“Are you sure you want to try to watch Doomswhen again?” Abed was asking Troy as the Study Group walked down the hall from Study Room F.
“I’ve got to make it through somehow,” Troy answered. Shirley could hear his voice break a little as he continued, “Why does the Inspector have to change Constables anyway... at least tell me that Reggie gets a happy ending?”
“No. No spoilers. If you want to know, you have to watch...” He turned down a left-hand corridor toward the parking lot.
Britta put her hand on Troy’s shoulder. “Do you want me to come? We just covered the Companioning Model of Bereavement and I need practice.”
Troy frowned and shook his head, then shrugged and nodded. They both hurried to catch up to Abed.
Shirley shifted her books in her arms and turned to Annie. “So, any big plans for tonight?”
Pierce answered instead. “I’m going clubbing. See you losers later!” He pretended to see someone up ahead, and called out, “Megan! Need a ride?”
Shirley shook her head as they watched Pierce hop to catch up to his unseen friend. “I’m glad that man has a chauffeur...” She turned back to Annie. “Anyway, what about you?”
Annie looked after where the boys had gone with Britta. “No, not really. I’ve already seen that episode – don’t tell Troy – so I might study up on this spell I’ve been wanting to try.”
“Okay, good luck!”
Annie nodded cheerfully and peeled off toward the rare documents section.
Shirley double-checked her new class schedule for the room number, and kept going down the hall. As she walked, her happy demeanor slowly shifted into nervousness. Now that everyone had gone their separate ways, she had a niggling feeling that something was wrong, something was... off.
And she had learned not to ignore these feelings when they came. For a Slayer, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Greendale itself seemed normal as far as she could tell – that is, as normal as Greendale ever got. Shirley was almost certain that Greendale would be the weirdest community college on earth – even if it weren’t directly above the Hellmouth.
She checked the time on the hall clock. 6:55. She still had plenty of time to get to her class, claim a seat in the back, and stay alert for whatever was making her senses ping like a double-reinforced cookie sheet.
“Evening, Shirley,” a voice said from behind just as she reached the classroom door.
She froze, and turned toward the voice. ”Evening... Jeffrey.” Jeff Winger, the vampire pain in her ass. He seemed to be finding more and more reasons to run into her lately. What was he doing here, out in the open, in the middle of the hallway?
He smiled, teeth glinting preternaturally white in the fluorescent lighting. “Looks like we’re classmates.” He fluttered his own class schedule at her.
“We’re...?” She glanced through the windows to the outside. Completely dark, as it should be at almost 7pm. In a quiet voice, she asked, “They let vampires take classes now?”
“Of course.” He nodded at one of the posters tacked to the wall outside the classroom. “‘You’re Already Accepted,’ right?”
“So that must be the natural progression. Traditional students... then students who will transfer to bigger schools later... then dropouts... then retirees... then drug addicts... then bums off the street... then vampires, I suppose,” she said, mock-thoughtfully. “What’s next? Werewolves? Ghosts? Zombies? Slime Monsters? That’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Oh, wait... that already happened when they let you in,” she tossed off as she made her way into the room and to the back row.
“I promise I will make this class more interesting,” Jeff said, adding an air kiss. He took a seat in front and one row over from hers.
When Shirley was registering for classes this term, she’d been annoyed that the only time one of the classes she needed to graduate was offered was at night. It cut into both family time and Slayer time. In fact, a whole slew of new classes, actual classes, had been added to Greendale’s night school program – to help shore up the budget, she had assumed.
Glancing at Jeff again, she shook her head and mentally kicked herself. How could she forget what the Dean’s interest in revamping the evening classes would mean? She wondered how many other vampires were sitting in the room right now – or sitting in any of the other night classes.
Professor Whitman breezed through the doors at exactly 7:00. “Good evening, ladies, gentlemen.”
“Monsters,” Shirley whispered, knowing Jeff would pick it up with his vampire hearing.
He smirked back at her.
“Welcome to Business Law,” Whitman said, gesturing grandly.
Shirley wondered what this class would be like – she remembered the last class she’d taken with Whitman. But it was a requirement for her business major, and she needed the credits. If Whitman spent the whole term sending them on nature walks or leading them in meditation, she planned to learn the subject anyway. She had been carrying around the textbook in her handbag, reading it in snippets when on graveyard duty, just in case.
What use could Jeff possibly have for the class? She glanced over at him again. He was texting someone on his cell phone. She rolled her eyes.
Whatever the reason was, he was here. Ever since the night the Twilighters struck Greendale a few months ago, hardly a week had gone by when he hadn’t shown up. He would be in the graveyard, ‘just passing through,’ or ‘having a coffee’ with a different girl at the diner she liked to grab a bite from before heading home, or passing on tips about where vampire mischief might be going down, 'you know, just to be friendly.’
She had no idea why a vampire would be trying to score brownie points with the Slayer – unless it was to save his own skin.
As class went on, the odd sense that something was off faded slightly, and she settled in for an hour and a half of trading life stories and snapping their fingers whenever someone shared an inspirational comment. Finally, fifteen minutes before the end of class, Whitman announced, “It’s time to pair up for your first assignment!”
Except Jeff, who turned in his seat to whisper, “I wonder if we get to choose our own partners?”
“Yeah, I wonder...” she said, eyes flashing around the room to see if she recognized anyone from her other business classes. She tapped her chin. “Who will I choose?” she asked the air breezily.
He laughed, but not confidently. Let him squirm.
“We shall choose our partners randomly,” Whitman announced. “How better to get to know your classmates!” Whitman began walking around the classroom, passing out small slips of paper. ”Write your name down, and place it in the fishbowl, or as I like to call it, the luck-bowl!”
Shirley gave Jeff a look. His smile was suddenly a lot more confident.
At the end of class, Shirley left the classroom as quickly as possible and headed toward the parking lot. She whirled at Jeff’s touch on her shoulder, her trusty stake, Alpha, spinning into her hand without conscious thought. ”What?”
Jeff took a step back, raising his hands in surrender. “Whoa, Slayer.”
She lowered the stake. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
He kept his eyes on the stake until she put it safely away. “You left before we could work out our schedules.” He raised one eyebrow in mock-reproach. “Now that we’re partners...”
Shirley harrumphed. He had obviously rigged the drawing, using vampire speed. She should never have let him choose first. Now she was going to have to spend more of her precious evening hours working on a project – with a vampire. She could almost feel all her Slayer predecessors rolling in their graves.
He continued, nonplussed. “...I think we should...”
And it was already starting. “Can it wait? I have a family to get home to.”
“Give me a chance to make my proposal.”
“Proposal? I am a married woman, Jeffrey.”
“And you never let me forget it,” he said smoothly. He did his best to project a harmless expression, but Shirley knew well what a lady-killer he was. Literally. “We should take advantage of all that time you have blocked out in the study room.”
“Not now. If I don’t get home before nine, I’ll miss reading the boys their bedtime story. Call me later.” Shirley simply turned and continued on her way. She was not surprised to hear the click of his Italian-leather shoes as he followed after her. Now he was crossing out of pain in the ass territory to... well, she couldn’t very well dust him out here in front of God and everyone. Not without more cause than being an annoying son of a b–
“Whoa, there! You almost knocked me over, Ms. Bennett!” The Dean reared back as she almost plowed into him.
“Pardon me,” she said, sidestepping him.
It gave Jeff ample time to get right in front of her. “C’mon, Shirley. It won’t take long.”
The Dean appeared in Shirley’s way again. ”What’s this? Is there some sort of student conflict I could help settle?”
“No,” Shirley and Jeff said at the same time. Shirley gave him an odd look. Jeff added, “Just a disagreement between friends, Craig.” Dean Pelton preened at the use of his given name. Shirley’s look turned even odder. Did they know each other?
“If we’re going to work on this project together,” she said sweetly, but letting a dangerous edge seep through, “you’re going to have to respect my boundaries. Family time is sacred.” She fingered the stake in her purse idly, to keep from blowing up.
“Fine,” Jeff answered. “When’s your next Study Group meeting? If it’s late enough, I could sit in...”
The odd anxious feeling came back full force. She narrowed her eyes. “Why...?”
He failed to look innocent. “No reason.”
“Uh uh, forget it. No v–” She suddenly remembered the Dean was standing right there. “None of your kind gets near my Study Group.”
The Dean’s face lit up in surprise. ”None of...?” Oh, Shirley...” He shook his head in disappointment. “I thought you all were more inclusive than that. Don’t forget our school’s motto!”
“The school may accept everyone, but my group has standards,” she said dismissively, backing away from them. Better that the Dean was kept in the dark about the presence of vampires on his campus. She could just imagine the panic that might ensue.
The Dean let out a tiny affronted gasp. “Reject Jeffrey? How could anyone reject this marble perfection?” He placed a hand gingerly on Jeff’s arm, giving it a tiny squeeze. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you a...”
But Jeff slipped out of the Dean’s grasp, getting in front of her again. She was tired of these games. She pulled Alpha out again where Jeff (but no one else) could clearly see the stake, and let him take it in. She tapped it a couple of times in her palm.
“Aw, come on, no need for that, is there?”
“Are you gonna let me go home?”
“What is with you?” he asked. “Usually it’s all witty repartee with a side of ‘go to hell,’ and suddenly ‘go to hell’ is the main course.”
“And yet you don’t.”
“Seriously? Is that a setting you have?”
He waited patiently long enough that she gave in.
