Playground Eyes

Chapter 6: January

Wednesday, January 1.


Stef wakes up with a splitting headache, the cheery chirping of their phone inspiring a rage in them that they're not sure they've ever felt. 

They pick up their phone, squinting at the screen with bleary eyes, and manage to unlock it after just four tries. They shut the alarm off and collapse back against their pillows in the blessed silence.

Frick. New Year's day is always awful. They're glad it's during winter break, but also... they wouldn't have to deal with a hangover if it wasn't during winter break, because they wouldn't have gone to a New Year’s Eve party the night before. 

Whatever. It was fun; they went over to Simon's place and hung out with him and Madhavi. That's technically a party, right? If there were only three of them? Whatever, yeah, that's totally a party.

Sitting on a couch with your friend and his queerplatonic partner drinking cheap champagne and eating leftover Christmas cookies is a good party, too! As evidenced by their hangover. Always a sign of a good party.

They sigh and roll over, burying their face in their pillow and blocking out the light filtering in through the blinds. Once upon a time, they'd have counted a night like that as a complete and utter failure. No loud music, no dancing, no makeout sessions with strangers in some dark corner. And they definitely wouldn't have woken up with such an awful hangover!

Darn it, they're getting old.  

When was the last time they'd even been at an actual party? Ugh, they can't think. Their head is pounding, their throat is burning for a drink of water. When did they get so old?

They crawl out of bed and stagger to their bathroom, filling a glass with water and quickly downing it before scrabbling through their medicine cabinet for the painkillers. Could they even handle an actual party if they went to one?

They think back to their college days, when they and Shaw would hit house parties every weekend, if not every night. They miss those days, the wild and crazy nights spent living their life. Now they have, what? Four friends? Ugh. Four friends, and they're all (reasonably) responsible adults!


They down the meds with another glass of water. Stupid hangover. Stupid cheap champagne.




Gabe wakes up feeling refreshed, if a little lonely. After twenty seven new years, he's less inclined to want to stay up into the wee hours of the morning just to welcome it, when he can do that just as easily at six AM. 

When he lived in Oregon, he and Georgie and Damien, Jason, and a few of their friends would stay up past midnight in celebration. It had been fun, of course, but he'd always regretted it the next morning when he'd had to go to work early. 

If Georgie was here with him this year, he'd probably be operating on five or six hours of sleep right now, but apparently the one pro amid all the cons of Georgie visiting her dad and grandparents over the holidays is that Gabe can get a decent sleep.

He's not expecting too many people to come into the diner until later in the day, but he's still got a lot of prep work to do, and he's sure there's some people who'll come in desperate for coffee or pancakes.

Gabe hums to himself while he works in the kitchen. It's gonna be a good day, he thinks to himself. And Georgie will be back in just a few days!


Saturday, January 4.


"Quit your bouncin'," Shaw says from somewhere around his right shoulder, and Gabe glances over to find aer watching him, aer lips quirked into a half-smile and one eyebrow cocked in amusement. "You're gonna scare off all the customers, Gabey!"

He huffs and rolls his eyes, hiding his own smile by turning back to the window. "I'm not bouncing," he says. "I'm standing perfectly still!"

"You can be standin' as still as you like an' people are still gonna know you're bouncin' on the inside," Shaw chuckles. "Look, they'll be here soon enough. Why don't you go back into the kitchen an' I'll come getcha when they get here?"

He sighs. "I'm just excited to see her," he says. Shaw laughs, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

"Of course you are. Who wouldn't be? She's the cutest kid I've ever seen! But you're gonna go crazy starin' out at the parkin' lot!" 

"You're the one who keeps trying to get me to take a break!" Gabe grumbles, and Shaw laughs again.

"This ain't a break, sugar. Why don't you sit down, and I'll bring ya out a cup'a coffee while you wait?"

He sighs, smiling ruefully at aer. "I guess I could go for a caffeine boost," he says, and no sooner are the words out of his mouth than he catches a glint in the corner of his eye. 

He snaps his head back around toward the parking lot, and yes! There's Damien's car, pulling in from the road.

"Never mind!" he cries, pulling away from Shaw and dashing toward the door. "bye, Shaw!"

"At least take your apron off!" Shaw calls after him, but the door swings shut before he can even think to reply.

Gabe unties his apron as he hurries across the parking lot, draping it over his arm. The passenger side door opens, and there she is!

"Daddy!" Georgie cries, opening her arms and running at him. He picks her up in a tight embrace, swinging her up to bury his face in her shoulder.

God, he'd missed her.

"Georgie," he says, pulling back to grin at her. "Did you have a good time? I love you! Were you good for your dad and Jason? How were your grandparents? Are you hungry? I can make you something to eat before we go. Do you--"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," chuckles Damien, and Gabe looks over to see him leaning against the hood of the car, a smirk solidly in place. "Seems like you went a little crazy without the munchkin around, huh?"

Gabe feels a flush of embarrassment creep up his neck, but it quickly dissipates. He gently sets Georgie back on her feet and turns to Damien. "She keeps me sane," he says with a grin.

The two of them stare at each other for a long moment, and then Damien tips his head back and laughs. "Good to know our baby girl's always your number one," he says, and Gabe closes the distance between them to pull him into an embrace.

"Good to see you again," he says softly. "How were your holidays?"

Damien opens his mouth to reply once Gabe draws back, but he's interrupted by Georgie enthusiastically tugging on the hem of Gabe's shirt. 

"Can we go get ice cream this mornin'?" she asks, clutching a Christmas-patterned gift bag in her other hand. "I wanna show Dad the ice cream parlor!"

Gabe snorts, reaching down to ruffle her hair. "Think it's a little early for ice cream, kiddo. Why don't we go put your stuff in the house, and then we can all go and get doughnuts instead?"

"Yeah!" Georgie bounces on her toes, immediately turning and racing for the house.

Damien laughs again, pulling away from Gabe to open the trunk of the car. "That kid couldn'ta gotten more than five hours of sleep," he says. "I don't know how she's got all that energy!"

"That's because you're old, Dami." Gabe follows him, pulling out Georgie's little suitcase and surveying the rest of the contents of the trunk. "Damn. Is this all Georgie's?" The trunk is stuffed with boxes and bags, some of them plain brown paper or cardboard, but most of them decorated in red or green, copious amounts of glitter flaking off and onto everything else.

"You're older than I am!" Damien protests, hefting a couple of boxes into his arms. "There's not as much as it looks like. She just didn't wanna leave all the packaging at home," he chuckles. "But there's still a lot! Jason an' I spoiled the hell outta her this year, and your parents were no better."

Gabe stifles a groan, sliding the handles of a couple of gift bags onto his wrist and shutting the trunk with his elbow. He's glad Georgie has so many people looking out for her and buying her nice things, but their house is so tiny, and he doesn't know what any of these things are or where he'll put them!

Damien snorts, nudging him with his hip. "It's fine, Gabe," he says. "No garbage or anythin', promise." He pauses. "Well, your mom did get her a little perfume set she's definitely not gonna use, but it's small and won't take up too much room while it gathers dust for years 'til you throw it out. Now c'mon, show me the new house! I didn't get to see it last time!"

Gabe sighs, but his heart feels lighter. "Sure thing, Dami. C'mon."




It's a nice day today, Stef thinks to themself for the umpteenth time as they walk along the path. It's still January, of course, so they've got a jacket on over their shirt and a scarf wrapped loosely around their neck, but the sun's out and there's no icy wind to ruffle their hair and send them scurrying back inside. This is either a short winter, or a nice little lull in the colder weather, and either way Stef plans to take advantage of it. 

