Once again, I found myself overly early. Blaine and I were already at the park, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. She’d run off to play alone or with some other group of kids she’d randomly befriend until Maggie arrived, which left me alone on the bench.
Since our blind date the day before, I’d been ensnared in my thoughts. After putting Blaine to sleep the night before, I got around to making that phone call to Aurora.
“Hey! I heard someone got a new beau.”
I rolled my eyes. “I already fucking knew him.”
“His new dance studio is across from the shop, not to mention he came in for an art consult for a tattoo a couple weeks ago. Just to make it even better, Blaine already made his daughter Maggie her new best friend, and we’ve already had a playdate with them. He’d already made me his new friend, Aurora.”
“Damn, sounds like I didn’t even need to set up the date, but glad I could get the ball rolling.”
I sighed, chewing on my lower lip. “Look, I…” It wasn’t that I didn’t feel grateful on some level, because I did. The thrill of a potential relationship, especially with someone like Seb, was exhilarating, and gods, it’d been so long. But, I also felt horribly skeptical, because I knew something about him wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t decide whether it was a something I could live with and feel safe around. “You trust this guy, obviously. You wouldn’t have set me up with him otherwise.”
“But, there’s something weird about him. He mentioned having a past, I know he knows you intimately, there are things about him that make him a potential threat. So, what’s his story? Why do you trust him, and why does he feel weird?”
Silence emanated loudly from the other end of the line.
“Oh, I’m here, Plato,” she drawled, a hint of exasperation coloring her voice. She was irritated with me, with my prying, but I needed to know more. I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I knew more. “I’m just trying to decide how to say this without hurting your feelings, since you’re a little sensitive…”
“How would you feel if Seb asked me to tell him all about you and I did?”
“Betrayed,” I answered automatically. “I’ve trusted you with intimate details of my life, because I know you wouldn’t divulge them without my explicit permission.”
“And I have the same arrangement with Sebastian,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you a goddamn thing, because he’s my friend and he trusts me. Betraying his trust by telling you would not only hurt him, but it would make you start questioning whether I’d ever expose you. That benefits no one.” Her words came from a place of concern and kindness, but that didn’t make the things she said any less pointed--or any less firm.
“What can you tell me then?”
“You trust me, right?”
I leaned back on the counter, the granite pressing into the small of my back. “You know I do.”
“Then trust me about this: Sebastian Keys is a sweet dumpling that’d give the god of all things evil and horrible and twisted a second chance. It’s not because he’s naive or overly optimistic. He’s gone through some shitty things, just like us, and he’s been graced with second chances even after the shit he’s done. He’s been humbled into bestowing second chances to help people grow and change. Every opportunity he gets, he bends over backward for the people he cares about, he’s affectionate, he likes to make others feel safe and loved… He’s got issues, don’t misunderstand me, but so do you, and so do I, and so does everyone we’ve ever come into contact with. But not a single one of them was enough for me to reconsider putting him in yours or Blaine’s lives.
“Have some faith and buck up. If you wanna know all his dirty little secrets so bad, go ask him yourself.”
I sighed again and raked my fingers through my hair, feeling more than a little agitated and worn out. Aurora made some good points, that was undeniable, but it didn’t make the fact that I’d have to get my own information any easier. One thing was certain, though--I could trust Sebastian. At the end of the day, that was all I could truly hope for.
“Now,” Aurora said, her tone lightening back up. “Tell me about this weird end-of-date hug situation you talked yourself into.”
I’d learned shortly after that conversation that she’d already talked to Seb and gotten most of the details from him, which was how she’d known about the hug in the first place. Before delving into anything too personal, we would have to have a talk about what and what not to tell Aurora for the sake of my sanity.
As for the personal shit, I wasn’t so sure chatting in the park about our mutual friend that used to kill people for a living and how that related to him was such a good idea. The girls would also be around, which might make the conversation harder, especially if it unearthed any potential triggers or traumas Seb had--gods knew I had my fair share of them.
I glanced up at the sky, frowning as I noticed the dark, almost black, clouds looming over us. Blaine hadn’t even noticed, still playing away with two boys at the merry-go-round. From the side, I saw another child running toward them… Maggie. She jumped, landing on the merry-go-round between Blaine and one of the boys, grinning broadly. Blaine hugged her, already talking a mile a minute.
Before I could scan the park for Seb, he sat next to me on the bench and propped his arm along the back of it. We sat just far enough apart so his arm wasn’t quite behind my shoulders, but it was close. I could feel his thumb running lightly over my shoulder blade.
