Genre: Character study, melancholia
Rating: PG
Series: Community
Characters: Jeff (main), Annie
Pairings: Jeff/Annie friendship with UST; mentions of Troy/Britta and Jeff/Britta

Warnings: Spoilers for S1 through S3, spoilers for the first half of S4.

Author's Note: Takes place just after "Intro to Knots" during S4 Community. Kai and Gerda are characters from Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. One of these days, I'll manage to write a mid-winter story that's not melancholy. I swear I will. Today is not that day, apparently.

Disclaimer: Abed Nadir, Annie Edison, Britta Perry, Jeff Winger, Troy Barnes, and all associated characters and organizations are the property of Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment, Dan Harmon Productions, Russo Brothers Films, Universal Television, and Sony Pictures Television. Any mention of real life events and real people is not meant to imply that the people or incidents in question as they are used in the story have any relationship to reality. All original characters and the plot are mine. No payment was asked for or received in the writing of this story and no profit was earned. No copyright infringement is intended.

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The start of snow flurries is a signal for the shoppers to begin scattering from the town center. Although it'll be hours before the snowstorm's full power hits, it appears that just about everyone has decided to heed the meteorologists' warnings and get out while the getting is good.

Sometimes Jeff wonders how it's possible that everyone manages to forget they live in Colorado. It's not like snow in winter is a rare thing. Just the same, he pulls his collar up against his neck, adjusts his scarf, and fights his own blind urge to head back home. He glares up into the sky and curses himself for deciding that he needed a walk to clear his head before the storm locked him indoors for the next day or two with nothing but his thoughts, terrible television, alcohol, and the text function on his phone.

As Jeff weaves his way through knots of fleeing shoppers, he amuses himself by picturing them all as a stampeding herd while he, the lone cowboy, stays calmly up on horseback watching the longhorns stream by him on either side. Thanks to his height, it's not a hard illusion to maintain.

It's also thanks to his height — and the fact that she's not wearing a hat — that he's able to spot her a few yards in front of him on the sidewalk. Unlike the rest of the population, she's not moving. Instead, she's standing in front of the display window of an over-priced, high-end, boutique clothing store. Her eyes are fixed on the merchandise inside, which is probably why she doesn't spot him towering over most of the crowd.

His feet stutter to a halt and he almost turns back, but there's something about her expression illuminated by the light spilling out of the storefront that arrests him. He leans against a lamppost, one of those faux gaslight things that are more decorative than useful. An unobserved Annie Edison, he figures, is a rare thing to behold. In three-and-a-half years he's never managed the trick of it. He wonders if anyone among their circle of friends has.

If anyone has, my money's on Abed, he thinks. Maybe, he quickly (and hopefully, although he'll never admit it) amends.

She reaches out an ungloved hand to trail it lazily across window as her gaze travels across display. Party dresses, Jeff notes, all of them form-fitting and silken-looking; all them quite a bit more daring than a cardigan-owning, ballet-flat wearing, floral dresses kind of girl would normally wear. He sees her eyes suddenly snap to one of the dresses. Her hand flattens against the glass and she leans forward. Although he is too far away, he swears he can hear the breathy "oh" escaping her slightly open mouth.

Jeff stretches his neck to catch a glimpse of what has captured her attention. The dress is a deep red, both sleeveless and strapless, not to mention sleekly form-fitting with the hem cut to mid-thigh. Of course, she's transfixed by the most daring dress; a dress she'd never have the guts to wear.

Annie's hand drops as she steps back from the window. Her eyes then drop down to her tasteful, but utilitarian, cloth coat. Suddenly, he remembers her bragging like she was a hunter who just bagged her first trophy kill about how she got it at a bargain down in some second-hand shop.

One hand pinches at the coat as Annie shuffles from one foot to the next, before her eyes rise again to look at the dress. Jeff realizes with a start that she's wearing jeans and boots, obviously as a concession to the weather, despite the fact she's not wearing a hat, gloves, or scarf. The rare and unexpected clothing combination makes her look both painfully older and painfully younger than her age.

It takes a moment for Jeff to realize that he's not witnessing Annie passively daydreaming. He's witnessing Annie actively wanting.

