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On a Saturday afternoon in early June, he leans on the counter in an antique shop, holding a small, black velvet box in his palm, trying to decide if the ring inside is the right one. He has gone to three different stores with nothing more than a vague picture in his head - he wants it to be understated and beautiful. It should look as if it belongs to her already. He hopes that he'll know it when he sees it; that he'll feel that same shock of recognition that he did the first time he shook her hand, but, this time, he'll know what it means when it happens.

All of the clerks have been patient and friendly. He imagines that they deal with shaky, ignorant, ring-seeking guys in their twenties all of the time. They show him laminated charts and explain cut, color, and clarity. They all ask him the same questions - what's her name? what kind of jewelery does she like to wear? what does she do for a living? how long have you two been together?

Pamela. To tease her, he called her by her full first name when they were out on Monday night, buying candy at the Rite-Aid before going to the movies. She was wearing jeans, a pink hooded sweatshirt, and flip-flops. Her toenails were sky blue. She laughed and said "James" in a tone of voice that was shot through with affection, which, of course, means he's going to have to call her that again and often. Pamela and James.

He describes her simple necklaces, but does not mention her last engagement ring. He wonders if she still has it.

She's a receptionist, which makes him feel like a stereotype straight out of the 1950s. An artist, too, he's sure to add each time, because he knows that it has more to do with who she is and wants to be. It's part of what he loves about her, the potential of her.

