Playground Eyes

Chapter 9: April

Wednesday, April 1.

"I have never heard of anything remotely like this product," Gabe says, squinting at the can of pre-workout energy drink that Madhavi's handed him. "I'm pretty sure it's impossible for a fruit juice-based drink to contain thirty grams of protein. Well, I guess it could, but it'd taste terrible and probably be terrible for you in the long run."

Madhavi rolls her eyes. "Just try it, dumbass. It's good! Tastes like drinkin' Skittles an' keeps ya pumpin' iron for twice as long!"

He squints at it again, examining the ingredients list. Thirty grams of protein? Five hours of energy? From miscellaneous fruit juices? Look, he's a chef. He took nutrition classes in college. There's no way this is true. At best Madhavi's been lied to about the benefits of this drink; at worst, she's actively poisoning herself. The only way to know for sure is try a sip for himself, he supposes.

Gabe sighs and cracks open the can. Several brightly-colored things shoot out of the can directly at his face, and he chokes out a scream as he drops the can and slaps at them, heart racing.

He can vaguely hear Madhavi cackling over the sound of his pulse in his veins as he grabs one of the things and holds it up in front of his face.

It's a snake.

A little, spring-loaded fabric snake with lopsided googly eyes.

"God, Gabe, I can't believe you fell for it!" Madhavi laughs, holding her gut and shuffling backwards to collapse onto the bench. "Your face! Ha!"

"I didn't fall for anything!" Gabe says, throwing the little snake at her. It bounces off her forehead and onto the floor, but Gabe doesn't think she notices.

"Can't believe you fuckin' opened it! That's the oldest trick in the book!"

"I was trying to keep you from dying!"

"That doesn't even make sense, Gabe, shit! God, your little scream... that was good! Wish I coulda got that on camera. Simon an' the fam woulda died laughin'."

He grabs the now-empty can and throws it at her, and she catches it and throws it back at him without even looking.





"You can not trick me!" Stef tells their students for the third time that morning. "I'm not an easy person to trick, especially today of all days!"

Tyler, holding a bag of cookies that have clearly been iced with toothpaste instead of actual icing, pouts at them, but Stef doesn't allow themself to feel sympathy for him. They'd learned their first year of teaching here that they couldn't humor the kids with their jokes and pranks on any day, but especially on April Fools Day.  

They wonder if little Val still looks back on his "epic prank" that year and laughs.... Wow, that kid had hated them.

Stef sends Tyler back to his seat with his bag of ruined cookies and finishes setting up for the next lesson. It's barely 10 AM! They're gonna be dealing with this all day.

They won't admit it to the kids, of course, but this is one of their favorite days of the school year.


Saturday, April 4.


"What are you going to do with a whole week off?" Gabe asks teasingly, his arm stretched across the park bench behind them and his body angled toward them.

Stef sighs, leaning back to look up at the sky and rest their head against his arm. "Sleep," they answer honestly. "Like, I don't like to mess up my sleep schedule too much, so I can't sleep in late, but I've definitely gotta catch up on my sleep. And Marco's usually pretty focused this time of year, which is good, but sometimes he gets so focused on projects he forgets to do things like eat and shower, so most'a my waking hours will prob'ly be spent keepin' an eye on him."

"Oh." Gabe's arm twitches slightly behind them, and then his hand curls inward to rest on their shoulder. "But he's doing a lot better this year, right? So you probably don't have to focus so much of your energy on him."

They shake their head. "This is the first year Marco's doin' so good," they say, "but that's just all the more reason to be there for him and make sure everything's okay. This is the first time in a long time that he's feeling like this, so it's like... uncharted territory."

"Okay," he says. "I think I get it. But he'd probably tell you if he needed help, right? You can do your own thing and just check up on him every once in a while?"

They shrug, leaning forward, and his hand falls away from their shoulder. "I don't want anything to happen to him," they say. "I'll make time for myself when I can. But I wanna spend most of spring break with him, anyway. Haven't been able to properly hang out with him in a while, ya know?" It seems like Dante's been stealing Marco away every chance he gets lately. Stef misses their weekend sitcom sessions.

"Okay," Gabe says, and he readjusts his arm on the back of the bench. "Does that mean no date night next week?"

"Well now," they say, leaning back and tilting their face toward his. "I didn't say that. Maybe we can even have an extra date next week! A middle-of-the- week date, even!" They lean toward him, enjoying the way he watches them, brown eyes flickering over their face, lips stretching into a widening smile.

"I'd like that," he says, and leans in to kiss them briefly. They love the slight scratch of his stubble against their skin as he shifts, as he pulls away. "Lola and Kai have assured me they have all of next week open." He pauses, gaze shifting to something above their own eyes, and then he reaches up with his other hand to tuck a lock of hair behind their ear. Their heart flutters in their chest. "What are you doing for Easter?" he asks.

Stef huffs, makes a face. "Nothin'," they say. "We usually go to our parents' for dinner, but since we cut 'em off back at Christmas, we don't have any plans."

"Do you want to come over and hang out with Georgie and me? I usually take her to an egg hunt in the mornings, but since I have to work that morning and no one else wants to be up that early, I'm just gonna do one in the yard for her that afternoon." He tilts his head, and a breeze blows a piece of his long, curly hair into his mouth. He inelegantly spits it out, and Stef snorts. He's cute. "I could use some help hiding eggs, if you wanted to...? You and Marco, of course, if he wants to. We're not religious or anything, but we do have a kinda fancier dinner planned. It wouldn't be difficult for me to double the servings."

Stef grins at him. "That sounds amazing," they say. "I'll see if Marco's up for it. Kinda wanted to do somethin' with Shaw for Passover, but ae's flying out to aer mom's for that, and I think a fun holiday like that's perfect for Marco! And me."

