Title: Sfumato
Rating: K+, for no good reason
Fandom / Pairing: The Office, Jim/Pam
Disclaimer: I hate so much about the things you choose to be.
Summary: Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.
Notes: You know how sometimes the fic takes on a life of its own? Yeah. This takes place somewhere around Branch Closing.


She started taking art classes a week after she broke it off with Roy.

It wasn't much; just twice a week at the local college, to get her skills from high school back into shape. Sort of like aerobics for an artist. She wasn't all that confident in her skills anymore; Jim may have loved her sketches, but she was the artist and she'd be damned if she'd let herself slip anymore.

The first night, she remembers, she stood at the far easel and observed the other people in the room, who in turn, observed each other. She wondered if maybe it was an inherent characteristic in artists; the large eyes that take in everything around them. She wonders what people think of her as she observes the world around her.

She touched the charcoal to the paper mounted on the easel and it felt like high school all over again; AP Art-something with a class full of people who truly loved mediums and who were probably too stressed out to be artists. She remembered slaving over paper boards at wee hours of the morning trying to finish one more AP Sketch in prisma-colors, frustration mounting as the soft lead refused to blend properly. She remembered paint-spattered hands and fingers tinged with pastel and lots and lots of clay under her fingernails.

And she remembered Roy. The charcoal drew the angle of a shoulder, the curve of a hand, and she remembered making organic sculptures based on the slope of his shoulders, the planes of his chest, the arch of his back. Her boyfriend, and she was a little star struck; Roy Anderson? Dating her?

The figure rested its head on his hand and peered at something in front of it. Free sketching, her hands followed ghosted pathways until the image came together and the charcoal flattened between her fingers.

It was Jim.

&&&

It's hard for her to get used to the idea that this little area - a little loft-y apartment with a fire escape she can curl up on - is actually all hers. It's quiet, and she loves having her own space. She'd forgotten how to breathe, how to stretch without hitting things that aren't hers, and she's happy she's here.

She folds laundry, because she's always enjoyed being a little domestic. Roy cooked sometimes, but she enjoyed playing Wife-to-Be enough at first that what started as a small joy turned into a chore. She folds laundry one misty morning because she wants to establish some sort of routine, a beaten path for her to follow. And because she has always enjoyed folding laundry; it is soothing in its own way.

She sorts work shirts from weekend shirts and notes the substantial difference - when did she stop caring? Socks and underwear and pajamas and t-shirts each get their own pile until she's surrounded by molehills of clothes and a little workspace on her bed.

And then she folds.

Her mind wanders as her hands deftly pull and place fabric into a semblance of order. She thinks of summer weddings gone awry and the slope of a shoulder. She sometimes sketches in her mind, but the wall she's facing is almost too white today, and she can't help but think about Jim and Australia. Everything she's ever seen of the place boasts beauty; beautiful beaches, beautiful reefs, beautiful women and prettier boys. She wonders what Jim is doing - is he enjoying himself? Is he enjoying another girl? She pauses mid-fold and bites her lip.

Is it really her place to ask?

She thinks about Connecticut and sudden transfers that aren't all that sudden, and about blowing her brains out and elevator rides and phone calls that never happened as the pile of laundered shirts neatly stacked grows.

She thinks about kissing and warm hands as she folds delicates and the association makes her blush.

She thinks about deft hands and bright eyes and the slopes of shoulders as she pairs socks the way they taught her to that one summer she worked at the Gap. She thinks of the arches of necks, the curve of a throat, the angle of a cheekbone, the spikes of hair, the fold of an arm, the curl of--

She runs out of clothes.

&&&

She's curled up on her little loveseat watching crappy Lifetime movies with a bowl of popcorn in her lap when it hits her.

This is it.

She sets the bowl aside and clicks off the TV. She stands in the middle of her tiny living room and just looks around her.

This is it. This is her life.

And it scares her.

She sits on the fire escape, curling into a corner of the little platform, with a sketchpad the size of her torso balanced on her knees. She can see the outlines of far-off buildings, shadows she wants desperately to sketch. But somehow, her heart isn't in it.

