Chapter 1: Screenwriting for Dummies
Setting the scene had been easy. Rather than go for a post-first-day-of-senior-classes drink with Troy, Britta, and Annie, Abed had headed straight home and reviewed some recent footage to put himself in the right frame of mind. Britta's intentions had only ever been good, as had his own when he'd taken her on. They both might even have benefited had she not blundered onto the Happy Place track. One simulation taken two levels deep, and it was clear that the technique deserved killing in its cradle.
By the time the three of them straggled in, Abed had completed the rough cut and switched over to re-watching the first season of Inspector Spacetime, because, well, new beginnings. Troy crossed the room and flopped down in his armchair, almost immediately engrossed.
The girls, a little bit behind everyone else, were propping each other up.
"Hi there, Abed, sweetie," Britta slurred, leaning heavily on the back of his chair. "You missed a really good time. Jeff showed up and had a mini nervous breakdown because Pelton's moved into the condo right next to his. Talk about dean-ing the day!"
"I knew I should have cut you off after the tequila shots," Annie lamented, staggering over to the sink. She filled a glass with water, hobbled out of her shoes on the way back, and waved the dripping glass in Britta's face. "Drink up, Britta, or else."
"Classic!" exclaimed Troy, to no one in particular, tipsily applauding the show.
Unnecessary, waiting until Britta had managed to spill some water down his neck, but from the standpoint of timing, it would lend Abed's words decent punch. He hit pause.
"Hey," Troy complained, trying to snatch the remote control. "I was watching that!"
"Hi, Annie," said Abed, tilting his head up to look at both of them. "I hope nobody let you drive home. Hi, Britta," he continued, without missing a beat. "You're fired."
Britta's melodramatic gasp and wide, hurt eyes were pitch-perfect. He couldn't have directed it better. "I beg your pardon, mister?" she demanded. "I'm what now?"
"Fired," Abed repeated, rising so that no more water would end up down the back of his shirt. "As my therapist, I mean—not as my friend. You got sloppy, and, for the sake of the group, we can't risk that happening again. Also, contrary to what I indicated earlier today, I'm afraid the rules of wishmaking are non-negotiable."
Britta and Annie made the okay-now-I'm-really-offended noise in unison.
Troy got up and set a hand on Abed's arm. "I'd take it easy if I were you," he warned. "They've both had like ten shots. I'm not even kidding. Britta tried to lick Jeff's eyes."
"No sir!" Britta exclaimed, digging in her jeans pocket. Troy got the glass of water out of her other hand just in time to prevent it from soaking Abed's chair and carried it to the sink. "I jumped right in that stupid fountain and dug out, like, a million pennies," she said, waving the handful of coins under Abed's nose, "so you can suck it."
"The fountain's not stupid," Abed told her calmly, "and you can't unmake wishes."
"Britta," Annie said, hanging on her arm, "look, maybe you should put those away—"
"...a cab to take your butt home," Troy was muttering darkly into the mouthpiece of his cell, but as soon as all sets of eyes fell on him, he grinned, innocent and manic. "What, you don't expect me to drive again, do you? Hello, um, yes. I need—"
Abed scooped the pennies out of Britta's palm and stuck them in the pocket of his hoodie. He wanted to listen to Troy's one-sided phone conversation, but Annie looked like she was about to be sick. He left Britta clinging to the back of his armchair and steered Annie in the direction of the bathroom before she could properly protest.
"Abed, I'm fine," she said, dragging her feet across the tiled threshold. "I mean it, I'm really..." But it took three seconds to get the toilet lid up and four seconds for the vomiting to start, which was a better outcome than last time she'd gotten hammered.
"Nice save," said Troy from the doorway, cringing. Abed looked up at him, continuing the pattern of slow, soothing circles he'd learned to apply at the small of Annie's back. "I'm going to walk Britta downstairs and wait with her till the cab arrives, okay?"
"Cool," Abed said. "Cool cool cool." He reached up for the hand towel and left Annie unattended just long enough to dampen it under the faucet. She accepted it gratefully.
"That was a pretty mean thing you did back there," Annie said, wiping her mouth.
"Firing Britta?" Abed asked. "Or do you mean the pennies? It's for her own good."
"She's trying to help you," Annie said, "and you can't even set aside your jealousy."
"I'm not jealous of Britta for trying to date Troy," Abed said, but his heart wasn't in the line. Annie wasn't very good at this, but he still didn't have the heart to tell her.
"Sure you're not," Annie muttered, settling back against the side of the bathtub with the towel pressed to her forehead. "I see how you look at him since he's come back."
"But I've been looking at him the same way I've always looked at him," Abed remarked, suddenly uncomfortable with the turn the script had taken. He sat down beside her. "You ought to consider enrolling in Screenwriting 101. It would help—"
"You know I gave up on that a while back," Annie sighed. "It's out of my hands."
"Britta's your friend," Abed said. "Take some responsibility. She listens to you."
"You want me to tell Britta to stop hitting on Troy? Abed, this is crazy. You almost lost him to those Air Conditioning Repair whack-jobs, but he came back and ran straight to your arms before he went to anyone else's. Why don't you tell him how you feel?"
"I can't do that," replied Abed, before he could prevent the words from escaping.
"Awww! So it's true. Didn't you run the simulation for Troy/Abed when you ran it for all the rest of us?" Annie asked. "Shouldn't that make things a little easier?"
"I did," Abed admitted, "but it's too perfect to happen. It's that one thread of subtext that the audience hopes will become canon, all the while knowing it never will."
Annie winced and shut her eyes. "Are you sure you're not describing me and Jeff?"
"Nah. I totally ship you guys, and from a narrative standpoint, it's workable. You've got really great chemistry. Jeff's just got to stop patronizing you, that's all."
Annie hiccuped and started to laugh, but it swiftly turned to sobbing and, subsequently, another bout of vomiting. Abed steadied her until it had passed, and then wiped her mouth again and let her sag tearfully against his shoulder.
"We're both completely hopeless," sniffled Annie, bravely, "but I've got an idea."
"Make it quick," Abed told her. "Troy will be back any second, and I promised him we'd move the bunk bed into the ex-Dreamatorium. He's sick of sleeping on the air mattress and not having me to talk to." He could hear Troy's footsteps in the hall.
"I'll help you get your romantic sub-plot back on track if you'll help me with mine."
"Deal, but I can't make any promises. We're both prime wistful-ending material."
* * *
One of Abed's long, precise hands dangled over the side of the top bunk.
Troy reached and touched Abed's wrist, trailing his fingertips down to Abed's palm.
"Hey, buddy," he said softly, in case Abed was still asleep. "Are you awake? I guess it doesn't matter if you are, but there's something I need to get off my chest. I'm sorry I left. That's the douchiest thing I've ever done, except maybe insisting on a blanket fort for the world record. We can set the Dreamatorium back up in here if you want."
"No, it's okay," said Abed, awake after all. "The Dreamatorium should have been in the blanket fort all along, although it's now a more symbolically appropriate location than ever. It's come to signify reconciliation and trust. Annie thinks that if we use document clips to affix the siding and reinforce the walls with pillows, it should hold."
Unable to control the brief stinging in his eyes, Troy sniffed.
"That's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me."
Abed fell uncharacteristically silent, as if holding his breath.
"Lucky Charms for breakfast," he said. "We'll start renovations tonight."
Over bowls of cereal that were around half marshmallows thanks to Troy's careful weeding-out of most crunchy bits, they watched another episode of Inspector Spacetime. They decided on a do-over for making wishes since Abed had recovered a number of the pennies from Britta. Doing it on the second day of classes couldn't be any less fortuitous than doing it on the first, on account of most people rejigging their schedules within the first twenty-four hours anyway due to professor-related trauma.
On the way to European History, they stopped off at the fountain with their jar of pennies (some of which were damp). Abed flipped a shiny one contemplatively.
"This is even thematically fitting," he said. "Let's pretend it's the Trevi in Rome."
"Let's pretend it's the what?" Troy asked, studying the date on his penny. 1973.
"The Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy. It's traditional for tourists to make wishes when they visit, and, subsequently, it's become a hackneyed trope in romantic comedies."
Troy contemplated his penny for a few moments, and then, with a glance and a nod, they dropped their coins in unison and wished for a thousand more wishes.
"Realistically speaking, we've only got time for two more. Class starts in ten."
"We can come back," Abed replied. "Let's make a few every day this semester."
Troy wished for Chang to stay out of their hair; his penny dropped true. Abed fished another coin out of the jar and closed his fingers around it, his expression pensive.
"I wish for something I can't say out loud," Abed said, and tossed his last penny.
"What the hell, Abed? That's not in the rules. All wishes made are collective."
"This one's collective, too," Abed said. "Or at least I hope it will be."
"Out with it," Troy insisted. "You know what all of my wishes are!"
"I can't. Not yet," Abed replied. "It might throw a lot of plot-points off balance. I think that maybe you're just going to have to trust that you're going to have to trust me."
Troy considered this with reluctance, and then initiated a fist-bump of assent.
"Cool," Abed said. "Let's go to class. It's pizza day, and the Dean's back."
"Shit," hissed troy, halfheartedly. "I blew off walking with Britta."
"She's our friend," said Abed, taking hold of Troy's arm. "She'll forgive us."
"Yeah," Troy said, folding Abed's hand possessively to his chest. "You're right."
So what if the situation devolved into the first paper-ball-and-writing-utensil fight of the year within minutes of their arrival? Abed was back to (what passed for) normal, Greendale had been rescued from Chang's diabolical clutches, and he was home.
* * *
"I understand you're going through a difficult time right now. Candy cigarette?"
Jeff's eyes glittered desolately as he snapped one of the smokes in two and shoved it in his mouth. "I haven't slept in days," he said, voice hollow. "I've heard nothing but ABBA, Phil Collins, and the soundtrack to Eat, Pray, Love for the past seventy-two hours. My hallway smells like burnt latex and grape-flavored lube. Make it stop."
"I see," said Abed, gravely, reaching across the table to tentatively pat Jeff's hand. "This is more serious than I thought. Give me a second to consider this, okay?"
Jeff nodded, sniffling loudly, wiping his nose on the back of his unbuttoned cuff. "I tried, man. I really did. I even invested in a pair of half-decent noise canceling headphones—you know, those fancy ones from Bose, not just the cheap crap out of the SkyMall catalog—but I could still hear everything. It can't be erased. He slips handwritten notes under my door. They contain glitter and pressed flowers."
Abed nodded sympathetically, or at least pretended to nod sympathetically, ticking through a couple more hands of Solitaire on his phone. Jeff was so strung-out that he'd take it for concerned Googling or text-messaging for advice from Shirley.
"If film has taught me anything," said Abed, giving up the game for a lost cause and slipping his phone inside his bag, "it's that there's no remedy for unwanted advances like showing the offending party that you're actively pursuing other options."
"Well, I am," said Jeff, defensively. "I just...have this rule about not taking the game home anymore; you know how it is, things get messy." He covered his eyes and clawed at them. "I should never have given him a dance. No credit is worth that!"
"Actually, I don't know how it is," Abed replied, "but never mind, that's irrelevant. You're going to have to learn to break your own rules, Jeff, for your own good and for the good of those you love. It's a hard lesson. I learned it just this morning."
"You mean an entire freaking bed-linens war wasn't enough to drive the point home? What the hell goes on inside that head of yours, Abed, and why can't I live there?"
"Double occupancy only, already full. Listen to me, Jeff: your natural inclination to being a smart-ass isn't going to help you out of this one. You're going to have to invite Annie over for dinner. Multiple times. May I suggest asking her to spend the night?"
"Wait, did you just say your head is double occupancy?" Jeff took another candy cigarette and jabbed it at Abed in an accusatory fashion. "Why are we talking about my bad neighbor problems when clearly you and Troy have finally hit critical mass and you're freaking out about it? For crying out loud, you're trying to pawn Annie off on me so you guys can have the place to yourselves. Smooth, Nadir. Really smooth."
Abed took the candy cigarette and stuck it in his mouth, averting his eyes.
"Annie tried being the writer, and you tried playing God. Neither conceit worked."
"What does that even mean? Have you and Troy worked out your shit or not?"
"Are you familiar with the concept of fix-it fic? No, probably not; it's a fandom thing. Annie and I decided that's kind of what has to happen here, although I'm not sure she knows that's what she's agreed to. The bottom line is—" Abed faltered, conjuring up half a dozen different actors' voices before Anthony Hopkins came to the rescue "—Quid pro quo, Clarice. She scratches my back; I scratch hers. You've got to stop being such a dick to her. She cares about you a lot, and I think you'll find that maybe you care about her, too, if you'd just drop your plus-ten Hipster Shield of I-Don't-Give-a-Fuck for, I don't know, even thirty goddamned seconds. Do you follow me?"
Jeff was gaping at him. Maybe the Lecter impression had been going a bit far.
"Abed, you just swore, like, twice. This is a huge moment. I'm so proud!"
"Fine," said Abed, snapping the cigarette case shut and shoving it back in his bag. "I'm not going to get anywhere appealing to genuine emotion, that is if you even have any, and I suck at that anyway, so we're even. It still doesn't change the fact that the only way you're going to get the Dean to back down is to start banging chicks at home."
"You make me sound so heartless," Jeff said, spreading his arms in mock-offense. "And that's no way to talk about Annie. Say, does that mean she's at home giving Troy a pep-talk special on the merits of finally buckling down and banging you?"
Abed sucked contemplatively on his cigarette. "I wish it were actually that simple."
"So, what, the implication is that I'm that simple? I know a diss when I hear one."
"Give Annie a chance," said Abed. "Take a gamble on the fact that the tactic might prove narratively sound and solve your problem. What's the worst that can happen?"
"I can think of a lot of things," said Jeff, sobering somewhat, "but you have a point."
"Fantastic," said Abed, sliding out of the booth, rising. "This is progress. You should go home, shower, shave, and get some sleep. In whatever order you prefer. Pew-pew!"
"You too," Jeff said, firing in return. "And remember: Star-Burns died for your sins."
* * *
"Hey, Troy," Annie said, her kind voice startling in the quiet living room. "Studying alone? That's so sad. I can keep you company if you want. Where's Abed tonight?"
"Off spending some quality time arguing with his dad over the fact that he'd like to apply to some film MFA programs for next autumn. Can you believe he's narrowed it down to Columbia, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and London Film School? I mean, why Vermont? What have they got in any of those places that we haven't got here?"
"Actual accredited master's programs, for a start," Annie said, patting Troy's arm, and took a seat beside him at the table. She stared at the textbook for a second, and then looked up at Troy, as if his words had only just sunk in. "Holy crap. Abed's thinking about grad school? This is so not what I'd had in mind as a topic of conversation."
Troy narrowed his eyes and closed the book. "What did you have in mind? Pointing out how pathetic I am for sitting here alone with homework on a Thursday night?"
"Of course not," Annie said, and it always wrenched Troy's heart to see how wretched she felt when she managed to start things off on the wrong foot. "I've been thinking about how sweet it is that you guys have really started to make amends. It was so much fun helping you guys restore the Dreamatorium, but...I just feel bad that you two haven't had much quality time together since you got back. I wanted to know if there's anything I can do. I'm sure I could go stay at Britta's this weekend—"
"I appreciate the gesture, but this is your home, too," Troy said. "If we want to be alone, we'll just go in the Dreamatorium or shut the bedroom door. It's not that hard."
"Now I can't think about anything but Abed going away," said Annie, pensively, chin in hand. "He'd have to have his applications and portfolio ready to send off by December."
"Come on, Annie. You've been leaving nursing school leaflets lying around the apartment for at least a couple of weeks now. You've been a bad influence on him!"
"We've got futures to consider. Do don't you think about life after Greendale?"
Troy stared wide-eyed at the floor, uncomfortably wrapping his arms around himself.
"I can't remember life before Greendale, let alone imagine what comes after."
"I'm so sorry," Annie said, reaching across the table to rub Troy's shoulder. "I didn't mean to make you think about losing him the way he almost lost you." She squeaked, mortified, and covered her mouth. "I'm so, so sorry! What I meant was—"
"If you don't tell me what this conversation is really about," said Troy, covering her hand on his shoulder with a no-nonsense pat, "I'm going to tell Jeff that his name's written inside cutesy purple gel-ink hearts all through your notebook."
Annie dislodged his hand and folded her own in her lap, taking a deep breath.
"I don't think I'm qualified to tell you that," she said hesitantly, "and I don't want to be here when Abed gets around to broaching the subject with you, either."
Troy felt his heart turn cold and fragile, thin as glass. It shattered.
"I knew it," he said, gathering his books, and rose. "There was something he wished for the other morning at the fountain that he couldn't say out loud. I never—"
"Troy, I want you to sit down, shut up, stop crying, and listen to me," Annie snapped, grabbing him by the wrist. "You're going to have to trust me when I say that it's not what you think it is. In fact, it's neither of the things that you might think it is."
Troy sat back down and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "You've got thirty seconds."
"Abed might kind of sort of figuratively want you to have his babies!" she blurted.
Inside Troy's head, a thousand miniature eight-bit versions of Abed disintegrated.
"Sorry," he said, wondering at what point he'd grown faint enough to topple out of his chair and at what point Annie had managed to prevent him from cracking his head on the floor. "But I'm pretty sure I just hallucinated you saying that Abed wants..."
Just as Annie got them both situated on the couch, her cell phone went off.
"Yeah, and I'm pretty sure I just hallucinated this text message from Jeff."
* * *
"Am I going to find police on my doorstep when I get home because you neglected to tell your friends you were working a cover shift and staying overnight?"
"I didn't forget to tell them anything. The cover shift and staying overnight weren't in the original plans. We were just supposed to be having dinner and talking."
Abed's father sighed heavily and took the right-hand turn onto Greendale campus. "I want you to think about what I said. I'm concerned for you, that's all."
"I already told you I won't be going anywhere if I have to go alone," Abed replied. "Statistically speaking, the odds are in your favor. Troy likes living here."
"You ask quite a lot of that nice young man, do you know that?" his father asked, pulling up in front of the library. "Nobody on this earth is as patient with you, Abed."
Abed shrugged, got out of the car, and poked his head back in for the parting shot.
"We ask a lot of each other, inhuman patience included. That's just how it works."
He watched his father drive away and then went inside. He was twenty minutes early, so the study room was empty. He booted up his laptop and went back to work on the footage. With any luck, he could include it in his application portfolio—that is, if he'd have any real cause to send it off. He didn't think he would. It was almost a relief.
Twelve minutes later, out of the corner of his eye, he watched Jeff and Annie arrive while trying very hard to pretend they weren't arriving together. He looked up from his work and gave them a tentative double thumbs-up, flipping between up and down until Annie came over and gently grabbed his hands to make him stop.
"Why didn't you come home last night? Troy's a mess. Lucky for you, I convinced him your dad had taken your phone hostage in exchange for a cover shift again."
"That didn't sound racist at all," Jeff retorted, already flipping through his textbook.
"It's not racist if it's true," Abed offered, closing his laptop. "This time, he didn't take my phone hostage. He got me to work the shift using good old-fashioned guilt."
Jeff shrugged while Annie awwwed and hugged him from behind. "If the shoe fits."
"Did you at least give him a call or text him back?" Annie asked. "I swear he must have texted you like eighteen times in a row, and that was just before I left."
"Twenty-seven times, and yeah. I sent him one before I went to bed."
"You sent him one?" Jeff demanded incredulously. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm pretty sure one text message isn't how you get somebody into bed—oh, wait," he said, smirking, and shifted his glance from Abed to Annie. "It is if you're me."
"Cut the keeping-up-appearances crap, Jeff. Everyone's going to find out."
"I made it count," Abed replied, just as Shirley arrived with coffee and a donut.
"What did I miss? Somebody hugging Abed is usually a sign something bad happened. Honey," she asked Abed sweetly, "do you need me to kick somebody's ass?"
"Nothing bad happened," Annie said, letting go of Abed and returning to her place beside Shirley. "We're giving him a few pointers on texting etiquette. He didn't tell Troy he wasn't coming home last night, so Troy got a little bent out of shape."
"But I told him exactly what he needed to hear at this point in the arc."
"Aw, man," Britta said, arriving with her usual swagger. "You guys started discussing your super dysfunctional personal lives without me?" She wasn't three seconds in her seat before she did a double-take at Jeff and pointed between his usual chair, which was empty, and his placement one spot over so he sat kitty-corner to Annie. "Wait, is this some kind of prank? Is it Let's-All-Switch-Seats Day and I missed the memo?"
"Does it look like any of the rest of us have switched seats?" asked Shirley.
As if to prove a point, Pierce chose that precise moment to stroll in via the opposite door and take his accustomed seat next to Troy's still-empty chair.
"Good morning, losers," he said, trying a new shade of disdain. "How's it hanging?"
"Get your ass back over here, Winger," said Britta, smacking the table. "Joke's up."
"I respectfully decline," Jeff said, and then glanced severely from Annie to Abed. "Where is Troy, and what have you two done to him? You ought to be ashamed."
Abed frowned. Under their revised circumstances, by this time they'd usually be—
"Fuck," he said, "fuck fuck fuck," and got up to leave the room. He didn't have time to think about the fact that he'd left his laptop and his bag (Annie would see to it they'd be waiting for him in class, assuming class was where this scene would end up).
Abed arrived at the fountain thoroughly out of breath. He found Troy there just as he'd expected, chucking one penny after another into the water with silent dejection.
"It was stupid of me to think we could cram this plotline into a single week," he said, stepping hesitantly up beside Troy. "I'm sorry I let my dad guilt me into staying over."
"Shut up," Troy sighed, more resigned than furious. "That's not why I'm mad."
"Then why are you mad?" Abed asked. "I'm really not sure what went wrong."
"We rebuilt the Dreamatorium in the blanket fort and reinforced it with pillows. We resolved to make wishes every day. What part of committing doesn't compute?"
"The part where everybody showed up in the study room and decided to interrogate me," said Abed, swallowing, finding his mouth unexpectedly dry. "There's no way I could have foreseen it. There's always one scene that throws you for a loop."
Troy turned to face him, his eyes slightly wide and his expression rapidly softening.
"Dude, are you seriously and actually out of breath? What have they done to you?"
"Nothing," said Abed, sagging against Troy's shoulder, which might have been his first mistake. "As soon as I realized they'd made me lose track of time, I ran double-fast to get here even though it's not very far. I hope I'm not too late. Can we re-shoot this?"
Troy stepped closer and let his shoulder give even as he brought his other arm up to slide around Abed's waist. It was like their fistbump was happening again for the first time, only Troy tilted his chin up as he pulled Abed to his chest and—oh. Abed had once heard some of the best screen kisses were mostly improvised. He went with it.
"Maybe we should skip history class," said Abed, when they finally parted for breath. "I feel like we should go home and talk about this. And also make out some more."
Troy was just hugging him tightly now, and his head rested warm on Abed's shoulder.
"No," Troy said, rocking them both. "I have a better idea. We're going to make some wishes, turn up to class late, endure all of the humiliating backlash that's going to entail, have lunch and Spanish with everybody else, and then we're going to go home and talk this over. I'm still pretty annoyed at you, but of course I'll have your babies."
Abed couldn't respond, so he buried his nose in Troy's hair and made a wish instead.
(But really, not even Leonard stopping by to snigger at them could ruin the moment.)
* * *
Abed kept giving her a double thumbs-up. It wasn't until Spanish let out that Troy realized a) she'd known what was going on before he had, and b) she was touching Jeff every chance she got. Even weirder, Jeff didn't once attempt to push Annie away.
Britta had spent the rest of the day since lunch dumping nips of Jack into her cup.
She scrunched both of them into a wobbly hug on her way out of the classroom.
"You figured out your shit just in time to prevent me from using you as a post-Subway rebound," she hissed in Troy's ear, staggering back to give him a double thumbs-up, which Abed enthusiastically returned on Troy's behalf. "Nice save, T-Bone!"
"Thanks, I think?" he shouted after her as she zigzagged her way down the hall.
"She wouldn't pass a breathalizer test in any state," said Abed, taking Troy's hand.
Since Britta was too drunk to drive and Annie had already vanished with Jeff, they walked home at a leisurely pace. Halfway there, Troy let go of Abed's hand and slid his arm around Abed's skinny hips, testing the water. Abed must have been all right with that, because he held them up with a kiss at every DON'T WALK signal.
By the time they reached their apartment, Troy was hopelessly turned on. He had to take the keys away from Abed, because he'd tried each lock three or four times with increasing frustration. A fierce, searching kiss up against the door didn't get it open any faster, but it got them across the threshold in record time once the locks gave.
"How long have you wanted this?" Abed demanded, flipping down the mess of blankets that Troy had left on the couch (he'd slept there the night before, just in case). He sat down and picked at his shoelaces, struggling to pull his sneakers off.
"Abed, I don't know," Troy said, for a moment close to tears. "Probably ever since we first met. As you've noticed and sometimes like to remind me, I'm slow to catch on." He sat down beside Abed and dealt with his own shoes, taking deep, calming breaths.
They were both scared shitless, which was, in a strange way, kind of comforting.
"You've done this before, right?" Abed asked. "Not necessarily with a guy, but—"
"Oh, sure," Troy retorted. "Says the dude who's kissed more people than I can count."
Abed shrugged. "As and when the scripts required it. So many movies, so little time."
"Before this goes any further, let's make sure we're clear on one thing," Troy said, turning to him. He set his damp palm against Abed's cheek and looked him directly in the eyes. "From now on, you're saving that bucket list of Hollywood lip-locks for me."
Abed responded with a glassy-eyed, solemn nod. "I can't go to grad school unless you come, too," he said in a rush. "Life without you beside me would feel like a lie."
Troy's brain knew he ought to say something mushy in response, but his body won.
"Just so you know, I haven't done this," he said between kisses. "Not like you think."
"Me neither. I don't need perfection. I just need you to be weird and to want me."
Hazily, Troy realized this was somehow the first time Abed had left him speechless.
"Don't worry," said Abed, his breath uneven, and wasted no time rucking up Troy's shirt. "You've already got both covered. Now, I just need you to do it with your hand down my pants. Don't just lie there; you normally take direction better than this."
"You," Troy said, "are the hottest thing I've ever seen or heard. Don't stop talking."
His hand didn't stay down Abed's pants for long, not least because it took only ten seconds of his fingers curled around Abed's dick for Abed's breath to start coming in hitched whimpers, which sounds Troy correctly translated as PANTS OFF, NOW.
"Sorry, stopped talking," said Abed, pulling Troy back against himself as soon as Troy had kicked free of his own jeans and underwear. "You feel so good I could scream."
"Oh my God," Troy said, falling into the blissful rhythm of Abed's thrusts. "Will you?"
"Maybe," Abed replied, his voice terse and broken. "Don't...don't know. Give it time."
Without further warning, he hid is face in the crook of Troy's neck and went almost perfectly still. Awe-struck, Troy held Abed through the slight tremors that wracked his lanky frame. It took a moment or two for the weight of the situation to sink in. This was happening because of him; he was the reason Abed continued to fall apart even as the tension left him, even as he whispered Please stay against Troy's skin.
"I'm not going anywhere unless you're going, too," Troy told him, and it wasn't even necessary to guide Abed's hand to his own hard-on because Abed was already mapping his hip, his inner thigh, and then—there. Abed's deft fingers were even better at this than Troy had imagined; at the last minute, Abed stopped stroking and crushed their hips back together. Troy came with a choked, helpless groan.
He hadn't dreamed that evening would find them wrapped up half naked in each other, both a shaking wreck. He ran his unsteady fingertips from the contours of Abed's rib cage down to his hip, and then pressed a kiss against Abed's flushed cheek.
"This is the part where I tell you I've loved you for years," Abed explained, his monotone uncharacteristically soft, "and you say that you'll never leave me again."
As best he could in the cramped space, Troy propped himself up on one elbow and kissed Abed full on the mouth. They'd somehow managed to pull this off lying face to face, with Abed's back to the door, and, miraculously, neither one of them had fallen off the couch. That was cause for pride in its own right, never mind that they'd pulled off a proper grown-up seduction and seen it through to the closing credits.
"How could I?" Troy asked, and, in that moment, Abed's expression was worth every scrap and feather of pain they'd ever inflicted—or ever would inflict—on each other.
It was also in that moment that the apartment door rattled open. Abed snagged the covers with his foot and hauled them up as far as he could before snuggling in against Troy's chest; Troy caught hold of the blankets in record time and tugged them up and to Abed's nape just as Annie shrieked, dropped her keys, and covered her eyes.
"Oh my gosh, you guys! That's, um, wow—that's so sweet! And happened so fast!"
"Not really," said Abed, muffled against Troy's skin. "It took three and a half years."
Jeff fussed with his hair, doing his best to look anywhere but at the couch.
"Gee, guys, what Annie said! Is there any chance we can pretend this didn't happen?"
Troy checked Abed's expression, or at least what he could see of it, and didn't detect distress so much as a sense of Nope, not reacting to this right now. He had his eyes decisively closed, and he had tightened his hold on Troy's waist. Troy kissed Abed's forehead, which drew another squeak from Annie (she must have been peering through the pronounced crack in her fingers) and an exasperated huff from Jeff.
"Would you guys mind just grabbing whatever you came here for and leave?"
"Right," said Annie, sheepishly, letting her hand drop. "I'll only be a minute," she said to Jeff, cheeks scarlet, and then made a dash for her bedroom door.
Jeff nodded and watched her vanish inside, scuffing the floor with the soles of his expensive shoes. Hands on hips, composing himself, he finally met Troy's eyes and, breaking into a grin that was almost giddy, mouthed Great job!
It was infectious; suddenly, Troy found himself returning it, feeling as if his cheeks might split. He glanced down at Abed, whose hair he'd been absently stroking, and then nodded back at Jeff in grateful acknowledgement.
"Clothes for the weekend, check!" said Annie, purposefully breezing back through the common area and into the bathroom. She emerged after considerable rattling and rummaging, toothbrush in hand, triumphant. "Oral-B, check! All ready to go."
"We've been here about ten minutes too long," Jeff said, but he was relaxed and smiling, no longer embarrassed. "Let's go." He saluted Troy and went out into the hall.
"I'll be gone till Sunday," Annie told Troy, wearing her own insane, dazzling grin, an gave him the same thumbs-up that everyone else had been flashing him all day. One-handed, Troy returned it, and, much to his surprise, so did Abed, although his arm was the only thing that emerged from beneath the blankets.
"Bye!" Annie gushed and, as Jeff loudly cleared his throat, scampered out.
"I hate to tell you this, but the whole school's going to know by Monday," sighed Troy, as Abed finally opened his eyes to peer up at him with languid detachment. "Even the Dean. Especially the Dean. There is going to be so much cake that we won't even know what to do with it. We'll have to leave the leftovers for Annie's Boobs."
Abed stretched. "We should take this to bed and finish getting undressed. In spite of the unfortunately clichéd interruption, I'm up for another go. What do you think?"
He got to his feet and pulled Troy up after him, making a face at the mess.
"I think I love you, too," Troy said faintly, melting against Abed's shoulder.
"I know," said Abed, half smiling as he twined their fingers, and led him out.
Abed nodded, jostling his tasseled pillow party-hat askew.
"Gay sex," Pierce repeated. "Gay sex with him?" he added, indicating Troy.
Troy nodded, too, grinning slyly around a mouthful of cake.
Pierce clapped Troy on the back and laughed without any trace of irony.
"Looks like I can unload the last of those Pride wipes in trunk of my car!"
Abed wasn't sure whose cake hit Pierce first, but then, it didn't really matter.
The thought was what counted—and, of course, the miserably framed shot Britta was recording with her phone. You couldn't put a price on memories, or on film.
Chapter 2: Studies in Personal Mythology
"I'll need a blender, an auburn wig, ping-pong paddles, and a snorkel mask," [Abed] told them both gravely. "Annie, can we stop at Wal-Mart?"
Troy woke up two minutes before the alarm was set to go off, which was pretty much business as usual. Abed didn't like alarm sounds, at least not the standard array of really abrasive ones, and even the unobtrusive harp-tone that they'd chosen when they first moved into the apartment was best switched off before it managed to drag Abed from sleep and into gasping, momentary panic. Troy reached over Abed, balancing precariously, and fished for his phone on the floor. He deactivated it.
Relieved, Troy settled back down beside Abed, who hadn't reacted in the slightest to Troy squashing his middle. He studied Abed's features, struck by the contrast between how peaceful he looked in sleep and his appallingly hilarious case of bed-head.
"Hey, gorgeous," Troy murmured, stroking Abed's nape. "Time to wake up."
"No," Abed muttered, rolling over to burrow against Troy's shoulder. "Can't."
"I'll give you a blow job," Troy said, sliding one thigh between Abed's, and, wow, stupid move; he was already hard, so they were going to be late. Warm, sleepy, turned-on Abed would be enough to short-circuit anybody. "You like blow jobs."
"I also like Lucky Charms, Trix, and Froot Loops," Abed replied, but he wiggled even closer. "I'd wondered when you would start bribing me with sex instead of cereal."
"You seriously want Froot Loops instead of a blow job?"
"Not really. You do make a sound, compelling argument."
In five weeks of sharing the bottom bunk (or the top bunk, or the air mattress in the Dreamatorium), they'd been late for class four times and once completely skipped it. If this was what people meant by honeymoon period, then Troy wondered why they had the shit luck of spending it at Greendale instead of someplace that didn't suck.
"Are you still with me here?" Abed asked, sharply biting the spot on Troy's neck he'd previously been sucking. "Granted, I love the fact that our intimate relationship defies trope-based expectations. You're the easily distracted one, and I'm all business."
"Ow!" Troy yelped, bucking against him. "Fuck, yes, keep talking. Fuck..."
"Speaking of which," said Abed, "if we're going to do that, we need supplies."
That did it. Abed's hand on him, plus that shiny thing Abed could do by just not shutting up, had him shuddering to spectacular, love-struck pieces in record time.
"That cut about ten minutes off this encounter," said Abed, but his voice wasn't steady anymore, and he was shoving against Troy's slick belly with increasing urgency.
Troy kissed Abed on his busy, maddening mouth and rolled him over onto his back. The constant monologue turned to a kind of strangled moan, and it was all Troy could do to keep Abed still enough so that he could get his mouth to its final destination.
"Troy," Abed gasped. "Troy, Troy, Troy..."
When Abed finally came, the sound he made, while not quite a scream, was certainly close. Troy wiped his chin on the back of his hand and kissed Abed's bony hip.
"You're getting there. Annie probably heard that."
"Annie is preoccupied. Jeff came in last night."
"You mean after we all went to bed?"
"Yeah," said Abed, smoothing Troy's hair. "She gave him a key."
Troy dropped a couple more kisses, one on Abed's belly and one on the ticklish spot they'd discovered on his left side just beneath his ribs, and got up. Let Britta say what she would about Pierce's bigotry, but Hawthorne Pride Wipes did work a treat.
"A blow job and Froot Loops," said Abed, buttoning up his pajama-top as he followed Troy out of the bedroom. "Best morning ever. Can we also have strawberry Kool-Aid?"
They left the apartment just as Annie and Jeff were getting up, which meant that, with any luck, they wouldn't be that day's favored objects of torment. They stopped at the fountain and made a few wishes (most notably that they'd get to have sex somewhere that wasn't their overcrowded apartment or, darkly remembering one night the previous week, Abed's old twin bed at his dad's house), which delayed them getting to European History by about five minutes—only to discover a note on the classroom door stating that class had been canceled because Professor Cornwallis was being detained due to an immigration issue. Shirley's handwriting graced the bottom:
We'll be waiting in the study room. Come over, we have coffee and muffins!!!
Somehow, through nefarious use of Jeff's car, Annie and Jeff had managed to get to the library before them by almost five minutes. Troy and Abed entered to a fanfare of hoots and applause, complete with Leonard passing by in the opposite doorway to deliver a raspberry. Britta was silently glaring at everyone else for being jerks.
Pierce set a latte down in front of each of them as they took their seats.
"Does this mean Troy and Abed in the Morning has a whole new meaning?"
"Screw you, Pierce," said Troy.
"I'm flattered, but no thanks."
"Simmer down, kids," said Jeff, passing along the two organic blue-corn muffins (Britta's bad influence) that Shirley had graciously removed from the carton. "What shall we do with this miraculously granted breathing space? Take a three-hour lunch, or continue to invade these adorable lovebirds' privacy for a sixth week running?"
"We stayed over at my dad's house last week," Abed volunteered. "It was a disaster."
"Yeah, but he gives me free shawarma when I fix stuff that's broken in the kitchen."
"You guys are rude," Britta chided. "Why not ask how Abed's applications are going?"
"I'm putting the finishing touches on another short," Abed told her. "You're in it."
"Abed, the deadlines are all in early December," she reminded him firmly. "Hustle."
"Columbia and VCFA are December first, but LFS is November first," said Abed.
Troy grabbed one of Abed's restless hands and stroked it. "Don't you pressure him!"
"Hey-Diddly-Dean!" exclaimed Pelton, barging in dressed as—well, there was no mistaking the catch-phrase or the awful wig and mustache. Even Troy recognized a Ned Flanders impression when he saw one. The Simpsons and South Park ruled.
(Literally. They'd held a referendum and voted The Simpsons Student Vice President.)
Jeff scooted his chair an inch closer to Annie's as Pelton elbowed him.
"Gee, I'm stumped," he said, deadpan. "What's the occasion? I give up."
"In support of our dearly detained Professor Cornwallis, we're having a Halfway to Half-Term dance. Get it? Half-term's what they call the midterm point of the semester in Great Britain. Clever, am I right? Am I right? Okay, you guys are killing my buzz today; what's with that? Anyway, it's a fancy-dress affair—that's British for costume party—and the theme is movies and television, anything goes," cooed the Dean, winking at Troy and Abed each in turn. "You've got till Friday to come up with your costumes, because that's the only night we could book the space; Glee Club's got first dibs for Pre-Regionals rehearsal. Okilly-dokilly, neighbors! Get to work."
He gave Annie a reproachful look, copped a feel of Jeff's hair, and fled.
"I can't decide what's creepier," said Shirley. "That blasphemous costume, or the fact he's finding every possible opportunity to celebrate sodomy. No offense," she added sweetly, reaching across the table in Abed's direction. Troy scowled at her.
"None taken," said Abed, levering himself up a little to brush her fingertips.
* * *
"He got a call to go repair something across campus, so I came home," Abed told her, popping another icing-covered Teddy Graham into his mouth. "Remember these?"
"That's your—that's your dinner?" replied Annie, with easily recognizable horror.
"Yep," said Abed, finally hitting PAUSE. "Even I get sick of buttered noodles."
"Even buttered noodles are better than that," she said, shuddering. "Hey, do you want me to make you some? Just the way you like, with a tiny bit of sea salt mixed in?"
Abed considered this, nodded, and then hit PLAY. "Cool. Cool cool cool."
They chattered aimlessly about the action (they'd both seen this episode several times before) while Annie bustled about the kitchen. As it turned out, Jeff was going out for drinks with an old co-worker that night, and Annie didn't want to get in his way. Abed pointed out that it would make for some classic relationship tension. Annie agreed.
"I wish everybody would lay off of you guys," she said, carrying a brimming bowl over to him. "You're still feeling your way into each other—oh God, I'm sorry, that came out wrong—and you should be able to do that without your friends and college administrators butting in every five seconds for updates. How is Troy in bed?"
"Not telling," said Abed, winding a forkful of noodles. "Nah, I lied; he's awesome. Not that I have any previous frame of reference, unless I count the people I've kissed." He shoveled the noodles into his mouth and chewed. "He's better than you and—"
Something tiny, round, soft, grainy, and sweet burst between his teeth.
His bowl hit the floor and broke; he heard the crack above the sound of his own high, sustained screech. He covered his ears and curled in on himself as tightly as he could.
Just then, over Annie's garbled panic, he also heard keys rattle the door and Troy's shout of dismay. "Hey, what happened? You broke my boyfriend! Again!"
"I snuck frozen peas into his buttered noodles! I'm sorry! I caught him eating Teddy Grahams dipped in Betty Crocker icing and totally flipped out! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Troy, but you guys' eating habits are horrible. Take it from a soon-to-be certified healthcare administrator: you had better start taking better care of each other, especially now that you're romantically involved! Think of your future!"
"Annie, shut up. We were always romantically involved. The only difference is that now we're—none of your business!" The arm of Abed's chair sagged beneath Troy's weight, and Abed turned instinctively into the curve of Troy's arm as it curled around him. "Shhh, hey," he murmured against Abed's forehead. "Calm down. Annie's going to clean up that crap, and we'll go get whatever you want. Chicken fingers?"
Abed fell silent, breathing into Troy's shirt. "Maybe," he said, shakily, "but I think she has a valid point. The gift of fast metabolism doesn't last forever."
"Oh!" Annie retorted, busy on the floor. "Gee, thanks! So now I'm suddenly right?"
"We're both still in our twenties," Troy reminded him. "I don't think we have to worry about this shit for another ten years. You can have whatever you want."
Abed peered up at him, and then turned his body to glance tentatively down at Annie.
"Can you drive us over to my dad's? I want falafel and salad with lemon dressing."
"OH MY GOD!" Annie shouted, stomping to her feet. "Grow up for once, both of you!"
Shouting was always too exhausting. Abed hid his face, and Troy shielded him.
"Annie, I'm sorry. Please, please drive us over there. I got paid, so dinner's on me."