He lies when he answers the last question. A year, he says. A year, he decides, is a mature, level-headed amount of time to wait before proposing. A year won't earn a person worried looks from old women behind consignment shop counters. One of them even seems impressed that he's taking the initiative so quickly and he nearly laughs. He's not sure that he could explain to anyone not named Pamela that a week can seem like a year, can be enough for him to know with absolute certainty that buying a ring is the one thing he should be doing that Saturday afternoon. He's not even sure he could explain it to her. He doesn't intend to try. Not yet, anyway.

~~~~~

The clock on the nightstand said 8:44. Jim was on his right side, trailing his fingers in the rug next to his bed, and gazing at his closet door without really seeing it. They had fallen asleep sometime around 2, he thought, but he wasn't sure. On the other side of the bed, Pam was breathing quietly with her back to him, lying at an odd angle. Their bare legs were tangled together and the sole of her foot was pressing into his calf. When he woke up, he had carefully turned his head to look at her - a bare shoulder and her pretty, messy hair, half covered by the sheet. He wanted to wake her soon. How soundly did she sleep? Would it startle her if he kissed her? Maybe he should sneak away and make breakfast first. He tried to remember if he had eggs while he moved his finger in a wider circle on the rug and accidentally caught her t-shirt. It was thin, dark violet cotton. He let it dangle from his index finger for a moment before he dropped it back to the floor.

They had gone on six dates in the course of a single week - a movie, restaurants and bars, and one long, aimless Tuesday evening at a cafe, still in their work clothes, neither of them wanting to leave. Jim was playing at being the level-headed, brand-new boyfriend, paying for everything, holding doors, and kissing her goodnight. He was trying to figure this out, using their dates in public in the same way that he had used their friendship at work for years - as a way to draw a line that he was uncertain about crossing. It was almost funny - he had spent years wanting so badly just to be with her, but, now that he was, he had no idea what the rules were or what he really wanted. After that first date, at the end of a weird, long day that began in New York and ended with his mouth on hers, he decided that the only way he wasn't going to scare the hell out of both of them was by not really thinking too much about his motives and pretending that Pam was merely a nice girl that he wanted to have dinner with and maybe kiss a little. Four times. In seven days.

For their seventh date, he had suggested carry-out pizza and rented movies at his place. He told her to come over at 6:30, which gave him about an hour to clean his apartment. He opened all the windows, ran the vacuum cleaner, and did the dishes. He wiped up the bathroom, hooked up his iPod, and lit a candle that Karen had left behind. He stood staring at his bed for a minute, debating how much he would be admitting by changing the sheets. He stepped into the hall to dig through the closet when he realized that he had fucked Karen on those sheets two weeks earlier. He crumpled them into a ball and took them down to the basement, where he stuffed them into the bottom of a laundry basket. Back upstairs, he again stood staring at his bed, which looked like it had a plan. God,, he thought, I might as well answer the door in a smoking jacket. He messed up the pillows a little, rumpled the comforter, and hurried back into the hall. The bed was a bad influence. Granted, he did look a lot like the guy who dripped vanilla candle wax into the incredible curve of Karen's lower back last month, but, clearly, the bed was confusing him with someone else.

Pam brought wine, wore faded jeans and a soft purple t-shirt, and stepped out of her shoes just inside the door. She was barefoot in his apartment, helping to bring plates and napkins to the coffee table. Her shirt was so thin that he could make out the lines of her bra. Her hair was down and looked freshly washed. She inclined her head toward the stereo and said, "You played this for me once." He realized that he had, but it was two years earlier, and he wanted to kiss her for remembering.

They sat on the couch, facing each other, kneecaps touching. She smelled like citrus and they talked about work and the class she was starting next week. He cleared dinner away while she stood in front of his bookshelf, wine glass in hand, head tilted, reading the spines of his books. She read The Time Traveler's Wife, too. Did he like it? He wanted to turn her around and dance with her before he turned off the music, because dancing wasn't swaying. When he started the movie, she reached over, turned off the light, and arranged herself against his side. The candle flickered on the end table. "Better than movie theatre seats," she remarked. He nodded, took another drink of wine, and put his arm around her. She was all soft, warm curves and, when she shifted and his hand accidentally brushed the side of her breast, he had to remind himself that Pam Beesly's Brand New, Reasonable Boyfriend, that moron who had been setting the agenda all week, certainly wouldn't be getting an erection right now. He glanced over at the candle and wondered what Pam would think of being "reminded" that she was supposed to say his name when she comes. She stirred a little when he shook his head, hard.

Jim squeezed her shoulder and she placed her hand on his thigh, gave it a little pat. He kissed the top of her head and she snuggled closer to him. He could hear her breathing and it sounded too measured. Her head was close enough to his that he could hear the gears turning, could feel that she was weighing her options, and he had no idea what to make of it. He was half expecting her to slide to the other end of the couch. He didn't dare move. After a half hour and just short of the point when the tension, years and years worth of it, being refined to a tidy, excruciating point, was finally, actually, seriously going to kill him, she turned her head and pressed a kiss to the pulse point below his jaw. He still didn't move and she did it again, letting her mouth linger for a few seconds longer. She let out a breath against his neck, warm and soft and he turned to look at her. Pam's eyes were wide, her lips were parted, and she was looking right at his mouth. "I - um -" He waited, desperate for what came next, but she didn't say anything else. He kissed her briefly at first, but she followed him when he tried to break the kiss, and they lost track of the film quickly. She was in his lap not long after, her fingers in his hair and on his neck. He had a hand inside the back of her shirt, dragging his fingertips lightly down her skin. She pulled away from him, her eyes shining in the dim light. "I want -" she began, but faltered, and his heart almost stopped. "We should -" he watched her intently, sliding his hand around to her stomach, begging her to read his mind. You have to say it you have to say it you have to say it... She made a small sound in the back of her throat and lowered her head for a moment. Finally, she said, "your bedroom" and he stopped the movie immediately.