“Okay, for starters, the fact that you’re so insistent about talking right this minute is making my...” She looked around at the faces of the passing students, and at Dean Pelton, who was pretending not to eavesdrop as he adjusted a bulletin board. She tapped a finger to her temple. “...intuition go crazy.” The Dean inched his way closer. She sighed. She might as well give in – she could handle one pretty-boy vampire. “Fine. Come with me.”
She grabbed him by the arm and started pulling him toward the study room.
“That’s better. I knew you could work things out!” Dean Pelton called after them.
After they turned the corner, just short of the study room, she let go of him with a shake of her wrist. “What are you up to?”
He lifted his hands in surrender. “Nothing!”
“Okay. I’ll tell you my dastardly plan...” He took a step closer, looming over her. She met his gaze, unflinching. “I want to get enough credits to actually finish that degree I started back before...” He let his incisors pop out for an instant, and then retracted them. “And what better person to help me navigate the twisted hallways of Greendale than the Slayer herself?” He waggled his eyebrows.
She smacked him on the arm. ”Enough of this, Jeffrey! Tell me the truth!”
“Hey, that is the truth, Shirley. I may be a master at spreading the bull, but I’m not lying.”
There was a lot more to it than that. The odd feeling in her bones wasn’t going away. ”So you put the Dean up to offering actual classes in the evening. What did you do to him?”
“Believe it or not, I didn’t have anything to do with the night school program. But I am taking advantage of it.” He smiled.
“Convenient. You and how many vamps, Jeff?”
He shrugged. “There might be a few. I don’t really keep up with the local population, you know.”
She kept her eyes on his, looking for signs that he was lying, but it was useless. Vampires rose from the grave liars, and she suspected Jeff had been a master long before he turned. The only way she could find out his real plan would be to keep an eye on him. Pretending to relax, she put away her stake. “Fine. First this project, then we’ll see about more. And no vampire funny-business,” she warned.
He lifted a hand to his non-functional heart. “Undead’s honor.”
She poked a finger into his chest. “I’m holding you to whatever slight amount of honor that is.” With a sigh, she turned and walked through the opening to the study room.
“I wouldn’t expect anything else, Sl–” His words cut off with an oomph.
Shirley set her bag on the table and turned toward him. He stood in the doorway, just on the other side of the threshold, perplexed. He lifted a hand to push at the air in front of him, and then took an unwilling step back.
“You can’t come in?” This was as much a surprise to Shirley as it seemed to be to Jeff.
“No,” he said with a frown. “I thought when we became project partners this would stop...”
She blinked a couple of times. “You mean... you’ve always been blocked?”
He frowned at the invisible barrier, then nodded.
Shirley felt a slow smile creep over her face. Sometimes the universe threw her a bone. “Imagine that.” She pulled her phone out of her purse and opened the calendar app. “How about tomorrow at six in the cafeteria?”
He gestured at the doorway in disbelief. “You’re not going to invite me in?”
“You want into my group? Consider this a trial run.” She hoped by the end of term he would either prove himself trustworthy... or dust-worthy.
“Britta, if you keep peeking out of the blinds, someone is going to notice,” Annie chided in a whisper. She blasted through another password-protected file on the computer. She was entering each member of the study group into a different night class. The group had talked, and they all agreed that there was something fishy going on with the new night school program. They could keep a sharper eye (‘and stake’ Shirley had been quick to point out) on things if they were all enrolled.
“If you would just set up a ward...”
Annie gave Britta an annoyed look. “I’ve already used more magical energy than I wanted to blocking the security cameras. We don’t know who or what is behind this, so better safe than sorry.”
Troy nodded in agreement, penlight in his teeth, then bent back down to fiddle with the safe in the corner of Dean Pelton’s office. It was a basic combination lock, so he should be able to crack it pretty easily. His magically-provided handyman powers were... well, they came in handy a lot. Not removing the light from his mouth, he said, “It’s a good thing the doors were just simple locks then.”
He heard Britta huff in frustration. ”Great. Stuck with guard duty, but not allowed to do my job.” She went back to riffling through files in the cabinet.
“You’re doing great, babe,” Troy encouraged, then smiled when the lock gave a satisfying click. ”I got it.” He opened the door and pulled out several photographs and documents. He laid them on the desk.
“Let’s see,” Annie said, and the crew gathered around.
Troy spread his findings across the surface. ”We got... pictures of people in Dalmatian outfits, with and without the Dean in them...”
“Nothing we didn’t know,” Britta said.
“Nothing everyone doesn’t know,” Troy added.
“What’s this?” Annie asked, picking up one of the photos. “That’s weird.” They focused on the photo. In it, Dean Pelton was standing in the hallway, green holiday elf hat on his head. His arm was arched at a strange angle, and he wore an adoring smile on his face as he looked upward and to his right.
“It’s like he has...” Troy began.
“...his arm around someone,” Britta finished. “But there’s no one there.”
“Totally,” Annie agreed, then turned the photograph over. “Only there is someone there...” In festive red and green ink, the Dean had written: Me and Jeffrey, Christmas 2011.
“Ahhh...” they said in unison, as understanding dawned.
Britta folded her arms. “So he definitely knows Jeff Winger is a vampire.”
“Was that a...” Troy scrunched up his face. ”...secret?”
“I don’t think it’s commonly known. People are pretty good at ignoring things they don’t want to believe. But it might explain why vampires are suddenly openly walking the halls and taking classes.” Annie put the photo back down and sifted through the other photos and documents.
Troy couldn’t see anything really worth keeping in a locked safe in the pile. It wasn’t like he was protecting collector’s edition Inspector Spacetime action figures. “I have got to get me a safe.”
Britta and Annie helped clean up the desk and Troy put everything away. “Well, that was mostly a bust,” Annie said, disappointed. “And we’d better get out of here soon. Are you done with the files?” she asked Britta.
Britta looked over at the piles she had made all over the floor. “Um?”
“I’ll help you put them away,” Troy offered, kissing her on the cheek.
“I only need to get you registered, Troy, and then I’ll be done.” Annie’s fingers flew across the keys.
A few moments later, Annie made a sound of frustration. Troy looked up from re-alphabetizing the files and handing them to Britta to replace. ”What?”
“Nothing. I must have typed something wrong.”
Troy shrugged and kept working.
Annie made the sound again.
“Annie...” Britta said. ”Tell us.”
“It’s just...” She readjusted her hair band unnecessarily and frowned at the screen. “It won’t let me register you, Troy.”
“Huh?” He came to look over her shoulder.
“Yeah. I’ve tried five different classes, and I get an error every time.”
She punched Troy’s name into a class list as he watched. A window popped up. Error: Student ID conflict, it read.
“It didn’t do that with anyone else.”
“Conflict with what?” Britta asked, coming around to the other side.
“Schedule? I guess?” Annie said. “None of the override codes are working.”
“Can’t you just...” Britta wiggled her fingers in the air around the screen.
Annie gave her another annoyed look. “Is that your answer for everything? Besides, why use magic when hacking works just fine?”
“I’m not taking any night classes,” Troy said, still focused on the screen. “What does my schedule say?”
Annie clicked over to Troy’s class schedule. Everything looked normal, his classes as they should be. “Huh.”
“Let’s get out of here. The office is going to open in a couple of hours.” Annie typed a couple more codes into one of the windows and then logged off. ”Maybe there’s another way to get you signed up.”
Jeff shifted his shoulders awkwardly, face screwed up in distaste.
Shirley looked like she was thoroughly enjoying it. “You said you wanted in the group, right?”
Britta stepped right up to him, unafraid. “This is where you show you deserve to be part of the team. You claim you don’t have any secret vampire agenda, so prove it.”
Annie, Troy and Pierce took a step forward, too. Annie lightly fondled the pendant around her neck as she added, “Everyone has a job on this team.”
Abed stayed back. Maybe he wasn’t as confident about the anti-glamour charms Annie had made for all of them as she was? Troy tugged at the magical cross around his neck and took a step back to stay even with Abed again. “Even though our group has always functioned fine before now, we have been missing an anti-hero archetype,” Abed told Jeff calmly.
“Missing? What have I been then?” Pierce complained.
“Comic relief,” everyone, including Jeff, answered.
Pierce thought for a minute, then shrugged.
Jeff looked over at the Dean’s office. Hours had been extended to accommodate the much larger number of night school students. “Still... Where’s your vaunted moral high ground, Slayer?”
“You’d be surprised how much wiggle room there is up there.” She pointed toward the Dean’s office. “Now do it.”
“All right,” he said, and lifted a finger to run gently across her jaw line. ”I’ll do it. But for you, sweetness.” He winked and moved out of reach before she could smack him.
Jeff swaggered into the office, Troy following, though not too closely. Shirley and the others stood out of sight, but hopefully not out of hearing distance.
“Heyyyy, is the Dean in?” Jeff asked Natalie, the Dean’s secretary, laying the charm on thick. “I know I don’t have an appointment, but...”
The door to the Dean’s office slammed open. “Jeffrey!” he said, nearly tripping over the trash can beside Natalie’s desk to reach the courtesy counter. “What can I dean you for?”
“It’s for my friend, here, Troy.” Jeff put an arm around Troy’s shoulders, and Troy willed himself to remain calm.
The Dean took in the arm with a look of pure jealousy and folded his hands neatly in front of him. “I see. And what does your new... friend... need?”
“He wants to register for a night class. He knows it’s past the deadline, but it was all a biiiiig misunderstanding.”
“Oh, past the deadline? I’m not sure...”
“But Craig,” Jeff said, “isn’t there anything you can do... as a friend?”
