Intimately Inked

 

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Chapter One

Silence filled the shop. Only one appointment was left for the day, and walk-ins were rare. Yet, I found myself sitting in my office turned studio, tongue stuck out the side of my mouth, brow furrowed in concentration as I lost myself in the lines of my latest drawing. There wasn’t much time before my last appointment came in, and around that same time, my daughter would get off the bus in front of the shop, waltz right in like she was the queen, and sit at her own little desk I put in my studio just so she could draw or work on homework while she waited for me to finish for the evening.

Black lines swirled around the lavender page, resembling birds on a decrepit willow tree. The blackness of the pen matched my silky ink-colored hair that I kept in a loose bun while I worked. Black, thick-framed glasses kept sliding down my nose, frustrating me. I pushed them up with my free hand and bit my lip, working at the shading on the side of the tree. It was as thick as the black liner that I traced around my amber-colored eyes that morning.

Jumping when the front bell rang, I cursed under my breath, looking at the thick, black line that’d skittered across the page. Grimacing at the mistake, I rolled my eyes, shoved the paper to the edge of the desk,and stood up, walking out of the studio.

The lobby hanging right off the side of my studio was all black marble with sharp white accents to spruce it up. The furniture, decor, and frames around the art on the walls consisted of an amalgamation of the entire color spectrum. Half of it was my personal enjoyment in clashing the absurdity of the decor with the modern sleekness of the room, and half of it was going along with my young daughter’s suggestions when I last renovated my shop.

Either way, I’d grown to love the contradiction of it, and slowly but surely, all of my clients had too.

On the opposite side of my obnoxiously violet desk stood a man with dirty blond, almost brown hair, that just barely reached my height. He had powder blue eyes, a dimple in his left cheek, and it looked as though he’d put gel in his hand and rubbed his hair every which way that morning. He wore a pair of tight, black jeans and a gray sweatshirt with ‘DANCE’ printed in cursive, black letters.

He smiled brightly, making eye contact with me. “Hi, I stopped by for an appointment.”

I blinked and glanced down at my sheet. Sebastian Keys… I glanced back up at the man. “You must be Sebastian,” I said, smiling politely. “You’re here a bit earlier than I expected.”

“Sorry,” Sebastian said sheepishly, wrinkling his nose. It was cute. “I just finished up unpacking, and I’m trying to kill some time before my daughter gets off the bus. Were you busy?”

“No, not really.” I shrugged, shoulders tensing as I felt the air of discomfort radiating off Sebastian. As an empath, that was normal. What differentiated me from other empaths was that I was a people pleaser every chance I got. “In fact, it works out perfectly that you’re here now. You were my last appointment for the day, so this means I can close up shop early.” My daughter, Blaine, had been bugging me about going to see the new art exhibit at the museum downtown, so leaving early could give me enough time to do it.

“Happy I could help then.” Sebastian grinned.

“So, were you looking to get the tattoo done today or did you just want the art consult?”

“Just the art for today. I don’t think my daughter can sit still long enough for me to get the piece too.”

I nodded. “How old is she?”

“Seven.”

“Great age. They’re finally starting to pick up sarcasm.” I smirked, thinking of how sassy Blaine had gotten over the last year and a half.

Sebastian snorted. “Tell me about it.”

“Well, Sebastian, if you just want to step into my studio, we can start working on your sketch.” I gestured for Sebastian to follow, and we walked into the room.

It was much smaller than the lobby, but had a high ceiling, which gave the illusion of it being more spacious. Like the lobby, it was sleek and black, but Blaine’s creative decor taste had penetrated the studio as well. However, it had a touch more of my preferences since the majority of the art on the walls were of my creation, while Blaine had a small art place of her own surrounding her desk.

I sat behind my desk, pulling over one of the spare chairs so Sebastian could sit next to me as I worked. As I pulled up my notepad, Sebastian took a seat.

“This is a gorgeous building,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“I’m your new neighbor, you know?”

I blinked, frowning as I glanced up from the computer. “What?”

“Shop neighbor,” he clarified, motioning toward the front door. “I moved into the shop across the street a couple weeks ago.”

“Oh.” I shook my head, chuckling at myself. “Sorry. Um, are you new to town?” That could be a good thing. Sebastian would be unaware of who I actually was.

Then again, I hadn’t picked up on the judgmental, malicious vibes I got from everyone else that walked through my door. While they loved my work and anyone that came in there became a repeat customer, none of them particularly liked me. I couldn’t really blame them either. I didn’t like myself.

“Eh, kind of. I grew up here and moved away after school.”

“What brought you back here?” Blackwell Hollow was a nice little town. There were always things to do, new things to try, it was incredibly artsy, but it was far from a city. Everything closed down by midnight. Despite being immortals, it was like the entire town was made up of people on the brink of dead and dull.

“I’ve wanted to open my own dance studio for years. I knew the rent was cheaper here than in a city, not to mention I know some of the property owners, so they’d cut me a deal on the lease.” Sebastian shrugged. “It just seemed like the perfect place.”

“So you’re opening a dance studio next door?” I had noticed work being done on the shop across from mine, but hadn’t paid enough attention to venture a guess. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized my previous neighbor moved out.

