Claud has a confession to make during one of his lessons with the Choreographer.
The Step Conservatory, Studio B.
Preceded by Small Mercies.
Claud had been both dreading class and eager to go, ever since his experience a few nights ago with Frankie Valentine. One would expect him to be shaken and disturbed, but he wasn’t, not terribly; mostly he was confused and on-edge. His biggest obstacle right now would be to figure out how to broach the subject with Miss Bombaerts. He arrives his usual half-hour early, changes, warms up, and waits, trying to avoid all contact with any of the remaining students. Again and again, he goes over what to say, and how to say it, and every time it doesn’t really sound right.
Ardette walks into Studio B casually holding an icepack to her shoulder with her cheek, like one would hold a telephone in place, as she flips through pages of a notebook. "Good evening, Claud," she greets him, like she always does, knowing that he'll be there, standing at his favorite place at the barre, warming up, like he always does. Reliable, as always. Ready to work, as always. "Based on where we were last session, I think today we'll drill your adage a few times and then work on your turns. Have you been working on your spotting like I've asked you to?"
Claud jumps a little at her voice—out of it as usual but unusually subdued today, even in her presence. “Good evening Miss Bombaerts. Yes’m.” His heart pounds, he should say something, he should say something right now. “Um. Is everything alright?” he nods at the ice pack. Wrong thing.
Ardette stops and stares at him, brows furrowed, feeling... offended by the question in a way she shouldn't, on-edge and suddenly off somehow. And then, of course, she swiftly remembers who she's dealing with and, rolling her neck, she wills the feeling away. How strange that these impositions on her mood have become so commonplace that she can shoo the false feelings away like shooing away a fly. Years of dismissing her own feelings make for good practice. "Everything's fine. Wonderful, even." She sits down on the high stool next to her stereo system and balances her notebook on her knee. "Another student of mine finally mastered their offensive variation today." She shifts the ice pack with a slight wince. "She can pack quite a punch when she wants to."
“O-oh, good,” he replies, a bit distracted, “I mean for her, not, not you being punched in the face.” He finally just shuts his mouth and continues warming up, going over basics and paying meticulous attention to his form. He grows a little calmer, unsure if it’s through vicarious feelings from her, or if the comfort of routine was setting his mind at ease as it usually did.
Ardette glances up at him, and then picks her head up off the icepack. Her cheek is red from the cold, but otherwise unmarred. "Shoulder," she clarifies, needlessly. "Not face. We don't go for the face when we spar." As if this is supposed to relieve him, but Claud isn't here to learn how to fight, is he? She selects some music - calming, contemplative piano - and turns it on, wordlessly making the transition from warm-up to formal barre, without much ado. Class has officially begun. "The Monday barre today, I think."
Monday—the line of aplomb. Externally Claud nods, but internally he’s wincing; he felt anything but balanced and centered. With a bit of success he is able to push his distressing thoughts out of his mind and fall into routine—but he knew that the state of his mind would affect the posture of his body no matter how well he tried to hide it. He forces himself not to look at Ardette, knowing she would swoop in to fix and adjust soon enough. But something she had said was bothering him, until finally he realized what it was and blurted out the question before he could stop himself, “But won’t that form bad habits?” Oh, she was going to kill him.
Ardette had been giving Claud one-phrase cues as he worked - "on your leg," "watch your left side," "again," "chin up," "stop sickling your foot" - and she has an uncanny ability to be able to snap out those corrections without even looking at him. But at his comment, Ardette looks up and, perhaps totally unexpectedly, she smirks. My god, the boy is catching on. "You're right. It will," she says, nodding. She crosses her legs neatly, sets her ice pack aside, places her notebook on her lap and folds her arms over her notebook, arranging herself for what she's sure will be an interesting lesson. "... if your primary objective is to kill someone."
With his small amount of experience, Claud judged that to be a good smirk. Maybe. He hopes. “But what if your primary objective is to kill someone? What if that’s your opponents motive, and you’ve got no choice? What should you do if it comes to that?” he bites his lip, frozen in fifth position. Had he then made the wrong choice? Did she believe even killing in self defence was condemnable?
