Title: The Five Stages Of Break-Up Grief
Character(s)/Pairing(s): J/A, Study Group
Spoilers: Up to 3.22
Word Count: 6900
Disclaimer: I don't own Community.
Summary: The study group think Jeff & Annie are on the verge of another break-up - are they prepared to face the five stages of grief all over again?
Notes: This begins in February 2013, but jumps back in time.
Annie slipped her hand into Jeff's as they exited the study room. "We'll see you guys tonight," she smiled over her shoulder to the rest of the group. "Eight o'clock sharp."
"Maybe more like nine o'clock," said Jeff. "And more blunt than sharp."
"But the dance starts at eight." She reached out with her free hand to grab his phone. "I'm sure I put the right details into your calendar. I added multiple exclamation marks and everything so you'd know it was important."
Jeff angled his body towards her. "Well, I was hoping we'd be a bit late because of other important things." He broke into a sly grin. "No exclamation marks, sorry, but I'm thinking there might be multiple something else…"
Annie gaped at him, her cheeks flushing. "We'll see you all at ten," she rushed, yanking Jeff out of the room while they tried not to laugh.
"Bye guys!" Troy called out, his smile twisting into a grimace. "Thanks for ruining punctuation for everyone."
"As much as I'd like to blame them, Pierce already claimed that victory with his semi-colon joke last week," said Shirley, pursing her lips.
Pierce shrugged, taking his glasses off to clean with his shirt. "When life gives you butt-related words, you make butt lemonade."
"So inspirational," mocked Britta. "Someone should really sew that onto a pillow." She heard a gasp to her right. "I am not sewing that onto a pillow for you, Troy."
Abed furiously scrawled in a well-worn notebook, pausing to do some mental calculation. "Uh oh."
"Uh oh, what?" said Troy, leaning across to see the book. "Are they your time machine plans?" His eyes broadened in excitement. "Should I start packing?"
"Not yet," said Abed, putting down his pen. "But time travel would be helpful right now; then we could re-visit tonight and stop Jeff and Annie's next break-up from happening."
"What are you talking about?" said Britta. "Those two schmoopy idiots were seconds away from f…"
"Britta!" Shirley warned.
"... finding each other's grammar spots on the table," she finished lamely.
"Oh my Lord."
"Who'd split up on Valentine's Day anyhow?" added Pierce. "It's the best sex day of the year next to New Year's Eve and Groundhog Day."
"Technically it's not Valentine's Day, it's February 15th," Abed pointed out. "The Dean's only throwing the Valentine's Day dance today because all the decorations are half price and he'd have more time to perfect his sexy Cupid costume." The group stared at him. "I follow him on Twitter," he explained.
"I still don't get why you think Jeff and Annie are going to break up again," said Britta. "They seemed pretty solid to me."
"That's the point," said Abed, scanning through some pages in his book. "Everything was going well, just like it is now, the first time they dated last year. And then out of nowhere – boom – a subsection of the darkest timeline was born."
Shirley drew her sweater closer to her body. "That was a bad, bad place to visit. And this is coming from someone who once used a public restroom in Walmart."
"Aww man, this blows," said Troy sadly. "They're so cute and gross together. Like two puppies that can't stop making out everywhere."
"I'm not equipped for another break-up episode either," said Abed. "These events need to be staggered out. Maybe we can ask them to put it off until May sweeps?"
"Why don't we just ambush them tonight and tell them to sort their junk out?" suggested Pierce.
"Great advice from the man who's been divorced a thousand times," said Britta.
"Well what's your suggestion, Bridget Jones?" He folded his arms, smirking at her surprise. "Booyah. Ay-bed's been teaching me more movie references."
"I still owe him for paying my way to Comic-Con last year."
Pierce leant back in his chair. "You and Troy wouldn't stop yammering about that bug show being there. What was it? Mosquito? Cockroach?"
"Firefly, dude. Firefly," Troy jumped in, noticing Abed's eyes begin to widen.
Abed stared into space for a few uncomfortable moments before snapping out of it. "Pierce may not be right about a lot of things, but his direct strategy could save time." He started pointing at everyone. "Ambush? Ambush? Ambush?"
"I don't think that's the best idea," said Shirley. "Maybe we should wait and talk to them in private?"
"But what if we wait too long?" replied Troy. "That break-up timeline was like living in a world where Garrett was vice president and candy tasted like troll armpits."
Shirley squinted. "How come he's not the president in this scenario?"
"Come on, Shirley," Troy chuckled like she'd lost her mind. "It's Garrett."
"It was as if Jeff and Annie went through the five stages of grief, but break-up grief," said Britta. "Denial, Acceptance…" she trailed off. "And those other ones in the middle."
