“I’ve figured it out,” Karen grins, from behind the bottle of beer clasped between her hands.
Her knee is pressed firmly into his thigh. He likes it… how eager she is, how she keeps leaning into his space and how her breath comes in warm tufts on the side of his neck as she cants closer to murmur her thoughts in the crowded bar. He likes it. He’s decided if he repeats the message often enough, he’ll start to believe it.
And once he believes it, he might just be able to cancel out the gut-wrenching loop that Pam-we’ll-always-be-friends-Beesly pressed play on the in the Dunder Mifflin parking lot earlier this evening. The fact remains, he may be beside Karen in the bar, but he’s left his mind and the last vestiges of his hope on the asphalt with the curly-haired receptionist.
But he’s trying.
He’d been half-hearted with his attempts to move on in Stamford, especially after the news broke that the wedding, Pam’s wedding was off.
June 10th passed as another non-descript Saturday and he pretended that the call from his mother to check in was completely routine. He pretended even harder that he wasn’t waiting for someone else to call. He definitely didn’t blow off an invitation from Andy to see his friend’s band play because it would’ve been too loud to hear his phone. He tried to convince himself that he really had pressing errands to run and that was that.
The parking lot.
He’d called Karen. He’d asked her to meet up for a drink. They were friends? Karen had been angling for more and he’d been steadfastly playing ignorant. Now that Pam had confirmed they were still friends and didn’t that taste bitter replaying over and over again, he’d decided that this thing with Karen may just have potential after all. So, here he was trying.
He shrugs the thoughts of Pam away as best he can – they’re always tricky to squash. At least this time the distraction is pretty great. If his heart hadn’t already been stomped to pieces, he’d probably find it easy to like-like Karen.
Jim focusses up to listen as she chatters about the many characters filling the Scranton office. He knows they all make somewhat of a first impression. He thought it would be more fun without the warning label and as predicted Karen has a lot to say about her new colleagues.
“There are so many contenders,” Karen continues, expanding on her earlier statement about figuring it out.
“For?” it’s an admirable effort from Jim to actively participate in the conversation despite his whirling thoughts.
“The weirdest person in the office.”
“The understatement of the year, continue.” He wonders if Dwight or Michael will take the cake for Karen. It’s too close to call.
Okay, not what he had expected. Pam is the closest to normal every way you look at it. Jim eyes Karen speculatively. Pam? He tries to mask his disbelief with mild interest.
“Oh, is she why you left?”
Jim gapes openly at her as his heart shatters at just how accurate that statement is. How? He thought he’d done a great job today at downplaying everything. He’d barely talked to Pam. He barely been able to look at her and…
“I didn’t know you had a stalker,” Karen adds, breaking his spiralling thoughts.
“Stalker?” he finally manages to squeak, eyes wide with shock.
Karen nods. “Mmm. She stared at you all day. Every time I looked up, her eyes were locked on the back of your neck.”
Jim swallows the lump in his throat that threatens to overflow. He’s – confused? is that the emotion he can’t quite name?
“And that hug when you came in, I could see how uncomfortable you were,” Karen nods sagely, like she’s figured something out. “She’s obsessed with you.”
We’ll-always-be-friends his brain shouts as it tries to defend him from a feeling that reeks suspiciously of the hope that has long been lost.
He blows past it with a forced laugh and a shrug. “Please, it’s Dwight who’s obsessed with me.” This serves his purpose in swiftly changing the topic and steering it away from what he wants most, which is to sit Karen down and interrogate her on what exactly she saw and why she now thinks what she thinks.
Pam staring at him? Enough that Karen, a relative stranger to her, thought it was worth mentioning? Enough that Karen thought it was weird? Enough that Karen decided Pam was the greatest oddity in the office, eclipsing the likes of Dwight?
It’s nothing, but at the same time it’s everything.
It’s enough that when Karen leans in with eager eyes at the end of the night, he turns his head and presses his lips swiftly to her cheek. It’s enough that when she states, “I had a great night,” her tone rich with suggestion, he answers with, “I’m really glad we’re friends – ”
And tries to not to wince at the parallel with Pam earlier and the fact that maybe he’s a bit of an arse because in the space of one conversation he’s backflipped multiple times on what he wants from Karen. But, that little seed of hope that he’s decided on very cautiously calling curiosity has been planted and he really, really wants to water it.
The next day he watches. His approach his first day back had been to ignore Pam as much as professionally possible. Today, he curses his new desk with his back to her. It makes it a touch obvious when he swings around to face her every few minutes.
