- Always Something –
Spoilers: All the way up through 5x13 (I'm still not ready to call it the series finale yet.)
Summary: There's been something more than friendship between them since nearly the beginning – even when they weren't able to recognize it, even when they didn't want to recognize it.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
A/N: A while back, when spoilers started coming out about the J/B stuff in the final episodes, I had a dream one night that featured the sitcom-y premise that kind of drives the story (my subconscious' way of reassuring me, I guess) and when I woke up, I decided that I was going to write a story based on it no matter how the finale turned out. Given what did happen in the finale, the story definitely became bigger and a little more serious, but the stupid, little idea from my dream still managed to work. Fate, I guess.
Hope you enjoy.
Since they saved Greendale from the evil, carb-pushing clutches of Subway, he's been trying to keep a low profile.
It's summer so it's pretty easy to do because the group always sees less of each other then. Still, he keeps himself busy just in case he needs a ready excuse. The Dean asks him to teach a couple of summer classes, and aside from being in desperate need of money, it seems like the perfect way to beg out of any social engagements that might be a little too uncomfortable for his tastes.
Hickey is in New York for the summer too, visiting his family, so Jeff has the office all to himself and he spends a little more time than is probably healthy in that dark, dank space – mainly because he knows it's the last place that his friends would think to look for him.
To be fair, though, he has lunch with Shirley one weekend, so it's not like he's done a total disappearing act – she can report back to the rest of the group if they're wondering what's been keeping him so busy. Of course, if he's honest, he only agrees to meet Shirley because seeing her is easy, which means there's no real reason to avoid her.
Because she wasn't in that basement bunker when shit got real with that ridiculous computer and he didn't ask her to marry him in a fit of fear and desperation so consuming that he could have easily gotten himself off on an insanity plea back in the day and she doesn't have the uncanny ability to read his mind and deepest, darkest secrets like they're nothing more than predictable plot twists from a bad TV show and she doesn't have an unhealthy fascination with him that leads to lots of inappropriate touching and she doesn't inspire the kind of intense, uncontrollable feelings in him that are apparently as powerful as electricity either.
It's not exactly a shocker that being around Annie is the hardest for him – because now they can't even be in the same room without everything that he feels for her vibrating just under his skin, leaving him nervous and jumpy like an addict in need of a fix.
Sooner or later, he thinks, someone is going to catch on.
Annie is going to catch on.
And he really doesn't want that to happen before he's come to terms with all of it himself.
It's just fucking pathetic how long that's taking him. He is forty damn years old – he should know what to do about how he feels for God's sake, especially after more than five years.
But even if he knew what to do, would it be right to do something in the first place?
Annie is, in every sense of the word, bright. She has hopes and fears, but isn't paralyzed by either. She works for the things that she wants and doesn't fold in the face of adversity. She makes things happen. She wears her heart on the sleeve without guile or shame, and she always, always stands her ground.
He's staring middle age dead in the eye and he's still too scared to own up to the things that he really wants. He's lazy and guarded and unable to articulate even the most basic of emotions when it really matters. His selfishness is the stuff of legends and he spends half his time thinking he's better than everyone around him and the other half hating himself more than he could ever hate anyone else.
He is one fucked up son of a bitch, so by anyone's estimation, she is seriously out of his league.
A few weeks into the summer semester, though, he literally bumps into her in the cafeteria – she's taking a class to ease her load for the upcoming semester, but somehow, no one saw fit to let him in on that piece of information – and the jolt that he gets when he stares down into her wide, glittering eyes makes him seriously think about just grabbing her and never letting go. She fidgets with the strap of her messenger bag, glancing around the room nervously, so he offers to buy her coffee because it's not fair if his crazy issues are making her uncomfortable. He's got to keep things normal – well, what passes for normal anyway – between them.
At a secluded table in the corner of the room, she chatters on like she's afraid of awkward pauses in the conversation. But he barely hears her because sitting across the table, all he can think is, She loves me. She seriously and truly loves me.
Because that's the other revelation that hit him like a ton of bricks in that forgotten basement lab – Annie loves him. She loves him enough to want him to be happy, even if it hurts her, even if she thinks he's a fool. He can't trivialize her feelings for him as a crush or infatuation or any other insulting rationalization that makes it easier for him to dismiss her.