She followed him down the hall. He paused to let her walk into the room ahead of him. She pressed his shoulder, indicating that he should sit down on the bed, and settled into his lap again. It took them a few minutes to shake a mutual awkwardness so intense it could have ruined what they were trying so hard to do - nervous laughter when they accidentally knocked teeth; her hilarious, blurted question when he put his hand on her breast - "Is that actually you?" Jim had never been less sure of what was okay and what wasn't. His barometer was beyond repair, worn down by years of providing subtle readings of the air when she walked into a room. It was all okay to him, anything and everything, and he wanted to tell her that. He wasn't sure how or if he even should. And, anyway, it scared him a little. He realized that he had really never gotten beyond the ways she could make him feel before he left for Stamford. He had felt as if he had a handle on it, felt as if the detachment he had been feigning all week was real, and was disturbed by how total his lie to himself had been.

Pam pulled off his shirt and kissed his collarbones. Her hands were shaking, but he could feel her pointed attempt to steady them. He took off her shirt and wrapped his arms around her, pressing his bare skin to hers. When he relaxed his grip to kiss her again, she reached between them, unbuttoned, then unzipped his jeans. She slid off his lap and let him take them off himself while she wiggled out of her own. She straddled him again, wearing just her bra and panties, but sat a little further back on his legs. Quietly and suddenly, she said, "I've never done this with anyone other than..." she wouldn't say his name, "and I don't know if I'm -"

He traced the surprisingly baroque hourglass formed by her breasts, waist, and hips with his palms, stunned at what she had hidden so well under her clothes, while he considered how he should respond. He could feel the slight tremble in his own fingers. He wanted to say that she was perfect, that she could sit right there all night, the bare insides of her thighs pressing into his legs, if that's what she wanted to do. Salvaging some tiny remnant of his plan to keep things light and simple, he said, "It's okay. I mean, I'm a virgin."

She smiled, laughed a little. "No you're not." She gave him a tiny shove, but her hands remained, petting him lightly.

"How do you know?"

"I - I can just tell."

"Are you saying I come off slutty?" He held her hips and drew her closer. Her panties were soaked. He could feel it through his boxer shorts. She smelled clean and salty, like deep green seaweed. He felt a little off-balance and utterly in over his head. He thought of Katy in a heap in the same bed, saying from under her hair where did a geeky boy like you learn... that and Karen's low groan, her Jesus fucking Christ, are you trying to kill me? He remember how he had laughed at both of them, grabbed Katy's pretty ankle to drag her down to the foot of the bed where he kneeled, pulled Karen's hair to make her back arch. It was so easy, it felt like sleight-of-hand, like he was pulling quarters from behind their darling ears. But this - maybe he hadn't done this before. Maybe he wasn't just teasing Pam.

"Well, yeah, right now you are," he could hear the quaver in her voice. She shifted her hips, acknowledging that she felt him. He nearly choked on the sensation.

He said "I'm offended," but the joke was over. He was playing with the waistband of her underwear and she took the hint, moving away to step out of them and unhook her bra. He tossed his boxers to the floor. She stayed up on her knees. He ran his hands all over her and lowered his mouth to her breasts because he was going to completely lose it if they kept staring at each other. He slipped two fingers between her thighs. Her whole body jumped when he did it and he wasn't sure what it meant. "I'm sorry," he said, "was that -"

"Don't stop. I'm really nervous. It's okay." She sounded like she was about to start laughing.

He let out a breath that he seemed to have been holding for hours and rested his cheek against her bare chest. "Me, too." He made a small, soft circle with his fingertips, and she shivered. Her hands dug into his shoulders and she wobbled on her knees. "But, yeah, it's okay." He slid one finger inside of her and they both gasped. "You just tell me if it's not okay. We can stop."

"I don't want to stop." Another finger and a cautious drag over the uneven patch of skin inside of her, below her navel. She swallowed what should have been something loud and open-mouthed. He wanted to hear it.

"Me either."

"Here -" she gently indicated that she should move his hand. "Let's -" She carefully reached between them and wrapped her hand around him. She tested his length, still looking down while she did it. His head dropped back as she did it again, moving closer to him. He was about to ask about condoms, but she shifted her weight and he realized she wasn't going to stop and he had never... a remote, useless corner of his brain panicked at the idea of having to figure out how to do this without making a fool of himself in about thirty seconds. She sank down onto him, slowly, holding onto his shoulders. Their eyes met and she smiled a little and kissed him. He held on hard to her hips so she couldn't move, whispering "wait wait wait...". He silently cursed every single health teacher who had ever lied to him, told him that this wouldn't feel all that different.

She was strong and small. He could see her biceps flex as she lowered herself to the bed when he worked up the nerve to rearrange them and get on top of her. Her skin was ultrawhite in the light shining in from the hall. It was perfect, embarrassing, exciting, funny, wonderful, scary, and he was somehow feeling all of it at once. But, more than all of that, he was knotted up with want and with the worry of not knowing if he had, once again, gotten ahead of himself. He wanted to say that he loved her, but the words kept dying in his mouth. When she arched her back and cried out his name, he almost laughed, he was so happy. It was oddly familiar. He knew she would be like that, just like that. The newness of her was so shocking, but, at the same time, it was all so correct. He did have to follow her hands, did have to wonder aloud, "Like this?" more than once, but all she said each time he asked was "yes, like that." She came three times, each more gorgeous than the last, before he couldn't hold out anymore. He lost track of going slow, of being gentle, and she tightened her legs around him, telling him how good he felt in a new, low whisper near his burning ear. He couldn't hear, couldn't see for just a moment, and then she was kissing his cheek and petting his sweaty neck, and he was coming.

Pam kissed him a little more, until he was still, and then said. "Wow."

It took him a moment to locate his vocal chords, but he nodded and replied. "Wow." He looked down. "Hey - um - we didn't use... anything -"

"Three cheers for the NuvaRing." He couldn't remember which one that was. He'd ask later. The bizarre world of girls...

He smiled, his face close to hers. He stroked her hair, fully coming back to himself. "I'd never done that before. Without a condom, I mean."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Well, that's - I like that." Her smile was radiant.

"I'm telling you this to slyly point out that I'm normally good for more than ten minutes."

She made a dismissive gesture and sound. "I wasn't counting."

"I was. Three." She glanced away for a moment. "Most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Her voice was soft. "Jim -"

"It was. You are."

"I don't know what to say."

Say that you love me so I can say it back, he thought. "You don't have to say anything."

"Well, thank you." She squirmed a little. "I need to clean up a bit." After a few minutes, he followed her down the hall to the bathroom.

