Playground Eyes

Chapter 8: March

Sunday, March 1.


"I still can't believe you let me misgender you for months and months!" Shaw exclaims for probably the twelfth time this week as ae skates into the kitchen. It must be slow out there. Gabe glances at the clock on the wall; 11:06 AM. The lunchtime and after-church crowds will be showing up soon. He gets back to work, shooting a half-sheepish grin over to Shaw.

"Sorry, sorry," he says, only half-meaning it. 

"I mean, really!" Shaw leans against the counter close to him, balancing aerself perfectly on aer skates. "One would think you could trust me of all people, me, who uses the goddamn neopronouns, to respect your gender!"

He huffs a laugh, stepping away from the stove and wiping his hands on his apron. "I told you, it's not that I didn't trust you, it's just that it felt awkward to correct you!"

"I agree with Shaw," Cole interjects from across the kitchen. "You should've at least told us not to refer to you with masculine words when you hired us. Trans solidarity and all that."

"Trans solidarity!" Shaw calls back to him. "Wait, shit, is this entire restaurant staffed by trans people?!"

Gabe pauses, thinking. That would be a hell of a coincidence, wouldn't it? Himari's nonbinary, of course, and uses they/them pronouns, but he's not sure about Taiki other than that he uses he/him pronouns, and Bunny--

"Ah, no, wait, Bunny's cis." Shaw sighs disappointedly. "Such a shame for a clever kid like her."

"She can't help being cis," Cole calls back. "Apparently it's pretty common to be cis, in fact."

"No way. " Shaw gasps dramatically, covering aer mouth in exaggerated shock, and Gabe laughs again, more genuine this time, pulling his apron off to hang it up before heading back to his office, leaving his employees to their gossip.

Gabe had told everyone in the diner that he was nonbinary a couple of days after his first and so far, only (though they have plans for later this week), date with Stef. He hadn't realized how much the "man," "Boss-man," and other such terms had bothered him until they'd suddenly stopped. It's been a good week, and he really is kicking himself for not mentioning his discomfort earlier.

He hasn't quite made it through the dining room to his office yet when he hears the bell over the door ring, and he glances over more out of habit than need. He stops in his tracks, though, when he recognizes Marco entering. 

"Hey, you!" Gabe says, turning on his heel to go talk to him. "Alone today?"

"Wanted to get out of the apartment for a bit," Marco says, slipping into his usual booth. "Thought I'd get some coffee and pancakes while I was at it."

Stef must be busy today, Gabe supposes. They've been texting even more, somehow, since their date, but they both live busy adult lives, so they don't get to see each other as much as they'd both like to at the moment. "Do you want a menu, then, or should I just send Shaw out with that?"

"Shaw's here?" Marco's expression barely changes, but Gabe can see his eyes light up. "Nah, no menu. Just pancakes and coffee. Thanks."

Gabe grins at him and heads back to the kitchen, leaning in through the window and rapping his knuckles on the wood rather than going fully back inside. "Marco's here," he tells Shaw when they look over at him. "Get him some coffee and pancakes when you have a moment, yeah?"

Well, Gabe decides as he turns back around, he's still got more than enough time to do paperwork. He can talk to Marco a little bit, if Marco doesn't mind.

Marco, in fact, does not mind, seeming to know what Gabe wants without him even having to say anything; when Gabe approaches his table again, Marco gestures for him to sit down across from him.

Gabe doesn't see Marco too often without either Stef or Dante around, but the two of them seem to have forged a friendship either way. Marco's not a very talkative guy, preferring to let other people talk and just adding his own thoughts every so often. Gabe usually finds himself talking more than usual when it's just the two of them.

Today, though, Marco starts talking even before Gabe's ass has touched the seat. "So. I hear you and Stef had a nice date last week."

Gabe blinks, then grins again, feeling his face heat up a bit. "Uh, yeah, I think it went pretty well." He pauses. "Wait, is this the shovel talk? Are you about to tell me I better not hurt your sibling if I don't wanna end up in the ground?"

Marco snorts, his hand shifting up to tug at his earlobe for a moment before dropping back to the table. "No, Stef can take care of themself. I just wanted to say that if you ever need a babysitter for the night, I can watch Georgie."

Gabe blinks again, his face heating up even more. "Oh, uh, well. Thanks," he says, not quite sure if Marco's implying what he thinks he's implying. "I, uh, well. Her usual babysitters can take her for the night, so it shouldn't be, uh, a problem."

Marco shrugs. "Thought I'd offer," he says. "If they can't take 'er sometime, just let me know."

"Well. Thanks," Gabe says again, and luckily Shaw appears before it can get too awkward, coffee pot and mug in hand.

It's nice of him to offer. Gabe knows that Lola and Kai don't always have open schedules, and that things come up. It'll be nice to have a backup sitter for Georgie, now that Gabe's got dates to plan.


Wednesday, March 4.


"The old man leads you through the tunnels, the light fading around you with each step you take," Stef reads from their campaign notes, glancing up to see the kids' expressions. Arnie's the only one who doesn't look enraptured, but he doesn't look bored, either, so they count it as a win. They continue, "Soon, the tunnel is completely dark, and you can't see anything at all. Do you continue following him? Or turn back?"

"Keep following him!" Georgie calls out immediately. "I'm not scared'a any old man. I'm a mind flayer. I can take 'im!"

"But what if he's a mind flayer, too?" Sarah whispers. "Maybe he's taking us somewhere to eat us!"

"He's not a mind flayer! He's not cool enough to be a mind flayer."

"Well, I think we should keep followin' him," Chess says. "How're we gonna find the next piece of the map if we don't go into the tunnels?"

The others all nod in agreement, so Stef continues on. "After a few minutes, you notice your surroundings beginning to lighten again. You can see the silhouettes of the other members of your party in the light coming from--"

"What's a silhouette?" Benson interrupts, jutting his chin forward and tugging his entire face into a pout. 

"It's, like, someone's shadow," Georgie says. "You can't see their face but you can see their blob."

Ava wrinkles her nose. "Their blob? Ew!"

"What's ew about blobs?! Everyone's a blob in the dark!"

"People don't turn into blobs in the dark!"

"They look like blobs in the dark! 'Cause you can't see their, like, their faces or their shirts or whatever unless it's light!"

Stef snorts a little. "Here," they say, pushing their glasses higher on the bridge of their nose and leaning over their notebook. They quickly draw a rough outline of a person and fill it in with a few scribbles of their pen. They then turn the paper so everyone can see it. "See how you can just see the shape of the person, but you can't see what they look like? That's a silhouette. Sometimes a shadow can be a silhouette, too."

"Oh," Benson and Ava say in unison.

"A blob," Georgie says triumphantly, and Stef chuckles to themself before turning back to their notes.

"So. You can see the silhouettes of the other members of your party in the light coming from up ahead. 'It's not much farther now,' the old man says. 'But we have to be extra quiet so we don't wake the cactus beast. Don't talk again until I tell you it's safe'"

"A cactus beast?! " Arnie cries, and the other five quickly shush him. "A cactus beast?" he asks again in a whisper. "What's that?"

