Playground Eyes

Chapter 12: July

Saturday, July 4. 


"Daddy, daddy, daddy, can we please get closer?! I wanna sit real close so I can see 'em light the fireworks!"

Gabe puts a hand on Georgie's shoulder, holding her in place. He warily eyes the expanse of sand around them, where the only things flammable are the blankets and towels they've brought out to sit on. "We're staying right here, Georgia Peach. You'll be able to see the fireworks just fine from here."

She pouts at him. "But I wanna see 'em!" she insists. 

On her other side, Dante leans in close. "Better listen to your pops, kiddo," he says. "'Less ya wanna end up like me." He wiggles the fingers of his right hand, which isn't fitted with his usual three prosthetics, so it's just two fingers that wiggle at her. 

Georgie gapes at him and then snaps her mouth closed. She glances away, back toward the area where the fireworks will be lit. "I'm okay with sitting here, Daddy," she says.

"Good," Gabe says, careful not to smile too much. He looks up and over at Dante, who grins at him and winks (well, he blinks, really, with both eyes, but Gabe's pretty sure he's trying to wink, so it's whatever) before turning back to his fiance, with whom he's sharing a beach towel.

Gabe pulls his phone out to check the time. It's 8:47, which means the show will be starting in thirteen minutes, and Stef still isn't here yet! Where are they?

"Hey! Sorry I'm late, gah, can you believe there was traffic on the way here?!" Speak of the devil. Gabe turns toward the voice and grins when he spots Stef in the twilight.

"You made it!" he says, tucking his phone away. He pats the fabric next to him. "Come sit."

"Hi, Stef!" Georgie exclaims as they sit down, immediately leaning against Gabe. "Are fireworks different in California than they are in Oregon? Daddy says he doesn't know and I wanna know!"

Stef laughs, grabbing Gabe's arm and settling it around their shoulders. He doesn't mind at all. "I have no idea," they say apologetically. "I've never been to Oregon!"

"Aw." Georgie sags against Gabe's other side, and he laughs, wrapping his other arm around her and pulling them both close to him in a hug.

"Guess you'll just have to find out yourself, huh kiddo?"

"I guess." She sighs as she snuggles against him. "I didn't get to see fireworks last year 'cause we were busy gettin' ready to move an' no one could take me! So I had to watch 'em on TV. It wasn't as good as seein' 'em in person, 'specially since they kept showin' people singin' instead of showin' the fireworks. " She pauses. "Stef did you know that I'm gonna be ten years old in nineteen days?!"

"Yes, I do," Stef says. "What are your birthday plans this year?"

"Well," she says, pulling out of Gabe's grip so she can gesture appropriately as she speaks, "I'm gonna go visit my dad an' Jason, so I'll be in Oregon! I'm gonna invite all my old friends to a pool party! An' my dad an' Jason an' my gramma an' my grampa'll be there, too! An' Dad says I can invite five of my friends to get pizza an' ice cream later!"

"That sounds like fun!" Stef says. "Pizza and ice cream are the best. I envy you and your friends."

By this time, it's noticeably darker out. The people around them are just silhouettes, for the most part.

"Oh," says Dante, and Gabe feels Stef flinch slightly before relaxing again. They're getting better at accepting Dante's presence in their life. "Shit, check it out, they're about to start!"

"Language, please," Gabe reminds him for the fifth time this evening. Not that it matters too much; Gabe swears a lot around Georgie (mostly on accident), but he always reminds her that she shouldn't say those words until she's older. He's a little worried that hearing the same words from another adult will reinforce the idea that it's okay to swear, and he does not want to deal with frantic calls home from her school next year.

"Daddy, look, " Georgie breathes, and he can see exactly what she's talking about. Farther out in the sandy expanse, a light appears--a flame, which moves and grows and starts to send out sparks.  

"Gonna be a good one," Dante says, and the words are barely out of his mouth before the firework takes off into the air, leaving a dark trail of smoke across the sky before it breaks apart with a loud pop! The firework shines in the air like a golden sunburst, illuminating the crowd around them for just a few moments before fading away.

The crowd cheers, Georgie screaming directly into his ear in excitement.

Gabe tugs Stef with him to lay back on the blanket, staring up at the sky as the show continues.

"Do you come out here every year?" he asks, feeling around until he finds Stef's hand and squeezes it. 

"Nah," they reply. "This is only my second year here. First time was the first year we moved here." They squeeze his hand in return, snuggling up against him. "It's nice, though. I kinda forgot how much fun it is to go see fireworks with your favorite people."

A firework screams into the air above them, bursting apart in a flash of blue and red.

"I've taken Georgie to see the fireworks every year since she was three," he says, "except for last year, unfortunately. It never gets old, especially when you've got a kid with you."

"I'll believe that," Stef says. "Kids' excitement for everything is contagious, y'know? That's definitely a perk of being a teacher."

Gabe hums in reply. A red firework explodes in the air above them, followed shortly by another golden one. He wonders, briefly, how Stef feels about kids--about a kid--older than their usual demographic. Wonders how they'd do dealing with a teen. But he doesn't ask that, doesn't say anything about it. There's still plenty of time to wonder.

The fireworks are beautiful, and Gabe loves every minute he spends under the stars with his favorite people.


Wednesday, July 8.


The local community pool had finally opened up for the season, and Stef's been dying to take a dip.

"I didn't get to go last year," they tell Gabe as the three of them (Gabe, Georgie, and of course themself) head into the building. 

"Yeah, I haven't been swimming in ages," Gabe says. "Usually too busy to go. Hopefully we're early enough today that it won't be too crowded."

The lobby is empty except for themselves and the clerk who takes their money and passes them their locker keys, so with luck they'll have the pool mostly to themselves.

"Can you go ahead and make sure no one's changing?" Gabe asks as they head for the locker room. Stef glances down at Georgie, who's clutching her little bag close to herself and looking up at the sealife mural that makes up half the walls in here.

"Yeah, hang on." Stef hurries on ahead and peers into the locker room, which, as with the lobby, seems to be empty. They give Gabe a thumbs up. "All safe for little eyes!" they say.

Gabe takes Georgie over to the bathroom stalls to change, and Stef heads right over to the lockers, stripping and tossing their clothes inside before slipping on their little pink swim shorts. Normally they might be a little more conservative with their appearance, even here, in case they run into any parents, but they've decided that they deserve a little freedom. 

"Gabe?" they call, as they grab their sheer wrap from their bag and slip it on, too. "You two ready?"

"Not yet!" Georgie calls, followed shortly by Gabe's, "Go on ahead, we'll meet you out there!"

"Okay!" Stef calls back. They head out the exit and step into the morning sunlight. There are a few people in the pool, most of them seemingly focusing on exercising and minding their own business. Perfect.

They set themself up on a lounge chair situated near the locker room exit and settle a pair of sunglasses on their nose, reclining comfortably in the sun as they wait. They look sexy as heck; everyone can see it, Stef knows. When Gabe comes out he's gonna be so taken aback by how goshdarn sexy they look.... Heck yeah.

The door behind them opens, and Stef turns their head toward it, lowering their sunglasses so they can see over the top. 

Georgie comes out first, with bright orange floaties on her arms and a snorkel and goggles in her hands. She grins at them. "I'm gonna swim so fast," she says. "Last year I beat all my friends in a race. Well, except Jeremy, but Jeremy's mama is a swim coach, so he doesn't count. I'm gonna beat my record this year! D'you wanna race me?!"

They laugh, reaching out to pat her cheek. "Maybe in a little bit," they say. "For now, I'm just gonna enjoy the sun."

