Chapter 4: November
Sunday, November 3.
Gabe loses the extra hour of sleep he should have gotten by forgetting that daylight savings time is a thing and waking up at what he thinks is his usual time, after a night of fitful sleep. It’s not until he’s nearly done with the morning’s prep work that he looks at his phone and realizes it’s an hour earlier than he’d thought.
Needless to say, he’s not in a very good mood for the rest of the morning, especially when Cole and Shaw come in and loudly, excitedly talk about how great their extra hour of sleep was, and how wonderful it feels to wake up feeling well-rested and ready for the day.
He tries to keep his bad mood to himself, tries not to seem as put out as he really is. Because, damn it, he’s been running on nothing but fumes lately! He should have been allowed that extra hour to sleep in and recharge his battery!
He must not do a very good job of keeping his mood to himself, though, because Cole won’t stop shooting worried looks at him, and Shaw keeps telling him he should go and lay down for a while, or something.
But he can’t lay down, because he has a business to run and a daughter to provide for. It’s not fair, not really, but this was all his decision. He made the choice to come here and build a business from the ground up. He has to deal with all the problems that come with it.
“Lunch break,” Shaw tells him around noon. Gabe shoots aer a look.
“It’s rush hour,” he says, a little snippy. “I don’t need a break.”
“You’re wearing yourself out, darling,” ae says, picking up the tray of food Gabe’s just set in the window. “And your daughter looks like she needs something to do.”
Gabe bites his lip. Shaw and Cole are always pressuring him into taking breaks by using his daughter against him. He’s ashamed to admit how often it works.
“Let me help Cole get caught up,” he says, sighing and turning away. “And make sure Bunny’s not overworked!”
“Will do, bossaroo!” Shaw sing-songs, skating off to deliver the food to whoever’d ordered it.
Gabe sighs again, grabbing the next ticket on the carousel. His limbs feel heavy, and his head’s sort of aching, but he’s not going to let that stop him.
He’s got a job to do.
Sundays were never one of Stef’s favorite days, but more recently they’ve come to really enjoy them.
The last year or so of high school, and all through college, and the last few years, too, Sundays were bad days, days spent watching their brother, forcing him to eat and drink, begging him to do something, anything.
Now, Stef sits on the couch with Marco and they play video games together. Every Sunday afternoon! It’s amazing. Stef’s never loved any activity more than they love video games with their little brother.
Right now, Marco’s just sort of watching Stef play, sitting cross-legged on the couch with his cat curled up in his lap, purring loudly, and his head resting on Stef’s shoulder.
“You forgot to pick up the egg,” Marco tells them, gesturing at the screen. “He won’t give ya the next quest unless ya bring ‘im all the eggs.”
“Shoot, you’re right.” Stef wheels their character around and makes her sprint, ducking behind a bush to pick up the half-hidden egg. “Okay, sweet! Think I got everything now, huh?”
Marco hums an affirmative, reaching down to pet Tomato the cat. Tomato’s purrs increase in strength.
Stef finishes up the quest and collects the reward, and then quickly saves the game. “Okay,” they say. “Think we need a lunch break, huh? How ya feelin’, lil’ bro?”
Marco sucks in a breath, closing his eyes. Stef doesn’t rush him.
After a moment, he opens his eyes again. “I could eat,” he says slowly, “but I don’t think I can cook.”
“Okay.” Stef nods. “Do you wanna eat somethin’ simple from the kitchen or go out? Or order in?”
“Simple’s fine,” he says. “Uh. Ramen?”
Stef arches an eyebrow at him. “Are you askin’ for ramen ‘cause you want ramen, or ‘cause you don’t wanna be a bother?”
Marco sighs. “The second,” he quietly admits.
“Well, you’re never a bother. You know that.” Stef kisses their brother’s temple, and then scoots out from under him and stands. “Whaddaya really want, then? I’m gonna make me a grilled cheese. An’ some tomato soup. You want some’a that?”
Marco’s mouth twitches. “I don’t usually like fur in my soup, so no thanks.” He runs his hand over Tomato’s back, and Stef rolls their eyes.
“Yeah, okay, smart aleck. Two grilled cheeses with tomato soup, comin’ up!”
Marco smiles at them, his hesitant little half-smile, and Stef beams back before heading into the kitchen. It’s not Marco’s best day today; he’s lacking energy and motivation, getting stuck on bad thought patterns, but he’s still sitting in the living room with his cat in his lap, making conversation with Stef, telling them that he’s not having a great day. It’s not his best day, but it’s far from his worst day, and Stef’s not gonna worry about it.
They’ve put the soup on the stove to heat up (it’s canned soup; Stef’s no chef), and they’re just about to start Marco’s sandwich when they get a trilling notification sound. They glance at their phone on the kitchen counter and see a text from Shaw waiting for them. Eagerly, they unlock their phone and read it.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “hey steffie baby you busy tonight?”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “me and marco are havinr sibeling bonding day!”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “why what’s up babe?”
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “you two NEED to come see me at work!! it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I started here and you haven’t been to see me ONCE! i feel so abandoned 😥”
Stef winces. Dang, has it really been that long? Guilt sits heavy in the pit of their stomach, but it doesn’t last long. They shake off the feeling and send a message back.
TO: ✨show pony✨: “aw shoot sorry babe yeah we’ll come by sometitmg soon not tonight cuz wewe got plans but maybe like thigs weekend?”
They glance over and realize that the soup is almost done and they haven’t even started the sandwiches yet. They quickly finish buttering the bread, ignoring the subsequent notifications until the sandwiches are frying in the pan.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “saturday will be wonderful! just make sure it’s before 2 so we can see each other 😘”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “roger rogere shaw babey”
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “💖💖💖💖💖”
Stef tucks their phone into their pocket and turns their attention back to the sandwiches, feeling light and happy. It’s a good day, and it’s gonna be a great weekend.
Saturday, November 9.
Stef’s not in a great mood when they show up at the Jet Star Diner. They would have been in a great mood if their little brother hadn’t decided at the last minute to go off to who-knows-where with his boyfriend. But no, of course that little weasel just had to show up and whisk Marco off on a date.
So now Stef’s going to a restaurant to eat lunch all alone. How sad is that? And, well, sure. They could’ve invited one of their friends to come with them; Simon probably could’ve come, or Manami, but Dante hadn’t exactly left them with enough time to invite anyone, had he?
