Playground Eyes

Chapter 13: August

Monday, August 3.


  Having Stef over for more than just a single day--they've been staying here for over a week now, in fact--is fun. It's good! Gabe likes waking up next to them, likes coming back from the diner to find them on his couch or at his table, working on their laptop or just hanging out. He likes not being alone in the house, of course, but more than that he likes having another adult in the house, someone he can complain to about whatever adult things pop into his head (like paperwork, or terrible customers, or the ethics of single-use plastics) without having to text or call someone.

And more than that, he just... likes having Stef around. They're fun to talk to, fun to cuddle up with, fun to sleep with (metaphorically more than literally--they kick and move around a lot in their sleep). He likes the way that they can tell when he's had a rough day, and that they know the perfect way to help him relax. He likes that they ask him his opinion when they have to make decisions about their class curriculum and which new supplies to buy and that sort of thing.

Right now, they're both sitting at the kitchen table. They've just finished dinner (leftovers from the diner, because Gabe is not cooking anymore, not when he's spent the whole day in the kitchen), and now they're just sitting here together. Stef has their laptop out, and Gabe's looking through some pictures Damien's sent him of Georgie and the family. It's quiet, comfortable.

Georgie's coming back in just a few days. He's beyond excited to have his little girl back home with him, of course, but that doesn't stop him from being a little disappointed by the knowledge that Stef's going to have to go back to their apartment soon.

He glances up at them across the table. They've got their glasses on and they're squinting at their screen. Their elbow is dangerously close to landing in the gravy smeared across their plate. They're adorable.

Not for the first time this last week, he entertains the idea of asking them to move in with him.

He's not going to, of course. Not now. They've only been dating for... uh... five months? Give or take? And a not-insignificant portion of that time had been spent with Stef completely ignoring him. He has a million things to think about, not the least of which is his daughter. It's far too soon to seriously think about something as massive as asking his datemate to move in.

But still. It's a nice idea. Maybe sometime in the future. It's definitely something to keep in mind, as their relationship progresses.

Stef catches him looking at them and quirks an eyebrow at him, lowering their glasses to look over the tops at him. "What's up, Gabey?" they ask.

"Nothin'," he says, shaking his head. "Just thinkin'."

"Oh?" They straighten up in their seat. "What about?"

"You," he answers honestly, giving them a smile.

Stef grins, leaning to one side and raising their hand to their face, opening their mouth to reply--

And then their elbow lands on their plate, and their expression twists into one of revulsion.

"Eugh!" they exclaim, jerking their arm away. The motion sends the plate careening off the table, and they barely catch it before it hits the floor, whacking their elbow against the back of their chair in doing so. "Ow, crap!" they yelp. "Freakin' frick!"

Gabe can't help but laugh, even as he stands to go help them out.

Yeah, he thinks. Eventually.


Thursday, August 6.


These last two weeks, Stef's been more content than they've felt since Marco moved out. They've been practically out of their mind , having no one to talk to except themself or the odd friend who's willing to let them call and chatter at them for an hour or so. 

They've never lived alone. They don't think they were built for it.

So being at Gabe's has been nice. Wonderful, even! They have plenty of time to themself when Gabe's working, and when he comes back, it's nice to just cuddle up to him on the couch or talk to him across the kitchen table. 

Unfortunately, all that comes to an end today.

Georgie's going to be here any minute, and Stef's already packed all their things into their car. They wish they could stay longer... and, really, there's no reason they can't stay another night--Gabe had told them that they could come over anytime, spend the day here even, as long as they're willing to watch Georgie while he's working--but Stef figures it's better to leave now than never be able to leave.

"If you see them," Gabe calls from the bathroom, where he's unfortunately shaving off the short beard that he's managed to grow in the time Stef's been here, "let me know! You can go say hi before I get there, if you want!"
"Will do!" Stef calls back from their place on the couch.

Marie had told Stef at their last session that if they're unhappy living by themself, they should seek out a roommate. But... well, Stef can't exactly move in with Marco and Dante. Shaw seems to enjoy living alone. Manami and Rosana aren't exactly shopping around for a roommate. Simon and Madhavi basically live with Lola and Kai, plus Sam, so there's not exactly room there. And Gabe... well. There's Georgie to think about. Stef doesn't want to even suggest moving the relationship along that quickly and basically forcing their way into the kid's family life only to run into trouble down the road and end up completely breaking her support system or something.

So, general loneliness and frequent visits to friends' houses it is.

They spot Damien's car pull off the road just as Gabe comes out of the bathroom, wiping his face with a towel.

"Here they are!" Stef says, jumping to their feet. Gabe lowers the towel from his face, and Stef laughs. He always looks so much younger when he's freshly shaven. He looks like a college freshman, eager-eyed and baby-faced. They put a hand on either cheek and squish his face. "You are the cutest li'l baby!" they say in baby-talk, and then smooch his forehead, ignoring the roll of his eyes.

"Whatever," he says. "I wanna go see my kid!"

"And your ex," Stef reminds him as they both make their way to the door. 

"And my ex," Gabe agrees.

Georgie's already made it to the porch when they get the door open. "Stef!" she exclaims, hugging them around the waist. "What are you doing here?! Daddy! I missed you so much!" She releases Stef and shoves past them to hug her father even tighter, and they laugh.

"I missed you, too, my little Georgia Peach!" he says, hugging her right back.

"Heya, Stef!" Damien calls from where he's leaning against the side of his car. "Fancy seein' you here. You got some kinda vested interest in Mr. Gabriel Martín or somethin'?"

Stef laughs and walks down the steps to join him, leaving Gabe and Georgie to their reunion. "I mean, someone's gotta keep 'im company while the kid's off, what, visitin' aquariums and hikin' through the woods?"

"That's true!" Damien says, and his smile widens, his eyes grow softer. "I'm really glad you're here for him," he says. "I worry about him a lot, bein' so far from all his old friends an' family. But, well..." He shrugs, straightening up. "I can also see he's got a home here."

"Yeah," they say. "He's happy here, I think."

"Good." Damien pushes away from the car to go open up the trunk. "Then I'm happy to leave both of 'em in such capable hands."


