care where it came from at this point, just that it’s there. That Percival is still lavishing him with attention and doesn’t seem keen on stopping. It’s not something that Credence always wants or needs, but right now -- it’s nice feeling like the center of Percival’s universe. Perhaps, he thinks, he might even be.

The silver feather dangles from Percival’s neck like a beacon. Credence takes it into his palm and kisses it, smiling up at Percival.

A perfect end to a perfect day, he thinks.

With a wave of his hand that Credence catches this time, Percival summons a dessert plate into the bedroom, followed by two forks. “A small piece of cake,” Percival says, “to share before bed.”

“Your indulgences,” Credence says with a smile, pushing himself up into a sitting position. It’s nice to see him enjoying life’s small pleasures.

“You are one of those indulgences,” Percival says, pressing a bite of cake to Credence’s lips. “My very favorite one.”

--

Credence loops his scarf around his neck, blinking away some snowflakes that have fallen onto his eyelashes.

It's wintertime in New York once again. The cold brings with it the bite of memories from his childhood, his adolescence, and those sharp and painful teenage years with Mary Lou. The wind tunnels through the buildings, catching on the corners of skyscrapers and picking up enough speed to ruffle his hair, to kiss at his lips before he tucks his neck into the loop of his scarf. The winter also always reminds him of the time he found himself, of the time he found Percival. The cold isn't so bad, then.

The scarf around his neck is worn and a bit frayed from the niffler getting his hands on it many times over, but it always smells like Percival, like home. It's something Credence always likes bringing with him, even if he has it tucked into a pocket in the heat of summer. 

“Take care of yourself,” Percival reminds Credence, taking the loose ends of the scarf and folding them into Credence’s coat. Percival's knuckles catch on Credence's chin, fond. It’s such an easy gesture, but it warms Credence’s chest all the same with its affection, its casual love and care.

“I will. You do too, please,” Credence tells him.

Newt coughs from beside them. “We’ll miss our boat,” he reminds them.

“Patience,” Percival reminds Newt. He doesn’t even look in his direction as he tucks a strand of Credence’s hair out of his face. “I’ll miss you,” he tells Credence.

“I’ll miss you too.” The cold, winter air around them clouds up with the heat of the words. “I love you,” Credence says, pressing a quick kiss to Percival’s lips.

“And I, you.”

“We’ll be late,” Newt says with a huff, shifting on his feet as he waits, and Percival laughs. “Yes, yes. Please bring him back in one piece, Mr. Scamander.”

“Most certainly. I always do.”