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Fundamentals of Self-Awareness

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The first time Troy holds Abed’s hand, he doesn’t notice he’s doing it.

“This is awful,” Troy blubbers, staring at the TV screen and wiping furiously at his face. He slides his other hand into Abed’s and squeezes; Abed squeezes back. “You didn’t tell me it was gonna be like this! It’s supposed to be a happy movie!”

“It gets better,” Abed says, unruffled. “Emotionally, I mean. Cinematically, it’s kind of hard to beat. Up has the best opening sequence of any Pixar movie. Any animated children’s movie, even.”

“This is a kids’ movie,” Troy repeats, and it sends him into fresh paroxysms of grief. Abed covers their linked hands with his free one and gives them a few pats.

“Anyway. I’m glad you waited to watch it with me for the first time. I wanted to witness your reaction.”

“I hope you’re happy!” Troy says through a hiccup, and Abed doesn’t respond, just shifts to lean more into him.

They stay like that until the movie’s done. Only when Troy goes to stand up does he realize their hands are still tangled. He separates them with mild surprise. His palm is sort of sweaty, but not in a bad way. Abed rises as well and looks at him in that neutral manner of his.

“Thanks,” Troy says, not really sure what he’s thanking Abed for.

“You’re welcome,” Abed says. “Goodnight, Troy.”

 

It becomes a habit easily enough after that, just one more routine they squeeze in between special handshakes and special drinks. Troy takes Abed’s hand when they watch TV, but also sometimes when they’re studying, or cooking dinner, or calibrating the Dreamatorium. Sometimes he’ll hold it for hours, but more often than not it’s just a quick squeeze, fleeting physical contact, a hug in miniature.

The best part is that Abed starts initiating after not too long, preempting Troy by sliding his palm into Troy’s and wrapping those long fingers around the back of his hand. Troy knows without needing to ask that Abed is doing this for Troy’s benefit, a way to signal to Troy that this is okay, that he’s not crossing any boundaries. And it’s awesome because Abed is awesome, and Troy’s never felt more at home than at Abed’s side.

They’re walking through campus one day, holding hands, when a familiar shout stops them.

“Guys!” Britta says, sprinting to catch up. Troy looks at Abed, furrowing his brow; Abed looks back at him impassively. “Guys!”

“Hey, Britta,” Troy says. She’s grinning from ear to ear, meaning this isn’t an emergency and Troy can keep walking, because the more walking and less stopping they do right now means getting to hash browns faster.

“I just wanted you to know,” Britta says, slightly breathless from her sprint, “that I am so happy for you both.”

“Uh, thanks?” Troy says.

"Anytime,” Britta says, and her smile impossibly broadens. “Keep doing what you’re doing. And if anyone gets pissy about it, remember that they’re the one with problem, not you.”

“Um,” Troy says.

“Okay,” Abed says.

“‘Kay. Bye!” Britta dashes off with the cheeriest wave Troy’s seen her give in a long time.

“What was that all about?” Troy asks, swinging their arms a little as they approach the cafeteria.

“No idea.” Abed shrugs and drops his hand to push open the door. “Hey, would you still eat hash browns if one in every ten would give you food poisoning?”

Troy has to do some mental math. “I’d risk it,” he concludes finally.

“Me too,” Abed agrees.

 

Late one night, Troy is in his bed studying, leaning up against Abed’s knees as he watches Cougartown. His backrest wobbles; Troy realizes Abed’s fallen asleep.

It isn’t often that Abed falls asleep watching TV. In fact, Troy can’t remember it ever happening before. He sits up, slides the laptop off of Abed’s lap and closes it, and hits the light. Abed doesn’t wake. He murmurs something indistinct but vaguely upset, a deep crease in his brow.

“Shh,” Troy says, and slides the comforter over them both.

It’s not the most restful night of sleep Troy’s gotten. Abed is squirmy, something Troy had already known from sleeping under him for several months. He also sheds heat like a furnace, and after a while Troy gives up and cranks the AC.

Abed settles after that, curling deeply into himself. Despite the sheer exhaustion dragging at his eyelids, his arms, his bones, Troy can’t help a smile.

“Goodnight,” he says, lying down next to Abed and facing the other way. All that’s touching are his feet to the back of Abed’s calves.

 

This becomes a habit, too. When they’re already hanging out in Troy’s bed, it’s easier for them to drift off there. That way, neither of them has to decide whether to pull the plug on a conversation, and Abed doesn’t have to clamber up and down a ladder when he’s tired, or disturb a sleeping Troy. Sometimes Troy will fall asleep while Abed is still awake next to him, and he wakes in the morning with Abed still there, always curled up tightly on his side.