While the surrounding shops came in for graphics, decor advice, and tattoos, none of them dropped by to chat or act neighborly. Despite being one of the focal points on the strip, I didn’t get the invites to local shop gatherings and didn’t make it a habit to chat with the other shop owners. None of them particularly cared for my presence, so I kept to my corner.

Sebastian nodded. “Yep! I’m going to be offering classes as well.”

“Really? My daughter has been talking about trying dance.”

“How old is she?”

“She just turned eight two months ago.”

“Well, once things are up and running in the next couple of weeks, I’ll bring you an information sheet by. You and her can talk about signing up.”

“Thank you.” I looked back at the computer and opened up a new file. “Okay, tattoo things… What are you looking to get?”

“I want to get something for my daughter. I’ve been trying to get it for years now, but no one can really capture how much I care about her and how special she is.”

I nodded, the feeling of Sebastian’s love for his daughter blooming inside of my chest, warming it. It reminded me of how I felt about my own child. “Tell me about what she likes or things that make you think of her.” I slipped a sheet of paper off the rack and grabbed my marker from earlier.

“She likes birds,” he said. “Birds, dancing. She’s a very free spirit, kind, always happy to help others.” Sebastian chuckled softly, and I felt his chest tighten, like Sebastian had too much emotion to know how to handle. “She’s the best thing in my life.”

“I’m sure you and your partner are lucky to have her.” I smiled, glancing up from my sheet to type in a couple of notes about what she liked. The paper had just been for sketching out any emotions I picked up on while Sebastian spoke, that way I’d be able to weave it into the work.

That was why I had made such a name for myself in the tattoo industry, after all. It went beyond art. Due to being an empath, I could infuse emotions and passions into the art that other artists couldn’t. I created art from the client’s emotions, making it a more individualized, personal experience for them. Not only did I enjoy doing it, but my clients fucking loved it.

“I’m actually single,” Sebastian said. “Maggie’s mother was a soldier, and she was deployed not even six months after Maggie was born. She died in combat.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I noticed a slight shift in Sebastian’s emotions, but it wasn’t gut-wrenching, it wasn’t fresh. He’d healed since then.

“Thanks. That’s always the way she wanted to go though, so…” He shrugged, shaking his head. “Anyway… is it okay if I call you Plato?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. Just by being around me, you’re subjecting yourself to having all of your emotions filtered, so formalities really have no place here.”

“Well, you can call me Seb. That’s what all my friends call me.”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling more than awkward. That was the first time in years anyone had so much as alluded to me being their friend. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it, especially with it seeming as though Seb had no fucking idea who I was.

Sitting there, working on a few more pieces of my sketch, I analyzed all of the emotional waves I felt from Sebastian. Not once did I detect anything even slightly negative. There were a couple tinges of sadness, likely related to his old partner’s death. Overall, the feelings were warm and happy, full of love and care and happiness. Even when the room grew quiet and I began losing myself in the sketch and Seb’s emotions, I didn’t notice any bumps, any sudden jolts of malice from Seb.

It was strange, and just as a testament to how irrevocably fucked up I was, I felt fucking guilty for Seb not knowing, for Seb not just barely tolerating me long enough to do his work.

On the other side of that was what a nice change of pace it was. Everyone except my daughter and best friend loathed me. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t doing enough, I was a selfish brat, I was stupid: I used to be able to put faces to the phrases, but right then? I’d felt each emotion, each thought so fucking frequently that remembering anything else about myself was a challenge.

That was probably why I never bothered attempting to make friends. I knew I wouldn’t be able to, and even if I could, they’d eventually think the same thing everyone else did, so there was no point in wasting my time trying.

“Oh gods, is that what time it is?” Seb asked suddenly, his chair scraping against the floor as he slid it back.

I glanced up at the clock. 14:30, it read. The bus would stop by soon. “Does your daughter get off the stop here?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I figured since I’d be at the studio around this time most weekdays, it made more sense for her to come here after school.”

I stood from my desk, walking out of the studio, motioning for Seb to follow. “My daughter stops here too. We can wait for them outside if you’d like.”

“Yes, thank you. Since this is still so new for her, I worry about her remembering where to get off.”

We walked outside the shop, sitting on the black bench outside, right next to the road. I crossed my legs at the knee, propping my chin on my fist. “I’ll work on the sketch and email a draft to you later tonight or tomorrow morning. Just let me know if you need any changes made or anything like that, and then we can schedule another appointment from there.”

“Sounds good! Do you need me to pay you or--?”

I shook my head. “I don’t ask for payment until after you’ve been tattooed.”

“Don’t you worry about people coming in just to get your design, then going somewhere else to get it tattooed?”

“Not really. Just because an artist has the design doesn’t mean they’ll be able to completely replicate it. Not to mention that several elements of the design are usually comprised of magic, which can’t be traced like a sketch. That’s something only I can do.”

Seb nodded, eyebrows raised, looking impressed. “It’s no wonder you’re the first person people told me to go to when I talked about what sort of tattoo I wanted.”

“I just hope that’s all they said about me,” I snorted.

Before Seb had the chance to open his mouth to reply, the bus stopped in front of the shop. A couple kids from the surrounding shops got off. The last two out was my daughter, Blaine, and another little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, a dimple in her cheek. She followed Blaine over the bench, going right to Seb. That must’ve been his daughter.