~~~~~

It was just after 9 and her phone was trilling somewhere on her side of the bed. Pam sat up at a speed that startled Jim, and pawed around in the clothes that had landed on the floor next to her. "I forgot -"

He was about to ask "What?" when she found the phone, answered it, and said "Hi, Mom." He froze.

If Jim held very still, he could hear about half of what Mrs. Beesly was saying. "...you today, honey?"

"I'm good, Mom. How are you?"

"...Did I wake..."

"Um, yeah, a little. I was kind of awake. Don't worry about it, though."

"I'm...way there."

Pam turned to Jim, eyes wide. The sheet covered the bottom half of her body, but her torso was bare in the morning light. He was trying to maintain eye contact and it wasn't going very well. "Um, mom, I kind of forgot about our date."

"...still...want to go?"

"Yes. Yes. I just need some time to get ready." Pam apologized with her eyes and he tried to gesture that it was fine.

"...wait."

Pam scrunched up her face, covered it with her hand. He could see the blush creeping around her fingers. "Yeah, you can have a cup of tea while I get dressed. Except, um, Mom?" She sighed, trapped. "I'm kind of at Jim's." Her voice was tiny.

Mrs. Beesly's voice jumped half an octave and Jim heard every word of her response. "Oh, really? At Jim's?" He tried to move a little closer to Pam, reaching for her waist. She chased him away.

"Yeah."

"Yeah?"

Pam was crimson. "Mom, please don't -"

"I didn't say a word, Pam." There was a pause that Jim recognized from his mother's own gentle interrogations. It was a world-ending pause; a horrible, horrible pause that mothers surely took classes to perfect. "Did you spend the night?"

"Mom!" Jim fell back against his pillow, biting his bottom lip, smiling. He was out of earshot again. "I can meet you at my place in 20 minutes. You have your key, right?" She paused. "Okay. I'm really sorry I forgot, Mom." Another pause. "I am! Of course I am! I'll see you soon." After hanging up, Pam dropped the phone into the sheets pooled in her lap, letting her head fall forward after it. "That was awful. Awful, awful, awful."

He put his arm around her and gently pulled her down to his chest. Her cheek was burning. "You are a grown-up. You're allowed to have - you're allowed to do this."

"I know." She arranged herself so she could look up at him, "But still -" she shuddered. "I'm kind of new at this. Last time I was" her eyes darted away, "last time I was sleeping with someone new I was 17."

"I lost my virginity when I was 17, too."

"See, now, why'd you have to lie to me last night?" He smiled, played with her hair. "How many - um -"

"Nine, now."

"That's not so many."

"Oh my God, you do think I'm slutty."

"No - I think you're gorgeous, so I assumed there would be more."

"Gorgeous."

"You heard me."

"Gorgeous."

"Don't fish." She sat up. "But, yeah. Gorgeous." She located her underwear, put them on with the shirt he wore last night, and began combing her hair with her fingers. The sun brought out the red in it and made her fair skin look creamy and warm. He wanted to watch her get out of his bed - out of their bed - every morning for the rest of his life. His brain rushed ahead of him. What would she say if he proposed right now, he wondered. He imagined explaining that he didn't have a ring, that he had never even so much as thought about doing this with anyone else before. In his boxer shorts, he'd drop to one knee on the floor in front of her, and explain that he knew how impulsive this was, that it had only been a week, but that he knew that he was right about this. He loved her. He wanted to marry her. Would she marry him?