He leans in to kiss them again, on the cheek this time, and Stef catches his hand in theirs and squeezes it. "It's a date, then," he says, lips moving against their skin.


Sunday, April 12.


Stef finds that they quite enjoy the lazy Easter morning. Usually they'd be on their way to their parents' by now, jittery and unprepared for battling their parents over their pronouns and Marco's wellbeing, or already there, sitting anxiously in the pews of a church their parents only bothered to attend a couple of times a year.

But this Sunday is just like any other Sunday--maybe even better than most Sundays for the knowledge that it could be a much worse Sunday. 

Marco's been stretched out on the sofa for a while, his long legs taking up the whole thing, while he carefully lets Angel the corn snake slither from hand to hand. Tomato's nowhere to be seen at the moment, probably shut into Marco's room to prevent the unlikely event of that lazy cat picking a fight with Angel.

The TV's on, playing some sitcom full of canned laughter. Neither Stef nor Marco is actively watching it; it's just there for background noise. 

Stef's in the kitchen, squinting at the recipe on the back of the pancake mix. They have no idea what they're doing wrong, because they're following the directions perfectly, but the pancakes are taking forever to cook, slowly spreading out into a thin, goopy mess. They poke at it with their spatula, but nothing happens. They sigh.

"Marco," they call, "what the heck is wrong with this pancake?"

"It's the stove," Marco says immediately, lifting his head and peeking over the back of the sofa. Angel's draped across the top of his head now, seemingly exploring the stringy blond hairs. "It's old and shitty. You gotta turn the heat up."

"But how much higher?" they ask. "Just like, a couple notches? Or all the way up?"

He shrugs, lifting his hand up and letting Angel slither onto his palm.  "I dunno, all I can make is grilled cheese an' stuff like that. Ask your boyfriend."

"He's workin' this morning, and anyway I don't wanna bother him with somethin' like this." They frown at the dial on the stove, then shrug and turn the burner to high. That'll probably work. "We should replace this stove soon," they say. "You're gettin' another big paycheck now that you've finished that project, right? Think we can use a chunk of it for a new stove?"

Marco lays back down, his head disappearing from view. "Don't think so," he says, and there's something off about his tone. Stef can't pinpoint what it is, and they don't like that. It's been happening more often lately, that Marco says something and Stef can't read his tone. They don't like it. "Could bring D-- uh, someone in to take a look at it, see if they can fix it for you."

"Maybe." The pancake's definitely cooking now, hissing and browning. Great! Pancake breakfast is back on! They slide the spatula under the pancake and flip it. A few pieces stick to the bottom, but that's okay. The pancake's also a little darker than the golden brown Stef was going for, but that's okay, too. They'll just use extra syrup.

"You're still up for goin' to Gabe's later, right?" they ask, raising their voice a little to make sure they can be heard over the sizzling of the pancake. 

"Yeah," Marco says, and that weird tone is gone from his voice now. "Can I bring Angel? She wants to go outside. An' I bet the kid would like to see her again."

"Uh, I can ask Gabe, I guess," they say. "But we're gonna be there for a while. You sure you wanna have her out that whole time?" The pancake seems done. Heck yeah! That was so fast!

"She'll be fine," he says. "What's that smell?"

Stef's trying to pry the pancake off the bottom of the pan, but it's stuck. Crap, crap, crap! "Uh, pancake," they grunt, and give the spatula an especially aggressive yank.

The pancake goes flying out of the pan with such ferocity that Stef yelps and drops the pan. The pan hits the edge of the stove and falls forward; they leap out of the way and the pan hits the floor, skidding across the linoleum and spinning a couple of times before finally coming to a rest right in front of the fridge. The pancake's split into several pieces, two of which have landed on different spots of the kitchen floor, and one of which has landed directly on Stef's shirt. They shriek and yank the fabric away from their chest, the burning chunk of half-cooked dough falling to the floor with a soft splat.

There's a beat of silence, and then Stef lets out a little laugh, though it's not funny.  

"Are you okay?" Marco asks, standing in the doorway now with the little snake draped over his shoulders, and they laugh again. 

"Yeah," they say. "But, uh, I think pancake breakfast is a no-go this morning."

Marco leans over and picks the pan up off the floor. The action seems to take more effort than one would normally put into it, and is accompanied by a faint pulling sound. "Uh," he says, and they both stare down at the discolored and torn patch of linoleum.

There's another beat of silence. Then, Stef says the only thing they can think of:

"Gosh freaking dang it! Now we're never gonna get our heckin' deposit back!"




"When are Stef an' Marco gonna be here?!" Georgie asks, bouncing on the sofa cushion.

Gabe reaches over and puts a hand on her upper back to gently halt the motion. The morning had been busier than he'd expected, with a bunch of sunrise churchgoers and early-morning egg-hunters coming in for eggs and pancakes. Shaw's still out of town for Passover and will be for the next week, and Bunny's out of town for the weekend, so Gabe had to wait tables alone all morning until Himari got there. He's exhausted. He just wants to stretch out and have some peace and quiet for a few minutes... "I'm not sure," he says. "Sometime after lunch."

"Well can ya text 'em? I wanna look for eggs!"

Gabe bites back a groan and fishes his phone out of his pocket with a too-heavy hand. He looks at the time. "It's almost one," he says, "so they'll probably be here soon."

"Yeah, but when?!"

With a sigh he hopes she doesn't take to heart, he clumsily unlocks his phone and pulls up his conversation with Stef. He quickly angles the screen away from her, because their last few texts were, uh, very much not for little eyes, and sends them a message.


TO: stef✨💖✨: Do you knwo when you'll be comming?

He gets a reply before his screen's even had a chance to go dark.


    FROM: stef✨💖✨: on our rway now!!

FROM: stef✨💖✨: you okay  babe thatt wasd TWO typos!!

TO: stef✨💖✨: Sorry. Just tired. Don't text and drive please!

