Her world stands still for the briefest of moments, and Jess can barely find the courage to turn around and face him. She wants to bolt for the door, but she can't do that either as he's blocking her exit.
The waitress has no such hesitation in addressing Nick, her eyes shooting back and forth between them, the displeasure on her face growing more evident by the second.
"You know this lady?" She snaps.
Nick stands and watches as Jess slowly spins around. He has no idea what the hell is going on, but her eyes are begging for his help. His brow furrows imperceptibly, before he sniffs loudly and clears his throat.
"Of course I do, ma'am" He nods at the waitress, before stepping towards Jess with outstretched arms "Jessica, honey – I've been looking everywhere for you!"
The waitress frowns and regards the two of them suspiciously.
"So…you must be Mr Pepperwood?" She states slowly, eyes narrowing.
Nick glances down to see Jess's face go pale, but he doesn't miss a beat as his arm slides over her shoulders, a smile firmly plastered on his lips.
"Oh, please – call me Julius. Now, is there a problem here or can this little lady and me get back to our evening?"
"Well, Sir, I must enquire where you think you will be seated, because there is no reservation in our books under the name of Julius Pepperwood."
Nick's fingers dig sharply into the top of Jess's arm and she can practically feel the tension vibrating inside his body. He pauses, taking a deep breath before continuing as calmly as he can manage.
"Of course, there won't be – my background in the services mean I use an alias. You think I want people knowing my personal business?"
"It's my fault, I gave you the wrong name earlier…" Jess offers apologetically.
"Ah, sweetheart, you really need to stop doing that." Nick squeezes a little harder, and smiles a little wider as he continues to look only at the waitress "How 'bout you go and check again, and you'll see a reservation under the name of Miller."
The older lady scurries off, muttering something under her breath about not being paid enough for this crap, and Nick guides Jess to one side as the manager continues to placate the couple who Jess scared half to death by offering them a free dessert.
His arm drops immediately from her shoulder and he refuses to look at her, even though her eyes are burning a hole in the side of his head.
"Nick…" She ventures tentatively.
"Don't…" His voice is clipped, and the muscle at the top of his jaw is doing that thing where it practically pulsates with rage. Jess feels herself start to wilt inside, her fear of being discovered having come true in the worst way possible.
The waitress comes over to apologise, having found the correct reservation in their records. Nick waves it off good-naturedly, excusing them both and spinning on his heel with his hand pressed firm on Jess's lower back as he marches them away.
His eyes are dark and angry as he grips her by the elbow and ushers her swiftly to one side, trying to avoid drawing more attention to them by stopping in the narrow hallway that connects the doors of the kitchen to the main area of the restaurant.
"Are you spying on me?" He whispers furiously through his teeth.
"No!" She lies, the word almost sticking to her tongue as she forces it out.
"What's gotten into you?"
"Look, Nick, it's not what you think. I'm not thinking straight, that's all."
There's a pause where he just stands there with his hands on his hips staring at her in disbelief.
"Wait, are you high?!" Nick narrows his eyes suspiciously, because he's really having trouble figuring out what the hell is happening, and 'High Jess' is the only irrationally-rational explanation his mind can land on right now.
"What? NO!" Jess scoffs, avoiding his irritated stare and scuffing the toe of her red, crushed velvet flats along the hard wooden floor.
"Then what in the hell are you doing here?"
"You're meant to be at the loft."
"You were supposed to be having dinner with Ryan."
"I am! It's just…I heard Schmidt and Winston talking and I wasn't, I don't...I mean, I didn't…" She stutters and grunts at herself in annoyance.
"You didn't what? Throw me a bone here, Jessica!" Nick scolds, eyebrows furrowing until they meet in the middle.
"I didn't realise I was going to feel like this when I found out you were dating again…" Jess says quietly. She pauses and looks slightly panicked, as if she hadn't meant for the admission to slip out of her mouth and be spoken into existence.
Somehow, Jess meets his gaze with slightly bulging eyes and blinks furiously, attempting to keep the hot tears of embarrassment from falling, a crimson flush already blossoming its way noticeably across her cheeks.
"It's stupid and dumb and…ugh…look, I thought I was fine, but…it just all got a little too much, I was confused – I acted crazy, and I followed you and I've ruined your night…and I'm sorry, okay?"
Nick's face softens immediately and he's overcome with the urge to reach for her, but swallows it back down - the same way he's forced himself to many times in months gone by.
"Well, if it helps you feel any better, my date didn't show up…" he admits after a moment "…so, I guess you have nothing to worry about."