"You don't know," Stef tells him. "None of you know. You have three options: Do you want to ask him what the cactus beast is? Do you want to stay quiet and keep following him? Or do you want to turn around and go back?"

"I wanna know what the cactus beast is!" Benson says.

"But he said not to talk!" Sarah argues. "If we ask him what it is we'll be talking!"

"Aw, who cares?" Georgie says. "I wanna know what it is, so I'm gonna ask him! If it wakes up, we can fight it!"

"No!" Chess shakes his head. "He said not to talk!"

"Do you want to vote on it?" Stef asks. They glance at the clock. "Lunch time's almost over, so this will be your last choice of the day."

"Yeah, let's vote!" Benson says. "I vote we ask him about the cactus thing!"

"I vote for that too!" Georgie says.

"I wanna know, too," says Ava. "'Cause this old man is boring and I wanna fight somethin'!"

"Well I think it's a bad idea," Chess says. "So I say no."

"Me, too. A cactus beast sounds scary." Sarah shakes her head.

Everyone turns to look at Arnie. "You're the deciding vote," Stef tells him. "What do you think you should do?"

Arnie glances around the table, locking eyes with Chess, who shakes his head. Arnie looks at Stef again, nervous, and says, "I vote yes. I wanna know what it is too."

Chess and Sarah both groan as the other four cheer, and Stef shuffles their notes around to find that particular plot line. "You ask the old man about the cactus beast, and he turns around to shush you, but before any of you can respond, you hear a big ROAR from up ahead!"

The kids gasp, and Stef grins, dropping their notes on the table and raising their arms up in the air to roar as loudly as they can. "The ground shakes under your feet, and you hear big, heavy footsteps running toward you!"

The lunch bell rings over the intercom just then, causing all the kids to jump, and then groan as they begin to gather up their things. 

"You'll have to wait 'til next week to find out about the cactus monster," Stef tells them, waving them off as they head off to return their trays to the lunch room. "Think about the different things that might happen when you see it, and try to figure out a way to deal with it!"

The kids wave back at them and then continue on their way, and Stef takes the time to gather up their own papers. The kids seem to be having a lot of fun with the game, which is the main goal of this whole club, and Stef's proud of themself for coming up with a story that eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds find interesting. The kids contribute to a lot of it, too, and Stef’s found that they really enjoy this sort of collaborative storytelling with them. D&D is fun with adults, too, of course, but there's just something so fun about playing it with kids.

They love Wednesday club meetings.


Thursday, March 5.


Stef squeezes Marco's hand and leans over to press a kiss to his temple before he opens the door. "I'll meet you over at the coffee shop when you're done," they tell him.

Marco nods, offering them a tiny smile as he slips out of the car. "I know the drill," he says. "See ya in an hour."

"Bye baby bro!" They wave to him through the windshield as he heads into his therapist's office, and it's only once he's disappeared inside, the door swinging shut behind him, that they start up the Trans Am's engine again and drive it just across the street.

Since Marco started going to therapy last year, Stef's been the one to drive him to and from all his appointments, since he doesn't have a license, and they've been making it a habit to get coffee (or in Stef's case, tea) together after the fact each week. It's nice to just sit in a booth and relax with some iced tea for an hour or so during his appointment, too, since they've been working at the school all day.

Stef orders the first drink that catches their eye (a blackberry and pomegranate green tea they actually haven't tried yet), and once they receive it, they drop into a booth and pull out their phone. 

The past few weeks have been even more fun, because they've been texting Gabe a whole heck of a lot.

TO: gabe babe: hello gorgeowus howre you doing today?? 😘

They take a sip of their tea. It's tasty. They open up Instagram. Shaw's posted a video of aerself attempting to skate with two skateboards strapped to aer feet instead of skates. Ae doesn't appear to have been successful. They get a text from Gabe.

FROM: gabe babe: Good! Busy today, so I had to bake some extra bread for the evening crowd :-) How was your day?

TO: gabe babe: it was frickin excelleent the kdis were really idnto the lessson today!! and krose wasnt there soo i diddnt have to looks at his FACE 😈

FROM: gabe babe: Aw so it was a good day for both of us! :-) I've never met Krose but I'm glad you didn't have to look at his face.

FROM: gabe babe: Wait, is he the one who's always bragging about his husband's home-cooked meals and stuff? Korse?

TO: gabe babe: YES and i HATE him!!!!

FROM: gabe babe: I mean, I don't know him, so I can't agree or disagree. I can't blame him for wanting to show off a little!

FROM: gabe babe: But if you really want to stick it to him, you should let me make you lunch sometime soon >:-)

Stef snorts, almost choking on their blackberry pomegranate green tea.

TO: gabe babe: ii am DEFTNIETLY not sayin no to that!!! heck i will taske ANY oppoortnity to eat yourr food!! gettin korse back is just a BONUS!!! 😈

FROM: gabe babe: I'll make you something whenever you want! On the house! :-D I know you don't usually have time to stop by in the mornings, so just let me know when you want something and I'll send it to school with Georgie.

FROM: gabe babe: Or you can send Marco. Or someone else. Whatever works for you! 

TO: gabe babe: youre CUTE!!!! how did i GET so lucky??? 😩

FROM: gabe babe: Look, I have limited time, skills, and energy. Let me offer my datemate what I can, okay? X-D

Stef can't help the warm delighted sensation that floods their chest. Gabe is the sweetest thing, honestly. Maybe too sweet! They move to type a reply, but before they can, another one comes in.

FROM: gabe babe: Speaking of, are you still coming over tomorrow? ;-)

Stef swipes their thumb across the screen to check the date, even though they already know that today's Thursday, which means tomorrow's Friday, which means it's finally time for their second (third?) date with Gabe. The warm feeling in their chest solidifies into a more intense feeling of excitement.

TO: gabe babe: abso-FRICKEN-lutely i am!!! i'm not about tot urn down a adate witht the hottest person ALIVE!!

FROM: gabe babe: Oh? I thought that was you, though? ;-*

Frick, Stef's gonna die.

TO: gabe babe: oh FRRICK YOU stop benign so CUTE.

TO: gabe babe: ansalkdfjlsdkf anyway whatere our plans ffor the night?

It takes a few more minutes for Gabe to reply, and Stef finishes their drink in the meantime. They contemplate ordering another, but Marco should be done pretty soon, and it's tradition for them to order together. They hold off.

FROM: gabe babe: Well, I thought maybe we'd watch a movie. Is there something you want to watch? I have Netflix!

TO: gabe babe: ohhhhh netflix and chill huh??? 😉

FROM: gabe babe: I mean

FROM: gabe babe: You're not wrong ;-*

And of course it's at that moment, when Stef's thinking of just the sexiest reply, that Marco appears next to them.

"Hey," he says, sounding tired. Not a surprise, really, since therapy sessions almost always leave Marco feeling tired.

"Hey, Marco!" Stef quickly shoots off a text telling Gabe they've gotta go, then turns their attention back to their brother. "How'd it go?"

"Fine." He glances around the coffee shop, hands curling at his sides. Okay, so maybe not "fine." 

"D'you wanna grab coffee to go?" they ask quietly. "Head home early?" 

Marco pauses, then shakes his head, hands relaxing. "No. It's fine." He turns on his heel and heads for the counter, and Stef scrambles to follow. 