He could not imagine her response.

He needed a ring.

He offered to go find an extra toothbrush and headed into the hallway to catch his breath.

~~~~~

While Pam was in the bathroom, Jim made the bed and laid her clothes on it. She joined him in the kitchen not long afterward. "Eat something before you go," he suggested, pressing down the toaster.

He could tell by the tilt of her head that she was feeling as shy as he did. "That sounds good."

"I've got butter and peanut butter."

"Peanut butter."

"That's yours." There was a travel mug of tea sitting on the table. "I thought you might want to take it with you."

"Thank you."

She sat down, the toast popped, and he presented her with a plate, then joined her at the table. "So, a date with your mom?"

"Yeah, we go do girl stuff. She comes up or I go down once a month. The mall, lunch. Sometimes we just hang out and watch movies. We started doing it - she suggested it - when I called off the wedding." He realized that it explained her new clothes.

"Sounds nice."

"I like it. It was really... helpful for a while."

They ate quietly. Jim cleared his throat and asked, "Can I see you tonight? Will you be free?"

"Yeah. I'd like that."

"I don't have a plan, really, but -"

"We'll figure something out." He smiled.

He walked out to her car with her in his bare feet. She pulled him into a hug after opening the door. He kissed her once, twice, and said, "last night was - I've wanted that for years." I love you.

"Yeah, so have I." She kissed him. "I'll call you when I get home."

"Can't wait."

He took a shower, shaved, and put on clean jeans and a t-shirt. He had formulated a plan before he even made it back through the door of his apartment, though he was trying not to analyze it too much. He knew it was both a little weird and a lot premature, but wanted to follow the way he felt, to do something to mark the very first time he was sure that he would marry this woman if she'd have him; the first time that it shifted from being a sad daydream to something that was actually, if remotely, possible. He was happy, calm. It felt a little like a game or like trying on new clothes, playing at being someone's husband. Pam's husband. Jim thought about it for a moment and it made his stomach twist into a knot. It was thrilling. He turned on his computer, Googled antique and consignment shops in the area. He made some calls, realized that he barely knew what questions to ask, grabbed his iPod and his car keys, and walked out the door with some addresses scribbled on a piece of paper.

~~~~~

The band is simple and platinum, with a single stone. His education in diamonds only extends back about four hours, but he knows to nod approvingly when the clerk is tells him that it's just under a half carat, it's very very slightly included, and a G on the color scale. She's saying that it's "truly beautiful" when his phone rings. When he sees Pam's name on the display, he feels caught. For a moment, he represses the urge to toss the box back to the clerk, as if Pam would be able to see it when he answers.

"Hi."

"Hi," he can hear the mall behind her. "What are you up to?"

The lie comes quick. His brain must have fabricated it at some point without telling him. "I'm on my way to the community center." He hopes that the classical music playing softly over the shop's speakers isn't audible.

"Sounds good. I'm calling because my mom wants to know if we could have dinner with her and my dad tonight."

He stares at the ring, so small he couldn't even slip it over his pinky finger, thinking about Pam's hands. There would have to be a platinum wedding ring, too, then, and one for him. He closes the box and turns over his hand, looking at his bare fingers. "That sounds great."

"Okay, so I'll pick you up at 5:30? We're going to pick a place halfway between here and their house."

He would tell her this story someday, he realizes, once this ring was on her finger. This would be part of the story of how they got married. She called while he was buying the ring; buying the ring months, maybe years, before it was a reasonable thing to do. He bought it, he would tell her, because he was so in love with her, so excited and so happy that this was finally happening, that he had to do something to acknowledge it, even if only to himself for the time being. "5:30 it is. Where are we going? Am I wearing a tie?"

"You're meeting my dad. You're wearing a tie."

I'm talking on the phone with my wife, he thinks. He feels giddy. He wants to buy her flowers, give her pet names, gross people out with how obviously insane he is about her. "What was I thinking?" He smiles.

"Seriously. 5:30."

"5:30. Tie. I'll see you then, sweetheart."

She laughs, sounding pleasantly surprised. "So strange. See you soon."

