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Advanced Studies in Candle Blowing Techniques

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twenty-one

Ironically, it’s not until after she moves in with Troy and Abed that she celebrates her first post-rehab holiday season (not counting their holiday-themed episodes for Abed or Shirley’s holiday parties because as nice of memories as they are, they’re not rooted in the same traditions and meanings that holidays have always held for her). Last week, Abed claimed that he wanted to experience a real Hanukkah in an effort to study it for a potential upcoming script or to match the consistencies in an episode of a show he watched or something and Troy claimed that since he’s never really celebrated any holiday, he might as well celebrate all of them this year so, here she is, dusting off one of the few things she took from home and kept: the menorah her Bubbe gave her for her 14th birthday.

She hastily wipes away the lone tear that escapes at the memory of her grandmother and polishes the base of the menorah one more time, sliding the candles in to prepare for tomorrow. The boys disappeared into the dreamatorium a couple hours ago and, save for muffled shouts and the occasional elbow banging into the wall, have remained fairly contained. Annie smiles at the doorway before turning her attention back to the display. She doesn’t have much; her Bubbe gifted her the menorah and, a few years later, a dreidel in Annie’s favorite colors. Its edges have smoothed over time and some of the paint has chipped, but they hold some of Annie’s only good memories from the last few years and she wouldn't trade them for the world.

She ties a ribbon around the top of the dreidel and walks over to the small Christmas tree on their kitchen table. After a couple minutes of searching (and rearranging) later, the top is safely tucked into a pocket of the small tree containing mementos of the trio and their friends. She fingers a shiny Inspector Spacetime ornament hanging precariously from an overwrought branch but she figures if it hasn’t fallen in the last couple days, it’s going to hang on.

It feels like as good a metaphor for her life as any, these days.

She turns back to the window; the sun is long gone but it’s not too late and there are a couple miniature piles of snow on the ground left from the light snowfall earlier today. It’s an almost perfect day; she loves snow, loves the excitement of the upcoming holidays, even if she’ll be the only one who understands what’s going on, loves that she’ll be back with her new family in a few short weeks.

Biting her lip, she decides to test the waters. The boys would be her first choice but she doesn’t feel like spending the night in the dreamatorium, Shirley’s in Atlanta with her family, Pierce is Pierce, and Jeff is…well, Jeff. So she sends Britta a text asking if she wants to grab a drink and leaves a note for the boys after Britta tells her where to meet her.

She’s never really spent any time alone with Britta but they’re friends and Annie’s not in the position to be picky. Britta’s idling on the sidewalk in front of the bar when Annie gets there and Annie has a moment of self doubt before Britta’s smiling and skipping briskly over to wrap the girl in a hug. “I am so cold and you look warm, don’t let me go.” Annie giggles and bundles her arm through Britta’s, holding the girl close as they walk up to the bouncer. Britta flounces in first, holding the door open as she shivers against the chill and Annie studiously avoids eye contact when the bouncer wishes her a happy birthday.

At the door, Britta’s eyes have bulged out. “It’s your birthday?! Why didn’t you say anything? Okay, get in here, it’s way too cold and we are doing shots!”

Annie rolls her eyes but follows her in anyway, unzipping her coat in the sudden heat. She eyes the cracked vinyl of the booth seats and feels her shoes stick to the floor but she feels comfortable here anyway. Britta’s already at the bar, ordering a shot that sounds both scary but also like it’s probably fruiter than Britta would normally go for and Annie has a sudden burst of affection for the blonde. It’s been two and a half years since their ragtag group formed and she knows they’re her friends - actually her friends, not only there because they need something from her - but it’s the little reminders like this that have Annie’s heart bursting a little.

She accepts the glass from Britta and tries to emulate the blonde’s quick movement but no matter how much juice it’s made with, it’s still alcohol and it still burns and Annie’s eyes water. But Britta just slams her glass on the bar, orders another round and a drink and Annie orders the same because why not?

The second shot is smoother but the whiskey isn’t so she nurses that while Britta rants again about some injustice happening in Turkey or Istanbul or maybe Portugal? Annie isn’t really sure but Britta doesn’t really need encouragement to keep going and she’s enjoying this, enjoying hanging out at a bar with her friend.

