Playground Eyes

Chapter 7: February

Sunday, February 2.


"I don't think he even knows how to use emojis, he's always typing out little smiley faces and stuff instead, and he puts noses on them, Shaw, frickin' noses!" Stef holds their phone out for Shaw to see, and ae snorts, patting Stef's leg that's stretched out across aer lap.

"'Next time you come by, I'll make sure to have some fresh ones ready,'" Shaw reads aloud. "'Colon-hyphen-parenthesis.' Stef, I know what Gabe's texting is like! I've been working there for, like, six months!"

Stef pouts at aer, pulling their phone back toward themself. "Are you sayin' it's not cute, then?"

Shaw sighs. "No, his texting style is absolutely adorable." Ae pauses, and gets a mischievous glint in aer eye. "Even cuter when he's textin' you, though."

Stef feels their face heat up, but they don't hide it, just grin at their friend. "You think so?" they ask, scrolling through their messages again.

It's been a week since Stef finally got Gabe's number, and the two of them have been texting pretty much all the time. The first couple of days, it was just quick messages asking about each other's day or Gabe asking if Stef was planning on stopping by the diner that day. They quickly moved on to more personal or funny texts, though, with Gabe sending them a meme from some restaurant-worker meme page that Stef only recognized as funny thanks to previous conversations with Gabe. 

Now, Stef texts him as much as they do any other friend. Maybe a little more, in fact, sending him silly photos and updates throughout their day. Stef can't remember the last time they were this excited to hear their phone buzz with new notifications.

"Steffie, you should just ask him out already," Shaw groans for the umpteenth time, leaning over to bump aer head against their knee. 

"I told you," they say, trying to pretend they're not super into the idea, "I don't think it's the right time yet, I--"

"Stef, the last time you were this enamored with someone was in high school." Shaw shifts so aer cheek is against Stef's leg, aer eyes meeting theirs. Ae reaches up to pat Stef's cheek. "You haven't even dated in so long, and with Marco doing so well now, you have more time than ever to do that sort of thing. You're both clearly into each other. What other excuses could you have?"

Stef doesn't say anything for a long moment, fidgeting with their phone. It's true that they've had more time lately, and just talking to Gabe spreads warm fuzzy feelings through their body. They can't imagine what it would be like to actually date him, with his sweet personality and his warm brown eyes and soft grin and big strong hands and--

They groan, dropping their phone to their chest. "You're worse than Madhavi," they say. "Worse than Marco! Fine, fine, I'll ask him out, okay, I just... gotta wait for the right time."

Shaw lifts aer head so fast Stef swears ae must get whiplash, and ae grabs their hands, pulling them forward until ae can wrap aer arms around their torso in a big hug. "Fuck yes!" Ae cheers. Ae pulls back so they can see aer whole face, beaming. "I'm gonna keep an eye on him and let you know if I see the perfect time to ask him out! Or maybe I can even arrange something! Oh, that would be wonderful!"

Stef laughs, a little breathlessly, and returns the hug. They're doing this.


Wednesday, February 5.


Gabe puts his weights away and tilts his head back, eyes falling closed as he breathes steadily, letting his heart rate calm down a little bit. 

Behind him, Madhavi snorts. "Only three reps?" she asks, voice barely strained. "Damn. You gotta be somewhere today, Gabe?" 

He opens his eyes and turns back toward her, watching as she finishes off her pull-ups and drops back to the floor, wiping her hands off on the legs of her pants. "Bunny couldn't make it in today," he says,  "and I don't wanna leave Shaw and Cole alone for too long." He pauses. "Well, and Stef said their brother was gonna come by and pick somethin' up for them for lunch, so I wanna be there to take care of that." 

She arches an eyebrow at him, lips spreading into an open-mouthed smirk. "Oh? An' how is Stef these days, Gabe?"

He shrugs, walking over to the bench and picking up his gym bag, fishing around in it for his water bottle. "Pretty good, I think! We've been textin' a lot lately. It's nice. You know I'm not really a textin' sort of person. I usually like calling or seein' people face-to-face. That kinda thing." He shoulders the bag, turning back toward her, and he can feel the wide smile on his own face. "Textin' Stef's pretty fun, though. They can't spell at all, which is weird since they're a teacher, but I think they just type so fast they don't pay attention to what they're actually typing, you know? It's kinda hard to decipher sometimes, but it's... kinda cute, I think." He takes a sip of water.

Madhavi's smirk widens even more, somehow, and then she asks, "So, when'd they ask you out?"

Gabe inhales sharply, water flooding his sinuses, and he chokes, coughing water out onto the floor and nearly dropping the bottle. "What?" he manages, throat raw.

Madhavi laughs, full-on deep laughter with her head thrown back, and she closes the distance between them to thump him on the back. "Don't fuckin' die, Gabe, I don't wanna have to tell your kid I killed her dad!"

Once Gabe manages to re-cap his water bottle and calm himself back down, he asks again, "What are you talking about? Stef hasn't-- we aren't dating."

She makes a face. "Why the fuck not?"

"We just--" He pauses. "Wait. Why did you ask if Stef had asked me out? Do you know something I don't?"

Madhavi's eyes widen for a split second, and then she shrugs, putting her hands on her hips and turning away nonchalantly. "I mean, it's a simple question. You're so into this whole textin' thing. Like a goddamn kid. Not much of a jump to think maybe you're datin', ya know?"

Gabe sighs, but he doesn't say anything. If his crush on Stef really is that noticeable, then he's gonna have to bite the bullet and ask them out sooner rather than later.


Saturday, February 8.


The diner's decorated today, Stef notices with a start as they step inside.

There's little paper hearts stuck to the walls, pink glittery ornaments hanging from the ceiling, vases of cute little roses on each table. It's adorable, and reminds them of their own classroom, all pink and white and red for Valentine's Day.

"It was like this on Wednesday too," Marco says when they mention it to him, as they slide into their seats. "Kinda tacky. Cute, though."

"Stef, you made it!" 

Stef turns in their seat and beams at the gorgeous Gabe Martín as he hurries over to their booth from the kitchen. He's still got his hair bundled up in his hairnet, his apron tied snugly around his waist, and from how full the dining room is, Stef's pretty sure they're not gonna get to spend much time with him today. 

Still, even these few minutes Stef gets to see him are nice.

"Hey, Gabe!" they call, wiggling their fingers at him, and across the table, Marco snorts. Stef kicks him gently in the shin.

"Good to see you!" Gabe says, stopping by their table. "I was hoping you'd show up soon. I just finished baking a strawberry pie. Is that something you'd wanna try? I'll go get you a slice right now. On the house. Oh-- and you too, of course, Marco."

Stef's trying very hard not to laugh, curling their fingers against their mouth as he talks. He's frickin' cute! And eager to please. Gosh, how weird would it be to ask him out right now? Probably super weird. So they're not going to.

"We'd love some pie, Gabe, thank you." They tilt their head to the side, dropping their cheek into the palm of their hand to gaze up at him. "It's too bad you can't sit and have some with us, but you look pretty busy."

"Yeah." He looks pretty disappointed, too. Which is ridiculous, since every butt in every seat is another dollar in Gabe's pocket. "Sorry, it's busy today." He brightens then. "I'm interviewing new people soon, though, so we should have a few more helping hands around here, and then I can hang out with you anytime you come in! Uh. You know. If you want to."

Oh gosh he's adorable. "Gabe," Stef says sincerely, "I would love for you to sit with me. You're always welcome at my table."

He beams at them, and Marco coughs into his hand. Gabe blinks. "Oh, right! The pie! Uh, be right back!"

And then he's gone again. Drat.

