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Seated at his desk in his office on a Sunday evening, Lane takes another sip of his water, then sets the glass aside to pick up the next item in his tray. Ten o'clock, and he is going over paperwork. There's no reason he has to be here now. Everything in the inbox could have waited till morning. But he felt a bit mad, wandering through his empty flat, watching horrible television and poking at the prepackaged meal he had prepared but wasn't hungry enough to eat.

Meanwhile, at work, there were billings to be examined, and time left to get ahead on next month's budget report, and so he is here, marking up papers and writing notes for the girls to look over in the morning. Feeling a bit stiff, Lane stretches in his chair, running a hand over the back of his neck. Invoice number six zero three two. Issued for Bird's Eye's last media purchase.

Just as Lane goes to initial it, there's a loud crash just outside his closed door. He startles, splatters ink all over the paper in front of him, and throws down his fountain pen, jumping to his feet in search for the culprit. Who the hell would be in at this hour? The front door is locked, and the cleaners aren't due for ages. He marches out into the dark hallway, squinting through his glasses to see more clearly. A very dim light issues from the open lounge, accompanied by a slight rustling. When Lane moves closer to investigate, the sight is a shock.

Joan Harris kneels next to the sofa, a small lamp askew on the floor at her side. The lampshade has popped off and rolled several feet away, near the legs of the table he's standing beside, but the bulb still gives off light. Had she tried to turn it on, then knocked it over? Has she fallen? Good lord.

Lane can't see her face, and so he steps closer. “Are you—all right?”

He begins to kneel down next to her, attempting to help, when he realizes she hasn't said a word in reply. Not a hello, not an apology. Nothing at all.

It worries him, and causes him to examine her more closely once they're level. The sight only heightens his anxiety. Her skin is paper white, expression pinched. Her red dress is dirty, and she's sitting back on her heels in her stocking feet. Where are her shoes? Is that—blood—on her knees? And she's trembling so violently Lane's afraid she might be ill, or in shock, or both.

On instinct, he reaches out to take her hand. Her palm is skinned, and slightly gritty, as if she's fallen on the pavement. Staring fixedly at a spot in the distance where light from the bulb casts a long shadow onto the tile floor, Joan appears not to have noticed the contact.

Lane keeps his voice calm, attempts to draw her out. “Tell me what's happened.”

Her voice is a whisper. “I was walking over, and—a—a man—took my purse—h-he had a gun—”

God almighty. She's been mugged. His grip on her hand tightens as he pictures a shadowy figure lurking in an alleyway, listening for the click of high heels on pavement, waiting to strike. Before he asks the next question, Lane forces himself to breathe deeply. “Did he hurt you?”

Joan is silent for an awfully long time, her mouth twisting in an alarming way. Lane can actually feel his face bead with sweat in anticipation of her answer, imagining the worst possibilities. After what feels like years, she finally shakes her head no.

“He—he shoved me down. I fell. That's—that's it.”

He can't help exhaling a breath of relief. “Thank god.”

Without even thinking he puts his free hand on her upper arm.

Suddenly, Joan looks up at him, eyes wide as if in fear or recognition. Her hand twitches in his grasp, and she grasps his fingers tightly, as if she's just realized he's holding hers.

“He wanted my w-wedding rings.”

It takes him several seconds to realize her third finger is bare against his palm.

She begins to cry in earnest, slumping forward slightly and covering her eyes with her free hand in an attempt to hide her tears. Lane makes a sympathetic noise, attempting to briefly withdraw his hand from her grip, to pull out his handkerchief. But she does not let go. The movement jolts her forward instead, and suddenly her face is buried in his shoulder.

She is crying too much to speak. His right hand twitches against the middle of her back. After a moment, realizing she will not be moving anytime soon, Lane leans awkwardly against the end of the sofa, drawing her as close as he can. Held up at gunpoint for a wedding diamond and the contents of her purse. People have been killed for far less.

God, perhaps she thought she might be. Poor dear.

His fingertips brush a few stray curls away from the nape of her neck. Joan lets out another sob at the gesture. The sound of her crying is so pitiful his skin crawls with the need to make it stop. Lane makes a kind of shushing noise. He's still holding her left hand. The pad of his thumb brushes over her fingers in a back and forth motion. His other palm strokes her hair as he babbles out the first words of comfort which come to mind.

“There now. You—just—have a cry.”

**

They sit on the floor of the darkened lounge for god knows how long after Joan stops crying. Lane just keeps silent: keeps holding her, stroking her hair. He only stops when she lifts her head from his chest without warning and pushes herself away, into a seating position; mumbling something that sounds like water and restroom. Once she gets to her feet, moving quickly down the hall, he feels he ought to let her go.

She probably wants time alone. Not that he can blame her.

In her absence, he rights and fixes the lamp from the floor, and turns on two others. Her shoes and overcoat are strewn across the tile near Campbell's doorway, and so he takes these and puts them in her office, hanging the coat carefully and placing the shoes next to each other at the foot of the rack.

There is a tatty fleece blanket hanging on the back of the green sofa in creative, and Lane lays claim to it, brings it back to the lounge, in case Joan might want it. In case she's—cold.

What else can he do? What might calm her?

He puts the kettle on.

Even the routine of preparing tea is reassuring. By the time he's carrying a tray out into the lounge – bearing a pot of earl grey, two cups on saucers, the sugar bowl, and a tea strainer for the leaves – Joan's returned from the toilet. She's sitting on the sofa, feet drawn up under her, the blanket from creative wrapped around her shoulders. Looking utterly wrung out, and still very pale.

“Oh,” is all she says as he approaches.

Lane isn't sure if she's disappointed by this development, and so his reply is a possible peace offering. “We can—spike it with gin, if you'd like something—stronger.”

Why on earth did he say gin? Whoever heard of such a thing?

But she offers him a sort of nod at the comment, and so he puts down the tray and goes to fetch the bottle from his office, unscrewing the cap and pouring a generous measure of liquor into both cups once he returns. He's about to ask how much sugar she takes when she grabs the handle of her cup and downs the contents without a word.

Ought to have seen that coming.

Lane still pours her a second, but follows it with tea this time. When he asks her opinion on sugar, she gives him a shrug, so he puts one spoonful into her cup, and one into his. They sit in silence for several moments. He feels he's got to ask her one question.

“Do you want me to phone the police?”

“No,” she retorts, sharp. He bites his tongue to keep from telling her she really ought to, though he doesn't like police himself, never has. And he doesn't know how to broach the subject again, is debating whether he ought to speak at all when she mumbles, appropriate of nothing:

“I got dinner from a deli on sixty-seventh.”

He puts down his cup, and turns to look at her.

She slants a rueful glance at him, speaking in a flat voice. “That's why I was out. I ran some errands, and then I stopped to eat, because I didn't want to cook. It was because of a sandwich.”

There is nothing appropriate he can say apart from I'm sorry or how awful, so he settles for putting his hand on her arm again, a silent attempt at commiseration.

“I don't like cooking, either,” he tells her, in an attempt to cheer her up with what is probably the worst joke in existence.

She scoffs at this pronouncement, glaring at him as if he can't possibly understand what she means. “Says the man with a wife.”

It takes him a moment to realize the implication of her words. Quickly, Lane backpedals, pulling his hand away. “Oh. Well—you are right, I suppose it isn't the same—or it wouldn't be if...my wife were...here. But I, erm—cook for myself, these days.”

Her unamused expression shifts into something he can't quite decipher – not pity, it isn't sad – but something like recognition. Still, she doesn't speak, just reaches out for her cup, clasps her hands around the china as if attempting to absorb every bit of its warmth through her palms, and takes a tentative sip.

There's a tightness in his chest that threatens to keep him from talking about it further – he hasn't mentioned the situation to anyone but Don, and even that was because he was drunk – but now that Lane's started, he feels he ought to keep speaking. Perhaps it will distract her.

“Nine months now.”

There is a very long pause. Joan's watching him very closely over the rim of her cup. “Is she in England?”

He nods once, making an affirmative noise. She clears her throat. “Are you getting divorced?”

A question not many people would have the courage to ask aloud. Lane exhales, considering his answer carefully before giving a sort of shrug. He doesn't want to file papers. But if Becca...did...he's not sure if he'd fight it. They argue constantly, even now. Sometimes he thinks she hates him.

“I—don't know, actually.” He risks a glance in her direction. “I think it's—over, but I'm not—sure. Isn't that strange?”

Joan does not laugh, nor does she press him any further, just takes another sip of her tea.

“We should think up a name for this,” she murmurs after a minute, mouth pursing into a considering expression as she examines the contents of her cup. “The drink, I mean.”

He huffs out a noise that is not a laugh, but manages to come close enough. “You go first.”

**

Joan's curled up at the end of the sofa, in a half-seated position, legs tucked up under her and her cheek pillowed on the top of the cushion. Lane's sitting next to her. The blue fleece blanket's just long enough that it extends past her feet and covers part of his legs.

“Honestly? You're not—having a laugh?”

He doesn't mean to doubt her word, but on the surface it sounds like the type of prank someone might have played on him a year ago. Didn't you know Mrs. Harris plays the accordion? Go on, ask her about it, make an idiot of yourself.

Joan shoots him a somewhat exasperated look. “No. I took a music class in college, which is where I learned.” A small pause. “Your turn.”

They've long since finished their pot of tea – Lane also had a second measure of gin, to catch up – and shortly after the tea had gone, the ensuing silence had threatened to lapse into awkwardness. Clearly, Joan didn't want to go home, so he'd tried to keep her talking, but eventually they'd run out of conversation topics that didn't circle toward his looming divorce, her terrifying evening, or something equally depressing. Almost as a last resort, he'd turned to her, and said, with absolutely no preamble:

“Tell me something I don't know about you.”

She'd stared at him with an expression that suggested he might be insane. “What?”

“Well,” and his resolve at making real conversation had weakened at her reticence, “I only meant – we've worked together for—awhile, but—don't—actually know much information about the other. Not really.”

Joan had snorted out a short, amused puff of air. “I know plenty about you.”

The nerve of it had irked him, and so he'd countered:

“Oh, really? Go on, then. Surprise me.”

She did. Shocked him, to be honest. Joan knew pieces of information he never imagined she'd heard, let alone retained in detail. For example, she remembered the date of his birthday and Nigel's (Nigel's! How?), the year of his wedding, his particular brand of pipe tobacco, that he has two brothers – one older, one younger – about whom and to whom he rarely speaks, that he writes up his own spreadsheet of baseball statistics each season, and even keeps it in the same drawer as the financial paperwork. She remembered that he prefers earl grey above all other teas, gin above all liquors, and—strangest of all—that he likes snow.

“How the hell do you know that?” he'd responded to the last pronouncement, taken aback. It's an utter inanity, it's not something you just tell other people.

Joan had pulled the blanket tighter around her arms, glanced back at him to gauge his expression. “It was at the Pierre, about a month after we opened. We were alone. I was at my desk, you in your chair, and I noticed it was snowing. Normally we didn't speak, but for some reason I pointed it out to you. Look. So you did; you put your things aside, and went to stand by the window.”

Listening to her description of such a small moment, unsure what in the world had led her to mark it as important, to recall it after two years, had almost made him wistful.

“What made you...remember that?”

She had just looked at him, blue gaze so steady, leaning into the cushions. Her voice turns quieter. “You called it peaceful.” With a little shrug. “That's how I knew.”

He's not sure when it turned into a sort of game, but now they take it in turns. They've been playing for hours. What would you like to know. How much are you willing to say. No questions are asked, no answers are demanded. All crumbs of information are given willingly and without guile. Surprise me. I dare you.

“Your turn,” Joan says again now, and he huffs out a sigh.

“All right. Hang on. I'm—thinking.”

There is something he's considered sharing several times now – a truth no one else knows, save for the...woman...involved – but it's rather—messy. Joan will likely judge him for it, but he can't—think of anything else to tell her this round. Damn it.

“Right.” Nothing for it, he'll just have to start. He feels himself flush. “Well, I—erm, told you about—the separation, with Rebecca, but I—never said what happened—after.”

Lane feels sheepish admitting it, as if he's too weak to keep his own company very long. (He is; he knows this.) Joan's raising a curious eyebrow at him, as if she knows what he's trying to say, but is waiting for him to confirm it aloud.

“I—well, I—had a sort of—lady friend,” he says slowly, running a hand across the back of his neck. “We went out for several weeks, but then it—erm, ended.”

(Well. She ended it with him.)

He takes out his wallet from his back pocket, turns it over in his hands before opening it, pulling out a small strip of photographs, and handing this to her. It's from a booth on the boardwalk, four for a dime, done up on a long, narrow sheet of photo paper.

Joan's eyes widen when she sees the woman in the picture. Even in the lamplight, it's a study in contrasts. “Where the hell did you two meet?

She's breaking the rules by asking a question, but clearly he's surprised her. Lane can't help but laugh a little. “Toni's—a waitress. At a, erm—club downtown.”

God, doesn't that just make him sound pathetic. Like he's stalking the city for young women.

“You liked her,” Joan says in response, voice soft. She clears her throat, smiling at the pictures and then at him in a small, secret way he can't quite decipher.

“Mm,” Lane replies just as quietly, inclining his head. He did. Very much.

What is she thinking? What might she want to know?

He can just glimpse the pictures from his place next to Joan. Toni's jet-black hair is done in a sort of flip style. Very modern. Chocolate-colored skin luminous, set off by the red lipstick she favored. It had suited her. Lane had noticed that the day they met.

The first photo is posed: him in a dark blue suit, glasses on, sitting next to Toni on a very small, nondescript bench. She's wearing a bright pink dress. They're looking directly into the camera. She's smiling, teeth and all. His expression is serious save for the small upturned quirk of his mouth.

The second, candid: her right hand is on Lane's shoulder. She's turned her brilliant smile on him. He's slanting her a bemused look, brow drawn down in confusion, mouth slightly open, as if he's talking. Can't even remember what he was saying to her.

The third: his favorite. Her lips graze a spot somewhere between his cheek and the corner of his laughing mouth. Her palm splays open on his chest. His glasses are askew, blue eyes wide as he laughs.

The fourth: a few seconds before he'd kissed her. Her eyes are closed, he's pressing a hand to her cheek, heated gaze dropped to her full lips as he leans closer.

Joan's fingertip traces the edges of the last picture. Why is she doing that? What must she be thinking? He wants to hear her opinion – she's been so quiet – and at this point Lane feels he really must break the silence before he goes mad.

“Always hated being alone.”

Oh, and it's just awful, it's not what he meant to tell her at all. It's possibly the most mortifying thing he's ever said in his life. He can't even look at Joan now – he meant to say something about how he and Toni met, why they took up together – god, why would he tell her something so utterly stupid?

After a moment, Lane can feel her shift on the sofa next to him, and because he can't help it, he glances over to see what she's doing. She's sitting up slightly, arm braced against the top of the sofa cushions. The blanket has fallen into her lap, and the soft glow from the lamp on the table behind her makes her red hair look like the embers of a slow-burning fire. She's staring in his direction but not at him, as if she's lost in thought. One hand tugs gently at the base of her left ring finger, where her wedding bands usually sit. Does she always do that—twisting motion, when she's mulling something over? He's never noticed.

Joan does look up now, offers him a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. When she speaks, it's almost a whisper. “Feels like being invisible.”

He feels like he can't breathe for the shock. She understands what he means. It's why she was running errands on a Sunday evening—why she stopped for take-away rather than cooking, why her first instinct was to come here after being mugged—and why she refuses to go home now.

Joan Harris is a beautiful woman with a prominent husband and a good job and she is lonely. My god. Why didn't he know that? He wonders how long she has pretended to be fine, how often she's attempted to push it aside in favor of her usual briskness. Lane wants her to talk to him; he wants to tell her that she's right. He does understand. Walking around your flat day after day with no one to keep you company, no one to talk to. It's awful. How does no one else seem to see it?

But he is tongue-tied, and the words won't come as well as he'd like, and the hand he reaches out to cover with his own is pulled away from the cushions at the last moment.

“I need a cigarette,” she blurts suddenly, and gets up from the sofa, the blanket getting crushed underfoot as she walks quickly out of the lounge and into her office. Through the window, he can see her switch on the standing lamp behind her desk.

He follows.

**

Joan smokes two cigarettes in the end, but the stress of the evening seems to be catching back up to her. She's agitated, now, almost angry. Lane sits in one of the blue chairs opposite her desk and watches her pace back and forth in front of the other door, wondering what's best to say. Wondering how he can help.

“Can I get you something?”

“No,” she snaps, pushing past his chair to perch on the front of her desk in a half-standing, half-sitting position. She shoves her desk lamp toward the edge, along with her pencil case and cigarette holder.

As if he's going to dispute her actions, she fixes him with a glare. “I don't want another drink, or a pill, or tea. It's not enough. I just—I can't go home and lie awake in the dark for—” she checks her watch “—four hours. I can't do that. I'm too keyed up.”

She exhales a frustrated growl, muttering something under her breath he doesn't quite catch. He shifts in his chair, casts his mind around for possible suggestions on how to relax.

“You could—have a bath.”

Given her incredulous expression, it's as if he's just told her to get up and dance a Highland reel. Lane's about to apologize for possible offense when she bursts out laughing. Not the polite laugh he's used to hearing – a single huff of amusement exhaled through the nose – but a full-out, genuine cackle. It's so unexpected he can't help but tease her, pretend to be offended.

“All right, laugh if you must. How else are you supposed to get to bed?”

Her laughter gets quiet, goes low in her throat, and the look she grants him – the gleam in her eyes – seems to contain both fondness and amusement. As if he's dim for not divining the meaning of her laughter, as if it's something he ought to know on instinct.

“In a perfect world? Not by myself.”

Lane startles visibly at the last sentence. His neck flushes hot, and he tugs clumsily at his collar with two fingers. She—and now he's picturing—all sorts of things—and she's still looking at him, expression serious now.

“I'm lonely.” With a shrug of one shoulder, as if it's unimportant, as if it shouldn't matter. But there's a question in her eyes. She crosses her ankles the opposite way, then uncrosses them, and leans back into her hands. A pink flush stains her cheeks. Her fingers curve around the lip of her desk.

Lane swallows, already hard, and feeling suddenly lightheaded. God, he can't help himself, if she doesn't look away he's going to lose control, he's got to touch her—

Joan's gaze lingers, and it compels him to move. Slowly, watching her stare follow him as he does so, Lane removes his glasses, puts them in his front pocket, and leans forward in his chair. His outstretched hand cups her thigh, just under the hem of her skirt, and splays there for a moment, thumb tracing across the upper seam of her stocking.

She sucks in the smallest breath at the touch, her eyes fluttering closed. As he moves his hand a little higher, she threatens to pitch forward from her perch on the desk. He practically lunges to catch her. For a moment, one of his arms is wrapped around her waist. Her body is pressed against his, one hand braced against his right shoulder, his thigh between her legs. He forces himself to breathe, kissing her neck as he murmurs for her to move backwards, to lie down.

Your turn.

His palms rest gently on her thighs, pushing her skirt up over her hips. Her black garters are still fastened – taunting him – and so Lane moves one hand from her thigh to release one of them, to draw a gentle line up the reddened imprint the elastic leaves behind on her skin. She squirms under his touch, breath quickening, and he exhales a little satisfied noise.

He inclines his head to press a firm kiss to the inside of her leg, following this with the soft brush of his fingers. She shivers. He does it again, nudging his mouth down her thigh until his lips graze the edge of her satin knickers. After he's repeated this with her other leg, her muscles are taut and shaking against his hands. When he finally plants a kiss onto the thin fabric, Joan jerks into him with a gasp.

Lane moves away for a moment to pull her underwear past her hips, yanking it down her legs with such force the satin rips down one side. It falls away as he grabs her legs again, puts his mouth on her, letting it work hot and open against her most sensitive spot until she's making a choked noise that borders on a whimper, hands clutching at the back of his hair and thighs spasming against his hands.

He uses his tongue and fingers and teeth and lips to bring her to the edge, and when she comes her hips buck against his mouth in a way that makes him painfully hard, until all he knows is her body arching into his touch, all he hears is her half-scream echoing above the pounding in his ears.

When it's over, he pulls away to look at her. She's lying boneless across the desk, papers scattered all around her body, head tipped back against her stenography pad. A bright flush trails up past her exposed stomach to her face.

“Again,” she gasps, scooting backwards a bit and pushing some of the papers to the floor as she moves. He's already on his feet, throwing his jacket aside, then fumbling to undo his braces and zipper. Now. When he's inside her, it's all he can do to keep breathing, his hands gripping her hips with something close to desperation. Joan clenches around him when he thrusts up again, eyes fluttering closed, and it causes him to make a strangled noise in the back of his throat. She groans in response, and together they set a rhythm. The way she shudders and gasps underneath him drives him wild, makes his breath hitch as he watches her. Beautiful.

“Faster,” she blurts, voice high and rushed. He obeys, and eventually his legs shake so badly he has to settle some of his weight onto her, brace his forearms on either side of her body as he ruts into her—harder—so close—oh god Joan yes

He comes so hard his vision whitens, and after several more thrusts Lane feels her tighten around him, her fists clutching at the back of his shirt. He drops his forehead to her shoulder with a groan, gasping for breath, feeling the last few tremors run through their bodies as he tries to collect his wits. Soon, her fingertips are brushing damp hair away from his forehead. He exhales a sigh, his mouth widening into a grin, and lifts his head a little. His fingers trace over the clothed swell of one breast, heavy and full and soft under his hand. God. He wants to see it, touch every inch of it.

“Lane.”

Joan's hand cups his jaw, gentle. He likes that, likes the way she says his name, too.

He meets her eyes. “Hm?”

“The letter tray's digging into my back.”

It's like being doused in cold water. Oh—she wants him to—yes. Of course. Quickly, Lane eases his weight off of her, pulls his hands away from her body, and stands up, all with poorly disguised reluctance. He averts his eyes from her for several minutes, tucking himself back into his pants, zipping up, and fixing his shirt and braces.

When he looks back to Joan, she's sitting primly on the edge of the desk, legs crossed. Her garters are fastened, she's smoothed down the rucked part of her skirt, and is now folding her ruined underwear into fourths. For an odd moment he feels as if he ought to look away again, so he stoops to pick up his jacket from the floor, suppressing a grunt as he stands back up. His lower back aches, but as he remembers the way she fell apart in his arms, Lane decides he isn't bothered. He's got aspirin somewhere.

A drawer opens and closes as he puts on his suit jacket. He feels her breeze past him, toward the coat rack. Soon, her high heels click on the tile—perhaps she's going to leave—but no, her hand's suddenly on his arm. He glances over. Before he can react, she kisses him soundly, pulls away to wipe lipstick from his mouth with the pad of her thumb, then withdraws.

He's too stunned to speak.

Stepping away, she produces a gold compact from her coat pocket, which she opens, quickly examining her reflection. “I should go home.” A small hesitation. “Will you walk me down?”

Tracing at her lip with one fingernail to fix her makeup.

Lane nods in a faint sort of way, blushing, very distracted by the movement of her finger around her pink mouth. “Oh—of course. And I—I'll get you a taxi. If you don't mind.”

Joan raises her eyebrows, sliding him a surprised look over the edge of the small mirror, but she just tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. Breathes out a sigh as she closes the compact. “Okay.”

He's grateful—relieved, really—that she doesn't put him off.

“Right. Off we go.” Lane gestures for her to exit first. He'll follow.

Her heels are brisk against the tile as she sweeps into the hallway. Gingerly, he shuts the office door behind him. They stop once, to put the tea tray in his office, and afterward, walk together toward reception in silence.

**

 

Chapter Text

six weeks later

 

It's a Monday morning, not even seven thirty, but the glass doors were unlocked when she got here and creative is nowhere to be found. There's a lamp on in Lane's office. She can see the light from underneath the doorway. Thank god.

Joan knocks once on the door as she pushes it open, trying not to startle him. "I need to speak with you."

“You're very early.” From his desk, Lane watches her with a bemused expression as she slips inside the room, closing the door behind her. Next, she locks the deadbolt, moving quickly to sit in the chair across from him.

“You bolted the door,” Lane says, as if he's completely lost. God, he probably thinks she's going to jump him. Joan has to stop herself from rolling her eyes or yelling at him, and folds her hands in her lap, meeting his puzzled expression with a steady gaze. She doesn't know how he might react to her news. He can't see her panic, either, or it will magnify his own reaction. Stay calm. Breathe.

“I'm late.”

Lane peers at her over the top of his glasses, confusion etched into his face. “Sorry?”

She presses her lips together, glancing away for a brief moment. In any other situation his confusion might be funny, but her stomach is tied in knots waiting for his reaction. He's so quiet that Joan feels she has to elaborate, in case it hasn't sunk in yet. “My cycle is late.”

At this, he bolts upright in his chair, posture rigid, pencil falling to the desk. “You—you're—”

She manages to nod, once.

Lane's mouth has dropped open. He closes it quickly, staring at her as if she's just said something as implausible as I'm a Soviet spy.

“My god.” He rubs a hand across his face, slumping forward in his seat, only to change his mind and jump to his feet, beginning to pace behind his desk. He's really panicking. Jesus.

“I thought you should know.” She rearranges her hands in her lap so he doesn't see them shake.

Lane suddenly stops mid-stride to look at her. Like if he doesn't speak at this exact minute, he'll lose his nerve. “And it isn't—delayed?”

Joan's surprised at the way he phrases this. Of course he'd want to know if she's sure, but she didn't expect him to ask about irregular periods, for god's sake. “It's overdue by fifteen days. I'm never late.” She pauses, wondering if she should share a more relevant piece of information with him, and decides to talk. The hell with it. “There are other symptoms, too.”

Her breasts hurt. She's exhausted. And sometimes she feels nauseous. Not physically sick yet, just puny. Like she's on the brink of a flu.

“And—you've gone to the doctor?”

She blinks, then sighs. “Not yet.”

“What?” Lane stops pacing again, stares at her as if mentally scolding her. “Joan—”

Joan forces herself to stay calm as she interrupts him. “I can't go to my doctor.” Emphasizing the last two words. Dr. Emerson knows her far too well. And he set her up with Greg, for god's sake. “He's a block from St. Luke's. Greg's old hospital.”

“Oh,” Lane says slowly, as if her logic is finally reaching him.

There's a small silence. Joan clears her throat. “I have the name of an office near Lenox Hill. They can do the blood test there.”

Roger gave her this doctor's contact information years ago at the old place. It had been needed for one of the girls in the steno pool. Arlene. The airhead had fallen in with one of the senior account men. What was his name? Skip? He'd eventually transferred to another agency. And Arlene ended up working ten more months before getting a steady.

He's good, Roger had said, as Joan had outlined the situation to him after an afternoon of fun in the Roosevelt. Expensive, but he'll take care of it. She hadn't needed to ask why Roger knew that.

“I don't know if this doctor's still practicing. Or if he'll even—” She takes a look at Lane's stricken expression and bites off the intended end of her sentence, replacing her initial thought – take care of it – with a more benign choice of words. “See me.” As she watches confusion take over his face, she clarifies. “I can't use my insurance.”

She could find someone less expensive, trust that a strange doctor would still write a prescription for the procedure. But she'll still have to pay out of pocket for any visit. And Greg is vigilant about the insurance. It will be the first paperwork he checks once he gets back.

After a moment of being lost in thought, a sudden movement forces her to look up. Lane's fumbling inside his jacket for something—his checkbook. Tossing it onto the desk, he sits down, grabs a pen and begins to make a hasty notation in the attached ledger. Joan watches as he fills in a check, his normally careful hand shaking as he writes. When he's finished, he tears it from the book, and slides the slip across the desk. It's dated and signed, with a note in the margin – physician – but otherwise—

“It's blank,” she says stupidly, staring from Lane's signature to his fidgeting hands.

He gives her a jerky sort of nod, eyes owlishly wide behind his glasses. “Is that—not all right?”

She has to look away, briefly closing her eyes, and feeling her chest constrict with the emotion she's been trying to suppress. God. Just like that, he gave her a blank check. I'm sorry you're involved. I shouldn't have told you I was lonely. I was so stupid. “I'm sorry.”

A hand brushes her arm, and she opens her eyes. Lane's standing next to her chair, his palm heavy on her shoulder, thumb moving against her collarbone in a tiny back and forth motion.

“It's all right.”

He doesn't believe it. He's saying the words because he's anxious, and because it's something people say in times of crisis. But his hand on her shoulder is comforting. Joan has an absurd urge to lean into the touch.

She doesn't move, just swallows the lump in her throat. “I'll call this morning.”

**

“Dr. Blackwell. I can't have this child.”

The doctor's craggy face remains impassive as Joan says the words. He doesn't even flinch; the only clue as to his real feelings are in his eyes, which narrow slightly behind his bifocals.

His office is in a converted brownstone. The waiting room was spacious and airy, painted a French blue with plush furniture, elegant décor, and knotted pine floors. And the exam room is larger than her kitchen. The last time she had this conversation, it had been in a cramped studio apartment in Chelsea, with a haggard-looking nurse and a white-haired midwife.

“I came here to discuss alternatives,” Joan says, in as steady a voice as she can manage.

The doctor lets out a short bark of a laugh, though he isn't smiling. “You're a married woman. Considering your age, you should be thanking your husband for getting you pregnant at all.”

“My husband is not a good man.” Joan hears herself say the words so vehemently it's almost a relief. Something is loose inside her chest, like a wild animal has managed to claw its way free of her pounding heart, and she feels lightheaded.

Dangerous to say that out loud. She tries to push away the feeling, imagining Greg as someone's father. What's he going to do with a baby in the house night and day, a baby that can't communicate the simplest of needs without screaming? It will tear through the apartment like a small cyclone. It will want her undivided attention. He'll lose his temper at the drop of a hat.

Or worse—a thought that chills her blood—he won't even care. He'll just get up and leave the apartment every time it cries, leaving her to deal with the mess. That traitorous voice in the back of her mind has returned: maybe Greg won't even be around at all.

Maybe he'll be in Vietnam, and you'll be alone.

God. She should have asked Lane to come with her. He's a man, he could have gotten the doctor to listen. (She ignores the inner voice which says Lane wouldn't have had the nerve.)

“Is it even his kid? Or did you sleep around?”

Joan doesn't respond—knows she can't say a word without losing her temper, but she doesn't look away from his scornful gaze. The doctor takes a drag from a newly-lit cigarette, then puts it aside in an ashtray with a scoff. “You women always want it both ways. Want to spread your legs for fun, but you don't want to live with the results.” He sighs, closing her chart with one hand. “I let you walk out of here, you'll probably just pay some hack to do it, get yourself killed.”

On the exam table, practically hidden by her exam gown, Joan's hands are clenched into fists. She has to bite her tongue to keep herself under control, so hard she tastes copper blood.

“There's a guy in Morristown. Reputable. He's good.”

Noticing her eyes widen, he takes a ballpoint pen from the pocket of his pristine white coat, along with his notepad, and waves these in her direction. “You want it so bad; you write it.”

Afterward, with the prescription clenched in her right hand, and her hand jammed into the pocket of her raincoat, Joan pays the receptionist using cash (she'll use the blank check later, as reimbursement) and walks out the door. She makes it about five steps away from the practice's stoop before she has to duck into an adjoining alleyway, pressing a palm over her mouth to muffle the sob that threatens to claw its way out of her throat. It's evening; empty enough that no one notices her sudden absence on the sidewalk. Several moments pass before she thinks it might be safe for her to step into the open. She pats her eyes dry, checks her face in her compact mirror, and walks briskly away from the building, refusing to look back.

**

“How did it go?” is the first thing Lane asks as she slides into the booth across from him. The diner is practically empty. Two men are paying at the register, while a lone waitress wipes down tables in the middle of the room. There's an empty rocks glass in front of Lane, as well as a large, unfolded paper napkin that's been torn into uneven strips.

Joan places her purse and coat next to her on the seat, flagging down the young waitress. If she doesn't have a drink in front of her within the next two minutes, there will be hell to pay.

“Awful.”

Lane's eyes widen, but the waitress gets to their table before he can say anything. Joan takes the opportunity to order a bloody Mary, but doesn't get food, and opens her purse to pull out her cigarettes the second the girl walks away. She manages to get one out of the pack, but fumbles the lighter as she's trying to bring it up to her lips. It goes sailing across the table with a clatter. She resists the urge to put her forehead in her hands. Damn it.

After a small hesitation, he picks up the silver lighter, opens it, and gestures toward her unlit cigarette – let me? Joan leans in, allows him to light it. He does, then puts the lighter down in the middle of the table, carefully, like he's afraid to scratch the metal. “What happened?”

She breathes out in a jet of smoke, holding her cigarette between two fingers. “He was an ass.”

You women always want it both ways.

The waitress arrives at their table, places Joan's drink in front of her, and does a quick about-face, practically running away in her haste to get to the other side of the room. Maybe she's eavesdropping. At this point, Joan doesn't care, and takes a large gulp from her glass. She can even taste the vodka. Thank god.

“I'm sorry,” Lane says first, watching her movements with a concerned expression.

She shrugs, not wanting any sympathy, and puts her cigarette aside in the ashtray. “I'm still pregnant.”

He exhales, mouth twitching as if he's trying not to frown. After a moment, he runs a hand over the back of his neck, fidgeting in his seat. “How did this happen?”

Joan rolls her eyes at this. “We had sex.”

She's not trying to be funny, but it does amuse her to watch him flush red and glance furtively around the restaurant, like someone's going to overhear this comment and blab their liaison all over town. Which is why she wanted to meet out of the office. Nobody knows them here.

“I know that,” Lane says gruffly, tearing another uneven piece off his napkin. She does understand what he's trying to say. It's been years since she had to worry about being pregnant. It was supposed to be exciting the next time it happened. It was supposed to be planned.

He breaks the silence, breathing out a sigh. “What—do you want to do.”

She toys with the straw in her glass before glancing up at him. “I need to take care of this. Immediately.”

His brow furrows in confusion. “...How?”

Maybe it's the alcohol, but Joan suddenly wants to laugh. It's such a naïve question. Does he really not know what she's talking about? Before she can enlighten him, a shadow crosses Lane's face. Thank god she doesn't have to explain.

He's turning a little pale. “Well—we don't know—what might happen.”

She almost chokes on her drink, putting down her glass very quickly to keep from dropping it. “I'm well aware of human biology. Are you?”

“What,” Lane begins, pushing aside the shredded napkin, “of course—I'm only—you might not have to take any action at all—”

“If I do nothing,” Joan interrupts, raising an imperious eyebrow, “I'm going to give birth. That's how gestation works.”

“You don't know that!” He rubs a hand over his anxious face.

Joan doesn't let him hide from the insinuation. “Are you suggesting I'll miscarry?”

“No,” Lane denies quickly, his voice becoming slightly high-pitched. “I'm only—you keep saying you have to take care of it now, but there might not—be a matter to take care of. We can't predict the future.”

“I don't believe in speculation,” she answers flatly. “And I won't pretend this isn't happening.” At his stunned expression, she elaborates. “If I had this baby, I would be completely responsible for it. I would be supporting it. It would be Greg's.”

Lane's staring at her with a gobsmacked expression. She tries to outline her plan. “So, I'm going to go to another doctor. You won't even need to be there.” A beat. “Our lives stay the same.”

She's embarrassed to admit she still doesn't know much about the way Lane lives when outside of the office. They've become much friendlier as of the past few weeks, but not close. And although she knows some extremely personal information about him – remembers the way his body trembled between her thighs that night, among other things – in many other ways, they're still strangers.

“Do you honestly believe I'm not—that I won't—take responsibility?” Lane asks loudly, as if he's personally offended, as if her earlier comment is the cruelest thing she's ever said to him.

Joan blinks, surprised by the vehemence of his reaction. “Lane, I'm saying you won't have to.” After a pause, and in a surprised tone. “I thought you'd be relieved.”

“You thought—” Lane begins, then stops himself. “Fine.”

God. She hates when people are passive-aggressive. Why the hell is he getting so upset? “Excuse me?”

“No. You've...made the decision. Well done.”

“Don't congratulate me,” Joan retorts, pushing away her now-empty glass, and picking up her lighter from the table, tossing it into her purse in frustration. “I don't want sarcasm.”

“You asked me what I thought—I just told you—”

“No, you're clearly upset,” she huffs, lifting one hand in the air in a kind of shrug. “I don't know what else you want me to say. This is good news.”

“Why would I—for god's sake, Joan, I am not upset—”

“Stop saying that!” Joan counters loudly. “Don't act like this decision doesn't matter to you when it obviously does. You can't actually want an illegitimate child?”

“I said it's fine!” Lane forces out each word, his voice rising in pitch with every syllable.

“Shut up!” she snaps, grabbing blindly for her purse, slinging it over her arm and shoving her coat over one arm as she slides out of the booth, marching toward the front door. She can't see Lane's face, but she can hear the outrage in his voice. “What're you—”

She ignores him. A lone boy cleaning behind the deli counter meets her eyes as she leaves, and even he knows better than to try and stop her. The bell above the door jingles loudly as she pushes her way outside and onto the sidewalk. A cab is idling at the nearby crosswalk about twenty feet away, its service light off. Joan strides over to the driver's window, which overlooks the curb.

The old man inside glances up at her, flicking ash from his stubby cigar. “Not in service, lady.”

She levels him with a glare. “Take me to the Village right now. I'll give you double.”

He turns on his light, motioning for her to get in.

Lane, meanwhile, has caught up, coat collar turned under and hat askew. He catches Joan's arm before she can get into the cab. “Don't—just—wait a minute—”

“I'm going home,” Joan snarls, pulling her arm from his grasp, wrenching open the cab door, and practically shouting her address to the driver as she gets in. The thought of sitting in that stupid booth, listening to Lane grind his teeth and fidget and pretend to be okay makes her want to scream.

“Fine!” He slams the door behind her.

“Stop saying that!” Joan shouts, banging once on the glass with an open palm.

The cab pulls away from the curb, the driver openly snickering under his breath. Joan despises him, despises everything about this damn afternoon. She just wants to be alone for ten minutes.

**

Lane avoids her for the next two days. There is virtually no contact between them except for an extremely awkward traffic meeting on the second day, in which Lane bites Stan's head off over one stupid line item on creative's monthly expense reports. Joan, for her part, doesn't say a word when Stan makes fun of him in return.

On day three, she stays late in order to finish some paperwork she'll need to have ready before the upcoming appointment. It's seven fifteen by the time she's through the secretarial payroll, and the floor is completely deserted – or so she'd assumed.

Without warning, she is rudely interrupted as Lane storms into her office and slams the door behind him with a shout. “You are taking your life in your hands!”

Stepping closer to her desk, he jabs a pointed finger in her direction for emphasis. The other clutches the spine of a very thick, leather-bound blue book. His face is flushed, as if he's been drinking, as if he's been arguing this point aloud to himself for ten minutes before bursting in.

“Excuse me?” Joan manages to sputter, stunned by this display. In response, he tosses the book into the seat of one of her blue chairs, continuing to pace in front of the desk. The book bounces off the cushion and almost sails into the floor, but not before she can glimpse the title in gilded letters: Textbook of Obstetrics and Gynecology. It's from the public library. There's a tag on the bottom of the spine. Her mouth opens in surprise. She doesn't know what's more shocking: that Lane willingly checked out a book on female medicine or that he's trying to confront her with his new found knowledge. Lane misinterprets her expression as a look of outrage.

“Have you any idea what might happen to you if this goes wrong?”

She closes her mouth, and fixes him with a glare, straining to keep her voice level. “What kind of question is that? Of course I know—”

“And you don't care that induced abortions are dangerous—”

She's surprised he can even say the words without flinching. “It's performed by a doctor, for god's sake—an experienced doctor!”

He runs a hand through his hair with a growl of frustration. “There's—lists of possible complications—” he gestures wildly toward the book next to him “—toxemia, sepsis, hemorrhage—”

“When did you swallow a medical journal?”

Lane doesn't let her purposeful flippancy derail his argument. “You could bleed to death on your own in the middle of a bus! Don't ask me to be all right with that, damn it!” He slams a palm down onto the surface of her desk. Her ashtray skitters several inches to the left. One of her pictures falls over.

Joan flinches at the noise, eyes wide, staring at him in stunned silence before speaking, very quietly. “It's a simple procedure.” I've done this before.

Lane pulls his hand back from her desk, running his palm over his mouth and jaw as he blows out a breath. After a moment, she reaches out, rights the picture frame, and pushes the ashtray back into place with her fingers.

“It's surgery,” he corrects, moving to stand behind her blue armchair. His hands curl around the high back. They stare at each other for several seconds before he continues speaking, voice quieter but no less forceful. “If you're going to do this—I won't—stop it, but you will not go on your own. You are taking your life in your hands.”

He glances away, color still high in his cheeks, clearly uncomfortable after making such an impassioned argument. Joan breaks the lingering silence by clearing her throat. “Are you volunteering to chaperone me or drop me off at the front door?”

“I'll—take you,” Lane says immediately, so quickly he stumbles over the words. It's clear he hadn't imagined winning the argument so soon. Maybe even at all. “Hire a car. When—have you already made the—appointment?”

Joan watches him for several seconds before pushing a few papers aside with the tip of her pencil. “It's this Thursday. Six o'clock.” It was the only time she could reasonably take a half day without drawing attention. No big meetings, no important clients. Just a few things to be organized, and Caroline can take care of it with help from the girls. Plus, she'll only have to work Friday before having the weekend to recover. She'd considered that, too.

“Thurs—” he chokes out, then bites down on the retort that is probably following on its heels. “Right. And shall we—go from here?”

Her voice is crisp. “Is that a problem?”

No.” A beat. “What time?”

“Two thirty.”

“Fine.”

“Fine,” Joan echoes, a little nastily.

He mumbles something else she doesn't catch, turning on his heel, pulling open the door, and exiting the room with a speed that's very surprising. It would even be impressive if he hadn't forgotten his ridiculous textbook in the process. After at least thirty seconds, Lane returns, gingerly picking up the book where he'd left it in her chair, his pinched expression suggesting she'd better not say a word.

She huffs out a sigh. He slams the door behind him as he leaves.

**

Thursday morning, just before lunch, Joan receives a handwritten note in her inbox. Two fifteen. Garage. Second floor. When she arrives there at the designated time, scanning the concrete walls for a familiar face, she spies Lane in the middle of a row on the left, waiting for her beside the door of a beige Plymouth. He's wearing his hat but no coat, holding his lit pipe between his finger and thumb. In the dim light, Joan can even glimpse the smoke from where she's standing. She hasn't seen him smoke in months. Honestly, she thought he quit. Maybe he just does it when he's stressed.

They don't say hello, but he quickly extinguishes his pipe when he finally notices her walking closer. She's about ten feet away from him. “Erm—don't you—have a bag?”

She shakes her head, gesturing to her purse. The girls at the old place had called it the hope chest. “Just this.”

Inside is a change of clothes, a toothbrush, her menstrual belt and a few napkins. In case the doctor doesn't give her anything.

“Do you—want to wear your coat?” he asks awkwardly, extending a hand to help her out of it if necessary. She waves it away. She doesn't want him to help her with the damn coat, she just wants to get on the road and have this over with already.

“I don't care,” she answers sharply, motioning for him to get the door.

Once settled inside, she shrugs out of her coat – it really is too warm – and looks briefly into the backseat. She notices his coat, folded into neat fourths, lying next to his briefcase. She glances to her immediate left as Lane gets into the car, watching as he rolls down the window to adjust his side mirror, puts on his seat belt, and places the keys into the ignition.

They sit beside each other in meetings. They spend hours in his office, working alone – and for god's sake, he's seen her half-naked, he's touched her, he got her pregnant – but to sit one foot away from him in the close quarters of a car feels very intimate. It's...domestic in a way none of their normal interactions can be. For a brief second, to keep her mounting anxiety at bay, she allows herself to imagine they're taking a day trip instead of going to the doctor. In her mind, the scene's practically sprung from a B-movie. She'd have a bright scarf in her hair; elegant sunglasses. He'd wear a linen suit, or at least something in a lighter color. Maybe even some sort of patterned tie.

Let's take the car out, honey, she'd say. You drive.

“Joan? Are you ready?”

Joan shakes her head to clear it as she realizes Lane is trying to get her attention. Probably not for the first time. “Oh. Yes.”

He starts the engine. Before he can say anything else, she reaches out with one hand and turns on the radio, not even bothering to tune it to a particular station. A station bulletin echoes through the quiet car: This is WCBS, broadcasting live with a brief news update. It's now thirty-one minutes past the hour. I'm Douglas Edwards...

Lane guides the car out of its parking space. She turns her head to stare out the window.

 

Chapter Text

“Joan—are you awake?”

Lane switched the radio station sometime after they left the city, fumbling with the dial for several minutes until (judging by many frustrated sighs) he gave up in desperation. She's not sure what kind of music he was set on hearing, but it's been playing instrumental jazz standards for what feels like hours. It's driving her crazy. She doesn't want to invite conversation by stirring.

At first, she'd tried to sleep. She thought if she closed her eyes she could force herself to relax, could doze for a few minutes. Apparently, rest was too much to ask. All she can think about is sitting on the hard exam table with her legs in stirrups, naked under a paper gown and trying not to shiver as the doctor glances over her with a bored expression.

Considering your age, you're lucky your husband got you pregnant at all.

She's braced against the door and window, using her coat as a makeshift pillow. Watching fir trees speed past on the highway shoulder was making her eyes hurt, and so she's kept them closed, though sleep is impossible.

“Joan?” Almost a whisper.

“I'm awake,” she murmurs, so low she's not sure if he hears it. But there's a rustling, like he's shifted in his seat, like he's trying to get a better look at her.

“Are you—all right?”

She sighs loudly, pushing a few strands of hair away from her forehead. You women always want it both ways. “No.” Her voice catches on the last word. She swallows the lump in her throat, hoping that he didn't hear it.

“Well, tell me if I've got to—pull over,” Lane says, voice gruff. Maybe he just thinks she's nauseous. She can hear one of his hands tap the steering wheel in an irregular, anxious rhythm. Jesus. Just light your pipe. Roll down the window. Do something.

They keep driving.

**

Twenty minutes to six. They're early.

From the outside, it looks like any other rural doctor's office: white, one-story, with a brick foundation and weathered wood siding. There are no busybodies at the front door, no screaming husbands beside the window, just four or five other cars in the parking lot. A small breeze rustles the leaves of nearby oaks facing the grass curb. It's peaceful. Almost quaint. As if they're all here getting allergy shots before the weekend.

The sudden strike-hiss of a match against sandpaper makes Joan turn to her left. Lane's shielding the bulb of his pipe as he lights it, and after blowing out the match, he puts it into the ashtray on the driver's side, taking several puffs on his pipe to kindle the flame. A sweet-smelling smoke begins to drift through the car. Joan might find the scent calming if her stomach wasn't a little unsettled. She couldn't eat much at all today. And typically she gets sick at night, around seven or eight o'clock. She's trying to ignore the feeling. In a couple of hours, it won't matter anyway.

Her hands fuss at the latch of her purse, opening and closing it several times in a row before she mentally scolds herself to calm down. She's already examined her face and refreshed her lipstick. There is nothing else she needs in her handbag. To keep herself from fidgeting, Joan forces herself to glance at Lane, whose gaze is fixed on the steering column as he smokes. Suddenly, she wants to reach out and get his attention. She wants to blurt out the thought that's been pressing at the front of her mind since they left the highway. You don't have to sit in the car.

After a moment, he notices her looking, and takes his pipe from his mouth. “Sorry—I can—step out, if it's bothering you.”

“No,” Joan says, motioning that he should stay. The hands of the dashboard clock say it's ten till six. “I don't mind.”

Her palm rests just over the l-shaped door handle. She looks back at him, and watches as a muscle tightens in his jaw. Part of her wants to get out of the car and march inside the clinic without speaking, but she doesn't move. She needs to remind him of pertinent details.

“The appointment's under my maiden name—Holloway.” She clears her throat. “If everything goes as scheduled, I should be finished around 7:30.”

Just as she's decided to open the door, his hand comes to rest on her black-gloved wrist, on the hand that's braced against the tan vinyl seat. It could be a plea. Be careful. Be safe.  It could also be reassurance. You don't have to sit in the car, she thinks again, searching his face, but she pushes the thought down before it has a chance to leave her lips. She exhales a breath. “I'll be fine.”

Joan pulls her hand away, opens the car door, and steps out onto the pavement.

**

Six thirty. She's checked her watch for the thousandth time. What the hell is taking so long?

Joan's flipped through the same four pages of Cosmopolitan for twenty minutes without retaining a word. And it's very warm in here. If she's not careful she's going to sweat through her dress shields. There's only one other woman in the waiting room, several years younger than Joan, by the looks of her bright makeup, stiff bob, and brown polka-dotted dress. She's not handling the wait very well: darting into the lobby every few minutes to cry in private, judging by her red eyes, and when she's not in the lobby, she's pacing in front of the low coffee table, wringing her hands.

After the third or fourth time the woman returns from the lobby, Joan puts aside her magazine. “Are you all right?”

The woman glances over, surprised to be spoken to, and drops her hands to her sides with a cry. “No, I'm sorry—I just hate waiting. It's eating me up.”

Joan doesn't trust herself to engage on that particular sentiment, and so she doesn't reply. The woman takes this silence as an invitation, tugging nervously at a stray curl by her ear.

“My daughter didn't want me to come with her.”

“Oh,” Joan says, mindlessly flipping another page of her magazine. The queasy feeling from before is returning, and she tries to ignore it. Just breathe.

“She's seventeen,” the woman blurts, fumbling in her sweater pocket and pulling out a small white handkerchief, dabbing at her nose. “I—was fifteen, when I had her—but she seems so much younger.”

“She must be very beautiful,” Joan offers after a moment, deciding this is the easiest compliment to offer an anxious mother.

The woman clutches her handkerchief more tightly, blinking back tears. “Yes. She is.”

Joan drops her gaze to the back cover of Cosmopolitan, for politeness' sake, so it almost startles her when the other woman speaks again, so soon. “How old is your daughter?”

Jesus, Joan thinks, breathing out carefully through her nose. She thinks I'm someone's mother.

You're not going to be sick. You are not going to be sick.

“Fifteen.”

The nausea still isn't going away. Joan has to glance away from the woman for a moment in an attempt to collect herself. Stay calm. Think about something other than the discomfort.

“I'm sorry. She's—got time,” the other woman says quickly, as if she's expecting Joan to burst into tears. “They're so young. It's better this way.”

Before Joan can reply, they're spared from further conversation by the sudden arrival of a nurse in the waiting room. Joan doesn't even pause to look at this person, to gauge if the nurse is ready to take her back for the procedure or to update the nervous mother.

All she can think about as she grabs her purse and walks briskly into the lobby is the pounding in her head. The bitter taste in the back of her throat.

I can't do this.

She flings open the front door, stumbling down the three brick stairs and into the parking lot in the dusk light, making a beeline for the tall oak about a hundred feet from the clinic's entrance. Oh, god. She puts a hand over her mouth, moves faster, practically jogging. Just get past that blue car.

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Lane moving in her direction—shouting something—but she can't stop. She makes it as far as the edge of the grass before doubling over and retching, putting her palm on the nearby hood of the car for support.

Minutes later, after the bout of nausea has passed, she takes a breath, wipes her mouth on the back of her hand, and straightens up. She takes two steps backward, leaning against the hood of the car in order to use it as a makeshift chair. Her legs are shaky, her skin is clammy, and there's still fog in her head, but at least she can breathe again. Please let it be over.

Movement makes her glance to her right. Lane's standing less than a foot away, studying her with anxious eyes. God, he saw her throw up. Multiple times. It's so humiliating.

“I didn't go through with it,” she says weakly, cutting off whatever questions he might try to ask. She's crying, either due to the vomiting or some new emotional hell, and she swipes at the tears with a frustrated noise. “I can't. I just—” her voice is so wobbly— “want to go home.”

“You do?” Lane asks in a rasp. She nods her head, very small.

He clears his throat, stepping closer and offering her his arm. She takes it, gingerly, and allows him to lead her past the blue car and away from the mess in the grass, walking slowly down the row of empty parking spaces until they reach the beige Plymouth.

**

They stopped at a service station before getting back on the highway. Lane topped up the tank, and came back to the car with a pack of nabs and two small glass bottles: one ginger ale, one club soda. Joan can't eat yet, but sipping the ginger ale is making her feel less ill. She's grateful.

They've been driving ten minutes when Lane clears his throat and says, appropriate of nothing, “You—scared me. When you ran outside.”

Joan turns to look at him, pulling her coat higher around her shoulders.

“I thought—” he sighs, seems to reconsider his words. “Well, I don't know what I thought.”

“I thought I was going to throw up in the middle of the lobby,” Joan replies quietly. It coaxes a very weak smile out of Lane, followed by another sigh.

There's a short silence. Joan remembers their arguments from the beginning of the week. Lane's emotional outburst in particular. You could bleed to death in the middle of a bus!

“When we argued,” she says, slowly, “at work—you said you were worried about complications.”

He doesn't look at her. Joan takes another sip of her ginger ale, then puts it aside. Bottle's empty, anyway. She decides to follow a hunch. “Did your wife have trouble carrying?”

Lane clears his throat again, and after a brief hesitation, gently guides the car onto the shoulder of the road, keeping the engine running. It's so dark outside now that Joan can't even see the trees through her window, though she hears a strong wind stirring the leaves. Cicadas in the tall grass.

He hasn't said anything yet, but the fact that he pulled over is confirmation enough. She feels a faint rush of sympathy course through her chest. Pregnancy must be bitter for the women who walk on pins and needles for months, waiting for something to go wrong.

“You don't have to talk about this, if it's painful.”

Lane takes a deep breath, briefly turning to look at her. “No—I, erm, think you...ought to know.” Another deep breath. “Becca—hemorrhaged. With Nigel.”

Joan's eyes widen, her mind reeling with inappropriate questions. This explains Lane's reaction to her intended termination, as well as his illogical belief that she'd just miscarry after less than two months. She's about to ask about the circumstances when he speaks again.

“And there were losses. Before.” He lets out a noise that would almost be a laugh if it weren't for the crack in his voice. “But—the last time...nearly killed her.”

Joan tries to parse out the most important part of this admission. Losses. Plural. That could mean anything. Miscarriages. Stillbirths. Years of heartache. She touches his shoulder, briefly, imagining a much younger Lane pacing a hospital waiting room as he waits for an update, or panicking by his wife's bedside as nurses rush to her aid. “That's terrifying.”

He's staring out the window, now, the distant blur of oncoming headlights sliding across his face as cars on the other side of the highway soar past. Maybe he didn't even hear her. She studies his anxious profile, trying to find the right words. His right hand is lying on the seat, curled into a loose fist, and on an impulse, she reaches for it, slipping her hand into his and squeezing it in reassurance. The gesture makes him turn to stare at her in surprise, but she doesn't let go, just meets his eyes in the darkness. Exhales. “I'm sorry I scared you.”

“It isn't your fault,” Lane replies, voice just as low. “I—I am—trying, you know. It isn't...easy.”

“No. It isn't.” For either of us.

She doesn't want to talk about logistics, or reinforce the point she made before: that they won't be raising this child together now that she's keeping it. She made a vow to someone else. She gave her word. But she's so sick of arguments and awkwardness and misunderstandings. Instead, she wants to make him a kind of peace offering. For telling her the truth.

“I'll keep you informed as my condition...progresses.”

Even in the darkness, she can tell he's stunned. His mouth falls open a little, as if she's just slapped him in the face. A prism of light catches the lenses of his glasses as he turns his head to stare at her. “You'd—do that?”

“I don't want you to worry,” Joan says simply, with a shrug of one shoulder. Lane's an anxious person on a normal day, and it seems as if his fears might be more manageable if she keeps him up to date, rather than if she ignores him for the next seven months.

She does not let herself dwell on the possibility of having life-threatening complications. At this point, everything other than the fact that she is expecting a child is conjecture. There's no reason to assume she won't have a healthy pregnancy.

Lane's still gripping her hand very tightly, as if he understands what she's too tongue-tied to say aloud. I'm scared, too. In an attempt to reinforce this point – that she's grateful for his support, despite the circumstances – she scoots closer to him and puts her head on his shoulder. Her coat falls to rest just above her right hip. Their hands, still joined, occupy the few inches of space between his right leg and her left one.

“I'm having a baby,” is all she says. The words echo in the small space of the car, filling it up, overpowering the ambient noises from the forest and from the highway. Joan just concentrates on keeping her breath even and steady as her heartbeat pounds a frantic rhythm against her chest. After several minutes – in which she begins to feel more comfortable, almost drowsy – she feels him shift in his seat as he guides the car back onto the highway.

**

Friday morning means a partners' meeting. 10AM. Joan's already sitting at the conference table with her notes when Lane arrives, shooting a wide-eyed glance in her direction as he sits down, leaving a chair's space between them and placing his folio on the wooden table. She doesn't know why he looks so surprised. They had this conversation in the car just as they'd crossed the bridge into Manhattan.

Are you going to go in tomorrow?”

She'd lifted her head from his shoulder to stare at him. Why wouldn't she? “It's a workday.”

“Yes, but perhaps you ought to—take the morning? Could get a bit more rest.”

In the spirit of keeping things amicable, Joan had decided not to answer.

“I thought—” Lane begins, but is interrupted by the arrival of Pete and Roger. Pete takes a seat on the opposite side of the table, to Joan's left, while Roger takes the chair next to her.

“Good morning,” she offers, surveying the group.

Pete mumbles a brusque hello, not looking up from his newspaper. Roger gives her a grin before putting a cigarette in his mouth. “Mrs. Harris. How's business?”

Joan notices Lane flinch at the question, though he tries to pretend he's writing something very important on a clipboard. She just buffers her shoulders, regarding Roger with an amused expression. Sometimes, sparring with him is the easiest thing in the world. “I see someone's in a good mood.”

Roger exhales in a jet of smoke, smirking at her as he says, “Hey. It's Friday.”

 

Chapter Text

“I'm sorry—I am not trying to start an argument. I am simply asking—”

“You are asking a question I already answered,” Joan counters, blowing out a deep breath. “Frankly, I don't enjoy having this conversation!”

They began this morning by working on the third quarter budget. It went smoothly enough until the moment they decided to take a break. At which point Lane decided it was a good time to bring up their personal finances. Again. He's obsessed with giving her money for the baby.

“Joan, I do not understand why you're so set against it!” Lane retorts, drawing himself up taller in his red wingback chair. “This is the done thing!”

They've been trying not to argue during the workday – in an attempt to deflect negative attention, if it exists – but it's only contributed to them having longer and quieterarguments in Lane's office. None of which have had helpful resolutions.

“I can't take your money,” Joan says again, with a sigh. She's lost count of the amount of times she's said this out loud in the past three weeks. “It wouldn't be fair!”

“Fair?” Lane echoes with a scoff, as if she's lost her mind.

“Yes,” Joan replies, as calmly as she can. “Fair. To you. Unless I'm just supposed to let you provide for a baby you won't be raising?”

He growls out a noise which means she's treading on dangerous ground, but sets his jaw, as if he's determined not to yell at her. “And I'm meant to pretend I have absolutely no responsibility to you, or to that child?”

“Well, how is your arrangement supposed to work? I can't deposit identical amounts of money into my joint checking account on a regular basis. Greg sees those statements.” She can't believe she has to remind Lane that she's still married. Her husband may not be at home now, but he'll be back at some point in time. She can't hide the bills from him forever.

“You could—take cash, if you wanted,” Lane says quickly, as if this idea ought to be obvious. “Set up a different account.”

She slants him a glare. “Where would I keep thousands of dollars in cash? The file cabinet in my office? I'm not Don, for god's sake.”

At Lane's lost expression, she sighs, and waves a dismissive hand. “He kept a stack of fresh shirts and five hundred dollars in a locked desk drawer. At the old place.”

Lane huffs out a surprised breath, like that's the stupidest idea he's ever heard. Joan shrugs in response—who knows why half of these men do the things that they do—but the air in the room feels a little lighter. The silence less oppressive.

“You could set up a separate account,” he says again, but more calmly this time.

Joan sighs again. “Hypothetically, that could be a working solution, but I'd still have to receive the statements here. Hide the checkbook—”

“Well, you could do that easily enough—”

She fixes him with an unhappy look that says don't interrupt. “Lane, it's not about the secrecy. It's about—” and here, she purses her lips, trying to come up with a turn of phrase that doesn't make her sound like a complete fool, “—the—gesture. The actual money.”

He's pinching the bridge of his nose, holding his glasses in his free hand. His voice is getting louder, more incredulous. “You keep saying that. I—don't—understand what it means.”

“Okay,” Joan says, with a shrug of her shoulders, searching for the best way to communicate her point, and deciding it's by using a slightly less fraught example, one that doesn't involve a child. “Do you remember my last day at Sterling Cooper?”

Lane snorts out something close to a laugh. She's about to lose her temper when he says, pulling a confused face and adopting an innocent tone, “I seem to recall something about...lawn equipment...?”

She rolls her eyes, failing to suppress the tiny upward quirk of her mouth. Fine. It was memorable for a lot of reasons. “You know that's not what I meant.”

He seems bemused by the joke, sitting forward in his chair with his hands resting on his knees, and so Joan continues speaking, her smile fading. “Triage aside, it felt like the worst day of my life.”

Lane clears his throat, frowning now, and after Joan glances at him, he seems to decide it's safe to interject. “...Did you...start crying? During the champagne toast?”