"The denial started pretty much after they split up in October," mused Abed.
"How did you know?"
"Because they kept using the phrase, 'we're not in denial'. It was kind of a big clue."
Stage 01: Denial
Abed passed the popcorn back to Jeff, who turned his nose up at the junk food before handing the bowl to Annie. The three of them were in the middle of movie night at Abed, Annie and Troy's apartment – a weekly, regular date for any study group members who could attend – but there was nothing regular about the way Jeff and Annie were behaving. For people who had only broken up just a week ago they were acting decidedly… normal.
"Why are there no smashed plates?" said Abed out of the blue, keeping his gaze on the TV.
Jeff and Annie swapped curious looks before Jeff cleared his throat. "… Because there's no one in the forest to hear them break?"
"I'm not being philosophical, Jeff."
"Oh good, well that clears up that random statement then."
"Why would there be smashed plates, Abed?" asked Annie, twisting around in Troy's recliner. "Is this about the movie? Because I don't think the animals are traipsing through a Pottery Barn anytime soon."
Abed pressed pause on the remote. "This is about you two," he clarified, throwing a few kernels into his mouth. "Usually when couples break up there's yelling and name-calling and dishes being thrown at someone's head." He nodded towards the kitchen. "I even bought plastic plates to minimize the injuries."
"I was wondering why we were stocked up for a bake sale," murmured Annie, before realizing the implications of Abed's words. "Hang on, why are you encouraging us to throw things at each other?"
"Because you're both acting like nothing happened when a major shift in your dynamic has occurred," he replied matter-of-factly. "No one has been crying into a tub of ice-cream or letting their beard grow as a symbol of their pain."
"Abed," said Jeff, patting him on the shoulder, "this is your daily reminder that you watch way too much TV. And besides, Annie couldn't carry off a full-grown beard." He flinched when Annie poked him in the ribs. "What I'm trying to say is, we're fine."
"More than fine," Annie agreed. "We're great. We dated for a couple of months, decided it wasn't for us and now we're friends again. No denial necessary."
"Exactly. We're buds. Amigos. Buy us matching BFF necklaces and call it a day, am I right?" said Jeff, holding out his hand to fist bump Annie.
"Totally right," said Annie, returning the gesture with a laugh before noticing Abed was staring at them. "What?"
"Something's still off," he said, flitting his eyes between them. "Maybe we should watch a different movie. You have 'When Harry Met Sally', right Annie?"
"Real subtle," Jeff drawled. "Is this what tonight was all about? Bombard us with themed movies so we'd get back together?"
Abed blinked at him. "We're watching Homeward Bound."
"Yeah, well…" he said, fumbling around for an answer. "That's all about overcoming obstacles to get back to where you belong, no?" He folded his arms in satisfaction.
"I suggested this DVD because Troy cries every time the Golden Retriever is on screen and I've never seen the end." Abed wiped the greasy popcorn residue on his pants. "But your take on the film has me intrigued."
"We're not in denial, Abed," said Jeff, with a put-upon sigh.
"Let's just hit play and enjoy the rest of the night," said Annie, picking up an empty bowl. "Anyone want more snacks?"
"You know what, I might just head home," said Jeff, reaching around the back of the chair for his jacket.
"Oh, OK." Annie plastered on a smile. "It was good to see you."
"Are you sure you don't want to stay, Jeff?" said Abed. "There's only half hour to go."
"No it's fine," he replied, eyes flickering briefly towards Annie. "I know how it ends."
Abed nodded, turning back towards the TV and hitting play while Annie watched Jeff walk out the apartment. Sensing movement in his peripheral vision, Abed saw Annie head into the kitchen and open the freezer, making a small noise of astonishment.
"Abed?" she called out.
"Why does it look like we've robbed a Ben & Jerry's store?"
"I picked some up when I bought the plates."
There was a moment of silence before Annie reached in for a tub of Phish Food. "… Thanks," she said quietly, before padding into her room and closing the door.
"Woo! Anger!" Britta crowed, startling everyone as Abed finished his story. "Sorry, that's the next one on the list," she said sheepishly, waving around her beaten-up cell. "Plus I was excited the Wi-Fi actually worked on my Motorsung – it didn't even explode once!" Her smile faded as everyone continued to stare. "… But sad ice cream trumps Google discoveries. Please continue."
"No wonder things turned bad," said Troy, sinking further into his chair. "They probably took one look into Shadow's old, wise eyes before that Sarah McLachlan song started playing in their heads."
"I think they might have had other things on their minds, Troy," said Shirley.
