Vodka, leftover from the party, found stashed in Meredith's bottom drawer, and orange soda from the vending machine taste pretty good when combined. Especially when it's right out of the can, after he drinks off a mouthful of the soda so he can pour the vodka in. Especially since he's had two, maybe three, of them. And especially -
Is he using that word too much? He's using that word too much.
- especially since he's acting as bartender while Pam sits on a couch cushion on the floor near his desk, chuckling as he attempts to pour her second, maybe third, drink with a steady hand. She takes her can, puts her mouth where his had been, and he doesn't think about it. Because he's not twelve.
It seems she's having an argument with Roy. It's one of those terrible, slow-burn ordeals that he's witnessed at least a half-dozen times since he met her; the kind that give her dark circles, lead to whispered lunchtime phone conversations with her mother, and never fail to inspire false hope. Jim assumes that this particular argument must be one for the record books, as Pam didn't put up even the tiniest fight when Michael asked her to stay late on the last Friday night of the year to take down the Christmas decorations and drag the tree out to the Dumpster. Jim, ignoring the two voicemails that Katy had left him since lunch, leaned on her desk at one minute after five and offered to go get the boxes.
Most everything had been taken down, folded, wrapped in newspaper, and packed away for another year by the time the pizza, charged to the company credit card, arrived. She was nonchalantly stalking him around the office with a sphere of plastic mistletoe, playing a version of dodgeball which seemed to require hitting her opponent when he wasn't looking, when the pizza guy knocked on the glass door. He sat at her desk and watched her smooth her hair as she signed for the delivery, surreptitiously checking her email to see if her fight with Roy had gone electronic. He blushed, just like he always did, when he noted the little manila folder icon in her inbox labeled "JH." He had never opened it. She scooped up the mistletoe and bounced it off his head as she walked past. He smiled and slid a little lower in her chair.
The tree was the only decoration left. It was lopsided, dropping needles, and unbelievably depressing, despite the additional lights that Pam had wrapped around it the after the Christmas party. She set the pizza box on his desk and stood in front of the tree for a moment. "I feel really bad for it," she said with her back to him. "What Christmas tree wants to be an office Christmas tree? No little kids, or presents, or anything."
"We had presents." He joined the ends of a surprisingly long paperclip chain he found in her top desk drawer, along with countless pens, two stray teabags, a grocery list, and a tube of dark, berry-colored lipgloss that he was pretty sure he'd never seen her wear. The label told him that it tasted like blackberries. It was just too much to consider calmly.
"I suppose we did," she said dryly, studying the tree for a moment longer before moving into the kitchen. "Get the cushions off the couch. Let's send that pathetic tree out in style," she called.
Now he's tipsy, or maybe he's just really happy, and explaining why it's not lame to like The Counting Crows, at least not their earlier albums. His iPod is plugged in to his computer, acting as a material witness, and he's pretty sure that she's only half-listening to him, even though she keeps smiling and nodding. He rolls the mistletoe at her to catch her attention and finishes his second, maybe third, can of electric screwdriver (so christened while he mixed the first round). She makes a grandly exaggerated move to doge the mistletoe and tips off her cushion, giggling as she lands. He says, "I think we should cut you off, Beesly. I'd hate to have to ban you from Dunder-Mifflin for life."
She rolls onto her back, mouth partly open, legs half on the cushion, and sighs the end of her laugh up at the ceiling. "No, anything but that," she seems to be aiming for mock-horror, but falls wildly short and laughs again. She shakes her head, grabs the mistletoe ball, pitches it gently at him, and says, "Truth or Dare."
"What are you, ten?" He cannot stop smiling at her. He tosses the mistletoe up at the ceiling and catches it without looking.
"You're right. I'll try to come up with something a little more cerebral, Mr. 'Who Would You Do?'."
"Hey, that is a very sophisticated game. Grownups only." He points at her. "Plus, I got to confess my secret love for Kevin, so it worked out pretty well for me."
"It must have felt good to unburden yourself like that."
"It was killing me. Just killing me." He keeps his tone and expression steady, but he feels that familiar delicate, rising sense of vertigo that he always gets when they joke like this.
Pam pushes herself up awkwardly and pats his knee, pulling her face into an exaggerated expression of sympathy. "All the girls said you, you know." She raises her eyebrows and sucks her cheeks in slightly, issuing a challenge.
"No, seriously! Meredith, Kelly, and Phyllis. Kelly even said 'definitely' Jim."
"I feel so dirty," he says softly. "Wait," he abandons the mistletoe between them, reaches for her soda, and takes a drink. He knows it's tremendously stupid, perhaps even dangerous, to ask, but he's had enough to drink that he's starting to feel reckless. "Who did you say? Did you -"
"I didn't," she cuts him off, taking the can away.
"Uh, I didn't answer, really." They've got the overhead lights off, so he only has desk lamps and tree lights to see by, but he's pretty sure she's blushing.
"You have to pick someone, Pam."
"And you don't?"
"I said Kevin!"
She rolls her eyes. "Yeah, but you didn't mean that."
