Chapter 11: June
Wednesday, June 3.
It's the third week of student-led D&D games, and it's finally Georgie's turn. Apparently she'd been hard at work planning hers out, because Stef had honestly thought she'd be the first one done, as excited as she'd been by the prospect, but she hadn't turned her outline in until this Monday.
They know, thanks to their close personal relationship with her father, that she's been spending quite a bit of time planning it out, and consulting Gabe's rulebooks, and asking him lots of questions. She'd turned in three pages instead of just one, hastily stapled together. Stef had been thrilled to read through it, pleased to see all the different possibilities she'd accounted for and the creative puzzles she'd come up with. It's far too long for a quick one-off game, but hopefully they'll be able to get through enough of it that she and the other kids won't be disappointed.
And, hey. They can always play at recess.
Chess is the last kid to arrive, huffing and puffing as he drops into his seat. "I had to finish my spelling," he tells them by way of explanation. "So I was late to get to lunch."
"That's okay, we still have plenty of time," Stef tells him. "Georgie's the GM today, so everybody listen carefully to what she has to say."
They all turn toward Georgie, who's sitting beside Stef today, grinning at everyone. "Okay!" she announces. "So today, we are going to the magic underwater kingdom of Atlampis."
"You mean Atlantis," Arnie corrects her, but Georgie shakes her head.
"No," she says, eyes wide. She bounces in her seat, doing a poor job of containing her excitement. "At lamp is! I will explain why it's called that after we finish our preparations!" She turns to Stef. "Mx. Campbell, if you will please pass out the supplies?"
"Certainly." Stef opens up their folder and pulls out five photocopies of Georgie's original drawing, and passes one to each of the players.
"What are these for?" Chess asks as he receives his, peering closely at it.
"You'll find out!" Sarah sing-songs.
Once everyone has their papers, Georgie continues, "As you can see, we need some special supplies for our trip today!" She holds up her own sheet, the original drawing, and points to each item as she lists them off. "Firstly! We have our patented waterproof backpack to keep all our things in! It is magical, so even when you open it underwater, your stuff will stay dry! Secondly, we have magical rebreathers. These let us breathe underwater for six hours until they need to be recharged!"
"How do we recharge them?" Benson asks. "Only two people have magic! And I don't!"
"They need to be in real actual sunlight for at least four hours to recharge!" Georgie tells everyone. "And it is very difficult to find sunlight under the ocean, so we have to be very careful about what we do!"
She explains the rest of the items to the group, which include swimming flippers, food and medical supplies, as well as a magical lantern that uses no flame. She doesn't tell anyone what the lantern is for, but she and Sarah exchange amused glances, so Stef is pretty sure Sarah knows the entire plan (and of course, Stef knows, too, having read through all her notes).
And then they're off, all five of the players diving into the sea in order to answer a distress call they'd received as a message in a bottle. The message had also included a map, which is another photocopy Stef passes out. Georgie had drawn a rather rudimentary, but still very impressive map of the route they would need to take from the surface down to the bottom of the ocean and through some rather treacherous areas. It honestly puts every map Stef's ever attempted to draw for a D&D campaign to shame.
The minutes tick by, barely noticed, as Georgie spins them a tale of this underwater place, and leads them through a dark tunnel full of mysterious noises and frightening shadows, out into deeper and deeper water.
When they can no longer see, Georgie instructs them to take out their flameless lanterns, allowing them to see a few feet in front of them.
They swim on, checking the map every once in a while to make sure they stay on course.
"You go around the corner," Georgie says, and Stef can see her biting her lip to keep from grinning too big and giving it all away, "and something moves at the edge of your light. Somethin' big. "
"I wanna check it out!" says Ava.
"No," Chess says. "We have to get to the end of the map!"
"What if it's a monster?" Benson whispers, his eyes sparkling. "What if we get caught an' it takes us to a big underwater cave an' we can't get to sunlight in time for our 'breathers to charge an' we drown or get ate?! "
"Whaddaya wanna do?" Georgie asks, sitting at the edge of her seat.
The group, after some deliberating, decides to investigate.
"You swim closer to the big mysterious thing," Georgie says, and there's a tremble of excitement in her voice, "and suddenly! You see a big monster!" She jumps clean out of her chair, waving her arms around. "It's wider than three of you put together, an' it's got two huge brown eyes staring direc'ly at you!"
Ava and Benson gasp, and Sarah lets out an excited giggle. Stef covers their mouth with their hand to keep from laughing.
"I have my axe!" Arnie shouts. "I run at it and yell my battle cry--" He lets out a strangled yell, and Stef has to quickly shush him and ask him to lower his voice, less Korse or some other member of staff hear and come in to scold them all. "--an' I swing it at the monster!"
Georgie grabs up two dice, almost throwing one at Arnie in her haste. "Roll against me!" she exclaims.
They roll. Arnie rolls a 2, and Georgie gets a 5.
She's not even pretending to hide her excitement now, launching straight into more exposition. "The monster hears your yell and turns around!" She throws her arms into the air again. "It wasn't a big monster face after all! It was a merperson with a big green fish tail and bi-iii-iiiig brown moth wings!"
"Shouldn't it be mermaid?" Chess asks.
"No that's just girl merpeople," Georgie says, arms still spread out to her sides. "Merpeople is gender neutral. Anyway! It's a merperson with big moth wings! What you thought were eyes were actually just markings on their wings! The merperson yells when they see your axe and casts a spell on you! They cast, um, they cast--" she looks down at her notes, "--they cast freeze an' now you're in a block'a ice!"
"Dang it," Arnie pouts, crossing his arms over his chest.
Georgie laughs, and she sucks in a breath to continue, when the bell rings over the loudspeaker.
Everyone startles, Stef included. They'd had no idea lunchtime was nearly over! They get to their feet. "Sorry, kiddos," they say, "but that's it for today! Take your trays to the kitchen and get back to your classrooms."
The kids groan, but they obey, wishing each other goodbye. Georgie, who'd brought a box lunch today, carefully puts her things away while Stef does the same.
"Mx. Campbell," she asks, and Stef looks over their shoulder at her. "Was that good? Did I do a good job of bein' a GM?"
"That was great, Georgie!" they exclaim, turning around to face her more fully. "You had me on the edge of my seat, and I'd already read all your notes!"
She bounces on her toes. "Really?" she asks. "That's so awesome! Sarah an' my daddy said it was really good, but they always say everything I do is really good, so they can't be actually trusted, y'know? But I had so much fun today! I'm gonna draw that part where Ava's gnome got stuck in the seaweed an' everyone had to pull him out! Do you think I can finish the game sometime? If nobody else wants to be a GM before the end of school?"