Saturday, August 8.


There's a small room toward the back of the diner that Gabe sometimes reserves for parties. It's set up exactly the same as the rest of the dining area, with a few tables and chairs, and usually just acts as extra seating when the main area gets too full.

Today, however, the room is host to a birthday party for a very special little girl.

"Georgie, that streamer's about to come loose. Can you give it a smack for me?"

Georgie launches up from her seat at the table she's been sharing with her friends and slaps the end of the blue paper streamer with gusto, re-sticking the tape to the wall. Sarah and Benson give her a round of applause, and she makes a deep, sweeping bow. Gabe chuckles as he checks his phone.

He has three texts.


    FROM: Marco: be there as soon as dante's finished wrapping the box. hope you like duct tape.

FROM: Lola Ramirez: We might be a little late but we'll get there!! ✨✨✨✨✨✨✨

 FROM: stef✨💖✨: oh in the DINER?? i thotught it wawsn in youe HOUSE hang on babe i'll be there in like A Minutre

And just as he finishes reading that text, who should appear in the doorway but Stef themself with a little green-and-blue-striped gift bag in hand.

"Mx. Campbell!" Sarah and Benson cry in unison. They both rush the doorway, followed closely by Georgie. Stef laughs as they graciously receive the hugs thrust upon them.

"Hey kiddos! Fancy seein' you here, huh?"

Gabe smiles to himself as Stef talks to their students; they seem to be a nearly universally-loved teacher, and he's so proud of them for that.

It's not much longer before the rest of the guests have arrived. Arnie's mothers drop him off with a promise to be back in two hours. Marco and Dante arrive, indeed with a shoe box that's been completely wrapped up with gray duct tape, along with Angel the corn snake, who Georgie is eager to hold and show off to her friends. Lola arrives with Sam in tow, who's been looking a little less sour the past couple of weeks (though they're still not a cheerful, happy-go-lucky teen and probably never will be).

The room fills up quickly, and with both Stef and Lola here to keep an eye on the kids, he pops out to help Himari bring in the cake.

"Sounds like a madhouse in there," Himari says, balancing the cake box in both arms. "You're gonna need a break after this."

"This is my break," he says. Though the party is pretty loud--he can hear at least two kids shrieking in excitement. They're definitely gonna get some sugar highs going with this cake.

Gabe opens the door for Himari, who proudly steps inside with the cake held aloft. "I hear there's a birthday girl in here," they call over the noise, and immediately the other kids start pointing frantically at Georgie, who's bouncing in her seat. "Oh, miss Georgie herself! Well, here ya go! I heard your Daddy made this 'specially for you!" Himari sets the cake down on the table Georgie's sitting at and starts backing out of the room without taking the lid off. They throw a wink at Gabe, and then they're gone.

Georgie looks like she's about to vibrate out of her skin, and she's clearly struggling not to jump on the hidden cake. Luckily, Marco's taken his snake back, so at least he doesn't have to worry about her dropping Angel in the frosting or something. "Daddy!" Georgie calls, staring at him with wide eyes. "Daddy, can I open it? Can I open the cake?!"

He laughs and nods, crossing the room over to the table as she moves in to whip the lid off of the cardboard box.

She gasps. "Look, look!" she tells her friends. "It's our D an' D characters!"

The other kids and most of the adults gather around to peer at the cake, and Gabe can't help but feel proud.

"Cole did the icing," he tells everyone, before they can start accusing him of having art skills or something equally as ludicrous. "I just baked the cake."

Gabe's pretty damn proud of the icing job, whether he'd done it or not. He'd shown Cole some of Georgie's drawings of her and her friends' D&D characters from Stef's club, and Cole had done a beautiful job of recreating them in icing.

Georgie's mindflayer character, Cuddlefish, is in the center of the cake, surrounded by the other characters. In a speech bubble, Cole had written "Happy birthday Georgie!" complete with two candles shaped like a one and a zero pressed into the cake nearby. It's gorgeous, and he's happy Georgie thinks so too.

Stef comes up beside him while everyone's admiring the cake and takes his hand in theirs. "Think you're doin' a pretty good job, Gabe," they say, and he smiles, bumps their shoulder with his own.

"Think I am, too," he says, and gives them a quick peck on the cheek. He squeezes their hand, then releases it and steps forward, raising his voice. "Let's sing the song for the birthday girl and then we can dig in!"

"Happy birthday to you...!"




When Stef enters the little room and joins the birthday party, they're expecting to get a kiss from Gabe and maybe a hug from Georgie, but what they're not expecting (and what they, really, should have been expecting) is for Sarah and Benson to shout their name and come barrelling at them.

They take it in stride, though, laughing, and lean down to hug them both. "Hey kiddos! Fancy seein' you here, huh?" 

"What're you doin' here?!" Benson asks incredulously, like he's never seen a teacher outside of school before (well, he probably hasn't, honestly).

"The same thing as you!" they say. "I'm here to celebrate Georgie's birthday!" They reach out to receive a hug from Georgie, too, as she comes up to them. "Speaking of--here, kiddo. Gotcha a little somethin'."

Georgie eagerly takes the bag from them and reaches inside, digging through the tissue paper they'd oh-so-carefully arranged around her gift. Stef's nervous in a way that would seem completely ridiculous if this were any other kid's birthday, if it was any other kid opening this gift. They hope she likes her gift; and that's a ridiculous thought, because they know she will.

She gives a gasp as she pulls the gift out and lets the bag drop to the floor. "Markers!" she exclaims. "The brown markers I wanted! Sarah, look, now we can make our comics again!" She looks up at Stef, her eyes bright and shining. "Thank you so much Stef! You remembered!"

"Of course I di-- oof." Georgie slams herself into them, hugging them even tighter than before, and Stef feels all their nervousness disappear, only to be replaced with a warm affection spreading through their chest. They think they're gonna melt, but they manage to hold themself together long enough to hug her back. 

"Happy birthday," they tell her, straightening back up. "Put those markers to good use now, okay?"

"I will." She beams at them one more time, then hurries off back to her table with her friends, laughing and talking animatedly together. 

