|A Toast to Innocence
Author: Jezunya PM
It's been fourteen years since they all graduated, twelve since she got married, and thirteen since she's seen him.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Tragedy/Romance - Annie E. & Jeff W. - Chapters: 4 - Words: 7,635 - Reviews: 15 - Favs: 21 - Follows: 7 - Updated: 01-15-12 - Published: 01-08-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7722693
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: Community belongs to NBC and Wizard Master Dan Harmon. This little tidbit was written out of nothing but pure love for the show and a desire to show the network just how much we want it back. #sixseasonsandamovie!
Additionally, the song "Same Old Lang Syne" belongs to the estate of Dan Fogelberg and EMI Music Publishing. No copyright infringement intended.
A/N: Based on, in my opinion, the saddest song ever written. I was talking with my beta and big sister, glasscannon, when this idea struck me, and she was, of course, horrified. However, when I assured her I would never write anything so tragic, she only got more upset. As she put it, coming up with the idea and then not writing it doesn't mean it didn't happen - it means in some alternate timeline, this did happen, yet no one was around to even care. So, with that, I now present to you a truly depressing work of fiction, brought to you by Wow We're Such Unbelievable Freaks productions:
We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence
Another 'auld lang syne'
-"Same Old Lang Syne," Dan Fogelberg
She's reaching into one of the large freezer bays for a bag of sweet peas, balancing the spring-loaded door open with her shoulder, when she feels the light touch at her elbow. It takes only a second for her to glance over, but in that single moment she becomes aware of several facts. First, the touch is hesitant, shy even, but not weak. Second, there is something about the sound of the person's breath, close but not so close as to be considered rude or intrusive, that tickles her memory with the fact that it used to be familiar. And third, as her face turns toward him, she breathes in a scent that she could never, ever forget.
He's pulled his hand back as she looks up at him, and isn't quite smiling when her gaze finds his. He's different, his hair dusted with grey, his skin weathered with subtle wrinkles that pull downward now rather than the laugh lines that had begun to develop back when she knew him. His eyes are the same, though – or they're the same as what she remembers from when she first met him, before they became friends: guarded, uneasy, and trying desperately not to let it show. The open, honest eyes that she came to know and love are gone once more, retreated back inside the protective cocoon that he thinks he can fool the world with.
She can only stare at him for a long moment as she takes in all the little changes, and then she sees his throat convulse with a rough swallow and his expression turns a little sheepish and a little more hesitant.
"Hey… Annie… It's Jeff. From… From Greendale?"
She blinks and realizes he must think she doesn't recognize him, but how could she not? He was the center of her world for far too long for that.
"Jeff. Of course," she says, trying to smile as she reaches up to brush a stray strand of hair from her face. They stand there looking at each other for one long, awkward moment, not sure what's supposed to come next, and then with a mental little Ah, to hell with it, Annie rushes forward to envelop him in a tight hug.
She'd forgotten about the grocery basket swinging precariously from her arm, its delicate balance overturning with her sudden movement. Before Jeff can even reciprocate her embrace, the clatter of her few items hitting the floor makes them both jump. She steps away from him and crouches down, setting the basket beside her on the linoleum and noting that one of its handles actually popped out of its socket, causing the spill. She goes about gathering her groceries and placing them back in the carrier, because even if it's broken, it's the only one she has, so what else can she do?
She tries not to think about how that's a metaphor for certain other aspects of her life.
Jeff hesitates for only an instant, and then he is down on the floor next to her, grabbing up the oranges and the odd can of soup that had begun to roll away. He swivels back toward her, big hands laden with the strangest, most mundane things in the world, his face so shy and unsure, and she can't help the laugh that suddenly bubbles up out of her. Annie sits back against the cold freezer glass and laughs until her stomach hurts and she feels tears squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. Jeff, first confused and then shaking his head, ends up slumped next to her in a similar state, long arms stretched out on his bent knees, laughing at the ridiculousness of the entire situation.
After a minute or two, one of the kids that stocks the shelves pokes his head around the end of the aisle, wondering what all the commotion is about, and she quickly tries to sober up, swatting Jeff on the arm to get his attention.
He nods, following her line of sight, and starts climbing to his feet, still shaking his head and chuckling under his breath. He offers her a hand up, and as she takes it she's struck with the sense that something is off, something's missing, and then when she remembers a second later, she feels a little sick at having forgotten, and, without thinking, mumbles quietly, "Milord," just as he drops her hand.