"Whatever you have to." Ardette can tell that this, or something like it, is weighing heavily on his mind, just by looking at him. It's as if it's there in bold writing hovering just over his head; whether Claud is just that easy to read, or if his vibe makes her more receptive to these feelings, is anybody's guess. "People have been killing other people since long before vibe came into the picture. It's practically in our wiring." She smiles at him ruefully, looking into his earnest, watery blue eyes. Years of her brutish but necessary line of work, and she takes strange relish in laying down the facts to steppers that maybe don't want to hear them. "Everybody knows how, deep down."
Hardly a moment of processing her words goes by before Claud blurts, “But I want to be better than that!” He shrinks back, regretting his words almost immediately. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—I just wish I didn’t have to—” He falls silent again. He was glad for the absolution, but didn’t feel right just pushing it off on the age-old excuse ‘it’s human nature.’ “I want to believe people can be better than that, are better than that.” But they weren’t, as demonstrated by what happened a few nights ago. It was a convenient excuse; not only did it excuse the behavior, it removed condemnation. How could you be blamed for something if it was your nature? Such thinking left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"People are better than that," Ardette shrugs lightly, saying it as casually as one might say, well, it rains sometimes. She watches Claud keenly; he looks so rigid in that fifth position, as if he's holding himself there with every ounce of his will, lest he bolt. "Just because we all know how to kill a human being doesn't mean we all wish to act on it. Or think about acting on it. Or are forced to act on it. Now..." Ardette sighs and leans back in her seat, gesturing to him. "All I'm talking about are my teaching practices. What are you talking about," she dips her chin and stares at him, "exactly?"
Claud listens, confused; so if she didn’t think nature equaled permission, then why bring it up at all? She cuts to the chase and pins him with that stare of hers; and he goes a little deer-in-the-headlights as he tries for one last time to form his words coherently before they leave his mouth. “A few nights ago I was attacked—well, Mr. Valentine was their target, I think, and I happened to be with him. If he found out anything more about it he hasn’t told me, and I haven’t asked. It was six of them that attacked us,” he looks at the floor, eyes distant, memories coming back to him unbidden. “I got scared, I shoulda run like he told me to but I didn’t—things went worse and, and I fought back.” He goes quiet, “I suppose none of that matters now ‘cuz they’re all dead and I was a part of it no matter how I feel about it. But I don’t really. Feel, I mean—and I think I oughtta feel something.” The emotional numbness persisted even after confessing his actions—his problem still felt like such a small matter, one that he thought he should be upset over but wasn’t. He wondered, was this what losing a limb was like? You think it will be horrible if it ever happened to you, but then it does, and now you’ve got no choice but to live in your reality. Through necessity you adapt.
Ardette just studies Claud for a long moment, and heaves a silent sigh. Welp, there's another one. Another student coming to make their ultimate confession. And as she usually does, when a student shares the news of their Step City 'christening,' so to speak, Ardette feels... not a whole lot. Well-- if she's to be completely honest with herself, she feels an inappropriate curiosity. Was Claud actually directly responsible for one of those deaths? How on earth did he manipulate his vibe to achieve that? When would he have the confidence and peace of mind to show her? ...Could he demonstrate today? "Alright," Ardette sighs brusquely, and she slaps her notebook down onto the stereo deck. Time for the confessional routine again. It's been a while since she's had to do this. She stands up and, in the same sharp movement, snaps her fingers and points to the ground. "Have a seat. Tell me everything."
Claud looks back at her as she studies him, trying not to pry with his vibe, but, at the same time, processing the subtle information radiating off of her. She wasn’t surprised, and she wasn’t scandalized. Claud feels this is a bit anticlimactic for both of them to be not feeling a whole lot. He recognizes in her a feeling he often has; morbid curiosity, that socially-inappropriate part of his brain that analyses situations even as they’re occurring. He sits, obedient, but at her command for more information, he clams up. He wasn’t keen on re-living the events through recollection, but then he realizes she’s not asking because she thinks it’ll help him, she’s asking because she wants to hear the gruesome details. If she thinks there’s some bit of information in there that might help him, or if she’s just curious he can’t tell. He wants to think she’s there to help him... “Alright,” he breathes out, resigned to tell the choreographer what she wants to hear.