It's not uncommon for Marco to be tired after a therapy session, but he's usually not so... curt. This is weird. Stef wonders what they talked about today. Maybe Marco's old self-harm? But they're pretty sure he got all that more or less sorted out a few months ago, and he hasn't fallen back on any of his old habits; Stef would have noticed.


Did Dante do something?

Stef clenches their jaw, does their best to appear civil as they order their second drink and head back to their seat with Marco. They knew Dante was no good, knew something would happen, and they tried to warn their brother, but he didn't listen to them, and now who knows what's happened between them! If Dante did something to Marco-- If Dante--

"You okay?" Marco asks, breaking them out of their thoughts. They glance up and see him watching them over the top of his giant coffee cup. He seems more closed-off than usual, which can't be a good sign.

"I'm fine," they say, willing themself to relax. "It's just-- are you okay?"

"I said I was," he says, sipping his coffee. "Just tired, is all."

Stef hums in reply, stirring the ice around in their cup. "Okay," they say. "If you're sure." They bite their lip, then ask, "How's Dante?"

Something flashes in Marco's eyes, and his hands tighten on his cup. "He's fine," he says, and Stef never thought they could dislike a word so much. "Why?"

They shrug. "Just wonderin'." Something's definitely up with Dante, then. Something Marco doesn't wanna talk about. This is bad.

They reach across the table and put their hand over Marco's on his cup. He's still tense. "Marco," they say, making their voice calm and soothing. "You know you can talk to me, right? You can tell me anything."

He stares at them for a long second afterward, and then his eyes soften slightly, and he relaxes, turning his hand to squeeze Stef's. "I know," he says. "Things are good right now. I promise. Really good."

They study him for a moment longer, and he does seem to be sincere. Maybe they were just reading too much into things, then. Well, good. They smile at him, and squeeze his hand in return, and the rest of their afternoon goes much more smoothly.


Friday, March 6.


Gabe's just straightening the single throw pillow on his couch for probably the fifteenth time this evening when there's finally a knock on his door. He drops the pillow and rushes across the room, flinging the door open to reveal Stef standing on his porch.

"Stef!" he says, a bit breathless and feeling more than a little crazed. "Hey, you're here, uh, come in!"

"Don't mind if I do," Stef says, leaning in to give him a solid kiss on the lips as they pass over the threshold and into his house. They're dressed in a pretty and seemingly comfortable style: an oversized sweater and a short skirt over leggings, with red flats on their feet. They're also carrying an overnight bag over their shoulder, the sight of which maybe gives Gabe a few more butterflies in his stomach.

He closes the door and then stands, awkwardly, beside Stef as they glance around the small living room. Gah, why is he so nervous? He can't even use the excuse of it being their first date this time!

"Your house is so cozy!" Stef exclaims, taking a few steps to drop their bag on the couch and turning back toward him, a grin on their face. "Marco and I've lived in our apartment for four years and it's nowhere near as homey as this place is! Is that a home, sweet home cross-stitch on your wall?!"

"Oh, yeah." Gabe moves closer to them, following their gaze to the little framed cross-stitch piece. "My mom made that when we moved here. Cute, right?"

"Heck yeah it's cute!" Stef exclaims, linking their arm through his and leaning some of their weight against him. "And you've got photos!"  

As quickly as they'd grabbed onto him, they release him, moving closer to the wall to look at the pictures Gabe has hanging up. He laughs a little, following them.

"Here's Georgie a couple years ago at a friend's birthday party," he says, pointing to a framed picture of Georgie and a group of her friends from Oregon surrounding a Pikachu-shaped pinata. "Oh, and here's Georgie in the woods!" He points to another picture, this one of Georgie running down a path covered in orange leaves.

"I see there's a lot of pictures of Georgie," Stef says, laughter in their tone. "Not that I can blame ya for that! Oh, shit, is this your wedding?"

"Uh, yeah. That's me an' Damien, fresh out of high school and tying the knot." The picture in question is in the center of a  multi-photo frame, surrounded by pictures of Georgie with different members of her family. The wedding photo is of himself and Damien standing facing each other at the altar, holding each other's hands and smiling at each other.

"Aw, you had a baby face!" Stef exclaims. They turn and scrutiny him for a moment. "If you shaved all your stubble off, would you still have a baby face?" 

Gabe laughs, startled. That's definitely not what he'd expected Stef to say. "Well, I don't think so," he says, and rubs his hand over his chin. Stef's eyes follow the movement. "I just look like an average person, I think."

"Well, maybe you should let me be the judge of that next time, huh?" They waggle their eyebrows at him, and he can't help but laugh again and lean in for a kiss.

"I can shave right now, if you want," he says as he pulls back, and Stef squeaks.

"Absolutely not!" they say, reaching out and grabbing the sides of his face. "I love your stubble. I demand that you keep it tonight." Their grin turns mischievous. " ...You can shave it in the morning, if you want. I'll judge it then."

A little jolt of excitement sparks through him again, and he bites his lip before answering, "Uh, yeah, sounds great."

Stef laughs, rubbing their hands over his cheeks once more before dropping their hands and turning back to the wall of photos. "You never really talk about your parents," they say. "But it looks like you guys get along pretty well."

Gabe moves to stand beside them, tentatively putting an arm over their shoulders. They lean against him, that little thrill shooting through him again. "Yeah, they're pretty good," he says, gaze shifting to a photo of him and his parents taken at the dinner table, an excited seven-year-old Georgie climbing into his dad's lap to plant a kiss on his cheek. He smiles. "They were great when I was growing up, and they're great with Georgie. We don't talk a lot these days, though."

He sees Stef look at him out of the corner of his eye and turns toward them. "Any particular reason why?" they ask, sounding hesitant. Which makes sense; if their own parents are shitty, they're probably worried that his are, too.

He shrugs. "We just don't have a lot in common, I think. They're good parents. Good grandparents. I just don't really need parenting anymore, you know? And we just... I don't know. Grew apart?"

"I guess that makes sense," Stef says. "Ugh. My parents are--were?-- so controlling. It was such a relief to get away from them, you know?" They pause, chewing lightly on their lower lip. "...But I couldn't really cut ties with them, even though they were so awful to Marco. I just... I dunno. I kept thinkin' they'd see the error of their ways or somethin', apologize to both of us and be... good people, or somethin'." They sigh. "I don't know. It's stupid. Was stupid."

"It's not stupid," Gabe says, squeezing Stef's shoulder with the hand he has draped around them. "Obviously, I don't have any first-hand knowledge of that sort of thing, but I can see why it would be hard to let go, to give up on them. If I didn't have my parents, if they weren't good people, who knows how my life would've turned out?" He shakes his head. "Damien's parents kicked him out when they found out he was pregnant. They were shitty before that, too--didn't let him transition even though he'd been out as trans since middle school. Deadnamed him all the time. It's--" He's getting really worked up about this, he realizes, and unclenches his jaw. "Sorry. I just... What's the point of being a parent if you're not gonna help your kids, support them through all those hardships? I just don't understand it."

