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The Arboretum

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Annie's face is on his phone screen and he can see himself in the corner, no matter how much he tries to avoid his own face. She looks exuberant, bright, vivacious, a million adjectives that make him feel more tired and more something else, until he just interrupts her latest anecdote to tell her how he feels.

He loves her, goddamn him.

It settles there, and he fully expects to drop the phone on his face or have her change the subject. He expects anything except her smile; that exhausted, drawn smile that has been between them since…since the Britta engagement fiasco. "I know you do."

"Way to fuck up the Solo," he mutters, letting it lie as much as he does. "You talk to Abed lately?"

 


 

 

Britta rolls her eyes for approximately the eightieth time since he sat down. "It's what, a three or four hour flight?"

"Hmm?"

"D.C. You've been annoyingly bummed since Annie and Abed left, and Abed is busy. Just go visit Annie."

He swirls his shitty scotch through his chipped ice. Britta is worse at bartending than most things. "She's busy too, genius. This is an internship, not a vacation."

Sticking out her tongue, Britta bounces a little. "Frankie and I are doing an old people movie night. You know, things we don't have to turn around and explain to all of our twenty-two-year-old-friends—"

"Too late, they all left," he points out.

Blessedly, Britta blows past his bitterness and waves it off with a rag. "Come watch with us. I'll get you peanut M&Ms." When he raises an eyebrow, she asks out, "Protein from the peanuts does something with net carbs, right?"

 


 

 

"What are you doing?"

"I'm out."

"Then why did you answer the phone."

"Well, it's our phone call."

"Then why did you go out?"

"Because…everyone else was going out."

"Is it fun?"

"No."

"That's because you're talking to me. Go have fun, Annie.

 


 

 

He gets postcards from different neighborhoods in Los Angeles what Abed wanders into and makes his way out of.

Abed gets a postcard from Troy and he has to remind Britta to forward it. "It looks beat up," she points out, and then holds up some others. "The Annie cards aren't this bad; I wonder when Troy sent this."

"The Annie cards?"

"Yeah, the postcards Annie sends." Britta shrugs it off. "Aren't yours, like, clean?" She stares at the Troy card. "And not kind of smelly?"

He shakes his head and picks one of Britta's cards up, flips it over. "She never sent me any."

"Oh. Well, you guys Skype, right? I don't have wifi."

"Right."

 


 

 

She just stares at him for too long, sometimes, and he sits there with the laptop open and drums the table with his fingers.

"You know I love you, too, right?"

Grabbing his drink, he shrugs. "Yeah, sure."

With a sigh, Annie starts to pull her hair back even as she grumbles about the humidity. When she stares back at him, or the camera, or some random wall, she smiles. That tired, drawn, exhausted smile. "It's late. Talk to you Tuesday?"

"Yep."

She blows a kiss at the camera. "Love you, Jeff."

He smirks, even as his heart does too many weird things. "I know."

 


 

 

Frankie keeps looking at him like he should be on some kind of FBI watch list.

"I know the two of us are not the two closest people from the committee—"

"Committee's gone." Britta is serving tonight so just the two of them are sat around the table.

Frankie seems to brace herself, though. "You seem to be having a rough time this summer. Is this a…normal, cyclical thing for you, or…?"

He shakes his head as he takes his drink in hand. "No."

"So, is this because…Abed and Annie are gone, or…?" Frankie looks too serious for this bar, this Saturday night. "I'm sorry, I'm not really great at supportive friendship, but I'm great at working out problems."

"I know," he reminds her, clinking their drinks. "We like that about you."

 


 

 

He has a syllabus to make, for when classes start in a couple of weeks.  They do things together, with a wifi connection and sixteen-hundred miles between them. So while he figures out a whole new curriculum, she does some studying for her online classes.

"Hey, my flight gets in on Thursday. Can you pick me up?"

He looks up. "You're coming back? This week?"

"Yeah, I told you that." She stares at him and he can see the moment she realizes that she never told him. "So, can you?"

"Of course." He has too many thoughts, all at once. Would it make more sense for Britta to pick her up? Frankie lives closer to the airport. Technically, he has a meeting through most of Thursday morning. "I'll be there."

One of her roommates throws a sock at her face and she throws it back, and whatever Moment he was probably hoping for is gone.

 


 

 

The airport is mostly empty, with always practical Annie landing at five in the morning. He has enough coffee to make a Facebook mom shut up and she is three feet in front of him for the first time in months.

They stand there, staring, neither quite sure. When he makes the first move, meets her mouth with his own, Annie greets him warmly, like an old friend.

Someone she has yet to find the heart to leave altogether.

As they pull back, he knows, the two of them are as doomed from the start as he always imagined, all these years, and Jeff Winger is too much of a coward to save the both of them the trouble.