"If there's a day when no one else wants to GM, you can do so," Stef tells her, "but there's only two more club meetings after this, so I don't know if that will happen. But," they continue, before she can look too put-out, "you can always play at recess. Third and fourth grade have the same lunch period, so as long as you let the other five know, you can probably finish the game then."
She brightens. "You're so right!" she says, and then she closes the distance between them and wraps her arms around Stef's waist in a big hug. "Thank you so much for your help, Mx. Campbell! You are the best!"
It takes all of Stef's willpower not to burst into happy tears.
Saturday, June 6.
"Okay Georgie, you be good for Madhavi, yeah?" Gabe says, straightening his shirt. "And don't drink any protein shake she might offer you. Not because they're bad, but just because I don't want her to have the satisfaction."
"Okay," Georgie says from where she's seated on the edge of his bed. "Daddy, didn't you wear that shirt last time you went on a date with Mx.-- with Stef? And the time before that?"
He looks down at his shirt. It's the yellow button-up covered in peppers that Stef had given him for his birthday. "Yes?" He looks up at her. "It looks good, right? There's not a stain on it, is there?"
Georgie rolls her eyes, grinning. "You just wear that 'cause you like it when Stef calls you 'hot stuff' when they see you in it."
His cheeks heat up. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he says, and she laughs.
"It's okay, Daddy," she says. "Jason has a hat that says somethin' about old fishermen smellin' bad on it, an' he thinks it's ugly but he wears it every time he an' Dad take me to the park 'cause Dad always laughs an' tells 'im he's cute when he does."
Gabe snorts. "Yeah, that sounds like somethin' your dad would do."
She looks at him.
He looks back at her.
There's a knock at the door, followed by a gruff, "Hey, Gabe! I'm here for the kid!"
"Hang on!" he calls. He moves in close enough to give Georgie a hug and a kiss on the forehead. "Grab your backpack," he says. "And your shoes."
While she runs off to do that, Gabe makes his way down the hallway and to the front door, throwing it open to find Madhavi standing on his porch, with Stef's Trans Am pulling up behind her. "Hey, Mads," he says. "You're just in time, thanks!"
She grins widely, reaching up to tousle her hair. "Not a problem," she says. "Gotta watch Sam tonight, anyway, since Lola an' Kai're outta town. That kid's a handful. Better with Georgie around, though. Actually talks to her. When they think me an' Simon can't hear 'em, anyway. Heh."
Stef parks their car near hers, and she turns to face them as they get out and start up the steps. "Aw, hey!" she calls. "If it ain't Little Mx. Stef. Here for a date, huh?"
"Hey, Madhavi," Stef greets. "Simon with you?"
"Nah. I'm pickin' up the kid so you an' Gabey here can have a nice time." She winks, and Gabe rolls his eyes. "Sam's in the car, though."
Stef glances into Madhavi's car, and Gabe follows their gaze to see Lola and Kai's foster kid sitting in the passenger seat, staring directly at Stef with an unnerving intensity Gabe can feel even from here.
Stef waves a little awkwardly at the car, and Sam immediately turns away, staring out the opposite window. Stef meets Gabe's eye, shrugs, and climbs up the steps to the porch. "Hey, hot stuff," they say, slipping an arm around Gabe's waist, and he can't help the burst of warm fuzziness that spreads through his chest at those words.
"Hey," he replies, putting his own arm around their shoulders. "Just gotta wait for Georgie to get her stuff ready, and then we can--"
"I got it!" Georgie comes running out the door, her little yellow backpack clutched in her hands. "Hi Ms. Madhavi! Hi Stef!" She raises her voice and stands on her tiptoes, waving one arm over her head and calling "Hi Sam!"
Sam doesn't acknowledge her. Georgie doesn't seem to mind.
"Have fun at Madhavi and Simon's," Gabe says. Then he turns to Madhavi. "Don't let her have sugar after eight, please. And make sure she brushes her teeth. She's been forgetting lately."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll make sure the kid doesn't lose all 'er teeth an' all that good stuff." Madhavi looks down at Georgie, who's looking expectantly up at her. "Go on an' get in the backseat, squirt, an' we'll grab ice cream before we head home. Still got an hour an' a half before we gotta shut off the sugar valve."
Georgie squeals and darts off to Madhavi's car to fling herself into the backseat, and Gabe shakes his head with a sigh.
"I'm glad it's you and not me," he tells her, and she laughs and ruffles his hair, no doubt messing the perfect layering he'd just spent ten minutes styling.
"Have fun on your date, weirdos." She gives them both a little wave, and then hops down from the porch to get in the driver's seat.
Stef reaches up to fix his hair, and he turns his gaze to them. "You ready to go, babe?" they ask, and he nods.
"The movie starts in forty-five minutes," he says, letting go of their shoulders to reach down and take their hand in his. "Anything you need to do before we go?"
"Yeah." Stef kisses him, squeezing his hand as they do so, and when they pull away, grinning, they say, "Okay. Now we can go."
Gabe tries his best to pay attention to the movie, but he keeps finding himself distracted by Stef beside him. They've moved the armrest between them out of the way so that they can lean against each other, their fingers entwined during most of the movie (except when they need to pass popcorn between them).
Stef's shoulders shake when they laugh, and Gabe can feel their little hums of pleasure when they find some action sequence or bit of dialogue particularly good. He leans his head on their shoulder halfway through the movie and just closes his eyes, listening to both the movie and to Stef. It's nice. The movie wasn't really his speed, anyway.
When they leave the theater, Stef's in high spirits, practically talking his ear off from the theater to the edge of the parking lot as they drive away. Only then do they pause and ask if he had fun, to which he truthfully replies, "Of course."
Stef parks outside of Gabe's house, turns off the engine, and they both sit there in silence for a few minutes in the dark.
"Thanks for lettin' me stay over," Stef murmurs, breaking the silence.
"Of course," Gabe says. He leans over, brushes a lock of their hair behind their ear, trails his fingers down their neck. They shiver. "You can stay over anytime. It doesn't just have to be after a date, you know."
"I don't want to kick Georgie out of her own house," Stef protests, reaching up and entangling their fingers with his again.
He laughs, just a quiet chuckle. "You wouldn't be," he says. "You can stay over whether she's here or not."
"I thought you only wanted me to stay overnight if she wasn't here?"
"What? No. It's just easier for Lola to take her overnight if I'm going to be out late, and, you know, I don't want her around if we're sleeping together. In the figurative sense, I mean. The walls are way too thin for that."
"Oh." Stef falls silent again, but they keep their hand on his, their thumb running over the side of his palm. "I dunno, I just thought..." They bite their lip, shake their head. "Never mind," they say. They squeeze his hand, and then release it. "Let's get inside, huh? I can think of a lot of surfaces in your house that are comfier than these seats."