“Dad, I made a new friend today!” Blaine said, amber eyes glimmering. The sunlight made her hair look red instead of chestnut and her skin look like gold. Blaine tugged at the other girl’s hand. “This is Maggie!”

Maggie was looking at her father with the same look of excitement. “Daddy, this is Blaine! She’s in my class too, and she sat next to me, and played dragons with me at recess, and--”

“--and we played astronauts too, and then we colored, and Mr. Fitz got mad ‘cause we talked too much, and--”

At that point, both Blaine and Maggie were talking over top of each other, both going into detail about their day together, though neither one of them syncing up with the other in their timelines. I grinned and glanced over at Seb, finding him just smiling away, glancing between both the girls, just nodding like he heard every word from each of them.

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I interjected. “It sounds like you both had a fun day.”

“We did!” Blaine beamed. “Oh, and Maggie’s dad is opening a dance place, and I wanna dance, so--”

“I actually met Maggie’s dad today, and we discussed signing you up for dance classes.” Gesturing over to Seb, I redirected Blaine’s attention to him. “He’s supposed to let me know when I can and give us information for it.”

“Thank you so much, Maggie’s dad! You’re the best!”

Seb chuckled, the dimple in his cheek more defined when he smiled. “You’re very welcome. I’ll be happy to have a friend of Maggie’s dancing with us.” He offered his hand to her. “You can call me Seb.”

“Hi, Seb.” She shook his hand. “I’m Blaine.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Blaine.”

“You too!” Blaine looked over at Maggie. “Maggie, this is my dad!”

“Hi, Blaine’s dad.” She smiled sweetly.

I grinned. “It’s nice to meet you, Maggie. My name’s Plato.”

“Hi, Plato,” she said, correcting herself.

“Well, as much as I’d like to stay and chat, I need to be heading back over the studio to wrap up a few things,” Seb said, looking over at me.

“No,” Maggie whined. “I wanna stay and play with Blaine.”

“Sorry, kiddo, but I need your help. Didn’t you want to put stickers on the kids’ cubbies?”

“Not now.”

I felt Maggie’s frustration building up, as well as Seb’s panic, likely over having a child melting down in front of her new friend and his new shop neighbor.

“How about this, we can schedule a day for you two to hang out and play. How does that sound?” I looked over at Seb, gauging his reaction to the idea.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea. Saturday after lunchtime?”

I nodded. I didn’t think I had any appointments on Saturday. “I’ll double check my calendar, but I’m almost positive I’m free. I can email you--”

“Do you just want to exchange numbers? It’ll be easier to text you.”

I agreed, rattling off my number once Seb fished his phone from his pocket.

“Great! I’ll text you later tonight about Saturday.” Seb looked at the girls. “Would that be okay with you two?”

Neither one of them looked or seemed particularly pleased.

Blaine huffed. “I guess it’s okay, even though Saturday is forever away.”

“Today’s Wednesday,” I said, frowning at her.

“Yeah. It’s forever.”

Maggie nodded. “Forever and ever and ever.”

“Just think, you’ll get to see each other tomorrow at school. Doesn’t that help?” Seb said.

Maggie scrunched her nose. “I guess.”

Seb smiled and ruffled her hair. “Okay, let’s get back to the studio.” He stood from the bench and glanced back at me. “Text you tonight! It was good meeting you.”

“You too,” I said, watching as Seb and his daughter crossed the street. Blaine popped up on the bench next to me, and I couldn’t help but feel like Sebastian wasn’t going to be just another client or shop neighbor.

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Chapter Two

    “Just one more,” Blaine pleaded, eyelids drooping. Mere seconds separated consciousness and sleep.

I smiled, stroking back her long, wavy hair. “Not tonight, little one.” Though she was maturing every day, her tendency to fight sleep like a toddler remained. “You’ll dream of things I can’t even begin to imagine to tell you about, and then you can tell me all about it in the morning.” I leaned down, pressing a gentle kiss to the top of her head.

She huffed, waves of red frustration radiating off her.

“I love you.” I pulled up her blankets and walked over to the door. “Just close your eyes and count to twenty. If you make it, I’ll read you another story. Fair?”

Quirking a brow, she snapped her eyes shut, counting aloud. The numbers gradually slowed, her speech slurring. The frown wrinkling her face vanished, smoothing out her forehead. She hadn’t even reached nine by the time I heard a light snore bounce through the room.

Flipping off her light, I left her room, pulling the door halfway shut behind me. Walking down the corridor, down the stairs, and back into the living room, I picked up my phone from the coffee table. I’d check my notifications, tomorrow’s schedule one last time, and then I would put it away, make myself a drink, and tuck myself into bed. Unlocking my phone, I froze for a second before my brain caught up, reinforming me of my situation.

Sebastian--Seb--my new shop neighbor, had texted me a few nights before to set up our daughters’ playdate. I thought we had finalized all the details, but he had sent me another text message.

Frowning, I opened the message, wondering what he could’ve possibly wanted.