“I took Mr. Valentine to see my apartment—” he pauses, “I found an apartment, by the way,” he says it without much emotion, too preoccupied with the events that followed. “Um. It was dark by the time we decided to leave an’ get a cuppa coffee or something, and we were ambushed by six steppers in Square. I don’t know what faction they were. UG, I think. It was going badly, Mr. Valentine told me to run, and I didn’t, so he grabbed me to dance, but we kept getting hit. My sister was more the one who learned how to use our vibe combatively. I purposefully tried to not learn, but she was insistent and did teach me some, thank god. I think it—I know it saved my life. Our lives. You see, I can’t cause physical harm with my vibe,” not yet, he omits, “But I can make people think they’ve been harmed. It’s the same principle as positive feedback from a speaker; if I’m connected to someone and I feel pain, I can choose to share that pain with the person I’m connected with. They feel that pain, it adds to mine, and so on. Problem is, I’ve got to be feeling the same, if not more, pain as they are for it to work. Once we were immobilized, Mr. Valentine, um, electrocuted them. Some died immediately, the rest died later.” He continues to look at the floor, “That’s about it.” He hugs one of his knees to his chest.
Ardette seats herself next to Claud under the barre, her legs neatly folded underneath her, and just listens as her student tells his story to the floor. She's fascinated by what she hears - and truth be told, she’s a bit offended that Claud never divulged that aspect of his vibe to his Choreographer - and for a grim second she's reminded vividly of Cross. But that's being unkind. "And that's about it," Ardette repeats lowly, raising her eyebrows, nodding solemn and impressed. She has so many questions that it's hard to pick the right one to start with. "Well, Claud, you successfully thwarted a hit. Were there any witnesses?" Let's take care of Problem Number One before we start moving on to feelings.
Claud shakes his head, “It was a deserted area, so I want to say no, but I’m not 100 percent on that. After the fight I was temporarily blind and Mr. Valentine was in really sorry shape.” He rubs a hand on the side of his face, “I didn’t think to sweep the area for witnesses—I was so focused on getting to a vendy.” He looks up at her, “Why is it important that there were witnesses or not? No one attacked or bothered us after that.”
Ardette wants to roll her eyes at him. Claud was an accomplice to a quintuple homicide - in self-defense, but still a homicide - and he's not worried about witnesses? If they were different people, under different circumstances, she might find his naïveté adorable. But she's not, and he's not, and adorable, it's not. "Don't forget that Valentine is a high profile boss. A lot of steppers on this island wouldn't mind seeing him dead. Now--" she sighs and shrugs a shoulder. "This isn't the first attempt on his life, and it certainly won't be the last. That’s nothing new. But what is new," she says, raising a finger, "is the cute redhead with a strange vibe that Valentine was last seen with... or not seen, given that your six eyewitnesses and would-be assassins are dead."
“O-oh...” his eyes go wide and he presses his fingertips over his mouth. It would be several hours later before he realized she had just, inadvertently perhaps, called him ‘cute,’ because what was standing out to him most at this moment was how much trouble he really was in. Honestly he had forgotten Frankie was a high-profile mafia boss. He was... well, maybe not normal, but Frankie didn’t act like how you would expect a mafia boss to act. And Claud had just helped him kill six people. In self-defence. But he’d helped. “Oh. Shit.” This situation also spoke volumes about how desensitized Claud really had become to the violence of the city. People died in dance-offs every day, and with no structured citywide law-enforcement, all you could do was try and protect you and your own—and all Claud could think about was how he might have just made himself, and everyone he cared about, a target. The part of him that was happy he was moving out just got a little bigger, and though he felt guilty about being glad, that guilt couldn’t drown out the worry he now felt that maybe he was moving out just a little too late. “What should I do?”
