**TRIGGER WARNING: GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF SELF-HARM**
Paint effortlessly glided from my brush to the canvas. Fat red lines dominated the surface in anger and anguish. When I sat down to start the piece, I hadn’t had any real idea of what I’d do. I had just finished up my last appointment for the day a little early, and I had twenty minutes before I needed to pick Blaine up from dance class.
So, I decided to paint.
Ever since the girls’ playdate Saturday, I felt like I’d been stuck in a past headspace. Everything felt foreign and unreal, and everytime I had a second, I drifted into old memories I released years ago. The discussion Seb and I had, exposing our pasts, it opened up a can of worms I’d had a tight lid on. I probably would’ve made it out unscathed too, but…
“We should just leave him!” Aurora snapped. “You know they’re gonna kill him anyway.”
“Not if we give him a chance to get out.”
“If they found out we did that--”
“They wouldn’t know, not unless you told them.”
Aurora sighed. “Just sit your ass down so I can heal you.”
“No. You aren’t doing anything to me until you treat him,” I said, glancing at the unconscious man bleeding out next to us. We were locked in a firefight because his team ambushed us with more force than we had anticipated, which had led to Aurora and I getting sectioned off from the rest.
The guy had been prepared to kill us, but once I spotted him--and Aurora started to take him out--the bomb detonated, knocking the guy out and preventing Aurora and I from signaling our handlers. Protocol dictated that we perform any action necessary to keep ourselves alive until rescue located us. Under no circumstances were we to escape ourselves--apparently, it had the potential to compromise the syndicate if we made our presence known at the wrong time.
Protocol didn’t say a word about helping enemy agents, though.
Aurora sighed. “Fine. I’ll heal him, but keep your mask on. I don’t want both of us getting into trouble for this shit, especially you. You’re on thin ice as it is.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever, just make sure he doesn’t die.”
She settled next to him, hovering her hands over his body. “Plato, sit next to him. Be ready to handle him when he wakes up. Even after I’ve healed him, he’s gonna be in shock from the physical trauma he just went through. Ready?”
Getting into position at his side, I nodded. “Wake him up.”
Warm, orange-colored magic flowed into him. Skin stitched back together, wounds vanished, and his body reassembled itself. The ragged rips in his clothes remained, as well as the dried blood, but no new blood protruded from his body. A second later, a harsh gasp tore through the air. The man bolted upright, breathing hard, periwinkle-colored eyes wild.
I put a hand on his chest, easing him back down. “Deep breaths, agent. Easy, just settle down. We’re here to help you, not hurt you.” He felt panicked--terrified to his very core. His heart raced beneath my fingers, even through the body armor. Sweat slicked the sides of his face, matting his caramel-colored hair against his hollow cheeks.
“You’re walking out of here alive today. You understand?”
It seemed as though he couldn’t focus on me--on what I said, but he was trying. He squinted and moved his head, sort of like he wanted to nod. I brushed his messy hair back from his face, my bare skin against his. He felt clammy.
“Hey, you’re completely fine. My handler healed you, so you aren’t physically injured anymore. All of this is emotional and psychological, but I need you to know that you are walking out of here alive. You’ve been given a second chance.”
He blinked slowly, finally focusing on my face. “A second chance?” he echoed.
I nodded, reaching down to take his gloved hand in mine. Squeezing his fingers, I hoped to provide him with an anchor to the present, to draw him from his psyche and back into the world. “You will walk out of here, you will go home to your loved ones, you will start a new life only doing things that you love and make you happy.”
The panic flaring through his system began to sputter. The raging fire had to be fed, but instead, it was only getting water, extinguishing it.
“Be free, agent.” I drew his hand up and kissed his gloved knuckles, squeezing his fingers again.
His eyes grew warm at the gesture, but he looked as though he saw something else entirely, something that was years away, that I’d never see or touch or comprehend.
“When you feel like you can stand, I’ll show you the way home. You go through there, and you get to where you need to be to start over. Okay?”
The man nodded, finally looking a little more centered, and feeling like the calm lurking in the eye of a storm.
Pressure descended on my shoulder and warmth ghosted over my back, making me go rigid. I whipped around on the stool, holding the end of my paintbrush defensively.
“Plato?” Powder blue eyes searched mine. The pressure on my shoulder wound around to my back, and I felt a thumb stroking the nape of my neck. “You with me?”
I blinked, still seeing the face of a man I’d given a second chance to all those years ago… A face I could’ve kicked myself for not recognizing. I took a deep breath and nodded, blinking again to find the man that taught my daughter how to dance and that I’d gone on two dates with.
And I wondered how on earth they could be the same guy.
I shook my head suddenly, clearing my throat as I broke his gaze. “What time is it?”
