A/N: I'm working on chapter four right now. It currently hates me, but don't worry. Every success I've ever had in my job (or with the men folk) has come from my ability to slowly and painfully wear things down.
Also, no offense to anyone majoring in musical theater. You'll see…
Huuuuuge amounts of thanks go to my betas SixFlightsUp, WildBerryJam, and especially to uncgirl who basically helped me totally rework this chapter… twice.
When he says, "Pam, please" and looks at her with that half-scared, half-pleading expression, she thinks, is this really happening?
Dwight was right. They aren't best friends anymore. Can they actually have a relationship like that again?
When he first came back to Scranton she thought that they were actually going to get this right. She was ready, finally. But then he wasn't the Jim she knew at all. He was some strange person who looked like Jim but didn't roll up his shirtsleeves, or eat ham and cheese every day, or make her smile by just… existing.
And then there's Karen, who is actually pretty awesome (as evidenced by their party planning adventure today). And that just makes things so much worse. Why couldn't she be a terrible person?
But Old Jim came back tonight, finally, and he's asking her to stay and talk. She twists the charm on her necklace sideways and presses hard so that its edges make deep impressions on her fingertips.
What does he want to talk about? She takes a sip of her drink and tries to imagine all of the possible topics.
It only takes her a few seconds to realize that it doesn't really matter what he wants to talk about. He could tell her that he wants to discuss the composition of dryer lint, and she would stay. She has missed this so much. She's missed him so much.
So she says, "Okay. What do you want to talk about?"
The ball is in his court, and she waits nervously for him to reply. He looks shocked and relieved that she has agreed to stay at all. He stumbles over his words for a second before he responds, which Pam would normally find adorable, but she's too anxious to hear what he's going to say.
"I, uh… Well… um, Dwight was right," he says finally. "Things aren't… things aren't like they were. We don't talk. Really. Anymore."
Pam inhales. She's just barely fighting back the urge to say, 'And whose fault is that?' because after all, she isn't the one who has been doing the avoiding.
"And, I don't know. I guess, I just… let's talk. What's going on with you? Like, in your life," he asks.
She frowns, trying to come up with an appropriate response. She could say, 'Well, I'm trying to be this strong, independent person, but it's really hard when the one person who means the most to me has moved on.'
But instead she says, "I bought a new sofa."
Idiot. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Real brave, Pam. Your SOFA? That's what you want to tell him about? Really?
"Nice. What color is it?" Jim asks conversationally. She manages not to wince, but it's hard. This is so pathetic; this supposed talk that they're having.
"Beige," she says, trying to somehow make that word sound interesting.
"Very bold," Jim replies, smiling in this gently teasing way that makes her smile back a little bit.
"Well, the walls are leopard print so, you know… I didn't want to go overboard."
"Understandable," he says, giving her an approving nod.
She takes another sip of her drink, and wills him to make the next comment, but he remains silent. He is waiting patiently for her to continue.
"Um, I'm taking some art classes," she says, forcing herself to sound amiable and calm.
"That's great, Pam," he replies, his face lighting up with a genuine grin.
She can't take this anymore. When was it ever this hard to just talk to each other? If they're going to talk, then they should reallytalk.
"Yeah. Great," she says softly, without a hint of enthusiasm.
He's peering at her with a confused, concerned look, but she doesn't hold his gaze, focusing instead on the place of fries that separates them.
At this moment, Pam wishes that Dwight never said anything, because at least that way they could have ended the evening on a high note. It would have been nice to have one night to pretend that things were like they were before.
But then she's so frustrated, because why can't things be the way they were? So Jim is dating someone (someone else, she thinks). Why should that keep them from being friends like before? She was engaged to Roy before and they were friends.
"So, can I ask you something?" she says to Jim, although it looks more like she's asking the French fries.
"Sure," she hears him reply.
She picks up a fry and rotates it slowly between her fingers before taking him up on the invitation.
"Is this a one time thing?"
"What?" he asks.
She risks a glance in his direction and sees a truly bewildered frown. She drops the fry and looks up at him in earnest.
"I just…" She sighs and shakes her head, trying to regroup. Be strong, Pam. Just ask.
"There have been some moments…" she continues. "Since you came back… when it feels almost like before. Like the thing with getting Andy to ask me out, and whatever." She shakes her head again and continues. "I don't know. It's just that in those moments it's like last year, but then the next day it's like it never happened. It's back to being…"
Her voice trails off again and she looks down at her hands.
"Back to being what?" he asks softly.
