Chapter 5: December
Thursday, December 5.
Gabe officially meets Dante when he takes his car to the mechanic to get the fan belt checked out.
Madhavi had recommended this garage to him, since he hadn't had the time or opportunity to just scope out mechanics and stuff in town. He'd set up the appointment about a week ago, and luckily there was a lull at the diner at just the right time for him to come down.
He's expecting a quick inspection, maybe to have to set up another appointment later or something. He's not, however, expecting to see a semi-familiar face when he parks his car inside the shop.
"Hey," the guy says, popping the hood and peering in at the engine. Gabe can't help but stare at him for a minute, trying to place why he looks so familiar.
He's a pretty short guy, with shoulder-length, messy black hair and light brown skin. He's got dark grease marks on his arms and a smear on his face.
Where does he know him from?
"You got a problem?" the guy asks, shooting a glare in his direction, and Gabe blinks, realizing he'd been staring.
"Oh, no, sorry," he says, face heating. "I just, uh, you look familiar. Have we met?"
The guy squints at him for a long moment, making Gabe feel distinctly uncomfortable, and then his eyes widen and he snaps his fingers. "You were at the Halloween party at the school! Right? Li'l, uh... Georgie! Li'l Georgie's dad."
Gabe blinks again. "Yes... Oh!" Now he knows where he's seen this guy before. "You're, uh, Marco's boyfriend. Dante, right?" Marco's mentioned him once or twice when he'd come into the diner, and of course Stef's complained about him a few times.
"Fiance. And yeah, I'm Dante." He holds his hand out for Gabe to shake.
"Gabe. Nice to meet you." He readily grasps it, prepared for the oily feeling of the grease on his hand, but not for the unyielding sensation of metal against his skin.
Gabe glances down as Dante withdraws his hand, and he's briefly startled to see that Dante's missing three fingers on his right hand; his middle, ring, and pinkie fingers are just stubs, with thin metal prosthetics attached.
Dante follows his gaze and snorts, lifting the hand up for Gabe to see better. He flexes the metal fingers. "Don't let anyone tell ya bein' a mechanic's easy," he says.
"Sorry," Gabe says. "Didn't mean to stare."
He shrugs, turning back to the engine. "Don't worry, I get it a lot." Well, that doesn't exactly make Gabe feel any better. "Anyway, Marco says you're pretty cool, so I'll forgive ya this time."
"Oh." Gabe barely bites back the 'Marco says I'm cool?' at the tip of his tongue. He didn't think he'd even interacted with Stef's brother enough for the guy to have an opinion on him. "Still."
"Whatever." There's some clinking and clanking noises from under the hood. "Anyway, Marco says he an' his sibling really like your food. Haven't had a chance to stop in yet, but maybe I will soon."
"Oh," Gabe says again. "Oh, uh, sure! I mean, I'm not gonna tell ya not to come in. You'll definitely be welcomed. Are you gonna come in with Marco and Stef next time they come by?"
"Prob'ly not with Stef," Dante says, and his voice is tighter than it had been a moment ago. Well, it only stands to reason that he'd be upset or annoyed at the idea of eating lunch with Stef; he's still not sure what exactly is going on between them, but Stef clearly doesn't like Dante, and so Dante probably doesn't hold much fondness for Stef, either.
"Well, that's fine. Whenever you come in, just let your server know that you're a friend of mine and I'll come say hi." Or is that too familiar? He just met the guy like, two minutes ago. "Er, and bring you something on the house."
Dante snorts again, leaning up out from under the hood and peering at him. "Well, I'm not gonna say no to free food," he says. "I got a day off soon. I'll come by if I can wrangle Marco over there."
Gabe gives him a warm smile. "Sounds great," he says. He'd love to talk with Dante more, maybe find out why Stef hates him so much. He really seems like a good guy, and Marco had seemed pretty happy whenever he mentioned him...
Ugh, Gabe should not be getting so involved. It's none of his business!
Still, he doesn't like seeing Stef so upset....
"Anyway, your car's fixed." Dante reaches up and lowers the hood of the car, dropping it back into place with a clunk. "Fan belt was just a li'l loose. Nothin' to worry about."
"Oh, that's a relief," Gabe says. He hadn't really thought there'd been anything too wrong with the car, but it's nice to know the car's not gonna end up exploding while he's driving Georgie to school one of these days. "How much do I owe you?"
Dante shakes his head, rolling his eyes. "Dude, I barely touched it. It took, like, five minutes."
Gabe can only stare at him, confused. Is he supposed to know how much five minutes of a mechanic's time is worth? Is that a thing here in California? Is it something everyone's supposed to know, but no one outright tells you?
Dante laughs, apparently seeing Gabe's look of confusion or horror or whatever had been showing. "You don't owe me anything," he says. "Go on back home or to work or whatever you're doin'." He pulls a rag out of his pocket and wipes his hands off, paying special attention to his metal fingers.
"Uh?" Gabe says, still confused. "You can't--I mean, it was still time out of your day, how--"
"Look," Dante cuts him off. "You're gonna give me free food, yeah? Consider this a fair trade. And promise you'll come back here next time somethin' goes screwy with your car. Deal?"
"I, uh--yeah!" Gabe grins, reaching up to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear. "That... that sounds fair."
"Good." Dante grins back at him, stuffing the rag back into his pocket. "Now, seriously, get outta here. I got other people to deal with an' your car's blockin' 'em."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
Friday, December 20.
"Can't believe it's finally the last day of school," Stef groans, rubbing their eyes and squinting up at Simon.
Simon snorts, grabbing one of the little plastic chairs and spinning it around, sitting in it backwards to face Stef. Simon's huge, well over six foot, and the effect is pretty darn comical. "Ready for a nice vacation, huh?"
"Mmph." Stef settles their glasses back on their nose to look down at the papers in front of them. "Dunno if you can really call it a 'vacation' when Marco an' I gotta go to our parents'." They have not been looking forward to that. They never do; there's a reason (okay, several reasons), after all, that they and Marco had moved far enough away that they're only obligated to visit for certain holidays.
"Yeah, but that's only, like, two days, yeah? You can deal with two days."
"Three days," Stef corrects.