She nods her head yes, surprised that he remembers. Briefly pressing her lips together and exhaling another breath through her nose, she then says, very quietly, “Greg was going to become chief resident at St. Luke's. Before that happened, he—demanded that I quit my job. He didn't like the fact that I was working. So I did. I quit, just to keep the peace.”

Lane's staring at her in disbelief. As if the Joan who would leave a beloved job just to satisfy her husband's jealousy is a woman he doesn't know at all. Has she really changed that much in two years?

“The night before the party,” she continues slowly, looking down at the wedding band gleaming on her left hand, “he told me he'd been passed over for the position, because he assumed something that...turned out not to be true.” She's still too ashamed to say the words out loud. He's a terrible surgeon. They basically fired him. “And though we couldn't afford for me to be a housewife after that point, I was too proud to ask for my job back.”

Joan glances at him to gauge his reaction to this pronouncement. Do you get it? Do you finally understand?  “I'm not turning my nose up at your offer because it's useless. But—outside helpisn't easy for me to accept. Even given the circumstances.”

Money always comes with strings. Even if it's well meant at first. Joan does not mention that she's been putting small amounts of money aside into a separate savings account of her own, each month, just in case Greg doesn't come back. Or, in case he comes back with – as her mother so snidely put it the last time they spoke on the phone – yellow fever and two tickets to Reno.

The buzzer on Lane's intercom sounds, once, and suddenly Clara's voice fills the room. “Mr. Pryce, I've got John Proctor from Chemical Bank on line two.”

Joan shoots him a pointed look at the words. That call had better be about the business accounts. He holds up his hands in surrender as he walks over to the intercom, hits the button, and tells Clara to put the call through. It could be an apology. I'm sorry I called them. It could be a gesture of ignorance. Maybe it's about their credit line, which Lane's been trying to extend.

Right now, she's too tired of the constant argument to care. “I'll be back later,” she says, curt, as the phone rings once. She quickly steps out before Lane can reply.

**

Forty minutes later, when she knocks on the door and closes it behind her, Lane's off the phone, sitting quietly behind his desk, facing the window. He swivels in his chair to see who it is, and waves a hand to the chair opposite him as tacit permission to stay. As Joan slides into her seat, he clears his throat, folding his hands on top of the mahogany.

“I'm not—” he begins, then falters. “I—can accept that you don't want me to be personally involved with...this child—”

“Lane—” she begins, putting a hand to her aching temple, but he interrupts her protest.

“—you told me you don't want anything, and I—can honor that—although I hope you'll honor a request of mine, as well.”

She lets out a breath, waves one hand in a circular motion. Fine. Go on.

He slides a piece of paper in her direction, gesturing to the scribbled notes in pencil which cover almost every inch of it. “I'd like to set up a joint checking account, with the two of us as co-signators.”

“You've lost your mind,” Joan blurts first, torn between a dull anger and hysterical laughter as she looks over his notes. God, after all their fighting, and he still—

“—No, Joan, I have a responsibility. And I intend to set aside money for any child of mine, no matter—”

“For god's sake, I won't stop you from doing that on your own; I just don't want to take it! We can't be over-involved!”

“You think I don't know that?” Lane retorts quietly, his voice so even it's like brittle glass. His complete calm makes Joan bite the inside of her cheek in an attempt to stop herself from screaming at him again. He obviously heard her earlier objections. Maybe harshness is uncalled for.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, not trusting herself to say anything else.

“If you don't want it,” he continues gruffly, as if her outburst didn't happen, “don't make withdrawals. Just—let it be...available to you as a precautionary measure. If anything were to happen to me—or to you—I would...prefer that the...child's share be distributed accordingly.”

“Jesus. What would happen?” Joan asks with a sigh, fixing him with an exasperated look.

“Tragic—lawnmower accident?” Lane stammers first, smiling a little at his own terrible joke, then turning serious when he sees she isn't laughing. “I don't know. Sorry. Just—will you please consider this? It would give me more...peace of mind. To fulfill one obligation.”

She sighs again, focusing her gaze on the surface of his desk for several moments, then meets his eyes. He's not going to get any less anxious because you're too proud to accept his help. Saying yes is a stupid idea. It will complicate things between them even further, even if she doesn't take a cent.

“All you'd need is my signature? On the initial paperwork?”

“Mm,” Lane says quickly. “I'll—collect the statements—give you the account and routing numbers, let you know where the cheques...will be kept. But—you're—free to act as you see fit.”

He inclines his head toward her in confirmation of her earlier reticence, his expression now a question. Well, what do you think?

“It's not the worst idea I've ever heard,” Joan finally murmurs, after almost a full minute of silence. At her words, Lane raises his eyebrows, eyes wide behind his glasses and his mouth slightly open. He looks like he's about to get up from his desk and run a victory lap around the building.

“Don't get excited,” she says, leveling him with a glare and a derisive snort before he can move. “I still think this is strange. I'm not taking any money. And I might yell at you again before today is over.”

The corners of Lane's mouth are starting to twitch up. He closes his mouth, and quickly raises his hands in pretend surrender. “Well, then I—solemnly defer to your judgment.”

**

“Not yet,” Joan wheedles, pressing the yellow telephone receiver between her right ear and her shoulder. It's nighttime. Warm for September. She had to open the kitchen window to get a small breeze going in the stuffy apartment, though the clock beside the china cabinet only says 9:10.

Barely even twenty minutes of conversation, and this is the first time they've spoken over the phone in a month. “Greg, I want to talk to you.”

She has to tell him about the baby. Counting back from his last leave, she's supposed to be at least fifteen weeks along. Not nine. How the hell is she going to present this to him? First-time nerves? Ignorance? Superstition?

“Joanie, I'm really busy today. We're doing a lot of” —a burst of static— “oh, come on, Mencken, cut that out, I'm on the phone, for chrissakes!”

People are giggling in the background, a group of men. Probably roughhousing. Or making fun of her. She pushes down the anger that threatens to lodge in her throat, wraps the telephone cord around her index finger in an attempt to diffuse her tension.

“I need to talk to you,” she says instead. She hates begging for his attention, as if she's some girl he's just met. She's his wife, for god's sake! “It's important.”

“Aw. Look, honey,” he says, with a frustrated noise, “If it's work again, you can always get another—oh, Jesus, Mencken, what did I just say?” A long laugh. Muffled conversation with the men in the background. More laughing. It sounds like Greg's covering the mouthpiece.

Still holding the phone to her ear, listening to him joke with his Army buddies, Joan feels small and stupid, blinking quickly to keep herself composed. Deep breath. She is not going to cry. Not over this. It's one phone call.

(It's always one phone call. He never wants to talk to her. He barely even writes. She can count on two hands the number of letters he's sent her in the past year, and he only answers then because he's gotten two or three messages from her in return.)

“Listen, let me call you back in a couple days. Nine o'clock, your time. Thursday. All right?”

She presses her lips into a thin line, mentally reminding herself not to argue. If she upsets him, he might stop calling her out of spite. Which happened once before, when he was just out of basic training. His CO had to order Greg to call her, because it had been three months without a word.

Joan isn't stupid enough to let that happen again. Not if she wants to stay married.

“Okay,” she murmurs, glancing down at the linoleum, and swallowing before she can manage to speak again. “I love you.”

“You, too,” Greg replies absently. The line clicks off. Silence hangs over the connection until it's interrupted by the low tone of a busy signal.

Joan gets up from her perch on her white bar stool, plucks the end of the cord from the telephone base, and throws the receiver into the wall below the open window, walking quickly into her bedroom and slamming the door behind her.

**

“Joan, can I talk to you?”

Megan Calvet peeks around Joan's doorway with a nervous expression. Joan nods, motions for her to close the door. “Of course.”

The girl tucks a stray piece of dark hair behind her ear as she sits down, smoothing the skirt of her navy dress. All the young secretaries are wearing this style these days: tank bodice, straight cut skirt, legs bare to mid-thigh. With that up-swept hair, it's very French continental.

“I'm going to California with Mr. Draper,” the girl blurts first, then covers her mouth. Looks down at the ground, with a nervous laugh. “Sorry. That came out wrong.”

Joan narrows her eyes, completely baffled. “What?”

“Well,” Megan says, wrinkling her nose as if she's not sure where to begin, “you know he's taking his children with him on vacation, but the problem is Mrs. Francis just fired their nanny. With no warning. And—there's a service at the hotel, but the girls who can watch Sally and Bobby won't watch the baby. And vice-versa. He—thought it would be easier if I went with them, instead. As their nanny. He even offered to pay me double. Give me some nights off. It's really considerate.”

Joan lights a cigarette, watching Megan carefully as the girl talks, while stifling the impulse to burst out laughing.

“I know it's a lot to ask,” Megan says next, briefly reaching over the mail tray as if she's going to press her hand over Joan's on the desk, as if they're friends, “but I already said that I would do it. I'm—I really hope that you can spare me. He won't be in the office. And I was thinking Caroline could cover my phone. If it's an issue, I can finish as much paperwork as possible before we leave.”

She gives a shake of her head, smile widening, as if Joan obviously has to understand, and it's silly to have to explain so much to another woman. “I just—really want to help.” With a huff of laughter. “I mean, can you imagine him in California, alone? Full suit, hat, and briefcase, pushing a baby carriage?

Jesus, Joan thinks, exhaling smoke and watching a pink flush brighten Megan's high cheekbones, you've already slept together.

If she has to fire yet another one of Don's secretaries, she's going to give that moron a piece of her mind. Although, at the rate he's going, they'll probably stop in Reno on the way home. Megan's young, striking, and eager to please. Very much his type.

“Well,” Joan says with an arch look, putting her cigarette in the ashtray, “it seems as if you two have thought of everything.”

**

The second Megan leaves for lunch with Clara and Scarlett, Joan stubs out her latest cigarette, rises from her seat, and crosses the hallway to knock on Lane's door.

“You're not going to believe this,” she says as her only preamble, closing the door and taking her usual seat on the sofa. Lane's staring at her as if she's about to sprout horns. She looks back at him for several moments, taking a deep breath before starting her story. “Megan is going on vacation with Don and his children.

The deep frown of confusion that forms on his face makes Joan starts to laugh. She puts a hand to her mouth, briefly, to muffle the sound. “She just—walked into my office and announced it. Like it was nothing. She's going to be his nanny.

“I thought—he was going on personal business,” Lane says, flipping his glasses down onto the bridge of his nose from their original perch on top of his head, in an attempt to see her more clearly.

Joan shakes her head no, and bites her lip in an attempt to compose herself. “They've got it all planned. She was practically twitching with excitement.”

He snorts out an amused noise, a small smile creeping to his face. “How very scandalous.”

She laughs again, fixing him with an amused glance. “You should have heard the way she talked.”Pitching her voice a little higher, assuming a wide-eyed look, and putting two hands to her heart, as if she's some kind of lovesick teenager. “Oh, Joan, I really hope that you can spare me. Can you imagine Don in California all alone?”

“She did not say that to you,” Lane says in a mild voice, though his widening grin says he finds her playacting funny. Joan drops the feigned mannerisms with a roll of her eyes.

“They've obviously slept together. I'm going to have to pull resumes again. We'll have to get him a new secretary.”

He raises his eyebrows at this, leveling her with a sterner, more disappointed look. Don't be a gossip. “Have you ever heard the expression don't count your chickens?”

“At this point, Don has gone out with half the henhouse,” Joan reminds him, arch. “One of those chicks is bound to hatch an egg.”

Lane scoffs at her little joke, as if it's in poor taste. “Oh. I wouldn't start that rumor.”

“I'm not,” Joan counters in innocence, not even bothering to suppress her smile. “You should have seen Megan talking about him. There were actual stars in her eyes. She looked like she was fifteen years old, and in the throes of puppy love.”

At the last two words, Lane snorts out a laugh, getting up from his desk, stretching a little, and crossing the room to sit in his armchair before meeting her amused expression. “Dare I dispute your feminine intuition?”

“You can try,” she says slyly, giving him a sidelong look. “I know what I saw. They'll be married in six months.”

They share a smile, and there's a short silence before Lane clears his throat, and speaks again, carefully this time. “I wonder if you'd...care to...have a little wager. On that particular outcome?”

Joan's eyebrows raise so high they're in danger of disappearing into her hair. “You want to start a betting pool?” Making a little tsking noise, and shaking her head slightly, as if the suggestion is beyond inappropriate. The grin on her face gives her away. She didn't think he would be this game. Maybe he's just glad to be in on the joke, for once.

“By all means, Mr. Pryce. Name your terms.”

He purses his mouth for several moments, brow knitted, obviously thinking hard, before an idea lights up his face with undisguised glee, and he turns to her with a mischievous grin.

“Crane's expense reports.”

Even before they were friends, marking these was always a point of contention. Harry's handwriting is illegible, he fudges about three-fourths of his expenses, and trying to prove a point to him about anything is like trying to argue with a spoiled toddler. Joan's honestly not sure which one of them hates him more. Lane thinks he's annoying, lewd and unprofessional, while she thinks he's stupid, charmless, and egotistical. As of right now, they trade off the hated duty every month.

Oh, he is going to hate dealing with those all alone. She'll be a gracious winner, of course.

“For how long?” she asks, sitting up straight in her seat, as if they're two heads of state involved in a series of complex negotiations, and not a pair of people making a friendly bet.

“Three months,” Lane says, writing down the terms on a small scrap of paper he pulls from his wallet. “From the moment their...supposed...intentions are confirmed.” Holding up an index finger as if to warn her against foul play. “Not to be determined by rumors, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Joan echoes, slanting him a smile as he replaces this paper in his wallet. When he doesn't say anything for at least ten seconds, she decides to fill the silence with another joke.

“Well, aren't we going to shake on it?” she asks slyly, extending her right arm in his direction with all the haughtiness of a royal dignitary: palm facing down, wrist and fingers relaxed.

Lane laughs, and nods his head yes. After a slight hesitation, he gets up, walks to her side, and takes her loosely curled fingers in his hand. He holds this pose for a few seconds, schooling his features into the most serious expression he can muster. Which isn't working very well. A smile keeps playing around the corners of his mouth.

She returns the smile, inclines her head in kind, then withdraws her hand from his grasp.

**

“Come on, honey. Do we really have to talk about serious stuff? I don't have a lot of time.”

“Greg, what do you want me to say? You called me.”

Joan listened to him rattle on about Army life for fifteen straight minutes. He described the pranks the officers have been pulling on each other, and the punishments they've been inflicting on younger cadets, updated her on the perils of not changing your socks, the constant heat, and – offhand – said that he missed her.

Which only came up because he apparently had a dream about her last night and was tortured to wake up alone. She's sure. He didn't even let her talk about the office, dismissing it as boring, and only laughed at one of her stories, when Joan told him about Megan going on vacation with Don. Hell, she's probably dynamite in bed. That was his first response. Like he's Casanova's gift to women. You'd think a doctor would have a better grasp of anatomy.

“Hey, listen, you want to hear a joke one of the fellows taught me?”

Even now, she can hear a group of the fellows cutting up in the background. Jesus. How long is the line for the phone? Every time there's the smallest pause in conversation – which is often, practically every minute – Joan feels the admission hovering on the tip of her tongue. I have something to tell you. I have good news. I went to Dr. Emerson recently...

And every time she starts to say it, there's a sudden noise or a purposeful interruption on the other end, and Greg turns his attention to another friend, leaving her to swallow the words.

Jesus. When did she become such a coward?

He won't be home on leave until after the baby's born. She has to give him an explanation, keep him in the loop, or else he'll come up with ideas of his own. Just tell him, for god's sake. He might even be excited. He's been begging her for a son for years.

“Joanie. You hear what I said?”

“Yes,” she says immediately, switching the phone to her other ear. “Of course.” Taking a deep breath. “You know, I was trying to find the right time to say this—”

“Shit,” Greg interrupts, talking over her. Some kind of siren is going off in the background, warbling long and high-pitched. She doesn't even have time to ask what it means—an emergency, or incoming patients—before he continues, “Listen, I gotta run. I'll call you, okay?”

And he slams the phone down before she can say another word, leaving her to gape at the extension in stunned disbelief. Jesus. He didn't even wait five seconds to say goodbye. Who does that?

**

“Who the hell is Miss Calvet?” Roger asks Don, clearly lost.

“Megan,” Joan supplies, rolling her eyes at his confusion. As if this announcement is a surprise. Looking over her shoulder toward Don's closed door, she can see Pete, frozen in place beside the doorway, awkward smile pasted on as he tries to process the news. Out of all the men, Lane recovers first, stepping forward to shake Don's hand, and then it's handshakes and air kisses with the bride and congratulations all around.

Megan and Don can't keep their hands off each other. They look as giddy and affectionate as smitten co-eds. It's hilarious, really. And at one point during the hubbub, Lane ends up standing next to Joan. His left elbow pokes her in the ribs gently but purposefully, sometime during Megan's halting explanation of upcoming wedding plans—which is to say, they have no plans—and she glances over to see Lane smirking in her direction. Joan can practically hear him teasing her. Well done.

Later in the day, when they're gathering in the conference room for a traffic meeting, Harry Crane drops a bundle of loose papers onto the table and pushes them in Lane's direction.

“Here. I didn't staple this, sorry.”

Lane blinks at the mess. “These...are your expenses?”

“Finished them this morning,” Harry says, as if his last-ditch effort is something to be proud of. He searches through his folio and produces two or three crumpled receipts, which he tosses haphazardly toward the pile. “You know, I actually saw Ed Ames in Pasadena.”

“Did you actually talk to him?” Joan counters, suppressing an eyeroll. Harry pretends not to hear her question, feeling around in his jacket pockets for what – Joan's guessing – are more stray receipts.

Lane looks slowly from the growing mess of papers on the table and back to Joan with feigned panic in his eyes, giving her the tiniest shake of his head, as if to say god help me. She can't help but smirk in return, mouthing two words back at him in reply: have fun.

 

Chapter Text

october 1965 //  twelve weeks

 

Joan's been relatively lucky with regard to her figure. While she is gaining weight (there's no point in denying that, even if every new pound is driving her up the wall) most of it has settled in her breasts and hips. She needed new brassieres after nine weeks, and recently had to start letting out a few of her outfits in the bust. There wasn't much room to let, considering the way her clothes are tailored, but thankfully, she isn't showing in a way that makes her appear noticeably pregnant. Some days, her abdomen looks very round. Other days, it's as if she's just bloated, or as if she's on her way to a little winter weight.

On a Wednesday morning, just before eleven, she's reorganizing the bottom drawer of the standing file cabinet. She bends at the waist to replace one last folder in current billings when a loud ripping noise makes her straighten up with a gasp. Turning her face toward the windows, she feels discreetly around her lower back to find the tear. Her heart catches in her throat when she touches her zipper with her fingertips and feels the fuzzy edge of torn pink fabric gaping open along the left seam. The split goes so high she can't even trace it the rest of the way up her back. With a sigh, Joan moves slowly to her desk, opening the third drawer and calmly pulling out her spare change of clothes. The dress is last year's style: a lavender floral, slightly faded, but it's still a relief to be prepared.

Her relief is short lived. She spends the next ten minutes locked inside a tiny bathroom stall, struggling to force her zipper up and failing every time, until she's so angry she wants to rip both outfits into pieces. She can't even get the hook and eye fastened at the collar, that's how big she's gotten.

This dress fit a month ago, damn it!

Joan takes several deep breaths, willing herself not to cry. She can't even bring herself to change back into the original pink outfit, though it could be pinned in the back with help. She just drops the dress into the covered metal trash can by the sink and shrugs into her camel coat, buttoning it fully around her so she's not a walking advertisement of failure. Thank god she had the presence of mind to bring it with her. To add insult to injury, even the coat cinches ominously at the waist once it's fully buttoned, but she ignores this, walking out of the ladies room and across the office until she reaches Lane's doorway, knocks once, and steps inside, closing the door behind her.

He must see the frustration on her face, frowning at her from his seat behind the desk. “Joan? You all right?”

She means to ask for his help with the zipper. Instead, she bursts into tears.

Lane's on his feet immediately and at her side, stuttering over the words as he blurts out, “What's happened? Are you hurt?”

Joan shakes her head no, trying to speak, and failing. Instead, she fumbles to undo the buttons of her coat, only managing to work one of them open with her shaking fingers before she gives up with a frustrated wail. She pushes away from him, sits down heavily on the sofa, and hides her face in her hands, feeling the ill-fitting dress pull painfully around her middle every time she moves.

Lane sits next to her, placing his arm around her back as she sobs out hot tears of shame. She buries her face in his shoulder. When she sits up, mortified, he's watching her with soft eyes, leaning in slightly, as if waiting for her to speak, as if he's going to pull her back into his arms.

He does neither.

Joan swallows thickly, wiping her damp cheeks, hands moving to unfasten her coat. This time, the buttons loosen easily, and she sheds the coat with his help so he can see why she's upset. Her sleeves sit just below her shoulders, collar taut against her upper arms. The floral-print cotton pulls tight around her hips and bust, stretching the flowers into grotesque bundles, while the panels of the bodice flap uselessly from the open zipper. She feels air on her upper back and shoulders, on the expanse of skin not covered by her foundation garments and long-line bra.

“My other dress ripped.” Her voice wavers, and she curses herself as new tears spring to her eyes. “I had this in m—my desk, but—”

Looking from the unzipped dress to her tear-streaked face, Lane pulls a red handkerchief from his jacket pocket, pressing it into her hands with a sympathetic expression.

“I know I'm supposed to get bigger,” she mumbles with a sniff, gesturing to her middle as if she's already gained fifty pounds. “It's just—” she unfolds the handkerchief, swiping at her eyes and nose before clutching it in one fist. Awful. She's kept in shape since she was a girl, and now this tiny little thing is ruining years of discipline in a matter of weeks.

“Joan.” Lane's hand moves to her partially-covered shoulder, as if the smallest touch will make the dress fit again. “You've done nothing wrong, you know.”

“I know,” she sighs finally, glancing away from him.

Lane doesn't say anything for a moment. Joan glances back to her right, suddenly needing to see his face, when he takes both her hands in his. “You're only...growing...because the little one needs a bit more room. Can't have him jumping on your spleen, hm?”

She can't help but smile, even if it's watery. Stupid joke. He always tries to make her laugh when she's upset. “He practically does that already.”

And it's the first time she's referred to the baby as anything other than an it, which, frankly, is terrifying. Joan blows out a breath, and pulls her hands away from Lane's with an awkward smile, putting his handkerchief into her coat pocket. She needs to stop letting him comfort her every time she gets upset. This can't become a habit. She's married. Greg should be the one comforting her, for god's sake. Greg should care that she's fat and upset, but he doesn't.

“I should go home and change.”

Lane blinks, as if a spell's been broken, as if he meant to say something else to her, but recovers quickly, indicating he'll help her back into her coat. “I think that's a—fine idea.”

**

At home, Joan changes into a knit dress, whose cashmere is more forgiving than her usual acetate sheaths. It's the same black dress she wore to work several days ago, but it's not as if anyone's going to see it. She's already decided to take a half day. Reorganizing her closet has become necessary. She'll go out in the afternoon and buy a few new dresses. By one o'clock, she's even been able to eat: half an apple and some saltines. She's just putting some of her smallest sized clothes into a box by her bed when she hears someone knocking on the front door.

“Just a minute!” She pads quickly out of the bedroom in her bare feet and into the hallway, quickly unlatching the chain and pulling open the door.

Two men in class-A green uniforms stand on the other side. Their clean-shaven, stoic faces betray nothing underneath their garrison caps; each man's posture as stiff as the tri-folded American flag balanced in the older officer's gloved hands.

This man is the one who addresses her first. Later, Joan won't even be able to remember his face, no distinguishing features at all except for the deep furrow that formed between his bushy eyebrows as he spoke. “Mrs. Gregory Harris?”

Joan sucks in a breath, fingers curling around the doorframe. “Yes.”

“Mrs. Harris, the Secretary General of the Army deeply regrets to inform you that your husband, Dr. Gregory Harris, was killed in action in the Quang Nam province on October 4, 1965.”

“In—action?” she manages to stutter, staring from the starched corners of the flag to the sealed, cream-colored envelope which the junior officer is holding. The young man's hands are shaking. She can see it. She can't stop looking at the cuffs of his jacket. She can barely hear what he's saying.

“—Secretary extends sincerest condolences—you and your family—tragic loss—”

They place the flag and letter into her hands, and with a salute and a murmured, “Ma'am,” they're gone.

Joan pushes the door closed with an outstretched hand, and turns away from it as if in a haze. Her shoulders are slumped, she feels light headed, and clumsy on her feet. She turns to her right, where the round gold-framed mirror reflects her ashen complexion, thin mouth, and shock-wide eyes.

She had everything planned—mapped it all out with the ruthlessness of an empress, and every time there had been a misstep, she'd corrected her course. When she realized Roger didn't love her—was never going to marry her—she set her sights on a real husband. When she met Greg, she was going to be a surgeon's wife—an accomplished hostess, throwing parties and attending banquets within the medical community's highest circles. Once that fell apart, she'd thrown herself into the solid practicality of Army routine—waiting for Greg to call, writing him every ten days, learning everything she could about the military and its daily operations in order to prove she could do this—she could sacrifice this much if it meant a stable family—

—Joan could wear beautiful jewel tone dresses and keep her figure and work endless hours and clean the apartment and cook for one and resign herself to the constant pressing ache of loneliness and indifference because she was married—she had to stay married

For the first time in her life, she doesn't have a plan.

She's pregnant with Lane's child. Its heartbeat flutters under her palm, and she has never been so thankful—has never been so terrified—

“Greg's dead,” she whispers aloud, staring at her red lipsticked mouth in the mirror as she says the words. They force air into her frozen lungs, make her gasp for breath as she slides clumsily down the wall into a sitting position, wrapping her arms around her middle as her chest begins to heave and her stomach contracts and her sides ache. Is she laughing or crying? Water splashes hot onto the back of her hands and down her nose and her body shakes so much she feels like she's shivering with fever—someone is screaming in long shrill bursts, a high wailing sound like a teakettle whistling—

He's dead.

She always knew he would leave. He wanted to. He didn't love her.

He's dead. He's dead. He's dead.

**

When Lane arrives at the office on Thursday morning at seven thirty, to his great surprise, there are several secretaries working in the creative lounge. Clara sits at the round table, marking copious notes on a stenography pad, and next to her is a stack of papers so high they nearly obscure her face.

Scarlett is at Clara's desk instead of her typical place in reception, typing determinedly, the rhythmic clack-clack-clack of her fingers striking keys reminding him of a freight train gaining speed as it leaves a station. He didn't realize she could type so quickly. Remarkable.

A waifish blonde girl – Bridget? Bailey? she's rather new – is standing in the middle of Joan's office, looking around with a nervous expression, as if completely lost. And there's another voice coming from her open doorway. Lane walks slowly forward, wanting to know who it is. Can't be Joan. He suspects she'll come in later than usual. Yesterday morning was very hard on her.

“Oh, Clara, honey?” Caroline moves into the lounge, wearing a brown shirtwaist dress and a lime green sweater, gold-rim glasses pushed onto the top of her head. Her dark hair seems to have been set in a hurry. She looks...frazzled. “I forgot—you'll have to cover my desk at ten o'clock, when the partners meet. Don's particular about his phone calls. But Roger's phone doesn't ring that much.”

“Okay,” Clara says with a sigh, making another note on her stenography pad.

At this point, Caroline sees him, blowing out a breath. “Hi, Mr. Pryce. Did you need coffee? We should talk in your office.”

She indicates that he should unlock his door, and after a moment, he produces the keys and obliges. Is there a special visitor due today? He has no idea. He's usually told about these things.

Caroline's taken his hat and briefcase before he can blink, putting the hat onto the coatrack and his briefcase in the center of his desk. He hangs up his coat and moves toward his desk as she speaks.

“I'm sorry. Joanie usually takes care of you, since you're both here so early—but I realized on the way over I don't even know what you drink. Is it always hot tea?”

“What?” he says, stopping in the middle of his search for a pencil. “Erm. Yes. Sorry—is—is Joan—not coming in?”

Do not panic. She promised to keep you informed. Perhaps she's supplementing her wardrobe. She could be sleeping in. She would have phoned.

“Lane,” Caroline stutters, “—I—I thought that's why you sent her home. Didn't you hear?”

He can feel his heart pounding somewhere near his throat. His entire body prickles hot in fear. Oh, god. Nearest hospital—they'd have taken her to St. Luke's—he's got to—no, he can't lose her—

“Her husband died. She called me at home—last night.”

Shame whitens his face as the words sink into his head.

Oh.

Oh, my god.

He's staring at the abacus on his desk, unable to say anything, because the first thought in his head is monstrous—thank god it's not the baby—and sinks into his chair, completely stunned.

“Gosh,” Caroline says, breaking the silence, “you look terrible. I didn't mean to shock you. Let me bring you some water.”

She's placing a half-full water glass onto his desk once he finally trusts himself to speak.

“I thought it was about the baby,” he breathes, then realizes, half a second later, that he has said these words aloud. Jesus Christ. He's done the one thing he promised not to do—god damn it!

Caroline's covering her mouth with both hands, blue eyes wide in disbelief. Lane realizes his own mouth is hanging open, that he hasn't spoken in too long. Panic wells in his throat.

She speaks first, lowering her hands. “Joanie's—?”

“Shut the door,” he rasps out, waving an arm toward the occupied hallway in a frantic motion. They'll hear it. They'll hear it. Caroline obeys wordlessly, and after she does, turns and walks slowly back toward his desk, standing a few feet in front of it, wringing her hands, and pressing her thin lips together as if trying to keep herself from crying.

No one can know,” he hisses, forcing himself to look the older woman in the eyes, frantically trying to make her understand. “Do you hear me? Not Roger, not the partners—no one.

“I understand,” Caroline blurts in a high voice, nodding her head once, the motion small.

Lane feels he's got to come up with some kind of story, and so he keeps talking, very quickly. “Joan—didn't want her condition to affect her—standing—she's got to work, now, you see—it's why she went home yesterday. She was ill. That's why she—told me.”

Don't say anything else. Don't say another word. Don't look at her. She'll see the truth in your eyes. He's pouring sweat now, his hands are shaking—god, he doesn't deserve to be in Joan's confidence—how could he have said something so bloody stupid?!

Caroline clears her throat, causing him to look up. She's standing as tall as her matronly five foot frame will allow: hands clasped tightly in front of her stomach, mouth set in a line. When she speaks, it's as if she's trying to channel Joan herself. The words are careful, as if she's trying to censor herself, and almost—but not quite—calm. “You don't know me. And I know you didn't mean to say....the...thing you said. But I can tell Joanie's your friend—a-and I'm sure you were just trying to help her. Yesterday.”

Help. The word's almost hilarious. He has done his best to be present for Joan, to ease her stress now that she's the mother of his child, but he is positive it isn't enough. He can never do enough to take care of her.

“I promise I won't say a word,” Caroline finishes, and it is a testament to her quiet earnestness that he actually believes this, that a bit of the weight eases in his chest.

All he can do is nod his head yes. After a moment, Caroline lets out a heavy sigh, ambling over to the credenza. She gestures to his china teapot and picks it up with a smile that's more like a grimace, as if she's attempting to set the room to rights by getting back to some kind of routine.

“You want some hot tea? I'll bring you the water. I guess I should boil it.”

**

The partners' meeting would have been a tense affair no matter what. Caroline is comfortable enough leading the table in business discussion, but not as deft as Joan, nor as able to rein in the other partners when discussion inevitably become unruly. The only men she's able to deflect with constant ease are Roger and Bert, and it's only, Lane thinks privately, because she's so deeply familiar with their peculiarities, not because she's socially gifted. Then he feels uncomfortable criticizing her in light of this morning's terrible slip, and decides he ought not to talk at all.

He's staring at the spreadsheet in front of him, wracked with guilt and waiting for the meeting to be over, when Bert Cooper clears his throat, causing Lane to look toward the head of the table. The old man is leaning back in his chair, hands folded over his stomach.

“Before we go, there is a personal matter we ought to discuss among the partners.”

“...Off the record?” Caroline asks, after a long pause. Judging from the anxious glance she gives Cooper, it seems this is going to be about Joan's loss.

“Regarding Mrs. Harris, yes,” Cooper says, gesturing for the woman to put away her notebook. “For those who are unaware, her husband was killed in action earlier this week.”

Roger, in the midst of lighting a cigarette, freezes with his lighter halfway to his lips. “Jesus.”

Pete and Don exchange a sort of unhappy look which Lane can't decipher, before Pete sits taller in his chair, steepling his hands against the table as if preparing to make some kind of speech.

“What about her condition?” he says, prim voice quiet, and matter-of-fact. “Are we going to speak about that, too?”

Caroline gasps. Lane feels himself go pale. Roger's mouth has fallen open, and the cigarette he meant to put back to his lips is barely hanging from his fingers, shedding ash onto the table.

“Pete,” Don says tersely, giving the young man a glare, “Not the time.”

“I'm sorry, Don,” Pete replies, his pale eyes sweeping around the rest of the table, “I know you don't agree, but I feel it's in the agency's best interests if we address this issue now.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Roger asks loudly, glaring at Pete and Don as if they're playing a practical joke on him.

Cooper is silent, eyes flicking toward Lane for the briefest second before returning to the rest of the group. Lane feels anger and terror grip his stomach in a vice. Despite the fear, when he finally speaks, his voice is forceful and clipped. “Caroline—please excuse us.”

Casting him an apologetic look, she rises from her chair and exits the room, so quickly she forgets to take her stenography pad with her.

“Joan's expecting a child,” Pete announces to the table before the door even closes, as if he's reading the weather forecast. Then, to Roger, in a voice so superior it makes Lane's skin itch with anger. “Did you really not notice? There were several signs.”

“Shut up!” Roger retorts, flushing a dull red. His cigarette has fallen to the table, forgotten.

“She didn't want any of us to know,” Don growls, with an unhappy look at Campbell. Lane realizes he must have figured out her condition, as well. They must have spoken about it before. “It's not our business.”

“I believe it is,” Pete says. “Joan is part of our business atmosphere. Her condition affects all of us. Clients will see her. They will interact with her.”

“She's not a piece of furniture, for Christ's sake!” Lane snaps, before he can control himself. “Her work is essential!”

Roger gestures to Lane with an outstretched hand, as if to tell him well said.  It's very off-putting. “You hear that, Campbell? Least someone in this room's making sense.”

“Roger, it's an unnecessary risk! She'll scare men away. She'll be in delicate health—are we going to let her go into labor in the lobby?”

Under the table, Lane is clenching one of his hands into fists.

“Jesus,” Don retorts, glaring at Pete as if the younger man's lost his mind, “what do you want to do, fire her? Her husband died. Can you even imagine what that's like?”

“Don,” Pete counters, looking aghast at the other man's temper, as if the spoken truth is beyond offensive, “I'm merely suggesting she be put in a less visible role—”

“I suggest you shove it up your ass!” Roger shouts, jumping to his feet as if he's going to leap across the table. Don moves between Roger and Pete immediately, voice booming, physically pushing Roger toward the glass doors with one hand, and gesturing toward Pete with the other, which is clenched in a pointed finger. “Take a walk!”

Roger and Don disappear into Roger's office amid a small scuffle and loud cursing, the wooden door slamming closed behind them, so hard Lane can practically feel the vibrations even in the conference room. Pete storms out in the other direction, past Joan's office, as if he's just been thrashed on the primary school playground and wants to preserve the last of his remaining dignity.

Lane's clenching his jaw so hard he tastes blood, turning to Cooper, who's watching everything with an amused detachment, mouth pursed into a slight smirk, as if he's in the middle of a matinee. This is more offensive than any display of temper Lane could have witnessed or instigated, and it's what finally prompts him to speak.

“Joan is a very valuable member of this agency,” he begins in a low voice, meeting Cooper's gaze across the table. “She is fluent in nearly all matters of the business, from the social and secretarial to the financial. To purposefully lessen her role in this company would be an unmitigated disaster. We cannot do what she does.”

“I understand you and Mrs. Harris have a cordial relationship,” Cooper replies calmly.

“This is not about our relationship, goddamn it!” Lane shouts, finally losing his temper, getting to his feet to pace in front of the table. “This is about her role as the primary provider for an innocent child! Do you propose we punish that child for his father's mistakes? Shall we punish her for performing at a level of excellence unmatched by any woman in this office? She deserves to be in this agency, she deserves a permanent place despite her current condition, and your attempt to roust her out, less than a day after being widowed, is shameful!

The echo bounces off the windows and seeps throughout the silent room.

Cooper's first reaction is to raise his eyebrows at the outburst, as if only mildly surprised by the passion behind it. Lane can't even look at the man anymore, and storms out of the room, clipboard in hand. Secretaries and junior staff are gathered in the hallways, attempting to eavesdrop, faces eager and curious, and Lane pushes past all of them with a growl of frustration, heading straight for his office.

When he enters, Caroline is standing to the right of his desk, a slip of paper in her hand, arm outstretched, as if she were about to drop it off. She cringes noticeably as he storms in, as if he's going to start throwing things in her direction.

“What?” he snaps.

She purses her lips, proffering the paper in his direction. “Joan left a message with the service for you—last night. Girls forgot to put it on your desk.”

Lane snatches the paper from her, barely glancing it over before his decision is made. “I shall be leaving for the day. Have Clara clear my schedule.”

“Okay.”

 

Chapter Text

Joan's apartment building sits opposite a hair salon and a small chemist's, a relatively small, cramped place made of old-fashioned brown brick. The thin-carpeted hallways and tiny elevator are very dimly lit for this part of the morning. Coupled with his sudden departure from work, this makes it seem much later in the day. Last time he came here – on the night they'd come back from the clinic – Joan had asked to be dropped at the curb. He still wonders if she was more embarrassed by him, or by the building's modest appearance, but tries not to dwell on the thought.

Lane knocks on the door of 4C with three quiet taps, hoping he isn't disturbing her, or interrupting some type of family visit. He ought to have called. But when Joan opens the door and peeks out into the hallway, she blinks at him in confusion before motioning him inside.

Her foyer is cramped, with barely enough room for a coat rack by the door, but he sets his things aside here anyway. Once this is done, he's able to look at her properly. She's clearly exhausted. Her red hair is piled on top of her head in messy curls, and she's wearing a floral pattern kimono – cream with blue flowers – with a set of blue button-up pajamas underneath. There are circles under her eyes, as well as black smudges – perhaps she forgot to take off her makeup before bed – and she's even wearing a pair of black cat's-eye glasses. Lane didn't know she wore glasses.

He wants to hold her, but isn't sure if she'd want that, considering the circumstances, so he settles for taking both her hands in his, his thumbs tracing across the delicate bones of her fingers. “Caroline just gave me your message. I'm—so sorry.”

I'd have been here sooner.

Joan sighs as she looks up at him, briefly, and gives him a smile that looks more like a grimace. “I meant to call you at home—just couldn't find the number.”

She ducks her head to stare down at their joined hands, then glances around the hallway, wrinkling her nose in annoyance, as if the slip of paper he'd given her with that information is now hidden under a blizzard of detritus. Honestly, Lane can't spot much of a mess anywhere, save for one end table with a stack of colorful magazines. He's not sure what to ask her, or what to do.

“Come sit down,” she says after a minute, releasing his hands and ushering him into the living room, taking a seat on her sofa. She sinks into the cushions with a small exhale, arms splayed out palms-up by her sides, tipping her head back and closing her eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asks quietly, taking a seat beside her.

Joan opens her eyes, turns her head to glance at him. “The baby's fine.” A hesitation. She's obviously leaving herself out, which makes him anxious. After a beat, she speaks again, very quietly. “I was sick all night.”

He raises his eyebrows. Worst the pregnancy sickness has been in several weeks, if he remembers correctly. “Have you eaten?”

“No,” she mumbles, scrubbing the heel of her hand underneath the frame of her glasses.

“Right.” He lets out a breath, getting to his feet, and holding out a hand. “Come on.”

“What?” Joan asks, frowning at him although her voice holds a note of bemusement. She doesn't seem very keen on getting up from the sofa, and so he pulls his hand back, gestures toward the open doorway several feet to his right.

“Kitchen through here?”

Joan nods, some of the confusion leaving her face. Lane sheds his suit jacket and drapes it over the back of a wooden-framed chair. As he steps into her kitchen – painted another bright color, this time a spring green – he pauses for a moment to roll up his shirtsleeves. A yellow telephone is mounted on the wall to his immediate left, with a white bar stool sitting underneath. Past this is a small section of counter top, a blue porcelain sink set into a wooden cabinet and in the left corner, a small range and oven. To the right, lining the wall adjacent to the window, is a mounted spice rack, small hutch, and an icebox opposite the half doorway.

A yellow ceramic bowl sits next to the sink. Lane peers inside to find a green apple and a shriveled orange, taking the apple and setting it onto the counter. It's a start. Now to find a cutting board and knife—she doesn't have a block on the counter, which drawer would they—

A slight rustling makes him turn. Joan is settling into her seat on the white barstool, one hand moving to her abdomen as she leans against the bit of wall next to the telephone. "Don't slice the orange,” is all she says, voice low. He supposes this means she's resigned herself to the idea of a man rummaging around her kitchen.

“Okay. And—erm—your knives?” he asks, glancing at her with an apologetic expression.

“First drawer.”

He opens the far left drawer, finds a wooden-handled paring knife with a small blade. Taking this in his right hand, and holding the apple in his left, he slices the fruit clean through the middle, then into fourths, then begins to cut the bits of core and seeds away from flesh.

“Look at you,” Joan says, the slightest note of surprise in her voice. “Comfortable in a kitchen.”

He huffs out an amused noise. “I can do a few practical things, you know.”

“Did your wife not cook?”

“Well, she was able to, if that's what you mean,” Lane says, feeling more comfortable talking because he's got something to do with his hands, and cutting a quartered piece into several slices. “But I was—older, before I married, and—picked up a few tricks, in the service. Manage to feed myself, anyway.”

He immediately feels guilty for bringing up anything military related, sneaking a look at Joan to see if this has upset her, but she seems unfazed. “I didn't realize you were in the war.”

“Oh, well—we all were,” he hastens to say. “Though it was nothing flash for me. Lot of KP duty. Peeling spuds. Although, technically I was supply regiment. Scotland.”

“Were you drafted?”

Lane grimaces, picking up the last quarter of the apple. “No. Volunteered.”

He'd gone up to the station several times with groups of men from work. He was older and smaller than most of the chaps there, but still spent hours dreaming of RAF glory and heroics and femme fatales, only to be told his eyesight was too bloody awful for combat. A fact of which he was well aware, thank you very much.

When he says as much to Joan, she sighs out a long breath. “Greg did, too. But he was desperate.”

It's a harsher word than he was expecting to hear, even knowing her marital unhappiness, but Lane doesn't comment, just puts the apple slices on a blue ceramic plate which he finds on one of the upper shelves.

“Oh?” Looking around for the bin, which is in the corner below the window, and depositing the remnants of the apple core inside. What else might she eat? He thinks he remembers crackers being all right, and moves to search for these in the pantry cupboard above the sink.

“He just—came home and announced it to me like it was the perfect solution. We'd never discussed it. Not even as a possibility.”

Lane pulls a skeptical face, opening another cabinet door. He pushes aside a box of bran cereal and discovers a box of saltines, which will do nicely. “I'm sure that went very well.”

Knowing Joan, she wouldn't take kindly to being excluded from that type of decision. Lane wonders why her husband would have joined up on a whim. Perhaps he was one of those patriotic types. Got it into his head. Pressure from the others.

“They told him he had no brains in his fingers.”

This is such an odd statement that it causes Lane to look over at her. She's taken her pack of cigarettes from her pocket, but doesn't move to get one out, just toys it back and forth in her hands.

“What?” he says, utterly lost.

“St. Luke's,” she clarifies, glancing up at him. A pink flush has darkened her cheeks, as if she's embarrassed to admit this, but she speaks in a rushed, flat voice. Maybe she's just got to get it out. “His boss. That's why he never made Chief Resident. He wasn't a good surgeon.”

“Christ,” Lane breathes, putting the half-empty sleeve of crackers back into the box, and suddenly understanding her choice of the word desperate. He watches her for a moment, unsure what she wants him to say in return. “That's awful.”

“Not exactly something I can say to his parents,” Joan mumbles, scooting her chair closer to the counter, putting her cigarettes on the surface, and reaching for an apple slice.

“No,” he agrees, with a shake of his head.

She takes a small bite of her food, chewing slowly and seeming to feel fine. Lane taps his fingers against the vinyl counter in an anxious rhythm, wishing he had something else to do. Perhaps there's something in the icebox she could eat. He moves to the door and pulls it open, feeling a blast of cold air roll over him as he does so. “Erm—how do you feel about eggs?”

“Sickened. Unfortunately.”

Hm. There's not much else here. A bit of celery, two large tins of juice, several green tupperware containers and a small block of bright yellow cheese. He gathers the veg and cheese in each hand and peeks around the refrigerator door, showing off the items to her as if they're in some sort of game show. “Either of these all right?”

“I'll try the cheddar,” she says after a minute, frowning deeply, as if trying to remember past consequences and coming up blank. “I think I ate some last week.”

**

“Stan,” Megan says, rummaging through a stack of posterboards against the far wall by the window, “where's the mock-up you started for Heinz? Don wants to know how it's going.”

“Uh. At home.”

“Seriously?” she huffs, straightening up to glare at him. He's pulled a chair up to the other side of Peggy's desk. She and Pete are out for brunch with Vick Chemical. “I asked you two days ago if you were done and you said almost.

“Megan, this is not about our relationship,” Stan says with a snort, erasing a stray line on his sketchpad. “I'm performing at a level of unmatched excellence.”

She laughs, rolling her eyes. “You're terrible.”

“Never thought Lane had it in him,” he replies with a smirk.

“I just can't believe he stuck up for her. She doesn't go out of her way to make friends.”

“It's an unholy alliance. Doesn't have to make sense.” A pause. “I mean, he wants her, but other than that...”

She scoffs, giving him a skeptical look and beginning to page through some loose sheets of paper on her own desk. “She's not that good-looking.”

“Please.” Stan waves a hand at the shared wall. “She so much as winked at him, he'd be doing her on the floor of that office, clothes on.” Pulling a face, mouth obscenely round. “Ohhhhh, dahhhling.

“You're disgusting.” She throws a legal pad at his head, which he bats away with a laugh. It slides across the floor and into the foot of Roger Sterling, standing in the doorway, who glances down at it with a bemused expression, then back to them.

“Mouseketeers.” Smirking at Megan. “Either of you seen Olson?”

“No,” Stan says, frowning. “Why?”

“We're getting married,” Roger retorts around his cigarette, then winces. “Jesus. Can't even pretend to sell that. She gets back, tell her to stop by my office.”

“We wish you every happiness,” Megan says airily, fixing him with an innocent look.

He rolls his eyes in reply, and walks back into the lobby.

**

“Okay. I'll see you soon.”

Joan replaces the telephone in its cradle, and returns to the dining room table, settling into her chair opposite Lane. There's still some food left over from before, but she's had enough to make a meal, at least. Given the way things are going, she'll need the energy.

“Was that—his parents?”

She nods. “They're just getting on the road.” An awkward pause. Her mouth twists into a sympathetic expression. “Ruth's hysterical. Greg was the apple of her eye.”

“I can imagine,” he murmurs. Awful to think of losing a grown child. Makes his blood run cold.

Joan nods in agreement, the motion jerky and small. One hand drifts to her stomach, lingering on the swell of her abdomen, her voice just above a whisper. “I didn't tell him about the baby.”

She gives Lane a guilty look, biting her lip, and he feels himself flush at the implication as she continues speaking. “I don't think it would have changed anything, but he could have—had that much. All things considered.”

Water glistens in her eyes, reflected through the lenses of her glasses. It's the first time he has seen her cry over the loss, and Lane braces himself for more tears, for a complete breakdown, but it doesn't come. She turns her gaze to the window, expression turning distant. What is she thinking? Is she unhappy with the way everything's turned out? Does she regret it?

Lane doesn't think he can bear to know the answer, if it's yes. So it's somewhat of a relief when Joan breathes out a long sigh, and turns back to him. “I'm sorry. I just keep thinking about it.”

After another moment, she gets to her feet, drawing her floral robe more tightly around her, as if she's cold. “I need to shower. There's a lot to do before they get here.”

“Oh,” Lane says dully, mind fixating on the word shower despite his best efforts. “Well—I could take care of some of it, if you—erm, wanted.”

She fixes him with a stern look. “I doubt you want to do my grocery shopping.”

“No,” he blurts. “I can do. Just—make a list.”

Better than going out of his mind while waiting in her empty living room, trying to find something useful to distract him. He'll end up alphabetizing her magazines, or reading them, or something equally embarrassing.

“You really don't have to,” she warns, moving to one of her end tables, and pulling a small notepad out of the drawer, along with a single key on a small fob. “I'm perfectly capable.”

“I'm aware,” Lane says calmly. “Only—if it will help—”

She nods once, and begins to jot down items onto her notepad with alarming speed. After a moment, she blinks, pulls her pencil away from the paper with a single huff of breath exhaled through her nose. Next, she strikes through the first eight or ten words, shaking her head, as if she's mentally scolding herself.

“You can't read shorthand.”

**

Peggy knocks twice on Roger's open office door. He's leaning back in his reclining chair, holding a folded-up newspaper in one hand.

“You wanted to see me?” she asks.

“Close the door,” he says, waving her inside. “Sit down.”

She does, giving him a wary look as she crosses to the sofa. “Is this about the wedding?”

Megan and Don are getting married in another month. She hasn't even picked out a card, let alone a gift. She's really got to go shopping.

“No.” He walks over to the drink cart, puts two pieces of ice in two glasses without even asking her if she wants a drink. She frowns at him, watching as he pours a heavy measure of Grey Goose into each one, then crosses over to press a glass into her hand. He obviously wants some kind of favor. Is it about an account? Is it about Megan? Are they hiring someone else?

“You're friendly with Mrs. Harris. Would you say that?”

“I—guess,” Peggy stammers, completely thrown. “Why do you care?”

Roger waves a dismissive hand, as if he's uninterested in the details. “Partners want you to pay her a personal visit. Give her our respects.”

Jesus. Her mouth drops open, and she quickly closes it. “Personal visit?”

It sounds like something Cooper would think up. Have a girl go over there. He would want to know what was happening. Pete and Lane wouldn't want details. Don would just go over himself, if he was worried. But – given the rumors she's heard about Roger and Joan over the years – she's guessing he just can't drop in alone without so much as a phone call.

She clears her throat, in an attempt to be diplomatic. “She's very  private—”

Roger scoffs, as if this is the dumbest and most obvious thing she's ever said. “You know I could just order you to go over there.”

“And I could just tell Joan you're all too scared to pay condolences,” Peggy retorts.

They stare at each other for a moment before Roger huffs out a breath. “Jesus. What do you want, cash? It's a favor!”

Peggy stares at him like he's lost his mind. Cash?  “For popping in unannounced? Really? 

“Maybe you don't understand what I'm saying here,” Roger retorts. “I tell you to do something, you get something in return. It's good business.”

She considers this, briefly, before her gaze turns to the drink cart, and she narrows her eyes at a wax-sealed brown bottle on the cart behind several others, pointing at it with her drink glass. “Is that Lagavulin? In the back?”

“Jesus.” Roger lights a cigarette.

Peggy raises her eyebrows. “I don't even know her address.”

**

Lane's put away the groceries as best he can and returned the spare key to its drawer, standing awkwardly by the sofa in his suit, when there is a throat-clearing behind him. Joan's standing in the open doorway, wearing the same floral robe from this morning, this time tied tightly around her waist. Her red hair is pinned up in its usual style, although there's a colorful scarf holding her fringe back from her forehead. And her complexion's flushed pink from the hot water. On second glance, it seems as if she hasn't even put on her face yet. Very intimate to see Joan without her normal makeup. It almost makes him nervous, but she doesn't seem to give it much thought, pale eyes sweeping over him. “You don't have to stay out here.”

“Oh,” he says, not really understanding what that means, and assuming it's something like I don't want to be alone. “Erm. All right.”

In her bedroom, there is a vanity dresser directly to the left of the doorway. Joan's put a small wooden chair in front of it, and immediately moves to perch on the edge of this seat. When he doesn't move inside right away, she glances up at him.

“Don't hover.” Gesturing toward the foot of her bed. “You can sit.”

He directs an alarmed look toward the indicated spot, but obeys, moving to sit down. The gold comforter is plush and soft underneath him, and he glances around the immediate surroundings. This room is painted a sea blue, with several gold ornaments decorating the walls. Her headboard is covered in a kind of brown floral fabric, and there are two small night tables bracketing the head of the bed, each with a small lamp. The one on the right also features a white rotary-dial telephone, a notepad, and several books. Must be her side.

Lane glances back to the vanity, in an attempt to keep himself present. It's neatly arranged, with perfume bottles, several gold compacts, a few lipstick tubes and an array of makeup brushes placed a few inches in front of the mirror.

“Beautiful table,” he says, in a desperate grasp at conversation. “Everything...laid out...just so.”

For some reason, this coaxes a true smile out of her, teeth and everything, though she directs this toward the open compact in her hand, and not to him. After a moment, the humor eases from her face, and she meets his eyes in the mirror, voice soft. “I'm planning to put the baby's things here.”

Suddenly he's picturing it—Joan swirling around this bright little apartment in her glasses and floral robe, murmuring to a blanketed bundle in her arms. The picture makes something tighten in his chest, and he shakes his head to clear it of the image. Don't think about it. You're not supposed to be involved. “But—where will you have your makeup?”

Her mouth quirks up again, sunlight from the windows on the opposite wall lending her hair and skin a soft glow. “I haven't decided.”

She pours several drops of pale base from a glass bottle onto a white triangular sponge, gently swiping the sponge over her skin until it appears almost luminous. Her hands open powder boxes and colorful compacts and draw tiny brushes over her eyes and lips and cheeks with all the focused skill of an artist. It's amazing to watch. He tries not to gawk at her, but can't help it, and eventually she says:

“You keep staring at me.”

Lane ducks his head, averts his eyes to the quilted bedspread. “Sorry. It's—I just find it fascinating. All the—jars and brushes and things. Very complicated.”

“You never watched your mother do this when you were little?” she asks, hand poised in the air next to her eye. After speaking, she draws a very thin black line across her eyelid, directly above her lashes. Seeming to find it satisfactory, she does the same across the other eye, ending the movement with a small flick of her wrist.

“No,” he says, realizing he hasn't answered her question, briefly looking down at his feet. “My mother—died when I was young. Even if she hadn't—my father wouldn't have—approved.” A pause. He gives a shrug of his shoulders, still speaking mostly to the floor. “And Becca never liked me seeing her without her face, if she could help it. She's....shy.”

“Shyer than you?” Joan asks.

Lane looks up to see her raising an eyebrow, mouth pursed as if she might laugh—but it's not mean-spirited. He can't help but smile a little.

“Well, you wouldn't know it to talk to her,” he offers, as if this explains everything. Becca can offer her opinions freely to other people when she likes, but prefers to keep her own counsel for private matters. In their marriage – particularly after they had Nigel – she'd kept him at a distance. He still doesn't know why. She could never really explain the reason, and eventually he'd given up asking.

Joan tilts her face slightly to the left, then the right, examining her handiwork. When she puts down her last brush, still pink with lipstick, and lets out a small sigh, he supposes her routine is finished. But she doesn't move to get up from her chair, just stares at her reflection, unblinking, for several moments.

“I don't look like a widow,” she says finally, wrinkling her nose, as if the word itself is distasteful.

Lane bites down on the tongue that wants to blurt you look beautiful. You always look beautiful. “No,” he replies carefully, eyes never leaving her face. “But you—don't—fit the type.”

She gives him a half-smile, then glances down to check her watch, eyes widening in surprise at the time. “Jesus. Greg's parents will be here in an hour.”

A warning for him to leave, if not an outright dismissal. He decides to take the hint as gracefully as he can manage. “Oh. Well, I—suppose I ought to go.” He does his best to smile, standing up, re-buttoning his suit jacket, and brushing lint from one of his cuffs. “Give you some time alone.”

**

“Hi,” Peggy blurts out, the second Joan opens her apartment door. The redhead's eyebrows are so high they practically disappear into her hair, eyes wide, but she stays silent, obviously shocked.

“I'm so sorry to drop by,” Peggy continues in a determinedly cheerful voice, noticing Joan's thin mouth and tense hands. “I know I'm—intruding. But I just...wanted to see how you were. And I brought you...something.”

Joan's eyes flick over the neck of the bottle in Peggy's hand, the label and name concealed by brown paper. She had felt too guilty to keep it. But at least it's nice. It's a good gift. 

“You're kidding,” Joan says, after a long pause.

“Everybody makes casseroles,” Peggy mumbles, with an awkward shrug. Now that she's here, she feels stupid for not bringing food.

Joan's mouth twitches as if she doesn't know how to react to this pronouncement, but she motions Peggy in with a sigh, voice flat and hushed. “Put it by the coat rack. His parents are here.”

“Oh. God. I can go—” Peggy mumbles as she straightens up, giving Joan a horrified look, but before she can flee, Joan's closing the apartment door and showing her into the living room.

A large, round woman in a blue shirtwaist dress is sitting on Joan's sofa, and she's the first person Peggy sees. Her brown hair is arranged in a messy bob; her mouth is pinched and her face is bright red, like she's been crying for hours, and has only just stopped. Oh, my god. Why did she ever agree to do this?

“Ruth, this is Peggy. A friend of mine from work,” Joan says, which is generous, considering the circumstances. “Peggy, my mother-in-law, Ruth.”

Peggy tries to smile, then realizes this may be disrespectful, and quickly stops herself. “I'm so sorry. I don't mean to—interrupt. I just—wanted to see how—Joan was doing.”

Greg's mother doesn't even seem to hear this, just glances to the left, past Peggy and Joan, toward a person in the corner. “When is Joe coming back?”

Peggy looks to her right and notices a petite older woman standing in the kitchen doorway. She's dressed in low-slung heels, black slacks, and a floral yellow blouse, with short, pale red hair. Her voice is calm and measured. “Ruthie, he just went to pick up a few things from the drugstore. He'll be back.”

Exchanging a sharp look with Joan that says I highly doubt it, while Greg's mother wipes her eyes with her handkerchief. Oh, my god. This must be Joan's mother.

“Hello,” Peggy says, waving awkwardly. “I'm Peggy.”

“Gail Holloway,” the older woman says, looking Peggy up and down as if amused by her, then turning to her daughter. “This the same friend who was here this morning?”

Someone was here this morning?

There is a pause, and after a moment, Joan reaches over and taps the top of Peggy's wrist, twice, with her hand. It's probably supposed to look like a gesture of thanks, but it's so awkward it feels as if Joan's her teacher, silently prompting her student not to misbehave.

“Yes. She's very thoughtful.”

“Um,” Peggy says, not knowing what the hell to say, but before she can complete a sentence, she's interrupted again by Gail. Physically, the older woman resembles Joan in a vague way, but it's the familiar steel-under-silk mannerisms that make it obvious the two women are related. And the sharpness in her voice is unmistakable.

“Honey, you went a little overboard. We're not having the funeral here, you know.”

Greg's mother visibly tears up again at the words, causing Peggy to glance away, toward the nearest bedroom door, and for Joan to interrupt, in an airy voice.

“We don't need to talk about this.”

“What? I'm just saying,” the other woman continues, as if she can't understand why this is gauche. “She bought two bushels of apples, for god's sake. Who's going to eat them all? You?”

Joan purses her lips. Peggy looks to her friend with a helpless expression.

“Joanie, you can't let yourself go,” Gail continues, glancing over her daughter's figure with raised eyebrows. “God knows you miss Greg, but you've already gotten heavy.”

“I don't think—” Peggy stutters in a quiet voice, alarmed and confused—they don't know Joan's pregnant? —but before she can finish her sentence, Greg's mother bursts into tears, rises from the sofa and pushes past into the nearest bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Loud, hysterical sobbing can be heard even through the door.

Gail exhales a sharp breath through her nose, as if annoyed by the display, and moves into the kitchen, mumbling something in a low voice. Peggy stares down at her hands for several moments, feeling very out of place, until Joan finally speaks. “Let me walk you out.”

Thank god.

They shut the door to Joan's apartment and walk down the hallway in silence. It's not until they're inside the elevator car and on the way down that Peggy feels she has to say something, or else she'll burst. “Jesus. I'm so sorry. Cooper and Roger wanted someone to make sure you were okay, and I said you wanted privacy—but now I know things—I'm so sorry—”

Gesturing vaguely to Joan's abdomen as a catch-all for this problem. Why don't they know you're pregnant? What did you tell them? And who the hell visited you this morning?

The other woman stands taller, buffering her shoulders. Peggy knows this is a warning not to bring it up again, and has resolved to put it out of her mind when Joan speaks.

“Stop apologizing.” In a voice that sounds exhausted but is no less authoritative. “I—appreciate your consideration.” She blows out a breath. “You certainly didn't have to come. Or lie to my mother.”

“Oh,” Peggy says after a beat, not expecting to hear words that sounds remotely like thank you. “No—I mean, we're—friends.” She pats Joan's arm just as awkwardly as the other woman did before, in the apartment.

