A/N: These bits are meant to be canon-compliant-ish, referencing (in order):
1x25, "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" | 2x16, "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" | 3x12, "Contemporary Impressionists" | 3x11, "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts" | 3x15, "Origins of Vampire Mythology" | 5x11, "G.I. Jeff," | Post-Series
TW for mentions of suicidality, alcohol use, eating disorders.
She tells him that she loves him through a microphone, and every part of him freezes shut. He imagines a fuse shorting out, a tremendous disconnect, because two women have announced to the room, the school, the state of Colorado, that they love him, but this is not a way in which he knows how to be loved.
He feels every eye on him like a pin, sticking out from every inch of his skin. He is on display: a sensation he is inarguably used to, but with the control ripped out from underneath him. Britta is holding the microphone, the focus of the room, and every single card he ever held.
He tries desperately to contain the chaos, pack it neatly back into Pandora's box, and when he fails, he has never been more grateful for Duncan's stumbling, drunken words. Jeff's lid on his composure stays miraculously in place – despite practically throwing him the microphone and finding an opportune moment to slip outside.
Shame follows him home, and as he closes his door and turns all three locks, he wishes he could take the night back. If he never turns his phone back on, conveniently loses his transcripts, and never goes back to Greendale ever again, maybe he could pretend. The night outside is far too quiet.
There are texts, missed calls, voicemails he doesn't open. He could have gotten off free for the night, avoided everything until morning, if one last phone call didn't come through the line, but it does. He absolutely despises his ringtone.
"Hi," he hesitates.
"Jeff," Britta's breathes through the line, and he can hear the cracks in her voice. She's been crying. "Jeff, I am so, so sorry. I don't – I don't know what I was thinking, or how I thought that might have been a good idea, or… God, I'm so sorry."
He has always been the king of sliding out of sticky situations, always able to find something meaningless to say. His mind is blank.
"Jeff?" she says again.
"You probably don't want to talk to me. I just… need you to know how sorry I am. And that I'd be… wrecked… if you decided you didn't want to be my friend anymore. But I'd probably deserve it."
"I just needed you to know that."
The line is silent for a short eternity. He can hear her sniffle through the phone. He, on the other hand, was always an ace at crying silently.
Guilt, fear, and dread are all bubbling under his skin, every mistake he made tonight replaying crystal clear in his mind's eye. There's the one big one – and a million small ones leading up to it. How might it all have changed? If he'd worn this shirt instead of that?
"Britta," he starts. Her breath catches. "I just… need space."
The uncertainty of it all is not lost on either of them.
"Will I hear from you at all? Over the summer?"
"I don't know."
There is a deep, shuddering breath on the other end of the line.
"Okay. That's… that's fine. I'm really sorry."
"I know. Thank you. Good night, Britta."
"Good night, Jeff."
He hangs up the phone, and the silence of his apartment is so, so deafening.
He is snappish and on edge when they finally get to his apartment, and she isn't particularly in the mood to dance around it.
"Come on, out with it," she presses, but Jeff's sigh as he closes the bedroom door and reaches for the small of her back isn't a satisfactory answer. The long, slow, long kisses, in succession, aren't answers, even if she returns them, and the muted smile he flashes her – true to form – is not an answer.
He hums a noncommittal non-response and kisses her neck, her cheek, her forehead.
"I mean it," she pushes. Her hands sit gently on his hips, but she leans slightly back to see his whole face. He is tired irritation, mixed with poorly-suppressed nerves, mixed with silent desperation. "Start talking, Winger."
"Sure, because you came over tonight to talk," he pulls off his shirt and kisses her neck again, expecting her to lean toward him like she always does. She doesn't: all she does is tilt her head and look pointedly at him.
"Last I checked, there was a friend in friends with benefits," she says, unclasping her bra and sliding her arms out, but leaving her shirt on. "And I'm supposed to believe that after Pierce almost dying and the whole father thing, you invited me for just sex and nothing else?"
He tilts his head with the ghost of a smile. "I was hoping you would, at least for a few minutes."
"I really hate to burst your bubble," she kisses him hard, before gently pushing him onto the bed behind him. She smiles at the silence she's stunned him into. "Talk now, sex later."
