Chapter 10: May
Friday, May 1.
"Hey bossaroo," Himari says, sticking their head in the gap of his office door. "Ya got a visitor! If you're not too busy!"
Gabe, who's just finished a mountain of paperwork and desperately needs a break, stands up immediately. "Of course!" he says. "Who is it?"
"That lil' guy with the metal fingers!" Himari taps one bright green fingernail against their teeth. "What's his name? Dante?"
"Oh!" Gabe hasn't seen Dante--or Marco, for that matter--since... well, for a couple of weeks now. "Yeah, okay. Uh, does he wanna come in here, or--?"
"I'm already here," Dante says, pushing the door open as he makes his way past Himari. "Gabe! Dude. We gotta talk."
"Right, yeah, definitely! Uh, Himari? Could you--"
"Yeah, sorry, I'll get outta your hair! I got tables to wait, tips to collect!" They toss him a wink and turn away, shutting the door soundly behind them.
Dante drops into the chair in front of Gabe's desk with a groan. "Fuck I'm tired," he says. "Just got off work."
"Oh." Gabe sits back down, too, though his butt and leg muscles protest. "Sorry. Mechanics must be exhausting. I don't know a lot about it, but it looks tiring."
Dante waves a hand at him. "Yeah, yeah, it's rough, but that's not what I'm here about." He leans forward suddenly, hands planted on the desk as he stares Gabe down. "I need you to talk to that datemate'a yours."
" Yes, Stef. Unless you got another one layin' around someplace!"
"No, just Stef." He sighs. "I'm sorry, Dante, I can't help you. Stef's not taking any of my calls or answering any of my texts."
Dante groans, leaning back in the chair and raising his face toward the ceiling. "Damn it, really? They've been doin' nothin' but textin' Marco. Had to put his phone on silent so he wasn't jitterin' outta his skin every time the damn thing went off."
Gabe bites his lip. Shaw had told him that Stef wasn't answering aer texts, either. It can't be a good thing that they're so focused on their brother like this. It's been two weeks! They've been practically isolating themself from everyone, and Gabe doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know if it's his place to do anything about it.
"This whole thing's really takin' a toll on him," Dante continues, sitting forward again. "Like, I get that they don't like me. They think I'm tryin' to take advantage of Marco or whatever. But, fuck. That's the farthest fuckin' thing from my mind! I want him to be happy, y'know? An' this whole thing with his sibling is sendin' Marco to some dark places."
"Can I ask," Gabe says before he can stop himself, " why Stef thinks that? I mean--" he hurries on as Dante gives him a dark look, "I just mean, they told me you guys got engaged really fast, but..." He deliberately doesn't mention any of the other things Stef had told him about Marco; he doesn't know if Dante knows, and he's pretty sure he isn't supposed to have this knowledge, anyway.
Dante huffs, and it sounds half-annoyed, half-amused. "If you consider gettin' engaged on the first date 'fast,' then I guess yeah, that's true."
Gabe blinks. "So, wait. You really got engaged after just a week?"
He shrugs, lips tugging up into a little smirk, and he folds his hands in his lap. "That was kinda an accident," he says. "But, y'know. A happy accident."
Gabe, who definitely knows a thing or two about happy accidents, blinks. "You...? How do you get engaged by accident?"
"What, you want our whole fuckin' love story?" Dante snorts.
"It's cool." He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. "It's... god , this is weird to talk about." He levels Gabe with a stare and points one finger at him. "I'm probably about to get real fuckin' sappy," he says. "An' if I hear anyone sayin' I'm soft, I'll know it's 'cause you went an' told your friends about this conversation. So don't do it, got it?"
Gabe nods seriously, careful not to mention the fact that pretty much everyone who's ever seen him interact with Marco or with one of his friends already knows he's soft.
Well, except Stef, apparently.
"Okay. I will fuckin' hold you to that." Dante drops his hand into his lap. "I met Marco at a bar about a month after me an' my ex-fiancee had broken it off."
"Wait, you had a--?!"
"D'you want the story or not?!" Dante cuts him off, and Gabe snaps his mouth closed. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Just lemme talk, okay, it's not important." He waits a moment, and when Gabe doesn't say anything else, he continues, "So I'm just hangin' around this bar, an' I see this hot guy, right, an' I think, what the hell, so I go up to him an' we talk. We really hit it off, exchange numbers, arrange to meet up next weekend for a date." He smiles a little.
"Next weekend comes around, this guy takes me on a fuckin' moonlit picnic. Doesn't tell me where we're goin', just tells me which way to turn an' all that shit--I almost thought he was takin' me out to the desert to murder me or somethin', but no, he just shows me this fuckin' spectacular view, lays a blanket over the hood of my car, the whole shebang. Romantic as hell, right?" Dante's eyes take on a faraway cast. "An' I'm just spendin' the whole time thinkin', 'what the hell, this guy's really puttin' so much effort in for me?' An' we're just layin' back, watchin' the stars, an' this guy just looks over at me an' outta nowhere jus' asks me to marry him!"
"Wait-- Marco proposed?!" from the way Stef had acted when they'd last spoken, Gabe had thought for sure that Dante had been the one to propose.
Dante's eyes snap back into focus, and he snorts, soft smile replaced with a smirk. "Yeah, I was shocked too, dude. So shocked I just fuckin' said yes without thinkin' about it."
"Stupid, yeah, I know." He shakes his head. "Look, I'm not sayin' everyone should get engaged to the first guy who actually tries to romance 'em, okay?"
"That's-- no, I'm not saying it's stupid." surprising and probably irresponsible, yes, but Gabe can't exactly claim to have never done a single irresponsible thing in his life. "I just... what made you stick with it? Why not backtrack later, break off the engagement? Go back to just dating?"
"I dunno, really." Dante looks down at his hand, starts fidgeting with his prosthetics. "I just... wanted to see how it turned out, y'know?"
Gabe thinks he understands that feeling. But still... "So... what about now?"
Dante looks up sharply. "What about now?"
"Well, you're clearly still engaged to Marco, and I know it's not just 'seeing how things turn out' anymore. So, when did things change?"
A mischievous glimmer shines in Dante's eyes. "You seriously wanna know the whole love story. Holy shit."
"So sue me," Gabe says, and then pauses. "Actually, don't. We barely stayed in the black this month and I have no idea how lawsuits work."
"Whatever." Dante rolls his eyes. "Look, like... I dunno how to talk about this shit! We were dating--engaged, I guess--for a couple months, an' it was kinda... weird." He frowns at Gabe. "Like, don't get me wrong, I fuckin' loved hangin' out with Marco. He's hilarious an' so fuckin' smart an' actually encouraging. It was a nice change'a pace, an' he made me happy, an' I did my best to support him back, but it was... weird. Couldn't wrap my head around the fact that this guy... hot as hell, an' so goddamn full of love --" Here he jabs his finger at Gabe again, "don't fuckin' repeat that to anyone, okay--that this guy was actually into me, wanted to marry me."
Gabe, who doesn't really plan on telling anyone about this conversation and honestly just wants his questions to be answered, prompts, "So... is that when you realized you actually wanted to marry him, or...?"
"No!" Dante says the word on a groan, smacking himself in the face with both hands. "Not exactly, I mean." He drops his hands back into his lap with a sigh. "One night, Marco came over to my place, an' we were just hangin' out, watchin' shitty sci-fi together, an' he just... started talkin'. Marco doesn't talk a lot, you know?"
"He doesn't fuckin' monologue like this shit you're makin' me do. He talked even less when we first got together. But here he was, tellin' me about... himself, and his past, and how he felt about me and what our fuckin'... future could be like. An' it all just kinda clicked, y'know. Like, it just hit me that I loved the guy, that I actually wanted to marry him. Quit lookin' at me like that, dude, I'll kick your ass."
