Disclaimer: I don't claim to own The Office or anything else you may recognize here.

Note: This was originally written in 2010 and posted on livejournal (and removed since then). I was looking through my old things and decided to post this one back up. It takes place during late Season Five, after Ryan gets fired from corporate, pretends to take a trip to Thailand, and bleaches his hair.

Defense Mechanism

"I totally hate his new hair," Kelly tells Oscar as they watch Ryan walk across the parking lot. "I mean, blonde? Seriously? It looks stupid and fake, just like the rest of him."

"If he wants to dye his hair, it's his choice," says Oscar, who happened to park next to Kelly that morning. Sometimes Kelly wonders if Oscar is just pretending to be gay, because he seems to have absolutely no opinion on the state of Ryan's hair, and that's just weird. Shouldn't he be like, an expert on that stuff? Plus he doesn't even know who Lance Bass is and he never wants to go shopping whenever Kelly invites him, which is downright sad.

"Whatever." Kelly slams her car door shut and locks it. "It still looks stupid. And his shirt's not even tucked in. Can you believe the way he's dressed, Oscar?"

Oscar has no opinion on the state of Ryan's dress either, which further convinces Kelly that all men are posers, no matter what their sexual orientation is. There's also the fact that Oscar looks as if his mother picked out his wardrobe, so he's pretty hopeless when it comes to these things. If only he would let Kelly take him shopping, then all of his problems would be solved in an instant.

Kelly sighs and heads in to work, glad to see that Ryan's stupid bleached head has disappeared from her line of vision. It's the last thing in the entire universe she wants to see on a Monday morning, really.

"So I hear the temp is back in the building," Kevin says during lunch, allowing a lazy smirk to spread across his face. "Return of the fire guy."

Kelly is digging through the refrigerator, pushing Dwight's sandwich (which probably contains deer meat or possum or something else that's totally weird) and Jim's ham and cheese out of the way so she can find her lunch. She freezes the moment Kevin speaks, then quickly forces out a laugh. "I can't believe he's desperate enough to join Michael's stupid paper company. I heard he was working in some crappy bowling alley for a while. How lame is that?"

"Well he ought to go back to it," says Phyllis, looking put out. "He and Pam are stealing our clients away."

Kelly finds her lunch and starts looking for the soda she stored along with it, grateful that the refrigerator can hide how her hands are shaking. "I can't believe a loser like Ryan managed to get clients at all. Michael only hired him because he's like, creepily in love with him or something." Angela narrows her eyes in disapproval, but Kelly ignores her. "Really, Michael's taste in men is horrible."

"But Kelly," says Kevin. "You dated Ryan. Twice."

"Screw you, Kevin," says Kelly, and she takes her lunch and storms out of the room.

It's five o'clock and Kelly sees Ryan in the parking lot again. He's pacing around with a cell phone in his hand, texting nonstop, and Kelly wishes she could take the phone from his hands and smash it on the ground. It reminds her too much of the days when he worked in corporate and was always playing with that stupid fancy Blackberry of his, thinking he was too good for everyone else. Now he just looks like a delinquent kid with too much time on his hands, and it's pathetic.

"See that idiot loser over there?" Kelly tells Erin as the two of them walk out to their cars. "The sloppily dressed one with the dyed hair?"

"With the phone?" says Erin, nodding her head in Ryan's direction.

"Yeah. Can you believe that he broke up with me twice? I totally thought I was in love with him forever and ever until he dumped me, so then I decided that I hated his guts and dated other guys. But then I was dumb enough to go out with him again and thought everything would be awesome, because what kind of a jerk would leave the same girl twice, right? And guess what? He went and dumped me again. Word of advice, Erin: don't ever, ever go near Ryan Howard because he is the jerkiest loser on the face of the earth who has the worst dye job in the world and can't even remember to tuck his shirt in at a freaking office."

Erin looks somewhat stunned by this information, but soon she's smiling nervously and nodding her head. "Right. I won't ever, ever go out with him. Plus he hasn't stopped texting since we came out here."

"And did I mention that his mom drives him to work? He's so pathetic it makes me want to stab myself. But that would be gross, because I really hate blood."

After parting ways with Erin, Kelly gets into her car and briefly considers running Ryan over with it, then decides it isn't worth it. He's such a loser now, he doesn't even deserve to get hit with her car.

Kelly is convinced that the Michael Scott Paper Company is an incredibly stupid idea, even stupider than that poor excuse for a dress that Phyllis is wearing. (Honestly, if her husband is such an awesome refrigerator salesman or whatever, then surely he can afford her some better clothes.) The Michael Scott Paper Company has got to be one of the most ridiculous ideas in the universe because even though Michael, Pam, and Ryan are holed up in a closet where nobody from Dunder Mifflin has to see them, Kelly is constantly aware that she and Ryan inhabit the same building every day for hours on end.

It's a very uncomfortable feeling.

And yes, she's definitely been talking smack about Ryan to anybody within earshot, as often as possible, but what else is she supposed to do? Praise him for getting off his lazy ass to help Michael and Pam steal Dunder Mifflin's clients? Yeah right. Deep down she knows that she probably shouldn't be talking about Ryan at all, considering the fact that he dumped her twice and ought to be dead to her, but somehow insulting him out loud makes her feel slightly better about the whole thing. Slightly.

