“I still don’t understand why we had to come here on a weekend,” Britta whines. “Some of us have places to be and things to do.”
“You can complain anywhere, so we’re clearly not keeping you from anything,” Jeff says.
She sticks her tongue out at him.
“And some of us have people to do,” Pierce says. When no one acknowledges him, he adds, “‘Some people’ being me.”
Shaking his head, Jeff turns to accept a stack of five-gallon buckets from Annie, who offers him an appreciative smile.
He can’t help but give her one in return.
“Black mold sounds cool, like something that gives you a superpower that seems like it’d be fun on the surface but actually takes a lot of discipline to control,” Troy says thoughtfully. “Do you think one of us is likely to mutate?”
“As much as I’d like that,” Abed says, “one of us is more likely to die from inhaling black mold spores.”
“Oh.” Troy’s face falls.
“No one’s dying,” Annie says, narrowing her eyes at Abed as she tears open a packet of face masks. “I came prepared.”
“Of course you did.” Jeff smirks at her. She smacks him lightly on the arm, but that only makes his smile grow more pronounced.
When he notices Britta noticing the exchange, though, he immediately sobers up.
Annie is oblivious to the sudden tension. Everyone is, really, but the secrecy that once made Jeff’s tryst with Britta fun has been starting to irritate him. He hasn’t been able to put his finger on why that is, and it’s bugging him.
“I figured we’d split up into pairs,” Annie says as she passes masks to everyone. “Shirley couldn’t get anyone to watch her kids, so we have an even number.”
“Oh, sure,” Britta grumbles, “Mother Hen gets out of weekend volunteering.”
Annie shoots her a reproachful look. “We’ll be done by two o’clock, Sour Face.”
“I’ve split the mold-infested areas into problem sections.” She pulls out a map of the building and everyone crowds in around her. Jeff smirks when he notices she’s color-coded it and everything. “Troy and Abed, you guys’ll take the men’s bathroom. There’s a leaky faucet in there that should keep you guys occupied. And Britta, you’re with Pierce outside. There’s a bunch of mold on the building exterior, and somebody’s gotta make sure he isn’t picking at the hole in his cheek. I don’t want it getting infected.”
Britta groans but, surprisingly, doesn’t pitch a fit.
“I’m not a child, you know,” Pierce says, glaring at Annie while scratching at the irritated skin near the bandage.
She shakes her head at him before returning her attention to the map. “Jeff and I will be inside on the East Stairwell, where the mold is the worst. Everyone will have a bucket, gloves, sponges, and industrial-strength mold remover—which is a dangerous chemical, so be careful. You start by rinsing the area with soapy water and sponging off the top layer of mold. Everything underneath we can scrub off with the mold remover. Please, and I can’t stress this enough, keep your masks on at all times. Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, “Can we make a pact that if any of us die trying to clean up Greendale’s mess, the others will sue the school for everything it’s worth?”
“Oh, so you mean nothing,” Britta says, and then laughs at her own joke.
Jeff rolls his eyes.
“This is serious, you guys.” Annie points a stern finger at both of them. “If we adhere to the safety guidelines I emailed everyone last night, everything will be fine. Okay?”
The group choruses their agreement.
“Good. Then let’s get to work.”
After stopping by the bathroom to fill their buckets with soap and water, they break into their assigned partners. As Jeff lugs the heavy bucket up the stairs to the top floor landing, he notices that the walls are caked with black fuzz. A shiver runs down his spine.
“Is it too late to set the place on fire and call it a day?”
Annie’s face is covered with her mask, but he can still tell that she’s smiling from the sparkle in her eyes. “Thanks for agreeing to do this. I think it’s going to be better for the school than any student-body president would have.”
A warmth permeates his chest and, god, Jeff hopes he’s not already dying from mold spore inhalation. “Well, you know,” he says, setting down the bucket. “No matter what you’re told…”
“Shut up,” she says with a laugh.
They start working in comfortable silence, scrubbing at two different sections of the wall but standing close enough to bump elbows frequently. Every time they touch, Jeff feels his stomach jump in anticipation. It’s ridiculous and he feels like some dumb high-schooler, but that doesn’t stop him from purposefully moving into her personal space a couple times.
Before they’ve made much headway against the mold, the water in their bucket turns a murky brown.
“We should change this,” Annie says, frowning at the opaque surface of the water as she wrings out her sponge.
“You’re the boss,” Jeff says, adjusting his rubber gloves before hoisting the bucket off the ground. “Lead the way.”
He follows her to the parking lot, where she gestures to a sewage drain and shrugs. “I’m not sure how safe it is, but this is what the dean wanted.”
He frowns. “Maybe we should have held a fundraiser and paid some professionals to take care of this problem.”
She slides her facemask down so it hangs loosely around her neck as he dumps the dirty water into the drain. “It’s not too late for that.”
Jeff hums in agreement.
A slimy residue remains even after the water’s been dumped, so Annie leads them around the back of the building where there’s a spigot built into the wall.
“Looks like Pierce and Britta have already taken a break,” he observes as he peels off his gloves.
She frowns, struggling to turn the handle. “Wonder how long they spent working.”
“It’s anybody’s guess, really,” he says, checking his phone. There’s actually a text from Britta, but he doesn’t bother opening it, instead opting to check his Twitter app.