"Okay," she says, and heads for the pool. "See ya later, Stef!"

"Have fun!" they call to her.

"If you take her up on her challenge," Gabe says from behind them, "don't hold back. She'll never let you live it down if you let her win."

They laugh again, turning toward him. "I'll keep that in min--" they stop as they lay eyes on Gabe, their brain short-circuiting, because oh holy heck does he look good!

Gabe's got his hair tucked up into a messy bun on top of his head, which is how he usually wears it around the kitchen, but here , freshly put up and not soaked with sweat and matted against his scalp, it looks utterly perfect.

He's wearing the most shockingly neon swim trunks Stef's ever seen, electric blue and lemon yellow with hot pink accents in a crazy pattern, and above that, he's wearing a bright orange and pink bikini top.

They'd expected him to cover up his chest today, because he'd mentioned once that he doesn't really feel comfortable being shirtless in public, for gender reasons, but they'd expected him to wear, like, a T-shirt or something, not one of the sexiest articles of clothing known to humankind!

"Are you okay?" Gabe asks, breaking them out of their reverie, and there's laughter in his voice.

Stef's eyes snap to his, and they say, "I am perfect, thank you, and so are you!" They set their sunglasses down and get out of their seat as quickly as possible so they can face him, hands on their hips. "How dare you show me up when I'm supposed to be the prettiest person in the room!"

Gabe quirks an eyebrow at them, and pointedly looks around at the scenery for a moment before looking back at them. "In the room?" he asks, smirking. "We're outside."

They roll their eyes, folding their arms over their chest. "You know what I mean!" they say.

He laughs, leans in to give them a quick kiss. "You're the prettiest person here," he reassures them. "I'm just the sexiest."

They gape at him when he steps away. "Excuse me?!" They pause. They snort. "Okay, you're right. I'm very cool with being half of the prettiest and sexiest couple at the pool."

Gabe tucks his arm around their waist. "Me, too," he says. "But no one's gonna acknowledge us as such if we're just standin' around by the locker room door."

"Daddy!" Georgie calls, and they both turn toward the pool to find her in the middle of it, waving at them. "Stef! Come swim!"

"You can swim, right?" Gabe asks.

They look up at him. "Yeah?" they say.


"Well what? Like am I good at swimming? Yeah, I think so. Why?"

"Cool. So, if I were to... say...." Gabe suddenly scoops them up into his arms, making them squeal, "toss you into the deep end, you'd be fine with that?"

They laugh again as he carries them around the edge of the pool toward the deep end. "Yeah," they say. "But only if I get to push you in later!"

"Deal," he says, and tosses them in.

Stef hits the water with a yelp and sinks quickly, the sounds around them fading into the dull roar of water in their ears. They kick and claw their way back to the surface and take a big gulp of air, blinking water from their eyes as they look up at Gabe, still standing on the edge of the pool, laughing. He looks so happy, and so... perfect.

"Throw me, throw me!" Georgie calls, swimming up next to Stef and raising her arms up to Gabe. "Daddy, throw me!"

Gabe leans down and helps Georgie out of the water with what seems like almost no effort, and he picks her up much as he had Stef. "Ready?" he asks, and when she exclaims an affirmative, he tosses her back in.

The morning is full of laughter and splashing, and Stef never wants it to end.


Sunday, July 12.


Gabe's working in the kitchen today. It's something he doesn't get to do quite as often anymore, so he tries to savor it. He loves the process of cooking, from selecting the best ingredients for a dish, to chopping them up into perfectly-sized pieces, to throwing everything into a pan and listening to the hiss and sizzle, to plating everything as pleasingly as possible. He takes pride in his abilities, and he loves the specific brand of exhaustion that settles in his bones after a day spent in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, as the owner of Jet Star's Diner, Gabe's the one who has to handle all the paperwork, making sure all the bills get paid and inventory arrives on time and all that stuff. It's his least favorite part of the business, and something he ends up spending most of his time doing. Maybe soon he'll be able to hire someone to do the accounting or some other part of the administrative process, and he can get back to cooking more often. Yeah, that seems like a pretty good goal to work toward.

It's crazy to think that the diner will have been open for a whole year next month. It feels like he's only been in this town for a month or two... and at the same time, it feels like a lifetime.

Shit, should he plan a celebration or a sales event or something for next month? Is that a thing you're supposed to do as a business owner? Host an event on the one-year anniversary of your grand opening? Well, maybe he will. His staff would probably like something festive, as long as it doesn't equal too much extra work for them. Or, oh, maybe he could give them a little extra in their paychecks next month, as a gift? It'd set him back a little in his accountant-hiring goal, but that's okay.

Gabe's deep in thought and wrist-deep in a pile of ground beef when Lola suddenly bursts into the kitchen through the back door, Georgie in tow.

"Gabe!" Lola gasps, alarm in her voice. Gabe is instantly on high alert, turning toward the two of them and narrowly avoiding sending the hamburger tumbling to the ground. 

"What's wrong?" he asks, stripping off his gloves and stepping toward them. Georgie's standing beside Lola in the doorway, her eyes hard and her jaw set. 

"I didn't do anything wrong!" she says. Her hand is still caught in Lola's own. 

"Who said you did something wrong?" Gabe asks. He looks at Lola, feeling helpless and confused; she shakes her head.

"Georgie got in a fight on the playground," she says. "I didn't see what happened before, but--"

"I punched Val in the face!" Georgie exclaims, holding her chin high. "He wouldn't stop botherin' me an' Sarah, not even when I told him to knock it off, so I punched him!"

Gabe stares at her. He's never known Georgie to be violent. Not that he--! Not that he has anything against his daughter standing up to bullies, no, but--he just. He just-- "You punched a teenager?" he asks. "I. What. You--why?"

"I told you," Georgie says, yanking her hand out of Lola's to cross her arms over her chest. "He was makin' fun of us, so I--"

"You punched him. Georgie. I. Why didn't you get an adult? Lola was there, and there are-- there should be other adults there. Sarah's parents!"

"Yeah, but if I'd gotten Lola or someone then he still wouldn't'a left us alone next time!" Georgie says. "Sam said the best way to get 'im to leave us alone was to punch him so he knows he can't pick on us!"

"You--wait. Sam told you to punch him?" He looks at Lola again, who looks just as dumbfounded as he feels.

"Yeah! They said they'd punch him themself but they didn't wanna get in trouble an' go back into the system." Georgie frowns. "I dunno what that means, 'cause they didn't tell me, but they taught me how to throw a punch, an' it worked real good, Daddy. I don't think Val's gonna bother us again."

"Georgie," Gabe says, still trying to wrap his head around everything. "I need you to go sit in my office while I talk to Lola for a few minutes."

"Fine," she sighs, and exits the kitchen, dragging her feet the whole way.

Gabe ushers Lola back outside, and the two of them stare at each other for a long moment before Lola says, "I didn't know Sam had told her anything like that!"

"It's okay, Lola, I'm sure we can figure this out." He shakes his head. "I mean, I can't say I blame Georgie for this, but I really don't know if I should punish her or call the kid's parents or what. And... Sam..."

"Do you think Sam doesn't talk to me and Kai because they're afraid we'll send them back?" Lola asks abruptly. She's nibbling on her lower lip, wearing away at the sparkly lipgloss there. "I mean, we would never, we know they came from some really awful situation and we wanna give them some, like, stability especially for these last couple years of school, but like, does Sam know that? Oh my god, Gabe, what if Sam doesn't tell us anything because they think we're just gonna, like, ship them off to some other family or whatever?!" 

