Child, Misplaced | Playtime | Birthday Girl’s Request
A muddle of feelings make themselves very, very apparent to you as you make your way towards the sliding door of the house with Dan in tow: giddy nerves, anxious bravado, and a heated flush that could be either shameful embarrassment—you’re hitting up an almost-stranger by way of face-painting a children’s party, for God’s sake—or maybe, just maybe, a small inkling note of how comfortable Dan’s hand feels in yours, gentle and unassuming.
You’ve decided that it’s probably in your best interests to not look anyone in the eye as the two of you pace your way across the lawn, but there’s a few instances of Dan’s footsteps quickening behind you, just a beat or two skipped here and there, barely discernible but just enough for you to know that there’s probably—okay, definitely—at least one or two teasing grins or rowdy thumbs-ups being directed his way. You know half the people aren’t even so much as glancing in your direction but for all the nerves coursing through your body, you may as well be centre stage with a tracking spotlight and a fucking amplifier on your heartbeat. You tug a little harder on Dan’s hand. Inside. Now.
Stepping into the muffled quiet of the house feels like crossing some holy, angelic, divinely-ordained threshold, popping the bubble of anxious pressure in your chest and the breath you didn’t realise you’d been holding.
You spin on your heels, bashful and half squinting at Dan, your expression a cross between a grimace and a grin. Where are you supposed to start with this? What are you even starting here? “So, ah…” You’re fine, you’re inside now. You’ve reached the safety of the indoors, away from prying eyes and friendly ribbing.
Dan is still holding your hand.
And doesn’t seem to be in any rush to let up.
He gives your hand a gentle squeeze, swinging your hand in his slightly. He’s clearing his throat, he’s shuffling in closer, just that bit closer than is comfortable human-to-human distance; he’s blushing, he’s smiling to himself, shit he’s closer still, fuck, is this how Lifetime movie moments happen? Is this, is he going to…? Oh God, ohgodohgodohg—
“You have to have butterflies and flowers okay, Uncle Dan? And not just little ones.”
Poppy strides—you didn’t even know little kids could stride—into the room, all business. The two of you are startled a little bit, taking a second or two before you can even begin to remember to compose yourselves and jump apart. Ah. Right. Normal human-to-human distance. Brusque and determined, Poppy tiptoes and clambers onto the nearest barstool, practically sliding belly-down across the kitchen counter to swipe an armful of little paint pots and a mug of paintbrushes and sponge-tipped applicators. She manages to wrangle herself back down, precious cargo still in her arms in a delicate balancing act as she pads across the floor and ceremoniously places all the bits and pieces onto a low children’s play table.
“You can sit on these,” she says, more a command than an offer. She pulls up one equally child-sized chair, then another. “Go on, sit.” She gives the seat of the chair a tap. “Pretty please?” she tacks on at the end, finally sounding more her age.
This kid, you laugh to yourself, she’s like a bloody chaperon. You’ve got a bloody four-year-old chaperon.
Dan gives your hand a sharper squeeze this time, raising his eyebrows comically at you. He drops his head, leaning into the curve of your ear with a low murmur, “By royal decree, right?”
Right. Which is how you find yourself, knees and elbows tucked in, verging on physical discomfort, hunched at a children’s furniture set with two pairs of eyes looking at you expectantly – one pair gleaming and hopeful (or is it scheming?) and the other soft and laughing, but mostly nervous. The last part not necessarily just because of the prospective face painting.
You exhale in a sigh, scanning the materials in front of you. Great. Personal dignity and artistic integrity on the line here, what a treat. Your fingers skim over the brushes, before deciding on one with a well-worn handle and pointed bristles.
You shoot a glance at Poppy, “Best to start with the butterflies first, yeah?” you say, trying to match her business-like composure with an even, unhurried tone. You’re the grown adult here and, dammit, you can and will keep up with this charismatic four-year-old.
