A/N: This is the first Community fanfiction I've written but I love the show so I decided to give it a go. It was only supposed to be a one-shot but it got a little away from me so I've divided it into two parts. It's AU and, as you can probably guess from the title, is set in New York.
Jeff is going to make partner.
Jeff is going to make partner and he's going to be the youngest partner in the history of the firm. He is going to make partner and then he's actually going to have time to appreciate things like the flash car he bought last year but has barely driven because he doesn't haven't anywhere to go except the office. Once he's made partner, all those nights where he fell asleep slumped over his desk at three in the morning will finally be worth it. He is going to make partner and he'll get the respect he deserves because he'll be a damn partner. He'll get the corner office that he's been eyeing since day one and his picture will be on the website. His mum will be proud and she might just stop whining about how desperate she is for grandkids. Because he'll be partner and something like that trumps him being in his mid-thirties and childless.
Jeff ignores the fact that he doesn't actually have a law degree, and that he got to where he is based on little more than blagging and bullshitting. He also ignores the fact that he sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, convinced that he's going to be found out and that his whole carefully constructed life will collapse right in front of his eyes. Because he's got this far without anyone suspecting anything, and his bosses love him, and all the whispers around the office are saying that they're days away from announcing the new partner, and Ben told him that said whispers are saying it's going to be him.
So he keeps right on working, clocking up as many billable hours as he possibly can. He takes on any case and is pretty sure that he left his ethics behind a long time ago. He represents huge corporations and doesn't even flinch anymore when he's made the lead on a case like the one he's working on right now. He's representing Cobol, this oil conglomerate who is accused of bribing government officials out in Nigeria to get their hands on hundreds of acres of farmland that's supposedly a lucrative source of oil. He sees pictures of houses being torched, and of armed soldiers all but dragging families away, and he doesn't feel a thing. He thinks that he would have at one time but not anymore. On his first day at the firm, some jumped up associate, who has long since moved on, had shown him around. He had tuned out almost everything the guy had said, figuring that if he had managed to get this far by himself, he didn't need some little shit who wore the worst-fitting suit that Jeff had ever seen, telling him how to do things. But one thing had stuck in his head. The guy had told him that 'caring is lethal around here. It's a disease.' He didn't realise he had taken it in until he was representing some schmuck who been over the limit and smashed into another car. Because when he'd stood in the courtroom, looking over at the woman who had been in the car and who had almost lost her baby, he had realised that he was right. He couldn't care. So he doesn't. He forces himself not to care every time another one of his closing arguments means some scumbag is let back out onto the streets. He forces himself not to care as he screws a distressed family out of the money they so desperately need from a lawsuit. He forces himself not to care as he drives past the protestors who are outraged over the ruling he has helped bring about. He can't let himself care.
He discovered that the trick is not to think about it. He submerges himself in case files and depositions until the early hours of the morning, when he's too tired to remember the devastated faces as a judge reads out a not-guilty verdict while him and his client celebrate. He wakes up in a sleepy haze that's so thick that he can't remember the mother slapping him across the face outside the courtroom after he successfully defended his client against her accusation that it was his company's fault that her son would never walk again. By the time he is actually capable of conscious thought, which is around his third cup of coffee, he's already sat at his desk with another bunch of files to read through, and the cycle starts again.
Because Jeff is pretty sure that if he did let himself think about it, let himself remember all the trash he helped go free, that he would hate himself.
So he doesn't think about it, and instead he goes on representing every client that's passed his way, sometimes pulling the most insane arguments out of thin air, all in the name of making partner. He's given his life to the firm and he isn't giving up until it's paid off. He can't remember the last time he had a decent night's sleep. He can't remember the last time he had a weekend to himself where he actually got to explore the city.
And fuck, he can't remember the last time he got laid. It's been six- he stops and counts backwards - ten months since him and Britta broke up. Jesus, tenmonths. Their relationship had been fireworks and all that shit when they had first started out. It was her passion that had attracted him to her. So when their relationship had reached its inevitable end, he had expected it to come with a bang. They were both as hotheaded as each other, and that should have meant an explosive break-up. But the passion and - love wasn't the right word. He wasn't sure he had ever truly loved her. Hell he wasn't even sure that he actually believed in love. Well whatever it was that had made them work to begin with, that had vanished from their relationship. And the end came with a damp fizzle rather than a bang. They had been curled up on the sofa, half watching a re-run of House on one of his rare evenings off, when she had told him that they both knew that this wasn't working. She had said it so casually, as if she was asking what he wanted for dinner, that he'd had to ask her to repeat it. She had, and rather than arguing with her and trying to convince her to stick with their relationship as he had expected to, he had found himself nodding and agreeing. And it felt like a huge weight off his shoulders. He had realised, a week later in the middle of a meeting, that he had been expecting the break-up for weeks. He was always working so he never even got the chance to see her. He'd missed her birthday to spend the night in the office with the other associates, trying to find this key piece of evidence for an upcoming trial. He'd finally called her at around two am, almost falling asleep on the floor, surrounded by papers and empty take-out containers, and she had brushed off his apology as if it was nothing. It had dawned on him that she had never even been expecting him to make it. Their break-up had simply been a case of when rather than if, and which of them would have the guts to do it first.