"Oh, my bad," Simon says with a playful roll of his eyes. "Three days. You guys'll be fine. If you need to leave early or you just wanna chill with someone who's not a bigoted fu--er, jerkwad, Madhavi and I're gonna be home pretty much all'a winter break. You can come hang out anytime."
They grin at him, warmth blooming in their chest. "Thanks, Si," they say. It's always nice to know they've got a friend like Simon on their side.
A tap at the door. Stef and Simon both look up to see Manami peering in, her blue hair hanging in her face. "Hey," she says, grinning. "Just another hour 'til the pageant, and then we're free for a whole two weeks!" She steps into the room, walking over to the desk. "You excited?"
"Varying degrees of excited," Simon says, bouncing in the chair. The plastic creaks, but Stef's seen fourth graders put it through worse treatment, so they don't worry about it. "You got any plans?"
Manami shrugs. "Rosana and I don't really celebrate Christmas," she says. "We're just gonna spend time relaxing. Maybe break out a board game. You know, saucy adult stuff like Clue."
Stef snorts, smiling. "Sounds like you guys're gonna have a good break." Honestly, Stef probably will have a good break, too, but the constant reminder that they'll have to see their parents just really puts a damper on things. They just hope their parents won't be so bad this year. And that Marco won't backslide....
Gabe's happy to find that he's not nervous at all as he crowds into the gym with the other parents. He'd been worried beforehand about feeling out of place, but the excitement at seeing his daughter perform the songs she's been eagerly practicing all month had far outweighed that, and now that he's here, he sees all the other parents and guardians dressed as festive as he is, phones out ready to take pictures and video, giddily chatting among themselves.
He tugs on his ugly Christmas sweater (bright blue, with a pattern of multi-colored Christmas lights strung all around it) and squeezes into the aisle, arranging himself on one of the cold metal folding chairs. He's seated only a few rows back, so he has a pretty good view of the stage.
The kids are all waiting somewhere backstage, he assumes. They'll probably start pretty soon, though, since it looks like the gym is pretty full of people now.
He checks his phone, makes sure the sound is off and that he's got a good view of the stage.
"Gabe!" calls a familiar voice, and he looks up to find Stef standing in the row in front of him, beaming at him. "You made it!"
Gabe smiles back. It's been a little over a week since he last saw Stef. "Of course," he says. "Georgie's been practicing for this all month, I'm not gonna miss it."
"She'll be glad to see ya," they say, sitting down in the chair directly in front of him and twisting their torso to keep their eye on him. "You filmin' it?"
He looks back down at his phone, the camera app still open. "Yeah. I don't want Damien to miss out on any of this kinda stuff just because we live farther away now."
"Damien?" Stef's tone causes him to look up again; they're watching him with a calm, relaxed expression, but their voice sounds tight.
"Uh, yeah. Damien, Georgie's dad. My ex-husband." He tilts his head as he watches Stef's eyes widen and then quickly narrow back to their original expression. What?
"Oh," Stef says, clearing their throat. "I'd, ah, I'd wondered. If, you know, she had another parent around."
What's with the forced nonchalance? Is Gabe hearing things? He shrugs, toying with his phone. "Ah, yeah. I mean, we got divorced... five years ago? We just moved out of the city, though, so Georgie's still been adjusting to having just me around. She and Damien miss each other a lot. Of course, she's gonna be spending the holidays with him, so that'll make up for a little bit of lost time, but I try to, you know, send videos or pictures or updates or whatever from anything big happening in her life." He winces. Shut up! "Ah, sorry, didn't mean to ramble."
"No, no, it's fine. You're--yeah! Yeah, it's fine." Stef's waving one hand around, and they look flustered. What had he said to fluster them?
"Wait," Gabe says, fighting back a smirk and cocking an eyebrow at them. "Did you not know I was queer?"
Their face flushes red and their hand drops into their lap. Ah-ha! Bingo. "Well, ah, no, not really!"
He feigns offense. "I hate to think that I give off straight vibes," he says teasingly. "But, yeah. Hi, I'm Gabe, I have an ex-husband, and I'm queer as--" he barely stops himself from dropping a fuck in the elementary school gym full of parents. "As, uh. Heck."
Stef laughs, then, and it certainly sounds genuine, and not like they're making fun of him. "Hi, Gabe," they say through their giggles, and Gabe can't help but think how cute that is. "Man, I shoulda known you were somewhere in the acronym when you got my pronouns right the first time." They shake their head. "To this day, even when we send out papers with all the staff's pronouns, I swear the only people who get it the first time are fellow el-gee-bee-tees."
Gabe opens his mouth to respond, but he's interrupted by a blue-haired woman touching Stef's shoulder. They turn and look at her.
"Sorry to interrupt," she says, "but we're about to start."
"Oh!" they hastily get to their feet. "Right, right. Uh, sorry, Gabe! Happy holidays if I don't see ya before Christmas or whatever."
"Uh, yeah," Gabe says to Stef's retreating back, "same to you!"
Stef and the blue-haired woman disappear into the crowd, and Gabe turns back to his phone. The screen's gone dark, and he doesn't really want to waste the battery, so he just turns it over and over in his hand as he waits for the show to start.
The lights around the stage dim, and the chatter around him goes quiet. He can see the shapes of children onstage as they take their places; he gets his phone into position and starts recording just as the lights come back on.
And there they are: probably not the whole school, because Gabe doesn't see any real little kids, but at least grades one through four, standing on staggered steps in four rows, with the youngest kids at the bottom and the oldest at the top.
He finds Georgie easily, his eyes drawn to her big, fluffy hair and the wide, excited smile she wears on her face. She's a little left of center, and he zooms the camera in on her a bit, waving with his free hand.
She waves back, and a moment later, music blares from the speakers, guitar and bells, and the kids start singing.
Gabe doesn't fight the grin he knows is spreading across his face, just lets it widen. Georgie's so into it, belting out the lyrics and shaking her arms in the air, wiggling from side to side as she dances to the music as best she can in the narrow space she's allowed. She's so cute, and he's so proud of her!
When the song ends, she throws a big smile his way and waves again. He waves back.
He's gonna miss her so much these next two weeks.
Sunday, December 22.