Joan lets out a deep breath, giving Peggy a smile that doesn't reach her eyes, and so Peggy removes her hand, and decides to change the subject. Don't ask if she's okay, for god's sake. She's obviously not.

“Where's Greg's dad?” is all she can come up with. Jesus.

Joan huffs out a noise that could almost be a laugh, though she isn't smiling. “Probably drunk in some dive bar. He's been gone an hour.”

The elevator glides to a stop, and the doors open with a garbled ding.

“Good night,” Joan says quietly, before Peggy can get off.

Peggy stares at her friend, stunned, before recovering, and patting Joan's hand with a more genuine rush of affection. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

Chapter Text

thirteen weeks

 

“Joanie, I don't understand why you need to go shopping at all. If you'd just reduce, you'd be back at your fighting weight, and then you could save yourself the money.”

Inside the ladies department at Bonwit Teller, Joan has picked out a few outfits from the floor which she'll be able to have altered. She's also cast several lingering looks toward maternity, trying to decide the best way to get rid of her mother, in order to browse through the more...ample...selections. Two more days until Greg's parents leave. Then, the following Monday, she'll have to go back to work. She's got to pick out enough new clothes to get her through the next few months, and do it alone in order to do that much without making her mother suspicious.

“Shouldn't you call Ruth?” Joan asks pointedly, adding a royal purple floral to the selection of dresses in her arms, ignoring her mother's question. “I thought you offered to tell her our schedule.”

Gail waves a dismissive black-gloved hand. “Oh, I ground up two sleeping pills into that cup of applesauce she had for breakfast. She's fine.”

“Jesus,” Joan hisses, wheeling around next to a sale rack to glare at her mother. “What is the matter with you?”

“Joanie. The woman has been in hysterics ever since she got here. Far as I'm concerned, I did her a favor. She could use the rest.”

“She could—” Joan closes her mouth, then breathes out deeply through her nose. “Fine. I'm not going to talk about it. Stay if you want to, but I'm shopping by myself.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Gail gives her daughter a wide-eyed look, then glances critically at a nearby old woman who's attempting to eavesdrop. “Don't act so superior. I'm just trying to spend time alone with my daughter. You should be grateful.”

“I'm going to try these on,” Joan scans her surroundings and sees a dressing room less than two hundred feet from where they're standing. “Don't follow me.”

She walks briskly away from her mother and feels relieved not to hear footsteps behind her as she moves. All of these dresses are several sizes larger than usual. Even from this starting point, she's had to size up on a few items based on the cut alone. If she's very lucky, it will only take two hours to supplement the rest of her wardrobe and schedule the necessary alterations.

In the few minutes it takes Joan to speak to the young salesgirl at the counter and to hang her prospective items by the mirror in the small square dressing room, she's beginning to feel much calmer. She's able to try on several dresses before there's a knock on her door.

“Joanie? You in here?”

“Mother, I'm getting dressed,” Joan replies, biting the inside of her cheek to stay calm.

There's a laugh. “Well, let me in. I can't just stand out here like a lawn ornament.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Joan opens the door a small crack, barely leaving the older woman enough room to walk inside, and turning away as Gail enters and shuts the door, so her entire stomach isn't visible. She's in the middle of trying on a vibrant yellow dress, and has pulled it up to her waist but hasn't been able to adjust the bodice or put her arms into the three-quarter sleeves.

Joan thought it might be a good color to wear in several months, once she's on leave, or after she delivers. It reminds her of spring.

Gail snorts out a laugh the minute she gets a good look at it. “Daffodil yellow? You're newly widowed, for god's sake.”

“You wore hot pink for two months after Daddy left,” Joan snaps, turning away from the mirror as if to take another dress off its hanger, blinking quickly to keep the water in her eyes at bay. It's the hormones. It's just the hormones.

“You're damn right I did,” Gail retorts, walking up to the mirror, and examining her own reflection with satisfaction, as if remembering, “but I wasn't fat, and he wasn't dead.” She steps toward Joan. Her hand darts out to poke Joan's rounded stomach, as if doing so will illustrate the obvious problem.

Joan slaps at her mother's wrist, curling a protective arm over her belly as she turns toward the wall. “Don't—

But it's too late. She's already crying, her free hand pressed over her mouth to keep herself under control. And her mother's fingertips have reached the gentle slope of Joan's stomach, which is taut and round and blooming with life.

“Jesus,” Gail whispers, voice hoarse. “Joanie—”

Joan can't even look at her, voice coming out as a whine. “I told you not to!”

Gail retracts her hand immediately, as if making a peace offering. Joan swipes at her eyes with shaking fingers, trying to pull herself together, still hugging her abdomen with one arm.

“How far along?” her mother asks, firm, taking her daughter's free hand and leading her to a chair in the corner. “Have you been sick?”

Joan sniffs, feeling pathetic and small, like a little girl who's skinned a knee and doesn't know what to do next. “F—fourteen weeks. I've seen my doctor.”

“Well,” Gail says briskly, as if the earlier argument is all water under the bridge, “that explains the extra weight. And your mood swings.”

“I'm not telling his parents,” Joan says thickly, wiping her nose on a red handkerchief she finds stashed in her purse, and deciding not to take the bait on mood swings. “Promise me you won't.”

Gail's mouth drops open a little. “You don't want them involved?”

“He's a drunk, and she's a nervous idiot!” Joan snaps, slanting her mother a look that says you must be joking. “Of course I don't want them! They're awful!”

“They can give you money,” Gail says, staying calm. “Which you'll need.”

“I have money,” Joan replies, turning the handkerchief over in her hands, one finger tracing over the white embroidery. “I'm working. I get a dispensation from the insurance. And as Greg's widow, I'll have access to his accounts. It'll be fine.”

“You think so?” Gail asks, in a sardonic tone suggesting the exact opposite.

“Promise me,” Joan says again. “Don't say a word.”

“Fine,” Gail says, holding up two hands, and looking like she's offended by the very suggestion. “They won't hear a peep out of me.”

There's a small silence. Joan wipes her face again, then puts her handkerchief back into her purse. “Please leave me alone. I'd like to finish shopping.”

Gail huffs out a breath, like this is the most unreasonable request in the world, but doesn't dispute it. She picks her purse up from the floor, loops it over her shoulder, and glances at Joan's reflection in the mirror. “Play up your assets. That way it doesn't look like you've gone to seed.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Joan sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose as the older woman walks away. She feels emotion building in her chest again, but whether it's more tears or hysterical laughter, she isn't sure. As if she needs advice on how to tailor her clothes. She could dress her body blind, even in this condition.

The young salesgirl knocks on the half-open door of the dressing room, peering inside with an expression that suggests she's getting ready to step into a tiger cage at the zoo. “Ma'am—I'm so sorry, are you—all right?”

“My husband died,” Joan says in a crisp voice, throwing her hands in the air as if in surrender, and surveying her pregnant figure in the mirror with a mixture of anger and amusement. God. She's a disaster. “Help me with this sleeve.”

The young girl's mouth has dropped open, but she nods in silent agreement. “S—sure.”

**

“Okay,” Ken says from his seat on the green sofa, glancing over two stapled contracts, “so, Topaz is clear—these came from Art this morning—”

“Still fine with good for you, bad for business angle, right?” Peggy interrupts. She's kicked her feet up onto her desk, leaning back in her chair as she scribbles notes on her legal pad.

“Yeah,” Ken says. “I mean, dress it up, but we should bring 'em in next week.”

Peggy nods.

The intercom buzzes, followed by Linda's voice, crisp and calm. “Miss Olson? There's a Miss Holloway here to see you.”

Peggy leaps up from her desk, knocking her legal pad onto the floor. Ken gives her a concerned look, but she just shakes her head, eyes wide, and mouths oh my god before hitting the button.

“Thanks, Linda. Give me just a minute.”

As soon as the line clicks off, she's pushing papers into stacks in a flurry, motioning for Ken to get up from the sofa.

“Holloway?” he asks, raising his eyebrows as he stands up.

She meets his knowing look with a panicked expression. “Joan's mom. This is bad. This is so bad.”

“Didn't know you two were friends,” he teases, and she flaps one hand in his direction as she sweeps assorted junk into the trash can.

“I went to check on Joan at home. Met her for maybe—two minutes? It was awful. Pretty sure she just wants to pry.”

She growls out a frustrated noise. “Just—stuff some things in that corner, behind the boards.”

Ken glances around, picks up a few piles of paper and gamely relocates them. Peggy shuts her desk drawer. Nothing to do about the bookshelves. Or Stan's desk in the corner.

“You want to pick back up once she leaves?” he asks, and she nods.

“Yeah. Okay. I'm ready.”

She motions that he can open the door, and puts on her best client smile. First name. First name. What the hell is her first—oh, got it

“Gail,” she says, stepping out into the hallway. The older woman's wearing a pink floral, her makeup and hair as colorful and impeccable as ever. “I'm surprised to see you.”

Gail laughs, motioning for Linda to return to reception. “Well, I was in the neighborhood. Just thought I'd stop by and say hello.”

“Well—hello,” Peggy says again, waving awkwardly.

Gail's eyes flick to Ken, her mouth pursing in a mischievous smile. “Hello to you, too.”

“Don't mind me,” he replies, holding up two hands in surrender—and oh my god, is he blushing? That idiot. “I was just leaving. See you, Peg.”

“Bye,” Peggy says after a pause, giving Kenny a glare that means beat it, and motioning the older woman toward her doorway. “Please, come in.”

They step inside. Peggy shuts the door behind them, and indicates Gail can have a seat in the chair opposite her desk.

“Would you—like something to drink? I can get one of the girls to make coffee.”

“Aren't you a big shot,” Gail says, waving a dismissive hand to mean no, and opening her purse to produce a pack of cigarettes. Pall Malls. Same brand as Joan. Peggy suppresses a smile, feeling around for the spare lighter she keeps in her desk, and slides it across the table without a word.

“You're not queer, are you?” Gail asks first, exhaling smoke. “You dress like a lesbian.”

Peggy can't help it: she laughs. It's like talking with the Joan of five years ago—if that Joan had been even more mean and sharp and curious. “No, I have a boyfriend. Abe.” Realizing this could sound like a lie. “He's...a journalist. For, um...some underground magazines.”

Looking down at her sturdy white blouse and plaid skirt with a small frown. “And I...happen to think I look nice.”

“For a teenage schoolgirl, sure,” Gail says lightly. “You know, Joanie never talks about you.”

“Well, we've—worked together for several years.” Peggy tries to be diplomatic. “I guess she doesn't want to bore you with...details.”

“Did you know Greg well?” Tapping ash from her cigarette into a sculpted piece of tinfoil they've been using as an ashtray. Did she get it from one of the chairs? God, Peggy wishes she'd hidden that. There's still half a joint in there from last night.

“Oh—no—you know, he wasn't here a lot—”

“Didn't they have you over?”

“Well—we've all been—busy. And I know she didn't want people over if...he was on leave—”

“I guess the last time was a couple months ago,” Gail says, a little too innocently. Peggy decides to stop the question and answer session before it can get out of hand, and makes her voice sharper.

“Did you tell Joan you're here right now?”

The older woman snorts out an amused noise, as if she's glad to see that Peggy has a spine. “She knows I'm just curious.”

“Well, that's bullshit,” Peggy says in a dry voice—eyes widening as she realizes she's not talking to a friend—but Gail actually laughs, eyebrows lifting in an expression of surprise and a smirk taking over her face. Peggy can't help laughing, too. Jesus. She's got to stop spending time with Stan.

Suddenly, there is a loud crash from the other side of the shared wall, followed by muffled cursing. Peggy's first thought is – absurdly – a fistfight, but she doesn't hear other voices, just Lane's. Maybe something fell. He's got a lot of stuff on the walls.

“Good god, what the hell was that?” Gail asks loudly, eyeing Peggy and then the wall with a glare.

Peggy frowns and shakes her head, purposefully keeping her voice light. “Oh, that's Lane's office. I never know what goes on over there.”

**

Ken knocks twice on Lane's closed door, feeling everyone's eyes on his back even though the rest of those cowards are hiding out in the creative lounge. When he doesn't get a reply, he opens it just enough to poke his head into the room. “Hey, Lane. Everything okay?”

One look, and he almost busts out laughing. Lane is standing in a crouched position on the set of drawers which sit flush against the shared wall with creative. One hand is placed against the wall for balance. Clearly eavesdropping: his face and neck are bright red with embarrassment. He looks like an even more inept Maxwell Smart.

On the floor a few feet away from the cabinet he's standing on is a red leather wingback chair, turned on its side with its feet pointing toward the window, and several loose pieces of metal from the coat of arms, now scattered across the tile between the wall and Lane's desk. Ken's guessing that thing crashing to the ground was what caused the earlier racket.

“Shut the door!” the older man hisses, voice low, waving a frantic arm.

Ken does, pushing down the impulse to make a joke. “So,” he says quietly, ambling forward, as if this situation isn't awkward at all. “Guess you saw Joan's mom's visiting, huh?”

“I don't—know what you—mean,” Lane stutters, practically whispering. “I was—straightening this...picture.” Pointing at a framed canvas hung about two feet to his left, centered on the furniture and hanging perfectly even.

Ken decides not to challenge the gaping holes in that alibi. Instead, he stoops down, rights the leather armchair in front of the bureau, and turns his back to Lane, walking across the room as if he's just going to fix a drink. Hell, maybe he'll even indulge. It's been a weird day.

As he's pouring gin into two cut glasses, there's a shuffling noise, a small creaking as Lane steps onto the seat of the chair, and footsteps landing heavy on the tile. Ken turns around to see the man tug at the bottom of his suit jacket, straightening it, then put one hand to his lower back with a wince, as if he's going to feel that climbing later.

“Girls think you had some kind of mad scientist experiment going in here,” Ken offers as explanation, taking the two glasses to the coffee table and placing one in the center of the table, then taking his and sitting in the brown armchair closest to the doorway.

Lane frowns as if he's confused by the joke, but he sits down on the middle of the sofa with a quiet grunt. After a moment, he reaches out and takes a long drink from his glass. “I...suppose you've been sent in to—report back.”

“Not exactly,” Ken says, with a shrug. “I mean, sure, they like their stories. But given the racket, someone had to make sure you weren't dead. I volunteered.”

The girls were all too scared to do it, whispering to each other about maybe getting yelled at, and Stan and Harry – the only other men in the lounge – had flat-out refused. Ken offered to go in order to keep the peace. Not that he's gonna tell that to Lane.

“Oh,” Lane says. “Well—then—I suppose I ought to...thank you.”

There's a long silence. Ken takes another sip of his drink, hears a loud laugh from next door. Peggy must be doing okay.

“I wasn't—listening, you know,” Lane says out of nowhere, clearing his throat. His face and neck are still pretty red. Even the tips of his ears.

Ken schools his face into an expression of agreement, waving a dismissive hand. “Course not.” Another beat. “You know, I met Joan's mom when she came in. Very—interesting lady.”

If that's the right word for a fifty-something flirt. He's still not over that. It explains...a lot, actually. Hell of a lot.

Lane chuckles, taking another sip of his drink. Ken takes it as a good sign, and continues. “Peg was surprised to get a visit.”

“Oh?” The wide-eyed look on Lane's face says he's eager to hear the story, although he does a pretty good job of keeping his voice indifferent.

Ken shrugs, keeping it casual. “She went over to Joan's to pay her respects. You know, check in. And apparently it was—” he pulls a face, and waves one hand in a side to side motion in an attempt to convey what Peg told him without making assumptions, “—rough.”

“Hm,” Lane says quietly, then clears his throat. “But—she met—Joan's mother?”

“Yeah.” Raising his eyebrows in a meaningful way. “Not long enough to warrant a work visit, if you know what I mean.”

Lane's confused expression says he doesn't. Ken elaborates.

“Peg thinks she's trying to be nosy. You know how it is. Moms want to know what their kids are up to.” He snorts out a laugh. “Never saw Joan as the sharing type.”

“No,” Lane agrees, a smile creeping to his face. “Well. Not to her mother, anyway.”

Ken laughs at the joke. “Mine used to complain I never told her anything.”

There are more voices next door, and distinct heeled footsteps in the hallway. They must be done talking. He puts down his glass in the middle of the coffee table, checks his watch. “Well, time to head back to the salt mines. Thanks for the drink.”

“Oh—erm—anytime,” Lane stammers.

Ken forces himself not to grin, gives the other man a slight nod, and walks back into the hallway, headed for Peg's office.

**

“She just kept asking me all these questions! About work, and how well I know Joanie, and I kept thinking, oh my god, I'm gonna blow it—”

“Peg—” he interrupts, trying to tell her what happened—

“No, you don't get it. Somebody else visited her the day she found out—you know.” Lowering her voice. “They bought her groceries. They were there all morning. Now I'm the alibi. Joan told her mom it was a friend from work.” She gestures toward the bookcase, pulling a skeptical face. “I...think it might have been Don.”

“Really?” Ken asks, frowning.

“They're friendly,” Peggy says, with a shrug, as if it's obvious. “But it's not like I can just ask him if he did it. Megan's in there all the time, and I bet if I asked, they'd be blabbing about it ten seconds later. He tells her everything!”

A snippet of the earlier conversation floats into Ken's head. Never saw Joan as the sharing type.

Well, not to her mother, anyway.

Maybe Joan has the kind of work friend who'd defend her in a meeting, then disappear for the rest of the day. One who'd eavesdrop on her mother the day she pulls a surprise visit.

Huh. All this time he's considered Lane and Joan to be a united front at work, but he's never thought about them being friends outside the office. Maybe he'll ask Cyn about it when he gets home. She'll have an opinion.

“Jesus. Are you even listening to me?!” Peggy demands loudly, and Ken straightens in his seat.

“What? Uh. Yeah. Sorry.”

**

Joan sits in the middle of her bed, surrounded by scattered piles of Greg's belongings.

She's been packing in stages for several hours, and so far, she's filled four medium-sized boxes. His entire wardrobe went into the first two – everything from suit pieces and wingtip shoes to undershirts to his white lab coat. Next was a box for personal possessions. In this went his binder of baseball cards, shoeshine kit, and sentimental items such as his undergraduate and medical school diplomas. Joan allows herself to keep one framed picture from their wedding, but the full album goes in the box. Let Ruth cling to it if she wants.

(She'd also found a shoebox full of Playboys and pin-ups on the top shelf of the master closet. They went in, too. No use preserving illusions.)

“Joanie,” comes her mother's cheerful voice, as she walks into the bedroom, “There's sandwiches on the table.” She regards the mess on the bed and the four packed boxes on the floor with a raised eyebrow. “Aren't you keeping anything?”

“His medical bag.”

Joan turns to glance toward the far right corner of their—no, of her closet, where the black leather satchel sits on the floor next to her shoes. At first, she'd considered putting that into the boxes, too, in an urge to rid the apartment of everything that was his. But, after more thought, she'd relented. It could serve as an emergency kit. With a baby on the way, she'll need to have medical supplies other than bandages in the house. And she's been trained in basic first aid. The bag and its contents are something she can put to good use.

She lets out a breath, looking up at her mother. “Is Joe watching television?”

Gail rolls her eyes, meaning yes, and she's sick of him being underfoot, but her voice has the smallest hint of mischief when she speaks. “And Ruth's still sleeping.”

“I'm sure she is.” Joan refuses to engage on the morality of this point, although she'd be kidding if she didn't say the relative quiet has been welcome. “After dinner, I'd like to put these in the trunk of their car.”

The de-cluttering process will go much more smoothly if his mother can't weep over all of Greg's belongings as they leave the apartment. Joan may not like how it happened, but she knows how to use a prime opportunity when she sees it.

Her mother fixes her with a wry expression, and gives a shrug of one shoulder. “If you can get him off that sofa, go right ahead.”

 

Chapter Text


“All right, JoJo. Go ahead and sit up.”

Dr. Emerson pushes his rolling chair away from the exam table and deposits his latex gloves into a nearby garbage can, moving to the sink to wash his hands. “Everything looks good. You're right on track for eighteen weeks.”

Joan sits up, with a little difficulty, and tugs at the shoulders of her thin cotton gown. Today, they've discussed some of her latest symptoms (backaches – her lower back hurts all the time) and he's recommended another book to her. She's already read two.

“Any other side effects I should expect?”

The doctor chuckles, and picks up her chart to make a few notations. “I tell all my ladies: the second trimester’s usually easier than the first. More energy, better appetite. Make your husbands—”

He stops abruptly, and the smile on his face dims, but he just clears his throat and keeps writing on her chart, as if nothing's happened. “Well. You're supposed to start taking it easy. I doubt you'll follow that advice.”

She rolls her eyes, folding her hands across her rounded stomach. “I'll keep it in mind.”

There's a short silence. Dr. Emerson closes her chart.

“I'm going to need to start seeing you every month until you deliver, so tell Stella to put you on the books before the holiday.” He pauses, pats her hand. “If you need anything, you call me, all right?”

**

“Did you know it's developed fingerprints? The baby?”

This is the first thing Lane blurts out after he says hello, voice so excited it's as if he's teaching her about cost-variable analysis again.

Joan blinks, and adjusts the receiver against her right ear. She was lying in bed in her pajamas, reading, when the phone rang. “What?”

“During the second trimester—” voice steady and even, as if he's reading straight from a page “—changes in fetal development include the following.” With a short laugh. “Well, first there's rather a large summary about quickening and reflexes and later things, but in the subsections specifying weekly development, it says that this is the period in which fingerprints and toeprints have formed.”

“It's the size of an avocado. How can it have fingerprints?” She frowns at her free hand, turning her palm one way and then the other, trying to imagine the microscopic-sized hand of the baby inside her. Apparently complete with fingerprints.

“I don't know,” Lane replies, as if he's happy for this phenomenon to remain a strange mystery. “Oh! It's also—covered in hair, apparently. I don't—know how to say this word.”

Joan can't help smiling. “Lanugo. I read it in my book this morning. It's a very fine down.”

“Was that the book by the board member fellow?”

“Mm hm,” she replies, stifling a yawn. Vice President of…something. She can’t remember. “It's practical. I like it.”

Lately, they've been careful with each other at work. She won't let herself duck into his office after every little mishap, and now that she's not as ill, it's easier to be more self-reliant. But she'd promised to keep him updated—and after her house guests left, the apartment had felt so empty. She felt strange wandering around all by herself. One night she'd just picked up the phone and called him at home. Now they talk twice a week in the evenings, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“Dr. Emerson listened to the baby's heartbeat,” she says quietly, turning onto her left side and curling into the pillow. She's much more comfortable this way. Her back barely hurts. “Said it's strong.”

“What else did he tell you?”

Lane's voice is warm in her ear, and she's relaxed, almost drowsy. She's just going to rest her eyes for a minute, and tucks a hand under her cheek, voice low. “Said we're right on track.”

**

“So, do you and Lane screw around all the time now that you're knocked up, or what?”

Stan's sitting on a tall wooden stool, behind a canvas the size of the conference room table. He's wearing a tight, paint-stained white t-shirt and blue jeans – no shoes – and holding a large palette and paintbrush smeared with bright color. His eyes flick to Joan, briefly, before returning back to the canvas.

Joan's hand tightens around the gilded sword in her right hand. Her hair – so long it brushes against the backs of her knees – is intricately braided with large tropical flowers and vines, and arranged artfully around her naked, very pregnant body. She's standing against a dense background of living plants and trees, like it's the middle of a jungle, although the expansive marble floor is cold against her feet. “Excuse me?”

There's a snort, as if he finds the concept of her offense hilarious. “Oh, please. He spends half the day staring at your expectant ass.” Peering back around the side of the canvas. “Will you stop moving your arm?”

“It's heavy,” she complains. Stage lights are beating down onto the tableau, making her skin dewy with sweat. “I've been here for hours.”

“Well, it's supposed to be higher, like the Statue of Liberty.”

Joan grits her teeth, and obligingly raises her arm, although her lower back aches with the movement. She tries to remember the position of the original pose: right arm up, left arm draped across her breasts, left leg poised on the first stone step.

Peeking out from behind the canvas, Stan wipes his brow with the back of his hand, then blinks at her. “You got paint on your stomach.”

She looks down to see a long smear of blue-green standing out against her skin, as well a man's hand reaching out to wipe this away with a white cloth. The fabric is damp and pleasantly cold against her hot skin, giving her goosebumps as it glides across her body.

“Better?” Lane murmurs, his other hand moving to rest against the small of her back. Joan feels herself shiver at the touch, and lifts her head to look at him.

“You missed a spot.”

As he bends his head to kiss her, she snaps awake with a jolt, body flushed, limbs tangled in the blankets, and a fierce, familiar ache between her legs.

**

When Lane appears at her office door the next morning, eyes twinkling with mischief behind his glasses, she feels herself turning pink, and pushes aside the dictation she was editing.

“I'm sorry,” she murmurs, putting a hand to her flushed cheek.

“No—I'm not upset,” he says, voice bemused. “One minute, you were talking, and the next...” he shrugs, a small smile returning to his face. “Well.”

“Talking?” she echoes, eyes widening. “What did I say?”

He chuckles. “No—it was—nothing I could understand. But you, erm, started...snoring.”

Joan fixes him with a stern look. “Excuse me?” With a scoff. “I don't snore.”

“If you say so,” he replies lightly, in a voice that means she's completely wrong.

“I don't.

“All right,” he says, holding up two hands in fake surrender, and failing to stifle a laugh. “Must have been someone else in your flat.”

On an impulse, she tosses a paperclip in his direction to get him to stop teasing her. It sails past his leg and doesn't even touch him. Too bad.

The corners of his mouth are twitching up again, but he doesn't say anything, just raises his eyebrows in an amused look and ambles back into the hallway, toward his office.

**

Joan makes one last notation on her stenography pad, and glances around at the partners. Across the table from her, Mr. Cooper is finishing his danish. Next to him, on her left, Roger's on the last few drags of his cigarette, while Don's flipping through some sketches. On the opposite side of the table, Lane is hunched over an unfolded spreadsheet, making minor changes to it, while Pete's already gotten all his things together and seems to be waiting for dismissal, like he's a schoolboy anxious to beat the Friday bell.

“Well,” she says, “if there's no new business, I believe that concludes our meeting.”

“Excellent.” Pete rises from his chair and leaves the room before anyone can say another word. Cooper sighs; Joan meets Roger's eyes with an expression that says can you believe him?  But before anyone can make a comment, Roger speaks.

“Hang on a second.” Waving an arm to get the other men's attention. “Lane. Did you tell Mrs. Harris the good news?”

Lane looks up very slowly, fixing Roger with a panicked expression. Joan feels her heart pounding an anxious tattoo against her throat. If Roger knew anything close to the truth, he'd be camped out alone in her office, drunk, chain-smoking and asking a lot of inappropriate questions. Stay seated. Stay calm. It's probably nothing.

“What?” Lane says, letting the spreadsheet fall from his hands, and adjusting his glasses. “No—I don't—”

“Oh, come on!” Roger booms, gesturing to Joan with an open hand. “Thought we settled this months ago.” He turns to Joan with a rakish smile. “Partners talked it over. You're getting promoted.”

She feels heat rush to her face, but just blinks, and tries to keep her expression neutral.

“You'll be our Director of Agency Operations,” Cooper says.

Joan takes a deep breath, risks a look at Don, who's smiling at her so broadly it's like he's never been prouder in his life, like he's her brother, for god's sake.

“My goodness,” is all she can say at first.

To her right, Lane clears his throat, his hands fidgeting on top of his spreadsheet.

“Under normal circumstances, there'd be a....modest pay rise—” he begins carefully, and for all his hesitation, she knows him too well. She knows how this sentence is going to end, she's seen the books herself—there's not enough money for a raise, it's not in the budget—and she steels herself to take this as gracefully as she can, audience considered—

“There's a thousand dollar signing bonus,” Roger interrupts, taking another drag of his cigarette, and producing something from his jacket pocket—a thin, sealed white envelope. He sets this on top of her notes. “No raise, though. Don't get excited.”

Lane's mouth hangs open. He's clearly blindsided by this news. Roger and Don are grinning like idiots, and Cooper's smiling fondly at them all. Joan bites the inside of her cheek to keep from saying something rash. The only continuous thought running through her head is guilt money, guilt money, guilt money.

“It's...very generous,” she manages, keeping her gaze on Mr. Cooper. If she looks at Roger, she's going to scream, or cry, or possibly both. “Thank you.”

“Congratulations, dear,” he replies.

Don clasps her hand. Roger gives a mock salute, and they disperse, but she doesn't move. Neither does Lane. And it's not until the two of them are completely alone in the room that she finds her voice again. “So, did they take this signing bonus from petty cash or from Roger's pocket?”

“Joan, I didn't know he was—” Lane begins in a low voice, but she shakes her head no, pressing her lips together to keep her temper under control. Don't interrupt me.

“I've been here twelve years,” she says loudly, with a shrug of her hands, “and it took Greg getting blown up for me to be promoted.”

He sits up very straight, as if preparing for a verbal assault. “That is not what this is about—”

“Lane, it's guilt money!” she snaps, feeling herself well up again, and dabbing at the skin under her left eye in an attempt to stem the flow of tears before it can start. “Poor Mrs. Harris, isn't she pitiful with her dead husband and unborn baby—”

“Stop it,” he hisses, reaching out to touch her free arm, but she pulls it away before his fingers can brush her hand.

“I thought they'd finally noticed my work,” she whispers, and has to bite her cheek to get a grip on the swell of emotion running through her body. Her hands are shaking. “But they just look at me and see some...expectant secretary who needs job security.”

“Joan,” he interrupts, voice firm, expression gobsmacked, “you deserve to be recognized—”

She holds up a hand to indicate he doesn't have to defend her, and closes her notebook, meaning this conversation is over. “Just—let me be upset for ten minutes. Can you do that?”

“I don't want you to be upset,” Lane says in a wounded voice, and she has to stop herself from yelling at him. This promotion was probably his idea in the first place. Even the title sounds like something he'd come up with. It's long and involved.

“You want to take care of me,” she replies with a sigh, allowing herself to be generous with the truth, and meeting his eyes. “I know.”

He rubs a hand across the back of his neck, a muscle twitching in his jaw, and when he stands up from the table, his voice is strained. “No, you don't.”

After this, he stops himself, glancing around the conference room with wide eyes, as if unwanted ears are already listening. He walks out without another word.

Joan continues to gather her things in an unhappy stupor, forcing herself to focus on the papers in front of her, combined with thoughts of an early lunch. She will not cry. Not again, and not here. Once she's organized her papers, she looks to her right. Lane's things are still scattered around his place at the table. After a hesitation, she reaches over, caps his fountain pen, and shuts his folio. She'll drop them by Scarlett's desk before she leaves. They shouldn't be left out.

**

Halfway through their Saturday phone call, conversation is basically at a standstill. They've talked a little about the baby, and a little about Joan's weekend plans, but not about work at all, which is unusual. After a certain point, even she can't squeeze blood from a stone. Another long silence engulfs the line. She's ready to make some excuse and hang up when Lane suddenly breaks it.

“I—wanted to—say something to you. About...the, erm, other day.”

“Lane. It was one fight.” There's no use revisiting this. They exchanged an awkward apology on Friday afternoon. As far as she's concerned, it's fine. She can use the money, and just needed an hour to be angry about the circumstances. She'll get over it eventually.

“No—it's not about—that.”

“Okay,” she says, leaning back against her kitchen wall. She's very uncomfortable on this chair. Back pain aside, it makes her hips ache. “What's on your mind?”

“Well, there was a...delivery during...Thursday lunch.” A sigh. “Becca filed the—divorce petition. And I thought you should know I've already signed the papers. Sent them off.”

“Oh,” Joan says, suddenly understanding. That's why he was avoiding her. They've barely talked over the past two days, and he left for the weekend before she had a chance to ask him anything that wasn't related to the fiscal year budget. “Are you okay?”

“Mm,” comes the reply. “It’s all right.”

“You were married a long time,” she says. “No one would blame you if you missed her.”

There's a huff like a laugh. Lane’s voice is quiet when he speaks, as if it really does bother him, but acts as if he’s trying to make a joke. “Do you miss your husband?”

“He's dead,” Joan says in an airy voice, rolling her eyes. “It's different. You two have a child together.”

A very long pause.

“We aren't even friendly,” Lane says finally. Joan breathes out a sigh of relief at the admission. “It isn't that I imagined the situation would turn out—this way—but I had assumed—after the initial storm was past...we would be cordial. She won't speak to me.”

She raises her eyebrows. “How mature of her.”

“Well—” he exhales a long breath, seems to reconsider his words. “I suppose you don't want to hear about this.”

“You put up with me talking about Greg,” she reminds him. “I don't care.”

Another sigh. “She believed...you and I were...involved. Due to the—mix up with those flowers. At—New Year's.”

Joan can't help laughing. “You mean when I threw them into your face?”

“Yes,” he says with a haughty tone, drawing out the s into a kind of hiss as if he's upset, although he's clearly trying to make a joke. “Well. It—was the final straw, anyway. We'd had a series of arguments before that had even...happened.”

He's never been so candid about this, not even on the night they conceived the baby. Joan keeps her voice light. It's good if he wants to talk. “About the usual things?”

“Mmm,” Lane says. “Money. The agency. England.” Another pause. “She hated it here.”

Joan sighs out a breath. “I can't imagine hating Manhattan.”

She loves this city so much. And Lane does, too—which always surprised her. When they moved into the office, he had half a box full of New York paraphernalia for display. Statues and pennants and the tackiest souvenir coffee mug, featuring hand-drawn maps of the island. It probably got shuttled into the trash, given his wife’s decorating tastes. She'd forgotten about that.

“They attempted to send me to India, you know,” he says, with a huff of amusement. “I imagine Rebecca should have liked New York much better after months in...Bombay.”

Joan blinks, completely lost. “What?

He laughs again. It's almost a giggle. “Oh. Perhaps I've never mentioned. Sorry.”

“No,” she says, teasing him, “you haven't. When was this?”

“Lawnmower day,” he replies, voice matter-of-fact. She bursts out laughing. Put like that, it sounds like a national holiday instead of a horrific accident.

“God.” After getting her breath back. “You would have hated that.”

She can't imagine him in India. All those people pressed together in colorful, dirty streets, speaking so many languages—the oppressive heat—playing manager to a bunch of stuffed shirts with pedigrees and fancy titles. And an unhappy wife, to boot. He'd have been miserable.

“You understand why I chose to be part of—this firm, obviously.”

Joan smiles, twisting the phone cord around one finger. “Well, you belong in the city. That’s the bottom line.”

There's a sudden tightness in her chest, but she pushes it aside. Why did she get so sentimental?

“Yes,” Lane says, after a strange pause. His voice is quieter. “Erm. I—think it—turned out all right, anyway.”

Her hand brushes against the gentle slope of her belly, where there's been a small twinge on her left side. I think the baby might be moving, she means to say. There’s a type of flutter. You would understand if you felt it. It’s so strange.

None of these thoughts leave her lips. Joan clears her throat in an attempt to hide the fact that she's a little choked up. “Yes. I think so.”

**

Lane shuts the door to her bathroom as he emerges, wearing an undershirt and blue pajama pants, and smelling faintly of spicy soap. “Ready for bed?”

Propped up by several pillows, Joan sighs, and puts her book aside, one hand resting on her swollen stomach. “Baby's been moving a lot tonight. Be warned. I might not sleep.”

Lane pulls an intrigued face as he climbs in beside her and gets under the covers. “Can I—feel?”

“You're the one who moved him in there.” With a smirk. “Go ahead.”

After a moment, his hand, warm and big, nudges underneath her button-up pajama top and splays over the roundest part of her abdomen. She lets out a deep breath, relaxing into the touch and closing her eyes.

“It was on my right,” she murmurs, not lifting her head from the pillows. There's a rustling, and she feels him scoot closer to her side, push the hem of her pajama top up with both hands. Despite the discomfort in her back, this is more comfortable than lying all the way down.

When Lane presses a kiss to the top of her stomach, she opens her eyes, regarding him with a drowsy smile. “You want to feel, or do you want to fool around?”

“I want to kiss you.” He does it again, brushing away the touch of his lips with the back of his fingers. Joan sighs again, adjusting her position on the pillows. For a few minutes, it's relaxing to let him do this, just kind of nice, until one of his hands drifts up to caress her breast. Then it begins to feel distinctly more stimulating.

Lane's thumb swipes across her nipple, making her gasp. When she looks up at him, he very purposefully does it again, studying her reaction. Her breath hitches. He reaches out to palm her other breast with the heel of his left hand, moving in wide circular motions.

After several moments, she reaches up to unbutton her top with shaking fingers, and as soon as she's got the last button his mouth replaces his hands—making her arch into him—her fingers threading through the back of his hair—

Her pajamas are soaked and sticking to her skin, especially in the chest—she's either sweating, or lactating, or experiencing some awful new pregnancy symptom. Hard to tell in the dark. Clumsily, she sits up and strips off the damp clothes, flinging her blankets to the side and scooting toward the cool side of the bed. Jesus. She almost feels feverish.

Joan glances at the clock on her bedside table as she settles back into bed. Two thirty.

It's only a dream. It's nothing.

**

They've been working in Lane's office for almost an hour with the door closed, and at this point, the heat inside the modest-sized room feels unbearable. She feels flushed, as if direct sun is beating down on every inch of her skin. Sitting here unmoving, Joan's hyperaware of perspiration as it trickles slowly down her neck and lower back and between her breasts. She does not let herself acknowledge the persistent ache that beats between her legs. These days, everything gets her going. She’s just trying not to draw attention to the symptoms.

After shifting uncomfortably in her seat for what feels like the millionth time, Joan reaches for her purse with a growl of annoyance. She retrieves her handkerchief, unfolds it, and dabs as delicately as she can at the hollow of her throat and around her collar to wick away the moisture, briefly closing her eyes and letting out a small sigh as she feels a slight breeze against her skin.

When she moves to replace her handkerchief in her purse, she notices Lane staring at her, eyes dark, hands frozen on top of his desk. Joan knows that look. She loves that look. If he doesn't stop looking at her that way, she's going to lock the door and unzip her dress and—

Lane shakes his head once, and noticeably clears his throat, causing her to snap out of her reverie. “You—all right?”

She lets out a breath she wasn't even aware she was holding. “Sorry. Just—distracted.”

**

“Oh—god—”

Sitting astride Lane in a hotel bedroom, Joan sighs out a laugh at his gasped out words, rolling her hips slowly forward from the place where they're joined. Too slowly, apparently. He thrusts up, wanting more. His legs are shaking between her thighs as she moves.

“Feel good?” she asks, voice low. She loves teasing him.

“Mmm,” he whines, sucking in a sharp breath. His hands clutch at her wide hips, one moving to palm her breast. “Need to—”

“Not yet,” she murmurs with a wicked grin, brushing wild locks of hair away from his reddened face, and moving faster. He's so close. She loves seeing him like this, all tension and heat and primal need. “Hold on.”

He pinches her nipple, tipping her over the edge—

Joan wakes with her body clenched in climax—mouth open, her fingers clutching at the blanket covering her lap, back arching into the sofa cushions. After a few moments, her muscles relax, and she's able to gather her wits, glancing around the living room as her heart continues to pound in her chest. The magazine that was draped across her lap has sailed into the floor, and the television’s still on from earlier, playing a Lucy repeat. She swipes at her mouth with the back of one hand.

How the hell is she supposed to endure five more months like this?

**

In the mornings, Joan sees handsome men on the street and imagines them going home to pretty wives or girlfriends, wonders how they'd take their lovers, what they like, if they're any good. She's even caught herself glancing twice at some of the other men in the office, which is beyond embarrassing, and although she's been taking care of the issue on her own as best she can, so far, going to bed alone has only sharpened the urge for someone else’s touch.

Sitting in the quiet conference room and filling out paperwork serves the dual purpose of allowing her to prepare for the upcoming status meeting and avoiding Lane for a few more minutes. She’s started to experience visceral reactions every time she so much as glimpses him in the hallway.

“Hey, Joan.” Stan breezes inside, tossing a sketchpad onto the table several seats away from her. “Any sign of Pegasus?”

She barely looks up from her steno pad. “Did you bring your expense reports?”

Stan rises from his seat before he can even finish sitting down. “Shit. See you in two.”

Humming a tune, he passes Lane in the doorway on the way out. As Lane walks into the room, she gets a small whiff of his cologne, mixed with a hint of vanilla tobacco. The scent sends a twinge of excitement straight into her belly.

Don't look at him. It'll pass in a minute.

Lane makes a noise of amusement as he puts several folders in front of his regular place at the table, on her immediate left. “What did he leave out this time?”

Joan focuses on keeping her breathing steady, presses the nib of her pen more forcefully into the paper. November nineteen sixty five. Ten o'clock am.

“Joan, did you—” are his next three words, followed by a sharp intake of breath.

The sound makes her snap her head up to look at him. He's staring at her. Or, more precisely, at her chest. She looks down, notices she can see the outline of her taut nipples through the fabric of her sage-green dress, and flushes hot all over. God, it never ends. Just when she can get Lane to look at her like he wants to have her for breakfast, there's not enough time to do anything.

“You're making it worse,” she says crisply, snatching a manila folder from a nearby stack – did he bring them? did she? – and opening it in front of her as a kind of shield, as if she's examining the papers inside. She has no idea what any of them say. They may as well be written in Greek.

“What,” Lane manages to rasp out.

Joan slants him an angry glance over the top of the folder, voice low. Does she have to spell out everything? “Because I'm thinking about you! I can't stop!

Lane's movements are awkward and clumsy as he sinks into the chair next to hers, obviously aroused. His face is pink all the way to the tips of his ears, eyes dark behind his glasses, mouth pursed in an O of surprise.

All she can hear is her own pulse hammering in her ears. She just keeps picturing him closing the space between their bodies, putting his hands to her—no. Stop it. She wrenches her gaze away.

“Joan.” The way he breathes out her name – the waver in his voice – is like a jolt to the spine. Jesus. Don't look at him. Don't think about it.

She squirms in her chair, still pretending to examine the folder in her hands just as Stan pushes back into the room with Peggy and Ken and Harry in tow, the four of them slinging papers around and laughing and arguing over some stupid program they all saw on TV last night. Lane uses the interruption to hide his flushed face with his left hand, practically hunched over the ledger as he hastily picks up a pencil with his other hand. He holds it upside down for the first few seconds.

Joan glances over at the others. Pete's the only person not accounted for. She swallows, tries to wet her lips. “Where's Pete?”

“Secor,” Ken replies, before taking a drink of his coffee. “Brunch date.”

She nods her head. Avoids looking at Lane. “Well. Let's—begin.”

**

Twenty minutes after the meeting, Joan's at her desk attempting to put together a to-do list for Thursday (and failing miserably) when her phone rings. Private line.

She lets it ring twice before picking up. “Joan Harris.”

“Have you any idea what you’ve done to me?” comes the hushed exclamation. “I—I—spent the entire hour wracked by—every manner of—obscene images!”

Joan bites her lip to keep from laughing, but she can't hide the amusement in her voice. Lane was noticeably distracted throughout the meeting, barely spoke, and refused to budge from his seat until everyone else had left the room. She’d used the opportunity to show off her ample figure as she gathered her things and walked out of the conference room. It’s his fault for sitting directly by the door.

“By all means, share.” She keeps her voice light. “It isn’t nice to leave a girl in the dark.”

There’s a sharp breath on the other end, but no reply. Joan decides to keep playing. “You could come over here and tell me in person.”

“As you are well aware, I am in no condition to leave my office!” Lane snaps, but quickly lowers his voice again. “And what, precisely, would you have me do once I arrive? Shall I have you on your desk before the lunch break?”

A shiver courses through her at the words, but Joan keeps her voice low. “Why not? Do you get off on being watched?”

Noises like papers being pushed aside. Maybe even onto the floor. When Lane speaks again, his voice is shaky. He lets out a noise like a whine. “Why must you torture me this way?”

Joan raises an eyebrow. The teasing note is gone from her voice. “All I’m saying is that we had fun last time. No reason we can’t do it again.”

A loud scoff echoes down the line. His voice is agitated. “One minute, you tell me we’re not to be over-involved, and the next, you say you need me to touch you! That is not clear! This is the complete opposite of clarity!”

Joan lets out an aggravated breath, briefly closing her eyes. This conversation is not going the way she’d originally hoped. She folds her hands on top of her desk, and presses the receiver between her shoulder and her ear, trying to ignore the pressing flutters of arousal. “I'm not trying to confuse you.”

“Well, you are, damn it! I’ve never been so mixed up in all my life!”

A brief silence. Joan can't make herself say the words I'm sorry without seeming insincere, so she offers the truest reparation she can muster. “What would you like to be different? Between us?”

“I—” Lane stammers to a stop, as if he meant to continue his earlier tirade no matter what she said, but has suddenly lost the words. “What?”

She lifts one shoulder in a shrug, although he can't see her through the phone. “You say I'm confusing you. So tell me what you want.”

A noise like a laugh, but it’s obvious he isn’t amused. “For god’s sake—I’ve never told that to—anyone. Even when they've—asked.”

Joan expels another breath. She wishes Lane was in the room, wishes she could offer him some kind of physical reassurance.

“I—” he stutters, seeming to catch himself before he can blurt out whatever else is on his mind, “Sorry. I can’t—talk about it now. I’ve—got to go.”

A dial tone echoes in Joan’s ear. She grips the receiver for what feels like hours, and when she comes back to herself, an operator’s voice is on the line, high and shrill. “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”

Joan curses out loud, and hangs up.

**

There’s a knock on the door around 2:30.

“Do you have a minute?” Peggy’s poised in Joan’s doorway with a folio in her hand. “I wanted to talk to you about some…budgetary…concerns.”

“You should see Lane first,” Joan says automatically. She’s likely more than capable of taking care of this problem, whatever it is, but the urge to be petty about work is very strong today. If he wants to be tortured, she can take care of that. Creative always has endless lists of complaints, and he’ll hate listening to every one of them.

“Well, I knocked on his door and he yelled that he was busy, so…” Peggy’s raised eyebrows are a question. “Do you mind?”

With a sigh, Joan motions her inside. Peggy shuts the door behind her as she sits down.

“We need another writer,” she says first, reaching to grab a cigarette from the holder on Joan’s desk without even asking. Joan doesn’t comment, just watches as Peggy lights it and takes the first drag, exhaling with a vicious huff of breath. “Doesn’t have to be full time. I just want to know if we have the money. For that.”

“But I thought you could do everything,” Joan says, with the barest hint of snideness in her voice. She can’t help it. Peggy’s walked around here for months like she was the agency’s gift to copywriting. Sometimes her ego gets on Joan’s nerves.

“I’m not Don,” Peggy retorts. “I can’t just hire somebody.”

“You fired somebody,” Joan counters. “It didn’t seem to stop you before.”

Peggy takes another drag of her cigarette, rolling her eyes like this was basically the kind of conversation she expected to have. “Well, it wouldn’t be an issue if Don was involved with the work. But he’s not. He’s always with Megan, and she’s just starting. She’s not any help.”

“Peggy, they’re about to be married,” Joan says, rolling her eyes. “They’re not going to stop being distracted just because you hire someone else.”

The younger woman glares at Joan as if this is a personal insult. “Well, I can do the work alone right now, but if we take on much more new business, and Don keeps being distracted, creative is going to be stretched. I thought someone else should know. He’s not writing at all.”

“I’m flattered to be chosen,” Joan says in a dry voice. “Anything else?”

Peggy huffs out a sigh, rolling her cigarette between her finger and thumb. “They’re always together in his office. With the door closed. It’s disgusting.”

“Are you spying on them now?” Joan asks, raising an unimpressed eyebrow.

The other woman rolls her eyes. “No. I’m just saying. The sex can’t be that good.”

Joan can’t help but snicker. “Well, I’m sure it isn’t terrible.”

A man like that – considering the number of women Don’s probably been with – is bound to know what he’s doing. Although, Lane knew what he was doing the night they were together, and he’s not the carousing type. Not for the first time, Joan wonders if Lane reads up on sex the way he does everything else: researches positions and biological responses with the same vigor usually reserved for finance and mathematics. He’s probably stored facts upon facts inside that brain of his. He could catalog her body with methodical precision, the way he did the night they were together—

“Joan, you’re really flushed,” Peggy says, interrupting Joan’s train of thought. Her voice is loud and concerned, as if this is not the first time she’s said it. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Joan responds automatically, shifting in her seat, hoping her pregnant body isn’t giving her away and that the younger woman doesn’t know where to look. “It’s a little warm.”

Peggy fixes her with a critical expression, as if she recognizes she’s being lied to. But all she does is rise from her chair with a heavy sigh, stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray. “I’ll tell Bridget to get you some water.”

**

Joan doesn’t see Lane again until the end of the day, when she’s boarding the elevator to go home. When she glimpses him in the corner of the car, she doesn’t hesitate to walk inside or to stand next to him, although her heart beats a little faster in her chest. She leans against the wall very slightly, needing to feel its heavy weight against her back and shoulders.

“Hello,” she says.

“'Lo,” he mumbles. He won’t look at her.

The doors close. There's a slight shudder as the elevator begins to glide downward, and Joan glances to her left, needing to see his face. It’s tense; his jaw is set firmly and he’s staring straight ahead at the seam of the steel doors.

The bell dings. Joan glances toward the opposite wall just as the doors open to admit several people from another floor, but she and Lane don’t move away from each other. The doors close again, and the elevator lowers to the ground floor.

As it opens on the lobby and everyone begins to file out, Joan prepares to exit behind them, to murmur a passing comment to Lane as she leaves—good night; take care; talk to you later—when his hand presses against her wrist, so briefly it’s as if he didn’t touch her at all.

“Wait.” His voice is raspy.

Joan’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t speak, just stays still until the car is empty. He jabs at a button and the doors close again. As the elevator begins to rise, it suddenly comes to a halt, and she glances over to see Lane's hand hovering over the emergency stop. Anxiety trickles down her spine as she waits for the words.

“I don’t—know how to say this,” he begins quietly, staring at the row of unlit buttons as if his thoughts are printed on their numbered faces.

She glances at him, feels nervousness bubble up into her stomach and throat. If he’s going to reject her, he needs to do it fast so she can get out of here with her dignity intact. “Just tell me.”

Lane lets out a heavy sigh, and when he speaks it’s quiet, but rushed, as if the words are being ripped from a shameful place. “You said we—had fun together, before—and that is true, but I don’t only…want fun. I think you’re…aware.

Oh, my god.

“I know you have strong feelings,” Joan manages to say, stunned. Her voice is small, almost tremulous. “About the baby.”

Lane straightens up with a sharp exhale, and finally turns to face her, rubbing an anxious hand over his flushed face. At this angle, she can see a five o'clock shadow beginning to darken his jaw. “You don't—think that I—care about you?”

“You do,” she says immediately. “Lane, I know you do.”

Another heavy sigh. He begins to pace as if by habit, although in the cramped elevator car he can only walk one or two steps in either direction before having to turn around.

Joan lets out a breath. Her lower back and the balls of her feet pulse with a dull, persistent pain, and after watching him pace for several seconds, she decides to speak up. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to sit down.”

His eyes widen, but he stops walking, and moves to help her as she scoots carefully down the wall and into a sitting position. It’s awkward, but it’s better than before, and she’s not as uncomfortable trying to shift her weight on swollen feet. After another moment, Lane sits beside her. They stare at the beige speckled tile in silence for several seconds until Joan speaks again.

“If it's just guilt driving this conversation, we shouldn't be together.”

Biting her lip as soon as the last words leave her mouth. Any personal involvement will mean scandal. It won’t be easy. And it’s not something to be undertaken lightly. Children are involved: a baby that will be shaped by the relationship of its parents, for good or bad.

Lane starts to speak before she can find the rest of her sentence. “I don’t—feel that way.”

“I don’t either,” Joan says. Her heart is in her throat as she admits it. If there is the smallest chance they can be together and make it manageable, Joan wants to take that risk. He’s the father of her child, for god’s sake. And he’s good to her.

Silence settles over the car again, making her skin prickle with goosebumps, but suddenly she feels Lane’s fingers thread gently through hers. She looks over at him, studies his blue eyes, hidden by thick black frames—studies his crooked nose, freckled face, and the pockmarked scars on his jaw.

He takes her left hand in both of his and when he looks at her it’s as if he’s seeing her for the first time. His voice is rough as he speaks. “You’re my…dearest friend, you know.”

Joan has never had a man profess his feelings to her by invoking friendship, but she feels her eyes prickle alarmingly at the sentiment, and clutches his hand. She knows what Lane’s too afraid to say. What their relationship, complex as it is in this case, means to him.

“You, a-and the little one, ought to be in my life.” A pause, as if he’s trying to find the rest of his words, but he sighs, as if none of them are coming out right in his mind. An anxious expression returns to his face. “If you’ll…have me, anyway.”

God, even sitting here holding her hand, she can feel him trembling; he must have been terrified to say any of those things aloud. Her throat is tight, and she feels her eyes brimming again. Oh, these stupid hormones, making her cry all the time.

“We’d like that,” is all she manages to say at first. Lane’s grip on her hand tightens, and she swallows, looks up at him and meets his eyes, trying to smile.

“Do you—mean it?” he says in a rasp.

Joan nods once.

Clearly moved, he kisses the back of her hand before releasing it and moving to embrace her. The positioning is awkward: sitting down, her stomach is large enough to be in the way, and he can’t hold her as closely he could even a month ago, but she doesn't care. When he kisses her, he tastes like gin and tea, and Joan finds this strange combination oddly comforting.

After they part, he presses his forehead to hers, one hand cupping her cheek, as if it’s all too much for him to process, and he just needs proximity to believe that this is real. His breath is warm against her skin. Joan doesn't have to open her eyes to know that he’s emotional. She’s choked up, too. If they’re both a mess, it doesn't matter.

“You did good,” she whispers once she thinks she can speak, kissing him again briefly before putting her head on his shoulder. It took courage to lay his true feelings on the line, and she wants him to know how much she appreciates that. He leans into her, planting a quick kiss into her hair, and they sit in peaceful silence for a few minutes, broken only by the hum of the fluorescent lights above them and the distant whirring of machinery.

Joan swipes at her damp lashes as best she can with the fingertips of her right hand. She clears her throat. Maybe she can make him laugh. “They’re going to think the elevator’s broken.”

He hums out an amused noise, reaching for her hand again. Hands clasped, his thumb brushes against the side of her index finger. “I don’t care.”

Chapter Text

twenty-two weeks

 

Lane wakes to the sensation of a woman slowly crawling on top of him and a low voice in his ear. “Want to go for a ride?”

Eyes fluttering open, he makes a noise in the back of his throat which is half-laugh, half-whine, mouth lifting into a small smile. He and Joan went home together Friday—his flat again—and much of the weekend has passed in a haze. Sex and sleep and talking and meals at all hours, when one or both of them were too starved to keep going. She's insatiable. It's amazing. He's bloody exhausted.

Joan nips at his earlobe, startling a shiver out of him despite everything.

“You'll be the death of me, woman,” he says with a groan, pretending to be cross as his hands move to rest against her waist.

“Just a little death,” she teases, kissing down his neck, then whispering a short string of French words he's too delirious to understand. By the playful sound of her voice, they're very naughty. He can feel her breasts and stomach brushing softly against him as she moves down his body, and it makes him shiver again.

“Ah.” He exhales a happy sigh as she settles on top of him. “Fantastic.”

**

If anyone were to suggest Joan might be exhibiting signs of hormonal stress due to her condition, she would likely flay them alive. Lane can only picture the tongue-lashing which would swiftly follow this accusation. Although, to be honest, he does not have to picture it, as in recent weeks he has seen Joan's temper change course as brutally as the tide.

This morning, she was making jokes over her scrambled eggs at breakfast. She can eat them again now; it's brilliant, apparently. Yet while he was on a call, sometime during lunch, he heard her shouting at Clara over several unnamed typos on the latest letter to Vick Chemical. Apparently, Miss Olson was the only person stout enough to intervene. She took Joan into the conference room under pretense of a private question, then gave her a cigarette and a packet of crisps, and promptly left her to her own devices.

When Joan relays this story to him several hours later, she makes it sound as if Peggy's concern was cloying and unnecessary, even if she did enjoy the food and savored her few minutes of uninterrupted silence, in the end. He nods and listens and suggests she let him fix her something to eat, and she agrees.

(She has got mood swings. Lane will never say it, but she does.)

One afternoon, Joan has a doctor's appointment just before close of business. Her feet have been hurting her something awful, and as a result, he's now involved in planning or preparing part of their meals, which usually amounts to making sandwiches or ordering takeaway, or something equally uncomplicated.

He decides to fry up some chipped beef and onions for a nice supper. Joan does not eat much red meat. And the book he's been reading says both child and mother could benefit from the protein. Unfortunately, when she arrives back from the doctor, she does not give this gesture the welcome reception he'd been expecting. She recoils from the aroma mere seconds after closing the door, dropping her coat onto the carpet while hissing, “Jesus, what is that?”

And proceeds to berate him for nearly ten minutes about his thoughtlessness and inconsideration. This from a woman whom he has witnessed gulping vinegar brine straight from a pickle jar as if it were nothing more than water. On multiple occasions.

In the end, he begins to snap back at her harsh words. She takes an apple from the wooden fruit bowl on the counter top and throws it at him, causing him to duck although it sails several feet above his head. “Shut up! I wouldn't even be like this if it weren't for you!”

“Oh, for god's sake!” He deflects a second apple with the nearby lid of a frying pan. Her missile ricochets across the kitchen in a pulpy mess. “If you bloody well recall, I was not the only person present for that particular event, nor was I the only one to enjoy it!”

At this, she promptly bursts into tears and storms down the hall toward their bedroom.

Minutes later, when he's knocked on the closed door for what seems like the thousandth time, quietly pleading with her to unlock it, she finally pulls it open. This done, she walks back inside in silence, sits down in a nearby armchair, and begins to weep again, although not as bitterly as before. If there is anything in the world he's powerless against, it is a crying Joan, one who looks at him with wet eyes and a trembling mouth and possesses none of her usual teasing spirits.

He huffs out a sigh, trying to dispel his frustration, and moves to put an arm around her. “I'm sorry to have made you cry.”

“I'm exhausted,” she whispers, with a shuddering gulp, “and nauseous, and sore, and I hate it.” She puts a hand to his elbow, not moving from his embrace. “I'm sorry I yelled at you.”

Lane holds her for another moment, hand stroking over the back of her neck, before she sighs and lifts her head from his side, indicating he can go if he likes. He tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “Shall I draw you a bath? If you...don't want to eat?”

Joan wipes the last of the tears from her face, and nods once, very small.

When she's safely relaxing in the water with a glass of wine, he goes back into the sitting room and pours himself three fingers of gin. Taking this glass to the couch, he downs half of it in one gulp, leaning back into the cushions. She's making Rebecca's last few months with Nigel look saintly by comparison. And Becca was on bed rest, for god's sake.

**

Mid-week, he has to meet with Harry Crane about next year's media commitments. It goes about as well as could be expected, which is to say they end up clashing over Crane's inability to hold anyone to firm deadlines, as well as his horrific system of organization. In the end, Lane leaves the office much later than planned. He barges through his front door intending to toss aside his things, turn on the television, and pour himself a very large drink. Instead, he finds Joan in his kitchen in black maternity slacks and a roomy green jumper, standing over a skillet, with the tang of sizzling beef hanging in the air.

“I'm making steaks,” she says with a shrug, and gestures to the table, where a glass of whiskey is waiting for him. “If you're hungry.”

“Oh,” is all he can say, frustration and surprise tangling together in an awkward pause. Usually, Joan doesn't stay over in the middle of the week. They have dinner or spend a bit of time together, but then she goes back to her flat. She's got the spare key, though. He asked her to keep it. “Thank you.”

He changes out of his waistcoat and jacket and washes up for supper. When he finally emerges from the bedroom, and sits down in the kitchen, the first few sips of whiskey along with the quiet bustle of cooking make him feel less agitated. He and Joan place the table together in silence, but it's not until they're eating that Joan initiates conversation.

“You didn't kill him, did you?”

“Nearly,” Lane grumbles, pushing green beans into a small pile on his plate with his fork.

She just spears another piece of steak, making a pleased noise as she chews her bite, then swallows. “Too bad.”

**

Joan likes to play music on her transistor radio in the mornings, when she's applying her makeup. Lane doesn't mind this so much as he does the choice of stations—the one she picks is far too lively. It's mostly Motown mixed with awful teenaged pop, and there's one particular song that seems to play almost every morning. Same three words over and over. He has it in his head for hours, which drives him completely mad.

One morning, they get into a loud argument involving the dry cleaners, of all things. Place nearest his flat couldn't get a spot out of one of her dresses, which has infuriated her. She takes this out on him, and afterward, out of sheer spite, he switches the station on the dial while she's in the powder room brushing her teeth. When she returns, she can't find or remember the frequency—mild forgetfulness is a new symptom of her condition—and so cuts off the radio, putting on her face in terse silence.

She spends the morning noticeably snappish, and by lunchtime he feels like an absolute monster for depriving the mother of his child of such a small pleasure. The next day, while Joan's washing her face, he changes the radio dial without being asked and even turns up the volume. When the song comes on at quarter to seven, she beams and sighs, putting down her makeup brush, calling him over and taking his hand with a mischievous expression. “Dance with me.”