Jeff's eyes go wide, locking with hers and looking just as unsteady as when he'd first approached her, looking almost ready to bolt. But then he takes a breath and shoves his hands into his coat pockets, and seems to just generally refuse to acknowledge what just came out of her mouth. "I didn't mean to interrupt your shopping," he says, the apologetic tone sounding just slightly forced. "I just saw you down the aisle, and…" He shrugs.
"It's so good to see you, Jeff," she replies sincerely. Because it is. It really, really is. She picks up her half-full grocery basket, holding it by the sides now instead of the busted handles. "I'm about done here, anyway, so…" She nods toward the front of the store, and smiles when he falls into step next to her, following her through the checkout line and out into the chilly December weather.
They stand in front of the grocer's big plate glass doors, at a loss once more. Annie can see her car from here, and she can already feel the visit drawing to an end, slipping through her fingers like so much sand.
"Well," Jeff starts, shrugging deeper into his coat, and she knows he's about to leave.
"Do you want to get a drink?" she blurts, then immediately feels awkward and embarrassed at the surprise that blinks across his face. "We can… catch up…"
He purses his lips. "Don't you need to get home?" he asks quietly, gesturing vaguely to the plastic grocery bag hanging from her wrist. Annie looks down at the bag and understands everything he's trying to say and everything that the soup and new toothbrushes and frozen peas represent.
But she needs this, right now.
"It'll keep," she says, suddenly determined, and Jeff looks almost intrigued or at least like he's willing to humor her. Not quite smiling, he finally nods. "My car's this way," she says, tilting her head to one side. "Do you need to…?"
"I actually walked here," he answers. "Just dashed out of the office to grab something quick to eat."
The fact that he's been so close, all this time, tickles the back of her mind and the backs of her eyes, but she pushes the thought away, along the emotions it brings, tucks them safely away back in their box where they can't hurt anyone. "Alright, well." She sets off toward her little blue minivan, and he follows a step behind her. When they get there, he waits for her to unlock it and then climb into the driver's seat before he opens the passenger door and follows suit. Her groceries are stowed in the center console between the two front seats and she goes to turn the key in the ignition, but then pauses, looking back up at him. "You know, I just realized… I don't actually know any bars around here."
Jeff blinks and thinks for a second and then admits, "Actually, I don't think I do either…" She wants to laugh again, because this is so absurd, and Jeff Winger is sitting in the front seat of her minivan, and they can't even get 'catching up' right. He just frowns, thinking, and then reaches for the door latch again. "Wait here," he says, and in a few quick strides he disappears back inside the grocery store.
There's a small part of her, the reasonable part, the dutiful part, the part that's still attached to the ring on her fourth finger even if her supposed other half isn't attached to his anymore – that part tells her she should just drive away. Right now. Just forget about this stupid coincidental meeting and this crazy idea that maybe if she just sits and talks with him this one last time then… She doesn't even know. She doesn't know what she wants out of this, much less what she expects. But she doesn't put the van in reverse and she doesn't move an inch.
He comes back just a few minutes later and lets himself into the car again, holding up a six-pack of cheap beer in one hand as he pulls the door closed behind him again. "It was the first thing I found," he says in explanation, shrugging. And then he starts to look around.
There hasn't been a babyseat in her car for quite a few years, but she assumes the minivan speaks well enough for itself. There are a few crayons scattered on the floor, and a soccer ball is visible in the back seat. Jeff takes it all in for a few short moments, and all she can do is study her hands on the steering wheel and try not to see the sad, wistful twist to his mouth and eyes. He finally faces front again, looking over at her. "How many?" he asks quietly, his tone nothing but polite.
"Three," she answers. "Two boys and a girl."
He nods and forces a smile. "That's great, Annie."
"Yeah, they're… they're good kids."
He nods again and reaches down to pull a can out of the sixpack, then a second one, which he offers to her. She accepts but simply holds it, the cold metal beginning to gather condensation and making her fingers go numb. "How long have you been in Denver?" he asks casually, popping his can open with a quiet spit of carbonation.
"It'll be… eight years this May," she says, having to think about it for a second. She rolls the beer can back and forth between her hands, trying to remember where each of those years went, and then, frowning, decides to open it. She takes a small sip, not really tasting the bitter liquid as it washes down her throat. "You?" But she already knows the answer.