"Whoa, whoa, Lola." He reaches up and puts his hands on her shoulders to steady her. "It's okay. I have no idea what's going through Sam's head," he says. It's not like the kid talks to him, either. The only people Sam seems interested in, as far as Gabe can tell, are Georgie and Stef, and they never talk to Stef so much as watch them from a distance. He has less experience with them than Lola does. "Maybe you can talk to them now?" he suggests. "Ask them if that's the reason, explain to them that you have no intention of sending them anywhere, no matter what? Unconditional love, and all that."

"Right." Lola takes a breath, shoulders relaxing. "Yeah, yeah I have to talk to them." She shakes her head, then smiles at Gabe, bright and blinding as ever. "Thanks, Gabe! Um, for Georgie, I think maybe just talk to her, too? Maybe, like, talk about some alternatives to punching, or whatever."

"That sounds like an idea." He'd rather not punish his kid for defending herself against a bully, anyway. "And if you manage to coax some understanding from Sam, could you ask them not to advise my almost-ten-year-old-daughter to punch a teenager? This could have gone way worse."

She snorts. "Yeah, I'll do that. Thanks for your help, Gabe!" She pulls him into a sudden tight hug, and he's suddenly enveloped in the fruity scent of her perfume. She releases him before he can do more than pat her back, still grinning. "I'll see you when I pick Georgie up tomorrow! Bye, Gabe!"

"Bye, Lola," he replies automatically, watching her make her way to her car. Then he sighs to himself and turns to go back inside. 

He's got some parenting to do.


Wednesday, July 15.


"I need more brown markers," Georgie tells Stef. "Jason bought me a pack that had 8 different browns last year, but I used 'em all up an' now we can't find anything 'cept this dark brown." She holds up a brown Crayola marker for them to see.

The two of them are sharing a booth in the diner this afternoon. Stef had come in about a half hour ago for a late lunch, and Georgie, who had been sitting in her usual out-of-the-way booth, had called them over.

Stef looks at the marker, then down at the picture she's drawing. It looks to be a desert landscape, and she's had to use yellow and orange to make up for the lack of appropriate shades of brown. "I can see why that would be a problem," they say. "Maybe you could use colored pencil or crayon for some of the other shades."

She sighs and goes back to coloring. "I guess," she says. "But I like markers better'n the others. I miss my brown markers. I could draw me, an' Daddy, an' Sarah, an' Jason, an' Shaw an' Bunny an' Himari an' everybody else! With this one I can only draw me, an' it's not as fun."

"I'm sorry, kiddo," Stef says. Her birthday's coming up soon, right? Later this month, around the same time as Marco's. They can probably find her something. As long as Gabe doesn't forbid all markers except Crayola or whatever, it shouldn't be hard at all. They can ask Simon for some suggestions, probably. He uses markers sometimes....

"Marco! Dante!" Georgie jumps up, startling them as she slides out of the booth and scampers away. Stef twists around in their seat to see the aforementioned Marco and Dante heading this way.

"Hey, kid," Dante says, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "Fancy seein' you here. Out for lunner too, huh? Heh."

"I live here," Georgie tells him, and her back's to Stef, but they can still hear that she's sticking her tongue out at him. "What's lunner?"

"Combination lunch an' dinner," Marco says. "What adults eat when they forget lunch and get too hungry to wait for dinner. Hey, Stef."

"Hey, Marco," Stef replies, grinning, and they carefully turn that grin to Dante, as well. "And Dante! Hey, I didn't know you two were comin' here today."

Marco shrugs. "Got done at therapy, pastries weren't enough to cure my hunger, here I am. Can we sit with you?"

"Sure," Stef says, at the same time Georgie exclaims, "Yes!"

The two of them move their things (Georgie's art supplies, Stef's plate and mug) over, and Marco slides in beside Stef, while Dante sits with Georgie. It's comfortable.

Well, mostly. There's still a little awkwardness between Marco and themself, something they're sure can only really be cured with time. And, although they're definitely trying to get along with Dante, there's still some animosity between them, even though it's mostly one-sided.

Still, it's better to be here with all of them than alone in their apartment, ignoring their friends' texts and calls. They never want to go back to that, if they can help it.

"So, are you comin', Stef?"

"Huh?" They blink up at Marco, who's giving them a bemused look. "Sorry, I wasn't payin' attention."

"Won't that make ya lose participation points, Teach?" Dante asks with a laugh, and Georgie giggles beside him.

They roll their eyes. "We're not in school," Stef says. "It's summer. Classroom rules don't apply in the summer, do they kiddo?"

"Nope!" she says. "School is kinda fun, but I like summer better. Me an' Sarah an' Ava an' Benson are all workin' on a comic together!" She pushes her page toward Dante, who looks it over very seriously.

Stef turns their full attention back to Marco, who's now watching Dante with a fond expression. They try not to think about how they'd tried to keep that small, deep happiness from him, and instead ask, "So what were you sayin', Marco?"

"Hm?" Marco turns back to Stef. "Oh. I was askin' if you were comin' over for my birthday."

"Yeah, of course I am!" they exclaim. "I wouldn't miss it for the world!"

His smile is soft and small, but definitely there. "Great," he says. "Dante just got a grill. Thought it'd be fun to test it out with a bunch of our friends and stuff. So. Uh. I'll text ya the time?"

"Definitely." They grin at him, reach over and squeeze his hand. He squeezes back. 

"Wait, Marco, is your birthday this month?!" Georgie interjects. 

Marco looks back over at her and nods. "Yup. July twenty-second. Why?"

Georgie slams her hands on the table, leaning as far over it as she can (which, being a little less than four feet tall, isn't very far). "Your birthday is on July twenty-second? Mine is on July twenty-third!"

Marco's smile creeps upward. "Really?" he asks. "Wow, what are the odds. Guess we're birthday buddies."

"Birthday buddies!" Georgie exclaims, laughing. "Did you know, you're the only person I've ever met who has a birthday in the same month as me?!"

"Am I?" Marco asks. "Wow, that's pretty good. Guess we really are birthday buddies."

Georgie laughs again, and Stef's attention is drawn to Dante, who's wearing an expression similar to Marco's as he watches their brother. It makes him look... softer. His eyes lit up, his mouth set in a slight smile. He looks like he loves Marco.

I tried to take that away from them.

Dante catches them looking and immediately screws up his face, sticking his tongue out at them and looking away. His eyes widen then, and then his mouth spreads into a cocky grin. "Hey, Shaw!" he says. "Finally get around to takin' our order, huh?"

"Oh, you're actually using my name today, hm?" Shaw asks as ae skates up to the table. "Usually you-- oh, that's why. Hello, Georgie! Are these rude people bothering you, darling?"

"Nope!" she says happily. "Marco an' me are birthday buddies! An' Dante says my comics're the best he's ever seen!"

"Aw," Shaw coos, and Dante rolls his eyes, looking at Marco, who snorts out a little laugh at him. Dante can't catch a break, apparently. Heh. "Well, can I get either of you softies anything to drink? Steffie, darling, you need a refill or anything?"

They all sit together for probably longer than is appropriate to take up space in a restaurant, but Stef can't bring themself to worry about it, especially since they know their boyfriend doesn't mind.

When they finally leave, Stef feels like they've accomplished something, somehow.


Saturday, July 18.


The pool is busier today, full of kids and their parents and adults just trying to get their laps in. 

Since it's so full, Gabe and Stef sit at the edge of the pool while Georgie swims. He's keeping an eye on her while the two of them talk, looking up every few seconds to scan the near-literal sea of faces for his daughter. 