Gabe quickly schools his expression into something less sentimental (or tries to; he's sure he doesn't quite succeed). "Sorry, it's just... that's really sweet. I'm glad you guys found each other."
"Yeah, yeah." Dante makes a big show of rolling his eyes, but Gabe can see that he's biting his lip to keep from smiling. "He makes me sappy, alright? I love Marco. I like bein' his fiance, an' I'll be even happier when I'm his husband. I want him to be happy." He pauses, and his eyes harden. "That's why I hate all this shit goin' on with Stef. If they don't shape up soon..." He sucks in a deep breath, looks like he's about to say something... but then he lets it out, deflates. "I dunno. Marco's not happy not talkin' to them, but every time they do talk anymore it just turns into a fight 'cause Stef can't accept that their baby brother is a quarter of a century old an' perfectly capable of makin' his own decisions!" Another deep breath, and then he pulls his phone out of his pocket and glances at it.
"Shit," he says, jumping up. "I've been here way too long, I gotta get home." He levels Gabe with a glare. "When Stef actually opens up an' starts talkin' to you again, ask 'em to stop smotherin' Marco so much, yeah?"
"I'll do my best," Gabe says, as honestly and seriously as he can.
"Thanks, Gabe." Dante smiles again, a quieter smile, but definitely there, definitely genuine. "Hope you both get stuff worked out."
"Thanks, Dante," Gabe says, as Dante steps out of his office. "See you later. Tell Marco hi for me."
Dante waves his hand once, and then disappears.
Gabe's not sure how long he sits there after Dante leaves, staring down at his own phone, darkened in his hand. But he knows one thing for sure:
If Stef's not going to talk to him, then he's going to have to go to them.
One way or another.
Monday, May 4.
Stef knew they should have eaten their lunch in their classroom.
"Stef," Simon says, taking the seat to their left. "Wow, you do not look any better than you did last week."
Stef levels him with the best glare they can muster up. "Can I help you with something?" they ask, grabbing their lunch--a sad, soggy ham sandwich that had been sitting in the fridge over the weekend--and starting to slide out of their seat.
Unfortunately, another body bumps them back into it, and they turn their glare to none other than Manami, who's wearing the same look of concern as Simon. Frick.
"What the heck is this?" they ask, pulling their elbows into their lap as their coworkers scoot closer, effectively boxing them in.
"This," says Manami, "is an intervention."
"You're not takin' care of yourself," Simon chimes in. "We don't like that. Ugh, Stef, you're not really gonna eat that, are you? The lettuce is turning green around the edges."
"Lettuce is supposed to be green," they say, instead of addressing the main point.
"Yeah, but iceberg's not supposed to get that dark and--" Simon pokes at their sandwich before they can slap his hand away, "-- slimy. Stef, this is garbage."
"You don't see me goin' around makin' fun of your lunch, now do ya?!"
"You did last month," Simon says. "When I had that rutabaga nacho thing that Lola and Kai made me? You said it was--"
"I think we're getting off topic," Manami says. Drat. "Stef. We think you should take the rest of the week off."
Stef groans and moves to push their chair back, but it barely budges. The two of them must have their ankles hooked around the legs of it or something. Jerks. "I told you. I don't need a break! I'm fine!"
"You need to take a break," Simon says, stern and so freaking annoying. "You need to take care of your mental health."
"My mental health is fine," they snap, and lurch back hard enough that the chair topples backwards, ankles be damned. "Not that I expect either of you to understand what I'm going through. Neither of you have siblings!"
"No," Manami says, standing and planting herself between Stef and the exit. "But we have people we care about. And Stef, that includes you, whether you like it or not."
They grit their teeth. "If I tell you I'll stay home tomorrow, will that get you off my back?"
"Not unless you tell me, " comes another voice from the door. Stef immediately straightens their shoulders and turns to face Principal Phoenix.
She's a very intimidating four-foot-eleven, with her long black hair pulled back from her pale face, her black blouse half-tucked into her black dress pants, the raven pendant with the blazing red gem-eyes she always wears glaring out at them from her chest. Her mouth, usually set in a teasing smile, is now a firm line, her thin brows drawn together. Stef swallows.
"Mx. Campbell," Principal Phoenix says, stepping toward them. Her shoes tap. tap. tap. across the floor in an even, controlled rhythm. "This school has several concessions in place for occasions such as family issues or mental health struggles. Why are you not making use of them?"
"Well, you see..." Stef struggles with how to word it. It's all well and good to be direct and rude with their coworkers, but if they want to keep their job, they need to be much more careful about how they speak with the principal. "I don't need them. I'm perfectly fine, as I'm sure you can see."
Principal Phoenix's gaze shifts, no doubt taking in the toppled chair and soggy sandwich, as well as the two teachers still currently boxing them in. She arches one eyebrow, and her eyes meet Stef's again. "Stef," she says. "I cannot allow you to work when you're clearly struggling. Our teachers must be at their best, and you cannot be at your best when you're feeling like this. Take the rest of the week off."
Stef's heart constricts in their chest, but they don't let it show, simply keep their eyes locked with hers. She stares back, her gaze intense. Too intense. They look away. "...Fine," they murmur. "One week."
They hear Simon and Madhavi let out simultaneous sighs of relief from either side of them, and then Principal Phoenix says, "Good. You can finish out the rest of the day, and I will not see you tomorrow. Rosana's already arranged a substitute for you tomorrow."
She'd known they'd cave under the pressure. Heck, wait, how long had she planned this?!
Stef nods and moves to scoop their lunch back up, but the principal stops them.
"For fuck's sake, Stef, don't eat that. Your boyfriend dropped off a perfectly good lunch this morning; it's in the fridge there."
It's only once everyone's finally left Stef alone that they allow themself to open the fridge and take out the styrofoam takeout box marked with their name. They open it up, guilt surging through them as they see a hamburger and fries, clearly Gabe's handiwork.
They haven't spoken to him or texted him at all since... well, since the last time they'd spoken to him, what? Two weeks ago?
Has it been two weeks since Marco--?
They sigh and close the lid. Gabe's still trying to look out for them, even though they've been completely ignoring him this whole time. Even though they've made no effort to reach out to him, even though they treated him so terribly the last time they saw him, he's still doing his best to make sure Stef takes care of themself.
To make sure Stef eats.
It reminds them all too easily of themself just a year ago, of bringing Marco food they knew he'd like, just to make sure he was eating, that he was okay. It's not the same, though, of course it's not the same, Stef may be upset right now, but they're not struggling the way Marco was, the way...
Their friends are only looking out for them. Simon, Manami, Shaw, Gabe...
Stef sits down. They eat the burger.
Tuesday, May 5.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: i know you're not answering your phone rn but everything's still good with marco. he's eating and showering and all that.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: good morning firetruck! have a good day at work! 😘
FROM: ✨show pony✨: georgie says she had a substitute at school today. is everything okay steffie?
FROM: ✨show pony✨: please answer me this time.
TO: ✨show pony✨: yeah everything's goign good. i just took eht week off to just kinda chill an stuff.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: !!! steffie baby!! i've never been so glad to get such a typo-ridden text in my life!!
FROM: ✨show pony✨: so your friends finally managed to convince you to take a break, hm?
TO: ✨show pony✨: i guess. idk thoug i dont like stayin home from work especially sinfce the apartyemt's so empty
FROM: ✨show pony✨: are you doing anything tonight?
TO: ✨show pony✨: watchin star trek
FROM: ✨show pony✨: well why don't you come watch star trek on MY shitty couch instead of YOUR shitty couch??
FROM: ✨show pony✨: i get off at 6 tonight! i can grab pizza on my way home and we can hang out.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: does that sound okay?
FROM: ✨show pony✨: stef?
TO: ✨show pony✨: okay. i can do that.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: !!! then i'll meet you there!!