"Almost thirteen," he confirms. He'd accepted an offer to join a rival law firm in the city the same week she'd started seeing her then-boyfriend now-husband, Robert. They were married a year later, and he hadn't responded to the wedding invitation she'd made sure to send to all of her old classmates. "So what brought you to the city?" he asks, and it's just the type of small talk she knows they both hate but it's the definition of 'catching up' and is the only way to keep the conversation going, so she answers.
"My husband's work," she says. They had met through the medical administration program at Greendale, and he'd gone on to work for a local gym in town for a few years after graduating. "He's a health manager for Gold's Gym. On the corporate side, though." Because it's always important to specify that he works in the corporate offices; wouldn't want anyone to think he actually worked in the gym and dealt with people and their problems on a day to day basis.
"Right," Jeff nods. "Sounds interesting." It doesn't, but that is the polite thing to say after all. She can appreciate the effort he's putting in, anyway.
"What firm are you with now?" she asks next. The beer is making her stomach burble and her nose tingle with the carbonation, though her tiny sips haven't been enough for the alcohol to touch her yet.
"Wolfram and Hart," he says.
"Oh. I've seen their commercials."
"Yes. How are things going there?"
He takes a drink before answering. "I made partner about ten years back. Senior VP for the Denver area now," he says, smiling at her in a way that says he thinks it should be a meaningful accomplishment, but he just isn't sure.
"Congratulations," she says, smiling in return, and really is happy for him.
"Yeah. Thanks. It's… It's everything I wanted out of this career." He doesn't say 'out of life,' and she's suddenly very aware of the way he's looking over at her, his eyes soft and sad and she can't even take it in, she can't process that kind of emotion coming from him, after all this time.
"That's good," she says tightly, clicking her fingers against the metal of the beer can and just barely looking at him out of the corner of her eye. She forces herself to keep soldiering on, "I only ended up using my degree for a year or two. After Josh was born, I never went back to work."
"Yes," she smiles genuinely now, thinking of her boy, with his messy brown hair and freckles and boundless energy. Thinking of how he's one of the only things she can fight for anymore, one of the three things to come from her marriage that she wouldn't trade for the world. "He just turned ten."
Jeff raises his can in a mock-toast. "Many happy returns to him. And to your other two."
She clinks her can against his, takes a small sip, and then, not thinking until she's halfway through the sentence, supplies, "Katie and… and Jeffery."
Jeff stares at her hard for several seconds and she knows that once upon a time a look like that from him would have had a blush flaming all the way up from her chest to her hairline, but now she can't seem to find the energy to be embarrassed anymore. "Well," he says at last, very quietly, "I guess that deserves another toast."
She doesn't respond or lift her beer again, but he raises his toward the ceiling briefly and then throws the rest of the drink back, finishing it in one long swallow. He sets the empty can on the floor next to the other, still unopened, four.
"Jeff…" She looks over at him, but he's gazing out the windshield, or at the passenger airbag compartment in front of him, or at something else altogether that she can't see. His hands are braced on his knees, and for the first time she notices that there is no wedding band on his finger, nor even the tanline of one recently removed. She wonders, but can't quite find the words to ask.
"You know," he says at last, pulling himself back from wherever he'd gone for the last minute or two, "when I saw you in there… You haven't changed a day." He shakes his head, looking frustrated, like that wasn't what he'd wanted to say, but was the only thing that would come out.
"I have," she disagrees, because being married for twelve years and having three babies changes a person, and not just physically.
"Your eyes are just as blue as I remember," he says suddenly, and when she looks up he's smiling in that soft, wistful way again, but his eyes are bitter, haunted. He looks back at the airbag, at whatever he was seeing before and continues. "I thought I must have exaggerated them in my memories, but they're just as big and blue and sincere as I remembered."
She's caught off guard by the honesty in his words and especially his expression. Her fingers clench tight around her beer can, and she can't think of anything to say for a second or two. "Not much of a Disney princess anymore though," she finally mumbles, and takes another sip, not looking back at him.
"Yes, you are," he tells her, his voice firm, almost offended. "You always will be. And anyone who says differently is a moron not worth your time."
She winces, his words finding just the right places to slice into her, hitting directly on truths she's known for a while but isn't ready to face yet. Not now, not right before the holidays, not when she needs to be strong and steady and constant, at least for her children's sakes. "Can we talk about something else-"
He sighs and runs a hand over his face. "Sorry," he says roughly, and then, "I overstepped my bounds. And I think I may have worn out my welcome here."