They had parted on amicable terms and the little voice in Jeff's head can't help but wonder whether he should have tried for some form of friends with benefits arrangement. Not that he would have ever had time to take her up on it if she had agreed. He'd always thought that being a lawyer would be some big, glamorous job where he would be required to do little more than wear flash suits, wine and dine potential clients, and spend his evenings picking up women in bars. Hell the entire reason he had decided to blag his way into becoming a lawyer was because it was the most prestigious job he could think of. However, then he'd started at Hamish &Co and he had realised that it was a lot more work that he had expected. And he could have done less. He could have slacked off with the likes of Ben who did the minimum amount. But he had discovered that there was something about it that he liked. The buzz he got from winning a case, or coming up with the exact argument that he knew would kill the prosecution, was indescribable. And somehow it became his life. Five years later, here he is, a thirty-five year old associate at one of the biggest firms in New York, on the brink of becoming partner. He's so close to having it all and he isn't giving up.
A knock on the door distracts him from his thoughts and he sighs as he realises that he's been daydreaming for a good ten minutes, which is about $100 of time he could have billed to Cobol if he had been focusing. Hell he'll bill it to them anyway and just write it off as time spent researching or something.
"Come in," he calls out, opening a file to make it look like he has actually been working.
The door opens and Alan Connor, one of his fellow associates and one of the few guys Jeff spends any time with in this place, pokes his head around the door.
"Sundance!" Jeff replies, forcing a smile onto his face so as not to give away just how tired he is. Alan's one of the other guys up for partner and there is no way in hell that Jeff is giving him the satisfaction of knowing that these 80 hour weeks are getting to him. "What are you doing skulking around my office?"
"I've been sent to tell you that the big kahunas upstairs want to see you."
Alan's voice is strained and there's a tightness to his smile, like it's killing him that he's the one who has been sent to get Jeff. And Jeff can't help but think about the rumours that are flying around the office, that it's between him and Alan over who'll make partner.
He stands up, shrugs on the crazily expensive jacket of his crazily expensive Armani suit, and pats Alan on the back as he passes him, throwing a "thanks, man" over his shoulder as he goes.
The long dark corridors are littered with people who are rushing to and from different departments. A law firm isn't exactly one of those places where people have time to stand around chatting, not when your time is measured in five-minute segments, and five minutes wasted is $50 down the drain.
But as he walks by them, he notices that some of them are taking the time to stop and nod at him, even throw a small smile his way. Those rumours are playing even louder in his head now, and he wonders if they know something he doesn't. He stops in front of the elevator and waits a little less than patiently for it to arrive. This could be the day that his life changes. He knows that he looks as calm as hell on the outside, because he's Jeff Winger and he doesn't show people when he's nervous as fuck, but inside he can't help but freak out. Just a little. The realisation that all his years of work might be about to pay off, it's overwhelming.
The elevator announces its arrival with a small ping, and he steps in, thankful that there are only a couple of other people in there. Pulling his Blackberry out of his pocket, he tries to look as casual as possible as the elevator travels between the various floors. Bejeweled keeps him amused for the minute or so it takes for various people to get on and off and for him to finally make it to the top floor that's home to the bosses. He shoves the phone back in his pocket and aims for a sort of casual nonchalance as he walks down the corridor. And he knows he's pulling it off because he spent weeks practicing that walk back when he was 15. Not that he'd ever admit that to anyone.
Amanda, Ted Hamish's secretary, is sat behind her desk as usual, typing something up. She is most definitely Jeff's type, blonde hair and a killer figure, but everyone knows that Ted's been having it off with her for years so she's strictly out of bounds.
"I got told that Ted wanted to see me," Jeff says, casually rapping his fingers on the top of the mahogany desk.
"Yes. I'll see if he's ready for you."
She buzzes through to Ted and announces his arrival. It only takes a moment for him to tell her to let him in, and she nods at him, giving him a small smile.