"When's he gonna be here?" Georgie asks, bouncing in the diner booth. Gabe stifles a sigh and gives her a smile, reaching across the table to ruffle her hair.
"Soon, kiddo," he says. "It's only been five minutes since the last time you asked." It had actually been closer to two or three minutes, but still.
"D'you think Gramma an' Grampa'll like the ornament I made 'em?"
"They'll love it, Georgie. You worked real hard on it." He'd bought her a little plastic tree ornament to decorate last week, and she'd absolutely covered it in glitter glue. The thing might actually make his mom go blind, but she'll love it either way.
Georgie nods and turns to look out the window, tapping out a rhythm on the table. Gabe looks back down at the paperwork in front of him, but a moment later, he hears her gasp and looks back up sharply.
"He's here! Daddy, daddy, look, there's his car, he's here!" Georgie scrambles to get out of the booth, leaving behind all her bags in her mad dash for the door.
Gabe lets himself sigh this time, gathering up all his paperwork and stowing it carefully back in his office before coming back to pick up all her luggage.
He's gonna miss her so much.
Damien's got Georgie in his arms when Gabe comes out, swinging her around and hugging her tight. "My little baby girl!" he says. "You've gotten so big!"
"I grew a whole inch!" Georgie says excitedly, and Gabe sets one of her bags down by Damien's car just as Damien spots him.
"Gabe!" Damien keeps his grip on Georgie, but reaches out for Gabe, too, flexing his fingers in a grabby-hands motion.
Gabe laughs, ducking in to wrap his arms around the both of them and squeeze. "Hey, Damien," he says. "Long time no see."
"Yeah, seriously! Ugh, I'm never gonna get used to having you in a whole other state! It was bad enough when you got your own apartment just, like, down the street. " Damien releases Gabe and sets Georgie on the ground. "Wish we could stay longer and chat, but we've gotta get goin' if we wanna be home before nighttime."
"That's okay," Gabe says. "Maybe when you bring her back, you can stay the night? We don't have a guest room, but I could take the couch. Or, if Jason wanted to come, I could put the two of you up in a hotel?"
Damien grins. "Yeah, sounds great! I wanna see where the two of you are puttin' down roots. We'll figure out the details when it gets closer to the date." He turns to Georgie, who's bouncing on her toes. "Well, pumpkin, you ready to go?"
"Yeah!" Georgie leans over and wraps her arms around Gabe's waist, hugging him. He's not gonna cry, he's not gonna cry, he's not gonna cry. "Bye, daddy!"
Gabe leans down to hug her back, pressing a kiss to the top of her head and ruffling her curls when he straightens up. "Bye, Georgie. You be good for your dad, yeah? Don't cause him or your grandparents too much trouble." He pauses, then grins. "You can be as much trouble for Jason as you like, though."
She gives him a mischievous smirk, and Damien laughs. "Bet we can prank 'im real good!" he says. "But I'm sure you'll be an angel, as always. Now c'mon, sweetheart, we've gotta get goin' before the traffic's too bad!"
Gabe helps pack up Damien's car with all the things Georgie will need for the next two weeks, and gets her situated in the back seat with her comics and a boxed lunch, and he kisses her cheek just before shutting the door. "Bye, my little Georgia peach," he calls, waving, as Damien heads out of the parking lot and out onto the street.
He's gonna miss her so much.
Tuesday, December 24.
Christmas Eve isn't as busy in the diner as Stef had thought it would be.
They're not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, and maybe it's just because it's still fairly early in the morning, but they can't help but feel a little glad about it when they enter the building and see people at only one table. They lead Marco over to their usual table--a booth with a direct line of sight to the counter and the window to the kitchen--and sit down to wait.
Their stomach's so tied up in knots they can't stand it! They wish they could just sit here in this booth for the next three days instead of travelling halfway across the state to see their freaking parents. Ugh. This is gonna be a nightmare.
"We can still call it off," Marco says, and Stef doesn't look up to meet his eyes, choosing instead to toy with the sugar canister in front of them. "We don't have to go. We can just stay in town for Christmas."
"No, we can't," they sigh. "We already said we'd go, an' we didn't go for Thanksgiving, so now we've gotta bite the bullet." They turn the sugar canister around and around in their hands, keeping their eyes on it.
Marco grunts. "We're adults," he argues, for the umpteenth time this month, "we don't have to--"
"Stef, Marco!" Gabe, Stef's personal goshdarn savior, interrupts, stepping up to the table. "Wasn't expecting to see you two today! What can I get ya?"
"Wasn't expectin' you to be waiting tables," Stef says, setting the sugar aside and looking up into Gabe's deliciously handsome face. Usually when they stop by, Shaw or Bunny take their orders, and then Gabe comes out to say hi and maybe sit and chat for a bit if he has time.
"Ah, yeah," he says, handing them each a menu. "Shaw's off for Hanukkah, and the guy I hired to fill in for aer couldn't make it today. Bunny'll be in later, but for now it's just me and Cole. D'you want somethin' to drink? Tea for Stef, coffee for Marco?"
"Gabe Martin, I would love some tea," Stef cries, beaming up at him. "D'you have..." they lower their voice conspiratorially. "...the stuff?"
"Do I have the cinnamon tea you asked me about last time you came in? Yes." He scribbles something down on his little pad of paper. "Cinnamon tea, hot coffee. Back in a few!" He grins at the both of them and hurries into the kitchen.
Dang... what a guy. Cute, sweet, talented as heck, and queer? Oh man... Stef's got it bad.
"You've got it bad, " Marco says, and Stef looks up sharply. His mouth is a straight line, his expression bored, but his eyes are twinkling mischievously. Jerk. "Did he buy cinnamon tea just for you?"
"I mean--! I don't know that for sure," Stef says, trying not to look as hopeful at the idea as they feel. "Maybe someone else asked about it too, an' there's a market for it, an'--"
"Uh huh." Marco snorts and leans back in his seat. "You should ask 'im out."
"Marco!" Stef hisses, leaning across the table to thrust their finger in his face. "You better keep your mouth shut, mister! If he hears you--"
"Here he comes," Marco says, pulling out his phone.