Somewhere in the back of Jeff's mind the thought occurs like a klaxon warning: She most certainly does have the guts to wear that dress or something very much like it, if only she could afford the price tag. He brutally represses the thought, but he knows it's only temporary. Enough time alone and with enough alcohol, he's pretty sure he'll become fixated on the idea. He can only hope that he won't do something stupid like drunk-text her while imaging her in that dress (or something very much like it), because God knows what'll come pouring out of his fingers then.

Jeff has a vague notion that maybe he should run away before he creepily invades yet more of Annie's privacy when he sees Annie's head drop and her shoulders hunch in seeming defeat. The one hand he can see is clenched into a fist down by her side.

And just like that he's striding away from lamppost, but not in the opposite direction like he planned.

"Putting together your Hanukkah list?" The words easily fly out of his mouth.

Annie startles and her head whips around. "Jeff! I was just—." She stops, as if belatedly realizing that she doesn't owe him or anyone else an explanation. In the blink of an eye, she bursts into a wide grin that buries the too-old, too-young wanting girl beneath the comfortingly familiar Annie Edison, professional optimist and champion in the ways of being cheerful. "No. No Hanukkah list. Just window shopping."

As he comes to a halt next to her, something in his chest catches when he sees the delicate, icy sparkle of scattered snowflakes that have been captured by her dark hair. It shouldn't strike him as oddly pretty as it does. He's seen for himself that a similar effect can be achieved with the right expensive hairstyle twinned with the right expensive hair product, both things that are undoubtedly out of Annie's price range.

He shrugs uncomfortably. She didn't ask, but suddenly he has the overwhelming urge to explain himself. "I'm out getting a breath of fresh air before the storm hits."

She winces in sympathy. "At least you'll have solitude. I've got Abed, Troy, Britta, and her cats to contend with in a two-bedroom, one-blanket fort apartment."

Jeff raises his eyebrows.

"Britta and cats are riding out the storm at our place. Something about some trouble with her heat," Annie hastily answers his unasked question.

"I seem to recall you confessing to me that sending Troy and Britta off together for that initial three-hour lunch was your idea," Jeff dryly reminds her. "Reap what you sow."

He meant the comment as a joke, but the way Annie's shoulders immediately hunch it's clear that she didn't take it that way.

Jeff fights the urge to reach out and pat her reassuringly on the shoulder. Seriously, I didn't mean anything by that. "Since we're both taking a break before we're trapped, how about…" His voice trails off as he scans the area. When his eyes land a coffee house across the street he lets out a breath in relief. He normally avoids the place like the plague, but any port in a storm. "…some coffee."

Annie pats her coat pockets. "I only brought my house keys and my phone. I don't have any money. Well, I do, but it's only a pocket full of quarters. I don't have enough to buy anything."

Jeff derisively snorts. "My treat. You can buy me the next one."

Annie's face blooms into a genuine smile. "Deal."

As Jeff heads off with Annie in tow, he decides that he's going to forget the deal. The trick will be finding a way to make Annie forget it, too.

The coffee house is blessedly deserted when they walk in. Jeff is pretty sure that if the usual crowd of hipsters were milling around the place would be near-unbearable. As it is the old license plates from around the country carelessly-but-not-really decorating the walls, the mismatched chairs and tables, the exposed rough wood, and the insolently lounging barista is enough to set his teeth on edge.

Annie practically skips up to the counter and cheerfully orders a chai in a to-go cup, a contrast to Jeff's own mumbled order for the house blend coffee, black, also to-go.

As the barista gets to work, Annie contently drinks in her surroundings with her eyes as if she's pleased to be standing in this monument to just about everything he hates about hipsters. Not for the first time Jeff wonders how it's even remotely possible for anyone to be so happy about such small things. Then he remembers her open expression of want in front of that store, followed by the posture of defeat with a fist clenched by her side. He decides that maybe he never wants to solve that particular mystery.

When they settle at the table closest to the window, Annie's smile threatens to cross the line into cartoon Disney princess territory as she peels off her coat and wraps her cold hands around the cardboard cup.

"You're weirdly unprepared," Jeff remarks as he finishes removing coat, scarf, and gloves. "Aren't you a Weather Channel nerd?"

Annie suddenly goes very still, leaving Jeff with the impression that he just stepped into a hidden minefield. So he's rather surprised when Annie's eventual response is a mild, "I didn't expect to be out this long."

Jeff can feel his forehead crinkle in confusion. On the surface, the answer makes sense. However, it's been cold, damp, and cloudy grey all day. Leaving her apartment without even gloves is an extremely un-Annie thing to do.

