Jeff was slumped down in an uncomfortable plastic seat, one eye on Tyler, the other on his phone. Tyler stood several feet away from him facing down the long white-tiled hallway. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet as he craned his neck to try to peer over the heads of the crowd in front of him. He might have shot up in height over the past couple years, but he was still a good head shorter than most of the people around him. He clutched his handmade sign as he bounced, trying to get a better view.
“She hasn’t even landed yet,” Jeff reminded him.
“I thought she might have landed early,” Tyler replied, staying exactly where his was, too excited to just sit and wait.
Jeff turned his attention back to his phone and tried to force the butterflies in his stomach to be still. Tyler’s excitement was starting to rub off on him. You would think that after almost three and a half years together he wouldn’t get this excited about seeing her, but here he was, a grown ass man, wishing that he could stand there with a big sparkly sign too. He shifted in his seat and tried to maintain his carefully constructed mask of nonchalance.
He had just managed to arrange himself in the most dignified position one could be in while sitting in crappy airport seating when the sound of her name made his heart leap.
“Annie!” Tyler shouted, holding his sign aloft for her to see. Across the front Tyler had written: Welcome home, Agent Annie! in big, colorful letters. The sound of her delighted laughter answered his call and Jeff couldn’t help it. He grinned.
“Oh, my God!” Annie called as she ran up to Tyler and scooped him into a hug, lifting his feet right off the ground. “You’ve gotten so big! And your hair is so long now!”
“If you can get him to cut it, I would be willing to pay handsomely,” Jeff joked as he made his way over to them.
“Sorry, but I’m an impartial third party. You won’t get any help from me,” Annie replied with a grin.
Jeff smiled down at her for a moment. “Welcome home,” he said before he bent to press his lips to hers.
“Gross.” Tyler grimaced at their show of affection before turning in direction of baggage claim.
Jeff chuckled and casually slung his arm around Annie’s shoulders before following after his son. “How’s ol’ DC?”
“Barack sends his love,” Annie answered.
“Well, that’s sweet of him.” Jeff smiled at the banter that they so easily fell into whenever they spoke. He’d be lying if he said it didn’t make him happy. He kissed her again as the belt on the baggage carousel started moving.
The three of them stood around together and chatted about her flight as they waited for her luggage. As soon as she’d spotted it, Jeff quickly snagged it off the belt and led the way to the parking deck.
“What time is dinner tonight?” Annie asked as they approached Jeff’s car.
“Yeah, about that…” Jeff began evasively as he loaded her suitcase into the trunk. “Wouldn’t you rather go to dinner with just me?”
“I have all week to go to dinner with just you,” she pointed out. “The group is never all in one place anymore.”
“Well, they still aren’t. Shirley and Abed are still out of town,” Jeff argued. “See? The whole outing’s a wash. Might as well cancel. I’ll make us a reservation at Morty’s.”
Annie swatted him on the chest before getting into the passenger seat. “Nice try, but I am not missing this dinner.”
“Fine,” he sighed. “Señor Kevin’s it is.”
Jeff had just opened the front door when his phone began to ring. He stepped in and held the door open for Annie and Tyler to enter, shifting Annie’s suitcase in his arms so that he could dig in his pocket for his cellphone.
“Hello?” he answered as Annie rushed past him and flung herself onto the couch with a contented sigh. Tyler kicked off his shoes and jumped onto the couch as well, bouncing up and down with a wicked grin, purposefully disrupting Annie’s relaxation. They were both laughing. Jeff smiled at the sight. He loved having her home.
“Jeff?” The voice on the phone called his attention back. He had forgotten that he’d answered it and evidently the person on the other end had noticed.
“Could you at least pretend to pay attention to me when I speak?”
Jeff rolled his eyes and shut the door behind him. “Sorry, Mom. I’m listening now. Go ahead.”
“I was just calling to see if Annie had made it back yet.”
“Yep, she’s here. Safe and sound.”
“Ooh!” Annie sat up and turned towards Jeff, extending her hand eagerly.
“Hang on, Mom,” Jeff said, stepping over to the couch. “I think Annie wants to talk to you.”
Annie took the phone from him and hopped to her feet, pressing the phone to her ear. “Hi, Doreen!” she greeted cheerfully.
Jeff took Annie’s abandoned seat on the couch and watched as she paced the floor, happily chatting away to his mother.