Seb: Hey Plato, I know the girls are meeting tomorrow, but Maggie drew the cutest picture earlier, and I thought Blaine might like to see it :)

I scrolled down further and found a drawing of two figures--likely Maggie and Blaine--playing in the park. I squinted, tilting my head at them. It looked like they each had dragon wings sprouting from their backs… and crowns on their heads. Smiling, I shook my head, saving the photo and reminding myself to show it to Blaine the next morning.

Plato: I just put Blaine down, but I’ll show her first thing in the morning. She’ll enjoy this!

Not a full minute passed before Seb replied.

Seb: Do you need us to bring anything tomorrow? Maybe we can take the girls for ice cream or something after the park?

Plato: I think we should be good to go since we’re meeting up after lunch. Ice cream sounds like a good idea though. The girls will enjoy that.

I sighed, finally switching over to double check my schedule, muttering a curse when another message popped up on my screen. Was it normal for people to text back that quickly? Shaking my head again, I ignored the message and looked at my schedule. All that was listed was one art consult tomorrow morning at nine. So, I could get up, stretch, get breakfast going for Blaine and I, hit the shop, get lunch, then meet Seb and Maggie.

Running my fingers through my hair, feeling the beginning heaviness of exhaustion hit the backs of my eyes, I leaned against the kitchen counter. Keeping myself busy was better--it locked the bad thoughts out. It didn’t give me time to think.

Even so, running myself ragged between attempting to keep up some semblance of self-care, devoting myself to Blaine, and immersing myself in my work was bound to have some sort of negative consequence sooner or later. Gods, I just hoped it was later.

I went over to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of coconut rum. Instead of dirtying up another glass, I just turned the bottle up, taking a long swig. Warmth spread down my throat and chest. I felt a little more whole.

Placing the bottle back on the shelf, I checked Seb’s last message.

Seb: Great! See you tomorrow, Plato! :3

I wrinkled my nose at the emoticon. Friends were a somewhat foreign concept to me, and I didn’t even know if I’d categorize Seb as a friend when I’d only met the guy once and then said a handful of things to him in passing on the sidewalk. But, where I only had one friend--if that--I wasn’t sure if that’s how normal people talked and I was just that fucked up or if Seb was the one with the problem.

Maybe I needed to ask my friend, Aurora. She had other friends. She wasn’t fucked up… Well, maybe that wasn’t quite accurate. The moral compass wasn’t her strong suit, but she was incredibly loyal to anyone that could manage to earn her respect. Just so happened I ended up being one of those lucky few to do that impossible task.

I headed upstairs, changed into my sweats and an old t-shirt, and then crawled into the bed. As I lay in the dark, staring up at the white ceiling, I wondered if it was normal to get butterflies every time I thought about my daughter’s playdate’s dad.

*** *** ***

Blaine and I arrived at the park a few minutes early. Several other children were there, shouting and laughing as they played. Parents chatted and checked their email from their phones on the benches surrounding the playground. Squinting, I glanced around for an empty bench.

“Come on,” I said, lightly pulling at Blaine’s hand, gesturing for her to follow me to the bench. It was diagonal from the entryway, as well as the riverbank. Perfect eyelines in every direction except directly behind me. There were nothing but a row of typical suburban houses, though. Nothing to worry about.

“Do you want to wait on Maggie or go get a headstart?” I asked, taking off my coat.

“I’m going to play! I’ll see her later!” Before I could remind her she came specifically to play with Maggie, Blaine was out of speaking distance and stuck in the massive swath of children.

Shaking my head, I smiled as I perched on the bench, draping my coat on the metal arm of it. I took my phone from my pocket, checking it quickly, trying to keep an eye on Blaine. She had a bad habit of straying too far, so I always kept a close eye on her when we were in places that habit had a chance to flare up.

There was also the fact that most children, especially witch children, started presenting their powers as early as age eight, which meant things on the playground could get more complicated than someone falling off the swings. All the other species had it easy--those children had their powers from birth. Only witches had a magical delay, but it was likely for the best since those abilities tended to be the most unpredictable.

A few moments later, I noticed a shadow creeping over me. I glanced up, watching as Seb and Maggie drew closer to me. Smiling politely, I tapped the bench, offering Seb a seat.

“Blaine went ahead,” I said, addressing Maggie. I pointed toward the slide at the far right. “She’s in line for the slide if you’d like to meet up with her.”

She nodded eagerly, glancing up at her dad. “Can I go, Daddy?”

“Absolutely. I’ll be right here if you need me.”

Maggie tore off through the park, catching up with Blaine like lightning. Blaine’s face lit up when she saw her new best friend, hugging her tightly and running to the back of the line so Maggie didn’t cut. I snorted, shaking my head. I’d hoped she wouldn’t get the people-pleaser gene, but I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t happy about not having to break up a potential conflict.

“How are you today?” Sebastian asked, taking off his jacket and placing it in his lap as he sat next to me.

“Well. You?” I glanced over at him briefly, taking my gaze back to the girls.

“Not bad.” Seb propped his arm up on the back of the bench, his hand mere inches from my shoulder, making me stiffen a bit, worried about being too far in his space. “Maggie had a small meltdown this morning before we left the house.”

I hadn’t caught any residual frustration, so whatever the fit was over must’ve died out already. In fact, both her and Seb felt relatively good, which meant Seb still hadn’t realized who he’d decided to spend his afternoon with. Great.

