Has to be a slow newsweek, Jeff Winger thought, glancing down at his cell. The television mounted in the corner of the coffee shop displayed the local CBS affiliate, which had thrown itself wholeheartedly into coverage of the...
Well, Jeff had a feeling it might involve arm-wrestling, or maybe a mini-game of paintball assassin, but the affiliate had dubbed it a crisis. And created a musical cue for it. And a graphic, of a startled Human Being grasping prison bars.
"We go now live to Tricia Thoon, reporting from the Greendale campus. Tricia?"
"Yes, Brent. As you can see, the hostage negotiation team behind me is still trying to resolve this crisis without any additional injury."
Jeff looked up from his nonfat half-caf. Yep, Abed's green hoodie was visible in the crowd gathered around the roped-off HVAC annex. Abed, in his typically clinical way, had been ecstatic at the idea of shooting guerilla footage of an actual standoff. Dean Pelton, unshaven, wringing his hands, and possibly sporting a bit of lip gloss, was visible behind the reporter.
"We're almost positive no students are inside! Please come out for open registration on Monday for the spring semester! Greendale is the place to be in January!" Pelton blurted, and Jeff felt a tiny, almost imperceptible twinge of pity for the man. Then he reminded himself that if the "crisis" went on for another twenty-four hours, final exams were certain to be delayed until after the holidays, and grinned.
Classes had been called off since Vice Dean Laybourne had come over the campus PA system with the single word "Peoria." The group had been in the study room, and a few of the other students, visible through the windows, had glanced up, then walked off purposefully with blank faces. Troy had glanced up too, cocked his head like he'd heard some half-remembered song, then glanced at Abed.
Jeff hadn't asked. Every now and then he had to fight the urge to ask, just for variety.
He was pretty sure that Troy had ended up over there anyway, and Abed had followed, or maybe it had been the other way. Shirley was taking the time off to be home with her family, and Jeff was kind of hoping that she made a few batches of those not-half-bad brownie cheesecake tartlets for their first meeting in the new year. Pierce was going through a laser lotus cleanse in his hive. Judging by the number of increasingly less inhibited tweets Britta had directed his way the night before, she was working through everything on tap at Rooney's.
And Annie had come to that last study session wearing red and white striped tights. Jeff had bit back his initial thought and commented, "Taking candy striping literally?"
Annie had tugged her skirt hem down a little. "Just trying to make a little more cash for the holidays," she had said, her blue eyes wide when Jeff's narrowed gaze met hers. "Ugh! What! It's for a grand opening at a car dealership, God, Jeff!"
"As what, the door prize?"
Annie had rolled her blue eyes at him and then Dean Pelton had come on the PA system initiating a Code Fuchsia. It had been glorious.
Jeff had used some of the time off to hang out at his old firm. Most of the partners were working on wrapping up their cases so they could take a solid three weeks off over the holiday, so Jeff found plenty to do. Plus it had never hurt to keep an eye on Alan.
Or the new paralegal, who had honey-blonde hair and miles of leg.
Stacy glanced up at him, fluttering her lashes a little as he approached her desk. "You wouldn't want to try out that new cafe around the corner, now would you," he said.
Stacy gave him a small smile. "I would. If I didn't have to run to the courthouse over my lunch."
Jeff shrugged. "Hey, in and out, a quick drink..."
Which was how Jeff ended up standing at the clerk's desk while Stacy grabbed a table for two at the cafe. Five minutes, in and out, that was all. Jeff glanced down at the clock on his phone.
"May I help you?"
The clerk, a large, curly-haired woman wearing an ill-fitting festive red sweater, stood with her hand perched on the back of her swiveling chair, peering at him over her glasses.
"Yes, I need..." Jeff glanced down, then handed over the scrap of paper with the file number on it. "This."
She sat down at the desk and started pecking at her keyboard. Jeff saw a fast-food beverage cup, the tip of the straw stained with strawberry-colored lipstick. A grey cashmere scarf and a black wool peacoat, a few years old but still stylish. The shiny spine of a book.
It looked familiar.
"Ann!" the clerk called, as Jeff craned his neck to get a better look at the book. Biology, 6th ed.
The muted sound of stilettos on worn-out industrial carpet.
Jeff glanced up. Big blue eyes fringed in blackened lashes, glossy dark hair smoothly swept back into a French twist, tight pencil skirt and button-down.
Jeff actually swallowed. Ann, he mouthed.
