Actions

Work Header

Advanced Studies in Meteorological Encapsulation

Chapter Text

Jeff awoke to a splitting headache and only hazy memories of the night before. He’d been celebrating a big win in a case where he’d been representing a family-run farm in southeastern Colorado. The farmers had been growing and selling their goods under the family name for generations, but a national chain had recently started a “farm-fresh” division under the same name and had slapped a copyright infringement claim on his clients. He fully expected an appeal, but for now he’d scored a big win in the initial district court ruling.

It was the latest in a string of wins for Jeff Winger, and he was earning himself quite the reputation around the state. He had more cases coming in now than he could handle by himself, and so he had begun the process of bringing in a partner and additional staff. It was sometimes difficult to believe that only six months earlier he’d been close to going out of business. And he very well might have gone out of business if he hadn’t made that one all-important change to his philosophy.

Jeff didn’t know what he would’ve done if his business had failed, yet despite how close that had been, he’d made it. His initial struggles after graduation and on through the summer made his success now that much sweeter. He’d just moved into a condo in a new upscale building and put a down payment on a brand-new Lexus LS 500. Professionally, Jeff hadn’t been doing this well since before he’d had his license suspended.

His personal life however…

It’s not that his personal life was going badly; it just wasn’t going much at all. Ever since things had picked up at work, he’d been far too busy for much social interaction beyond client meetings and business dinners. And before that… well, he’d had the time, but not the desire to get out much. Feeling like a failure didn’t exactly make you want to go out and party. And it especially didn’t make you want to face down six people who thought of you as a hero and explain to them that you’re a fraud.

Last night however, he’d allowed himself to cut loose for once. There were rumors of a big incoming winter storm, but it was a Friday night, he had a big win under his belt and another case off his plate, and the charming redhead with the long legs he’d met at the bar had been encouraging him to continue ordering more drinks. It wasn’t the bar he usually went to, and it wasn’t the drink he normally preferred. The redhead – what was her name again? – had favored tequila over scotch, and Jeff and tequila had never been friends. Especially the next day when he couldn’t remember much and invariably felt like someone was pounding a railway spike into his forehead.

Jeff rolled onto his side and stared at the clock on his nightstand. The blood red digital display taunted him with its readout: 5:11 am. This always seemed to happen on the rare occasions that he got really drunk – he’d wake up after only a few hours of sleep, still feeling the effects of the alcohol, but also the impending hangover. He didn’t remember returning home or changing clothes, but evidently he’d had the wherewithal to get out of his suit and into a t-shirt and sweatpants.

Wait… sweatpants? He never slept in sweatpants.

He was trying to solve the sweatpants mystery, and rubbing at his temples to try to dull the pain, when a rustling noise behind him made him freeze. He turned his head slowly in the direction of the noise, but the dark of early morning combined with the heavy curtains on his windows made it impossible for him to make anything out. Another rustling noise was soon followed by a deep breath and a slow exhale. Jeff almost laughed out loud. Apparently he’d done better at the bar than he thought. Although… hadn’t he been too drunk to–?

Well whatever. It had been far too long since the last time he’d woken up next to a woman. The realization of just how long it had been sent a pang of loneliness coursing through him. It wasn’t his usual style – or really his style at all – but some invisible force was pulling him towards the sleeping form lying next to him. He rolled over and carefully slid himself towards the other side of the king-sized bed. He couldn’t remember her name, nor what they had done together, but she had agreed to come home with him. A little light spooning – Jeff Winger did NOT cuddle – was permissible, right?

He placed his left arm around her lightly and sank his head slowly onto the pillow next to hers. A light hum emanated from the sleeping woman as he relaxed next to her; her slow, even breathing continuing uninterrupted. Something about this felt inexplicably right… it was almost as if Jeff needed something like this in his life.

But no, that couldn’t be it. His eyes began to get heavy again, and soon he was drifting back to sleep.

Her hair smelled like vanilla and strawberries…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Oh my God, what are you doing?!”

Jeff awoke with a start to find himself being knocked backwards as a wriggling form escaped out from under his arm. The pain in his head came rushing back along with consciousness, and his hands flew up to his head as he winced reflexively. “Take- ahh… take it easy babe…”

“BABE?!” the woman almost shouted, her voice bursting with indignation.

Oh great…

The last thing he needed right now was an argument over feminist semantics. Jeff’s eyes remained squeezed shut as he rubbed at his temples, but the pounding in his head stubbornly refused to subside. “Oh come on. You didn’t mind me calling you that last night, or all the drinks I bought you.”