“A few minutes after seven. You weren’t at the studio, so Maggie and I walked Blaine over here to meet you… When did your appointment end?”
I frowned, turning away from him as I glanced at the clock. “About thirty minutes ago… Sorry, I’d just been painting and lost track of--” Looking at my hands, I said a small blessing to any gods listening for the fact that I hadn’t taken the wraps off my wrists. When I looked up at the painting, though, I wasn’t quite sure how many thank you blessings I really needed to send.
I’d ended up painting the aftermath of the bomb. It was the overall setting--out in the woods under a red sky. The amount of living things in the scene were horrifyingly small. What was worse than that was the rancid odor of the chemicals in the bomb mixed with the stench of death that had settled over the place by the time someone rescued Aurora and I… by the time Sebastian Keys was as far away from the site as possible.
I turned back around. “Sorry about that. I’ll set an alarm on my phone next time to be sure I’m there.”
“It’s fine, Plato.” Seb smiled reassuringly, but he felt worried and anxious. “So, um, how would you feel about having supper with Maggie and I again? I know it’s a school night, but… we all have to eat.”
I wanted to say no, to have some time alone with my daughter and pretend like I could stuff that ornery memory back in the pit it crawled out of, but my stomach cut me off with a loud growl before I could say a word.
Seb chuckled. “You want to cook, or am I buying?”
I snorted softly and hung my head, smiling. “You get to buy this time. I’ll cook for us again this weekend.”
Seb nodded, feeling more content than concerned. “Well, you finish up in here. I’ll go hang out with the girls until ready.”
“Thank you, Sebastian.”
He stopped in the doorway of my studio and smiled. “Anytime, Plato.” Vanishing through the doorway, he left me alone to clean my brushes and wash the paint from my hands, as well as completely overthink everything that had happened in that brief span of time.
But, the important part was that he didn’t seem to connect my painting to anything. Hell, I didn’t even think he noticed it. So, while I carried around the knowledge that Seb and I had met--that I was the one that’d given him that sacred second chance--I could also rest easy knowing that Seb had no idea who the man behind the mask was.
And while I still felt pretty conflicted about the situation, I knew without a doubt, I needed a hell of a lot more information about Seb than what I had before I’d even consider telling him that we’d already met.
Once I finished cleaning up, I met Blaine, Seb, and Maggie in the lobby. We left the shop, and I locked the door behind us.
“What would you two like for dinner?” Seb asked, looking over at the girls.
“Alfredo,” Maggie said.
Seb sighed, nodding, like he anticipated the answer. “Olivier’s it is then. Is pasta okay with you Blaine?”
“She’s not picky when it comes to food,” I said, sliding my keys in my pocket. “Just everything else.”
“Dad,” Blaine drawled, narrowing her eyes at me. “I’m not picky.”
“Whatever you say, little one.” I ruffled her hair, grinning.
We teleported to the restaurant together and filed inside, getting a seat that faced the setting sun. The girls sat closest to the window and sat opposite each other to ensure Seb and I had the upper hand in curbing any of their attempted hijinks. Seb and I took the outsides of the booth. The girls’ conversation filled most of the space, allowing me a few moments to reign myself in.
Everything still felt scattered and distant after the flashback. It was as though everything in front of me felt unreal… like a dream. Everything that I had just left behind was my reality, and I’d just fallen asleep or something, had dreamt the rest.
I took a deep breath and chewed on my lower lip, tapping my knee under the table. The girls felt calm and happy, maybe a tinge agitated since bedtime was nearing. Seb was relaxed, but mildly concerned. Frowning, I glanced over at him as warm fingers twined through mine underneath the table.
Seb smiled when I jumped, and then gently squeezed my hand when I relaxed in his grasp. “You seem a little off tonight. Is everything okay?” he asked softly, so as not to worry the girls.
“Fine. Just tired is all.”
Although it was smart on his part, I found it a little irritating that he didn’t seem to be buying my excuse.
Tilting his head to the side, he quirked a brow at me. “So, I was thinking a little the other night about that last conversation we had about… everything.” He waved a hand, gesturing broadly. “And… the rumors and stuff… what people believe and think and feel about you--do you--is that--” He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “Do you feel what they feel about you?”
I nodded. “If I couldn’t feel it, I think I would’ve been able to make more friends, since I would be able to ignore it and push ahead.”
“It’s not a big deal. Nothing I don’t deserve, all things considered.” I shrugged. “And it isn’t like it’s hurt my business or her.” I nodded toward Blaine. “Just something I have to live with.”
“I wish you didn’t have to, though. I can’t imagine walking around and feeling every negative thing a person thinks about me every second of the day.”