The sheer joy in her eyes as she sways around the bedroom in her headscarf, slip, and stockings, and the laughter in her voice as she teaches him the twist—praising his awful yet enthusiastic attempts—makes his heart stutter in his chest. He spends the next few hours humming the tune under his breath at inconvenient moments and finds that it's a bit catchy, in the end.

Although he could swear Mrs. Draper overheard it as he was buying a chocolate bar from the vending machine. There was a noise like a laugh as she walked past.

**

Sometime during the night, Lane jerks awake from a nightmare involving Nigel's birth; sweating a little as he tries to push the fear from his mind, heart pounding. Becca fainting in the middle of maternity, her face drained of all color—blood staining her Easter dress—

Been having it more and more often over the past couple of months. He's freezing, for some reason, and shifts on the mattress, turning onto his back and pulling the blankets higher around his chest. After another moment, he coughs. Several minutes pass. He tosses and turns under the blankets. He can't seem to get comfortable.

Joan's voice breaks the silence, low and calm. “You okay?” She's turned on her right side, facing away from him. “You were mumbling earlier.”

Lane blinks. “Sorry. Did I wake you?”

She pats his leg in an absentminded way, with a noise that sounds like no. On instinct, he moves to close the space between them, pressing his body against hers and kissing the side of her neck. She sighs, shifting her position so he can slip an arm around her widening middle. His palm rests low on the swell of her stomach, where he can feel the baby kicking.

Joan groans, putting her hand over his. “Tell her to let me sleep.”

They've started to refer to the baby by gender in the past few weeks, although in truth they've no real idea what it is. Lane just started calling it him. Joan thought it would be funny to call it a girl in return, and that's what they've stuck to ever since.

“Well, turn over,” he jokes, trying to sound stern. “I'll speak to him about it.”

“If you can make her stop...” she grumbles, thumb swiping across the top of his hand briefly before she lifts his palm from her belly, indicating she's going to move. Oh. She actually wants him to—he scoots back and pulls the covers down so she's got room to change positions. Even turning over is an awkward process. Joan's got to move slowly, and lying on her back can be painful.

Finally, she's facing him, and puts her right hand to his arm. “Hi.”

“Hello,” he says, grinning despite himself. In the dark, and with his eyesight, he can hardly see her face. On an impulse, he pulls the pillow from behind his head and moves it in her direction. “Here. Put it between your legs.”

She snorts. “You'd like that.”

“I meant for your back.” He pretends to be offended. Joan just laughs, grabbing one end of the pillow and maneuvering it into place. Once she's settled, he moves down her body as if they're going to make love, but stops when he comes face to face with her round stomach, planting a quick kiss to the span of skin exposed by her rumpled pajama top.

“Now, don't do anything with your knees while I'm down here,” he mumbles, putting one hand on the side of her right hip with a sort of amused noise. She snorts, and swats at the top of his head, but after a moment her fingers begin moving gently through his hair.

For perhaps five or ten minutes, Lane attempts to relax them both, closing his eyes, placing his hands to Joan's stomach and stroking over the spot where the baby shifts and kicks most. He doesn't know why it feels so awkward speaking to it aloud. Joan caught him doing that just last week. She fell asleep on the sofa after supper, with her legs in his lap. And given the proximity, all Lane did was chat to the little one about the television program they were watching. Nothing important, really. But Joan woke up looking at him with the strangest, most intent expression, as if she wanted to commit every bit of the moment to memory.

“Erm,” he begins quietly, then sighs, trying to keep his voice from sounding so stiff. It's his son in there, for god's sake. “Hello, lad. I know you're happy, with mother keeping you warm. But you've got to let her sleep, hm? She's got to rest in order to take proper care of you.”

He pauses, tries to gauge Joan's reaction, but her hand has stilled in his hair. Well. He'll just keep going. Perhaps it's helping. “You've been a cheeky little bugger so far. Although your mother swears you're a girl.” Lane breathes out a noise like a laugh, then pushes up on his right elbow, glancing over at Joan to see if she's awake. Judging by her even, deep breaths, no, she isn't. Poor dear. She's exhausted, even if she'd never admit to it. He lowers his voice to a whisper, careful not to wake her. “Maybe you are. That—could be lovely. I've only had boys.”

There was another boy, two years before Nigel. Stillborn. Six months.

Lane can't talk about that, or decide what to say next, and so he goes back to stroking over a spot that he imagines is the baby's head, breathing in the lavender scent of Joan's favourite bath salts as he lies next to her. He's always thought of little girls as delicate, quiet things, but picturing any daughter of Joan's provides a different picture altogether. Lane sees an impish girl with ginger pigtails and beautiful blue eyes, dancing through their room in the mornings as they prepare for work. She'd be so bright: good with numbers and books. And she'd have Joan's incredible confidence. She wouldn't share his aversion to people, or his awkwardness; she'd be funny and charming. Perhaps with a temper.

“You know that I love you, my little one.” He swallows hard. Getting a bit choked up, to be honest. “Mum and I can't wait to see you. We'll bring you home, and have the nursery all set up—”

Joan twitches slightly in her sleep, making him stop talking to glance up at her again. When she lets out a small huffing snore, Lane feels it's safe to move. He sighs, and sits up in the darkness, moving carefully up toward the head of the bed, and curling in next to her.

**

Despite the professional tumult this year has brought for the agency—the shocking loss of Lucky Strike in February, followed by gaining American Cancer Society in April, and all that amid accounts' panic to sign any size business they could find from spring till now—Lane thinks it's been another magnificent year. He's biased, of course. But the mood of his coworkers is palpable at the annual Christmas party. It's a modest affair. Employees and a few spouses. There is no lavish hot buffet. There are no holiday bonuses, nor a drastic uptick in the company's financial security, but there is an acceptable margin of losses and gains, all things considered. And no Lee bloody Garner to impress. The mood seems to hover around a type of manic relief. We've all got through another year.

Lane's lost count of the amount of punch he's had so far—and has also forgotten precisely what it was spiked with—but he's had enough to feel a pleasant buzzing sensation in his head, and to start scanning for Joan among the crowd, from his place in the open doorway of his office. He spies her talking gaily with Don and Roger and their wives next to the red lounge sofa, and allows himself, for a moment, to watch their conversation for a distance. Joan's burgundy dress, with its low neck and half sleeves, compliments her figure so well. She looks so beautiful and radiant that it makes him a bit weak in the knees.

“Hey, Lane,” someone says, and Lane turns to see Ken Cosgrove approaching him, with a pixie-haired young woman on his arm. “Did you meet Cynthia earlier? My wife?”

“Oh. No, I don't believe so. Hello.”

The blonde girl laughs as she shakes his hand. “I was telling Kenny this is so much more relaxed than last year. He said you were the party planner.”

Lane can't help laughing. “No, I—deferred to Mrs. Harris' expertise in that particular area.”

Although he'd quietly supplemented the catering allotment with money from his own pocket for a small treat. Joan had craved something sweet as they set the hors d'oeurves menu for the party—she mentioned some kind of cheesecake petit fours from a patisserie around the corner, which fell just over budget when added to the expenses of other vendors. Lane thought it only practical she should get her wish, particularly in her condition. It's Christmas.

He realises Mrs. Cosgrove has asked a question which he's neglected to answer, and snaps back to attention. “Sorry?”

Before she can even repeat it, Harry Crane hurries up to their group, snatching Ken's arm with a raucous laugh. “We're pranking Stan. Get over here. You're helping.”

“Yikes,” Ken manages to sputter, before he's dragged away laughing toward reception by the shoulder of his jacket.

“Childish,” Lane huffs, put out by Crane's interruption, and Cynthia giggles, rolling her eyes, and moving to stand with her back to Campbell's doorway. “I'm sure Trude'll love hearing about that.” At his puzzled look. “She's at home with Tammy.”

“Well. I suppose she must be—very pleased, then,” Lane says, eyes finding Joan in the crowd again before he can stop himself. She's laughing with Caroline now, along with a smartly-dressed balding man he doesn't know. Caroline's husband, perhaps? Would it be silly to go over and be introduced? Joan looks so beautiful when she laughs. Her entire face lights up. He can't look away.

“Do you want to go talk to them?”

Lane blinks, turning back to his partner in conversation. “Sorry?”

The young woman grins at him, as if his rudeness is funny rather than terribly offensive. “You keep looking over there.”

“Oh,” Lane stammers, embarrassed to have been caught staring. He takes another gulp of punch before sputtering out the rest of his sentence. “No, sorry. I only thought—my—friend was trying to get my attention.”

“Let me guess,” the young woman says, following his gaze. “Ms. Burgundy?”

“Harris,” he corrects absently.

Joan puts a hand on Caroline's arm as she listens to the secretary's words, mouth widening in a smile. They're talking about the little one. Lane can tell. But Joan catches him looking this time, glancing over briefly and raising an eyebrow at him in that sly way he loves, and may have even once deemed sexy. In a very heated moment.

There is a loud yell from the hallway by reception, followed by a roar of laughter, and the sound of someone swearing. Mrs. Cosgrove laughs, and says something else he doesn't hear. Lane looks over to see her gesturing toward the lounge with a grin. “Go talk to her. I'm going to see the pranksmen.”

“Oh. Erm—all right,” Lane says, a little confused, but pleasantly surprised to be released from making small talk. His hands are tingling now, and he's got that pleasant swooping feeling in his chest as he walks toward Joan and the others. What a lovely party.

 

Chapter Text

twenty-six weeks

 

“Is this supposed to go with his business correspondence? Or hers?”

Bridget looks up from her typewriter to see Scarlett standing to the left of her desk, a thin sealed envelope in hand. She takes the letter from the brunette and glances at the postmarks and addresses. Chemical Bank. Mailed yesterday.

Mr. Lane A. Pryce
Mrs. Joan Holloway Harris
c/o Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce
1271 Avenue of the Americas, NY, NY

“Hm,” Bridget says, clearing her throat. Usually, letters from the bank are addressed only to Mr. Pryce. Maybe being included is a part of Joan's promotion. She'll need to ask about that later. “I guess you should keep it with his mail. Since his name's first.”

Glancing behind her to make sure Joan's door is closed, and lowering her voice. “If we're wrong, he can give it back to her.”

She's noticed Joan rarely loses her temper with Mr. Pryce. When they do have a disagreement—and it's sometimes hard to tell—Joan just yells at the first person to interrupt her after it happens. While he just spends an hour or so in his office with the door closed, or takes a long lunch.

Scarlett purses her mouth in a thoughtful way. “Ooh. Good point.”

The door to Mr. Pryce's office opens, causing Scarlett to scurry back to reception with a wince. He ignores her in favor of Bridget, whose small smile widens once she notices there's a small bag of potato chips tucked on top of the files in his arm. He's always bringing Joan snacks because of her condition. She doesn't dare draw attention to the habit. It's very funny, though.

“Good morning, dear. Is she busy?”

“Go ahead,” Bridget says, hitting her buzzer twice as instructed by Joan, and making a notation on her steno pad. They're supposed to go over the first quarter projections today.

As he enters Joan's office, she opens her desk drawer and sets a small glass bottle of water near the edge, next to her pencil holder. Joan will need a drink to go with those salty chips. Bridget's started keeping a spare bottle in her desk, in case the older woman might need to take one to her doctor's appointments, but they've begun to come in handy during the week, too.

Predictably, Mr. Pryce steps back into the hallway about a minute later. “Bridget, would you mind—” A pause.

She glances over to see him frowning at the water on her desk, as if he doesn't understand why it's there. “That's hers,” she prompts. “You can take it.”

“Oh. Erm. Thank you.”

The door closes behind him. Clara's watching her with a confused expression, as if she doesn't understand why Mr. Pryce isn't snapping at her about paperwork and tea and his schedule. Bridget just shrugs, and goes back to her typing, stifling a laugh. There's a reason she's on this desk.

**

In a diner a few blocks from work, Peggy wipes a dollop of mustard away from her collar with a thin paper napkin. Serves her right for getting pastrami. Stan’s laughing so hard at the sight that he almost sprays food across the table, and she’s ready to kick him in the shin when a familiar voice to their right makes her startle.

“Fancy seeing you here, ballerina.”

“Oh, hi, Freddy,” she says, tossing her dirty napkin aside with a wince.

“Hey, Fred.” Stan stabs a boiled potato with relish and eats it whole.

Peggy motions that the older man can sit down if he wants, scooting toward the wall of the booth. “How are you? How's Violet?”

“Oh, she's doing fine.”

A pale, skinny, dark-haired kid is standing several inches behind the older man, wearing a rumpled collared shirt with a loud pattern as well as khaki slacks, and eyeing the activity behind the lunch counter with avid interest. He looks really out of place. It makes her curious.

“Who's your friend?” She cranes her neck to try and see the young man’s face, and snags a quick french fry from her plate before Freddy can answer the question.

He gives her an exasperated look that says pay attention. “Remember that conversation we had about Dancer, couple months back?”

She struggles to remember. He'd gotten work on the business of some ancient car with a few other freelancers. And there was someone whose work he'd mentioned—telling ya, ballerina, this kid's got your kinda spark

“Oh,” Peggy says, realization dawning as she swallows her food. “Sure.”

“Michael Ginsberg,” Freddy says, drawing the kid's attention back to the table, and gesturing that he should straighten up. “Want you to meet Margaret Olson and Stan Rizzo. Sterling Coop.”

She raises her eyebrows at Freddy – Margaret? Really? – but shakes the young man's hand with as much professionalism as she can muster given her mustard-stained blouse. “Nice to meet you.”

Stan's already snickering behind his coffee cup. “How's it goin’.”

“So, were you on stage, before this?” is Ginsberg's first question to her.

Peggy blinks. “What?”

“I don't mean to offend. I'm just curious,” Ginsberg continues, taking a seat next to Stan and toying with the spoon next to his open napkin, as if this is all perfectly normal. “Freddy always calls you ballerina. But you don’t look like a dancer.”

Peggy's already turning to Freddy with a smirk. Him?

“Hey, man, is it okay if I have your toast?” Michael asks Stan, whose only reaction is to blink, then push the small plate in the kid's direction, amusement creeping over his face.

“Knock yourself out.”

The young man pulls a thoughtful face and slides into the seat next to Stan. “Great. I’m starving.”

Now she remembers the other thing Freddy mentioned. Mind like a mental patient. But he's a genius. There's a small pause. Freddy takes a seat, and looks expectantly in her direction, as if to say, you gonna talk to him or what?

“So, Michael,” she says conversationally, turning to look at him. “Tell me more about Dancer.”

“Oh, it was terrible,” he replies in a matter-of-fact voice, taking a bite out of Stan’s toast. “Those morons wouldn't know creativity if it bit them in the ass.”

“Uh, Ginzo.” Freddy clears his throat. “You do remember why we're here?”

Stan's grinning at Peggy like this is the best lunch of his life, like he can't wait to tell this story in a few months. Remember when Freddy brought that crazy kid to lunch? “Margaret,” he says innocently, “I believe you had a follow-up question?”

She kicks at his shoe under the table. Bastard.

**

“So this is the place.” Ginsberg looks around the conference room, frowning thoughtfully at the glass walls, and then turning to Peggy. “You neglected to say it was fancy.”

He is absolutely nuts. But he sketched out six ideas for ladies’ shoes on folded-out napkins over lunch—and grudgingly, she had to admit they were good. Seeing his portfolio sealed it. Don even signed off publicly with a handshake after Ginsberg’s final interview. Not that Don cares about anything other than being married.

“Look, man.” Stan takes a seat and slides a folder of his expense reports in the direction of Lane's usual seat. “There's three things you should know if you're gonna make it here. One—” he holds up a warning finger— “never piss off Joan.”

“Was that the woman with the paperwork?”

Stan raises an eyebrow. “Was she a pregnant redhead?”

“Uh. I guess.” A flush has appeared on Ginsberg's face.

Peggy throws a balled-up piece of notebook paper across the table in the kid's direction. “She and Lane basically run this place. You don't want to get on her bad side. She holds grudges.”

“Which brings me to my next point. Mom and Dad are a package deal.”

Peggy groans, glaring at Stan as if he's gone insane. “He thinks they're a couple. They're just friendly.”

“Come on, he brings her food all the time. There's definitely ulterior motives.”

“Yes. In her condition, it's making sure she doesn't kill us.” She writes something else on her legal pad, then frowns at the words, and scribbles them out.

“So, they're not married,” Ginsberg says slowly. “...Mom and Dad.”

Megan casts a withering look at Stan as she opens the glass door. “God. It's his second day.”

Stan just smirks. “You're just jealous because they like me more.”

She rattles off a long string of French in reply just as Joan enters the room. Some of the laughter dissipates as the redhead places her folio onto the table and takes a seat. Nobody misses the way she has to put a hand on the table to lower herself slowly into her seat, or the small sigh she breathes out after she sits down. Usually she’s the first one in the conference room.

“Joan, you met Ginsberg, right?” Peggy asks, to break the awkwardness.

“Yes,” she replies, cool eyes flicking over the group before she checks her watch. “Any sign of accounts?”

“Think Pete’s in the kitchen,” Stan offers. “Want me to drag him in here?”

Joan's glancing over his expense reports, and speaks with an arch voice. “You could pour coffee over his head while you're at it.”

Ginsberg snorts. Everyone else exchanges knowing looks. It’s going to be one of those days.

**

Joan wakes up in the middle of the night with the baby pushing on her bladder. Lane's not in bed, which isn't unusual. He isn't sleeping very well lately. Keeps tossing and turning, and won't talk about why except to say strange dreams. She hasn't found a way to broach the subject yet.

When she exits the restroom after several minutes, she hears a raised voice in the living room. She grabs her silk bathrobe from the hook behind the door, pulls it on with a little wince, and pads softly down the hallway in bare feet.

Lane's voice is rising in pitch with every word. “For god's sake—did you imagine I'd just come running back to England, tail between my legs?” A pause, followed by a scoff. “Because you were the one who left! And you keep putting ideas into Nigel's head when I specifically—”

Another small silence. Joan pauses just before the half doorway to listen, hidden by the darkness of the hallway. When Lane speaks again, he's yelling.

“I have every right—it affects my family and my children—

She walks into the living room just in time to see Lane grab a small ceramic figure from the coffee table and pitch it into the far right wall. It shatters on impact against a bookshelf. She raises her eyebrows. Jesus.

“Yes, I said children!” A frustrated growl. “Because I'm having another! And I'll thank you not to—” he stops, wrenches the phone away from his ear with a curse, and pushes the base from the end table with another shout. “Damn it!”

Rebecca must have hung up on him. The echo of the telephone hitting the floor rings around their apartment for a few seconds. Lane, meanwhile, sinks into a sitting position on the couch, bracing his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands, exhaling a deep breath.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

“Go back to bed!”

Joan does a double-take at the retort, fixing him with a look that says absolutely not. “I can’t sleep.”

“Well, I don't want you seeing this!” Voice still strained, but not as loud as before.

She shrugs, searching for the best way to diffuse the tension in the room, and decides that pointing out the obvious might help. “Lane, it's not like I don't know you have a temper.”

He's still hiding his face with one hand, and not responding now, so she decides to try to make a little joke, voice very calm. “If you want to break something else, you should start with that hideous orange vase on the mantle.” She’s always hated looking at that thing.

Lane doesn't laugh.

Joan exhales a deep breath, feeling the baby wedge itself closer to her ribs with the movement, and decides that ignoring him will be the best strategy for now. “I'm putting the kettle on.”

If she goes through the routine of preparing tea, he'll probably want some eventually.

Fifteen minutes later, she's pouring steaming black tea into a yellow china cup and is munching on one of those chocolate-coated cookies Lane's obsessed with. She can almost hear him correcting her. Biscuits, Joan. They are chocolate biscuits.

There is a heavy sigh on her left as Lane slides into one of the barstools across from the counter. He's so upset he forgot his glasses on the other side of the room. She glances at his forlorn expression—the way he’s slumped in his chair—and pours a cup for him without asking, dropping in two lumps of sugar and handing him a spoon. He always takes extra sugar when he's stressed.

“Stir,” she says, and also pushes a cookie in his direction, just in case.

For several minutes, they don't speak. Joan is on her fourth cookie when Lane sighs again, pushing his teacup aside and shaking his head.

“I don’t know how we stayed married so long. Truly.”

Joan looks up to see him staring at her, as if he's waiting for her to dispute this claim, and reaches out to touch his arm, briefly. “She's just trying to punish you for moving on.”

“She made the choice to go back to England. She drew up the papers.” 

There's another short silence. Joan exhales deeply, feeling the baby shift and turn as she does so. Maybe a subject change is in order. “I assume she tells Nigel I'm the reason you divorced.”

Lane rolls his eyes, rubbing at the back of his neck with the palm of one hand. “You don't want to know what she says.”

Joan's almost loopy from operating on so little sleep, and adopts a kind of crisp accent which isn't quite British. “That absolute slut seduced your father.”

His face flushes if she's hit a nerve. Joan touches his forearm again, now speaking in her normal voice. “It doesn’t bother me. I'm sure I've heard worse.”

“She doesn't get to talk about you that way,” is all Lane says, voice gruff.

Joan reaches out to push the cookie tin in his direction.“Want another?” She really shouldn't be eating them, considering how much weight she's already gained.

He huffs out a breath, as if debating it, but nods, and reaches for the lid.

**

“Come on. Don’t you girls have any fun around here?”

Clara laughs, playfully swatting at Mr. Sterling’s arm. He’s leaning on her desk with one hand, grinning at her the way he sometimes does in the afternoons, after accounts has had a long client lunch. “Mr. Campbell gets cranky if I leave the phone without telling him.”

Mr. Sterling laughs as he puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it. “I’ll bet he does.”

He exhales a jet of smoke, glancing down the hallway just as Mr. Pryce opens his office door and heads straight for Joan’s office. Clara suppresses a smile, and jots down a tally mark onto the last page of her steno pad. She and Scarlett have a little game going.

“What’d you do that for?” Mr. Sterling asks, following her gaze. “What is this?”

He picks up her steno pad and flips it open so the sheet with the tally marks is completely visible.

“Oh,” she says, flushing. “No, it’s—silly.”

“What does this say?” Gesturing to the header at the top, written in shorthand.

Clara averts her eyes to her typewriter. Pryce Pong. Stan’s idea.

“Well, um, some of the secretaries have a work game. We track how often our bosses go into...other people’s offices, and wherever they spend the most time that month, that person’s secretary has to buy lunch for her opponent. So if I was playing against Caroline, and you kept visiting Mr. Campbell, I’d have to buy her a lunch. Because he never goes to visit you.”

This month, she’s keeping track of Joan, while Scarlett is keeping track of Mr. Pryce. They tried to get Bridget to play, but she was a drip and said it wasn’t funny. Megan was the only other girl who would have played, but she’d probably rat them out, now, being married to Mr. Draper. And it’s hard to keep track of Mr. Crane and Mr. Cosgrove, since their offices are so far away. Nobody ever visits them.

“Jesus,” Mr. Sterling says, looking amused. “Twelve marks. This Campbell’s whole month?”

“No,” she says, laughing a little. “It’s Joan’s. Just this week, actually.”

He gives her a skeptical look. “Who’s she seeing a dozen times?”

Clara bites her lip to keep from giggling, and nods her head in the direction of the glass windows separating Joan’s office from the creative lounge. Isn’t it obvious? Behind the clipped advertisements and sketches and displayed pictures, she and Mr. Pryce are smiling over something. Joan looks like she’s holding the ledger.

“Come on,” Mr. Sterling says, giving her a skeptical look. “Really?”

“He’s in there a lot.” With a little shrug. “I guess it’s important.”

Mr. Sterling’s still frowning at her stenography pad, like he’s annoyed or confused. Thankfully, the phone rings, releasing her from any more conversation. As she motions for him to hand it back, and reaches for the receiver, she has the feeling she’s done something wrong.

“Peter Campbell’s office.”

**

They're going over the books in Joan's office when Lane says, out of nowhere, “Colin.”

Joan looks up, mouth pursed slightly. “What?”

“Colin,” he says again, with a glance at Joan's stomach. As if this is as casual a conversation as discussing the list of expenditures in the second column. “I—don't know. It was only a thought.”

She levels him with a skeptical look, although her voice is airy. “If we name a girl Colin, she's going to be laughed out of school.” A pause. “Kimberly.”

He pulls a face by reflex, like he's swallowed something awful. “Is she a teenage actress?”

Joan huffs out an amused noise, and after another moment, places the ledger back onto her desk, removing her glasses so they dangle around her neck. She’s had to start wearing them more often, although she hates it. “Charles.”

“God, no.” His younger brother’s name. Can’t remember if he’s ever said as much to Joan. He sets his notes into the second chair. “What about Anne?”

She wrinkles her nose. “It sounds odd. Say it aloud.”

He murmurs the name under his breath for a moment, still not understanding what Joan means—is it a pronunciation difference?—and lacking answers, decides to retaliate with the most absurd name he can muster.

“Major.”

She blinks, and after a moment, begins to laugh. “Like Joseph Heller?”

“Could be distinguished,” Lane says mildly, not understanding the reference but being amused all the same. “Has a nice ring to it, hm?”

Joan's speechless now, her entire body shaking with silent paroxysms of laughter, with one hand curved against her stomach and the other clutching the armrest of her chair.

Lane raises his eyebrows in a mischievous expression. He does love seeing her laugh like this. “Prefect Major Pryce. Barrister Major Pryce.”

She's wiping tears from the corners of her eyes, still giggling as she tries to speak, voice high. “Sounds like something we'd name a dog.”

As if she's expecting him to warm to this idea, or suggest they get a pet. “No. You already feed that mangy tom on the patio.” She sighs out a breath, her laughter abating as she speaks. “I can smell the tuna when it sits out.”

Lane didn’t realise she knew about that. “It has a name, you know. Cat.”

She's struggling to keep a straight face now, which ruins the effect of the glare she's trying to give him. “Didn’t you suggest Catherine before?”

“Have we gone back to that discussion?” Catherine is a very elegant name. But when he’d suggested it, Joan had pursed her mouth and waved one hand in a way which seemed to mean she hadn’t seen the appeal.

“Not when you tried to name our daughter after a rabid animal.”

He actually laughs. “Well, it isn't rabid, Joan, honestly.”

And they wouldn’t call a child Cat. That would be ridiculous. With a snort of amusement, he takes a paperclip from her tray and slides it across the desk in her direction. It hits the side of her forearm and ricochets into the floor.

She's gone helpless with laughter again, but in retaliation, takes a post-it from her desk, crumples it into a tiny ball, and throws it at his chest.

**

“Well, that was a bust,” Stan groans to the group as he flips on the overhead lights. Next door, in the conference room, a few of the secretaries are dropping off surveys with Joan, chatting among themselves as they file out into the rest of the office. With a topic like pantyhose, Megan knows Stan was hoping the girls would talk about something sexy. Not about thigh fat and elastic lines.

Serves him right, really.

He, Ginsberg, and Peggy all walk out grumbling, slamming the door behind them. Megan’s still gathering her things when voices next door catch her attention—Lane and Joan. Over the intercom, their voices come out low and tinny, with a little static.

“How was your session?”

A sigh. “Unhelpful.”

The sound of pages turning. “Nothing interesting to say about stockings?”

“Nothing you’d appreciate.”

Why does Joan have to try to flirt with everyone? It’s like a compulsive need for attention. It’s annoying. But they all fall for it.

There’s a short silence. The door to Joan’s office creaks open a little further, and Bridget steps inside, moving to clean up a few of the Styrofoam cups left behind, and closing the door behind her, with a little wave in Megan’s direction. For a few minutes, they work quietly. Megan keeps correcting over her own notes, trying to decipher the worst of her handwriting before she gives this to Peggy. Her shorthand isn’t as good as it used to be.

“Have you phoned the movers?” Lane asks, still in the conference room. It’s such an unexpected question that it makes Megan glance up from her notepad in confusion.

“Mm hm. They’re coming Saturday.”

She and Bridget are still and silent, frowning at the intercom as if it’s not just broadcasting noise, as if it has the power to explain everything to them. What the hell would be delivered here on a Saturday? Why would they need movers?

Trés bon,” Lane says next, in the weirdest, most playful tone Megan’s ever heard from him. His accent is awful. She has to clap her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Is he actually trying to flirt back? Gross.

Is Joan--laughing? It's low, and quiet. “Mon lapin.

Lane’s voice again, soft this time. “You--never call me that here.”

“I know.”

The intercom clicks off. Megan looks over to see Bridget’s hand hovering over the power button, eyes wide. But she’s still staring at Megan as if waiting for her to translate the French, to confirm it. What did she tell him?

Megan’s shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. She doesn’t even bother to explain, just steps out into the hallway and walks toward the creative office as quickly as possible, keeping her head down. When she closes the door behind her, she notices she isn’t alone—Ginsberg and Peggy are in the corner arguing over some storyboard—but Megan can’t keep the laughter bottled up any longer, and sinks down into Stan’s usual chair, clutching her stomach and giggling until her throat feels raw and her stomach aches from the movement.

“What’s with you?” Ginsberg demands to know, the second she stops.

Megan wipes her streaming eyes, trying to regain her composure, and swallows the laugh that threatens to well up again, remembering the first comment she overheard. Movers. A new thought occurs to her. What if Lane and Joan are living together? Older people don’t just shack up; they get married. And even if they aren’t living together, it still means Stan’s been right all along.

Mon lapin. Merde.

Did it start before Joan’s husband died? Maybe Don will know something.

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Well, did you at least bring back the notes?” Peggy says, frowning at Megan and scoffing as if she’s the stupidest person in the world.

Ugh. She doesn’t have to be so snide about everything.

“No, sorry,” she says instead, not even bothering to hide the annoyance in her voice. Least Ginsberg isn’t acting like a jackass. “I’ll get them.”

 

Chapter Text

thirty weeks

 

“Mrs. Harris? I have your mother on line two.”

Joan's already reaching for a half-smoked cigarette, still burning in the ashtray. She must have forgotten to stub it out. “Thank you, Bridget. I'll take it.”

It must be somewhat important. She never calls the office.

“Well, you never pick up at home,” Gail says in response, when Joan points out as much. “What am I supposed to do?”

“I told you I'm staying with a friend right now.” Joan taps her cigarette against the side of the ashtray as she talks. “I'm not at the apartment.”

“Oh, Joanie, don't mince words. You're living with that friend—and don't think I don't know what that means.” A short laugh. “Last time you called I heard his voice in the background. He's got a nice accent.”

Joan lets out a sigh. “Mom, I don't have time for this.”

“Well, clear your schedule,” Gail says in a blithe voice. “I'm coming to the city for the weekend. The two of you can take me to dinner.”

Joan's cigarette dangles precariously between two fingers. She pushes it into the ashtray before she can fumble it. “Excuse me?”

There's a small peal of laughter on the other end. “Yes, Joan, I have my own social life. Don't sound so surprised.”

She's still trying to adjust to the idea of her mother being in the city. It's probably to see some fourth-rate musician. “You want to go to dinner.”

“Why, don't you want me to meet your beau?”

Joan's voice gets sharper. “You're being ridiculous.”

Surprisingly, the other woman doesn't take the bait. “I think Friday night would be best.”

“Mom,” Joan says in a frustrated tone, picking up her earring from where it's been lying by the phone—has she been missing it all day?—and toying it through her fingers. “We'll have to come from work. It's very inconvenient.”

Gail just laughs. “I knew he was from work. You kept denying it.” There's a noise like a buzzing egg timer in the background. Is she cooking? What the hell would she need to cook? “Well, call me back when you've set the reservation.”

Joan sighs again. “Fine. Goodbye.”

**

Sitting in front of her mirror in her silk bathrobe, she fumbles yet another compact while trying to open it. Unfortunately, this one falls out of her hands and goes sailing onto the floor. “Damn it!”

She's long past the stage when she could pick up dropped items in less than five minutes, and glares at the object on the carpet as if it's personally insulted her.

Lane walks out of the bathroom, freshly showered, and dressed in his bathrobe. He's wiping remnants of shaving cream from his jaw with a hand towel, frowning at her. “You all right?”

Joan closes her eyes briefly, pinching the bridge of her nose. When she opens them, she sees Lane's reflection in the mirror as he walks closer. “This has to go well.”

He picks up her compact, comes to place it onto the vanity, and puts his palms on her shoulders, fingers gently kneading into the tense muscles. “Lean your head forward, hm?”

Joan does, sighing as his thumb presses into a particularly distinct knot behind her shoulder blade. “She never likes anyone. I don't know why I'm tense.”

“We don't have to go. Say you're ill, or something.”

“You keep suggesting that,” she mumbles, but a little smile plays around her mouth. She lets out another happy noise as his fingertips stroke over the nape of her neck. In the past few weeks, she hasn't felt well, so they've had little opportunity for sex. But sometimes she's still surprised at how often he craves physical contact of any kind. Like he's starved.

His hands move down to her lower back, eliciting another deep exhale and making her shift in her chair. That feels amazing.

Lane must have liked her expression, or the noise she made, because he bends his head to press a kiss to her bare shoulder, voice low. “Shall I keep relaxing you?”

Joan's eyes flutter open, darting to glance at the clock on her vanity table before meeting his questioning gaze in the mirror. He's got that twinkle in his eye. “What do you have in mind?”

Lane grins, and with a little amused noise, he slides one sleeve of her robe from her shoulder, exposing her upper arm and most of her left breast.

Joan snorts out a laugh. “I still have to put on my face, so whatever it is, you've got twenty minutes.”

**

“Now, Lane, when Joanie says you two go over the books together, what exactly does she mean?”

“Oh,” Lane says, glancing at Joan with a smile he can't suppress. What has she said about that? “Well. It's—only accounting. Fairly straightforward.”

“Mom,” Joan interrupts, giving him an apologetic look. “He's not on a job interview. Can we talk about something other than work?”

“No, Joan—I honestly don't mind,” he hastens to say, putting a brief hand to Joan's knee under the table. It's all right.

“You see?” Gail says, waving a hand as if to say her daughter is overreacting. “I'm just trying to get to know him!”

After nearly a bottle of wine split between the three of them, he's certain there can't be much else to know. Not unless Mrs. Holloway—no, Gail, she's already reminded him twicewants to hear about the fiscal year budget. He's not sure why she wants to dwell on particulars of the office, but it's friendly of her to try and include him.

Joan lets out a breath, and presses her hand to her stomach with a wince which likely means the baby's jumping all over her bladder. Giving him a knowing look, she sets aside her napkin, rising awkwardly from her chair. “I'm just going to go freshen my lipstick.”

“Take your time,” Gail says with a smile. “I'm sure we'll find something to talk about.”

Lane watches her walk away with a happy sigh. Joan's been dreading the evening for nearly a week, so it's nice to see everything going so well. He really isn't sure why she was so anxious, unless it was something to do with her hormones.

“So, now that you've knocked Joanie up, are you planning to marry her?”

He turns back to the table with a frown of confusion, eyes going wide. “Sorry?”

Gail stubs out her cigarette, giving him a sly smile. Her voice is easy, but with a steel undertone that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “Well, you're the baby's father, aren't you? The way you look at her. It's obvious.”

He feels color rush hot to his face. “Mrs.—sorry, Gail, you've—I assure you that—Joan and I didn't—we weren't—”

Gail just glances him up and down, unfazed, and reaches for her wine glass. “You think I'm asking because she was married?” She makes a derisive noise. “I don't care about that. Greg's dead.”

“I—” Lane stammers, completely thrown, “well—”

“Honey, you're not a good liar, so I'll spare you the trouble. I just want to know if you're the kind of man my daughter thinks you are.”

At his shocked look, she shrugs. “Her father isn't around to do this. And with men, she doesn't always speak up for herself.”

Lane huffs out a skeptical noise. “She's—always been—candid with me.”

Gail arches an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”

He draws himself up taller in his chair, knowing he's got to stand up for Joan in her absence. “Sorry, I—understand your concerns, and with all due respect—”

“You're not kids. And I'm sure you like to imagine this is the perfect solution, but I know Joanie. She'd rather be married.”

“Joan and I have discussed it, thank you. We thought it prudent to wait, given...her situation.”

Bit of a white lie. The subject was discussed very briefly after they first got together. They'd been in bed one afternoon, and after a particularly passionate go, he'd stammered out something very impulsive. What would you say if I asked you to marry me? And she'd stared back at him, looking stunned. Are you asking? And then he'd felt nervous and said, well, not this minute, no, and she'd looked relieved, and kissed him, and they...haven't spoken about it since.

Gail rolls her eyes. “What are you waiting for, the second baby?”

At his outraged expression, she actually laughs.

“After she got engaged to Greg, he told me he was going to take care of her.” With a scoff. “He might have been a moron, but at least he made a commitment before getting himself blown up.”

“I am committed,” Lane snaps back, before he can help himself. Noticing he's caught the attention of the next table, he lowers his voice. “Joan is part of my life now, and I intend to marry her.”

“I don't care about intent. It's useless.” Gail says coolly, taking a drag of a freshly-lit cigarette and looking more like Joan than he's ever realized. “Are you planning to act or not?”

He opens his mouth to reply, but sees Joan walking slowly in their direction, one hand over her stomach as if she's feeling ill again. “Yes,” he hisses quickly, watching as Joan accidentally knocks into a stranger's purse on the way over, “all right? Yes. Now I'll not have you upsetting Joan in her condition. This conversation is over.”

“Fine,” Gail retorts with a shrug, glancing over her shoulder as her daughter arrives at the table, and addressing Joan with an airy voice. “You all right?”

Joan ignores her as she lowers herself into her chair, but eventually, once she's settled, she reaches for her purse, rifles through it for a moment, then glances over at her mother's cigarettes with something like guilt. “Can I have one of those?”

Gail slides her pack across the table. Lane exhales a very deep breath, feeling a bead of sweat roll down the side of his face, and wishes the waiter would return with their entrees.

**

Sunday morning—very early—Lane wakes to see dim light filling the room. Joan's standing by her night table, hunched forward, one hand flat-palmed on the mattress, and the other clutching something—his pocket watch, he realizes, after putting on his glasses.

“'S wrong?”

Joan shakes her head. “No, it's—nothing.”

But her face twists as she says the last word, and she presses a hand to her stomach with a grunt, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, as if she's in a great deal of pain.

“Christ,” he blurts immediately, jumping out of bed and hurrying around to her side, putting a hand to the middle of her back. “Where does it—what—”

Oh, god. Oh, my god. Can't be time.

She ends up gripping his forearm until the spasm has passed. When she finally speaks, her voice is strained. “I think it's...” she trails off, and blinks, as if she's forgotten what she was about to say. “The—contractions. False labor.”

“There's—no blood,” he rasps, looking her up and down and glancing all around the room as if to confirm this.

Joan shakes her head.

Lane exhales, feeling lightheaded, and rubs a hand across the scratch of stubble at his jaw. Right. “Hospital. Come on, let's go.”

“But—Dr. Emerson said if I had less than five in an hour it was fine.”

“And how many have there been?” he asks loudly, attempting to keep calm. He's not sure how well it's working. For god's sake, why didn't she wake him?

She presses her lips together, glancing toward the night table. “Four. But they're not—there's no pattern.”

Lane swears aloud, trying not to glare at her, and briefly fixing his gaze on the floor instead.

Joan's voice has gone very quiet. “I didn't want to overreact.”

He crosses the room, shedding his pajama top, and pulling on the rumpled collared shirt and trousers that were folded on top of the hamper. “I don't care what argument you make. I don't care if they send us back home. You're in pain. We are going, and that's final.”

Joan's staring at him with wide eyes, blinking rapidly, mouth set in a familiar way that means she doesn't want to burst out crying. “We don't even have the nursery ready.”

She presses a hand to her mouth. It hits him, then, too—the familiar press of fear at the back of his mind. What if it's today? What the hell will we do?

“Oh, my darling, no,” he blurts, moving back to her side and taking her free hand in both of his. She's scared. He's got to calm her. “You—you said yourself, it may not be time. But we've got to go to hospital to find out. We'll—have you looked over, a-and—speak to your Dr. Emerson, and finish your list of things we need. And we'll buy them all, hm?”

She lets out a noise that's half sob, half laugh, leaning into him. He keeps babbling.

“Now, if you'll phone for the taxi, I'll get you a nice comfortable top to wear over.” She's got maternity smocks...somewhere. He hasn't the faintest idea. But there's jumpers in the other dresser. Just—for god's sake, find something! Any sort of top will do. Christ. Perhaps he should have suggested it the other way round, but she's already gone to pick up the receiver.

He heads for the closet in a kind of frantic desperation.

**

“Time of last contraction?”

Dr. Emerson presses two hands to her bare stomach, palpating firmly as he tries to locate the baby's position. Joan tries to think. Was it one fifty or two fifty when Lane woke up? She wishes he was in the room. Dr. Emerson sent him outside before the physical examination began.

“An hour and a half? I'm—not sure.”

He pulls his hands away to make a notation on her chart. “And you mentioned there was spotting.”

Joan sighs. She didn't tell Lane that part. He was already panicking, and they were filling out paperwork in the waiting area before she found out. “Yes. Very light.”

“That can be normal,” the doctor says, pointing his pen at her stomach, as if for caution. “But I've got questions for you anyway. You drinking plenty of water?”

“Yes. Several glasses a day.”

She had a dizzy spell early in the second trimester. When she told Lane what happened, he started making it a point to bring her water during the workday, or to make sure she had a drink available on her desk, just in case.

“When you were spotting, was the blood bright red?”

“No.”

“And one I haven't had to ask you in years – are you sexually active?”

Joan fixes the doctor with an unamused look. He just sent a rumpled Lane into the waiting room. She's wearing a man's collared shirt, her blue striped pajama pants, and no makeup. “Yes.”

“Within the past forty-eight hours?”

“Yes.”

“Did you experience contractions after sex?”

“During,” she says pointedly, because she's tired of repeating the same word over and over.

Dr. Emerson clears his throat as if trying not to laugh, but his voice doesn't falter. “My fault for not being specific. Did your contractions start less than an hour after sex?”

“No.”

He writes one last notation, then sets her chart aside. “Okay. Well, you're not dilated. There's no show except for the light spotting, but I think that's probably due to the, uh, extracurricular activities.”

“You think?” she echoes, a little harshly.

“Joan,” he says, briefly touching her elbow. “Physically, everything looks good. You're not in labor, and the baby's fine.”

Joan sighs out a ragged breath of relief. Thank god. There's still time to get everything ready. She could kick herself for not having the baby's room finished. Obviously thirty weeks was too short-sighted a goal. Why didn't she plan for twenty-five?

Because she and Lane were delirious with excitement, and terrified to ruin things.

“When it's time, the pain's going to increase in frequency and intensity. If you can sleep it off, change position to stop them, or walk it off, it's false labor.”

“Okay.” She pauses, trying to parse out the best way to phrase her next request, and decides on the truth. Not like Dr. Emerson is an idiot. “Will you bring my friend in, so he can hear you say that?”

If the news comes straight from the doctor's lips, it will give Lane more peace of mind. And knowing him, he'll write it down or file it away for later. He'll want to hear about the signs; she's sure.

Dr. Emerson raises his eyebrows. “Are congratulations in order?”

“Soon,” she says simply. He hasn't asked, but the conversation is overdue. The day they'd decided to move in together, she'd asked his opinion on setting up the nursery—whether it should be in his apartment or hers. This was followed by an awkward conversation which seemed to go nowhere, but a few minutes later he'd walked into the bedroom and blurted out his real opinion. Stay here. Live here...with me. Don't—don't you know that I want that?

It felt like the prelude to a very different question.  But he's been shy about revisiting the subject, and she's tried to be understanding about that.

Joan glances at the doctor's carefully neutral expression. “You don't like him.”

He pauses at the door before he can open it, forcing a smile. “Jojo, I don't get paid to have an opinion.” In a warmer voice. “He did snap at two of my nurses, you know.”

Joan sighs, shaking her head. She only witnessed the time at the admissions desk, when a thin, calm woman filling out a book of crossword puzzles got to go in before they did. Lane's scoff and his loud, incredulous, are we in maternity or not?!  wasn't well received by obstetric staff.

“His first wife had a lot of trouble. Lane gets anxious.”

The doctor gives her a more genuine smile this time. “Call me if this happens again, all right? Could save you both the stress of a hospital trip.”

Before he can leave, Joan speaks. “Walter. Thank you.”

“Anytime.” He inclines his head. “Like your outfit, by the way.”

She rolls her eyes as he walks down the hall, tugging at a shirtsleeve in order to re-adjust it. They're too big. They keep coming loose.

**

Monday afternoon, they're in Lane's office, supposedly going over the expense reports.

Lane's been asleep facedown on the sofa for half an hour, so tired he isn't even snoring. Joan's sitting in the wing back chair with her feet propped up on the coffee table, browsing through a copy of Ad Age she filched from the lounge. Most of the ads have been torn out of it, which should make for easy reading. Not that it's helped. She can't sleep right now, but she's also too exhausted to concentrate on much else.

The crackle of the intercom interrupts her train of thought. “Mr. Pryce?”

Joan glances over at Lane, who doesn't even twitch. With a heavy sigh, she puts her feet on the floor, pushes up out of the armchair, and walks over to his desk. The line two extension blinks back at her from the telephone.

“Scarlett, he's eating,” she says briskly. “If you'll take a message, please.”

If it's his brother again, that can wait. Lane's been ducking that call for what seems like two weeks. Mainly because Scarlett's too stupid to ask which brother called, or to take a legitimate message, and Lane doesn't want to phone anyone back unless he absolutely has to. Especially if it's his younger brother. He hates Charles, apparently. Joan doesn't know why.

“Oh,” comes the hesitant reply. “Well—um—I don't mean to interrupt his lunch, but it's Nigel. And—Nigel's always to be put through, if he calls.”

Jesus. What time is it in England? Why would Nigel be calling in the middle of the morning?

“Yes, of course,” Joan says slowly, casting a hesitant look at the sofa. “Go ahead.” She'll just pick up, excuse herself to wake Lane, and go back into her office.

She can feel her heart pound a little faster as the phone rings. The stupidest thought is running through her mind – don't hate me – as she picks up the receiver.

“Hello, Nigel,” she says first. “Just a minute. Let me get your father.”

A pause. “Wait. You're—not the same girl.”

“No,” she says, debating whether to introduce herself, and deciding she'd better, to clear up some confusion. “I'm Joan. Harris. Your father and I work together.”

“Oh.” Another long pause. “Are you—that Joan? The—the woman?”

“The woman,” Joan echoes, frowning. She can't tell by his tone of voice if he considers this a good or bad thing, although he's clearly picked up the phrase from Rebecca, or someone just as snide. “Lane and I are an item, yes.”

She's on the verge of telling him to hold on, that she'll get Lane, when he blurts:

“Are you really having a baby? Dad's—baby?”

Joan blinks, feeling her entire body prickle with goosebumps. She can't remember when he and Lane spoke last. Maybe he heard that from his mother, too. Jesus. No wonder Lane's been upset. She leans against the side of Lane's desk, clearing her throat. “I am. I didn't—realize you knew that.”

“Yeah. Erm. Heard Mum and Granny talking over Christmas, late at night.” A pause. “They say you're a tart. They hate your guts.”

“Well, I'd like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not,” Joan says, keeping her tone as light as she can, and searching for a way to change the subject. “I hope hearing about the baby didn't upset you.”

“Dunno,” Nigel grumbles after a moment. “'S fine.”

Meaning it bothers him. She can't help but roll her eyes. Lane does the same thing.

Movement from the corner of her eye makes Joan glance at the couch again. Lane's turned over on his side, toward the wall, but judging by the rise and fall of his breaths he's still asleep.

“Well,” she offers, after a second of thought, “if you do have questions about—our situation, you can always talk to L—your father. He'd want to know if you were upset.”

“Dad just asks about school and mates and things.” A scoff. “It's really stupid.”

She was afraid of that. Lane's been agonizing over how to break a lot of their big news to Nigel, and that was only because she insisted his son would be angry if the baby was already born before Lane said a word about it. Last they'd talked, he'd mentioned maybe writing a letter. She doesn't know if anything came of that discussion or not.

“If I—asked you something,” the boy begins, quickly, “like a question, right—would you—tell me the truth?”

Joan purses her mouth, searching for the best way to phrase her reply. Her mother never held anything back, no matter how ugly the truth was, or how much it embarrassed Joan to hear it. But Lane's very protective. She tries to think of a working compromise. Nigel is twelve, and needs to be treated with some type of consideration if he's going to trust them, or be part of their lives in any meaningful way.

“If you think you're mature enough to hear the answer, then yes,” she says, sighing out a deep breath. “You can ask me anything.”

God, she hopes he'll self-censor questions that are too inappropriate. Lane might have a coronary if she talked to his son about sex or girls without consulting him. She's just banking on the gut feeling that Nigel only wants to know what's going on. It'll be about her, or their relationship. Lane can't get annoyed if she answers questions about herself.

“I heard Mum tell Granny you're the reason she left,” Nigel begins slowly, and Joan feels as if lead's dropped into her stomach. “Cause you were the office harlot, or something, and he fancied you.”

Joan bites her lip to keep from saying something she'll regret, although the gist of his question is becoming obvious.

“Erm,” the boy says, quiet. “Yeah, so, is that—true?”

“No,” Joan replies, trying to keep her voice as calm as possible. “Your parents were having problems, but I wasn't part of your father's life. This time last year, we barely said two words to each other.”

“You didn't even—talk? Not even a little?”

“Well, we talked,” Joan says. “But about work things. Cost-variable analysis and expenses and budget restructuring. We weren't friendly. He didn't like me.”

She pauses, listening for a response. “Does that answer your question?”

Joan hopes Nigel can understand a little. She decides not to mention she was also married, or bring up the flower incident, or talk about the pregnancy timeline. That would be too confusing.

A throat-clearing on her right makes Joan startle, and almost drop the phone. On the sofa, Lane's pushing himself into a sitting position, fixing her with a furious look that says he's been awake for at least a couple of minutes. Long enough to hear what she just said, obviously. She winces, and meets his eyes with a silent plea for patience, motioning that it'll be a second.

“Nigel, I'm sorry, but I'm getting called away. Your father's here, though, and he wants to speak to you.”

“M'kay.”

Lane's standing in front of her now, clearing his throat again, hand outstretched for the receiver. She bats at his fingers. Jesus. Don't get so impatient. “It was nice to talk to you.”

“All right,” the boy mumbles, “bye.”

She hands the phone to Lane, who practically wrenches it from her grasp, glaring at her in a way that means she'd better beat it. When he speaks, his voice is raspy with sleep. “Nigel. Sorry. I'd—stepped out. What—is something the matter?”

Joan turns to leave, rolling her eyes at Lane's petulance and sighing out an annoyed breath as she opens his office door and walks out. If he'd just talked to his son a few weeks ago, this conversation could have been avoided.

**

Joan takes off her robe and tosses it aside, easing herself into a sitting position on the bed. Lane's been seething about the phone call all day. He barely even said two words to her until they were sitting down to dinner, at which point, he growled out a single sentence:

“Why did you let him ask so many questions?!”

She'd sighed, dropping her spoon into her mashed potatoes, and leveled him with a pleading look, too tired to have an argument. “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you just want to be mad at me?”

He'd set his jaw, apparently thinking she was taunting him, and hadn't said another word. After dinner, she'd left him to his own devices, and spent two hours organizing the nursery, washing baby clothes and putting them into drawers.

They still need to get a crib, a rocking chair, and more age-appropriate toys, but the room's been painted a pale yellow for a couple of weeks, and Lane arranged the rest of the furniture on Sunday afternoon. She checks off items on her to-do list with a golf pencil she'd found in Lane's nightstand, puts this into the spiral binding, and sets the memo pad on the edge of her end table.

It takes her several minutes to turn down the blankets and move awkwardly into a prone position under the covers, lying on her left side, with a pillow between her knees. After a few more minutes, the light clicks off in the bathroom, and Lane emerges, wearing a set of striped pajamas and rubbing at his nose. Obviously thinking she'd be asleep by now.

She watches him as he takes off his glasses and gets into bed, leaning against the headboard. He clearly notices that she's awake, but he doesn't speak. Joan was hoping he'd say something.

“Good night,” she offers, studying his distant expression as he stares across the room. He's still thinking about it. He worries so much.

“'Night,” he says gruffly.

She sighs, adjusting position, and shuts her eyes. Sometime later, she wakes up to feel a hand shaking her shoulder and Lane whispering her name.

“'M asleep,” she groans, pushing away his hand with a halfhearted effort.

“I know—sorry—but I've—got to talk to you. Please.”

“Mmph,” she mumbles, forcing open her eyes, and trying to focus. Lane's sitting straight up in bed, room dark except for a few slivers of moonlight by the window. The blankets around him are undisturbed, and his pillow is tucked behind his back. Like he hasn't even slept.

She squints in his direction, pushing up onto one elbow. If she doesn't keep her head up, she'll nod off again. “What's wrong?”

“Do you—think I'm a bad father?”

His voice is so quiet. She frowns at the words, and reaches out to touch his arm with her free hand. “Lane. No.”

What happened on that phone call?

“I just keep thinking Nigel's outgrown me.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I try to talk to him about marks and his friends and all the—important things, you know, but he—just—doesn't seem to care one way or the other. And then I keep wondering what I've done wrong.”

She slowly pushes herself into a sitting position, putting both pillows behind her back. “If this is because I answered his questions, I wasn't trying to cut you off at the knees.”

“No,” Lane says. “It was like this well before you spoke to him.” He looks over at her, expression fraught with anxiety. “Although I was—upset. Obviously.”

Joan nods. He blows out a breath.

“It—” he begins, and winces, lowering his voice. “I'm aware this is going to sound ridiculous, but I was actually—well, I was—envious of—of you.”

She blinks, completely thrown. ”Why?”

Lane sighs, and shrugs. “He was...asking you...proper questions. Important questions. And all I could think was I'm his father; why isn't he asking me?

“Oh,” she blurts, in a kind of relieved voice. Lane turns to stare at her, and she quickly clarifies her outburst. “I'm sorry. I—just thought I'd crossed some kind of line.”

“No. Erm. I don't know.” There's a wistful note to his voice. Maybe he's still envious, even in hindsight. They'll need to have a real conversation tomorrow. “Only I couldn't get over how calm you were. How easily the words came.”

“Trust me,” Joan says, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, “it wasn't easy.” She slants him a knowing look. “He overheard Rebecca talking to her mother.”

“Christ,” he mumbles, looking embarrassed.

She shakes her head. It's not something to dwell on. “Have you thought any more about writing that letter?”

He shrugs. Joan decides to press the issue one more time. “I know you'd rather talk to Nigel in person, or on the phone, but he does have a lot of questions. And I think you should be the one to answer them.” She sighs, trying to make her voice a little teasing. “If nothing else, it gives you a way to strike up proper conversation. About important things?”

He makes a grumbling sort of noise that says he'll think about it. She takes one of his hands and presses it to her taut stomach, although the baby's actually asleep, for once. Lane glances over. His hand twitches under hers.

“Listen to me,” she says, gentle. “You love your children, and are involved in their lives. You're one of the good ones.”

Lane still seems melancholy, but he leans in, kissing her briefly, and when they part, he exhales, putting his forehead to her shoulder with a mumble. “Sorry I woke you.”

Joan sighs, reaching out to thread her fingers through the back of his hair. “Next time, talk to me before I drop off.”

He kisses her neck, then moves back, motioning that she can lie down if she wants to. They settle into bed in companionable silence, until Lane breaks it.

“You'd...tell me if you...wanted something...to be different, wouldn't you?”

She frowns. “What?”

A sigh. He shakes his head. “I—I don't know. Sorry. Bit tired.”

“Let's just sleep,” she says after a pause, adjusting her head on the pillow, and closing her eyes. “I thought we could go to Gimbel's on Friday. Get a few toys?”

“Hm.” He pats her hand. “That could be all right.”

**

The whooping noises of delighted kids and the sighs of their indulgent parents carry across the store as Joan examines a display of rattles and teething toys. They've been wandering around the aisles for almost thirty minutes. Lane keeps finding new things he thinks the baby might enjoy. Because the baby will be born with the skill sets to put together miniature warships and play with model trains. Honestly, after the stress from the beginning of the week, his eagerness is a welcome change.

As she consults her list for the millionth time, and takes a pink and white plastic rattle from a low shelf, Lane comes to stand on her right, with some kind of small stuffed animal in one hand. “They've got plenty of cuddly toys. I like this one.”

He leans closer, showing her a fleece orange-and-black-striped tiger, and lowering his voice until it reaches a playful pitch. “Good evening.”

She gives him a fond look. “Someone's in a fun mood.”

“But—he just wants to speak to his friend,” he says in the same gruff voice, placing the tiger's front paws onto the top of her stomach, and bobbing its head from side to side, as if it's self-aware and talking. “Hello. I'm awfully nice.”

Joan has to bite her lip to suppress a laugh. “Tell Shere Khan to wait until we get home.”

Lane makes a sort of disappointed growl, then moves the toy away, adopting his normal voice. “Well, I'm putting him with the basket up front.” She mumbles an assent. That's fine. But no sooner has he disappeared around the corner than she hears a voice to her left.

“Hello, Joan.”

A visibly curious Trudy Campbell is waving at her from the middle of the aisle, with a mischievous look on her face. She's wearing a long-sleeved baby pink dress. Joan can tell by the generous cut and by the soft roundness of Trudy's face and figure that she hasn't reduced by much since delivering, but the other woman still looks elegant, if exhausted around the eyes.

“Trudy. My goodness.” Trying to smile. Did she witness any of that? “What—brings you to the toy department?”

“Oh,” the younger woman says, waving a hand. “We're just exchanging a few baby gifts. Some of our friends do not know how to buy for young children.” She looks around the mostly-empty aisle, and walks closer, suddenly conspiratorial. “I didn't realize you and Lane were seeing each other. When did that start?”

“Well,” Joan says, lifting one shoulder in a shrug, and giving the other woman what she hopes is a pointed look, although her voice is light. “You weren't supposed to see anything.”

Trudy's shaking her head, smile wide, and she gently taps Joan's elbow with her white pocketbook, as if they're sorority sisters making a successful match at a party. “And in your condition. The look on his face!” She sighs. “I just think that's adorable.”

Joan has a perverse urge to be witty – how do you think I developed this condition? – but she pushes it aside, in favor of a knowing smile. They've already been found out. And Trudy's going to tell Pete about it no matter what gets said. “He's very attentive.”

Lane returns before Trudy can make any more editorial comments, carrying several small cardboard books in one arm. “Joan, did you see they've got picture books at the—” clearing his throat as he realizes she's not alone— “oh. Mrs—Campbell. Hello.”

“Look who I bumped into,” Joan says as he comes to stand on her left, keeping her voice carefully neutral, and placing a hand to her wide stomach, where the baby is poking her in the side with what feels like a knee or an elbow. “Trudy's exchanging some baby gifts.”

“Ah. Isn't that—nice.”

“Lane, you must have felt your ears burning,” Trudy says in a playful tone, although her smile is completely innocent. “Your sweetheart was just complimenting you.”

Joan risks a glance to her left. God. He's already turning pink, briefly looking down to fuss with one of his cufflinks.

“Oh. I don't—know about—that. Erm...”

“Well,” Joan interrupts, brisk, because Lane won't be finding the end of that sentence anytime soon. “We certainly don't want to hold you up—”

Before she can finish, Pete appears at the end of the aisle, walking up to his wife. ”There you are, lovely. I assumed—” He pauses, sees Lane with an armful of baby books, and Joan with a rattle in one hand. “Oh.”

His suddenly wide grin borders on panicked, although he's clearly still processing the situation, staring from Joan to Lane like he's very confused as to why they're both here.

Joan gives Pete a perfunctory smile as she waits for him to speak.

“Hello,” he says finally.

“'Lo,” Lane replies, after an awkward silence. His face is still a little pink.

Joan bites the inside of her mouth to keep from laughing. At this rate, they could be here all night. “Trudy, it was nice talking to you.”

“Yes. And we've got to run, or we'll be late for our reservation,” Trudy says, tugging on Pete's arm, and beaming at Joan one last time. “Nice to see you both.”

“Take care,” Joan replies, with a polite wave.

The Campbells walk away, and after another minute of relative silence, Lane speaks, voice gruff. “She—called you my—sweetheart.” There's a question in his eyes, and he's trying not to smile, but it isn't working. The pride on his face is bright and obvious. What did you tell her?

Joan makes a noise of assent, patting his arm. Well, it wasn't going to be a secret forever. “Will you show me the stuffed animals?” she asks instead, with a little smile.

Lane's pleased expression widens into a grin.

 

Chapter Text

thirty-two weeks // february 1966

 

“Let me ask you something,” Roger walks toward Don's drink cart, half-full bottle of Absolut in his sights. He drops a single cube of ice into a gilded glass. “You think Lane's a homo?”

Don frowns at him, a manila folder hanging open in his hands. “What?”

“Don't give me that look.” He takes a gulp of his drink. “I'm serious.”

He's already spent too much time thinking about this. Now, every time he walks past the lounge, he looks into Red's window to see if she's alone. So far? No dice. Plus, he's running out of reasons to talk to Campbell's girl, not that she's noticed.

Lane probably wouldn't know what to do with a woman like Joan unless he had a compass and a field map. But he doesn't look twice at the steno pool, probably hasn't had a date since his wife split, and he's always in that office. And she doesn't care. There's got to be something kooky going on. Else it means she actually enjoys the man’s company. Or the work. Which is impossible.

“He was married,” Don counters. “With a kid.”