“It’s going to rain,” he said.
“I gathered that by the clouds.”
He smirked, glancing over at me with a droll stare. “Well, are we cutting this date exceptionally short, or do you have a back-up plan?”
I shrugged. “You sound like the one that has the back-up plan.”
“I just state the obvious. Strategy isn’t my thing.”
“We could head back to my place, let the girls play there for a while. Maybe the rain will clear up.”
“Sounds good,” Seb said.
A streak of lightning bolted across the sky, and thunder clapped, rocking the earth. The girls ran screaming over to us, coming as fast as their little legs would carry them. Not a moment too soon either, because just as they reached us, rain started pouring down, soaking all four of us. We linked hands, and I teleported the four of us to the front gate of the house. I unlatched it, letting the girls and Seb in ahead of me. Shutting the gate behind us, we walked down the short stone pathway and into the house.
I locked the door behind us and pulled wet strands of hair from my eyes. “Blaine, go get changed into some dry clothes so you don’t catch a cold. Let Maggie borrow some too, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy!” She grabbed Maggie’s hand and pulled her up the stairs to her bedroom to get changed.
“You can follow me. We’re about the same size, yeah?”
Seb nodded. “Looks like it. I’m fine, though.”
I quirked a brow at him incredulously. “Tell me that when you’ve got the sniffles, and I’m toting chicken noodle soup to your studio every day for the next two weeks.”
“At this point, I’m choosing to be flattered over the fact that you’d bring me soup that long.”
“Shut up.” I chuckled, motioning for him to follow me to my bedroom. I left the door opened behind us and went straight to the closet on the adjacent wall. I dragged out a pair two pairs of sweatpants and t-shirts. “Here.” I passed a set back to Seb. “I might have a bigger shirt if you need it.” His shoulders were a touch broader than mine, so the shirt might be a bit tight.
“This should be fine.”
I nodded. “Well, I’m going to use the restroom and change. Feel free to change in here.” I slipped into the ensuite bathroom and closed the door behind me.
Shucking off my rain-soaked clothes, I tossed them into the laundry basket and shivered. While the weather remained warm, the rain was colder than ice. Autumn would creep around the corner any day, and it would only last a second before winter barred down on the realm. Not that I was complaining--I hated hot weather. I just didn’t like being soaking wet and cold to boot.
As I turned to grab my dry clothes from the counter, I stopped as I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the small mirror over the sink. Before I fixed it, there’d been a large mirror that covered the wall--all the way from the top of the sink to the ceiling. All along my back and chest were scars and brands that I hated having to look at, which was impossible to avoid with the old mirror. The new one really only showed my face unless I hit it at just the right angle.
And I’d managed to find that angle on the first shot that day.
I grimaced and jerked my head back down, focusing on pulling the t-shirt on. The sleeves slipped up my arms, and I ran my fingers around the length of the bandages lining my hands, wrists, and forearms. They were a bit damp, mostly protected from the flannel I’d worn, so they would hold until that night when I changed them out.
While I used them to ease cramps in my hands, I mostly used them to cover more scarring and some extensive, revealing tattooing. I only removed the wraps when I knew I’d be completely alone--which meant I didn’t even remove them around Blaine. Right around the age when she would start retaining memories--right around her fourth birthday--I’d stopped leaving myself unbandaged in front of her. I didn’t want her to remember. Not to mention, I didn’t want her asking questions.
As she grew older, she would have enough to answer for when it came to me. There was no reason to place any undue burden on her… no more than was necessary.
I pulled on the dark gray sweatpants and padded back out of the bathroom just in time to see Seb pulling my shirt the rest of the way down his torso. Just a small strip of his stomach was exposed--all golden skin and toned muscle. Gods, I’d been so entrenched in his sweet personality and cute smile that I hadn’t given much thought to his body.
And it was a goddamn crime that I hadn’t noticed.
The man was in perfect shape. All long legs and thoughtless grace, no doubt from his dancing. He had the body of a dancer with lean, yet hard muscle. The gods certainly didn’t make any mistakes when they crafted Sebastian Keys.
“Plato, I think we have a small problem.” Seb glanced up at me, grimacing.
I frowned. He didn’t feel anxious or concerned. If anything, he was past the point of relaxed, maybe a bit amused. “What is it?”
He stepped around my bed and gestured at his legs. The sweatpants stopped about five inches before they reached his ankles.
I snorted, barely concealing a grin. “Preparing for a flood?”