It's a stunning realization, too, because even though he's been with plenty of women who appreciated the way he looks and dresses and speaks, none of them ever cared enough to value his happiness as much as their own.
It is a strange, unnerving, and humbling kind of feeling.
"Jeff?" Annie says, cocking her head with concern. "You okay?"
He realizes then that he's zoned out completely, and he wonders if this is what the future will be like, gawking at her endlessly as emotion after emotion slams through his body.
"Yeah, sorry." He shrugs. "I think I need this caffeine more than I realized."
She smiles, taking his words at face value, and he feels even more lost.
With Greendale officially saved, she needs a new project to focus on and her own future seems like the obvious choice.
While her grades were just fine last semester, she knows that she was distracted by committee business, that that's where she wound up focusing the bulk of her energy, and since that decision paid off so well, it seems like she's earned the right to be selfish for a little while.
So she signs up for a summer class in Criminal Procedure to get one of her degree requirements out of the way. She wishes that she could take two or three classes, but she doesn't really have the money and she needs to work so her financial situation doesn't become absolutely dire. Fortunately, the Dean offers her a job – it barely pays minimum wage and amounts to nothing more than being his gal Friday because his regular assistant has taken the summer off to go on a tour of the Canadian Rockies, but the hours are flexible and she even manages to work in a little over time to pad her bank account.
Her class is interesting too, which inspires her to rededicate herself to her degree and dreams of a career in law enforcement or forensics or law. Hickey isn't teaching it because he's back east for the summer, but the teacher is a friend from his old days on the force and she is pretty sure that Hickey put in a good word for her because the guy tells her on the first day that he is expecting big things from her.
If there is anything that Annie Edison does well, it's rise to a challenge.
She feels that every day when she sets foot on Greendale's campus, the sun shining overhead and the future unwinding around it in every direction.
She's glad to have a little time away from the group too - because it always seems like a good idea for all of them to take a break from one another for a while. But she does see plenty of Abed at home and she goes to dinner with Shirley a couple of times, listening to her vent about the state of her marriage and how she doesn't see enough of her boys.
So, when Annie stops and thinks about it, it's really only Britta and Jeff that she is actively avoiding.
It was kind of staggering how quickly they called off their engagement once Greendale was safe and sound – which makes her realize that Abed's assessment of that particular craziness was probably spot-on. But she still gets a sick feeling in her stomach whenever she thinks about it, when she remembers Jeff announcing it, and she kind of hates herself for it.
She understands what it means to love someone unconditionally, to care enough to say that someone else's happiness matters just as much as your own, but she still can't help feeling stung by the fact that when he was scared and desperate, the world falling down around him, it was Britta that he chose to cling to.
She wonders if it all just comes down to sex – because she can't remember a single occasion in the past few years when she ever thought, even for a minute, that Jeff still harbored any kind of romantic feelings for Britta – and if that's the case, then there was no way for her to compete because Jeff has been stubbornly refusing to even let her in the game for years now.
Or maybe Jeff is just a grown man who is never going to know what he really wants. He may have more than a decade and a half on her, but he is even more clueless than she is about the stuff that really matters.
When they run into each other the second week of the summer semester, though, he buys her a cup of coffee and she tries to tell herself that everything is back to normal – or will be eventually. They sit across from one another in a corner booth and she babbles on and on about her class and her job and how Abed and Rachel are going to Denver for the Fourth of July. Jeff is a little distracted, but he does have a couple of classes to worry about even though he probably wishes that he was spending the summer sunning himself from dawn to dusk on the roof of his building, so it's not really surprising.
Sipping coffee with him, she steadfastly refuses to think of the speech that she gave in that 70s era basement. She meant every word and isn't really embarrassed by them, but she is haunted by the look on Jeff's face as she spoke - it was like he'd been sucker punched right in the gut, and she knew then that he understood exactly what she was saying, that it only had to do with Borchert in the most tangential of ways.
So he knows how she really feels, that she is not some silly, little girl with a silly, little crush. He knows how deep and real her feelings run, and even if he never brings it up, she is always to going to know that he knows, that he was planning a future with Britta while she was pouring out her fragile heart.
"I really wanted a vacation this summer," he tells her, pulling at the little plastic tab on the lid of his coffee cup. "After all the craziness lately, I just wanted to do nothing for a few months."
