“I told you we should have gone to Hooters like before!”
“Yeah, no, that’s never happening again.”
Sat in a quiet booth of a diner exactly halfway between Scranton and Stamford, two men with extremely contrasting dispositions are conversing about none other than the finer things in life: art, politics, and whether or not Toby from HR is a secret serial killer.
The more solemn, taller of the two is Jim, while the shorter, more goofy but good-natured is Michael. Jim listens complacently as Michael exaggerates how eerily Toby was glancing at him the other day, making him sound like a regular Freddy Krueger. This one-sided conversation continues for a while, until it becomes evident Jim has no real interest in it, and Michael makes the wise decision to shut his mouth.
“But anyway, enough about that creep. You're here! I’m here! We’re here! Together! Jimmy and Mikey! Batman and Robin! Thelma and Louise! How the hell have you been, man?”
Jim finds himself smiling, glad to finally get a word in edgeways. “Oh, you know, not so bad. Kind of busy, but…that’s bound to happen. New job, and everything…” his voice trails away, as does his smile. Michael frowns. “So, how is Stamford? I gotta tell ya, I feel bad for you, man. I went there once to meet Josh when the branch first opened -bet you didn’t know that Scranton’s older than Stamford, huh? They only opened the branch up because they felt that it was a better location, since it was more commercial! What a load of bull-honky! Connecticut more popular than Pennsylvania... hmm. In their dreams. Anyways. I’ve only been there once, but it’s a total buzzkill. Toootal snoozefest. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Well, it has its perks.” Mainly that it wasn’t situated where Pam Beesly was, but he needn’t know that. Michael frowns, misunderstanding entirely. “Perks, huh? What, more than Scranton? What could you like more about the place?”
Jim’s face softens. “It’s not that I…it’s not like that. Michael-”
“Is- Is Josh a better boss than me? What does he have that I don’t? Is he funnier than me? Because I’ve spoken to Josh hundreds of times, and I don’t think he’s all that funny.”
For some reason, his former boss’s childish frettings hit harder than they realistically ought to. Sure, he’s been insolent before, but it’s never made Jim feel bad in such a manner that his heart actually aches- this realisation alone causes him to swell with love for Michael, who is more or less flapping about like a startled bird. Jim drums his fingers on the side of his mug, tuning out as his boss rants on about all of Josh’s shortcomings. The atmosphere of the diner they’re in hardly helps- the vibes, as it were, are so similar to something straight out of Scranton that, for the first time since packing up and driving out of the city, he feels a wave of homesickness washing over him, and his stomach lurches. He chooses to tune back in.
“…and his eyes are weird! Like a frog’s!”
It would be a good time to stop his ramblings, he decides. He manages to force his lips up into a fake smile as he shakes his head, and cuts off Michael as he begins to rant about how fake Josh’s cheekbones appear to be. “Michael, it’s not about that. Really. You're a great boss.”
“Not better than Josh, I preassume.”
Kindly, Jim ignores the way he misspoke (without even looking at the camera, even though there isn’t one there to hover over them like it’s 1984), and shrugs his shoulders lackadaisically. “He’s…fine. He gets the job done, he’s approachable.”
There’s a moment as his former boss considers then, before his eyebrows raise. “Maybe I need to be even approachabler.” Michael hums thoughtfully, and Jim finds himself grinning in a genuine manner for the first time since they’ve been together at this diner. He’s forgotten how much he’s missed this- and though he used to mock, it would brighten his day nonetheless. But then his mind wanders to the only other thing that could ever have the power to brighten his day, and the grin fades like an ailing lightbulb. Sensing the shift in tone, Michael cocks his head to the side like an inquisitive puppy. “Something the matter, Jimbo?”
“No, yeah, sure. I was just curious…as to how Pam’s doing.” He braces himself for the inevitable and takes a sip of his coffee, even though it’s still too hot and it burns his mouth, though he doesn’t even flinch. Michael blinks, not having expected this to be the problem nagging at him, and he twirls his straw around in his lemonade, considering this (he had insisted upon having one, even though they weren’t advertised for anyone over the age of 10- in the diner, and in a civilised society). “Oh, she’s fine, I guess. Except- oh!” He jumps in his seat, covering his mouth, and Jim jumps too, frightened.
“You’ll never guess what happened!”
Jim tenses, then flexes his fingers in an attempt to calm himself. “Do I really want to know?” He asks quietly, picking up his mug…
“Um, totally! Pam only went and broke it off a few days before the wedding!”
…and almost dropping it again. Instead, he only gently places it onto the table again (or, what he thinks is gently- he still ends up splashing some of the boiling liquid onto his fingers). All of a sudden, Jim feels himself going warm, his face burning and his heart beating faster than the speed of light. He manages to look Michael in the eye, his throat feeling exceedingly restricted all of a sudden. “You're kidding, right?”