Seb rolled his eyes, grinning. “We’re the same height!”
“You have longer legs though. I didn’t take that into account.” I shrugged. “It’s just going to be us and the girls. Aurora doesn’t have to know about this.”
“She better not.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “The next time you tell her about something ridiculous that I do, she’ll know.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “I heard that she’d heard from someone about the hugging incident.”
Seb smiled. “That was cute. You had nothing to be embarrassed over.”
“I don’t think you understand my relationship with Aurora.”
“I do,” Seb said. “That’s what made it all the funnier for me when I told her.”
“I should’ve left you in the rain.” I shook my head, and then glanced at the clock. “Have you and Maggie eaten?”
Seb shook his head. “Not since lunch.”
“Why don’t you guys stay for dinner then? The girls can play or watch a movie, and I can cook.”
“What do you want me to do?”
I shrugged. “Whatever you want to do.”
“I can sit in the kitchen with you. Give you something nice to look at, or some interesting conversation at the very least.”
“Who knows, I might even put you to work.”
“Since when did the duckling get bossy?” Seb grinned.
“Since the duck figured out you’re more like a labrador retriever than an fox.” It was a telling analogy, but it also opened the dialogue to start digging into his background a bit.
Seb narrowed his eyes a fraction as his curiosity piqued, but as he opened his mouth to reply, the girls popped into the room, giggling.
“Hey, Daddy, can me and Maggie do crafts?”
“Sure, just make sure you stay on your side of the art room. I have a few pieces drying on my side.”
“’Kay!” Blaine bolted down the hallway, dragging Maggie with her. They were both dressed in pajamas--thank the gods. I’d just known Blaine would drag out her nice dresses or something like that, and I’d be left negotiating her outfit of choice.
“You have an art room?” Seb asked, quirking a brow at me. “Don’t you get enough of that at work?”
“You’d be shocked just how well painting works as an insomnia remedy,” I said. “Anyway, it was the only use I could come up with for the spare bedroom.”
“This is a pretty big house for just you and Blaine. Did you used to have a partner or something?”
I shook my head, sliding my hands into the pockets of my sweatpants. “I adopted Blaine on my own, and I haven’t had a partner since she’s been in my life. I picked this house, because I liked it. It didn’t really have anything to do with space.”
“Why have you been single for so long?” Seb asked, tilting his head, like he didn’t even realize he was prying at all. In fact, he didn’t feel as though he knew. He just felt curious.
I couldn’t let him sidetrack me, though. I had my own interrogation to launch. So, instead of answering him, I shrugged and waved my hand in a gesture for him to follow me. We went back downstairs and into the hallway.
“If you want to make yourself comfortable on the sofa, feel free. I’m just going to lay out a few things we might need for dinner. Do you or Maggie have any allergies or preferences I should know about?”
“Maggie’s allergic to peanuts, and unless it’s pasta, she isn’t eating it.”
“How does she feel about spaghetti?”
“Well, the last time I checked, it was okay.”
“I’ll go ask them.” I pointed down the hallway to a doorway at the very back. “The living room is right through there. Make yourself at home.” I headed back upstairs and asked the girls if spaghetti was okay for dinner. After they agreed, I went back downstairs and into the kitchen, placing the ingredients I’d need on the counter. Once I placed a pot of water on the stove to bring it to a boil, I went back into the living room to find Seb sitting cross-legged on the sofa, a photo of Blaine and I in his hands.
“You’re a good father, you know?”
I frowned as I perched on the other end of the sofa. “What?”
Seb placed the picture back on the table. Blaine was about two years old in the photo. She was covered in paint and bird feathers, but she had the biggest smile on her little face. I sat next to her, grimacing at the camera--at Aurora since she’d been the one to take the photo. That had been the day I officially adopted Blaine, and I’d ended up signing all of the paperwork in a suit with paint stains all along the arm and side.
It’d been a weird day.
“I, um… Your powers are empathy, so there’s already a bit of a privacy breach for anyone that’s around you, right?”
“Well, I don’t violate privacy quite the same way, but sometimes, it happens beyond my control. I can see the future, which is constantly evolving and changing, so usually no big deal. But, sometimes, my abilities supercede my consciousness and I’ll have a random premonition based on something I touch or feel... “ Seb shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “It’s not always of the future when I get these. They’re just random visions--sometimes they’re important, sometimes less so. Since it hasn’t come up, I didn’t mention it, but--”
“Did you just have a premonition?”