The Dean’s skin flushed, right up to the top of his gleaming bald head. “As a friend? Well...” He gave Troy an uncomfortable glance, and then moved over to the computer terminal at the edge of the counter. ”I might be able to find a spot for him somewhere...” He typed for a moment. “What class would you like to register for, Troy?”
“American History II,” Troy answered. He’d been avoiding his history requirements, and since they were actually offering regular classes at night, he might as well bite the bullet and take one. He was sure Abed could find enough good movie adaptations to
replacesupplement the textbook.
“Alrighty, then... friend...” He glanced at Jeff, and then Troy, “...friendsss... let’s get you... oh, sorry. I’m getting an error.”
“What kind of error?” Jeff asked, as if he’d not heard the story from Annie just fifteen minutes ago.
“Student ID conflict. That’s odd.”
“What’s odd, Craig?” It was sort of amazing how sincere Jeff could sound when he wanted to.
“Are you sure you’re not signed up for any night classes, Mr. Barnes?”
Troy shook his head.
“Hmm. Now let me just pull up your schedule...” He clicked a few times and then turned the screen toward Jeff and Troy. “See – you are signed up for a night class.” He tapped the screen.
At the bottom of the list of classes he had been attending was a different category, one that hadn’t appeared on his schedule during the break-in last night: Basic Refrigeration Principles.
Troy’s face slackened in confusion.
The Dean went on. “It seems you’ve missed the first few classes but I’m sure we can waive those absences if you have a good reason,” the Dean prompted, patting Jeff’s hand instead of Troy’s.
“He has a fantastic reason,” Jeff assured Dean Pelton, pulling his hand away gently.
“Yeah, the best reason,” Troy answered, brow furrowing, “I didn’t sign up for that class.”
“Are you sure?” the Dean asked, tilting his head. ”Maybe it just slipped your mind?”
“The same way all of the letters from the Air Conditioning Annex have slipped into the trash?” Troy was tired of the constant barrage of mail, and stopped reading them after the third week of daily letters. “No, I’m positive I never registered for that class.”
Jeff leaned in close, locking eyes with the Dean. “So how did he get registered then, Craig? By mistake?” The pitch of his voice lowered hypnotically. “Or by design?”
“Oh, Jeffrey, I don’t know what you mean...”
Jeff reached out a hand to stroke the Dean’s and got a little closer. ”Sure you do, Craig.”
“Okay, okay,” Dean Pelton said, his voice dreamy, “Vice Dean Laybourne made me enter Troy’s name into that class.”
“Why?” Troy asked angrily, but the Dean never took his eyes away from Jeff’s.
“Why?” Jeff repeated.
“Because he, you might say, has me caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants Troy, and he’ll do anything to catch him.”
“That...” Troy fumed for a moment, trying to think of an appropriate insult. “...cold-blooded bastard.”
Jeff stepped back, removing his hand from the Dean’s, who looked absolutely bereft. “Thank you, Craig. You’ve really helped us out.”
“As a friend?”
Jeff smiled. “As a friend.” He turned and walked out of the office.
Troy chased after him, catching him as he joined the group. “You had him eating out of the palm of your hand! Why didn’t you get him to remove me from that class?”
He spread his palms. “Why? Don’t you want to get to the bottom of it?”
“Jeff’s right,” Shirley said, looking surprised that Jeff was right. ”We have to find out why you were registered in that class against your will.”
“And if you make Vice Dean Laybourne think you changed your mind and you want to be there, maybe you can find out what he’s up to,” Annie said.
“I guess...” Troy wasn’t convinced.
Britta laid a hand on his shoulder. ”Plus, haven’t you ever wondered if you really would be good at Air Conditioning Repair... the way I rock at Psychology?”
Everyone let that dubious truth slide. ”I guess...” Troy could only repeat.
“You could be like Batman, taking down Mr. Freeze,” Abed said.
Troy brightened immediately. ”Now that sounds like fun. But like the animated series, not like the movie.”
“Which shall not be named,” they intoned in unison.
“Now I wanna take that class,” Pierce grumbled.
“So?” Jeff asked the group. “Did I pass?”
“You passed...” Shirley said, “... the first test.”
Jeff’s triumphant look faded immediately. ”Only the first?”
“Your talents are duly noted. Quite impressive,” Abed said.
“But it’s going to take more than one case of glamouring for a good cause to show us you can be trusted.” Shirley’s face was impassive.
“Glamouring? Please. This,” He framed his face with his hands before sauntering away, “don’t need no glamour to get what I want.”
Note: This fic was written in April 2012, before the end of the Air Conditioning Annex arc at the end of season 3. Any discrepancies are due to this! :)
Troy stared at the building for several long minutes, gathering his courage..
“Remember, you’re just there to gather information.” Shirley had said.
“Like a spy,” Abed said.
“I thought I was Batman,” Troy said, confused.
“You are. Batman was one of the best spies. Think about Bruce Wayne. Affable billionaire playboy on the outside...”
“Why am I not playing this part again?” Pierce asked.
“...World’s Greatest Detective on the inside,” Troy had finished.
He’d felt a lot more courage then than he did now.
Britta’s words came to him again, “Haven’t you ever wondered if you would really be good at it?” He could do this.
He closed his eyes and imagined a Bruce Wayne-style suit coming over the top of his hoodie and jeans. His shoulders straightened, a cocky smile replaced the nervous expression on his face, and he affected a swagger as he approached the building. When he was close enough, he saw a man in a workman’s uniform standing at attention just inside the door. Like a... guard?
Troy reached for the door handle, giving the man his best Wayne smile. The door stayed shut. Troy gestured to the handle. “Could you...?”
The guard, unaffected by Troy’s manner, pointed at a card reader mounted on the wall beside Troy. “Gotta use your student ID.”
“Oh, okay, yeah, thanks, man.” He pulled the ID card out of his wallet and ran it through the card reader. The red light turned green, and with a click, the door was unlocked. After Troy went through, the door clicked shut behind him. Troy fought to remain calm, his eyes only widening slightly. ”Uh, hey... where is room 5?”
The ‘guard’ pointed down a hallway to the left. Troy smiled his thanks and headed off down the hallway, smiling at every person he passed. He was going to wear out his smiling muscles before class was over. To conserve, he let it fade to a warm grin.
As he did, he began to notice things other than how uncomfortable it was to pretend to be someone else in a possibly-actually-dangerous situation. Almost everyone he passed was in one of two types of clothing: a workmen’s uniform, or a button-down shirt and tie, even the ladies. His casual ensemble was more out of place than his false swagger. He dropped it as fast as Abed made pop-culture references, and hurriedly jogged to his classroom.
He cautiously peeked his head into Room 5. Blindingly white, walls free of decoration except the latest multi-touch LCD smartboard at the front, neat rows of desks, all occupied with a varied collection of crisply-dressed students, save one empty desk, dead center of the room. The professor, Mr. Jackson, was gathering his notes at the front, his navy-colored repair uniform pressed like dress blues. Troy had no more time to process it all before every head turned in his direction.
He lifted a hand. “Hi?”
“Mister Barnes, I presume.” The professor’s voice was deep and soothing, uncannily similar to Vice Dean Laybourne’s.
“That’s me.” He stepped fully into the room. “Am I late?”
“Not at all, you are perfectly on time. We simply expect a higher standard than the rest of Greendale.” He gestured toward the empty seat. “Please.”
Troy made his extremely awkward way to his seat. He tried to smile at the people in the desks to either side. If they looked at all, most dismissed him with a glance, and turned their attention forward. Tough room.
“If you would turn to Chapter 2 in the textbook... you have done the reading, so we’ll skip to a demonstration of the BTU formula.”
Troy had done no reading at all, as he’d only bought the book a few hours ago. He pulled it from his bag – it had just fit in with his napping pillow – and tried to turn to the correct page. He glanced at the books of the people around him but he couldn’t seem to match it...
“You’ll find it on page 56, Mr. Barnes,” the professor said in a condescending voice.
Troy thought he heard a chuckle, but he ignored it. He gave the professor a cheery thumbs-up. “Thanks, man.”
Professor Jackson tapped at his pristine white laptop, and the smart board at the front of the room suddenly displayed three models of air conditioner, each with a column of facts and figures below. ”Now please calculate: which unit would be suitable for a 2400 square foot home, with a standard-size kitchen and four occupants?”
The students around him started scribbling furiously. Troy peered at the words in the textbook. It was just a bunch of words like ‘emissivity,’ ‘thermal conductivity’ and ‘heat gain,’ with numbers and charts. It made no sense at all, and Troy had never been good with math anyway. So he looked up at the smartboard, studied it for a second and said aloud, “It’s the second one.”
The scribbling all around him stopped. He thought he heard a tiny affronted gasp that he had dared speak out of turn.
“That’s correct, Mr. Barnes.” Professor Jackson said, the condescension absent from his voice. “Could you share with the class how you arrived at that answer?”
“Go ahead,” he encouraged, “did you use the square feet method, Manual J or Manual J plus psychrometric, comfort and duct sizing charts?”
“I...” He shrugged uncomfortably. ”I just... knew.”
Jackson frowned. ”You just knew.” He folded his arms in consternation. “A lucky guess?”
“No. It’s the second, I’m sure of it. Just like the first one would be best for a facility of 10,000 square feet, and the third for a one to two room apartment, like the one I live in.” His eyes widened as he talked – he couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth any more than the professor could. It felt different than when he was using his magical handyman powers. This knowledge was just... there. “Though I’m positive the building where I live needs an upgrade, because there’s no way our north-facing TV room should be that warm.”