Annie sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. She scooped up the huge wad of dirty paper towels, went over to throw them in the garbage, and then came back with her right hand extended like a peace offering. "Guys, I'm sorry," she said. "Jeff is stressing me out. I still don't know whether I'm his girlfriend or his fuck buddy."
"There's a movie for that," Abed cut in. "Several, actually. We can watch them later."
"Dinner's fine, but no movies for me," Annie said. "I've got to study tonight."
"That's okay," said Abed. "That means I can start the costume selection line-up I've been planning for Troy and me. You and Jeff should go as Alyssa Jones and Holden McNeil from Chasing Amy. That's so appropriate I've got goosebumps."
"You get him quiet right now," Annie said to Troy, thinly, "and meet me at the car."
She stalked out, sniffling. Troy tipped Abed's chin up and looked him in the eyes.
"You know that was a bit not good, right? Way not good. You just outdid Sherlock."
Abed nodded, letting this sink in. "Costume suggestions, however perfect they may be, aren't apologies. Noted. Speaking of the BBC, given that the dance is in honor of Professor Cornwallis, maybe we should—"
His eyes flew wide at exactly the same moment Troy's did, and their fist-bump went wonky because of the close, awkward angle. That didn't matter so much, though, because it was just as easy to tilt his head up for a kiss, so he did.
Annie's footsteps stomped back up the hall. She poked her head in through the door.
"Fuck my life. I've just figured out that I'm actually Aidan Quinn in Benny & Joon!"
"That means Jeff is Julianne Moore, you're Johnny Depp, and I'm Mary Stuart Masterson," Abed whispered to Troy, impressed by Annie's flash of insight. "It checks out."
"Hold the phone, no," said Troy, quickly. "I am not dressing as some quirky, yet lovable Buster Keaton impersonator, not when we've just psychically decided Sherlock and John would be perfect—dammit, Abed, don't give me those eyes—"
"I'll need a blender, an auburn wig, ping-pong paddles, and a snorkel mask," he told them both gravely. "Annie, can we stop at Wal-Mart?"
* * *
She answered the door with gel-pen and notepad in hand. "Is everything okay?"
"Abed's out like a light," Troy whispered. "I don't know how long it will last. I wanted to make sure you were okay. We were both total asshats to you today, Abed especially. I really hope you figure things out with Jeff. Is he coming here tonight?"
Annie rolled her eyes. "He said he would when drinks were over. He has a key."
"I know," said Troy. "Abed told me. Maybe ask us before you do that next time?"
"Sure," Annie replied, eyes downcast in mild embarrassment. "Listen, I really..."
"You get back to studying," Troy said. "I'll keep an eye out for Jeff. Don't worry."
Troy knew exactly what he had to do as soon as her bedroom door was shut again. He put on his letterman jacket, grabbed his European History textbook, and headed downstairs. It was a chilly night, and he didn't know how long he'd have to wait. The bucket full of concrete that they'd been using ever since he'd sold the antique brick on eBay for a hundred and twenty bucks made for a suitable, if uncomfortable, seat.
Forty-five minutes later, just as Troy was getting sick of reading Chapter Three for the fourth time, Jeff's Lexus pulled into the parking lot and slotted itself neatly into one of the guest spaces. Troy closed the book and set it down on the bucket, arms folded across his chest. Smirking, Jeff took his sweet time getting there.
"T-Bone!" he exclaimed. "To what pleasure do I owe this juvenile visitation?"
"You need to stop messing with Annie's head," Troy said angrily. "Like, yesterday. I'm not even kidding. She's really into you, maybe even loves you, and you're not giving her a clear idea of where she stands. Harsh much?"
"Troy, can I offer you some advice on how this whole relationship lark works? First of all, let me assure you that what I'm about to say is based on over twenty years' experience packed with plentiful fuck-ups and even fewer successes. Have I got your attention now? Good, because given you're exactly as far along in your current love affair as I am in mine, you'd better take heed. Romance is one thing, and sex is another. Sometimes the two go hand in hand, but they don't necessarily all of the time. You and Abed have been chugging along happily in the hopelessly-devoted-to-you fast track since our first year in this hell-hole. You've added sex to something that's already real, stable, and, as far as I can tell, so rock-solid that not even a wrecking ball like Britta Perry could make a dent. Me and Annie, on the other hand, have been a hot mess since our first year in this hell-hole, and I have no fucking idea if what we've got is stable enough to withstand the wrecking balls I encounter almost on a nightly basis. I don't know what I want, and she doesn't know what she wants, either. She's young and ambitious. I'm old and grasping at straws, fast on my way to Pierce-hood. Is this making any sense? I sure hope so, because I'm tired of talking."
Troy shook his head at Jeff, disappointed, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets.
"Man, that's some kind of Britta'd up. Annie's almost the same age as Abed and me, which, by the way, is twenty-three. We're staring down the barrel at thirty. I think you lost track of the fact that we've been growing up right under your Bioré-strip chapped nose. That's right, motherfucker. I'm brand-conscious. You listen up, and you listen good: if you break Annie's heart, I'm going to sneak into your fancy-ass condo and break your air-conditioning unit so thoroughly that even I won't be able to fix it."
Jeff blinked at him, mortified. "Who's being harsh now? Can you even do that?"
"I can do whatever the hell I want once I've got those suckers open. Just try me."
"Touché," said Jeff, raising both hands in the air. "You've got me. Message received."
Troy's cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and flipped it open. "Hello?"
"Troy, I don't know what you're up to down there, but you'd better come back. Abed's making a mess up here. He put Captain Crunch, peanut butter, and God-only-knows what else in the blender we just bought him, and as for what he's wearing—"
"Not urgent," said Troy. "Trust me, just let it run its course." He hung up on her and fixed Jeff with a cool stare. "That was Annie. She's probably wondering where you are, too. There's a strong, confident young woman up there who's waiting for you to come rock her world. She's been studying all night, dude. She's going to need it."
Jeff flashed Troy a half-smile, that chagrined, weirdly adorable forgive-me face that only he could deliver. He offered Troy his hand, and, God help him, Troy accepted it.
"I know you care about her a lot. You wouldn't have taken so much time otherwise."
"And I know you love Abed so much that it scares you shitless. I think we're even."
Just then, Abed came outside wearing the blond wig they'd used for the Kickpuncher remake, the snorkel mask they'd bought earlier at Wal-Mart, and an early nineties get-up cobbled together from bits of his personal costume cache.
He wielded the ping-pong paddles with convincing authority.
"Fuck my life," said Jeff, after thirty whole seconds of gaping at him in silence. "We're in that movie where Johnny Depp plays an idiot savant obsessed with Buster Keaton."
"Nailed it," said Abed. Directing with his paddles, he led them all laughing upstairs.
* * *
Joon's version of Special Drink was vile. At least now he knew.
After European History and a lunch break curtailed by Pierce throwing a tantrum over the fact that Abed hadn't included him in the costume scheme, Abed made his move. Once Britta and Shirley had secretively left the table together—their third time this week, which was what had solidified Abed's sub-plot in the first place—he kissed Troy in front of Annie and Jeff (but effectively in front of the whole cafeteria; everyone was watching) and told him he'd see him at home. He had an errand to run.
Abed found Annie and Britta huddled together in the study room with their heads bent low over Shirley's notebook that pertained to all things sandwich-shop.
"Hey, sweetie," said Britta, her face lighting up when she saw him. "Annie texted me about what you just did in the cafeteria. That's such a big step for you guys!"
"Not really," said Abed, sliding into the seat next to her. "You weren't along for the walk five and a half weeks ago when I kissed Troy at every crosswalk between here and home. I figured it would save us the trouble of coming out. Mostly it did."
"I want you and Troy to know that I support you in your pursuit of happiness even though Our Savior has something else to say on the subject," said Shirley, beaming at him beatifically. "Besides, you two are so cute together. It's nice."
"Jesus never said anything on the subject. I read the Bible because you asked me to, remember? I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that all that negative press homosexuality gets—it's mentioned so seldom as to be inconsequential—is just Paul being a dick. Can I talk to you guys about my problem with Annie now?"
Shirley nodded, shocked, and Britta nodded, too, looking so happy she might cry.
"I offended Annie yesterday by throwing the bowl of buttered noodles with peas that she made me and going semi-catatonic. It was the peas' fault. After that, I told her that she and Jeff should go to the dance as the romantic leads from Chasing Amy. She left the room in tears, at which point Troy explained that, due to her fragile relationship standing with Jeff, my remark exceeded BBC Sherlock levels of a bit not good. I can see his point. My fit over the peas probably didn't help; she was only trying to improve my eating habits so I won't die of a heart-attack on Troy when we're forty. What should I do to make it up to her? You know how to cheer her up."
"Yeah," said Britta, "but you live with her. What does she do to cheer herself?"
"Make lists," said Abed. "Study. Make more lists. Study some more—"
"Oh dear Lord in heaven. Just go out, buy some flowers, and tell her you're sorry."
"That's lame and overdone," Abed told Shirley. "I want it to be more special than that. She's changed my life almost as much as Troy has."
"That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard you say about anyone," said Britta, dabbing her eyes with a cafeteria napkin. "Do you know what Annie wants more than anything in the world? For you to approve of her creative ideas once in a while."
"Oh, I just did that," said Abed. "Her group costume idea for the dance was flawless."
"Yeah, um, about that," said Britta. "Can I let you in on a little secret?"
Abed nodded in what he hoped was a passable simulacrum of amicability and let her whisper in his ear. He listened, listened some more, and then sat back to process.
"It'd mean so much to her, Abed," said Shirley. "Please think about it."
Abed smiled at her and then smiled at Britta. It was a sacrifice along the lines of letting her misuse the Quantum Spammer last season, but it was for the greater good.
"Consider it done," he said, and let Britta give him one of her too-enthusiastic hugs.
Later that evening, at home, Abed pulled Annie away from the dishes and, with the auburn wig he'd planned to use on Jeff in hand, beckoned her into the bathroom. Too curious to resist, Troy put down his homework and followed, hovering expectantly.
Abed situated Annie in front of the mirror and stood behind her right shoulder.
"What's this all about?" Annie asked. "Do you need my advice on a last-minute costume alteration? Honestly, I'm fine with whatever you wa—"
"No," Abed corrected her, dropping the wig in the sink. Calmly, he removed the lighter that had been bequeathed to him with the rest of Star-Burns' former possessions and set the untidy mass of acrylic hair on fire. "It's about what you want."
"Oh my God, Abed," she crooned tearfully, leaning back in Abed's arms while Troy hissed and swore and turned on the faucet in order to extinguish the flames before they managed to set off the smoke detector. "Thank you!"
"Tell Jeff he'd better brush up on his blue-collar mechanic look," said Abed, arranging Annie's hair across her shoulders as he critically studied her reflection. "Now, let's get this semi-permanent dye in so that it has time to mellow before tomorrow night."
* * *
"It would never work," said Abed, adjusting Troy's hat and stepping back to study the effect. "Don't look so sullen. Sam is perpetually overbrimming with childlike wonder."
"At least let him do away with the cast," Annie said, choosing that moment to stroll in the door, as if she'd been waiting out in the hall for a little while. As he turned to look at her, Troy considered the fact that he'd had no idea where she'd rushed off to after class, and—holy haircut, Batman. She preened her new chin-length auburn bob, complete with bangs, twirling around for them to see. "Well, what do you think?"
Troy couldn't quite get his mouth to cooperate with his brain, so he was grateful when Jeff walked in straight on Annie's heels and handed her a modest bouquet.
"Haven't we tried this before?" Annie asked him, coquettishly averting her eyes.
"Yeah, but my life's a lot less complicated now," Jeff replied. "Is Joon inside?"
Abed had gone so wide-eyed and still that, for a moment, Troy thought they might have a problem on their hands. His chin was tilted down, though, rather than up, and after a few seconds he narrowed his eyes and watched with predatory interest.
"Yeah," said Annie-as-Ruthie, nodding in Abed's direction with a wink.
"Yeah?" Jeff-as-Benny asked, wearing a grin way too hopeful to be his own. "Okay."
"And, scene," said Abed, framing them with his outstretched hands. He spun around to look at Troy, glowing. "We can't do ours yet. Timing demands that we wait."
"That's fine," said Troy, applauding Annie and Troy as they curtseyed. "Seriously, can't we lose the cast? You made a concession on their behalf. Why not mine?"
"Annie's and Jeff's costumes are incredibly low-key. Although accurate to what's portrayed onscreen, not everyone will have seen the film. They're just going to look like they dressed a couple of decades behind the times and did something different with their hair. Your costume is the pièce de résistance. It provides the most important element of all: context." With that, Abed donned the snorkel mask over his wig, adjusted his leather belt, and raised his ping-pong paddles in traffic-guard stance.
"Context, huh?" Troy asked. "Had it even occurred to you that you're wearing it?"
Abed tilted his head, considering. He wandered into the bathroom, spent about a minute inside, and then wandered back out again, lips rounded in an oh of surprise.
"Now that you mention it, the cast is superfluous. But you need to keep the cane."
Annie and Jeff were both laughing so hard that they ended up leaning on each other.
"What?" Abed asked. "What's so funny? Is the floral print on my dress wrong?"
"No, Abed," Troy told him, leaning in. "We're laughing because it's just right."
Abed shoved the snorkel mouthpiece out of the way so that Troy could kiss him.
"Much though I could do this all night," said Jeff, "we'd better get going."
"Yep," said Annie, glancing at her watch. "We've got to grab dinner on the way."
"Can we go someplace that has both raisins and tapioca pudding?" Abed asked.
"No," said Annie and Jeff in unison, even as Troy fervently replied with Yes.
Abed held Troy back until they'd gone out the door, and then kissed him back.
* * *
"Gay," Pierce said, taking one look at Abed and Troy. "Gay, gay, and triple gay," he added, his eyes flicking dismissively over Annie, Jeff, and Britta.
"You're just jealous," said Britta, hands on hips, "because I look the part." She was dressed as Alyssa Jones from Chasing Amy, right down to the make-up, which Abed hoped wouldn't throw up unnecessary static between Annie and Jeff.
"Who are you supposed to be?" Pierce asked Shirley and Andre. "The Cosbys?"
"We just came as ourselves," replied Shirley, saccharine as ever, and then added, turning to Andre, "You can kick his ass later. Please don't ruin this for the kids."
"Then I guess the question remains," mused Abed, thoughtfully. "Who are you?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Pierce, chuckling. "I'm Fat Brando. Duh-doy."
"Unbelievable," Troy muttered. "He still can't even get the inflection right."
"My goodness," gushed the Dean, coming up behind Jeff and Annie, one leather-clad forearm on each of their shoulders. "Benny and Ruthie! And we've even got Joon and Sam along for the ride. If there was a prize tonight, you guys would win."
"Did Rocky Horror Club let out early tonight?" Jeff asked. "Sassy."
Pelton lifted his arms and sashayed into the middle of their circle, doing a runway spin. "Isn't it fabulous? I've been saving this one for a super special occasion. Is anybody up for The Time Warp, or is it too early in the night for that?"
They all stared at him. Abed cleared his throat and stuck in his mouthpiece.
"Gotcha," said Pelton. "Too early. You don't know what fun you're missing."
Britta watched him strut off, her look carrying the vague suggestion of trauma.
"I can't even pull off heels that high," she lamented. "Goddamn!"
"Are we going to dance or what?" Annie asked, shimmying to the track that had just come up. It was Day-O, as popularized in the Beetlejuice soundtrack.
Pierce stood off to one side with a drink in hand while the rest of them stormed the dance floor. In retrospect, Abed was fiercely glad he'd approved nixing Troy's cast; there's no way Troy would have been able to dance, and, on a night like this, not permitting such a thing would have been a crime. The conga line was fine up until Garrett (Cogsworth) and Vicki (Belle) joined in, at which point, all bets were off. Troy managed to haul Abed out before the whole affair went down like dominoes.
"That was kind of insane," said Abed, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Thanks."
"I wish they'd play some slow songs," said Troy. "I want to take you for a spin."
Abed discreetly caught the DJ's eye and held up one paddle. The DJ nodded.
"This one's not too bad," said Abed, considering the opening strains of Unchained Melody. "Overdone, maybe, but it brings back memories from pottery class."
"At least it's not My Heart Will Go On," said Troy, offering Abed his arm.
"I'll lead," said Abed, but there was no need; Troy had already begun to follow.
The timing was perfect. By a third of the way into the song, Troy's head was already on Abed's shoulder, lending Abed a clear view of the dim room. Garrett and Vicki were dancing awkwardly in their bulky raiment, engrossed in each other. Shirley and Andre were swaying more or less in one place, beaming at each other, and Britta—
"Six o'clock," Abed said, nudging Troy's forehead with his chin. "Is that Rick?"
"I'll be damned," Troy sighed, watching them with wonder. "Love found a way."
"Mhmmm," Abed agreed, inclining his head so that Troy ducked his own back down against Abed's shoulder. He hadn't caught sight of Annie and Jeff, which was worrying.
Perhaps if he could find the Dean—aha, on the sidelines with Pierce—and follow his line of sight, he'd be set. In the far corner of the room, almost completely obscured by a sea of garish costume-shop rentals speckled with a handful of admirable indie efforts, Jeff and Annie stood swaying, almost so still they seemed not to move.
My work here is done, Abed thought. He briefly lifted his hand from Troy's shoulder blade and used it to raise the snorkel mask. Troy looked up at him, questioning.
"You okay?" he asked as the song wound down. "Do you want to go get some air?"
"Cool," said Abed, steering Troy through the crowd toward the exit. "Cool cool cool." Behind his back, he unholstered the ping-pong paddles from his belt and crossed them, hoping the DJ had remembered to look. For fifty bucks, he better have.
They walked through the cooling twilight, arms slung across each other's shoulders. Abed had no difficulty steering them toward the library; Troy was too caught up in their conversation about all of the weirdness taking place on the dance floor.
"I hope he doesn't hurt her," he continued, allowing Abed to hold the door for him without even asking why they were going inside. "Anyway, ball's in Winger's court."
Abed closed the door. There were just enough utility lights lining the halls that he didn't have to flip any switches. He didn't think there were any security staff in the building (not since the budget slash), but he didn't want to take any chances.
"Where are we going?" Troy asked, grabbing Abed's hand as he followed him through the shadowed stacks toward the center. "Did you leave something in the study room?"
"No," said Abed, "but we are going there. I just wanted someplace quiet."
Even though Troy was the one who was supposed to be surprised, the re-purposed Christmas lights' luminescence almost made Abed catch his breath. Troy halted them in the doorway, squeezing Abed's hand. He brought it to his mouth and kissed it.
"You're a complete sap," he told Abed, grinning. "You know that, right?"
"Yes, but I prefer to think of it as nostalgia. It's my one true weakness."
"Get over here," said Troy. He flopped down on the couch and patted the cushion beside him, propping his feet on the coffee table. He set his hat down on it, too, and glanced at Abed, who hadn't moved from where he stood next to the couch.
Abed removed the snorkel mask and set it on the table, followed by his belt and the ping-pong paddles. It couldn't be a direct re-enactment; the lighting was all wrong, it technically called for a bed, and they hadn't started out with an in-progress charcoal drawing on the floor. He pulled off his shoes, and then crawled across the cushions until he could swing one leg over Troy's hips and settle in his lap.
Troy studied Abed's face, eyes half-lidded in the low, intermittent light. He reached up and pushed the wig back from Abed's forehead until it fell on the floor, smiling.
"Do you even know how ridiculous you look in that thing?" he asked, leaning forward.
They ended up kissing for about two full minutes before the PA system crackled softly to life, the resonant strains of John Hiatt's piano echoing around them. Troy stopped dead in his progress on the buttons down the front of Abed's dress, pulling back.
"I love this song," he said. "I was devastated it wasn't on the CD soundtrack."
"I love this scene," Abed replied. "I was devastated that it didn't go on for longer, but I understood the need for brevity. The off-cut shots and slight blurring are sheer brilliance. I tried to referece it, but I don't think I got it right—"
"When we were filming Kickpuncher, yeah, I know," said Troy, impatiently pushing the sleeves of Abed's dress down to his elbows. "Seriously? You bothered with a bra? Damn, that's hot," he sighed, lost in the music. "Blue's really your color."
Unblinking, Abed dipped the index and middle finger of each hand into the padded cups, producing a condom from each. "We're going to have to wear these," he said, tearing the wrappers open with his teeth one after the other. "Not too many clothes need to come off, just the fronts unfastened, but I don't want to ruin the upholstery."
"Abed, this is the part where you shut your mouth, unbutton my shirt and pants, get the hell out of your underwear, and put those things where they need to go. Got it?"
"Yep, got it," Abed faltered, setting the condoms aside as he rose to strip out of his heart-print briefs (they didn't match his bra; that was mostly the point), taking advantage of a swell in the chords. His three-quarters unbuttoned dress hung loosely, not hiding much of anything, and Troy's eyes flitted from Abed's face to his hands to his dick and back again as Abed unfastened Troy's shirt and trousers.
Troy closed his eyes and let his head fall against the back of the couch when Abed undid the single button on his briefs and, with shaking fingers, drew him out.
"We don't have much time," said Abed, clumsily grabbing the condoms, and settled back in Troy's lap. "I know how these work in theory, but not in practice. Can you—"
Troy took the condoms out of Abed's hand and kissed him until he was dizzy. He saw to himself first, and then Abed, making an unhurried tease of it. The thin layer of polyurethane made Abed's skin feel strange, stretched to bursting, but Troy was kissing Abed again and shifting beneath him, hips lifted and legs spread to settle lower against the cushions to give Abed a better angle. Abed locked down and clung to him, nerves on fire. He could hear himself like he could usually hear himself in moments of distress, but his cries were lower, less strangled. Troy was gasping open-mouthed against his neck, struggling to keep quiet, probably because he wanted...
Abed had never heard himself scream before. He'd never come this hard, either.
"Shhh." That was Troy, calm again and rubbing Abed's back, his forehead plastered against Abed's cheek. "Abed, hey," he whispered. "The song's over."
Abed nodded, eyes screwed shut, sagging forward to let his head rest against the back of the couch. Troy kissed Abed's neck and pulled the dress, by now damp and wrinkled, back up onto his shoulders. Abed let out a ragged breath—all the air he had left, it felt like—and sat back up so that Troy could pull the condoms off of them.
"Under the couch," Abed managed. "I stashed some wipes. We should leave them."
Troy set the condoms down on the wrappers and took Abed's face in both hands.
"You know this means we're doing way more than just film kisses now," he said.
"Yes," Abed agreed, working on his buttons right through the press of Troy's lips.
They got back to the dance a little over forty minutes after they'd left. The Time Warp was in full swing, which meant that a rather inebriated Dean Pelton was right in his element. Even Pierce had drunk enough to forget his snit and join the action, flanked, improbably, by Shirley and Andre. Britta and Rick, formerly Subway, were nowhere in evidence. They found Annie and Jeff sitting together on the floor along the far wall; Annie rested heavily against Jeff's shoulder, almost asleep, and Jeff had one arm wrapped tightly around her. He glanced up at Abed expectantly.
"Did you guys have fun? Don't tell me my fifty bucks died in vain."
"Never better spent," Troy told him before Abed could open his mouth.
"I want to go home now," said Abed, squeezing Troy's hand. "It's loud."
"Good idea," Jeff said, indicating Annie. "This one's turned into a pumpkin."
Jeff dropped them off right in front of the entrance to their apartment building. Abed reached for the back door and said, "We should be able to carry her inside."
"Don't bother," Annie mumbled, swatting Troy's hands away. "Going with Jeff."
"Cool," said Abed, and, glancing at Troy, shut the car door. "Good night."
"Get some sleep," said Jeff, waving as he coasted. "You guys look wrecked."
"That was a great night," said Abed, watching him drive away. "I—I love you."
It took Troy a second to catch up. "Me too," he said. "Don't tell Benny."
"Okay," agreed Abed, turning to kiss him, never mind who might be watching.
They'd spoken each other's lines, but that didn't make them any less true.
"I think a stunt double did the ironing," Abed replied, studying his own handiwork.
To the driving strains of The Pretenders, Dean Pelton poked his head into the study room. He frowned at the MP3 player on its speaker dock, the rickety ironing board, and the plate piled high with scorched toasted-cheese sandwiches.
"I hate to say it, but I don't think we're zoned for this," he said.
Chapter 3: Sex, Politics, and Halloween
"I don't care what Chang says," Abed insisted. "I rocked those boots."
"Abed, get that thing out of my face," said his father, in Arabic. "I'm trying to explain to your friend that this is not how things work where we come from."
"I need the shot," Abed replied in kind, and then repeated himself in English. "It may not be the way things work where you come from, but now you're here, and this is where I was born and raised. It's too late to use that argument."
"Yeah," said Troy, arms folded defiantly across his chest. "Fail."
Abed swung the camera back around to Britta, who was glaring at his father with righteous fury. "I thought we've been through this once already! Your son's a grown man and a Citizen of the United States. He can sleep with whomever he wants—hell," she added, working up to a climax with that signature jab of her index finger, "he can marry whomever he wants, depending on the state—oh my God, sweetie! Is that why Vermont made your short-list? I'd want real marriage, too, none of that civil union crap with limited rights that we've got here in Asscrackorado—"
"Wait," said Troy, taking hold of the camera and hauling it around so he could look straight into it. "I thought you said it was because they had Ben and Jerry's!"
"I cannot believe this is happening in my kitchen," Abed's father, resigned to speaking the group's lingua franca. "It's legal in New York, too, which is why he's also applying to Columbia. Next time you barge into my restaurant to meet your friends and assume you know what the argument in progress is about, do your homework."
"Ooh," said Abed, pleased with his father's character development. "Burn."
Britta yanked the camera back onto her own face, and Abed made an ever-so-slight adjustment so that Jeff and Annie, immediately behind her, were also visible.
"Do you mean this isn't because he's saying you and Troy can't be together?"
"Dude, where have you been?" Troy asked from off-screen. "He's known since the week before the Halfway to Half-Term dance. Weren't you paying attention when Abed volunteered that information? My man Gubi here wasn't pleased about it—" Abed shifted the camera away from Britta to show that Troy actually had a hand on his father's shoulder, and that his father wasn't shrugging it off "—but he recognizes it's what's best for Abed and me, just like Shirley does." Abed gave him a thumbs-up and turned the lens back on Britta, who looked about ready to break down sobbing.
"Then what is this all about?" Jeff asked while Annie rubbed Britta's shoulders.
"It's my admissions essay for all three schools. I want them to see what's at stake. They're all excellent schools, so it's a win-win situation no matter where I end up going, but there are advantages and complications to each." He trained the camera back on his father's conflicted features and was pleased to discover Troy still had a hand on his shoulder. "London would be exciting for obvious reasons pertaining to my fannish interests, but I have reservations about it now because the British government has cracked down on immigration to such an extent that many student partner visas aren't being approved. For even more obvious reasons, that's unacceptable. However, there's a plot twist: Dad says I have to go to LFS if I get in, because Abra got married over the summer and lives in London now. She's promised she'll look after me."
"You're fighting because your dad says you have to go to what's basically the most awesome school on your list?" Annie demanded, so Abed panned the camera over to film her reaction. "What the hell, Abed? Get a little perspective!"
"That's what I'm doing," Abed explained. "I wanted you guys to be part of it."
"I don't feel right about this," Britta said. "Shirley and Pierce aren't here."
"That's a really good point," said Abed, and lingered for a moment on Jeff visibly biting his lip before bringing the lens back home to his father and Troy. "To be continued."
They all chipped in for take-away chicken shawarma and falafel before they left; Abed's father seemed confident that he'd won for the time being. He took everyone's money except for Troy's and kicked them out of the restaurant with twice as much food as they'd actually ordered. Abed hugged him harder than usual before leaving.
"Abed, that was the most fucked up thing I've ever seen," said Britta. "Do you mind if I take Rick to meet your dad? It's totally his dream to console an angry Palestinian."
Abed shrugged and munched on his salad, which was smothered in lemon dressing.
"It's a free country," he said, and sniggering erupted around the table. It was a great feeling, having mastered sarcasm through the use of context instead of inflection.
"I'm so, so glad to see you guys eating better," Annie gushed, looking from Abed to Troy. "It's been great not having to clean salty, buttered peas off the floor."
Jeff gave her a disturbed look. "Do I even want to know what that means?"
"Don't listen to her," Britta told Troy. "She failed the test on metabolism."
"Ugh! That's not fair. I don't tell everyone in the group when you get shitty grades."
"That's because everyone already knows my grades suck the big one," said Britta, and returned Jeff's high-five. "Oh yeah! Slackers for the win! We rule the school."
"No," Jeff reminded her, "that would be South Park and The Simpsons."
Abed finished his salad and turned to look at Troy. "This scene's getting way out of hand," he said. "We've had hardly any meaningful exchanges with each other."
"Did you really take states' laws on same sex marriage into account when you picked VCFA and Columbia?" Troy asked. "Please say you did. That's better than ice cream."
"I didn't want you to find out yet," Abed admitted, ignoring the ongoing argument between Britta, Annie, and Jeff. "Provided everything went according to plan and we were still together, I was going to propose to you after my MFA graduation."
"If you don't kiss me right now, I'm going to tell your dad about the peas."
"Okay," said Abed, shifting his chair, and gladly leaned over to oblige him.
* * *
"Do Jehovah's Witnesses celebrate anniversaries?" Shirley asked Troy, bouncing an impatiently squirming seven month-old Ben in her lap. "That was insensitive."
"This one does," said Troy, shrugging, and fist-bumped Abed. "Now that I can afford it, I'm taking us back out to that fancy restaurant tonight. We have a reservation."
"He said I could go for broke," said Abed. "I'm having the Australian rock lobster."
"Jeff and I are celebrating, too," Annie chimed in. "We're going to Boulder for the weekend." She winked at Troy, and then at Abed. "Now, you boys behave."
"Why are you guys always having fun without me?" Pierce lamented. "I've been trying to talk Jeff into a sausage-fest for almost four years now, but has he ever taken my feelings into account? No. With Jeffrey here, it's all titties, all the time."
For a few seconds, everyone just stared at him. Britta threw her pencil.
Troy wasn't sure whether Pierce had intended that as a jab at him and Abed, or if he'd genuinely meant sausage-fest in the slang's actual sense. He decided to let it slide.
Before Jeff could articulate whatever he'd drawn breath to say, Chang went tearing down the hall, shrieking, with a lacrosse-stick wielding Leonard in ardent pursuit.
"Is there any timeline in which Chang doesn't get out on bail," asked Jeff, slumping in defeat, "or is that just wishful thinking on my part? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?"
"I'd call you a tool, Winger," Pierce retorted, "except even tools have purpose."
Abed raised his eyebrows at Troy, and then gave Pierce his first-ever notch on the side of the table. "That one's good. I wonder how long it took him to come up with it."
Before Troy could answer, Shirley's cell phone went off. She let Ben continue his steady creeping across the table and answered it. "Hello? Oh? Mmm, that's nice..."
"Oh my God, look at him," said Annie, watching Ben's determined progress toward Abed. "He's getting so big! It seems like only yesterday Britta hauled him kicking and screaming into the world and got us all passing grades on the Anthro final."
"If memory doesn't fail me," said Jeff, "Britta was the only one screaming."
Abed reached out and intercepted Ben, lifting the baby off the table and into his lap.
Shirley, still busy with her business-related call, gave him a grateful little wave.
"Be careful with that, Abed," Pierce advised. "If you break it, you can't take it back."
"Fuck you, Pierce!" Britta snapped. "That's enough. We all get that you think you're clever today, but now you're just being a jackass. Apologize to Abed."
"Babies don't break that easily," said Annie. "Their bones are all bendy."
Troy wanted to hug her, but she was too far away, so he mouthed Thank you.
Abed was entertaining Ben with a disturbingly accurate impression of Leonard blowing raspberries. Every time he stuck out his tongue, Ben burst into gurgling laughter.
"Pierce, you have two seconds to apologize before Britta rips off your balls," said Jeff. "I advise you to comply, or you'll never have the pleasure of sitting on them again."
"Fine," Pierce muttered, leaning around Troy to look at Abed. "I'm sorry."
Abed cradled an abruptly fussy Ben against his shoulder. "What Britta said."
"Oh my goodness," Shirley murmured, hanging up her phone. "He's quieting down for you. He never does that for strangers. Abed, you'd make such a good daddy!"
Troy exchanged knowing looks with Abed over the top of Ben's curly head.
"We talked it over once," said Abed. "Before all of this. It could work."
"If you guys should decide against adoption," said Britta, gushing excitedly, "I can point you in the direction of some amazing surrogacy resources, and—"
"Don't you give him any ideas," Troy warned. "His career comes first."
* * *
"Leave her alone, Dad. She's in her own house and can do whatever she wants."
"There's a stranger here," insisted his father, nodding in Troy's direction. "A stranger to her, I mean. How is he supposed to show her a proper level of respect?"
Troy opened his mouth, shut it, and stared at the floor. "If you want, I won't look."
"Troy, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Abra told him, affectionately smiling. "You're pretty much my cousin-in-law. That makes you family." She turned her vivid eyes on Abed. "I still beat you down the aisle," she said in Arabic, "you skinny brat."
"Whatever," Abed replied. "My wedding will have geek bling and movie references."
"We are not here to talk about weddings!" shouted Abed's father. "We're talking about Abed going to school. Abra, have you found any flat listings near your place?"
"Uncle, he hasn't even sent his applications yet. I'm not looking for anything."
Abed noticed Troy's increasing discomfort and reached over to take his hand.
"You people are completely freaking crazy," said his father, then got up and left.
"Thanks, Abra," said Abed. "Nobody pisses him off like you can. You're the best."
"Hey, Troy," Abra ventured, winking. "Do I look like Abed in a wig and lipstick?"
"Nobody looks like Abed in a wig and lipstick," Troy replied. "Trust me on this."
"You guys must like it weird," said Abra. "Kidding! How was dinner last night?"
Troy's reserve finally broke; he laughed and shook his head. "You should have seen Abed with that lobster. This gross green stuff from the belly got all over the place."
"It was worth every penny," Abed insisted. "I got to wear a cheesy plastic bib."
They Skyped with Abra for another half an hour or so, by which point Abed's father had calmed down sufficiently to drive them home. The apartment was as quiet and messy as they'd left it, the remains of the previous night's post-dinner revels still strewn across the air mattress. Abed tried to imagine Annie's face if she had seen.
"Your dad's the one who's crazy," said Troy, kicking out of his shoes. "I can't understand where he gets off thinking he can just tell you and Abra what to do."
"Statistically speaking, only one of those schools is going to accept me," said Abed, following suit. "Competition is especially fierce for Columbia and LFS. I've got no illusions about the situation. It's possible all three of them will send rejections."
Troy took hold of Abed's hands, pulling him in close. "Can I ask you something?"
"Cool cool cool," said Abed, resting his chin on top of Troy's head. "Fire away."
"Where do you want to go? Suppose all three of them accepted you, what then?"
"London is too expensive, and Columbia is impossible," said Abed. "Vermont's program is actually perfect for me, which means it's not likely to happen."
Troy lifted his chin and kissed him. "Yeah, and remember what else you thought was too perfect to happen? You're going to have to try harder than that to convince me."
"Can we try this again?" Abed asked, changing the subject. "I'm feeling it."
Troy stepped back and took off his shirt, dropping it on the floor. "You bet."
The problem with the night before had been too much wine with dinner and an overall lack of focus; as soon as the cab had dropped them off, they'd stumbled upstairs and had the least coherent make-out session of their admittedly brief career. Troy had said Please, I'm ready and Abed, do it now. It hadn't worked; he'd been too drunk to stay hard enough, and Troy, not much better off, had gotten progressively more and more upset at his apparent unfuckability. Abed had mumbled that he was pretty sure the word was unfuckableness, and, anyway, that was untrue. They'd defaulted back to making out and ended up having extremely hot, intoxicated anniversary sex anyway.
"Bottom bunk," insisted Abed, once they'd stripped each other and he'd fetched their armful of disarrayed supplies from the blanket fort. "The air mattress is sagging, and I don't know where the pump went. It's probably in our landlord's closet."
"Do you think what Abra said is true?" Troy asked, following Abed into the bedroom.
"About us liking it weird? Well, I told you I needed you to be weird. That's us."
Troy sat down on the edge of the mattress, watching Abed set the condoms, lube, and wipes on the floor. "I've jerked off like twice picturing you in that dress and blue bra."
"That's not creepy weird," said Abed, ducking under the top bunk and carefully folding himself into Troy's lap. "That's finding me attractive no matter what I'm wearing."
"I'm glad one of us has got this figured out," said Troy, "because I sure don't."
"Can I ask you a question?" Abed countered, reaching down alongside the bed.
"You can ask me anything," Troy replied, his breath already coming high and shallow.
"Do you want me to fuck you?" Abed asked, shivering a bit as he slicked himself.
"Dammit, Abed," Troy gasped, tensing when Abed stroked him, too. "Yes."
"Then shut up and let me," said Abed, pressing him back into the pillows.
* * *
"Okay, to give you some frame of reference? The first four hours and change of today blew well past a bit not good and into never doing that again. Are we clear?"
Abed frowned at their fingers entwined against the couch cushion. "I thought I got it right. I chose the line-up for maximum impact and idea-forming potential."
Annie's keys rattled in the door, followed by Annie herself. "Hey, guys. I'm home."
"Jeff's not with you, is he?" Troy asked. "Because I seriously think I need to cry."
"Abed, um, Troy looks a little bit like that time Pierce rented LeVar Burton. Why?"
"We had a queer-themed movie extravaganza for costume inspiration, but it didn't work. In retrospect, Milk and Brokeback Mountain might not have been the wisest choices to start. Milk kind of broke Troy. It's the finest performance of Penn's career, though—either that or the incandescent anger he took to Haiti. I had to make some Special Drink and then switch the back half programming to Latter Days and But I'm a Cheerleader to restore balance. I'll save My Beautiful Laundrette for another time."
"I am not dressing like a Mormon missionary," Troy announced. "Or like a cowboy."
"Then I could dress up as Megan," Abed suggested. "Cheer-leading uniforms are easy to get. Graham's more butch; you could get away with wearing pants if you wanted."
Annie sat down on the other side of Troy and added her arm to Abed's around him.
"Jeff and I are going to get trashed last-minute and raid the Glee Club closet."
"Is that sarcasm?" Abed asked. "I'm pretty sure that was sarcasm. Fess up."
Troy shuddered. "Ew. That's even worse. Those costumes' cooties have cooties."
"Yes, that was sarcasm. We've actually been planning our costumes, and they rock."
"We still have the rest of tonight, and all of tomorrow and Tuesday to figure it out," said Abed. "I usually prefer to be better prepared, but we've been preoccupied."
"You guys totally had sex the whole weekend, didn't you?" Annie asked, grinning.
"Except for the parts where we watched movies and Skyped with Abra," said Troy.
"It was a pretty near miss," Abed agreed, "but we did switch things up a little."
Troy was starting to feel better, especially given his two favorite people in the world were holding him close and saying the dorkiest shit ever in an attempt to cheer him.
"You and Jeff totally had sex the whole weekend, didn't you?" he countered, smirking.
"Oh God, don't I wish," Annie groaned, flopping back against the couch. "Jeff came down with some kind of forty-eight hour stomach bug. Not only did we miss the concert, but I spent all day yesterday and most of today cleaning up his puke. I had to do the return-trip driving and get his sorry, leaky ass home and into bed. He begged me to stay, but honestly, I need a break. He's so clingy."
"Annie, he's sick," Abed pointed out. "People need comfort when they're sick. Even I know that. You should go back and stay with him at least till he improves."
"Seriously," Troy agreed. "I don't want Jeff to die choking on his own puke."
Annie huffed, got up, and fetched her purse where she'd left it on the table.
"Remind me never to take advice from the most co-dependent couple I know."
Troy waited until she had gone to stretch his legs and curl sideways onto the couch, resting with his head in Abed's lap. He glanced up at Abed after a few minutes.
"You did that to get her out just so we can do that thing with the bra and the dress."
Abed shrugged. "If you want. It really turns you on, and I like being in costume."
"If this was a bet," sighed Troy, happily, "then Abra just won all the things."
* * *
"Abed, I have to tell you," said Pierce, uncostumed, raising his voice over the music, "I admire your courage. You don't just commit to being a tranny. You own it."
"I'm pretending I can't hear anything that comes out of his mouth tonight," muttered Britta, hanging heavily on Rick's arm as she downed another half-glass of red wine. The two of them had dressed up as Raggedy Ann and Andy, which was either creepy weird or actually kind of brilliant. "He's already offended everybody at least twice."
"Just be yourself, honey," said Shirley, waving her Cinderella's-Fairy-Godmother wand over Abed. "Troy, you look so nice in that suit. Are you supposed to be James Bond?"
"No!" said Troy, exasperated. "Come on. Look closer. Our costumes go together.
Jeff was smirking. "I got it the minute they walked in, and I'm waiting for the rest of you to catch up. That's genius, guys. I mean it. I can't wait for the punch-line."
Abed winked at Jeff and held onto Troy's arm. "Waiting for the opportune moment."
"Hey, Hedwig," Chang sneered, lightly smacking Abed's ass as he walked by. "Nineteen ninety-two called. It wants those fugmo hooker boots back."
"Nice try," Annie shouted, resplendent as Cleopatra-à-la-HBO's-Rome, "but you're wrong, too!" At her side, Jeff made a disquietingly effective Mark Antony.
"It's wonderful to see you," Rick said to Shirley, eternally polite. "Where's Andre?"
"Are you kidding me? It's Trick-Or-Treat night. He's at home with the kids."