“And who exactly do you think I am?” she scoffed. Some humor had crept into her voice as well, but the indignation was still there. It was such a familiar tone of voice, he almost smiled. All that was missing was a gasp and–

Jeff froze.

He pried his eyes open and confirmed what his ears had been trying to communicate to his brain through the fog of his hangover.

Annie?! Wh- what- are you doing here?!” he sputtered. “Why were you in my bed?”

Annie glanced around uncomfortably, but made a brave show of maintaining as much indignation as possible.

“We didn’t…?” Jeff couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. “…did we?”

Annie rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. “No, Jeff, we didn’t. You wouldn’t have been capable even if that had been our intent.” A light shade of pink crept into her cheeks, despite her sarcasm. “You really don’t remember anything from last night?”

Jeff searched his mind, but all that managed to accomplish was an increase in the intensity of his headache. In the end, all he could manage was a meek shake of the head.

“I guess I’m not too surprised,” Annie mused. “You were pretty out of it.”

“Dare I ask?”

“All I know is that I was out with friends from my old job and one of them came back from the bathroom talking about some guy passed out in the corner booth.” Annie smirked at him. “I didn’t think much of it until the bar staff tried to remove him and I saw who it was.”

“Ah.”

“You were making a bit of a scene,” Annie had that familiar look on her face that equally mixed concern for his well-being with disapproval of his actions. “They were going to call the police until I promised to take you home.” Jeff felt a rush of embarrassment. He hadn’t seen Annie in about eight months, and this was not exactly how he would’ve chosen to run into her again. “You must have lost your wallet too, because I had to pay your bar tab. You owe me a hundred and sixty bucks.”

Jeff’s embarrassment quickly turned to panic as he jumped out of bed and searched in vain for his wallet. After a few futile minutes of tearing through his previous night’s clothes he gave up and slumped his shoulders. “I think I know why the woman I met at the bar wanted me to order so many drinks…” he said ruefully.

Annie had perched herself on the corner of the bed nearest him and her mouth dropped open in surprise. “You think she stole your wallet?” Jeff nodded and Annie gave him a sympathetic look. “Oh no… well you should call to cancel your credit cards right away.”

Jeff pinched the bridge of his nose and nodded. “Well I feel like a total idiot.” For a moment Annie looked like she was going to argue, but she remained silent. Jeff felt the pressing need to change the subject to anything other than his own embarrassment. “So, um… how did we end up back here?”

Annie shrugged. “I gave you a ride. It wasn’t all that easy getting you into the car, but after you gave me your new address you pretty much slept the whole way here. The roads were awful, though. I was skidding all over the place and it was only getting worse, so I didn’t want to take a chance heading back across town again. And you said I could stay. Well, you mumbled it at least.”

“Ok, but…” Jeff shifted uncomfortably, “why were we in bed together? Why didn’t one of us sleep on the couch?”

Annie gave him a flat look. “You don’t have a couch.”

He stopped short, remembering the new couch that was supposed to be delivered the next week. “Oh… right.” Jeff cursed silently. As if being sloppy drunk in front of her, getting his wallet stolen, and then spooning her without permission weren’t enough, he just kept finding new ways to make an ass of himself. “Well, thanks for getting me home. I’ll pay you back for the bar tab. And uh… sorry for spooning you like that, I um… I really didn’t know it was you.”

The rosy shade of pink returned to Annie’s cheeks and her gaze flitted away from his towards the floor. “You’re welcome. And… It’s ok, I- I know you were out of it…”

Jeff felt another stab of pain in his forehead and almost grunted in discomfort. “Yeah, and I’ve got the headache to go with it. I’m going to go take some Advil. You uh, want some breakfast?”

“Sure!” Annie flashed a bright smile and hopped up off the bed with that absurd level of enthusiasm with which she seemed to do everything. Jeff had always found it annoying. And irresistible…

As Annie padded out of the bedroom towards the kitchen, Jeff went to the master bathroom in search of tablet-shaped pain relief. He dug around his medicine cabinet until he found the bottle of Advil, then washed down double the recommended dosage with a few swigs of water. He was about to head out to the kitchen, but stopped when he caught his reflection in the mirror. He had never been quite sure whether he liked what he saw there. And he had to wonder… what did Annie see?

