"It was just so beautiful. Carl and Ellie meeting as kids then falling in love and getting married. And then she… and then she…" It became too much for Troy to recount the opening sequence of Up. He was overcome with sobs, his body shaking as he fought to breathe through his tears.
Britta walked over and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, and Troy took that as a cue to lean against her, crying into her shirt as she soothingly stroked his hair while Abed patted Troy's knee in the way he'd seen others do so when comforting a friend.
Jeff turned to Annie to share a smile over the recounting of one of Pixar's most touching love stories and was surprised to find that she wasn't looking at him. She was busy looking at Troy with a sympathetic gaze.
Something didn't feel right, but Jeff couldn't quite put a finger on what exactly. Why did he care that Annie wasn't looking at him? He shouldn't care. He didn't care. But despite what he told himself, he couldn't help but chime in. "Troy, I'm sure you'll find a love like Carl and Ellie's," he said, knowing that Annie wouldn't be able to resist and look at him now. He basically put an imaginary neon sign over his head that read: Look at me! Imagine growing old with me.
Yet when he glanced her way, she only gave him a brief smile before turning back to Troy and nodding encouragingly.
What is going on? Jeff asked, genuinely confused. Something was wrong. Not only was Annie not reciprocating with the look they often shared – the look that spoke volumes in wordless affirmation of the underlying emotions between them – but he was hurt by it. He couldn't shake the feeling that he had lost something: something that he hadn't realized he wanted – or needed – till now.
Before Jeff could make another attempt to draw Annie's attention toward him, Troy made a miraculous recovery when he remembered something even more pressing than Carl and Ellie's love story. "Chicken fingers day!"
And with those three words, the entire study group packed up in a hurry to make their way to the cafeteria – all except Jeff, who now felt a little slower with the added burden of a heavy heart. He feared this was a pain that even the delectable chicken fingers couldn't cure.
"Abed! Wait up!" Jeff ran to catch up with his crab-walking friend, curiously alone on his venture back home. Guess Troy is with Britta.
Abed returned to a bipedal state and waited silently until Jeff reached him. "You're breaking a light sweat."
Jeff wiped at his forehead; and indeed, there was a slight sheen of moisture there. "Okay…"
"You're breaking a light sweat, and you're running after me. Which means that you need to ask me something. And you once told Annie that you would break a light sweat for her. So, I can only conclude you want to ask me about Annie."
Abed put a hand up, and Jeff instantly shut his mouth. "I am an observer. There has been a 143 percent increase in the frequency of looks shared between you and Annie over the course of one year since the model UN incident. However, in the last week, the ratio between you initiating the look over Annie initiating has greatly risen whereas before, it was about equal. This suggests that you two have seemingly switched roles. It's like that pinnacle moment in a romantic comedy where the male half of the friendship realizes that he cannot imagine himself being with any other woman but his female friend. This also perfectly coincides with Annie's own character midpoint reversal where she convinces herself that her feelings for you were the result of a 'childish fatuation.'
"Annie and I ran a simulation on your and her relationship in the Dreamatorium. We inventoried all the shipper moments the two of you had and analyzed them."
"Annie had some questions about your feelings toward each other, so we went over all the times you two had a loaded exchange or stolen glance."
"And…what did you come up with?"
"Sorry, the Dreamatorium is the equivalent of a doctor's office. There is a confidentiality clause that cannot be broken. Unless…"
"Unless you would like to run a similar simulation, and the results of Annie's Dreamatorium session were inadvertently revealed in the process."
Jeff sighed. "Fine. Let's go."
Abed smiled, happy to have wrangled another member of the study group into entering his Dreamatorium. "Cool. Cool, cool, cool."
"So…I push this button and pick a place for the Dreamatorium to simulate?" Jeff asked, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. It was utilizing every ounce of effort in his body not to highlight just how ridiculous this all was. They were in a green room with orange tape with a fake cardboard panel that had "controls" that were drawn on by Sharpie. But he needed to get to the bottom of things. And if he thought too hard about why he had reached a point of desperation, he'd end up taking those anti-anxiety medications again. Not exactly worth a repeat experience. He'd destroyed an amazing suit.
Abed nodded, stepping back to let Jeff take the lead.