"Are you sure you're not a nineteen-eighties Lady GaGa?" Pierce asked Abed.
"Pierce, let's get one thing straight," Troy said. "Nobody wants to talk to you."
"No, but I totally see it," Chang said to Pierce, appearing out of nowhere. He got right in Abed's face and flipped a few strands of Abed's wavy, chin-length black wig back from his forehead. "Where did you buy that outfit? Frederick's of Hollywood?"
"I hate to say it, but even for you guys, you really are being huge bags of dicks," said Jeff. "Now, if you don't leave Abed alone, I'm going to report you to the Dean."
"Ooh, the Dean," Chang retorted, striking a pose that made his matador ensemble look even worse than it already did. "I'm paralyzed with terror. Aren't you?"
Pierce muttered something indistinguishable and grumpily wandered away.
"If I didn't feel like these guys were actually kind of creeping on you, I would find this fucking hilarious," Troy muttered under his breath. "Really not cool."
Abed glanced from Chang to Jeff, and then back to Troy. "It's good set-up, though."
"I don't think you understand," Jeff said, sweetly batting his eyelashes. "For a kiss on the cheek, you'd both be slapped with a parking fine. For a kiss on the lips, you'd both be put on academic probation. For one night of unbridled passion—and, come on now, you know I could fake it—your student records would cease to exist."
Annie shuddered and sidled up to Abed. "I wish he loved me the way he loves you."
"Whatevs, Winger," said Chang, backing away with his hands raised. "He's all yours."
"I don't think I'm having fun here," Abed told Troy, "but I don't want to miss—"
"Then it's not worth staying," said Troy. "Annie, step aside," he said, bracing one arm across Abed's back and bending to catch him behind the knees with his other.
Abed wrapped both arms around Troy's neck as Troy swung him up, letting his head fall onto Troy's shoulder as he turned and carried Abed out of the crowded room.
"I told you it was The Bodyguard," Pelton said to someone as they whisked by.
* * *
Abed cut in, "I'm uncomfortable with the prospect of living in a country whose government has even imposed a minimum salary requirement on its own citizens for purposes of marrying foreign partners. Abra was lucky Amir makes a lot of money."
Gubi blinked. "Did your outspoken blonde friend put these ideas in your head?"
"No, I read the UKBA website. I don't want Troy's visa to get rejected, and I don't want to have to spend a few thousand dollars even if we did both get approved."
Troy considered Abed's candid confessions, and what he was up to suddenly hit like a ton of bricks. He was making a political statement of applying to LFS; he was doing it just to make a point. With this kind of attitude on display, Abed was unlikely to get in.
"I think that being close to family would provide a stable environment," Gubi said.
"I'm more stable than I've ever been," Abed asserted before Troy could come to his defense. "You said so yourself just about a year ago. Had it ever occurred to you that it's at least partly because I have Troy in my life? You were so much happier before Mom left. I always hoped you'd find somebody else. I want you to be happy again."
"Man, are you okay?" Troy asked, reaching to set a steadying hand on Gubi's arm.
Abed's father had covered his mouth and looked like he might just lose it. He waved his free hand at the camera, which Abed obediently turned off and lowered, peering at them both for the first time in about forty-five minutes without a lens in between.
Gubi covered Troy's hand with his own and squeezed it. "I didn't want to think about it," he said, his voice cracking. "You bring my son as much joy as Sonia brought me."
Abed ran to them so fast that Troy wasn't even sure where he'd ditched the camera.
"I'm axing this project," he said. "It's gotten way too personal. And I'm not going to apply to LFS, because today is November first. I missed the deadline."
"Abed, I told you to write those on the calendar," Troy said, helping Abed support his father on his stool. Gubi had broken down and was kind of crying on both of them by turns, one arm curled around Abed's and one around Troy's. "Please don't tell me you missed Vermont and Columbia. I don't want to have to be pissed at you."
"Nope," said Abed. "They're not till December first. I still have a month. And I'd have time to pull an application together for Emerson's program, too, if I wanted. Boston's a cool town, and same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for nine years."
"Don't stress yourself out," Troy said, and then patted Gubi on the back. "Come on, let's wrap this up and go have food somewhere that won't involve you cooking for us."
Gubi nodded and wiped his nose on the handkerchief that Abed had handed to him.
Troy gave Abed a questioning look; as far as he knew, Abed didn't even carry one.
"Rule number one," said Abed. "Always know where your towel is. It's kind of like a towel. Messenger bags don't take the space issue into account, so I make do."
"Can we just leave, boys, okay?" asked Gubi, blowing his nose. "I'm craving tacos."
"You can show us around if we visit," Abed said. "We want to find all of the locations they used for filming episodes of Inspector Spacetime and do re-enactments."
"I say, London! Look out," said Troy. "The Inspector and Reggie are in the house!"
Abra grimaced. "Just don't do that horrible accent again," she said. "Like, ever."
"Don't be a buzz-kill," said Abed. "Wear your burqa and pretend to be a Blorgon."
"Are we talking about spring break or your wedding?" Abra asked, smirking at him.
"Huh," Annie said, wandering in. "You really don't look like Abed in a wig and lipstick."
"I agree," said Abra, punching a few buttons on her BlackBerry, and then held up a slightly blurred digital photo of Abed that somebody had snapped at Halloween.
"I'm going to kill Britta," Troy said. "She'd better not post that on Facebook."
"Too late," said Annie. "Where do you think Abra got it in the first place?"
"I don't care what Chang says," Abed insisted. "I rocked those boots."
Chapter 4: The Science of Family Dynamics
"Actually, that's about right," Troy confirmed. "It isn't love at Greendale unless you've survived a Halloween party that nobody can remember, two brutal paintball battles, and one full-scale war that boils down to a matter of thread count."
"Fortunately," continued Professor Cornwallis, "in the spirit of this great nation's imminently looming November holiday of rather dubious origins, your midterm shall be a project in the medium of your choice—yes, Mr. Nadir, Miss Edison, film and dioramas do count—on the history of how your family ended up in the New World and why you're thankful that they did. Or, if you prefer, why you're not. We don't judge here. You will turn in your work at our first meeting after holiday. Class dismissed."
Troy watched Abed's intent expression as they all gathered up their books, having learned to recognize the particular set of gears that was turning.
"You've got all that spare footage of your dad," Troy sighed, walking with him to where the others waited outside the door. "This is going to be a cake walk for you."
"Five hours of editing, give or take," said Abed, shrugging. "Yeah, I'm good."
"Meanwhile, I'll be slaving over an essay or a lame-ass family photo collage for the entirety of Thanksgiving Break," Troy sighed. "I'm really not looking forward to this."
"Nobody said it had to be either of those things," Abed began, but Jeff interrupted to ask if everyone was down with heading straight to the cafeteria, so they said yes.
They got there early enough to buy out the chicken fingers, which had probably been Jeff's intention. Pierce made a mess of the dipping sauces, and Shirley couldn't stay long because she needed to supervise the sandwich shop until their next class at one.
"Break starts in two days," said Annie, swilling her soda. "Has anyone got plans?"
"We're having a French film festival on Wednesday night to kick it off," said Abed. "I thought maybe we'd start with Amélie, and then move on to Trois Couleurs and La Double Vie de Véronique. We could always toss in Angel-A if we get sick of Kieślowski, but I think the bilingual exposure will be beneficial to Troy. I'm teaching him Polish."
"Why Polish?" Jeff asked, dipping a chicken finger in ketchup. "Why not Arabic?"
"Because my dad doesn't speak Polish. We need one language that's just ours."
"Abed, I haven't seen any of those. Are they going to totally Britta my shit up?"
"Can't you guys find another word to express that sentiment already?" Britta asked.
Abed reconsidered, which was never a good sign. "We should save Amélie for last."
"Andre and I are spending Thanksgiving with his parents," said Shirley, breezing by to discreetly set a bag of muffins on the table. "They don't see the kids much."
"I haven't said anything about this because I didn't want to jinx it," said Britta, "but Rick managed to get me into the slot that opened up on his employer's volunteer trip to Ethiopia. Ever since Subway gave him the boot, he's been working for a non-profit organization that provides basic infrastructure to orphans. I'm so excited!"
"Two down," Jeff said, turning back to Abed. "What's on the docket after your films?"
Troy nodded when Abed shot him a quick glance, giving him permission to answer.
"I think we're on our own," Abed replied. "Troy's family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, so it's just another week for them. My dad's usually big on it, but he's going to visit his sister—you know, Abra's mom—in Gaza. He asked me if I wanted to come along, but I said I didn't feel right leaving Troy by himself. He said he understood since it's our first Thanksgiving together, which was cool of him."
"We haven't got any plans," Annie said, shrugging. "Slacker Thanksgiving for us!"
"Come watch movies," said Troy. "We can have Thanksgiving at the apartment."
Up until this point, Pierce had kept silent, but he'd been increasingly more restless.
"Oh, so what am I?" he finally burst out. "Chopped liver? In case you hadn't noticed, I don't have any loved ones left to spend Thanksgiving with. I'm all alone."
Troy glanced at Abed, shaking his head. He felt bad for Pierce, but not bad enough.
Jeff stared at his hands for two seconds before his conscience got the better of him.
"Why don't we all come over to your place Thursday? You've got plenty of space."
Pierce rubbed his hands together. "I'll tell Julieta to prepare a feast," he said, eyes darting eagerly from Jeff to Troy to Abed to Annie. "It'll be just like old times. Quality chillage with my best buddies in the world and everyone's favorite princess."
Annie turned her head, made a face at Troy, and mouthed Does he mean me? Ew!
Britta beamed at Jeff, clearly mocking him for his weakness. "You guys are going to have so much fun! I'm jealous. Rick and I will send postcards from Addis Ababa."
"Annie, you go ahead for the films," said Jeff. "I just remembered I'm supposed to see my cousin that night before she flies out to Fort Lauderdale with her new beau. Rumor has it things are getting serious, and I'm no one to stand in the way of true love."
"Please," said Annie. "Why don't you admit you're having drinks with your old boss?"
"I wish I could tell you that," said Jeff, bleakly. "I really am having dinner with Carol."
"Awww, Jeff!" Annie gushed. "That's so brave. She leaves you the bitchiest voicemail."
"I guess that means no cereal and buttered noodles instead of turkey," said Abed.
"We can have that for the rest of the weekend," said Troy, and kissed his cheek.
"Hey, Abed," said Britta, changing the subject. "How did your applications go?"
"We made it to the Post Office in the nick of time. Postmarked November first."
"You guys must've had a late night after you left the Halloween party," said Annie. "When did you get home? I passed out around two and didn't hear a thing after that."
"Not till nine in the morning," said Abed. "We fell asleep on the study room couch."
Troy smirked as the others' responses ran the gamut from groans to high-fiving Abed.
"First the table, now the couch," muttered Pierce. "I'll never take a nap there again!"
"Then you'd better not look underneath it," Troy told him. "That's all I'm saying."
* * *
The sudden change in Troy, who was sitting next to him flipping through messages on his phone, manifested as a tensing of his muscles so slight that it might have escaped Abed if not for the fact that their shoulders were touching. He tore off his headphones in the same instant Troy's hand clamped down on his forearm, letting the footage run.
"Something happened," demanded Abed, urgently, but it was already too late, because Troy had dropped his phone in his lap and clapped his free hand over his mouth, no use against the sob that had risen in his throat. "What happened?"
Troy shook his head, gesturing at his phone, so Abed picked it up and scrolled back to the top of the screen. Everyone else had gathered around, so there was no use in trying to hide whatever was written there. He read the message, which was cruelly brief, three times before turning off Troy's phone and setting it on the coffee table.
Abed swung his feet down and set his laptop beside it, shifting his headphones off his lap and onto the keyboard. Between the fact that Abed's head was swimming the same way it had when Annie had chloroformed the security guard and Troy was at the stage of hyperventilation where he might cry at any second, he had a difficult time getting an arm around Troy's shoulders and pulling him in. If only he'd foreseen...
"It was the Registrar's Office," Abed told him, shakily, before he could issue his mouth the command to stop. "They must have sent the duplicates of your updated partner and emergency contact forms to your dad's address instead of to the apartment."
"Oh God," Annie moaned, bending over the back of the couch to wrap both arms around Troy's neck. "This doesn't sound good, it can't be, please tell us—"
"Yeah," said Troy, his voice low and toneless, both arms latching onto Annie's mechanically even as he burrowed closer against Abed's chest. "That must have been it. I forgot to update my address while we were updating everything else."
Britta's hand crept from the back of the couch and onto Abed's arm. "Did that say what I think it said? I read some of it over your shoulder. I'm sorry, I couldn't help—"
"Dad and Cecilia found out about me and Abed," said Troy. "They never want to speak to me again, and they say Nana won't speak to me until I bring her a switch. Which means never, because uh-uh. I refuse to do that. I'm not five years old anymore."
"So not the way around I had imagined this," said Jeff, stupefied. "Guys, that sucks."
As brave as Troy had been, it all finally proved too much. He broke down sobbing.
Pierce reached around Annie and awkwardly clapped Troy's arm. "Some father," he said. "The asshole kicked you out and left you on my doorstep. Is it that big a loss?"
Even though Troy hiccuped with bitter laughter, everyone stared at Pierce.
"You're not helping," said Abed. "No one is helping," he added, seized by cold fury worse than the time Annie had roped him and Troy into that experiment. "Get out."
"What do you mean?" Pierce asked. "You've got to be joking. We're not going to—"
"Everyone except for Annie," Abed repeated, "get out of this room right now or else."
Annie glanced urgently at Jeff, who wasted no time in evicting himself and the rest.
Desperately, Abed grabbed at Annie's hands and clung to Troy that much harder.
"We're your family," he said. "We're your family now, and we're not going to leave."
* * *
The Three Colors trilogy spun them through till dinnertime without incident, although Annie prodded him while they ate about contacting his mother before his father could beat him to it, and he got kind of wobbly. Abed declared The Double Life of Véronique a bad idea and launched them into Amélie as soon as they finished their pasta.
By the end, Troy was grinning and squeezing Abed's hand so hard it probably hurt.
Annie dabbed at her eyes with Abed's handkerchief and answered Jeff's latest text message; they'd been at it the whole evening. She sheepishly returned Abed's smile.
"That's what it's like, isn't it," she asked, "falling head-over-heels-stupid in love?"
"I guess so," Abed reflected, "only with more action sequences and tactical gaffes."
"Actually, that's about right," Troy confirmed. "It isn't love at Greendale unless you've survived a Halloween party that nobody can remember, two brutal paintball battles, and one full-scale war that boils down to a matter of thread count."
They laughed until their sides hurt, leaning into each other in a pile on the couch.
"Guys, I need a drink," Annie finally said, wiping her eyes as she disentangled herself from Abed's long limbs. "Who's up for doing shots? We've got that gross cotton-candy flavored vodka from Britta and Jeff's fancy Venezuelan rum."
Abed raised his hand and nodded eagerly, curling around Troy now that his other arm and leg weren't occupied. "Rum for me," he said. "Is there any gingerbeer left?"
Troy wondered if he'd regret it, but, you know what, no. "Fuck it," he said. "I'm in."
They transferred themselves to the air mattress in the blanket fort and spent the first handful of rounds toasting completely stupid shit—in two languages, even, given that Abed started repeating everything in Polish and insisted that both of them should, too.
By the time they'd got through Thanksgiving Break, Pelton's fucked-up costumes, Abed's fucked-up-yet-weirdly-hot costumes, Jeff's hair, gay sex cake, Annie's boobs, and Annie's Boobs they were dangerously tipsy even with bellies full of spaghetti.
"Truth or dare," said Abed. "That would be traditional at this point in the evening."
"I see your suggestion and rise to the challenge," Annie announced. "Truth!"
Troy tapped on Abed's shoulder, and then leaned over to whisper in his ear.
"Good one," Abed agreed, turning back to Annie. "Did you sleep with Vaughn?"
"Augh! Rude," Annie snapped, downing a shot of vodka. "What if I did?"
Abed shrugged, and Troy said, "It's sweet how much he was into you. I wondered."
Annie twirled a strand of hair around her fingers. "Okay, fine. A few times."
"Cool cool," said Abed, fixing Troy with hazy eyes. "Your turn to answer."
"Yeah," said Annie, refilling Troy's glass. "Turnabout! Truth or dare?"
"Truth," said Troy, recognizing that they were all way too drunk for dares.
"Did you sleep with that dumb blonde chick? You know, the one you had riding around on your back when you asked me where the cleanest bathroom on campus was?"
Abed tilted his head at Troy, inquisitive, as if wondering how he'd missed this.
"No," Troy muttered, downing the shot. "She hopped off my back halfway down the hall when she realized why I'd asked you that. Told me I was sick and slapped me."
"Abed, this was like a year ago," Annie clarified. "Back when Jeff blew off Britta and then propositioned her just to make a point and you tried to stage a guerilla wedding."
"Oh, right," said Abed, nodding. "Now I remember. Those were simpler times."
Troy refilled Abed's shot glass and guided it up to Abed's mouth. "Truth or dare?"
"We're just playing Truth tonight," said Abed. "Our motor skills are compromised."
"So was that truth?" asked Annie, taking another shot for the hell of it. "Or...?"
"Truth," said Abed, glancing from Annie back to Troy. "Hit me with your best shot."
"Did you sleep with that girl whose baby you delivered? Because I've had a lot of conflicting information. There's what everybody else was saying, and then there's what you've said a couple times when we've...you know..." Troy felt his cheeks burn.
"I should have killed those rumors when I had the chance," said Abed, drinking straight from the vodka bottle. "Remember my first-year-of-college tropes checklist? She's the one I kissed. Hottest girl on campus, or at least that was popular opinion at the time; everyone knows the girl in question needs to be universally acknowledged as such. We made out again after one of the frat keggers last year. She was a lot more drunk than I was, and I didn't want to do more than that. End of story. I think she got mad and told everybody we had sex just to spite me, and then I wondered if I was actually an unreliable narrator. Either that or she genuinely believed we did. So—"
"God, that was mean," Annie said. "Especially when it belonged to that other dude!"
Abed shrugged. "She was pregnant and really scared. I don't blame her for using me, because, if you think about it, I used her. She was an item on my checklist."
"Are you kidding?" Troy said. "There's a huge difference between a consensual kiss with somebody where you maybe fail to mention they're just part of a bucket list and making out with somebody out of spite for the first time he made out with you and then telling everybody he might've knocked you up. Wait, did that come out right?"
The game devolved quickly into a giggle-fit bonus round where the vodka got passed from hand to hand, but nobody answered anything. Annie dared Abed to kiss Troy, which was lame as dares went (but eminently enjoyable), and then Troy dared Abed to kiss Annie, which he promptly photographed and texted to Jeff. Abed dared Troy to kiss her next and returned the favor. On both counts, Jeff texted back with mock-horror and genuine concern for how much they'd all had to drink.
More than u LOL, Annie wrote back, following the text with a string of nonsense images, and was promptly sick all over her phone and the blanket she was sitting on.
"Oops," said Abed, and toppled over backwards laughing.
Troy, having held his liquor better than either of the others (his superpower, he liked to call it), hauled Annie to the bathroom so she could finish vomiting. After helping her remember how to brush her teeth, he unsteadily carried her off to bed.
"Your mom, Troy," she mumbled softly from out of the darkness just after he turned out the lights. "I mean it. You should get in touch with her before..."
"Tomorrow," he told her. "Good night, Annie."
Picking his way back to the blanket fort was more difficult than it should have been.
"Hi," said Troy, staring down at Abed sprawled on the air mattress.
"My blood is tingling," replied Abed, sleepy-eyed. "Hi."
Troy flopped down beside him and pressed a kiss to the side of Abed's neck. Abed turned onto his side and scooted closer, sighing against Troy's forehead.
"Are you going to be sick?" Troy asked. "Speak now or forever hold your peace, dude, because I'm going to be asleep in like a minute."
"No," Abed replied, "but I'm going to be really fucked in the morning."
"Me too," Troy agreed with a yawn, and closed his eyes.
* * *
"Annie did it," Abed groaned as the lights came on. "Broken again. Ow."
"He's telling the truth," said Troy, sitting up, and Abed covered his eyes with both arms. "She exploded right after answering your texts, so we put her to bed."
"For these services rendered, much thanks," said Jeff, dryly. "I'd go shower if I were you guys; we're supposed to be at Pierce's place by eleven, and it's almost nine."
"Get Annie up first," Troy suggested, and Abed nodded, curling in until he found Troy's hip and burrowed into it. "She'll be a lot worse for wear."
"I don't know," said Annie's voice from somewhere overhead. "Abed looks pretty bad."
"Okay, that's twisted," said Troy. He ran his fingers through Abed's hair, letting them trail down to massage between Abed's shoulder blades. "I hate to tell you this, but she's showered, dressed, and fresh as a daisy. If you don't get up now, I'm going to haul your ass into the shower, understood? You know I will."
"Dammit," Abed muttered, lifting his head. Fortunately, he wasn't that far from the blanket on which Annie had already thrown up. Troy steadied him, kept rubbing his back while he retched. Abed couldn't remember the last time he'd publicly been sick.
Annie made an awful noise and, from the sound of it, dashed for the kitchen sink.
It wasn't the sexiest shower they'd ever shared, but Troy kept Abed on his feet.
On the way to Pierce's house, Jeff had to stop the car twice: once for Troy, and once for Abed and Annie at the same time. He praised them for at least being efficient. They arrived twenty minutes late, but at least Pierce seemed glad to see them.
"Fabulous timing, guys," said Pierce, ushering them inside. "Wu Mei's just arrived."
"Wu Mei," said Jeff, frowning at all of them in turn as they followed Pierce down the ostentatious flagstoned hall. "Why do I feel like I should recognize—"
"Oh, Jesus, no," said Troy, under his breath. "It's the racist Chinese lady!"
"I see you hired some new staff for today," said Wu Mei, waving from where she reclined on a chaise longue in the living room into which Pierce had just shown them.
"Um, honeybunch," said Pierce, and Abed heard Annie quietly retch behind her hand, "these are my friends, remember? The study group from Greendale?"
"I remember him," she said, her eyes flicking over Jeff. "Same weird haricut."
"I didn't know you guys were still seeing each other," Jeff said to her. "Charmed."
"Well, we went out on a few dates last year—believe me, Jeff, I can't thank you enough for convincing us to give each other a second chance—but then Wu here had to go back home for a while to handle the family business while her father was dying. Out of the blue, I got a phone call last night. Isn't she a lovely surprise?"
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade blared before them on what had to be at least a ninety-inch wall mounted LCD television screen. Abed stared, entranced, wondering if Troy had taken advantage of it while he could. He tilted his head at Troy, questioning.
"You bet," Troy said. "I watched The Matrix like twenty times."
They fist-bumped, and Annie shifted where she stood, clearing her throat.
"Wu Mei, it's so nice to see you again," she said, and Abed was impressed with how genuine she managed to sound. "Pierce, thank you for having all of us over for Thanskgiving. Is there anything we can do to help get things ready?"
"Sit back, kick up your heels, and relax," said Pierce. "That's what the help are for."
Abed noted uncomfortably that Troy looked like he wanted nothing more than to be out from under Wu Mei's disdainful glance, but couldn't find a reason to run.
"Hey, I've never been here before," Abed said to Pierce, which was true enough. "I bet Troy remembers where everything is. Can he show me around so that you don't have to leave your lovely lady friend?" Abed waggled his eyebrows at Wu Mei. She scowled.
"Sure, be my guest," said Pierce, taking a seat beside her. He put one hand on Wu Mei's thigh and slid it up almost to her crotch. "Seeing as—well, you know, you are."
"Thanks," said Troy, grabbing Abed's hand. "This way. I'll show you my old room."
"You didn't look very comfortable," said Abed, following him out and into the hall and then up a flight of steps. "Also, I'm starting to feel kind of sick again and thought you might know where the nearest bathroom is. I hope it's close."
"Right up here," Troy said, hustling Abed down the hall at the top of the stairs, which was plushly carpeted and led into what looked like more bedrooms than Pierce would ever need. They got to the toilet just in time. "Abed, please don't drink that shit next time. Your track record of mixing vodka with other stuff sucks."
Abed sagged back against Troy when he was finished. "I need to lie down."
Troy opened the cupboards beneath the broad, shallow marble sink and pulled out a toothbrush. "This was mine, so you can use it," Troy said. "Pierce had me leave it here in case our apartment venture didn't work out and I had to move back in."
Once Abed had brushed his teeth and dampened a towel to press over his face, Troy steered him a few more steps up the hall and pushed open the nearest door.
"Huh," said Abed, blinking at the coral walls and blue-rimmed frosted glass tile window. "Not what I would have expected." The room was small, and the light fixtures on the bedside tables were an early-nineties modern, new-age kind of funky.
Troy urged him to lie down on the sage green duvet with blue geometric patterning and then took the damp towel off of Abed. He pressed it to Abed's forehead, his cheeks, his chin, his neck, until Abed drifted and Troy bent to whisper in his ear.
"You get some rest, okay? I'll be right here. There's an email I need to write."
Abed fell asleep to the click of Troy's cell phone keys, reassured by the handful of Troy's denim-covered leg that he got when he extended one seeking hand.
He didn't wake up until, embarrassingly enough, Pierce poked his head in and informed them with stiff formality that the food was ready. Troy seemed to have fallen asleep, too, with one arm thrown across Abed's chest and his head tucked under Abed's chin. Pierce vanished as quickly as he'd come, leaving them to snicker.
On their way out, Abed noticed Pierce's ridiculous blue lava lamp on the desk.
* * *
His phone was heavy in his jeans pocket, a time-bomb he didn't dare touch.
"Let's eat," said Abed, reaching for the candied yams. "I'm starving."
"You eat those?" said Annie, disbelieving. "I know how to make them."
Abed nodded, scooping several onto his plate. "My mom used to make them."
Wu Mei, who had taken the seat directly across from Troy, delicately cut a piece of turkey breast on her plate and fixed him with a cool, critical stare.
"Did you have a nice nap?" she asked. "Pierce told me you missed it here."
"Yes, thanks," answered Abed, before Troy could blow up at her. "We got kind of drunk last night, and I hadn't finished sleeping it off. Pierce is a great host."
Pierce grinned, pleased as punch, and raised his glass. "Any time, buddy!"
Wu Mei rolled her eyes and helped herself to a few green beans next.
"I have to say, Pierce," Jeff remarked, gesturing with his fork, "this place is great. If I'd known you were taking boarders, I would've moved in back when I was homeless."
"You had lots of fun living with me in the dorm," said Abed. "Don't deny it."
"I won't deny it," said Annie, cheerfully. "Living with you guys is great."
"Living here had its perks, there's no denying that," said Troy, thanking Abed with a nod for carving some thigh meat with crispy skin and laying it on his plate.
"Like what, for instance?" asked Wu Mei. "I can't believe you'd appreciate—"
Troy's phone rang loudly, jarring above the delicate sound of cutlery on china.
Abed gave Troy a wide-eyed, questioning look. He was visibly rattled.
"I've got to take this," said Troy, glancing at the number. "It's my mother."
With that, he grabbed Abed's hand, tugging him out of his chair and into the hall. He hit every button on his phone keypad but the one he needed, fumbling it up to his ear.
"Hello?" asked Troy, frowning. "Hello, Mom? Is that you? Is anybody there?"
"I thought for sure that was going to voicemail," said Troy's mother. Silence.
Abed had his own phone in hand, held low against his thigh and tilted at an odd angle. He was tense, visibly nervous, his eyes fixed insistently on Troy's face.
"I guess you got my email," Troy said, trying to ignore the lump in his throat and the stinging in his eyes. "I don't expect you to approve, but I had to get to you before—"
"Troy, baby," she said, her voice desperate and soft, unexpectedly broken. "I don't care about any of that, at least not the way your father and his crazy bitch of a mother do. I just want to know that you're okay. Sweetie pie, are you?"
Just before Troy's eyes overflowed, he noticed that Abed's right had jerked strangely, holding his phone at a slightly different angle. Abed's left hand grasped Troy's own.
"Yeah, Mom," he said, squeezing Abed's hand even tighter than he had at the end of Amélie. "As long as I know you're not going to pretend I never existed, I will be."
"Where are you?" asked his mother. "Are you alone, or is your friend there with you?"
As Troy's tears receded, he couldn't help but notice that Abed was half smiling.
"He's right here," Troy said. "We're at...at another friend's place. Kind of."
"Maybe we aren't supposed to celebrate," said his mother, valiant in spite of her own tears in a way that Troy had never been, "but I'm proud of my country and proud of my son. Do you have any way of getting over here? You near any of the bus lines?"
Abed shook his head, and then let go of Troy's hand in order to mimic driving.
"We can get there," Troy said, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. "When?"
"As soon as you can get your butt away from where you are. I'll have food ready."
"Thanks, Mom. I can't—" Troy faltered "—can't really tell you how much I—"
"Troy, baby," she said, "just you breathe and come soon," and then hung up.
Abed looked up from his phone, which he was no longer holding at a weird angle, but using to send a text. "Give her five minutes," he said. "She'll be out with car keys."
There was a commotion up the hall, followed by Annie dashing out of the dining room.
"You guys save my ass, I save yours," she said, and then hugged Troy. "I'm so glad one of your parents is sane," she said, dangling Jeff's keys in front of Troy's nose.
The drive took almost half an hour. It had been about a year since Troy had been to his mother's house; they'd mostly kept in touch via email and the occasional phone call. The chain of events that had led to Troy living with his father and stepmother was...complicated, to say the least, but it was behind him now.
Annie pulled up in front of the tiny duplex and turned to look at Troy and Abed in the back seat. "Go on," she said. "If you need us to pick you up later, just shout."
Troy nodded and opened the car door. "Annie, you're the best," he said, sliding out. Rather than opening his own passenger-side door, Abed crawled out after him.
Before Abed could add what he'd been about to say, Annie beamed, sounded the horn twice, and drove away. Troy blinked at him, feeling more than a little bit lost.
"This is my mom's house," he said slowly. "I haven't been here in over a year."
"We should knock on the door," Abed replied, that lower-than-usual pitch of his voice the only thing giving his anxiety away. "She's been waiting a while."
Knocking wasn't necessary; as they turned, and approached, the door swung inward.
"Well," said Troy's mother, her short salt-and-pepper hair more pronounced than the last time he'd seen her, "you must be this Abed Nadir I've heard so much about."
"You said my name right," gasped Abed, turning to Troy. "She said my name right."
"I can see why you boys get on," she sighed, trudging down the front steps and taking each of them by one arm. "Get your butts in here before the pizza gets colder."
* * *
Troy stirred in his sleep, rolling away from Abed's chest and toward the wall. Annie had offered to let them use her bed while she was gone at Jeff's for the remainder of break (provided they'd wash and change the sheets), but the truth was that they had gotten used to the bunk's tight space. For now, it was right, and it was safe.
Abed rose, not bothering to retrieve his underwear and pajamas from the floor.
The rest of the apartment was chilly, but not to such an extent that being naked was uncomfortable. It took him ten minutes to locate the cafeteria tray Annie had stolen from Greendale for purposes of eating in front of the television. It's Black Friday, thought Abed, idly. I'm really glad not to be out there. He filled two bowls with dry Lucky Charms, and then pulled three large mugs down from the cupboard. He put plain milk in one and mixed individual servings of Special Drink in the other two.
Troy was awake by the time Abed returned, blinking up at him with bleary smile. Abed sat down on the edge of the mattress, balancing their breakfast in his lap.
"You realize you're only supposed to do that if you're in the doghouse, right?"
"I thought that breakfast in bed was an appropriate gesture after a hard week."
Troy sat up, rubbing his eyes, and made space between them on the sheets. He picked up one of the mugs of Special Drink and sipped it; Abed poured the milk out in even shares over the cereal, placing one of the spoons in each bowl.
They ate in deep, companionable silence, which Abed had missed.
"We're getting on the right time of year to start making this hot," Troy observed, setting down his empty mug. "You don't have to drink it that way if you don't want to, but I love hot chocolate. We used to have it after ice skating, which I sucked at."
"I like hot chocolate," said Abed, draining his bowl. "It's good at Christmas."
Troy set his bowl on the tray and carefully stretched back out on the bed. "I can't believe that Christmas is only about a month away. This year is flying."
Abed set the tray aside on the floor and lay down beside Troy. Apologies in advance had to be delicately timed and genuine. There was no doubt he'd be doing this whether he had something to answer for or not, which put Abed's mind at ease.
"What was all that about me being the easily distracted one?" asked Troy, teasingly, and shattered Abed's reverie with a kiss. "Earth to Abed. Where are you?"
"I was going to give you a blow job," said Abed, at length, "but if you want something else, that's cool. Just name it. I'm open to any and all suggestions for spicing up—"
Troy dragged Abed's hand down to his belly and molded it to his erection, letting out a sharp breath. "You can do whatever you want as long as I get to return the favor."
"That's fair," agreed Abed. He'd noticed for a while now that his hand on Troy often had the same result as his mouth, at least as Troy's reactions went. He kissed Troy again, biting at Troy's lower lip, and then shifted so his mouth could join his hand.
"Fair," Troy panted. "Never seems like a strong enough word for..."
Abed silenced him with the slightest scrape of teeth and a quick twist of his hand, sending Troy over the edge. Taken off-guard by Troy's sharp cry, Abed tried to swallow and ended up gagging. He spat on the sheets with a mumbled sorry.
"Apologizing for great blow jobs ought to be illegal," said Troy. "Get up here."
Abed obeyed, letting Troy spoon up behind him with one arm curled over his waist.
While Troy worked him with sure, steady strokes and mouthed kisses up the top of his spine, he wondered what he'd done to deserve somebody who touched him like this, somebody who wanted to touch him like this, somebody who'd taken all of his self-centered bullshit and transformed it into something worthy of caring about—
"I don't know where your head is, but you get it back in the gutter this instant."
Abed squeezed Troy's wrist, turning his head to muffle his shout in the pillow.
"Wipes," said Troy, tapping Abed's hip. "I can't reach them from here."
They cleaned themselves and the sheets as best they could, although the latter were kind of a lost cause and would have to be chucked in the laundry. For the meantime, they ignored all of the damp spots and lay back down, pulling up the covers.
"It was cool of your mom to let me film her with my phone," said Abed.
Abruptly, Troy's brain seemed to catch up with events of the day before.
"You filmed me, didn't you?" he asked, jabbing Abed's chest with his finger. "You filmed me with your phone while I was on the phone with her at Pierce's house."
Abed nodded, relieved to have his crime out in the open. He closed his eyes.
"I should have given you fair warning, but you were upset. I didn't know how else to get footage as honest as what I got from my dad. You seemed really worried about this history project, so I wondered what would happen if we did it as a joint film endeavor. We'd be taking liberties, sure, and maybe risk a lower grade for breaking the rules, but given the content, I can't think of any professor on this campus who'd mark us down. Once I thought about it, I didn't like the idea of sending that footage to anonymous university admissions boards, but the thought of classmates seeing it—seeing my footage, anyway—doesn't bother me. The whole school knows about us. I want you to think about something: if we lived in the countries our ancestors came from, we'd have been imprisoned or tortured by now. Maybe we'd even be dead. I can understand, though, if you don't want our history class to see you crying like that. I just—"
"Abed, please shut your mouth," Troy said, "before I change my mind about this."
Troy stepped back from the door and stared at her; Abed looked up from his book.
"What the hell happened to your hair? It looks like aliens landed and made crop circles."
Britta's eyes hardened, and she defensively raised one index finger.
"Before you go accusing me of cultural appropriation, hear me out. Our host-mom in one of the villages we visited was the sweetest little old grandma named Abrihet. She was fascinated by my hair and asked me if she could braid it. Given the circumstances and her humble generosity, I felt it would have been rude to say no."
"I like it," said Abed. "It suits you better than the time you tried dreadlocks."
"Thank you, Abed," said Britta, crossing to take a seat beside him on the couch. "Rick really likes it, too, so I'll just leave it like this till it falls out." Her eyes fell on the media center. "Oh my God, is that what I think it is. Has Pierce noticed it's gone?"
"Nope," said Troy, proudly, stepping over to give the lava lamp a proper Vanna White showing-off. "Abed texted Jeff and Annie while we were at my mom's place. Somehow, they smuggled it out of Pierce's mansion without him noticing."
"Great," said Britta. "What are you guys going to do with it now that you've got it?"
"Oh, just you wait," said Abed. "It'll boldly go where no lava lamp has gone before."
Chapter 5: Applied Resolutions Theory
"See that?" Annie said to Jeff. "That's how you rack up amazing-boyfriend points."
Abed fished his notebook out of his messenger bag as he and Troy took their seats, flipping to the appropriate chart. He'd been tracking their wishes since the start of the semester, and, aside from the agreed-upon requisite opening wishes and the make-wishes-every-morning-this-semester corollary, he'd noticed a pattern.
"It's implicit that, say, wishing for a thousand wishes is playful hyperbole and therefore innocuous," he said, "but I can't help but notice that we've been wishing almost every day that I'll get into one or all of the graduate programs. Do you think that's presumptuous? I'm generally not superstitious, but what if we've created a consensus-reality belief system strong enough that it will actually jinx my chances?"
Troy frowned at the chart, visibly troubled. "I hadn't thought about that," he admitted. "I've been operating under the automatic assumption that all wishes are good because they can't actually do any harm. Their purpose is to reinforce positive thinking."
Jeff and Annie glanced up from whatever YouTube video they'd been watching.
"If Troy's been operating under that set of assumptions all along," said Jeff, with his habitual tongue-in-cheek air laid over what Abed thought he recognized as genuine reassurance, "then it's de facto built into your consensus reality, and you're fine."
Abed gave a cautious nod. "Your logic and your argument are sound. Thank you."
"Don't stop wishing you'll get into all of them," said Annie, "or I'll feel silly for wishing the same thing every day on your behalf. I want you to be spoiled for choice, Abed."
Jeff leaned over and whispered, "She's been using nickels so each one counts as five."
"What did I tell you?" said Pierce, choosing that moment to enter. "Crafty Jew brain."
"The coins in that fountain get fished out at the end of every semester," said Annie, valiantly ignoring him, "and put toward campus upkeep. It's all for a good cause."
"Even if I get into all of them, a lot of it will come down to financial aid," said Abed.
"Don't worry," said Pierce. "You're a differently abled minority. That counts for a lot."
"I'm sorry," said Troy, turning to him, "but did you really say what I think you said?"
"You just disqualified your honorable attempt at using PC language by implying that's the only reason Abed will get funding," said Jeff. "You're lucky Britta wasn't here."
"I'm here now," she said, strolling in. "Did somebody call the social justice police?"
"Pierce claims that my status as a neuroatypical person of color should facilitate any financial aid offers made by my prospective graduate programs," Abed told her, "but what he's not taking into account is that I've never been issued a formal diagnosis. Additionally, I didn't claim any disability on my application forms."
"Nothing about you hinders your ability to make films or be an awesome person, so why should you?" asked Troy, taking hold of Abed's hand. "You did everything right."
"See that?" Annie said to Jeff. "That's how you rack up amazing-boyfriend points."
"Yeah, but they'll figure out your background based on your name," said Pierce.
"Not the Polish half of it," Abed pointed out. "Unless they infer it from my list of languages spoken fluently, but how would they know I didn't just study it in school?"
"Pierce, this is the part where you apologize to Abed," said Shirley, primly taking her seat next to Annie. "If you don't, your share in my business will cease to exist."
"Fine, I'm sorry," said Pierce. "I didn't mean any offense. I'm just trying to reassure you that I think you're a shoo-in—" upon the application of death-glares from the rest of the table combined, he forged on "—because, let me tell you, that film you turned in for your project just after Thanksgiving was pretty remarkable."
Troy cleared his throat. "Our project," he insisted. "Abed and I did it together."
"Your joint project, whatever," said Pierce. "I'm having way too great a day for you nit-pickers to put a dent in it. Take a gander at what I got in the mail yesterday!"
He took a postcard out of his jacket pocket and slid it into the middle of the table.
Abed watched with interest as Shirley picked it up first; he pinched Troy's wrist, already aware that Troy was struggling to keep a straight face. In spite of his overwhelming desire to initiate a victory fist-bump, his own remained impassive.
"Oh my dear Lord," said Shirley, turning the photograph-side outward to the rest of the table so that she could read the text on the back. At the sight of Pierce's lava lamp looming large in the foreground of the Central Park Carousel in New York City, reactions around the table ranged from stifled snorts to unabashed giggles.
"Mom's decided to get out and see the world," said Pierce. "Here's to you doubters!"
Oh my God, Britta mouthed at Abed and Troy, bouncing in her seat. GENIUS!
"That's just sad and wrong," said Shirley. "Not to mention doctrinally unsound."
While Annie made an intent show of studying the postcard, Jeff winked at Abed.
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," he said gravely, with a beneficent smile at Pierce, "than are hallucinated by Greendale's meth-heads."
* * *
On Thursday evening, he flopped down next to Abed on the couch and said, "Well, that's the first bunch down. Where are we sending the late Mrs. Hawthorne next?"
Abed clicked through a few of his dozen or more browser tabs, showing off potential locations. "I'm thinking she's now in the Pacific and on her way into Asia," he explained. "Dancing girls in Honolulu are pretty obligatory. Mount Fuji is not only an easy Photoshop target, but will also appeal to both Pierce's cultish pretension and his regrettable orientalist tendencies. We should do the Great Wall as a jab at Wu Mei."