Ardette rolls an unconcerned shoulder. "For now? Nothing." She's satisfied enough with Claud's 'oh-shit' moment, because that's all she really wanted to impart, the verbal snapping of her fingers in front of his face, hello, Earth to Claud, remember the big picture, please. The shock of killing for the first time leaves so many young steppers with a focus squeezed narrow by panic, and that self-centeredness often ends up getting them killed right back. But Ardette just sighs and gets comfortable, draping one arm over the barre above them. "You said it yourself; there were no witnesses. Just six dead bodies with Frankie Valentine written all over them, and nothing else." Or no-one else; Claud's vibe is sneaky that way. "So, the only person on the Island concerned about your involvement is... you, really."
Claud nods mutely. So she didn’t care, in a moralistic sense at least. “Looks that way,” he mumbles. He wonders how badly he’d hurt them, before Frankie got to them, if any of them had actually died from the psychic attack, or if they only felt like they were going to. His sister had once inadvertently caused blisters to form on his skin, just by making him think she’d burned him. It wasn’t amusing then and it was even less amusing now. All that aside, the thought that he might be attracting attention in the stepping community filled him with dread—not so much fearing for himself—but for the people he cared about. All three of them. He’s comforted a little by the thought that they could take care of themselves. Probably. He prayed there were no witnesses, but he could never be sure. God he hated this island. He sighs, “You had other questions?”
Did Ardette have other questions? Oh, lord, did she have questions, but she's reminded now that Claud's sensed this all along, and must have sensed some other things, too. So, for now, Ardette will keep her morbid curiosity to herself. "Yes, I did. What now?" she asks, nodding to him. "What's your plan? How do you intend to move forward from here?”
Hah, plans. Plans were not Claud’s forté. “I didn’t plan for a situation like this...” but of course she would already expect that. He sighs again, “I don’t know. I jus’ found a place’a my own, was gonna move in as soon as I got it cleaned up a bit, a few weeks maybe. I guess I forgot how dangerous the city’s gonna be.” He was pussyfooting around the issue now. “I don’ wanna hurt people, but even more: I don’ wanna put those I love at risk because of my... incompetencies.” He chews his lip a moment, “Is there such a thing as step self defence?” The idea bothered him—it felt dishonest to himself.
"Quoi, for you, or for your loved ones?" Ardette scoffs. Step self-defense? The kid is sitting in one of the city's most trusted dojos, for chrissakes. Claud's let himself forget that Valentine is a mob boss; has he forgotten that Bombaerts is a combat choreographer? She just tilts her head with a sigh and studies him. For a flash of a second, she finds herself snagged on the fact that the hobo who used to dope up in her back alley is sitting in her studio with a clean shave, a conscience, and a vocabulary that includes words like 'incompetencies.' Amazing. "What do you mean, you were going to move in? Don't tell me you're reconsidering."
Ardette gives him the look. It’s subtle, but he knew it well. It’s the ‘I can’t believe this is the same person’ look. He knew it because he often caught himself making that same face in the mirror. Is this really happening? Have I really changed so much? To answer her first question, “For myself.” Although, he wondered if he could talk Jack into taking some classes—but he was so shy, Ardette might make him cry. And to answer her scoff, “I don’t want to learn outright offensive ways of using my vibe. I know it’s blue-sky optimism, but—I don’t wanna learn how to do the kinds of, of destructive things my sister could do without learning self control first,” or even at all, “I don’t wanna make the same mistake as I did, building power before control. But I also want to be able to protect the people I love.” He rakes a hand through his hair, it really sounded like he wanted his cake, and to eat it too. “As for not moving out... it might have crossed my mind,” he admits, then shakes his head. “I can’t keep living with Mr. Valentine; don’t wanna overstay my welcome, if I haven’t already. I’ll be moving into my new place, for sure.”
“Good,” Ardette says firmly. She looks down at her scuffed grey marley, sharing a spot of floor with Claud for a pensive few moments. He says that he wants self-control; he's in the right place. But he also says that he feels nothing, and that's a lie that she can feel. Claud is spooked, and that tells her that, maybe, in the end, he'll be okay. Because he wants to be okay. At least, he'll be more okay than some of her others. Ardette wonders, feeling a pang that lasts barely a second, if one of those dead UGs was a student of hers, but as always, she doesn't let herself dwell on it for long. "You know, you can't let the fact that you survived that night interrupt your life. That's a fine way to spit on the whole bloody thing.” She shakes her head. “And if you ask me, I think living on your own will do you and your vibe a lot of good.”