Ugh. Whatever. Maybe Shaw’ll take a break and eat with Stef. They are here to see aer, after all. As long as aer boss isn’t an asshole, it should be fine, right?
Stef parks their Trans Am and locks it behind them, then pushes through the front door of the diner.
It’s not too busy inside, but there’s the low murmur of people talking, the sound of dishes and utensils clanging around in the kitchen. It seems like a nice place, and whatever’s cooking in the back definitely smells inviting.
They hesitate in the doorway for a moment, unsure of where to sit. The booths look inviting, but they’re meant for two to four people, not someone dining alone. The tables look fine, too, but they’re out in the middle of the room, and all unoccupied; Stef would stand out too much. That means they’re going to have to sit at the counter.
They make their way up to the front and settle themself on one of the stools at the counter. There’s a little window they can look through and see into the kitchen, but they can’t see anyone inside from here.
“Steffie baby!” Shaw squeals behind them, and Stef grins, turning on the stool to face aer.
“Shaw! Good grief, it’s been so long. You’re taller’n the last time I saw ya!”
Shaw rolls aer eyes, beaming at them. “You saw me last week,” ae says. “It’s not like it’s been years.” Ae rolls up to the counter and slides a menu to them.
Stef raises an eyebrow. “Your boss know you’re wearin’ those skates on the job?” Stef’s not too surprised by this; Shaw’s always loved skating, ever since ae was a kid. Ae’s the captain of one of the local roller derby teams (The Motorbabies, they’re called) and can’t seem to stay off aer skates. Ae’s got at least half a dozen pair.
“Of course he knows,” Shaw scoffs, cocking aer hip and laying aer hand on it. “He told me as long’s I don’t get hurt or hurt anyone else, I can wear ‘em!” Ae does a quick spin. “And we all know I only do my hurtin’ at the rink.”
Stef snorts, picking up the menu. “Oh yeah, I know all about that.” Stef had done roller derby with Shaw for exactly half a season and was more than glad to leave it behind. “Anyway, what’s good here?”
“Oh, the whole menu’s pretty great,” Shaw says, leaning in close to lay a single perfectly-manicured fingertip on the menu. “If you want a burger, though, you should wait ‘til the boss-man gets back. Nothin’ against Cole, a’course, but Gabey-baby’s just got a way with ‘em, y’know?”
“Oh, okay.” Stef doesn’t really know if they want a burger, but they have to admit that the way Shaw’s talking up aer boss makes it sound pretty good. “He gonna be back soon?”
Shaw hums an affirmative. “Had to force ‘im into takin’ a break! He an’ his daughter should be back soon! Ooh, you know, I think his daughter’s in your class!”
And now Stef’s really interested, and also a little worried. “Oh?” they ask. “Really? Why didn’t ya tell me before you worked for one’a my kids’ parents?!”
Ae shrugs. “Slipped my mind,” ae says with a shrug. “Ya woulda found out sooner if you’d come to see me when I first asked ya to.” Ae winks, and Stef knows they’re being teased.
“Yeah, okay, okay. Sorry, Shaw. Now, who is it?”
Shaw hums again, a thinking sound. “Oh, I don’t know,” ae says. “But you’ll see soon enough! Now, a burger? Or somethin’ else?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll take a burger.” They close the menu and hand it back to Shaw. “You’re a menace.”
“And you love me for it!” Shaw ducks and gives their cheek a quick kiss. “I’ll put the order in an’ let Cole know to wait for the boss-man! Whaddaya want to drink? Coke?”
“Coke’s good.” They wave aer off, nervousness bubbling up in them again. It’s not like they’ve never seen parents outside of the classroom--this town’s not tiny, but it’s not huge, either--but still. They like to put their best foot forward and at least look professional for the parents! They glance down at themself; they’re wearing a pink sequin top and black skinny jeans. Not the worst weekend attire they own, but definitely not fourth grade teacher-appropriate.
Still, it seems like they’re going to have to risk their professional face for this. It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s still pretty early in the school year, so hopefully this won’t be setting a precedent for the rest of the year.
Shaw comes gliding back a minute or two later with Stef’s coke in hand, throwing them a wink and a kiss before skating over to another table. Stef pulls out their phone while they wait.
TO: baby bro: “what’s up frricker hope your’er havin a goos time with dante bc i’m having a BLAST wieth shaw!!!”
FROM: baby bro: “we’re going to the river to look for cool rocks”
Stef frowns down at their phone. Cool rocks? What kind of date is that? It sounds like the kind of “date” two kids would have! Well... whatever. Whatever makes Marco happy. And doesn’t get him hurt. ...Dante better not hurt him.
The door chimes while Stef’s thinking of how to reply to their brother, but Stef doesn’t pay it any mind until they hear a voice they recognize.
“I wanna watch a movie tonight!” says Georgie from somewhere behind Stef. They set their phone down and glance over their shoulder, spotting Georgie clutching her father’s hand.
They can’t see Mr. Martín’s--Gabe’s, they correct themself, remembering the conversation a couple of weeks prior-- Gabe’s face from this angle, but they see his head tilt down toward her. “Sure, Georgie,” he says. “Whaddaya wanna watch?”
Gabe sighs loudly. “Are you sure you wanna watch that one again?”
“Yeah! It’s my favorite--oh! Hi Mx. Campbell!”
Stef blinks, having spaced out for a moment and not realized how close Georgie had gotten. They smile warmly at her. “Hi, Georgie!” they say. “Fancy seein’ you off school grounds!”
“I like your shirt,” she says. “Sarah has one like that, but hers is blue!”
Stef nods. “Blue is a good color.” They carefully don’t look at Gabe. Judgey eyes aren’t what they wanna deal with right now. So, is Gabe the one who owns this diner?! Or is it just a really weird coincidence, and Stef’s gonna bump into two parents today? Gosh, they hope not.
“Welcome,” Gabe says, and Stef glances up to see him smiling warmly at them. “I haven’t seen you in here before! Oh, have you been helped?”
Stef blinks again, unsure of what to say. They gently shake their glass of coke at him in lieu of words, and they’re surprised to see his cheeks darken with a blush. A blush!
“Right, right,” he says. “Sorry. Shoulda noticed. Uh.” He clears his throat, and Stef’s torn between feeling a little bad for embarrassing him and feeling a little giddy that they made him blush!
