The music fills his veins, replacing his blood with bass. His body moves in time, careful movements to follow the sounds as they occur to him, a puppet to the rhythm. Sweat pours from his body, hair matted to his forehead, but Tobi doesn’t mind. It’s only when he’s dancing that he doesn’t feel the icy fingers of anxiety wrapping around his heart and threatening to squeeze without the help of his meds. He doesn’t hear that nagging voice in his head telling him he’s not good enough, he’s ugly, he’s annoying, he’s wasting everyone’s time…
No, all he hears is the music and all he feels is the beat and there’s nothing that can compare to that rush, that feeling of achievement as he grinds out his frustrations in one of the school’s dance studios four hours on end. He dances until his body is numb, until he physically can’t move anymore, until his mind is so blank that he knows he can keep pretending for the next several hours that everything’s okay, that he’s okay, and he can continue to bring joy to the lives of his closest friends without relying too heavily on his pills, which make him too numb, too empty.
Before his anxiety got bad, he used to compete. He would sneak out of his home and meet with other underground hip-hop artists in one of many abandoned subway stations in the city. There, he would do dance battles and he won far more than he lost; that was where he’d met Donovan (who used to compete in the rap battles there), how he eventually came to join the rest of the boys in their little family.
His own family, his biological one, hadn’t been particularly supportive of his chosen career path. His father was especially vocal in his disagreement, imploring him to follow something more practical like his older sister, who was going to be a veterinarian. He did everything in his power to get Tobi to stop, and more often than not, it’s his voice that his anxiety uses against him. His mother was less strict; she didn’t exactly support his choice, but she did everything in her power to help him follow it nevertheless. She helped come up with cover stories for the times he got caught, made sure he had proper gear which she would later blame on her own shopping habits. His father never paid too much attention—he thought his mother really was buying herself more clothes and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that her closet never seemed to actually increase despite all the money she was supposedly spending.
Tobi doesn’t know how, but he hopes to one day repay her for all that she did because she’s his hero. But he also hopes that one day, his father will understand, too; that he will finally see that maybe Tobi isn’t delusional in thinking that he could make it as a dancer.
Getting the dance scholarship to attend Urban Arts Academy alongside his friends was a good first step; he lives on campus now, studies dance full time, and though he no longer competes individually in underground competitions because of his anxiety, he’s thankful for the opportunity he’s been granted. He knows that a high school diploma from a school like UAA is the key to opening the doors of several prestigious colleges and universities whose primary focus is the arts and with all the connections needed to make it in the dance world.
He just has to dance through it all; one day, for sure, his anxiety will be beaten down again and he’ll rise from the ashes. He’ll become better. He just has to work through it.
The music grinds to a halt and Tobi does, too, chest heaving as he leans down on his knees to catch his breath. The sweat drips down onto the floor, his heart still hammering in his chest to the tune he’d been playing just a moment ago.
After a breath, he straightens up to head over to his gym bag, where a nice cool bottle of water is waiting for him. He’s only halfway when the door to the dance studio suddenly slams open with the sound of a gunshot and he nearly leaps out of his skin.
At this time of night, the studios are usually pretty empty. There are a few night owls, of course, but mostly they’re people like August who are more focused on music production or illegal activities rather than dancers—Tobi has chosen to practice at night for just that reason because less people means less anxiety for him.
Tonight, however, his loner time is very rudely interrupted by none other than Jem. When Tobi sees who it is, he lets out a shaky breath. “Jesus, you scared the shit out of me,” he gasps.
“Sorry, Tobi,” Jem says pleasantly, glancing out the window rather than at Tobi.
“What are you doing?” Tobi asks, finally grabbing hold of his drink and taking a sip to steady his heartbeat and cool himself off a bit.
Jem does turn to him, then, a mischievous expression on his face as he holds up his prize.
“Is that Emery’s camera?” Tobi asks, feeling his lips turning up in a mischievous grin of his own. “Oh, man, I bet he’s pissed.”
“He doesn’t know I have it,” Jem all but giggles, “He took a mean picture of me yesterday so I’m getting back at him. Wanna help?”
“What do you need me to do?” Tobi asks. “And what do you mean by a ‘mean’ picture of you?”
Jem pouts. “He took a picture of me sleeping. There’s drool coming out of my mouth and I look awful.”
“Aw, you never look awful, Jem,” Tobi says. “But still, it’s not nice to take pictures of people in compromising positions. Are we going to delete it?”
Jem nods. “Yes!” he says, quickly hurrying from the door and bringing the camera over. “Problem is, I don’t know how to access the pictures. He’s got the damn thing password protected.”
“Let me see,” Tobi says, reaching for the camera. He tilts it this way and that, examining it for any indicators of what the password is. He’s gotten good at finding small, innocuous details lately and this time is no different. There, just under the lens, he spots a series of numbers and letters. “Got it.”