Claud feels that pang, brief as it was, and it prickles behind his eyes in an uncomfortable way. It was the one thing he was hoping to avoid thinking about: the fact that those were people, with lives and friends and families—! He blinks a few times and the feeling calms. Then she’s telling him not to feel guilty for surviving; what a strange conflicting creature you are, Ardette Bombaerts. He nods, “That’s true.” If anything, he ought to be grateful to Frankie for the effort he put into protecting him. After all, when they were attacked, Frankie’s first thoughts were for Claud’s safety, not his own. It was strange, every reason he had to continue living was because someone else wanted him to. “I hope you’re right—about living alone.” Not that he would have a lot of time alone, between work, and dance, and Jack. Not to mention if he ever found time to begin his guitar lessons again. Or maybe she meant being away from Frankie would do him good. He smiles a little, sadly. He wondered if that was true, and suspected it was.
Ardette tilts her head and gives Claud one of her rare smiles. It's sad, but comfortable on her face, because it's a smile that she gives often, one of, yes, this is hard, and it will likely get harder, but what else can we do but smile at it and soldier on? The dirge of the Square. "I think I am. Remember, Claud, this is all about giving you options," she says, beating her palm against the barre for emphasis. This, the work, the sweat, the cred, every lesson both in and out of the studio is about giving Claud a choice. "Living alone means that..." She sighs, trying to find the words. "If there are other people in your space, they're there because you choose for them to be there. And when you’re alone, it’s because you choose to be. That's just one more aspect of your life that you get to control."
Claud nods, then smiles, embarrassment and relief replacing days-worth of worry. Even as he felt like he was being moved down a path not of his own choosing, she reminded him that he still had the ability to choose, and what he was doing, what everyone was doing for him, was working to give that ability back to him. “Thank you,” he smiles at her, says it like he’s admitting something personal.
Thanks to Claud's vibe, and those damnably blue eyes of his, his sincerity is like a solid thing that Ardette can feel, like the warm pressure of a hand on her arm. It's quite a thank you, and she knows that, yeah, the kid'll be alright. "Thank Valentine," she says brusquely, trying to brush the feeling away. Always at arm's length. Always hard, because her students need a rock, not a cushion. "You can thank me once you ace your first desynchronization exercise. Now--" She sighs, raising her eyebrows at him brightly. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?" Speak now or for-45-minutes hold your peace.
Again, Claud shows her that small, agreeing smile, knowing not to press her more, letting her keep her distance, “I will.” Then it’s what she says next, almost flippantly, that sparks a memory. His eyes go wide and distant, and his expression falls, re-remembering. He pauses half a second, making sure he had his facts straight before speaking, “I already... have.” He speaks with disbelief, then with conviction, “I don’t know if I can do it again, but I already have—I dropped the connection with Mr. Valentine during the fight, so I wouldn’t hurt him when, when I fought back.” Elation and fear both light his eyes; this was good right? He was making progress?
Ardette dips her chin and stares at Claud hard from under her brows. It's a kneejerk reaction of utter disbelief in the face of that hope behind his eyes. He didn't. ...did he, really? "What-- completely?" she snaps, and then stops herself. If he did, this is big. She calms her thoughts with a deep breath and pats the air between them with urgency. "Did you sever the connection completely or just lower the intensity?"
As she doubts, so does he; had he really dropped the connection completely, or was that wishful thinking? He takes a deep breath, thinks back—he remembers the loss of contact, the pain of it swallowed up in the overall pain he was already feeling, then trying to reconnect to Frankie and being unable to do so until the man slipped from his vibe form back into physical form again, then the sweet relief when the connection had reestablished, had confirmed to Claud that Frankie was alive amidst all that death. His stomach lurches at the memory but he manages to hide it, “It was graceless and panicked, but I’m sure the connection was severed,” he finally answers. He wondered, though, how long he’d be able to resist re-establishing that connection. Like pulling apart two strong magnets, would it have to be a constant effort on his part to stay disconnected?