Roger scoffs. “So’s Lee.”

Thirty-six years in this business, he's always gonna remember the sound Lee made when the guy's balls were in his hand. God. He's had girls that were quieter. Not enough vodka in the world to tank that memory.

Meanwhile, Draper's pretending to be some kind of yokel, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “What do you want me to say?”

The buzzer sounds. Carolne's voice. “Mrs. Draper's here to see you.”

“Send her in.” He stares at Roger, hands spread as if in surrender. “Are you done?”

“Jesus.” Newlyweds. Can't do anything by themselves.

Megan gives him an irritated look as she walks inside. Roger takes the bottle of Absolut in hand, tipping the capped neck in her direction as he moves toward the door. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”

“It's one thirty,” he hears her say to Don before the door closes. He pulls a face. Girls.

**

“What if they make her a partner? Are we all supposed to give up some of our shares to ensure she and her paramour are on equal footing?”

Ken puts down his pencil, with a half-shrug. “Pete, you're taking this too personally. They're not getting married, for crying out loud.”

The other man scoffs. “Megan was promoted as soon as she and Don became engaged.”

“Okay, first of all: Joan isn't Lane's secretary. They're not engaged. And she's got an established position. So I count zero conflicts of interest.”

Pete growls out an unhappy noise, shaking his head like he can't believe they even have to have this conversation. “He's the chief of finance, Kenny. She's a—personnel manager, at best. There's going to be some kind of advancement.”

Ken sighs, wanting to derail this train before it can pick up speed. “She's going on leave in what, a couple of weeks? I really can't imagine her ambition being an issue for you.”

He's still trying to wrap his head around the fact that Lane actually kept a secret for so long. If those two are involved and are that serious about each other – and Ken's not sure if he believes it, to be honest – he’s surprised the news wasn't being passed around this office months ago.

Honestly. It's kind of impressive.

“I—think that's changed.” Pete steeples his hands over the desk, and slants a nervous look toward the shared wall with Roger's office, lowering his voice. “Lane is clearly her child's father. Now that he and Joan collude on all levels, who knows what else she may suddenly decide to want.”

“Wow,” Ken says, shaking his head. This is paranoia at its finest. It's practically an art.

Pete lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “It's going to affect us.”

“Listen,” Ken says, holding up two hands. “Best thing you can do is to stay out of it. If Joan and Lane are serious, they're serious. If she gets promoted, she gets promoted. Don't stir the pot.”

**

“Joan, Mr. Campbell is here to see you.”

“Send him in,” Joan replies, releasing the intercom button and trying to school her features into a more placid expression. What on god's green earth could he want from her?

“You're looking well,” he says as he enters with a cup of coffee, shutting the door behind him. She raises an eyebrow. He wouldn't be stupid enough to bring up her personal life, would he?

“Yes,” she answers, sweeping a bit of cigarette ash from the corner of her desk calendar. “Even in my condition.”

He smiles and laughs, although the good humor doesn't quite reach his eyes. “I imagine you had a productive weekend? Trudy was...heartened to see you.”

Jesus. She levels him with an unamused look. “What did she say?”

Pete doesn't even have the decency to blush, although he does avert his gaze for a moment, huffing out a noise like a sigh. “She was left with a very strong impression following our encounter. Obviously, I'm willing to correct any of her assumptions, should she be mistaken.”

“She's free to form her own opinions,” Joan says calmly.

“Yes, well,” Pete continues, setting his coffee aside onto the edge of Joan's desk. “This is a very delicate situation. I don't think you've given serious thought to its potential effects.”

“Excuse me?”

Pete fixes her with a pitying expression. “Personal attachments aside, your involvement with Lane is going to affect all of us. In a professional sense.”

Joan's voice is silk. “You must be joking.”

“People are going to talk,” he says, with a little lift of one eyebrow. “I'm sure you understand the types of rumors that will circulate, given the—” he glances at her stomach, “—timing.”

She sets her jaw against the insults that threaten to sail past her lips. “Well, that explains Trudy's strong impression.”

“I don't think you understand,” Pete continues in a haughty voice, as if he's trying to appeal to her rational nature. “If the two of you are—” and this is where he hesitates “—united, your position in the company will change. You'll have the ear of a voting partner. You'll wield greater influence. Are you honestly going to tell me he won't push to promote you as a result of your involvement?”

“You don't have the right to make baseless allegations.”

“Is that what you're planning to tell Bert? Or, god forbid, Roger?”

She can't stand up quickly in her condition, but sits as tall as she can manage, one finger pointed at the door, and her voice a sharp command. “Get out.”

Pete remains seated, glancing at her aggressive posture with something like apprehension. “You said it yourself when Don and Megan broke their own news. He won't want to be engaged to a secretary.”

“I'm not Lane's secretary,” she snarls, clenching one fist by her side to keep from throwing something fragile into his smug little face.

“But you're not his professional equal,” Pete says, standing now, and buttoning his jacket. “At the very least, you'll be moved to a non-administrative department. He may even push to make you a junior partner. Are you just going to allow him to do that?”

“You have no idea what you're talking about,” she counters, biting off every word.

Pete raises his eyebrows, and picks up his coffee from her desk. “We'll see.”

He walks out as if this was nothing more than a friendly chat.

Joan stays at her desk for another moment before deciding she needs to move. If she sits in here and stares at Pete's door long enough, she's going to do something very foolish. This is why they didn't want their personal life to be common knowledge. Unhappy people always try to poison the well.

She struggles into her coat, takes her purse from her desk, and exits her office, stopping only to speak to Bridget. “Messages?”

The blonde girl shakes her head, looking slightly concerned. Maybe she overheard something. Maybe it's written all across Joan's face.

“No—but—Mr. Pryce said to tell you he'll be back. He had a lunch meeting.”

“Oh,” Joan says dully. Well, she can't go into his office anyway, not after the argument she just had. She is not dependent on Lane. She doesn't need to speak to him every time she gets upset.

“I assume you're taking lunch?” the secretary asks, hesitant.

“Obviously,” Joan retorts, and strides toward reception, keeping her steps as brisk as she can make them, despite everything. If she has to dab discreetly at her eyes while waiting for the elevator, or in the lobby, or take out her handkerchief and wipe her nose after getting into a cab at the curb, no one seems to notice anything amiss.

**

“Jeez,” Ken says, eyeing the crowd of people at the front door from their booth in the back of the restaurant, “glad we beat the rush, huh?”

“Timed it well,” Lane says with a nod. Which is basically the fifth time he's said it since they got here. Ken snorts out a laugh, and as a hurried waitress rushes by their table, he taps her arm.

“Hey, when you get a chance, can you bring us a couple of whiskeys? Neat.”

“Oh,” Lane manages, as the waitress scurries away, “I don't think—there's really no need...”

“Already been done,” Ken replies, waving a hand, and deciding this is as good a time as any to broach the subject of Joan. They'd needed to meet anyway, and talked strategy for Bird's Eye before the food came, but really, he just wanted to get Lane out of the office. Strike up a casual conversation, maybe congratulate the guy before getting into Pete's wacky theories.

“So, a little birdie told me they saw you over the weekend. Helping Joan shop for baby stuff.”

Lane's eyes widen, but he doesn't say anything apart from, “Oh?”

“Well,” Ken says with a shrug, trying not to make it sound like an accusation. “Technically it was two birdies. Trudy mentioned it to my wife, who told me. And Cyn was really excited.”

Lane looks confused. Ken decides to clarify.

“She's dying to set you guys up. Keeps telling me you and Joan could be this...dynamic couple, and that I should invite you both for dinner.” He chuckles. “There's a whole scheme.”

Mostly revolving around something from the Christmas party? A look, or some offhand comment. Ken can't even remember what it was, just that Cynthia insists it was darling.

“Oh,” Lane says again, looking bemused now, like he doesn't know what to say.

“Yeah,” Ken says, with another shrug. He snags a french fry from his plate while they're still warm. “Anyway, if she starts asking you pointed questions at the next company party, she's matchmaking. Don't be offended.”

Lane does laugh at this, so hard his face turns red, and when he recovers, he gives Ken a significant look. “Well—please tell your wife that particular—favor isn't...necessary.” There's a little smile tugging at the corner of the older man’s mouth, although he's trying to hide it behind his teacup.

“So you two are an item,” Ken says slowly, raising an eyebrow.

And Lane laughs and blushes like it's his birthday and Christmas all at once. Ken shakes his head, grabbing another fry.

“How long's that been happening?”

“No, I really can't—say—anything else,” Lane insists quietly, glancing around like he's worried they might be overheard. Although the guy's grin is so wide, Ken's gonna be very surprised if he doesn't want to brag a little. It's Joan.

“Come on, you gotta give me something. Cyn'll kill me otherwise.”

**

Joan clutches a yellow cotton romper in one hand as she walks around the small baby boutique. The chest of the outfit is embroidered with a patch of blue and green and orange flowers. It's darling. But it would be far too big for a newborn. The baby wouldn't be able to wear this for at least six or eight months.

Joan’s been holding it for fifteen minutes already, and can't force herself to put it down. Early in the second trimester, after Greg died, she'd begun to carve out a kind of quiet hour. She'd stop somewhere for a sandwich or a hamburger – happy to be able to eat again – and afterward, would walk one or two blocks in either direction. One particularly energetic day, she'd walked three, and had stumbled onto this boutique. It's tiny, but elegant, and Joan finds the environment calming. Even now, it's something that's just hers.

“My goodness,” says a strawberry blonde woman to Joan's right. She looks like she can't be more than twenty five. “You're ready to pop, aren't you?”

“Well,” Joan says, glancing down at her enormous stomach, not even hidden by the panels of her camel coat. “Not quite. I'm due next month.”

And she's bigger than most. The patients in the waiting room during her doctor's appointments all seem very petite by comparison. She slants an envious look at the other woman's flat stomach. It doesn't go unnoticed.

“Fifteen weeks,” the woman volunteers. “I'm—not showing.”

Joan offers her a smile. “In fifteen more weeks, you'll be wistful. I can't even see my feet.”

The younger woman glances downward, and pulls a considering face, as if this isn't a surprise. “You are wearing two different shoes.”

Joan's mouth drops open, and she cranes her neck to try and see it for herself, although this is impossible.

The other woman briefly presses a hand to her mouth, either because she's embarrassed or because she's trying not to laugh. “One's black and the other's a dark navy—you can't really tell unless it's in the light. I'm sorry. It's really not obvious.”

Joan growls out a frustrated noise, shaking her head. “Lane.”

This morning, she kept knocking clothes off hangers trying to pick out her shoes. Lane volunteered to get them instead. And he swore these were the black ones. How could he not see that they were two different colors? Is he that blind without his glasses?

“Well, I think it's cute,” the blonde says. “Maybe you'll start a trend.”

They're silent for a moment, perusing an island display full of bibs, burping cloths, and diapers. Joan puts her free hand to the middle of her stomach, near her navel, where the sole of the baby's foot pushes insistently against her palm. What kind of wriggling is she doing in there?

“Bobby and I've only been married four months,” the young woman whispers with a guilty look, motioning Joan closer like she's afraid the sales clerks will overhear. “He jokes this is our Vermont souvenir.”

We're not even married, Joan thinks, but gestures to her stomach with a small smile, in an attempt to keep the moment light. “Well, this one happened at work.”

The young woman raises her eyebrows, clearly shocked. “You and your husband still work together?”

Joan does not let herself dwell on why the sentiment makes her so wistful. “Yes. We do.”

**

“Yes, all right, we'll have one more,” Lane says to their waitress, chuckling now as she takes away some of the empty plates, and turning back to Ken. “Sorry—were you saying something?”

Ken snorts out a laugh. “Just that Pete's cooking up some crazy theories. The guy thinks you two are gonna run some elaborate coup once your relationship comes out.”

Lane's staring at him as if he's gone insane. “What?”

“He thinks Joan's gonna steal all his partnership shares, or that she'll get promoted over him. I kept reminding him she's going on leave. She'll kinda have her hands full.”

The older man's laugh has subsided into kind of an appraising frown. “Well, not—forever, obviously,” he says, slowly, like an idea's taking root in his brain. He lapses into silence, staring at his napkin and tearing an edge from a corner, until he seems to realize Ken's waiting for him to say something else. “Sorry. I—don't know why I never considered that. For her.”

“What, a promotion?”

Lane shakes his head, gaze still distant, like he's running the probabilities in his mind. “No—erm, partnership.”

Honestly, Ken doesn't have a dog in this fight. If he could support himself with his writing, he'd give his notice and be out the door tomorrow. And he knows Pete only brought up partnership shares as a joke. But if Lane's taking it seriously...

“You really think she'd be interested in that?”

Hell, maybe Pete's right. Maybe things have changed.

“Well, she could—do the work easily,” Lane says with a shrug, as if that's all the reason he needs. “But that's only—if she wanted. I—I don't know. I...suppose I ought to...ask.”

Ken raises his eyebrows. If Lane thinks she's easily partner material, she must be even sharper than she lets on. Maybe that's part of the reason they get along so well. “Okay,” he says, not knowing what else to tell the guy, since it's all hypothetical anyway, “well, let me know when the big day arrives. I'll bring a camera. We'll celebrate.”

Maybe he can get a picture of the scowl on Pete's face as they all swig champagne in the conference room. Frankly, that would be hilarious.

Lane blinking at him with a stunned expression. “Do you—honestly mean that?”

“Yeah. Come on. It'd be great.”

Joan's sharp, she's got gumption, and she doesn't spend her days floating inside a vodka bottle. Far as he's concerned, she'd probably be fine.

Before Ken can say anything else, Lane reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a creased booklet the size of a brochure. He slides it across the table. Face-up is a two-page color spread of diamond rings. Nice ones.

Lane's hands twitch on top of the table, and he quickly looks away, taking a drink of his tea before pushing the mug aside. “She—doesn't know. Well. Obviously.”

Ken's still staring at the booklet, open-mouthed. Cynthia is gonna have a cow.

“Holy crap.”

**

Even after a long lunch, and four cigarettes, and an hour spent in the baby boutique, Joan's still upset enough to feel a surge of irritation as she boards the elevator in the lobby. Outlandish theories aside, Pete's condescension is inexcusable. How dare he imply she isn't qualified to do more than her current job. She was working and had account experience before he had the chance to stumble out of an Ivy League fraternity party. He doesn't get to underestimate her.

When the doors slide open on floor sixty-seven, Joan exits the elevator with surprising speed, passing through reception and into the office with purposeful steps, and making a beeline for Pete's office. The door is closed. She'll solve that. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Clara rising from her chair. “Joan—what are you—”

Joan ignores her, throws open the door with as much force as she can muster, and fixes her sights on Pete as she walks inside, her voice a snarl.

“Let me make something very clear to you. I don't care what you think about my personal life, or what delusions you've drawn from it, but I refuse to be the scapegoat for your professional insecurities.”

“Excuse me?” Pete sputters, face frozen in an outraged scowl.

“If I wanted something so petty as to change jobs,” she continues, every word as sharp as ice, “I wouldn't need nepotism to accomplish it. Without my work, this agency would still be operating out of a hotel room.”

From the chair opposite Pete's desk, Harry Crane blinks at her, loose papers slowly dropping from his hands into the floor, his mouth slack with shock.

Pete, meanwhile, has recovered some of his composure, and looks at her with narrowed eyes, pushing away a thick file on his desk. When he speaks, he practically scoffs out the words. “And you say you aren't ambitious. I don't believe you.”

“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?”

Joan cuts Harry off with a raised hand. “Don't talk. You'll embarrass yourself.”

She fixes Pete with one last glare, turns as gracefully as she can manage, and sweeps past a wide-eyed Clara, who's lingering awkwardly on the other side of the doorway. Moving into her office and toward the bar behind her desk, Joan finally pauses to pour herself a small dram of gin. She sips this with a tiny sigh of relief, tapping two fingers against the delicate glass.  Now she feels better.

 

Chapter Text

thirty-four weeks // march 1966

 

The partners’ meeting is scheduled for ten o’clock. At nine forty-eight, Joan’s already sitting in the conference room with her folio and stenography pad, reviewing the long list she's prepared for Scarlett, Clara, and Bridget. All the tasks have been organized and divided into sections per each girl's strengths, although both Scarlett and Clara will likely end up helping with the books. It will need to be reviewed for the final time today, before Joan's leave begins.

The secretaries are also throwing her a small baby shower during lunch. Between making sure everyone understands their work to the letter and taking the time necessary for the party, Joan's not sure when she's going to be able to finish payroll. She may have to do it over the weekend. Which Lane will hate. Every day she gets closer to delivering, he's become more fussy. It would be endearing if she could get up from the couch without him giving her nervous looks.

When the glass doors squeak open, she looks up expecting to see Lane, but finds Roger in the doorway instead, a white coffee cup in one hand. When he sees her, he raises the mug in Joan's direction instead of saying hello, slumping into the seat next to her with a loud huff.

“Jane informed me over breakfast that she wants a baby. I told her I'd rather take a flying leap from the roof.”

Joan raises an eyebrow. The girl's an idiot if she thinks having a baby will make Roger into a better husband. “Well, I'm sure she was thrilled.”

He scoffs out a laugh, and takes a quick sip from his mug. She’d bet good money there’s vodka in it. There's already an edge to his voice. “Ah, come on, Joanie. Want to talk her out of it?”

“No.” A small smile plays around the corners of her mouth.

There's a long silence, and when she looks back at Roger, he's watching her with an intent expression. “You know, every time I walk by your office, you're in there with Lane.” He takes a drag of a freshly-lit cigarette, and leans back in his chair as if wanting to relax. She knows better. He's studying her reaction. “Why do you let him hang around all the time?”

She forces herself to breathe normally, waiting for a more specific question, or the upcoming accusation. “You make it sound like I've got two shadows.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues, as if the insinuation isn't rude, “I know you like feeling important, but if you wanted company during the workday, I've been told I’m very distracting.”

Joan narrows her eyes at the words, but she keeps her voice as light as she can. “In this condition, I'm not looking for distractions.”

He snorts out an amused noise, sitting up in his chair. Even jealousy is a shade he wears with humor. “Come on. You really want to listen to Lord Milquetoast talk about the free market? I could throw a rock through this window and hit twelve people who are more interesting.”

Joan fixes him with a warning look, lighting a cigarette in an attempt to keep her temper in check. “I find our conversations fascinating.”

Her pale eyes sweep over Roger’s in a way that dares him to contradict her.

“You’re kidding,” is all he says.

She doesn't smile.

He scoffs at her lack of amusement. “But you don’t even—”

Recognition takes over his face. Roger stops talking, his eyes widen, and he stares at Joan, mouth slightly open, as if he’s never seen her before. “Jesus.”

It gets worse. He actually starts laughing, the sound loud and obnoxious as it echoes throughout the otherwise empty room.

“Stop it,” she says in a low voice.

He laughs even harder, but after a few moments, manages to get himself under control. When he speaks again, his voice has an incredulous edge. “Come on, Red. Tell me you’re not serious.”

“Try me,” she returns, purposefully calm.

“Him.” Roger’s voice has gotten louder, betraying how upset he is by this turn of events. “For god's sake, Joanie, he doesn't even know you.”

Joan just looks back at him, knowing the color’s rising in her face, and trying to maintain her composure by tapping her cigarette in the nearest ashtray. She keeps her tone as even as she can. “Does saying that make you feel better?"

Roger's expression keeps shifting between confusion and disgust. “Your baby doesn't need a father that bad.”

Joan bites her cheek so hard she tastes blood. Her reply is sharp. “I think you should take your opinions somewhere else.”

He scoffs at her curt dismissal, grabbing his coffee cup and rising from his chair. “Unbelievable.”

Before she can say anything, he’s gone from the conference room and heading for his office, the glass door slowly creaking closed in his wake.

**

Everyone else is late to the meeting. When she glances to Lane for some kind of answer regarding the delay, he shakes his head with a sigh and scribbles a quick note on the edge of a message slip. Nigel phoned again.

Joan tries to whisper her own news under pretext of a spreadsheet correction, but Lane doesn't hear it. He just blinks at her with the puzzled, benign look he sometimes uses on difficult clients and says something like oh, yes, of course. And she isn't able to write it down before Roger saunters in again, and takes a seat next to Mr. Cooper. For the first time in twelve years she feels nervous around him. Like his spontaneity is a liability instead of a pleasant distraction.

Ten minutes later, Lane's in the middle of a long-winded explanation about American Cancer Society and the tax exemption statuses of charitable organizations when Roger finally snaps.

“Can it, Henry Higgins. I'm sick of listening to this bullshit.”

Pete, Don, and Mr. Cooper all turn to stare at Roger, clearly stunned.

Lane just sets his jaw, glancing down at his notes. “You've started early,” he mutters, in the passive-aggressive mumble he uses when he's trying not to lose his temper at work.

“What the hell did you say to me?!”

“What is your problem?” Don asks loudly, staring from Roger to Lane, eyes narrowed.

“Roger, this is not the time for one of your temper tantrums,” Pete huffs with a sigh, like he's only offended by the lapse of professional decorum, and only sparing Joan a cursory glance. She blinks back at him in surprise. He sounds like he's getting ready to defend her, which would be unprecedented.

Roger throws his cigarette into the nearest ashtray, staring at the Englishman with unadulterated loathing before turning his glare on the rest of the room. “What's the matter? Too chickenshit to tell them the truth?”

“Roger!” Joan snaps.

He slams a hand down onto the table. “You're fucking him! Just admit it!”

Joan averts her eyes to the table for a brief moment, too humiliated to meet anyone's gaze. A heavy silence lingers over the table. Lane is the first one to break it.

“How dare you speak to her that way!”

She glances to her left. Two spots of red have appeared on Lane's cheeks, and there's a vein standing out on his forehead. The pencil in his hand has snapped into two pieces, which he sweeps off the table. One of them hits the side of Pete's chair with a clatter.

Joan forces herself to look back at Roger. It's sinking in, now. She can see it in the deep flush that creeps up from his collar, and in his shock-wide eyes as he speaks. “Jesus. You're not even gonna say anything?”

“Because you're acting like an immature child!” Lane roars.

“Shut up!” Roger yells back, pitching one of Don's files into the floor.

“Roger,” Cooper interrupts, holding up a hand for silence. His voice brooks no room for arguments. “Control yourself.”

Joan's throat feels tight, and she purses her lips, knowing if she tries to say anything, she's going to start crying. She can't cry in front of everyone. Not in a partners meeting. She pushes away her stenography pad and rises from her seat with difficulty. Five heads turn to stare at her as she moves.

“Don't—” Lane begins, reaching toward her.

She shakes her head no, and storms out of the room, sailing into her own office without even turning on the lights. She doesn't even stop for a cigarette or a drink, just pulls open the orange curtains and then the wooden half-doors which hide the intercom, jabbing violently at the on switch and turning the volume up as high as she dares.

A cacophony of voices clicks to life in a burst of static:

—widow, and she's lonely! You're taking advantage of her condition!

You are— blinded by your own petty delusions—

Jesus, Roger, would you just—

–discussing it? This is an office!

Sudden scraping noises, like people pushing chairs aside and jumping to their feet. Joan moves closer to the curtain, one hand moving to her necklace and twisting anxiously at the link between the chain and pendant.

Lane's shouting now, voice loud and forceful. You're a spoiled, selfish ass, and you will never be so vulgar to Joan again—not ever, do you understand me?!

Roger. Cooper again. Apologize.

To him? Never, Roger sneers in a mocking voice.

There's more rustling—Joan can't place the sound—and Lane speaks again, voice as low and clipped as before, a tone that sends cold dread into her stomach. When he gets quiet and angry, he's close to losing his temper.

You and I are going to settle that remark.

Oh, god. He can't be serious.

A noise like a laugh or a scoff. Put your hands up, Professor.

Pete's voice is high and nervous, but Joan's not sure if he's just speaking to Lane or the room at large. You—you're not honestly going to—

Campbell, Lane interrupts, and it's with a raised voice again. Get the damn curtains.

After a pause, Joan hears footsteps, followed by the telltale rat-a-tat sound of blinds being drawn across a metal track.

**

First, Peggy hears yelling across the hall. When she steps outside her office to find out what's going on, she's met with tense silence, except for the click and rustle of curtains in the conference room being drawn. She catches a brief glimpse of Pete's face before it's obscured behind the fabric. His pinched expression makes her pause for a moment in the hallway, just long enough to hear a muffled thud and a clatter, like the sound of something crashing into a wall or a table.

What the hell?

Automatically, Peggy moves toward the open door of Joan's office. Once she gets past the doorway, she realizes the other woman is already two steps ahead of her. The intercom is turned up and the lights are off. Joan is standing by the orange curtains with a terrified expression on her face, one hand resting on the frame of the intercom, and one twisting at the chain of her necklace, near the pendant. When she sees Peggy, she motions for her to be quiet.

On the other side of the wall are the clear sounds of a fistfight—grunts and rustling and blows punctuated occasionally by someone knocking into the shared wall. Peggy jumps as a crash echoes just a few feet from where she's standing.

“Why—” Peggy begins, but Joan shushes her again, shaking her head like she doesn't have time to explain. Judging by the way the other woman's lips are pressed into a thin line, it's more like she can't. She looks really upset.

Roger's voice comes over the intercom, loud and breathless. He almost sounds like he's laughing. What was that? Give up yet?

Bastard, comes the furious reply, a harsh hiss, and it's Lane, for god's sake.Holy crap.

“What the hell happened?” Peggy blurts in a whisper.

The other woman's not even paying attention, just staring fixedly at the intercom. For several minutes, they stand together in silence, listening to the fight like it's just another a radio program.

You think she's in love with you?   Roger taunts the other man, now sounding gleeful, if winded. You think her kid's gonna call you daddy—

There's a savage yell, a clash of bodies, and a resounding thud so forceful it shakes the shared wall and the floor of Joan's office. The scuffle goes on for several seconds until it's stopped by a crack and a loud howl of pain.

Peggy gasps. Joan's mouth is open in silent horror, one hand twisted around the chain of her necklace. Next door, pandemonium reigns.

Jesus Christ!

This is medieval.

Get him up. Now!

Footsteps sound among the scuffling noises, like someone is finally separating them. The next person to speak is Don. Thank god.

Lane? Lane. Look at me.

Oh my god. Did he get knocked out? What happened?

“Peggy,” Joan manages in a very small voice, and when the younger woman looks over she notices Joan is as white as a sheet, hand gripping the lip of the intercom frame. She's wobbling on her feet as if she's woozy, as if she's about to faint. Without thinking, Peggy shoves some files from the nearest blue chair and drags it over to Joan, wooden legs squeaking as it gets pulled across the tile.

“God,” she blurts, watching Joan sink into a sitting position, eyes squeezed closed, her hands braced flat against the armrests. “Okay—just—take some deep breaths. Everything's okay.”

Sit him in that chair. Tip his head back.

Please don't pass out. Please don't pass out. Oh, god, please don't pass out.

She rushes toward the minibar behind Joan's desk. Beside the alcohol bottles is an unopened bottle of water. Peggy grabs this in blind panic. As she's taking it back to Joan, there's a grunt over the intercom, like someone finally getting up from the floor.

Lane's voice comes through, rough and quiet. No, it's—just my spectacles.

Joan lets out a long, shaky breath.

In the other room, there's a noise like glass crunching under someone's shoes. He really doesn't sound that bad, all things considered. Peggy's this close to saying as much when her attempt to speak is interrupted by a strangled cry.

You broke my fucking nose!  Roger's voice is thick and muffled, like he's covering his face, or – more likely – because he's bleeding all over the floor.

Peggy's so stunned she has to set down the bottle of water to keep from dropping it. Joan seems just as shocked, covering her mouth with one hand, a flurry of emotions playing across her face.

Let me examine it, Cooper says.

A short pause. There's a hiss of breath and a long string of curses, like whatever Cooper did was too painful to endure. A long pause stretches over the room before Roger's voice is heard again. The hell are you staring at, Errol Flynn?

Pete, Don snaps, the name a single command. Get him out of here.

The door to the conference room opens and slams shut, followed by two sets of quick footsteps moving across the tile. Even with Joan's door cracked, Peggy can't see anything, but Lane must look like hell. The shocked reactions are audible.

“Fuck,” she hears Ginsberg exclaim, as the door to Lane's office slams closed.

Cooper's speaking again, ostensibly to Roger. A foolish bird fouls his own nest.

Bert, Don mutters, sounding exhausted. Don't.

The intercom suddenly clicks off. Joan must not want to hear any more. Peggy's still staring at the stream of light from the hallway, wondering if it's safe to wander outside, when a strangled noise makes her turn back toward her friend.

The other woman is hiding her face in both hands, body shaking with quiet sobs, and Peggy's stomach jumps into her throat at the sight. Shit.

“Oh, my god, Joan, no. It's—it's okay.” She puts a tentative hand to the redhead's shoulder, not knowing what else to do, and moves her palm back and forth in what she hopes is a soothing motion. “Lane won, at least, so that's....good.”

She keeps blurting out the stupidest things in an attempt to land on something that will help Joan calm down. Roger's an asshole. He deserved it. You know my sister once had two boys fight over her? She was fourteen. She still talks about it. Did you know Stan calls you and Lane Mom and Dad?

After a minute, Joan pulls her hands away from her face to wipe her damp eyes with the fingertips of one hand. Her nose and cheeks are bright red, and her mouth is trembling like she's barely hanging onto her composure.

“Here,” Peggy prompts quietly, remembering the water at her feet, and offering her friend the sealed bottle. “You should drink something.”

The other woman shakes her head no, mouth twitching down. When she speaks, her voice is a rasp, like she's about to start crying again. “I can't.”

She still looks like she's going to pass out. And she's now holding her taut, round stomach with a pained expression, making Peggy's blood pressure go through the roof. What if something's wrong with the baby? What should she do?

“Can you eat? I could get something, or we could—”

There's a throat-clearing from the doorway, and very slight movement. Joan glances up with a panicked gasp, but even before Peggy can look to confirm it for herself, she knows who it is. Joan's eyes go soft, and she makes a beckoning motion with one hand.

Peggy stands up and quickly moves toward the other door, trying not to stare at Lane as he walks closer. His face is haggard and bruised, even in the dim light, and he kneels beside Joan's chair with a grunt, movements stiff. As Peggy steps into the hall, she hears Joan's voice, a tremulous whisper.

“I'm so sorry.”

Lane reaches for her hand before it can touch his face, shaking his head, and it's such an intimate moment that Peggy feels her skin crawl, witnessing it. She shuts the door, realizing too late that she's still carrying Joan's bottle of water in her left hand. Damn it.

And even worse, there's crying in the kitchen, too—Bridget, of all people, being consoled by Caroline and Scarlett.

“Everything's ruined,” she's sobbing loudly to the other secretaries, clutching a yellow slip of carbon paper in one hand. “The cake's c—coming in an hour—and e-everyone's—”

“Honey,” Caroline says with a sigh, putting a soothing hand on the girl's arm, “we'll put it off until the afternoon. I promise you, we've had worse parties.”

“When?” Scarlett blurts, like a complete idiot.

Oh, god, the baby shower. It's going to be shitty.

In a kind of frantic desperation, just to find someone in this office who isn't breaking down completely, Peggy heads straight for the creative lounge, where Stan, Megan and Ginzo are clustered in their usual places around the red sofa, staring at her. Clearly dying to ask questions. There's an empty spot next to Stan, on the side of the couch nearest reception, and she stalks up and sinks into the cushions with a relieved huff of breath, briefly closing her eyes.

“Is Joan okay?” Megan asks in a tentative voice.

Peggy shakes her head, sighing again. “Would you be?”

**

“They have a joint checking account,” Scarlett whispers, slanting a nervous look at the shared wall with Joan's office, and depositing one last pan full of glass shards into the trash. She's fairly sure Mr. Pryce and Joan have gone into his office by now, but she's not going to take any chances on being overheard. “I opened the statement by accident. It's been active for months.”

Clara looks up from where she's kneeling on the floor, scrubbing two tiny spots of blood from the tile with a rag. “Don't you have to be married to have joint checking?”

“No,” Scarlett breathes, with a kind of double take. “Mr. Pryce wasn't even—when did Joan's husband die, again?”

“Halloween?” Clara asks, pulling a face. “October. She started eating a lot.”

“They can't be married. She hasn't changed her name—and in her condition—it's just so fast.

The other girl laughs, getting to her feet and examining the clean tile with satisfaction. “That's one word for it.”

**

“She called him her rabbit? When the hell was this?”

Megan grins at Stan's slack-jawed expression, and lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Weeks ago.”

“Man, I told you they were hot and heavy,” he says triumphantly—loudly. Glancing next door, he quickly lowers his voice. “He's been in love with her forever.”

“Years,” Megan specifies, with a knowing look. “Once, he sent her a box of red roses. She threw them in his face.”

“Bullshit.”

“I had to clean up the mess. I saw the card.”

Hearing Lane and Joan fight was odd, even then, because they've always been so restrained around each other. But that blowup was office gossip for weeks, especially since someone got fired.

“Oh, really? So what'd it say?”

Stan looks so eager for the rest of the story he may as well be a gossipy teenager. Megan has to stifle a laugh. “I don't remember exactly.” Something beginning with darling. “He signed with kisses.”

“Okay, he's definitely the father,” Stan insists, lifting his hands as if he can't believe they're even having this conversation. “Ginzo, back me up. What'd I tell Peggy?”

“Will you stop crowing about it!” Ginsberg barks from the corner, crumpling up a sheet of paper and throwing it in the direction of Stan's face. “You're giving me a fucking headache!”

**

Even in the privacy of his own office, Pete takes care to make sure he's whispering. Surely Roger would have gone to the emergency room. He wouldn't be next door. “Lane tackled him to the ground. And broke his nose.”

Harry's face is very pale, mouth hanging open in an oh of surprise. “Holy crap.”

Ken just sighs. “Shouldn't have yelled at Joan.”

“No,” Pete replies, still dazed, although it's been more than an hour. “Lane made his feelings on that subject very clear.”

Immediately following the fight, he'd spent a brief moment inside the older man's office before being booted out, standing awkwardly beside the coffee table while Lane poured gin into a glass with a shaking hand. If he ever makes my wife cry again, I will break his filthy neck!

Pete had forced himself not to point out the glaring verbal slip, venturing a careful reply instead. I don't think that will be an issue.

“Did she and Roger really have a thing?” Harry's looking from Ken to Pete, confusion etched into his face. “At Sterling Coop?”

Pete gives a helpless shrug. Joan used to have admirers following her around the agency like a pack of wild dogs. Roger was never one of them. But there was no mistaking his fraught expression as he stared at Joan, or his raspy voice. You're not even gonna say anything. “They did seem familiar.”

There's a brief silence. Eventually, Harry breaks it, unwrapping a lollipop he pulls out of his pocket, and sticking this into his mouth with a satisfied noise. “You know, Stan thinks Lane got her pregnant. I overheard him telling Peggy.”

“Jesus,” Ken says with a wince, rubbing one hand over the back of his neck.

“Oh, come on,” Harry continues loudly, gesturing toward Kenny with an open hand, as if the reasoning for this theory ought to be obvious. “Aren't you and Lane friendly? I bet he would tell you.”

“Yeah, let me just check if Joan cheated on her dead husband,” the other man counters, rolling his eyes. “He can beat my face in at the next traffic meeting.”

For once, Pete doesn't laugh, remembering the thunderous look in Lane's eyes as he rushed at Roger Sterling. “He's taking her reputation very seriously. I don't think you should joke about that.”

“The guy can't break all our noses,” Harry scoffs.

Pete glares at him. “You weren't even there!”

**

“Um,” says Peggy, watching Joan drain the last of her gin fizz in a single gulp, and gingerly pushing her own plate across the plastic table. A pastrami sandwich on greasy buttered bread sits untouched next to a large portion of potato chips. “Do you want any of this? I'm not hungry.”

“It looks disgusting,” Joan says pointedly.

“Okay,” Peggy replies after a pause, and decides not to speak again.

After another second of silence, Joan reaches toward the full plate, spears the pickle with her fork and cuts it into two halves before taking a huge bite. She chews and swallows her mouthful before speaking again, voice quiet and rushed. “I'm not going home.”

“I wasn't—going to ask,” Peggy stutters, brow drawing down in confusion. She watches Joan take another bite of pickle. “Do you...want another drink, or something?”

**

Lane sits behind his desk, staring blankly at the face of his pocket watch, which he's placed face-up on the surface of the wood. Quarter past one.

Christ.

Joan had absolutely refused to go home, even after crying in his office for twenty minutes, even as he'd rationalized and pleaded that it would be best. She'd only dug her heels in at his insistence, sobbing even harder. I'm not leaving!

A knock sounds at the door. Lane ignores it.

They spent nearly an hour together in his office after the fight, not speaking, just lying on opposite ends of the sofa. She curled up on her side with one arm wrapped around her stomach, petting the top of her belly and murmuring something to the baby that he couldn't hear. He put ice on his hand. Soon afterward, she went for a long lunch with Miss Olson, who until now is the only other person to have knocked on his door.

The summons comes again, more insistent this time, and accompanied by a voice. “It's Caroline. Are you busy?”

He growls out a sigh, staring at the abacus on his desk. “For god's sake, just—come in, then!”

The door opens. When Caroline glimpses his face, she raises her eyebrows – he knows he looks like hell, thank you very much, he feels like it, too – but she doesn't say a word about his appearance, just pushes the door closed with the tip of one shoe. She's balancing a full cup of pink punch in two hands, and gestures toward him with it.

“I can spike it, if you want,” she says, with a wavering smile. “I just thought you'd like some.”

“Fine,” he grumbles, frustrated by the inane interruption.

“Say ramshackle,” the secretary replies casually, raising the cup with a little flourish, as if she's completely forgotten the word please.

“Why in god's name would I do that? Ramshackle?!”

Caroline lets out a relieved sigh, moving to the bar, setting down the half-full cup, and picking out a bottle of gin from the lineup on the credenza. “Oh, good. I don't know what I would do if you were too far gone to say it.”

Belatedly, it occurs to him that the secretary is making sure he hasn't overdone it, and perhaps he should thank her. But he's being childish and doesn't want to speak, so he just keeps quiet, mumbling a thanks only after she sets the glass on his desk.

After a hesitation, she sits down in the chair opposite his, twisting her hands in her lap.

“You've something to say?” he asks, waving a hand to mean she may as well get it over with.

She sighs again, fixing him with a sort of commiserating expression. “I know you don't want to be social, but are you stopping by Joanie's party?”

“Not in the mood,” he snaps, instead of giving her an outright no.

“I don't blame you,” she says simply, after an awkward pause, and thank god there are no excuses for that bastard's behavior, no attempts at explanation or pleas for pity. “She's not even back from lunch.”

“Isn't she?” he asks dully, trying not to sound surprised.

Caroline shakes her head.

He stares into the sea of vibrant pink punch in his glass, not wanting to give voice to the anxieties creeping into the back of his mind. What if she did go home? What if she's angry with me?

“I don't know why she wanted to stay,” he growls instead, crossing his arms over his chest as he speaks. “It's only a party. We could have another.”

When he looks up, Caroline has fixed him with a type of disappointed look, her voice a gentle reprimand. “The girls wanted her last day to be special.”

Lane frowns, not sure whether she is implying he ought to know how much the girls will miss having Joan around the office. Or to understand how special a time this is for her, on the cusp of having a baby. His baby. Either way, he feels the heavy weight of guilt press against his chest, and shifts uncomfortably in his chair, trying not to meet the secretary's eyes.

“Anyway, when you feel up to it, you should stop by.” Caroline rises from her chair, with a shrug of one shoulder. “She'd miss you. And we got a cake from down the street.”

“I should hope it's red velvet,” he grumbles after a long pause, pretending not to care about the answer either way. For a litany of complicated and strange reasons, the only kind of dessert Joan finds tolerable at this point is red velvet cake with white icing—the rich Philadelphia kind. Anything else gives her an upset stomach.

She nods, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Don't worry. We remembered.”

**

“My goodness.” Joan unfolds strips of yellow tissue paper from a large box to reveal a yellow and green baby quilt with a white border. The panels feature alphabet blocks and rattles in several colors. “Caroline, did you make this?”

The older woman just laughs as she places her cup of punch on the table. “My grandson got into my sewing box, so the first panel's a little messy near the corner.”

“It's lovely,” Joan says. “Thank you.”

This isn't the baby shower she had in mind. She wanted a party that was fun, and vibrant, and free of sentimental goodbyes and awkward silences and more than a few nervous glances. But now that she's finally stopped crying, had a slice of cake, and a few glasses of what must have been spiked punch—Peggy kept handing cups to her without comment—she's almost starting to feel sharp relief, instead of the paralyzing shame and embarrassment from this morning.

Almost. It's still taking considerable effort to put on a bright face.

Clara jots down the item on her stenography pad, then places a medium-sized, silver-papered box in front of Joan, who unwraps it to discover a turquoise silk bathrobe nestled inside. On closer inspection, the card on the lid of the box is clearly marked best wishes, from the Drapers. She turns to Megan with a raised eyebrow. It's extremely impractical.

“This isn't the baby's size.”

The young woman laughs, not seeming embarrassed. “I thought you might like having something to wear after you delivered. My mother always hated maternity smocks.”

There's a snort from the far left corner, followed by Stan's voice. “Are we even allowed to see that? Or is that only meant for—”

Peggy hits him in the arm before he can finish the sentence, causing him to blurt out an ow! But an anxious titter still runs through the room. For better or worse, they all know who he means.

Joan meets Megan's amused glance, suppresses a sigh, and holds up part of the item accordingly, to prove there's no real salaciousness. It's just pretty.

“I like the color,” Bridget offers, and there's a general murmur of agreement to Joan's right.

“Okay,” says Clara, whisking away the silver paper and placing a large package in front of her, using both hands as if it's very heavy to control. “Open this one next. It's from Mr. Cooper.”

Joan makes an impressed face, glancing down the creative hallway by reflex to see if the man himself might come inside to tell her more about why he chose it. He doesn't. He rarely attends these kinds of parties. But in the shadows near her office, just behind the open doorway where the secretaries are standing, she spies another familiar profile.

Lane obviously doesn't want to draw attention to himself, so she quickly looks away. But as she finishes unwrapping the gift—an ornate rectangular wooden box, whose lid boasts an elaborate carving of three blooming cherry trees beside a rippling lake; two of them large, one just a sapling—and shows it off to the room, she notices him moving closer. Now, he lingers just outside the door to the conference room, a cup of punch in one hand.

Joan glances back down to the gift, touching the polished wood with her fingertips. Three trees. How did Mr. Cooper know?

“He's very generous,” she says to excuse her sentimentality, dabbing at her eyes before she can ruin her makeup again, and offering the room as large a smile as she can manage. This constant crying will be a part of pregnancy she won't miss.

“He's making the rest of us look like chumps,” Harry pipes up, in a voice that says he's only half-joking. The room laughs anyway. And amid the laughter, in a movement so quick it's barely noticeable, Ken Cosgrove glances left, sees Lane in the doorway, and gives the other man a small nod.

Joan has to force herself not to stare, and motions for Clara to bring over another present. “What about the bag with the red paper?”

“Oh, that's mine!” the young secretary says, giving Joan a grin. “I think you'll like it.”

 

Chapter Text

thirty-seven weeks // march 1966

 

“Now, under current assets following liabilities and capital are the net receivables and short term investments, which form the proprietary bulk of company assets. Taken altogether, these sums function as a double-entry equation which should rise or fall depending on changes in accounts—”

Someone clears their throat. Lane stops pacing, and looks up from his notes, glancing toward the sofa where the two secretaries sit side by side. Clara has one hand raised in the air as if she's in school, a stricken expression on her face. Scarlett, meanwhile, is staring at her stenography pad, giving off a very studious impression although he's certain she hasn't written a thing in minutes. She's just blinking down at the page, mouth slightly open, as if the entire concept of accounting is completely beyond her reach.

“For heaven's sake, Clara, what is it now?” he snaps, put out by the girl's constant questions. He can hardly finish a sentence. It's driving him mad.

“I'm sorry. It's just—I don't understand what you meant before. Can you go back a little?”

He's been explaining the concepts of basic accounting to them for over an hour. How on earth does it take them this long to learn how to undertake an act so simple as bookkeeping?

“What, precisely, do you not understand?”

“Net receivables,” Clara says with a little shrug, flipping through the last few pages of her notes.

Lane lets out a sigh. “Well, what about net receivables?”

“I don't know what they are.” The response is not even phrased as a question.

Scarlett lets out a laugh at the other girl's words, and quickly muffles it by covering her mouth with one hand. When she pulls her palm away a few seconds later, the amusement is generally gone, although her eyes twinkle as if she might start up again at any moment.

He has to resist the twin urges to curse aloud and crumple up the piece of paper in his hand, and lets out another sigh instead, beginning to pace.

“We have been over this twice—”

**

“My god, Joanie, if you get any bigger, I'll swear you're expecting twins.”

“Don't even say that,” Joan groans, leveling her mother with a frustrated look as she shifts her weight in the cushioned booth, in a futile attempt to get comfortable. As of today's doctor's appointment, she's gained twenty-eight pounds. Her back throbs constantly, her joints ache, and—to add insult to injury—her feet have ballooned to the point where she had to buy two new pairs of shoes. One and a half sizes larger than usual. Her fingers are so swollen they feel like vienna sausages. “How the hell could anyone carry two at once?”

One's bad enough, she thinks, drumming her fingers against the top of her belly in an attempt not to say it aloud. The baby's currently pushing its feet into her lower ribs.

Gail fixes her daughter with a reproachful look. “You're going to be late, you know. Babies in our family always are.”

“I don't want to hear this story.”

Her mother drizzles syrup over her french toast, pretending not to have heard. “With you, I went two weeks past my due date. My doctor told me, 'sweetheart, this baby's done cooking, so we'll just have to smoke him out!'” She takes a sip of her coffee. “Then he reached in, broke my water, and we were off to the races. You came along four hours later.”

Joan grimaces at the mental images this connotes.

Gail raises an imperious eyebrow at her daughter's expression. “When your time comes, four hours is going to seem like a godsend. And you'll be in twilight sleep! I didn't even—”

--have any morphine, Joan mentally recites. She's heard this story too many times to count. Unfortunately, her smart-alack behavior does not go unnoticed.

“Mouth off all you want, but at least I'd picked out your name. For god's sake, if he chooses something you don't like, you can always change it.” Noticing Joan's outraged expression. “The baby won't know.”

“We're not changing the baby's name, Mom!”

“So you've finally decided?”

Joan lets out a breath. “Not yet.”

There's a short list. Lane got to pick the boys names, so those are all solid, safe choices: Albert, Edward, Frederick, William. All former kings of England, of course. Joan likes to think her choices for girls are a little more creative: Christine, Madeleine, Pamela, Julia.

When she'd shared these names with Lane, he'd called them elegant, rubbing the side of her swollen stomach with one hand as they sat cuddled together on the sofa. It was one of the few times she'd felt genuinely close to him since her leave began.

Not working together means they only spend a few hours a day in each other's company. Joan isn't trailing around the apartment like a needy puppy in his absence—she has never been that kind of girl—but the sudden change in situation has only served to remind her how much she appreciated the little things. Having tea together in the middle of the afternoon, or play-fighting over who'll finish Harry's expense report. She's trying not to let him see her frustration. He'll only worry if he thinks she's unhappy.

Her mother's voice breaks into Joan's wool-gathering. “You're not going to call it something stupid, are you?”

“Well, we're not naming it Prudence,” Joan snaps, cutting into her sausage links with more force than is strictly necessary. Prudence was her paternal grandmother's name, and Joan was saddled with it for seventeen years before she was able to get rid of it altogether.

**

Twelve-thirty. Lane's been sitting at his desk and gathering up his courage to venture next door for nearly fifteen minutes. Letting out a sigh, he stands up and walks quickly toward creative, where Peggy Olson sits alone at her desk. An untouched sandwich and soda are at her left hand, while a legal pad filled with scrawls is balanced on her lap.

“Miss Olson.” He clears his throat to get her attention. “You look very busy.”

She glances up at him, eyes widening with surprise at the interruption, but puts her legal pad back onto the desk. “Oh. Not really.” There is a slight pause. “Did you need something?”

“Erm.” He steps inside, pushing the door closed with a careful hand. He's not even sure how to begin. The two of them aren’t friendly at all. It would be much easier if Cosgrove were here. “Well, I don't mean to interrupt, but I have a kind of favor to ask.”

Peggy moves to open her soda, using a tarnished opener she produces from underneath a blizzard of papers on the right side of her desk. “Okay.”

The state of her work area is worse than his. He didn't think that was possible. “Would you—that is, if it's convenient...could you possibly ring Joan? At the flat?”

“You want me to...call her,” is all Peggy says after another long pause, gaping at him like she’s very surprised those words left his mouth in that particular order.

Lane feels the back of his neck get hot with embarrassment. He hastens to explain. “Despite the preparations to be done for the arrival, it is rather an adjustment. Her leave.“

Sometimes Joan is excited when he arrives home. She tells him all about what the little one's been up to (mostly kicking her in the ribs), inquires about office gossip (of which he, to his sudden chagrin, knows nothing), or shares news of a media buying mishap she caught between episodes of Perry Mason. But other days she seems subdued when he talks about the office, almost sad. He'll look over in the middle of a sentence and see longing written clear across her face. On the worst days, no amount of talk seems to set her spirits to rights. Her eyes are red-rimmed behind her glasses, and her face is flushed, and after dinner when he asks her if she’s really all right, she just puts a hand on his shoulder, and murmurs that it’s only hormones.

She would kill him if she suspected he was having this conversation. But more than anything, he doesn't want Joan to be lonely. Miss Olson is a pleasant sort, and the two of them seem to get on well enough, from what he's observed.

“Well,” he stammers. “I wouldn't normally ask, but—”

“No,” Peggy says, her pale eyes sweeping over him in a way that says she has probably taken his meaning. “I suppose I should have thought of that. She’s usually so social.”

“Yes.” He's not sure whether he ought to sit down. A brief scan of the room reveals there's nowhere to sit that isn't buried by takeaway cartons, file folders, and scraps of Stan's artwork. Perhaps it would be a bother. “Well. It's very kind of you. Although, please don't say you were asked.”

What if he's not enough? What if he isn't doing enough to keep Joan happy?

“I could probably call in another hour,” Peggy says slowly, before he has a chance to reveal anything too embarrassing. “If she doesn’t mind talking to the boys.”

Perhaps she will find the group of them amusing. “I suppose that would be all—”

His train of thought is swiftly punctured by a loud, high-pitched voice. “Mr. Pryce!

Lane snaps alert with a start, blinking several times and looking up from his abacus to find Scarlett standing just inside his office doorway. She's waving one hand to get his attention, and indicating a third person is standing on the other side of the door. God. He can't remember when she got back from lunch. If she's even gone. It's nearly one o'clock.

Has he been sitting here wool-gathering, all this time?

“Sorry” He shakes his head. “What?”

The secretary wears an annoyed expression, though she tries to hide it behind a quick pasted-on smile. “Mr. Cosgrove's here to see you. He has an appointment?”

“Oh. Erm. Yes, of—of course.” Lane adjusts his glasses on his nose, glancing down to the thick file of papers clutched in his other hand. Something regarding Glo-Coat, apparently. He hasn't even read these over. “Send him in.”

**

“Clah-rah,” Clara intones in the deepest voice she can manage, posture stiff, eyes narrowed. She's wearing Linda's black cat-eye glasses low on her nose, and is holding a napkin in one hand as if it's a notepad, pretending to read from it. Her mouth twitches up as she threatens to grin, but she keeps talking, eyeing the other girls with a superior glare. Around their table, groups of people bustle past. It's the busiest part of the lunch rush. “Why must you ask so many questions? Accumulated amortization plus the net receivables, less the cost of equity equals a very simple approach to finance, as stated by this complex treatise on percentages—”

“Oh, my god,” drawls Linda, with a horrified expression. The exclamation prompts a laugh from the entire table. “How do you girls listen to that all day?”

Clara drops the mannerisms with a laugh, reaching for her soda glass. “Honestly, I don't even think twice about it.”

“It sounds like gibberish!”

“He's not a good teacher,” Scarlett interrupts, taking a sip of her iced tea. She and Clara exchange a long-suffering look. “And he's been in such a mood since Joan left. This morning, he lectured me for ten minutes because I brought him the wrong kind of tea.”

“There are different kinds of tea?”

Scarlett rolls her eyes. “Don't even get me started.”

“Well, he's usually nice to me,” says an airy voice. The entire table turns to look at Bridget, who just stabs another forkful of salad, and gives them a knowing look in return, as if the reason for his bad moods should be obvious. “You know, he and Joan spent every day together.”

Clara slants the blonde a withering look. “Don't they live together?”

“Harry told me they—” Scarlett bites down on the middle of her sentence, but still catches herself too late to stop the faux pas. The table breaks into a chorus of giggles and gasps.

Harry—”

“Ooooooh—”

“I knew you liked him, you kept talking about how nice looking he was—”

“No!” Scarlett waves two hands in a frantic motion. “Stop! It's not funny!”

**

Scarlett! The call from the secretary's intercom is more agitated this time. Scarlett!

Slumped on the sofa in the creative lounge, Stan erases a stray line from the pencil sketch of a Heinz label. Ginsberg is sitting on the floor, flipping through the latest RFP and scribbling all over a legal pad with what passes for decent concentration.

Lane's been trying to summon his secretary for about ten minutes, but obviously no one bothered to tell him the girls were going to lunch, because Scarlett's been gone almost an hour. Personally, Stan's waiting to see the guy come rushing out of that office with steam pouring out his ears, and no one to hear his tirade. It would be kind of hilarious.

“Give you a dollar if you go answer that,” he says to Ginzo, nonchalant, like upsetting Lane isn't something that could get the kid's ass kicked.

Ginsberg doesn't even bother to look up from his papers. “Do I look like a moron to you?”

**

The telephone rings just as Joan's putting dinner in the oven. It's a casserole again. She forgot to buy steak even though it was on her list. Twice. Thank god Lane isn't picky. And thank god she had some frozen chicken on hand.

“Pryce residence,” she says, picking up the line in the living room.

There is a long pause, followed by a strange man's voice, which speaks in silken, English tones. “Have I finally got the pleasure of speaking with the infamous Joan?”

Joan huffs out an amused noise before she can help herself. Lane has characterized his brothers in very broad strokes, but his descriptions were clear enough. Charles is an ass, but we don't speak. Lewis is only insufferable. “You must be Lane's brother.”

“Lewis. Charmed,” comes the light reply. “Now, tell me, dear, has my little brother actually got something important to do, or is he still dodging all my messages?”

“This from a man making transatlantic calls in the middle of the afternoon?” Joan mentally figures the time difference in her head. One or two o'clock, if she remembers correctly.

Static crackles down the line as the gentleman huffs in amusement. “You've got quite the cheek. Lane never said.”

Joan scoffs out a disapproving sound. She has better things to do than flirt with a dandy. “Do you have an actual message for him?”

Lewis sighs out a long breath. When he speaks again, the playful mannerisms are mostly gone. “Nigel phoned me at work this morning.”

“Jesus.” With a sigh, Joan takes a seat on the sofa, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand. “Why? What for?”

“Skiving off classes, I suppose,” Lewis says, in the careless tone of someone who has played his fair share of hooky. “Though it isn't the first time he's rung. He misses Lane dreadfully. I don't know if you're aware.”

“They've been better about communicating,” Joan says with a sigh, deciding this strikes the correct tone. Lane never mentioned Nigel's been in contact with his brother. “I assume you haven't told Rebecca about the skipped classes.”

Only because there's been a conspicuous absence of screaming phone calls in the middle of the night.

Even the man's laugh is smug: a rich, low chuckle. “My dear girl, hell will have frozen solid before old Becky and I have another civil word.”

It's a relief to hear someone else share her opinion of the ex-Mrs. Pryce, although Joan has willed herself not to be ugly on that subject—not to Lane's face, anyway.

“Well. If you call back in another hour, he should be home. He'll want all the details.”

“Excellent. I will do.” There is another pause. “My nephew also let slip about your delicate condition. Dare I ask how it's going?”

“Pleasure to speak with you, Lewis,” Joan chirps in response, but she can't help smiling a little as she hangs up the receiver. If nothing else, at least he's entertaining.

**

“Why can't I visit? You always say you want to see me and then you never do!”

Lane releases a heavy sigh, leaning into the back of his desk chair as he risks a glance at his pocket watch, as if his son's in the same room with him and able to notice his impatience. Already half an hour late for dinner. Joan's going to be annoyed. “Nigel—”

“But it isn't fair, Dad! It isn't fair!

Now that he and Nigel have started having conversations on a more regular basis, all the boy wants to talk about is coming over to New York. Lane's not sure how to tell his son it isn't the best time for a visit without breaking Nigel's heart. Privately, he thinks Becca would never allow the boy to make the trip no matter how much anyone begged.

“Nigel. This is not an argument about fairness. You can't miss school, obviously—”

“Why not? Mother could bring me!”

“No,” Lane says sharply, then winces, and tries to soften his voice. “Now, we're not going to entertain one of your theories. I do want you to visit, very much, but for the time being—”

You could come and get me, then. It's nearly Easter. We won't even be in school!” Nigel wheedles. He's too old for this sort of whining, but Lane doesn't have the heart to say anything stern about it. Not when all his son wants to do is see him.

“What about August,” Lane says, in a desperate attempt to avoid going down this road. “Wouldn't you like to visit later in the summer, when the weather's nicer?”

The little one will be older, then. Not sleeping through the night yet—he thinks? god, it's been so long since he had a newborn, he can't remember—but at least after a few months, he and Joan won't be completely useless. And the child won't need all of their attention.

Would Nigel be jealous of a new baby? Surely he's too old for such things.

“Uncle Lewis would do it,” the boy says snidely, after a few seconds of silence.

“He certainly would not!” Lane retorts. In lieu of an apology, he offers a compromise. “I'll—speak to R—to your mother about it, all right?”

A long sigh crackles down the line. “Dad, I just want to come over. I really—miss you.”

Lane pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand, closing his eyes against the horrible truth. He hasn't laid eyes on his son in nearly two years. And with the baby's imminent arrival—and Rebecca's fury over that bit of news— who knows when they'll see each other again.

“I know, lad,” he mumbles, feeling like a complete failure. “I'm sorry. I know.”

**

“Lewis, I've enough trouble talking him down as it is!”

Sitting at the kitchen table with an open furniture catalog, Joan tries very hard to ignore the outbursts from the living room. In the past twenty minutes, Lane's conversation with his brother has only grown more agitated. She'd go into the bedroom to have some peace and quiet, except these days, it takes her almost as long to get up from a chair. Easier to stay put.

“I am simply saying that if you were to stop sympathizing with his—no, you—you're twisting my words, you are acting like a complete idiot—”

Joan circles a picture of a handsome mahogany rocker with the black felt-tip marker in her right hand. From what little of their conversations she's overheard, the brothers' main mode of communication is for Lewis to spend half the phone call baiting Lane with inappropriate jokes and comments, and for Lane to eventually get so frazzled that he loses his temper.

It's very childish, but it never seems to last, so she doesn't worry. And, she thinks, concealing another little smile, it also explains why they don't speak very often.

“Children are resourceful? For god's sake, you don't even have one!” Lane blurts suddenly. Joan glances over, very briefly. His face is bright red, and he's pacing in a frantic way that spells trouble. “You're a grown man with a flatmate—you don't know the first thing about—oh, shut up!”

He slams the phone down into its cradle, seeming very satisfied with himself. When he meets her eyes, and notices Joan's surprised expression, he waves one hand toward the receiver in a spastic gesture. “He thinks he can tell me how to raise my son—it's—absolutely insufferable!”

With that, Lane rolls his eyes, and storms down the hall toward their bedroom, swearing under his breath. Joan just shakes her head, blowing out a long sigh as she watches him go. He'll be back in a few minutes. Putting one hand on the table for balance, she rises carefully from her chair, walks into the living room, and turns on the television. Onscreen, a pink racecar has just appeared in the Stephens' living room.

“Augh!” There's a sudden thump from the bedroom, followed by louder curses. “Damned—thing!”

She winces. Judging by the noises, he's tripped over the foot of her vanity chair again, for what's probably the fourth or fifth time this month. Even with the television on, Joan can catch pieces of his grumbling.

“—chair if—push it back in—stupid bloody—Christ—”

She's not dumb enough to respond. He just wants to curse out loud until he feels better. In half an hour, once he's cooled down, he'll come in, tell her about the phone call, and then they'll watch tv until one or both of them falls asleep on the couch.

Joan places a soothing hand to her abdomen, where the baby pushes its foot into her side in an anxious rhythm.

“Daddy's fine,” she says aloud, keeping her voice very light. “Just a little stressed.”

**

“You're going to get caught!” Brian paces between the two twin beds like a wind-up toy, his flannel bathrobe flowing behind him like a naff cape.

Nigel scoffs, and stuffs another pair of y-fronts into his knapsack. “I'll be on a plane by then. You can tell Fletch I ran off in the middle of the night.”

“Never mind him! You look like a first year, and I'm crap at lying. They'll thrash it out of me, and then they'll phone the police, and then they'll phone your mum, and you'll be found at the airport, and we'll be expelled—and then my gran'll murder me!

“So tell him you couldn't stop me, then! Ticket's already paid for. All I've got to do is claim it.”

