i. it's still early
Casino Night comes and goes, as if it were merely a dream, leaving behind only an empty chair and a swirling sea of regret. She learns of his transfer from Michael during a conference room meeting, an announcement that makes everything else fade to background noise. His eyes are glassy and his voice cracks as he says the familiar name, and somehow it's fitting that Michael is the most emotional person in the room. She's vaguely aware of other employees expressing their sadness over his departure, but the wave passes swiftly, and his seat is filled the next day.
Ryan dumps his things onto the desk and settles in, as if the seat was always his. The sense of entitlement that he exudes make her blood boil. He turns to glance at her, and she realizes that she's been staring and quickly looks away, staring instead at the computer screen until her eyes burn. The day drags without anyone to saunter up to her desk and drum their fingers along the edge, eyes dancing with the schemes. She'd never realized how much she looked at him until she's made eye contact with Ryan six times. She bites her cheek until she tastes blood and adds a tally to her sheet. By the end of the day, she's lost count of how many times she's made eye contact and fleetingly wonders if Angela's Pam Pong score was ever this high.
The days melt into weeks, but she still feels a pang every time their eyes meet.
ii. you can't lick your wounds forever
The restaurant is dimly lit, and Alan is sitting just a bit too close for comfort. The last time she was this close to a man was, well, she banishes the thought from her mind. Once they order, he asks her about her job and her art, which she finds out Kelly has already been gushing to him about, and she asks about his comics and where he went to school. Their conversation is forced and awkward, and she silently gives thanks for the fact that this is a double date because Kelly does enough talking for all of them. Alan's sense of humor is dry and she finds herself forcing out short laughs just to be polite. She's pretty sure Ryan's caught on, his eyes meeting hers as he raises a single eyebrow at her. She stifles a laugh as he shakes his head in mock disdain. When Alan leaves to use the bathroom, Kelly all but explodes with excitement.
"Do you like him Pam? I think he’s totally into you! He's, like, definitely your type! I'm totally amazing at playing matchmaker! Don't you see the way he looks at her Ryan?"
The question seems catch Ryan off guard, and he nods and murmurs his agreeance. As Kelly turns to ask for a refill on her sparkling raspberry lemonade, extra raspberry, Ryan catches her eye again.
"Yeah, he's just dying to stick his freedom fry in you," he mumbles, and Pam chokes on her drink, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter as Alan slides back into the booth.
Ryan joins the conversation, now that Kelly has stopped feeding him, and the tension in the room dissipates. It turns out Ryan's pretty funny when he's buzzed and not being an ass, and she realizes the date isn’t completely awful. As they head out into the cool night, she mouths her gratitude to him as they part ways.
iii. the sun's peeking over the horizon
She feels self conscious as she emerges from the bathroom with her new shirt. The color is bold, the neckline is daring, and she's never even considered buying anything like this before, but Kelly's shower of compliments emboldens her. As she stares at her reflection in the mirror, a fire builds in her chest. She's tired of hiding and repressing and swallowing words and Kelly's right, she looks damn good in red, so she squares her shoulders and takes her lunch to the break room where Ryan's already sitting.
"So you're really trying to change." It comes out as more of a statement than a question.
"I know you have a 'I hate everyone' facade or whatever, but you can stop with the snarky remarks. I got some new clothes because I wanted some new clothes."
"I was just asking."
She seethes silently for a few seconds before she decides to let her mind meet her lips.
"No you weren't Ryan. I know you think people can't change, but I am. I already have. I'm more than my circumstances and my mistakes, and I'm more than you'll ever be."
His eyes widen in surprise before he smirks at her.
"You should buy new clothes more often. You look really nice."
Somehow, his twisted compliment almost makes up for Kevin's ogling and giggles.
iv. worlds are colliding
It's already been a long day, and she's really missing, well, she still can't quite say his name. As she sits in a circle with Michael and her coworkers, she realizes she doesn't need him to pull pranks and make jokes. She's strong and independent, and she can be funny and clever all by herself. She relishes the way Ryan's eyes seem to light up when she tells her story, and when he motions for the ball, he doesn't disappoint and she finds herself gazing at him with the look of admiration that she used to reserve only for, well, you know who.
When she finishes her song and the tiny bird is laid to rest, Ryan motions to her from across the parking lot. She joins him, staring in confusion as he hands her a Baby Ruth bar.
"What's this for?"
"The story, the funeral, everything I guess."
She looks at him for a few seconds before she bursts out laughing.
"I know I can't be that funny."
"It's just, um, Baby Ruth's remind me of someone. Some people I should say."
"It's not an official relationship unless you have a signature food I guess."
Her thoughts turn to grilled cheese, and her stomach twists.
"Is this just a Scranton thing?"