"Pie," Marco mutters, and Stef turns to glare at him. He shrugs, eyes twinkling. "The guy's clearly into you," he says. "Whaddaya got to lose?"

The huff, blowing a strand of hair out of their face. Gabe likes them! Probably. "Nothin', I guess. But it's not the right time, I'm not gonna ask 'im out here while everything's so busy! An' I'm definitely not askin' 'im out over text."  

"Whatever," Marco says, "Just stop makin' goo-goo eyes at 'im if you're not gonna do anythin' about it."

"Here ya go!" Gabe says, startling Stef so badly they nearly knock their silverware off the table. "Oops, sorry, didn't mean to scare ya." He sets two plates down, each with a perfect slice of strawberry pie resting atop it. Stef's mouth waters at the sight (and only a little because of how close to Stef Gabe had to lean to set the plates down; it's at least mostly because of the pie itself! They swear!). 

"Looks frickin' delicious, Gabe!" they say, picking up their fork. "Love what you've done with the place, by the way. Very festive."

"Thanks!" He beams at them. "Lola helped me with it. We're doing a special event on Valentine's Day, and I thought it'd be fun if, you know, it looked more Valentines-y."

"Event?" Stef takes a bite of the pie. They chew. "Oh my gosh, Gabe, this is so good! Not that I'd expect anything less from talented hands like yours."

Gabe's cheeks darken in what's gotta be a proud flush. So cute! "Thanks!" He says. "Uh, yeah! Just a little, like, sales event thing, I guess. Couples get half off on Valentine's Day! I wanted to do something like a game or something for people to participate in, but, well, we don't have enough staff to run something like that, and I don't know if I'll have new workers by then, so--"

There's a loud banging and clattering from the direction of the kitchen, followed by muffled swearing, and Gabe pales.

"Shit," he hisses. "Uh, sorry, I've gotta get back to work, uh-- enjoy the pie! I'll send Shaw over with menus in a bit if you want something else! I--" There's another clang from the kitchen, and he turns abruptly, rushing away.

Stef sighs as he goes. Well, at least they got to chat with him a little.

Marco snorts at them again from across the table.


Friday, February 14.


"Daddy, is Sarah here yet?!" 

"Uh, I don't think so, kiddo," Gabe says, without looking up from his paperwork. "Her mom's supposed to text me when they're here, and I haven't gotten anything yet."

"Okay." Georgie bounces into the chair on the opposite side of his desk. "Tell me as soon's you get it though, okay?!"

He laughs, setting his pen down and looking up at her. Georgie's been waiting for this all day, probably distracted during class today, too. He's glad to give her the chance to spend some time with her friend-- still not able to keep them both overnight at their own house, but more than willing to let Georgie spend the night at Sarah's. 

"I'll let you know," he agrees. He sets an unopened notebook on top of his stack of paperwork; may as well do that later, after she's left, than right now.

"Me an' Sarah are workin' on a project!" Georgie exclaims, kicking her feet in excitement. "It's gonna be so cool, you're gonna love it!"

"Oh?" He folds his hands on top of the notebook and leans in close to her. "What kind of project is this, my little Georgia peach?"

She smirks at him, lifting her chin up and watching him from the corner of her eye. "Not telling," she says. "You'll find out when we're all done, but trust me, daddy, you're gonna love it!"

He laughs again, shaking his head. "I'm sure I will. You have fun, kiddo." It's probably another comic book or something. Georgie and Sarah have been spending a lot of time working on different comics and other projects together lately, he's been told. He's proud of her.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he pulls it out to look at the screen. 

"Is it them?!" Georgie asks, leaping out of her seat. "Are they here? Is it time to go?!"

"Yeah, they're in the parking lot," Gabe says, standing up as well and tucking his phone away again. "C'mon, grab your coat and your bag, I'll walk you out."

They leave his office and pass through the dining room, which is starting to fill up as couples come in for dinner, fully ready to take advantage of his Valentine's Day 50% off special. He can't help but grin; he's proud of himself and his staff.

Himari's just finishing up at a table near the door, and turns to see them. "Oh! Hey, Mr. Martín! Leavin' already?"

He smiles at them. "Nah, just taking Georgie out to meet her friend. I'll be back in a couple minutes. If you need something in the meantime, ask Cole or Shaw!" He lifts his hand in a half-wave and pushes the door open , heading out into the late-afternoon chill.

He'd finally managed to hire a couple of new people to help out in the diner, and today is their first day. Himari, a cheerful and talkative person, will be working the dining room along with Shaw and Bunny, which should help lighten their loads and allow for more time off for the both of them, and Taiki, a tall, quiet man, will be helping out in the kitchen, which should allow Gabe more time to actually run the business, as well as spend more time with Georgie. He's looking forward to the changes, though he's sure he'll miss spending so much time in the kitchen.

He passes Georgie off to Sarah and her mother with a wave and a kiss goodbye, and then he heads back inside to get back to work.




FROM: ✨show pony✨: you better get here soon steffie baby, the diner's fillin up quick!

TO: ✨show pony✨: hang on im on  my way out theh door i just gottas fix my hair 

FROM: ✨show pony✨: i'll save a table for you, but get here QUICK!

TO: ✨show pony✨: im  vcoming!!! hold your horses

FROM: ✨show pony✨: i'm not the one asking out a hot guy tonight!

FROM: ✨show pony✨: ...well, i MIGHT. it IS valentine's day after all.

FROM: ✨show pony✨: but anyway this is about YOU and GABE so HURRY IT UP!!

TO: ✨show pony✨: im in the car!!

TO: ✨show pony✨: see you ssoon!




Gabe should really stop not expecting to see Stef at the diner, honestly. 

The diner's been packed all evening, and even with the new workers, he's been rushing around between the kitchen and the dining room. His hair feels damp and matted, and the little red paper heart Shaw had pinned to his apron earlier is a little wilted from the heat and sweat and steam. He's doing his best to play both the friendly host and the competent chef, glad that at least he doesn't have to worry about Georgie being bored and lonely tonight, glad that there's only a couple more hours until closing, and then on his sixth trip from the kitchen to the dining room, he pauses on the threshold, meeting the eye of  none other than Stef.

"Oh," he says, and then grins, crossing the short expanse of tile to the counter, where Stef's seated closest to the till, smiling right back at him. "Stef! I didn't-- I mean, it's-- uh. Hi!"

"Hi." Stef sounds amused, their eyebrow quirking up at him. Their hair's pulled back into a short ponytail tonight, just a few strands left hanging to softly frame their face. They're wearing more makeup than usual, too, he notices; he's seen them with eyeshadow and eyeliner and lipstick, but tonight their lips are a red bright enough to match their hair, pink glitter spread over their cheekbones and their eyelids. Their clothes aren't much flashier than usual, but their makeup combined with their soft white sweater printed with little red hearts all over it makes them look very festive.

They're gorgeous.

"Are you here alone?" he asks, which is kind of stupid because they're sitting at the counter, alone, but maybe their brother and Dante are seated somewhere in the dining room? Or-- or maybe they're on a date, a Valentine's date, and they just stopped by the counter to say hi?!

No, that's stupid, Stef would have texted him if they had a date tonight, and anyway he's pretty sure they're interested in him.


"Yeah, just me," Stef confirms, propping their elbows on the counter and placing their chin on their folded hands. "Looks like your event's pretty successful! You must be busy, so don't let me keep you."

"Oh. Uh, yeah, right!" He can't just stand here chatting with them, even though he really wants to. He's got a business to run. "I'll be back, though!" he says, taking a step back. "Um, whoever takes your order, just let them know you get the Valentine's discount!"

Stef blinks. "Isn't that just for couples?" 