“Oh? Let me guess, she couldn’t wear something she wanted to?”

“Close,” Seb said. “She actually just couldn’t choose between two things and ended up wearing both.”

I frowned, squinting at her. It was only upon closer inspection I noticed she wore a striped pink and black dress with a neon orange dragon shirt over it. I pursed my lips, biting back a chuckle as I dropped my gaze. “It’s moments like these I take pictures so I can use it against Blaine when she’s older.”

Seb laughed. “Not a bad idea. It would’ve been a cuter outfit if she would’ve just worn a black t-shirt.”

“I’ll give you that.” I shook my head, leaning back on my corner of the bench. Folding my arms over my chest, I settled in. We still had about an hour to go before it’d be acceptable to leave the park, get ice cream, and finally go back home. “How’s moving in going?”

“It’s slow, but other than that, everything is coming together really well! I’m thinking it’ll only be half a week before everything is set for sign-ups. Actually, I’m going to send flyers with Maggie so her teacher can pass them out at the elementary school. I’ll go to the middle and high schools in the next couple of days to distribute flyers there, try to get as many people as I can signed up for classes.”

“I can hang a few flyers in my shop if you’d like,” I said, glancing over at him.

Seb’s eyes lit up like I’d flipped a switch. “That’d be amazing, Plato! Thank you so much.”

“It’s no problem.” I smiled, feeling the gratitude radiating off him. Even after finishing an astonishing piece of art for a client, it was rare I felt anything quite that grateful. While it was nice and made me feel a modicum of appreciation, it was also incredibly uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to handle it, so I just turned back around to watch the girls as I worried at my lower lip with my teeth.

“You seem really tense today.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be the empath?”

Seb snorted. “Doesn’t take an empath. I’m just good at reading people. Having a rough day?”

I shook my head. “Honestly, I’m just not used to… this.”

When Seb didn’t respond, I glanced over at him. He stared at me, head cocked like a confused puppy, but open to listening nonetheless. Gods, it was weird to feel that. It’d been years since I felt that.

I sighed, biting my lip. “Having pleasant conversation with an adult that isn’t cursing my existence or hoping I’ll drop dead is a little out of the ordinary these days. So, yeah, this.”

“If the majority of your company hopes you’ll drop dead, I’d recommend finding new company.” Seb shifted, scooting a touch closer to me on the bench.

“Well, every time I try, I overshare, scare off the nice ones, and fuck myself over. Just like I’m currently doing.” I smiled tightly, sighing at myself, and looking back out at the park.

“For an empath, you have the social skills of an anxiety-riddled duck.”

“You aren’t wrong.” I tensed as a warm arm wrapped around my shoulders, glancing over at Seb with wide eyes. I literally just met the guy. Was that normal?

“As a obnoxiously exuberant extrovert, I hereby adopt you, my introverted duck, as a new friend.”

I blinked owlishly.

“We’re shop neighbors, our daughters are friends, you’re a neat guy--it’s a logical progression.”

“Wait. What just happened?” Had I made a friend?

Seb grinned. “We’re friends. I’m very difficult to get rid of, but I like to cook and dance and play the guitar, so it’s not like I don’t contribute to the friendship. I’m also a really good planner. You could really do worse, and new friends are always good to have so--”

I put my hand on his, finally shutting him up. I didn’t realize he talked that much. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but why on earth would you sign on for this? Did you not just hear the bit about people hating me bit?”

“I heard, I just don’t care. Everyone can use a new friend every now and again, Plato.” Seb gestured out to the girls. “Look at Blaine. She probably didn’t need friends, but she adopted Maggie anyway, right?”

“Using my child’s logic against me isn’t fair.”

Seb shrugged. “All’s fair in love and war.”

I rolled my eyes. For so many years, I’d only had one person in my life I’d refer to as a friend. Having two felt foreign in multiple ways, especially one as bubbly and full of life as Sebastian Keys. Just to wreck the tiny flickers of hope attempting to bloom in my chest, I reminded myself of what would come of that once Seb learned more about me.

Yeah, having friends--or allies--just wasn’t in the cards. But, since I could be a selfish bastard, I’d enjoy it while it lasted, at the very least.

“So, you think I could drop by next week to hang flyers and bang out a couple kinks in your sketch?” Seb asked.

I nodded. “I’ll text you the times I’m free, and we’ll go from there.”

“Sounds like a date.”

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Chapter Three

   Throughout the week, there were several events that only served to further intertwine mine and Seb’s lives. He came to the shop after lunch on Tuesday to distribute flyers for dance classes, as well as give me the sign-up forms for Blaine. I went ahead and filled them out. We had talked about it the day before, and she’d promised that she really wanted to do it and would try her best. So, I signed her up, making a mental note to take her shopping for dance clothes in the next few days so she would be prepared for her first class.

“The classes for the girls’ age division will happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7 in the evening,” Seb said, slipping the completed forms into a manila folder.

