Prompt: Jeff seeks out Annie after she transfers to another school in another state.
Notes: This is something of an experiment in structure and style. Lyrics and title from Of Monsters and Men, whose album 'My Head Is An Animal' pretty much saved and shaped this entire ficlet. "Little Talks", "Your Bones" and "Sloom" made up the were practically the writing soundtrack.
Spoilers: season 3, but set in mid-season 4
Hold On To Your Heart
There's an old voice in my head that's holding me back
Well tell her that I miss our little talks
Soon it will be over and buried with our past
We used to play outside when we were young,
And full of life and full of love
Just let me go we'll meet again soon
Now wait wait wait for me
Please hang around
I'll see you when I fall asleep
He realized what his problem was on the third day after she walked past airport security. He was ashamed it took him that long. He already kind of knew by late at night on the second day, but it wasn't until after a round of punishing gym work outs on the third that he was able to look himself in the locker room mirror, and say it out loud.
"Never should've let her on the plane."
A short, square, tank of a man cleared his throat to Jeff's right. "That's rough, dude, but you're blocking towel rack."
"Shit," said Jeff. He dodged back a step, and turned to let the other guy pass. "Shit, shit, shit shit shit."
"Yeah," said the man in commiseration. He thwacked Jeff heavily on the shoulder as he went back the way he came, but Jeff was too busy having a nuclear crisis-level epiphany.
"Shit, shit, SHIT!"
He knew what the immediate solution was, and was reasonably confident he could pull it off. However, Jeff was feeling insecure in his new post-epiphany state, wherein previously abstract concepts like hearts, feelings, and pop songs were taking on a frightening literalism. So he ran it by Shirley.
"Jeff, if you even think about pulling that bull-crap on Annie, I'm gonna have to gird you to the study table."
"You can't gird me to anything, I'm taller than you." He added, "And we're buddies."
"Jeffrey," warned Shirley in her best 'I'm disappointed that a personal friend of my own would do this' voice. "Do you have any idea what you want? You had a ridiculous stranglehold on Annie's affection for three and a half years. I was sure you'd be going to Hell for it, until I realized you were too chicken to pay the piper."
"Shirley," hissed the former lawyer, leaning over his coffee to better plead with his eyes. "A little sympathy? I'm opening my heart here. Things are very open. Except I think it's damaged and the only way I can see of un-damaging it is convincing Annie that she needs to come back to Colorado and rejoin the group. The only way I can see to make that happen is to hire someone in Seattle to impersonate—"
"Oh come off it, Jeff!" Shirley apparently had no qualms about interrupting him, and didn't even seem interested in the details of his plan. "You couldn't manage to scare her off when she was eighteen and you didn't bother trying for anything real when she was twenty-one. Just because Annie's out of your reach now, you think you've had some kind of revelation. Britta's been right this whole time: you're not as complicated and you'd like us all to think. Washington might as well be named Rich or Vaughn, and you'd be behaving the same way."
With a scowl, Jeff dropped his beseeching body language and slumped in his chair, coffee folded between his large hands. "I thought you'd back me up on this. Love and romance, rah rah rah."
"If the good Lord finally has a plan for your love life, ain't no way I'm interfering, for or against. You're on your own."
It took a couple hours of menial homework for Jeff to realize his friend was right, and another week for him to come to grips with the ramifications of it. He elected not to proceed with the immediate plan, because Annie had her own life now, and he couldn't screw that up for her. How could he do that to Annie—to such a bright, idealistic kid who finally jumped into the big wide world? He couldn't infect her with his nasty almost-middle-aged person cynicism and drag her away from a semester in a city by the ocean or an upcoming paid internship at a lucrative HMO. That's what lame, romance-movie schmucks did when they let their self-pity overcome their sense of loyalty.
Well, no chance was Jeff Winger sinking that low. Jeff Winger was not going to become Annie's schmuck. He was going to stay right here, on this bar stool.
"Oh just shut up," moaned Britta. Her hands gesticulated in the air, but because this was Britta Perry (who had alcohol super powers even Jeff had come to respect) she didn't spill a single drop of her beer. "I get it. She's gone, you're sad. You're making heroic sacrifices so she can be happy shacking up with some hot young surgical resident. It's like you've completely forgotten that I'm female and once upon a time we used to sleep together."
With a grunt, Jeff ran his hand over his face then let it flop it back onto the bar. He leaned back to stare dully at the ceiling. "Hell, I'm sorry Britta. I shouldn't be telling you this. I'm an asshole."