She’s smiling down into her glass when she feels someone slide into the booth next to her and she immediately tenses but Britta makes a joke about being surprised he’d let his precious hair be ruined by a beanie and then she smells his cologne and then she’s looking at Jeff, whose busy rolling his eyes and undoing his scarf and he’s here. He turns his head and gives her a quick smile, one of the ones she’s silently convinced herself are just for her, before he turns back to Britta and cuts off her rant about the situation in…somewhere with a cutting barb that has Britta’s mouth gaping open in indignation.

“Besides, it’s Annie’s day,” he says, turning to her. “Speaking of, why didn’t you tell us it was your birthday?”

Annie shrugs and thinks about it. “I don’t know,” she says finally. “I didn’t think anyone would care. This is my third birthday in the time we’ve known each other and no one’s ever said anything before.”

Jeff and Britta both frown but she avoids direct eye contact in an effort to avoid the pity she knows she'll find instead. “Annie, you’re our friend. Of course we care. I’m sorry we never asked before.” It’s the voice, the softer one that always accompanies that Annie smile, that does her in.

“Yeah! Besides, someone here has to teach you how to drink,” Britta says, knocking back the remainder of her glass before pushing the glass towards Jeff, who rolls his eyes before grabbing it anyway. “Otherwise, you’ll end up drinking something lame like a cosmo like those girls on that show in New York. You know, I lived in New York, and that’s not what they drink there!”

Annie flushes; a cosmo has always intrigued her. It looked so fancy, in those martini glasses, like a drink for Adults with a capital A. She’s fantasized about being one of those girls, sitting at the bar with her friends as they drink their adult drinks and gossip about boys and…sex and whatever it was that girls talked about.

She looks up at Jeff, only to find he’s already looking at her with a frown. “Okay, well, I’m not letting Britta teach you how to drink, though I’m not sure this bar could make a solid drink if it tried - which, I wouldn’t be surprised considering Britta chose this bar.”

Britta snorts. “Like you could do better, Winger.”

“I think we both know I could. Besides, if I have to listen to this obnoxious Christmas music after last week’s glee concert that wasn’t, I’m going to need to get very drunk tonight.” He turns and makes his way to the bar quickly, gracefully shoving between two people and grabbing the bartender’s attention.

“I hope it’s okay that I invited Jeff.” Annie turns her attention back to the blonde and smiles in what she hopes is a reassuring manner when she sees how nervous Britta is. “You didn’t say it was a girls night and I know I’m bad at all this girly stuff but I think everyone should spend their birthday - especially their 21st birthday - with their friends. But I want to make sure you know that just because a guy buys you drinks, you are not obligated to give them anything! No matter how good looking they are - especially if they’re good looking!”

Before Annie can respond, she hears her name being called from across the bar and turns to see Troy and Abed making their way inside. They make it it to the table seconds before Jeff comes back with a handful of drinks, plopping a cup with a bright red drink in front of her and pulling a chair from a nearby table to sit at the end of the booth instead of cramming inside with the rest of them. She takes a tentative sip - and then another. It’s sweet with a slight bite and she drinks almost half of it before she forces herself to pause.

Around her, Abed and Troy are explaining to Britta why the latest Inspector Spacetime Christmas special is going to be their best yet so she looks to Jeff but he seems to be paying attention to the conversation around her for once so she lets herself get swept up in her friends, enjoying the moment.

A couple hours later, the night starts to wind down. Britta’s griping about having to get up early tomorrow for a drive out to Boulder to meet up with some friends and Abed and Troy are already at the door, animatedly discussing their theories for the next semester and she’s warm from the alcohol and her friends so she bumps her shoulder against Jeff’s arm without a thought as they make their way to the door behind their friends. He looks down at her and fixes the beanie she’d haphazardly thrown on to ward against the chill and gives her that private smile again.

“I liked what you ordered for me.”

“I’m marking this down as a win for me and a loss for Britta. It’s almost too easy.”

She rolls her eyes and shoves lightly at his chest as she moves past him while he holds the door open. Troy and Abed are halfway down the block waiting for her and Britta’s got her phone dangerously close to her face while she scrolls through it. She’s warmed again at the idea that they all broke tradition and hung out over winter break to spend her birthday with her. “Thanks for coming.”

