Annie sighed and ran her fingers through her dark, tangled hair before bringing her hands to her face, covering her eyes. She’d been staring at her computer screen for hours and her eyes were begging for a break. She wished she could comply, but she had to get this report done before Monday and the gala tonight was already cutting into her time. Stupid ‘optional’ work functions.
She sighed again and dropped her hands to the desk. She shouldn’t be so negative. The gala would give her a chance to rub elbows with some of the higher ups and she was dying to meet a few of the agents. The FBI Honors Internship Program was prestigious, but with its regularly rotating cast of interns it meant that she was just one of the many to her co-workers. Distinguishing herself from the rest of the interns was proving difficult. But that’s why the gala was so important. She hadn’t gotten the opportunity to network much thus far and tonight would be her chance to shine. She was hoping for a job offer at the end of all of this. Otherwise it was back to Greendale and its less-than-stellar criminology program.
She bent over her keyboard once again, ready to get to work, but before her fingers could hit the keys a knock sounded from her apartment door. She turned her eyes to the ceiling in resigned frustration. Well at least whoever it was hadn’t interrupted her flow. She really needed to invest in a ‘do not disturb’ sign.
She got up out of her chair, stretching her stiff joints as she crossed her one room studio apartment, heading for the door.
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered to herself as the visitor impatiently knocked again. She turned the deadbolt and yanked the door open. Her eyes found the tall, broad-shouldered figure on her landing and she froze, her mouth popping open in genuine shock. Her heart stuttered as his familiar cocky grin spread across his face. It had only been a month since she’d seen him last, but somehow she had managed to forget just how handsome Jeff Winger really was.
“’Hello, Jeff. It’s really great to see you,’” he said in a purposefully poor imitation of her voice. “’Would you like to come in?’”
She took a breath to speak but nothing came out. He smirked at her again. Clearly, he was enjoying this. She closed her eyes and shook her head quickly, trying to clear it. “W-what?” she finally stammered. “Why – How – What?”
“I think you missed ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘where’,” Jeff said, stepping past her easily, grinning from ear to ear.
Annie gaped at him as he looked around her apartment, seeming perfectly at ease as if he’d been to her place a million times. And he most certainly hadn’t. She hadn’t seen him since he’d dropped her off at the airport over a month ago and she hadn’t been expecting to see him anytime soon. She had been banking on that time to get her head straight. There were things to think about.
“You know,” he continued as if the situation weren’t absolutely insane, “I’m a little offended that you gave Abed your address and not me.”
Annie finally found her voice. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, I thought it was obvious,” he said, his blue eyes glinting with humor, “I asked Abed for your address.”
“What? No! I mean, why are you here?”
“To see you,” he answered simply.
“Because you’re my friend?”
Annie clenched her fists in frustration. Getting a straight answer out of him was always like pulling teeth. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she demanded.
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, it worked!”
She stood still, watching him, completely unable to fathom the situation she had found herself in. In her immobile state, she noticed Jeff’s eyes sweep over her before continuing their exploration of her tiny apartment. She glanced down at herself and felt her cheeks go pink. She was in a pair of grungy sweats and an old tee-shirt. This was her Saturday-at-home outfit, not her seeing-Jeff-Winger outfit. She didn’t even think she had brushed her hair yet today. Not that it mattered. It’s not like she wanted to impress him. And even if she did, Jeff had already seen her covered in paint and after all night study sessions and in a myriad of other not-so-flattering situations, so it’s not like it mattered. But still.
“So, where do I sleep?” Jeff asked as he let the duffle bag he’d had looped over his shoulder drop to the floor with a dull thud.
Annie blinked at him for a long moment. “Sleep?” she managed to screech, her tone indignant. “You aren’t staying here!”
He cocked his head and fluttered his eyelashes at her in a poor attempt at replicating her so-called ‘Disney-face’. “I’m not?” he asked innocently.
A few years ago that move may have worked on her, but not anymore. Right now, all she felt was disbelief. “Oh, my God.” She brought her hands to her head and cast around the room, looking for the hidden cameras that had to be there. “This isn’t happening.” She could be so easily flustered and Jeff knew that. He was doing this on purpose. Her eyes fell on her open laptop and she felt her stomach drop. Crap. Her assignment. The gala. “Jeff, I don’t have time for this, not right now. You should have called.”
Jeff followed her eyeline, taking in the sight of her haphazardly organized desk. “Busy?”
“Yes,” she sighed in relief. He understood. “Very.”
“Blow it off.”
Or not. “It’s for work! I can’t blow it off!”
“So?” he asked with a grin, looking effortlessly relaxed, “I blow off work all the time.”
“I work for the government,” she reminded him. “The FBI? I can’t blow it off!”
“Ah, right.” He scratched the back of his neck in thought before turning to her with a patented thousand-watt smile. “I still say blow them off. And if you get in trouble, we can go into hiding together.”
Annie’s mind went blank. Was that – Was Jeff Winger flirting with her? What was going on?
The sound of her phone buzzing from across the room brought her back to reality. Whatever Jeff was up to it could not be good news.
She crossed the room and snatched up her phone, checking the caller ID before answering. “Hello, Marcus,” she greeted with relief. Talking to a normal, sane person was what she needed. Like a pallet cleanser. Then she could deal with Jeff.
“Hey,” Marcus’ familiar voice answered. He was one of her fellow interns and one of the only ones she actively associated with outside of work. “I’ve got some bad news.”
“Yeah. I’m not gonna be able to make it to the gala tonight. I’m really sorry.”
“Oh.” Annie sat down dejectedly in her computer chair, her back to Jeff. “Why?”
“I’m sick. I’m so sorry, Annie.” Marcus did sound sick. And sorry. “But maybe you can still go?”
“Do you know anyone who still needs a date?” she asked with false hope.
“No,” Marcus answered glumly. “I’m sorry. Again. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
“It’s okay,” Annie sighed. “Not your fault. Get well soon.”
She hung up and let her phone clatter to her desktop. Well, now at least she had more time for her report. Be careful what you wish for and all that.
“Bad news?” Jeff asked from behind her, his voice curious and apologetic.
She closed her laptop and turned to him. “Looks like my schedule just opened up,” she said with a half-smile, barely able to keep the disappointment from her voice. She got to her feet and gestured at the door. “We can go to lunch if you want. And then maybe you can tell me why you’re really here.”
“You weren’t free before?”
“No, I wasn’t. I had plans. But they fell through.”
Annie narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him before speaking. “There was a gala. Well, is a gala. All the big-wigs from work are going to be there. It’s a big event. But showing up without a date at this point is a no-no and my date is sick. So. Now I’m free,” she explained quickly, as she grabbed some clean clothes and headed for the bathroom. “I still have work to do, but I have more time to do it now. Let me change and we’ll go.”
“What time do you have to be at this thing?” Jeff asked, scooping his duffle bag off the floor and slinging it over his shoulder.
“I was supposed to be there at six,” Annie answered, watching him closely. “But I can’t go. I just told you that. I don’t have a date.”
“Yes, you do.”
She furrowed her brow and glanced over at her phone, “But Marcus just called…” She whipped around to stare at Jeff with her mouth open, her mind suddenly putting two and two together. “You?”
He rolled his eyes hard. “Well, geez, Annie, you don’t have to say it like that.” He strode past her, heading for the door. “I’ll pick you up at five.”
Annie was at his heels. “But you need a tux!” she said hurriedly, attempting to put a stop to this train wreck in the making.
He shot her a dazzling smile as he opened the door. “Don’t worry about it,” he said with confidence as he ducked out of the apartment.
“I will worry about it!” she called after him. The door clicked shut between them. “Jeff!”
Five and half hours later, Annie stood nervously in front of the full-length mirror that hung on her bathroom door. She’d pulled her hair back so that half of it was knotted against the back of her head; the rest was loose and gently curled, resting against her shoulders. Her dress was a blue floor-length halter. Not her usual style at all, but the event was black tie. She hoped Jeff was taking this seriously.
The knock at the door made her jump, which only served to make her feel silly. It was only Jeff. No need to be so jumpy. But in her own defense, her two worlds were suddenly colliding and it had her mind going in a million directions. She took a steadying breath and answered the door.
“Woah.” Annie blinked at Jeff. He was standing in her doorway just as he had earlier, but he was now dressed in an elegant black and white tuxedo, bowtie and all. And he looked good. She’d seen him dressed up before, but it had never been for her. Not that he was dressed up for her now. She shook her head to rid herself of that idea. That was one direction she did not want to let her mind wander tonight.
“Woah yourself,” Jeff said, his eyes taking in her dress before landing on her face. He seemed almost stunned for a moment before he shot her an approving smile. “M’lady.”
Annie held up her hand to stop him. “Don’t try to be cute. I’m still annoyed with you.”
Jeff grinned. “I was going for charming. But I’ll take cute.”
Annie rolled her eyes and grabbed her clutch. “Let’s just get this over with.”
She closed and locked the door behind her, leading the way out to the parking lot. She headed in one direction and Jeff in the other. She turned to him with raised eyebrows. “Where are you going? My car is this way.”