He laughs dryly and shakes his head, and for a minute, she can't help but wonder what exactly he did to open that basement door. When the lights flickered on, there wasn't really time to think about it too much – saving Greendale was the priority. In fact, she didn't stop to think about it at all until Abed told her about the unceremonious way that Jeff and Britta had called off their engagement and she started to think that Britta probably wasn't a source of deep and abiding passion for Jeff.
But she couldn't really come up with anything else that would be either.
She knows that he'd be evasive if she asked, make some dumb joke about how he thought of himself or scotch or some other stupid, superficial thing, and she would get annoyed and they would just wind up fighting.
And it doesn't really matter anyway.
Greendale is saved and Jeff feels how he feels and she feels how she feels and so much of everything will remain unsaid.
"You could go to Denver with Abed and Rachel for the long weekend," she teases, instead of asking impossible questions. "I bet they wouldn't mind."
Jeff rolls his eyes.
"I'd need another vacation after that. Don't get me wrong – I'm glad Abed's found someone - but they are hard to be around."
"You don't have to tell me. I'm essentially living with them."
"You could probably use a vacation too, then."
She nods, and suddenly, she's imagining a week spent lying on a beach somewhere, with a fruity, umbrella-ed drink in her hand and her mind entirely clear.
"But I've got too much to do," she says, and Jeff smiles faintly, like he wouldn't expect anything less.
He is in his office, studiously avoiding all thoughts of love, romance, sex, and anything remotely complicated in favor of another game of Fruit Ninja when the door unceremoniously bangs open and Ian Duncan lurches in, wearing a grin that is somehow both tentative and maniacal.
"Jeff Winger," he says, enunciating the words with great care. "Jeffrey Winger…" He tilts his head almost thoughtfully. "How long have we known each other now?"
Somehow, Jeff resists the urge to groan, but his patience is already frayed because the air conditioning is on the fritz and his shirt is starting to stick to his back like a clammy second skin. He definitely doesn't need Duncan's brand of annoyance to contend with too.
"Longer than either of us wants to admit, so cut the crap and tell me what you want."
Duncan ignores him and fiddles with the meager collection of pens in the mug at the end of his desk. He goes back to his game, hoping his obvious disinterest is discouragement enough.
But of course, it isn't.
"And we're friends, right? Good friends, I'd even venture to say."
"That depends," Jeff says. "If by 'good', you mean friends who don't ask each other to actually do anything, then yeah. We're the best of friends."
Finally, Duncan seems to pick up on the not-at-all concealed hostility and crosses his arms over his chest defensively.
"I come to you in my hour of need and this is how you treat me? What happened to the Jeff Winger who saved Greendale with the sheer power of his warm, fuzzy feelings?"
Jeff clenches his jaw, realizing that he's going to be hearing jabs like this for the foreseeable future. He's actually surprised that no one has taken the time yet to badger him about where his feelings were directed when he was busy saving Greendale. His friends are such busybodies that it seems like the kind of thing they'd be all over by now.
"It was *passionate* feelings," he mumbles under his breath and pushes himself upright in his chair, glaring. "Just cut to the damn chase, all right?"
"Well, just this morning, I was at my gym and I happened to make the acquaintance of—"
"You belong to a gym?" Jeff laughs incredulously.
If Duncan is offended by the question, he certainly doesn't show it. His grin actually makes him look rather pleased.
"I don't so much *belong* to a gym as much as I start trial memberships at various health clubs in an effort to meet women."
"Yeah, that sounds more like it."
"As I was saying," Duncan continues. "This morning, my persistence paid off and I actually met a lovely, lovely woman. She's a redhead, Jeff. A redhead. And she's taking a spin class so her ass is pretty much a work of art."
"Good for you. And I wish you luck… because I'm pretty sure you'll need it."
"That's just it," Duncan says, perching on the edge of the desk and leaning in. "As charmed as Delilah – that's her name… isn't that the dog's bullocks? Well, as charmed as she obviously was with me, she got a little hesitant when it came to actually making a date…"
Jeff smirks, unable to hide his amusement.
"You don't say?"
"Fortunately, I think well on my feet so I told her I was having dinner with friends tomorrow evening and perhaps she would like to join us. Because, you know, I think my pure animal magnetism is a little too much for her one-on-one right out of the gate. A group date helps take some of the pressure off… and the lovely Delilah agreed."