Stef quickly sits back in their own seat, turning their head, and--yep. There's Gabe, carrying two mugs over to them. He sets the coffee down in front of Marco and a mug of hot water in front of Stef, then slips a little tea bag over to them. The scent of cinnamon wafts up to their nose as they open it, and their eyes water a little bit; dang. This guy really knows the way to Stef's heart.
"Here ya go!" he says. "Know what you wanna eat?"
"Uh," says Stef, who hasn't even touched their menu since having it handed to them. "Uh...."
"Pancakes," Marco says, without looking up from his phone. "For both of us. Sound good, Stef?"
"Oh. Uh, yeah! Pancakes! Great! Yes. Pancakes. Please. And thank you," Stef says, handing their menu back to Gabe and wishing they could just shut up.
"Pancakes!" Gabe scribbles that on his pad and gives Stef another blinding smile. Their heart won't stop fluttering, frick! "I'll be back with those in a jiffy!" He turns and leaves, and Stef can't help but watch him go.
"Oh my god," Marco says. "Just ask him out!"
"Will you shut up?" Stef hisses, burying their face in their hands. "Seriously! He is the parent of one of my students! That's probably crossing so many lines!"
Marco snorts. "Doubt it," he says. "An' anyway, that's not the reason you're holdin' back."
"Shut up, " they sigh, dropping their hands and reaching for their mug of hot water. "Seriously, can we please change the subject?"
"Fine," Marco says, setting his phone screen-down on the table. "I think we should call Mom an' Dad an' tell 'em to shove it."
Stef sputters, nearly dropping hot water down their nice, neat button-up. "No! Are you kidding?! Marco, look, if you don't wanna go, that's fine. You can stay with Shaw, or... Dante." They try very hard not to grimace when they say his name. "But we can't just... say that, an' we-- I- -can't just not go. "
"Yes you can," Marco says. "Look, you're the one they're gonna be pickin' on this whole time, not me."
"You don't know that," Stef says, feeling miserable as they stir sugar into their cinnamon tea.
"Fuck off," Marco says, but there's no real heat behind his words. "They won't have changed since the last time we saw 'em. They haven't changed their opinions since you were in high school."
Stef grits their teeth. They'd love to just stay here in town and hang out with their friends and Marco all holiday season, they seriously would, but they can't.
"Look, just..." Stef sighs. "Just drop it, okay Marco? If you don't wanna go, it's fine. But I have to."
He sighs, reaching for the sugar canister by Stef's elbow. "You know I can't let you go by yourself," he grumbles.
Despite themself, Stef gives him a smile.
Gabe clutches the little tin tight in his hand. It's not weird. Right? No, of course it's not weird! ... Right? Ugh, he doesn't know! Maybe it's weird? it's probably weird.
Well, whatever. Who cares if it's weird? If Stef thinks it's weird, he'll just... well, he'll just have to hide in the kitchen every time they drop by ( if they drop by after this), and stop volunteering at Georgie's school functions until she graduates to middle school next year, and... well, parent-teacher conferences will be awkward, but they kind of are anyway, so... it's fine.
He steels himself in the kitchen doorway, sucking in a deep, steadying breath. It'll be fine. It's not weird. They're friends! Right? Well, they're definitely not strangers. So. It's not weird. Probably.
He steps back out into the quiet dining room and heads over to Stef and Marco's table. They've both finished their pancakes and are talking about something. Stef tilts their head back and laughs, mouth open wide. Gabe can't help but grin at the sight; they look so happy.
Stef's gaze shifts to his then, and something in their expression softens. Fuck, they're cute. His grip tightens on the tin again, and he forces himself not to run away, instead passing them their bill. "Here," he says. "Uh, thanks for stopping by this morning. It was good to see you." He pauses, looking down at the little snowflake-patterned tin in his hands. He wets his lips. Now or never. "Uh, here--" he thrusts the tin out to Stef, nearly clouting them in the head in the process. "Shit, sorry--uh."
"Gabe, Gabe, calm down," Stef says soothingly. They carefully take the tin from him. "What's this?"
"Uh." He clears his throat, taps his fingers against his thigh. "It's. Well. They're cookies."
"Cookies?" Stef pries off the lip and peers inside at the contents. There's a few different types in there: snickerdoodles and chocolate chip and, on the top, three star-shaped sugar cookies, iced in red, blue, and purple. "Cookies! What are they for?"
"Uh. You." God, he sounds like an idiot. "Well, I just wanted to give you a little something. For Christmas. Which is tomorrow." They know Christmas is tomorrow, damn it! Get to the point! "It's just, you know. A gift. Not much, but--"
"Thank you," Stef interrupts him, and there's that soft look in their eyes again, the gentle upward tug of their lips. Gabe sucks in an involuntary breath. "This is awesome! I don't even know what to say! Just... thank you!" They tuck the tin close to their chest and beam up at him. He swallows.
"Yeah. Yeah, of course! Uh, merry Christmas, I... hope you have a good one!" And then he really does run away, hurrying back into the kitchen. God, he feels like he's sixteen again and stuffing secret love notes in his crushes' lockers. He's 27 years old, and--and, god, it's not a crush!
"Romantic gift-giving go well, then?" Cole asks from where he's cleaning the counters, and Gabe can't help but groan.
God, is it better or worse that Georgie's not here to see her dad acting like an idiot?
"Holy heck," Stef says excitedly, tilting the tin toward Marco. "Cookies! For me! Marco, oh my gosh. "
"Still don't think he does things just for you, hm?"
"Shut up," Stef says for the thousandth time, but they don't actually deny anything this time.
Gabe Martin is frickin' sweet as heck. Stef's totally gone on him.
They're gonna pretend this isn't a problem for a while.
"Not too late to turn around," Marco mutters from the passenger seat, and Stef's hands clench tighter around the steering wheel.
"Yes it is," they say. "We're literally in the driveway!"
"They probably haven't spotted us yet," Marco insists. "Can make a clean getaway before they--aw. Curtains twitched. Mom spotted us."
Stef's gut clenches. Three hours of driving, and their anxiety's only been increasing since they left the diner. Ugh. It's been almost a year since they saw their parents last, and the monthly phone calls haven't helped ease their dread at all.
They sigh, releasing the steering wheel and hastily undoing their seatbelt. "Let's go, then," they say.