But Troy ignored her, hugging himself tight. "In the arms of the angel," he sang, voice wobbling.
"Oh for Pete's sake," said Pierce, sighing. "No one show this kid Old Yeller."
"If that's a penis metaphor I don't get it or its relevance to my pain," Troy gulped between sobs.
"We should probably re-group," said Abed, passing Troy some candy from his satchel to calm him down. "We've got four more flashbacks to get through and I have class in twenty-five minutes."
"OK well like I said, the next stage is anger," Britta prompted them.
Shirley frowned. "I think we all experienced that with those two fools. Stubborn, childish little…" she broke off, remembering she had company. "Cupcakes," she finished in a sweet tone.
"I know the stubborn cupcake duo got us ticked off, but this is about them remember."
"I think I have something," said Troy through a mouthful of M&Ms.
"Is it your girl panties in a twist, cry baby?" teased Pierce, looking proud of his joke. "You go, Glen Coco," he added, high-fiving himself.
"You were supposed to teach him quotes for good not evil," muttered Troy, glaring at Abed. "Well, I guess now I'm in the right mood for my story…"
Stage 02: Anger
Troy checked his Spider-Man watch, frustrated to see that only two minutes had passed since he'd last looked. He regretted his decision not to change out of his comfy pyjamas to pick up dinner from Senor Kevin's with Abed and Britta, because sitting in his apartment with Jeff and Annie was like taking a trip to Antarctica. Icy and uncomfortable.
"There aren't even tap dancing penguins to make things better," said Troy sadly.
"What?" said Annie, staring at her Uno cards.
"Nothing. Whose turn is it?"
"Yours," Jeff replied, taking a sip of his beer. "I mean, I'd like a turn, but someone keeps using a never-ending supply of 'skip' cards."
Annie smiled, tossing some hair over her shoulder. "That's just the luck of the draw, Jeff. You win some, you lose some. And then you just plain suck."
"Hey! Wild card!" Troy exclaimed, quickly interrupting them. "Oh man, big decisions to make here. What color should I choose?"
"Don't ask Jeff," said Annie, crossing her legs. "He's not very good at making up his mind."
Jeff smiled as pleasantly as he could. "I wouldn't ask Annie, either. She'll just overthink everything."
"… Green it is!" Troy placed down his wild card, stealing another glance at his watch. Save me Spider-Man. "So guys, Halloween's nearly here. Any costume ideas?"
"I'm not sure," said Annie, taking a green seven from her pile. "A few people from my health class were talking about going to the school dance as a group."
"You don't want to dress up with me and Abed?"
"I would but you two keep coming up with couples costumes! I don't want to be the third wheel."
"That Sam guy still in your class?" asked Jeff casually, throwing down a card.
Annie gave him a measured gaze. "Yes. Why?"
"No reason," he shrugged, taking another swig of beer. "He is pretty short and goofy, though. Maybe you could all go as Smurfs?"
"Maybe we could. Or maybe I could dress up as a free agent. What would I need to symbolize that? Like a trench coat and some sunglasses maybe?" She waited for Troy to place down his card before finding one of her own. "Ooh, Draw Four. Bad luck," Annie announced triumphantly. "Hmm, I choose Smurf blue."
Groaning, Troy snatched the cards from his friends' hands, ignoring their protests. "That's it, we're done with Uno."
"Troy…" Jeff began, but Troy cut him off.
"No. I'm sick of it. We've already gone through angry Yahtzee and pissed off Jenga. You guys are ruining everything!" He shoved the cards into a drawer and went into his room, returning with a large board. "Now, we can either finish putting together this puzzle of adorable kittens frolicking through a meadow like we're grown-ups," he warned. "Or we can sit here and keep acting like three-year-olds who are allowed to drink alcohol. Your choice."
Avoiding eye contact with one another, Jeff and Annie muttered 'the puzzle' under their breath, before sitting at opposite sides of the living-room table, leaving Troy in the middle.
Annie brightened somewhat when she saw the progress Troy had made on the 1000-piece monster. "Wow, you've nearly finished it. I'm impressed."
"Thanks," Troy smiled. "I need your expertise with the middle, though. Nothing fits together."
Jeff picked up the lid of the jigsaw box to compare the picture to what was before him on the table. "So basically all we have left are 150 pieces of cat fur that look exactly the same?" He shook his head in faux-amazement. "Will the rollercoaster of excitement never end?"
"Puzzles take time, Jeff," said Annie, concentrating on her task. "As well as patience and commitment."
"Yeah well, they're also confusing and complicated."
"Maybe to some people."
"Maybe to a lot of people."
Annie lifted her head, eyes narrowing. "Maybe you just approach them in the wrong way."