Georgie may be the birthday girl, but Stef knows that they're the one who's received the best gift today.


Wednesday, August 12.


"Damn," Madhavi says as Gabe drops his bar back onto the rack with a grunt, "you actually beat your max by twenty pounds! Not bad, Martín!"

"Thanks," he says, sitting up and leaning forward on the bench to catch his breath. "Think I can do another ten."

"Hell yeah ya can!" Madhavi pumps her fist in the air and heads back over to the weight rack to grab a couple of five-pounders. "Now if only you'd put this much effort into your legs. You're lookin' a little top-heavy there. Heh."

He snorts. "Some people just wanna lift weights for fun, not train their bodies to be the peak of human performance, Madhavi."

"Speak for yourself." She brings the weights over and pops them onto his bar. "When you're ready."

He lays back down and shifts until he's in the proper position, then reaches up and grabs hold of the bar. WIth Madhavi's help, he lifts it out of the rack, and when she lets go, he carefully lowers it down over his chest, then, using all of his strength, starts to push it back up.

It's hard. He's already been lifting weights for a while today, and he's just lifted more than he's ever lifted before, but he knows what he's doing, knows not to push himself too far, and so, arms shaking ever so slightly with exertion, he lifts the weight back up, all the way up, and settles it back into the rack.

Madhavi lets out a low whistle. "Not bad, not bad," she says. clapping a hand on his shoulder as he sits up. "Least now I know if one'a your fancy stoves breaks ya won't have to call me to move it."

"Ha," he says, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "Shit, I'm thirsty. Madhavi, could you...?"

"Get it yourself," she says. "Gotta use your legs for somethin'. "

"I use my legs plenty," he retorts, but he gets up to grab his water anyway. His arms are gonna be so sore tomorrow. It's a soreness he likes, though, a pleasant reminder that he's improving himself. 

He takes a long drink of water as Madhavi leaves his bench press and heads for a treadmill to start on her own workout. He's always grateful that she's willing to hang out with him and help him out when he needs a spotter. 

Once Gabe feels like he's had enough, he puts his water bottle away and starts pulling the weights off his bar and stacking them back where they belong. He's done with the bench press for the day, and he doesn't really feel like doing any other upper body exercises right now, but he doesn't feel like he's been here long enough to justify going home.... God, he's actually going to have to work on his legs, huh? Damn it. 

He takes the treadmill next to Madhavi's, setting it at an easy pace. Madhavi laughs.

"Can't skip leg day forever," she teases, and he rolls his eyes. 

"Shut up," he says, without putting any bite into it.

They walk (well, Madhavi jogs) silently alongside each other for a few minutes, and Gabe's mind starts to wander. He's got to take Georgie out shopping this weekend to get new school supplies. The diner's been packed recently; should he hire more staff again? Stef's been busy lately, getting ready for the new school year. He should make sure they've got plenty of good food to eat.

Thinking about Stef makes him think about, well, Stef, and their relationship. Almost without thinking, he asks, "How serious do you think my and Stef's relationship is?"

The question must catch Madhavi off guard, because she stumbles and has to grab onto the bars to keep her footing. "What the hell, Martín?!" she exclaims as she settles back into her rhythm. "What kinda question is that to spring on someone, huh? Shit."

"Sorry," he says. "You okay?"

"I'm fine. Fuck." She snorts. "Shit, I dunno. I'm not a fuckin' relationship expert. You guys seem to be pretty solidly into each other. Why?"

He shrugs, looking down at the controls for the treadmill. "I dunno. I just... I've been thinkin' lately, I guess."

"Thinkin' about what?"  

"Just, I dunno. ...I really liked having them stay over for those couple weeks Georgie was gone." He sighs. "And before you say anything, no, I'm not planning on asking them to move in with me. It's too early for that, and I don't want Georgie to have to adjust to a new person living in our house like that."

"So, what then? You gonna make more time to visit 'em?"

"Maybe." Gabe's really not sure what to do. He and Stef talk and text throughout the day, they see each other when they both have time, they have at least one evening and/or overnight date a week. That's not insignificant. He just doesn't know... what the next step should be. He feels like there's something missing, something he needs to do, something the two of them need to do, but he doesn't know what that is. He sighs again.

"Damn, Martín, you sound like a lovelorn teenager over there," Madhavi says with a laugh. "Look, like I said, I'm no relationship expert. Si could prob'ly give ya better advice than I could, an' he ain't got a romantic bone in his whole body! Heh. ...Talk to him, or Lola, or someone. Or just skip the outsider stuff an' talk to Stef directly. I dunno!"

He laughs. "I mean, talking to Stef about this probably is the best idea," he says. And really, he thinks it is. If he can't figure out what's bothering him by himself, he can probably figure it out by talking it out with Stef. "Thanks, Madhavi."

"Whatever. Crank up that resistance, shit, Gabe!"




Stef knows that eventually they'll get used to this house, knows that eventually they'll see it as Marco and Dante's house and not just Dante's house, knows that they'll stop feeling an uncomfortable guilt in the pit of their stomach every time they step inside, but for now, it's just something they have to deal with when they go to see their brother.

The two of them are seated on the couch together, with Marco's purring orange furball stretched out on the back of it behind them. Marco had been working in his office when they'd arrived, but he'd shut the door and made them a cup of tea, sitting on the couch with them instead. It's good that he's able to put his work aside, good that he's able to switch gears without feeling bogged down. It's an improvement over even what his headspace had been like only a few months ago.

Stef supposes they have Dante's influence to thank for that.

"His aunt's comin' up next month," Marco says. He's in the middle of telling Stef about his and Dante's upcoming plans, and Stef's happy to find that they're enjoying it instead of dreading it. "I'm excited to meet 'er. I talked to 'er a couple times, when Dante called 'er an' she wanted to meet me, but that's it." He pauses. "D'you think it'd be weird if I thanked 'er for raisin' Dante?"

"Prob'ly not," Stef says, taking a sip of their tea. "Parents an' guardians an' whatever eat that stuff up. Everyone likes to be told they did a good job." They pause as they finish processing his statement. "Wait, Dante was raised by his aunt?"

