They’re cleaning up Jeff’s kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner when he asks.
“So,” he says as he loads the dishwasher. “What should we do about presents?”
She is busy scrubbing the roasting pan that the turkey cooked in, so she is somewhat distracted and the most eloquent reply that she can come up with is, “Huh?”
In her defense, it’s been a long day and she is starting to feel the effects. When she decided to make dinner, she hadn’t realized how difficult the whole process would be. None of the individual dishes were that difficult to prepare, but getting the timing right, making sure that everything was hot when it reached the table, was tricky. At one point, when she pulled the cornbread stuffing from the oven and found the corners all charred and black, she nearly broke down in tears. She’d had to sneak into the bathroom and call Shirley -- the most capable, experienced hostess that she knew -- for a little pep talk.
Of course she powered through, though.
With everyone scattered these days, it seemed especially important to plan a celebration for all of her fellow orphans. Only Chang, Duncan, and the Dean had showed up for the entire meal, but Britta stopped by for dessert after dinner with her parents, and Frankie had managed to pop in for a nightcap after spending the day with her aunt, and Abed had even Skyped from L.A., so for an hour or so, the table had seemed mostly full.
It’d been a challenge to get Jeff to agree to let her use his apartment for dinner, and she probably hadn’t really played fair, considering that she was bouncing in his lap without a bra on while she tried to convince him, but it was all for a good cause. She hadn’t really taken his reluctance personally anyway -- he always has to grumpily refuse to do something before he gives in and does it. And this wasn’t just having some friends over for a random dinner, it was the two of them hosting their very first holiday together, and she could completely understand why that might freak him out.
It’s messed with her head a little, too.
“Presents,” he repeats. “Hanukkah is eight days and it starts the second week of December. So are we doing eight gifts? Or should I do eight for you and you just do one for me for Christmas? Or do we--”
“I don’t expect you to get me eight presents,” she says with a smile. She has to stop herself from jumping up and down and clapping her hands, because the fact that he’s given this such serious thought is absolutely adorable. “But I think we should celebrate both holidays… so maybe we could do two gifts. Like, one for the last night of Hanukkah and one for Christmas?”
He squints, like he is considering the idea carefully, but eventually nods. “Okay, sure. But it’ll actually be three gifts for you.” He smiles. “Your birthday’s in there too.”
“You don’t have to get--”
“I’m getting you a birthday present,” he insists.
She smirks, scrubbing hard at a spot in the pan that’s caked with grease. “Last year, all you got me was a grilled cheese at the diner and a cupcake-scented candle.”
He scowls, still managing to look ridiculously sexy. “You said you loved that candle.”
“It’s the thought that counts,” she says diplomatically.
“Oh, is that right?” He leans back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “Then why don’t we make this interesting? See who can buy the other the absolute best gift in the world.”
Annie turns the sink back on to rinse the pan, but she’s pretty sure that he can still hear her laughing. “How would that even work? I’m going to say my gifts for you are the best and you’re going to say yours for me are, and we’ll be at an impasse.”
“Annie, I’m disappointed in you. Lying about the quality of presents wouldn’t be in the spirit of the holidays.”
She snorts. “So you promise to be completely objective?” He nods, batting his lashes in a way that she assumes is supposed to convey innocence, and she shakes her head. “Like I can trust you! You made a living out of lying through your teeth for years.”
Jeff smirks, placing one hand over his heart and holding the other up. “I will take an oath. I’ll swear on…” He glances around the room, eyes landing on the counter where he drops his mail, and lifts a magazine from the pile. “The Barneys catalog. I don’t have a Bible and this is better anyway.”
Annie is nothing if not a good sport, so she takes the catalog from him and balances it on her palms so he can lay his hand on it. He tries for a solemn look, but she can see the corner of his mouth twitching, ready to smirk at a moment’s notice.
“I swear on all that is holy,” he declares, “like the Crombie Velvet Collar Overcoat on page 18 or the John Varatos Fleetwood Classic Chelsea Boots on page 53, that I will be one hundred percent objective when it comes to the merits of our holiday gifts.”
“I guess that’ll do.”
He takes the catalog and holds it out toward her. “Your turn.”
“What? No,” she says. “I don’t have to swear… I’m nowhere near the consummate liar that you are.”
Jeff cocks his head, looking dubious. “But you’re obsessively competitive. Which might cloud your judgement.”
She huffs in annoyance, but it’s not like she can really argue with him in good conscience. She slaps her hand against the catalog and holds the other up. “Fine. I swear on all these overpriced clothes and accessories that I will be 100 percent objective when it comes to the merits of our gifts.”
He grins, and she grins back, and for the first time in years, she feels herself honestly getting excited for the holidays.
Between classes and her research assistant position, she doesn’t have much free time these days, but she still manages to work some holiday decorating into her schedule.
She sets up the little artificial tree that she bought her first year living in apartment 303 beside the TV, places the menorah that she inherited from her grandmother on the window sill that faces Harrison Street, and strings a couple of sets of twinkling multi-colored lights across the living room. Britta doesn’t appreciate it as much as the guys used to, but Annie smiles every time she sees the decorations so she thinks it was worth the effort.
Somehow, she makes it nearly a week after Thanksgiving before she starts pestering Jeff about getting his tree. She knows that the couple of times that he’s hosted the group’s holiday party at his place, he’s had one, so she assumes that it is a tradition that even he upholds. She’s never had the chance to pick out and decorate a real Christmas tree, and it just seems like it would be fun.
Of course, Jeff is a kind of a grinch about the whole thing, pretending that he isn’t planning on getting a tree this year for almost an entire day before he reluctantly agrees to head out early Saturday morning to go tree shopping.
He barely says a word as she asks the guy at the tree lot to rotate nearly every one so she can make sure that there aren’t any bald spots, or to hold two up next to each other so she can decide which height is better. When she finally thinks that she’s found the right candidate, he just shrugs, like he couldn’t possibly be more bored or disinterested.
“It’s your tree!” she says. “Don’t you care what it looks like?”
“They all pretty much look the same to me. Just pick one.”
She is a little frustrated by his attitude, but technically, he’s doing exactly what she asked so she doesn’t push the issue. They settle on a 7-foot Blue Spruce that is so full and lush that the salesperson tells her she’s really got an eye for Christmas trees. Jeff grins, and she knows that he’s just dying to tell the guy that she’s Jewish, just to see how he reacts, but she shoots Jeff a fierce glare so he just chuckles to himself instead -- and he also slips the guy a $20 bill after he ties the tree to the roof of the car, which is likely Jeff’s way of making amends.
She’d also like to believe that it’s a sign he’s becoming more invested in the whole Christmas-tree business, but that delusion barely lasts until they make back into the car.
“We’re gonna have to get ornaments and lights and all that stuff,” he tells her as they leave the lot.
She frowns in confusion. “Why?”
“I don’t have any.”
“How is that possible? I’ve seen at least three decorated trees in your apartment over the years.”
“Yeah, but if you’d paid close enough attention, you’d have realized you never saw the same ornaments twice. I usually just throw everything out with the tree when Christmas is over.”