FROM: stef✨💖✨: bee there sson!

He slips his phone back into his pocket and looks at Georgie, who looks like she's about to bounce out of her skin. "They'll be here in a few minutes," he says. "I'm gonna go change. If they get here before I get back, you can let them in, okay? But only open the door for Stef and Marco. No one else."

"Okay, daddy!" Georgie launches herself off the couch and goes over to the window next to the door, staring out through the blinds.

He sighs again, which turns into a chuckle, and heads into his bedroom. He'd love to take a nap right now, but he has too much to do! At least he doesn't have to spend too long on dinner; it might be cheating, but he'd cooked most of it in the diner's kitchen today in between waiting tables, and he'll just have to heat it up when it's time to eat. 

Gabe makes his way to his closet, sliding it open. The door gets stuck on something, and he bends down with a groan to grab whatever it was; it's one of Stef's sweaters. He folds it carefully and sets it aside. Maybe Stef'll want to take it back with them today. Or maybe they'll want to leave it here for when they stay over and need something extra to wear. Hell, if Stef were closer to his size instead of being a scrawny twig, he'd probably wear this sweater. It's cute. He loves cute sweaters. He should wear more cute sweaters. Well, cute shirts. It's getting too warm for sweaters.

Most of his fun, weird clothes don't see much wear, because he usually just works in the diner or works out at the gym, and he doesn't want his favorite shirts to get all sweat-stained and unwearable. Dating Stef has given him the excuse he didn't know he needed to wear those clothes again; it's simple enough to choose something that suits his personal style and seems appropriate for the day. 

As he's in the middle of changing, he hears the front door open, and several voices talking-- one's clearly Georgie, voice high and excited; another voice is low, more monotone. Marco's. The third voice sounds nearly as excited as Georgie, and it's the one that makes Gabe bite his lip and finish tugging on his pants. 

"Gabe!" Stef greets him as soon as he emerges from the hallway. "Oh my-- what are you wearing?"

"Um." Gabe looks down at himself. He's wearing a pink and blue bowling shirt, buttoned to the top, and a pair or yellow-and-green flower-patterned jeans he'd unearthed at a thrift store a few years ago. "Clothes? Pastels and flowers for Easter."

"You look ridiculous!" they exclaim, and he meets their gaze to see their eyes practically sparkling. "I love it! So freaking festive!"

"Daddy loves weird clothes!" Georgie tells them. Marco's apparently relinquished Angel to her, because she has the little snake cupped gently in her hands. "We used to go to thrift stores an' he'd have me pick the ugliest outfit I could an' then we'd buy it an' he'd wear it all day."

Marco snorts, and Gabe feels his face heat up, sort of embarrassed even though he shouldn't be; he does love ugly and mismatched clothes. But then Stef gasps an excited, breathy "Really?" and Georgie starts telling them a story about the awful zebra-and-cheetah-print shirt she'd found a couple of years ago. Marco gives him a little smirk that might seem mean-spirited on anyone else's face, but Gabe knows it means Marco's being supportive and showing him that he's happy. Gabe feels the tension and tiredness leave his body in one big whoosh.  

He laughs, and steps forward to join the three of them.




"D'you remember when we used to do egg hunts?" Stef asks Marco as they slip a brightly-colored plastic egg into a crevice beneath a particularly large rock.

Marco snorts. "Yeah," he says. "Back when we were kids. I always got more than you." 

Stef straightens up, clutching the little box containing the remaining eggs they still have to hide, only to see their baby brother standing on his tippy toes, stretching his whole long body up and up and up to place an egg in the tall branches of one of the Joshua trees in Gabe's yard. They sigh. "How the heck is that little girl supposed to reach that, Marco?!"

He shrugs, lowering his heels back to the ground and turning to look over his shoulder at them. "Kids like to climb," he says. "An' all she has to do is spot it." He picks up his own box and looks around the yard.

They shake their head. "Anyway. You only got more eggs than me 'cause I let you," they say. 

"Maybe the first couple times," he says, balancing an egg perfectly upright on the same rock Stef had just hidden their egg under, "when I was like five. But after that I won with sheer skill. "

They roll their eyes, but don't disagree. They have two eggs left to hide. Maybe in that clump of spiky grass? It's pretty thick, hard to see unless you were lookin'. They move toward it. "Do you ever miss stuff like that? Just messin' around, goofin' off, havin' fun? No responsibilities?"

Marco's quiet for a few long moments, hiding his last few eggs. "I don't know," he says finally. "Sometimes. I guess." he balances the empty box on top of his head. "I try not to, though. Marie says I should focus on the present more'n the past. Look forward to the future instead'a wishin' for the past." The box slips off his head, and he catches it before it hits the ground. "Think I've been havin' enough fun lately that I don't hafta worry about it so much anymore, anyway."

Stef nods, smiling to themself as they hide their final egg behind a particularly lacy piece of cactus wood. "I'm glad," they say, holding their own empty box in one hand dangling at their side. "You deserve all the best, baby bro. We're gonna keep havin' fun for the rest of our lives."

"Yeah." Marco turns then and heads back to Gabe's house. "Let's go let Gabe an' Georgie know the egg hunt's on."

Stef follows him. Today's a good day. The best Easter they've had in a long time, even if it started out kinda rocky. 

They think maybe they've never been happier.


Friday, April 17.


"Stef? 'M home."

Stef, who's been correcting this week's spelling tests on the couch, looks over at Marco as he shuts the front door behind him and gives him a grin. "Hey, baby bro!" they say. "How was it? Didja have a good time? Need a break? Somethin' to eat?"

"No. I mean, yeah it was fun. No, I don't need any food." Marco crosses the living room and stands in front of the couch instead of sitting down. He has two paper cups in his hands. 

