Their study room seemed more cramped and stuffy than usual. Maybe that was because Officer Cackowski and his partner were handcuffing professors in the lobby. Or maybe it was because the Dean smelled like a mix of burnt toast, baby powder, and chemicals. It made Troy feel light-headed and weirdly… hungry.
Dean Pelton clapped his hand on Jeff's shoulder and leaned over the table. "I wanted to specifically and discreetly thank each and every one of you for uncovering the chemistry department's secret drug lab inside the Women's Studies wing. Through Troy's ventilation system repairs, Abed and Annie's oddly intriguing distraction, what can only be described as Shirley's unique background, and Jeff's handsomeness -- er, persuasive speech, we were able to stop the unholy results of department-wide collaboration.
"I'm not sure why Pierce and Britta were there, but rest assured while there will be no mention of any events inspired by Bryan Cranston's charismatic performance in Breaking Bad, our future campus mailers will definitely note that this year's campus-wide crime-solving rate rose a whole 20%! In addition, all of you will get a discount on condiment purchases in the cafeteria, limited to ten items. How 'bout that?" The Dean's hand lingered over Jeff's collarbone before he pulled away, snapping his fingers at the doorway.
Chang appeared beside the table. He and Britta eyed each other distrustfully for a moment before Chang handed each of them a form.
"Now if you can just sign these nondisclosure agreements and leave them with the Human Being, who is incidentally now my secretary, that will be great. Okay!" Dean Pelton waved goodbye with both his hands before turning around to walk out of the room. Chang cocked his hip, silently pointed at his security badge, then left too.
Jeff scanned the paper in his hand before casually crumpling it into a ball and tossing it over his shoulder. "I don't know about the rest of you, but that felt like a strangely anti-climatic ending to the week, despite discovering Shirley's completely inexplicable ability to eyeball how many grams are in a bag."
"Baking is more than a skill, Jeff," Shirley cut in defensively. "It's a calling."
"Some of my friends back in the '70s had that talent too," Pierce reassured her. Shirley made a low, sad noise.
Troy had to agree with Jeff, even though he could totally use that discount on ketchup and mini-packets of salt and pepper. The tinier version of stuff always tasted better. "After being captured by drug runners last year, this does seem like kind of a let down."
Britta perked up. "This is totally that thing hostages get in the Swiss Alps." She paused. "Or, you know, somewhere around there. My last psych midterm was a while ago."
"What I don't get is why Abed and Annie had to dress up in Pulp Fiction costumes. Is this going to be a thing now?" Pierce asked. "I spent a lot of money at the Leather Expo for my outfit to Abed's last birthday party. I would have been more than willing to wear it again."
"Please don't," Jeff said.
Abed gestured at his suit, which Troy thought made Abed seem even more confident and badass than usual. "The situation called for amoral characters. Han Solo or Mal Reynolds wouldn't have worked because their moral codes ultimately reflected their pragmatic altruism. Al Pacino in Scarface -- like Al Pacino in all roles -- would have been overkill, and I feel like our group's already played out the mob angle. Hence John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Subtle, yet effective. Annie suggested it."
Abed glanced over at Annie, formed a V-sign with his fingers and waved it in front of his eyes. Annie swept her fingers across the bangs of her borrowed wig and blushed.
"How come you guys didn't tell me about your plan? I totally would’ve worn my Hawaiian shirt." Troy felt a little out of the loop, like those times he couldn't celebrate Christmas or play Bingo as a kid -- except this felt about ten times worse, because this was Abed and Annie doing something without him.
Abed shook his head. "You were needed elsewhere, Troy. Without your repair skills, feminists might have been hurt or at least mildly singed, and Starburns could have gotten high. You had to stay in the main storyline. You weren't meant to be part of the B plot."
"Oh." It did make sense, but then again everything Abed said usually made a lot of sense. Annie smiled reassuringly at Troy.