"Like, on the one hand I'm glad that they switched the meetings and stuff to online-only," Stef's saying, "'Cause it's such a pain to get up at like 4:30 in the morning in the summer just to go hang out in an overly air-conditioned meeting room with like eleven other teachers and learn the latest teaching stuff, y'know? Ugh, and they always misgender me at those things, too. They're always like 'oh, we're LGBTQ-friendly!' but they always use the wrong title and pronouns. At least this school takes gender stuff seriously." They sigh. "...Wait, where was I?"

"You're glad the meetings are online now," Gabe says, watching as Georgie eggs another kid into a race.

"Right, yeah! So, like, I'm glad about it 'cause of aforementioned things. But also, now that Marco's moved out, I'm frickin' lonely in that apartment all the time! I wouldn't mind goin' a couple towns over for a class once a week. But instead, I just hafta clear a couple hours of my day to sit in front of my computer an' nod along to what people are sayin'. It's so boring!" Stef groans.

Gabe looks over at them just as they fling their head back with a sigh. The early-afternoon sun shines down on them, highlighting the fading red and the dark roots of their hair. Stef has more freckles than they did this time last month. He leans over and kisses one of them, high on their cheek. They giggle.

"If you're so bored in the house alone," Gabe says, straightening back up and looking back at the pool for Georgie (she's treading water in the deep end now, having a conversation with a group of kids her age), "you can always come be bored in the diner with some other people around. Or invite your friends someplace."

"Yeah," Stef says, and they lay their head against his arm, "but everyone has more goin' on in the summer than I do. Everyone else has jobs that're year-'round, y'know, 'cept Simon and Manami. But Simon likes to focus on his art, and Manami and Rosana travel a lot. What I'm gettin' at is that I miss havin' a live-in friend in Marco, y'know?" They sigh again. "I miss livin' with Shaw, too. Ugh, I just. I'm not good at bein' alone."

"I know what you mean," Gabe tells them. Well, maybe he doesn't exactly know, but.... "I lived with Damien for almost six years, from graduation 'til after we got divorced. Even when I moved out, it was just down the street, and I spent more time with him and Georgie and Jason than I did at my own place. And... well, now it's just me and Georgie, of course, but she's still a person. When she goes to visit her dad, or even just spends the night at a friend's, it's... tough." He shakes his head, looks to the pool. Georgie's still talking to her friends, but they've moved to the side of the pool now, holding on to the edge instead of treading water.

"I just gotta get used to it, I guess," Stef says. They move against him, and he glances over to see them rubbing their eye with the palm of their hand. 

"Yeah," Gabe says. He nudges them, and they look up at him. He smiles. "Seriously, though, you can always come to the diner. I won't even make you buy a meal. You can just hang out, talk to Georgie or Shaw or Bunny or me, if I'm up front."

They smile back at him. "Thanks, Gabe," they say. "That sounds nice."

Georgie's swimming again, a couple of her friends tagging along.

Ugh, he's gonna miss her while she's gone.


Tuesday, July 21.


"When's he gonna be here?!" Georgie asks, bouncing in place as she peers out the living room window. Gabe stifles a sigh and sets down his mug of coffee.

"Soon, kiddo," he says. "You know it takes him a while to drive the long way here."

"Do you think Jason'll come with him?" she asks. "I miss Jason. Almost as much as I miss Dad." 

"No, Jason has to work today," he tells her. "You'll probably see him this afternoon."

"Are you sure it'll be okay to leave my markers here?" Georgie asks, without moving from where she's knelt in front of the window. "What if Dad doesn't have the right colors? This is a comic , Daddy, not just drawings , so the characters an' the backgrounds have to be the same colors on every page, or it'll be wrong ."

"Your markers are better off here," Gabe tells her for probably the billionth time this week. "Your dad still has the set he bought you for Christmas over there, and if you take these ones there, you might lose them. You'll be fine , Georgia Peach."

His phone dings from its place on the table, and he sips his coffee as he reaches for it. It's not a text from Damien, like he'd been hoping, but it IS a text from Stef, so he's not complaining about it.


FROM: stef✨💖✨: babee i just saw your ex huysband BLAST theourgh a yellow light

TO: stef✨💖✨: Damien go ZOOM :-)

    TO: stef✨💖✨: Wait where are you?

    TO: stef✨💖✨: And don't text while driving!

He doesn't receive a reply immediately, so he figures they're actually focusing on the road. He sets his phone down and turns his attention back to Georgie at the window, and takes another drink of his coffee.

It's maybe a minute later that Georgie suddenly gasps and jumps to her feet in the way that only children can manage. "He's here, he's here!" she exclaims. She rushes to grab her little yellow backpack, and Gabe stands up too, with much less bounce in his step, to pick up her suitcase for her. 

Damien's just getting out of his car when Gabe opens the door, and Georgie rushes to him, her arms spread wide. 

"Dad!" she shrieks, and he catches her in his arms, lifting her up and spinning her around. 

"My favorite little pumpkin pie!" Damien exclaims, hugging her tight before setting her back on her feet. "Well, not so little anymore. Did you grow another inch since I saw you last? Jeez, you're gonna be taller than me in no time!" He looks up at Gabe then and waves. "Gabe! Come say hi, why don't you?!"

Gabe laughs, coming down the steps with Georgie's suitcase in hand. "Hey, Dami," he says. "How was the drive? Need a break before you get back on the road?"

"Drive was fine," he says. "I love watching the scenery change from forest to desert. It's hot as hell here, though! Like, literal hell. Oh, you can just put your things in the backseat, baby girl. Can't stay long, Gabe, it's a hell of a drive here and back." He gives Gabe an apologetic look. "Sorry. Sometime soon I'll see about gettin' Jason out here, too. Maybe stay a whole week. I feel like there's so much we just can't do together when there's a screen between us." He sighs.

"Hey, looks like I got here in time to see ya off!" Stef calls, and the three of them all look over to see them meandering over from the diner parking lot.

"Well, well, well," says Damien. "If it isn't Mx. Campbell once again! How ya doin'?"

"Pretty good," Stef says. " it's nice to see you again!" Once they're close enough, they hover next to Gabe and glance between him and Damien, as though they're... not sure about something? Gabe reaches over and takes Stef's hand in his own, gently pulling them closer to him. 

"Hi, Stef!" Georgie says, bouncing on her toes next to her dad, whose own hand is grasped in hers. "I didn't think you were coming!"

"Like I'd miss the chance to say goodbye to my favorite kiddo," they say, and Gabe's heart practically melts. He loves it when Stef expresses actual fondness for Georgie. It's a good sign.

Damien's got that mischievous glint in his eye. "You two aren't gonna cause any trouble while Georgie's outta town, are you?" he asks, mock-seriously. "I know she's the one who keeps you in line. Big Boss Georgie."

Gabe feels Stef stiffen slightly beside him, and he squeezes their hand, rolling his eyes. "So what if we do?" he asks. "You encourage any and all trouble. You're a mischief-maker. You're gonna encourage our daughter to cause as much trouble as possible!"

"This is true," Damien says, breaking into a wide grin. Stef relaxes beside him, and he squeezes their hand again. "I love trouble." 

Georgie giggles beside him.

"Speaking of trouble," Stef says, a little slowly, "couldn't help but see you hightailin' it through that intersection a couple blocks back."

Damien stares at them for a moment, and then laughs again. "You saw that, huh? Can't be helped! Had to get to my little munchkin as fast as I could! Say, Gabe, how come you're havin' your datemate spy on me, hmm?"

