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Riding it Out

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Four days into 2012 Annie finds herself at the farmer’s market in central Greendale.

There is a delicate patter of rain on the colorful awnings around her and she’s grateful she carries an umbrella at all times. In spite of the wind chill, the busy crowds, and her rain soaked ballet flats, Annie can’t help but smile.

She had woken later than usual and ate cereal perched on Abed’s recliner while he and Troy watched Inspector Spacetime. She didn’t recognize the actor and realized they must have stayed up watching another season with a newly regenerated Inspector. She wondered what they’d do with their time if it wasn’t so consumed by TV but she’d never ask. Abed would probably break or something. And Troy would cry.

Afterwards she allowed herself a long soak in the bathtub, dropping in a couple of glitter bath-bombs that Britta gave her for Christmas. They fizzed and turned the water purple and made her smile. She had just eased herself beneath the foam when Troy called through the door to tell her that Britta was joining them for dinner and they needed vegetables. “You know, because that’s all she eats.”

Annie wasn’t sure why they couldn’t just order pizza but honestly, she didn’t mind. She liked taking care of people and it was so much nicer shopping for three. There was something about those meals for one she used to buy, as well as the pitying looks from the cashier that made her want to weep. She doesn’t have that problem now. She has roommates. Friends.

Yes. Today is a good day.

Even though it is raining and she’s juggling an umbrella and two bags of groceries, Annie feels bouncy and content and lets the feeling transform the way she walks, the way she holds herself. It is a new year full of promise. She has finished all pre-semester reading ahead of schedule. And last night she finally received a text from Jeff. After another moment at her 21st birthday last week she was worried the awkwardness would never leave.

They sat close in a dark corner of the bar and when the others left to dance, get drinks or play games, they stole the air and sealed them, alone. On a whim she downed the rest of her drink and he laughed as her flashing birthday crown fell back into the tangle of her newly curled hair. He pressed closer, reaching out to return it, and she felt the heat of him, his whispered breath. Their eyes locked as he pushed strands of her hair over one shoulder, and she shivered as his fingertips kissed a soft trail down her arm. He lingered at her wrist, thumb brushing gently back and forth with the beat of her pulse. They seized hands as if it was the most natural thing in the world, for a minute – a lifetime – before they both swallowed hard and Shirley coughed loud, the group trailing behind her with drinks.

She added it to their list of moments, ever increasing but not progressing, and tried to forget. Really, it was getting ridiculous. Jeff had ignored her ever since, barely looking her in the eye as he mumbled a hasty goodbye that night, and instead of pushing the memory to the back of her mind, she had worked herself into a frenzy of what she had done wrong, dancing the line of hating him and herself for making her feel that way. But now that Jeff had text her with some sort of normalcy (Annie: no more bio reading reminders and I’ll buy u a pack of purple pens. Deal?), she felt relieved that she didn’t have to waste any more time on the issue. There were so much more constructive things she could be doing than thinking about Jeff Winger.

So as she makes her way to the market exit, the spring in each step is only disturbed when she is knocked down by a solid wall. Of muscle. She falls heavily on her behind, feeling ridiculous slumped on the wet ground surrounded by tomatoes and mushrooms, a zucchini pressed into the small of her back. She fights back a giggle at the absurdity of it all, especially when her brain allows her to focus on the man offering his apologies in a soft familiar voice.

She can’t help the gasp that escapes, her eyes fluttering wide. “Black Rider!”

He’s still a 6ft blonde-haired hunk of man dressed in black, but the cowboy boots and spurs have been replaced with expensive grey sneakers. His shirt collar falls open, revealing a solid column of tanned neck. He crouches over her now and she sits in his shadow.

“Hmm…I like it.” A smile curves lazily to meet his eyes. “Doesn’t make much sense though, sweetie, I’m not riding anything...”

“That’s what I said-”

Yet.”

Annie catches his gaze in surprise, a soft pink flush warms her cheeks. There is something so deliciously unexpected when men look at her like that and she lets the feeling buzz through her for a moment. In the silence she nibbles her lip, watching his eyes follow the soft bite, and when he holds out his hand Annie notices the strength in his palm, the length of his fingers.

She remembers those fingers…

“Here, let me help you.” He pulls her to her feet as if she's weightless. “Bean Allergy.”