"Yeah." Marco leans back a little, and the wind from the fan in the corner ruffles his hair. "From like, twelve onward. His parents were pretty shitty, an' she got custody."

"Huh," they say. "I didn't know that."

"Yeah, well." Marco shrugs one shoulder and then falls silent. Stef picks up the unspoken "you never wanted to know anything about him," and they're glad he doesn't actually say that. Things are still a little awkward between them, but the rift is healing.

"Anyway," they say, "it's cool that you're gonna get to meet her! Bet Gabe would love it if you guys brought her to the diner while she's here."

"There's an idea," Marco says. He straightens up. "Speakin' of Gabe... does he do any catering?"

"Catering? Uh, I don't think so." They raise an eyebrow at him. "Why?"

He shrugs again. "Just seemed like somethin' he'd be into."

"Think he's got his hands full with all the stuff goin' on inside the building," they say. "If he had to worry about stuff outside of it he'd prob'ly go crazy!" 

Marco hums an acknowledgement and then falls silent again.

Stef finishes their tea and sets the empty cup on the end table. "Hey, Marco? ...Can I ask you a question?"

"Shoot," he says.

They pause, not quite sure how to put it. "...Do you think Gabe and I are moving too slow?"

Marco snorts. "You're askin' me that?"

"Yes? Wh-- oh my gosh, shut up, practically everyone moves at a frickin' glacial pace compared to you, I know, I just meant do you think Gabe and I are moving too slow in regards to normal people!"

Marco huffs out a little laugh, shifting and leaning against Stef's shoulder. Behind them, Tomato's purring grows louder. "No," he says. "I think you two're fine. ...Why?"

They sigh, laying their cheek against his head. They've missed this. "I just... I dunno. I feel like our relationship is, like, holding still or something, and I wanna move it forward, but there's so many things to consider and it's not like we've been dating for a long time or whatever, I mean we only got together in freaking February, and like-- I just--" they cut themself off with a groan, shutting their eyes. "I just don't know what to do."

"Talk to 'im," Marco says. "Maybe he feels the same."

"But what if he doesn't and I say somethin' stupid and he decides he never wants to talk to me again?!"

"Do you really think that'll happen?"

"Well, no, but what if it does? I've never been as serious about anyone as I have been about Gabe!"

"If he ditches you for talkin' about your feelings," Marco says, his voice a soft rumble in Stef's ears, "then he isn't worth your time, anyway."

"Gabe is so worth my time!" Stef protests, eyes flying open. "He's sweet and caring and loving and funny and so freaking sexy and selfless and--"

"If he's all those things," Marco cuts them off, "then he's not gonna ditch ya just like that."

Stef inhales, about to protest, but then they pause, and consider. They let the breath out slowly and relax against him again. "Yeah," they say, quietly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Thanks, Marco."

"Sure thing. ...Wanna play Mario Kart?"

"Heck yes I do!"


Saturday, August 15.


"Can I get a new backpack?! Daddy, look, this one's got glitter on it!"

Gabe shakes his head before even looking up from the printout in his hand. "A new--? No, Georgie, we agreed that last year's backpack was still good enough."

She pouts at him, clutching a little sparkly blue backpack to her chest. "But I don't like yellow as much anymore!" she exclaims. "And this one's got glitter on it, Daddy! Glitter!"

He looks at her. He looks at the backpack. He looks at the display behind her. He cringes. "Georgie, no. That's way too expensive and it won't even hold as much as your yellow one does!"

"But Daddy-- "

"Georgie, no. " He hates having to say no to her, hates having to put his foot down. He wracks his brain, trying to find a solution that won't just leave his kid upset and unenthusiastic about the rest of the trip. "Lola said she was gonna teach you how to sew, right?"

She looks at him suspiciously, still holding onto her backpack. "Yeah...?"

"Then why don't you decorate your old backpack for the new year? Sew some patches on it or something?" 

She tilts her head back slightly, considering. Her lips purse. "Maybe..." she says slowly, and then her eyes light up. "Ooh, yeah! That would be really fun! Then my backpack would be so cool, and no one would have the same one!" She drops the backpack into the pile of identical ones and grabs onto the shopping cart. "Can we get some patches, Daddy? Please?"

He laughs, so damn relieved. "Sure, kiddo. We can get you one or two. I bet your dad would be more than happy to send you some, too."

Her smile widens. "Yeah! He always has the best patches. Okay, we can call him tonight! What's next on the list?"

He lets himself breathe a sigh of relief and looks back down at the printout. "Uh... notebooks. You need six."

"Ooh!" She darts away from him into the stationery aisle, and he hurries after her, dodging around other shoppers. "Can I get the big fancy ones?!"

"You're getting the twenty-five-cent notebooks," he tells her, already reaching for one of the display boxes of cheap notebooks. "You can pick out one fancy notebook, but it has to be five dollars or less. And you can get a new sketchbook, since they're on sale."

Georgie lets out a cheer and squeezes between a couple of women to push farther down the aisle. He can't exactly follow her, since there's not enough room for him to push the cart through right now, but he trusts her not to leave the aisle and not to pick out anything alarmingly expensive, since he's given her a budget.

He sifts through the notebooks and picks out one of each color--red, blue, yellow, green, and purple. Of course there's only five colors and she needs six notebooks. He knows Georgie well enough to know the "fancy" notebook is going to be used for her stories and game plans and most certainly not for school, so unfortunately she's going to have to deal with the fact that two of her notebooks are the same color. He picks out a second blue one, since that's been her go-to color lately, and puts all six into his cart.

Georgie's back pretty quickly with two books in her hands: a notebook with a stiff plastic cover bound with a plastic spiral and decorated with pink, purple, and blue butterflies, and a thick blue book that must be the sketchpad she's picked out. She drops them both into the cart. 

  They resume their journey, picking up pencils, pens, a new ruler, and myriad other supplies. By the time they've checked everything off on the list, they still need to get Georgie some new clothes, but Gabe's exhausted. He's pretty much always exhausted in one way or another, but he just can't bear the idea of strolling around the store with all these other parents and kids anymore today. 

They make their way up to the registers, and while they wait in line, Georgie entertains herself by flipping through an Archie comic he has no intention of buying, and he checks his phone.