Shirley looked between the three of them. "Oh, I was worried this would happen. I was watching Three's Company the other day. Nothing good can happen when so many unmarried adults share an apartment, especially when the men keep inviting all kinds of inappropriate attention with their short-shorts."
"I knew it!"
"Shut up, Leonard," Jeff said. "We know you were the mule between the chemistry department and bowling industry management program."
"You'll never catch me alive!" Leonard yelled back at them before heading toward the library's new videotape collection.
That night, a plate slipped off the dish rack and onto the floor... without anyone touching it.
"This could totally be the opening scene of a ghost movie, like Paranormal Activity: The College Years or a Field of Dreams sequel," Abed said.
Troy shifted in the bunk bed, no longer able to enjoy his cuddle with Abed. He lifted his head from where it was resting against Abed's chest "Don't say that. Real ghosts are nothing like Casper or Bruce Willis. They are not friendly, and they aren’t helpful shrinks, either." Troy couldn't help the way his voice got tighter as he spoke.
"This happens all the time when people don't load their dishes according to the color-coded diagram I drew and taped to the fridge. It was probably an accident," Annie said from the nest of pillows she had made by their bunk bed. Then she got this weird glint in her eyes that reminded Troy of the quiet moments before Jeff did something extra crazy. She gave Abed a sidelong look. "There's a logical explanation for all of this. Right, Mulder?"
Troy felt Abed tense up behind him. Then Abed slid around Troy and stood. "What is logic, Scully?" he said as Annie got up to meet him. "Is it logical to ignore the mounting evidence for knowledge and thinking that lies outside our known thoughts? Moving dishes, missing socks, strange noises coming from that weird smelling apartment across the hall. A mysterious goo smeared across the stove: dismissed as leftover special drink, but easily a sign of ectoplasm from an otherworldly spirit." He leaned into Annie, intense and serious in his DARSIT pajamas.
"We should investigate." Annie's eyelashes seemed super-long as she looked down at Abed's chest and back up at his eyes. Her hand brushed the bottom of her unicorn nightshirt.
Abed nodded at Troy. "We'll report back to you with our results." Abed grabbed the flashlights from the top bunk bed and handed one to Annie. "Come on, Scully. Let's go," he said as he stepped outside the blanket fort. Annie blinked, her eyes a little glazed, then shrugged and followed.
"Okay," Troy said absently to the soft walls of the blanket fort, the abandoned spot on the bed beside him still slightly warm from Abed's body heat.
On Monday, Britta diagnosed Troy with a personality disorder and attempted hypnotherapy on him, which ended in a mutual crying session that Jeff recorded for his therapist with a cell phone. Abed tried to comfort Troy with his Batman voice, but it didn't really calm him down the way it used to. Besides, Abed kept breaking off to make a low rumbling sound at Annie.
The next day, Vice Dean Laybourne kidnapped Troy to interrogate him on how he repaired the ventilation system using paper clips, a rubber hammer thingy, and a bunch of those teeny wrenches. Troy escaped by tripping Black Hitler and kidney-punching Lady George Washington, and then ran until he found Abed and Annie in the study room, dressed as Neo and Trinity and holding paintball guns.
"This seemed like a pinnacle moment in our group's arc for the semester, so I thought we needed to up the ante for our eleventh hour rescue," Abed said, pushing his sunglasses up onto his forehead before brushing off his duster. "You probably shouldn't mention this to Pierce. He keeps talking about his leather gimp suit and this is obviously the ideal window of opportunity for him to use it."
Annie looked pretty amazing in that outfit she was wearing, all dangerous curves hugged by black fabric. "We're really glad you're okay," she said, rushing in to hug Troy.
He smiled down at her, enjoying the feel of a soft Annie in his arms and Abed's warm hand on his shoulder. Still, Troy couldn't shake the feeling that he had walked in on something.
On Friday, Troy and Abed somehow ended up judging a cat's cradle tournament between Shirley, Vicky, Garrett, and Professor Kane – who’d had enough free time and string in prison to become both a biologist and an expert weaver.
