The day starts badly.
Jeff is curled into the warmth of his couch, face buried in a pillow, when three short, high-pitched screeches of the fire alarm startle him awake with a jerk.
He stares at the ceiling in confusion for a second, then groans and rolls up and off the couch, blindly stumbling toward the door as the alarm continues to wail away. A brief glance at the clock under the silently flickering television tells him that it's only 5:30 am.
It's the fourth time in as many days that some genius asshole has pulled the alarm and sent the residents of the building running outside in a panic to pre-dawn freezing temperatures, and despite the fact that Jeff is (in his humblest opinion) a kick-ass defense attorney, he's decided to make it his new life goal to prosecute the hell out of the perpetrator, if ever found.
Even if it's the mildly attractive cougar from downstairs that flirts with him in the laundry room. Or sweet old Mrs. Bradshaw from across the hall. Justice will be served.
Because this? Is seriously cutting into his valuable hangover sleep-off time.
Somehow, in the midst of bleariness and rage, he manages to shove his feet into a pair of boots and bundle himself in a jacket before slamming the door as hard as possible behind him and stalking toward the parking lot where a fire truck is pulling in, lights flashing.
Jeff gives a gruff nod to his neighbor from down the hall, an exhausted looking man with graying hair who is arguing with his son while struggling to hold another, sound-asleep, child on one hip.
"Zach, just put on the mittens."
"I. DON'T. WANNA!"
It's hard to say what's worse: The fire alarm or the whiny shouts of a spoiled child. Or maybe the sound of his downstairs neighbors as they argue nearby in a language he spent two semesters NOT learning. Either way, Jeff spends the next fifteen minutes leaning against his car, the throbbing in his head getting increasingly more painful.
By the time a cheery fireman allows them back into the building Jeff's temper has about reached its boiling point and it's not until he's rooting through the medicine cabinet for Advil that he even remembers it's Christmas Day.
Annie frowns in contemplation at the variety of sparkling sugar sprinkles in front of her, finally settling on a light blue, a green and a pink that she drops one by one into her basket.
The grocery store is quiet in the early Christmas morning, The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" playing merrily through the sound system. Annie hums along involuntarily as she picks up a few more supplies and crosses off the final items from the list in her hand.
With a satisfied nod she starts back up the aisle toward the registers but stops short as someone in a black pea coat strides past, headed in the direction of the pharmacy. It's a familiar certain someone and for a second Annie thinks she's hallucinated it.
When she gets to the end of the aisle she peaks around the end cap but doesn't see anyone. Feeling foolish, she looks behind her, then follows in the direction he was walking. She casually strolls up the aisles, looking briefly down each one and not seeing him, or anyone for that matter, until she reaches the health care section.
Jeff's about hallway up the aisle, blinking tiredly at the numerous selection of headache remedies.
Annie freezes for a second, then sort of stutters around in place, her fight or flight instincts waging a battle inside her head. She should go over and say hi – it's Jeff, it's Christmas. But then again, it's Jeff and it's Christmas and she doesn't want to have to explain to him that she's spending the biggest holiday of the year alone when he's probably got a dozen parties to attend and women to sleep with and… whatever it is that Jeff does when he's not at Greendale.
And then he notices her.
She looks up at him, trapped. "Jeff!" In the quiet of the store her voice sounds way too loud to her own ears.
He squints at her, "What are you doing?"
"Umm." Shake it off. Shake it off. She pulls up her shoulders and walks toward him with an air of nonchalance, swinging her basket. "Just, you know… what are you doing?"
He shakes a box of Advil in answer.
"Oh. Another stress headache?"
Jeff's eyes widen a little and he inhales through his nose, lips pursed, "Something like that." He sets the box down and picks up something with extra strength.
"You know, sometimes caffeine helps."
"I've had about three cups of coffee already."
"Oh. Or I've heard that dark chocolate works? Something about releasing endorphins…" Her words trail off weakly as he doesn't even seem to be paying her any attention.
Annie frowns. He's all hard edges and ill temperedness today; the allowances he usually makes for her aren't there. She should just leave him to wallow in his own sulkiness. But.
"So! Do you think Abed's still seeing everything in stop-motion?"
"Well. He left me a voicemail the other day and it turned into a song halfway through so yeah, I'd say yes. Either that or he's now living the nightmarish unreality of an episode of Glee."
"Oh, that would be fun."
He levels a full-on glare at her, "You even consider putting that idea in his head and I WILL make sure you're the one singing a duet with Pierce." An evil glint shines in his eyes as he hums and looks up, "Maybe a power ballad. Something by Chicago?"
"Oh stop. Admit it Jeff, you enjoyed the singing," she giggles.
"Lies." But he gives a crooked little smile at the box he's holding and Annie considers it a minor success. She gives herself a mental pat on the back.
Jeff finally seems satisfied with his choice and looks over at her, almost as if actually noticing her for the first time. "Wait. What are you doing?"
"What?" She backs up a little before spinning around and letting him fall into step with her. They begin to make their way toward the front of the store.
"Well it's not exactly for me. My mom's working and my dad's on a cruise with my step-mom. I'm just trying to keep busy." The false cheeriness she injects into her words makes Jeff pause.
He peers down into her basket, "Keeping busy how?"
"Oh. Um." She curls the basket behind her back. "Nothing."
Her apparent embarrassment peaks his curiosity as he tries to glance around her. "If you'll recall, I don't have my license right now so if there's duct tape and chloroform in there and you get caught at whatever nefarious activity you're currently up to, I won't be able to help you."
"Jeff!" She looks around furtively and then sighs and holds the basket up. "I'm making Christmas cookies."
At his raised eyebrow she continues, "It's kind of a tradition. Before the divorce we used to do a bunch of baking together as a family. And then after… my mom just didn't want to anymore." She shrugs, "So I do it by myself."
Jeff nods slowly but doesn't say anything as they head toward the only open register and Annie sets the basket on the conveyor belt.
"You're not spending Christmas with your mom?"
"Nope." He doesn't offer any further information as he begins to leaf through the year-end issue of People. His nose scrunches up as he changes the subject, "Ugh, I never agree with these 'Best of' lists."
The cashier smiles widely at them. She's wearing a pair of reindeer antlers with bells that jingle every time she moves.
"Merry Christmas dears!"
