In the end, Roy lost the coin toss. Somehow, he'd known he would; something about the way Moss kept saying things like “Oh, my goodness me, tails again! The odds against this are astronomical, aren't they?” let him know early on that things were not going to go his way.
There was nothing for it. They'd agreed, and that meant that he had to grit his teeth, stand up straight, and knock on Jen's door. She'd come in almost silently about an hour ago, not looking at either of them, and had gone directly into her office and shut the door. Since then, they hadn't seen or heard from her.
“Perhaps,” Moss had posited, “she's reliving a happy moment from her date last night. She did seem quite excited about it yesterday.”
Roy rolled his eyes. “If she'd had even one happy moment, she'd be in here telling us about it over and over again.”
Moss could be seen to consider this; he cupped his chin in one hand (anyone who didn't know him, Roy thought, would consider the gesture somewhat theatrical) and nodded slowly. “You may have a point there. Perhaps, then, she had a really terrible time, and she's writing down a long prepared speech to tell us so she doesn't forget a single awful detail.”
“We could ask her, I guess.”
The words were out before he could stop himself, and he looked guiltily at Moss. Moss's look back was withering. “Not likely I'd do that. She thinks I'm a tosser.”
“She thinks we're both tossers,” said Roy. “But we should ask her anyway.”
Moss blinked at him. “Why?”
“Because... she's... er.” He thought about it and came up with: “Woman.”
“She's our woman?”
“She's a woman, Moss. Women liked to be asked how they're doing.” Roy tried to speak confidently. In this room, he was the expert on women, though he was at least self-aware enough to know that this wasn't saying much. “They like men who... who, y'know, who want to know how their day was, or how they're feeling.”
“A-ha,” said Moss, nodding sagely. “I knew it. You want Jen to like you.”
This was not a conversation Roy was prepared to have at the moment. He dug into his pocket and came up with two paper clips, half a Jaffa cake, the shredded remains of a coaster, and a pound coin. This last he handed to Moss. “I'll flip you for it.”
Now, he stood outside the door and, with a deep inward breath, rapped a knuckle against it. There was no answer. “That was inaudible,” said Moss loudly. “You have to knock harder or she won't hear you.”
“Shut it,” Roy hissed. He steeled himself once more, raised his fist, then whirled around and said quickly, “Let's get Richmond to do it.”
“She likes Richmond. Thinks he's sensitive or something. She can talk to him.”
“Richmond's not here.”
“What?” Roy was momentarily derailed. This had never happened before. “He's always here. Where did he go?”
“He went with his friend Sepultura to a Cradle of Filth concert in Cardiff. He'd have been back this morning, but it seems as though he got sick on Super Noodles and absinthe.”
And with that extraordinary pronouncement, there was nothing for Roy to do but once more turn around, ready himself, and knock firmly on Jen's door. There was a brief silence, and then a low answer of “Yeah.”
“Here I go,” mouthed Roy. Moss gave him a thumbs-up.
She was sitting behind her desk, staring at the wall. Normally she at least had some paper or a file folder sitting out, just in case someone from a higher floor stopped by, but today her computer wasn't even on. Her chin was propped in her hand, and whatever makeup she'd put on this morning had gathered in streaks around her eyes. Roy was reminded forcibly of Richmond, but decided not to mention this. “Hallo, you,” he said, striving for “jovial coworker” and landing on “twit.”
“Hello,” said Jen.
“Oh, my, just look at you,” Roy continued. He was sweating from the effort to be friendly. “You're looking quite lovely today, isn't she, Moss? Moss isn't here. Yes. Er... hello.”
“Did you lose the coin toss?” asked Jen flatly. She had not yet directed her attention away from the wall.
“Coin toss?” chortled Roy. “What coin... no, of course not, I won the coin toss, Moss wanted to fight me on it, but I said, 'No, Maurice, I'm... going in there.'”
She looked at him then. “You're a rotten liar.”
“Better than Moss.”
Roy shrugged. “Fair enough.”
She looked away again. Roy shoved his hands into his back pockets and tried to keep his feet still. “So.”
“So.” Several things occurred to him to say, none of them good. Is Aunt Irma bothering you again? Was your date that bad? You look like a suicidal raccoon. He settled on, “I'll be off, then.”
He turned to leave – he'd make Moss have a go at it – and had his hand on the doorknob when Jen said, “Wait.”