"I didn't?" He gives her a long, hard look and she stares right back. When he flinches, she punches him in the arm.
"See? You cheat! So who, then?"
"I asked you first."
"No," she wobbles to her feet, grabbing the pizza box containing only crusts and those little yellow peppers that no one ever eats. "I said Truth or Dare first, and then you made fun of me."
"True," he nods slowly. He tells himself that it's better she didn't answer. It would just be another detail to analyze into meaninglessness. "So, uh, truth, I guess," he calls after her as she steps into the kitchen, laying her hand on the doorframe as she passes it.
She sticks her head out of the door, says, "How are things going with Katy?" and turns immediately away again.
"That's a really lousy question," he replies, when he really wants to ask her why she wants to know.
He can hear the sound of her forcing the pizza box into the trash can. "Are you saying you won't answer? Because I'd hate to have to make you call up Michael to plan a boy's night."
"No, no..." he pauses as she walks back into the room. "Things are fine. They're good." He's laying on his back now, head resting on the couch cushion, staring up at the ceiling tiles as he speaks. "It's not super-serious, you know?"
Jim hears Pam pull her cushion away and settle herself before her face comes into view. "No. Not really."
"We just - date. And it's fun. And that's all." He desperately wants to talk about anything other than his relationship with a woman that he can barely bring himself to call his girlfriend. He would tell embarrassing stories about being miserably clumsy and hormonal in eighth grade to get out of this. He would spend an hour gently counseling her about Roy to get out of this.
"Huh," She reconsiders her position and her face disappears from view. He turns his head and sees that she has slid down to the floor and is leaning back on her elbows. Her skirt has hiked up in the back, far enough that he can see five inches of her stocking-clad thigh above her knee. He looks back up at the ceiling. "I've never just dated anyone."
"I can't picture," she begins, but stops short.
"I can't picture myself doing that," she says quickly. He assumes that wasn't the original end of her sentence. "Just dating."
"Honestly? It's not really for me, either. But it's what's happening right now, so," he shrugs.
She nods. "Okay. Ask me something. Truth."
He wants to reiterate his question about the parking lot game of 'Who Would You Do?' He considers torturing both of them a little and asking her why she got so mad at him for picking her up at Dwight's dojo. But he knows what really needs asking, so he says, "What's going on?"
The easy openness of her expression recedes by a few inches. "What do you mean?"
"You haven't called Roy to tell him where you are. And he hasn't been up here during lunch all week." He's got the red ribbon hanger of the mistletoe wrapped around his index and middle fingers and he's twisting it, turning them purplish-red.
She sighs. "We had a fight."
His hands stop moving and he looks at her carefully, asking the question without speaking.
"I don't really want to talk about it." They sit in silence for a moment and she looks up at the tree. The iPod starts a new album. "I don't know. It got out of hand. I think we'll be fine if we have some time to cool off."
"Okay," he says, feeling doubtful.
"He got so mad about that fucking iPod," she blurts, "and when I tried to tell him it was really rude to give your present away like I did, he just got angrier," she lowers her voice and mimics Roy, "Halpert'll understand, Pammy." She gives him an apologetic look.
She shakes her head, "No, no, it's not your fault. If Michael hadn't broken his own rules," she pauses, takes a drink, and hands her soda can to him. He tosses the mistletoe into her lap. "and if Roy wasn't such a greedy jerk sometimes," she sighs. "You got me a really nice present. And we're not really arguing about that anymore."
"What are you arguing about, then?"
She shakes her head and looks down at her feet. He would love to run his thumb down her instep, to hold her heel in his palm and lay her back on the cushion under her elbows. "I'm not even sure anymore. Either our entire relationship or absolutely nothing. If I'm not wearing this," she holds up her left hand, "on Monday, it was the first one. If I am, it was the second."
He makes a noise that sounds something like "oh," because he can't seem to make any other sounds. He realizes that he's had way too much to drink to handle what he so desperately wants to come from a conversation like this.
Apparently, it's too much for her, too. She shakes her head and tries to smile. "Let's talk about something else. I've been miserable for days and it's boring. Truth or dare?"
She considers it for a moment, her head tilted, studying him carefully. He can feel the blood pounding behind his ears. Biting her lip, she lifts the mistletoe over her head and raises an eyebrow. They're frozen like that for a moment, before the serious expression on her face melts into a small smile that doesn't match the inexplicable things happening in her eyes.
His tongue darts out to wet his bottom lip, like some part of him is actually considering kissing her, even though she obviously thinks she's making a joke. Eventually, she brings the mistletoe down to her ear, shakes it, and murmurs, "Must be out of batteries or something." His throat and mouth do everything they should to produce a laugh, but no sound comes out. She tosses the mistletoe, bouncing it off the wall of the conference room. When she turns to look at him again, her face is once again wholly distant, friendly. "I dare you to help me take this tree down."
"Alright." He stands and offers his hand to her. She laughs at how easily he pulls her up from the floor. He holds onto her hand a little longer than he needs to and she lets it happen.