Annie smiles in response.
"Did you hear it's supposed to snow tonight? I hope it does. I just love a good white Christmas. It just seems so much more festive you know? Just like the movies. Like that one with Jimmy Stewart. Oh. That man was dreamy wasn't he? They just don't make 'em like that used to. Except that George Clooney fellow. Now he's a charmer isn't he? My, my…." She continues to prattle on as she scans Annie's purchases.
Annie sneaks a sideways glance at Jeff whose eyes are practically glazed over with disinterest. She feels a strange tide of desperation well inside of her like she's about to lose her already tenuous grasp on holiday cheer.
She's not sure why it's so important. Jeff has every right to be a scroogey little grinch but it's Christmas. And maybe that didn't actually mean anything to him but everyone's entitled to some cheer, right?
The cashier offers them a final merry "Ho! Ho! Ho!" as they walk away and Annie giggles as she leans into Jeff's personal space and whispers, "Someone's a little too into the holiday, right?" She adds a pinch of disdain to her words for good measure.
Jeff looks back. "I hadn't noticed," he grumbles sarcastically.
Annie opens her mouth but he's already turning toward his car with a half-hearted wave. "See you Annie."
"Merry Christmas Jeff!" she calls after him and then stands there for a full minute, her bags held in each hand, lips pursed in thought.
There's a knock on his door an hour later.
From his position on the couch Jeff rolls his head to the side and sighs dramatically. It's almost another minute and two more knocks later when he finally turns the deadbolt, hoping it's only Mrs. Bradshaw needing a pickle jar opened.
It's not until he's already opening the door that he remembers Mrs. Bradshaw is in Arizona visiting her grandchildren for the holiday and it's Annie beaming up at him from the doorway, bundled up in a huge knee-length purple parka. Her arms are laden down with about twenty recyclable grocery bags of something Jeff obviously wants nothing to do with.
"What are you doing?"
"My heater's out?"
"Your heater's out," he parrots back. "That sounds suspiciously like a question. And the answer's no, by the way. In case you were wondering."
She ignores him and pushes past, heaving her bags of crap toward the kitchen.
"Annie. Seriously." He shuts the door with a sigh and follows after, watching her warily from the hallway as she takes stock of the space and finally dumps all her stuff on the counter. A pile of his mail get pushed aside and a couple unopened bills fall heavy to the floor.
Annie pulls off her hat and faces him determinedly, her hair sticking out statically in a halo around her head before she carefully pats it back down into place.
"Well! You're alone. And I'm alone and that's silly. We're supposed to be with people we… friends and family today. Remember?" She gives him a chirpy smile.
"Maybe. But." He points to her, "Jewish." He points to himself, "Don't care." Raises an eyebrow. "Remember?"
She only clucks her tongue at him and turns to start pulling things out of her bags.
"What is all this crap?"
"I'm making Christmas cookies. I thought I explained this already."
"Yeah. You did. I just assumed that this display of weird Jewish Girl Christmas Envy was going to be taking place somewhere that is NOT my apartment."
Annie spins and trains her wide blue eyes on him. "Jeff. Please." And then her lips are about three seconds away from a full-on pout.
A muscle twitches in his jaw as a string of curse words dance at the tip of his tongue. "Whatever. Just clean up after yourself." He turns away before the full affect of her smile can hit him.
Ten minutes later he stalks back in.
"The oven's broken."
"What?" Annie looks up from… THE HELL? Is she organizing his pantry?
Ignoring it. Ignoring it. He fiddles with a couple of knobs above the stove.
"Not broken broken. You just have to bake everything 50 degrees lower than normal. And not be using the stove at the same time."
When he turns back around they watch each other for a moment until he sighs and walks out.
"Thank you!" she calls after him.
He doesn't respond.
Fifteen minutes later, as she's stirring the last of the ingredients together, he's back, pulling a bag of Chex-Mix from the pantry. She's concentrating on her task and barely even notices as he reaches over her head to pull a bowl from the cabinet until he pauses next to her, sneaks a hand into the mixing bowl and snags a tiny piece of dough.
She smacks his hand, "Jeff! There's raw egg in that!"
He rolls his eyes and pops it into his mouth. "Hmm."
"You're going to get sick."
"Unlikely." He pours himself a generous bowl of Chex-Mix. "Your mom never let you have cookie dough when you were younger?"
"No. Because it's bad for you," she says all breathy and scandalized.
"Yeah," he mock gasps, "So now this is your chance to live on the wild side." And before she even has a chance to respond he's reached out and stolen another piece of dough.
He looks down at her, amused, index finger pressed against his lips.
"Ugh, fine. Enjoy your food poisoning."
"Enjoy your boring antibacterial life!" he calls back at her as he leaves the kitchen again.
Annie frowns into the mixing bowl, curiosity and challenge tingling at her senses. She's never done any definitive research on the subject but a small amount couldn't hurt. Right?
Experimentally, she fingers off a small piece of dough and pops it in her mouth, bracing herself for the onslaught of disease and bacteria and other horrid possibilities but as it melts over her tongue into coarse sugary sweetness she realizes that once again, Jeff was probably, maybe, right. Dammit.
"Was that good for you?"
She gasps and spins around. He's leaning in the doorway, smirking.
A strangled sound of annoyance rips up from her throat as she whips a hand towel at him. "Get out!"
His shoulders shake with silent laughter as he pushes away from the door frame and pivots back around toward the living room but he shoots her an almost gleeful grin before he leaves and she can't help but smile back with only a little exasperation.
Ten minutes later he's back.
"I thought you were watching a movie."
"I am," he mutters distractedly as he rummages through the pantry.
Annie watches him in amusement as he emerges with a bottle of wine. "You're just like the kids I used to baby-sit."
"You can't sit still." She laughs. "It's cute." As the words leave her mouth she flushes and goes intently about her task again, but putting too much weight into the rolling pin and scowling when the dough tears under her ministrations.
Jeff grins to himself and pulls two glasses out of the cabinet. "Cute. That's not what my mom used to call it."
Annie imagines a younger, trouble-making Jeff, bouncing around in restlessness and distraction, driving his mom and teachers insane. She has to bite her lip to keep from smiling too brightly at the picture.
"You're not like this at school."
