The silence in the study room was deafening.
"So, no plans then," said Jeff. "Got it."
"I never knew Valentine's Day could be this boring," Troy groaned. "Even with our heart-pancake extravaganza-ranza breakfast spectacular."
"I made cookies for everybody," said Shirley pointedly. "Appreciate it."
"Is this study group in a relationship with carbs?" asked Jeff, frowning at his phone.
"...I know," said Annie, looking around at all of them with growing excitement, "we should tell each other love stories."
"Pass," said Jeff.
"Double pass," said Britta.
Troy narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Annie. "Is this gonna make me cry?"
"I look forward to the act-like structure this will give our conversation," said Abed.
"I'm in," said Pierce. Jeff looked up from his phone and raised an eyebrow. "Romance is woman code for sex," Pierce whispered, and pointed meaningfully at Annie. "Once you let 'em warm up."
"Some of the best love stories have nothing to do with sex, Pierce."
"This just keeps getting less and less interesting," Jeff muttered, going back to texting.
Annie straightened up. "Sometimes, it's what doesn't happen that makes a story sexy."
"Amen to that," said Shirley comfortably.
"You wanted less carbs, Jeff? Well, chew on this."
"I have heard a rumor," Miss Edison said, her step light as she pivoted in his arms, "of a certain Mr. Nadir who has returned from abroad. Are you familiar with him?"
He spun her neatly, and they ended the set together at the end of the line of dancers, shoulder-to-shoulder. "Certainly not," he said. "I make it a habit never to involve myself in the affairs of those who do not directly affect my own. I find the whole proposition excessively tedious."
She laughed, fluttering her eyelashes up at him. "You are such a man," she said. "Mama will never approve."
He smiled slowly at her. "Then it is a good thing," he murmured, moving in closer to her as the dancers dispersed, "that I do not seek your mother's approval."
Annie nodded. "And tight riding pants!"
"That's not the part I'm worried about. You have seen me in a pair of jeans, right? I would kill in 19th century pants."
"I think it's lovely," said Shirley.
"Me too," said Troy, with a dreamy sigh that he strategically turned into a cough part-way through.
"I don't like it," said Britta, twisting up her mouth. "It strips the female characters of agency, and reduces them to simpletons waiting for a man to glance in their direction and decide they want to get with her."
"Uh, yeah, but it's romantic," Annie said, with a significant glance around the table.
Pierce waved a hand. "Boring."
"I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I have to agree with Pierce on this one," said Jeff. "Also, I'm not down with the ascot as an acceptable fashion choice." Next to him, Annie huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.
"I'll give you romance," Britta said, putting her hands palm-down on the table and looking around at all of them with a fervent light in her eyes. "I'll give you the love story that society doesn't want to hear about."
"If this is about your cats again, Britta, so help me God..."
Britta sniffed. "As beautiful as their story is, no. This isn't about my cats. This is more important than that."
"But we'll never be free," Britta answered, gazing out into the empty desert, at a world that would never understand or accept them. She could see a thin line of purple mountains in the distance, hazy in the wavering heat.
"You'll see," Annie said, bringing Britta's hand up to her lips to kiss the pulse on the underside of her wrist. "One day. We'll..."
"That women are continually pushed aside and left behind by the mainstream media when it comes to both friendships and romantic relationships? That we should celebrate our femininity instead of being punished for it?" Annie nodded across the table from her, the motion picking up steam until she was wobbling like a bobblehead.
"Wait, is this a lesbian thing?" asked Pierce, fumbling in his bag before pulling out a small voice recorder. "Can you repeat that? From the beginning." He pressed a few likely looking buttons on the recorder, and it beeped unhelpfully at him. "Does anybody know what a flashing orange light means?"
"I liked Britta's story," said Abed. "It was indie."
"Well, I don't know that it was that good..." Britta demurred.
"I thought it was perfect," Annie said.
"I was hoping for more nudity,"' said Troy.
"Gratuitous, if possible," Jeff added.
Pierce looked up from the recorder. "Did somebody say nudity?"
Britta scowled. "Ugh, MEN." She turned to smile at Abed. "That doesn't include you, Abed."
