“I didn’t think you were into this sort of thing, Jess,” Nick says. His face is so close to hers, she can feel the tickle of his breath against her skin.
She laughs – just a little – nervously. (And this isn’t even mentioning the sudden shiver that travels down the length of her spine.) “I’m not,” she says, before backtracking and pasting an addendum to her statement. “I mean, I just thought this would be the last place they’d come looking for us.”
Nick straightens, giving her an appraising look. “You know, you’re right. This is the last place they’d think to check.”
Jess’s nervousness is replaced by a grin. “I know, right? I’m so smart sometimes.”
Nick’s answering grin is enough to make her feel like singing a love song. (Only, she knows it’s probably in her best interest not to ruin the moment by doing so.) Before she can think of anything else to say that might alleviate her sudden anxiety, or fill the silence, Nick leans in again. “You totally are,” he says.
And then he kisses her.
SEVEN DAYS AGO
“I’m telling you,” Schmidt starts, “there’s definitely a little somethin’ somethin’ going on between those two. You’d have to be blind not to notice. Or you’d just have to be Jess and Nick.”
Winston only glances up disinterestedly, from his sports magazine. He shrugs. “So what?” he quips. “It’s up to the two of them to figure things out, not for you to go on in trying to stir the metaphorical pot.”
“I’m not going to be stirring anything,” Schmidt protests, before a smile creeps over his face. It’s honestly one of the most disturbing things Winston has ever seen in all his years of knowing Schmidt. “In fact – in fact, we should probably just … pretend we don’t notice anything. You know, so we don’t put them off or anything.”
“Put them off?” Winston asks, an eyebrow raised in the ever familiar ‘what the Hell are you going on about, Schmidt?’
“Yeah,” says Schmidt, “you know, make them feel like we’re on to them. ‘Cause we’re not. We’re not onto them at all.” He taps his nose and that creepy smile returns.
“You know, that is not a good look for you,” Winston says, jutting his chin towards the smile that promptly flickers off the other man’s face.
Schmidt frowns. “You know what, fine. If you’re gonna be like that, bro, I’m going to have no choice but to exclude you from future endeavours.”
Winston scoffs. “Yeah. And this is me looking severely disappointed by that prospect.” His expression, like his tone, is deadpan.
Schmidt rolls his eyes. “Yeah, okay. You’re definitely out. But don’t come crawling back to me when Nick and Jess are ranting accolades about how I set them up during their wedding speech and they never mention you.”
All Winston can think, as he snorts at Schmidt’s retreating figure, is that he’ll be damned glad not to be – in any way – associated with whatever Schmidt has planned.
Hindsight being 20/20, he didn’t anticipate Cece’s involvement in all of this.
“Yo, guys – I’m telling you. This isn’t going to help,” Winston says matter-of-factly, always the voice of reason, always the guy who’s got it all under control – or so he manages to fake with stunning accuracy.
Cece’s met guys like him before. Hell, she’s dated a couple of them in the past. They’re nice, but there are times when they let the control aspect get to their heads – and then? Then they start morphing into rude, unrecognizable, totally unsexy creatures. Assholes.
And whatever effect she used to have on Winston Bishop, where she could practically get him to do anything she wanted, appears to be wearing off.
Schmidt on the other hand …
“I know Jess. She’s my best friend. She won’t make a move without a little nudge,” Cece says patiently. “And, okay, you were the last people I ever thought to tell this to, but no one else … knows Jess as well as I do.”
In other words, no one else would be crazy enough to help her.
(And, admittedly, she wouldn’t trust anyone else to help her.)
Schmidt looks like she’s just given him permission to look down her shirt.
“You know what, Cece, that just may be the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she says, though with far less bite than usual.
“But, we –“ Schmidt continues, gesturing to Winston – who immediately puts his hands up in front of him and shakes his head in a ‘I am not part of this’ manner – “already decided we were going to just pretend we didn’t notice anything; you know, get them together reverse psychology-style.”
“Okay, that is just ridiculous.”
Winston shrugs. “That’s what I said.”
“How is it ridiculous?” Schmidt asks, ignoring Winston. “Give me one good reason why my idea is ridiculous.”