She gasps again. “You remember me?”

“How could I forget?” He watches her forehead crinkle, the purse of her lips. “Seriously, you thought I forgot?”

“Well," she starts, and gazes at the floor for a moment, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "You never called.”

“You didn’t leave your number before you ran away.”

“Oh…" She shrugs, hoping the casualness hides her growing discomfort. "I guess…I was embarrassed.”

“Why?” He smiles.

“Because we…you know.”

She can’t say it. She can do it. But she still can’t say it, at least not out loud in a public place.

She really needs to work on this.

“Had sex?”

Annie looks around frantically, snapping her hand across his mouth as she hisses, “Don’t say that so loud! But yes, because we did…that!”

He tries to speak but his breath is too hot against her palm and she snatches it away.

“And why is that embarrassing? You clearly had a good time. I know I did.”

His gaze flutters down to her chest.

“It’s not that…" She fusses with the edge of her cardigan for a moment, ignoring the impulse to tighten it across her chest and away from his scrutiny. "I just don’t usually do things like that, like ever. I’m not that kind of girl.”

He smirks. “The kind who likes sex?”

“I like sex, thank you very much!” Annie huffs, unable to stare at anything but the ground. “I just prefer to be in a relationship when I do…it.”

“Oh, I see. Well, that could have been remedied if you’d stuck around. I have to tell you, sugar, you’re the first woman to run out on me.”

She wipes away the beads of rain settled on her cheeks. "I am?"

“Yeah. Usually that’s my job, but I took you to my apartment so…”

“Huh.” Annie frowns briefly, a quick surge of rage tightening her fists. “So, if we hadn’t been at your place, you would have been the one to leave in the morning?”

“No. Don’t go getting the wrong idea, woman. I’m saying I took you to my apartment. Heck, I even missed the Coldplay concert. Do you know how much those tickets cost?”

“What…?” She shakes her head, not quite following.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is I liked you enough to take you back to mine. I wanted you. I would have had you earlier if Mr Insecure and the Clint Eastwood wannabe hadn’t got in my way. Why did you think I came back?”

“You said you wanted the gun that Pierce stole from you.”

Annie didn’t like to repeat what he really called him.

“Well, I did.” He pauses, his gaze unwavering as he gently taps her on the nose . “But you were a bonus. The best kind of bonus a guy could wish for.”

Annie flushes and tries not to smile in the light of his compliment. If only all guys thought that. She clenches her eyes closed for a moment then, annoyed with herself suddenly.

It always comes back to Jeff somehow.

Always.

The Black Rider clears his throat, as if he senses her changing mood. “C’mon. Let me help you to your car. It’s the least I can do.”

He crouches again to collect the vegetables still scattered around them, slowly returning them to her bags now sodden and ripped slightly. She hears Britta’s voice saying, “you don’t need a man to do things for you, Annie!” but Annie can’t move even if she tried, not when his gaze burns the length of her tight-clad calves, trails her torso, her rising chest and settles on her eyes. He’s seen it all but she still has to swallow thickly at his wicked smile.

“I…I didn’t bring my car. I walked.”

“In this weather?” He rises to his full height – Jeff is taller…dammit him again – and Annie suddenly feels very small and completely out of her depth.

“It wasn’t raining when I left. I guess I wasn’t thinking, you know? It was just nice to be out walking around in the fresh air, people watching and stuff.”

Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she realizes she’s speaking faster than is normal, or sane. He watches her with an eye-wrinkling smile.

“Sweetie, you’re adorable," he says, and gently shakes his head as if he can’t quite believe it.

“I don’t want to be adorable!”

She doesn’t mean to say that out loud.

He leans towards her, whispers low, “What do you want to be?”

“Sexy?”

Inside voice, inside voice. What is wrong with her? She suffered an ass injury not a head one.

“Oh, honey, you’re so sexy I couldn’t get that orange paint out of my bed sheets for weeks. Did you not see yourself during Paintball?” He wolf-whistles as he picks up her bags. “All your male friends wanted a piece, trust me.”

Annie flushes again, right to the tips of her ears. She never mentioned what happened with Abed only hours before she ended up in bed with the Black Rider, but why would she? That’s not the kind of thing you mention to a one night stand. She cringes a little then, at the reminder of that night all those months ago. Sometimes she thought she had imagined it because it just didn’t feel like her. It wasn’t something she was particularly proud of but she still ticked it off her list of things adults did, a lifetime experience she preferred to call it, even though running away the morning after was more instinctual than it ever was the determination to tick a box on a list.