The arrangement becomes that much more pleasing when breakfast gets thrown in. Troy wakes up one morning to Abed sitting up on the edge of the mattress, eating eggs. He holds out a plate for Troy.

“You made this?” Troy says, wiping the crusties out of his eyes.

“No,” Abed says. “Annie.”

It does get a little cramped, though, particularly because Abed continues to flail. After waking up to his third shin bruise, Troy makes a proposition, and Abed readily agrees.

“Hey guys, I’m ordering pizza,” Annie says a few nights later, coming in through the open door. “Are we all good with the extra sauce- whoa.”

Troy looks up from his side of the full-sized mattress. Next to him, Abed doesn’t pause the movie, even though Troy knows that Abed could quote Serenity by heart.

“Yeah, extra sauce, extra cheese, no olives, no sausage, obviously, and is this the place with the buffalo mac pizza because if so, definitely order one of those. Two,” Troy amends.

“Uh,” Annie says, and that finally gets Abed’s attention.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Abed says, waving his fingers at the room, which seems smaller with its new bed.

“Do you?” Annie says with a laugh that Troy thinks is either nervous or relieved.

“Did we throw out the old mattresses, and wouldn’t that be a waste?” Abed wiggles his eyebrows at her, suddenly mischievous. “You’d be right, of course.”

“So we didn’t!” Troy cuts in eagerly. He leaps off the bed, followed by Abed, and heads back into the living room, where he pulls aside the bedsheets of their fort. “Ta-da!”

“We used them to fortify the walls of the Dreamatorium,” Abed says, explaining the obvious, as the two old mattresses are leaned against one another to form a half-alcove. “They insulate noise, warmth, and light. And we didn’t have to trash anything. Cool, right?”

“Mhm,” Annie says, and when Troy looks back at her he realizes she’s… beaming, for whatever reason. “That’s really cool, actually. Good for you guys. That’s a big step.”

“I mean, not really,” Troy says, a little puzzled at her sudden enthusiasm. “We’ve been wanting to construct a proper Dreamatorium for a long time now. We even showed you the floor plan!” he remembers.

“Right,” Annie says, and laughs. “Well, I’m so glad you got it done. And, you know. The other stuff.”

“Huh?” Troy asks.

“Pizza,” Abed reminds them, not so easily sidetracked.

 

Their bathroom hadn’t had a lock; it was the first thing Annie installed when she moved in. These days, if the shower’s going and Troy really needs to pee or brush his teeth or fix his hair, he’ll try the doorknob. Locked means Annie, but Abed leaves the door unlocked, and they’re all the more efficient for it.

Their schedules are similar enough that Troy will brush his teeth on most days while Abed is showering, and then they swap out.

Still, Troy pays the price for eating the biggest breakfast, because it usually means he showers last after Annie and Abed have already gone. And that means a lot of lukewarm showers.

“It’s just too trope-y,” Abed is saying over the hiss of the water. Troy is flossing, because he hadn’t sat through Shirley’s hour-long lecture about gum disease without learning a thing or two. “Supernatural has gone downhill now that they keep bringing characters back from the dead. You undermine the significance of death in television, since part of the emotional appeal is knowing your favorites could leave at any moment. The ephemeral is what gives it value.”

“Uh-huh,” Troy responds, throwing away the floss. Something is bothering him. “Hey, Abed?”

Abed pokes his head out from behind the shower curtain. “Yeah?”

“Do you think I could shower soon?” Troy hates asking for things, but it’s cold outside today and he hasn’t had a hot shower in almost a week and he doesn’t want to get sick. “Or that we could, I dunno, switch off who showers first every once in a while? It’s just, the hot water runs out,” he adds, apologetic.

Abed takes a moment to consider this, then slides the curtain all the way open. Troy blinks. It’s not as though he’s never seen Abed naked, but there’s something about the steam and the drops sliding down Abed’s shoulders that is particularly arresting.

“There’s room enough for two,” Abed says, stepping aside so that the spray is hitting the floor of the shower. “Besides, I wanna keep telling you my finale theories.”

Troy hesitates, but it really is chilly, and Annie’s already started calling their names a few minutes ago to head out. He pulls off his pajamas and gets under the water, sighing in relief as the heat envelops him.

Abed pulls the curtain closed. He’s very near now, and Troy’s pulse is speeding up a little, but Abed isn’t looking at him any different. Besides, girls do this all the time, right?