A pattern emerges.
He gently rolls his chair back and turns his head just enough to catch a glimpse of her. Her head is inclined in his direction. He twists his chest to face her more squarely. Her eyes lock with his, wide and curious. He stares for a second too long. She blushes, but refuses to drop her gaze. He tries not to grin. She smiles softly and tucks a curly lock back behind her ear.
It’s the same every time. By lunch, he’s repeated the experiment sixteen times, with the same results. Twice, instead of the smile, she chews her bottom lip gently, in a move that he knows means she’s nervous.
The added bonus is that Dwight is convinced they’re plotting against him and snorts derisively at Jim each time he turns back to his desk.
He opts for a different approach for version seventeen. He slaps his hands onto his knees and wipes away the sweat on his palms. If he’s going to let her crush his heart again, he may as well get it over with. No point getting his hopes up any higher than this before they wilt and die once again.
He approaches her desk, tapping the counter in greeting. She pushes the jellybean jar towards his outstretched hand in response. He plucks one out, plops in into his mouth and chews thoughtfully. She gazes at him with steady patience, but he sees the questions forming below the surface.
“Dwight thinks we’re up to something,” he stage whispers conspiratorially, with a glance over his shoulder to confirm that Dwight is indeed glaring at them.
It’s enough to brighten her smile. “Well, if he’s expecting something, it would be rude of us not to deliver.”
“Exactly,” Jim replies and tries to tamp down the thrill that Pam saying us elicits in him.
He rubs the back of his neck nervously and ignores the thought that it’s ridiculous that he’s back here again and the months he spent in Stamford trying to convince himself that there was more to the world than Pam has led him straight back to Pam.
She rests her hands on her chin and gazes at him in anticipation. Her bare fingers cheer him on. They tell him it’s worth the risk – again. “Do you want to come have lunch? See if we can come up with a little surprise for Dwight?”
“It’s not much of a surprise if he knows it’s coming,” she deadpans.
He steels himself for the rejection he feels is about to follow. She must sense him tense, because her hands slap over her mouth and she quickly adds –
“Jim,” in a piercing tone, with, “I’d love to,” tacked gently on the end. He brightens and tries to brush it off.
She hesitates for a moment and then something steels within her and she’s reaching forward to cover his hand on the counter with her own. “I’d love to,” she repeats and he grins widely.
Her hand retracts after a moment with a sigh and a glance over his shoulder. He reluctantly follows her line of sight, expecting Dwight, but finding Karen at the copier looking less than impressed and a whole lot confused. He paints on a smile before he turns his attention back to Pam.
“I noticed yesterday that you’ve made new friends in Stamford,” she murmurs and bites down on her bottom lip a little too late to mask the quiver. She stares at her hands as she speaks. “Is it Karen,” she gulps, “that you’re seeing?”
He hates that it kind of makes him happy that she seems hurt. But, it’s the closest thing he has to a lifeline so he it’s all he can do to grasp onto it with all he has.
“Friends,” he replies far more breezily than he feels. “Andy’s a cool dude.”
She lifts her eyes from her fidgeting hands to stare at him incredulously. He forces a grin and raises his hands in a what-can-you-do kind of way. She gets it. He can tell. “Lunch?” he hedges carefully. “I’m not,” he adds, “seeing someone. I, uh, kind of jumped the gun there. I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
She wrings her hands together a final time and nods. Halfway to the break room, she stops and he almost runs into the back of her. His hand brushes her hip as he steadies himself and he feels electricity dance across his fingertips. “Want to eat out?” she mumbles, her voice shaking slightly.
He nods mutely in response, his hand still alive with the feel of her and she reroutes to the coat rack. “I just can’t face the chicken or fish today,” she explains with an exaggerated shudder.
“I’m getting sick of tuna fish,” he shrugs. “I miss ham and cheese.” Her answering smile rains down on his little seedling of hope and it starts to sprout.
It takes them the length of the elevator ride to agree on the diner a few blocks away. Pam offers to drive, “we don’t want to waste the whole break walking,” she shrugs. She introduces him to her shiny new Yaris with a shy smile.
“Pam, this is so great,” and he means it. No matter what happens with them, there’s better out there for her than resigning herself to a life with Roy. “I’m so proud of you. It, umm, must have been hard.”
She slips into the drivers seat and squares her shoulders to face him. “Leaving Roy wasn’t the hardest part of this year. Not even close.”
He gapes at her, a fish out of water, mouth flapping uselessly in the wind.
She doesn’t elaborate and he doesn’t ask. A silence settles over the car.