Abed tilted his head to the side. "I'm a man."
"YEAH he's a man," said Troy, who winced at the sound of his voice and added, "...and I just said that way too loud."
"I could tell you a story of real manhood," Pierce said, suddenly producing a cigar from nowhere, running it under his nose and slowly breathing in the pungent aroma.
"Please don't," Shirley said flatly.
"...A story for men. Of men. Of the things that men do."
Jeff narrowed his eyes. "What -"
"Patience, my friend," Pierce said, and tapped the cigar twice on the surface of the table in front of him. "Patience."
Annie looked around with a worried expression. "I don't know that I'm..."
The door opened behind her, and she gasped as she turned and caught sight of Pierce Hawthorne: millionaire, playboy, and debonair man-about-town....
Jeff cocked his head to the side. "This does sound strangely familiar. And by that I mean, we know, Pierce. Really, we get it."
"Eartha Kitt was the one who got it," said Pierce. He considered them for a long minute before adding in a loud whisper, "The it in that sentence was my penis." He pointed downward, helpfully.
Shirley groaned and covered her ears. "Piiiierce."
"That's my name, Eartha Kitt wore it out."
"And who wants to hear a different story?" asked Jeff, pointing to Troy and Abed. "Different story? Different story?"
"Well, I was looking forward to having my innocence shattered, but YES LET'S DO A DIFFERENT STORY," said Troy.
Abed raised his hand.
Jeff looked around the table, and cleared his throat. "...Yes, Abed, do you have something you'd like to share with the group?"
"I think we need to consider the romantic comedy angle here."
"Mmhmm," said Shirley in a pleased tone. "I love a good romcom."
"Me too!" Annie exclaimed, like the thought had somehow never occurred to her that this might be something they have in common, and hugged Shirley with a happy squeal.
"My story," began Abed with a careful look around at his gathered audience, "begins not too long ago, in a place very similar to here..."
"Oh no!" she muttered, and knelt down to gather everything back up.
"Sorry about that," said a low, masculine voice near her ear. She flushed and raised her head to see a tall, handsome man crouched in front of her, helpfully holding out the last paper toward her.
"Meet cute!" she blurted out, and blushed.
The man laughed good-naturedly. "You might think that," he said kindly. "But this isn't really a meet cute. I actually have shallow emotional problems that make me struggle with any romantic relationship. But don't worry," he continued, seeing her quizzical look, "My emotional issues should be easily resolved without the help of therapy, and really just hide a deeply romantic, easily hurt, and lovingly-committed individual underneath. Also, I look totally hot without my shirt on. You could bounce a quarter off my abs." He patted his lean stomach in demonstration.
She smiled at him and tucked a lock of her blonde hair behind her ear. "My name is Britta," the woman said.
"Jeff," the handsome man said with an easy smile.
Abed shrugged. "Your romantic tension was the sexual impetus that brought us all together. Your UST birthed this study group. I can only talk about what I know."
"Abed," said Britta gently, placing a hand on his knee, "I think we're past that."
"I know. We're in a post-Diane Cheers stage. But that doesn't mean the first season DVDs aren't still good."
"Also," Britta continued, "I'm pretty sure no part of that actually happened. Jeff, for example, definitely needed therapy. Like, real therapy. And I don't," she gestured vaguely about her face in obvious consternation, "blush."
"There was the part about my abs, though," Jeff said thoughtfully. "That was legit."
"Okay," Troy interrupted, "I think we need to move this conversation in a more awesome direction."
"Are you implying there's something not awesome about my abs?"
"I agree with Troy," Pierce said, settling back again in his chair. "So, as you know, I've always considered Eartha and myself to be star-crossed lovers..."
"I was thinking about something with a few more aliens, and guns, and hot action babes, and two friends being the best friends that ever seduced hot action babes while fighting off aliens with kickass guns together."
"Sounds violent," said Shirley in a wobbly, worried voice.
Troy grinned. "Oh, it is, Shirley. It is."
"Ammo?" asked Troy in a low voice as he shook the magazine of his right pistol clear to check the number of bullets remaining before clicking it decisively back into place.
