A/N- Happy Thanksgiving, everyone who is reading this! Just a quick thought I wanted to share- not loving Jay Mohr's recent weight gain, even though I know it's for a role. I like my Professor Payne à la early season 2, so that's what I'm going with! Also, thanks again everyone for reviewing, it keeps me going! So, on that note, I'm really hoping you enjoy the new chap…
Payne stepped into the dimly lit living room, glancing around to find Melinda standing by the coffee table, pouring red wine into a glass. She was holding the cup directly in front of her face, her brow furrowed with concentration as the liquid sloshed in her unsteady hold. Finally filling the glass, she set the bottle down with a loud clunk and drank deeply.
Melinda smacked her lips and focused her eyes on Payne.
"Did you want to see Jim?" she asked in a thick voice. "Because he is not. Here."
"Honestly, I can't remember the last time I've wanted to see Jim," he answered, holding up the cell phone. "Just came to give this back to you."
He set the phone on the hallway table and walked slowly towards Melinda, who was drawing another long sip of wine.
"Ok, you can leave now," she said dismissively.
"So why are we so thirsty tonight?" he inquired conversationally, consciously masking his concern as he picked up the wine bottle and swished around its depleted contents. He cocked an eyebrow at her.
"I'm not thirsty," she denied, wrinkling her nose in confusion. "Are you thirsty?"
She held out her glass as she brushed past him, and Payne deftly caught it just before she let it go.
Melinda sank onto the sofa with a light "oomph", leaning against the plush cushions and throwing an arm over her eyes.
"I'm glad you brought back my phone, because I was looking and looking and looking for it," she rambled drunkenly, but he didn't answer. His eyes were riveted to where her robe had fallen open, revealing a slinky black silk negligee.
Pulling her arm from her face, she noticed his stare and looked down at herself.
"Hey!" she exclaimed, drawing her robe tightly around her and glaring. "I thought Jim was coming home. But. He isn't. He's working overnight. Again."
"Ah," Payne answered, nodding in understanding as he sat on the edge of the coffee table to face her. "Is that when you broke out the booze?"
"Don't pretend like you know anything about me!" she snapped. "And I did not break out any booze- I began to enjoy a nice vintage."
"Ok, ok!" he answered, hands held up in surrender. Then he gestured to the wine. "Did you 'enjoy' that entire bottle yourself?"
"Nope," she said, popping the 'p'. "But I maybe had a few glasses."
Payne looked at her with surprise, his lips quirked in an amused smile. "A few glasses? And you're this smashed? Melinda Gordon, you're a pathetic lightweight!"
"Well, you're…pathetic!" she shot back lamely, mind clouded from the alcohol, before imperiously adding, "I could drink you under the table in a second."
"Ok, well, as much as I'd like to test that ridiculous claim, I'm pretty sure the attempt would cause your liver to spontaneously combust," he responded.
She rolled her eyes, and he stood and walked into the kitchen. Melinda watched him go with surprise.
"Fine!" she called out, folding her arms. "Leave! I wanted you to anyway!"
She heard cabinets opening and closing, followed by the sound of running water before Payne returned, holding a glass of water.
"Here," he said, offering it to her. "Drink this."
"What is this?" she asked, peering at him suspiciously.
"It's called wa-ter," he enunciated slowly, as if speaking to a child.
She rolled her eyes. "Not this," she said, holding up the cup. "I mean this," she clarified, gesturing between them. "Why are you being so nice? It's weird."
"Probably because you're going to wake up tomorrow morning and remember pretty much nothing about this evening," he replied, before looking down at the floor. "And also because I know what it's like to have to drink yourself into a stupor in order to cope."
Melinda watched him as he fell quiet, before setting down the water glass.
"I want more wine," she announced, standing. She wavered uncertainly for a moment on her feet, before regaining her balance and heading for the wine bottle.
"I think you've had enough," Payne said, immediately shedding his momentary melancholy and snatching the bottle from her hand.
Melinda's mouth dropped open in indignation as she realized she was no longer holding the wine. She tried to reach for it, but he held it above her grasp.
"Hey! That's mine!" she angrily exclaimed, hands on her hips.
"Yeah, well I'm officially cutting you off, lady," he answered. "So why don't you go sleep it off."
"Why do you have to be so rude?" she asked in annoyance. "This is my house and that's my wine, so you can just leave!"
"I could," he agreed. "Or I could ask why dear Jim's not home to take care of his little missus."
"I already told you," she said, walking around him and into the kitchen unevenly, Payne not far behind. "He's out for the night. He's a paramedic."
She stumbled over this last word as she began opening and closing cupboards, searching through them.
"And a firefighter. He works a lot, saving people. He's going to be a doctor," she continued rambling, before turning and looking at Payne. "Isn't he good? That's what I like about him. He's so good."