"Okay," Jeff says. "Again, good for you. But what does any of this have to do with me?"
Duncan grins, and for a moment, he looks almost flirtatious, batting his eyelashes behind his glasses like he expects his charm to actually work.
"*You* are my friend."
It hits Jeff then, what exactly Duncan wants him to do, and he shakes his head vehemently in protest.
"Oh, no. No, no, no. I'm not about to play third wheel on your desperate attempt at a date. I've got better things to do with my time… like rearrange my sock drawer according to color and pattern."
"Dinner will be my treat, of course," Duncan says, like Jeff hasn't spoken at all. "And I made reservations at Crave, which I happen to know is one of your favorite restaurants so…"
"You think a free meal is enough to convince me?" Jeff laughs. "I'm not that easy. For your sake, I hope Delilah is."
"I suppose I could sweeten the pot with a little cash." Duncan pulls a battered Velcro wallet from his back pocket and opens it, sifting through the billfold where there are only a few rumpled dollar bills. "Well, I don't exactly have any with me at the moment, but once I hit the ATM, I could do 50, maybe a hundred dollars?"
Jeff shakes his head, turning his attention once more back to his game.
"Don't think so. Sorry, buddy."
For a moment, Duncan is quiet and Jeff manages to slice through a watermelon, pineapple, strawberry, orange and apple all at once. He doesn't want to jinx himself, but he thinks he's well on his way to his highest score yet.
Until Duncan clears his throat, drawing Jeff's eyes, and offers up a smarmy smile.
"You know, there's something else I've been meaning to chat with you about, actually," he declares. "As a psychologist, I'm very interested in what went down in that basement just before you all managed to get out. I mean, everyone agrees that it was you who managed to get the door open, but no one knows exactly how you did it. What it was that inspired such a passionate response in you."
Jeff shifts uncomfortably in his chair.
"I don't know—"
"They were probably too caught up in the excitement of saving Greendale to give it much thought, but now that things are back to normal, perhaps I should ask around. You know, see if anyone cares to speculate or brainstorm about what it might be that evokes such a strong emotional response in Jeff Winger?"
Jeff grits his teeth, staring down his supposed friend in a way that he hopes is intimidating.
"Of course, if I had a lady friend demanding my attention," Duncan muses. "I'd probably be too busy to give much thought to you and your obviously complicated emotional life…"
It might seem like a harmless threat – because it's not as if anyone could really determine what it was that flipped the switch in him, so to speak – but Jeff knows that if Duncan puts a bug in Abed's or Britta's or Shirley's ear, they will run with it and pester him and while he's strong enough to not give anything up, it would be uncomfortable in the extreme.
And one night of boredom, watching Duncan feebly attempt to woo some poor woman, is probably preferable to that mess.
He's just not willing to take the risk.
"Fine," he snaps. "I'll do it."
Duncan smiles broadly, extending a hand that Jeff bats away.
"Thank you, Jeffrey. You are a gentleman and a scholar. I don't care what anybody says."
"Yeah, yeah. You just make sure to bring your credit card… because I have a feeling I'm going to be very hungry. And thirsty."
"Absolutely. Whatever you want." Duncan cocks his head, looking just a little bit sheepish. "There is one small catch, though."
"Of course there is," Jeff groans. "What now?"
"Well, Delilah is expecting this to be a double date of sorts, so I need you to bring a date."
"Are you fucking kidding—"
"And not just some random woman that you pick up at a bar," Duncan says. "It needs to be someone who can fake being your better half because I told Delilah that she's going to be meeting my friends who are a very happy couple. Wasn't that just a stroke of genius? It'll make me look like serious relationship material by extension, you know?"
Jeff doesn't know – the whole thing sounds needlessly complicated actually.
"Where do you expect me to find someone willing to go along with this insanity?"
Duncan squints, deep in thought, and then, just because the universe has a cruel sense of humor, there's a knock on his office door, and both men look over at the doorway, where Annie stands, jotting something down on a clipboard.
"Hey, Jeff. The Dean wanted me to ask if you'd…" She glances up and sees Duncan leaning on the edge of the desk, so she hesitates."Oh, sorry. Am I interrupting?"
Duncan's eyes widen in delight, so it's more than obvious when the light bulb goes off over his head.