He tries to laugh, but his body won't allow it. His chest is heavy, because he knows exactly how Jess feels right now. It's the precise place he was in when he saw Jess leave the loft to go to the movies with Ryan that first time.
It was the reason he'd gotten black out drunk and fallen asleep fully clothed that same night, the reason he took on extra responsibilities at the bar ever since, so he had an excuse to be at the loft less - and the sole reason that whilst on one of his additional shifts, he had finally given his number to the woman that had been flirting with him for weeks, instead of blowing her off as he would usually have done.
Winston's drunken words of wisdom had burned themselves behind his eyelids as he fell asleep every night since:
"There's a whole other world outside of this loft - and those who reside within it, Nick. Maybe it's time to take a closer look."
When the tall red-head from the bar had messaged him suggesting dinner on the same night Jess was meant to be cooking a romantic meal for herself and Ryan at home, the decision was an easy 'yes'. Anything was better than playing third wheel with your ex and her new beau.
The world was now his oyster, plenty more fish in the sea, more than one pair of shoes that fit etc, etc.
Except, tonight hadn't really turned out the way he was expecting. He hadn't planned on sitting and waiting there on his own for forty-five minutes, feeling the eyes of the waiting staff boring into the back of his head, wondering when he was going to accept defeat and leave so they could give the table to someone else.
"Oh, Nick…I'm sorry."
Jess looks at him the same way she did after Julia walked away from him, and when Angie had left him at the cabin that one time. He's seen it too many times before - the look that makes his stomach clench - most recently whilst standing in the hallway of the loft, staring at the woman he loved more than any other, wondering if the ache in his chest would ever subside.
It makes him sad all over again and he hates it.
Lips pursing, he digs his hands deep into his pant pockets.
"It's probably for the best…" Nick shrugs "…because it seems like you and I maybe need to go get a drink and talk about some stuff?"
Jess warily follows his gaze to the small bar at the front of the restaurant, with its soft blue lighting and high backed bar stools lined up in a neat row, waiting patiently for patrons to arrive and fulfil their purpose. Chewing her bottom lip, she steals a glance at the clock on the wall over Nick's shoulder and registers that Ryan is due to arrive at the loft imminently.
There's no way she can get back in time to prepare for their dinner unless she leaves now.
"What d'ya say, kid?" He tilts his head slightly and offers his arm for her.
"I…" she looks from Nick to the bar and back again, pausing just long enough to see a rueful smile of acknowledgement start to tug at the edge of his mouth, and it makes her feel terrible. That's when she finds herself nodding at him and hooking her hand through his crooked elbow "…I think that's a good idea."
Nick perches on a stool at the end of the bar, wasting no time in gesturing to the barman to bring them some much needed alcohol (pink wine, and a neat whiskey) while Jess takes a seat just to his left.
"So…" he replies slowly, lacing his fingers together on top of the bar and looking at her expectantly.
"Do you come here often?"
"Jess…" Nick warns.
She stifles an awkward laugh and clears her throat. Masking her embarrassment with humour wasn't going to cut it tonight. Jess sighs heavily and reaches out to twirl the stem of her wine glass slowly between her fingers.
"I'm sorry. I guess I have some serious explaining to do…"
Nick waits for her to continue, but she sits there silently staring at the bar top, so he takes a large mouthful of his drink and starts the conversation himself.
"How'd you even know where I was?"
"I overheard you talking to Winston in the bathroom earlier – you know, you two don't speak as quietly as you think you do."
Nick scrubs a hand down his face and groans.
"I don't know what to say. I can't explain it, I heard you talking about getting ready for your date and my stomach flipped. I just felt…"
"Jealous?" He offers.
"Sick…" Jess blurts out at the same time.
"Or your thing. Kind of, maybe…" She admits.
Nick takes a second to absorb her words, then lowers his voice before cocking his head slightly.
"But, Jess…you're with Ryan now."
"I know, it's not like that." Jess corrects herself quickly "Ryan's great, and I enjoy spending time with him. I don't mean I felt jealous in an "I-wish-it-was-me-going-on-a-date-with-Nick" way."
"Well, how else do you mean it?" Nick was visibly confused, his frown lines deepening.
"I guess I was just so focused on moving forward and getting myself back together after everything that happened with you, I kind of forgot that one day you would move forward from me…" Jess trails off and tucks her hands in her lap, suddenly feeling like this drink was a terrible idea.
Nick swallows and nods his head slowly, knocking back a large mouthful of whiskey as he gripped the glass so tightly that his fingertips started to go white and she realises that they should have had this kind of conversation a long time ago.