Melinda smiled slightly, before returning to her task of rummaging through the kitchen shelves. Suddenly, she abruptly stopped and braced her hands on the counter, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
"He's so good!" she cried.
"Ok, he's good! I know! I believe you!" Payne hurriedly assured her, not sure how to deal with the sudden mood swing. Man, she was a volatile drunk.
"And I'm horrible!" Melinda continued, tears falling down her cheeks in wet tracks. "I can't even look my wonderful husband in the eye, and the only person I can stand to be around anymore is an egotistical college professor! I'm a horrible person!"
"What? No! I mean, yes, horrible at lying and drawing, maybe, but a horrible person? No way," he answered, approaching her and placing a hand on her shoulder. Then, quietly, "You're the best person I know."
Melinda looked up at him, her face tear-stained.
"I am?" she asked hopefully, hiccupping.
"Melinda, you spend your free time risking your life to help ghosts, without a second thought. I think that's pretty great," he said sincerely.
She looked at him with a watery smile, before pouting.
"And I'm not a bad drawer. Or liar," she said petulantly.
"Whatever you say," Payne laughed, his hand dropping from her shoulder. A moment of silence lapsed between them as he looked at her. Her drunken state dulled her perceptibility, allowing Payne the rare opportunity to openly look at her with the fondness that normally made her chatter and look away nervously. His eyes dropped to her pouting lower lip and he was suddenly seized with the desire to capture it between his own.
However, Melinda was oblivious to the change that had come over him, and she sighed.
"I'm tired," she announced with a small frown, shrugging out of her robe and letting it fall to the floor with a light swish. "I have to go to sleep now."
She walked around him and made her way to the living room while Payne remained still for a moment and tried to collect himself. Drawing a deep breath, he reentered the living room, his eyes falling on Melinda. She was lying on the couch, already slumbering lightly.
He cut through the room towards the front door and made to leave, but despite himself spared one last look at Melinda. She was curled up on her side, her hands cushioned under her cheek. Sighing in disgust with himself, Payne took his hand from the doorknob and went back into the room. He grabbed a blanket from the back of the sofa and shook out the folds, before laying it over her sleeping form.
"Dr. Rick Payne, babysitter," he mumbled to himself, shaking his head. Whenever this woman was involved, he always seemed to sink to new and embarrassing lows.
Stealing one final glance at the soft shine of light on her thick brown curls and the pleasant red-pink tint of her cheeks, he turned to leave.
He almost made it to the door, when Melinda's tentative voice called, "Rick?"
He froze at the sound of his name falling from her lips, and slowly pivoted to face her. She was sitting up on the couch, her eyelids heavy from sleep and wine.
Throwing back the blanket, she stood and approached him, walking until she was directly in front of him.
Melinda rose on her tiptoes and positioned her mouth next to his ear.
"Thank you," she whispered, and he shivered at the feel of her lips brushing against the shell of his ear.
Then gasped when her soft lips captured his ear lobe, her teeth lightly pulling and nipping playfully, before moving down to the sensitive just below, at the juncture of his neck and jaw.
"Ah!" he exclaimed in surprise, stiffening. "I- uh" Words were not coming easily, though were clamoring to be formed.
Finally, logic penetrated the fog in his mind, and he placed his hands decisively on her shoulders and pulled away.
"Melinda," he said, panting slightly and holding her at a distance.
"What?" she asked, her brow wrinkling in perplexity as she shrugged off his hold. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought this was what you wanted."
"This isn't what you want. You're drunk," he told her, guiding her back to the couch.
"I know wh-what I want," she spoke around a yawn, sleep already reclaiming her as she lay back down. "You- can't tell me what I-I want."
Payne drew the blanket back over her as she slipped into slumber once more, then quickly rose and strode for the door. He didn't look back, didn't wait for another distraction this time- the slight shake of his hands told him he may not be able to refuse another advance from Melinda so easily, morality be damned.
The rays of the early morning sun lit the sky with a pale pink brightness, peeking through the window. Melinda slowly awoke, groaning when she registered her splitting headache. Keeping her eyes closed against the offensive light, she tried to reclaim sleep, snuggling against her pillow.
"Somebody kill me," she moaned unhappily, her temples throbbing with pain.
Slowly, Melinda pushed herself to a sitting position, then cradled her head in her hands. Her eyes flickered open, and she realized she was not in her bed, but on the couch in her living room.
"Jim?" she called out, wincing when her own loudness induced a wave of nausea.
Silence answered her, and she squinted groggily at the clock on the mantle. 6am- Jim wouldn't be home for another couple hours.
Finally having accomplished the difficult task of orienting herself in time and space, Melinda rose from the couch and slowly crossed the room to the kitchen, seeking extra strength Advil.