They raise an eyebrow at him. "Marco? Everything okay?" He'd texted them before they'd left the school that he wouldn't be home when they got back, that he'd gone out for a walk. That made Stef happy; Marco rarely goes anywhere alone, and when he does it's usually a quick stop to grab something to eat. Going for a walk must mean he's doing even better.

"Yeah. Everything's fine. Great." He hesitates another moment longer, then sits on the couch. He holds one of the cups out to Stef, who takes it. It's warm. "Tea," he says. "Sorry, they just had plain black. Uh, there's sugar in it."

They take a sip. Plain black tea isn't their favorite, but it's not awful. "Thanks!" they say. "What's this for? Just 'cause?" They set the cup on the table in front of them.

"Well. Not exactly." Marco's looking down at his own cup in his hands. His shoulders are tense. Stef's heart beats faster. What's wrong?

They open their mouth to ask just that, but Marco starts speaking before they can start.

"I have to talk to you," he says. 

"Yeah, of course," they say, shifting on the couch and turning to face him. "What's wrong?" His hands tighten on his cup, and a thought strikes them, sharp and sudden. "Is this about Dante?"

Marco jerks his head toward them, his gaze meeting their own. "You knew?"

"Marco, I--" Anger building in their gut, face heating up, chest feeling tight. "I knew he was no good! Marco, what the heck did he do?!" They can't believe this. They can believe this! Dante used their brother, took advantage of him and his fragile heart and his bad state of mind, and now--

"What did he do?" Marco asks. His eyes are wide, and then suddenly they're narrow, his whole face tightening. "Why do you always think Dante's done something wrong? " He bites out the last word, making it sound like a curse.

"He's always doing something wrong!" Stef insists. "Marco, look, you can tell me what he did. I'll sort it out, okay? You can just forget he ever existed and-- and it doesn't have to change anything, I'm sure together we can figure it out, and Marie can help! This is just a snag in your recovery, okay, you--"

"Dante didn't do anything!" Marco snaps, and it's loud, it's harsh, it's scary. Marco doesn't yell. Not usually.

Not at Stef.

"You've been against Dante since the beginning, and I don't know why!" he says, and he's standing now, his cup held tight in his hand, knuckles white and coffee spilling over the edge. "You always say you want me to be happy, you want me to live life. And then I do, and I meet Dante, I fall in love, and you keep trying to--to rip that away from me!"

"Marco!" Stef doesn't know what to do, how to respond. " All I want is for you to be happy! And Dante's-- he's-- he's not--"

"Dante makes me happy! He's good for me!"

"No he isn't! He's just gonna end up hurting you, he's already hurt you--"

"No he hasn't! God, Stef, why can't you--" He closes his eyes, slowly letting out a breath. His grip loosens on the cup, and he gingerly sets it on the coffee table. He breathes again, shoulders losing their tension. He opens his eyes and meets their gaze again. "Dante has never hurt me," he says, voice even, calm. "I love Dante. I'm going to marry Dante one day. And I wanted to tell you that I'm moving in with him."

The world seems to stop, suddenly, and then reverse and tilt and everything's weird and off and wrong, and someone asks, "When?" and it's Stef's voice but they don't remember saying anything, thinking anything.

"In June," he says. "He asked me to move in with him a couple of months ago, but I needed some time to think. Marie said I should do what I thought was best for me and for my mental health. I think living with him will help me. It'll be good to live in a new place, do things differently. Help me pull myself the rest of the way out of my depression."

He's talking so fast they can barely comprehend it. All they can do is stare at him, watch his jaw move as he talks. Their ears are ringing.

"And, I mean. I love him. I wanna spend more time with him. His house is about the size of this apartment, but there's an extra room he says I can make into an office, so I'm not always doing my work in my room or on the couch. And there's a yard. It'll be nice to sit outside at night and watch the stars whenever I want. And I just... I love him. You know?"

"No," Stef says, and the ringing is fading, the world straightening, the horror and rage building. "No, Marco, you can't--you can't move in with Dante!"

"I'm going to," he says. "In June. In two months."

"But-- Marco! " They stand, their hands reaching out to him, gripping his shoulders. He stares down at them, careful. "Marco, you can't-- you can't-- Dante's just using you! What the heck do you think he's gonna do to you once you live together?! Marco, no!"

Marco's face morphs from hopeful to enraged in an instant. Stef's never seen him look like that.

"Why would you say that?!" He jerks out of their grip, takes a step back. "Dante loves me, he's never done anything to--"

"He's taking advantage of you! Crap, Marco, don't you see it?" They reach for him again, but he steps back before they can touch him. "You met him when you were more emotionally vulnerable than you've ever been, and you got engaged a week later! Marco, he's just like all those other guys, except he's been using you for months instead of just a night! "

Marco's face falls for a split second, and then his expression is gone, face blank except for the anger in his eyes. "You're using that against me?" he says, voice passive, monotone. "Everything I've been through, and you're using that against me." He shakes his head, turns away. "I'm done arguing with you. Never mind about June."

Guilt and relief bloom in tandem within Stef's chest. "So, you're not moving out?"

"No, I am moving out," he says, and Stef freezes. "I just mean I'm leaving now. " He's moving again, long legs carrying him to his room before Stef can react, and he disappears inside.

Stef shakes themself and runs after him. "Marco! No, what, you can't leave, not-- not like this!" 

He's shoving clothes and things off his floor into a duffel bag, his back to them. "I'm not talking to you," he says. 

"Marco, listen to me!"

He doesn't say anything. He zips up his bag and stands up. His eyes are like ice now, the fiery rage transformed. He leans over and scoops Tomato off the bed, the cat making a soft mrrp? sound as he's awoken. 

"Marco," they start, but they don't know what else to say. He nudges Tomato into his carrier and locks the door, ignoring the cat's loud protests. "Marco. "

He pushes past Stef and moves to the front door. They can't even move to stop him. 