“That’s crazy!” she declares, gaping at him like he’s lost his mind. “I mean, not only is it incredibly wasteful, but don’t you have any special ornaments that you put on the tree every year? Like ones you made when you were little … or that your mother gave you or something?”
He rolls the car to a stop at a red light and shrugs. “Nope,” he says simply.
So they stop at Target, where the holiday aisles are packed with people who seem frantic even though Christmas is three weeks away and they probably don’t have to start entirely from scratch when it comes to tree trimming. Annie surveys the ornament selection, feeling a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of options.
“Should we do a theme?” she asks.
Jeff looks up from his phone with a smirk. “Seriously, Annie?”
Her annoyance flares anew, particularly when an overly-perfumed woman elbows her in a mad grab for one of the lighted star tree toppers. “Okay, fine,” she sighs. “We’ll just get a bunch of red and green balls and maybe some bows and garland…”
She dumps a few boxes into their cart, trying to calculate how many ornaments it’ll take to decorate a 7-foot, fairly wide tree. Best to err on the side of caution, she decides, adding four more boxes to the pile. She’s moved onto lights -- she’s not even going to ask for his opinion; she wants multi-colored lights so they’re getting multi-colored lights -- when Jeff reaches around her to toss his own box into the cart. She assumes that it’s just another box of ornaments until she reads the writing on the side of the box and hesitates.
Electric Low-Voltage Menorah.
“Oh,” she says. “That’s okay. I already have a menorah.”
“Right,” he agrees. “But this one’s for my place. You know, in case you’re there next week and don’t feel like going home.”
She nods, trying not to smile too big, even though there’s some part of her that wants to dance through the crowded aisles at how sweet a gesture it is -- and another part that wants to analyze the meaning behind it until she comes to very concrete conclusions about his feelings and intentions.
But Jeff goes back to his phone and she goes back to picking out lights like it’s just another shopping trip.
It’s the second night of Hanukkah when she notices that he’s starting to act a little strange.
He’s been a surprisingly good sport, eating all of the carb-heavy latkes and noodle kugel and challah bread that she’s been serving for dinner with a bare minimum of snarky comments. And she’s happy about that until it occurs to her that he hasn’t accused her of trying to sabotage his perfectly chiseled physique mainly because he’s not talking much at all.
But it is the end of the semester and he has final papers and exams to grade, so it’s entirely possible that the stress of his professional responsibilities is getting to him. Then again, she knows Jeff rarely lets the demands of his job follow him home, which means it’s highly unlikely that Greendale is responsible for his mood.
She watches as he takes another piece of the roast chicken that she’s made and remembers how agitated he’d gotten in the car earlier when he couldn’t find anything but Christmas music on the radio, so maybe it’s just the holidays that have him in a funk. They’re difficult for a lot of people and he’s never liked them much in general. Maybe there’s some painful childhood memory he associates with them, or maybe he wishes that he had a real family to spend them with, or maybe he’s just feeling the pressure of a new year staring him in the face. God knows that always seems to get her a little rattled.
She sips from her wine glass, deciding that a distraction is in order.
“I’ve made serious progress,” she declares suddenly, and Jeff looks up from his plate with a furrowed brow. “With my holiday shopping, I mean. I got you something for Hannukah that you’re going to love. And it wasn’t even that hard.”
She isn’t really lying -- for years, she’s kept a list of things that her friends mention throughout the year, so when gift-giving occasions roll around, she is always prepared. Of course, it turns out that she had to cross out at least half of the ideas that she had written down for him because they were too impersonal, the kind of things that one completely platonic friend gives to another, so they’re no longer appropriate now that things have shifted between them. She’s had to get more creative, which hasn’t exactly been easy.
Jeff fiddles with his glass, sliding it around on his placemat. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. So you should be worried… seriously worried. I’m totally going to win.”
Across the table, Jeff smiles, but it’s forced and distracted and not at all convincing. He isn’t trash talking back at her either, which is probably the biggest sign that something has him seriously preoccupied.
Maybe it’s them, she thinks. Maybe it’s finally hitting him that they’re a real, honest-to-goodness, legitimate couple. Since she’s come back from D.C. at the end of August, they’ve fallen into it without any real conversation about what is actually happening. There’s been a lot of sex and sleepovers and cuddling on the couch while they fight over what to watch on Netflix, and hand-holding as they walk through the grocery store, and texting back and forth to complain about their days, and making surprise playlists on one another’s iPhones -- and maybe he’s finally realized what exactly it is they’re doing.
She’d had her moment about a month ago when she stumbled into the bathroom one morning and suddenly noticed that she’d cleaned out a drawer in the vanity to stash all of Jeff’s travel-sized bottles of moisturizer, eye cream, and anti-aging serum in so they’re not just cluttering the counter or her bedside table.
And it really shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow, the realization seemed to hit her right in the chest, like all the wind had been knocked out of her.
Maybe that’s what Jeff is going through now.
So she just smiles and shrugs, as breezy as she can be. “Don’t forget you swore on that Barneys catalog to be objective,” she tells him.
He nods, studiously avoiding her eyes. “I haven’t forgotten.”
Later, when he eats a piece of chocolate rugelach without any coaxing, she has to wonder if something is seriously wrong.
She doesn’t particularly enjoy shopping -- all the trying on and hunting for bargains is more than enough to give her a headache -- but when it’s for the holidays, when it means picking out gifts for other people, it becomes a challenge that she can really throw herself into and that always means a good time.
She also knows that Jeff loves shopping -- he could spend hours picking out the perfect button-down and designer jeans and matching belt and boots and have as much fun as Troy and Abed used to in the dreamatorium -- so she figures that it’s a good way to cheer him up if he really is upset about something.
That’s why she mentally prepares herself to sit outside countless dressing rooms while he tries on the entire store. She even stashes a granola bar and a ziplock of trail mix in her bag in case she gets hungry.
So she’s surprised when they get to the mall and he doesn’t seem to particularly care what store they start at. She knows that a pair of faux leather boots that Britta’s had her eye on for a while are on sale at that trendy little shoe store, and there’s a decorating tube set at Williams-Sonoma that Shirley will love for her cupcakes and cookies, so it’s not like they don’t have anywhere to go. When she mentions that she wants to look for a scarf for Frankie in Macy’s, though, Jeff tells her that he’ll meet her at Starbucks in 20 minutes.
“Why?” she asks. “Where do you--”
“You don’t need to know everything,” he teases.
“But I don’t mind coming. Maybe I’ll find something wherever you’re going.”
He shakes his head. “You just go get your scarf. And I’ll meet you at 7 with a peppermint mocha just the way you like, okay?”
There’s really no point in arguing with him, so she goes to Macy’s and finds a red, gray, white, and black plaid scarf that will match Frankie’s red coat perfectly (and isn’t an infinity style, which Frankie hates for some reason), and also manages to find a pair of sunglasses that are half-off for Abed, who’s been complaining about how sunny it always is in L.A.
Still, when she gets to Starbucks, Jeff is sitting at a table with a red cup in front of him and one on the other side of the table for her. He doesn’t have any shopping bags with him, but what’s really strange is that he doesn’t have his phone out -- he’s sort of blankly staring out at the shoppers hurrying past on the way to the next store.
He does snap out of it and stand when he spots her.