“Because,” says Cece, “did you not hear me when I said Jess needs a nudge? And no offence, but your friend Nick? He’s not exactly Mr. Smooth.”
Winston and Schmidt both shrug.
“Look, I’ve seen this before.” More than once, actually. “And I knew Nick had a thing for Jess for the longest while. I let it go for as long as it has because Jess insisted I let her take her time. If we let them go on with whatever they’re doing, they’ll be dancing around each other until Hell freezes over. But now? Time’s up.”
In other words, it’s time for her best friend to step in and take action.
“I am liking this devious side of you, Cece,” says Schmidt. He claps his hands together and rubs them. “All right. I’m in. And I think I’ve got the perfect P-L-A-N.”
“Where is everyone?” Jess asks, opening the front door to reveal the dark and suspiciously empty apartment. Nick is right behind her, two grocery bags in each hand.
Jess puts the paper bag down to flip the light switch.
Suddenly the entire room is filled with an unfamiliar dim, reddish glow. It reminds her of …
“A pimp pad.”
Nick blinks. “What?”
Where their very ordinary brown leather couch used to be, now a loveseat of what appears to be red velvet is in its place. There are candles placed along every nook and cranny, which is honestly kind of a huge fire hazard, and their perfectly normal beige-y curtains have been replaced with shiny red organza fabric that drapes over the glass windows like a sleek, kind of sleazy waterfall.
“A pimp pad,” Jess repeats. “It’s like we fell into a weird fissure in time and space where, once, a pimp used this place as their headquarters for … sex. A pimp pad.”
Nick starts to laugh. “Yeah, I guess it kind of does. I’m going to go put the milk away, okay? Assuming this is still where we live, and not whatever you were talking about with the pimp and the time and space thing.”
Jess nods, readjusting her glasses before closing the door behind them. “And if you find the real light switch, that’d be helpful too,” she calls out as Nick disappears around the corner.
You go out to get groceries for you and your roommates, and weird stuff like this happens. Jess is humming The Police’s Roxanne to herself, attempting to find a more functional light switch when she notes that Schmidt’s door is half-open.
Or wavering, in any case. As though someone is hiding behind it and doing a really crappy job of it.
She narrows her eyes (‘you don’t have to put up the red light—’) but doesn’t approach the door.
Jess almost immediately wishes she hadn’t called out his name. She has a better idea.
“What’s that?” comes Nick’s voice, slightly distant, from the kitchen.
She makes her way to the kitchen, retrieving the paper bag of produce along the way. “This was definitely not a case of dimensional time loops,” she says immediately, lowering her voice.
“What, the décor?” Nick snorts. “Obviously not.” His voice lowers, too, as though he has an idea of what she’s thinking, without her having to say it. It’s one of the great things she likes about Nick. “I think I know what’s going on here. It’s got Schmidt’s name written all over it.”
“It does, doesn’t it?”
Nick presses his mouth into a thin line. Then he shrugs, a smile appearing when he meets eyes with her. “Wanna go out for pizza?”
Jess nods, grinning. “Yeah, pizza’s awesome.”
When the door closes, she’s almost sure she can hear the scramble of three very meddlesome friends bursting out of Schmidt’s room to wonder why their pimp pad plan hadn’t worked.
She exchanges a glance with Nick, and she’s sure he knows too.
“See? I told you it wasn’t going to work,” Cece complains, arms crossed. “What’s gotten into me that I’m actually plotting with the pair of you?”
She rolls her eyes.
Schmidt sighs as he disappears into Winston’s room to help the other man move their brown leather couch back out into its proper place.
“I thought you knew Jess by now but maybe I was wrong,” she continues.
“Hey, it’s only been a year,” Schmidt says defensively, but it’s a weak excuse as excuses go. “And, you know, they’re complicated people.”
“All right,” says Winston, “so we lost this round. We’ll win the next one.” He pauses. “I can’t believe I’m going along with this.”
Schmidt turns to Winston and grins. “That’s right, bro. We’re in this together.”
