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“I’d been thinking of using my night hours for sleeping, but this is much better.” Schmidt steps back to let Jess in, even though every episode of America’s Most Wanted he’s ever seen suggests letting mentally disturbed people in at two in the morning is the path to almost certain death.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Jess says, skipping over all the social niceties. “I mean, Schmidt. Really a lot of thought.”

Schmidt tucks his hands into the sleeves of his sleep poncho and looks her up and down, taking in the wild tangles of her hair, her mismatched socks, and Nick’s too-big t-shirt. “You look terrible,” he says. “Nick’s desperately in love with you — and generally just incredibly desperate — and this could be a relationship breaker for you.”

“Shut up.” Jess glares at him, and he complies, because she’s using her serious face on him. “Cece says she can’t be with Coach. Which I think is a really bad decision, because hot. But she says she can’t, because it’s just like when she was engaged to Shivrang, and you have to fix things with her,” she says. “I’m not kidding. It’s just stupid now.”

***

“You totally have to,” Nick says. “I’ll literally kill you with my fists if you don’t.”

He says it with a lot of conviction, for a dude sprawled out on the sofa wearing his girlfriend’s pajamas. Sometimes, Schmidt thinks he hates everyone he’s ever met, Nick most of all.

“She told me to let go,” he says. “Jess stood there and told me to. So I let go.”

Winston snorts, more derision in that one sound than some people get out of whole sentences. Not that he’s willing to be content with the non-verbal approach. “Dude, you got hammered the other night and tried to carve her name over your heart with a toothpick..”

“And it would’ve worked, if you’d pressed down when I asked you. Anyway, that was like — a thing I did, to remind me of a time when I was weak and stupid and very much not letting go.”

Nick grunts, radiating irritation from his every pore as he pulls himself up to a sitting position. “Cece is miserable. You’re miserable. Clearly you both need a new plan. And honestly? I don’t much care, except that Cece being miserable is making Jess miserable, which is making me miserable. And you being miserable is actually way more annoying than any of your standard douche behaviour. I’m done. Like a thousand percent done.”

“Me, too,” Winston says. “ And Ferguson agrees.”

This time, it’s Schmidt’s turn for derision. “The cat? The cat has no conceivable notion of what you’re talking about. And he’s still the smartest person in this conversation.” They both just stare at him, and he sinks down on the sofa, into the space Nick just vacated. “I screwed up,” he says. “I don’t wanna screw up again.”

Nick pats his shoulder, that look on his face like he’s just discovered his parents having sex that he always gets when he’s trying to be emotionally supportive. “You screwed up because you spent so long trying to be a jackass, and it got to be a habit. Try to be the guy who doesn’t want to screw up. You used to be awesome at that.”

***

He buys her flowers. Which is terrible, he knows, but he lost her all in one go; he’s going to win her back by degrees.

“What are you doing?” she asks, when she opens the door.

“It’s terrible, I know,” he says. “Flowers. So 1992. And so boring. But I want you to know I’m not hiding behind any big gestures. Not this time.”

“We didn’t break up because your ridiculous ideas of romance made me uncomfortable. Though they did. We broke up because you cheated on me.”

“I know. I was a fool, Cece. And a coward, and selfish, and everything else you’ve called me. An I don’t deserve your forgiveness. But Jess says you’re miserable. And I’m miserable. And maybe, if there’s any chance you still feel anything for me, maybe you can let me try again.”

“How can I feel anything for you?” she asks. “I told you. I don’t know you.”

Schmidt nods. But not in defeat. “Let me show you,” he says.

***

He gathers up all the embarrassing pictures of himself he can find. “Are you gonna hire a van to take them to her place?” Nick asks, and Jess hits him.

“This is a good thing you’re doing. It’s very brave to make yourself look this stupid in front of someone you want to have sexy times with.” She pauses, holds up a picture of him during his terrible big hair phase. “And this is a special level of stupid.”

There’s no real arguing with her substantive point. Thing is, though, he’s laughing in the picture. It’s not actually helping — his mouth is open wide, his head’s tipped back so the camera’s practically aiming up his nose. But he looks happy, unselfconsciously so. If someone had asked him, he’d have said he could never have looked like that back then. Shame and embarrassment normally keep him from too many visual trips down memory lane. There’s still plenty of that to go around, but he hadn’t expected to find more than that, and he’s weirdly pleased that he has.