Jeff matched her annoyed stare. "Maybe there is no right way."
Troy exhaled loudly. "Yeah… we're totally not talking about puzzles anymore are we?"
"Don't worry, Troy," said Annie, squaring her shoulders. "I think we're done talking."
"Awkward silence. Yay," he feebly cheered.
Annie and Troy continued to put the puzzle together while Jeff occasionally contributed in-between playing games on his phone. The work was quick and before long there was only one space left. Annie and Troy beamed at one another.
"Don't get me wrong, puzzles are awesome," said Troy, "but if I ever see another cat I'm going to punch it in the face." His eyes widened. "Don't tell Britta I said that."
"Your secret's safe with me," laughed Annie, clasping her hands together. "Go ahead! You can do the final honors."
"I can't. I don't have the piece." Troy frowned. "I thought you were holding it?"
"No, I don't have it." They did a brief search on and under the table before Annie cleared her throat. "OK Jeff, joke's over. Give us the piece back."
Dragging his attention away from his cell, Jeff raised his eyebrows. "I don't have it either."
Annie scoffed. "Don't be an ass. Where else would it be?"
"I don't know? Maybe some Smurfs snuck in and stole it?"
"Real mature, Jeff. How about you stop mucking around and hand it over?"
"How about you stop blaming me for everything?"
Eyes flashing, Annie scraped her chair back abruptly. "This is so typical."
Hearing a key in the front door, Troy practically sprinted over to Abed and Britta to help them with the food parcels. "Sorry we took so long," said Britta, her cheeks flushed from the cool fall air. "Abed freaked out when he saw the 'Die Hard was bad' waiter had returned. It nearly turned into a brawl." She came to a standstill with the boys, finally clicking that Annie and Jeff were yelling at one another. "Glad we avoided that confrontation…"
"Just give me the stupid puzzle piece!" Annie fumed at Jeff.
"Do I need subtitles?" Jeff retorted. "I. Don't. Have. It."
"Well what am I supposed to do now? It has a gaping hole in the middle." Her body trembled, not all of it attributed to rage. "We can't just leave it unfinished."
A hint of regret flickered across Jeff's face before he let his indifferent mask slip back into place. "I can't help you, Annie. I've never been good at puzzles."
Jeff turned to walk by his concerned friends, flinching when a plastic plate sailed over his head, peanuts flying everywhere. He went to open his mouth but decided against it, instead treading his now-familiar path out the door.
"Now that weird day at Winger's finally makes sense," said Pierce, going over the story in his head.
"What weird day?" asked Shirley.
"Ugh, who cares?" Britta said, glowering at Troy. "The more important thing is that we have a cat puncher in our midst! I can't believe I let you cat-sit Patches last week."
Troy winced. "Yeahhhhh, I probably should've left that part out."
"Save all your sympathies for a stupid fictional dog why don't you," she huffed.
He gaped at her. "Excuse me, but Shadow is a hero of everyone's heart, Britta!"
"Can we just move on with the next stage?" said Shirley. "This is about Jeff and Annie, remember? Not cats and dogs." She pursed her lips. "Even though they were technically fighting like cats and dogs I suppose…"
"What comes after anger?" said Abed.
Britta just shrugged, causing Troy to sigh. "Britta, by the power vested in me I am sorry for saying I'd punch a cat. Although now I think of it that would be a pretty dope-ass spin-off to Kickpuncher…" a smile crept up his face. "The costume could have a tail with a spear on the end."
"Troy," Shirley coughed, nodding towards an unimpressed Britta.
"Right! Apologizing!" He turned back to his blond friend. "Britta, you know I wasn't serious. I had post-traumatic puzzle stress. Plus I'd never do anything to make you sad, because then it'd make me sad."
Britta hid the hint of a smile threatening to curl up her mouth. "Apology accepted. And for everyone's information, the third stage is bargaining."
"Ooh, I can help with this one," said Shirley, eager to begin her story.
"Annnnd cue flashback," murmured Abed.
Stage 03: Bargaining
Annie carried two hot chocolates over to the booth in the Greendale cafeteria where Shirley was waiting.
"Thank you, pumpkin," said Shirley, accepting the Styrofoam cup. "The weather's getting far too cold for my liking."
"Abed's convinced that he'll have his time machine worked out in another month," said Annie, taking off the lid to blow on the steaming liquid. "Then he's offered to take us all somewhere hotter. I'm kind of worried he means the sun."
"I'm kind of worried you're halfway into thinking his machine will actually zap us somewhere," Shirley replied with an eyebrow raise. She broke into a grin when Annie giggled. "Now there's a nice sound I haven't heard in a while."