Winter break's already half over, so they plan on enjoying every nice day they can before they're trapped in the classroom for hours a day again.

It seems like there's plenty of other people with the same line of thought here today. Plenty of people are out jogging, or walking their dogs. The playground's host to more than a few kids, shrieking and giggling as they clamber over the jungle gyms. There's a few kids Stef recognizes as former students hanging out along the woodline. 

It's a nice day!

Stef smiles to themself, tugging their scarf up to cover their nose, when they spot a familiar face and nearly stop in their tracks.

That's Gabe Martín sitting on that bench over there!

What the heck is Gabe doing at the park on a Saturday afternoon? Isn't this one of those times the diner gets really busy? Stef shakes their head. He's gotta be on break right now, anyway. Right?

They step off the path and make their way across the grass to him. He doesn't look up until they're almost on top of him (and oh no, the images that phrase puts in their mind are not appropriate!), but he does look up, and he grins once he recognizes them.

"Stef!" he says, sounding pleasantly surprised, and Stef can't help the little leap their heart makes in their chest. "I didn't expect to see you here today!"

He scoots over on the bench, though he hadn't been taking up much room anyway, and pats the spot next to him. Stef sits, feeling strangely giddy. 

"Just out for a stroll while the weather's nice," they say. "What are you doing out here? Is Georgie back home?"

Gabe nods, inclining his head toward the playground. Stef follows the gesture to see Georgie on the swingset, being pushed by someone Stef's never seen before. "Her dad brought her back today!" he says, sounding absolutely delighted. "We've been showing him around the town all morning."

Stef zeroes in on the guy as soon as the word "dad" leaves Gabe's mouth. He's too far away for Stef to really make out any details, and facing away from them, but they can see the dark skin of his hands, the tight black curls on his head. He looks to be about average height, and he's wearing a denim jacket with colorful patches on the sleeves. "Oh dang, that's your ex? Damien, right?"

"Yeah." Stef can hear the smile in his voice, and they glance at him out of the corner of their eye. He sounds so dang happy about his ex-husband being here. Could he still have feelings for him? That would suck for Stef; they have no interest in being a rebound.

Not that they're actually gonna date him or anything! Nope!

"...staying the night and heading back tomorrow," Gabe's saying when Stef zones back in. "Jason couldn't make it, I guess, but that's okay. It's been nice to see him again."

"Who's Jason?" Stef asks before they can stop themself. They feel their face heat slightly when Gabe turns to face them more fully.

"Damien's husband," Gabe says. "Georgie's stepdad. We'd hoped he could spend some time in town, too, but he had to work this weekend."

"Oh," says Stef. So Damien was already remarried.... Maybe that's why they split up? Damien had fallen for this Jason guy and left Gabe? "When did the two of you, er, divorce?" They know they're not being professional, but they think they're close enough to Gabe now that they can ask questions like this.

They hope they are, anyway.

Gabe thinks a moment. "Five years ago?" he replies, lips tugging down into a slight frown. "Georgie was four, I think. Or maybe she was five." He sighs and shakes his head. "Anyway, it was a few years ago."

"That long ago?" Stef blinks. "I thought you said this was Georgie's first year away from the rest of the family?" And Gabe's around the same age they are, putting him at 27, maybe 28. It seems weird to think of him as a divorcee at 22.

"It is," Gabe says, and he looks back over at Georgie and Damien. "When Dami and I broke up, we still lived really close by. It made it easier on Georgie, you know?"

"Wasn't that hard for you, though? Seeing your ex all the time?"

Gabe snorts. "No, no. It was a good split. Damien and I are good friends still. He's my best friend, honestly."

Stef tilts their head, watching him. "Lucky for you," they say. "So it wasn't tough? Fallin' out of love or whatever?"

He gives a quick, low laugh. "Nah. We were never really in love, honestly. We've always just been friends."

Okay, now Stef's just confused. Who marries a friend? Well, aside from Simon and Madhavi, but they're queerplatonic, not "just friends." They must be making a weird face or something, because Gabe looks over at them and laughs again.

"Sorry, sorry," he says, shaking his head. "That probably doesn't make a lot of sense. Uh, so Dami and I were friends in high school, yeah?"

"Okay." Looks like Stef's about to unlock Gabe's backstory. Heck yes! 

"Right, you know how it is. Queer kids flock together and all that." Gabe settles against the back of the bench, tilting his head back to look up at the clear blue sky. Stef doesn't let their eyes leave his face. "We were pretty much the only kids out at the school, and everyone kinda thought we were dating, so senior year, we thought, 'why not?' We figured out pretty quick that we, uh, didn't work in a romantic sense. So we broke up after just a couple weeks, stuck to being friends."

"...Okay." Stef's not quite sure how they got from breaking up to getting married and raising a kid together.

"Well, uh, a couple months later, we found out that Damien was pregnant."

Stef blinks. "Oh," they say. "Oh."

"Yeah." Gabe shoots a sheepish smile at them. "We, uh, maybe weren't as careful as we coulda been. I mean, we were kids, you know? Queer kids. Sex ed's not that great, and it was even worse a decade ago."

"No," Stef says. "I mean, yeah, I get that." They clear their throat. "So, uh, you got married?"

"Yeah." Stef hadn't realized until now that they'd both moved, their bodies angled toward each other, knees touching. They aren't sure if they should move away or not, but they find that they like it, their heart beating faster in their chest as Gabe meets their eye. "As soon as we graduated, we got married. Think it was probably the best option at the time, and, you know. Damien was my best friend, I didn't wanna leave him to raise a kid by himself."

"I understand," Stef says. They feel like they're seeing Gabe in a whole new light, though nothing's really changed; he's a good guy, and a great dad. That's not news. Still, there's something warm blooming in their chest.

Gabe nods, reaching up to toy with one of his curls before tucking it behind his ear. "Yeah. And so... we were married. And Georgie was born. It was tough, raising her. We were kids, you know? We managed, obviously; my parents helped out, enough that I was able to go to college and get a job without worrying too much about the two of 'em. But when Georgie was old enough that she didn't need someone looking after her all the time, we kinda... decided to go our separate ways."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that. I mean," Gabe adds hastily, "we didn't just get divorced on a whim. We talked about it for a while, decided it was best for both of us. It's kinda hard to get a date when you've got a husband, you know?" He chuckles. "Anyway, there were no hard feelings or anything, and Damien met Jason about a year later, so I think everything worked out in the end."

"You two talkin' 'bout me over here?" 

Stef jerks their head up to see Damien standing in front of them, one hand resting on his hip and one eyebrow cocked. Up close, Stef can see that he has several piercings: snakebites, a septum piercing, both ears, and one eyebrow. He's nowhere near as decked out as Marco was, but it's enough to startle them.

"Dami, this is Stef," Gabe says. "My friend--"

"Oh, so you're the Stef Gabe won't shut up about!" Damien says, face lighting up with a big grin. "Also known as the Mx. Campbell the munchkin talks so highly of. Good to meet ya!"

"Likewise," Stef says, blinking as they accept the outstretched hand Damien offers them. They're still trying to process the Gabe not shutting up about them thing. 

"You ready to head out?" he asks Gabe, turning toward him. "Georgie keeps askin' for ice cream, ha. You'd think the kid was starvin' with how she keeps goin' on!"