"Annie. It's Greendale." He widens his eyes at her because duuuuuh, she should know this already. "That place sucks the life out of me and destroys my will to live. I have to use all my energy just to make it through the day without sticking my head in the cafeteria frying vat."
"It's not that bad."
"Oh really? Has Dean Pelton ever tired molesting you with his eyes?" He thinks about it as he sets a glass of red wine down on the counter in front of her. "Or his hands?"
Annie stares at the wine glass for a second and almost says something but Jeff's leaned back against the counter next to her and is staring out the window, his face contorted as he seemingly recounts in his head the numerous disturbing run-ins with their very own Dean Dangerous.
She brushes a strand of hair out of her face and picks up the glass delicately from the stem, takes a tentative sip. The red wine smacks at her taste buds and the corners of her jaw twitch at the sudden bitterness.
When she looks up Jeff is watching her intently.
He starts, almost as if he's going to lean toward her, then changes his mind and pulls away from the counter, "You have flour on your forehead," he mutters as he leaves.
Annie quickly wipes at her face with the back of her hand, watching the place where he disappeared from as she takes a too large gulp of wine and shudders.
When she drops down next to him on the couch ten minutes later he's got his feet propped up on the coffee table, the wine glass and bowl of Chex Mix balanced precariously on the arm rest. On-screen the credits are flickering by as a group of children stand in awe at the window of a toy shop.
"The cookies are in the oven," she says by way of explanation to the question he didn't ask. "What are you watching?"
"A Christmas Story." He pops a pretzel in his mouth.
"I've never seen it."
As this he rolls his head toward her, eyebrow quirking upwards in incredulity, "How is that even possible? It's on ALL day every Christmas."
Annie shrugs, "I don't know. I always thought it looked weird."
"Wow. I never would have pegged you as an elitist. Shame. On. You."
Her mouth drops open as she shoves at his shoulder. "Shut up. I am not."
"Hey, hey." Jeff grabs his wine glass before it slides off the couch. "You break it, you buy it." But he's laughing.
Annie relaxes back against the cushions, mirroring his position with her arms folded over her chest, "Fine. I'm watching it. Happy?"
Jeff shrugs, but as he tilts a sip of wine into his mouth she hears him murmur a sing-songy "Elitist," into his glass.
She only glares at the television in response.
A few minutes later she pops up to take a batch of cookies out of the oven but when she comes back she has her wine glass in her hand and she notices that Jeff's settled the bowl of Chex Mix into the spot between them to share.
They watch the movie in companionable silence, Jeff murmuring along with the lines he knows by heart, and looking over to watch her response to certain scenes. Annie jumps up every now and again to rotate cookies in and out of the oven but she accidentally burns the last batch after getting too into the scene where the leg lamp arrives.
At some point she kicks her shoes off and Jeff find himself distracted by the design on her socks: a snowman wearing a top hat, using a pair of candy canes as skis.
"Those are ridiculous."
"They're festive," she pouts and pokes his calf with her toe without taking her eyes off the screen.
"You're one step away from a holiday sweater with a working, light-up, reindeer nose."
"Elitist," she says mockingly back.
By the time the credits roll an hour later, Annie's curled up comfortably into the other corner of the couch, her feet tucked under her, her elbow propped up on the arm rest. Jeff turns toward her with a smile, "So? Did that live up to your astonishingly high standards?"
She's quiet but when she finally looks up he's startled to see tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. The smile slides of his face.
She sniffs and uncurls herself, hopping off the couch and waving her hands in front of her face, "It's nothing. Nothing I… I should finish the cookies." And with that she scurries off toward the kitchen without another word.
Half an hour or so later he wanders in, shoots her a wary glance and starts rooting through a drawer near the sink.
"You want Chinese?"
"It's the only place open right now that delivers. Yes, there's food in the fridge, I'm not a completely helpless person but it's Christmas and I'm not cooking. Besides, it looks like Santa's Village threw up in here and I'm not in the mood to maneuver around, that." He glances over her shoulder, "Actually… what ARE you doing? Those don't look like Christmas decorations."
"You'll see." She waves her hand at him in a vague "go away" gesture.
"I'm sorry. Did you just shoo me?"
Annie looks up, then down at her hand as if it had acted of it's own accord. "Oh. Um."
"UM. My kitchen."
There's a little something playful in his tone that makes Annie pause. Her eyes flash with sudden boldness. "My cookies."
"That are currently being assembled in my rent-paid apartment."
She scoffs, "Rent paid?"
Jeff's mouth twitches up into a smile. "I'm only a month behind."
"Ha, nothing Ms. Righteous Indignation. Possession is 9/10ths of the law and the last time I checked, YOU didn't live here."
"Well." She pulls her shoulders up. "Then I invoke my right to privacy. This is still America right?"
Jeff's eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. For a moment he pretends to ponder her words.
"You've been spending way too much time with Britta." He steps closer but Annie spins around, a spoon of green frosting held defensively in her hand.
"That's a really nice sweater you're wearing, Jeff."
His eyes narrow. "You wouldn't."
"I WOULD." She tosses her hair back and points her chin out haughtily, kind of waves the spoon in his direction.
Jeff 's brain flashes through a succession of memories: his head being slammed against a table, her fist coming into contact with his nose. It's probably best not to test her.
But then again. A riled up Annie is a fun Annie.
He steps in closer.
She stands her ground even as pink flowers up into her cheeks.
Jeff's smile widens as he looms over her, a hand coming to rest on the counter behind her. She swallows, some of her resolution faltering as he snakes his other hand between them, plucks the spoon from her grasp and shoves it into his mouth.
"Ffanks," he says over a mouthful of frosting.
Annie's nose scrunches up, even as she lets out a shaky laugh. "Jeff. Gross."
He pulls the spoon from his mouth, scraping the back of it with his teeth. "Oh what? You weren't allowed to have frosting as a kid either?"
She sighs loudly and turns back around to pull another spoon from the drawer. "Did you say something about Chinese?"
Jeff finishes licking the spoon and drops it in the sink, having already forgotten exactly what they were fighting over. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and Annie goes back to the task at hand of carefully icing each (apparently un-Christmasy) cookie.
"Yeah, I'd like to place an order for delivery… Okay. Do you have duck?"
Annie scrunches up her nose in his direction. He meets her eyes and grins.
"You do? Great. Oh. No, we're going to need the entire duck."