“Yes, but my car is this way,” he replied. “And as your escort, I thought I would drive.”
“But you don’t know where you’re going.”
“So direct me.”
Annie hesitated and then followed after him with a vaguely defeated sigh. “Fine.”
Jeff lead her across the lot to a shiny black Mercedes sedan. He went to the passenger side door and held it open for her, laughing openly at her surprised expression. “Just get in.”
“Who knew you could be a gentleman?” Annie goaded as she slid into the car.
“Don’t get used to it,” he teased back before shutting the door and crossing to climb into the driver’s side.
She settled back into her seat as Jeff turned the key in the ignition, bringing the car to life. “No Lexus?” she asked.
“And put fifteen-hundred miles on my baby? No way. I’ll take a rental over that any day.”
Jeff pulled out of his parking spot and navigated to the complex’s entrance. “Where am I going?” he asked.
“The National Archives.” Jeff shot her an exasperated look and she grinned. “Left here, right at the stop sign.”
She kept feeding Jeff directions as they drove, occasionally pointing out landmarks as they passed them. Jeff seemed to be enjoying the tour. She was kind of glad that they had built-in talking points. It was easier to cover up her nerves when she didn’t have to think of witty come-backs to all his snark. She kept trying to convince herself that all this anxiety was just because of the gala. But, truth be told, things tended to get complicated whenever she and Jeff were alone together. At least on her end. He never seemed as affected as she did. This past school year had seemed fine, though. Like they’d gotten past most of it. Except for their kiss in the study room. That had complicated things a little. Kissing Jeff always seemed to complicate her life.
“So,” Annie began after a few quiet minutes. “Where’s the rest of the gang?”
Jeff rolled his eyes. “How should I know? I’m not their guardian.”
“I’m sure they would’ve liked to have visited, too,” she prompted, gently guiding the conversation in the direction she wanted. “You could have called,” she made sure to emphasize the word, “and made plans for a group visit rather just show up alone and unannounced.”
He shrugged. “I skipped town. Frankie had some group thing planned and I didn’t feel like indulging her. As far as I know, they’re all holed up somewhere watching John Hughes movies and playing The Ears Have It.”
“Aw! That sounds fun!”
Jeff shot her a look. “I had forgotten how enthusiastic you could be.”
“And you missed it,” she teased.
Jeff scoffed and looked away, but Annie thought she saw the hint of a blush creeping across his face.
They stepped into the Charters of Freedom Rotunda together. Jeff’s mouth was open slightly as his eyes traveled across the muraled walls and up to the towering, domed ceiling. Annie had been to the archives before however, and was much less impressed. She was on a mission. “Focus,” she hissed at him, grabbing his arm and tugging him down closer to her height. He still had almost a foot on her even when she was in heels. “Okay, here’s the game plan: I’m going to point out all the important people to you and we’re going to spend cocktail hour being very normal and covertly sucking up to them. If work talk starts, you stay out of it, got it? I want to leave here with at least one guaranteed recommendation letter.”
Jeff rolled his eyes through his smile. He straightened up and reached out to take two champagne flutes from the tray of a passing waiter, keeping one for himself and handing the other to Annie.
She took the glass with raised brows.
“What?” he said, “It’s cocktail hour. I’m being normal as per your instruction.”
The corner of her lip tugged upwards towards a smile. She raised her glass at him and he brought his down to hers, clinking them together lightly. “To normality,” she said.
“To normality,” he agreed.
Jeff was crossing the marble floor of the rotunda, two fresh drinks in hand, when he spied one of the people from Annie’s list: Agent Jenny McKenzie. She was standing off to the side, alone and with no beverage. Jeff glanced over at where Annie stood, engrossed in conversation with her boss. She didn’t need him intruding on that. He could do more good if he got her an in with this Agent McKenzie lady.
Jeff rerouted his path and sauntered up to her, his smile polite. “I noticed that you were in need of refreshment,” he said, turning up the Winger charm and offering her one of the glasses of champagne he held.
She gave him a once over before returning his smile and taking the glass. “How astute,” she noted. She was watching him carefully.
“I live to serve,” Jeff said, playing it cool. He extended his hand to her in introduction. “I’m Jeff Winger.”
“Jenny McKenzie,” she greeted, accepting his hand. “So, what brings you to this very dull affair, Mr. Winger?”
“Jeff. And I don’t find it dull.”
“Oh, please,” she rolled her eyes at him. “A bunch of stuffed shirts groveling at each other’s feet in a lame attempt at furthering their own self interests. These people wouldn’t be able to host an entertaining event if the fate of the world depended on it.”
“Harsh,” Jeff said. “How do you know I’m not one of the stuffed shirts?”
“It’s a harsh world.” She brought her glass to her lips before speaking again. “And I can tell you’re not. No one who works for us is happy to be here. But you are.”
Jeff laughed. “Then you clearly haven’t met my date.” He looked over his shoulder and tipped his glass in Annie’s direction.
Jenny followed his eyeline and watched as Annie animatedly chatted away with her boss, who was beginning to seem vaguely intimidated by her fervor.
“She works for the FBI?” Jenny asked skeptically.
“Well, she’s in the internship program. But same thing, right?”
Jenny nodded to herself. “Ah. That explains it.”
“No, it doesn’t. Believe it or not, this is her toning it down,” Jeff said, his eyes still on Annie. “I’ve known her for six years. Trust me, she’ll be just as enthusiastic after she’s worked here as long as you have.”
“And now I know why you’re so happy to be here. Mystery solved.”
Jeff’s head snapped back to Jenny. She was watching him over the rim of her champagne glass with a triumphant smile. “I’m sorry?” he asked.
Jenny seemed to be enjoying herself. Jeff resisted the urge to shift back and forth under her scrutinizing gaze. “Surely you can’t be that clueless,” she muttered so quietly that he barely heard her. She nodded in Annie’s direction. “Introduce me,” she instructed at a normal volume.
Jeff turned to find that Annie was standing alone now. She was on her toes scanning the crowd, probably searching for him. He had disappeared quite a while ago. When her eyes found his, he smiled and waved her over. As she neared them, he noticed the quick flash of surprise on her face as she realized who he was standing with. He couldn’t help his proud smirk. He’d be willing to bet good money that Marcus couldn’t have landed this meeting.
“Jenny, this is my date, Annie Edison,” Jeff said, gesturing to Annie as she approached. “Annie, this is Jenny McKenzie.”
Annie offered her hand immediately. “Agent McKenzie, it’s so nice to meet you.”
Jenny took her hand with a genuine smile. “The pleasure is mine. Jeff here has been telling me all about you.”
“All good things, I hope,” Annie replied lightly. If he weren’t so attuned to her at this point, he probably wouldn’t have caught her slight, panicked undertone. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
“There are no bad things,” he responded casually. Two sets of eyes flicked in his direction before going back to each other.
Jeff tuned out the rest of their conversation, electing instead to swirl the last dregs of his champagne around in his glass and quietly overanalyze the looks he had just received. He didn’t think he’d said anything out of the ordinary, but clearly he was in the minority here. Annie had just seemed intensely curious, but Jenny had given him such a knowing look that it was verging on uncomfortable.
His concentration was finally broken when Jenny began to take her leave. “I should probably get to my table for dinner,” she was saying to Annie, “but please feel free to keep in touch,” she handed Annie a business card. “I’d love to be of help. The Bureau could use more women like you.” Annie happily exchanged her own card for Jenny’s. She had been predictably prepared.
“It was nice to meet you,” Jeff said, holding out his hand. Jenny shook his and then Annie’s before heading off across the room in search of her table.
Annie waited until the woman was a respectable distance away before sinking her nails into Jeff’s arm as she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “Oh, my God!” she squealed in a high-pitched whisper, her eyes wide with excitement. “That woman is a legend! And she wants me to keep in touch! How? How did you do that? What did you say to her?”
Jeff watched her with amusement. He kind of hoped Jenny was still watching them just so she could get a small taste of what he had been talking about. “All I did was score the initial meet and greet. The rest was all you,” he answered. She just beamed at him.
He opened his mouth to suggest they find their seats for dinner when something behind her caught his eye. “Oh, my God,” he groaned, the smile evaporating from his face.
“What?” Annie turned around to look, too. There in the entrance to the rotunda were six familiar faces all looking very out of place. “Is that –?”
“Of course it is,” Jeff answered, his tone sardonic. He didn’t know how he could have communicated their lack of invitation more effectively than just disappearing. He had even been sure not to speak a word of his plan aloud in his apartment for fear of the Dean listening in. Again. But, of course, all that effort had clearly been wasted because here they were.
Annie was still watching them. “Why are they here?” she asked, her eyes sliding over the grouping. Frankie, Shirley, Abed, Chang, Britta, and Dean Pelton all stood in the entryway, scanning the crowds. With six sets of eyes looking for them, they were sure to be spotted soon.
“Haven’t you learned to stop asking questions by now?”