She consoles herself with the fact that she doesn't need a selfish jerk like Ryan in her life anyway, especially when there are plenty of other guys around who are a million, billion times better. There's Charles Miner, the new vice president of the company, and surely he likes totally awesome Indian girls much better than tiny religious blondes who cheat on their fiancés. And then there's Darryl, who was nice most of the time and still gives her lingering looks when he comes up from the warehouse. And Andy is pretty cool, once you get past his crazy singing and those utterly freaky ties he wears. Kelly has no idea where he managed to buy a green-and-orange tie and reminds herself to never go there if she ever finds out.

Her options are limited, of course, but she can totally find herself a new boyfriend in like, less than a week probably. Take that, Ryan Howard.

When Michael resumes his position as Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin and brings Ryan and Pam back with him, Kelly keeps herself hidden. She knew all along that Michael's paper company was going to be a total failure, because a company with only three workers is just lame and where were they getting their paper from anyway? She's relieved when she finds out that even though Ryan is back to being a temp, he won't be sitting anywhere near her, but she still can't bring herself to leave her desk on the day he moves all his stuff back in. She hasn't seen him face-to-face since the day he left for Thailand, or wherever the hell he ran off to (he was always such a liar, especially to her), and the thought of seeing him up close makes her want to throw up.

She's always hated her desk because it's kind of isolated and there's nobody to talk to except for Toby, who always claims that he's hard of hearing or has a headache whenever she wants to chat with him. There are people on the phones to talk with, of course, but the customers hang up when she tries telling them all about her little sisters stealing her phone yesterday because she brought them to school late, or all the super awesome romantic comedies she added to her queue on Netflix, or the stylish new coat she's planning to buy with her next paycheck.

It's lonely sitting at her desk all day, snacking on her stash of vending machine chips because she doesn't have the nerve to go get her lunch. Lonely, but safe. Anything is better than walking into the kitchen or break room and bumping into Ryan Douchebag Howard, who will probably just walk off and pretend he doesn't know her and—

Footsteps. Someone is walking up to her desk.

"Hey. Kelly?"

Kelly nearly has a heart attack until she realizes it's Jim, and Jim has always been pretty nice even if he did forget all about her birthday one time. "Oh, hey Jim!" she says, forcing herself to be perky. "What's up?"

"I don't know, I thought you might have been sucked up by a black hole or something," says Jim. "And Kevin is debating on whether or not he should eat your lunch. You might want to go claim it."

"Nah, I'm not hungry. Tell him he can have it."

Jim gives her one of those dubious looks he's always wearing in front of the cameras. "You sure?"

"Yeah. I'm like, really busy right now, so I can't talk, okay? Bye Jim!"

Jim totally knows she's lying, but he just shrugs and shuffles away, and Kelly watches him go. As soon as he's gone she realizes she's still hungry, even after eating a week-old bag of Fritos and a Snickers bar, but it's too late to fix that. She simply can't go out there.

And really, it's a million times better this way.

Kelly waits until everyone has left at the end of the day before getting into the elevator, and it's blissfully empty. Kelly normally enjoys riding in an elevator full of people because all sorts of mini conversations can occur, and she likes to challenge herself to see how many words she can pack into a brief elevator ride, but this time she's glad to be alone. Being alone means she doesn't have to worry about making awkward conversations with any stupid temps, or with anybody who's tactless enough to discuss any stupid temps with her. She knows she can't keep on avoiding civilization forever, because she would probably just die if she couldn't socialize for like, more than two days, but she hasn't come up with a Plan B yet.

The elevator jolts slightly as it hits the first floor, and the doors slide open. Kelly's already got her car keys in her hand and she's wondering what CD she's going to play on the way home, but as soon as the elevator opens she forgets how to think and simply stares, like one of those totally weird plastic mannequins at Victoria's Secret. With more clothes on, of course.

Ryan is standing in front of her. His hair is still blonde, but at least his shirt is tucked in and he isn't texting anyone. "Um… hi," he says, gazing at her like she's an oncoming train that's ready to hit him.

"Hi," says Kelly. She makes herself sound disinterested, because he's honestly the last person on earth she wants to talk to right now, and the look on her face is somewhere between bored and disapproving.

"I left my phone at my desk," Ryan says with an awkward, forced little smile. "Got to go back up and get it."

Kelly doesn't respond. She steps out of the elevator just as the doors are starting to close back up, and Ryan quickly gets inside. There's no time for them to say goodbye to each other because the elevator will take off soon, but Kelly is perfectly fine with that. They already said goodbye on the night he came over to her place for the last time, before he broke up with her again and left. She refused to give him more than twenty dollars for his trip and didn't want to sleep with him, but somehow they ended up in bed anyway and everything else became a blur. He didn't even bother to stay the whole night and when she woke up in the morning, he was out of her life again.

"What a jerk," Kelly mutters to herself as she exits the building and heads out to her car. "I hope he never dyes his hair back to normal because looking stupid suits him."

Her hands are shaking by this time and her eyes feel a little watery, but it's just allergies, really. They're always so bad this time of year and she makes a mental note to bring some medicine to work with her tomorrow, just in case she has a sneeze attack or something.

"I can't believe he got into corporate and now he's just a lame temp again," she says as she crosses the parking lot, blinking rapidly to fight off her allergies. "And what's with that hair anyway? I bet he dyed it himself because he's a loser and can't afford a professional and I bet nobody will go out with him. Seriously, how could I have been dumb enough to get with him twice?"

She's at her car now and her hand slips when she tries to unlock the door, but she manages it on the second try. "Whatever, it's only Ryan," she tells herself as she slides into the driver's seat. "He's not even worth thinking about."

If she keeps convincing herself that she hates him, then maybe it will come true.