"No, yeah, I get it, " Stef says, reaching up to intertwine their fingers with his. "If my parents had actually been supportive, Marco and I would've avoided... well, a lot of crap. And, heck, I'm a teacher! I see kids all the time with parents as bad as mine, or close to it. And all I can do is try and give 'em what support I can at the school, you know? Some people just... shouldn't be parents."

They both fall silent for a few long moments, shoulder-to-shoulder with their hands linked. It's quiet, contemplative.

Stef's the one who breaks the silence, squeezing Gabe's hand before releasing it and taking a step away. "Anyway, sorry to bring the mood down," they say. "I don't think talking about my crappy parents is gonna help me seduce you."

This startles yet another laugh from Gabe "Seduce me?" he asks, raising an eyebrow and grinning. 

"Seduce you! That's why I'm here, after all!" They slide right back up against him, pressing their chest to his, their hands going to his hips. "Gotta use all my charm to convince ya to fall in bed with me."

"I thought--" he's biting back laughter, giggles rising up as he tries to speak, "--I thought we were gonna, gonna watch a movie!"

Stef looks at him incredulously, humor glimmering in their eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you wanna explain to me the reason I'd need to bring condoms and dental dams for a goshdang movie night?!"

"What--" It's even more difficult to speak now, too difficult to hold the laughter in. "--What gave you the, the idea that you would need to bring condoms and dental dams to our movie night?"

"Why, Mr. Martín," they say, clearly enjoying themself, "you and I had a conversation via text just last night about what this date would entail and what I should bring! Do you mean to tell me you were just foolin' me? Pullin' my goshdang leg? I thought better of you than that! Had such high hopes that you weren't such a jokester!"

Gabe's laughing too much to speak, his own arms wrapped loosely around Stef's waist as he lays his forehead against their shoulder and shakes with laughter. God, he loves people who can make him laugh like this, with things that aren't even funny outside of context.

Stef holds him until he calms down, laughing along with him, and when he straightens up, he gives them a long, happy kiss, which they eagerly return.

"Seriously, though," he says. "I have a fresh chocolate cake, popcorn ready to be popped, and the movie all queued up. You don't mind waiting ninety minutes before we move on to the next stage of the date, do you?"

"Absolutely not," they reply, taking a step backwards towards the couch and tugging him along with them. "We are gonna eat some absolutely delectable snacks, cuddle up a whole bunch, and then we can get busy!"

Gabe kisses them again.


Saturday, March 7.


Stef is awakened from a heavy, sated sleep after far too little rest by Gabe's wonderful but oh so terrible hand gently shaking their shoulder.

"Mmph," they say, which probably isn't a word but still gets their point across well enough.

"Sorry to wake you," Gabe whispers, and Stef opens their eyes to find the room still completely dark, which isn't unlike the last two times they'd awakened, but is much worse because the last time was supposed to have been the last time for the night, and Stef just doesn't have the same kind of energy they had when they were in college, okay?! But before they can voice any of those concerns, Gabe continues, "I just found out Cole can't make it in this morning, so I've got to go get the diner set up."

"Time's it?" they murmur, waving their hand around in a blind attempt to find their phone and instead finding the side of Gabe's wonderfully sandpapery face. "S'rry."

"Five," Gabe says apologetically. "Sorry, I know we only got to sleep a few hours ago. I just wanted to let you know I was leaving."

"Oh." Stef blinks, their eyes slowly adjusting to the dark. They can see Gabe's silhouette now, hovering over them from beside the bed. 

"You can sleep as long as you want," he continues. "Take a shower, eat something. There's easy boxed stuff in the kitchen, help yourself. Or come into the diner when you get hungry. And--oh, shit, you're probably not awake enough to understand what I'm saying. I'll leave you a note on the nightstand, okay?"

"Okay," they repeat, too tired to keep their eyes open much longer. "See ya later."

They hear him chuckle, feel his lips against their cheek as they drift off back to sleep.


Tuesday, March 10.


"Whaddaya think, Gabe?" Lola asks from atop the stool she's standing on, dropping her hands away from the shiny green garland hanging from the ceiling.

Gabe eyes it, then steps to the side to view it from a slightly different angle. He squints, purses his lips. Nods. "Looks great, Lola!" he says, giving her a thumbs-up.

She beams at him and steps down from the stool, standing there for a minute with her hands on her hips as she admires her handiwork.

There's just a week until St. Patrick's Day, and Lola had insisted he let her decorate the diner for it. After the success of her Valentine's decorations, he'd been loath to say no. Now, green and gold garland hangs in soft, perfectly-spaced loops across the ceiling and along the front of the counter. Matching centerpieces featuring leprechauns and four-leaf clovers sit atop each table, as well. It's a lot gaudier than he'd make it, but that's beside the point. It's pretty, and people will like it.

"Hey, shit, did a leprechaun throw up in here?" 

Gabe grins as Dante walks into the diner. "Hey!" he says brightly. "Nah, we just decorated. Looks nice, huh?"

Dante's eyes light up when he hears Lola's name, and he zeroes in on her immediately. "Lola! Shit, didn't know you'd be here!"

"Hi Dante!" Lola reaches out and pulls him into a side hug, which makes their height difference all the more noticeable. Dante can't be much taller than five foot, and Lola's at least six feet tall. It's kind of funny, honestly.

"Are you two friends?" Gabe asks, which is sort of stupid because obviously they're friends. They wouldn't be hugging in the middle of his diner if they weren't friends.

"Yeah! Since high school," Lola says, releasing him. "I didn't know you two were friends, though!"

"He came into the shop a couple months ago an' forced me to do some work on his car an' then left without paying," Dante says, the asshole. "So I tracked him down an' made him gimme a free lunch in retaliation."

Lola gasps, eyes wide. "Really?" she asks. "Gabe! I never would have thought that you would try to take advantage of someone like that!"

"I didn't," Gabe says, shooting an exasperated look at Dante, who's shooting him a shit-eating grin. "Dante was kind enough to look at the engine for free, and I offered him a free meal as thanks. "

"Oh." Lola nods. "That sounds more like the Gabe I know!" 

Dante cackles, and Gabe sighs, though he's not actually upset. He shakes his head, flashing a smile at both of them, then turns his attention to Dante. "Are you waiting on Marco? Or are you eating alone today?"

Lola brightens. "Ooh, is Marco coming? You don't mind if I third-wheel, yeah? I could call Kai and we could do a double date!"

Dante snorts, bumping Lola's arm with his shoulder. "Nah, it's just me today," he says. "Sorry." He pulls away from Lola and hops up on one of the stools at the counter, tapping his finger tips against the wood a few times once he's settled. His three prosthetic fingers make a much sharper sound than the other two. "He's workin' on some big coding project today. Guess he's almost done with it so he wants to focus on it for a couple days. It's my day off, so I thought I'd come in for an early lunch before I get back to my own project, pick 'im up somethin' while I'm here. Menu?"

"Oh, right." Gabe reaches under the counter and pulls one of the menus out, sliding it over to him. This is the first time Dante's come in alone, interestingly. He and Marco have come in a few times together in the last month or so, usually for lunch or dinner. Marco comes in alone fairly often.... It must have to do with the fact that Dante has a regular, steady job at the garage, while Marco's a freelancer.