TO: ✨show pony✨: thanks, shaw
FROM: ✨show pony✨: anytime, stef.
Wednesday, May 6.
The knock at the door surprises them, but Stef takes a deep breath and pushes themself up off the couch, unlocking the door and opening it just a crack.
"Hey, Stef!" says Simon, throwing his hands in the air. "Can we come in? We brought food!"
Stef blinks, unsure why Simon and Manami are standing outside their apartment on a school day... wait, it's Wednesday, isn't it? School's already out. It's been out for like an hour now. They shake their head, then nod, pulling the door open for them.
They're still feeling a little... worse than they usually do, but after hanging out with Shaw last night, they actually are feeling better. They'd even managed to straighten up the apartment a little bit this morning. Only the living room, really, but it's still nice to be able to use their coffee table without having stacks of cups and bowls sitting on top of it.
"How are you feeling today, Stef?" Manami asks, as she and Simon both set bags down on the table.
"Alright," Stef says. "I mean... not awful."
Simon beams at them, leaning down to wrap his arm around their shoulders "All right!" he says excitedly. "That's the best news I've heard all week! Hey, so, Manami and I wanted to check on ya, and we weren't sure if you'd been doin' any grocery shopping, an' we didn't want you to be livin' off of, like, instant ramen or whatever. So we got you some tasty stuff!"
"We got you some pre-made meals and things that are easy to cook," Manami corrects. "Tasty is pretty subjective in this case. Oh--Rosana made some jam tarts last night, I brought you some of those, too." She rummages around in one of the plastic bags and pulls out a little plastic container. "Here you go!"
Stef takes the container, unsure of how to respond. Should they thank them? Should they refuse the gift and kick them out? Invite them to stay for a while? They... ugh. They don't know how they feel about this. They're still angry, still sad, but they're also so...
They sniffle, forcing themself not to actually tear up, that would be so freaking embarrassing. They lift their head and offer their coworkers--their friends- -a smile.
"Thanks, guys," they say. "Thanks for... taking care of me."
"Of course, Stef!" Simon says, and he moves his arm kind of weird, like he's not sure if he should offer them a hug or pat them on the shoulder or just not. Stef laughs, which surprises them, and steps closer, bumping their shoulder against his arm so he gets the message. He wraps his arm around them again, holding them tight against his chest.
"If you need anything," he says quietly, "you can text me. Okay?"
"Okay." Stef swallows, then tugs away from him. "I-- do you guys... wanna stay? And, uh, eat? Something?" Gosh, their people skills are rusty already.
Manami smiles at them, reaching over to squeeze their shoulder. "Thanks," she says, "but I've got to get going, and Simon's my ride home. You can text me if you need anything, too."
"Okay." Stef sniffles again. "I-- yeah. Thanks, you two."
They say their goodbyes and exit the apartment, and Stef's alone with their thoughts yet again.
They turn the TV up louder and put the groceries away.
Thursday, May 7.
It's almost ten at night when Stef realizes they haven't texted Marco at all today.
In a panic, they grab their phone and swipe their thumb across the screen, messing up their pattern twice before finally unlocking it. They go straight to their messages with Marco, intent on sending him a message right away, but they pause, just staring at the screen for a long moment. It's a long column of messages sent to Marco, and none from him in... weeks. They don't scroll up, just read through the most recent texts.
TO: baby bro: are you taking care of yourself? remember to eat lunch, you always forget that one.
TO: baby bro: good night. i love you.
TO: baby bro: shaw says you're doign good. i wish you'd tell me yourself.
TO: baby bro: *doing
TO: baby bro: good night.
TO: baby bro: good morning!
TO: baby bro: good night, baby bro! i love you.
The last one was sent last night, at 9:56 PM. It's been over 24 hours since they last texted Marco. Twenty-four hours! Anything could have happened in that time! He could have forgotten all his meals, he could be laying in bed, bad thoughts rattling around in his skull, he could be-- he could--!
Stef takes a deep breath, closes their eyes, and thinks about something else. They need to pay their rent tomorrow. There's an old sci-fi marathon this weekend. They're going over to Simon's tomorrow evening. They still have texts to reply to.
They open their eyes again and look back at their phone, quickly swiping away from Marco's contact and back into their messages. Rosana asking if they liked the jam tarts. Simon confirming a time to meet up tomorrow. Gabe, who'd just sent them a gif of two kittens cuddling, with one of his little smiley faces with the pointy nose.
Stef quickly averts their eyes from that one. They've really messed up by ignoring Gabe, they know they have, and they also know they can't ignore him forever. But now is not the time to deal with that.
They quickly reply to Rosana and Simon, and then move on to the fourth unread message, from Shaw.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: steffie what's your opinion on strapping four inline skates to each foot to act as a single pair of roller skates? yay or nay?
FROM: ✨show pony✨: never mind i already ordered the skates.
TO: ✨show pony✨: shaw you are foing to DIE one day
FROM: ✨show pony✨: speak for yourself, i'm immortal and too pretty to die.
TO: ✨show pony✨: i don't care HOW many instagream fololower it gets you the improvised skate videos are fDANGEROUS
FROM: ✨show pony✨: okay dom 🙄
TO: ✨show pony✨: WHAR DID YOUT CALL ME?????
FROM: ✨show pony✨: dom. like a combo of dad and mom. p good right? 😘
TO: ✨show pony✨: you know darrn well im a switch.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: i know too much about yuor sex life 😩
TO: ✨show pony✨: i know moere about YOURS and i HATE it
FROM: ✨show pony✨: oh? jealous are we? 😘
Stef relaxes into the friendly banter and manages to keep Marco off their mind for the rest of the night.
Friday, May 8.
Stef's only been to Simon's house a handful of times over the last few years. It's a small, single-story house with two bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms, all that sort of thing. It's only a little bit bigger than Stef's apartment, and even more cluttered, with Simon's art projects and Madhavi's exercise equipment strewn all over, but even when there are six people sitting around the table, it doesn't feel crowded.
It just feels nice.
" Fuck you, that is not a word!" Madhavi flicks a Scrabble tile at Simon, who smacks it away from his face with a laugh.
"No, no, it's a word! I promise!"
"Then what's it mean, huh?" she asks, arching an eyebrow at him. Lola giggles beside her, and Stef lets themself chuckle, too.
"I don't know!" Simon says exasperatedly. "I remember how it's spelled. Isn't that enough for you?"
"No," Madhavi says. "C'mon, you're a teacher . Shouldn't you know what words mean? "
"I'm a second-grade teacher!" Simon exclaims. "I spend my days teachin' kids how to add an' subtract an' how to spell goat!"
"That's not how you spell goat," Kai, sitting to Stef's right, points at Simon's word on the Scrabble board. "That's uh..." He squints at it. "Ter.. .give...er... sate?"
"I wasn't tryin' to spell goat, Kai!" Simon sighs. "It's tergiversate. Just, ugh, just look it up! I'm right, it's fine!"
Stef pulls their phone out, carefully not looking at their unread messages, and diligently types in the word "tergiversate." "Tergiversate," they read aloud, "Verb. 'Make conflicting or evasive statements; equivocate.'" They lower their phone. "It's a real word," they tell the table, amid Madhavi's groans and Simon's cheering. "Which means he gets 16 points, and Madhavi loses a turn."
Madhavi tosses another scrabble tile at Simon, who flicks it away, and it ends up bouncing off of Sam's shoulder.
"Oops, sorry, kid," Simon says to the quiet, scowling teenager seated between Kai and Lola.
Sam doesn't say anything, just scoffs and slides the tile to Lola, who passes it back to Madhavi. Stef notices the kid glance at them, but when they smile at them, their scowl deepens and they turn away. Simon had told them that Sam was pretty standoffish and kinda rude, that they really only talked to Lola and Kai, their foster parents, and even that was a rarity, but he'd also told them that Sam would go hide out in some other room, not sit silently at the table and stare at Stef throughout the entirety of game night.