“The flight was fine,” Annie said, answering an unheard question from Doreen. “Long layover in Dallas, but it wasn’t that bad.” She paused and then laughed. “I’m doing well. How have you been?” She paused again. “And how’s George?” she asked with a grin, her voice taking on a gossipy, flirtatious quality.
Jeff made a retching sound at the sound of George’s name and Annie shot him an annoyed look.
“Of course, I’d love to!” Annie said into the phone while gesturing for Jeff to be quiet. “Sure, tomorrow sounds good. Just let me know.” She paused and her eyes darted to Jeff, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Jeff groaned. He threw his head back against the couch cushion and tried very hard to remember that he was happy that she was here.
“We’ll see you tomorrow!” Annie said cheerily before hanging up. “You’re coming to lunch,” she directed at Jeff, tossing him his phone back.
“I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to see your mom?” Annie asked.
“Don’t play dumb. It doesn’t suit you.”
Annie put her hands on her hips. “He’s your mother’s boyfriend. You should really make an effort to like him.”
“This is me making an effort,” Jeff shot back.
“Well, try harder.”
“I like him,” Tyler chimed in.
Annie smiled. “See?” She gestured to Tyler.
“Brown-noser,” Jeff muttered in his son’s direction.
“Stubborn mule,” Tyler muttered back and then quickly launched himself over the back of the couch with a delighted squeal right as Jeff made to reach for him.
Jeff stepped out of his bedroom as he finished buttoning the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. “You ready?” He called to Annie. She was sitting on the couch next to Tyler, watching him play a game on his PlayStation.
“Ready,” she answered, standing up and moving towards the door, ruffling Tyler’s shaggy blond hair as she passed.
“Alright, we’re heading out,” Jeff said to Tyler. “Remember –”
“I know,” Tyler cut him off without looking away from the TV screen. “’No answering the door for anyone I don’t know, in bed by ten, don’t burn the place down’,” he parroted.
Jeff shot him a look of mild amusement. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
“Funnier than you.”
Jeff frowned at him. This had been a recent trend with Tyler. They had always joked around with each other, but lately there had been a bit more bite to his taunts. Jeff tried not let on that it bothered him, but it kind of did. “Well, that would be your opinion, wouldn’t it?” Jeff shot back, slipping into a cocky grin. “Seriously, though,” he continued in his dad voice. “Be safe.”
“Have fun!” Tyler called with a quick wave, dismissing them from the room.
Jeff and Annie walked into Señor Kevin’s and immediately spotted their group. Britta, Frankie, Chang, Dean Pelton, and Troy all sat around the largest table in the restaurant, conversing loudly enough to draw annoyed glances from the tables around them.
“Looks like Elroy couldn’t make it, either,” Jeff said. “See? It’s fate. We should just cut our losses and go home. I’ll even cook.”
“Would you stop trying to bail?” Annie complained. “Come on.”
She held out her hand to him. He took it with a sigh and allowed himself to be dragged over to his waiting friends. He ended up having a pretty decent time despite the fact that the Dean repeatedly and unrelentingly brought up the ‘date’ they’d had there a full five years earlier.
“But we had such a lovely time,” The Dean repeated for the third time when Jeff, yet again, pretended not to remember.
“Dean, would you compare it to a kiss from a rose?” Britta asked.
“No!” Jeff insisted while Troy and Annie lost themselves in a fit of laughter.
Frankie raised her eyebrows at them. “I feel like I’m missing something.”
“I’ll show you the video later,” Britta promised.
Jeff glared at her. “I told you to delete that!”
“Dude, it’s on the internet,” Chang said. “There’s no deleting it now. Trust me.”
“Oh! Speaking of which,” Annie chimed in. “How’s Ned?”
“He’s good! Busy with work, as usual.”
“He couldn’t come out tonight?” Troy asked.
“No, he’s on night shift in the ER this month,” Chang explained.
“Well, tell him I’m sorry I missed him. And also, tell him again that I’m sorry I missed the wedding. I get so little time off these days,” Annie said with a frown.
“Speaking of weddings,” Britta interrupted, whipping around to face Jeff. “When are you guys gonna tie the knot?”
Jeff glared. “Haha. You’re hilarious.”
“You are, I hope.” Beside him Annie shifted in her seat. “It’s none of your business anyway.”
Frankie looked between Jeff and Annie for a second before quickly changing the subject. “Dean! Why don’t you tell Annie about the campus-wide water balloon fight? It was… Unfortunately eventful.”