"Uh. Yes." He feels his cheeks heat. "But, you-- Well! Just tell them!" He turns away to get back to work, then pauses, calling over his shoulder, "You look great, by the way!"

He hurries off before he can hear Stef's response.




Stef's too caught up in feelings to notice when Shaw skates up beside them until ae puts aer arm around their shoulders and pulls them close to aer chest. 

"Stef," ae says, and Stef can hear the grin in aer voice without even looking, "what did you even say to Mr. Boss-Man that made him blush like that?! Did you ask him out already?!"

"No!" Stef leans away out of aer grip, turning in their seat to face aer. "He's busy, I'm not gonna ask him out while he's rushin' around like this!"

Shaw nods. "Yeah, this is absolutely not the time for that. Or the place!"

They shoot aer a look. "You said tonight at the diner would be the perfect time to do it!"

Ae rolls aer eyes. "It is, " ae says. "But not now, while he's busy, and not here, at the goddamn counter! There's no romance whatsoever!" Ae backs away, pulling Stef out of the seat with aer, and skates backward. "Come on, come on, a table just opened up!"

Stef allows aer to take them to a booth toward the back of the diner, on the opposite end of the room from where they usually sit. The table's still covered in someone else's dirty plates, but Shaw quickly clears those away. "I'll be back in a few minutes," ae says. "You sit here and contemplate your plan of attack!"

"Attack," Stef snorts, but ae's already gone.




Stef's gone the next time Gabe stops by the counter, someone else seated in the place they'd been, and he can't help the disappointment that floods his system. 

They'd left? Why would they leave without saying goodbye? Oh, shit, did something happen? He digs his phone out of his pocket and quickly checks it, but the only new notification is a text from Madhavi. 

Why did they leave?

"Gabe!" Shaw's voice startles him, and he turns toward aer, blinking. "You need a break!"

"I'm fine," he says, confused. "There's not much longer 'til closing, I can finish up--"

"No!" Shaw darts forward, grabbing his wrist. "Gabe, darling, you need a break. Now, come with me! You're going to sit down for a bit and have a meal!"

Shaw ignores his protests, pulling him through the dining room and over to one of the more hidden back booths. Ae shoves him none too delicately into the seat, and he finds himself looking yet again into Stef's eyes.

"Stef!" he exclaims, sitting up straight. "Oh, damn, I thought you'd left!"

"Why would I leave without saying goodbye?" Stef asks, and they tilt their head just slightly to the left.

"That's what I was trying to figure out," he says, letting out a little laugh of relief. "I just, you weren't at the counter, so--"

"Yeah, sorry, Shaw gave me this booth when it cleared up." The light overhead catches the glitter on their cheekbones as they shift. "So, you're on break?"

"I guess so. Unless they get too busy in the kitchen again." He pauses, then leans forward, dropping his arm onto the table. "I honestly wasn't expecting to see you here tonight."

"No? Well, I can always leave," they say, tone and expression teasing.

He kind of wants to ask them to leave with him, go someplace quieter, someplace more interesting than the diner they always seem to meet at. "No, no," he says. "I'm glad you're here."

"Are you? Well, I mean, why wouldn't you be? I am pretty amazing," they say, and there's no hint of the teasing their voice had held just a moment ago.

"Yeah," he says, feeling a little breathless. "You are."

A strange silence falls between them then, as they watch each other across the table. It's not uncomfortable, but there's a tension to it, and he knows they can both feel it. Gabe feels like he needs to break it, somehow, but his tongue feels heavy and frozen in his mouth, and he can't form words. 

A quiet clatter from his left as Shaw returns, setting a pair of plates down on the table. "Sorry to interrupt," ae says. "Two Valentine's specials! Gabe, darling, things are starting to slow down, so feel free to just sit here and enjoy yourself, hm?" Ae throws a wink at Gabe, and shoots a look he can't quite see at Stef, and then ae's gone as quickly as ae'd arrived.

The tension is gone, the palpable feeling of something disappearing before either of them could really do anything to change it themselves. Stef picks up their fork. 

"Spaghetti?" they say. "Well, that's fitting, isn't it?"

Gabe shakes his head, letting out a quiet chuckle. "Georgie suggested I make it the special today," he tells them. "She watched Lady and the Tramp the other day and thought it would be romantic."

"Really?" Stef laughs, too, twirling spaghetti on their fork. "That sounds like somethin' she'd do. And it's frickin' cute."

"Yeah! Georgie has great ideas. I probably wouldn't have even thought of opening a diner if not for her, you know?"

"Really?" Stef watches him as the two of them eat. "Why not?"

"It was a couple years ago," he says, "when she was just turning seven. We had a big party, with a bunch of her friends from school, all their parents, and of course our own family. I thought it'd be fun to make everything from scratch instead of just picking things up from the grocery store, like we usually would do, and I made a whole huge meal for everyone." He smiles, remembering all the hard work that had gone into it; he'd been working in the restaurant industry for a good long while before then, but that was still the first time he'd done something that big all by himself. "It was a huge hit. Everyone loved the food I'd made. It was... well, it felt pretty good, you know?"

"And so that made you want to open up your own place?"

"Sort of." He takes a sip of his water. "After the party, when we were cleaning up, Georgie came up to me and she said, 'Daddy, I think you should have your own restaurant, so you can make everyone happy every day.'" 

"Aw," Stef coos. "That's sweet!"

"Yeah. And I mean, I already knew I liked making food for people before that, you know, I already worked that sort of job. But she made me realize that I wanted to do something bigger than just working in a kitchen. I wanted to be a part of the whole business, from the cooking to the cleaning to the waiting to the bookkeeping." He smiles at Stef, who's watching him like he's the most fascinating person on the planet. He knows that feeling. "I didn't jump straight to restaurant owner," he continues, "but I decided that would be my goal, and Georgie's been there for me every step of the way."

"Adorable," Stef says. "Do you think she'll take over the diner from you one day?"

He laughs a little. "I don't know. She likes watching me cook, likes baking cookies and the other easy stuff I let her try, but she's only nine, and she's got lots of other interests, anyway. I'm not goin' into this with any expectations of that kinda thing."

"I get that," Stef says. "I'm glad Georgie's got a dad like you. She's a good kid. She deserves the best."

He feels himself flush with pride. "Aw, I'm not the best, " he says. "I just... you know, try to do what's best for her."

Stef hums quietly. "I meet a lot of parents in my line of work," they say. "And every year, I'm shocked by the number of them that seem to have their kids' whole lives planned out for them, right down to their future careers. Shoot, my parents tried to do that to me an' Marco, too. And it's like... they're kids. They don't know what they want yet. How should you know what they're gonna need when they're adults?" They shake their head. "What I'm tryin' to say is that you're one of the good ones, Gabe Martín."

And hearing that really shouldn't make him feel as happy as it does, but it does, and the way Stef's smiling at him across the table just makes the butterflies in his stomach that much harder to ignore.

He clears his throat. "So. You, uh-- how's your day been? At the school, and stuff?"

Stef launches into a story about some science demonstration involving a gallon of water they were showing the kids today, which leads into a story about their upcoming first lunchtime D&D club with the kids next week, and Gabe listens to them talk, eating his dinner and watching them talk.

He feels like he could do this for hours.




Stef's completely unaware of the passage of time until they look up mid-story and realize the diner's completely empty.

"Oh dang," they say. "How long have we been here?"

Gabe looks around, apparently just noticing the quiet, too. "Uh. A while, I guess," he says, shooting them a sheepish look. He glances down at his phone. "Oh, shit, we've been closed for half an hour! I-- I should go help clean up--" 

He sort of half-stands to slide out of the booth, but Stef must be making a face, because when he glances at them, he sits right back down. "Well... I mean, I'm sure they can handle clean-up by themselves for a while...."

