Abed spends about ten minutes adjusting Troy's ascot, fluffing it up with his fingers, tucking stray bits under Troy's shirt collar, tightening it and loosening it. Troy tries not to fidget. Then finally Abed steps back, tilts his head consideringly, and rips it away entirely.
"No ascot," he says, his voice completely flat, and Troy just nods, terrified. He's wearing his best suit, which maybe is going to look phony, but Abed had insisted. Troy lifts his hand to touch his now-exposed throat, but before he can even open his mouth to ask about it Abed is stepping in again, grabbing Troy's shirt, and doing up one more button. Then he undoes the button. Then he does it up again.
"Abed," Troy says softly. "It'll be okay."
"I'm fine," Abed replies, as if Troy had asked. Now he's attacking Troy's shoulders with a lint brush, quick ruthless strokes that make Troy feel . . . manhandled. There's a look on Abed's face of fierce concentration, brow furrowed and mouth pulling down. He's breathing slowly and evenly and loudly through his nose, and Troy can feel Abed's breath on his neck as he leans over Troy's shoulder to find the imaginary lint on his back. Abed is standing so close now that their chests almost touch.
Troy waits as long as he can, submits to Abed's not-so-tender lint-seeking ministrations until he can't take it anymore, and then reaches up and grasps Abed's upper arms, shaking him a little, squeezing to break Abed's concentration.
"Abed," Troy says again, louder this time. "Stop it."
Abed avoids eye contact, but nods. Breaking Troy's hold, he walks calmly to the kitchen and puts the lint brush away in the Random Stuff drawer. Troy bites his lip.
When Abed comes out of the kitchen, he stops for a moment about ten feet away from Troy. Now he makes eye contact, in that intense direct way that Abed sometimes makes eye contact, and Troy wants to look away but can't quite bring himself to.
"Hey Troy," Abed says slowly. Troy can feel something building, so he takes his cue.
Abed pauses, licks his lips, and says, "I think you're pretty amazing. You don't have to change in order to be good enough for me. I'm not embarrassed by you or anything."
Troy blinks. "Okay."
"Based on at least seven sitcom episodes I can think of off the top of my head, meeting the in-laws is often a process that makes the spouse feel inadequate. I don't want you to feel inadequate." He pauses again, then adds, "I love you," in the same tone he might use to say it's Wednesday or let's watch Cougartown.
Troy's throat closes up and a feeling swells in his chest that's so huge and so powerful that he can't even begin to name it, and he wants to tell Abed about it but his throat isn't letting any words out, so he just takes a faltering step towards him and stutters out Abed's name a couple of times.
"I – Abed – "
But then he sees that Abed's got a little half smile on his face, like he can see the feeling of bigness that Troy is feeling, like maybe he feels the bigness too, and Troy smiles back, relieved.
Abed nods at him. "It's not you. It's just, you know . . . " he trails off, which Abed almost never does.
"Parents," Troy nods. "Dads. I get it."
There's a knock at the door. Abed's squirrel-in-the-headlights look is so funny that Troy has to laugh, and as he does he feels all the borrowed tension drain from his body.
"The spouse?" he asks belatedly, leaning against the dining room table, as Abed goes to answer it.
"Metaphorically speaking," Abed replies, and Troy nods, mostly to himself. Abed opens the door.
"Hey Dad," he says.
Abed's dad steps inside, saying hello, clapping Abed on the shoulder, and asking him how he's doing. Troy is, for once in his life, glad for the lessons in manners that his Nana beat into him as a child. His palms are sweating, but he manages to wipe them surreptitiously on his pants before Abed's dad turns away from Abed to look at him.
"Dad, this is my . . . Troy," Abed says, and Troy would grin at the hesitation if he didn't feel like his Nana was hovering over his shoulder with a switch.
"Hello, Mr. Nadir," he says, smiling instead, and shakes his hand.
Mr. Nadir looks him up and down suspiciously, then nods once with a bit of a sneer. But Troy knows disapproval, has seen it from tougher customers than Abed's dad, and he's pretty sure this isn't it.
"Good to finally meet you, Troy," he says. "Abed always talks about you." The tone of his voice kind of implies that Abed never used to talk about people much, and Troy feels weird, proud.