Damien and Gabe fall into conversation, and Stef lets their gaze drop from his face to his jacket; they can't help but admire all the patches he's got. Most of the patches look handmade, with symbols or phrases painted onto scraps of fabric. There's a rainbow flag patch, too, overlapped by a trans pride patch. It's cool as heck, honestly; if Stef was more into punky fashion, they'd love a personalized jacket like this one.

"...headin' out," Gabe says, and Stef shakes themself, turning toward him again. He's got an apologetic smile on his face. "Sorry we couldn't talk longer. Are you gonna stop by the diner again sometime soon?" He seems hopeful as he asks.

Stef grins at him. "I couldn't stay away if I tried," they answer honestly, and he beams at them before standing up.

They watch the two of them go, Georgie catching up to them as they disappear down the path. 

These pesky feelings aren't going away anytime soon, are they?




"So," Damien says later that evening, as Gabe hands him a stack of blankets over the back of the couch, "that was Stef, huh? They're pretty damn cute." 

Gabe feels himself flush, but he doesn't try to deny it. Stef is cute. "That was Stef," he confirms.

Damien grins, tilting his head back far enough that Gabe can see up his nostrils. "You gonna go for it, then?" he asks. "Gonna finally get yourself back out there?"

Gabe rolls his eyes, pushing away from the couch to head into the tiny kitchen. "I have put myself back out there," he says. "I've dated!"

"Yeah, but nothing serious." He can see Damien pull himself up to prop his elbows on the back of the couch, watching him. He sticks his tongue out at Damien, prompting a laugh. "You know I'm right!"

He sighs, turning the kettle on and leaning against the counter. Again, he doesn't deny Damien's words. He really hasn't dated much since the divorce, choosing instead to focus on Georgie and on his career, but, well... Georgie's older now, doesn't need the constant attention she once did. Things at the diner are doing great, and he's got a good staff that can handle things for him. He has time to dedicate to dating, if he so chooses, and... Well.

He's completely aware of his attraction to Stef.

Gabe groans, then sighs, pushing his hair away from his face. "It's complicated, you know?"

"What's complicated about it?" Damien asks.

"I mean... They're Georgie's teacher, you know? Isn't there some... law, or social thing against that kind of thing?"

Dami snorts. "Since when have you, Gabriel Martín, cared about 'social things?' "

He groans again. "I don't. I just..." He lowers his voice. Georgie's in the bath, and he doesn't think she can hear the conversation, but if there's any chance she could,  well. He wants to avoid that. "I mean, I don't know how Georgie would react to it. You know, a... a new person in her life, and all that."

"Gabe," Damien says, monotone, and Gabe looks over to see him giving him his best disappointed dad look. It's not that intimidating, but it does make Gabe feel a certain amount of dread in the pit of his stomach. "I'm literally married."

"And I'm happy for you."

"Shut up, Gabe!" Damien rolls his eyes. "Look, you're obviously just makin' excuses not to do this. But, hell! You like this Stef, right?"

"Well, yeah. I--"

"As in not entirely in a friend way."

He sighs again, reaching up and fiddling with a lock of his hair. Damn Damien and his hopeless romantic self. "Yeah, yes, okay, I'm pretty sure I do. But, Damien, it's--"

"Look, Gabe, I'm not sayin' you've got to ask 'em out," Damien says, tone and expression serious. "I'm just sayin', don't make excuses for not doin' it. You deserve to have your own love story, ya know?"

"I know." Gabe shakes his head, letting his curls fall back into his face. "I don't wanna jump into a relationship. I'll... wait a little longer. I wanna be sure I'm making the right decision before I start seeing anybody. It's not the same as when you started dating Jason, you know? Georgie's older now, more aware of things. She doesn't have the big family to fall back on if she gets emotionally invested in someone who doesn't end up working out for both of us. I just... I gotta think about it, you know?"

Damien's silent for a long moment, and then he nods. "Okay. I get it. You're probably right."

Gabe gives him a little, half-hearted smirk. "'Probably,' " he teases. "You know I'm right." 

The kettle starts whistling then, and Gabe scrambles to turn it off and pull three mugs from the cupboard.

As he fixes two cups of tea and one of hot cocoa, Damien says, quietly, "You're a good parent, Gabe. One of the best."

Gabe smiles at him, feeling himself flush again. "Thanks, Dami. So are you."

Friday, January 10.


"I can't believe school starts up again on Monday," Stef groans into their plate of fries. "Feels like the break just started, and now it's over."

Gabe chuckles across the table from them, his foot kicking out to gently tap Stef's shin. "I thought you liked your job," he says, and they can hear the teasing in his voice. "And last week you said you were bored and couldn't wait to get back to your normal schedule." 

"I know," Stef groans again, straightening up and lifting their head to look at him. He's got his elbow propped on the table, his chin propped in his hand. Stef wonders briefly if he likes the feeling of his own stubble on his hand, wonders if it's as scratchy as it looks, or if it's soft-- and then they mentally shake themself. They have got to stop thirsting after Gabe like this! Or at least stop being so pathetic about it. "I know," they say again. "But now I'm thinkin' about being stuck in a classroom for six hours a day and remembering how much that sucks when the weather's nice out!"

"Imagine how the kids feel," Gabe says, drumming his fingers on the table. "Six hours is practically an eternity for them."

"I know." Stef sighs. "I'm the one stuck with 'em the whole time. Is Georgie lookin' forward to comin' back to school?"

"Sort of." Gabe sits up now, letting his hand fall to the table. "She's excited to see Sarah every day again. And she said something about joining clubs?"

"Oh yeah!" Stef crams a few cooling fries into their mouth, talking excitedly around them. "Every year in February we start up clubs for the third and fourth graders to join. I'm actually pretty excited about that." 

"What kind of clubs?" Gabe asks. "I don't think I got, uh, any paperwork or anything?"

"Nah, you won't get that until next month," they say. "And most of the clubs are just during lunch, so you probably won't have to worry about gettin' her to school early or pickin' her up late or anything."

"Oh, good to know." He falls quiet for a moment, and then he gives them this soft little smile that makes their heart do something funny in their chest, and says, "So are you in charge of all the clubs?"

Stef snorts. "Nah, there's like, ten of 'em, spread across a few different teachers. I've only got one club to worry about. It's actually my first year runnin' a club!" they proudly add.

He raises an eyebrow, smile widening. "Oh? What club?"

Oh, crap. He's gonna think they're a total nerd. "Uh," they say. "Dungeons and Dragons club."

Surprisingly, his eyes light up, and he leans over the table, closer to Stef's space. "Shit, really? That's awesome!"

"It is?" Stef blinks, then feels the tension they'd been unaware of  carrying release from their shoulders. "You like D&D?"

"Yeah!" He sits back in his seat, his foot brushing against Stef's again; they feel themself flush. "I used to play all the time in high school. Used to DM for all my friends. Haven't played since then, though."

"Dang," Stef breathes. "You were a nerd? I totally woulda pegged you as a jock."

He laughs. "I mean, I was on the football team, too. So you're not wrong."

"Holy crap. The school I went to was, like, one of those schools you see in a 90's teen movie. Jocks versus nerds, band geeks, clear divisions between the cliques." They laugh. 

"Oh? And what clique were you in?"

Stef smirks. "The popular kids," they say. "Came out as nonbinary in high school, and luckily it was like ' cool' or somethin' at the time, so that, along with my absolutely goshdarn sparkling personality, got me adopted into the in crowd pretty easy."

"Wow," Gabe says, looking appropriately impressed. "Must've been nice to be accepted so readily, huh?"