"Yeah," Annie nodded, ducking her head. "I'm trying." She took a sip of her drink before making a face. "Gross!"
"Don't tell me it still has that disgusting aftertaste. I thought the Dean got a different supplier."
"Is his new supplier giving him packets of dirt?" Annie stood up. "I'm going to grab some sweeteners, see if we can salvage them. I'll be back in a sec."
Nudging her cup away, Shirley rummaged through her purse to find Jordan and Elijah's most recent school awards to show Annie when a tall shadow eclipsed her.
"I'm convinced your friend Gary never transferred and you're keeping him held hostage in that thing," said Jeff, nodding at her bag as he sat across from his friend.
"Jeffrey!" said Shirley in surprise. "What are you doing here?" she added, nervously glancing around.
"Going to school?" he replied, before leaning in conspiratorially. "Are you under surveillance?" he whispered. "Is Gary actually in there?"
"Don't be foolish," she said, swatting him away. "I'm just… here with someone."
"Ooh, who? A hot date?" His smile faded when he saw Annie approach them. "Oh."
"Jeff… hey," Annie said uneasily, handing Shirley a few sweeteners. "What's going on?"
"I'm sorry. I thought this was my day."
"No, I'm pretty sure we agreed it was my Shirley day."
"Your Shirley what now?" blurted out Shirley in surprise. "Why do I suddenly feel like a child of divorce?"
Jeff and Annie both reached for their cells, searching through their schedules. Annie checked off the days on her fingers. "Monday was my Britta day, Tuesday Pierce, Wednesday Troy and today was Shirley."
"Wait, I thought we agreed I could see Shirley today because I have a dentist appointment tomorrow," said Jeff.
"No, that's next week. I remember because I was with you when you booked it a few months ago and the overly flirty receptionist kept calling you honeybee."
"Oh yeah. Then you sent me that text reminding me to write down the date," he smirked, scrolling through his phone. "Here it is. Dentist appointment, November 15th at 3pm," he read out. "Bee, bee, honey pot, bee, gargoyle."
"The gargoyle was the receptionist," she clarified, trying not to smile. "She bugged me."
Shirley held her breath, hoping this was the moment things would start to thaw out between them, but she was filled with disappointment when Jeff stood up and offered his seat to Annie.
"Well, seeing as the fifteenth is next Thursday, I guess that settles that," said Jeff. "It's your turn for study group this afternoon too isn't it?" Annie nodded. "Great. Well I'll see you around."
They watched as Jeff scanned the cafeteria for somewhere else to sit. But with Leonard the only seat-buddy around, Jeff went into the lounge instead and flopped onto the well-worn sofa, taking out his trusty phone for company.
Shirley felt a pang in her heart, which only intensified when she saw how despondent Annie was stirring sugar after sugar into her drink. "Is that why you two are never in the same room as each other anymore? Because you planned it like that?"
"Yep," Annie replied in a quiet voice. "We got sick of arguing so we thought it would be easier this way."
Annie snuck a mournful glance towards Jeff, who was staring at the wall. "I don't think it ever will be."
Jeff was still staring into space when someone sat down next to him on the sofa. He turned his head to see Shirley smiling at him.
"Is this seat taken?"
"I thought you were with Annie?" he replied in confusion.
Shirley waved her hand dismissively. "We took a raincheck. Turns out she had an assignment to research she'd forgotten about."
"Annie forgot about homework?" said Jeff in disbelief. "The same woman who eats up perfect grades like Pac-Man? That doesn't sound…" he stopped as Shirley gave him an imploring look.
"Don't question it, Jeffrey," she said kindly. "Just embrace it and be happy with the fact that I get to whoop your ass at foosball today."
Jeff broke into a grin. "Oh you're on, lady. Prepare to be embarrassed."
"Don't worry, I will be," she retorted, hauling her purse strap up her arm. "I'm playing with you aren't I?"
"Oh those poor, sad little toasters," a voice rang out from the front of the study room. Five heads whipped around to see the Dean standing there, eavesdropping on their conversation. "Sorry, I was just passing by and couldn't help overhear."
"Don't you have a party to decorate?" said Pierce.
"Indeed I do! I just need an opinion on something first." He held out two sets of cupid wings. "Which one goes better with my complexion – silver or gold?"
"Gold," said Troy with a decisive nod. "It'll bring out your eyes."
"Thank you, Troy," the Dean smiled, holding a hand to his heart. "Looks like someone's getting an extra glass of Dr Salt tonight," he winked.
"An extra glass of what?"
"It's soda. Dr Pepper's not in our budget. Anyhoo, Dean you all later!"