Annie dismissed him with a glance and reached for the slip of paper. "Be right back," she said, and her voice didn't have that perky, chipper tone he knew so well.
It wasn't seeing her dressed up, because he had seen her dressed up before. Wasn't necessarily seeing her outside Greendale. He watched her vanish into the file room and thought about how weird everything had been since they'd agreed that just giving in to that tension between them wasn't the best idea. Granted, it was Greendale, everything was weird.
And then, well, most of the Glee club madness was kind of hazy, but he remembered seeing her in a fur-trimmed Santa outfit, gyrating on his lap in a way that made him think maybe she wasn't quite as innocent as she had always pretended to be, and maybe she was exactly as innocent as she had always seemed to be.
Annie returned with the file folder and handed it to the clerk, then stood with her hands loosely clasped behind her back. He could imagine her doing this, and doing it well. No one could beat Annie at organization or rule-following or just general goody-two-shoes-ing.
He kept staring at her, waiting for her to turn her attention back to him. Once he thought he saw her eyes flicker toward him, but she was good.
After that, his lunch with Stacy didn't seem nearly as exciting.
He didn't run into the other members of the study group, not really. With Britta it was planned, or his "happening by" a few of the bars she liked. Otherwise he lived on the other side of town and went to a specific shop at the mall for his hair care products and generally wasn't anywhere he could run into them. If the study group had never happened, he probably would have managed to get Britta's number somehow, and that would have been good for a few drunk hook-ups, but Abed and Troy? Pierce? Wouldn't even have been on his radar.
There was just something, something about seeing Annie when she wasn't in the study room, when she wasn't in one of her little button-down cardigans and her tights, that made him feel uneasy. He thought about calling her kiddo and working with her on the debate team and how, out here, none of that actually meant anything. She was just a girl. No strange Oedipal power differential, no weirdness because he was like the dad of the group and she was like the perky older daughter.
Three days before Christmas the mall was packed with screaming kids, strollers, couples moving at a frustratingly leisurely pace, scowling teenagers. Jeff shouldered his way through the crowd to the menswear department, and spent easily twice as much time as he ever did debating over the gift. Gloves? Gloves might be a little cavalier, but maybe it would be perfect. Jeff glanced at his phone, checking the time, and saw another message notification. Britta. Something incoherent about astronaut paninis. She really had to stop drinking so much.
The harried saleswoman handed back his credit card with his receipt. "Gift wrapping?" he asked, slotting the card back into his wallet.
The saleswoman hooked a thumb over her shoulder. "Customer service," she said with a tired, wan smile.
The seething mass of humanity was even worse at customer service. Jeff glanced down at the gloves in his hand and mentally debated whether he wanted to take the time to wrap them. All the accumulated body heat was making this part of the store unbearably hot. Besides, a really amazing bottle of wine would be a much better gift.
He was pulled forward with the crowd, and that made his decision for him. "Next," a girl in an elf hat beckoned him.
And Annie was at the next station. Her eyes were heavily lined and she had a streak of something in her hair. Silver, maybe? Huge hoops hung from her earlobes, practically brushing her shoulders, and she snapped a piece of gum. Jeff's gaze met hers and she looked back at him for a second, then carefully raised an eyebrow.
Despite her half-goth appearance, she was still Annie, and the gift in front of her was swiftly and methodically swathed in thick paper covered with gold flourishes. She taped on a bow and handed it to the customer, then looked over at Jeff, who had managed to maneuver into her line.
Annie nodded at the jar on the counter in front of Jeff. "We're taking donations for the soup kitchen," she said, accepting the gloves. "You get a bow if you donate a dollar."
"As long as it matches my eyes," he teased her, and he saw a little softening in the skin around her eyes as he slipped a dollar into the jar and she tore off a square of paper. "So, Suicide Girl, what name are you going by here?"
He wasn't sure why he said it, but her eyeroll was worth it. She jerked the blade of her scissors down a length of ribbon and a perfect curl snapped back at her. "Anything else?" she asked, as she taped the bow on.
It was a knee-jerk response, the response that rose to his lips. A coffee on your next break. He'd had the charm turned on for as long as he could remember... but that, no, not with Annie, not like this. Besides, their conversation would turn to the Biology final and the hostage crisis and it really would be just a coffee.
Or maybe it wouldn't. He was starting to wonder just who was really under there, if the cardigans and the knee skirts were just as much a costume as all this.
"Hey, I don't have all day," a balding man said impatiently behind him.