They beam at him. "Yeah, why don't we just... sit here a while longer." 

Gabe looks much better than he had when they'd first arrived, his hairnet discarded at some point during their conversation and his curls slowly regaining their usual loveliness. He's been smiling the whole time he's been sitting here, and they can't help but wonder if his cheeks hurt the way theirs do.

He shifts in the booth, his hair falling just so against his neck, and Stef can't help but follow the line of his neck to his jaw with their eyes, wondering if his stubble would feel as nice against their palms as it looks, and then their eyes find his lips, and they swallow.

If they don't ask him out now, they're afraid they never will. 

They open their mouth to do just that-- but then they close it again, afraid.

When had they become afraid to ask someone out? Why are they so afraid of asking Gabe out?

They tear their gaze away from his lips up to his eyes, only to find his gaze pointed ever so slightly downward, and their breath hitches in their throat.

It's clear that he's as interested in them as they are in him. So what's holding them back? Why can't they make that final leap?

"So," Gabe says, breaking them out of their reverie. His eyes meet theirs again. "Valentine's Day, huh?"

"Valentine's Day," Stef agrees, feeling strangely breathless."It's-- a once-a-year thing, huh?"

"Yeah." Gabe shifts in his seat, leaning over the table, his face close enough that Stef could--

They move forward without even realizing it, close enough that they can feel his breath against their lips, and they can't look away from those warm brown eyes, and suddenly...

Suddenly all their fears and apprehensions seem to just melt away. 

Stef lifts their hand from the table and cups his cheek in their hand, taking just the barest of seconds to marvel at the rough feeling of his stubble on their skin, to note the way his eyes seem to light up, and then they close the distance between them, tilting his face toward theirs and pressing their lips to his.

The kiss doesn't last long, but when they pull away, Stef sees their own excitement and happiness mirrored on Gabe's face.

"Wow," he whispers, sounding frickin' drunk, which is ridiculous because he's been drinking water all night and they barely kissed him! "Wow," he says again. "I-- Stef. I wanted to do that for a long time."

"What?" they ask, keeping their hand on his cheek, moving their thumb across his stubble to the corner of his mouth. "Kiss me?"

"Yeah," he says, and stretches farther across the table to kiss them again.

"This is stupid," Stef giggles when they pull apart the second time. They quickly stand up, noting the disappointment that flickers across Gabe's face, and then slide into his side of the booth. "That stupid table's too big to--"

He kisses them again, his hand coming up to rest on the side of their neck, holding them close, and Stef laughs into the kiss, delighted and excited and maybe a little in love, even if it's too early to even think that.

"Do you wanna--" Gabe starts, but Stef kisses him a fourth time. They nip at his lower lip, and he gasps quietly, tugging them closer.

"--go out with you sometime? Yes." Stef says when they pull away, and they reach down to find his hand, clasping it in theirs. A fifth kiss.

"Do you wanna be my--" Six.

"--datemate? Yeah, absolutely." Seven.

Eight, nine, ten. Stef loses count, decides that when one kiss leads directly into another, there's no point in trying to separate them anyway. Kissing Gabe is just like they'd pictured it, his lips in turns soft and careful, firm and insistent, his strong hands on their neck, their arms, their waist, his hair brushing against their cheek.

They don't really ever want to stop kissing Gabe, but if they don't then they're gonna be here all night, and while they don't really see a problem with that, Stef figures they've got to be responsible every once in a while. 

They pull away, only to lean forward again and press their face into the crook of his neck, placing a single chaste kiss there. "We're gonna talk later," they murmur against his skin. "But--" they sit up, Gabe's hands still on their waist, his eyes bright, lips smeared with their lipstick. It's a darn good look on him. "But, for now-- I think you've got stuff to do, and I've gotta get home."

"Yeah," he mumbles, hands leaving their waist to catch their hands again. "I-- this wasn't just a spur-of-the-moment thing," he says, more clearly now. "For me, I mean. I wanted to date you for a while now, I just wasn't really-- sure, if that was something that you--"

"Yeah," they say, turning his hands in theirs so they can interlock their fingers. "Yeah, Gabe, I get it. But it's not a sudden thing for me, either. I want you to be my boyfriend."

His smile widens, and Stef wants to kiss him again, but they manage to hold themself in check. "Then I'm your boyfriend," he says, sending butterflies fluttering around in their stomach again. "Do you-- should I take you home? Is this a date? Uh--"

They laugh, squeezing his hands. "I'll see you tomorrow," they say, sliding backwards out of the booth, keeping their grip on his hands until they're forced to let go. "You've got stuff to do, and I'll text you later."

He hurries to stand, too, taking their hand again. "Let me at least walk you to the door!"

And he does, pausing to kiss them one more time as they push the door open, a sweet kiss good night,  and Stef thinks that dating Gabe might be the best decision of their life.

They catch a glimpse of Shaw as they leave, a stupid satisfied grin on aer stupid smug face as ae peers at them from the kitchen doorway.

Stef flips aer off through the window, feeling way too dang pleased with themself.


Saturday, February 15.


"You're dating Mx. Campbell?!" Georgie exclaims from the backseat as Gabe drives her back home from Sarah's house.

He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, trying not to vibrate out of his own skin as he tries to figure out how to respond. He and Stef had had a long conversation last night and this morning about what it meant to be boyfriend and datemate, what it meant for the two of them and what it meant for Georgie, and they'd come to the decision that if Georgie was adamantly against their relationship, they'd go back to being just friends.

Gabe hadn't really thought that Georgie would have anything against it, but the alarm in her tone suggests that he may have been wrong. He hopes he can win her over to the idea. He really hopes he can, because while he'd do anything for his daughter, he'd also really like to actually date Stef beyond a few stolen kisses on Valentine's Day.

"Yes," he tells her. "I... I really like them, Georgie. I'd like to see more of them, and see where it goes."

"But I can't believe you just went an' started dating them without tellin' me first!" Georgie exclaims, and he can see her  crossing her arms over her chest and puffing up her cheeks in the rearview mirror.

"I'm sorry, kiddo," he says. "I wasn't planning on asking them to be my datemate last night. If I had, I for sure would have asked you first." He pauses, glancing into the rearview mirror again, thinks that maybe the car wasn't the best place to have this conversation. "Are you okay with it? With me dating your teacher?"

"Of course I am!" She says, leaning forward. "But, daddy, it's not fair!"

"What's not fair, Georgie?" he asks, now thoroughly confused.

"Me an' Sarah had a whole thing planned out to get you an' Stef together! We put the finishin' touches on it last night, an' now we don't even get to do it!" She sighs, loud and exaggerated, shakes her head. "Now I gotta text all my friends an' tell 'em not to put all those posters around the school! Everyone's gonna be so disappointed! Tyler was gonna make a cake an' everything!"

Gabe laughs so hard he has to pull over. Well, that's one less thing to worry about.


Wednesday, February 19.


Stef's been a little distracted the past few days, every idle moment causing their thoughts to go off in the direction of Gabe and the fact that they have an actual goshdang boyfriend now!

It's a bit of a problem when dealing with a classroom full of fourth graders, but luckily they've managed to keep enough of their wits about them that nothing terrible has happened. Losing an entire tray of Oreos by unthinkingly dumping them into the trashcan and causing a riot of nine-year-olds hadn't been great, but they'd survived.

It also doesn't help matters that the object of their affection's kid is in their class and keeps shooting them looks. Gabe had told them all about Georgie and Sarah's plan, and how apparently they'd managed to get most of the class in on their matchmaking shenanigans, and while Stef is flattered , they really don't know how to deal with the knowledge that their entire classroom of fourth graders was trying to get them together with Gabe.