Her eyes widen and she drops her spoon. "Jeff! What are you doing?"
"You can?" He wiggles his eyebrows at her. "Well let me ask you this: is there any way we can get that with the head still intact?"
"Oh my god. Stop," Annie laughs out, tugging on his arm. Jeff twists away from her.
"Why? You want to know why we need the head?" He exhales dramatically, "It's for my girlfriend. She likes to see the faces of things before she eats them."
Annie gasps, continuing to pull on his arm, but half-heartedly as her body shakes with laughter. Jeff looks away from her and up at the ceiling.
"It's a weird fetish she has."
"I. DO NOT. HAVE. A…fetish." Her face sort of twists up as if the word leaves a bad taste on her tongue.
"Oh, and if you guys have a meat cleaver we could borrow that would be great too."
"Jeff!" Annie jumps up onto her toes and manages to pull the phone down to her ear, practically hanging all her weight on his arm. He's still holding onto it as she practically shouts into the receiver, "He's kidding! Kidding. Just don't… I'm so sorry!"
An annoyed female voice barks out, "Don't call here again!" and then there's a click as the call's disconnected. Annie looks up at Jeff as she lets go of his arm and smacks his chest a couple times.
"What is wrong with you?" But her words are choked out between giggles.
"Hey! I didn't get to ask her if they could send along some carol singers."
"Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra." Jeff wheezes out as he continues laughing.
The finally manage to call and order dinner and the food arrives just as Annie finishes decorating the last of the cookies. She joins Jeff on the couch again, sitting cross-legged as they pass cartons of chow mien and orange chicken and crispy beef back and forth until they're both full. At some point Jeff gets up and brings back the wine from the kitchen, refilling both their glasses until the bottle's empty.
By the time the movie ends again they're both pleasantly buzzed and Annie's stretched out along the couch, her feet in Jeff's lap. She's bopping her head along to the song playing over a department store commercial and he watches her, one hand at her ankle, tilting it back and forth like a metronome to the beat of the music.
"Do you think that's still possible?" she asks suddenly.
Annie struggles to sit up, propping herself up on her elbows. She waves vaguely at the TV. "That. A mom and a dad and… a traditional, normal family?"
Jeff snorts, "As a guy who's friends with some of the busiest divorce attorneys in the state? I can tell you that that? Is no longer normal. And if it does exist out there, it's an anomaly."
"Besides, it's boring. Who wants boring and happy and monogamous? Ugh. No thanks."
"You don't want to get married? Have a family? At all?"
Her words make his chest feel all tingly, or some completely girly bullshit like that, and he tries his best to ignore it, eyes her to figure out if she asking for personal reasons. But she twirling her hair absentmindedly and staring at the television. When he doesn't answer right away she looks over at him, notes his expression and rolls her eyes.
"I didn't mean…Just in general."
"I don't know." He shrugs, "I'm not really a one woman type of guy."
Jeff narrows his eyes but her lips are turned up into a bit of a smirk and he realizes she's not trying to pass judgment on him or anything. He smiles and puts a little pressure on her ankle until she turns and looks at him.
"I kind of like the family we have now. I don't need that to change."
Her eyes soften and search him for a moment before a huge smile spreads across her face and suddenly she's launching herself forward and throwing her arms around his neck. "Oh Jeff!"
It catches him by surprise and she just kind of hangs there, around him, until he laughs and his arms circle around her to hug her back. Her forehead rests against his neck and she doesn't pull away right away.
"I'm a little dizzy," she finally whispers.
Jeff laughs again as his hands smooth gently down her back. "That's what happens when you drink an entire bottle of wine."
"I didn't drink it by myself," she says a little petulantly and moves back slightly, her arms still around his neck. They smile softly at each other and Jeff's just about come to awareness of their positions, the way she's practically laying on him, chest pressed against his, when she gasps and pulls away.
She scrambles up from the couch and runs into the kitchen.
Jeff groans, his head dropping back. "I don't think I can eat anymore."
Annie bounds back in and curls up next to him on the couch, knees tucked under her. She presents him with a plate of cookies and he eyes it in confusion. "What is that?"
"Well. I made cookies to represent the things we believe in." She points to a sugar cookie dreidel.
"And this is?" Jeff holds up a rectangular cookie decorated with elaborate green frosting.
Annie beams proudly, "Money."
"It represents your devotion to the superficial world: expensive clothes, nice cars, a self-image bordering on idolatry. I was going to make a mirror. But I couldn't get the frosting shiny enough." She takes a bite of a menorah shaped cookie, her eyes practically twinkling with a teasing merriment.
He cocks his head to the side and squints down at the cookie. "Wow. An edible representation of my awesomeness."
She rolls her eyes. "Of course you would see it that way."
"I am impressed, although not surprised, at the effort. You drew a portrait of Ben Franklin out of icing."
"It's actually George Washington. I only had dollar bills in my purse to model it after."
He shakes his head and takes a large bite just as his phone chirps from the coffee table with a new text message. Annie's phone sounds only moments later from the kitchen.
It's from Troy.
"Pierce's house. Xmas party. Alcohol."
Annie's brow knits together in an expression of skepticism and Jeff looks up from the phone, eyes widening in agreement. "Potential for disaster right?"
She nods slowly. They both take another bite of their cookies, thinking.
After a long moment they glance sideways at each other. Jeff's mouth twists up mischievously.
"Want to go?"
Annie grins, and nods.
Pierce only lives about a half a mile away so they decide to walk to the party.
"Are you sure you're warm enough?"
"I think I'll be okay." She realizes a split second too late that he's being sarcastic, his mouth twisted up sardonically as he takes in her attire – bright pink scarf, jeans tucked into a pair of fur-lined boots, the purple parka zipped up to her chin, and a yellow beanie pulled securely over her ears. Annie finishes knotting the scarf and "harrumphs," flouncing past him and out the door.
"You look like an off-season Easter egg."
"Like you're one to talk. Who wears a sweater UNDER a blazer?" She tries to match his sneer as she looks him up and down.
Jeff smirks as he locks the door behind them and they begin to make their way slowly down the sidewalk, sidestepping little patches of ice.
"Annie. This is a four-hundred dollar sweater. YOU look like you stepped out of the display window at Gap Kids. Besides. What can I say? I make this look work."