"Two shots left."
"Same here," said Troy, swallowing hard as an alien cry went up again at the end of the corridor, echoing eerily down the metal halls. "Abed... I wouldn't have done anything differently. I love you, man."
"I love you, too, Troy." Abed brought both pistols up to bear on the long end of the hallway in front of them. "Now let's kick some alien butt."
"Gee, are they gonna kiss now?"
Troy scoffed. "Uh, no, Jeff. They're men."
"A manly kiss isn't gay, so it would be fine," said Pierce. The rest of the study group turned to stare at him, and he threw up his arms. "What? By definition, if it's manly, it can't be gay. It's in the def-in-i-tion."
"I'm just gonna ignore all the problematic stuff that's happening right now and say that Troy's story wasn't nearly as violent as it could have been, so thank you, Troy," said Shirley in a firmly optimistic tone, with only a hint of steel peeking out from underneath.
Troy frowned to himself, furrowing his brow in thought. "You're right," he said finally, a little sadly. "It could have been a lot more violent."
"Next time," said Abed, laying a soothing hand on his arm.
The Dean burst through the door at that point at high speed, his tie askew and glasses slipping down his nose. "Did somebody say..." he gulped in a large breath of air, "...manly kissing?" He leaned over to catch his breath, putting a hand on Jeff's shoulder for support. "I hurried over as fast as I could." Jeff looked down at the hand grasping his shoulder and turned to the rest of the group in a silent plea for understanding.
Annie looked around the study room. "Um... how could you hear us?"
The Dean straightened back up, his fingers lingering on Jeff's shoulder. "Well, it certainly isn't that the loudspeaker system in this study room works both ways. So obviously I just happened to be passing by, Ms. Edison."
"Happy Valentine's Day, Dean," said Shirley, rummaging in her purse to pull out a ziploc bag of cookies. "These are for you."
"For me?" The Dean's voice cracked ominously and his lower lip started to tremble. "You baked me cookies?"
"...I baked everybody cookies."
"Shirley!" The Dean clutched the bag to his chest. "You dear, sweet African American woman. A happy Valen-dean's Day to you, too.”
Shirley breathed in through her nose. "Mmhmm." It sounded suspiciously like a threat.
"We're telling love stories," Abed said, and the group winced in unison.
"Love stories?" the Dean gasped, and put a hand over his heart. "Jeffrey, why didn't you tell me?"
"...Didn't I?" Jeff asked, tilting his head to the side quizzically.
"I have a story," Shirley said firmly, putting a hand down on the table with a sharp glance at the Dean. "One that celebrates love the way that God intended it to be."
"Boring," Pierce coughed into his hand, and shrugged as the group turned to look at him. "What, we were all thinking it."
Shirley took a deep breath. "Once upon a time..."
A hand snuck around her waist. "Baby," a voice rumbled in her ear, "that looks amazing."
She spun in the circle of his arms and brought the wooden spoon to his lips. She smiled slowly at him, her heart full of secrets and joy. "Just wait until you try it," she whispered.
He licked the spoon slowly, tongue dragging over the surface, teeth scrapping against the wood. He moaned low in his throat, eyes closed, and..
"Okay," said Jeff slowly, "so that was unexpectedly... sensual."
"The Good Lord isn't against people getting it on," Shirley said primly. "As long as it's not in front of the baby Jesus."
"Why do all of your stories start with 'Once upon a time'?"
Shirley gestured around them, palm up, like a queen showing off her kingdom. "The whole world's a fairy tale, Annie."
"...And we, merely players," the Dean finished with a thoughtful air.
Pierce jabbed a finger in the air like he was playing a round of trivia. "Shakespeare!"
"Pierce and I are taking Cinematic Shakespearean Adaptations 101 this semester," said Abed. "We're learning a lot. I'm doing my final paper on She's The Man."
"And that is just one more example of the fine classical education that Greendale provides our students," the Dean said proudly.
"Seriously?" Jeff asked.
Annie sniffed. "I haven't heard a story from you, Jeff. Spectators don't get to make sarcastic remarks at the study table."