When Annie finally gets the water to turn on, she gives it too much pressure, and it splashes everywhere, spraying Jeff with ice cold water and soaking the front of her overalls.
“Jeeze, Annie! Watch that thing. These are the shittiest jeans I own, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t expensive.”
She gapes at him, then looks pointedly at the large damp spot blooming across her chest. His gaze follows hers, and then it takes a healthy dose of willpower not to keep staring.
“Are you being serious right now?” she asks, narrowing her eyes dangerously and glancing over at the still-gushing stream of water.
Jeff pockets his phone and starts backing up slowly, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Wait, okay, let’s think this through. We have a lot of work ahead of us today, and—”
She cuts him off by placing her thumb over the spigot and sending streams of water spraying in every direction.
After standing stock-still for a second, Jeff licks his lips, blinks droplets of water out of his eyes, and throws his gloves and mask on the ground.
“You’re gonna wish you hadn’t done that,” he says, with as much menace as he can muster while feeling like a wet dog.
With a shriek, Annie takes off running in the direction of the quad. She’s fast, but his legs are longer. He gains ground quickly, tackling her into the grass.
For a moment, she continues to put up a fight, trying to crawl out from under him, but they’re both winded and laughing and soon she settles for twisting around so she’s facing him. He plants his hands on either side of her shoulders, hovering over her just high enough that he won’t squish her but low enough that they’re still touching.
“Sorry,” she says, clearly not sorry. But she grins mischievously and pushes her fingers through the wet hair sticking to his forehead, making it stand up in spikes, and Jeff can’t really bring himself to care. “I couldn’t help myself.”
His eyes dart down to her lips then back to her eyes, and Annie’s breath catches in her throat.
“That makes two of us,” he says, his voice low.
They stay suspended in that moment for a few seconds longer, Annie holding her breath and Jeff fighting with himself about what to do. Finally, he clears his throat and pushes off her, plopping into a seated position on the grass.
Annie sits up, too, and he tries not to notice how disappointed she looks.
“We should go back,” he says, plucking a piece of grass and avoiding her pleading look.
“Or we could…not,” she suggests, her voice gaining confidence when she hits the last word. Before Jeff’s heart even has the chance to leap all the way up into his throat, she’s pounced on him, lips finding his as easily as if they’re magnetized.
He wastes no time wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her into a more comfortable position in his lap as she grabs his face in both hands and unleashes nearly a full year’s worth of pent-up tension between them.
Initially it’s fun, and Jeff thinks—not for the first time—that kissing Annie reminds him of delivering a well-crafted speech or commanding the courtroom. It’s an adrenaline rush like nothing else he’s ever felt and he’s carried away by the smooth motion of it, like she’s the moon directing the tides within him.
But then his phone buzzes in his pocket and he’s reminded of his unanswered text from Britta. Just like that, the moon tumbles out of the sky.
It takes Annie a second to realize he’s stopped responding to her, but when she does, she pulls away immediately. Her eyes search his face, and Jeff tries to hastily put some barriers back in place, which is easier said than done when her eyebrows are furrowed with concern and her kiss-swollen lips are pouting ever-so-slightly in disappointment.
“Did I…was it bad?” she asks, sliding off his lap and putting some distance between them.
He resists the urge to touch his lips, as if he could keep the feeling of Annie there a little longer. Instead, he clears his throat and gives her a disbelieving look. “Are you serious?”
When she ducks her head, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth, he inwardly sighs in relief, thinking he’s successfully sidestepped having to give an explanation for his behavior.
But then she asks, “So if it wasn’t bad, what’s the problem?”
He frowns and meets her gaze, allowing her to ground him in this moment with the depth of her vulnerability.
Suddenly, the answer to it all is right there on the tip of his tongue, like some exasperated part of his brain is finally speaking loud enough to get through. And it’s saying, Well, Annie, the problem is that I’ve been screwing around with Britta all year, and, even though I’ve known there was something missing in that relationship from the start, I had myself convinced that what we had going was all I wanted. The problem is, I think I want something more from you than I should ever be allowed to have. The problem is, you keep giving me chance after chance to take what I want, but I can’t let myself do that, and I keep hurting you and I don’t know if that’s ever going to stop.
Out loud, he says, “I don’t want us to be caught slacking on the job. What would the others say?”
She frowns, clearly considering whether she’s going to accept his answer or probe further.
“You know you’d never hear the end of it, not after you included that section in your email about time management. I’m really just looking out for you.” He flashes her his most winning smile, trying to conceal his panic.
She studies him for a second, eyes sparking with curiosity, then smiles. He feels like she’s reading the discomfort in his every movement but is choosing to let it go without comment. “You’re right. It’s not very fair of me to slack off, especially since I plan on yelling at Britta and Pierce if they’re not back at their station.”
His mouth feels too dry, so he nods instead of responding.
Annie seems totally at ease as they walk back to the East Stairwell, but Jeff knows they haven’t put this incident completely behind them. The next time she brings it up, though, he’s going to be ready…he’s going to be honest.
He pulls out his phone and opens the texts from Britta. Without reading what she’s said, he types: hey, can we get together tonight? i think we need to talk.