The Dean sighed with remembered exasperation. Troy, however, was grinning. “It was awesome.”
Lunch with Doreen and George was a lot calmer than eating with his friends had been, but not nearly as painless. The afternoon started out well enough. Jeff, Annie, and Tyler had met them a local sandwich shop that Doreen and Annie frequented together. Jeff thought he was doing a pretty good job of being civil with George, but every time Jeff spoke to him, Annie would shoot him an exasperated look like he wasn’t trying hard enough. He couldn’t help it. Something about this guy just rubbed him the wrong way.
“When are you leaving us again, Annie?” Doreen asked.
“So soon?” Doreen pouted.
Annie nodded. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’m actually up for a big promotion,” she explained excitedly. “I don’t want to jinx it, but they could be sending me to Alaska! It would be my first field case.”
“Alaska?” George asked with interest.
“It’s not a permanent move. I’d be there for about six months.”
“That sounds really exciting,” George said. “I hope you get to go!”
Jeff frowned at his plate. He did not want to talk about Annie leaving again. He was happy for her, of course. Not only did she love her job, but she was good at it too. There was no way she wasn’t going to get that promotion. She would be happy in Alaska, and he liked seeing her happy. But he also liked seeing her home. He’d never ask her to stay, though. It wouldn’t be fair. Not that she would do it. Her career was too important to her right now. And he definitely understood that. He had been the same way. Except, of course, he had cheated his way to success rather than earn it.
After she had accepted a full-time position with the FBI, he’d spent a year entertaining the idea of following her to DC, but he just couldn’t uproot his life like that. He might have in the past, but not now. Not with Tyler to worry about. His life was here. His family was here.
“Alaska,” George continued, turning his attention to Jeff. “How do you feel about that, Jeff?”
Man, he hated this guy. Jeff stabbed his fork into his baked chicken once, angrily, before calmly meeting George’s eye. “I’m proud of her,” Jeff answered, his tone completely normal and conversational despite his annoyance.
“Still. Alaska is pretty far away.”
“Well, it’s not like she’s exactly been local for the past year and a half.”
Annie kicked his shin under the table and he glanced at her before continuing, “All I mean is that we’ll make it work.” His tone was lighter now. “We’re no strangers to distance.”
“I’m sure it’s not easy,” George replied gently. “I’m glad you guys are able to make it work.” He reached over and took Doreen’s hand in his and gave her a loving smile, “I can’t imagine spending that long away from this one right here.”
“Aw!” Annie cooed while Doreen blushed and stared longingly at the man beside her.
Jeff pushed his plate away and tried not to be sick.
“So, how’s school?” Annie asked Tyler as they were finishing up dinner later that night. “Anything exciting going on?”
Tyler shrugged. “There’s a dance on Friday.”
“Aw! Jeff! Remember school dances?”
“Pretty easy to remember since the last time I went to a school dance I was in my late 30s,” Jeff said as he stood up to clear the table.
Annie rolled her eyes at him and turned her attention back to Tyler. “That sounds fun. Are you going?”
“You going with anyone special?” she asked teasingly.
Tyler hesitated. “Umm…”
“Hold up!” Jeff shouted excitedly from the kitchen before bursting into the dining area. “Does my boy have a date?”
Tyler sat up straight and puffed out his chest defiantly. “He might.”
Annie was beaming. “Aw! What’s her name?”
“Is she cute?” Jeff asked at the same time.
“Jeff!” Anne admonished disapprovingly.
“Welp!” Tyler said, standing up from the table. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight, guys!”
Jeff grinned impishly. “It’s 7:30,” he noted as he followed Tyler to his bedroom door. “You’re not trying to avoid me, are you?”
“Goodnight!” Tyler repeated as he shut the door between them.
“Okay, goodnight, son,” Jeff said with a smirk. “We’ll pick this up in the morning.”
From behind the closed door, Tyler called out in sing-song, “Oh no we won’t!”
“Oh yes we will!” Jeff mimicked back happily. Embarrassing your kid was one of the many joys of parenting.
On Friday night, Jeff and Annie were lounging on the couch watching Friends reruns when Tyler exited his room wearing a grey plaid button up, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a pair of dark wash jeans. His hair looked like it had been gelled into perfectly tousled bedhead, very reminiscent of the way Jeff’s hair often looked.
Annie wolf-whistled when she spotted him and he ducked his head to hide his blush.
Jeff grinned at him. “Very suave,” he complimented.