Annie pauses to sip from her cup, before saying, "I was doing laundry."

Jeff's frown deepens. "Oooh-kay. That explains exactly nothing."

Annie huffs an exasperated sigh. "Britta and Abed are waging verbal war over Minerva, with Abed firmly in the 'she sucks' camp and Britta firmly in the 'she's awesome' camp. Troy's playing referee and taking no side whatsoever."

"Still explains exactly nothing," Jeff remarks. "And since when does Troy not defend his boyfriend?"

Annie shoots him a withering glare, no doubt over the "boyfriend" crack.

"Ugh. Fine. Sorry," Jeff grunts. "But Troy not taking Abed's side is making even less sense than your explanation."

Annie's still frowning at him. "Troy's figured out that he should take Britta's side more often."

"Sounds to me that Troy's not taking Britta's side, either," Jeff corrects her. "More like he's decided to act like Switzerland."

"Well, baby steps, right? So yay for that," Annie huffs. She turns her frown down to the chai, as if it had also had made a crack about her roommates. "As for the Minerva thing, Minerva's the only female Inspector in 50 years' worth of male Inspectors."

Jeff cackles because he can picture it now. Hurricane Britta, Defender of All Women, versus Immovable Abed, Defender of All Fanboy-ism. It's no wonder Annie fled. He even feels sorry for Troy. Well, almost sorry for Troy.

Annie's eyes narrow. "Not funny. Definitely not funny."

As always, Jeff finds Irritated Annie so inconveniently adorable that he can't resist pushing her buttons a little bit; especially since he knows that she is somewhat indifferent to Inspector Spacetime minutia. "And where do you stand on the great debate of our lives?"

"She's no more or less silly than any of the others, as far as I can tell." Annie suddenly sighs, as if letting go of her irritation with her breath. "After about eight hours' worth of back-and-forth, not to mention constant re-watching of various parts of various episodes, I needed to get out of there."

"Aaaaaand that's where the laundry comes in," Jeff adds.

Annie nods. "It's actually in the basement of our building, but sometimes people crack a window and it gets cold down there."

A picture is forming in Jeff's head. "Hence, the coat, boots, and a pocket full of quarters; but no hat, gloves, scarf, or wallet."

Annie's shoulders slump. "Once I got my clothes in the washer, it was either return to the apartment, or watch my clothes go through the spin cycle."

"So you went with option three." Jeff nods.

"A little more than three hours ago." Annie rubs her face, as if she's suddenly tired. "I just know that one of my neighbors have removed my clothes from the washing machine and dumped the load on the floor." Her hands drop from her face. "I pretty much asked for this didn't I?"

"It's funny how often possession is not nine-tenths of the law," Jeff dryly answers. "Especially when it comes to the use of washing machines."

Annie regards him with an odd expression, and he suddenly realizes that she's not talking about her wet laundry getting unceremoniously dumped on a dirty floor.

Jeff waves a reassuring hand. "As for the whole Britta vs. Abed thing, you know Britta can be like the comments section of a newspaper's Web site when she sinks her teeth into an argument and you know Abed can get stubborn about his obsessions to the point of being unreasonable. It'll blow over. It usually does."

Annie's expression completely disappears and Jeff has the uncomfortable notion that he's looking into the face of a life-sized porcelain doll. The only thing that stops Annie from skating into the uncanny valley is her appraising gaze.

Jeff squirms uncomfortably as he thinks, This is new.

Finally, finally, Annie slowly says, "Unless Britta and Abed are actually arguing over something else, with Minerva being the stand-in."

"For Minerva, read Troy."

Annie carefully nods, as if she's afraid to state her agreement out loud.

"You," Jeff states, "have been spending entirely too much time with Britta. Sometimes a Minerva is just a Minerva."

"I don't think so. At least not this time. And I don't think this is going to blow over." Annie pauses as the appraising look returns to her eye. "Would you be happy if I'm right?"

Jeff is completely taken aback by the question.

Annie tilts her head and simply waits on his answer.

Jeff is still not sure he's understood her meaning. "Troy and Britta. You don't think they're going to last, do you?"

Annie raises her eyebrows, an elegantly silent confirmation. To say that he's surprised by this is an understatement. Annie is a romantic optimist of the love-conquers-all variety. For her to even go this far…

Annie interrupts his thoughts. "You still haven't answered my question."