 FROM: stef✨💖✨: i finelaly figurred out how korse keeps his wals sos free of STAPLES ANDS HOLES!! asnd i feels os STUPID!!!

 TO: stef✨💖✨: And what have you learned, Mx. Campbell? How does he do it? :-)


 FROM: stef✨💖✨: like of frickin CORUSE it's puttyu what the heck ELSE would it be uim so mad this is my FIFTH YEAR HERE and ai JUST figrued it out!!!!!!

 TO: stef✨💖✨: LOL X-D I mean, at least now you know?


 FROM: stef✨💖✨: but yeah noe i know!!! can youe pick me eup a pack of puttey since you're at the estore?

 FROM: stef✨💖✨: howws it goin byt the way are you ddying tyet?

 TO: stef✨💖✨: Sorry, already in line. :-( I can get you some later ths week though.

 TO: stef✨💖✨: I'm old and I need a nap. Heading home as soon as we get done paying!

He pockets his phone then as he notices the person in front of them is finishing up. He doesn't notice Georgie slip the comic into the stack of notebooks until it's already been rung up, but he just shoots her a look. He'll have to take it out of her allowance, he supposes.

Georgie helps him carry the bags out to the car, chattering away about her hopes for the upcoming school year. He still can't believe his little girl is going to be in middle school next month! How the hell have ten years passed so quickly?

Ah, well. He still has lots of adventures to look forward to in upcoming years.




Stef can't freaking believe the answer's been under their nose this whole time. Just a little bit of snooping around in Korse's unlocked and empty classroom had provided the answer they've been seeking since the beginning.

Adhesive putty.

Stef's walls will be riddled with holes no longer! They'll never have to use a stapler or push pins again! It's amazing!

FROM: gabe babe: Sorry, already in line. :-( I can get you some later this week though.

They start to reply when a second message comes through.

FROM: gabe babe: I'm old and I need a nap. Heading home as soon as we get done paying!

Aw, poor Gabe. Back to school shopping with a kid on a Saturday sounds exhausting. Stef's glad they're able to order most of their supplies through the school. They just need to buy a few things themself. Like snacks. And putty.

TO: gabe babe: its fine doent worry about it ill pucke some up when i go shooping next!!

TO: gabe babe: go ohome and tale a NAP gabey!! you took thte whole day off togay right?

TO: gabe babe: HA togay.....

He doesn't reply right away, so Stef sticks their phone back in their pocket and gets back to work prepping for the new year. They're supposed to have seventeen kids in class this year, so they've got to make sure they're properly stocked up on everything!

Hm. Maybe adhesive putty wouldn't be that great. You can only use it so many times before you toss it, and the school doesn't pay for it. The school does, however, pay for push pins and staples.... And, after all, who cares if Stef's walls aren't as immaculate as Korse's? Stef's class is noticeably more fun than Korse's class is, which is the most important thing...

TO: gabe babe: nevermind the putty im stayin OLD SCHOOL BABYYYYYY!!


Tuesday, August 18.


"Guess who's here," Shaw sing-songs as ae skates into the kitchen with a tray full of dirty dishes in aer arms.

"Stef?" Gabe asks excitedly, wiping sweat off his forehead. Stef's been working more again, since school's starting up again soon, and Gabe's sort of surprised by how much he misses hanging out with them at any hour of the day and any day of the week. Their schedule's not too heavy right now, but soon they'll have to go back to hanging out primarily on the weekends, and that's sad.

"Surprisingly, no," Shaw says, dumping the dishes into the sink. Before Gabe can get too disappointed, ae continues, "Marco and his horrible little fiance are here! Having a double date with Lola and Kai, too. They all seem to be in good spirits."

"That's nice," he says, eyeing aer suspiciously as he finishes up the dish he's been working on. "What are you trying to say?"

"That they're practically the only people out there, besides that old man with the deep pockets, and it is clearly past your break time!"

"I can pop out to say hi," Gabe says, "but I'm not going to sit out there and invite myself on their date. And who's supposed to cook their food? I'm the only one on duty right now."

"Taiki's comin' in now," Shaw says, taking the plate from him and skating backwards toward the door.

"Don't skate backwards, you'll crash!"

"Darling, these wheels are practically an extension of myself. They don't call me Shaw Reidel for nothin'!" The door opens behind aer, Taiki's large frame appearing in the doorway, and for one brief, horrible moment, it seems like Shaw really will crash into him, but instead ae gracefully swerves around him without even a glance. "Perfect timing, Taiki! Lovely to see you, sugar!"

Taiki lifts one hand in a slight wave and enters the kitchen, unfazed as always by Shaw's antics. Gabe sighs and shakes his head.

"Afternoon, Taiki," he says. "D'you need any help gettin' started?

Taiki shakes his head no and ties his apron around his waist.

"Alright, then. I'm stepping into the dining room for a bit. Let me know if you need anything!"

Taiki nods, and Gabe gives him a thumbs-up before heading out of the kitchen.

He can hear Lola and Dante right away, both of them talking rapid-fire and laughing together. Following the sound, he finds them--along with the aforementioned Marco and Kai--seated together in one of the out-of-the-way booths.

Dante and Lola have seated themselves on one side of the table, across from their respective partners. The two of them are involved in some conversation, sitting almost sideways in their seats as they talk animatedly, gesturing and nodding. One of Dante's hands is stretched out across the table, fingers laced with Marco's, who sits watching Dante with a fond smile. He seems to be leaning slightly against Kai, who's also watching the conversation play out.

Dante's the first one to notice him, and he cuts himself off in mid-sentence to lean to one side and wave at Gabe with his free hand. "Hey, Gabe!" he says, and he's grinning widely. "You got my money yet?"

"I don't owe you money," Gabe says out of habit. "How're you guys today?" 

"Pretty fuckin' great, actually," Dante says. "Hey, that asshole on wheels didn't get us menus. Can you be a doll and get us some?"

Gabe instinctively wrinkles his nose. "Do not call me a doll," he says, but goes and grabs four menus anyway.

"Sorry!" Dante calls.

