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?”
“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.
“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?”
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.