It was strange seeing her again under these circumstances, but he had to admit that despite his lingering embarrassment, he was glad he’d run into her. There were times in life when forces larger than yourself pulled you away from someone. And despite every intent to stay in touch, you ended up drifting apart. Eventually it got to the point where you felt too ashamed of your own neglect to do anything, as though reaching out would only serve to remind the other person that they were supposed to be disappointed in you. Finally, paralyzed by guilt, you were left with only the hope that the other person would take the initiative – not knowing that they were feeling the same things you were.

But sometimes those forces larger than yourself abruptly shifted direction, and you found yourself colliding with the person you thought was out of reach. The funny thing was how normal it all felt. You each slid back into familiar roles. And although you weren’t exactly the same as you’d been before, it felt like putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers, and you were left wondering why you’d been avoiding it…

Jeff snapped out of his reverie and knelt to enter the combination to the safe where his toiletries resided. After brushing his teeth and gargling with some mouthwash, he made some practiced adjustments to his hair to give it just the right appearance of not caring. He returned the toiletries to their rightful place, but grabbed two small packages before swinging the safe shut.

As he made his way out of the bedroom towards the kitchen, he caught sight of Annie on her tiptoes, straining to reach something in one of the top cupboards.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying –uhnnn- to get some stuff to make breakfast.” Annie dropped down to the floor again and let out a frustrated huff. “Why are all your mixing bowls up so high?”

Jeff strolled up next to Annie and studied her. He recognized that determined look on her face, so before she could begin scaling his counters to reach the bowls, he reached up and casually plucked them out of the top cupboard. “Sorry, this kitchen was built for normal-sized adults.”

Jeff grinned at the glare that was immediately directed his way. “You are NOT normal-sized.”

“Maybe,” he shrugged, “but neither are you.”

Annie pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. But as she turned away towards the refrigerator, he caught the faintest hint of a smile and Jeff found himself letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. He’d missed their little back-and-forths, and it was good to know she was still willing to play along.

Annie pulled the refrigerator open and scanned its contents. “What do you want to eat?”

“That’s my line.”

Annie glanced up at him. “Hmm?”

“You’re my guest, Annie. You’re here because you did me a favor and quite possibly saved me from being dragged out of a bar by the police. So tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.”

Annie’s face registered a brief look of surprise before turning pensive. “Umm… how about lobster and caviar?”

Jeff snorted in amusement. “That’s for lunch.”

“Oh.” Annie bit her lower lip and looked at him through her eyelashes. “Can you make an omelet?”

Jeff brushed her gently to the side and began pulling out ingredients. “Regular or egg white?”

“Either is fine, but if you’re having egg white, I’ll take one of those, please.”

“Egg white it is.” Jeff finished stacking ingredients on the dark marble countertop of the kitchen island before flipping the stovetop on to preheat. He then pulled out a cutting board and began slicing a green pepper. He hadn’t made much progress, though, before he paused and arched an eyebrow at Annie. “Stop hovering.”

“I can help!” she protested.

Jeff smirked at her. “I know you can help, but you’re not going to. So have a seat.” He nodded towards the other side of the island where three bar stool chairs were situated. Annie reluctantly maneuvered around to the other side and hopped up onto one of the chairs, and for the first time Jeff noticed what she was wearing. “Is that my sweatshirt?”

Annie glanced down at the mottled gray fabric and the faded design of the Rocky Mountains that stretched across the chest. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t exactly have a change of clothes with me. I borrowed a pair of sweatpants too, I hope you don’t mind.” Jeff shook his head. “They’re way too big though.” To prove her point, Annie grabbed at the fabric that was bunched up beyond her left elbow and pulled it down until it swallowed up her entire arm.

“Regular-sized,” Jeff said nonchalantly as he resumed slicing. He could practically hear her eyes roll.

“You know,” Annie’s voice had taken on a teasing tone, “I was pretty surprised that Jeff Winger owned a pair of sweatpants, let alone two.”

“And just what is wrong with wearing a garment that loves and accepts you for who you are?” Jeff glanced up and pointed the handle of his paring knife at her. “Sweatpants never judged me, and neither should you.”

Annie huffed out a laugh. “I’m not judging, I just thought they’d be below the minimum price threshold to be included in your wardrobe.”

Jeff scraped a pile of neatly sliced green pepper bits into a mixing bowl and began working on a red pepper. “I know I do a good job of hiding it Annie, but I am human.” He paused in his slicing and reached into the pocket of his sweatpants to pull out the items he’d grabbed from his bathroom. “Oh, but speaking of things you probably didn’t have with you, here.” He tossed a toothbrush and tube of travel toothpaste he’d gotten at his last dentist appointment onto the countertop.