He returns just a few seconds later, but they've already gone back to their previous conversation. "I'll see you guys later," he says. Maybe he can catch a nap in his office. 

"Wait, Gabe," Marco says before Gabe's fully turned away. "You got plans on Thursday?"

"Uh. Just work, I think. Why?"

Marco shrugs one shoulder. "No reason," he says, exchanging a Look with Dante. Beside him, Kai laughs.

Gabe shakes his head as he heads for his office. Well, he's only got a few days until he finds out, he supposes.


Thursday, August 20.


"Are you sitting down?" Marco asks, and Stef readjusts the phone against their ear, settling themself onto their couch.

"Yes I'm sitting down," Stef says. "And the fact that you're asking' me that makes me really worried about what you're gonna tell me."

"It's not bad, I promise," Marco says. "You like Dante, right?"

"I... tolerate Dante," Stef says, leaning back against the couch cushions. They still don't know him all that well, although they've been trying their best to at least not avoid him. Maybe one day they'll like him, but for now... well. Tolerant is as good as they can get.

"Good enough, I guess. Okay. Uh, first of all. If you freak out, I'm coming over there with all your friends to drag you off to Marie. So. Try not to freak out."

"Marco, if you keep sayin' crap like that, I will freak out. Just tell me what you called for!"

"Okay. ...Dante and I picked a date."

They barely keep the phone from falling to the floor. "You...? Like a wedding date?! Like a date on which you will be wed?!"

"Yes, Stef. A wedding date."  

Marco doesn't say anything after that, and Stef's brain is whirring. Their little brother is getting married. To Dante. They clear their throat. "Uh, when's the date?"

"March 22nd."

"March 22nd like this March 22nd? Like the one coming up this year?!"

"Technically it's the one comin' up next year. We already had a March 22nd this year." "Oh haha, very funny, smart guy." Stef bites their lip. March is still... seven months away? That's more than half a year. That's plenty of time for things to change, for Marco to change his mind if--

No. Stef doesn't want Marco to change his mind about marrying Dante, not if there isn't a reason. They want him to be happy. And Dante makes him happy. It's as simple as that.

"Congrats, li'l bro," they say, doing their best to let him know they're happy for him. "Where's it gonna be?"

"Prob'ly just in the backyard," he says, and Stef can hear the relief in his tone. He really had thought they'd freak out about it, huh? Well, they can't blame him for that. "Just gonna be friends an' family. Neither of us have a lotta family--just you an' Dante's aunt, a couple of his cousins--an' you know most of our friends. We can all fit back there, no problem."

"That small?" Stef asks. "You don't wanna go all out? I'd help pay for it, if that's the problem."

"Nah. Neither of us want somethin' that big. You're the one who likes bein' the center of attention, Stef."

"I guess that's true." It makes sense that Marco would want something small and intimate like that. He's not the kind of person who'd want to get all sappy in front of a bunch of extended family and plus-ones at a big venue. That's definitely Stef's speed, though. They'll wear something white and androgynous, frills and coat tails and definitely a veil. They'll get up in front of anyone who'll come and proclaim their love for all to hear! And--



Marriage. That's a thing that people do sometimes, when they're in a serious romantic relationship and they decide they wanna be together forever or something like that. That's what their brother is doing soon, with Dante. And that's something they want, someday. Eventually.

With Gabe?

Oh, heck. They're getting all flustered! They clear their throat. "Uh, anyway," they say, suddenly aware of the lengthy silence between them. "I really am happy for you, Marco. If you need any help planning stuff, you know where to find me!"

"Yeah. I might take you up on that offer." Marco pauses. "I'll let you go. I just wanna say... thanks, Stef. I love you."

"Love you too, baby bro. Proud of you."

After they hang up, Stef lays down on the couch, folding their hands on their chest and staring up at their ceiling. Marriage. That's where this kind of thing usually leads, right? They've never been in a relationship as serious as this one with Gabe. It's way too soon to actively think about that kind of thing. Right?


But still... if this relationship is serious, then eventually they're gonna get to the point where they do have to think about it. Right? So if they think about it just a little bit right now....

They can totally see themself waking up next to Gabe every morning, kissing him goodbye as they get up to go to work (well, honestly it would be the other way around, because he gets up even earlier than they do every morning, but that's beside the point). They can see themself sitting on the couch with him every evening, playing board games at the table. 

They can see themself helping raise Georgie.

And that's when they force themself to stop thinking about this, pressing the heels of their hands into their eyes and letting out a slow, steady sigh.

They can't keep thinking about this. They don't even know if Gabe would ever want to get married, or tie himself down to one person--to Stef-- for life.

When is an appropriate time to talk about this? When is too soon?

Well, whatever. If there wasn't a too soon for Marco and Dante getting engaged, then there's probably not a too soon for Stef and Gabe to have a conversation about the possibility of getting engaged, months or years or decades down the road.




Wednesday, August 26.


"I made a drawing for Stef today," Georgie tells him. She's sitting in his lap on the couch, the AC blowing icy wind over both of them. "Can you give it to 'em? When you see 'em tonight?"

"Sure thing, kiddo," he says, and leans forward to kiss her temple. "Where is it? I'll give it to 'em when they get here."

"Hang on." She wiggles out of his lap and runs off to her bedroom, only to return moments later with a rectangle of paper in her hand. She holds it out to him, and he takes it, peering curiously down at it. It's a handmade envelope, carefully folded from a single sheet of plain white paper and sealed shut with an orange heart-shaped sticker. On the other side, she's written "Stef" in red curly-cue letters.

"It looks very important," he tells her. "I'll make certain they get it."

She nods. "See that you do," she says gravely, and holds a stern face for a few seconds before grinning. "Don't look at it before they open it, okay? It's for them."

"I promise I won't peek," he says. He's curious about what she's drawn. Georgie's usually very open about her artwork and other projects. This must be something very special to her.

There's a knock at the door, followed by a cheerful, "Hi, sweeties! I'm here!"

"Coming, Lola!" Georgie calls, and hurriedly grabs her backpack. She leans in to give Gabe a peck on the cheek before she leaves. "Lola's gonna help me put some patches on my backpack tonight!" she tells him. "So it can be all ready for school next week!"