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” they say. “I’m just waitin’ for the owner to get back. Shaw says he makes the best burgers.” they arch an eyebrow at him, half-teasing. “I guess that’d be you?”
“Oh. Oh, uh, yeah! Yes! I’m the owner.” Gabe flushes again, seeming pleased. “So, um, I take it you know Shaw?”
“Yeah, ae an’ I go way back.” Stef feels themself leaning toward Gabe, and straightens up. “Figured I’d come visit aer at work.”
“Oh, okay!” Gabe smiles then, a bright, happy grin. “Well, any friend of Shaw’s is a friend of mine. Um. I better go get started on your burger.” He turns to Georgie. “Are you okay to stay in the diner for a bit? Or should we give Lola a call?”
Stef’s attention and interest never really left, but they find them being drawn back to Gabe anyway. Who’s Lola? A friend? A girlfriend?
Georgie shakes her head. “I wanna stay here ‘til she comes! I gotta pick out what comics to take!” She waves to Stef. “Bye, Mx. Campbell!” She pauses a moment watching them, then hurries off to a booth toward the back of the room.
Stef waves back, “Bye, Georgie!” they call. “Nice to see you!” They turn back to Gabe just in time to see him disappearing into the kitchen. Well. That’s fine, then.
They go back to their soda and wait for entertainment in the form of either food or Shaw to arrive.
Somehow, Gabe hadn’t been expecting to see Stef here.
Well, really, why would he expect it? It’s not like his diner is the only place to eat in town; far from it, in fact. And, sure, he’s talked to Stef before--is on a first-name basis with his daughter’s teacher--but that’s it. He’s had more conversations with previous teachers of Georgie’s and never once saw them off school grounds.
So, needless to say, he feels a little rattled seeing Stef sitting at the counter that day. He feels even more rattled when they specifically ask him to make them a burger. That’s just... unexpected.
He washes his hands once he gets into the kitchen, puts on his apron and his hairnet, washes his hands again, and then puts on his gloves. At least back here in the kitchen, he doesn’t have to think too hard about anything.
The ticket Shaw passes to him just calls for a regular hamburger, nothing fancy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be special.
He hopes Stef likes it. It’s important to him that everyone likes the food he makes for them, but somehow it’s more important that Stef likes this burger.
It’s a very important burger.
Cole nods to him as he cooks. “I’ll start a batch of fries,” he says. “Shaw’s friend, right? Ae told me it was ‘extremely important’ that they like the food.” He laughs a little under his breath, plating whatever he’d been working on and sliding it through the window for Shaw to collect. “How was your break?”
“It was nice,” Gabe says as he cooks. “Georgie kept me on my toes, so I don’t know if it was relaxing, but it was nice to get out of the kitchen.” He knows it’s hard to get him out of the kitchen, knows his staff is constantly trying to shoo him out. He feels a little bad about that, but he keeps telling himself he’ll have more time for breaks once the business is fully in the black.
“When’s your next day off?” Cole asks, starting the fries. “Monday, right?”
“Right.” Monday’s a federal holiday, so Georgie won’t be in school. Gabe thought it would be a good day for the two of them to do something together. “Why?”
Cole shrugs. “Maybe you can relax on Monday, then. Take a nap. Sleep in. Do somethin’ with Georgie that won’t make you tear your hair out.”
Gabe rolls his eyes. “Nothing I do with Georgie makes me wanna tear my hair out,” he says. “But, yeah. Monday will be nice.” He flips the burger, moves over to prepare the rest of Stef’s meal. “...You’ll call me if you need anything, right? If we’re really busy and you can’t handle it all?”
“I’ll call,” Cole promises. “But it’ll be fine.” He pulls up the basket of fries. “Should I plate these?”
“Hang on, let me--” Gabe quickly assembles Stef’s burger and plates it, then slides it over for Cole to add the fries. “Okay,” he says. “Think it’s done.” And Stef’s the only one in the dining room who hasn’t received their order yet, so there’s nothing else to cook at the moment.
He steps toward the window to set the plate out, but then he hesitates. No. No, he shouldn’t... right? Nah, it’d be too weird. Just let Shaw do aer job. But... well, it wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Cole sighs behind him, carrying a pile of dishes over to teh sink. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
Gabe bites his lip. “I... think I’ll take care of this,” he says. “I mean, I’ll take it out there, and I’m gonna... uh, man the cash register. For a bit.”
Cole hums interestedly. “Man the cash register? The cash register at the counter? I see.” He snorts out a little laugh.
Gabe feels his face heat up. “And just what are you implying?” he asks, as casually as he can.
Cole shoots him a look, wiping his hands on his apron. “You’re still pretty new to the community,” he says. “Your social circle’s pretty much limited to your staff, your daughter’s babysitters, and your gym buddy. I’m not one to stop ya from addin’ another person to the list.” He smiles, and there’s a sly look in his eyes that Gabe’s going to steadfastly ignore. “Go hang out, things’ll be slow for an hour or so, anyway.”
“Yeah,” Gabe says, a light, happy something blooming in his chest. “Thanks, Cole. I’ll be right back!”
“Take your time,” Cole says, waving him off and turning back to his work.
Gabe smiles to himself as he exits the kitchen, plate in hand.
“Glad Marco’s been doin’ so much better,” Shaw says, resting aer elbow on the counter, leaning aer cheek into the palm of aer hand while ae talks to Stef. “Saw his fiance the other day! Spunky li’l guy. Think he’d be interested in joinin’ derby? Could always use someone with that kinda energy on the team, and he’s got that hand-thing, could really add to the intimidation factor, ya know, and--”
“I don’t trust his boyfriend,” Stef blurts out, and then winces. It’s one thing to talk about their brother’s boyfriend to their brother, but it feels like another thing entirely to talk about him to anyone else. Even if that person is Stef’s best-friend-since-preschool.
Shaw tilts aer head a little, studying them. “...What’s wrong with Dante?” ae asks slowly. “And aren’t they engaged?”
Stef grinds their teeth together, spreads their fingers out against the countertop. “I just--I don’t trust him,” they say again, and they know that isn’t a proper response, know that won’t be enough for Shaw. “I mean--!”