Cece holds a hand up, in the midst of pulling one of the gaudy red curtains down from the windows. “No, you know what, we tried it your way and it obviously didn’t work. This time, we’re going to do it my way.”
Mmm, is all Jess can think. Pizza is so yummy – and the greasier it is, the better. At least on occasions like this one.
“What are we doing, Jess?”
Nick takes a large sip of his soda and puts it back down beside him, his eyebrows forming a frown.
Jess feels like this is a trick question. And she’s pretty sure the roles are supposed to be reversed. Especially when she answers, “Um. Eating pizza?”
Nick shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair. Jess thinks it could probably use another haircut soon, though knowing the kind of hassle it is getting Nick to a barbershop, she suspects it’s unlikely.
Besides, at this length it is also kind of beautiful in a ‘please let me run my fingers through it’ sort of way.
“No,” he says, “I mean … this.”
“Oh.” Denial is no longer just a river in Egypt.
Of course she knew that. She just isn’t sure she wants to change things between them – isn’t sure she wants to break the magical spell they have going on. It’ll be like the clock striking twelve; her lovely gown and carriage will turn back into rags and an ordinary pumpkin again. Or worse, it’ll be super awkward around the apartment.
She’s almost sure he feels the same way she does, but at the same time … she isn’t anywhere near as certain with these sorts of things as she used to be. She’d made that mistake with Spencer, after all. Then Paul after that.
She doesn’t want to get it wrong this time. Not with him. Not with Nick.
“I dunno,” she finds herself mumbling. “We’re running away from the apartment that Schmidt and Winston somehow managed to turn into a pimp daddy’s dream, hoping that by the time we get back, it’ll be cleaned up?”
Nick nods. “Yeah,” he says, leaning back a little. He also looks as though he’s in the midst of tensing and relaxing. “Well, there’s that.” The easy smile is there, but there’s definitely a tension in his eyes.
Jess clears her throat and averts her eyes to her soft drink. “And there’s also the fact that everyone probably thinks we’re dating, even if we’re not.”
Nick probably noticed the pause in her voice, she thinks, horrified.
But he doesn’t look horrified at all. In fact, he looks …
“Not that … that couldn’t change.”
Oh, God. She is so awkward right now. And her fingers are greasy and gross, and there’s a pepperoni sliding off the edge of her plate, and at any moment it’ll land in her lap.
“Jess,” Nick starts, “I like you.”
Jess shrugs. “Whenever someone says ‘Insert name, I like you’, they usually follow that up with something like, ‘But I’m married!’ or ‘But I’m actually an axe murderer!’ or ‘But I’m actually a woman!’ and completely throws the other person off.”
Nick starts to laugh. “No. I wasn’t going to say any of that,” he says. “I just meant … I like you, Jess, but I don’t want this to ruin our friendship.”
“It won’t,” Jess says immediately. “I mean, we’ve lived together, so you know what I’m like. I like you, too, Nick. And I wish I didn’t have pizza grease all over my hands.”
Nick just laughs again. “Okay,” he says. “So … what we’re doing. We can handle it, right?”
“And we’re not giving any credit to that pimp pad?”
“Oh, definitely not.”
It’s the smell of bacon that wakes Nick up the next morning.
It smells so good, his stomach grumbles almost immediately. It’s probably Jess, he thinks, his mind still half-asleep and foggy with memories from the previous night.
The sound of her humming a song confirms his guesses.
“She’s making breakfast, that’s right,” Jess starts to sing. “It’s eggs and bacon, that’s right. She’s making breakfast, and it’s going to taste so awesome …”
Nick can’t help the soft laugh that comes out of his mouth, and he has to pull the covers up over his face to hide the smile that comes with it. He’s glad his door is closed.
“Hey – eggs and bacon!” Schmidt exclaims. “Niiice.”
“Yeah,” Jess says pleasantly. “Help yourself. I’m just –“ Nick can hear the sound of a spatula scraping against the Teflon pan “— going to give some of this to Nick –“
“Oh, yeah. For sure.” Schmidt sounds a little smug.
Nick wonders why that is. It’s a little suspicious, honestly.
“So what’d you guys do last night?” Jess asks.