“Let me give you a ride home,” he offers.

“No, I’m fine, really.”

“I insist. It’s my fault these bags won’t hold the walk home. And hey, you can officially call me the Black Rider, even if it is just a ride in my car.”

He winks and Annie thinks her blood is on fire.

Should she?

Could she?

What about Jeff?

She feels a little angry again, and mentally berates herself. Jeff has nothing to do with this. Sure, she cares about him, more than she’ll ever admit. And yes they have wonderful, heart-fluttering moments that make her think he can see inside her, that he knows how every little cogwheel and component works, every mechanism behind her machine. But then he pretends it never happened and she's left wondering, always wondering. And even though things were back to normal again, were they ever truly resolved? She can’t keep doing this to herself, no matter how much she wants him. It was really starting to hurt in a way she feared she might not come back from.

Maybe it’s time to move on?

The solution is grinning at her, and something in his eyes gives her the push she needs. She can do this.

She will be formidable.

“I’m kind of cold now. You could buy me a coffee first, if you’d like.”

Make eye contact.

“I’d love to. And the ride home?”

And get results.

“Oh, yes please.”

 

~x~

 

His real name is Josh and he’s 39. Yes, she has a type. He works in real estate but plays paintball assassin on the side to supplement his income. He smiles with his eyes and traces the edge of his coffee cup with his fingertip as he speaks. There’s a gentleness about him that's kind of surprising, and Annie's sure she’s only noticed now that they're in their regular clothes and they’re not shooting guns, dodging paint and pumped with adrenaline.

But the thing she likes most about him? He doesn’t care about her age. She hates herself just a little for it but it makes a nice change to tell an older man her age without so much as a flinch or a man-sized hole in the nearest door.

Plus, he wants her and he's not even remotely afraid to let her know that.

As they sit in the coffee shop, their knees graze under the table and he smiles in a way that says “I remember you naked.” And as she takes a sip of her cappuccino, Josh wipes away the cream lingering above her lip and like every clichéd romance novel she's ever read. Licks. His. Finger. Even though he’s licked more than her fingers – the soft flesh of her inner thigh, the firm curve of her hip – she panics slightly at how very adult this all feels, how forward he’s being, and tells him she should get home as she has a friend coming over.

“A male friend?” One eyebrow dashes high into his hairline.

With a smile she shakes her head no, unable to look him in the eye.

“Good. Let’s get the beautiful lady home quick then.” He holds out his arm. “Shall we?”

She has flashes of Jeff doing the same thing outside Troy’s football game two years previously but can’t afford her heart to travel that road, as bumpy and pot-holed as it is, so she just flashes an easy smile and grips his forearm in a manner she hopes says “I’m relaxed and easy but, you know, not that type of easy” even though she already was.

Oh well.

Josh carries her bags to the car and opens the passenger door before she climbs inside and, while maybe it’s the effect of his cute southern accent, Annie has never felt more like a lady.

It’s real nice.

 

~x~

 

When they reach apartment 303, Message in a Bottle is playing loudly through the door and Annie realizes that Britta has already arrived, although thankfully she hasn’t started singing.

Yet

“You know," she starts, keying the lock and stepping inside. "I could have carried the bags myself.”

“I wanted to see you to your door.”

She hums in response, a delicate smile grazing her lips, and Josh smiles back.

“And maybe I wanted another chance to prove how much of a gentleman I can be,” he adds.

Annie isn’t sure if swaying on her feet in response is technically swooning but it has to be close. However much it shames her, the memories of him keep flooding back – lips and nipping teeth, hot skin melting on hot skin, a shower where the water ran cold and orange as he pressed her against the tiles – and it is making her want to do things. To him. With her mouth.

At this thought she squeaks out loud.

“So, um, thanks! For…you know…getting me here safely.”

“You’re welcome, Bean Allergy.”

He steals her hand and rubs his thumb across her knuckles as he ducks to press a kiss there, but they are startled by an exaggerated cough that continues loudly for at least a minute.

“Did I do that right, man?” Troy asks.