Nigel consults the scuffed-up envelope in his hand, still containing his father's letter. He shoves the lot into his jeans pocket and mentally recites the return address to himself, even though he'd memorized it weeks ago. 48 Sutton Place, Apartment 12C, New York.

“There isn't going to be any ticket! You'll just be stranded at Heathrow for no reason—why would your uncle even—”

“He was a runaway, you git. Think he knows what he's on about!”

Well. Nigel's fairly sure he was, at any rate. He overheard Father say it once—something about elder brother, on his own at fifteen. To join up with the Navy? Or maybe for acting? Anyway, he left on awful terms—that, Nigel does know for certain, because Grandfather Pryce never talks about Lewis, not even to insult him, and he's never supposed to bring up uncle's name in the old man's company. Not even as a joke. Learned that one the hard way.

Nigel tosses his mostly-full knapsack into the floor, pulls up his thin mattress, and reaches for the yellow envelope folded between the two tightest springs. Mad money. Saved up from America, mostly—crisp pound notes and dollar bills from Christmas and birthdays and a few old wrinkled-up fivers from Granddad. “I only need money for the train and taxis. And—food, I s'pose.”

Uncle Lewis spent over an hour trying to talk him down. If you're trying to get your parents' attention, there are much easier ways to do it. Ones that don't involve you running off in a fit of temper with no money and no connections.

You don't understand, Nigel had clutched the base of the pay phone so hard his knuckles turned white. He was faking sick in order to skive off; everyone else was at first period maths. Mum won't let me see him—they hate Dad's guts—they're never going to let me see him again! And then he'll have the new baby with Joan, and he won't c-care what happens to me anymore, and I've just— his voice had cracked, going very high, and he'd had to mop at his eyes with his shirtsleeve, glancing up and down the empty hallway to make sure no one else was around to see— I' m going, all right? I don't care if I get into trouble!

Aeroplane tickets cost a good deal more than pocket money, you know.

I've got mad money. I can tell the agent it's some awful emergency—Granddad's ill—that's actually true—

What?

Oh. Yeah. Gone funny in the head, or something. He had a fit at the house over Christmas. Mum and Granny won't talk about it. He ran a hand across his neck. They never talk to me about anything.

There was a long sigh. What  I ought to do is phone your father and tell him exactly what you're planning. At your age, you're a goddamn fool to leave school on your own, much less—

Please, I just—I can't just do nothing anymore, all right? I don't belong here, and I'm never going to. Nigel listened to the heavy silence on the other end of the line. And if you won't help, then I'll just run anyway and get—taken by some hook-handed spook! And—and they'll hold me for ransom! Mum and Dad'll have to speak to each other, then!

Christ almighty, groaned his uncle, only  you would aspire to be the next Lindbergh baby.

“Well, you can't hitch, not from anyone in town.” Brian folds his arms across his chest, trying to look stern. The effect's well ruined since he's wearing too-small cartoon pyjamas underneath his tatty flannel robe, and his blonde hair's sticking up in the front in a stupid way. “And you don't have a bike. What're you going to do, walk to the station?”

“Yeah.” Nigel tries to sound more confident than he feels. It's a couple of miles from here. “You know, Premell owes me a favor coz I traded 45s with him and those other fourth years. He's got a ten-speed.”

“But you'll have to get past Toad to nick it. You're going to get caught!”

“Won't,” says Nigel stubbornly, looking around his side of the room. He's thrown everything he's not taking into his trunk, and left the bed made up so Brian can stuff some pillows in it. “I'll tell the station workers I'm going home. Uncle's taking me to the airport when I get to King's Cross. Then I'll say I'm visiting Dad in New York. Family emergency.

“This is the stupidest bloody thing you've ever done in your whole life,” Brian moans. “You'll be grounded until you're at leastthirty!”

“Better than being stuck here with these twats,” Nigel retorts, rolling his eyes.

Brian flushes red at this, glancing away and looking at the desk. But he doesn't say anything, just frowns, stomps over toward an open drawer, and lifts a thin, leather-bound document away from a pile of loose-leaf papers. “You'll still need your passport, idiot.”

He thrusts the document in Nigel's direction with an outstretched arm. Nigel steps forward, grabs it, and puts it into his jacket pocket, next to his mad money. He's starting to feel badly about the twats comment. “Well, not you, obviously. You're—not a twat.”

He extends his hand to the other boy in an attempt to make up for before. After a weird pause, Brian takes it, shakes it once, very solemnly, then frowns, and puts his arms round the other boy's shoulders in an awkward hug. “Just—phone or write, yeah? 'M stuck here till Easter.”

“Yeah, all right,” Nigel mumbles, hesitantly returning the hug. “Gay.”

Brian shoves him off, and socks him in the shoulder, but he's rolling his eyes the way he always does, so it's fine. Nigel grins, and scrubs a hand through his hair, feeling a bit awkward now that everything's done. Been days of mad planning and trying to keep up appearances. “Whatever's left—if you want anything from my trunk, take it. Toad'll just toss it all, I 'spose.”

“Even your comics?” Brian says, raising his eyebrows, and they shove each other round a bit more until Nigel finally relents.

**

“Are you serious? You're taking me to task over ten dollars? It was a few drinks at the Plaza with CBS, plus some food!”

“Has it escaped your notice that everyone in this room is meant to budget their expenses, not just—list them carelessly on three sheets of paper?!”

“Jesus,” Harry groans, “then just give me a demerit, why don't you?”

Lane sets his jaw, and shifts in his chair in a way that makes Pete give him a nervous glance, and roll his chair two inches to the left. Megan and Ken keep exchanging significant looks; Ken shaking his head no, silent. Ginsberg's put his head down on the table, sighing like the tension is killing him, while Clara keeps pretending to read over her notes.

Peggy scrawls three letters on the corner of her legal pad, in thick black Sharpie, and pushes the paper to her left so Stan can see them: S.O.S.

He reaches over with a pen and sketches a little sinking liner next to this, complete with a group of stick figures diving off the top of the stern. One of them has x's for eyes, and floats face-up in choppy water next to a shark.

**

The sound of a key being inserted into the front door lock makes Joan sit up on the sofa in alarm, and cast a surprised look at her watch. Why would Lane be home right now? Before she can ask any questions, the door opens—a full two inches. There's an audible growl of frustration from the hallway. The chain is still on.

“Hold on,” she calls out, suppressing a sigh as she gets up from the sofa, walks to the door, and unlatches it. She doesn't know why she put the chain on in the middle of the day. Dr. Emerson calls this symptom pregnancy brain. She's been extremely forgetful.

When Joan opens the door fully, she sees a preteen boy, with a full backpack at his feet, standing on the other side. The scuffed white toe of one of his sneakers is pushing at an upturned corner of the doormat in an awkward, idle movement. Which explains how he got the key, but not much else.

“'Lo,” he mumbles after a long pause, clearly stunned to see her in his father's apartment in the middle of the day. “Erm. I'm Nigel.”

He's wearing a wrinkled navy blazer with a sigil crest embroidered on the front pocket, paired with stiff blue jeans, a dingy white-collared shirt and a striped necktie that's barely tied into a knot, hanging loosely around his messy collar like a silk bolero. Physically, he favors Lane in the face; he even has his father's sandy red hair, although his pale skin is barely freckled.

“Joan,” she says, extending her hand to him in a gesture so automatic it's like a reflex. He takes it, but they don't actually shake hands, just clasp palms in an awkward way before she releases her grip, and picks a piece of lint from his left jacket cuff. “How on earth did you get here?”

Nigel rubs his free hand over the back of his neck. An embarrassed flush is creeping into his face. “Erm.” There's a long pause. He keeps looking at her enormous stomach with a nervous expression. “B.O.A.C. Came th—this morning.”

Joan takes a better look at him, at the grease on his forehead, his bloodshot eyes, and the dark circles shadowing them. He seems dead on his feet. Before the boy can move, before he can say anything else, she waves him forward, indicating that he should pick up his backpack. “Come inside. You look exhausted.”

Get in here, she wants to hiss, while grabbing his elbow and leading him to the sofa, the way her mother used to do when Joan was a little girl and had done something wrong. Your father will be worried sick!

Jesus. Even in her head, she's starting to sound too much like her own mother. Joan closes the front door slowly, making sure that her expression is calm as she turns around. It's the same type of mannerisms she'd use when interacting with clients at work, softened for this particular situation, of course. Nigel can't see her panic, but she can't be needlessly sharp with him, either. He's not her son. He doesn't know her from Adam.

“D'you live here?” he mumbles, looking around the front hall and living room with a surprised expression, although these are the least changed rooms in the apartment, besides Nigel's. Joan sent two end tables down to storage, and they got rid of the hideous coat of arms as well as some of the wall décor that Rebecca had left, but the rest of it is the same. They couldn't do much more in her condition.

“Yes.” Joan inclines her head toward the kitchen, noticing the way Nigel keeps rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hands. He's either upset or just tired. Hard to tell. “Can I get you an aspirin? You look like you have a headache.”

After a moment, he nods his head yes, very small.

Joan moves into the kitchen, and pours water into a tall, plain glass, feeling her heart pound in her chest as she mentally rehearses what she's going to say to Lane. Nigel just showed up on our doorstep. You need to call Rebecca. You need to come home.

The baby is kicking her again, in the right side of her ribs, persistent and sharp. Joan ignores this in favor of pressing an aspirin and the full glass into the boy's outstretched hands. He takes the pill quickly, and gulps down the water like he's dying of thirst.

She lets out a deep breath, watching him as he sets the glass on the counter and wipes his mouth with his shirtsleeve. Her head spins with questions. How did he get to the airport? Why would he run away from school? They can't be on vacation. Where did he get the money for a plane ticket?

“Your father's at work, obviously,” she says with a sigh, thinking of the leftover chicken casserole from last night's dinner. Maybe he'll be more forthcoming on a full stomach. “So, we're going to call him, and then I'll fix you something to eat.”

**

Lane has just knocked the entire folder of quarterly reports off the right side of his desk and into the floor, and is surveying the mess with petulant frustration when his office door slams open, revealing Scarlett. “Mr. Pryce—”

“Oh, for god's sake,” he snaps, not at all inclined to be patient with her lapses in manners today, “what is it this time?”

The secretary shakes her head, expression tight with anxiety, gesturing toward his phone with the pen in her hand as if time is of the essence. “Your ex-wife is on line two.”

He glances over, notices the flashing red extension for the first time. Why would she—

Scarlett's next two words make the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in fear.

“It's urgent.”

 

Chapter Text

 

thirty-eight weeks // march 1966
sunday

 

Nigel and Lane have been on the phone with Rebecca for over an hour, and it has not gone well at all. Even from her place in the master bedroom, with the door closed, Joan can hear the boy screaming at the top of his lungs.

Lane's voice is agitated, but nowhere near as loud. “Don't speak to your mother that way—”

“I won't do it—you  can't make me—!” The boy's yells turn into sobs. Joan hears frantic footsteps on carpet as a hysterical Nigel runs past the doorway, followed by the sound of his bedroom door slamming, and the record player blaring to life.

Fifteen minutes later, Lane finally gets off the phone, and shuffles into their bedroom with an expression so haggard it's as if he hasn't slept in years. His shirt sleeves are rolled up in a haphazard way, there's a food stain on his sweater vest, and he's forgotten his glasses in the other room. He doesn't acknowledge Joan, who's sitting on the bed propped up against three pillows, or explain the finer details of the argument—just walks up to the right side of the bed and falls into it, fully clothed.

The mattress dips under his sudden weight; Joan snorts in amusement as she bounces around like she's on a trampoline. Lane, meanwhile, makes a noise like a groan as he crawls closer to her side, mumbling something Joan can't hear.

“Are you talking to me?”

Lane curls into his pillow, turning onto his right side and waving a weak hand toward her very pregnant figure. “That one's staying in there.” He doesn't tell her any more about the argument. Joan reaches out, runs a hand over his shoulder. “What happened?”

He doesn't move, but closes his eyes briefly, like the touch is soothing. “He's been expelled.”

“Well, I assumed that,” Joan breathes, shaking her head.

“Becca wants me to send him back tomorrow.” A pause. He shifts closer to her. “Told her no. I want to see him.”

Joan makes a sympathetic noise, continuing to rub his arm and side. After a few minutes, Lane lets out a long sigh that suggests the touch is more than welcome. She raises her eyebrows. Maybe she can take the edge off his stress. Her fingers slide over his left hip.

“Let me relax you.”

As they run across the waistband of his trousers, he startles, eyes opening, and pushes her wrist away, scrabbling backwards on the mattress to put nearly a foot of distance between them. Joan blinks back at him in total disbelief, while Lane gestures toward the open hall door in a frantic motion, as if he's afraid they'll be overheard.

“Have you lost your mind?”

Rock and roll echoes out from Nigel's room, and judging by the mood he was in as he ran inside, Joan's sure eavesdropping isn't going to be an issue. She's still stung by the rebuff. It's stress relief, for god's sake. He always gets wound up after Becca calls. “Lane, I was just—”

“I know what you were just—”

“Jesus! I wanted to make you feel better!”

This earns her a poisonous look and a scoff as Lane gets up from the bed. “Well, don't bother!”

He storms out of the room. Joan huffs out a breath, and tries to return to her book, but she reads twenty more pages without retaining a word.

Lane spends the rest of the evening in the living room. Sulking, she hopes, although in reality he's probably trying to figure out what to do about Nigel. Or making phone calls.

She's asleep by the time he comes to bed.

**

“I don't see why you have to go in,” Joan hisses in a whisper, pouring water from the teapot into a green mug. On closer inspection, it's ice cold, and it's clearly the tea from last night. Didn't she heat a pot of water already? Did she pour it in the sink?

Lane's dressed for work in gray tweed, acting like his behavior is perfectly normal. “It's a partners' meeting; it's a single day—”

“And all you're set up to discuss is the...new account...” she winces as the company name suddenly eludes her, “ugh, you know who I'm talking about!”

“Well, I'm not missing it after last month.”

Joan fixes him with a disbelieving look. “Not even for Nigel?”

Color rises in his face. “Oh, honestly!”

“We only have him for a few days. What the hell is he supposed to think if you just go to work like nothing's changed—”

“Joan, I am earning money for him, and for you—”

“I know that, but he's a kid! He's going to assume you don't want to spend time with him—”

“Why would he—” Lane pinches the bridge of his nose. “Can you please just look after him directly—”

“Lane, I'm saying it would be better—"

Lane's voice rises in pitch. “Oh, for god's sake! Shall I take him to the office, then? Would you approve of that decision?”

**

In the elevator, Nigel shifts on his feet, tugging at the knot of his tie with one hand and making a kind of aggravated groan. He's wearing the same outfit as yesterday, although thankfully the shirt and dungarees are clean.

“Don't,” Lane sighs, already exhausted by the morning's events. Not even eight o'clock and he's got a headache. “You'll muss it.”

“It's too tight. I can't breathe!”

Lane glances over at the boy as he slouches back against the metal railing. He's already gotten very big. Comes up to Lane's shoulder, now, and in another year or two he'll probably be half a head taller. Christ.

“Here. Let me fix it,” he says, in a kinder voice, and Nigel straightens up, ambling over. Lane loosens the loop of his son's tie with ease, then readjusts it, making sure the knot is crisp and straight against the lad's collar.

“Any better?”

Nigel grunts out a noise that must mean yes, and returns to his place at the back wall, tapping the heel of one trainer against the seam where polished metal meets tile. Lane feels as if he's got to break the quiet. Not much time to have this discussion. “Now—you do understand I won't be working through your visit. Just today. And—perhaps tomorrow morning.”

“You already told me.” Spoken in a very flat voice, as he stares at the lit-up elevator buttons. Is he even listening?

“Yes—I—do realise that, Nigel, but I just want you to be aware. There is a partners' meeting, and then your mother and I are going to be spending—a bit of time on the phone—”

More than a bit. Yesterday, there wasn't much in the way of conversation. Besides dressing down Nigel, there were a few rushed calls filled with clipped updates or awkward attempts at reassurance. He senses today will be different. Rebecca hates that he isn't sending Nigel back straightaway. There will certainly be more to come on that particular subject.

The elevator doors open, and they step out. Lane beckons the boy to follow him, although Nigel seems more interested in gawping at the glass doors separating them from reception. How long has it been since he was here? Did Nigel ever see this office?

“Come along,” Lane prompts.

Bridget is sitting in reception this morning, and waves a friendly hello from her place on the telephone. They've been short a secretary for some time; Caroline even approached him about a possible new hire, but he's been putting it off.

Joan had more than enough to say about work this morning. He kept staring at her hands as she sliced an apple into pieces, waiting for the inevitable moment when she cut her finger or knocked something else from the counter. Give him change for the vending machine as soon as you get in. Tell him your timetable, so he's not just staring at the clock—

He'd let his temper get the best of him. I think I know how to handle my own child!

Then don't ask for my help!  She'd chopped one apple slice into two crooked pieces, then gestured at him with the sharp end of her knife, and given the overall temperature of the room he had decided to leave the kitchen for several minutes.

Scarlett does a double-take when she sees them. “Good morning.” A pause. She takes his briefcase and coat, trying to catch his eye. “Is this...?”

“Yes,” he says, distracted. “Scarlett, my son, Nigel. Nigel, my secretary.”

The two of them exchange a stilted greeting, and his secretary disappears into his office to put away his things. Lane takes the opportunity to fish out a dollar in quarters from his trouser pocket.

“Now, I think you ought to start the day in the lounge, just here.” He indicates the round table opposite his office door. “After I'm finished with the meeting—if I'm not on the telephone—then you can sit in with me, hm?”

He'd keep the boy in his office all day, but honestly, he doesn't trust that Nigel won't just pick up the phone the minute Lane turns his back and try to ring Joan or Lewis or—god forbid—Becca. Better he have someone out front to look after him.

“What's this for?” Nigel asks, poking at the money in his hand. “Lunch?”

Lane gestures toward the left side of the hallway, past Joan's darkened window. “No, erm—vending machine's just round the corner, there. You can get whatever you like for a snack. I've just—got to speak to my secretary for a moment.” Bribery's badly done, he supposes, but at this point he's desperate.

Nigel glances in the indicated direction, then back to Lane. “So I'm s'posed to leave you alone now?”

“Oh, honestly,” Lane sighs, hating the frown on his son's face. He'd thought it would make the lad happy to have a few sweets. “After the meeting, you can come in and see me if you need something. I'm not banishing you. I just—want to make sure you're set up for the day, hm?”

He wants to do something silly, like ruffle the boy's hair, but he can't quite get himself to do it with so many people here, so settles on putting a hand on the lad's shoulder. Nigel looks around with a put-upon expression, as if very embarrassed, but doesn't shrug it away.

“Well—I'll just be nearby, if you need anything.” Lane glances to the right, sees Pete Campbell and Harry Crane walking in from reception, and withdraws his hand from his son's arm, gesturing toward the table. “All right?”

Nigel follows his gaze. “All right.” He hefts his backpack higher onto one shoulder, before shuffling into the creative lounge and depositing it into one of the hard chairs.

**

“Busted,” Stan groans, walking back into the lounge and flopping down onto the sofa. Behind him, Megan follows, looking vaguely disappointed. She perches on the edge of the coffee table, adjusting her skirt as she sits down.

“Don saw us looking,” she clarifies, smiling a little. “Nothing's happening.”

“Told you they weren't gonna fight,” Peggy says from beside Stan, not looking up from her notes. He grunts in disagreement. “Roger still looks pissed.”

There's a distinct snicker from the round table. Stan glances over to where Lane's son is sitting with his head bowed over a sketchpad, then back to Peggy, lifting one eyebrow.

Peggy shrugs, and mouths the words I don't know.

“Uncanny,” Stan mutters under his breath, but then starts speaking in a louder voice. “I'm telling you, Lane's gonna kick Roger's ass if he cops any attitude. One, two—” he mimes taking a serious blow to the face, and puts up his hands to defend himself, with Peggy as his opponent. She retaliates by throwing an eraser at his chest.

“What?” comes the retort from the table. “You must be joking!”

Stan just grins like the kid's outburst is exactly the kind of reaction he was hoping for. He's been sitting there for almost an hour without saying anything. Peggy has no idea why Stan is trying to encourage this. “I don't know, man. Lane's got the moves.”

“Dad's never been in a fight in his life, idiot,” the boy scoffs, finally looking up from the table, glaring at them as if this is completely offensive.

Stan pulls an amused face, but turns around to face the kid as if this argument means nothing to him. “What'd you say your name was?”

The boy frowns. “Nigel.”

“Cool.” Gesturing to himself— “Stan. That's Peggy,” nodding to his right—Peggy waves an awkward hello— “and Megan.”

“Don't mind him,” Megan says, rolling her eyes a little but giving the boy a bright smile. “I hope Scarlett showed you around earlier?”

The boy scoffs again, rolling his eyes. “Dad told her to watch me. I'm not a baby.”

Peggy glances toward the secretary's empty desk, suppressing a laugh. Stan, meanwhile, mouths something Peggy can't decipher, then makes a circle with one finger and thumb and thrusts the tip of his pencil through the opening with his other hand, in and out. Disgusting. It's definitely about Harry. She whacks his knuckles with her palm, which earns her an ow! and a flick on the leg.

“Of course you're not.” Megan says to Nigel, as if she can't see the horseplay, and gets up from her seat at the coffee table, taking a small bag of potato chips with her. Peggy's pretty sure those were Ginsberg's, so they're probably never going to hear the end of it.

Megan's colorful heels click on the tile as she walks toward the round table, proffering the chips in Nigel's direction. “Trade for some chocolate?”

“Yeah, all right,” he says with a shrug, as she sits down.

“Bars from the cart,” Peggy whispers to Stan, under pretense of showing him an important document. It's just full of phrases she wrote down while brainstorming. Nothing crucial.

Stan follows Peggy's gaze in time to see Megan as she bites into a broken-off piece of chocolate. “Am I supposed to get that?”

“No,” and Peggy has a little smirk on her face.

**

“Yes—of course, Mrs. Pryce—” Scarlett stutters, the phone pressed to her ear as she talks. Megan can't see the secretary's face from where she and Nigel are still sitting at the round table, but she knows frantic politeness when she hears it. Scarlett's trying to keep the other woman from yelling. “Immediately. I understand.”

Nigel gives Megan a scornful look as the other secretary hurries into the conference room, a message slip clenched in her hand. Megan picks out another peppermint lifesaver from the foil tube, and doesn't say anything at all.

“She just wants me to go home,” Nigel grumbles, looking sullen as he slumps in his chair.

Line two, Scarlett's hissing to Lane as he disappears inside his office and pushes the door closed.

“I'm sorry,” Megan says, not knowing what else to tell him. Nigel doesn't seem to appreciate her sympathy, and scowls. “Why should you care?”

“Divorce is hard on everyone,” she says with a careful shrug.

“Are your parents divorced?” he retorts around a piece of candy.

“No, but they should be.” He stares at her, mouth slightly open in surprise, before she elaborates. “They hate each other. They fight all the time.”

You stupid bitch—you're drunk—you never understood what I—

Then go to her! Go fuck your loud little fool the way you've always wanted!

Nigel's eyes are wide, like he'd never bothered to imagine anyone else in the world being unhappily married besides his own parents. Megan decides to keep talking, as if just to herself. “When my husband and I got married, his ex-wife hated me, too.” She purses her mouth, then tries to smile. “Honestly, I think she still does.”

“Oh,” Nigel says quietly, staring at her wedding rings. He's tearing the foil and paper in front of him into tiny shreds, miniature letters from the logo turning into a shredded pile of alphabet soup. The last piece of candy rolls out onto the tabletop and topples over onto its side.

Don doesn't like her talking to the kids about Betty or the divorce, but they still ask questions. Especially Bobby. Megan keeps thinking about that—how Nigel is Sally's age at least—about growing up watching your parents scream and fight and cry behind closed doors. When everyone else's parents seem to be fine.

“Sometimes people get upset when things change,” is all she tells him.

“She's the one who left. What does it matter?”

“Well, is your dad happy with Joan?”

Nigel's head snaps up to stare at her, but at that point, creative's door opens, and three people pour back into the hallway. Peggy's leading the way, rolling her eyes. Ginsberg is last, gesturing toward Lane's office with an audible curse and a fist full of loose papers. Stan's tugging him toward the lounge by one sleeve of his shirt.

“C'mon, Ginz, let it go.”

“He thinks it's too loud,” Peggy says in advance, giving Megan a warning look as she plunks down into the same seat as before.

“Oh, sure,” Ginsberg growls, slinging a folder into the nearest sofa cushion, “I'm supposed to be fine with the yelling phone calls, it's like living next to a goddamn—”

He stops, stares at Nigel. “Shit. You're still out here?”

“Well, who are you, then?” Nigel retorts.

Peggy puts a palm over her eyes.

**

“—and I had to speak to that woman only to find out you took Nigel to work—”

Lane grips the receiver so tightly he's sure his knuckles are turning white. “Do not bring Joan into this.”

“—now I suppose some imbecile is looking after him.”

“How is it any different from him being at that school?”

Stunned silence hangs over the line, followed by quiet, hissed outrage. “Don't you dare—”

“Oh, terribly sorry I've told you the truth!” Lane retorts. “Nigel is staying through the week. You'll have him back Monday morning, at ten o'clock, as we discussed.”

Rebecca's voice is as brittle as ice. “He should not be rewarded for getting expelled. And I will not have my son spending a week in the company of some—live-in, pregnant tart—”

“Don't speak about her that way!”

“Why not? You haven't bothered to marry the woman.”

Lane growls out an aggravated noise. “Rebecca, I warn you, I will not do this today! I haven't seen my son in two years; I'm not sending him back until Monday—”

Her voice is incredulous, getting more high-pitched with every word. “Don't presume to imagine you can keep him from me, Lane—”

“Well, come and get him, then, if you're so unhappy!” He accidentally knocks his calculator off the desk and doesn't even care. “While you're at it, why not bring your parents along? Then I can finally tell them to shove off!”

“You—”

“Monday morning, ten o'clock, and that's final!” Lane shouts, then slams the phone down into its cradle, and sinks into his desk chair with a growl.

**

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Joan's rubbing lotion into her hands and wrists as she gets ready for bed, her silk robe trailing behind her as she walks out of the restroom.

Lane busies himself by hanging his bathrobe on the back of the open door, pretending not to have heard her question.

She sounds exhausted, pressing on despite his lack of response. “The phone rang twice during dinner, and you got up and unplugged it from the wall.”

“Well, I didn't—mean to,” he mumbles in a very unconvincing lie, turning back toward the bed. She's standing there staring at him like she's disappointed, and he shakes his head, depositing his glasses onto his bedside table. “I'm just—I'm very tired, darling.”

“I know Rebecca called again,” she says, lifting her hands in a shrug before repeating her earlier question. “What happened? What did she say to you?”

“It's—nothing you need to worry about,” Lane turns off his table lamp, getting into bed in an attempt to dodge the question.

“I don't care if it was insulting,” she persists. “Talk to me.”

“Joan, for the last time, be quiet!”

He feels even more miserable the second the snappish words leave his mouth, but for once, Joan doesn't challenge him on his rudeness. She doesn't say anything at all. She's sitting on the edge of the bed with her back turned to him, motionless, arms splayed behind her to support some of her weight.

“I'm sorry,” he says helplessly, suddenly very aware of the tension between them. Joan is not one for ignoring him, even at her most angry, and he doesn't know how to fill this sudden silence. “I—I didn't mean to—”

“You don't want to talk about it,” she says, lifting one hand in a kind of shrug. The calm words don't seem to be an insult, but they are punctured by a distinct catch in her voice, which she tries to hide as a kind of throat-clearing. Lane feels his heart leap into his throat. Christ, has he made her cry? He's such a fool. And even worse, he can't bring himself to voice the fear that's been bubbling inside his mind, boiling over after every phone call with Becca and awkward conversation with Nigel. I'm not doing enough. I'll never see him again after this. I don't know what else to do.

“Joan,” he says again, voice a little rough, “darling—I'm sorry.”

Her voice is strained and quiet. She doesn't move to turn around, just pushes to her feet with visible effort. “Okay.” She walks slowly past the vanity and into the hallway, and the light of the corner lamp shows clear distress on her face. Lane watches her go with a feeling bordering on panic, but the paralyzing fear lingers, and keeps him from running after her.

**

“Joan, are we almost done? We've been here for ages.”

Nigel eyes a garish display of canned hams with a disgusted face as they walk past, wheeling the buggy to the left and pushing it about a quarter of the way down the next aisle. Cereals and breakfast drinks. They've been here for almost forty minutes, and the fluorescent lights are making her eyes hurt. Joan refrains from putting a hand to her aching temple, and keeps her voice calm.

“Remember our deal? After breakfast, we have to run four errands, and then—”

“—you'll take me to the record store if I don't complain. Yeah. I'm not an idiot.” He pauses, pointing at a garish box on the third shelf. “Can I get this? We don't have it in England.”

Joan eyes the sugary cereal for a second before reaching out and tossing the box into the basket. To hell with nutrition. “Sure.”

At this point, she's doesn't care about good parenting. She's just trying to keep everyone from going off the rails. Suddenly, Lane won't talk to her, but he's so stressed he isn't eating. Last night she watched him pick at his ribeye like someone recovering from major surgery. Nigel, meanwhile, doesn't seem to know what to do with himself other than stay in his room with his records, watch television, or ask a lot of fraught questions. The baby has been sitting on her bladder for six straight days, and keeps making her crave sugar, and to top it all off, Joan's had indigestion ever since she woke up this morning. At 4AM. It got so bad that she ended up in the diner bathroom for almost fifteen minutes during breakfast, while Nigel and her mother sat in the booth alone talking about god knows what.

“Grab the Jello mix,” she says, indicating the small box of chocolate pudding in the middle of the top shelf.

Nigel does, returning to the cart with both chocolate and butterscotch, and giving her a silent pleading look. His mouth is drawn into an exaggerated frown, eyes round and innocent like a pleading puppy. She arches an eyebrow.

“Go ahead.” It's not the face. Thinking about butterscotch is starting to make her mouth water. The boy grins, and puts the two boxes into the cart using an overhand toss, like he's throwing tiny basketballs.

**

“Mr. Pryce, you have a visitor in reception.”

The buzz of the intercom is so sudden it startles Lane into dropping his half-full teacup onto the ground. It breaks into what appears to be nearly a thousand pieces, tea splattering everywhere. Typical.

“Thank you very much,” he says tersely, standing up, buttoning his jacket, and heading into the lobby to see who on earth would be visiting him today. Can't be Joan. Clara's been put out there for the afternoon; she would have said if it was Joan—

Lane opens one of the mahogany door, sees his visitor, and freezes with his palm on the handle. “Oh,” he manages, feeling his stomach turn. “Hello.”

Standing to the right of the glass doors, his father stares back at him with a thin-lipped smile that doesn't reach his cold eyes. Lane forces himself to walk closer, although every instinct in his body screams for him to run. Anger's constricted his chest to the point where he feels like he's fighting for every breath. He keeps his arms down by his sides. Stand straight. Speak up. “I suppose Rebecca sent you.”

Lane mentally curses his ex-wife and every bloody idea that's ever entered her head. She actually phoned him. She knew his father could succeed in convincing him where she never would.

His father's face remains impassive. “I'm here to bring the boy home.”

“Nigel will go back on Monday as my—as she and I have previously discussed.”

“She did not agree to that.”

“And I do not agree to this,” Lane hisses, keeping his voice low although no one's in reception at the moment. Clara's nowhere to be seen. “I  am his father, and he's staying here.”

The old man sets his jaw, but he doesn't even lift his hands from his walking stick, just eyes Lane with an expression that suggests he'd better be thankful they are in a public lobby.

(Sixteen years, and he never told Becca the truth. Not a word.)

“I'm staying at the Warwick through Thursday,” his father says, as if this conversation is perfectly reasonable. “Put everything in order. You'll have time.”

“No,” is the first word Lane blurts—vehement; almost loud—and it is so unexpected a reaction that he feels his hands start to shake.

No,” the elder man repeats, as if equally stunned, but before his father can say anything else, the doors to the office open again, and someone calls Lane's name. He turns around to see Peggy Olson standing in the doorway with what appears to be a job file in hand.

“I'm sorry,” she says, staring at the two men with a guilty expression. “I had a question about the Pond's budget, but Scarlett didn't say you had company out here.”

“Oh,” he says slowly, trying to smile at her in a way that doesn't seem deranged, “yes, of—of course. I'll just—be a moment.”

“Now, Lane, you've not forgotten your manners,” his father says loudly, in a derisive tone that manages to seem almost jocular—and oh, how Lane hates him. He turns to Miss Olson, gesturing for her to walk closer as he speaks.

“Sorry. Erm. Peggy Olson, I'd like you to meet my father, Robert Pryce. Father, Miss Olson, one of my—coworkers.”

The two of them shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Lane's too busy concentrating on the smirk on his father's face. The man is laughing at Peggy and her practical appearance, dressed in her white schoolgirl's blouse and plaid skirt. He thinks she's just some...plain secretary, too stupid to buy a few pieces of jewelry. Lane gets a sudden urge to correct this awful presumption.

“Miss Olson is one of our finest writers,” he says loudly, making sure to smile as he says this. The expression feels like a grimace, and the compliment too much of a brag, but he doesn't care. He's not going to let the old man act so superior.

Peggy blinks at him in a way that suggests shock, and so Lane offers the most sincere compliment he can muster. “Joan always says so, anyway.”

His father's company smile dims temporarily at the mention of Joan, and Lane feels a little victorious surge in his chest as he notices. So Becca's told him about more than just Nigel.

“That's—nice to hear,” Peggy's cheeks are slightly pink as she glances from Lane to his father. “Be sure to tell her hello. I suppose you're all getting together later.”

“In fact,” his father interrupts smoothly, before Lane can say another word, “we were just arranging our upcoming plans.”

“Well, Joan knows all the best places. She's so sophisticated,” Peggy says, still blushing, and grinning at Lane so broadly he can't bring himself to hate her for stepping into this horrible web. “I should let you talk, but it was really nice to meet you.”

She offers her hand to his father, who shakes it a second time. “Pleasure is all mine, dear.”

The second she's out of earshot, his father drops the wolfish smile. “Seven o'clock tomorrow will be adequate. I'll allow you to choose the restaurant.”

Allow me, Lane thinks, feeling blood pound in his ears, and clenching his jaw so tightly he feels his back teeth throb with the movement. He manages to speak after another moment. “I suppose we ought to spend an evening together.”

His father does not seem to care much about the prospect of a family outing. “You may ring once the table's been reserved.”

He doesn't even bother with a civil goodbye, just turns and pushes his way through the nearest glass door, the tip of his walking stick scratching against the slick marble as he goes. Lane clenches one fist by his side to keep calm, so hard he feels his short fingernails dig into his palm.

He's going to take Nigel. He's going to take him away—

**

“...so in issue twenty two they fight Power Man, yeah? And he's working with the Enchantress, who's part of the Masters of Evil, because she's the one who bails him out of jail in the first place—”

Joan's already regretting this. Apparently, Nigel preferred new reading material to forty-fives, and the comic book store turned out to be closer to their apartment. On their walk home, he's been chatting her ear off about his favorite series. She's lost track of all the characters, and blames pregnancy brain for the mix-up. “I thought you said she was working with the superheroes?”

“No, that's Scarlet Witch, Joan,” Nigel huffs, like the idea of mixing up two magical female characters in the same series is the dumbest thing he's ever heard. He sounds just like Lane does when he's trying to explain the impact of trading acts on their clients' financial positions, and she has to smother a smile at the resemblance as they cross the street and onto the block for Sutton Place.

“So the—Enchantress paid this person's bail,” she prompts, trying to keep conversation flowing. Her feet ache, but she can see the front door from here, just past an older man in a navy suit who's leaning against the edge of the building, smoking a cigarette. “Why was he in jail?”

“Oh! Well, yeah, she had done, but before it even happened, right—think this was issue seven—she and the Executioner were banished to Earth by Odin. Anyway, then she hypnotized Thor into turning against...”

He stops speaking mid-sentence. He even stops walking. Joan glances to her right, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun just in time to see Nigel find the rest of his words. He's staring open-mouthed at the man with the cigarette. “Uncle Lewis?”

She follows Nigel's gaze to stare at the man leaning against the wall, who promptly drops his cigarette, crushes it under the toe of one gleaming brown wingtip, and stands upright. He's taller than Lane, and broad in the shoulders—over six feet at least. His sandy hair is receding a little, and is pale at the roots, either white or blonde. She can't tell in the sun. And although his face is leaner, more angular than Lane's, he's still got the same wide nose as his brother, the same prominent brow.

“Long time, Nigel,” he says, walking forward and eyeing his nephew with no small amount of amusement, nodding at the small wheeled cart behind the boy. “That may fall over, if you aren't careful.”

“What? Bollocks,” Nigel exclaims, flushing red. He whips around to grab for the handle, as if it's already started to fall to the ground.

Joan keeps her eyes fixed on Lane's brother, who's turned his amused look to her.

“Joan,” is all he says, trying to downplay his clear surprise at her condition. She'd bet dollars to donuts Lane forgot to mention how far along she was. “You're not quite how I imagined.”

“That had better be meant as a compliment.” She extends a hand for Lane's brother to shake.

“Of the highest order.” He takes it briefly. “Really is a pleasure.”

“Are you—you're not waiting for Dad?” Nigel asks his uncle, giving Joan a nervous look. “Because he's at work...”

“Let's take this conversation inside,” Joan interjects, before anything else can be said. The doorman has spotted them, and is holding the door open, waving at Joan with a broad smile. She motions for the Pryces to follow.

“Kind of you, allowing me to impose,” Lewis mutters to her as they're getting off the elevator and walking into the hall. Nigel's run ahead with the grocery cart and the key to the front door.

“What makes you think I won't just leave you out here?” she replies in an airy voice.

He smirks. “I'm beginning to understand why my brother likes you.”

Twenty minutes later, the tea service has been set out, Nigel's already torn into the newest box of chocolate biscuits, and Joan's pouring a generous amount of milk into a cup of earl grey.

“Wondered why you weren't at home,” Nigel says to his uncle around a huge mouthful, practically spraying crumbs across the table as he talks. “Tried to phone you.”

The older man grimaces, and tosses a nearby napkin in the boy's direction. “Don't share your food, piggy.”

Thankfully, Nigel takes the hint and starts to chew with his mouth closed. He swipes briefly at his mouth with the napkin, and swallows his food.

“When did you try to call him?” Joan asks, raising an imperious eyebrow.

The boy at least has the courtesy to blush. “Your mum caught me on the payphone.”

Joan actually laughs. Must have been at breakfast. Mom would have a lot to say about sneaking around. Nigel just seems cranky about getting caught, turning back to his uncle. “And before that, your flatmate yelled at me.”

“If you rang him up before noon, you bloody well deserved it,” Lewis pronounces, slanting an amused look at Joan. “Mark's an actor. Very temperamental.”

“He have a girlfriend yet?” Nigel asks, absorbed in dunking his cookie into his tea with what seems like a singular will of effort. “You said he's always talking about that leading lady.”

“Of course he doesn't,” Joan says lightly, with a little puff of laughter. When she sees Lewis' dark eyes fixed on her, as if perplexed, or surprised, she raises an eyebrow, keeping her voice even. “I'm sorry. Am I wrong?”

She thought it was obvious, but maybe Nigel's not as canny as she assumed. Honestly, it doesn't matter right now; he's too busy fishing out a soggy piece of cookie from his overflowing teacup to notice what they're saying.

Lewis clears his throat, almost seeming impressed. “Got it in one, my dear.”

“Well, it takes all sorts,” Joan says, trying to inject as much humor into those words as possible, and deciding a subject change is in order. “Which play are you running? Anything I know?”

The telephone rings before Lewis can answer. Joan glances toward Nigel, who's perked up noticeably. He seems thrilled at the idea of getting a phone call in the middle of the day.

“Can I answer it?”

“Go ahead,” she says, with a little smirk. If it's Rebecca again, Joan does not want to take it.

He runs to the still-ringing phone, and picks up the receiver. “Hello? Oh, hi, Dad. We're all right.” A pause. “Uncle Lewis is here.” Another pause. “I s'pose.” He holds the receiver out toward the kitchen table. “Wants to talk to you.”

“You'll have to give me a minute,” Joan says with a sniff, but the boy shakes his head.

“No, sorry—I meant—for Uncle, first. Since he's here, apparently.”

Lewis raises his eyebrows, but gets up and moves to pick up the telephone, listening to Lane for several minutes and saying little, with an intent expression which resembles a poker face. Joan tries to downplay her own annoyance at being left out of the loop, but when it's her turn to pick up the line, her conversation with Lane is very brief.

“We're having dinner with my father tomorrow,” is all he tells her. “Seven o'clock, no flexibility. I need—” he sighs, then stops himself. “No, just—make the arrangements.”

“What?” Joan says, not sure whether she's more upset by the late notice or by the fact that Lane's treating her as if she's no better than Scarlett. Lane doesn't talk about his father, never mind having dinner with the man. “He's here?”

“Just—take care of it,” he retorts loudly, as if they've already had this argument a thousand times. “Please.”

Joan lets out a sharp breath through her nose, surprised to hear him say that. “Okay.”

He hangs up the phone before she can say goodbye.

Chapter Text

march 1966 //  wednesday

 

A clatter echoes through the closed door of the master bathroom, like something being knocked off the edge of the sink; this noise is immediately followed by Lane cursing out loud. Standing in front of her vanity mirror, Joan tries her best to ignore it. Lane's been in there fixing his hair for almost fifteen minutes. She'd tease him about it if she didn't think the joking would make him lose his temper again. He's been so nervous. He spent the day pacing around the house and getting in her way as she tried to do some light cleaning.

For once, she isn't anxious. Her objective for the evening is to treat it like a client dinner: to be charming and witty if Lane's father appears to like her, to smooth over any awkward patches in conversation if he doesn't, and get through dinner without significant incident. That's it. After the stress of the past few days, and in her condition, she doesn't have patience for much else.

A long sigh issues from the bathroom, and Lane finally emerges, his hair slicked back in its usual way, and his dark suit and muted tie immaculate. He looks nice. He's even wearing the silver tie bar she bought him for his birthday. When he glances over to where she's standing, almost dressed, his reaction is immediate.

“Christ!”

She adjusts the beaded acetate against her collarbone as she threads her right arm through a crimson sleeve. “Something wrong?”

He pretends to re-fasten one of his cufflinks, desperately trying to backpedal. “No—it's only—I thought you were going to wear that—blue dress?”

Joan shakes her head. “Too small.”

Honestly, it probably would have fit if she had bothered to let out the bust. But Lane – for the first time in his life – decided to spend all of lunch hinting that she ought to wear something “a bit darker—perhaps—black, or navy?” Something about his father being very traditional. They had another argument while Nigel was putting some things in the wash. She was so frustrated that she'd gone straight to the master closet and picked out this outfit. Bright red, low scoop neck, three quarter sleeves. His father can like it or lump it.

Judging by Lane's face—and the way his eyes keep lingering on her décolletage—he's not exactly immune to its charms, much as he might not like her wearing this dress on this particular occasion. Joan examines herself in the mirror with some satisfaction, and then motions toward the back of the dress to indicates she'll need assistance with the zipper.

“Zip me up?”

He does. She fastens a delicate gold lavaliere around her neck to complete the look, examining her face and hair in the vanity mirror one last time. While she's occupied, there's a sudden knock at the bedroom door; Nigel stomps inside less than two seconds later.

“Dad, I think Uncle Lewis is—” the boy stops mid-sentence, eyes widening as he sees Joan's outfit. She sends a small smile his way. He's wearing his ever-present school blazer and blue jeans, but at least this pair isn't wrinkled.

“You look nice.”

Lane is already frustrated with his son, judging by his thunderous expression. “Oh, for god's sake, Nigel, where are your trousers?!”

“Rucksack,” Nigel says slowly, as if it should be obvious.

“Well, go and get them! You are not wearing those in front of your grandfather!” Lane hurries Nigel out of the room and into the hallway in a panicked movement.

There's still a faint knocking coming from the front door. Joan walks outside to answer it.

“I say,” Lewis says when she finally lets him inside, looking her up and down with a raised eyebrow. “What an impression you make.”

She snorts out a laugh. The man has obviously spared little thought for the traditional, himself. He's wearing a rich burgundy paisley cravat to set off his double-breasted brown suit, paired with a gold tie pin. A red carnation in his left buttonhole offsets the entire ensemble.

“Well, I see you've dressed for the occasion.”

“Naturally.” He sweeps inside, takes Joan's hand, and kisses the top of her knuckles before releasing her palm. “Now, I'm going to make myself a very large drink. Shall I cook for two?”

“That would be lovely.”

Lewis crosses to the sideboard in the living room, and is opening one of the half-full gin bottles before Joan decides to speak again, letting out a sigh.

“Lane wants tonight to go perfectly.”

The older man purses his lips in something like a smirk, removing the lid from the tarnished silver ice bucket, and directing a significant glance down the hall. “Are we making accusations or observations?”

Joan accepts the half-full cut glass Lewis presses into her hand, gesturing with it toward the back bedrooms, where Lane and Nigel can be heard in the middle of a heated disagreement. “He's never said two words about the man except to tell me he had a father.”

“Generally, I should not spend the evening searching for affirmations,” Lewis says, following her gaze. “Because you won't find any.”

Joan takes a small sip from her drink. Well, at least he's being forthcoming. “The word traditional kept coming up.”

There is a slight pause. “Are you asking if you think he will like you?”

One of the things she likes most about Lane's brother, Joan decides with a huff, is that he's almost as direct as she is. “I don't care what he thinks about me.” She notices the Cheshire cat smile that passes across Lewis' face, and so leaves the rest of her thought unsaid. It's Lane I'm worried about.

He must see worry flicker in her expression, because he turns serious. “You understand the old man adored Rebecca.” Meeting Joan's gaze, he lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Only thing Lane ever did right, to hear him tell it.”

“Jesus,” Joan responds, much louder than she should, considering Nigel is still in the house. “They were miserable together.”

Lewis makes an amused noise, and takes a deep drink from his glass, his accent becoming crisp. “Yes, but she was wealthy, darling. Traveled in all the right circles.”

Joan raises an eyebrow. “You make it sound as if Lane was a gold digger.”

“Not as such, but Becky was older. Thirty, thirty five.” He lowers his voice, and Joan leans in to catch his next words, the gesture automatic, her hand coming up to catch at the delicate gold chain dangling from her throat. “Might have lost the luxury of considering other offers.”

She feels a sharp stab of pity in her stomach, surprised this idea hadn't occurred to her sooner. Maybe Rebecca had married Lane for the same reason Joan had once married Greg. It's a bleak prospect, but not completely unlikely. “That would explain a few things.”

Her fingers trace over the rim of her glass, condensation from the melting ice trickling toward the base and slowly turning the sides blurry. Lane's spoken to her about most of it—how he and Becca met and courted in London, three years after the war; their struggle getting pregnant; the unhappiness, the separation—but he has never talked about the marriage in what Joan would call practical terms, and she has wondered, briefly, if it is because they had a dynamic based more on convenience than love.          

She still feels she should defend him. “Lane does care about her.”

Judging by the surprised expression on Lewis's face, he does not miss the purposeful use of the present tense. “After all this time?”

Joan sets her glass aside. Rebecca and Lane fight like cats and dogs every time they speak. They couldn't make each other happy when they were together. But they were married for over fifteen years. They have a child—history—some kind of lingering connection. Lane has fond memories of the early days, anyway. Her mother used to say it was just two sides of the same coin.

“She's Nigel's mother.”

“Duty and honor, hm?” He gives a humorless chuckle.

“What are you two talking about?” comes a voice from across the room.

Joan glances over to see Nigel standing in the doorway, scratching a hand over his smooth jaw. He’s wearing what looks like school-issue navy slacks, which are a little too short for him. She can see an inch of black sock visible below the cuff.

Lewis, meanwhile, is quick on the uptake. “Literature.”

“Eurgh,” groans Nigel, plunking down into his father's desk chair, and poking at the lip of the ornate mahogany with one finger. “Borrrr-ing.”

Lane is not far behind, gesturing toward the front door as he pokes his head into the doorway.

“Nigel, we're going down now—get up and put on your coat!” To Lewis and Joan, as if he can't believe he has to tell them these things. “There's going to be traffic. Aren't you ready?”

Joan surreptitiously checks her watch. Ten after six. It won't take fifty minutes to drive a few blocks uptown, even in the worst traffic, but if leaving now will make him stop panicking, she'll have another drink at the restaurant without complaint.

“Well,” Lewis mutters, draining the rest of his glass in a single gulp, and setting it back onto the credenza so roughly that it clicks against the wood, “darling, any last words before they kill us?”

At this, she gives him an unamused look, and moves to join Lane in the hallway.

**

“Ten till. Ought to be here soon.” Lane checks his watch for the fifteenth time in as many minutes, fidgeting in his chair as he glances around at the other tables and toward the lobby for any sign of his father. Joan has to suppress the urge to reach out and touch his hair, the way she usually does when he's extremely stressed. But as she glances at him, she notices his forehead is a little misty, and instead puts her hand on his, keeping her voice low as she leans in.

“Honey, you're sweating.”

Lane quickly pulls out his handkerchief to dab at his temples and neck, shooting a furtive glance at Joan to make sure he looks presentable. She gives him a reassuring smile, and nods her head yes.

He tries to return the smile, but on his face the expression turns strained, like a grimace. Within seconds, he's checking his pocket watch again. “I—think I ought to go up to the front. That way he'll know where we are.”

Lewis has to make a cutting remark as his brother leaves the table. “Wouldn't want the old man to get lost.”

Lane either doesn't hear it or doesn't bother replying. Joan watches him go, then directs a glare across the table. From where she's sitting, on the left hand side facing the wall, he's to the right of the head chair. “I don't care if you want to get drunk, but you need to be quieter about it.”

“Oh, dear sister.” He leans back in his chair, slanting her an expression she can't quite decipher—is it pity? “Ignorance truly is bliss.”

She glares at him in reply. “It's not a joke.”

Nigel giggles, watching their interaction, then hides his smile behind his menu when Joan turns her glare on him. Before she can say anything else, she sees a young woman leading Lane and an older gentleman toward their table, and immediately begins to get to her feet, pushing herself up by placing one hand on the top of the table. “Here they come.”

Lewis straightens as quickly as if he's been jerked up by a string, but once he's standing, he seems very collected. He doesn't even have to button his jacket. Nigel just scoots his chair back a few inches from the table, sidesteps it, and stands beside the table with grim determination, making himself as tall as he can manage, with his hands clasped in front of his buttons.

Lane seems to be expecting this kind of welcome committee, because as soon as he reaches the table, he's gesturing toward the group, voice much louder and cheerful than usual. “Here we are, then, Father. You—well, you know almost everyone—”

“Hello, Father,” Lewis interrupts, reaching around Nigel's left side and sticking out a hand for the old man to shake. “Surprised you've come to New York.”

“How unexpected to find you here,” the older man replies in an even, pleasant tone, with no more than a second's pause. He eyes Lewis's proffered hand, but keeps both palms braced on the top of his walking stick, making no move to reach out. Without further ado, he moves past his eldest son to speak to his grandson, instead.

“Hello, Nigel.”

“Hello, Grandfather.” The boy's voice cracks over the first two words, and he winces visibly before continuing. “You're looking well.”

The old man clears his throat, shaking the boy's hand. “Louder next time. A young man is confident.”

Nigel flushes, but doesn't counter this command, just nods. “Yes, sir.”

Behind his father, Lane visibly sets his jaw, so tightly it's a wonder his molars don't crack. Joan's eyes flick back to the older Mr. Pryce just in time for him to meet her gaze. His sharp, dark eyes flick up and down her voluptuous body, then back to her face, narrowing very slightly. She feels a slight twinge of self-consciousness at this, but refuses to let it show. In appearance, he's basically what she imagined; average height, more broad-built, thinning white hair. Fastidious clothes.

“Father,” Lane says, stepping forward with an expectant air, “I'd like you to meet Joan Harris, my—dear friend. Joan, my father, Robert Pryce.”

She puts on her best client smile, and extends her hand “Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleasure.” He barely grasps her fingertips before releasing her hand.

“Now, we've saved you a seat just here,” Lane is being overly cheerful again, gesturing toward the empty chair with an anxious expression. Robert's eyes flick to it, then to its nearest hand, where his eldest son sits watching him with sharp eyes.

“No,” the old man says, his deep baritone firm but not unpleasant. It has a silken quality that reminds her of Lewis. “Nigel, you shall sit next to me, instead.”

“Oh—” Lane sputters, glancing from his son to his father in surprise, “well—I had thought—”

“Be quick about it,” Robert interrupts, calm, as if Lane has not spoken. He is still staring at Nigel, who puts his napkin on the table with a tiny sigh, stands up, and turns to his uncle.

“'Scuse me, please.”

Lewis sniffs out a derisive noise, pointedly not looking at his father, but rises from his seat without a word, picking up his napkin and drink and sidestepping the boy so Nigel can sit down next to Robert's left hand. When Lewis is finally resettled, he glances across the table and meets Joan's eyes with a lift of one eyebrow before taking a gulp of his drink, as if to say I told you so.

Jesus, if their father is this controlling, it's no wonder Lane was so anxious about the evening going well. Joan feels the sudden press of exhaustion in her temples.

“Father is staying at the Warwick,” Lane announces once everyone is seated, glancing briefly at Joan with a concerned expression, as if he isn't quite sure how to begin the flow of conversation. “He does so like a view.”

Robert is quick to pick up this thread, his hands still braced on his walking stick, which is now balanced between his knees at the end of the table. “Unfortunately, the rain has kept me from seeing it.”

“Oh. Yes, you are right—I suppose I did not notice. The temperature, at least, is cool.”

“Really? Do you think so?” Joan raises an eyebrow in response to Lewis' loud interruption, turning to stare at him. He glances back at her with innocent eyes. “Only I find it rather warm, myself.”

Silence falls over the table. Nigel coughs, once, and for a moment no one else speaks.

“Well,” Joan says with a short laugh, determined to steer the conversation into less awkward waters, “given my condition, I would probably be warm in a freezing snow bank.” She turns back to Lane's father, wondering if he'll be more receptive to conversation if he's being asked questions. “Robert, have you retired? What do you do?”

“Oh—surely you remember, darling,” Lane interjects, sounding a little panicked. “Father was Carrington Surgical. Medical equipment.”

“Of course,” Joan decides the word equipment would better denote a technician instead of a doctor. “You were a technician?”

“Sales.”

Lewis smirks in a way that suggests he finds Joan's question hilarious, but before he can speak, the server arrives at their table. They spend a few moments listening to the specials before the boy begins to take their drink orders. Lane speaks up first, gesturing toward his father and brother. “Yes. Well, we'll have three whiskey sours, to begin with—and Joan, sorry, darling—what did you—”

“Lane, he's asking for your drinks order, not a string of nonsense.”

Joan blinks at Robert, stunned by his sly-voiced remark.

Lane just exhales, and pretends not to have heard it, staring down at his menu like he’s completely lost his train of thought. “Sorry. Just—another moment.”

“The two sours,” Lewis interrupts, gesturing with one hand to get their server's attention. “And I shall have a crown and ginger—tall glass. Mrs. Harris? Your poison?”

He winks at her. She smiles in return. “Gin and tonic, please.”

“Excellent. Nigel?”

Whatever he was going to say becomes moot; Robert speaks up instead.

“Water for the boy.”

The server departs their table at a speed that Joan would classify as close to a jog.

**

Robert takes another drink from his highball glass, then sets it aside, clearing his throat. When he speaks, he looks only to Lane, although his voice is loud enough to carry over to the next two tables. “Your younger brother has gone up the ranks again.”

“Oh,” Lane says in a dull voice, posture ramrod-straight, poking at his salad with his fork and wearing an expression that suggests he'd rather fling himself from the nearest curb than hear any more about Charles. It's all Robert has talked about: Charles' marriage, and his sons, and his proper little wife. Although, if Joan is making judgments based on Lewis and his many amused looks, the woman is anything but small. “That's—well done, I suppose.”

“Now, Lane, don't be childish. Charles is a family man. He ought to be commended.”

Joan can't stand Robert's patronizing tone; the way he couches all his insults as harmless remarks and jokes. She has held her tongue through the first round of drinks, and the appetizers, and after what was close to an hour of passive-aggressive barbs disguised as helpful advice.

Well, God knows she tried to make nice.

“Now, remind me, Robert, is Charles a partner with his law firm, or a senior associate?”

Directly across the table, Lewis is smirking again. To his right, Nigel's frozen with his soup spoon halfway to his lips.

Robert sets his jaw. “He shall be promoted again by year's end.”

So not a partner yet. Joan affects complete innocence, laying a brief hand on Lane's arm as she speaks. “Oh, of course. I was just saying to Lane this week how difficult it can be to break into partnership ranks; don't you agree, honey?”

“I—well, depends on the place, I suppose,” is all Lane says, looking from her to his father with a wide-eyed expression, as if he's not sure what to say, or whose side to take.

She refuses to be deterred, beaming at the entire table. “Robert, I’m not sure if you're aware, but Lane was instrumental in founding our current agency. Without him, who knows where we'd all have ended up.”

The old man returns her smile, but on his face it's strained, and suggests he doesn't appreciate the reminder. “I'm sure a woman like you should have found her way very well indeed.”

Joan knows this is not a compliment, and simply sits taller, buffering her shoulders, and smiling in a way that can best be described as vicious. The baby keeps smashing one hand into her side as she speaks, and she lays a hand across the top of her stomach in an attempt to quiet it. “Well, you can't blame a girl for having ambitions.”

Across the table from her, Lewis lights a cigarette—holding it not by the filter, but by an oblong brown enamel holder that’s several inches long. She almost laughs out loud. Jesus. He looks like Addison DeWitt. She hasn't seen a red-blooded man hold one of those in years.

From her left, Joan can practically hear Lane's teeth grinding together as he attempts to keep his feelings to himself. Meanwhile, Nigel seems as if he’s just trying to ignore everyone at the table, Lane included, keeping his eyes fixed on his soup like he’s going to get rapped on the knuckles if he so much as looks up from the dish.

“Joan, dearest, you are going back to work after your condition...resolves itself, hm?”

She turns a raised eyebrow to Lewis, who blows out a breath of smoke through his nose. The man is clearly trying to provoke a reaction from someone, but whether it's just his father or both Robert and Lane is unclear. At this point, after the way Robert's acted all evening, she's more than willing to play along. “You mean after I deliver? Yes. We'll hire a girl.”

This manages to elicit a response from Nigel, of all people, who glances up with a startled look. “Really?”

At the glare he receives from his grandfather, he shuts up, although his face is still plainly curious. Joan smiles at the boy, determined to answer his question as if it's the most entertaining one she's been asked all night. “What, is that so hard to believe?”

His eyes widen, as if he wants to laugh, but he doesn't say anything, just starts to poke at his vegetable soup with his spoon again. Joan isn't sure why he's being so demure until Robert speaks up, his silken voice underlined by the smallest note of steel. “Finish your food or have the boy take it away. You will not make a game of it.”

Nigel flushes with embarrassment, and puts his spoon down so quickly he practically drops it, wincing at the clatter of silver against white china. “Yes, sir.”

Joan glances to her left. Lane is sweating again, as if he's sitting in the steam room at the athletic club, and he hasn't eaten more than two bites of his meal. Jesus. Isn't he going to say something?

“You know, Nigel, I did mean to mention—” she begins again, but is interrupted by Robert, who raises a hand as if forbidding the boy to respond.

“Mrs. Harris, perhaps it's best I explain this matter directly. I believe children ought only to be seen at table, and not heard.”

She keeps a smile pasted on her face, refusing to let him see that he's hit a nerve with his condescending remark, but luckily Lewis speaks up before she has a chance to say anything rash.

“Even grown children, apparently.”

Robert's voice does not rise in pitch, but even from her seat, Joan can see one of his eyes twitch imperceptibly at hearing the backtalk. “What was that?”

Lewis' eyes widen for a fraction of a second before the surprise disappears, and a wolfish smile lights up his face. Jesus. She can't tell if he's more thrilled at being directly addressed or at finally getting under his father's skin. It's almost pathetic, watching the way he preens under the negative attention.  “Oh, of course, Father, we'll speak a little louder.” He raises his voice, as if the man is hard of hearing. “I was only saying to Joan that she and little brother seem well suited. What a match, hm?”

Joan's so surprised to hear positive words emerge from someone's mouth that it almost eclipses her frustration at knowing Lewis is only saying them to be annoying. “Thank you.”

Robert purses his lips at the exchange, voice calm but razor-sharp. “I should not be so quick to insult the boy's mother, were I you.”

“Course I wasn't,” Lewis says in a blithe tone, now turning to Nigel, and watching Robert's face become more pinched as his eldest son addresses his grandson directly. Lewis, for what it's worth, keeps his voice prim, directing a wink to Joan that no one else seems to catch. “No one could replace dear Becca in our hearts.”

Jesus. He's making it sound like she died, for god's sake.

“I'm not trying to replace anyone,” Joan says, more sharply than intended, and quickly softens her voice. “Rebecca and I are different people, obviously. I'm sure that's all Lewis means.”

She shoots a glance at Lane, expecting him to chime in, or to tell his father not to take the conversation so personally, but he's silent. He's staring down at his plate and spearing individual peas on the tines of his fork as if the repetitive movement will physically will the argument to be over.