"Remind me never to piss you guys off," said Annie, passing through wrapped in her fluffiest bathrobe with a towel around her head. "This scheme is getting pretty evil."
"More evil than him calling you have a crafty Jew?" Troy asked. "More evil than him ragging on Abed's ethnic background and the fact that he sees the world differently?"
"He's a pathetic, lonely old man," said Annie. "Just...don't take this too far, okay?"
"We'll take it as far as the narrative requires," said Abed. "It's early days yet."
"Annie, are you feeling okay?" Troy asked her. "You're crabby and look kind of pale."
"I'm fine," she insisted, bidding a hasty retreat, and slammed her bedroom door.
"Does your chart of the ladies'...um, lady times...have anything to say about that?"
Abed retrieved his notebook from the adjacent couch cushion and flipped through to the appropriate page. He skimmed his finger down a meticulous table, and then snapped it shut again. "Yes, as a matter of fact," he said. "Her period is a week late."
They nodded together in glum, knowing agreement and then did a double-take.
"Oh my God," said Troy. "Oh my fucking God, if you're telling me that she's—"
"Strictly speaking, it's too early to tell. It's more likely due to finals stress."
"This can't happen," insisted Troy, freaked out. "I'm too young to be an uncle!"
"But it could," said Abed. "Their recent sexual encounters line up with Annie's—"
"Stop right there. Let's just get on with playing travel agent for a ghost."
By lunchtime the next day, they had finished the new batch of postcards and, with Jeff's assistance, dropped them off at various Post Offices around the city. They had determined quickly that the Riverside postmarks didn't matter to Pierce; who was he to question metaphysical mysteries and a clear test of his faith?
Abed had been curt and withdrawn throughout the entirety of history class, and one glance at the calendar Cornwallis kept on his desk had clued Troy in as to why. He walked Abed to the cafeteria with a reassuring arm around Abed's waist, and, much to Troy's relief, Abed took it as indication that he understood and didn't pull away.
"All three of you guys are quiet today," remarked Jeff, uneasily, glancing from Annie to Troy to Abed. "What happened? Did your landlord raise the rent?"
Annie brushed him off, listlessly stirring her soup, and Troy glanced tentatively at Abed to see if he intended to respond. If not, he was prepared to do it for him.
"Today is Friday, December seventh," said Abed, tersely, eyes fixed on his untouched chicken fingers. "I haven't had any mail all week. This is unusual."
"I hear you, buddy," said Pierce. "Nothing from Mom this morning."
The reaction that bounced around the table was actually two separate reactions in tandem: suppressed amusement at Pierce's gullibility shot through with slow-rising horror at the realization that Abed had not yet heard from his own mother.
"Do you need help with coping strategies?" Britta asked. "I'm happy to be reinstated."
"Nope," said Abed, vehemently shaking his head. "All I had to do was reactivate Bitch-O-Vision as a non-visual process and lock it onto her. Also, Britta, you might want to start pulling out those braids. Your head looks like a drunk bird tried to nest—"
Annie set down her spoon and fixed Abed with an unreserved glare of annoyance.
"This morning you told me I looked like I needed to lay off the gin and floozies."
Troy gritted his teeth and tightly squeezed Abed's hand.
"So there are a few bugs," Abed admitted. "I'm working on it."
"Ouch," said Pierce. "Good thing Shirley's not here."
"Gender doesn't matter," said Abed. "You're just as big a bitch as my mom."
Troy hid his face behind his hands as everyone attempted to chime in at once: Britta in Abed's defense, explaining that he was traumatized and acting out; Jeff in Annie's defense, pointing out that she hadn't had anything to drink any night that week as far as he was aware; Pierce in his own defense, asking if he'd ever catch a break...
"I hate to interrupt your regularly scheduled cat-fight," said the Dean, cutting through the commotion, "but I've got some bad news, and I wanted you guys to hear it first."
Troy uncovered his eyes and blinked at Pelton while everyone else fell silent.
"It's my sad duty to inform you that Professor Sheffield was killed in a traffic collision last night," said the Dean, eyes downcast. "What with losing Alex just in the spring, this has been a difficult year for Greendale. Now, I'll be announcing this officially tomorrow morning, but there's something I need to discuss with you—" Pelton pointed directly at Abed "—right now. Would you come with me for a casual chat?"
Abed wriggled out of the booth across Troy's lap before Troy could rise to let him out.
"Will I miss Spanish class?" he asked Pelton, fidgeting with the strap of his bag.
"This will only take half an hour at most," said Pelton, "so no, you should make it."
Troy watched the Dean lead Abed away with one protective hand on Abed's shoulder.
"I'm sure it's all some misunderstanding," Pierce told Troy. "He's been with you every waking moment, and every sleeping one, too. Unless for some reason he hasn't—"
Above variations on SHUT UP, PIERCE! as a general chorus, Troy found the sound of his fist connecting with Pierce's nose as he lunged across the table far more satisfying.
* * *
"When do you want the completed forms?" asked Abed, hand already on the door.
"I'd prefer them before we break for Christmas, but if you can get them to me by the time we're back in January, that would be fine, too," said the Dean.
Abed's phone vibrated in his pocket; he fished it out and frowned at the text.
Troy is not in Spanish class right now. You are excused because the Dean otherwise detained you. I suggest that you go home ASAP and compare cluster-fucks, assuming something similar happened to you. ~ Jeff
"Thanks. I hate to ask, but can you drive me home? Something happened."
Pelton was happy to oblige. Ten minutes later, he pulled up in front of Abed's building, and Abed was out of the passenger-side door before they could exchange goodbyes. He took the stairs two at a time, out of breath by the time he reached the apartment.
Troy opened the door before Abed could get all of the locks undone.
"You should have ice on that," said Abed, framing Troy's face to get a closer look at his left eye, which was bruised and swollen. "Why don't you have ice on that?"
"You should see Pierce," said Troy, trailing after Abed to the refrigerator.
Abed nodded, opening the freezer. "We were at least a year overdue for a fistfight amongst ourselves," he observed, removing an ice-cube tray. "I'm impressed that we avoided it for so long. Go sit on the couch. I'll bring this over."
"Pierce implied the Dean called you in because you were somehow implicated in Sheffield's death," Troy sighed. "He must have been joking, but just...his delivery, Abed. That deadpan, patronizing, well-meaning bullshit. Joke or not, after that stuff he said Monday? I couldn't take it anymore. He's supposed to be our friend."
Abed dropped several ice cubes into a Ziploc baggie and wrapped it in the cleanest dish towel he cold find (one of Annie's). He joined Troy on the couch and pressed the ice pack to Troy's black eye, shivering at the slow, inevitable freezing of his palm.
"As I said before, Pierce is a bitch," he told Troy. "That's not really important right now. The reason Pelton called me in is related to Sheffield's death, but indirectly. Apparently the best reviews of his Who's the Boss? seminar last semester were all reviews of the single session I taught. As Sheffield was due to teach Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Cinema next semester and the class proved so popular there's a wait-list, they don't want to cancel the class. Pelton's asking me if I'm willing to step in at the last minute. Not only will they pay me as much as they'd pay an adjunct with a master's degree for a comparable amount of work, but I'll automatically earn three credits. That means I won't have to take any courses next semester in the lead-up to graduation." He paused for breath. "Should I have Pelton send an addendum to all of the rec letters he wrote for my MFA applications?"
"Abed, yes," said Troy, grinning so hard it must've hurt. "Do not pass GO, do not collect two hundred dollars, yes, because what the hell do you need with fake-ass Monopoly money when they're going to be paying you—damn, how much?"
"About five thousand dollars before taxes, according to the contract."
Troy took over ice-pack duty and leaned forward, touching Abed's cheek with his free hand before tilting his head so that Abed could kiss him without catching another chill.
"I want you to remember that you're just that bad-ass when you open whatever's waiting for you over there on the table, okay?" he said when they drew apart.
Abed nodded, catching sight of the envelope from where they sat. Between Bitch-O-Vision and that afternoon's boost to his self-confidence, Troy was probably right.
"Is it post-marked Seattle? If it is, then that's definitely her."
Troy nodded. "Would you just get it over with? That stupid thing sitting there has been causing me more discomfort than the splitting headache and black eye combined."
Abed fetched Troy some ibuprofen and a water before retrieving the card.
It shed gritty, dry glitter all over their laps as he wrestled it out of the metallic envelope. The front bore a generic winter landscape and said SEASON'S GREETINGS TO A SPECIAL SON; the interior, once blank, was covered in his mother's handwriting.
"Here," he said, holding the card wide open so that Troy could read, too.
His mother's letter was full of overblown sentiment, of course, and profuse apologies for having to miss their special day together for a second year running. Marek, Abed's young half-brother, was just beginning to walk. She'd been meaning to ask Tomasz about Abed coming to visit for a while, but the time had never felt right. However, in light of Abed's father recently writing to her about the changes in Abed's life...
"Your mom is offering to fly is out there for Christmas," said Troy. "Seriously?"
"She may be a bitch, but she's got cash," Abed replied. "Tomasz is a surgeon."
"Do they have, like, Pierce levels of money, or just Jeff-when-he-was-a-lawyer levels of money?" Troy asked, lowering the ice pack and setting it on the floor.
"The latter," said Abed, tossing the card down beside it. "Which is still a lot."
"I'm not going to push one way or the other, but I'm not going to lie—I'm curious to meet her. I want to know whether your mom really is a lost cause, or if she just made some poor decisions. I know she did at least one thing right."
Abed drew his legs up on the couch and curled sideways across Troy's lap.
"I should probably meet my brother," he said. "None of this is his fault."
"No kidding," said Troy, stroking Abed's hair. "He's just a baby." He thought about this, and then frowned down at Abed. "She must've been young when she had you."
"She married my dad when she was eighteen and had me at nineteen."
"So that's, what, a twenty-one year age gap between you and Marek?"
"We'll get to be more like cool uncles to him, assuming they decide to keep us in their lives," said Abed, turning the thought away as quickly as it had occurred to him.
"Let's take this one step at a time," said Troy. "No decisions now."
"You're right," Abed sighed. "We should go. It'll be an adventure."
"Let's wait and make her book last-minute, though. It'll cost more."
* * *
"I guess we banged each other up pretty good, huh?" said Pierce. "Nice shiner."
"The tape suits you," said Troy, resigned to the fact that they'd reverted back to civil, if uneasy business as usual. "You should wear it all the time."
Annie rose abruptly and dashed out of the study room just as Jeff was coming in.
"Is there something going on with her that I don't know about?" he asked. "She's been too busy to see me since last week, and she's hardly spoken to anyone."
"Whatever it is," said Abed, "she won't tell us about it, either. She mentioned not feeling well after breakfast, so I think that was a dash for the bathroom."
Troy had never seen that particular dazed look on Jeff's face before, but as far as implied understandings went, it had promise. Abed for the win.
"I'll be right back," said Jeff, and went out the same way Annie had gone.
"Did I just miss something?" Pierce asked.
Shirley and Britta arrived together, in the midst of an animated conversation.
"...which is why we believe adoption would be the way to go," Britta was saying. "So many children in Africa don't have homes or families. This trip changed our lives!"
"No matter which way you go, kids are a handful. They change your life."
"That wasn't freaky at all," Troy whispered to Abed.
"This is so tightly scripted you couldn't have written it," Abed whispered back.
"Share with the class," said Pierce, irritably. "My ears aren't what they used to be."
"We were just discussing adoption and the joys of motherhood," said Shirley.
"Topics of major interest to you, Pierce, I'm sure," retorted Britta.
"I meant them," he said, pointing to Troy and Abed. "They're up to something."
"Um, I hate to disappoint you," Britta said, "but they always are. Let it go."
"We need to discuss Christmas plans," said Shirley. "Where are Jeff and Annie?"
"Annie ran out because she needed to puke," said Pierce. "Jeff followed her."
"Any more postcards from your mom?" asked Troy, desperately changing the subject.
Pierce passed the lava-lamp-in-Hawaii photo to him. "She's teleporting from place to place pretty fast and teleporting the postcards even faster, like she's in a hurry."
"Was it a dream of hers to travel?" Abed asked. "The overeager often rush."
"Funny you should ask that," Pierce replied. "It was the last New Year's resolution she ever made, and here we are, almost to the third New Year's since her transformation."
"Guys, I'm worried about Annie," Britta cut in. "Have you noticed anything odd?"
"All the time," said Troy, in perfect unison with Abed's low murmur: "Constantly."
"Has she been getting sick a lot?" asked Shirley, suspiciously. "Because if she has—"
"I am so sorry about that," said Annie, brightly, leading Jeff back in by the hand. "I've been hitting the liquor cabinet a little too hard while studying by myself for finals."
"Remember, kids," said Jeff, with slight shakiness, "this is why study groups rock."
"Interesting," Abed whispered. "They're going to be adults and handle this quietly."
"I seriously don't know whether she has been drinking," said Troy, "or if she's just saying that so we won't pry. She knows you've got voodoo science powers."
"Wu Mei and I have decided we're going to China for Christmas and New Year's," announced Pierce, delighted, holding up Wu Mei's latest text message. "If Mom's on her way East, maybe we'll be blessed with a visitation!"
"I guess that means we've got to have our party this week," sighed Shirley.
"Shirley, I'm sorry," said Britta. "I'm traveling, too. I should have told you sooner. Rick's family are thrilled that he's allowed to talk to them now, and they want to meet me. We're going to Denver from the twenty-first until the day before classes start."
"We're not going anywhere," Jeff volunteered. "Except for having dinner with Annie's parents on New Year's Day, and they live a twenty-minute drive from here."
Troy glanced questioningly at Abed. He tried to raise his eyebrows and regretted it.
"We should do it this week," said Abed. "We got a letter from my mom yesterday asking us to come out to Seattle for the holidays, so we're going to go. She may be a huge bitch, but my baby half-brother Marek sounds cute. We want to meet him."
"Corrupting the young with geekitude one toddler at a time," said Jeff.
"Are non-study-group SOs allowed?" asked Britta. "Rick wants to see you guys."
"Of course they are," said Shirley. "Andre is coming, and that's non-negotiable."
"Fantastic," Pierce said, opening another text, and Annie gave a preemptive groan. "I'll ask Wu Mei if she can make it. When are we doing this thing?"
"How about four o'clock on Thursday?" suggested Shirley. "After the Spanish final."
"Fine by me," Britta said. "Rick's holiday starts tomorrow. His employer rocks."
"Dammit," said Pierce, crestfallen. "Wu Mei's busy. Oh, well. I've got you guys."
"We haven't studied for that final at all, have we?" Troy asked Abed, in Polish.
"I've kind of written it off," said Abed. "I could fail and still pass the class."
"Why are you guys speaking Russian?" asked Pierce, and six pens went flying.
* * *
"Relax, will you?" Troy replied, tightening his grasp on Abed's hand. "We just slogged our way through a five-page Spanish exam. I don't care if the others finished in record time and are eating Shirley's hippy-dippy, award-winning agave blue-corn muffins."
Abed slowed down. "Cool. Cool cool cool. I don't think I failed, but that was rough."
"You're good at languages," said Troy. "You should be fine. I probably bombed it."
"Correction: I'm good at the three to which I've had constant exposure since birth. Language acquisition in adulthood is more difficult than language acquisition between infancy and puberty. My Spanish grades have been far from perfect."
"Then why am I doing way better with Polish than with Spanish?" asked Troy, wryly.
"Because you have a better teacher for the former than for the latter," said Abed.
"You're not half full of yourself, are you?" said Troy, and led him into the library.
Abed experienced a moment of shock when they entered the study room to a flurry of red and green confetti and a shout of CONGRATULATIONS!—but his brain quickly re-oriented itself and determined that a) Troy had covertly informed the rest of them of his teaching engagement, and b) the others had decided to kill two birds with one stone and roll the celebration into their Christmas party. Even the Dean was there.
"I'm just here to congratulate our favorite polymath," said Pelton, handing Troy and Abed each a party horn, "and remind everyone that Professor Sheffield's memorial service will be held in the cafeteria tomorrow at six o'clock in the evening."
"Yeah, and gratuitously hit on Jeff," said Troy, under his breath. "What else is new?"
"I can't believe you didn't tell us right away, Abed!" said Shirley, pushing a tray of cookies under Abed's nose. "If people recognize your gift for academia now, then you'll be just fine in grad school! Try the gingerbread. I made it with acacia honey."
Abed picked up a bell-shaped gingerbread cookie and thanked her, wandering away while she accosted Troy in similar fashion. It was crunchy rather than soft, and the honey's flavor wasn't intrusive. Britta intercepted him while he knelt to slip Troy's gift under the tree, pulling him back up to his feet once he'd finished.
"Rick, I know you've met him before, but this is Abed," Britta gushed, slotting Abed's hand into Rick's. "He's a filmmaker and Troy's boyfriend and absolutely amazing."
"Your costumes are always excellent," said Rick, with admiration. "I remember The Bodyguard from Halloween and the Benny & Joon thing you guys did with Annie and Jeff. Do you think you could work in me and Britta next time?"
"Sure," said Abed, finally managing to disentangle his hand. "You definitely saw Britta dressed as Alyssa Jones from Chasing Amy. I think the Askewniverse films are a great fit for our group. They feature large casts and quirky plot-lines. Maybe I should start working on the concept for Mallrats. Or Dogma. We could pull off either one."
"I love those films," said Rick. "Kevin Smith is a genius. Do you remember—"
Abed hadn't been expecting a forty-minute conversation on Jay and Silent Bob mythology, but he wasn't about to turn it down. By the time Britta came back to drag Rick off to meet someone else, Troy had wandered back to Abed's side and joined in the discussion. Abed was actually sorry to see Rick and Britta leave.
"I feel like we do too much double-date type stuff with Jeff and Annie," Abed observed, turning to Troy. "We should give Britta and Rick more of a chance. They may be cause-heads, but Rick's cinema knowledge is extensive. Plus, there's no way to misread his expressions or anything that comes out of his mouth."
"As long as you're willing to risk lectures on the plight of African orphans," said Troy.
Pierce, already loaded on a number whiskey shots, took a plastic fork ineffectually to his tumbler and proposed toasts to Christmas, Jewish Christmas, Abed, Shirley's baked goods, and attractive Asian women. Jeff narrowly prevented him from climbing onto a nearby chair and proposing a second round. While Abed and Troy watched the show, Annie tiptoed up between them and tapped them each on the shoulder.
"I owe you guys an apology," she said, pulling them into a hug. "I've been horrible."
"We're just worried about you," Troy said, squeezing her. "We miss the real Annie."
"She's not as stressed out as she was twenty-four hours ago, so that's a start."
Abed tilted his chin and fixed Annie with a steady look, hoping to evoke seriousness.
"Are you and Jeff on the same page? I don't want him messing with your head."
"Abed, he hasn't messed with my head recently. I've been messing with his."
"You guys really are perfect for each other," said Troy, casting about for cookies.
"If there's anything important you need to tell us," said Abed, "we're listening."
Annie smiled, lowering her eyes. "Hopefully I'll know a little more after break."
Abed watched her chase after Troy; both of them accosted Shirley with a shriek.
"This is a nice change, isn't it?" said Jeff, offering Abed a tumbler of whiskey.
"I like how this is turning out," Abed agreed, accepting it. "We're nearing a major narrative climax, or several, and nothing's gone to hell yet. That's a good sign."
"That's all well and good for you and Troy and everybody else," said Jeff, clinking his glass against Abed's and taking a long swallow, "but, for my part, I'm freaking out."
"Change will do that," Abed replied. "And you need to remember that's fine."
* * *
A bathrobe-clad, weepy Annie kissed their cheeks and shooed them into the back seat of Rick's sky-blue Nissan Leaf. "Abed, be kind to your mom," she warned, leaning on the car door. "I know you're upset at her, but she hasn't seen you in two years."
"We'll both be nice," said Troy, gesturing for Rick to put up the window. "I promise."
Abed blew her a kiss as they drove off; Britta swore, flipping through radio stations.
"AUGH! If I hear even a single note of that insipid Santa Baby song—"
"Relax," said Rick, soothingly. "There are CDs in the glove compartment."
Troy hadn't heard anything by They Might Be Giants or Radiohead for a long time, so the ensuing sing-along was highly enjoyable (except for the part where Britta still couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and, much to Abed's wide-eyed horror, neither could Rick). An hour and a half later, they were all too grateful to find themselves standing on the curb at Denver International with one carry-on each.
"Our flight's in three hours," said Abed. "Let's check in and get into the security line; I never know if they're going to hold me up or push me through as fast as they can."
"If they give you trouble," said Troy, "we're both getting kicked out of here, because I won't be responsible for my actions. Pierce has set my tolerance well below zero."
Neither one of them got pulled aside for a cavity search, although the baggage-search officer asked a lot of obtuse questions about the DVDs, action figures, and the notebook that he'd carelessly extracted from Abed's luggage for examination. Troy answered every one of them with increasing annoyance at the douchebag in latex gloves and a security vest; Abed had shut down and refused to speak to him.
Once they got to their gate, Troy settled Abed in a chair with their luggage and went to grab them both hot chocolate from the nearest Starbucks kiosk. Dear President Obama, Troy thought, tossing a piece of vanilla biscotti down at the last second, Please repeal this post-9/11 bullshit ASAP. It makes my boyfriend sulk.
They split the biscotti (Troy had been almost sure Abed would object to the nuts), sipped their hot chocolate, and made fun of the bizarre names being called over the PA system. Abed had curled up sideways in his chair, head resting on Troy's shoulder.
"I don't know how you made this better, but you did," he said. "I love you."
Before Troy could respond, the stewardess at their gate announced boarding.
Fortunately, Abed's mom had managed to book them onto a nonstop flight. Two hours and forty minutes was just enough time for them to watch one of the in-flight movies without Troy beginning to feel claustrophobic or stir-crazy. Neither one of them had seen Hanna before—unexpected, given Abed's admiration of Cate Blanchett.
"We'll have at least two really long flights if we go visit Abra over spring break," asked Abed, as the pilot announced their final descent. "Do you think you can handle that?"
"It's called Benadryl or any other drowsiness-inducing over-the-counter shit you can get," Troy replied. "Drug me. Maybe Jeff will give us some prescription painkillers."
"If I don't get into grad school," said Abed, "let's become runaway super assassins."
"I think we needed to be genetically engineered for that," replied Troy, wistfully.
"At least right this instant," said Abed, "real life is more scary than that movie."
As the plane came in for a rough landing, Troy held on tightly to Abed's hand.
Troy almost regretted the fact that they hadn't checked any luggage; it made further delay by way of baggage claim impossible. Abed looked as if he could have used it.
Sonia was standing alone in waiting area outside of security; there was no sign of her husband or the baby, and Troy found her easy to recognize after all of the photographs and home movies Abed had shown him. She was as tall as her son, and it was even clearer on seeing her in person where Abed's slight build came from.
When Abed opened his mouth to speak, Troy wondered if the weeks upon weeks of painstaking polish lessons had at least in part been leading up to this moment.
"Are you happy now?" he asked, letting go of his suitcase as his mother leaned forward to embrace him, but maintaining a fierce hold on Troy's hand.
"I'm happy to see you," she said, pulling Abed close, "and that is enough."
"Are you sure Skyping this doesn't break your no-camera rule?" Jeff asked.
Abed shifted on his kitchen stool, glancing at Troy, who was having a difficult time keeping their guest still in his lap. "Stop trying to make me break the fourth wall," he admonished Jeff, and then straightened up again. "Today we've got a very special guest—so special, in fact, that he doesn't even get his own chair."
"Shhh!" Annie hissed to Jeff. "Don't spoil this for them."
"Everybody out there in the audience offer up a warm Greendale welcome to Marek Brzeziński," said Troy, tickling the little boy's sides so that he collapsed into an easily lap-contained ball of giggles. "His hobbies include running around the house without a diaper, tearing the pages out of his mom's cookbooks, and repeating Abed's name over and over because he just learned how to say it."
"Abed," said Marek, peeking shyly away from Troy's chest, and then hid his face.
"Oh my Goood," Annie moaned, wringing her hands over her heart. "Just look at him! Abed, it's like your baby pictures came to life! He is so precious."
"Marek's going to sing for us today," continued Abed, "if he can be persuaded—"
"No!" Marek shouted, shaking his head vehemently. "Troy sing."
"But I already sang," Troy pointed out. "So did Abed. It's your turn."
"No!" Marek shouted. With a violent twist, the toddler escaped Troy's grasp, slid down onto the linoleum, and scampered away.
"Guys, are you recording this for posterity?" asked Jeff. "If not, you should be."
"Mom—" Abed gestured desperately "—Mom, what are you doing, just stay—"
"No," said Sonia, stepping around in front of the laptop to where Jeff and Annie would see her with an ancient camcorder held up to her right eye, "but I am."
Chapter 6: Postmodern Enrollment Ethics
"You know that classroom scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Jeff asked. "The one with creative use of eyeliner? She totally went there."
Troy was all nerves on their way from the fountain back to the study room. "Pierce had better be there by now," he muttered, "or I'm going to be pissed off that we got up at six just to plant that thing there well in advance of everybody else arriving. We could've used that time for something—productive, if you know what I mean."
"I'll give you a blow job tonight," said Abed, releasing Troy's arm to reach for the door as they approached the library entrance, "or fuck you, or let you fuck me, or wear whatever outfit you want. Have I covered all of our bases? My point is mostly that this is the first day of spring semester, and our mind was on more pressing things."
"Like finally getting rid of that dumb-ass lava lamp," Troy said. "I swear, if I had to watch you Photoshop that stupid thing into one more travel photo..."
"Like teaching," said Abed. "I hope my syllabus alterations are permissable."
Everyone was already in the study room except for Pierce, and the lava lamp sat exactly where they'd left it: on the table in front of his chair. Whatever conversation they had been having completely fizzled out as Troy and Abed took their seats.
"I knew it was you two," said Shirley. "I wondered how you were going to give it back. It would have worked if he'd gotten here early. Now he's going to suspect us all."
"I bet he forgot it's the first day of classes," Annie offered. "He is getting older." She was much less haggard than she had before holiday break, and rather than growing in her hair, she'd maintained the Ruthie bob. She didn't look so young anymore.
"He's never forgotten before," Britta said. "This would be the first time in the four years we've known him, and he's been coming here for how many—twelve? No, more like fourteen by now. When it comes to Greendale, that guy's brain is clockwork."
"I, for one," said Jeff, putting his feet up on the table, "am not going to complain. I could use some squabble-free time to finish perusing the course catalog."
Troy smirked. "You have fun with that. I finally got into Foosball."
"I'd ask you to take my class," said Abed, "but there's been a wait-list since before Sheffield died. Annie, Britta, and Shirley were fortunate enough to get in."
Annie clapped. "Abed, I can't wait. They say you're just brilliant."
Just as Jeff fixed his stare on Abed, lowering the catalog, Dean Pelton knocked uselessly on the door-jamb and invited himself in. He had a raggedly torn envelope and a wrinkled piece of paper in his hand, and he lacked his usual sparkle.
"Out with it, Craig," said Jeff, tossing the catalog down. "Who died?"
"I thought maybe Pierce would have said something to you guys about these shenanigans," said the Dean, with a devastated sigh, "but it looks as if we're all worth exactly zero in his regard. The Registrar's Office got this letter via FedEx Overnight on January second, but did anyone see fit to tell me about it before today? Nooo."
"I don't understand," said Shirley. "What has he done? Is he okay?"
Troy leaned over and whispered to Abed, "Wu Mei sexed him to death."
"Shhh," said Abed, holding up one hand. "I bet it's stranger than that."
"Pierce has permanently withdrawn from study at Greendale," said Pelton. "He got married to that heiress in China over the holidays, and now Hawthorne Wipes and Red Dragon are negotiating the merger of the century. It's no joke; I checked CNN."
"The course of true greed never did run smooth," said Jeff, "but they got there in the end. Good for them. At least now neither one will be traumatizing anyone else."
"That's nowhere near as strange as I was hoping," Abed sighed. "Oh well."
"Does the letter say anything else?" asked Britta. "Any...I don't know, goodbyes?"
"Not a thing," said the Dean, removing his glasses, and that was when Troy realized he had actually begun to tear up. "I just...gosh," he sniffed, using the letter to dab at his eyes. "It's the end of an era, isn't it? First Pierce, next the rest of you."
"Assuming all goes according to plan, yes," said Jeff. "We'll be graduating."
"Awww, Dean," said Annie, rising from her chair and starting toward him with arms outstretched. "We've had such an amazing time. You know we'll miss you, too—"
"Leave me alone!" Pelton cried, crushing the letter to his chest, and fled.
"So, ah, what did everyone else do over break?" asked Shirley, with forced cheer. "The boys all got new Christmas sweaters from Andre's mom. They look so nice!"
"Abed and Troy Skyped us from Seattle with a special edition of Troy and Abed in the Morning," Jeff volunteered. "Abed's baby brother made the best guest ever."
"He's not even joking, guys," Annie gushed. "That kid is the cutest—"
"Hey, not fair!" said Britta, exchanging hurt looks with Shirley. "Why didn't you conference-call all of us? We've got laptops and internet connections."
Abed shrugged. "Annie and Jeff were the only ones who answered my group email."
"Goddamn," muttered Shirley. "I've got to do something about that spam filter."
"I'm pretty sure I didn't get that," Britta said. "I don't lose track of email."
"You do if it's got my name in it and you've still got a rule set up on your Gmail box that trashes it on-sight," said Jeff. "Remember the drinks invite you never got?"
"You all suck," said Britta, folding her arms across her chest, and sank down in her chair. "Rick and I had a wonderful time with his parents. They took us snowboarding."
Troy cleared his throat and raised his hand. "Abed's mom taught me how to make barszcz with uszka. I didn't know stuff made with beets was so good."
Annie looked pleased. "Is that something Abed will eat if you make it at home?"
"As long it tastes like my mom's," said Abed, flipping through his syllabus.
"You'll be fine, Abed," said Annie. "Don't spend the last ten minutes before class obsessing over everything. Besides, the first session is always just an intro."
"I can't believe Troy is taking Foosball instead," Britta remarked. "That's not very supportive. I'd be really mad if I was teaching and Rick wasn't taking my class."
"I refuse to put Abed in a compromising situation," said Troy, exchanging nods with Abed. "And anyway, Foosball meets in the afternoon time slot. Do your homework."
"So you've got nothing in the morning?" asked Annie. "Why not audit?"
"I hadn't thought of that," Troy admitted. "Abed, you cool with auditors?"
"In accordance with Greendale policy, I have to be," he replied.
"Maybe Jeff can audit the class with you," suggested Britta.
"Unlike some people, I need the credit," Jeff pointed out, "and I'd much rather take a film class taught by a friend than a drama class taught by an egotistical nut-job."
"Even if you can convince the Registrar's Office to let you enroll, don't work under the assumption that you're walking away with an automatic A," said Abed, tucking the syllabus into his notebook. "Or that any of you are, for that matter."
Troy whistled, clapping Abed's shoulder. "See? Presenting Abed with a moral conundrum aside, this is why you couldn't pay me to take it for credit."
Abed checked his watch. "Five minutes. If you guys follow me, you won't be late."
"Fine," sighed Jeff. "I'll give Professor Garrity another chance. Acting can't be worse than conspiracy theories, and if Troy's experience taught me anything, it's this: when in doubt, make shit up. Except—oh, wait! I do that anyway."
"Work those daddy issues," Britta told him. "Trust me on this one."
* * *
"We have the entire last week of March off for Spring Break," Abed explained, "so I've been running searches on both the twenty-third through the thirty-first and the twenty-fourth through the thirty-first. The extra day doesn't make much difference in price, and we're looking at a layover at either Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International or at Toronto Pearson International no matter which flight schedule you select. The price per person with that arrangement is about fourteen hundred dollars round-trip, and nonstop flights from Denver to London start around three thousand per person round-trip. Even with what I'm earning, I don't think we can afford that."
"The layover's better anyway," said Troy, tossing the diced cherry tomatoes into a saucepan that already contained passata, olive oil, chopped onions, and a variety of spices. "It's just a wild guess, but I think I'd be able to take a four-hour flight and then a six-hour flight better than a single ten-hour flight. What about you?"
"I'd just watch movies the whole time in either case," said Abed. "I can't sleep on moving vehicles. Your comfort is the more important consideration."
Just as Troy finished chopping the garlic, someone knocked on the door.
"Can one of you guys get that?" Annie shouted from her bedroom. "It's Jeff!"
Abed let him in while Troy scraped bits of garlic off the cutting board and into the saucepan. Jeff's confused expression was worth storing away for future reference.
"Are you sure you're not taking Home Ec instead of Foosball?" he asked.
"We both like spaghetti," Troy explained, stirring the pot's contents as he turned up the heat, "so I figured it would be worth trying to make sauce from scratch. So far, it's easy enough. We looked some recipes up on the internet."
"Looks to me like Abed's been running airfare searches instead," Jeff remarked, following Abed back to the table. "Why London? I thought Abed didn't apply there."
"I didn't," said Abed, quickly closing the tabs, "but we've been talking about going to visit Abra over Spring Break for at least a few months now."
"They're going to play Inspector Spacetime on location without me," Annie interjected, emerging from her room wearing a full backpack and carrying two overstuffed tote-bags. "Ready when you are," she said to Jeff.
"Right," he said, straightening up, and took both of the tote-bags off of Annie's hands. "You guys enjoy your dinner. Don't burn the place down."
"If I can make buttered noodles without doing that, then Troy can certainly make spaghetti," Abed pointed out, snapping his laptop shut. "Good night, Jeff."
"Yep," Troy echoed, glancing over his shoulder to watch them leave. He waited until they'd shut the door to cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and join Abed at the table. "Listen, this is the second time in five days she's done that. Jeff doesn't really have that much space. I understand that having stuff on hand is probably more convenient given how much time she spends over there, but why isn't Jeff freaking the hell out?"
Abed shrugged. "Maybe the scare put some things into perspective."
"You mean like realizing that Annie's the girl who could actually be having his babies someday?" Troy asked, wide-eyed. "Dude, this is wrinkling my brain. Which one would be willing to take paternity leave? And would they raise the kids Jewish or Agnostic?"
"They'd be considered Jewish by birth, given their mother's Jewish," Abed replied, considering the question with interest. "However, I doubt they'd be much more observant than Annie is herself, which isn't much. No more than you and I are."
"I'd want to let the kid make their own decision," Troy said, rising, and went back over to the stove to check the sauce and fill another pot with water and a pinch of salt for the pasta. "I wonder what I'd have chosen if I'd been given the chance, you know?"
"You can choose now," said Abed, rising, and went over to fetch the pasta down from the cupboard. "It's never too late to decide what you are. Or what you aren't."
"I've been giving it a lot of thought lately," Troy sighed, putting the lid back on the sauce, "and I'm pretty sure I'm not a Jehovah's Witness anymore. Sometimes I'm not sure if I ever was. Do you ever feel that way about your religion?"
"The only times I've ever been to mosque were when I was really young," Abed told him, shaking two servings' worth of spaghetti noodles into the steaming pot of water. "Both instances were on visits to my dad's family in Gaza. Dad never really took the no-drinking thing seriously; as a consequence, neither do I. The one exception was observance of Ramadan. We always did, at least up until I started at Greendale, but I haven't done it since. I don't know about Dad. Most of the time I like to think there's a God or something like God out there, but nowadays I'm not so sure. The older I get, the better I understand Jeff's point of view. Is that how it is for you?"
Troy was watching him with that grave, beautiful half-lidded expression that he only ever seemed to get when something really momentous or profound was happening between them. It was a disarming, melancholy kind of sweetness that he hoped desperately he'd one day get to film. Until then, he'd continue to hoard visuals.
"You know that's how it is," Troy said, "or you wouldn't have asked me."
Abed kissed him until an ominous bubbling and hissing brought them back.
"Dinner, Casablanca, sex?" Troy offered, turning off both burners.
"Sex, then dinner and Casablanca," Abed countered, and Troy, already shirtless, agreed that slightly waterlogged spaghetti noodles were a risk worth taking.
* * *
Jeff patted his hand. "Look on the bright side. As auditors, we can see everything from back here. One false move from Chang, and we can have him on the ground in no time at all. And if we miss our mark, Shirley's just a couple of desks in front of him."
While a few more students trickled in and took their seats, a serious, pretty dark-haired girl in the front row turned around to glare at Troy and Jeff. She blinked, showing off what looked like stripe-decorated eyelids, a curiously threatening gesture.
Jeff opened his mouth and shut it again, apparently flabbergasted by what they'd just seen, and Troy had to lean hard on his arm, shaking him to snap him out of it.
"What? What did that chick just do? Dammit, Jeff, what did I miss—"
"You know that classroom scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Jeff asked. "The one with creative use of eyeliner? She totally went there."
"That's either going to make Abed's day," said Troy, "or he's going to flunk her because it's in really bad taste. Either way, I can't wait to see what happens."
"You're a good sport about this," replied Jeff, lowering his voice to a whisper as Abed called the class to order. "Annie would have hung that girl by her own viscera."
"How about let's not talk about viscera," Troy whispered back with a shudder.
"Welcome to our second session of Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Cinema," said Abed, rising, and took a seat on the front corner of his desk. "Your first assignment was to watch Casablanca, the nineteen forty-two classic starring Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Henreid. Initial thoughts and impressions?"
Chang raised his hand high and waved it; Abed nodded, pointing at him.
"Reaction number one: Casablanca means white house, in case any of you slackers who slept through my classes needed a translation. Reaction number two: GAY."
"That's a fascinating assertion, Ben," said Abed, refusing to rise to the bait. "Let's talk about that. Who else here saw evidence in support of a queer reading?"
Annie, Britta, Vicki, Magnitude, and an assorted third of the classroom raised their hands. Shirley looked somewhat conflicted, vascillating between a half-raised hand and plastering both palms flat against her desk. Chang rolled his eyes and spoke above the heated murmur that had begun to rise amongst his classmates.
"Hear me out! It's touted everywhere as one of the greatest love stories ever told in film, and all you see are black-and-white stills of Bogey and Bergman making googly eyes at each other, but what do you get instead? The tough, yet sensitive casino owner and the police chief who'll sleep with anything that moves riding off into the desert sunset to join the resistance together. I mean, come on—I feel cheated!"
Britta, infuriated, didn't even wait for Abed to call on her to open her mouth.
"Who's to say the actual love story isn't between Rick and Captain Renault? It's thanks to narrow-minded, bigoted points of view like the one you're touting that the most beautiful storylines of all remain cruelly silenced. Ilsa loves her husband more than anyone else on earth; it's clear she only had that affair with Rick because she thought he was dead. This isn't a story about flings and instant gratification; it's about loving the one you're with, and realizing who you've been with without even realizing it!"
"Thanks, Britta, for an impassioned and insightful response," said Abed, and Troy was impressed at Abed's authoritative tone. "She raises two excellent points, and for anyone who'd like to consider queer subtext as a potential essay topic, I'd highly recommend reading a book by Vito Russo called The Celluloid Closet—"
"I've read that!" said Vicki, proudly, waving her arm. "I've totally read that!"
"Then you probably have a significant leg up on most people here," said Abed, somewhat impatiently. "Getting back on topic, did anyone have anything to add on the subjects of marital fidelity and suppressed same-sex desire?"
Garrett lowered his hand as Abed nodded to him, sputtering gratefully.
"From my perspective, the real issue on trial is what constitutes loyalty and when it's morally acceptable to break one oath in favor of another. If you really think about it, none of the characters, except for maybe Victor Laszlo, come out smelling like roses, and then there's the question of whether or not civil disobedience is acceptable—"
"The fucking Nazis were taking over!" Annie cut in. "It's not even a question!"
Without even realizing it, Troy had been holding his breath; Abed was now watching the unruly free-for-all with a kind of dismayed fascination. Troy caught his eye and pointed at Magnitude, who'd been urgently waving his hand for a good ten minutes.
(Either the dude had a great point to make, or he really, really needed to pee.)
"QUIET!" Abed shouted, and then, in the ensuing silence, called on him.
"Pop...pop?" ventured Magnitude, tentatively, with an expressive shrug.
Abed's expression went from indulgent to irritated in less than a second.
"I've heard you deliver verbose monologues in front of a video camera, so if you think you can answer everything in this class with two syllables, guess again. The next time you pretend that you actually have something to say and then chime in with pop pop, your grade automatically becomes a C. Do it again beyond that, and you fail."
The silence in the room went from uneasy and tentative to outright deafening.
"What I meant," replied Magnitude, "was that, although I mostly agreed with Britta's assessment, we'd be selling Ilsa and Rick short if we didn't acknowledge that there did seem to be genuine affection between them at one time. That shouldn't be discredited, because it motivates both of their actions to a phenomenal degree."
"That's a marvelous rebuttal," said Abed, and Magnitude looked pleased as punch. "However, I'd like to backtrack a little, because Garrett raised an excellent point: moral ambiguity. This film is absolutely awash in it." With that, he turned to the chalkboard and started to draw up a chart containing all of the characters' names.
"Holy shit," Troy whispered. "It's like he's the Truest Film Studies Instructor, or something. I thought those people were all kidding about his take-down of Sheffield last year, I really did. Oh God. I'm a bad boyfriend. I'm a bad boyfriend!"
"I have so got to get myself into this class," Jeff whispered back.
* * *
Abed studied his handiwork—Pierce's lava lamp, bubble-wrapped—and attempted to fit it in the Priority Mail box he'd picked up at the Post Office a couple of blocks away. It was a tight squeeze, but nothing had cracked or begun to leak, so Abed called it a success and filled in the corner gaps with more wadded-up bubble wrap.