They really must not have been subtle about their feelings, huh?

Still, the week's gone on relatively normally, with nothing too bad happening (Oreo mishap aside). Today, though, is the day they've been preparing for for months: the first day of their lunchtime D&D club.

They've got everything planned out (or as much as they could get planned out ahead of time), and when the lunch bell rings, it's easy enough to scoop up their binder and dice bag and get everything set up at the back table in their classroom.

They have six kids who'll be joining them today, which they think is a pretty good number, considering the other clubs are more well-established and easier for kids without a prior knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons to have an interest in, like Lego club and book club. 

A few minutes after Stef's got everything set up, the kids start trickling in with their lunch trays. There's three kids from Stef's own class: Ava, Sarah, and, unsurprisingly, Georgie. Two kids from Korse's class, Chess and Arnie, show up together, looking a little nervous. The sixth member is a third grader named Benson, who seems even bouncier and more excitable than Georgie. 

Stef thinks they'll all do just fine.

"So," they ask once everyone's settled down with their lunch, "who here has played Dungeons and Dragons before?"

Everyone's hands go up, except for Sarah's. Stef nods, and launches into an explanation of the game. They've stripped the game down to its bare essentials, making the rules much simpler to understand and switching everything to work with either a 20-sided die or the standard 6-sided. There's still plenty of math to do (Stef had, after all, gotten the school board to agree to their club by telling them it was a game of math and problem-solving), but it'll end up being simple addition and subtraction.

"...and you get to create your own characters however you like!" Stef says, opening their binder and pulling out the simplified character sheets they'd made. They pass them out, and the kids all excitedly start reading over it. "You can be any kind of monster or magical creature you want," they continue, "and we'll figure out what your numbers are for skills and such together."

Georgie raises her hand. "Can I be a mind flayer?" she asks excitedly, and Stef blinks.

"Uh," they say. "Um, sure! We can figure out the numbers for that!" A mind flayer? Gabe must have a monster manual laying around his house somewhere. Stef had been expecting ogres and orcs and elves and mermaids, not mind flayers. Still, it's not something they can't work with. 

"Can I be a fairy princess?" Sarah pipes up beside her, and Stef stifles a sigh of relief at something closer to their expectations.

"Of course you can!" they say.

The rest of the lunch period is spent generating ideas for characters and figuring out what sort of adventure the kids want to take their characters on, and then Stef sends them each off with their character sheet and a packet of rules and tips for them to look over.

Georgie waits by Stef's seat as they put away their things.

"Mx. Campbell," she asks slowly, and Stef pauses in their task, turning to face her. 

"Hm? What's up, Georgie?"

"Now that you and my daddy are dating," she says, and Stef can't help the little thrill that shoots through them, "do you wanna play a game with us sometime? We play D an' D sometimes, and we have Clue and Sorry, and some other stuff. We don't get to play a lot because he's busy or tired usually, but maybe the next time we play, you could come over an' play, too?"

Stef feels their expression soften. "I'll talk to your daddy about it later," they say. "But it sounds like lots of fun!"

Georgie perks up. "Okay!" she says, bouncing on her toes. "Thanks, St--er, Mx. Campbell! We're gonna have so much fun!"

Stef watches as she hurries off to return her tray to the lunch room. Georgie's absolutely adorable.




"So," Madhavi says with a wide grin when he walks into the gym, "Simon tells me you finally hooked up with Stef, huh? Congrats, man!"

"Don't call me 'man,' " Gabe says, making a face. "And we didn't hook up, we're dating now!" He drops his bag on the bench.

"Mm-hm." Madhavi raises an eyebrow at him, trying to look serious, and then breaks into a laugh. "Seriously, though, congrats! Maybe now you'll stop skippin' leg day, huh?"

"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"Nothin', nothin'." She grabs his forearm and pulls him over to the weight rack to help her select her weights and set up her workout station. "Anyway! I know ya got Lola an' Kai on speed dial for all your babysittin' needs, but if they're not available, I just wanted you to know that me an' Simon're always willin' to watch the kid if you got a date." Her grin turns mischievous. "We've got the space to take 'er overnight, too, if, ya know..." She waggles her eyebrows.

Gabe feels his face heat up, and he ducks his head, clears his throat. "Uh," he says. "Good to know. Thanks."

Madhavi laughs and teases him the whole time they work out together.


Saturday, February 22.


Gabe stands in front of the mirror, tugging on the hem of his shirt. He's not usually too concerned with what he wears, because he's usually wearing an apron that covers his shirt, and anyway, the heat from the kitchen and the sweat he inevitably finds himself covered in don't make for a pretty picture, regardless of how nice his clothes are, but tonight... well, tonight's a special occasion.

Tonight's his first date with Stef.

He knows Stef's not going to mind if he shows up wearing his usual T-shirt and jeans, but he still wants to look nice. Besides, it's been too long since he wore one of his favorite shirts.

So, tonight he's put on his white button-up that's covered in a print of little pink flamingos. It's a little too gauzy for him to be really comfortable with, so he's wearing it over a pink tie-dyed muscle shirt Georgie had made for him last year for his birthday. He stares at himself in the mirror. Is this appropriate date attire? Are his jeans--a nicer pair he rarely wears--too casual? Is the tie-dye too casual? What even is "too casual?" Stef hadn't told him where they were going, so he doesn't know if this is going to be, like, a fancy date or what.

God, he hasn't been this nervous about a date... well, ever, really. Ugh, this is stupid. Stef's not going to think any less of him if it's not quite appropriate. They wear rainbow sequin tank tops on a casual night out with their brother. It'll be fine.

Gabe's just finishing up putting some product in his hair when he hears the bathroom door creak open. He turns to find Georgie peering in at him, one hand clutching the doorknob. She looks him over, head tilting to the side, and then she nods once, decisively, and grins. "You look so freaking wonderful, daddy."

He laughs, opening his arms and gathering her into a big hug. "Thanks, Georgie," he says. "You think Stef'll like it?"

"Stef'll love it," she says. She pulls away from him, looks him over again. Her eyes narrow. "You need makeup," she says.

"Oh, I don't know. I haven't worn any in so long. "

"Just some eyeshadow?" Georgie begs. "Pleeeeease? Please can I put some eyeshadow on you?!"

"Well," he says. Surely eyeshadow won't make or break the outfit, right? And, well, he can't really deny her anything when she looks at him like that, her lower lip jutted out in a pout and her eyes wide, puppy-dog-like. He sighs, and smiles at her. "Okay, okay. A little eyeshadow. Go get my makeup case, okay?"

"Yay!" Georgie runs off immediately, and he settles himself on the toilet seat to await her return. 

She's carefully smearing neon pink eyeshadow he'd completely forgotten he had over his eyelids when there's a knock at the front door. She pauses, then looks at him, eyes wide. "D'you think that's Stef?" she asks. "Or Lola and Kai?"

"I don't know," he says. He feels like his heart's about to beat out of his chest. "Why don't you go get the door, and I'll finish up in here, okay?"

Gabe stashes his makeup bag in a drawer and peers into the mirror again. Is the eyeshadow too much? No, no, it looks good. It looks like he's trying, and that can't be bad. Right?

Ugh, when did he get so nervous about this kind of thing?!


Oh, thank God. It's Kai, not Stef. He still has time to freak out. Wait, shit, that's not a good thing!

"Right here," he calls, tearing himself away from the mirror and stepping out into the narrow hallway. 

Georgie squeezes past him to her room to grab her bag, and he can see Kai in the living room, watching him. 

"Ready for your date, dude?" Kai's easy grin spreads across his face. 

"Yeah. Definitely not nervous or anything," Gabe says as he steps out into the living room, tugging on the hem of his shirt again.