Jeff continues walking, looking down as he tugs on a pair of gloves so that it takes him a few more steps to realize that she's not next to him anymore. He stops and turns around, "Wha-"
A handful of snow smacks him in the face. He blinks in shock.
"You did not just do that."
Annie giggles, sort of jumping in place while covering her mouth with her mittened hands. "Sorry."
He brushes a bit of snow off his forehead with a flip of his wrist and glares her down until she stops laughing, only the flicker of a smile twitching at her lips. They stand a few feet apart, watching each other carefully until Annie's eyes start to widen with worry.
"Je-" The second she opens her mouth Jeff lunges toward the side and Annie shrieks, ducking out of the way as a snowball flies toward her. She scoops up some snow from the bank beside her and tosses it blindly in his direction where it sprays harmlessly against his pants just as he lobs another handful that hits her in the side of the face.
He's laughing as she stands, palms up and facing him, her shoulders hunched as if she's bracing for another onslaught.
"Jeff! That's cold!"
"No shit Sherlock. And which one of us started this again?"
Annie squints up at him, blinking rapidly at a stray snowflake stuck in her eyelashes. She inches toward him, unsure, and holds out her hand.
He cocks his head to the side, grinning almost too widely and she barely even has time to yelp before he reaches out and in one quick move yanks her toward him so that she's pressed against his chest, pulls off her beanie off and drops a handful of snow onto her head.
"AHH!" Annie swipes her arms out to smack him but he dodges backwards out of her way with a laugh.
She's simultaneously trying to brush snow out of her hair while blindly running after him and doesn't see the patch of ice on the sidewalk. Her foot slips and with a yelp she goes flying into him, her arms wrapping around his waist from behind. Jeff lurches forward with her momentum and they're both laughing as he holds both arms out, trying to keep from crashing to the ground.
Slowly, once he has his footing, he straightens up and turns. Her hands stay at his waist.
"Truce?" He mimics her earlier word with a raise of his eyebrow.
Annie frowns at him so he grins.
"Here." He brushes a few flakes of snow out of her hair and tugs the beanie back down over her ears. She sighs, relenting.
"Promise you won't make fun of my outfit?"
"No," he answers almost immediately, then smirks at her sigh of exasperation. "But." He turns and holds his arm out to her. "I will make sure you don't fall on your ass again."
Annie nods once and rests her hand in the crook of his arm.
"Promise you won't throw another snowball at my head?" he asks.
"No." She looks up at him through her eyelashes, "But I won't push you into oncoming traffic."
Jeff huffs out a laugh, "Deal."
They stand in front of Pierce's house, eyes wide in a transfixed awe.
"I've never seen anything like it," Annie breathes out.
"I'm not sure why I'm even surprised," Jeff mutters.
Almost every single inch of the sprawling mansion is covered in bright, multi-colored Christmas lights that blink and twinkle in scattered pattern. On top of the roof an animatronic Santa waves jerkily, his eight pawing reindeer tethered to a full sized sleigh behind him.
"Pierce must really like Christmas."
"Noooo." Jeff shakes his head. "That's not it."
Annie glances sideways at him and giggles.
They make their way up a path lined with glowing red candy canes and let themselves into the foyer of the house. It's warm inside, the air a mixture of spicy cinnamon and musky cigar. Down the hall they can hear the mingled sounds of laughter and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" steaming through the speakers.
Jeff's helping Annie shrug out of her jacket when Troy comes skidding around the corner, his face lighting up as he spots them.
"Hey! You guys came!"
They both gape at him.
"Troy. What are you wearing?" Annie asks uncertainly.
Troy smiles and stands at attention. He's wearing costume dress blues, a tall soldier hat with a red strap under his chin and black shoes that look as if they've just recently been shined. There's a toy drum hanging by a leather strap around his neck.
"It's awesome, right? I'm a Troy soldier." To make his point he salutes them with a white-gloved hand.
"I don't think awesome even begins to describe it." Jeff grins with something akin to delight spreading across his features. Annie resists the urge to elbow him in the side. "I see you've accepted the nonviolent lifestyle of a Troy soldier?"
Troy nods seriously. "At first I was like, a gun would be SO cool. But you can't really do a lot with a gun except kill people and that's only awesome if you're in a video game. BUT then I remembered that my cousin Drew plays the drums and that guy always gets the raddest chicks. Plus, I can make some pretty sweet music with this thing."
"Do you have drum sticks?" Annie asks.
"No." Troy frowns, "I lost them."
"So. Who are all these people?" Jeff asks as they walk toward the living room where there's a crowd of people he doesn't recognize snacking on hors d'oeuvres and sipping from red plastic cups.
"I don't really know. Some of them just sort of showed up. I guess Pierce does this every year. Most of them don't have anywhere else to spend Christmas."
"I wouldn't be so quick to call this adorable. There's probably a reason they're alone," Jeff snarks.
And as if right on cue, Leonard walks by.
"I rest my case."
Annie does elbow him in the side this time.
"Leonard," Jeff scowls.
"Ooooh boy. Winger brought himself a date. Good looking dame there. How much you pay for this one?"
Jeff looks up at the ceiling and Annie gasps.
"EW! I'm not a… Jeff didn't PAY for me. That's gross." She crosses her arms tightly over her chest.
A slow smiles spreads across Jeff's features. He leans down and forward so that he's practically in Leonard's face. "LEONARD. THIS IS ANNIE. ANNIE EDISON. SHE GOES TO SCHOOL WITH US?" He speaks slowly and deliberately, throwing in an extra dash of condescension.
Leonard scowls at him, grumbles something obscene under his breath and turns to shuffle off as fast as possible towards a group of Hipsters gathered around the fireplace.
"Jeff, that was mean."
"Oh, you're defending him? Did you miss the part where he thought you were a hooker?" Jeff turns to her incredulously.
She shrugs, "He's old. He can't help it."
"I do not understand you."
Suddenly, the tell-tale beep of his chair announcing his arrival, Pierce is in front of them.
"Jeff! You came!" He laughs happily and grins. Then, as if sensing he's given something away, lets a look of disinterest cross his face, "Whatever. Not that we need you. There's so many people here it doesn't make a difference anyway." He shrugs and looks away.