They open the door and hop out, so Gabe follows suit. He can't help but wonder what Stef had been about to say, but it doesn't seem like something he needs to drag out of them.
He'll let them tell him when they're ready.
Sunday, June 7.
TO: ✨show pony✨: shaw this iss really important.
TO: ✨show pony✨: i NEED dante's number.
Saturday, June 13.
Stef hasn't been to this cafe in months, despite the fact that it used to be a weekly tradition to spend a few hours here every Wednesday. The atmosphere feels different in here, somehow... Or maybe that's just their nerves.
They order a plain iced tea, too focused on their thoughts to look at the menu, and then they turn and scan the dining room.
They spot him at a booth in the back of the room, a mug and an empty plate on the table in front of him. He's got his phone out, looking at whatever's on the screen with his head propped in his other hand.
A cold block of ice forms in Stef's stomach. They hate him-- no they don't. They close their eyes, let out a breath, will the ice away. They need to be civil. They need to talk to him. They need to... try and get over this stupid hurdle in their mind that won't let them like him, won't let them trust him.
Stef opens their eyes and starts for the booth before they can stop themself again. He doesn't look up until they're just a few feet away, and then he straightens up, setting his phone aside and watching them impassively.
They slide into the seat across from him and stare at him. Neither of them speak or move for what feels like an eternity. He arches an eyebrow at them.
Stef swallows back the rude statement that wells up within them and says, instead, "Hey, Dante. Thanks for meeting me."
Dante raises both eyebrows at them. "Damn," he says. "You're serious."
They bite their tongue, then say, "I wouldn't have texted you at all if I wasn't serious."
"Okay," he says, taking a sip from his mug. "Good. So, your text said you need to 'pologize. You wanna start with that? Or d'you have somethin' else to talk about first?"
"I-- no. That's where I wanna start." They clear their throat, look down at the plastic cup in their hands. "I'm sorry. For all the garbage I said about you, for... warning Marco away from you, for...." they shake their head. "For everything."
"Okay," Dante says. "That's a start. Wanna tell me why you did all that shit? An' why the sudden change'a heart?"
They clamp their lips shut. They're not telling Dante about eavesdropping on his and Marco's conversation a couple of weeks ago. They can only imagine the reaction to that. "I just," they start, and then stop. How the heck do they answer this? "I love Marco," they say, and they don't know how else to continue.
"Yeah," Dante says. "So do I. That's why I'm here."
Last month they would have refused to believe that. Today... they're pretty sure it's the truth. They... they hope it's the truth. They take a breath. "Marco is... the most important person in my life. He's... been through a lot."
"I know," Dante says. "He told me about it."
"Right." Stef wonders if that means Marco had told him everything, about the sleepless nights and the hollow days, the constant self-deprecation and the awful coping mechanisms--well, if he'd told him about the piercings, about things he'd never even told Stef, then it's likely that Dante does know everything. They don't know how to take that. They try not to think about it. "That's... I didn't want anything bad to happen to him," they say. "Anything else, especially not when he'd just started recovering, and the timing... the timing of you two getting together, it just... I was worried. I didn't trust you."
"You still don't trust me," Dante says, but it's not accusatory; just a statement of a fact. "Least, not totally. An', look." He points at Stef, looking them dead in the eye, and they have to resist the urge to squirm. "You hurt Marco with all this shit. I don't trust you not to hurt 'im again."
Stef drops their gaze, bites their lip. He's right. Of course he's right, that's why this is all happening, why Marco stopped talking to them in the first place; they hurt him, and they want to fix it. This is the first step toward that. But that doesn't mean they like being reminded of that fact.
"So," Dante continues, "what do we hafta do to trust each other?"
Stef looks up sharply, meets Dante's intense gaze again. "What?" they ask, and it comes out as more of a whisper. They clear their throat. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Dante says, "Marco's not gonna be happy 'til we work out whatever the fuck is goin' on between us. So, what do we have to do in order for the both of us to trust each other?"
They shake their head. "I don't know what would make me trust you," they say. "But I... I'm already, like, on the way to trustin' you. What do you want me to say? Or do? I... I don't want Marco to get hurt anymore."
Dante stares at them for a long, hard minute, but this time they force themself to keep eye contact, not to look away. He takes a drink from his mug, leans back in his seat.
"Did you know," he says, "that this isn't the first time I've been engaged?"
Stef nearly chokes on their own tongue, coughing and taking a big gulp of their tea before saying, " What? No!"
Dante snorts. "Yeah. Started datin' when we were twenty.... Got engaged right after she finished college." He takes another, casual sip of his drink, as though he hasn't just dropped this huge bombshell on them.
"What happened?" they ask, their mind swinging from she died to he cheated to a thousand other scenarios.
He shrugs. "She found someone better." There's no bitterness to his voice, nothing hard in his eyes.
"It wasn't surprisin'," he continues. "I don't think either of us was really in love with the other, y'know? Our relationship was just... easy. Not in a good way, though." He pauses, looking up at the ceiling and rubbing his hand over his chin. "We didn't spend a lotta time together. Didn't have a lotta interests in common. She didn't like it when I talked about the shit I was into, so after a while I just stopped talkin' about it around her. I think I tried to be interested in the stuff she liked, but I dunno. Maybe I was a bad listener, too, or maybe she just didn't like talkin' to me about that kinda thing." He sighs. "Whatever the reason was, we didn't talk much, 'cept about bills an' houses an' weddin' plans an' all that. I didn't think it was weird. That was just what adult life was like, y'know? Bills an' houses an' weddin's."
"...When did you break it off?" Stef asks, when it seems like Dante's going to leave it at that.
"Two years after we got engaged," he says. "Little over a year ago."
"Little over a-- wait, you broke your engagement right before you met my brother? And then got engaged to him immediately?!" Darn it, darn it, darn it, that's a huge red flag, and Stef's seriously considering rescinding their apology and dragging Marco back home immediately!
Dante snorts again, tapping his metal pinky against the empty plate in front of him. "Yeah, shit, I mean, there was a couple months between the relationships, but shit, I was surprised, too." He shakes his head. "Didn't really know what it was like to be in an actual good relationship, with someone who actually wants to know you, wants to support you an' all that shit." He rubs the palm of his hand into his eye. "Shit, I'm not gettin' sappy here while I'm talkin' to you. I'm still mad at you. You're not allowed to know all my deepest fuckin' emotions."
"Why are you telling me this?" Stef asks. "How exactly is this, you tellin' me about your failed engagement, supposed to make me trust you with my brother?"
Dante drops his hand into his lap. "I dunno," he says with a shrug. "I'm just tellin' you about my life."
They don't say anything right away. Despite the fact that Stef's... concerned about Dante's previous romantic exploits in regards to how that will affect his current relationship with Marco, they can't help but... appreciate the fact that he's telling them about this.