Troy scrunched up his nose as the Dean flounced away. "Greendale makes me glum sometimes you guys."
"Good, because that's a perfect segue way into our next stage of grief – depression!" announced Britta, getting met with silence. "What? I thought it was clever."
"Clever as a heart attack," scoffed Pierce.
"That doesn't even make sense."
"You don't know my life!"
"I don't think we even need a story," quipped Shirley. "This whole conversation's making me depressed enough."
"No, wait, I have one," said Pierce, adjusting his glasses. "Should I do a funny impersonation while I tell it? I've been practicing my Detective Spacetime." He felt an M&M bounce off his forehead. "I'll take that as a no then."
Stage 04: Depression
Jeff opened his apartment door, acknowledging his guest with a grunt. "Old Man River."
"Grizzly Adams," said Pierce in return. "Santa forget to bring you a shaving kit?"
"What do you want, Pierce?" he replied, running a hand over his unkempt beard.
"You didn't reply to my New Year's Eve party invite."
"Well you should get with the times. No one trusts carrier pigeons to deliver their mail anymore."
"Very funny. So are you coming or not?"
Jeff sighed. "It's not for another four days. Can't I just lie to you about having something better to do on the actual day?" He groaned louder when Pierce pushed past him to enter the apartment. "Seriously?"
Brushing away a pile of dirty clothes on the sofa so he could sit down, Pierce noticed a few unopened presents on the coffee table. "You're not curious to see what you got?"
"Can I open them?"
"Why are you here, Pierce?" Jeff demanded, folding his arms. "And don't say it's because of your party because we both know that's a lie."
Pierce draped his arms across the back of the leather lounge suite. "Can't one pal just drop by to see another pal? You jump I jump remember?
"… Did you just quote Titanic at me?" He furrowed his eyebrows. "In a really out of context way?" Jeff couldn't hide his relief when the landline suddenly rang, practically sprinting across the room to answer it. "Hello? Oh hi… Yeah I did have a reservation for two tomorrow but I'm actually going to need to cancel. I, uh, forgot I'd booked it… No I don't want to make it for another time… Yes I'm sure… OK, thanks, bye." He slowly hung up the phone, slumping onto one of the bar stools in the kitchen.
"Who was that?"
Jeff's body jolted slightly, remembering that he had company. "Just a restaurant confirming a booking," he replied, eyes dull. "It was for…" he paused, swallowing roughly. "You know what, doesn't matter."
Pierce leant forward, studying his friend. The usually vain son-of-a-bitch hadn't even combed his hair. "Are you going to movie night tonight?" he said conversationally. "Ay-bed said he'd even rustle up something from my era."
"No. I might give it a miss. I've got plans."
"OK. But do me a favor and at least put on some aftershave before your 'plans' tonight would you? You smell like a horse's ass." Pierce got to his feet and started to make his way to the door when Jeff called out for him to wait. He watched as Jeff took a small red box from the present pile, tied up with purple ribbon, and handed it to him.
"Can you… can you give this to Annie when you see her?" said Jeff, not meeting the old man's eyes.
"Sure," he replied, clapping Jeff on the shoulder. Pierce gave the present a once-over. "Who wrapped this thing? A deformed elf?"
"Shut up and leave already, Pierce."
Later that night when Annie was gathering more snacks in her apartment kitchen, Pierce snuck in after her, digging the present out of his jacket pocket. "Special delivery for Ms Annie Edison."
Annie smiled curiously. "What's this for?" she said, snatching her hand back when a thought occurred to her. "It's not another Laser Lotus pin is it? Because you remember that they turned out to be tracking devices last time, right?"
"Don't worry, it's not from me. It's from Winger."
"Oh." Giving the box another unsettled glance, she took a deep breath and unravelled the ribbon, then lifted the lid. Her eyes started to brim with tears when she saw what was inside.
"What is it?"
Wiping her cheek, Annie gave him a wistful smile, showing him the box. "Something I've been missing."
Pierce glanced inside and saw a puzzle piece resting on some tissue paper with a note next to it that simply said 'Sorry – Happy Birthday'. "Wait, your birthday's today? No one reminded me. Do you want a pony? I'll get you a pony."
"No, it's alright," she laughed. "It's not today anyway – it's tomorrow."
Troy sniffed, dabbing at his face with a Kleenex. "I'm not crying," he protested. "I just have something in my eye. Like dust or a really sad story."
"Oh those poor babies," said Shirley, shaking her head.
"Like I said, that whole puzzle thing makes sense now," added Pierce. "I just always assumed Winger was being a cheapskate."