"Well, I'm not gonna let you eat lunch all alone!" Lola says, settling herself on the stool beside his. "I'm done decorating, anyway. Isn't it pretty in here?"

"Ah, shoulda known this was your work," Dante says, flipping the menu open. "Needs more glitter."

"No it doesn't," Gabe says, as firmly as he can, and Lola pouts at them both.

"He won't let me," she says. "He says the glitter would get in people's food or stick to their clothes. Which is, like, the point of glitter!"

"To get in your food?!" Gabe asks.

Lola frowns at him. "No. To stick to your clothes or your hair or your skin!" She sighs. "Neither of you know what's good. Kai lets me put glitter all over the place and he doesn't complain!"

"Kai doesn't know what's goin' on right in front'a his face ninety percent'a the time," Dante says fondly. "I want a burger," he says to Gabe, shutting the menu and sliding it back to him. "That one you made Marco last time we were here. Ya know? With the grilled onions an' the sauce?"

"Sure," Gabe says, scribbling his order down. "Hope you don't mind if I don't make it, though. I've been kicked off of kitchen duty for the day."

"Ain't this your restaurant?" Dante asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah," Gabe says. "But apparently I 'work too much' and 'need to let my hair down more.'" 

Dante laughs. "Shaw?" he asks.

"Shaw," Gabe confirms. He takes Lola's order as well, then turns away and pins the order to the carousel in the window. "Order up!" he calls, and though he receives no response, he knows Taiki will collect the order in a moment and start work on it. 

"So how's it goin' over at your place?" Dante asks Lola. "How's Sam doin'?"

Lola sighs. "I don't really know. They don't talk to me a lot, just kinda glare or shrug at me. Same with Kai."

"Yeah. They prob'ly just don't trust you yet," Dante replies, and Gabe turns back toward the counter, grabbing a rag to wipe it down. He doesn't want to interrupt their conversation. "I mean, they've only been with ya for a few months, and you don't really know what-all they went through before, yeah?"


"Well, shit, I barely talked to my aunt for like a year after I moved in with her. An' things were way better, like, right off the bat with her, ya know?" 

Gabe suddenly feels like maybe he's not supposed to hear what's clearly a personal conversation. He looks around for another table to clean, but unfortunately, Bunny had done them all earlier, and it's a fairly slow day. He takes his cleaning stuff to a different table, anyway, so at least he doesn't have to look like he's eavesdropping.

"Well, yeah, but you were still friendly with the other kids at school!" Lola sighs. "Sam doesn't even have friends. I mean, I don't think they do. Maybe they do. I don't know, they don't talk to me!"

"Do you want me to try an' talk to 'em again?" Dante asks. "Maybe they'll let me give 'em advice this time instead'a yellin' at me."

"I don't know... Maybe. But I don't think they like talking to anyone. "

"I don't know, either," Dante says. "I'm for damn sure not a parent."

And, well, now Gabe can't not say anything. "I'm a parent," he says, and both of them turn in their seat to look at him. His face heats up, and he clears his throat. "I mean, uh, maybe I can help?"

Lola brightens. "Yeah, maybe! Georgie's the sweetest kid, and so talkative. How do you do it, Gabe?!"

"Uh." Gabe shrugs, moving back over to the counter. "Georgie's just a talkative and sweet kid. I don't think that's me." He thinks for a moment. "Maybe it's from her dad? I don't know. But, uh, I could try to talk to Sam, if you want. Maybe they just need someone with experience in parenting?"

Lola sighs and shakes her head. "Thanks, Gabe," she says, "but I don't think that'll help."

"Ya just gotta wait it out," Dante says again. "Wait for 'em to trust you." He looks at Gabe. "Georgie's a good kid. But Sam's had family troubles, an' if you don't have experience with that kinda thing, it'd prob'ly do more harm than good." He shrugs. "Anyway. You're trans?"

Gabe blinks. "Uh," he says again. "Yes? Er, nonbinary." It's still so weird to say it, to say it as often as he does. It's not like he's been in the closet this whole time--well, okay, maybe he was--but also, the only people who'd really known the extent of his gender stuff were Damien and Jason, and a couple of other friends from Oregon. He's never been out to so many people before. It's kind of nice.

Dante grins, tapping his metal fingers on the counter again. "Sweet! Welcome to the club, dude!" He holds his hand up, and Gabe, confused, slowly gives him a high-five.

"That was the lamest high-five ever," Dante says, "but I'll let it slide. Oh, shit, food!"

Gabe has to jump out of the way as Taiki comes out of the kitchen, carrying two plates. He sets them down heavier than is polite--or really safe- -and immediately turns and ducks back into the kitchen. Gabe's not sure why he didn't just put them in the window for Gabe or one of the members of waitstaff--both of whom, Bunny and Himari, seem to have disappeared when things got slow--but he doesn't say anything. 

Dante and Lola set about eating their lunch, conversation turning from Sam to Dante's podcast, and Gabe goes back to... well, not to work, exactly, but to keeping himself busy.


Saturday, March 14.


Georgie runs ahead of them and off the path right away, heading for the play structure where Stef can see some other kids from their class playing. Gabe doesn't say anything, just waves in her direction as he continues their conversation.

"I have never seen a single piece of Star Wars media, and I don't know why you think I'd lie about that," he says.

"But you're a nerd!" Stef says, exasperated. "Star Wars is, like, nerd culture! I have never met a nerd who hasn't watched Star Wars at least once!"

"I may be a nerd," he says, slipping his arm through Stef's as they walk, "but I'm also a nerd with taste. Just 'cause Star Wars is popular doesn't mean it's good."

"Name one sci-fi series better than Star Wars!"

"Star Trek," Gabe says immediately, "particularly the original series."

Stef huffs. "No, okay, we're not getting into a Trek versus Wars debate. That is a date ruiner."

"You're just saying that because you know I'm right."

"No, okay, listen, they both have their merits!"

"I have never seen a single Star Wars movie," Gabe repeats, and Stef can hear him grinning, "and I never will."

"Not even the prequels?"

"Not a single thing."

"What about the Clone Wars TV series?"

Gabe doesn't reply for a moment, and Stef looks up to see him biting his lip, gazing into the distance. Ah ha! They've got him.

"It's really good," they tease, angling themself to lean into his line of sight. Gabe's gaze snaps to theirs. "It's cute. And less Hollywood-y, if that's your problem."

Gabe's quiet a moment longer, and then he sighs. Yes! "Maybe," he says, "but only if you or Georgie watch it with me."

"Oh, I will gladly watch it with you! It's frickin' cute, Gabey, you'll love it." And then, before they can stop themself, they're off on a rant about all their favorite shows. They haven't really watched anything with anyone but Marco and maybe Shaw since, like, high school, and the idea of watching some of their old favorites with Gabe, who's new to a lot of it, is so exciting! They can just perfectly picture so many wonderful dates in their future, watching Clone Wars or The Munsters curled up on the sofa with Gabe... and then after a few episodes, the two of them will head back to the bedroom for a couple of hours. Heck yes. This is going to be the greatest relationship of their life.

They're in the middle of disagreeing with Gabe on what the best Twilight Zone episode is when they spot him.

