Intimately Inked

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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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