“Order up!” calls the cheerful voice of none other than Gabe Martín. Stef whips their head toward him, heart racing and feeling guiltily glad to not have to talk to Shaw about this particular subject anymore. “Oh, sorry,” Gabe says, carefully setting a plate of what looks like an absolutely delicious burger and fries down in front of them, “did I interrupt you two?”
“No,” Stef says, at the same time that Shaw says “Only a little.” The two glance at each other, and Shaw’s eyes are telling Stef that they’re definitely going to be continuing this conversation later. Stef stifles a sigh.
“Reduced yourself to waitstaff, hmm, Mr. Boss-Man?” Shaw asks with a cheeky grin.
Gabe laughs a little, smiling sheepishly. “I don’t know about ‘reduced,’ ” he says, “but, well, there’s not much to do in the kitchen right now, and…” he shrugs. “Well, I figured no one would mind if I did a little work out here.”
Stef looks down at their burger. It really does look good--the bun’s a little toasted, the patty looks thick and juicy, and there’s enough toppings to fill it out nicely. “I’m about to eat the heck outta this burger,” they say, pointing emphatically at it.
They’re pretty pleased with themself when Shaw snorts and Gabe laughs. “Have at it,” he says. “I’ll just, uh, be over here. At the cash register.” He steps about three feet to the right and stops in front of the cash register.
Shaw leans in close to Stef, speaking in a whisper clearly meant for Gabe’s ears as well. “The best place to watch you try his burger for the first time!”
Stef laughs, turning a teasing eye to Gabe. “That true?” they ask, picking the burger up.
Gabe’s flushed a little, but he’s smiling, and he shrugs. “I mean, I can’t really deny it. I’ll take all the validation I can get.”
They laugh again and take a bite, closing their mouth as they chew to really get a good idea of the flavor. “Oh,” they say after a moment, “ohhh my gosh!” They swallow and beam at Gabe. “This is freaking good! ” And it really is! They’re not sure exactly what makes it so good, but it’s, well… It’s freaking good!
Gabe’s cheeks have gone even darker, his smile widening. Stef’s heart does a funny, flippy thing in their chest, and they quickly take another bite of their meal.
“Thanks,” he says. “I’ve been working for probably a decade to perfect that.”
Stef can’t really reply, because their mouth’s full of food, but they nod vigorously.
Shaw goes off to drop off a check to a table then, and Gabe busies himself with something behind the counter, so Stef’s more or less left alone to eat. It’s not too bad; they still wish they hadn’t come in here alone, but at least the food’s good, and Shaw’s around, and Gabe’s not too bad.
Yeah. It’s not too bad at all, honestly.
Monday, November 11.
“Daddy! Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy!”
Gabe’s awoken by a 65-pound girl slamming into his stomach, knocking the air out of his lungs and smashing his head against the headboard. He recovers quickly, wrapping his arms around Georgie and pulling her under the covers. “And just what do you think you’re doing, you little rascal?” he asks, tugging lightly on one of her curls.
She giggles, burrowing further under the blankets and tugging the covers around herself. The edge of the blanket comes up behind Gabe, exposing his back to the November chill, and he quickly tugs it back down. “No school today,” Georgie says with a grin. “No work today. Today is a day for just you and me and we’re going to have the best time. The most fun.” She nods then, trying to school her expression into something more serious and utterly failing at it.
He laughs, twisting in the bed so he can see her without getting a crick in his neck. “Oh?” he asks teasingly, “And what, exactly, are our plans for today? What could possibly be the most fun, my little Georgia peach?”
Georgie giggles again, snuggling close to him, and he thinks his heart might burst with love and affection for his daughter. “We’re gonna go an’ get ice cream, an’ go see a movie, an’ go to the library, an’ then we’re gonna come home an’ you’re gonna show me how to make cookies!” she tells him.
It’s a list of things they’d been wanting to do together since moving here, things they hadn’t really had time to do--at least, not all at once, and not without rushing through it--since their days off hadn’t matched up until now. Gabe and Georgie had talked over their plans last night, and agreed that this was the best course of action.
He nods. “That does sound like the most fun and the best time, ” he says. As long as everything’s okay at the diner and he doesn’t have to rush in to help out, they’re going to have a great day.
“When are we gonna go?” Georgie asks, nuzzling her cold nose against the skin of his arm.
He leans out from under the blankets and peers at the digital clock beside his bed, squinting at the blue numbers. “It’s only, like, 7:30, kid,” he says. “We can’t go out for a few hours yet.”
“Aw.” Georgie pouts at him.
He grins at her, bracing himself and pulling the blankets off the both of them in one swift movement. She squeals, curling in on herself and holding tightly to his arm. “Daddy!” she shrieks. “Too cold for that!”
He laughs again, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight, rolling back and forth on the bed. “Well, we gotta get up if you wanna go out today!” he says. “We gotta get breakfast in ya, and maybe do somethin’ else before we leave. Whaddaya say?”
She tilts her head back to look at him, beaming. “Okay, okay!” she giggles. “But can I wear your robe?”
“My robe?” he asks with mock shock. “Whyever would you want my robe?”
“‘Cause it’s way warmer than mine, and it’s cold as ice in here!” She shivers dramatically, teeth chattering and all.
“But if I give you my robe,” he says, shifting and sitting up, planting his bare feet on the icy floor and settling her in his lap, “then how will I stay warm?”
She studies him for a moment, then leans over and picks the comforter off the ground. She presents it to him with mock sincerity. “Wrap this around yourself,” she tells him.
He takes it, and, careful not to drop her on the floor, drapes the blanket around his shoulders. “Well, whaddaya know,” he says. “It’s super warm under this thing.”
Georgie giggles again, sliding off his lap and running over to the chair where his robe is draped. She grabs it and pulls it on. It’s much too big for her, so she pushes the sleeves up, rolling them so they’re nearly doubled back on themselves, but the hem still trails behind her as she moves to exit the room. “Come on, daddy,”she calls over her shoulder. “Breakfast time!”
Gabe laughs as he follows her out into the hallway, keeping the blanket tucked around himself.
After a hearty breakfast of microwave oatmeal (look, he cooks for a living, alright? Sometimes he just can’t be bothered to cook for himself, and it’s not like his daughter really minds dinosaur egg oatmeal) and a couple of hours of early-morning cartoons, the two make their way into the car and head downtown.
