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Practical Breath Holding

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“How’d you get this bruise?” Rachel asked, halfway through the movie.

Abed’s face turned slowly towards her, but his eyes remained fixed on the screen as he reached for the remote and hit the pause button.

“Bruise?” he asked, fully looking at her. His gaze passed over her eyebrows and nose, down to where she was toying with the sleeve of his flannel. The edge was pulled up high enough to reveal a faint discoloration.

A crease formed between his brows as he stared down at his wrist. “Oh.”

They had only been together for a couple of weeks, but Rachel was already learning that Abed’s silences came in many flavors. There was the film silence, where his eyes were unwaveringly focused on a screen as he watched show or worked on video editing. There was his fly-on-the-wall silence, which became more pronounced in direct correlation to the size of a crowd. He would melt into the background and absorb what everyone else was doing from a distance. His dark, assessing eyes would flick rapidly between everyone as if trying to take everything in at once. She wondered if he was trying to embody his beloved camera in those moments, or if it was more like he was trying to put together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.

Then there were long, stretching silences – she was coming to think of these silences as part of his ‘special time’ – where his jaw would clench, and he’d worry his thumb against his finger in a slow, even back and forth. She rarely saw his eyes at all during this type of silence.

The current silence was none of those.

During her first visit to his apartment, Rachel had asked about a picture on the wall that looked like it was taken at a convention, probably InSpecTiCon. Abed had gone completely, frighteningly still. She didn’t think Abed had been in her Advanced Breath Holding class, but she was certain he’d have earned an ‘A’ with that silence alone.

This was the type of silence that swallowed him now.

Abed was sadder than when she’d first met him. More sober. Or maybe the term she was thinking of was somber. Maybe a bit of both. It wasn’t obvious, but she’d noticed the change almost immediately that evening in the coatroom when he’d unexpectedly asked her to dinner, completely absent any shenanigans, after not calling for a year. It was in the set of his shoulders, the tension around his eyes, the stillness of his hands.

Hands which, right now, were curled tight.

She’d liked the Abed she’d first met. It had been easy to get caught up in the child-like fun. The more she gets to know him now, the surer she is that she likes this version, too. This was, after all, the version that called back. And in many ways, he was, fundamentally, the same person.

Right now, she could feel her pulse beating in her ears at a steadily increasing pace. Something was off with how this bruise wrapped around the inside of his wrist by his thumb. The placement was odd.

And an ordinary bruise should not cause this type of silence.

She mentally counted off her five second inhales and seven second exhales before trying to speak. It was supposed to decrease anxiety. It didn’t work.

“Um. Abed, do you want to talk about it?” she asked, tightly, pretty sure he wouldn’t answer at all. But, as often happened, he surprised her.

He rolled his hand over, studying the bruise intently before replying. “You know when two characters who don’t get along are forced together, or literally handcuffed together, and then learn to work together and develop a mutual respect due to forced proximity and the necessity of teamwork in the face of obstacles?”

She was starting to feel a little sick. “I guess?”

He was watching where her hand had a death grip on his sleeve. She tried to force herself to relax. After a moment he continued, “It was a little like that.”

She wondered if he classified her silences.

“. . . it was a little like . . . Are you saying you were handcuffed to someone?” she asked, slowly.

“No, I was handcuffed to a filing cabinet. The analogy is a bit flawed.” His head tilted, “I must have gotten the bruise when I tried to pull away.”

Rachel wasn’t entirely sure she remembered how to breathe. That Advanced Breath Holding class was turning out to be more useful than expected. Her hands felt numb.

“I have so many questions.”

Abed was starting to worry his thumb against his finger in that slow, metronomic pace. It was a clear sign that this conversation was quickly coming to an end. His face was closing off and turning back towards the TV screen, “It’s not much of a story. I ruined some duck cartoons. Honestly, they were really terrible. Then I was handcuffed to a cabinet until I missed the Kick Puncher movie to teach me about consequences because everyone caters to me.”

“Abed . . .” Rachel was pretty sure that handling this type of crisis was way out of her depth considering they were only approaching their two-week anniversary, “Who –”

“I’d rather not talk about it. If that’s okay. Not now.”

“Okay, that’s . . . that’s fine,” she replied, “but, you know . . . I don’t really know them very well, but I’m pretty sure what your friends do is care about you, not cater to you.”

They sat in silence. Rachel didn’t try to classify this one. Abed stared stone-faced at the frozen screen. She watched his profile and tried to keep breathing evenly.

“Do you want to finish the movie?” She asked when it became clear that he was not going to break the silence.

He nodded and pressed play.

+++

Rachel walked past the door to Jeff Winger’s office for a third time. She’d marched into Greendale that morning with purpose. Somewhere between the quick text she’d sent to Abed saying she needed to meet with a professor, which left her feeling vaguely guilty, and getting to the office door, she’d lost some of her initial conviction. Now that she was actual in the hallway, she was hesitating.