Gabe snorts. "I think it's less about us spying on you and more about you being so conspicuous," he says. "You better not drive that recklessly with Georgie in the car."

"The light was yellow! And as if I'd ever do anything even remotely risky with such precious cargo!" Damien looks down at her. "Speaking of, sweetums, I think we'd better hit the road if we wanna be back before bedtime." 

"Okay!" Georgie releases his hand and darts forward; Gabe catches her, leaning down and squeezing her in a tight hug.

"Be good for your Dad and for Jason, okay?" he says. "And have a good time. I'll call you tomorrow and again on your birthday, okay?"

"Okay, Daddy." She pulls back and stretches up to kiss his cheek. God, he's gonna miss her.

Then she steps over to Stef, hugging their waist. "Bye, Stef," she says. "Make sure Daddy doesn't get too lonely, okay?"

"I'll... do my best," Stef tells her, leaning down to hug her, as well. They look a little misty-eyed, and Gabe can't blame them.

Damien says his goodbyes, with a pointed look that Gabe knows means he wants even more details about his love life (which Gabe does not necessarily feel inclined to provide), and then they're off, leaving Gabe and Stef alone in the dusty parking lot.

"You've got a pretty good kid, Gabe Martín," Stef says, and Gabe chuckles, wrapping his arm around their shoulders and pressing a kiss to their warm, freckled cheek.

"Yeah," he says. "I really do."


Wednesday, July 22.


Stef hitches a ride to Marco's birthday party with Gabe, . 

"So, what'd you get to celebrate my baby bro's birth?" they ask after giving Gabe directions to Marco's and Dante's house. 

"I made him a pie," Gabe says with a smile. "The kind he likes, lemon pie." He sighs. "I swear I don't mean to give food to everyone for every holiday and birthday! It's just what makes the most sense to me at any given time."

Stef snorts, reaches over and pats his arm. "Don't worry, Gabey," they say. "Marco loves food."

Dante meets them at the front door when they arrive.

"Hey," he says. "Everyone's out back. C'mon, follow me."

He takes them through the kitchen (how the heck is Dante's kitchen nicer than theirs? ) and down a short hallway to a screen door, through which sounds of conversation and laughter drift. Dante pushes the door open with his hip and steps outside, holding it open for them to follow suit. 

"Hey, Marco!" he calls. "Your sibling and the cool guy are here!"

"I'm cool?" Gabe mutters beside them, and Stef snorts, nudging him with their elbow.

The back yard is actually pretty nice. It's fenced in, and the fence itself looks pretty nice, aside from the fact that the old, faded green paint is peeling off in several places. The ground alternates between concrete, stone, and grass that doesn't look to have been cut in a good, long while. There's a shed over in one corner, and a grill set up on a patch of concrete off to the side. There's a few chairs on another patch of concrete and in the grass, and people scattered around the yard.

Stef spots Simon and Madhavi laying in the grass together (Madhavi waves to them--or maybe just to Gabe--before turning her attention back to Simon). Lola and Kai sit nearby, in a couple of chairs. Shaw and Marco are both standing near the grill, which is definitely emitting some smoke (is that normal? No one seems concerned, but maybe they don't notice? Should Stef point out that it's smoking?).

Marco waves them over then, and Stef and Gabe both make their way over to him, leaving Dante to close the door behind them.  

"You made it," Marco says with a little smile. Aw, wow, he's happy. "Oh, no Georgie?"

Gabe shakes his head. "She went to visit her dad for a couple weeks," he says, and definitely doesn't sound too thrilled about it. Not that Stef can blame him for that, of course. "Oh--here." He holds out the cardboard box he'd brought over from the diner. "Happy birthday. Made you a pie. Uh. Hope that's okay."

Marco's eyes light up as he takes it and pops it open to peer inside. "Lemon," he says. "This is great. Thanks, Gabe." He raises his voice and calls, "Dante! Put this somewhere the bugs can't get it, yeah?"

The birthday party consists mostly of everyone hanging out in the yard while Dante and Marco take turns tending to the grill (which is supposed to smoke, Gabe assures them). It's nice, honestly. Relaxing, and fun to hang out with everyone. 

Stef learns that Lola's a childhood friend of Dante's, that Kai refuses to use any phone smarter than a flip phone, that Gabe can outlift Madhavi at bench-presses but that she far outranks him at squats. 

The hamburgers Marco and Dante serve up aren't exactly gourmet, but they're still delicious, and Stef enjoys them all the more for having their friends surrounding them.

Sam appears from somewhere when the food is served and eats a bit away from everyone else, eyes boring into Stef. Why don't they stare at someone else? Anyone else?

But no one else seems to even notice, so Stef tries their best to focus on their food and on the conversation.

"I've gotta get going," Gabe says after dessert has come and gone. "Sorry, ha, sorry to bow out early, but you know, I can only take so much time off."

"You need to hire more people!" Dante calls to him as he stands and brushes himself off.

Gabe laughs. "Maybe when we start turning a bigger profit! For now, duty calls." He bends to kiss Stef's cheek, waves to everyone, and then he's gone.

And suddenly Stef feels awkward and alone. Which is ridiculous, because they're surrounded by most of their favorite people. But they're... still not completely normal after everything that went on the last few months, and they miss Gabe's comforting presence at their side.

"Hey," comes a whisper at their side, and they turn sharply in their seat to find Sam standing at their elbow. "Can I talk to you? For a minute?"

"Uh," says Stef, who's both startled and kind of scared of this kid. Sam's been watching them like a hawk for the better part of three months, and only now do they wanna talk? "Okay?"

Sam takes a step back, gesturing for them to follow. Stef, at a loss for anything else, follows them.

They lead Stef off to another part of the yard, in the shade of a couple of trees in one corner. Stef glances back at the table to make sure that everyone's still in sight in case anything happens. This is so weird. From what Stef's heard from Simon and from Gabe and from Georgie, and from what Stef's seen themself, Sam isn't a very talkative kid, usually going out of their way to not talk to anyone, including their foster parents.

So why Stef, and why now?

"So, uh," says Sam, drawing their attention back. Instead of staring at Stef as they've grown used to, Sam is looking down, scuffing their shoe in the dirt. Stef can't even see their face, really; just the bright strawberry-shaped hat atop their head, contrasting sharply with the dull colors of the rest of their outfit. "How long have you known you were nonbinary?"

Stef can't bring themself to reply right away, too startled. Despite having no idea what Sam wanted, somehow this still isn't what they had expected. "Um," they say, after a long, awkward moment, "high school, I think? When I was fourteen."

"Oh," Sam says. "That's cool. ...When did you come out?"

"Pretty much as soon as I realized it," Stef says. 

"And everyone was... cool with it?"

"Well, my brother was. And my friends-- well, Shaw especially." Stef had been pretty popular in high school, but only after they'd come out, when a couple of the popular girls had seen fit to "adopt" them. Before that, they'd really only had their brother and Shaw, and a couple of acquaintances. "My parents weren't, though."

"Oh." Sam glances up then, staring them directly in the eye in a way that's no longer... unnerving, but instead... hopeful? "And people... your friends, and people at work, and random people you meet. They all just... call you they/them?"

"Well, no," Stef says. "I'm lucky, in a lot of ways. For one thing, I naturally look pretty androgynous, so more open-minded people are more likely to ask for my pronouns instead of just guessing at it. For another thing, this town is pretty LGBT-friendly. If I lived practically anywhere else, I'd get misgendered all the time, probably have to use some suffix other than Mx. " They glance over to the table again, catch Simon watching them (he gives them a thumbs-up, for some reason). They turn back to Sam. "And, well, I've just got good friends who're willing to correct other people and intimidate them into using the right pronouns and that kind of thing."