Annie wandered in to pour herself some coffee and stopped to watch him.
"What are you doing?" she asked. "Did you sell something on eBay again?"
"It's the lava lamp," said Abed, taping the box shut. "I got the Dean to give me the return address on Pierce's letter. Since he's not coming back, Troy and I figured we should mail it to him. If we'd left it in the study room, it would only have been a matter of time before Mr. Radison took it hostage in exchange for our participation in the Spring Extravaganza. I didn't want to give him that kind of leverage."
"That's...great thinking, Abed," said Annie, and went back to her room.
Abed picked up the box and hefted it. He'd need to persuade the Dean to let him use the faculty mail room and have access to the international express-mailing code, because there was no way he and Troy could foot the bill when the first installment of Abed's teaching wages was going toward airfare. He was lucky he'd convinced the Dean to pay him half up front. Troy's repair jobs helped, of course, but those couldn't be predicted. Abed wrote Pierce's new address on the broadest face of the box.
Finding he'd reached three-thirty in the afternoon and was at a loose end, Abed put on his Inspector costume and ducked into the Dreamatorium. They'd located the pump, so the air mattress was firm to lie on, comfortable. He took off his bowler, lay back, and stared at the blanket-ceiling, wondering if the Inspector ever just needed to rest...
He blinked drowsily, uncertain how much time had passed. Troy was beside him.
"Hey," Troy said. "I got home like half an hour ago and you were out cold, so I took that stupid thing down to the Post Office and mailed it. Shhh, it's cool. I had that job last week, remember?" He unbuttoned the trench coat and found the hem of Abed's t-shirt, working his hand underneath. His touch was pleasant; Abed warmed to it.
"Geneva's in her room," Abed cautioned, working open the zip on Troy's jeans.
"Then we must endeavor to be quiet, Inspector," said Troy, in Reggie's accent, and bent to kiss Abed. He slid his hand down from its leisurely exploration of Abed's unticklish belly to the button of Abed's jeans, unfastening him just as quickly.
Between increasingly unfocused kisses, Abed snagged the bowler with his free hand and put it on Troy's head. That earned Abed a low groan and Troy's free hand fisted even tighter in his ascot, so he let go of Troy's dick and wrapped both arms around Troy's neck, pulling him closer. Troy tried to get his hand around both of them, which proved too difficult given that Abed was trying his level best to squirm fully underneath Troy, so he gave up and followed Abed's lead. That's how it would be in a space ship's close quarters, Abed supposed with satisfaction, clapping a hand over Troy's mouth as he came all over Abed's exposed belly and some of his t-shirt.
Troy recovered quickly and bent to finish Abed off with his mouth, holding the bowler in place. It felt strange to hold back where once silence was all Abed had ever permitted himself, scrabbling for the nearest pillow to stifle his own ragged gasps.
They hadn't moved by the time Jeff's familiar knock sounded on the door, tangled up in Abed's trench coat and only halfheartedly covered by the nearest blanket.
"Can you guys get that?" shouted Annie, no longer Geneva, illusion broken.
"No, Annie!" Troy shouted back, breathless. "We very definitely cannot."
"Please don't tell me that means what I think it means," Annie called back.
"I can neither confirm, nor deny whether it means what you think it means!" Abed shouted, using the blanket to wipe himself off before setting his clothes back in order.
Abed shut the trench coat, belted it, and crawled toward the sheet which served as the Dreamatorium door. Tentatively, he poked his head out. Jeff had apparently remembered his key, because while they were busy shouting back and forth, he'd let himself in and was regarding Abed with an expression of horrified puzzlement.
"Hi. Annie's in her room," said Abed, and then ducked back inside the fort.
Troy looked like he didn't know whether he ought to be amused or mortified. Abed shed the trench coat and went to him, pulling the blanket up over them both. Troy buried his face against Abed's shoulder and started to shake with silent laughter.
"Sorry!" Annie said, and Abed heard her emerge into the common area carrying what sounded like more overstuffed fabric tote-bags filled with her stuff. "I'm ready to go."
"I really don't want to know what you guys are up to in there," said Jeff, "but, whatever it is, I hope you have lots of fun doing it. Good night."
With that, they were gone, leaving Abed and Troy to laugh aloud until neither one of them could breathe. Troy loosened Abed's ascot and used it to dab at his eyes.
"Seriously, though, can we talk about something obvious?" he asked. "I know what's going on here. Annie's moving out, and she's been too afraid to tell us."
"I don't understand why," said Abed. "She's not even on the lease. She's only ever been subletting. We can afford this place on our own; that's why we got it."
"Maybe she feels like she's running out on us," said Troy. "Does she think that we won't survive without her? I'm learning to cook and everything."
Abed shrugged. "I'll miss her if she leaves, but I didn't expect the arrangement to be anything other than temporary. She's too driven. And now—not that I didn't want this before, but the meaning at this point in time is different—I just want to be with you."
"Come on," Troy said, nudging Abed's shoulder. "Let's take a shower, heat up that leftover spaghetti, and watch Rear Window. You need to teach that shit tomorrow."
"I'm looking forward to what Magnitude will say about this one," said Abed, letting Troy pull him to his feet. "He once told me that Hitchcock's his favorite director."
* * *
Abed's urgent gestures seemed to indicate that needed to stay behind in order to deal with questions from Vicki and the creepy Indiana Jones fangirl, who had pretty much trapped him at his desk, so Troy nodded and filtered out into the hall with everyone else. His first instinct was to find Annie, Britta, and Shirley and head to lunch with them, but he caught sight of Jeff rounding the corner at the far end of the hall and decided that following him was as good a strategy as any.
Just when Troy decided breaking into a run to catch up with him might be a good idea, he realized that Jeff's trajectory hadn't taken them to the cafeteria. It had taken them to the Dean's office, and Jeff had closed the door firmly behind him.
Uh-oh, thought Troy, and peered through the partly open blinds. Hearing them was a piece of cake; Troy wasn't sure why Pelton hadn't yet figured out that an office bounded in by cinder blocks would be a wiser choice for a man of his proclivities.
"I'm afraid I can't do that," the Dean was saying, leaning forward with hands splayed on the papers covering his desk. "Everyone else in that class waited a year or two to get there. Why can't you just be thankful you're allowed to audit and suffer your way through Garrity's nonsense? I mean, look at Troy and Britta. They survived."
"By the skin of their black spandex tights," said Jeff, and Troy was glad that Jeff's back was turned to him, because, of the two men in that office, Jeff was the one more likely to notice a pair of intermittently blinking eyes between the blinds. "Look, if you'll sign off on this form, then Abed will, too. The Registrar's Office won't have a choice. I already know that he's not giving anybody a free ride; if anything, he's being even harder on his friends, and I can respect that. If there's anything that's changed in my time here at Greendale, I've learned the value of a rigorous academic challenge."
The Dean stared at his hands, tapping the desk, and then brought his eyes up slowly to meet Jeff's. Troy found himself instinctively shaking his head; that expression meant the Dean was about to make a proposition neither of them wanted to hear.
"Riddle me this," asked Pelton. "Exactly how much is this credit worth to you?"
"How about another dance?" Jeff asked. "In private this time, any style you want."
The Dean shook his head despairingly, lips twisting into a disappointed grimace.
"See, that's no good," he said. "Really no good to me at all. Nine times out of ten, the pleasure is in knowing that the whole school can see you're really just my bitch when it comes down to getting what you want out of Greendale. Isn't that right?"
"Dude, you brought this all on yourself," Troy muttered under his breath.
"Name your price," said Jeff, and, good grief, how could he pretend so much disdain for the Dreamatorium when he could turn on the unnecessary melodrama with the best of them? "But whatever favor you may ask, whatever heinous fantasy you may choose to inflict upon me, I beg of you: please remember Annie."
I can't believe this, Troy thought. I don't even have a clear shot to record it with my phone. This is the kind of thing you put in corny graduation montage videos.
The Dean clutched at his chest and staggered backward into his chair, as if he'd been mortally wounded. He sat there seething for a minute or so, visibly fighting off tears, and then slowly, deliberately opened one of the drawers of his desk. Troy instantly recognized the mask he drew out and put on, because Abed had one just like it.
"I may not know all of my lines, Miss Daaé," said Pelton, rounding his desk to defiantly stand his ground opposite Jeff, "but I sure do know what part comes next." The moment was fractured somewhat when he removed his iPod touch from his pocket and flipped through a few playlists till he found the one he wanted.
"You have got to be kidding me," said Troy, but his heart kind of broke a little anyway when the familiar orchestra strains swelled in Pelton's speakers and Jeff, not to be outdone, pulled the Phantom mask off of Pelton and balls-to-the-wall went for it.
The kiss lasted about as long as Troy remembered it lasting that time Abed dragged him and Annie to see a touring production that had come to Riverside. By the time Jeff released him, Pelton looked about as lost as—as any man in his position would, Troy had to admit—and the lush orchestra had already given way to terse drum-beats and ghostly sounds on the recording of footsteps across the stage: Erik grabbing one of the candles, approaching a lasso-trapped Raoul, and burning him free.
In real-time, this translated to Pelton fumbling for a pen, taking the form Jeff had removed from his pocket, and signing it in a shaky, yet authoritative scrawl.
At the same instant Jeff turned and started for the door, Troy turned and booked it down the hall. Number one, he didn't want to have to look Jeff in the eyes right now, and, number two, he didn't want to hear Pelton's inevitable shriek of GO! GO NOW, AND LEAVE ME!, but in the grand scheme of things his voice was way too loud.
Abed was already in the cafeteria with the girls when Troy got there; he'd grabbed enough chicken fingers and sweet-potato fries for both of them. Troy made up some lame excuse about having needed to make a detour to the bathroom, which was met with sympathetic nods all around. Jeff's arrival five minutes later lacked the drama Troy would have expected, although he had his add/drop form—now signed by Garrity and Pelton—in hand. If he got Abed's signature, the Registrar's Office would cave.
"You will curse the day you didn't do all that Dean Pelton asked of you," Jeff told Abed, dropping the form on top of Abed's chicken fingers. "Trust me."
"Is this what my re-enactments feel like to everybody else?" he asked, fishing a pen out of his messenger bag. "I know the source, but the lack of context is disturbing."
Jeff nodded desolately, covering his mouth, and looked away across the cafeteria.
"Point taken," said Abed, and to Troy's relief, signed the form without hesitation.
* * *
"Are you sure this isn't cheating?" Shirley asked. "Nobody else in the class gets a special Saturday-through-Sunday movie marathon with the instructor."
"Various factions of the class are having their own marathons in the dorms and in other locations," said Abed, satisfied that the projector was working. "I have it on good authority that Vicki and Garrett have spearheaded one, and so have Leonard and Magnitude. Chang has bullied the class misfits and outliers into yet another."
"But Leonard's not even in the class," Britta pointed out. "What's his deal?"
"He heard that next week's sessions all deal with trilogies and decided he wants to audit like I'm doing," said Troy, finally leaving the screen alone. "If you think about it, that's for the best. He'd fail for just blowing raspberries instead of giving answers."
"What's the line-up again?" asked Shirley, excitedly. "Monday we discuss Star Wars, Wednesday we discuss Back to the Future, and Friday we discuss Toy Story? That one's my favorite. I've watched all three installments with my boys."
"Yep," Abed confirmed. "I know that three films per session in a single week is a heavy watch-load, but I knew people would get a head-start over the weekend."
While Britta made busy dumping cheese-flavored popcorn and honey-wheat pretzel sticks into the large plastic mixing bowls Shirley had brought, Abed and Troy went through the DVD cases to make sure nothing was broken or missing. After the Dark Knight incident, Abed wasn't taking any chances. Back to the Future was especially dear to him, because he'd gotten Christopher Lloyd's signature on the jacket insert.
"Hey, guys," said Annie, arriving with Jeff and a brown paper grocery bag in tow. "Sorry we're slightly late! Pelton's putting in some office hours today, so we, um, thought we'd take advantage of the quiet next door for once and—"
"And I'm really not sure I want to hear this," said Shirley, covering her ears.
"Come on," said Annie. "Don't be gross. We thought we'd take advantage of the quiet next door and listen to the new Dropkick Murphys album that came out on the eighth."
"What?" Jeff demanded, setting the grocery bag down on the table. "They're a staple. The reviewers say they've made a real comeback, and I happen to agree."
"What did you bring?" Abed asked, nosing into the bag over Annie's shoulder. "We've got popcorn and pretzels, so—veggie chips. Cool. You got plastic cups, Dr. Pepper, and iced tea. Does anybody want water? We'll have to use the bathroom sink."
"Knock-knock," said the Dean, leaning on the door-frame. "I hate to interrupt your cram session, but I've got something here that's of interest to everybody." He shook an open FedEx envelope under Jeff's nose, and Annie tried to peer inside before Pelton offered it to Abed. "Instructor Nadir, man of the hour. Why don't you do the honors?"
Questioningly, Abed took hold of the envelope and reached inside. What he found was a sheaf of smaller sealed envelopes, all standard letter-size, and each one was addressed to someone present in the room. He handed Troy's over first, and then the Dean's, followed by Jeff's, Britta's, Shirley's, and Annie's. He was left with his own.
"I'm sure it's Pierce carrying out the next stage of his gloat," said Pelton, opening his envelope like everyone else. "Come on, Abed. Don't just stand there. Join the party."
Abed glanced at Troy, who had gotten his open, but was hesitating over the contents, as if he feared what he'd find. Abed caught Troy's eye and held up his hand, counting from five down to one. On Abed's closed fist, they both pulled out the papers inside.
"You're right," said Shirley, her voice low and toneless. "This has got to be a joke."
"I don't think so," said Abed, holding his check up to the light. "The watermarking looks authentic to me. Jeff, you were a crooked lawyer. Are these real?"
"I can tell you they're real because I've seen Pierce's checks," he said, tossing his own down on the table. "The rest of you can do what you want, but I'm not cashing this."
"Abed," said Troy, sounding faint, "what are the chances he's actually so glad to see his stupid lamp again that he's sent us each a check for twenty-five thousand dollars?"
Just then, Abed realized all sets of eyes were fixed on the Dean, whose check appeared to have come with a letter, and who hadn't said a word.
"First of all," said Pelton, his voice strained, "he'd like to thank you all for being good enough friends to put up with his crap for the past four years and for finally helping him to realize he's outgrown this place. He said it was all a test, and he thanks whoever got his mom home in one piece...?" Pelton made a bewildered gesture and looked at them all in turn, eyes drifting back to the letter when nobody answered. "He...okay, this...I'm not good at parsing financial stuff, but it kind of looks like..."
Jeff snatched the letter out of Pelton's hand and scanned the last paragraphs.
"He's set up an endowment fund for Greendale in the amount of five million dollars, with that same amount to be contributed annually by Red Dragon & Hawthorne Enterprises for as long as the company is solvent," Jeff said. "Official paperwork forthcoming. You'll want me to help you go through this stuff, Craig," he added, placing the letter and Pelton's own check for twenty-five grand back in his hand. "Okay, maybe we should cash the damn checks after all. He might decide on a mercurial whim that we're ungrateful brats and decide to yank the endowment."
"That means I can afford school even if I don't get full funding," said Abed, blankly. He glanced across the table at Troy, who was grinning at him, holding up his check.
"It means London," he said. "Forget the stupid exchange rate. We're eating out!"
Britta had latched onto Abed with what was possibly the fiercest hug anyone had ever given him. He patted her arms, swaying with the slight wobble of her high heels.
"That stupid prank was the best thing you guys ever did," she said, and then let go of him and pulled a victory stance, head thrown back. "FOR GREENDALE!"
They all joined in the shout—even Abed, no regrets. He'd let the camera roll.
"You mean Amir's never taken you to the Ritz?" Abed asked. "But he can afford it."
"Yeah, but he's also a fucking tight-ass. And we need to save up for a bigger place."
Troy considered this, tilting his head. "You mean to tell me your current place isn't big enough for us to crash in when we come visit? Damn. You don't have much time—"
"No, I mean in like eight or nine months from now," said Abra, smiling.
"Oh, wow," said Abed. "You had me starting to wonder. Congratulations."
Abra's meaning hit Troy with even less subtlety than a ton of bricks.
"It's a conspiracy of babies! I'm still too young to be an uncle!"
Pelton poked his head into the study room, baffled to find them on hiatus with Annie and Shirley dead asleep on the couch and Britta and Jeff gone to pick up pizza.
"Hey, guys, have you noticed the date on those puppies?" he asked.
Abed took his check out of his pocket. "June first, twenty-thirteen."
"Yeah, there's a catch," Pelton sighed. "You all need to graduate."
Chapter 7: Displays of Affection in Popular Culture
"In Abed's brain, I'm sure that this must make perfect sense," said Britta, "but until he's around to act as an interpreter, damn, sucks to be you."
Abed snuck in another spoonful of sugar and sullenly stirred his oatmeal.
"We could've had Trix and just not told Annie," he sighed. "We've got a lot of lifting and carrying to do; the sugar rush would've come in handy."
"You remember the deal," Troy reminded him, already half finished with his own. "We eat a normal breakfast this morning in exchange for getting to wear the shirts."
"Within this household's paradigm, cereal is the norm and oatmeal is an outlier."
"I didn't make the rules. All I know is that these bowls had better be empty by the time Annie and Jeff get here, or we have to go change out of this amazing swag."
"You're right," said Abed. "The exceptional suffer for their art." He took one determined bite, and then another. At least sweetening made oatmeal bearable.
From that point on, they ate in silence, except for the divvying-up of the fresh blueberries, which they'd saved till the end. Troy was much better at catching tossed berries in his mouth than Abed was; they lost a number to spattering on the floor or rolling away to hide under the floor-level cupboards' slight overhang.
"I'll get those next time I sweep," said Troy, and carrying the empty bowls and berry carton over to the sink. "Hopefully they'll be dried up by then."
Abed got up and brushed an errant blueberry stem off his #AnniesMove shirt.
"Watch this," he said. "She'll come knocking in five...four...three...two..."
Before Abed could say one, a knock sounded at the door, but it was Jeff's.
"I give you credit for the timing," said Troy, wiping his hands off. "Let's do this."
Jeff shook both of their hands, albeit with questioning looks at their attire. Annie hugged both of them with empty-tote laden arms, and then went immediately over to the stove to investigate what remained in the single large cooking pot.
"Can Jeff and I finish the rest before we start?" she asked. "We're starving."
Once Annie and Jeff had polished off what was left of the oatmeal, the four of them filed into Annie's room and surveyed the remnants. She'd done a thorough job of clearing out her clothing, alarm clock, and other small essentials; what remained were her books, photographs, bed linens, towels, and other assorted ephemera.
"The closet's all clear, so we don't have to bother with that," Annie said. "I hope you guys are okay with the dresser, bookshelf, and bed staying here for now. I meant what I said—feel free to colonize. The bunk must be getting cramped."
"Then at least have the decency to leave them a set of sheets," Jeff prompted.
"Oh, sure!" said Annie, brightly, already moving about the room collecting picture frames. "I'll just leave the bed as it is. It's not like we need the comforter, either."
Abed glanced at Troy, who nodded, and then started pulling books off the shelf.
"We're open to the idea. I'm getting sick of banging my head off the top bunk, and Troy's afraid we might fall off one of these days because it's a tight squeeze."
"I wouldn't blame you if you replaced the comforter," said Jeff, kneeling to help Abed stack books in cardboard boxes while Troy took a few totes from Annie and started filling them with stuffed animals. "It's an eyesore even by my standards."
Between Troy tweeting a constant stream of captioned pictures and Abed helping Jeff ferry boxes and tote bags down to the car, the job only took an hour and a half. Shirley had regretfully declined on account of her boys having a special Sunday school presentation; Britta, on the other hand, had gone to some kind of weekend meditation retreat with Rick. They wouldn't have needed the extra help as it was, Abed reflected.
"That's a wrap," he said, indicating Jeff's trunk and back seat. "Get shots of those."
Troy did as he was told, tweeting them in rapid succession. "I'll miss this hash-tag!"
As promised, they all piled into Annie's car (only her trunk had been needed for overflow) and went to the nearest diner for brunch (Jeff's treat). Annie readily granted the ensuing extravaganza of bacon French toast, pancakes, and hash browns an exception; there was no way they hadn't worked off enough calories to need it.
"It seems like only yesterday we helped you move out of your old place and Pierce got high on paint fumes," said Abed, snapping a piece of bacon in half. "I'm beginning to understand how the Dean feels. It is the end of an era. I'm going to miss this."
"Awww!" said Annie. "Well, you know we'll help you guys pack up when it comes time for you to move...wherever Abed gets into graduate school."
"How are things on that front, anyway?" asked Jeff, around a mouthful of hash brown. "It's about the time of year that program admissions start responding."
"One of the three letters has arrived already," Troy said, "but Abed hasn't opened it."
"Wait, three?" Annie asked. "I could've sworn you didn't end up applying to London."
"I didn't," Abed confirmed, "but I applied to Emerson instead at the last minute."
"Which letter arrived, and why haven't you opened it?" Jeff asked. "I'm confused."
"What you say about admissions season is true," said Abed. "The other two letters should both arrive within the next week or two, so I'm going to wait till I have all three and then open them with everyone present. That'll save me having to notify all of you separately, and Troy could use the additional moral support."
"You're not even kidding," agreed Troy, biting his lip. "The suspense is killing me!"
"That's sweet of you," said Annie. "Which one of the letters arrived? Can you tell?"
"VCFA's logo is in the envelope's upper left-hand corner. Vermont has sounded off."
"I'm shocked to hear myself say this, but I'm actually holding my breath," said Jeff.
Abed helped himself to more French toast. "Hopefully they won't keep you waiting."
"You guys, I can't deal with this," said Annie, getting up and reaching for Abed, who was also on the outside of the booth. "Group hug! Jeff, come on. It won't kill you."
Usually, Abed was indifferent to this particular activity, but this time, he was glad.
* * *
Troy closed his notebook and shook his head. "I'm glad he's stopped singling people out by name, but dude, he still manages to get so personal."
"After what happened at the STD Fair," said Annie, "I don't blame him for not taking chances. This campus needs all of the positive reinforcement it can get."
"After what happened at the STD Fair," Jeff retorted, "I heard that the campus birth rate actually dropped. If only Pierce knew his true Greendale legacy."
"Yeah, gee, I know I sure was busy watching him drunkenly hit on co-eds and his escort girlfriend," Britta shot back. "The real lesson here is, now we all know where to get voodoo doll templates for ten bucks a pop. I get dibs on torturing Chang!"
"That's not nice," said Shirley, warily, spooked as the Cupid Being entered with its cart. "Troy, where's Abed? If you got him a present, he won't be here to get it!"
"Yeah, um," said Troy, staring down at his hands as Britta signed for the biggest, soppiest bouquet of the bunch, "I kind of distracted him from lesson planning last night, so he came to campus really early this morning to just work through till class."
"If that means you guys ignored a perfectly good film in favor of nookie, then I'm shocked, I tell you," said Jeff, deadpan. "Shocked. Oh, for me? Annie, you shouldn't have." Jeff signed the wireless hand-set and held up the miniature organ-grinder monkey music box with a red rose attached. "I love your boobs, too."
"Ew. That's not from me," insisted Annie, vehemently. "You told me you didn't want anything. You said living with me would be the gift that keeps on giving."
"You guys should rent that really bad film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera with Gerard Butler and watch it tonight," suggested Troy. "I'm just saying."
The Cupid Being finished its delivery of a heart-shaped lollipop bouquet to Shirley ("From Andre! So sweet!") and then wheeled its cart past Pierce's empty seat to Troy. It reached down to the lower compartment while Troy signed the hand-set and then presented him with—a copy of Grays Sports Almanac 1950 - 2000?
"Is this some kind of joke?" he asked, turning the book over in his hands.
The Cupid Being shrugged, made a hasty book-opening gesture, and fled.
"I can't believe it takes you guys so long to figure this shit out," said Jeff, shaking his head in unsuppressed amusement. "Abed doesn't do anything by halves."
Troy found a small clear plastic bag containing a large candy heart—BE MINE, it said—taped inside the cover, plus a red note card with something on the back.
"Back to the Future: Part 2," he read. "Tightest writing in the trilogy."
"In Abed's brain, I'm sure that this must make perfect sense," said Britta, "but until he's around to act as an interpreter, damn, sucks to be you."
Troy shrugged and took the candy heart out of its baggie. "I'm cool with surprises," he said, popping the heart in his mouth. "Mmm, purple. My favorite flavor."
They walked to class together, which was great until Troy had to take his seat along the back wall with his fellow auditor, Leonard. In response to Troy's wave, Abed gave him the briefest of nods before calling the class to order and prompting Magnitude to start them off with some discussion fodder on the previous night's viewing. Abed looked tired, and his manner was slightly withdrawn; fortunately, Britta had already seized upon Magnitude's initial Gladiator commentary and launched into a feminist tirade. They got through to the end of class without Chang making Vicki cry.
"Your essays are due on Wednesday," Abed reminded them, "and we discuss Blade Runner. Cinematic release required, subsequent extended versions optional."
Troy lingered until everyone else had trailed out, glaring at Leonard until the old man blew a raspberry at him and jogged after the rest. Abed looked up from the lesson planner he'd begun to flip through and gave Troy a small, strained smile.
Troy took advantage of the fact that Abed was seated at his desk to bend down and kiss him, keeping the indulgence brief. "I got your...um, your Valentine thing. With the candy heart and the clue. Is this some kind of treasure hunt?"
"In a manner of speaking," said Abed. "It's so you know what's coming, but not necessarily when or how. Actually, it's designed to be improv on both sides."
"Neat," Troy said. "Then I'll keep a lookout. Are you coming to eat with us?"
"Can't," Abed sighed, slamming the lesson planner shut. "I have a lunch meeting with the Dean about a couple of problematic students, and then a staff meeting at two."
"They expect you to attend staff meetings?" asked Troy, incredulously. "Seriously?"
"No, but they didn't say I couldn't. Might be useful, and it'll look good on my CV."
"Should I head home without you, then?" asked Troy. "What about dinner?"
Abed caught Troy's hand before he could start for the door, yanking him back.
"I'll be home for dinner," said Abed. "I'll make mac and cheese. I promise."
The kiss was slow this time, not Troy's doing. He had to force himself to leave.
Troy spent the rest of the day irritated and vaguely horny. At lunch, he ate little and talked less, after which he had no desire to play Foosball, so he skipped class and went home. He tried watching television for a while, but there was nothing worth watching, so he watched stupid YouTube videos of kittens playing with ducklings until it was just past four o'clock. Abed had to be on his way; staff meetings at Greendale surely didn't take that long. Restless, Troy picked up Grays Sports Almanac and went downstairs to sit on the bucket propping open the door.
He flipped through pages until it was abundantly clear that the volume was actually a Sports Illustrated Almanac 2013 in a replica dust-jacket. He read through meaningless stats until the numbers ran together, lulling him...
Troy started awake to the welcome sight of Abed crouching directly in front of him, to the feel of Abed's cool, dry fingertips against his cheek.
"Oh, are you a sight for sore eyes," Abed said. "Let me look at you."
Troy melted a little, but then he blanked and he gave Abed an uncertain look. "What did they do to you in that meeting? You're acting like you haven't seen me all day."
Abed's expression, which had gone from longingly affectionate to brow-knit consternation, snapped quickly back to its former sentimentality. "I haven't."
Oh my God, thought Troy, suddenly putting two and two together. This is the stupidest most romantically awesome shit in the history of ever.
"You okay?" he asked, hoping he hadn't fucked the line. "Is everything all right?"
"Oh, yeah," sighed Abed, leaning in to meet him. "Everything is great."
* * *
"I hate Tuesdays," Abed muttered into his pillow, curling up in a ball.
"But Tuesday's one of your days off," said Troy. "I've got to go hang out with some numbskulls who would rather gape at what I'm doing than work on their own crap."
"Don't forget about the paintball scrimmage," said Abed. "I know it'll already be underway by the time you get out of class, so just come to temporary home-base in that alcove with the picnic tables behind the cafeteria and I'll be waiting to brief you."
"Remind me who we're up against?" said Troy, rising, and pulled the covers back up over Abed, tucking him in. "Whoever it is, it can't be as bad as Pierce."
"It's the study group against Leonard, Magnitude, Vicki, Garrett, and Chang," Abed murmured, already dozing as Troy rummaged in the drawers, which they'd both been quick to populate in Annie's wake, for clothes. "They told Chang he could tag along if he promised to keep his mouth shut in class for the rest of the week."
"Do you think he will?" Troy asked, bending to kiss the top of Abed's head.
"Not a chance," sighed Abed, drifting off as Troy left the room to shower.
He woke two hours later, at eight forty-five, to find Troy gone. He ate breakfast, showered, brushed his teeth, and texted Annie to confirm that they were meeting behind the cafeteria with their gear at ten. With any luck, Troy would have already had that morning's delivery: a white-chocolate rabbit from whose ribbon collar hung a pink candy heart that read LOVE YOU and a red note card that said The Matrix.
"It's not fair," said Britta, looking Abed's and Annie's austere black and grey body armor up and down. "You guys had like a year of living together to amass an entire armory and proper supplies. The rest of us are slumming it by comparison."
Jeff sighted down the barrel of his rifle and lovingly stroked it. "That's no way to treat your friendly neighborhood arms dealers. Show some proper respect."
Shirley cocked her own weapon, expression stern beneath her bandanna.
"Where's the enemy headquartered? Let's nail these sons of bitches."
"I don't know," Abed admitted. "That was part of the terms. We don't know where they are, and they don't know where we are. The whole point is brushing up on open combat while doing our best to spare civilians. The Dean made me promise we'd confine this to outdoors. I reluctantly agreed. He has a lot of leverage right now."
"The last two clean-up bills must've been worse than we thought," said Jeff.
"Yeah, and Abed doesn't want it coming out of his wages," Britta replied, shouldering her rifle. "Let's get down to business. Are we splitting up, Captain?"
"I'd rather stay in a fairly tight-knit patrol," said Abed. "Historically, we've fared worse when split up. That said, there's no saying what tactic the enemy might—"
"AMBUSH!" Leonard shrieked, bursting through the bushes. "SAYONARA, SUCKERS!"
"Shut up, Leonard!" Jeff shouted back, opening fire before Leonard's reflexes kicked in. "You're only here today because your son refused to let you turn your granddaughter's piano recital into a duet with rude-sounding accompaniment!"
"Go fuck yourself, Winger!" Leonard replied, covered head to toe in neon yellow splotches, and dejectedly wandered off the way he'd come. "Twice!"
"There's one rogue nut-job out of the way," said Annie, rifle at the ready, "but now he's going to go tell the rest of his team where we are and what he heard while he was lurking over there. Why didn't we think to check the foliage?"
"Follow him to them," Abed told her, nodding to the others. "I won't be that far behind," he reassured them. "Troy will be here soon. I told him I'd wait."
"You do what you need to do," said Shirley, clapping Abed's shoulder. "He's your boy. We'll get out there, Captain, and give 'em hell. Do you proud."
From where he sat with his back to the edge of the picnic table, Abed watched the patrol file out. They were the best soldiers Greendale had, that much was certain. If his luck had been worse on that fateful day four years ago, who knew...
"Instructor Nadir," said Chang's voice from the cafeteria exit. "What a pleasant surprise. All I did was sneak inside for a quick potty break, and here you are—"
"No cutting through buildings," said Abed, remaining seated. "That's cheating."
"Yeah, whatever," said Chang, raising his cocked rifle. "Cheat on this!"
The volley at close range pitched Abed back against the table, almost knocking the wind out of him. He might have recovered himself immediately and gone to inform the others of his defunct status, except it was in that instant he caught sight of Troy creeping up behind Chang wearing a devastated, murderous expression. Abed let his eyes fall shut and sagged back against the edge of the table, his outstretched legs just barely preventing him from sliding to the ground. This would be it.
Troy felled Chang with three pellets in the back; Chang screamed and screamed.
"No no no!" Troy wailed, rushing to Abed's side. "You're not dead! You can't be dead!" He collapsed on the bench next to Abed, clinging to him for dear life, letting his grief fizzle out in a number of deep, shaking breaths as he collected himself and switched from the melodrama of the original script to Trinity's steely filmed resolve.
"I'm not afraid anymore," he said softly in Abed's ear. "The Oracle told me that I would fall in love, and that that man...the man that I loved would be The One. So you see, you can't be dead. You can't be, because I love you. You hear me? I love you."
Abed wrapped his arms around Troy and kissed him back, effortlessly shutting out Chang's gagging noises and the applause they'd drawn from onlookers.
(No one, not even Chang, dared cry foul on Abed's miraculous resurrection.)
* * *
Troy fist-bumped Abed, and then saluted the ceiling. "Anytime, Dean."
"I still want a rematch," Annie pouted. "That was an absolute joke."
The Cupid Being creaked in with its cart, offering them a disoriented wave.
"Next time you bestow upon Troy powers of the Healing Cock," Britta said to Abed, "why don't you let him use them on all of us? We'll be an unstoppable undead army."
"Because that would be cheating," said Shirley, primly. "And I do not cheat."
"Yeah, but you'll whup ass before you'll turn the other cheek," said Jeff, yawning, and signed the wireless hand-set for the second time that week. "Look, it's a teddy bear with Dalmatian spots. That's not an interspecies nightmare come true, is it?"
Annie blinked, bewildered, as the Human Being gave her the hand-set and dug around in the cart's lower compartment. It came back up with what was unmistakably an elongated velveteen jewelry box. She squeaked when she saw what was inside.
"Jeff, I told you not to buy this till my birthday!" she exclaimed, passing the bracelet to Shirley. "Isn't it precious? That's fourteen karat white gold and teeny sapphires."
Troy exchanged impressed looks with Abed and then glanced at Jeff, who was pretending to be more interested in his phone than Annie's unbridled gushing over his gift. When the hand-set nudged him in the arm, Troy signed quickly and held out his hands, aware of Abed's intense scrutiny. The Cupid Being handed him a blank composition book like the ones his high school English teacher liked to give them for writing assignments. Inside, he found the usual candy heart—yellow this time, emblazoned with YOU'RE CUTE—accompanied by another red note card.
"The Breakfast Club," Troy read off. "Really? How do you figure?"
"I don't know," Abed admitted, signing the hand-set with a perfunctory air that suggested he expected another basket of baked goods. "This one's a challenge."
"What the hell is that?" Britta asked, staring at what Abed had been handed.
Abed took the lid off the plastic cup and used the attached plastic spoon to taste its contents. "Tapioca," he concluded, and then dug into it, delighted. "With raisins."
"Don't you mean humiliated grapes?" asked Troy, and Jeff completely lost his shit.
Troy spent most of Abed's class pushing his chair as far as he could from Leonard's, only to find that Leonard was determinedly closing the gap each time. Abed flashed them warning looks now and again, but Britta, Vicki, Annie, and Magnitude's four-way scuffle on the role of women in Blade Runner hardly suffered.
"If I'd known this was a Marxist feminist queer-theory themed cocktail party, I would have left a long time ago," Chang taunted. "Why do you think my people left China?"
"To get away from the queer Marxist feminists?" Britta shot back. "Please. You wouldn't know what any of those terms meant if they sat on your face and—"
"While I appreciate the Blackadder reference," said Abed, "if you two don't shut up, I'm going to kick you out of the class and give your slots to Troy and Leonard."
Both Chang and Britta shut their mouths, turning their glares on Abed.
"Now," Abed sighed, "did any of the rest of you have anything to add?"
"None of the female leads are real humans," said Vicki. "It's a world in which only the artificial has sex appeal. What's that say about your precious Ridley Scott? Huh?"
"I don't think he's necessarily advocating that kind of worldview," said Shirley. "I think he's saying it's dangerous. If we can't keep it real, then forget it. We're lost."
"Regrettably, we're out of time," said Abed. "Class dismissed. Four of you still owe me essays. Leave them in my faculty mail slot by tomorrow morning, or you fail."
"Rumor has it you threaten to fail people more often than any other teacher on this campus," Troy said to Abed as they strolled out of the classroom, "and it works."
"People know I don't take bullshit," said Abed, shrugging. "I have nothing to lose."
At home, beneath a pile of junk mail and fast food take-out flyers, a letter addressed to Abed bearing Columbia's insignia in the upper left-hand corner was waiting for them. Troy picked it up and handed it to Abed, who took it by one corner and carried it over to where the VCFA letter lurked on top of the television.
"Two down," said Troy, kicking out of his shoes. "I hope Emerson hurries."
"I give it two or three days max," said Abed, dropping his messenger bag beside their shoes. He inclined his head toward Troy's pocket a second before Troy's phone properly started to vibrate, humming loudly in the quiet. Troy answered it.
"Hey," said Annie, her voice sheepish. "Can I ask you for a favor?"
"Sure, as long as it's not letting you rant about Blade Runner."
"Very funny," she said. "I think I might have left something there."
"At Greendale or in the apartment?" Abed asked. "Sorry, I can hear."
"At Greendale or in the apartment?" Troy echoed, rubbing his neck.
"In the apartment," said Annie, impatiently. "I know I said the closet was clear, but I think it might be pushed way back into the corner of the overhead shelf. It's my grandmother's courting quilt. You know it means a lot to me."
"Okay," said Abed, too quickly. "We'll have a look. Tell her we'll call back."
"We'll check and call back," said Troy, and hung up his phone. "Abed, what—"
Troy ran to keep up. Rather than immediately check the overhead shelf in Annie's closet, Abed hunkered down inside it and pulled Troy in after him, closing the door.
"We started off on rough footing, but we eventually overcame our differences," said Abed. "Also, Annie's given us a legitimate reason for being inside this closet."
"Two out of three ain't bad. Screw the dialogue," said Troy, and kissed him.
* * *
The travel-size bottle of detergent was something they could use around the house, and it had arrived on Troy's desk bearing a green candy heart (KISS ME) and a note card citing My Beautiful Laundrette as their next target. Abed was glad he'd actually found the time to show it to Troy at his mom's place over Christmas Break.
Just as the film ended, he got another text: Study room at 11. Shirley has new food for us to try, so that means free lunch. Be there or be...never mind, just be there :-P
Abed replied to the first text with It was on the shopping list anyway and the second with Cool cool, also: *non-squidface kiss, you know I think that emoticon mouth looks like it has tentacles, but I guess that's okay b/c Davy Jones in PotC is not only bad-ass, but complex and sensitive too* He pried himself off the couch, showered, got dressed, and almost tripped on that morning's mail as he was leaving.
Emerson's letter sat innocent and unassuming atop a pile of bills. Abed picked the envelopes up and briefly re-entered the apartment; he left the bills on the table and stuffed all three unopened admissions letters in his messenger bag. To his annoyance, his hands were shaking. He had time to walk to campus, so he let the bus pass by.
He reached the library a few minutes early; Shirley and Britta were already there setting up. They smiled in response to his brief wave—that plus the limited eye contact, he hoped, was enough to indicate to them he didn't have anything to say just yet—and continued dividing up the foot-long wholegrain something amongst the paper plates in front of each chair. Everyone got two pieces, plus a brownie.
"Rick helped with this one," Britta explained; Abed raised his eyebrows and nodded. "But we really need to thank your dad. The filling is artichoke in extra-lemony aioli."
"We wanted it to remind us of his yummy salad," said Shirley. "We hope you like it!"
Can you get here five minutes ago? Abed texted Troy. I brought the letters.
Oh shit, you mean like all three letters? Troy texted back. Fucking Jeff and Annie, talking my ear off. We're literally 2 mins away DAMMIT WTF ALL 3 LETTERS?!
At least it will be quick and painless, Abed replied, and sat back to wait.
By the time Troy, Annie, and Jeff arrived, Britta and Shirley had finished fussing with the food. Neither one of them had said another word to Abed, not even when he'd broken off a third of his brownie and fretfully nibbled it down. Troy took his seat and scooted his chair closer to Abed's; Jeff looked serious and Annie looked pale, so Troy must have told them about the letters. Just as well; Abed wanted to get it over with.
"Eat up, I guess," said Shirley. "You all look like you came from a funeral."
"Now that everyone's here, I have some news," said Abed, removing the letters from his bag. "I didn't think I'd be nervous, but the truth is, I'm a wreck."
"Oh my God, Abed," said Britta. "I can't believe it. They came so fast."
"Do it quick," said Annie, nodding, wringing her hands. "Like a band-aid!"
"But not so fast that you rush," said Shirley. "You'll get a belly-ache."
"Enough with the lame metaphors, guys," Jeff chided. "When he's ready."
Abed looked at Troy. "I've been ready since the first one arrived. It's been torture, but waiting to open them felt like a wise decision. Are you okay with this?"
"Yeah," Troy replied, steeling himself with a shiver. "What they all said."
"Columbia," said Abed, ripping open the first envelope in the stack. He opened the letter with unsteady fingers and scanned the first paragraph; for once, Troy managed to skim faster than he had and made a pained sound in the back of his throat. "It's a rejection," Abed confirmed, scanning through the remainder of the letter's formal, meant-to-be-consoling pleasantries. "I'm not surprised. It's the most competitive."
Boos and groans broke out around the table, punctuated by Annie's high wail.
"That sucks, Abed," said Britta, staring bleakly at her hands. "New York's a cool place. Something tells me you guys might've found it a bit too fast-paced, though. I found it too fast-paced. Don't tell anyone, but I was miserable there."
"There are two more letters," said Jeff, reaching across the table, so Abed passed Columbia to him for perusal. "Douchebags," he muttered, scanning it. "These dipshits think they're too cool for school. I'm glad you don't have to put up with them."