Taking a deep breath, Jeff pushes open the heavy door and enters the sanctum of Ted's office. Maybe he should have thought to tell one of the desperate to please newbies to run out and get him a bottle of champagne before he came up here.
Disbarred. The word makes Jeff feel nauseous. Dis-fucking-barred. He can't quite believe it. He's tempted to pinch himself to see if this all a fucking dream but it's been so long since he actually slept well enough to dream that he knows it can't be.
The word escapes his lips without him even realising, and a woman walking past shoots him a disapproving look. He wants to tell her that shit is actually a pretty restrained outburst for him to be having right now, bearing in mind that a variety of different swear words seem to be playing on a loop in his head, but he thinks that would make her think he was even crazier.
He wants to scream, swear, kick, scream some more and break something. He wants to find the little rat that discovered his secret and sold him out and punch them. He wants to drink himself into a very huge stupor and then scream some more. But right now he's sort of frozen on the steps outside Hamish &Co, and he's pretty sure that the pretzel vendor on the corner doesn't actually sell alcohol. He knows he should move, that if he turns to look back at the building, he'll see people staring out of the windows at him, and that security will probably come along any minute to make it clear that off the property means off the steps. But he can't actually move. It hasn't all quite sunken in yet.
He'd gone into Ted's office, pretty confident that he was about to be told that he had been made the newest partner. He had already been planning the phone calls he had to make, the new suit he was going to buy to splash out on, and which club he was going to go to to celebrate – whichever had the hottest women – before he had even sat down. Then he had seen Ted's face, the most serious expression he had ever seen gracing it, and he had felt this coldness taking over his body. He felt like he had back in eighth grade when he had been called to the head's office and been told that they had discovered he had cheated on the maths test. Only this time it was a hundred times worse. The meeting had been something of a blur and he had only taken in fragments of the conversation – "misrepresented your credentials," "falsified documents," "not eligible to practice law," "fired and disbarred."
If he had thought that was bad, it was nothing compared to the two security guards that showed up. They had escorted him from Ted's office, back down the corridor and into the elevator. Whispers and nosey looks followed him all the way back to his own office, as everyone speculated why he was with security. He'd been told to pack up everything that was his, which turned out to not be very much, and then he had had to conduct the walk of shame. Walking back down the corridor, clutching his embarrassingly empty box of personal effects, as his colleagues watched and whispered, was almost certainly the worst moment of his life. He was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing him crack, so he forced an indifferent expression onto his face, and bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself screaming in rage.
And that was how he came to be sat on the steps of his now former workplace, in a $6000 suit, with absolutely no idea what do next. This morning he had been days away from being the youngest partner in the firm's history, and now he's going to be the story that his colleagues pass between their friends. The guy who faked his way into becoming a lawyer and got found out.
He kicks the step and drops his head into his hands. His heart is pounding and he feels like he is going to throw up at any minute. He's given the past five years of his life to that firm and he's been left with nothing. No other law firm will touch him now, and he's no idea what else he can do. He doesn't think he can face four years at college attempting to get his undergraduate degree. It would be embarrassing and he'd skipped out on the whole college thing because it seemed too much like hard work. He's thirty-five, unemployed, has no qualifications to his name, and has just been fired from a company that would definitely not be giving him a reference.
Rubbing his hands over his face, he takes a deep breath and forces himself to stand up. He knows that everyone will still be watching him, waiting to see if he breaks down, and he isn't going to give them that satisfaction. He scoops up the box that is next to him and forces his legs to start moving in the direction of the nearest subway station.
The streets of New York are crowded, as always, but Jeff walks through the crowds as if he is in a dream. It's three o'clock on a Thursday. He can't remember the last time he had been outside on a weekday afternoon. He forces himself not to think about the fact that there is an associate meeting starting in half an hour, one he was supposed to be in, and he also forces himself not to focus on the fact that he's going to be the main topic of conversation in that meeting.
Disbarred. It's like a drum beat in his head.
When he had first started at the firm, he had been convinced he was going to be found out. Every time someone knocked on his door, he was certain he was going to be hauled upstairs and fired on the spot. He had been so panicked that he had spent one afternoon memorising the name of every law professor at Columbia, just in case. He had kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for him to be discovered, and somehow a year passed. As the months continued, the fear started to disappear. He was one of the most successful attorneys at the firm and no one ever even asked him where he went to college, let alone asked for the name of a professor. Bigger and bigger cases were being handed to him, and he stopped worrying so much about being discovered. Everyone believed that he was a lawyer just like them, and they had no reason not to. By his third year at the firm, he figured that it didn't really matter if he wasn't qualified since his case record spoke for itself. Sure there were still those nights where he woke up certain that he was going to be found out, but then he just had to remember his latest great closing argument, or the bonus he'd been given, and the fear dissipated. No one had any reason to suspect he had lied, and he had come to believe that he would never be found out.