What the frick is Dante doing here?! Shouldn't he be, like, working or whatever the heck he does all day when he's not tormenting their brother?

Oh, no, of course he's here with Marco. Does Dante ever go anywhere without dragging their brother along? What are they doing here? Playing on the swings? Swings are for kids, Marco's too tall to use the swingset, shouldn't Dante be the one sitting there? 

Well, Marco does look like he's having fun... A lot of fun. Stef rarely gets to see him doing something goofy just for fun.... Marco's smiling. They can hear him laughing.

But, no, no, Marco shouldn't be here with Dante, he shouldn't be anywhere with Dante! Dante's bad news, clearly taking advantage of Marco, and Marco doesn't know any better, not after all that he's been through--


Gabe's voice beside them, sharp. Cutting through the jumble of thoughts in their head. They shake themself, meeting his eye again; he looks concerned. Heck. This isn't what they wanted! This is supposed to be a date, a nice walk in the park with Gabe and Georgie, but Georgie's off playing somewhere and Gabe's looking at them like that and this is not how it was supposed to go!

"There's a bench over there," they can hear him saying, and now they're being led off the path. "Let's sit down for a minute. Do you need some water? Or a snack? I, uh, I didn't pack any food, but I can probably run over to the gas station and grab some peanuts or something, if you need it."

They can't help it; they laugh, louder and higher than they mean to (they hadn't meant to laugh at all), sitting on the bench and tugging Gabe's arm so that he sits beside them. "I'm fine," they say, smiling at him; he doesn't seem convinced, though.

"Are you sure?" he asks, and they know that they aren't.

They sigh, shake their head, lean forward to put their face in their hands. Their head is clearing now, and they feel like they can breathe again. "Sorry," they say. 

"Hey, it's okay." They feel Gabe lean close, feel his arm slip around their shoulders. They lean closer to him. "Do you need something? Or just need to sit for a minute? I-- sorry, it looked like you were starting to panic. Should I-- should we go?"

"No, no, it's fine, it's--" They lift their head, glancing around the park, but Gabe's moved them to a spot where they can't see Dante and Marco anymore. Can't see the playground at all. "I don't know why I did that. Sorry." They sigh again. "That wasn't very fun and sexy of me."

That seems to startle a laugh out of Gabe. "You-- what? Stef, you don't have to be 'fun and sexy' all the time. If you weren't feeling well, you didn't have to come. We could have postponed this, done it another time." He shifts against them, brushing hair away from their face with his thumb, and they look up to see him smiling at them, a little nervously, they think.

"No, no, it's--I was fine until just now." They bite their lip. Gabe looks so earnest right now, just trying to help them, and they want to tell him what's wrong. They do. (And there's been so few people in their lives that they've wanted to talk to in such depth, it's ridiculous. ) "I... I didn't know Marco and- and Dante would be here, so...."

"Oh." Gabe's eyes widen slightly, and he glances toward the playground, but of course it's out of sight right now. "I... didn't realize that that was something we had to be mindful of." He looks back at them, his head tilted to the side just slightly. His hand is still on their cheek, warm and comforting and solid. "We can go somewhere else," he says. "If you want. I can get Georgie and we can go to-- I don't know, a cafe or something."

Stef's heart surges in their chest, overflowing with warmth and affection for a moment, and they shake their head. "No, no, it's fine. I wanna stay. Just... can we sit here for a few more minutes? Before we go back to the path?"

"Of course." Gabe drops his hand then, though he keeps his arm around their shoulders, and they sit there for a few minutes. It's quiet, and calm, and Stef thinks that they'd like to just sit here for the rest of the day, maybe, just soaking in the warm, comfortable feeling of Gabe beside them.

But, no. They can't properly enjoy the day just sitting here. It's so nice out, and there's just something so perfect about walking through a park together, swinging their hands between them as they walk. So, when they feel better, they nudge Gabe, and the two of them resume their trek.

Dante and Marco are nowhere to be seen when the playground comes back into view, and Stef's insides grind unpleasantly. Maybe Marco went home without Dante, and he'll be curled up on the sofa when Stef gets back later. Or maybe they went off together somewhere, and it's only a matter of time before Stef has to pick up the pieces of Marco's heart again, only a matter of time before--

"Can I ask," Gabe says, breaking Stef out of their reverie yet again, "why you don't like Dante? I mean--I just, he seems like a good guy to me. So..."

And even though they'd just been thinking about how they feel like they can tell him anything, now it's... it's so hard. It feels impossible. So instead of going into detail, they tell him, "I just don't... trust him. And I don't... I don't trust that Marco's making the right decision."

"Okay." Gabe's quiet for a moment. "I think... and, sorry if I'm overstepping here, but I'm trying to help. I want you to be happy. I think that if Marco's making the wrong decision, you should let him. Just be there for him if it goes wrong."

"I am doing that," Stef says, more harshly than they mean to. "And I've done that for him so many times, Gabe. I just-- I don't want him to get hurt. "

"I know," he says, and squeezes their hand. "I know."  

They fall silent again after that, but it's only a minute or so later that Gabe starts up another conversation, this time about music genres.

Stef lets the bad topics fade away behind them and enjoys the rest of their day.


Tuesday, March 17.


With Lola and Kai both suddenly unable to make the trip to Georgie's school this afternoon, the duty once again falls to Gabe. This time, he remembers the time correctly, and with a full staff on duty, he has more than enough time to put his paperwork away and head out the door.

He considers, briefly, changing his clothes before hopping in the car... but, what the hell. It's St. Patrick's day, and he's feeling festive. Besides, chances are that he won't even have to get out of his car, and if he does, well, who's gonna judge him? Grade-school kids? Their parents? A few teachers who might glance out the window and see him? He's already figured out from many conversations with Stef that most of the staff is pretty weird themselves (except Korse, apparently. Fuck that guy, he guesses), so he has nothing to lose.

So Gabe strolls through the dining room of the little Jet Star's Diner, earning several stares, grins, and even a single whoop (from Shaw, who also throws him a wink and a kiss as ae skates across the floor). He's feeling pretty good about himself, actually, which is nice.

The drive to Georgie's school doesn't take long, and then he just has to wait in line behind the other parents' cars as the clock ticks down the minutes to the end of school. He reaches up to adjust the top hat on his head as he watches the doors.

They open suddenly, and a stream of kids flows out. Some of them head directly to the sidewalk, some to the buses parked nearby, and the rest head toward the car pick-up lane. Nearly all of the kids are wearing green in various shades and amounts, but it's still easy enough to spot Georgie amongst the crowd.

Her gorgeous puff of hair isn't on full display like it usually is, most of it instead tucked beneath a green polar fleece hood with little ears stuck out to the sides. Her face is painted green, though even from this distance he can tell that a good bit of it's been smeared off of her skin. Instead of her usual T-shirt and jeans ensemble, she's wearing horrible green and brown plaid pants and an off-white tunic on top, with a brown polar fleece belt wrapped around her middle. 

Yes, his kid had demanded to dress up as Shrek for St. Patrick's day. And he and Damien had both helped her put the costume together, Gabe taking her around to the few thrift stores in town and Damien actually sewing the damn hood and belt himself. Gabe can't help but laugh a little to himself as he waits to pull up to the sidewalk. He may not be a fan of her taste in fashion, but he can't deny that she got her flair for the dramatic from both of her parents.