Jeff steps closer to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her into him. She snuggles into his chest, partly to help her stay balanced, partly to steal his body warmth, mostly because it’s Jeff and she’s always going to take whatever she can get from him. He presses a soft kiss to the top of her head and she grips him marginally tighter before pushing away to smile up at him.

“Happy Birthday, Annie.”

“Merry Christmas, Jeff.”

 

— — —

 

forty

His head is still pounding and he’s pretty sure he tweaked a muscle in his neck from being hunched over his desk before someone found him and it’s such a physical, solid reminder that he’s forty he almost wants to drink an entire bottle of scotch again.

He groans and tries once again to get comfortable in his car but he’s been trying for the last ten minutes and nothing’s helped so far so he’s not hoping for much. It doesn’t help that Jeff can feel Annie’s tension and concern and irritation radiating off of him in waves so thick, he’s surprised he hasn’t choked on them yet.

“Stop squirming,” she reprimands him, stretching to change the channel from sports talk radio to some top 40 station he knows she knows is banned from his car. “We’ll be at your place in another five minutes and then you can stretch out on your nice, big bed and be a baby there.”

“Are we forgetting the part where I almost died?”

Her hands grip the steering wheel tighter and Jeff feels the remorse immediately. Shirley offhandedly mentioned that it was Annie who found him and that it was Annie who called everyone and stayed with him while the doctors pumped his stomach, but he also knows that it was Annie who brought him a fresh change of clothes and his favorite night cream and that it was Annie who was waiting there when he was finally discharged, not willing to let him go home alone. “That was a dick comment, I’m sorry.”

He can see her mentally arguing with herself before she exhales a breath he didn’t know she was holding and her posture softens marginally. “No, you just had an existential crisis. At least you didn’t run through a plate glass door.”

She’s giving him an out, giving him a chance to gloss over what happened, and he’s immediately glad that of everyone, it’s her that’s here with him. “Annie, I want you to know, I wasn’t trying —“ He cuts off and tries to swallow around a lump in his throat. "I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Really.”

The hand firmly in place at 2 o’clock slips off the steering wheel and squeezes his own where it rests on his knee for a quick moment before returning to its position. “I’m just glad you’re okay. There was a moment - that moment when I found you - when you didn’t wake up or move or anything and it-“ She breaks off and exhales a small, steadying breath. “I’m just really glad you’re okay.”

He’s saved from responding by her pulling into his space and killing the engine. She turns to him and reaches over the center console to pull him into a hug. The space in the car is too small and his neck is still hurting but he wraps both of his arms around her and lets himself tuck his nose into the junction of her neck and collarbone. They stay there for a quiet minute before pulling back.

Her hand is still at the base of his neck, though, cupped at the edge of his jaw. Her thumb brushes softly over his grown out beard and her other hand is on his shoulder and she’s giving him that soft smile that always makes him a little weak in the knees and he can’t help but return it. “Thank you, Annie.”

She’s giving him that smile that Jeff’s always found a little too dangerous but her eyes are full of warmth and he knows - he knows that something big has changed in their dynamic. “Happy birthday, Old Man Winger.”

He's only a little surprised to find that the words don't hurt like he expected them to.

 

— — —

 

twenty-six

“The strangest thing just happened to me.”

“Stranger than Troy popping back up as the now-captain of a pirate ship and now being worth almost $20 million?”

“A delivery man just dropped by my apartment with a bouquet of really nice flowers and a single cupcake but no note.”

“Again, captain of a pirate ship.

“Ha. You know, I called Shirley and she claims it wasn’t her. And while Britta has an uncanny knack for floral arrangements, she’s still holding a grudge against florists because of, like, bees or something.”

“At least you didn’t have to listen to her rant about it for an hour a few nights ago. I thought we’d gotten past this after she Britta’d her Save the Bees Rally a couple years ago.”

“After that, I tried Abed. Turns out, he and Troy have been so busy catching up and setting up their new dreamatorium while Abed’s show is on hiatus for the holidays that he hadn't actually looked at his phone in almost five days. Which leaves one suspect.”