It occurs to Jess that the fall out from her and Nick's break-up was a little like a car crash, the implications far reaching and unpredictable. The difference being that, once the wreckage of a vehicle was towed away, there was a clean-up crew following behind to return the road safely back to its previous state. Nick and Jess had never had that luxury – no one had come along and dealt with the debris of their broken relationship for them. And lord knows they failed miserably at coping with it themselves, so it just lay forlornly at their feet ever since. They'd think they were on a clear path, then suddenly a fractured remnant of the past would cause them to stumble to the ground all over again.
"So, that's what made you follow me?" Nick asks quietly.
"Well, no actually…I hadn't planned that part. Honestly. It happened rather on a whim."
"You hate doing stuff on a whim."
"And now you know why…" Jess replies, her voice muffled by the inside of her wine glass.
They sit in silence for a while, the weight of feelings resting heavy on their shoulders. Nick starts tracing his thumb around the edge of his glass and the guilt starts to throb in Jess's chest.
"I really am sorry, you know." She says quietly.
"I know." He smiles at her out of the side of his mouth.
"I just don't understand…" Jess pauses, waving her hand "actually, you know what? Forget I said anything. It's nothing."
"Jessica…" He says her name with his strongest Chicago lilt, and it still has that odd effect on her insides.
She sighs, because she really doesn't want to be that person, but to hell with it.
"It's just…of all the women you could have chosen to go on your first date with, you picked Boozy Suzy?" Jess curls her lip and drains the last mouthful of wine from her glass.
"Oh, hang on a second…" Nick pushes his shirt sleeves above his elbows and then leans so far forward Jess momentarily wonders if he's actually going to stop before he reaches her. "Do you think it's fun for me to watch you making doe eyes at a guy who sounds like he belongs in Downtown Abbey?"
"Fair point." She concedes.
"I wasn't expecting the way it made me feel either. That shit hurt." Nick is as surprised as Jess by the honesty of his words. He pauses to lick the harsh taste of whiskey from his lower lip before signalling for the bartender to pour him another.
"Nick, I…" Her fingers inch closer to his, wanting to offer comfort, only to curl themselves back into a closed fist immediately as she senses the muscles in his arm tense up.
He shakes his head and draws a mouthful of liquor in slowly, savouring the slight burn on his tongue and the trail of heat that ripples down his throat when he finally swallows.
"I just get why you did it…tonight, I mean. That's all. So…" He shrugs and his bottom lip protrudes in that delightfully predictable way.
"Really? Because I thought for sure you'd be mad at me if you found out. Why do you think I hid under that damn table for so long? Honestly, I was sat there feeling like Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, about ready to put in an order for some rabbit soup." Jess cringes at the memory of her moment of discovery and holds her face in both hands.
"Jessica, I've lived with Schmidt for ten years – do you know how many times that guy has tailed me on a date?"
"Really!" Nick chuckles "At least you tried to remain incognito, he'd always blow his cover to pop up at the worst moment and offer his best 'advice'. Completely unsolicited, I might add."
"I guess I haven't quite figured out how to do this…" She gestures between them both with her hand "…since things changed. It's weird, and I'm not sure how to switch off the part of me that cares so much."
He frowns at her, and there's a sadness in his eyes.
"What do you mean?"
"I came here tonight partly because I wanted to see you were okay, I was concerned about you. But I know that's not my place anymore."
"Jess, I don't want you to stop caring about me." His voice catches slightly and he has to clear his throat.
She swallows and looks at him sadly.
"No." He sighs, shifting his stool over close enough that she can almost feel his body heat "Look, we're still friends, Jessica. Friends look out for each other. They're allowed care about each other. I mean, I still care about you…"
"Yeah. That isn't going to change, and I don't want it to."
Jess smiles, a warmth suddenly filling the hole in her stomach that all the anxiety from earlier had left behind.
"You're right. It's like some kind of complicated puzzle – all the pieces that made up our relationship are still there, but now I guess we just need to try and find a way of re-arranging them all to fit a little differently…"
"But that's the beauty of a puzzle, right? You can break them apart and pack them away high on a shelf somewhere - but someday, months or maybe even years later, you can come back to it…" Nick looks at her pointedly "…and everything still fits back together exactly as it did before."
"Unless you're Winston…in which case you force almonds into the pieces until they fit together."
They laugh, warm and genuine as they feel the tension of the evening fall away to be replaced by the familiar comfort of closeness they'd both been forcing themselves to avoid out of fear since they broke up.
"We're okay, right?" Jess asks, chewing on her bottom lip.
"Guess you'll be needing this back?" She points to the well-worn blue cap, picking it up from the counter top of the bar.
"Well, I probably should. You can't go leaving a man without a disguise…never know when I might need to go all 'Pepperwood' again." He laughs.