Annie looked conflicted. “I didn’t know Shirley and Abed were back in town. Should we go say hi?”
“Definitely not,” Jeff answered.
As if to illustrate his argument, a loud crashing sound erupted from behind her as Chang managed to bump into a waiter, causing both the server and his fully loaded tray of champagne flutes to tumble to the ground.
Annie flinched, her back to the sound. “You’re right. Definitely not.”
Despite the circumstances Jeff felt his lips curl into a wide grin. He ducked his head to meet her eyes. “What was that?” he asked. “I’m what now?”
Annie was having none of it. She pushed against his chest, forcing him a few steps in the direction opposite of their friends. “You can gloat later. We need to get out of here before anyone finds out I know them.”
“That would be not good.”
“Very not good,” she agreed.
Jeff looked around at the other guests beginning to take their seats for dinner, their eyes flicking curiously towards the commotion in the entryway. “But don’t you need to stay? I thought this thing was important.”
Annie kept shoving him. “I showed my face,” she said. “Right now it’s more important that they not embarrass me.” She looked up at him, her clear blue eyes pleading. “Please, Jeff?”
He extended his hand to her. “Let’s go.”
Shirley looked around the room nervously, trying to ignore Chang and Britta, who were kneeling on the floor, hurriedly trying to sop up spilled champagne with a small handful of paper napkins. The servers were insisting that they let them handle it, but they wouldn’t be Britta and Chang if they didn’t make a scene. She took a half step away from them, putting distance between her and their attention drawing antics.
“Are you sure about this?” Shirley asked to no one in particular. “I think if Annie wanted us here, she would have invited us.”
“Of course she wants us here,” Chang answered from the floor. “We’re her friends.”
“Exactly,” Britta agreed, getting to her feet, finally abandoning the useless cleaning effort.
“But, Annie –”
“Don’t worry,” Abed interrupted. “We’re not really here for Annie. We’re here for Frankie. Visiting Annie was just an excuse to get us all together in one place.”
Everyone turned to look at him.
“It’s a surprise,” he said. “Right, Frankie?”
Now they were all looking at Frankie, who was standing there looking dumbfounded. “How did you –?”
“Abed is occasionally psychic,” Britta explained with a shrug.
“And creepy,” the Dean added under his breath.
“No,” Abed disagreed, ignoring Pelton’s comment. “I just pay attention.”
Frankie shook her head in exasperation. “Well, now that the secret is out, can we just please find Jeff and Annie?”
Most of the crowd in the rotunda were already seated. Remaining where they were was beginning to draw even more attention than their klutzy entrance had. “We should go,” Shirley said, looking around at the heads turning in their direction.
“I’m gonna go look around,” Abed said, ignoring her. He had his eyes set on the exhibit in the back of the room.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Britta grabbed his arm, holding him in place. “Bad, Abed! Stay away from the historical documents.”
Shirley followed his eyeline then joined Britta in holding him back. “Did Garrity’s class teach you nothing?” she asked. “You need to stay away from Nicholas Cage references.”
“It’s not a reference. It’s an homage,” he said before relaxing his posture. “But I guess I see your point.”
“Thank you,” Shirley sighed, dropping his arm and readjusting her purse so that it sat more comfortably on her shoulder.
“I hate to be this guy,” the Dean said, interrupting their exchange, “but where did Chang go?”
Everyone looked around, suddenly noticing his absence.
“Oh, no,” Frankie said, spinning in a circle as if she hoped she would find him standing just behind her. “Whose turn was it to watch him?”
All eyes went to Britta’s guilty face. “…Uh, oops?”
“Great.” Shirley rolled her eyes at the blonde. “Well, he can’t have gotten far.”
“We could split up to look for him?” Britta suggested.
The Dean and Abed perked up immediately.
“We should have search partners,” Pelton said, excitedly turning in the direction of the seated party guests. “I’ll go get Jeffery.”
Abed nodded. “Cool cool cool.”
Frankie snagged the Dean by the back of his dinner jacket to prevent him from getting away. “No!” she insisted in Abed’s direction. “Don’t split up! We need to stay together.”
Britta stepped forward to argue. “But, we’ll cover more ground if –”
“I need you to stay together!” Frankie quickly cut her off, dropping the Dean’s jacket and turning to face her. “For – Reasons that I can’t explain without ruining the entire point of this trip.”
“Yeah, about that,” Shirley said, drawing Frankie’s attention. “Abed and the Dean are already gone.”
“What?” Frankie spun around again and groaned.
“I’ll catch up with them!” Britta offered loudly, and then, without waiting for a response, dashed for the open door behind them.
“What? No! Britta!” Frankie put her hands on her head. Shirley could practically see the woman’s plans turning to dust before her eyes.
“Well,” Shirley said, stepping up next to her, “since we’re already all split up, we should probably start looking. The sooner we find Chang, the sooner we keep him from somehow gaining access to the nuclear launch codes.”
Shirley headed off in the direction of the rest of the archives. They might as well search as much of the building as possible while they were here.
“This is so not how this was supposed to go,” Frankie muttered to herself before she trailed along after Shirley, eventually catching up to walk alongside her.
“I guess you haven’t learned the things-usually-don’t-go-according-to-plan lesson yet, huh?”
“Planning is in my nature,” Frankie explained. “And it’s my job to keep them under control. Well, it’s supposed to be.”
Shirley side-eyed her. “Uh-huh.”
They walked in awkward silence for a bit, searching for somewhere that Chang might have disappeared to. Shirley barely knew this woman. Everyone else seemed to like her but she wasn’t so sure. Frankie had been looped into the study group’s group text over a year ago, so they had communicated to some degree, but always from afar. This morning had been the first time they had met in person.
“So,” Shirley said, breaking the silence. “You’re supposed to be the new me?”
“That was discussed at one point, yes.”
After another short silence, Frankie asked, “What’s your opinion on Chang?”
“I’ve been saying it for years and I’ll say it again: The man’s unstable.”
Jeff and Annie walked side by side, heading up Constitution Avenue towards Capitol Hill. The sun was beginning to set behind them, casting long shadows across the pavement. The night was beginning to cool off considerably despite the summer month.
“So, where to now?” Jeff asked. His eyes were on the buildings around them, taking in the sights.
Annie smiled, covertly watching him. She didn’t get to see him genuinely interested in things very often. At least not openly interested. He tended to play up the cool factor most of the time. He turned to look at her and she dropped her eyes quickly, not wanting to be caught staring. “Um, I don’t know. I hadn’t planned for a night on the town.”
A gentle breeze ruffled her hair and she hunched her bare shoulders against it. She wished that she had known they were going to be out and about. She would have brought a change of clothes, or at least a cardigan. It wasn’t going to take long for her to get cold in this dress.
“Here,” Jeff said, interrupting her thought process. She looked up to see him handing her his suit jacket.
Annie eyed him skeptically. “Are you going to actually let me wear it this time?” she asked.
He shrugged. “This one’s a loaner. I rented it. Not my problem if you mess it up.”
His brow furrowed a little as he watched her slide her arms into the sleeves. “But if we decide to go back to the party and it’s wrinkled…” The look of true concern on his face was comical. It was just a jacket. His hands twitched towards her, but Annie stepped out of his reach.
“No takesies backsies,” she said, wrapping the jacket more tightly around herself. “I’m cold.”
“I don’t want you to be cold, but –”
“Then you’ll just have to trust that I won’t wrinkle it.”
Jeff hesitated, still looking conflicted, before stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Fine,” he muttered.
“Good. Now that that’s settled, I think I know what I want to do.” She grinned at him.
His face seemed to almost unconsciously mirror hers. “What?”
“Let’s go get ice cream. I know a place.”
Jeff shot her an indulgent smile. “I thought you were cold?”
“Yes, but now I have your coat.” Annie skipped ahead of him, urging him forward. “Let’s go!”
Britta was walking heel to toe around the ledge of the sculpture garden’s fountain. The Dean and Abed walked on the ground beside her. The sculpture garden was the closest place of interest to the archives, so they decided to look there first. She’d never been to DC before so she was going to use this search party to her advantage, see the sights. Maybe she would suggest they look for Chang at the Lincoln Memorial next.
“Think, Abed,” the Dean was saying, watching Abed’s face closely. “Where would Ben have gone?”
“How would I know?” Abed asked.
“Well, you’re both, you know…”
Britta and Abed stopped moving and glared at him. His eyes widened. “No! That’s not – I’m sorry! I wasn’t really saying that you’re crazy!”
“Sure, you weren’t,” Britta scoffed.
“I was just –”
“I’m not crazy,” Abed cut in. He stared at the Dean for a beat before continuing, “But I guess you could classify us both as Cloudcuckoolanders, and I am observant, so out of the three of us it does make sense that I’d be most likely to predict his movements.” He paused again before shrugging. “I forgive you,” he said simply as he started walking again.
The Dean sighed in relief and followed after him.
Britta hesitated, confused. “What the hell is a cloud-cuckcoo-clock-er?” she called, hopping down from the fountain’s ledge and chasing after them.