“Thanks,” Tyler answered, taking a seat next to his father on the couch.
“What time does your thing start?” Jeff asked. “Wouldn’t want you to be late.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Well,” Jeff said. “Seeing as how you can’t drive, I sorta figured you’d need a ride. Thus, the time of the dance would be information I would need to worry about.”
“I don’t need a ride,” Tyler responded, reaching into his pocket for his cellphone.
“Gonna ride your bike all the way to school?” Jeff joked.
“Not taking my bike, either.”
A knock on the door interrupted Jeff’s next teasing remark. Tyler immediately jumped up and hurried to the door. “Hey!” he greeted as he answered it.
Jeff and Annie glanced at each other with confusion before looking back up at their friend standing in the doorway.
“Troy? Were we expecting you?” Annie asked.
Tyler turned to them with a smile. “Troy’s my ride,” he explained.
“Ready to go, little man?” Troy asked.
“Yup!” Tyler gave Jeff and Annie a quick wave, “See ya!”
“You asked Troy to drive you?” Jeff questioned incredulously, getting up from the couch and moving towards the doorway. “But I wanted to take you. It’s your first date! It’s kind of a big deal.”
Tyler shot Jeff a sly grin as he shut the door behind him. “How do you know this is my first date?”
The door shut with a click and Jeff took a step forward. “Wait, what?” he shouted. “Annie!” He whirled around to face her.
She shrugged at him with a sympathetic smile. “I guess your little boy is growing up.”
Jeff clapped his hands over his ears and shook his head. “No! He’s seven and he wants to be Spider-Man!”
Jeff was slumped back on the couch with one foot propped up on the coffee table and a bored look on his face. He took a quick swig of his beer and stared dejectedly at the TV screen. He really couldn’t care less about Ross and Rachel’s drunken Las Vegas nuptials at the moment, but what else was he going to do with his evening.
In his lap, his phone vibrated. He unlocked the screen to find a new message from Troy.
Sorry about tonight. When Tyler asked me to give him a ride I didn’t realize I was getting in the way of a family thing. I took pictures, if that helps.
His phone vibrated again. Two pictures popped up on the screen. They were of Tyler and a cute red-headed girl standing beside each other. In the first one Tyler looked slightly annoyed, but in the second one both kids were smiling at the camera.
“Is that his date?” Annie asked from beside him, glancing over at his phone.
“Must be,” Jeff answered, passing his phone off to her.
“Look at them! That’s so cute.”
“Yeah,” Jeff agreed simply.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Annie watching him. He took another sip of his beer and kept his eyes on the TV. “You really are bummed,” she finally said, handing him back the phone. “You weren’t joking. You wanted to take him.”
Annie curled up against his side and wrapped her arms around his torso, resting her head against his chest. “I’m sorry.”
“I think I’m too old for this,” Jeff sighed.
“Too old for what?”
He gestured at Tyler’s bedroom door. “I don’t think I remember what it was like to be eleven. If I did maybe I would know how to talk to him. We used to hang out all the time. Now it’s like he doesn’t even want to be near me.”
“Middle-schoolers are like that sometimes,” Annie said, still curled up against him. “Totally normal. He’ll grow out of it.”
Jeff’s grip on his beer bottle tightened. “What if he doesn’t?” he asked quietly. “It took me until I was thirty-eight to reestablish a relationship with my mom. And without Tyler, I might never have.”
Jeff felt Annie’s arms tighten around him. “Tyler isn’t you. I know him. You know him. That isn’t who he is. That’s not something you have to be worried about. You’ll see.”
“I really wanted to take him to that dance.”
“I know. But there’ll be other dances. Especially if he goes to Greendale.”
Jeff groaned. “Don’t even joke.” He could feel Annie’s shoulders shake with laughter as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer against him.
At around 8:00, Jeff excused himself to the bedroom saying he was tired, but when he’d shut the door behind him he made no efforts to get ready for bed. He lay down on the bed, fully clothed and on top of the sheets with the lights still on.
Sometime later he heard the door open very slowly. He lifted his head to find Tyler peeking into the room.
“Go on,” Annie’s voice whispered from the other side of the door.
Tyler glanced back at her once before stepping into the room. “Hi,” he said, standing there awkwardly like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do now that he was here.
“Hey,” Jeff greeted.
“So, the dance was fun.” Tyler looked nervous as he said this.
“That’s good. I’m glad you had a good time.”