"Oh," Sam says, and for some reason they seem to deflate. "So... it's nothing you do? It's just... luck?"

"Sort of," Stef says. "I mean, I had to deal with a lot of crap growing up. I still do, sometimes." That doesn't seem to help the kid at all. "But a lot of what I have, I had to work for. Correcting people who misgendered me, refusing to be disrespected." They think back to this last Christmas, when they'd let their parents walk all over them until Marco had shut them down. "Well, sometimes I still need help with that one. But that's part of it, too: I don't keep people in my life who don't accept me. " Dang, even the guy they can't stand, and who barely tolerates them in return, Korse, has never once called them anything but their correct pronouns. With their parents out of their life now... it seems like the only people they have to worry about are rude parents who picked the wrong town to settle down and have kids in. "This is a good town," they say, more to themself than to Sam now, "full of good people."

"Okay," Sam says. They look... not cheerful, now, their eyebrows still drawn together and their jaw firmly set, but they seem... calmer, maybe? "Thanks. Uh. That... helps a lot."

"Why did you come to me about this?" Stef asks. "I'm sure there's plenty of other people over at that table that could answer those questions."

"You're the only adult I know who uses they/them, too," Sam says. "I just... I dunno. I wanted to know what it was like. People used to tell me it was a phase and I'd grow out of it when I got older." Their voice turns hard, and their scowl deepens, and they look away. "I never saw adults who were like me, so I thought maybe they were right. But... you're an adult. You're nonbinary. So, I can be a nonbinary adult, too."

"Yeah," Stef says, and they can't help but smile at Sam, even though Sam is now, for some reason, pointedly not looking at them. "Being a nonbinary adult's pretty great, honestly. It's good to just be myself." They look over to the table again, where Lola and Kai are seemingly locked in conversation with Marco and Dante, all of them laughing. "I think you landed with a pretty good group when you came here, too."

"Maybe," they say, and their voice is suddenly soft again, quiet. "...I probably could have talked to Lola about this. I know she's trans, 'cause she told me, uh, when I told her my pronouns. But, I dunno. It's not the same, you know?"

"I get that," Stef says. Even when they'd discovered they were nonbinary, there were still questions. There was still pressure from people around them: pressure to identify as a woman, pressure to "just admit they were a gay man, " pressure to go back into the closet, pretend to be anything but what they are. And it had been tough, back then, to stick with what they knew to be true. Having an adult in their life who was also nonbinary could have put a lot of those thoughts to rest. "Her experiences aren't the same as ours, but then, yours isn't exactly the same as mine, either. Lola can probably answer a lot of questions for you. Or even just... be there for you as you deal with your own struggles, you know?"

"Yeah," Sam says. "Yeah. You're right. ...Thanks, Stef." And then they look up at them sharply, eyes fiery, and they say in a snarl that's the complete opposite of what they'd seemed just a moment ago, "And don't ever tell anyone we had this conversation, okay?! I never got sappy with you."

Then they turn and march back to the table, leaving Stef to stand under the tree and blink in bewilderment after them. Well. Alright, then.




The party continues until the sun is on its way down, the orange-y yellow circle hovering just above the edge of the horizon and casting a golden light over everything. 

"Hey, since everyone's here," Dante says suddenly, "who wants to see one'a the projects me an' Marco've been workin' on?"

"What kinda project?" Madhavi asks, from where she's laying sprawled across the grass. 

"Well," says Dante, with a glint in his eye, "seein' as I'm a master mechanic an' my birthday boy fiance over there is a master software engineer, what else would we do together besides build robots?"

Simon laughs. "You guys built a robot together?! Hell yeah! Bring it out!"

Stef, seated in a chair beside Kai, watches their brother and Dante as they head over to the shed and open it, rummaging around. Marco looks so happy, and Dante... well, so does he. They're laughing together, bumping into each other and grinning as they get whatever this project of theirs is ready to show off.

And Stef, well... they're proud of them. Of both of them, honestly. Working together, having fun, just... enjoying life, together. That's what Stef wants for them.

Marco places himself in front of the entrance to the shed while Dante sets something up behind him. He's got a controller of some kind in his hands, something chunky and black with an antenna sticking out the front of it. He's practically glowing, and even from across the yard Stef can see the pride in the tilt of his lips, the mischievous glimmer in his eye. Good grief, what are they gonna showcase?

Dante moves to stand beside Marco, and the two exchange twin Looks. "Behold!" Dante shouts, lifting both arms high into the air. "An amazing feat of technological and mechanical engineering! Gaydies and gentlethems, we bring you: the Dildrone!"

Marco hits a button on his controller and a buzzing sound fills the air. A shape rises from behind the two of them, and at first all Stef can see are the little helicopter blades whirring above the second shape, a shape which looks all too familiar, but no, no of course it can't be, they wouldn't-- Marco wouldn't--"

"Oh my god," Shaw exclaims. "Is that a fucking dildo?!"

"Hell yeah it is," Marco says, pride in his otherwise monotone voice. "The Dildrone."

Everyone laughs as Marco sends the thing flying around the yard. Stef doesn't look at it. They refuse to look at it, refuse to acknowledge that their little itty bitty baby brother even knows what a dildo is, refuses to believe that Marco would build a fricking dildo into a fully functioning drone. 

"Wow," they say through clenched teeth. "Amazing. Congrats, you too."

Everyone laughs again. Stef is so ready to go home.


Thursday, July 23.


"Hey, Gabe!" Damien says as his face fills Gabe's phone screen. "I know why you called! Hang on a sec and I'll get the munchkin. She just woke up, mm, twenty minutes ago? Georgie, sweetie, guess who called for you!"

Gabe chuckles to himself as he watches the spinning, swirling scenery caused by Damien's jostling the phone all over. He adjusts his position on the couch, leaning back and stretching one leg out on the cushions in front of him, letting the other rest on the floor.

Georgie appears onscreen then, a grin splitting her face, which is framed by a halo of dark curls. "Daddy!" she exclaims. "Hi! Dad got me Cocoa Puffs!"

He laughs. "Well, I'm not the one who has to deal with your sugar highs, so I'm not gonna argue against that. Happy birthday, baby girl."

"Thank yooou," she sing-songs, and then shovels a dripping mess of cereal into her mouth. "I'm ten now," she says with her mouth full, "which means I'm finally in the double digits!"

"You sure are," he says. "How's it feel to have a zero in your age? Do you feel any older?"

"I feel very grown-up," she says, swallowing. "Ooh, Daddy, Jason's not working today! He says he's gonna take me to the 'quarium! I love the 'quarium. Daddy says I can pick something out at the gift shop too! Isn't that amazing?!"

"Super amazing," Gabe tells her. "Take some pictures for your dear old desert-dwelling daddy, okay? I miss the otters."

"I will be extra sure to get you otter pictures," Georgie promises. She takes another mouthful of cereal. "Ooh, Jason! Can we get ice cream after the 'quarium? Pleeease?"

"Sure," Gabe barely hears Jason's low, quiet voice through the phone's tinny speakers. "But only if you promise not to jump in the touch-tank."

"I would never do that!" Georgie protests. "I might hurt the sea urchins!"

"Then it won't be a problem," he says.

Georgie turns the screen toward Jason then, and Gabe sees the fat pale man sitting opposite her, his head cradled in one hand and a cup of what can only be coffee clutched protectively in the other. He lifts his head slightly to nod at Gabe. "Mornin', Gabriel," he says.