“You’ve really taken to this whole FBI thing, haven’t you, Agent Mulder?”

“The purple was a nice touch.”

“Hmm.”

“Jeff, really, this was perfect.”

“Hmm.”

imissyou. I mean, I miss all of you guys, but I miss you a lot. It’s lonely over here. And it hasn’t even snowed yet this year!”

“Oh, god. Please don’t tell Britta. She ranted about climate change and global warming for so long yesterday that even Frankie walked away mid-sentence and you know how much of a stickler for politeness she is.”

“I know. She called me this morning and tried to rant about it to me so I faked a bad connection and hung up.”

“And so the student becomes the master.”

“I feel like that statement should concern me more but channeling Jeff Winger has done me well on several occasions.”

“I’m going to take credit for helping train you in the art of deception when it comes in handy with undercover assignments or whatever.”

“Unless that undercover assignment involves playing a dead body at a crime scene, I’m not sure how much undercover work I’ll be doing in forensics.”

“Still taking the credit.”

“I’d expect nothing less.”

“Hey, Annie?”

“Yeah?”

“Happy, uh… Happy birthday.”

“Thanks, Jeff.”

“And, for what it’s worth, I miss you too.”

“I know. Now tell me how grading finals went. Please tell me you didn’t actually make them write a short essay on what they learned from Planet Earth.”

“I’ll have you know, environmental law is a very lucrative field. We should all be protecting the polar bears or the icebergs or whatever.”

“Didn’t you specialize in, like, personal injury or something?”

“It was criminal defense and I’ll have you know that the courts have not seen a legend like yours truly since.”

“I’m sorry, you’re breaking up. I think there’s a bad connection or something.”

“Wow, Edison. Cold.”

 

— — —

 

forty-four

Jeff’s halfway through his first glass of scotch for the day when the door to his office creaks open. Biting back a groan, he checks the time on his watch before planting his feet on the ground and looking up with the intention of reminding whichever student it was that dared to interrupt his precious few minutes alone that office hours ended twelve minutes ago.

Instead, the sight that greets him at the doorway leaves him speechless. She’s there and, yeah, she’s wearing a pantsuit instead of the summery dress he usually imagines her in when he fantasizes about this scenario, but she’s got on a set of killer heels and her blazer is tailored perfectly against her soft curves and her hair is shorter than he remembers but still curls past her shoulders and fuck. She’s here.

“Hi, Professor Winger. Do you have a minute to talk to me about the grade you gave me on that last assignment?” Her voice is sultrier than it has any right to be and she’s curling a strand of hair around her finger in a dangerously flirty way and he has to clear his throat to give himself a minute to focus.

“Please tell me I didn’t take those pills again and am hallucinating again.”

“Do you imagine me often?”

“Define often.”

A slow smile makes its way onto her face as she pushes off the doorway and walks towards him. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t imagined this scenario a million times over since he started teaching and he’s having a hard time not letting himself picture where it usually ends up.

“What are you doing here?”

She ignores the small tremor in his voice; it’s been almost three years since she’d been back or seen any of them, save for the monthly video calls she has with Britta and Shirley.

“Well, I had some time. So I came back.” She swallows and breaks eye contact for a quick moment before she locks her gaze with his again. “I came home.”

He’s pretty sure he stopped breathing the moment he saw her in the doorway so maybe he is hallucinating her and he forces himself to not get too hopeful.

“Home?”

Annie nods and she takes a tentative step forward. “I put in for a transfer last spring but it only became official last week. You’re looking at the newest agent at the Denver field office.”

He breathes out a curse and stands up abruptly, immediately closing the gap between them and wrapping her up in his arms. Jeff thinks he might be crushing her but she returns the hug with the same ferocity and they stay like this for a minute, only pulling apart when they hear footsteps echoing down the hall.

Still, he refuses to let her get too far away, his hands moving to grip her shoulders. “Fuck,” he repeats, pulling her back into his chest.

He’s in the middle of thinking about how this may be the highlight of this month when Dean Pelton knocks against the open door and waltzes in. “Jeffrey, I wanted to wish you a - oh!”