Tyler nodded and looked around the room, unsure. “The principal tried to do the whip and ended up punching himself in the face. He has a black eye now.”
Jeff sat up straighter and smiled. “Yeah? I’d have paid to see that.”
“It was definitely worth the price of admission,” Tyler grinned.
After a moment, Tyler climbed up on the bed and settled next to Jeff. They sat side by side, their legs stretched out on the bed in front of them.
“Her name is Maggie,” Tyler finally said.
“Mmhm. We have math class together.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
Tyler blushed. “No.”
Jeff studied his son’s face and grinned. “But you want her to be.”
Tyler’s blush deepened but he didn’t say anything. “Your face is the color of Maggie’s hair,” Jeff teased lightheartedly.
Tyler covered his cheeks with his hands and looked up at Jeff with a sheepish grin. “So, I guess Troy sent you the pictures he took?”
“He did. She’s cute.”
Tyler looked down at his lap, but he was smiling. After a long moment, he finally spoke again. “Sorry that I was a jerk tonight. I don’t know why I got so embarrassed about it.”
“It’s okay,” Jeff said, ruffling the boy’s hair. “I’m glad Troy didn’t embarrass you.”
“Weeell…” Tyler said with a grimace. “He might have cried a little when he dropped us off. He kept telling Maggie that I was ‘growing up so fast’. I probably would have been better off with you as our chauffer.”
“I want you to remember that in the future. I’m the cool one in my friend group.”
A shit-eating grin spread across Tyler’s face. “As scary as that is, I think you might be right.”
“Hey!” Jeff objected and reached for his son. Tyler laughed and tried to jump off the bed to get away from him, but he wasn’t quick enough. Tyler flailed around laughing for a bit while they wrestled until eventually they settled back down, both laughing and smiling.
“Alright,” Jeff said. “It’s getting late. Go get ready for bed.”
Tyler hopped down off the bed and headed for the door.
“And hey,” Jeff called. “Thanks for telling me about the dance.”
Tyler nodded. “Goodnight.”
“Love you, too, Dad.”
On Wednesday, Jeff returned home from dropping Tyler off at school to find the apartment dark and quiet. He slowly opened his bedroom door and peered inside. Annie was still sound asleep in his bed. She was clearly aiming to take full advantage of her last day off.
Jeff crawled into bed beside her and smiled to himself when she automatically rolled to curl against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and watched as she blinked herself awake.
“Morning,” she yawned back.
“Sleeping in I see.”
“Apparently not as late as I’d hoped.”
He gave her a puzzled look.
“You haven’t even left yet,” she explained.
“I already took Tyler to school. It’s after 9:00.”
“What? Don’t you have to work?”
Jeff laid back and crossed his arms behind his head. “I called in sick.”
“Jeff!” Annie scolded as she sat up.
“It’s not like I had anything planned for today except another Planet Earth marathon,” Jeff reasoned. “They’ll learn more on their day off than they would in my classroom. Plus, I already taught an actual lesson once this week. A man can only be expected to do so much.”
Annie sighed and slid out of bed. “You’re hopeless, Jeff Winger.”
Jeff grinned as he watched her stretch and move towards the bathroom. “I’d rather be at home with my beautiful girlfriend than be at work. So, sue me.”
“Actually, your students could. In Vergara v. California –”
“Oh my God. Could you not?”
“You teach law! This is the kind of stuff you should know. If you would just –”
Jeff jumped to his feet and pressed his lips to hers, quieting her with a kiss. “See?” he said as he pulled away. “Isn’t that a more enjoyable use of your mouth than arguing with me?”
“But you like that I argue with you,” Annie replied with a mischievous grin.
Jeff grinned back. “Smart ass,” he murmured against her lips.
“You know, I never seem to get tired of picking you up from the airport. But dropping you off really sucks.”
Annie shot him a look as she closed the truck of his car, her backpack slung over one shoulder and her rolling luggage sitting on the ground beside her. “You know, telling me stuff like that doesn’t make it any easier to leave.”
He scratched the back of his head guiltily before reaching out and pulling her into his arms. “Have a safe flight,” he murmured, pressing a light kiss against her hair. “Call me when you land.”
She stood up on tip toes and pecked him gently on the lips. “I will.” She grabbed the handle of her suitcase and rolled it to the airport entrance. She gave him one last wave before disappearing inside. He stood alone outside the airport until someone honked at him, impatiently waiting to take his place at the curb.