"Emerson," said Abed, and tore the second envelope. Troy was leaning heavily against Abed's shoulder, his mouth tucked tight against his forearm. Troy hid his eyes as Abed unfolded the letter and flattened it against the table. At a glance, it occupied the entire page instead of ending after just two paragraphs; he felt the corners of his mouth turn up. "I got in," he said. "Blah de blah...oh, says here I'm being considered for one of the scholarships, but I won't hear about that for another couple of weeks. Neat."
Abed's last words were lost beneath Shirley and Annie hugging each other and shrieking their heads off; Troy was clinging to Abed's neck repeating You did it, you did it, you did it. Abed set Emerson's letter aside and opened the envelope from Vermont without announcing it. Britta and Jeff had recovered from their respective fist-pumps and were already engaged in some kind of heated I-told-you-so debate.
"Hey," said Abed, scanning the final document even as Troy chose that moment to loosen his hold on Abed's neck and grab his hand instead, "VCFA accepted me, too. It looks like they're offering half of my tuition in grants and saying I can make the rest up with loans, but screw that. Graduation is May thirty-first, and Pierce dated those checks the very next day. I'll be waiting in line at the bank bright and early."
"Don't decide now!" Britta cried. "Wait till you hear from Emerson; what if they offer you a full ride? You probably have like a month to accept or decline their offers."
One by one, the others were starting to chime in with their own advice, but Abed filtered them out. He had an armful of relieved, sobbing Troy to soothe first.
"How did you put it last night?" Abed murmured in his ear. "Two out of three?"
Troy nodded, sniffling against Abed's shoulder, and everyone else tried their best to stifle fits of fond laughter. Abed rested his cheek against the top of Troy's head, picking up what was left of his brownie. He was beyond starving.
"Shirley and Britta made food," he said. "What are you waiting for?"
After lunch (the lemony artichoke sandwich was kind of amazing), they all paraded the news to Pelton's office. After about half an hour of shouting, hugging, and absolutely terrible dancing, Pelton, as teary as Troy had been earlier, got on the PA system and knocked out all chances of anyone at Greendale remaining uninformed.
Later that evening, after the campus-based celebrations had died down, Abed asked Jeff to drive him and Troy to his father's restaurant. They stayed for dinner, feigning business as usual, and only handed the letters across the table once they'd got down to coffee and dessert. Abed's father hugged him and cried and said he'd known all along his boy was a natural talent, after which he got down to the very serious business of calling Columbia every foul name he could find. Abed patiently translated them for Troy, who ended up laughing so hard he almost threw up.
It was late when they left by the back door, waiting in the lamp-lit alley for the cab that would take them home. They were far too tipsy on arak, which had been shared out by the Lebanese kitchen staff, to remember their lines, but when Troy pinned Abed up against the brick wall and kissed him, the scene was complete, felt true.
* * *
After class, Chang even muttered his congratulations to Abed along with most of the other students on his way out. Whether he meant it or not, Abed shook his hand.
"I'm so not ready for this," Britta sighed, shading her eyes as they all stood around her car in the parking lot. "Rick made an offhand comment about being curious to see what I look like in an actual dress and make-up, so what did I do? Promise him I'd pull out the red dress and coin-purse special for the dance tonight. God, I'm a sell-out."
"With that lipstick, there's no way he won't see the error of his ways," said Jeff.
"Don't take this the wrong way," Troy told Abed, "but it's nice not to have to worry about costumes. The kissing gag rocks, but you have to admit it's stressful."
"No, I agree," Abed replied, and everyone stared at him. "There's one more to go, and I hear the Cupid Being's not making today's deliveries till tonight at the dance."
Troy felt a stab of panic. He'd wondered about that, and, ever since his Benny & Joon tapioca delivery, he'd been carefully plotting his second and final act of reciprocation. He hadn't thought Abed would take his own deliveries a day past the fourteenth.
"Andre took me shopping last weekend," said Shirley. "I can't wait to show off."
Annie adjusted her bracelet. "I'm keeping it simple so this will stand out."
"Well, you have fun doing all the wardrobe planning for once," said Troy, gesturing to his everyday clothes. "I'll probably change my shirt or something, but that's it."
Abed nodded, accepting the fist-bump. "I've got some new jeans. Pretty sharp."
Walking home, they got stuck in a downpour. Troy picked fretfully at his clothes the whole way up the stairs; he'd never enjoyed being soaked to the skin, but Abed took it in stride. Once they were inside, he stripped Troy down almost to the complete negligence of his own sopping state. Troy got the shower running and told Abed he'd better hurry up and finish getting naked or risk the action starting without him.
They hadn't meant to fall asleep afterward on the unmade bed, still damp and flushed from scrubbing and steam, in an untidy sprawl. Troy woke up at five o'clock to find Abed shoving a bowl of buttered noodles in his face; they ate in a hurry, got dressed in even more of one, and called around until they found someone (Britta) to give them a ride to campus. Rick's taste in music was still great, but his singing hadn't improved.
"So cool and laid-back," said the Dean, fingering Troy's tastefully unbuttoned collar and Abed's striped cardigan sleeve as he walked past. "Come as you are! I love me some Troy and Abed in the Morning chic. By the way," he added, winking, not quite patting Abed's ass with the back-swing of his hand, "nice pants."
"Did he start drinking before he came down here," Troy wondered aloud, "or is he just in one of those moods where he hits on everything that moves?"
"The latter," said Annie, adorable in a black knee-length dress, "if by anything that moves you mean anything stylish, male, and between the ages of jail-bait and forty."
"It's reassuring to know that you think I pass as jail-bait," said Jeff. He hadn't dressed up much more than Troy, although his jeans, shirt, and shoes put together had probably cost five times as much. "Milady," he added, kissing Annie's hand.
"I'm glad the Lord gave him enough sense not to hit on me when Andre's around," said Shirley, gesturing to her husband, who was at the refreshments table.
"He has absolutely no reservations when it comes to expressing the fluidity of his sexuality," said Rick, with an earnest sense of awe. "It's inspiring."
"You come with me and have a few more glasses of champagne," said Britta, patting his arm, "and then you'll see how inspiring he really is."
Meanwhile, the Cupid Being had wandered up to Annie, forced her to sign the hand-set, and struggled to pin an elaborate corsage on her until Jeff threw up his hands and took over. Humiliated, it wheeled the cart over to Troy and Abed, crankily had them each sign, and then handed each one of them a single rose (white for Abed, red for Troy) twist-tied to a whole bag of miniature candy hearts and a note-card.
"Okay, that's not freaky," said Troy, turning over his note-card. It said Spider-Man (2002), and, beneath that, It's red like his costume—best I could do. Stomach fluttering uncomfortably, he looked up to watch Abed study his own note-card.
"Nobody puts Abed in the corner," he read off slowly, eyes lighting up. "I wish I'd thought of that. If you'd told me ahead of time, I would have planned—"
Troy clapped a hand over Abed's mouth and frantically waved to the DJ. "Look, we can do Spider-Man later if you want," he said, flashing a thumbs-up, "but I really, really just want to dance with you to this song, okay?"
"Cool," said Abed, grinning, muffled under Troy's hand. "Cool cool cool."
Neither one of them had seen Dirty Dancing since high school. As a result, their choreography was all over the place, and there were two or three times they fucked the lifts up so royally that they almost ended up on the floor laughing.
That was Greendale, though, and they were having the time of their lives.
"How were your flights yesterday?" Britta asked. "I hate the trans-Atlantic haul."
"I don't remember," said Troy. "One of Abed's old hall-mates from the dorm hooked us up with what was left of his mom's Percocet from when she had surgery last year."
"I watched six movies," said Abed. "They sucked, but were ultimately informative."
"Hello from London!" said Abra, waving to the crowd on Skype. "Nice to see you."
"No, sweetie, it's nice to see you!" said Shirley, waving back. "My boys say hi."
"Dammit, Annie, you're right," said Jeff, mystified. "She looks nothing like—"
"If I put on her burqa, would it even the score?" Abed volunteered.
Chapter 8: Advanced Imaginary Worldbuilding
"Are you trying to tell me," said Troy, who'd apparently been awake and listening, "that a hash-tag and Britta's sucky amateur cell-phone photography saved our asses?"
Troy lay sideways across the mattress with his arms and legs dangling off the sides, sleepily enjoying Abed's single-minded scrutiny of his exposed back. Some mornings, neither one of them wanted anything more than this: lazing about in dread of the alarm clock, on which they'd already hit SNOOZE twice. They were easily going to run over into time normally allotted to wish-making, but neither one of them gave a fuck.
"No freaky irregularly shaped ones?" asked Troy, yawning. "You're sure?"
"Yep," said Abed, whose right index and middle fingers had been tracing parallel lines over the same spot on Troy's lower back for almost a minute. "Just those three round ones and some freckles. Are these scars?" Troy could hear the frown in his voice.
"Two fine lines about an inch long, right?" Troy asked. "So faint you can hardly see them unless you stick your face right up close, which is exactly what you're doing?"
"I can see them from a couple of feet away," Abed said, now running his thumb over each scar in turn. "They're usually covered by the waistband of your jeans."
"Now I can't help thinking about how long you must have been checking out my ass," Troy said. "To have noticed that, I mean, given it's not like my shirts ride up."
"If I tell you, will you tell me where these came from?" Abed asked.
"They came from Nana," said Troy, shrugging. "Where did you think?"
"Maybe part of me hoped that wasn't the answer." Abed covered the spot briefly with his damp palm; Troy wondered if he had kissed it. Abed stretched out next to him for a few seconds, long arms and legs dangling, and then curled sideways, throwing an arm and a leg across Troy's back. "Halloween, two thousand and ten," he said quietly.
"Dude, get out of here," said Troy, making an ineffectual swipe at his phone on the floor as the alarm started to chime again. "You couldn't see anything through all those boxes and tubes and shit I was wearing, let alone the visor on your—oh my God. Sexy Dracula. You wanted a piece of that." He finally managed to turn it off.
Abed wormed his way onto Troy's back so he could tuck his chin over Troy's shoulder and bury his face in the crook of Troy's neck. "It's the first time I played back an alternative scenario on how things might've gone at the end of that night if that had been when we'd gotten together," he said, adjusting his distribution so that he wasn't squashing Troy quite as badly. "The results were fairly promising, so I kept doing it."
"Wait, so you..." Troy tried to process the information and then stopped short, because letting himself pop a boner in this position wasn't the best idea. "You, I don't know, maybe imagined dragging me back to your alien lair for a midnight snack?"
"Actually, no," said Abed, his breath hot against the side of Troy's neck and his hard-on painfully obvious. "The way I imagined it, we didn't even get as far as my dorm room. I thought of the study room tables way before Jeff and Britta did."
"Listen, if you don't roll over—" Troy's breath left him in a rush as Abed did as he was told, rolling onto his side and hauling Troy along with him "—okay, never mind. It's Monday morning, I'm jet-lagged, and we're not going to have time to meet up with everybody else before your class if we keep doing this, but damn. Tell me more."
"Between then and the start of fall semester last year when we actually got together, there weren't as many times as you might think," said Abed, working one hand inside Troy's briefs. "I'd like to think I really made them count. The next time was when you stayed over and we made the blanket fort in my room. I was really annoyed when Pavel showed up, although I didn't let it show. My alternate take on that was that we said to hell with the expansion and, as Annie likes to put it, had sex all weekend."
"Fuck," Troy panted, eyes shut as Abed wrapped one leg around both of Troy's to give himself better thrusting leverage. "Next time I see Pavel, I'm going to smack him."
"Don't," said Abed, his voice turning on that slight, dark breathy edge that meant he wasn't as in control as he wanted to be. "I'm glad he was there. It would've been too soon. The time after that was...and wasn't...your twenty-first birthday. I never told you everything that happened that night. I'm not sure why I'm telling you this now."
"You're telling me this now because it's important," said Troy, catching Abed's hand on his dick and slowing it until both of them were motionless. "Or not, because if you're not ready, that's fine. You looked really upset when I saw you at the bar that night. Worse than Annie, even. A little earlier than that, I saw you talking to some guy. I always felt guilty later for not asking what that was all about, but I was afraid—"
"He pretended to like talking about Farscape for about forty-five minutes because he thought maybe I'd have sex with him," Abed continued, his voice tilting from the place Troy loved to hear it into wistful, clipped dispassion. "I mean, at least he asked, but he didn't ask very politely, and when I turned him down, he threw his drink in my face."
"That's the point at which you should have got me or Britta or Jeff or Shirley—or, even better, all four of us—and we would have shamed that bloody pathetic sodding fuck-twat into next week," said Troy, matter of factly, clinging tightly to Abed's forearm in an attempt to quell his rage. He was grateful for all the British swear words Abra had taught him on their visit, because they were the only ones suited for the job.
Abed let Troy squirm around in his arms so that they faced each other now, breathing hard. "That's not the part of this that's important," he continued. "It's later on, after I'd had time to think about it alone for an hour or so at the bar and then some more in the car while you were driving and dropping off Annie, and Jeff and Britta were making out in front of me. You dropped off Britta next, and then Jeff, and then we were alone just in time for you to take me home. I'd had enough time to ask myself what I would have said if you had been the one asking, because you would have been asking politely after having actually enjoyed a forty-five minute conversation on Farscape. I think I would have said yes. So after we said good night to each other and I got out of the car and watched you drive away in Jeff's car, I imagined I'd been brave enough to ask you to stay overnight. You'd stayed over plenty of times before; it wouldn't have been hard. What was different was that I imagined you asked me once we were inside where no one else would see, where it was just us, and you made love to me because you wanted to and because you cared, not because you had something to prove."
"How?" demanded Troy, finding his mouth dry, because Abed's voice had gone from detached to breathy again, achingly so, and they couldn't keep from moving now, their limbs already tangled. "Tell me what I did. What you imagined I did. Right now."
"I wondered how it would feel, like this," admitted Abed, shifting them, his breath shallower than before. "Both of us naked, me on my back. I just wanted you close—"
"Shhh, oh God, oh God we'll be late," Troy heard himself moan, and he didn't know who he was trying to quiet, himself or Abed under him, but if the study group couldn't forgive something at which they could guess—well, then they were fuck-twats, too.
* * *
Troy looked like he wanted to punch the table, but he opted for calmly glaring at the middle of Jeff's forehead while he took slow, deliberate bites of his chicken finger.
"Never mind the fact that Abed was ten minutes late and that you tried to pretend like your arrival halfway through the discussion was completely unrelated," Jeff went on, controlling his laughter not nearly as well as Britta was controlling hers. "Abed conducted the whole freaking session from somewhere even higher than Cloud Nine. I didn't think blissed-out-and-don't-give-a-toss existed in your repertoire," he continued, winking at Abed, "and I know your database is pretty vast."
"We had some vitally important back-story to fill in," said Abed, attempting to mask his snappishness. "It was a conversation that needed to happen."
"Oh, right," said Jeff, nodding soberly. "Conversation. My apologies."
"If I'd known you rolled out on the douchebag side of the bed this morning," said Annie, rubbing her temples, "I'd have locked you in the condo."
"Annie's right," said Shirley, having delayed the start of her shift in order to have lunch with them. "That's no way to treat friends, Jeff. You mind your own business."
"I think it lent teacher-Abed the right amount of levity," said Britta. "He's sooo serious all the time! Look at it this way, guys," she told Abed and Troy in turn, "this is the kind of thing for which Professor Whitman would've given you both an automatic A!"
"Yeah," said Abed, "but I'm not Professor Whitman. I'm me." He glanced at Troy to make sure neither Jeff, nor Britta had hit too much of a nerve, and then stared at his hands. Under any other circumstances, he'd have kept Troy in bed and shut out the rest of the world; Abra had only been half joking when she'd begged them to stay and live in her guest room, and they'd both only been half lying when they'd said they were sorely tempted. "I doubt we plan on it happening again, but, if it does, do us both a favor and pretend not to notice, okay? Okay. Thanks in advance."
Troy went on glaring at Jeff. "Fuck-twat side of the bed's more like it."
Shirley cleared her throat loudly. "Let's talk about happier things," she suggested, "like Abed going to film school. Have you made a decision yet?"
"He's got a week left," said Troy. "For the last time, don't push him."
"Every time I think I'm determined to say yes to VCFA, Emerson's honey-trap offer trips me up," Abed admitted. "Three-quarter funding plus the rest in a teaching fellowship is tempting. That means we'd have fifty grand to put toward housing."
"Vermont's more your speed!" Britta insisted, banging the table with her fork. "The program's strength is documentary film-making, and that's where your primary interest lies. That area's also packed with cute, artsy towns full of hippies—"
"And organic farm co-ops," Annie cut in. "The food would be so good."
"Are you guys nuts?" Jeff asked. "Boston all the way. Abed would never lack for ready sources of dorky t-shirts, and that city lives by air conditioning in the summer—have you ever gone up there between June and August? Believe me, you wouldn't want to. Unless you had air conditioning, which, of course, they will. And, thanks to Pierce's bequeathing, they'll be enjoying said air conditioning in their terraced Beacon Hill apartment or trendy Somerville loft. What's not to like about this? Am I right?"
"Why not play them against each other?" Chang suggested from his lonely vantage point at the next table over. "Tell Vermont what those Masshole hussies are offering you. They'll pony up a teaching fellowship, plus all the Ben and Jerry's you can eat."
"They're two-year programs," said Abed, "and teaching cuts into work time. I'm learning the hard way. It's April, and I haven't made any new films since Christmas."
"You did a lot of filming in London," Troy reminded him, "and there were a few days in January you had the camera out for a spin. Don't be so hard on yourself."
"I'm with Troy," said Shirley. "Don't let the Devil—" she inclined her head not so subtly at Jeff and Britta "—influence you. It has to be your decision."
"Thanks, Shirley," said Abed. "I know that, and it will be."
"Anyway, we have more pressing things to worry about," said Annie . "Like applying for graduation next month. And figuring out what to wear to the ceremony."
Abed found himself nodding in agreement, but Chang's laughter cut them all short.
"Ceremony? Ceremony?" He wheezed. "Aw, man. Who have you losers been talking to? Whoever it is, I'd like to congratulate them. They got you good."
"Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant if your goody two-shoes brother hadn't seen fit to post bail," said Jeff. "So would his, I'm sure."
"Mazel tov," said Chang, and gnawed greedily on a chicken finger.
"What are you talking about?" asked Troy. "As a cross-registrant, I spend half my time in cuckoo-land and even they talk about graduation at the end of May."
"Yeah, but do they talk about a ceremony?" Chang challenged. "Think about it. That word is nowhere in evidence, amigo. Do you want to know why?"
"N—no?" Annie whimpered, busy twisting her napkin to shreds.
"My programming requires me to inform you that you're being a massive bitch," Abed told Chang, with a touch of regret. "Just so you know."
"Well, then," said Chang, rising with his tray, "this massive bee-otch would like to inform you that there's no such thing as a graduation ceremony at Greendale. May thirty-first just happens to be the final day on which the Dean will sign diplomas for students who met the spring graduation deadline. You actually thought there was a ceremony? This is community college, hombres, not kindergarten. Chang out."
"One of these days," said Jeff, "that sad, sorry little man is going to get what's coming to him. However, today is not that day. Let's go see the Dean."
"No need," said Britta, pointing. "Pelton's intercepted Chang by the tray return window and—" her expression changed "—appears to be handing him that buttload of ratty dorm sheets from Lost and Found. Ew. Is that lovable scamp homeless again?"
Abed watched the Dean catch Britta's eye and wave even as he saw Chang on his way. He took his time strolling over to their table, handing flyers out to students at random as he went. Troy's hand was urgent at Abed's wrist.
"This looks bad. You don't suppose Chang and Leonard—"
"It's difficult to say," replied Abed. "We need more evidence."
"It's on the way," Troy muttered, taking a noisy slurp of his soda.
"Top o' the morning to my favorite Greendale human beings!" Pelton greeted them, handing a flyer to Annie and another to Shirley. "I know you guys take sharing to unhealthy levels, so there's no sense in wasting six—"
Abed blurted "Are you secretly supplying an enemy attempt at breaking the blanket-fort record?" at the same moment as Jeff demanded "What's the deal with graduation? Is there a ceremony or not? Fess up, Craig. I know where you live."
"Whoa, whoa, said the Dean. "One at a time, me first. Greene Daeye is back for a Friday night encore on the quad," he announced, tapping the flyers. "We'd wanted to have them for Saint Patrick's Day, but they were booked up. Okay, now you. Jeffrey?"
Abed bit his lip and lowered his hand. Maybe they should have stayed in bed anyway. The consequences of not showing up to teach one class session in a vast sea of almost thirty meetings couldn't have been that severe.
"Is Chang's vitriolic crap true? Does Greendale really deprive its student body the superfluous, yet necessary positive closure of a graduation ceremony?"
"Your outrage is admirable, but do you really think we ever had that kind of budget?"
"Sugar-Daddy Hawthorne's endowment might go a long way toward changing things," said Britta. "That money could be spent on student psychological well-being."
"That's a lovely notion, Britta," said Pelton. "Why don't you drop it in the suggestions box so we can take it into consideration for next year?"
"We won't be here next year," Annie protested. "Can't we have our own ceremony? What about the study room? If it was good enough for Shirley's wedding, then it's more than good enough for one measly informal commencement."
The Dean stroked his chin. "I'm listening, Miss Edison. What did you have in mind?"
"Allot me and Britta a small decorations budget. Shirley will cater light snacks for afterward, and Rick can be the DJ. He's got awesome taste in music."
"What about us?" Troy asked before Jeff could interject with what was probably the same thing. "It's not like we have super-special event planning mojo like you guys."
"Look pretty, listen to my speech, and let me sign your diplomas, of course," said Pelton. "What more could a dean ask? Oh, sold. I'll do it!"
"Anyone else who's graduating in May should also be part of it," said Abed. "Pavel and Neil have already filed their forms. My film class fills their final requirement."
"Awww, Abed!" exclaimed Annie. "Great idea! That's so sweet!"
"It goes without saying," said the Dean, his hand-wave suggesting that the concession was no more than an afterthought. "And, to answer your question, yes," he added, "I granted Chang and his unlikely new cohort my blessing to take another crack at the blanket-fort record that you two so spectacularly failed to break last year. It's high time we were known for something other than being Luis Guzmán's alma mater."
As usual, Abed could hear himself shrieking as if from some safe, insulated distance. Underwater might have been an effective comparison, except he knew it was Troy's arms that shielded him as Jeff's shout rallied the troops and Shirley went full metal batshit while chasing Pelton out of the cafeteria with improvised muffin grenades.
He had to admit that his life was pretty cool, and his friends? Even cooler.
* * *
"No enemy spies in sight," he said, saluting Abed. "What next, Captain?"
"Commence roll-call, Lieutenant," Abed replied. "This meeting is now in session."
"Sergeant Goldman," said Troy. "Better known as the Real Neil with Pipes of Steel."
"Reporting for duty, sir," said Neil, saluting, seated on the opposite side of the crowded, cross-legged circle. "I've been able to discover that my opposite number in Chang's Army is none other than Sergeant Annie Kim. We are, in a word, fucked."
"Thank you for the information, Sergeant," said Abed, "but I'll be the judge of that."
Troy cleared his throat and continued. "Sergeant Major Edison. Anything to report?"
"Here," said Annie, raising her hand. "In an attempt to extend an olive branch of rationality and good will to our enemies, I pulled Sergeant Major Vicki Jenkins' number off the campus intranet emergency phone tree and sent her a text with our terms. Her response was, and I quote—" Annie pulled out her phone and read off the screen "—You guys may have Achilles and Patroklos, but we have Sappho, so you can SUCK IT! Actually THEY can suck it, but NEVER MIND YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN."
"They have Sappho?" Troy asked. "I mean, the rest of it's an obvious nod to the vast, manly, devoted homoerotic awesomeness that is me and Abed, but—"
"Pop pop, sir," said Magnitude. "Permission to speak out of turn?"
"There's no such thing as out of turn, soldier," said Troy, ticking him off the list.
"Sappho is the code-name of Amanda Johnson, lesbian poet and spy extraordinaire."
"Bad enough Vicki's with Garrett now," said Neil. "She initially left me for Amanda."
"Citizen Perry," sighed Troy, checking off Britta's name. "Go pee, or speak up."
"Rick and I had a run-in," said Britta, clinging somberly to Rick's hand. "Those bratwurst-munching asswipes kicked our butts at foosball this morning. We tried."
Rick nodded in stricken agreement. "We would have preferred non-aggression, but they dissed Britta's mom," he said, his chin dropping lower. "And then, to add insult to injury, they dissed my mom. I couldn't just stand by while they implied their supreme leader had forced sexual relations with the women who brought us into the world."
"Sounds like you tried without me," said Shirley. "They clean house faster than you can say Heil, Chang! Ask Jeff over here. When they tag-team you, it ain't pretty."
Jeff rolled his eyes and finished typing a text. "Whatever. Shirley annihilated them."
"Interesting," said Abed. "That means they have Juergen, Reinhold, Karl, and Lukas."
"Not to be all down about it like Neil, but this is looking kind of hairy," Troy said.
Abed took the clipboard out of Troy's hands and slowly checked off the final name.
"Intelligence Officer Iwaszkiewicz," he said, "what enemy combatants remain?"
"Garrett and Leonard are footsoldiers," said Pavel, shrugging. "That would be it."
"Here's the situation," said Abed, silencing them with a gesture. "According to Dean Pelton's survey on the website, campus-wide interest in donating linens and/or participating is at an all-time low. I predict that, compared to last time, this will be quicker and more brutal: ten against ten, take no prisoners, first team to surrender or be completely annihilated wins. We finish shoring up the study room as our base of operations in whatever time we've got between classes from now till Friday afternoon. Friday at sixteen-hundred hours, we meet here in full gear, kitted out for the weekend. Carry your paintball pistols at all times; I know it's been designated cheating to cross combat genres, but Chang plays dirty, so let's beat him to the punch. Nightwear and head-lamps are standard reg for everyone, no exceptions."
A groan went up around the circle, and Britta raised her hand. Troy called on her.
"Does yoga-wear count? Movement isn't an issue, and I sleep in it all the time."
Abed nodded to Troy, so he said, "Dispensation granted. Any other petitions?"
"Permission to treat fallen enemies, should the need arise?" Annie asked.
"Terms state that bodies down must leave the fort network on striking of the fatal blow," said Abed. "I'm sorry, but there's no such thing as a field medic in this engagement. You knew that when you signed up."
"Dammit," Annie muttered. "It was worth trying. Thanks, Captain."
"When you say kitted out for the weekend, that includes edible provisions, right?" asked Shirley. "I'll bring enough sandwiches, muffins, and brownies to last three days. This won't spill into business hours on Monday, will it?"
"Better not," Abed sighed. "I have to teach Monday morning, and you're in my class."
Jeff raised his hand, and Troy wondered if he was going to regret calling on him.
"What's your policy toward envoys crossing enemy lines for any purpose whatsoever?"
"If you so much as think of delivering an inspirational speech to any member or members of Chang's Army without intent to win them over to our cause, you will be tried for treason," said Abed. "Magnitude?"
"Pop pop, sir. Agent Sappho is a crafty and well informed adversary. Permission to kill on sight using any means up to and including lounge-couch cushions to the head."
"Permission granted and policy extended to any member of Chang's Army who does not come in peace," said Abed, firmly. "We've got time for one more. Pavel?"
"Permits for ethnic establishments and festivals, should civilians wish to participate?"
Troy took back the clipboard and flipped through to the last page. "Grant any requests you may get, but tell them it's all fun and games until somebody's stabule gets requisitioned for use as a billy club. We're out of time, people. Strip your beds, empty your laundry baskets, do your interim construction time, and we'll see you on Friday."
The crowd filed out gravely, crawling on all fours, until only Troy and Abed were left.
"Do you think we did the right thing," Troy asked, "not telling them that combination architecture is likely to disqualify us from the record, assuming that we even make it?"
"Either we emerge victorious, just shy of the record because we were hampered by battle, or we prevent Chang's Army from attaining the record, thereby falling short in the attempt," Abed replied. "There is no victory here. Only death."
"You make even the direst circumstances sound sexy as hell," said Troy, and then added, in his best Reggie voice, "Permission to throw you over my shoulder, carry you back to the X-7 Dimensionizer, and snog you senseless, Inspector?"
"Permission granted, Constable," agreed Abed, and crawled out of the fort after him.
If Mariah had any questions about why Troy left the library carrying Abed like a sack of string beans, she tactfully kept them to herself. She waved, and they waved back.
* * *
By six o'clock Friday evening, they'd squared away Command Central in the study room and sent out two teams of builders (Britta and Rick; Jeff and Magnitude), each under heavy armed guard (Neil and Pavel; Annie and Shirley) to expand through the library in both directions. By eight-thirty, neither Abed, nor Troy had received any untoward dispatches via email or text, so they pulled Neil in to make a report.
"Everything's quiet here, Sergeant," said Abed, sitting straight-backed in the bean bag. Troy reclined on a pile of pillows beside him, his head resting against Abed's thigh as he texted Annie for a direct report on the other team. Abed stroked Troy's hair absently, setting aside his laptop, on which he'd been keeping a careful eye on both local weather and the campus security feed. "How is Team Alpha progressing?"
"Like clockwork, Captain," said Neil, on bended knee, removing his head-lamp. "Citizens Perry and Rutherford were made for the job. With the help of a few civilians, they've got the Star-Burns Memorial Tunnel linked up with the main entrance—"
"Rutherford," said Troy, sitting up straight. "You're telling me that, not only is he five feet and ten inches tall like it said on his student ID card, but his name is actually Rick Rutherford? That's even more surreal than Subway."
"Richard Rutherford, yeah," said Neil. "He showed me his driver's license. They're an old Denver family. He told me how his ancestors came from Michigan during the westward migration. They sought a place free from the persecution being suffered by workers who dared to unionize, although I guess they didn't realize they were migrating to a place that was free of unions, too. They changed that soon enough."
"Hold on," said Abed, pointing to Troy's phone, which now sat buzzing avidly in Troy's lap while Troy listened rapt to Neil's story. "You've got a text from Annie."
Troy recovered and picked up his phone, eyes going round as he read.
"That son of a bitch," he said, threw the phone several feet across the well padded space, and flopped over sobbing in Abed's lap. "Magnitude was too busy working on a troublesome ceiling to realize Jeff had vanished! After a two-hour search that took her into the dark heart of Chang's evil empire, Shirley caught him sneaking out of an unfinished enemy blanket tunnel! WINGER, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" he wailed.
Abed gathered Troy close and rubbed his back, kind of like he'd taken to doing with Annie's when she was drunk, and fixed Neil with a cool, unflinching stare.
"Send some of Team Alpha's civilians to help Magnitude with the Pierce's Mom's Excellent Posthumous Adventure Expressway and make sure that Annie stays on guard with her pistol at the ready. She can take it," he said calmly. "Meanwhile, you and Sergeant Bennett will bring the suspected traitor to me for court-martialing."
Neil sighed heavily, donned his head-lamp, and got back on all fours.
"Of course, Captain," he said. "Expect us within the quarter-hour."
"I don't understand," Troy sniffled. "Jeff. He gave us friendship hats."
"Let us hope this isn't what it looks like," murmured Abed, rocking him.
Twenty-five minutes later, almost to the second, Neil's distinctive rap sounded on the heavily draped left-hand table leg, followed closely by Shirley's on the right.
"Enter," Abed called, shifting sideways in the bean bag so that a mostly composed (if somewhat bleary-eyed) Troy could sit beside him. "Bring in the prisoner."
"I thought this game didn't have prisoners," said Jeff, his voice muffled by the navy blue pillow case over his head, crawling clumsily into the fort between his captor-guides. They got him seated on the blanket spread in front of Abed like a rug (Annie's grandmother's courting quilt) and whipped off the pillowcase. He glared at Abed in abject annoyance, his hair a hilarious mess. "The black-bagging was a nice touch. Now, are you going to tell me what the fuck's up with this Lawrence of Arabia nonsense? I thought we were supposed to be, you know, the good guys."
"Perhaps you can answer that question for me," said Abed, leaning forward and steepling his fingers. "Why were you caught sneaking out of enemy territory? Furthermore, why didn't you inform Sergeants Edison and Bennett of your intent before leaving? This could have been easily avoided. Sergeant Bennett risked her life to track you. What if one or both of you had been caught? This had better be good."
Jeff was already nodding, that infuriating smirk of his plastered in place. He drew a folded piece of graph paper out of his pajama-shirt pocket and spread it on the quilt at Abed's feet, revealing an intricate, winding network of tunnels. The map was incomplete, but it was an impressive start, and Abed wondered how he'd done it.
"This is the ground floor of North Hall," he said. "They've already built outdoor connecting tunnels leading into both the Life Science and Psychology buildings. I know for a fact that Duncan locks the latter up tighter than he did his dick that one time we went clubbing at a gay bar, so you can bet the mutual restraining orders are currently set to BROS instead of HATE and he let Chang's Army in. Are you with me so far?"
"Yes," said Troy, eyes glittering afresh. "I never doubted you. Never."
"Continue," said Abed, tight-lipped, turning the page to look from another angle.
"If we abandon work on the expressway you're routing through the back entrance and re-allocate Team Beta to help Team Alpha with that tunnel through the front entrance, we might just breach the Communications Center by midnight. By then, even Britta and Rick will be bushwhacked, so you two are going to have to take the graveyard shift alongside me, Annie, Shirley, Neil, and Pavel while the others catch some shut-eye, or in the very least stand armed guard. That way, we might make it through Communications and into CPU and English Memorial by dawn. They've got three buildings, we've only got one, and Admissions is border territory. We've got to claim it before they do. Am I making any kind of sense, Cap, or is this gibberish?"
Abed snapped out of his reverie, removing both his headdress of rank and head-lamp with contrite deliberation. "You're making perfect sense," he said, handing the headdress to Jeff, and donned his head-lamp once more. "Just like last time, I've been a complete dick about this. I'll head to the front now with Neil and Shirley; anyone who wants a rest can come back and crash for a few hours. Sound cool?"
"Not cool," said Troy, crawling off the bean bag. "I'm coming with you."
"But I need you to stay here and advise Jeff," Abed told him. "You're the best tactical mind I've got, and you know that's the truth. You can see the big picture."
"Um, in case you hadn't noticed," Troy shot back, "he's having no trouble seeing the big picture all by his even bigger damn self. I've done nothing but sit here and be your one-man harem. As much as I enjoy doing that, I'm pretty sure you'll want me on hand out there when something goes spoink. And, believe me, something will."
"First rule of matrimony," Shirley said to Abed. "Don't argue with the wife."
Troy folded his arms and nodded in agreement, all attitude, and then froze.
"Hey, wait a minute," he said. "Why do I always have to be your—"
Abed silenced him with a kiss, ignoring Shirley's coo of That's nice!
"Because you're my Troy. Nothing more, nothing less. Now, let's go."
* * *
"Nuh-uh," said Troy, unloading another volley across their calves and shoulders. "You know the rules. Once you're down, you're down. I've got a couple of pissed-off former anarchists five minutes behind me, not to mention a Polish-speaking hit squad who hate pasty elitist Eurotrash, so I suggest you make like trees and leave."
"Oh, look at me, I am so scared," retorted Juergen, spitting bright orange on the floor as he struggled to his feet. "What do you think, Karl? Do we listen to this nerd in his jammies and run off with our tails between our legs, or do we make him like a tree?"
"I say we make him all the leaves," said Karl, staggering to his feet. Reinhold and Lukas sniggered malevolently behind him, having fully recovered their weapons.
"Oh my God," Troy muttered, taking aim. "You guys are worse than Biff."
"Isn't it way past your bedtime?" Juergen asked, cocking his pistol as he advanced on Troy. "Your terrorist boyfriend must be worrying sick about you. Time to go home?"
"It's must be worried sick, dude," said Troy, attempting to keep his cool, but in reality he was losing his shit and it was three in the flipping morning and where the hell were Britta and Rick and Abed and Pavel? "Get it right. You came here to study English. Also, if Chang told you that calling Abed a terrorist to my face was going to make me lose my shit, he was misinformed. All it makes me is really fucking annoyed and more inclined to shoot you in the balls. Like this," he said, and gave a demonstration.
While the four of them were doubled over in excruciating pain, Troy turned and booked it, only to run smack into a shrieking Rick and Britta come charging to his aid. Abed and Pavel weren't far behind; Rick recovered quickly from the collision and gave Troy a clap on the shoulder before racing off after Britta and Pavel, who already had the Germans in retreat. Abed, badly winded, dropped to his knees next to Troy.
"Thanks for holding them off," he panted. "We got Leonard, Garrett, and Vicki. They were holed up playing poker in the Sleep Lab, way too drunk to shoot straight. Did you know that backpack Leonard carries is full of booze? Never seen anything like it."
"Pierce told me that once. If Pavel and Nordic Fury get those stupid Krauts out of here," Troy asked, "does that mean we're officially in control of Psychology?"
In the silence, just as Abed nodded and started to lean in for a kiss, there were two calculated clicks followed by a pistol-barrel rammed up against the base of Troy's skull. Troy could see that the matching one jammed into the back of Abed's neck was clutched in a decidedly feminine, non-white hand. Its owner could only be one person.
"Well, well, well," said Annie Kim, prodding Abed's neck a bit harder. "We sacrificed the Fools and gained the Lovers. Not bad for an exchange of major arcana."
"Your tarot symbolism is off," said Abed, but all that got him was his chin yanked up by Annie's wicked fingernails and the barrel of her pistol shoved in his mouth.
"Any equally pedantic last words?" asked Troy's assailant, whose voice he didn't recognize at first, but who, by process of elimination, could only be Amanda Johnson.
"Patroklos salutes Sappho with his dying breath," said Troy, with sober fragility, "and requests that mercy be shown to his...his beloved..." Turning on the water-works wasn't hard when you were so strung-out you didn't even know when you'd last slept.
The pressure of Amanda's gun barrel eased, and the poet choked back a whimper.
"Are you kidding me?" Annie hissed, yanking her pistol out of Abed's mouth. "Chang warned me that your Rainbow Alliance bullshit might be a liability. I should have done this hours ago." She shot Amanda twice in the heart, which earned her an indignant squawk and precarious return shots square in the throat and temple.
"Nice one," Abed said to Troy, rubbing the back of his neck. "That was—"
"DUCK!" Annie Edison shouted from behind them. "BITCHES GOING DOWN!"
By the time their own Annie and Neil had finished unloading on Annie Kim and Amanda, Troy was seeing spots and the only thing keeping him anchored to reality was Abed's body protectively covering his own. He watched the enemy agents crawl partway down the hall before dragging themselves to their feet and fleeing.
"Great, but unnecessary," said Abed. "They'd already turned on each other."
"Sergeant Goldman, these two are delirious," Annie told Neil, switching on her head-lamp. "Get them back to camp and stand guard while they get some rest. I'm going to help the others sweep this building for any remaining vermin."
"Aye aye, Sergeant," said Neil, and helped get up, who in turn helped Troy. It was a good thing Neil and Annie were fresh from a few hours' rest. Otherwise...
"You're thinking too hard," said Abed, bending to sling Troy's left arm across his shoulders even as Neil got his right. "Don't do that. It's over."
"It's not over till we flush their butts out of everywhere," said Troy, and promptly passed out. When he came to, he was lying on a bed of pillows and Abed, exhausted, was lying beside him, still awake and watchful and propped up on one elbow.
"You're not going out there again. You'll stay here if I have to sit on you."
"This is what I imagined after I read that stupid email," said Troy, faintly.
Abed blinked at him, leaning closer, and touched Troy's cheek in concern.
"I don't understand," he said. "Nobody sent you any email. We rescued—"
"Last time, dumb-ass," Troy sighed. "That email you wrote to your troops that I wasn't supposed to read. To make myself feel better, I imagined that you regretted writing it and had to infiltrate Blanketsburg in disguise. You had Garrett carry you in here wrapped up in a rug, kind of like Cleopatra, at which point he went away, I unrolled the rug, and you apologized. We had mind-blowing make-up sex. The end."
"Do you think this is a second chance? Because I'd totally be into that."
Just then, Troy thought he overheard Neil telling someone they couldn't go inside right now, but it wasn't important, because Abed was leaning to kiss him in slow motion like he hadn't gotten to do earlier in the hall, and everything, everything was perfect.
* * *
There was no noise coming from the directions of the officers' quarters, the barracks, or the mess tent, either. Abed disentangled himself from Troy and dressed swiftly, lingering a moment at Troy's side to adjust the blankets over him before tucking two fresh paintball pistols into his waistband and crawling soundlessly out.
"Sir," Neil muttered when Abed touched his shoulder, comically starting awake. He'd fallen asleep where he sat, cross-legged, with his back against the textbook-raised table leg. "I trust you and Lieutenant Barnes had a good rest, sir?"
"I hope you did, too, Sergeant," said Abed, rising, and pulled Neil to his feet. "Go get some breakfast and come back to your post. I pray God he'll sleep a few more hours, but if he wakes up, you're not to let him leave. Understood?"
"Understood, Captain," said Neil, with a crisp salute, but there was a flash of concerned doubt in his eyes that couldn't amount to any good.