“It’s a TV trope.” Abed paused, looking back and forth between his friends, clearly seeing no recognition there. “No wonder you people never have any idea what’s going on,” he said with a shake of his head. “Does being media illiterate ever get annoying?”
“Speaking of knowing what’s going on,” Britta said brightly, leaning close to Abed as they walked. “You know what Frankie’s surprise is, don’t you?”
“No, I just know she has one. I’m not psychic. I’ve explained that. The werewolf thing was a fluke.”
“Hmph.” Britta stood up straight, eyeing him skeptically.
Shirley and Frankie had given up on the National Archives building and had begun searching the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that they were supposed to be on a mission, Shirley was really enjoying herself. It was nice not to be working. Between taking care of the kids, her father, and Mr. Butcher, she barely got any time off. And, truth be told, she’d kind of missed the Greendale hijinks. This wasn’t Greendale, and looking for a lost Chang wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, but still. It was kind of nice. Maybe after all this they would have enough time to go paintballing or something. For old times sake. She missed just hanging out with her friends. And she and Frankie had actually started to get along.
“You seem to be taking good care of everyone,” Shirley commented absentmindedly as she thought.
“Oh, no, I don’t really take care of them,” Frankie said. “I just rein them in. Usually. Tonight is not a good example of my skill set. I can do better.”
“Didn’t know they could be reined in,” Shirley muttered. After a pause, she asked, “How’s Jeffery been? I worry about him.” Of all of her friends back at Greendale, Jeff had been the most elusive over the past year. Not that she was surprised.
Frankie glanced at her with interest. “You don’t talk much?”
“I talk. He ignores me. He’s not one for phone calls.”
“He seems fine to me.” Frankie shrugged, then amended, “Granted, I haven’t known him all that long comparatively, but he’s definitely better this summer.”
Shirley stopped walking, Frankie’s choice of words catching her off-guard. “Better?” she asked. “Better than what?”
Frankie stopped a few steps ahead and turned to look at her. She seemed confused by the reaction. “He’s teaching more. He just seems happier.”
“Oh,” Shirley nodded, feeling silly. “That’s good.”
“He’s definitely drinking less, so that’s a relief.” Frankie looked lost in thought for a moment. “I should reevaluate his liability risk when we get back,” she muttered to herself before taking out her phone and quickly typing out a note to herself.
“Hang on, go back,” Shirley said. She was missing something. “Drinking less?”
Frankie looked up from her phone quizzically. “Well, he drinks a lot, doesn’t he? I can’t be the only one who thinks that’s not normal.”
“Maybe Jeff drinks more than I approve of, but it’s hardly what I’d call excessive.”
“You don’t call an ice chest hidden in his desk drawer excessive?”
Shirley’s eyebrows shot towards the sky. “A what?”
“He had a whole drawer in his classroom that he used to hold ice. And there’s never not a bottle of scotch in his office. No matter how many I confiscate.”
“He’s drinking while teaching?” Shirley was trying desperately to catch up.
“He was,” Frankie corrected. “And I’m not sure I’d call what he was doing ‘teaching’.”
Shirley was wracking her brain, mentally scanning through all their texts and phone calls, trying to come up with some way to reconcile this new information with her memories. Sure, Jeff had been a little distraught over his practice going under and having to teach at Greendale, but he hadn’t seemed upset enough to develop a problem. He had adjusted well. “Did something happen?” she asked, hoping to fill in the gaps.
Now it was Frankie’s turn to look like she was missing something. “He wasn’t always like that?”
“Oh. Well, like I said, he’s better now.”
Shirley began walking again and Frankie followed her lead. She suddenly wasn’t having as good an evening as before. Her old mother hen instincts were kicking back in. She’d interrogate the others when they met back up. She wanted to understand why she was kicking Jeff’s ass before she did it.
“You lied to me.”
Annie looked up at him, her spoon still in her mouth. Her forehead was creased in confusion and Jeff fought a smile. “This is gelato. Not ice cream.”
Annie rolled her eyes and pulled her spoon out of her mouth. “Oh, whatever,” she said. “Like there’s a difference.”
“There is!” Jeff insisted, pointing at her with his own spoon. “Gelato is Italian and everything that’s Italian is better.”
“Well, I’m not a hipster, so how would I know,” Annie teased, sticking her blue-stained tongue out at him.
“Not a hipster; cultured,” Jeff corrected, tossing his empty bowl and spoon in the first trashcan they passed as they meandered down the block. He’d already finished his child-sized portion. Annie had called him boring for not getting a larger size, but to him it had been an exciting indulgence.
“Tah-may-toh, tah-mah-toh,” she mumbled around another spoonful of bright blue gelato.
Jeff fiddled with the ends of his bowtie. He’d long since unknotted it and it now hung loose around his neck. They looked like a couple of kids after prom. Well, at least she did. No one would mistake him for a teenager. He cleared his throat. “So, uh, do you work near here?” he asked, attempting to steer his mind in a less soul crushing direction.
Annie nodded and pointed off to their right. “Just two blocks over, actually. The J. Edgar Hoover building.”
“Can I see?”
Annie’s eyes lit up. “You want to?” She quickly led the way across the street, bouncing as she went, and Jeff tried to hide another smile tugging at his lips. She was right. He had missed her.
Annie hesitated when they had reached the other side, peering into the darkness. “What?” Jeff asked, trying to follow her line of sight but seeing nothing.
“I think I just saw Chang.”
Jeff shook his head and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face in the direction of her office. “Nope. Ignore it. Not our problem,” he said, steering her along and leaving the potential Chang sighting behind them.
“Please?” Britta begged, her heels clicking loudly against the concrete as she tried to keep up with the Dean’s pace. His legs were longer than hers and she was in heels.
“No!” he shouted back at her over his shoulder.
“You would do it if Jeff asked you!”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” he deflected, not slowing his pace. “Besides, Jeff is a teacher. He doesn’t need test answers. He’s the one who makes them up.”
They had headed west along the National Mall and were now almost even with the Washington Monument. “Let’s try this way,” Abed interrupted, pointing off to the right.
Britta looked over to the right the back to their left at the white marble of the Washington Monument. The sunset had turned it into a tall, dark needle, towering skyward. She had been hoping to get closer. “I think this way,” she said, pointing.
Abed turned and studied her for a moment. “What happened to trusting my predictions?” he asked.
“Well, maybe you know Chang, but I know cities,” Britta quickly defended. “Are you forgetting that I lived in New York?”
“I’m inclined to agree with Abed on this one,” Pelton said, taking a step towards him.
Britta glared at him. “Because you’re still scared he’s mad at you. Your vote doesn’t count.”
“His vote counts,” Abed said. “It’s two against one.”
Britta took a step in the direction of the silhouetted obelisk. “Well, I’m going this way.”
“Fine,” Abed shrugged before turning his back and walking away.
Britta stood there for a long moment, looking back and forth between the monument and her retreating friends. She wanted to sightsee but she didn’t want to do it alone. “Wait!” she called, sprinting after them, “Take me with you!”
“This is where I eat lunch on Tuesdays,” Annie pointed out as they passed a small deli on D Street. “And down there is where I get coffee.” She glanced over at Jeff, sure she was boring him. She was surprised to find him smiling. And not at his cellphone. He was peering through the darkened window of the deli like it was a museum exhibit, like it was something more than just a random restaurant she liked to eat at.
“And where is this fabled J. Edgar Hoover building?” he asked, turning his attention back to her.
“You’ll see,” she said, leading the way down the road. The cool night air suddenly felt refreshing against her face and she was glad that Jeff was walking behind her for the moment. The last thing she wanted was to have Jeff ruin the night by calling her a blushing school girl or something equally condescending. Not that he was acting like he would say anything like that, but she’d thought that before.
“Ta da!” Annie finally announced as they reached the point where D Street collided with 9th. The FBI Headquarters building was straight in front of them. It was a wide, beige, concrete building rising up from behind a thin line of trees. From this angle it looked like it was more windows than wall. It almost looked like an old high school, only much bigger.
“It’s not what I expected,” Jeff noted. He’d probably been picturing something similar to the way she’d imagined the building. Tall and glass and modern.
She shrugged. “Nondescript and vaguely threatening is kind of our thing.”
Jeff laughed and Annie grinned up at him. Being able to make Jeff Winger laugh was a point of pride for her.
“Well, that describes it to a ‘T’,” he said, looking back up at the building.
Annie grabbed his arm and started dragging him around the corner. “Come on,” she said. “It’s slightly more impressive from the front.”
Shirley stood to the side as Frankie frantically scrolled across the map on her phone. What she was looking for so desperately, Shirley had no clue, but she was quickly learning to just let this woman work. She was a machine.
They had been walking around for almost an hour with no luck. Not a single Chang sighting. She sighed. “Does this feel hopeless to you?”
“No,” Frankie said with determination. Her voice was even but she had a crazed look in her eyes. “It’s not hopeless. We’ll find him. He’s somewhere.”
“He’s probably in jail. I say we let the district deal with him and be done with this.”