Jeff glanced back. "All right, sunshine," he replied, and turned back to her. She was proffering the gloves, and she gave him a long, direct glance from under her lashes.
"See you around," he said, making a face at how trite it sounded before he took the gift and moved away from the counter.
The first day of class, when they all filed into the Biology classroom, Annie was back in the uniform. Bright blue sweater over a shirt with a peter pan collar, plaid skirt, knee socks, Oxfords. Hair half pulled back, fresh new pencils and untouched college-ruled notebooks. For a second he had the disconcerting thought that maybe he had just mistaken some other girl for her at the clerk's office and at the mall.
And it was as though he had, really. They fell back into their old rhythms. Annie kept scrupulous notes and when Abed and Troy set their lab practical notebook on fire, she distracted the teaching assistant while they put it out, and when Jeff and Britta noticed Annie casting those bashful glances at an obvious pothead on the other side of the room, they put their heads together to distract her attention. Sure, she'd said she didn't want their interference, but she didn't know better. With that sweet-schoolgirl getup, she might as well have been walking around with a target on her back.
Jeff was off Fridays after 11am, and once classes were over, once they all dispersed to their own little pockets of reality, he headed to the law office. Abed liked to use the campus for shooting Friday afternoons since it was practically deserted, and he and Troy had talked in enthusiastic, if easily deciphered, pig latin about Laybourne and Darth Vader and how the Human Being looked like nothing so much as a zombie when on film.
On a hunch, Jeff had looked up Laybourne in the firm's files, and was starting to get half-curious about the man himself. If Abed and Troy ever turned up missing, the HVAC annex was the first place Jeff would look. Well, after three or four days, anyway.
"We have a mixer at the hive this Friday night," Pierce announced brightly. "Jeff, you really might want to consider it, there's a special on cleansing your aura of any unwanted influences. Like your..."
Troy sighed and held up a finger. "Wait for it," he said.
"Gayness," Pierce finished.
Abed tilted his head. "Troy and I are going to be working on... Tack-yay of the Ones-clay."
Pierce was visibly taken aback. "That'll take two cleansings, at least. You really should let me schedule you."
"I'll be working on a new pie recipe," Shirley said, casting a bright grin around the table. "Chocolate graham cracker crust!"
"Hooray," everyone chorused, suddenly intent on their books. Jeff glanced over at Annie, who had her medical terminology book open and was bent over the page.
"Somebody's not at all worried about the quiz tomorrow," he commented, checking Twitter on his phone.
Annie, lips pursed, glanced up at him. "It's just refresher on the last thing we did last semester," she muttered, uncapping her highlighter.
"Hey, weren't you taking that class with Sullivan? I heard the Human Being bit him and gave him Hepatitis B," Britta said, her voice dropping low at the end. Troy and Abed glanced at each other; then Troy leaned forward.
"Tell me more."
"That's all I heard," Britta said, taking up her knitting.
Annie shrugged. "I don't know. They turned it into an online-only class."
"So you're off Friday afternoons?" Abed said quickly. "I've been looking for a female lead—"
Annie looked up, tilted her head. "Wish I could," she said slowly. "Maybe if it's later..."
Jeff stared intently at his cell phone, hoping that if he avoided eye contact with Abed, he could avoid being cast as a zombie in the latest production. Even thinking about zombies made him feel a little panicked. And irrationally worried about cats.
Jeff went in a little later that Friday afternoon, hoping to catch Stacy after her lunch break and get in some more one-on-one time in the copy room. He ran into Ted, who asked how the degree was going, and Alan, who invited him out for some hard partying as soon as he managed to tear himself away from his desk. Then Alan asked how things were going with Stacy and said he would hook that cute brunette who had just started as Woodard's paralegal for the evening's festivities.
"Cute new brunette? Want to put a bet on that?" Jeff asked, only half-joking.
"Me? Bet?" Alan tapped the side of his nose in what was practically an unconscious gesture. "She's a hot little number. Way out of your league, Winger."
"Ahh. Guess I'll just have to settle for Stacy."
"Come on." Alan grabbed his suit jacket. "Let's go pay her a little visit. I need to get in a little more face-time anyway."
Like that'll do any good, Jeff thought, but followed Alan to the elevator anyway. While they were waiting Stacy came up, saying she had to head for the clerk's office to pick up a couple of files, and Jeff, without thinking, said he'd run over for it.