"You too," he replies, forcing himself not to glance over Mr. Nadir's shoulder to look at Abed, who is probably having an invisible freakout. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Yes, okay," Mr. Nadir says, and wanders toward their little kitchen. Now Troy risks a glance at Abed, and Abed's face is neutral like it usually is but then as they follow Mr. Nadir towards the kitchen Abed reaches out, grabs Troy by the hand, and squeezes.
Troy squeezes back. Abed lets go.
They sit and drink fruit punch, Abed's dad mostly asking questions and Troy mostly answering them. Abed throws in information now and then, but it's usually a non-sequitur. It reminds Troy of how it used to be to talk to Abed, back when they first met, when every other thing out of his mouth didn't make any sense and Abed always looked awkward and freaked out. Even now, Troy usually just accepts weird stuff as part of the rules of talking to Abed, but it seems to make Mr. Nadir really uncomfortable. Like he's embarrassed.
Troy wishes there were a way to say that Abed isn't embarrassing, that he's amazing and cool and Troy's best friend basically ever. He can't, so instead he just tells Mr. Nadir about Abed's awesome films, about how good a director he is, about how much everyone on campus respects him.
"You should be really proud," Troy says, and Mr. Nadir nods stiffly.
"I am," he says, after a few seconds.
Abed looks at the floor for a while, then comes out with something from The Matrix. Troy grins at him and joins in, and as they run the lines Mr. Nadir keeps looking back and forth between them, and after a while, he sort of smiles.
Troy figures it went pretty well.
Troy doesn't know how long he's been staring at the computer screen, but when Abed waves a hand between his face and the screen to break his stare, he figures it must've been a long time. Abed doesn't usually notice or mind people staring.
"Troy?" he sounds alarmed. "Troy, have you been looking at LeVar Burton's twitter again?"
Troy shudders. LeVar is doing a new Reading Rainbow-inspired program to help kids learn to love reading; when Troy had found out last week it had taken Abed three hours and five episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to calm him down. "No," he says, after a moment, blinking for what feels like the first time in a while. "My mom wants you to come to dinner."
Abed sits down next to him and doesn't ask any questions. Troy loves that about him, the way he can just be still and calm and ready when Troy feels like his brain is going to explode all over. Troy's never really told him much about his family, but Abed understands anyway. Abed's picked up on it. Abed is observant like that.
After a minute, Troy closes the email he's been staring at. "You don't have to go if you don't want to."
Abed doesn't move, doesn't speak; just breathes for a few seconds while Troy's offer hangs in the air. Then he says, "I want to."
Troy turns his head to stare at him. "Abed, my family . . . " Abed raises his eyebrows to communicate interest and encourage Troy to continue. Troy looks for the words. "They don't . . . they don't know I'm, you know."
"What?" Abed says, shaking his head.
"Weird," Troy says eventually, because there isn't really one word to express all the things that Troy is that his family doesn't know about, but that one comes close.
"Hm," Abed muses. He nods slowly. "So, an undercover operation. Incognito. Mission Impossible: Normality."
Troy grins slowly. Abed has a way of making any mission seem possible.
The dinner goes surprisingly well. Abed wears a cardigan, makes eye contact, smiles warmly, chuckles at peoples' jokes, and basically acts like his own Bizarro-world double. Troy doesn't talk much, agrees with his Nana about young ladies' fashions these days (like the ones Britta wears), agrees with his mom about ambitious women (like Annie), agrees with his dad about football (he hasn't talked about football with anyone since the last time he was here), and it's all really familiar because this is how Troy acted basically the whole time he was growing up. But somehow it doesn't feel the way it usually does, doesn't feel lonely or like he's lying because Abed is right next to him, acting too, and they're acting together and it's their secret and Abed knows he would never make fun of Annie. At least not behind her back.
Troy is reminded uncomfortably that his mom loves him, that his dad wants the best for him, that his Nana is proud of him. They tell Abed about all of Troy's accomplishments in high school, and then about all of Troy's accomplishments in junior high, and his mom is just moving on to his fingerpainting skills when Troy's dad interrupts her.