I nodded. “That’s fine. I might have appointments during those times, but I’ll still be over there to pick her up by 7.” I bit my lip and glanced down at my appointment list for the day. I still had an hour. “You know, if Maggie ever gets bored over there while you’re teaching a class or something, she’s welcome to come by. Blaine works on homework and stuff back here, so if she wanted a break or something…” I trailed off, shrugging. We’d only gotten the girls together once, so I wasn’t sure how ecstatic he’d be about leaving his child in my care while he was working across the road.

But, I also knew how hard it was to be a single parent without many resources, and there were days Blaine got really restless during my appointments. Rarely, my appointments went over two hours--the average length of Seb’s classes--so I couldn’t even imagine how antsy that’d make Maggie.

“That’d actually be really great. I’ve got a friend that’s volunteered to watch her, but she has such a hectic schedule that there are a lot of days that I wasn’t sure where to put Maggie.” He scratched the back of his head. “Well, same goes with you. If you run over on an appointment or something, I can keep Blaine at the studio until you’re finished.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s no problem.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “You’re doing the same for Maggie, after all. Single dads gotta stick together.”

“I guess you’re right.”

The conversation drifted after that, and I led him into the back to work on his sketch a bit more. So far, we had a smattering of silhouetted birds flying, but he wanted to think on it more before he fully committed to the design, which I respected. It was permanent art on his body, after all.

A few days later, Friday morning, I sat in my studio, painting something that looked like it came from space when my phone vibrated noisily on my desk. I frowned, balancing the paintbrush on table so I wouldn’t get paint everywhere, then answered the phone, silently swearing when I realized I still had paint on my hands.

“Hello?”

“Gods, you sound more hateful than me. Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

“Nice to hear from you too, Aurora,” I drawled, smirking. As my only friend up until a few days ago, I’d relied on her a lot. We had similar pasts, and we’d both gone through a lot, so we managed to find solace in one another. She’d even helped me when it came to adopting Blaine. “How are you?”

“Well, I’m still breathing, so I guess most people would consider that a victory.”

I snorted, “Or a travesty, because, you know, it’s us.”

“Oh, don’t remind me. Just because your mood ring is a filthy brown today doesn’t mean I’m ready to sink down to your level.” Her eye roll could’ve been audible. “I actually called you for a good reason--in fact, it might just turn that shitty brown into a lovely pink.”

I scowled, walking over to glance out the studio door and make sure no one had walked in while I wasn’t listening for the bell. Satisfied that I was alone, I perched on the stool in front of my canvas. “I’m not coming to another wedding as your fake husband.”

“Hush, it’s nothing like that. This is actually for you. I’ve got a friend that’s looking for a special someone, and I know you’re kinda lonely what with just the kid for company these days… So, I set you up a blind date!”

What in the actual fuck was she thinking? No one liked me! No one had any good reason to, holy fucking shit… Gods, that was such a bad idea. What did she mean it was for me? How could--?

“Hey? You still there? I’m pretty sure you are. I think I can hear you mentally screaming at me.”

I took a deep breath, forcing myself to calm down. “I’m still here.”

“Listen, this guy isn’t judgey at all. He believes in second chances, and he’s really sweet. He’s great with kids--even has a kid. He’s a single dad too. Look, Plato, it’s not going to hurt to just have lunch with him.”

“What if it goes horribly wrong?” As Seb had so eloquently put it, I had the social skills of a duck with anxiety. I wasn’t good at socializing, much less socializing with as much risk as dating.

“Then you’ll have a funny story to tell me later this afternoon.”

“Whoa, wait. The date is today?”

“If I told you sooner, you’d have an excuse. Besides, I already hacked you, so I know you don’t have an appointment, and you’re business hours already account for you leaving for lunch, so it’s not like it’s going to be a problem.”

I sighed, raking my fingers through my hair. “I look like hell, Aurora. I have paint all over me, and I smell like a hospital from the cleaning--”

“It’s super casual. You guys are just having lunch at the Blakewood Cafe. When you go, you’ll give the hostess my name so she knows where you two are supposed to be. Come on, you might even make a friend. Hell, maybe you’ll get a sitter for Blaine so you actually could go on dates if you wanted.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, because I like dating so much.”

“Don’t knock it till you try it.”

I sighed. “What time do I need to be at the cafe?”

“Noon, sharp. Don’t get all dressed up--trust me, he’s been working all day too and he’s going to be in just the same shape. Have fun, Plato.”

“You know, I think you’re the only person I know that can make having fun sound like a threat.”

“It’s a gift. I’ll call you later today.”

“Bye.” I hung up before she got another word in and heaved another sigh, glancing at the clock. It was almost eleven as it was. Only an hour before I had to go have lunch with a stranger… Shit, I didn’t even ask Aurora for his name.

Well, that’d get some of the conversation out of the way.

Gods, I wasn’t cut out for that shit.

Chewing my lower lip, I grabbed my paintbrush and tried to reinvest myself in my work for half an hour, but to no avail. I felt jittery and a little nauseous. Being ridiculed on the street or in my shop was one thing, but to be on a date with someone that cursed the very ground I walked on was the last thing I wanted to do. It’d been why I’d stayed away from dating for so long.

I was a romantic man. I enjoyed cuddling and stargazing and candle-light dinners and sex and holding hands… but I resigned myself from all of that after everything in my life went sour. That would be my first date in decades for fuck’s sake.