Before departing, Abed ducked back into the fort and retrieved his phone, where he'd had it charging off his laptop, and plugged Troy's in as a precaution. He crawled clear of the Star-Burns Memorial Tunnel in record time and found himself in the outdoor connecting tunnel that branched off in two directions: Communications and Admissions. He'd have to cut through Admissions to see if they still held Psychology; last he'd heard, Annie had been planning on leading Jeff and Shirley as Special Ops into North Hall for a daring ambush (it seemed like a waste not to use Jeff's map).
Abed paused for breath in one of the Psych tunnels that hadn't been there when he and Troy left the field around three in the morning. WHERE ARE YOU, SERGEANTS? STATUS REPORT? I'M IN PSYCH WEST, he texted to Shirley and Annie.
A tense seven minutes later, Abed's phone vibrated and lit up with a text from Shirley: NORTH HALL, CAP. KINDA BUSY, NEED BACKUP. GET HERE ASAP.
"Shit," said Abed, "shit shit shit," and got a move on.
The enemy tunnel leading through the front entrance of North Hall had collapsed, so Abed picked his way through the wreckage, which, he dimly registered, was knotted with the odd clump of paintball-and-feathered civilians clustered around smart-phones and whispering amongst themselves as he passed. He recognized at least four or five of them as students in his film class. Mariah, huddled with two shelving assistants, flashed him the District 12 sign of respect. Abed returned it and hurried forward.
Around the next corner, he tripped straight into hell. The noise should have given it away, but his surroundings had taken on the same kind of muted quality as his self contained freak-outs. What he saw was a barely discernible blur: Jeff and Chang wailing on each other with various bits of industrial lounge upholstery interspersed with a number of complete strangers, seemingly Newer Fluffytown partisans under the leadership of Britta and Rick, vainly attempting to beat back Chang's Army conscripts while Annie, Shirley, and Magnitude argued behind an overturned table about which one of them was best suited to making an emergency ammo run to Wal-Mart.
"Where's Pavel?" Abed shouted to Shirley. "Is he alone out there?"
"Went down two hours ago, Captain!" she shouted back. "He's home."
Abed drew his pistols and opened fire on the Chang's Army, most of whom fell like flies, because they looked really fucking tired. Just as he found Britta and made eye contact with Rick, gesturing them in the direction of the Sergeants' cover, a cushion harder than regulation standard slammed into the side of his head. To the sound of raised voices he recognized as belonging to Troy and Neil, the world went black.
"Steady," said Annie, hovering, as she removed the ice pack from Abed's temple.
Abed's eyes flew open, only to close tightly again in response to the bright light.
"Where's Troy?" he asked, trying to sit up, but found himself pinned by a blanket.
"Here," said Annie, pointing to the next cot. "You're mildly concussed, and you've got a lump the size of an egg. Chang got in a great shot before Jeff took him down."
"What happened to Troy?" asked Abed, resigned to his fate. "And the others?"
"You knew about Pavel," said Jeff, appearing out of nowhere with coffee for himself and Annie. "Chang took him out around five in the morning. After you hit the floor, I clocked Chang and that was it. The rest of his core team had been out of commission for some time, and the new recruits surrendered to Shirley when they realized their fearless leader was down for the count." He shrugged and handed Annie her latte, bending for a kiss as he took a seat beside her on the edge of Abed's cot. "We won."
"The record's safe from enemy hands," sighed Abed. "That's all I can ask."
"You mean the record's safe in Greendale hands," said the Dean, strolling into the makeshift infirmary. "Everything from the New Library through Psychology is a solid network of pillow forts, and the damages sustained by Chang's cluster consisting of North Hall, Life Science, Art, SUB, and the Old Library have already been repaired. I just got off the phone with those folks from Guinness Book: if those volunteers keep working from the remainder of today through Sunday to link up Psych with Life Sci and the Old Library with English Memorial, we've got the record in the bag."
"I was so close," Chang moaned from his pallet on the floor. "So close!"
"I don't understand," said Abed. "There was nothing wrong with just being known as Luis Guzmán's alma mater. It may have taken me four years to reach this point, but now I'm getting laid like crazy. I was cool with that. What happened?"
"I have a confession to make," said Annie, reluctantly. "I started tweeting the campaign during my first armed patrol with Shirley on Friday evening. I hash-tagged it #PillowsAndBlanketsStrikeBack, but somebody from film class started using #TrobedsWar, and it stuck. More and more civilians started showing up. Britta was taking photos and tweeting them, too, although nobody was paying attention to her till this really amazing shot of you and Troy turned up just after three in the morning. From there on out, it was viral. Even City College's star bloggers had picked it up."
"Are you trying to tell me," said Troy, who'd apparently been awake and listening, "that a hash-tag and Britta's sucky amateur cell-phone photography saved our asses?"
"Yeah. Especially after @RealOldWhiteManSays started retweeting everything."
A pale, paint-dashed flash of motion in the doorway caught Abed's eye. Britta and Rick stood there grinning and waving, arms slung about each other's waists, exhausted and covered from head to toe in every color imaginable.
"Can I see somebody's phone?" Troy asked, and Jeff gladly handed his over.
Abed watched him scroll through what was presumably the #TrobedsWar tag on Twitter, his expression shifting from smile to frown to smirk with each tap. He stopped after about sixty seconds, blinking rapidly, at which point his eyes went wide and he tried to say something, but no sound passed his lips. Jeff, eyes lowered, took the phone away from Troy and put it in Abed's waiting hands.
"We should have asked first," Britta muttered. "I knew we should have asked..."
"It was you guys at the door!" Troy blurted. "Neil was talking to you guys?"
Abed clicked the yfrog link in Britta's tweet (@BrittaUnfiltered Lovers in a dangerous time [LINK] #TrobedsWar #TheBNLCoverRockedSoSuckIt) and turned Jeff's phone sideways so the photograph would load closer to its actual size.
The zoom-in had been so delicately executed that Neil's shoulder, which should have been in the foreground, didn't show except as a faint shadow along the lower right-hand edge of the frame. Abed studied himself in that frozen, unguarded moment and almost didn't recognize what he saw: he and Troy pressed forehead to forehead, their fingers laced together against the pillows. It had to have been the split-second before they kissed; the photographer would've had no more time than the breath in which Neil had told them they couldn't enter and yanked the entrance shut again.
"If you had taken that in Egypt or Syria or someplace actually important," said Abed, locking eyes with Rick, "you'd be up for a World Press Photo Award. Nicely done."
Britta went up on tiptoe and kissed him. "Thank you for letting me tweet it."
"I can't believe this," said Troy. "I'm internet famous because some dude who used to be named Subway took a picture of me almost kissing my boyfriend inside a pillow-and-blanket fort that's actually a book-and-table fort. This is wrinkling my brain."
Abed gave Jeff his phone back, grinned tiredly, and gave Rick a double thumbs-up.
"Welcome to the study group. I speak for all of us when I say you're one of us now."
On the floor, Chang broke out in maniacal laughter, but nobody else was listening.
"Yeah, Pierce," said Troy, grinning in spite of himself. "Thanks. For everything."
"Baby Boomer Santa provides," said Pierce, spreading his arms. "So, are you going to tell me what actually happened right after that picture was taken? Inquiring minds..."
Troy exchanged sidelong glances with Abed, and they nodded decisively.
"Oh, that," said Troy, as nonchalantly as he could manage. "We had sex."
Pierce went slightly green. "Like...actual sex? Right there in the fort?"
"Yep," said Abed. "Turns out it was a fantasy of Troy's, so we went for it."
"That's, um," said Pierce, averting his eyes, "cool. Great. Go Trobed!"
"When Pavel saw the photo, he asked me what I was thinking right then," Troy continued, going in for the kill, "but I told him he didn't want to hear about that. What's really worth hearing is what I was thinking about fifteen minutes later."
Pierce made a reluctant gesture. "What...were you thinking fifteen minutes later?
"I was thinking Butt stuff is awesome, and then I was thinking Abed's dick is awesome, and then I was coming my brains out and couldn't think anything at all."
"I was thinking it reminded me of the love scene in But I'm a Cheerleader, and that was pretty much enough to push me over, so yeah," Abed agreed. "What Troy said."
Pierce's hands loomed large in the feed as he fiddled ham-fistedly with the webcam, which wasn't actually having any problems that Troy could see. "I seem to be having...technical difficulties, damn this stupid thing..." muttered Pierce, reaching up to give the cable an obvious yank, and the feed promptly went black.
Troy fist-bumped Abed; they collapsed laughing against each other till they cried.
Chapter 9: Critical Approaches to Commencement
"Did somebody mention monkeys?" asked Pavel, eyes darting toward the vent.
Abed sipped his Dark 'n' Stormy (Jeff made them best, with Diplomatico rum and Gosling's ginger beer and the fresh mint Britta had brought from her window boxes) and surveyed his living space, which had grown crowded and loud. The question wasn't so much how he and Troy had let Annie talk them into throwing a Pre-Graduation-and-Congratulations-Abed-On-Choosing-a-School bash, but how the peripheral two-thirds of their Greendale circle had ended up there.
"I don't remember telling her she could invite Chang," he said to Troy. "Or Vicki and Garrett, or Professor Duncan—especially not after what happened back in April."
"Great party," said Leonard, raising his own cocktail to clink against Abed's and Troy's in sequence as he shuffled past. "I'll give the drinks five stars in my YouTube review."
"You know Jeff's the one making them, right?" Troy called after him, and then turned back to Abed. "I think it's kind of like that time Chang invited everybody over to Jeff's place, or that kegger you threw a couple years ago. If you host it, they will come."
"The kegger was a fascinating experiment," said Abed, reminiscing. "This, on the other hand, is more like a train wreck waiting to happen. Britta and Jeff are already matching each other drink for drink and beginning to argue pointlessly, Annie and Shirley are pushing canapés on people who don't really want them, and Chang's trying to pick a fight with the Dean over the fact that no individuals got mentioned by name in our Guinness Book entry. Professor Duncan keeps scanning our DVD collection for porn. We might as well start taking wagers on which sub-plot blows up first."
"Is it true you picked Emerson?" asked Valerie (whom Troy refused to stop calling Creepy Indiana Jones Fangirl), sidling up to Abed out of nowhere. "That's such a good school for performing arts and related disciplines." At least she hadn't written LOVE YOU across her eyelids like she'd done for the second session of film class at the start of semester; instead, they were overloaded with mauve shadow and gold glitter.
"Yep," said Abed, scanning the room distractedly for Britta and Jeff, who he hoped weren't on the way to getting so trashed they'd commit a drunken indiscretion worse than making out and shatter Annie. "If I'm honest with myself, their program's up to par with Vermont's for documentary filmmaking, if not better. The staff and alumni are far better connected, and they're basically offering a full ride. Troy and I can pay rent at two thousand a month for two years without working if we need to, so we're set."
"...I am too manipulative enough, you fashionista loser," Britta drawled, stumbling past an enthusiastically dancing Magnitude and into Abed's line of sight, followed closely by a staggering Jeff. "Just wait. You're just jealous you didn't discover it first."
"Bring it on, homeslice," said Jeff, frantically casting about the room. "Annie! Hey, c'mere, I've got to tell you about this completely lame-ass bet we just—"
"Situation normal, all Britta'd up?" Troy asked, leaning against Abed's shoulder.
"I'm still here," Valerie reminded them, waving a hand in front of both their faces.
"Worse than Britta'd," said Shirley, tugging Abed's sleeve. "Neil just told me Rick's throwing up in the bathroom. What's Jeff putting in those drinks? It's not my snacks."
"It's probably both," said Abed, off guard now that Jeff had found Annie and was, in fact, using any steam that might have been indiscretion-oriented to kiss her up against the kitchen counter. "Eating fresh aside, he's got a weak spot for ricotta and mushrooms. He's had like ten of those things. You should be proud of your work."
"Okay, go take care of your man," Troy said, finding Britta in the crowd, and steered her toward the bathroom, "before he messes up our tile floor worse than Annie did."
Britta turned around in Troy's grasp, wide-eyed, jabbing a finger at his nose.
"There's a really funny saying for that," she said, snapping her fingers. "Dammit, I read it online just the other day. The funny part is, though, I can't quite remember—"
"A saying for stopping somebody from puking all over the floor?" Troy asked, turning her back around and shoving her the rest of the way. "Go home, Britta. You're drunk."
"A masterful show of manipulation!" Jeff shouted from the kitchen area while Annie exchanged confused looks with Abed. "Bravo! This'll be as easy as game, set, match."
"I don't see you trying!" shouted Britta, slamming the bathroom door.
"Lame party, dip-wads," said Chang, taking his turn to weigh in, heavily supported by Professor Duncan, who looked just about as far in his cups. "Where's a guy supposed to take his pity-fuck around here, assuming he can even find one?"
Duncan pointed at himself, and then at Chang, and then back again.
"He doesn't mean—look, no, this isn't what it looks like—I'm not—"
"He may not mean it," said Troy, snapping a picture of them with his phone, "but it looks like it anyway. Hey, Abed, what should I hash-tag this?"
"#MexicanHalloween would shuffle them in with a bunch of Dia de los Muertos stuff," said Abed, considering, "but you might tweet @RealOldWhiteManSays and ask him."
"Never thought I'd say this, but Pierce's condescending advice might fit the bill," said Troy, and took Abed's suggestion. "Shanghai, this is Greendale. Do you read me?"
Dean Pelton wandered in their wake, wistfully sipping a dirty martini.
"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride," he sighed, watching Chang and Duncan vanish inside the bunk-bed equipped former Dreamatorium. "You don't suppose—"
"No!" said Abed and Troy in unison; everyone nearby laughed with them.
It took Jeff, Magnitude, Neil, and Troy to bodily extract Chang and Duncan from the spare bedroom; the trouble was mostly that they'd both passed out on the bottom bunk and looked like they'd soon be no better off than Rick, who was now recovering on the sofa with Britta and a glass of water (obligatory filter jokes notwithstanding).
Abed sat down beside Rick and attempted a wry, tentative smile.
"Time to lay off the food, maybe," he suggested. "You don't want to end up—"
"—like the gluttony guy in Seven," finished Rick, grinning back. "I know."
"If this is only just Sunday of graduation week," said Britta, rising to go refill Rick's glass, "then I can't imagine how screwed our livers are going to be come Friday."
"Damn kids," muttered Leonard, stationed in Troy's armchair with his backpack of nips open in his lap; he handed Pavel another vodka. "If you can't keep up, ship out!"
* * *
Abed was sitting cross-legged on the couch, barefoot, with his headphones on and computer in his lap. He looked up from whatever he was editing and flashed Troy a content little wave. "How was Foosball?" he asked, raising one headphone.
"An even bigger joke now that it's the last week of classes," said Troy, heading for the kitchen. "It's no different from free-for-all matches in the student lounge, right down to those German dudes whose asses we kicked last month ruining everyone's fun. Don't tell Jeff, but I think it was the blow-off class to end all blow-off classes."
"It seems like he's been happy in my film class," said Abed, clicking pause on his footage and quitting the headphones. "I don't think he was lying about having learned the value of a rigorous challenge, insofar as community college can be rigorous, and I say this as someone with a recent interest in making sure that there's at least the possibility of intellectually stimulating discourse." He paused, reconsidering his words. "I mean, in the end I just hope everyone had fun watching lots of movies, but there are grades and a paycheck on the line—you can't have everything."
"Today's discussion on Inception was pretty intense," said Troy, pulling a pot of leftover barszcz from the refrigerator. "But given there are no more essays to write, I got the impression a lot of people were using it as an excuse to fixate on a single issue. Like what that stupid top wobbling at the end means, and I still don't get it."
"That doesn't mean you're not smart," said Abed, eyes flicking briefly from Troy's face to the floor, and then back up again (admission of guilt, remembrance of things past). "It just means that the film's narrative structure wasn't compatible with your cognitive processes. I'm still not sure what the point of The Piano was, and the variant-ending version that was released in Europe, while marginally clearer, still kind of bored me."
"Thank God," muttered Troy, setting the pot on the stove to heat. "I didn't get that one either. My mom made me watch it with her when I was like twelve."
Just as he was about to comment further on the film's unfortunate events (Abed's class rubbing off on him, perhaps, given he felt so oddly compelled to keep talking about it), Abed's cell phone rang. Abed answered in Polish, which meant he'd recognized the number as belonging to either Pavel or his mother.
As Troy stirred the pot and listened, something miraculous happened: rather than understanding just one word in three, everything that came out of Abed's mouth made nearly perfect sense. He stood still and listened in abject awe.
"Hi, Mom. I'm fine. No, you're not bothering us. Troy's heating up dinner, and I'm working on some footage. Yes, we're excited. Right, only four days left. Ceremony? Not really; this is community college. What did you expect? Really? No. Just a bunch of us having our own ceremony in the study room. What do you mean? Yes, my friends you saw on Skype at Christmas, plus others. What do you mean, allowed? It's not like there are tickets or anything. What? What?" At this point, Troy glanced over his shoulder to find Abed's eyes fixed on him with that distinctive I-need-help-reacting-to-something expression. "You...you want to fly here? On Thursday, and stay over for Friday?" he asked, lapsing into English. "Um. Can I talk to Troy and call you back?" He hung up without saying goodbye and stared at the phone in what Troy had come to recognize as intense annoyance. "I don't like surprises. Not this kind."
"It couldn't hurt," said Troy, "at least not from the standpoint of space. They could sleep on the bunk beds, and we could make Marek a bed in the blanket fort."
"It would only be Mom," Abed replied, chewing his lower lip; it was an endearing habit. "Tomasz can't get the time off. She didn't mention Marek. It might depend on whether she could find a sitter to stay a few days. Tomasz works weird hours."
"To be honest with you, Marek's the one I'd really want to see," said Troy, lowering the heat on the burner. "Thanks to him, I'm realizing the baby conspiracy isn't so bad. He'd be talking more now. He might be able to wrap his head around the Dreamatorium a little bit. That would be cool."
"Mom put him on the phone when she called a couple of weeks ago," said Abed, pensively. "He understands a lot in both languages now, and he can say a handful of short sentences in both. For a year and a half old, that's precocious."
"I don't want you to tell her to come unless you really want this," said Troy, bringing down a pair of bowls. "It's not worth you feeling put on the spot."
"Actually, I'm not the problem," Abed replied, coming over to fetch the ladle and help out. "It's my dad. He's already planning on coming to the ceremony."
"Oh," said Troy, letting Abed serve out the barszcz. "That's, um, kind of awkward. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the mother of all awkward."
The pun merited a fist-bump, although Abed's demeanor was more serious than usual as they carried their bowls over to the table. Troy brought over what was left of the day-old flatbread from the restaurant that Gubi had given them the night before. They ate in companionable silence for a while. Troy could tell Abed was thinking.
"She should come," Abed announced at length. "I had to face my fears at Christmas and face her, so it's time for my dad to do the same. He can't hide forever. Besides, his character development's been stagnant for a while. He needs a push."
"I just realized something," said Troy, finding the lump of borscht-dipped flatbread in his throat suddenly difficult to swallow. "My mom's coming for sure, but..."
Abed looked up from staring into the depths of his bowl and intently stirring, his expression neutral except for the pained brightness of his eyes. It spoke volumes.
"I don't want you to email your dad and Cecilia unless you want to," he said. "You haven't heard from them. I'm not trying to make this worse than it is, and I don't know if any advice I attempt to give will be any good. They're your family, or were. You know better than I do what the consequences might be if you initiate contact."
Troy stared into his bowl, not that hungry anymore. "I'm still getting emails full of typos from Nana every couple of weeks. It's her arthritis. I think she uses the computer when she's at my dad's. It's always the same thing: she hopes I've thought hard about my bad behavior, and keeps reminding me all I've got to do is bring her a switch. I haven't answered any of her messages, Abed. Maybe I should start there?"
Abed tilted his head a little. "It couldn't hurt. Unless she tells your dad; in that case, the next response might come directly from him. My guess is that she'll tell him if you invite her to come to graduation. From that point on, the ball's in their court."
"If you're brave enough to confront your parents meeting again, then I'm brave enough to reply to an insane old lady's email," said Troy, rising, and picked up Abed's empty bowl along with his own half-full one. "I'll do the dishes, and then—"
Abed's hand on Troy's wrist stopped him short, made his breath catch.
"Put those down," said Abed, taking the bowls one at a time, setting them back on the table. He looked up at Troy and scooted his chair back. "Come here."
Troy went willingly, wrapping both arms around Abed's neck even as Abed rested his cheek against Troy's chest and, with long shaking breaths, listened to Troy's heart.
* * *
"Are you sure you don't want me to come along?" asked Troy, hovering beside the bed. "I'm sure the others will take a rain check. You might need back-up."
Abed shook his head. "I want you to go bowling with Britta, Rick, Shirley, Annie, and Jeff. I won't be there to make you mad that your score's not as good as mine."
"I've been better," Troy insisted, sitting down on the mattress. "You know I have. I didn't even throw a fit when you beat me and Jeff and Rick at foosball last week."
"No, but you sulked all the way home," Abed reminded him, discarding the hoodie altogether, "and I had to do the thing with the dress to coax you out of it."
Troy grinned mischievously. "Yeah, um, about that. I wasn't sulking about the fact that I lost so much as I was hoping you'd do the thing with the dress."
"I'm not sure I believe you," said Abed, turning to study him with a half-smile that he couldn't quite suppress, "but as punishment, you have to wear it for me next time."
Troy blinked and made a face, but not one of distaste. It was as if the thought had merely never occurred to him before, and the novelty of it was fascinating.
"I don't think I've ever actually cross-dressed before, except for that time I pretended to be Geneva because Annie wasn't around and you wanted to run a simulation that didn't involve Reggie," he said thoughtfully. "All right. I'm in. If I can wear a pantsuit and be Chang's bitch for the night, I can wear a dress for you and enjoy it."
"I'd rather spend my Tuesday night like that, or bowling with you guys, than going over to have dinner with my dad," Abed told him, "but I've only seen him once a week for the past month or so when he comes over to drop off extra food."
"You look fine," Troy said, standing up again, and insistently pulled Abed away from the mirror. "You look like you. We'd better go downstairs; Britta and Jeff are impatient drivers, and their respective passengers aren't much better."
As Troy had predicted, both cars were waiting. Abed kissed him before shooing him into the back seat of Jeff's car and shutting the door, and then went to get in the back of Britta's car. Rick leaned over from the passenger seat and high-fived him.
"Once we've dropped you off, tell your father I said hello," Rick said. "He left a real impression, and I'd love to talk to him again sometime. Maybe when he hasn't been drinking that stuff the guys in the kitchen give him. He was...loud."
"Or maybe you should have some, too," Abed suggested as Britta put the car into gear, leading their tiny caravan out of the parking lot. "If you want your alcohol tolerance to improve, you're going to have to work on it."
"Hmmm. Maybe not for a while," said Rick, and stared sheepishly out the window while Britta laughed her head off and affectionately called him a wuss.
Abed waved after they dropped him off in front of the restaurant, watching until Britta's car had vanished around the bend. He went inside, mindful of the grubby door handle and jangling bell, returning Ahmed's greeting as he rang up a customer who was waiting for take-out. Abed's father came out of the kitchen several minutes later, looking somewhat grumpy, but nonetheless content to leave Ahmed in charge.
"Are we going upstairs?" asked Abed, realizing at the stiff sound of his words that he hadn't spoken Arabic in weeks. "Or do you want to go out somewhere? I'll pay for it."
"We'll go upstairs," said his father, tossing his grease-stained white apron across the counter for Ahmed to deal with. "I'm tired tonight. Connie never showed."
Abed nodded and walked ahead of his father out the door and through the stairwell entrance to the apartment over the restaurant that they'd called home for as long as he could remember. There was salad and lamb shawarma in the refrigerator, so Abed pulled it out and got it ready while his father sat at the kitchen table and idly flipped through channels on the small, ancient black and white television Abed's mother had once used to watch soap operas while she did the dishes or cooked.
Abed's father banged the side when static kicked in, swore, and shut it off. "I hope you have some good news for me, Abed," he said wearily, "because business is slow and the new cook doesn't know his ass from a tea kettle. Which is also bad for business, given the mint tea is one of our best-sellers."
Abed turned his head to smile at his father's attempted joke, and then carried the salad and reheated shawarma over to the table on a pair of plates that had seen better days. "You do it better than the Moroccan place a few streets over, so don't worry. I think people will keep ordering it even if food sales are down."
"You had to tell those schools your decision like three weeks ago," said Abed's father, taking the fork Abed had offered him. "Don't think I had forgotten about it. It's New England or New England, so you're far away from me no matter which one you chose."
Abed nodded, pushing some shawarma and rice around on his plate. "I'm going to Emerson," he said. "The offer was better. I'll get some more teaching experience, because I'd like to think that can be my fall-back career if I can't actually make a living from my films when all's said and done. I could probably swing it."
"Falafel is your fall-back, remember?" said his father, more in jest than serious.
"College teaching is fun. It's less like lecturing people, which I don't care for, and more like taking long, interesting discussions to the next level. I don't really like grading essays, though. I can usually see the good in what someone has to say, and it's hard for me to look objectively at style and structure when someone's taken the time to write something so personal. I didn't fail anyone this semester, but there were a few Cs and Ds. Jeff and Shirley pulled B-minuses, and giving them that mark was hard."
"What about the other two, the pushy girls?" asked his father, intrigued.
"Britta got an A-minus, and Annie got an A," said Abed. "I'm proud of them."
Abed's father smiled at that, an actual, genuine smile like Abed hadn't seen him wear since the day he and Troy had come to tell him about the acceptance letters. "There is life in you now that you've found something you enjoy more than working here," he said. "I'm sorry to lose you, of course, but these strange friends of yours and that second-rate college have done you more good than I ever thought possible."
"We have to talk about graduation," said Abed, realizing it wasn't the most graceful transition he could have made, but his nerves were too frayed. "Mom's coming."
"Tell her she can't," said his father, automatically, in a tone that was too mild to be anything other than forced. "It's our special day. You've worked hard for it."
"It's my special day," Abed corrected him, eyes averted, forcing out the words in a rush before he could hit critical mass and shut down, "and I'd like both of you to be there for it. You don't have to talk to each other. You don't even have to sit near each other. You know I went to see Mom at Christmas. That wasn't an easy thing for me to do, but it turns out I missed her a lot. I don't want to go back to the way things were, Dad. I want to go forward. I used to be afraid of that, but—but it gets better."
Abed's father clenched and unclenched his fingers on the fork, clearly furious, but remained stubbornly silent. This was the passive part, passive with a touch of aggression, where he'd pretend Abed hadn't said anything and then try again.
"I don't want to ruin this for you, Abed," he said finally, "but don't expect me to be happy about it, and don't you dare expect me to speak to her. Are we clear?"
"Clear," Abed repeated, unable to meet his father's stare. "Yep. Very. Cool."
"Don't you pull that cool-cool thing with me. It's not cute anymore, or even all that funny. You could have told me about this a lot sooner—"
"No, I couldn't!" Abed snapped. "She didn't call me till last night!"
"You could have called me last night," retorted his father. "I have a phone!"
"I couldn't have done that, either," replied Abed. "Troy had to write his crazy grandmother a difficult email. I wasn't going to let him do it alone."
"Believe me, I'm still getting used to this whole thing," said his father, slowly, "but I cannot believe those people. Just cutting him off like that."
Abed stared at his plate and tried to finish his salad, but couldn't, and understood exactly where Troy's appetite had gone the night before. He set his fork, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and wrote a one-line text message: Please get me out.
Abed's father wasn't happy about him leaving early, but he didn't try to prevent Abed from leaving, either. Troy was waiting for him on the curb while Annie waited at the wheel of Jeff's Lexus, her worried expression visible in the rear-view mirror.
"I've got you," Troy said, not wavering in the slightest when Abed sagged in his arms. "Want to come back to the bowling alley and kick my butt, or would you rather Annie just took us home? No answer? That's okay. Annie, we're going home."
"Cool," said Abed, and Troy opened the car door for him. "Cool cool cool."
* * *
"To the one blow-off class that got me to work my ass off," he said, saluting Abed with his cup. "For today's final session, I'm sure we can all agree that The Breakfast Club was an inspired, if predictable choice, but we got what we needed out of it: the dysfunctional, yet sentimental retrospective that we all so clearly deserved. To Abed—the guy who accidentally co-founded this study group—and, above all, to us."
Troy bumped his cup against Abed's first, and then everyone else's; there were murmurs of assent around the table, and even a few cheers (Britta and Annie could always be counted upon for minor, noisy theatrics), but Abed remained as uncharacteristically subdued as Troy himself, and it didn't go unnoticed.
"We missed you last night, Abed," said Shirley, when the ruckus had died down to the sound of everyone humming approval over whatever vaguely fruit-punch based concoction Jeff had served them. "How's your dad? Is everything okay?"
"My dad is himself. Grumpy. Not happy my mom's showing up tomorrow, staying with me and Troy for a few days, and attending the graduation ceremony while she's at it."
"Oh no," said Shirley, downcast. "That's got to be really hard."
"The Gube's got to just suck it up and deal," said Britta, swilling her cup. "Abed's twenty-four fucking years old as of two months ago in Abra's kitchen, and he can have whoever the hell he wants at his graduation ceremony, deadbeat mom included."
"Thanks, Britta," said Troy, deadpan. "You always know just what to say."
"What crawled up your butt and died?" she asked. "Is your mom coming?"
"Yes, but that's not the hard part," Abed said. "It's Nana and his dad."
Annie squeaked, covering her mouth. "Oh God," she said. "They're coming?"
"We don't know," said Troy, "but I finally answered one of Nana's emails. I didn't say I was bringing her a switch, either. I just said graduation was on Friday at ten, and, gee, by the way, would she and dad like to come? No mention of the fact that they claimed never to want to speak to me again, although emails don't seem to count. I haven't heard back from her yet. Or from my dad. I don't think I want to hear."
Even as Abed took hold of Troy's hand beneath the table, Annie put and arm around Troy and squeezed him tight. "We'll be there for you," she told Troy, and then leaned forward to look over at Abed. "We'll be there for both of you. Remember that."
"Besides," said Shirley, "it'll be hard for people to be mean with so many other friends and family members running around. Andre and my boys will all be there."
"You won't believe it, but my grandma's coming," said Britta. "She wants to see where those photos I took of her hands are hanging over in the Art building. I kind of neglected to mention that they suck. I'm hoping she won't notice."
Jeff did his best to remain nonchalant, but he was on his second cocktail, and his inhibitions were already folding like a bad hand at poker. "Nobody's coming for me," he said, "but who cares? I've got all of you guys, and, heaven help me, the Dean."
"My parents and Bubbe are coming!" said Annie. "They'll be your family, Jeff."
Troy found it incredible that Jeff didn't roll his eyes or try to rebuff Annie's remark for appearance's sake; if anything, he looked oddly grateful as he poured himself a third cocktail. He turned the tumbler upside-down, announcing its empty status.
"Shirley, I don't know if any of that is going to help," said Abed, taking a swallow of his drink so that only around a third of it remained. "You've met my dad. He can start a fight anywhere, in front of anybody. And in spite of the fact that he says he doesn't want to talk to my mom or go anywhere near her, I think he's gunning for one."
"My mom doesn't start fights," said Troy, his stomach doing a nervous flip as his phone buzzed. "She just kind of keeps to herself and makes everybody else think she's stuck up, but mostly she's just self-conscious and doesn't like to risk being misunderstood." He checked his email, and it turned out that the new message was a piece of weird cult spam from Pierce. "Dude, what the eff. Stop trying to convert me!"
"Don't tell me you get those from him, too," said Annie. "I wouldn't have thought his creepy cult would be that popular in China, but Wu Mei definitely proved me wrong."
"I don't know whether she converted to impress him or if she was already in," said Jeff, cracking open a bottle of water, "but neither one would surprise me."
"They're sweet in a twisted kind of way," said Shirley. "I'm happy for them."
Troy was just about to get the topic back onto the group reassuring him and Abed that their families descending on Greendale wouldn't be a disaster when Abed spoke up and said, out of the blue, "Did you guys know Pierce graduated already?"
Conversation ground to a halt, but it was Jeff who spoke up first. "When?"
"I guess he realized that he had enough credits after fifteen years of tooling around this place—" Abed paused to intercept Troy's fist-bump "—and applied a few weeks after that withdrawal letter he sent the Dean after New Year's. He'd paid for and completed all of his courses, so it's not like the Dean was going to say no. He didn't even wave his diploma in our faces. He had the private satisfaction of knowing he'd beat us across the metaphorical stage. I only know this because I saw his file."
"I, for one, don't give a rat's ass," said Jeff. "I'm not going to let a sixty-eight year old bigot who believes his mother posthumously navigated the globe in a lava lamp—" at this, there were sniggers around the table "—ruin my buzz. We're graduating, guys." He raised his cup even though he'd drunk it down to dregs. "To Greendale."
"Hear, hear," said Troy, raising his cup to meet Jeff's, and Abed's wasn't far behind.
"What he just said, that whole spiel," interjected Britta, eyeing Abed and bumping her cup against everyone else's, "isn't there an expression for that? Something in Pol—"
"You're not killing my buzz, either," Jeff said, cutting her off. "And I'm certainly not letting you win the goddamn bet. Still subtle as a sledgehammer, huh?"
"This is one of those sub-plots you were talking about," Troy whispered to Abed, "isn't it? Something that's gotten lost in the shuffle since our party on Sunday."
"I'm pretty sure it's not going to blow up," said Abed, "but let's give it time."
* * *
To complicate matters further, he and Troy were used to having the apartment to themselves now, and somehow he found the prospect of having his mother around while they did things behind closed doors even weirder than the same scenario with his dad. At least his dad's reactions were predictable, and therefore manageable.
(They'd shared the spare bedroom in his mother's house at Christmas, but they hadn't really been brave enough to push that particular envelope. Abed was weirded out by his mom's presence, and Troy had initially been weirded out by Marek's.)
Abed finally gave up on the Dreamatorium—far too many likely outcomes—and settled in his armchair with some Special Drink. Troy would be home in about forty-seven minutes (unless he made his occasional stop-off for candy or more cereal; in which case, it would be closer to fifty-eight minutes), and his mother could arrive by hired car any time in that window, or slightly beyond it. Abed desperately hoped the latter.
The only option that he hadn't considered was actually the one that happened.
Abed got partway into watching The Dark Knight (watching a movie he particularly loved was one of the only circumstances under which he tended to lose track of time) when a set of keys turning in the locks announced Troy's arrival, except it wasn't just Troy who came in. Not only was Troy carrying and bouncing a giggling Marek, but Abed's mother brought up the rear with luggage and closed the door behind them.
"Look what I found getting out of an airport van on our doorstep," said Troy, bringing Marek over to place him in Abed's lap, and then added, in hesitant, but correct Polish, "Let's show your brother what you just learned, okay?"
"Hi, Abed," said the toddler, shyly, although he ducked his head against Abed's shoulder and wrapped his small arms around Abed's neck. "I missed you very much."
"We went over it a few times in the parking lot," said Abed's mother, stepping up beside Abed's chair to stand next to Troy. She spoke slowly, Abed noticed, so as not to lose Troy. "He picks things up very fast, and he isn't as contrary as he used to be, either. I think you'd find him a more cooperative talk-show guest now."
"Maybe we'll test that theory before you guys leave," Abed said to his mother, and then ducked his head against Marek's and hugged the little boy closer. "I missed you, too, Marek," he said softly in English. "So did Troy."
"Missed you," Marek repeated, as if tasting the words, pushing away from Abed's chest to sit in his lap. He turned his head toward the film, which was still running; Abed had scarcely had time to kill the volume. "What's that?"
"Only the most awesome Batman movie ever made," Troy told Marek, switching back to English as he took a seat in his own armchair. "Do you know who Batman is?"
Marek looked at Troy, and then at Abed, and then back to Troy. "No."
"Then I'll let you guys explain it to him while I go unpack," said Abed's mother, bending down to kiss the top of Abed's head. "It's the room with the bunk, right?"
"Right," said Abed, purposefully, and hit PAUSE so that Marek wouldn't be distracted while they were talking. "Troy, do you want to take point on this, or should I start?"
Abed and Troy took turns talking while Marek listened and Abed's mother buzzed about. From the sound of things, she was not only unpacking, but also crawling around on the air mattress in the blanket fort rearranging pillows, straightening blankets, and adding Marek's toys. She didn't stop there: by the time they'd recapped what had happened in the film so far for Marek's benefit and started it up again, his mother had moved on, lacking any dishes to tend in the sink, to scrubbing the kitchen counters and their tabletop with Annie's old cleaning supplies from under the sink.
While the Joker's ferry trap was going down, Troy's phone chimed. He took it out of his pocket (having reached around Marek, who kept hopping down from one of their laps to switch over to the other, in the process) and stared. He turned to look at Abed.
"Nana wants to come to graduation," he said, "but she can't get there unless somebody drives her, and she doesn't, I quote, want any strangers picking her up, especially not that hussy she had to switch on Family Day. She says I have to call my dad and talk sense into him so that he'll drive her and maybe stay for the ceremony."
"If contacting your dad will do more harm than good," replied Abed, "don't."
Troy shook his head and read his grandmother's email again. "I've got to try."
They left Marek sitting in Troy's chair (he was watching the action unfold with interest, two fingers shoved in his mouth, completely unfazed by the violence) and went into their bedroom, closing the door behind them. If Abed' mother wondered what they were doing, then Abed supposed she could just take the tactful route and listen quietly outside the door. He wanted to provide Troy with at least the illusion of privacy.
"Here goes nothing," said Troy, and sat down on the mattress, dialing.
Abed took a seat beside him, scooting as close as he dared. Troy, on the other hand, had the phone mashed up against his ear with one hand and used the other to cling to Abed's forearm. Abed took this as a sign that he could scoot closer, so he did, disentangling from Troy's arm so that he could slide his own arm around Troy's waist. They were close enough together now that Abed could hear the phone ringing, but the sound was abruptly cut short by an unfamiliar voice saying, "Barnes residence."
"Is Mr. Barnes there?" said Troy, altering his voice, which was probably a wise move.
Cecilia took the bait and went to get Troy's father; Abed did his best to tune out the particulars of the gruff male voice that came on the line next, focusing instead on what Troy was saying and on the slight changes in Troy's posture.
"Hi. Yeah, it's me. What do you mean you thought so? Didn't Cecilia recognize my number on the caller ID? Oh, right, I guess she wouldn't, seeing as she could never be bothered to talk to me even before you guys decided I didn't exist. Is that so? Right, an exception only for your mom's sake. Got it. Listen, if you can be a grown-up for like five seconds—" at this, Troy's father said something that made him tense and shrink lower in Abed's embrace "—and hear me out, that would be great. Okay. So, Nana wants to come to graduation, and she wants you to drive her there. You don't have to go—no. Dad, no. There is absolutely zero chance of me leaving Abed in exchange for you guys coming to graduation, is that clear?" Troy's tone finally faltered, and Abed knew by how tightly he'd closed his eyes that holding off tears was taking every last bit of effort he could muster. "Also, if you bring her here and she asks for a switch, she is not getting—oh, did she? Seriously? She's decided she'll come only if I agree to bring her a switch when the ceremony's over? Okay, pardon my language," he said, his voice somehow steady even though tears were streaming down his cheeks (Abed did his best to dab at them with his cardigan sleeve), "but screw that." And hung up.
Just as Troy began to sob against Abed's shoulder, the bedroom door swung tentatively open. Marek slipped in and dashed up to the side of the bed, where he tried to climb up beside Troy several times and failed. Abed let go of Troy and reached down to help Marek onto the bed; Marek latched onto Troy and crawled into his lap.
"Troy's crying," he said to Abed, winding his tiny fists in the front of Troy's shirt. He pressed a close-mouthed, tentative kiss against Troy's damp collar. "Don't cry."
Abed looked up just in time to see his mother peering through the crack in the door.
* * *
By the time they'd managed to convince Marek to finish his breakfast (Troy was discovering he had more of a talent for this than Abed) and get to Greendale (a somewhat tight squeeze in Troy's mom's car), they'd been five minutes late, and everyone else had already arrived. It tripped Abed's punctuality tic.
Dean Pelton had been seated at the table situated before the rows of mostly occupied chairs, nervously tapping his pen against his binder of diplomas. Twelve of them had opted to participate: what remained of the study group, plus Neil, Pavel, three stoners who had originally been in Star-Burns' cohort, and, for a shocking twist, Leonard. The audience had been made up of equal parts family and friends; Magnitude, Vicki, Garrett, and Chang had resolved their differences sufficiently to sit together in one row, and a severely hung-over Professor Duncan had come primarily in support of Jeff.
Rick had been gallantly chatting away with Britta's grandma (the lady could rock heels even though she was eighty-nine) and Annie's Bubbe (who mostly just rocked orthopedic shoes). Annie's parents had clustered somewhat awkwardly in the same row as Andre and Shirley's boys, although an efficiently toddling Ben (who was only just slightly younger than Marek) was making the rounds and warming people up.
While Troy and Abed had sheepishly made their way to stand at the front with the others, Troy's mom, Sonia, and Marek had settled into the empty back row where Gubi had up until that point been sullenly sitting alone. Troy had noticed that Gubi had made a move as if to rise, but Pelton had chosen the same moment to rise and call the proceedings to order. Abed had begun to fidget uncomfortably with the zipper of his hoodie, so Troy had grabbed his hand reassuringly and stilled it.