They hang up, he reaches for his wallet, and says, "I'll take it."

~~~~~

Before Pam arrives, and after spending about fifteen minutes just staring at it, he hides the ring in his underwear drawer; on the top shelf of his closet, near the back; under the bed in a shoebox with his baseball cards; in his messenger bag; and in the drawer of his computer desk. He even briefly considers calling his mother and asking her to hang onto it until he needs it. Finally, he slips it into his pants pocket, not really wanting to part with it yet. He can feel it bounce against his thigh as he walks down the hall to the door.

She is wearing a knee-length, green tweed skirt, sandals, and the same violet t-shirt he found on his floor that morning. Her hair is loose and glossy, framing her face in soft curls. When she steps forward and reaches to embrace him, he sees that her short nails are painted to match her shirt. I have your ring, Pam, he thinks, it would look great with those nails. "Hi," he says into the top of her head. He plants a kiss there, "you look great."

"Thank you. Shopping and the salon." She steps back and kisses him, smooths his gray cardigan against his chest, clicking her nail against one of the buttons. "I like this."

"Thank you." He steps aside to let her in. "One second, okay? I have to grab my wallet."

"Um," she touches his arm and rushes her words, "I was thinking that maybe - maybe you'd want to - stay over tonight?"

He turns back to her, looks down at her small hand on his arm, and then to her face, which is very pink. "I'd love to. Let me throw some stuff in a bag, okay?"

She looks relieved, which surprises him. He wonders what kinds of lines she has been drawing for herself. "Good. Good."

Before she can withdraw her hand, he covers it with his own and uses it to draw her close to him. He kisses her and then says "If I didn't think that I'd drive you completely nuts, you'd never be able to get rid of me. I'll be right back." I have your ring, Pam.

He grabs his overnight bag and throws in a change of clothes, some toiletries, his sneakers, a half-finished book, and his pajamas, even though he has no intention of wearing them. Quickly, he moves the velvet box from his pocket to a side pocket of his bag, checking twice to make sure that it's zipped. When he comes into the living room, Pam is studying the family photo on the end table. "Ready?"

She turns. "Ready."

As he follows her down the front walk to her car, he reaches up and touches the ends of her hair. "You should wear it down more often. It looks really good like this." She reaches behind her, intertwines their fingers, and slows until he falls into step with her, their hands joined.

~~~~~

They're in the restaurant with Mrs. Beesly ("Laura, please call me Laura, dear"), finishing their after-dinner coffee and tea. Mr. Beesly (who did not suggest that Jim call him anything else) has excused himself from the table for a moment. Pam has her knee pressed against Jim's under the table and Laura is beaming at him. He feels pleasantly surrounded. Laura squeezes Jim's hand across the table and says, "I am so happy for both of you. Really. This is just wonderful. I've been telling Pam for at least a year - longer - definitely since that night she called -"

Pam looks slightly mortified and he presses his knee into hers a little harder. "So that's who you were on the phone with."

"Who else?" She presses back.

"And then when I called this morning and - well..." Jim feels certain that Laura knows way too much about him. "So happy. We want to see more of you, Jim."

"You will." He smiles at Pam.

~~~~~

Jim offers to drive home. Pam rests her hand on his thigh and fiddles with the CD player. Once they are on the freeway again, he takes one hand off the wheel to hold hers, and she says, "I'd like to meet your parents."

"Sounds good. I'll call them."

"Do they know about us yet?"

"Talked to my mom last Saturday. She was really happy because she had May of 2007 in the family pool." Pam laughs. "So, uh, they've heard a lot about you."

"Oh, boy."

"Don't worry. My dad isn't as scary as yours."

"Oh, he's not scary. He's just a - a - dad."

"I thought he was going to fingerprint me."

"He probably forgot his inkpad." Pam squeezes his hand. "He liked you. Trust me. I think it's just a new boyfriend thing."

He thumps their joined hands against his leg for emphasis. "That is the first time you've called me that."

"I guess it is."

He glances over at her for a moment, clears his throat, and with his eyes on the road, says, "Pam's boyfriend."

She replies, "Jim's girlfriend."

He kisses her hand. "Oh, I like this."

~~~~~

He hasn't been in her bedroom before. It is small and neat, decorated in soft yellows, greens, and blues. Her bed looks larger and newer than his. There is an overstuffed bookcase in the corner, unframed sketches tacked up on the walls, and a small lamp lit on the dresser. Jim notices his own profile in one of the sketches, his hands in another, and wonders how long they have been hanging there. He doesn't wait for her perfunctory, good-hostess-type comment about where he could put his bag before he backs her against the wall and kisses her. She tastes like wine and the raspberry sorbet she had for dessert. When she reaches for his tie, he catches her hands and pins them above her head, making her back arch. He studies her face for a moment and the blackness of her eyes is all the yes he needs. She keeps her hands up while he pulls off her shirt and then drops them into his hair as he plants kisses on her sternum and pulls both of her bra straps down at once. She reaches behind herself, undoes the hooks with one hand, and shrugs it to the floor.