And Stef doesn't really get it. What's so interesting about them that this kid would break from their usual habits and watch them?
Stef turns back to the game; it's Lola's turn, and she just sticks a T at the beginning of Kai's earlier he to make the. Then it's Kai's turn, and Stef's, and Simon's again, and the game goes on for hours, blends one into the next, turns into Monopoly and then Yahtzee, full of jokes and laughter and arguments--arguments that are fun and silly, arguments that lead to more jokes and laughter.
Stef totally loses themself in the atmosphere, finds themself actually having a good time for the first time in weeks. They're having such a good time that they don't really want to leave, even as Lola, Kai, and a surprisingly reluctant Sam exit the house, even as Madhavi gives Simon a peck on the cheek as she heads to bed. And then it's just the two of them, just Stef and Simon, sitting at his dining room table with boxes of board games stacked in the center.
"Did you have fun?" Simon asks them, after a few moments of comfortable silence, and Stef laughs, a slow, quiet sound.
"I did," they say, leaning back and stretching their arms over their head until their back pops. "I had a lot of fun, actually. Thanks for inviting me."
"Of course, Stef!" Simon slings his arm over the back of Stef's chair, just behind their shoulders. "You're welcome anytime! You're my buddy!"
Their phone buzzes in their pocket, and they hesitate before pulling it out. It's a goodnight text from Gabe, and they sigh.
"What's up?" Simon asks, and they glance at him a moment, considering. Simon doesn't really know Gabe. The two of them have barely spent any time around each other, Stef's pretty sure. So it couldn't hurt to talk to him about it. Right?
"It's Gabe," they say. "My boyfriend." Though they have to wonder if that's even what he is at this point, seeing as Stef's been ghosting him for almost three weeks now.
"I know who Gabe is," Simon says, with a teasing smile. He pauses, then says slowly, "I also know that you haven't been talking to him lately."
"And how do you know that?!" Stef asks, clutching their phone to their chest. Simon rolls his eyes.
"Because he works out with Madhavi, my partner, every Wednesday? Because my best friends Lola and Kai babysit his daughter? I have insider information, Stef."
They sigh. "Right." If Gabe's mentioned it, though, enough that he's told Madhavi-- and Lola, and Kai --and they have in turn mentioned it to Simon, that must mean he's pretty upset about it, right? Their stomach tightens. "I'm a jerk," they say. "I should just--break it off, or--"
"Do you want to break up with him?" Simon cuts them off. "Or do you just not know how to apologize?"
"I know how to apologize!" they say, but they're careful not to think too much about the fact that they don't. "I... really don't wanna break up with him, though."
"Then don't." Simon reaches over and pries the phone from Stef's hands, sets it on the table in front of them. "Gabe's worried about you. Talk to him. Apologize. Maybe meet up soon." His smile widens, his head tilting to the side. "It'll work out. Promise."
Stef doesn't reply. But they pick their phone back up and unlock it, staring at Gabe's message for a moment. "Okay," they say. "Okay, yeah. I'll try. ...Thanks, Simon." They bump their shoulder against his, and he laughs, tugs them in for a side hug.
"Anytime, buddy. Now, it's late. You should get home."
TO: gabe babe: good night gabe. sleep well. can i call you in the morning? we need to talk.
TO: gabe babe: nothing bad i promise i just wnana apologize andd stuff!
TO: gabe babe: and thanks for looking out for me. it means a lot.
FROM: gabe babe: :-D Of course Stef! You sleep well too. Call any time!
FROM: gabe babe: Ggood night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite! ;-D
TO: gabe babe: dork ❤️
Saturday, May 9.
He's later than he'd meant to be, but he's here, and he shifts the bag to his left arm as he raises the right to knock.
"Coming!" calls the voice from inside, and Gabe's not sure if he should reply, or stay silent, or step away from the door, or open the door, or--
There's a rattling sound, and then the door opens inward, and Stef's face comes into view. Soft red hair with dark brown roots, messier than usual. Pale skin dotted with freckles, light bruise-colored semi-circles under their hazel eyes. Their lips look chapped, but they're turned up into a little, sheepish smile. Stef.
"Uh, hey," he says, hoping he doesn't look or sound as nervous as he is. "I, uh. Hi."
They tuck a lock of hair behind their ear and roll their eyes. It's playful, not mean, and it's the Stef he knows, not the Stef coldly telling him to get out of their apartment. "Are you gonna come in," they ask, "or just stand there like a doofus?"
"Oh, uh." Gabe shakes his head and steps inside, Stef closing the door behind him. It's quiet in their apartment; the TV's turned off, and there's no music or anything else playing. Just them.
He turns back toward them, trying to figure out what to say--what does one say, in a situation like this, where one person's half-apologized with promises of more, and the other person just wants to make sure they know he forgives them?--but Stef's lifting up both hands, gesturing him toward the couch.
"Sit down, sit down, ah, do you want somethin' to drink? Or--what's in the bag, is it--does it need to be in the fridge, or--?
Gabe lets out a little laugh, settling himself on one end of the couch and setting the bag at his feet. "Don't worry about it," he says. It's things that he's hoping will help Stef relax, but he doesn't want to show them to them yet, wants to talk to them before making any suggestions. Their phone conversation this morning had mostly consisted of Stef apologizing, and Gabe trying to reassure them, and then him asking if he could stop by later. It wasn't terribly enlightening, but then, Gabe's pretty sure he got most of the story last month, anyway.
Stef lowers themself down onto the other end of the couch. There's a wide empty space between them, a gap that Gabe believes they'll close this evening.
"I wanna apologize again," they say, "for not answerin' your texts, for not talkin' to you, for not-- thanking you for--"
"Stef," he cuts them off, having already heard all of this. "I forgive you. You were going through a rough time-- are going through a rough time. Shaw said you weren't talking to aer, either. Madhavi said you were avoiding Simon, too. I'm not mad at you."
"I know," they say, sighing. They shift slightly, bringing their knee up onto the sofa cushion so they're facing him more. "I just, I've been so--I've been such a jerk, and... you deserve better than that."
"I do," Gabe says. "Look, I obviously didn't enjoy being ignored by my datemate for three weeks. I don't want it to happen again."
"It won't," Stef interrupts, eyes widening, shoulders tightening. "Gabe, I--it won't happen again, I'm sorry, I--"
"Stef," he says, as firmly yet gently as he can. "It's okay. I believe you. I just want to know you're okay, you know?" He leans a little closer, stretching his hand out so it rests on the cushion between them, palm up. "It's okay if you need time to yourself. Just please don't isolate yourself from everyone. Tell us what's wrong, let people help you."
They stare at his hand for a long, drawn-out moment, and then they sigh again, their shoulders sagging. "Yeah," they breathe. "I... I don't know. I handled everything wrong. I just--I freaked out. Marco... he's basically my whole life, you know? I spent the last decade taking care of him. I..." They trail off, and then, tentatively, reach out and take his hand. He squeezes theirs, firmly yet gently, and smiles at them.
Stef clearly has some problems they need to work through, and Gabe wants to help them.
He releases their hand and scoots closer to them, bending over to reach into the bag at his feet. He pulls out a few items and stacks them on the coffee table in front of him. "Tea," he tells them. "I brought lavender, peppermint, and chamomile." He sets a CD on top of the stack of tea. "Nature sounds," he says. "Very relaxing, I listen to this after a stressful day at the diner. Uh. Stress ball." He sets that one next to the stack, but it rolls away and onto the floor. "Shit. Where'd it--"
"Gabe," Stef says. "What is all this?"