Maybe it's the wine from earlier but Jeff feels a sudden surge of affection for the guy. He exhales noisily through his nose. "Merry Christmas Pierce. Thanks for inviting us."
Pierce looks over, 'What? Oh, yeah." He looks down and picks at an invisible piece of lint on his pants. "Merry Christmas," he mumbles.
Jeff doesn't even have to look at Annie to know that she is beaming little rays of "OH, ISN'T THIS THE MOST FESTIVELY PRECIOUS MOMENT OF ALL TIME. DOUBLE HOLIDAY RAINBOWS FOR EVERYONE" from her eyes. Instead of being annoying, it's infectious. He smiles.
But it's Pierce so…
"Ugh. Keep it in your pants Winger. It's Christmas. Not gay pride day." And with that Pierce snorts and speeds away, gone in a mechanized whoosh across the room.
Jeff frowns after him. "Is that thing going faster?"
Troy sighs, "Yeah, he had it outfitted with a new motor. He's already had like three accidents." When Jeff and Annie look at him questioningly he continues, "He thought it would be fast enough to just make him fly over the two steps down to the porch."
"Yeah." Troy's eyes light up, "But if it had worked it would have been AWESOME."
"He's not drinking is he?" Annie asks in concern.
"Nah. He's just got like old people disease or something…. Actually, I should probably make sure he's not mixing his meds again." Troy claps Jeff on the shoulder. "Make yourselves at home. The bar's over there. And there's a group playing "Egg Nog Pong in the rec room if you're interested." He pauses. "You might want to avoid that actually."
Annie's nose scrunches up as Troy runs away. "Egg Nog Pong? That sounds awful."
"Oh, I'm so glad we came."
She looks up at Jeff questioningly, "Are you being sarcastic?"
He purses his lips, "Frighteningly enough, I'm not."
Jeff steps up behind the bar and grabs a martini shaker. "So little lady, what's your poison?"
Annie giggles, "I'll take a screwdriver."
"Hmm. Sorry, no juice. It looks like we have vodka, gin and…" Jeff trails off as he grabs a bottle off the top shelf, cradles it in his hands, "Oh Pierce. You're a good man."
Annie raises an eyebrow.
"Annie. You have no idea. This is a 30-year old scotch."
"So? Does that make it better?"
"I'm going to pretend I didn't just hear you say that." He grabs two glasses from under the bar. "Here." He pours two fingers full in each one and hands one to her. "Now take a sip. A small one," he instructs her.
Annie rolls her eyes but does as he says, titling a few drops into her mouth.
"Now just let it roll over tongue. Really taste it."
She swallows and chokes back a laugh, "Jeff, you sound ridiculous."
He's holding the glass up to his nose, inhaling deeply, but he glares at her over the rim. "Be careful or I'll suddenly remember to card you."
Annie perks up, "That's okay." She holds her hand out. "Caroline Decker," she says in her faux southern accent. "Pleased to meet ya."
Jeff shakes her hand, then leans his forearms on the bar, toward her, "So, you from around here Ms. Caroline Decker?" He offers her a grin and a wink that Annie feels down to her toes.
"Oh. Just here for the holidays. I'm from Corpus Cristi actually. Texas. Population 286,000. I attended Richard King High School. Our mascot was the Mustang."
"Jeff." Annie's voice is hushed, conspiratorial. "What if the bartender is from Corpus Christi? I have to be prepared."
He concedes to her reasoning with a nod, "Well here's to preparation. And the Corpus Christi Mustangs." They clink glasses and each take another sip.
Annie tips her head to the side and runs her tongue along her bottom lip. "It's not horrible."
"Okay. No. You do not disrespect a 30-year old scotch by saying it's not horrible. Annie." He tries to pull the glass away but she laughs and curls it toward her chest, away from him.
It's Abed, standing there next to Annie as if appearing out of thin air. He glances between them curiously and Jeff pulls his hand away, suddenly aware that the backs of his fingers are pressed up against the softness of Annie's sweater.
"Abed!" Annie throws her arms around his neck and presses an enthusiastic kiss to his cheek. 'Merry Christmas!"
"Did you come here together?"
Annie nods. Jeff narrows his eyes.
"So, how's the world of claymation?" Jeff cuts in before Abed can continue to ponder the interestingness of Annie and Jeff arriving somewhere together.
"Stop-motion." He doesn't answer Jeff's question, just continues to regard them thoughtfully, his head cocked to the side.
"Oh! You should sing a song about the party!" Annie enthuses, grasping his arm. Jeff shakes his head at her but it's too late.
"That's a good idea Annie. How about this." Abed clears his throat and begins:
"A party in a mansion, drinks and food to spare
This night of lights and merry sights
Brings revelation and surprise
With winks and nods and looks that linger
Annie Edison and Jeffery Winger."
He ends with a smile and then runs off without another word.
Annie and Jeff look up at each other. Jeff's eyes are suddenly wide. Annie laughs nervously.
"Linger? That doesn't really rhyme with Winger."
Jeff nods slowly. "Yeaaaah, there are better words… ringer."
Annie opens her mouth, searching for another word, "C...linger?"
"Clinger? Is that a word?"
"I'm not sure."
He laughs, sips his scotch too fast and coughs, his eyes darting around the room, not meeting hers. "You know, I think I heard yelling. I'm going to go make sure Pierce hasn't run over someone with that motorized death trap of his."
Before she can reply, he's gone.
"You haven't heard from Britta have you?"
Annie shakes her head.
"I thought maybe she'd come tonight."
"I think she said something about visiting some friends in New York over break."
"Oh." Troy shrugs, "That's cool."
Annie sighs and shifts her weight to scratch the back of her leg with the toe of her shoe. As inconspicuously as possible she scans the crowd in the living room but doesn't see Jeff. He's been MIA for almost half an hour now.
Next to her in the doorway Troy looks disheartened. "How do you get to a place where you have absolutely no one else to spend the holiday with?" he asks seriously, his head nodding vaguely toward the crowd.
Annie frowns and watches Leonard and another older gentleman as they pelt passersby with pretzels and yell "are you my son/daughter?" at the incurring dirty look.
"I don't know. But we're here too. So what does that say about us?"
"You didn't see your family today?"