She turns the page to a fresh sheet and just lets her hands follow patterns she can't quite see until they're on the paper. There, a line gently curved. There, an angle, deft and strong. Here and here, shadows and arcs until she's sketching furiously and her vision is blurring and she can't see for tears.

Done.

&&&

Three weeks into her class - in July - they work with oil paints.

She hasn't touched oils since she was in college, and the palette is almost daunting in front of the stretched canvas. She has no idea what to paint, what to even think about painting and stares at the white expanse with heavy eyes.

"Pam?" Her instructor walks over and quietly falls into posture, observing her and her pristine palette of paints.

"I'm just...I'm stuck." She turns to look at him, and she knows her face is earnest. "I'm sorry."

He smiles behind square glasses and dark hair. "It's fine. Just keep sketching. Maybe something will hit you."

She sketches at her desk at work. Jim's outline shimmers in the air, but his desk is gathering dust. Angela suggests - none too kindly - that perhaps Ryan should be promoted. Michael is all for the idea. Toby just kind of shrugs noncommittally.

She taps her favorite pen, the one with the heavy ink and the pretty tip, against her bottom lip and considers the desk. And then she sketches, quick lines straight and parallel, angled for perspective. A cluttered desk, topped with all manner of things until she's constructed something that's a little bit her, a little bit him, and a little bit them both.

She attacks the canvas with brushes, large and small, mixing colors and blending edges with her hands until her fingers are covered with an array of shades that mute to a murky brown on her skin. Angela thinks she has leprosy, Dwight tells her to use a certain kind of beet soap, and Oscar suggests dishwashing liquid. She thanks all of them and answers the phone.

It takes her three classes, and her hands are twitching every time she's away from the canvas; she wants to add, wants to never stop, and she hasn't felt quite like this in a long time.

When the last brush finally falls into the turpentine and her hands smudge the last clean edge, she steps back and looks at it. It's a little Van Gogh, a little Matisse, a little Picasso, a little Seurat; large stripes of color and the blending come together into shadows and the image. A desk overflowing, with paper and the phone, a computer monitor and yogurt lids. iPods and grilled cheese and teapots and jelly beans and blues just everywhere.

Her instructor comes over and observes it, observes her observing it, and she feels herself shift her weight. He adjusts his glasses and crooks a thoughtful finger under his chin.

"Good."

&&&

She buys a bucket of sidewalk chalk in mid-August and heads to the park on Saturdays. There's a wide expanse of blacktop that no one ever plays on, a part that no one really seems to care about.

She takes her brightly-colored plastic bucket of chalk and falls to her knees. She's in old jeans and a soft t-shirt, old and worn and stained with paint spatters that actually look kind of awesome (at least in her mind); her hair's pulled up in a ponytail and there's a bottle of water in her other hand. She looks like a high school-er. Maybe it's better that way.

The chalk rolls out in a quiet clatter, and she's careful not to break the sticks. Then she starts. She grabs the darker gray and starts outlining, the smoky cement just a shade lighter, enough for her to see against. It will blend away. It looks like angles and lines but she knows what she's doing and when she's filled five slabs of cement she stands and dusts off her hands.

She grabs oranges and yellows and colors in arcs and dips in the landscape. The sun is approaching the high mark, and she can feel curls escaping her ponytail, but she continues to scrape chalk against the asphalt and blend colors together with her fingers, careful not to rub her hands raw. She hears the squeak of swings and the scrape of a merry-go-round and the groan of the see-saw and the shrieks of laughter and smiles even as the day gets hotter.

Blues and greens come next, and she's certain there are smudges of chalk all over her face, but she's too focused on her work in the here and now. Vibrant colors come out as she continues to smooth and smooth and smooth and lay the chalk on heavily.

The noise around her dies down a little and she sees little feet at the edge of her vision, but she ignores them. They can watch, but she has to finish. She can't just come back tomorrow.