He continues down, pausing to take her nipples into his mouth slowly, to kiss her ribs, to play with the soft fuzz on her belly. He drops down to one knee, kissing her navel, running his fingers around the waist of her skirt to find the zipper. He draws it down and lets her skirt drop to the floor. He takes her hands out of his hair, holds them lightly, and kisses the backs of both of them, looking up at her. Her eyes are wide and her cheeks are flushed. She is wearing only her underwear, looking positively wanton, while he kneels in front of her. He lowers his other knee to the floor, places his hands on her hips, and kisses the front of her panties, breathing hotly as he pulls away to again check her face. She touches the top of his head lightly and avoids looking him in the eye.

Years of pining after her has given his fantasies an embarrassingly submissive bent at times and he is, in the moment, feeling the appeal of it. He enjoys aspects of the slow torture of wanting her as badly as he does. He wants to be humiliated, just a little. He wants to beg and get her off with his tongue. He wants to point to the imbalance in power between the two of them. He wants to tell her that he is all hers and that she can do whatever she wants with him.

He stands up and wraps his arms around her while she starts working on the buttons on his cardigan and shirt. She undoes his belt and untucks his shirt. He throws his tie aside. Her skin is warm and she pulls him close again, taking a step back toward the bed. She slides back against the pillows to make room for him. Pam lies down and he kisses her kneecaps and the insides of her lower thighs while he pulls down her panties. He kisses his way up her legs, parting them as he goes. He kisses the soft swell below her navel and asks, "Can I keep going?"

Her answer is tentative. "You don't have to -"

His mouth is lower still. He slips his tongue out for just a moment, teasing her a little, tasting salt and something darker, warmer. He moans against her softly and she gasps. "God, you taste so - I want to. I really, really want to."

She has one hand in his hair and is tracing the top of his ear with her finger. "I mean, if you want -"

"Pam," he kisses her below her navel, rests his forehead for a moment on her stomach, and strokes her thigh. "Do you want me to?" His keeps his voice gentle. He stresses the "you." He is trying to make a point.

She says yes. He doesn't hesitate.

~~~~~

It's three a.m. and they're still awake, in the kitchen, reheating their leftovers from that night's dinner. Pam is wearing his cardigan, half-buttoned, the v-neck dipping low between her breasts, and he has, somehow, ended up in his pajama pants. The only light is coming from a streetlight in the alley outside the kitchen window. She's sitting on the counter and he's standing between her knees, kissing her while the microwave whirrs. They've been alternating between talking and fucking since they got back from the restaurant, arriving at a place past all of last night's anxiety and nervousness. He can feel it getting less complicated each time. He's growing more certain that he knows what she isn't saying and it makes him bold.

They've been in her bed, mostly, but an attempt to get cleaned up and settle in for the night ended with her leaning over the bathroom counter while he gripped her hips and told her to watch herself in the mirror. "Do you know what you look like when you come?" She nodded, her eyes locked with his in the mirror, pressing her hips back into him. He wasn't sure where his nerve was coming from when he continued, telling her that she should see what it looked like when he made her come. "Because you look incredible, Pam. I can hardly believe it." He felt her tighten around him and watched her reach between her legs. He felt his control slip and is, in hindsight, certain that he made some unspeakably filthy suggestions after his brain shut down.

He backs out of their kiss just far enough to speak. "Um, I'm honestly not sure what I said to you there - at the end -"

"Sorry. I'm a lady. I can't repeat it. I'm sure it'll come back to you eventually."

"God."

"Yeah, that was in there somewhere at least once."

"I am so sorry."

"Nope."

"Nope?"

"You're not sorry because that would mean that you wouldn't do it again. And I like - that. Your voice."

"Oh?"

"Uh-huh. It - helps."

He would lay her down on the kitchen floor if he wasn't so exhausted. "Well, noted."

"Good." He brings his thumbs up to her cheeks, kisses her, and studies her face for a moment. Something in his expression seems to give her pause, because she asks, "What?"

"So, uh, I'm in love with you." He purposefully chooses that construction, the casual continuation of a conversation that got interrupted a year ago, certain that she must remember it as clearly as he does. "I hope it's not too soon to say that." For an instant, he feels the same sharp spike of fear, the same abrupt certainty that he has done something very, very wrong, and he bites back the same urge to find a way to qualify it.

"No, it isn't." She takes a breath. "I love you, too." He rests his forehead against hers and they say nothing.

When the microwave beeps, he steps out of the way so she can hop off the counter.