"Great," he calls as she runs to the door. "Can't wait to see it all finished!"

"Bye, Gabe!" Lola calls in the split second between Georgie opening the door and closing it behind her. He waves to them both through the window, and then gets up to get himself ready for his date.

This is going to be their last mid-week date until... winter break, probably. December feels forever away. He's going to miss seeing them as often as he has been. He wishes he didn't have to work so hard to schedule in time with his daughter and with his datemate, but, well. It was his choice to become a damn business owner.

Gabe dresses himself in the outfit Georgie had helped him pick out earlier: a button-down with a crazy pattern, and a comfortable pair of jeans she'd helped him bedazzle the hell out of when she was seven. His lower half sparkles like a disco ball whenever he moves, and he thinks Stef'll love it.

He glances in the mirror, finger-combs his hair into place. Should he put some makeup on? Maybe some eyeshadow and mascara. Well, but they're gonna be outside the whole time, in the dark. Stef won't even be able to see it. ...Who cares? Makeup's fun, sometimes.

He's just finished applying a layer of bright purple lipstick when he hears another knock at his door. He quickly caps the tube of lipstick and sets it down before rushing for the door and opening it.

And there's Stef on his porch, looking as gorgeous as ever. Their hair is brighter than usual, and tied back in a ponytail. They're wearing a soft gray tank top over a pair of thin leggings. They're gonna be cold later.

"Stef!" he says, leaning in for a kiss. "Hey, lemme grab my jacket and we can go."

They grab onto the collar of his shirt, keeping him from pulling away. "What, no proper greeting?" they ask, and kiss him again.

Gabe leans into them, putting his hands on their waist and pulling them up against him. It's a slower, deeper kiss than they normally greet each other with, and Gabe doesn't exactly mind. When they do pull away, however, he can't help but wonder if this kiss is setting the tone for the rest of the date.

He grabs a jacket from the hall closet--dark denim with red trim, something he thinks will keep Stef warm when they inevitably complain of being cold later--and throws it over his arm, then quickly grabs Georgie's envelope before returning to Stef on the porch. When they come into view again, he can't help but laugh.

"And just what is so funny?!" Stef demands with a huff, putting their hands on their hips.

"Nothing, nothing," he says, cupping their cheek in his hand and running his thumb under their lower lip. "Purple's a good color for you, is all."

They scrunch up their face for a moment, their freckles shifting and a few little lines appearing on their nose and their forehead, before their expression changes to one of understanding, and they laugh too, touching their own lips. "Did you get your lipstick on me?" they ask. "Gabe. Does this look like an ensemble that purple lipstick goes with?"

"Yes. You need more color." He leans in and kisses their neck, then drops his hand from their face and takes their hand. "Anyway, I think it's more accurate to say you got my lipstick on yourself."

"Pff. Yeah, just put all the blame on me. Typical Gabe." Stef laughs, shaking their head.

"Oh, right," he says, and hands them the envelope. "Georgie drew you something. She wouldn't let me see what it was. I think it's pretty important."

Stef stares at the envelope with a clear mix of reverence and apprehension. "Should I, like, open it in secret?" 

He shrugs. "If you want to," he says. "She just told me not to look at it until after you'd opened it."

"Okay." Stef sucks in a breath then and carefully opens the envelope. Gabe leans against the doorjamb as he watches their face.

Their expression melts into a soft look, color dusting the tops of their cheeks and their eyes taking on the glazed look of welling tears. His heart thuds in his chest, wondering what could possibly cause a reaction like that. "Everything okay?" he asks.

They shake their head, then nod, looking away from the paper and holding it against their chest. "I'm okay," they say, clearing their throat. "I just, ah, I think I'm gonna keep this to myself for now, if that's okay."

He tilts his head, concerned. "Sure, that's fine," he says, though he doesn't know why they'd feel the need to do that. "Uh, it's not anything bad, is it?"

"No, no," they say, shaking their head. "It's... it's perfect." They carefully fold it back up and slip it back into the envelope, then swallow, looking back up at him. Their eyes are still a little red, their cheeks flushed. "Now, are you ready to get outta here? Leave civilization behind for a little while?"

"I'll brave the desert as long as you're comin' with me, Stef."




It doesn't take more than half an hour of driving before they've left the lights and noises of town behind them, and Stef parks their car just off the road. They grab the duffel bag they've stuffed with essentials and, taking Gabe's hand, walk out into the wilderness.

"Sometimes I miss the forest from back home," Gabe says quietly. "All the tall pine trees and firs, the oak trees and the underbrush. Around this time every year, we'd go out and pick blackberries. Enough to make a couple of pies...." He trails off, and Stef's heart lurches in their chest. They did not bring Gabe out here to make him feel homesick. That's the opposite of what they wanted!

He keeps talking before they can reply, though. "The desert's just as pretty, though, in a different way. There's so much open space, and I can't help but love the cactuses. Uh, cacti. You know Lola gave me a recipe for prickly pear cookies the other day? I haven't tried it out yet, but I'm excited to. Food made with local ingredients is always the best, you know?"

Stef breathes out a little sigh and laughs. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm glad you've found things here that you like, even if you do miss your home."

"I think it's impossible for me not to miss Oregon," he says, and stumbles over something in the dark. Stef tightens their grip on his hand, keeps him from falling, and he squeezes back in thanks. "It's also pretty impossible for me to not love it here, I think."

"Oh?" they keep their voice light. "And why's that?"

"You," he says, and he says it so easily. Stef stumbles this time, misses a step, but he keeps them upright. "And everyone else I met this year, of course."

"Right, yeah." It's a typical Gabe response, they think, and that thought makes them feel warmer inside. They stop in their tracks. "Hang on. Here's good."

"Okay. What should I do?"

"Help me lay out the blanket."

It's a big blanket, a comforter Stef's pulled out of their linen closet. Together, they unfurl it and get it flattened out on the ground. Stef kicks off their shoes and lays down, looking up at Gabe, silhouetted against the darkening sky. 