"Not great," she says, meeting his eyes again. She takes a deep breath and continues, louder. "So, I guess, just… are we going to come back after Christmas and pretend like this whole thing never happened? Just… I don't see why it has to be like this. Why it can't be like before?"
Like before? He just feels a surge of frustration shoot through his body and he can't articulate exactly why at first.
It's just that… what does before mean to her? To him it means a lot of great things like this giddy, child-like happiness, but it also means longing and pain.
"You want it to be like before?" he asks.
She looks at him like she can't figure out why he would even ask such a question.
Of course, because for her before was great, wasn't it? She wasn't the one going home every night having to imagine the person she loved with someone else.
"Youdon't?" she asks. Her eyebrows are tightly drawn in confusion. "I mean, why does it have to be weird between us?" she asks anxiously.
He frowns, because at that moment he realizes that maybe he can't be friends with Pam. He'll see her laugh and smile and be...Pam, and he'll be right back where he was last year. Meanwhile, Pam will be just as unaffected as ever.
"Jim," she says, breaking him out of his train of thought.
"Hmm?" he says, eyebrows raised.
"You've noticed that it's weird, right?" she asks, tilting her head slightly to the side.
If by weird you mean unbearably tense and awkward then…
"Yeah." It comes out like an exhalation.
Then Pam gets this look of grim determination on her face.
"I don't like it," she says matter-of-factly.
Her eyes search his face, gauging his reaction, and his response comes automatically.
"I don't either," he says, and he means it.
Pam's whole demeanor changes. She let's out a breath that she was apparently holding. Her shoulders relax and that steely look in her eyes disappears. She smiles in relief and she is Old Pam again.
"Good," she says.
Only it's really not good, not at all, because he knows that he can't be close to her like he was last year. Not without all the exact same complications, except this time with the added bonus of the fact that he has a girlfriend. Oh, and the fact that according to Karen, Pam is going to start dating Roy again. Awesome.
But she looks so happy right now that he can't possibly disappoint her. He feels himself nodding helplessly back at her. He may need another beer.
"So now it's your turn to entertain me," she states, grinning broadly.
"Excuse me?" he asks, pausing with his beer halfway to his mouth.
"I regaled you with tales of my new couch. It's your turn," she replies, and her eyes are positively sparkling.
He decides right then and there that he'll just have to give friendship a shot, because it feels so good to be back to normal. He sees her eyes all lit up and forgets for a moment why he was ever avoiding her in the first place.
"Well, give me a minute, okay Beesly, because I'm still recovering from the excitement of couch talk," he says, with all the seriousness he can muster.
Pam nods solemnly.
"Of course. I'm sorry."
"You are forgiven," he says begrudgingly. He waits a few more seconds for good measure, and then says, "Okay. I am now ready."
She straightens up attentively, reminding Jim of Dwight before one of Michael's conference room lectures. Jim takes another swig of his beer, trying to forget that he just compared Pam to Dwight.
"All right," he starts. "So there was one time in Stamford when Andy may have received a phone call from one of the American Idol producers."
She's already smirking.
"Yes," Jim assures her. "And this producer may have told Andy that even though he was five years over the age limit for contestants, that he and the other producers heard amazing things about the breakout star of a little a cappella group called Hear Comes Treble."
Pam smiles and shakes her head at him.
"So this producer, let's call him… Tim Galpert… says that the producers will help him forge a birth certificate and to make the lie believable, he will just need to make a few simple attempts to look younger," Jim says, maintaining a very neutral tone.
"Oh my god. He is not that stupid," Pam says skeptically.
"Oh, I'm sorry, have you met him?" Jim shoots back.
"He went to Cornell!" Pam cries.
"For musical theater!" Jim counters.
Pam laughs out loud and put up her hands as a show of surrender.
"What did he do?" she asks.
Jim shrugs innocently.
"Hemay have gotten blond tips and grown a little goatee."
Pam shakes her head in disbelief, although she's still grinning.
"Andgone to Hot Topic and had his eyebrow pierced," Jim adds.
Pam's eyes grow impossibly wide. She grips the table.
"NO!" she says incredulously.
"And driven to Boston for American Idol tryouts," he says joyfully.
"Oh, Jim," Pam says, as though Jim has just given her a precious gift.
"Commence with the awe," he says cockily.
"Oh, I'm commencing," Pam assures him.
Jim can't help himself.
"That's what she said?" he says in a questioning tone, squinting slightly.
"I can see that Michael has already seeped back into your brain," she replies, rolling her eyes. "So, what happened with Andy? How did he find out that he wasn't going to get through?"