"You don't hafta be nervous, man, you're gonna have, like, a great time."

Gabe politely ignores his word choice and just shakes his head. "Oh, like you weren't nervous on your first date with Lola."

"Nope." Kai's eyes get a faraway look in them. "Didn't even know it was a date 'til later. Heh. Didn't have the time to be nervous."

"You didn't know it was a date?"

"Nah. I'm not great at pickin' up hints. Or puttin' pieces together." He shrugs. "Anyway, I got Sam waitin' in the car, so I guess I'll take Georgie an' get goin'."

"Yeah, uh, sure!" Georgie emerges from the hallway just then, her little yellow backpack clutched in her hand. "Tell Sam and Lola hi for me, and thanks again!"

"No problem, dude." Kai puts his hand on Georgie's shoulder. "We love havin' Georgie over. Think Lola said somethin' about, uh... some kinda art project?" He shrugs. "Anyway. Call us if you're gonna be late pickin' her up."

"Bye, Daddy!" Georgie wraps her arms around his legs. "Have fun, okay? Tell me all about it when you pick me up later! I wanna know everything!"

"Well," says Gabe, ruffling her hair, "I'll tell you the most interesting parts of the date, okay?" And kid-friendly.

"Okay!" Georgie stretches up on her tiptoes, and Gabe leans down to press a kiss to her forehead. 

"Have fun, kiddo," he says. "And thanks again, Kai!"

And then they're gone, and Gabe's left alone to wait.

He picks up his wallet and keys. Wait, whose car are they taking? He sets the keys down. He still has to lock his house.   He picks the keys back up. The eyeshadow is probably too much, right? He should go wash it off.

Before he can even take a single step toward the bathroom, there's another knock at the door.

Gabe freezes, his heart hammering in his chest. Shit, that's gotta be Stef this time, right? Fuck, wait, he's not ready, he can't do this, he probably looks terrible , Stef's gonna take one look at him and leave, or maybe he's just gonna be a terrible date and Stef's gonna be bored the whole time, or maybe he--

Calm down, Gabe. Breathe. Breathe.

He exhales slowly, then straightens his shoulders and calls, "Coming!" He hurries over to the door and pulls it open.

Stef's standing on his doorstep, with the light of the setting sun catching in their hair and painting their skin gold. His breath catches in his throat again, but he can feel himself grinning, can feel the anxiety melting away at just the sight of them.

"Hi," he says.

"Holy macaroni , Gabe, you clean up nice!" Stef exclaims, stepping up close to put their hands on the collar of his shirt. They look him up and down. "Flamingos? And tie-dye? Gabe Martín, you are full of surprises!" They lean in closer, and he prepares himself for one of their frankly amazing kisses, but instead, they exclaim, "Eyeshadow?! You are going all out for this, and I love it!"

He laughs, relief flooding through him. "Thanks," he says. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to break out some of my favorite clothes. Georgie thought the eyeshadow would be a good touch."

"She was right," Stef says, sounding a little breathless. "I kinda thought barbecue dad was your whole aesthetic, but I am very into this."

He kisses them. Just a little peck, but it's all that's necessary, and they grin at each other.

Gabe has no doubt tonight's going to be a good one.




"I didn't even know there was an art gallery in town," Gabe says, and Stef takes note of the sharp intake of breath as the two of them enter the building.

It's not a particularly large gallery, of course, but it's full of art by local artists, and it's one of Stef's favorite places.

It's been a while since they were last here, so the art's completely different this time around, but that just means that the two of them get to see it all together for the first time.

Stef lets Gabe take the lead, and follows him to the first painting he gravitates toward.

"I'm always amazed at what artists can come up with," he says, and Stef steps up beside him, their shoulder brushing against his as they look it over. 

The painting is of a garden scene, mostly greens and blues, with bold lines and swirls that give it a whimsical look. Their eyes are drawn to a snail toward the center of the garden, the only thing not green or blue, but instead painted in different shades of brown. "I mean, if I looked at a garden, I wouldn't see this. I'd just see leaves and grass. But this is... something else. And I love it." He laughs quietly, and Stef thinks they can hear a note of embarrassment in his voice, so they turn away from the painting and look at him. 

"Sorry," he says, still looking at it. "I feel like you're supposed to say something smart about every piece when you go to an art gallery, but I don't know any of that... artsy jargon, I guess." He pulls his gaze from the painting and meets theirs. "Uh. I like it, though. Is what I'm trying to say."

Stef laughs, too, reaching over to take his hand in theirs. His lips tug upwards. "Gabe, ya don't have to say anything smart," they say. "You can just look at it an' say it's pretty, ya know?"

He's grinning now. "It's pretty," he says. "And so are you."

There's a brief moment where the two of them just look at each other, and Stef feels almost weightless, feels like it's just the two of them here together, but then Gabe's cheeks darken, and he clears his throat, and the spell is broken. 

Stef squeezes his hand. "Did you know Simon has a piece displayed here?" they ask, and Gabe blinks.

"Simon as in Madhavi's partner, Simon Moore? Whoa, no, I had no idea!"

"Yeah!" Stef looks around the room, but they can't see it anywhere. "He told me about it a couple weeks ago, but I haven't been here since they set it up. He showed me a couple pics, though, so I'll point it out when we find it, I guess."

"Okay. Do you wanna look for it, or just wander around for now?"

"Eh. Simon's piece can wait. Let's check out the other stuff first, huh?"

They spend about half an hour going from frame to frame, piece to piece, taking in all the different colors and comparing the different styles. At one point, Gabe makes an offhand comment about a particular painting looking like Shaw, which sets off a game of finding as many of their friends and family in the art as possible.

Stef's sure they haven't laughed this much in a long time.

"Oh!" they exclaim as they move around a partian. "Here's Simon's piece!"

Gabe follows them, bumping their shoulder with his own, and pauses. "Wow," he says after a moment. "This is not at all what I was expecting."

Stef laughs, can't help but agree. Simon's a cheerful, friendly guy, and the found-object sculpture in front of them is anything but. Barbed wire and bricks, dried grasses and old fabric scraps all put together to make something grotesque, painted in glossy neons that make the whole thing look garish and weird.

Stef loves it.

"Simon's so talented," Gabe groans. "I know I said this earlier, but artists are amazing."

"Abso-frickin'-lutely," Stef says, taking his hand to lead him to the next piece.

By the time they leave the gallery, the sun has well and truly set, and Stef's feeling much more relaxed, less nervous. This is a first date, yes, but it's a date with someone they've known for a while, someone they know well enough that they don't have to worry about offending him or taking him somewhere he won't like.

They're having fun.

"Where are we going next?" Gabe asks, swinging their hand a little between them.

"You'll see."

"Another surprise, huh? I like surprises."

"You'll definitely like this one."




"I can't believe you've never been here before!"

Gabe laughs, leaning back in his chair across from Stef. "I don't leave the diner much!" he weakly defends himself. "And when I do, it's not usually to go eat at another restaurant. Unless it's for ice cream or doughnuts, but those don't count."

"Oh, shoot, is eating here, like, cheating on your diner?" Stef's eyes are wide, and he'd almost think they were being serious if it weren't for the teasing tilt of their eyebrows and the slight upward quirk of their lips.

God they're pretty.

"I'm pretty sure there's nothing in the restaurant owner's handbook that says I'm not allowed to eat at other establishments," he assures them.

They laugh. "Good! Shoot, Gabe, you're gonna love this place. Shaw took me here, like, right after I first moved here! It was my favorite place 'til you showed up."

"Did you meet Shaw when you moved here?" Gabe asks, a little confused as he takes a sip of his water. "I kinda thought the two of you had grown up around here, or something."