"Grab as many bags as ya can," Marco says, "and maybe ya won't have to deal with a hug."
Stef ignores him, only taking out their own suitcase and the bag of presents. Marco can fill his arms with bags if he wants to avoid a hug--not that Marco really needs an excuse to avoid a hug. They shut the car door, steel themself, and make their way up to their parents' house.
The door opens before they can knock, and yup, there's their mom, arms outstretched and smiling wide enough to showcase the dimples on one cheek. They suck in a breath almost without realizing it, anticipating how she's going to greet them this time.
"Stef!" she says, stepping forward and wrapping her long, thin limbs around their shoulders. They hesitate just a moment before leaning into her embrace, bringing up the arm holding the gifts to wrap it loosely around her waist. "It's so good to see you, you look wonderful!"
"Thanks, mom," they say, and the knot of anticipation hasn't unwound itself yet. "Good to see you, too. How ya been?"
She pulls back, keeping them at arm's length and studying their face; they try not to look too stressed. She smiles at them, then, and leans in to kiss their cheek. "Your father and I have been wonderful, " she says. "He has some great stories to tell the two of you. Now, where's your brother--? Oh, Marco!" She releases Stef and takes a few steps past them; they turn to see Marco coming up behind them, his arms full of packages. "Oh, I hardly recognized you without all those piercings! You look like a new man! You look wonderful!"
"Thanks," Marco says, voice flat. He makes no move to hug their mother, and she hovers around him for a moment, uncertain.
Stef clears their throat. "Uh, me an' Marco'll get our stuff put away, an' then we'll come talk, okay?"
"Of course, of course!" Their mother beams at them, patting Stef on the cheek once before leading them both inside. "I'll just be in the living room. You boys know where to put your things!"
And, oh. It's like a punch to the gut, the knot in their stomach constricting even tighter. They can't tell if she meant to misgender them, or if she just forgot , don't know if they should correct her, or if they should just drop it, just deal with it. That's honestly probably the best course of action; they don't want to start anything, not when they just got here.
They force a smile and follow her into the house.
"Mom," says Marco, in that cold, icy way that never means anything good, "can you take the giftbag from Stef? They don't need to take it all the way to their room."
She pauses midstep, and Stef's heart is thudding horribly in their chest when she turns toward them. Why couldn't Marco have just let it go?! They just got here, they could have dealt with it for a little while!
Their mother smiles again, a tight-lipped smile without the dimple. "Of course," she says. "Stef, honey, hand me that--and any other things you have."
Stef swallows and hands the bag over. She takes it, and meets their eye with another, gentler smile; the knot in their stomach loosens, just a little. So she just forgot. That's good. That's fine. Stef can deal with this.
Marco hands her a couple more bags, and then they separate, she to the living room where Stef can see a Christmas tree glowing, and they and Marco off down the hallway they'd shared as kids.
"Why'd you have to do that?" Stef hisses under their breath as they head for their rooms.
"Do what?" Marco asks, his tone still chillier than Stef would like, "Remind her of your goddamn pronouns? The same pronouns you've been askin' her to use since you were sixteen?" he snorts.
"I mean-- it's not that I don't appreciate it," they say, because honestly, they do, they can't stand being misgendered, especially by people who should know better, like their mom, but still. It's their mom! "It's just-- I mean, she prob'ly forgot, I woulda reminded her later, it--"
"Stef." Marco's footsteps stop, and Stef reluctantly turns to face him in the dim, narrow hallway. "You know she does it on purpose. She knows full fuckin' well that you're nonbinary. She does that shit on purpose. An' I'm not gonna let 'er get away with it. Not this year." He moves forward again, forcing Stef to turn back around and head for their room at the end of the hall. "Her or dad, because he's gonna pull the same shit."
Stef doesn't know whether to burst into tears or launch themself at their baby brother for a big hug--maybe both would be a good option--but instead, they just give him a little smile over their shoulder and push open the door to their childhood bedroom.
It hasn't changed much since Stef left when they were eighteen.
The posters on the walls are gone, replaced by generic landscapes and bowls of fruit, but their bed is still in the same place, their old bedspread--recently washed and folded down--in place. The window blinds are still broken on one side, and the ancient desktop they'd used in high school sits on top of the old desk they'd done their homework at.
The bookcase in the corner is full of their parents' things now, books they want but don't want to keep in the living room, old trinket boxes and figurines.
They take their suitcase over to the closet and open the door. Inside hang a bunch of their mother's clothes, dresses and coats and things she probably hasn't touched in five years. They push their suitcase inside and shut the door again.
Their bedroom used to be a sanctuary; now it just feels old, empty.
Stef heads back out into the hall, backtracking one door down to Marco's room and pushing it open.
Marco's standing in the middle of the room, the handle of his suitcase clenched tightly in one hand, the other clutching at the footboard of his bed. His shoulders are hunched, his posture stiff. Stef's blood freezes; this is bad.
"Marco," they say, trying to keep their voice steady, soothing. They move forward and put a hand on his shoulder; he jumps, turns to look at them, and his eyes are wide, his teeth sunken into his lower lip. "Marco, kid, what's wrong?"
He sucks in a breath, closes his eyes. He slowly lets the breath out, and his shoulders relax; good. He's calming himself down. "Sorry," he says quietly. "I-- it's just. This room. Thought I could handle it, but it's... There's just too many bad memories in here."
"Do you wanna switch?" Now that Stef knows what's going on, it's that much easier to keep their voice calm.
Marco's quiet for a moment. "Yeah," he says. "Think that'd prob'ly help." He turns toward the door, not quite looking at Stef, and picks his other bag up off the floor. "Thanks."
Stef sighs quietly, following him out. As long as this is the worst thing to happen, they think they'll be able to call this visit a success.
Wednesday, December 25.
Christmas without Georgie is... weird, to say the least. He hasn't spent a Christmas away from his daughter since she was born. That's his entire adult life! Fuck... wow. Yeah, his entire adult life.... That's weird, right?
He sighs, staring into his mug of cocoa, and beside him, Madhavi nudges him with her elbow. "Gabe, man," she says, and he glances up to see her rolling her eyes at him, "quit sighin'. You're gonna make Simon cry."