He shakes his head, eyes wide. “Not at all, dude! You should see her, she’s totally cut up about it. I dunno why she did it. Some people think she’s got something going on with some other man whore, but I don’t buy it.”
Jim feels himself flush again, knowing that he’s theoretically the man whore in this hypothetical scenario. He pulls at the collar of his shirt, hoping it’s not too much of a giveaway. “Oh, really.”
“Really! I just don’t think Pam would do that. She never accepted my advances, anyway.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
“No, neither can I! Super weird.” The older man shrugs dismissively, then sucks from his straw contentedly, and Jim almost smirks. At least he can count on Michael to not suspect a thing. The rest of the office, however…well, that is a completely different matter. He ponders it as he grabs some nearby napkins and awkwardly clears up his mess, feeling a little guilty for judging Michael for juvenile mannerisms, and then going and pulling a stunt like this. Once he’s finished, Michael’s gawping at him with a new expression, one that Jim doesn’t like effective immediately.
“Come to think of it, on the topic of women. Are there any hotties at Stamford I ought to have a head’s up about? You know, for the convention in a week or so.” Jim had almost forgotten about that sordid convention. He was never big on those types of things, but that being said, new opportunities always arose, and work was work, at the end of the day. Any new commissions he could bag wouldn’t hurt. He was so wrapped up in the thought of it that he almost forgot about Michael’s query, until the man impatiently snapped his fingers in his face. “Hellooo! Earth to James. I asked you a question!”
“My bad. And, um, I’m fairly adamant that there aren’t going to be any hot women at the convention. Sorry to burst your bubble. It’ll likely only be Josh and I.”
His former boss sighs, as if it’s Jim’s fault for such an occurrence. “Damn. Have to make-do with Jan, I guess. What about the branch itself? Surely there’s got to be someone there who’s caught your eye.”
At the mention of this, his mind wanders to Karen, and he has to bite back a grin- though it slips through the cracks, and Michael claps his hands delightedly, reminiscent of that of an adolescent. “There is someone! I knew it. You can’ fool mah, Halpert!” He says in a sassy accent, snapping his fingers, one that would most likely be panned by anyone with a sense of morality. As it happens, Jim is one of said people, but since it’s Michael, he chooses not to follow the crowd, and doesn’t comment. Instead, he merely shrugs. “She’s…yeah, I like her.”
Unusually perceptive, Michael’s thick eyebrows prick up. “Yesss…but?”
“There is no ‘but’.”
“Ha, you said butt. But seriously -oh, I did it too!- but seriously. I can tell something’s up, Slim Jim. If this girl is as hot as you said she is-”
“-I never said she was hot.”
“Yeah, sure, but I’ve been imagining her as young Meryl Streep this whole time. Anyway. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. If this girl is as hot as I think she is, then you’d probably be a little bit more enthusiastic about it.” For the first time in their conversation, Michael’s expression becomes strangely stoic. “…is there something you're not telling me?”
His earnest face is surprisingly chilling, and for a moment, Jim wonders whether he should actually tell him the truth. It’s such a tempting thought, the ability to open up and tell someone who isn’t a member of his family or Mark, his old roommate, but when he opens his mouth to do so, the waitress comes up to their table, two plates resting in her sturdy hands.
“One ham and cheese sandwich?”
“Oh, that’s me, thank you.”
“And one family-sized waffle with extra whipped cream and chocolate sauce?”
“Yeppers! That would be me, thanks very mooch!"
The contrast in answers no doubt confuses the waitress, but if she experiences tonal whiplash, she says nothing about it. Jim shakes his head a little, smiling to himself. Sharing the same sentiment, Michael observes his friend with a quiet expression until Jim’s taken his first bite, and he decides to speak. “You always have one of those. What is it about them?”
It’s not until he’s said it that Jim actually looks down at the sandwich in his hands. Crap, he thinks. He isn’t meant to eat these anymore. He’s supposed to be doing things differently, a new routine- and yet, he falls back into his old habits so easily. But, it tastes good and he’s hungry, so he puts his pride aside and takes another bite, then swallows with a small shrug. “They’re low cost, and low effort.”
“Theeen why not just make them yourself at home and order real people food here?”
“I don’t know. I just like them. They’re simple and nice.”
“Starting to wonder if you're simple, when you could have had a nice big waffle like me!”
He opens his mouth to make a jab about type two diabetes, then closes it again, deciding to let it slide, enjoying seeing his former boss so happy as he digs into the ridiculously proportioned waffle laid out before him like a banquet in a fairy book.