Frankie slammed her palm into her forehead. “Jail!” she exclaimed, already turning her attention back to her cellphone. “I didn’t even think to see if he’d been arrested. I’ll call the police station.”
“Can we walk while we dial?” Shirley asked, waving Frankie in her direction. They were in the middle of the National Mall and she had to pee. There had to be a bathroom around here somewhere.
“I see him!” the Dean panted as they ran across the lawn of the Ellipse, chasing after the distant figure of Ben Chang. They had spotted him trekking towards the White House and intercepted just in time.
“Don’t lose him!” Britta shouted back. She was bringing up the rear of their bizarre little running club. She had her dress hiked up with one hand and was clutching her shoes in the other.
“I told you he would be this way!” Abed called from the front of the pack, barely sounding winded. Troy hadn’t been joking. The kid could run. Britta felt like her chest was on fire already. Stupid sedentary lifestyle. Stupid ex-smoker’s lungs.
“If you’ll notice,” Britta called as snarkily as her lungs could manage, “he’s heading back towards the mall! The place that I suggested we look!”
“And if you’ll notice,” Abed shot back, “he’s running in that direction because we’re herding him there!”
“Would you two shut up!” the Dean wheezed from between them. “Just shut up and run! He’s getting away!”
Annie was watching Jeff out of the corner of her eye as they walked again. She couldn’t figure him out. He’d wanted to keep sightseeing, but at this hour most of the museums were closing. The memorials were the only things accessible this late. The mall was quiet at night. They walked with their backs to the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument looming out in front of them. She’d only ever been here during the day. Seeing it at night was a completely different experience. It was all lit up, a glowing white beacon in the darkness.
She peeked at Jeff again. He didn’t look bored at all. In fact, she was pretty sure his phone hadn’t left his pocket all night. She couldn’t decide why he would rather be wandering the town, seeking out historical landmarks, instead of spending his Saturday night in a bar. They had even passed a few on their way here.
“Jeff?” she finally asked, her voice soft, matching the quiet night around them.
“Why did you come here?”
“I’m just following you,” he said, gesturing at her as they walked. “This is your world, I’m just livin’ in it.”
“No,” she reached out and touched his arm, bringing them both to a halt. “I mean, why did you come here? To DC?”
“To see you,” he replied with a jokester’s grin, swiveling to face her. “I thought that was well established.”
She mirrored him, turning her body so that they were facing each other, less than a foot apart. “But you came alone.”
He shrugged. “I hate people.”
“I’m people,” she pointed out.
His eyes met hers and his absolute sincerity almost made her gasp. “I don’t hate you.”
“Finally,” Shirley sighed. She could see the restroom on the path ahead of them. She turned to look expectantly at Frankie. “Coming?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the small stone hut that housed the bathroom.
Frankie looked up from her phone and shook her head. “I don’t have to go.”
“I didn’t ask if you needed to. I’m inviting you to come with me.”
Frankie’s forehead creased in confusion. “Why would I go with you if I don’t have to pee?”
Shirley pursed her lips. “You’ve been spending too much time with Britta. Fine. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
“What does that mean?” Frankie called after her. “Hey, what does that mean!”
Britta staggered into the bathroom, still panting. She leaned heavily against the sink. Water. She turned the tap and ducked her head beneath the faucet, gulping down a few mouthfuls before letting it stream over her face. Earlier in the evening she had thought it was cold out, but now she couldn’t seem to get cool fast enough. They had chased Chang all the way to the National Mall before they lost him. But they had a plan. A crazy plan. But they were dealing with a crazy person. So, it all evened out.
Britta grabbed a paper towel and looked up at the mirror, wiping her red, blotchy face. She was dabbing the damp paper towel along the back of her neck when a toilet flushed behind her. She was still looking at the mirror as the stall door opened and her eyes found Shirley’s surprised face in the reflection.
Her eyes widened and she spun around to face her friend, her mind whirring.
“Britta?” Shirley asked. “What in the world are you doing here? What happened to you?”
“We chased Chang.” Britta’s voice was flat, distracted. Her mind was elsewhere. This could work…
“Wha – You found him? Where? Is he here?”
Britta hesitated for just a second before she launched herself at Shirley, grabbing her and clamping the paper towel over her mouth. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” Britta repeated over and over again. “We just need you to come with us. You’ll fight it if I let you go but we really need your help. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
She dragged her out of the bathroom as quietly as she could. Which wasn’t very quiet.
“Mmmm!” Shirley’s muffled exclamation sounded from beneath Britta’s hand, the paper towel still pressed against her lips. She was gesturing down the sidewalk at Frankie’s silhouetted figure.
Frankie was pacing back and forth, talking on the phone. “I’m sorry for all the craziness, but you know how they are, I guess,” she was saying apologetically. “Are you okay taking a cab?” She paused. “Right, we’ll meet out front – The National Archives, right.”
Britta cocked her head, curious. That must be about the surprise. Shirley groaned against her hand again. Right. Focus.
“Britta!” the Dean’s voice called out to her.
“Shh!” Britta hissed back, stepping off the path into a shadow, dragging Shirley with her.
Frankie glanced once over her shoulder and then turned back around, still on the phone.
The Dean and Abed found Britta standing with her back pressed against the rocky wall of the bathroom hut, peering around the shrubbery. They were looking at her curiously until they saw Shirley. Then their eyes bugged.
“What in the world?” the Dean whispered, ducking into the shadows, too. He looked over the scene with wide eyes. “Have you gone nuts?”
Beneath Britta’s hand Shirley nodded vigorously.
“Hi, Shirley,” Abed greeted politely.
“Lower your voice!” Britta growled at him, glancing in Frankie’s direction at the same moment Shirley began pointing franticly, hoping for Abed’s help.
Abed followed her finger. “Oh, there’s Frankie.” Abed was still speaking at a normal volume.
Britta shushed him again. “No! Leave her! Frankie won’t approve!”
The Dean turned to her like she was an idiot. “Oh? And Shirley will?”
“No, but she’ll go along with it! Shirley can be a ruthless thief when she wants to. Annie told me she burned down that video game village after robbing them blind!”
“Hilda’s village?” Abed asked and Britta’s mouth popped open.
“Crap!” she said quietly, eyes wide. “I forgot you weren’t supposed to know about that. Forget I said anything, okay? We gotta go!”
“That’s why we came to get you,” Pelton said. “Our cab is going to meet us outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.”
“But – That museum is that way,” Britta nodded her head in Frankie’s direction. “How are we supposed to get past her?”
“I don’t know!” the Dean hissed back, his voice hitting a frantic pitch, “I’m not the one who added kidnapping to the agenda!”
Abed stepped closer, speaking quietly for once. “Guys, calm down. We’ll just sneak around. But we have to move quickly.”
Jeff and Annie were finally approaching the base of the obelisk. It was so much more impressive when you were standing right under it. Jeff traced the lines with his eyes, following them until they disappeared into the sky at a sharp point. Beside him, Annie lifted her phone to snap a quick picture.
“Instagram,” she murmured in quick explanation.
Jeff was moving to look back down at her, intending to say something cleverly sarcastic, when something strange caught his attention. Out in the field, beyond the monument, a clump of people struggled along. A tall, thin man led them while two women shuffled along behind him, it looked like they were fighting. The blonde one had her hand clamped tightly over the other one’s mouth. The captive swung her large purse wildly, hitting the blonde whenever possible. The fourth person was a skinny, bald guy. He was flitting around the two women like he was both wanting to help and out of his mind with panic. In the end all he was managing to do was run around them in circles, flapping his arms about uselessly. Jeff watched them in stunned silence until they disappeared from view. He looked down at Annie to find her staring back at him, just as confused. Thank God she had seen it, too.
“What the hell?” he asked, looking back up at where the group had disappeared.
“Was that –?” Annie started to ask before she cut herself off.
“We didn’t just see that, agreed?”
Annie shook her head in bewilderment. “That was Shirley, right? Why did Britta have her hand over her mouth?”
“Annie, the agreement?”
She looked up at him, her eyebrows drawn together in confusion. “What did we miss?” she asked.
Jeff regarded her seriously. “One of these days you’ll thank me for telling you to ignore it.”
Frankie hit End Call on her phone screen and looked around. She checked the time then surveyed the area again. Shirley had been in the bathroom for a long time. Maybe she should go make sure she was okay. She made her way over to the restroom and peeked in. No one there. “Shirley?” she called out quietly. No response. “Shirley?” she called more loudly.
She stepped into the bathroom and ducked her head, peering under the gap of each stall, looking for feet. Empty. Frankie stood up straight and froze. Shirley was missing. What was she supposed to do? She had been standing right outside. How could anyone have gotten past her?
She stepped out into the night air, looking around again. She cupped her hands around her mouth, “Shirley!” she shouted.