Brown this time, and she's filling in large areas of the middle with a heavy hand. Then reds and more blue. Purple she saves for last, because it's her favorite. Then comes black and she's smudging the edges she's hardened to make soft shadows.

She tosses the last half-stick into the bucket and sits up on her knees. Her back aches, her hands are sore, and too many curls are in her eyes. She can feel chalk on her cheeks and notices that the shadows are as long as they were when she started. She stands and dusts her hands off on her jeans, rinses them off over the grass and turns to look at what she's drawn.

Trees that melt into sky-scraper buildings, and children all over; a swing in the face of a window, a see-saw blocking a forest and it is perfect. Kids and their parents step over to ooh and ah over it while she just smiles quietly and snaps a photo with the camera she borrowed from Oscar, slim enough to fit in the pocket of her jeans, which are an unholy blend of colors and smudges from crawling all over her work. It goes with the paint spatters all over her shirt (which now has chalk smudges to match) and she wishes she could just keep them like this, even though she knows these two will go straight into the hamper as soon as she's home.

Hands on her hips, she follows the lines of her work with a critical eye, but she's too giddy from the sun and from finishing something so publicly that objectivity is lost, and she's certain it's the best thing she's ever done. She wonders what he would say if he was still here, but the thought is shattered by a pair of shy twins who ask her if she's a famous artist like on Sesame Street. She bends down and smiles and shakes her head, but tells them that she hopes to be, one day. And it tastes like truth.

She sends the photo to her mother, and is halfway through typing his name into the CC line when she stops, closes her address book, and hits send.

Later.

&&&

In September, the schools reopen and she renews her commitment to the art class. Her instructor, sans glasses tonight, tells them to do a photo collage.

She walks around her neighborhood, once again having borrowed Oscar's camera - he doesn't seem to mind, since she's so careful - and takes photos. Violets from a window box five buildings down. A willow tree bent perfectly over a garage. A little red car that looks like it's looking over a railing. A small child walking a golden retriever twice her size as her mother trails behind them. A cat sashaying along a wall.

An old couple embracing as they walk.

A bush shaped like Babar.

A rose on an ear.

A teapot made of neon lights.

A hand brandishing an engagement ring.

A phone, a desk, a scrap of blue and violet cloth.

She doesn't use any of the last three.

&&&

She can't escape him.

&&&

Her instructor - his name's Mark, and he tells her to call him that over and over - hands each of them a linoleum block.

"A friend of mine gave me this idea," he tells the class, arranged in a circle around him. "We're going to sculpt trees. You can use a chisel, hammers, whatever. I think there's a few electric tools in the back."

She stares blankly at the beige chunk of linoleum in front of her. She thinks of tall trees that dwarf her, of straight, strong trunks and canopies she has to crane her neck back to see. She thinks of weekends in the Pocono Mountains and vacations spent curled up at the windows in heavy blankets and sketchpads filled with lines of trees that turn into large hands with long fingers.

She sees it in her mind's eye and sketches quickly, the lines of skeletons of trees that metamorphose into hands and digits. She tapes the drawing down and traces it onto the block, and it reminds her of making Christmas cards, even though it's not quite Halloween. The paper comes off and she positions herself under a light. She grabs a chisel and takes a breath.

She presses.

&&&

He calls.

He calls.

He calls.

He calls.

&&&

"Hi."

"Hey."

And it's the same, but it's different.

(She's got paint under her fingernails and jeans with a few self-made bleach spots and paint from when she tried to paint her living room and just ended up faking wainscoting over the parts she actually did color.)

He smiles at her and she moves to hug him and they fit and she's missed this so much it hurts.

But then, later, she sees him seeing her and her lungs burn and her stomach twists into knots. Because she knows why she can't stop thinking about him, why he's in everything she draws or paints or sculpts.

She is guilt-ridden.

Because before anything else, he is her best friend. And she broke his heart.

She wonders if she deserves to call him that anymore.

&&&

There is routine and then there are ruts.