“Did you find what you needed?” she asks.
He shrugs, handing over her coffee. “I’m ready to go.”
“You sure? I don’t mind going to--”
“It’s okay,” he says. “I know you’ve got that paper to finish.”
She can’t lie -- the thought of that paper has been nagging at her for most of their shopping trip, but she has almost a week before it’s due and she already has most of it written. It doesn’t really seem like Jeff wants to stay, though, so there’s no point in trying to convince him. He even offers to carry some of her bags, which is a pretty good sign that he just wants to get out of here.
So she follows him toward the parking lot, the coffee cup warm in her hand. She watches Jeff sip from his and sighs.
She is in the middle of a dream about her fourth-grade art teacher, Jennifer Lawrence, and her cousin Mindy all trying to talk her into getting a perm, when the pounding at the door starts.
It takes a minute to shake off her grogginess enough to realize that there is actually someone knocking at the apartment door and it’s not just some strange turn that her dream has taken. She reaches for her phone and sees that it’s almost two a.m. -- answering the door at this time of night doesn’t really seem like a good idea, so she waits, hoping that whoever it is realizes that they’ve got the wrong apartment and moves along.
But then she hears his voice.
“Annie,” he calls. “It’s me.”
And just like that, she panics -- because whatever would drive Jeff over to her place, unannounced, in the middle of the night can’t be anything but bad. She hasn’t seen him all day, because he had tests to grade and she had her paper to finish, but when they spoke on the phone, he was fine, grumbling about how stupid his students are and complaining about the Dean repeatedly trying to hang mistletoe in the doorway to his office.
In other words, a completely normal day.
She scrambles out of bed and runs for the door, hurrying to undo the locks. When she gets them open, there Jeff stands in the hallway, wearing a rumpled T-shirt and pajama pants under his coat. She imagines so many things then -- someone dying, someone sick, someone running out on someone else.
“What is it?” she demands. “What’s wrong?”
He shrugs, stumbling forward into the apartment. “I couldn’t sleep.”
She blinks in confusion, even as she automatically closes the door and redoes all of the locks behind him. “That’s it? You couldn’t sleep? That’s why you’re waking me out of a dead sleep and practically giving me a heart attack in the middle of the night?”
He lowers his head, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “Well, there’s a little more to it than that…”
She crosses her arms over her chest. “Okay, well, you’ve got 30 seconds to explain before I go into my room and back to sleep.”
Jeff takes a deep breath, but lifts a casual shoulder like showing up on her doorstep in the middle of the night is no big deal. “It’s just… you know… about the presents.”
“Yeah. The presents.”
She is tired and confused and she doesn’t have as much patience as she normally would, so she sighs in frustration. “What about them?”
He stares off in the distance, like he’s just going to leave her hanging, and all she can do is glare at him. Hanukkah's half over, and if this all some attempt at playing mind games with her for the bet, he is out of luck -- she’s already ordered his gift and the tracking information has it arriving sometime tomorrow, so she is all set.
If he thinks he can rattle her by showing up like this in the middle of the night, he’s got another thing coming.
But Jeff looks at her and sighs -- and there’s something about his expression, open and kind of lost, that startles her. “I really don’t think you understand the pressure I’m under here, Annie,” he says. “I mean, first, there’s Hanukkah…” He starts counting off on his fingers, like he’s honestly having trouble keeping track. “And then there’s your birthday … and then Christmas. That’s three gifts! You’ve only got to worry about two.”
“Jeff, you don’t--”
“And everything’s so hard now because I don’t know what gifts are even appropriate anymore,” he continues, as if he hasn’t heard her at all. “Like I can’t get you a gift card because that’s way too impersonal, right? I mean, personally, I don’t mind gift cards because sometimes it’s just easier to pick out something you’ll like for yourself, you know?”
“It’s really not--”
“And you’d think jewelry is a no-brainer, right? But it’s not, because it’s like the laziest, most thoughtless gift a guy can get. It’s basically saying, I don’t want to put any thought at all into your gift so here’s a big, shiny rock to distract you.”
“I don’t think that’s what--”
“And it’s not even just the gifts,” he says, sounding increasingly agitated. “It’s also stuff like, what do I do for your birthday? Do I take to you the diner we went to last year because I know you love their grilled cheese and onion rings more than your pathological color-coded filing system? Or do I make a reservation at some overpriced, fancy restaurant with candlelight and a piano player because now there are all these expectations?”
“Jeff, I don’t expect--”
“So I’ve got to give you three gifts in a ten-day period, and plan a birthday celebration, and I can admit it -- I’m in totally over my head. Because now, we’ve made this bet and you’ve probably got a spreadsheet of perfect gift ideas that are incredibly thoughtful and personal and I’ve got nothing.” He stops for a breath, shaking his head. “Do you know I actually finished grading my finals in an hour and a half today? It usually takes me a couple of days because I take a million breaks, but I worked straight through tonight because I just didn’t want to think about this anymore.”
She feels the heat bloom through her chest, but she manages a shy smile. “And you came over at two in the morning to tell me that?”
He shrugs, avoiding her eyes. “Well, you know… I couldn’t sleep.”
It’s difficult to see him that well in the dark, but he does look a little tired and definitely fidgety. “So you couldn’t sleep because you’re worried about what gifts to buy me?” she asks.
He cocks his head back and forth a couple of times, pursing his lips. “I wouldn’t say worried exactly,” he tells her. “It’s just been bothering me. A little.”
She takes a step toward him because all she wants to do in that moment is grab him and kiss away the anxious look on his face -- but Britta’s bedroom door bangs open then and she stumbles out, sporting the wrinkled clothes she wore yesterday and a serious case of bedhead. “What the fuck are you guys doing out here?” she grumbles.
Jeff’s eyes widen in panic and he looks over at Annie almost pleadingly.
“Jeff hasn’t finished grading his finals and he needs them done by tomorrow. He’s trying to talk me into helping.”
Like waving a magic wand, the lie seems to steady him, and he pulls himself together, smirking like he’s been caught in some characteristically lazy behavior instead of acting like an overly-invested, tightly-wound significant other.
“Can you fight about it in your room?” Britta asks, rubbing her eyes. “And like, a lot quieter?”
“Of course,” Annie agrees. She reaches for Jeff’s hand, tugging him behind her. “Come on.”
In her bedroom, she closes the door behind them and turns on her bedside lamp. Jeff sits on the bed, clutching one of her pillows to his chest, and she is taken aback by how vulnerable he looks -- it almost makes her feel too powerful.
“Can we just forget all of this?” he asks. “Let’s forget I came over and pretend--”
“Relax,” she says, climbing onto the bed beside him. “Because there’s nothing to worry to about. You can take me for grilled cheese or filet mignon for my birthday. It doesn’t matter because I’ll be with you. And I don’t care what you buy me. If you take the time to think of a gift, it doesn’t matter what it is. I’m going to love it, okay?”
He looks up, and he’s smirking again, but it’s the real deal this time, crinkling the corners of his eyes and setting her heart pounding.“Really? So I can just get you some socks and you’re going to love them?”
She nods, grinning. “It’d actually be interesting to see what kind of socks you’d pick out for me.”
