Title: Meter (Palpitation)
Fandom / Pairing: The Office, Jim/Pam (uh, maybe?), Jim/Karen
Rating: K+, seriously.
Disclaimer: I was the second choice. After "pass."
Summary: The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides!
Notes: A challenge response.
Thump. Thump. Thump.

It's him laid out on his bed, spread-eagled, with the bass pumped to the max and the volume high. He doesn't even care if the neighbors complain to the homeowners' guild. Mark's out for the night with his girlfriend, and Karen's visiting her sister. It's just him and the dark house and the feel of the bass drum pulsing against the inside edge of his skin. He feels ready to explode, ready to fall apart at the seams, and even as the reverb echoes with the end of the song, the edges of his skin feel electric.

The next track slides into play, and the percussion is back behind his eyes. Suddenly he feels seventeen again, a decade and some younger, drowning out the day with the sound of Nirvana and Green Day pressing against the contours of his skull. It's OK Go right now, but he's got Interpol and Dandy Warhols in the mix, with a healthy dose of The Shins. Damian Kulash tells him to do what he wants and he finds himself wondering what that is, exactly.

&&&

It's her on the roof of her loft apartment, the one that's got her super's little garden in boxes all around the edges. She's in the small corner devoid of plant life. Normally, she'd be up here sketching the flowers her super seems to love so much, but today is one of those overcast spring days she seems to feel so tired on. So instead of sketching or cleaning or any of the seemingly endless other things she could be doing, she's here on the roof, sipping tea from a thermos and feeling the wind against her skin, messing her frizzy curls and blowing them into her face.

She thinks about wind and how to capture it, formless and flighty. How do you draw touch? It's the question she can't answer, so she files it away with all the others in the drawer of her mind, along with all the questions she can't ask and all the questions that she's better off not knowing the answer to.

She sips her tea and tries to see. See the lines and the shading of the buildings under the overcast sky. Tries to see the shapes of the clouds themselves, past the gray smoothness and into the quiet dappling of the undersides. She thinks about the first time she rode on an airplane and broke through the clouds, of the endless see of white mounds she saw against the perfect blue of the sky.

Suddenly, she hears the faintest strains of a guitar from a car as it passes by, of a voice calling wordlessly, with sound alone.

&&&

Liz comes to visit. Liz, in all her bohemian glory, paisley skirt and peasant top a contrast to her curly hair, the same shade as his. Her carpet bag goes flying off to the side as she hugs him full on in the doorway of the house he and Mark share. Mark, passing by on the way upstairs to grab his keys, just laughs and shakes his head.

"Liz!" He says, because it's all he can say for a moment. Elizabeth Halpert is his baby sister, damn it, and he's always had a bit of a soft spot when it comes to her.

"Hey there big bro," she says, and lets go of the chokehold she's had on his neck. "What's shaking?"

"You know, you really should call before you drop in on me."

She looks at him like he's crazy. Not a look he's unfamiliar with, but still. "I did. Your roommate took it. I'm thinking he wasn't all there at the time, if you catch my drift."

He raises an eyebrow. "Oh really?" He can hear Mark's footsteps moving away rapidly. "He was probably tied up with Katie."

"Ah." She nods sagely. "Fiancée?"

"Just about." He picks up her carpet bag and leads her inside to the cramped guest room. "How long are you staying?"

"Um. Forever."

"What?!"

"Just kidding!" She flicks his nose - she's on the tall end of the spectrum, just like him - and putters around the room. "I'm here for a week or so. They found asbestos or something, so most of the main facilities are out."

"Ouch. Well, crashing here is cool."

"Really? Aw, Jim, you're the best." She melodramatically clasps her hands in front of her and widens her eyes.

"Shut up." He flops down on the fold-out futon, legs stretched out to the limit, and breathes. Liz brings with her that air of something intensely familiar, and he's missed her.

"Whatcha think of this?" She twirls around so the skirt flares out and the sleeves puff up.

"Nice. A little eclectic, but it works." He'd be ashamed for saying that if he didn't watch Project Runway a little religiously. (He fully blames Liz when Mark rolls his eyes at him.)

"Gracias," she replies, and lands with a whooshing sound beside him. "I've missed you."

"Yeah, me too." He puts an arm around her and she leans in a little, and it's like he's nineteen again and home for the holidays. He hugs her a little tighter.

&&&

She breezes into the office like she knows the place as well as the rest of them. She doesn't look a day older than 20, though she could pass for older. She's wearing a brown dress that simply isn't; from the knees down it shifts from the seemingly drab brown cloth to a patchwork that looks as if it's been pieced together like quilting. There's a large belt made of circles of turquoise inlaid in tarnished brass across her waist, and she's got a turquoise strip of cloth tied in a headband whose tails disappear into the rush of her dark brown curls. She's got an odd-looking bag in her hands and Pam can hear the quiet ring of small bells as she steps past the threshold.