"I'm not gonna cry, Madhavi," Simon, Madhavi's partner and also a man Gabe briefly remembers meeting at the Halloween party as Mr. Moore, says from her other side. "I don't know why you keep using me as leverage! I'm having a wonderful time."
"No you're not," she says, turning away from Gabe to poke Simon in the ribs. "You're havin' a terrible time, an' it's a hundred percent 'cause ol' grumpy here won't stop sighin'!"
"I'm not grumpy," Gabe protests. "Moody, maybe, but can you blame me?"
"No," says Simon, at the same time that Madhavi says "Yep."
He snorts, can't help but be amused. Lola had invited him over to celebrate Christmas, since he didn't have Georgie here--though, she probably would have invited him over whether Georgie was here or not--and he'd been surprised to see both Madhavi and Simon here as well. Of course, he'd known that Madhavi and Lola were friends--they'd both mentioned the other in previous conversations, and both their names are uncommon enough that it was a simple thing to connect the two--but he hadn't known that the Simon Madhavi mentioned often was also the Mr. Moore from the elementary school.
Kai's here too, of course; he and Lola are fairly recently married, and the chances of either of them leaving town without the other in their first couple Christmases together would be pretty weird. Gabe's also finally had the chance to meet Sam, the kid Lola and Kai are fostering. They'd both mentioned Sam a few times, of course; apparently they're pretty shy and standoffish, so he hasn't had the chance to meet them until now.
All in all, it's a pretty big and colorful group for Christmas, and if only Gabe didn't miss Georgie so much, he'd be having a blast!
"Ooh," Lola calls from the kitchen, "the cookies are done! Who wants fresh cookies? They're only a little burnt this time!"
"Sorry," Gabe hears Kai say softly from the same direction. "Lost track'a time."
"Hell yeah," Madhavi says, getting to her feet. She wraps one hand around Simon's forearm and pulls him up, too, leaving Gabe alone on the couch.
He snorts again, tilting his head back and swallowing the rest of his cocoa before getting up to follow them both into the kitchen. Slightly burnt cookies and good company are much better than sitting around with nothing but the Christmas tree for company.
The kitchen's just as cheery as the rest of the house, with bright strings of lights stretched between the cabinets overhead and shining garland tacked up everywhere the strings aren't already taking up space. It's homey, and pretty; Gabe likes it a lot. He makes a mental note to ask Lola to help him decorate the diner for any upcoming holidays.
Standing up with everyone in the brightly-lit kitchen is a lot different from sitting in the living room with everyone. Gabe's never considered himself to be short, really; he's a little above average at five-foot-ten, and that's always suited him nicely. However, with Madhavi and Simon on one side of him and Lola and Kai on the other, he feels dwarfed. They're all at least three inches taller than he is, and it's strange. The only person he's taller than is Sam, who's maybe a foot or so shorter than he is, and about twelve years younger. They're also standing off in a corner of the kitchen by themself, eating a cookie and doing their best to ignore everyone else.
"What do you think, Gabe?" Lola asks, drawing Gabe's attention back to her. She's holding a baking sheet of sugar cookies out to him, and he peers closely at them.
They're all cut into Christmassy shapes; trees and stockings, stars, that sort of thing, and they're a little darker around the edges than they really should be, but they're much better than the blackened, smoking mess that she and Kai had made earlier.
He nods and gives her a thumbs-up. "Think these ones are perfect," he says.
"Oh, perfect!" Lola says, smiling sweetly at him. She sets the tray down on the kitchen island and takes her oven mitts off. "Then all we have to do now is decorate them! Sam, do you--"
"Nope," says the teenager, abruptly pushing past Simon to get to the door. "I'm goin' to my room."
"Oh." Lola watches them go, her lips turned down slightly, and then she shakes her head and looks at Gabe with another, somewhat more subdued, smile. "Well. I'll just take them one later. Now, Mr. Chef, why don't you take the lead here?"
"Oh, sure," Gabe says, feeling a little awkward. He wonders if Sam's okay, if this is just part of being a teenager (was he so dismissive when he was 15? Is Georgie going to act like that when she's fifteen?) , or if it's just Sam's personality in general. Whatever the problem is, Gabe can only hope Lola can deal with the dismissal alright.
He shakes off the feelings and picks up a tube of glittery red icing. "Okay," he says, "let's get to decoratin'..."
"Oh, Stef, you look so nice," their mother coos as Stef steps into the living room. They smile at her, glad to know their decision to pack only their work clothes was a good move. If they were at home, they'd probably be wearing a glittery sweater, shiny enough to rival any of their mom's Christmas ornaments, but since they're here, they've toned it down quite a bit. A nice white button-up with black pants. It's something they wear pretty often at the school, when they do their best to keep it professional.
A Christmas party with your family shouldn't be a professional occasion, they think to themself, but they quickly tamp the thought down. "Thanks, mom!" they give her a hug, the soft scent of her perfume washing over them.
"Mornin'," Marco says, and Stef feels the slight breeze against their back as he passes by them. They release their mother and turn toward Marco as he plops himself down on the couch, at the opposite end from their father. Relief washes through them; it's so much easier to deal with their parents when Marco's here, too.
"Morning, Marco!" their dad says cheerily, setting his tablet aside and leaning closer to Marco. Marco, who's got his phone out, props his elbow up on the arm of the couch and angles himself away from their dad "Who ya textin' so early in the morning?"
"Dante," comes Marco's curt reply.
"Dante! Right, that's your fiance, ain't it?" Their dad settles himself back down. "When do I get to meet this guy, huh? Soon, I hope!"
Marco just grunts, not bothering to respond, and Stef feels their relief replaced by a cold dread in the pit of their stomach.
"Well!" Their mother clears her throat, and Stef pulls their gaze away from the couch to look over at her again. "Let's get to those presents, shall we?"
"Yeah!" Stef scrambles to the tree to help her gather up gifts. Hopefully this'll diffuse the tension, and they'll be able to salvage the morning. They pick out a shiny gold gift bag and a sloppily-wrapped box, addressed to their dad and Marco respectively.
"Thanks for your help, sweetie," their mom says, reaching over to pat their cheek with a smile. Stef returns it, the knot of dread loosening in their stomach, and carries the packages over to the couch for delivery.