Annie smiled at him gratefully. “Thanks. Is it ok if I use your bathroom, or should I just use the sink here?”

Jeff had to choke back a laugh. “Use the bathroom like a normal person, weirdo.”

Annie stuck her tongue out at him before hopping off the chair and trotting off towards the bathroom. As she disappeared into his bedroom, Jeff realized he’d been staring and gave his head a quick shake to snap out of it. Dammit. Why did it have to be so hot when a girl wore your clothes?

When Annie reappeared, Jeff was in the process of putting on a pot of coffee, having already finished cutting up the red pepper, some mushrooms, and a Roma tomato. She smiled at him as she climbed back onto the bar stool. “So… I haven’t seen you in forever. How have you been?”

“Doing really well, actually,” he said as he turned to begin cracking open the first egg into a mixing bowl before using a tool to separate the yolk out. “Busy though, work has been crazy and to top it off I just moved here two weeks ago.” He gestured towards the living room. “That’s why I don’t have a couch yet.”

Annie nodded her head slowly. “You didn’t bring your old one?”

“Nah, didn’t fit the décor.” Annie gave him a doubtful look and he frowned at her. He knew what she thought about his ‘short-term corporate housing’ decorating style. “Shut up. It was time for a new one anyway.”

Jeff added salt and pepper to the egg whites while pointedly trying to ignore Annie’s amusement. “Well, what about you? You said you were out with friends from your old job last night?”

Annie’s mirth quickly faded. “Oh. Yeah, a few friends from back when I worked at Futurza.”

Jeff glanced up in surprise from where he’d been whisking the ingredients in the mixing bowl. “Wasn’t that the job you got right out of Greendale?” Annie gave a tiny nod, her eyes downcast. “You left? What happened?”

Annie lifted her feet up onto the stool and hugged her knees to her chest. “It just… it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Jeff eyed her patiently, waiting for her to elaborate. The whisk hung slackly in his left hand, breakfast temporarily forgotten.

Annie directed a furtive glance his way, then sighed when it became apparent he wasn’t letting the subject drop. “Well,” she continued reluctantly, “for starters, the work had nothing to do with hospital administration; I was a glorified product demonstrator. I think the only reason they hired me was my looks, too.” She delivered the last sentence with a mixture of disgust and self-congratulation. “Most of my peers were attractive women in their twenties. They’d have dressed us up in bikinis and had us pass out samples, if they could’ve.”

Part of Jeff sympathized with Annie. Part of him really wanted to see her in a bikini passing out samples. And the rest of him hated himself for that second part.

“But I could’ve dealt with all that stuff,” Annie went on. “What I couldn’t handle was when I realized what I was really doing. I was helping hook a new batch of little Annies on Adderall.” She fell silent and rested her chin on one knee, looking glum.

Jeff needed a moment before he could think of anything to say. He had a little trouble comprehending how Annie’s first job out of college had been anything other than a resounding success. “Wow Annie… I’m sorry to hear that. But good for you for getting out.”

Annie grimaced. “I sort of owe Britta for that. I ran into her in September and she totally called me on what I was doing. Once she made me see it for what it was… I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“Well now I’m really sorry. I know how much it sucks to owe Britta.” Annie lifted her head off her knee and directed a tenuous smile his way. “Anyway, I’m sure you ended up finding something better,” he said casually as he poured a little olive oil into a skillet on the stove.

“Ummmm…”

That was a little too high-pitched to be a good thing.

“What is it?”

Annie was picking at some balled-up lint on her sweatpants and studiously avoiding his gaze.

“Annie?”

“I uh… rrnrrdngrndll.” The words came out too low and fast for him to understand. Well, there was one thing it sort of sounded like, but that was just ridiculous. There was no way she’d–

“You what?”

Annie’s forehead dropped onto her knees. “I re-enrolled at Greendale,” she groaned.

The mixing bowl Jeff had been holding crashed onto the countertop with enough force that he had to quickly check if it had caused any damage. Satisfied that noise was the only byproduct of the impact, he hurried around to the other side of the kitchen island where Annie still had her head buried between her knees.

“Annie, you re-enrolled at Greendale? What-? Why-? How…?”

She looked up slightly and peered at him through her eyelashes. “So did Troy, Abed, Britta and Pierce.”

Jeff found himself needing to lean against the kitchen island. “Wow…” was all he could manage.

Annie ducked her head again. “Do you think I’m a failure?” she asked quietly.