A murmur started up, and Troy could actually feel the stares of others burning into the back of his head. Jackson unfolded his arms and leaned back against his desk. ”I see that Vice Dean Laybourne was not overestimating your natural talent, son.”
Whispers of ‘Laybourne’ swept the room. Suddenly all of those disinterested and dismissive stares changed – some looked jealous, others impressed.
Troy just nodded in acknowledgement. It was so strange to be lauded for something other than athletics, but he knew how to take a compliment.
“No coasting, though. I expect you to catch up with the reading by the next class.” He raised an eyebrow to punctuate his point.
“Yes, sir.” After almost three years of barely passing every class he took, he might be getting his first ever ‘A.’ Wouldn’t Annie be proud?
When Troy left an hour later, his swagger wasn’t faked at all.
Shirley patted her shoulder gently. “Aww, sweetie, I’m sure they were perfect.”
Annie’s smile was small. She didn’t like to fail, even though she was great at anything she tried. “Anyway, I haven’t found anything worrisome... yet.” Then her face brightened. “But can I say? I love this new night school curriculum. Greendale is offering classes I’ve needed for a couple years and never been able to work into my schedule before!” She visibly reined herself in. “Sorry. Next?”
Shirley’s phone buzzed on the table. Jeff. She looked at it briefly. ‘I <3 night school 2. Making so many new friends.’ She ignored it. “Pierce?” Shirley asked, deliberately turning to her left. ”What have you heard through the grapevine?”
“Well,” Pierce said, leaning forward. “Amanda has gone missing, and Emily is very worried. She suspects there might be foul play.”
Everyone leaned forward. “Vampires?” Shirley asked.
Pierce straightened up with a laugh. “Oh, no! Not in the Hamptons!”
“Pierce,” Abed said, “report on what the cheerleaders are talking about – not on your Revenge marathon.”
“That is what the cheerleaders are talking about!” At the slew of annoyed stares, he defended, “Hey, I have to keep up with what the girls like to stay ‘hip.’“
“So no vampire sightings, no supernatural skuttlebutt.”
Pierce shrugged amiably. “Oh, hell no. It’s been quieter than usual, if you ask me.”
“Agreed,” Abed said. “The most exciting thing happening in my literature class is the professor’s complete refusal to accept the conspiracy plots in A Pilgrim’s Progress.” A beat. “No imagination at all.”
“My professor is a total killjoy, too,” Britta said.
“Aren’t you taking that therapy class?” Annie asked.
“Yes – ‘Cognitive Behavior Theory: Become Your Own Therapist!’ It sounds fun, right? But instead it’s dry as dust theory, and none of the fun stuff, like analysis and application,” she grumbled. “I sort of wish there were a vampire in class. I know what I’d apply in that situation...”
“I know what you mean.” Shirley sighed. ”It’s about the same in Business Law. I never thought I’d be unhappy to say this, but even Whitman’s unpredictability is completely predictable.”
The phone buzzed on the table again. She picked it up to read, ‘Except the hottie in the third row.’ Is this what he meant by new friends?
“Ugh, Jeffrey.” Turning her head, she looked out the study room window to where Jeff sat on a bench, phone in hand. He’d tried to convince her to let him in the room tonight, but she refused. With his enhanced hearing, he didn’t need to actually be in the room to participate. He was apparently getting back at her via annoying text message. “Do you have anything useful to add to this conversation?”
He smirked and shook his head.
“So yeah, a big fat zero for us, too. I have a lot more time to read the textbook than I expected.” Shirley nodded over at Troy, who had been silent most of the session, nose buried in his Air Conditioning Fundamentals text. “Looks like I’m not alone.”
He didn’t respond.
Still no response.
“Troy.” Abed tried. He frowned when he got no response as well.
Britta touched Abed’s arm gently. “I got this.” Leaning as close as she could, she whispered in a sultry voice, “Chocolate caaaaake.”
His head popped right up. ”What?”
Britta leaned back with a smug expression.
“Troy, are you okay?” Shirley asked. ”You’ve been so distracted lately.”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen you get so into a role outside of the Dreamatorium,” Abed added.
“Oh, I’m just trying to... get ahead on the reading for class.”
“Get ahead?” everyone asked with concern.
“Troy, you don’t like to read unless it’s comic books,” Annie said.
“Are there pictures in that?” Pierce asked, reaching out to turn the book in his direction.
Troy smacked his hand away. “Yes, there are pictures, like diagrams and stuff. It’s just...” Troy looked down in embarrassment. “...it’s interesting, okay?”
“Okay? That’s more than okay, Troy!” Annie said, beaming. ”It’s awesome that you might have found your calling!”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Britta said, a touch smugly.
“But don’t forget the reason why you’re taking the class in the first place,” Shirley warned. “Anything odd going on over there?”
Troy shrugged. “Not really. Like I told you, it’s beautiful, it’s clean, the air caresses the hair on your arms like a tiny Swedish message...”
“With or without the happy ending?” Pierce asked.
Troy ignored him. “...they have the latest technology in the classrooms, and everyone clearly wants to be there. It’s not what I thought at all. Sure, there’s a dress code, but...”
“No vampire activity?”
“Not that I can tell,” he said. He glanced at his watch and rose from the table. ”I better get going. Class starts in thirty minutes. Professor Jackson likes his students to be extra punctual.” He pointed at Britta. ”Meet you at D Bar later? I haven’t forgotten the cake.”
“It’s a date.” He unzipped his red hoodie and slipped it off, revealing a handsome blue shirt, dark gray tie and black slacks.
“Whoa,” the ladies said. Britta’s hands fluttered at her throat.
The cell phone buzzed. ‘Where does he shop?’
“What?” Troy asked when he noticed the entire group staring open-mouthed.
“It’s your Pygmalion/My Fair Lady transformation.” At Troy’s blank look, he tried, “She’s All That?”
“Ah! That movie was gooood!” He and Abed did their best friends handshake. “It’s my ‘Bruce Wayne’ disguise. Gotta blend in, you know? Otherwise, they might suspect something.” He folded the hoodie neatly and placed it in his backpack. He waved to everyone, then left the room, humming.
“That’s not Daybreak,” Abed commented, gathering his books to go to class.
Shirley was starting to suspect something herself, but she would give Troy the benefit of the doubt. She remembered well how exciting it was when she found her calling as the Slayer.
Speaking of slaying... She shouldered her purse and grabbed her phone off the table to meet Jeff. It buzzed immediately. ‘Wanna skip class and go for a drive?’ the text read. ‘I know some scenic routes.’
“Jeffrey!” she scolded, going out into the hall. “Do you want in this group or not?”
He looked at her, then down at his phone, and cringed. ”Oops. Meant that for the hottie.” He started to type it out again. “Let me just...”
Bless God and all his angels that texting while being dragged down the hall wasn’t a vampire skill.
“Here are your quizzes from last time,” Jackson said as he walked down the aisles. When he got to Troy, a sticky note was placed over the grade which read, ‘See Me.’
Troy looked up quickly to catch Jackson’s eye. He nodded, but didn’t explain.
Troy peeled back the note to see ‘100% - A’ written in bright red ink. He hadn’t missed any? Dope. Then... Troy looked back at the professor. Why did Jackson want to see him? In his experience, a teacher only wanted to see you if you were in big trouble.
The rest of class passed in a blur of worry, but even without his full concentration, Troy understood the material, answering questions correctly when asked.
As everyone stood to leave, the guy behind him nudged him with an elbow. “Troy Barnes, right? I’m Brian.” He held out his hand to shake.
Troy shook it, though his mind was on the impending meeting more than this one. “Um, nice to meet you, man.”
“Meeting with Jackson, huh?”
That brought his attention back, and fully. “Uh...” Troy swallowed. “Yeah.”
“I didn’t get asked to see the professor until the end of the first class I took here at the Annex.” He rubbed absentmindedly at his collar.
“No, Reyes. But they only ask the best.”
Troy glanced back at Jackson, who was talking with another student. He swallowed again. ”What if they never ask?”
“I don’t know.” Brian shrugged. I guess you get kicked out of the program. We never see them again.” He smiled and put on his backpack. ”Good luck! Not that you’ll need it.”
“Thanks,” Troy said quietly.
He watched Brian leave, talking to one of the female students, who looked back at Troy with envy. Brian patted her back consolingly, and as they left, Troy overheard, “Don’t worry, there’s still time...”
“Mr. Barnes,” Jackson called to him jovially once the room had fully cleared. “Let’s go to my office.”
Troy nodded. ”What’s this about? Did I do something wrong?”
Jackson laughed. ”Oh no! Quite the opposite.” He put his arm around Troy’s shoulder and led him into the hallway. ”I just want to talk to you about our accelerated program.”
“Normally the Air Conditioning program takes our students two years to complete.” He unlocked the door to his office and turned on the light, letting Troy enter ahead of him. ”For our most talented students, we find we can shorten the time to a year or even less.”
“Really? I could be graduating at the same time as I would have with my general education degree?” The worry he had been feeling was dissolving into excitement. No staying longer at Greendale while the rest of his friends graduated and moved on (well, except maybe Britta, who had chosen her major late. And Pierce, who would leave when death took him).
“Or even sooner.” He gestured for Troy to take a seat.
Troy took the chair in front of Jackson’s desk. “What do I have to do?”
“Well,” he said, coming to lean on the wood in front of Troy’s chair. ”In addition to my class, you’d start one-on-one training with me a couple of hours a night.” He looked Troy directly in the eyes, and his voice slowed and dropped in pitch. ”Would that be okay with you?”