"Fine. I just…" he trails off for a moment as she sits beside him. "I don't see how the hell he could get off doing that, you know?"
She nods, and he continues: "I know I have issues with my father. But he – he gave Shirley a CD. He gave you a blank check. He gave Annie a fucking tiara. Those are mind games. I told him I forgave him, but this… wasn't a mind game."
"He took it too far," Britta acknowledges.
"And yet I still feel bad for hitting him," he chuckles. "The thing is, I would have been angry if my father showed up, and I would have been angry if he didn't. At that point, it didn't matter what Pierce did."
"Well, yeah," she adds. "If your dad shows up, it means you have to see your father on everyone else's terms but yours and Pierce took that choice away from you. If he doesn't, you had something painful dredged up for no reason other than a weird power play. You're right to be angry."
Jeff's face is twisted, trying to make the pieces fit together. "I guess I did also ignore the guy's drug problem. Could have killed him. Maybe I deserved it a little bit."
"You ignored it, along with me, Abed, Annie, Troy, and Shirley. We're in this together. You deserved… some other manipulative trick, maybe. But not that."
"Gee, thanks," he offers her a smile. "What'd you end up doing with your mind-game check, anyway?"
She shrugs. "Red Cross."
"Really? Basic, Britta. Hear they take a lot off the top, too."
"Oh, you have got to be –" she starts, the 'kidding' hanging in the air as she playfully smacks his shoulder and pushes him back onto the bed. "You're ridiculous. You know that?"
He only ever grins in response.
She drives him home after the bar mitzvah, wondering when, exactly, she became Jeff Winger's keeper. She does not necessarily mind, but finds it worth noting that when she enrolled at Greendale, she expected to take courses toward a degree in whatever, and nothing more. She'd make a friend or a study partner here or there, and for the next four years, nothing extraordinary or exciting or eccentric would ever happen to her.
Some nights, all she ever craves is normalcy. But most nights, she thinks that if she ever got it, she wouldn't be Britta Perry.
Her over-medicated and under-inhibited friend in the passenger seat is the living antithesis of normalcy tonight, half-asleep and radiating embarrassment. She pulls into the parking lot of his building, leads him inside, and wordlessly invites herself to stay.
He is gone from the bed when she wakes up, but that alone isn't inherently alarming. Slowly rising, she glances out toward the front door to see the chain still in place – and then to her right, to the bathroom door opened just a crack with the light on inside.
A restrained gasp or two echo through the door. She hesitantly knocks.
"Jeff? You okay?" Her first thought in the silence that follows is that if Jeff went into the bathroom and mostly closed the door, that is a clear indicator that he wants privacy, and a better person who respects others' boundaries might tell her to stay right where she is.
Her next thought is that they have seen each other naked. She pushes the door open.
She finds him still in the sweats he slept in, sitting on the edge of the tub with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. She can feel the tension rolling off of him from the doorway.
For the two and a half years she's known him, Jeff has masterfully managed to keep everyone just close enough and just far enough away. She is far enough away to not know exactly why he is crying, but close enough to have a few educated guesses. This morning is rare and vaguely unfamiliar as she finds herself in the position to carefully sit beside him and place a gentle hand on his back. She feels his heart pounding.
"Hey, it's okay," she starts. "You're okay."
He lifts his head just a bit, his eyes wide and expressive, and she is struck by the thought that she must be doing this all wrong.
"Do you want to go back to your room?"
Miraculously, he allows her to lead him back to his bed, her hand firm on the small of his back.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?"
He shakes his head, and she is struck by the thought that she may be doing something right.
"Did I ever tell you that I need to get my car fixed soon?" she starts. "It failed inspection."
This earns her half a cracked smile because of course it did, and she accepts the invitation to keep talking and talking about nothing particularly important. After a few minutes, Jeff's breathing evens out and he pulls his head up to look at her.
"Thanks," he says, and if she notices any embarrassment in his voice, just this once, she chooses not to comment on it.
"Here," she says, reaching for a pill bottle on the nightstand. Jeff looks ready to protest, but she continues: "I know what I said the other day, but I shouldn't have. And I'm sorry. If your therapist thinks they'll help, you should take them. Maybe they just need getting used to. Or a smaller dose. Or a different pill. Listen to someone with the whole degree."