"Well." Stef sucks their lower lip between their teeth for a moment, then takes a sip of their tea before replying. "I wouldn't really say they 'accepted' me so much as 'derived entertainment from me.'" They laugh, half-sincerely. "I mean, I'd been out as, like, gay since middle school, but the popular kids didn't really show any interest in me 'til I was openly nonbinary. They thought it was funny or somethin'." They roll their eyes. It'd been nice to be part of the popular kids in high school, having their name known by the whole school, being the subject of so much gossip. They definitely could've done without being treated as the clique mascot, or pet, or whatever, though.

Gabe nods seriously, his expression empathetic. "Yeah, I get that. It's tough to be queer in high school, especially as a--"


Stef and Gabe look over at the same time to find Cole standing there, wiping his hands on his grease-smeared apron. "Uh, sorry to interrupt, but I'm gettin' kinda swamped in the kitchen. Could you...?"

"Oh," says Gabe. "Oh! Oh, yeah, of course!" He scrambles to stand up from the booth, sending an apologetic look to Stef. "Sorry we can't talk longer. See you later, uh, enjoy the rest of your meal!"

And then he and Cole both vanish into the kitchen.

Stef sighs. They've grown to really enjoy spending time with Gabe! It's sad to see him go. Oh, well. They'll see him again soon.

They finish the rest of their ice-cold fries and wait for Bunny to bring their check.


Sunday, January 12.


The bell above the door rings just as Gabe leaves the kitchen, pulling his hairnet off for the first time in hours, and he glances over at the door to see two familiar faces.

"Marco!" he says excitedly, shaking his sweaty hair out. "Good to see ya, man. And Dante! Finally comin' by to make good on our deal, huh?"

"Hey. Yeah, dude, I'm not about to turn down free food." Dante grins, showing off his teeth. His hair's probably as tangled as Gabe's own right now, though it's not nearly as long and curly as his own. "Where ya wanna sit, babe?" he asks Marco, looking up at him. 

"Window," Marco says. He leads Dante over to the table he and Stef usually take, when the two of them come in, and Gabe reaches under the counter for a couple of menus.

"Don't you dare," Shaw says, swiping the menus from his hand as he straightens up. "You are on break. I can handle-- oh! " Ae grins as ae presumably catches sight of the two newcomers. "Marco and Dante, my two favorite lovebirds!"

Dante looks up and rolls his eyes. "Oh, gross, " he says. "It's you. Just lost my appetite."

Marco snorts, reaching across the table to take Dante's hand in his own. "No ya didn't. Hey, Shaw."

"Didn't know they let rats into nice places like this," Shaw says, dropping the menus on the table, and Gabe would probably ask aer not to call his customers rats if there wasn't clearly some sort of friendly (God he hopes it's friendly) antagonism going on between them, and if the only other customers in the diner weren't clear on the other side of the room.

"Don't call my fiance a rat," Marco says, picking up a menu with his free hand and seeming only vaguely interested in Shaw's words. "You should get the grilled cheese. It's good."

"I can get a grilled cheese at home," Dante says. 

"Yeah, but you suck at cookin'. It'd be a shitty grilled cheese."

"Like you could do better."

"At least I butter the bread."

"I'll butter your--"

"Would you just order somethin'?" Shaw squawks, and Gabe laughs, walking closer. He'd known Shaw was friends with Stef and Marco, of course, but he hadn't been aware that ae was so close with Dante, too.

"If you're having trouble deciding," he says, lightly rapping his knuckles on the table to catch their attention, "I can make some recommendations for you?"

"Nah, it's cool." Dante closes the menu, pushing it toward Shaw. "I'll take the reuben. Marco said it was good the last time he was here."

"Aw," Gabe says, not bothering to resist the smile spreading across his face. "Marco. You talk up my food?"

Marco rolls his eyes, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips. Gabe's come to realize that he doesn't smile much, whether he's happy or not; this tiny smile means a lot. "I mentioned offhand that I had a good lunch," he says, and turns back to Dante. "Don't make it seem like I care, asshole."

Dante snorts. "Don't pretend you don't care, dick," he says through a grin.

Shaw makes a quiet cooing sound. "I'm gonna get sick from all this love if I'm not careful," ae laughs. 

"Shut up." Pink tinges Marco's cheeks, and he quickly places his order, forcing Shaw and Gabe both away from the table.

"They seem happy," Gabe says, glancing over his shoulder at the two of them before he and Shaw both head around the other side of the counter. They've got their hands entwined on the table, talking and laughing. Gabe's not sure he's ever seen Marco look so happy.

"They are," Shaw says happily, leaning through the window to clip their order in place. "I'm real happy for Marco. He's like a little brother to me, y'know? He deserves somethin' good like this. Even though his fiance is a little gremlin."

Gabe hums in response, pausing in the kitchen doorway to look over at them again. "Can I ask you something?" he asks, lowering his voice and leaning toward Shaw.

Shaw raises an eyebrow at him, but slides closer. "What's up, Mr. Boss-man?"

Gabe rolls his eyes at the nickname--he's never been a fan of that, but it seems weird to correct aer--and asks, "Why is Stef so... upset about Dante? He seems like a good guy to me." Granted, he'd only met the guy twice before this, but still.

Shaw's quiet for a moment, fiddling with the hem of aer apron. Ae seems to be mulling something over in aer mind. Maybe trying to figure out how to respond? 

After a moment, ae straightens up, meeting his gaze. "Stef is... a big sibling," ae says hesitantly. "Marco went through a pretty rough patch that he's only recently started to recover from. I think Stef's just worried that Marco's relationship with Dante will cause him to backslide into that again, but... well, from what I've seen, this couldn't be any more different from that ."

Gabe frowns. It doesn't really make much sense to him, but he obviously doesn't want to pry too much. If he had more information, he could probably figure it out, but... well. He doesn't really know any of them well enough, does he?

Maybe he knows Stef well enough to ask them about it, but... with how secretive Shaw of all people is being, he still doesn't think it's his place to ask.

If they want to volunteer information about it, they will.

He nods. "Thanks for telling me," he says. "I hope Stef and Dante can work through their problems."

"Yeah," Shaw says. "So do I."

Marco tilts his head back and laughs, then, a deep laugh, much more substantial than the few quiet chuckles Gabe's heard from him before.

"He seems happy, Gabe comments, and Shaw smiles.

"He does, doesn't he?" Shaw's voice is soft now, and there's something like pride in aer tone.

Monday, January 13.


The first day back to school is about as exhausting as Stef had thought it'd be.

About half of the class is hyped up more than usual, undoubtedly excited to see their friends again, and probably having grown bored of sitting around their houses all day. The other half, however, are grumpy and unhappy; these are the kids that Stef has to work with the most. They want coming back to school to be a good experience for them, after all, so they do their best to make the first day especially fun for those who need it.

This is all normal and expected; every first day back after a break goes about the same way every time.

What's strange today, though, is that Georgie and Sarah are acting sneaky and suspicious.

Stef's been keeping an eye on them all morning. The two of them have been talking throughout the day, which definitely isn't unusual. .. but today, instead of giggling behind their books or conversing through an intricate series of hand-gestures and microexpressions, they've been whispering conspiratorially, heads ducked close together and hands held over their mouths. Instead of continuing to talk until Stef verbally shushes them, they clam up whenever Stef draws close.

It's unnerving.

Stef's mulling this all over in their head as they watch their soup spin around in the teachers' lounge microwave. They've got about an hour and a half before they have to be in T eacher Mode again, with the kids currently at lunch and then heading to Music class for a bit. The break will be nice; they're tired.