The library is the first place on the agenda, and Gabe’s pleased to see that it’s not too crowded at all today. Well, he tells himself, that’s because it’s only ten AM on a Monday. Of course there’s not gonna be anyone here until later.
He parks his car, and then goes and opens the back door for Georgie, picking up the little canvas bag of books off the floorboard as he does so. “Ready, kiddo?” he asks, shutting the door behind her as she hops out onto the sidewalk.
Georgie nods, kicking excitedly at a little pile of orange and brown leaves. “I’m gonna get so many comics!” she says. “And, and, and--! And Sarah says there’s a really good book series that she likes, an’ she thinks I’d like it too, so I’m gonna try an’ find it here! Is that okay, daddy? Huh?”
“Well, sure,” Gabe says, as he and Georgie make their way along the sidewalk and up the little steps to the front doors. “I don’t have a problem with you checking out books, especially if Sarah’s the one recommending them.” Georgie tends to prefer comics to literary books, which is fine with him, honestly, but the school system usually demands more intense reading schedules, so if Georgie wants to read an “actual” book, he’s not going to say no. And Sarah’s a good kid who seems to have pretty good morals, so he’s not really worried about the contents of the books.
Gabe reaches out to open the library doors, but, to his surprise, they don’t budge. He blinks, and tries again, but they still don’t open. “Huh,” he says. “That’s weird.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and looks at the time, but it’s after ten. The little piece of paper taped to the inside of the glass in the door clearly states that the library opens at ten AM. ...And that it’s closed on national holidays.
“Shit,” he says, leaning his forehead against the glass--and then immediately straightening up and pointing at Georgie. “Don’t repeat that word, please. That’s a grown-up word.”
She rolls her eyes. “I know, daddy,” she says. “Is the library closed?”
“Yeah,” he says, biting his lip. “Sorry, kiddo. I forgot the library’d be closed, too." He steps away from the door, hoping no one’s seen him make this horrible error. “Well, we can still return our books, at least. Pick up some new ones after school tomorrow, maybe.”
Georgie follows after him, slipping her hand into his. “It’s okay, daddy,” she says. “I forgot, too. It’s a... federal holiday? A federal holiday. None of the places that get money from the federals are open today. Right?”
He smiles despite himself. “None of the places that get money from the government,’ he gently corrects. “You’re right, thank you Georgie. Can you tell me what other places are gonna be closed?” He leads her around to the other side of the building, where the book deposit box is, and starts feeding books from their bag into it.
“Um,” Georgie sticks her tongue out and scrunches her face up as she thinks, holding out her hand and counting on her fingers. “The schools,” she says, “the library, the... banks. All the government buildings. Like the... the place where you can get food money. And the courthouse. The stores and the restaurants and the movie theater are still open though, right?!”
He hands her the empty bag and leads her back to the car. “The theater and the ice cream shop will still be open,” he promises. “And the grocery store, so we can get ingredients for our project later.”
“Yeah!” She throws her arms into the air and does a little dance on the sidewalk, then hops back into the car.
Gabe’s a little slower getting into the driver’s seat. He’s sort of annoyed at himself for forgetting something like this, but... really, it’s not that big of a deal. Georgie doesn’t seem too disappointed, even though he really wanted to get those books for her….
“Tell me about those books Sarah recommended to you,” he says as they drive away.
“Ooh, Sarah says they’re about a kid who has the power to fly, and that means….”
“Are you sure we really need this much coffee?” Stef asks, peering into the cart without bothering to mask their disgust.
Marco huffs, pushing the cart forward. “Always need coffee,” he says, reaching up to take another freaking canister off the shelf.
“Yeah, okay, but seriously, you’re the only one who drinks it an’ even you can’t drink that much!” They swat his hand away from the weird gourmet coffee blend or whatever it is.
He ignores them and grabs a different can of the same brand, dropping it in the cart with the other three cans. “It’s fine,” he says. “I wanna try some different stuff. An’ don’t worry,” he adds, rolling his eyes, “I’m not relyin’ on your teacher’s salary for this. I’m buyin’ it with my own paycheck.”
“Oh," Stef says, looking up at their brother. “You got paid recently?”
Marco nods, pushing the cart forward and finally- -finally!- -exiting the coffee aisle. “Not a lot,” he says, “but more’n I have been. It wasn’t a huge job, just had to do some back end development for some lil’... business thing.” He shrugs. “Only took a few hours.”
Stef beams at him. “That’s great! You plannin’ on doin’ that more often, then?” Marco’s a freelance software and web developer, but he’s only ever been able to actually do jobs maybe a couple times a year, when he’s feeling his best. It’s always been a shame, because Marco’s, like, insanely talented, and he’s always loved coding--ever since, like, middle school, when he won a junior robotics tournament.
Depression robbed him of a lot, and if Stef has anything to say about it, that’ll all be in the past.
Marco shrugs again. “I dunno, maybe. Probably.” He pauses, looking up at the sign hanging above the next aisle and turning the cart down it. “I mean, I had fun. ‘S nice, y’know. To do somethin’ again.”
Stef opens their mouth to reply--they don’t really know what they’re gonna say, probably something sappy--but they’re interrupted by a familiar voice saying, “Hey! You’re the snake-man!”
And, sure enough, there’s Georgie and her too-hot-to-be-true dad, pushing a cart of their own down the grocery store aisle.
“Hi,” Marco says, lifting one hand in a quick wave. “Sorry, I’m not a snake-man today. Just a coffee man.” He gestures to the cartful of coffee cans.
Stef ignores their brother and focuses on Georgie. “Dang, Georgie!” they say. “Thought I wasn’t gonna see any’a my students today. You followin’ me?” they tease.
“Maybe,” Georgie says with a sly glint in her eye. “Or maybe you’re followin’ me!”
“Or maybe,” Gabe says, “we’re just coincidentally running into each other twice in one weekend. Think that makes more sense, honestly.”
“Nah,” Marco says, leaning over to grab a box of pancake mix off the shelf, “we’re definitely followin’ you.”
Stef elbows him in the side, and Georgie gasps, pointing emphatically at him. “I knew it!” she says. “I’m gonna fistfight you for that. Winner gets the fair maiden, Angel the corn snake!”
“Georgie, please don’t fight grown men in the breakfast aisle,” Gabe says, and there’s a crease forming between his eyes, like he thinks his kid might actually jump Marco or something. It’s cute.