He shrugs, "Nah. We don't celebrate. We used to do 'present day' the day after Christmas but my mom says I'm too old now." He pauses, "Sometimes it's kind of nice living with Pierce. He's sort of proof that there's nothing you're too old to do right?"
Annie's heart sinks as she remembers those childhood holidays of hodgepodge traditions that she'd tried so hard to hold onto for so long, those little touches of the season that made everything seem magical, how this year – Planet Abed and watching Rudolph with her friends and earlier with Jeff, playing in the snow – she's felt that again.
On impulse Annie reaches out and squeezes Troy's hand.
"Hey! Ha! Mistletoe! Nice move Troy."
With synchronized movements Annie and Troy glance over at Pierce, then up at the little sprig of greenery hanging over their heads.
"You have to kiss!" Pierce yells.
Annie meets Troy's eyes and they both laugh and murmur a string of varied excuses.
"Ugh. Man up Sammy Davis! Or move aside. I'll kiss her."
"No!" Annie yelps. "Don't." She flushes and Troy shrugs at her as if to say, whatever you want. And then his gaze drops to her lips.
Annie's eyes get big and wide but she's smiling and leaning forward at the same time as her eyes flutter closed. She registers briefly that he smells really good, almost sweet, before their lips touch.
It's only seconds and his mouth is still sort of quirked up in a smile when they both laugh and lean away. Annie ducks her head down as Troy's hand comes up to pat at her shoulder in a hey buddy, it's all cool, gesture that makes her feel strangely pleased.
Pierce is making disgusted noises, obviously unsatisfied at the lack of passion the forced mistletoe kiss had displayed. When she finally looks up again, Annie's gaze gravitates immediately over Troy's shoulder.
Jeff is standing there, watching them, his drink held to his mouth. His eyes are a little dark and intent and Annie's stomach swoops down and then back up into her throat and stays there.
There's barely even a drop of scotch left in her glass when Jeff finds her fifteen minutes later, leaning against the wall in the quiet side hallway off the kitchen.
He doesn't say a word as he sidles up to her, palm pressed against the wall next to her ear. Annie bites her lip.
"Fun party." Her words end on an up-note, as if she's questioning it; and she is because she needs to know what he's thinking right now.
"You looked like you were enjoying it."
Alcohol and heat, the way he's standing too close, this day and the intensity of his eyes - all if it seems to course through her bloodstream, making her entire body feel floaty and unfamiliar.
Annie swallows, hard. "You sound jealous."
Jeff shakes his head; his eyes don't leave her face. "Just observing."
"It was just a kiss."
"With the quarterback of the football team," he mock-gasps.
She looks up at him sharply, trying to figure out if he's teasing her or just being mean. He looks unsure suddenly.
Annie sighs, "A year ago it would have been a big deal."
Jeff finally looks away and exhales, relaxes his stance and leans his shoulder into the wall, hands shoved in his pockets.
They're both quiet. Annie tilts her head to the side, away from him, lifts the glass and watches the way that last drop of scotch slides around the bottom as she rolls her wrist smoothly from left to right. It's mesmerizing.
When she finally tears her gaze away she looks back at Jeff, just in time to see his eyes focused intently on the side of her bare neck before shooting back up to meet hers. Anyone else would have blushed or looked embarrassed. He smirks. It's comforting.
Annie's heart skips a beat and she thinks about tackling him into one of the many guest bedrooms down the hallway; she doesn't think he'd protest too much. Instead she grins widely and pushes away from the wall. "C'mon."
Her fingers circle around his wrist. "Garret and some of his acting troupe friends are doing an 'imaginative re-telling' of the Christmas story."
Jeff's features contort in disgust. "There is SO much wrong with that sentence. I'm going to regret this but. Garret has an acting troupe? Why? And how? And what is he even doing here?"
"You didn't hear him come in? Pierce ran over his foot about two minutes after he walked in the door. There was a lot of yelling. Garret was pretty angry."
"And that was different than normal, how?"
Annie tugs on his arm. "See. It should be interesting right?"
"I'm going to need more scotch." But he lets her lead him back toward the party with a smile on his face.
Jeff taps his finger against his pursed lips, then leans his head in Annie's direction. "I'm not a religious person by any means but I think I'm offended by this."
Annie's only response is a continued wide-eyed look of horror at the spectacle before them.
A check of his watch reveals that they are now nearing the two-hour mark of the bizarre play being performed in Pierce's living room, a convoluted piece of performance art that involves miming, hand puppets and, weirdly enough, Garret in a fur lined cape with a lot of oversized jewelry. The first hour had been amusing in a how much worse is this actually going to get? kind of way. Now it's just painful.
The two of them are squeezed onto the couch with Troy and Abed, Pierce nearby in his chair, sound asleep. The majority of the guests have already disappeared, the call of egg-nog pong from the other room more enticing than the sight of Garret doing what looks like the Macarena while singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in the angriest singing voice anyone has ever heard.
"I think I like Shirley's version of baby Jesus better," Troy whispers, a slight whimper in his voice. His fellow couch occupants all nod slowly in agreement. "This shit is MESSED UP."
Even Abed's eyes are wide, "It's even more disturbing in stop-motion."
Annie, Troy and Jeff all cringe. Troy pats Abed on the back comfortingly.
"HEY!" Garret roars at them, his face turning an even more impossible shade of red. "PIPE DOWN!"
Annie snorts suddenly, her hands immediately flying up to cover her face. Everyone turns to stare at her. Out of the corner of his eye Jeff can see her ears flushing pink in embarrassment.
Her body heaves with a deep breath and then she peeks through her fingers, "I just-" she tries to whisper but her voice breaks almost immediately and she dissolves into laughter, curling forward, hair curtaining her face.
Jeff shakes his head, patting her back and waving away Garret's look of rage. "She's just really overwhelmed by the story." He covers the side of his mouth and stage whispers, "She's Jewish."
Annie shrieks with muffled laughter.
Next to her Troy has his fist jammed against his mouth as he stares up at the ceiling, his eyes wide in terror at the possibility that Annie's giggles will suddenly become contagious.
Pierce jerks awake at the noise and looks around in confusion. "Wha, huh, WHERE AM I?" His face scrunches up in confusion when he sees Garrett. "Why is Liberace at the birth of Jesus?"
Annie falls off the couch.
Jeff and Troy both completely lose it, their shouts of laughter only growing louder as Garret starts screaming about the distortion of his artistic vision and finally storms out.