“What?” She could not have surprised him more if she’d slapped him full in the face. “Annie look at me.” Her eyes lifted slowly to meet his and he was struck yet again by just how big she could make them – especially if she was feeling vulnerable. “I would never think that of you.” The earnestness in his voice matched the look on his face.

Annie eyed him for a moment. “I…” She closed her eyes before taking a deep breath. “Thanks…” she said softly. Jeff felt his muscles relax and realized he’d had an iron grip on the countertop. Annie seemed to recover and quickly shook her head. “I’m sorry… I don’t know where that came from. I’m really not unhappy being back at Greendale; I guess it’s just not where I pictured myself being at this point in my life. You know?”

Jeff barked out a laugh. “Annie, you’re talking to a guy who started at Greendale in his thirties. Believe me, I know all too well.”

Annie’s eyes widened. “Oh gosh! I’m sorry, I forgot!”

“No need to apologize,” Jeff said as he started back around to the other side of the island. “That’s something I’m always trying to forget.” Annie let out a surprised giggle, but still managed to scold him with her eyes. “So, uh, what are you doing back there?”

Annie dropped her feet off the stool and sat forward, leaning one arm on the counter. “I went back into forensic science.”

“You like it?”

“Yeah,” she said wistfully. “That was my actual dream. I should’ve just stuck with it.”

“Then that’s all that matters.”

Annie smiled broadly at him and Jeff could’ve sworn he felt his stomach drop. Maybe he was hungrier than he realized. Because anything else it might mean was something he didn’t want to consider. He scraped the chopped vegetables into the pan and gave them a quick stir, then grabbed some cheese and began grating it in an effort to banish thoughts of ridiculously wide smiles and deep blue eyes.

“I guess it’s better to go back now than to be wishing I had in ten years.”

“Mmmhmm.” Jeff yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out a pack of English muffins.

Focus. On. Breakfast.

He pulled apart two muffins and popped them in the toaster, then grabbed a couple of plates. As he was stirring the vegetables in the pan, it occurred to him that Annie was still talking, and she was conveying information he wanted to know.

“…still convinced that she’s going to be a psychologist. I admire her determination, I just think she’d be better suited somewhere else.”

“Psychology thinks she’d be better suited somewhere else.”

His quip earned him another scolding look, but this time without the accompanying giggle. Jeff shrugged and shot back an innocent look. Hadn’t he just been agreeing with her? Annie rolled her eyes and continued.

“Anyway, Troy’s on a mission to figure out who he is, and Pierce just seems to be lonely. Abed only got one job in film since graduation and had been doing software coding instead.” Jeff’s ears perked up at that. “He said he needs to learn how to work with other people.”

“Ha!” Jeff exclaimed. “He’s got that right.”

Annie gave him a quizzical look.

“He didn’t tell you?”

“I guess not?”

“That one job he got? I had him make the commercial for my business. I had to get a new phone number because Abed didn’t like it. He was ready to quit rather than put it on the screen.”

Annie’s eyebrows shot up. “He was going to quit?” Jeff nodded. “Wait, so you changed your phone number just to keep him from quitting?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Aww!”

It was Jeff’s turn to roll his eyes. But he seemed to have earned back any points he’d lost as a result of being snarky about Britta, and that made him feel happier than it should have. “Whatever. I was just starting out, so no one really had my phone number anyway.”

Annie was still beaming at him, so he directed his attention towards moving the sautéed vegetables to a plate and pouring the egg whites into the pan.

“What about Shirley? She didn’t re-enroll too?”

“Oh!” Annie was suddenly bouncing in her seat. “She opened a second location of Shirley’s Sandwiches! She’s too busy to take classes with us, but she’s mostly at the Greendale store, so we still see her all the time.”

“Second location huh? Where is it?”

Annie made a sour face. “City College. That’s why she’s usually at the Greendale store. Oh, but you cannot imagine how excited the Dean was when he heard that a Greendale graduate would own a store on the City College campus!”

A myriad of images flashed through Jeff’s head, all of which he wished he could mentally un-see. “I’m guessing his reaction involved the single most elaborate outfit he’s ever worn.”

Annie hugged herself close, rocking slowly in place. “Let’s just say I’ll never be able to watch The Sound of Music the same way again.”

“Oh god…”

Annie nodded agreement, a look of disquiet painted on her face.

The toaster pinged just as Jeff was finishing adding the peppers and mushrooms back to the pan and he practically leapt towards it, grateful for anything that would take his mind off the desecration of a classic movie.

“Well, good for Shirley though,” Jeff said as he delicately tried to extract the muffins from the toaster without burning his fingertips.