“Hmm. I don’t know.” Giving up so much time in the evening would really cut into his time with his friends. Homework was only an afterthought. “It wouldn’t conflict with my other classes?”
Jackson paused before answering, giving Troy an odd look. “It shouldn’t, unless you have another evening class?” he asked, his voice back to normal.
“Nope. Yours is the only one.”
“Then you should be fine.” He continued in the slower, lower tone, “You may want to drop all of your other classes completely...”
Troy thought for a moment then shook his head. “Nah, if it’s okay with you, I want to finish out the semester – especially Biology. It’s the only one my friends and I take together.”
“Sure...” Jackson said, frowning. He shook his head suddenly, as if clearing it, and held out his hand. “Congratulations, Troy, you’re accepted into the Accelerated Program.”
The man had an iron grip. Troy tried not to wince as they shook hands. Jackson put a hand on Troy’s shoulder and leaned in. “We could start tonight, if you–”
The office door opened suddenly. “Professor Jackson.”
Troy turned to see Vice Dean Laybourne filling the doorway. Jackson stepped away so quickly Troy could still feel the weight of his palm on his shoulder.
“Vice Dean,” Jackson said with deference.
“Remind me...” Laybourne said, still in the doorway. “What did I tell you concerning young Mr. Barnes?”
Jackson turned pale, well paler than he already was. “That you had a personal interest in him.”
“Yes.” He paused. “With such a personal interest, why did you think it best that you put yourself in charge of...” He stepped fully into the room, towering over both Jackson and Troy. “...his ‘tutoring?’“
Jackson shrank back. “I–I’m sorry, sir, I meant no disrespect–”
Troy looked back and forth between the two, feeling like they were two wolves, and he was a piece of meat. He held up his hands to keep them apart. ”Don’t worry, Vice Dean,” he forced a laugh to lighten the mood. “...we haven’t started yet.”
Laybourne looked down quickly, sizing Troy up in a moment. “Hmm. I see that you haven’t.”
Jackson laughed nervously. “Yes, I would never...”
Laybourne turned cold eyes on the professor. “You’re right, you would never.” He stepped back into the hall. “Ever again.” Gesturing in front of him, Laybourne said, “Troy? Take a walk with me?”
The office suddenly felt stifling. Troy wasted no time in getting into the hall. “I’m sorry...” Troy said, “I promised my girlfriend I’d meet her tonight. Can we talk tomorrow?”
Laybourne smiled, stepping aside to let Troy pass. “Why, of course! We wouldn’t want to keep that girlfriend waiting, now, would we?”
“Haha, no.” Troy relaxed slightly as he headed for the door. “You have no idea what vengeance she’d wreak on me if I bailed.”
“I remember well what that was like in my younger days,” he said wistfully. ”And now?” He reached out to pull the door open for Troy. ”Now my soul belongs to the Annex.”
Troy nodded his thanks and took the handle... and it stayed unmoving in the Vice Dean’s grip. Troy looked up into his face, confused. Laybourne’s gaze nearly froze him with fright.
“And yours will, too, one day.” His voice slowed as Jackson’s had done. “Perhaps it can begin today after all.”
Troy realized with a start that both men – or not men, it was pretty clear now that he was dealing with the undead – had been trying to glamour him. Annie’s anti-glamour charm was around his neck, below the button-down shirt – Troy had forgotten about it completely, he had been so absorbed with possibly finding his calling.
He had to act as if he were being compelled! He willed himself to nod in agreement. “Yeah, perhaps it can...”
Laybourne put his arm around Troy’s shoulder and led him away from the door. ”Why don’t you just text your girl, and tell her you can’t make it tonight?”
“Okay...” he said, fluttering his eyes. He pulled the phone from his pocket in slow motion. ‘Can’t make it tonight,’ he typed. ‘Stuck at the Annex. Sorry, babe. Would you record Inspector Spacetime for me?’ He pressed Send. He could only hope his message got across.
“Very good, Troy. Do you mind if I...?” He held out his hand for the phone.
Troy handed it over without question, what else could he do?
“Thanks,” Laybourne said, and then crushed it in his palm like it was paper.
Troy couldn’t stifle a gasp.
Laybourne smiled. ”Nice try, Mr. Barnes, but do you really think a vampire of my talents wouldn’t be able to tell when a person is resistant to glamouring?”
“Especially someone in the Slayer’s inner circle. I wonder how you’re managing it?” he asked, as curious as a cat – or a lion – playing with its food. “Well, no one will be looking for you right away. We have plenty of time to find out.”
The knock at the door jolted everyone, not just Shirley. Annie’s pen flew across the kitchen table, leaving a scribbly line on the map she had been sketching. She frowned at it, and reached for some correction fluid.
“Who the hell is that?” Shirley asked. ”It’d better not be Jeff or,” she made a staking motion in the air, “his study group application is denied.”
Abed rose calmly to answer the door. Peering out of the peep hole, he stated, “It’s Britta.”
She came barreling in as soon as the door was unlocked. “Boyfriends!” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. ”Makes me remember why I chose the life of a vengeance demon in the first place!”
“Oh, honey,” Shirley said. She’d had her own experience with a deceitful man – though he’d proven himself worthy again. “What did he do?”
“Well,” she said, sitting down on one of the chairs with a thump. “First he bailed on me for dessert...”
Pierce chose that moment to step out of the bathroom. “Troy deserted you? Did you drive him away? Typical.” He hiked up his pants in a way that made Shirley have to avert her eyes with a grimace. “You should stick with girls.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Annie fumed.
Britta scowled at him as well. “I’ll drive you away so fast you’ll think I’m your chauffeur.” Pierce made a face back at her.
“Anyway...” Shirley prodded. “About Troy?”
“Yeah, he was so late I went ahead and ordered. Then he texts me when I’m already halfway through my fair-trade organic dark chocolate cheesecake,” she explained. ”It’s a good thing I’m a master of the dine-and-dash.”
“Britta!” Annie said.
“What? At those outrageous prices, you think they can’t afford it?”
Annie’s disapproving frown should have melted Britta to her chair, but instead, she just groaned, “Men!”
“It’s hardly the tragedy you’re making it out to be,” Annie huffed and went back to working on the map.
“On top of that, he wants me to record a show for him.” She got up and walked over to the TV. ”Can you do it, Abed? Because I can’t figure out how to program my VCR. Barefoot Jerry didn’t give me an instruction booklet in the trade.”
“He wants to record something? I think Hoarders is a rerun this week.”
“It is?” Pierce asked. “Damn it!”
Abed turned on the television, switched to the program guide, and began scrolling through the channels.
“No, it was Inspector Spacetime. You know how he plans things around it. Whatever he’s doing at the Air Conditioning Annex must be pretty important to blow me off and miss the show.”
Abed grew very still. He stopped scrolling, lowering the remote. “Britta.”
She turned to look at him. “What?”
“Inspector Spacetime airs on Saturday. You usually watch it with us.”
“Saturday, Sunday, weekday, whatever – I’m here all the time, I don’t pay attention to what day it is.”
“But he knows it isn’t on tonight.”
Britta’s face went whiter than usual. “He’s in trouble, isn’t he...?” She turned to Shirley. “Isn’t he?”
Shirley’s skin started to prickle. Then she pulled Alpha and Omega from her purse. “Not for long, sweetie.” She tossed one to Britta. “Not for long.”
“Let me try a locator spell,” Annie said, “to make sure they’re keeping him in the building.” She waved her hands above the map, murmuring the words of a spell. A faint blue cross, barely visible, appeared in a small room of the second basement level. ”He’s there,” she said quietly.
“It’s so faint,” Britta said. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” Annie said, but her voice sounded falsely confident to Shirley’s ears. “His charm is there, and still active.”
“But is it still on him?” Abed asked.
Annie grimaced. “I don’t know. I’d have to refine the spell further to know for sure... and do we have time for that?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Shirley said grimly. “The quicker we get there, the better.”
They picked a spot across the quad from the Annex where they could easily see the doors, but out of sight. A man stood guard just inside. Without getting closer, there was no way to know whether he was human or vampire. How would they get past him?
A few minutes later, a young-looking man approached, coming down the sidewalk near their hiding place. He was dressed in what seemed to be the ‘uniform’ for the place: a button-down shirt and tie with slacks. “There’s our ticket inside,” she whispered to her companions. Jumping out, she twisted his arm behind his back, stake pressed between his ribs before he could even yelp.
“Now don’t shout for your friends, honey. If you make a sound, you’re dust.”
The young man’s eyes open wide, but he obeyed.
“You’re going to get me inside the Annex, I don’t care how.”
She pressed the stake in a little harder, and he whimpered. “I didn’t say you could talk... or whine. Will you help me?”
“Then I’m going to step away for a moment. To show my good faith. But believe me, I could run down a skinny thing like you before you could get two paces.”
When she stepped back, she could see a dot of blood on his shirt where she had pressed in the stake. That and the sweat drops forming on his forehead told her he wasn’t a vamp. Yet.
“Why are you going there?”
He stood there, unspeaking.
She rolled her eyes and gestured with the stake, which was wickedly sharpened to a point. “You can answer my direct questions.”
“I–I was called in for a tutoring session.” He rubbed at the point on his back where she had poked him.
“In the middle of the night.”
“Yes. The professors call the sessions whenever they want.” He straightened up and added, “It’s an honor.”
“I can just imagine,” she said, but he seemed to miss the sarcasm. He was either completely unaware that vampires were in charge of the AC program, or he had been compelled. Either way, it didn’t matter. “You’re bringing a guest with you tonight.”