As they pull into the diner lot, he stretches his legs as much as he can in the confined space. He’s stupidly aware of how lanky he is in this little blue bubble. His knee creaks in protest. “I’m too big for this car,” he grumbles.
Apparently, he’s still sharing the vehicle with fancy new bolder Beesly because she assesses him carefully before replying, “I think you fit perfectly.” He hears what she’s saying and what she isn’t saying all in the same breath.
“Pam,” he croaks.
She offers him a tight smile.
“I’m glad we’re having lunch together,” he breathes.
She twists the ignition off. The steady rumble of the engine ceases. “Me too,” she whispers carefully and watches as he is jolted back to that night, when she’d answered me too before shattering his world.
He tries to swallow the raw, aching feeling and shove it back down into its little box of haunted memories.
“Jim,” she murmurs and a flicker of frustration flashes in her eyes. He doesn’t know what it means, but he can guess. She wants to be friends. She means he fits perfectly as a friend. She’s angry with him for assuming more again.
He waits for the sting of another rejection to hit. He’s going to have to quit his job. He has no future here. His eyes flicker closed as he bites back the tears that threaten to spill.
“Me too,” she states again sharply. “Jim,” she starts again, a gentle entreat. He opens his eyes, if he’s about to be hit by a semi, he may as well watch the bright headlights hurtling towards him and brace for the impact. “That was the most honest thing I said that night,” she mutters. She’s trembling.
His little hope sprout is blowing back and forth in the storm, bowing under the wind, he’s not sure if it’s about to be torn from the roots or bounce back stronger after weathering the downpour.
His desire to comfort her outweighs his pain. He can be her friend, at least for another twenty seconds. He reaches a hand towards her, but before it makes purchase, she’s flinging herself into his arms and wrapping her body around his chest. He gasps. His seatbelt bites into his neck as he slants towards her.
“Why did you say no when I asked you out yesterday?” she mumbles into his neck.
His hands freeze on her back. “You asked me out?” falls clumsily off his lips.
“To get coffee,” she clarifies.
Her breath on his skin has short circuited his brain. It’s providing warm, steady sunshine to his little sprout. It’s standing tall. The storm has eased. Pam asked him out? He kind of thought maybe, but then he thought he was being stupid and brushed it off and she confirmed his fears with the friends statement in the parking lot, so…
“The hardest part of this year was losing you,” she utters, erasing his stream of thoughts and all semblance of self-control.
He unwinds his arms to gently tug her shoulders back so that he can look her in the eyes. He feels the loss of her pressed against him acutely. “I still – ” he starts and is cut off by all his dreams coming true.
Pam tilts her chin towards him and swallows his words with her mouth. She presses her lips to his and he tastes it all, the hunger, the fear. The uncertainty swills between them, like the last time they’d kissed. He washes it away by responding eagerly. His hands rise to clasp her cheeks as she clutches onto his lapels.
One of his hands drops to blindly fumble for his seatbelt so that he can manoeuvre himself even closer to her. He grunts in frustration, which serves a duel purpose, with his hand finally popping the latch holding him back and his lips widening to form the sound – Pam takes the opportunity to dart her tongue deeper into his mouth, eliciting a groan from the depths of his very soul.
She mirrors him, reaching for her own seatbelt, to gain herself a little more movement. In the process of groping for her belt, her hand caressing his thigh and leaves a fire in its wake. He gasps and she giggles into his mouth. It’s the best sound he’s ever heard. It echoes through him, brushing out the cobwebs of pain that had taken up residence.
She unclips her belt and presses even closer to him, chest heaving against his and he can feel every curve that he’s admired over the years beneath his hands and there’s no going back from this. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, aware of just how enthusiastically his body is responding to this impromptu make out session that his literal dreams are made of.
He gently unlatches his lips from hers and pulls back to gaze at her with unfocused eyes. Her cheeks are flushed and she licks her lips as he stares. “You’re right,” she mumbles, her hand smoothing over his shirt, straightening his tie. “This car is too small,” she whines with a wink.
“After work,” he clears his throat, hopes that she can’t hear how strained his voice is, “you could come see my car if you like. It’s bigger.”
She nods enthusiastically. “Or,” she pauses, worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’ll do you one better. You could come see my apartment.”
“Yeah. I’d – I’d like that,” he beams.
She responds by pressing her lips back to his once again. This kiss is far more chaste, but the aftertaste burns with the earlier hunger and leaves him aching for more.
Jim wants to hit fast-forward and reach the end of the working day as soon as possible. “Do you want to just go through the drive thru instead?” The time flashes annoyingly at him from the dash.
