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***

    A stray curl falls to her cheek, and her eyes are big and bright in the dim office light. She's gazing up at you like you know the answer.

    This is after you kissed her. And you don't know the answer, but the kiss was definitely a question.

    You'd imagined it a thousand times. More than that. Five hundred sheets of paper to a ream, ten reams per case. Fill a truck with cases of paper and maybe you can approach the number of minutes you've spent imagining what this moment might be like.

    Except this is the moment after.

    "Jim--"

    "Pam--"

    You both say it at the same time, the way you say so many things; just like you get each other's jokes and start each other's sentences, and just like you both understand exactly why Kevin's garage band is so gloriously, hideously awesome.

    So now you both laugh at interrupting each other. But it's awkward, muted laughter that stops almost before it starts.

    She was on the phone when you came in. It wasn't Roy she was talking to. You know that as sure as you know anything. She wouldn't call Roy right now.

    And you've got something else you're sure of: it wasn't just you, all this time. It wasn't a stupid crush, and you weren't imagining things. You were right. She kissed you back. She did. And now, in the moment after, she hasn't moved away from you. She hasn't folded her arms in front of herself protectively, hasn't looked down. So maybe you do know the answer.

    You can feel it. You were right.

    Just knowing that much--is worth all the rest of it. Whatever else happens.

    "It was worth it," you say. Because it's also worth saying out loud.

    "What do you mean?" she asks. Big eyes again. You know she already knows what you mean. She just wants to hear you say it. Now that the biggest puzzle piece has clicked into place and the biggest question has an answer, it's easier to trust your instincts. You usually know what she wants. Making her happy comes naturally to you. It's easy, and it feels good.

    "Whatever else happens--this was worth it," you say. "Tonight was worth it," you add, unnecessarily, just to see the spark in her eyes.

    You know she wants you to kiss her again. You know this because she finally doesn't look afraid.

    But you don't do it. You were right, and there's no need to push it. Not while the world has stopped and this moment is frozen, balanced on a knife's edge. Besides, you're still reeling from the first kiss, which was maybe ninety seconds ago. You still can't believe you did it. It wasn't even a conscious decision, it was too sudden and too instinctive for that. You just walked into the office and realized that she was there, and that she was using your phone at your desk to talk to someone who was clearly not Roy. You'd already blown it, earlier, and you were leaving anyway; leaving Scranton, leaving her, and...hell, might as well go for broke.

    Once you had nothing left to lose, you stopped being afraid. Maybe that was what made the difference.

    The day you met her, Michael shoved the two of you together like he was a photographer for Sears Portrait Studio. "Wow," he'd said. "Wouldn't you two make a cute couple!" And you'd felt the stupid grin and the heat on your face. "But, but, but...wait now," Michael went on, "I've met her boyfriend. He's a big guy. He could totally kick your ass." Pam had been obviously mortified, but she'd smiled at you apologetically anyway. That should have been the end of it, but somehow it wasn't. You don't really know how it happened. Little moments, here and there, moments that came more often as months turned into years; moments that somehow became this fire in your chest that was going to burn you alive if you didn't say something. Tonight.

    "I don't know what to do..." Pam says, finally.

    You can imagine the rest of the sentence: I don't know what to do because now I'm out here, out here in the open with you, and I can't hide anymore; but I'm supposed to get married next month, and the invitations are already mailed, and the deposits are already paid, and Roy's family already hates me and this will just prove them right, and I don't want to be like that runaway bride on CNN because it would all just be too embarrassing...

   
"I promise not to report you as a missing person," you say.

    And she laughs, because she gets it, because you both spent a full week obsessing over the runaway-bride story and making jokes about it, even as you ached to ask her if there might be another reason she was so fascinated.

    But that's jumping to conclusions; she hasn't made you any promises, hasn't said she's going to run away from anything, even if it means running away to you; and she must've realized it too, because she stops laughing and says, again, just like you know she's going to: "I just don't know what to do."

    You don't know either, you don't know anything but the immediate short-term, which is: I just kissed Pam and I think I'm gonna do it again.

    "I'm sorry for putting you in this position," you say. What you're really sorry for, though, is that you didn't do it sooner.

    "Jim--" she says again, a question half-asked.

    "Pam," you repeat. An answer.

    You have to kiss her again now, because she's completely forgotten to be afraid and so have you; and because kissing is easier than talking.

    She meets you halfway.

    Your hands go automatically to the small of her back, gathering her closer. Her fingertips find your cheek, the back of your neck. She's shorter than you even in her heels, so you pull her up to you, against you, closer, even as you lean into her. The fabric of her dress makes a soft, crinkly swish as she comes up against you. Her hair, trailing down her shoulder blades, spills over the backs of your hands.

    It's better than what you could have ever imagined, but it's also real. You've known each other too long for this to be all that awkward; and even if the last three years have been like the most painful high-school crush ever, the truth is you're both staring down thirty and you both know the basic steps of this dance.
   
    Her lips open to yours.

    That's when it gets a little scary, and your heart starts really hammering. You'd pictured the first kiss ten thousand times, but you never could bring yourself to believe in the possibility of a second one. Now that it's here it's almost too much, an adrenaline rush like a thrill ride eight stories high, both of you shaky and not quite able to catch your breath--maybe it's just you? it doesn't seem like it--and holding each other tighter and tighter, because if you had to let go right now, you might die.

    You touch your fingers to her cheek, to tilt her head, but she already knows, she's already moving, and the kiss deepens.

    And you might have spent the next hour kissing Pam if the reception-desk phone didn't ring.

    It's a sound you both hear a hundred times a day, but you both jump, startled and still full of nerves, and Pam automatically reaches down to pick up the main line from your phone. You take hold of her forearm, stopping her in mid-reach.

    "Um, we're kinda off the clock here," you point out, smiling.

    She laughs, and you laugh, and you put your arms around her. She melts into you, her arms slung up around your shoulders, and you both just stand there, breathing against each other, listening to the phone ring until it finally switches over to voicemail.

    Your face is buried in her hair now, but you've always wanted to kiss her neck, just one of about a thousand things on the list, and since it's right there and you're just standing here anyway it's a logical next step.
   
    But when you brush your lips against the skin just beneath her ear, she freezes, stiffens, not necessarily in a good way. She inhales sharply.

    "Jim--"

    Okay, so that was going too far. There's the new line.

    "Sorry," you whisper.

    She pulls back to arms' length. Not completely away from you, but definitely backing off.

    "I--I have to get home," she says, looking at you worriedly, eyes big again, the fear coming back.

    It's like a punch in the gut. But you knew it might be this way. You did know that.

    What was she going to do--come home with you?

    (Yes, says the part of you that went for her neck. She could do that, if she wanted.)

    No. It's too soon. You can't push this. You can't. You can't make it messier than it already is.

    But you can't speak, either. It's too painful. You just nod at her.
   
    "I'm sorry," she says. "I have to have time to figure this all out...I've never done this sort of thing before..."

    "Don't apologize," you say.

    "Jim..."

    You grab hold of her hand and kiss it. And then you let go.

    "You don't need to apologize to me," you say. "Just let me know--once you figure it all out. Okay?"

    She nods. "I will."

    And then she does, finally, step away from you. She gathers up her things. And she's gone.
  
    You turn out the rest of the lights in the office before you leave.

***

END

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