"Um." There's a shade of familiarity in her face, in the line of her jaw and the arch of her brow. She can feel her hands twitching to find old letterheads set to be shredded anyway, to sketch this enigma she sees before her, a splash of color against the whiteness of Dunder-Mifflin.

"Hi!" She greets cheerily and makes her way over to her, a strange grace to her. It makes her want to sketch this free spirit in front of her. "I'm looking for Jim?"

She feels herself blink mutely. "He's, uh, in the break room. The door back there." She smiles widely and surreptitiously reaches for a pen and a few sheets of paper.

She sighs dramatically and rolls her eyes. "Him and his ham and cheese."

She feels herself smile a little. "He's nothing if not a creature of habit." Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a camera with a lens trained on them. She ignores it.

So does the bohemian. "You're telling me. In high school, all he'd have for lunch would be turkey and Swiss on wheat."

"Liz?" It's his voice from the back, and the tall girl in the crazy dress pivots on a heel and beams.

"Jimmy! I brought you lunch." She holds up the oddly shaped package.

He laughs, deep and warmly. "Did you burn it again?"

She huffs and puts her hands on her hips. "Well, if you're going to be ungrateful about it--"

"What is it?" He snatches it out her hands and takes it to his desk, unpacking neat Tupperware in stacks on his workspace. Liz sighs and sends Pam an eloquent look. She covers her laughter with a hand and feels her smile widen when Liz grins back at her.

"How old are we, again?" She raises a cool eyebrow at him, oohing and aahing over the five plastic tubs he's arranged aside his keyboard. He's somehow regressed to something sweet and young, and her hands are flying over the page, blocking out the scene and adding detail. She knows his lines so well that he's the outline of himself before she can blink, but Liz takes less time than she thought. Slim framed and long-fingered, she's almost effortless to capture, so she takes her time to get the patches on her hem and the shape of her curls.

"You're really good." She looks up to a pair of green eyes startlingly close, a long frame draped carelessly over the width of her desk's barrier. "I wish I could draw like that. Sadly, all they let us do is the designs, and those don't have to be really realistic."

"You're a designer?" She wants to kick herself the minute the words come out of her mouth - of course she is.

"Well, almost. I've got another year to go until I have my degree. Then I can start working for, like, Ralph Lauren or whatever." She grins, and it's that slow half-smirk she's so used to, the one that has preceded a thousand hellos. "But I've been making my own clothes since high school." She wiggles her fingers at her, and she can see the faint scars of needles and scissors and a thousand other sharp instruments.

"Nice. Where are you going to school?"

"Parson's, up in New York."

"Like Tim Gunn Parson's? That Parson's?"

"The one and only." There's a gleam in her eyes, one she's not unfamiliar with.

"Awesome." She smiles and casts a surreptitious glance around the room. "I bet you've got all the spoilers for the next season." Liz winks and presses a finger to her lips. "Ah! Spill! Now."

"I will if you tell me your name." She props her chin up on one hand, head cocked to the side ever so slightly.

"I'm Pam. Pam Beesley." There's a glimmer of recognition in the other girl's eyes, but it's gone before she can discern what it means.

Then she stretches out the other hand, the one not holding up her head, and the edges of her eyes crinkle. "Elizabeth Halpert. Liz for short."

&&&

He comes home, fresh from one of the biggest sales of the season, and the first thing he hears is creaking bedsprings.

"Mark, if that's you, that door better be closed by the time I'm up there," he calls, tossing his keys into the ashtray that they both use for this purpose, since neither of them smokes.

"Mark's off at Katie's," returns a voice from upstairs.

"Then what is that noise?" He's loosening his tie and unbuttoning the sleeves of his shirt as he moves feet muffled by thin dress socks across the wood floor.

"Just me!"

"I got that. Should I be worried?"

"Har har. Just shut up and get up here."

"But I like to shout across the house so much more," but he's already leaning on the door frame watching her jumping on his bed. Jumping on his bed.

"How old are we?" He asks, using the phrase she tossed at him earlier that day.

"Shut up, I'm still younger than you."

"I know, and every birthday is a reminder of how much older I am."

The bedsprings squeak audibly again. "So, I met Pam."

"You also met Karen, my girlfriend." He glares at her, but it's belied by the smile pulling at the edge of his mouth.

"She's cute, no lie."

"Pam or Karen?"

She grins over at him and bounces once more. "Who do you think?"

"Liz," he says with a warning tone, moving to sit at his desk chair.

"What's with that voice?" She stops bouncing and sits Indian style in the center of his bed. "Hello, Halpert. This is your sister. The one you tell everything to? Yeah, that one."

"I'm very happy with Karen." As the words leave his mouth, he wonders why he keeps having to say it, why it seems like he has to reaffirm that fact. He is happy with Karen. He is. So why does it seem like everyone asks him that?