She stood up, walked around her desk, and leaned into his chest. Roy froze, his arms stuck straight out by his sides; he quite literally had not the faintest idea what to do. He was not at home with comforting people, nor with hugging the very attractive woman who was at least nominally his boss. Her arms went around him and she sighed; carefully, like a man trying to defuse a bomb, he patted her on the back while trying desperately to fight the sudden feeling that he was made of elbows.
“You're rubbish at this,” she said, her voice muffled against his shirt.
“You're not even trying.”
“I'm doing better than Moss would do,” he said, feeling ridiculous at having to make that assertion twice in less than five minutes. “He'd probably just tap you on the shoulder and say 'There, there.'”
He felt her smile and, emboldened by his success, he seized her around the waist and lifted her off her feet. “There. There. You see? I'm not rubbish.”
When she was safely on the ground again, she stepped back from him and wiped her eyes. “God, I must look awful.”
“No,” Roy lied. “Look, come on, we're going to the pub. You're going to get drunk.”
“Drunk. Plastered. Shit-faced. In-e-bri-a-ted.” Roy grinned. “You'll natter on like a mad thing and then you'll feel better. And then, okay, you'll feel worse, but once your hangover goes away you'll be a new woman.”
She was smiling nervously. “Roy, it's ten in the morning.”
“So the pubs'll be empty. Come on. Moss can handle the basement til I get back.”
Jen regarded him for a moment longer than he was comfortable with, but eventually said, “Okay. I'll go and fix my face; I can't go anywhere looking like this.”
Once she was gone, Moss sidled up to Roy. “How did it go?”
“I don't know,” said Roy. “She gave me a hug.”
Moss nodded. “That doesn't surprise me. You have a cuddly look about you.”
“Cuddly?” said Roy. He didn't think he'd ever said that word before, let alone had it mentioned in reference to him.
“Yes. You're like a misanthropic teddy bear.” Moss looked completely sincere, but then again he always did. “I have often thought about testing my theory by giving you a hug myself, but I would rather not get punched in the face.”
Whiskey was tempting, and though it wouldn't have been the first time he'd been to work drunk, Roy decided to opt for tea. He wanted to get Jen back safely, and besides, he was still nursing a bit of a hangover from the night before. Maybe one, later. Right before they left. Or two.
Jen's sat on the bar. She had not yet touched it except to bat it back and forth between her hands. “So,” Roy began, still trying to sound cheerful, “what's the bother? C'mon, you can tell aul Roy.”
“It's hard to say, really,” said Jen, still batting at her drink. “It was mostly my date last night, which yes, was terrible, but that's just the start.”
“What did he do?”
“He was disgusting!” she exclaimed, so vehemently that Roy jumped. “A complete pervy-boy. When I met him, on seventh, he was charming, a little overconfident, but kind of mysterious. And then the second I meet up with him, he's staring at my tits and only looks up at me to say things like,” and here Jen slouched, put her hands on her hips, and said in a low, raspy voice, “'God, I just want to fuck the hell out of you.'”
“He said that?” Roy was appalled. He couldn't imagine saying that to anyone, let alone a person he barely knew. And was trying to date.
Jen nodded vigorously. “This was five minutes after we sat down. Up til then he'd been talking about his favorite football player, and then out of bloody nowhere... Women can get away with saying rubbish like that, it's sexy if we do it, but men? Especially men who are slimy gits? Never.”
Roy held up a hand in protest. “That's mad. Where would you get an idea like that? 'Women can say rubbish like that.' Come on.” He sipped at his tea.
There was a gentle pressure on his knee; Roy looked down to see Jen's hand curled there in a claw, her fingernails digging into the fabric of his jeans. Her other hand was gripping the edge of the bar. She leaned forward, her eyes intent, not just intent, they were blazing, and Roy saw that any trace of suicidal raccoon was gone just before she bit her lip and murmured, “God, I just want to fuck the hell out of you.”
She leaned back and ran her hands through her hair, pretense dropped, clearly exasperated. “See what I mean?”
Roy crossed his legs and managed a yes.
“I left,” she went on, oblivious. “Just walked out. And I got to thinking about the last few dates I've had, and then about all the dates I've had. They're all with self-obsessed, petty, idiotic wankers, and here I am.”
Somewhat recovered now, Roy tossed back the rest of his tea. “Here you are?”