"Oh, Campbell. Good to see you."

Stef stifles a groan and turns to look at the jerk who's just interrupted their peaceful solitude. "Korse," they reply through gritted teeth. "Have a good break?"

"I did, thank you." 

Mr. Korse is one of the other 4th-grade teachers and a constant thorn in Stef's side. He seems to think he can do everything better than Stef, just because he's been teaching here for a decade longer than they have. He's always flaunting his perfect schedules, his flawlessly-decorated classroom, his perfectly well-behaved students. He's such a jerk! Stef's constantly working to one-up him, but he's always one step ahead of them, somehow.

The microwave beeps, and Stef takes the opportunity to turn away from Korse, pulling their soup out and stirring it to make sure it's evenly heated, then carrying it, along with the rest of their lunch, over to the table to sit down. Hopefully now that they're clearly occupied, Korse will leave them alone.

Of course, that doesn't happen.

He takes a seat directly across from Stef, setting his little lunch box on the table in front of him. "Today," he says, tone as serious as always, "is National Sticker Day."

"Is it?" Stef asks, doing their best to seem as uninterested as possible. Of course, they already know that it's National Sticker Day; what sort of self-respecting schoolteacher would forget about National Sticker Day? They've got an art project for the kids later in celebration of today, and special stickers to hand out before they leave. Their kids are gonna be swimming in stickers, and they don't want Mr. Korse stealing their ideas.

"It is," he says. "I'm surprised your students haven't mentioned it; mine have been quite excited all morning." He carefully unwraps his perfectly-prepared and -packaged lunch. Stef glances between it and their own pre-portioned soup and the sandwich they'd picked up from the supermarket deli a couple of days ago. Theirs looks so sad in comparison, but they're not about to tell him that.

Korse must see the no-doubt envious glance, though, because his mouth twitches up at the corner as he pulls out a fork to start in on the little salad. "Admiring my lunch?" he asks, so freaking smug. Dang it, this is not the outcome Stef wanted!

"It looks... nice," they say, sipping at their minestrone.

"My husband made it for me," Korse says, and Stef feels their jaw tighten. He's always bragging about his "wonderful, talented, gorgeous husband," and Stef's sick of it! Yes, it's very nice that he has a wonderful husband, it's nice to not be the only queer person in this area of the school, but why does it have to be Korse of all people? Ugh, if only Manami was in this wing instead of the kindergarten. Let Korse deal with the tiny kids and let Stef have Manami to work with!

"Congrats," Stef says, definitely not bitter. "Well, I should get back to my classroom. Got some stuff to work on." They scoop up their half-finished soup and untouched sandwich to set up shop back at their desk, when who should come in but Manami herself, carrying the little wicker basket Stef knows contains not only her lunch, but also her wife's. 

"Oh, Stef," she says. "Leaving already?"

They hesitate. They really don't wanna deal with Korse when they're tired like this, but Manami's one of Stef's favorite people, and if there's anyone who can recharge their battery, it's her.

They sigh and set their lunch back on the table. "Nah," they say. "I can finish my lunch first."

That infuriatingly smug look flickers across Korse's face again, and then he turns to greet Manami.

Stef busies themself with unwrapping their sandwich while Manami and Korse engage in pleasantries (she's always been too nice to everyone, and never has any problems with Korse), and falls into a bit of a trance as they think through the rest of their plans for the day. 

"Your birthday is coming up soon, isn't it, Stef?" Manami asks, and they realize she's sat down on their left.

They quickly swallow their bite of sandwich and nod. "Yeah, the twenty-third," they say. "Gonna be twenty-eight." God, it feels so weird to think that. They're so close to thirty. They used to think of thirty as practically dead. Now, they just feel like they're getting old.

"We should do something that day," Manami says. "It's a school day, right? How about if Rosana and I bake you a cake?"

"I never say no to cakes," Stef says with a grin. "Especially one of Rosana's!" Rosana's cakes are legendary throughout the school. She doesn't always bake one for everyone's birthday--Stef's only gotten one, themself, their first year here--but whenever she does bake one, there's a mad scramble to get to the teacher's lounge and get a slice before they're all snagged.

"I'll see if she's not too busy, then," Manami says. "Either way, we should have a little celebration, don't you think?"

"I'd love it," they tell her honestly.

And Stef goes back to their classroom feeling much better than when they'd left it. Manami really does recharge their battery.




Unfortunately, the extra energy doesn't last long.

By the time the last kid's left for home, Stef is exhausted. It's fine; they're just tired because they've had a busy day after a couple of weeks away from the school. They know this, but it does nothing to fix the problem. 

Not wanting to stick around too much longer, they gather up their books and all the papers they need to grade and pack up as quickly as they can. Normally, they like to do their work at the school, but today they just need to be at home.

Tomorrow will be a better day.




"Marco!" they call, lugging their heavy bag through the doorway.

"Polo," Marco calls back, sounding disinterested. 

Stef follows the sound of his voice to find their brother curled up on the sofa, leaning on the arm with his long legs pulled up close to his chest. Tomato's curled up in the small space between his knees and the arm of the couch, and Stef can hear him purring. 

Marco glances up from his phone when Stef drops their bag on the couch. "You look tired," he says.

Stef groans. "I am."

"Kids stole all your energy?" Marco shifts, dropping his feet to the floor and sitting upright, keeping a hand on Tomato so the fluffball doesn't feel the need to run away. 

They nod, settling themself on the cushion beside him. "Busy," they say. "How was your day?"

"Good." Marco wraps his arm around Stef's shoulders, tugging them closer so they're forced to lay their cheek against his shoulder; not that they mind. They let their eyes fall closed. "Made a couple TikToks. Got some work done today," Marco continues. "Almost done with that project. Thinkin' about goin' after some of the higher-effort projects for a while, make some good money an' keep myself occupied when no one's around."

"Sounds like a good idea," Stef says. They don't really know what "higher effort" means in this context; coding of any kind is like a completely foreign language to them. They have no idea what the difference is between coding a website and coding, like, a robot that picks tomatoes out of your salad or whatever the hell Marco's into.

Marco grunts in reply, then shifts. Stef opens their eyes to find Marco holding his phone in front of them. "Look at this," he says. He hits play on the video, and Stef watches as Tomato rolls across the screen on a skateboard while a clip of Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boy plays.

They snort, tilting their head to look up at their brother. "Why is he on a skateboard?" they ask. "Where did you even get a skateboard?"

"Shaw left it here," he says. "I dunno why ae had it, but it was here, and I saw an opportunity. Posted it on TikTok."

"How's it doin'?"

"Good. People like the Tomato videos. More fun than the shitty depression jokes, too." He swipes his thumb across the screen to show them another video. This time it's a simple video of Tomato playing with the strings of Marco's hoodie. They smile as they watch.

"Guess you did have a good day, huh?" 

"Yeah." Marco adjusts his hold on them. "You feelin' better? Wanna watch some other TikToks with me? Saw a couple I thought you'd like today."

"Sure." Stef snuggles closer to his shoulder, feeling the stress of the day melt away.

It's weird, though. Having Marco comfort them when they're exhausted instead of the other way around. For the past nine or ten years, they've always been the one trying to get Marco's mood up, making sure he eats and drinks and keeps his head above the water. It's been maybe six months since Marco started recovering from his depression and going to therapy, six months since he started feeling well enough to actively take care of himself.