She is stuck in something, an endless cycle of perpetual something that's quietly killing her. She picks up the phone and hits the speed dial and hears it ring and ring.

"H'lo?" He sounds sleepy, his voice sounds thick, and she can just picture him in her mind and it makes her warm all over.

"Hey, you."

"Pam?" There's a yawn. "What time is it?"

"A little past midnight."

"Oh." There's a pause and a rustle of - are those sheets? - and something groans and she can hear him shifting. "What's up?"

"Nothing. Something. Okay, you know that feeling where you're tired and you just can't seem to fall asleep?"

"You mean like now?"

"Har har. No, just like your brain can't turn off? Or something's just bothering you a lot?"

"Yeah." She hears him shift again. "I couldn't sleep for a while in Stamford; I kept thinking the shadows were wrong."

"Exactly!"

"You called me to tell me this?"

"No, it's just..." She sighs and curls her feet under her. "I think I'm drunk."

He scoffs. "I've seen you drunk. You are not drunk."

"Except I think I am."

"Well you're not." He yawns again. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get at least a few hours of sleep before dealing with Michael again."

She laughs a puff of a laugh and grins even though he can't see it. "Sure.'Night."

"'Night." She hears the click of a disconnect and lowers the receiver to the base. She looks at her nails, stained by oil paints and discolored by clay and bitten in moments of nerves.

She's stuck in a rut, and she has no idea what to do.

&&&

So she changes it.

"Come to the museum with me?"

He shrugs and agrees, citing his utter lack of anything better to do. She smacks him across the shoulder and says thank you.

They wander through gallery after gallery of paintings by people she's heard of and some she hasn't. They stop in front of some and pass by others. She tells him odd stories or factoids she's learned in art class, he tells her what the canvases (or sculptures or watercolor paper) remind him of.

They stop in front of a Pollack and she tilts her head to the side.

"I get it." She looks at him, at his profile, for a long moment.

"It's Pollack."

"Yeah, I can read, too. But...don't you see it?"

"See what?"

He gestures at the painting. "I just...I get it. It's emotion." He puts his hands in his pockets and she swears in the back of her mind; she's put him on edge.

She turns to the canvas and studies it. She crosses her eyes and tilts her head, squints and glares and finally gives up.

And then it clicks.

"Oh..."

"Now you're getting it."

She kisses him right there because in the midst of the paint spatters all she sees is heartbreak.

&&&

Mark - apparently Jim's-ex-roommate-Mark, who knew? - has her doing cubism. Synthetic, he tells her, because he's really not that good at math and analytical cubism makes his brain hurt. The class laughs, but she sees the spark hidden in the flash of his glasses in the light and she wonders how she missed the similarities between her teacher and her best friend.

She thinks about high school yearbooks and dorky pictures and tries something different. She sketches and then draws; awkward nose and goofy haircut here, quiet smiles and conspiratorial gleams there. Long hands from every angle.

And there - black turtleneck and frizzy hair against tight curls and a quiet purple blouse.

Four hands touching.

&&&

She likes watching him while he sleeps. The lines of his face relax and - she hates sounding like a walking cliché - he looks so much younger.

She runs a featherlight hand along the lines of his jaw, lines she's studied for days and hours and minutes and sketched a thousand times or more, lines she never seems to get right.

She thinks about lines and about crossing them. She thinks about lines of chalk and sand and rubbing a hand across them and watching them blur into shadows. She thinks about Da Vinci and Mona Lisa smiles, about art frescoes and pastel colors and oil paintings and post-impressionism and smudging and smoothing and mixing and blending and shifting and changing.

"Hey." Green eyes and easy smiles and chest hair - chest hair, who would have guessed? - and hers.

"Shh." Palm flat on his chest, she shifts a little closer to him. "Go back to sleep."

"'Kay."

She thinks about fabric softener and entwined fingers and stolen kisses and then she stops thinking.


I actually wrote and posted this in November, so that's why it's so AU. But I'm so behind on my fics, and this is like my last weekend, so... yeah. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed this - there's about five more on the way. :D