“A fraction too long but you made it work.” Abed drops his voice to a whisper, “And…action.”

Behind the scale model of Indiana Jones, Britta and Troy look at the pair with varying degrees of amusement and intrigue. Abed stands between them.

“Hey guys!” Annie’s voice is oddly high as she gently pulls Josh through the doorway by the sleeve of his shirt. “You remember-”

“Black Rider!” Abed’s eyes widen to whites. “Plot twist.”

“Dude, you were awesome at paintball!”

“Yeah, Troy, he was so awesome trying to shoot us,” Britta says, folding her arms in a huff.

“What’s he doing here?”

Annie is momentarily flustered by the surprise of seeing Jeff stepping out of the bathroom, fists rigid by his sides, an angry tone to his voice, although she has no idea why.

“What are you doing here, Jeff?” she demands.

“Abed invited me.”

Annie turns to Abed with a questioning glare and he shrugs.

“I wrote a new shadow-puppet show called The Adventures of Horse-bot 3000. I thought Jeff might be interested.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Annie.”

Josh rests a hand on Annie’s shoulder. “I’m just helping a damsel in distress.”

Britta groans loudly, rolling her eyes to the ceiling and looking like she wants to vomit.

Jeff glares at the man in the doorway. “Did I ask you, Big Chin?”

“Ah, Mr Insecure. You haven’t changed.”

Jeff purses his lips, inhales deeply, and steps forward. As Josh mimics his movements, Britta starts to laugh.

“Okay, if you guys are gonna fight we should really play some show tunes. Abed?”

“On it!”

“Abed, do not move!” Annie pokes one finger rigidly at those around her. “Britta, fighting isn’t gay, and Jeff, you have no right to be so rude!”

Jeff’s jaw drops in surprise. “I’m rude? What about him?”

She folds her arms tightly. “He’s my guest.”

He copies her gesture, gathering his arms to his chest. "And what am I?"

She doesn't really know how to respond to that question, as weighted as it is with double meaning, so she glares and says, “You’re Abed’s guest,” as she tilts her chin slightly, nose in the air. “Please apologize.”

Jeff clenches his jaw and releases a heavy breath through his nose. “No.”

Annie blinks rapidly, not sure she heard correctly. “No?”

“That's right. No!”

“NO?”

“Guys, this is kinda boring and I’m hungry.” As if on cue, Troy’s stomach rumbles and he pats it almost lovingly. “See? It’s just crying out for food. There, there, you’ll be okay soon.”

"Look," Josh starts, grasping Annie's chin to tug her gaze upwards. "I'm gonna go." He ducks then and presses a kiss to her cheek and Annie closes her eyes at how soft and new it feels, how much she misses that kind of affection. "See you around, Bean Allergy."

She’s annoyed that it’s ending like this; she wanted their encounter to end on her terms. For once, she wanted to hold all the cards. She needed – wanted, Annie, wanted – to move on, dammit!

“Josh, wait!”

Troy and Abed turn to each other, eyes wide with intrigue as the both mouth ‘Josh’ silently. Jeff shakes his head at Abed wiggling his eyebrows, and turns to study the pictures on the wall, folding his arms impatiently. Britta stands awkwardly to one side, unsure of what’s happening or what to do with her arms.

“Wait right there.” Annie shoots Jeff a scathing look before she briefly disappears into her room. When she marches back, her step decisive and intent, she ignores the intensity of every pair of eyes and writes a series of digits in purple ink across the back of Josh's hand. “Call me. Anytime.”

“Annie,” Troy gives a double thumbs up. “Niiiiice.”

“Called it.”

“I will.” Josh smirks briefly at Jeff and winks at Annie before leaving.

 

~x~

 

Closing the door behind him Annie leans against it for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts around a residual surge of adrenaline, her heart seemingly in her throat.

Did she really just do that?

“Oooh, Annie. You deserve a bit of sex and romance. You go girl!” Britta shakes her head abashedly as four gazes snap in her direction. “I know, I know. I can’t say things like that. I get it!”