And, God, it would be so easy to say, Of course not. He's pretty sure he could say it and get away with it if he said it to Shirley, Britta, Troy, Pierce, or even Abed.

It hits him like a blow to realize that Annie, this strange Annie with the porcelain doll's face and appraising eyes, wouldn't believe him even if the truth were that simple. She's heard him make too many cracks about Britta being the "other woman" in Troy-and-Abed's relationship, too many cracks about the age difference, too many cracks about Britta turning into a nerd-girl.

Too many cracks, period.

This Annie, the one sitting across the table from him, is demanding the truth. Maybe she even deserves it.

Jeff uncomfortably hunches forward, as Annie's face loses all expression.

"It's complicated," Jeff mumbles.

Annie waits. The snowflakes in her hair have melted down to tiny drops of water. They catch the dim, overhead light of the coffee house and sparkle like so much fairy dust. If he squints, Jeff bets there'd be a nimbus effect around her head.

He sighs. "Look, I'm not saying that Britta and I are ever getting back together, because things worked out so well for us the first time. It's just," he helplessly shrugs, compelled to confess by something he can't quite name, "with Troy she's been open from the start. Everyone knows they're together. With me…" his voice trails off.

"I thought you both agreed to keep your relationship a secret. You know, to maintain the group's equilibrium," Annie suddenly remarks.

Christ. Annie's not missing much, is she? He agreed. She agreed. They both agreed. They just didn't always agree at the same time. What difference does it make now who first suggested keeping Britta-and-him a secret? What difference does it make now who stopped agreeing to the agreement first before swinging back around to agreeing that keeping it a secret was best? What difference does it make now who started sleeping with third parties first?

It makes no difference. Or maybe it makes all the difference in the world. Even in retrospect he can't tell, and in the present tense he's not interested in figuring it out.

"Look, I'm not going to deny that Britta and I will always have a connection, and I'm not going to deny that we're close. We're friends, and we'll always be friends. I'm not jealous of Britta being with Troy. Hell, I wasn't jealous of her being with other people back when we were hooking up. That's just the way it is with us." It's suddenly vitally important that Annie understands that much.

At last an expression creeps into Annie's face. It looks an awful lot like skepticism.

"Seriously," Jeff insists, even as he wildly wonders how he ended up trying to justify himself to anyone, let alone to an Annie with that too-appraising look and her crown of water drops.

Annie suddenly shrugs and picks up her cup, leaving Jeff to wonder what she was looking for, or what she was hoping to accomplish. He has the overwhelming urge to reach across the table and shake her until he gets an answer.

When the hell did she get so good at pushing his buttons without employing that damned my-puppy's-got-cancer look? Why does he feel the urge to insist to Annie, of all people, that he's not looking to re-ignite old relationships? Oh. Wait. He knows why. But that would mean admitting to things that he's not willing to admit to. There's a certain vicious justice that even if he was willing, he's not entirely sure she'd believe him.

Annie turns away to look out the window. Apropos of absolutely nothing said between them before this moment, Annie remarks, "I have no idea why I even bother to look."

Seriously, he should walk away from this conversation. He should tell her that he needs to get some basic necessities before the storm makes him a shut-in. He should just leave and forget the past hour ever happened.

Instead he looks out the window and follows her gaze. Oh. The boutique clothing store with the party dresses in the window.

Of course, he thinks with relief, grateful to hang an explanation on Annie's odd mood at last. Events at the apartment and a sense of impending doom dampened her usual optimism, and her walk to clear her head served as a reminder that her escape was only temporary because she couldn't afford to make it more permanent. Hence, a quick plunge into depression that will no doubt be just as quickly be overcome. He just came along when she was deep in her funk and got caught in the backlash. Nothing more than that.

He quickly suppresses the urge to let out a relieved breath. This conversation can now be easily dismissed. Maybe he admitted a couple of uncomfortable truths, but nothing damning or damaging. Annie wasn't looking for anything, at least not from him. Now, he can deal with the real problem. Cheering up Annie? This he can do.

"You know, even before I became a lawyer, I used to haunt stores like that," Jeff says.

Annie blesses him with an amused glance. "Shocker."

Jeff leans back, feeling unaccountably pleased with himself now that he can see Annie perking up slightly. "Of course, I'd try on everything, even though I couldn't afford to buy so much as a pair of socks. The more expensive the clothes, the better." He leans forward, setting his ingratiating grin on blinding. "I may have engaged in my own form of public daydreaming while doing this, not that I'm admitting to anything."