“It’s okay,” Marco says, dropping the box into the cart. “I’d fold like a card table if you tried anything. We can just say you fought me and won.”
“Doesn’t seem very fair,” Georgie says with pursed lips, “but I guess that’ll work!” She nods seriously, then turns back to her dad. “Are we done now? Is it time to go home?”
“Uh.” Gabe looks down at his phone. “We need chocolate chips,” he says. “Then we’re done.”
Stef edges a little closer to Gabe, craning their neck to look at his phone screen. “Whatcha makin’?” they ask.
Gabe blinks at them, looking more than a little confused, and only then does Stef realize that it’s probably not very normal to look at your student’s dad’s phone and delay him further from his task. They feel their face heat up a bit, and they open their mouth to say something--apologize, maybe--but Gabe just smiles at them and says, “Chocolate chip cookies. I’m teachin’ Georgie how to make ‘em.”
“I’m finally big enough to use the oven!” She says, bouncing on her toes. “Ooh! Mx. Campbell, Mx. Campbell! If I do really good on the cookies, can I bring ‘em in to school an’ share ‘em with the class?!”
Stef laughs, a little startled. “Well,” they say, thinking. “I suppose so! Your daddy’s helpin’ ya make ‘em?”
Gabe’s a restaurant owner. That means he’s got a food handler’s license. So that’s good. Really good. “Then absolutely! You can bring ‘em in tomorrow!”
Georgie pumps her fist in the air. “Yes!” she exclaims. “Ya hear that, daddy? Isn’t that awesome?! Everyone’s gonna love my cookies!”
“I’m sure they will,” he says with a grin, reaching out to ruffle her hair. He looks up at Stef, and they catch this little, like... secretive smile on his face, half-hidden behind his screen of curly hair, and their heart leaps in their chest. Oh no. Ohh, no no no. This is bad. They’re actually frickin’ crushing on him!
“Well,” Gabe continues, straightening up. “We better get movin’ if we wanna make a batch’a cookies, huh Georgie?”
“Oh, yeah! Chocolate chips!” She waves to Stef and Marco. “Bye, Mx. Campbell! Bye, Snake Man! Nice to see you!”
“Nice to see you too, Georgie!” Stef calls as Georgie and Gabe move past them and around the corner, off in search of chocolate chips.
Stef’s not sure how long they’re staring after them, not even really paying attention to the fact that they are, until Marco clears his throat behind them, and their eyes snap to his.
He’s smirking, dang it.
“So,” Marco says, drawing it out, arching an eyebrow at them. “That was the hottest guy you’ve ever seen in your life, huh?”
Stef can feel their face heat up again, and they shove Marco’s shoulder. “Shut up, ” they hiss. “What if he hears you, oh my god!”
“Not denyin’ it, I see.”
“Okay, no, I’m not, because--did you see him, Marco?! He’s just--he’s--! Ugh! ” Stef groans, fighting to keep their voice down. “Look, look, whatever, he’s hot as heck, okay, can we please talk about this later? Or never, maybe?”
Marco hums in reply, pushing the cart down the aisle once more. “I dunno,” he says. “He wasn’t that hot. Too tall.”
Stef loves shopping with their brother. Even if he is a class-A jerk.
Friday, November 22.
The bell above the door jingles, and Gabe looks up from where he’s wiping down a table. “Welcome, sit wherever you--oh!” He straightens up with a grin when he spots Stef, still dressed in their more professional school-day attire. “Stef, hi!”
Stef smiles at him, but it’s a tight-lipped smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. “Hey, Gabe,” they say, and they sound... significantly less chipper than they usually do.
Since that fateful day a couple of weeks ago, when Stef came into the diner to visit Shaw, they’ve come in to eat a few times. Sometimes they bring their brother, Marco, and sometimes they come alone. Once, they brought their friend Simon, who Gabe belatedly recognized as the man with the green mohawk from the Halloween party.
Gabe’s grateful for the business, of course, but he can’t deny the way his heart seems to beat faster whenever Stef comes in, the joy he feels when he sees their face.
He isn’t quite sure what word to put to that emotion yet, but it’s a good feeling.
Today, though, seeing them look so... put out , is decidedly not a good feeling.
“Hey,” he replies, tossing his cloth back into the bucket, “you look like you could use a little pick-me-up. Coffee?”
Stef makes a face, dropping into a chair at a nearby window seat. “Ugh, no thank you,” they say. “Anything but coffee.”
He laughs. “Really? Kinda thought you were a coffee fiend, with how many canisters I saw in your cart that time.”
“Ew, no! That was all my brother’s! I can’t stand the stuff unless it’s, like, three-quarters milk and full of sugar.” They’re frowning heavily at him, but they no longer look so down in the dumps, so Gabe counts this as a win.
“Alright, then. No coffee. Maybe some cocoa? Or tea?”
They perk up a little then. “Tea? Heck yeah! What kind?”
“Black tea, green tea, mint tea, or peach. Any’a that interest you?”
“Mm, yeah, how ‘bout peach?” They smile then, just a little smile, but infinitely better than the dark cloud they’d been wearing when they came in.
He grins back at them. “One peach tea, comin’ up!” he says. “I’ll bring a menu when I get back, too.”
Stef nods to him, and props their elbow up on the table to give him a little wave, so he goes off with a spring in his step. It’s a slow day, for a Friday, and it’s almost his break time anyway, so he’s gonna see if he can figure out what’s up before Stef has to leave again.
He fills two mugs with hot water and grabs two bags of tea, then tucks a menu under his arm and carries them both out into the dining room. He pointedly ignores Cole’s own pointed glance as he leaves.
He finds Stef being entertained by Bunny, who apparently hadn’t seen Gabe talking with Stef and has handed them a menu.
“Hey, Bunny,” he says. “Sorry, I’ve got Stef.”
he looks at the mugs in his hands. “Oh!” she says, jumping a little. “Oh, yeah, sure, okay! I’ll just--” She grabs the menu out of Stef’s hands and hurries away, back toward the kitchen.
Stef stares after her, and their expression is so goddamn bewildered that Gabe can’t help but laugh again, accidentally spilling a little of the hot water on his hand. “Ow, shit!” he hisses, quickly setting them down and shaking his hand. “Damn, sorry ‘bout that.” He slides into the chair across from them. “Hope you don’t mind me joining you. It’s basically my break anyway.”