Pam nods, “we have to stop at the grocer too.” He questions her with raised brows. “Dwight,” she explains.
His brows rise even higher when she selects a box of chocolates – the good kind. “He’ll think they’ve been tampered with,” she shrugs. “Plus,” she softens, “Dwight’s been nice to me lately…”
“A nice, gentle non-prank to ease back in,” Jim agrees. He picks a nondescript card with an image of farmyard animals on the front. Pam grins and adds it to the basket.
They eat burgers and spilt the fries in the drive thru carpark. Jim strategically and very obviously waits until Pam is reaching for a fry to dive for one too. Their hands brush each time. After a few iterations of this, Pam tangles her salty fingers with his and uses her other hand to eat. It’s hard to bite the burger with a grin splitting his cheeks, but Jim battles it as best he can.
Pam pulls over on the curb a few buildings back from Dunder Mifflin. She fixes him with a very serious gaze before gently kissing him once again. “I can’t wait until 5,” she sighs.
“Me too,” he murmurs.
She groans at the time and pulls back onto the road, turning into the lot moments later. He tightens his grip on her hand for a moment before releasing it.
All afternoon, he establishes a new pattern.
Much like this morning, he turns and looks at Pam – a lot. This time though, there’s a slightly different reaction. She grins widely, he grins widely, he spins around to find Dwight glaring at them – so not everything has changed.
Dwight takes a bathroom break at 3.07pm. Jim takes the opportunity to deliver the box of chocolates to his desk. The card simply states Dwight in what he hopes is the most generic version of his handwriting possible.
As predicted, Dwight spends the afternoon questioning everyone in the office as to who left the box on his desk. He decrees that he knows it was Jim and eyes it suspiciously. No one confirms or denies his theory.
Eventually Pam offers to eat one of the chocolates to prove that they’re safe for consumption. Dwight opens the box and plucks one out offering it to her. Pam’s eyes flit to Jim, he shakes his head. “Not that one,” she insists.
Dwight sighs and hands her another one. Jim shakes his head once again. She drops it back in the box. “Can I pick?” Dwight thrusts the box slightly closer in invitation. She runs her fingers above them, eyes on Jim. He nods as her hand brushes one and she pulls it out smiling at Dwight and pops it into her mouth.
Ryan watches on from Jim’s old desk. “Can I have one?” he asks Dwight.
“Better you poisoned than me,” Dwight shrugs.
Ryan reaches for one. “Not that one,” Jim coughs. He grabs at another one and Jim nods.
Dwight eyes Jim shrewdly. “Michael,” he bellows. “Jim’s trying to poison me again!”
Dwight retreats into Michael’s office – they watch Michael proceed to eat the remainder of the box and live to tell the tale. All in all, it’s another successful work day.
He emerges from a bathroom break to find Karen waiting for him in the break room. He gestures to a table and sinks into a seat. She sits opposite to him. “Pam?”
His hand finds the back of his neck as he grimaces. “You were right about one thing last night,” he pauses with a sigh. “I left because of Pam.”
Karen furrows her brow. “I left because I loved her and she… There was someone else.”
“But now there isn’t?” she fills in the blanks.
“Right. Now there isn’t,” he can’t help himself, it lights up his face, the lack of Roy that now exists. Karen sees it. “I thought – ”
“You thought she didn’t like you and then I told you she spent an entire day staring at you,” Karen sighs. “I’m an idiot.”
“Please, if anyone deserves that distinction, it’s me.”
She smiles ruefully at him, “damn right.”
“I’m sorry, Karen,” he runs his fingers through his hair.
“We’re friends,” she shrugs, “don’t worry about it.” It’s funny how little it stings coming from anyone who isn’t Pam. He actually wants that.
He taps the table, and smiles widely. “Thanks Karen.”
“I’m going to add matchmaker to my resume… What’s Ryan’s story?” she adds. He chuckles and heads back to his desk. “That was a serious question,” she murmurs to his retreating figure.
At 5.00pm the majority of the office head for the elevator. He clasps Pam’s small hand in his and wordlessly steers her towards the stairs. “Hi,” he breathes once he has her to himself in the stairwell.
“Hey,” she replies, before fusing her lips with his. It takes them fifteen minutes to make it to his car. He feels it in his chest, the seed, turned seedling, has flourished to full form and his hope in things to come has been restored. He takes a deep breath in the parking lot and lets this new memory, Pam beaming at him and admiring his big car is soften the edges of their other moments here.