He feels sick. His head is spinning and he can barely breathe. He stumbles down the stairs into the subway station, scans his travel card on autopilot, and wanders onto the train that's just pulled in, not bothering to note whether it's the 1 train that he needs to get back to his apartment.
The noise and the fluorescent lights are almost unbearable, and his head is pounding like he's just woken up after drinking an entire bottle of scotch. But he hasn't had a single drink. It's like the hangover without the fun of being drunk beforehand. He clenches his fists as dark spots dance in front of his eyes, nausea rising as the reality washes over him. He's been fired. Everyone at the firm knows that he's a fraud. They'll be sending emails to each other, gleefully informing those who don't already know of his downfall.
He can't breathe. His tie feels like it's strangling him and he tugs at it, fighting to loosen it. But it still feels too tight and he ends up pulling the thing off and throwing it into the box, ignoring the looks he garners from the other passengers.
He sits on the train in a sort of daze, not even bothering to register the different stations that the train passes through. As the train continues on its way uptown, his heart begins to feel less like it's about to jump out of his chest, but his head is still pounding as the reality of his situation washes over him in waves. He still wants to find the little shit that sold him out, but the sinking realisation that there's no one to blame but himself isn't helping things. There's an annoying little voice in his head, which sounds worryingly like Britta, telling him that if he had bothered to go to college like everyone else then he wouldn't be in this situation.
He wonders how many drinks it's going to take to shut that voice up.
The train comes to a stop at 72nd street and two things register in Jeff's mind. The first is that the 1 train doesn't stop at this 72nd street station, which means he got on completely the wrong train, and was paying so little attention to where he was going that he walked to the wrong subway station. The second is that the man who just got on looks very familiar. Jeff stares at him, trying to place him, and then that sinking feeling is back.
It's Tom Shepherd, one of the senior partners at the firm, and he looks angry. His brows are furrowed and he's clutching his phone tensely in his hand. Jeff doesn't have to be a genius to know what he's just found out.
Panic shoots through him as Tom moves further into the train. In a minute, he's going to turn around and see him sat there. And he really doesn't want to deal with Tom confronting him over him deceiving the firm for years. He has to get out. Grabbing his box, he barges his way through the people who are standing up and squeezes his way through the closing doors. He thinks he hears his name being called but as the train pulls away, he convinces himself that it's an illusion.
He wanders out of the station, still in a slight daze, and blinks as the harsh sunlight hits him. He knows that he needs to head over to Broadway if he wants to get the train back to his apartment, but Central Park is to his right and there are tourists and families milling around like they don't have a care in the world. They're people who haven't just lost everything they've been working towards for years. And he wants to be like them, even if it's just for a minute.
He examines the contents of the box that he's been carrying with him since he left the office. He grabs the silk tie and stuffs it in his pocket, ignoring the fact that he doesn't exactly have anywhere to go that will require a tie anymore, and rifles through the other few remaining items. It wasn't until he was being told to pack up what was his that he realised how few personal items he actually had in his office. There'd been no photos, since he is still without a wife and kids as his mum likes to remind him, and the books that lined the large bookcase were all fancy legal books that he had never bothered to look at. Most of the other stuff in the box is stationery and he didn't even know why he'd grabbed it. Sighing, he dumps the box down next to a bin, only bothering to rescue the copy of Angel and Demons out of what is left. He's been meaning to read it for years but work left him little time to read the paper let alone a novel. The irony that he would now have plenty of time to read it is not lost on him.
He walks into Central Park, relishing the way the sunlight disappears behind the trees so his head isn't pounding quite as much. There's a family having a picnic over on the grass, and a few people running. He could take up running now. He's never had time to before. He used to run, back in high school, and it sort of fell by the wayside once he was no longer obligated to do it. It's not like he doesn't keep himself in shape, he does, but that's due to him usually finding an hour to spend in the company's gym between reviewing depositions and meeting with clients. He wonders if it's pathetic that the gym is one of the things he's going to miss most about being a lawyer.
The path splits and he dithers for a moment about which way to go before choosing to head left. He's embarrassed to admit that he's been living in New York for over five years now and he hasn't even had time to properly walk around Central Park. When he first got offered the job at Hamish &Co, the idea of living in New York had seemed incredible, and he'd imagined himself running in Central Park, spending weekends visiting the Met, and having season tickets for the Yankees. He had really underestimated how much work being a lawyer was. He runs on a treadmill rather than in a park, the closest he's come to the art of the Met is the copy of a Kandinsky print that hangs in his living room, and he can't remember the last time he watched a game.