“Oh, no, be my guest!” Stef says, and then shakes their head. “Sorry, I just--you okay?”
“What? Oh--” Gabe looks down at his hand. There’s a little redness there, but nothing too bad. “Yeah, no, I’m fine. Sorry.” He pushes one of the mugs toward them and passes the bag of peach tea to them. “I forgot you hadn’t met Bunny yet. She’s a little jumpy.”
“Yeah.” Stef shakes their head, looking down to open their tea bag and put it in the mug. “Thanks for this. I forget restaurants have tea an’ that kinda thing sometimes.”
“No problem.” He sets about fixing up his own tea, then looks back up at them. They’re looking through the menu, brow furrowed and lips pursed, but Gabe’s not sure if they’re actually looking at the menu or just sort of… staring at it.
“Hey,” he says, quietly, and Stef glances up again, meeting his eyes. “Are you feelin’ alright?”
“I’m okay,” they say, glancing away again and fiddling with their silverware. As clear an indication as any that the answer is actually no.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” he asks, and Stef looks up again, sharply this time. Gabe swallows, not quite sure if he’s overstepped his bounds. Sure, Stef comes in pretty frequently, and they make good conversation, but that doesn’t mean they’re friends. He’s a cook! Of course customers are gonna make conversation with him, it’s only polite to do so! Shit.
“I dunno,” Stef says, sighing. They grip their mug between both hands and bring it to their lips, blowing gently on it before taking a sip. The steam fogs up their glasses, just a little. “I don’t know if it’s--if I should talk about it.”
“Why’s that?” Gabe asks, heart rate slowing down a little.
“Well…” Stef sets their mug back down and bites their lip. “It’s not really… I mean, I don’t think it…” They sigh again, taking their glasses off and wiping them on their sleeve. Gabe watches their movements, waiting.
They slip their glasses back on. “So,” they say, straightening up, but not looking at him, “my brother started dating this guy recently.”
“Right.” Gabe can vaguely remember the shorter guy who’d been practically attached to Marco’s hip at the Halloween party. He was dressed as Perseus to Marco’s Medusa, he’s pretty sure. “Uh, I met him once. For, like, a minute. What was his name…?” He seriously can’t remember. Maybe he wasn’t introduced?
Stef sighs again. “Dante,” they say, and there’s something in their tone, something almost venomous. “His name’s Dante.”
“Right, Dante.” The name doesn’t sound familiar at all. “Okay, so Marco and Dante are dating. What does that have to do with your bad mood?”
He winces as soon as he’s said it; ‘bad mood’ sounds too rude.
But Stef doesn’t seem to care about that. They shrug. “I don’t trust him. And Marco spends so much time with him, I--” They shake their head. “Today’s Dante’s birthday, and Marco’s off celebrating with him.” They lean to one side, propping their elbow on the table and leaning their cheek into the palm of their hand. “I mean, of course people wanna celebrate their significant others’ birthdays with ‘em, but… I feel like I’ve barely seen my brother lately, and… and, well, he has a bad track record with… some stuff I probably shouldn’t go into, and… ugh!” They shove their glasses up, rubbing the palms of their hands into their eyes. “Dang it, I can’t explain it, I just-- ugh.”
Gabe’s not quite sure he follows, but whatever it is that’s going on with Stef and their brother, it sounds complicated. And it’s clearly a family thing Stef doesn’t want to involve Gabe in, so he decides to let it drop. “Sorry to hear that,” he says. “It sounds tough. How about I bring you a sandwich and a slice of pie? On the house, of course.”
"Oh, no, Gabe... you don't have to do that...!" Stef pulls their hands away from their face, their glasses dropping back into place.
He smiles at them. "Look, there's not a lot I can do to cheer you up," he says. "So let me just do what I can, okay?"
There's a beat of silence between them, while Stef watches Gabe. And then they sigh, and smile back at him--just a tentative little smile--and nod. "Yeah, okay," they say. "Thanks, Gabe."
"Not a problem." He slides out of the booth. "Hang tight, I'll be right back." He'd love to give them a hug, or at least some decent advice, but their friendship's not quite there yet, he thinks.
But things are progressing well. Gabe's pretty sure he can count Stef Campbell among his friends.
Thursday, November 28.
At least they and Marco didn't have to drive down to their parents' for Thanksgiving this year, Stef thinks to themself as they squint down at the recipe card. Of course, they'll still have to go down for Christmas, but that won't be nearly as bad as Thanksgiving usually is.
"Hey, Marco!" Stef calls into the living room. "How the hell do you check the 'internal temperature' of a turkey?!"
"Use a meat thermometer," Marco calls back.
"Like the kind that goes under your tongue?"
"No, Stef. Not the kind that goes under your tongue."
Stef sighs and pulls out their phone. Looks like they'll have to Google it themself. This is the first year they've cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and they want it to be perfect. Of course, they don't really cook much, anyway. Sandwiches, heating up soups, boxed dinners--those are all nothing like making an entire dinner from scratch!
But they have a lot to be thankful for this year, and they don't have to spend all weekend with their parents and extended family, and Shaw's coming over later with a pecan pie, so it's fine. It's good, even.
"Stef," Marco calls. "Parade's startin'. Want me to pause it? So you can see the first marchin' band? I'm gonna pause it." The noises from the TV cut out, and Stef grins to themself.
"Thanks, Marco!" they shout back, opening up the oven and shoving the turkey inside. "Be there in a minute, just gotta get the turkey started!" They hastily turn the oven on and throw away the garbage, then hurry into the living room to snuggle up on the couch with their brother.
"Ready?" he asks, lifting the remote in one hand.
"Yeah! Let's get our parade on, baby bro!"
Marco snorts and presses play.
"Daddy!" Georgie yells, bouncing on her toes. "Daddy, can we call Dad now? He's not busy right now, right? Is he cookin' this year? Who's cookin'? Daddy! Can we call 'im? Please?"
Gabe sighs, chuckling. "Uh, yeah, I don't think he's busy right now." He hits pause on the remote and turns toward her. "You'll have to ask him yourself, though. I don't know what their plans over there were this year." He pushes himself up off the couch and grabs his phone from where it's plugged in on the counter. He unlocks it and swiftly pulls up Damien's contact information, hitting the video call button.