They remove the decorations and lights without much conversation. The poor tree puts up a struggle when they try to free it from its stand; Pam on her side on the floor, Jim up to his biceps in pine needles and sap. It pops free with a splash of water that soaks the cuff of Pam's sweater. He insists that he can drag the thing downstairs by himself, which he does while she takes the final boxes into the storage room. He steps outside with his coat hanging open. The freezing air slaps him in the face, letting him know how drunk he still is. The feeling of intoxication had gotten lost under his mounting anxiety. He sets the tree against the Dumpster and calls a cab.
When he comes back in, Pam, her coat on, is leaning against her desk, staring out into the room. His bag is on the floor next to her and the mistletoe is on the counter at her side. "Ready?" she asks when he walks in.
"Yeah," he gestures over his shoulder. "I called a cab. I don't think I should drive."
"I probably shouldn't, either."
"We'll share it. He'll be here in ten minutes. Well, like eight now."
"Good," she nods, giving him a small smile.
"Are you, uh, okay to go home? I'm up for doing something else, if you want."
She nods, fidgeting with her scarf. "I'm fine. Roy is staying at his brother's tonight, anyway. I'm just gonna go to bed."
"Okay." He thinks for a minute about asking if she wants to stay with him, or at least come over for a while. He pretends that his motives are pure. "Seriously. Call me if you need anything."
"I will." She wraps her arms around herself. "So what are you going to do tonight?"
"Dunno. I was thinking I'd go out to the bars, try my luck," he reaches past her, picks up the mistletoe, and holds it over his head. He can see her smile as she bounces up on her toes, as his eyes close reflexively. She gives him a kiss that's there and then gone again, her lips soft and dry. "Okay," his voice is light and he laughs, but he's got his hand on the counter next to her for support. His eyes are still closed. "you have got to stop sneaking up on me like that." He means it, of course, but probably not in the way that she thinks.
"Sorry." He opens his eyes. Pam's marvelously close to him and grinning.
"I mean, really - I would hate for all the girls to think I was a bad kisser. I know how all of you talk." He's determined to keep joking until he can speak normally, but he can feel his control slipping. The sheer face of the way he feels about her has shot up several feet in a matter of seconds. He has momentarily decided that he is done with things like being careful.
"Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me. I wouldn't want to wreck your chances with Kelly."
"Or Meredith," he adds.
"And let's not forget Phyllis," she concludes thoughtfully, smiling up at him.
It's abrupt, but it's just so easy to kiss her then, his chilled hand sliding into the warm space between her neck and her scarf, in the near dark, where no one would think to look or expect to find them so late on a Friday night. He waits to be admonished, but she just moves closer, until their toes bump. The kiss stretches, becomes plural and far less careful than it started, sustained until she pulls away from him slowly and rests her forehead against his chest. "Oh God," she breathes. He says nothing, choosing instead to concentrate on how easily he can wrap his arms around her. They stand together like that for a moment before she raises her head. This time, he makes no pretense about being friendly or sweet or experimental. When he presses her back against her desk, takes her bottom lip between his, and she moans quietly, he's pretty sure that Roy can fuck right off, because never in a million years did he think he would get to do anything more than feverishly imagine that sound.
His phone trills in his pocket and, surprised that the outside world has the nerve to go on existing, he breaks the kiss without stepping back. Her hands are under his jacket, on his back, and his voice falters when she splays her fingers against his spine. As he's telling the cab driver that they'll be right down, he steals a glance at her. She seems to be attempting to decipher cryptic writing on his chest. When he kisses the furrow of her brow, she pulls away gingerly.
They give the cab driver two addresses, hers then his, and sit in opposite corners of the back seat. At the first red light, she reaches over and takes his hand without looking at him. It's a fifteen-minute ride, during which their hands stay joined between them, but they do not speak. He looks out his window the entire time, only turning to face her when the car comes to a stop outside of her place. She gathers her purse and gives him a heartbreaking look.
"Jim," she begins, squeezing his fingers.
They glance at the driver at the same time. "Please don't," he says softly.
"I just want to -" she tries again.
He shakes his head. "Please."
She lets go of his hand, and, with a backwards look, gets out of the car. He tells the driver to wait until she's inside. When he sees a light come on, he says that they can leave.
On Monday morning, she's still wearing her ring.
What's the old saying? If there's mistletoe in the first act, it's bound to go off in the third?
Something like that...
This is for Callisto, who let me listen to myself talk about this one for a while on Sunday. As you can all see, it helped.
Something like that...
This is for Callisto, who let me listen to myself talk about this one for a while on Sunday. As you can all see, it helped.
Author's Chapter Notes:
I was thinking about Canary a lot while I wrote this. In fact, I shifted from Pam's to Jim's pov partially because of Canary. So here's to Kate Andrews, who introduced so many of us to our weird little hobby.
Chapter End Notes:
Happy holidays to all of you. I hope to share something a little less miserable and a little more... uh, frosting before the year's out.
Talkative is the author of 15 other stories.
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