They take a drink of their tea. Enough of the ice has melted by this point that their drink is way too watered down to be tasty, but they're not about to leave this booth to go get a new one. Not until this is all worked out.
"I took Marco with me when I went to college," they say, when they finally manage to think of a response. "He was sixteen. I--and my best friend, Shaw--took care of him when his mental health tanked.
"I know," Dante says. "Marco told me all about it. ...He's grateful he has you as a big siblin'."
Stef swallows, clutching at their tea with both hands. They don't feel like a very good sibling right now. ...But they're working on it. "I gave up a lot for him," they say. "Spent my youth bein' a parent more often than I spent it... bein' a kid. My whole life revolved around Marco. ...Still does, I think." They sigh. "And I wouldn't change any of that. I'd never go back and choose not to focus on him, go back and choose parties an' games an'... careers over him." They bite their lip. "He's the most important person in my life. I want him to be happy. I want to let go."
They both fall quiet again. Dante upends the rest of his drink into his mouth, sets the mug at the edge of the table. Stef stares down at their hands.
"Y'know," Dante says suddenly, and they look up at him again. "I'm not an expert on mental health, but it seems to me that if you're havin' so much trouble, maybe you should go see a therapist."
Stef's jaw tightens. "I don't need a therapist," they say as calmly as they can. "I'm fine."
Dante shrugs. "You don't gotta take my advice," he says. "But it can't hurt, yeah? Sure helps Marco out a lot." He leans back and stretches. "Anyway. I think we're done here."
Panic floods Stef's brain, and they have to dig their nails into their palms to keep from grabbing at him across the table. "Wait," they say. "Wait, we-- what about--"
"Look," Dante says, sliding out of the booth and standing up. "You came to me. You apologized. You talked to me, without tryin' to maim me or call me whatever shitty names you think of when you think'a me. Listened to my story. You love Marco as much as I do." He picks up his mug and plate. "That's enough for me. I forgive you." He turns to head back to the counter, but Stef reaches out before they can stop themself, their fingers curling around his arm. He stops, looks over his shoulder at them.
"Sorry," Stef says, immediately releasing him. "Sorry, I--I just. That's it? That's all I had to--that's all you wanted?"
"What I want," Dante says, "is for Marco to be happy. He hasn't been happy since you two got in that fight an' he moved in two months earlier than we'd planned. So, yeah. As long as you can be civil to me, I'm gonna talk to Marco an' see if he's willin' to talk to you again." A lock of hair falls into his face, and he flicks it away with a shake of his head. "I'll text ya with news."
"Thank you," Stef says, and dang it their eyes are getting all watery! They swipe at their eyes.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't think about it too much, crybaby." There's not a hint of venom in Dante's voice; his tone is soft.
Stef stays there for a few minutes after Dante leaves,wiping at their eyes with paper napkins until they finally come away dry.
They don't know if they've done enough... But it's a start.
Wednesday, June 17.
"Stef says they're up for running the game," Gabe tells Madhavi as they complete their respective workouts. "So as long as nothing awful happens to them within the next thirty days, it should be fine."
"Cool," Madhavi says. "I never played any'a that kinda thing before. I was more of a jock in high school an' college."
"Obviously," says Gabe. "But it's fine. Stef's been runnin' a game for fourth graders. I don't think they'll be too upset about having to explain the rules to you or slowing the pace down."
"Never woulda even touched that nerd shit if it wasn't for the fact that, somehow, I wound up with a total nerd for a partner." She sighs, then snorts. "Damn it, all my friends are nerds. You're the only jock, an' Lola's the only one who won't talk my ear off about Lord of the Rings or whatever-the-fuck."
"Excuse me. I have never once talked your ear off about Lord of the Rings."
"Yeah, you're the whatever-the-fuck . Heh." Madhavi sets her weights down and stretches her back. "Shit, I got a new client in a couple hours. Gotta get goin' a little early."
"Okay." Gabe sets his weights down, too, mostly so he can talk to her more easily. "I'll text you when we have a time and date picked out. Are you gonna need help planning a character, or is Simon doing that?"
"I already have a character planned out," Madhavi says, stepping over to the bench to uncap her water and take a swig. "Human fighter. Name's Madhavi. Got a killer right hook. Heh."
Gabe rolls his eyes. "Not even gonna try to disguise your self-insert, huh?"
"Nope." She pops her p, slipping her water bottle back into the bag and swinging it over her shoulder. "I'll leave that kinda thing to you nerds. See ya next week, Gabe. ...'Less ya need me to take the kid for a while on Saturday."
"Nah, we're just gonna go to the park this week, so we'll take Georgie with us. Thanks, though." He reaches out and squeezes her shoulder. "Have a great day! And, uh, good luck with the new client!"
She waves over her shoulder at him as she leaves the gym.
"And then, um, then an even bigger guy comes in," says Benson, whose GM notes consist mostly of drawings of professional wrestlers (helpfully labeled) and a list of what kind of "karate" moves each of them can use in a fight. "And, and he says, he says--" Benson deepens his voice, "'What kind of person just walks in and beats up a guy's secretary like that?'"
"Wait," asks Arnie, brow furrowed. "You mean the guy in the wrestling ring was this guy's secretary?!"
"Yeah," Benson giggles. "He was just pretendin' to be the actual Mr. Big Fist!"
Stef covers their mouth with one hand to hide their laughter. The kids have all managed to lead a D&D session now that Benson's having his turn, and it's been so much fun to see what each kid comes up with. Ava had stuck with a fairly normal setting and plot consisting of fighting zombie gnomes in a forest; Chess had planned out a puzzle game involving a magic maze (the fact that the maze consisted of three doors and no branching paths and that the puzzles were all either far too simple or far too convoluted to follow didn't matter; everyone had had fun, and Chess was proud of himself); Georgie had of course run her mothmerperson game in Atlampis (which had, as Stef had recommended, been finished over the course of a couple of recesses--and Georgie had told Stef all about it when they'd stopped by the diner one afternoon); Sarah had led a game focused on finding magical star pieces to power Princess Melty's magic wand; Arnie had led the group back into the desert of Stef's campaign to look for buried treasure; and today, Benson is running an explicitly Wrestlemania-themed game for everyone.
The game consists of each player going up against a knock-off version of the professional wrestlers Benson's drawn in his notes, and when they've all won, they have to band together and take on a Frankenstein's monster-esque combination of several other wrestlers.
The game's over with a few minutes to spare, so while the kids are all excitedly going over the events that have just transpired, Stef goes over to the back counter and collects the tray of cupcakes they'd picked up at the supermarket this morning.
"Mx. Campbell!" Ava calls, standing up at her spot, "are those for us?!"