Gabe, now crouching on the floor with arm under the sofa, looks up. "Hm? Uh, just stuff to help you relax." His fingers brush against the soft surface of the stress ball, and he closes his hand around it. "Got it." He sits up, plopping the stress ball back down, and slides back onto the couch. "You definitely need some help relaxing. Oh, I--here."
He pulls the last thing out of the bag and hands it to Stef, who tentatively takes it.
"Bubblebath?" they ask. "Gabe, I'm an adult, I haven't taken a bubblebath since I was a kid, I--"
"What?! No wonder you're so stressed." He stands up again. "Come on, let's go draw one right now."
"I--Gabe. Are you serious?" They're looking up at him, eyebrows pulled tight together.
"Stef," he says. "Do you have anything else you need to do today?"
"No. It's the weekend."
"And how are you feeling? Still kind of upset?"
They sigh. "Yeah."
"Then come on. Let's go take a bath." He holds his hand out to them, and they take it, but they pause again.
"Let's?" they repeat. "Wait, Gabe. You wanna take a bath together?!"
"Why not?" he asks, and their eyes widen. "I mean," he hastily adds, "we don't have to, if you don't want to. I just. I think a bath would be really nice, for you, and uh. I haven't seen you in three weeks. I've missed you." It's his turn to smile sheepishly at them.
"Gabe," Stef asks, blinking. "Are you trying to seduce me into bathtub sex?"
"What?!" The word comes out higher and sharper than he means it to. " No. I just wanna... Hold you. Talk. Take a bath together."
Stef's quiet a moment longer, and then they laugh, and they stand, keeping their hand in his. "Okay, okay," they say, biting their lip and obviously holding back a grin. "If you're gonna be so insistent. Let's go."
Stef's bathtub is a little bit bigger than the one in Gabe's house, which is good because he barely fits into that one, and he can't imagine trying to squeeze two people of about the same height in there. He's much bulkier than Stef is (Stef is basically a twig; just about anyone is bulkier than they are, and Gabe's got enough muscles and fat on him that he's basically two of Stef).
Gabe pours the soap into the water, continually testing the temperature and adding more cold or more hot as the situation calls for it. He can hear Stef getting undressed behind him, the tapping of bare feet on linoleum, the soft sliding of fabric against skin.
When the bath is ready, the water warm and the tub filled with soft fluffy peaks of bubbles, he straightens up and turns toward Stef, who's depositing the last of their clothes into a pile on the floor. Gabe grabs the hem of his shirt and tugs it over his head, tossing it down beside theirs just as they meet his eyes. They arch an eyebrow at him, lips tugging up into a slight smirk, but they don't say anything.
He quickly finishes undressing, then turns and gets into the tub. The water's hot, but not too hot that it burns his skin, and he settles down beneath the bubbles, managing to stretch his legs out in front of him enough that the bottoms of his feet touch the other end without him having to bend his knees too much. He looks back up at Stef, still standing where he'd left them, and beckons them over.
"Come on," he says. "Before it gets cold."
Stef steps closer, peering skeptically into the bath. "I've literally never taken a bath with someone before," they say. "Where the heck are your legs and how do I avoid steppin' on 'em?"
Gabe laughs, surprised. "Never?" he asks, then shakes his head and holds out his hand. "C'mere, just--step in the middle of the tub, okay, I'll make sure you don't kill both of us."
"Thanks," Stef says dryly, and they take his hand, gingerly stepping into the tub. They wobble slightly, but they manage to get settled in the tub, laying back against Gabe's torso with one of his legs on either side of them.
"How's the water?" Gabe asks, letting his arms float in the small amount of space between their bodies and the sides of the tub.
"Nice," Stef says. They aren't quite relaxed against him, their shoulders tense and their back stiff, and he wants them to relax, wants them to feel good, but he still doesn't know how, not after the long weeks of silence. Doesn't know where the line is drawn right now.
"It's..." Stef lifts one hand, picking up a pile of bubbles. They laugh suddenly, high and sharp, and twist their body to look over their shoulder at him. "It's nice," they say, and flick the bubbles at him.
He laughs, too, spitting soap out of his mouth. "Gross," he says. "That is not the proper use of bathtime bubbles."
"Bathtime bubbles," Stef repeats in a teasing tone. "That's cute."
"You're cute," he says, and their expression softens. They tuck their hair behind their ear and turn back around, lean against him more, their spine relaxing.
"I'm sorry," they say, and Gabe sighs without meaning to, opens his mouth to tell them it's alright, but they continue. "Sorry that you had to... see me like that."
"See you like what?" he asks, confused. His free-floating hand comes into contact with their stomach, and when they don't protest or flinch away, he tentatively slides his hand over their skin, wrapping his arm around them.
"Like... that," Stef says. "When you came over to check on me, and I... was ranting, and crying, and just making a fool outta myself, and then I..." they trail off, not moving, just staring at the bubbles in front of them. "I just. That's not what you signed up for when you agreed to be my boyfriend. And I'm sorry."
Wait. What? "Stef, are you upset that... I saw you when you were upset?"
They don't say anything, but they nod slowly.
He lifts the hand not wrapped around them and touches their hair, strokes the back of their head from the top to the nape of their neck. "Everyone gets upset," he says. "I wish you'd handled the aftermath better, but that's just something to keep in mind for next time."
He continues stroking their hair, even as they exclaim, "But that--! I was a mess, why would you-- why would you want to deal with that?!"
That wasn't very fun and sexy of me, Stef had said that day in the park, moments after calming down from what looked like the beginning of a panic attack. Gabe moves both his hands, gripping Stef's shoulders, and he leans forward until his forehead touches the back of their head. "Stef," he says, quietly and carefully and firmly, "I didn't 'sign up' to be your boyfriend because I just wanted the fun times, the movies and the dates and the sex and--and whatever else. I want to experience life with you, I want to be there for you when you're going through tough times. I don't want you to feel like you have to hide parts of yourself from me, just because you think they're... bad. I want to fall in love with you, not just some... shallow, surface-level version of you."
Stef sucks in a breath, a stuttering sound, and they lean forward, pulling out of his grip. He lets them go, watches the bubbles shift and stick to Stef's back and melt into the water around them. He doesn't move, doesn't touch them again, waits until he knows what they want, what they're doing.
They sit up again, some undefined amount of time later, somewhere between a few seconds and a few hours but not long enough for the water to grow cold, the bubbles to disappear. They lay back against him, pushing back and tilting their head so he can see their face, freckled cheeks pink and damp, the whites of their eyes tinged with red, making their eyes appear greener.
"It shouldn't be hard to believe," they say, voice thick. They clear their throat. "I just..." They close their eyes, bite their lip, open their eyes again. "I'm supposed to be fun and cheerful all the time with my friends and my datemates, right? And at work, I'm supposed to be fun and professional. With-- when Marco was here, when I took care of him, I was supposed to be this... this window to how great life could be, how happy he'd be one day if he worked toward it, and I just... I can't show anything negative in any of those situations!" They lift their hands from the water, press them over their eyes. "Freakin'... ugh." They raise one soapy hand up, toward Gabe, and he catches it, laces their fingers together. "Shaw's the only one I've let myself be upset around since I was frickin' eighteen. Any other time, any other person, it was an accident, and I... I don't talk to any of those people anymore."
Gabe strokes his thumb over theirs, keeping his eyes on Stef. "That sounds exhausting," he says truthfully, and Stef's eyes snap to his again. "Keeping things bottled up like that, all the time. It's..." he shakes his head. "I have problems letting people know when I'm tired, when I need a break," he tells them. "Damien helped keep me in check when I lived with him. Now that I live here, Shaw and Cole, Madhavi, even Georgie bully me into sitting my ass down and taking a break." He brings their joined hands up to his face, presses a quick kiss to their knuckles. "I want to help you when you're upset. I don't want you to have to hide it from me all the time. You don't have to tell me everything, but I just want you to know... it's perfectly okay to cry in front of me. To have emotions beyond just being cheerful, or whatever. You can talk to me if you need it, or you can just cry on my shoulder. Or we can take a bath together." He smiles at them, at their wide-eyed stare. "It's okay, Stef. You're okay."