“Couldn't agree more, dear,” Robert says instead, his smile very tight. The look in his eyes suggests Joan is as far from Rebecca as a disgusting insect might be to a queen.

She feels a thrum of anger pulse through her chest.

“Now, Joan,” Lewis begins in a droll voice, as if his father hasn't spoken, “when you do hire a girl for the little one, you might consider taking a leaf from dear Father's book—”

Lane pushes back his chair and stands up, expression pale and strained, as if he's had more than enough of this passive-aggressive bickering. He places his napkin in a messy pile beside his untouched plate. “If you'll—please excuse me.”

Robert's face is like stone as his son walks away, and in Lane's absence, they all fall silent, not needing to keep up the charade. Joan watches Lane pick his way through a sea of tables—clumsy, almost panicked—and finally turn left down a long corridor. She hopes he'll splash some water on his face; take a few minutes. When he put his napkin on his chair she could swear his hands were shaking.

**

After the entrees, Robert made his excuses and went back to his hotel before the check could even hit the table. Lewis only stuck around long enough to wave him off, and once that was accomplished, he went straight into the bar. Although at that point, he was already drunk, and Lane was radiating quiet fury just having to look at him.

She, Nigel, and Lane got a taxi and rode home in miserable silence.

Joan checks her freshly-scrubbed face for any remaining cold cream, and steps out of the restroom, turning off the light as she pads into the master bedroom. Here, Lane is still fully dressed, with only his tie loosened, sitting in front of her vanity mirror, and staring into space.

“You're quiet,” she says first, and apparently this is the door to the floodgates.

“Between you and Lewis, how on earth am I supposed to get a word in edgewise?”

It escalates quickly.

“Did I ask your mother leading questions? Did I tell her she was loud, or garish, or too bloody chatty—?”

“Jesus—I know my mother's a pill! And she loves stirring the shit, but she was at least polite

“To you,” he interrupts in a snide voice, and Joan feels her blood boil at the comment.

“You have something you want to tell me?!”

“Oh, for god's sake,” Lane retorts. He's avoiding the question; he's always avoiding the question. “I don't need you to stand up for me!”

Whatever reply Joan was going to make dies on her lips, and she stares at him, open-mouthed. “That's what this is about?!”

“My father doesn't like being challenged,” he retorts through gritted teeth, standing in front of her vanity with his arms braced on the table. He still won't look at her. “And I told you that tonight—I asked you—”

“He talked to us like we were scum. He spent the entire evening taking pot shots at our life, and at you, and—” she refuses to let herself say and me, “acting like it was nothing! He was a shitheel! And you just sat there!

Lane meets her eyes in the mirror, crestfallen, and the shame is written all over his face.

She just shakes her head in disbelief, voice turning quieter. “What was I supposed to do?”

“You don't—know what he's like, you can't—” He lets out a long breath. His head hangs so low Joan can't even see his face reflected in the mirror as he talks.

“Because you won't tell me,” she insists.

Lane's arms and back are so tense that even from her place beside the bed, she can see a stray muscle twitching in his upper arm. His voice is low, but it shakes. “I don't want to talk about it.”

This quiet rebuff, out of everything that's happened tonight, is what tips her over the edge. She gives a helpless shrug, feeling humiliated at being shut out, so humiliated she's tearing up a little. “I'm going to go into the nursery.”

She curses the waver in her voice as she speaks because it makes him jerk his head up to look at her, glimpse her expression with startled eyes.

“Oh, damn it,” he mutters. She can't tell whether this is because he's more upset with her or with himself, but either way, she waves a dismissive hand, expression very watery.

“You can go to bed if you want, just—leave the light on.”

“Joan,” he mumbles, looking ashamed, but she shakes her head, thinking that if she so much as speaks another word she's going to burst into tears.

She goes into the nursery, with its cheerful pastels and toys. One side of the crib has been lowered while they continue to prepare the room, and so she sits on the armchair which faces the open edge, staring at the printed sheets and clutching a length of soft patterned cotton in two fists, dabbing at the corners of her wet eyes. She's basically using the corner of a baby blanket as a giant handkerchief.

Twenty minutes later, she hears quiet footsteps on carpet, coming from just inside the nursery doorway. Joan glances over and takes in Lane's anxious expression. Her eyes are finally dry. “I don't want to argue in here.”

“No, I wasn't—” Lane looks hurt at this implication, but he doesn't finish the sentence. She sighs, motioning that he can come in if he wants to, but he just stands there awkwardly, tense and cautious, as if waiting for her to throw a plastic rattle at him.

“My father left us when I was eleven,” she says simply, turning back to the crib as she speaks, because it's been on her mind tonight—it's been on her mind for months, if she's being honest. “When I was younger, I thought I was eventually going to want him around, when I married, or when I had children of my own.”

When she looks back at Lane, he's finally staring in her direction, eyes fixed on her right hand, which is resting on top of her enormous stomach. She can't help letting out a puff of unamused laughter. “For all I know, he could be dead now.”

There's a long pause. She doesn't know how else to start this conversation. She thought reciprocity would at least help him feel less isolated, but it seems to have made him even more anxious. He swipes a hand across the back of his neck. That same dark flush of embarrassment is creeping up from his collar. “I wish—”

He stops talking so quickly it’s as if he bit his tongue to keep from finishing the sentence. Joan watches the tension in his face shift into something more pained, and decides to prompt him, just once.

“Lane, I don't care if you hate him. Just—talk to me. Please.”

Fraught emotions are fighting for dominance across his face, but Lane manages to look at her, and lift one hand in a shrug. “I—don’t like—thinking about him.”

He doesn't elaborate, but at least he isn't dodging the question this time. Joan lets out a long breath, not sure what kind of answer she was expecting to hear, and disappointed because she'd gotten her hopes up for some loaded admission, for a truth that was clearly not coming.

“Come sit down?” she asks, changing the subject, and motioning that he can come closer. If nothing else, they can sit in here together, while it's quiet.

After a moment, Lane shakes his head no, but there's a current of hesitation running underneath his refusal, like he wants to, but had to talk himself out of it. Joan's too exhausted to press any further once he finally answers. “Bit tired, I think.”

He gives another sigh, and disappears back into the hallway. Joan turns back to staring at the crib, stroking two fingertips over the baby's palm, which is pushing out against her resting hand.

**

The next day, the telephone rings about an hour after lunch. When Lane hangs up the receiver, after an extremely brief conversation, the color in his face is so high he looks consumptive. Nigel’s been in his bedroom for awhile—supposedly reading, probably just sleeping—and just as she decides Lane is going to go in after him, Joan feels a sudden hand on her elbow, and glances up from her book.

He takes a seat on the edge of the sofa. “Father's coming here. Tonight.”

Joan sets her book aside.

Lane's head is bowed, and automatically she reaches out, brushes a lock of hair back from his temple. He glances over at her, and speaks in a rush, voice breaking a little. “He—wants to take Nigel.”

Shit.

Joan knows her mouth has dropped open, and closes it, willing herself to remain calm. Jesus, and she spent half of dinner baiting the man, playing little games with Lewis, needling Robert in an attempt to see who could be more annoying. Why the hell wouldn't Lane say anything?

When she speaks, she makes sure her voice is perfectly steady. Reaching out, she slips her left hand into his. “That’s not going to happen.”

“I—” he seems torn between fury and panic, squeezing her hand very tightly. “No. No.

“What time is he arriving?” she asks, keeping her voice low. “I'd like to have a plan, or at least a logical argument.”

“He—” Lane lets out a breath, his free hand worrying over his forehead. “Christ—”

“Call Lewis,” she suggests immediately, then purses her mouth as another thought occurs to her. “Unless he's drunk. He could be useful.”

It's not meant to be a joke, not under the circumstances, but the attempt at humor does make her feel a little less awful. Plus, it makes Lane squeeze her hand again, although not as tightly as before.

**

Lewis has been here for an hour already; he and Lane are squirreled away in the master bedroom, supposedly talking. Mostly arguing instead. They're supposed to be strategizing.

She was present for the first few minutes of conversation—in which Lewis swore a blue streak, and Lane just snapped at him to shut up, and paced—but she got called away by Nigel with a question about their TV guide listings. She's since lost track of the ebb and flow of the plan, but her part in it is simple enough. Answer the door, keep Robert talking for a minute or two until Lane and Lewis can appear and present a united front. Nigel is banished to his room for the time being, which seemed like a difficult goal until Joan said the magic words: “Your grandfather's coming over.” At which point it became easy to get him out of their hair.

At exactly five o'clock, a knock comes at the door. Joan answers it.

“Hello, Robert.” She gives him a wide smile. “Lane's on the phone, but he'll be out in a few minutes.”

“I was not aware I should be seeing you again,” the old man says, staring at Joan with a stiff smile, as if her surprise appearance is no less than horrifying.

Joan does not let his sneering tone intimidate her. “I live here.”

She ushers him inside, indicating he can follow her into the living room if he likes. “Would you like something to drink?”

“No. I do not wish to delay,” he tells her, holding up a warning hand. That awful, oily smile is still stretched across his face.

“Well, it's too bad,” Joan replies in an airy voice, folding her hands across her pregnant stomach. The gesture draws Robert's attention to her figure, and she can see his lips press into a thin line. Clearly, the idea of his son having another child upsets him. Maybe it's because she and Lane aren't married; maybe it's because Becca only gave Lane one son, instead of a houseful of strapping boys. For the millionth time, she wonders why Robert would be so insistent on taking sides with his ex-daughter-in-law.

“I hope you'll have a pleasant journey back to London,” she says, leaning slightly against the nearest side table as she speaks. It's tall enough for her to rest a hand on.

“Do you hear yourself, Mrs. Harris?” he asks in return, the smooth manners disappearing from his voice with every word, like a bird shedding feathers as it flies away from a perch. “Have you any idea how ridiculous you sound?”

Joan raises an eyebrow, all humor now gone from her voice. “Excuse me?”

Robert moves to stand directly in front of her. His voice is a rough hiss. “You think I don't know why my son enjoys you? Lane is weak. He's only interested in what's between your legs—”

Joan raises one hand to slap him, but he catches her by the right wrist before she can complete the movement, forcing it down and away from his face.

“Let go of me,” she hisses, struggling to pull free, but his vise-like grip is like iron.

“You have no business in his life.” He squeezes tighter with every word, the sensation so painful Joan lets out a small cry, then presses her lips into a line. Don't let them hear anything.

Robert is unmoved, forcing her backward into the edge of the table, her arm braced upright between their bodies. The way she's angled, the wood digs into the tail of her spine, forces her to arch her back. She can barely breathe for the pain. “You're hurting me—”

His fingers dig into her arm even harder; Joan can feel the welts rising as he keeps squeezing, and turns her face to the side, suddenly remembering Greg's weight on top of her. God. What if he—

“—you are nothing but a whore—”

“Shut up,” Joan snarls without thinking, suddenly meeting his eyes, but before anything else can happen there's a voice from the doorway: quiet, agitated.

“What are you doing?

She can feel the result even before she can see it. Robert takes an imperceptible step back, and his grip loosens. The fury in his expression is receding into its usual measured sharpness. His voice is sibilant, practically airy, and watching the mask pulled neatly back into place is almost more frightening than seeing him without it. “Whatever can you mean?”

Nigel stands poised just outside the living room doorway, just to their right, shock and fear overwriting his expression, and one hand gripping the lip of the doorjamb like he doesn't know what to do. His mouth is hanging open, face flushed. “You—hurt her.”

“You've a very vivid mind, boy,” Robert says in a crisp way, slanting an amused expression at Joan. “We were having conversation.”

She can barely force the corners of her mouth to rise in answer to Robert's lie; it's not a smile at all, it's tremulous, it slides from her face. Her legs are shaking, and her face is flushed, and all she can hear is blood thundering in her ears—every instinct inside her chest screaming run, run. Her heart flutters faster with every beat of silence. She feels like she's going to pass out, or cry, or scream, and Nigel's eyes are locked on her: furious, unbelieving.

Jesus. What did he see? What did he hear?

“Nigel,” she begins, and has to swallow to wet her throat, but the boy interrupts her—voice hoarse but still too strong by half.

I saw it!

Robert is poised in place, muscles coiled and expression wary; Joan knows if Nigel makes the smallest move into the room, the old man will go after him, and that can't happen. She moves to keep Robert from the doorway, slowly walking backwards on coltish legs until she's blocking his path.

“Get the elevator.” She doesn't dare look back at the boy, now positioned in the doorway behind her. But she's also too afraid to meet Robert's eyes, staring at the pressed lapels of his suit instead.

“But—” Nigel sputters.

Go.

As he slips outside, and the front door slams open and closed, she locks eyes with Robert again in a silent challenge. But there are loud voices from the master bedroom, sounding as if they're moving down the hallway, and he can't do a damn thing; Joan feels the shiver of certainty trip down her spine just as she sees the hatred sparking in his eyes.

“Get out of my sight,” he hisses, and she does, practically stumbling because she's so clumsy with fear. She's grabbing her coat from the rack by the front door, hands shaking, when she hears Robert and Lane behind her.

“Why are you—?”

“Where's—”

Joan doesn't stop to answer any questions, just focuses on getting out before she can panic. She's out of the front door and several yards down the hallway when Lane finally catches up to her.

“Wait—Joan—”

He grabs for her hand, but his fingers find her right wrist instead, and she stops walking, pulling away from his grasp with a cry of pain.

They're stopped in front of Mrs. Henderson's apartment, the brass numbers on her door gleaming back at Joan in a mocking way. Lane's staring from his flexed hand to her right arm as if he's been burned, face white with horror, eyes wide.

“Oh, my god,” he whispers, stepping closer, and Joan closes her eyes, very briefly.

Her face still burns hot with shame; tears falling silent and unchecked. She can feel the muscles in her forearm pulsing with a sharp, agonizing pain; god, what if something's broken—

When she opens them again, Lane's face is as closed off as she's ever seen it. He's just staring from her pained expression to the baby inside her as if he's never going to get the chance to see either of them again, jaw clenched, but with his palms balanced under her arms, just below her elbows.

“Take Nigel,” is all he says, voice strained and low in the buzzing quiet of the hallway. “Keep him away.”

She grips the cuffs of his jacket in two fists, mute, blinking quickly, but nodding her head yes because what else can she do? She has to get out of here; she needs him to come with her, she can't move because she's rooted to the ground.

Don't.

“Go,” he whispers, and his hands are now in hers, gripping them tightly, nudging her backward. She feels herself stumble a little, but pushes upright using the heel of her shoe, letting out a shaky breath. The kids. The baby.

Move.

Joan turns, forcing her feet into brisk motion against the patterned carpet. In her left coat pocket is a house key and a small wad of cash—she doesn't know how much. She doesn't even know how they got there. Heel, toe; heel, toe until she's around the corner, and the door to their apartment has since opened and closed in the distance, and in the sitting area just beside the elevator Nigel is slumped in a miserable ball, knees drawn up, his face buried in his arms.

“Come on,” she says, nudging the side of his leg in a brisk way with the toe of her shoe and urging him up; he rises to his feet the way a sleepwalker might, dazed and anxious. His eyes are red, but he isn't crying.

“Where's Dad?”

She refuses to let Nigel see her cry, although thinking of Lane is painful, like a knife sliding between her ribs. “He's coming later.”

The elevator arrives at the landing, and they walk into the open car. Joan hears the doors ding as they slide closed, and turns her face a little to the left, trying to choke down the lump in her throat.

Breathe.

Neither of them move to hit the button, and after what feels like at least a minute, Nigel slips his hand into hers—as if she's actually his mother, as if he's a little boy afraid to see her sad and upset. She squeezes it tightly. She doesn't make him let go, even once they reach the landing.

Chapter Text

Lane hears glasses clink together, and water running from a faucet in a gush.

The noises jerk him out of what must have been a very long reverie; he’s as stunned as if he’s been dropped into his chair from a great height. On first glance, he doesn’t quite know how he got here. He’s in some kind of pub—the bar area dimly lit by several brass high-hanging lamps—with a few tall wooden tables and chairs lining the red wall directly behind him. Place is practically empty except for him, an old chap down the other end nursing a beer, and an Italian-looking bartender, olive skinned and dark haired, who’s washing cups in a small metal sink a few paces down, behind the bar. That was the noise.

How long has he been here? Where the hell’s Lewis?

Lane looks back to his glass, as if it can somehow give him the answers he needs. It’s barely got any ice in it at all, and seems to have also been sitting here a very long time. The base of the glass is sticking to a red cocktail napkin currently serving as a coaster, and there’s an inch-thick dark ring of water surrounding the circumference of the glass. He thinks if he suddenly tried to lift this glass, the napkin underneath would peel away from the bottom in little shredded pieces, like layers of onion skin.

“You doing okay?”

It takes Lane a moment to realize the bartender is speaking to him.

“I—” he begins, then realises he might have come here alone, rather than with Lewis, and frowns. The movement makes him wince. “Yes. Sorry, erm—was I—with anyone—earlier?”

“Your brother,” says the bartender with a careless shrug, as if he isn’t bothered by details.

This does not exactly answer Lane’s question. He blinks back at the other man.

“Said he’s grabbing something from his hotel.”

Well, that’s got to be a lie. Lane does not know why this person would bother making up such a story, but suddenly feels very thirsty, and reaches for his water glass. A dull ache is pounding to life in his sides and his hands and his head—god, his head is splitting. His lip feels very painful and swollen, and he puts his hand to the right corner of his mouth to discover there’s dried blood crusted up around what feels like—joined-up stitches—and bandages on his left hand.

Did they go to hospital?

He rushes back into the living room, where Father stands near the half-doorway, eyeing Lewis on the opposite side of the sofa like two wild animals circling a small cage.

“You think you can hurt her—you think you can take my son from me?”

His father says nothing, expression stone, and it makes Lane’s blood boil.

Get the hell out of my house!”

The sting of his father’s cane across his face is so quick and sharp it brings tears to his eyes; it makes him taste blood as he crumples to the floor—

Lane pushes his water glass away. It topples over in the process, water sloshing over the counter. He’s already on his feet, and the chair squeals loudly as it scrapes against the hardwood floor. Noticing that he’s caught the bartender’s attention, he tries to compose himself, to seem all right although his head feels like it’s spinning again. Christ.

“I—erm,” he feels like his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth, “sorry, I’ve—spilt it.”

The bartender seems unfazed, producing a dry rag from underneath the counter, tossing it toward the mess, and moving to get a new glass from the mounted shelves behind him. “No problem.”

As he’s putting ice into a clean glass, the door to the street opens, and Lewis strides into the building, waving a hand to the barkeep as if they’ve been friends all their lives. Lane can’t help but notice his brother’s left eye is purple and nearly swollen shut. Good god.

Lewis jerks his chin up in acknowledgement. “All right, Tony?”

The bartender—Tony—waves a hand toward the empty chairs. “Ah. It’s been slow.”

“You drive everyone away, then?”

The other man snorts out a laugh; Lewis only motions for a drink, gesturing to the nearest few bottles of whiskey with one hand. “One here. And one for yourself.”

Lane watches in confusion as his brother takes a seat next to him. If not for the injury, he’d seem almost normal. High spirits, bothering everyone, same idiot smirk on his face. How the hell does he manage to do that?

“Little brother,” Lewis turns an innocent look on Lane. “You’re staring.”

“Sorry. Just—your face.” Lane’s eyes widen as he gets a look at the wound up close. Gruesome business.

His brother’s smiling again. “Yes, I’m aware, thanks.” He raises his voice toward the bartender, as if this man is now part of their private conversation. “What do you think, Tony? Make me look dashing for the ladies?”

Tony doesn’t even bother glancing up from the shaker he’s rinsing out. “You look like shit.”

Lewis just laughs. Once he’s got his drink in hand and the barkeep is safely out of earshot—carrying a large rack of dirty glasses down the stairs—Lane turns back to his older brother, desperate for answers.

“What happened? Where did you go?”

Lewis takes a quick gulp of his drink. “They’re keeping Father overnight. Cracked rib, few stitches.” After a pause. “He’s fine. It’s all very tragic.”

Lane’s so stunned he can’t even speak, and for a moment, they stare at their respective glasses before he’s able to look back, to sputter out his next response.

“What?”

His brother frowns. “Hospital, Lane. Have you forgotten?” 

In an automatic gesture, Lane nods his head yes, but it’s a lie, the memory is there, tugging at the back of his mind like an open door he can’t help but peer through—

On the floor on his back with his hand pressed to his bloody mouth—ears ringing—brother shouting—father walking over, his clean black shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor. Lane knows what’ll happen next, it’s always the same, he’ll go for the fingers because that won’t leave marks or if it does if something breaks the blame can be shifted—you’ve jammed them goddamn it—that one’s shut his hand in the door—can’t do anything right can he—

—so angry he’s shaking, his glasses aren’t close but he can’t stay on the floor—he can’t—he won’t—get up goddamn it, get up, get up—

Someone’s pulling him up by the back of his shirt. Lane struggles to get free—

—god, you’ll bloody well kill him if you—”

Get off me!”

A sharp shove sends Lane reeling into the nearest wall, shoulder-first. He wheels around, his right hand a fist, to face his—brother?

Father’s on the ground—actually on the ground—not moving—

So this is what it looks like when little brother finally loses his temper. Well done.”

He feels like he can’t breathe, has to squeeze his eyes closed to keep himself calm—

Look here. Hit me in the face.”

He’s pushing Lane back toward the wall, egging him on—and there’s a sound in the distance like tapping—tapping—what is that?

“Come on, Lane. He tried to take Nigel. He laid a hand on your Joan.”

“Don’t—” Lane says in a hoarse voice, and shoves at his brother’s outstretched arms.

“Why not? Little brother’s frightened of the truth?”

Tapping turns louder—why is it—there’s voices, too—

“Fuck off!”

“You are, though,” Lewis taunts, practically laughing, still pushing at Lane’s chest with two hands. “Coward. You’re still scared of him. You’re a goddamn coward and it—”

His fist connects with Lewis’s face just as the front door bursts open.

“There—were police. In the flat.”

Lane must look ashen as he croaks this out, because Lewis directs one quick look at him and pushes his whiskey in Lane’s direction. When he speaks, his voice is so calm.

“Only for a little while.”

God, there’s no end to his humiliation. The neighbors will talk of nothing else for weeks. People always hear things through the walls, even if they pretend not to, even if they turn their faces away the next morning as they pass you on the street. People always know—everyone knows—and it’s even on file in some dingy station.

“What did you tell them?”

Lewis’s voice is as airy as if he’s discussing the weather. “I got plastered and insulted my brother’s girlfriend. You came after me. Poor old Father tried to get between us.”

Christ, it’s such a stupid story; it sounds childish, almost ridiculous. Lane doesn’t understand why they aren’t spending the night in some dirty precinct, or why they aren’t stuck in an awful hospital room pretending to care if Father’s all right.

“They actually—believed that?”

Lewis pulls a face, like he’d done so well it wasn’t even a question of the story being accepted. “Course.”

Lane runs an anxious hand over his hair. “But—”

He’s not a good liar; someone would have seen it in his face. Someone would have got the truth out of him. Lewis may be as glib as he likes, but any policeman worth his salt ought to have taken one look at Lane and seen the lie. The bruises on their hands and faces. The state of the living room. The—blood on the end of Father’s walking stick, they’d have seen that, too.

(Mother shielding her face from a group of gawking PCs. Mrs. Pryce, you must have done something to provoke him.)

Lewis leans in and lowers his voice, as if he’s about to share a joke. “Well, they tried asking your side of things, but you were a bit loopy. Sat in a chair and kept saying you were sorry.” He lets out a short bark of a laugh, although the mental picture is far from funny. “For the record, I forgave you very beautifully.”

It’s even worse than he expected. And Lane doesn’t remember a word. He gestures to his bandaged hand with a sigh.

“And then—”

“Oh, well, they made us go along, didn’t they,” Lewis makes it seem as if the most interesting part of the story has concluded, and he’d like to move on to other topics. “I’d just as soon have tipped the man off the fire escape.”

Lane does not miss the way his brother’s expression hardens at these words. And Lewis doesn’t say anything else, so a short silence stretches between the two of them. Lane’s painfully aware of how inadequate he is at talking, even under normal circumstances, but the responsibility of saying something now, when he has no words, is nearly too much to bear.

His brother, for what it’s worth, seems to understand. “You having a real drink, then?”

Lane shrugs in lieu of the real answer, which is more along the lines of my head hurts. He doesn’t want to go home yet, but he can’t bring himself to sit down. He just wants to forget everything about this horrible night.

“Erm,” he says, and finally takes his seat, feeling very awkward. “I don’t know.”

Lewis rolls his eyes as if this is exactly the kind of response he was expecting. “Here, Tony,” he calls, directing his voice down to the other end of the bar, “make yourself useful, will you?”

The bartender gives Lewis a single-finger salute as he moves to get a second rocks glass.

**

“Dad’s not coming, is he?”

Shifting in the vinyl booth, Joan looks up from her slowly congealing plate of pasta. Nigel’s plate is full, too, and he’s pulling at the clean tines of his fork as if expecting them to bend like pieces of wood. Neither of them are really hungry. If Joan’s being honest, she’s felt sick since this morning, but she couldn’t think of anywhere else to take Nigel except maybe the movies. They’ve been sitting in this greasy spoon for almost two hours.

How much longer should she keep him away from the apartment? How much more could possibly happen? She can’t stop thinking about it: if they’re fighting, if Robert tried to lay hands on someone else. She doesn’t know if Lane could overpower him in a fight. She can’t let Nigel see how much that idea terrifies her.

“He doesn’t know where we are,” she replies with a sigh, pushing around a meatball on her plate with the bowl of her spoon.

Nigel just nods in a worried sort of way, his face pale with stress. Joan still feels like she needs to give him a better explanation, although she has no idea what to say. He obviously needs reassurance, so she just tries to smile. “He just—wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“But—” the boy says, but shuts his mouth very quickly, as if he’s suddenly changed his mind. Joan barely has time to feel relieved until he blurts out the rest of his question. “Does Mum—does she—know?”

Jesus. She can see the blind fear in Nigel’s round eyes, and feels hatred simmering in her stomach for the kind of man who would prompt these questions from a kid. Robert came here itching for a fight, and was going to get it no matter what Lane did. That sick, selfish bastard.

“I don’t think so,” is all she can say.

I hope not, she wants to add, but she can’t force the words past her lips.

**

Lewis slings back another measure of whiskey, grinning as he scoots the empty glass toward the bartender’s edge of the counter.

Lane drinks half of his, wincing as it burns going down his throat, but he still gulps down the rest just to prove a point.

His brother, as always, is insufferable. “You’re terrible at this.”

“Yes, well, some of us have cul—cultivated skills other than the alcoholic.”

“Oh, trying to pick another fight, are we? Good job of it. Very well done.”

“Stop being an ass,” Lane huffs in response. He toys the small shot glass back and forth between his fingers for a moment before speaking again.

“You can stop—pretending, anyway. I—I—know it was you.”

Lewis, as always, is inscrutable, one eyebrow lifting in a silent question. Lane lets out a sigh—even that much is painful—barely glancing at the other man before clarifying his earlier remark. “Nigel. You brought him over.”

Lewis doesn’t say a word.

“Don’t bother denying it, I know my son, and I know you and he’s…” Lane has to clear his throat to finish the sentence. “Well, he’s a good boy. He wouldn’t—he’s not stupid.”

Lane’s turned this over in his head too many times to count. Nigel is many things: rash, sometimes mouthy, hoping to fit in with other boys his age—but he isn’t reckless. Despite his age, he’s more mature than most. He wouldn’t just…dash off and run away expecting nothing to happen. He would have considered the consequences.

“You’re assuming this venture was something he had to be talked into.” Lewis snorts out a noise like a laugh. “Your Nigel was bloody insistent.”

“So you—” Lane hesitates, but forces himself to soldier on. “How did you arrange it, then?”

His brother lets out a sigh, staring at the rows of elaborate beer steins which are facing them, mounted behind the far counter of the bar. “Do you know what he told me? When I asked him why he wanted to do it?”

Lane peels a strip away from his napkin, bracing himself for the worst. He hates me. He’s angry. He thinks it’s my fault Becca left.

When he raises his eyes from his anxious hands, Lewis is staring at him, gaze clear and calm. “He thought you were going to forget him.”

It’s so unexpected it makes Lane’s throat tighten with emotion. He has to set his jaw to keep himself composed; he can’t make a sound here, not now, not while people are looking at him. There is water in his eyes and he quickly blinks it back, staring soundlessly at the half-full water glass in front of him. Don’t.

“Well,” Lewis continues, with a bitter sort of chuckle, “then he mentioned he’d rather get taken by some blackguard with a hook than stay at school another minute. Which would have been jolly inconvenient.”

Lane doesn’t know if the sudden choked noise he makes is more of a laugh or a sob, but whatever it is, it’s very brief, and he runs the fingertips of one hand along his trembling mouth before it can happen again. When he glances back to his brother, Lewis is watching him with sharp eyes, but the older man doesn’t comment, just gives him a sort of nod.

“Takes after you, I’m afraid.”

“I—don’t know about that,” Lane mutters, once he feels certain he can speak again.

Lewis fixes him with a knowing look, but doesn’t pursue this line of thought, just sighs, and lets out a long huff of breath, like people these days do nothing but amuse him. “Well, you mustn’t have buggered it up too badly. Imagine wanting to see yourfather.”

Lane shakes his head from side to side in disbelief, and reaches for his water again.

**

Taking a deep breath, Joan inserts the single brass key into the deadbolt latch of their front door and turns it to the left to unlock it, surprised when it doesn’t click out of place in response. With a hesitant hand, she reaches out and tries the knob.

The door opens easily.

Lane forgot to lock it. She presses her lips together to keep from commenting on how abnormal that is. Instead, she reaches for the light switch to the left of the frame and steps inside to see the state of the apartment.

When the lights flick on, she’s surprised. The front hallway is almost immaculate. Joan can feel her heart hammer in her chest as she steps inside. Everything looks more or less like it did when they left, except it’s so quiet.

They’re not here. She doesn’t know why she thought they would be.

Nigel follows her, closing the door behind him, and peering down the hallway as if expecting his father and uncle to pop out and yell surprise. “I’ll—just see if—Dad’s around.”

He marches down the hall with a determined air. She shakes her head to clear it, and peers quickly into the kitchen. There’s no message slip on the counter or stuck to the refrigerator—not even a scrap piece of paper by the door.

She doesn’t know why she thought Lane would still be here.

Maybe he got hurt, her traitorous mind supplies. Maybe they’re at the hospital.

Joan exhales another deep breath, trying to rid her mind of those types of thoughts. Her gaze is now fixed on the doorway of the living room. After a moment of hesitation she forces herself to walk inside. Once here, she lingers in the doorway, and then forces herself to keep walking. She stands in various parts of the room for a few seconds apiece—by that damn side table near the door, beside the sofa, in front of the television. She can feel anxiety prickling at her skin with every passing minute, but she pushes it aside.

It’s a room, for god’s sake. She can walk into an empty room without being afraid.

As she’s mentally reciting this mantra to herself, Nigel slouches back inside, his jacket and tie now gone, scratching at the back of his head as he speaks.

“There’s—no—note or anything.”

“I know,” Joan replies, just as quietly, and they stare at each other for a couple of seconds before Nigel pulls a face, strides over to the television with quick steps, and turns the knob to channel three. Joan watches as a color picture slowly buzzes into focus, and glances at the clock. Almost midnight. She wishes she knew when Lane was coming back.

She can’t stop wondering if he’s okay.

**

“Little brother,” Lewis says, narrowing his eyes at Lane, and pointing at his chest with two fingers. Lane blinks back in alarm. The older man may be well drunk by this point. “Now, tell me the truth, hm?”

“About what.”

“You’re not still in love with Becky, are you?”

It’s so unexpected that Lane actually chokes on his water, spluttering and coughing as he puts the glass aside. He might even have laughed if he was in a better mood, but as it is he manages to croak out a few words.

“You’re—joking.”

His brother is clearly taken aback at being wrong for once, but doesn’t apologize, just clears his throat, and waves a dismissive hand, as if he hadn’t even spoken. “Ah. Well, never mind, then.”

“No,” Lane interrupts, wanting to get to the bottom of this question straightaway. “Where on earth would you get that idea?”

Lewis lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Joan mentioned the two of you still talk. I suppose I’m only curious.”

“Joan,” Lane repeats slowly. “Well—of course we still—Rebecca’s my son’s mother—”

“You are aware that doesn’t mean you’re forced to—”

Lane doesn’t even let him finish the sentence, still too distracted by the fact that Lewis heard any of this from Joan, of all people. She’s usually very careful about what she says, and to whom. “Oh, for god’s sake, what exactly did Joan tell you, then?”

“You haven’t asked her to marry you.”

Lane is beginning to feel anxious. “Did she—say that?”

“Christ,” Lewis huffs, shaking his head in an exasperated way. “Thick as a post.” After a few seconds of silence, he continues. “She’s worried, you ninny. I could see it in her face.”

“She hasn’t—” Lane winces as he speaks. “She’d tell me if that was…bothering her.”

Lewis’ raised eyebrow says he disagrees.

“It’s—” Lane gestures toward his midsection with a vague wave of one arm as if to mime Joan’s condition, speaking more quickly now. “Well, if you must know, when we were first… talking, we didn’t know what might happen. There was—we weren’t sure of anything.”

“Because she was pregnant.” A pause. “I imagine.”

Lane cannot meet his brother’s eyes. His voice is a whisper. “And…married.”

There is a long pause.

“And now?”

Lane’s too embarrassed to rationalize his continued inaction, and flushes from his ears down to his neck.

Lewis sighs. “You’ll forgive me, little brother, if I fail to see the issue at hand.”

“Because she deserves—” Lane begins finally, voice halting. “We have time.”

“You’re being a bloody fool.”

At the snide remark, Lane scoffs, but the elder man doesn’t seem to care.

“You got divorced—which, if we’re being honest, ought to have happened ages ago—”

“Oh, let’s have it, then—”

“—and not only did you find Joan, who is nothing short of magnificent, but you’ve even managed to get her in the family way. Why wouldn’t you marry her?”

“You always hated Rebecca,” Lane says automatically, but there’s no real venom in his voice.

“Because she’s a harpy,” pronounces Lewis with no small amount of glee. “And you never answered my question. Are you serious about this woman?”

Lane’s gone back to poking at his ripped cocktail napkin. “You know the answer to that.”

“And you intend to be father to that child—your child?”

“Lewis, for Christ’s sake!”

The older man holds up a hand as if to say he means no offense. “Then you’d better stop putting it off.”

“I know,” Lane admits, after a pause of several seconds. “I—I’m making a plan.”

I don’t want to get it wrong, he wants to blurt out. I don’t—know if she’ll say yes.

When he glances back to his brother, Lewis is grinning. The expression is very off-putting, but the elder man just reaches into his trouser pocket, and produces a small, square cardboard box about two inches wide, its edges worn brown by age. It’s striped all over in a dull white and pink, like an old piece of candy.

Looking very self-satisfied, Lewis places this small item onto the counter of the bar, and scoots it toward his brother.

Lane stares down at it in confusion. “What’s this?”

Lewis nudges the box toward him again, this time with two fingers, indicating that the younger man’s to open it. After a moment, Lane reaches out a hesitant hand to pry up the flimsy cardboard lid, exposing two tarnished pieces of jewelry to the dim light. It’s a set of wedding rings: plain band and a diamond, the gold gleaming dull against a pad of thin white cotton lining the bottom of the box. He doesn’t understand why Lewis would be carrying what are clearly secondhand trinkets, or why they’re so special, and stares to his brother for further clarification.

The gold of the wedding band has worn badly over the years, and the center stone of the engagement ring is coming loose. The two tiny stones bracketing the diamond are long gone, exposing the dark underside of the prongs to sharp eyes. Looks a bit cheap.

“Why do you have these?”

Lewis lets out a breath. “They’re Mother’s.”

Lane’s mouth drops open in silent shock.

His brother inclines his head in confirmation, and takes another gulp of his drink before speaking again. “Father thought they got pocketed by that midwife. Vicar had to intervene to stop him shouting at her.”

As Lewis speaks, Lane reaches out and brushes a careful fingertip against the cool metal, his own voice almost a whisper. “Oh.”

He doesn’t remember that.

“Well,” Lewis’s voice is unusually soft, “he was only half-wrong.” He glances over at Lane, as if to see how he’s taking this. “She asked me to take them. I gave her my word.”

“But how did you—where did you—?”

He couldn’t have got them out of the house without Father knowing.

Lewis lets out a noise like a laugh. “Jenny Prewett and I sewed them inside one of your cuddly toys. Playing at being spies, I suppose.”

“God,” says Lane, taken aback, and for a second he nearly wants to laugh. What a stupid thing to do. He doesn’t even remember knowing anyone called Jenny Prewett, and the confusion must show plainly on his face.

“Lived two houses down, near the grocer.” Lewis is clearly surprised at having to explain himself.  “Anyway.” He waves a dismissive hand at the jewelry. “Yours, if you want them.”

“No.”  Lane says quietly, shaking his head. I couldn’t.

“Little brother. I’ve quite made up my mind about this.”

“But—” Lane sputters. “She gave them to you. I can’t—take these.”

His brother shrugs, acting as if this sort of gift is nothing, as if his flat in London is riddled with various trinkets from Mother’s jewelry box. Lane doesn’t know why the other man has to pretend carelessness. Neither of them have any personal possessions of hers—just a couple of pictures. He doubts Lewis even has that, circumstances considered.

“But you’re the eldest,” he says, in one final attempt at protest.

“Well. I’m not the one getting married, am I?” Lewis retorts, suddenly reaching out and clapping Lane on the shoulder.

Staring at the tarnished jewelry, trying his hardest to recall the way those rings must once have gleamed on his mother’s hand, Lane’s choked up again, and has to stare at a spot on the wall for nearly a minute before the feeling passes. His brother grips the shoulder of Lane’s jacket for nearly as long, then just as suddenly, releases his grip.

“Tony,” Lewis calls out, clearing his throat, and waving to get the bartender’s attention, while gesturing toward his now-empty glass, “you’ll pour us one for the road, won’t you?”

**

Just as Joan’s about to put her head down onto her vanity table and close her eyes, she hears the spare key in the door. Her pulse quickens as the hinges creak open and closed. He’s home. Thank god. Quickly, she wipes some of the sleep from her eyes with a shaking hand and awkwardly starts to get up from her chair, balancing her other palm against the edge of the vanity table as she rises to her feet.

It takes Lane several minutes to come into the bedroom. When he arrives, he stops just inside the doorway, staring at Joan as if he’s stunned to see her awake and waiting for him. And god, even in this dim light, he looks like hell: his lower lip is swollen and stitched closed near the corner, he’s got a huge rippling bruise across one cheek, and a thick bandage wrapped around his left hand. His glasses are in his jacket pocket, and Joan wonders for a second if they might be broken. But what worries her most is the look on his face—like he’s barely keeping it together. Like he wants to fall into bed and never get up.

“Come here,” she says, extending a hand.

Lane won’t meet her eyes, staring at the bed, still made neatly from this morning. When he speaks, it’s so quiet. “I’m all right.”

She needs him to look at her. It’s not good for him to push this aside. “Please.”

He waves a hand toward the master bath, slanting a glance toward the door, and speaking in a rush. “It’s fine. I’m just—going to—”

“No, it’s not,” Joan interrupts, voice firm but gentle.

Even in the dim light, she can see Lane’s mouth tremble at the words, expression pained, as if he’s trying to hold onto his control with all his might. “Joan—it’s really—”

“Lane,” she continues, purposefully calm. “It’s not all right. He hurt you.”

His agonized expression falters, and within seconds he’s pressing a clenched fist against his mouth, trying to stop the flow of tears.

**

Facedown on the floor in the living room, Nigel snaps awake with his face feeling stiff from where it’s been pressed against the thick carpet. One of his arms is numb because he slept on it all funny. Disoriented, it takes him a minute to realize where he is and why, and at first he thinks he woke up because of his arm hurting, or because it was too quiet. He doesn’t remember turning off the set before falling asleep. But then there’s a noise—a strange noise, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end—and he pushes the tangled blanket off his legs, slowly getting to his feet to investigate. It sounds like…crying.

He tiptoes out into the hall and toward Mum and—toward Dad and Joan’s room. There’s a tiny stream of light filtering into the hallway, from a light or lamp left on or something, and the crying noise gets louder the closer he walks to the slightly-open doorway.

When he feels brave enough to peer through the half-closed door, he sees Joan, dressed in a long blue nightgown, practically sitting on top of her vanity table with her arms around Dad—who’s the one bawling—hunched forward in the clothes he was wearing earlier, one arm balanced on her big belly and the other up by his face, pressed into her shoulder. He looks wrecked. Christ, Nigel shouldn’t be seeing this; he’s not ever supposed to—

“I’m here. I’m right here,” Joan’s whispering to Dad, over and over, stroking his hair and his hand and his shoulders and putting her palm to the back of his neck as he weeps. Nigel wants to stop watching: seeing his father cry makes his stomach hurt, it makes his heart beat so quickly he feels like he’s sprinting down the street—but he can’t move. He can’t tear his eyes away.

“I’m s-sorry,” Dad sobs, and jerks his head up to look at her, swiping at his nose with one hand. His face is red; his shoulders are heaving, and his mouth is all water as he tries to talk. “I—I—”

“Shh,” Joan keeps murmuring, and she puts her palms against the side of Dad’s face. For a second, their eyes are locked; she’s staring at him as if he’s the most important thing in the world. Her voice barely wavers. “It’s not your fault.”

Dad’s face screws up like he’s about to cry even harder—he’s clutching at Joan’s upper arms now, head bowed—and Nigel can’t bear to see any more. He backs away and goes into his room and tears his blue comforter down from the bed, pulling it into the floor in a massive heap as he crawls a few feet under the twin frame. Even here, in the dark, he feels terrified, and he doesn’t know why, and he thinks he can still hear crying, even with the door closed and the blanket pulled up over his head. It makes his skin crawl.

There is a battered-up teddy lying on its side near him—Reggie, the one that’s missing an eye. It’s coated in dust—probably disgusting—but Nigel still reaches an arm out for it all the same, pulling it over inch by inch with the tips of his fingers until he can properly reach one leg. After a tiny hesitation—he’s too old to do this—he dusts off its head and ears and back, and clutches it close to his chest with both arms, breathing in the scent of laundry soap and New York and home until he feels like he can finally ease the weight in his chest.

He thinks about the look on Joan’s face as Dad clung to her: how her fingers slid through his hair, and how her eyes had been soft and glossy. I’m here. I’m right here.

Mum never looked at him that way, not ever, not even once.

Nigel squeezes his eyes closed, and curls in closer to the little cuddly bear, expelling a deep breath and trying to pretend like he doesn’t hear anything except for his own breathing.

**

sunday

“Where’s Lane?” Gail takes another sip of her coffee. “Isn’t he joining us?”

Dad was asleep for most of yesterday, and said he didn’t feel like going out this morning. Nigel doesn’t know how to say that without being rude, so he just shrugs, and turns from where he’s been staring out the window to look at Joan, who’s weirdly quiet, and shifting in her seat with an expression that says she’s barely listening to what her mum’s saying.

“What?” she asks, when she realizes they’re both staring at her.

“Joanie, you look green,” Gail narrows her eyes, fixing her daughter with a suspicious look. “Do you need to throw up?”

“Mom, would you stop—” But as a waitress speeds by with a plate of Polish sausages held in one hand, Joan’s eyes widen, and she pushes to her feet without even finishing the sentence, moving toward the ladies’ toilet in the back corner of the diner with short, quick steps.

Nigel watches her rush through the door. “Is she all right?”

She’d seemed well enough until this morning. Yesterday, they made flapjacks for breakfast and then butterscotch pudding and then a couple of casseroles with the leftovers in the fridge—and she even let Nigel take over one, toss in whatever he wanted. He decided on ham and pasta and peas and three kinds of cheese and a lot of odd spices. They put on the radio for a long time. It was nearly fun.

Gail doesn’t seem very concerned, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “At her stage, women get sick at the drop of a pin. She’ll be fine.”

“Oh.”

He wants to ask Gail something else about that condition—something he’d overheard Uncle Lewis say once, about Mother’s delicate health—but thinking of Mother makes him think about Dad, and the way he’d cried as Joan comforted him, and what happened with Grandfather—and there’s a hard lump lodged in his stomach, because Nigel’s been turning something over in his head for nearly two years, ever since they left New York.

Why did Mum and Dad get married at all, if they were only going to get divorced?

His eyes are stinging, so he just keeps staring out the window onto the sidewalk, where an old man’s selling newspapers from a ratty old stand. Green paint is flaking off from the sides. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, making a scene in public in front of someone he doesn’t even know. He scrubs at his eyes and nose with his shirtsleeve.

Gail sounds stunned. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Nigel hiccups, wishing the floor would swallow him whole. He snorts and swallows the bogeys that are building up in his throat. “Sorry—”

The older woman reaches into her purse with a sigh, and pushes a blue handkerchief into his hand. “Here.” She lets out a sigh. “Start talking. You’ll feel better.”

Nigel takes it, swipes at his nose, and grips the cotton tightly in one fist as he tries to put his thoughts into words. “It’s stupid.”

“Maybe,” Gail says with a shrug. “But you might as well spill.”

She doesn’t say anything after that, and so after nearly a minute of silence, he decides he has to speak up and explain himself. “My parents—” he starts, then swipes at his nose again. “Hate each other.”

“They’re divorced.” Her no-nonsense tone suggesting that of course they hate each other.

“Yeah, I know that.” Nigel flexes his fingers around the balled-up handkerchief in his fist, staring down at the blue-threaded edges. He isn’t sure how to tell her that he thinks they started not liking each other a long time ago. The last Christmas they all spent together in London, Mother just sort of…fluttered around, smiling in a weird way and talking a lot about how nice it was to be home, and Dad didn’t say very much at all. And then the Christmas after that was at Granny’s—when Mum made him say goodbye to Dad over the phone.

He clears his throat. “I think it started…maybe when we moved here.”

First time he’s ever said that out loud.

Their waitress suddenly arrives with two steaming plates: eggs benedict for Gail, plus a small dish of cut-up fruit, and fried eggs and toast and several strips of bacon for Nigel. Gail tells her to keep Joan’s meal under the warmer, but begins to cut her own food into bite-sized pieces.

Nigel watches the yolk run yellow over a crisp piece of muffin as she slices into the middle of her egg. He’s unrolling his silverware from his paper napkin. “Mum hated it.”

Gail looks like she agrees with his theory, pursing her mouth in a considering way. “If they were already having problems, I’m sure moving didn’t help.”

“Why would they bother staying together, then?”

She snorts out an amused noise, pointing the tines of her fork in his direction. “Before I got married, I told Joanie’s father I wasn’t gonna be his slave. If Jack wanted a little woman to cook for him and polish his shoes, he could go ahead and find somebody else.”

“What did he say?” asks Nigel in a hesitant voice. He’s never heard of an arrangement like that. How would it work?

She glares at him like he’s an idiot. “You see him hanging around here anywhere?”

He feels guilty for asking such a personal question, and winces, embarrassed.

“Trust me. We’re all better off,” she continues, with a dismissive wave of one hand. “People don’t always want the same things forever. You’re old enough to understand that much.”

Nigel nods his head yes. He supposes he does. Sort of. Not really. But he’s got one other question: something that occurred to him late last night.

“Do you think…Joan and Dad will get married?”

She just rolls her eyes. “If they don’t, they’re both dumber than I thought.”

Frustrated by her answer, he bites the end off a long strip of bacon, and just as he’s determined to say something else, he notices the door to the ladies’ toilet swinging open and Joan walking out. From this angle, she’s all stomach, especially in the jumper dress she’s wearing. She’s also moving very slowly. When she gets to the table, and finally sits down, he notices she’s very pale, and her eyes are all bloodshot.

Gail speaks first. “Joanie, you want some dry toast?”

Before her daughter can even reply, the older woman’s already glancing around to summon the waitress.

Joan just leans back against the booth cushions with a sort of sigh, glancing down at her water glass as if she’s thinking about reaching for it. But she doesn’t move.

“This baby is trying to kill me.”

“Hmph,” says Gail, looking amused. “Just wait until your water breaks.”

“Stop,” Joan holds up a hand in a way that means she’s getting annoyed.

“Oh, there’s Linda,” Gail announces as she finally catches the waitress’ eye from across the floor. The brunette girl’s standing at another booth talking to two older men, with a metal coffee pot in one hand, laughing at something they said. She looks really pretty when she’s smiling like that, and in her blue uniform she—

Gail’s voice interrupts his daydreaming. “Nigel, when she gets here, why don’t you tell her what we want?” And she winks at him.

He flushes, takes another bite of his bacon to hide it, and pretends not to know what she’s talking about.

Chapter Text

forty-one weeks / april 1966

 

“She was all right. Her resume was…standard.”

“You hated her,” Joan says, giving an amused sigh.

“I didn’t,” Lane pretends to be offended, adjusting the phone on his ear and looking around his office as if some unknown ally is going to leap out of the paneling to support him on this. “She was a nice girl. Very—erm—”

When he thinks hard, he can’t remember anything about the young woman other than the fact that her glasses had rhinestones.

“Do you even remember her name?”

Even through the phone, it sounds as if Joan is laughing at him.

He fumbles for the girl’s resume, still left on his desk. Something with a K.

“That,” he says pointedly, giving up once the paper rips in his hand, “is not fair.”

“You just talked to her twenty minutes ago,” Joan scoffs in a facetious way.

“Oh, shall I bring you over to hire someone instead?” Lane teases in return, although it’s a relief to hear her in such a good mood. She’s been upset about the baby being late—understandably so, he quickly amends. It’s a very uncomfortable business. But they’ve got one final week until she absolutely has to deliver.

Joan does not take the bait. “I’m just calling to tell you about dinner.”

“Oh?”

Please don’t be casserole. Please don’t be more curry. At the week forty mark, Dr. Emerson suggested spicy foods might be a good way of bringing on Joan’s labor, and as a result, he’s had heartburn for what feels like an eternity.

“I bought steak,” she tells him, in the tone of voice which means she’s bought it for him.

Lane’s so pleased he feels like leaping into the air.

“I could kiss you,” he blurts first, which makes her burst out laughing. “Did you get potatoes, too?”

She sounds as if she’s enjoying his enthusiasm. “And green beans.”

He doesn’t care how silly he sounds now. “What on earth’s the occasion?”

It’s not her birthday, or his, or their anniversary. (He has written all these things down in his diary, and in Scarlett’s appointment book, and on assorted slips of paper.) Really, he doesn’t know why she might go to all this trouble on a whim.

“No occasion,” Joan says, in a very innocent voice. He knows that tone. She’s up to something. “I know you’re tired of takeout. Just thought you’d like a nice dinner.”

“Well,” says Lane, trying to let on that he’s aware of some kind of secondary motive without spoiling the fun of this game. “I can’t wait to have it.”

Joan giggles at the unintended wordplay, and he laughs along with her.

“You know what I meant,” is all he says, pushing around one of the papers on his desk with the tip of his pencil. “Are you sure you’re resting, dearest? You’re not supposed to be on your feet for very long.”

“Yes,” she says in a fond way, but the rest of her sentence is cut off by the sound of the buzzer. The other candidates must be here.

“Oh, I’ve got to go,” he sighs. “Three more interviews.”

“Don’t flirt too much,” she returns.

“Bite your tongue,” he says gruffly, as the buzzer sounds a second time. “Oh, it’s gone again.”

“Okay. I’ll let you go.”

“All right, dearest. See you soon.” He hangs up just in time for Scarlett to walk through the door, a quizzical look on her face.

“I’m sorry. Your first interview is here.”

He shrugs, not worried about the timing in either case. “You may send her in.”

**

“My goodness, I love these offices.” The young girl’s long blonde hair flows around her shoulders as she glances around the room. “Yours is so elegant.”

“Oh—thank you, dear,” Lane says, not sure why they’re taking this conversational path, but indicating she ought to have a seat in the chair opposite his.

“Did you get a decorator?”

“No—I—had quite a bit of help in that department, fortunately.”

He glances down at the resume in his hand, glimpsing the name of a high school, but before he can inquire about this point, the young woman is speaking again, her gaze fixed on a framed photo which stands just beside his abacus.

“What a beautiful picture. Is that your wife?”

Lane doesn’t even have to glance up to remember it exactly—it’s Joan, from sometime just before Christmas, unwrapping a little present he’d bought for her before the holiday. She’s sitting in front of the vanity in her old flat, surrounded by vials and jars and a few pieces of jewelry scattered around her dresser. One hand is reaching down into the papered box, while the other clasps at her necklace, as if she were afraid the pendant would get in the way of her gift. The expression on her face is so happy it makes him smile just to look at it.

“Yes,” he says, clearing his throat in an attempt to temper his pleased expression.

“How long have you been married?” she asks.

Lane exhales a noise like a laugh. “Not—long, actually. Very recent.”

“That is so cute,” she says, and when he goes a bit red in response, she puts the fingertips of one hand to her mouth, as if she’s embarrassed to have said that aloud.

“Oh, you’re shy! I’m sorry!”

“No,” Lane says, shaking his head. “Well, that’s—quite all right, dear.” He pauses, glances at the resume again.

“So, erm—Meredith, why don’t you tell me a little more about yourself?”

**

Lane’s feeling very pleased about most of this afternoon’s interviews—all done but one last girl, who’d only been scheduled by Caroline earlier today. He’s thinking about going home and how much he’s looking forward to a nice dinner, when the door to his office opens. Scarlett enters, and shuts it behind her just as quickly, looking anxious.

“Mr. Pryce—the last girl is here to see you, but—”

“Oh,” he interrupts, “send her in.”

“I—well, the thing is,” she sputters, practically whispering, as if she doesn’t understand why he isn’t similarly ruffled, “Mr. Pryce, she—”

“Scarlett,” he sighs, feeling part of his good mood begin to slide away, “I’d very much like to finish up these interviews. I am due home very soon.”

“I know that—and I don’t mean to hold you up, but I just think you really—”

He lets out a breath. “For heaven’s sake. Is there something wrong with the girl?”

She flushes very red, as if embarrassed. “No—but you don’t understand—”

“Then send her in.”

“Okay,” Scarlett says after a moment, looking resigned, pressing the palm of her hand to the side of her temple. “Just a minute.”

He’s shaking his head in silent aggravation, not understanding what’s gotten into that girl, when the noise of his door creaking open makes him look up again. Scarlett is leading a young black woman in question into the room with very little ceremony, giving him a very nervous smile as she indicates this is their last candidate.

“Dawn, this is Mr. Pryce. Mr. Pryce, I’ll—close the door on my way out.”

With that, his secretary departs, leaving the two of them alone.

The woman is actually very young, perhaps twenty or twenty one. Pretty, too: she’s dressed in plain but smart clothes. A blue blazer is matched over a sturdy green and blue plaid dress. Her skin is the color of dark polished bronze, and her jet-black hair is short and styled in such a way that it makes him think of one of those girl group singers.

Unfortunately, she seems prepared to flee through the door than stay here another minute.

“I’m sorry.” She’s barely looking at him. “I think—there was a mistake.”

Lane frowns, not understanding. “What?”

Her voice is so quiet he almost has trouble hearing it. “She didn’t tell you I’m colored.”

“Well, no,” he admits awkwardly, “but you mustn’t—”

She’s already turning to leave. “I won’t waste your time.”

“Wait,” Lane blurts, holds up his hands as if in supplication. “Please, don’t. Only—we are—still hiring. And you’ve already—come all this way.”

The girl stares at him as if she isn’t sure whether to believe he’s being genuine or not. Lane tries again, clearing his throat as he rises to his feet, walking around one side of his desk but stopping before he can cross much farther into the room.

“At the very least, allow me to read your resume.” He tries to smile—to be reassuring. “It will only be a minute.”

The young woman’s lips are pressed into a thin line, but after another moment, she takes several steps away from the door, and produces a piece of paper from a scuffed leather folio balanced over her left arm. She crosses the room and hands the page to him just as quickly, but before she can retreat again, he indicates the chair in front of his desk.

“Won’t you sit down? Please.”

After a hesitation, she does, perching on the very edge of the chair with her small patent pocketbook sitting atop her folio in her lap. He doesn’t quite know how to put her at ease, and so he decides to try being friendlier than he might usually be in an interview.

“Well,” he says first, still standing, and deciding to walk a little, for the time being, “Miss Chambers, this is a very interesting document.”

Lane hopes she doesn’t see this comment as an attempted joke. He means it sincerely. She’s had excellent marks in school; plus a secretarial degree from a local college, and a variety of work experience. Mostly in service, with another office position at the very top.

She doesn’t seem to acknowledge his positive words, and so he decides to ask her a question, instead.

“What’s…made you want to pursue secretarial work?”

“My degree,” she says neutrally, as if he ought to know better than to ask such an obvious question. He winces.

“Yes, of course. I only meant, why did you pursue it? Initially?”

“Oh,” the girl says. “Well, I wanted to learn typing.” Her hands still clasp the top of her pocketbook as she speaks. “My high school didn’t offer it. And—I thought secretarial skills might be—interesting.”

For the first time in their short-lived acquaintance, she seems as if she might keep talking without his prompting her, and so he moves to sit down in his desk chair.

“And did you learn it well? The typing?”

One corner of her mouth tugs up briefly, as if she wants to smile, but she remains placid, now folding her hands in her lap. “I can key over a hundred words per minute.”

“Good lord,” says Lane. “And that’s with—no mistakes?”

“One or two,” she admits. “Sometimes.”

He inclines his head as if congratulating her. “Very impressive.”

She smiles this time, looking away as she does so. “Thank you.”

**

“You hired a black girl,” Joan says, as Lane brings their plates to the table. She sounds as surprised as if he’s just announced he won the lottery. “For Don’s desk.”

He settles in the chair directly next to her. “Why is that so hard to understand? She was very professional. And poised. And her qualifications were excellent.”

“I’m sure they were.”

“Well, honestly,” he huffs, letting out a breath. “Why shouldn’t we hire her?”

“I’m not upset. I’m just saying you’ll have to fight for her.”

Joan slices a small piece from her steak with a satisfied noise.

Lane sighs again. “I really don’t believe it’s—what does it matter, as long as she can do the work?”

“Okay. I’m not second guessing you,” says Joan, with a little shrug. “It’s a surprise. That’s all.”

He’s grateful that she seems to understand his viewpoint on this particular subject.

“Let me know when you’re going to march with Dr. King,” Joan offers next, putting a hand over his and giving him a small smile.

“Not funny,” he grumbles, even as she withdraws her hand. “Oh, let’s change the subject, then.”

Her smile widens. “I did have something I wanted to discuss before bed.”

“Long bath tonight, then?” he asks, stabbing a few pieces of salad and green beans onto his fork.

“Well, I was planning to take one, yes, but that’s not what I meant.”

He’s mid-mouthful, and can’t yet reply, so she continues.

“I’d like to have sex.”

Eyes widening, he swallows his bite so quickly it’s a wonder he doesn’t choke, and the subsequent forkful of beans he was preparing to eat falls swiftly from his utensil back to the plate. He’s staring at her, stunned into silence.

“Thoughts?” is all she asks, her eyes shining with what looks like no small amount of mischief.

After a moment of deliberation, he begins to cut his piece of steak in half, deciding it might be better if he eats light. “I—well, that’s—” he clears his throat, “unexpected.”

A low laugh bubbles up from her throat. “I hope in a good way.”

He flushes, laughing along with her. “Well, yes, of—of course.”

“I’ve been feeling better in the evenings,” she says, with a little shrug. Her voice turns amused. “And I—heard it could help put me into labor. If we’re successful.”

Now he understands what the meal was about. His grin gets very wide. “So you need my…particular assistance.”

“Well,” she says with a smirk, taking another sip of her water. “In more ways than one.”

**

Steam rises from the bathtub in waves. Bubbles mingle with the currents as Joan idly flicks one hand through the water. The room is quiet except for the occasional splashing noise, mingled with the sound of their calm breathing.

Sitting on the edge of the tub in his undershirt and shorts, with his feet in the water and a wooden-handled straight razor in his right hand, Lane glides the blade over the side of Joan’s shin, guiding it by grasping the steel shaft with his thumb and two fingers, and using small, short strokes as he makes his way around her bent knee.

She sighs out a happy noise, flexing her ankle by the ledge of the tub as he carefully wipes the blade across a thick towel spread over his knee.

“You’re good at this.”

“All in the wrist,” he jokes. She puts a hand to the side of his calf with a grin.

He brandishes the razor as if he’s about to launch into The Barber of Seville, trying to adopt an innocent expression. It’s very ridiculous. “Shall I shave anything else for you, while we’re in here?”

When she splashes him, he lets out a yelp, holding the razor out and away from the left side of his body as if he’s gripping a live cockroach by the leg. “Joan, this is very sharp!”

“What, you don’t want to go to the emergency room half-naked?” She shifts against the back of the tub, fixing him with a fond look. “Too bad.”

“Yes, too bloody bad,” he parrots with a scoff, but after several minutes have passed, and he’s finished the rest of her left leg, he cleans and closes the razor, putting it aside on top of the marbled counter a few feet from the edge of the tub. Joan watches his movements, seeming puzzled.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” She lifts her right leg slightly up, so the tips of her toes break through the surface of the water.