I snorted. “You get used to it pretty fast. It really isn’t that bad.” And it was probably a testament to how fucked up I was that the lie rolled off my tongue that easily. While I had gotten used to it, I also knew that the pain never felt any less sharp when someone I’d never so much as looked at before walked into my shop and felt raw, unbridled animosity toward me personally, but would still sit there, anger raging inside of them, as I serviced them.
“How many times a day do you get to talk to someone that doesn’t hate you?”
I blinked and actually thought about it for a moment. But, the farther I went in the process, the more upset I felt. “Are we talking about conversation or person count?”
“Person,” Seb said.
“On average, one, but there are days that it goes up to four.”
Seb frowned. “You come into contact with a pretty large volume of people every day, Plato.”
I nodded. “I’m aware.”
The fingers between mine slowly stroked my knuckles, like they could transport all the positive feelings in the world into me. And for a second, it actually worked. I felt more calm, more tethered to reality, and significantly less depressed. It was as though everything cleared and the weight on my chest lifted a fraction, like Seb had taken a bit of the burden on himself. Selfishly, I allowed it, because I never received anything like that.
I moved my hand farther into his, wanting to feel more of him on me. Just the touch of another person, of an adult that wanted my skin against theirs, felt refreshing.
If not for the waiter and the food and the children, I could’ve sat like that all night long. But, reality was a bitch and butted in, severing the connection between Seb and I. Once we ate, we left the restaurant and parted ways. Seb and I hugged briefly while the girls said goodbye, and Seb asked me to text message him later that night.
Blaine and I teleported home. She took her bath and changed into her pajamas, we read a book about a little girl that raised baby dragons, and after a little protest for another story, she fell fast asleep. I left her and returned downstairs to check that everything was locked before texting Seb and heading to bed.
I slipped my phone from my pocket as I padded toward the front door. A message already waited on me.
Seb: Hey, I had a great time tonight! Maybe the four of us should have dinner together more often?
Spending time with him and Maggie was pleasant. Not only was it good for Blaine to socialize, but it probably wasn’t too bad for me either, especially since they were both part of the short list of people that didn’t harbor any malicious feelings for me.
Plato: Blaine and I would enjoy that. You and Maggie are excellent company.
Seb: Glad to hear it! You still doing okay? You seemed more relaxed when you left, but you were really spacey this evening.
Probably because I’d been trapped reliving the first time Seb and I met for half an hour. If it weren’t under such gruesome circumstances, it probably wouldn’t have been so traumatic, but that day had set off a chain of events that had ultimately ended with me in my current position. No matter how I spun it, that had been a difficult day, and I couldn’t imagine Seb and I reuniting was chance.
Satisfied the doors and windows were locked and the alarm was set, I turned to head back upstairs. A glint of light caught my eye, and I stopped. Glancing back at the table, I saw a sliver of black metal perched next to the chair.
Moving closer, I saw it was a simple black ring. My blood ran cold at the sight of it. I had gone almost a decade without any contact, without any problems, and suddenly, things had gone so wrong that they felt the need to drop in on me?
The Ring--the organization that’d recruited and later enslaved me--the jewelry was theirs. It was a reminder that they were always watching. And, if I were a betting man, I’d wager everything I had that wiretaps were embedded in the camera to listen to conversations they might not have otherwise been able to gain access to.
And since I was bound to do everything they requested of me, I gritted my teeth, forced myself to pick up the ring, and slip it on. It slid on my ring finger perfectly--just the right size and everything. They were reasserting their authority by ensuring I knew they controlled me, determined what I could or could not do, as well as dictating how far my freedom went.
The only thing new in my life was Sebastian and Maggie. Obviously, Maggie was just a child, so Seb was the only threat I could imagine. Still, if he were a threat to my freedom--to my daughter’s life--I would’ve picked up on it. That was what I did.
But, that was also what the Ring expected of me.
As the panic built and raged and consumed each thought I had, I forced myself to sit down. Instead of deep breathing or meditating or any of that other shit, I just had to make the panic stop. I had to think rationally, I had to figure out if Blaine and I were in danger. Sitting there, panicking, it wasn’t helpful.
I had to anchor myself.
I ripped the bandages off my left wrist, grabbed one of the exacto-blades from my bag, and dug it into my scarred skin. Gritting my teeth, the burning pain filled my senses, overriding the panic and suspicion. In the back of my mind brimmed serenity and rationality.
Setting the blade down, the blood ran off my wrist and onto the bandage. Calmer thoughts started taking over. While it was peculiar that the Ring showed up not long after I met Seb, it was more likely them breaking into my house and leaving a ring corresponded with me providing details of my personal life, as well as the Ring’s activities.
Since they were always watching, it was highly likely they knew I revealed something or got close to revealing something--anything like that. Even suspicion was enough for them to act and ensure I wasn’t about to expose them. The ring was ensurance that they weren’t about to be exposed.
Everything would be fine.
It had to be.