“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.”