He laughs quietly, shaking his head like he doesn’t quite believe her. But he puts his arm around her and pulls her closer so he can kiss her, as sweetly and gently as he ever has. It takes a great deal of willpower to drift away from him, but she goes to make him a cup of peppermint tea, which, to her amusement, he secretly loves.
She’s gone less than ten minutes, but when she gets back to the bedroom, Jeff is already asleep, passed out in the center of her bed like he owns the place, his boots still on.
Her final paper for her Criminological Theory class is due on Monday and still needs a little polishing, but Jeff practically begs her to come to the Greendale faculty holiday party on Friday night, and given his recent freakout, she doesn’t have the heart to say no.
She doesn’t really mind going -- she likes parties and she hasn’t been back to Greendale in a while -- but she can’t quite figure out why he doesn’t want to blow the whole thing off. He doesn’t take his teaching responsibilities all that seriously, he complains about Greendale like it’s one of Dante’s circles of Hell, and even when he was surrounded by his friends, he still whined and moaned about having to spend an extra minute there.
She isn’t sure what’s changed, why he’s suddenly willing to make an effort for people that he barely tolerates, but she puts on a festive red sweater and some red lipgloss to match, and goes without asking a single question.
The party’s in full swing by the time they get there, which means 80s music is blaring over the speakers and most of the faculty is good and sloshed. There’s even a couple making out pretty sloppily in a dark corner of the room, though they’re eating one another’s faces in such an enthusiastic way that Annie can’t really tell who they are. If she were still a Greendale student, the whole scene would probably make her a little uncomfortable, but now it just seems like the kind of revelry that goes on at any party.
Jeff brings her a plastic cup full of eggnog and it all suddenly makes sense because she nearly chokes when she takes a sip.
“Oh my God! This is like a hundred proof!”
Jeff smiles over the rim of his own cup. “Why else do you think everyone is in such a good mood?”
“I thought they’d all just caught the holiday spirit.”
“It’s Greendale, Annie,” he says. “They’re much more likely to catch an STD at this thing than the holiday spirit.”
She swats at his arm, but she can’t help laughing. “You’re terrible.”
He smirks, looking completely unrepentant. “When have I ever claimed otherwise?”
To her surprise, they’re actually having a pretty good time, but by the time she’s on her third glass of eggnog, they haven’t moved from the back wall of the room at all (unless swaying in unison to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ counts as dancing; then they’ve moved a little) and she’s wondering again why he even wanted to come to this party if he doesn’t plan to talk to a single person besides her.
She still doesn’t get a chance to ask, though, because the Dean saunters over then, wearing a lopsided Santa hat and a Rudolph tie with a light-up nose.
“Jeffrey, you finally made it! I was starting to worry…” He spots Annie and his smile widens. “Annie, you came too! How nice. We haven’t seen you at Greendale in a while...”
“Happy holidays, Dean,” she says. “I’ve been really busy the past couple of months.”
“Oh, I bet. Jeff’s always telling me how hard you’re working…” He cocks his head, squinting a bit. “And you know what? I’m actually planning a symposium next semester where some of our most successful alumni come back and share their insights with current students. Help inspire them and all that. You’d be perfect for it!”
Annie huffs out a laugh. “I don’t know about that. I haven’t really done anything inspiring yet, Dean. It’s not like I’m--”
“Oh, stop being modest,” he says. “You interned at the FBI, you’re getting a Master’s Degree at UC Denver, you’re helping do research on some fancy forensics book… I think you could inspire plenty of students by demonstrating how Greendale can be a stepping stone to a very bright future.”
She feels her cheeks flush and she looks over at Jeff, who’s smiling as he sips from his eggnog. “Well, you know I always want to give back to Greendale. So if you think I can help … email me the details.”
The Dean nods, just before he hurries off to break up a fight between Professor Samuels from the History Department and Professor Widerman from Philosophy over the last of the mozzarella sticks. Jeff watches the tussle for a moment, but then rolls his eyes and suggests they talk a walk.
Of course, the hallways are all dark and deserted, but she thinks of the thousands of times that she walked them in the past, when the future was fuzzy and distant and so far out of reach. Jeff is holding her hand now, which makes it all feel even more different. She glances over at him, trying to get a read on his expression.
“I really don’t understand why you wanted to come tonight,” she says.
He shrugs. “I just love those honey barbecue wings.”
“I’m serious, Jeff. You stood at the back of the room and made fun of everyone for an hour. We could have done that at home.”
“Who are you kidding?” he asks, with a smirk. “If we’d stayed home, you would have worked on your paper all night. I would’ve been lucky to get a few minutes of your attention.”
He slows to a stop then, and she realizes that they’re right outside his office. When he closes the door behind them, she wonders if he really planned all of this just to get some time alone with her. It’s ridiculous, because he’s better at distracting her than anyone she’s ever known, so it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to persuade her to put her work aside for a little while.
There has to be some other reason.
His office may be dark, but she still doesn’t miss the sprig of mistletoe that hangs limply from the ceiling just in front of his desk. She raises a brow, but he just grins, looking pretty pleased with himself.
“That Dean never gives up,” he says.
She presses up on her toes so she can just graze her fingertips across the leaves and send the sprig swinging.“Oh, so I’m supposed to believe this is the dean’s handiwork? He’s barely taller than me, Jeff. So it’s much more plausible that a giant like you hung it.”
He starts to walk toward her, crowding her back against his desk. “Now you’re just talking crazy. Where would someone like me even get mistletoe?”
He does have a point there, because it’s impossible to imagine him running out to find some silly holiday plant. But he’s sporting that maddening, sly grin of his, so it’s not like there’s any real doubt about who hung it. He probably stole it from the Dean, now that she thinks about it, or some other holiday display -- he would definitely stoop to that kind of behavior.
She kind of loves that about him -- that he’ll be such a dummy for her.
Especially when it means that he’s easing her back against his desk, exams and paper clips and a pen pressed beneath her back, and he’s crawling over her, and maybe she had a fantasy something like this years ago, when getting him to admit that he felt anything more than friendship for her seemed like a pipe dream, but when he kisses her now, it’s not anything like she imagined.
It’s slower and deeper and more serious, like nothing she could have ever prepared for.
On the last night of Hanukkah, she makes an herb-roasted brisket for the first time in her life (she’s a little intimidated by the whole thing, but it’s what her grandmother always made for the last night so it’s important to her to do it) and they watch Silence of the Lambs.
“We’re starting some really strange holiday traditions,” Jeff teases, and she can’t really argue. They’re both a little nervous, because they’re going to exchange their first presents tonight, so it seems like a good idea to distract themselves as well as they can.
Because she is thinking about her gift for Jeff while she prepares dinner and sets the table and sips the wine that he pours for her and even as Clarice shares painful childhood memories with Hannibal Lecter. She knows that Jeff is too, which gives what should be a pleasant night a strange kind of tension.
When they finish with dinner and the movie, though, there are no more excuses to stall, so she gets his present from her bedroom and Jeff brings the shopping bag that he brought with him in from beside the door.
His box for her is fairly large, wrapped in shiny blue metallic paper that’s littered with bright silver stars and an impressive blue and silver bow in the center. Her competitive natures flares, so she can’t help but notice that her gift for him is smaller, but also covered in blue paper with small white menorahs sketched all over it.