"Your date ideas are always the most fun," he says, and they watch as he unlaces his shoes and places them near the duffel bag before kneeling on the blanket and crawling over to them. "I never think about things like this. I always think of mundane things, like restaurants and ice cream and movies." He settles himself beside them, scooting closer so his arm is pressed against theirs.

"But those are all great, too!" Stef protests. They roll their neck to press their face against his shoulder. It's still warm out, the heat of the day just starting to dissipate. They press a kiss to the fabric of his shirt sleeve. 

"Yeah, but they're not as interesting," he says. "I'm not the best at thinking outside of the box, you know? I guess that's one of the reasons I like being with you so much."

"Because I think outside the box?"

"Yeah. You're weird. I've always liked weird people the best, I think. Er, sorry, maybe 'weird' is a bad thing to say, but--"

"You're weird, too. I don't think anyone who doesn't think outside the box could come up with crazy outfits like yours. Or raise a daughter like Georgie, either." Their mind fills with the image of the picture she'd drawn for them earlier, the one they'd kept to themself: a colorful drawing clearly made with the aid of the brown markers they'd given her for her birthday, featuring none other than Gabe, Stef, and Georgie herself walking hand-in-hand across the grass at the park. They hadn't shown Gabe because it had just made them so happy, the way she'd drawn them like they were a family, and Stef had been afraid that seeing something like that would force the conversation in that direction far too early.

"I'm pretty proud about that last thing," Gabe says, the last couple of words coming out on a chuckle. His voice brings Stef back to the present, and they nuzzle his shoulder again, then look back up at the sky.

"The stars are starting to come out," they say when they notice a few pinpricks of light in the sky. Should they wait a little longer before they move forward with their conversation? Will the serious talk ruin their date? Maybe they should wait until they're both about ready to head home...

But, well, if the date's ruined by a serious conversation, then anything good that came before it won't help. And there's just something... perfect about talking under the stars like this.

It's time.

They take a deep breath, staring up at the sky. "Gabe," they say, barely raising their voice above a whisper. "We need to talk."

There's a pause, and they feel him shift on the blanket. His hand finds theirs, takes it. Squeezes it. "Yeah," he says, his tone matching Stef's. "We do."

Their heart pounds in their chest; they're sure Gabe can hear it in the desert-quiet, sure he can feel it in the join of their hands. They hope he's on the same page as they are.

They think he is.

"I, ah. I've really loved seeing you. Being your datemate, I mean." Gah, that sounds lame. It's nowhere near what Stef wants to say. 

"Yeah?" There's an amused note in Gabe's voice, and his hand releases theirs, pulls away just enough that his fingers can trace patterns against the palm of their hand. "I feel the same way. You're pretty great, Stef." He pauses. "Really great. Perfect. Amazing. Uh."

He sounds as awkward as Stef feels, and they can't help but laugh, rolling onto their side and throwing an arm over his chest, squeezing him. "This is ridiculous," they say against his arm. They pull back so they can look at him, see the shine of his eyes in the dark. "I'm trying to say... trying to ask... how serious are we?"

"You mean our relationship?" He crooks his elbow, capturing their arm and holding it tight, running his hand over their skin until he finds their hand again. "I think we're pretty serious. I mean, what we've been through in the past few months... none of that was really casual, you know?"

"Right," Stef breathes, their heart still pounding. "Right. I feel the same way. I..." Say it, Stef, say it. "Gabe. I love you."

It can't be more than a second or two between their statement and Gabe's response, but it seems to stretch on forever, so much possibility held in that span of time, so many what ifs spinning through their head as they wait for his response, as they watch him in the darkness.

His hand tightens on theirs, and the other comes up and cups the side of Stef's face, holds them with such gentle, loving care that Stef feels like they might melt. 

"Stef," he says, his thumb tracing the line of their jaw from ear to chin, "I love you, too. I love you. I love being with you, being here with you, being-- existing with you." He laughs, quiet but happy, and gently tugs their face closer to his.

He kisses them with all the passion and the heat as that first kiss, months ago in the diner. Lips sliding against lips, two people holding each other. They're here in the moment, here in the now, possibilities and futures stretching out before them.

Stef breaks the kiss first, breathless, so that they can throw a leg over his torso and straddle him, looking down at him from above.

Their eyes have adjusted to the lack of light now, and they can make out his features in the dark. His broad nose and shining eyes, his curly hair spread out on the blanket behind him like a messy halo, his lips stretched into a soft smile as he watches them. They lean down and press a kiss to his lips, to his cheeks, to his nose, to his eyelids. They end with a kiss in the center of his forehead, a whispered "I love you" in the dark.

"Stef," he murmurs, and they pull back, looking down at him. His eyes are closed, his expression soft. His lips move just slightly as he speaks. "I want you to be a part of my life." His hands come up and wrap around their forearms, holding them there. He opens his eyes. "Mine and Georgie's. I'm not--I'm not saying that our lives--that we have to be together forever. I'm not saying we have to... to move in together, to get... to get married. That doesn't have to happen... ever, if you don't want. I just mean... I want you in our lives. For however long you want to be in them. I love you."

"Gabe, I think I'm gonna burst," they say, and he laughs, loud and boisterous in the cooling air. "No, crap, I didn't mean to say that!" they say, and he shakes his head, pushes himself up to kiss their lips just briefly before laying back against the blanket. "I mean--I mean, that makes me so--so freaking happy, Gabe. I'm not saying our lives have to go that way, either, but... if they do. .. I'm not gonna have any objections." They lower themself back down, laying against his chest, and he brings his arms up to wrap around them. "I want to be part of your lives as long as you'll both have me, too. I love you."

"You're cute," he says, and they feel him kiss the top of their head. "Thank you for coming into my life. Thank you for letting me love you."

Stef's gonna cry. "You're a sap," they sniffle, and he laughs again, chest bouncing against theirs. It's contagious; they laugh, too, even as those dreaded tears make their escape and drip down onto Gabe, whose only response is to cup their cheek again and gently wipe them away with his thumb.

"We're both saps," he whispers. "Now let's watch the stars together, okay?"

They kiss him once more, and then roll off of him, cuddling up against his side to watch the night sky.

It's a perfect night, one that they'll both remember forever.