Before Jim can fill her in on the ending of the story, which involves the Boston police department and death threats to Simon Cowell via Blondie's hit song "One Way or Another," someone's cell phone starts to ring.
"I think it's you," Pam says.
He is about to tell her that it wasn't his ringtone when he remembers that he has Karen's BlackBerry.
Karen. Yes. Your girlfriend, Jim.
He looks at the caller ID. Karen's landline.
"Karen?" Pam prompts.
Jim nods, and answers the phone what he hopes is a perfectly natural sounding, "Hello."
He must sound normal, because she replies with a cheerful hello of her own. She asks him how the prank went, and he looks at Pam, who is studiously examining the fries again.
"Better than I expected," he tells her.
"Good!" Karen exclaims happily. There is a pause, and he knows that she expects him to fill her in on the specifics of the prank, but he doesn't.
"So… where are you now?" she asks.
"At a bar," he says, not elaborating.
"No. Uh, Pam's here," he says. Then he starts panicking because he doesn't want her to get the wrong idea, even though the wrong idea might be right. He feels like a jerk, but he adds, "Dwight's here too" to cover his ass.
He didn't have to worry though, because when she replies she doesn't sound the least bit suspicious. Why should she? Karen has no idea that he and Pam were ever close, especially if she's judging solely by his behavior towards her in the past few weeks.
"Oh cool. Which one? I'll come join you," she says pleasantly.
Jim feels his stomach sink. He turns away from Pam and speaks quietly into the phone.
"Oh, um… I'm actually… I'm probably going to be leaving soon," he lies.
Pam and Karen are friends now. It would be fine if Karen came, so why is he lying? Why does he feel so guilty all of a sudden?
"Oh. Well, do you want to come over and watch a movie? Netflix just sent me Kate and Leopold. We can make fun of Hugh Jackman together," Karen jokes.
She's so great, and he hates himself when he replies.
"Um, I think I'm just going to go home."
"Such an old man!" she teases.
"I know. I'm super lame," he responds, and he means it.
"You're so lucky you have me to balance out the lame factor," she quips.
"I'll come over tomorrow," he says by way of apology.
"You better," she warns.
They don't say, "I love you." They haven't ever said it to each other. Not yet. He wonders how long it will take to get to that point.
If you get to that point, he thinks, because in his (very limited) experience with falling in love… it just sort of happens. Love isn't something to wait around for, hoping that it will develop. It's not like he remembers the moment he fell in love before. He just realized one day that he was and that he had been for a long time.
It's only then that he realizes Pam is no longer looking at the now cold fries but at him.
Oh god. What am I doing?
It feels like it did with Katy all over again. He's ditching someone who actually wants to be with him for something he can't have. Except this time it's Karen, who is so much more right than Katy ever was.
But still not totally right, Jim thinks.
No. He will not do this again. He didn't change his entire life around, move out of state even, just to wind up in the exact same place a few months later.
"I should probably get going," he says apologetically.
"Oh!" It comes out as a quiet exclamation, but she quickly covers it up with a smile. "Okay. Yeah, it's getting late."
This is good. They can do the friends thing at work, like they did before, but not alone together in a bar. They can be friends again, but only if he leaves now, because it's getting harder and harder to look at her tonight and not say something stupid.
He gets up and starts to put on his coat when her hand on his wrist stills his movements. He looks at her questioningly.
"Don't," she says. She's looking not in his eyes, but at her hand on his wrist.
"Don't what?" he asks.
"I've missed this. A lot," she says, looking up at him when she says the last sentence.
He hates himself for not being able to lie to her.
"Me too," he tells her. His voice is suddenly hoarse, and he's not sure why.
"I just… I don't want this night to be over so soon. It's been a long time since we've talked like this."
Her hand his still on his wrist, and it's distracting him. Alot. He can feel her fingers slipping down to his hand, grazing his knuckles. She's not doing it on purpose, of course. Pam doesn't tease, not like this. But it has the same effect regardless of her motive. It's all he can do to keep his eyes from sliding shut.
"Um…" he mumbles, unable to form a coherent thought.
"We could go to my apartment."
That snaps him out of his daze. What the hell is going on here? Is she trying to kill him?
"I mean, you haven't seen it yet, right?" she adds hastily.
"Right," he says, his mind racing.
This is no big deal, right? This can't be what it might sound like. She and Karen are friends now. Girls don't steal their friends' boyfriends. Well, not unless they star on Laguna Beach, which Pam definitely doesn't.