They stay in the bath until long after the water's grown cool, long after the bubbles have melted into a murky mess. When they finally get out, they're wrinkly, wobbly messes themselves, but they're laughing, they're smiling, they understand.
Things are back on track.
Monday, May 11.
Stef can't help but feel a little weird being back at school after the week they've had. Everything feels just slightly off, but not necessarily in a bad way.
The kids eagerly welcome them back, some of them (namely Georgie, Sarah, and Ava) even give them welcome-back hugs. Stef gets a little misty about it, but mercifully they don't actually burst into tears at the warm reception.
The substitute didn't do a great job of keeping the kids on track with their learning, but Stef had built a little wiggle room into their year-long schedule last summer, so they're confident they can get back to it quick enough.
The teacher's lounge is empty when they step inside for lunch, this time to snag the fresh (well, it was fresh this morning when they picked it up) cobb salad Gabe had made them, heading back to their classroom to eat it. Gah, they hope they never have to go back to supermarket deli food.
Simon comes in halfway through Stef's lunch and just grins at them for the doorway for a few long seconds while they chew their lettuce at him. Then he waves and turns right back around, presumably to get his own lunch. He's proud of them, they know. Ugh! He's their friend and full of great advice....
When had Stef actually collected so many friends?
They carry their leftovers back to the fridge, and it's while they're on their way back to their classroom again that they cross paths with Mr. Korse himself.
"Campbell," he says, stopping in the middle of the hall. He's got a stack of several piles of paper-clipped papers in his arm, so he's probably off to go staple together homework packets for the week. Shoot, Stef still needs to do that!
"Korse," they reply curtly, moving to sidestep him and continue on their journey, but they stop when Korse speaks again.
"You're... looking well."
Stef blinks at him. What? No insult, no backhanded compliment or weird humble brag? "Uh," they say. "Yeah. I'm doin' good. Thanks."
They stare at Korse. Korse stares at them. Neither of them seem to know what they're supposed to do next.
Then Korse clears his throat, shuffles his feet. "Well," he says. "I have to get to the prep room before the third-grade teachers commandeer all the staplers again. ...Have an excellent afternoon."
Stef stares after him as he dodges around them and marches, almost awkwardly, into the prep room. What on earth ...? Even Korse had been worried about them?! They don't want to consider the implications of that.
Still, they're in a decidedly good mood the rest of the day.
Wednesday, May 13.
Gabe's running late this morning, so Madhavi's already halfway through her workout routine by the time he gets there. It's a shame, because that means he'll have to do half of his routine alone, but at least they'll still get to talk a bit before she leaves.
"Hey," Madhavi grunts, settling her bar into the slots with the help of her spotter (some random guy they see around the gym a lot; he must have been the first person available to help her out, since Gabe wasn't here to spot her). "Thought you'd never show up. I hear you an' that datemate'a yours got shit figured out, huh?"
"Hey Madhavi," he greets, setting his bag aside and immediately launching into his warm-up stretches. "Yeah, I think so! Thanks to Simon and Shaw and, uh, Manami." Stef had told him about everyone doing their best to help them, and Gabe's glad they were able to push through Stef's self-imposed isolation and help them, even though he's also feeling a little guilty for not doing much of that, himself.
She hums an acknowledgement, sitting up and reaching for her nearby water bottle. "That mean they're comin' to your birthday shindig?"
"I'm not having a birthday shindig, " he reminds her. "I don't have time to plan out that kinda thing. It's just gonna be me and Georgie, probably going out to eat something that I don't have to cook." Though, honestly, it might be nice to invite Stef out with them....
Madhavi hums again, sounding less than convinced. "Like that staff'a yours is gonna let your damn birthday pass without doin' somethin'. I only know 'em from what I hear from you an' Lola an' that kid'a yours, but somehow I seriously doubt you're not gonna have a birthday shindig."
He rolls his eyes. "I told them not to," he says. "They don't need to go through the trouble!"
"Uh huh." She rolls her eyes right back. "You know for a damn fact that Shaw is gonna band everyone together to throw you a surprise party, an' if that datemate'a yours is feelin' better like they seem to be, ae's gonna invite them too. Hell, maybe ae'll rope Lola an' Kai into it, an' I'll show up too!" She winks as she takes a quick swig of water. "Guess I'll end up seein' ya before next week, huh?"
He sighs as he finishes stretching and heads over to pick up his first set of weights. He has a feeling that she's right, and he isn't sure whether or not he wants her to be.
"Sorry, kiddos, might take me a little longer to set the scene today, since I missed out on last week," Stef says, shuffling through their notes as the six members of their little club settle into their seats. "Speaking of, what did you do last week, since the sub took over the club?"
"It was awful," Ava exclaims. "Mr. Nichols made us do math during club!"
"Yeah!" Chess pipes up. "He told us D an' D was basic'ly just math with stories, so he gave us worksheets!"
"Worksheets!" Arnie repeats, louder and with more emphasis. "Mx. Campbell, promise you'll be here every Wednesday for the rest of the year. The substitute teacher did not know what he was doing at all."
Sarah nods vigorously. " And he said cactus beasts are silly. Mx. Campbell, if you ever leave us with a substitute for club again, please leave instructions for Georgie to be the game master. I think it would be much more fun and less horrible."
"I totally wanna be the game master!" Georgie bounces in her seat. "I have a lot of ideas for stories we could play!"
Stef, who's finally located the page they were looking for, hums. "Actually," they say, "I think that's a great idea."
The kids all turn their eyes toward them as one, and before any of them can say anything, Stef continues,
"You've been at this for a few months now, and there's only a couple of months left of the school year. I'd love for you guys to try out running a short game, if you want to."
The kids look at each other. Sarah shakes her head slightly, and Benson bites his lip, not looking too sold on the idea, but the other four look intrigued. Good.
Stef grins at them and pulls out a paper-clipped bundle of papers, passing one to each of them. "This is an outline," they say, "to help you plan out a game. No one has to plan out a game, but if any of you want to, go ahead and fill this in and bring it to me when you're done so I can check it over and get you set up. Okay?"
Georgie lifts her face from studying the paper in front of her and meets Stef's gaze, her own eyes shining. "Mx. Campbell," she says very seriously, "I have so many ideas!"
"Good," they tell her, grinning. "Then you should start planning out a game tonight. But for now." They wave the paper they'd been looking for. "Let's get back to this game!"
The kids eagerly do so, jumping right back into the story of their raising and protecting the cactus beasts under their care.
Stef freaking loves kids.
It's good to be back.
Saturday, May 16.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: happy biterday to theb CUTEST persong alive!!!!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: Biter Day...
FROM: stef✨💖✨: shut UP i taype fvery fast and do not care about gerammer and dspellign OKAY!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: I know. I just like teasing you. ;-*
TO: stef✨💖✨: Anyway, thank you! I'm finally the same age as you. Now we're BOTH geriatric!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: WE ARE 28 YEASD OLE THAT';S NOTE GERIATERIC YOU GHEATHEN!!!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: anywya what sare yourt pland todayyyyyyy besides getting dinenr with your datuhgt and your coll as heck datemaaaaaate
TO: stef✨💖✨: I'm working. That's literally it.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: ohohoho? 👀 is thtat what you thtinhk?
TO: stef✨💖✨: ...
TO: stef✨💖✨: Stef if I step into my kitchen and my employees jump out at me and yell happy birthday I'm holding you accountable.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: 😜
Gabe pockets his phone and sighs, standing in front of the entrance to the kitchen. He can't hear the usual clamor of a kitchen preparing for the day, but he can hear movements. Someone's definitely doing something. He reaches up and opens the door, stepping inside to find a brightly-lit kitchen containing far more than the two or three employees he's expected to see.