Seb nodded. “I saw a glimpse of the photo--well, what happened behind the scenes. Blaine’s lucky to have someone like you in her corner.”
I chewed my lower lip. Seb already felt a little tense, maybe nervous, like he wasn’t sure how I would react to him having that vision. That wasn’t a concern of mine, though. While it could be a pain in the ass later on, especially if he saw something he wasn’t supposed to, but for right then, I needed more information than that.
“Thanks,” I said at last. “And, it’s all good. You can’t help it sometimes. Magic isn’t always under our control.” I pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose. “But, while we’re teetering near potentially sensitive subjects, I have a few questions for you.”
“Okay, but before you begin, I want to clarify something. I don’t give information. I trade it.” Seb shifted his weight, turning so he could face me on the sofa. “It ensures both parties are divulging equally revealing things, while also providing protection from future blackmail.”
“And I already know you asked Aurora more about me, because I tried to do the same thing to you.” A sheepish, guilty smile tugged at his lips. “So, I’d say we both have some issues we need to work on here.”
“I’ll ask you a question first. Once you answer, you can ask me a question.”
“But,” I said, holding up a finger. “The empathy goes beyond my art. The second you even consider lying, I’ll know, and I’ll shut this down faster than you can finish your sentence.”
“How will I know if you’re lying?”
“You can confirm it with Aurora. She knows everything. She’s the only one I’ve ever trusted to know everything.”
Seb nodded. “Let’s get started.”
I took a deep breath, glancing at the clock. I had about five minutes before I’d need to go put the noodles on. “Are you really just a civilian?”
While a small sliver of anxiety cut through Seb, his brows pulling together, he seemed relatively composed. “Depends on how technical you want to get. As far as anyone in the public sphere is concerned, I am.”
“But there’s more to it than that.”
Seb nodded, even though I didn’t ask a question. “I used to work for an underground justice division in this realm. I really believed in the division and thought it had the potential to make a difference, but I couldn’t stomach it. By the time I resigned, I’d seen enough of the darkside of this realm, and there was too much innocent blood on my hands.”
“And that’s when you decided to pick up dancing, or perhaps resume it?”
“It’s my turn, but yes. Very insightful, Plato.”
Well, that was my speciality, I thought bitterly.
“The rumors about you… They say you’re a previously brainwashed terrorist, and the realm put you back into society to rehabilitate you. It’s like you’re getting a second chance at life away from the terror syndicate that deployed you. Is it true?”
“All rumors are built on some truth, but no, in essence. I’m not a terrorist, and I wasn’t brainwashed.”
Seb nodded, satisfied with the answer despite the fact I’d given him significantly less detail than he’d given me.
“What do you know about my background?” I asked.
“I don’t know anything for certain, but I think you used to be part of a criminal syndicate called the Ring. You escaped or were disavowed, something happened that led to you being cut from the group. You were apprehended and entered some sort of plea deal with the government to give up everything you know as long as you received full immunity. You didn’t have enough information, so they forced you to stay in one location so they could keep a constant surveillance over you, but you are otherwise considered to be a free man.”
Parts weren’t wrong, but most of it wasn’t entirely correct either, which automatically made me a feel a little better. However, it also meant that Aurora probably hadn’t been entirely honest with him when they exchanged stories. The events leading to the destruction of our former lives were close, not to mention we both played a heavy hand in those events.
“Can you correct what I got wrong in telling you what I think is your background?”
I glanced at the clock. “Only if you want to sit in the kitchen while I make spaghetti.”
Seb nodded, and we headed into the kitchen. He took a seat at the dining table, while I started breaking up noodles and slipping them into the pot of boiling water.
“The government never apprehended me. They told me I’d acted out of line with my orders, disavowed me, and placed me on forced leave. I told them the only way I’d keep my mouth shut about their illicit activities was for them to allow me to have as normal of a life as possible during my ‘time off.’”
“The Ring is part of the government?”
“It’s my turn, Seb,” I said, turning back to face him.
The calm demeanor had dropped in favor of astonishment and anger. “You’re telling me that the most prominent criminal organization of our time is being operated by our own government?”
I sighed and folded my arms across my chest. “You’re bad at sharing. And anyway, I’m not telling you shit, because if I told you, that would mean the powers that be would have reason to revoke my freedom license. If we’re being blunt, which is the only thing I’m good at, I would end up having to kill you for that. Which, let’s face it, murder is a messy thing, and I just don’t have the ambition for it any more.”