"What's the last stage, Britta?" said Abed, checking the time on his digital watch. "I've only got five minutes to spare."
"Acceptance," she replied. "And I've got the perfect moment."
"Mine got tears," Pierce taunted. "Legit tears. Beat that, Blondie." He flinched as another M&M thwacked his head. "Ow!"
Britta smirked. "Thank you, Troy."
Stage 05: Acceptance
It was an hour before the ball was due to drop in Times Square on the flat screen TV, but the study group were already partying at Pierce's mansion like it was 2013. Much to Pierce's delight, everyone had decided to attend – even Jeff (fashionably late of course). Britta had seen the way Annie's face lit up when Jeff arrived, and then the way Jeff had smiled fondly at her while she attempted krumping with Troy and Abed.
While Shirley and Andre chatted with Pierce and some other guests by the fire, and Abed spoke in-depth with Pierce's half-brother about add-ons for the 'Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne' game, Britta lounged on the comfy sofas with Troy, Jeff and Annie. They were all nicely buzzed on the champagne that waiters kept passing around and the mood was comfortable. Annie and Jeff were even sitting next to one another. Taking another gulp of her drink, Britta kicked off her boots. "We should do that 'what are we thankful for' thing."
"Wrong tradition, Drunky McGee," Jeff teased. "You're thinking of Thanksgiving."
"Oh. Right. What do we do for this one again?"
"Say our resolutions," smiled Annie, giggling when the champagne bubbles tickled her nose. "I wrote a big list. I have like twenty-five or something."
"Shocker," smirked Jeff.
"I already know all of Annie's," Troy complained.
"What?" yelped Annie. "How?"
His mouth fell open. "It's definitely not because you left the list lying around in your room when me and Abed were playing hide and seek."
"Resolutions blow anyway," Britta interrupted, waving her champagne flute around. "No one keeps them. I want to talk about what we're thankful for."
Jeff snorted. "Since when do you conform to social conventions?"
"Well since it's not actually Thanksgiving I'm kind of not," she replied, poking out her tongue. "I'll start. I'm thankful that Patches hasn't got into anymore street fights with the neighborhood cats because I can't afford another vet bill right now." She nudged Troy with her toe. "Your turn."
"Um. I'm thankful for getting the chance to go to Comic-Con with my best friend this year and see Nathan Fillion in the flesh." Troy sighed happily. "He's pretty dreamy you guys."
Annie chuckled, lolling back on the sofa. "I'm thankful for… ringing in the New Year with all of my favorite people."
"Even me?" Jeff asked, only half teasing.
Smiling, Annie ducked her head. "Even you, Jeff."
He rested his head on his hand, smiling back at her. "My turn, huh? Well… I'm thankful for people who still consider me as one of their favorites even when I've acted like a douchebag."
"You weren't the only one acting like that," she admitted sheepishly.
"Annie, I stole a puzzle piece like petulant toddler."
"But you gave it back. And I'm thankful for that too."
"I'm thankful for…" Britta began, hoping to keep the round going, but Annie and Jeff were too wrapped up in their own thoughts.
"You know what else I'm thankful for?" Jeff said quietly, moving closer so that his knee was softly grazing Annie's.
"What's that?" she murmured.
"That we can be in the same room again. I missed you," he said honestly.
"I missed you too." She smiled, before noticing a scratch on his cheek. "What happened to your face?" she asked, brushing her finger across the cut without even thinking. "I can't believe you compromised the money-maker," she teased.
Jeff laughed, savouring the contact. "I thought it was time I shaved. New year, new beginning."
"I hope so," said Annie.
After the ball had dropped and drunken good tidings had been swapped, Britta stumbled through the expansive halls to find a bathroom, stopping when she saw movement in what looked like a study. Carefully pushing the door a few inches, Britta smiled to herself when she saw Jeff and Annie making out, completely lost in one another. Pulling the door closed, she left them alone.
"That's it," exclaimed Shirley. "I change my mind. Let's ambush them tonight. They may be two idiots, but they're two idiots in love, and that's something worth fighting for."
"This is so dope," said Troy, bouncing in his seat. "It'll be like Valentine's Day crossed with a war movie."
Abed gathered his belongings. "Cool, cool, cool. Let's meet back here at seven to talk tactics before the dance. We need a plan of attack."
"I know someone who knows someone who's a fighter pilot," Pierce offered.
"Not that kind of war, Pierce," Britta sighed.
Jeff pulled Annie into a quiet corner of the dance floor, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of disturbance.
"Is the Dean still trying to shoot you with his bow and arrow?" asked Annie, fighting back a laugh.
"It's like he's training for The Hunger Games," said Jeff in exasperation. "Would you quit laughing? I can still use you as a human shield you know."