"Yeah. Okay," Jim says carefully.
That makes perfect sense. It's not at all a bad idea to go to Pam's apartment at night, just the two of them. Nope.
"Yeah?" she replies, as though she's surprised he agreed, and probably also surprised that she offered in the first place.
She lets her hand fall completely away from his and grabs her own coat. He manages to get his feet to move, asking himself again what thehell he just agreed to. On their way to the door they pass Dwight, who is still at the bar with what looks to be a Shirley Temple.
"Pam! Pam, have you reconsidered my offer?" Dwight calls urgently.
Pam opens her mouth to reply, but apparently Dwight has had more to drink than either of them realized because he somehow interprets her pause as a yes.
"Okay, good," he says obliviously. "Brace yourself against the bar, because sometimes the force of the scream can send you tumbling."
Pam holds up her hands to halt Dwight's approach.
"No, Dwight," she says firmly.
"You're right. We should go outside for this," Dwight replies thoughtfully.
Pam looks exasperated, but then she's smiling.
"Dwight, I'm going to pass on the scream therapy for now, but if I change my mind I'll call you," she says calmly.
Then she smirks and quickly tries to hide it.
"What's your cell number again? I'm not sure I have it," she adds.
Dwight looks suddenly agitated, and Jim has to fight not to laugh.
"Let me just give you my home number," Dwight recovers evasively.
"You know what, it's cool. I'll just email you if I require your services," Pam says agreeably.
"Okay. Excellent," Dwight says nervously.
"Mean," Jim accuses as soon as they're out of earshot.
"He wanted to scream in my face," Pam points out.
"Tohelp you, Pam," Jim counters.
Pam is unmoved by his justification.
They exit Poor Richard's and walk to his car, and the whole time he's second guessing himself.
Pam has always managed to seem so unaffected by him that way, the way she affects him. She befriended Karen, for God's sake. I mean, he could never have befriended Roy. But suggesting they go to her apartment has completely thrown him.
He's curious. He doesn't want to let himself believe that she's feeling the same things he is, because he let himself believe that last spring and it was the biggest mistake of his life.
But then he thinks, no, it was only a mistake because she lied. He didn't misinterpret anything last spring. She just wasn't able to be honest with him. Or herself.
He's suddenly angry, because she's doing it all over again. She'll get him thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts about what it means that they're going to her apartment alone, and then if he brings any of it up to her, she'll act like she has no idea what he's talking about.
Well, he won't let her do this again. She's going to be honest this time, because this isn't before. This is now.
His car is parked beneath one of the street lamps in the lot. The light hits her directly and he sees something sparkling below her neck. It's her gold necklace, the one she always wears, only the charm looks different. He's almost positive that it used to be a little dove, but now it's something else.
He's about to ask her about it, when he decides, screw it. She waits patiently by his passenger door for him to unlock it, but rather than doing so from inside the car, he walks around to her door.
He reaches out and delicately grasping the charm with the hand not holding his keys. His fingers brush against her skin and he hears her sharp intake of breath as her head jerks up so that she can meet his eyes questioningly.
"Wasn't this a dove?" he asks innocently.
She just stares at him for a moment, her mouth still halfway open.
"Uh, yeah," she says, shaking her head slightly, as if clearing her thoughts.
"A butterfly. Nice," he comments casually, turning the charm over in his hand.
She doesn't say anything, but continues to stare at him with the most bewildered expression on her face.
He unlocks her door and walks back around to his side of the car without a second glance at her. He already has his key in the ignition when she finally enters the car and buckles her seatbelt.
"I'll drive you back to your car, and then I can follow you to your place," he says conversationally.
"Yeah, great," she says, trying to adopt a similarly casual tone, but she's toying with the charm on her necklace again.
"I'm excited to see your apartment, Beesly. Besides, we need to try out that new sofa," he says, feeling reckless and excited.
She reacts exactly how he thought she would. Her eyes dart to his, startled by his phrasing, but then she quickly covers this by gluing her eyes on the road and smiling like nothing happened.
He doesn't even want to think about what he's doing, because it's not exactly going to win him Boyfriend of the Year, but he's been waiting for an opportunity to find out once and for all how she really feels about them for about five years and here it is.
And he's going to take it.
End Notes: Did you hear me burst into song when you reviewed last chapter? That's right! It was "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters, possibly the happiest song on earth (followed closely by Mmm Bop).
So, you know how clapping brings fairies back to life? Well reviewing does the same for wood nymphs. Don't let the fairies get all the attention! Wood nymphs are people too (sort of)!