It was only when he was halfway there that he realized, maybe a quarter of his motivation had been to get some more brownie points with Stacy. The rest of him was wondering if Annie—if Ann would be there. Ann in her buttoned-up business suit and jewel-tone lips.
But she wasn't. He didn't spot the textbook on the desk, and the clerk was the one who slowly moved back to the file room to get the files he wanted.
Maybe she had turned up to play with Troy and Abed in their zombie movie, after all. Running around in stage makeup, fighting monsters.
But she wasn't.
The files were meant for Woodard, and Jeff didn't know why he decided to hand-deliver them. Maybe because he had always wanted the corner office Woodard was in, with its sleek mahogany and polished glass. Maybe to see the hot little number Alan was going on about, who turned when he approached, in a swirl of dark hair. She wore a raspberry-colored satin shirt, unbuttoned to reveal the v of her cleavage, and a tight pencil skirt, and only when his gaze finally rose to her face did he actually take a half-step back.
Annie reached for the files in his hand, swinging around the desk as she snatched them. Her four-inch heels were soundless against the plush carpet. She knocked very softly on Woodard's door, and Jeff got a flash of some deep green foliage, a low cream-colored couch, an abbreviated bar set. Then she was back, and the color of her shirt was just a shade or two lighter than her lips, and shit, he was practically looking down her shirt again.
"Jeff," she returned, smoothing her skirt as she sat down.
"What are you doing here?"
"Well, Andrea schedules her doctor's appointments for Friday afternoons—"
"Not why isn't Andrea here, why are you here." Jeff wasn't sure why he was a few minutes away from hyperventilating. Maybe because she and Stacy would probably meet at some point. And talk. Or maybe they already had.
Annie sighed and brought up her email program. "Mr. Woodard handles a lot of the medical malpractice cases for the firm and it sounded like good experience."
"But it's here," Jeff repeated, stupidly.
Annie folded her hands in front of her. "And," she replied.
He shook his head. "There's just no talking to you."
She raised her eyebrows, and he could hear her on the keyboard as he let himself out. "Tell Stacy I said hi," she called quietly, and Jeff cringed as the door closed behind him.
It wasn't anything Stacy did. She had the same perfect teeth and immaculate wardrobe and curvy frame, but in the misery of the Colorado winter, Jeff knew he was losing interest in her. He kept going to the firm, though. It was good for Ted to keep seeing him. It was good to keep himself in practice.
It definitely wasn't because he was at all worried that Annie would actually fall for any of Alan's corny bullshit. He honestly wasn't. Annie had a thing for potheads and general cheeseballs, but given how she knew Alan and what Alan had put Jeff through, she couldn't have been less interested. Jeff didn't even need to bring it up. Just the sight of her epic eyeroll the one time he had found Alan trying to chat her up had been proof enough.
He wanted to fasten just one more button on those fitted tops she kept wearing, though. Kind of. When she was around other people, anyway.
The firm's anniversary party was halfway through the semester, when the snow was finally starting to melt. Ted tossed off an invitation and Jeff came dressed in one of his more expensive suits, his stubble expertly trimmed.
And of course she was there. Of course she was. When he saw her she was shaking her head at Alan's proffered flute of champagne, but as soon as Alan was out of her direct eyeline she was reaching for one from the serving table. She downed half of it in one gulp, and Jeff's gaze followed the line of her throat down to the generous display of cleavage. Her rose-colored cocktail dress shimmered faintly when she moved, and she shifted her weight expertly between stilettos.
Her brow furrowed just slightly when he approached. "Hi."
Making some comment on how she definitely shouldn't be drinking champagne at her age was something he would do if he were in the study room. Instead he picked up a flute himself and took a sip. "You look great."
He saw a hint of her usual bashfulness when a corner of her mouth turned up, but she didn't turn away. "Thanks," she replied. "And you don't look half-bad yourself."
He shrugged. "So when does Andrea get back from maternity leave?"
Annie cupped her bent elbow and idly swirled the champagne in her glass. "Probably August," she replied. "Why, ready to get rid of me?"
Jeff took another sip of champagne and didn't grimace. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't scotch, that was for damn sure. "It's weird," he said. "It is weird, right? Being here and not in the group? With you acting like someone else all the time?"
She huffed a little. "I'm not acting."
"So this is you."
She nodded. "Yeah. This is me."
"All the buttoned-up and planning and..."
She finished off her flute and took another. "Has gotten me where? Stress headaches and ulcers and copying my notes before tests? Because Troy and Abed, they have fun constantly. Like, they go in the spare bedroom and just fantasize for hours."