"No, yeah, we've been friends since we were practically babies, " they say, propping their chin in their hand and tilting their head so the lights overhead catch on their shiny lipgloss, making it sparkle. "We met in middle school. Grew up in a decent-sized town a few hours from here, went to college together in Sacramento--well, for a while, 'til ae dropped out--then came here. Shaw moved a couple months before I did, though, so ae got to explore the town an' show me all the cool spots."

"Wow," Gabe says. "You moved around a lot together. And... well, you and Marco are pretty close. You live together, right?"

"Yeah." Stef's smile softens at the mention of their brother. "He moved around with me an' Shaw. Shaw has aer own place now, but me an' Marco stick together!"

"Huh. Wait, he lived with you... during college? He's a year or two younger than you, right?"

Stef's face falls slightly, which is probably not a good sign for a first date. The bubble of anxiety starts to form in the pit of Gabe's stomach again. "Yeah, he's two years younger than me. I, uh, left home as soon as I turned eighteen, and I took Marco with me."

The mood has changed drastically, from the sweet, semi-flirtatious conversation to this tension. Gabe's not quite sure if he should change the subject, or let the air clear on its own, or what, but he knows this is his fault, and he wants to fix it, so he asks, careful to keep his town gentle and level, "Is it okay if I ask why? You don't have to answer; we can talk about something else if you want."

Stef smiles again, not quite as widely as before, but miles better than the sullen look they'd been wearing. The atmosphere lightens noticeably. "No, it's okay. I mean, hopefully talkin' about this won't ruin the mood of our date-- if it does, well, sorry, I guess." They laugh, not quite happily, but not humorlessly, either. Gabe laughs, too, just a little, and reaches across the table to put his hand on Stef's. Their smile widens, actually reaching their eyes this time.

"You don't have to talk about it," he says. "But I wanna know about you, and your life." God, wait, is that too sappy for a first date? Maybe! But they've been friends for a while before this, talking about themselves.... Surely this is an okay topic in this case?

Stef's cheeks pinken, just enough for him to notice, and he thinks, oh. His heart beats a little faster. "Right, yeah, that's... a really good point." They sound a little breathless as they speak, and their eyes are locked with his, and he thinks that maybe they're not going to continue their story, maybe the two of them will just sit here for a while, staring at each other and holding hands across the table and feeling their hearts beat in their chests, feel their heartbeats in their joined hands... but then their food arrives and their stomachs win out. They break apart, reluctantly, Gabe thinks, their gazes shifting to their food and hands moving to their forks.

"Anyway," Stef says, after they've both had a few bites and Gabe's announced that he does, indeed, love the food, "Me an' Marco. And Shaw. ...And my parents." They sigh, shake their head. "I don't really know where to start. Uh, my parents are... kinda lousy."

Gabe winces. He's pretty sure he knows where this is going now, but he doesn't interrupt them, just continues eating as he watches them.

Stef moves their food around on their plate as they talk, shifting their focus between their plate and the middle distance. "They're lousy in a few ways, I guess. The main one bein' that they're transphobic as heck. Hence, y'know, the leavin'-home-at-eighteen thing."

"Right, I get that." He's lucky that his parents were never terribly concerned with his gender or sexuality; as long as he stayed out of trouble and got good grades, they didn't care about that sort of thing. He can't say the same for Damien's parents, of course, who didn't even allow him to start transitioning while he'd lived with them. 

"Yeah. Not a hard decision to make, y'know, when you've got a college lined up an' your best friend, who's also nonbinary as heck, invites you to live with aer and aer frankly amazing mom." Stef laughs a little, turning their gaze back to Gabe. "It's kinda weird, though, 'cause they're not homophobic- - they're actually totally fine with Marco bein' gay, which they should be, an' they never had a problem when I'd date guys, it's just the whole--" they wave one hand through the air, "-- trans thing they don't like."

"Sounds shitty," he says. "Wait, so, if their main problem was with your gender, why did you take Marco with you when he was sixteen? He'd have been okay there, right?" Or, wait, was Marco trans? Gabe had just assumed he was cis, but maybe he was a trans guy, or maybe he was also nonbinary and used he/him pronouns?

"Well, I mean, he'd be okay because of that, " Stef assures him, which, okay, so Marco's probably cis. That's fine. "But, uh, Marco had... really bad depression. Uh, starting when he was about fifteen. It got so bad that next year that he could barely handle goin' to school, y'know? And, uh, well... my parents were really dismissive of it and ended up making him even worse." Their jaw clenches for just a moment before they relax again. "I couldn't just leave him there to deal with that, so I got him outta there as soon as I could." They shrug, cramming way too big of a bite into their mouth and glancing away as they chew. 

"Whoa," Gabe says, unsure of how else to respond. "So you... took care of him while he finished school and you were in college? Got him the help he needed?"

Stef swallows, tapping the fingers of their free hand on the table. "Well," they say after a moment, "he kinda... refused to see a therapist or anything like that for a long time. He was really lethargic and apathetic, those were his, like, main symptoms. On his good days he could do a little schoolwork, clean up a bit, work on his hobbies, but on his bad days, it was all Shaw and I could do to keep him... well." They meet his eye again. "To keep him alive, basically."

Gabe sucks in a breath. What is he supposed to say to that that won't seem disrespectful or dismissive of Marco? "That... that's a lot or responsibility for two teenagers," he says after a moment. "This was, uh, while you were going to college?"

"Yeah. And when I started working here, too. Marco, uh, didn't start to actually recover until, like, this summer." They bite their lip, and then, before Gabe can say anything else, they say, "And, I mean, it's not really that different from you raising a kid with your husband while you went to college and all that jazz! Do you have any siblings?"

Gabe recognizes that they're trying to change the subject and lighten the mood. "Nah, it's just me. Georgie has a pretty big family, but all the aunts and uncles are on her dad and step-dad's sides. Hey, can I ask you another question? I promise it's not as heavy as that last one was. ...Well, I don't think it is, anyway."

"Yeah, sure," Stef says, but they sound a little wary.

"Why do you always fake-swear?"

Stef stares at them for a long moment, perfect mouth hanging open just slightly, clearly not having expected that question. Then they laugh again, a loud, sudden laugh that sounds almost like a honk. Gabe's heart stutter-steps in his chest. "Oh my gosh," they exclaim. "I'm a fourth-grade teacher, and you want me to swear?"

"Is that the reason?" Gabe asks, arching his eyebrow teasingly at them. "I mean, you're only around the kids for a few hours a day."

Their cheeks flush pink again, and fuck they're cute. "I don't wanna slip up and swear in front of the kids!" they say. "It's easier to just use the watered-down non-swears all the time than to watch my mouth in the classroom!" 

"Okay," he says. "I guess that's a pretty good reason."

"Do you swear in front of Georgie?"

"Sometimes," he admits. "I try not to, though. When I do, I just ask her not to repeat it, because it's a grown-up word."

"A grown-up word," Stef repeats, almost mockingly, but they're still smiling. "Ridiculous."

"More or less ridiculous than using fake swears all the time?"

They hum, gaze turning upward and their head tilting to one side as they tap their chin with their forefinger and pretend to think. It's cute! "About equally as ridiculous, I think."

And now it's Gabe's turn to laugh. The two of them continue talking until they've both finished their meals, and a little after that, until Gabe starts to notice the waiter sending them pointed looks.

Gabe reaches for his wallet, but Stef beats him to it. "You're always givin' me free stuff at the diner," they say. "Let me buy you something!"

He relents, Stef pays, and the two of them head back out to Stef's car, hand-in-hand.

"I have one more place I wanna take you," Stef says. "Are you ready?"

"I don't know where we're going," Gabe says with a chuckle. "How can I answer that?"