The shampoos are lined up on the rim of the tub behind Abed, something Troy’s about to point out when Abed reaches back, pours out a bit of shampoo into his hand, and starts lathering it into Troy’s hair like they’ve done this a million times.

“Team Free Will is definitely going to take down the Leviathans, that’s a given,” Abed says dismissively, and Troy closes his eyes as Abed’s fingers start making circles on his scalp. The water is warm and Abed’s hands feel so, so amazing and he sort of never wants to leave. “Any sacrifices they’ll have to make will just be recouped next season, so.”

“Right,” Troy agrees sleepily, bowing his head so that Abed can get at his neck. “Go, Satan.”

“No,” Abed says with a snort, but it’s gentle.

 

After that, it’s pretty logical to shower together, especially on school mornings. It’s faster and more efficient, conserves important natural resources, and most importantly, leaves enough hot water for everyone. Streamlined. Optimizing their schedules, that’s what it is.

“You can’t be serious,” Jeff says as they slide into their booth. “Throwing a finals party before finals? Whose brilliant idea, again?”

“Annie,” Troy and Abed say together. Troy squeezes Abed’s hand under the table before letting it go to pick up his fork. “You’ve gotta talk to her, man,” Troy adds. “She’s real into this motivational-dance thing.”

“It starts at five in the morning,” Abed says, narrowing his eyes in what counts as unbridled rage in the realm of Abed facial expressions.

“Okay,” Jeff says slowly. “So why am I getting involved? Can’t she just crash and burn solo and we’ll be asleep in our beds like always?”

“That’s the last of our budget,” Troy whines. “We could be using that for an epic Home Alone pajama party.”

“World’s biggest joint pillow slash blanket fort,” Abed contributes.

“Kegs of hot chocolate,” Troy says imploringly. “Kegs.”

“Point taken.” Jeff leans back. “I mean, not the Hallmarky stuff, but I’m game to defend a couple hundred dollars. And then we can decide what to do with it. Democratically.”

“Great,” Troy says, ignoring Jeff’s pointed tone. “Abed and I came up with a plan in the shower this morning. You’re gonna do two phases at once, Phase Annie and Phase Dean. Luckily, they’re the same thing, and both involve showing some bicep- are you okay?”

Jeff’s choked on his seltzer and is spluttering. Abed leans across the table to thump him on the back, or more accurately, give him a few hesitant taps on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Jeff coughs. “You and Abed what?”

“Came up with a plan,” Troy says with an eyeroll. “C’mon, we kept this really simple.”

“Right,” Jeff says. “That’s the part that needed clarifying.”

“It’s a good thing we got here before the others,” Troy says sympathetically. In a lowered voice, he says to Abed, “you’re gonna have to spell this out for him, I don’t think he’s getting it.”

“On it,” Abed reassures him.

 

Movie nights in the study room turn into something more: roleplaying nights.

One of them will choose a movie. They prepare costumes. At intervals, they pause the film and act out the upcoming scene and then unpause to critique the actors’ choices in comparison to theirs.

It’s great, because no one stays at Greendale after hours, and they had discovered years ago that when the campus gets “locked down” for the night it really means it stays unlocked and usually with all the lights still on. Campus Security leaves them alone on the condition that they give up half their popcorn, if caught.

They finish Return of the King. It’s awesome because Troy gets to cradle Abed’s head in his lap and fumble his way through Sam’s lines about the Shire, but heartbreaking all at once. Troy leans his forehead against Abed’s and says, tears streaming down his face, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

It’s only after they’ve unpaused and kept watching, which doesn’t really help the crying situation, that Troy realizes they aren’t alone. At some point in the past half hour, Shirley had wandered in, and she’s watching them and not the movie.

“Shirley,” Abed greets, pausing the movie and handing Troy a tissue without looking.

“That’s quite the performance,” Shirley says in what Troy has started to think of her come-to-Jesus voice.

“It’s late,” he says thickly, blowing his nose. “Why are you here?”

“Well.” Shirley shifts from foot to foot. “I come here to study, sometimes. With the kids at home, and no dinner on the table unless I make it….”

Troy and Abed nod.