“They won’t let you in with me,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Because of who I am?” she asked. If the Annex knew that, then Troy was in even greater danger.
The young man frowned. “Because they only let in students with proper ID.”
“Oh,” she said, relaxing only slightly. She looked at his build and coloring for a moment, sizing him up. ”I don’t think that will be a problem.”
Abed calmly started removing his cardigan and pulling his T-shirt over his head. Annie turned away with a blush, Britta wasn’t affected at all. “Pierce, if you would?” Shirley asked, pointing to their captive.
He grimaced. ”You’re the one with three boys.”
She stared him down, and with an unhappy shrug, he ordered the student to go behind the bushes to strip.
A few minutes later, Abed approached the entrance wearing the student’s clothing. They watched him pull the ID card from his pocket, ready to storm the door as soon as it opened.
Abed slid the card through the reader. He waited. He slid it through again. Nothing happened. Then he turned around and walked back to them.
“What happened?” she asked Abed.
“We’ve lost the element of surprise for one thing.” He looked at the card in his hand. ”The guard knew I wasn’t Brian here.” He gestured to the young man shivering in his magical bonds. “I’d be willing to bet my life – and his – that he knew who I was besides.”
Shirley’s heart dropped. They did know about the Slayer. “They probably suspected we’d be coming for him. But maybe not so soon.”
“Troy...” Britta whispered fiercely. She clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t give up hope.”
Pierce pushed past her. ”My turn.”
“What are you going to do?”
He ignored her and went up to the entrance, waving at the guard. The group came closer to the entrance to listen, leaving the poor shaking student behind. She’d let him go when it was safe to do so, and she wanted to hear what Pierce was going to try.
“Hey, you!” he called to the guard through the glass. Shirley winced. The glass wasn’t that thick. “How much are they paying you?”
The intercom clicked on. “More than what you could pay, old man.”
“Old man?” He tugged his wallet out of his pants. “How many old men do you know that can throw around this kind of money?” He pulled several hundreds out and waved them in front of the glass.
Annie gasped. “Pierce...!” Shirley shook her head. Did he have a death wish?
Pierce went on, “If you let us in, you can have all of it. And we’ll let you escape, too.”
“I’m not interested in your money... But you still might be worth something.” The guard smiled, and his incisors extended. “I don’t usually like my vintage quite so aged…”
Pierce stumbled back, stuffing the money into his pants pockets. “Well, I tried...” he said when he reached them.
Abed turned to Annie. “Let’s try the dissolvire spell. It lacks finesse, but...” He shrugged.
Annie nodded and squatted down to unzip her backpack. She removed a large, ancient-looking text and several bottles.
“What will that do?” Shirley asked.
“If it works correctly, it will... well, let’s just say that the doors to the Annex will need some remodeling.”
“Annex go boom?”
Abed’s lips turned up in a small grin. ”Except not so much ‘boom’ as explode soundlessly. The spell will block the noise from outside ears.”
“I’m cool with that,” she said, stepping back to let them work.
They started drawing arcane symbols on the ground using different colored powders. Shirley turned her eyes away – these complicated spells gave her the heebie jeebies. As much as she was grateful for the help, she’d been raised to believe magic was of the Devil. These three years as Slayer (and many long talks with her pastor) had taught her that magic was neither good nor evil in itself, but a tool to be used for one or the other. Still, it was hard to shake the chills she got watching Annie or Abed prepare something powerful.
So she watched the guard. He spoke into a communicator on his wrist, a few short sentences, and then just watched them, unconcerned.
“Enjoy the show,” she told him, assuming he could hear. “You’ve never dealt with the Slayer and her Study Group before.”
He simply smirked, showing his teeth.
After several minutes, Annie and Abed stepped inside a circle they had drawn. ”You’ll want to get inside, too,” he directed the others. ”This will protect you from flying debris, sort of like a shield.”
Shirley nodded and stepped in, feeling a frisson of power as she did so. Pierce crossed the line at the same time. Britta...
Shirley whipped her head around. Britta was nowhere to be seen.
While Laybourne watched, his goons stripped Troy down to his underwear. Troy kept silent. He had to – he knew he was overmatched. So he said everything he wanted to say out loud in his mind instead. You think this’ll break me? I like being in just my underwear. Bet you think I’m afraid of butt stuff, too!
One of the goons hissed when he came into contact with the cross around Troy’s neck.
Laybourne grinned, almost amused. “Quaint,” he said.
He nodded to the other one to take it off. The other jumped back in pain the moment his fingers touched the metal.
“But effective, I see.” Laybourne walked forward, reaching for the cross slowly. Before he made contact with it, his fingers paused and wriggled, as if he were feeling the magical charge in the air around it. “Hmm. This is nice work.” He squatted beside where Troy was chained to the wall, and got as close to Troy’s face as he could magically tolerate, catching Troy’s eyes and holding them through sheer charisma alone. “Did you make this? Your girl? One of your witchy roommates? Is it the boy or the girl?”
Troy tried not to react in any way at all, but Laybourne smiled and stood up. “She’s talented. I’d love to have her on my team. I employ people of multiple talents on my staff.”
Troy gritted his teeth. But you clearly do your hair yourself.
“Let’s see how far its influence extends.” Laybourne walked over to a plain metal cabinet, the kind Troy had seen in offices all over campus. Laybourne opened it to reveal several wicked-looking weapons.
Troy swallowed. Those aren’t paper clips.
Laybourne drew out a thin, leather whip, then coiled it around his hand slowly. “Is it a general protection spell, or just one to protect you from vampires?”
It’ll be enough.
“You know we don’t have to do this, right? Our trainees are very happy in this program.” He suddenly slashed the air an inch from Troy’s knee.
Troy couldn’t stop a yelp from escaping.
“Despite my appearance, I am not a glutton. We only take as much blood as we need, and our daytime graduates are well-compensated.”
He slashed the air in front of Troy’s arm, this time only a half-inch away. Troy’s sound was more like an ‘eep.’
“And the really talented students, students like you, can choose whether they wish to live a full, comfortable, happy life – or enjoy a more eternal one.”
What kind of choice is that?
“You’re asking yourself, ‘what kind of choice is that?’”
Troy’s head jerked up. He could read minds?! He wished now he hadn’t thought anything about the butt stuff.
“Consider your job prospects in any other field, a boy with your ability. With our degree, you’d have time to enjoy the kind of life you want. With whomever you want. For as long as you want.”
Just then, the cross around his neck started to glow, a faint blue that would have barely registered except for the dimness of the room. Troy’s heart soared. His message had worked – they were looking for him. They knew something was wrong. He just had to hold out until they arrived...
Laybourne’s eyes glittered and the whip came sailing down again, and touched his skin directly below where the cross hung.
A drop of blood welled up. Troy bit his lip against the pain.
Laybourne smiled in triumph. “It seems I was right.” Turning to one of the goons, he said calmly, “Send for one of the second-year students. A human should be able to remove the charm with no ill effects... and if not, well, no big loss.” He turned to the other. ”Let security know, we’ll be honored by the presence of the Slayer at our doorstep, and soon. Make sure all the possible entrances are covered. We wouldn’t want her to enter our domain before we’re ready to receive her in style.”
The two nodded deferentially, and left.
“And now...” The leather strap slithered through his fingers. “Let’s make sure we give her a proper welcome gift.”
Pierce shook his head and pointed at Annie and Abed. ”I was watching them.”
Shirley growled. She jumped back across the line, gritting her teeth at the sensation, and stalked over to their captive. “Annie, unstop his mouth, please.” The young man suddenly gasped, and Shirley got down into his face. “Where did they take her?” she demanded. When he looked confused, she added, “The blonde girl!”
The confusion didn’t disappear. “They–they didn’t take her anywhere! She left and went over that way somewhere.” He jerked his head toward the south side of the building.
Shirley closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath. “Thank you,” she told him and made a gesture toward Annie. The way his eyes drooped told her he was magically gagged again.
She rose calmly and walked back to the others. ”Of all the stupid, half-assed...”
The others didn’t have to be told that their plans were good and Britta’d. “Should we stop the spell?” Annie asked.
“I’ve got a mind to let you do it anyway, serve her right for running off without telling anyone.”
“Maybe the vamps somehow got to her? Sent her a message from Troy?” Annie asked.
“Maybe...” But she would wager all the money spent during her hard-drinking days that Britta had decided on some ‘brilliant’ plan that didn’t need their help.
“Probably not,” Abed said. ”You know Britta.”
The four of them sighed. Shirley could almost hear Troy saying ‘She’s the worst,’ in his affectionate way.
“Maybe she’s come up with something. Though I don’t know what she thinks she can do...”
An alarm bell blared, seemingly from all around them. They all flinched, covering their ears. Britta came running from the south side of the building, shouting and waving her hands. “Guys! Guys!” she said, panting from the run. “I broke open a window on the other side!”
“What? Really?” Shirley asked, surprised.
“Yeah! I knew those years living as a squatter in New York would pay off!” At everyone’s look, she added, “What? You think I could actually afford to pay rent there?”
“Is it big enough to get through?”
Britta’s excitement faded slightly. “Uh...”
From across the quad, a shrill security guard’s whistle sounded.
“Cheese it, the cops!” Pierce yelled and tore off as fast as he could.
Abed began kicking at the spell markings, and Annie jumped to do the same. “Hurry!” Abed shouted. ”See if you can get in!”