He continues to wander down the same path, shadowed by the trees and lost in his thoughts. He wonders what everyone is saying about him. He would like to think that there are at least some people at the firm who are sorry to see him go. But one less person in the firm means one less person to compete with. He doesn't kid himself into thinking that anyone at that place was really a friend of his; they all just used each other to get what they needed. He was the master of it, sweet talking everyone into getting him what he wanted, and making sure everyone who was useful was onside. All that was fucking useless now. He would be a pariah and the fact that his phone had remained resolutely silent since his departure told him all he needed to know.
He stops suddenly as he realises that the path has ended and he's stood at the top of a flight of steps. He's looking out over a large courtyard and fountain, and it's a hive of activity. There's a group of guys kicking a football around in one corner, and there's someone blowing ridiculously huge bubbles in front of the fountain. People are sat all around the edge of it, some chatting and others just lost in thought.
With his book still under his arm, he descends the stairs, noticing that there's a large terrace that goes under the bridge, and there's a small orchestra set up, playing a tune that he vaguely recognises. It's like a small tranquil haven and he's almost surprised to find something like this in a city like New York. But then New York is the city that's supposed to have everything.
The edge of the fountain isn't too crowded and he sits down, checking that it's dry so he won't be left with unappealing marks on his suit. He absent-mindedly watches the group kicking the ball around between them. They're playing dangerously close to the area where what seems to be a dance lesson is taking place. A couple are dancing something intricate and the ball suddenly lands at their feet. One of the guys, who doesn't look any older than 20, runs over and apologises. Jeff wonders if the teacher is going to have a go. He would. If the ball had hit someone on the head, that'd be a potential lawsuit. But instead of getting mad, the teacher just laughs and begins to dribble the ball. Before he even realises what's happening, the dance class has joined in the game, dancing forgotten.
Jeff feels an ache in his chest as he watches them, and he can't place what it is at first. As he watches them continuing to play, laughing as the ball flies between them and they attempt to show off their skills, he realises that it's jealousy. He can't remember the last time he was that free or had that much fun. His life has been a series of five-minute segments for the past five years, and he's sacrificed any form of an actual life in the name of his job. It's all he's focused on and now it's gone. It's his own fault; he won't deny that. But that doesn't mean he isn't furious over the fact that the thing he dedicated his life to, that he sacrificed everything for, is gone and he has no idea what to do or who he is outside of being a lawyer. He's always known who is; it's what helped make him be so confident in himself. He knows what he looks best in – suits – how his hair should be styled – like he just got out of bed – and exactly how to smile to get what he wants. But all that stuff is tied up in lawyer Jeff, the guy who has one of the best case records at his firm and worked more billable hours that anyone else last year. He doesn't know who he is outside of his cocky lawyer self, and he's never wanted to know. Now he suddenly has no choice but to find out, and he's not sure he's going to like the person he finds.
A flash makes him look up, and he's startled to find a girl stood in front of him, camera in her hand, one of those huge ones you see all the serious photographers carrying. Though he's not actually sure it's a camera since the flash pretty much blinded him.
He blinks. Then blinks again. The white spots are still there so he rubs at his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision.
This time when he looks up, he can make her out more clearly. She's young, he'd guess around twenty, with dark brown hair that looks like it had been neatly done this morning but is now falling around her face, and she's staring at him with these freaking huge eyes that make him feel like he's just killed a puppy.
"What the hell?" he says, rubbing at his eyes one more time to clear away the last few spots.
"I'm sorry," she says, biting her bottom lip and her eyes seem to go even wider if that's possible. "I didn't mean to almost blind you."
"Yeah, well maybe you shouldn't sneakily take pictures of people, huh? What are you doing anyway? You're not my stalker, are you?"
He means it as a joke but she seems to miss that and instead starts apologising profusely, shaking her head, which causes even more hair to fall out of the clip and around her face.
"No…Sorry…I was just- you looked really…I'm sorry. Just with the light and everything…I didn't mean to…I'll go."
She turns away from him but he grabs her wrist, and then lets go suddenly, wondering why he's grabbing hold of a stranger. Thankfully it stops her, and she turns back to him.
"You can't just take my picture and leave. That's a violation of my basic human rights."
It's not. But the panic on her face shows that she clearly thinks that he's about to haul her off to the nearest police station.