She looks over at him, her eyes widening. "What? No, I didn't mean-" But he stops her with a quick shake of his head and a small grimace that she thinks was probably intended to be a reassuring smile.
"I shouldn't have said that," he apologizes again. He sighs, then adds, quietly, "I really am sorry." And she doesn't know what he's sorry about, now or thirteen years ago, his own words or the way her life and marriage have gone even though he knows nothing about it and had no hand in it. There's a beat, a space of silence in which they're both just sitting there, peaceful, that she thinks – she hopes – might go on forever, but then he nods and touches his forehead like he's tipping his hat to her, and says, "Well, it's been a pleasure, Miss Annie Edison."
She doesn't correct him, partly because he has no way of knowing what her married name is, but mostly because her marriage has just about run its course, and talking about it right now, with him, is the one thing she cannot let herself do. She thinks of the divorce attorney's business card buried somewhere in the bottom of her purse, out of sight but never far from her mind. She hasn't wanted to admit it, but the truth is she's been circling around the idea for weeks now, like water in a drain, going down, down, the end still a ways off but ultimately inevitable.
"It really was good to see you, Jeff," she says in response, not bothering to hide the sadness, the loss and weariness, from her voice anymore, and is rewarded with a kind of half-smile from him, rueful and regretful and touched with that old self-loathing she remembers him always trying so hard to hide from their little study-group-turned-family. Some part of her, the part that never left Greendale and has been bound and gagged in the very deepest, darkest recesses of her mind all this time, wants to wipe that look off his face. But she can't. She knows she can't.
He pops his door open and starts to get out, but then turns back one more time, facing her sideways from the passenger seat. She can't move, can't even breathe, and when he gently takes her right hand in one of his larger ones, she doesn't resist.
"Milady," he whispers, raising her hand to his lips, and there's a finality to his tone that sends a shock of pain through her chest unlike anything she's felt in the last decade and a half, unlike anything she's let herself feel. He's letting go already, but before he can take a single step away from her, she yanks him back down and presses her lips to his, once, twice, chaste and nostalgic, and then after a moment of shock or hesitation or whatever the hell goes through this man's head, he's kissing her back, passionately, desperately, tragically.
And suddenly it's like nothing else matters and she's seeing stars burst behind her eyelids and her skin is on fire just like it used to be whenever he touched her, so very long ago, and she can't think but to know that this, this is what she's been telling herself she wasn't missing, this is what she should have fought for all those years ago and-
They pull apart and both start apologizing at the same moment, and then both seem to think better of it, simply staring into each other's eyes, Jeff's big hands cupping either side of her face. She can feel her eyes stinging and she knows it's not the icy draft from the open door but she's not sure she can face the thoughts, the hopes, that she let herself drown in for that single moment.
Jeff fumbles in his pocket for a second and then presses a stiff slip of paper into her palm – his business card. "Call," he rasps, staring into her eyes from only a few inches away. "Any time of the day or night, anything you need, just-"
She nods, closing her hands around the card, holding his gaze. "I will." She shouldn't. She can't. She will.
He wants to kiss her again – she can see it in his eyes, in the way that he leans forward almost imperceptibly, and she's caught between how much she wants him to, wants him to kiss her and never stop, and thoughts of the diamond ring on her finger and her children and the home she's built- But he stops himself, puffs out a breath of warm air, not quite a sigh, and pulls himself away. He stands outside for one long moment, looking in at her with his hand on the doorframe, and then without another word in parting, he closes the door between them and turns and walks away, his hands deep in his pocket and his head bowed against the wind and the snow.
Annie stares down at her hands, and then numbly slips the card into her purse. She puts the car in reverse, and pulls out of the parking lot, and she knows nothing is going to be the same after this but it has to be. She needs it to be. But she can't just sit there and watch him walk away, not again, and she absolutely cannot risk him turning around, risk him coming back, not after everything that has and hasn't happened between them.
She makes it two blocks and around a corner before she can't see the road anymore through her tears.
She pulls over in front of a Walgreens and sits there for nearly an hour as the snow flurries turn to pattering rain drops outside. Finally, when her sobs have died away and her eyes are red and puffy but clear, she starts the car again, pulls out, and goes on with her life.