"Actually," he says, with a smile. "Your timing is impeccable, Annie. Jeff was just about to come looking for you."
He looks at Jeff over his shoulder, almost like he's daring his friend to object. Annie takes another step into the office, looking genuinely intrigued.
"Oh? What's up?"
Jeff shakes his head adamantly.
"Annie, you really don't want to get mixed up in all this. Trust me."
She frowns, her eyes narrowed sharply, and it's almost like she thinks that he's challenging her – which is the absolute last thing that he intends because he knows that she never backs down from a challenge.
"Why don't you let me decide?" she says pointedly.
Duncan bobs his head in agreement.
"Are you free tomorrow night, Annie?"
She nods warily.
"Well, then, how would you like to join Jeff and I, along with a lady friend of mine, for dinner?" Duncan asks. "My treat."
She raises a skeptical eyebrow, and Jeff knows that he's got it seriously bad because he gets a jolt from it as sure as if she'd started undoing the tiny pearl buttons on her blouse.
"What's the catch?" she demands, and he laughs because of course she's smart enough to see through all this crap.
"The only way Duncan could get this poor woman to go out with him was to tell her that it was a double date," he explains. "With his good friends who just so happen to be a happy couple that can vouch for him as viable relationship material."
Annie shoots Duncan a horrified glare.
"You're going to lie to her right from the start?" she practically gasps. "That's terrible. What if you get married someday? Your entire relationship will be based on a lie."
"You have him married already?" Jeff laughs. "I can't even see him getting to a second date."
Duncan frowns at him just before pushing away from the desk to step toward Annie and throw an arm around her shoulders.
"Listen, Annie," he says. "I'm not lucky like Winger over there. I don't have pretty boy good looks, abs you could cut glass on, and enough superficial charm to sink the Titanic. I've got to be a little more creative when it comes to appealing to women. This isn't really a lie so much as a small, tiny fabrication. I mean, you two are my friends. And you vouch for me, right? It's just the couple-y thing we're fudging."
She lets out a quiet, frustrated sigh, but tilts her head like she is actually considering his plea.
"Don't we all deserve love, Annie?" Duncan prods. "Not just the pretty and unnaturally tan among us?"
Jeff knows that Duncan's got her now, because Annie can be a real softie and Duncan's masterfully pulling at all the strings wrapped around her heart.
"Annie," he says quietly. "You really don't have to do this."
She looks at him, and her expression is frighteningly unreadable.
"I'll do it," she says finally. "Though I'd like to go on the record as thinking this is a terrible idea."
"Sure. Fine. Of course," Duncan chirps happily, reaching out to pull her into a hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. Our reservation is for seven-thirty, so Jeff and I will pick you up at seven."
He spares Jeff a brisk wave and pretty much saunters out of the room, humming some unrecognizable tune as he goes. Annie is busy looking down at her shoes, tracing a seam in the tile with the pointy tip of her heel. When she finally meets his gaze, her smile is tentative, almost shy.
"There are worse ways to spend a Thursday night, right?"
He smiles back at her, and for a moment, everything between them seems very simple.
"Sure," he agrees. "I'm going to eat a ton of lobster and drink plenty of decades' old single-malt scotch all on Duncan's dime. Not much to complain about."
She nods, huffing out a half-hearted laugh. When she tilts her head and pins him with her wide, indigo eyes, he knows that she's about to say something important.
"You think we can fake the couple thing?"
It isn't the question that he's expecting, but it's still such a loaded one, even if that's not how she intends it.
"We've known each other a long time," he hedges, and Annie nods, like that's actually an answer.
She tries not to feel self-conscious when she finds herself sitting alone with Jeff in a seriously nice restaurant.
Duncan is at the bar, waiting for his date to arrive, and the waitress has already delivered their drinks, so they sit in silence, with nothing much to distract them. She is grateful for the fact that she's sitting beside him and not across the table because it means that she doesn't have to actively make eye contact. But he shifts suddenly, draping his arm along the back of her chair in a thoughtless, casual way, and her eyes are drawn to him once again.
He is wearing a gray suit without a tie (In the car on the way to the restaurant, Duncan insisted that he take off the navy silk one that he was wearing because it supposedly made Duncan's brown and blue striped number look cheap), which is actually a pretty great look for him, and she thinks, not for the first time, that he's really too good-looking for his own good.