Mercifully, Pelton had cut to the chase with minimal tear-filled digression, and, in almost anti-climactic alphabetical order, he had called them up to the table one by one, signed their diplomas, and shook their hands. A few, it must be noted, had merited hugs: Annie because she was like that and tended to hug at the slightest provocation, Jeff for more glaringly obvious reasons (he had very good-naturedly tolerated the Dean holding him for longer than had been necessary, as well as kind-of-but-not-really copping a feel of his ass), and Abed for the fact that he'd kind of saved the integrity of the curriculum at the last minute. Britta, as the last one to cross, had attempted a hand-shake and ended up being pulled into Pelton's embrace out of sheer necessity so that he could, sobbing over her shoulder, proclaim them one small (yet undeniably super-special part) of the Greendale Class of 2013.
This was where the not-perfect, yet not-quite-disaster part kicked in. Both audience and graduates watched in consternation as, right after the Dean let go of Britta, Rick strode right up to the front, got down before her on one knee, and said, "Britta Perry, you don't need to answer me now—or ever if you don't want to, because that's your prerogative—but you would make me the happiest former corpo-humanoid granted a second lease on life if you'd prove so inclined to be my wife."
"The dude is unbelievable," Troy murmured to Abed, clutching both of their diplomas under his arm for safekeeping. "That shit even rhymed."
"I was completely wrong about which sub-plot would hit the ceiling first," said Abed, in a tone that only Troy and Abed's parents would recognize as flabbergasted. "I wasn't tracking the longer-term ones closely enough. This kind of came out of left field."
"Shhh!" Annie hissed. "History in the making! I want to hear what she says."
Once Britta had stopped laughing long enough to let go of one of Rick's hands and grace the audience, who had been applauding for the better part of a minute, with a clumsy bow, she uncovered her mouth, composed herself, and somehow returned Rick's soulful gaze without cracking up. Before she spoke, her eyes flicked over to Jeff for the briefest of moments; his brief, fond smile and nod made Troy's heart clench.
"Don't be ridiculous," Britta said. "That's the most sensible thing you've ever asked me to do. Of course I'll exchange conflict-free diamond rings with you and take care of your pathetic ass when you're sick and all that soppy bullshit. Yes, Rick. Yes."
"Oh, man," said Troy, applauding along with everyone else, Abed included, while Rick got to his feet, elated, and dipped Britta for a dramatic kiss. "This is straight out of a Disney movie or something. Next thing you know, they'll start puking rainbows."
"But it suits them," said Abed. "They're huge nerds, too. They just don't know it."
At the reception (which was little more than another of the tables set up in the corner and covered with food, flowers, and balloons), everyone offered Britta extra congratulations and did their best not to trip over the two toddlers, who had found each other in the midst of the action and couldn't be separated for love or money.
While Abed did his best to politely shuffle between his mother, his father, and Troy's mother (who was keeping an extra close eye on Ben and Marek, slightly leery of the fact that Sonia and Shirley were doing anything but), Troy finally found an opening and, chocolate-chip cookies in hand, sidled up to Britta and Rick.
"Congrats," he said. "The babies you don't adopt are going to be really blond."
"You never know," Britta said. "There are lots of albino orphans in Tanzania."
Rick actually blushed, shuffling his feet. "We'll see. I think we have a lot to do first, but you never know. Plans change. I'm no one to claim anything's written in stone."
Troy turned back to Britta and hugged her, grateful that it wasn't creepy anymore.
"Do you remember that time at Shirley's wedding, which is also when you almost married Jeff, that you said Abed would make some young man very happy someday?"
"Yeah, I do," Britta replied, patting Troy on the back as she let go of him.
"Well, he did," said Troy, saluting her. Time to join Abed's diplomatic mission.
"Wait!" Britta called after him. "Aren't you going to help us make sure the Dean doesn't get trashed and try to molest Jeff? I don't trust Chang and Duncan, either."
"Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy," said Troy, and Britta punched the air.
"You totally suck," Jeff said from a few feet away. "You weren't even trying."
"Did somebody mention monkeys?" asked Pavel, eyes darting toward the vent.
Marek and Ben were alternately baby-dancing to Roxanne, which Britta's iTunes shuffle had fortuitously spit up, and trying to climb the side-slats of the stools on which Abed and Troy were seated. Everyone else in the room was either watching with utter bemusement or too drunkenly wrapped up in their own conversations to care.
"You guys, that didn't scan well with your theme tune," said Pavel, also in his native tongue, feeding another piece of cookie to Annie's Boobs. "Want me to work on it?"
Chapter 10: Introduction to Going Off-Script
@GrndaleAnnie I can tell it's gonna be a loooong ride... #TrobedsMove
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Troy held the door for Britta and Rick as they maneuvered Abed's armchair into the hall. They'd intended to be pretty ruthless when it came to cutting down what was going with them to the east coast, what with the daunting fact that the apartment they'd lined up was one-bedroom, but in the end they hadn't been able to part with the armchairs or the couch. However, they'd bid the bunk a fond farewell the week before, secure in the knowledge it had found a good home (the woman who'd responded to their ad on Craigslist had six year-old twins who'd been ecstatic).
"I can't believe this," Annie said, snapping a picture of Rick's backside as they vanished into the hall, and tweeted it. "#TrobedsMove. It's the end of an era!"
"Has @RealOldWhiteManSays picked up any of your beefcake?" Shirley asked, holding up the native green lava lamp that had, for a short time, been offended by the presence of Pierce's blue one. "Are you guys taking this? If not, my boys will love it."
"They can have it," said Abed, dusting his hands on his t-shirt (Annie'd had them made for the occasion, just like they'd done for her), and finished repacking a box full of DVDs. Troy had packed the box originally, and Abed hadn't been satisfied by the order. Troy knew better than to be offended. "Would they enjoy my toy dinosaurs? They take up a box in and of themselves, and I think the U-Haul is close to full."
"Thank you, Abed," said Shirley, sweetly. "Ben might like a few, but why don't you send some to your baby brother? He'll be saying the names before too long."
"Is that getting hooked up to Jeff's car or Britta's car?" asked Annie, cautiously, in a tone that suggested Jeff had put her up to asking the for the sake of his Lexus.
"I don't think we'd decided," replied Troy, at which point Britta and Rick returned somewhat dustier and sweatier than before. "Whichever one can take it?"
"It can hitch up to Roz," Britta reassured them, re-tying her hair elastic. "She's an old hand at cross-country moves, and she's only broken down once."
"I assume you got her repaired?" asked Abed, cautious in his own right. "We don't want any car trouble while we're crossing Nebraska and Iowa. There's lots of nothing."
"She's up to code," said Rick, reassuringly. "Don't worry. I made sure of that."
"What's left?" asked Annie, tweeting a picture of Shirley and the lava lamp at Shirley's behest. "Just those boxes of DVDs, books, and the suitcases with your clothes?"
"The blanket fort comes down last," said Troy, standing his ground on the matter. "Otherwise, we'd have nowhere to sleep for the next two nights."
"Can you make sure the pillows and blankets stay, um, reasonably clean?" asked Annie, half joking. "We'll be using them on the road trip after all."
"Consideration already taken into account," Abed reassured her, hefting the box of DVDs up in his arms like it weighed nothing. "Who wants to help me and get the other ones? If we each take a box, I think we can get it all out in one more trip."
By the time they'd offloaded the final six boxes (they left the suitcases full of clothes behind, as Troy and Abed would need them) in the U-Haul and come back inside to wait for the pizza they'd ordered, Pierce had retweeted around half of Annie's photos."
"Wu Mei favorited your ass, Rick!" Britta exclaimed. "Is that flattering or gross?"
"Seriously," asked Troy, goggling, "Wu Mei has a Twitter account now, too?"
"Unfortunately, yes," said Annie. "She's @BustyRedDrgn6. How much do you want to bet Pierce had something to do with her handle?"
Troy sat down on the floor and stared at his shoes. "Can we stop talking about weird Pierce/Wu Mei innuendo? I'm going to lose my appetite."
"They're the pairing we all love to hate," said Abed, flopping down beside him. "We really should have kept a few of the dining chairs up here. I feel like a bad host."
The pizza guy called Britta's cell phone while they were all busy booing Abed's final statement, so she sent Rick down with a twenty dollar-bill from her wallet. She'd been working part-time as a receptionist in a veterinary clinic, which (she insisted) made for a nice complement to Rick's charity work. They spread some newspaper, broke out the six-pack of Magic Hat #9 that Troy's mom had left them after graduation, and feasted.
"I knew we could do this without rolling those damn Yahtzee dice," said Shirley, taking a prim sip of her beer. "Also, I forgot that this stuff's good once in a while."
"Speaking of absent geniuses with harebrained ideas," said Britta, turning to face Annie, "what was Jeff's excuse this time? Waxing his eyebrows?"
"He didn't want me to tell anyone, but seeing as I've been called upon to defend his honor," said Annie, setting down her slice of extra-cheese-with-mushroom, "he's at a job interview with some lawyers from that small firm out near my parents' place. I don't know of any other profession in which taking a four-hour lunch and drinking expensive cocktails passes for an interview, but there you have it."
"I hope he gets the job," Troy said. "You'll get to stay close to home, and you won't have to go through the whole headache of moving."
"Except for the part where we are," Annie reminded him. "With you guys."
"C'mon," said Britta. "Haven't we been saying for ages that a road trip would be awesome? This just finally gave us a decent excuse."
"I've never been on a road trip," Rick said. "My parents talk about driving from Denver to southern California and then up to Oregon in the late seventies. I've always dreamed of going on one. I just never thought I'd be lucky enough to share it."
Annie and Shirley exchanged awwws while Troy and Abed exchanged shrugs.
"Plot-wise, we're in for a minor disaster en route," said Abed, resigned.
"Can we stop it with the meta?" Troy asked. "I just want to eat my pizza!"
* * *
"Ooh, just look!" she exclaimed. "You're really showing now, aren't you?"
"Hi, everybody!" Abra replied, waving back, and briefly pulled Amir into the shot. He looked slightly sheepish in his sharp business suit, but he smiled and waved, too. "Unfortunately, this handsome wanker has to go back to work. He comes home on his lunch breaks to check on me. Isn't that sweet?"
"That's right," said Britta, raising her voice over the festive din that filled Jeff's condo, and saluted the screen with her wine cooler. "Keep him in his place, show him who's boss. Have you picked out any names?"
"They told the doctor they didn't want to know whether it was a girl or a boy even though it's been apparent in the ultrasounds since April and she's due in just about a month," said Abed. "I saved and analyzed all the scans you sent," he said, addressing Abra directly. "I know what you're having."
"No no no, don't tell me!" said Abra, covering her ears. "We were so careful to get stuff in just green and yellow. It'll all get pooped on anyway."
"Then what will you call it if it's a girl, and what if it's a boy?" Annie asked.
"If it's a boy, Amir thinks we should name him after my uncle. I said nice try."
"You don't want to do that," Troy agreed. "Gubi's head would get so big it'd explode in falafel-sized pieces. And then Ahmed and the guys in the kitchen would accidentally end up feeding the pieces that fell in the fryer to half of Riverside, and then—"
"Are his stories always so gory?" Abra asked Abed in Arabic. "I'm tempted to say his overactive imagination is worse than yours."
"No," Abed answered. "He can make up ghost stories, romantic comedies, westerns—"
"I don't know about you guys," said Jeff, "but my legs are starting to cramp, and I think ten more people have arrived thanks to that old Chang classic of hijacking my land-line. If you'll excuse me, I've got to check the sink for hermit crabs."
"That's right, Winger," said Chang, hunkering beside Shirley over the back of the couch. "Makin' your parties open source since two-thousand eleven! Dude, who's Cute, Dark, and Preggers?" he asked, pointing at the screen.
"You called me Phantom Menace when I sat in on your class," said Abra. "I give you credit for referencing the one that sucked the least, but you're still a massive twat."
Abed overheard Rick asking Britta what that meant, followed by Troy turning to whisper in his ear. "Okay, video chat's over," said Abed, rising, and picked up the laptop. "Thanks for coming, Abra. It wouldn't have been a send-off without you."
"Give the laptop to Shirley, would you?" asked Abra. "We've been chatting on email, and I want to talk to her while she's here about parenting stuff and how to keep husbands from freaking out in the delivery room."
"Sure thing," said Shirley, sitting down on the couch as the rest of them vacated it.
"All yours," said Abed, handing the laptop to Shirley. "Don't change any settings."
"Even if I did accidentally, I'd know how to change them back," said Shirley, and over his shoulder, Abed saw Abra roll her eyes and mouth Just ignore him to Shirley. "I'm not tech-illiterate like some people we know. It's a wonder Pierce can tweet."
Abed found Troy hovering next to Jeff, who was engaged in awkward conversation with Dean Pelton. Abed stood next to Troy and studied Troy's phone; at first glance, Troy had been texting or tweeting something, but in reality his camera function was at the ready and trained directly on Pelton. Nice. Abed wondered if Jeff had some kind of pre-existing agreement in place with Troy for just such an eventuality: anyone would need help reacting to Pelton crashing their party, the great Jeff Winger included.
"Abed!" exclaimed the dean, reaching across to clap Abed's shoulder. "Our other man of the hour, just who I was hoping to see! Jeffrey here's been telling me you guys are all set to ship out late tomorrow morning, is that right?"
"As long as the drivers aren't too hung over, sure," said Abed. "We've got to be in Massachusetts by Monday next week to pick up our new apartment keys and get settled in before my program's orientation activities kick in."
"I'll have you know I've been very moderate," Jeff said, "and anyone in this room can attest to that fact. Britta's the one I'd be keeping an eye on, if I were you."
Troy looked up from his phone and followed the direction of Jeff's pointing finger; in spite of himself, Abed looked, too. Britta was cross-legged on the floor, doing tequila shots with with Pavel and Neil, while Rick looked on with a besotted mixture of amusement and concern. He hadn't had a drink all evening, Abed noted.
"Man, if he's going to be driving first shift for her sorry butt tomorrow, that's their concern," said Troy, shaking his head, and snapped a photo. "#TrobedsMove: The Drunkening. Abed, maybe you're right about that plot-point thing."
"We've all had more to drink this year than in our previous three years combined," Abed agreed. "It's one of those long-term items on the college bucket list, though. Senior year as one long bender. Collectively, we've aced it."
"As much as I'd enjoy that," said Jeff, "I don't think it'd be appropriate if I left—"
"I heard you," said Annie, on the scene much faster than Abed would ever have thought possible, "plying him with a nice half-bottle of 2005 Chianti Classico. Let's get one thing straight, buddy: if anybody's going to sneak off to drink something better than the swill we're serving tonight, it should be these two." She indicated Troy and Abed with a wave of her hand. "Speaking of which, do you guys still want me to drive you home—well, okay, not exactly home anymore—a little bit early?"
"We'll hang out a while longer," said Troy, and then glanced at Abed. "Unless—"
"Half an hour or so," said Abed. "There are still some people I haven't thanked."
Thanking people, as it turned out, was really the least of their worries. The real time-consuming challenge was breaking up the ongoing Skype session between Shirley and Abra and prying the laptop out of Shirley's grasp.
"Uh-uh!" said Shirley. "We haven't even covered wimpy husbands!"
"It's all right," Abra sighed. "I'll email. Let my cousin go have his stupid booty call."
"With your accent, that sounds really cute," said Shirley. "Booty call," she mimicked, her pseudo-British not much better than Troy's. "That's nice! I mean. Um."
"Annie?" said Troy, waving at her from across the room. "Now would be good!"
"You're having a girl," Abed told the webcam lens, and shut down his laptop.
* * *
"It's almost ten o'clock," said Abed's voice, and his warm breath ghosted across the one part of Troy that did seem to be awake. "The others will be here with the cars and coffee-related products at ten thirty. We need to tear down the fort and get the suitcases outside, as well as hand in our keys downstairs."
"Then why are you teasing me like that?" asked Troy, breathlessly. "Hurry."
Abed groaned unexpectedly—a low, urgent sound choked at the back of his throat—and didn't hesitate to take in as much of Troy as he could without gagging.
Troy's body twisted reflexively, but Abed's hands at his hips were a terrifyingly effective immobilizer. He should have known that Abed wouldn't have been satisfied with what call-backs they'd managed in the span of just a few hours before dropping off to sleep in exhaustion; blow jobs had become tradition, a regular morning staple, and for Abed to turn the tables on him like this had a pleasing ring of finality.
Either that or it was the sound of his own shout as he came, didn't matter which.
"Troy," panted Abed, clearly not that far behind, and Troy wondered as he drew Abed up the length of his body to settle against him if Abed had been touching himself ever since he'd let go of Troy's hips. "Troy, I think I'm going to miss this."
"Me too," said Troy, and kissed him, "but we'll set the blanket fort back up at the new place, and it'll be the same. Maybe better. In the meantime, this is our last chance here, so why don't you tell me what you want?"
"You," said Abed, automatically, "you, just like this right now—and—"
Troy dug his heels in at the small of Abed's back, amazed even after almost a year that all Abed seemed to want sometimes—to have you close, Abed had put it once—was this. Abed was quiet, but his whimpered exhalation against Troy's ear, even half muffled in the pillow, seemed momentous in the space enclosed by blankets still thrown up over their heads. Abed was limp in Troy's arms now, their bellies warm and slick, and Troy wanted it to last forever. Well, maybe not the messy part.
"Annie's going to kill me if it gets on the sheets," said Abed. "Don't move."
Troy had never been more grateful for Abed's meticulous nature than he was just then. A few Hawthorne wipes followed by several judicious squares of paper towel applied to Troy's stomach saw to it that the worst the sheets had seen in the past twelve hours were traces of sweat (which was bad enough, but it seemed like the study group had moved well past minding each others' sweat a couple of years back).
They'd never torn down the blanket fort in such a hurry, and unclipping the Dreamatorium walls posed even more of an issue. They had to fold the siding and cram it into one of the spare cardboard boxes, which Troy desperately hoped would fit into the U-Haul. Their suitcases and the excess blankets, at least, would be covered between the cars' trunks and whichever back seat got converted into a bed first.
If they both looked a bit worse for wear, perhaps too hastily put together, as they loaded the last of their stuff into Jeff's trunk while Britta and Rick hitched the U-Haul up to Roz, nobody offered comment. Shirley waved from Roz's back seat as Troy closed Jeff's trunk and went to join Abed in the back of the Lexus.
Annie, from the front passenger seat, handed back two cups. "They didn't have Moroccan tea," she said. "I think that the best Starbucks can do is peppermint."
"I like peppermint," said Abed, taking a grateful sip. "Cool cool cool."
"I don't," said Troy, "but whatever. Let's get this show on the road."
"Are you sure Shirley riding with Britta and Rick is a good idea?" Abed asked Jeff as he took off the brakes and led their little caravan out of the parking lot. "Last time Shirley and Britta were in a car together, it was when Annie moved in with us. They picked up some crazy Christian hitchhiker, and I'm pretty sure they got rid of him just before the part where they would've made the fatal discovery he was an axe murderer."
"Whatever movie we're actually in," said Jeff, handing Annie the map as he took a hard right turn, "I'm pretty sure the genre's not horror. I wouldn't mind the Scream franchise so much, granted. With Abed on our side, we'd all survive."
"I wouldn't be too hasty," said Troy, after considering Jeff's statement for a few seconds. "Back when this would have been relevant, by which I mean Halloween of our sophomore year, Abed and I were technically both still virgins, so—"
Troy's phone chimed loudly even as Abed's buzzed in his jeans pocket; they fished them out, scrolled through the accrued hash-tag feed, and got caught up.
I can tell it's gonna be a loooong ride... #TrobedsMove, Annie had tweeted.
"Do you mean to tell me Pierce and Wu Mei favorited that?" asked Troy. "Don't they have people to see, a company to run, and places to be rich assholes together?"
Troy jumped as his phone chimed again in tandem with Abed's phone buzzing.
Hope u remembered to stock the trunk w/wipes ROFL, Pierce tweeted.
"We should have sent his lava lamp to Siberia with no return address," Abed sighed. "I know it would have been a deviation from the tone and spirit of Amélie, but—"
"Driver's first rule," said Jeff, raising his voice over Abed's analytical digression. "Set your phones to mute. That's mute as in soundless, no vibration, period. Got that?"
"Yes, Dad," said Troy and Abed in unison, and then covered their mouths.
"Can you tweet sound clips?" Annie asked, sounding pleased with herself.
* * *
Annie had taken the coveted Lexus driver's seat, Troy had moved up to the passenger seat to navigate, and Jeff had bunked down in the back seat with all of the pillows and blankets. That was how Abed had found himself shifted over to Roz, in the passenger seat, as Britta's navigator, while Rick and Shirley swapped recipes and baking tips in the back seat. It wasn't an unpleasant state of affairs; on the contrary, Abed had met Britta first, and, even though she'd proved a bad therapist, she was (aside from Troy and Annie) sometimes his favorite. He tried not to admit it often.
"Abed, my ass hurts," said Britta. "My arms hurt. My legs hurt. My feet hurt. Hell, everything hurts. Am I still on the right highway? Where the fuck are we?"
"We're on I-80 just outside of South Omaha," he said. "You're doing great."
"How many hours since that rest stop? I hope Jeff's puking his guts out."
"Four and a half, give or take," said Abed. "Steady on," he added helpfully.
"We've been on the road for almost nine hours?" Britta asked. "Shiiiit. We rock." She offered Abed a sideways high-five, and Abed returned it. "Can you text up to Troy and ask how Annie's doing? If we're entering a major city, we should stop for the night."
"Omaha is a city, but I wouldn't call it major," said Abed. "I can't think of much that's happened, to be honest, although they did film About Schmidt here."
"You know so much random crap," said Britta, tiredly, but in sincere awe. "Have you ever thought about going on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
"My dad used to ask me that when I was in high school," said Abed, raising his eyes from the map to stare at the long, dusk-washed stretch of road ahead. "This one time, Jeopardy auditions actually came to Riverside. I didn't really want to go, but he took me anyway. I knew the answer to all but two questions they asked me, but I didn't answer a single one of them. I just froze up. I still don't know if it was because I couldn't help it, or if I did it just to spite him. Something tells me it was a little of both. Now, I don't think I'd freeze up. Money gets you cool stuff, and I have the feeling the stuff I was getting might feel even cooler if it wasn't coming from Pierce."
He typed I am very tired of riding in this car to Troy and hit SEND.
Britta reached over and patted his arm. "Nah, the stuff you're getting because of Pierce is pretty damn cool. He owed us all for being a constant dipwad, and I think he knew that. But it would've been pretty cool to watch you kick ass on a game show."
Abed shrugged. "It's not too late. I'm sure auditions for stuff come to Boston."
Abed's phone lit up. Annie is tired too and also ready to slip Jeff an OD of his own Dramamine, Troy texted back. He only slept for like an hour and a half and has been pissing and moaning about how lousy he feels ever since.
"What's the verdict?" Britta asked, coasting to a stop at the traffic light.
"If we don't stop, Annie's going to kill Jeff," said Abed. "And Troy will help."
"I could've told you that," said Shirley, grimly cutting in. "Mama's boys like him are no good on long car rides. Take it from me. He's just bent out of shape because we didn't stop for ice cream at that Dairy Queen a couple of hours back."
"I'm not sure ice cream goes very well with a hangover," Rick said.
"Hangover?" Shirley snorted. "Oh, honey. He didn't drink enough."
Abed watched Britta's loose grip on the steering wheel turn murderous.
They found the Motel 6 Omaha Central (four stars on Google, four and a half on Yelp, just under $50 per night) with minimal fuss, although the real fuss kicked in when Britta and Annie ganged up on Jeff for having feigned his headache and chased him several times around the parking lot. It took Shirley's Scary Mom Voice (TM) and four brownies (one for each of the offenders, plus one for Abed, who didn't have to feign being stressed out; he shared it with Troy) to get the situation in hand.
"It may not be my circus, but you are my monkeys," sighed Shirley, in conclusion. "Now let's get our butts into that lobby and figure out how many rooms we need."
They obediently filed inside, still licking spots of chocolate off their fingers.
The only thing that headed off another argument at the desk (when exhausted, they got ruthlessly tetchy with one another) was Rick's even-toned, innocent diplomacy. He said that he and Britta would gladly share the only available double-queen room with Shirley, which would leave the two available king-size rooms for the others (Annie with Jeff and Troy with Abed). Furthermore, he paid the entire tab without flinching.
Abed snatched the first set of king-size room key cards handed over by the concierge and pulled Troy out of line, heading straight for the elevator. The air conditioning in the place was turned up way too high, but it didn't matter. Troy had the temperature of Room 205 at naked-in-bed-but-not-shivering inside ten minutes, after which he stripped down, joined Abed under the covers, and reached over to turn out the light.
"We have something like two more days of this, right?" Abed asked, curling in tightly against Troy's chest. He couldn't fold himself up as small as he'd once been able to, but Troy was good at getting all four limbs around him and making him feel safe.
"Assuming we do about seven or eight hours tomorrow, yeah," said Troy. "Speaking of which, I was looking ahead on the map and noticed something really cool. It wouldn't even be that much of a detour. It's even on one of your bucket lists."
Abed felt the corners of his mouth turn up slightly. "I noticed something cool, too, but I want to hear your cool thing first. It's probably the same cool thing, but in the event that it's not, we'd have two. It'd be a waste not to do some sightseeing."
Troy ducked his head and whispered in Abed's ear; lacking enough space between them and sufficient light to make a fist-bump feasible, Abed kissed Troy's cheek.
"So it's just one cool thing," he concluded sleepily. "Cool...cool cool."
* * *
"Cross my heart," said Troy, sticking four of the seven coffee cups into one of the cardboard carriers the cashier had given them. "And I would advise you not to call Kirk one-dimensional within Abed's earshot. I disagree, too, but I'll let you off easy."
"How are you proposing we sell this detour to the crew?" asked Jeff, sticking the remaining three cups into the other carrier. "It may only be about an hour out of the way, but Britta is hardcore. Once she gets in the groove, she doesn't like to stop. We're lucky Shirley drew the line at those portable toilet things she'd bought."
"She'd do anything for Abed," Troy reminded him. "Some things never change."
"True," said Jeff. "Watching him spend her money on everything from cigarettes to high-tech cameras in our first semester was a thing of beauty and a joy forever."
Once they got back to the cars, Troy settled in the back of the Lexus next to Abed while Jeff delivered three coffees to the inhabitants of Roz (the coffee was his penance for yesterday's bad behavior; Britta had insisted). Abed took the lid off his coffee and slurped it, humming happily at the amount of sugar Troy had put in. Annie sipped her cappuccino and turned around in her seat, gesturing to Troy.
"Abed told me all about the detour," she said. "I hope we can convince Britta."
"She's got the U-Haul, and she's bringing up the rear," said Troy. "I'd say she doesn't have much of a choice. Shirley might bitch, too, but I think Rick's down with anything. He's always wanted to take a road trip, after all. It's so camp he'll love it."
"There's even a museum," said Abed, tapping through a few screens on Troy's phone, which had better browsing capability than his own. "I'll bet it's about as badly kept as the Roswell UFO Museum. Have either of you guys been there?"
"Oh my God," Annie said. "I went to Ruidoso in New Mexico with my parents and Bubbe when I was fifteen. It was only a few hours' drive from there to Roswell, so we went. The display cases look like they haven't been dusted or rearranged since the place opened. I bought a tie-dye shirt with an alien on it from the gift shop."
"Is that the one with the transfer that's so worn-out that you used to yell at me for looking at your boobs, but really I was trying to figure out what was on your shirt?"
Annie grinned as Jeff came back to open the driver's side door. "I've still got it," she said. "Jeff does the same thing, but he doesn't care what used to be on the shirt."
"I don't want to know," Jeff announced, jamming his key in the ignition. "Okay, lady and gentlemen, we're back in business. Now, don't thank me, but I've just secured the agreement of our party's most contrary members by promising we can stop for lunch at the Cheescake Factory in Des Moines. It's the only one in the whole state."
"We should make Riverside our stop for the night," said Abed, still flicking through screens on Troy's phone. "By that point, we'll have been on the road for eight or nine hours, and everything will be closed. I don't really want to go to the museum. What matters is that we'll have seen the place by night and had a look at the stars."
Troy felt his eyes sting slightly, so he directed his gaze firmly out the window as Jeff started the car and got them back onto the highway. Abed's tactful tucking away of Troy's phone suggested that he knew all too well what was going on, even though he was content to feign obliviousness. Troy let him go about it, watching the scenery roll by, and leaned into the weight of Abed's arm thrown across his shoulders.
Four hours later, the Cheesecake Factory was just what the doctor had ordered. Given they all still had money from Pierce to burn, the trip's food budget was, to say the least, rather liberal. Troy ordered three courses and came just shy of giving himself another giant-cookie style bellyache; meanwhile, Abed had driven the waitress crazy with a custom order for Cajun Jambalaya Pasta that had nothing but chicken and shrimp in with the sauce and noodles and was still enjoying the result.
Shirley was arguing with a different waitress over what went into the cheesecake she was eating. Wisely, Britta and Rick had opted for a booth to themselves.
"That disaster you were talking about before we left home," said Troy, pushing the remainder of his own cheesecake across the table to Abed, who had just finished his pasta. "I don't think it's going to happen. We're almost two whole days into this trip, and we've had no flat tires or major meltdowns. I don't count Annie and Britta chasing Jeff around a motel parking lot, because that was going to happen anyway."
"If it's going to happen at all, it'll happen when we least expect it," said Abed, taking a bite of the cake. "What is this, the Chocolate-Raspberry Truffle? No wonder you were starting to feel sick. I can only eat a few bites of this."
Fortunately I can eat more of you than I can cookies or cheesecake, Troy texted across to him, and Abed almost snorted the sip of Coke he'd just taken.
Riverside was only a two-hour drive from Des Moines, which meant they touched down at the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort (which had, improbably, been both the cheapest and the closest accommodation). Their rooming arrangement, thanks to Annie having called ahead, was a bit saner for everyone: each couple had their own room, and Shirley had one to herself. Upon checking in, Jeff announced that he was going over to check out the clubhouse, rent a set of golf clubs, and maybe play a few rounds. He said anyone who wanted to join him would be welcome, and, surprisingly, Britta and Shirley and Rick took him up on the offer. He glanced at Annie.
"The sooner you learn how to golf, the less awkward our schmoozing is going to be once I get this job," Jeff said. "Test-drive the cart. What do you say?"
"I say I'd rather stay here and do nerd stuff with these guys, if it's all the same," Annie replied, and Troy hugged her. "To infinity and beyond!"
"Wrong tag-line," Abed whispered. "That's Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story."
"Shhh," Troy hissed. "You know she likes that better than Star Trek."
Despite a thorough search of the main street and environs (everything was closed except for the bars), they couldn't find anything worth doing besides wandering quiet streets and peering through dusty shop windows (which Troy had always kind of enjoyed, but never really admitted to himself until now). The turning-point hit when, around eight o'clock, Annie suggested they get back in the car and find the nearest Wal-Mart. Sure enough, if you could get ping-pong paddles and a snorkel mask after hours, you could also get a travel telescope for just under sixty bucks.
Which was how they ended up on a breezy hillside in some farmer's field on the outskirts of town, probably trespassing, trying to set the stupid thing up with only two flashlights and Jeff's useless tool kit (all three of them ended up laughing so hard when Annie said it that they irretrievably lost a screw in the uncut grass). It was a clear night, much clearer than hopeless goof-offs like them deserved, and in the end Troy managed to hack the telescope's focus mechanism and make it actually work.
It was too early to see Orion and his belt of blue-white stars, but Abed went on pointing out what constellations were there anyway—Cygnus and Lyra, Draco and Ursa Minor, Capricorn and Sagittarius—to a delighted, awe-struck Annie.
"That's your zodiac sign, Troy," she said. "Did you know that?"
"Not really," Troy said, leaning closer against Abed. "Which?"
"Sagittarius," she said. "Abed's Aries, and I'm Capricorn."
"My mom likes horoscopes," said Abed. "They make her laugh."
"I don't know what to make of them," said Annie, lying back in the grass, "but my Bubbe swears by them, and sometimes it's creepy how they come true. I mean, look at you guys, for crying out loud. You're a textbook case-study."
Troy and Abed glanced at each other, and then at Annie, squinting in the dark.
"You're both fire signs," Annie explained. "Aries is cardinal fire, and Sag is mutable fire. Sparks fly as you get acquainted, it's high adventure time, you're both drama and fantasy prone—just name it. Abed comes up with schemes, Troy, and you gladly go along with them. No matter what anyone says, you're both incurable, romantic idealists. Oh, and there was this great thing I saw on a website—" she fumbled her phone out of her pocket and ran a web search "—got it! The gist is that you guys inspire not only each other, but everyone around you, and that you work well most of the time because Aries is happy to lead and Sag is happy to follow. It's not as simple as that, though, because Sag is content to know that his contribution is part of a venture's success, and Aries knows full well Sag is the wind beneath his wings."
"Maybe she should have been reading horoscopes at us instead of running an infirmary for people who had broken glasses and minor rug-burn," Troy whispered to Abed. "During the War, I mean. The first one. The really bad one."
"I know what you mean," Abed whispered back. "I'm glad we were on the same side the second time. My mom would say the first one happened because I gave in too much to my sign being ruled by Mars. Who knows, maybe she'd have been right."
"Are you guys even paying attention to me?" asked Annie, yawning widely.
"Next time there's war," said Troy, "we're appointing you camp astrologer."
Annie gave them a tired smile. "Why? Because of my crafty Jew brain?"
"Because there's truth in stories," said Troy, "and we need to hear them."
* * *
Troy finished pulling his shirt down over his head and took it, grinning. "Are we doing one of the James Bond films?" he asked, and then scanned the paper. "Oh. Awesome idea, but I don't think we can get both. We'll have to target one or the other."
"It's worth a try," said Abed. "What kind of last hurrah would this be if we didn't? I've wanted to get back at them for a long time, and now I have the wherewithal to do so."
"What's that?" Troy asked, fetching his shoes from beside the door and tossing Abed's over to him. "Too many hours spent cooped up in the back seat?"
"No," said Abed, wriggling both feet into his sneakers. "It's you."
Breakfast and check-out passed uneventfully enough, and they were back on the road in their original seating arrangements by ten (Britta had been aiming for nine, however, and wasn't going to let them forget it). The remainder of Iowa passed in a brief, bucolic haze, and Jeff started in on the fact that they were nearing Chicago's orbit, and, gee, wasn't it a shame that none of the Enterprise crew had been born there?
"Statistically speaking, at least one person on the ship was," Abed pointed out. "But I wouldn't advise braking for a theoretical redshirt at this point in the episode."
"Ignore him," Annie said. "He's sore because Shirley wiped the floor with them at golf."
"Huh," Troy said. "Our Foosball Wizard is also the study group Tiger Woods. Who knew?"
Jeff drew breath as if to speak, but promptly let it out again. "Never mind. That's not racist, and Annie is right. I am, in fact, the sorest loser on the planet, a title previously held only by you, T-Bone, until you got over Abed's inherent and effortless awesomeness at all athletic and otherwise physical pursuits."
"Want to guess what helped?" asked Troy, winking at Jeff in the rear-view mirror.
"As much as Annie would enjoy watching me blush three shades of scarlet, no."
"I doubt I'm exceptional in bed by conventional standards," said Abed, thoughtfully. "In Troy's case, though, I might be close to perfect because I know him far too well."
"Guys, this is like talking about my brothers' sex lives," said Annie. "If I had any brothers. I guess you guys kind of are, and, in that case, it's definitely brothers' sex life singular, and ew. Thank God it's not actually incest. Okay, we're really stopping now."
"First person to tweet this gets their phone irreparably broken," said Troy.
"I wouldn't try him, either," Abed volunteered. "He made a telescope that's not actually designed to work function about as well as one of those tourist view-finders you get on promontories overlooking picturesque locations. Which isn't too shabby."
They spent the next few hours playing car games at Annie's suggestion, although Bang Bang, Who's Dead? frustrated Abed quickly enough that she had to explain the gimmick within the first fifteen minutes (Jeff and Troy had twigged pretty quickly, much to Abed's intense annoyance). In a fantastic twist, Annie pulled hand-drawn bingo cards out of her bag, handed two to the back seat, and placed two in her lap. She'd used Google to excellent effect and dug up a number of truly arcane vintage cars.
By the time they stopped for lunch and a stretch in Joliet, Illinois, Abed's card lacked only a 1926 Bentley for the win, which was never going to happen. He gave her credit for the Good Omens reference. That was one of several books he'd been trying to get her to read ever since she'd moved in with him and Troy, and, at some point, she must've found the time. He wondered if she'd gotten around to Hitchhiker's Guide.
"We're never going to make it the whole way today," said Britta, wrapping both hands glumly around her diner mug. The place they'd stopped wasn't fancy, but it had decent reviews on the internet and didn't take them off-course. "In fact, we'll be lucky if we make it as far as Cleveland by nightfall, and even that's pushing it."
"Unless I've completely lost track of time, which is always possible, it's Friday," said Jeff. "These guys need to be in Boston by Sunday evening at the most optimistic and Monday morning in actuality, right? Chicago's a fifty-one minute diversion north of here. I say we stop off there tonight, have some fun tomorrow morning and afternoon, then get back on the road by evening. How many of you here have been to Chicago?"
Britta and Jeff raised their hands. Rick looked ashamed, and Shirley looked indifferent.
"I had a pen-pal there when I was in grade-school," Annie said. "It would be neat."
"I'd kind of like to go, too," Abed admitted. "They've filmed a lot of movies there."
"Is it true they have a place with fifty different kinds of hot dogs?" Troy asked.
"Several," Jeff told him reverently. "So who's with me? All in favor of Chicago?"
Everyone raised their hands, although Shirley's arm was slower on the up-take.
"If there's some reason Shirley doesn't want to go," said Annie, "we shouldn't."
"It's not that," said Shirley. "It's just that, well, it's tacking at least another day onto the trip, and I'm starting to miss my boys. Then again, I don't know when I'll be out this way next, and Andre called last night to say they've been enjoying the postcards..."
Her hand went up with decisive, final confidence, and the whole table cheered.
They rolled into Chicago around three o'clock, which left them plenty of time to find a hotel (centrally located, about a hundred dollars a night, no holds barred) and develop a game plan. Jeff and Britta both insisted that bar-hopping in Wicker Park was mandatory, and, strangely enough, nobody else tried to talk them out of it. Abed nodded at Troy across the sea of unfolded brochures. This would serve their aims.
To start off (after a few hours of napping and other miscellaneous bed-related activities at the hotel), they had dinner at a place reputed to serve fantastic cocktails, although Jeff proved critical from the first sip. Britta chose that point to insult Jeff's not inconsiderable mixmanship, at which point all bets were officially off. Rick had two cocktails with dinner and cut himself off, having appointed himself in charge of making sure Britta didn't fall over. Jeff had no such benefit from Annie, who had, after her first virgin margarita at their second stop, decided to put on her Texas persona after finding that she still had the fake ID in her wallet (which she arguably didn't need, being legal now and having real ID, but Abed liked a good RP session as much as the next person).
"These Chicagoans are easy to fool, y'all," she said. "They wouldn't know a fake Texas accent from a hole in the ground. And I know holes! Dug 'em all my life. Yessir."
"If you were hell-bent on putting Caroline Decker to the test, why didn't you try her out in Nebraska? I bet they run into a lot more gen-yoo-wine Texans there," Jeff said.
"I, for one, am still impressed," said Shirley, who was sticking to well diluted wine coolers. "Have you ever thought about acting, Caroline?"
"All the goddamn time," said Annie. "But I love it too much to make it my career."
"Is it just me, or are we really going to have fish in a barrel this time?" Abed whispered to Troy. "I say we go in for a double strike: make sure we get in the back seat of Jeff's car between here and the next place, and then make sure we get in the back seat of Roz from our last port-of-call back to the hotel. It's foolproof."
"I hope you're right," said Troy, sipping his Cuba Libre. "I'm starting to want this."
"You were on the right track. Think of it as Valentine's Day Movie Challenge Redux."
Jeff was, by this stage, too drunk to drive, and manhandling him into the back seat of the Lexus while Annie, actually stone-cold sober because Caroline still didn't drink, was getting into the driver's seat was fairly simple. When Jeff loudly asked which one of them was going to sit up front, Annie had already started the car and was following Rick, who was driving Roz (they'd left the U-Haul behind), out of the parking lot.
"It's crowded back here," Abed heard Jeff whine, although he couldn't see Jeff's expression because Troy had already yanked Abed in by his shirt-front and, oh, kissing, right. "I mean, the lack of space for my legs is—Christ, you guys. Get a room!"
"You made your bed," drawled Annie, giggling. "Now, be a good boy and lie in it."
"Suddenly," said Abed, between kisses, "I don't—care that much—if we get Britta."
"No you don't," said Troy, and bit Abed's neck. "We—are—finishing—this. Got it?"
"Ah. It's like making wishes," Abed confirmed, shivering in agreement. "Got it."
"I cut across Boston Common on the way back," said Abed. "I found a promising fountain in the Public Gardens. There are lots of old trees. We could film there."
Troy came out of the Dreamatorium and dug in Abed's shopping bag. He retrieved the Clorox wipes (this place was seriously no job for RD Hawthornes), sat down on the couch, and promptly used one of the wipes to clean off the bottoms of his feet. Abed watched in astonishment as the wipe came away charcoal-colored.
"That's pretty bad," he said with a grimace. "I thought Annie was just exaggerating."
"Sit down and take your shoes off," said Troy, patting the empty cushion beside him.
"Would it be cheating if we had couch sex before making wishes?" Abed asked.
"We agreed ages ago that cheating's part of the rules," said Troy, and smiled.
Optional Shakespearean Interlude: Actions We Might Play