"Oh I didn't mean to…I was trying to get the right shot and…"
He cuts her off before she starts rambling at him again and says, "why were you taking my picture?"
She blinks at him and replies, "because you looked so sad," as if it is the most obvious answer in the world.
That stops him in his tracks. He opens his mouth to respond but nothing comes out. He's always been good at hiding his emotions, always, and he's not used to someone being able to tell what he's feeling. The fact that a random stranger thinks he looks sad…that's just another sign that he's no longer the person he was this morning. He's a person that he doesn't even know.
"I'm completing an extra credit assignment for my photography class," she says, sounding more confident now she knows that he isn't going to attack her or hand her over to the police. "We're supposed to catch emotion in a photograph and it's a nightmare. I've been traipsing around the park all day, taking pictures of families and couples. But my lecturer told me it was all wrong, even though I don't see how a photo of a couple in love isn't emotion. Then I came here because it's my favourite place in the whole park, everyone's so happy here, and I saw you and you looked…you looked like so alone."
He wants to laugh her comments off, tell her that she's crazy, and then head home to get blind drunk. But her words hit home in a way that nothing else has managed to since he got fired. His phone is still silent and he knows his apartment will be empty. He can't call his mum because she'll be so disappointed if she finds out he's been fired, and he'll have to explain the whole 'I'm not really a lawyer' thing. And he could call Britta since they're still friends but she's off in Amsterdam or somewhere at the minute. So he's really got no one and he's facing the prospect of days on end of drinking and being by himself, and he really wants to talk to someone so he's just a little less alone.
"Do you fancy getting a coffee?"
The girl's eyebrows fly up at that, and he shoots her his trademark smirk which makes her blush. At least he knows he's still got that now he's an unemployed liar.
"I don't know you."
"Are you worried about stranger danger?" he quips.
The look she shoots him lets him know that she's far more formidable than she first let on.
"No. But I don't even know your name."
"It's Jeff. And a coffee is the least you could do after blinding me and taking my picture without permission."
Her blush increases at that, and she casts her eyes down, pretending that she's fiddling with something on her camera. After a moment, she nods.
"I know a good place that's nearby."
"Don't I get your name?" he asks as he follows her back up the steps.
"Where is this place?" Jeff asks as Annie leads him down another unfamiliar street.
Even though she's small and he really doubts that she has a gun concealed somewhere, he's heard enough about muggings to be a little worried. He mentally calculates that with his Rolex, Blackberry and wallet, she could take him for at least $3500. He thanks God that his black Amex is useless without the pin, and he prays that if she is going to mug him, she lets him keep the suit. He really doesn't fancy trying to get home in just his boxers. This day has already sucked enough.
"We're almost there," she says.
He has no idea where they are and he's really beginning to think that this was a stupid idea. He doesn't even know the girl, and it's not like he can offload his problems onto her. Plus he still has no idea how old she actually is so it's definitely not a smart plan to start hitting on her. Going back to his apartment and downing the entire bottle of 90 year-old scotch that he'd been saving for when he made partner suddenly seems like a far more appealing idea.
He's about to tell her so when she stops suddenly and he almost crashes into her. He looks up and sees that they're stood outside a small bakery. It catches his attention because in contrast to the dull shop fronts that line the street, this one is yellow. Not one of those horrifically bright yellows that blinds you but a creamy yellow that makes the place seem welcoming. The sign reads 'A Little of What You Fancy' in loopy handwriting and there are a variety of cakes in the window, all of which make Jeff aware of the fact that he hasn't eaten since the apple he had wolfed down before his first meeting that morning. He guesses that breakfast is another thing he'll have time for now.
"Here we are," she says with a small smile, before opening the door.
A bell chimes overhead as they walk in and the woman behind the counter looks up.
"Thank God you're back, Annie. The suppliers have been on the phone and apparently they've messed up the delivery and can't deliver more grounds until Monday. Shirley's out and I tried to explain that we needed them but they wouldn't listen and…"
"Steph, breathe. I'll go and call them now." She drops her camera down onto one of the empty tables and turns back to Jeff who's rocking backwards and forwards on his heels, wondering where the hell he is and what he's doing here. "Do you mind waiting a minute while I deal with this?" He opens his mouth to tell her that he's changed his mind and actually has plans with a bottle of scotch now, but she keeps going, leaving him unable to answer. "Thanks. I'll be back in a sec."