"I'll forgive you if you drop the pity party and start being fun again. You'll be fine! She'll be fine. This is a little bump in the road of life and the yellow brick road goes on and on, to places and stuff. Places you both will be just fine at. On your own. When you stop being a brat."
Jeff perked up from his drink. "Places like the Emerald City?"
"Yeah, sure," she agreed, blithely letting him seize on her metaphor. "Like the Emerald City."
"That's fucking Seattle!"
"Whatever Jeff, this is your sob story, not mine. You keep track."
"Get me another scotch," he demanded, dropping his forehead onto his folded arms. He'd made sure to wear an old shirt so he could let his arms touch the bar top properly while he cursed his fate and feelings and Annie and Shirley and Greendale's lax transfer system and stupid HMOs. Britta patted him on the shoulder companionably, then a whole bottle appeared like magic.
"You're not the worst," said Jeff from his overly-inebriated heart. "You're not even punching me right now. You should've punched me a long time ago."
She touched the hair on the back of his neck and said in her kitten-soothing voice, "Yeah, I know. I'm secretly amazing. Drink up."
Only a few more hung-over mornings than usual were required for him to finish the semester, and in four months his infamous steak dinner had come and gone, this time with friends included. It was almost fall, on the last day of his bar exam, when he walked through the door of apartment 304 and collapsed on the sofa. He hoped that the wonder twins had food, because he hadn't been shopping, or even left his own apartment, in over a week.
"You smell like someone's posterior," said Troy when he tossed a bag of baby carrots at Jeff's lap.
"Circumstantial allegations from an easily discredited witness," mumbled Jeff as he crunched on the vegetables.
"I said you smell like butt. I'm expanding my vocabulary now that I'm taking advanced AC courses."
"Herein to the contrary notwithstanding," Jeff said, pointing his finger in the general direction of Troy's voice and making a 'bang!' gesture. "I may need to use your shower before I go."
"Mi baño es su baño." Troy flopped onto one of the chairs facing the TV, but paused to glance over his shoulder at Jeff. "You don't look so hot, man. Are you depressed again? Because I remember freshman year, and for a few days I was totally cooler than you."
"His brain is fried from taking the Uniform Bar Exam," contributed Abed, walking out of the kitchen with a bowl of cereal in hand. "In some films, just studying for the bar does terrible things to people's minds."
"Passing the bar," corrected Jeff from the couch. "And that's why lawyers are always in a bad mood. We believe that after all this pain and stress we deserve a truckload of money to feel better."
Troy sighed with unabashed envy. "How much money do you think is in a truckload?"
"Not enough," said Jeff at the same time as Abed asked, "Why were you taking the Uniform Exam? Denver firms don't require it. I made calls."
Jeff rolled a little carrot between his teeth, focused on gnawing it to the core, and refused to look at his younger friends. "Keep your mind powers away from me, Batman. I'm in a delicate state."
"Is it because you want to leave Colorado?" Abed pressed.
"A delicate state," repeated Jeff. "And possibly the wrong one."
Nearly seven months after the airport epiphany he secured a job offer, facilitated by his new gym buddy, Seth, who bought him a drink that bad day half a year ago. Seth's cousin worked for the rainy city's personnel department, and they passed his resume around. When Jeff spilled the beans the night after he arrived back in Greendale from a one-day trip to the coast, none of the group could decide if they were happy or resentful. There was excessive hugging, followed by critical commentary: "You know Pike Place Market is the gayest of all markets, it says so right in the name," and "Tin Man gets his own quest, nice."
Shirley held her purse tight to her chest and tried to tell him, without bursting into tears, that she was proud of him achieving his goals. Uncomfortably touched, Jeff distracted her with news that their Android Foosball Friends update had a nations v. nations setting. Troy offered advice about finding the perfect apartment, and Britta gave him a cat.
"I'm a dog person," protested Jeff, and really, no seriously Britta, he wasn't kidding about this. All her cats had historically reviled him, he didn't really need a pet, kittens shed everywhere, and—again not kidding here—he was a dog person.
"Jinx is hypoallergenic, and barely sheds at all. He was born in a dog-friendly home. He's a little bit vain, but you two can bond over it." Britta tickled the gray cat's chin and, with a heartfelt sigh, dropped him into Jeff's arms. "Jinx has never been outside the greater Greendale area, but he dreams of seeing the ocean. Don't you, buddy? Don't'ch you? Don't'ch youuuuuu?"
"Okay, stop harassing my cat," said Jeff, and pulled the animal to a safe distance. It squirmed in his arms, and he wondered if there was a return gift certificate in Britta's backpack. "Did you at least buy a carrying case? It's a long drive and this monster is not touching my leather seat covers."