Just as he pulls up to the curb and Georgie opens the door to climb into the back seat, the school doors open again, and who should run out but Gabe's favorite schoolteacher, Stef Campbell themself. 

"Georgie, wait, you left your lunchbox in the--oh my gosh."

Gabe leans down so he can properly see Stef and sticks his tongue out at them. "Hey there, pal," he says, because calling them "hot stuff" within hearing range of several kids and their parents (and Georgie!) probably isn't a great idea. "Have a good day?"

Stef (who looks very good in their pale green button-up with their firetruck-red hair pulled into a little ponytail at the nape of their neck) blinks at him, their mouth falling slightly slack. "Oh my gosh," they say again, "Are you dressed as an entire leprechaun?!"
He laughs. "Well, it's be pretty bad if I was only dressed as half of one," he says. 

"I never thought I'd see you in so much glitter!" Stef exclaims, eyes wide. "Shoot, I can't be having this conversation with you here! I--uh, text me later, okay?!"

"Sure thing," he says with a wink, and he catches their cheeks reddening as they turn away.

Once Georgie's buckled up, Gabe pulls back out onto the street, and it's only when they're almost home that Georgie exclaims, "Stef never handed me my lunchbox!"

Gabe laughs again.


Friday, March 20.


Stef can tell something's off before they even reach Gabe's front porch. They don't know what it is, exactly, but the atmosphere just feels off, somehow. That can't bode well for their date, can it? Which is terrible , because the two of them can really only manage one actual date a week (if that), let alone a nighttime date. If this date's a bust, they're gonna be stuck with just sexting until next week, or whenever they can fit another date like this into their schedules!

Well, they won't know until they know, they suppose. Stef steps up to the front door and raps their knuckles against it three times.

The Gabe who opens the door a few seconds later is frazzled and nervous, his T-shirt half-tucked into his jeans, both of which look like he's been wearing them in the diner all day. "Stef!" he says, too loudly. "Oh, shit, uh, sorry, I--come in, um!" He steps aside, holding the door open for them.

"Are you okay?" they ask as they step inside. "You don't look so great, babe."

"Sorry, sorry, I just--"


Stef turns their head at the voice, just as Georgie slams into their stomach, her arms wrapping around their waist. "Oh--Georgie! Hi!" They tentatively pat her on the head.

"Sorry, I-- Lola and Kai cancelled last minute, and Madhavi's out of town, and I couldn't think of anyone else to call, so--"

"So this little lady will be joining us on our date tonight?" Stef asks, grinning down at Georgie, who beams right back up at them. 

"Yes," Gabe says, pushing his curls back and away from his face. "I-- is that okay? We can cancel, tonight, if you--"

"No, I would love to hang out with the both of you tonight!" Stef says, ruffling Georgie's hair more intentionally now. Her smile widens, and then she releases them and bounces off down the hallway. They turn to Gabe. "Seriously, Gabe, it's fine. I like Georgie! I wanna spend time with you! And your kid is part of your life. Things don't go according to plan all the time, especially when you've got someone to look out for." They lean in and plant a soft, chaste kiss on his lips. "Go change into something more comfortable, okay? We can all watch a movie or somethin'."

Gabe's smile, equal parts eager and grateful, makes Stef's own smile falter, if only for a moment. Surely he didn't think Stef would be upset about this change of plans, did he? Well, of course Stef's not completely happy about it; they'd been planning on something like their second date, with movies and cuddling and talking and then a little sexy fun until eleven or so when Stef has to leave, and that obviously can't happen. But they're not gonna hold that against Gabe! Things happen, Georgie's a kid and a major part of Gabe's life.

He heads into the hallway just as Georgie comes out, clutching a big stack of loose leaf papers in her hands. "Stef!" she says. "I drew everybody from our D an' D game! Look, check it out!"

They laugh as they look through her stack of papers. They know that she's an artist, of course, and that she's good, especially for a nine-year-old, so the drawings aren't really a surprise. They're adorable!

"That's Charles," Georgie says, pointing to a little colored-pencil drawing of a gnome complete with white beard and red pointy hat. "Ava says he doesn't have a hat but I think he'd look better with one. Maybe Cuttlefish gave it to him." Stef will always love the wide range of names that people--especially kids!--give their characters. There's Ava's gnome, Charles; Benson's "big, buff human man," Bryan; and Arnie's dwarf, Angus, on one end. And on the other, there's Georgie's mind flayer, Cuttlefish; Sarah's fairy princess, Princess Melty; and finally, Chess's elf, Legless. It's a good mix.

"I love it," Stef tells her honestly. "If you want to draw something for Ava, though, it would probably be nice if you didn't give him the hat."

"I know," she says with a deep sigh. "I have a card I made her! 'Cause her birthday's on Monday! So it's a card with Charles and Cuttlefish on it. Oh-- here it is!" She extracts a folded piece of orange construction paper from the pile and hands it to them.

"Happy Birthday!" the front of the card reads in blue marker. They open it up to reveal a drawing of Cuttlefish holding a much smaller Charles in her arms. It's cute!  

"Aw," they say, "Georgie! Ava will love this!" they hand it back to her, and she beams at them yet again. Gosh they love kids.

"Sorry I took so long," Gabe says as he reenters the room, and Stef looks up to see him in what looks to be a much more comfortable outfit-- purple plaid pajama pants and a plain green sweatshirt. 

"You look cozy," Stef says. Aw, dang it, he looks so goshdarn cuddly right now! And Stef doesn't think Gabe would be down for cuddling on the sofa if Georgie's here. They don't even know if they would be okay with that; they're not sure if they and Gabe have been together long enough for it to be okay for them to cuddle up to Georgie's dad on the couch. When is it appropriate to do that?! Ugh, Stef loves kids, but they've never dated a parent before. There's so much to think about!

"I am," Gabe says, smiling softly. "So, um, what should the three of us do for the night? Do we wanna watch a movie?"

Georgie shoves the rest of her drawings into Stef's hands, and they hurry to catch them all before they fall to the floor. She spins around to face Gabe and exclaims, "Sorry! Daddy, can we please play Sorry?! Stef said they'd play with us sometime! Can we do it tonight? Please please please?!"

"Uh," says Gabe, glancing between her and Stef. "Um, yeah, sure, if Stef wants to...?"

"Yeah!" Stef makes sure to keep their tone excited. They like board games well enough, and they don't want to disappoint Georgie. "Absolutely! Gosh, I haven't played Sorry in ages. Not since I was a kid!"

"That's a long time ago," Georgie says, and Stef can only stare at her, torn between offense and agreement. Beside them, Gabe stifles a laugh.

"Georgie!" he scolds, but there's no actual heat behind his words. "That's not very nice. They're the same age as I am!"

"You're both old," she says, bouncing away from them both.

"No," Gabe says. "You're just a baby. "

"I'm not a baby!" Georgie scoffs, opening a cabinet in the kitchen.

"You're my baby," Gabe says, and his voice is half-teasing, half-syrupy. Stef glances over at him to see that his expression's gone soft, his eyes fond as he watches Georgie. Stef's heart flips in their chest.