She had somehow managed to lose two whole people in the span of a few hours. She should be fired. She was supposed to keep Greendale under control and she couldn’t even manage to keep track of the Save Greendale Committee. She just wanted to do one nice thing. She wanted to arrange one surprise for her friends. Now two of them were MIA. Well, more if she counted Jeff and Annie. But at least they were capable adults. Shirley was a capable adult, too. But now she was gone. She could have been kidnapped! Frankie groaned into her hands. She was never turning down an invitation to join Shirley in the bathroom ever again.
“We’re doing what?” Shirley shouted at her friends as they stood in a wooded area outside the Smithsonian National Zoo.
“Shh!” they all hissed.
“It’ll work,” Britta whispered with confidence. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Oh,” Shirley directed a shouted whisper at the blonde, “This is your plan? Well, now I feel so much better! And since you’re all morons, that was sarcasm!”
“Thanks,” Abed said, giving Shirley a thumbs up.
The Dean and Britta turned to him with perplexed expressions. “I have trouble detecting sarcasm,” Abed explained.
Britta shook her head and turned back to Shirley. “It’ll work,” she repeated. “I just need you and Craig to keep watch. Be our lookouts.”
The Dean brought a hand to his chest, looking touched. “You called me Craig.”
“Yes, now get to your post. The rainforest exhibit is right over this fence, so don’t let anyone see us.”
“Only take the frogs,” the Dean reminded her, his tone now turned patronizing.
Britta glared. “You lost your Craig privileges. Get your ass to your post, Dean! We’ll call you when we’re on our way back out.”
“We’ll let you know when the coast is clear,” Shirley huffed in resigned cooperation. “Bunch of children…” she mumbled to herself as she moved away down the street, ducking behind a bush to hide from the road. Behind her Abed was hoisting Britta up over the top of the fence. She could hear the metal scraping against itself as Abed scrambled up after her, using the chain-links as handholds. When she’d wished for Greendale hijinks, breaking and entering hadn’t exactly been topping her list. If they ended up in Jail, Andre would never let her live it down. This was such a stupid plan.
Britta was knelt down in front of the employee’s entrance to the rainforest exhibit. She had a small knife in one hand and a bobby pin in the other, both items were stuck inside the door’s simple key lock. Behind her Abed was crouched and ready, watching her back.
“So,” Britta whispered conversationally as she worked, the sound of the jiggling lock filling the silences between words. “How’s LA?”
Abed glanced at her over his shoulder before turning back to his mission. “It’s fine,” he answered quietly.
“Uh-huh.” Britta bit her lip as she concentrated. “And do you enjoy being a – a… What’s your title again?”
“PA. It stands for production assistant.” Abed was quiet for a moment before he continued, “It’s hard. I’m not sure I’m very good at it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“TV and film crews are very close-knit groups. The hours suck, so you basically spend all of your time with the same thirty or so people for months at a time. But I’m not good at belonging to groups outside of ours. People don’t get me.”
“I’m sure you’re doing better than you think you are.”
Abed paused again. “Maybe.”
Britta was struggling to get this lock to succumb to her skills. She had gotten rusty over the years. Breaking into buildings used to be a favorite pastime of hers. Her life had become too tame and she wasn’t very good at tame. At least when she was a hooligan she had been good at it. “What about the show you’re working on? Is it any good?”
“I like it. I don’t think it’s doing very well in the ratings department, but I never trusted the Nielson system much anyway. You’d think Melissa McCarthy could pull in more views.”
Britta almost dropped her tools as she spun around to face Abed, her mouth hanging open in a huge smile. “You’ve met Melissa McCarthy?”
Abed turned to look at her, too. “Celebrities are just people, Britta.”
Britta made a face and turned back to her lockpicking.
“What about you?” Abed asked. “How’s your degree coming?”
“Geez, what’s with the third degree, Abed?” she growled. After a moment she sighed. “Sorry,” she apologized, glancing over her shoulder at her very patient friend. “It’s just a sore subject.” Suddenly the lock clicked as the last pin slid into place. She grinned triumphantly and twisted her tools so that the doorknob turned, allowing the door to swing inward. And trigger the alarm. “Fuck.”
Jeff leaned back on the concrete bench, his arms planted behind him for support. He couldn’t stop staring up at the top of the Washington Monument. He was mesmerized by it. There was something very surreal about finally seeing something you’d only ever seen in pictures. He closed his eyes as a cool breeze blew across the lawn, whipping the flags that circled the observation area, momentarily drowning out the sounds of the night.
“You know,” he said, speaking softly to match the peaceful quiet of the park around them. “I’ve never been outside of Colorado. Not until today.”
He opened his eyes to find Annie watching him thoughtfully. “Really?” she asked.
He nodded and closed his eyes again, face turned upwards.
“So,” Annie asked. “When you flew here… First time on a plane?”
Jeff made a face and she giggled. “How was that?” she prompted.
She laughed again.
Beside him, he heard the fabric of her dress rustle against the concrete bench as she shifted. He felt her weight against his arm and looked down. She had moved to rest her back against his side, her bare feet propped up in front of her, her shoes discarded onto the ground behind them. He felt his breath catch in his chest.
She tilted her head up and he averted his eyes, careful to avoid her gaze. He didn’t want to get caught staring. One misstep was all it would take to derail his night. Their night. Things had been going so well.
He was studying his shoes, but not really seeing them. Every fiber of his being was tuned in to every point where Annie’s body made contact with his. He was so focused that he didn’t hear the approaching footsteps until they were too close, but he ignored them. He was sure it was just some random pedestrian out for a late-night stroll. They’d pass them soon enough and then they’d be alone again.
“Annie?” a strange voice questioned from several feet away.
Jeff clenched his fists. Of all the nights he could have been wrong, of course it would have to be this one.
“Annie?” the voice asked again.
Annie sat up and they both turned in the direction of the voice. It was a guy. He looked young. Very young. He had dark hair and a round, baby-face. He was dressed in a suit that was half a size too big.
Annie stood up, looking confused. “Marcus?”
“Marcus?” Jeff parroted, his eyes on Annie.
Annie took a step towards him. She was smiling. “I thought you were sick.”
Marcus walked up to her with a big goofy smile, his eyes bright. Jeff clenched his teeth. “I was,” Marcus answered as he stepped up to her. “But I’m feeling a lot better now. I was coming to surprise you.”
“How did you find me here?”
Marcus looked guilty for a second. “I saw your Instagram post,” he said, pointing skyward. “That sounds creepier than it really is.”
Jeff rolled his eyes. Friggin stalker. Could this guy not take a hint? He reached into his pocket for his phone. The sooner Annie sent him away the better.
“I didn’t mean to ruin your night, so I wanted to come make it up to you!”
This was the part where Annie told him her night hadn’t been ruined at all. In fact, she was having a perfectly wonderful time, thank you very much. Jeff smiled to himself in anticipation.
“Aw! That’s so sweet!”
Jeff’s head snapped up, his phone forgotten.
Frankie was seated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with her face in her hands when her phone started ringing. She glanced at the caller ID, half expecting it to be a call from her surprise saying the plane had crashed since that’s the kind of night she was having, but when she saw the name she immediately jumped to her feet, the phone already pressed to her ear. “Shirley!”
“Hey, Frankie,” Shirley sighed on the other end.
Frankie looked down at the phone in disbelief. “Where have you been?” she asked irritably when she’d brought the phone back up to her face.
“I’d watch the tone, missy,” Shirley said, her voice threatening. “I’m not the one who let someone get kidnapped!”
Frankie’s jaw dropped. “You were kidnapped?”
“Britta found me in the bathroom and dragged me out against my will. So, yes.”
“What? Really? But that’s crazy.”
“You see?” Shirley snapped. “This is why ladies go to the bathroom together!”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to follow you into the bathroom in case someone from your insane study group decided to kidnap you!” Frankie shouted into the receiver.
“I’m sorry, I thought you said you worked at Greendale!” Shirley shouted back.
Frankie took a calming breath and nodded once. “Alright. Fair point.” She paused and listened. She could hear Britta arguing in the background. Something about a frog? “Where are you?”
Shirley let out a beleaguered sigh. “In a cab. On the way back from the zoo.”
Frankie had to sit back down. She lowered her face to rest in her hand again. “The zoo?” she asked wearily.
“That is a long, long story that I will be happy to share with you after we get this over with. We need you to meet us at the archives.”
“Who’s us? Why the archives?”
“Just meet us there, please.”
The line clicked dead, but Frankie didn’t move. She just stared into the middle-distance with utter confusion. What in the world?
“Oh, Jeff!” Annie said, quickly spinning around, grabbing his wrist and dragging him towards the intruder. “This is Marcus. Marcus, this is Jeff.”
Marcus held out his hand, smiling widely. “Jeff? From Greendale? I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Jeff smugly took his hand. “And I’ve heard nothing about you.”
“Jeff!” Annie scolded quickly.
Jeff glanced at Annie and dropped Marcus’ hand, taking a step back. “I’m, uh, I’m just gonna go,” he said, backing away further. “I’ll catch you later.”
“What? No.” Annie’s hand found his wrist again.
He gently broke her hold, freeing his wrist. “Your real date is here now. I don’t want to interfere. Go have fun. I’ll just go find Britta –”
Jeff flinched at her tone. “– Or Chang or Frankie,” he quickly added. “Whoever. It doesn’t matter.”