"Happy birthday!" the crowd shouts, and Gabe laughs despite himself.
"Thanks," he says, forcing himself to sound more exasperated than he actually is. "I see you guys took my 'don't throw a party for me' to heart."
Shaw laughs, skating forward to toss a pink feather boa over the back of his neck and tug him down to kiss his cheek. "As though we'd let your birthday go by without a celebration!" Ae pats his other cheek, then releases him. "Besides, we didn't decorate or anything! So it can hardly be considered a party. It's just a gathering of friends here to say hi before you get to work for the day!"
"Uh huh." Gabe looks around at everyone, standing around and grinning at him. There's Shaw, of course. Ae had no doubt orchestrated the whole thing. Cole and Himari are here, Bunny's chatting with Lola and Georgie (who had both supposedly left for the former's house about fifteen minutes ago) off to one side, even Taiki is here, though he's standing apart from the crowd and seems to actually be doing work. Kai and Simon are standing near Lola, but despite her warning a few days earlier, Madhavi's nowhere to be seen.
And, of course, there's Stef, standing almost awkwardly next to the center island, a colorful box clutched in their hands. When he catches their eye, though, they smile at him, and wave. He waves back, then steps over to them.
"Why hello," he says. "Wasn't expecting to see you here at not-quite-six in the morning. Were you trying to be sneaky with those texts a few minutes ago?"
Stef giggles. It's adorable. "No!" they say. "Not really! Gah, this was fun, though."
"Standing in my kitchen with my employees and friends?"
"Hanging out with everyone, waiting for you."
He grins again, wraps his arm around their shoulders. "I can't believe you guys did this," he says, loudly enough that everyone can hear him. "I'm too old for surprise parties!"
"You may be ancient!" Georgie pipes up, clearly fighting back giggles, "but nobody is too old for surprise parties, daddy!"
"Also," Shaw says, "this is most definitely not a party!"
He laughs again, and, tugging Stef along with him, moves around the room to say hi to everyone and thank them for the birthday wishes (and a few gifts he promises to open later), before all but his staff (those who are actually scheduled to work this morning) and Stef are left.
Gabe takes them down the hall to his office, where he has Stef sit in one chair and drags his office chair around the desk to sit facing them, their knees touching.
"Sorry if you actually didn't want a celebration," Stef says. "But Shaw invited me, and I don't have anything else to do until tonight, so..." they shrug, and then make a tiny oh sound and hand the colorful box to him. "Happy birthday," they say. "Saw this and instantly thought of you."
Gabe takes the box. It's clearly a garment box, and light enough that he's sure there's actually just a single article of clothing or something like it inside, wrapped neatly in rainbow-colored paper. "No, I don't have anything against celebrations," he says, sliding his finger across the paper until he finds a seam and carefully tugging it open. "I just didn't really want anyone to go out of their way for me."
"That's stupid," Stef says. "We wanna spend time with you, especially for things like your birthday!"
Gabe catches their eye and crooks an eyebrow at them. Their face reddens.
"Oh, shut up!" they exclaim. "I can ignore my friends' attempts to help me out and still scold you for doing something similar! And anyway, I'm trying very hard to not do that again, so there!" They stick their tongue out at him, and he leans in quick to give them a kiss, making them giggle again. It's cute!
"You're cute," he tells them, and finally gets the paper off the box. He opens the box itself, revealing...
"Oh!" Gabe pulls out a yellow button-up with a pattern of little red and green peppers all over it. "Stef! I love this!" He holds it up so he can see the whole thing. It is very much his style.
"Good," they say, peering around the shirt at him. "I figured, hey, the guy likes quirky shirts, let's get him a quirky shirt! An' then I saw this, and like, it's perfect for you. 'Cause, you know. You're hot stuff. So. Peppers."
Gabe lowers the shirt back into the box, and he knows he's beaming. "You're the best," he tells them. "Thank you."
"A'course," they say, a little awkwardly. "I mean, I can't really cook or make anything like you can, so--"
"That doesn't matter," he says, because they sound way too close to self-deprecating for his liking, "I love the shirt, Stef. It's a great gift. I'll wear it tonight!"
"Promise?" they ask, and he nods, tapping his knee against theirs.
"So how're you doing?" Gabe asks after a few quiet moments pass. He doesn't ask whether they've been in touch with Marco yet, because he knows from Shaw that Marco still hasn't been wanting to talk to them, and he doesn't want to bring it up and upset them like that.
"Pretty good," Stef says, and bites their lip. "Better, I mean. It's tough staying in the apartment by myself. I, uh, I think I'm gonna swing by Dante's place and... visit Marco."
Yikes. That does not sound like a good idea. "Are you sure?" he asks. "I mean, if... if you and he are still..."
"I'll be careful," Stef tells him. "And I won't... insult Dante again. Not out loud, to his face. I just... he's not answering my texts, and Shaw says he misses me, so..." They sigh, and shake their head. "I won't do anything crazy," they say. "I promise."
"I still don't think it's a good idea," he tells them. "But... if you think it's for the best... Maybe take Shaw with you? As a mediator."
"...Maybe, yeah. That's not a bad idea, Gabe." They sigh again, leaning forward, and he does as well, their foreheads resting against each other.
"I've gotta get to work," he says after a few minutes, reluctantly straightening up. "Shaw's off at one today. You gonna be okay until then?"
"Yeah. I'll probably stay here for breakfast, maybe go bug Simon after that. Or make Manami and Rosana play hostess for me." They grin at him. "Thanks, Gabe. Happy birthday."
"Happy birthday," he says in return, doing his best to make the phrase sound heartfelt before realizing that it is not, in fact, Stef's birthday today. His face heats up. "I mean, uh, thanks! Thank you! Uh!"
Stef laughs at him for way longer than necessary, but he doesn't mind at all.
Friday, May 22.
Okay, so maybe this wasn't Stef's best idea. Maybe they should have brought Shaw along, or let Gabe or Shaw or Simon or Manami talk them out of it. But they didn't! No, they came here alone, driving straight here after school, determined to talk to Marco and get through to him, somehow. Of course, their stomach is all twisted up in knots, too. What if he refuses to speak to them again? What will they do?
How will they handle that a second time?
They shake their head, tightening their grip on the steering wheel and staring out the window at Dante's house. They'd parked on the street a few houses down about ten minutes ago, and now they're psyching themself up to go knock on the door and demand to speak to their baby brother.
Ugh. What do they say? What do they say after a month of nothing between them? They've never gone this long without talking, without seeing each other. They've rarely gone a week without being in the same house as Marco, and those few times were awful.
They just... they don't know what to say, how to act. How can they fix this?
Whatever. They just... they need to try.
Stef sucks in a deep breath and then opens the door, climbing out and making their way down the sidewalk toward Dante's house. Ugh. It's a fairly small house, nothing fancy, with an overgrown lawn in the front yard and a bunch of car parts or whatever strewn about. Stef doesn't know anything about car components and they don't want to know anything about car components. They just know that the yard looks junky with all of them laying around near the driveway. Not that they'd expect anything better from him; it's just another point against him as far as Stef's concerned.
Their heart is beating in their chest as they make their way up the driveway and climb the wooden steps up to the porch. Their weight makes the third step cre-e-eeeak under their feet and their pulse quickens all the more. Frick, they shouldn't be feeling like this! They have to be calm. If they're not calm, it's just gonna make everything worse!
Now they're standing in front of the door. There's a doormat, slightly worn and streaked with dirt and who knows what else, lying crooked in front of it. Instead of "Welcome!" or whatever, the darn thing actually reads "WELCOME MOTHER FUCKER." Ugh! Definitely Dante's house, that... that absolutely vile little cretin.