"Merry Christmas, everybody!" they say, beaming at Marco as he sets his phone aside and reaches for the box. "Looks like Santa's been pretty dang generous this year, huh?"
"Santa, nothing!" their mom says, handing a similar box to Stef. "I'll have you know that I worked very hard to get all these gifts wrapped! Santa seems to think he's too good to stop here and help out." She sniffs haughtily, and Stef laughs, settling themself into an armchair to open their gift.
"You'd think that with all those cookies and carrots we left him and his reindeer in our youth, he'd make it a point to stop by every now and then," Stef teases. They open the box to reveal a T-shirt, not unlike one they'd have worn in their aforementioned youth, but that just doesn't fit their style (either their professional or everyday look) anymore. Still, they smile and thank both of their parents. They're sure they can regift it to a friend, and eventually it'll find a nice home. They fold it back into the box.
The morning continues in much the same vein, with Marco and Stef both receiving gifts that aren't quite a good fit for either of them (though Stef knows for a fact that Manami will love the drill bit set their father's gifted them).
By the time all the presents are opened and the wrapping paper's been gathered up and stuffed in a garbage bag, the air seems much cheerier than it had when they'd started. Even Marco seems pretty happy; he's not exactly smiling, because Marco's smiles are rare anyway, but his expression is soft, his shoulders relaxed. This might be the best Christmas they've had in a decade.
And then, of course, their dad has to go and open his stupid mouth and ruin it.
"Glad you're not mopin' around so much this time," he says to Marco. "Always such a downer to see all the nice ornaments an' then your sulking self." He laughs, and Marco tenses, and Stef's fighting the urge to lash out at their dad.
"Don't say that!" they bite out, fingernails digging into their palms. "He wasn't moping, that's such a stupid--!" they cut themself off, willing themself to relax, to not cause a scene. "He's doing a lot better, okay?"
Marco shoots them a look, caught somewhere between grateful and annoyed. Stef shrugs at him, unsure of what else to say.
Their dad turns to Stef now, jaw tighter than before. "Now, now," he says, obviously trying for a lighter tone, "there's no need to get so defensive, Stef. I'm just sayin'."
Stef bites back a retort. Marco's depression isn't something to make light of! He's suffered a lot and is just finally starting to get better. If their dad said something that set Marco back in his recovery, Stef would... would...
Well, they don't know what they'd do, but they'd do whatever it took to help Marco back on his feet again.
"Well!" their mom says, standing up from her own armchair. "Now that we're done with gifts, how about some treats? I made some cookies last night after you three went to bed. Chocolate chip!"
"Sure, that sounds great, Mom," Stef says, grateful for the change in subject. The mention of chocolate chip cookies makes them think of Gabe and the tin of cookies he'd given them, which they and Marco had pretty much decimated on the drive over.
She reaches out and pats their cheek again on her way to the kitchen, and Stef relaxes.
"Oh, it's so nice to have my boys back home again," she says fondly as she steps back into the living room, and oh, there it is again, that horrible icy feeling lancing through their body. Every time. Every time they think things are going well, they're just reminded all over again that their parents don't-- that they just don't--!
"Stef's not a boy, mom," Marco snaps, unfolding his long limbs to sit up ramrod straight and glare at her. "They're nonbinary, and you damn well know that."
"Now, don't you speak to your mother like that!" their dad scolds, and, no, oh no, there's no diffusing the situation this time.
"I'll speak to her however I need to to make her remember it an' stop misgendering Stef!" Marco says.
"If your brother cares so much about what we call 'im, then let him say it!"
Stef wants to leave. They don't want to be here anymore, don't want to listen to this.
"Knock it the fuck off, you're only doin' that 'cause you know it hurts them!"
"Your sex ain't somethin' you can just change, boy, your brother is--"
Marco stands abruptly, and Stef's brain can't seem to move fast enough to figure out what he's doing, too busy trying to keep themself sitting rigid in their chair, desperate to keep the situation from getting worse.
But Marco's gone before they can really register it, the room falling into an uneasy quiet as their father grumbles under his breath and their mother gently sets a plate of cookies on the table.
He's back as suddenly as he'd vanished, and Stef's only aware of the fact when they hear their mother exclaim, "Marco, are you leaving?"
Stef forces their muscles to work, their head to turn, and they spot Marco in the doorway, both their bags clutched in his arms. His eyes are burning.
"Yeah," he says. "Right now. C'mon, Stef."
And there's nothing Stef wants more than to leave, but if they leave like this, in the middle of Christmas, what will their parents think?!
No, it doesn't matter what they think. Their parents don't....
"Now, don't be like that, boy," their father says gruffly. "Sit down, eat the damn cookies your mother made, and get over yourselves."
"No," Marco says, forcing the words through gritted teeth. "You don't care. You've never cared about Stef or about me, not really, and you know that. If you did, you'd at least try to get their pronouns right. You'd accept 'em for who they are instead of makin' 'em feel like they gotta hide everything about themself an' let you walk all over 'em every time they see you!"
"We--" says their mom, eyes wide.
Marco cuts her off. "I didn't even wanna come, I only came so they wouldn't have to be stuck with you alone, and God knows how many times they've had to deal with you and other bigoted assholes alone when they were dealin' with me."
"Marco," Stef mutters, some of the ice melting from their limbs, because he doesn't have to bring that up just to get under their parents' skin.
"I was clinically depressed," Marco says, ignoring Stef, "I still am , and you don't care. If Stef hadn't taken me in when they did, gotten me away from you as soon as they could, I'd be dead. And you don't care!"
"Marco," their mom says, looking stricken. Stef wonders vaguely if it's a real reaction, or just an act. How much of her has always been an act? "Marco, of course we care. You--"
"No." Marco cuts her off again, and he's seething. "We're happy now. Stef has a job they love, friends who respect them. I'm finally living my fucking life, instead'a wasting it in a fucking dark cloud, I've got a fiance , I'm happy for the first time in a decade , and you're not gonna change that by making my sibling feel like shit. C'mon, Stef, let's go."
Stef doesn't argue. They don't want to argue. They stand, close that short distance between them, pick up their bag and follow Marco out the door. They leave behind the gifts from their parents; they don't need them. They don't particularly want them.