Schmidt hits Jess this time anyway, just on principle, and then Nick hits him, and Schmidt tries to get him in a headlock, and they all fall over, elbows and knees thumping painfully against the floor. It’s good; lying there in the filthy mess that is now their apartment since he’s not there to impose standards and laughing with them. Like nothing’s changed between them, except for how Schmidt realises how much what they’ve got really means to him.

Days later, he ends up in the elevator with Cece, and she almost smiles at him. “The suit you wore to the prom. My mother had curtains with that pattern, I think.”

“It takes a certain kind of virile confidence to pull that off,” he says, and he does smile at her, showing all his teeth and everything.

***

“I cried during the Lion King.” he says. He’s on his way to work, and he’ll deny under pain of torture that he wore his favorite Armani pants because he was planning to call her.

“Everyone cried at the Lion King, you moron. Except maybe sociopaths, and I’m not even sure about them.” She doesn’t sound pleased to hear from him, but she hasn’t hung up on him, either. Schmidt knows how to make victories of the little things.

“The other day. Like a small child who’s just been told he’s going to have all his teeth pulled. And then been beaten up by the school bully. And it was ugly crying. Superbly ugly crying.”

“Never imagined you’d do it prettily,” she says. “Was there anything else?”

“Just,” he says. “Have a good day. And don’t get trampled by any stampeding wildebeests. I’d have to go to your funeral, and I’d hate to have to cry in public.”

He hangs up before he can tell if she’s laughing or not, though he likes to think she is.

***

He calls her pretty regularly after that. Always on his way to work; if she wanted to, it would be easy enough to avoid his calls. He doesn’t ask for anything. It doesn’t come naturally, but he meant what he told Coach before: Cece is different. He doesn’t think he ever really earned her, even before he was too stupid to keep her. So he calls, and he tells her anything he can think of. The time he got fired for copying external clients into emails bad-mouthing them. The terrible poetry he wrote in high school for Miss Stravinsky, his English teacher, with legs he dreams about, even now. The soft-spot he holds in his heart for anything Michael Bolton has ever produced.

I’m scared of dying in my sleep,” he says, on a Monday, when Cece sounds hungover and particularly unimpressed by him. “It’s new, and it’s all Nick’s fault. because I moved out, and now if I die it could be days before anyone notices. Weeks, Cece. Until the smell of my rotting corpse starts to contaminate the building.”

Cece laughs, a tiny bit, into his ear. He barely hears it over the traffic, but it’s enough to make him smile at a man in a badly fitting suit and scuffed loafers. It’s like he’s becoming a whole other person.

“You stalk them,” she says. “Obsessively. You’re at their place more than they are.”

“It’s not the same,” he says. “If I’m not there, I might stop counting.” The honesty of that surprises even him, an admission he wasn’t ready for.

“You’re insane,” she says. “I really think you are.” She pauses; he’s got the door open to his office when she speaks again. “If you don’t call in the morning, I’ll send the cops round.”

“Deal,” he says, and maybe it’s nothing more than a promise to make sure he doesn’t turn into a bloated, maggot-infested dead body, but it feels significant. Like progress, of a weird and unexpected variety.

***

He draws her a picture, because it’s Christmas, and because they haven’t been very good at the whole gift-giving thing up until now. Also because he used to be good at it, turning blankness into something. Used to be, and now he’s not; lack of practice making his lines blurred where they should be sharp and full of life. A weird thing to have given up along with pizza and quarter pounders, but old Schmidt sat alone in the dark and drew; new Schmidt had a life and women who wanted to sleep with him. Right now, it seems like another bad decision.

But he draws her, the way he thinks of her now. Not beautiful, though she is. Warm,, and sweet, and tough, lighting up the people around her with the way she always smiles like she means it.

He finishes it on a Wednesday night. He’s not satisfied with it, but the point isn’t to give her something perfect. On the card, he writes, Even with more talent, I couldn’t do you justice. But this is a start. He tries to be satisfied with that.

He doesn’t stop drawing, even after he’s sent the picture. It’s soothing, and he’d forgotten that.

“This is a picture of your cat,” he tells Winston. “I still hate him. And cat people in general. I think his eyes are too close together, so I might try again.”

Cece hasn’t said anything about the picture, but Winston grabs him, which is good, because at least Schmidt doesn’t have to focus on the tears welling in his eyes. And when he calls Cece the next day, he has something to tell her — something new, a side to him he’s only just discovering himself

***

“When I broke my penis, it was kinda awesome. Not the not having sex part. Except kinda. We were never better than we were then.”