"Sure are," Stef says, placing the tray down in the center of the table. "Everybody gets one cupcake, take the one you touch, don't touch them all, please, Chess." They wait for everyone to select a cupcake before throwing the empty tray in the garbage and sitting back down.
"Now," they say. "You all know this is the last day of D&D Club." They wait for the chorus of groans to die down before continuing, "I've had a wonderful time with you all this year. I hope you all had fun. Maybe you can play games like this with your families and friends, now that you know how fun it is."
"I can come back next year, though!" Benson pipes up. He has frosting all over his mouth. "'Cause I'm gonna be in 4th grade next year."
"Right. You can join this club again next year, if you want. But the rest of you are going to middle school next year."
"Are there clubs like this in middle school?" Sarah asks.
"There are clubs," Stef says. "And sports teams. Way more things to do in middle school than there are here. But I don't think there's a D&D Club, sorry."
More groans from around the table.
"There's plenty of other stuff for you to enjoy, though," Stef continues. "And you can play roleplaying games together at recess or after school. You all know how to be a team player, and how to lead everyone else to have fun, right?"
The kids agree.
"Then you're all set! Hurry up and finish your cupcakes. The bell's about to ring."
And ring it does. The kids all jump up at the sound, but instead of gathering their trays up, like Stef had expected them to, the six of them exchange looks, and then they rush around the table, wrapping their arms around Stef from both sides. It startles them, at first, but then they laugh, and wiggle their arms around enough to tug them closer, hug them back.
"We'll miss you, Mx. Campbell!" Arnie says.
"Yeah," says Chess. "You're an awesome GM!"
"You're the best teacher ever," Sarah says.
"You guys," Stef sniffles. "I'm gonna cry! Don't make me cry, okay, I'm gonna do that on Friday anyway, and you kids have to go put your trays away!"
The kids do pull away then, gathering up their things and waving to Stef as they leave the classroom. Georgie smiles the widest, Stef thinks.
Once they've all left, Stef pulls out their phone, honestly fighting back tears--they frickin' love kids, love how sweet they are--and looks at their unread messages from the last couple of hours.
The one at the top makes their heart stop, and then pound twice as fast.
FROM: baby bro: hi stef. i know you're working right now, but we need to talk. can you text me this afternoon?
Marco's actually texting them! For the first time in two months! The tears really do spill over, now, and they hastily wipe at their face as they type out a response, careful not to make any typos.
TO: baby bro: of course. as soon as i'm done in the classroom.
TO: baby bro: i love you, marco.
A reply comes almost instantly, four simple words that will carry Stef joyfully through the rest of the afternoon.
FROM: baby bro: i love you too.
Friday, June 19.
The last day of school is always a weird mix between laid-back and frenzied that Stef's not sure they'll ever really be used to.
The kids are excited all day, and there's really no actual work to be done, aside from the occasional last-minute makeup tests a couple of kids need to finish, so the morning is mostly full of "educational" games (in other words, any game that features math or spelling questions), storytime and silent reading. The kids have an extra-long recess at lunch, too, and while they're out, Stef uses the time to gather up all the remaining healthy and tasty snacks from their cupboard stash and divvies them up between all seventeen students.
They deposit a single plate of snacks at each child's seat, along with a manila envelope containing all the projects and schoolwork they haven't already taken home, and a little notebook and sticker sheet to commemorate the end of the school year.
When the kids come in from recess, they enthusiastically take their seats, chatting and eating and getting, well, a little too loud, but whatever. It's the last day of school, who cares.
"Okay, kids," Stef calls after they've had a few minutes, "We've got a couple hours left, so I've got two movies here, and I need you to choose one!"
"Shrek!" Georgie calls immediately, and several other kids echo her. They feign exasperation.
"Unfortunately, I don't have Shrek here, Georgie," they tell her, and she pouts dramatically at them. "What I do have are Frozen 2 and Trolls. We're gonna vote, okay? So... raise your hand if you wanna watch Frozen 2!"
Several hands go up, and Stef counts them quickly. Seven. They ask for a vote on Trolls anyway, out of courtesy, and of course, ten hands go up. Trolls it is. They pop in the DVD, turn the projector on and the lights off, and they're good to go.
While the kids are engrossed in their movie, Stef uses the time to finish up some of their end-of-year paperwork, squinting at the bright light of their computer screen in the darkness of the room. They're gonna have to get a new prescription for their reading glasses soon.
They look up to see Georgie standing by their desk, her hands clutched behind her back. "Hey, Georgie," they say, turning to face her. "What's up, kiddo?"
"Nothin'," she says. She bounces slowly on the balls of her feet, dropping her hands to her sides and then folding them over her torso. "I just... I wanted to day that I'm really glad you got to be my teacher this year."
"Aw, Georgie." The grin at her, and she grins back, dropping her arms back to her sides. "I'm glad, too! I had a lot of fun with you in my class this year."
"Yeah." Her smile twitches a little, then drops. "I'm gonna miss you. You're my favorite teacher."
"Georgie... you'll still see me!" they say, not prepared for the emotional goodbye (those usually happen after the movie, just before the bell rings). "You'll see me all summer when I go to see you and your daddy!"
"It's not the same," she says. "I'll miss you!"
And then she launches herself at them, wrapping her arms around their middle and squeezing them, and all Stef can really do is give her an awkward side hug and pat her back while they try to force back their tears (they've always cried so easily). "I'll miss you, too," they tell her. "The classroom won't be the same without you. But you'll have good, fun teachers in middle school, and I'm not gonna be out of your life just yet!"
She sniffles. "Yeah," she says. A quiet moment passes, the only sound that of the musical number in the movie, and then she releases them and pulls back. She smiles again, a wide, genuine smile. "You're the best," she says. "Thanks for bein' you."
She turns and heads back to her desk before Stef can respond, and they find it much more difficult to concentrate on their work.
Stef, along with most of the other teachers, accompany their students outside at the end of the day, waving and calling goodbye as each kid gets onto their bus or into the backseat of their parents' cars. At least here they're not the only one fighting back tears.
Kai's picking Georgie up today, and as they wave goodbye to her, they notice his and Lola's foster kid, Sam, in the passenger seat, staring directly at them with the same intensity they had at the game night last month. It's unnerving, because Stef still doesn't know why they do it, when they haven't even had a conversation with the kid.
Once the car pulls away, taking Sam and Georgie with it, they relax again.
"It's always hard, isn't it?" Manami asks, coming up on Stef's right and waving to one of her kindergarteners. "I can't help but love each one of them, and then they're gone." She sighs, and gives Stef a rueful smile. "At least I get to see most of mine in the halls next year, even if I don't get to teach them again. Yours--"
"Mine go to an entirely new school," Stef finishes, shaking their head. "I really should have taken a job as a second-grade teacher, like Simon. Maybe then it wouldn't be so hard to watch 'em go."