She's gone before Jeff can blink and Steph is already back behind the counter. He's tempted to just leave because he doesn't even know this girl, and he's had too shit of a day to care about being polite, but somehow he finds himself sitting down at the table where she dumped her camera, and looking around the bakery. It seems to be a mix of both bakery and café judging by the small tables and booths that cover one half of the room. The sofas are all filled, as are a few of the tables, and people are reading, typing away on their laptops, and just chatting. The counter dominates the other side of the place and there appears to be every type of cake imaginable on display. A huge coffee maker lines the back wall, and a large blackboard hangs above it, displaying the various drinks that are on offer. There's quiet music pumping out of a sound system somewhere, and the whole place reminds Jeff of the cafes that Starbucks tries to be like and has driven out of business over the years.
Annie appears in front of him, an apron now tied around her waist, and she places two mugs and a plate in front of them.
"One slice of carrot cake and one cinnamon latte," she says, pushing the plate and one mug towards him. He's about to ask her how she knows that that's what he likes to drink when she smiles at him. "It's a gift."
She sits down across from him and picks up her own mug, hot chocolate, and takes a sip. He does the same and an involuntary groan escapes from his lips as his taste buds are swamped by the rich cinnamon flavour.
"Fuck that's good," he says, and bearing in mind that it's rare of him to give a compliment to anyone, that means a lot coming from him. "Seriously good."
Annie blushes a little, and he's already learning that it's something that she has a tendency to do a lot.
"Thanks. I try my best." She takes another sip of her hot chocolate before continuing. "What do you think of the cake?"
He eyes it suspiciously, as if the fat in it can be absorbed just by him looking at it.
"I don't really eat cake."
"You don't eat cake?" she asks slowly, as if she doesn't understand what he's saying.
He gestures to his body and says, "this takes work. So no, no cake."
"You think a lot of yourself, don't you?"
There it is again, that spark that he saw back in the park, and he has a feeling there's a whole other side to Annie, one outside of the blushing, nervous girl who rambles and apologises. Then he wonders why he cares because he really needs to be getting on with his plan of getting so drunk that he passes out.
"You have to just try it," she adds. "Shirley is very passionate about her baking and she'll want to know what you think. It's always me that has to sample the new food and I'm not sure how much more I can take."
She's giving him those huge eyes again, and he feels like he's just shot Bambi. He wants to tell her that he won't eat the cake, that he's maintained a careful diet for years and he's not abandoning that now. And yet that look makes him want to do whatever she asks, which is fucking ridiculous since he doesn't even know her.
"Fine," he sighs, snatching up the fork and picking up the smallest bit of cake he can.
She smiles satisfied and watches him eat.
The cake may be one of the best things he's ever tasted, and it practically melts in his mouth. He can't stop himself taking another bite and that tells Annie all she needs to know.
"Shirley will be pleased. She's been trying to get that recipe right for ages."
"I didn't say I liked it," he says, cutting himself another bit off.
"Which is why you're still eating it?"
He has no response to that so settles for shoving the cake into his mouth so he can't possibly reply. She laughs and turns her attention back to her hot chocolate. After he's finished what's in his mouth, he glances around the bakery before asking, "So do you work here?"
"Yeah. It belongs to a friend of my mum's and she offered me a job when I started college here. I only took it because I couldn't find anything else, but it turned out be really fun. Shirley's lovely and we get a lot of regular customers. Like Mr Dawson over there," she says, casually pointing to an old man in the corner who's reading the paper. "His wife died last year and he comes in every afternoon for a cup of tea and one of Shirley's infamous brownies. When I'm not in class, I'm working here. Plus living in New York isn't exactly cheap."
"Yeah I transferred to NYU in September. I'm in my second year."
"Second? So you're…"
He doesn't know why that causes relief to flood through him but it does. And he also doesn't know why another voice in his head, again one that sounds suspiciously like Britta, reminds him that he's still fifteen years older than her.
Annie picks up the other fork that's been lying on the table to help herself to some of the cake, but he quickly swats her hand away and shakes his head.
"Get your own," he mutters.
"I thought you didn't eat cake?"
"I think I'm allowed to make an exception today."
The words are out of his mouth before he realises what he's said. That's the first time he's actually referenced what happened today out loud, and almost instantly the nausea is back. The cake suddenly looks unappealing and he shoves the plate away.
"You can talk to me. You know, if you want to."
"No offense but I don't even know you." She looks hurt and she's about to say something when he cuts her off. "Look, thanks for the coffee and the cake. It was really nice of you." He shoves the chair back and stands up. "Just…thanks."
With that, he walks out of the bakery, leaving a guilty Annie behind him.