Craig cuts off and eyes the brunette in his arms curiously before Annie turns to him fully and he lets out a delighted gasp. “Annie! You’re back! I knew you would be; who can resist Greendale’s pull?”

“He makes a good point. You’d better be careful or you’ll find yourself signed up for Intro to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, trust me, you don’t want that.”

Annie only smiles and rolls her eyes. “I’m only here for a little bit and figured I’d take my favorite Greendale professor to dinner. You don’t mind if we cut out a bit early, do you, Dean Pelton?”

“Well, I actually made plans with Ben tonight. I do wish you’d called ahead.”

“I’m pretty sure she means me, seeing as I’m the only professor here.” The dean turns a critical eye towards Jeff but shrugs it off and pats Annie on the arm briefly before running his hand down Jeff’s arm.

“Well, you two kids have fun, then. Annie, I do hope to see you again soon.”

“You definitely will, Dean,” she says and waves at him as he turns and walks out. She turns back to him and, god, he really can’t believe she’s here. “So, dinner? I was thinking of that place on 3rd. Do they still make the best steak in town? Though, if we go to Britta’s bar, you get to wear the fancy birthday sombrero…”

“Fun as that sounds, Britta’s currently fixated on the refugee crisis overseas and I’ve tapped out my reserves for that for the rest of the month.”

“Steak it is, then.”

He turns around to grab his blazer from where it’s resting on the back of his chair before directing her to the doorway. “So, Denver, huh?”

“Denver,” she confirms, with a little nod of her head. “I have to wrap up a couple things back in D.C. at the end of the month but I should officially be back here by Christmas.”

He locks the door behind him and leads her down the hall, hand at the small of her back. He’d held off for three years but the heart wants what it wants and he’d let her go but she’d come back and he’s not quite sure how he’s going to be able to let her go again. “Have you found a place yet?”

“Well, I was doing research and Denver’s got some pretty nice apartments but they’re pretty expensive. And Greendale’s only a twenty minute drive away from the field office so I was thinking…”

“Yeah?”

“Really, I’d be saving money. And since buying a house is in my five-year plan, it just makes sense.”

“Five-year plan, huh?”

“Greendale is where my family is. It’s my home.” She says it so simply that Jeff’s sending up a silent prayer to Jesus or Allah or whoever might be listening that he’s not secretly hunched over his desk again.

“Sure you’re not leaving anything behind in D.C.?”

They’re in front of the library when she turns around and stops. He hears Abed saying something about “parallels” in the back of his mind and flashes back to ten years ago, these same steps, with the same girl telling him she’s staying. “I’m glad I left Greendale, you know? I would’ve regretted it every day if I hadn’t. But I don’t need to stay away to grow up and experience things. My mom kicked me out after I decided to go to rehab instead of brushing my addiction off as a one-off, so I thought I needed to leave home to make something of myself. But I don’t need to stay away from my home, from my family, just so I can be an adult. I can experience life and build a future here and do it with my family standing next to me, instead of in the rearview.”

He takes a tentative step closer but he’s afraid to reach for her like he wants to, refusing to spook her. “I can’t say I’m not selfishly glad to have you in the same state again.”

She takes her own step forward, close enough that Jeff catches a whiff of that scent that has always been Annie; something floral, with warm vanilla undertones, and fuck, she’s here and it’s real. Annie’s hands come to rest on his forearms before she’s sliding them under his arms and around his waist, locking them behind his back and giving him a quick kiss before pulling back.

But she’s finally here and he’s not letting her go so he chases after her and crushes her to him in a blistering kiss and it’s nothing like that first kiss on those same steps; it’s better because she’s not staying out of fear, she’s coming back home after experiencing a world outside of Greendale, she’s coming back to him. It’s nothing like that first kiss, it’s better because she’s nothing like that girl and he loves her so much he saved an entire school on it.

The kiss slows and Jeff pulls back to take a breath, pressing a lingering kiss to her forehead before tucking her head underneath his chin. "Best birthday gift yet."

 

— — —

 

thirty

Annie grabs the menorah from it’s perch on the windowsill and begins the methodical process of cleaning up the last stubborn bits of melted candle wax. She thinks of her Bubbe, gone ten years now, and their last moments together. Unlike the rest of their family, her Bubbe had never cut Annie out of her life after her breakdown, instead keeping in touch with regular phone calls.