Hauling myself off the stool and over to a mirror, I pulled my hair out of it’s sloppy bun, letting my long, black hair cascade over my shoulder like liquid night. The dark makeup lining my eyes made the amber color more intense… if it wasn’t for the paint all over my hands, face, and clothes, I might almost look decent.

I pushed my glasses up my nose and glanced at my phone. Five minutes until noon. Walking to the door, I locked it. The business hours printed on the glass told everyone that stopped by in the next hour that I wouldn’t be in because of lunch. I teleported out of my shop. The glass door was replaced with the fresh air and quaint home-turned-cafe in front of me. I walked up the rickety wooden steps and entered the house. A hostess stood at the front, a white lily in her blond hair.

She smiled with rich, red lips. A hint of malice crept through her as she recognized me, but she kept the friendly, professional demeanor on as she asked for my party.

“Swan. Aurora Swan.”

She nodded, glancing down at her book. “Yep, I’ve got you down right here. The other member of your party has not arrived.”

“That’s fine.” I was a bit early anyway.

“I’ll still go ahead and seat you.” She grabbed a small menu and motioned for me to follow her as she led me out the back door. The back was enclosed with a white picket fence. There was a stone walkway with tiger lilies sitting in rustic barrels between the tables. Fairy lights were strung along the umbrellas on the tables, but they were turned off since it was daylight. She led me to a table secluded in the corner, away from the other tables and customers. I took the seat with better visibility of the vicinity, thanking the hostess as she placed the menu on the table and left. I glanced at my phone again.

Two minutes until noon.

Calm down, I told myself sternly, sucking in a deep breath. I unlocked my phone, deciding playing with it would look significantly better than staring daggers at the door waiting for the hostess to walk through with someone in tow. Just as I settled, feeling myself relax a little, I heard the door open. I glanced up and saw Sebastian following the hostess.

Well, at least if the blind date went south, I could always finish lunch with Seb. Or would he be okay with that? Maybe he was joining someone else and wouldn’t want to be interrupted. I didn’t want to be a bother, and besides, he’d said we were friends, but were we really friendly enough that I could feel comfortable intruding on his meal?

Lost in my thoughts, I jumped when another menu hit the table. Snapping my gaze up to see the hostess, I almost missed the figure sliding into the chair opposite me. Messy caramel-colored hair, light blue eyes that sparkled with mirth, and an adorable little dimple: how on earth was Sebastian Keys my date?

The hostess left, telling us the waiter would be along shortly, and left Seb and I alone.

“How on earth do you know Aurora?” was the first thing to pop out of my mouth.

Seb chuckled. “It’s a good thing I already like you, because that’s a terrible way to greet your date.”

I blinked, scowling a bit. “Did you know--?”

“Know it was you? Gods, no.” He shrugged. “I saw you sitting here and was actually debating ditching the date to come over here to have lunch with you instead, and then the hostess brought me over anyway.”

I snorted, shaking my head, gaze dropping to the table. “When I saw you come in, I decided that if the date started going bad, I would come over to your table and have lunch with you instead.”

“Great minds.”

“You never answered my question,” I said.

“Oh, right! I helped Aurora get work after she left the Ring.”

Before I could even attempt to respond, the waiter came up to take our drink orders. I asked for water, desperately trying to figure out what I’d say once he left. He knew that Aurora was part of the Ring, which wasn’t weird. Everyone knew that Aurora and I were both former members, and everyone knew that while they didn’t like us and couldn’t trust us, we weren’t technically guilty of anything. Not to mention that us staying on the grid was a courtesy, which was something we were both ready to revoke at a moment’s notice.

What I found strange about the situation was that Seb had reached out and helped her. Even stranger was that Aurora had befriended him and thought that I would enjoy him. While she made friends easier than I did, even she didn’t trust easily. Seb must’ve really been something to have gained her trust despite being a civilian.

Unless I was looking at the situation wrong, and Seb wasn’t a civilian.

He didn’t seem nervous in the slightest. In fact, the only thing I could pick up from him was a steady calm with maybe a pinch of happiness… or maybe, hope? It was positive, nothing like the sort of emotion a man that was about to be busted for illicit activities would feel.

“I’ve never known her to be the dancing type,” I said, settling on that as a neutral way to dig a little more into his background without being outwardly obvious about it.

“Hell no, she would never.” He laughed. “I didn’t employee her, just helped her find a new job that was more tailored to her interests.”

I nodded slowly. So, he knew enough about Aurora to also know some of the more sensitive information about her. As soon as I left, she’d be getting that phone call, but not so I could gush.

...But wait, if he knew who she was, then he must’ve known about me. Why on earth would he still be there if he knew, though?

“What’s wrong? You’re making the face.”

“What?”

Seb quirked a brow, running his index finger between his brows. “That furrow between your brows. You make that face a lot.”

I touched my forehead, feeling the wrinkles in my skin. “Thanks for making me self-conscious.”

“That’s not why I told you,” he said. “I’m just wondering why you look like that.”

“Oh gods,” I muttered, feeling myself flush. I already looked like a goddamn trainwreck too, and now-- “Um, what did Aurora tell you about me? Assuming she did, anyway. She gave me a little background about you, so…” I bit my lip to shut myself up.