“Nothing.” It’s Winston’s voice he hears, probably emerging from the bathroom or something.
“Oh, okay,” says Jess.
“Yeah, so – can I have some of this too?”
“Of course, Winston. Help yourself.”
With everyone up and awake, Nick feels like he should get out too. But it’s at that very moment that his room door opens and the smell of bacon and eggs grows stronger.
Nick shuts his eyes, allows his body to go slack, and pretends he’s still asleep.
“Hey, Nick,” Jess croons softly. “I’ve got breakfast.”
Nick groans, as though he’s just started to stir. “Jess?”
Jess sits at the edge of his bed, the sound of clinking china readjusting over a tray.
“Is something up, Jess?” Nick starts to sit up and runs a hand through his bed-head.
“Yeah.” Jess readjusts her glasses with one hand, then passes the tray towards him. “I was asking Schmidt and Winston about last night, and neither of them will admit anything.”
“Of course they won’t,” he says. “If you dressed our apartment to look like a stripper, would you admit to it the next morning?”
“Ooh. It’s like their guilty little secret, right? You know: ‘What happens in our apartment stays in our apartment.’”
Nick nearly spits out his coffee. “Something like that,” he says eventually. “Actually, they’ve been acting kind of weird this past week. Last night was just the icing on the cake.”
Jess scoots over close enough so Nick can smell her shampoo. “So, we’re not going to tell them, are we?”
He has to force himself to concentrate before he shakes his head. “Nah. I think we should see how far they go before they notice that things have changed between us.”
“That seems a little mean, doesn’t it?”
“It’s not like they’re innocent.”
Jess nods, tapping the edge of his bedspread with her fingers. “That’s true.”
“Heeeey,” Schmidt says, pushing the bedroom door further open. “What are you two up to?” There’s a weird sort of knowing-but-trying-to-act-innocent expression on his face. Nick almost wants to laugh; this is all so ridiculous.
“Nothing,” says Nick. “Jess was just giving me breakfast.”
“In bed, I see.”
“Well, you do have eyes, Schmidt.”
“And no need for glasses,” Jess adds.
“Uh huh.” Schmidt slowly retreats from the room, sliding out from behind the door, his eyes narrowed. “Uh … huh. Well, you two have fun.”
Nick looks from the door, now void of one very annoying best friend, to Jess. He shrugs.
“So, I was thinking—”
“Hey – Jess?” Winston interrupts from the kitchen.
Jess gets to her feet, shooting Nick an apologetic glance before she leaves him to his breakfast.
“Cece!” Jess calls out a moment later. “What – are you – uh. Hey, I made breakfast, if you want some.”
“Oh, I’m not staying,” Cece is saying. “I’ve got to meet Stefan in half an hour. We’re going out for breakfast. But I just wanted to see what you were up to today, Jess.”
“We’re going to have a full day of awesome,” says Schmidt. “It is the weekend.”
“I wasn’t asking you, Schmidt.” There’s a pause. Then, “Where’s Nick?”
Nick freezes where he is, still in bed, in his pyjamas, with Jess’ homemade breakfast sitting on his lap.
“He’s in his bedroom,” Jess answers. “Uh. With breakfast.”
“Jess made it,” Schmidt adds.
“She did, did she?”
“Well, yeah,” Jess says, slightly bashful. It sounds like things could lead to an awkward confrontation, easily avoidable. Nick feels the chivalrous need to step in.
Getting to his feet, he pulls on a pair of jeans, runs a hand through his hair – which could probably go for another haircut soon – and heads out to greet the rest of his roommates. And Cece.
“Nick!” Cece exclaims. Her hair is, as usual, immaculate. It hangs over her shoulders, complementing the deep blue dress she has on. It’s a little too dressy for a Saturday morning, but there’s absolutely no mistaking she’s a model. “Slept in this morning, huh?”
“Well, it is the weekend,” Nick says.
“So I heard Jess made you breakfast,” Cece continues.
“Well,” Jess corrects, “actually, I made breakfast for everyone. Nick included.”
“Hmm – right.” Cece smiles. “Could I talk to you, Jess? And Nick?”