"I know." She braces her elbows on her knees and cups her chin between her two hands. "I know you are." And in that simple phrase he feels a surge of gratitude so strong that his hands shake.

&&&

Sometimes, when she's not thinking about anything at all, she's haunted by the ghosts of hands. Hands that are innocent always, save for the occasions that they stray.

It's the memory of long arms curled around her waist and the feeling of her shirt rising higher than she'd like under Angela's disapproving gaze. It's the haunting of an infinite number of fingers against her shoulder, a delicate brush or a firm tap. Once, there was the curl of his palm against her wrist, pulling her hand away for some reason beyond her now.

Then, then, there's the ghost of arms around her waist the right way, fingers curling against her hips in double underneath elbows hidden beneath soft black sweaters.

She really does miss him, three feet away or no.

&&&

"Why do you never jump on Mark's bed?"

She wrinkles her nose and makes the bedspring squeak again. "His room smells like sex."

"Hey!"

"What? Your room doesn't. That's all there is to it."

"What about Karen?"

"What about Karen? If you two are sleeping together - and I really don't want to know if you are - then you're certainly not doing it here."

"What makes you say that?" Liz is infinitely more amusing than the new paper lineup for the next fiscal year, and the bound book is tossed aside carelessly.

"Again, Mark's room smells like sex. Your room does not. And neither does the guest room." Squeak. Squeak.

"I think I hate you."

"Love you too, Jimmy."

There's a pause and he contemplates picking up the catalog again. Instead he watches her bounce up and down on his bed. "What's so fun about that anyway?" She grins and the squeaking stops long enough for her to grab him arm and pull him to the bed. "Hey!"

"Come on! Live a little, would ya?"

"I already went to Australia, thank you. I've lived plenty."

"Just shut up and jump on your bed."

&&&

Dinner in her apartment is a quiet affair. It's just her and the TV most nights, unless she goes out to a movie or something. She's not used to going places by herself. Actually, that's not true. Rather, she's not used to feeling so alone period.

Tonight it's just a sandwich because she can't bring herself to care beyond that. "LOST" is playing faintly, but she can't bring herself to care about stranded islanders and the whack job that is the writer when she's feeling so...quiet. She flips the channel to CNN and lets the hum of news wash over her. But words like "war" and "died" make her think of people like her, sitting at home alone under a blanket watching the news.

She sighs and rises, the plate coming to rest on her small coffee table with a quiet clink. She makes her way over to her little shelf of movies and moves her finger across the spines of movies she loves. There's a romance or two (or seven), an action movie or two, and more than one drama.

She pops in Pride and Prejudice, because she's feeling English and craving a little fog and rain and a sunrise to finish it out. She can talk along with it at this point, but she doesn't care because every time she sees Darcy climb over the ridge and out of the fog her breath catches in her throat a little and she feels herself tear up ever so slightly. She plays with the pendant on her necklace as Darcy and Elizabeth butt heads for the first time of many. She tells herself she really should read the book, but forgets about it when she sees Pemberley for the first (thousandth) time.

After, she pops in The Incredibles and falls asleep to the sounds of fifties style jazz, dreaming of blue notes and statues that call and respond.

&&&

This time - this time - he's lying on his bed with the volume turned up, but the bass turned low and the treble on high. He wants to hear the clarities of voice, the meanings in the background of singers' voices. He wants to hear intricacies because he's tired of heartbeats. If he squints his eyes, it's almost like his ceiling fan is spinning in time to the strumming of the guitar.

He closes his eyes and the voice washes over him, and he thinks about hands. He thinks about muscle memory and the feeling of fitting, of ghosts treading the same waters as him. He thinks about handprints invisible but tangible in that way that transcends words and even music or art and is nothing more or less than sensation. He thinks about the feel of wind (breath) on skin and the sound of air (breathing) and the haunting feeling of utter loneliness in a crowded room.

And then, just as the track ends, there's a knock on his door. Standing, he switches off his iPod and opens the door to reveal Liz in all her glory.

"Hey," she says, and cocks her head to the side a little. "Dinner's ready."

He looks at her, from the white off-the-shoulder top to the hem of her flared-leg corduroy slacks (damn Bravo and their marathons), to the white ribbon woven into her pinned-up hair, and nods.

She smiles a little and bounces on the balls of her feet. "Okay." And then she turns away and he hears the heavy footfalls of her steps down the stairs.

He leans against the door and looks at the white wall, and studies the texture for a long moment. Then he blinks and breaks himself out of it and heads downstairs.


[1 "The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides!" - Arthur Schnabel

[2 Elizabeth "Liz" Halpert is a character of my own creation who has appeared occasionally in my Office fics. She's something of a recurring OC. This is the first time I've had her meet Pam. grin

[3 Originally published 1 April 2007.

[4 I dedicate this to my little brother. Because I converted him to the show. I doubt he'll ever read this, but it's for him all the same.