Annie wraps her hands around her coffee cup. While her smile isn't a full-blown smile, at least not yet, it is at least there.

"I used to do that," Annie wistfully admits. "I used to come down here, to that store across the street, in fact."

"It's a great way to figure out what looks good on you," Jeff cheerfully says. "I think I spent my entire first paycheck from Hamish, Hamish & Hamlin on upgrading my wardrobe. Of course, it was basically two suits, two pairs of socks, and three ties. But they were tailored Italian suits, Egyptian cotton socks, and real silk ties."

Annie breaks into a giggle. The sound is enough to blow away all of Jeff's remaining doubts. He so nailed it. Damn, he's good.

"You should've gone in to try on those dresses," Jeff continues. "At least grab some fun for yourself before the storm hits and you're stuck with three arguing children."

"Plus handi-capable cats," Annie adds with a grin.

Jeff groans. "God, Britta really has been in your apartment on a semi-regular basis. Say it with me Annie, 'Britta's cats are shambling wrecks wrapped in fur kept alive only by a zombie spirit and a hatred of all humans'."

"Awwwww, they're okay," Annie sweetly says.

"They're lulling you into a false sense of security," Jeff insists. "Wait until they give in to their natural instinct and try to eat your face."

Annie rolls her eyes and shakes her head before she's back to looking out the window at the clothing store across the street. Her smile vanishes as quickly as it had appeared.

Jeff can feel the doubts crowding around him. He's missing something here. He debates with himself for a moment over what he should say, and decides to stick to the safer path. "Seriously, why didn't you go in and try on some clothes? You looked like you wanted to."

Annie doesn't look at him. "Like I said, I used to. I stopped." Her face scrunches as if she's trying to remember something. "I stopped right before we were expelled from Greendale last year."

"Why?" Jeff asks. "It's not like they can tell you don't fit their idea of their normal clientele."

Annie looks at him. "I felt guilty. I felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting everyone's time." She breaks his gaze and looks down at her hands clutching the coffee cup. Her voice drops, as if she's making a confession. "In the end, all I could do was just stop and let it go. The worst part, the worst part, was realizing that I was pretending that I ever had any other option open to me. It's bad enough to look and not touch. But to actually touch and never have? Why do that to myself? Why play a game I can never win?"

"You don't know that," Jeff says.

Annie looks up at him, her expression almost hopeful.

"Forensic scientists. They must make a good living, right?" Jeff points out. "One of these days, you'll be able to walk right into that store and buy whatever you want."

Annie smiles then, but it seems more sad than anything else. "I suppose you're right. Someday I'll look back and realize that beating myself up over something I couldn't do anything about was just silly."

Jeff bites back the urge to say something reassuring. He's not quite sure why, but he has a feeling that it would somehow make things worse. Instead he looks down at his coffee, if only to break away from her gaze, before taking a sip. He's putting his cup down when he hears Annie gasp.

Jeff's head shoots up to look at her. "What is it?"

"The snow. It's getting heavier. I better get home before it gets any worse," Annie says as she quickly stands.

Jeff dumbly blinks at her before he turns to look out the window. She's right, although he could swear that it was still nothing more than flurries only moments before. He can already tell that it's going to be a cold, wet slog back to his place. For hatless, gloveless, scarf-less Annie, it's going to be a whole lot worse.

Annie's already got her coat on and is angrily muttering to herself, while Jeff buttons his coat and pulls on his gloves. Although he misses most of what she's saying, "stupid" seems to be the word showing up the most often. Distressingly often, in fact.

"You're not stupid," Jeff says.

Annie stops her angry self-flagellation and sharply looks at him.

"You just lost track of time. We both did. It happens." He glances once more out the window as he fixes his scarf around his neck and winces. It's getting easier and easier for him to lose track of time when it's just the two of them. It's becoming an issue, but he's not sure what to do about it. No. Wait. To be bluntly honest, if only with himself, he does know how to course-correct. The problem is that he doesn't want to. He's not sure how that happened, but it has and now he's stuck. He can't back away like he should, but he can't seem move forward like he wants to.

"Thanks for the chai, Jeff," Annie says, drawing his attention back to her. She smiles apologetically as she tosses the cup and whatever is left of its contents into the nearest trash bin. "It's going to be hard enough making my way back home through this mess," she adds by way of explanation.