His eighth day in a new state concluded with an empty boardroom and a row of bagels and coffee cups. Jeff wouldn't be caught dead eating a bagel, but the hot beverage tempted him even from across the room. His eyes slid over to the tray, and he wondered in passing if Annie had become a coffee drinker since Greendale.
"...usually see people jump ship like this."
"I'm sorry?" Jeff smiled and leaned forward, keeping his back rigid and his face pleasant. He had to stop spacing out; there was no point getting worked up about his side project before he knew what his game plan would be.
"We were just commenting on how rare it is for attorneys with experience in the private sector to switch teams while relatively early in their career," said a woman across the conference table. She smiled primly, and adjusted the sleeve of her sleek, dark suit jacket. "Not as much glory as the movies, and not as much money as the other guys."
"I'm excited for the work," said Jeff, and his grin felt genuine this time. He stood, snagged his briefcase, then held out his hand to the recruiter, the lead counsel, and his new boss in turn. "Truly."
"We look forward to serving with you, Mr. Winger. Welcome to the King County Prosecutor's Office."
On the fifth day of the second week, eight months after watching the plane take off, Jeff Winger, attorney at law, picked up the phone. His fingers jabbed at the buttons on the clunky office device, and he tucked the receiver under his ear like it was just one call in a day filled with dozens.
"Lunch tomorrow?" She sounded better than he remembered, and tantalizing close after a year of being away. Worst of all, best of all, she sounded happy, and he was starting to question this entire fucking venture. "I don't understand, what are you doing in Washington? Do you have relatives out here?"
Jeff poked his ball point pen into the desk's mouse pad. He'd called women before; he could be casual. "No relatives. I got hired for the County DA's office."
"You got a job in Seattle. In my Seattle."
"Sheesh Annie, I know you're ambitious, but I don't think they give out keys to the city unless you save an orphanage or something."
"Don't snark me," she declared, but he imagined her smiling a little behind the words. "How come no one told me? Pierce would have said something! I follow everyone's twitter and no one mentioned it when I visited for Labor Day."
"I bribed the group for their silence," Jeff said, and shoved the pen into his overcrowded pencil cup. "Am I weirding you out right now?"
"A little," admitted Annie. "If this is some kind of stunt to prove I'm—"
"Just show up for lunch," he interrupted. "I'll text you the place. It'll be fun, trust me."
One lunch became another dinner, and one week became two, or five, or a hundred. On the fourth date Jeff stopped counting, because Annie took her hand out of her jacket pocket and reached into his, tugging them both to a stop. The sky was overcast, the wind was chilling their ears, and there were another two street lights until the piano bar.
"I've been thinking," she said, as she tucked her hair behind her ear with her free hand. "You've given me a lot to think about."
Whereas the man of five years ago would have shuffled his feet and looked at his watch, post-everything Jeff was content to wait. Greendale had a lot to teach about waiting, even for tight cases, hipsters, and former con-men. Jeff smirked, and squeezed her hand.
"It's just a meal, Annie."
"Is it? Because it feels like more." Her eyes, gray under the amber street lights, took him apart piece by piece. "It feels like you drove across four states and got a job in Seattle because you wanted to take me to dinner. But no one really does that, no matter what Abed thinks. Jeff Winger doesn't, I know that much. I was also lectured more than once in college not to assume anything about people's..."
She paused, then gave him a once-over. Head to foot, and Jeff hadn't felt so exposed since leaning on Britta's shoulder at a bar on the other side of the yellow brick road. The corner of Annie's lip curled up around her next word.
"...Motivations. So there's this conflict between my feelings and my brain. You're a lawyer again, maybe you can help me with my problem."
Hand still enclosing hers, Jeff pivoted and faced her fully. Three quarters of a year stood between them, but it was only inches if looked at right. "What's the conflict, milady?"
Annie closed the gap by an increment, then another, and he remembered a conversation outside a dance, four years ago. Her gaze and her cheeky little grin were the same, but the air weighed differently on his shoulders while the night felt so much wider around them. Fog was setting in early, and Jeff could hear the piano from a block away. Annie squeezed his fingers.
"I don't know if this is the most romantic thing that's ever happened to me, or if it's a monumental coincidence and you just don't want to be alone in a new place."
Jeff raised both eyebrows. "You? That's pretty selfish, Annie. Maybe this is the most romantic thing to ever happen to me."
"Ass!" She punched him in the shoulder, and he kissed her. Annie's lips were cool, the street lamps illuminated the darkness, and Jeff had no idea what day it was.