After just a moment of hesitation, he dry-swallows a single pill and tosses the bottle back on his bed.
"Thank you," Jeff says again, the sudden sincerity in his tone somewhat jarring. After the evening they had, and the morning that has followed, there's a longer conversation to be had, but they both get the feeling that it will take time. "Maybe you'll be a really good therapist after all."
His keeper smiles, but after a moment catches the message. "Wait, what do you mean after all?"
As the wedding planner, Britta had already volunteered to strike the decorations, and Jeff was just drunk enough to forget to say no to helping her. Once the room is back to normal, the two find themselves sitting on the stairs in the dark, their cab running late. Not quite half-sober, she leans against his shoulder in the January cold.
"Weird night," she observes, her ears ringing in the silence. "Did we almost just get married?"
A deep, bemused chuckle: "Yeah, I think that's what happened."
"Huh." She's never quite entertained the thought of it before, something both surprising and not. Most girls have imagined marriage, made scrapbooks and Pinterest boards and bookmarked their favorite wedding dresses, but – intentionally or not – Britta has never been like most girls.
She idly considers that feminism is all about making informed and empowered choices, but there is often the sense that that choice does not always apply to her. The constant defense of all of her decisions, the mere admission that people are nuanced and that she herself could be a strong, powerful woman who gets married and has babies and gives friends advice in the bathroom – it makes living strictly in an activist's box seem easier.
"For what it's worth, there are definitely worse people I could almost marry," Jeff continues, playfully shaking the shoulder she is leaning on. "And I think you did a really good thing today. Planning everything so Shirley could chase that dream. Don't tell anyone I told you, but you're a good friend."
She grins at the mixed message, lifting her head off his shoulder to give him a pointed look. "Wo-ow. Careful, Winger. Keep that up and you'll be saying you love me in no time."
It could be the late night, or the alcohol wearing off, or a short moment of reprieve from the usual chaos – but his expression is suddenly sober and calm.
"Of course I love you," he says, the words tipping out of his mouth before his brain catches up to the sentiment. A pause stretches between them endlessly, endlessly. "But why would it matter?"
She stares, at a loss. "Jeff, if you want to… talk about… it, we can –"
"I don't, though," he continues. The air around them is freezing, and the lights outside are flickering, and their cab is running later and later. He is matter-of-fact, to the point. "It doesn't matter because there's nothing to do about it."
"What do you mean, nothing to do about it?"
"After the shit show before the wedding, do either of us strike you as being ready for a relationship?"
"You sound like you're pulling a classic Jeff-Winger-'I'm scared of commitment so I'm going to continue being emotionally unavailable until the end of time' move," she says, a hint of bitterness shining through. It isn't as if she started this conversation, not as if she's begging to be loved, but something about being told she's almost worth loving stings. "I remember how you dated Michelle, there's no way that meant nothing to you."
He looks at her carefully, considering the size of the hole he's dug himself into. "Yeah, I dated Michelle, a full-time professor with a job and a mortgage and a life in Colorado. Two years from now, she'll still be here, teaching statistics. You and everyone else will be God knows where doing God knows what."
Britta considers the instability, the uncertainty of it all that colors his tone.
"You're my best friend," he continues, nearly in spite of himself. "Seriously, don't tell anyone I told you. But I mean it: you're the worst. You traveled all around the world but never really saw it, you Britta things all the time, and I can't ever catch a break with you around. But you go out of your way to help people, plan their weddings to help them follow their dreams, and you try to keep me honest. That's an impossible task, but I don't really think you believe in impossible tasks sometimes."
She stares at the sudden display of honesty.
He goes on: "Being friends with you with no real expectations, I can manage. I'm not ready to screw it all up yet. Besides, do you even love me?"
It is less of a line cast in the water than it is a challenge, because he's always challenged her in the same way that she's always challenged him. The lights from the cab pulling up illuminate the two of them, finally, and he can catch the stubborn half-smile on her face.
"You're a real piece of work, you know that?" she says, and for a moment, all Jeff can hear is the absence of no.
"You never fail to remind me," he answers as they get into the car. He rattles off her address to the driver.
"Hm, he says he loves me and invites himself over," she teases.