"Well, they're not all hard, are they?" She smiles teasingly at them. "Remember your first year here? That one kid who swore he was going to, what was it--"
"Yes, don't frickin' remind me! That was Val. He told everyone he was gonna take my color, tried to convince everyone he was my... reincarnation, I think? Ugh. I'm not even dead!"
She laughs, patting their arm. "Tough luck for your first class. You're prepared for anything now though, aren't you?"
"Prepared for menaces, yes." They shoot her a smile. "Looks like the kids are all gone. Need any help cleanin' your classroom before you go home tonight?"
"Ooh, if you don't mind. I still need to put the art supplies away and fold up the tables."
"Lead the way, Manami!"
Monday, June 22.
This is the second time they've been to Dante's house.
Dante's and Marco's house.
The yard is still as cluttered as it was the last time Stef was here, though it looks like some of the big hunks of metal and whatever have been moved around, some of them replaced by other miscellaneous hunks. So apparently Dante actually does use or work with or whatever those things. Maybe he brings his work home from the garage. Maybe he works on cars... or... whatever for fun. Who knows?
They make their way up the steps to the front door, glancing down at the dirt-streaked "WELCOME MOTHER FUCKER" doormat under their feet. It is kind of funny.
They look up to the door again, take a deep breath, and knock. This is it.
There's a shuffling sound on the other side of the door, and then soft footsteps, growing louder, and then they hear the click of the lock, the sound of the doorknob turning, and then the door opens, and they lift their eyes to meet...
He's opened the door just enough to look out, so it's really just three-quarters or so of his face that's visible, but Stef hasn't seen him in so long, hasn't seen him in months, and so they can't possibly be blamed for the way their heart skips a beat when they see their brother.
He looks just the same as he did the last time they saw him (well, maybe not the last time) (and of course he looks the same, it's only been two months, not years ). Same bleached-blond hair, same hazel eyes, same long, straight nose, same mouth, lips set into the same straight line. He's got the start of a beard, maybe, which isn't that unusual, except maybe that it looks like he's keeping it neat and trimmed, like maybe he's growing it on purpose instead of just neglecting his care and ending up stubbly. His eyes... his eyes look a little wary, and a little hopeful, and... and...
And he looks okay.
All of Stef's worst fears, that Marco had slipped back again, that he'd let himself fall back into old, bad habits, that Dante had done something to him, they're disproven with just that one glance at his face. Marco... he looks better than just okay. He looks...
"Hey, Marco," Stef says, trying not to seem too eager, or too nervous, or too anything. This meeting is important. Everything hinges on how this goes, and they need to make sure it goes okay.
Shaw had told them that it would be okay. Gabe had told them he'd be there for them one way or another. Simon and Manami had wished them luck. Even Dante had told them it would be fine.
If it goes badly (it won't go badly) , it's not the end. It's not their last chance. And they won't be alone.
"Stef," Marco says, and it's the first time they've heard him in just as long, heard his deep voice, low and steady.
He opens the door wider, then, stepping aside and holding it open for them. Their heart pounds as they walk through the doorway.
They're standing in a living room, basically. There's linoleum under their feet and stretching off to the right, which they can't really look at right now because there's a door and a Marco in the way, but they assume it continues into the kitchen.
To the left is where the carpet, gray and worn in places, begins. There's a couch against the wall (where he and Dante must have been sitting that time Stef eavesdropped on them) , two chairs, a coffee table, several bookshelves, and two doors that must lead into the rest of the house. The furniture is all mismatched, most of it worn and probably purchased used.
There are pictures on the walls, framed photographs Stef can't really make out from here, and what look like posters tacked up. One of the posters features a black silhouette with bright red eyes against a dark blue background, the words "West Virginia Mothman" plastered at the top. Weird.
"You want... some tea?" Marco asks, as he closes the door behind them. Stef looks up at him again, but he's looking down at his hand on the doorknob.
"No, that's okay," they say. "Um, should I...? Where should I sit?"
"On the couch," Marco points. "Or in one of the chairs. Doesn't matter too much. Wherever's comfortable."
Stef nods and makes their way into the living room. They settle themself onto the couch, an old tan thing with an actual quilt laying over the back. It and the couch are both covered in cat hair that can only belong to one creature....
"Tomato!" they exclaim as the furry orange creature himself jumps into Stef's lap, already purring a mile a minute. He bumps his head against their hand until they acquiesce, stroking from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. They hadn't realized how much they'd missed Tomato, too.
The cushions beneath them shift, and Stef looks over to see Marco sitting on the other side of the couch, his eyes soft, the corner of his mouth tilted up ever so slightly. "'Mato missed you," he says.
Stef hums a little in response. It seems that the addition of the great furry monstrosity in their lap has broken the tension, at least a little. Stef's grateful for it. "How've you been?" they ask their brother. "I mean... like, what've you been up to?"
"It's been good," Marco says, leaning back in his seat. Tomato immediately leaves Stef's lap to cuddle up to him, instead, and Marco absently pets him as he speaks. "FInished up a couple big projects, got a couple more comin' up. Plus some little, easy ones." He scratches behind Tomato's ears, and the cat purrs even louder.
"Have you just been working, then?" Stef asks.
He shakes his head. "Been doin'... a lot," he says, and the corner of his mouth twitches up even higher. "Tryin' out some new hobbies." His smile drops a little. "Cookin's not my thing, though."
They snort, and grin. "You've been cookin'?" they exclaim. "Marco, you know neither of us are any good at that."
"Shut up," he says, without any venom. "I wanted to make cinnamon rolls."
"Yeah? How'd they turn out?"
His lips twitch. "Flat. And burnt. Bad. Still ate 'em, though." They must make a face or something, because he continues, "Okay, no, we tossed 'em." He rolls his eyes. "Anyway. How's things been with you? School out yet?"
"Yup. Summer break."
The conversation stalls there, and Stef's not sure how to continue it. Things are so awkward between them right now, and Stef has things they want to say, things they need to say, but now doesn't seem like the right moment. It feels like things are still too... tentative.
It's Marco who breaks the silence, quietly, like he's not sure if things are steady enough, either. "...Things still good with Gabe? I-- uh. Dante told me he was... really worried about you. Gabe was, I mean. Said you hadn't been talkin' to him."