Of course, he catches her studying him and shoots her a small, crooked smile that somehow seems too genuine for such a sleek, fancy restaurant. She looks away, smoothing her dress over her thighs.
"That's a good color for you," Jeff says.
She slides her hands across the deep teal satin of her dress again and smiles.
"Thanks. It's actually the first time I'm wearing it."
His gaze lingers on her for a moment, and that's all it takes for her skin to warm. He looks away eventually, fiddling with his glass.
"Should we take bets on how big a disaster this is going to be?" he asks. "Fifty bucks says she throws a drink in his face before the first course arrives."
She laughs, but swats at his knee.
"Oh, stop it. It could work out." She adjusts the knife and fork beside her plate for no reason. "My grandmother always used to say that there's someone out there for everyone."
Jeff cocks his head, eye narrowed like he's thinking carefully.
"I guess that's all it takes," he says. "One person."
There is something strange in his tone, a wistfulness or vulnerability that she doesn't usually associate with him, and it unnerves her. A little over two months ago, he was going to marry Britta – as hard as she tries, she can't shake that idea from her mind. She doesn't get the sense that he's pining for Britta or nursing a broken heart because the engagement didn't take, but maybe the whole thing got him thinking, reevaluating his stance on love and commitment and all that comes with it. He is forty years old now, so maybe he feels time running out.
This line of thinking only leaves her feeling unsettled, though, so she shakes her head as if to clear it and reaches for her drink. She can feel Jeff watching as she takes a steadying sip.
"No more appletinis?" he teases.
"It's summer. And a gin and tonic just seems summery to me."
He wrinkles his nose, looking almost boyish.
"I've never really liked gin. It tastes like you're drinking a Christmas tree."
"And you love your scotch anyway."
He tilts his half full glass, the amber liquid surging precariously close to the rim.
"I do love my scotch," he agrees.
"It's just us," she says, keeping her tone light. "So you can tell the truth… is that what you were thinking of when you got Borchert's computer to restart?"
She is only teasing and certainly doesn't expect a straight answer, but Jeff tenses up beside her like she is honestly trying to get him to spill his deepest, darkest secrets to her at a table in a busy restaurant. She isn't sure what to do, so she finds herself reaching out and sliding her hand over his on the blood red table cloth.
Before she can get a word out, though, Duncan appears in front of them with a pretty redhead in a green dress.
"Jeff, Annie," he says, holding his arm out theatrically. "I would like you to meet Delilah. Delilah, these are my dear, dear friends, Jeff and Annie."
And just like that, Annie remembers what they're really supposed to be doing here.
After years as a lawyer – or after years as a fake lawyer – he knows that first impressions aren't usually worth much. People are always on their best behavior or working an angle, so it takes a little while before you can really peel back the layers and get at the heart of them.
Still, Jeff has always prided himself on his instincts – and his gut is telling him that Delilah is way too normal to have agreed to a date with Duncan.
She's pretty, outgoing, and smart enough, and Jeff isn't getting any sort of crazy vibe from her.
It really doesn't make any sense.
"So…" she says cheerfully. "How do you two know each other?"
She gestures between him and Duncan.
"We work together, actually," Duncan says.
"So you're a professor too then, Jeff?"
"I teach law."
She looks somewhat impressed, which tells him that she obviously doesn't know much about Greendale's reputation.
"And what about you two?" she asks, smiling at Annie and Jeff. "How did you meet?"
They look at one another in panic, and Annie lets a nervous giggle escape almost against her will. For some reason, it never occurred to them to come up with any kind of cover story. They know one another well enough that they didn't really need to go over any details to sell the whole couple thing, but clearly, they overlooked a key fact.
Surprisingly, Duncan is sharp enough to rescue them.
"That is actually a juicy story," he says, grinning at Delilah conspiratorially. "Annie is a student at Greendale."
It may only be a cover story, but Jeff can tell from Annie's narrowed eyes and tight frown that she doesn't like it much.
"I'm not Jeff's student, though," she hurries to say. "I mean, I've never taken one of his classes, so there's no conflict of interest or anything."
He nods supportively.
"Annie's so smart that she doesn't need to sleep with her professor to get an A."
"Jeff!" the woman in question half shrieks, half laughs, swatting at his arm. She composes herself pretty quickly, though, and smiles warmly at Delilah. "What about you? What do you do?"