"Hey, Jason," Gabe replies. They don't say anything else to each other. Jason's never really been a morning person, and Gabe learned pretty quick not to bother him too much before he's finished his coffee. Georgie's really the only one who can get away with it without getting the stink eye.

The camera swirls back around to Georgie, and she starts telling him all about the car ride to her dad's and about what they've all been doing the last couple of days. Gabe listens attentively, asking questions and making comments. She continues on until she's finished her breakfast, and then past that, until Damien announces off-camera that she's got to get dressed to go.

"Okay!" she calls, before turning her gaze back to Gabe. "Bye, Daddy! I love you! Talk to you later!"

"Bye, Georgie! I love you, too!" he calls back, even though her image on the screen has already been replaced by a green call ended screen. He sighs and lays his phone screen-down on his chest, leans his head back to stare up at the popcorn ceiling above him. 

The house just feels so empty without Georgie around, yelling and laughing and talking his ear off while she draws comics at the kitchen table. The tiny house feels far too big when he's the only person here.

He has to go back to the diner soon. He's sure there's something that needs doing over there, and he only took a break to call Georgie.

Once he's back in the diner, he won't feel so lonely. But when the diner closes for the night, and he's back over here in his empty little house....

Well, he won't be happy about it.

So, maybe he can stave off the loneliness for a bit with some company. 

He picks his phone back up and opens his messages.



   TO: stef✨💖✨: Good morning, beautiful! Are you busy tonight?

The reply comes in almost immediately.


FROM: stef✨💖✨: NEVER too busyt for YOU babe

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: well ok so soemtime si have other things goit ng on 

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: but tonight ti have no pland ecept to flipck mindlessly thofuhg netfluix while crammign popccorn into my mouth

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: WOWE that sounded sad pleasd ignote that

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: ANEYAY no i am NOT busy tonight whay whats yup?

   TO: stef✨💖✨: I was just thinking....

   TO: stef✨💖✨: Georgie's at her dad's, and you aren't nearly as busy as you are suring the school year. Do you want to come over tonight? ;-)

   TO: stef✨💖✨: *during

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: !!!!!!!!!!

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: heck YEAH i fo!!!! 

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: whast time shoudl i coulme over?

   TO: stef✨💖✨: 6 or 7?

   FROM: stef✨💖✨: see you then gabey baby 😘




When Gabe comes in from the diner that night, it's to a lamp-brightened living room and a cute enby sprawled across his couch. It's such a nice change from the last couple of days (has it only been a couple of days?) , that he can't help but stumble forward to collapse onto the couch with them, letting out a muffled groan and he presses his face into the cushion behind Stef.

They laugh, moving and shifting and kneeing Gabe in the jaw (his own fault, he knows). "Rough day, Gabey?"

"You could say that," he says. He picks himself up off the couch so they can scoot back into the cushions, and then he lays down in front of them. The couch wasn't really built for two adults to lay side-by-side on, and Gabe's arm kind of hangs uncomfortably over the edge of the couch and onto the floor, but Stef wraps their own arm around his chest and presses up against his back and it feels so nice, so comforting, that he doesn't even consider moving someplace else.

"Comfy?" Stef asks, and he feels them lay their cheek against his upper back.

He hums an affirmative, closes his eyes, and just lays there for a bit, listening to the sound of his breathing, of Stef's breathing, of the air conditioner whirr ing away, of the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen behind them. 

"You miss the kiddo, huh?" Stef asks after a few quiet moments, and Gabe sighs.

"Yeah," he says. "I just, I dunno. It's the first year I haven't spent her birthday with her. And it's her tenth birthday! That's a big deal. I wanna be there to celebrate that with her."

"You can celebrate with her when she gets back," Stef tells him. Their grip tightens around him. "She's gone for, what, two weeks? Right? She'll have two parties. Kids love having two birthday parties."

"I know," Gabe says. He'd already planned on making a cake for her when she gets back, maybe getting her a couple of balloons or something to go with her gifts. "I just..." He sighs. "I don't know, I guess."

Stef hums behind him, their hand rubbing back and forth over his chest. Belatedly, he realized he hasn't changed or showered yet, and since he'd spent most of the day in the hot kitchen, he can't smell very good. But Stef hasn't said anything, or moved or done anything to imply that they'd rather be somewhere other than pressed up against his smelly, sweaty self, so he doesn't excuse himself, doesn't get up. They're helping him. They want to be with him. So it's okay.

"I'm just... I'm still not used to an empty house," he says. Stef doesn't pause, just keeps stroking over his chest. "I've never lived alone-- not really. I mean, I had my own place before I moved here, but I only ever really slept there, and even then sometimes I'd just sleep on Damien's futon down the road. It's too quiet without Georgie here--without anyone here. Too lonely."

He feels Stef nod against their back. "I know exactly what you mean," they say. "I have never lived alone. I lived with my parents and Marco, and then I lived with Shaw and Marco, and then I lived with just Marco, and now... well, you know." Their hand stops moving against his chest, just laying there, right over his heart. He can feel it beating under their palm. "I don't like being alone," they say. "I'm not good at being alone."

A surge of inspiration strikes Gabe just then, and he turns, nearly falling to the floor before he's able to shift over and face them. He reaches over them and grips onto the back of the couch to keep himself steadily in place as he looks at them. They stare back at him, a question in their bright eyes.

"Do you want to stay over?" he asks, and they raise an eyebrow at him.

"Uh, I thought that was the plan? I mean, I already dropped off my overnight bag in your bathroom." Their expression turns sheepish. "Should I not have? Did I read too much into it? Uh--"

"No, no, that's fine," he says. He readjusts his grip on the couch, plants his other elbow into the arm of the couch to steady himself. "But I didn't just mean tonight. I mean, do you wanna stay over until Georgie gets back?"

Their eyes widen. "You want me to stay here for two weeks?!"

Oh, shit. Was this a bad idea? Is this moving too quickly? Shit. "Well, uh, a little less than two weeks," he says. "But, uh, yeah. If you don't want to, that's fine, I just-- you're lonely, I'm lonely, we could--you could--"

"Gabe," Stef says, and they reach up to touch his face, their fingertips brushing over his cheek. "If you're inviting me, then heck yes I wanna stay over! You're sure, though?"

"Yeah," he says, his heart hammering faster in his chest. "Yeah, I--you don't have to stay the whole two weeks, if you don't want, uh, I know the place is pretty small, and the insulation's not the best, and--and, uh, well--"

"Gabe," they say again, and their fingers press gently against his cheek now, moving down across his jaw. "I'll stay."

"Yeah?" he asks, and he can't believe how happy that makes him. 

"Yeah," they reply, a laugh in their voice. They lean up and kiss him, and he relaxes into it, moving his hand from the back of the couch to cup the back of their head, change the angle of the kiss, kiss them more --

And then he promptly falls off the couch and onto his back on the hard floor, jarring his spine and dragging Stef along with him, who elbows him in the stomach on the way down.

"Shit, " he hisses, as he waits for the sudden pain to wash away. On top of him, Stef giggles, their face pressed into his shirt for a moment before they lift their head, their laugh getting deeper, and he can't help but laugh along with them.


Tuesday, July 28.




FROM: gabe babe: Good luck! I'm rootin' for ya! <3 Are you coming back to my place after or heading back to your apartment?

TO: gabe babe: your palce probably!! 

FROM: gabe babe: Then I'll have some snacks in the fridge for you when you get back! <3

TO: gabe babe: thanks babe youre the best!!!!!!