"Render environment: Troy, Annie, and Abed's apartment. Simulation: Abed and Annie." Jeff paused, pretending to assume the mannerism of Abed by widening his eyes and giving a blank, doe-like stare.
"Nice," Abed said, miming pointing a gun at Jeff and shooting with a soft "pew" noise. Abed stood up straighter, pushing his chest forward slightly, and ran his hand through his imaginary shoulder-length hair in the same way that Annie did when she talked to Jeff in a flirting manner.
Despite the fact that it was Abed just pretending to be Annie, seeing that familiar gesture caused Jeff to recall the moments when the real Annie had looked up at him with eyes that saw through his self-assured façade and brought out the good in him. Jeff shook off the feeling of heart-tugging nostalgia.
"Abed," Annie!Abed said, "I need your help again. Let's run simulations again in the Dreamatorium. Then, I promise we can re-enact the Blorgon Wars."
"Cool. Cool, cool, cool," Abed!Jeff replied. He figured he couldn't go wrong with Abed's catchphrase. "Let's go to the Dreamatorium." Jeff walked five steps in place. "Please proceed."
"Render environment: Greendale Study Room F. Simulation: Annie and Annie."
"What are we doing in the study room, Annie?" Annie!Jeff asked.
"This is where it all started, Annie. Where Jeff first called us 'milady' and kissed our hand. We thought it was so romantic at the time. But now we realize that he was manipulating us to get our Spanish notes."
Jeff winced. She wasn't wrong. He was an ass three years ago. (Still was time and again. What? He's human.) And he thought she knew that nowadays, he viewed that term of endearment exactly for what it was: a sign of his affection and respect for her. It wasn't like he had a special nickname for anyone else – unless you counted him calling Britta "squirrel." But that was not the same at all.
"But Annie," Annie!Jeff countered, "that was the old Jeff. He's changed."
"Maybe. But Jeff did humiliate us when he denied there ever being stolen glances and loaded exchanges between us. Not only that, but he then admitted to sleeping with Britta all our second year."
Jeff winced again. Maybe this look into their past wasn't exactly the best idea. Now even he was questioning why Annie stuck with him for so long.
Annie!Abed continued, "And when we confronted him in the men's bathroom about his feelings toward us, all he said was that relationships are complicated."
"Wait. How do you know that?" Jeff replied – as himself.
Abed raised an eyebrow, noting the break in character. "We talked about it in our last Dreamatorium session, Annie."
"Right. I forgot." Jeff fluttered his eyes for extra effect, trying to regain Abed's favor.
Abed nodded his approval.
"So what about now? I thought we loved Jeff."
"We do," Annie!Abed said, causing Jeff to let out a sigh of relief. It was short-lived. "But we aren't in love with Jeff. We realized that were more in love with the idea of being in love with Jeff. He was our first grown-up crush. He's smart and funny – a man, not a boy. And he was the first guy who really cared about us, who wasn't our father. Jeff showed us what we really wanted in the guy we eventually would fall in love with."
This wasn't what Jeff wanted to hear. He didn't want Annie to think that he was just some schoolgirl crush that she grew out of or a stepping stone to the right guy. He wanted to be the right guy.
Lost in his own thoughts, Jeff didn't notice that Abed had deactivated the simulation and was now staring at him.
"Jeff grappled with the ramifications of this newfound realization that Annie was not in love with him. He hadn't expected it to hurt so much, especially when… especially when he was in love with her.
"Jeff was in love with Annie.
"He could no longer try to pretend that his feelings were strictly platonic. All the excuses he'd come up with – she's too young for him, they worked better as friends – no longer mattered. He was Harry in the final act of When Harry met Sally – tired of being alone and denying his feelings. Tired of letting his brain overrule his heart."
"Abed, what did I say about narrating?"
Abed shrugged. "Just providing the audience some insight. Our show is not equipped to have a long, dramatic close-up on a character's reflection. We're not a soap opera. And your thought process transcended what could be shown visually, thus needing clarification."
Jeff resisted the urge to roll his eyes and mock the existence of Abed's imaginary audience. Instead, he tugged off fabric that Abed had forced him to wear in order to simulate one of Annie's cardigans and handed it to him.
"I need a drink. See you tomorrow," Jeff said, heading out with the single-minded goal of pouring himself a shot of scotch. Maybe two.
He paused in the doorway before turning around.
Then, he was gone.