It’s Tuesday morning. It’s raining, a horrible drizzly dampness that frizzes his hair and soaks into the wool of his coat almost without him noticing. He can’t see her, but he’s sure she’s rolling her eyes over the phone. “You didn’t think so at the time. Wasn’t long after that we broke up. You know, for the first time.”

“I did,” he says. “Why else do you think I ran away?”

She sighs, and says, “What are you doing?”

“Getting wet,” he says. “And markedly less attractive as a result.”

“What are you doing with this? What’s the point?”

He nearly gets run over while he’s thinking about his answer. He chooses to take his continued survival as a good sign. “I’m trying to let you get to know me,” he says. “It’s like the opposite of dating. Instead of all the good stuff I’d show you to impress you, I’m giving you all the weird, unpleasantness I’d try to hide.”

The silence stretches, and then she says, “You think you were hiding the weirdness before?” It’s the tone she might use if Jess said she’d started making a coat out of newly born puppies.

trying. I was trying to hide it. Now I’m not.”

“Again, to recap, your weirdness isn’t the problem.”

Outside his building, he stops, stands in the rain, and thinks. He said all the wrong things last time. Did all the wrong things, too, but he can’t ever undo that. This is as much of a second chance as he’s ever going to get.

He takes a deep breath. “I didn’t cheat on you because I liked having the attention,” he says. “My dad left, and then I was really fat, and people didn’t — I didn’t think who I was would ever be enough. Not to make up for everything that was wrong with me.”

“So you tried to keep us both?”

“no.” It’s emphatic enough that a couple of people glance his way. Schmidt swallows and starts again. “I was scared of wanting to keep you. of how much I wanted to do that. And I’m not trying to excuse it. I’m trying to take responsibility for it. I was stupid and I hurt you, and that’s unforgivable.”

On the other end of the line, wherever she is, Cece sighs. “But you’re hoping I’ll forgive you?”

“Not much point wasting hope on anything I think I’m gonna get,” he says. “Kind of defeats the purpose.”

***

When he opens the door the Thursday before Christmas, Jess is standing there, again. She’s got a tray of scones, and a terrifying smile on her face. Nick and Winston are trailing in her wake; for some reason, neither of them has bothered to put on shoes.

“It’s Christmas!” Jess says, as if Schmidt’s been dead for the last twenty days and has escaped the onslaught of mandated Christmas cheer. She doesn’t wait to be invited in. “Have a Christmas Scone! I made them for you.”

He doesn’t try to stop her, because he knows better. “Is this about Cece?” he asks. “Last time you were this disturbing, it was.”

“No. This is about children, and bringing joy, and spreading love.” He doesn’t say anything, but Nick takes care of it for him.

“I’m not sure you should talk about children and the spreading of love again. It sounded…sinister.”

“It’s Christmas!” Jess says again. “Shut up. And Schmidt. Will you dress up as Santa tomorrow.”

“No,” he says, right as Nick says, “I told you he wouldn’t. You owe me a whole night in a farmer’s outfit.”

Schmidt spares a second to be rightfully indignant. “A farmer’s outfit. What is wrong with you? And you’re always assuming the worst of me. It’s terribly insulting.”

“So you’ll do it?” Jess turns her big eyes on him, as if he’s Nick and likely to be charmed by that.

“No. Of course not. First, I have plans tomorrow — big work party, networking opportunity, chance to show off my new cashmere blended with silk sweater. Secondly, children in packs frighten me. They’re like small animals. Can’t ever tell what they’re gonna do next. Thirdly, there was a time I didn’t need additional padding to dress up as Santa. Wearing it now would probably cause me untold trauma. Fourthly, I’m Jewish.”

“Also,” Nick adds, “the beard doesn’t suit you at all.”

“Gods of all religions want people to be kind to children,” Jess says. “Come on. Schmidt, I wouldn’t ask if I had another choice. It’ll be like an hour of your life. You just have to give out some presents, and it’ll make some little kids so happy. Some of them don’t have an awful lot.” She’s not smiling now, and she’s put away the puppy eyes.

“You fiendish minx,” he says. “You know I can’t refuse you when you’re normal.”

She hugs him, kisses his cheek, and she smiles at him when she pulls back, in a way she hasn’t since he broke Cece’s heart. “You’re a good guy,” she says. “I love you.”