He types the numbers in using a small touch screen—he’s really quite impressed with the quality of the camera and wonders how the hell Emery is able to afford it—and just like that, they’re in.
“You’re a genius,” Jem says, pressing a sloppy kiss to Tobi’s cheek and causing his ears to turn pink. They begin flicking through the pictures, looking for the one Jem hates, but in the process they find something else. Amongst all the professional shots of landscapes and tiny, beautiful details (a button hanging by a thread in a red coat, a child’s pinkie held in a mother’s hand, a plastic ring hanging precariously close to a gutter drain but refusing to go in), things only Emery would notice, there are a few selfies: the kinds of selfies every teenaged boy has taken of himself in a bathroom mirror wearing no shirt and flexing with a tough face; there’s also one where Emery apparently accidentally snapped a pic when he’d been kissing his camera, and it’s not a pretty look at all.
Jem’s grin widens. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Jem…” Tobi warns, but he knows he’s not capable of saying no to the pink-haired boy and he’s already sighing in defeat when they hear the sudden pounding of feet in the hallway.
They look at each other with wide eyes, then at the door. Tobi pushes Jem towards the lockers. “Go, go, go!” he whispers harshly, following close behind. Tobi isn’t even sure why he’s joining the other—he’s done no wrong except help Jem get the password and really there was no way of proving that—but he all but shoves Jem into the locker before climbing into it with him, their bodies pressed close in the confined space. So close, in fact, that Tobi can feel Jem’s heart pounding through the thin material of his tank top and he’s certain that it’s loud enough to be heard outside.
Still, Jem keeps his cool, working quickly and quietly on the camera with it pressed very close to his face.
The door to the studio slams open for the second time that night, the sharp planes of Emery’s face a livid red in his rage. “I know you’re in one of these dance studios, Jem!” he yells and Jem bites his lip as he works faster. Tobi hopes Emery can’t hear the tapping of his fingernails on the screen.
The younger boy is already heading in their direction and before either of them has a moment to realize what’s going on, he’s opening several lockers to check if they’re inside of them.
As Emery gets closer to the one they’re hiding in, Tobi holds his breath. He just knows they’re about to get caught, there’s no way they’re getting away with this and then Tobi is going to have to try and explain how and why he’d helped Jem and he’s not going to have a clue how to explain it except that it’s really fucking hard to deny Jem anything.
But before Emery gets to it, he turns on his heel and Tobi hears his footsteps receding. He exhales, leaning his head against his side of the locker.
“Tobi,” Jem hisses, covering his mouth so that he doesn’t giggle too hard. “I did it!”
It’s difficult maneuvering, but Jem turns the camera so that Tobi can see the screen and the words written there:
Photos have been posted to your blog!
Tobi can’t help himself. He laughs, quickly covering his mouth to stifle it, but he can hardly control it and neither can Jem. They both know Emery is just going to delete the photos later, but not before everyone who follows his blog closely has seen them.
Suddenly, the door to their hiding space is ripped open and Emery grins down at them triumphantly. “Found you!” he shouts, and Jem and Tobi exchange one look before they both surge forward, nearly knocking the youngest on his butt. Tobi flops down on top of him in a heartbeat so that he can’t get up and chase Jem, who has danced over to the other side of the room.
“Quick!” he calls. “Delete it!”
“Tobi! Get off!” Emery shouts. “Why are you helping him!?”
“Sorry, Em, Jemmie is cuter than you!” he giggles.
Emery squirms, trying to crawl out from beneath Tobi, who clings to him with all the tenacity of a koala.
“Done!” Jem shouts triumphantly, and just to rub it all in, he snaps a quick photo of Emery crawling on the floor with Tobi clinging to him, faces red with effort.
The dancer lets Emery up then, breath heaving in his chest as he laughs. Jem finally lets Emery take his camera back.
“I really liked that picture, too,” Emery pouts, knowing exactly which one Jem deleted. “You looked so cute and innocent…I guess now I know better. How did you even get the password?”
“That one was my fault, too,” Tobi says, standing up with some effort and brushing dust off his now-bruised knees “You really should consider not keeping your password scratched onto your camera.”
“I can’t believe you two…” Emery mutters, flicking through the pictures once more. He freezes then. “What else did you guys do?”
Tobi and Jem exchange a look, then glance at Emery with much-too-innocent expressions. “Don’t know what you could possibly mean by that…we just wanted to get rid of that picture because it made Jemmie feel bad.”
Tobi can tell Emery doesn’t believe him. If anything, the words cement his suspicions and he quickly checks his camera’s history. His eyes go wide when he realizes what was done.
“I’m going to kill you both!” he shouts, cheeks all red with embarrassment, and the hall is once again filled with the sound of heavy footsteps as the two older boys shoot out of the dance studio, Emery quick on their heels. And okay, maybe dance isn’t the only thing that can make Tobi feel light and happy and anxiety-free.