“Lead me to that window, girl, and quick!” she told Britta. They ran to the south side of the building, and Shirley immediately saw the broken window. The hole was about the size of her head, not nearly big enough. Maybe if she used her stakes, she could make it big enough for Britta to crawl through...
She took a sharp slab at the glass, and the wood just bounced back. ”What did you use to make this?” she shouted over the alarm noise.
“A rock!” Britta shouted back. “But it’s inside now!”
Shirley gritted her teeth and tried again, chipping a tiny bit off one of the jagged shards. “Jesus, give me strength.” She prayed just as hard that Abed and Annie could keep security from finding them somehow, someway.
A face loomed into the open hole in the glass, snarling. She jabbed at it as hard as she could, and the vampire screamed in pain. But she could see others behind him, and now there were whistles coming from another direction.
“We’re not getting in that way.” She turned to Britta and shouted, “Go! We’ll meet up later!” They pelted into the darkness in different directions. Shirley’s Slayer powers gave her speed as well as strength; she had to hope that Britta could escape Greendale security without that extra edge.
She purposely took the darkest route through the campus – that might make it harder for humans to find her, though if Greendale security had been infiltrated by vamps the same way as the Air Conditioning Annex...
A man appeared on the path in front of her, and she skidded to avoid him. Just in time, she made out his security guard uniform, and she pivoted to run in yet another direction.
Oh, crap. The vamps must have spoken to security already. Did they have Abed and Annie in custody? Or were they in Troy’s predicament now? And what about Pierce, did he make it out? Well, she couldn’t help any of them by being caught herself. She ran.
That made her hesitate. Was that... “Chang?”
“Yes, it’s me! I want to help!”
He had helped when the Twilighters struck a couple of months ago. “How?”
“I want the vamps gone from Greendale as much as you do, Slayer.” He came into the moonlight, letting her see that he was alone. ”I’ve had my eye on the Annex for quite a while now...”
“Then why haven’t you done anything?”
“I’m a servant of the law. I can’t do anything without probable cause.”
“Chang, you’re a security guard, not the police,” she scoffed.
“Do you want my help or not? Let me finish!”
She closed her mouth.
“That Laybourne is a tricky bastard. But not unstoppable. Not by a servant of the light, outside the law... as the Slayer should be.”
“So...” She came closer. “...how will you help me?”
“I can make sure your friends are treated well in custody.” He stepped back into the darkness. “And that you stay free until your mission is complete.” Then he disappeared from view.
“Wait! Who is in custody? Chang!” But he was nowhere to be seen.
Her phone buzzed in her purse and she pulled it out. It was a text from Annie. ‘Security has Abed, he distracted them so I could escape. I think they got Pierce, too. What now?’
‘Regroup,’ she sent back. ‘Meet under the large pine tree beside the science lab in one hour.’
Of course, now that she was actually considering letting a vampire into the group... She had to decide first – were all vampires controlled by blood lust alone? Or was it possible for one to develop a sense of morality? Was it possible to save one?
Jesus was a friend to even the blackest of sinners. And murdering was definitely a sin – the blackest of black! Could a vampire repent and stop killing, something completely against their nature? It was a pity no vampires were mentioned in the Bible. If there were only a handy red-letter verse to give her inspiration... What would Jesus do? “Would He save you?” she whispered aloud.
“We have to save him,” Britta said beside her, misunderstanding Shirley’s spoken thought. As Shirley nodded, Britta clutched fiercely as Shirley’s sleeve. “Do you think they’ve turned him? Or killed him?” Britta asked.
“They’re probably holding him as bait,” she assured her, even though she was certain of no such thing. “He’d be of no use as a bargaining chip with the Slayer otherwise.”
Britta looked devastated.
“I’m sorry, honey.” She put an arm around her and hugged her.
Britta nodded into Shirley’s hair.
Annie joined in the hug. “We’ll do everything we can to get him out of there safe. You know that, right?”
Britta nodded again.
Another set of arms joined in the hug. “Those guys are toast.”
The three girls jumped apart in fright, taking attack positions. Shirley lowered the stakes in her hands when she saw who it was. “Jeffrey...” Shirley scolded.
“What?” He tried and failed to look innocent. “When I see three lovely ladies in pain, I want to help.”
Shirley simply rolled her eyes. ”You know how you can help? Find a way in there.”
“You can count on me, Madam Slayer.” He gave her a mock salute, then checked his watch. ”For the next... two and a half hours anyway.”
“If you can get us in there before sunrise, we could have ourselves a little morning barbecue out in the quad to celebrate.”
“You’ll have to pardon me if I skip that party,” he said with a smile, and was off into the night.
Shirley glanced over at Britta and Annie, curled up together at the base of the tree. She wanted to let them rest as long as possible. Only one of them needed to be awake to wait for dawn, and she was best equipped because of her Slayer calling, not to mention her years of staying up with sick children.
She turned her eyes toward the east. The sky was lightening, ever so slightly. No sign of Jeff anywhere, not even a text from him to make excuses. She hadn’t been expecting much, but she was surprised at the pang of disappointment she suddenly felt.
So she went back to watching the building. The Greendale campus security guard posted out front straightened up a few minutes later, readying his taser. But then he lowered it, relaxing. What was that about?
She soon discovered for herself – Dean Pelton was bustling up, literally. Why he had decided to visit the Annex in a Queen Victoria costume, Shirley had no idea. She stalked as close as she dared to listen.
“...but that’s what I’m telling you! Officer Chang is already on the scene, and he needs every able-bodied man until the police get here!”
“But my orders...”
“Your orders have changed.” He shooed him off with two opera-gloved hands. ”Go!”
Dean Pelton watched the man leave and then approached the door with tiny, mincing steps. He waved at the building’s guard with a lacy fan. “Hello? Hello there? It’s ‘Dean’ Victoria.”
The security guard looked Dean Pelton up and down once and then shook his head. He didn’t even seem surprised.
“I need to get in to see Vice Dean Laybourne. He sent for me. You can go and check...”
The guard stared at him for several long moments, while Dean Pelton stood there, primly. The guard spoke into his wrist communicator and then turned on his heel to walk out of sight.
As soon as he was left alone, Dean Pelton opened up a highly decorated cinch purse and removed an ID card. He slid it through the reader.
To Shirley’s surprise, the door actually clicked open. Very carefully, the Dean opened the heavy door and side-stepped awkwardly through with his full hoopskirt.
To Shirley’s even greater surprise, Jeff Winger scrambled out from beneath.
“Well, what do you know...” she murmured.
The Dean held out a gloved hand to help him up, but Jeff refused. Then he turned directly where she was watching out of sight and gestured urgently.
Shirley jumped into action, shaking Annie and Britta awake. Annie shook her head vigorously, and scrambled to her feet. Britta clawed at Shirley like cat, and yelled, “No! This is my spot, you bum...!”
“Britta!” Shirley shook her again.
“Huh, what?” she said once she was mostly conscious.
“Jeff got us in the building. Hurry!”
“What? Really?” the girls said together.
“I’m as surprised as you. But I’m not looking a gift vamp in the teeth.” She shouldered her purse and sprinted toward the entrance.
Just as she reached the door, the guard returned. His look of shock quickly turned into a toothy snarl. Dean Pelton shrieked like he actually was Queen Victoria and leapt out of the way. Jeff pushed open the door for them and then went on the offensive, throwing a punch which knocked the guard back.
By then, the three women were inside. “Shame to ruin this beautiful decor,” Shirley commented. Two strides and a swift stab, and he was a guard-shaped smear on the wall.
She turned to Jeff. ”You came through,” she said, squeezing his arm lightly. “Thanks.”
“It’s what a member of the Study Group would do, right?” he asked as seriously as she’d ever heard him speak.
She hesitated, but only for a moment. “Right,” she agreed with a nod. She would think about what letting a vampire into the group would mean for all of them later – when Troy was safe. Turning to Annie, she asked, “Which way downstairs?”
Annie pointed. She’d spent time memorizing the layout earlier that night.
“Behind me,” Shirley told her group, all no-nonsense. “You, too, Queen Victoria!” she called over her shoulder.
“Dean Vic–never mind...” He scrambled to join them.
Annie directed from behind her, “Down this stairwell.”
Shirley opened the door with a yank, stakes at the ready. It was empty. “I don’t trust this...”
“I’ve got the rear, “ Jeff said.
Dean Pelton quickly moved to the middle of the pack with a titillated squeak.
“Then down we go.”
They moved down one level, as swiftly and quietly as a group of five could, especially with one in heels and a hoopskirt. Shirley peered through the window – but it was too dark to see. ”Jeffrey?”
He looked through, and then shook his head. ”Clear, as far as I can see.”
“That doesn’t mean they won’t come through that door anyway,” Britta said.
“Or the one above,” Annie pointed out.
“I’ll stay here, then,” Jeff offered. “You keep going.”
“Can I stay, too?” the Dean asked. Everyone turned to him with a look. “The heels are killing me, okay?”
No one believed that was the reason, but Shirley nodded her assent. He had been helpful, which so rarely happened. Might as well give him his Jeff-time.
Shirley, Annie and Britta went down one more level, the last one The lights were dark here as well. “This is it, right?” Shirley asked Annie.
“It’s where he was when I tried the locator spell.”
“Can you give us a little light?” Britta apologetically wiggled her fingers in the air.
“I’ll do one better.” Annie smiled. “I’ll make it as bright as the sun.”
That should give them an edge. “On my signal, then. 3...2...” She kicked open the door as she yelled, “1!”