Georgie pulls him over to the couch again and plops herself in his lap, snagging the phone out of his hands and staring eagerly at the screen while it rings. Gabe smiles, lifting his hand to pet her curls.
Damien picks up after just a couple of rings, and his face fills the screen, dark skin and black curls. He has a new eyebrow piercing, Gabe notices.
"Georgie! My little baby doll, how are you?" he says, grinning, and Georgie laughs.
"Real good, Dad! Happy Thanksgiving!"
"Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, sweetie! And you, Gabe!"
Gabe waves at the camera. "Hope you guys are havin' a good Thanksgiving," he says. "Sorry I couldn't get a pie sent up to you."
Damien flaps a hand at him, blowing a raspberry. "It's fine, it's fine. Jason bought a pumpkin pie from Walmart. It's about as good as yours."
Gabe makes an exaggerated face of offense, turning toward Georgie. "Can you believe this, Georgie?! Your dad says my pies are on the same level as Walmart pies!"
She giggles. "He's just jealous," she says, "'cause we get your pies!"
"Oh, please," Damien says, rolling his eyes with a grin. "I'm never jealous." He pauses. "Well, okay. Maybe I'm a little jealous. But only because your daddy gets to spend Thanksgiving with you! Ugh, Christmastime can't get here fast enough, I can't wait to give you all the hugs and kisses I've been storing up for you!"
"I miss you, too, dad," Georgie says, and her voice is softer than usual. Gabe feels a pang in his chest; he's happy with his decision to move to California, of course, glad to have the diner and this fresh start, glad to have Georgie to himself, but, well... he can't help but wonder, sometimes, if he made the best decision by pulling Georgie away from everything and everyone she's ever known.
He shakes the feeling off. Georgie's happy here, and she made the decision to come with him all on her own. Besides, it's not like he doesn't miss Damien sometimes. They may be divorced, but they were friends before they got married, and they've been friends since the divorce, too. It's natural to miss someone you've spent twelve years with; in Georgie's case, the past nine years have been her whole life. There's no need for him to be so upset.
"...new friends at your school?" Damien's asking when Gabe tunes back in.
Georgie nods enthusiastically. "Yeah! My best friend is Sarah! She likes different comics than me, but we like the same cartoons and we like to draw. Everyone in my class is really fun, though, so they're all my friends, too! Oh, and Mrs. Kimura! She's a kindergarten teacher but she's my friend too, 'cause she lets us big kids play with the legos an' stuff in her classroom on Fridays, an' she's friends with Mx. Campbell, too. Oh! And Daddy's friends with Mx. Campbell! Isn't that cool? They said I can call 'em Stef outside of school sometimes!"
"Oh, did they now?" Damien asks, and Gabe can hear the spark of interest in his voice. He rolls his eyes.
"Yes, we're getting to be pretty good friends," he says, emphasizing the "friend" so Damien doesn't get the wrong idea. Not that Gabe really has anything against people thinking he's in a relationship with Stef--it's not as though he hasn't thought about it, after all--it's just that they're not, and anyway, he has no idea if Stef'd be okay with people thinking that or not. Plus, he doesn't want Georgie getting the wrong idea and going off to school to spread rumors like that.
Damien hums in reply, and Gabe can tell he doesn't quite believe him, but whatever. "It's so nice that you both have so many good friends already!" he says, turning his attention back to Georgie and giving her a big, sappy smile. One thing Gabe always appreciates about Damien is how much he loves Georgie. He dotes on her just as much as Gabe himself does--arguably more than Gabe does.
"Yeah! I still miss my old friends, but I like havin' lots of new ones too."
"That's terrific, sweetie! Ooh, why don't you tell me how you've been doing on your drawing!"
The conversation continues like this for another twenty minutes or so, with Damien and Georgie asking each other questions and Gabe interjecting every once in a while, before Gabe realizes they've got to get going soon if they want to get to Lola's in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
"You go on and get dressed," he says to Georgie. "I'll say goodbye to your dad."
"Okay." She waves to Damien and blows him a kiss. "Bye, dad!" she says. "Talk to you soon. And I'll see you next month!"
"Bye, baby!" Damien calls, wiggling his fingers at her. "Call me anytime you like. I love you so much!"
"I love you too! Tell Jason an' everybody I love them, too!" Georgie hurries off to her room.
"She's as energetic as ever," Damien says, miming wiping sweat off of his forehead.
Gabe laughs. "She gets that from you," he teases. "Anyway, I've really gotta get going. Thanks for taking the time to talk to Georgie; she really has been missing you."
"Probably just as much as I've been missing her," Damien says with a sad smile. "Anyway!" he clears his throat and claps his hands. "I really am happy you've got some friends up there, Gabe. You don't do well by yourself, and Georgie's not a substitute for adult company, ya know?"
"Yeah, I know. I'm actually... doing really well here, Damien." He grins, and Damien grins back. "I guess we'll know in a couple more months whether or not the diner's gonna succeed, and everything else... well." He shrugs. "This was the fresh start I needed."
"I'm glad." Damien runs his fingers through his short curls. "And I know I teased you about it earlier, but..." He leans in close to the camera, so that all Gabe can see is his eye and the eyebrow piercing above it. Gabe snorts out an amused laugh. "Do you have a little someone special ? Anyone you've got your eye on?"
He snorts again, shakes his head. "I'm too busy for romance," he says, half-truthfully. "And anyway, I'm fine being single. It doesn't bother me, you know?"
"I know." Damien pulls away from the camera, a thoughtful look on his face. "I just want you to know that if you do start dating again, you have my full blessing."
"Damien," Gabe says, rolling his eyes, "we've been divorced for five years. You're married! I hardly think I need your blessing." He grins. "But thanks. I'll let you know if I get into anything serious."
"Good." Damien watches him for a moment, the two silent. Then he says, "Okay, well, I'll let you go. Thanks so much for calling me, Gabe! Tell the munchkin I love her, will you?"
"Of course. Bye, Damien. Happy Thanksgiving."
"Happy Thanksgiving, Gabe!"
The screen goes dark as Damien hangs up, and Gabe tucks his phone into his pocket as he goes to get ready.
He always has a lot on his mind, but tonight he means to leave most of it behind and just focus on the good things: Friends, family, and good food.