She’s running a finger down the stem of the menorah when her phone pings and she smiles at the text on screen; when her family had abandoned her, she’d gained a new one, complete with a supportive and loving, if occasionally judgmental mother figure in Shirley and she knows her Bubbe would be happy for her.

Shirley’s smiling face pops up in the still and when she clicks play, Shirley, Andre, Andre’s new wife, and the boys are singing a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Ben’s already eight and she can see Shirley’s bright brilliance in his eyes and it makes her nostalgic for those first few years of college, when they were all together and young.

That makes her think of Pierce and how he’d died alone and lonely, angry at all of them. She’s not really sure she believes in an afterlife, in heaven or hell or ghosts, but she talks to him sometimes and hopes he’s forgiven her for abandoning him. She thinks he’d probably be proud of her in his own way, happy that she went and made something of herself when all the cards were stacked against her.

She places the menorah in the box and shuts the lid, effectively shutting down that train of thought just as Jeff comes up behind her, settling his hands on her hips and dropping a kiss to the top of her head. “You ready?”

She turns in his arms and rests one hand on his shoulder and the other at the base of his neck, toying with the slightly greying hair there. “Are you?”

Jeff makes a face like he’s thinking about it before pulling her closer and giving her a kiss that ends up much, much dirtier than it started. He’s got her pushed against the wall for leverage, his hand hiking her thigh up around his hip and sliding under her skirt and his other holding her head steady before she realizes what she’s doing.

Annie shoves at his chest playfully and pushes a finger into a solid pec. “Jeff, no! You cannot seduce me and get out of this.”

Jeff gives her one of his signature smirks in return and slides his hand up her thigh a little further in response. Her leg hitches up higher on his hip without conscious thought before she pushes against his chest with both hands. “Jeff!”

“Oh, c’mon. You’d really rather go Britta’s bar and listen to her explain, once again and in terrifyingly incorrect detail, how exactly Big Pharma is behind the situation in the Middle East instead of, oh, just throwing this out there, having mind blowing sex with your incredibly handsome boyfriend?”

“No, but not even you can deny that watching Frankie try to pretend that Troy’s pirate king stories aren’t absolutely terrifying and not even close to the realm of normal isn’t worth leaving the house for an hour or two.”

“I honestly thought she was going to end up with a permanent eye twitch when he was telling us about what happened on that island with the crabs.”

Annie snorts and pushes away from Jeff fully, grabbing the box and making her way to the closet to put it away for next year. “How about this, I’ll only make us stay for a couple hours if you do that thing I asked you about.”

Jeff’s looking down at his phone and rolling his eyes before she even finishes her sentence. “How about you only make us stay for a couple hours and we come back and do that whole mind-blowing sex thing instead.”

She comes back up to him and gives him her best Disney eyes and exaggerated pout, smiling and clapping her hands together when he sighs in acceptance. “Should I be concerned with how much you want me to dress up like Santa?”

“Well, it’s only fair. After all, you got to see me dressed up in my Mrs. Claus best all those years ago.”

“You used your cleavage for evil, which I think nullifies it.”

“What if I promise to only use it for good tonight?”

“That might help.” He gives her a quick, chaste kiss before throwing an arm around her shoulders and directing them to the door. “I always imagined that if I was dressing like Santa, it’d be for my kids, not because my girlfriend has a weird older-men-in-suits kink.”

Annie pauses before they get to the door and turns to him, playful mood swapped out for something more serious. “You wanted kids?”

Jeff breaks eye contact and swallows before turning back to her. “I thought about it, once.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember the night at the bar after my second year teaching? Abed had us pitching what we thought our seventh season would be like but then you came back with the news about your internship.” He pauses but Annie gives him a small nod so he exhales a breath and desperately wishes he had a glass of scotch in his hand. “When I went back to the school, I thought about it - about the real future I wanted - and it was you. It was you, Annie, and it was a little boy with my hair but your blue eyes and, god, Annie, it was so hard to let you go that day. I would’ve done anything to keep you there. I loved you so much, you know?”