They shake their head. "No, yeah, Gabe an' I're... great. Better than ever, honestly." They bite their lip. It's now or never, they suppose. "I... I went through a pretty rough patch when you left, obviously," they add, with a little humorless laugh. Marco doesn't reply, so they continue, "I... didn't really talk to anyone. Made my friends, my coworkers--heck, Marco, even Korse --worry about me. I..." They sigh. How do they word this? "When you left, it was like-- like my whole life fell apart." They fold their hands in their lap, staring down at their interlaced fingers. "Like, all I could think about was you, and if you were okay, and if-- and if--"
Marco shifts beside them. "Sorry," he says, quiet-- too quiet--too small, and blaming him self, and--
"No!" They unclasp their hands, reach over with their left to grab his hand on his knee, but they stop themself, close their hand on nothing, pull back. "Don't apologize, Marco. This is... all my fault."
He doesn't say anything. For a moment, the only sound is that of Tomato's purring.
"I shouldn't have said those things to you. I hurt you, and that's the thing I never wanted to do."
"Stef--" he sounds aggravated, now. They continue over him.
"I'm sorry about all the things I said about Dante."
He falls quiet again.
"It's..." They sigh. Best to tell the truth. "Look, I still don't like Dante. I think he's rude, and annoying, and narcissistic, and he's not good enough for you-- "
"Stef." A warning, this time.
They let out a slow breath, forcing themself to relax before continuing. "He's not good enough for you. But... no one is good enough for you, because you deserve the best, okay? You deserve the best of everything because you're the best, and--"
"Stef." A warning, but lighter. They glance up to see the corner of his mouth curling up, again.
"Sorry, sorry," they say, their heart feeling just a smidge lighter. "What I'm trying to say is that I don't like Dante. But I... I think he wants--" No. "I know he wants what's best for you, and I know he cares about you, and wants you to be happy. He and I, we... we have that in common."
Again, Marco doesn't say anything. But this time, he moves, his hand finding Stef's and slipping into it, squeezing. They scoot closer, squeeze back.
"I don't... I don't think I ever really believed those things, anyway," they confess, realization striking them at just that moment. "That he was manipulating you or using you or whatever. I just, it all happened so fast, when you were just starting to recover, and I was worried that you'd crash and burn, and end up back at square one. So I tried to get you to drop the relationship, or at least... back up a little." They're an idiot. "And then... you didn't crash, and you kept getting better and better, and he was always there with you, and I just thought... I was..." They bite their lip, squeeze his hand. "I was afraid he'd take you away from me."
Marco sighs, and scoots closer, close enough that his leg presses against theirs. He rests their joined hands there. "Stef," he says, slowly, like he's trying to find the words. "I know you worry about me. You've always taken care of me, whether I wanted you to or not."
They remember kneeling by his bed, begging him to eat something, anything, please.
"You've always been there for me when I needed you. And I will always need you, in some way."
They look up. Marco's blurry, wavy and wobbly. Crap. They're crying. They hastily wipe at their eyes with their free hand.
"I never planned on leaving you. And Dante never planned on... taking me."
"I know," they say, and their voice wavers just slightly. "And, I know that I was the one who... who drove the stake between us, or put up a wall, or whatever ." They sniff, and rub their damp hand on their pant leg, and hold Marco's hand in both of theirs. "And I know you're doing so much better now. You make your own choices. Dante will be there for you, and I’ll be there if you need me, and... most importantly," the thing they've always wanted, even though they've ignored the fact that it's happening, that it's been the truth for so long now, "most importantly, you can look out for yourself."
Neither of them say anything for a long moment, the both of them just watching each other, looking at each other, seeing each other.
"You're... the greatest sibling I could ask for, Stef," Marco says, and he pulls his hand out of theirs, leans in, wraps both arms around Stef's shoulders and pulls them in close. "I love you."
And Stef lets out a choked sob, wraps their arms around their brother, and squeezes as hard as they can.
Maybe things aren't the way they used to be, but they've changed for the better.
Maybe things aren't perfect yet, but they will be.
Thursday, June 25.
It's hot out today, hot enough that Gabe's broken out the tank tops and shorts for both himself and for Georgie, but not so hot they're forced to stay inside all day yet.
The park is still as active as ever, with adults sitting on benches or under trees or jogging down the paths, and kids running and jumping and climbing and shouting as they play. The grass is still green, but only inside of the park proper; the less-tended grass is starting to yellow and brown with the summer heat.
" Sarah!" Georgie shouts suddenly, jolting Gabe out of his thoughts. She's waving her arm in the air, facing the treeline.
"Hi Georgie!" he hears Sarah call back, and he laughs a little.
"Go play," he says. "I'll be in the shade over here."
She runs off to go meet up with her friends, and Gabe leaves the path, heading for a few trees nearby. The grass is cool, if a little damp, he discovers as he sits in the shade. Oh, well. If he gets a damp butt imprint on these shorts, he'll just run through a sprinkler with Georgie or something before they head home. No big deal.
He pulls out his phone, fidgeting with it until he's able to adjust the brightness enough to actually read it. He has a new message from Stef.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: hey babe hoWS IT HANGGIGN??
Attached is a selfie of Stef laying on their couch, their hair spread out in a messy halo around them, their hand making a peace sign at the camera. He quickly saves it before replying.
TO: stef✨💖✨: Georgie and I are at the park! It's hot! :'-(
FROM: stef✨💖✨:NO FORWNY FACES AALLOWED!!!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: do youe awnt me to coem punech the sun
TO: stef✨💖✨: Yes.
They don't reply immediately, so Gabe opens up his reading app. He's determined to finish this book by the end of the month, but he still has ten chapters left and not a lot of free time, so he might have to admit defeat.
A few minutes later, Stef sends him another picture. He quickly opens it up to reveal a blurry, out of focus image of Stef punching what looks like a yellow circle taped to their wall. He laughs, and saves that one too.
TO: stef✨💖✨: Thank you sweetheart it already feels SO much cooler! :-D
FROM: stef✨💖✨: !!!!!!!!!!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: i LOVE it when tyou calll met hat!!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: What, sweetheart?
FROM: stef✨💖✨: 😩😩😳😳🥰😫😫😫😳😫🥰🥰🥰😫 YES!!!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: >:-3c
FROM: stef✨💖✨: HOW AERE TYOU LITERALLY THE ECUTEST PERSON ALIVE!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: Stef, we've been over this. That's YOU!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: hang oun i have to come e kiss you right flipppping now
TO: stef✨💖✨: No you can't come here!
FROM: stef✨💖✨: stef: ???
FROM: stef✨💖✨:stef: why HNOT????
TO: stef✨💖✨: It's too cold.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: TOO COLFD????
FROM: stef✨💖✨: YOU JUST SAID DIT WAS TOO HOT!!!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: Yeah but now it's too cold.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: WTH????????
TO: stef✨💖✨: I'm afraid you may have punched the sun TOO well, Stef. :-(
TO: stef✨💖✨: I may very well freeze out here.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: NOOOOOO OYOU CAN'T FREEZ I WILL SAVE TYOU
TO: stef✨💖✨: I'm afraid it's too late for me... Take care of Georgie for me, please...