~~~~~

On Sunday afternoon, he pushes a shopping cart down the cereal aisle in the grocery store closest to her house. She asks him what he wants for breakfast the next morning and drops a box of Raisin Bran into the basket. She is, he has been informed, making dinner for them. The assumption is that they'll get through the store without running into a single coworker. They made the same assumption that morning when they sat on top of a picnic table in a park near his apartment and had coffee, splitting a muffin. He initially tried to radiate an air of 'friends meeting for breakfast,' but decided instead that a long string of blueberry-and-lemon kisses were far more appealing. They pulled away from one another when they heard a passing elderly couple chuckle. A big part of him wants to get caught, really, but he still starts when he sees a small woman with a blonde ponytail come out of the dairy department. He wants someone to see her written all over his face, to notice the red welt on the back of her neck that he tried to place below where her collar would be. He doesn't want what he knows will be a grand pronouncement not too far in the future when they get caught by the damned cameramen. He just wants it to be normal and understood.

~~~~~

After dinner, they lie curled together on the couch and make up the rules they would need on Monday morning, finding that they can boil the entire matter down to one guideline - "Act like nothing's different. For now."

And it isn't all that different, really. Angela plays Pam-Pong, Jim repeatedly empties Dwight's paperclip holder and fills it with Pez, and Pam sends random IMs to Jim all morning. He replies to all of them immediately. At lunch, she goes into the breakroom and he follows ten minutes later, after getting off of the phone. She is seated at the table near the window, picking at her chips, reading an article in a bridal magazine. She is so engrossed that she does not notice him. He glances over her shoulder on the way to the vending machine and sees a photograph of an artfully out-of-focus couple kissing on the altar of what looks like a Catholic church while the groom steps on a wrapped wineglass, a white yarmulke covering the back of his head. Two happy officiants look on. It is called "Your Interfaith Wedding." She glances up, he smiles at her, and she quickly turns the page. She looks a little sheepish. "I knew the cat would come out of the bag eventually. I'm going to be subjected to Fiddler on the Roof jokes and Michael Scott Hanukkah parties for the rest of my days, aren't I? Do you have any idea how carefully I've avoided that?"

She manages a quick response. "But you'll probably get a formal apology from Dwight on behalf of his ancestors." Reflexively, they both glance up, even though the cameras are gone for the summer. They stare at one another for a long minute. Pam's face is unreadable. Jim wonders if they've said too much. He joins her at the table, gestures at the magazine, and tries to recover. "Where'd you get that, anyway?"

"If I had to guess, Kelly left them here." She pats a stack of about ten of them piled on the table next to her.

"Oh. Ouch."

"I feel really bad for her. Maybe she and I should go out sometime. I bet she needs to talk to someone"

"Doesn't she always?" She turns a few more pages and pauses. Jim points to a dress and says, "That one's nice."

She nods. "They all are."

He can't help himself. He wants to push her, just a little, so he says, "But I mean it would look nice on you." He speaks slowly and his voice is a little quieter.

She looks away. "Hmm."

"I like the - the little sleeves."

"Those are called cap sleeves."

"Then I like the cap sleeves." He studies the picture for a moment. "And all the buttons up the back. And the color."

"It's champagne. Kind of."

"It's pretty." Jim lowers his head and laughs a little. "But you probably never want to think about weddings again, huh?"

She closes the magazine. "Not never."

He is quick to reply. "Well, I didn't really mean never..."

"I know what you meant." She holds his gaze, letting the meanings of her statement resonate.

"Good."

"Good." She closes the magazine and returns it to the pile. "Poor Kelly."

"Poor Kelly."

~~~~~

On his way back to his desk, Jim turns the small velvet box over in his fingers without taking it out of his pocket, picturing Pam with a row of tiny buttons up her back, crystals in her hair, and roses in her arms. It's perfect. It's coming.