"Don't embarrass the boy, Vanessa," he says, patting her hand as he gets up from the table. "Abed, would you like more coffee?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr Barnes," Abed replies, with an easy smile. Abed doesn't usually drink coffee, and it's like a wink to Troy, a reminder that they're not who they appear to be. Spies, undercover agents, Abed in a cardigan and Troy Barnes as Troy Barnes. It helps.
"Troy, give me a hand with the coffee," his dad says, and Troy gets up and follows him automatically.
"So, Abed," Troy's mom says, as they walk away. "I understand you're a Muslim."
"Yes," Abed says. "Though my mom's Polish Orthodox."
Troy winces, but doesn't hear the rest of the conversation when the kitchen door closes behind him.
"I like your friend," Troy's dad says gruffly, pouring coffee from the coffee maker pot into the coffee serving pot. Troy never really understood why you couldn't use just one pot for both.
"Yeah, Abed's great," Troy says carefully.
"You seem happy."
Troy smiles, and this, at least, isn't an act.
"Yeah, dad." His dad smiles back at him, and it feels like it sometimes used to feel when Troy played football, when his dad used to help him train in the backyard.
"So," his dad says, changing the subject. "Any young ladies in your life?"
After dinner, Troy takes Abed upstairs to show him his bedroom. He's not sure why; it's such a kid thing, to show a friend your bedroom, and the fact that his parents seem to expect it of him just reminds him that he's not really a grownup to them.
Abed seems interested, though. When the bedroom door shuts behind them, Abed's demeanour changes back to normal, and it's a relief to see Abed's face fall into a neutral robot expression and his hands come out of his pockets to hang at his sides. Troy takes a deep breath. He realises that he's missed his friend.
"You're really awesome at acting," Troy says. "You should get out from behind the camera sometime." He says this last part extra quiet, because he told his family that Abed was studying business.
"Nah," Abed replies, not moving his hands or shoulders, not changing his facial expression. "I like being myself." He makes it sound like it's not a big deal, but Troy wonders if maybe it is.
"Thanks for doing this for me," he says.
Abed quirks him a half-smile and nods. Then he's off, eyes darting around the room, looking for clues like Sherlock Holmes. Troy sometimes imagines that Abed's vision is like Robert Downey Jr.'s in the new movies, the world slowed down and magnified and strange. He has a moment of panic, not sure what kinds of embarrassing things might've been left behind here, but then he looks around himself and sees nothing out of the ordinary. It's all football posters and sports equipment and safe, popular music on the CDs.
Abed finds the little stuff, though, the half-hidden stuff; he runs his fingers over a model airplane in the corner that Troy made when he was ten, crouches down to peer at a set of Star Trek: TNG DVDs on the bottom bookshelf, looks for a long time at a framed picture of Troy when he was little, standing outside in the summertime with his first two-wheel bike and grinning at the camera. Troy remembers loving that bike.
When Abed turns back to him, Troy grabs his hand and squeezes, the way Abed did to him. Abed holds his hand easily, like it's not weird at all, and then Troy kisses him softly, here in his childhood bedroom in his childhood house with his family downstairs, having coffee and using the company dishes.
Abed kisses him back, which Troy had never even found the courage to wish for, and it's warm and soft and they're still holding hands, too, fingers intertwined.
They pull apart after a second, and Abed says, "Is that one of the things that your family doesn't know about you?"
Troy nods, breathless.
Abed cocks his head, considering, and Troy can see the moment when Abed makes the decision, right before he starts to move, leaning down to meet Troy's mouth. It's smooth and precise and just like Abed, just like Troy thought that Abed might kiss.
A minute later, Troy says, "We should probably stop," and then kisses Abed again. Abed's long fingers flutter against Troy's face, and that's how he knows it's real, not just some hallucination left over from his teenage years: the pads of Abed's fingertips brushing against Troy's jaw, his neck.
This time Abed breaks the kiss, and steps back to adjust Troy's collar. "We should go back downstairs to your family."
Troy blinks. "Do we have to?"
"Then we can go home," Abed offers.
"Okay," Troy says softly. This time Abed just uses his hands to brush the imaginary lint from Troy's shoulders, and Troy stands still to let him do it.
When Abed steps back, Troy clears his throat and tries not to fiddle with his shirtsleeves. "Do I look . . . " he trails off.
Abed raises an eyebrow at him. "Weird?"