"I'll send someone to get Angel and the rest of my stuff later," he says. "Bye."

And then he's gone, the door slamming shut behind him.

They can't even speak.

He's gone.




Stef doesn't know how much time actually passes between the time the door shuts behind Marco and when Shaw's voice reaches their ear, tinny through the phone's speaker. 

"Steffie!" ae exclaims. "Hey! Couldn't wait to see me tomorrow, huh? We're about to eat dinner, so--"

"Marco's gone," they blurt out, even though it doesn't quite feel true. "I-- he's gone, he left, Dante took him and I don't know what to do! "

"Hey, hey, whoa, shh, calm down," Shaw says, and Stef grips the phone tighter against their head. "What do you mean? Where did Marco go?"

"He left!" And so Stef relays the events prior to calling as best they can, stammering over words as they try to get their story straight. 

"Oh, Steffie," Shaw says after they finish, and Stef can't tell if ae's being soothing or condescending. "You knew he would leave eventually."

"But he can't be on his own yet! He's not ready, he's still-- still recovering, and--"

"He's not on his own," Shaw tells them. "He has Dante. He'll be okay, Stef."

"Dante's the problem!" Stef insists. They throw their head back against the sofa cushion they're sitting against on the floor. "He's--"

"Stef," Shaw says sternly. "You need to stop putting all this blame on Dante." Aer voice softens. "He's a good guy. He's good for Marco, Stef. You can tell just by watching them when they're together."


"No, shush. We're not talking about Dante or Marco anymore. Now. I won't be back 'til tomorrow. Are you okay spending the night alone?"
Alone. The word makes Stef's breath hitch, their vision blur. "I--"

"Shh, shh, Steffie. It's okay. Why don't you call Gabe? I'm sure he'll let you stay the night."

"No! No, I-- I'm fine." It's a lie, of course. They're the farthest from fine they could possibly be. Marco's abandoned coffee cup sits on the table in front of them, right at eye level, sugary liquid pooling and congealing at its base. They can't let Gabe see them like this.

"I don't think you are," Shaw says, worry coming through in aer tone. "Call Gabe. Please? Or Simon. He seems like he'd be good company."

Stef doesn't reply. Simon isn't-- Simon wouldn't help them. He's their work friend. And Gabe.... Gabe can't see them like this!

Their face is damp. When did they start crying? Or have they stopped now? They wipe their face with the back of their hand. Marco's gone.

"Stef, do you want to join me and Mama for dinner?"

That startles a laugh out of Stef. "What?" they ask. "You're on the other side of the country!"

They can practically hear aer roll aer eyes. "We can switch to video," ae says. "We can all hang out. Last night was the last day of Passover, so you missed the feast, but I still need to help set the table." Ae pauses. "You'll feel better if you talk to Mama."

Stef sighs. Everything feels off. They're... not quite numb, but... almost? "I brought up the guys," they say. "To Marco. That's what did it. That's why he left."

"You what? Stef." Shaw sounds angry. Disappointed? But only for an instant. "Stef. You need a distraction. Company. Give me a few minutes to help Mama, and then I'll facetime you, okay?"

"Okay," they agree, not sure what else to do.

"Clean yourself up a little if you have to. Get a drink, a snack. I love you, Stef. You're okay."

"Love you, too," they say, and the line goes dead.

They sit there for a moment more, staring at Marco's cold coffee cup, the sticky beige puddle. It's Stef's fault. Stef drove him away. They shouldn't have-- They should have chased Dante off, should have said something different, convinced Marco--

They wipe their eyes. Stand up. Go into the bathroom and wash their face, comb their hair. Their roots are starting to show. They'll need to touch them up soon.

What if Dante's hurting Marco right now? What if Stef made Marco so upset that Dante's seeing it as his best opportunity to manipulate him, to convince him--

A little bit of concealer to hide the red splotches on their face. Some mascara to freshen up their look.

They leave the bathroom and step right over to the dinner table, fiddle with their phone and lean it against the empty fruit bowl.

They don't even know where Dante lives, where Marco is. How are they supposed to know everything's okay, how can everything be okay?!

The screen lights up, and the phone vibrates, falling away from the fruit bowl. Stef grabs it immediately, swiping their thumb across the screen to answer it.

Shaw's face appears, all tan skin and gap-toothed smile, and the relief that washes over them is almost tangible. "Steffie!" ae says. "Lookin' good! Mama! Say hi to Stef!"

The scenery whirls around as Shaw disappears and Stella takes aer place in frame. "Hi, hun!" she says, grinning. She looks like an older, paler version of Shaw. "You missed Pesach again! A shame, it was fun this year."

"Sorry, Mama Stella," they say. "Maybe I'll be there next year."

"Mm, I hear that every year," she teases, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. Stef feels a little better already. They shouldn't feel better.

Shaw laughs in the background, and then aer face appears next to Stella's, both of them squeezing in frame. "Stef promises they'll spend every night of Hanukkah with us next year," ae says. "Isn't that enough?"

"I suppose." She laughs, and turns the conversation to a story about something one of her other Jewish friends had done earlier that week, and Stef sits and listens and comments and pretends their world hasn't fallen down around them.

Saturday, April 18.



TO: baby bro: marco im sorry i said that i didnt mean to bring it up like that

TO: baby bro: i just want you to be safe and i dont think dante is good for you

TO: baby bro: marco are you getting my texts?

TO: baby bro: please answer me

FROM: gabe babe: Are you still coming over tonight? It's okay if you're busy or just not feeling up to it. We can reschedule! :-)

TO: baby bro: marco you know i love you right?

TO: baby bro: i want you to be happy!

FROM: gabe babe: Hey, I'm sorry if I went too far with previous messages, or something. You can always tell me if I do or say something you don't like. I won't be upset.