“Anyway,” Shirley continues, and she seems to be steeling herself. Troy gets it; he’s got to get in a similar mindset if he’s going to make it through the end of the movie. “I just wanted to let you know that… I’ve done… a lot of thinking. And a lot of praying. And at the end of the day,” she swallows, not looking at them, “I want you to know that I love and accept you just the way you are. I used to say that, whatever the two of you chose was between you and God, but I’ve come to learn… that that’s not enough. Your relationship to God is just that, but our relationship is what we make of it, and at the end of the day, I… am always going to choose to love you both. God doesn’t make mistakes. But I did, and, and… and I’ve learned.”

Troy’s brain short-circuits a little. He glances over at Abed, who doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction at all.

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Troy says, and realizes with a start that Shirley’s started crying. “Hey, it’s okay. We love you too.”

Abed nods, and hands out his second tissue.

“Thank you,” Shirley says, dabbing at her eyes. “You’re such good kids. I’m so happy you’re happy.” She sniffles deeply, pulls Troy into a crushing hug, and disappears into the night.

Troy sinks down next to Abed. “What,” he says.

“Shirley’s coming to terms with what we do,” Abed explains, pointing between the two of them. “Her religion isn’t generally accepting of fantasy and make-believe. It comes too close to heresy, even idolatry. But I’m glad to see she’s okay with it,” he says, and takes Troy’s hand. “Not that it would have ever stopped us, but she’s our friend, and she deserves to be happy too.”

“Right,” Troy says, trying to digest this. He picks up the remote. “Ready for the rest of this emotional trainwreck?”

“Ready,” Abed says, calm as ever.

 

Winter break is quiet. Annie goes home for a bit, Jeff holes up to drink scotch alone, Britta drives to Denver for a poorly attended protest against urban noise pollution, Pierce… well, Troy doesn’t ask and doesn’t want to know what Pierce is up to. Troy and Abed sleep in, drink peppermint hot chocolate, make a bracket for the worst pilot of the early aughts (the American version of IT Crowd), and stay awake until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Even with Annie gone, they still end up showering together the morning of New Years. Troy’s going through his resolutions.

“Eat more quinoa,” he says to Abed and washes his armpits. “I don’t actually know what it is, but I hear it’s good for you. Go ziplining for the first time. Audition for the spring dance recital, even if I don’t get a part afterwards. But also, get a part in the spring dance recital.”

Abed isn’t saying anything. It’s uncharacteristic, because the shower tends to be one of Abed’s chattiest places, his voice echoing animatedly off the tiles and helping wake Troy up.

Troy touches his elbows and rotates them so that Abed is the one standing under the water. “Abed?”

Abed looks up, meets his eyes, and looks away. “Cool,” he says distantly. “Cool cool cool. I’m in love with you.”

“Oh,” Troy says. “Wait, what?”

Abed shrugs. The gesture seems to cost him a great effort. “I was terrified to go off script. But there’s no existing model for what we have. No precedent. That’s why it took me so long to translate the things I felt into something I could feel comfortable saying out loud. And it didn’t make me less terrified, but. I thought you should know.”

There’s something thundering, crashing in Troy’s chest. He feels it at a distance; it’s muted by the spray of the water glancing off of Abed’s collarbones, by the single drop that’s sliding down Abed’s nose.

But when recognition floods him, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take a step forward and press them together.

“Cool,” Troy says into the shell of Abed’s ear. “I’m in love with you, too.”

Abed’s head jerks up. He looks at Troy again, closer than they’ve ever been. Warm and wet and naked, with nowhere left to go, nothing left to hide.

“This is the part where we kiss,” Abed says, and his voice is filled with such wonder that Troy breaks into a grin.

“Duh,” Troy says, and only needs to tilt his head a little for their lips to meet.

Kissing Abed would have been one thing, but kissing Abed here, in the shower, in the heart of this life that they’ve built for themselves, is probably the best thing in the world. Abed does nothing by half, so it doesn’t surprise Troy that he kisses the way he does: both earnest and joyful, gentle and urgent. Abed slides his tongue across Troy’s lips and Troy lets him in, trying to meet him halfway like he always does, trying his best just to hang on for the ride.

Troy has to stop because he’s smiling too much, and Abed is smiling too. He presses his face into Abed’s shoulder and squeezes him close, trying to contain some of the happiness that’s spilling off of him in waves.

“This is awesome,” Troy tells him. “Let’s kiss, like, all the time.”

Abed nods fervently and crowds him against the shower wall. “Let’s have sex,” he proposes, his voice just a shade rougher, in a way that anyone who isn’t Troy would never register.

Troy laughs brightly, because their bodies have been speaking for them, and Abed’s erection is pressed insistently against his own. “Yeah,” he says, and his lips burn when Abed’s meet them for another kiss. “Let’s save some water, though. Annie would hate to see that bill.”