Ardette nods, brows furrowed. She believes him and doesn’t know why - gut feeling? Maybe - but it is what it is; Claud successfully severed a connection. Claud’s will - to protect his friend - took his vibe by the neck in a critical moment and told it ‘no.’ She huffs, impressed, and thinks a truth of all her students; they all need to get the shit scared out of them at least once. They all need to experience honest-to-goodness, life-or-death terror, to understand what they can do. “Well, graceless and panicked aside, you delivered when you needed to. Now, your assailants...” Ardette leans closer in interest. “Do you remember making a conscious choice to connect with them, or did your vibe act on reflex?” Or, a sad but valid thought, was Claud previously connected to any of them?
"It was, maybe a little of both. Being in pain and seeing the situation get as bad as it did, I knew what I had to do—and I did it—without a second thought. It was like striking, physically. I certainly didn't have to struggle against my vibe in that moment. I..." Wanted to hurt them? In a way. "... I just wanted them to stop." So often his vibe felt like a living thing, a separate entity inside of himself, that he had to wonder: had it, in that moment, decided to work with him? or had it listened when he told it what to do? Either thought made him a bit uncomfortable. Did that make him savage, by nature? Or did it simply make him human?
Ardette just nods, and she thinks to herself with grim satisfaction that Claud most certainly did make them stop. He halted them, ultimately-- well, no, Claud didn't deliver the final blow; that's Valentine's specialty. But Claud and his vibe overlapped completely for a perfect, panicked second. In that moment - if what he's saying is true - he was in control. "Ah, Claud..." Ardette sighs heavily, rubbing her cheek under the curtain of her hair. "I'm not going to try to convince you that this is a good thing, but in some ways, it is. It came at the expense of human lives-- and you must never forget that," she stresses, pointing at him sharply. "But what we do in here is meant to give you a fighting chance out there. And what happens out there..." She looks up at the high windows of Studio B, where a sliver of night sky can be seen, and it's clear she isn't just talking about 'we' as in Ardette and Claud, but Ardette and all of her students. What makes Claud special is that he didn't come to her to learn how to fight. But all of them end up fighting eventually. We all have to fight, eventually. She leans forward and puts a hand on Claud’s arm, a boundary crossed specifically to drive this home: "Just promise me that you'll take this, and you'll learn from it."
Claud listened, nodding subtly in agreement, eyes still downcast in thought. When she touched him he looked up at her, eyes grave, “I will. I don’t think I ever could forget, even if I wanted to.” It was what it was, and what was done was irrevocable. This was his reality, and he couldn’t turn his back on it, whether he wanted to or not. In a way, he felt comforted. But in a way he also felt like a failure.
Satisfied, Ardette gives Claud a final sort of nod and lets go of his arm. "Now... Do you want to continue with today's lesson or call it a day?" she says. It's a courtesy as much as it is a practicality; if he won't be focused, he won't be productive, and it will be a waste of both their times. "I highly recommend that we continue, but I'm going to leave that up to you."
Claud thought it over for a few seconds; he’d seen small but noticeable progress after every lesson. As much as he wanted to give up and go home, he couldn’t. And of course, she knew much more than he did. Frankie wasn’t paying her large sums of cred just for the fun of it. “Let’s keep going,” he said at last.
Ardette raises her brows and claps her hands together. "Good man," she says, and she smoothly comes to standing. "Let's get you warmed up again and get back to Monday, ah?" she says, offering Claud a hand up.
Claud smiles, grateful for that small bit of praise. “Yes’m.” He takes her hand and they get back to work.
Ardette offers Claud a cool half-smile, and while he gets himself settled into his fifth position at the barre, Ardette picks up her notebook and perches herself on her stool next to the stereo. Another stepper initiated into the culture of the Island, and probably the last stepper she would have expected. Dear Claud, so gentle, so mild, and so desperate to be liked, with his earnest blue eyes and occasionally obstinate vibe. How on earth did Frankie Valentine find you, cher? "Oh, and I should probably specify," Ardette remarks, clicking her pen and starting a new bullet in her notes. "My students don't go for the face when we spar. I do." And with that, she punches the 'play' button.
Claud quirks a smile to himself as they get back to work. Of course she did. He wouldn’t expect anything less from the Choreographer.