FROM: gabe babe: Or maybe I'm just being paranoid, LOL. Maybe you're just busy. In which case, sorry for being clingy. I just want to make sure you're doing okay.

TO: baby bro: marco please stop ignoring me!




Stef hasn't been answering his texts. Which is really weird, because Stef usually replies right away unless they're at work or something, and Gabe has been bringing his A-game to this whole sexting thing. Some really good stuff, he thinks.

But they haven't replied since yesterday; they haven't even read the messages as far as he can tell. They're going on a date tonight, but he doesn't even know what time to expect them.

Gabe wipes his hands on his apron. "Takin' a ten-minute break," he tells Taiki, who glances at him and gives a slight nod before going back to his cooking.

Gabe steps outside, sitting down on the concrete step at the back of the kitchen and pulling his phone out. Still no reply. Biting his lip, he sends them another message.

TO: stef: Hey, I'm sorry if I went too far with previous messages, or something. You can always tell me if I do or say something you don't like. I won't be upset.

TO: stef: Or maybe I'm just being paranoid, LOL. Maybe you're just busy. In which case, sorry for being clingy. I just want to make sure you're doing okay.

He pockets his phone again, but it buzzes before he's even fully extracted his hand. Hurriedly, he yanks it back out, turning the screen back on to see he has one new text.

His hopes are dashed when he sees that it's not from Stef, but instead from Shaw. He opens it anyway. Oh, right, ae's back in town today, starting back up at work tomorrow. That's good. The diner's always a little more subdued without Shaw around.

FROM: Shaw Reidel: hey hey bossaroo the lovely and talented shaw reidel is back in town! how's stef doin?

It strikes him as strange that ae would ask him about Stef; ae's their best friend, and he knows they have each other's numbers. 

The worry increases.

TO: Shaw Reidel: Welcome home! I hope the flight wasn't too bad. :-) I haven't heard from Stef since yesterday. Do you think something's wrong?

FROM: Shaw Reidel: wait they didn't call you?

FROM: Shaw Reidel: they were supposed to call you last night. i thought they were staying at your place last night.

TO: Shaw Reidel: No, our date isn't until tonight.

FROM: Shaw Reidel: they seriously didn't tell you??

FROM: Shaw Reidel: can you call em? It's important.

TO: Shaw Reidel: They didn't pick up.

FROM: Shaw Reidel: shit! listen, can you go over there? they really need someone right now, but i gotta go talk to marco.

And just like that, Gabe's up, fumbling his phone and nearly dropping it as he scrabbles for the door handle.

"I have to go," he calls into the kitchen, and Taiki looks up sharply. "I have to-- it's an emergency!"

Taiki nods once and turns back to his cooking. "I'll take care of the kitchen," he says. 

Gabe's in too much of a panic to properly thank him. He turns around again and slams the kitchen door shut behind him as he flies around the building to his car. Something's wrong with Stef. Something's seriously wrong with Stef, apparently, and Gabe doesn't know what it is, but if they were supposed to call him last night, if they were supposed to come over last night, and they didn't, then what's wrong?

His mind goes to a hundred different places as he drives, and none of them are good. He realizes halfway to Stef's apartment that he hasn't replied to Shaw's message, that maybe ae will worry, that maybe ae's sent him some more information that would make him feel a lot less terrified, but he can't pull over to check now.

He keeps his hand on his phone as he exits the car and makes his way up to Stef's apartment. He hasn't been here before, and his mind is moving way too fast as his eyes scan the walls for Stef's apartment number.

As soon as he finds it, he raps his knuckles sharply against the door. "Stef?" he calls. "Are you here?"

There's a long moment of silence, during which Gabe runs through an additional three scenarios, and then he hears a shuffling noise, and a chain sliding, and the door creaks open just enough, and he's met with Stef's face.

Relief courses through him. They're not dead or kidnapped at least. "Oh thank God," he says. "You're alive."

"Of course I'm alive," they say, and their face is paler than it should be, their hair tangled in spots. They're not smiling. Something's still wrong.

"Shaw was worried about you," he says, and they bite their lip. "And so was I. I-- can I come in?"

They stare at him a moment longer, and then they move back, pulling the door open enough for him to slip inside. He does so, and they shut the door immediately. He turns to them.

"Are you okay?" he asks. "You look-- tired."

They rub their eye with the side of their hand. "I'm fine," they say, clearly trying (and failing) to sound chipper. 

"You're not," he says as gently as possible, and after a moment's hesitation, he shuffles closer, putting a hand on their shoulder. They stiffen slightly, and he withdraws the touch, hand dropping to his side, but he doesn't back away. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Please tell me, Stef."

They shake their head slightly, hair falling into their face, and they glance at him through the curtain of red. They're quiet a moment, and then they swallow, and straighten up, shaking the hair back out of their face.

"Marco left yesterday," they say, and they sound so forlorn... But he doesn't understand why.

"What do you mean?" he asks, followed by, "Can I put my arm around you?"

Stef blinks, and then nods, edging closer to him. He wraps his arm around their slim shoulders, pulling them against his chest. They stiffen again, but then relax, melting against him. He tightens his grip. "He moved out," they mumble. "Left the apartment. Left me."

"He--?" That's weird. Marco hadn't mentioned anything about moving out... had he? Not that Marco tells him everything, obviously, but that seems like the type of thing that you might mention to a friend during even just casual conversation. And shouldn't Stef have known about it, too? And maybe mentioned it to him? "That's... sudden."

"He wasn't supposed to leave until June," they say. "He wasn't supposed to-- ngh." They sound like they're biting their tongue, and they drop their head down, forehead pressing into his shoulder. "Dante made him leave."

"Dante did what?" Gabe shuffles over to Stef's couch and tugs them to sit down beside him. "That doesn't-- why would Dante make Marco leave?"