***

There’s a sleigh. The sleigh is pulled along by Winston and Nick, dressed up as reindeers. If Schmidt had seen it as a kid, he’d have had screaming nightmares for weeks. These weirdos seem to love it, laughing and smiling as they circuit the room, in waves of fake snow and terrible Christmas music. When they come to a stop, Cece’s waiting, in an elf costume, a vision of sexy loveliness Schmidt can hardly bring himself to look at. He abruptly wishes for his sexy Santa costume again; at least then, he figures they’d be closer to equal footing.

The kids don’t seem to care that Schmidt is dying in front of them. Jess makes them line up, and one by one they come to him, climbing onto his lap in various states of cleanliness and stickiness. They’re requests are ridiculous: only like a half of them are for normal things like Xboxes and iPhones and hula hoops. The rest are rides on spaceships, or to become wizards, or, in the case of one particularly disturbing boy with a milk ring around his mouth, to rule the world. And then there are the harder ones — for their parents to stop fighting, or their dads to come back. Schmidt remembers that feeling, and he doesn’t know what to say, anymore than any of the adults in his life would’ve known all those years ago.

“Your parents love you,” he says. “But sometimes adults are really stupid, and they don’t know how to show it. You gotta cut them some slack.” And then, to top the whole terrible speech off, he says, “And Santa loves you. That’s way cooler.”

Nobody cries, at least. Not until the end. The terrible music starts again, and the fake snow starts falling again, and the sleigh starts its tortuous journey out of the room again. Only this time, Nick manages to get himself tangled in the ropes tethering him, and the sleigh skids around and tips, and Schmidt topples out, and the Christmas tree is the final, tragic casualty.

“Santa’s got better reindeer on Christmas Eve,” Jess says, very loudly, to the sea of horrified faces now staring out at them.

“Much better,” Schmidt wheezes from the floor. He starts to wriggle his way free of the branches and bobbles and tacky Christmas ornaments pinning him, and then he goes abruptly still. A quick exploration reveals that they can add his pants to the list of victims. There are definitely drafts in places there shouldn’t be drafts, and that probably aren’t legal in the present company.

“Who wants to help free Santa?” Jess is all pep and enthusiasm. “That’ll definitely get you on the nice list.”

Above him, Cece’s watching him, her mouth twitching as she fights not to laugh. Schmidt looks at her, and says, “I really don’t think we need to do that.”

The children are already on the move, though, annoyingly eager to start clearing up. Schmidt mouths no at Nick and Cece, then says it out loud, which seems much more helpful for getting their attention, even if the kids are impervious. Cece finally steps up, clapping her hands together, and getting in between the kids and Schmidt.

“No,” she says, surprisingly authoritatively for an elf. “Santa and his reindeers made the mess. As a lesson to you all, Santa and the reindeer will clean it up.”

The kids look hesitantly at Jess, so Schmidt says, “Once you’ve all left the room. To go play! It’s what Santa wants.”

Cece and Jess team up to shepherd them all out, and when they come back, they join Winston and Nick in become perfectly useless with laughter.

“I hate you all,” Schmidt says. They go on laughing as he fights with the tree, and it’s only after he’s threatened to kill them all in six or seven exciting ways that any of them come to help him, still snorting with occasional bursts of amusement.

“I could’ve been sipping cognac right now,” he says, once he’s back in his own clothes. “I could’ve been running the company by the end of the day. Look at what you’ve reduced me to. And I’m lucky my penis is still intact.”

Over the laughter, there’s a dismayed squeak. “And now we’ve ruined Christmas for the children,” Schmidt says, as Jess attempts to offer some sort of explanation to the tiny kid who’s appeared in the doorway. “You’re all the worst.”

None of them seem suitably stricken with remorse, but they do drive him home, and they go to the actual apartment, not the one Schmidt lives in across the hall. It’s home and familiar, and pretty much everything Schmidt wants. Jess starts to cook them dinner, and half way through, Schmidt can’t stand it and throws her out of the kitchen.

“You’re a real freak,” Cece says, coming in. She’s got an empty wine glass in her hand, but she doesn’t leave once she’s refilled it. She leans against the counter, watching him. Schmidt’s heart does something unpleasant in his chest, anticipatory feeling making itself known.

“You were sweet today,” she says. “And ridiculous, and a bit indecent there at the end.”

He shrugs, tries not to worry about the sauce over-boiling on the stove as he looks at her. “Substitute incredibly stupid for sweet, and it’s like you know me.”

She bites her lower lip, reaches out a hand. “No,” she says. “I think sweet can stay.”

Then she kisses him, and he kisses her back, over and over and over, until the sauce goes on fire, and the whole kitchen nearly burns down. Schmidt isn’t nearly as upset about it as he should be.