“Yes. I'm... my age, and the only people I'm able to meet are people from the higher floors of the place where I work. Men who think I'm easy and desperate because I work in a basement with --” She stopped, her eyes wide. Color rose in her cheeks and she stammered, “With, um, Moss and Richmond.”
“Right,” said Roy. It didn't surprise him, not really, but it hurt a little more than he'd expected it to. “With Moss and Richmond.”
She gripped his wrist with startling strength. Pain shot up his arm as the bones of his hand ground together. “No, Roy, that's not what I meant. They think that, I don't think that, I'm not saying that you're a loser who works in a basement.”
Roy blinked. “Have we met? I am a loser who works in a basement.”
“For God's sake, Jen, do you remember the first time I tried to talk to you? Not my proudest moment.”
For a moment, Jen looked confused, and then she smiled. “Yes!” she said. “I do remember! You didn't know what to do with your hands.” Her laughter rang through the pub, only to cut off abruptly as she picked up her drink, downed it, and fixed him again with that blazing look. Her left hand twisted into the collar of his t-shirt; her right gripped his hair. “I know what to do with your hands.”
Panic gripped him. This was a thousand times more terrifying than a hug in the office; this was danger on the nuclear meltdown scale. He put his hands on her shoulders and moved her back into her seat, hoping this would break the spell, but she kept looking at him in that distinctly unsettling way. This was Jen, and yes, it wasn't like he hadn't thought about it, she was an attractive woman who didn't look at him with utter disdain, who actually seemed to enjoy his presence once in awhile, or at least didn't actively despise it, but he saw her every day and what if things went badly and there was still Moss to contend with, he'd never let it drop, would he? “Jen, what are you on about?”
“Look,” she said, her voice a growl, “it never goes anywhere. Do you understand what I'm telling you?”
“No!” His voice squeaked. He hated when it did that.
She stood up. She hadn't blinked in almost forty-five seconds, and Roy's eyes started to water in sympathy. “I don't want them to touch me, let alone anything else.” A step closer. “It. Is. Very.” A step closer. “Frustrating.”
“Ah.” He felt hypnotized. There was something he wasn't getting...
“Now do you understand?”
“For fuck's sake, Roy.” More whiskey had appeared in her glass, and once again she gulped it down. “We're both pathetic. I'm lovely. You're not a slimy git. I'm throwing myself at you. Work it out, would you?”
Realization dawned. “Oh,” said Roy, “is that what you're doing?”
“That's what I'm doing.” She smiled. “I live just there. If you follow me home, maybe I'll keep you. For awhile.”
Roy lowered his voice. “I've never been seduced before. Is it always this weird?”
“No,” said Jen. She looked flustered. “At least, I doubt it.”
At first he felt clumsy and strange. He was too tall, too gangling, too self-conscious, and Jen laughed at what could be considered inappropriate moments, but in the end her fingernails dug into his shoulderblades and he felt better. After, though...
If this had happened at night, he'd have simply fallen asleep. Failing that, he'd have pretended to fall asleep and staved off the inevitable awkward conversation til morning. But it was just gone noon, and he'd told Moss he was going to be coming back, and he was hungry.
He thought about risking a glance at Jen, then decided against it. Who would make the next move? Should he? Maybe she'd just wanted a one-night – one-day? - stand and would recoil. Or give him a soppy smile and start talking about the couple-y things they'd have to start doing together. Would she roll towards him or away from him? Would they have to hold hands at the office? What the blue fuck was Moss going to say?
His eyes squinched shut. His heart was racing. This was a mistake. He was terrible at being a... whatever he was supposed to be now. He'd just calmly say that he had to get back, and –
No. That was the coward's way out. He, Roy Trenneman, was no coward. Or possibly he was, but he could change. Or at least try to change. He would lean over, reach out an arm, and show her that he was, as Moss had called him, cuddly.
Instead, purely by accident, he elbowed her in the forehead.
And after the apologies had been sorted out, they talked.
And when they got tired of talking, they stopped.
And the next day, when Roy drifted into the office and saw Moss guiltily putting away a brightly colored book entitled Coin Tricks for Beginners, he did something he never thought he'd do: He grasped Moss's shoulders, pulled him out of his seat, and hugged him. Moss, for his part, accepted it. I was right, he thought triumphantly. He is cuddly.