"Suits you better anyway." She offers the hat to him and smiles, but it falters on her lips as Nick's knuckles graze the back of her hand when he reaches out his arm.
He registers the deep breath Jess draws in, and for a split second he almost thinks 'to hell with it' and tugs her close to his chest – such is the strength of longing that suddenly surges through his entire body.
That's the part he always finds hardest – the moments where he still feels like he needs to hold her. It's never gone away, and there have been times where all he's wanted to do is lift her into his arms after a shitty day so that the smell of her perfume can wash over him, to have Jess rest her head against his chest so he could feel his heartbeat become slow and steady again.
Jess suddenly leaps up from her stool having seen the time.
"Oh, shoot. I need to get back to the loft – Ryan's probably wondering what's going on."
Nick feels a twist in his gut at hearing her say Ryan's name, but he's pretty sure his face remains neutral. He notices the way her face lights up when she starts to talk about the meal she has planned for him and something inside him clicks.
"I should go freshen up quickly, do you mind watching my stuff?"
"Sure…" He nods "You go, I've got this."
Jess walks quickly back to the bar, swerving the numerous members of waiting staff dashing to-and-fro. She's looking down to straighten the hem of her skirt with one hand, reaching up to fix her hair with the other.
"Sorry, that took way longer than intended – there was a lady in there sobbing in the corner because she thought her boyfriend was going to propose, turns out he just broke with her instead, but she wouldn't stop talking to me about it. Anyway…"
She looks up and her jaw drops open.
"Hey, Jess!" He leans forward, placing his hand on her upper arm and giving her a chaste kiss on the cheek as he drapes the strap of her purse back over her shoulder.
"I, uh…wh-what are you doing here?" She stammers, her eyes scanning the bar behind him.
"Nick called me."
"Yes, about fifteen minutes ago. He said I needed to get here immediately and explained the whole complicated situation."
Her mouth has gone so dry, she can't swallow.
"Yeah. It's so sweet of you to surprise me like this…"
She wants to frown, because she has no idea what he's talking about, but Jess instead finds herself nodding with a confused smile.
"…I mean, I'd have never figured out that the dinner at the loft was just a front to cover up the surprise of a meal at this amazing place. I've wanted to come here ever since I arrived in L.A!"
"I'm just sorry the staff here messed up your reservation. That's so unfortunate – but how lucky that Nick was able to pull some strings and re-arrange a table for us."
"Yep, that's…very lucky." Jess puffed out a big whoosh of air "Say, uh, what…what else did you and Nick talk about?"
"Well, he said I should bring you this." Ryan handed over a small tote bag with a grin "You know, on account of you dashing over here in the middle of running errands when you got the call about the mix-up. You poor thing, you haven't even had time to change."
Jess looks inside to see her faithful little black dress and bites down on the inside of her cheek as a rush of emotion rushes to the surface. She can't believe Nick has done all of this for her. Especially after tonight.
"Oh, and he also said that if I ever treated you anything less than perfect, I'd have to deal with Julius…"
"Yes, your cousin…in Chicago? Ex-cop, ex-marine, right?"
Jess sees a flash of blue out of the corner of her eye, looking up she watches Nick step away from the entrance of the restaurant. He turns back to look in at her through an open window with a wink whilst tugging the blue baseball cap further down on his head.
"Oh, my cousin! In Chicago!" she exclaims loudly, eyes never leaving Nick's from over Ryan's shoulder.
"He sounds like a pretty scary bloke from what Nick told me, to be honest…"
"Listen, Ryan, you don't need to worry about Julius Pepperwood. He has a somewhat questionable reputation and is by no means squeaky clean…but, honestly?" She makes sure her gaze is locked with Nick "He's just looking out for me. Showing that he cares - because he has the biggest, softest heart of anyone I know."
Nick nods his head and salutes, pulling his collar up before turning to walk away down the street into the dark of the night, losing himself in the noise and bustle of the crowds outside.
A young man enters the bar and calls loudly "Reservation for Miss Night? Your table is ready."
Jess suddenly feels a wave of clarity wash over her. Everything makes sense in a way it hadn't done before.
"Miss Jessica Night? Anyone?"
Jess's face cracks into the widest smile she's worn all day, and despite the look of confusion on Ryan's face, she turns to look the waiter square in the eye and replies at the top of her voice, because she's never been more certain of anything in her life:
"Yes – I'm Jessica Night…"
*A/N - Thank you so much for reading, i really hope you enjoyed it! I know there's not much activity in the New Girl fandom these days since the show finished, but i still really like writing fic for the characters, so if you're still around and reading - you're awesome!*