Annie flushes at the idea of sex and romance and can’t help but steal a glance at Jeff. His expression is stony. She wants to analyze this but doesn’t think it’s wise, not now. Instead she focuses on the awkwardness and the hurt he's made her feel, repeatedly. And anyhow, Britta is right. She does deserve this. It’s been a while since she’s dated and, in spite of everything that happens between them, Jeff is a no-go. She knows this. Okay, okay, so she’s gradually accepting this, but it’s taking time. As an ex-addict she knows there’s a twelve step process to these things and she’s probably only on step…three? She’ll get there.

In the meantime, why not have some fun with Josh? It’s what grown-ups do. They’ve already done it. Jeff and Britta did it for months! They’re probably still doing it now. Annie chooses to ignore the twinge in her chest and picks up the groceries in the entryway.

“So when did you…how did you…y’ know?” Troy asks as she marches past him and dumps the bags on the kitchen bar.

“Oh, we ran into each other at the market. He literally ran me over. With his body.” Annie can’t help a wry little smile. It was funny really.

“A meet-cute. That’s cute.”

“No, no it’s not cute, Abed. Did he hurt you?”

Britta snorts and Annie does too.

“Oh come on, Jeff. My butt is a little sore but I’ll live. It’s not like he shot me.”

“Not this time.” He mumbles low but she hears him.

She always hears him.

“What is your problem?”

“Yeah Jeff,’ Britta smirks. ‘Do tell.”

“I can answer that.”

“Abed! We want to hear it from the mouth of the horse.” Everyone turns to Britta who tries to hide her face behind a beer bottle. “Oh, you know what I mean! Just tell us.”

“There’s nothing to tell.” He flaps one arm in exasperation. “He thinks he’s all that when he’s not. He’s average.”

Annie scoffs at that and Jeff takes a step forward, his expression curious and a little surprised. “Something to say, Annie?”

She doesn’t want to do this with Jeff again, not now, not here, but his smirk in her silence stirs a challenge within her. She’s Annie Edison. She loves a challenge. Her back snaps upright in determination.

“Yes, actually. I think Josh is handsome. Super handsome and sexy!”

“He does have the handsome charm of a leading man.”

“Shut up, Abed,” Jeff snaps. His gaze never leaves her face and Annie can feel it trying to chip and break her resolve and she just cannot let that happen.

“You realize you’re not the only good looking guy in Greendale, don’t you?”

He wrinkles his nose. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you need to stop being so insecure. It’s not healthy. There’s always going to be someone better looking so get used to it, mister!”

Better looking?”

Oh no, she went too far.

“I didn’t mean…” Her eyes widen as Jeff treads closer.

“Tell me, Annie, what did you mean?”

“So…" Troy announces loudly, "I’m just gonna order a pizza already," and turns to inspect a delivery menu from the cluster on the kitchen bar.

“I think what Annie is trying to say relates to Freud’s theory about the ego something-”

Britta,” Jeff snaps. “Now’s not the time to mention drugged-up theories of a cocaine user but thanks anyway.”

“Hey!” Britta points her outrage firmly. “Just because Freud liked to let go sometimes doesn’t make his theories any less valid!”

She stomps over to Troy who pats her shoulder softly before offering her one of the menus. Abed, meanwhile, looks torn between making popcorn for the rest of the show and fear of missing a moment if he does.

“Annie.” Jeff pauses briefly to look at their audience. “Can I have a word with you in private?”

She is not in the mood for this. Not today. Today was such a good day.

“No.”

Jeff edges forwards. “No?”

She falters briefly at his proximity before accepting the challenge with a single step. “NO!”

NO?”

Their faces inch closer, eyes dark and focused, ablaze with intent. Annie can’t help the lurch of her stomach at the feel of his breath on her face, hot and hurried, and for a moment – a lifetime – it is just the two of them again. Heat and lust, anger, frustration and fear; all these thoughts weave a spell between them, to torment and tease.

She could measure the distance with a kiss if only he stepped closer

There’s silence while the music changes tracks and then the starting chords of Don’t Stand So Close to Me begins to play. Rising breaths and growing beats. Jeff blinks away the moment and shakes his head, rushing from the apartment with a brief mumble of “I’m out of here” and the spell is broken. Annie looks confusedly at the others just as Sting starts to sing ‘this girl is half his age!’

Britta and Troy each hold the edge of the delivery menu but thoughts of food are forgotten. They turn their heads to each other and then back to Annie, as if in slow motion. Abed stands pencil-straight, head cocked to one side.

“This is the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard in my life.”