The light was so blinding that Shirley was glad she was forewarned. As they burst into the hallway, the gang of vampires at the other end mostly cringed back. But not their leader, who must be Laybourne. He stood impassive, sunglasses over his eyes, though he hardly could have been prepared. “Slayer,” he greeted her solemnly.
“Just three? Don’t we rate the full crew?” He pouted sardonically.
“Three is all I’ll need,” she answered, and then twirled Alpha and Omega. “Plus two.”
Shirley burst into a full run, just as Laybourne’s minions surged around him to attack, wielding her stakes with accuracy borne of need. She had to find Troy and save him from this strange, sterile place. To either side, Annie threw magical fireballs while Britta dodged and kicked. Britta was quicker than she looked.
Time always ran together in the midst of battle. And that was a good thing, as she had no time to waste on worry – just plunge a stake in here, spin kick there, duck and roll and come up staking once again.
And then it was suddenly quiet in the hall. She pushed sweat-drenched curls out of her eyes and looked around. Annie was panting against the wall, and a goodly amount of vamp dust dirtied the once-spotless floors.
“Did you get Laybourne?” Shirley had fought her way toward him, but never managed to reach him. Annie shook her head.
Shirley turned to Britta, but she was...
But so was Laybourne. And if Shirley’s years of Slaying had taught her anything, it was that there were no coincidences here above the Hellmouth.
“Let’s keep going,” she told Annie with a jerk of her head toward the end of the hall. ”I bet we’ll find more than just Troy down there.”
A shout came from the stairwell behind them, and Jeff and the Dean tumbled from the doorway. ”Reinforcements!” Jeff said, barring the entrance with his body. “More than I can handle!” The Dean placed his body against Jeff’s – to help him hold it shut, she was sure he would say.
From the far end of the hall, movement caught her eye, and she saw several more vampires stalking toward them. They were surrounded. ”I pray you can hang on a little longer, Troy,” she said grimly. Readying her weapons, she added a short prayer. Dear Lord, help me send as many of them as I can to your Judgment.
Ow. Even thinking hurt.
Troy had no idea how long he’d been held captive, no idea how much blood he had lost. The Vice Dean’s eyes had glittered as he watched the rivulets flow across Troy’s skin, but either Laybourne’s extreme self-control or the cross charm had protected him. No human minions had come to try to remove the charm, either. Did that mean his friends were out there, trying to get in? He had to hold on a little longer.
“Why air conditioning?” Troy had asked, trying to stave off another lash.
“Why not?” Laybourne responded. “A vampire’s life is long, and one must fill the time somehow.”
“And running an air conditioning program at a community college in Colorado seemed like the best plan?”
“Greendale offers a few amenities. Anonymity.” He smiled slowly. ”The Hellmouth.” He slid the whip cord across one of Troy’s bloody welts. “And vampires love the cold.”
Troy couldn’t remember much else after that. He might have passed out. When he came to, Laybourne was gone.
He didn’t know how long he had, but he didn’t have the energy to work out how to slip his manacles, not when it would bring on more pain.
He could hear Britta in his head, “Come on, Troy. Don’t give up, please. I can’t lose you now...”
“But Britta,” he whispered to the voice, “It hurts so much. Maybe I should just let him take me...”
“And let the Man win? I won’t allow that!”
Troy’s wrists flamed up, as the manacles jostled, and he cried out. ”Unnnnh, now even my... fever dreams hurt.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I was trying to see if I could pick the lock with a bobby pin, but it’s so slick with blood...”
He opened his eyes and squinted in the darkness. ”Britta, are you real?”
“I guess it depends on how you look at it. We finally got to something interesting in class the other day. Glasser’s Choice Theory...”
She was definitely real. “Stop with... the psychoblahblah...” Troy groaned.
“Sorry,” she whispered, “I’m just so happy you’re still alive...” She kissed his forehead gently. “And it’s fascinating.”
“I promise... to hear all about it... later...”
“Only if you really want to,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice.
His manacles jerked and he heard a snap.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he asked, “Did you...?”
“Broke the pin inside.”
Even though Troy’s brain was fuzzy with pain, he had enough consciousness to remember the cabinet on the other side of the room. “Cabinet... on the wall... has weapons...”
He heard her footsteps as she crossed and the squeak of the door. ”Ugh, I can’t tell what anything is in this dark. I wish I had Annie’s trick with the light...”
“Will this do?” said a voice, and the lights came on blindingly bright.
Britta shrieked and stumbled back into the cabinet, by the sound of it. When his eyes adjusted, he saw Laybourne standing between them.
“Such a tender moment. I hated to interrupt.”
Britta reached in and drew out a long, sharp blade. Brandishing it in front of her, she yelled, “Let him go!”
“Or you’ll what?” he said, taking a slow step toward her. ”That sword’s not made of wood, and I’m certain you haven’t the strength to take off my head with it.”
The door opened behind Laybourne. ”I sure as hell do.” Shirley stood in the doorway, covered in vamp soot as if she had fought her way through hell to get there. “And you’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“That may be true...” With vampire speed, Laybourne was beside Troy’s battered body. “...but young Mr. Barnes is my hostage. I propose a truce. I promise to let him live, and your group leaves the Annex, never to return. If either of you care about him, you’ll take my offer.”
Shirley did not move from her place, strong and undeterred. “And what kind of life would he live? One like yours?”
“No!” Britta cried. She came to stand at Troy’s feet, defiant. The sword shook in her hands. “I’ve spent my whole life cursing douchebags and jerks – but now that I’ve finally found a decent guy, you are not going to take him away from me!” She took a swing at Laybourne’s head.
He easily stopped it with one hand, unflinching though it cut through his skin. Then he twisted it out of her hand and tossed it away like a toy. He shook his head, sad but mocking. “I did give you a chance...”
Lifting his hand above Troy’s mouth, Laybourne let his blood dribble in. Troy coughed and tried to spit it out – but he was so weak...
“And you had a chance, too,” Shirley growled, dropping her handbag to the floor. Springing into action, her booted foot knocked his hand back. Laybourne’s face transformed and his fangs sprang out. The fight was on.
Troy watched them struggle back and forth across the room. Shirley dove for the sword, and Laybourne kicked it aside. She flung one of her stakes, and he dodged it. It clattered to the floor. He toppled the weapons cabinet from the back to block Shirley from grabbing anything inside it.
As he lay there, the fighting escalating, he wondered what it would be like to be a vampire. Would he get used to blood? (Laybourne’s tasted terrible.) Would he have to limit his and Abed’s Inspector Spacetime marathons to the nighttime only? Could he even be friends with Abed at all anymore? Then again, if he lived forever, wouldn’t he sort of be like the Inspector, without the traveling through space part?
Throughout the turmoil in both the room and his mind, some corner of his consciousness noted Britta slowly crawling over to Shirley’s bag. She drew a stake from the inside, waited for the best possible moment...
“Now!” Shirley yelled, and Laybourne was just surprised enough to turn to face the danger–
–and instead was impaled on the stake Britta held.
His face held an expression of almost intellectual curiosity before it crumbled apart. And then he was just a pile of ash on the floor.
Britta hurried over to Troy, gently cradling his face in her hands. “Are you okay?”
He winced, but leaned into her touch anyway. ”I’m okay. Britta...?”
“Yes?” she asked, worried.
“I’ve said it before, but....” He smiled weakly. “You’re the best.”
Abed nodded. “Yes.”
“And all of you went through this too?”
“Oh, absolutely.” “He insisted.” “I had to do it twice. “I wanted to do it twice.” Their words tumbled over each other to reassure him.
Shirley smiled. Of course, the group had never come together so formally, but she liked making Jeff squirm.
Jeff shrugged. “Well, okay, then.”
“Step forward,” Abed intoned. ”Place your hand on the seal and repeat after me.”
“I, Jeff Winger…”
“I, Jeff Winger...”
“Do solemnly swear to uphold the tenets of the Study Group. To honor, protect and support the Slayer and her companions. Though Blorgons–”
Abed quickly cleared his throat. “I mean, Creatures of Darkness, though they may try to stop me, I will ever fight for what is right.”
The sound of someone blowing their nose loudly broke the solemn silence. ”It’s just so beautiful,” the Dean said, wiping at his tears.
The seal, a carved wooden Greendale logo paperweight which Annie had repurposed for the occasion, glowed pink and then faded.
“That’s it. You’re officially in the group,” Abed told Jeff. “Shirley?”
She gestured inside the room, where she stood. “You may cross the threshold.”
Jeff took a tentative step, and found it unblocked, at last. Everyone clapped. Troy patted Jeff on the shoulder, Annie gave him a kiss on the cheek, and the Dean threw his arms around him in a big hug. “I’m so glad Laybourne didn’t have to turn me!”
The room went silent.
“What?” Jeff asked, looking down.
“Oh...” he said, unwrapping himself and taking a step back. “Didn’t I mention that he promised to make me a vampire if I expanded the night school?” His face got more uncomfortably apologetic as he explained. “I just wanted to get closer to Jeffrey...”
The entire group looked at him aghast. The ridges in Jeff’s forehead bulged in anger.
“Um, well, isn’t it fortunate that’s not necess... oh, well, I just remembered I have to...” He slipped off and fled toward his office.
Shirley shook her head as she watched him disappear, then turned to the group. “Shall we begin?”
Murmuring to each other (“You can sit here, Jeff, next to me.” “I like how you used the pledge from The Eyes of the Wind in season 6.” “How come he gets the best seat?”) the gang took their places, Britta helping Troy to his chair. Shirley smiled. Somehow, though she’d never noticed it before, their little group finally felt complete.