He thinks of such a book- one that his sister used to own. She never used to read it, so Jim used to take it and leaf through it avidly without a by or leave. He liked the illustrations more, even though Pete had coloured in some of them with his crayons, but he also liked reading the stories too, especially the ones with cheerful endings, where the prince and princess would get married and live happily ever after. And although the male side of the family had mocked him at the time, dubbing him all sorts of nicknames, his mother had thought it endearing, since Tom and Pete refused to sit through any of said stories unless the princess was feasted upon by a warty troll at the end. Such fond memories make him clam up, and his throat suddenly feels tight as the homesick feeling returns. If Michael notices, he doesn’t say anything.
They eat in silence for a little while, though silence isn’t exactly a fitting description for Michael’s performance as he loudly smacks his lips and nearly chokes on his massive mouthfuls, smearing small amounts of chocolate sauce around his mouth like a kid. It’s such a silly but sweet scene that Jim feels himself choking up again, and he has to force himself to eat the rest of his sandwich, although his appetite has speedily evaporated. By the time Michael has finished his gargantuan confectionery, he’s still nibbling half of his crust lazily, until he decides he’s bored and throws it back down onto the plate. It was a good sandwich, but it tasted like cardboard nonetheless.
Once again sensing some apprehension, Michael wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and gazes at Jim. “Are you gonna tell me what’s got you so blue now?”
Jim sighs, feeling physically unable to bottle it up anymore. He steeples his fingers and stares at his almost empty plate, then nods. “Yeah, well. It’s Pam.”
“What about her?”
“…surely you know, right? That I…” he looks elsewhere, “have feelings for her.” It doesn’t even come close to how he really feels about her.
“Of course I do.” Michael replies blankly, until it occurs to him what he knows, and he gasps. “But I told you, right? She is so single right now! She’s been lining up dates here and there, but between you and me, I don’t think she’s had sex with any of them.” Jim snorts at this, almost choking on his coffee. Usually, the thought of Pam sleeping with anyone fills him with anguish, but the way Michael puts it is so comedic he can’t help but laugh. And anyway, Michael said that she hadn’t slept with them- so there was realistically no need for worry. Still, the thought of her going on dates with all these men in the first place…
“Yeah, I know she’s single now.” He takes a deep breath. “It’s just…I kind of put it all on the line. Twice, actually. And she said no. Twice.”
Michael’s eyes sadden, and he reaches out and places his hand on Jim’s arm in an affectionate manner. “Oh, Jim, I didn’t realise you’d actually…” his voice trails away, until he shakes his head. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.”
Following a moment of consideration, Jim places his own hand over his former bosses, and they both smile for a couple of seconds. Michael pulls away eventually, his face lit up all of a sudden, putting the fear of God into Jim- and rightfully so. “You know what? I will talk to her.”
The thought of this alone scares the shit out of him- he envisions Michael pulling Pam aside and telling her all sorts, in his demented, criminally insane sort of way, and he avidly shakes his head. “Nope, that’s okay.”
“No, I will. Don’t be so humble, Jimbob! I really don’t mind it. Like, sure, you’ll owe me a huge favour afterwards, but it’s really no big deal.” Jim dreads to imagine what a big favour for Michael could possibly entail.
“I’d really prefer it if you didn’t.”
Michael frowns, then shrugs. “Okay, suit yourself. But you should at least talk to Roy. I mean, he knows exactly how you’re feeling.”
The thought of trying to relate to Roy about anything on the basis of Pam makes him feel violently ill once again, even more so- but in order to keep Michael quiet, he forces a smile. “Yeah. Okay, maybe.”
There’s another few moments of silence, until Michael has visibly returned to an earnest state, and he looks at Jim with such intensity that it’s both bewitching and a little bit intimidating. “It’s been really good to see you again, Jim. When you just…upped sticks and left…it was totally bizarre. Everyone was completely thrown off, me and Pam especially. I can’t say Dwight was all that upset, but I think even he’s a bit discombobulated. I think. I don’t really know what that means, it just sounds funny. Anyway, um. I guess you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The point is…we all really miss you.”
Jim finds himself utterly speechless. Instead, he only smiles. “…I miss you guys too.” He manages to get out without his voice cracking with hurt. Michael smiles back at him, in that goofy, lovable way which Jim adores so much. Suddenly, Michael sits up, looking around.
“And since I’ve given you such fatherly, invaluable advice and I’ve forgotten my wallet, it looks like you're gonna have to get this one."
“Michael! Oh, for goodness…” his voice trails away as he fumbles for his wallet in his pocket, annoyed until he reflects on everything that the two of them have done and said today. And most of all, he thinks about how good it is to see someone who means so much to him after so long. So, he doesn’t mind; not really.