"Is it me, or has it been super-busy lately?" Troy asked Abed, who had his hair slicked back and kept responding to everything as Humphrey Bogart. Abed had scored Garrett's last string-shape as, "better than most, but I'm still one drink short of sticking my neck out on the line for a rat like you."
"It hasn't been that way for the rest of us people on the street. It's different for you because you're becoming the star of the show, kid. This world's always on the lookout for a new boss," Abed said. "You're a triple threat now: you can rap, you can dance, and you cry out your pretty eyes less and less these days."
"You think my eyes are pretty?"
Abed took out a candy cigarette, tapped it, and dipped his head down to pretend-light it. Troy could see a small bruise underneath the collar of his shirt. "It's only a matter of time before Greendale stops focusing on Jeff and his artful bed-head and turns to you."
"But what if I don't want that to happen?" Troy felt an anxious knot settle inside his chest, like he had forgotten something important, but couldn't remember what it was. "What if I want everything to stay the way it is right now? It's nice and comfortable and everyone I like is here." Troy understood his role in their study group the way he’d known his way around their blanket fort bedroom. And their bedroom was the best thing ever. The air inside it was always extra warm, and the walls could wrap around and cocoon you at any moment. It was exactly what Troy imagined living inside a giant marshmallow would be like.
Abed chewed on his candy cigarette, looking blank and more Abed than Bogart. "I don't know if that's an option."
Something weird was happening between Annie and Abed.
"Something weird is happening between you and Abed," Troy announced to Annie as he watched her sort through the mail. She always seemed really concerned about getting stuff from Bill. "His Inspector Spacetime impersonation has gotten a lot sexier and distant lately, which doesn't make sense since he's playing the Fourth Inspector from the Golden Era, not one of the Inspectors after the reboot. It's confusing my version of Constable Reggie."
He wondered sometimes if it'd be better to keep his thoughts inside his head, but he never bothered trying since TV and the last three years at Greendale had taught him that all the important stuff always came out in the open anyway. And when Annie fell silent and couldn't meet his eyes, he knew that this had to be one of those really important revelations, like when they’d found out Shirley was pregnant or when Britta had discovered her latest boyfriend was actually a really tan white guy instead of a person of color.
"You're with Abed now, aren't you?" The last month stood out in Troy's mind with a sudden clarity. "Why didn't I know about this? Was this one of those things that got sexier as a secret?"
"No!" she protested automatically. She looked down, then back up. "Okay, it was a little sexy." Annie put the mail down on the kitchen counter. "We weren't trying to keep you out, Troy. It just sort of happened whenever Abed was being Harrison Ford. And then it happened whenever he needed to be Wolverine or Batman. And then it kept happening. And got really elaborate. Sometimes you were there, but sometimes you were off doing important stuff like infiltrating the Anti-Gravity Society with Shirley. And then I started ambushing Abed while dressed as a hobbit and using an English accent.
"Wait, those accents were English?
"I don't think that's what hobbits actually sound like." Troy pictured Annie and Abed in curly hobbit wigs. It was strangely hot despite the hairy feet.
"I'm not a naïve school girl anymore. It's not perfect, but it's fun and it sort of works for now." She leaned against the counter. "Are you okay with this?" Annie asked, quiet.
"Why wouldn't I be? You're my two most favorite people in the world."
Annie turned to him and wrapped her arms around Troy's waist. He hugged her back, breathing in that awesome girl-smell of hers -- apples and flowers and the color green. It made something inside of him relax on instinct, and he wished he could hug her forever.
Troy rested his chin on top of her shoulder. "It's totally cool."
Annie and Abed looked at what was left of the blanket fort, now piled up around the bottom of bunk bed. "I don't think you're okay with this," Annie stated.