But if she’s totally honest, she’s excited as she eyes the large box in front of him. She likes getting gifts, sue her.
They look at one another expectantly across the futon.
“Who should go first?” she asks.
Jeff shrugs, conjuring up a fairly convincing smile. “I will.” He slides the box toward her. “This isn’t your big gift,” he tells her. “I’m saving that one for last.”
She grins. “Oh, yeah. Me too.”
He nods, but he barely seems to be paying attention to her -- instead, his gaze is firmly fixed on the present, almost like he expects it to explode. So she starts to unwrap it, sliding a nail carefully under a piece of tape to free one corner. She carefully folds the paper back before pulling a second piece of tape free and completing the same meticulous procedure with the paper on that side.
“Is this seriously how you open presents?” Jeff asks. “Like your life depends on getting the paper off intact? How have I never noticed that before?”
“Oh, shut up,” she says, freeing the last piece of tape.
It takes only a few more seconds to uncover the box and see that it reads “COACH” in a distinctive font -- and then she immediately knows what’s inside.
Still, she is a little breathless when she pushes back the tissue paper inside and sees the gleaming mahogany leather. She’s been lusting after this briefcase for nearly five months -- it’s a major step up from the black nylon backpack that she’s been carrying around for the past couple of years -- but she didn’t really think that she’d been that obvious about it, that Jeff would’ve picked up on it.
And she also knows that it cost nearly $500 and Jeff shouldn’t be throwing that kind of money around.
She looks up at him, shaking her head. “Jeff,” she sighs. “I can’t… why would… you shouldn’t have spent this much! I can’t accept this...”
“Annie,” he says patiently. “It’s kind of rude to refuse a gift. And commenting on the price is just tacky.”
“Jeff. It’s not--”
“Besides, it’s not like I’m being selfless here. I plan to win our bet.”
She studies him and he’s trying so hard to look casual, but she can see the eagerness in his eyes. She strokes her fingers over the leather, almost surprised by how soft it is. “Well, obviously,” she says. “If you’re saying this isn’t the big gift.” He shrugs, still trying to play it cool. “But it’s amazing. And I love it. Thank you.”
She stretches across the futon to kiss him, soft and sweet, and she can feel him smiling against her lips. “I’m winning, aren’t I?” he says. “I’m totally winning.”
She shoves at his shoulder, laughing. “You haven’t even opened yours yet!”
He has definitely upped the ante, she thinks, as she lifts her gift from the coffee table and sets it in his lap. She has no doubts that he’ll like what she’s got him, but she’s isn’t quite sure anymore that it compares with the amazing briefcase that she can’t stop touching.
Jeff shakes the box, listening to the contents rattle. “It’s heavy,” he decides. And then he’s tearing into the paper with all the finesse of a small child, shoving the lid aside, and pawing through the tissue paper in an obvious hurry.
When he finally stops, he huffs out a surprised laugh, looking between her and the gift for several seconds before holding up one of the six bottles of his favorite moisturizer inside.
“They discontinued this at the end of last year,” he says, grinning as he studies the label. “How’d you get it?”
“I found some guy selling it on eBay. It took almost a week of negotiating to get him to agree to sell me the rest of his stock.”
“I’ve been trying to ration the couple of bottles I have left… and my skin’s totally been suffering.” He rubs a hand over his cheek. “This is great. Thank you.”
“You know your skin looks great,” she says. “But you’re welcome anyway.”
He smiles again and leans in to kiss her, though he doesn’t keep it quite as chaste as she did, and she feels his hand slipping beneath her sweater at her lower back. She scratches her fingers through his hair as he moves his mouth along her jaw.
“So,” he says, sounding a little breathless. “Who’s winning?”
She cocks her head back and forth a couple of times, like she is considering the topic very carefully. “Well, right now, I’d say it’s a draw.”
“Are you being completely objective?” he teases.
“As objective as you are.”
He grins and she grins back and for a moment, she honestly doesn’t care if she wins.
Not that she’s about to tell him that.
Sometimes, she still can’t quite believe what her life has become.
Last year at this time, she was still toiling away in futility at Greendale, spinning her wheels in the sand and feeling more useless with every passing day. She was teetering on the edge of a breaking point, and it didn’t seem like there was anything that she could do about it.
Since then, she’s spent a summer interning at the FBI, making enough of a name for herself that her supervising agent told her that he’d be happy to write a recommendation if she ever wants to apply to the academy; she’s working toward a Master’s Degree at a well-respected university, in a field that she feels passionately about; and she’s even helping Professor Moon research her book on recidivist offenders and violent crime.
Her life is practically brimming with purpose and meaning -- it’s beyond surreal.
But perhaps the change that is hardest to believe is the fact that she spends at least several nights a week sharing a bed with Jeff Winger.
That hardly seemed possible a year ago, but now, here she is, wearing nothing more than one of his ridiculously expensive sheets, with his warm breath ghosting over her bare skin, and it feels like the only thing that makes sense these days.
She rolls off him, trying to catch her breath. When she looks over at him, he is grinning in a dopey, blissed-out way that she loves, and then she’s smiling right back at him.
“That was …”
“Amazing,” he finishes for her, and she nods eagerly. His arrogance is usually a little obnoxious, but when he’s come by it honestly, she doesn’t see the point in arguing.
And it’s not like her ego isn’t getting stroked too, because when she traces her fingers over his chest, she can feel his heart pounding, like he’s just had the biggest thrill of his life, and she kind of loves that too.
“Be honest,” she says. “Did you think it would be this good? I kind of thought it might wear off… you know, with the novelty or something. It’s been almost four months now.”
“Has it been that long already?” he teases.
She kicks at his shin beneath the sheet. “I’m serious. Did you know it would be like this?”
“Well, we’ve always made a pretty good team. This is just an extension of that.” He grins. “So, go us.” He holds his hand up for a high-five then, and she laughs as she smacks her hand against his.
His explanation makes sense -- they know each other pretty well and they’ve always been able to anticipate each other’s next move -- but it doesn’t seem like the full story. Because it’s not just about how fast he can make her come or how loud she can make him groan. It’s the way he looks at her when he’s inside her, like she’s the best thing that he’s ever seen, and the way he touches her, like his fingers are etching sweet nothings into her skin, and the way that she feels when they’re pressed together, like she’s finally found a home.
But she’s not entirely sure how to explain all that to him. She’s not entirely sure that he’s ready to hear it.
She watches as he sets the alarm on his phone and tries for a distraction. “So… are you a Christmas Eve or Christmas morning person?”
He furrows his brow. “Huh?”
“Well, I know some people open their presents on Christmas Eve,” she says. “And other people wait until Christmas morning. What’s your preference?”
He takes his time answering, straightening the sheets and comforter around them with great care. “My mom used to make me wait until Christmas morning,” he finally says.
She hasn’t asked much about his mother over the past few months -- and she definitely hasn’t asked why he isn’t spending the holiday with her, even though she’s curious about it. She’s always wondered about that relationship, actually, but it never really seemed like her place to ask. Now, she’s in a position where it wouldn’t be out of line and she’s still reluctant because she doesn’t want to rock the boat.