Troy sighs and nods. "Yeah."
"No." Abed hesitates, then seems to almost fall forward into Troy's space again, just for a second, to plant a soft kiss on Troy's cheek. "But it's good that you are."
Abed kisses him in the mornings, when he climbs down from the top bunk, before he goes to get out the milk and cereal. He used to always wear pajamas to bed, but lately he's been wearing just an undershirt and underwear, like he's intentionally giving Troy permission to look at him. Like he wants to reach out, but doesn't know how. Troy would think the clothes looked dorky he weren't so hot and bothered, just looking at Abed's long thighs and wiry-strong arms. It makes Troy want to strip him the rest of the way, slide his fingers into the waistband of Abed's tighty whiteys and tug them down, push his undershirt up to his armpits.
They haven't really had sex yet, but Troy figures they probably will eventually. He's not too worried about it. They'll figure it out.
Abed wakes up to his alarm and hops down and usually just as Troy is getting his eyes to open Abed's mouth is on his, kissing him awake. It's like a little ritual, every morning at the same time. Abed likes for things to be predictable. Troy can't quite get used to it.
Today, when Abed gets done kissing him and Troy's brain is just starting to shift into awake mode, Troy mumbles, "I thought you knew."
Abed had been backing up out of the bottom bunk, but he pauses midway and cocks his head. "What?"
Troy is still fuzzy, but it's something he's been wanting to ask ever since the dinner party at his family's house last week, so he says it again. "I thought you knew. About me. But you were surprised. I thought you knew all that stuff."
Abed hesitates. "I . . . didn't."
Troy reaches out and runs a thumb along the side of Abed's hand where it rests on the bed. It feels so good just to touch him like this, whenever Troy wants, without having to think about it. "You can't read my mind?" he jokes.
"No," Abed says, not joking. "I wish I could. That's the superpower I wish I had, mind-reading. Then things wouldn't be so confusing."
Things meaning people. Troy nods. "I used to wish I could turn invisible," he says, confession coming easily in the shadowy little bed, in the quiet, in the early morning after sleeping with Abed's soft sounds above him all night. Troy's always liked the bottoms of bunk beds.
Abed frowns, then kneels on the floor next to the bed in order to be more comfortable without bending his head. Troy shifts closer and strokes his hair gently, slowly.
"I wish you wouldn't," Abed says. "Turn invisible."
"Okay," Troy agrees. "I'll try. If you try to be more like Sherlock Holmes so I stay visible."
"Deal," Abed says, understanding perfectly, and this time Troy is awake enough to kiss him first. He even cops a tentative feel of Abed's tighty whitey-clad ass.
Troy's not sure, but Abed looks pleased when he gets up to go make the cereal.
Abed's dad sometimes drops by with what he calls "leftover" falafel to fill their fridge, but it doesn't look like leftovers to Troy so much as really yummy take-out, neatly packaged in cardboard containers and accompanied with just the right amounts of hummus and pita and tabouleh. Sometimes Abed isn't even home, so Troy lets Mr. Nadir in himself and offers him some fruit punch. Mr. Nadir doesn't ever accept the fruit punch after that first time, but he does say "Call me Gobi, Troy," once, sounding exasperated in a totally Abed-like way, and Troy only just manages not to drop the towering stack of take-out cartons on the floor.
All in all, he's a pretty cool guy, Troy thinks. Abed doesn't seem entirely comfortable around him, and he doesn't talk about his childhood so Troy doesn't know the details, but he understands anyway. Parents. Dads. So Troy does his best to make Mr. Nadir feel welcome, since he thinks that Abed wants to but can't, and waits to see what happens. The falafel is delicious.
Troy's mom sends him little care packages with cookies and canned tuna and quarters for the washing machine, usually dropped off when she's on her way to work, before Troy or Abed is even awake. He just opens the front door to find a box sitting in front of it, labelled in his mother's left-handed scrawl: Troy Barnes and Abed Nadir.
He and Abed go for dinner there sometimes, too, and although they keep going undercover, Troy thinks that Abed is gradually relaxing his disguise, being a little more odd and Abed-like each time. One day, Troy figures, he'll end up just going as himself. Troy likes the idea, and thinks that he might try it, too.