It's nice to be able to rely on him, now. To come to him for comfort.

They let themself relax more fully, and spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out with their brother.

Saturday, January 18.


"Daddy," Georgie asks as Gabe pauses by her booth, "can Sarah stay the night next week?"

He blinks. "...Stay the night?" he repeats, trying to process this. "What... what day?"

She shrugs, looking back down at the sheet of paper she's drawing on. "Prob'ly next Saturday. Or Friday."

"Uh." Gabe mentally goes through his schedule, and Lola's schedule, and a thousand other things. "I don't think so," he says, as gently as he can while he inwardly panics. "I can't take the whole night off to hang out with both of you."

She huffs, looking back up. "Please?" she asks, drawing the syllables out and clasping her hands in front of her chest. Gabe's heart stops in his chest. " Pretty please? Me an' Sarah can just stay in the house while you work, we won't go anywhere an' I promise we won't use the stove or the toaster!"

Gabe swallows. How old is old enough to stay home alone? Georgie's nine, almost ten, and Sarah's also nine, and Georgie's a pretty responsible kid, but she does tend to go a little wild sometimes, when she's got too much sugar in her system or when she's excited by something (like a friend coming over to stay the night), and Gabe's barely capable of handling one kid on top of his job, let alone two, one of whom he's never seen in a home setting and has no idea how she'd react to spending the night at a friend's house.

There's no way, right? This isn't something he can handle. It's not something he can say yes to.

"No," he says, careful to keep his tone firm. "I'm sorry, Georgie, but Sarah can't stay the night."

Georgie's eyebrows draw together, and her mouth turns down in a wobbly frown. Shit. He has to stay firm; this isn't something he's equipped to handle!

"Maybe she can stay another time," he says quickly, before she can beg again. "When I have more time to plan for it. I'm sorry, Georgia Peach; I just can't leave you alone for that long."

"Okay," she says, clearly unhappy, and ducks her head to continue coloring. "I'll tell her."

Gabe sighs, reaching down to ruffle her hair and making the curls bounce. "Why don't you see if you can stay at her house?" he suggests. 

"Maybe." Her voice is tight now, her colors growing darker as she presses harder on her crayon. Gabe retracts his hand, letting it dangle at his side. She doesn't want to talk now, too upset by his refusal. God, what does he do about this? How does he fix it? 

He can't. Not right now, anyway. He just has to let her cool down, and maybe look over his calendar for a time he could plan for another kid in his house.

This would be so much easier if they still lived in Oregon, with Damien and Jason and Gabe's parents close by and always ready to act as backup.

"Are you hungry, kiddo?" he asks, finally getting around to the reason he'd come over here in the first place; but she just shakes her head and continues coloring.

He leaves her alone then, feeling guilty and angry with himself again. He knows that opening the diner was a good opportunity for him; knows that seeing new places and meeting new people is good for both him and Geogie, knows that Georgie chose to come here with him, rather than stay behind with Damien and Jason, but....

Maybe it was the wrong choice, after all.

He shakes his head as he steps back into the kitchen. No, no, no. He can't let himself slip into that mindset. Georgie can have a sleepover at Sarah's any weekend she likes. Her parents usually have time for that sort of thing, he knows. Georgie can't have everything she wants, and it's not like he's refusing this just to be mean. They can work out another day for a sleepover.

It's fine.

It's life.

Thursday, January 23.


Gabe's rushing around so much this morning that he almost completely misses it when Lola stops by to pick Georgie up for school. 

"Bye, Daddy!" Georgie calls, heading out the door, and Gabe's heart leaps into his throat. 

"Wait!" he shouts back, hurriedly gathering up all the things he'd been getting together. "Hang on, I have-- you need to drop this in the office, Lola-- or Kai-- or-- uh, sorry, here--!"

"Gabe, Gabe, Gabe, " Lola says gently, stepping into the kitchen and putting her hand on his shoulder. "Breathe. Your energy's gonna be all out of whack for the rest of the day!"

Gabe stops, closes his eyes, and breathes slowly. She's right; he's panicking over something he doesn't need to. Though, he really wants this to be the best he can offer.... 

"Sorry," he says, opening his eyes and looking up at Lola. She smiles at him, eyelids and lips shining with silver glitter. "Sorry, I just have something I need taken to the school, and I didn't have much time to prepare, so--"

"Well, Georgie doesn't have to be at school right away," Lola says, voice soothing. "So you have a few more minutes to finish up!"

He breathes out a sigh of relief. "Right," he says. "Right, right. Uh, okay. Yeah." He turns back to the box he's filling up. What else--?

"Can I help, Daddy?" Georgie asks, rocking on her heels with a big grin on her face. Of course, she knows what this is. Who it's for.

He breaks into a smile, heart feeling lighter. "Sure thing, sweetie," he says.




Stef's birthday starts out on a decent note. 

Marco's awake before they are, a rare occurrence, and he wishes them a happy birthday, giving them a tight hug before they leave for the day.

"Don't let anyone talk ya into goin' somewhere after work to celebrate," he warns, sounding serious. "I got dinner plans for us."

"Aw, Marco," they say, eyes misting up. "You don't hafta go through any trouble for me!"

"You don't even know what we're doin' yet," he says, and they notice a mischievous little twinkle in his eye as he releases them. "I could just be takin' ya to McDonald's."

"And I'd still love it, 'cause it'd be a birthday dinner with my favorite baby brother!"

"Whatever. Just have a good day at work and don't forget that we got plans."

"You got it, li'l bro!"

That one interaction, along with the anticipation of what he's planning, keeps Stef in a good mood all morning. 

On top of that, their friends who pass them in the halls before school starts wish them a happy birthday, too; Simon, Doc, Manami, even Principal Phoenix. As they're working on writing today's schedule on the whiteboard, Rosana herself even steps inside their classroom, chin-length red hair and the sophisticated black pantsuit that she seems to treat as a work uniform always making her stand out from the rest of the school employees.

"Happy birthday, Stef," she says, smiling softly. "My wife was quite insistent that I make you a cake today."

"Thanks!" Stef says, capping their blue dry erase marker and setting it aside. "Yeah, she brought it up, not me!"

Rosana laughs, a soft, elegant noise, covering her mouth with one hand. Everything Rosana does is elegant, and Stef's never been able to figure out how she's so effortlessly so. The contrast between her sophistication and Manami's adorable, bouncy personality fascinates them endlessly. "You don't have to defend yourself," she says. "I wasn't about to accuse you of anything, I promise. I was only going to tell you that I won't be able to join you for your lunch break, but Manami will bring the cake by. Please enjoy it."

Stef can feel their eyes widen and their mouth stretch into a grin. "Oh my gosh, Rosana, you didn't have to! Thank you so much!" 

She laughs again. "You're welcome, Stef. Really, you're doing me a favor. I love to bake, but I don't always have a reason to; I think a 28th birthday is a pretty good reason."

They're still smiling as she saunters back out of the room.

Honestly, they were expecting the birthday wishes from friends, and though they didn't know Rosana would be baking them one of her cakes, they'd been pretty sure she'd agree. However, what they aren't expecting is for their wall phone to ring a few minutes later, and to hear Rosana's voice on the other end asking them to come down to the office and pick up a package.

They've still got a few minutes before the kids will start coming in from the playground to start the day, so Stef hurries off to the office with some trepidation. They have no idea what the package is. They haven't ordered anything recently, so they doubt it's new school supplies. It could be a birthday gift, of course, but if one of their work friends had wanted to give them something, they'd have just dropped it by the classroom or given it to them at lunch. 