“Cool,” Abed agrees. His eyes are very round and very dark, but something playful glitters there, the same quality that’s hooked Troy since day one and never let go. “Montage?”

So they step out of the shower, only skidding a little bit on their way to the bed. Troy chucks a towel at them so that they can dry off and not water-stain the new full-sized mattress. They fall into bed with shared laughter, Abed a warm, solid weight above Troy. The laughter never quite goes away, not when they’re rubbing together inexpertly, not when Abed kisses and sucks at his throat and makes Troy moan, not when he wraps his hand around both of their dicks and works up a rhythm, methodic but sometimes stuttering. Abed entwines their free hands, thumb moving in soothing circles as Troy comes, and tips over the edge a second later.

With a shudder, Abed collapses onto his back, looking at the semen on his fingers with mild interest. Almost curiously, he puts two in his mouth and licks them clean.

Troy chokes on a groan. “Don’t, man,” he protests when Abed glances over, startled. “Not this soon. Gimme at least an hour before you start doing things like that.”

“Okay,” Abed says gamely, wiping off the rest of their come on the sheets and rolling them towards the opposite edge of the mattress. “Let’s nap, first.”

“You’re the best one there is,” Troy says, joy and gratitude rushing through him. He pulls Abed flush against his back.

“Thanks,” Abed says, and when Troy cranes his neck to look back at him, Abed is smiling wide and free and happy, just for him.

 

“We have an announcement,” Troy says when the study group reconvenes.

“Listen up, everyone,” Abed adds, even though it’s six in the morning and no one is really doing much talking, aside from them.

“Oh god, so soon?” Britta says. “You guys, I know you wanna be committed and all. But you don’t need to rush into this.”

“Annie,” Jeff says patiently. “Didn’t we tell you not to leave them alone over the break? Look what you’ve done.”

Annie gives her offended noise. “I was gone for two weeks!”

“That’s plenty of time,” Britta says, shaking her head. “This is a mess.”

“I, for one, am perfectly supportive,” Shirley says in her most saccharine tone, punctuating it with a glare at all the others.

“What’s going on,” Troy says, awed.

“Well,” Annie sighs. “I suppose it’s my fault. I wasn’t supposed to let you elope, but I thought it’d be fine, it’s not like I saw any travel plans on our roommate calendar, but maybe it was a spontaneous thing, I don’t know, guys, I’m so sorry, I should’ve checked in more!”

Britta and Jeff start griping at each other, while Shirley has to fill in Pierce, who doesn’t quite seem to be following. Troy can relate.

Abed tilts his head. “Elope?”

The conversation grinds to a halt.

Troy looks at all of his friends. “Uh,” he says, still trying to piece together what just happened. “So, me and Abed started dating.”

There’s a pause.

“Wait – started?” Britta asks, suddenly murderous.

“Yep,” Abed says cheerfully. “Two days ago.”

“We planned our one-week anniversary game night for next Saturday,” Troy says, losing his previous confusion in his excitement. “Please come. And BYOB, because not gonna lie, we’re pretty broke.” Abed nods.

“What – uh,” Annie starts, and Troy knows this, the dangerous tone she uses on Jeff to get him to attend school events or foster rescue puppies. “What have you been… doing? This whole time?”

Troy doesn’t quite understand the question. “Hanging out, mostly?”

“Friend stuff,” Abed clarifies.

“I’m sorry, showering together?” Jeff asks. He’s leaning forward in his seat and looking on with wicked amusement.

“It’s not like anything happened?” Troy says, bewildered. “Don’t girls do it all the time?”

No,” Shirley, Annie, and Britta chorus.

“…Oh,” Troy says. “Well. I can see why you were confused.”

Britta groans and buries her head in her palms.

“Congrats, I guess?” Annie offers after a moment of silence.

“Thanks!” Abed chirps. “We’re pretty excited.”

No one else seems to know what to say. They all look at Pierce, who’s been suspiciously quiet, but who’s now struggling for the right words.

“…Gay!” Pierce exclaims.

We know,” everyone else says together.

The room bursts into noise; Shirley and Britta berate Pierce for his insensitivity, and Jeff and Annie start bickering about misreading the signs while Pierce sputters his defense to anyone who’s listening, which is nobody.

In the ensuing commotion, Troy looks at Abed, who is taking it all in with a smooth expression on his face.

But when he catches Troy’s eye, the corner of his lips twitches up, and his nose crinkles. Just a little bit.