It’s not like she’s really explained her relationship with her parents to him, after all, and that doesn’t have anything to do with Jeff at all, so it’s not like she should take his silence personally.
“Then we should wait until Christmas morning,” she says, turning on her side to face him. “Keep up the tradition.”
He smiles and reaches out to stroke his hand over her hip through the comforter.
“Whatever you want,” he tells her.
The night before her birthday, they have a little party at Britta’s bar.
Professor Moon has gone to Boston for a few weeks to spend the holidays with family and she insisted that Annie take the time off as well. With finals over, that means she has nearly a month with nothing to do but relax. She doesn’t usually like free time, but Jeff also has time off until the spring semester starts, so it’s really not the worst thing in the world.
Knowing she’s on vacation for a while is probably why she indulges a little too much at the party. She has a glass of wine with Frankie, and does a couple of kamikaze shots with Britta, and ranks her favorite Adele songs over a few rounds of cosmos with the Dean, and even joins Jeff for a nightcap with his favorite scotch at the end of the evening. She winds up consuming more alcohol in four hours than she probably has in the previous six months combined.
By some miracle, she doesn’t actually get sick, but Jeff pretty much has to carry her home and pour her into bed. So it’s not surprising that when she wakes the next morning, she feels worse than anyone should on their 25th birthday. Jeff offers up a couple of hangover remedies, like a disgusting gray protein shake, a jog around the block, and scrambled eggs with a dash of hot sauce, but none of them are all that appealing, and she doesn’t really want to do anything but stay in sweats all day and watch The X-Files on Netflix from his bed.
Honestly, it really isn’t a bad way to spend her birthday.
Even though she’s feeling better by the evening, she still decides that she doesn’t want to go out -- and really, she can’t helping thinking that maybe it’s for the best, considering how Jeff practically came unhinged when he tried to decide where he should take her to celebrate. Instead, Jeff picks up takeout from her favorite Italian restaurant and they eat in front of the TV because they’re at a good part where Scully’s helping Mulder fake his death so he can find a cure for her cancer.
(He also buys a strawberry shortcake while he’s out, which is her absolute favorite, and tries to hide it in the fridge without her seeing. She spots it when she gets another can of ginger ale, but she doesn’t say anything to avoid ruining the surprise.)
Halfway through the evening, she returns to the sofa to find a large box, wrapped in pale pink paper that’s dotted with tiny colorful cupcakes and accented with a shiny purple bow, sitting in her spot. Somehow, she forgot that there would be another present for her tonight and she feels an almost embarrassing rush of giddiness. Jeff has his phone out, eyes fixed firmly on the screen like he has no vested interest in the package beside him.
“Is this for me?” she asks, smiling as she drops down on the sofa beside it.
He smirks, but doesn’t look up from his phone. “Unless you know someone else having a birthday today.”
“Jake Gyllenhall,” she teases.
Jeff rolls his eyes. “I don’t think he’s going to have much use for what’s in there.”
She fingers the bow in the center of the box, wondering if he chose the paper, if he wrapped it himself. She didn’t even consider the possibility with her Hanukkah gift, but now she’s trying to picture him with scissors and scotch tape, struggling to get the corners just right, and she has to hold back a laugh.
“Should I open it?”
Jeff finally puts his phone down, resting it against his thigh and shooting her his most charming smile. “That’s usually what you do with presents.”
She resists the urge to stick her tongue out at him as she tugs the box closer -- it’s surprisingly heavy so it takes more effort to move than she’s expecting. She looks up and he’s smirking, obviously pleased that he’s managed to surprise her.
And that’s exactly what he’s done when she finally gets the wrapping paper and lid off, pushes the first layer of tissue paper aside, and finds several pairs of socks, all lying neatly in a row.
Their eyes meet and they both smile.
There are five pairs in total -- simple pink and gray argyle, midnight blue dotted with tiny white stars, light blue with a mountain scene and skiers flying down a hill, black with the Mona Lisa on each side, and tan with adorable little red foxes all over them -- and she loves each and every one.
“The saleswoman at that store hated me,” he says. “I spent almost a half-hour picking out five pairs of socks that barely cost $40.”
She smiles, lifting the skiing-themed pair from the box to study them closer. “I told you I’d love them.”
He pushes at the box with his knee. “There’s more, you know.”
Obviously, she thinks, because the box is way too heavy for just a few pairs of socks. So she takes them out and sets them carefully along the back of the sofa so she can push the next layer of tissue paper aside.
And there at the bottom of the box is an incredibly thick book -- Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences, Second Edition, it reads in simple block letters.
She looks up in wonder. “Jeff,” she practically gasps.
“Is that the right one?” he asks. “You mentioned that Professor Moon had a copy and you wished you had your own, but that was a while ago so I wasn’t--”
“This is the right one,” she tells him. “But it’s … this costs even more than the briefcase. It’s not… I can’t … I don’t want you spending this much money…”
He shrugs, but she is pretty sure that she sees a hint of a flush in his cheeks. “That’s what credit cards are for.”
“Jeff, I’m serious. You don’t have to go around buying me expensive gifts. It’s not necessary at all.”
“I think of this as an investment, Annie,” he says. “Ten years from now, when you’re head of the FBI, I can tell everyone I contributed. Even in a really small, insignificant way.” He grins. “And maybe every so often, you’ll treat me to a shopping spree at Barneys…”
She manages a smile, but she can feel tears burning her eyes suddenly and leans over to hug him so she can whisper her thanks into his shoulder and excuse herself to the bathroom so he won’t see how affected she is.
It’s ridiculous to get so emotional over what amounts to little more than a textbook (the world’s most expensive textbook, but still just a book). But really, it’s so much more than that -- it’s that he was really listening when she rambled on about it, way back in September when she first started working with Professor Moon, and that he understands what’s important to her and that he cares enough about what’s important to her to spend this much.
She splashes her face with cool water, takes a deep breath, and tries to pull herself together.
When she gets back to the living room, Jeff has the cake set out on the coffee table and he’s opening a bottle of champagne.
“Oh, Jeff, that’s really sweet, but after last night, I don’t think--”
“Hair of the dog,” he says, with a smile. “Besides, you only turn 25 once.” He cocks his head back and forth, like he’s puzzling something out. “You might turn 40 a few times, though. I think I’ll be on my third 40th birthday next year.”
She sinks down on the sofa, curling herself into his side so she can lay her cheek against his arm. “You don’t look a day over 39.”
He laughs, which she thinks is significant progress from his usual obsession about his age. “Must be all that moisturizer you gave me.”
And she smiles, because she loves him and his silly vanity and secret thoughtfulness and sarcastic sense of humor and willingness to buy cupcake wrapping paper.
She doesn’t tell him that, though -- she just takes the champagne from him and sets it on the coffee table so she can crawl into his lap and kiss him. He squeezes her against him, and she’s wearing an oversized t-shirt and faded sweatpants, but she’s never felt more beautiful in her life.
“I was going to sing to you,” he says, his lips pressed to her throat.
“Later,” she tells him.
On Christmas Eve, she somehow gets Britta to agree to decorate cookies with her.