They feel a bubble of anxiety in the pit of their stomach; what if it's something from their parents? They haven't heard from either of them since the whole Christmas fiasco went down, but what better way to try and force Stef to contact them than by making them receive a "gift" at school?

Still. Rosana, who probably knew something of what had happened with their parents, since Stef had mentioned it a bit to Manami, hadn't said who it was from. So it's probably not that.

When Stef walks into the office, though, it's not Rosana who hands them the box--a plain cardboard box, not taped or addressed, but the flaps simply folded together to keep it shut--but instead the other secretary, Holly.

"Who's it from?" Stef asks, taking it into their arms. It's fairly light, so definitely not textbooks.

Holly shrugs. "Tall woman dropped it off for you," she says. "Didn't get a name. I peeked inside, though; looks like a birthday gift."

"Oh." Stef's still unsure, but they shrug. They'll just open it up in the classroom before the kids get in. "Thanks, then," they say, and leave the office as quickly as they'd come.

They shoot a look at the clock as they enter the room; 7:53. There's still seven minutes 'til the kids come inside. Plenty of time to see what's in the box.

They set the box on their desk and open it up. They can see there's several smaller boxes inside, and, on top, a piece of paper folded in half. 

Stef slips their glasses on and unfolds the paper to read.

"Dear Stef," it reads. "Happy birthday! Sorry I couldn't give this to you in person. Shaw told me it was your birthday today just last night, and I wanted you to have something.

"Hope your day is great! Next time you come to the diner, I'll treat you to a meal. 

"Your friend, Gabe."

Stef's bottom lip stings, and they realize suddenly that it's because they've been biting it, holding back a smile. Gabe sent them a birthday present! That's so sweet... Heck. Their heart is frickin' swooping in their chest!

They set the letter aside and pick up the first box; it's a box of tea. Peach tea, in fact. The second box is earl grey, and the third is Stef's favorite, cinnamon tea. 

The fourth and final box is larger than the others, and heavier. It's unmarked, unlike the other three; opening it up, they find a batch of Gabe's chocolate chip cookies inside. They smell amazing, and Stef's afraid they're gonna start drooling if they're not careful. 

They look at the clock again; 7:58. Two more minutes. Plenty of time to eat a single cookie and hide the rest away, right?





"Mx. Campbell," Georgie asks later with a smug smile, "why do you have chocolate on your face?"




That afternoon, as Stef's driving home to whatever it is Marco has planned for them, they realize that they should text Gabe and thank him for the gift; and then they realize that they don't have his number.

What the heck?! How could they not have his number?! They're friends (good friends, maybe. On their way to something else, maybe), he'd even said so in the birthday letter. So why the heck hadn't they exchanged numbers?!

They'd had plenty of opportunities to ask ; they go to the diner at least once a week, usually more often if they can help it. Dang it!

Stef sighs to themself as they park their car and head up to their apartment. Maybe they can ask Shaw for his number? But, no. That'd feel weird, somehow. Sure, they've gotten plenty of hot guys' numbers from Shaw in the past, but this is different. Gabe's their friend.  

They're gonna have to go see Gabe as soon as they can, thank him in person, and ask for his number. 

"Marco," they call as they open the front door. Huh, that's weird. The lights are off; maybe he's out? They shift their bag over to the other arm and flip the light switch.

"Surprise!" call several different voices from different parts of the room, and there are balloons and banners, and the living room is full of people, what the heck?!

"What the--? Shaw?!"

"Happy birthday, my darling fire engine!" Shaw skates up from where they'd been hiding behind the couch and flings aerself at them, aer arms wrapping tightly around them.

"Shaw," they say, hugging back. Their heart is racing! "Oh my gosh, is this a surprise party? For me?!"

"No," comes Marco's deadpan voice, and Stef glances over toward the kitchen to see him walking toward them. "It's a surprise party for Tomato. You just happened to walk in at the right moment."

"Ha, ha." Stef rolls their eyes and manages to extricate one arm from Shaw's merciless hug, holding it out for Marco to tuck himself into and join the hug, too. "Thanks, guys," Stef says, eyes feeling a little moist (why have they been crying so much lately?! Is this a part of getting old?!). "I love you so much!"

"What about us?" calls Simon, and suddenly he's here, too, along with Madhavi, Manami, and Rosana, of all people. 

Stef laughs and does their best to gather everyone into the hug. "You guys!" they honestly squeal, they're so excited. "What are you doing here?! How did you get here before I did?! Ugh, wait, is this why Korse asked me to make all those extra copies? Ew, you got Korse in on this?!" 

"Technically," Manami says, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "we got his husband in on it. We had Junjie ask him to have you do that. We made him promise not to tell him why, don't worry."

Stef breathes a sigh of relief. "Well, thanks," they say. "I seriously wasn't expecting this, oh my gosh!"

"That's why it's called a surprise party," says a voice Stef doesn't ever want to hear in their apartment. "If you were expectin' it, it'd be a pretty shitty surprise."

Stef grits their teeth. "Dante."

Their friends must feel the tension in their body, or hear it in their voice, because they all release Stef and step away; everyone except Marco, of course, who just straightens up, tightening his grip on them ever so slightly.

Stef can easily read what Marco's trying to tell them: "please play nice." Well, Stef doesn't want to play nice! They want this guy out of their apartment and out of Marco's life!

But they don't say that. They never say that, not out loud, but this time they do their best not to even imply it. Because this is a birthday party, a birthday party that Marco threw for them, and Stef won't let anything, not even fear or dislike or hatred ruin this for Marco.

So they smile at Dante, and nod, and turn to Simon to start up a conversation about... something. Stef doesn't know what they're saying, but Simon seems to take to the subject eagerly enough.

It's surprisingly easy to ignore Dante, they find. He doesn't go out of his way to talk to them, aside from that first time, and Stef doesn't go out of their way to talk to him. Marco floats between the two of them, and it's... well, Stef still doesn't like that, but it's just one day. One afternoon. So they busy themself with talking to their friends whenever Marco drifts back to his boyfriend.

"This was a good surprise," Stef says to Rosana, who's sitting beside them on the couch with her wife in her lap. "I had no idea! Like, with the cake this morning--frickin' delicious, by the way, thank you so much--you coulda just not done that, or saved it for the surprise party, but no! You had me completely fooled into thinkin' that was the surprise from all my school friends!"

Rosana laughs softly, and Manami leans forward, adjusting her position so she doesn't squish her wife. "My idea!" she says, beaming. "Marco wanted to throw you as far off the trail as possible, and I thought the cake would be a good distraction!"

"Is that the only reason you suggested the cake?" Stef feigns hurt, pressing one hand to their chest and pouting at her.

Manami laughs. "Well, that and I think you deserved something nice today!"

"Speaking of 'nice,'" Rosana interjects. "What was in that package you received this morning? If you don't mind me asking."

"Oh." Stef's face heats up. Shoot! Blushing is gonna totally give away their crush on Gabe. Is "crush" the right word? They're 28 now. Is 28 too old to use words like "crush?" "Ah, it was just a gift from a friend. Nothing terribly interesting."

"Blush on your face says otherwise." There's a pressure on the back of the sofa, and Stef turns their head to see Simon's partner, Madhavi, leaning on the cushion, arms folded beneath her chin. She grins, revealing a chipped tooth. 

Their face heats up even more. Dang it! "No idea what you're talkin' about," they say, and clear their throat. 