FROM: gabe babe: <3 <3 <3



"Yeah, I'm great," Stef lies. They're standing in front of a cafe--the same cafe that they used to sit in while waiting for Marco--and they can't seem to stop crossing and uncrossing their arms, sticking their hands in the pockets of their slacks (it's nearly a hundred degrees today, and they're really regretting their decision to dress professionally), and then starting the process all over again.

"Uh-huh." Marco doesn't look or sound like he particularly believes them. "Stef. You'll be fine."

"I know I'll be fine!" they say. "So, like, don't worry about me, okay? I'll go in there and talk and then I'll be back over here and then we can get tea and coffee and go home. Homes. I-- ugh. " They uncross their arms again, let their hands dangle at their sides for a moment, and then stick them back into their pockets. "I'll--I'll see you later, okay?"

"Stef," Marco says again, and he puts one of his hands on their shoulder, squeezes gently. "You'll be fine. Marie's nice. Helpful. She won't judge you for anything, okay?"

"Yeah." They exhale slowly, let their eyes fall closed. They focus on the pressure of his hand on their shoulder. 

They don't know why they're so nervous. It's just  talking to someone for an hour and, like, venting about your life, right? That's fine, that's easy, Stef can do that. Kind of. They complain to their friends all the time! ...But rarely about the things Stef knows Marie is going to ask about today. 

They don't need therapy, though! This is just a one-time thing, just a quick in-and-out, so they can tell their friends they went to therapy and that the therapist herself said they don't need it! It's fine. It's good.

It's great.  


They open their eyes and smile at Marco. 

Marco squeezes their shoulder again before letting his hand drop away from them. "I'll be waitin' for ya when you're done," he says. He gives them a little wave before turning and heading inside to go sit with Dante.

Stef takes a deep breath, then turns and faces the building across the street.

It's just an hour.

They can do this.




"Hi, Stef," Marie greets as Stef quietly enters her office. They've been in here before, only once, and over a year ago. They'd accompanied Marco to his first therapy session, sticking around just long enough to make sure he'd be okay before heading out to the waiting room.

The office hasn't changed much in that time. Maybe some of the art on the walls is different, some of the fidget toys on her desk. But the desk itself is the same big, solid thing, and the two chairs on opposite sides of it, both comfortable-looking, padded things, and the plants lining one wall and sitting in the corners.

It's nice.

It's fine.

"Hi, Marie," they say, smiling and trying to hide their nerves, but that feels... counterproductive. Surely a therapist would understand a client being nervous, whether they actually need therapy or not. They settle into the chair across from her and fold their hands in their lap.

"It's good to see you again," she says with a soft, kind smile. "I know that this kind of thing can be a little scary, so thank you for taking the initiative to come in."

"Yeah," they say. "It's. Good to see you?" They inwardly berate themself for the awkward phrasing, but then they take a breath and settle down. "Um, so... what does this... entail?" Obviously they know at least some of the goings-on of therapy thanks to Marco, but they don't know what they're going to have to do.

"Well," she says, "today's a little different from how a usual session goes. I'm going to ask you some questions--really personal questions, sorry about that--so I can get a good feel of what's going on. Feel free to ask me any questions, too, or tell me anything else you think might be important for me to know." She leans slightly to one side and opens a drawer in her desk, pulling out a clipboard with a yellow legal pad clipped to it. She shuts the drawer, and then pulls a pen from the little cup next to her computer. She clicks the pen, and then looks at Stef. "Does that sound okay?"

They swallow. They remind themself that they're doing this for Marco, and for Shaw, and for Gabe, so they can show them that they're doing their best, and that they're okay. They nod once, more to themself than to Marie.

"Now, Stef, I know we spoke briefly over the phone, but can you please tell me what brought you in today?"

"Well, uh." Crap, how do they word this? How do they sum up their whole thing for this woman? "Well, my brother... moved out, recently. Which I guess you know about, since you're his therapist, too." She probably knows the whole story, in fact. Well, at least Marco's side of it. She's nodding, which, wow, they hope she can't read their mind. That would be embarrassing. They look down at their hands in their lap. "Uh, so, when he left, I kinda... freaked out, I guess? I took it really hard and uh, worried a lot of my friends." They look up to see her scrawling something on her clipboard and hastily add, "I should mention that I don't think I need to be here! That was all just a fluke, really, and it's all been sorted out. I'm just here because my friends thought it'd be a good idea if I talked to someone."

She nods as she continues writing, and then looks up at them again. "It's okay if you decide therapy's not for you," she says. "Today's just about me learning what's been going on with you, and letting you know my thoughts on the situation. After we talk for a bit, I'll tell you any ideas or suggestions I have for you, and you can decide if you want to come back or not."

"Okay," they say, relieved even though they'd already known this. "That sounds reasonable. So, what else do you need to know?"

"Well," she says. "When you say you 'freaked out,' can you go into more detail for me? How exactly did you react to your brother's moving out?"

"Well..." Stef begins. They tell her all about what they've been through the past few months, about their concerns for Marco and Dante's relationship that may not have been true, about the way they'd acted and the things they'd said, the way they'd pushed everyone away and refused their help. They tell her how they corrected their mistakes, how they're working on getting to know Dante and letting their brother live his own life.

When she prompts, they tell her about growing up with their parents, about taking care of Marco, even about their old party habits. 

It gets easier to tell her things as they talk. They don't know if it's because they've had practice lately, explaining things to Gabe and Dante and Marco, or if it's because Marie's a neutral third party who uses soft tones and makes them feel comfortable. Whatever the reason, they find themself relaxing and growing more animated as they talk, and though it still hurts, it's not as difficult to talk about painful memories as it may otherwise have been.

When she's run out of questions and Stef can no longer think of anything else to add, Marie nods once, to herself, and clicks her pen again. "Alright, Stef," she says. "I think I have enough information here. Let's go over a few things and see if we can't figure out a good way to help you...."




"Marco!" Stef cries when they find him in the cafe. They slam their hands on his table and look him directly in the eye. "Guess who's a codependent trauma survivor with crappy coping mechanisms!" They don't give him a chance to respond before straightening up and pointing at themself. "Me!"

He snorts a little, the corner of his mouth creeping upward. "Yeah? Sucks to be you, I guess."

They roll their eyes and give his shoulder a shove. "Shut up," they say. "And scoot over, will ya?"

He does so, sliding down the booth just enough that Stef can drop into the seat next to him. They lean against him, and he doesn't pull away.

"Guess it went well then, huh?" Dante asks from the other side of the table, slurping loudly at the remains of his drink through his straw.

"Yeah," they say. It's weird. They hadn't actually expected to come out of there with... a diagnosis or whatever, let alone three. They think maybe they should feel embarrassed or something, but they don't. They feel... good. It's good to know that there's a reason for the way they've acted, and it's even better knowing that there's stuff they can do to help themself avoid acting that way ever again. "So, like, apparently locking yourself up in your apartment and ignoring all your loved ones to obsessively text your brother is a bad thing! Who knew?!"

Marco snorts again, and he moves to put his arm around Stef's shoulders and hug them to his side. It's exactly what Stef needs right now. "Pretty sure everyone knows that," he says. "'Cept you. So, you done with this? Therapy, I mean."

"Nah," they say. "Got another appointment next week."

"Cool," he says, and Stef can hear the smile in his voice.

"You know I love you, right Marco?"

"Course I do," he says, and squeezes their shoulders.

Stef smiles. Dante finally gives up on the straw and turns the cup upside down over his mouth to try and catch the last drop on his tongue. 

Things are finally good.