"You live closer and it's 1am. Your couch is waiting for me. And Britta?" he starts. She is leaned up against him in the back seat and hums a response. "We don't need to discuss this again."
Knowing full well that they will, she grins wildly in the dark.
Shirley sounds so damn accusatory when she says it.
"You're in love with Britta!" she shouts, a startled realization, but it isn't one, because that's hardly news to him. The answer is yes, but the answer is no. The answer is of course he is, but that's not the point. That's not why he dragged Shirley to a carnival to figure out how this cartoon of a man has Britta chained like he does, not why he drops so much money on game after game.
He hates studying the man's mannerisms, his attitudes and personality, but he hates a question with no answer even more. Shirley could say he's jealous and protective and in love with Britta Perry, and maybe that's true if they all squint and tilt their heads, but that's all non-germane and circumstantial.
The early morning sky is pink, blue, orange as the sun rises. On any other morning like this, he might be out running, thriving on air that is pleasantly crisp and cool, stepping on stray leaves, squinting into sunlight.
Today, Britta drives him home from the hospital, silent tension carefully settling between them, and it is far easier to doze off in the passenger seat than it is to say anything about it. Every few minutes, he could swear he hears her draw in breath, sharp, as if to speak – but nothing ever follows.
It needs to happen, but starting is always the hardest part.
She parks outside his building and invites herself in, says nothing when he fumbles with his keys, and gives him a few minutes to himself. She lets him shower, lets him wash the hospital smell off his skin while she waits, gathering all her nerve.
When he emerges from his bedroom with fresh clothes and wet hair, it strikes him that he has never seen her so stunned into silence. All she ever does is talk, and all at once, the absence of her voice is startling.
"You can't keep going like this," she finally starts, eyes shining in the morning light.
He sits next to her on the couch, an arm's length away. All he can say is, "I know."
"I don't just mean the drinking," she says, and he knows that too. "I mean the… the eating disorder, the unchecked anxiety, the… possibility that depression is too big for you to deal with on your own."
Her breath hitches ever so slightly and she goes on: "I can't say it's selfish of you to not seek out the real help you need, or to not put effort into changing. I know it's scary. But I can't just sit here and watch you slowly kill yourself."
Her stares at her for a moment, slack-jawed and taken aback.
"Britta, I wasn't…"
"Did you know?" she interrupts, a few stray tears finally daring to fall, "That the EMTs Narcan'ed you twice when they got to you? That stupid fake pill bottle was nearby and they didn't know what it was. Later on, a doctor said they figured those pills must have been amphetamines or something. Said that sometimes stimulants make people accidentally drink more because they don't feel the alcohol as much."
She hovers on accidentally, offers him a pointed look and an excuse that he's welcome to use with anyone else who asks, but not with her. She knows the truth.
Britta drove him home this morning because, out of everyone, she has never been one to shy away from his mess.
More tears spill down her face as she rushes to scrub them away with her sleeves.
"Jeff, you're my best friend and I love you and I need you. I can't lose you. There needs to be a change."
He moves toward her and pulls her into a hug before saying anything else. He feels her softly cry against him, and in that moment, she becomes more and more of a lifeline. Fear prickles in his chest as he slowly nods his head. "You're right," he says.
"But do you ever think about… how sometimes you can do everything right, get everything you'll ever need… but still lose?"
She leans back to look up at him, sees the fear in his eyes. It is a terrifying truth that hangs over them, but Britta can do little else but nod.
"Yeah," she says, squeezing him a little harder. There is full, bright sunlight pouring into the room, and neither of them are leaving any time soon. "Sometimes. But not today."
Everyone is gone, save for them, and none of the bars downtown seem nearly as fun as they used to. He came to the Vatican tonight for Britta – to chat when she had time between her customers, and to contemplate his life when she didn't and wasn't looking.
People normally come to bars for this, but usually it's for the alcohol.
Tonight, he's drinking soda with ice and nothing else, and his head is splitting between his eyes, and the noise of the place is overwhelming, but he tries his best to smile and force a good time out of himself.
Today is his first second-day without alcohol in a long while, after a series of false starts and bouts of procrastination. Maybe he should be proud of it, but he isn't just yet. The second day is coming to a close, but the third still hangs in jeopardy – and in spite of all his efforts, one thought crops up in the back of his mind, over and over: What if this is as good as it gets?