"Uh, I'm pretty sure we established in the first semester that sarcastic remarks and a cuttingly witty detachment were the strengths I bring to this group - along with this handsome face and the sweet, sweet ability to spin truth out of lies."
"Lies and sarcasm don't sound like the ingredients for a great romance to me," said Shirley.
Annie nodded. "Exactly."
"I know I'm definitely interested in the Winger version of a love story," Britta said, kicking back in her chair.
"Yes, Jeffrey, let's hear your story."
"Yeah, Jeff," said Troy around a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookie.
"Fine," he snapped, crossing his arms over his chest. "You want to hear my love story? Well, here it is."
"Yeah, there are no words coming out of your mouth, dude," Troy added. "LIKE THIS."
"Is it because you have no love inside of you?" Shirley ventured in a high-pitched, tentative voice.
"No, Shirley, but the part of me that's a lawyer..."
"Former lawyer," Britta muttered.
"...would like to thank you for that flattering conclusion."
Annie shook her head. "You don't really mean that, Jeff," she said gently.
"Um, former lawyer," Britta pointed out again.
"What I'm saying is, I don't need to tell a story about romance or weirdly erotic baking..."
"You're welcome," said Shirley graciously.
"...because this is my love story. Right here. There's no place I'd rather be than sitting here, with you guys, on Valentine's Day." He looked down at the hand on his shoulder which was now gripping tightly. "...And the Dean," he added, but only a little reluctantly.
"Awww!" Shirley and Annie exclaimed in unison. There was some heavy fluttering of hands and eyelashes from that side of the table.
"Going for the unlikely family angle again, I see," said Abed.
"It's what I do best."
"I approve," said Abed, resting his palms gently on the study room table.
"You know what," said Pierce, "I thought Shirley's story was going to be the worst, but it turns out Jeff trumped that with his desperate attempt to cover up for his inability to score with the ladies."
"Your respect means a lot to me too, Pierce," said Jeff.
"I thought it was beautiful," the Dean whispered, and furtively wiped his eyes when he thought nobody was looking.
"See," said Annie, beaming around the table. "I knew it."
"Don't brag, Annie," Jeff said. "It isn't attractive, and it just makes your boobs look smaller."
Troy arched an eyebrow up.
"Ugh, don't look," Annie said, and crossed her arms defensively over her chest.
"Well, I've had enough of Medium-Boobs and Jeff Couldn't-Get-Laid-Tonight-If-I-Tried Winger," Pierce announced, gathering up his books. "Ready, A-bed?"
"Pierce and I are attending a special drama school presentation of every one of Shakespeare's plays as a movie adaptation re-adapted for the stage in a one-man tour de force," Abed said. "It's a Greendale exclusive."
"Well, I need to get home to my boys," Shirley said, standing up.
"I need to go home and bake some cookies," Troy said, staring at the one he held in his hand like it was a revelation.
"My cat has glaucoma," Britta said, like that explained something as well.
Annie shouldered her backpack. "I'm guest hosting on Troy and Abed in the Morning tomorrow, so I need to be up early for hair and makeup."
"I suppose I have Dean stuff I should be doing..." the Dean said reluctantly, trailing his hand off of Jeff's shoulder.
Jeff stood up as well. "...Aaaand that's my cue."
"Hey," said Annie, smiling broadly at all of them, fingers hooked into the loops of her backpack. "Happy Valentine's Day."
The next morning:
"...and that concludes Get Organized! With Annie Edison. I know I'll never think of pencil storage the same way again." Troy took a sip from his mug, the large poster board behind him strewn with a glittery battle plan that put regular schematics to shame.
"You guys!" Annie demurred, twisting a foot as she smoothed her pencil skirt down with the palm of her hand.
"Next up," said Abed brightly, "In the Kitchen with Troy Barnes. Today, we're learning the secret of Shirley's chocolate chip cookies. Rumor has it..." he leaned in a little closer to their viewing audience, "they're orgasmically delicious."
"We can only hope," Troy said solemnly.
"I made us aprons!" said Annie, jumping up from her stool to run to her room.
Troy and Abed clinked their mugs together, smiling at each other. "Troy and Abed baking coooookies!"