"I'm a PR consultant," Delilah says. "It's mostly freelance stuff, which means I get to do a lot of work from home in my pj's."
"That sounds great."
"It can be." Delilah shrugs. "But sometimes, it gets a little lonely."
Duncan smiles at her in moony kind of way, and somehow, Jeff resists the urge to roll his eyes. He refuses to even think about the very strong possibility that he has looked at Annie in that same way for everyone in the world to see, and instead, studies the menu like it might contain the mysteries of the universe. Annie considers hers in a similar manner, but her concentration is legitimate – she always treats choosing a meal as if it's serious, life-or-death matter.
"What are you getting?" he asks.
"I can't decide. The steamed bass with spicy chili sauce sounds really good, but I don't know the last time I had filet mignon and I kind of have a craving."
"Get the bass," he tells. "I'll get the filet mignon and we can split them."
She looks at him skeptically.
"Split them for real or split them meaning I get one bite of your steak and you eat two-thirds of my fish?"
"When have I ever done—"
"How about every time you've ever suggested we split food?"
He grins, because she's really not exaggerating all that much.
"I am like three times your size, you know."
"But I'm really hungry tonight," she whines, sounding like an extra from a production of 'Oliver'. "I had to skip lunch because the Dean wanted me to… Forget it. I don't even want to talk about what he made me do."
"Fine," he says magnanimously. "We'll cut them right down the middle – you can even do the honors. Okay?"
She nods, grinning happily, and closes her menu with a flourish. He does the same, and notices then that Delilah is watching them, smiling almost fondly across the table.
"How long have you two been together?" she asks. "If I'm not being too pushy…"
Annie looks up at him in alarm again, her eyes wide - another detail that they overlooked, and they can't expect Duncan to save them this time because it would seem a little weird for him to have ready knowledge of his friends' anniversary.
"Well, we've known each other, what?" Jeff says. "Five, almost six years now?"
Annie nods eagerly.
"And we've been *together* for two, almost three years," he finishes, and he has no idea why he chose those numbers and he refuses to think too hard about it, especially when Annie is smiling, ready to go along with the whole thing without any hesitation.
"So you were friends first?" Delilah asks.
"Yes," Annie answers quickly. "Friends first. Always friends."
Jeff shifts uncomfortably in his seat, knowing that's the truth but a lie at the same time. There's been something more than friendship between them since nearly the beginning – even when they weren't able to recognize it, even when they didn't want to recognize it.
"That's so nice." Delilah smiles and lifts her shoulders. "I really think that's the key to making a relationship last. You know, just liking each other enough to be able to sit around and do nothing together."
"Absolutely," Duncan agrees, lifting his wine glass. "To friendship first."
It is lame, as far as toasts go, but once again, Jeff keeps from rolling his eyes. He lifts his glass like a good sport and clinks it against Annie's. When their eyes meet, he knows they're both feeling a little uncomfortable, so he smiles to try to put her at ease.
But she looks away almost immediately, holding her glass out across the table to touch it to Delilah's, and he finds himself staring into the bottom of his own glass.
When they've finished dinner and are waiting for the check, Annie decides that the evening has been an unqualified success.
The conversation has flowed easily all night, though she and Jeff have both been quick to sit back and let Duncan and Delilah (How ridiculous, she thinks to herself. But then she realizes that Delilah knows him as Ian so it's really not that funny) talk to one another, the way that they would if they were alone on their date so they can honestly get to know one another.
And as surprising as it might be – Jeff clearly seems thrown by it – they seem to genuinely like each other. Annie doesn't really consider herself an expert in matters of the heart, but she can usually tell when a woman is interested and Delilah is showing all the signs.
Good for Duncan, she thinks. Everyone deserves a chance to be happy.
He certainly seems determined to go for it too because when Delilah gets a text and excuses herself to make a phone call for work, Duncan leans across the table, checking over his shoulder to make sure that she's out of earshot before waving his hand at Annie and Jeff dismissively.
"Make yourselves scarce for a few minutes," he orders. "I need a moment alone with her to make my move."
"Where do you expect us to go?" Jeff asks.
"I don't know. Say you need to go call the babysitter or something."
"We have kids now too?"
"Fine," Duncan huffs. "Say you have to go to the bathroom then."