They take a deep breath and lift their hand to knock, but the sudden sound of voices from within makes them pause, their fist clenched and held mere inches from the door.
"You've got way more pics than I do." Dante's voice, gravelly and horrible , even as muffled as it is by the wall between them. Just hearing him makes Stef's blood run cold, but no, they're not here for him, they're not here to talk to him or about him. They're here for Marco.
"Used to get a lotta likes. Y'know, when I posted regularly. I look good on camera. Prob'ly coulda been a model in another life." Marco's voice, warm and low and happy and familiar and yet somehow also foreign. The sound of his voice sends a warm wave of relief washing over Stef, followed closely by dread, and their fist clenches tighter, drops to their side. What do they say to him?
"Could be a model now, if ya wanted," Dante says. It sounds like the two of them are seated somewhere against the wall near the door, somewhere off to the left. Without really thinking about it, Stef moves away from the door, stepping quietly across the porch until they find the spot that's easiest to hear them from.
"Nah," they hear Marco reply. "Too much work, too many eyes on me. Rather be coding behind a screen than posing for everyone to look at."
Dante hums an acknowledgement, and then they both fall quiet. Stef strains their ears, trying to work out if they've moved away from the spot or if they're still there.
A few quiet moments later, and Dante speaks up again. "Whoa, shit. I knew you used to have more piercings than ya do now, but damn, Marco, you were decked the fuck out!"
"Yeah." Marco's reply, so quiet Stef can barely hear him though the wall. "Had more ya can't see in those pics. Under my clothes, ya know?"
Stef knows. They remember Marco getting his ears pierced after he'd moved in with them, remember the dozens of other piercings, how much better he'd seemed for a couple of days after each new piercing. They remember encouraging him to get more, not knowing the full story.
"Why'd ya take 'em out?" they hear Dante ask.
"They were... bad for my mental health," Marco replies, and Stef's breath catches. He sounds so vulnerable. They need to be there for him, they need to help him, they need--
"Oh," Dante replies, his voice soft. "D'you wanna talk about it? Or should I change the subject?"
"Nah, it's okay. I can talk about it." There's a pause, and then Marco continues, "They were a coping mechanism, I guess. Not a great one, but not as bad as... you know. "
"Yeah. It just... it was a rush, y'know? Always felt good for a few days with a new piercing. Had more energy, an' all that. The feelin' faded after a while, so every few weeks, if I had the cash an' the energy, I'd go out an' get another one done. Ears, eyebrows, lips, nose, tongue, nipples, uh... other places." There's a pause. "Yeah, just about anything you can think of, I got it done."
Stef had been with Marco during all of this, had gone to some of these appointments with him, held his hand through the whole thing. Hearing him talk about it, sum up the whole experience in less than a minute, it's... weird.
"So, if they helped you, why'd ya stop?"
"It wasn't all good. I mean, like I said, the feelin' faded pretty quick. I wasn't great at takin' care of 'em all, either, 'specially if I got a bunch'a complicated ones within a couple weeks of each other. Didn't have the energy, y'know?" There's a pause. "An', I mean, I wasn't just after the good feelings, the rush. The piercings, y'know, they hurt. Gettin' 'em, an' then the sore period after. Sometimes, I felt like I... y'know. Deserved pain. Gettin' a piercing was easier to explain than anything else I thought about doin'. Easier to deal with, too. Didn't have to think about what was goin' on in my brain, y'know?"
Stef's standing frozen on the porch, their hand splayed out against the rough wood of the whitewashed wall in front of them. Stef had never heard this before. Never known that the piercings had been... self harm. They'd known that the help they'd given to Marco was short-lived, known about his apathy when it came to caring for the piercings. But they hadn't known he was after pain. That just makes it worse! Why hadn't they known about this? Why hadn't they stopped him from getting any of those piercings?!
They aren't sure how much time passes between Marco's words and Dante's, but it feels like an eternity before they hear the latter say,
"Thanks for tellin' me. Wish you never had to deal with any'a that shit. Tomato! Get down, can't you tell we're havin' a moment, ya damn cat.... Ugh, fuck, okay, you can stay, but only 'cause your dad needs help calmin' down or whatever."
"Hey, Tomato." Marco's voice sounds a little thicker, now. "I'm okay, kitty. You know, gettin' Tomato was one of the things that really helped me start recoverin', helped me get my ass movin' to therapy."
"Yeah? Tell me about it. What kinda magic's this fuzzy bastard got powerin' that motor'a his?"
And then Marco laughs, a wet laugh that only comes with the addition of tears, but it's a happy laugh, a loud, deep laugh, something Stef's only heard a handful of times in an entire decade.
And Dante did that. Dante made Marco laugh like that, lent him a sympathetic ear, offered him the option to drop the subject....
Dante did that. Dante did all of that. For Marco.
Stef doesn't remember leaving the porch, doesn't remember dodging around an engine block or whatever the heck it was, doesn't remember walking down the sidewalk and climbing back into their car, but they must have done all of that, because suddenly they're seated in the driver's seat again, hands gripping the steering wheel, staring out the windshield.
Dante's a bad person. He manipulated Marco, he actively takes advantage of Marco, keeps him away from Stef, does all kinds of shit that Stef will never know about!
Isn't he a bad person?
Marco wouldn't leave Stef without good reason!
So... maybe Marco's reason for leaving was that Stef is no longer the person who makes him happiest. Maybe... maybe Dante...
Maybe Stef's been wrong about Dante.
Maybe they've been going about this the wrong way.
Maybe they need to take a few days to reevaluate their worldview.
Friday, May 29.
TO: ✨show pony✨: yeahd okay i get thtat but how do you just apologize to the guy you wspent like a whole yeadr accussing of being a manupulative jerrkwad orr whatever
FROM: ✨show pony✨: just tell him the truth. that you're overprotective of Marco due to years of shared trauma and you overreacted.
TO: ✨show pony✨: i do NOT have traumea!!
TO: ✨show pony✨: but lieke. do you think that would work???
FROM: ✨show pony✨: i think it's a good jumping-off point. Dante's a reasonable guy, steffie, and he WANTS you and Marco to patch things up!
FROM: ✨show pony✨: just getting on speaking terms with Dante will be enough to convince Marco you're TRYING. and that's what he wants, stef.
TO: ✨show pony✨: okay. i'm gonna do it. sendn me hi snumber pleadse.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: you'll do great, stef. 💖
FROM: gabe babe: Did you have dinner yet?
TO: gabe babe: shoot no!! i tototally for got!! thantk for remingdng me gabey!!!
FROM: gabe babe: Of course! :-D Hey, how about if I send Bunny over with something? She's off in aout half an hour. Can you wait that long? It'll be nice and hot and resh!
FROM: gabe babe: Oh my goodness. *about *fresh :-(
TO: gabe babe: WHY do your insist on correcteing yout typos do your not see this hot GARABGAGE i am spwewing out of my fignertips
TO: gabe babe: ANYWYWA yees POLEASE send me food i font wannt amake maraconi i a lways make the noodels too soggy 😔 😭
FROM: gabe babe: Okay! Chef's Surprise, comin' up! ;-* Also PLEASE tip Bunny when she gets there, she's saving up for a pair of skates!!
TO: gabe babe: aaahhhh i ssse the real reasdon you're sendidng bunny instead of shaw is so you can pay her eOVERTIME huh?? 😘
TO: gabe babe: i gott it coevered babe!!!
FROM: gabe babe: THANK YOU! And don't tell her I told you that or she won't accept the tip...
TO: gabe babe: got it!!!!! now get back to WORK!!!
FROM: gabe babe: Wow, tehre wasn't a single typo in that sentence! You're losing your touch, Mx. Campbell! ;-D
FROM: gabe babe: ...
FROM: gabe babe: *there
TO: gabe babe: LMAO!!!!!!!!