True to form, Annie rebounded quickly and was once again bright and chipper as ever. “Yes! I’m so happy for her! And it’s really great being with everyone again. I’d sort of lost touch with Britta and Pierce after graduation.” Jeff couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t listed him along with the others.

“Glad you guys are having fun. I wish I could be there.” The strange thing was, he actually meant it. Greendale was the craziest, most maddening school-shaped toilet he could conceive of, and yet… it was a place that had given him a chance to figure out who he was. A place that had given him Shirley, Abed, Troy, Britta, Pierce and–

 “We miss you, you know,” Annie said softly.

Jeff put on a brash smile, a smile that was completely at odds with what he was feeling at the moment. “Of course. Who wouldn’t miss me?”

Annie huffed out a laugh, but the corners of her eyes seemed to be tinged with sadness.

Breakfast was finally ready, so Jeff scooped a fluffy white omelet onto each plate. Annie helped him carry everything over to the ceramic lead grey table in what served as his dining room, and they laid out the English muffins, some jam and sliced fruit. As they ate breakfast and sipped coffee, Jeff regaled Annie with stories from some of his more interesting court cases, while Annie brought Jeff up to speed on the activities of what the group was calling the Save Greendale Committee. It didn’t surprise Jeff that Greendale needed to be saved. Somehow, it was oddly comforting to know that Greendale remained as absurd as ever.

By the time they’d finished eating, Jeff was almost beginning to feel human again. His headache was mostly gone, as was the lingering muscle soreness. He still wanted a shower, though. But none of that seemed to matter when, after another hour of conversation had passed, Annie said five little words.

“I should probably get going…”

She continued on with a few platitudes, thanking him for breakfast and letting her stay overnight, but that she needed to get changed and had a list of things to get done. Jeff responded as he was supposed to, thanking her again for getting him home and saying how great it was to see her again. They mutually agreed that they needed to do a better job of keeping in touch, but it still left Jeff feeling empty. As though knowing this had been but a brief interlude in what would soon return to slowly sliding apart.

He didn’t want her to leave. But something in him wouldn’t allow him to say it.

Annie shut herself in his bedroom to change back into her clothes from the night before while Jeff remained in the dining room, trying in vain to come up with a casual way to invite himself over to Apartment 303. He was still busy failing at that task when he heard her call his name. He padded over to his bedroom and cracked the door open a tiny bit, not wanting to intrude if Annie hadn’t finished changing.

“Annie? Is something wrong?”

“Jeff, come here!”

Jeff opened the door the rest of the way and strode into the room. Annie was over by the window, one hand still clutching the cord she’d pulled in order to raise the heavy blinds. She’d changed back into the pants she wore the night before, but still had on his sweatshirt.

“What’s up?” He pulled up next to her and eyed her expectantly, but all she did was continue staring out the window. Eventually, he allowed his gaze to follow hers, and as it did, he felt his breath catch in his throat.

Outside, he saw the same view he was only just becoming accustomed to seeing out his window, but with one key difference: the entire world was encased in ice. Buildings, trees, streets, grass, cars… every visible surface was covered with a sheen of crystal. Nothing moved, as though some greater power had decided to seize this one moment in time, and keep it forever.

“Holy… crap,” Jeff breathed.

Annie’s voice was little more than a reverent whisper. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”

Jeff glanced down at Annie and allowed his gaze to linger on her profile.

Like the outside world, they remained frozen in place until the chiming of Annie’s phone shattered the silence. She moved sluggishly at first, almost as if the ice had crept into her veins as well. But soon enough, the phone was in her hand and Jeff was turning towards the living room.

“Hello?” he heard her say as he crossed the threshold out of his bedroom. “Hi Troy. Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry, I didn’t see your messages–”

Jeff continued over to the TV and flipped on the news. After several minutes’ worth of footage of ice-covered landscapes, downed trees and power lines, frazzled field correspondents, and emergency vehicles, Annie appeared beside him. They watched in silence a while longer, as the weatherman described how conditions had held at just the right point for hours and hours as the rain fell, allowing over an inch of ice to build up over an area stretching across several counties. The beleaguered weatherman then described in ominous tones that there would likely be no relief, as another front was building from the north, carrying the promise of snow. Next came interviews with high ranking police and firemen, informing viewers that most roads had been closed and imploring the public to stay indoors as much as possible.

Nature’s beauty, it seemed, was not without its violence or cost. But as the news anchor began announcing that the governor had declared a state of emergency, Jeff found himself paradoxically becoming more and more content.

Annie was staying.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~