Stef leans up to press their lips to his in a quick kiss, and the butterflies flutter in Gabe's stomach again. Fuck, he wants to kiss them so much more than that. "You'll see," they say, opening the driver's side door. "We're only gonna break the law a little. "

"Wait, what?"




The elementary school looks so much different at night, Gabe notices as he follows Stef through the darkened halls with only their phones' flashlights to light the way. It's quiet and empty, sending little shivers up his spine. Gabe doesn't believe in ghosts, but that doesn't mean he's not spooked.

Stef's hand in his is a big source of comfort. Their hand is smaller than his, of course--almost everyone's is--and it fits snugly in his. Their hand is a little cold, but that's okay. His is always a little warm.

"The door's right up here," Stef says at full volume, which does not help Gabe's nerves. Aren't you supposed to be quiet when you're breaking into a building? "Sorry we had to go inside. Didn't expect the gate to be locked."

"It's fine," Gabe says, though he's still not quite sure what they're doing here. 

Stef leads him to the end of a hallway and pushes open the door, and the two of them find themselves back outside beneath the dark, starry sky, only now instead of standing hand-in-hand in an empty parking lot, they're standing hand-in-hand on an empty playground.

"Now what?" he whispers, because that still seems like the appropriate thing to do.

"C'mon, over here!" 

Stef tugs on his hand, and he goes willingly, following them across the stretch of pavement toward the tall, strangely-shaped shadows that Gabe's pretty sure are jungle gyms and play structures. 

They lead him to one shape in particular, and sure enough, it's a tall plastic play structure with several slides and platforms at different levels. They drop his hand in order to tug themself up onto one of the platforms, and then they scoot back, disappearing into the shadows. He hears a tup tup tup as they pat the platform beside them. "Come on! Come sit!"

Gabe laughs under his breath, surprised and strangely delighted that this was the final special place on Stef's list. He reaches up and presses his palms against the platform, hoisting himself up with ease and scooting over to sit beside Stef, their sides pressed up against each other.

"You're freaking strong, huh?" Stef asks, sounding a little breathless, and Gabe laughs, lifting his arm to throw it over Stef's shoulder and pull them a little closer to him.

"I like to work out," he says. "The upper body strength is an added bonus."

Stef hums in reply, leaning their head against his shoulder. "Madhavi says you need to do more lower body workouts."

Gabe snorts. "My lower body strength is more than adequate!" he protests. "Madhavi doesn't know what she's talking about."

They giggle, lifting their head from his shoulder. He turns to look at them, at their moonlit shadow in the dark. There's a quiet moment between them, where they just look at each other, and Gabe feels all warm and fuzzy despite the chill in the air. And then Stef's leaning toward him, and Gabe closes the distance between them, his lips meeting theirs as his arm slips from their shoulders to wrap around their waist.

Their Valentine's kisses had been soft and sweet, and the few kisses they'd stolen tonight had so far been in the same vein, but now that it's just the two of them, it doesn't take long before the kiss deepens, Stef sliding into Gabe's lap and wrapping their arms around his neck. 

Gabe almost feels like he's a teenager again, sneaking out at night to make out with people his parents probably wouldn't approve of, but this is better than that, and Stef is...

Well, they're pretty fucking amazing, honestly.

He slides his hand up, under their shirt until he touches the skin of their back, and they gasp lightly, breaking the kiss.

Oh, shit, did he move too fast? He starts to pull his hand away, but Stef reaches back and grabs his wrist, holding his hand there against the small of their back. 

"Gabe," they say, and he can see their eyes glimmering in the dark as they search his face. "You know, you're the most beautiful man I've ever seen in my life?"

"Please don't call me that," Gabe says, before he can stop himself, and he can feel them tense. "No, uh--no, sorry-- I mean, thanks, you're-- you're pretty too, uh--"

"Don't call you what?" Stef asks, their voice sterner than usual. "Gabe. Did I say something wrong?"

"I--" Well, shit. This is probably not the best time to do this, but.... He shifts the hand not on Stef's back to their hip, holding them just tightly enough to tell them that he's not mad at them. "Well, kinda. Uh. I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me a 'man.'"

"Okay." They sound a little taken aback. "I won't, obviously, but-- wait, hang on, holy heck, Gabe, are you tellin' me I've been misgendering you this entire time?!"

"Uh." He gives them a sheepish look, though he's sure they can't see it in the dark. "Maybe? Possibly?"

"Gabe. What are your freaking pronouns?!"

"Oh, no, they're he/him," he quickly assures them. "I'm just not a man. I'm nonbinary, too, just... I mean, I guess demiboy is the closest label I've found that matches up, but I don't think that really fits me all that great so I don't use it too much, and I'm fine with most masculine terms, I just don't like 'man' or 'male' really, so uh, my gender doesn't really come up much, and it's kinda hard to explain, so, uh--"

"Gabe," Stef says again, and suddenly their hands are gone from the back of his neck and cupping his cheeks again, gently but firmly, as they look into his eyes. "You don't have to tell me everything if you don't want to. I just-- I don't wanna call you somethin' you don't wanna be called! I wanna-- holy heck, Gabe, you're nonbinary!" They laugh then, a sharp, high-pitched sound that bounces against the plastic and metal play structures around them, and they lean in and kiss him again.

"Wish you'd told me sooner," they mumble against his lips, and then they pull away again, keeping their hands on his cheeks so he can't follow after them. "I mean, I get why you didn't, 'cause gender's tough to talk about sometimes, but I'm nonbinary, obviously, so it's not like I'd judge you--"

"I mean, sometimes people do," Gabe says, feeling much more comfortable talking about this now. "I'm not-- I mean, I have enough attachment to my assigned gender that, you know, some people think I don't really belong in trans communities, so--"

"Frickin' dorks," Stef says, managing to make the word sound as scathing as the word "asshole" or "bastard" would sound from almost anyone else. Gabe can't help but grin. "You're nonbinary! You're trans! Frick, me an' Shaw had to deal with that kinda thing in high school and we're as nonbinary as you can get." They kiss him again, just a quick peck on the lips. "You can talk to me about this stuff whenever you want, okay? Shoot, wait--should I not call you my boyfriend? Should I-- are you my datemate?"

He laughs a little, placing one of his hands over one of Stef's on his cheek. "I'm fine with either," he says. "I like the word boyfriend best, though."

"Okay," Stef says quietly, sucking in a breath. "Okay, good, great. Um. Dang. I frickin'-- Gabe."


"I just. You're amazing, you know?"

Gabe hasn't felt this warm in so long. He pushes forward, kissing them again, and this time, neither of them pull away for a long time.




It's late by the time they get back to Stef's car, and Stef kinda really doesn't want the night to end.

So, when Stef starts the engine and Gabe asks, "Do you wanna come over? Spend the night? I-- Lola said she could keep Georgie overnight, if you wanted...?" and it takes way too much willpower to refuse.

"I can't," they say, hoping he can hear in their tone just how much they want to say yes. "Marco's waiting for me, and I can't leave him alone all night."

"Oh. Okay." Gabe's clearly disappointed, but he doesn't push them. Stef's glad for that, even though they really wish they could answer differently. All night, and the last hour or so especially, Stef hasn't been able to stop themself from thinking about Gabe, and his big, strong hands, and the way he holds their hips, the way he presses up against them--

"Next time," they say as they pull out onto the road, feeling more than a little breathless. "Next time we go out, definitely... definitely. I'll come over. Stay the night."

"Yeah?" They can hear the smile in his voice.


When they drop him off at his house a half hour later, thoroughly kissed, their thoughts stray back into thinking of the future, of those dates that have yet to be but will be, and they let themself grin the whole way home.