Turns out keeping composure and a corporate poker face is much, much harder when you realise you’ve got to paint someone else’s. Dan’s face, more specifically. Specifically, and very much problematically, when you suddenly realise that you’re going to need to somehow cradle his face so as to steady your canvas and your painting hand, so that hopefully your butterflies actually end up looking like butterflies, rather than indiscriminate blobs. Normal, conversational, human-to-human distance definitely being breached. If Dan had personal space issues, they were most definitely being violated right now.
Poppy props herself up onto the table, perched on the edge with legs swinging contentedly as she watches you go back and forth between dipping brushes into sunshine yellow, sky blue, and inky black, trailing swirls and shapes onto the planes of Dan’s cheekbone. The three of you continue like this for a while, nothing much to disturb the quiet bar the hum of party guests still outside, peppered with the odd wa-hey! of a dad almost clipped in the side by a sprinting, six-year-old Batman and the concerned chiding of a mother to Batman’s trailing kid sister.
You willfully fall into an absorbed state, painting, swirling, tracing lines, and filling in little bursts of colour, if only to avoid consciously thinking about how fucking close Dan is. His face is inches from yours, lips parted slightly and eyes never leaving your face—not that you would know or could confirm, because you’re making a very, very dedicated effort to not look the man in the eye right now.
By the time you think you’re done, you lean back, tilting Dan’s chin upwards with a fingertip, surveying your handiwork. Not too shabby. You’d only done this once—face painting—ages ago, way back in uni at the behest of your sister, whose hired hand had dropped out last minute from your nephew’s birthday party. You’d folded pretty quickly, and sure, some of the Spiderman masks had come out a little wonky the first couple tries, but you quickly fell into a rhythm. You’re not so bad, if you do say so yourself. Could be worse.
Poppy takes a moment to consider your masterpiece, eyes trailing over the butterflies in varying shades of blue—one perched delicately on Dan’s cheekbone, another gliding down the temple opposite—and the tiny, sprawling posies of yellow flowers and green vines you planted above his brow, on his cheeks, one unfurling down towards of his jaw.
“Beautiful?” you ask, looking to her expectantly for the final seal of approval.
“What, the canvas or the painting?” Dan teases, laughter lines reaching gently outwards to grasp at butterflies. You shoot him a look, a feigned scowl, though that doesn’t stop a colour from rising to your cheeks.
“Mm…” Poppy hums, legs still swinging. “Yeah. But needs glitter. Just a little!” she defends, upon seeing Dan’s grim expression. She hops off the table with a quiet thud. “It’s outside, I’ll go get it.”
She turns back to face the two of you, one hand on the sliding door. “You missed a spot, though. You didn’t put leaves on that flower.” She smiles with a little too much wide-eyed innocence, tapping at some ambiguous spot on the side of her face. And with that, she’s out the door.
“Bloody tough customer,” you mutter affectionately, leaning in to drop a few more strokes of green above Dan’s brow. “Turn?” you ask, giving a gentle nudge on the side of his chin. Dan complies, giving you a better angle on his temple and, incidentally, a great view of the confident plane of his jaw, the way it slopes down to his neck.
You place a hand at the juncture of jaw and neck to steady yourself, and feel the vibrations as Dan clears his throat, swallowing thickly.
“Can I, uh, ask you something?”
“Mmmm?” You give an acknowledging hum, too absorbed in carving out the next tiny leaf.
“Can I—I mean, would you like to go out for dinner sometime? Anytime? With me?”
You hand falters minutely, this leaf a little more lopsided than the last, and you lower your brush, finally, finally brave enough to look Dan in the eye. Relief.
“Yeah. Yes. Yeah. I’d love to,” you smile back, lips pulled in a shy smile. “I’d really like that.” And hell, maybe you’re feeling extra brave, or maybe fifteen minutes of close facial proximity has emboldened you beyond compare, but you dart towards his face, before rational thought can rein you back in, and go to press a lingering kiss on the unpainted patch of his cheek.
You retract quickly, realising what you’ve done and are about to go back to chaining your gaze to anything, anyone, anywhere but him, until Dan lets loose a breathy laugh, eyes bright with a knowing glint.
He gives his lips a tap, final and teasing, “Missed a spot.”