Making them from scratch seems like too much trouble, so she buys a roll of cookie dough from the supermarket, along with some cheap plastic snowflake-shaped cookie cutters, sparkling red, white, and green sugar, and some icing pens.
Britta tends to go for a more abstract look with her cookies, sprinkling sugar haphazardly and spreading icing in no discernible design. Annie goes for a more orderly look, so each cookie resembles the intricate pattern of actual snowflakes. That means it takes nearly ten minutes to finish her first cookie, but the pristine, shimmering white and blue design definitely seems worth it.
“So…” Britta says, just as she finishes off a cookie that she’s decorated in rainbow shades of icing. “You and Jeff are pretty serious, huh?”
Annie looks up in surprise -- as far as she can remember, this is the first time that Britta has ever referenced what’s going on with her and Jeff, and it’s strange enough that Britta would want to discuss their relationship at all, considering her own history with Jeff, but it’s even stranger that she’d assume that it’s serious -- and laughs. “What?” is all she can manage.
Britta nods toward her new briefcase that sits on the floor beside the door. “He spent a crap ton of money on you.”
“So?” Annie says, feeling offended on behalf of all the people everywhere who can’t afford to buy their friends and family pricey gifts. “That doesn’t--”
“I’m not saying that buying someone expensive gifts means anything in general,” Britta clarifies. “But in Jeff’s case, that’s all money he could’ve spent on himself. You know, on all his fancy jeans and sunglasses and shit.”
That is true, Annie thinks, and Britta doesn’t even know that he spent over $1,000 on a forensics book too. She’d probably assume that means they’re engaged or something.
“It’s only been a few months,” Annie hedges.
Britta snorts, jostling her plate of cookies. “Oh, please. You guys have been in love with each other for years. It’s not like you were starting at the beginning or something.”
Annie needlessly rearranges the sugar containers in front of her because she really doesn’t know what to say to that. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to come up with anything because Jeff comes through the door then, ready to take them to dinner. There have been flurries off and on all day, so there are a few flakes melting on the shoulders of his coat, shining under the overhead light, and then he smiles at her and everything inside her feels weak and strong all at once.
Predictably, he and Britta get in a fight when she finds out that he made their reservation at a steakhouse because she is certain that there won’t be anything for her to eat. He insists that there are plenty of options for her on the sides menu, but Annie still has to play referee a couple times in the car.
As it turns out, Jeff is right and there are plenty of non-meat side dishes for Britta. He’s actually picked the perfect restaurant because it’s much nicer than the usual places they go to as a group and that feels appropriate, given that it’s Christmas Eve and it’s just the three of them.
She can’t remember the three of them ever going out alone like this, and every time the silence lingers a little longer than is comfortable, she knows that they’re all thinking about the friends who aren’t with them, about how they’re never all going to be together in quite the same way again, about how the ache of missing those who’ve moved on is never really going to go away.
For a moment, she wonders if it’s weird that she, Jeff, and Britta are the only ones left or if it makes some strange kind of sense.
Beneath the table, Jeff reaches for her hand and their fingers tangle together and she tries to imagine what things will look like a year from now, who she’ll be sharing a table with then.
The scent of fresh coffee and cinnamon wakes her on Christmas morning.
Jeff is already out of bed, but she finds him in the kitchen, standing in front of a frying pan on the stove in his pajamas.
“What’re you doing?” she asks.
He smiles at her over his shoulder. “Merry Christmas to you too.”
She steps closer, trying to see around him to whatever is in the pan. “That smells really good.”
“French toast,” he tells her. “My mom always used to make it on Christmas morning.”
She feels something tighten in her chest, like she’s suffocating but her lungs are bursting with fresh, clean air at the same time -- and in that moment, she knows that Britta is right.
No matter how little they talk, no matter how careful she is not to get too far ahead of herself, the simple truth is that this isn’t just any relationship.
It’s Jeff -- whom she’s known for six years, whom she’s cared deeply and passionately about for a good chunk of them, who’s one of the best friends that she’s ever had -- and there is no way to pretend that it’s just any relationship, with just any person that she met a few months ago.
And maybe she hasn’t wanted to think too hard about it (any more than Jeff has, really) because then she’d have to face the fact that just by sleeping together, by taking even a baby step beyond friendship, they’ve committed to something real, that they’ve made a promise to one another that they both take seriously even if it’s completely unspoken.
“I love French toast,” she says, rubbing a hand over his back, and he grins again, like the proverbial kid after a visit from Santa.
Still, she is distracted while they eat, and Jeff must pick up on it because he nudges her foot beneath the table and smirks. “Nervous?”
She almost wonders if he’s read her mind and stiffens a little in her chair. “Excuse me?”
“Because you know my present is going to blow yours out of the water and I’m going to win our bet…”
She huffs out a relieved laugh. “You wish,” she declares. “But my birthday gift can’t count. That wouldn’t be fair.”
Jeff shrugs, looking entirely confident. “Fine. It’s not like I need any extra help.”
She decides to go first, because she can’t wait to see the look on his face, so she slides the box toward him once they’re sitting in front of the tree. Jeff shakes it, listening carefully to the contents to try to get a clue as to what might be inside.
“Very light,” he says, and she nods, trying not to give too much away.
Of course, it barely takes him ten seconds to get the paper off and shove the lid aside. She can tell that he’s confused when the only thing he finds beneath the red and green tissue paper is a postcard of the Hollywood Sign and a sheet of paper -- and she loves it.
But then he starts reading the printout and she knows the precise moment that he realizes what it is because he smiles in that unreserved, carefree way that he only seems to when he thinks no one is watching.
But it only lasts a few seconds until a little furrow develops between his brows and he shakes his head. “Annie,” he sighs, and she knows immediately what he’s thinking -- it’s too much, which is ridiculous considering how much he’s spent on her over the past couple of weeks.
So she throws his own words back at him.
“It’s rude to refuse a gift,” she tells him. “And tacky to comment on the price…”
“Plane tickets aren’t exactly--”
“I used credit card points to pay for most of mine,” she tells him. “And I got a really good deal on yours because it’s the red eye. And Abed’s already said we can stay with him, so it’s really not going to cost much at all.” She shrugs, hoping that she doesn’t have to work too much harder to sell him. “I just know we’ve both been missing Abed and I haven’t been to L.A. since I was little, and you could definitely use a break after another semester at Greendale. Since we both have off until the middle of January, it just makes sense. I mean, won’t it be fun to go sightseeing and everything?”
He looks down at the page with their flight information again, and she wonders if it’s too big a step, taking a trip like this together after only a few months. Maybe Jeff hasn’t had the same realization that she has; maybe he still needs a little more time.
It’s nothing to take personally, she tells herself. It’s unfamiliar territory for both of them.
But then he looks up and he’s grinning again. “You’re going to make me go to Disneyland, aren’t you?”
She laughs, a little breathlessly, and shrugs. “I’m not going to make you. I was hoping I could persuade you to, though.”
He pretends to roll his eyes, but he’s only teasing and then he leans across the mess of torn wrapping paper to kiss her. “Thank you. This is amazing… you’re amazing.”
He kisses her again, but he’s reaching behind him to the back of the tree where he’s apparently hidden her gift -- and she knows immediately why he’s kept it out of sight.