"I don't know, Gabe, but Marco wouldn't just leave me like that if Dante hadn't started manipulating him!" They clutch at his shirt, bunching it up in their hand, fingers digging into his chest. 

"Manipulating--?" This doesn't make any sense. He's seen Dante and Marco interact, and he hasn't seen anything but genuine feeling there... But it wouldn't be obvious to an outsider like Gabe if there was really something shady going on, would it? He holds them tighter, hand stroking over their back. "Stef. Can you elaborate on that? I want to understand."

Stef sighs. "Okay," they say. Their frame goes limp against him but it feels more like defeat than relaxation. He doesn't stop moving his hand in comforting patterns over their back. "So, um, I guess I should start at the beginning." They take a breath, roll away from him just enough that they can sit upright, shift to face him. 

"That's usually the best place to start," he says, but they don't smile.

"I told you that Marco got really depressed when he was fifteen, and that he only started recovering this last summer."

"Yeah. You said you'd been taking care of him since you were eighteen."

"Right. An' I told you he was really apathetic, had low energy. I..." They shake their head.

"You told me you took care of him," Gabe finishes. "I remember, Stef. But... what does that have to do with him leaving?"

"I couldn't take care of him," Stef says, clasping their hands in their lap. "Not always! I-- Sometimes he did things, things that hurt him, and I couldn't stop him! I didn't know I needed to stop him until it'd been going on for-- for too long, and--"

He reaches over and puts his hand on theirs, squeezes gently but firmly. "Stef, calm down. Breathe." He waits until they suck in a breath and let it out slowly, shoulders rising and falling with the motion. "Good. Now. You said you were going to start at the beginning."

They're staring down at Gabe's hand on theirs, not looking at him. "I shouldn't even be telling you this," they say quietly. "It's--Marco--"

"Stef," he interrupts, reaching over with his free hand to carefully swipe his finger across the freckles on their cheek. They glance up at him, lock eyes. "I want to help you," he says, slipping his hand down to cup their chin. He slowly runs his thumb across the skin just below their bottom lip. "In order to help you, I need to know what's going on."

They don't break eye contact with him for a long moment, and then they sigh, leaning on him again. He wraps his arm around their shoulders. "Right," they say. "Well. Sometimes, Marco had... more energy, but he was still depressed, you know? That's when he was maybe at his worst, because he didn't feel anything, and he wanted to be happy. And Shaw and I, we didn't know what was going through his head 'til later, so we let him-- we encouraged him to--"

They're getting worked up again. "Stef," he mutters, dropping his chin to press a kiss to the top of their head.

There's a pause, and then they continue, still speaking fast, but with less of a panicked edge. "Marco used to sneak out of the apartment and sleep around with any guys who'd pick him up at the bar."

Well. That certainly wasn't what Gabe had been expecting to hear. "Okay," he says, trying to cover his flustering with a cough, "uh, well, I mean. That's. I've had casual-- you've --"

They sigh again, clearly exasperated. "Marco wasn't doing it for fun, Gabe, he was doing it because he wanted to feel something, and those guys took advantage of him! Him and his situation!"

"What?" Okay, well that's definitely a different situation, but... somehow the pieces still don't quite fit together, he thinks. "Stef--"

"He told me about it, Gabe!" They pull away from him, twist to level him with a wide-eyed stare. "He told me he hated it, that he felt worse every freaking time, but he still did it because it was something. He'd rather feel like garbage, rather be used than feel that-- that nothingness anymore!"

"Stef, that's horrible." He reaches out to catch their hand again, but they pull it away, dig their fingers into the fabric of their pants instead. He drops his hand. "I'm sorry he had to go through something like that. I am. But, I'm sorry, I don't know what that has to do with him moving out." Nothing he'd seen lately had made Gabe think Marco was planning something like that, or that he was feeling so... low. "He's recovered, right?"

"Recover ing. He's not completely over it yet. And that's why he moved out, Gabe!" They reach up and push the stray hairs out of their face. "He left because Dante's doing the exact same thing as those guys."

"What?" The word is out of Gabe's mouth before he's really realized it. "Stef, they're engaged." Being engaged to someone is probably the farthest thing from hooking up with someone at a bar.

Stef's jaw flexes. "Do you know how long they dated before they got engaged?"


"A week, Gabe. A freaking week!" They throw their hands up in the air, and at that moment, their phone buzzes on the coffee table in front of them. They scramble for it, swipe their thumb across the screen-- and then they slump, dropping the phone back on the table. "Seven days," they say, sounding more subdued now. "That's it."

"Uh." Gabe has no idea what's even happening anymore. "Well, that--that seems abrupt, sure, but--"

"Dante's taking advantage of him, and Marco's letting him because he thinks that love is the only thing that can make him happy!" They jerk toward him, hands falling to his thighs as they stare up at him. "He doesn't-- he doesn't even know what love is! Dante's manipulating him, and has been for months!"

"Stef." It's like they're crazed, and he doesn't know what to do, has no idea how to calm them down from this! This isn't a panic attack, this is-- he doesn't know what it is, doesn't know how to handle it. All he can do is try to be calm and help them see the situation for how it really is. "Stef, I'm sorry, but I've met Dante. I've seen how the two of them act around each other, and around other people. I can't believe that Dante's manipulating Marco. He's so genuine, and Marco's happy with him."

"Why doesn't anyone believe me?!" They wrench themself away from him, stagger to their feet. He reaches for them, unsure, but they spin around, their back to him. "I know my brother! And I know he would never leave me like this, not of his own free will!"

Their phone buzzes again, but this time it goes ignored.

"Stef. I... I think you need to relax and think about this." Gabe stands, too, but he takes a step back, away from Stef. "Marco's fine. He's happy."

They shake their head, shoulders rising and tensing. "Marco is--!"