So she'd been drinking last night- that much was certain. One glance at the near-empty bottle of wine on the counter confirmed this obvious assessment. After shaking two pills of Advil from the bottle and filling a glass of water, the events of the day began slowly to unveil themselves in her memory. Jim. Jim had gone to work, leaving her angry and upset. Then he'd called, informing her of his unexpected overnight shift. Cue the wine. After that, the recollections became more disjointed. Wine, then more wine, then…Professor Payne?
No doubt about it, he had definitely shown up last night- she couldn't deny her vague remembrance of him. But this was as far as her mind allowed, and Melinda sighed in annoyance. Damn it. Who knows how much of a fool she'd acted while he had been here? And of course he must have loved every minute- he probably committed every slur and stumble to memory as ammunition for future means of humiliating her with his little verbal barbs.
She gulped down the pills and chased them with water, before setting about the task of making a pot of strong coffee.
As much as she was loathed to admit it, Melinda knew what she had to do: march down to the college and face Professor Payne and get past the awkwardness of the situation. Besides, there must have been some valid reason for his visit. If he had made a breakthrough into her ghost plight, she wanted- needed- to know.
She just hoped he would take a break from his mocking comments about her drunkenness long enough to tell her.
"Professor Payne?" Melinda called out, peeking into the office nervously. Stepping inside, she gave the space a cursory glance before confirming he was indeed not there. Relief washed over her, and she turned on her heel to quickly leave before running directly into a solid chest.
She stumbled backwards with a short cry of surprise.
"Professor Payne!" she exclaimed, wincing guiltily as the stack of papers he'd been carrying fluttered chaotically to the floor. "Oh…I'm so sorry."
"Melinda! What, uh, are you doing here?" Payne asked, immediately dropping down and focusing his attention on collecting the papers together.
Melinda looked down at him with confusion, before dropping down herself to help him.
"What, no snide comments about how klutzy I am or how I'm making your life harder in some way?" she asked curiously, gathering the sheets in her arm.
"Uh, yes and yes," he answered distractedly, still not meeting her gaze. He took the proffered papers from her hands with a mumbled 'thanks' before quickly rising and going to his desk.
"Ok," Melinda stated after watching his bizarre behavior for a moment. "I know you came to my house last night when I was…a little tipsy. So come on, let's have it. I want to get all the insults out of the way first and leave this mortifying night behind me."
She held open her arms, waiting expectantly for what she anticipated would be a barrage of mocking. However, he just sat at his desk, intently organizing his papers and barely sparing her a glance.
"Look, I'm kind of busy right now, did you need something or did you just come to redecorate my office with my students' term papers?" he asked irritably, gesturing to the pile on his desk.
Her arms dropped to her sides and she looked at him, surprised and annoyed.
"Alright, I can see this is a bad time," she said, turning to leave. Then, she stopped and turned around. "Did I…do something?"
Payne looked up at her.
"It's just, you're not usually this…prickly," she explained. "And I don't remember anything about last night, so I guess I'm just wondering if I said or did something that upset you."
He leaned back in his chair and regarded her.
"You're absolutely dying to know everything that happened, aren't you?" he asked, folding his arms.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, as if he'd just stated the obvious. "No, I mean, just- did I do anything particularly awful?"
"Oh, you mean besides the streaking and the horrific impromptu karaoke? Nope, nothing," he said.
"Ok, I can't laugh at that until you assure me it's a joke," she replied nervously.
He looked at her for a beat. "Nothing happened. I just went to your place to return your cell phone- which you left in my office-, we talked for a few minutes, and then you went to sleep. Pretty standard stuff, really."
Melinda smiled, relieved. "Well, I'm sorry if I bored you."
"You are many things, but never boring," he assured her, before becoming serious. "But there is something I wanted to ask you about, and I'm guessing you won't like it."
Her face fell and she looked at him suspiciously.
"It's just- last night, when we were talking, you mentioned something about Jim," he began carefully. "And suggested some…discord with him."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to silence her.
"Look, I know you, and I know you're going to defend your manchild to the end, but I know what I heard. I think it, among other things, may help explain your ghost problem," Payne continued.
"What do you mean?" Melinda asked reluctantly, swallowing back her urge to deny everything he'd just said.
He stood from his desk and moved to his computer, where a familiar piece of equipment was set up and waiting.
"You remember our old friend, the Kirlian camera?" he asked, patting the machine fondly.
"Yeah," she confirmed, cocking a brow. "Why are we being reacquainted?"
Payne leaned over the keyboard, pressed in a few commands, then clicked the mouse.
"Yeesh!" he exclaimed, his eyes roving over the image on the screen. "Come here, I think you better have a look at this."
Worry gripped her as she slowly approached the monitor. Steeling herself, she looked down. It was a picture of herself, one that Payne had just taken the moment before. However, in place of her normal hazy pink aura was a dark black cloud.
She looked down at herself, then back at the screen. "I'm guessing that's not good."