"So romantic," she mocked.
Jeff grinned, twirling her around. "Hey, I know how to treat a woman right on the most important day of the year."
"You got it." He did another scan of the gaudily decorated cafeteria, frowning slightly. "Speaking of crazy people like the Dean – what's up with our friends tonight?"
Annie twisted her head to get a better look. The rest of the study group were hovering around the snack table as if someone had said 'act casual' to them and they'd chosen the exact opposite way to react. "They've been behaving like that ever since we got here. It's kind of creepy."
"Oh God, the Dean's coming," said Jeff dropping his hands from Annie's waist. "You go that way, I'll go this way and I'll meet you in the corridor."
The group watched as Jeff and Annie suddenly sprang apart and walked off from each other. Abed spoke into a walkie-talkie attached to his dress pants. "Operation Ambush is go. Over."
"Why are you talking into that thing?" said Shirley. "We're all right here."
Abed paused before slowly pressing the talk button. "Because it's more official this way. Over."
"Whatever. Let's just follow them before they escape."
Outside in the bright hallway, Jeff and Annie jumped when the cafeteria doors flung open, relaxing only slightly when they saw it was their friends.
"Hey guys," Jeff said carefully. "You didn't happen to see a bald Cupid with…"
"You're not allowed to break up!" Troy blurted out.
"Um… what?" He drew Annie closer to him as the group circled around like whacked-out sharks.
"This is an ambush," Pierce stated defiantly. "If you two don't sort your crap out we're going to make you do it."
"What are you guys talking about?" said Annie incredulously. "Jeff and I are not breaking up."
"Yes you are," replied Shirley. "Abed's weird little journal said so."
"His what?" said Jeff. "Did Britta introduce you all to peyote or something? You're making zero amounts of sense."
"Hey!" Britta exclaimed. "We're trying to help you two jags here."
"And again we say, why? Newsflash everyone, Annie and I are fine."
"Then I don't understand," said Abed, observing his two friends. "Because you were fine last time you dated and then you broke up. It's following the same pattern."
"Abed," said Annie gently, "you can't just input data with something like this. It doesn't work that way." She took hold of Jeff's hand. "The reason why it didn't work out between us last time is because we were scared."
"Why?" said Britta. "You guys had built up the Great Wall of Sexual Tension over four damn years. It should have been a relief to break through."
"Oh believe me, it was," said Jeff, earning a whack on the arm from Annie. "But once it finally happened, we tried so hard not to ruin it… that our fears and insecurities eventually ruined it."
"As much as being apart sucked, though, it helped us realize how silly we were and that we needed to give our relationship another chance," Annie added, leaning up to give Jeff a kiss. "And the rest is history."
Jeff gazed at his friends. "So are we all satisfied? We can stop with this ambush nonsense? Because all this over sharing is making me really uncomfortable."
Six pairs of eyes came to rest on Abed, who brought the walkie-talkie to his mouth. "Over sharing time is officially over. Over."
"Aww, you guys! It's really nice to know you all care so much," Annie beamed.
"We just didn't want you to go through all the trauma you did last time," Shirley replied, her expression clouding. "Or us."
"Well… in the spirit of looking out for each other, there might be one little thing Jeff and I need to talk to you all about."
"You're pregnant!" Troy gasped, fanning his face. "Oh man, I'm gonna be a grandparent. I'm not prepared for this."
"What? No!" squealed Annie. "Hang on, grandparent?"
"No, no, no," Jeff managed to sputter. "No buns in ovens here. Or donuts. Or any other baked goods." He barked out a nervous laugh. "Wow, is the room spinning for anyone else?"
"It's nothing major like that."
"What is it then?" said Britta.
Annie smiled at her friends. "I was thinking about switching seats at the study table so I could sit next to Jeff." There was a wall of silence before everyone started talking at once.
"I don't want to lose my seat buddy, Annie," said Shirley with a pout.
"That's not fair," Pierce protested. "I've been eyeing off that spot at the head of the table for years – but I'm not about to pork Winger to get there!"
"If you move seats will this start off a chain of events where you eventually move out of the apartment?" questioned Abed. "Who'll play Geneva then?"
Troy nodded furiously. "You can't leave, Annie! We need someone to kill the spiders."
Britta groaned in annoyance, glaring at Jeff. "Thanks, jackass, now we're going to have to work through the five stages all over again. Why couldn't you have just had a tiny pointy-faced baby instead?"
Jeff and Annie huddled together as their friends continued to freak out. "You have a feeling we've missed something important?" Jeff muttered under his breath.
"With this group?" said Annie. "Always."