“But we came here together.”
“Ah, right.” He hesitated, scrubbing his hand along the back his neck before reaching into his pocket for his wallet. “I’ll give you some money for a cab.”
She ignored the bills he tried to hand her. “This is stupid,” she said. “Why don’t you just stay here with us?”
“Mm. Pass.” He turned his back and started walking back towards the National Archives where his car was parked. He needed to get away before he said something he’d regret. And a drink. He needed a strong drink. He had been hoping the night would’ve had a much different outcome.
“Why do you always do this?”
He spun around to find a very angry Annie glaring back at him, her hands fisted at her sides.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not,” she said, her scowl becoming more prominent by the second. “You never know. Well, guess what? I’m sick of it. You always do this and I’m tired of wracking my brain to try to figure out why!”
Now it was Jeff’s turn to be angry. He didn’t need this. He’d done nothing to deserve her anger. He’d voluntarily taken her to that stupid gala and now he was voluntarily giving up his limited time with her to cede the floor to her dimwit wanna-be boyfriend. “Enlighten me, then!” he shouted. “What is it that I’m always doing?”
“Cutting and running! You act like you want to hang out, but then you just run away! You act like–”
She took a deep breath, steeling herself, before she shouted, “Like you want to be with me! You say sweet stuff like ‘I don’t hate you’ and ‘the heart wants what it wants’, and then you do this and make me confused all over again! I don’t understand you! Why do you act like this?”
“Because I love you, okay!”
They both froze.
“You want me to do what?” The cab driver twisted around in his seat and stared at Britta like she was insane. And, yeah, maybe it was a weird request, but they were on a mission, dammit.
“We need you to drive around with the windows down, blaring this CD,” Britta repeated trying to pass their driver the plastic case again. The cover art was of a woman dancing in a frilly red dress. “It’s going to lure our friend out of hiding. We’re trying to find him. Then we’re going to chase him down.”
“Just drive around the city,” Shirley said. “Forget the other stuff.”
The driver glanced questioningly at Abed, who was squished into the very middle of the backseat, between the Dean and Shirley, with the box containing the stolen frog resting in his lap.
“This cannot be the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do,” Britta said, finally getting him to take the CD.
The man scoffed in response.
“It’s certainly not the strangest thing I’ve been asked to do in a cab,” the Dean muttered offhand, glancing off to the side.
Britta and Shirley both glanced at the Dean and then each other, the other’s face mirroring their own looks of annoyed revulsion.
Jeff grit his teeth. He had not meant to say that. Why did she have to be so frustrating all the time? “Dammit, Annie,” he growled.
She looked shell-shocked. “You – What?”
“Forget it,” he said, his eyes on the pavement, his body turning to leave. “I thought – I don’t know what I thought. Forget I said anything, okay? Go enjoy your date. I’ll see you around.”
“Jeff!” He wanted to keep walking, to leave this whole situation behind, forget it at the bottom of a fifth, but his body responded to her automatically. He didn’t understand how, after all this time, she could still have him wrapped around her finger like that. He just wanted to go.
“What, Annie?” he snapped.
She crossed her arms. “You’re not getting away that easy. Not this time. Explain yourself. Tell me what you thought.”
He remained silent, not looking at her. He didn’t have to be looking at her to see her expression. He could picture her crossed arms and narrowed eyes as easily as if the image had been tattooed to the inside of his eyelids.
“Use your words.”
Jeff clenched his fists. “I thought there was a moment, okay? In the study room! We kissed! And you said that season seven was out of our hands. So, I came here to see you and I thought – Who gives a shit what I thought, okay? It doesn’t matter.” He turned on his heel and began marching away.
“Because I love you, too, you jerk!”
The cab had barely screeched to a halt when Abed had shoved the door open, climbed over Shirley, and bolted from the car like a racehorse out of the starting gate. They had just spotted Chang. Their plan to lure him out with salsa music had seemingly worked. Now they just needed to catch him.
“I’ve got the frog!” Abed shouted as he took off.
“Don’t hurt him!” Britta called pleadingly, as she stumbled from the car to chase after him.
“Give it a rest!” the Dean shouted, leaning out the open car door. “It’s just a frog!”
Britta stopped and whirled on the Dean, “Uh. He is a living creature. All life is deserving of respect and –”
“Britta!” the Dean and Shirley shouted in unison, cutting her tirade short. Why was it so hard to keep this girl focused?
“Right!” She spun and chased after Abed, disappearing around the corner. “Remember to meet us at the archives!
“I know the plan!” Shirley called angrily after her, slamming the cab door shut between them.
The cab driver had turned around again and was staring at the Dean and Shirley like he very much regretted taking the night shift.
“Our friend disappeared,” the Dean began to explain again. “And see, he’s scared of frogs –”
“I don’t care,” the driver cut him off and pulled back onto the road, driving in the direction of the National Archives.
Jeff stopped dead. Annie watched as he slowly turned in her direction, his face almost unreadable. “You – What?”
Her fists were still clenched at her sides, her shoulders squared. “You heard me,” she shot back. Jeff Winger was not going to cut and run this time. They had been stringing each other along for far too long. This ended tonight.
“But you moved away… You took this internship.”
She sighed in exasperation. “That’s what people do. I took a job. God forbid I prioritize my career. That doesn’t make what I said untrue.”
Jeff took a hesitant step forward. “Say it again.”
“Say what again?”
“What you said. What’s not untrue.”
“That I love –” She didn’t get to finish. Jeff moved forward, quickly closing the gap between them, placing his hands on either side of her face. Before she could even process their sudden closeness, he was kissing her, his lips pressed fiercely to hers. She made a noise of surprise before her muscles untensed of their own accord. She threw her arms around him in response, kissing him back.
He pulled away first. She started to object, but then he pressed his forehead to hers, letting his hands slide down to her shoulders and then to her hips, holding her close. She smiled, looking up through her lashes at his grinning face.
“About time,” she muttered, she meant for her voice to come out more annoyed, but her unwavering smile sort of ruined the effect.
He rolled his eyes but his smile never left his face. His grin seemed just as permanent a fixture as hers.
They stood like that for a moment before Jeff straightened up, looking at some point behind her, his happy smile turning into a cocky smirk. “Poor Marcus,” he commented lightly, his tone entirely devoid of sincerity.
Annie twisted to see Marcus’ back disappearing into the darkness. “Well, crap,” she sighed. “That’s going to make Monday really awkward.” Before she could lose herself in the worry of that thought, another one occurred to her. “Oh, my God! What time is it?”
“That’s an interesting response,” Jeff said, still smiling down at her as she grabbed his wrist, twisting it to get a good look at the face of his watch.
“My report! It’s due on Monday! I should get home!”
Jeff’s eyebrows rose towards his hairline. “You’re freaking out about that now? What if I help you?”
He shrugged. “How hard can it be? I type, you dictate. Or if you need research done, I’m your man.”
“You? Research?” Annie’s skeptical tone was entirely called for. His past performance was all the evidence she needed to support it.
Jeff pointed a finger at the center of his chest. “Lawyer,” he said by way of explanation. “You do realize that even bullshitting attorneys like me have to do actual work, right? You can’t win every case with good looks and charm.”
“Not that you didn’t try that approach first,” Annie said teasingly.
“Well, of course.”
“So, you’ll really help me?” she asked. “Really? And you won’t give up after an hour? Or say you’re working when you’re really just writing the lyrics to Riot Girl?”
He chuckled. “I promise… In exchange for some place to crash tonight.”
She rolled her eyes hard but she was grinning. “Fine. But you’re sleeping on the couch.”
“I’ll take it.” He leaned in, sealing the deal with a gentle kiss. When he pulled away he was beaming. “So, what now?”
“Well, now that I’ve got you helping me…” She paused, looking up at him, waiting for him to nod in confirmation before she continued, “I’m not as pressed for time as I was before. I’ve got a little wiggle room in my schedule.”
“Drinks?” he asked.
“Drinks,” she agreed.
Shirley and the Dean looked on in mild horror as Britta and Abed sat on a flailing Chang, pinning him to the ground beneath their combined weight. He was struggling to free himself, attempting to squirm away from the frog Abed still held.
“Lemme go!” he cried, kicking his feet against the pavement.
“Not sure that’s such a good idea,” Abed said.
“Yeah,” Britta agreed, leaning forward to get a good look at Ben’s face. “What kinda idiots do we look like?”
Shirley pursed her lips. “The kind that sit on their friends…” she muttered. Britta turned to glare at her.
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” Chang groaned, trying to shove his captors off of his back. “I just wanted to look around!”
Britta turned her attention back to him. “Then why were you running from us?”
“Why were you chasing me?” he shouted back.
“You know,” the Dean said, stepping forward, “he does have a point.”
Britta shot him a look. “Shut up.” She watched Chang’s face closely as she spoke. “So, you weren’t trying to reinstate the Chang dynasty?”