"Marco!" their mom calls from the doorway. "Stef! Come back, don't leave like this!"
"Let 'em go, Maria," their dad says, voice gruff and cold. "Don't need 'em around if they're gonna be ungrateful little--"
"Stan," their mother says, and it's the last thing Stef hears before they shut the car door.
They lean forward, pressing their forehead against the top of the steering wheel, and let out a long, drawn-out sigh. That's it, then. They're done. They're not giving their parents another chance to fuck it up and hurt them, hurt Marco . This was it.
They sit back up, twisting to face their brother. They're surprised by how light they feel. They grin at him, and he smiles back, lip curling upward toward his ear.
"Let's go home, baby bro," Stef says, and steps on the gas.
Monday, December 30.
Stef bounces up the stairs, Marco trailing behind them, and pounds on the front door of the apartment. From inside, they hear the unmistakable sound of wheels against floorboards, followed by the lock clicking.
The door swings open, and Stef comes face to face with Shaw, all decked out in blue and white, complete with a Hanukkah sweater featuring twin dreidels stating "they see me rollin'."
"Steffie baby!" Shaw exclaims, throwing aer arms around Stef's neck and holding on tight.
Stef laughs, wrapping their own arms around aer waist. "Hey, Show Pony," they say. "Happy Hanukkah!"
"Thank you, darling, it's so good to see you!" Shaw releases them, giving them a wide grin before repeating the gesture with Marco.
Stef pushes past Shaw and into the apartment, which is... less exciting than Stef had hoped it would be. Of course, they weren't expecting Shaw to go all out with the decorations, since ae'd just gotten home last night and it's not really a Hanukkah party so much as an intimate get-together between friends, but it's just strange to be spending the last night of Hanukkah with Shaw and see just a few shiny blue and silver bits and baubles around the menorah. When they all lived together, Shaw would always cover the house in decorations, so much so that, those years when Hanukkah and Christmas coincided, the decorations for either holiday seemed to be fighting for wall space.
But, they remind themself, tamping down the hollow threatening to form in their chest, Shaw's been out of town, spending the majority of the holiday with aer mom on the other side of the country. Of course the apartment's not gonna be normal Shaw-levels of decorated!
"Is there food yet?" Marco asks as he, too, enters the apartment. Stef turns to face him and sees him tuck his phone into the pocket of his hoodie; they wonder if he's just been texting Dante again, or if he's been messing around with Tick Tock or whatever that app is called.
Shaw snorts, closing the door behind the both of them. "As if I'd invite the two of you over without having food? Picked up some doughnuts this mornin', they're on the counter. Help yourself!"
Marco makes a beeline for the kitchen, and Stef goes back over to Shaw, putting their arm around aer shoulders. Shaw leans against them.
"I am so tired," ae groans, putting aer arm around their waist and tugging them over to the couch. "Forgive me for not bein' the best host today. I hate flyin'." Ae nudges Stef until they take a seat on the couch, and then drops down beside them, laying aer head in their lap and putting aer feet up on the arm of the couch, skates and all.
Stef combs their fingers through Shaw's hair with one hand and reaches over to pat aer belly with the other. Ae makes a sound halfway between a purr and a moan, so they figure it's a welcome gesture. "Sorry," they say. "Didja have fun though? How's Stella doin'?"
"Mom's doin' pretty great," Shaw says. "Be nice if she still lived closer, but she's got enough friends an' shit over there that I'm not too worried about 'er." Ae lets aer eyes fall closed with a sigh. "We had a good time, yeah. It was nice to have more than just a day or two with 'er."
Marco reappears then, balancing a plate of jelly doughnuts in one hand as he settles into the remaining space between Stef and the other side of the couch. "Should have 'er come out this way next year," he says, offering the plate to Stef. Stef shifts their hand from Shaw's stomach and passes a doughnut to aer before taking one for themself.
"Maybe," Shaw says, taking a bite. Aer eyes are still closed. "But," ae continues through aer mouthful, "she doesn't like to travel either, an' since it's just the two of us either way, it's just easier to go to her."
"If she wanted to come this way," Stef says, "we'd celebrate with you guys! Every night, if ya want."
Shaw cracks one eye open. "Maybe," ae says, and then sighs and sits up, dropping aer feet to the floor with a clunk and twisting around to lean against the back of the couch. Ae crams the rest of the doughnut into aer mouth, getting powdered sugar on aer sweater. "Whatever, this is turnin' into a real downer of a shindig. Hanukkah is not fun if we're all just layin' around on the couch eatin' doughnuts!" Ae stands up and skates over to the table where the menorah is set up and picks up a glass bowl full of what Stef knows to be gold-wrapped chocolate coins. "Who's gonna win the pot this year? Well, clearly that will be me, of course, but who's gonna come closest to beating me?"
Stef laughs, scooting forward on the couch until their knees bump the coffee table in front of them. "You're always so confident. We both know I'm the best dreidel player!"
Marco snorts, also scooting forward, but his eyes are on his phone now, the thumb of the hand not occupied in holding a plate of doughnuts tap-tap-tapping against the screen. "You two act like it's a game'a skill or somethin'," he says.
"Aren't all games a game of skill?" Shaw asks, setting the bowl and the little wooden dreidel on the coffee table. "I mean, if you really think about it."
"It's not like you can strategize which way it's gonna land," he says. "It's just luck."
"You only say that 'cause you know Shaw an' I're both better than you." Stef teases, and Marco looks up sharply. He rolls his eyes.
"I'm not gettin' into an argument about who's the best at dreidel," he says. "You do this every year."
Shaw settles back into aer seat on the couch. "And this year, you're competing too." Ae picks up the dreidel. "So, while we wait for the sun to go down, let's see who's the best!"
Marco smirks smugly at Stef as he unwraps what has to be his tenth chocolate coin. "Guess you were right," he says. "It is a game of skill."
"Dang it, Marco!" Stef falls sideways into Shaw's lap. "Shut up!"
Shaw laughs, patting Stef's cheek. "Thanks for comin' over, you two."
Stef smiles, and closes their eyes. Even if their parents are garbage, at least they know they can always celebrate with their real family.