“Well, I’d asked her to set me up a while ago, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone she thought I’d like until I told her about moving here a few days ago. She said that she set something up with a handsome man. She said you were a single dad with a daughter the same age as Maggie and that you were really creative. She told me that you were a little awkward, but once you relaxed you had a wicked sense of humor and were incredibly romantic… and, she said you had a messy past, which is part of my long list of preferences, so, no problems there.”

“Did she elaborate on that?”

“No, but she didn’t elaborate on my messy past either, did she?”

I frowned, thinking back to my conversation with her just a few hours ago. “Actually, I don’t think she mentioned you having a past at all.”

“Well, I have one, and I want someone that can understand that. I’ve had my fair share of partners that don’t, and it never turns out well.”

“So, you want someone at least as fucked up as you so you don’t feel guilty for being fucked up?”

He tilted his head to the side. “What an eloquent way of putting it.” He smirked. “So, what did she say about me?”

“You were a single dad, really good with kids. She said that you weren’t judgmental and believed in second chances, and she said you were a really sweet guy.” I bit my lower lip and shrugged. “She wasn’t wrong,” I muttered.

The waiter popped by just then, dropping the drinks off and taking our lunch orders. I got a veggie wrap, while Seb asked for potato soup. The waiter left to put the order in.

“Well, I have yet to see you relax, so I can’t say much about your sense of humor or romantic tendencies, but I know that you’re incredibly creative and generous and awkward. And even covered in paint, you’re easily the sexiest individual I’ve seen in weeks.”

My face felt fire-engine red. Receiving compliments was never my strong suit, and after not hearing one in quite some time--especially one that didn’t concern work--I kind of wanted to die on spot just to save myself from having to respond to that.

Seb chuckled, placing his hand atop mine on the table. “Just relax and take the compliment…” He brushed his thumb along my knuckles for a second before retracting his hand. “Before this goes any further, do you want to just be two friends having lunch under fucking hilarious circumstances, or do you want to maybe consider making this a thing?”

“Like a romantic thing or a friends that like getting lunch together and giving weird compliments thing?” I asked.

“A romantic thing,” Seb said.

I bit my lip again, worrying at it with my teeth. “It’s been years since I’ve done… anything with anyone. I don’t… I mean, I think I’d enjoy it, but I…” I took a deep breath and forced myself to clear my head, to think clearly. Obviously, Seb had things he wasn’t saying either, and maybe those things would make me dislike him. Either way, it seemed as though we both had shitty pasts, and Aurora trusted him enough to set me up with him.

And it’d been years since I last had anyone involved with me romantically. I missed going on dates, snuggling under the stars, and slow good-morning kisses before sunrise.

To top it off, if I was brutally honest with myself, I liked Sebastian. He was handsome and sweet; he was amazing with kids. He was creative and opposite me in ways I found endearing opposed to annoying. He wasn’t quite like anyone I’d ever met, and he was one of the very few people that I could count on to not harbor any malicious feelings toward me.

“A romantic thing would be nice, but… slowly. It’s been a while, and I really don’t want to rush into anything.”

“Okay,” Seb said, smiling like I’d just wrapped up everything good in the world and handed it to him on a silver platter. “Slow is good. It gives us more time to get to know each other, to get you to relax. We have all the time in the world.”

“So, it’s slow enough for you if I put out on the first date, right?”

Seb blinked, eyes going wide for a second before I smirked, trying to hold back a chuckle at his reaction. He laughed, shaking his head at me.

“Holy shit, I thought you were serious for a second. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have said no, but… Gods, this is going to be fun.”

The waiter brought the food by and placed it on the table, leaving Seb and I in a comfortable silence as we ate. At the end of the date, we split the bill and walked back to my studio together, since he was returning to the dance studio right across from me.

“So, dance classes start Tuesday,” Seb said.

I nodded. “I’m taking Blaine out tonight to pick out dance clothes.”

“Let me know if you guys need any advice or anything.”

“Thanks, Seb.”

He nodded, walking a bit slower as we came closer to my shop. “So, maybe we could get the girls together again this weekend?”

“Yeah, that’d be great. Maybe we can go to the park again tomorrow, and walk down to the river afterwards or something.”

“It’s a date. I’ll text you, get the time and all that.” He smiled.

I bit my lip, stopping at my studio door. “Would a hug be weird? A kiss is a lot, and a handshake is too formal, so--”

Seb’s arms wound around me, his hands resting on my back. I returned the hug and patted his back. As we parted, Seb dove back in and pecked me on the cheek.

“Have a good day, Plato.”

“You too,” I said, watching as Seb walked across the street and entered his studio. Once inside, he turned back around, catching me staring. He grinned and waved before walking away from the window, vanishing from sight.

I took a deep breath, tried to make my skin go back to it’s normal color, and went inside my shop just for a client to come in before I’d even made it to the desk. Later that evening, once I put Blaine to bed, Aurora would be getting that phone call, because not only did I have questions… but I also had to tell someone about how fucking well that date went.

For once in a very long time, I felt the flicker of glee in my chest. All I had to worry about then was doing what I did best and fucking everything up.

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Chapter Four

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Chapter Five

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Chapter Six

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Chapter Seven

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Chapter Eight

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