She arches an eyebrow at them, makes a big show of rolling her eyes over to Manami and Rosana, who both giggle. Madhavi's grin widens, and she looks back to Stef. "So, who is it?" she asks. "Someone I know? Nah, prob'ly not. Someone Simon knows? A coworker? Huh?"

"Not a coworker," Rosana says. "It was dropped off in the office by a rather tall woman--nearly as tall as you, I think--with pink and green hair."

"Oh, Lola dropped it off?" Stef asks. That definitely makes more sense. If Georgie's babysitter had to be at the school to drop her off, anyway, it'd be easy enough for Gabe to ask her to drop the package at the office.

"Lola?" Madhavi looks startled, and she straightens up, a serious expression coming over her face. "Now, you listen here. Lola is married, and don't think you can talk 'er into--"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! I'm not into Lola!"

"No?" She squints at Stef. "Why not? You think Lola's not good enough for--"

"I'm into Gabe!"

Madhavi's brow furrows, and Stef hears Manami behind them suck in a breath. Well, heck. It's not a huge secret, they suppose, but this is still a pretty awkward way to say that.

"Wait," Madhavi says, and her eyes widen. "Wait, Gabe like Gabe Martín? That Gabe?!"

"Uh. Yes?"

She blinks, and then she throws her head back and laughs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders. "Damn! Didn't know Gabey had an admirer! Well, good, good! He deserves it, y'know? Good guy. Needs to do more lower body workouts, but a good guy." She laughs again, releasing them. "Aw, that's fuckin' cute."

"Shut up!" Stef hisses, and now they feel like their face is on fire.

"Nah, nah, I'm not teasin' ya," Madhavi says, teasingly, with a teasing smile on her face. "I just mean that you should go for it. Don't sit there pinin' away. Won't get you anywhere!"

"I'm not pining!"

"No, she's right." Rosana leans closer, her arm still wrapped around Manami's waist, keeping her snugly in place. "If you're really interested in this Gabe fellow--"

"Oh, they are," Manami says with a smirk, and Stef shoots her a glare.

"--then you've got to just go for it, you know?" 

Stef groans. "I didn't ask for relationship advice!"

"Well, you got it anyway. Consider it a birthday gift, since I didn't exactly bring ya anythin'." Madhavi winks. "Besides, I'm mostly sayin' this for Gabe's sake." She pokes them in the chest with her index finger. "You should ask 'im out."

Stef bites their lip. "You really think so?" 

"Hell yeah I think so." Her lips part in another toothy grin. "Trust me on this."

Maybe they should.


Sunday, January 26.


"Here ya go, Georgie." Gabe sets a plate of hashbrowns and eggs in front of his daughter. She'd insisted on sitting at the counter this morning, instead of her usual out-of-the-way booth. "Want some more juice before I head back into the kitchen?"

She shakes her head. "I got enough. Thanks, daddy." She picks up her fork and starts in on her breakfast, and Gabe turns to head back into the kitchen. Luckily, he doesn't have to worry about Georgie being entertained too much today; Lola's coming by in a couple of hours to take Georgie to the park for a while. He really doesn't pay her enough, honestly. 

"Hey, Gabe, we're runnin' low on rosemary," Cole says as Gabe enters the kitchen. "You added that to the list for the next order?"

"Yeah, I took care of it." Gabe picks up a spoon and gives the soup simmering away on the stove a quick stir. "Let me know if you notice anything else, though. We've been gettin' busier lately."

"Better be gettin' busier," Cole says. "We make damn good food. You're gonna have to hire some more people soon."

"You think?" Gabe reaches up to fiddle with his hairnet. He's known he'd have to bring in some more people eventually, as the diner brought in more money, but it feels like he's only just started business. Is now a good time to start hiring more people? He can't help but feel a little nervous about the prospect.

"Yeah. Take a look at the books soon, see how many people we can bring in. Another person or two for the kitchen, couple more servers for out front, that'd be ideal, I think."

"Yeah." Gabe bites back a grin, starting back in on some more prep work before it gets too busy. This is... definitely more than he was expecting to think about this morning.

"Oh, Gabey," Shaw sing-songs from the window a few minutes later. He turns toward them, wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his wrist. "Your little lover-them is here!"

He feels his face heat up at the term. "They're not-- ugh." He bites back his protestations, knowing it'll just egg aer on. He just hopes Stef can't hear aer from wherever they are. "I'll be out in a minute to say hi!"

"I'll let 'em know," ae says, throwing him a wink, and then disappears from his line of sight.

He hasn't seen Stef since before their birthday; he hopes they liked their present, as haphazard as it was. 

Gabe rushes through the rest of his task, then informs Cole he'll be back momentarily, stripping his gloves off as he goes. 

Shaw passes him on aer way by, and points him over to the window-seat Stef seems to prefer. They're alone today, he sees. No Marco in tow. 

"Stef, hi!" he grins as he stops by their table. "Good to see you."

"Gabe! You, too!" Stef beams back up at him, and Gabe's struck suddenly by the way the morning sunlight strikes their hair, lighting it up and giving their skin a soft, rosy glow. "I wanted to stop by and thank you for the gift," they continue. "Those cookies were frickin' good, and the tea!"

"Glad you liked it," he says. "Sorry I couldn't get you anything better, I--"

"Better?" Stef repeats, quirking an eyebrow at him. "Gabe, that was such a sweet gift, you have no idea." They reach up and tuck a lock of hair behind their ear; Gabe follows the movement, lingering on the way their fingers move. They lower their hand, and he snaps his gaze back to their face. "Seriously. Thank you."

He clears his throat. "It, uh, it was no problem! Um-- oh! Did you order yet? Anything you want, on the house!"

"Shaw took my order. Gabe, listen." Stef's expression turns serious, and he swallows. "I realized something really important the other day, and I think we need to do something about it."

His heart rate picks up. Wait. Wait, does Stef feel the same--? Are they about to ask him out? Oh, god, what does he say to that? He wasn't expecting this right now. Fuck, he wanted to talk to Georgie about this before he--

"I don't have your freaking number!" Stef finishes, slamming their fist on the table in exaggerated frustration. "How the heck am I supposed to text you little thank-you notes when I don't have your number?" Oh. Oh, so it wasn't-- it wasn't a date thing, it was just--

He laughs, a mixture of relief and disappointment circling his gut. "Oh, shit. Right. We never exchanged numbers, huh? Uh, hang on--" He pats his pockets, slipping his hand under his apron and pulling his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He unlocks it quickly and pulls up a new contact, then trades it to Stef for theirs. 

He quickly inputs his number, then hovers over the contact name for a moment. What would be an appropriate name to put in Stef's phone? Just "Gabe" seems too impersonal, but he doesn't know which emojis fit their relationship. Ugh, why is this stuff so hard?

After a moment, he types "Gabe :-)" and hands it back to Stef, who passes his back also. He pockets it without looking at it. "Thanks! Uh, I have to get back to the kitchen, but--"

"Oh, yeah, sure!" Stef's smiling that wide, sweet smile of theirs still, and his heart flutters again. "I'll talk to ya later, or--text ya later, I guess!" They lift one hand and waggle their fingers at him. It's adorable.

"Okay. Yeah. Uh, enjoy your meal! You know, um, when it comes. And happy belated birthday!"

Stef's giggle follows him back to the kitchen. 




It's an hour or so later, when Lola texts him to let him know that she's on her way, that Gabe takes a peek at Stef's contact.

"Stef ✨💖✨," it reads.

Gabe can't stop smiling.