Lane smiles at her—or tries to, anyway.

“No—I know—it’s just—I...” he drums two fingers against the top of her now-smooth ankle, trying to figure out how best to broach this topic. “Sometimes when you aren’t nearby, I call you…my wife.”

He glances to his right, and meets her eyes, expecting her to make a little joke. Maybe when you’re mad at me. But she’s quiet, watching him with one hand folded across her pregnant figure, and the other hand mimicking the continued tapping movement of his fingers. Her palm brushes against his calf in a way that’s meant to be soothing. The touch, combined with the silence, makes him even more nervous, to be honest. He clears his throat again.

“And—and sometimes, people ask if I have children—and I get to tell them yes. A boy and one on the way.”

His fingers slide through the remnants of shaving foam to cup the underside of her leg. Oh, god, he’s getting it all wrong. The ring’s still hidden in his sock drawer; he was going to ask Joan in the nursery and everything—

“You’ve changed my life,” he says thickly, with a kind of helpless shrug. “You’ve stayed by my side—you’re having—our child.”

Joan’s mouth twists like she’s about to cry, and on a whim he nudges her leg back down to the water, suddenly feeling like this fleeting contact isn’t enough. He needs to touch her; he needs to be close to her, and so he just moves forward and stumbles into the bath on his knees. He’s straddling one of her legs, and his hands are braced on her belly, where the little one squirms under one palm. Water soaks into his t-shirt and shorts, making them stick to his skin. All around his torso, bubbles glide through the choppy water.

“Darling, I just love you to bits,” he rasps, his palms moving from her stomach to her shoulders, and then sliding down her arms to take her hands in his. “And I—I want to make you happy. Please say you’ll marry me. It’s all I want in the world.”

Joan presses their clasped hands to her forehead in an attempt to hide her tears, but she’s also nodding her head up and down, the movement very small.

“Yes,” she finally manages.

With a wordless yelp of excitement, he pulls their joined hands away from her face, kissing her fingertips until she laughs a little through her tears. He’s completely gone, too, and his wet clothes are freezing, and water’s sloshing over the sides of the tub in enormous waves and he doesn’t even care.

She pulls him down for a kiss, the brush of her lips too quick for his liking. Her face is flushed pink all over, and her voice cracks a little as she puts a hand to his cheek.

“I love you so much.”

“And I love you.” He can’t put his arms around her, so his hands are slippery on her generous hips; to compensate, he leans forward again, catching the corner of her mouth with his own. He lowers his voice, hoping he can make her laugh. “I’ll tell you every minute, if you like.”

Joan strokes her fingers through his hair, letting out a little sniff as he brings a hand up through the water to cup one side of her face. He just ends up getting pieces of her hair all wet, and fumbles to tuck a long lock of hair behind her ear.

She tilts her head to press her cheek against his palm, letting out a shaky breath. “Let’s get married.”

He’s choked up a second time, almost speechless with happiness, and so he kisses her over and over, running his hands down her sides and continuing his affections for several minutes until they’re both more relaxed.

Soon, Joan sighs into his mouth as he balances on increasingly numb knees, trailing a sly hand up her inner thigh.

“Are you really trying to make it in the tub?” She arches her back, trying to encourage him. Although, considering the size of her belly and their awkward positioning, the movement jolts him up so far away from his goal they may as well be on two separate planets.

“Don’t you like the water?” Lane pulls back to peel off his wet t-shirt over his head, and tosses it away. How the hell would this work? Perhaps if she put her feet up…

When he moves closer, she braces her palms on his bare chest in a way that’s very promising, giving him the most sultry look she can manage with loose strands of wet hair plastered to her shoulders, and her nose and cheeks still red from the earlier tears. Her raised eyebrow is very mischievous. “Help me sit up. I might make it worth your while.”

He starts giggling, feathering messy kisses all over her neck in between fits of laughter. This just makes her squeal, and sets them both off again.

**

Standing to the left of their messy bed, nearly dressed except for his jacket, Lane leans over to stroke a bit of Joan’s hair from her face with one hand. “Darling.”

Half-asleep, tucked on her right side under the top bedsheet, Joan stirs at the word, squinting up at him with bleary eyes. This is much later than he’d normally leave the flat. Sun’s already up.

“Getting ready to go,” he murmurs, grazing her lips with his, and loving the way her nose scrunches up in annoyance after he pulls back.

“Not yet,” she sighs. Her left hand reaches out for him, taking hold of one belt loop by the crook of two fingers and pulling him forward until his hips are flush with the palm of her hand. She trails a curious finger up the path of his zipper.

“Oh,” he blurts, as he feels himself harden. “Joan, I’ll—be late.”

Followed by a shiver, the protest is clearly halfhearted, and Joan takes full advantage of his feigned reluctance.

“You’re a name partner,” she counters, awkwardly pushing up on one elbow as she continues to excite him, tugging up at his shirttails. “Make your own hours.”

“I—” he hisses out a breath as she strokes him again, coherent thought leaving him in a sudden rush. “Well—”

Joan laughs low in her throat. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and as she slips her hand inside his trousers, he swallows a moan.

“Don’t you want to try again?”

He’s already flinging his tie and waistcoat to the ground and begins to wriggle out of his braces, trousers and pants. When he hops up onto the bed and crawls to her side, he helps her fling back the bedsheet and carefully roll over to face him, only to discover that she’s still beautifully, gloriously naked.

“Let me look at you,” he breathes, with a happy sigh. His hands move, as if on their own accord, to caress her breasts.

She smirks at him. “I hope you’re feeling creative.”

**

“If he’s not here in ten more minutes,” Harry announces to the full conference room, “I’m leaving.”

Pete’s sneer is automatic. “This isn’t your freshman health class.”

“Well, I think we all know why he’s late,” Stan says with a snicker, which earns him eyerolls and groans from half the room, and a disgusted noise from Ginsberg. Peggy just pretends not to hear this comment, focusing on doodling on the back of an old concept sheet instead.

For a moment, Pete and Harry are in perfect sync, turning to Stan with equally skeptical looks.

Pete speaks first. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Please,” Stan says with a shrug, waving a hand toward the empty chair two seats down from his. “Megan and Don pull this crap all the time. It’s not rocket science.”

Harry scoffs, closing his folio. “Okay. Megan’s not a beach ball. And you’ve never been married, or you would know that doesn’t happen—”

“She’s in a very delicate condition,” Pete interrupts.

“Shh!”

The admonition comes from the end of the table, where Scarlett is pacing in front of the glass doors facing Don and Roger’s offices, occasionally stopping by the right wall to peer down the hallway, as if expecting Lane to magically appear in his office at any second.

“Jesus. Will you stop that?” Harry snaps.

“He is never late,” she hisses, watching Clara walk by the panel windows with her arms full of job jackets. “What if we don’t hear from him?”

“Okay, well, pacing all over isn’t helping. He’s fine.”

Peggy raises her eyebrows at the pointed tone. God, those two sound more married than half the couples in this office. “Did you try calling his house?”

“No answer,” Scarlett replies tersely.

Without warning, Ginsberg jumps up from his chair, its legs scraping across the tile as he gets up. He skirts around the table and sails out the door past Joan’s office, turning left like he’s heading for the kitchen.

“What the hell,” Stan says to no one in particular, and gets to his feet with a sigh, following the same route out the door.

“That’s it,” says Harry, standing up and buttoning his jacket, not even bothering to gather up his things. “Somebody come find me if we’re actually doing this.”

Scarlett follows him into the hall with a little growl of annoyance. Peggy watches them go, then glances across the table at Pete and Kenny, who seem just as resigned as she does at the idea of getting up.

“Would you…hear from them, if Joan had delivered?” Pete suddenly asks Kenny, his voice very careful. Ken just shrugs.

“I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t they call Cooper?” Peggy offers after a second of thought.

Pete taps his pencil against a sheaf of papers. “I suppose so.”

“I really don’t think—” Ken’s attention is suddenly diverted down the hall. “Oh, boy.”

Two seconds later, the door opens and Lane strides in, clearly having been caught in the rain. The shoulders and front of his jacket are damp, but his hair’s neat, as if he just had time enough to comb it back. What’s funny is that he doesn’t seem to care much about the rain. A smile keeps playing around the corners of his mouth.

“Sorry,” he says, surveying them with mild surprise. “Good lord. Am I—early?”

“Not exactly,” Ken says, suppressing a grin.

“I’m just—going to—find the others,” Pete says after a moment, sidestepping his chair and buttoning his jacket before walking quickly out of the room.

Lane makes a little satisfied noise as he sits down. “Fine idea.”

Peggy has to stop herself from giggling. Not counting the day they started this agency, this is the happiest she’s ever seen him.

“So, Lane, how’s Joan doing?” she asks, with no small amount of mischief.

Across the table, Kenny’s mouthing something at her that she doesn’t understand, tapping his hands on the table in what looks like random intervals.

“Oh,” Lane says, a wide smile creeping back to his face. “Well, she’s—a bit tired, but otherwise in fine spirits.” He lets out a sigh. “Very kind of you to ask.”

“Sure,” Peggy says, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “We—really miss her.”

“Well, then, you ought to ring her up,” Lane’s expression is puzzled, as if he doesn’t know why she hasn’t picked up the phone to do that right now. “She’d enjoy that very much.”

“Mr. Pryce!” comes a horrified voice, and it’s Scarlett, framed in the doorway, her mouth open in shock. “What time did you get here? Why are you—?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear. I’m—not sure exactly,” says Lane, glancing around the room with a little laugh. “Did you need something?”

Peggy snorts at the secretary’s dumbfounded expression, but before she can turn back to her notepad, she catches Kenny’s eye across the table again. He’s still drumming his fingers on the wooden surface, but it takes her a few seconds to realize he’s not just doing it to be annoying. He’s tapping his left ring finger with the pointer finger of his free hand. She blinks down at his shiny wedding ring, which is reflecting the fluorescent light above the table, then finally realizes what he’s trying to tell her.

Are you serious? she mouths. But when she turns to glance at Lane’s left hand, there’s no wedding ring, which makes her turn back to Kenny in confusion.

Yeah, he mouths back.

Jesus. Maybe they’re engaged.

“Oh, lord,” says Lane out of nowhere, surveying the empty desk in front of him with a sigh. “I’ve left my briefcase in reception.”

Ken bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

Chapter Text

forty-one weeks / april 14, 1966

 

In the bright hospital waiting room, Lane paces back and forth in front of a lumpy sofa, his movements jerky and agitated. When he clears his throat to speak, his voice is rough from disuse.

“What time is it?”

“Ten after twelve,” Gail sighs, glancing up at the industrial-sized clock mounted on the far wall.  She’s sitting on an empty row of chairs directly across from him, putting powder on her bare face, as if she’s beginning to prepare for an evening on the town. “You’re gonna wear yourself out.”

Lane does not stop pacing, nor does he respond to her comment, just figures the correct time in his head and curses as he realizes. It’s been over five hours. Rationally, he knows delivery is an arduous process. All the books say a normal labor should take between twenty and forty hours, but all he can remember about it is the blood, and the way Becca had screamed. He still swears he could hear it all the way down the hall from maternity; he’s never forgotten how horrible that sound was. The birth nearly killed her. It nearly killed Nigel.

God, what if something goes wrong? He won’t be able to bear it.

He’s about to ask for the time again when he realizes he’s got his watch in his pocket, and scrambles to retrieve it. The hands say twelve sixteen. Must be slow. Would the hospital clock be correct in this case? What if it’s fast? Did he check the time when they left the house? Joan was sick this morning—she wouldn’t hear of him staying home—but after he’d come back from the office, she’d been standing near the front door. Her packed bag sat at the foot of the coat rack, and her face was taut with pain.

Time to go.

“Where the hell has that nurse got to?” he mumbles to himself. She promised to update them. She promised to speak to them as soon as possible, and she’s nowhere in sight, and he just wants to know what’s happening.

“Lane, for god’s sake,” Gail huffs, snapping her compact closed and replacing it in her purse. “You won’t do Joanie any favors if you make yourself sick, so sit down already.”

Noting her aggravated tone, he does take a seat—grudgingly—but wants to jump up almost as soon as he’s settled. He doesn’t. He shifts against the hard wooden chair and starts tapping one foot against the ground, trying to remember anything from that bloody textbook that doesn’t scare him to pieces.

God, he hopes she’s all right. Please, please be all right.

**

Joan’s braced against the hospital bed as the last wave of her contraction passes, with her eyes squeezed closed. One hand’s pressed against the metal railing and the other’s gripping the thin sheet covering her mattress. She’s covered in sweat. The pain is unbelievable. She feels like she’s going to be sick again, and every minute of this goddamn process is more awful than the last. Why the hell didn’t they put her into twilight sleep? What is wrong with them?

“Joanie,” comes a loud voice from the doorway, “how’re we doing? Heard you were moving right along.”

Dr. Emerson is smiling, and she hates it.

He puts on a pair of latex gloves and sits down to examine her, and as soon as she gets her legs in the stirrups, and he leans in, his voice turns surprised. “Jeez. This baby catching the next flight out, or what?”

“Shut up,” she growls, pressing a hand to the top of her stomach as she feels the sudden tightening of pelvic muscles. God. Not another one. “Oh—”

“Karen, let’s get her started on oxide. She’s ready to transfer,” the doctor says, just before the pain increases—suddenly so sharp and overwhelming that Joan feels like she’s going to pass out—

The next thing she knows, she’s taking deep breaths from a rubber mask someone’s helping her hold to her face, and feeling herself become distant from the pain—oh, thank god, it’s not so bad when it’s like this. And the voices get quieter, but they’re still there—everyone’s still there—wait, is she—in a different room?

“All right, Joanie, we’re gonna start pushing, okay? When you feel pain, you just breathe into that mask. It’s in your hand.”

“Okay,” says Joan, trying to tell Walter that she can do it. She’ll be brave. Her mouth feels funny. She can’t really find the right words.

**

Lane’s pacing again.

He’s been walking up and down this same stretch of blue tile for who knows how long now. Four squares up, four squares back. He can name almost every scuff on the floor—there’s that black mark from his own shoe, an hour ago. There’s the scratch nearly a foot long—god, what time is it?

“Mr. Harris?”

He’s so absorbed in keeping himself busy that he doesn’t even notice the nurse is talking to him. It takes Gail’s hand on his arm to finally get his attention.

“Is it—” he begins as he notices the young woman standing a couple of feet away in her clean uniform.  A piece of her dark hair is coming unpinned from under her cap. He has to take a sudden breath. “Is she—”

The nurse smiles from ear to ear. “You have a healthy baby girl.”

Lane’s mouth falls open, and he feels tears sting his eyes. Suddenly, he’s rushing forward with a whoop. He grabs Gail around the waist in a bear hug, and lifts her into the air.

“What are you, nuts?” Gail yelps, but when he quickly puts her down and steps away, shocked at the impulse, there’s amusement on her face.

“And they’re all right?” he blurts next, pressing a trembling hand to his mouth and turning back to the nurse. “They’re both—”

“Your wife is resting comfortably,” says the nurse, directing a wink at Joan’s mother. “And the baby’s fine. You can see her in the nursery in a little while.”

“Oh, my god,” Lane breathes, as the nurse departs with another congratulations. He sinks into the nearest chair; suddenly feeling like his legs won’t hold him up. “Gail, it’s a girl. We’ve got a girl.”

His voice cracks over the words. Joan said it was a girl all along. She figured it out from the beginning. How did she know?

“Yeah, I heard,” Gail says, with a snort of laughter.

They sit in silence for a moment before she speaks again.

“Someone’s trying to get your attention.”

When he glances up, confused, she’s gesturing toward the doorway, where a uniformed young woman with blonde hair and a round face is motioning him forward.

“Psst!” this person whispers, and he quickly looks round to make sure she’s actually talking to him, and not someone behind him.

“Mr. Pryce,” she whispers next, waving at him again. How on earth does she know his name? Gail pushes at his shoulder to get him to move, so he jumps to his feet, practically darting across the room to see what she wants.

“I’m a friend of Joan’s,” the nurse says when he gets to her, still whispering. “You want to see her?”

Immediately, he nods his head yes. She smiles at his eagerness.

“Come on.”

They walk down two long corridors, and past the nurses’ desk, where a group of ladies are poring over stacks of charts—catching up on paperwork, he supposes. The girl in front of him doesn’t say anything until they’ve passed this station and are through the first set of double-doors.

“You won’t have long,” she tells him first, as they pass another nurse going in the opposite direction. She’s a tired-looking old woman with salt and pepper hair, pushing a large medicine cart. “We’re not supposed to let the fathers in until the doctor’s finished his antenatal exam.”

“But—” Lane prompts, and the woman snorts out a laugh.

But, Dr. Emerson is currently finishing up a caesarean for Dr. Thomas. You’ll probably have five or ten minutes before anyone else comes to check in.”

“Okay,” Lane replies.

“Now, she might be asleep,” the nurse warns, as they turn another corner, and she leads him through a second set of double doors: this one with a hospital personnel only sign posted below the small round window. “I gave her a little extra painkillers after it was all over; she was very relaxed. Oh—here we are.”

She’s gesturing to their immediate left, at an open doorway labeled 04. Peeking inside, he notices there’s an empty space in the forefront of the room where a bed ought to be. He supposes someone else has been taken back to maternity. But, through the curtain he can see the silhouette of a woman lying in the other bed.

His heart beats a little faster, and he turns to the nurse again, as if to make sure it’s really all right to go in.

“Think you can you find your way back?” she asks, noticing his hesitation.

He nods, and she takes a step backwards. “Well, go on.”

“Wait,” he blurts, trying to tell her how grateful he is. “I—thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the nurse says with another smile, and just like that, she’s walking away. He quickly steps into Joan’s room to avoid being seen in the hallway, but once he’s inside, he feels butterflies in his stomach. He doesn’t know why he’s so nervous. The baby’s not here; it’s just his Joan. He knows that. He does. He just can’t believe this is really happening, after all this time.

Lane’s feet seem to be moving of their own accord, because suddenly he’s standing next to the long narrow bed, and there in front of him is Joan, out like a light with her mouth open and her face turned to the right. She looks as if she’s run a hundred miles: face shiny with sweat, and her hair loose from its usual updo. Thick locks of hair are plastered to her temples and neck, while the rest of her curls have gone frizzy in the back. Her thin gown is damp, and sticking to her skin in several places, and a thin sheet is tangled round her middle, with her bare legs and feet peeking out the other end. There are dark circles under her eyes. Her entire face is flushed. She’s even snoring—which he knows would embarrass her.

God, she’s never looked more beautiful.

“You did it, darling,” he whispers, feeling his throat tighten as he speaks. He moves to run a hand through her hair in the usual way, but startles and begins to laugh when his fingertips come away wet. Of course her hair’s soaked. She’s just delivered a child, for Christ’s sake. He’s such an idiot. He can’t even think straight.

His fingertips trace across her cheek.

“Whoa,” says a voice, and Lane jerks his head up to see Dr. Emerson standing just inside the curtain separating the two sides of the room, a clipboard in his hand, and a stunned look on his face. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

“I—” Lane sputters, flushing red as he tries to come up with some kind of explanation, but the doctor just pulls the curtain closed behind him, and waves a hand toward the window, as if he’s already resigned himself to Lane’s presence.

“Stand over there. I need to examine her.”

He complies immediately, and turns to glance out the darkened window as Dr. Emerson begins the more intimate portion of his assessment.

“She’s really all right?” Lane can’t help asking. There’s a tree in the courtyard whose branches are waving in the wind, so large and wild they’re threatening to scratch the glass of the window. “There’s no—complications?”

“So far, everything looks good. Came through like a champ.” The doctor chuckles in a good-natured way. “She mentioned you’d be worried.”

Lane lets out a rueful laugh. He wasn’t the expectant one, for god’s sake. “She—needn’t have thought about that.”

“Yeah,” the doctor says in an absentminded way, as if he wasn’t quite listening to Lane’s response. A couple of minutes pass, in which Lane tries to keep still, and not to ask too many questions. Let the man do his job.

“I guess Karen brought you in here?”

“Erm.” Lane realizes he forgot to ask the young nurse’s name, still watching the tree branches as they sway in the wind. “I—don’t know, actually.”

“Well, those two go way back. Karen was surgical. Worked with Greg.” There’s a short silence as the doctor peels off his latex gloves, deposits them in what sounds like the nearest bin, then washes his hands. When the water shuts off, there’s a short silence as he writes something in Joan’s chart.

“You can turn around now.”

Lane moves back toward the bed to see the man now taking Joan’s pulse, holding her limp wrist between his fingers. She’s so tired she doesn’t even twitch.

Dr. Emerson gently places Joan’s arm back onto the bed, then writes another note on his clipboard.

“Out of curiosity: you’re B positive, right? Your blood type?”

“Oh,” says Lane, frowning as he tries to recall. That ought to be right. “Well, yes, I—how did you—?”

“Call it a hunch,” answers the doctor, in a voice that’s a bit too innocent. “Baby’s AB positive, so it means she’s a universal recipient, if she ever needs a transfusion.”

Lane’s not sure why they’re having this conversation until the doctor continues.

“Joanie’s A positive.” He pauses. “Greg was type O.”

In a kind of tone that suggests he suspects what Lane already knows to be true: that the late Dr. Harris had nothing to do with Joan’s condition.

“Ah,” Lane begins, deciding it’s better if he comes clean, circumstances considered. “Well, do you—need to jab me, or something? If it’s for the baby—”

“No, no, nothing like that,” the doctor interrupts, closing the chart, and hanging it over the foot of Joan’s bed. “She’s all right. Like I said, just a hunch.”

He pauses, and then extends a hand for Lane to shake. “Congratulations.”

Lane takes it, feeling a bit overwhelmed again. “You’ve—I can’t thank you enough for looking after her. Both of them.”

“Nonsense. Joanie’s a friend,” Dr. Emerson replies, as he releases Lane’s hand. “Go up and see that daughter of yours. Nurse is coming by to transfer Mom back, any minute.”

Lane feels his heart speed up at the word. Daughter. His daughter.

“Can you—tell me where?” he asks, wincing as his voice cracks.

The doctor laughs out loud, but has to lower his voice when they see Joan stir a little in her bed. “Here, I’ll point you in the right direction.”

**

“She’s perfect.”

Lane swipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket for the millionth time, watching through the nursery window as the little one snuffles around in her plastic bassinet. She’s so small: barely over six pounds, like a large doll. The knitted cap they’ve given her to wear looks like a Christmas ornament instead of a piece of clothing. Her scrunched-up face is all pink, but even still, he can tell she’s got his nose. He’s sorry, darling. And Gail said she even had a bit of hair—how on earth could she have hair at this age? Who could she have gotten that from?

“She’s got Daddy wrapped around her little finger,” says Gail from his right, folding her arms across her chest with a smirk.

It takes Lane half a minute to realize this is meant as a bit of an insult, but at that point, he’s captivated by the way the little one’s yawning. Oh, you dear little thing. Your mummy’s going to be so excited to meet you. We’re going to take you home and have all kinds of adventures. Yes, we are, darling. Just you wait.

“You know you’re talking out loud again.”

Lane pretends not to have heard her, his voice still gruff. “Never mind your grandmother. She’s excited, too.”

“We talked about that word,” Gail replies, her voice turning sterner, and he has to stifle a smile. Joan thought it was the silliest thing imaginable. She’s afraid it’s going to make her sound old. Like having a daughter in her thirties doesn’t make her of a certain age.

One of the baby’s arms suddenly comes loose from her blanket swaddle, a single fist emerging up by her face, and Lane makes a kind of sighing noise as he notices. Her hands are even tinier than he’d thought.

“Oh, dear, it’s difficult to be so small, isn’t it?”

To his right, Gail lets out a breath. She’s either pleased, or she’s tired of listening to him talk to the glass. For once in his life, he does not care a single whit.

“Did you at least pick out a name?” she asks, gesturing toward the index card slipped into the front of the baby’s bassinet. It reads Baby Girl Harris in spidery handwriting.

“Have to ask Joan,” he answers. They’d narrowed it down to two choices, and he knows the name he’d favored in the end, but he isn’t sure if Joan settled on one before delivering. She’s got the final say in that matter—and rightfully so, he thinks.

In her little bed, the baby begins to fuss, and he quickly looks round the room to see if any of the attendant nurses have noticed.

**

“Hi,” Joan whispers to the bundle in her arms, balancing the baby’s head in the crook of her left elbow, and watching as her eyelids flutter open in an unfocused way. Judging by the light outside the window, it’s seven or eight o’clock in the morning. The nurses brought the baby in a few minutes ago, and Joan’s already so in love that she can’t stop looking at her daughter’s face.

From the brief glimpses, it seems as if her eyes are a brighter blue, like Lane’s, but what’s really fascinating is how long those little eyelashes are. She’s even got a few tiny freckles on her nose, and the softest tuft of fine hair under her cap.

There’s a rustling by the curtain. Joan glances up expecting to see another nurse, and sees Lane instead. She starts tearing up again at the overjoyed look on his face: it’s like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Thought they—took her for tests,” he manages to say. “We went to eat something.”

Joan quickly swipes at her eyes with her free hand, transferring the baby to her right arm so he can get a better look at her. “Come here.”

Lane sits down on the edge of the bed, his movements slow, as if he’s afraid to jostle them.

“She’s so little.” He meets Joan’s eyes, putting a careful hand on top of the baby’s chest. It’s enormous by comparison; his palm almost stretches the length of her body. “I forgot how small they are.”

Joan can see his hand trembling as he talks, and leans in to kiss him, briefly. She casts a puzzled look at him as she pulls away.

“Did you drink coffee?”

He lets out a kind of laugh, scrubbing a hand across the rasp of stubble at his jaw. “Your mother got me a cup. I don’t know why I had any. I’m all—jittery.”

“I can tell,” Joan says dryly, and something about the playful look they exchange sets her off.  Suddenly, Joan’s trying to swallow her giggle in an attempt not to wake the baby, and Lane’s snort-laughing, with one hand on her shoulder and the other pressed against the baby’s left side. God, it’s beyond painful to laugh like this, but she can’t stop.

“Ow,” she whines over and over, as the baby starts to fuss at the continued disturbance. “No, don’t make me laugh, it really hurts—”

“Oh—I’m sorry—oh, no, pet, we didn’t mean to wake you,” Lane whispers, trying to calm himself as the baby now begins to cry in earnest. The noise is pitiful, like the mewl of a kitten.

Joan’s so exhausted; she feels just as helpless as he looks. What the hell do they do now? She doesn’t even have a bottle or a diaper within arm’s reach, and the baby’s still crying, and she’s never been more shell-shocked in her entire life.

Jesus. They’re parents. And they don’t know anything.

Thinking about this just sets her off again.

**

four days later

Joan’s standing at the dresser in her robe and a fresh set of pajamas, fishing a new baby outfit out of her open suitcase, when a knock at the door makes her turn.

“My goodness,” she says upon spotting Peggy Olson in the doorway. She’s so surprised to have a visitor besides Lane and her mother that she can feel tears prickle in the corner of her eyes.

Peggy walks into the room, casting an anxious glance around, as if she’s just as surprised to be here. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”

“No,” Joan says, quickly swallowing the lump in her throat. “It’s just—unexpected.”

“Kenny promised Lane he and Cynthia would stop by,” Peggy says, by way of explanation, “but he’s been out with a cosmetics lead all week.” She wrinkles her nose, as if she’s embarrassed. “I probably should have called.”

“It’s fine,” Joan says, waving a dismissive hand. “You can sit.”

After another hesitation, Peggy does, putting her pocketbook behind her and sinking into the soup-green chair in the corner.

“Don’t mind me,” Joan says in a voice that isn’t as bright as she’d like, trying to dab at the corner of her eyes without being caught. Is she ever going to stop crying? “I’ve been like this since I got pregnant.”

“I understand,” Peggy replies dryly, but the comment actually makes Joan feel better, for once.

“The day after I delivered, one of the nurses offered to let me take a real shower. I was so grateful I cried for twenty minutes.”

“My sister went through four boxes of tissues in the hospital,” Peggy offers. “The second time.”

Joan still can’t take a step in either direction without feeling like she’s been ripped in half, and winces at the thought of second time. “If I never do this again, it’ll be too soon.”

“Well. Strict Catholics,” says Peggy, with a tight shrug.

She seems uncomfortable. Her gaze keeps darting around the room, and eventually lands on the flowers placed on the rolling table in front of the window. It’s an enormous bouquet of red and pink roses in a green glass vase.

Lane keeps showing up with little presents for her every day. On the first day, he brought jewelry and flowers, but ever since then it’s been cute little trinkets he keeps getting from the nearest five and dime. At the rate he’s going, he’ll bankrupt them before she can go home.

“The flowers are beautiful,” Peggy says, her smile turning more genuine. “Lane has good taste.”

Joan smiles too. He’d splurged, and the accompanying card was very sentimental. It had made her cry.

“He’s over the moon.”

She knew he was going to be proud, but honestly, some part of her was still afraid that he’d feel left out or anxious once the baby actually arrived. One look at his face—or at the way he dotes on both of them—and she’s not as worried, anymore. He holds the baby and talks to her and made a point to learn how to feed and change her, in case Joan can’t. It’s amazing.

“Once he starts losing sleep, that may change,” is all she says, dryly.

Joan’s waiting for Peggy to ask questions about the baby – what she looks like, how she acts, if she’s healthy – but for whatever reason, Peggy doesn’t touch on that subject at all.

“Oh, so something’s going on with Harry and Scarlett,” she says instead, with a little shrug. “I caught them arguing in the kitchen the other morning.”

Joan raises an eyebrow, more than happy to discuss office gossip. Lane is a dear man, and she loves him, but he can’t keep an ear to the ground to save his life.

They talk for several minutes until they’re interrupted by the arrival of the morning nurse for this ward, Carol Anne, a stout brunette woman who gently pushes the baby’s rolling bassinet into the room.

“Hello, mom. We’re back.”

Joan slants a sly look at Peggy, as if to say can you believe she means me, and then turns back to the nurse.

“How is she?”

“Just fine,” says Carol Anne. “She ate three ounces at eleven.”

“Good,” says Joan, moving across the room to pick up the baby from her bassinet. Her voice gets a little higher as she talks to her daughter.

“Hi, baby. Are you having a good morning?”

The nurse grins, and steps out after a few seconds of lingering in the doorway. Peggy just looks stunned, as if she hadn’t expected Joan to indulge in something as silly as baby talk. Joan doesn’t pay much attention; she just turns toward her friend, unable to resist the urge to show off the baby.

“You can hold her, if you’d like.”

Peggy’s mouth opens and closes, but before she can spit out a reply, Joan’s already walking forward.

“Wait,” says Peggy, as Joan leans down, supporting the baby’s head with one forearm as she prepares to pass her off. “I—my hands are—”

The younger woman’s got the baby clasped in her arms before she can finish the sentence. It seems like she was just afraid of being unsteady, but she’s better at it than Joan would have imagined.

“You’re not going to drop her,” Joan says in an attempt to be encouraging, noticing the way Peggy’s shoulders have tensed, as if she’s scared to move. She’s staring down at the baby with a strange expression, though, as if trying to memorize every feature of her little face.

Almost a minute passes before Peggy finally speaks, her voice very small.

“I didn’t go to a fat farm.”

Joan blinks, not understanding. It takes at least ten more seconds of awkward silence for her brain to start making the connection. She cuts through the cobwebs, thinks back to 1960 and a quiet, heavy secretary in enormous shirtwaists, who took a month of sick leave following her big promotion, and came back skinny as a rail.

Oh, my god.

Peggy’s free hand curls around the side of the baby’s upper body, tracing over the faded pink and green stripes at the edge of the blanket swaddle. From this angle, she doesn’t look like she’s crying, but there’s a certain sparkle to her eyes that Joan knows can’t be attributed to the bright light of the window.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Peggy continues, talking more to the baby than to Joan. “Until it was time. I don’t know why—I just—thought I was tired.”

“But,” Joan begins, in a horrified whisper. “I sent you to Walter.”

She made sure all her girls knew what to do, so that didn’t happen. And even if precautions failed—how do you not know? How do you explain your symptoms?

Peggy’s cheeks flush slightly as she answers, as if she’s embarrassed. “I thought the pills worked more quickly than they actually did.” She huffs out a sigh, finally meeting Joan’s eyes. “Isn’t that stupid?”

You could have asked me if you didn’t know, Joan wants to insist. If you were in trouble, I would have helped.

“No, it’s not,” she says instead, examining the cautious way Peggy holds the baby, as if she’s never done this with a newborn. She wonders if Don knew about this, or if (god forbid) he was the father.

There’s another long silence. Joan thinks about the stress of the past nine months, gaining all the extra weight and being sick and sore and frustrated, and imagines doing it alone, as she’d once planned. Imagines young ponytailed Peggy going home to some horrible walk-up in Bay Ridge, making excuses to everyone about the extra weight—and probably being terrified and alone during delivery.

Jesus. Nineteen sixty was six years ago. That child would be in school by now.

“She really is beautiful, Joan,” Peggy says now, glancing down at the baby again. With that, the subject seems to be closed.

Joan swallows the lump in her throat, and tries to smile, putting a hand to her friend’s shoulder.

“Thank you.”

**

“Hi, sweetie,” Cynthia Cosgrove coos to the bundle in her arms, a natural mother if Joan’s ever seen one. “It’s so nice to see you!”

Sitting next to his wife, and watching her gently rock the baby from side to side, Ken is grinning from ear to ear. He’s eager for a family; Joan can tell.

Joan’s perched on the edge of her hospital bed, dressed in slacks and a sweater with a scarf tied around her hair, and a little makeup on, too. Lane is standing in front of the rolling table by the window, turned slightly away from the group, and wearing his regular work clothes. He says he’s tidying up the area from lunch. Joan’s sure there’s going to be another present hidden in her suitcase before visiting hours are up.

“What’s her name?” Ken asks.

“Madeline,” Joan says. “Like the actress, not the cookie.”

“That’s beautiful,” Cynthia says to the baby, then looks up, and casts a curious look at Lane, who’s walking back toward the middle of the room.

“Is it a family name? It sounds very English.”

Lane comes to stand just beside the foot of the hospital bed, glancing briefly at Joan. “No. Middle name is the family one, actually.”

“Sara,” Joan supplies. Her fingers move to the gold chain around her neck, where two heirloom wedding rings dangle above the hollow of her breasts. Lane didn’t know the baby was also going to have his mother’s name until he saw the birth certificate. He got choked up when he saw it in print.

“Lane did pick the spelling of her first name, though,” she says, and they all exchange a smile. “He was very involved.”

“I’m sure he was,” Ken quips, which makes Joan laugh. She’s not sure what Lane’s told Ken, if anything, but the other man’s certainly not stupid.

“So how long have you two been serious?” Cynthia asks, passing the baby to her husband and then stretching her arms out, as if they’re cramping. “If I’m being nosy, you can tell me to buzz off. It’s just that Kenny never said.”

“Erm,” begins Lane.

“Well,” Joan says, with a careful glance at him. “I suppose you could say…”

“September,” Lane interrupts, frowning when he notices she looks confused.

Joan lets out a huff of breath, smiling despite herself. “Really?”

All she can think of is Thanksgiving, and the holiday weekend they’d spent in the Pierre: how giddy and hormonal and ridiculous they’d both been. They were all over each other, and ate Chinese food out of cartons on Thanksgiving Day, and tried to spy parade balloons from the hotel window, which failed miserably.

“Wait—don’t move.”

She’s sitting astride Lane in bed, naked except for her open pajama top, but pressing one hand to her back with a wince. She’d wanted to have a little fun before lunch. It’s not going very well today.

His voice shakes. “Have I—hurt you?”

Joan lets out an embarrassed sigh. “No, the way the baby’s sitting—it’s pinching a nerve or something.” She waves a hand at her stomach in frustration. “Damn it.”

Disentangling herself from him is awkward. She's able to sit up on her knees, but when she tries to stop straddling his hips, and moves one leg as if starting to get out of a saddle, she can't find her center of gravity. She ends up pitching backward onto the mattress with a squeal.

Lane's already reaching for her. He looks horrified. “Are you all right?”

She covers her face so he can't see her embarrassed expression. “God. I'm a beached whale.”

After a second, his laugh sounds low and rich in her ear. He kisses her neck.

“But—you’re a very adorable one.”

Joan uncovers her eyes. “Lane. You're supposed to tell me I'm not a whale.”

He stares back at her as if she's speaking gibberish.

“You're lovely.”

When she doesn't say anything in response, he sits up with a careful motion and leans over her, dropping another kiss onto her rounded stomach. His hands gently palm the jagged patterns of stretch marks on her hips.

"I've put on twenty pounds,” she says with a displeased scrunch of her nose, glancing away and trying not to think about the fact that she's only going gain more weight before this is all over.

His hand cups her cheek, causing her to meet his eyes again.

“You’ll always be lovely to me.”

He rubs his thumb against her cheek a little as he says it, and then moves down her body to touch her stomach again, humming out a contented noise as he tries to locate the baby.

Her throat’s so tight she thinks she might cry if she tries to speak.

“I could see October, too,” she offers. “It was very eventful.”

“Well, I always thought—earlier,” Lane says gruffly.

“What was in September?” Cynthia asks, pulling an interested face.

“Oh.” Lane’s blushing now. “Well, I—drove Joan to a doctor’s appointment, that’s all.”

Which is probably the most diplomatic way of describing that situation. We almost didn’t have any of this. She gives him a small smile.

“It was a specialist doctor,” Joan adds, because otherwise it sounds as if they just ran an errand four blocks over. “His practice had moved upstate, so it was probably a six hour trip.”

She can’t get over the fact that Lane said September. Jesus. They were still fighting every other day, at that point.

“Was it the drive back?” she asks, because that’s the only part of the evening that wasn’t horrible. Putting her head on his shoulder on the way home and trying to sleep in the quiet car.

A secretive smile creeps to Lane’s face.

“Sometimes you just feel it,” Cynthia interjects, with a sly look at Ken. “I knew Kenny was the one from our first date.”

“Hey,” he protests, and then lowers his voice so he doesn’t disturb the sleeping baby in his arms. “I asked you out, remember?”

His wife starts to laugh, and as if to disagree, the baby starts to fuss.

Joan leaves her seat and reaches out to Ken to take her, automatically. “Here. I’ll give you a break.”

“Lane, I didn’t know you had your license,” Ken comments, once Joan’s returned to her seat. “You drive much?”

There’s an awkward pause. Lane’s blushing again, and Joan doesn’t understand why he’s so embarrassed until he speaks.

“Well…”

“You’re kidding,” Joan says, her mouth falling open. “You drove me all the way up there without a license?”

“Well,” he sputters, lifting his hands in the air in a shrug, “you see, it was—I had applied for one, weeks before, but the paperwork had yet to go through state channels—and then you needed to—”

“I can’t believe you,” she huffs, pretending to be annoyed. Meanwhile, the Cosgroves are laughing like idiots. “You got mad when I under-declared our income on our tax returns!”

“No, that’s—very different!” Lane protests, with a laugh, but she swats at his arm with her free hand, rolling her eyes. “Needs must! I stand by it.”

“Madeline, your father is very lucky that I like him,” she tells the baby in an airy voice, “and that he drives like an eighty-year old woman.”

“Oh, now,” Lane says with a scoff. “Honestly!”

“Go sit over there,” she teases, failing to keep a straight face as she indicates the chair next to her bed. He makes a grumbling noise, but obliges, briefly touching her knee on his way past.

Chapter Text

september 1971

 

Joan’s sitting in front of her vanity mirror, wearing her bright blue kimono, and applying makeup onto her face with a sponge.

“Her palms are raw. It looks like she burned them.”

Just across the room, Lane stops trying to fix his necktie, and lowers his arms, letting the fabric flap loosely around his neck as he glances up.

“She thought the other children were going to mock her. She was terrified.”

“Why would they make fun of her over monkey bars?”

“Joan,” he sighs. “She cried. And I am not about to let my daughter be teased on the very first day of school.”

His wife still looks unconvinced.

“I’ll help her bandage them up before we go,” he offers, and then tries to soften his voice, walking closer to Joan’s chair. “Is that what you’re worried about, hm? That they’ll notice her hands?”

“No,” she sighs, putting one hand to the bridge of her nose. She’s either got a headache or she’s overwhelmed; he can’t quite see the expression on her face.

A quick knock sounds at the door—barely enough time for small knuckles to rap the wood once—before a little tow-headed blur is flying into the room.

“Madeline,” Joan says, lowering her hand. Her expression is stern, and her voice is brisk again. “You need to wait until we say come in first.”

“But I knocked this time,” the little girl says, turning to Lane with a frown.

On her face, the expression is adorable. He reaches out and pretends to grab for a piece of her curled red-blonde hair, which makes her shriek, and quickly try to shield her locks with one hand.

“Daddy!”

He can’t help smiling. She’s so dear. “Ready for your big day?”

She’d demanded to dress herself this morning. Thank god they’ve got uniforms—white blouse under a dark dress, with some stockings—so there’s not much to worry about there. Lane just can’t believe she’s old enough to start school, to be honest. The time’s just flown.

“Are we going now?” she chirps, clearly excited.

He shakes his head no, and can’t help noticing how quiet Joan’s got at the subject of school. She’s been taking it rather hard. They’ve had a couple of petty fights over the past few days, and last night he honestly thought she was going to burst out crying, when he began to talk about the week’s schedule and mentioned Maddy being picked up from kindergarten.

“Got to eat, first,” he answers, with a careful glance at his wife. “And your mummy’s got to finish getting ready.”

Joan puts a hand on his arm, paired with a look that says will you please take her, and he nods his head once, guiding his daughter forward by placing a palm against her small shoulders.

“Why don’t you help me put the kettle on, hm?”

She gasps so loudly she nearly starts coughing. “You never let me do that!”

“Well,” he says, clearing his throat, “you can today.”

Madeline lets out a wordless shriek of joy, dashing off toward the kitchen in her excitement, and before she can get into any trouble, he follows.

Lane’s not particularly hungry, so he doesn’t do much except make porridge and bacon and steal a few bits from his daughter’s plate, which elicits squeals of aggravation from her every time.

Meanwhile, Madeline wolfs down her food as if she’s starving, talking in between bites about her teacher and what her classmates might be like and something about a unicorn or a pretty horse at school that he doesn’t understand. Must have been from when Joan took her over to the classroom on Friday. Perhaps it’s some kind of picture.

“Have you got your rucksack together?” he asks, as he’s putting their dishes into the sink. It’s quarter to seven. They’ll need to leave soon. And he has no idea why Joan isn’t ready yet, but knows better than to pose this question aloud.

“Yes!” Maddy says, and grabs for his hand, dragging him down the hall and toward her bedroom.

When they arrive, he’s momentarily speechless at the state of the room.

“Oh, good lord,” he blurts first, scratching at the back of his neck.

It’s—well, a complete disaster. There’s playclothes all over the floor, and soft-cover books pulled down from a low shelf in a messy heap, and toys all over the bed, as if she were packing for a year’s holiday, and not for a single day of school. How did one little girl ever manage to make this much of a mess in the span of a morning? Didn’t Joan notice the state of this room, earlier?

“We can’t let your mother see this,” Lane says first, and automatically moves to shut the door.  He spies the brown school satchel hanging from her desk chair, and goes to grab it. Her primers and pencils are still inside, thankfully, only they’re now surrounded by a collection of very odd things, including a large pinecone she’d found on the sidewalk earlier this month, a blonde Barbie doll wearing half a dress—this one’s called Eleanor, he thinks?—plus several colorful hair barrettes, a box of crayons, and one of Joan’s lipsticks.

He takes the lipstick out, fixing his daughter with a stern look. She ought to know better. “We’ll have to give this back, as it’s not ours to take.”

“But it’s for Eleanor!” Madeline protests with a frown. “She’s got to look nice!”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll look very pretty without it,” Lane responds gruffly. Before he can say another word, Joan’s voice is outside the door.

“Madeline? Come here. We need to put your shoes on.”

“Ooh!” squeals the girl, snatching her bag from her father’s hands, flinging the bedroom door open, and running quickly toward the foyer, as if Joan’s going to leave her behind otherwise. “Can I tie the bows, Mommy? Please let me tie them! I promise I can!”

She can’t. He’s tried to show her, but she’s not quite there yet. Lane glances around this room, letting out a wistful sigh. The yellow paint is still cheerful, although her twin bed has long since replaced the rocking chair in the corner by the window, where he remembers spending quite a bit of time.

He’s sitting in the rocker with his swaddled daughter nestled in one arm, talking to her in the dark about everything and nothing, although she’s been asleep for the last ten minutes. It’s probably four o’clock by now.

“God,” comes a sudden whisper from the doorway. When he glances up he sees Joan standing there in her pajamas, wearing her glasses and pushing some of her hair out of her face. She looks panicked, and he doesn’t understand why until she lets out a deep breath, leans against the doorway and puts her hands over her eyes, as if attempting to relax.

“Sorry. I just—thought I heard her screaming.”

One of the strangest symptoms of motherhood has been this new sixth sense. Even when they’re not in the flat, or around any child at all, she’ll swear she can hear Maddy crying. It’s very strange. Lane’s never heard of anything like it, although Dr. Emerson tells them this type of thing is more or less normal for first-time mothers.

“No, we’re all right,” he says, motioning Joan closer. “She was a bit fussy, earlier. Got up for a glass of water, and I heard it.”

Joan kisses his temple in an absentminded way, coming to stand next to his chair. “Does she need changing?”

He shakes his head no. “Not unless we’ve had an incident in the last half hour.”

As if realizing they’re speaking about her, the baby sighs, and snuffles closer to his chest in her sleep.

“You’re so good with her,” Joan says, petting his hair of all things. She’s been very affectionate with him recently; they haven’t been able to do much else, but it’s nice to spend a bit of time together. He can’t help smiling.

“Well. Poor substitute for your mummy, aren’t I, dearest?”

“Hush,” says Joan, tapping her fingertips once against his shoulder as if to scold him, but the silence in the room is easy and companionable. It’s one of the quietest evenings they’ve had since bringing the baby home, nearly six months ago.

"Do you want to sit down?” Lane asks after a moment.

“What, on your lap?” returns Joan, in a voice he hasn’t heard in weeks.

“Well.” He clears his throat. “You could if you wanted.”

They ended up lying on the floor beside Madeline’s crib instead, curled together under several tiny baby quilts, and with Lane’s housecoat shoved under their heads as a makeshift pillow. Above them, the baby slept peacefully on her own in the bed, while he and Joan whispered to each other about work, and how Maddy was starting to make the dearest faces, and plans for tomorrow, and how far they’d come in the span of a year.

Gail found them in the same place, come morning—she’d agreed to watch the baby while they went to the justice of the peace—and simply laughed.

“Get up, lazybones,” was all she’d said as she’d flipped on the overhead light. Above them, Madeline was already awake and cooing to herself.

“Mom, don’t,” Joan had mumbled, half-asleep, and tried to draw the blanket over both of their faces.

**

There’s a crowd of people on the pavement outside the brown-brick school: parents with older boys and girls, dropping kisses on their children’s foreheads and waving cheerful goodbyes from the curb, along with a crop of what are clearly the new parents. These are young-looking couples clutching handkerchiefs, each other, or, in some cases, their weeping children. Standing near a large tree in front of the high windows is a little boy about Maddy’s age, who’s crying so pitifully he’s red-faced, sobbing into the lapels of his mother’s black coat as she tries to calm him.

Before the taxi’s even stopped, Madeline is trying to climb over Lane’s legs in order to rush out. He has to hold her back with one arm.

“Madeline,” Joan says, her voice sharp. “Let your father get out first.”

He tries to soften the reprimand. “Dearest, you’ve got to wait your turn.”

Okay,” she says in a breathless way. “I’m waiting!”

Once he’s out of the car, and has paid the driver, Lane holds out his hand for his daughter to grasp, and her little body wriggles excitedly as she clambers out of the seat and onto the pavement. She adjusts the weight of her little satchel on her shoulders, swings their clasped hands back and forth between them in a long arc, and then looks up at him with a sunny smile.

“Daddy, you don’t have to come in with me. I can do it by myself.”

He feels a lump form in his throat at the self-assured words. She doesn’t think anything of walking into a strange building with tons of new people, and being left alone by her family. Lane’s certain he cried for days after being dropped off at school for the first time. He’s fairly certain Nigel did, too, although his son has never said so. Granted, both situations were very different, but it’s still incredible. How on earth did she become so sure of herself, in such a short amount of time?

He risks a glance to his left, where Joan’s looking away from them, toward the playground, which is full of squealing, active children running around on swings and equipment. She may well be crying now. She didn’t speak much at all in the car, and gripped Lane’s hand like it was the only thing keeping her calm.

“Well, dearest,” he says, bending down in order to lower his voice. “Mummy and I know you’re a very big girl, but—”

Lane spies the same little boy from before, still clinging to his mother, and swiping tears from his face with a snot-covered fist.

Inspiration strikes him in a rush.

“We don’t want to make the others feel silly,” he continues, leaning in a conspiratorial way, indicating the crying boy and the sea of children who are more composed but look similarly anxious about being separated from their families. “Not everyone can be as brave as you, hm?”

He tries to smile. “Come on. We’ll go in together.”

“Okay,” Maddy says after a moment, with a little shrug that says she doesn’t think much of his words. Oh, maybe he said the wrong thing. He doesn’t know what to do, now; he’s starting to feel the significance of today catching up to him.

They pick their way through the other families and into the building, and as they get closer to the kindergarten doorway, and pass other classrooms full of children sitting in small desks and teachers writing on blackboards, he hears Joan sniff aloud.

Lane puts a hand on his wife’s elbow as they walk down the long corridor, and by the time they’ve reached their daughter’s new classroom, Madeline seems eager to leave them both behind.

“Look, Mommy, it’s the cloakroom!” she exclaims, dropping his hand in favor of her mother’s, and waving toward a set of open wooden shelves and hooks in the back left corner. Joan allows herself to be pulled along, joining plenty of other children and parents milling about on that side of the room. Lane watches from a distance as Joan helps Madeline hang her coat and place her knapsack into the shelf. He gives a nod to a couple of the other fathers standing next to him, who are also watching children and wives. After everything’s put away, Joan walks with the little girl past the rows of desks and to a few small standing easels.

Outside in the hallway, a long bell rings once.

“Okay, moms and dads,” says one of the teachers, with a sympathetic look. “That’s your cue. I promise everyone will still be here at two thirty.”

Lane waves a hand, trying to get his daughter’s attention.

“Maddy?”

His daughter’s not even looking over, given all the noise and excitement. He wants to go over to her and say a proper goodbye, but he can’t seem to get his feet to cooperate.

Joan has better luck; she smooths a few pieces of their daughter’s hair behind one ear and kisses the girl’s cheek before departing.

Two minutes later, the two of them are still standing in the hallway, peering into the classroom through a narrow rectangular glass window in the closed door. Inside, children are playing in different corners of the room, with books and toys and blocks. From their position in the doorway, they can’t quite see Madeline’s face, just a small pair of round-toed shoes sticking out from beside a row of easels, the toes tapping against the floor to some unheard rhythm.

On his immediate left, Joan lets out an audible sob, quickly covering her mouth with a black-gloved hand.

He reaches out, and winds an arm around her waist. She leans into him, and puts her arms around his neck. It’s very rare for her to show affection like this in public; she must be feeling very melancholy.

Lane places a gloved hand on the small of his wife’s back, feeling very emotional, himself. “You’ve done so well with her.”

Joan lets out a watery breath.

“I just keep hoping it’s enough. She’s already five—and I—”

“I know.” His fingers splay across the middle of her back. “God, it’s horrible.”

He’s pleased when the comment makes Joan laugh a little.

“I don’t want to go in yet,” she murmurs against his collar, and she pulls back to see his face after she says this. “Do you?”

He’s misty-eyed, too, he knows, but at least he’s able to dig out a handkerchief from his pocket without causing too much of a fuss.

They can’t very well show up to work looking like this.

“No, “ he agrees. “Not yet.”

Joan mops at her eyes with a little sigh, pocketing his handkerchief.

“Okay,” she says, with another sniff.  “I need to fix my face.”

“Take your time,” he says. “I’ll be here.”

While Lane waits for his wife to return, another woman comes to stand next to him. The children are now being gathered at their desks for some kind of formal lesson, although he can’t see what they’re going to be learning from this angle.

When he glances over at the stranger next to him, it turns out to be the mother from outside, wearing the black coat. He notices she doesn’t have the crying child with her anymore. Perhaps the boy finally calmed down enough to go into his classroom.

“Which one’s yours?” she asks after a moment, and he peers back into the room to see what Madeline’s up to.

“Long red hair, there.” He indicates the second row of desks nearest the front. Maddy’s sitting in the middle of her row with pencil and paper in hand, staring at the blackboard with clear interest. Her little proud nose scrunches up. God, she looks just like Joan from this angle. “Pink bow in the back.”

“Oh, she’s pretty,” replies the mother, and he smiles.

“Thank you.”

“It’s so sweet of you two to take her to school.”

Lane suddenly has a feeling that he’s missed a key portion of this conversation. Of course they’d take their daughter to school on the first day. Isn’t that the done thing?

“Didn’t want to miss it,” is all he says.

“Well, I mean, it’s nice that you’re local,” she continues. “I’m sure that’s a big help.”

Now he’s very confused. “Sorry?”

The woman smiles at him in a way that suggests she finds his confusion charming. “Brian’s grandparents would love to come to things like this, but they live so far away.”

“Oh,” is all Lane manages to sputter, horrified and embarrassed all at once. Dear God, do they really seem so old compared to all the others?

He’s not able to say this aloud before Joan returns from the restroom, and motions that she’d like to be going.

**

In a booth at a nearby diner, Joan lights a cigarette, wincing as his eyes follow the movement of the round cylinder as she puts it to her lips.

“Don’t say it,” she says, as she sighs out a breath of smoke, and puts her lighter back into her purse. “You know I’m doing better.”

“You won’t hear a peep out of me.” Lane raises his hands as if in surrender. She’s been trying to cut back on her cigarettes for months, especially now that Madeline has begun to notice and try to imitate the habit, but it wouldn’t do to make a scene about it this morning. He’s got a dram of brandy in his tea, anyway. They were both very maudlin in the taxi.

He hopes to dispel some of their wistfulness by telling her the story of the young mother in the corridor at Maddy’s school, emphasizing the way the woman had beamed at him when she’d said the dreaded word. Grandparents.

“No,” gasps Joan, once he finishes the story.

“Unfortunately,” he shakes his head again. “It was mortifying.”

His wife sighs, and takes a long sip of her drink.

“I don’t—think I look that old,” he continues in a wounded voice, and she reaches out across the vinyl table to press one hand over his.

“That woman needs to get her eyes checked.”

“Yes,” Lane says, feeling vindicated at last. “I should say so.”

“Speaking of things that do not make us feel old,” Joan’s voice is very determined as she pushes ice around her drink with the straw. “I think Mr. Cooper might retire before the New Year.”

“Didn’t he already try to do it once before?”

She rolls her eyes, but he can see the humor in her expression. “Well. You know how he likes to be involved.”

Roger had taken over quite a bit of the business in ’69, after Bert’s initial health scare—a stroke. Generally, the few months in which Cooper had been out of the office had gone well, except that once he’d come back to health, the old man had refused to stay away. He’d gone on walking around hallways in his sock feet and spent his days doing crosswords with Caroline or Dawn, sitting in on partners’ meetings, or shouting at the young freelancers when they got too out of hand.

“Do you think Maddy will want to…make a career out of it?” he asks, now thinking of Stan Rizzo and the art department, how much of the advertising business has gone the way of photographs and film. “Her drawing?”

“She’s five.” Joan raises a skeptical eyebrow. “She’s not painting Rothkos.”

“All right,” he grumbles. “I suppose I’m just curious. She’s always had a knack for it, anyway.”

“Well,” Joan says, pulling a face, “look at Nigel. You never know.”

As soon as Nigel had reached his majority, he’d left school, got a cheap flat in Gerrard Street—to Rebecca’s horror—and promptly enrolled in culinary college. Lane wasn’t aware his son even knew how to light a burner, let alone cook a full meal. At the time, they were sure it was all another one of his impulsive decisions, but after nearly a year, Nigel’s stuck with it. He’s made friends, knuckled down among the other chefs in his curriculum, and for the first time in years they haven’t had to argue about bad marks and failed tests and university prospects. It’s not what he would have chosen, but at least the lad’s learning a skill and making a living.

(Joan may have had to remind him of that fact several times over.)

Lane lets out a little sigh. “I suppose you’re right.”

He glances around the restaurant in search of the nearest waitress. The only uniformed girls he sees are already very busy, taking orders and carrying trays. Finally, he spies a blonde woman who might be their waitress, clearing off a booth opposite them, which features a garish painting hung between the two vinyl seats. God. It’s too modern, it looks like some kind of gallery nonsense: splashes of color everywhere, no real form that he can spy save for a blob in the corner that looks like an enormous blue pineapple. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a palm tree.

“Good lord,” he says suddenly, staring at this hideous piece of artwork. A grin has come to his face. “Joan—look at this painting, here.”

“Why?”

His face lights up as he begins to see the room with new eyes. There’s the glass pastry display case with the mark at the bottom of the white base, where the long cooling vent’s broken off in one corner. And over there, the cash register that squeals loudly every time the drawer opens. He’d know that sound in a second.

“I knew it,” he said, turning to face Joan with a triumphant expression. “We’ve been here before.”

She’s staring at him as if he’s gone insane. “I don’t think so.”

“We have,” Lane insists, indicating the view from the window. “Because you came from—oh, it must have been that street, there, the one with the row of brownstones. And I was in—well, perhaps not this booth, but one along this wall, anyway.”

She still looks puzzled. He continues.

“You went to the very rude doctor, after you told me you were expecting. And then we came over—”

“Oh, my god.” Recognition finally comes to Joan’s face as she glances around the restaurant.

Lane remembers that night vividly, anyway. He spent nearly two hours alone in a booth, practically tearing his hair out, drinking whatever was on hand, and waiting for the woman he loved to come back from the doctor and confirm that she was pregnant. Tends to stick in the mind.

“Did I throw something at you?” she asks slowly. “I remember we argued.”

“You asked me if I wanted an…illegitimate child,” he says, his mouth twitching up into a smile.

Joan starts to laugh.

“Course, you were very angry, so it wasn’t funny at the time.”

She covers her mouth with one hand, looking embarrassed. “God. Don’t remind me.”

“Well,” Lane says, with a shrug. “We’ve managed to sort it all out, at any rate.”

At that point, the waitress returns to take their breakfast order, and after she’s gone, they fall silent, watching the activity on the street outside their window. It’s rare for them to have moments to themselves during the week, at least when they’re not at the office.

He looks over at Joan, who’s stirring sugar into her fresh cup of tea. She must feel his eyes on her, because she glances up and smiles. It’s the kind of smile that still makes his heart skip a beat, some days, even after five years together. This time of year is always pleasant for him; the temperatures are cooler, and the leaves begin to turn, and it reminds him of the first few weeks he and Joan began talking—the first time he allowed himself to admit he was in love with her.

They’ve been driving for several hours. Joan's been sound asleep ever since they passed Collinswood, pressed against his side with her heavy coat draped across her body like a blanket, and her fingers loosely clutching at his right arm. She’s so close that he can hear her chest rise and fall with every breath, and he even keeps catching a faint note of her floral shampoo every time he inhales.

Poor darling. He hopes she’s feeling better. It was awful to see her so ill.

The radio switches from a series of ads back into a slow tune which he more or less recognizes. He knows what Elvis sounds like, anyway. Joan had changed the station before falling asleep, and although it’s not the type of music he’d pick for himself, he’s too content to fuss with the dial now.

A car passes by them on the left hand side of the road; it’s the first one traveling the other way for miles. As its headlights roll by and illuminate the inside of the car, Joan stirs again, changing position and moving even closer to him. After another moment, her lips press against his neck—so briefly it's as if she’s barely touched him.

He's so stunned he very nearly slams on the brakes, but manages by some kind of incredible feat to keep the car in motion. Is she awake? Did she mean to do that?

God, don't move an inch.

Joan sleeps on, and doesn't seem to notice that she's done anything strange, her cheek now pressed into the top of his right lapel. Her left hand is tucked up under her face, while her right hand splays gently against the buttons of his collared shirt. Under her palm, his heart is positively racing.

Carefully, he moves his right arm out from between them, putting it around her back so she won’t wrench her neck while she sleeps. If his palm slides into the gentle curve of her waist as he pulls her closer to his side—if his lips press against the crown of her head for a fraction of a second—surely that's all right. It doesn’t mean anything.

Judging by the tone of the music, Elvis seems to disagree.

“You’ve got that look on your face,” she says now, breaking him out of the memory. Her smile has grown wide and teasing, as if he’s been here wool-gathering for hours, and has only just noticed she’s trying to talk to him.

Lane can’t help smiling back, scratching a hand along the back of his neck.

“Oh,” he says. “No, it’s just—remembering something funny, that’s all.” At her skeptical expression, he lets out a chuckle. “Something involving the radio, thank you very much.”

Joan pretends not to believe him, setting her teacup aside with an amused huff of breath. Light catches the diamond on her wedding band as she pulls her hand back, making the jewel wink a little in the bright sun.

“Okay. Surprise me.”