"Probably, this town really sucks. Either way, cookies are ruined for me."
"Someone I know?"
He gives her a pained look, and a realization dawns on her.
"Say it on three."
"Are you twelve?"
"Dwight and Angela?" their voices mix as they gaze at each other in horror.
"Let's never talk about this again." He offers his hand.
She breaks the bar in half, and they lean against his car, eating in silence.
"Wait, does this mean that our friendship food is the same as Dwight and Angela?" she asks suddenly.
"What have I done?" He buries his head in his hands as Pam dissolves into a fit of laughter.
"I think I broke our deal by accident."
Phyllis' car pulls out of the parking lot, and they're alone.
"You were wrong."
"You said I have an 'I hate everyone' facade. I don't hate everyone."
"I don't hate you either."
v. things aren't always as they seem
She slides the phone into the receiver and lets her eyes water as her thoughts wander to, well, saying his name once was enough courage for one night. Her head is spinning as she grabs her purse and heads for the elevator. The memories are thick around her, and she's desperate for a breath of fresh air. When she heads out, she almost blows right past Ryan, catching him only out of the corner of her eye. He's leaning against the front of the building, eyes closed and head bowed.
"Are you okay?"
"How was the sales call?"
"It was... actually it was exactly what you'd expect. Do you have anywhere you need to be?"
She shakes her head, so she follows him around the corner and they walk in silence. The air is cold on her ears and nose, and the streetlights flicker in the fading light.
"Why are you here so late?"
"I was, um, just talking on the phone to..."
She knows he can fill in the blank.
The word hangs between them, but she's not who she used to be and the past is just that, in the past.
"So sales call?"
"Right. So I'm in the car with Dwight, and I'm trying to actually learn from him.."
"Mistake number one."
"Why didn't you warn me?"
"There's only so much I can do for you. You're not a temp anymore."
"I should have known. Anyway, he parks his car in the middle of nowhere, and gets out. Then he gives me this beet seed and..."
"Wait, he gave you a beet seed?!"
"And made me plant it."
"Ryan Howard the beet farmer. Has a nice ring to it."
"Shut up. So I was on the ground, kneeling in manure, and he says something about his car and takes off running. You can guess the rest."
"He takes off?"
"You got it. So I must've walked like a mile or something, and I finally get to this old barn, and Dwight opens the door. He makes me sit in this old chair and asks me some weird questions, and then his weirdo cousin jumps out of nowhere and was going to try and wrestle me or something. Hey, this isn't funny!"
Her cheeks are flushed and her sides hurt as she imagines Ryan wrestling Mose.
"He took you to the legendary Schrute Farms?"
"I'm surprised he didn't try to kidnap me to be honest. Make me his farm slave or something."
She hasn't laughed like this since, well, it's been a long time.
"I was so pissed. I just left. He came and picked me up, and then turns out there was a real sales call that he forgot about, which went even worse then my little vacation."
"I'm sure it wasn't that bad."
"It was. First of all, we smelled like manure and my suit was all dirty. I tried to sell to them, but I kept stumbling over my words, and they kept turning all of my statements on me. They told me I was a horrible salesman working for a company who specializes in ripping people off, Pam."
He looks so hurt that she has to resist the urge to reach out and touch him.
"It was one bad sales call, and it wasn't even your fault. It'll get better."
"I just, I know I have a shitty reputation or whatever, but I care. I want to be successful and I want to be a good salesman and I want to own my own business and I just... I want to be someone."
"You are someone."
"Sure. No one likes me. I know that. I'm really trying to change, and this really fucking sucks."
"I like you."
Her voice is a whisper in the quiet night and he's gazing into her eyes, and she's not sure if anyone's ever looked at her quite like this. He starts to lean in, and she fleetingly thinks it's too soon before remembering that not everything has to be preceded by years of pining and invisible lines, Besides, with the street lights bouncing off his eyes, they almost look green.
They're almost touching when a horn honks, and she jumps two feet back. He turns and begins his walk back to the office, and she stands, watching him fade to a speck on the horizon.
"Is Jim coming back?"
He's broken the ice between them, said the name that she's avoided for months, the name that's hung between them in every pause.
"That's, um, I hadn't thought about it. I don't know, huh."
She stumbles over her words, silently pleading with her eyes for him not to do this, not now, not here in front of the cameras, but deep down she knows why.
"I just don't want it to be weird, you know? I mean I took his old job and his old desk..."
Her mind fills in the blank like he's done for her so many times now.
"Yeah, that might be weird. Overall though, we still all have our jobs so, good news right?"
She lets herself answer what she knows he's asking. She feels a pang in her chest, and for the first time, it's not Jim that causes it.
"Oh yeah, totally."
Kelly runs into the kitchen and throws her arms around Ryan, kissing against the fridge, and she just knows.