"Uh," Jeff began, but Annie silenced him with the wave of her hand.
"And for the longest time now I've wanted to be something other than Annie-goody-two-shoes, good old dependable Annie. Good old little sister Annie. I wanted to go somewhere that I could act like a grown-up without you guys just snickering behind your hands and thinking I was a kid playing dress-up. And then you had to go and—and fuck," she hissed, dropping her voice to just below a whisper, "everything up because everywhere I go, there you are."
Jeff made a tchah noise. "My old firm? You thought I wouldn't be here? Really?"
She tossed her hair a little. "Well, you could at least stop staring at me like you think I'm about to... to just start doing a striptease or something."
Jeff managed to stifle both the immediate mental image and his instant retort, and folded his arms. "And what kind of look is that."
"Like..." She gave him a slightly incredulous hard stare, and it was like she could see through him.
"I have not been looking at you like that."
Jeff shook his head just as Alan approached again. "Hey, muscling in on my girl," Alan said winkingly, nudging Jeff.
Annie rolled her eyes. "I'll see you later, Jeff," she said, swinging around, and that swing to her hips was entirely, deliciously inappropriate. And when Jeff caught Alan staring at her ass, he elbowed the other man hard.
Jeff shook his head. "Nothing," he muttered, finishing the rest of his champagne.
It didn't make any sense to him, because Jeff had always prided himself on not caring what other people thought. He didn't really care. Especially because he was always well-dressed and had exactly the right retort and was generally amazing, and if someone didn't like him, well, that was their loss. Anyone who didn't think he was amazing was a fool.
Annie was working full-time at the firm over summer break, and Jeff found himself there most days too. Soon it would be August, and Andrea would be back, and classes would start, and, shit. If she was Stacy, their relationship would be bright and all-consuming and quick, a month tops. But she was Annie and he would be seeing her for the next year probably, even if things didn't go well, and Annie was awful at keeping secrets—
The version of Annie he had known for most of the past three years was, anyway. The Annie he knew at the firm was mature and well-spoken and well-dressed, even though he knew that she had assembled her work wardrobe through careful explorations of secondhand shops and that she often went home to invisible light-saber fights and shadowpuppet shows.
When he divorced her from all that—and it was practically impossible, but he was a lawyer, and separation of context was his bread and butter—she was hot and a little young for him, but she was available. She had gone on a few dates with another paralegal and Jeff had been distracted the entire time. He had wanted to call Britta and get her in on it, send her in as a ringer, something. But Annie was an adult, here at least, and in the end he did nothing and was relieved to watch it fizzle out without his interference.
He couldn't remember the last time he had seen her in a sweater set and sensible shoes.
Jeff managed to wrangle his way out of Alan's usual invitation for Friday night debauchery and pulled out his cell, counting the days until school started again. It was too soon to ask her out now, he told himself. Too close to the beginning of the semester, too close for comfort, for this to possibly play out before classes began. If he had just found the nerve at the beginning of the summer...
But he hadn't.
He caught her on the elevator on the way out, a light jacket folded over her arm; she wore a sleeveless turquoise dress and her hair fell in soft waves down to her shoulders. "Jeff."
What would the group say? If he did this, they would find out, and it had been ugly enough when they had just kissed, and he was like the dad—
But not here, he wasn't, she wasn't. And this wasn't happening to the group. This was happening to them.
And he was pretty sure he owed himself, after three years, an opportunity to see what they had been fighting and denying all this time.
"Want to get some dinner? There's a... a new Italian place downtown."
Annie shifted her weight, glancing at her watch. The elevator chimed and the doors opened, and she stepped out, and he would just be very casual about this.
Damn it. He wasn't like this. But then she often wasn't like this either.
"Dinner," she said, turning to face him.
"Yeah. Just dinner."
She glanced down and back up again. "Dinner and maybe a coffee back at your apartment?" she said, and he would be damned, she was actually flirting with him.
Well, it's not a school night, he almost said, but he didn't want the reminder. "If you play your cards right," he returned with a grin. "Not many women get the grand tour of Casa del Winger."
"So smooth, and you know Spanish," she murmured, and when she glanced back up at him her eyes were dancing a little. "Well, how could I possibly refuse."
Another nine months, he thought with a little pang. Just another nine months together at Greendale. He could always amend that reservation at Morty's from a table to one to a table for seven.
Or maybe from one to two.