I’d threatened Sebastian’s life, and the only emotion I felt from him was curiosity. If that were the case, I’d keep playing the game. While the calm remained settled, it gave me the opportunity to dig a little deeper into his life. That would ultimately allow me to determine how much of a threat he would be to my freedom.
Before I could get a word in, Seb was already speaking. “I was on the task force set to eliminate the Ring--that was established by the realm’s government… How did--?”
“I don’t know all of it,” I said, turning around to stir the noodles again. “But, from what I understood, too many people with authority were asking questions, which meant it had to at least look like the government wanted to try to stop the Ring. Even though we had access to all of the Justice Task Force’s data and tried to stay a step ahead of you guys, it is astounding how well your division still did.
“But, had you guys ever actually caught us, the lower level agents were ordered to commit suicide, while the higher levels agents would escape due to some sort of horrible technology flaw or fuck up during transport.” I went still, everything in me going rigid when I felt Seb hovering right behind me. “Had it not been for us, it’s unlikely you would’ve ever had innocent blood on your hands.”
“There’s more to it than that, though. Isn’t there?”
I glanced over my shoulder at Seb. “What makes you think that?”
“Because everything in me refuses to believe that you of all people willingly killed innocent people just because someone asked you to. You’re too good.”
Gods, he was wrong. He was so, so wrong. But, I wasn’t about to tell him that, so I shrugged. “When we did it, when I was brought in, it was pitched like we were performing a public service--like we were only eliminating people that deserved it.” That was true for a while, and then I learned that that wasn’t necessarily the case. “Everything devolved from there, and by the time I could make heads or tails of anything, I’d already pissed off my bosses and gotten myself thrown out.”
“What did you do that made them so mad?”
“A case got too personal.”
Even as I heard Seb take a breath to reply, I heard footsteps pounding down the hallway.
I grinned, looking back at Blaine. “Yes, little one?”
“Where’d you put my glitter? Maggie and I need it to make stars for our space!”
“Should still be in the bottom drawer of your desk. If it isn’t there, then you must’ve used it since then.”
I smiled, put the spoon on the counter, and went over to her, ruffling her hair. “Double check the other drawers. If it isn’t there, make sure you didn’t take it to your room and put it under your bed. If you still can’t find it, use little dots of silver paint. We can put a clear coat over it later on and use glitter once we find it.”
Blaine sighed and nodded, turning back to bolt up the stairs.
“Start wrapping it up!” I called after her. “Supper will be ready in about ten minutes.”
Without a response, I assumed she hadn’t heard me. I shook my head and went back to the stove, shooting Seb a curious look. He was staring me down suspiciously, gaze running all over me, like he could siphon information from me just by looking.
“So, how do you really know Aurora?” I asked.
“We’d bumped into each other during her time in the Ring and my time on the task force. She’d been manipulated by them, and I helped her find a new job through some of my contacts in private security.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I said, stealing one of his lines.
He sighed, running a hand down his face, suddenly feeling exhausted. “We’d caught up to the Ring once. I got into a tight spot and almost died. I was trapped with two of their agents that got caught in the explosion, and they gave me a second chance. They even let me live after the fact. Aurora was one of them.”
I stilled, frowning at him, searching his face a little closer, peering into his eyes. Nothing in him, nothing about his statement, felt like a lie. “Any idea who the other one was?”
Seb shook his head. “He was a man. He kept me sane and staved off the shock while Aurora healed me. He kept his mask on the whole time, and he never gave me his name. All I know is that he had a lot of scarring on his wrists and a Ring brand…” Seb squinted, like he was actually watching the memory play out in front of him. “He also had a slave marking near the tattoo, like they went together.”
I went back to the stove and stirred the noodles, while Seb and I stood there in the shrinking, silent kitchen. It felt as though we’d stood there for eternity before he spoke again.
“If you had the chance, would you willingly go back to them?” The question came out in a whisper, but as silent as the kitchen was, it sounded like he’d shouted it.
“Never willingly.” I sniffed, chewing on my lower lip. “Are you going to keep my secret?”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, only to suck another one in when I felt warm fingers lace through the ones at my side. Seb gave my hand a gentle squeeze.
“I’m okay with fucked up and complicated. Innocent blood is on my hands too, so I can’t judge.” He eased his thumb along my knuckles. “Aurora trusts you, and I feel like there’s more to this than you’re letting on, so you keeping your freedom is in my best interest.” He drew our hands up to his lips and kissed the back of my hand. “Until I have a real reason not to trust you, I’m on your side, Plato.”
“Then let’s hope I don’t disappoint you.”