"Shut up, daddy, I'm nine!" Georgie comes back out of the kitchen with a box clutched to her chest, and she sticks her tongue out at Gabe. Gabe laughs, and he glances over at Stef. Their eyes meet, and he blushes, cheeks darkening. Stef wants to kiss the heck out of him!

Instead, they lean in for a quick peck. "You're cute," they murmur, before following Georgie over to the table, where she's busy setting up the game.

Game night with Gabe and Georgie turns out to be a lot of fun! More fun than they'd expected, even! Maybe more fun than they've had in a long time. Which is ridiculous, because they have fun all the time!  

Maybe it's just the company.




Georgie is sent to bed at promptly nine o'clock, and after their usual bedtime routine of Gabe supervising tooth-brushing and then tucking her into bed with a kiss goodnight, he returns to the couch, dropping down beside Stef and immediately leaning on them with a sigh.

"Kid go to sleep okay?" they ask, wiggling their arm between him and the couch cushion and pulling him closer.

"She's not asleep yet," he says. "Probably won't be asleep for another hour or so." He shifts, leaning his head against their shoulder and looking up at them. "Sorry again that this didn't go as planned."

"Gabe," Stef says, leaning in to plant a kiss on his cheek. "It's fine. I had fun! You know I like spending time with you and Georgie."

"Yeah," he says. Of course he knows Stef likes Georgie. He wouldn't be dating them if they didn't; anyone who's going to be a part of his life has to accept Georgie into theirs, too. "But it wasn't exactly how we'd planned this date to go."

"I know. We'll just have to reschedule. It's fine, Gabe! Really!" Stef reaches over with the arm not currently occupied with holding him and takes his hand in theirs. "Look, we have an hour before I have to go, right?"


Stef's expression turns mischievous. "Then how about we power up that Netflix account of yours and watch some Clone Wars? Huh?"

Gabe groans, fighting back a laugh. "I knew you were gonna make me watch that!" he says. "Fine. We'll watch two episodes, and if I don't like it, I'm never watching it again."

"Okay!" Stef squeezes his hand and then pulls away from him to grab the remote. They're not even gone long enough for him to really miss the feeling of them pressed up against him, but he does anyway.

They settle back into the couch cushions, and this time Gabe wraps his arm around Stef, throwing a leg across their lap for good measure. They wrap their arm around his waist to hold him in place as they turn the TV on.

It's not the night they'd planned on, but Gabe's feeling pretty good anyway.




Gabe likes the Clone Wars. Fuck.

Wednesday, March 25.


"You shoulda called Simon!" Madhavi grunts as she settles her weights back into place. "Or, shit, didn't you say Stef's brother volunteered to babysit? Fuck, Gabe, at this point you were just cockblockin' yourself."

Gabe groans into his hands. "I panicked!" he says. "I forgot all the backups except for you!"

"Shit, Gabe." Madhavi sighs, and he peeks out from between his fingers to see her shaking her head. "Didja at least have a good time? Even with the kid there?"

"Yeah." He lowers his hands. "We played a couple board games until Georgie went to bed. Made some popcorn, talked. It was nice." It was nice. They've only been dating for a little while, so they haven't had a ton of dates of any kind, but Gabe loves the fun, quiet, talking dates as much as he loves the, er, more adult-rated dates. It's been a while since he's dated anyone, but especially someone he could have both with.

It's just... nice.




It's a little cooler out than it has been, Gabe notices as he and Georgie head to the park after school. He doesn't know if that's normal for the area, but it's nice to feel a slight chill on his arms as they walk.

"Sarah said she'd be there today!" Georgie tells him, squeezing his hand. "I wish Sam would come to the park sometimes, but they said they don't like all the people." She makes a face. "I told 'em that was stupid, 'cause there's lots of places in the park that don't have hardly any people, but they said hardly any was still too many."

"Sam?" Gabe asks. "As in Lola and Kai's foster kid?"

"Duh." She rolls her eyes, which, okay. Fair, he supposes.

"Have you been talking to Sam much?" he asks her. She nods enthusiastically.

"Yeah! Every time Miss Lola an' Kai let me stay over! Sam's really cool, daddy, I think maybe the coolest big kid I've ever met." She makes another face. "Way cooler than that nasty Val and his friends."

"What do you talk about?" Lola had said just the other day that she couldn't get Sam to talk to her, after all.

"We draw an' stuff," she says. "They say I'm real good. An' smart."

"Both of which are extremely true," he agrees. "Do they ever say anything about Lola or Kai?"

"Jus' that they don't like to talk to adults," she says with a shrug. "Ooh, daddy, the swings are open! Will you push me?!"

She’s off before he can respond, and he chases after her.





TO: stef✨💖✨: How are you tonight? Was work fun? :-D

FROM: stef✨💖✨: UGH work was SO fun tofay!!! palayed DND with theb  kids and thery frikcin resscuped the cactus beadts from the humans!! that wsasn't even sposed to be a plot point they just DIDI IT i love kids so much 😭😭😭

TO: stef✨💖✨: Yeah Georgie told me about it! She said it was an "epic battle." Kinda wish I'd been a part of the game, but obviously that can't happen. :'-)

FROM: stef✨💖✨: ii will run a  game for ouy one day that has all the cactus beasts you could ever want i n ti. 

TO: stef✨💖✨: Aw, that would be fun! Maybe this summer when you'de not so busy, we can organize a game with some friends! :-)

TO: stef✨💖✨: *You're

FROM: stef✨💖✨: !!!!!!!!!!!

FROM: stef✨💖✨: YEAH!!!! if you have time forr theat whith all youe dinery stuff. i can makee  a one shot real easyt! i bet marfco and simon and maybe manani would wanna play!!

TO: stef✨💖✨: Perfect! Maybe Lola, Kai, and Madhavi too? 

TO: stef✨💖✨: Well, Madhavi might be too much of a jock to play D&D with us :'-( 

TO: stef✨💖✨: Oh, Shaw! And Cole! 

TO: stef✨💖✨: Or is that too many people?

FROM: stef✨💖✨: the moree tha MAERRIER!! 

FROM: stef✨💖✨: ddi i ever teel you about theat time shaw dressed up as aere dnd cahracter?

TO: stef✨💖✨: No. Why?


TO: stef✨💖✨: A leather corset? And a harness?!

FROM: stef✨💖✨: yeah ae useed to be a goth.

TO: stef✨💖✨: That wasn't really the thing I was shocked by. :-/

    FROM: stef✨💖✨: well everytone else was in like tshirts and sweats and stuff like thet and shaaw's just theere in full gettup. it was  wild. i think ae got liek two botyfriends tht night.

TO: stef✨💖✨: Gee Shaw, how come your mom lets you have TWO boyfriends?

TO: stef✨💖✨: Sorry. Meme reference. ;-)


FROM:  stef✨💖✨: acute parent 😩❤

TO: stef✨💖✨: I was diagnosed with acute parenthood nine years ago.

FROM: stef✨💖✨: SHUTT UP!!!!

FROM: stef✨💖✨:

TO: stef✨💖✨: ;-D <3