Jeff shrugs and joins Annie in tossing his own cup, still more than half-full of coffee, into the trash before following her out the door.

They pause under the overhang to catch their bearings. The street is mostly abandoned. Aside from the two of them, a handful of straggling shoppers and retail employees are rushing through the rapidly accumulating snow with their heads bent low. In the distance, Jeff can hear the shush-shush-shush of cars driving through the slush of unplowed, unsalted, un-sanded roads.

Jeff chuffs a booted foot at the snowy sidewalk to test the slippery-underfoot factor. He figures the odds of him landing on his ass between here and his apartment ranks on the higher side. He looks at Annie and sees that she's worriedly doing her own slippery-underfoot factor test. It's enough to get him to do a quick mental calculation.

Crap. Much as he'd like to help get Annie home safe and sound, he's been caught short. Like her, he didn't expect to be out and about this long and now they both have to pay.

"I'd offer to give you a ride, but my car's back at my place and I live further away," Jeff says by way of apology.

Annie waves a bare hand at him. "Jeff, it's fine. I appreciate the thought, but…" her voice trails off as she surveys the streetscape. "I better get going."

"Wait." Jeff pulls the scarf from around his neck. "At least take this with you. You can give it back when we see each other again."

Annie's face blooms into a smile that actually reaches her eyes and lights up her face. Once again he's amazed that she can so happy about such a small thing.

Jeff can't help himself. He makes a big show of fixing the scarf around her neck just so, and tucking the ends under the collar of her coat just so, even as he holds forth in excruciating detail about the proper way to wear a scarf, which is not to tie it in a knot, thank-you-so-very-much, and by the way this is alpaca wool, so don't get any ideas about sticking it in a drier, air dry only or else all the ghosts of alpacas past will haunt you and give you nightmares, unforgiving animals those alpacas…

He keeps going in this vein until Annie breaks into helpless giggles, and he keeps going until she's laughing so hard that she has a hard time catching her breath.

Jeff steps back, feeling the victory smile breaking out on his face. It took him a bit to get there, but got there he did. Whatever black cloud that had followed Annie out of her apartment appears to be gone.

"You and your clothes," Annie says between hiccuping giggles. "How you're going to handle the slush daring to get the cuffs of your jeans all gross, I just don't know."

Jeff points to his leg. "Old jeans. Not to mention jeans that cost less than $100."

"So definitely not wooden hanger-worthy," Annie says with a grin.

"Bite your tongue. All my clothes are wooden hanger-worthy." Jeff strikes an exaggerated manly-man pose to drive home, which sets Annie off into yet another round of giggles.

And just like that, whatever delicate crystalline tension they had between them shatters as a fit of hysterical laughter overtakes them both to such an extent that they end up leaning against each other and gasping for breath.

Eventually, eventually, the laughter dies down into a series of hiccoughs and deep breaths from both participants. At some point during their storm of mutual crazy, Jeff's arm had snaked around Annie's shoulders, drawing her tightly to his side. Annie, at some point, had wrapped her arms around his waist.

Jeff's got some sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue, something about storms, and being trapped in too-small apartments, and holiday stress getting to the two of them because, God knows, what they were laughing about wasn't all that funny. But when he looks down, whatever he's about to say disappears from his brain as his mouth goes dry.

Looking back up at him is that too-old, too-young, wanting, hoping girl. The fresh snowflakes captured by her hair reflect the light from the coffee shop behind them, giving Jeff the impression that she's wearing a delicate crown that would crumble to dust if he so much as thought of touching it.

For a moment — for a very brief moment — it's just the two of them in silent world of white.

What he wants to say: "Come home with me."

What he says instead: "See you after the storm." His smirk feels forced.

Annie snorts, and the fragile spell is broken. Gone is the wanting, hoping girl. Gone, too, is the too-appraising woman with her porcelain doll's expression.

All that remains is the delicate crown of snow. And her. Always her.

Annie smiles as she breaks contact. She sketches a wave at him as she turns away and begins her long walk home.

He watches her go until the snowfall obscures her form.

Jeff shivers in the cold, looks up at the sky, and curses everything. His own walk home suddenly feels like it'll be much harder than it did a few moments before.

He casts one final glance at the point where he last saw Annie and hates himself a little bit for hoping that maybe, just maybe, she looked back.