FROM: stef✨💖✨: I'M TOO YUNG ADN HIP TO BE A DINGLE PARETN!!
TO: stef✨💖✨: Haha. Dingle.
FROM: stef✨💖✨: wow way to ruin the immeresion gabe :/
TO: stef✨💖✨: ;-P
"Daddy!" Georgie's voice interrupts Gabe's thoughts again, and he looks up. Georgie and Sarah are both running across the grass toward him, up the gentle incline of the hill. He waves to them and glances back at his phone, startled to realize that nearly forty-five minutes have gone by.
He stands and pockets his phone just as the girls make it to him, stopping and panting. "Hey, Georgie. Sarah," he says. "Are you ready to go home?"
"Yeah," Georgie says, "'Cause Sarah's parents are waitin' at the other end for her." She takes a gulp of breath, wipes her forehead. "But we had to tell you! Val and the other big kids were here today, an'-- an' they were mean to us!"
Gabe panics, reaching out to Georgie and immediately looking her over. "Are you okay?" he asks. "Did they hurt you? Are they still here? Do you know who their parents are?"
"They didn't hurt us, Mr. Martin!" Sarah pipes up. She's already caught her breath. "They just said a lot of mean things to us. An' then they went out through the woods, so they're gone now."
He relaxes slightly. But only slightly. "Next time you see them," he says, "I want you to point them out to me, okay?" He doesn't know what the protocol is for getting a group of teenagers to stop bullying his daughter and her friends--doesn't even know where the line between teasing and bullying lies--but he damn well wants to know who to keep an eye out for on any future excursions.
Sunday, June 28.
"You're so comfy," Stef sighs against his stomach, their arms tightening around his middle. "Like, I prob'ly don't even need a bed, I could just sleep on you all night and I'd wake up so freakin' refreshed, y'know?"
Gabe chuckles, lifting his hand to run his fingers through their damp hair. "Maybe," he says, "but I sure as hell wouldn't be."
Stef huffs, a short blast of warm air against his skin. "We're not talkin' about you here, babe. We're talkin' about me ."
"You using me as a bed. Something I firmly object to."
"Fine. If you're gonna be so adamant about it. I guess I'll sleep in the bed." He feels them shift and stretch, feels them press a quick kiss to his chest. "But only if you're gonna stay here, too."
"Yeah." He relaxes into the pillows behind him, letting his eyes fall closed. "I don't have to be at work 'til nine tomorrow. So we can just sleep. Sleep in, even."
"Just sleep?" Stef lifts their head up from his chest, unwinds their arms from around him and pushes themself up. He opens his eyes to see them hovering over him, a very serious expression on their face. He grins at them as they continue. "You're saying you just want to sleep all night?! Gabe. I thought you invited me to stay the night so we could snuggle!"
He laughs, reaching up with both hands to tug them back down against him. "You know people can sleep and snuggle at the same time, right?" he asks. He cups their cheeks in his hands, leans up to kiss them.
Stef hums into the kiss, relaxing against him. "Gabey, it is only ten PM. I'm not sleeping for at least two more hours."
"I thought you had a strict bedtime of eleven?" he teases, running his hand up their back.
They huff again, pressing their face into the crook of his neck. "My summer vacation bedtime is midnight," they mumble, and he laughs.
"Okay, okay, Mx. Snuggles. No sleeping for two more hours. Is this what you wanna spend the whole time doing? Just using me as a bed and kissing me?"
"Yeah," Stef says. "Like I said, you're comfy!"
"And you're cute."
"Don't I freaking know it!"
"Your fake swears just make you even cuter."
"That's the real reason I never actually swear. To seduce hot dads."
He hums. "I knew it. You lied to me on our first date!"
They lay there in silence for a few minutes, with just the sound of their breathing and the occasional kiss to break it. Gabe's more comfortable here, laying spread out on his bed with his datemate sprawled across him, than he thinks he's been in months. Even though it's really too hot for two people to be sharing body heat like this, it's... still nice.
"Hey, so," Stef says suddenly, and Gabe realizes he'd been starting to doze off. "I... you remember what I told you, about that talk with Dante, right?"
"Yeah," Gabe says, blinking himself back to full consciousness. It had only been a couple of weeks ago that Stef had been able to take that first step toward making amends with their brother and his fiance, and they'd texted him the highlights that night. "Why, what's up?"
"Well," Stef says. They lever themself up and off of him, rolling onto the bed beside him. He quickly rolls onto his side to face them, and finds them propped up on their elbow, biting their lip. "I've... been thinking. About something he told me."
"What thing?" he asks. They'd mentioned several things from that conversation, including how much he cares about Marco, and the fact that Dante had had a fiancee until very close to his meeting with Marco.
"Well, it...." They sigh, closing their eyes and dropping back onto the pillows, rolling over on their back to stare up at the ceiling. "He said that... maybe I should go to therapy. For my, like... ugh, I don't know, my problems with letting Marco go, I guess?"
"Oh," Gabe says, as he thinks this over. "Well, you have been pretty upset about that." An understatement. "It's probably a good idea, honestly."
"But I don't need a therapist!" they exclaim, too loudly for the quiet of the house. They press their palms over their eyes. "Sorry, ugh, I didn't mean to yell. I just... I don't need a therapist! Marco has a therapist, and I'm-- there's nothing wrong with me, and even if there is, it's nowhere near as bad as his problems!"
"No one said there's anything wrong with you," Gabe reassures them, and then pauses. "Well, I don't know what Dante said, so maybe he said it, but I didn't." He scoots closer, slides an arm under their back to tilt them toward him. They shift, dropping their hands to look at him. He smiles. "You don't have to have something wrong with you to see a therapist, Stef."
"But I don't need one!" they protest. He can see them wavering, though, the way they hold their head, the way their eyes search his face. They want confirmation that it's okay , he thinks, they want support. Someone to talk them into it.
"You can just call, make an appointment," he suggests. "If you sit through the whole appointment and you still don't think that it'll help you, then you just don't make another one."
"Maybe," they say. They sigh again, louder this time, more drawn-out. "You don't think it's a stupid idea?"
"No," he says. "If there's a chance it could help you deal with... problems better, then I think it's a good idea."
Stef's quiet for a long time, and Gabe pulls them back to him so that they're both laying on their sides, chest-to-chest, and he runs his fingers up and down their spine, slowly, soothingly.
It's close to midnight when Stef speaks again.
"I'll make an appointment tomorrow," they say. "Thanks, Gabe."
"'Course," he mumbles, half-asleep.
The last thing he notices before he drifts off to sleep is Stef's low chuckle, and a kiss to the tip of his nose.