"Why would we go the bathroom together?" Annie wonders.
He waggles his brows and offers up an exaggerated leer, and her mouth falls open in outrage.
"I'm not about to pretend that—"
"Sorry about that," Delilah chirps brightly as she sits back down. "Just a minor crisis. Fortunately, it's all resolved now."
Duncan smiles kindly at her, but when he glances across the table at Annie and Jeff, he is glaring, his eyes buggy and wide.
"Annie," Jeff says suddenly, his hand cupping her elbow. "Do you hear that? I think they're playing our song."
He nods toward the piano player and the small dance floor on the other side of the restaurant.
"They're playing our song, so we should…"
He stands, holding his hand out to her.
"Oh," she laughs, finally catching on, and curls her fingers into his. "We should dance. Absolutely. We should totally dance." She smiles at Duncan and Delilah apologetically. "Will you excuse us? It's our song."
She walks with her hand wrapped in Jeff's, and if she's honest, it feels amazing and awful all at the same time. She can't help remembering that he knows exactly how she feels about him, which must make faking this couple thing with her so awkward for him – and that, in turn, only makes her feel so much more awkward herself and she becomes convinced, for no real reason, that her palm is sweaty and he must be able to feel it.
But he doesn't say anything, even as they get to the dance floor and her hands find his shoulders and his find her waist like they've done it before. There are only a few other couples dancing and she wonders if the everyone else in the restaurant can tell that she and Jeff don't really belong among them, that they're just pretending in the name of Duncan's love life. She focuses on the music from the piano to distract herself, sighing when she realizes what the song is.
"What?" Jeff asks.
"It's 'The Way You Look Tonight,'" she says. "That seems like such a cliché. I don't want this to be our song."
He looks down at her in amusement, a smile tugging at his lips.
"Well, since we really don't have a song, you could just pick something else. No one will know the difference."
"Really?" she asks impishly. "So I can go back and tell Delilah that our song is the theme from 'Beauty and the Beast' and you serenade me with it on every anniversary, birthday, and holiday? And sometimes on random Tuesdays just because you're such a romantic?"
He tips his head back and groans dramatically.
"Can't you pick a song that's not completely lame?"
She smiles, warming to the topic.
"What's your idea of a non-lame love song?"
"I don't know," he says, sounding exasperated. "'Romeo and Juliet' by Dire Straits?' 'With or Without You' is okay too."
She doesn't know the first song, so she doesn't really have a choice.
"Okay, fine." She shrugs. "'With or Without You' can be our pretend, non-lame song."
He frowns, all mock-sternly.
"But under no circumstances do I pretend-serenade you. You got that?"
She shakes her head, grinning smartly.
"If I get you pretend-drunk enough, you do."
When he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkle in just such a way that tells her that he wants to disagree but won't. The song ends while they're smiling at one another, and for a moment, they continue to sway like they still hear it. One of the other couples bumps into Jeff on their way off the dance floor, though, so she is jostled out of his arms and the mood seems to break just like that. She feels all awkward and obvious again and hurries as they cross the restaurant to keep a safe distance between them.
Back at the table, Duncan has apparently worked some magic because he explains that Delilah is going to give him a ride home. Alone with Jeff in his car, Annie fiddles with the radio, much to his dismay, though she steadfastly avoids anything that can even remotely be considered a love song. She rolls down the window too, letting the wind tousle her hair, because she is looking for distractions and will take them wherever she can get them.
Because when she's nervous and feeling uncomfortable, she is prone to do stupid things.
"This is really sad," she hears herself saying. "But this pretend date was better than pretty much all of the real dates I've been on."
Jeff takes his eyes off the road for a moment and shoots her a soft smile.
"You're not really being fair to those other guys," he tells her. "Comparing them to me."
She shakes her head, laughing under her breath. When he pulls the car to a stop in front of her building, she hurries to undo the seatbelt before she gives anything else away. But his hand closes around her wrist before she can open the door.
"Hey," he says, his voice pitched low. "I had a good time, too."
For a minute, she thinks that he's just saying it to be nice, because he's taking pity on her, but when she looks up and sees how soft and dark his eyes are in the dim light, how tender his smile is, she knows that he's being sincere.
Later, when she's trying to fall asleep, she tries desperately not to remember that look on his face.
No good ever comes from those kinds of memories.