It's around midnight when they leave.
Little flakes of snow are drifting lazily from the sky, barely sticking to the damp pavement and here's a bite to the air that makes Annie shiver and tuck her chin down into her scarf.
Jeff grumbles something about the cold and she laughs. "Who's making fun of my outfit now wise guy?"
"But at least you still look good," she says with faux seriousness, teasing him as she curls her fingers around his arm and they fall into step. Jeff laughs silently, smiling down at her softly as she huffs out a breath of warm air that wraps around them in a little white fog and then dissipates. She can feel his gaze but doesn't meet his eyes, just turns to press her face against the wool of his jacket.
The streets are quiet and empty in the late hour, lit only by the glow of scattered lampposts. The falling snow is illuminated in each little halo of light and if she weren't so cold and intent on trying to stay as close as possible to him for warmth Annie might even say it was magical.
Jeff sniffs and mutters that he can't feel his nose.
It feels like an eternity later when he's finally keying back into the apartment and the heater greets them with a blast of warmth, almost too warm against their snow bitten skin. Annie shivers, teeth chattering as she unwinds her scarf and shakes off her coat.
Jeff disappears into his room, reappearing moments later with a pile of clothing. He pushes her toward the bathroom.
"Here. Change. Get warm."
When she emerges a few minutes later, wearing a soft blue tee-shirt, baggy sweats, a pair of socks that hang awkwardly long on her feet and a burgundy hoodie zipped up to her chin, she can hear him moving around in the kitchen.
The warm clothes make her feel considerably better but her skin still feels cool, like the snow has somehow seeped into her bones. She spots a down comforter draped over the couch and practically dives into it, huddling down into a corner of the couch and taking deep breaths to calm the chills.
A few minutes later she hears his voice, laced with laughter, "Are you in there somewhere?"
She peeks out from her cocoon of warmth as he settles himself on the other end of the couch, his legs stretched out on the coffee table. He's changed too into a pair of sweats and an old Denver Broncos Superbowl Championship tee-shirt. He offers her a mug of something warm and she snakes one hand out of the blanket for it.
"It's just green tea."
"S'okay." The ceramic mug is warm against her palm.
Jeff leans his head back against the couch and stares at the ceiling. "I think I might be scarred for life."
"Not just him. The entire thing. The whole party." He directs his gaze at her, "Greendale is completely batshit insane. You know that right?"
Annie looks doubtful.
Jeff shakes his head. "It's like some kind of live-action cartoon we've dropped into."
"You sound like Abed."
"Yeah, well. How often is Abed actually wrong?"
Annie thinks briefly about the song. Looks that linger. She leans over and sets the mug on the coffee table, then yawns and wiggles back down under the blanket so that only her face is visible.
"I should go," she murmurs.
It's a moment before he answers. "Stay," he finally says quietly. "It's snowing anyway. The roads are dangerous."
Annie's lips curl up into a smile. When Jeff sniffs her eyes flutter open.
"Are you cold?" Without waiting for a response she scoots closer, tugging some of the blanket from around herself and throwing it over his lap. She rests against him, under the arm he has stretched out along the back of the couch.
Jeff is still for a moment, letting her settle, and then she feels his hand smoothing over the back of her head. "You okay?"
Annie hums in response and Jeff settles his arm around her shoulders.
A few minutes later, when he thinks she's fallen asleep she surprises him by whispering, "And you were going to spend the day by yourself."
"I'm still not entirely convinced that would have been a horrible thing."
Annie pokes him in the side and he arches away from her. "Hey."
A second later she does it again, this time her fingers pinching lightly at his skin. He flinches and Annie giggles.
"Jeff Winger is ticklish."
He frowns. "Why does it sound like you're making a list?"
"Of things that surprise me about you."
"Well stop doing that." He cracks an eyelid to watch her, "What else is on the list?"
Annie laughs. "Your favorite comfort food is macaroni."
"That's everyone's favorite comfort food."
"You're a comic book nerd."
"Abed told me. Abed doesn't lie."
Annie's quiet again. Then, "You like me."
He stares at the ceiling. "Why is that surprising?"
She doesn't answer, only curls herself tighter against his side.
Jeff exhales loudly. "My back is killing me."
"Hmm?" Annie shifts a little but doesn't open her eyes. As quietly as possible Jeff swings his legs off the coffee table and in one quick move turns himself so that he's stretched out along the length of the couch, Annie still tucked into his side. They barely fit like this together but Annie throws her arm over his chest and Jeff kicks the blanket down so that it covers their feet.
"Merry Christmas Jeff."
He turns his head, his chin brushing against her forehead.
"Merry Christmas Annie."
The fire alarm goes off at again at 5:30.
Annie yelps in surprise, accidentally smacking Jeff in the face and shoving him off the couch into a heap on the ground.
He blinks up at the ceiling in shock and then huffs out a laugh as Annie launches herself over him and starts frantically throwing on her millions of layers of winter wear.
"JEFF! GET UP! THERE'S A FIRE!"
He manages to convince her that the apartment building isn't under any threat of eminent demise but she still starts trying to shove his jacket over his arms with an urgency that is both amusing and annoying.
"I'm not five. I can dress myself."
She only arches an eyebrow and hands him his gloves and somehow, a few minutes later when she's practically yanking him out of the apartment, he's got her scarf around his neck and she's wearing an extra pair of his boots that had been lying by the door.
They huddle together under a blanket in the parking lot, Annie translating his neighbor's conversation in whispered giggles, and suddenly yesterday morning seems like a lifetime ago. It's pre-dawn and below freezing and he's running on maybe four hours of sleep but Annie's got her hands tucked between his for warmth and every time she laughs she ducks her head against his chest so that he can feel it echoing through his body and it's… not horrible.
Later she tells him under no uncertain terms that they will be meeting the guys for brunch and that he'll enjoy it, and he complains but knows that he'll do it and knows that she's right and by 11:30 they're crammed into a booth at the local IHOP eating pancakes covered in whipped cream and watching Abed and Troy re-enact the worst parts of Garret's play until Annie's crying with laughter again and the management threatens to kick them out because the other patrons are so offended.
Pierce calls the manager a name, throws a pancake at the wall and they DO get kicked out but somehow, it's perfect.