“Or reenact Olympus Has Fallen?” Abed questioned.
“No! I’m not evil anymore! I told you! And White House Down was the much better movie!”
Abed looked over at Britta and nodded, passing the frog to his other hand so that it was no longer in Chang’s line of sight. Ben immediately seemed to relax a little. Before Abed or Britta could decide if they wanted to risk releasing him, they were interrupted.
“What in the Hell is going on here?”
Everyone turned to find Jeff and Annie standing there, taking in the scene with raised eyebrows. They both look vaguely disheveled with windswept hair and untied bowties. Annie was wearing Jeff’s jacket. But it was nothing compared to the rest of the gang. Everyone else was a dirty, sweaty mess. That, plus the frog, and the whole sitting on Chang thing must have made for a very interesting scene.
“Annie!” Britta shouted, reaching her arms out towards the younger woman.
Annie laughed and leapt forward, throwing her weight across Britta and Abed’s laps. Beneath the three of them, Chang groaned. Annie craned her neck to peer down at his face where it was vaguely smushed against the concrete. “Sorry, Ben.” She got up and hauled Britta to her feet. As they embraced, Abed got up, too, setting the frog down to take his turn hugging his former roommate. Annie then hugged Shirley and the Dean. Finally, they helped Chang to his feet and she hugged him, too.
“What are you guys doing here?” Annie asked looking around at the group and then down at the ground where the stolen amphibian had just hopped into the nearby bushes. “Why did you have a frog?”
“It’s sort of a long and convoluted story,” Abed said.
“One that includes multiple felonies,” Shirley added with a pointed look at Britta.
The blonde shook back her hair. “Whatever. What about you two?” She pointed between Jeff and Annie. “Where have you been?”
Jeff shrugged. “Nowhere. Just around. We were going to get drinks.”
“Are you sure you should be getting a drink?” Shirley asked with another pointed look, this time aimed at Jeff.
His eyebrows shot up. “Uh, nice to see you, too. And, um. What?”
“We’ll talk later.”
“I repeat: What?”
“But why are you guys here?” Annie asked, drawing Shirley’s attention back to her. “Shouldn’t you be back at Greendale? Jeff said that Frankie was planning a big get together.”
Abed started to explain, “It’s supposed to be a surprise –”
The group turned to see a man standing behind them, a wide, familiar smile shone through his unfamiliar close-cropped beard. He had an army-green duffle bag over one shoulder, his jeans were loose and almost bleached white from the sun, and his ratty hoodie was zipped up tight against the cool evening breeze. Pulled low over his hair was a black and white captain’s hat with gold detailing along the front.
There was a short, stunned silence before the screaming started. Troy Barnes was buried beneath his friends before he even knew what happened. Everyone was hugging him, talking loudly and all at once. Except for Abed. When the initial excitement had died down, they all realized who was missing from the group hug and backed away, giving the two of them space.
Abed regarded Troy for a long silent moment before finally speaking. “Clone Troy,” he greeted.
Abed looked him up and down. “You have a beard,” he noted.
Troy scrubbed his palm against his cheek. “Yeah, not shaving was just easier. Fresh water is kinda important to conserve and shaving with salt water is no fun. Learned that the hard way.” He looked up at Abed with a sheepish smile. “You like?”
Abed nodded in approval. “Very Cast Away.”
Troy grinned brightly at Abed’s comment, seeming suddenly overjoyed. He dropped his bag to the ground and quickly opened it up, digging inside for something. “Catch,” he said, tossing a round, white object in Abed’s direction.
Abed caught the volleyball instinctively and looked down at it. He turned it around his hands, revealing the dark red handprint-turned-face painted onto the other side. Troy had recreated Wilson. He had known the exact refence that Abed would make.
Abed looked down at his gift for a long moment before he dropped it, closing the distance between he and Troy in two huge steps. He flung his arms around his best friend’s shoulders and hugged him tightly.
When Troy and Abed stepped apart, they immediately extended their right hands towards each other, their left going to their chests, slapping twice in quick succession. It was like they had never spent a day apart in their lives, in sync as always.
The sound of high heels quickly clapping against the sidewalk drew the group’s attention to the dark-haired woman hurrying in their direction. “There you are,” Frankie panted as she approached. She gestured at Troy, “Well, I guess you found your surprise. So. Surprise.”
Jeff looked from Troy to Frankie. “What?”
Troy stepped forward and held out his hand. “You must be Frankie.”
“You must be Troy,” she said, shaking his hand.
He nodded and smiled. “Thanks for setting all this up.”
“No problem. Thanks for being easier to track down than I thought you’d be.”
Troy looked amazed. “That was easy? We were in hiding!”
“Hiding?” Britta questioned.
“Pirates,” he explained casually, glancing at Britta from over his shoulder before turning back to Frankie.
“Well,” Frankie continued as the rest of the Greendale group stared at Troy, absolutely flabbergasted. “Now that you’re back, maybe we can get together to play our steel drums sometime. I’m sorry to say that I’ve let myself get a little rusty. I could use the practice.”
Troy’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Steel drums?” he asked, his head cocking to the side.
Jeff couldn’t help himself. He burst into laughter.
Troy turned to look at him. “What?”
The rest of the group slowly joined in. While Jeff held his sides, doubled over in laughter, the others tried their hardest to control themselves. Until Chang snorted. Then they all lost it, tears now streaming down their faces for a whole new reason.
“What?” Frankie demanded, only making them laugh harder.
Annie leaned into Jeff as they laughed and Jeff instinctively put his arm around her, holding her close. That caught Troy’s attention. He gestured at them with both hands. “Since when is this a thing?” he asked. “What else have I missed?”
Everyone’s eyes cut to Jeff and Annie, taking in their closeness with wide eyes. The night was all about surprises, apparently.
Jeff’s eyes flicked from face to face. He hadn’t exactly been planning for this new development to come to light so soon.
“It’s new,” Annie said proudly.
Britta stepped forward. “Wait. Seriously?”
“Yes,” Jeff answered haughtily. “Problem?”
Britta smirked at him. “Nope. No problem here.”
“I think it’s nice,” Shirley said, smiling as she clapped quietly, her kind eyes sparkling.
Abed’s response was not quite so sentimental. “Finally.”
“Abed!” Annie gasped.
“What?” he said, looking around the group for support. “Isn’t that how sit-coms usually end? With the will-they-won’t-they couple finally getting together?”
“We’re not –” Jeff began to deny Abed’s assessment, but he was cut off.
“Not anymore,” Abed said, correcting Jeff’s statement before he’d even finished speaking it.
“So,” Chang said. “You’re really together?”
Jeff huffed. “Yes. Again: Problem?”
Chang groaned. “Yes. Dang it.”
“Pay up!” Britta said, victoriously holding her hand out in his direction.
He reached into his pocket for a wad of crumbled up bills. “Couldn’t just keep it in your pants, Winger?” Chang asked as he shoved the money into Britta’s open hand. “Couldn’t do a guy a favor? I’m broke enough as it is.”
“Britta!” Shirley reprimanded, her mouth open in shocked disapproval.
Britta looked totally unfazed. She smirked at the other woman as she counted out her money. “Oh, don’t act all high and mighty. You’re just mad you didn’t get in on the pool.” She smiled at Jeff and Annie. “Easy money.”
“You were betting on my love life!” Annie sounded beyond offended.
“No fun, is it?” Frankie asked pointedly. Annie crossed her arms with a huff.
“Hey,” Britta said, jumping in again, “I was voting in favor of you and Jeff! I knew it would happen eventually. It was a vote of confidence!”
Annie turned her attention to Jeff, tugging on his shirt sleeve. “Jeff! Do something!”
Jeff shrugged. “Drinks on Britta tonight.” He turned to Frankie, a wicked grin curling onto his face. “Unless there’s someone else here who wants to settle a bet…”
All eyes went to Frankie who was glaring at Jeff with narrowed eyes. “Don’t hold your breath.”
“I just want everyone to know,” Troy announced loudly, “that I am very confused.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Shirley said. She looked like she wanted to ask, but then had another thought. “Wait. Abed, did you say this was the end of a sit-com?”
Abed nodded. “Yeah. I think our show is over. We didn’t get season seven. We got a movie instead.”
Troy pointed at him. “Six seasons and a movie.”
“Six seasons and a movie,” Abed agreed.
“So, we’re done?” Chang asked. “No more group?”
“Not necessarily,” Abed answered. “There’s always the chance for a revival.”
“Those are all the rage right now,” the Dean said. “Did you see the Veronica Mars movie?”
“To revivals!” Troy cheered loudly, pumping his fist into the air.
Annie bounced on the balls of her feet, her hands clasped beneath her chin. “Why are we still standing here then? We should go celebrate!”
Britta held up the wad of cash that she had won from Chang and pointed in the direction of the nearest bar. “Nipple Dippers, roll out!”
They all began to move together, following after Britta in a clump, leaving Shirley behind as the lone straggler. She looked at Britta in confusion, and then around at the others in shock as nobody questioned her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, giving her head a little shake, “Nipple what?”