There's a knock at the door, and before either of them can say anything, it opens, and suddenly Shaw is here. Gabe's never felt so relieved to see aer; surely ae will know how to handle this!

"Steffie," ae says, and ae sounds so sad. "I'm just here to get Angel for Marco. He asked me--"

"I know what he asked you," they snap, turning to aer now, nostrils flared. "Just-- just take her, okay, and when you see Marco--" They shake their head, shoulders drooping. "Just, ask him to call me. Or text me. Please?"

"I will," ae says, and aer tone is so gentle. Ae skates across the room to the hallway, shooting Gabe an apologetic look but not saying anything to him.

"Gabe," Stef says, and he turns his attention to them again, but they're not looking at him; they're looking at something behind him, gaze focused at some point above his right ear. "I think you should go."

"What? But-- do you need--"

"Leave," they say, mouth a thin line across their face.

"Okay," he says, and he turns and hurries to the door, pausing only once he's reached the doorway. He looks at them again; they aren't looking at him. "I'll text you later," he says. "I'm sorry."

They don't reply.

He shuts the door quietly behind him.

Wednesday, April 22.


"Morning, Stef!" Simon says, his tone so dang gentle it drives Stef crazy in the worst way. "How're ya doin' today?"

They look over their shoulder and stretch their lips into something that's probably more grimace than smile, but Simon's not one of their kids or one of the newbies, so they don't feel guilty about it. "Great," they say, slipping a paperclip over the stack of photocopies in front of them.

"Did you get some sleep last night?" he asks, slipping in beside them. They don't look up at him; they already know his face will be a mask of pity, and they can't stand it!

"Plenty," they say. They tuck their papers into their binder and close it with a snap. They still have a few things they need copies of today, but they don't need them until after lunch, so they'll just do it later.

"...And... have you heard anything from Marco?"

Stef hastily shoves their binder under their arm and turns on their heel to march out of the supply room. "I have work to do," they say. "And I'm sure you do, too."

"Stef," they can hear the jerk following behind him, soles of his shoes tapping against the linoleum. "Stef, I think you should take a couple of days off. You look like you could use it."

They bite their tongue to keep from replying. They're doing just fine.  

"Just a couple of days. There's plenty of good subs who can work last-minute. Just take a couple days to relax and get yourself together and--"

"Thank you," Stef cuts him off as soon as they reach the threshold of their own classroom's door, "for your concern, Mr. Moore. School will be starting soon. Shouldn't you be finishing your prep work?" They proceed to their desk, not looking back at him.

"I just want you to be okay, Stef," he says, and there's a quiet sadness in his tone that makes Stef want to scream.

They don't reply.

A few seconds later, they hear Simon sigh, and leave.

They let themself sink into their chair and pull out their phone. Two new messages. Gone are the hopeful bubbles in their chest that they might be texts from Marco; they open them with a sense of dread.

FROM: ✨show pony✨: marco's doin good! still alive, still workin and eatin and all that good stuff.

FROM: ✨show pony✨: steffie, you should call gabe. he's gonna wear a trench in the kitchen from all this pacing. SO annoying.

The dread in their stomach only worsens, and they shove their phone back into their pocket. No way are they calling Gabe. Not after what had happened last week! They're not ready. He shouldn't have seen them like that, and-- and he shouldn't have taken Dante's side, that was the worst thing he could have-- and he shouldn't have seen them like that, and they shouldn't have said-- they shouldn't have--!

They shake their head to clear it, clench their fists at their sides. Now's not the time to think about any of that! They have to finish getting ready for class.



"Simon says they look like shit," Madhavi says, leaning over Gabe as he finishes his set of bench-presses. "I dunno what else to tell ya, Gabe, they don't tell Simon anything so I don't have anything for you!"

Gabe grunts as he sets the bar aside and sits up, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Thanks anyway," he says. "I just... I feel like I should know what to do for them, but I don't. I feel like... like a bad boyfriend, I guess." He sighs.

Madhavi's hand falls heavy on his shoulder, and he looks up to see her looming above him, shaking her head. "You're not a bad boyfriend, Gabe. Look, you've known 'em for less than a year, yeah? You've been datin' for like two months. "

"Yeah, so--"

"So," she cuts him off, "ya can't expect to know all their ins an' outs an' all that shit. Let 'em process or whatever the hell they need to do an' they'll call ya when they're ready." She pulls away from him, hand sliding off of his shoulder, and he moves to help her stack the weights. 

"Thanks, Madhavi," he says. He doesn't exactly feel better about this whole situation with Stef, but... well, he doesn't feel as guilty about it, either. "I hope they call me soon. ...You know, you're pretty good at this feelings stuff."

She groans. "It's Simon's fault!" she exclaims. "Living with the guy, that kinda shit just rubs off on ya, y'know?"

"Oh? So you mean to tell me that without Simon, you'd be a horrible, unfeeling person?"

"No! Shut the fuck up, Gabe!"

He laughs and jostles her shoulder, earning a few seconds in a headlock in return.

Saturday, April 25.


TO: baby bro: i boxed up the rest of your things. you can send shaw to pick them up whenever you want.

TO: baby bro: or come over yoursellf. maybe we could talk? have lunch or something?

TO: baby bro: *yourself. sorry.

FROM: si: Hey! Madhavi n I r havin a game nite tonite @ 7:30 if u wanna com by! Snacks n drinks! 

FROM: ✨show pony✨: i'm coming by after work to pick up the last of marco's things. if you want, we can grab a bite to eat today. sound good steffie?

TO: baby bro: i wish you would talk to me. 

TO: baby bro: i know you read my messages.

  TO: baby bro: just tell me you're doing okay. let me know how your day went.

FROM: si: Haven't heard from u yet! It's ok if ur a lil late 2 game nite! Drop by wenevr!

TO: baby bro: night marco. i love you.