Troy let out a noise from where he was on the top bunk and turned to stare at the ceiling, which was no longer made of blankets. Looking at it made him feel sad inside, like when he found out Boyz II Men was now only made up of men. "This regular ceiling is making me feel sad inside," he said, echoing his thoughts. He reached out a hand and touched the smooth surface. "It's boring and adult and no one wants to paint it or draw on it or stick glow-in-the-dark stars across it. It's a crappy ceiling."
"That's because our renter's agreement won't let us do stuff like that."
"Abed!" Annie hissed.
"This is one of those things where we're talking about more than just the ceiling, isn't it?" Abed said.
"Troy... please come down from the bunk?" Hearing Annie's tired voice made Troy feel awful somewhere deep inside his gut.
Troy climbed down and nodded at Annie and Abed. "I'm happy for you two. I really am." He smiled at them, but his cheeks felt stiff, so he sat down on the bottom bunk and picked up one the blankets from the ground, cradling it against his chest. "I want you guys to be together, I do. But as badass as Hugh Jackman is, I don't want to be the Wolverine here. I don't want to be the one that gets left behind out of all of us. And then has to kill Phoenix-Annie after she goes crazy and murders Cyclops-Abed."
Annie made a small sound of protest.
Abed sat down next to Troy. "But what if that isn't what happens? What if, instead, this is like when Constable Reggie realized his potential to be more than just a side character on Inspector Spacetime and left to head his own less popular but more family-friendly spin-off?"
"Wait. Am I supposed to be Constable Reggie or are you Constable Reggie here? I know it can't be Annie, because she's way too white."
"You'd be the Constable. Annie would be Donna Jones, the '70s reporter that mysteriously ends up wearing a skimpy leather hunting outfit for two series." Abed tilted his head. "I've been tracking our group dynamics in the last year. Increasingly, you and Jeff have alternated positions as the leader of our adventures. Convention dictates that as your popularity rises, you'll either move onto your own show or a short-lived career in films. I don't want to be the one that holds you back." His mouth quirked down in that way that made Troy's heart hurt, and his eyes focused on some spot just over Troy's shoulder.
Troy put a hand on Abed's arm. "But I don't want to leave you guys. Don't you get that, Abed? All I really want to do right now is stay home and watch TV with my best friends. And even if something did happen, why wouldn't we be able to do a spin-off together, like when Buffy split into two shows?"
"Yeah?" Abed said.
"Yeah.""You guys," Annie broke in. "I have an idea."
Troy thought he heard Annie mutter, "Don't think about it," to herself under her breath. And that was all the warning he got before he had a lapful of Annie, the ends of her hair tickling his nose as she leaned over him.
His mind filled with white noise, and he didn't know if he was supposed to pull Annie in or push her away. All he could do was sit still while Annie kissed him before she turned around to kiss Abed's forehead, leaving behind a smear of bubblegum lip gloss.
But then Abed put his hand on top of Troy's, and everything was okay again.
"Uh." Troy's hand hovered in the air, and he felt this overwhelming urge to grab Annie's thigh and roll onto Abed's hips and hug them both at the same time, which he wasn't sure was physically possible. Especially not when Annie was still seated in Troy's lap, her hand resting just above the waistband of his jeans, while Abed sat next to the both of them and tentatively leaned in to nuzzle the base of Troy's throat. "I'm not sure what to do here," Troy breathed out.
"That's okay," Abed said. "Why don't I be you, while Annie pretends to be me as Harrison Ford."
"Don't get cocky, kid," Annie said in a low voice as she ground down against Troy's pelvis and then moved over to sit on Abed's lap, whose version of Troy looked just as desperate as Troy felt. Troy couldn't help the little squeaking sound that came out of his mouth as he watched Annie slowly work her hand underneath Abed's shirt.
"Cool," Abed said, breaking character. "This did feel a little imbalanced. You should definitely be Annie."
It took a while for Troy's brain to catch-up with everything that happened in the last few minutes. Then Troy shook his head, tucked his imaginary girl hair behind his ears, and went for it.