She wasn’t sure if Abed would be upset if she told anyone else about this. But she knew that someone had to do something. She couldn’t. Abed wouldn’t. Jeff seemed like the most logical choice.

Inhale five. Exhale seven. Inhale five. Exhale seven. Inhale five and hold.

Rachel opened the door to face a cluttered, though currently unoccupied desk, but to her left Jeff Winger was slouched low behind his own desk. He was squinting slightly at his phone. From the faint dings she was pretty sure he was playing Candy Crush. He looked up when she lightly coughed.

“Huh. You’re not who I expected to see. Especially without your other half.”

She hesitated a moment while trying to decide how to address him. Technically, he was a teacher, but it seemed wrong to address him as Mr. Winger. He’d been a student here when she started to attend, although they had never had classes together, and she had no intention of ever taking his class. Plus, Abed had introduced him as ‘Jeff’ when she had officially met the study group. And she was really here because he was Abed's friend, so –

“No, I think he’s filming this morning. I actually wanted to talk to you about something, Jeff. It’s, well, about Abed.”

“Oooh no, I’m not going to get in the middle of any Abed-related relationship probl–” he started to say.

“No! No. It’s nothing like that! Abed is not the problem! It’s about him, but it’s not –” she paused, “He’s not the problem. I just don’t know what to do, and he’s not going to do anything about this, but someone has to do something and you’re his friend, so I thought maybe you could talk to him about it.”

Jeff was frowning at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Suddenly feeling very awkward standing in front of his desk, she chewed on her lip for a second, “I saw a little bruise on Abed’s wrist yesterday. I wouldn’t have thought anything about it, but he got weird when I asked him about it.”

“Pfft. Weird. This is Abed you’re talking about.” Jeff interrupted.

Rachel pressed her lips together briefly and stared at Jeff until he gave a small, apologetic nod before continuing, “This is serious. He told me someone handcuffed him to a filing cabinet.”

Jeff’s face went blank. In a tight voice he asked, “Who?”

Rachel shrugged, “He didn’t say. He didn’t really want to talk about it. The only thing he told me was that he ruined some bad duck cartoons and was handcuffed to the cabinet to ‘teach him about consequences.’” She emphasized with finger quotes.

“Duck cartoons?”

“Yeah, it didn’t make much sense to me, but I didn’t want to push. I thought maybe he’d be more open about it with you. Maybe you could try to talk to him about it?”

She was a bit worried that Jeff was going to break his phone. The force of his glare was directed over her shoulder, which she was glad for despite feeling comforted by the visible rage slowly beginning to simmer as he processed what she’d just said.

“I’ll take care of it.” Jeff said through clenched teeth.

“You’ll talk to Abed?”

“I already know who did it. I’ll be sure to put the fear of God in them, or at least give them an unfriendly reminder that false imprisonment is a crime in Colorado. Not to mention that Abed would have a decent civil case against him.” Jeff’s face softened, and his voice smoothed out to match as he looked up at her again. “And, yes, I’ll talk to Abed.”

“Thanks,” Rachel nodded, “I should probably get to class. Just . . . I didn’t tell Abed I was going to tell you any of this, so, um, fair warning if he is surprised.”

Jeff gave an absent nod, already looking back at his phone. Rachel turned back to the door, marveling at the visual contrast between Jeff’s fastidiously neat office space compared to the mess of papers and overstuffed filing cabinet of his office mate. She wondered, briefly, if they got along.

She was in the hallway before she realized that Jeff hadn’t gone back to tapping on his phone when she’d left.

+++

Rachel and Abed walked into the study room.

“Hey, it’s the ‘aw’ couple,” said Jeff. His tone was sardonic, but he shot a quick smile their way.

“Aww,” came the coordinated response from the rest of the group.

Rachel made brief eye contact with Jeff, who blinked slowly in return. They hadn’t spoken about the handcuff situation again since that morning in his office. She wasn’t sure what Jeff had done to address the situation, but Abed’s mood had been steadily improving. While the underlying sadness lingered, there was a slight bounce in his step now, and less tension in his face in the last couple of weeks. She assumed they’d talked, but Abed hadn’t brought it up, and she wasn’t going to ask. She looked up at him with a smile as he excitedly explained her gift to his friends. It was nice to see him excited about doing something, rather than desperate for a distraction.

“Look what Rachel got me. Pile of Bullets. An interactive old west themed VCR game from the ‘90s.”

“I found it at goodwill. It was between a thigh master and a Dick Tracy burger king glass.” She explained. “Happy anniversary.”

The old man, who she was pretty sure was called Professor Hickey, looked up at her for the first time. He didn’t smile. “Anniversary? I guess I should learn your name, young lady.”

She smiled, brightly, and stuck her hand out, “Oh, Rachel.”

He frowned a little at her. “Rachel. Nice to meet you, Rachel. You can go.”

He did not take her hand.