Nick narrows his eyes. “Why?”
“Uh – don’t you have Stefan’s breakfast to get to?” Jess asks.
“It’ll only take a minute,” Cece assures them. She starts to grabs a hold of Jess’ arm, tugging her towards her room.
When Nick makes no effort to move, she grabs a hold of his wrist and pulls him too.
“Hey –“ Schmidt starts, but Cece is dragging them into Jess’ room and shutting the door.
“So,” Cece says, letting them go. “What is the deal with you two?”
“Nothing.” Jess laughs nervously when the two of them realize they’ve spoken simultaneously.
“Okay, now I know there’s something going on between you two.”
“Look, Cece, we’ve got it from here,” Nick says, frowning. “We’re figuring it out.”
The door opens, and Schmidt is standing there, hands on his hips. Winston is right behind him, stabbing his fork into a fresh piece of French toast. “All right,” says Schmidt, “you can’t just have a conference call in here without your bros, Nick. That’s just not right.”
“What?” Nick asks. “What are you even talking about?”
“We know what you and the guys have been trying to do,” Jess says, crossing her arms. So much for seeing how far they can go, playing innocent. “Schmidt – you’re the one responsible for the pimp-pad, aren’t you?”
“Well, I definitely would have come up with something classier,” Cece says flippantly. “You know how I feel about synthetic silk and campy organza.”
“Hey. It was very high quality polyester and nylon,” Schmidt argues, turning to Cece who completely ignores him.
“Look, I know you two,” she says. “If I don’t help you, you’ll circle around this thing forever without making a move—”
“Cece, you don’t understand. We’ve moved. Moves have been made.” Wow, could that have come out sounding any more awkward? Jess sighs but continues before her courage runs out. “We’re good.”
She looks over at Nick. “Really good,” he agrees.
Cece and Schmidt both gape at her. Winston just shakes his head, putting another forkful of French toast into his mouth.
There’s a moment when everyone in the room – her room – is quiet, as though no one knows what to say.
Then Schmidt clears his throat. “See,” he says smugly, “I told you the pimp pad was going to work.”
“Oh, please,” says Cece with a roll of her eyes.
“It did,” Schmidt assures her. “It was awesome. Moods were made, bonds were formed—”
“Schmidt,” Winston says, “we turned our apartment into the IKEA edition of the Moulin Rouge. It was horrible, man.”
“Then why did you go along with it, huh? When we were at Fabric Depot, you could have said something—”
Jess is sure this is about to get messy, and feeling just a little bit daring, she grabs Nick by the hand and drags him toward the door. He allows himself to be tugged along, his expression bemused.
“Where are we going, Jess?”
She stops in the doorway and turns back to the crowd of attempted matchmakers. “Outside,” she answers.
“And what about them?” Nick jerks his free thumb back to her room where she can hear Schmidt and Cece arguing, Winston putting in a word every now and then; their voices are all raised and none of them will hear her and Nick leaving.
“They won’t even notice we’re gone,” she says cheerfully.
She leads him down the hallway, away from their apartment. They’re by Mrs Slater’s door at 4G when he suddenly stops, as though rooted in place.
Jess turns around. “What is it?”
“We’re in the hall – in our pyjamas,” he points out.
“They’re very nice pyjamas,” Jess compliments.
Nick laughs. “Yours are too. Very … polkadotty.”
When she laughs too, he takes her hand and gently pulls her towards him. “I didn’t think you were into this sort of thing, Jess.”
“I’m not,” she says, before she corrects herself. “I mean, I just thought this would be the last place they’d come looking for us.”
The hallway is empty and quiet, and where they’re hidden, it’s far enough from their apartment that it’ll take the others a while before they discover where she and Nick are. “You know,” he says, straightening a little, “you’re right. This is the last place they’d think to check.”
Jess’s heart is beating faster. “I know, right? I’m so smart sometimes.”
Nick chuckles softly, his expression suddenly fond. It’s enough to make her feel like bursting into song. Not that she will. Nick leans in again. “You totally are,” he says. His arms go around her waist. He feels warm and it’s very comfortable.
And then, with no further preamble, he kisses her.