On a normal day, realising he'd left his jacket with his wallet in somewhere would rank very highly on Jeff's 'shit things that have happened to me today' list. However, since he'd been fired from his job today, it really doesn't bother him as much as it should. He had considered going back to the bakery to get the jacket but he'd stormed out of there like a fucking teenage girl in a strop so he had shot that idea down immediately. Thankfully he'd had both change and his keys in his trouser pockets so he'd been able to get back home. And the bottle of scotch had been exactly where he'd left it, so he was able to get completely drunk just like he'd been planning to since his wonderful meeting with Ted earlier.
And that's how he comes to be sat on his couch, shaking the bottle upside down and wondering why there seems to be nothing left. Because Jeff is pretty sure that he does not remember drinking all that alcohol. And if he did drink all that alcohol then it was clearly defunct because he still feels like shit and can still remember everything that happened today. The memory of the meeting in Ted's office makes him feel sick. Though that might be all the alcohol. That he doesn't remember drinking.
He debates whether it's possible for him to make it downstairs and across the street to the nearest shop to buy more but he's not sure his legs still work so he doesn't think that's a smart plan.
Jeff frowns as there's a knock at the door. He's not sure why there's a knock at his door because this building has a doorman who's supposed to check all guests, and he can't name any of his neighbours so he doubts it's one of them. When the mysterious stranger knocks again, Jeff forces himself off the couch, wobbling far too much, and drunkenly stumbles over to his front door. Yanking it open, he's greeted with the sight of Annie. Annie and his jacket.
"You left this behind and I thought you might need it back."
"How'd you find me?" he slurs and she frowns slightly.
"Are you drunk?"
"Little. How'd you find me?" he repeats, wondering if she hadn't heard him the first time.
"You had a letter in your inside pocket," she says, waving the bill that he'd grabbed in a rush this morning. "Can I come in?"
"'Bout stranger danger?"
"That was your thing. I wanted to talk to you." She pauses before adding, "but I have mace in my purse, I can scream really loudly, and I know self defence. Also, I told my flatmate where I was going so if I'm not back my midnight then she'll start to worry."
"Doorman's not s'posed to let strangers up," he mutters but he still moves aside to let her in.
He notices the way she scrunches her nose as she walks past him. Maybe he did drink that entire bottle of alcohol after all.
"You live here?"
"No. Housesitting." His comebacks are really bad when he's been drinking.
She rolls her eyes and begins to nose around the living room. "It's…minimalist."
He may be drunk but he knows that translates as 'this place is empty. Clearly you don't spend any time here which is depressing and sad.'
"Home is my work," he mumbles before attempting to sit on the sofa, which he misses completely. He blinks and seems surprised to find that he's in fact landed on the floor. "Work is my home," he rectifies, reaching for the empty bottle.
"Don't you think you've had enough to drink?" Annie asks, coming to sit on the floor next to him.
"You drank the entire thing?"
"I was saving it for when I made partner."
"You made partner? Isn't that a good thing?" she asks hesitantly.
"Nope. Got fired."
He thinks that the alcohol might finally be starting to kick in because he doesn't feel like he's been punched in the gut when he says it.
"You got fired?"
"You ask a lot of questions. They found out I wasn't a liar. I'm a lawyer." He bangs on the coffee table for the emphasis before he realises something. "Liar and lawyer sound the same. Which is ironic. Liar. Lawyer. Liar. Lawyer."
"Right…Let me get this straight, your boss found out you lied about being a lawyer?"
"Yep. And he fired me. I am disbarred."
"How'd he fire me? He said 'you're fired.' Like Donald Trump," he says, banging the table once more.
"Not how did he fire you. I meant how did you fake being a lawyer?"
"Oh. Should've said. I said I'd a degree and I didn't. But I was there five years and I was the best fucking lawyer in that place. I had a great win record and I worked my ass off. I gave them my all and they do this."
"Maybe if you had actually had a degree then this wouldn't have happened." The look he gives her tells her that's the wrong path to go down. "Well it's just a job right?"
"Annie," he says, drawing her name out. "I worked 2500 billable hours last year. I basically lived in that office. I gave them everything. D'you know that I've been in New York for five years," he holds up a hand to show her how many five is, "and I haven't even been up the Statue of Liberty or gone on one of those boat trips to the Empire State Building?"
"That's the wrong way round."
"You get a boat to the Statue of Liberty not the Empire State building."
"You do? Which ones the one with the crown?"
"Statue of Liberty."
"Oh. Well my point still stands. I haven't been to either. I spent every hour I could working at that place. I was about to make partner. And now…" he throws his arms up in the air to try and make his point. "My life is over."
"It's not over. You're being melodramatic."
"I'm not. 'S over."
He doesn't remember much else after that.