His breath comes out in a sad, shaky laugh. “I loved you so much it powered a damn computer and saved the school.”

“What? Jeff, why didn’t you say something?”

He turns to look at her and she’s taken aback for a moment at the intensity of his gaze. “Because, Annie, I loved you so much it powered a damn computer and saved the school. I loved you and I wanted you to stay but I would never forgive myself if I held you back. So, yes, I thought about having kids, once, but I loved you enough you let you go and, even if we never have kids, I’m never going to be upset I did that.”

Annie takes a small step forward and places her palm on his chest over his heart, curling her fingers slightly into his sweater. She takes another small step and looks up at him, resting her second hand on the side of his face. “Thank you.”

He turns his face and kisses the palm of her hand softly, hands wrapping around her back and pulling her to him. They’re quiet for a minute, just holding each other in the darkened living room, and Annie remembers that year and a half after she left when they’d exchanged a handful of texts but didn’t really talk until she’d called to thank him for the cupcake. She thinks of last year, how they spent the entire day in bed, wrapped in each other and studiously ignoring all of Britta’s attempts to get them out of the house.

“What if we - what if we tried?”

Jeff tenses and says nothing; Annie pushes away and immediately starts to backtrack. “Nevermind, it’s silly, we can just, like, get a dog or something! Yeah, a dog could be cool, a big one, like a golden retriever, and we could call it Troy, because he's totally like a golden retriever, or Goldie or, oh! We could call it Pierce, that would be a nice tribute, and -“

“Annie, don’t.” His voice is choked and he still hasn’t looked at her. Annie’s not really sure what to do; kids weren’t really in her five-year plan so she doesn’t really know why she said anything but it felt right, in that moment, to suggest it, and now that it’s out there, she can’t take it back and doesn’t really know what she’ll do if he says no.

“Annie,” he repeats, turning to her slowly. “Annie, please, don’t say things like that if you don’t mean it.”

She’s pretty sure the smile that overtakes her face is about to split it in two but she can’t help it. “Jeff, let’s have a baby.”

Jeff rushes her, knocking the breath out of her and crushing her against him solidly. He breathes out her name like a prayer and she’s clutching at him just as hard, tears at the corners of her eyes.

He puts her down and settles his hands on the sides of her face so that his thumbs are brushing softly against her ears. “Annie, I need you to be sure. I don’t want you to do this because you think you have to.”

She rests her hands on his forearms and pushes forward for a kiss. “New bet, if Troy brings up the eye patch story, you do that thing I want you do and I get three vetoes on the baby’s name.”

She’s still a little flushed from their impromptu romp when they finally make it to the bar but she’s warmed at the sight of all of her friends crammed into a booth and she can’t imagine feeling any luckier when Jeff turns to her and nuzzles her cheek with his nose.

“Happy birthday, Annie.”

 

— — —

 

+ one

“What are the chances Shirley tries to use the party as another opportunity to convince us to name her as Sebastian’s godmother?”

“Ah, see, I already devised a plan for that.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.”

“I can’t believe you were serious about that.”

“I’m sorry, I have a chance to get all four of our friends to compete for godparent, and you think I won’t take it?”

“You’ve been talking to Abed too much. This definitely feels like the set up for one of those 2010s movies starring Katherine Heigl.”

“He may or may not have contributed some ideas.”

“Please give me my baby. I refuse to let you corrupt his innocence so early.”

“Corrupt his innocence? No, he corrupted mine with the mess he made in his diaper earlier today. How much longer before he’s potty trained?”

“I don’t want to think of it. I’m already having trouble believing it’s his first birthday.”

“I can’t believe we made it through our first year as parents.”

“I can’t believe we made it through our first year as parents without needing to call in Shirley for reinforcements.”

“…I may or may not have FaceTimed her a couple times so she could teach me how to swaddle him.”

“Traitor! We promised to not show weakness! She’s absolutely going to hold that over our heads for godparent now.”

“Speaking of, how long do we make them sweat it out before we tell them they’re all being named godparent?”

“I think at least through cake.”

“Good idea.”

“We’re definitely naming Frankie as the official choice, though, right?”

“And taking that secret to the grave.”

“Deal.”