The lights flicker on and off as Britta flips the switch. The night will be ending soon, but the night will bleed into the morning, which will eventually bring them to tomorrow night, and the night after that, and the night after that. Greendale days and nights have all started blending together, and he wonders what that means for him.
He downs the rest of his soda the way he'd kill a whiskey, throwing his head back in one fluid motion. A few minutes pass and the bar starts to close. A few more minutes, and Britta stands across from him, wiping down counters and rinsing a few glasses.
"If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?" Jeff asks suddenly, and she tilts her head at the question.
"Or live. Either."
She considers it for a moment. "I've always wanted to visit Prague. It was a site of one of the Czech Republic's major mass protests, and it's like eighty percent atheist, which seems cool. I don't think I'd want to live there, though."
There is a pause as she finishes up and emerges from behind the bar.
"A little too far from home."
"Just a little?"
She nods. "And then sometimes I think about visiting Spain, maybe Catalan. My Spanish definitely isn't good enough, though."
The memories of their very first classes, passing Chang's fake Spanish courses by the skin of their teeth, live pleasantly in the back of their minds.
"I'm not sure how much it would help anyway," Jeff starts as the two walk out onto the street. Their cars are parked side by side in a municipal lot a few blocks away. "They speak Spanish there, but also Catalan. It's a completely different language."
"What? It's part of Spain, what do you mean they have a whole different language?" she sounds so indignant, it forces a smile out of him.
"Britta Perry, have we stumbled on a modern independence movement you haven't heard about?"
She looks so dumbfounded, but she's laughing by the time they reach their cars. She unlocks her car and goes to hug him goodbye, but he keeps her locked in his arms for a few extra moments.
They start to pull back, but Jeff pauses. He tilts his head down to look her in the eyes, his expression suddenly thoughtful and sober.
Without much warning, he leans back in and kisses her – slow and careful enough for her to tell him to stop if she wants to, but she doesn't. He offers her this moment of affection and love, for the very first time not fueled by competition, spite, or simple lust, and she takes it.
They pull apart and she stares.
"I've been thinking about leaving Greendale," he admits. "Not right now. I don't know when, and I don't know where I'd go. But wherever it is, I want you to come with me. I think you should come with me."
She looks at him, wide-eyed and confused, but does not immediately say no.
"We can visit Prague, Spain, Catalan," he continues. "We can go all over, actually see places. Do things. Be people… with lives outside of this town."
She gently bites her lower lip. For a moment, she indulges the idea.
"We'll travel around Europe, Africa, South America," she adds. "For a little bit. And then maybe… California. Live in a city by the water, or maybe New York. I've never been to Boston. And… you and me?"
She poses the question softly, a feigned apathy disguising the affection underpinning it all.
Jeff takes a hesitant breath. "I haven't been okay in a long time. You know that already. I think… it's time for me to stop drinking. Time for me to stop hiding from the rest of the world in Greendale, Colorado, and it's time to be honest about how I feel and put effort into people and… relationships, like someone my age should. If that's what you want, too."
He means the two of them, living in California or New York or Boston, with kids and a dog, or just a few cats and some houseplants.
He continues, "We can see if… if I can really change this late in the game. And if you can still love me if I'm no longer broken. I don't have all the answers. Hell, I don't have a single one, but I'm starting to realize that I don't have to."
There's doubt settling in the back of his mind, and for a moment he imagines himself sitting cross-legged in front of a door, blocking Britta from the world outside of it. Maybe he's selfish. Maybe he doesn't really love her, but the idea of keeping the only friend he's got left tied to his side because he can't imagine a world he has to navigate without her. Maybe he's dreaming too big, promising a life he will never be able to create.
In his mind's eye, he stands up and tentatively opens the door.
"Maybe one day… you'll have a psychology degree and your own therapy clinic in any city you choose. And I'll have a teaching degree, maybe a J.D., and I can practice or teach or do anything anywhere. You don't have to say yes right now."
He leaves the door open wide and offers her his hand, free for the taking.
"But what do you think?"
Britta takes a long moment to consider the idea, glancing back toward the bar, the emptying late-night streets of Greendale, Colorado.
She turns back to look Jeff Winger in the eye and smiles.