It’s pretty small, so it looks just like a jewelry box, and when he places it in her hand, that’s exactly what it feels like, too.
She remembers his anti-jewelry rant from a few weeks ago pretty clearly, but maybe he reconsidered.
She feels her cheeks get a little hot then, because she’s not sure how she feels about him buying her a necklace or bracelet or pair of earrings, and she really hopes that he didn’t do something crazy like get her a ring -- she has no idea how on earth she would react to that, but her gut instinct is total and utter panic -- and she really hopes that he can’t see her hands shaking as she pulls off the red and silver wrapping paper and lifts off the lid.
But there’s no need for panic because it’s not jewelry at all -- it’s a gold keychain, shaped like a star, with a bold A engraved in the center.
It is perfectly lovely and probably cost a ton, but she can’t help feeling disappointed because it seems pretty impersonal -- and honestly, after the other gifts, he’d set the bar pretty high.
She manages a bright smile anyway. “This is great,” she says. “I love it.”
He smirks, like he knows that she’s disappointed even if she won’t admit it. “There’s something else. Under the cotton stuff.”
She slides the keychain around her finger so she doesn’t lose it in the torn wrapping paper, and lifts the cotton from the box to find a shiny new key.
“A key?” she says.
Jeff nods. “It goes on the keychain.”
She rolls her eyes, because he’s obviously being a smartass. “I get that. But what’s it for?”
He hesitates for a moment, like she should already know, and she wonders if she’s missing something obvious.
“It’s for my apartment,” he says, nodding toward the front door. “You know, so you don’t have to wait for me to buzz you up. Or if you want to come by and I’m not here or just … you know, to have.”
She thinks that she might be speechless -- because she isn’t sure what she was expecting, but this definitely wasn’t it. Her hands are shaking again too, and she can’t stop looking at the stupid key.
“And I negotiated an extra parking space from the building manager,” Jeff tells her. “So you don’t have to find a spot on the street. Remember that time when you had to park all the way over on Hanover? That’s not the greatest area... and I know you can take care of yourself but I’m three times your size and I wouldn’t want to have to park over there at night.”
“Jeff,” she manages to whisper.
“An extra spot’s supposed to be another $180 a month,” he continues, “but I got it for only $50 because I reminded him that I’m still technically practicing and I threatened a class-action suit on behalf of the tenants. You know, because the guy never does his job. The washers in the laundry room are always broken and the elevators are always out of service and it took him almost three days to get the heat fixed when it went out last month.”
He smiles, but she can tell that he’s nervous because he’s babbling and fidgety, and she gets it because she’s still shaking a little.
“You’re sure about this?” she finally asks.
He looks at her, and she’s studied his perfect, stupid face for years, and she loves every line and angle and curve of it, but somehow, it feels like she’s seeing it clearly for the first time.
“I’m sure,” he says.
So she nods and carefully slides the key onto the keychain. She wraps it in a tight fist and holds it against the center of her chest. “Thank you. This is the best gift anyone’s ever given me.”
He grins, feigning arrogance, but she can see the softness in his eyes, the tenderness that threatens to spill over. “So I win then?”
And just like that, she’s laughing, even as she feels a stray tear slide down her cheek. She doesn’t give him any warning before she launches herself at him, tackling him to the floor so she can kiss the smug look off his face.
Of course, he turns the tables in a hurry, rolling her under him so the world looks as upside down as it feels.“We could always call it a draw,” he says.
She shakes her head, smiling. “You won fair and square.” She hikes her leg up high on his hip. “But be prepared. Because next year, I’m going to beat the pants off of you.”
Jeff grins. “You know, it’s Christmas and I’m feeling generous… you can do that right now.”
He doesn’t have to tell her twice.
For New Year’s, she assumes that he’ll want to go to some loud, expensive club -- because that always seemed to be how he rang in the new year in the past, all those years when her celebrations included her coziest pjs and some Abed-chosen movie marathon on the TV and Troy pushing the boundaries of mixology by combining Bailey’s and grape soda, or tequila, peppermint schnapps, and orange juice -- but when she brings it up, he just shrugs.
“Whatever you want to do,” he says, with a smile, “is fine with me.”
They leave for L.A. in four days, so maybe that’s where all of his excitement is focused -- but honestly, she doesn’t really want the pressure of having to plan their night. The truth is probably that those quiet, silly celebrations with the guys back in the day are much more her speed… and yet, there’s some part of her that wants to slip into a sexy party dress, go heavy with the eyeliner, and sip champagne like she’s some sophisticated woman of the world.
But then she finds out that Britta has to work, and the decision is pretty much made for her. She doesn’t feel right about leaving their friend all alone on a holiday, which means they have to put in at least a few hours at The Vatican, where a party dress would make Annie seriously overdressed.
But Jeff does suggest they go to dinner first at some new restaurant downtown that he’s been wanting to try, so at least there’s a reason to get a little dressed up. She pulls a green silk tank top with subtle black beading around the neckline that she bought on sale more than a year ago from the back of her closest, throws on her highest black heels, and even curls her hair a little.
The way that Jeff looks at her across the table in the dimly-lit restaurant, like he’s never quite going to get his fill, makes her think that party dresses are pretty overrated.
At the bar, Chang somehow talks her into a darts tournament of sorts. Jeff isn’t in the mood for that kind of craziness so he just watches from their table in the corner, sipping his scotch and smirking whenever she gets worked up over Chang’s obvious attempts at cheating.
It’s probably not the most exciting way to spend New Year’s Eve, but it isn’t half bad.
Near midnight, she grabs a couple of the glasses of cheap champagne that Britta’s handing out and brings them over to Jeff. He sits up a little straighter in his chair, almost like he’s been dozing off.
“Okay,” she says. “So what are your resolutions for the new year?”
He shoots her a crooked, smug smile. “I don’t do resolutions, Annie.”
She rolls her eyes as she drops into the chair beside him. “Well, I do,” she tells him. “In addition to maintaining my 4.0 GPA, I think I’d like to learn another language. It’d be fun and would probably help my FBI application down the road. I also want to shave like 20 seconds off my mile time. Because there are physical requirements for the academy too.”
Jeff nods. “Those sound like worthwhile goals.”
She slides closer, bumping her arm against his. “Come on, Jeff. Now it’s your turn. You don’t have any plans for 2016? Anything that you really want to do?”
She doesn’t really want to push him, even if there are things that she wishes he’d want for himself, like a job that he doesn’t hate, for instance -- but he tilts his head thoughtfully and she smiles because she can tell that his resolve is weakening, that he’s going to come up with something to share.
He grins then too, and wraps his hand around the back of her neck so he can seal his mouth over hers, tangle his fingers in her hair, and kiss her until she’s breathless and a little dizzy.
“More of this, all of this,” he says. “That’s what I want in the new year.”
Behind her, she can hear the countdown to midnight starting and she smiles, curling her hand around his wrist so his pulse thumps against her thumb. It would feel like a fresh start even if a new year wasn’t just seconds away, and the world seems to speed up and slow down all at once, like the moment is just waiting for her.
“That sounds like a worthwhile goal,” she whispers.
Even with all the noise, he hears her.